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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."

Chapter Text

The first month after officially moving in with the Naras was the opposite of relaxing.

Shikaku was still out of the house most of the first week despite his injuries, so she didn't get a chance to catch up with him until the third afternoon. He brought Inoichi with him, who had on a serious expression and a chuunin at his heels.

"Mayu-chan, can you come to the kitchen please?" Shikaku said.

She looked up from the game she was playing with Shikamaru and swallowed when she caught sight of her guardian's (and how great was that to say?) face.

"Okay," she said and stood to follow the three men already heading into the other room. Shikamaru moved to follow, but Yoshino quickly appeared by his side.

"Ah, Shika-kun, you're going to come help your poor, overworked mom do some shopping," she said cheerfully, completely ignoring the horrified expression on her son's face.

"But, mom, can't I stay here with -"

"No," she said in her I am not screwing around voice and he snapped his mouth shut, though he gave Mayu a concerned look.

"Don't worry, Shikamaru-kun," she said, "I'll be fine. Shikaku-san will be there with me," she said, trying to inject confidence into her voice.

While it was true she would have liked Shikamaru to be there with her for what was sure to be a long and exhausting conversation, she knew it was safer if he didn't have a lot of details.

He nodded, but still looked reluctant as Yoshino ushered him out the door. Mayu bit her lip as she stepped into the kitchen. Inoichi and an average looking brunette chunin were sitting on one side of the table, with Shikaku on the other side, a chair pulled out for her to sit directly across from Inoichi.

"Come on, Mayu-chan, come sit down next to me," he said and gave her that reassuring half smile.

Her shoulders relaxed and she walked quickly to the chair, climbing into it and sitting down across from the still-serious Yamanaka.

"Hello, Mayu. I'd like to introduce you to my colleague from T&I, Watana Chiko-san. He'll be here as a witness today."

Mayu greeted him politely before Inoichi continued. "We're here to get your statement on the disappearance of your former dorm mate, Hakun, and the events following."

Mayu stiffened and said through numb lips, "Former?"

Shikaku put his arm around her and glared at Inoichi. "He means former as in you don't live with him anymore. Hakun is...well, he's not fine, but he's alive."

She let out a breath and Inoichi shifted uncomfortably in his chair. "Ah, right. Excuse me, I didn't mean to upset you."

She blinked because - that was a lie. He clearly had meant to upset her. Inoichi was head of T&I - there was no way that he would have a slip up in an interrogation. He was trying to throw her off balance, probably so that she'd be rattled enough to give something away she otherwise wouldn't.

Maybe because she'd failed to mention the suspected kidnapped clan children when she had first approached Shikaku? She held back a sigh. This was going to be very trying.

"It's okay, Inoichi-san," Mayu said, allowing her eyes to widen and her voice to go soft. 

Nothing to see here, I'm just an innocent little six-year-old that got caught up in a crazy old man's schemes. Inoichi twitched and Shikaku sighed next to her. She fought to hold back a giggle, instead of keeping her expression wide-eyed and guileless.

Watana was looking at her with an expression that clearly said This is the supposed child genius that cracked the biggest conspiracy Konoha has ever seen?

The next hour and a half she went through her story twice and spent time answering the same questions over and over. Shikaku's presence next to her kept her from losing her temper until Watana kept pressing the point of where she'd gotten the records from the original folder she'd given Shikaku.

"Listen, kid, it's obvious someone fed you the information. You need to tell us who put you up to this," he said bluntly.

Mayu stiffened and glared at him. She had figured out halfway through that he thought she was just a sacrificial lamb that some secret genius had offered on a platter in case this all went to hell. Really, it wasn't a terrible thought, except after a few hours of investigation - which she was sure they had done - it should be obvious that there was no one else.

It's not like they had never run into child geniuses before, but of course, those were generally clan children, not nameless orphans.

"I told you, I broke into the records section of the administrative building. It wasn't even hard," she said with a sniff. "You obviously need to work on your security."

Shikaku slumped and Inoichi pinched the bridge of his nose between two fingers. Watana seemed to have had enough because he slammed his hand down on the table.

"Listen, you little brat, this situation is much more important than your pathetic attempt to make yourself into some sort of genius. You already got what you wanted - the Nara took you in so that they could claim the little genius orphan for their research labs.

“Now tell us the name. I'm sure Nara-sama won't send you back to the orphanage, though he might choose to place you with one of the lesser families..."

Shikaku stood so fast his chair screeched across the floor and grabbed the collar of the man, yanking him across the table so he could put his face close to the other man's. The shadows in the room were writhing and growing and a bead of sweat appeared on Watana's head.

"Don't. Talk to her. Again." He threw the man back so hard he hit the chair, which fell apart under the force, sending him and the broken pieces skidding across the room.

"We're done here," Shikaku growled at his friend. "As her guardian, I'm revoking T&I's access unless ordered otherwise by the Hokage."

"Sorry, Shikaku. Some people higher up insisted I bring Watana-san with me. He will get an official reprimand on his file." 

Higher up? Just who was showing interest in her?

Shikaku's face clearly said Watana would be getting more than an official reprimand and the other man twitched from where he was sitting on the floor.

"Ah, Shikaku-san, don't be mad," Mayu said in her sweetest voice as she grabbed onto his tense arm.

He switched his attention from the terrified man on the floor to the small girl smiling up at him. "He's just sad because he knows he'll only ever be a paperwork ninja and it's too much for him that a six-year-old orphan is smarter than him."

Shikaku stared at her for a moment, ignoring the sigh from Inoichi and the angry spluttering from Watana and finally chuckled before tweaking her nose.

"Well, Mayu-chan, if you insist, I guess I won't ruin his life." Watana made a pained noise when he realized what Shikaku had likely been planning for him.

She smiled up at him. "Can you take me to meet the deer, Shikaku-san? Please? Shikamaru said they only come out for you."

"Ah, sure." He swung her up onto his back. "Later, Inoichi," he said, moving to the back door and completely ignoring the third man in the room in the process.

Mayu clung to his back and dropped the smile from her face as soon as they were over the fence and out of earshot, burying her face in Shikaku's shoulder. He didn't say anything, just continued walking until they were in the trees. Then he crouched down and she slid down off his back, keeping her eyes firmly on the ground.

"Mayu-chan, I hope you know," he started in a serious voice, "that man was full of shit."

Her head whipped up and her jaw dropped at his blunt words. "You - Shikaku-san! Yoshino-san would be so mad if she heard you talking that way."

He gave her a smirk. "Guess you'd better not tell her, then," he said and she smiled tentatively back.

He sighed and moved to sit on the forest floor, gesturing to her to do the same. "I mean it, Mayu-chan. You don't have to worry about Yoshino or me giving you away or changing our minds. I promise."

Mayu breathed out and nodded. "Okay, I believe you," she said, because he had already kept one promise to her, she believed he would keep this one.

She fiddled with the edge of the blue long sleeved t-shirt she was wearing, biting her lip in thought. Shikaku seemed to sense that she was working up the courage for her next question because he stayed silent. "The other thing he said, about why you took me in - "

Shikaku's hand covered hers, stopping her fidgeting. "No. We decided to make you our ward - and we would have preferred to adopt you, but the clan elders can be...difficult - because you just. You fit. With us, I mean."

She glanced up and saw that his eyes were boring into her, as though willing her to understand. "Part of that is probably your intelligence, yes, but not because we want to use you for the future benefit of the clan." He actually rolled his eyes as he said that last part and her lips quirked up. "But it's also because you're funny, and you let Yoshino fuss over you, and you make terrible decisions -"

"Hey!" she protested, but he just talked over her.

"- when you get excited about something. You're the only kid I've ever seen get along so well with Shikamaru, even more so than his best friend Chouji, who's happy to just eat while Shika-kun sleeps."

Shikaku shrugged. "You slid right in like there'd always been a space there just waiting for you. None of us wanted to wake up and not have you there, I guess."

He rubbed the back of his neck and looked away from her and - was that a blush? Mayu cleared her throat.

"Thank you," she whispered. "I'm not...I don't remember my family. They died when I was so young, and since I could really understand where I was, I knew that I'd be alone. So. Thank you for saving me from that."

Mayu squeaked when Shikaku grabbed her and pulled her onto his lap for a hug. His voice was tight when he said, "It's me who should be thanking you, Mayu-chan. Yoshino and I wanted more kids, you know. But there were complications with Shikamaru's birth and..." he trailed off with a shrug. "We thought we wouldn't have more, so we're very happy to have found you."

She relaxed into his hold and they sat like that until they were interrupted by the sound of a foot scuffing the dirt. She looked up to see three does standing about ten feet away, heads tilted in curiosity.

"Ah, there you are. Come here, then, I have someone I want you to meet." He stood easily, even with the extra weight of Mayu and settled her on his hip. He held out a hand and waited for them to come to him patiently.

Eventually, they wandered over and Shikaku introduced her in such a formal voice that she found herself laughing, all worries that the Naras didn't want her forgotten as she gently touched the soft nose of one of the does.

After a few minutes the deer wandered back into the trees and Shikaku, still holding her, walked back out of the forest to Shikamaru's cloud watching hill. He promptly collapsed backward, somehow turning it into a roll that ended with both of them splayed on their backs looking up.

"Can you tell me what happened with Danzo now?" Mayu asked in a quiet voice.

He hummed thoughtfully, then said, "A lot of it is classified and we're still uncovering things, but yes. I can tell you some."

Shikaku took a deep breath and let it out. "I can't tell you the details of how, but we found the training facility where the children were being kept. He was...brainwashing them, turning them into a personal army." Mayu clenched her fists but didn't comment.

"We also found a few underground bases that brought to light some of his other activities. It was...bad. So bad even the Hokage couldn't defend it. When we went to detain him, he and some of his agents fought us. Danzo died - a suicide jutsu. No one was killed," he assured her when she sucked in a shocked breath. "But a few of us got a little singed."

"I'm glad he's dead," she said fiercely. He sighed and pulled her close to him.

"We're still trying to find all of his agents. They're broken, mostly. The ones that were taken within the past year should be easy to help, but the rest are tricky. Also, with some of them being clan children, well, there's no keeping this quiet, at least not from the clan heads. It's going to be messy," he finished grimly.

"Were there any Nara?" She asked in a small voice.

"No. Danzo wouldn't dare draw our attention like that. He would never have gotten away with it for as long as he did, otherwise." Mayu felt how tense he was and moved her hand to grab the one attached to the arm her head was resting on.

"Yamanaka and Akimichi weren't as lucky, were they?" she whispered. He shuddered and squeezed her her hand.

"No. Inoichi and Chouza...well, they're very grateful to you for helping them recover their lost clan members Mayu-chan. I don't think I'll even have to bother getting back at whoever made Inoichi bring along the dim minion," he said in a satisfied voice. "Inoichi can be very vengeful."

Mayu giggled. "Shikaku-san?" she said after a while.

"Hmm?"

"I want to go to the Academy when Shikamaru-kun does." She said in a firm voice.

He stopped breathing for a moment. "Oh?" he asked mildly.

"Yes. I had already planned on it, but now..." he waited patiently again for her to finish her thoughts. "Now, I'm going to go and I'm going to join the Military Police Force. Then, I'm going to make sure that something like this doesn't get passed by again," she said in a hard voice. "They need a good investigator and that's going to be me. I'll be the best detective they've ever had!"

"The MPF doesn't usually accept non-Uchihas," he said in a neutral voice.

"Well, they'll take me," Mayu said with confidence. "They'll have to after I prove how good I am."

"Well Mayu-chan, if that's what you want, then I have no doubt that's what will happen," he said and ruffled her hair.

She could tell that he wasn't just humoring her. Shikaku believed that she could do it and that was pretty amazing.

000

While Shikaku became a rare sight in the Nara household in the days following, two new faces appeared. Akimichi Chouji and Yamanaka Ino came tumbling into the house one afternoon right after lunch. The small, pretty blonde-haired girl had barely entered the library where both Mayu and Shikamaru were reading before she was talking.

"Shikamaru-kun! Daddy said I couldn't visit for three weeks because you were sick. I know you must have been faking it, though. You just didn't want to have to go to the park with us!" She stood with her feet apart, one hand on her hip and the other pointed at Shikamaru, who had slid down into his chair and seemed to be hiding behind his book.

"But now you're better, so you have to come with us and - hey, who are you?" the girl asked, stopping her tirade when she spotted Mayu.

Mayu blinked a few times at the girl in shock and Shikamaru sighed and set his book to the side.

"Ugh, Ino, calm down. I didn't fake sick to get out of going to the park with you, even if it is a bother. This is Mayu, she's living with us now. Mayu, this is Ino and Chouji."

Mayu had known Ino for all of two minutes and could already tell that this wouldn't be enough explanation for the energetic girl. "Eh? What do you mean she lives here now!"

Chouji just smiled sweetly and walked over to her. "It's nice to meet you Mayu -" he was cut off as Ino shoved him out of the way and bent at the waist to look closely at Mayu.

"You're not a Nara!" she said. "So why are you living here?"

Mayu drew back as far as the chair would allow her before answering. "Shikaku-san and Yoshino-san were kind enough to take me in as a ward until I come of age," she explained.

Ino blinked and opened her mouth to undoubtedly ask why Mayu would need to be taken in but was cut off by Shikamaru, whose voice was uncharacteristically cutting.

"Leave her alone, Ino-chan. Ugh, girls never know when to -"

"Finish that sentence and regret it forever," Mayu snapped, leaning around Ino to glare at him.

Shikamaru snapped his jaw shut - he'd learned pretty quickly that Mayu wasn't a fan of some of his more disparaging comments about the fairer sex. She wasn't sure where it came from, but if it was Shikaku, she was going to have words with him.

Ino burst into laughter. "Oh man, Shika-kun, she told you!"

She held her hand out Mayu. "It's nice to meet you, Mayu-chan! Do you want to come to the park with us?" she asked in a bright voice.

"Ah...no thank you Ino-chan, I want to finish this book today but thank you very much for your invitation." Shikamaru gave her a pleading glance, but there was no way Mayu was going to jump on that grenade.

Ino seemed like an okay kid, but she was loud and overbearing and Mayu would be absolutely miserable going to the park with them. Mayu hardened her heart against his pouts and continued to read as he was dragged out of the house, waving goodbye to Chouji as they went.

Yoshino seemed disappointed when she discovered Mayu hadn't gone with the others, but Shikaku just looked amused when she brought it up that night at dinner, the first one he'd attended in a week.

"Ino a little rambunctious for you?" He asked.

Mayu shrugged. "Aa, a bit."

"If she doesn't have to hang out with the harpy, then why do I?" Shikamaru whined, resulting in an impassioned scolding from Yoshino.

That night he gave Mayu the cold shoulder instead of playing shogi with her and she felt so awful about the whole thing that the next time Ino barged in she reluctantly agreed to join the trio. It was, of course, a disaster. Mayu wasn't really susceptible to bossiness - generally, if she didn't want to do something, she didn't do it (unless it was Yoshino asking). So when Ino started making edicts about which games they would play at the park, Mayu politely refused, saying she would prefer to read under a tree. Ino didn't take it well and she really didn't take Mayu's continued silent refusal well.

Mayu didn't exactly want to cause trouble with Shikamaru's friends, but she really, really didn't want to climb into the dark, disgusting plastic tunnels in the playground and pretend to be a dragon guarding the beautiful princess Ino against the evil sorcerer Shikamaru while her knight errant Chouji tried to get past both of them.

By the end of the 'discussion', Mayu's right eye had a twitch, but she hadn't lost her temper with the other girl and also hadn't been pulled into the game. Ino seemed to have given up on Mayu and instead turned all of her six-year-old wrathful fury on Shikamaru, who looked so miserable that Mayu finally snapped.

Deducing that Ino had a deep-seated fear of rejection that made her act like an insane harpy (she thought Shikamaru's insult last night had been fitting) that made everybody around her miserable ended with Ino in tears and running home, Chouji looking stricken, and Shikamaru giving her a disappointed look that had Mayu turning on her heel and leaving without a word. Yoshino found her two hours later up in a tree, determinedly reading her book and not thinking about Shikamaru being upset with her.

The woman sighed and put her hands on her hips.

"Mayu-chan, there you are. Shikamaru has been worried sick!" She scolded, which somehow made Mayu feel even more wretched.

"I...I'm okay up here," she said in a small voice.

Yoshino sighed and then walked straight up the tree to kneel on the branch next to her.

"Oh! Tree walking! I read about that in Practical Applications of Chakra. It seems hard. Can you teach me?" she asked, leaning towards Yoshino in excitement.

Yoshino laughed. "Sure, I can show you some good exercises tomorrow to get you started. But only if you come home with me now."

Mayu slumped against the tree with a 'humph.' Yoshino settled down on the branch.

"That bad, huh?" she said gently and Mayu just shrugged and started tracing the kanji on the spine of her book with one stubby finger.

"Ino's a tough girl to get along with if you're not inclined to let her lead you around," Yoshino said in a mild voice.

"It's not that. I mean, yeah that's annoying, but I didn't really get that mad over it. I just said no." 

"Oh? Then why did you get upset and leave?" Yoshino asked.

"I wasn't upset," Mayu denied vehemently.

"Then why do I have a son at home in the throes of a dramatic break down for making you run away from home?"

"I - what?" Mayu asked, honestly confused. "I'm not running away from home, I just wanted to be alone for awhile!"

"Oh?"

Mayu sighed and looked down.

"I didn't mean to upset him. He looked at me like I was...like he'd never seen me before."

"Ah, yes, I heard about what you said to Ino." Yoshino's lips twitched. "Possibly telling her nobody could like an out of control harpy with low self-esteem might have been an overreaction."

"She was being mean to Shikamaru!" Mayu exclaimed. "I could have done much worse, you know."

Yoshino sighed. "I'm sure you could have. But, Mayu-chan, there are other ways of dealing with these things."

Mayu shrugged. "Yeah, but...I've never been good at just...being around other people. Shikamaru is my first friend, the only one I've ever really wanted. Most everyone else either bores me or annoys me. Even the adults...I just don't fit in."

A hum and then, "Well, I don't think it's good to isolate yourself, but maybe you can find some friends of your own that don't punch so many of your buttons, huh?"

Mayu frowned, knowing that she didn't exactly want friends. She was fine with just having Shikamaru, Yoshino, and Shikaku. Mayu knew that they had other people in their lives and couldn't devote all their time to her and that was fine. She preferred to spend a lot of time on her own, anyway, she thought to herself a bit petulantly.

Yoshino sighed, then smiled. "Well, it's just something to work on. Shikamaru may have been upset with you for making Ino cry, but I know he's over it. Why don't you come home and help me make dinner, okay?"

Mayu let Yoshino scoop her up and whooped in delight when the woman dropped straight from the branch, landing neatly and barely jarring Mayu when they hit the ground. She followed Yoshino back into the house through the back door and barely looked at Shikamaru when he jumped up from the kitchen table.

"Mayu! You're okay!" he said, rushing over to her.

"Yeah," she agreed and stepped around him to put the book on the table.

There was an awkward silence for a moment before Shikamaru huffed out a breath and stormed out of the kitchen. Yoshino didn't comment and Mayu silently helped her through the dinner preparations. Shikaku made it home right as they were finishing, obviously exhausted, and they all sat down to eat.

Shikamaru and Mayu didn't speak throughout the meal, both ignoring Yoshino's worried looks and Shikaku's confused ones. After a few pointed questions about their day, he gave up when all he got was one-word answers.

Mayu kept glancing at a silent Shikamaru as they washed the dishes and couldn't help but compare it to the first night they met, where they were doing the same chore together as strangers. The thought was a depressing one and she escaped to her room claiming a headache as soon as she could. She got ready for bed alone and crawled under the unfamiliar sheets. Knowing she probably wouldn't sleep, Mayu switched on the lamp by her bed and settled in to read the book on traps that had drawn her attention a few weeks ago.

An hour later, she heard the sounds of the rest of the household getting ready for bed. Mayu knew that she was overreacting, but she couldn't get the look Shikamaru had given her when Ino ran home crying out of her head. Every look he had ever given her before had been tinged with fondness (okay, other than the time she accidentally poisoned his whole family) and if this was the feeling she could expect from forming bonds with people who weren't Holmeses then she was seriously reconsidering.

Once the rest of the house had settled, she switched off the light and lay in darkness, not even attempting to sleep, but not feeling like reading either. You're an idiot, she thought after a long time lying there, staring at the ceiling. Mayu had just sat up to march into Shikamaru's room and demand he scoot over when her door creaked open.

A small figure slipped into the room and closed the door behind him and then padded over to her bed. She couldn't help the small quirk of her lip when she saw that the shadow was holding a pillow.

"Scoot over," Shikamaru said in an annoyed voice. "I don't care if you're mad at me, I can't sleep alone anymore."

Mayu wished that it wasn't a new moon, because she knew that she was missing out on his pouty face. She obediently moved over and lifted the covers. He spent a few minutes getting settled next to her, but instead of rolling over to cuddle he lay stiff beside her. Mayu bit her lip, unsure of what to do to cross the distance between them.

Finally, annoyed with her indecision and his silence, she snapped, "Ino was being a complete nightmare to me before I upset her, but you didn't say one word to her! And I was defending you! And then you looked at me like I had done something wrong. I guess Ino can spend ten minutes torturing me, but I better watch out if I want to say anything back!"

With a huff she turned to face the wall, ignoring the tears that had popped into her eyes. Shikamaru was silent for a moment, before letting out an explosive sigh. "Stupid girl," he said, but it sounded fond.

"Ino is Ino - yeah she's annoying and bossy but she wasn't trying to hurt anyone's feelings." He left the and you were unspoken, but they both heard it.

Mayu considered his words for a moment, squirming around in bed until she was facing the shadow of his profile. He turned his face towards her and she could barely see the glint of his eyes in the darkness.

"Okay, that's fair," she said. "But - she was making you unhappy. And I -"

Shikamaru turned fully on his side. "Okay, next time I'll speak up for myself so you don't have to."

Mayu scowled. "Fine, but I'm not apologizing to her. I don't know why you even hang out with her."

His shoulders moved in a shrug, rustling the blankets. "She's the daughter of the head of a clan we're closely allied to. She's also my future teammate - it'd be troublesome if we hated each other."

Mayu frowned. "Future teammate?"

"Ah. Our parents - my dad, Inoichi-ojisan, and Chouza-ojisan - are part of a famous team. They use their combined bloodlines and secret techniques as capture and interrogation tactics. They're also a good support team on the battlefront. They call themselves the Ino-Shika-Cho formation." He said the last in a long-suffering voice and Mayu laughed. "They worked so well that I'm sure the village will want to continue the trend. Ino and Chouji will be my genin team."

"Genin team?" Mayu asked. "I didn't know genin were on teams."

She had general knowledge of the levels of ninja, of course - genin, chunin, then jounin, with only a few elites making it to the last, but didn't know much of the process shinobi went through to actually gain those ranks.

"Mm, when you graduate from the academy, you're put into teams of three. These teams are each assigned a jounin instructor that teaches them and helps them move towards specialties, that kind of thing."

"So then you and I don't have a chance of being on a team, I guess," Mayu said in a small voice.

Which, it was ridiculous to be disappointed about the setup of teams she'd only just found out about, but, if she had to put up with being on a team she would have liked it to include Shikamaru.

"No, sorry," he sighed. "I wish it wasn't so set in stone...but legacy is important to a shinobi village, so."

Mayu hummed. "I guess I should try not to make your relationship with Ino difficult then, huh?" she said in a small voice.

He chuckled. "Ino's already difficult. You don't have to go along with her because of me. But, she's my friend, so please don't make her cry anymore."

Mayu glared, though she knew he couldn't tell.

"Fine," she muttered, then gave in and scooted against him, shoving her face into his shoulder. He relaxed against her and five minutes later was fast asleep.

000

Two days later, Yoshino stopped them after meditation before they could head out to their usual spot on the hill.

"Your lazy days are over!" she crowed with too much enthusiasm, causing a look of horror to fall across Shikamaru's face. "You will both be attending the academy next fall, which means we need to get you ready for ninja life. Your mornings and half your afternoons are now mine. We'll start with conditioning! I want three laps around the field."

Shikamaru's protests went unheard as they were pushed towards the field. Mayu eyed it with trepidation - it was large and three laps seemed like a lot. Yoshino finally snapped at their reluctance and her creative threats spurred them into a half-hearted run. Unfortunately, the woman must have decided they weren't to be trusted, because she joined them, heckling and pushing whenever they started to slow down.

Mayu and Shikamaru were both sweaty messes by the end, but Yoshino didn't let up on them. Instead, she had them do sit-ups and pushups before she gave them a break. After that, she led them through some cooldown stretches and allowed them to get a drink of water.

"Okay! I promised cute little Mayu-chan that I'd show her some chakra control exercises that would help her eventually learn tree walking. I think that Shikamaru would benefit from this too."

She was standing with her hands on her hips and ignored the groaning of her son with an ease that spoke of years of practice.

"Now remember," she said in a serious voice that got even Shikamaru to pay attention, "tree walking is a genin level exercise and you aren't to try it until I give the okay. Your chakra systems are still developing and it could permanently harm them if you push too hard. Understood?"

They both nodded their agreement and Yoshino pointed at Mayu. "And no experimenting on chakra exercises without an adult around. I mean it Mayu-chan."

"You make one mistake," Mayu grumbled, but quickly stopped when Shikamaru and Yoshino gave her scarily identical unimpressed faces.

"Okay, okay, I promise. No genin level chakra experiments while I'm still just a little pre-academy wannabe."

"That promise...leaves a lot of wiggle room," Shikamaru said suspiciously. Mayu just gave him her sweetest smile.

"Okay! So, you two, find some leaves!"

The next few weeks fell into a pattern - in the mornings, Yoshino would run them into the ground, literally and figuratively, every morning. They both picked up chakra control exercises quickly. Mayu could stick four leaves to her body at once - one on each limb - and Shikamaru could do that plus one on his forehead.

After lunch, they suffered through calligraphy lessons two days a week and started to learn the basics of kunai throwing on the other days. When Yoshino was done with them, they went up to cloud watch or explore the woods close to the house. Some afternoons Chouji would join them and Mayu found she didn't mind his company. He was quiet and kind if you didn't count the crinkle of chip bags that followed him wherever he went. Ino showed up about twice a week to drag the two boys to the park with her. While she and Mayu didn't fight, they also didn't speak much which made it generally uncomfortable for everyone if Mayu tagged along. So she usually chose to go to the public library instead.

It was a month after her argument with Shikamaru that she came across a book on basic puppetry by a Suna nin. As she studied diagrams of weaponized puppets that were controlled by threads of chakra, she became immediately enamored with the concept.

In her memories of Before mechanical engineering had been a bit of a hobby of hers (yes, she knew how ridiculous that sounded, but she had been a Holmes, okay? They were by definition ridiculous) and she had always loved creating little gadgets for her father to give his agents or her uncle to...do whatever it is Sherlock did with them. That night, she asked Shikaku about it.

"Puppetry, hmm? That's more of a Suna specialty. Don't really find a lot of puppeteers here," he said, thoughtfully rubbing one finger across the patch of whiskers on his chin.

Mayu deflated, disappointed, but he just reached over and put his hand on her head.

"Maa, Mayu-chan, don't look like that. I'm sure I can find some more books on it."

Two days later, he staggered into her room, where she was contemplating a recipe for a poison that knocked the victim unconscious within ten seconds of breathing it in, under the weight of a pile of books and scrolls and set them heavily on her desk. He gave the poison recipe a suspicious look but didn't say anything.

She blinked in surprise before picking up a scroll that had rolled across the desk towards her. She opened it and scanned the text for a moment before her eyes widened.

"This is...this is an instructional scroll! On chakra threads! And -" she scrambled to look at the spines of the books. "The History of Puppeteering in Wind Country, Puppets in Motion..." She turned to look at a smug Shikaku, eyes wide.

"You...you found all of this? For me?" she whispered and his face softened.

"Well, technically Shouta-san did, that man is a god when it comes to anything paperwork or book related, but yeah, it's yours - oomph." 

Mayu threw herself at him and wrapped her arms around his waist. "Thank you! Thank you, thank you, thank you!" 

He rubbed the back of his neck and chuckled. "You're welcome, Mayu-chan. Come on, we'd better go downstairs and eat now."

Mayu barely slept that night, staying up to study the scrolls that Shikaku had brought her by lamplight while Shikamaru snored away in the bed behind her. Some of the scrolls had actual blueprints and instructions for creating puppets.

The next day Mayu showed Yoshino the scroll on chakra threads, remembering her promise not to try anything out without asking her first. The woman looked it over, humming thoughtfully.

"Can you do chakra threads?" Mayu asked from where she was sitting cross-legged next to Shikamaru, who was concentrating on adding a sixth leaf to his exercise.

"Yes," Yoshino said, "I'm a trained medic, it's one of the tests we're given to prove our chakra control."

"Can you teach me?" Mayu asked, leaning forward.

"I can, but it's not a quick process," Yoshino warned. "You've got to have extremely good control - especially if you're going to be creating multiple strings that need to act independently of each other."

"That's okay," Mayu said, bouncing in place. "I don't mind!"

Yoshino put her hands on her hips and gave her a severe look. "It will take years to get to this point, Mayu-chan and a lot of hard work and a lot of my time. Are you sure you want to commit to this?"

Mayu nodded. "Yes! I'm sure. Please, Yoshino-san!"

Even if she decided not to go into puppeteering, she figured it'd be a useful skill.

"Alright. You and I will spend an extra hour together every other day then," the woman said decisively.

Shikamaru faltered and his leaves drifted to the ground as he stared at them. "But - what about our cloud watching?"

Mayu rolled her eyes. "I'll still find time to cloud watch, I promise," she reassured him, but he was already slumped over, dejected.

Mayu made sure to spend extra time with him that afternoon instead of going straight for her books, which seemed to appease him.

A week later, Yoshino brought up the subject of Shikamaru's upcoming birthday. "It's in ten days, Shika-kun. What do you want to do?"

He requested a day off from training for himself and Mayu, which Yoshino huffed at but eventually agreed to. Mayu listened with half an ear as they planned a party at an Akimichi barbeque restaurant, thoughts racing.

That night, she stayed up sketching out and discarding plans, muttering to herself as she looked through scrolls and books. She was a disaster during their workout the next morning but was too distracted with her thoughts to be bothered by Yoshino's scolding. Mayu took a small nap after lunch and calligraphy, head on Shikamaru's stomach as they lay in their cloud watching spot until Ino came to drag Shikamaru to the park.

When Yoshino left to do the shopping, Mayu ran upstairs to grab the lists and blueprints she'd made the night before, then hurried out of the house and down the path that led into the rest of Konoha. With a teeny, tiny, distraction involving a troupe of visiting entertainers being led to the wrong level for visitation paperwork, Mayu was able to slip past taffeta and sequin covered bodies and a flustered Shouta into Shikaku's office.

She shut the door behind her, Shouta's enraged shout of "No, miss, I do not accept bribes!" following her and froze when she turned and saw that Shikaku wasn't alone in the room. A man in standard jounin uniform with only one gray eye showing between his facemask and a hitai-ate pulled down over the other eye was leaning against the window, arms crossed over his chest.

"Ah, Shikaku, I didn't know we were recruiting so young still," he drawled.

Mayu fumbled the messy stack of paper in her hands as Shikaku put his hand over his face. Mayu recognized him. The hair and mask were a dead giveaway. This was the famous Kakashi no Sharingan that she'd come across in her research while trying to figure out who to go to with the information she'd uncovered on Danzo. "Mayu-chan, you're making my subordinates look bad. I suppose whatever has Shouta so worked up is your doing?" Shikaku pulled her attention back to him.

Mayu widened her eyes and willed herself to look innocent.

"Of course not, Shikaku-san! I think that some pretty dancers just got confused about what level to go to for visitor visas."

"Uh-huh," he said, eyeing her doubtfully and ignoring the snickers coming from the window. "You know, Mayu-chan, as my ward, Shouta would just give you access if you asked for it."

Mayu shrugged. "Well, he looked busy, so I didn't want to bother him."

"Your ward? So this is the one, hmm?" Hatake Kakashi said thoughtfully and something in his voice said I thought she'd be more impressive.

Mayu shifted uncomfortably at his sudden interest and narrowed her eyes but didn't say anything.

"Mayu-chan, is there a reason you're here?" Shikaku said in a long-suffering voice.

She brightened and scurried over to his desk. "Yes! I have an idea for Shikamaru's birthday present but need some help finding supplies. I still have all of my allowances that you and Yoshino gave me, but..."

Hatake made a sound that she was pretty sure translated to You snuck into the jounin commander's office and interrupted our meeting to talk about a birthday present? She ignored him as Shikaku motioned her to show him her plans and hummed after he bent his head over the paper.

"This is good Mayu-chan, but it's kind of a big project to finish in ten days."

Mayu jumped when she felt something brush her back and when she craned her neck she saw that Hatake was now bending over the plans as well.

"I can do it," she said firmly. "I'll just work on it in the afternoons and at night, too."

"Uh huh. And you don't think that Yoshino will have something to say about that?"

Mayu shrugged. "I'm good at sneaking around."

Shikaku groaned. "You can't say things like that in front of your old man, you'll drive me into an early grave."

Mayu froze at his words and her eyes darted to his face. His attention was still on the hastily drawn sketches in front of him, though, and he didn't notice her shock. My old man? Does that mean he thinks of me as his...

"And where were you planning on working on this, exactly?" he continued, breaking into her thoughts.

"Ah...the shed in the backyard?" she said sheepishly. Hatake chuckled and straightened.

"Well, I can see you'll be busy for awhile, Shikaku-sama. I'll report in when I finish the mission. Later!" With a finger wave, he disappeared into a puff of smoke. Shikaku grumbled a bit about annoying jounin before sighing.

"Okay, well, I'm not too busy, so I'll come help you with this for a few hours. Shouta!" he shouted and a moment later his harried-looking assistant burst into the room.

"Shikaku, you better have finished that paperwork or I'll -" he cut off when he spotted Mayu, lips moving without forming words before he pointed at her. "You! Where did you come from?!"

000

An hour later, weighed down with bags full of gears, wire, strips of wood and various tools, Shikaku and Mayu stood in front of a large warehouse with the sound of hammering and the thumps of something large being moved filtering out into the air. They were on the edge of the Nara compound, in a section that Shikaku had told her was where all their research transpired.

He'd had to drag her past the medical labs after pointing them out, reminding her that she was on a bit of schedule and he had to go back to work and could she focus? Shikaku knocked on the door with his foot and a few moments later it was opened by a tall man with broad shoulders. His hair was a dirty blonde pulled back into a ponytail at the nape of his neck and his eyes were the same brown as Shikaku's and held the same clear intelligence.

"Akinobu-san, can we come in?"

The man's eyes flicked down to Mayu. "There's dangerous equipment in here, Shikaku-sama. Are you sure you should bring a kid in here?"

"Aa, don't worry about it, Mayu-chan is smart. She's actually why I'm here."

Akinobu shrugged and stepped back. Mayu took in the large, open space and her heart leapt with excitement. The space was a woodworking shop, with shelves and work counters lining the walls she could see. The shelves seemed to hold various tools that were vaguely familiar to her and the middle of the floor contained large machines. She could see what seemed to be a planer, a large saw, and a sander. Three or four people were moving around the room with projects in various states of completeness.

She followed Shikamaru and Akinobu along the edges of the cement floor until they came to an unoccupied workbench. Shikaku motioned for her to put the bags she was carrying onto it and he moved to do the same.

"Akinobu-san, this is my ward, Nomaka Mayu. Mayu-chan, this is my cousin, Nara Akinobu. He owns this shop, along with a furniture store in Konoha's merchant district."

Her eyes widened and she bowed politely. "It's nice to meet you Nara-san. I didn't know there were woodworkers in the Nara compound - this is amazing!"

"Call me Akinobu, there's too many Naras around, we'll get confused. As far as woodworking - well, the wood in the Nara forest is considered high quality, so it was only natural for a line of our clan to go into something like this," he said matter of factly.

"That's right, Mayu-chan. Akinobu-san's family is responsible for providing the clan with a good chunk of its income. He's built quite a name for himself in the business," Shikaku said and she could hear the pride in his voice.

Akinobu's lips quirked up in the same half smile Shikaku and Shikamaru sported when they were pleased, but he just said, "Enough flattery, Shikaku-sama, I don't have time for you to butter me up. Just come out with why you're here."

"Ah, well, actually, I was hoping you could do me a favor. Mayu-chan has a project she'd like to complete two Tuesdays from now and needs a safe space to do it. Can you let her set up here in the afternoons?"

"You just got the kid and you're already foisting her onto others?" Akinobu said, voice flat.

Mayu bristled and would have said something disparaging - probably about his obvious alcohol problem, but Shikaku squeezed her shoulder so she settled instead for a fierce glare. Akinobu blinked in surprise, then chuckled.

"So that's how it is. Well, tell me about this project of yours and I'll see what I can do."

Mayu narrowed her eyes at him, wondering what she had missed that had suddenly changed his mind. His interest didn't seem feigned, so she handed the plans over. He studied them for a minute, eyebrows rising higher and higher.

"Where'd you really get these, kid? No way you did it yourself."

Wow, this guy is awful, she thought as she snatched them out of his hands.

"Shikaku-san, this is wasting time. I'll just do this on my own in the shed."

He stopped her from grabbing her things and leaving in a dramatic huff by casually hooking his fingers in her collar.

"Mayu-chan, you're so sweet at home, why do you get so cranky with everyone else," he scolded.

She deflated at his tone, which while mild held a warning in it.

"Sorry, cousin, but she did do this - last night while the rest of the house was sleeping, actually," and he sounded so smug on her behalf that it negated the sting of his disapproval from a moment before.

Akinobu hummed in thought before he seemed to come to a decision. "Okay, I'll help the kid out - but in exchange, I get to keep these plans and put them into production."

"No!" Mayu said, clutching the papers to her chest. "This is just for Shikamaru, I don't want a bunch of idiot children running around with his present."

She put her nose in the air; she knew she sounded like a brat, but she couldn't help it - this was something that she'd created for her special person. Shikaku had offered her his home and his protection, but it had been Shikamaru that grabbed her loneliness with both hands and ripped it away and filled her instead with companionship.

Shikaku pinched the bridge of his nose between finger and thumb and mumbled something unintelligible, but Akinobu surprised her by throwing his head back and filling the space with rich laughter.

"Oh, Shikaku-sama, is this the adorable little ward you were telling me so much about last week over drinks? I'm almost relieved, from your description I expected her to carry a glow and the blessing of a god."

Mayu blushed a deep red and when she glanced over she saw that her guardian also seemed to have a slight tint to his cheeks. Had Shikaku been bragging about her? 

"I wasn't that bad," he said with a huff. 

He did! He bragged about her to his friends. A warm feeling infused her chest as she stared up at him, knowing that her adoration for him was probably shining from her eyes and the beaming smile she couldn't quite keep down. Ugh, she always had been terrible at keeping her emotions hidden - something her father had stopped even trying to lecture out of her. Of course, it had delighted Sherlock, who used to ask if Mycroft was sure he'd gotten that paternity test right.

"Yeah, okay, I guess I see where you got the adorable part from," Akinobu said, sounding a bit ill. "Fine, if you won't let me reproduce this, then for every hour you spend in the shop on personal matters, I want you to match it working with me on my projects as an intern."

"You don't even know if I'll be any good at it yet," Mayu said suspiciously.

"Ah, well, I'll find something for you to do. You can fetch my tea, and I'm assuming you can use a broom? Yes? Well, there you go."

Mayu looked up at Shikaku, who just shrugged. Apparently, he didn't see anything sinister to the deal.

"Okay," Mayu said slowly, thinking. "But I'll have to make up the hours after Shikamaru's birthday. I'll need all my extra time to finish this."

Akinobu waved a hand in the air. "Aa, that's fine, how about we say you make up the time within the next 4 months?"

"Deal," Mayu said and they shook on it, his calloused hand completely enveloping her own small one.

Akinobu was a strict teacher, but good. Over the next few days, he gave her a crash course in shop safety and showed her how to shape wood, the best tools to use for different tasks, and on more than one occasion helped her bandage up a cut finger or remove splinters. Unless he was actively showing her how to do a task, he left her to her own devices.

Mayu stumbled home each evening shedding sawdust, but her happiness with having a new project must have shown on her face because none of the Naras tried to get her to take a break. At night, after Shikamaru was asleep, she'd sneak into her room and work on the gears and pulleys that would eventually make up the internal workings of her creation.

Shikamaru, bless him, seemed to accept that she was the type that got a little obsessed when she was focused on something and didn't get upset with her for disappearing for long hours at a time. He'd probably figured out it had something to do with his birthday, anyway. He was smart like that.

She did end up finishing the last bits in the shed until two a.m. the night before the party on a crate she had flipped over to use as a table, after all. When she was finally finished she dragged herself into the shower and then fell into bed next to Shikamaru, who woke enough to grumble and pull her towards him to act as his own personal body pillow.

The next morning Yoshino didn't wake them up until a glorious nine a.m. Mayu found herself in a dark blue, frilly dress with her hair nicely brushed and pulled back with a white ribbon soon after. She was just like everyone else in the world in that she had no defense against Yoshino once she set her mind to something. Shikamaru had given her a cheeky grin when she stomped down the stairs in her sparkly sandals. Yoshino had been suddenly appearing in front of her with new clothes for the past few months, but usually, they at least pretended to be practical. This...was not practical.

"Happy birthday, Shikamaru," she mumbled and if she sounded a bit grudging, well, at least she wasn't yelling at him about how it was his fault she was stuck in this outfit.

A memory floated to her, unbidden, of Mycroft forcing her into a frilly affair before some Christmas party where he then frog-marched her to the piano and said, in his calm-dangerous voice, "Now play for our guests, Diana."

She stabbed her chopsticks into her rice with vicious intent. Shikamaru leaned his shoulder against hers and said, "You look very pretty, Mayu-chan."

She darted her gaze over to him, but he seemed intent on his own breakfast suddenly. Shyly, she pushed her shoulder back against his, bad mood forgotten.

They spent the rest of the morning watching clouds in the cold now-winter air, wrapped in blankets and huddled together with a thermos of hot chocolate between them. They finally stumbled back into the house, rosy-cheeked and cheerful, for a lunch made up of Shikamaru's favorite dishes.

Afterward, they played four games of shogi - Mayu won two of the rounds. Shikamaru seemed pleased rather than upset that she was getting so good at the game and she assumed he liked the challenge. The sky was beginning to darken when Shikaku came home, bringing in a rush of cold air and carrying a few bags with cheerfully wrapped packages peeking out.

He hugged Shikamaru while wishing him a happy birthday and patted Mayu on the head with a, "Don't you look pretty Mayu-chan," smirking like he knew exactly how she felt about her party outfit.

Then there was a flurry of activity as Yoshino herded them into their coats and put earmuffs on a struggling Mayu after she came racing down the stairs from where she'd grabbed her own wrapped gift. Shikamaru tried to swipe it from her but she danced out of the way, scolding him and laughing at the same time.

And as they stepped out into the frosty air, all of them smiling for no real reason, Mayu felt something settle in her. She realized, suddenly, that this was her family. And she felt suddenly fiercely protective of this place she'd found in a world where she assumed she'd be all alone. 

I'll do anything to keep this, she thought fiercely.

The restaurant where they were having the party was warm and the smell of roasting meat and savory sauces made Mayu's stomach growl. It was full of cheerful Akimichi and Yamanaka, Chouji and Ino appearing by their side and pulling them over to a table overflowing with presents so they could add their own to it.

There were platters of barbeque out on long tables and Chouji wasted no time dragging them over to fill plates. Mayu was giggling at Shikamaru, who had gotten sauce on the tip of his nose and was now trying to avoid Ino as she attacked him with a napkin when a throat clearing above them grabbed their attention. All four of them craned their necks towards a man Mayu had never seen before. He was obviously a Nara, with his hair pulled back into a spiky ponytail, and resembled Shikaku so much that she knew they had to be closely related. He was just as tall as her guardian but broader in the shoulders. His expression lacked the warmth Mayu had come to associate with Shikaku, his face blank and his brown eyes calculating. He had painted two thick green lines under his eyes, which somehow made him look tired and terrifying all at once. 

This must be what Shikaku-san looks like when he's in shinobi-mode, she thought wonderingly.

"Uncle Ensui!" Shikamaru cried, "you're back!"

Mayu relaxed at his happy tone. This was somebody that he trusted, loved even. Nobody had mentioned that Shikaku had a brother, but that would explain how much they looked alike.

"Aa, brat, I just got done with my debrief and headed directly over. Your dad must have wanted to surprise you, huh?" he said and ruffled his nephew's hair. "Hello Ino-chan, Chouji-kun."

They chirped out their replies, just comfortable with the man as Shikamaru.

Then his sharp eyes were focused completely on her and she shifted a bit, suddenly nervous. "This must be Nomaka Mayu, my brother's ward. I leave for a couple of months and come back to a dead elder and a new niece." Mayu was disconcerted when she realized she couldn't read how he felt about that.

Shikamaru stiffened at the mention of the dead elder. Everyone knew Danzo had died, but it wasn't public knowledge that he had been a traitor. Currently, everybody under a certain security level thought it had been of natural causes. Mayu was sure he had guessed that his father's injuries and the threat to Mayu were related to the man, but he hadn't outright asked her about it.

Shikamaru's hand slipped into hers, giving it a reassuring squeeze. "That's right. Mayu-chan is my favorite person, so be nice Ensui-ojisan," he drawled and though he was in his customary slouch, something about his tone held a warning.

Ensui chuckled and patted his nephew's head. "Aw, Shika-kun, you sound like your dad. Don't worry, I'll be nice."

Mayu stood, stunned as Ensui waved goodbye and wandered back towards the adults. His favorite person? Her chest swelled and she leaned against him.

"You're my favorite person, too," she whispered and he smiled at her, sweet and shy before their moment was interrupted by Yoshino clapping her hands.

"Okay, okay, everybody it's time to open presents! And then we'll bring out the cake!" she declared, waving Shikamaru over to the table holding a veritable mountain of packages.

Shikamaru sat at the head of the table, grabbing the present closest to him and unwrapping it to reveal a sleeping cap, to the amusement of the adults. He rolled his eyes but thanked the 'aunt' that had given it to him politely.

He moved through the pile slowly, a small collection made up of things like practice kunai and mesh undershirts, plenty of books, and a nice new shogi board from his parents grew to his right. He raised his eyebrows at Mayu when he got to her present and she shifted uncomfortably while he slowly unwrapped the paper to reveal a wooden crate that was about 18 inches long by a foot wide.

He lifted the top and his breath caught when he saw what was inside. Shikaku, who was standing behind his chair, grunted in approval and Yoshino 'ooohed' next to him. Shikamaru studied it for a moment before looking up and meeting her eyes.

"Is this what you've been working on all week?" He asked in an awed tone.

Mayu nodded, her cheeks growing warm when the room's attention turned to her.

"Well, what is it?" Inoichi asked, impatient.

Shikamaru carefully reached in and pulled out what was inside, handling it gingerly before he set it on the table, gently wiping off a few clinging bits of crinkle cut paper that had followed it from the box. Mayu ran her eyes over the wooden doe she'd carefully pieced together over the past ten days. It stood about eight inches tall and the body and head were made of smooth wood, with barely-visible seams sanded together. She knew the deep, rich wood was almost soft to the touch from her hours of sanding. The legs and neck were a mix of delicate looking gears connected to a copper wire, with slats of wood connecting the joints.

"The tail," Akinobu said, stepping forward and actually looking somewhat eager. Mayu had thought she heard his gruff voice earlier but hadn't been sure he was there until that moment.

"Twist it a few times."

Shikamaru looked horrified. "What? No! That'll break it," and he reached a finger out to run it fondly over the back of the deer.

Akinobu sighed. "It's a crank, you're supposed to turn it," he said, annoyed.

Shikamaru looked over to Mayu, who gave a small nod. He hesitated before reaching out to grasp the small tail, which was actually carefully molded metal; she'd had to ask Akinobu to create the piece for her since it involved fire and safety hazards. He cranked it a few times before sitting back and there were gasps and an excited squeal from Ino as the deer came to life, gears turning in sync to facilitate movement. It lifted its head and took a few graceful steps across the table before lowering its long neck as though to graze, then lifting it again and taking a few more steps. Finally, it came to a stop again, the whirring of gears coming to a halt.

Shikamaru stared at it in wonder for a moment, before scrambling out of his chair to embrace Mayu.

"Mayu, it's the best present I've ever gotten," he whispered fiercely. A small smile stole across her face as she returned the embrace.

"I'm glad," she said softly, trying to ignore the thoughtful looks she was getting from the adults and Ino's excited buzzing.

Her chest had that warm feeling again and she wished that it would last forever.

000

Afterward, Mayu would wonder how she hadn't seen it coming. After all, things had ended a bit too cleanly for her with the whole Danzo situation and if she had learned anything from Before, it was that things were never that easy.

Yoshino had just released her from their extra training, which involved Mayu trying to create a blue glow of chakra in her palm. The next step, she knew, was to form it into a globe, but first, she needed to get more than the pitiful sputtering manifestation she had accomplished so far. Yoshino told her she was doing well, then informed her she was leaving to do some shopping and would be back soon.

Mayu and Shikamaru bundled up and grabbed their outdoor blanket and Mayu's books before heading to the hill.

"Smells like it might snow," Mayu said hopefully and Shikamaru wrinkled his nose.

"Mmm, maybe. Hate the cold," he said, sitting down in a pout. Mayu rolled her eyes and settled next to him.

"Of course you do," she teased.

She had just cracked open a book when someone appeared in front of her in a swirl of leaves.

"Watana-san?" Mayu asked, confused.

It was the man that had come with Inoichi to interview (interrogate) her. She hadn't seen him for three months - not since Shikaku had threatened him in their kitchen.

"You're not supposed to be here," she said slowly, taking in his tense, furtive posture and the angry satisfaction in his eyes.

"Nomaka Mayu, the council advisors have requested that I detain you for questioning," he said and reached for her arm. She scrambled back and then Shikamaru was in front of her, a scowl on his face.

"You can't detain an underage civilian without notifying her parents or guardians first. Mom will be back in a few minutes. You can wait by the front gates of the compound." Mayu blinked at the tense line of his back, surprised by how much he sounded like his father.

"Also, this is private Nara property - nobody is allowed here without permission from a member of the clan head family."

Mayu hadn't known that, though she supposed it made sense. The woods held valuable medical plants, not to mention the trees themselves.

"Stand aside," Watana said. "I'm here on orders and I won't be waylaid."

He moved to step past Shikamaru, but he just moved with him, shielding Mayu. "Oh? The council ordered you to trespass on Nara lands, which were granted to my clan by Hashirama himself, with the promise that none but our people would enter without invitation?"

Watana looked unsure for a moment, but then seemed to gather himself. Too quickly to follow, he darted around Shikamaru and grabbed her arm in a painful grip. She cried out in surprise more than pain and Shikamaru whirled, shocked, then his eyes narrowed in obvious anger.

"Let go of her." He dove at Watana.

The man batted him out of the way like it was nothing, sending his small body soaring into the air. He hit the ground and rolled a few times and Mayu tried to lunge after him but was held back by Watana.

"Shikamaru!" she cried, heart in her throat.

He wobbled to his knees, shaking his head as though to clear it, before touching his bloody lip in obvious shock.

"I..." Mayu whispered, eyes riveted on the trickle of blood and then spun in Watana's grip to pin him with a stare, rage erupting in her chest. "I am going to kill you for that."  

"Oh, I don't think you will, Mayu-chan." He tightened his grip. She refused to wince. "I wouldn't do that, Shikamaru-kun," he added.

Mayu craned her neck to see Shikamaru was now on his feet, swaying slightly and coming towards them. "I won't let you take her," he said, but he sounded more desperate now. "And if you do succeed, my father will kill you."

That got a reaction. Mayu could see the fear, shame, and fury in his eyes, and she realized that this man was desperate. Was he even really here on the behalf of the council? If not, then who?

"He can try," the man snarled, "but I doubt he'll want to start a war with the council while we're holding his ward hostage."

"Don't take her," Shikamaru said. "Please."

Watana gave a harsh laugh. "Look at that, the son of the fearsome Nara clan head, begging. Say goodbye, because -"

"Shadow Possession Complete," a voice cut into his gloating and Mayu felt Watana's whole body freeze then begin to tremble. The hand holding her arm released its hold and she stumbled away from him on shaking legs. Shikamaru grabbed her and dragged her towards the voice that had spoken.

It was Ensui and he looked furious. "You dare," he snarled, "to lay hands on the children of a Nara?"

Then he reached down to his hip and grabbed...nothing? He raised a fist high in the air and a whimper from Watana had her turning her eyes to him. Oh, she thought to herself as she saw him mimicking Ensui's posture - but his hand wasn't empty - it was holding a kunai.

"Let's make sure you can't run away, hmm?" Ensui said with a grin, then jabbed his empty hand down in an arc ending at his thigh.

Watana screamed in anguish as he was forced to mimic the movement and the kunai embedded itself in his leg.

Mayu felt vicious satisfaction flow through her as she remembered the way Shikamaru's body had flown through the air after Watana backhanded him. Ensui flashed across the space, having dropped the jutsu, and with a quick jab knocked the whimpering man out. He didn't bother to catch him as he fell, but he did drop down to one knee, removing a roll of wire from the pouch at his thigh and quickly tying Watana up.

With the immediate danger taken care of, Mayu spun to Shikamaru, hands fluttering over his face, now swelling on one side. "Are you okay?" she whispered, eyes filling with tears at the sight of his blood. He gave a short nod and grabbed her in a hug.

"Did he hurt you?" he asked and she shook her head.

"No, just, a bit bruised maybe. You're the one he hit. That - that son of a bitch!" she yelled out, causing Shikamaru to jolt a bit at the sound of her swearing.

She spun around and stomped over to the unconscious man. She pulled back a foot and kicked him in the ribs as hard as she could. Which wasn't that hard, really, considering her size, but it made her feel better.

Ensui chuckled and put his hands on her shoulders. "Not that he doesn't deserve it, but you should probably save some of the beat down for your dad. He's going to flip his shit when he finds out about this." He sounded delighted at that.

"He's not my dad," Mayu mumbled and Ensui raised his eyebrows.

"Sure about that?" he asked, wry. "Because he talks about you like you're his kid."

Mayu's breath caught and she looked to the side. "Why did he try to take me?" she asked, changing the subject as Shikamaru sidled up to her and grabbed her hand.

Ensui shrugged. "I don't know. Right now, we need to get Shikamaru to the hospital - he probably has a concussion after that hit. And we need to get our prisoner to an interrogator I trust."

"Let's bring him inside," Mayu suggested, "then...we can tie him to a chair while we go to the hospital?"

Ensui shook his head. "Nah, can't leave him alone. Here, give me a sec." He bit his thumb, drawing blood, and slammed it down on the ground.

Lines flowed out from his hand across the dirt, there was a puff of smoke, and standing in front of them was a long, sleek wildcat, with a golden hide spotted and striped with brown. Its ears were large on its narrow face and the tail was short for a cat - not a bob, but it was barely as long as the cat was tall and was tipped in black.

"Ensui, you need me?" the cat asked, after looking around at the strange tableau they must have made - two terrified children, a bloody and unconscious Konoha nin and a furious Ensui.

"Yeah, Baken, could you find Yamanaka Inoichi and tell him to get his ass to Shikaku's house? Just him and we need him yesterday."

The cat nodded and then turned on its heels and raced off towards Konoha.

"Was that a summons?" Mayu asked, awed, wrapping her arm around Shikamaru to support his swaying body as Ensui hefted Watana up onto his shoulder with barely a grunt.

"Mm - the servals. My father had their contract and passed it to me."

"Wow. How will he find Inoichi-san?" Mayu asked, even as she fussed over Shikamaru's coat and mussed hair.

"They've got a good sense of smell - make good trackers." Ensui looked at her. "Aren't you going to ask why I didn't have him get Shikaku?"

Mayu snorted. "You said you needed him alive," she said simply and he chuckled.

"You are a clever girl, hmm?"

"Shika, are you very dizzy?" Mayu asked, ignoring Ensui's comment as they approached the fence.

He shook his head, but his face was pale and she could see that his eyes were dilated.

"Ensui-san, I think he needs a doctor now. Maybe you can take him and I'll stay with -"

"No," and it wasn't Ensui's sharp voice, but Shikamaru's that cut her off. "You're not staying alone with him." His lower lip went into an automatic pout, which lost some of its cuteness because that lip was split and when she found out who was behind this...well. She was going to destroy them, that was all.

"Okay, okay," she soothed, leading him into the kitchen and sitting him at the table.

She ran to the freezer and stood on tiptoes to grab an ice pack from the door. She brought it over to him and gently placed it on his cheek.

"'M glad he didn't take you, Mayu," Shikamaru said, slumping down into his chair.

Ensui had dropped his burden on the floor and was now kneeling in front of Shikamaru, looking into his eyes and gently lifting the ice pack to study the bruise forming on his face.

He hissed in sympathy. "Your mom's gonna shit bricks when she sees this, kid." 

"When I see what? And why in the world is there a bleeding, unconscious, and tied up shinobi on my floor? Ensui, I swear to god, if you've dragged my children into one of your ridiculous games -"

Ensui jumped and would have dropped the ice pack if Mayu wasn't also holding it to Shikamaru's face. He stood and spun around so fast that Mayu barely saw him move.

"Ah, Yoshino! This wasn't actually my fault, this time," he drawled, but Mayu could see he actually looked a bit terrified.

Seriously, she had to learn how Yoshino did that.

"It was mine," Mayu said and the lump that had been growing in her throat since she realized that Shikamaru had been hurt defending her became too big to talk past.

A light slap on the back of her head had her gaping up at Ensui, who scowled at her. "Don't take on things that aren't your doing, idiot. It's not your fault that the council sent some jackass to trespass on Nara lands and kidnap you."

"What?" Yoshino dropped her shopping bags where she was standing at the door and rushed over. "What in the world are you talking about?" She ran a glowing green hand over Shikamaru, face lined with anger and worry.

Mayu quietly relayed what had happened, Ensui breaking in to clarify a few points. When she described the way Watana had struck Shikamaru and grabbed Mayu, the woman stood up, a kunai seeming to appear in her hand from nowhere and took a few purposeful steps towards their prisoner. Ensui stepped in front of her, hands in the air.

"While I can relate to wanting to kill him, let's allow Inoichi to interrogate him first, alright? We need to know if he was truly there on someone's orders."

"He was," Mayu said, drawing their attention. "He wasn't lying. I could tell. I'm...good at reading people," she said somewhat lamely.

Yoshino sighed and the kunai disappeared. "Well, that complicates things." She sounded so tired that Mayu winced.

Before she could say anything else, Inoichi burst into the kitchen, looking strained. "What's happened?" he said, then faltered when he took in the scene. "I..."

"Ensui, explain this to him. I'm taking Mayu and Shikamaru to the hospital. I'll send a runner to have Shikaku meet us there. That means you have about half an hour until he comes in with murder on the brain."

Yoshino leaned down and held a glowing green hand over Watana's head. He woke with a jerk and took in the people standing around him with wide eyes.

"Well, then, Watana. Looks like you and I are going to have a bit of a discussion," Ensui said, a grin forming on his face and making him look downright terrifying.

Mayu only saw the man's face lose all it's color before Yoshino was sweeping them both into her arms and leaving the house behind.

000

Somebody was going to die. Mayu could read that on Shikaku's face plain as day when he returned to Shikamaru's hospital room that evening. He did, indeed, have a concussion and would be staying there overnight. Mayu had elected to stay, as had Yoshino, and she was curled against his sleeping figure, reading one of the books on ninja puppeteering Shikaku had brought her when he slouched into the room.

Yoshino set aside the book she'd been reading, expression going alert. She was seated at the end of the bed, with her back resting against the wall. She also had a kunai resting on her thigh, ready to use.

"It's bad," she said in a flat voice after studying her husband's face.

He hesitated, eyes darting to the children curled on the bed before he tipped his head towards the door. Mayu would have protested, but she didn't want to wake Shikamaru, so she just glared at them as they slipped out the door.

She sighed and let her gaze move to the window, where she could see snow falling steadily. It had started soon after they arrived to the hospital and the peacefulness of it was a direct contrast to the tension she'd been feeling all afternoon.

The truth was, Mayu had a pretty good idea of what they'd learned from Watana and she wasn't sure how Shikaku could possibly keep her safe from it. She didn't even want him to try, truly. She ran a finger across the cover of her book, feeling a lump form in her throat. She didn't want to be taken away from the Naras, but she wanted them hurt even less.

000

"What do you mean, she's leaving?" Shikamaru demanded, stomping his foot.

It was two days after the Watana Incident and the family, including Ensui, was gathered in the library. Ensui was sitting on the floor cross-legged sorting through a pile of scrolls and Yoshino was holding a bundle of winter gear in child's size.

"It's just for a week or two," Shikaku said.

He was sitting in one of the armchairs, exhaustion in every line of his body. Mayu was pretty sure he hadn't slept in at least 24 hours. "There's a puppeteering fair in Suna that Ensui thought Mayu would enjoy. He needs to check in with some contacts there for the Hokage and decided to bring her along."

"But - it's too dangerous!" Shikamaru sputtered. "She can't just leave the village with only Uncle Ensui to protect her!"

"Gee, thanks kid," the man drawled, rolling his eyes.

"It's okay, Shika," Mayu said. "I think...they're probably doing this so I'll be safe. I bet only a few people know I'm going with Ensui, right? That's why we're leaving after dark," she said calmly.

Shikamaru glared at her. "I'm going with you," he demanded and Shikaku pinched the bridge of his nose, looking pained.

"You're not," he said, out of patience. "Ensui can't carry two of you at once and the snow is too deep for them to take the roads."

"Well, then maybe she should just stay here. You're the jounin commander, so get some jounin to watch her!"

Mayu could tell that Shikamaru wasn't going to let it go and the stress that had been building for the last two days erupted. "Enough!" she snapped. "Shikamaru, I can't stay here, wondering if you'll get hurt just because I was next to you. That was...I can't. I'm sorry, but, if me leaving protects you, then I'm going." They glared at each other across the room before Yoshino stepped in.

"It's for the best, Shikamaru. Please, trust your father and me with this."

Mayu saw the moment he realized he was going to lose this argument no matter what he said. Without another word, he fled the room. Mayu slumped when she heard his footsteps running up the stairs, guilt eating at her.

"I'll go talk to him," Yoshino said and followed him upstairs.

Shikaku stood up and moved over to sort through the pile of clothes Yoshino had set on the table. "Here," he grunted, handing Mayu what looked like a pair of long johns and a wool shirt and pants combo to go over the top. "Use the bathroom first, then put these on."

Mayu slipped into the downstairs half-bath to do as he said and when she re-entered the room, feeling much warmer than she had a few minutes before, she saw Shikamaru had returned. He pulled her into a hug.

"Be careful," he mumbled, then slipped away, too unhappy to stick around.

Shikaku sighed, then held up a thick knitted sweater for Mayu to put on. He added a winter cloak, a long scarf, gloves, and then finished it off with a thick hat. All of the gear was made up of gray hues, probably so it blended in with a snowy environment.

Ensui had added his own winter attire and was looking on with amusement as Yoshino helped her put boots on over her socks and Shikaku fussed with her cloak.

"Okay," Shikaku said in a rough voice. "You're ready. Pull the hood up until you're out of the gates, at least. Actually, it's freezing out, so keep it up..."

Mayu put her hand on his head, deciding to use his own move against him, which was easy with him crouched down in front of her. "Don't worry, Shikaku-san. I'll be okay. You don't have to feel bad, I know you're just doing what's best for me."

As she spoke the words, she felt the truth of them and that warm feeling the Naras inspired in her increased until she was smiling a true smile at him. He made a noise in the back of his throat and pulled her in for a hug.

"Mayu-chan, you're so cute," he teased and she rolled her eyes.

"Yes, yes, now let me hug Yoshino and get out of here before I melt," she scolded because the house was seriously too warm for all this gear.

He chuckled and pulled back obediently so that Yoshino could give her a hug. "You behave for Ensui, okay?" she said, giving Mayu a watery smile. "And don't worry about anything. I expect you to come back with lots of ideas from the fair. And stay away from the poisons!"

Mayu gave a guilty start. How did Yoshino know that she planned on doing some extra exploration while she was there? The woman raised an eyebrow at her, but then Ensui was grabbing her and swinging her onto his back, and somebody was pulling up the hood over her hair and pulling her scarf up to cover the lower part of her face.

"Okay, Mayu-chan, you ready to be smuggled out?" he said cheerfully. "We have to move if we want to time this right."

"Okay," she said, feeling cheerful at the thought of mischief. And then they were out the door, moving so fast that Konoha was a blur around them. At some point, Ensui leaped onto a roof and she was unable to hold back a laugh of delight as they flew over the tiled paths, soaring over the spaces between buildings.

Finally, they descended, landing with barely a thump, and when Mayu looked around she realized they were at the front gates. She reached a hand back to make sure her blue hair was still covered by her hood and then went back to clinging to Ensui's shoulders as he sauntered towards the gate.

The village was quiet and still and she could see Ensui's breath forming in the frigid air, though she was comfortably warm in her gear. He approached the gate, stopping when a woman in a jounin uniform appeared in front of him. Without needing to be told, Ensui reached into his cloak, pulled out some paperwork and handed it over. The kunoichi looked them over, then handed the stack back.

"It all seems in order. Good luck on your mission, Ensui-san," she said.

Mayu realized that the figure seemed familiar and after a few moments was able to place her. It was the woman from the hospital - the Kurama with red eyes. Ensui thanked her and then they were out the gate and he told her to hold on as he bounded over the top of the snow and into the trees.

Again, she was overtaken by the rush of the wind whistling past her and the thrill of watching the ground, hundreds of feet below her, rush by. Mayu couldn't wait to become a trained kunoichi and be able to do this whenever she wanted. It was amazing.

They traveled for a long time. Eventually, Mayu dozed off and awoke sometime later to Ensui's gruff voice.

"We're going to stop in a village for breakfast," he said and she saw that they were back on the road and the sun had risen.

A bit further in the distance, she indeed saw the outline of rooftops with smoke coming from a few of the chimneys. She mumbled a sleepy agreement, yawning, and buried her face into his neck, making him chuckle.

"Not much of a morning person, are ya?" he asked, sounding surprisingly chipper for somebody who'd run all night with a six-year-old on his back.

"You must be really strong," she mumbled at him.

"Oh?" he asked.

"Uh huh. You just ran forever with me on your back. Aren't you tired?"

"Eh. I'm one of Konoha's top jounin, being in good shape is kind of a requirement," he said easily.

"Are you really?" she asked. "What kind of missions do you go on?"

"Hmmm...I do a lot of sabotage and infiltration," he answered. "I work sometimes on retrieval and assassination missions, too."

Mayu considered his words for a bit. She didn't ask if he liked it because she could tell by his tone and relaxed posture that he did. "That's pretty cool," she finally settled on.

"Shikaku said you plan on going to the Academy with Shikamaru," he said and she heard the question in it.

"It's true. I've wanted to for a while." When he remained quiet, obviously waiting for more, she shifted a bit and he supported her as she moved into a more comfortable position. "I want to join the Military Police Force," she admitted.

"Oh?" and this time he sounded surprised. "Whatever for?"

"I'm going to be an investigator," she said firmly. "I'm going to make sure Konoha is safe from the inside as well as safe from what's outside of the walls."

They had reached the village, where the roads were cleared of snow and Ensui relaxed his hold so she could climb down. He had to grab her arm as she worked feeling back into her muscles and it was a relief to stretch her legs as he led her down a few blocks to an inn, where she was hit with the smell of fresh baked bread and eggs and rice cooking. Her stomach growled loudly and Ensui chuckled as he helped her remove her outerwear and set it on the bench next to her before tackling his own.

An older woman with long gray hair pulled back into a plait cheerfully asked them what they'd like to drink. They both asked for tea, though Ensui insisted that Mayu's be caffeine free.

"How long will it take to get to Suna?" Mayu asked after she had her hands wrapped around the heat of a large mug.

"It would usually take four or five days, traveling with you on my back," he said, "though if I'm pushing it on my own and don't sleep I can make it in two and a half or three. We need to stop on the way to connect with someone, so it'll be more like six or seven days," he said. Mayu slumped in her seat. That was a long time to spend piggy-back. She was going to be so bored.

He chuckled as though he could read her mind. "You're interested in puppets?" he asked and they ended up talking about puppet techniques until their breakfast was in front of them.

Ensui told her a story about an encounter he'd had with a low-level ninja who called himself 'The Puppet God,' that had her snorting rice out of her nose. When they were done eating, he shooed her off to the bathroom to freshen up and use the facilities before they left, then helped her layer up again.

"Don't worry, we'll need less of this once we get closer to the Land of Wind - it never gets too cold there during the day, though it's cooler than it would be in the summer. Not that that means much in the desert," he grumbled. "We'll have sand everywhere by the end of it."

He let her walk until they were out of the village, but soon she was on his back again, watching with interest as the world flashed by them. It was difficult to hear each other without yelling, so she decided to use the time working on her mind cave and meditating. At noon, he jumped out of the trees into a clearing and they brushed snow off of a fallen tree to drink some extremely cold water and eat a meal of protein bars.

"We'll stop at an outpost that's usually empty tonight to get some sleep," Ensui said as he stood to stretch.

She just nodded and spent a few minutes going through some of her morning stretching routine to try and combat the stiffness settling into her limbs. Then, she climbed up on Ensui's back and they were off again.

This time, she focused on gathering chakra to her palm. Ensui could see what she was doing from the corner of his eye and gave her a few suggestions that ended with her having a steady glow in the palm of her hand.

They came upon the empty outpost about an hour before sunset and Mayu groaned at the cramps in her legs.

"You can stretch them out by looking around the clearing for firewood," he said, sounding amused and unsympathetic. "But don't go out of sight."

Mayu obediently wandered around the clearing, kicking at the snow to feel for promising-sized branches. After about forty-five minutes, she had created a nice little pile outside the door. Ensui used them to start a blaze in the wood stove tucked into the corner of the small plain room. She watched in interest as he pulled three scrolls out of his pockets. He touched one and after a poof of smoke, two bedrolls appeared.

She gaped at him. "How did you do that?" She asked, awed, and he chuckled.

"These are storage scrolls," he said and motioned her over towards him. She looked down and saw what looked like layered kanji drawn onto the scroll. "It's created with sealing techniques."

She frowned and traced the lines with her finger. "I've seen mentions of it in the public library, but could never find much of anything detailing what it is."

"Mmm, it wouldn't really be information available to civilians. It's considered one of the most dangerous and difficult ninja arts to use. There are only a few masters in the world. I can do simple things, like sealing scrolls, or explosive tags, but that's it."

Mayu's eyes widened. "You made this?"

"Well, like I said, it's not that impressive, but I suppose it's more than most people can do. Took a damn good chunk of time to learn it, too," he grumbled.

"Can you teach me?" she asked, widening her eyes in the way that always had Shikaku patting her head and agreeing to whatever she asked. Ensui gave her a wary look.

"No," he said. "I heard about the poisoning incident - hell, everybody's heard about that, thanks to Inoichi. No way am I giving you the keys to something so dangerous."

She sputtered. "That was one time and nobody died, okay? Please? Please, Ensui-san?"

He scowled and pointed at her. "That won't work on me the way it does on my brother. I tell you what - I'll lend you some beginner's stuff I keep at my apartment, but if I find out you've been messing around with it without me there, I'll tan your hide, no matter what Shikaku says."

She cheered. "Thanks, you won't regret it, Ensui-niisan." She beamed at him and he sighed.

"Niisan, huh? Cheeky little thing," he muttered but sounded more amused than annoyed.

They ate some freeze-dried stew heated up over the fire in a pan that came from the second sealing scroll for dinner. Ensui summoned Baken to keep watch so he could get some sleep, since they weren't exactly expecting trouble, and after adding some large logs to bank the fire they crawled into their bags. Ensui had grumbled when Mayu put hers right up against his but didn't actually tell her to go away, so she ignored it.

The next two days were spent much the same way, though the weather seemed to be getting steadily warmer the closer they got to Wind Country. Ensui had sealed their cloaks, leaving them in long johns, wool pants, and a long-sleeved shirt, and her with the knitted sweater over top. Mayu also kept her hat on over her braid but took off her gloves to continue practicing with her chakra. With Ensui's gruff instructions, she had created a wobbly, oblong-shaped ball that kept losing its shape whenever she was jarred by Ensui changing direction. It was getting to the point where she was pretty sure he was doing it on purpose.

At one point, Mayu asked the question that had been bothering her since they left. "Does the Hokage know that I'm with you?"

Ensui was silent for so long she thought he wasn't going to answer. "Yeah," he said finally, "but the council doesn't."

Mayu didn't like the implications of that, but it wasn't like there was much she could do about it, so she remained silent.

Towards the end of the day, they entered a large town on the edge of wind country. Mayu had gone behind a tree while Ensui waited to take off her long johns so she was only in the pants and long-sleeved shirt before crossing through the gates. It really was a lot warmer in Wind Country.

The town itself wasn't anything impressive, though there were advertisements for Casinos peppered throughout the streets. They checked into an inn and Mayu assumed that this is where Ensui would be meeting his contact. They got a room with two beds and he gruffly told her to go take a shower. She gave him a suspicious look, but he was just as unreadable as always, so she decided not to argue. Also, after three days, she did stink a little.

When she came out of the bathroom wrapped in a towel, he motioned towards some clothes he'd laid out on the bed, then went into the bathroom and shut the door. She stared at the dark gray, long-sleeved tunic and black leggings with suspicion, but her other clothes were nowhere to be found, so with a sigh, she wiggled into them. The tunic fell to mid-thigh, with two slits from the waist down giving her freedom of movement. The fabric was soft to the touch and she could feel Yoshino's sneaky hands all over it.

When Ensui came out of the bathroom in his standard jounin attire, drying his hair with a towel, she couldn't help but pout a bit.

"How come you get to wear your normal clothes?" she mumbled and he grinned at her.

"Because I'm old enough to kick anybody's ass who tells me otherwise," he replied, then motioned for her to come stand in front of him.

He turned her around and she felt a brush running through her hair, pulling out the tangles. With efficient movements, he pulled it back into a high pony and she felt him tying a ribbon into it. She scowled, which he ignored as he pulled his own hair up - and not into a ribbon.

She was going to complain, but caught sight of his grim expression and quieted.

"Ensui-niisan...is everything okay?"

He sighed and ran a hand down his face. "I hope so, kid. Come on, you're with me."

They spent the next hour going from bar to bar, Ensui having whispered conversations with bartenders and hostesses until Mayu was cranky and hungry and just about ready to scream from all the secrecy. She hated being left in the dark.

Finally, he seemed to find what he was looking for at a small bar on the far side of town because he perked up when the barmaid responded to his questions by pointing at something across the room. He turned and must have seen what he was looking for because he looked both relieved and like he was about to walk to his execution. Mayu craned her neck around but didn't see anything too out of the ordinary.

He put his hand on her shoulder and steered her towards the back of the bar, where booths lined the wall. The bar was run down but not dirty and though quiet music played in the background and soft conversations were being had, it wasn't overwhelming. Finally, they stood in front of a booth occupied by two women and a...pig? They both looked young, one with dark hair cut into a bob wearing a dark yukata. The other was blonde and wore her hair in pigtails. She had a violet diamond tattooed on her forehead and was wearing a green haori over a kimono-style blouse that showed off some truly large breasts, with a small blue crystal resting in the cleavage. She was incredibly beautiful.

"Ah, Tsunade-sama, how nice to see you," Ensui said in a lazy drawl when both kunoichis turned their attention to him.

He gave a small bow when she raised an eyebrow at him.

"A Nara, huh. And a brat," she said in a flat voice.

Mayu huffed but decided to observe instead of reply. She recognized the name Tsunade - Tsunade of the Sannin, one of three legendarily strong ninjas. Funny how much that frantic research she had done in the library was paying off, now. If she had been available, it might have been her that Mayu turned to instead of Shikaku. She was beginning to have a bad feeling about this 'errand.' Tsunade had a half-empty bottle of sake in front of her and looked utterly bored with the proceedings.

"Ah, yes, Nara Ensui and my brother's ward, Nomaka Mayu," he introduced.

Mayu obediently bowed and said, "It's an honor to meet you, Tsunade-sama."

Tsunade snorted, but her eyes had sharpened. "Ensui, huh? Isn't your brother the head of the clan?"

"He is, Tsunade-sama. He's actually why I'm here - he asked me to run something by you," he said in the most respectful voice she'd ever heard him use.

She gestured to the other woman. "This is my apprentice, Shizune." They exchanged greetings.

"May we sit, Tsunade-sama?" she looked amused and gestured for them to take a seat, but Mayu could see that under the exterior, she was nervous - very nervous.

Shizune picked up the pig and moved to the other side to sit next to Tsunade, leaving the bench across from them free for Ensui and Mayu, who slid in first so Ensui would have the quickest access to getting out of the booth in case of trouble. As Ensui traded more pleasantries, Mayu stared hard at Tsunade. There was something...strange about her. Like her skin didn't match her in some way. When it finally hit, she actually slapped her head in realization, feeling like an idiot.

"Care to share?" Tsunade said and Mayu blushed when she saw them looking at her.

"Oh, um. I just realized...you're a lot older than you look."

When Ensui groaned and Tsunade's face darkened, Mayu realized her mistake and quickly backtracked.

"Not like that! I just mean, you look like somebody who's experienced a lot and knows a lot and, well, of course, I know you were the Hokage's student years and years ago...but you look so young. Is it...is it a jutsu or something?" she asked and leaned forward in interest.

Tsunade raised an eyebrow but looked less angry than she had a moment ago.

"Okay, Shikaku warned me that you weren't great with anybody that's not his immediate family, but this is just ridiculous," Ensui grumbled and Mayu deflated. She hadn't even meant to be insulting.

"Leave the brat alone and get to why you're here already. I have some gambling houses to get to," Tsunade said and Mayu blinked at the glint in her eye. 

Oh my god, she's a gambling addict. Luckily, she didn't say that one out loud.

Ensui shifted uncomfortably, then reached slowly into his bag to pull out a familiar looking folder and dread pooled in her gut.

"Actually, that 'brat' is part of the reason I'm here."

"Oh, shit," Mayu said faintly, earning a smack over the head that left her dazed from Tsunade and a warning to watch her language. Ensui sighed and put the folder in front of Mayu.

"Mayu-chan," he said gently and she looked at him suspiciously. "My annoying older brother told me that I should tell you to tell your story to Tsunade, just the way you did to him when you first met."

She gaped at him. "What? Seriously?"

He nodded and she looked over at the two kunoichi, who were now looking curious. She looked back at them thoughtfully. She had a feeling she knew at least part of the reason why they were here and it made her a little sick to think about.

"I...okay," she said. Then she took a deep breath, opened the folder, and started from the beginning.

000

"Damn," Ensui said, sitting back in his seat and looking a bit shell-shocked. "Shikaku did not do you justice when he gave me a rundown of events." he shook his head, but Mayu knew his attention was on Tsunade, who was glaring at the folder.

"He'd better be dead," she finally said, sounding so intense that Mayu scooted a little closer to Ensui.

"Danzo is, in fact, dead, but unfortunately our problems didn't end there."

Tsunade scoffed. "Well, of course, they didn't. He would have had a lot of high-level people in his pockets to have gotten away with this for so long."

"Yes," Ensui said. "They're all a bit panicked now. In fact, the general belief is that Mayu must have been working with somebody since the old idiots on the council don't believe she could have stolen those records and put it all together herself." He nudged Mayu and she realized what he wanted from her.

"I - they interrogated me for a long time about it," she said and rolled her eyes. "Shikaku-san got so mad he threw one of them hard enough to break a chair." Ensui whistled. She guessed he hadn't heard that part of the story before, either.

"I think...I think some people who were working with Danzo must be nervous," she said, voicing her theory on why she had been targeted out loud for the first time. "If there's somebody else, some shadowy puppet-master working my strings than he or she would know about their transgressions as well. They're desperate to know who this person is and going through official channels wasn't working."

She went silent and when Ensui didn't say anything, she knew she was right.

"So, a few days ago, Shikamaru and I were alone on the edge of the Nara forest and the man that Shikaku-san threw, he came and tried to take me." She clenched her fists. "He said that the council had ordered him to detain me. He hurt Shikamaru and would have taken me to a probably not-nice place if Ensui-niisan hadn't shown up. He stabbed him in the leg and knocked him out, and I kicked him," she said with fierce satisfaction.

Tsunade was gripping her sake bottle and Shizune was frowning. "And was it the council?" she asked in a dangerous voice.

Ensui hesitated, then glanced at Mayu, who shrugged. "It's okay, I already figured it was."

He nodded. "Yes, it was - a few working alone. They did it without the okay of the Hokage and broke about a dozen village laws while they were at it. The village is...a mess right now. Danzo...he'd been taking clan children, as well. Everyone is in an uproar, they all want blood. The general agreement is that Hokage-sama must have at least suspected what he was doing and not moved against him."

Tsunade snarled at him "Sensei would never -"

"If he didn't, then that's just as big of a fuck up," Ensui snapped, then ran his hand over the top of his head in frustration.

"It gets worse," he said in a quiet voice, then reached into his bag and pulled out a folder.

He handed it over to Tsunade, who opened it and began to read through the contents. After a while, her face lost all its color and she looked like she was going to be sick.

"This - this is -" Ensui nodded and looked at her with sympathy in his gaze.

"Yes. I'm sorry Tsunade-sama. A lot of this affects you...personally."

Mayu was desperately curious to see what was in the folder but had a feeling they weren't going to offer her the information. Finally, Tsunade took a deep breath and set the folder aside.

"So what do you want me to do about any of this," she said in a flat voice and Mayu leaned back at the panic that she could see in the clench of the woman's hands and the trembling of her body.

Ensui probably saw it too because he looked away. "Konoha's on the brink of a civil war. Hokage-sama's lost complete control. The large council is furious about the kidnapped children, and his advisors are basically running roughshod over him, as we can see from their decision to trespass into Nara lands and attempt to steal the clan head's ward after attacking his heir. The Uchiha have been particularly hurt by Danzo's meddling, and are on the brink of an uprising.

"My brother is ready to kill the elders himself and then take the Nara clan and walk. The Yamanaka and Akimichi are prepared to support him. Also, there's the issue of the unidentified members of a brainwashed secret army running around the village, taking orders from somebody we haven't identified yet."

Mayu stared at him, wide-eyed, by the end of his speech, feeling sick. 

I caused this, she thought to herself. I should have just found a way to kill Danzo myself. Nevermind that she was a child - she knew she could probably have come up with something.

"So what do you want me to do about it?" Tsunade yelled, finally losing control of her temper and hitting the tabletop so hard that it cracked.

The bar went silent and Mayu and Ensui froze. Eventually, Tsunade leaned back and they relaxed minutely. "Shikaku respectfully requests that you return to Konoha and take the position of Godaime Hokage," he said in the tone of a man walking to his own death.

Tsunade stared at him and Mayu - all of them, really - knew what she was going to say before she spoke. "No."

Ensui slumped and looked so defeated that Mayu leaned against him in silent support. "People will die," Ensui said. "Your people."

Tsunade's eyes narrowed. "And what do I care for Konoha? It took everything from me." 

She was angry, but Mayu could see, beneath all of that, an aching sadness, one so large that it consumed the woman and her breath caught in her throat. She was telling the truth - Konoha really had stolen everything from her.

"Why can't your clan head take the hat? I've heard he's strong enough for it."

Ensui shook his head. "He's strong and he's smart, and maybe if the political climate was less...severe, he could take over. But right now, he doesn't have the support he needs for it. You know the reputation Nara have. You're still beloved by the people and nobody doubts your strength or conviction, even after all this time."

Tsunade looked away. "Only an idiot would want that hat. Konoha can burn for all I care."

Ensui's eyes narrowed and Mayu could see that things were about to go seriously, seriously downhill. And really, she was just getting used to Ensui, she'd rather he not become a smear on the wall. So, she put a hand on his arm.

"Ensui-niisan, do you think I could talk to Tsunade-sama alone for a second?" she asked in a soft voice. Tsunade scoffed and Ensui glared at her.

"Please Ensui-niisan, trust me," Mayu said and broke out The Eyes.

Ha, he thought he was immune. After a few seconds of getting the full force of them, he ran a hand down his face. "Fine, fine. But don't kill her, or you'll have an angry Nara after you the rest of your life," Ensui warned Tsunade, then stood up and stalked over to the bar.

Shizune, after a nod from Tsunade, went to join him.

Tsunade studied her. "If you think those eyes are going to convince me to get within fifty miles of that place, brat, you've got another think coming."

"I'm not going to try to convince you to come back," Mayu said and smiled at Tsunade's disbelieving look.

"I can see how much you're hurting," Mayu continued seriously, ignoring Tsunade's wince. "And I can see that you're not lying - you really do hate Konoha, and I don't doubt that as a whole, it deserves that hatred."

Mayu shrugged. "You and I have seen the worst of Konoha. I looked Danzo in the face, I looked through all the files and talked to homeless children and. And I was in his sights. You and I both know that the people who run the village, who are supposed to protect us are more concerned with their own personal power, or too tired of fighting, to look closely at the dark corners of Konoha."

Tsunade's mouth twitched. "I can sense a but coming here," she said softly.

 "No but. I found something in Konoha I decided was worth fighting for and I'm going to," she said, determination coming over her as she thought of Shikaku and Yoshino and Shikamaru and even Ensui.

"Shikaku saved me, protected me, and gave me a family, so I'm going to do everything I can to protect them from that darkness you and I know is there. I just want you to know, that you're already in enough pain, so you don't need to feel guilty. It's Konoha's own fault you're gone, I know you're not lying about that. It must have been something terrible if someone who is known for the creation of the best medical care system in all of the nations gave up on the Will of Fire.

"Everything I found in reference to you said that you were loyal and that you're a good person. So. You've given all of yourself to Konoha, I can understand that that should be enough. This situation..." Mayu looked down at her fingers. "It came partly from my own weakness, so I should be the one to fix it. I won't let my family be killed in a civil war. Just leave it to me." 

"Kid..." Tsunade said, looking shocked. "What could one six-year-old even do?"

Mayu quirked her lips up on the side. "Hopefully, stop a civil war," she said, feeling lighter for her decision. "It was nice meeting you, Tsunade-sama."

She then grabbed the files and bounded out of her seat. Instead of heading for Ensui, though, she slipped out the door and quickly opened the file that Tsunade had been looking at. What she found there was...horrifying. Ten pages on the Uchiha alone, detailing a campaign to separate them from the village and sow dissent until they were on the verge of civil war. Danzo then planned on slaughtering them, with the help of a mysterious outside force and the clan heir himself, Uchiha Itachi.

The last bit made bile rise in her throat when she saw the plans he had for their eyes. He was seriously disgusting, she thought, quickly flipping forward and oh. Danzo had been behind the experiments that got Orochimaru kicked out of the village. He had ordered them, set Orochimaru up in labs, provided orphans to experiment on...

The file was snatched out of her hand and she looked up to see Ensui, looking unimpressed and completely deflated. "This'll give you nightmares, kid," he said in a tired voice.

She almost told him that she didn't really have nightmares unless she was dealing with repressed memories from her former life, but decided that might push him over the edge.

"Tsunade bailed. Let's go."

She quietly walked beside him, noting the slumped posture - even for a Nara - and he looked so defeated that she didn't hesitate before slipping her hand into his.

"It'll be okay, Ensui-niisan," she whispered to him, knowing as she said it that it was probably a lie.

When they returned to Konoha, she would do her best to find every rat left in the council and all the proof the clan heads needed to set them up as sacrifices. Hopefully, it would be enough to avoid the civil war.

She had learned political maneuvering at the knee of her father Before, after all, how to find connections and read people and pull the strings to get the outcome you wanted. Sure, it was a little more difficult as a six-year-old, especially considering that most of the time she had the maturity to go along with her age, but those old memories had to be good for something. Ensui just squeezed back after a moment, completely oblivious to the contents of her thoughts.

000

The puppeteer fair was amazing. Mayu was completely enchanted by the vendors, with their colorful puppets and scrolls upon scrolls with blueprints. Ensui took her to a large amphitheater where the puppet corp was showing off their skills (though probably not all of them) in a large tournament. She watched, wide-eyed, as puppets of all different sizes and shapes responded to the slight twitches and movements of their masters, clashing on the battlefield in plumes of smoke, shooting projectiles that the shinobi had to twist and flip out of the air to avoid or pull up their puppets to shield them.

It was the first time Mayu had seen shinobi in action and watching them flip and zoom around the arena, sending gales of wind to cut through wood and metal, only made her more determined to become one of the people that kept them in check. Shinobi and kunoichi were dangerous, having that kind of power made people think they had certain rights over others.

Suna itself was hot and full of sand, but the city was beautiful anyway, with its red roofs and rounded buildings. Ensui relaxed after a day or so, carrying her on his shoulders, buying her huge amounts of spicy foods and just about every scroll or book that struck her fancy. He even got her a few old ninja puppets pulled from battlefields of the last war for her to pull apart and see the inner workings of if she promised to only do it with an adult around.

She knew he felt guilty about dragging her along to the meeting with Tsunade as a way to shame the woman into coming back to Konoha, but Mayu couldn't really hold it against him. She'd do a lot worse to save her family, too. That didn't mean she'd say no to all the presents, though.

Finally, after two days, they packed up their spoils into scrolls (Ensui had ended up making two more the night before for all the extra stuff) and headed out. Ensui had been correct about getting sand everywhere, so the day they made it out of the desert, they stopped at an inn for the night to shower and shake out their clothes, Mayu giggling at the amount of sand that Ensui found in his pockets while he made faces.

The third morning on their way back dawned cold and clear and Mayu was once again in her long johns and sweater, her hat pulled down over her ears, hair loose beneath it.

"Ensui-niisan," she said, concentrating on the not-quite a sphere flickering in her hand as he jumped from branch to branch. "If I die, will you make sure Shikaku-san doesn't do anything stupid?"

He missed the next branch and Mayu screamed as they plunged towards the ground. He put one hand on her back to keep her from falling off and flipped his body through a complicated series of movements until he could grab onto a different branch with the other, using his momentum to swing himself up and landing lightly on a branch ten feet in front of them. Mayu blinked in shock - the whole thing had taken about ten seconds.

He swung her off his back and set her on the branch next to him so he could kneel in front of her and grab her by her shoulders.

"Why would you ask that?" he asked, giving her a small shake and he looked so anguished that she tried to hug him.

He held her back and took a few deep breaths until his expression was once again unreadable.

"Mayu-chan," he said in a calmer voice, "why would you think you're going to die?"

She gave him a flat, unimpressed stare. "Um, maybe because I'm caught in the middle of a huge political explosion between a bunch of overpowered ninja?"

Ensui sighed and rubbed a hand across his face. "Mayu, I know what I said to Tsunade was scary, but you have to know, my brother, Yoshino, and I...we aren't going to let anything happen to you."

She looked away from his serious expression and wrapped her arms around herself. "I don't want you to get hurt for me."

His face softened and he opened his mouth to respond, but then he stiffened and his eyes scanning the trees around them. At some signal Mayu didn't see or hear, he grabbed her and launched them off the branch and she was vaguely aware of something whizzing right by her face, too fast to see, and thunking into the wood of the tree they'd been standing on. They landed on the cold forest floor and Ensui set her against the trunk of a tree. "Stay here, don't move unless I tell you to," he said and his eyes were cold and his body had transformed into a weapon, ready to strike. She nodded, understanding that they were under attack.

I thought we were going to be safe, she thought to herself. No one was supposed to know.

Five cloaked figures appeared in a semi-circle around Ensui, faces covered by plain white masks. He stood before her, body tense, facing the enemies.

There's too many, is all she had time to think before they were moving.

Two of them rushed Ensui, while the other three headed for her. She pushed her back against the tree, but didn't move and was rewarded for her obedience when shadows shot out of the ground toward her attackers, impaling one and forcing the other two back. A clash of metal on metal sounded through the clearing and then Ensui and the figures became blurs, coming together in sparks and splashes of blood, clearly visible to her eye only at the moment they came together.

Each time one of the figures tried to veer off towards her, Ensui was there pushing them back. Another went down with a kunai in their neck, but Mayu could see that Ensui was tiring and she caught streaks of red that she thought might be his own blood on him when he and his opponents paused in their fight.

One of the ANBU rushed Ensui from the side, unsheathing a tanto as he surged towards him in a spin. Ensui blocked but was pushed back a few feet. While he tried to catch his balance, another of the figures appeared behind him and before Mayu could shout out a warning, hit Ensui in the side with a vicious kick that sent him flying into a tree. Instead of pursuing, they headed for her location.

Her eyes widened and then she heard Ensui yell, "Earth Release: Earth Wall!" and a huge wall of rock shot into existence between herself and the three attackers. Then Ensui was there, picking her up and darting into the trees.

She closed her eyes against the rush of air - if she thought they were moving fast before, it was nothing compared to how fast they were moving now. For a moment, she hoped they'd be able to outrun them. But they'd only been running for a moment before Ensui made a horrible wheezing sound and they were falling. He wrapped his body around hers as they hit the ground in a spray of earth and though he did his best to shield her, she was still dazed from the rough landing by the time they came to a stop. Between one blink and the next Ensui was on his feet and crouched over her.

Two black blurs came towards them and once again Ensui's shadows lashed out. One of them was lucky enough to flip out of the way - the other, however, turned directly into a spear of darkness that had been waiting for him to twist out of the way and it pushed through one of his eyes and straight through the back of his head, spraying blood and matter across the clearing.

Mayu stayed down as the third figure rushed Ensui from the right. He met the attack with a grunt and she could see the strain on his body as he held back the tanto with his kunai. She also saw, with dawning horror, that there was a kunai embedded in his side. 

That must be what caused him to fall, she thought.

He'd already lost a lot of blood and was swaying on his feet. She struggled to her knees. 

Where's the other? She thought, slightly hysterical, and then she saw it - just a glint, from the corner of her eye, but her brain, which was always so quick to catch on, knew what was coming.

She flung her body forward with a small cry, trying to cover Ensui's back with her little body, because - they weren't trying to kill her. If they were, she'd be dead - Ensui could keep them from taking her more easily than he could keep her alive. It's why nobody had used any large jutsu with the potential of collateral damage. They all wanted her alive, which handicapped them. So, if she just put herself in front of him, they should abort the movement and give him time to -

Pain exploded through her and she stared in shock at the sword sticking out of her small chest. For long, excruciating seconds everybody froze. 

Oh, stupid girl, you didn't think about the fact that he wouldn't have time to stop. 

The cloaked body holding the grip of the tanto was stiff with surprise and, probably still shocked, it wrenched the blade from her chest as it jumped backward, instincts telling him or her to get out of striking range of their enemy. She was vaguely aware of the other doing the same. A choked noise reached her and she felt arms come around her and lower her to the ground. "Mayu, Mayu, oh fuck." She stared up into Ensui's face and saw his eyes were looking a little wet and felt guilt well in her for being the person to make Ensui, of all people, cry.

"We need to kill him and dispose of the bodies," she heard a voice say and Ensui growled.

"Just hold on a second, sweetheart, I need to take care of something, okay?" he whispered.

She would have liked to respond, but getting stabbed hurt, and shouldn't she be passing out right about now? She knew she had read some articles back in Before about people going numb when mortally wounded. Where was her nice numbness?

And then she was being lowered the rest of the way to the ground gently as if she was made of glass and she was cold and would Ensui give her her cloak if she asked? Her head was turned so she had an unobstructed view of Ensui unfurling like a great cat and stalking towards the two men. 

They don't have a chance, she realized, as she felt a dark pressure of chakra spread through the clearing. They're dead and they just don't know it yet.

She then watched, feeling fairly floaty, as Ensui flew at them, shadows roiling around him. Somebody's arm became detached from their body and flew to land next to her, accompanied by a scream.

"Mayu-chan! Oh my god, Mayu!"

Shizune was unexpectedly kneeling next to her with a grim face and green hands and she felt relief as the pain faded. A sound like a bomb going off sounded in the background and Mayu watched as pieces of tree sailed over their heads, adding to the scene of gore and confusion around her. Then, things were quiet and a bloody Ensui was staggering over to her, followed by a pale and shaking Tsunade.

"Tsunade-sama, I can't...I can't save her, I don't have enough..." Shizune was saying, but Mayu wasn't paying attention - of course, she couldn't save her, she'd been stabbed through the chest. Tsunade was staring at the blood on her, eyes dilating and darting from her wound to her face, hands shaking.

"Oh," Mayu whispered. "You've got a blood phobia. Close your eyes, Tsunade-sama, it's okay." She licked her lips and slowly moved her gaze to Ensui.

"Don't look so sad, niisan. Not your fault the council is full of jerks that sent people to attack us," she said, hoping that using his own words against him would help take that look off his face. "You remember, what we talked about before, about Shikaku...?"

"Mayu-chan, you're breaking my heart here," Ensui said, voice cracking. 

Poor Ensui, she thought to herself. He's hard to read, but it isn't difficult to see he's lonely too.

"Sorry," she whispered, then stopped as a painful cough wracked her body, flecking her lips with blood. "Sorry, Tsunade-sama, I said I'd take care of it..."

And then Tsunade's stubborn face was leaning over hers. "Oi, brat, don't think I'm going to let Konoha take away somebody else's happiness. I'll heal your wound, then you'll owe me for cleaning up your mess!"

Mayu's chest was being filled with cool energy and she could feel herself being pulled away from the brink of death, which was an uncomfortably familiar place. Ugh, please, no death flashbacks right now, she thought to herself.

She was fading in and out of consciousness but still caught part of a conversation.

"...she live?"

"Yes, but we need a hospital as soon as possible, I did what I could, but..."

"I'll carry her..."

"Don't be an idiot...just finished healing you..."

And then she was flying.

000

When Mayu woke up, she was warm again. And thirsty. Oh, and alive. That was a plus. She basked in her alive-ness until she felt something shift against her right arm. She forced her eyes open and was met with the sight of a white ceiling. After a moment, she realized there was a steady beeping coming from her right.

Hospital. That makes sense. 

Mayu looked down with a greater effort than such a slight movement should take and was filled with relief when she saw the top of a spiky head of hair laying on the bed next to her. Judging from its size, it belonged to the smallest Nara, who was fast asleep. Movement at her feet had her darting her eyes to the end of the bed, where Yoshino was furiously knitting what looked to be a yellow duck hat.

She opened her mouth to say something about how Yoshino better not be making that with the expectation that Mayu would be wearing it, but all that came out was a horrible croaking sound. Yoshino dropped her knitting in shock and let out a small shriek upon seeing Mayu awake.

Shikamaru startled so hard he fell out of the chair, but quickly scrambled to his feet and rushed over to Mayu's side.

"You're awake!" he said and she winced as she saw the circles under their eyes and their greasy hair.

Yoshino must have been used to dealing with people who had just woken from surgery because she flitted away only to reappear a moment later with water. Mayu eagerly sucked down the liquid ambrosia from the straw.

"I hope..." she whispered and both of them leaned forward with painfully earnest looks on their faces to hear her better, "that the hat isn't for me."

The cries of outrage could be heard three hallways away.

Mayu had fallen asleep almost immediately afterward - getting stabbed in the chest took a lot out of a person - and the next time she awoke Yoshino and Shikamaru were gone and Shikaku was sitting in the chair next to her, reading through what looked like an official report of some kind.

Drugged and half asleep, Mayu muttered a slurred, "Dad?"

Shikaku's whole body stiffened and his head whipped up to look at her. After an awkward moment she realized what she had said and her eyes widened. "I - I mean - I didn't mean."

Shikaku dropped his paperwork on the floor and leaned forward to press his forehead against hers, his large hands coming up to frame her face.

"You can call me that, if you want to," he whispered. "Mayu, we thought..." he took a shuddering breath. "Don't ever jump in front of a sword again." He sat back and gave her a stern look.

"Well, I didn't think the idiot would actually stab me," she huffed with as much energy as she could muster. "I guess Danzo didn't teach his little army how to swerve."

Shikaku blinked at her before sighing and pinching the bridge of his nose. Why were people always doing that around her?

"Are you telling me," he said in a too-calm voice, "that we've been sitting by your bedside for two weeks -"

"Two weeks?" she squeaked, but he ignored her and kept talking. Rude.

"-and my brother has been living in a bottle for just as long because you decided to play chicken with a brainwashed assassin and lost?"

"Technically, I think I won," she said in a small voice and he glared at her. "Ensui-niisan...is he very upset?"

The look he gave her clearly said you think? and Mayu was going to do something about that, she was, just as soon as she could keep her eyes open for longer than three minutes.

"Mmm glad I didn't die," she mumbled. "Woulda sucked right after finding you..."

She felt a large hand on her head as she fell back into slumber. Finally, after a few more false starts, she was able to stay awake for a whole hour at a time. She'd been scolded by Shikamaru, who was now imitating a barnacle, his head on her hip where he had no chance of clipping the rather disturbing number of tubes and wires coming out of her body and his knee thrown over her legs. It was a good thing moving hurt because she obviously wasn't going anywhere until he woke up. He had said 'I told you so' in about five different ways before finally giving in to his body's insistence on a nap.

She had also been scolded by Yoshino, who was now throwing smug looks at the bright yellow duck hat sitting on Mayu's head. Nobody had moved to take it off, even when Mayu claimed cruel and unusual punishment, and she was too weak to actually reach above her head to do it herself.

Tsunade had come in to yell at Mayu about the amount of paperwork she now had in her life. She had come back to Konoha, spent five hours in surgery with Mayu, then marched straight to Sarutobi Hiruzen and threw his desk through the wall. Twenty-four hours later she was wearing the hat and set about putting the fear of god into the whole council. Three major political figures had 'stepped down' (or run for their lives, depending on who was telling the story) and Tsunade was officially the Godaime Hokage, and the Sandaime was officially retired from politics. And she one hundred percent blamed Mayu for it.

She had been tracking them down to make sure Ensui knew that Maui was planning something idiotic and instead had found her bleeding to death and Ensui slaughtering crazy brainwashed assassins. In the kerfuffle following, Tsunade had 'somehow' ended up becoming Hokage.

It was two days after she first woke up that Mayu reached the end of her patience. "Where is Ensui-niisan?" she demanded in a flat voice and the nervous looks Yoshino and Shikaku sent each other were all the answer she needed.

"Does he hate me?" she said in a small voice.

"Oh, sweetheart, of course not," Yoshino said, leaning over to cup her cheek. "He just...he feels responsible for what happened and..."

"Bullshit!" Mayu cried, then winced at the combined pain from her chest from yelling and from Yoshino whacking her on the head and chiding her for her language. "He saved me! He killed them, if it weren't for him I'd be in a cell somewhere, tortured or dead. Or both."

Shikaku sighed. "You took a sword meant for him, Mayu, It's natural that he'd feel upset."

"Well, in his defense, I think he ripped the guy's arm off afterward, so..."

Shikaku slumped and Yoshino looked strangely gleeful. "Did he really..."

"Just...will you get him to come see me? Please?" Mayu asked and released The Eyes.

Shikaku slumped even more, which Mayu didn't actually think was possible until that moment. "I'll try," he muttered.

000

Ensui didn't come and the adults put their foot down when she suggested tying him up and dragging him to see her. Mayu in turn put her foot down.

"Fine, but until he comes to see me, I'm not eating and I'm not talking!" she said and Shikamaru slapped a palm to his face. "That'll give him something real to feel guilty about."

"Mayu, be reasonable," Shikaku said, but she just put her nose in the air and looked at the wall.

Ten hours later, Tsunade burst into her room, one ponytail out of it's band, hat askew, and looking like she hadn't slept since the last time Mayu saw her.

"Brat! What is this I hear about you refusing to eat or talk!"

Mayu just shrugged and played with her fingers, ignoring the glare Tsunade was sending her. "You can't just make somebody talk to you when they don't want to," she said in a surprisingly gentle voice.

Mayu hoped her look conveyed all of the watch me try she was feeling. Tsunade threatened to have her fed intravenously, but they both knew she wouldn't do something that Mayu would mostly likely struggle through. The possibility of reinjuring herself was high.

Tsunade glared. "I can just do it when you're asleep tonight. You can't stay up more than a few hours at a time with your pain medication." she said triumphantly.

Mayu decided not to mention that she didn't plan on taking her pain medication, either, but since she couldn't and break her silence, she just shrugged.

The next morning, her door opened and a harried looking Ensui was physically tossed into the room by Tsunade and Yoshino. The former marched over to the table and slammed down a covered bowl of what Mayu was hoping was her miso soup.

"Grow up, Ensui!" Yoshino yelled and Mayu was glad she hadn't been privy to the conversation that had just been ended by her guardian before she slammed out of the room.

Mayu studied Ensui and he studied her right back. He looked a bit thinner than the last time she saw him and had large shadows under his eyes, which were missing their customary green liner. His hair wasn't in it's usual neat ponytail. Instead, it was slightly lopsided with a few strands falling into his face. He looked exhausted and defeated. Obviously, he'd been drinking - something he usually avoided, if she had read him right in their travels, and not getting a lot of sleep. It was the most she'd been able to read him since they met and she hated it. He rubbed the back of his neck and sighed.

"Listen, kid -" he was cut off when she burst into tears.

He stiffened and his eyes darted to the door, obviously thinking of escape. Her sobs grew louder and she clutched her chest as the jerky movements sent waves of pain through her torso.

"Shit," he muttered and cautiously moved towards the bed. "Mayu, come on, don't cry. I'm sorry I haven't been around..."

He laid a hand on her back to the side of her bandages and rubbed it soothingly in small circles. Mayu figured this was some sort of delayed reaction to her almost-death, or at least she hoped it was. She'd never cried this much in her last life. Well, maybe she had when she was six? Eventually, her sobs dissolved into hiccups and Ensui was shoving a handful of tissues at her.

"I - I'm the one who should be sorry," she said and the words resulted in a fresh bout of of tears that she wiped at angrily with her tissue. "I didn't mean to get hurt and make you feel so sad."

"You jumped in front of a sword," Ensui said in a dry voice. "How did you not mean to get hurt?"

And, yep, there was that anger she'd been expecting. "I didn't think he'd actually stab me!" she defended herself furiously for what felt like the dozenth time since she woke up.

"They were trying to keep me alive - probably so they could interrogate me about this mystery person who supposedly knows all their secrets. I thought if I shielded you, he'd pause and you'd have a moment to...recover..."

He raised an unimpressed eyebrow and she shrugged. "I know, I know, he was going too fast to stop. But it's not like I have a good grasp on ninja physics yet," she snapped.

He ran a hand down his face and slumped down in his chair.

"Kid, I don't get close to people very often, but when I do, I prefer them not to die," he said bluntly. She winced, then nodded.

"I can do that! I can try really, really hard not to die."

He stared at her and gave the long blink that usually meant a Nara was trying to work something around in their brain, before finally shaking his head. He then leaned forward and took the top off the bowl Yoshino had slammed onto the table earlier. Her stomach growled at the smell and he obediently pushed the tray so it hovered over her lap.

She picked up the spoon from next to the bowl but hesitated over the broth before looking up. "Will you...stay for awhile?" she asked in a small voice.

"Ugh, you're killing me with the cute stuff," Ensui said and slumped into the Nara pout which...huh, she didn't know Ensui did that. She'd privately been thinking of him as the 'cool Nara.'

"You could tell me a story?" Mayu said hopefully. He'd gotten into the habit of telling her little tidbits from his ninja life while they were on the road - nothing gory or sad, just funny little anecdotes, or describing a tool or jutsu he thought she'd find cool. She took a bite of the soup and closed her eyes in pleasure.

"Will you take your pain medication?" he drawled and held out a hand with three pills nestled in the palm.

"Mm! As soon as I'm done eating," she said happily. He let the pills tip out of his hand onto her tray.

"You're a brat, you know that?" he said, but obediently launched into a story about a man he'd fought in a mission to wave who could talk to and control fish.

As she fell asleep to the image of Ensui and his team being attacked by an angry school of tuna, knowing that soon Shikamaru would show up and curl against her and Shikaku and Yoshino would come in and fuss at her, Mayu's last thought was that she was incredibly thankful that she was alive, here, now, with this family.

Chapter Text

Mayu tugged Shikamaru past Shouta's desk, ignoring the sound of the assistant's screaming as he was chased down the hall by cats who had mysteriously decided he'd make a great scratching post and slipped into the Jounin Commander's office. Blatantly ignoring the three dirty and bedraggled jounin standing in front of the desk, probably giving a report, she skipped to Shikaku's side, who sighed as he eyed them.

"Hi, papa," she said, grinning and rocking back on her heels as she waited for the inevitable next question.

His face softened, as it always did, at the title. Mayu had started calling him 'dad' months ago, but had discovered the less formal semi-endearment 'papa' made him extremely happy. Also, it usually resulted in him being unable to stay annoyed with her.

Shikamaru huffed at her blatant display of manipulation as Shikaku said, "Mayu-chan. You wouldn't have anything to do with the terrified screaming in the halls?"

She widened her eyes and shook her head. "Nope! Poor Shouta seems to have gained some scary admirers, so we thought we'd just let ourselves in while he dealt with that."

Shikaku's lip twitched even as he tried to look stern. "Mayu-chan, Shikamaru-kun, I'm in the middle of a very important meeting. What do you need?"

She glanced at the three jounin, who seemed more amused than anything at the interruption, before answering.

"Well, Shikamaru and I wanted to see if you would go out to lunch with us. After all, we're starting at the Academy tomorrow, so we won't get a chance to take lunch with you very often after this." She slumped her shoulders and stared down at the floor, scuffing the wood with her sandal.

Shikaku sighed and Mayu knew she had already won.

"Fine, fine, I'll take you out to lunch," he said, ignoring the snickers coming from his subordinates. "Go wait in Shouta's office for me - I'll be done in a few minutes."

"Uh," Mayu's eyes darted around nervously. "We'll wait for you in front of the administration building. It's nice out, no need to crowd Shouta-san." She laughed, awkward.

"Uh-huh," Shikaku said and raised an eyebrow. "Well, then, off you go, I'll see you in a few minutes."

Mayu beamed at him and pulled Shikamaru out of the room, ignoring his groans about her dragging him around everywhere. She stopped at the door to peek through the crack and make sure Shouta hadn't returned before flinging it open and darting through the office and into the hallway, ignoring Shikaku's yell to close the door.

They made their way downstairs and past the missions room and emerged into the sunlight.

"You know, Shouta-san now lumps me in with you when he's complaining about what a menace you are, right?" Shikamaru grumbled. "Last week I stopped by to see dad and he screamed and dropped his lunch everywhere. It's troublesome."

They stepped into the shade of the building, out of the way of the hustle and bustle that was the main street of Konoha, and sat down cross-legged with their backs against the building. Mayu grinned and leaned against him. "Oh no, well if it's troublesome."

"I don't see why you're always picking on him anyway," he mumbled. "Don't you feel bad?"

Mayu shrugged and looked away, uncomfortable with his almost-scolding tone. "He started it. He's always picking on dad."

Shikamaru snorted and gave her a fond look. "Is that what it's about? To be fair, he has to pick on him to get him to do paperwork."

She grinned, unrepentant. "Well, then he shouldn't mind a little bit of tit for tat," she said imperiously.

He rolled his eyes and tipped his head back against the wall.

"Are you excited?" Mayu asked. "To start at the academy?"

He rolled his head to the side to give her a look that clearly said Are you kidding me? She laughed and remembered him trying to convince his parents that he didn't turn eight until a month and a half after the Academy started, so really he should begin the following year, and their unimpressed responses.

"You're excited, though," he said.

"Yes. I like learning new things - you know that."

Shikamaru wrinkled his nose but didn't comment. A few moments later Shikaku appeared before them, hands in his pockets, and motioned for them to stand with a tip of his chin. They scrambled up and moved to either side of him as he started to stroll down the road.

"You two okay with trying the new dumpling place?" he asked as he turned off the main street. They looked at each other, then shrugged.

"Nah, that sounds good," Shikamaru said.

"It's close to here," Shikaku said. "So..." he trailed off in bemusement when Mayu gasped and darted across the street, causing a merchant to pull up so quickly that the man walking behind him plowed into his back.

Mayu didn't seem to notice the commotion she'd caused as she plastered herself to a storefront window. Shikaku pinched the bridge of his nose between two fingers and went to follow her, offering apologies on her behalf as he went. When the angry bystanders recognized the Jounin Commander slash Nara clan head, they stopped complaining and bowed it off.

The store looked like a supply shop for medics and he rolled his eyes when he saw what had grabbed Mayu's attention. "Mayu-chan, isn't that chemistry kit for grown-ups?" He eyed the beakers, test tubes, and neatly labeled chemicals in the window.

She gave him a scathing look that he knew meant she was about to work herself up into a huff. "Like a child's set wouldn't be completely boring." She sniffed and went back to staring longingly at a scale.

"Mayu, you're so weird," Shikamaru said, sounding so long-suffering that Shikaku chuckled.

"Come on, come on, let's go. I don't have that long before Shouta gets back from having his scratches looked at by a medic."

He gave Mayu a stern look, but she was too busy looking dejected about the set they'd left behind to notice. She was wearing a sleeveless white blouse and blue shorts and her dark hair was braided back. While she'd gained weight, she still looked waifish, which made her grey eyes look huge in her face. All in all, it was pretty adorable and he resigned himself to going back to pick up the set for her after work.

He glanced at Shikamaru, who was smirking at him, also realizing that Shikaku was helpless in the face of her sad eyes. He only knew that because Shikamaru was his son in more ways than one and tended to cave as soon as she started to look anything less than happy. He shrugged and gave him a 'what can you do?' look.

They settled into a booth and Shikaku thanked the waitress when she brought them menus.

"So what are your plans for your last day of freedom?" he asked.

"Shikamaru threatened to burn some of my books if I don't spend the day lazing with him." Mayu poked the boy in the stomach and he squirmed away from her and grumbled. Her smile said she didn't mind him hijacking her day.

"Well, starting tomorrow we'll have to spend hours of our day being talked at and forced into work," Shikamaru replied, slumping down in his seat.

Shikaku raised an eyebrow at him and got a scowl for his trouble, which made Shikamaru look like a tiny version of Yoshino.

"Do you think Shika and I will be in the same class?" Mayu asked, worried.

Shikaku just shrugged, though he already knew the answer - being Jounin Commander did have some perks, after all, one of which was access to the Academy class roster. Mayu gave him a suspicious look that clearly said I know that you know and aren't telling me and you will regret this.

The waitress arrived with their drinks and they placed their orders before continuing the conversation.

"Stop worrying," Shikamaru said. "It's a total drag hanging out with you when you're worked up."

Mayu bristled in a way that Yoshino once privately told Shikaku made her look like an angry rooster. An adorable angry rooster.

"Well you don't have to hang out with me if it's so awful," she snapped.

Shikamaru looked panicked, not because he was worried she'd make a fuss - actually, Mayu tended to go quiet when she was upset outside of a few well placed cutting remarks - but because Shikamaru genuinely couldn't stand to see her sad. 

They're so cute, he thought fondly as a sulking Mayu allowed Shikamaru to soothe her - ha - ruffled feathers. After stuffing themselves full of dumplings, Shikaku set his chopsticks down on his plate and his gaze roamed the room as he stretched his feet in front of him and leaned back, patting his stomach. "You going to the shop today, Mayu-chan?"

She spent a good chunk of time there working on her ever-mysterious 'projects' and helping Akinobu around the shop.

"No, Akinobu-sensei told me if he saw me in his shop today he'd build me into one of his pieces of furniture that are shipping out to a vendor in the Land of Iron," she said with a huff.

Shikamaru rolled his eyes. "What did you do?" he asked before Shikaku could.

A look that he could only label as furtive crossed her face and her shoulders hunched. "Well, about that," and yep, there were The Eyes, which usually preceded news that Shikaku didn't want to hear.

"It was an accident, papa! But, Akinobu-sensei says that you owe him a new workbench?" Mayu cringed and Shikaku groaned.

She pouted and crossed her arms over her chest. "Well, how was I supposed to know the modifications I made to the varnish would cause it to explode after sitting in a pressurized container for a week?" she looked thoughtful. "I should go to the library..."

Shikaku ran a hand down his face and Shikamaru glared at Mayu and reminded her that she had promised they would take it easy the rest of the day. She caved, like she always did when Shikamaru got that pleading expression on his face and they began to make plans to spend the day deep in the Nara forest, where it was cooler.

Mayu was leaning in towards Shikamaru, saying something in a low voice and giggling while he titled his head towards her, slouched over but with a small, fond smile on his face. Shikaku decided that was his cue to go back to work and he motioned for the check.

The kids walked him back to the tower, Mayu complaining loudly about how hot it was most of the way, pausing only to look longingly at the chemistry set for a moment. He'd been having second thoughts about buying it for her after Mayu admitted to destroying a workbench with basic woodworking chemicals, but the look on her face had him budgeting for extra repairs for the next few months instead.

He ruffled their hair at the door to the administration building and watched for a moment as they headed back towards the Nara compound, Shikamaru with his hands in his pockets, Mayu fluttering around him, punctuating some point she was making with expansive hand movements. He allowed a small smile to cross his face before heading back towards his pile of paperwork.

 

000

 

Mayu sat in the dirt between two large roots that were raised out of the earth, back leaning against the rough bark of a tree. She was concentrating on the index finger of her right hand, which had six inches of chakra thread extending from the tip of it. Mayu had discovered in the past seven months that Yoshino hadn't been joking about how difficult chakra threads were to master.

The string responded to her will and moved in an S-shaped pattern for a moment. Slowly, she lowered her hand to the ground, concentrating on getting the tip of the thread to attach to a leaf. It connected and she raised it up off the ground to hover a few inches above the dirt. She held the position, keeping her breaths even, before again moving the string into an S-shape. She did it successfully twice, the leaf clinging to the end, before she lost concentration and it fell to the ground.

She groaned in frustration. "Ugh, why is this so hard." 

"Don't be troublesome," Shikamaru said sleepily from where he was laying on his side a few feet away, head on his outstretched arm and watching her with half-lidded eyes. "Mom already told you you're making good progress. If you had grown up in a ninja family, you'd probably be able to do that with five strings at once, easy."

Mayu shrugged. It was true - and it wasn't just chakra control that she felt frustratingly behind in. Shikamaru had learned to handle a kunai at three and Yoshino had homeschooled him, so along with reading and writing and math, he also learned dexterity exercises as games and knew a lot more about the inner workings of the military side of their village than Mayu's public education had given her.

Mayu was working hard to catch up and was doing it more quickly than most civilians could manage, but she still found it annoying. Shikamaru pointed out to her once that all her time spent in the library made her more well-rounded than him, which would work out well for her in the long run, but it was a cold comfort. She hated the thought that the clan children would all be ahead of her in any way.

Yoshino had started her on basic kata three months ago, but Shikamaru had mastered that when he was four. Shikamaru seemed to know what she was thinking because he reached out and flicked her outstretched leg. "You'll catch up and surpass the rest of the class halfway through our academy years. Stop brooding."

Mayu stuck her tongue out at him but decided it was probably good advice. She shifted around onto her hands and knees, then shuffled over and gave him a hard shove until he was on his back. Shikamaru made an oomph noise but didn't complain as she took advantage of his new position and laid on her back with his stomach as a pillow. He gave a light tug on her braid in retaliation and they both went silent as they stared up into the canopy, watching the play of sunlight through the leaves.

Eventually, the day began to fade into evening and they stood and helped dust each other off so Yoshino wouldn't scold them for dragging in dirt, then trooped back into the house. After washing their hands and faces, they clattered back downstairs and Shikamaru pulled Mayu over to the shogi board when he caught her eyeing a book she'd left on an end table.

She rolled her eyes but obediently sat down. Shikamaru had beaten her twice by the time Shikaku came home, though one of the games was close enough that Mayu was pretty satisfied. She knew he was going to be a terrifying strategist for Konoha when he was older and (mostly) just felt pride every time he crushed her.

Shikaku came over and collapsed next to Mayu on the couch, groaning dramatically about how Shouta had been even more of a demon that day than usual. She laughed and let him lay his head on her lap and tweak her nose. Shikamaru gave him an interested look, then stood and joined them on the couch, collapsing on the top of his dad. Shikaku wheezed when Shikamaru stuck an elbow into his gut while he wiggled up until his head rested on his chest.

Mayu giggled when they both closed their eyes and promptly fell asleep. Yoshino came out of the kitchen, where she was preparing a celebration dinner of Mayu and Shikamaru's favorite foods, and looked so exasperated with her husband and son that Mayu's quiet giggles became outright laughter.

"Hand me that book?" Mayu asked, unable to move without disturbing them. Yoshino sighed, but picked it up and handed it over.

"Did you have fun lazing around this afternoon?" Yoshino asked and smiled when Mayu grinned and nodded.

"Good, good. You'll be busy now that you're starting the academy!" she called as she went back into the kitchen. "Dinner will be ready in half an hour - wake those two oafs for me when it's time, will you?"

"Sure!" Mayu called and opened the book.

Half an hour later, Mayu was herding two sleepy Nara into the kitchen, though they both perked up at the sight of food. They sat down and tucked in, Yoshino beaming at their heartfelt praise of her cooking.

"Mayu, I went ahead and laid out an outfit for your first day of school on your bed," the woman said with a small clap.

Mayu eyed her suspiciously, hoping it wasn't another frilly dress, but knew that whatever it was she'd end up wearing it. After all, Yoshino seemed to delight in dressing Mayu and she did have good taste even if it was a bit cutesy at times. Plus, after six years of wearing orphanage castoffs, it wasn't like she had a ton of room to complain.

Shikamaru snickered at her lack of backbone and she timed putting her elbow into his ribs so that he choked on a drink he'd just taken from his water. Mayu went back to eating her meal, ignoring his spluttering next to her until Shikaku cleared his throat pointedly.

"What's up, papa?" she asked, catching on to the fact that he had something serious to say. Shikamaru also turned curious eyes to his father, taking in his unusually solemn expression.

"I want to talk to you a little bit about my expectations for you at the academy." Mayu frowned. Did he think they wouldn't do well?

"I know that you two, should you try hard, would probably do so well that you'd graduate early," he said sternly.

Shikamaru looked nervous at the words work hard and graduate early.

"Your mother and I have discussed it and we both agree. You're to make sure you don't graduate until you turn twelve."

Mayu tilted her head, surprised at the turn the conversation had taken.

"You're both clever enough to do well without doing too well, so I won't accept any excuses if I start getting pestered by academy instructors to approve you skipping a grade."

"I know I'm new to this whole having a family thing," Mayu said, "but I'm pretty sure this is the opposite lecture most parents give on the first day of school."

Yoshino huffed. "Well, most parents don't have genius children who are in danger of being sent on assassination missions at the age of 10. Don't get me wrong - killing and following uncomfortable orders are just part of the life you've chosen and I know you two can develop the techniques and tools you need to get through it relatively sane. But your father and I - and many others - have noticed that when we start kids out too early in this life, too fast, it can cause permanent scars."

Mayu and Shikamaru looked at each other, then back to their parents' serious faces.

"Okay..." Shikamaru said thoughtfully. "But I'm assuming you're okay with us pushing ourselves outside of classes?"

"Oh, yes, in fact, we expect it," Yoshino said in a gleeful voice. "We just need you to be strategic about it. No child of mine will be sent off to die and kill so young."

"Starting tomorrow, your mother and I will start giving you extra training three days a week in the afternoons after school," Shikaku said. "Shikamaru, I'll be working with you on the clan techniques. I'm sorry, Mayu, but since we couldn't formally adopt you as a Nara..."

Mayu shrugged and looked down at her hands. While she was a bit disappointed, she wasn't too fussed about not being included in clan stuff. She was happy just having a family and clan politics were, well, dull and annoying.

"Actually, Mayu," Yoshino said and she peered at the woman closely, who sounded uncharacteristically unsure. "I know I haven't told you much about my family background, but I do have something special I could pass onto you. If you're interested."

Mayu blinked at her stupidly. Yoshino wanted to teach Mayu family techniques? Her heart swelled and she knew her smile was probably taking up half her face. "Yeah, okay. I'd like that."

Yoshino relaxed and returned her smile. "Well, don't be too happy! These aren't easy techniques, you know, so you'll have to work hard."

"Don't worry," Mayu said and pushed her fists into the air. "I'll work way harder than Shikamaru does on his shadow techniques. The Nara wish they had someone as awesome as me to teach."

Shikaku hummed his agreement and Shikamaru rolled his eyes. "Right. Now, when you become genin I do expect you to excel - no holding back."

That night Shikamaru didn't fall straight asleep like he usually did.

"What is it?" Mayu said after a few minutes him brooding next to her.

"It's not right," he muttered.

"Uh...what isn't?"

He sighed and turned towards her. "That you can't learn the clan techniques," he said seriously. "Mom and dad see you as their kid, too. The only reason you're not a Nara is that the clan is worried that you'd have some claim over the head position if I died. Which is stupid, because you have to be voted in anyway. Just because my dad and Grandpa were clan heads doesn't mean it has to stay in our family line."

Mayu hummed and considered how to phrase her next words. "I see Shikaku and Yoshino as my parents now, it's true. You're still my favorite person and I love Ensui-niisan and Akinobu-sensei is okay when he's not hungover and cranky. But...I don't necessarily consider myself a part of the Nara clan, so it doesn't bother me or make me feel left out."

He was silent as he mulled over her words. "If...you're sure."

"I am," she said firmly. "I'm very excited to be learning from Yoshino. I bet whatever she teaches me will be terrifying."

He snorted. "Yeah, probably. Dad says she was one scary kunoichi before she retired. Once Inoichi watched her crush a man's throat with one hand while she healed a comrade with the other." He shuddered, having no issue believing that this wasn't an exaggeration.

"Woah," Mayu said with awe and he sighed.

"Ugh, you're not allowed to become as scary as mom. I like that you never bully me into doing things."

Mayu laughed and tugged on a hunk of his hair lightly. "Hmm, well I like that you're so lazy, so I probably won't ever do that to you."

He sighed and snuggled against her side. "Good," he said firmly. "Now go to sleep, mom is going to be so troublesome tomorrow morning." 

000 

Yoshino was, indeed, very troublesome. Starting school early in the morning just meant that they had to wake up that much earlier to do their morning stretches, run laps around the field and do other various exercises.

Surprisingly, Shikamaru didn't complain too much about this. In fact, for the last six months or so he hadn't done much complaining at all about training. Mayu didn't have to ask about the change - after she was injured (stabbed) she sometimes caught him looking at her with fierce determination. Stupid, because there was nothing a six-year-old could have done against the powers that had decided Mayu was interesting after Danzo killed himself in a blaze of glory, but she could tell he somehow felt responsible.

She'd tried to talk to him about it once, but he'd just shrugged and said it was "Troublesome, but she needed someone to help pull her out of trouble."

So, while he still spent a lot of time laying under the clouds and napping, he didn't try to get out of training, either, and put effort into it. Mayu tried not to feel guilty about it.

Yoshino had them meditate for only half an hour, then sent them inside with instructions to continue chakra control exercises 'on their own time,' though she'd be checking on their progress.

Shikamaru sighed when Mayu raced down the hall to claim the first shower, but didn't argue. She made sure to move quickly, since if they were late Yoshino would probably wake them up even earlier the next day.

When she finished showering, she pulled on a fluffy blue robe that had one day just appeared on the back of her door and made her way to her room, waving to a miserable looking Shikamaru as they passed in the hallway. Mayu had been relieved to see that the outfit Yoshino chose for her wasn't over the top. She slipped on a grey sleeveless tunic with white trimming on the hemline and at the collar, with black spandex shorts underneath. The material of the tunic was soft against her skin, fitted but not overly tight on her torso. It reached mid-thigh, but slit up the side a few inches so she'd have freedom of movement.

Mayu had to admit that Yoshino knew what she was doing - the grey looked lovely against her dark blue hair and somehow made her eyes even more soulful. She smirked into the small mirror on the back of the door as she imagined the power level of The Eyes increasing.

There was knock on the door and then Yoshino entered holding a brush and the dreaded ribbon, this time in a white that matched the trim on her shirt.

"Oh!" she said, "I knew you'd look adorable in that tunic," she said with satisfaction and motioned Mayu into her desk chair.

Mayu sat down obediently and Yoshino moved behind her and started to run the brush through her hair.

"I'm very happy, Mayu," she said in a soft voice.

"Hmm?" Mayu asked, relaxing into the soothing motions of the brush in her hair.

"I'm the last of my line, you know. I thought that the skills my grandmother passed on to me would die with me. I am very happy to have found a daughter to share them with."

Mayu was silent for a moment. "Yeah," she agreed. "Me too. I'm looking forward to it."

Yoshino set the brush aside, then began to gently work Mayu's hair into a braid. They continued in silence until it was done.

"There! Oh, look how cute. You have the prettiest hair, Mayu-chan! Poor Shikamaru will be beating the other boys off you with a stick in a few years."

"Uh," Mayu said, because what was she supposed to say to a comment like that?

She opted for saying nothing at all and instead thanked Yoshino for doing her hair and escaped to the kitchen. Shikaku was already at the table, looking just as miserable as his son did right after waking. He perked up a bit when he saw her, though, and motioned her over. She hurried to obey and didn't protest when he pulled her into his lap to hug her.

"Your mom picked well, Mayu! You look very nice," he said and kissed the top of her head. She blushed and humphed.

"It's comfortable and easy to move in," she allowed.

Yoshino came over with two plates of food and remained unmoved by The Eyes when Mayu tried to stay in Shikaku's lap.

"You can't both eat that way, Mayu! He'll drop his food all over your new outfit, the big oaf."

"Hey," he protested, but let Mayu slip over into the chair next to him.

Shikamaru came slouching into the kitchen a moment later and collapsed into a chair, Nara Pout in full effect. Yoshino set a plate in front of him, then sat down as well. After breakfast, Shikaku stood and stretched.

"Well come on, squirts, it's time to get you to class," he said, motioning lazily for them to follow him.

The four of them set off for the academy and Mayu couldn't help the butterflies that erupted in her stomach. Sure, she'd been practicing and researching shinobi arts for the last eight months, but this was the first true step towards earning her hitai-ate and then continuing on to the Military Police Force.

Yoshino and Shikaku stayed with them for the entrance ceremony, which mostly consisted of a hungover Tsunade giving an equal parts terrifying and inspiring speech about the joys of becoming a ninja. She gave Mayu, whom she was still blaming for 'the hell that her life had become,' a glare before stomping her way through the crowd, ignoring bids for her attention while Shizune apologized in her wake.

Yoshino hugged them and threatened terrible things if they didn't behave and Shikaku ruffled their hair and told them to be good before they left them on the grass waiting for class assignments.

Ino and Chouji had raced over as soon as their parents left and the former was bouncing up and down in excitement. Mayu mostly tuned them out, instead choosing to lean into Shikamaru's side while reading a book on chemistry she'd found on the Nara shelves. Most of the principles here were the same, though many elements and procedures were new. She felt a small thrill at the thought of playing with all the new compounds and minerals available to her, not to mention how the application of chakra played into it. She just needed to get her hands on some equipment and supplies.

She was broken from her thoughts by a puff of smoke and the awed noises of the students around her as the academy teachers suddenly appeared in front of the class. They introduced themselves, then began to read off class assignments. Mayu sighed with relief when she discovered she and Shikamaru were both in class 1A - there were three first-year academy student classes, with about thirty students in each.

Ino clapped in delight as a pink-haired girl named Haruno Sakura that looked incredibly awkward and shy was also placed in their class. Mayu hadn't noticed her trailing Ino at first and couldn't help but feel a bit sorry for her. Ino had a strong personality and if she remained so shy then she'd be railroaded on a pretty regular basis.

Shikamaru leaned over to whisper in her ear. "Did you notice all the clan kids in our class? They must put the civilians in a different class for the first year or two since the clan kids normally enter at a higher level."

Mayu made a face and he nudged her with his shoulder. "It's probably a good thing," he clarified. "This way, the instructor can spend some time catching them up. In a few years, only half of us will still be here and we'll all be expected to be at a certain level."

They followed their instructor into a large classroom with two rows of tables on tiered platforms, with the chalkboard and teacher's desk at the lowest level. Mayu and Shikamaru exchanged looks before heading to the very back row. Mayu took the spot by the window, with Shikamaru next to her and Chouji on his right by the aisle.

Ino grumbled a bit about sitting so far back, but she and Sakura took the seats directly in front of them. Mayu studied the rest of the students, her eyes lingering on a boisterous brunette with red markings on his cheeks and...a dog on his head. Huh. She nudged Shikamaru and tilted her head in the boy's direction.

Immediately understanding, he leaned over and whispered, "That's an Inuzuka. Their clan is known for their enhanced senses. They also pair with nin-dogs. They act as their partners throughout their ninja career." Her eyes widened in interest.

"That's amazing," she said, then noticed that the boy's head was tilted towards her and he was grinning.

Oh, enhanced senses - he probably heard us. 

She gave a hesitant smile and a wave and he seemed to take that as an invitation because he bounded up the steps and came to a stop next to their table. "Hey! I'm Inuzuka Kiba and this is my partner Akamaru." He pointed to the little white dog on his head, who gave a squeaky little bark.

"Hello," Mayu said, a little amused at their enthusiasm. "I'm Nomaka Mayu, pleased to meet you. This is Nara Shikamaru and Akimichi Chouji," she pointed to them and then down to Ino, who was wrinkling her nose at Kiba, "And that's Yamanaka Ino and Haruno Sakura."

Kiba plopped down in the chair across the aisle from Chouji and leaned forward so he could see Mayu. "Pleased to meet ya." He grinned wide and exposed two sharp fangs.

"Oh!" Mayu leaned forward to look more closely. "Your teeth look really sharp! Is that part of - "

She cut off when Shikamaru slapped a hand over her mouth and hissed in her ear. "Mayu, you aren't supposed to ask about a clan's bloodline limits, it's rude." He looked more annoyed than she thought the situation really warranted.

She huffed at him and Kiba let out a loud laugh. "Aw, don't worry about it, the Inuzuka aren't quite as uptight as the rest of the clans. I can't tell you how or why, but I can tell you they're natural."

Shikamaru grumbled but dropped his hand so she could speak. "That's so cool. The markings on your cheeks make you look very fierce, as well."

She narrowed her eyes and wondered what she'd look like with tattoos on her face. Shikamaru groaned and dropped his forehead on the table.

"Mayu, if you tattoo your face mom will kill you. I don't want you to die."

Kiba had grown a little red at the praise and he scratched the back of his neck. "Thanks. Everyone in my clan gets them when we find our partner," he explained and patted Akamaru on the head.

In front of her, Ino was whispering something to Sakura and Mayu could tell by the furtive looks towards Kiba that it probably wasn't flattering. When Kiba looked at the pair and shifted uncomfortably, Mayu felt her temper flare.

"He can hear you, you know," she said to Ino, glaring.

Shikamaru tensed. Mayu and Ino mostly didn't interact, but it wasn't exactly a secret that they wished the other far, far away whenever they were in the same room. Mostly they kept their mouths shut for Shikamaru's sake...and also because Ino didn't like being on the receiving end of Mayu's cutting tongue.

Ino stiffened, glanced at Kiba, and then turned bright red when she saw his face. "Um...look Sakura-chan, I see a friend of mine. Let's go say hi!" She tugged Sakura out of her seat and dragged her to a table in the front of the class.

"Whatever she said was likely bullshit," Mayu said and Chouji choked on a chip.

Kiba's face, which had fallen, brightened and he stood to take the seat Ino had vacated, turning around so he could talk to Mayu more easily.

"What was wrong with where you were sitting," Shikamaru said and Mayu blinked at him in surprise. He was generally easy going, but currently, he was glaring at Kiba, who chose to ignore him.

"Eh, mom says that most of the other clans have a stick up their butt and so they get all upset when we don't act the same way."

Mayu nodded - she could see that. While Shikaku and Yoshino were amazing and the Nara were pretty laid back in general, she'd noticed that sometimes the clan elders got a little up in arms about the weirdest things.

A small woman with short purple hair called for their attention and Kiba turned to look at the front of the room. The morning was mostly spent going over the syllabus and listening to lectures about the importance of a shinobi force to a hidden village.

Mayu sighed, recognizing it for the propaganda that most militaries used to keep their soldiers excited about the prospect of becoming cannon fodder and let her mind wander. She began sketching out a few designs - she wanted to make a puppet now that she was getting a bit of a firsthand feel for how chakra threads would work. She wasn't very interested in humanoid puppets. Why would she be, when nature made creatures that were much more suited to deadliness to base her designs on.

Shikamaru laid his head down on his folded arms and was dozing lightly. She idly played with the strands of hair sticking out from his ponytail. He turned his face towards her and cracked open one eye, one corner of his mouth quirking up into a smile. She grinned back and reached forward to poke the end of his nose, which he wrinkled before turning his face back into his arms.

At lunch, she followed Shikamaru and Chouji over to a tree and sat beneath it in the shade. Kiba had hesitated before following them, giving Shikamaru a cautious look before sitting. Ino and Sakura were sitting with a group of girls they'd been giggling with after they moved seats and Mayu was incredibly relieved that they chose to sit somewhere else.

Mayu peppered Kiba with questions about his senses and he answered when he felt comfortable doing so and just shrugged and gave an apologetic smile when he couldn't. Eventually, he wandered off to play a rowdy looking game of tag with a group of first years and Mayu laid back on the grass, Shikamaru joining her while Chouji continued to eat.

"You don't like Kiba," she said, turning her head towards him.

Shikamaru continued looking up at the sky and didn't reply. She sighed then reached out and poked his face and kept poking it until he snatched her hand and looked at her.

"What does it matter? I didn't think you wanted to make friends, anyway."

She stared at his pouting, annoyed face and blinked rapidly as she realized the problem. "Shikamaru," she said slowly, "are you...jealous?"

He huffed and sat up. "No, don't be ridiculous."

Mayu rolled her eyes, then moved to her knees, judging the distance between them before launching herself at him. He let out an oomph as he landed face first into the grass. After a moment he started to struggle and soon they were wrestling across the grass. He was laughing and trying to hold back a clump of dirt in Mayu's hand that she was attempting to shove into his face.

"Mayu! Cut it out!"

"Not until you stop being dumb!" she declared, pushing more of her weight towards him, grinning down into his face from where she was straddling his chest. "No way you need to worry about me liking somebody more than I like you, idiot!"

She opened her hand and the clump of dirt hit his face and crumbled across it. He sputtered and she jumped off of him and danced back towards Chouji, who was laughing at Shikamaru as he sat up and rubbed at the dirt.

The bell rang and she held up two fingers before grabbing her empty bento and rushing inside. She shoved the box into her cubby, then continued through to the practice fields where Aiko-sensei had told them to meet for physical training. All three of the first year classes were gathered in the yard, so it was fairly crowded.

Shikamaru slouched up next to where she was standing, close enough to the sensei to hear instructions, and glared at her. She giggled and used her thumb to wipe a streak of dirt off his nose. "You know." Mayu rocked back on her heels. "It's not like you don't have other people you talk to. Like Chouji and Ino."

He shrugged and looked down. "Yeah, I was being stupid, I guess," he said grudgingly.

"It's okay, sometimes I get jealous of Chouji and Ino too," she said honestly.

He frowned and looked at her, opening his mouth to say something, but was interrupted by Aiko-sensei calling for their attention. They were starting with a few laps around the practice yard and Shikamaru and Mayu exchanged nods before staying firmly in the middle of the pack.

Afterward, they did some body weight exercises and then moved into learning the basic academy katas. Since they were different than the katas the Nara favored for their children, neither of them had to fake being a beginner.

They ran through a lesson on handling kunai, which Shikamaru didn't bother pretending not to know already - nobody would believe Shikaku and Yoshino hadn't taught him that much - and Mayu was still enough of a beginner that she didn't need to fake her few fumbles.

As they went through the exercises, Mayu took note of how the other children in her class were doing. Ino and Sakura seemed to be two of the top kunoichi, though they were still far behind a lot of the boys in physical fitness. Kiba finished first on the run, alongside a boy named Uchiha Sasuke, who Mayu gave some extra attention simply because of his connection to the MPF through his clan. She'd need to keep a close eye on what the clan considered important aspects of ninja training.

Sasuke also seemed pretty far ahead in his kunai handling and the sensei quickly moved him into throwing at one of the closest targets, where 3 out of 4 of his throws hit the target, though only a few hit the bullseye.

Ino, who was standing close to them, leaned over and whispered "So cool." into Sakura's ear. "He's cute, too!"

They finished up their workout with more laps and then stopped to stretch their muscles. After that, Aiko-sensei talked them through meditation and Mayu was relieved to sink into her mindscape for awhile.

Then, the day was over and Shikamaru and Mayu were waving goodbye to Ino and Chouji as they left with their mothers. Yoshino was waiting for them and gave them both a big hug. "How was your first day?" she asked.

Shikamaru shrugged. "Kind of a drag," he said, then winced when Yoshino slapped the back of his head. Kiba walked by with an older girl who had three huge dogs following her and a leaf hitai-ate tied around her throat.

"Bye, Mayu, see you tomorrow!" he called.

"Um, yeah!" She called back and waved.

Yoshino squealed. "Oh, Mayu! You made a friend - I knew you could do it."

Mayu slapped a hand to her forehead as a few of the kids and their parents gave them amused looks and Shikamaru mumbled, "They barely know each other, they're not friends."

 

000

 

Shikaku arrived at the house carrying gifts and Mayu screamed and threw her arms around his waist when he revealed the chemistry set she'd been salivating over the day before. He blinked and rocked back, unused to such a loud reaction from her. The kit was so large she could barely hold it in her arms and Yoshino gave Shikaku an exasperated look, which he responded to with a helpless shrug.

"I'm going to do so many experiments!" Mayu ran to an unoccupied corner of the room to open the box and carefully started removing items for close inspection, muttering to herself. Shikaku sighed and held out a standard trap setting kit for Shikamaru.

"I feel like your present is a let down after that reaction, but here."

Shikamaru grinned. "Thanks, dad." He wandered over to sit next to Mayu, who looked over in interest when he began laying out ninja wire, smoke bomb tags, scent inhibitors, and other various useful items.

Mayu was pumping Shikaku for information on the Inuzuka clan at dinner when the front door opened and she perked up as she heard a familiar tread in the hallway. She slipped out of her chair and took off for the door.

"Ensui-niisan, you're back!" she called when the tall man appeared at the kitchen door.

She ran straight into him and he let out a dramatic oof before he swung her up for a hug. "Hey, kid, you'd think I've been gone for weeks, with a greeting like that." He set her down and moving to do the same with Shikamaru, who'd walked over at a much more sedate pace.

"You've been gone for three weeks and four days," she protested, following him back to the table.

Yoshino stood to give him a quick embrace, then ushered him into a chair while she went to get him a plate. Shikaku greeted him with a small smile.

"Welcome back, little brother."

Ensui quirked his lip back at him in response. "Thanks," he said to Yoshino when she placed the heaping plate in front of him. "You know how it is, you get to the place where your mark is supposed to be and find out he's already taken off for Iwa. I owe Baken so many steaks after we tracked that damn man across three different countries."

"Was he very strong, then?" Mayu asked and Ensui shrugged.

"Nah, fast and good at covering his tracks, but easy prey once I finally caught up." He gave a sharp, terrifying smile.

"Ensui-niisan, you're so cool," Mayu said.

"He's not that cool," Shikamaru mumbled sadly at his meal.

Ensui and Shikaku raised an eyebrow, looking so much alike with the motion that Mayu grinned. She then turned in her seat and pulled Shikamaru against her with an arm around his neck, making him flail.

"Don't mind Shikamaru. He's just grumpy because there was barely any napping to be done today," she said while he struggled futilely against her grip.

"Mmph nnng," he said, words unintelligible with his face smashed against her shoulder. Finally, he gave up and flopped against her.

She patted his head a few times. "There, there, Shika."

Ensui snickered. "Man, She really has my poor nephew whipped into shape."

Mayu loosened her grip enough for Shikamaru to turn his head and send a death glare his uncle's way, who seemed completely unaffected. Talk turned back to his mission, then to the Academy.

"Mayu made a friend," Yoshino said proudly and Mayu sighed. Sure, she was a little antisocial with her peer group, but she wasn't that bad. Look at Chouji - she and he had perfectly reasonable conversations about barbecue sometimes.

The room seemed to darken by Shikamaru's end of the table and Ensui pointed at him. "Oh ho! So the reason behind your bad mood is revealed!"

"Shikamaru. You shouldn't try to make Mayu feel bad about meeting people. How would you feel if she got upset every time you spent time with Ino and Chouji?"

Shikamaru shrunk into his seat, looking a strange mix of defiant, guilty, and annoyed. Mayu decided to rescue him.

"I wouldn't call him my friend," she said, drawing the attention of the adults. "He's not as annoying as most people our age and he has a nin-dog! His clan is very interesting."

"A nin-dog..." Shikaku seemed to put this together with her questions about the Inuzuka and for a moment he looked too shocked to speak.

"You're saying," he drawled, "that you find an Inuzuka to be less annoying than the rest of your peers."

Ensui inhaled a piece of rice and Yoshino looked intrigued. Mayu just raised both her eyebrows.

"Well, he doesn't carry around the same annoying insecurities as most people our age and is also very honest and seems to have a good sense of self. Also, his clan seems so fascinating."

Shikamaru snorted. "So basically, you want to experiment on him. And how could you even tell he's honest from one conversation?"

Mayu glared. "No, I don't want to experiment on him. Just...ask him a few questions and maybe...observe him..." she finished lamely. "Also, I can tell he's honest because what he was saying matched what he was feeling."

She shrugged. Usually, she was trying to look at two layers of a person - what she could deduce about them at that moment and what they were saying out loud. It could get very tiring.

"You'd do well in Interrogation, kid," Ensui said with approval.

By now the Naras were used to her uncanny ability to just know things about people, so they accepted what she said. Mayu beamed at him, the way she always did when he complimented her.

"Have you been working on those scrolls of sealing I left you?" he asked with a raised eyebrow and she slumped.

"Yes," she said sullenly and he laughed.

Mayu found the sealing arts horribly, horribly dull. They were repetitive and took a very long time to learn. But she had insisted on seeing it through until she was at least at Ensui's level, which he assured her was pretty low. Because Ensui was so cool and it only made sense to learn the things he found useful.

"Good," he grunted, pushing his plate back. "I ran out of explosive tags, so I'm going to have you learn how to create those this weekend."

"Fine. Saturday?"

"Saturday," he agreed.

She sighed - that was four full days of her week already taken up by school, training with Yoshino, and now working on sealing with Ensui. That left two half days and Sunday for other projects and spending time with Shikamaru. Not that she minded the extra training, it was just...that wasn't a lot of time to split between playing with her new chemistry set and going to the shop. Likely her schedule would remain this crowded - she always spent Saturdays with Ensui when he wasn't on a mission, sometimes with Shikamaru and sometimes without.

Ensui left a little after dinner, exhausted from his long mission, after giving both Mayu and Shikamaru a stern lecture about how he expected them to outshine all those other clan kids once their dad lifted the 'no shining' rule. Mayu made sure to shower Shikamaru in affection the rest of the night and he seemed to come out of his funk.

Before they fell asleep, he latched onto her.

"Sorry," he mumbled. "I shouldn't be a jerk. I want you to have other friends but..."

Mayu huffed. "It's okay. It's kind of nice, that you love me so much you don't want to share me."

He grumbled, embarrassed, and she laughed. "Like I said, sometimes I wish you weren't friends with Ino and Chouji but for the most part, I just want you to be happy. So as long as you keep loving me the best, it's okay. And, I'll keep loving you the best, too." she said matter of factly.

He didn't say anything, just snuggled closer, and soon they were both asleep.

That night, Mayu dreamed of bleeding out on a cold cement floor. Everything had a blurry, surreal feel to it and her vision kept fading in and out. She knew that she hurt...everywhere, basically, and that the worst pain was coming from inside her mouth.

She was choking on her own blood and laughing. Two minutes left, she thought to herself analytically.

Her body grew colder and though she was in pain, she felt only relief, because it would end soon and that man couldn't go through with the promises he'd made her last time he'd been in to 'play.'

A heavy door swung open, blowing stale, freezing air across her battered body, but she barely felt it. 

60 seconds, she thought. Too late, and somebody was shaking her limp body and screaming obscenities at her. She couldn't answer, but she could laugh and so she did, long and loud, until she was cut off by the final pull of death...

Mayu sat up with a gasp, hands flying to her mouth, then over her body. All in one piece. She had been having this dream off and on since she had almost died in the forest seven months ago. It wasn't a true nightmare, but a memory. She scowled, because the truth behind her first death didn't seem in any huge hurry to reveal itself in its entirety to her and Mayu hated nothing so much as not knowing.

"Mayu," Shikamaru said. He sat up and wrapped a hand around her wrist in a loose grip. "Another nightmare?"

"Yes," she said, taking in another slow breath. He knew better than to hug her when she was still shaking off the residual fear and instead ran a hand through her sweaty hair until her shudders started to subside. Finally, she was calm enough to let him pull her back down under the sheets. He slowly wrapped an arm around her and when she didn't flinch away went into full body cuddle mode.

She clutched his shirt in her hand. You're alive, she repeated to herself over and over again until she fell asleep. You're alive.

 

000

 

The next day went much like the last, though this time Shikamaru didn't glare Kiba away when he plopped down in front of them. He had brought one of the kids he'd been roughhousing with yesterday, who was wearing a bright orange jumpsuit and goggles, a big smile, and had the loneliest eyes Mayu had ever seen. He also seemed incredibly familiar. Oh, and he was completely obnoxious.

"I'm Uzumaki Naruto and I'm going to be the Hokage! Believe it!" Shikamaru grimaced at his loud voice and Mayu flinched, though she continued to study him.

"I'm Nomaka Mayu, this is Nara Shikamaru, and next to him is Akimichi Chouji," she said, then snapped her fingers as she realized where she knew him from. The last time she'd seen him, he hadn't been bothering with the smiles.

"You used to live at the orphanage!" she said, then regretted it when he flinched and Shikamaru sighed.

"Ah...sorry, was that rude?" she mumbled, as Kiba let out a loud laugh at her expense. "It's just, I lived there too...do you remember me?"

Naruto tilted his head at her and narrowed his eyes. "Hmm...are you the little blue haired girl who used to make the other orphans cry all the time?"

Shikamaru snickered and Kiba let out an even louder laugh. She crossed her arms over her chest.

"I didn't make all of them cry. And only when they picked on me first!"

It was true - she'd been a loner and strange and for a long while, angry at her situation until she'd decided to just suck it up. So her first years at the orphanage were a little rocky.

"You still there?" Naruto asked and she shook her head.

"No, Shikamaru's parents took me in as a ward about a year ago," she said and noticed the jealousy that passed across his face for a moment before he gave her a bright smile, that, to his credit, was honest if a bit wistful.

"That's great, you know!"

She didn't ask where he'd disappeared to - no matter what Shikamaru said, she did have a filter and it wasn't like she didn't understand the loneliness of orphan life.

Kiba stayed friendly with them and stuck close to her during kunai throwing and meditation, but spent lunch with Naruto and a few other boys who matched his rough and tumble personality a bit better. Which was fine with Mayu. She was already overwhelmed with the sheer amount of children everywhere.

That afternoon, Yoshino marched them straight home and told Shikamaru he was free to do whatever he wanted while she worked with Mayu. Apparently, he and Shikaku would be training after dinner, in the evenings, but Yoshino wanted daylight for her work with Mayu. Shikamaru asked if he could come with them, curious, and Yoshino shrugged.

"It's fine, just don't get in the way!"

There was a small trunk already sitting on the porch and Yoshino motioned them over when she opened it and revealed seven scrolls nestled in foam. Mayu could see there was another layer beneath, but Yoshino shook her head when she went to pull out the top shelf to reveal what was below.

"Sorry, Mayu-chan, but you can't see what's in there until you master the first four stages."

"Stages?" Mayu asked.

"Aa. Sit down, let me tell you about my grandmother."

They both obeyed and their mother took a moment to gather her thoughts before beginning.

"Before my grandmother married, her family name was Hashino - my name plays on that, actually. This clan was once well known, but not because they were a ninja clan. They were actually entertainers," she said, grinning at Shikamaru's raised eyebrows.

"They were very famous and were welcomed into any country, but affiliated with none of them. They prided themselves on their neutrality, choosing to focus on their arts instead of politics. There was a problem though, with neutrality," she said seriously. "They didn't want to hire ninja for protection on the road from any one of the villages for fear of seeming allied with one over the other. The villages were very new then and sensitive about such things."

Yoshino had fallen into the cadence of a storyteller and both Mayu and Shikamaru were sucked into her tale.

"The solution offered itself in the form of a marriage. My grandmother's grandmother fell in love with an unaffiliated nin - a taijutsu expert," she said with a grin.

"He saw the problem when their caravan was attacked by bandits after he first married my great-great-great grandmother. If he hadn't been there, it would have been a devastating attack. So, he set about creating a new style of defense just for the clan. It was the dancers and tumblers who took well to it, of course, and eventually, a whole group splintered off to focus completely on the safety of the clan. They were already chakra users - that was part of what made their performances so good - so it was an easy task to turn all of that flexibility and strength into a very effective and beautiful style of taijutsu.

"Eventually, the Hashinos became too well known for their ninja arts along with their performance arts and when my grandmother, a known prodigy of the Hashino Deadly Dance style, was fifteen a group of ninja attacked and killed most of the clan. There was never any proof one way or another that a village was behind it, but my grandmother always suspected Iwa."

"So what you want to teach me..." Mayu began, slowly, "is this Deadly Dance style?"

Yoshino nodded. "Yes - my grandmother taught me after my mother died. I was never as good as she was, so I never mastered it, but I'm good enough to teach you most of it. I think with your size and flexibility, you'll do well."

"Now," she clapped her hands. "You can see there are seven scrolls here. Each scroll details what you need to master before moving on to the next. Got it?" Mayu nodded and eagerly took the scroll from the first slot that Yoshino handed her.

And wow, that was...a lot of information. Shikamaru read over her shoulder for the next 45 minutes as she scanned it. It seemed like the first step was more a mastery of movement and flexibility. It reminded Mayu of gymnastics classes she'd been forced to take as a child Before, but much more complex. The scroll was also very clear on the use of chakra in level one. In a word: don't.

Yoshino went inside and when she reappeared she was wearing a pair of stretch shorts and a tank top, and her hair was pulled up. Mayu had already changed into something similar and felt a bit of dread pool in her stomach as she followed her mother out to the yard, Shikamaru settling under a tree in the shade.

"Okay, first we start with some stretches. These are a lot more intense than your current morning stretches, Mayu, and I expect you to switch to them instead from now on," Yoshino said, then proceeded to lead Mayu through a very painful and awkward half an hour.

They spent another half an hour tumbling around the grass, which Mayu actually enjoyed before Yoshino called a halt so she could start dinner. Mayu gladly followed Shikamaru to their cloud watching hill and collapsed next to him in a heap.

"Ugh, that was so brutal," she said, already dreading the next morning when she'd be forcing her muscles into painful stretches.

He made a sound of agreement. "I didn't know all that about my mom's family."

"Well, have you ever asked?"

"No. I guess I've always just known that I would follow the Nara way, so I didn't even think about it. But...I wouldn't mind having something from both sides of my family."

Mayu turned her head to look at him. "I'm sure mom would teach you if you asked," she said gently. "She probably just didn't think you'd want to do that on top of your clan training. Do you want that on top of your clan training?"

He huffed, then shrugged. "I don't know. Seems like it'd be unfair since you can't sit in with me and dad...ouch!"

He pulled his arm away from her fingers, where she'd given him a pinch, and glared. 

"Idiot. Like I care about that! I like doing things with you, so it wouldn't bother me. But...I really didn't think you'd be sad to do less training."

Shikamaru looked back up at the clouds. "I don't like it, but, there's a good chance I'm going to be clan head. I didn't really think about what that responsibility entailed until...until something precious to me was almost taken." 

Mayu bit her lip. "Shikamaru...it's not your fault that I got hurt, you know."

He shrugged. "I know that but, that time, with Watana, I wasn't able to protect you. I don't want to feel that helpless again, so, even though it's a pain, I've decided to work harder at becoming strong."

Mayu swallowed a lump in her throat. "I thought you were very brave, trying to protect me. You reminded me of your father."

He rolled over and she sighed as he full body pillowed her. After a moment, he groaned. "You're sweaty and it's gross."

 

000

 

The next few weeks flew by in a blur of school, training, cloud watching, and whenever she got a chance, studying chemistry. Soon there were sheets of paper posted all over her walls with equations, elements, reactions of certain chemicals when combined that she found interesting and rules scribbled all over them. The rest of the family began avoiding her room religiously.

She had begged and pleaded and negotiated until she convinced Ensui to check out some higher level chemistry books for her - she wasn't old enough to get into that section on her own - that she read in her room at night while Shikamaru was sleeping. The extra amount of explosive tags that Ensui had demanded from her in exchange were more than worth it, even if they took up a full Sunday to complete.

The day after she accidentally filled the house with the pungent odor of rotten eggs after a 'small miscalculation' when mixing together a few chemicals, Shikaku marched her out to the shed when he got home.

Her eyes widened when he opened the door to reveal that the space had been cleaned out and two workbenches were now lining each side. Someone had also added strips of lighting and a vent to the ceiling and she spotted a space heater tucked into the shelves built beneath the workspace.

"I hired a genin team to set this up for you. Now, stop experimenting in the house," he said with a glare.

She spent the next half hour crying into his shoulder, insisting that nobody had ever done something so nice for her before. Sometimes, it hit her all over again, that she had a family and she wasn't alone anymore.

Two weeks after starting at the academy, she finally made it into the wood shop, where a cranky and hung over Akinobu glared at her.

"I thought you'd finally decided to give me a break and start spending your time elsewhere," he muttered into a mug of tea and she grinned.

"Nope! I've just been busy with school and Yoshino has started a special training program for me too. Don't worry, I won't just stop coming, Akinobu-sensei," she said in the upbeat tone she knew drove him nuts.

"Ugh, we could only be so lucky," he muttered.

"Hey Akinobu-sensei, I want to run something by you." She pulled the round battered leather case from where it was strapped to her back.

Akinobu had given it to her since 'nobody associated with his shop would be seen mistreating schematics,' or something.

"Go away," he groaned, putting his head on the counter and making some of his employees snicker.

"You'll like it, I promise! I've created some schematics for a chair that I know you'll be interested in."

His head shot up and he narrowed his eyes at her. He'd been trying to get her to create something for him for awhile now, but she'd resisted because furniture was boring. Also, there hadn't been anything to gain from it at the time.

"I'm pretty busy these days, Akinobu-sensei, so it's hard to find time at the shop on top of needing to match the hours for your tasks." She pulled out a few rolled up papers. "So I thought, maybe I could give you a new design in exchange for hours in the shop, instead."

He narrowed his bloodshot eyes at her. "Depends on how good the design is and how many hours we're talking about."

She blew out an exasperated breath of air. Like it was actually any skin off his back when she was there. "Oh, they're very good. And unlimited."

He snorted. "Try again."

"Thirty hours a week."

"Five."

"Twenty."

"Seven hours."

"Nineteen hours."

"Fifteen hours a week and that's only if this is really as good as you say."

She knew he wouldn't go any higher. That was fine - she honestly hadn't expected him to go above ten. He must have wanted this more than she thought.

"Deal," she said and they shook on it before she handed over the schematics.

He laid them out on the table, brow furrowing at first as he looked them over before his expression became thoughtful and then interested.

"I call it The Lazy-Boy Recliner! Fits the Nara brand and everything," she said and laughed at his unamused expression.

"Very funny. Fine, this is acceptable." He spent the next hour arguing with her over materials and details.

She thought maybe she should feel guilty for stealing the intellectual property of an idea from Before, but shrugged that off as ridiculous. 

Mayu could scarcely believe it when she found that once again Shikamaru's birthday was coming up. This time, she had planned accordingly and was already finished with his present - a small, delicate fawn to go with his doe, which was displayed proudly on a shelf in his room - so there was no stress there.

His birthday fell on a school day, so they'd had the party the weekend before. Once again it was mostly a gathering of the Yamanaka, Nara, and Akimichi who were close to the family, though this time most of the clan children from their class had been invited.

Shikamaru had grumbled about politics but hadn't complained past that. He didn't seem to mind the other kids, though he didn't make a huge effort to make friends with anyone outside of Mayu and Chouji, even if he and Kiba seemed to get along okay if all the class skipping they'd been doing was any indication.

Yoshino let them sleep in on the actual day of his birthday and both parents let them off the hook for training that afternoon, as well. Shikamaru gave Mayu the sad eyes until she agreed to skip their afternoon classes and they snuck up onto the cloud watching hill, bundled in winter coats and snuggled together for warmth, just like the year before.

Yoshino gave them a half-hearted scolding when she found them up there instead of in class, but Mayu could see the fondness behind it. They ended up inside drinking hot chocolate while Shikamaru won two games of shogi. Shikaku came home early, Ensui trailing behind him, fresh off a mission and with his arm in a sling. Mayu and Yoshino fussed over him, Mayu by sprawling across Ensui's lap and asking invasive questions about his health and then answering them for him in the same breath while Yoshino scolded him for not being careful.

After dinner, they settled around the living room playing board games and Yoshino insisted that Ensui stay in their guest room.

"I thought that was Mayu-chan's room now?" he asked.

"I usually just sleep with Shika," she said unashamedly and he raised his eyebrows.

"Aren't you two getting a little old to share a bed?" He glanced at Shikaku.

Mayu opened her mouth to reply, but Yoshino distracted them with dessert and the subject was dropped. The next morning Ensui claimed the chemistry notes all over the walls gave him nightmares, shuddering dramatically.

A week later, Shikaku appeared next to Mayu and Shikamaru as they were heading to bed. "Yesterday was the last night that you guys share a bed," he said in his rarely used this is not negotiable voice.

"What! Why?" Mayu asked, ignoring the warning in his tone.

"Ensui's right, you're getting too old. You're not related, not even legally by adoption, and I don't want you two worrying about rumors down the line."

Mayu's jaw dropped and Shikamaru blushed a deep red.

"I'm seven!" she protested.

"Your dad's right," Yoshino chimed in from the doorway of her and Shikaku's bedroom. "Also, you need to learn to sleep on your own. In a few years, you'll be ninja. It's not good to have such a dependent relationship with somebody. It's okay to be close, but the two of you rely on one another too much." She said the last bit in a gentle voice.

Mayu looked from one of her parents' faces to the other, seeing they wouldn't be swayed. She exchanged a miserable look with Shikamaru, who also seemed to understand they wouldn't win this argument.

"We'll hear you if you try to switch rooms at night," Yoshino said, "so don't think that'll work."

Mayu clenched her fists at her sides and without another word strode into her room and slammed the door, throwing herself facedown on her bed. It wasn't fair, it's not like there was actually anything wrong with them sleeping in the same bed. They were children! Sure, Shikamaru was part of a clan and the son of the clan head at that. Her throat tightened. Right, couldn't have people thinking he was too close to some nameless orphan that had been taken in out of pity.

Mayu knew that wasn't how Yoshino and Shikaku felt, but it was how others saw their situation. It stung that the views of some uptight clan members were affecting how they treated her. Outside her door, she could hear Shikamaru having a whispered argument with his parents - she heard the word nightmares and covered her head with a pillow until she heard the sound of his door closing as well.

A few minutes later, her door opened and the bed dipped next to her. "I'm sorry, Mayu-chan," Shikaku said. "But this really is for your own good."

She remained stubbornly silent and he sighed. "If you have nightmares, you can come in and sleep with Yoshino and I, okay?"

H reached out to squeeze her shoulder before he left the room.

In some sort of backward revenge, Mayu stayed up reading a book on chemical reactions to chakra and was a silent, gloomy zombie the next morning while they went through her stretches and morning workout. Shikamaru kept shooting her worried glances and grabbed her hand on the walk to school. She had pointedly ignored everybody all morning, which had made Shikaku's face twist up in what looked like pain before he left and had triggered Yoshino's temper.

She took a page out of Shikamaru's book and slept through her morning classes. Another four days went by like that, with Mayu barely speaking to her parents and spending most of her time in a foul mood. She had made Ino cry when she made a snide comment about Mayu being a thundercloud and Shikamaru finally seemed to have had enough, because he stomped away in a huff after telling her to grow up. She couldn't even really blame him - he was upset, too, but she'd been making it tough for him at home. He didn't have the doubts running through his head that they might be ashamed of the little orphan girl.

Mayu was slumped against a tree by herself at lunch, picking at her food, when Kiba sat down next to her and unceremoniously plopped Akamaru in her lap. She blinked in surprise as the little dog yapped up at her.

"What...?" Shikaku had told her it was considered rude to pet somebody else's ninken without being offered first, so she'd never held him before.

"You've smelled miserable for the past four days," Kiba said with a shrug. "Akamaru always makes me feel better and he likes you, so." He turned his face away and a small blush appeared on his cheeks.

"Really? I like you too Akamaru," she said, tentatively running a hand over his soft fur.

"I can tell you don't want to talk about it, but you also seemed lonely over here, so," he shifted uncomfortably and opened his lunch.

"I know you like to play with the others during lunch," she said softly. "You don't have to..."

He waved that off. "We're friends, aren't we? My ma says friends are supposed to cheer each other up when they're sad."

She stared at him and he laughed. "What? You defended me against the Yamanaka that first day. To an Inuzuka, that's a declaration of friendship. So deal with it,."

She thought about this as she scratched Akamaru's belly and felt her mood lighten a bit.

"Hey," she said, "how do you feel about skipping class to break into a chemistry lab?"

 

000

 

Two hours later, they were deep in the Inuzuka clan forest, which was a lot more wild than the Nara forest. Here, the trees were smaller and underbrush and fallen trees made navigation trickier. They were both studying a beaker full of a blue liquid that they'd set on a stump.

"So what did you need this for?" he asked, wrinkling his nose at the smell.

Mayu grinned at him and couldn't help but appreciate that he hadn't once asked why she wanted to break into the Nara labs, though with his hearing and smell he'd made a great lookout while she picked locks and pilfered from the supplies.

"I read in a book that this particular mixture becomes unstable with the addition of chakra, but I couldn't find anywhere exactly what they meant by unstable, so I wanted to see for myself."

Kiba side-eyed her, then shrugged. "Whatever floats your boat."

"Okay, you and Akamaru go on the other side of that tree there," she indicated a large tree that was about fifteen feet behind them.

"What about you?" he asked suspiciously and she waved him off.

"I'll hide behind that log there, it's only big enough for me and my chakra thread won't extend any farther from me yet."

She made her way over to the fallen log and crouched behind it, pulling a pair of safety goggles down over her eyes from her forehead. She waited until Kiba and Akamaru were safely away before concentrating on the chakra thread. It slowly extended from her index finger across the six feet of space and she started sweating as she raised it above the open top of the beaker.

Finally, after a few misses, she touched the tip into the liquid. The stump exploded. Mayu pushed herself up from where she'd been thrown halfway across the newly created clearing, shaking her head back and forth to clear it.

"So that's what they meant by unstable," she said over the ringing in her ears.

She looked to the right at the sound of a snort and saw Kiba and Akamaru, half their bodies covered in bits of wood from where they'd been exposed looking around the tree.

"Man, that was awesome!" He frowned and looked closely at her. "I smell blood..."

He ran over to her and gingerly touched her shoulder. She winced and looked down. A piece of wood as long as her finger was embedded in the meat just below her right collarbone.

"Huh," she said, "that indicates that there was a pretty big force of expansion, though the flames themselves weren't that impressive."

She was cut off by the sound of running and howling and Kiba's expression became panicked. "Oh damn, I'm in so much trouble," he said right before two huge ninken and their Inuzuka counterparts burst into the clearing.

 

000

 

Kiba's mother was extremely intimidating. Mayu meekly sat on the exam table at the Inuzuka Clan's clinic which was apparently for dogs and people. An amused looking man named Haru was working on extracting the splinter from her shoulder. He had already healed her, Kiba, and Akamaru's ears, so at least the annoying ringing had stopped.

"So you decided to skip class and blow up my forest, did ya?" Inuzuka Tsume asked the two of them and Kiba winced.

His head was down and tilted a bit to the side in what Mayu was pretty sure was a show of submission.

"Sorry, Inuzuka-sama, it was my fault," Mayu said. "Kiba was trying to cheer me up and said I could use the forest to try something out. He didn't know it would explode."

She snorted. "So am I to assume you did know it would blow up?"

Mayu cringed. "Not...exactly? I wasn't sure what would happen, just that it would become unstable with the addition of chakra."

Tsume narrowed her eyes at her. "Alright, kid, I'm gonna send Kuromaru ta fetch your parents. Where can I find them?"

Mayu felt a spike of panic but had a feeling this woman would be unmoved by The Eyes.

"Um, I'm the ward of Shikaku and Yoshino Nara, but Shikaku's at work and Yoshino goes out to tea Thursday afternoons with girlfriends, I don't know where exactly..." she brightened. "But Ensui-niisan should be at the compound!"

"Ensui huh? "I've worked with him a few times. Think you could track 'im down Kuromaru?"

"I remember his scent," the huge dog said and Mayu's eyes widened in interest.

Kiba shook his head at her, well aware of her tendency to let curiosity get the better of her, and she slumped back down. Kuromaru looked amused, like he knew exactly what she'd been thinking, but just turned on his heel and ran out the door.

"So, you're the brat that poisoned Shikaku and his wife," Tsume said with a grin. "You're famous in a lot of circles, kid."

"I didn't poison them! I mean, I might have mixed the poison, sure, but they're the ones that ran straight into it," she said with a pout.

Kiba was staring at her like she was the best thing he'd ever seen. "You poisoned Nara Shikaku?" he said in an awed voice and Mayu groaned in exasperation, then winced as the medic finally took hold of the splinter and pulled it out.

When an out-of-breath Ensui arrived at the clinic, she was being fitted with a sling. He ran focused eyes over her. "Kuromaru said you were injured in the forest. What happened? Are you alright?" He reached a hand towards the sling as if to touch it, but stopped short.

"She's fine," Haru said. "The sling is just to make sure she doesn't aggravate the injury while it heals."

"What. Happened," Ensui said in his scary voice and Mayu leaned away from him. Tsume just snorted.

"Calm down, Nara, she's fine. She just got hit with a bit of shrapnel while she was blowing things up in my forest."

Ensui took that in before he groaned and dropped his head. "Seriously, Mayu? If you were playing with explosive tags, I'll hang you outside the Nara gates by your toes."

"I wasn't! I swear! I just wanted to see what would happen when I added a bit of chakra to a chemical compound..." she drifted off at the look on his face.

"And why," he said in a soft voice, "would you do this on Inuzuka land?"

She noticed he didn't even bother asking why she would do it in the first place, which probably said a lot about her.

"Uh...because I figured Yoshino would definitely never find out if I did it on the other side of Konoha?"

He gave her a sharp look at her use of Yoshino's name instead of the 'mom' she'd been using, but didn't comment in front of their audience.

Tsume broke into obnoxious laughter. "Oh man, I can see that. That woman is terrifying. She served as a medic for my team a few times during the war. Once I saw her kill a huge hulking brute of a man from Kumo with her bare hands when he tried to kill her patient."

Mayu gulped and looked at Ensui. "Do we have to tell her?"

Ensui gave her an unamused look, then turned to Tsume. "My brother will reach out to you about the damage. He's used to it by now."

"Eh, don't worry about it. It was just a couple trees - she kinda did us a favor, it'll make a nice clearing for training the new pups. I'll just send him the bill for the healing and genin team I'll hire for cleanup."

Ensui looked a little ill at her description of the damage, but just nodded and motioned for Mayu to follow him. She jumped off the exam table, ignoring the pain in her shoulder at the jolt. "Thanks, Tsume-sama, Haru-san. I'll see you later, Kiba!" 

She followed Ensui out into the cold air. The walk out of the compound was silent but for the crunch of their boots on the frozen ground and brown leaves. After they'd crossed out of Inuzuka lands he turned abruptly right off the main path and into an empty training ground.

Mayu hesitated before following him. He stopped and turned towards her. His face was stern, and he looked more angry at her than he had in a long time.

"Mayu, I'm extremely disappointed in you."

She gaped at him, chest tight. "I...I really didn't know it would react so...so violently! I thought a small fire, at the most -"

Ensui waved his hand in irritation. "Not about your stupid experiment, I'll let Yoshino deal with you on that. Though I have to say, I do not enjoy being interrupted in the middle of a nap to hear you've been injured," he said sternly, then sighed. "I'm upset about the way you've been treating my brother and Yoshino."

"That's none of your business -"

"It is when my brother is so upset by it."

Mayu pursed her lips and looked down, but didn't reply. Ensui sighed and crouched down, lifting her chin so he could meet her gaze.

"You're a good girl, Mayu, which is why I'm so surprised. I know you don't like not getting your way, but this reaction is pretty extreme."

"It - it's not about getting my way," she protested and was annoyed when her lower lip started trembling.

"Then what's this about, hm?"

"They...they're ashamed of me," she said and had to wipe angry tears from her eyes.

"Bullshit."

"They don't want Shikamaru to deal with the embarrassment of people gossiping about him and the poor little orphan that they took in out of pity." 

Ensui gaped at her. "How in the world did you get that from them telling you that you two were getting too old to share a bed?" He seemed honestly baffled.

"Because that's exactly what they said!" She crossed her uninjured arm over her chest when a small niggle of doubt made itself known in the back of her mind.

"They said that word for word, huh?" he asked, doubt dripping from every word, and she looked away.

"Well, they said they didn't want people to talk when we got older..."

Ensui sighed explosively. "First of all, they were worried about that not because they want Shikamaru to have a squeaky clean reputation, but because they probably didn't want you to have to deal with that. Women have it tougher than men that way. Besides, the biggest reason they decided to do this was that it's just not healthy for you two to be so dependent on each other." He held up a hand when she opened her mouth to argue.

"Listen, Mayu, you had a rough start of it - don't give me that look, you did, anybody with half a brain can see that - so it's no surprise you latched onto Shikamaru the way you did. And he's been crazy about you from day one - two peas in a pod, which is great. What's not great is that you two are starting not to function well without the other. And in your future careers? That's gonna be pretty painful on both of you."

Mayu was quiet while she thought over Ensui's words. They sounded so reasonable when he put it that way. She sighed and looked down at her feet, trying to see her and Shikamaru's relationship from the outside. And, okay, yeah, they did tend to follow each other around like puppies, and she'd spent months agonizing over whether they'd be in the same class and making contingency plans on how to be moved into his class if the worst happened.

"I've been kind of a jerk, huh?" she said in a small voice and Ensui grinned.

"A bit, yeah, but obviously my stupid brother didn't do a great job explaining himself if you came away thinking you were some black mark on the family's impeccable reputation," he said dryly and okay, she got it, he could stop looking so amused at her expense.

"Now come on, I'm taking you to Shikaku. He'll kill me if I wait until the end of the day and Yoshino is too terrifying when she's worried, I'm not jumping in front of that kunai."

He picked her up and set her on his hip, being careful of her injured shoulder and ignoring her protests that she could walk.

"Just let me have this, kid," he finally said, exasperated.

He made their way to the administrative building, Mayu fidgeting with nerves, Ensui lazily waving to people who greeted them and gave Mayu's less-than-stellar appearance a curious look. When they got to the office Shouta glanced up, then did a double-take when he caught sight of Mayu. Her coat was covered in splinters and her hair had come out of its braid and also housed a bird's nest worth of shredded wood. The sling and blood stain on her right shoulder completed the pitiful picture.

"What -" he started, but Ensui cut him off.

"Is my esteemed brother available?" he asked and Shouta nodded and motioned for them to go inside, obviously holding back his questions while giving Mayu a wary look.

Ensui knocked once before opening the door. Shikaku looked up from his desk and his eyes widened when they landed on his ward. He was up and across the room in a moment.

"Mayu-chan! What happened?"

Mayu looked at his worried expression and felt horrible for the way she'd been treating him the last four days. She reached for him and her eyes filled with tears. He hastily took her from Ensui.

"Mayu, what is it?" he asked, moving over to one of the chairs and motioning for Ensui to close the door. He settled her into his lap and looked up at Ensui.

Before he could speak, Mayu was talking. "I'm sorry I was a jerk. I love you, please don't be mad."

He looked baffled but pulled her into his chest and rubbed her back. "I'm not mad, Mayu-chan. I know you were just upset, it's fine. As a parent, it's part of the package."

That made her cry even harder and he sighed. "Ensui..."

Ensui looked uncomfortable and suspiciously guilty as he moved towards the door. Mayu thought he was probably regretting being so blunt with her at the sight of her tears.

"Uh, Mayu skipped class and blew up enough of the Inuzuka forest. She'll be fine in a few days and Tsume's sending you the bill," he said, then disappeared in a swirl of leaves.

Shikaku blinked in shock and then sighed and resigned himself to getting no more work done that day.

 

000

 

Mayu spent the evening being either scolded by Yoshino and Shikamaru or coddled by them and had clung to Shikaku to the point where he had just sighed and lay down on the couch, letting her cuddle into his side with her injured shoulder carefully angled away from him. Shikamaru had sprawled over his dad's chest and Yoshino sat at the end of the couch reading with their feet spread over her lap.

Shikaku had locked her out of her shed for two weeks as punishment for what he called 'unauthorized exploding,' but didn't actually seem that mad. Probably because nobody realized she had stolen the chemicals instead of creating them from her own kit.

By the next day, everyone had heard about Mayu and Kiba's adventure and were equal parts awed and disbelieving. Kiba had wasted no time telling everybody in a loud voice just how big the explosion was.

He then pointed to Mayu's shoulder as proof and said, "You should have seen the stick she had pokin' into her shoulder!" He held up two fingers about six inches apart. "It was this big!"

"What," Shikamaru said flatly and she winced.

She had told the Nara family she'd her injury was a laceration from some shrapnel from a tree but hadn't gone into detail other than it'd take a week to heal.

"Uh," she said and shrunk away from his glare.

"You are not allowed out of my sight."

And for the rest of the winter, he pretty much kept his word. He walked her to the woodshop and picked her up in time for dinner on the two days a week she went and had started training in the Hashino Deadly Dance Style alongside her once she was healed. Yoshino had warned him that he'd probably never make it past the third stage - he wasn't flexible enough or built for the kind of dexterity it required, but he had just shrugged. "It still seems useful," he'd insisted.

In the evenings that he trained with Shikaku in the clan techniques, she usually spent that time training with chakra threads with Yoshino. By the time spring rolled around, she could stretch one out all the way across the yard, or create two shorter ones, though she was still working on moving them independently from each other. It was slow and frustrating, but Mayu knew it'd be worth it. Yoshino herself hadn't gone past that point, but everything Mayu read on the subject indicated there was a bit of a cognitive barrier that everybody had to cross. Then things would just 'click,' and progress would be less slow. She just had to keep pushing through it.

Her sealing training continued on an irregular basis with Ensui, who was only home about two Saturdays every month, and she still found it painfully boring. Mayu spent Sundays lazing around with Shikamaru and catching up on reading and had taken to slipping out her window at night to work in her little shed slash chemistry lab.

She knew that Shikaku and Yoshino knew she was doing it, but they never said anything, other than pointed comments about not blowing anything up. Mayu didn't have to be told twice - every time she walked by an Inuzuka they started snickering and it was getting pretty annoying.

Mayu's eighth birthday came and went - she had insisted on a small dinner with the family, as she wasn't a fan of gatherings.

"They're dull," she said when Ensui asked about it, wrinkling her nose in distaste.

At Yoshino's insistence, she invited Akinobu and Kiba and sighed but also agreed to Chouji and Ino. Not that she minded Chouji, but leaving Ino out would have been an insult to her clan, or something. What kind of self-respecting adult worried about children's birthday parties? When she said as much to Yoshino at dinner one night she found herself on the end of a very long and extensive lecture on being kind and furthering relationships with allies and friends.

"I highly doubt anybody is giving this lecture to Ino when she's making me contemplate throwing myself down a flight of stairs to get out of an afternoon with her," she said bluntly, making Ensui spray tea across the table and Shikaku pinch his nose.

Shikamaru sighed but didn't comment. And while it was true that Ino wasn't anything close to a bad person and was pretty smart in her own way, just about everything that came out of the girl's mouth made Mayu want to strangle her.

Ino's initial admiration of Sasuke had turned into a full-blown obsession, with Sakura and half the other girls in the class happily following her lead. Sasuke seemed completely unaffected, his only concern being bettering himself in the ninja arts, or whatever pompous way he had of declaring himself the best there ever was that day.

Actually, Mayu found most of her class to be painfully annoying when she paid attention to them at all, with the exception of Shikamaru, Chouji, Kiba, a few focused kids from civilian families, and Hyuuga Hinata, who was so pathetically shy and unsure that it was impossible to even think mean things about her.

Naruto was okay, but he was so loudly cheerful while being quietly miserable that he made her feel both annoyed and depressed at once when he was around. Unlike when others were annoying her, however, she kept her cutting comments to a minimum, because while she might not be a paragon of kindness or polite conversation she wasn't a complete jerk. She even shared her lunch with him every once in awhile when he 'forgot' his because she could still remember what it felt like to be hungry.

Kiba showed up Saturday afternoon for the party with Akamaru on his head and a messily wrapped present under his arm. Yoshino exclaimed over Akamaru's shining white coat - obviously just washed - and herded Kiba into the backyard where Mayu was attempting to weave two leaves in a distinct pattern in the air with chakra threads. She was halfway succeeding.

"Hey Kiba," she said, releasing the threads and letting the leaves fall to the ground.

"Hey! Happy birthday," he said with a wide grin. "Where's your little shadow?" he asked and she rolled her eyes at the nickname he'd given Shikamaru after he'd started following Mayu around to 'keep her out of trouble.'

"He's on the edge of the Nara forest with Ino and Chouji."

"Ah, I see why ya decided to wait for me here," he said and she put her nose in the air.

"I'll have you know I'm just being a good host," she said primly.

"Yeah, yeah." He threw his arm around her shoulders after they were over the fence.

They spent a few hours playing tag in the woods - something Shikamaru and Mayu were surprisingly good at, due to their ability to twist and flip out of the way from their torturous practices with Yoshino. Eventually, Ensui appeared beside them to herd them back towards the house for dinner, cake and presents.

She got a summer wardrobe from her parents that left Ino green with envy, along with some refills for her chemistry kit, which made her beam at them. Ensui had gotten her chakra paper, scrolls, ink and brushes, which made her eyes just about pop out of her skull when she realized how much it must have cost. When she tried to protest he just waved her away. Akinobu, who had been in an incredibly good mood the last few months - ever since the new 'Lazy-boy' line had exploded in popularity - had ordered her some special wood that he told her was at the shop under 'her' workbench.

"It's chakra-conductive and lightweight," he said gruffly, "and ninja who specialize in puppetry swear by 'em."

She had launched herself at him for a hug, but he'd grabbed her by her collar and held her away from him like something particularly distasteful.

"Thank you Akinobu-sensei!" She had grinned at him from where she was hanging in the air until Ensui sighed and plucked her out of the woodworker's grasp, putting her firmly back into her chair.

Kiba's family had gifted her a nice set of kunai from a popular supplier and she admired the gleam of the metal before smiling at Kiba and thanking him. He waved it off and Akamaru barked.

"Mom says we owe you for the entertainment factor. She said sending the head of the Nara clan a bill for you blowin' up part of our property was going to keep her upbeat through some of her darkest hours for years," he said, wrinkling forehead as he tried to remember her exact words.

Ensui and Shikaku both pinched the bridge of their noses and Yoshino sighed. "Well, it's a very nice gift, either way," she said primly.

Mayu agreed and secretly couldn't help but appreciate a clan that thought explosions were a good thing.

Shikamaru had put together a custom trap and survival kit, with carefully written out strategies and scenarios for use. Her eyes widened because this must have taken hours. She had thrown her arms around him and given him a kiss on the cheek, and he blushed a bright red but looked extremely pleased with her enthusiastic reception of his gift.

Ensui for some reason thought this was the funniest thing he'd ever seen, which made Shikamaru sink low in his seat and break out the Nara Pout, admittedly making Mayu's day even better. Yoshino slapped Ensui on the back of his head to get him to behave and Akinobu eyed the sake bottle on the table.

The Monday after her birthday, Yoshino declared both her children ready for the second stage of the Hashino Deadly Dance style. Mayu was excited up until she realized this involved an even more torturous form of stretching and 'speed training,' which was actually just a lot of sprinting while Yoshino timed them and yelled 'encouragements.' They continued to do the flips and twists and tumbles they'd learned in stage one but now started to feed chakra into their muscles, which involved a lot of overextending or under extending that ended in various bruised body parts as they lost control of their momentum and hit the ground.

And so summer was in full swing, along with a month off from school. Mayu had asked Yoshino to spend some time with her working on creating poisons and Shikaku and Shikamaru had started making themselves scarce as the house filled with pungent odors and evil giggling while the two discussed some uncomfortable and painful side effects.

As a trained medic, Yoshino knew a thing or two about poisons and Mayu had basically read everything she could find on them, so between the two of them they were able to make quite a few non-lethal options. They started with a batch of the paralytic Mayu had made with disastrous results all those months ago. Then they moved on to a blue powder that created weakness in limbs and delayed perception when inhaled. Last, Yoshino showed her an 'old family recipe' for a poison that knocked the victim unconscious when it entered their bloodstream, though there was a delay of 90 seconds.

Mayu had been creating and discarding plans for her first foray into building her own puppets for months, but one day at the park she was hit by inspiration. She had followed Shikamaru, Ino, and Chouji there out of boredom and was reading under a tree when she caught sight of a spider scurrying across the grass next to her. It was one of those especially intimidating spiders, with the huge fangs and spindly legs that moved so quickly you could barely follow its movements.

You'd be really terrifying if you were bigger, she thought to herself. And, oh. That was perfect. Spiders were scary, fast and poisonous. Before she'd really finished the thought, she'd sent a chakra thread after it and plucked it off the ground to hang in front of her.

She dangled the spider in front of her face, eyes squinting in concentration while she felt around for a notebook and pencil that she usually had on hand. She then carefully began to sketch out a replica of the squirming arachnid on the paper, doing her best to take notes on its maneuverability, flexibility, and joints.

She'd been working on it for about half an hour when she noticed Aburame Shino standing next to her. Though she could only see a part of his face behind his collar and sunglasses, she could tell he wasn't exactly happy at the moment.

"You should put that spider down. Why? Because you are causing it distress when it has done nothing to you," he said.

"Uh...I'm not actually hurting it. I'm just studying it for my drawing."

"Whether you mean to hurt it or not, you are clearly making it suffer," he said in an inflectionless voice and she followed his gaze.

Okay, so the spider did look a little worse for wear after hanging from her thread for so long. It had even stopped its struggles. She grimaced and moved the chakra thread to place the spider gently at the base of the tree.

"Yeah, I guess you're right. I'm done anyway."  The spider took a few seconds to realize it was free and then skittered off into the grass.

She expected the boy to leave, but instead, he sat next to her and peered over at her drawing with interest. "You are in my class." he finally stated and she hummed her agreement.

"Sure am," she said and continued to scribble notes.

"I am Aburame Shino." She glanced over and saw that he was looking distinctly uncomfortable, like he regretted sitting down at all.

"Nomaka Mayu. I guess you're pretty interested in insects and arachnids, what with your family, huh?" she said, not bothering to avoid rudeness since there were no disapproving family members lurking nearby.

"I am a holder of kikaichu, it is true," he said after a short pause and Mayu turned her full attention to him.

"What does that mean, exactly?" She had heard a bit about the Aburame - of course, she had, they were one of the four noble clans, but people just seemed to wrinkle their noses and change the subject when the conversation turned to exactly how their bug jutsu worked.

"I host a hive of insects inside my body in a symbiotic relationship," he said bluntly. "Because they are given a place to live and are allowed to feed on my chakra, in exchange they give me access to certain jutsu and abilities."

"They live inside you? That is... amazing," she breathed.

His head tilt changed slightly into what was probably his version of 'you have surprised me.'

"Usually that is not how people react, because they find the practice of allowing insects to live under your skin disgusting and unnatural."

Mayu rolled her eyes at that. "Well, people, in general, are idiots," she said, then, "can I see?"

Ten minutes later she was studying the beetles crawling across her hand with interest and pumping a bemused Shino with questions when she was interrupted by screeching.

"Ugh, Mayu, what are you doing? " Ino asked, hiding behind a slightly disturbed-looking Chouji.

Shikamaru was standing next to them looking unsurprised at coming upon the scene.

"Shika!" she said, standing and excitedly shoving her bug-covered hand under his nose, "Look! These live inside Shino. Isn't that fascinating? The ninja world is just so cool," she gushed, earning strange looks from the other children and an, "as opposed to what other world?" from Ino.

He sighed and slouched down in a pout. "You never say my shadow techniques are cool."

She flung her free arm around him and held the one with her passengers off to the side to keep them from harm.

"I think shadow techniques are the coolest," she assured him, then skipped back over to Shino.

He held up an arm and the bugs flowed from her hand back under his sleeve. "I must leave because my mother will be expecting me. Mayu, you may come to see me if you need any more help drawing bugs or arachnids. This way, you will not need to torture them again for study. Goodbye Ino, Shikamaru, Chouji."

Mayu watched him as he walked away. "Huh. He might actually be worse at social interaction than I am." 

000

 

Mayu disappeared into Akinobu's shop for the next few weeks, who grumbled about her extra hours spent there but didn't actually kick her out. Shikamaru showed up multiple times to drag her home for dinner or to go cloud watching but seemed generally content to spend his time with Chouji while she was busy.

Two days before she was due back in school, she burst out of the shop clutching a large, wooden spider that looked extremely deadly and not at all like something a child would be hugging like it was a teddy bear. The size of a medium dog, it had a wide, flat abdomen attached to a smaller head. The legs were long and thin and extended up and out from the body, ending in sharp, metal points on the end.

Its face had two large fangs tipped in razor-sharp metal and its dozen eyes were actually dark holes cut into the face, which she had placed tubes into that she planned to fill with her powdered poison someday (she was still working out the mechanics there). Finally, a wicked-looking stinger had been attached beneath the abdomen.

Mayu ignored Akinobu telling her to clean up her mess and darted down the street, intent on the administration building. She didn't bother trying to get rid of Shouta, instead bursting into the outer office of the Jounin Commander, breathless.

Shouta screamed at the sight of the spider and told her that her dad was having tea down the street and not to bother him because something blah blah blah, she was already ignoring him and heading back down the stairs and into the heat of Konoha summer. She darted around the corner and brightened when she saw Shikaku walking down the street between Chouza and Inoichi. There were a few other people with them, but she ignored them in favor of dashing to cut off Shikaku.

"Papa! I finished it. Isn't it beautiful?" she gushed, holding her puppet out in front of her, facing it towards him.

"What the hell!" Inoichi said, jumping back.

Chouza choked on a bite of dango he'd just taken and Shikaku started with a look of horror but seemed to recover quickly. Tsume stepped out from behind a tall regal-looking man with long dark hair and white eyes that Mayu's brain labeled as Hyuuga, probably clan head, cackling while she slapped Chouza on the back to dislodge the food stuck there.

"Ah, Mayu isn't that...something." Shikaku gingerly took the puppet from her and turning it in his hands. "So this is what you've been working on in Akinobu's shop," he muttered, running his hands across the sharp edges and peering into the eye holes.

"Yep. His name is Bukimi and he's going to be so poisonous." She her hands together, gleeful.

Shikaku let out an undignified yelp of alarm and dropped the puppet.

"No!" Mayu gasped and a chakra thread darted out of her index finger and latched onto the puppet, slowing its fall so it didn't break when it hit the ground.

"What the hell, papa?" she scolded, ignoring his admonishment at her language. "Why would you drop Bukimi like that? It's my first puppet, so he's kind of fragile right now, you know?"

"I think he was worried about being poisoned again, Mayu-chan," Chouza said, having recovered from his choking.

Mayu rolled her eyes. "I wouldn't do that to you. Obviously, he's not poisonous yet." 

She pointedly ignored their disbelieving faces and fussed with her puppet, cooing at it.

"You used a chakra thread," a deep voice intoned and Mayu turned to the Hyuuga.

He was still blank-faced and so obviously found her distasteful that she almost laughed.

"Yep! I'm going to be a puppeteer, so Yoshino's been teaching me," she said.

The man would have sneered if it didn't destroy his blank-faced demeanor, she was sure. "Puppeteering is a Suna specialty." By his tone, somebody could have thought they were discussing overflowing sewage plants or dead rotting corpses.

Mayu narrowed her eyes at him. "Not anymore."

Shikaku seemed to sense an imminent disaster because he cut in. "Ah, Hiashi-san, I don't think you've met my ward," and there was a warning to his tone as he spoke to the other man, "This is Nomaka Mayu."

"Nice to meet you, Hyuuga-sama," she said grudgingly with a bow. "It's good to see you again, Tsume-sama, Inoichi, Chouza," she added belatedly.

Shikaku motioned to someone behind her and she turned around as he said "And this is -"

"Oh my god, you're Uchiha Fugaku," she blurted, gaping at the tall, regal man wearing a black shirt with the Military Police Force symbol, a standard flak jacket, and an open-fronted apron with white diamonds on the hem over standard jounin pants. His hair fell to his shoulders and he had a stern face and bearing to rival Hyuuga's.

"It's such an honor to meet you, sir," she said, bowing low.

There was an awkward pause when she stood as the other clan heads took in the change to the girl's demeanor. Her shining eyes staring up at the clan head paired with the creepy puppet still clutched to her chest was actually a bit disturbing.

Finally, Hyuuga Hiashi broke the silence in a wry, disbelieving voice. "Is it really? I must say, not the usual reaction to Fugaku."

Mayu bristled in response to his tone. "Well, I don't see why not. I mean, he's The Uchiha Fugaku! Did you know," she said, getting a fervent look on her face and bouncing up on her toes, "that when he took over the Military Police Force crime across Konoha dropped by nine percent within five years?" She ignored the raised eyebrows around her in favor of gushing.

"Also, even after that whole stupid Kyuubi business, civilian trust in the shinobi force has increased by ten percent since he started his tenure, which was directly attributed to the MPF's peacekeeping efforts, according to a poll done by-"

"Ah, yes, that's enough, Mayu-chan," Shikaku said with a sigh. "I had no idea you held such Fugaku in such high regard, I would have introduced you earlier."

"Oh," Mayu said, bashful. "I couldn't have asked for Uchiha-sama to go out of his way. Especially after Ensui-niisan told me the story of the Flower District Killer! He said that his teammate was there when Uchiha-sama led the raid and that he single-handedly - "

"Mayu," Shikaku said, looking a bit disturbed at this side of his daughter, as Tsume and Inoichi started to laugh in the background and Fugaku's face morphed into a look of horror when he realized the depth of the girl's hero-worship, "I'm afraid we've just finished with a meeting and now we need to get back to our days."

"Oh! Okay." She deflated. "I guess I'll just...go then."

Her face was so mournful that he put his hand on her head. "Maybe tonight you can show me all the ways your puppet can poison your opponents, huh?"

She brightened. "Sure! It has nineteen different points of delivery, isn't that great?"

Shikaku chuckled and patted the top of Mayu's head. "Ah, Mayu-chan, you're such a gift."

 

000

 

The problem with Bukimi was that the design required techniques that were too advanced for Mayu to do anything with. There were just too many moving parts and joints for him to make a good beginner's puppet. Even though she could now push chakra threads through the tips of all of her fingers, she still had trouble working more than two or three independently. Bukimi would need all ten threads until she got better - once she had mastered puppet manipulation she thought she'd be able to get away with four threads, but that was a couple of years away, at least.

When she had realized the problem, she focused on the mechanisms for expelling powdered poisons from his eyes and her chakra thread technique instead. Now halfway through her second year at the academy, she decided it was time to try out a more simplistic puppet to start with.

And so she found herself crouched in the snow next to Shino and his older cousin Muki taking careful notes and sketches of a rounded, slightly adorable beetle that the Aburame told her was called the 'Bombarder Beetle.' Its legs and head were a deep, shining red, and the bulbous black shell covered a fleshy orange abdomen. It had antennae sticking out from its head that were almost as long as the rest of its body.

It's cute appearance was misleading, because when startled or threatened it tended to expel a cloud of hot noxious chemical spray from its abdomen that resulted in severe burns wherever it touched skin and trouble breathing if inhaled.

"I think I'd be able to get away with six strings for control to start with," she said thoughtfully. "And I'd want her to be quick and lightweight so people wouldn't be able to dodge before getting a good spray in the face, so that would make it easier as well. Also, the activation of poison would be a simple switch, if I built the mechanism just right..."

She'd already been given a few samples of the chemical. This wasn't a beetle that was used in the clan techniques, so there was no danger in letting her have some. After a while, she waved goodbye to the stoic Shino and headed out of the Aburame compound. Her feet crunched on the ice and her breath crystallized in the cool air.

Shikamaru was hanging out with Chouji that afternoon and Mayu didn't feel like going back to the house. She turned towards the main streets of Konoha instead. She'd see if Shikaku wanted to have lunch since they'd barely seen him for the past week and a half.

She knew that he had been pulled into an investigation on the mysterious deaths of four jounin, but he'd barely given out any details. Maybe she could pump him for more information at lunch. It was with this happy thought that she slipped into the outer office - no Shouta, luckily (for him) - and moved to the inner office door. It was locked. She knocked on the door, but when there was no answer she looked around furtively and pulled her lock picks out of the pocket of her coat, found in her parents' attic in an old chest full of outdated equipment.

A few minutes later she slipped inside and closed the door behind her, making sure to hop over the traps she knew Shikaku always activated in certain spots. Mayu wandered over to his desk and poked at the files there. Mission assignments, boring. Budgets, ugh, extra boring. Her eyes fell on a stack of files labeled 'Squad 6 Murder Investigation: Classified.'

Her eyes widened and she barely kept from squealing in delight. Jackpot.

An hour later, the door clicked open and Mayu spoke without looking up from her spot on the floor, papers and files spread around her haphazardly.

"Papa! If I solved this for you, does that mean you can home for dinner tonight? Because I mostly solved it, though I'll need some more information before I can give you an exact name. Honestly, I don't know how it took you so long to figure out that it wasn't..." she trailed off uncertainly when she looked up and saw that, yes, it was Shikaku at the door, expression thunderous, and that he wasn't alone. "...a shinobi assassin." she finished in a small voice. 

Uh oh, she thought to herself, I've never seen him look so angry with me before.

The person standing beside Shikaku was actually a teenager - he looked about fourteen or fifteen - and wearing a standard jounin uniform with the Military Police Force emblem on the shoulder. His hair was long and unbound and he looked uncomfortably familiar with the stress lines beneath his eyes and stern expression. An Uchiha, extremely young to be wearing the jounin uniform, with features that were shared by the chief of the police force...

"Oh shit," she said faintly, "You're Uchiha Itachi."

He raised an eyebrow at her and she futilely tried to cover the word CLASSIFIED that was clearly visible on one of the pages in front of her. "This...isn't what it looks like?"

"Nomaka Mayu," Shikaku said in a voice that was as terrifying as it was calm, "you are to go home, go to your room, and wait for me there. Do not stop on your way, do not come out until I arrive. Am I understood?"

She scrambled to her feet and nodded, feeling her face flush a deep red. "Y-yes p-father," she said, sensing that any cutesy names wouldn't be appreciated right now.

She fumbled to grab her coat from the floor next to her and would have darted around the two men if Itachi hadn't spoken. "Wait." His voice was inflectionless and honestly kind of scary.

Mayu paused at the door, unsure, and glanced back at her father's face, which was now a combination of worried and furious.

"What did you mean when you said it wasn't a shinobi?" Itachi asked.

She bit her lip and looked at Shikaku again, who sighed and nodded, gesturing for her to come back in and shut the door. She did so, as meekly as she could manage, and padded to stand in front of them.

"Well...well it's obvious, isn't it? The method of introduction, the type of poison, and the motive behind the poisonings."

Itachi frowned. "We have found no motive. That is part of why the investigation is dragging on still. There is no indication of why somebody went through the trouble if it wasn't the usual shinobi reasons."

"Right! But, according to their files," she winced at Shikaku's mumbled "their classified files," but kept going, warming up to her subject, "no one should have even been aware of their activities - they were ANBU, with no indication of their covers being blown to enemies of Konoha recently."

Itachi nodded, all of that was in the files.

"But the information for the motive is still in their personnel files," she said confidently. "You just weren't looking in the right place."

She scrambled for the file labeled Boar and pulled out a report, handing it to Itachi.

He scanned it and sighed. "We already interviewed ANBU operative Crane, this was not in retaliation to the accusations she made against him last year."

"No, no, I'm not saying it was her. But, read the investigator notes from that internal investigation. He believed that Boar really did sexually assault Crane, but they couldn't find proof. I'm guessing Boar was from the Yamanaka clan, or at least related, as they noted that a mind walk yielded no results. Anyway," she waved her hand in disgust, "the point is, generally these type of offenders aren't perpetrators just once, right?"

Understanding lit Itachi's face and Shikaku hummed in thought. Mayu went and grabbed another report and handed it over.

"He wasn't the only one with a black mark on his record. Bat had been removed from his previous team because he punched his captain in the face over a promotion. Scorpion's last psych eval was pretty iffy - they almost took him off active duty. Badger doesn't seem to have any psychological problems, but his psych eval does state that he tends to follow orders without thought, which means he probably wouldn't be a voice of reason against his team."

Shikaku hummed. "So, you think they committed some kind of crime that we don't know about and these were revenge killings. But I still don't understand why you went straight to a civilian?"

Mayu shrugged. "A few reasons. First of all, Boar almost got caught when he attacked a fellow leaf shinobi and was taken off his team - probably because no kunoichi would feel comfortable working with him after the accusations. Also, shinobi tend to fight back and men like that...well. They prefer easy prey," she spat and Shikaku gave her a concerned look that she waved away.

"Also, like I said, the poisoning method itself isn't something a shinobi would generally use. I recognize the plant from my own studies -" Shikaku snorted but she ignored him. Poisons were cool, of course she'd studied them extensively, "-and it's actually a plant from Wave country that takes extended exposure through ingestion to be deadly. It's really quite useful for long-term assassination missions, but shinobi and kunoichi don't really use it - it's more of a civilian method that fell out of popularity after -"

"Yes, Mayu, okay, get on with it," Shikaku said, running a hand down his face.

"Right. So. Probably a method used by a civilian. Also, I doubt anybody on an ANBU team would look too closely at anything a civilian gave them outside of the general scan for poison. Which that plant is not usually covered in basic shinobi training. Most likely the killer is a merchant, since the crime they want revenge for probably happened on a mission to Wave since that's the only place to get the poison from.

"Where, coincidentally, the dead ANBU team were assigned five months ago. Merchants have easier access to Konoha and to the ninja force than other civilians, so that's the logical place to look. I bet they sell food of some sort and took to giving the dead shinobi a deal on it so they'd stop by more often. Probably arrived about a month ago."

Itachi blinked at her and Mayu thought that was probably the equivalent of a 'what the fuck' from most other people.

"So...you're saying we need to check the merchant logs at the gates," he said. Mayu nodded and gave him a thumbs up.

"Yep! I bet you'll find your person in no time, though if they were smart they got the hell out once they knew their victims were all dead."

"How did this merchant know who they were?" he asked, seeming to be honestly curious instead of doubtful.

Mayu sighed and looked down. She'd enjoyed following her uncle on his cases Before, but she'd learned things about human nature she wished she could forget, sometimes.

"If it was the sort of crime I'm thinking...they'd have wanted the victim to see their faces," she said flatly.

She turned a fierce glare at Itachi and pointed a finger at him. "What the hell was the MPF thinking, anyway, letting a man like Boar go? What do you think it says to our kunoichi when their teammates are allowed to do things like that without reprisal? Couldn't find proof! Give me 10 minutes with that file and I'll find it for you - not like you need it now, I guess," she said bitterly. "You can bet when I join the MPF people like Boar are going to find themselves in an eight by eight cell with no hope of getting away."

Itachi's lips twitched and Shikaku slapped his hand over her mouth to stop her tirade from going any further.

"You plan on joining the MPF?" Itachi asked and she glared and crossed her arms over her chest to convey yeah, and what of it? 

She was used to people 'kindly' informing her that the Military Police Force was made up almost exclusively of Uchiha, so her chances of being accepted were minuscule.

"Ah, I look forward to it. We're low on good investigators. My father has talent in it, but he's very busy running the organization and can't get personally involved much anymore."

Mayu's mouth dropped in surprise at his easy acceptance and Shikaku pulled his hand away. "You...think I can do it?"

"Yes, if you're as talented at the shinobi arts as you are at investigation. You'll just have to get people's attention, which doesn't seem like a limitation for you." Was that humor?

Mayu studied him before asking, "Do you have any...suggestions for me? Skills that I should focus on to make me more attractive as a police officer?"

He gave her an unfathomable look and she couldn't help but think that she'd impressed him. "Tracking and capture. Interrogation. Proven competence in at least two elemental styles. Intelligence. Also, our psych evals are strict and extremely comprehensive." He shrugged, then turned to Shikaku abruptly. "I will go and update my father. Perhaps when you take Mayu to the Hokage to discuss this security breach, you could request the merchant visa records for the past few months from Tsunade-sama?"

Mayu felt the blood drain from her face and Shikaku looked pained. "Fine, I'll...take her to see Tsunade."

They both walked the stairs to the tower like they were ascending to their doom.

 

000

 

Tsunade threw a book through the wall and punched her desk in half before the conversation was over. In the end, Mayu had been banned from the administration building until graduation and been forced to sign about a dozen documents stating that she would keep her mouth shut about what she read in the file.

At home, Shikaku had grounded her for a month - which meant no wood shop, no chemistry shed and no anything, really, except coming straight home from school and staying there. Mayu understood that she had gotten off lightly, but every time Shikaku sent her a disappointed look over the course of the next few days she felt like nothing could ever be worse.

She resolved to not break into his office again unless it was really, really important. Yoshino and Shikamaru weren't given the details of why she was in trouble, but when Shikaku told them it was classified, Shikamaru banged his forehead on the table a few times.

"Mayu, can't you stay out of trouble for five minutes?"

She looked appropriately guilty at Yoshino's scolding and walked around looking very sorry and repentant until Shikaku finally gave in to The Eyes three evenings later.

"Ugh, stop looking so sad, it's troublesome," he muttered and pulled her over onto his lap. "I forgive you, already, just don't do it again. But you're still grounded."

A week later Itachi appeared in Mayu's bedroom doorway, taking in the posters and schematics plastering the walls. "I take it you like bugs?" he asked.

She looked up from her bed, where she was lying on her stomach and drawing out the mechanism for the Bombarder Beetle puppet's chemical ejection apparatus. The name was a work in progress.

"Itachi-san," she said warily and stood. "Have you come to arrest me?"

His lips quirked and he shook his head. "No. I actually came to tell you that the case is closed."

"Oh?" She brightened and moved closer to him.

"Yes. You were right. The merchant was from Wave. He brought dried fish and various herbs, some of which he laced with the plant you described and sold to the dead shinobi at a discounted rate."

"And...the motive?" she asked. She could tell by his posture that it wasn't going to be nice. Sometimes she hated being right.

"He was a poor merchant, not a lot of influence," Itachi began slowly. "Boar and Scorpion assaulted his daughter while in Wave. It was as you said - they removed their masks. Even called each other by name. Their comrades did nothing, though they did not...participate." He pursed his lips and Mayu could tell he was furious, despite his mostly calm facade. "They left her alive, which is something, as they didn't believe there was anything a member of the merchant's family could do about it. They were right and they were wrong," he said and looked so tired that she couldn't help but feel bad for him.

Mayu was silent for a moment before saying, "I kind of wish I hadn't solved it, now. What will happen to the merchant?"

"He's been turned over to the daimyo of for justice. Since he's a civilian and not a citizen of Konoha he doesn't fall under our purview."

He studied her before continuing. "Not all of the 'bad guys' we deal with are evil, but it is still our duty to catch them. Also, the result of this case brings some problems to light that the Hokage has already taken action towards rectifying. We have also decided to pay restitution to the family of the man we apprehended. It is not all bad."

Mayu nodded her thanks at his words and he bowed his goodbye before leaving. Mayu sat on her bed staring out the window for a long time, thinking on Itachi's words. Finally, she heard the front door open and Ensui's voice calling a greeting to the house. She took a deep breath and shook her maudlin thoughts from her head. Itachi was right - she had done well. She'd revealed without a doubt the irresponsibility of allowing Boar and his crew to continue unchecked. She also proved that the kunoichi that had filed a complaint against Boar was telling the truth - which could only have given the woman some form of closure.

Mayu ran out of her room and to the stairs. She stopped at the top and looked over the railing at where Ensui was talking in low tones with Shikaku.

"Ensui-niisan!" she yelled and launched herself over the edge of the rails. He caught her with a dramatic exhalation of air.

"You're getting heavy, squirt!" he said, swinging her around. "Soon you'll squash me like a bug if you do that."

He tucked her under his arm and made his way to the kitchen while she laughed and struggled to get free, legs kicking behind her in the air and Shikaku following behind them with a small smile on his face.

Shikamaru was already at the table and he and Yoshino gave a synchronized and identical sigh at the two of them.

"Okay, okay, put her down so we can eat," Yoshino said fondly.

Ensui flipped her upright and set her in the seat next to Shikamaru so easily that it proved his words earlier were all bluster. Mayu could probably continue to fling herself off of things if she was twice what she weighed now and Ensui would easily catch her.

Still laughing a bit breathlessly, she leaned over to an annoyed looking Shikamaru and gave him a loud kiss on the cheek with an accompanying 'mwah!' sound. His face softened into a half smile and he reached out to tug at her hair, which she had kept down that day.

"What's got you in such a good mood?" he asked and she just shrugged.

"I just had a realization, is all," she said brightly. "That reminds me - Ensui-niisan, will you teach me tracking?"

She clasped her hands in front of her face and widened her eyes when he side-eyed her. "Please? Itachi-sempai said that tracking was an important skill for me to learn. And you're the best tracker I know!"

"Itachi-sempai, huh? Since when do you know that expression-less lump? And I think you mean that Baken is the best tracker you know. I'm okay, but nothing compared to the Inuzuka or Hatake. Without my summons I'm mediocre."

"Please, Ensui-nii? Please?" she begged and Yoshino giggled when Ensui's unaffected demeanor visibly wavered.

"I'm already teaching you sealing," he muttered unconvincingly and she wrinkled her nose.

"Ugh, you said yourself I'm just about caught up to you. We can just switch to learning tracking, now."

He sighed. "I don't know..." but she could already see that she had won and cheered.

"You are such a brat," he mumbled, then waved a hand in the air. "Fine, fine, I'll teach you."

"Great! That only leaves you, papa!" Shikaku paused with his bite halfway to his mouth and eyed her.

"Leaves me to what?" he said suspiciously.

"Capture and interrogation! Remember, Itachi-sempai said -" Shikaku slouched down in a pout.

"Yes, I remember," he grumbled. "Fine," he held his hand up before she could crow in victory.

"But we're not going to start with theory until you're a genin. I had planned on starting with Shikamaru anyway next fall, so you can join us. And no, not before. You've got plenty to keep you busy," he said.

She had to admit he was right. Yoshino thought she'd be moving on to stage three of the Deadly Hashino Dance by the end of the year and her puppeteering skills were still at nonexistent. She had the threads and she even had a puppet, but she'd bitten off more than she could chew with Bukimi. Which mean she had to build a whole new prototype before she could even move forward on practicing. And then, there was her poisons and chemistry work...

A smack to the back of the head pulled her from her racing thoughts.

"Stop it," Shikamaru said. "I can see you working yourself up. There's no need to rush it, you've got plenty of time," he said firmly.

Mayu gave him a thankful smile and a nod. "Right. So, tell me how it's coming with your Shadow Techniques?"

He shrugged. "Good. I'm starting to extend the movement a bit," he said and Ensui made an interested noise.

As they fell into a discussion of Shikamaru's progress, Mayu relaxed back into her chair and let out a breath. Shikamaru was right - she had a lot of big goals for herself, but she had time.

 

000

 

The winter months were a blur of training and working in the shop and before Mayu knew it she was turning nine. 

Three years, she thought to herself. You've been with the Nara for three years!

With springtime came good weather and Ensui started working with her on tracking. They began with visual tracking, which she took to quickly with her deductive skills - not much got past her once she knew what she should be looking for. Enhancing her senses through chakra application was a little strange and overwhelming, but Ensui gave her a kit he'd put together with exercises to help her start sorting through scents and told her she'd just have to practice with enhancing her hearing to get used to it.

Her third year in the academy, they were down to thirty-two of the original ninety-something in their age group and so the classes were reshuffled and combined into one large class. They also began sparring with classmates and the differences between children from clans or with active shinobi for parents and those from civilian families became clear.

Mayu found the whole thing painful to watch and every time Sasuke laid out another civilian with that infuriating expression she wanted to punch it off his face. You didn't have to be an expert at deduction to see he was an arrogant little brat who liked to lord his superiority over others. Of course, since she was pretty good at deduction, she also saw that it stemmed from some sort of inferiority complex - not surprising when your older brother was a once-per-generation kind of genius and heir to the clan and your father was a well-respected leader in the community. Still, she couldn't find it in her to feel sympathetic, especially since she was one of the poor souls that he laid out every time.

True, she was fast and flexible, but she hadn't actually gotten to any sparring or true fighting techniques yet with Yoshino. Stage three was a series of katas that were a combination of the flips and tumbles and speed they'd been training in the last few years. The first set was simple and mostly consisted of movements that mimicked blocks and strikes and would add more complex series of movements as she mastered each configuration. And all the flips in the world weren't going to keep you from getting your ass handed to you by somebody trained in the Uchiha style of fighting since they were a toddler.

At least this wasn't something she had to fake mediocrity at while at the academy. Unluckily for Shikamaru, the perceived failure put her into a sulk on almost a daily basis. Yoshino assured her that by the time she was a genin she'd be at stage four, which would prove more useful in combat.

The Nara household became accustomed to walking outside or around a corner to the sight of a foot long beetle scurrying awkwardly across the lawn or floor, Mayu never far behind, hands outstretched and a fierce look of concentration on her face. The first time it happened to Ensui, he'd screeched and leapt onto the roof, then refused to come to dinner at the house for a week.

Baru the attack beetle had been completed in the summer between Shikamaru's and Mayu's second and third years and had proven to be the perfect starter puppet. Just like the bug she was fashioned after, she had bright red legs, a black shell and an orange underbelly. "For intimidation purposes," Mayu had explained gleefully.

Yoshino had demanded that Mayu fill his poison ejector with something harmless while she was practicing since nobody wanted to deal with chemical burns and respiratory problems if Mayu had 'an accident.' Everybody was relieved when she agreed.

Halfway through their third year, when Mayu was a couple months away from turning 11, enough of the children had dropped out that the reshuffling resulted in a new teacher and teacher's assistant for Mayu's class. She noticed two strange things about the new additions. The first was that the assistant, Mizuki, definitely had alternative motives to being in the classroom. He paid too much attention to certain children, especially Sasuke and Hinata, and not in a good way, and seemed to be manipulating events to actually set some of the children up for failure. Mayu had told Shikaku her suspicions and he had nodded and promised to look into it. So far, they hadn't found anything concrete and so Mizuki stayed, for now, though Mayu figured he would screw up eventually.

The second strange thing wasn't easily explainable. Iruka-sensei was exactly what he seemed to be - a dedicated, kind teacher who truly wanted to see his students succeed. But he shared one trait with Mizuki - they both couldn't stand Naruto. Actually, Iruka seemed to be afraid of Naruto, while Mizuki just straight up hated him. Mayu could see that, if the white-haired man had a chance, he would probably kill the blonde terror without remorse. Of course, this wasn't obvious to other students or teachers. The most they'd notice was that the two teachers were a bit colder, a bit shorter on patience with Naruto. In fact, the only other person who seemed to understand how they felt was Naruto himself and he just seemed resigned to it.

Mayu had noticed that people reacted strangely to Naruto before. Adults shied away from him when they were picking up their children from school and the students seemed to pick up on this and act accordingly. Of course, there were exceptions, such as her own family, Kiba, and Hinata, who just had a monster crush on the boy. Until Iruka and Mizuki, Mayu had assumed he either had a really scary bloodline limit, or his parents had done something particularly horrific.

But if either of those were the reason behind the weird behavior, wouldn't she have heard about it by now? The anger and hatred seemed almost furtive. From the confusion in Naruto's eyes when people reacted that way to him, she didn't think that even he knew what the problem was. Mayu mulled the mystery over in her head throughout the months of January and February, until one blustery day that was edging towards the middle of March, while Shikamaru and Mayu were walking down the steps, she heard something interesting.

Naruto was standing a few feet from them chatting animatedly with one of the civilian children that had been integrated into the class in December when a shrill voice cut off their conversation.

"Jokun!" a large woman standing with a thin, pained-looking man yelled and the boy jolted.

"Hey, mom! This is my friend -"

But his mother had cut him off by grabbing his arm and dragging him behind her.

"Stay away from my son, demon," she spat, ignoring her husband's frantic whispering to not cause a scene and then they were gone, leaving Naruto with such a wretched and miserable expression on his face that Shikamaru stepped forward.

"Hey Naruto," he drawled, hands in his pockets. "Why don't you come play shogi with me and Mayu at our house? You can stay for dinner too."

Mayu was torn between annoyance at having to spend a whole evening with the loud blonde and helpless fondness for Shikamaru. He really is so kind, she thought to herself, he just hides it behind his apathetic demeanor. 

Naruto came with them, eventually shaking off his mood as he took in the Nara compound, whiskered cheeks red with the cold Yoshino stuffed Naruto full of food and sent him off with leftovers. Shikaku insisted on walking him home and when he came back he looked grim but didn't say why. 

bet Naruto's home life is pretty bad, she thought to herself and asked the question she'd been avoiding for two months. "Why do they treat him that way?"

Yoshino and Shikaku looked at her but didn't feign confusion. Shikaku rubbed a hand over his face and looked so sad that Mayu crawled into his lap to hug him. He squeezed her for a moment and put his arm around Shikamaru who had moved closer, obviously interested in the answer.

"I can't tell you that," Shikaku said. "I'm sorry."

Mayu narrowed her eyes at him but didn't argue. It just confirmed what she'd guessed. 

So they aren't allowed to tell me...Yoshino had moved to Shikaku's other side and leaned against him and her eyes held a sheen of tears.

"I'm very glad you two are showing him kindness," she said quietly. "I'm proud of you."

The next day Mayu skipped afternoon classes to go to the library. She found all the books she could with reference to demons, and when that proved less than enlightening, she put her fingertips lightly together and rested them against her lips in thought. 

I should start with his family name. Uzumaki, that sounds familiar. Closing her eyes, she dropped into her mindscape and started filtering through anything she might have read on Uzumaki.

Her eyes flew open after a moment of thought and she walked as quickly as she could without getting into trouble to get An Early History of Konoha. She lugged the book over and began to quickly flip through until she found the entry she was looking for.

"Uzumaki Mito, wife to Hashirama, from Uzushiogakure, first host to the... oh."

She ran back to the information about demons until she found a book she'd set aside. The bijuu! Could it be...she supposed, if Naruto was the container to the Kyuubi, that would be enough to freak people out after the fox demon just about leveled the village and killed the Yondaime. But it was obvious that Naruto wasn't the fox - anybody could see that. Ugh, why were people such idiots?

Another important question - why did nobody talk about it? Why did Naruto not even know about his passenger? Protection. From what she'd read, jinchuuriki were weapons, assets of the village. Of course, the Hokage wouldn't want people talking about it. Though, it seemed like his plan had failed - people clearly still knew who held the nine-tailed fox, a lot of people. So maybe there was a second aspect to it? She drummed her fingers on the table and rested her chin in her hand.

Perhaps the former Hokage had hoped that Mayu's generation would treat Naruto better if they didn't know? 

Which also failed miserably, she thought with a sigh.

Children emulated their parents, after all, and seeing that fear and hatred towards an unknown, of course, they'd copy it. The more Mayu learned about the previous leader's decisions and administration, the more she decided he was an idiot. Either that or he was more suited to wartime than peace. Guess that's what happened when you chose the strongest person to lead your village. Shinobi and kunoichi weren't known for their kind-heartedness.

"Mayu!" A harried-looking Shikamaru hissed as he raced up to her table. "Do you have any idea what time it is? You missed dinner."

"Oh, shit, mom's going to kill me," she squeaked, then started shoving books and scrolls at Shikamaru, who had nodded grimly at her assessment of the situation.

"Help me put these away!"

When they were finished hastily shoving the scrolls back onto their shelves, Shikamaru grabbed her hand and pulled her out of the library and down the darkening street, both of them shivering in the cold air.

"What were you even doing? Mom was freaking out, it was such a drag."

Mayu looked around for a moment before pulling a protesting Shikamaru into a nook between buildings, away from anyone who might overhear them, and pulled him close. "I figured out why everyone is so awful to Naruto," she whispered and he raised his eyebrows in interest and leaned closer.

She quickly explained what she'd found about Mito and the references to Kyuubi and demon fox.

"Also, I think his birthday is around the same time the village has the festival to honor the Yondaime's sacrifice. And Shikamaru, I think there's some screwed up law that says nobody is allowed to talk about it - not even to Naruto. He doesn't know."

Shikamaru looked disturbed by this and opened his mouth to answer when a low chuckle came from behind them. They both whirled guiltily, then relaxed when they saw Ensui, Baken at his side, with his arms crossed in front of him and an amused look on his face.

"Am I to understand," he drawled, "that Yoshino dragged me out of my warm house to track down her wayward children and the whole time you were canoodling in an alley?"

They both turned bright red and Mayu gasped, annoyed. "Ensui-niisan! Don't be crude! We were plotting, not canoodling."

"Uh huh," he said, looking unimpressed. "Come on, we can come up with a story about Mayu getting lost in the forest while looking for a secret rare mushroom she needed for her special new experiment and that Shikamaru was her brave prince who went to find her and bring her home."

Shikamaru saw Mayu's thoughtful expression and groaned. "Mayu, no, she won't believe that!"

The next day, Mayu pulled Shikamaru into her room on his way back from the shower.

"We need to tell him," she hissed in a low voice.

"We do?" he asked, already resigned.

"Yes, but he can't know it was us, because I don't want Tsunade-sama to lock me in a cell the rest of my life or punch through my heart."

Shikamaru slumped over. "Troublesome. Fine. I'll think of something and let you know." Mayu bounced on her toes a few times, then leaned forward and kissed his cheek.

"Thanks, Shika, I knew I could count on you." She skipped out of her room to get to breakfast.

Three days later, after dabbing scent suppressants to various parts of their body and pulling on gloves, they broke into Naruto's apartment while he was out at Ichiraku's. Shikamaru carefully set a 'so, you're a jinchuuriki, and here's the proof, but don't worry you're not evil,' informational packet on his pillow. He sprayed some extra scent inhibitor over it and continued spraying as they left the apartment silently.

"Well, that was anticlimactic. Is it wise for a...you know...to have such crappy security?" she asked as they entered the Nara compound.

Shikamaru shrugged. "He usually has an ANBU guard at night. But they watch him, not his apartment, so it's fine, they wouldn't have seen us." Mayu didn't bother asking how he knew that - she wasn't the only one good at information gathering.

Naruto didn't come to school for a week and Mayu began to worry that they'd made a mistake. Two days after the Great Break In ("Ugh, don't call it that, Mayu, seriously"), Shikaku came into Mayu's room while she was laying in bed reading and sat on her bed.

"So," he said and she slowly lowered her book at his tone. He looked a mix between proud and pained as he spoke. "I had an interesting meeting with Tsunade-sama today. Did you know, she's distantly related to Naruto?"

Mayu frowned, trying to seem confused and clueless about the turn of the conversation. "No, I didn't. Why doesn't he live with her?"

"You going to try to pretend you don't know?"

"Uh." Mayu studied his face, then relaxed. He didn't want her to admit to it. Okay, she could do that.

"Why would I know something personal like that? It's probably because she's an old drunk that nobody would allow to raise a child," she said and almost laughed at the slight thunk she heard outside her window.

So she was right, there was somebody listening in. She was a little flattered that she had garnered enough attention that Tsunade had ordered Shikaku to try and trick her into admitting to her misdeeds.

He sighed. "Don't talk about our Hokage that way, brat. Well, apparently they've gotten close since she came back," and god, the last thing that kid needed was somebody as brash as Tsunade as a role model, what the hell, universe?

"A few days ago he burst into her office, upset and demanding answers. Somebody dropped off a package of sensitive information in his apartment. They didn't leave a trace, but somehow they seemed to have figured out classified intel from putting together certain clues around them, then passed it on. Does that sound like something anybody we know would do?" he asked with a raised eyebrow and Mayu fought to keep from snorting at the roundabout conversation they were having.

Shikaku knew she had done it, Mayu knew she had done it, yet they were both pretending like she hadn't and therefore had to talk around the subject so as not to 'give anything away' to the genius child who would take a clue and run with it.

"Um. No? Is Naruto okay? I mean, he's not in danger, is he?" she asked, honestly worried.

He waved his hand in the air. "No, no, he's fine. He actually seems better, after getting this information." And yep, that was a proud smile. "But he really wasn't supposed to see it until he was much older, so there are some very angry people in the council."

"Oh, dear," Mayu said and Shikaku had to turn away from the window and hold his breath to keep from laughing.

"Mm. Well, I'm glad to hear you didn't have anything to do with it. Thanks, Mayu-chan."

"You're welcome, papa."

And that was that. Naruto returned to school eventually, looking thoughtful but more at peace with things, and Mayu and Shikamaru made an effort to invite him over about once a month though they didn't show too much interest, considering they were already suspects in the Great Reveal ("Okay, Mayu, you have to stop naming these things," Shikamaru said when she started calling it that).

Their family fell into a rhythm over the following months - Shikamaru and Mayu both continued training with Yoshino three times a week, with Mayu using the time Shikamaru was with Shikaku doing super-secret Nara stuff to work on her puppet technique. Saturdays she spent with Ensui when he wasn't on a mission and at Akinobu's shop when he was. Shikamaru usually spent Saturdays with Chouji - Ino had stopped really hanging around with them about halfway through their second year. 

Sundays were family days. Shikaku was almost always home on Sundays and they made it a point to laze around the house. Shikamaru had grown like a weed and at eleven was now all gangly limbs and squeaking voice, but considering Mayu was in her own awkward phase of growth, where she kept running into door jams and flailing her too-skinny arms and legs about, she figured she didn't really have room to judge.

All four of them were lying on the hill, even Yoshino, staring up at the sky and enjoying the late summer heat, when Mayu suddenly sat up, panicked. "Oh crap!" she said, causing the rest of the family to tense. "I forgot about -"

cracking noise from her chemistry lab could be heard all the way across the field and when they turned their heads to see what had happened, there was magenta smoke flowing from the vent in the roof.

There was silence for a heartbeat, then Mayu broke it with a meek, "Ah. Look at that. It worked. Uh. Kind of."

Shikamaru groaned, Yoshino sighed explosively, and Shikaku pinched his nose. Then they stood up and went to calm down the clan members who had appeared to make sure they weren't under attack.

"Well," Shikaku drawled when Mayu sheepishly showed them the chemical smoke bombs she was working on, "you continue to make things interesting, Mayu-chan."

She knew he didn't mind, though, when he placed his hand on her head and smiled.

Chapter Text

Mayu tapped her pen impatiently against the paper in front of her, zoning out Iruka-sensei's review for the graduation test. Her cheek was resting on her fist, propped up by her elbow on the table, and she let her gaze roam idly around the room. Out of the original ninety-ish children who had started at the Academy with Mayu, only thirty-three were left.

A third of them were children from the main clans, another third were from non-clan affiliated ninja families, and the rest were a mix of orphans and civilian children. Shikaku had mentioned it was an incredibly low graduation number and that there was a bit of a hush-hush investigation going on to see why. Mayu had her own ideas on the cause, but so far nobody had found proof of Mizuki's misdeeds. She had to admit, he was subtle, but now that Shikaku's attention had been drawn to him, it was only a matter of time before the noose closed around his neck.

She gave an evil little fufufu at the thought and Shikamaru glanced over at her, clearly wondering what she could possibly be laughing like that about. Mayu just shrugged and allowed herself to drop her head onto his shoulder.

"Mayu-chan, stop using Shikamaru as a pillow and pay attention!" Iruka said and slammed his hand down on his desk. 

How does such a sweet man manage to turn so scary in the blink of an eye? she thought to herself as she jolted upright.

"Sorry, Iruka-sensei," she said in such a meek tone that Kiba had to stifle his laughter in front of her.

At lunch, she flopped dramatically onto Shikamaru's back and demanded a piggyback to their tree. He grumbled but obediently placed his hands under her knees while she reached over him to grab their bentos from their cubbies. Mayu then buried her face into his neck, breathing in the spicy soap he and Shikaku favored and dozing contentedly.

Kiba helped Shikamaru get a grumbling Mayu off his back and onto the ground when they reached their usual lunch spot. "Mayu-chan, you've been living with Naras for too long," Kiba said. "You can fall asleep anywhere."

She flapped her hand at him. "M'tired."

Shikamaru sighed when she made grabby hands and obediently sat down at her head so she could use him as a pillow. "You wouldn't be tired if you didn't spend all night in your creepy mad scientist hut," he said, opening her bento box and breaking her chopsticks apart for her.

When Mayu widened her eyes into a pleading expression he picked up a piece of fish, then dropped it into her open mouth.

"S' not creepy!" she said around the bite. She didn't try and deny the mad scientist part.

"Shikamaru, what they say about the men in your family is true - the women totally own you!" Kiba said while Chouji laughed.

Mayu pointed vaguely in their direction, eyes closed, and swallowed her bite.

"Don't you discourage him. Shikamaru is perfect the way he is.” She patted his leg. He ran his fingers through her hair and fed her another bite in response, unbothered by Kiba's ribbing and Chouji's laughing.

"Do you guys think you're ready for the exams next month?" Chouji asked in a worried voice after Kiba had run off to play a game of kickball that was happening across the yard.

Mayu let Shikamaru reply since her answer would have been something like there's no possible way I could fail it, it's mind-numbingly boring and simplistic, and that seemed insensitive, or something.

Shikamaru hummed, then nodded. "Sure. You'll do fine, Chouji, you're a good student."

Mayu dragged her feet to their afternoon sparring class, not looking forward to watching the painful display that was eleven and twelve-year-olds trying to dominate each other. It had gotten better since last year, the skill levels had evened out a bit, but most of the advanced students were still jerks to the less talented. Kids were the worst, seriously. She always thought uneasily of Lord of Flies when some child trained by their ninja parents sent a poor civilian kid flying with too much force.

The first pairing was two civilian girls who exchanged a few halfhearted blocks and blows before one of them managed to knock the other out of the circle. Hinata was then paired against Chouji and Mayu winced and wondered what Iruka was thinking when they both stuttered and bowed and looked incredibly uncomfortable trying to hit the other. Iruka finally called time, expression pained.

Then he called up Shikamaru and Sasuke and Mayu tensed. She hated it when Shikamaru had to go up against some of the rougher boys. Shikaku's fierce reputation made them think that they could prove something by kicking the crap out of his kid and Shikamaru just wasn't going to put the effort forth into beating up his fellow classmates. Plus, they were taijutsu only spars and an Uchiha was almost always going to have the upper hand over a Nara in hand-to-hand. Unless is was Ensui, of course.

Shikamaru slouched into the ring after squeezing her hand in reassurance. Sasuke smirked and stepped in as well, going into his ready stance. Shikamaru took his hands out of his pockets in response, still looking bored.

Mayu clenched her hands into fists when Sasuke burst into motion, spinning into a kick aimed at Shikamaru's head. Shikamaru leaned back, Sasuke's foot barely missing his face by an inch. Then Shikamaru into a backward roll before coming up and blocking one of Sasuke's punches.

He wasn't quite fast enough to block the follow-up punch, but he spun away from it to minimize the damage. He crouched down in the middle of the turn and extended his leg to sweep Sasuke's feet from under him. Sasuke jumped over it then flipped over the top of Shikamaru and landed behind him.

Before Shikamaru could recover, he gave a vicious punch to his kidney. Shikamaru stumbled forward a few steps, face twisted in pain, and Sasuke kicked the back of his leg, sending him to his knees.

Shikamaru sighed and Sasuke darted in front of him.

"I yie-" his attempt to yield was cut off by Sasuke's foot snapping across his face, making a horrible cracking noise. Mayu gasped and Iruka called a stop to the match, scolding Sasuke for excessive force against an ally.

"You asshole!" Mayu yelled at him and ran to Shikamaru's side. He had fallen forward, barely catching himself with one hand, holding his jaw with the other. She could see blood dripping onto the ground from his mouth. "He was yielding, you absolute shit for brains!"

"Mayu-chan, language!" Iruka half-heartedly scolded.

Sasuke's smug expression faltered, but he quickly covered his unease. "He should spend more time practicing and less time watching clouds," he said and turned his face away.

Mayu paused where she was helping Shikamaru to his feet and slowly turned her face towards him.

"Shikamaru is ten times the shinobi you are. You're just the Uchiha leftovers, riding on the glory of your brother and father."

Sasuke's eyes widened and he actually took a step back from her, looking as though he'd been the one kicked in the face. The ring had gone suspiciously silent, their peers leaning forward to catch the drama.

Shikamaru sighed. "Mayu, don't be mean. If I can't take a little kick to the face then I'm certainly not as awesome as you think," he scolded.

Mayu relaxed and turned to study his face, which was swollen and starting to turn a dark ugly purple already.

"If he broke your jaw I'm going to break his skull," she muttered. "Iruka-sensei, I'm taking him home so Mom can check him over."

It wasn't a question. Iruka shrugged and waved her away, obviously relieved to have her angry aura somewhere else.

When she passed a red-faced Sasuke she glared at him and hissed, "This isn't over, Uchiha."

Shikamaru sighed but followed her dutifully, knowing she wouldn't take no for an answer.

Mayu ignored the furious glares of Sasuke's admirers, unconcerned with any half-witted revenge schemes they might come up with. She really couldn't wait to graduate, and was actually pretty relieved that there was usually only one kunoichi per team. Having to deal with a fangirl would probably be the absolute worst-case scenario.

The walk home was long and silent, Shikamaru in too much pain to speak and Mayu too angry. Mayu dropped Shikamaru off at the table and grabbed him an ice pack before heading into the backyard to look for Yoshino. Her mom fussed over Shikamaru, who in turn was starting to look embarrassed about the whole thing.

"Just a sparring accident," Mayu said when she asked what happened, sensing Shikamaru wouldn't want her to discuss details.

Yoshino took in Mayu’s stiff posture. "Oh, and is the person who is responsible for this still alive?" she teased and held a green glowing hand to Shikamaru's face, who relaxed as the pain and swelling faded.

"This isn't broken," Yoshino said and Mayu breathed out a sigh of relief.

After Yoshino went back out to the garden, Shikamaru and Mayu sat in awkward silence, the former glaring down at the table. Mayu studied him and her chest tightened at what she saw. She reached a hand towards him but he pulled back.

"Shikamaru, you don't have to be embarrassed. Sasuke does that to everyone."

He huffed and crossed his arms. "I'm supposed to be some sort of genius. Yet I need a girl to defend me from some snotty kid."

Mayu bristled. "Oh, and what's wrong with a girl defending you?" 

Shikamaru sighed and deflated. "Nothing. It's not -" He tugged on his ponytail in frustration. "I just want to be able to protect you, that's the whole point, but if it's you always -"

"That is not the point. We're partners - that means we both get strong and protect each other, okay? Don't think you get to leave me behind. We're gonna work hard together, and one day one of us is going to rub that smug bastard's face into the dirt. Of course, it's tough to beat him right now, he's been taught by Itachi and Fugaku his whole life!"

Shikamaru rolled his eyes as her voice became worshipful. "You sound really creepy when you talk about Fugaku-sama, you know?"

Mayu huffed but was relieved that his grumpy mood seemed to have abated.

"I wish you were going to be on my genin team. We'd be an awesome combination - nobody would stand a chance!" she said. "Instead I'll probably be stuck with a bunch of annoying kids and I'll have to suffer for however long it takes to become a chunin."

Yoshino had walked into the kitchen as Mayu was speaking. "Oh, Mayu, don't write off your team before you even get to know them. I thought my genin team was an absolute disaster, but in the end, they were like my family, especially after my grandmother died." Yoshino then sent them a wicked grin.

"I never told you about my genin team, did I?" she asked as she sat down at the table with them and set her pile of herbs in the middle to sort through.

"No," Mayu said, intrigued, and reached to help. Shikamaru looked just as interested while he leaned forward to grab a pile of herbs for sorting.

"Well, one of them was a broody second son who barely spoke and wore all black, convinced nobody could ever know the pain of having a talented older brother who was destined to be clan head." She leaned forward and spoke in a low tone like it was a secret. "The other was a by-the-book orphan who resented us for having families. Both were very talented, but it took a few near-death experiences before we really meshed well, and once we did, it was the most amazing thing in the world. There's nothing like clicking with a team - knowing that you can trust them to watch your back while they know you'll do the same."

"Who are they?" Shikamaru asked.

Yoshino smile was wistful. "The nerdy by-the-book kid was named Eiji. He died in the last war, protecting his team. He was a very good man, and I'll always miss him." They were all silent for a moment, and then Yoshino grinned wickedly. "And the brooding second son? Why, he lives just down the street."

Mayu blinked, then her jaw dropped when she realized what Yoshino was saying. "Ensui-niisan is the guy who wore dark colors and lived in perpetual man-pain?"

Yoshino laughed and nodded. "Yep! Man, I could tell you stories..." And for the next hour or so, she did, until both children were laughing so hard they had tears in their eyes and all of the bad feelings from the afternoon were forgotten.

Two days later, Sasuke sat down at his desk and opened one of his books that had been stored in his cubby. A glitter and paint bomb exploded in his face. Mayu did her best to look innocent, but knew she probably just looked disappointed that his reflexes had allowed him to close his eyes fast enough to avoid being blinded by a combination of rainbow glitter and neon green paint.

The class burst into laughter and Sasuke sat frozen in shock. Shikamaru hit his forehead on the desk in front of him a few times. Slowly, Sasuke turned in his seat to level a venomous glare at Mayu that completely lost its effectiveness now that he was covered in green paint and glitter.

Mayu laughed when a glob of paint dripped down the end of his nose. Iruka began yelling for silence and sent Sasuke to the bathroom to wash up, though unbeknownst to the teacher or Sasuke it would be fruitless with soap and water. Without the solution Mayu had created as a counter, Sasuke would be green for at least a week.

Iruka knew she had done it - he'd never been fooled by her average act, and knew she was vicious when riled - but couldn't prove it, so instead he 'sweetly' asked her to stay behind and clean up the green paint splattered across Sasuke's workspace. She shrugged - it was an easy task once she used her solution, and took only half an hour of her time.

That night, a blank-faced Itachi showed up after dinner, Yoshino leading him into the family room with a confused look on her face.

"Mayu-chan, it's for you." Shikaku raised an eyebrow and Shikamaru slumped.

"Itachi-san," Shikaku greeted in a tired voice. "What's my daughter done this time?"

Itachi pursed his lips and Mayu thought he might be amused, but he was pretty hard to read without a lot of exposure.

"Actually, I just wanted her advice on something," he said with a tilt of his head.

Mayu laughed nervously. "Uh, I'm not sure what I could help you with, but sure, Itachi-sempai, I'll assist if I can."

He seemed discomfited by the 'sempai,' but continued. "My brother seems to have gotten himself covered in some sort of permanent ink."

He stopped speaking long enough to let that sink in and Shikaku groaned and buried his face in his hands.

"I have heard you're quite good with chemistry and was hoping you would be able to come up with some way to...remove it from his person."

Mayu glanced at her family. Yoshino was turned away, staring out the window, but her shoulders were shaking. Shikamaru and Shikaku both seemed to be vacillating between pride and horror.

"Ah...do you have...a sample of this ink?" she asked and a choking sound came from Yoshino.

His lip twitched, and yep, that was definitely amusement. "I do." He reached into his pouch to pull out the shirt Sasuke had been wearing that day.

Everyone stared at the blue shirt with liberal amounts of neon green glitter paint spattered across it.

"Oh, my," Mayu said. "Yes, I can see how that would be inconvenient." She paused, then couldn't help herself. "I didn't realize Sasuke was so fond of green."

A red-faced Yoshino choked out something that sounded vaguely like 'excuse me' and dashed from the room, though they could all hear her muffled laughter from the kitchen. Itachi managed to look disapproving and unaffected at the same time, which Mayu found impressive and pretty intimidating.

She took the shirt from his hands and pretended to study it intently, making thoughtful noises.

"Oh, hm, yes, I think I can do something about it. Unfortunately," she did her best to look tragic, "it may take me a day or two to finish it. I've been studying for graduation, preparing to be a genin, you know how it is.”

Itachi just looked plain disapproving at that. "Ah, I was under the impression something like this wouldn't be difficult for you."

Mayu bristled. "I never said it was difficult, did I?"

"She'll have it done by tomorrow," Shikamaru said from the couch in a firm voice. "She just likes to give herself extra time so everything's perfect, but I'm sure this will be just fine with a quick fix, Mayu."

She deflated but knew she had already lost.

"Fine. Tell him I'll give it to him at school tomorrow. You should also tell him," she added, looking Itachi straight in the eye, "that he should be more careful next time."

She knew Sasuke would understand exactly what she meant by those words, and from the small head tilt Itachi graced her with, he did too. There probably wasn't much he didn't know about his little brother. In fact, she had heard he was a little creepy about how focused he was on Sasuke. She should probably be thankful he wasn't burying her body in a training ground right now for humiliating his precious little brother.

"Thank you very much for your help, Mayu-chan. It was nice to see you again Shikaku-san. Please give my best to Yoshino-san," he somehow said with a straight face. "And good luck in the graduation exam next month Shikamaru."

Then he was gone in a swirl of leaves and she was left having to explain herself to her family.

The next day, after giving a green and glittering Sasuke the treatment to his problem, Mayu was slumped over in her desk chair.

"Itachi-sempai is so clever," she moaned. "He knew if he demanded I fixed it I'd deny everything and refuse. Approaching it as an innocent request forced me to give in. Now everything is ruined."

Shikamaru patted her head in response.

"Good morning, Mayu-chan," a voice that she had learned to hate for the past six months said from next to the desk.

"Noooo," she whined. "Akira, I'm dealing with the destruction of one of my dastardly plots, I don't have the energy for you.”

She looked over at the brown haired, brown eyed boy who had decided he and Mayu were 'destined for each other' after she beat him in a spar in December. No matter how many times she said no, he kept asking her out and she found it infuriating.

Akira just laughed and Shikamaru stiffened. "She said go away," he drawled.

Mayu looked over at Akira's friends, who were laughing and pushing each other and watching the spectacle. Ah, so that's where his swagger came from. Twelve-year-old boys were awful. Well, other than Shikamaru.

"I'm not talking to you, Nara, I'm talking to your sister," he said.

"She's not my sister," he said at the same time Mayu said, "He's not my brother."

Akira looked confused. "But, your parents..."

"I'm their ward, not that it's any of your business," Mayu said. "Now leave."

Akira looked like he would have said more, but Iruka stepped into the room, and he turned and hurried back to his seat, laughing in that cocky way only young boys seemed to manage when his friends nudged him and clapped him on the back.

"Ugh, that's disgusting," Mayu said.

Shikamaru just glared down at his notebook and didn't reply.

"Okay, kids, today we have a guest lecturer," Iruka said and Mayu could tell by the tension in his body and the seriousness on his face that he wasn't exactly happy about either the person coming to talk to them or the content.

She really hoped it wasn't a repeat of the unit they did on Seduction and Infiltration. Half the boys ended up with nosebleeds when their curvy, gorgeous guest lecturer started talking about the importance of identifying pleasure points.

A tall, thin woman entered the classroom, carrying a small leather satchel under one arm. She had short black hair cut into a messy bob and thin wire glasses sitting on her slightly-too-large nose. Her skin was a dark tan, like she spent a lot of time in the sun, and her lips were a thin slash on her face.

Mayu studied her and felt sweat break out around her hairline. This woman hurt people, on a daily basis. And though she didn't like it, she didn't necessarily hate it either. As her eyes swept the room, Mayu realized that if this woman's boss sat any one of them down in front of her and told her to, she would hurt them without remorse.

"This is Icharu Akane, and she's visiting from the Torture and Interrogation Unit. Please give her your full attention."

"In less than a month, most of you will become ninja of Konohagakure. I'm here to make sure your expectations of the ninja life are based in reality," she said in a clipped voice, setting down the bag on Iruka's desk with an ominous thunk and clatter of metal on metal.

"As you know, our shinobi and kunoichi don't always come home. If you've made it this far, your teachers have informed you of the possibility of a young death far from your homes, with no chance of your remains being brought back to your family."

There was uncomfortable shifting while the woman coolly assessed them.

"What hasn't been discussed is the possibility that when you don't come home, you haven't died, at least not right away."

Confused murmurs swept the room, but Mayu just closed her eyes, already knowing where this was going. She calmly moved her hands to her lap to cover their shaking. She opened her eyes when Akane began speaking again.

"Picture, if you will, a scenario. You and your team are in enemy territory. You've successfully acquired your objective, but a few of you are injured and enemy forces are closing in on you. You are the captain - what does that mean?" she asked.

There was silence for a moment and then Sakura raised her hand.

"Yes, you," Akane said, nodding towards her.

"As the captain, it is your responsibility to ensure the completion of the mission and the safety of your team, in that order of importance."

Akane nodded. "That's right. So, you order your team to continue on without you and stay behind to lay a trap. You are successful in that you hold back their forces long enough for your team to escape. However," Akane said into a silence so complete that Mayu could hear the sounds of crickets outside the window, "you are injured and can't escape and not all of the enemy forces are dead. Instead of killing you, they disable your suicide jutsu and capture you."

Mayu concentrated on controlling her breathing as her anxiety built. A hand gripped hers under the table and she glanced over at Shikamaru, who was giving her a concerned look. She managed a small smile and felt some of her fear abate, then gave his hand a squeeze in thanks.

"You're taken to their holding cells, where they leave you for three days. You're cold, hungry, thirsty, and terrified. You know that nobody is coming for you." Akane had walked to a window and was looking out with her arms crossed over chest, looking for all the world like she was unaware of the effect her words were having on her audience.

A cold cement floor, she hasn't had a drink for days, are they coming for her? Will they save her? Mayu gritted her teeth against the snippet of memory. 

Not now, she told herself and carefully wrapped the memories pushing up from her subconscious into chains.

This was a trick Sherlock had taught her, a way to keep anxiety at bay until it could be dealt with later. He had impressed upon her the importance of only using it when absolutely necessary because it wasn't healthy to repress. When she let up on the chains later, she knew it would hit her even harder, like pressurized salt water.

"Eventually, a man enters the room and takes you out of your cell, and down a series of long hallways to another room, where he chains you to a table. There is no way of escape - they're good at what they do. Then, he starts questioning you. About your village, your name, your mission, whatever. Of course, you don't answer, because you're a loyal ninja of Konohagakure. After hours and hours, they give up on being nice."

Akane walked over to the bag and slowly opened it, pulling out a roll of leather.

"That's when they bring this into the room." she unhooked the clasp holding it shut and rolled out the satchel onto the desk.

Mayu stared at the tools that were revealed from the leather folds. Akane ran a finger down a pair of pliers, then lifted it to tap a scalpel.

"I don't think I need to go into detail on what they do with this. People who specialize in torture can keep a victim alive for weeks while still subjecting someone to great levels of pain," she said.

Mayu doubled down on the chains, which were beginning to strain against the force of the memories trying to surface. She knew she'd gone pale and sweaty and that her scent had soured as well, because Kiba to twitched in front of her, though he didn't turn around. She silently thanked him. If she freaked out during this lecture, that would definitely put a red flag on her record - not good.

She had to keep it together - she could tell Akane was winding down. Shikamaru was rubbing his thumb over her knuckles soothingly and was so tense she worried he would jump out of his chair and drag her out of the classroom. She was only a little disappointed when he stayed put - he also knew the consequences of giving away her discomfort.

Akane rolled the tools back up and replaced them in her bag before giving them her full attention again.

"Eventually, the shinobi or kunoichi in this situation will die, whether from torture inflicted wounds or because he or she found a way to die more quickly. This is a fate that nobody thinks or talks about when discussing the glory of a ninja death. Not everybody is lucky enough to die next to their comrades. Some do so in a dank cell in hostile territory, alone, and their bodies are never seen again.

"And so," she said, meeting the gazes of a few of the students, "you must ask yourself, is this the life you really want? Thank you." She bowed.

There was stunned silence, and Mayu could hear her breaths coming in little gasps. Then a loud smacking noise echoed through the classroom and Naruto, who was sitting two rows down and to the left of Mayu, stood up and pointed down at the woman. The sound had been him hitting his desk.

"If you think that's going to scare us away, lady, then you're crazy!" he said. "I'm going to become the strongest ninja in the village, and then Hokage - then nobody will get away with trying to torture my fellow Konoha nin!" 

Just like that, the tension was broken and Mayu let out a breath of relief when the classroom erupted into noise. Sakura was yelling at Naruto for being an idiot that didn't take the lecture seriously and a few boys were discussing how they would never break under torture, and ways in which they would make their epic escape.

Shikamaru took it as a chance to scoot his chair closer and wrap his arm around her. She laid her head on his shoulder and breathed in and out a few times, his smell reminding her of home and helping her calm down. The memories were still pushing against her chains, but they were less insistent now and she knew it would hold.

Iruka and Mizuki were attempting to calm down the class and Akane had disappeared. Finally, everyone was quiet and Iruka was giving a soothing speech and letting the class know they could come and speak with him about any fears or questions they had from the guest lecture at any time.

As soon as lunch hit, Mayu was out of her chair and heading out of the door, not bothering to grab any of her things before rushing down the hall and exiting the building, through the Academy yard, and into Konoha. She could feel the pulsing of the memories pushing at the chains, and she needed to get somewhere safe and quiet to deal with it.

Mayu wasn't surprised to find her feet taking her through the fence a ways down the path from her house, where Yoshino wouldn't see her, and across the field into the Nara forest. It was the quietest, safest place she knew. She also wasn't surprised to discover that Shikamaru had followed her and was now gasping for breaths of air.

"Mayu! What -"

She grabbed his hand and shook her head. "Shikamaru, I'm going to meditate now. You have to promise me, no matter what, you won't get anybody else, or tell anybody what happens."

"Mayu-chan -" he protested, brows furrowing.

"I'll explain after, I promise, just...promise me Shikamaru. Please!" He stared into her face and finally nodded.

"Of course, Mayu, anything."

She nodded her thanks, relieved, and motioned for him to sit. After he did, she laid down with her head in his lap. "Promise you'll stay with me," she whispered, shaking with nerves.

He grabbed her hand. "I promise.”

No more putting it off, she thought to herself.

She took a few moments to meditate, clearing her mind and relaxing her body, knowing that the better prepared she was for this, the easier it would be. After half an hour or so, she dropped into her mindscape and winced at what she saw.

A large red folder labeled with the word Moriarty was pulsing and emitting muffled screams and laughs. It was in the middle of the cave, and the whole area shuddered with each pulse. Mayu pursed her lips when a particularly large shudder sent a few of her filing cabinets holding various folders to tipping over.

With a sigh, she pulled back, out of the cave, until she was hovering over the rock dome she had created as a protective layer to her mind over the years. She pressed on the oil-slicked surface and it bent with the pressure, like elastic, before snapping back into place.

Things are looking okay here, so the structural integrity isn't compromised yet... another shudder had her racing back into the dark cave with its rows and rows of filing cabinets and touching down in front of the red folder.

"Right. Here goes," she muttered and raised a hand to remove the glowing blue chains.

They disappeared when they hit the ground. As soon as the last one was gone, the folder exploded into a series of smaller folders, which raced around her in a red blur, until one detached and slammed into her. She closed her eyes and let herself remember.


 

Diana Holmes rolled her eyes at the number flashing on the screen of her phone, juggling her books so she could answer it and walk at the same time. All around her were university students rushing off to this class or that, or if they were lucky and on a break, lying in the unseasonal London sunshine.

"Couldn't you give me longer than 10 seconds after class ends before calling, dad?" she said into the phone as soon as she managed to get it to her ear.

"Well, if you had returned my call this morning, I wouldn't be so desperate to talk with you."

Diana sighed but knew better than to argue. "What is so important that it couldn't wait, then?" She stepped around a group of professors complaining about budget cuts.

"It's your grandmother's birthday tonight - Anthea's laid out a dress for you to wear."

Diana smiled and a shook of her head. "You know, most graduate students don't have to deal with their parents dressing them up for dinner parties." 

"Well, most graduate students aren't seventeen," he replied easily.

"Ha, I bet normal seventeen-year-old girls dress themselves, too." Diana didn't really mind - Anthea had great taste, after all.

"But that isn't why you called," Diana said, turning down the sidewalk to head for the parking garage.

"No, of course not," Mycroft scoffed, like calling to chat about his daughter's wardrobe was beneath him. Which, to be fair, it was - the man pretty much ran the British government, after all.

She sighed at his pause. "You want me to convince Uncle Sherlock to come to the birthday party," Diana said in a flat voice.

"Yes, that would be ideal." They both knew he'd never agree with anything Mycroft asked of him, but there was a 50/50 chance he'd give into Diana.

"Fine, I'll head there now." She cradled her phone between her shoulder and ear and searched for her key in her purse.

"Alright," he said. Then, he inhaled a quick breath. "Diana, you need to get out of there," he said urgently.

Part of her sighed - of course, her father was creepily watching her on CCTV while they talked on the phone, but the larger part of her was already looking around. 

Shit, empty parking garage level, dim lighting due to a suspicious amount of bulbs burnt out. Exit: fifteen meters behind me, or twenty meters southwest.

"Five minutes, Diana, and my men will be there. Hold them off for five minutes." His forced calm sent adrenaline through her and without a second thought she dropped her books, clutched her phone in one hand, then spun around and ran for the exit. She heard the sounds of footsteps and quiet curses behind her.

She barely made it halfway before something large slammed into her, bringing her to the ground in a painful skid of limbs. Her head hit the cement and stars burst across her vision, leaving her body unable to properly listen when she demanded that it fight. Her phone had flown from her hand, skidding and bouncing across the floor until it was out of reach.

Someone grabbed her wrists and wrenched them behind her back in a well-practiced move. Professionals, she thought to herself just as a black bag was pulled over her head and she felt the pinch of a needle going into her skin before she lost consciousness.

They kept her in a cold, dark cellar for almost two days before they came for her. She had woken there with a sore face where it had connected with the pavement and discovered she had been completely stripped and put into cheap nursing scrubs. When she ran fingers over the spot on her arm where the tracking chip Mycroft forced her to submit to had been inserted, it was painful and swollen where they had cut it out of her.

The first thing she'd done was crawl around the dirt-packed floor, running her hands over the walls - also dirt - looking for a door. All she had found was a hole dug into the corner that stank of human feces. She had gagged and skittered to the other side of her prison as fast as she could, breathing hard.

I'm not the first prisoner here, she thought to herself and tried to decide whether that was a good or bad sign.

On the positive side, if her mysterious kidnapper had used this place before, there would be more evidence to help point her father and uncle towards her hiding place. On the negative side, this could be a well-established base of operations, which could be harder to find on its own merits for multiple reasons.

The other thing she noticed was that she couldn't find a door, which probably meant the entrance was a trap door from the ceiling. So. There would be no escape there unless she could somehow scale a packed dirt wall barefoot. 

If I were trying to trap a Holmes, this is the exact sort of place I'd put them, she thought to herself and found the implications terrifying. If she was right, they knew what she could do if given half an inch of wiggle room and would do everything they could to stay one step ahead of her.

The next two days were torturous, which was the point. She was cold and terribly thirsty, her hunger pains having abated hours before, and had lived through the uncomfortable experience of using the facilities in the corner. Still, when they finally appeared, dropping down from the ceiling, she fought - of course, she did. The light coming from the trap door had blinded her and she was weak from  being beaten, drugged, and starved, but she still managed to break a nose and send one of her attackers flying into the corner with the hole in the ground, where he landed with a satisfying squelch and a sound of disgust.

Finally, one of them landed a good backhand across her face, sending her sprawling, and they quickly moved in with zip-ties. They were two hulking men, all muscle, and when they called an all clear a set of rickety fold-out stairs descended into the cellar. She was thrown over a shoulder and gagged at the smell coming from his back, doing her best to arch away from it. This must be the one she sent flying into her latrine earlier.

Since physical defense didn't work, she started spewing vitriol in true Holmes fashion as they ascended the stairs and entered a hallway. She told them all the ways her father would kill them, each of them more painful than the last. She deduced that one of their wives was cheating on them and that the other was a closet gay. She insulted their intelligence and their looks and anything else she could see had a chance of pissing them off until one of them - an older man, mercenary, ex-military, with a receding hairline, doing this for the money unlike his friend who just liked hurting people - gagged her.

Finally, they came to a thick metal door that ex-military had to strain to open. Sewage-back dropped her painfully on the cement floor and she took in her surroundings with fear-filled eyes. The room was a cement eight by eight square, with a metal table in the middle holding implements that looked like they belonged in a medieval torture dungeon, a drain in the floor, and what looked like a dentist's chair with restraints. There was also a tripod with a video camera, set to record.

One of them grabbed her by her dark curly hair - identical to her wayward uncle's - and dragged her to the chair. It took both of them to hold her down and get her restrained and they seemed impervious to her muffled screams of rage. Then, they turned around and left.

Diana struggled against the restraints, trying to find a weakness, any weakness, but none made itself known to her. Fear was churning in her gut and she had to take deep breaths through her nose to calm herself. 

It's okay, you're a Holmes, you'll figure this out. 

She had just started to calm herself down when the door swung open and a small, nondescript man wearing a tailored suit swept into the room before it slammed shut behind him. She narrowed her eyes at him, seeing behind his deliberately unassuming demeanor. This was the man in charge - he was pleased with himself and confident that anything he wanted, he would get. And his eyes...she shivered when she got to his eyes. Intelligent, assessing, and cold - there was no humanity there.

He laughed in delight when he saw her shrink away from him. "Oh, yes! You see it, don't you? Most people don't, but I guess there's no getting anything past your family," he said in a high voice as he crossed the room to her side.

"Oh, tut, tut." He reached for her face and ignored her attempts to pull away from him. "You must have upset the guards for them to gag you. I myself enjoy to hear the screams, you know, so we'll just pop this off."

He removed the gag and Diana went on the offensive, just as she had with the guards. He let her go for a few minutes, eyes amused as she threatened, insulted, and deduced horrible things about him. Finally, she wound down and leveled what Anthea always assured her was a very terrifying glare at him.

He laughed and clapped in delight, making her blink in shock.

"Oh, yes, that was perfect! You Holmeses do have sharp tongues, hmm? Put on a good show for your father and uncle, they're watching right now you know,” he said cheerfully and Diana felt her chest go cold.

"What?" she whispered, eyes darting to the camera, which had a red recording light.

He followed her gaze and waved to the camera. "Well, they aren't watching right now you know. Much too easy to track live video. But I'll be sending this to them later - unedited of course, so feel free to give them any message you'd like, I promise I won't cut it out."

"But - why?" she asked. And then, more importantly, "Who are you?"

The man gave her a fervent look. "Why? Well, I'd like to play a game with your uncle and father, and I've decided to have you be my starting move. This should get their attention, at any rate. And you can call me Moriarty. Now, Ms. Holmes, should we get started? I'm eager to play."

She began to shake as he walked to the table and started to mull over the options there. "Hmm, let's start with the fingers, shall we?"

 

000

 

Diana lay on the cool cement floor, sticky and tacky with the accumulated blood of the last few days, unable to move. Moriarty had his minions remove the table and chair each day when he was finished so that she didn't have access to any potential weapons or tools for escape - not that he had to worry about her being able to mount any sort of defense at this point.

She stared at the camera that was now recording from high in the corner where she couldn't reach it, still with a red light on, and imagined she could see her father there instead. Moriarty hadn't been lying about sending the video to her family, and she hated that she could tell. She hated that she could see how much he enjoyed her pain, that he really saw it as some twisted game.

Diana had tried her best not to scream, dropping into her mindscape and pushing the pain back for as long as possible, but eventually, even a mind like hers had to break. She couldn't speak through a broken jaw but desperately wanted to say a last goodbye to her family.

She took a rattling breath and an idea slowly made its way through her sluggish thoughts. Oh, morse code. Diana knew her family would watch every moment of this video, looking for clues, torturing themselves so they could find her killer. And Moriarty knew it too. Diana pushed back the burning hatred she felt at that name. There was only one thing left she could do to defy him and she had every intention of going through with it.

Gathering her thoughts, she slowly began to blink her eyes in a pattern, making sure she put all of the sincerity she could into her face. 

Love you both. Not your fault. SorryTake care of each other. It was all she really had the energy for before she turned her attention to her last act.

Moriarty had whispered what she could expect the next day into her ear, making sure his lips were turned to the camera so that anybody watching could read what he was saying if they had the skill. Diana had been holding on to hope up until that moment, praying against all evidence she would be found before he killed her. But now, she was out of time. A conversation she'd had once with Sherlock had been running through her mind since the end of the first day in Moriarty's tender care.

"Uncle Sherlock, what in the world is this list?" Diana asked as she set down the takeout she'd picked up on his table and caught sight of a scrap of paper he'd scribbled on. "Put finger through eye into brain, rip out own jugular, bite off tongue and choke in the blood/bleed out..."

He looked up from where he was sitting on his couch in his bathrobe, red-eyed from lack of sleep. "Ah, just making a list of possible ways one could kill oneself when low on options and tools but high on willpower."

"Jesus, don't let father see this, he'll have you hauled into a psych ward..."

Two hundred and forty seconds after she'd said her goodbyes to the camera and turned her body away so she couldn't be seen, Diana was choking on her blood, counting down the seconds in her head. The cement was cold and the pain was finally fading from her body when she started laughing. It was a horrible, choking noise, obstructed by blood.

When Moriarty burst into the room, Diana knew he was too late and her laughter grew when he started screaming obscenities at her. I win, she thought to herself as her consciousness faded.


 

"Wake up! Mayu, wake up!" Mayu came out of her memory with a gasp, sitting bolt upright. Her hands went to her mouth and she let out a blood-curdling scream. Her sore throat told her it wasn't the first one, either.

Her breaths came in short pants and she was sobbing. There were hands on her face and a soothing voice was talking to her in low tones.

"Mayu-chan, you're okay, you're safe, I need you to breathe, okay? You're safe, I promise Mayu, just breath, please."

Mayu stared desperately into the brown eyes in front of her and they reminded her painfully of another pair of brown eyes, ones that she'd never see again because she died. But these belonged to somebody else, somebody who was here and alive, right next to her. His name surfaced over the chaos of her memories, the feeling of being held down while someone cut -

"Shikamaru." She sobbed with relief when she recognized him and flung herself against his chest. He wrapped his arms around her, tightening them when she started sobbing, words falling from her mouth.

"I remembered, I remember what he did. He - he -" her voice became garbled. "I died, I died."

"Mayu, who? What did he do?" He asked desperately. She just shook her head and continued to cry.

"Maybe I should go get -" he started.

"No!" Mayu yelled, hysterical. "No, Shika, you promised, you can't, please -"

"Okay, okay, I'm not going anywhere, I'm staying right here. It's okay," he whispered and continued to soothe her until her sobs were reduced to hiccups. As she calmed, she slowly got her thoughts under control.

So that was what happened. Okay, that was bad, but now you know, and you can deal with it. 

She breathed in through her nose and out through her mouth, feeling her pulse slow. Mayu closed her eyes and dropped back into her mindscape. The files from the Moriarty folder were still fluttering around unchecked, flashing images and bits of sound, but they weren't pulsing red anymore.

She began gathering them to her and pushing them into the main folder. When things were semi-organized she opened her eyes again and felt more balanced.

She pulled back from the embrace and wiped at her face with her sleeves before glancing up at Shikamaru. Her heart clenched when she saw his face. He looked stricken and panicked, but he was trying to keep it together for her. She scooted back a few inches and then sat cross-legged on the ground, picking at the cuticles of her fingers.

"I guess I owe you an explanation," she said in a wavering voice.

"That would be...nice," he said carefully. "But you don't have to talk about it if -"

Mayu held up a hand and shook her head. "No, I want to tell you. I should have told you a long time ago, it's just..." she lifted her head and looked into his eyes, full of concern despite his now-slouched posture. "I didn't want you to see me differently. But, I want you to love me for me, not just one version of me."

Shikamaru's eyes narrowed, but he didn't comment. She knew his brain was probably racing with possibilities, but there was no way he would guess what she was going to say.

Without taking her eyes from him, she asked, "Do you believe in...reincarnation?"

Shikamaru blinked slowly before his eyes widened.

"Are you saying you're..." he drifted off and she shrugged. He was always quick to catch on to her leaps of logic - an impressive feat.

"I have memories from a past life, yes," she said carefully.

He was now blinking rapidly and she followed the play of emotions as they went across his face. Shock, disbelief, worry, thoughtfulness.

"Tell me," he demanded, leaning forward, and she breathed out a sigh of relief. He was willing to listen, then.

"The world from my first life, or at least the first I remember, is not this one. I have a few theories about alternate dimensions and diverging timelines...but we won't get into that," she said at his impatient look. "Anyway, it was very different than this one. There's no chakra, for one, or if there is I didn't know about it, and it wasn't widely known or used."

"Then how -?" he asked, looking intrigued.

"Technology was much more advanced," she said with a small smile. "Weapons, communication, information storage and distribution, travel - it was all much, much easier. Maybe someday I'll recreate a few things, but for now I don't want to draw that kind of attention to myself."

"And you - what were you like?" he asked.

"I...my name was Diana Holmes," she said softly, and he furrowed his brow at the strange name. "My family was made of intellectual giants. My father practically controlled the government of the country we lived in, but he did it all from behind the scenes. He could look at a person and know everything about them just from a glance. He also was an expert at knowing what made people tick - he used it to pull strings and bend situations to his benefit. He was always a hundred steps ahead of everybody else.

"He loved me very much, and his brother Sherlock, but other than that, he was a very cold man - all about the good of the whole, you know."

Shikamaru nodded - they all knew people like that, being raised in a military village.

"Then there was my uncle - Sherlock." Mayu rolled her eyes fondly. "He was the opposite of father. Other than his fancy, perfectly tailored clothes and his ability to see everything about a person at first glance, I suppose. They fought like cats and dogs. But I loved them both, and they loved me..." Mayu pressed her lips together.

"As you know, being powerful carries certain risks, and not just for you, but for those around you. I...hadn't remembered everything about my former life all at once. The memories came to me slowly, though, by the time you and I met, I had almost everything. Except for the way I died."

Shikamaru stiffened, then reached across to lay his hand on hers. She sent him a tremulous smile and looked into the trees.

"It's been there on the edges, just bits and pieces, starting with the whole Danzo conspiracy and growing worse after I was almost killed. Then today...during that lecture...it broke loose the rest of my memories. The story she was telling, it was...familiar."

Shikamaru shocked her by standing quickly and walking a few feet away. She stared at his tense back and saw that his fists were clenched at his side. He was breathing deeply, trying to get control of himself. They sat in the silence of the slowly darkening clearing for a few minutes, and Mayu realized she must have been in her mindscape for a long time before Shikamaru pulled her out if it was already that late.

"Tell me," he rasped but didn't turn to look at her.

"His name was Moriarty," her voice cracked on the name, and Shikamaru was by her side again, pulling her towards him. Mayu took strength from his support and continued in a calmer voice. "He took me one day. Moriarty was a genius, and he wanted to...play a game, he said, with my uncle and father. He said I was his starting move," she spat.

"He recorded everything he did to me. I tried to stay strong and not show how much it...how it..."

Shikamaru shushed her. "It's okay, you don't have to continue."

Mayu shook her head, then pulled back from his embrace and straightened her spine, looking him in the eye.

"I want to. You're the only person I'll ever tell about this, and I want to move past it. So. He recorded it, to send to them later. I held out for a long time...three days maybe? But I realized eventually that they wouldn't find me.

"They were so smart, and had resources, but Moriarty, he'd been studying them for a long time. He knew how to send them on false trails and how to hide me from them. He...told me that I only had one day left to live at the end of our last...session and that he had saved the best for last. I won't give you the details of what he said he would do, but, it wasn't anything I wanted to stick around for."

Shikamaru shuddered. "You killed yourself," he whispered and she nodded in confirmation.

"If I thought I would live through what he had planned, I wouldn't have. But he was going to use my last moments as a weapon against my family and I just couldn't let him. It was going to be...difficult for them already." Mayu closed her eyes.

"Anyway, I died knowing that Moriarty had underestimated them. After what he did to Diana Holmes...they would pool resources and band together. They didn't really do that, not for Queen and Country or for anything, so I think he just didn't know what he was getting himself into." Mayu grinned viciously.

"Wherever that world is, I know he's suffering in it. Anyway. I know it's hard to believe, so, it's okay if you think I'm crazy. I just...wanted you to know," she finished lamely.

He was silent for a long time before speaking. "So, then, are you actually this... this Diana Holmes," he struggled over the pronunciation of the English name, "or..."

Mayu's eyes widened. "No! No, I mean, I just remember her life, but I'm not her. Or I kind of am... but it all just kind of blended together to make me who I am...it's hard to explain. I wasn't born with an adult mind, and I'm not...pretending at being me. My interactions with you, my personality - those are all true. The rudeness and constantly blowing things up are Holmes traits through and through, I'm afraid."

He went into his thinking pose and she forced herself to leave him be. She dropped into her mindscape and forced herself to open the Moriarty folder, knowing she'd keep having nightmares if she didn't start dealing with the memories now. She refused to let that man take up any more of her life or energy after this. She would put him to rest.

When she opened her eyes, Shikamaru was studying her but seemed to have relaxed.

"The way I see it, there is no 'other version' of you I didn't know about. Mayu is Mayu - you aren't different just because I know something new about what made you, you. I won't bring up Diana Holmes unless you do, and I won't tell anybody -"

He was cut off when Mayu flung herself at him, knocking him off balance and sending them both backward to thump against the ground, driving the breath from his lungs. Mayu stared at Shikamaru's shocked face and let out a little laugh. He quirked his mouth up at her and said, "troublesome girl," and she knew she was going to be just fine.

 

000

 

Yoshino spent the weekend before their graduation in a flurry. She made Mayu spar with her in the mornings and evenings, though they had just been doing it once every other day since December. Mayu had graduated to stage four, which was basically graduating to the highest kata while adding the application of chakra. The kata itself was an amazing feat of flexibility, speed, and gymnastics that had Yoshino and Mayu flipping and spinning into high kicks and punches in a synchronized dance.

Their spars were mostly Mayu getting her ass kicked by Yoshino, but they were fun all the same. Shikaku and Shikamaru usually chose to be spectators from the porch, claiming it was beautiful to watch. The leer Shikaku sent Yoshino after saying that was truly disturbing.

She also dragged Shikamaru and Mayu out shopping for ninja gear, which was actually pretty fun. Mayu ended up with pretty much the same outfit she always wore but with added protective gear.

For the summer months, she kept her usual gray sleeveless tunic, but now with an added mesh tank top underneath to help stop any sharp things heading for her torso. She also got mesh pants that ended mid-calf with black shorts over the top. In the winter her tunic was a thicker material and long-sleeved that she would pair thick black pants that hugged her legs so they didn't flap when she moved. Her shoes were boots that went up to right below the knee. The front was reinforced over her shins to protect bone.

Shikamaru wore a tight brown tank top with mesh over the top and loose brown pants that ended mid-calf. Over the top was a cropped short-sleeved grey shirt with the Nara clan symbol on the sleeves, and he paired it with standard blue shinobi sandals.

Yoshino also bought them both a ton of bandages and a kunai pouch each. She filled both their arms with kunai, ninja wire, and in Mayu's case, paper and scrolls for creating her low-level seals.

"Um, mom?" she said tentatively. "Once I'm a genin, won't I technically not be your ward anymore?"

Yoshino blinked and tilted her head in thought while Shikamaru scowled, obviously already knowing where she was going with the question. "I guess not? Why?"

"Well, I should really be paying for my own gear..." She almost dropped the stuff in her arms from the force of the head slap Yoshino gave her.

"Don't be stupid! You're our kid, we're paying for your gear until you hit chunin level and can support yourself, end of discussion. Besides, you already fund your own poisons and puppet-making with those furniture plans you give to Akinobu." Yoshino wrinkled her nose as she always did when Akinobu was mentioned in front of her.

Shikamaru kicked her ankle. "Mom and dad are rich, anyway, so it doesn't matter." Yoshino hushed him and blushed and Mayu smiled at her fondly. For some reason, she and Shikaku didn't really like to talk about or flaunt their wealth, and Mayu personally thought it made living with them a lot more comfortable then it would have been with, say, the Hyuuga clan head. She shuddered at the thought.

"Alright, alright, I'll shut up now," Mayu said.

 

000

 

The morning of the graduation exam was pretty much the same as every other morning in their household. Shikaku and Shikamaru looked like they'd rather be sleeping, Yoshino was as energetic as ever, and Mayu was scribbling down notes in her notebook while she shoved rice into her mouth.

They got to school a bit early and were standing with Chouji and Kiba discussing possible exam questions. Akira and his friends were looking towards her and snickering to themselves and a few times she heard one of them say something like 'come on, man, just do it!'

"He'd better not ask me out again," she mumbled to Shikamaru, who sent a scathing glare their way and put an arm around her shoulders.

Mayu rolled her eyes but leaned into him. Finally, they went inside, taking their usual seats in the back. Mayu was sitting in the aisle seat reading a book with Shikamaru next to her, looking as bored as ever, when somebody saying her name made her look up.

If she hadn't been training with Yoshino, she might not have been able to avoid Akira's lips descending towards her, but as it was she was able to jerk to the side so that he barely brushed the corner of her lips and her cheek. For a moment everybody but Akira, who was smirking, was frozen in shock or horror. A few shrieks of delight came from some girls sitting towards the front of the classroom and that broke everybody from their stupor.

Before Mayu could speak, a body was launching itself over the table past her and slamming into Akira so hard they both rolled down the stairs. Mayu's jaw dropped open when she realized that Shikamaru was the blur that had tackled Akira.

Shikamaru was...wiping the floor with him. Mayu winced when his fist connected with Akira’s nose, which broke with a crack and began to spray blood down his face. Shikamaru's eyes were blazing with anger, but his face was cold, and Mayu thought he looked pretty terrifying.

Akira's friends grabbed Shikamaru by either arm and dragged him off of Akira, who was holding his nose and stuttering out apologies. He didn't fight their hold, but Mayu could tell he wanted to. She touched her cheek where Akira had kissed it - without permission - and was brought out of her daze by a rush of anger.

She stood so fast her chair tipped over and joined Shikamaru's on the floor. She stomped down the stairs. When she extended her hands towards Akira chakra threads burst from the ends, attaching at his joints and lifting him out of the air to slam into the wall behind him, feet dangling a few feet off the floor.

"You disgusting little twerp!" she shrieked, barely noticing when Iruka stepped into the room and dropped the tests he was carrying in shock.

"Mayu, what-" he tried, but she cut him off.

"The person you should be apologizing to is me!"

Akira looked terrified, propped against the wall with blood flowing from his nose and his eye already blackening.

"When a girl says no, that's what it means. Not 'please continue to harass me,' or 'kiss me without my permission!'" she screeched the last part and most of the room flinched.

"Touch me again, and you won't have to worry about Shikamaru! I'll use these chakra threads and rip off your -"

"Okay, Mayu-chan!" Iruka yelled, cutting her off. "Let's all just calm down."

Mayu pursed her lips, but released the chakra strings, staggering a bit when she felt the drain on her chakra. Holding up a kid Akira's size was a lot more exhausting than controlling a puppet. She felt a hand on her arm, steadying her, and sent Shikamaru a thankful look before turning back to the boy that Mizuki was kneeling next to, trying to help up.

"Oh, and Akira?" He flinched and looked up at her.

"That thing you're so worried about? With your parents?" she said sweetly, and his eyes widened. "It's true. They were just waiting until you graduated to tell you they were getting a divorce."

She turned and flounced back to her seat, Shikamaru at her side.

 

000

 

Mayu passed, and though she hadn't been sure she would have the chakra for the henge, shunshin and clone, she'd managed - barely. Iruka had decided to let them take the test if they agreed to allow Akira to take it as well. The three of them had all grudgingly nodded and Mayu was relieved to see that Akira's crush on her seemed to have died a tragic death along with his perfectly straight nose.

Shikamaru barely spoke and she could see he was still simmering with anger. She found him after receiving her headband and tugged him into an empty corridor.

"What is it?" She picked up his hand and studied his bruised knuckles.

Shikamaru looked to the side but didn't pull his hand back.

"That - that shitstain stole your first kiss!" he said after a few moments of silence. Mayu blinked up at him in shock - Shikamaru never swore in front of her, but he continued talking.

"He's a total loser, not worth your time, but now whenever you think of your first kiss - you'll have to remember his stupid face."

Mayu frowned. "Okay...first of all, I'm not really the type of girl to get worked up about something like that. I mean, it's not like my lips are a tissue that isn't good anymore after the first use," she said in a chiding tone.

He looked guilty and she waved it away. "Also, he barely brushed my cheek, I'm pretty sure that doesn't count," she said and he stiffened.

"But...it looked like..."

Oh, right, from where Shikamaru was sitting it probably looked like Akira's dastardly plan had succeeded.

She shook her head. "Nope! I turned my head in time, so he ended up here." She pointed to her cheek - close to her lips but not on them. Shikamaru studied the spot closely like he'd be able to find a trace of the illicit kiss and she couldn't help her giggle.

"You were very cool, you know!" she said, putting her hands behind her back and rocking up on the balls of her feet.

He blinked at her. "Oh?" he drawled, the tension draining from him. He smirked and put his hands in his pockets.

"Yep." She nodded decisively. "You looked just like Ensui-niisan the time that guy called dad a lazy has-been in front of him!"

They both shivered at the memory.

"That is pretty cool," Shikamaru said, slouching so their faces were a bit closer.

On impulse, Mayu darted forward and kissed his cheek. He reared back in surprise, eyes widening a bit.

"There!" she said, "now we've both been sneak-kiss attacked today. We should probably go find our parents before they die from the suspense of wondering if we passed."

She spun on her heel to take off down the hall but was stopped by a hand on her wrist pulling her back around.

"Wha -" Shikamaru leaned forward and pressed a kiss to her cheek - the same one Akira had gotten.

"There," he said, cheeks tinging pink, "now you'll remember that instead."

"Y-yes," she said, smile huge on her face despite knowing her cheeks were bright red.

She'd given Shikamaru pecks on the cheek before, but he'd never done it to her. Mayu found she didn't mind at all, but then Shikamaru could probably tar and feather her and she'd be fine with it. She had a soft spot about ten miles wide for him, and he knew it.

When they wandered back outside, Shikamaru looking smug while Mayu talked at him about her latest puppet design, they both stopped short when they saw Iruka-sensei talking to their parents. To Mayu's delight, Ensui was standing next to them, looking amused. She had thought he wouldn't arrive on time for graduation from his mission, but he must have come straight from debriefing, if his dirty clothes were any indication, though he still looked as cool and put together as ever.

Mayu ran over to them.

"Ensui! You made it!" she said, holding her arms up for a hug.

Ensui gamely pulled her in and spun her around.

"Like I'd miss yours and Shikamaru's graduation," he said as he set her down and tugged Shikamaru in for a rough hug, who grumbled but didn't pull back.

"I heard you guys beat the hell out of a classmate for graduation exam practice," he said with a shit-eating grin.

Iruka-sensei pursed his lips in disapproval and Mayu had to do a double take when she saw Yoshino was making an identical face to her sensei. Scary.

Shikaku just sighed. "What am I going to do with you two?" he grumbled.

To everybody's surprise, it was Shikamaru who answered, sounding annoyed.

"He kissed Mayu without asking! She was very upset." He crossed his arms over his chest and looked away.

"Yeah, I'm sure she was the one who was upset," Ensui drawled, but Mayu saw the tension in his body. "So tell me what you did to the little shit, and then point him out to me."

Before anybody could answer Kiba was at their side, his mother standing behind him. "Man, I didn't know Shikamaru could even move that fast!" he cut in, comfortable with the Naras after years of shared dinners.

"He launched over the table and bam!" He hit his fist in his hand and Akamaru barked to punctuate the point. "He punched him all the way down the stairs, and then when they hit the bottom he totally broke Akira's nose and gave him a black eye!

"All the girls were screamin' and everybody was too shocked to do anything. I thought Shikamaru was goin' ta kill the guy before Akira's friends dragged him off of him. And there he was, crying and apologizing to Shikamaru, thinking the beatdown was over," Shikaku pinched his nose and Mayu almost crowed in delight. Finally, somebody else gets the nose pinch!

"-and then Mayu was there, and she picked him right up with those chakra threads of hers and slammed him against the wall." Yoshino's eyes brightened with interested glee at this. "And she was all, 'the person you should apologize to is me! Touch me again and I'll rip off your balls!' Then, she told him his parents were getting a divorce in that creepy way she has," he finished.

"That's...a bit of a paraphrase," she mumbled in the silence that had fallen around her.

Tsume whistled lowly. "Well, I knew you'd be a terrifying kid when I heard Yoshino had taken on your trainin', but damn!"

Ensui threw back his head and laughed, the deep, pleasant sound all that much better because it didn't happen very often. He then reached out and ruffled Shikamaru and Mayu's hair, knocking their new hitai-ate off center.

"Well, two things to be proud of you for!" he said jovially. "Congratulations on your graduation, and on putting that little asshole in his place."

"Ensui!" Yoshino scolded, but it was obvious her heart wasn't in it. Shikaku didn't even bother pretending to be upset.

Poor Iruka-sensei deflated, then sighed. "Yes, congratulations you two. If you show as much dedication to being genin as you did to terrorizing Akira, I'm sure you'll make Konoha proud."

The story got told four or five times that night at the large dinner hosted by the Akimichi. Ino, who was holding a grudge against Mayu felt giddy and accomplished and every time Shikamaru leaned up against her or flashed her one of his small smiles, warmth expanded in her chest. Starting tomorrow, she could stop holding back in her training and...life was just... good.

 

000

 

Shikaku and Ensui had to leave halfway through the party for some emergency. They returned a few hours later looking equal parts bemused and angry. They wouldn't answer any questions about where they'd been, but Ensui said he had some graduation gifts to give Mayu and Shikamaru to distract them.

When they were sitting in the library, the adults in the chairs and Shikamaru and Mayu sitting cross-legged on the floor, he took a storage roll from his pouch, then opened and activated it.

Mayu and Shikamaru studied the objects that were on the coffee table after the smoke cleared with interest. There were two thick traveling scrolls, about five inches in diameter and a foot long. Mayu knew from the work she'd done with Ensui that they'd both hold enough supplies for a month-long trip if she packed fairly lightly. She also knew how much they cost. There was a simple brown leather belt and a wide deep blue belt that was made of a tough, hardy material that still managed to shimmer in the light next to the scrolls.

The most interesting objects were the cylindrical shaped black scroll holders. Each cylinder had six small tubes, about an inch in diameter each, attached to the outside, and inside of the tubes were small storage scrolls. They also had clips at one end and a long strip of leather down at the other with a buckle attached. The whole thing was pretty compact - about four inches in diameter and eight inches long.

"What is this?" Mayu picked it up and began to fiddle with it.

To her delight, the tubes holding the scrolls spun inside the cylinder, like a carousel, so that she could quickly get access to every scroll. Mayu ran her fingers across raised bumps at the top of each and realized that it was so somebody could identify scroll by feel. Ensui grinned and picked up the other.

"These are damn useful for ninja who use a lot of traps and gadgets they need quick access to but who don't want to be weighed down with a million pouches and bags. With practice, you can access any one of the scrolls quickly. Here," he stood and attached the top clip to his own belt, the bent down to wrap the leather strip around his thigh to keep the whole thing secure to prevent it from bouncing around.

He then stood in a ready position, reached down, and sent the carousel into a spin, letting his fingers drag over the raised bumps. When he felt the right combination, he slapped his hand down, the grabbed the end of the scroll and tugged. It stayed in its tube but unfurled. Ensui allowed his thumb to drag across the front, where the seal was drawn, and pushed chakra through the digit, activating the scroll.

With a poof of smoke, a large shuriken appeared and he expertly grabbed it from the air. His other hand flicked the scroll to send it rolling back into its holder. He executed a flashy flip and spin, swinging the large shuriken in the air and landing in a crouch. The whole thing took about ten seconds, but Mayu knew he had moved slowly so that they could see what he had done.

There was silence for a moment before Mayu broke it. "Ensui-niisan, you are so cool," she squealed. "Are these for us?" She jumped to her feet and picked up the beautiful blue belt while Shikamaru stood more slowly and walked over to the table as well.

"Yep," he said, straightening. "Here, let me show you how it works..."

In the end, Shikamaru and Mayu both had their scroll holders, which were actually called scroll carousels, attached to them by their new belts. Shikamaru's belt was simply threaded through the loops on his pants. Yoshino had settled the wide blue belt on Mayu's hips, tight enough so it wouldn't slip.

She had to admit it looked nice next to the grey material, and couldn't help but wonder if Yoshino had helped him pick it out. It was pulled slightly crooked by the weight of the carousel, but Yoshino insisted it looked good that way, so Mayu just shrugged. She felt incredibly cool with her new gear, especially after seeing what Ensui could do with it.

Shikamaru had used the straps on the large storage scroll to secure it sideways across his back. Mayu needed to keep her back free for the special pack she created to carry her puppets, so Yoshino attached the scroll sideways to the belt at the small of her back.

"You'll need to practice with these," Yoshino warned as she fussed over them. "They'll change your center of balance, and there's a good chance enemy will aim for them - especially when they realize you've got weapons and tools in the carousel." She then took a step back and clapped her hands together under her chin.

"Oh, look at you two! You really do look like a true ninja, with your headbands and gear. How adorable.”

"Mom, you take all of the cool out of it when you say things like that," Shikamaru groaned. Ensui and Shikaku to chuckled.

"Also, I think I want to put my hitai-ate here," he said, pointing to his left sleeve beneath the Nara symbol. "I find the weight on my forehead annoying."

Yoshino nodded. "Sure, I'll run and get my sewing kit and help you. What about you Mayu? Do you want to keep it as a headband?"

Mayu hummed in thought. She had to admit the headband was annoying.

"What if we put it here," she said, pointing to the front of her belt.

Yoshino studied her outfit with a critical eye before nodding. "Yeah, I think that would look nice!"

Ensui stood and stretched. "Well, I'm beat. Good luck tomorrow, kids," he said with a yawn.

They said their goodbyes, thanking him profusely before he left.

That night, Mayu couldn't sleep, too excited about the next day. She finally got up with a huff and padded to her window, opening it quietly and slipping out, using chakra on her hands and feet to awkwardly scramble down the wall. She hadn't been practicing enough on tree walking and was still a little spotty with it, which meant she had to be extra careful not to blow the siding off the house with too much chakra. Again.

She landed with a soft thump on the lawn, then straightened from her crouch and walked barefoot over to the shed, opening the door and wincing at how it creaked. Well, she was sure Shikaku and Yoshino knew she was out here anyway - they were both jounin level, after all, even if neither of them saw a lot of combat anymore.

She shut the door and flipped on the lights, taking in the shelves full of beakers, carefully labeled chemicals, scales, and little bits and pieces she used for her various creations. She hummed and crossed to a tall shelf with shallow wooden boxes holding finished products.

"Could always use more smoke bombs...Shika will want some," she muttered to herself, staring at the rows of pink, purple, and green colored balls that were deceptively small for how much of a punch they packed.

She wandered over to the bench and stood on her tiptoes to pull down a small box from the shelf above it. Inside was a pile of the spheres that would eventually be made into her 'bomb lines.' She had told a bemused Shikamaru the name once, and he had just shaken his head at her naming skills.

They were all separated into hollow halves, waiting to be filled. She picked out twenty of the green halves, then reached up to push the box back on the shelf. She then crouched down and pulled a simple board from under the bench that she had cut divots into to hold the sphere halves securely.

Humming to herself, she carefully placed ten of the halves into the board before puttering around the space grabbing various chemicals and beakers. She was bobbing her head up and down while she hummed something that she vaguely remembered as a pop song from Before, carefully using an eyedropper to add the solution to the spheres.

There was a light knock on the door a few minutes later. She glanced over and called that is was safe to come in. The door creaked open and a rumpled-looking Shikamaru entered, eyes taking in her pajamas, messy bun, and goggles.

"Couldn't sleep?" she asked as she turned her attention back to her project.

She grabbed a packet of perfectly sized round, flat separators and used some tweezers to pull one from the package. She then placed it over the top of the half of one of them. He hummed and hopped onto the workbench lining the opposite wall, watching her with interest as she started on the other halves of the smoke bombs, mixing up the second solution.

He knew from experience that when enough pressure was put on the smoke bombs, the dividers would crack, allowing the two solutions to mix. The resulting reaction is what caused the massive amounts of smoke that completely masked both scent and sight. The whole Nara compound still remembered the weeks she was testing the packaging. Both she and Shikamaru had ended up dyed pink for a week. Kiba had burst into hysterical laughter every time he saw them - it had been so troublesome, to quote Shikamaru.

"I was thinking," he finally said in a low voice so as not to surprise her while she was working with chemicals. She hummed to let him know she was listening.

"Genin teams are important...but ninja have also been known to form other partnerships. The Lightning Jaguar and his partner Mayate Suno use combo attacks of water and lightning that took out whole squads of enemy shinobi in the last war. Izumo and Kotetsu are chunin level on their own, but have taken down jounin level opponents with their attacks."

Mayu finished filling the other halves and, needing to wait for the separators to finish adhering before she could join the two parts, turned and leaned against the bench. She lifted her goggles and studied Shikamaru.

"Are you saying..."

Shikamaru, who was sitting cross-legged on the bench with his elbow on his knee and his chin on his fist, smirked at her.

"I think the Nara Shadow Techniques and the Nomaka Deadly Dance of Puppets could be a pretty lethal combination."

Mayu let out a surprised laugh. "I don't have a Nomaka Deadly Dance of Puppets."

"Well, not yet," he said, then shrugged. "It's only a matter of time before you take all these things you've learned and turn them into a comprehensive signature style, you know. The poisons, the puppets, the chemistry, the Hashino techniques..."

Mayu hummed thoughtfully in response. "Yeah, I suppose. Maybe...you could help me out with that?" she asked in a hesitant voice.

"Only if you help me come up with cool ways to use your gadgets in my traps and such," he replied easily.

Mayu tilted her head at him, gathering her thoughts. "So you think you and I could train together to become one of these...partnerships?" she asked, curious.

Shikamaru nodded. "Yeah. I mean, maybe that way we’d get partnered on stuff when we’re chunin. I know you’ll join the police force later, but, it would be nice for awhile." He shrugged, then straightened and gave her a serious look that she knew meant he was about to say something he thought was important.

"That doesn't mean your genin team is something you can just blow off," he said sternly and she deflated.

He knew her too well. She huffed and turned back to her project, pulling her goggles back down.

"Why? You know they're going to be dull and annoying unless I end up with Kiba."

Shikamaru sighed. "Mom was right. Your genin team is your first true test of how well you can handle teamwork. Konoha is feared precisely because of the ability all of our ninjas have to work well together. You don't just attack one Konoha shinobi, chances are you'll be met with a well-oiled machine if you try."

Mayu mulled his words over while she picked up one of the halves with a separator, using a small brush to put a layer of adhesive around the edge before carefully placing it on top of its mate, creating a whole sphere.

"So, you want me to play nice," she grumbled.

"Yes. Mayu," he said and she looked over her shoulder at his face. He was still relaxed, but his eyes were focused on her. "I want you to promise to try. Give them the benefit of the doubt, and do whatever you can to make your team gel, no matter who they are."

Mayu blew a strand of hair out of her eyes that had fallen forward, moving on to the next sphere half.

"Why is this so important to you?" she asked a bit petulantly.

She'd been planning on suffering through her genin team until she made it to chunin, but Shikamaru was asking her to actually form bonds with these random people. It would probably be horrible.

"I want you to succeed," he said with a shrug. "And, I won't be there to watch your back. I want to know your team is looking out for you, and that you have the teamwork needed to always come home."

Mayu carefully set down another now-whole sphere, then turned and crossed the room to stand in front of him. His demeanor was still relaxed, but she could see in the tension around his eyes and in the way he tapped one finger against the knuckle of the opposite hand. He was nervous about their separation into different teams.

"I promise," she said seriously, laying her hand over his to stop the tapping. "If you'll do the same. You and I will be on the most kick-ass genin teams. If I get saddled with a couple of losers, I'll just run them into the ground until they're up to par," she said with a firm nod.

He sighed and leaned forward until his forehead was resting on her goggles.

"You're so troublesome, seriously," he muttered. "Before I met you I thought I'd be an average shinobi with an average life."

Mayu grinned. "Sounds dull," she teased, before pulling back and going to finish up her project.

He stayed silent until she was finished, then padded after her, scrambling up the siding of the house, both of them having to hold back laughter when they kept sliding down the wall. They both needed some practice. She stretched up to give him a peck on the cheek before he could saunter out and he sent her a half smile before heading to his own room. Happiness bubbling in her chest, she fell into bed and easily fell asleep.

Mayu took her time getting ready that morning, donning her new belt with it's hitai-ate displayed on the front like a buckle. She studied her reflection, tilting her head to the side. Other than the belt, hitai-ate, and mesh pants beneath her shorts, she looked the same as she always did. Mayu had grown a bit but doubted she'd ever be as tall, elegant and stately as she had been as Diana Holmes.

The most she could say about herself now was 'cute' with her large grey eyes and oval face. Her dark blue hair, which fell in half-hearted waves to brush just above her ribcage made her skin look even paler than it was. She knew most people would take one look at her innocent-looking facade and underestimate her, but figured that could only be an advantage. She wouldn't be too short or too tall when she was done growing - average looking in a lot of ways, really.

She sighed and turned to her desk and grabbed a roll of bandages and carefully wrapped her right thigh before adding the kunai pouch. She picked up her brush and hair tie before a thought hit her and she frowned down at them.

Mind made up, she spun around and raced down into the kitchen, where everyone else was already sitting around the table.

"Oh!" Yoshino said with a clap and Shikamaru glanced over from where he was slouching over his plate. "You look so adorable."

Mayu rolled her eyes but didn't respond. Instead, she put a fist on her hip and held the brush up in her other hand like it was a sword. "Mom! I want you to cut off my hair."

Shikaku and Shikamaru both made identical noises of protest, and Yoshino gaped at her. "What? Mayu-chan, no, your hair is so pretty. Why would you want to cut it?"

Mayu waved a hand in the air. "What does pretty or not pretty have to do with it? It'll be a hindrance in the field until I'm good enough to avoid somebody grabbing it. So, I was thinking a bit of a bob, you know? Maybe leave the front to my chin..."

Mayu totally missed the looks of distress on her family members' faces as she indicated with a cutting motion of her hand the length she was thinking of.

"Mayu, trust me," Yoshino said gently, "With the Hashino style you'll want to keep your hair long."

"I...what for, though?" Mayu said, confused.

Yoshino just grinned. "Well, that's a secret until level six, isn't it?" she said cheerfully. "Here, come sit in the chair, and I'll pull your hair back into a bun, okay?"

Mayu deflated, sticking her lower lip out in a pout as she realized she had lost, and slunk over to the chair while Yoshino ran upstairs to grab some pins. Shikaku and Shikamaru had slumped over in relief.

"Jeeze, Mayu-chan, you sure know how to get my heart pumping in the mornings," Shikaku mumbled and Shikamaru agreed with a grunt.

Mayu looked between them, baffled. "What does it matter to you if I cut it? It's not like I'd look that different." They both just sighed and looked long-suffering. Mayu grumbled but didn't complain again while Yoshino did her hair.

Shikamaru and Mayu walked into the classroom in time to hear Sakura demand to know why Naruto was there when he had failed the graduation test. Mayu blinked and looked at Shikamaru, who also seemed lost. She hadn't noticed whether Naruto had failed or not - she'd found Shikamaru right after her test and dragged him off to talk.

Mayu peered at Naruto, who was grinning, and studied his hitai-ate, blinking when she saw it was scuffed and had lost some of its shine, and the band looked a little worn as well.

"Is that Iruka-sensei's headband?" she asked aloud, and Naruto laughed and rubbed the back of his neck.

"Yeah, last night Iruka-sensei let me...retake the test, then gave me his headband when I passed. It was so cool!"

Shikamaru winced next to her at his loud voice and she gave him a narrow-eyed look. Naruto was a terrible liar, and as her eyes darted from one clue to the next, she realized something big had happened the day before.

"Hmm," she hummed and decided to let it go. "Well, congratulations."

"Aha, thanks!" he said as she and Shikamaru wandered past him to take their usual seats.

As the classroom filled, she saw that twenty-seven people had passed - not bad. Shikamaru laid his head on the desk, and she opened the book she'd brought with her on advanced Rain Country poisons, trying to ignore the girls tittering over Sasuke and arguing over the seat next to him, wondering if they'd be the lucky kunoichi placed on his team. Naruto seemed to be starting another fight with Sasuke, and Mayu did her best to just tune them out.

A gasp sounded throughout the room, and she glanced up just in time to see Naruto scrambling away from a red-faced Sasuke before he was grabbed by a mob of fangirls who started beating the hell out of him.

"Ugh, I don't even want to know," she mumbled, going back to her book.

Finally, Iruka arrived, and she stared out the window as he congratulated them.

"Your team assignments are final, so I don't want to hear any complaints!" he finished sternly.

Mayu sat up in interest as Iruka started to read the teams off.

"Team One will be comprised of Nobu Akira, Haruno Sakura, and Fu Huno," Mayu let out a breath of relief - the very first team had taken two of her worst-case scenarios off the table.

Sakura slumped in disappointment that she wasn't on Sasuke's team, Naruto moaned about the fact that he wasn't on Sakura's team, and Mayu rolled her eyes. Iruka continued to name off teams, skipping the numbers that were still in rotation from the year before.

"Team Seven is Uzumaki Naruto, Nomaka Mayu, and Uchiha Sasuke." Mayu's jaw dropped in horror, and she moaned and dropped her forehead onto the desk as the blonde jumped out of his seat and asked why he had to be on a team with 'the bastard.'

She stopped listening at that point, and Shikamaru sighed and laid a hand on her neck, sympathetic. Mayu perked up when Team Eight included Kiba, and was secretly jealous of his team members - Hinata and Shino were much easier to deal with, and as a bonus, didn't want to kill each other. Shikamaru was placed with Ino and Chouji on Team Ten, and Mayu glared at the blonde girl as she groaned loudly. Had she not realized she'd be placed on a team with the children of her father's teammates? 

Probably not - Shikamaru knows because he's paying attention to these things.

"That girl doesn't deserve you two," she muttered at Shikamaru, who just shrugged.

Finally, Iruka finished by telling them to come back after they'd eaten lunch to meet their jounin senseis.

"I suggest all of you take this as a chance to get to know your teammates," he said, then dismissed them.

Mayu gave a pleading look to Shikamaru, who just smirked at her.

"Remember your promise," he said before sticking his hands in his pockets and moving over to where Ino was standing with Chouji, looking annoyed.

Mayu groaned when she saw her teammates had disappeared and went looking for them. Twenty minutes later she gave up, and instead sat under a tree in the shade to eat her bento. 

How am I supposed to make a team out of the three of us? she thought glumly.

The bottom of the class, the rookie of the year, and the closet genius. All three of them were abysmal at social interaction, Sasuke too broody and arrogant, Naruto too brash and loud, and Mayu too distracted and impatient.

"I hope our sensei studied a lot of psychology," she muttered to herself.

After a few minutes of sulking, she sighed in frustration at the direction her thoughts had gone in and shook her head. 

You're a genius, and you're good at reading people, she told herself. Suck it up and figure it out. 

With that, she closed her bento and stood, brushing the bits of grass off her outfit before heading inside. When she entered Shikamaru and his team were already there, and her heart gave a painful lurch when she saw Ino sitting where Mayu herself usually did.

Shikamaru gave her a questioning glance, and she felt an irrational flare of anger towards him. He gave some big speech yesterday about them being a team, even if they had other teams as well, then he just cut her loose the moment he had a chance. He replaced her with some blonde girl he didn't even like hanging out with. She turned her head away from him and stalked to the table furthest from him, in the front of the class across the room, and sat down in a huff, crossing her arms over her chest and ignoring the eyes she knew were boring into her back.

A few minutes later, a subdued-looking Naruto entered the classroom. She frowned and studied him. Was he sick? He caught sight of her and brightened, making his way over to plop down next to her.

"Hey, Mayu-chan! I'm sorry I didn't say it earlier, but I'm glad you're on my team!" he said with a bright sincere smile.

She bit back a number of sarcastic comments that came to mind such as Oh, so you wouldn't have preferred Sakura and Kiba? And instead forced herself to relax and follow her resolution to get along with her teammates. She gave him a small smile in return.

"Yeah, let's try our best, okay?"

He pumped a fist in the air. "You got it! I'll be the best teammate ever, you'll see." Mayu couldn't help but giggle a bit at that, causing his grin to grow wider.

"I doubt it dead last," a bored voice said from Mayu's other side.

She turned in her seat to face Sasuke, who was sending a death glare at Naruto. Mayu blinked and looked between them - Naruto was giving Sasuke a smug grin. Had something already happened in the hour and a half since they'd been made a team?

"Hello, Sasuke," she said from between gritted teeth. "I'm looking forward to working with you," she lied shamelessly, and his eyes flicked to her dismissively for a second.

"Just don't get in my way," he finally said, then moved to take the seat behind her.

Mayu closed her eyes and counted to ten as Naruto exploded beside her.

"Hey! Don't talk to her that way, bastard!" she reached out and gripped his arm.

"Let's not fight on our first day, okay Naruto?" she said, eyes still closed.

He went to protest, so Mayu sighed, and turned to face him, relaxing her face and giving him the full power of The Eyes.

"Please, Naruto? I really want our team to get along, okay. So let's just try?" She then turned The Eyes on Sasuke, who looked equal parts guilty and disturbed. "We're going to be stuck with each other for awhile, so we might as well make the best of it."

After a moment, Naruto relaxed next to her and gave a nervous laugh. "Alright, yeah, I'll try not to fight - I bet I'll do a better job of not arguing than that bastard!"

Mayu barely resisted the urge to bang her head on the table. Luckily, anything Sasuke would have said was cut off by the door opening, and Iruka walking into the room followed by a line of jounin.

I wonder where Mizuki is? She thought distractedly as she ran her eyes over the group of ninja standing in front of the now-silent class, wondering which was unlucky enough to be paired with her team. Maybe somebody finally fired the jerk.

Team One's sensei was a stern looking man in standard jounin attire. Sakura filed out with her teammates, giving Sasuke one last longing look. A bearded man stepped forward and called for Team Ten, and Mayu avoided looking at Shikamaru when he tried to catch her eye as he sauntered past. Team eight's sensei was a gorgeous red-eyed woman with thick brown hair. As the rest of the teams slowly left with their senseis, Mayu realized they were one jounin short. She somehow wasn't surprised when it was her team that was left without an instructor.

Iruka frowned but assured them that their sensei should be there soon. After an hour, he glanced at his watch and sighed.

"I'm sorry, but I have a meeting I need to get to. Just wait here, okay? I'm sure he'll show up soon."

Mayu waved him off from where she was reading her book. After Iruka left, Naruto finally couldn't take the boredom and stood up, moving restlessly around the room. When Mayu glanced back at Sasuke, he was trying to appear unaffected by the wait, with his fingers laced beneath his chin, elbows resting on the table, but she could see he was bored and annoyed, as well.

Forty-five minutes later, she glanced up at Naruto and saw that he was holding an eraser in his hands, staring at it with narrowed eyes. 

He's planning something, and it probably won't end well for any of us, she thought to herself.

"Hey, Naruto, wanna help me with something while we wait?" Mayu asked. He jolted and looked up at her.

"Uh, sure Mayu-chan," he said, obviously eager to have something to do.

She stood and crossed the room to stand in front of the windows before turning and facing him.

"I'm practicing fine control while using speed with my chakra threads," she explained, noticing the way Sasuke looked over in interest. Of course, the whole class had seen her use her threads on Akira, but that was the first any of them had even seen her use them.

"Shikamaru helps me by throwing objects into the air, then I try to catch them with a string. Once I can do it ten times without missing, while still holding up the other objects, then I move to the next level."

Naruto tilted his head in interest. "What is the next level?"

"Well, then he would throw two at once for me to catch, but I haven't gotten there yet," she admitted easily. "So, do you wanna help?"

"Yes!" he said, and raced to the drawers to find more items. As he laid out two erasers and a stapler, Mayu looked over to Sasuke.

"Would you like to help, too, Sasuke? It's nice when people take turns throwing so I don't get used to a pattern." He stared at her before shrugging and walking over to the desk. Mayu could tell he was relieved to be doing something but didn't want to admit it, and her lips quirked up as he grabbed a red ball Iruka had confiscated last week, an eraser, the stapler, a box of paperclips, and a rubber duck, randomly.

"Okay," Mayu said. "My range extends three levels up, so keep the objects within that area, please." Sasuke nodded and jogged up the stairs, setting his items on the table next to him.

Mayu lifted her hands, fingers extended, and took a few deep breaths, allowing herself to fall into focus, blocking everything else out.

"Alright, Naruto, you start," she said.

He grinned, grabbed a pair of scissors because of course, he thought throwing scissors around was okay, and gave them a light toss up and to the right. A thread extended from her thumb and whipped across the room, attaching to the scissors and holding them in midair.

She'd barely grabbed it before Sasuke was tossing the ball high into the air on the far side of the agreed upon area, obviously trying to catch her by surprise. Little shit, she thought as a string flew from her index finger across the room and grabbed the ball while it was still four feet from the ground. Naruto then threw an eraser, which she caught, and Sasuke followed it up with a rubber duck. Naruto's next throw, a stapler remover, she caught but accidentally lost control of the ball, which bounced and rolled under the desk.

"Damn," Mayu said, but she was grinning. "Go again?"

They both nodded and resumed the game.

Soon, Mayu and Naruto were laughing as the two boys sent objects flying through the air at faster and faster rates. They weren't even really paying attention to whether she was catching them all or not, instead ducking and rolling and leaping across the room, grabbing the office supplies from the floor that had fallen and tossing them into the air while avoiding hitting any of her threads or objects.

Mayu was spinning and leaping, too, now actively trying to whip the lines of blue and their burdens into hard-to-avoid patterns. Sasuke wasn't joining in the red-faced laughter, but she caught him smirking when one of her threads tripped Naruto, sending him into a tumble down the stairs. Mayu bit her lip and whipped a string holding the eraser towards Sasuke, crowing when it smacked the back of his knees, making him stumble. The impact made her lose control of the eraser, which went flying across the room just as the door opened and Hatake Kakashi stepped through the door. The eraser smacked into his facemask with a thwack and a cloud of white dust before falling to the ground.

Everything in the room came to a standstill, Mayu with her hands raised, threads extending from her fingers with office supplies hovering in the air at the ends, Sasuke on one knee in the middle of the floor, and Naruto from where he was standing on a desk.

Finally, the stillness was broken as the jounin let out a small, delicate sneeze, causing another cloud of dust to rise from the white rectangle-shaped spot that now decorated his mask. Mayu flinched, lost concentration, and her threads dispersed, causing a stapler, a rubber duck, another eraser, and a red ball to drop to the ground with a clatter.

"My first impression," the man said after looking around the room with its upturned tables and chairs and random objects littering the floor, "is that I hate you."

Ten minutes later, the three genin were sitting on the roof, fidgeting under the man's intense stare. "Well," he finally said. "Let's introduce ourselves, shall we? Your likes, dislikes, dreams, hobbies."

Naruto cocked his head to the side.

"Hey, before we do, how about you go first?" he demanded, and Mayu's shoulders slumped.

So far they weren't off to a great start with their sensei. With almost his whole body covered except for one eye and the bit of face around it, he wasn't easy to read, but that said a lot as it was. 

Private to the point of obsession. His physical mask isn't the only one he has - I bet most of what he says is a cover for something else or an outright lie. Lonely, but that comes with the territory of holding yourself apart from everybody else. He looks amiable and relaxed, but he's holding some tension in his hands and thighs...he's nervous, and really doesn't want to be here.

"Sure, sure," he agreed, and she narrowed her eyes. "My name is Hatake Kakashi. My hobbies...I have many. I don't feel like telling you about my likes and dislikes. I've never really thought about my future dreams."

Mayu sighed, as Naruto let out a "Huh?" and Sasuke grunted.

So much for having a sensei who was good at social interaction to balance out the rest of them. She listened to Naruto make his introduction, and couldn't help but giggle at his likes and dislikes, but sobered when he got to his dream. She looked at him from the corner of her eye, but he didn't seem to be faking his cheerfulness.

This kid...he really is tough to still be so positive, she thought to herself. Maybe it won't be all bad.

Then Kakashi was pointing at her. She thought about doing something annoying like he had to mess with him but inwardly sighed as she remembered her promise to Shikamaru. Right, she needed to play nice.

"My name is Nomaka Mayu. I like my foster family and smart people. I dislike idiots and boring things. My hobbies are puppeteering, experimenting in my chemistry lab, solving mysteries, and cloud watching with Shikamaru. My dream for the future is to join the Military Police Force and become the best investigator they've ever had!"

She watched Kakashi closely, but he seemed not to react much to either Naruto or her introductions. Mayu wondered if he remembered meeting her all those years ago in Shikaku's office. Probably not.

Sasuke had given her a bit of disbelieving look at her dream but didn't comment before starting his own introduction.

"My name is Uchiha Sasuke. I like my family and tomatoes. I have many dislikes and no hobbies outside of training. My dream is to surpass my brother."

Mayu blinked and it was her turn to shoot him an incredulous look. He did realize it was too late to beat any of Itachi's records, right? He'd been a jounin for a year by their age. Inferiority complex, indeed. She remembered what she had said about him being 'Uchiha Leftovers' and winced, wishing she wasn't so good at cutting people to the quick with her words.

Her attention was brought back to Kakashi, who told them to be prepared for a survival mission the next day. When Naruto pressed him for details, Mayu almost groaned when he told them about the rule that only nine genins would be considered a junior ninja. She narrowed her eyes at him, unable to tell if he was telling the truth through his glee at messing with them. 

He wants us to fail, she thought to herself, and she pursed her lips in annoyance as he told them not to eat. Asshole, she tacked on as he walked away.

Mayu impatiently waited for Shouta to run wailing from his office after she lifted a few huge beetles she'd found in the park onto his desk using her chakra threads while he wasn't looking, then ran to Shikaku's door, bursting through it and into his office.

"Tell me everything you know about Hatake Kakashi!" She demanded, hands on her hips.

She eeped as an unimpressed-looking Hyuuga jounin turned slowly in her place in front of Shikaku's desk to stare her down.

Shikaku pinched his brow. "Mayu-chan, your ban from the administration building was only lifted a day ago. Let's try to last longer than that before getting kicked out again, hmm?" Just then Shouta burst in behind her.

"Shikaku-san, we have an infestation of...beetles..." he drifted off as he caught sight of Mayu, and his panicked face slowly morphed into one of anger.

"You," he said, and with another meep, Mayu ducked under his arm and darted out the door.

She waited impatiently outside the building for Shikaku, who appeared half an hour later, lazily scanning the crowd until he caught sight of her.

"Mayu," he said with a sigh, and she ran over to him.

"I guess you met your jounin-sensei," he said wryly as he turned and started to walk down the street, Mayu trailing after him.

"I did, and papa, he wants to fail us and send us back to the academy," she said seriously. He grunted, and she knew that meant he agreed.

"So, I need to gather as much information as I can about him, so I can out think him!" she declared.

Shikaku glanced at her, amused, and herded her down a quieter side street.

"Oh? And you think I'd just give out information on one of my top jounin so freely?" he asked.

Mayu narrowed her eyes at him but didn't say anything as he stopped in front of their favorite ice cream stand, ordering a strawberry cone for her and a chocolate one for himself. She waited until he had paid and they had their cones and had resumed walking, making a joint decision to head for the park.

"Well, of course, you don't have to tell me," Mayu said sweetly as they sat on a bench, and he gave her a suspicious look. "Oh, I forgot to tell you, papa. I saw you the other day - out behind the administration building, but I don't think you saw me."

His eyes widened in alarm, then narrowed. "Oh?" he said, calmly taking a bite of ice cream.

"Yeah. I didn't mention it to mom...yet," she said smugly, already knowing she'd won.

What she didn't say out loud was that she'd seen him smoking with the same man that had been revealed as Shikamaru's team's sensei. To say Yoshino would be upset to learn about it was an understatement.

Shikaku groaned. "You're so mean to me Mayu. Fine. I'll tell you what I can - it's general knowledge amongst his generation, anyway." He went silent and she knew he was gathering his thoughts.

"Hatake Kakashi, also known as Sharingan no Kakashi, or the Copy-nin. He has a transplanted Sharingan eye, a gift from a friend. Orphaned at a young age. Student to the Yondaime Hokage," she jolted in shock a bit at that. "One of the strongest people in the village, close to kage level. Held in high esteem by his comrades, both for his skills and for the fact that he's known for never leaving a comrade behind. Elemental affinity is lightning. That's all you're getting, brat."

"Wait!" She said. "One more thing - tell me about his genin team."

"He didn't have one," Shikaku said with a shrug, and Mayu blinked. "He's a prodigy - he became a chunin at six and a jounin at ten. He did have a team he worked with under Minato - one of them was an Uchiha who died while he was still very young, another was a medic, I think, died a while after that."

He gave her a stern look. "You're not to bring that up to him, Mayu. The death of his team...is still a very sensitive subject for him."

Mayu nodded thoughtfully. "I won't papa, I promise," she said, connecting dots already. 

A dead Uchiha teammate, and a gifted Sharingan implant. That must have been a pretty traumatizing situation. 

After her conversation with Shikaku, she was even more determined to pass this test. Having such an accomplished and respected jounin sensei could only be a good thing. It was with that thought that she burst into the house calling for Yoshino, running past Shikamaru who was lying prone on the couch.

Yoshino appeared beside her, eyebrow raised. "You need to help me pack! We have a survival test tomorrow, and if we fail, Kakashi-sensei is sending us back to the academy!" she wailed.

Yoshino blinked in shock for a moment before nodding, ignoring Shikamaru's surprised, "What? We don't have another test!" behind her.

Yoshino and Mayu were surrounded by scrolls, smoke bombs, exploding tags, trap kit materials, and various other bits when Shikaku got home. Shikamaru was sitting in an armchair sorting through kunai and looking miserable. He stopped, and tried to backtrack but was latched onto by a blue and grey whirlwind.

"Papa! Kakashi-sensei said that everybody would be tested and that only nine rookies will be allowed to remain genin. But Shikamaru said his sensei isn't testing them," she scowled and crossed her arms over her chest, and Shikaku had to resist hugging her.

Kakashi had no idea what he was getting into - there was no way his crazy, brilliant, adorable daughter would take no for an answer.

Shikaku put his hands up in the air.

"Mayu-chan I can't reveal these things," he refuted. "It could invalidate your test results."

She gave him an unimpressed look, and then her eyes went sharp and moved quickly over him. He sighed as she flipped her hair, which had been removed from its bun at one point, and turned to Shikamaru.

"Kakashi was telling the truth. You should probably prepare, too. I bet your sensei is just less of a psychological terrorist," and she actually sounded smug that her teacher apparently thought screwing with their minds was fun.

Horror grew as he imagined Mayu, sauntering down the street, wearing a mask, giggling at softcore porn, and sporting a perpetual creepy eye-smile.

"You know," he said tentatively. "If this doesn't work out, you can always join the science corp..."

Shikamaru gave him an amused look, obviously knowing exactly where his thoughts had gone, while Yoshino and Mayu completely ignored him to compare tool pouches.

"Hey!" he said weakly, knowing he'd already lost but having to try anyway, "those are mine..."

Mayu turned her big, sad eyes on him. "But, papa, mom and I both agreed I need to practice before I can use the scroll carousel, and I don't have a tool pouch of my own yet..."

He held up his hands in surrender. "Fine, fine, just don't blow it up," he said.

Shikamaru stood and stretched. "I sharpened the kunai mom. I'm going to go and tell Ino and Chouji we might have some kind of test tomorrow," he said. "It's a drag, but Ino will yell at me if she finds out I knew and didn't say anything."

Shikaku didn't miss the way Mayu tensed and didn't reply, instead focusing on her ninja wire and humming in response.

Shikamaru rubbed the back of his neck but didn't say anything other than a quick goodbye. Shikaku joined his wife and daughter on the floor, groaning dramatically about his creaking joints before pulling a box full of glass, stoppered beakers towards him that were sitting in racks.

"What are -" he started to ask, and Maya gave a nervous laugh before handing him some foam.

"Careful with those, papa, if they break, they'll set you on fire," she said cheerfully, and he pulled his hand back.

"Don't worry, you've really got to put a lot of pressure on the glass for that to happen. Will you cut a piece of foam to size for the left-hand section of the pouch, then make little slots for some of those?" He closed his eyes for a moment before gamely taking the pouch and foam.

"Please don't burn your jounin sensei alive, Mayu. Oh, that's right, this pouch is divided into three sections. What are you going to use the other two for?" he asked.

"I'm not going to. It's just good to be prepared, you know!" she said defensively. Then, "One section for smoke bombs, and one section for explosive tags and ninja wire. Think that's a good mix?" She asked, chewing on her lower lip.

Shikaku smirked as he imagined Kakashi's face when his daughter started launching poisonous puppets and exploding glass vials at him. "Yep, I think that's perfect. You're going to bring Baru and Kichi in that bag you designed?" he asked as he expertly cut down the foam and slipped it into the pouch. Perfect fit.

"Yeah. I'm getting pretty good at controlling both at once, but I'm still working on Bukimi. All of the mechanisms are...complicated." She shrugged, looking dejected.

"Hey, do you think Shikamaru would want some smoke bombs?" she asked in a small voice that made Shikaku ache a bit.

"Sure, I bet he would," he answered, glancing up and seeing that she was dividing what she had into three piles. She added a fourth, then hesitated.

"These other ones are for Naruto and Sasuke...I figure I should supply them since I'm their teammate and this is my specialty, right?"

Shikaku grinned. For all of her intelligence, Mayu still had a hard time figuring out the whole making friends thing. Manipulation and tearing people down to size were specialties of hers, but making true connections outside of the Naras and one stubborn Inuzuka...most people just had a hard time understanding her strange overtures of friendship.

"Sweetheart, if they've got any sort of brains they won't turn down your equipment. I would have killed for a teammate that could make this stuff when I was a genin," he said. "And a ninja uses all tools available to him," Shikaku reassured.

Mayu hummed but didn't respond. After a few minutes, she hesitated, then grudgingly added two more piles. When Shikaku raised an eyebrow in question she shrugged and looked away.

"For Ino and Chouji." She said it as if the very idea was giving her palpitations.

"Ah, I'm sure they'll appreciate it." he went quiet for a moment before gently adding, "You know, Mayu, just because he was placed on a different team doesn't mean he's leaving you behind."

"I know that," Mayu snapped, then huffed. "It's just...he'll have to prioritize them now, won't he?" she finished in a small voice.

Shikaku and Yoshino exchanged looks before Shikaku replied.

"It's true that he'll need to make some space for them, but, I don't really see him prioritizing anybody above you, not for the big things. Don't worry so much, Mayu-chan."

He then carefully reached over the pile of potentially explosive things and laid his hand on her head. Mayu looked up at him thoughtfully before coming to a decision and giving a small nod.

"Right," she said. "I'll stop being silly," and she added a few extra smoke bombs to the pile for Ino and Chouji.

 

000

 

Mayu, Sasuke, and Naruto met up on the bridge by training ground seven all looking worse for wear. Mayu had stayed up late checking and double-checking all of her supplies and showed up with her pack holding Baru and Kichi, her storage scroll clipped to the small of her back, a kunai pouch on her right leg, and her tool pouch pushed back behind her right hip. Shikamaru had accepted the three bags of smoke bombs as the silent apology they were, and didn't comment on her grumpiness before they went to sleep.

As soon as both Naruto and Sasuke showed up in the pre-dawn light, she was holding out two small bags for them. "Good morning! Here, I brought you two something!" Naruto brightened and eagerly grabbed one paper bag, but Sasuke just gave her a suspicious look.

Mayu sighed - right, she knew she'd have to do this.

"It won't blow up in your face or anything, I promise. And, listen..." she looked off to the side and pursed her lips. "I won't say I'm sorry for the green ink thing because let's face it, you deserved it." he scoffed and looked away as Naruto's eyes bounced between them.

"But I'm sorry about what I said right after you were such a dick during sparring," she continued. "It wasn't even true, I just...am good at pressing buttons, I guess," she muttered.

Sasuke studied her, then just shrugged. 

Good enough, she thought to herself and shoved the bag at his chest until he took it. Naruto was holding a small pink bomb ball between his thumb and forefinger and turning it curiously in front of his nose.

"Don't put pressure on it!" Mayu yelped as he started to squeeze, and he started, but the bomb didn't explode into smoke.

"Right. So, those are some smoke bombs I made. The color of the ball indicates what color the smoke will be," she said, going into lecture mode.

"They're small but potent. Good for blocking sight and scent," she said a bit smugly. "To activate, you just need to apply enough force to bend the shell and crack the...activator inside, I guess. After that, you've got three seconds before it bursts. The smoke cover spreads at five feet per second and extends about eight feet in total. If you're standing in the epicenter you'll be completely covered to normal sight."

Sasuke raised an eyebrow. "You made these?" he asked, and Mayu decided to ignore the disbelief in his eyes.

"I told you one of my hobbies was chemistry," she said primly. "Since we're teammates, I'm willing to help supply you with things like this, as long as you help me with the costs for materials and other small projects I may have," she said.

"I'm also... okay at creating a few seals," she reached into her pack and pulled out two neat stacks of explosive tags. "I don't like it much, but I'm pretty good at explosive tags and storage scrolls. I can modify the sound, reach, and force to a certain extent, so maybe that's something we can play with when we have time."

The boys accepted the tags, and looked like a small breeze could blow them over. Embarrassed, Mayu busied herself with removing her backpack and scroll and setting them carefully out of the way on the bridge.

"If you can do things like this, why were you always towards the middle of the class rankings?" Sasuke asked.

Mayu shrugged and moved into her starting stretches. "School is dull. Plus, who cares if I was at the top or the middle of the class? What matters is how I do now that I'm in the field."

His face said he couldn't imagine not trying to always be the best at everything, and she lowered the top half of her body to touch her palms to the ground so he wouldn't see her smile.

Two hours later, Kakashi still hadn't shown up, and Mayu was meditating in the grass, trying not to fall asleep. Naruto and Sasuke, after a few of the usual arguments, were on opposite sides of the bridge. Finally, there was a puff of smoke, and Kakashi appeared before them.

"You're late!" Naruto yelled, as Mayu slowly climbed to her feet and studied her sensei but didn't say anything. 

Keep your temper, you promised to try, she thought to herself as Kakashi rattled off a bullshit excuse about a black cat. He's trying to get to you.

"Okay!" Kakashi said as he whipped an alarm clock out of thin air and set it on a stump. "This is set for noon. Your assignment is to get these two bells from me before it goes off! Anybody who doesn't get a bell will be tied to that post - and they won't get lunch."

"There are only two bells," Sasuke said in a bored voice, but his eyes were sharp.

"Ah, well, the person who doesn't get a bell will fail the test, and be sent back to the Academy. Now! You should come at me with the intent to kill," he said with an easy smile.

Mayu frowned at him. She knew from various conversations with her family that genin were always in a three-man cell unless they were taken on in an apprenticeship, so why would Kakashi send one of them back? He'd have an incomplete team. Also, pitting teammates against each other seemed to directly oppose what Shikaku had said last night. Kakashi never left a teammate behind if he could help it... oh.

Mayu glanced at her teammates, and almost put her face in her hands. Right, they hadn't figured out that this was actually a test of their ability to work as a team. Naruto leapt forward before Mayu could stop him, and she winced as Kakashi disappeared and then reappeared behind him without warning, pulling Naruto's arm behind his back.

So cool, she thought but used the distraction to slip a hand into her pouch and palm two smoke bombs.

When Kakashi yelled 'start!' she crushed them and threw them to the ground. Sasuke had jumped back towards the forest, while Naruto had leapt forward. Making a decision, she extended her chakra threads and grabbed Naruto mid-jump to pull him into the smoke with her until it covered both their forms. He hit the ground next to her with a thump.

"Hey! What's the big id-" she cut him off by clamping a hand over his mouth.

"Shush, I have a plan to get the bells, come on."

He hesitated as she pulled him to his feet, but then reluctantly followed her. She took off in the direction Sasuke had gone, grabbing up her pack as she ran by it. Soon they were in the forest, and Mayu breathed out harshly a few times to clear the smoke from her nose.

"Hehe," Naruto said loudly, walking beside her with his arms behind his head. "Yeah, you and I will get the bells and that bastard will have to go back to -"

"Shh!" she said harshly. "Do you want Kakashi-sensei to find us so easily? Besides, if one of us goes back to the academy we all will go with them," she said as she concentrated on pushing chakra into her nose to enhance her sense of smell.

They needed to find Sasuke.

Naruto faltered. "Eh? But sensei said -"

"He was lying," Mayu said bluntly, putting her nose in the air and inhaling. "He's a fan of mind games - that's why he was so late, and why he told us about the rule of nine."

Her brow furrowed. Was that -

"Then why just two bells?" Naruto demanded, crossing his arms over his chest.

Mayu blew out air. "Because he wants to see if we can work as a team. Or possibly," she furrowed her brow, "if we will prioritize the mission over our own interests? Something like that," she said, flapping her hand dismissively.

"But, I only know because my adoptive mom and dad already told me genin are always in three-man cells. So, if one of us gets sent back...then the other two would be out of luck anyway."

Sasuke dropped to the ground in front of them, and Mayu jumped. He's quiet, she thought to herself.

"Are you sure?" Sasuke demanded. "Because if you're wrong..."

Mayu shrugged. "If I'm wrong, you and Naruto can keep the bells. I'm smart enough to get pushed through the Academy within a month or two anyway if I want to."

He raised an eyebrow, then shrugged. "Fine. Follow me and I'll..."

Mayu rolled her eyes. "How about an actual plan?" she said, and he glared.

"Fine," he snapped. "What tools do we have?"

Mayu pointed to her back. "I have two small puppets that spray a non-deadly but pretty painful acid. I'm not...incredibly fast with them, not fast enough to beat a jounin, but I can distract him at least?"

Sasuke clasped his hands together like he was praying, and put them against his lips. Naruto grinned.

"And I can do this!" he said in excitement and made a hand sign before twenty Narutos popped into existence around them.

Sasuke and Mayu both dropped their jaws in shock.

"Woah..."

Ten minutes later, five Narutos burst out of the trees, running towards a bored-looking Kakashi, who was sitting on one of the tall posts next to the alarm clock with his feet dangling, reading an orange book. He didn't bother to put it away as he leapt down. The first clone engaged the man but didn't come close to landing a hit before he was dispelled in a puff of smoke. Sasuke, Mayu, and the real Naruto were sneaking around to the flank him from the back and the sides.

He hit the second with a kick, and a third with a kunai, still looking bored. That was the signal - right as the third dispelled the other two flanked him, and crushed the green and pink smoke bombs in their hands. Two plumes of smoke covered their advance, and Mayu took off at a sprint across the field, extending her chakra strings behind her. She grabbed the zip that went up the front of the pack and pulled it down with one thread in a practiced motion. Then, she used three from each hand to grab hold of the Beetle Twins. After she created Baru and perfected using his much simpler design with just three threads, she made an identical beetle - except with a yellow head and legs instead of red - and named it Kichi. She'd taken to calling them the Beetle Twins, despite Shikamaru's opinion on her naming abilities.

She pulled them from the opening in the pack and swung them around and towards Kakashi, who actually glanced up in interest for a moment before easily dodging being impaled by the razor-sharp end of Baru's antenna. She pulled him back, then with a flick of her fingers, spun Kichi so she was advancing on him abdomen-first. Kakashi dodged to the side, but she just angled the body so the rear was still facing him as it sailed past him, and pulled back her pointer finger to trigger the poison release mechanism right as it became level with his face. This time his one eye actually widened in surprise, but he easily flipped out of the way of the mist.

Mayu growled in annoyance, and let her puppets land, then had them skitter back towards her out of the line of fire. Before the cloud of acid hit the ground, Sasuke flew through the remaining wisps of pink smoke in a roundhouse kick as Naruto aimed a punch at Kakashi's kidney. Kakashi easily dodged both and continued to dodge every hit they aimed towards him. Sasuke was good - probably chunin level good - at taijutsu, and Naruto just kept peppering him with clone after clone, and had no problem recovering from a few nasty hits. 

He must have a ton of chakra, even outside of the Kyuubi, she thought to herself.

Mayu circled them, her puppets resembling small, ugly dogs at her feet, and finally saw an opening when Kakashi casually tossed Naruto into a tree, still reading his book. With a burst of chakra, she sent Baru soaring through the air towards him. A flick of his eyes, and then Baru was hit by a powerful roundhouse kick. "No!" Mayu blurted as her precious puppet exploded into pieces that flew through the air to land scattered on the ground.

She stared in shock, eyes wide, before slowly lifting her eyes to meet Kakashi's unconcerned ones. 

This guy...he ruined something of mine that I put so much into, and just for a stupid test that he always planned on failing us at. As though three new genin could really defeat a jounin.

With a growl, she took off her pack and quickly put Kichi into it, sending a silent apology to Baru. Mayu reached into her pouch and grabbed out a smoke bomb. When Kakashi sent Sasuke skidding across the ground, she took her chance, running at Kakashi and leaping into a spinning kick three feet from him. He dodged, of course, and when she landed on one foot and spun on it for a follow-up kick to his knee, he dodged out of the way of that, too.

She leapt into another spinning kick. When she was at the apex she threw the smoke bomb with enough force that it exploded into smoke on impact. She carefully watched Kakashi's trajectory as he jumped away before she fell into the smoke. Reaching into her pouch for a flask, a grin coming to her face as she turned towards where she thought he landed, she tossed the glass vial.

She heard the sound of glass shattering, a startled yelp from Naruto - whoops, hope he didn't end up in the danger zone - and then rolled out of the smoke in the opposite direction. When she popped up, it was to the sight of Naruto dancing away from a large patch of burning ground, pulling off his orange jacket and throwing it to the ground to avoid the flames licking at his arm.

Kakashi had, of course, dodged the spray, and was looking at the large swath of fire with interest.

"Um, sorry Naruto!" Mayu called. "I'll replace your jacket, okay?"

Before he could answer, Kakashi appeared in front of her. She tried to jump backward, but he grabbed her by the arm, and casually tossed her through the air. She hit the ground with a thump, then there was the snapping sound of a trap activating, and she was being pulled up into the air again - this time within the confines of a steel wire-enforced net.

"Trying to set me on fire, not very nice Mayu," Kakashi said as he avoided a punch from a yelling Naruto.

"Naruto, fall back," Sasuke's voice said, and Mayu's head whipped over to him in disbelief. 

They can't just leave me! she thought to herself as she reached into her kunai pouch awkwardly and tugged one out.

"What? No way, we can't leave Mayu-chan!" Naruto called from where Kakashi's latest hit had sent him flying.

Mayu craned her neck to look at Sasuke, who wasn't meeting their eyes.

"She's fine up there. We need to concentrate on the mission," he said.

Naruto gaped at him, and Kakashi seemed content to stand with his book and let it play out.

"No way! She's our teammate, we'll get her, then we'll get the bells together," he said stubbornly.

Sasuke scoffed but was interrupted by the sounding of the alarm clock. Mayu gave up on sawing her way through her prison and collapsed backward with a groan.

Fifteen minutes later, she was tied to a post and watching her teammates open their bentos after Kakashi disappeared with a warning not to feed her. She ignored her growling stomach and Naruto and Sasuke's bickering as she mulled the test over in her mind. Kakashi had said they failed, but that he'd give them another chance.

It was obvious they wouldn't get the bells off of him - he was much stronger and faster than them. He saw every attack coming from a mile away. She sighed and wished Shikamaru was there - he'd come up with some awesome unbeatable strategy and they'd have the bells before two.

"Mayu-chan," Naruto said hesitantly, and she glanced over at him.

"Aren't you hungry?" he asked.

Her stomach growled in response and she blushed.

"Sure, but it's not a big deal," she assured him. "I can make it until we're done with the test." She sighed. "It's my own fault for getting captured and setting my teammate on fire. I lost my temper when he broke Baru, I guess. Sorry."

"Baru...your puppet, right?" Sasuke said, and she knew her eyes had gotten a wet sheen.

"Yeah. He's the first puppet I ever successfully used," she said wistfully.

Naruto looked at her seriously for a moment.

"You built him, right?" he asked, and she gave him a surprised look.

"Yeah, I did," she admitted.

"Well then, after this me and the bastard will help you find the parts, and you can just put him back together!" he said.

Mayu swallowed as she remembered the splinters flying through the air - she wasn't actually sure she'd be able to piece that back together but gave him a small smile.

"Sure. Thanks, Naruto," she said.

He was loud, and impulsive, and annoying, but the guy had a good heart. Suddenly, there were chopsticks shoved in her face with a rice ball on the end. She started and looked at the owner of the hand holding them.

"Sasuke...what?" she said.

"You're hungry, so eat. We won't be able to get the bells if you're too hungry to fight," he mumbled, looking away from her.

Naruto looked between them before his expression settled into a smile.

"That's right! Go ahead, Mayu-chan. I'll share my meal too!"

She looked at them and hesitantly opened her mouth for Sasuke to place the ball into.

"This is really good," she mumbled around the bite.

"My mom made them," he said with obvious reluctance.

Before she could answer, Kakashi appeared in front of them. The sky seemed to darken as he grew bigger. Sasuke and Naruto both jumped into ready stances in front of her.

"You broke the rules," he said, single eye narrowing dangerously. "You know what that means."

Mayu gulped. Were they really going to fail...over something like this?

"You three..." he said menacingly, before straightening suddenly with an eye smile, the sky lightening as quickly as it had darkened. "Pass!'

They all three blinked in shock. "Wha-"

"You three are the first that I've tested to ever pass," he said. "Everyone else was just a bunch of dunces who meekly listened to everything I said. But a ninja must see past deception. In the ninja world, those who break the rules and codes are seen as trash, but those who abandon their comrades are worse than trash."

They all sat and took in his words for a moment, shocked that the test was over and that they were actually, truly genin.

"Meet back here tomorrow at eight am - we'll get started on our first mission!" Kakashi said cheerfully, then disappeared in a cloud of smoke.

Naruto began cheering, eyes watering, while Sasuke looked supremely satisfied. Mayu beamed - she was going to start training and taking on real missions - under Hatake Kakashi, no less.

"Hey guys, think you could untie me?" she asked, and Naruto stopped jumping around long enough to move over and cut through the rope with a kunai. She dropped to the ground less than gracefully, then stood and started shaking out her limbs to get feeling back into them.

"I..." she said, as they stood in an awkward circle.

"Kakashi sensei...is actually kind of cool, huh?" Naruto said with a laugh.

"Yeah, for a sadistic guy who didn't want a genin team," Mayu muttered, and Sasuke snorted.

Mayu sighed, then walked over to her pack and picked it up, walking to the first piece of the puppet. Her chest tightened when she picked up the tiny leg, and she just stood for a moment staring down at it. She knew it was an inanimate object, but she couldn't help but feel like she'd lost a friend or something.

A hand holding Baru's shell - somehow still whole, appeared in front of her. She looked up and saw Naruto, who had a smile on his face. "We'll find all the pieces, and you'll put him back together, believe it!" he said. In the background, she saw Sasuke quietly picking up bits of wood and metal.

Before she could stop it, a wide grin spread across her face.

"Alright," she agreed.

This whole genin team thing might not be so bad after all.

Chapter Text

The genin team thing was, in fact, that bad. After a week and a half and six D-ranked missions that involved Naruto complaining loudly about not doing 'real ninja stuff,' Kakashi ignoring them while reading softcore porn, and Sasuke alternating between yelling at Naruto and sulking, Mayu wanted to tear her hair out.

Kakashi was late every day, and Mayu had taken to bringing a book with her to pass the time but struggled to get through it while Sasuke and Naruto wrestled on the ground or yelled insults at one another.

She sighed into her breakfast, poking at the rice with her chopsticks as she faced yet another day with her team.

Shikaku and Yoshino exchanged looks before Yoshino spoke. "Mayu-chan, what's wrong? Are you still upset about Baru?"

Mayu just shook her head but didn't elaborate. Shikamaru looked over at her.

"Mayu-chan, you want to work on that project we talked about this afternoon after we're done with our teams?" he asked, probably sensing she wanted a change of subject. She brightened.

"Sure! Meet on the hill?" Shikamaru nodded, then went back to eating, ignoring his parents' interested looks.

Mayu dragged her feet on her way out the door and was silent as she and Shikamaru walked to the gate of the compound, where they'd need to part ways.

"It'll get better, Mayu-chan," Shikamaru said before he turned to go down the road.

Mayu pursed her lips but didn't say what she was thinking. Easy for you to say, you've known your team for years, have a sensei who actually cares, and a clear strategy for teamwork. 

She just shrugged and attempted a smile. "Yeah, of course, it will."

Shikamaru tilted his head to the side. "You know, it's not really like you to be so discouraged. Usually, if you don't get your way the first time, you just find a way to come at it sideways or bulldoze straight through. What's different this time?"

Mayu sighed and shrugged. They don't see me, she thought.

"I'd better go, I'm already late," she said in a quiet voice.

Mayu decided to cut through the woods to get to the training grounds, knowing it would take longer but not exactly worried about being on time.

She had just left the trees and entered the clearing holding the memorial stone when she stopped short. Standing in front of the stone was her sensei. From where she had entered the clearing she could see his profile, and his whole body was slumped forward in sorrow. She remembered Shikaku's words about his childhood team and bit her lip.

After a moment he stiffened and turned his head towards her. She gave a little wave but didn't approach, not sure if she'd be welcome, and continued to walk through the clearing. He didn't wave back.

A few hours later they were standing in front of Tsunade as she shuffled through D-ranks and bickered with Naruto, and Mayu let her attention wander the room. Her eyes fell on the portraits of the past Hokage as Naruto asked Tsunade for a 'cool' mission, impervious to her grumpy moods. Her eyes moved past them, and she felt a jolt go through her as a realization hit. Her eyes darted back to the smiling, blue-eyed, blonde-haired man in the Yondaime's portrait, and then she turned her head to stare at a grinning Naruto, who was still heckling his 'baa-chan.'

She moved her gaze back to the portrait as her mind whirled, making connections. 

Naruto is an orphan. Naruto is the Kyuubi vessel. The Yondaime's last act was to seal the Kyuubi into a blonde haired, blue eyed infant. No. Way.

She followed her team out of the tower in a haze, walking behind them as Naruto insisted he'd paint his part of the fence "way faster" than Sasuke, who was scowling at him, and Kakashi walked ahead of them, nose in his ever-present book.

When they got to their destination, she silently picked up a paintbrush, eyes flicking over to Naruto every once in awhile, before giving into the urge, and moving over to him.

"Naruto," she said in a quiet voice.

"Hmm, Mayu-chan?" he asked as he splattered paint across the fence.

"Can I ask you...a pretty personal question?"

He looked at her from the corner of his eye, before nodding. "Sure, Mayu-chan. We're teammates aren't we?"

She gave him a half smile. "I...do you...know who your parents were?"

He paused in his painting and stiffened.

"I just -" she quickly filled the silence, "you know I was in the orphanage too, and I was wondering if you were...like me...in that you never knew them," she cringed as he stiffened more. "Ah, never mind," she said meekly.

She could already see the answer to her question in his posture. So this is another thing that they've kept from him. 

She scurried over to her part of the fence and ignored the look Kakashi was giving her. Ensui had told her that Kakashi was an expert tracker, and was as good as the Inuzuka when he enhanced his hearing and smell, so there was a good chance he'd overheard their conversation. 

Let him think of it what he will, she thought to herself petulantly.

She was relieved when, at the end of the mission, Naruto seemed to have regained his cheer and wasn't holding her question against her.

"Um, Kakashi-sensei?" Mayu said sweetly before he could dismiss them, "I was wondering if, maybe, this afternoon we could spend some time on team training?"

He paused and looked at her. "Oh? These missions not enough for you, Mayu-chan?" he asked with an eye smile.

She resisted rolling her eyes and returned the fake smile with one of her own.

"I've just heard so much about what a good shinobi you are, sensei, that I know you could teach us a lot!"

He humphed, unmoved by her praise, but shrugged.

"Alright, meet me in training ground seven," he said, then disappeared in a whirl of leaves.

"Yes!" Naruto said, pumping his fist. "Good job, Mayu!"

As they ran their fourth lap of Konoha, their sensei waving as they looped past his perch on a roof, none of them felt so good about it anymore. Kakashi had called it 'endurance training,' but Mayu suspected he was just keeping them busy.

Finally, they collapsed in a sweaty mess on the ground, and Kakashi appeared before them. "Okay! Naruto and Sasuke, you're over here with me, I want to watch you spar. Mayu-chan, I want you to practice with your chakra threads. Pick up ten objects at once, toss them in the air with your strings, then catch them. Once you can do that five times in a row without dropping anything, tell me, okay?

Mayu stared at him in shock for a moment. That was an exercise she could do at home. She couldn't help but feel like he was just sticking her off to the side while he worked with the boys, but she kept her complaints to herself.

"Yes, sensei," she said and went to do as he said.

She eyed her other three teammates from where she was standing as Kakashi adjusted Naruto's stance and showed Sasuke a flip. She gritted her teeth - right, following orders, that was a thing that she could do. Kakashi would turn his focus to her eventually.

Mayu finally dragged herself to the cloud watching hill and collapsed next to Shikamaru, who was already there.

"That good, huh?" he said wryly, and she just grunted.

"I'm low on chakra and I'm exhausted," she admitted.

Shikamaru hummed. "That's okay. We can just strategize today."

Mayu sat up and he followed her, pulling a small notebook from his pouch. She sat next to him so she could see what he wrote.

"Right," Shikamaru said. "So I thought we could come up with different scenarios, then map out formations and combinations. Then, we'll practice a few when we have time." He shrugged, and she looked at him with a smile.

"That's a good idea," she said softly, feeling suddenly thankful and useful for the first time in weeks.

"I also wanted to come up with an individual training plan for myself," she said with a sigh. "I'm good at perfecting individual skills, but actually combining them..." she drifted off.

Shikamaru nodded. Mayu could tell he was wondering why she wasn't asking her sensei to help with it, but thankfully didn't comment. "I've been thinking about that. Something I've noticed...is that you seem to be pretty stationary when you're using your puppets. In a real battle, that leaves you vulnerable."

Mayu considered that then nodded. "The problem is...I'm still not as proficient at controlling them as I could be. It's hard for me to concentrate on their movements and mine," she admitted.

"I think," he said, tapping his bottom lip with a finger, "that maybe you should try to run through an extra set of the Deadly Dance movement sets every day...but include your puppets. You know, come up with their own set of movements that you want to push them into as you do yours. I bet you could even use Bukimi - it'd probably help you learn how to use him in combat instead of as a tool to scare Ensui-nii when he comes around corners."

"Yeah...maybe one set of movements for Bukimi and another for the twins? I still need to repair Baru..." she said sadly. "I haven't really had time."

Shikamaru sighed but didn't comment. Nobody had been happy to hear that her jounin sensei had smashed her puppet, but Shikaku had admitted it was probably a good learning experience for her. It just seemed a bit excessive.

000

Two days later, thoroughly done with chakra thread practice, Mayu waited until after practice was just finishing and said, "Kakashi-sensei?"

He glanced at her."Hmm, Mayu-chan?"

"I was wondering...Ensui-nii told me you're considered one of the best trackers in the village."

He shrugged but didn't say anything, and Sasuke and Naruto looked over in interest.

"Well, he's been teaching me tracking for a few years now, but he said that he's only really mediocre at it without his summons. He suggested that I ask you for some extra help on it?" Mayu gave him her sweetest smile and bounced up on her toes in excitement. "Itachi-sempai said it's an important skill for investigators in the police force. I'd be very thankful!"

Sasuke scoffed. "Itachi-sempai? You know that the chances of you actually getting a position as a non-Uchiha are pretty much zero, right? And when did you even talk to my brother?"

Mayu glared at him, taking in his defensive posture and dismissive eyes before answering.

"Well, the last time I saw him was when he came to ask me for some help removing permanent ink from his little brother."

Sasuke stiffened, and Kakashi held up his hands. "Okay, children, that's enough. Sasuke, sometimes the MPF does hire particularly motivated and talented individuals outside of the clan." Mayu's smug expression was wiped off her face at his next words. "Sorry, Mayu-chan, but with our current training schedule, I don't know that we can fit in tracking lessons. You'll have to continue studying it in your own time."

Mayu barely kept her jaw from dropping open in disbelief. Kakashi looked relaxed, but he knew he was pulling a dick move by his posture and the way he wouldn't meet her eyes. Considering their current training regime was him working with Naruto and Sasuke while she flung sticks around, yeah, that response was unexpected.

"My own time," she said flatly, and he nodded.

Sasuke and Naruto were looking at the ground, uncomfortable. She stared at him - what did he expect her to do, start stalking random people for practice? Her eyes widened as an idea hit her, and she gave him her brightest smile.

"Sure, sensei, I know just the thing!"

He gave her a suspicious look before waving a hand and disappearing. Mayu glanced over at her teammates, who seemed confused by her mild response.

"Naruto, Sasuke," she said. "I'll see you tomorrow, alright?"

She ran off before they could answer. She had some stalking to prepare for.

000

Mayu knelt behind the garbage cans across from her sensei's apartment building. She'd been there since six am - after breaking into Shikaku's office and stealing his address from his file. What? She said she'd only break into his office again if it was important, and this was really important. Finally, she saw a familiar head of grey hair emerge from the window she had identified as Kakashi's, and she watched him take to the roof, heading east.

She scrambled to her feet and pushed chakra into her legs for speed, keeping an eye on him and following, not bothering to be careful of the people around her. Finally, she saw him disappear into the woods and dropped her chakra use so she could sneak quietly through the trees. She enhanced her sense of smell, though after three days of semi-successfully 'tracking' her sensei she already knew where he was going. The memorial stone. She hid in some bushes and sat cross-legged on the ground, watching the extremely sad and boring spectacle of her sensei honoring the dead.

A few twitches of his nose under the mask and the angle of his body told Mayu he knew she was there - just like he had known every other morning - and that he was ignoring her. Finally, he disappeared in a swirl of leaves, and she sighed and headed for the bridge to meet her team.

"Hey guys," she greeted Naruto and Sasuke, who were already looking a little ruffled from what had probably been their first fight of the day.

Sasuke was in a bad mood, though Mayu had no idea why.

"Hey, instead of you two arguing all morning while I read, do you want to spar for a bit before Kakashi comes?" she asked hopefully.

Sasuke scoffed. "We spend all afternoon sparring, why would I want to spend the morning doing it, too?"

He hadn't exactly been friendly since she let slip that Itachi had given her advice, and she closed her eyes in annoyance. Mayu made a note to herself: Sasuke may resent his brother, but he was also extremely jealous of his time and attention.

"Well, you two do, yeah, but don't, so..."

"Sure, Mayu-chan, I'll spar with you!" Naruto said with a grin. "Don't worry, I'll be gentle..." Mayu scowled at that, but before she could comment Sasuke cut in.

"Well, yeah, because Kakashi knows there's no point. You'll end up a medic nin just like your guardian."

Mayu blinked at him, surprised that she was a little hurt.

"Asshole! Don't talk to her like that!" Naruto yelled, and then they were rolling on the ground, yelling insults at each other.

"Okay, guess we aren't sparring then," Mayu said to herself and took out her book.

After they completed a D-rank and her wayward sensei disappeared, she went looking for him, wandering the markets until she caught his scent. When she finally found him, he was walking down the street with Shikamaru's sensei, Asuma, no book in sight.

She darted after him, hiding behind carts and garbage cans until finally Asuma, who'd been glancing back at her every few minutes, stopped, and said loudly, "Okay, are we just going to pretend not to notice the little blue haired girl following us?"

Kakashi sighed and his shoulders slumped. "Eh, Asuma, if you ignore them they'll go away."

He disappeared, then reappeared behind Mayu, picking her up by the collar and lifting her, then turning her in the air so she was facing him. An amused-looking Asuma sauntered up next to them.

"Asuma, this is my cute little student Mayu-chan. Mayu, this is Sarutobi Asuma. Now. Why have you been following me for three days?" he asked with an eye smile.

Asuma choked on a laugh. "Three days..."

"Oh! Well, you said that I should practice tracking on my own time. I figured trying to locate and follow the best tracker in the village was good practice." She smiled at Kakashi and didn't miss the disapproving glance Asuma sent his way.

Kakashi looked unimpressed. "You're going to keep following me until I agree to teach you tracking, aren't you," he said in a flat voice.

"Yep!" she said and beamed at him.

He was silent for a moment. "In that case..." he said, then let go of her and let her drop to the ground in a crouch. "Good luck!" Then he eye-smiled and walked away.

Asuma sighed and followed him, leaving Mayu shaking in anger behind them. "Oh, this isn't over," she muttered.

The next night, she snuck out of the house and into Konoha. She'd heard rumors (okay she'd eavesdropped on Ensui and Shikaku) that some of the elite jounin met once a month at the Crooked Kunai to drink and catch up, and that Kakashi was usually there. Of course, so was Ensui, but that was part of the plan. The monthly meet up just happened to be that night.

She stood across the street watching the door before she saw a chance to dart in past the bouncer. The bar was loud, with music playing on the jukebox and a rowdy group of ninja in the corner. She moved into the dark space by the jukebox and looked around until she found her prey.

Kakashi was sitting at the bar, along with ten or so other ninjas, including Ensui, and she grinned to herself as she saw her sensei glance with interest at a pretty woman who had sidled up next to him. She waited until they were deep in conversation before making her way over and tugging on his sleeve.

He looked down, and his eye widened at her. She put on her most innocent little girl face, and said loudly and mournfully, "I finally found you. I've been looking everywhere!"

He jerked away from her, and the woman gave him a glare, muttering to herself about irresponsible men, before turning and walking away.

"Man, this tracking stuff sure is hard!" Mayu said as Kakashi sputtered at her.

The ninja around her burst into raucous laughter at Kakashi's expense as Asuma told them about her plan to force Kakashi to teach her tracking.

She felt a wave dark intent at her side and tilted her head to look up into the furious face of Ensui.

"Hi Ensui-nii!" she chirped.

"Mayu-chan, go wait for me outside," he said in a dangerous voice. "And if I catch you in a bar again before you're either a chunin or sixteen..." he let his voice drift off, and she gulped.

"Right, no bars, got it."

She darted towards the door as Ensui turned to a cowed-looking Kakashi and said in a low, deceptively calm voice, "You wanna tell me why my brother's cute little ward is following you into dark bars trying to get you to do your job, Hatake?"

She snickered to herself. It was just as she thought, even the great Sharingan no Kakashi was terrified of Ensui.

The next day she skipped over to the bridge, tired from staying up late listening to Ensui scold her, and then listening to Yoshino scold her, but feeling satisfied with a job well done. When Kakashi appeared, slouched more than usual, they went to pick up their daily mission - weeding a garden - and completed it with minimal drama.

Finally, they were standing in the training field, and Kakashi clapped his hands together.

"Right! Today, we're doing something a little different. Sasuke and Naruto, I want you to work on some chakra control exercises. Mayu-chan," he whipped out four small vials and held them out to her. "We're going to work on tracking."

Naruto and Sasuke groaned and Naruto, of course, had to comment. "Hey, hey, Kakashi, why can't we work on tracking, too?"

Kakashi eye-smiled. "Well, I suppose if you want to work on the same thing as Mayu-chan, I won't stop you!" he said, and his cheerful voice sent warning shivers down her spine. 

Oh crap, he's going the revenge route, she thought to herself.

"Right! So, Mayu-chan, Ensui told me that he's taught you how to enhance your senses. Today I'm going to teach you how to use your enhanced sense of smell to decipher how long ago your mark passed through a certain area."

That didn't sound so bad. 

Mayu nodded and bounced on the balls of her feet in excitement.

"So, in each of these bottles, I have a sample of urine," her eyes widened as she saw where this was going. "One is fresh, one is a day old, one is two days old, and one is four days old. Urine breaks down in certain ways that change the scent over time. So! You need to spend some time smelling these until you can identify the differences between time frames!" he said cheerfully, holding the bottles out to her.

Naruto burst out into laughter, and Sasuke smirked at her. She stared in shock at Kakashi. He was evil, totally, totally evil. From the smugness radiating from him, she could tell he thought she would balk.

"How did you even get these samples in just one night?" she muttered, reaching for them.

"A ninja must always be prepared," he said self importantly before turning to a still amused Sasuke and Naruto. "So, do you want to do those chakra control exercises or..."

"Chakra control! Definitely - we'll leave the pee-sniffing to Mayu!" Naruto said with a nervous laugh.

"Great!" Kakashi said. "Mayu, let me know when you think you've got it down and we'll start on the next stage."

She nodded, and kept her gaze down - she didn't really want him to read the mortification and disappointment in her eyes.

"Okay," she said, then turned and walked over to a tree, sitting and leaning against it, not noticing the way he paused at her quiet acquiescence.

Mayu breathed in and out a few times, trying to calm herself down. 

You just need to prove to him you can take anything he throws at you. Eventually, he'll start to take you seriously, like he does the boys. 

She ignored the little voice telling her that it wasn't fair she had to work to get him to treat her like she was his student.

She slowly moved chakra into her odor receptors, then reached for the opaque glass labeled 'Fresh.' She pursed her lips and focused on keeping her face blank, sure that she was being watched by her team, and tried not to think about where, exactly, these samples may have come from. It made her chest go tight when she realized she felt like she had to protect herself from ridicule from her team, but she just popped the cork on the bottle and then timidly waved it beneath her nose. Mayu fought the urge to gag, and turned her head to the side to take in a few fresh breaths.

After a few more tries, she got used to it. 

Really, you've seen and smelled many less pleasant things. Suck it up - it's only water with toxins and such mixed in.

With that thought, she started on the next bottle. After a while, she thought she had started to identify the differences between the samples, and her disgust was replaced with interest. The older samples smelled a bit stronger, but also seemed to have lost some of the chemical tang...

Finally, Mayu capped them and stood, resisting the urge to wipe her hands on her pants. She wandered over to where the boys were sticking leaves to their bodies with varying levels of success while Kakashi read in a tree above them.

"Sensei?" she called, and he lowered the book. "I'm ready for the next stage, please."

"Hey, Mayu-chan, are you okay?" Naruto asked hesitantly, and she glanced over at him, pushing any of her feelings that weren't interest or determination into a small box.

"I'm fine," she said in a flat voice. "Why wouldn't I be?"

He looked a bit skeptical but didn't say anything else.

Kakashi dropped out of the tree and landed next to her. He held out four small, red flags that had the numbers one through four printed on them.

"Great! I've poured one of each sample in various places in these woods," he said, gesturing behind him. "You're to find them, and label them with these flags. One being the freshest sample, four being the least fresh."

Mayu's eyes widened, and she stared up at him as she slowly took the flags from his hand. The woods around training ground seven were at least fifteen acres...that was a lot of space to cover for her meager tracking skills. She pushed down her doubt and nodded.

"Come to get me if you finish," he said.

She wanted to glare at the if, but just said, "Yes, sensei," and turned to the woods with determination.

It took Mayu an hour to find the first sample, which was splattered against the trunk of a tree on the other side of the training grounds. After some judicious sniffing, she stuck the flag marked '2' in the dirt next to it. The next one took twice as long, but she finally identified it beside a small stream - the smell of the water had covered it a bit. After some hemming and hawing, she placed the '4' next to it.

She chewed on her lip and looked up at the sky - it was getting close to dinner time. She shrugged, and figured her family would assume she was still with her team - they had gone late a few times.

An hour later she was standing in a thick copse of trees, nose in the air as she caught tiny, tantalizing wisps of what she was pretty sure was sample 1.

"Where is it?" she muttered to herself, wandering back and forth in the fading light.

Finally, she pinpointed where it was coming from, and groaned.

"Really, sensei?" she muttered, and put the flags in her pouch and stared up at the branch she was pretty sure the next sample was on. "Now you're just being petty."

With a sigh, she slowly pushed chakra into her feet and hands and carefully started to make her way up the tree. A few minutes later, she blew out a relieved puff of air as she found the spot. She lifted one hand and reached for her pouch.

A bird burst into flight from a branch a few feet above her and she startled, losing her grip on the tree. Mayu shrieked as she fell the fifteen feet to the ground, hitting feet-first and then landing painfully on her back. She took a few moments to lie there, staring up at the sky and asking herself why she had wanted to be a ninja, before sitting up with a groan to assess the damage. Her right ankle was throbbing with pain, and she hoped it wasn't broken inside her boot. Her right arm was pretty scraped up, but she didn't think it was anything too serious.

"Looks like sensei wins - I'm done for the day," she said in a glum voice as she struggled to stand.

When Mayu tried to put weight on her foot, however, she cried out in pain and sat back down. There was no way she was walking on that. She closed her eyes in frustration, willing herself not to cry.

"Right, well, your team will notice you haven't come back and come looking for you," she said out loud, feeling better at the thought.

Actually, they were probably looking for her already. She twisted around until she was leaning against the tree and straightened her leg with the hurt ankle in front of her, hissing in pain.

Mayu then looked down to study her arm, but it was difficult to see the extent of the damage in the dim light. With a shrug, she settled back to wait. And wait. And wait.

It had been fully dark for a while before she admitted to herself that her team wasn't coming. They had probably assumed she'd given up and gone home on her own. 

Or they forgot you were even there, she thought bitterly to herself.

She'd like to say that was just her being dramatic, but, well...no matter how hard she had tried, she had felt like an outsider. Sasuke and Naruto were always focused on each other, and Kakashi was either pretending they weren't there or working with the boys.

She forced her thoughts away from that. Eventually, her family would come to find her - Ensui was in the village, so he could use Baken. Mayu closed her eyes, trying not to be freaked out by the dark forest around her, and started to hum to herself for distraction. Eventually, she was brought out of a light doze by the sound of something moving to her right. She reached a hand towards her kunai pouch and peered into the darkness.

"Hello?" she called in a raspy voice.

A shadow detached from the trees and trotted towards her, and she relaxed when she saw it was Baken.

"Mayu, you've had my summoner worried," the cat said when he got close enough to touch.

He inhaled before saying, "You smell of blood and fear. What happened? Your teammates said that they thought you had gone home."

Mayu swallowed at the confirmation of her thoughts. Instead of answering, she leaned forward and hugged the cat, ignoring his grumbling.

"Sorry," she whispered. "It's just been a really sucky couple of hours."

"I can see that," Baken said, backing out of hugging range. "I assume if you could walk I wouldn't be here."

"Hurt my ankle," Mayu said shortly, and he nodded once.

"I'm going to go get Ensui, then. Your team is with him. I'll be right back."

Mayu sat in the darkness, trying to ignore the tight feeling growing in her chest, and breathed out with relief when she heard Ensui's voice.

"Over here," she called.

"Mayu, you look like crap," Ensui said bluntly as he knelt by her side. "What the hell happened?"

Mayu ignored the three figures she could see in the background - easily identifiable by their shapes, and shrugged.

"Guess I need to practice my tree walking," she said, and he sighed.

The moon chose that moment to finally bank over the trees, and her little clearing lit up in silver light. Ensui hissed as he caught sight of her arm, and she decided she didn't want to know. She glanced over at her team, who had moved closer.

"I think I sprained my ankle," she said to Ensui to avoid dwelling on Kakashi's tense form and Naruto's wringing hands.

He moved around to her other side, and knelt down to put his hands under her knees and behind her shoulders. He was gentle, but her back felt like one big bruise so she still hissed a bit in pain.

"Sorry, sweetheart," he soothed as he stood.

"Mayu-chan! I'm really sorry we didn't find you earlier," Naruto said. "We thought -"

"Don't worry about it," she said, cutting him off.

The last thing she wanted was an apology, or for them to know how much their rejection stung.

Kakashi stepped forward. "Mayu-chan, I'm sorry we didn't realize you were still out here. Of course, we came to look for our wayward teammate after your family came looking for you..."

"Right," she said in an icy voice, and he jolted. "I'm very thankful to have such a kind and attentive sensei. I was so relieved when I heard how famous you are for never leaving a comrade behind."

"Mayu-chan," Naruto whispered, but she ignored him.

"I guess you were right about not taking on too much, Kakashi-sensei. I won't bug you about extra training again, okay?" she said and turned her face into Ensui's shoulder so she didn't have to see the relief she assumed was in her sensei's posture. "Can we please go home, now."

"Sure, sweetheart," he said in a soft soothing voice, and they turned and left her silent team behind them.

When they'd been walking for awhile, he spoke. "You know, Mayu..."

"Don't," she whispered. "Please, I know you all wanted me to give them a chance and I tried, I did, but. I haven't felt this way in six years, and I just won't put myself through it again, okay?"

It wasn't often she felt the sting of rejection since she generally wasn't concerned with whether people accepted her or not, but she had cared about this. Mayu had tried in her own way, and in ways she wouldn't normally bother with, and they hadn't even cared enough to notice. It made her feel small, and like she was somehow less than she should be. It made her want to crawl into a hole for about ten years until the humiliation faded.

She had thought, after that first day in the classroom, and the way they'd stayed to help her pick up the pieces of poor Baru after that test, that she, Naruto and Sasuke would be able to pull together as some sort of team. In the end, though, they seemed too focused on their own goals and their stupid rivalry. And Kakashi...well it was better if she just didn't go there. That was obviously a disaster from the start, though for the life of her she couldn't figure out what she'd done to make him avoid her so fastidiously, which was frustrating.

Ensui walked home carefully so as not to jostle her various bruises, Baken a silent shadow beside him, and if he noticed Mayu shed a few frustrated tears into his shoulder, he thankfully didn't say anything about it. When he walked in the door, Mayu was immediately surrounded by her family but remained silent as Ensui set her on the couch and pulled Shikaku out of the room to talk to him.

Yoshino carefully removed her shoe, then examined her ankle.

"It's not broken, just a bad sprain," she assured. "Shikamaru, go get a wrap and some ice."

He stood and ran to get the supplies. After Yoshino patched up her arm and ankle, Shikaku had entered the room again, sans Ensui.

"I'm going to kill him," he said in a calm voice, and Mayu sighed tiredly.

"No you're not," she said firmly and held up a hand when he went to argue. "Please, papa, just leave it alone. I'm considered a grown up now by law, so you can't just go out and beat up my commanding officer. Just, I'll handle it, okay?" 

Shikaku sighed in frustration. "Mayu, this isn't just about the fact that you're my daughter. He's supposed to teach you, and protect you while you learn. He left you out in the woods injured for hours..."

"What?!" Shikamaru and Yoshino yelled.

"I was in the training grounds!" she argued. "With a sprained ankle! He didn't even realize I was still out there. I mean, I'm not happy about it either, but I just have to survive this team for a year at the most. We're all too talented for it to take any longer than that to make chunin. Please, papa. Don't push this," she begged.

Mayu could see he wanted to argue, and she just slumped back. "I'm tired, can I just go to sleep, please?"

She ignored her family's angry and worried expressions as Shikaku picked her up and brought her upstairs to her bedroom, setting her in her desk chair. Yoshino helped her change into her pajamas, frowning at the bruises on her back before brushing the dirt and twigs from her hair and helping her to bed before tucking her in. She lay staring at the ceiling, listening to the voices of her family raising and lowering as they discussed what had to be the most humiliating day of her life.

"I can't believe I sniffed pee for that guy," she muttered to herself, then jumped as somebody slipped into her room.

She sighed and scooched over on the bed to make room for Shikamaru. He crawled under the covers and laid next to her, opening his arms so she could settle her head on his chest.

"I'm sorry," he whispered after a few minutes.

"For what?" she asked sleepily.

"I insisted you give them a chance, but I didn't realize how much out of your comfort zone you would go...you've been so down the past few weeks, trying to stick your round self into a square hole."

"You calling me fat?" she joked weakly, and he snorted.

"It's not your fault. I admit I was probably a little...awkward. And I got paired with the most emotionally crippled team ever. Seriously, it's bad. Sasuke is just angry and arrogant and obsessed with being better than his brother and doesn't know how to smile. Naruto's desperate to be acknowledged, and Kakashi-sensei is just...living in the past, I guess." She added in a small voice, "and apparently I don't do well with rejection, and don't know when to take a hint."

Shikamaru sighed and petted her hair. "Don't forget that your hobbies include creating dangerous objects that you inevitably wreak havoc with while 'testing' them," he teased, and she smiled.

He was silent for a minute before he said, "You're also brilliant, and fun, and exciting. Your loyalty isn't easily given but when it is, you won't ever let that person down. You're my favorite person for a reason."

She didn't say anything, but tightened her hold on him, feeling better than she had since that horrible moment when she realized her team wasn't coming for her. Finally, the tense hours sitting in the woods caught up to her, and she fell asleep, not noticing when he slipped out of the room.

000

Ensui found Kakashi at a little dive bar, sitting on a bar stool and staring morosely into his drink. He sighed and slid into the seat next to him, signaling to the bartender to give him whatever Kakashi was having - and to put it on the other man's tab.

They sat in silence for a moment before Kakashi spoke.

"You here to punch me in the face?" he said without looking up, seeming unconcerned with the answer.

"Considering it, though I'd say Mayu-chan already gave you enough of a sucker punch."

Kakashi chuckled, but there wasn't any humor to it.

"She always like that when she's mad?" he asked.

"Yep, pretty much. Holds a grudge, too, unless you're part of my brother's immediate family."

Kakashi slumped. "I should have known. She tried to start me on fire after I broke her puppet, you know," and Ensui raised his eyebrows in surprise when he realized the man sounded fond.

"And then she cock-blocked you after you refused to train her in tracking," he drawled. "She's a vicious little thing," and he knew he sounded just as smitten as his older brother did when talking about her or Shikamaru.

Kakashi sighed. "So how much will I pay for this one?"

Ensui tightened his hand on his glass.

"That depends on your definition of 'pay for,'" he said lightly. "I'm guessing she'll be as good as her word. You won't hear a peep out of her unless you ask her a direct question from here on out."

Kakashi thumped his forehead on the table with a soft clang, and Ensui lost all semblance of amusement.

"There a reason you've been giving Mayu a hard time?"

Kakashi lifted his head. "Of course there is - you can probably even guess what it is, but I don't intend to talk about it."

Ensui tapped his fingers on the bar in thought before shrugging.

"Fair enough, but, if you intend on fixing what you broke, you'd better be ready to give her the real reason. That girl will see straight through your bullshit." he then turned in his stool to look straight at Kakashi, who turned his face so he could meet his gaze. "Don't let her Academy scores fool you - she's a genius on a level with Shikamaru and his father, though with different areas of strength."

"And whose idea was it that she keeps her Academy performance so subpar?" Kakashi said in a sardonic tone, and Ensui shrugged before downing his beer.

"Don't know what you're talking about," he said as he stood from the stool and turned to walk away before pausing and spinning back around. "Oh, and Kakashi?"

"Hmm?" the other man spun to face Ensui and was met with a strong punch to his uncovered eye that sent him sprawling out of his stool. They both knew he could have dodged, but Kakashi also knew he deserved it.

"That's for leaving her injured in the dark for hours and making her cry, you asshole. You fuck up and get her killed, my brother and I will tear you apart."

Kakashi just sighed and remained laying on the sticky floor, wondering what Tsunade had been thinking when she saddled him with three baby ninja.

000

The next day Mayu was lying sideways on the couch with her foot propped on a pillow, Shikamaru sitting on the floor next to her head while she leaned over him so she could see what he was sketching in his notebook.

"I think if you were able to use your momentum from this move - you know the one where you leap into the air and then kind of pinwheel..."

"Right, yeah I know which one, how could I forget? I gave myself a concussion when I landed on my head the first time I tried it."

He tilted his head back to give her an amused half grin. He'd insisted on staying home with her since Yoshino had plans to be out of the house most of the day, and Mayu felt more thankful than guilty about it. Her eyes lingered on the hoop earrings he'd put in the day after he'd become a genin. She secretly thought they made him look older, and she was a little struck by it every she caught sight of them.

"Anyway, I thought you could send the twins into a kind of corkscrew move - with those sharp antenna, you would do serious damage if you get them going so fast that people will be hardpressed to get out of the way. Then, after you land you go into that backflip - you could use that to pull them back into a ready position..."

They were interrupted by a knock at the front door. Shikamaru sighed, but stood up and handed the notebook and pen to her. "I'll be right back."

He disappeared into the hallway, and she flipped through the pages to study the rough sketches Shikamaru had put together of the series of movements they'd learned in stages one and two of the Deadly Dance Style. Mayu blinked as she heard a familiar loud voice.

"We just want to talk to her for a minute! We feel bad..." Naruto said, and Mayu groaned and flopped over on her back, then winced.

"She's not available," Shikamaru said in a bored voice. "Kind of how you two weren't available yesterday. You know, when your teammate was injured in the forest."

"Shikamaru! It's fine!" she called and struggled to sit up and look less like somebody who had fallen out of a tree like an idiot the night before.

Her lips quirked when she heard Shikamaru muttering to himself, and the shuffle of footsteps coming closer to the family room. Shikamaru slouched in first, moving to sit on the end of the couch by her feet, followed by an uncharacteristically meek Naruto gripping the stems of some wildflowers in one hand. Close on his heels was a scowling Sasuke carrying a...basket of oranges. Mayu exchanged a look with Shikamaru that clearly communicated What the hell?

Unsurprisingly, it was Naruto who stepped forward first, face determined as he shoved the flowers at her. She carefully took them from him - they were actually pretty and had a nice fragrance.

"I'm very sorry!" He blurted and bowed his head low. He stayed in the bow as he continued talking.

"You're my teammate, which means I'm supposed to look out for you. But, I didn't say anything when Kakashi-sensei was kind of a jerk, and I didn't stick around to make sure you'd gone home, and you ended being injured without help from your comrades. I don't deserve another chance, but, please consider it! I won't let you down this time, I promise!"

Mayu gaped at him in shock. "Will you stand up, please," she finally muttered.

He did so, and she saw that his big blue eyes were shimmering with tears and couldn't help her small twitch. Was this how people felt when she gave them The Eyes?

"Naruto..." she began, then hesitated.

Her plan had been to keep her distance from her team. She would protect them and work with them to complete missions, as was expected of her, but she wouldn't try to get attached again.

Mayu hadn't expected a sincere apology, though, and was now feeling a little lost. She scrambled to order her thoughts. Sasuke was standing to the side, looking incredibly uncomfortable, and Shikamaru was giving Naruto a thoughtful look. He gave her a little tilt of his chin when he saw her looking at him, which she took to mean Your choice, I'll back you up no matter what.

She decided to go for blunt.

"You never saw me as a teammate before, why should I believe you will now? Your guilt will fade eventually, you know."

Naruto looked shocked for a minute before blurting, "I saw you as my teammate!"

Mayu shook her head. "No. You didn't. You see Sasuke as a worthy rival, but I was just...there." She shrugged. "You wouldn't even take the time to spar with me, because you don't take me seriously as a part of the team."

Naruto looked at the ground, lips pursed, and Mayu watched his indignant expression fade as he reviewed the last few weeks in his head. He sighed and slumped.

"It might have seemed that way..."

"It was that way," Mayu snapped. "Don't try and soften it or lie to me, Naruto. I'll always be able to tell."

"Okay, fine!" Naruto yelled. "But I didn't mean to do it - I didn't even realize I was! Sasuke's just a really big jerk, okay? And I was so excited to have a teacher like Kakashi-sensei and I got caught up and it won't happen again." He scowled and crossed his arms over his chest.

"You're hard to read you know," he mumbled. "Even when you and Shikamaru had me over for dinner while we were students, you didn't talk to me. And I could tell that you were forcing it once we were a team and I just figured you didn't like me much."

Mayu blinked at him in surprise. He was more observant than she thought if he noticed all that.

"I...like you just fine," she said carefully. "I'm not great with people, but I was trying to make an effort with you since you're my team. That's probably why it seemed a bit forced."

Naruto bit his lip and narrowed his eyes. "Well, how about I promise not to avoid you, and you promise not to pretend to be something you're not. That first day went pretty well, right? We passed Kakashi-sensei's test for a reason, believe it! We'll be the best team ever."

And just like that, most of the awful pressure she'd been feeling in her chest eased, and she couldn't help but return his smile with a small one of her own. The moment was ruined when Sasuke stalked over and set the basket of oranges down on the coffee table with so much force that two of the fruit bounced out and rolled across the table and onto the floor.

"Sorry," he said flatly, then crossed his arms over his chest and turned his face to look out the window.

Mayu blinked in shock, then studied him for a moment before she burst into laughter. He scowled harder, probably not used to apologizing or being laughed at.

"Sorry, sorry, it's just...who made you come and apologize? I'm guessing it was your mother, what with the oranges," she said, gesturing to the fruit.

Sasuke sighed and deflated.

"Your mom stopped by and had breakfast with my family," he muttered.

Mayu groaned and slapped her hands over her reddening face. "Every time I think this situation can't get more embarrassing, it does. I can't believe she told your dad I fell out of a tree!" she wailed.

Sasuke smirked. "She didn't, she just politely mentioned that you were doing fine after your training accident, even after laying out in the dark forest all alone for so many hours. And that she's sure I'd 'want to know.'" he shivered.

"Your mom's kind of terrifying," he said grudgingly, and Shikamaru made a sound of acknowledgment.

Mayu sighed and lowered her hands. "So your mom made you come."

"Hn." he agreed.

Mayu studied him for a bit. He really is sorry, she realized as she took in his averted eyes and fake-relaxed posture.

"Eh, it's not really your fault. I'm sure you both thought Kakashi-sensei knew where I was," she said grudgingly.

Sasuke gave her a sharp look, then shrugged.

"We're officially ninja now, so there's no excuse," he said.

There was an awkward silence for a moment before Naruto blurted, "Kakashi-sensei had a black eye when he came to tell me we wouldn't be meeting for a few days since you were injured."

Mayu's eyes widened in shock and darted to look at Shikamaru, who was still slouched at the end of the couch and staring pointedly at the far wall.

Mayu closed her eyes and said, "Ensui-nii or dad?"

Silence, then, "Ensui-ojisan," Shikamaru admitted.

"I thought I told you guys to let me handle it," she said in a low, angry tone.

He held up his hands. "Hey, I didn't even know until afterward."

"What is this?" Sasuke asked, pointing to the sketches in her hand, bored with their discussion of 'who punched sensei.'

She explained what they were working on, and he actually looked interested.

After studying the sketches for a moment, he said, "You can do all of these movements?"

Mayu scowled at him. "Yeah, I can get dressed and feed myself in the mornings, too," she grumbled.

Sasuke humphed and looked at her ankle.

"You'll have to show me once you're better. Then we can...help you perfect the movement with the puppets," he said grudgingly and looked to the side.

Mayu's lip twitched. "Alright," she said. "There's katas too, though the puppets won't fit well into those."

"You should come by one morning before your team meets up and watch her and Yoshino spar. It's pretty fun to watch," Shikamaru said with a yawn.

Mayu shot him an amused look. "Yes, it must be so exciting to get that reaction from you."

But Naruto and Sasuke both did look interested, and she thought she might actually end up with an audience one morning.

"Do you need anything before we go, Mayu-chan?" Naruto asked a bit later after they'd sat huddled around Shikamaru while he came up with her 'Puppet Katas,' as Naruto started calling them.

"Um...actually...I do need some supplies for some projects I wanted to work on while I'm staying off my feet for a few days..."

"Hey, you can count on us!" Naruto yelled, pumping a fist in the air while Sasuke grumbled, "Us?"

Mayu gave them a doubtful look before shrugging.

"Shika-kun, can you run upstairs and grab my wallet?"

He gave Sasuke and Naruto a suspicious look - as though they might end up losing Mayu in the sixty seconds he'd be out of the room - then shrugged and stood, lazily making his way to the stairs. Mayu ripped a page out of her notebook and quickly jotted down some items before holding it out to Sasuke, who grabbed it between two fingers like it was distasteful.

He read it over, and she watched with some satisfaction as his eyebrows raised in surprise.

"You cannot be serious," he said, and Naruto scrambled behind him to read the list.

"Dead last, get out of my space," he said through gritted teeth as Naruto yelled "Hydrochloric acid?! Where do we even find that - hey!" Sasuke had reached over his shoulder and pushed Naruto away by the face.

Shikamaru walked back into the room, tossing Mayu's wallet to Sasuke, who caught it easily.

"I wrote down where you can go to find that stuff," Mayu said easily.

She brought out The Eyes, figuring with the bandages on her arms and her wrapped ankle they could only be more effective. "But don't feel like you have to go. I'm sure I'd be fine alone for a while if Shikamaru goes..."

Shikamaru snorted as Naruto snatched the list from Sasuke and hugged it to his chest.

"No, Mayu, we've got it! Don't worry about us!" Then he was grabbing Sasuke's wrist and dragging him out the front door.

They returned a couple of hours later with two large bags and a much lighter wallet. Mayu was sitting on the porch with Shikamaru playing shogi, sitting sideways with her ankle propped up.

Kiba had stopped by, Akamaru at his heels, while they were gone.

"I heard you had a training accident last night," the Inuzuka had said as he plopped down next to Mayu on the couch. "I also heard that your sensei's walking around with a black eye after Ensui-san punched him in the face at a dive bar. Oh, and that Yoshino-sama accidentally-on-purpose knocked a bucket of fish onto his feet this morning at the market."

Well, the last part was news to Mayu, anyway.

Mayu had sighed at him. "Your clan are a bunch of gossips, I swear. And no, I don't want to talk about it. Tell me about your team," she'd demanded.

As expected, Hinata was meek but kind of a badass when she actually built up the courage to fight properly. Shino was proving a difficult person for Kiba to get along with, but Mayu had a feeling they'd work it out eventually - Kiba could be hard to dislike once you spent some time with him.

After about an hour, Kiba had taken off with a, "Let me know if you need me to kick the Uchiha's ass!"

Mayu hoped that was the last bid for gossip she'd get on the whole situation but somehow doubted it.

"Hey, guys, how'd it go?" Mayu asked mildly as Naruto came bounding up the steps, bags in hand.

"The idiot knocked over a display of beakers," Sasuke said in a flat voice.

Mayu frowned in concern. "That must have been...expensive.".

Naruto blushed and rubbed the back of his neck but didn't say anything. Sasuke snorted, then shrugged.

"I just said it was me - they'll charge it to the Uchiha."

"That was...nice of you," Shikamaru said suspiciously.

"It would have been a pain if Team Seven became known for wanton destruction of property," Sasuke said, looking disgruntled with the praise, then confused when Shikamaru started chuckling.

"Oh man, are you in for a bad surprise with Mayu, then," he said mildly before moving a piece on the board. "You did hear how she met Kiba's mom, right? Dad's spent more on cleanup after she blows up, melts, discolors, or obliterates things than on her food and clothes over the years."

Mayu glared at him. "I am not that bad," she hissed, ignoring Naruto's loud laughter.

Shikamaru smirked at her. "Uh huh." He then looked over at Sasuke and Naruto.

"Mom got back a few minutes ago, and wants to know if you two will stay for dinner." He watched Mayu's next move with interest.

Naruto and Sasuke exchanged nervous looks, for once in complete agreement on something. Of course, it would be that they both found Yoshino terrifying. Mayu sighed.

"She's not upset with you - Shika told her you apologized, and she liked the flowers and oranges, so you don't need to worry about her poisoning you."

"Could she do that?" Naruto blurted with horrified interest.

"Once dad and I didn't come home for a week because mom and Mayu were bonding over poison making," Shikamaru said in a distracted voice as he studied the board, missing the way Sasuke and Naruto's face seemed to lose all color.

000

The next morning as Shikamaru was getting ready to leave the house to meet his team, Mayu came thumping down the stairs as quickly as she could on her crutches, two large manilla envelopes clamped awkwardly between her crutch and side. She was still in pajamas, and her hair was in an off-center bun. Her eyes had that crazed look that the Nara household had come to associate with her staying up all night working on a project.

"Shika! Wait, wait!" her crutch slipped off the end of a stair and she flailed as she tipped forward with a little eep.

Shikamaru scrambled forward and grabbed her shoulders to steady her, wincing as a crutch thwacked him on the shin.

"I need you to drop these off for me before you meet your team," her muffled voice said from where her face was awkwardly squished into his sternum.

He sighed and pushed her back onto her feet before helping her down the stairs.

"Mayu, I don't have time..."

"Please, Shikamaru, these are important! It'll only take a second, I promise! Mom won't let me leave the house for another day. She's being completely unreasonable." Her eyes widened and her lower lip stuck out a little, and he groaned.

She brightened. Obviously, she had won.

"This one just needs to go to Akinobu-sensei. They're plans for a new desk...tell him I want two percent of the profits, and I need an advance - well, I've included my demands inside. He'll moan and groan but ignore him. The second is for the blacksmith - the one at the edge of the market? The post-it on the front is for you - don't let him quote higher than that! Tell him I'll pay when I pick up the product in a week. One week! Don't let him tell you he can't finish, because that man is a total - "

He put a hand over her mouth to stop her frantic babbling. "Mayu. It's fine, I've gone with you enough times to be able to handle the blacksmith and Akinobu-san. But I need to go now - Ino is already going to be a pain when I'm late."

He felt her smile beneath his palm and lowered it.

"Thanks, Shika, you're the best!" she leaned forward to peck his cheek. "Have a good day! I think Naruto and Sasuke are coming over again today to help with the Puppet Katas - guilt sure is a useful emotion," she said in an overly cheerful tone.

"That's not a nice thing to use against your teammates..." he muttered, but she was already clattering past him on her crutches towards the kitchen.

Shikaku stepped out of the doorway as she neared it.

"Morning papa!" She said, and he grunted in response, still not awake.

Mayu went to go around him, and somehow got tangled in her crutches and would have face planted into the doorjamb if Shikaku didn't reach out and catch her by the back of her t-shirt.

"Mayu, slow down," he chided as he set her back on her feet.

Mayu just grinned at him and swung her way into the kitchen, making Shikaku sigh in defeat.

Shikamaru shrugged at him as they walked to the front door together.

"She's Naruto and Sasuke's problem today," he grumbled, ignoring the pointed look his father gave the folders in his hands.

When Sasuke and Naruto arrived at the Nara house a few hours later, a harried-looking Yoshino opened the door, then sagged in relief.

"Oh thank goodness you're here!" she said, and both boys straightened in concern.

"What is it? Has something happened? You can count on us to help!" Naruto said with a fist pump.

Yoshino's lip quirked. "The only thing that's happened is that my daughter doesn't do well when she's homebound, and she's horrible at using her crutches. I already heard two ominous-sounding explosions coming from her lab, though I'm assuming she's fine because she opened the door and yelled, 'Don't worry, mom, I'm still alive!' each time, so." She sighed. "Please just go and keep her out of trouble. I need to run some errands. She's in the shed in the backyard."

Naruto blinked rapidly as he processed her words, but Yoshino was already past them and heading down the path towards Konoha's center before he could answer. They stood in silence before exchanging looks and slowly walking around the house and hopping the fence into the backyard. The shed was in the back corner and seemed ominously silent.

Naruto studied the door before reaching out to give it a tentative knock. For a moment it was quiet before they heard Mayu respond, strangely muffled and slurred.

"Uh..who is it?"

"It's Naruto and Sasuke! Your mom said we should...help you out," Naruto answered, and Sasuke rolled his eyes.

Again, silence, before Mayu called back, "Uh, well, I could use some help, actually. Come in."

Naruto slowly opened the door and stepped inside. Sasuke followed him, looking around with interest at the shelves full of glass implements. Then his eyes fell on Mayu, who was sitting in a stool in front of one of the benches, foot propped up on a space she'd cleared on a shelf in front of her. There were various instruments and materials spread in front of her, and she was bent forward, cheek pressed against the table top, looking extremely affronted.

"Uh, everything okay Mayu-chan?" Naruto asked, and she sighed.

"Obviously not," she mumbled, and Sasuke raised his eyebrow when he saw she was blushing.

"Mayu, are you...stuck to the table?" he asked as he took in the knocked over beaker behind her and the puddle of clear liquid her face was sitting in.

"I...maybe a bit," she said grudgingly. "I was working on an adhesive and, well. I was up all night drawing out some designs. I just put my head down to rest my eyes for a minute while the adhesive sat up. When I woke up, it had tipped over, and..." she sighed, then narrowed her eyes at Sasuke, who had turned to face the door, shoulders shaking.

"Are you..." Mayu said suspiciously.

Sasuke made some choking noises, and she gasped. "You are! You're laughing! This isn't funny!"

Then to her horror, Naruto joined in loud guffaws that drowned out Sasuke's quieter laughs, who now had a hand against the door and was leaning against it for balance.

Mayu awkwardly threw her hands up in the air, then settled in for a sulk.

"Fine, well, when you guys are ready to help your injured and helpless teammate, you let me know. I didn't even know Sasuke was capable of laughter," she said petulantly, which seemed to set them off more.

About fifteen minutes later, the boys were wiping their tears with the back of their hands.

"Okay, Mayu, we're ready to help you," Naruto said.

"Finally," she muttered, but her lips were quirked up as she took in Sasuke's bright eyes and flushed cheeks. 

So he does act like a human sometimes.

"I think I know a solution that will break down the adhesive without burning off my face," she said cheerfully, ignoring Naruto's squawk of alarm.

"Oh! And, you should both avoid using chakra in here."

She gestured vaguely behind her at four round, corked vials holding clear blue liquid. "Unless you want to die in a fiery death."

"Shouldn't you have told us this before!" Naruto asked in horror.

"Idiot - you shouldn't use chakra around unknown chemicals, anyway," Sasuke scoffed.

"Really? Why?" Naruto asked in interest, and Mayu groaned.

"Okay, Naruto, your job is to go inside and...make some sandwiches. I'll talk Sasuke through creating this," she said in a horrified voice.

"But I want to watch!" he complained.

Mayu narrowed her eyes at him.

"Fine," she grumbled. "Go sit by the door, and sit on your hands. Don't touch anything."

Naruto watched in interest as Mayu calmly talked Sasuke through collecting the materials and chemicals he would need. To his credit, he was calm and attentive, and the end product was just as good as something she would have made. He carefully used a q-tip to apply the liquid to her cheek, helping her slowly peel herself from the table, and Naruto asked fascinated questions about everything in his line of site. Mayu was almost a little thankful for her injury as she was hit with the thought that this is what Yoshino had meant about meshing with a team.

When Shikamaru slumped home that afternoon, exhausted from team practice, it was to an empty house. He shed his jacket and tossed it on the couch, knowing his mom would yell at him later but too tired to care.

"Mayu? Mom?" he called, making his way through the house.

When he didn't find anybody, he decided to check Mayu's lab. When he stepped out onto the back porch, however, he stopped to look at the tableau in front of him, amused.

Sasuke and Naruto were sitting over a notebook, heads together, arguing over...projectiles?

"Idiot, if she does that there, then she'll run the risk of hitting allies."

"Well, not if we know they're coming!" Naruto argued.

There were sheets of paper spread across the backyard, and lying in the middle of the chaos was Mayu, still in her pajamas with her head pillowed on Naruto's discarded jacket, fast asleep. He took in her slack face and the puddle of drool forming on her makeshift pillow and snorted before sticking his hands in his pockets and idly walking down the steps and across the lawn, stepping over messy sketches of puppets in mid-flight and stick-figure Mayu's leaping through the air. Sasuke gave a grunt of acknowledgment as he came up beside them.

"Hey, you guys look like you had a fun day," he said with a smirk as Sasuke got a haunted look on his face and Naruto motioned for him to be quiet.

"Don't wake her up!" he hissed, but it was too late.

There was a rustle of paper from Mayu's direction and a sleepy, "Shika?"

He turned and made his way over to where she had sat up, unselfconsciously wiping at the drool in the corner of her mouth. He crouched down in front of her.

"Hey," he said with a half smile as he took in her messy hair, clumped and sticking straight up where it'd fallen out of the band on one side. He frowned when his eyes landed on her left cheek and reached out to run the back of a finger against the reddened skin.

"What happened?"

He raised an eyebrow as her other cheek flushed to match and she looked away with a mumbled "nothing," and muffled laughter came from where her teammates were sitting. He didn't comment.

"Missed you," she mumbled sleepily and flopped against his chest.

He yelped and lost his balance, falling back to land on his butt, and she followed, curling against him and sprawling across his lap. He sighed and shifted until he wasn't in danger of falling over, and put an arm around her shoulders.

"Looks like you kept busy," he drawled, looking around the yard.

His eyes fell on Naruto and Sasuke who were staring at Mayu in disbelief.

"She's been a nightmare all day, and now she's acting like a sleepy kitten," Sasuke grumbled, and Shikamaru smirked at them.

"You're all sweaty and dirty," Mayu complained but didn't move.

"I told you Ino would punish me for being late," he said with a sigh. "It was a total drag."

"I'm going to dye that girl's hair orange one day," Mayu grumbled. Then, "Oh!"

She sat up suddenly and flailed out of his lap.

"Shika! Sasuke had such a good idea. Just...let me find it..." she awkwardly crawled across the lawn, picking up sheets of paper and then throwing them over her shoulder and muttering to herself when they weren't what she was looking for. At one point she bumped her ankle against the ground and hissed.

"Mother fu-"

"Okay, that's enough," Shikamaru said in a firm voice, and she paused and looked back at him with wide eyes.

"But, Shika," she whined. "I need to find..."

"Sit," he said in a firm voice. "Tell me what you're looking for and I'll find it."

He rolled to his feet and groaned as his muscles protested. "Then, I'm going to shower, and you and I are relaxing the rest of the evening. And tonight you're sleeping, got it?"

She sat down and crossed her arms over her chest, slumping into a pout.

"Dull," she muttered but didn't argue.

Sasuke and Naruto were blinking in shock at his Mayu-wrangling skills.

"Sasuke, you know the idea you had for Baru 2.0's shell? With the senbon? Do you know where..."

"Hn," he said, and grabbed a sheet next to him and held it out to Shikamaru, who grabbed it and studied the diagram.

"Oh," he said. "This is a good idea... with this, she'll be able to scatter enemies when they get too close..."

"Yeah, and I can coat the senbon in that knockout poison mom and I made, remember?" Mayu said eagerly from where she was sitting. "Do you think she'll let me go to the woodshop tomorrow?"

Shikamaru hummed distractedly from where he was studying the hastily drawn plans.

"Yes - she probably doesn't want to risk you burning the house down if you're forced to stay another day." He smirked as Naruto snickered. "I'll help you get over there and set up in the morning, then I'll pick you up in the afternoon. Oh, and Akinobu-san says you're a damn crook and gave me your advance. The blacksmith tried to overcharge you, but dad was with me and gave him The Look - you know the one - and your stuff will be ready to pick up in five days."

"Akinobu-sensei is so grumpy!" Mayu said gleefully.

Shikamaru rolled his eyes and crossed to where she was sitting, then knelt down to pick her up.

"We're going inside, and we're both getting cleaned up. Don't think I didn't notice you have god-knows-what clumped into your hair," he said. "Naruto and Sasuke, will you pick this up and bring in her crutches?"

Mayu beamed at him. "Aw, Shikamaru, you're so nice, carrying me inside. My hero!" she cooed and fluttered her eyelashes - badly - and he thought he might actually be doomed when he thought it was adorable instead of disturbing.

"Ah, Sasuke, can you grab that solution we made from my lab? I'll...probably need it to get my hair clean. And, you two can stay for dinner if you want!" she called over Shikamaru's shoulder as he started walking away.

They were all in the family room, Mayu lounging sleepily on the couch watching Sasuke and Shikamaru play Shogi, her hair still wet from her shower, and Naruto talking at her in a loud voice about ramen, when Shikaku and Yoshino came home. When they entered the room, Mayu was shocked to see Kakashi trailing behind them, as relaxed-looking as ever.

Her eyes jumped from one to the other before she sat up and said over Naruto, "Something's happened."

Shikaku stopped and blinked at the four preteens now staring at the adults.

"Ah, I...didn't realize your teammates would be here too, Mayu-chan," he said, rubbing the back of his neck.

"It's probably best that they're here, anyway," Kakashi said in a bored voice behind him, and Mayu stiffened.

She had been hoping to avoid seeing him until the next team practice - the sight of him made her want to curl up in embarrassment, but she shoved that feeling into a 'deal with later' box and wiped the emotion from her face as well as she could as Kakashi continued to talk.

"It could affect them as well if we're right."

The three adults exchanged looks while Naruto said, "Right about what? What's going on?" in his loud voice.

Shikaku sighed and ran a hand down his face. "Yeah, I suppose you're right. Her team should know."

Mayu stiffened. "So this is about me," she said flatly, and Shikamaru shot her a worried look.

"Let's all go into the kitchen," Shikaku said with a sigh.

Mayu shook her head when Shikamaru moved to help her up and motioned for her crutches before her eyes flickered to Kakashi for a moment. He didn't argue - he obviously knew she wouldn't let anybody carry her around while Kakashi was watching. He grabbed the crutches from where they were leaning against one of the armchairs, leveling a glare at Mayu's sensei as he did, who just gave him an infuriating eye smile in return.

Mayu struggled to her feet, then fumbled with the crutches. Unlike that morning, she was careful on her way to the kitchen, not wanting to fall in front of her sensei, and annoyed with herself that she even cared. When they were settled around the table, it was Kakashi who started talking, looking completely at ease in the kitchen with his swollen black eye - seeming completely unconcerned that the brother of the man who gave it to him was sitting to his immediate right.

"Sometimes," he said in a serious voice, "when you're a ninja you meet unsavory people, and these people decide to become your mortal enemies..."

"Right," Yoshino cut in, "How about I take the lead here." Kakashi slouched, even his hair drooping into a pout, but didn't argue. "A few weeks before your graduation, Kakashi, and his team returned from a mission with two jounin level prisoners. Their affiliation was unknown at the time, but they've been causing some...issues for Suna and Konoha for a while."

What does this have to do with me? Mayu thought, eyes flickering over to Shikaku, whose pinched lips and furrowed brow spoke of the level of tension he was holding.

"This morning, the two nin escaped from custody," she said bluntly.

"Okay..." Mayu said. "So, what does this have to do with..."

"Another prisoner escaped as well," Shikaku said gently. "He was in the same cell block - we think it was just an issue of opportunity, not that it was part of the plan to have him escape as well."

Mayu blinked. Another prisoner escaping that would somehow put her in jeopardy and put that look on Shikaku's face. It could only be one person. Mayu groaned and tipped her head back.

"Seriously? That guy is like a cockroach, I swear to god."

Yoshino's lips twitched. "Yes, he does seem to just keep popping up where he isn't wanted."

"Watana," Shikamaru said in a flat voice to her right.

She glanced over and saw his eyes had taken on that sharp quality she'd come to equate with him losing his temper. His fists were clenched and for once he wasn't slouching.

"Wata-what?" Naruto asked.

Sasuke was still slouched next to him, but his eyes were interested.

"Watana," Shikamaru spat. "He tried to kidnap Mayu when we were kids." He looked at his father and ignored Naruto's sputtering. "Why are you worried? The smart thing for him to do would be to run as far from Konoha as he could."

Shikaku sighed and ran a hand down his face, and Kakashi crossed his arms over his chest and somehow managed to look even more relaxed, while Yoshino got an expression on her face eerily similar to her son's.

"He didn't...do well in captivity. His mind deteriorated, and he became focused on revenge for a situation he didn't believe was his doing."

Mayu snorted. "Seriously? What, did he start carving my name into the walls or something? Muttering revenge scenarios in his sleep?"

She looked at the adults' faces her and gaped. "Wait, oh my god he did. Gross! I was like, six when I met the guy! We spent a total of an hour and forty-five minutes together. What a creep," she said, sitting back and crossing her arms with a huff.

Sasuke finally spoke. "So you think he'll be coming for her, and you want us to know so we can protect her."

"Like I need you to protect me from such a pathetic little twerp," Mayu said just as Kakashi said, "So you can protect yourselves. I'll deal with Watana."

Mayu blinked when, for just a moment, she spotted a deep intensity under his relaxed mein, but then it was gone again. She huffed in annoyance - this guy was almost as hard to read as Ensui when he had his walls up.

"All signs point to him having left the village," Shikaku assured. "Ensui's taken a team to track him and the two missing-nin."

"So then why all the panic?" Mayu asked, curious.

Kakashi shrugged. "If he attacks, it will be while we're out of the village on another mission. Eventually, we'll be taking C-ranks."

He reached into his flak jacket and pulled out three mugshots. "Memorize those - it's the escapees. If you see them, retreat, do not engage."

Mayu hummed as she picked up Watana's photo, but didn't respond other than that. If he came for her, she wouldn't retreat. After all, last time they had met she'd made a promise, one that she fully intended to keep.

000

Her ankle was finally deemed healed by Yoshino, and Mayu - and everyone around her - let out a breath of relief. Mayu assumed Akinobu would be lighting incense at the closest shrine when he found out since she'd spent two days straight limping around his shop.

The next morning Yoshino dragged her out of bed and down the stairs to do her stretches. Mayu hissed as her muscles protested after days of inactivity, but eventually started to limber up.

She and Yoshino set out on a steady jog around the Nara field, increasing their speed with every loop until they were sprinting the last two. 

Ugh, speed training, Mayu thought to herself as she slowed to a walk after their last lap.

Yoshino was huffing and holding her side next to her, but there was a smile on her face.

"Ah, I think I let myself go a bit when I retired to take care of Shika," she said, breathing in deeply and closing her eyes. "It's so nice to have a reason to get back into shape." Mayu studied her mom as she caught onto her wistful tone.

"You know," Mayu said slowly, "I bet if you spent a few months in medic-nin classes, you'd catch up with more modern practices and techniques in no time. Then, you could start working at the hospital if you wanted."

Yoshino inhaled a shocked breath, and Mayu looked away to give her some privacy as they sat down in a spot cleared of rocks and sticks and did some stretches.

Finally, as they were standing up and getting ready to spar, Yoshino said, "That's not a...terrible idea. I have been a bit bored now that you and Shika are genin. And...I could just work part-time so that I could be around for your training and keep you fed."

Mayu smiled. "I think if you want to do it, you should! Then, Shikamaru and I would never have to bother with the hospital!" she said cheerfully, earning an unamused look from Yoshino.

"Well, we'll see. Now, less talking and more sparring!" Yoshino called before she aimed a kick at Mayu's head, who made a noise of protest and dropped back into a roll.

She stood and spun on her heel to block a punch aimed at her back, returning Yoshino's' fierce grin as she shot out a low kick aimed at her knee. Yoshino easily evaded with a neat backflip, and Mayu took the opportunity to take a few running steps forward and leap into a spinning kick, aiming for where she expected Yoshino's head to be once she landed.

The kick didn't connect - instead, Yoshino grabbed Mayu's leg and used her own momentum to fling her across the field. Mayu spun in the air so that she landed in a crouch facing Yoshino, feet skidding and flinging dirt in the air around her.

Yoshino was already racing towards her, and Mayu pumped chakra into her feet and sprung forward, meeting her mother in a series of punches blocks and kicks, grunting when one connected with her ribs, and grinning when she scored a hit with a kick to Yoshino's thigh.

At some unspoken signal, they spun away from each other, then began carefully circling one another, waiting for an opening. Mayu put on a burst of speed and leapt towards Yoshino, who grabbed both of her wrists in her hands, rolled onto her back, then planted her feet on Mayu's stomach and sent her flying end over end through the air.

Mayu was able to barely control her fall to prevent injury, somersaulting on the ground a few times and coming to her feet. Knowing Yoshino would press the advantage, she already had her hands up to prepare for an attack. She grabbed Yoshino's fist as it came towards her, and using the woman's momentum against her, flipped her over her hip and sent her to the ground. She followed her down, sending a punch at her face, but Yoshino had already rolled out of the way.

Mayu growled in frustration and dashed after her. They continued for another fifteen minutes or so, twisting and flipping and sending each other soaring through the air, dirt, and debris flying around them as their feet, which never stayed in the same place for longer than a few seconds, kicked and spun as they left the ground.

Finally, Mayu found herself face first in the dirt with the side of Yoshino's hand pressed to her neck like the edge of a blade.

"Yield," Mayu gasped, and Yoshino flipped neatly off her back before helping her up.

Mayu was sweating and gasping for air, and over the roar of blood in her ears, she heard Naruto's voice calling from down by the backyard. She blinked as she saw that Naruto and Sasuke were sitting on the fence with Shikamaru, who seemed to somehow be keeping his balance despite being mostly asleep. Mayu gave a little wave back.

"Awesome, my team just saw me get my ass kicked," she muttered, and Yoshino laughed and followed her down to the fence.

Mayu groaned dramatically and flopped against Shikamaru, whose eyes popped open in alarm as he pinwheeled his arms for balance. Finally, when he was sure he wouldn't fall, he wrinkled his nose and pushed a finger against her forehead until she was forced backward.

"If I show up to practice smelling bad, Ino will yell at me," he said glumly.

"Hey, that was pretty cool!" Naruto said. "I've never seen anybody flip so much through the air when they were fighting!"

Sasuke grunted, but also looked interested.

"Sasuke wants to know more about it, mom," Mayu said, ignoring Shikamaru's protests and demanding he help her over the fence.

Yoshino quirked her lips up into a small smile.

"Oh, it's a family technique that I've taught Mayu," she said, and casually hopped over the fence. "Your father's familiar with it - the Hashino Deadly Dance Style. Mayu is very good - she'll surpass me soon enough," she said, unconcerned with the genin following her into the house like a row of ducklings. "Are you all staying for breakfast?"

Since nobody was crazy enough to turn down Yoshino's cooking, they were all staying for breakfast. Mayu excused herself to shower while Yoshino prepared the food and the boys slumped around the kitchen table.

When Mayu returned to the kitchen, still shoving pins in her bun to keep it in place - and really, why wouldn't Yoshino just let her cut it? - she caught the tail end of Naruto saying something in a worried voice. "- won't Mayu mind?"

"Won't I mind what?" she mumbled around the pins in her mouth.

Naruto looked down at the table, unsure, and Mayu cocked her head to the side as she grabbed another pin from her mouth and shoved it roughly into her messy bun. Yoshino tutted and went to stand behind her, smacking her hands out of the way and removing the pins.

"Yoshino offered to help him with his taijutsu. He's worried you'll be upset," Sasuke said in a bored voice, but Mayu could see he was interested in her answer.

"Uh...why would I be upset about that?" Mayu asked, studying Naruto's slumped form. Oh.

"Hey, Naruto," she said, hitting her hand on the table until he looked up in shock and ignoring Yoshino's scolding as she messed up her bun with the sharp movement.

"You better be ready for misery, because Yoshino's a major slave driver!" she ignored her mother's indignant noise behind her. "I have to say, I'm a little relieved at the thought that she'll have somebody else to yell at and beat on." Naruto's face was slowly lightening into his signature grin, and Mayu fought a smile of her own.

"Your team is so weird," Shikamaru muttered, and she stuck her tongue out at him.

That morning Kakashi was only an hour late. Sasuke and Naruto had made a point to spar with Mayu, though lightly since she was sore from that morning. Sasuke, of course, won, but it wasn't as easy as it usually was - she had even gotten him with a throw that sent him sailing ten feet across the clearing. She finally forfeited with Naruto - while he couldn't land a hit, none of hers really kept him down for long, and his stamina was worlds better than hers.

"Man, you two are gonna be some heavy hitters," she said from where she was laying in the grass, enjoying the morning breeze.

"Believe it!" Naruto said with a cheer.

Sasuke grunted. "You'll probably be pretty scary once you get further along with your puppets," he added on grudgingly, to her surprise.

She blushed, annoyingly, and he smirked at her. Luckily Naruto cut in.

"We'll be a totally scary team!" he cheered, and Mayu snorted.

"You already terrify me," Kakashi said in a bored voice from behind them. Naruto jumped about a foot in the air and yelled, Mayu let out a tiny meep, and Sasuke twitched.

"We're going to concentrate on training today, so no missions." he lowered his book enough to eye Mayu. "How's your ankle?"

Mayu shrugged. "Yoshino's cleared me for duty, sensei," she said politely, and he hummed.

"Great, start with twenty laps around the market, then I want three hundred situps and seventy-five pushups. You have an hour - if you're not done by then you'll do ten more penalty laps." He then gave an eye smile and a little finger wave after setting down a familiar alarm clock and disappeared.

"I hate him," Sasuke said in a flat voice, and then they were scrambling to their feet and racing for the market.

They made it in time - barely. Naruto ended up cheering Mayu through the last twenty pushups, and if she could have moved she would have punched him. As it was she just leveled a half-hearted glare from where she was sprawled next to Sasuke. How did the kid have so much energy? Oh, right, he was housing a construct of chakra the size of a mountain.

The alarm went off, and Kakashi appeared before them again.

"Tree walking!" he said in a bright voice. "It's recently come to my attention that you need to work on that."

"Hilarious," Mayu muttered, and he beamed at her.

"Come, come!" he encouraged them, moving towards the forest.

Naruto helped a groaning Mayu and Sasuke to their feet and they shuffled along behind the bobbing head of grey hair. Mayu ignored Kakashi's half-hearted explanation of tree walking, taking a few moments to recover from their 'warm-up.'

Finally, Kakashi was up a tree giggling at his porn, and Mayu was watching Naruto rocket off the tree as he overdid the chakra. Sasuke was a little more graceful, executing a flip to land lightly on his feet when he used too little. She bit her lip, and slowly pushed chakra into her feet and hands, and slowly started crawling up the tree.

"No hands, Mayu-chan!" the hated cheerful voice said from behind her.

With a sigh, she closed her eyes, blocking everything out and breathing in and out until all she could feel was her chakra, running through her body through her tenketsu points. She took a deep breath, and when she breathed out she removed her hands, increasing the chakra flow to her feet just a bit until she felt secure. Then, biting her lip in concentration, she slowly peeled one foot from the tree, allowing the chakra to release her hold on the tree slowly as her foot lifted, and making sure the grip was still firm on the opposite foot.

She ignored the voice telling her how dull this was as she continued to slowly move up the tree. Soon, it was starting to feel more natural, and she was able to pull back a bit and open her eyes, worried she'd step off the tree or hit a branch if she didn't. That would make yet another great impression on Kakashi. She'd moved up the tree about a dozen steps, and the angle of the light told her it'd been an hour or so.

More confident now, she moved forward at something faster than a snail's pace, and fifteen minutes later was sitting high up in a branch. Down below, she watched Naruto and Sasuke struggle to beat the other to the top. She huffed out a breath, and leaned her sore, tired body against the trunk, settling in for a nap.

The next day Kakashi put them through another round of conditioning and then told the boys to go back to tree walking.

"Mayu-chan, since you've already got it down, you and I will be working on tracking today," he said in a cheerful voice.

Both Sasuke and Naruto paused in their trek towards the trees and looked warily between the two. Mayu felt her chest go cold with anger and a bit of that annoying hurt, but forced it down into a little box in her mindscape and wrapped it in chains, wiping all expression from her face.

"I thought we agreed that you were right, and we didn't have the time to add in a special training regime just for me," she said.

"I've rethought my position," he said, and a small wooden box appeared in his hands.

"Right, well. I think I'll skip a day of sniffing feces or dead rodents or whatever it is you have in that box, thanks. I'll just be over there working with my chakra threads." She turned on her heel to walk away, but Kakashi appeared in front of her, still looking cheerful but somehow exuding menace.

"This isn't a request. You found and correctly identified three of the samples last week, you know. Very impressive for somebody your age, so I've decided I should take you on as my tracking protege."

Mayu gritted her teeth, but there was nothing she could do about a direct order.

"Fine," she said and snatched the box out of his hand.

She plopped down cross-legged right where she had been standing, and he sat down across from her after shooing the boys off.

"This," he said, reaching out and removing the lid to reveal about a dozen of the dreaded vials and a long row of rolled up pieces of cloth, each neatly labeled with different scents ranging from Pine to River Algae, "is a scenting kit. People use it to teach dogs tracking."

"I'm not a dog," she pointed out, and he just shrugged.

"Which is why I won't be using meat bones to encourage you along. Now, I want you to take this home with you and get familiar with the scents, but to start with, I'm going to choose one of these..." he plucked out a cloth labeled Fox, "and then lay a trail for you to follow."

She obediently leaned forward and breathed in the musky smell of fox until she felt certain it was committed to memory, then gave a small nod. When he disappeared, Sasuke and Naruto sidled over to her. "Hey, is he being a jerk again? 'Cause if he is..."

Mayu waved them away. "Nah, I think he's just trying to keep my dad and Ensui from filleting him with their shadows."

They hemmed and hawed but finally left, leaving Mayu staring down at the scent box, wondering what could have possibly changed to make Kakashi suddenly willing to play nice. 

Ensui must have punched him pretty hard.

When he returned, she was surprised that he didn't disappear again, but instead followed along behind her as she sniffed her way through the forest. In the end, she found the cloth hidden in some brush after an hour.

"Good job Mayu, Ensui was right, you've got some potential," he said in a bored voice as he turned a page.

Her traitorous heart lifted at the praise, though she could still tell by the way his body was angled away from her and his eye stayed firmly on the book that he wished he were anywhere else.

"Thank you, sensei," she whispered, because what else could she really say?

The next morning Naruto lost his patience with D-ranks. After a screaming match with Tsunade that ended with an empty sake bottle embedded in the wall (how did she do that without breaking the bottle?), Tsunade gave in. She gestured at a hidden ANBU, and then pulled out a scroll.

"Okay, we have a C-rank escort mission for a bridge builder to Wave - STOP COMPLAINING BRAT! YOU WANTED A C-RANK AND YOU HAVE ONE!"

The smell of sake and an unwashed man hit her nose, and Mayu had to fight not to gag.

"Ah yes, let me introduce you to your client, Tazuna."

Mayu turned to study the old man that the ANBU had escorted in. He was dressed simply in a brown yukata and holding a bottle of sake in one hand. Her eyes narrowed as she took him in and he started to bluster about having a bunch of kids assigned to him.

Mayu cut Kakashi off in the middle of his explanation of genin teams.

"You're lying," she said flatly.

The man stiffened. "How dare you..."

"You're lying about why you hired us, and how much danger you're in."

"What the hell are you talking about?" Tsunade said from the table as Naruto yelled out a "what?" And Kakashi remained silent and watchful.

"You're drunk in the middle of the day - not because you're an alcoholic, though that's what you want us to believe. You're trying to hide your fear by drinking. Smart - it dulls your reactions and covers your scent. But I can see the signs. Nails, bitten to the quick, dark circles under your eyes indicate you've missed sleep. You haven't bathed but your clothes are good quality if a bit dirty.

"You won't meet anybody's eyes and you're trying to distract us with bluster. So, the question is, why are you really hiring a team of ninja, and what should the mission rank actually be set at?"

There was silence, then Tsunade's voice, deceptively calm, broke it. "Well, Tazuna, is she right?"

Mayu tuned out the long, boring tale of woe that the bridge builder told, though of course at the end Naruto was moved into demanding they took the job and helped him out.

"I guess we could just assassinate the crime lord," Mayu mused, then cringed at the look the adults gave her.

"What?" She said defensively. "We all know there's a whole unit for it!"

She subsided at Naruto's puppy eyes with a sigh.

Finally, Tsunade gave in to Naruto's speech about 'doing the right thing and using our powers for good,' or something like that.

"Fine! I'll send a couple higher level shinobi with you - but I have a few asks in return. Go wait in a conference room for me and we'll hash out the details," she said and motioned for Shizune to show the crying man out.

"Well that was gross," Mayu muttered. "Maybe you should make him shower firs-ouch!"

She gaped at Kakashi, who must have been the one to slap the back of her head but was now innocently looking out the window.

Tsunade just ignored them, once again rifling through the pile.

"Aha!" she said triumphantly. "This one requires no interaction with the client, so there's no way Mayu can ruin it for everybody like she did my life."

Mayu glared at the woman and ignored her teammates' interested looks.

"Okay! A merchant's wife was robbed, and he's hired us to get her jewelry back - they're heirlooms or something. Last known tip says the small group of bandits is in Grass, next to the border of Earth Country." She leveled them with a serious look. "Under no circumstances are you to cross into Earth Country, got it?"

Kakashi nodded seriously and took the mission information out of her hand.

"Yes, Hokage," he said and bowed.

They filed out after their jounin sensei, who opened the scroll and hummed to himself.

"Okay, we're looking at three days of travel there, two to three days to locate the bandits and take the jewelry back, and another three back. Pack for two weeks just in case. We'll meet at the front gates at dawn," he said with an eye smile, then disappeared in a puff of smoke.

Mayu sighed as two sets of eyes turned to her. "How did you know all that stuff about Tazuna, Mayu-chan?" Naruto asked.

Mayu shrugged and started walking towards her house.

"I'm good at reading people," she said simply. "You two want some smoke bombs?" she asked, and both nodded. "Great, I'll bring some explosive tags, too."

"Yes! Our first C-rank. We'll be the best jewelry recovery team ever!"

Mayu and Sasuke shared a look at Naruto's exuberance before they parted at the end of the road.

Shikamaru pouted all the way through dinner when she announced she'd be gone for one to two weeks.

"But, what about Watana?" he pointed out. "Aren't we worried about him attacking you?"

Mayu raised an eyebrow at him. "That loser? Please, he might have been able to push us around when we were seven, but we're genin now. He tries, and Bukimi will ram a fang up his -"

"Yes, Mayu, thank you," Shikaku said. "There's also the fact that one of our elite jounin will be with her the whole time. Even Watana isn't that stupid. Just stay close to your sensei on this trip until Ensui drags Watana back to his holding cell, okay?" he said in a mild voice that actually said stay with Kakashi or you will regret it so much.

"Got it, papa," she said with a smile, then nudged Shikamaru in the side.

He grunted but didn't come out of his pout.

"Come on, you know I can't say no to orders Shika-kun," she needled. "I need your help packing! What if I forget something important, you know how I am," and brought out The Eyes. He made the mistake of looking over and somehow slumped even more.

"Fine," he muttered.

Mayu flopped her feet on the bed, watching in interest as Shikamaru went over the carefully lined up piles for the third time.

"Okay, you have two changes of clothes," he muttered, though he blushed as he caught sight of some of her underthings sticking out under the neatly folded pile.

"That will go in your large scroll along with your bedroll, medkit, and rations. Extra poisons and projectiles for the puppets, along with a repair kit in a carousel scroll. Bukimi is also in the carousel, along with extra smoke bombs and a small trap kit in the fourth. You have two empty storage scrolls left for emergencies. Kunai and tool pouch filled with the usual. Baru 2.0 and Kichi are in your small pack."

His hand fluttered with stress, and Mayu rolled her eyes.

"Come here, Shika," she demanded, and with a sigh he stood and walked over to the bed, flopping down next to her.

She rolled over on her side so she could study his face. He was tense and unhappy, and she huffed out a breath of air, then reached over and tapped his nose with her fingertip.

"Don't you trust me?" she said in a quiet voice, and his eyes darted over to her.

"It's just," she continued, "this is my first out of village mission, and you're making me feel..." she oomphed as he tugged her over against him.

"I do, I just...last time you left the village without me..."

Mayu hummed. "Back then, I didn't have any of the tools or training I do now. And Sasuke and Naruto will protect me, too, I think. I know they messed up before but they're better now."

"And Kakashi?" he asked, and she shrugged.

"He may not like me much, but I'm his responsibility and his comrade. He'll protect me," she said with confidence.

It was true - she doubted Kakashi held love for every ninja in Konoha, yet he was known for always bringing them home. How he personally felt for her was neither here nor there.

"Hey, let's pack this up, okay? Then, you should sneak in here and stay with me tonight," she said. "You can go back after my alarm goes off."

He raised an eyebrow at her but didn't argue.

Mayu woke up to her alarm with a groan and snuggled back into Shikamaru, rubbing her cheek where his hair had tickled it. She traced his forearm with a finger and was surprised to see that it was starting to become defined with muscle. It was different than when they were younger - he was taller than her now, if just by a few inches, and he was broader and less...soft. But in other ways, it was the same. He still treated her like a body pillow and slept with the same easy, even breaths he always had. With a sigh, she dragged herself out of bed.

She moved easily around the room getting dressed in the dark, then padded down the hall to the bathroom, brushing her hair and pulling it back into a lopsided bun. When she exited Shikamaru was leaning against the wall, watching her through sleepy eyes, hair still down and messy around his shoulders.

"Mom's up - I just heard her go downstairs. I think she wants to send you off."

Shikaku came out his room, looking just as sleepy and miserable as his son. He grunted when he saw them both, but didn't seem surprised that Shikamaru was up, as well. Mayu sighed in exasperation.

"I said goodbye to everyone last night," she muttered, but couldn't help the small smile that formed on her lips.

She clattered down the stairs into the kitchen, where Yoshino was finishing pulling four wrapped rice balls from the fridge.

"For your team - you'll need breakfast!" she said, hands fluttering in a way that told Mayu she was nervous. Then she caught site of Mayu's hair and sighed. "Sit down, let me redo it."

Shikamaru came downstairs, dressed, as Mayu was hugging her pajama-clad parents, patiently listening to Yoshino's lecture on safety procedures while out of the village. Finally, she was geared up and looking expectantly at Shikamaru.

He shrugged and grunted out, "I'll walk you to the gate."

She raised her eyebrows in surprise but shrugged. One last goodbye to a grumpy Shikaku and they were walking down the path, Shikamaru a silent shadow beside her, hands in his pockets, customary slouch in place.

She reached out and gripped his wrist. He tipped his head towards her, then removed his hand from his pocket and laced their fingers together. The sky was just starting to lighten when they turned onto the street with the gates standing open at the end. She could barely make out the two small figures of her teammates, already there. Shikamaru stopped suddenly, and she turned towards him, head tilted in question.

"I'll stop here," he said and she knew he meant I don't want anybody else to see me upset.

"Alright," she whispered, and stepped forward, wrapping her arms around his shoulders. She buried her nose in his neck as he tugged her into a tight hug and let out a shuddering breath.

"I promise, I'll blow up anybody that tries to keep me from coming home," she joked.

He stepped back so that he was looking at her face. His lips quirked up.

"You'd better," he muttered, then surprised her by leaning forward and brushing his lips on her cheek. "Bye Mayu," he whispered, then turned and walked away, hands in his pockets and shoulders slouched.

She watched him go until he was out of sight, hand on her cheek and a soft smile on her face, until Naruto's voice calling her name dragged her attention to the gates, where the relaxed figure of her sensei was now standing. Excitement filled her as she realized that this was it - her first real assignment as a ninja. She grinned, and waved back, breaking into a jog.

She was amused to see that Sasuke's mom had also sent breakfast along, and Kakashi chuckled as well and warned them not to eat too much. He started when Mayu held out his rice ball.

"Well, this one is yours," she said and didn't miss the way he slowly reached for it, as though shocked Yoshino had thought of him. 

It's hard to stay mad at him when I'm reminded of how lonely he is, she thought to herself.

They checked out at the gate and then started walking down the road, munching on their breakfast as Mayu passed Naruto and Sasuke their smoke bombs. She hesitated, then said in a small voice, "Kakashi-sensei? I...brought some for you too, if you want?"

He stared at her for a moment before giving her an eye smile.

"My cute little genin, thinking of me?" he held a hand out and wiggled his fingers, and she set a bag of them in his palm. "Um...the color of the ball is the color the smoke will be. To activate, you need to put pressure on it."

She ran through the details of how it worked and thought he actually looked a little impressed when he pressed her on how she made them.

Finally, Kakashi motioned them off the road.

"We're going to travel by trees. It should be easy enough after the first couple of hours - just leap from branch to branch, using chakra to propel yourself and stick your feet when you land."

Mayu's eyes brightened as she remembered soaring through the trees with Ensui when she was six and on the way to meet Tsunade for the first time. She hurried up the tree, the boys not very far behind.

"I'll take point. Mayu and Naruto, you'll flank, Sasuke will take the rear position. Move out."

The first few jumps were a little awkward, with all three of them activating the chakra in their feet either too soon or too late, but Kakashi kept the pace slow until they figured it out, and soon Mayu was flying through the trees with ease. She had been right - doing it on her own was exhilarating.

Eventually, as her eyes scanned the trees and part of her brain dedicated itself to looking for threats, her mind began to wander to other subjects.

Unsurprisingly, it drifted to this morning - the way Shikamaru had looked in the dark hallway with his hair down, earrings glinting in the light filtering to the hallway from the bathroom as he leaned casually against the wall. The way he'd held her hand as he walked her to the gates, the look in his eyes when he leaned forward to kiss her cheek - oh shit, she thought, realization jolting through her and making her miss the branch in front of her.

"Mayu!" Sasuke yelled, alarmed, as she plummeted to the earth, twisting to grab a branch on her way down and barely missing.

She was saved from an untimely death-by-splatter when her wayward sensei snatched her out of the air.

"Uh," she said weakly as he set her on her feet. "Good reaction time, sensei."

"Mayu," he chided, "what were you doing?"

She cringed as Naruto and Sasuke landed lightly beside them.

"Sorry, sorry. I had a thought about a chemical reaction that I think might -"

"Let's leave the science brainstorming for times that we're not flying through the air, hmm?" he suggested with an eye smile, and she felt her cheeks go red.

If only he knew what she was really thinking about that shocked her into missing a branch, he wouldn't be so amiable.

"Right, sorry about that," she said with a nervous laugh, ignoring Sasuke and Naruto's suspicious looks as they took to the trees again.

I wonder if it's possible to fall in love when you're only twelve? she thought miserably.

The answer was obviously yes if she was an example.

000

Kakashi talked them through setting up a secure camp - something they'd all learned at the academy, but could always do with some review. Mayu gathered firewood and set up their fire pit while Naruto and Sasuke set traps around the perimeter. They were all exhausted from traveling all day - something they weren't used to - but kept their complaints to a minimum. They were all too aware of Kakashi's sadistic tendencies by now.

Mayu unclipped her storage scroll from her belt, then unrolled it and fed chakra into the seals that held her cooking supplies. She grabbed a small pan and a few packages of stew, then wandered over to the creek they were camping next to for water to boil. They sat down around the fire and ate their meals, the boys keeping their bickering to a minimum for once.

"Naruto, you'll have the first watch," Kakashi said lazily. "Then Mayu, you'll take the second, Sasuke the third. Tomorrow we'll change the order, and who does what tasks for set up. We'll be up with the sun, so better get to sleep," he said, then disappeared into a tree.

Mayu quickly washed up the dishes and resealed them, along with the wrappers from the meal, then unsealed her bedroll and fell asleep, too tired to worry over realizations of affection.

They continued like that for another two days, with nothing exciting happening other than Mayu's muscles being sorer than she could ever remember them getting. If Sasuke's grumpy expression was any indication, he was feeling the same. Naruto, of course, was always fully recovered by morning. Mayu hated him just a little.

"I vote we start doing endurance training a few times a week," Mayu said weakly from where she was walking next to Sasuke, who grunted in agreement. "We could run along the village walls after practice."

They had left fire country just that morning and were now traveling down a road that was surrounded on all sides by waves of Grass as far as the eye could see. It was beautiful but became a bit dull to stare at after a few hours.

Half a day of travel and they had crossed the length of the tiny country and were setting up camp outside of the small border town that their targets were residing in. Kakashi laid out the information on the bandits.

"Okay," he said. "Our intel says that these are just a group of normal bandits - they haven't committed murder as far as we can tell, they just attack merchants on the road and steal their valuables. We want to keep them alive, so aim to incapacitate if you're forced into an altercation. The plan is to sneak in and steal the jewelry back - without engaging. The first step of the plan is to find the hideout. Any suggestions?"

Mayu studied the descriptions of the bandits and hummed as she spotted one with dark black hair and grey eyes. "I do, sensei, but I'll need a few things."

000

Mayu walked down the dusty road in her sky blue yukata and sandals, eyes purposefully wide and nervous, every inch the girl who had accidentally wandered into the less savory parts of town. As she passed a bar that served those less savory parts, she made a show of vacillating at the door before meekly moving towards it, covertly signing to her watching team that she was going inside.

The bar was mostly deserted, but for a group of men - criminals, not part of a large organized group, but respected around the underground. 

She identified the leader, a rough-looking blonde man with a sword leaning against his chair. Four other men and one woman sat at the table with him, playing a card game. The bar had two occupants, low-level thugs for a local crime ring if their slumped postures and tattoos on their necks said anything.

Mayu walked slowly to the bar stool closest to the five criminals at the table. She fumbled a bit as she climbed up on the stool, making what she knew was a cute little mmph before settling into place. The bartender, an old grisly man, raised a disbelieving eyebrow before making his way over to her.

"Bit young 'ta be a customer, ain'tcha?" he asked in a clear Earth Country accent.

Mayu let her lower lip tremble and made sure her voice wobbled as she said, "Um, I think I'm lost," and started at the laughter that caused behind her.

The bartender smirked.

"You think?" he asked with a snort. "Where are ya supposed to be kid?"

Mayu sniffled a little. "I - I don't know. I'm looking for my uncle but - but - I've never met him before."

One tear fell from her eye and dripped down her cheek, and all humor fell from the bartender's face and was replaced with concern.

"You sayin' you're here alone?" he asked gently.

Mayu heard a disbelieving snort from the communicator in her ear, hidden behind her hair, which was down. "

It's disturbing how good you are at this," Sasuke muttered, but was shushed by Kakashi.

Mayu ducked her head to hide her humor and nodded.

"My papa...he...he..." she let a little sob escape and knew she was now the center of attention. "He told me once he was...gone...I should come and find my Uncle Juji. He said I'd find him in this town, and a nice merchant let me ride with him until we got here. But now..."

The bartender's eyes flicked behind her to exchange a concerned look with the group sitting there. She heard shuffling, and then the man she had identified as the leader of the small group sat down next to her. She turned her wide tear-filled eyes to him, and he visibly flinched back, causing snickers in her ear and a sigh.

"What's your name, kid?" he asked gently.

"A-Aiko."

"Well, Aiko-chan, my name is Daiki. Can you tell me what your uncle looks like? Maybe my crew can help you find him."

She widened her eyes at him. "R-really? Would you?"

He smiled at her, his eyes crinkling at the corners, and she realized that criminal or not, he was serious about helping her. She almost felt bad about playing him.

"Sure. Do you have a picture?"

Mayu slumped and shook her head.

"I saw one once, but it was lost in the f-fire." she made a show of bravely swallowing back tears, and felt everybody in the room soften even further. 

The criminal underground, everybody, she thought, starting to enjoy herself.

"I saw a picture once. He looks kind of like me - our eyes are the same color, and his skin is pale. I got my hair from momma, though."

"It's very pretty hair," Daiki said solemnly, and she blushed.

"T-thank you! I like yours too. It's very shiny," she said, and his crew - and hers - snickered.

Daiki just smiled and thanked her politely.

"Well, Aiko-chan, I can think of one person that fits that description. Why don't I take you to see him? His name isn't Juji, but most people in this town don't use their original names, anyway."

Mayu let her eyes widen with hope, and she gave him a bright smile and took his hand as he held it out to her. He helped her off the stool before turning to his crew.

"You stay here. I'll be right back," he ordered, ignoring the woman rolling her eyes at them and muttering about soft men.

Kakashi's voice came to life over the intercom. "Get ready to move out," he said. "Mayu, Daiki is Samurai trained. Proceed with caution."

She had noticed that he held himself like he was trained, but hadn't been able to place the type by the way he held himself and moved. Certainly not a shinobi. She tilted her head to show she understood and clung to the large warm hand around her own as he led her out of the bar and down the street.

She padded next to him, making sure to look around with interest, prattling on about the 'merchant' she'd traveled with.

"Kashi-san is very tall and kind of weird, and he only has one eye - he says he lost it fighting bandits, but Aimi, his wife, says he lost it running with scissors -" Naruto gave a loud laugh in her ear at this - "but he made sure I was safe. He said if I don't find Uncle Juji I could stay with him and his wife. But I had to try to find him since papa told me to..." she continued to prattle on, the man next to her making noises of interest until they came upon an old, dilapidated warehouse. 

Ugh, it's always a warehouse, she thought as he reached up and knocked in a pattern.

Mayu shifted closer to Daiki and behind him as the door opened a crack, revealing a man in dark overalls and missing multiple teeth.

"Ah, Shouja, is Maki available? I need to ask him a few questions," Daiki said easily, but Mayu saw the widening of the man's eyes as he took in the guest.

"Um...has Maki done something...wrong?" Shouja asked in an uneasy voice.

"No, nothing like that. I've just got someone interested in meeting him," he said, nudging Mayu out from behind him. "Can you please go get him?"

Shouja gave her a suspicious look but disappeared inside the warehouse.

When he returned it was with a large, black-haired man with pale skin and grey eyes that Mayu recognized from the grainy pictures of the bandits.

"What do you need, Daiki?" he said in a gruff voice, and Daiki looked down at Mayu.

"Is this him, Aiko-chan?" he asked softly, and she allowed her whole body to slump and tears to fill her eyes as she shook her head sadly.

"Ah, that's too bad," he said, but she could see he was actually relieved he wouldn't be handing her over to the unkempt bandits. He explained the situation to an unimpressed Maki, then led a slumping Mayu away.

"Do you know where your merchant is?" he asked, herding her towards the side of town where the market was.

"Um..." she said uncertainly, and Kakashi chose that moment to call her name.

"Aiko-chan! There you are!" he said in a reedy voice, and she turned to see her sensei walking towards her in a green yukata, grey hair covered by a bandana and face half-covered by a scarf, with a black eye patch over his Sharingan.

"Kashi-san!" she called, and let go of Daiki's hand to throw herself at him, sobbing.

"We've been so worried," he said. "Aimi was beside herself when she turned around and you were gone."

He looked up at Daiki and shuffled nervously as Mayu pulled back, who was watching in amusement. Mayu had to admit he pulled off harmless merchant well for one of the world's most deadly shinobi.

"Sorry, I just wanted to try and find Juji, then got lost. But don't worry! Daiki-niisan helped me! But," she continued sadly, "I don't think Uncle Juji is here."

"I'm sorry Aiko-chan, but you can stay with Aimi and me, if you'd like." he then turned to Daiki. "Thank you for taking care of her. We don't have any kids of our own, and Aiko..."

Daiki waived off his offer to pay him for his time, and instead patted Mayu's head.

"Be careful, kid," he said gruffly before wandering away.

Kakashi took 'Aiko's' hand and led her away. It was big and warm, just like Daiki's. They were able to slip into an alley and then onto the roofs after a few minutes, making their way out of town and back to camp.

Once there Naruto and Sasuke teased her about her innocent girl act and she just rolled her eyes before going to change behind a bush.

"Good job, Mayu-chan," Kakashi said with an eye-smile, and she gave him a small smile back, chest warm.

"Thanks, sensei," she said.

An hour later Mayu was crouched on the pane of a window at the warehouse, peering into the dimly lit room. She knew Sasuke was on the other side, and Naruto and Kakashi were on the roof.

"Three adult men, no formal training," Mayu whispered. "The floor plan is open and clear apart from their supplies and some old crates. I can see a pile of loot on an overturned crate and..." she sucked in a small breath as a pile of blankets rustled, and a small head emerged.

"There...there's a kid in there!" she hissed.

"Copy," Kakashi said over Naruto's alarmed rambling in the background. "Continue to watch. Can you hear anything?"

"No...give me a second, though," she muttered, and worked at the window until it slid open with a creak, freezing in place, but the men sitting in a circle playing card games didn't notice.

Carefully, she slid inside, being careful that her pack with the Beetle Twins didn't snag. She then pushed chakra into her ears and gritted her teeth.

"The child is crying, and...I think he's tied up," she whispered.

Sasuke's voice came over the comm. "Confirmed - my angle is better. He's probably around four, wearing nice clothes - hostage, I would guess."

Mayu's hands fisted at her sides, and she focused her hearing on their conversation.

"...just saying, if Daiki's crew finds out we're dealin' in kids..." Shouja muttered.

"He ain't gonna find out, is he? Boss went out to get the money from the kid's old man. Once that's done, we'll return him to the owner, no fuss," Maki answered.

Mayu relayed confirmation that the boy was a hostage. 

"We're going to save him, right Kakashi-sensei?" Naruto said confidently over the line, and Kakashi hummed in response, then, "Another bandit incoming. Over."

A moment later, the door burst open, and a furious man with bright red hair barged into the room, ignoring the greetings of his men to cross to the child. He picked him up by the scruff and shook him.

"Your dad thought he could get away with hiring ninja to get you back," he said into the screaming face of the blonde boy. "Thinks that as an advisor to the Daimyo he holds some cards. What he doesn't know is that we had some ninja partners of our own," he sneered, and Mayu swore softly.

"Maybe he'll be more willing to listen when I send him your fingers," a knife appeared, and Shouja scrambled over to the man.

"Now, wait a minute, I didn't agree to hurt no kids! You said we'd just hold 'im until we got the ransom!" the other man said, waving his hands in the air.

"Sensei! They've got ninja partners - good enough to kill the shinobi the man hired to retrieve his son. He - he said he's an advisor to the Daimyo, don't know which country. I - sensei, he's going to cut off the kid's fingers!"

"Mayu, Sasuke, Naruto you're to protect the child. We've got three incoming shinobi - chunin and jounin level." 

Mayu was already launching herself from the window towards the man who was now waving a knife in the air and arguing with his subordinate. He had dropped the little boy, who was trying to scramble away with his feet and hands still bound. 

"You're to leave the ninja to me," Kakashi's voice was saying as Mayu sent her chakra threads to pluck the boy from his spot, pulling him towards her.

He screamed as he was pulled through the air, drawing the attention of the two men, who stared at her in shock for a moment as she grabbed him and made for the door, pumping chakra into her legs for speed. They tried to follow, but when Sasuke landed crouched in front of them, kunai in hand, they faltered. The other two bandits scrambled after her, and she threw two kunai at them, one after the other, with the arm not holding a struggling and crying boy, putting chakra behind the throws. One went down with a kunai in his leg, the other grunted as a kunai was buried into his shoulder.

Naruto appeared at her shoulder, and they were almost to the door when it slammed open and two shinobi launched into the room, a bloody Kakashi following close behind, not his blood, and Mayu skidded to a stop, leaping backward as a hail of kunai came at them. Naruto, however, had frozen in place. Mayu yelled at him to move as she retreated, unable to help due to her passenger. One kunai flew so close that it tore a line in his arm, and then Sasuke was there, deflecting them with the kunai in his hand.

"Dead last, move," he said, then grabbed ahold of Naruto and tugged him back to join Mayu.

Trusting them to watch her back, she knelt down and set the boy in the corner.

"Listen, I know you're scared, but we're here to save you, okay?" his wide green eyes stared up at her.

"Okay, so I need you to stay right here, in this corner, can you do that?" she said as she pulled off her pack and zipped it open.

She glanced over to where Sasuke and Naruto were crouched defensively in front of them, watching Kakashi exchange blows with two tall men. The bandits were lying on the ground with various injuries - they had been easy to take care of in comparison.

Finally, the shinobi retreated a few feet away, and Kakashi was standing in front of his students, talking to them over his shoulder.

"Let me take care of these two - I already dispatched the third," he said in a calm voice, and one of the men laughed. They were wearing Iwa hitai-ate with a scratch through the symbol. 

Missing-nin, jounin levelWe're so fucked.

"You think you can take care of us so easily?" he sneered. "You're good, but we're legendary for our partnership attacks. We were on Iwa's elite assassination team before we took off on our own, after all."

Mayu narrowed her eyes, and she moved forward a bit.

"Sasuke, Naruto," she said, and they angled their heads towards her. "Sasuke, you cover me - I'll use my puppets to keep them at a distance. If they get close, you can push them back. Naruto - create some clones, and you'll form a ring around the kid as last defense. We can't outrun them, so we'll have to hold them back if they get past sensei."

They nodded, and she turned and smiled at the boy.

"My friends Baru and Kichi are going to help protect you, so don't be scared of them, okay?" she said as six Naruto's came into existence around them and she lifted her puppets from their bag and sent them skittering in front of her, Sasuke in the defense position at her side.

Taking their movement as some signal, the three elite ninja burst into motion. The one who had spoken - a huge man with blonde hair and a scarred face, spit what looked like rock bullets at Kakashi, forcing him to dodge out of the way. Sasuke grabbed her and pulled them both clear, calling a warning to Naruto, who snatched up the boy and dodged to the side, his clones moving with him. The bullets hit the wall where they'd been standing, tearing chunks out of it, and the other shinobi, shorter with gravity-defying brown hair, yelled a warning to his partner to be careful with the merchandise.

Mayu gritted her teeth, and she and Sasuke repositioned in front of Naruto and his charge again, watching as Kakashi slammed his hand down, creating an earth wall between his students and the threat.

They stood, tense, listening to the booming sounds of explosions and metal against metal for the next forty-five seconds or so. Movement at the corner of her eye had Mayu swinging her puppets around and launching them towards the blonde ninja, and she blinked in shock as Buri's antenna made contact, piercing his chest. With a look of surprise, he disappeared in a fall of rocks, and she swore as she realized it was a clone.

She turned back towards Sasuke just in time to see him go flying and hit the wall, dazed. Mayu inhaled and sent Kichi toward the blonde ninja - the real one, this time, releasing a spray of acid. He jumped back and hissed as some hit his pants and ate through the material, burning his skin.

"Little shits," he muttered, and launched himself towards Mayu, so fast she could barely track him.

Mayu reached into her pouch for her fire-starting solution, which she'd secretly started calling a Mayu Cocktail, but Kakashi appeared in front of her before she could use it, sending the missing-nin flying with a kick.

"Retreat with the kid, I'll hold them off," he said, then was gone.

"Naruto - carry him, I'll help Sasuke," Mayu said, but Sasuke was already up and next to her.

They burst out from behind the wall, Mayu and Sasuke flanking Naruto, his clones spread around them.

The brunette appeared in front of them, and Sasuke shaped his hand into a circle and brought it to his lips after yelling, "Fire Release: Great Fire Ball!" and launched a huge ball of flame at the nin, forcing him to leap back and out of the way.

Mayu sent Baru after him and activated the new mechanism she'd put into his shell at Sasuke's suggestion. A hail of senbon exploded from little-drilled holes, and the man was forced even further into retreat. They sped past him and Kakashi spun into the space between them, sending a streak of lightning at the man. Mayu didn't see whether it connected or not, as they were almost to the door. However the blonde was once again in front of them, and he easily dodged Kichi's lunge and dispatched of Naruto's clones, moving through them like they were butter.

Once again, Kakashi drove him back, this time releasing a gale of wind when he dropped down from a flip in front of them, slicing open the other ninja's arm. The blonde gave a hiss of pain and retreated as the wind tore through the walls. "

They're strong," Kakashi said in a calm voice, and he was bleeding from a cut on his arm and that his Sharingan was exposed.

"Down!" he yelled, and they obediently hit the deck as he flashed through some hand signs and a huge dragon made of flame whooshed over their heads, followed up by the earth bullets that the other man had used on them to start the fight.

"Go," he said, voice strained as he leapt over them back into the fray.

Mayu pursed her lips, not wanting to leave him on his own, but knowing they'd just get in the way if they stayed.

"Come on," Sasuke said, obviously thinking the same thing as Mayu, but Naruto wavered.

"We can't leave him!" he said.

"We have to," Mayu said. "Kakashi-sensei is strong, and we don't have a chance against them. We have to get the boy to safety - he can't defend himself."

Naruto clenched his fist but nodded, and they took off for the exit, dodging pieces of the ceiling that were falling as whatever was happening behind them rattled the old building. Mayu was almost to the exit when something hit her from behind moving so fast that it sent both of them crashing through the door and into the street.

She and the thing - person - that had hit her skidded across the ground, and she gasped in small breaths of air as she attempted to struggle to her feet. Sasuke was beside her helping her up before turning to Kakashi, who had been the thing to knock her through the door, and ow, she didn't want to do that again. Naruto leapt over to her other side, the trembling and crying boy in his arms, and they fell into a half circle behind Kakashi, who had splinters from the door in his hair and was listing to the side.

Mayu's mind raced as the two shinobi advanced on them. She'd dropped Baru and Kichi in the confusion of being launched through a door, so they were no help. Eyes narrowing, she moved her hand behind her leg and carefully extended her chakra threads into her tool pouch.

"Kakashi no Sharingan, somehow I expected more of an effort to take you down," the brunette said with a grin. "Though I guess having to worry about collateral damage slows you down."

He motioned towards Mayu, who glared back at him and tried to ignore the throbbing on the right side of her body where she'd taken most of the brunt of the impact. He was right - they were all trying to avoid collateral damage, them with the boy and Kakashi with his genin.

Mayu carefully pulled out two vials of her Mayu Cocktail, and let them hang behind her leg at the end of the chakra threads as the brunette continued to talk.

"How about you hand over the boy, and we'll let you and your students go," he said in an easy voice.

Before Kakashi could answer, Mayu was flicking her fingers and sending the vials flying at the men, who jumped backward to avoid being hit. The glass shattered the liquid sprayed across their legs, starting on fire as it was exposed to air. They cursed and turned their attention to putting out the flame, and Kakashi moved. One second he was in front of them, and the next he was standing behind the blonde and had put a kunai through the side of his throat.

For a moment everything stopped, and then the brunette roared his fury and attacked Kakashi. Mayu grabbed the boy from Naruto.

"I've lost my puppets, you two cover now," she explained and took off down the street, which had emptied of bystanders when they realized something was going down. Smart people.

She was pulled from her musings when she heard Sasuke scream Naruto's name, followed by Kakashi's anguished "No!"

With a feeling of dread, she skidded to a stop and turned her head, then gasped at what she saw. Down the street, Kakashi was still frantically fighting the Iwa nin, and standing a few feet from her was Sasuke, eyes wide as he stared at Naruto's back, which had the tip of a sword sticking out of it. Standing in front of him, holding the sword, was a dark-skinned woman with green hair, teeth bared in anger.

There was a fourth shinobi, probably out of range of Kakashi when this started. She must have attacked Sasuke from behind, and Naruto jumped in front of it...

Mayu watched as Naruto dropped to his knees. The woman opened her mouth to say something, but with a scream of rage, Sasuke was on her, moving with more speed than Mayu had thought he was capable of. The woman struggled to defend against his kicks and punches, but it was obvious she wasn't at the same level as her companions, and Sasuke was...well, he was suddenly at high chunin level with his taijutsu.

She caught a flash of red as she ran to Naruto's side. 

He activated the Sharingan, that explains it.

Naruto's eyes were closed, and he was bleeding profusely from the wound the sword had left when the woman pulled it from his chest as she defended from Sasuke's attack. A moment later, she heard a gurgling sound, and Mayu glanced up to see that Sasuke had killed the woman.

He was breathing heavily and staring at where the kunai had entered the woman's heart with his red eyes. The little boy was crying next to Mayu where she set him down, and she was frantically putting pressure on Naruto's wound, not realizing her eyes were filled with tears.

"Oh no," she whispered. "Don't die, don't die, come on."

Kakashi appeared next to them, probably having killed the other shinobi, adding his hands to hers. His Sharingan eye, still exposed, was dripping with tears but he remained silent.

"Will it save him?" Mayu asked frantically, and Kakashi's gaze snapped to hers. "The jinchuuriki, they have increased healing and stamina, will the Kyuubi save him? Is it enough? I don't have enough data to know what he can come back from," she said quickly, ignoring Sasuke's sound of shock from where he had knelt next to her.

As if in answer, a red cloak appeared around Naruto, and Mayu gasped and jumped back, Kakashi following. Sasuke stayed where he was, and reached a tentative hand towards him.

"Don't touch him!" Mayu warned. "If that's bijuu chakra, it'll be poisonous to you."

"Biju?" he whispered, as they watched the wound in his chest slowly closing before their eyes. "You mean Naruto is..."

He was cut off as Naruto shot up, a growl in his throat. Sasuke stared into his eyes, his own having faded back into black at some point, and Mayu stopped breathing because he looked...feral. His pupils had become slits, his teeth had grown, and his face looked elongated and somehow sharper. After a moment, the red faded, and Naruto swayed in place.

"What..." he said, "what happened?"

Kakashi breathed out a sigh of relief, then promptly passed out.

Mayu meeped as he hit the ground, then started as a familiar, disbelieving voice from behind them said, "Aiko-chan?"

000

They were above the bar where Mayu had first met Daiki, watching closely as a healer looked over Kakashi and the little boy.

"He'll be fine," the man assured. "Just chakra depletion - he needs a day to recover. The boy will be okay physically. I'll take him with me to the police station."

Mayu narrowed her eyes. "I'll go with you," she said.

"You can trust him," Daiki said, then pointedly added "Mayu-chan."

She rolled her eyes. Daiki had heard a rumor that the group of bandits had kidnapped a kid - something that wasn't okay in 'his town.' He had arrived just in time to help Kakashi dispatch of the last missing-nin, though Mayu had missed that part while she was busy trying to keep Naruto's blood in his body.

"I told you it was nothing personal. Besides, I ended up saving a kid, and I know you don't approve of dealing with children in your town," she said easily.

Daiki humphed, but didn't disagree.

"You all can stay here tonight, and tomorrow you and I can take the boy to the authorities - he'd just end up sleeping in a cot in the sheriff's office if he went tonight anyway. This way he'll be comfortable," Daiki said, gesturing to the bunks.

Mayu nodded and they settled into sleep. Naruto had lost consciousness again right after Kakashi and was still sleeping, so she and a brooding Sasuke agreed to split the watch.

She went first, and by the time she woke him was dead on her feet. She'd barely done any fighting, but the adrenaline crash and bruises from her lost fight with the door were pulling at her.

The next morning Daiki shook her awake and led her and the sleepy boy downstairs and out into the morning air.

"So, you're a ninja," he grumbled as they set off down the street, and she hummed in agreement.

"You were very helpful in finding our mark, so thanks for that!" she chirped.

He glared at her, but it didn't hold any heat. They stopped to grab some pork buns for breakfast before continuing on until they came to the sheriff's office.

Four hours later, Mayu exited the building with a dramatic groan. Daiki grinned and shrugged.

"Paperwork," he said. "Makes the world go 'round."

It turned out the boy's father was the friend of the Daimyo from Earth Country, and they had sent out messengers post haste to let the man know they had recovered him. He was taken away by the mayor's very nice and very pretty wife and seemed relieved not to be hanging out with ninja and criminals anymore. When Daiki moved in the direction of the bar, Mayu waved him off.

"I need to go get our stuff from where we were camping - I'll meet you back there," and leapt to the rooftops before he could complain.

She made her way to their camp slowly, taking the time to decompress and sort through everything that had happened. Their team must have the worst luck - seriously, two missions assigned in a row with bad intel. She was pretty sure their C-rank had turned into an A-rank at the end there.

She wasn't sure what it meant that leaf shinobi had saved the son of an important Earth Country politician. It was either very good or very bad, knowing the tensions between the two countries. She entered their campsite and moved to where they had hidden their things, disabling the traps.

"You've grown since the last time I saw you," a voice said from behind her, and Mayu spun, hand going to her kunai pouch, eyes wide in alarm.

Standing on the other side of their site was Watana, looking much worse for wear than the last time she'd seen him. Scars now littered his face and hands, and he had lost weight. His hair was long and unkempt, his eyes were too wide, and he looked completely unhinged.

"I have," she said, drawing a kunai and palming her comm, which had also been in her pouch, as she did so.

She switched the kunai to her other hand and moved as though to tuck her hair, still down, behind her ear, turning her face away in faked nerves while she placed the comm in her ear and switched it on.

"Guess that means I'm not easy pickings anymore," she said and went into her ready stance. "I'm actually kind of looking forward to this. After all, last time we met I made a promise," she said in a soft voice.

He threw his head back and laughed.

"Oh, Mayu, I might be worried - after all, I am just a paperwork ninja, as I believe you said once - except for one thing."

His eyes flickered to something behind her, and she flipped away, landing so that she could keep Watana and the other two ninja that had appeared in her sight.

"You have got to be kidding me," she said flatly. "More unexpected missing-nin?"

A short woman with a pixie cut and wide black eyes with a sword strapped to her back was standing a few feet from a tall, dark-skinned man with the same eyes and hair, a chain attached to his hip.

"You're the missing-nin that escaped with Watana," she said slowly, dread pooling in her gut as she realized the trouble she was in.

Her only hope was the comm, now hidden behind her hair. Eventually, her team would come looking for her, and when they did, they'd turn on the comms - then they'd know that she had been taken. She just had to stay alive until Kakashi woke up and could track her. How long did it take to recover from chakra exhaustion? She had no idea.

"That's right - they have an interest in your sensei, after all. When my contact in Konoha told me the news of who your sensei was it seemed...serendipitous," he said with a giggle.

Mayu leveled him with an unimpressed stare, but before she could answer felt a rush of wind behind her and a voice saying "Enough talking," before a sharp pain hit her in the back of the head she and fell to the ground, landing hard on the side of her head that the comm was located on.

She heard an ominous crack from the comm, and then a cloth with a pungent smell was being held over her mouth. She struggled, but it was no use against the large man holding her down. As the edges of her consciousness faded, she knew she was in trouble - big trouble.

000

Mayu was awoken by the unpleasant sensation of somebody backhanding her across the face. She moaned in pain and cracked her eyes open. Her hands were pulled back painfully and tied together, and she was slumped back against what was probably large boulder. She grimaced in distaste as Watana's furious face appeared before her. Between that and her aching head, she had to fight down nausea.

"Ugh, don't you ever brush your teeth?" she muttered and got another slap for her effort.

She reeled in pain - he'd used chakra for that one. A large hand landed on his chest and pushed him back a few feet. Mayu swallowed down bile before turning to her savior - the large black man that had knocked her out.

"Where is he?" the man said in a calm voice, eyes promising death if he didn't like the answer.

"Who?" she mumbled, honestly confused.

"Kakashi! Where is he!" Watana screamed at her. "Until that shit for brains shows up, I don't get paid, and I'm not allowed to kill you until after he's dead!"

Mayu's lips quirked when she realized it was the last part that he was really upset about. A girl could get a complex. Watana saw her amusement and dove for her but was held back again, this time by the woman, who seemed to just appear in front of him, she moved so quickly.

"It's been two days, and he still hasn't come," the man said.

Mayu just shrugged and looked around her in interest.

"Did you drug me or something?" she said and swallowed when she took in the terrain.

"Uh, are we in Earth Country?"

"We did, and we are," the man said gruffly. It seemed that he wasn't much of a talker.

"Where is Hatake Kakashi?" he said again, and she shrugged.

"Maybe he's not coming," she said as she studied the patch of earth they'd stopped at.

It was dry and arid, and she could tell by the thin air that they had increased their elevation by a couple thousand feet. The ground was littered with boulders, and everything seemed grey and dusty. She could see her things piled on top of a boulder across the way.

The man grabbed her by her hair and yanked her head back to face him.

"You'd better hope he comes soon, or else the Iwa ninja on their way to collect him will just have to make do with you, instead."

Mayu swallowed as she saw he was completely serious.

"All this just because he locked you up for a few months?" she muttered, then regretted it when he hissed in anger and slammed her head back against the rock before standing.

"He killed my brother," he growled out. "Hatake Kakashi is going to die slowly and painfully at the hands of the Tsuchikage, and you're going to be the bait that leads him to me."

Mayu didn't reply, instead willing her ears to quit ringing. "I'm going hunting, Natsu. Watch the girl," he growled and stalked off, Watana skittering off behind him.

Mayu waited until she was sure they were gone before slowly turning numb fingers towards the hem of her shirt, feeling along the edges until she came to the hard mound sewn into the hem. Keeping one eye on the girl, who was fiddling with her pack, she picked at the hem until she was able to pull the tiny butterfly knife from where she'd sewn it into her shirt - a trick Sherlock had taught her as a way to get out of sticky situations where she was tied up. Mayu had bought a large pack and spent a day sewing them into her and Shikamaru's shirts the week before they became genin.

She had just pulled it out and flipped it open to expose the blade when the girl, Natsu, walked towards her, water in hand. Mayu eyed it suspiciously.

"I'm not going to let you drug me again, so don't even think about it."

Natsu rolled her large, pretty eyes, and took a deep swig from the bottle.

"There, see, I'm still awake."

This time, Mayu accepted the water, gulping it greedily. When Natsu pulled it away, Mayu cautiously looked her over. She could see she wasn't exactly thrilled about kidnapping Mayu but had no intention of going against the leader.

"What's your boss' name, anyway?" Mayu asked as she started sawing at the ropes again in small movements so as not to draw attention to what she was doing.

She paused when she thought she heard a crackle in her earpiece, but when nothing followed, assumed the damn thing really was broken from her fall. She needed to design some that would hold up better if she ever got out of this.

"He's my brother, not my boss." she hesitated, then, "his name is Katsu."

At Mayu's raised brow the woman chuckled. "Our other brother's name was Hatsu, so."

"The brother that my sensei killed," she said, watching as the girl's hands tightened on her water bottle and she looked away.

"You aren't angry about it, the way Katsu is," she noted neutrally, and Natsu shrugged.

"Sure I am, but not at your sensei."

She sighed and sat down across from Mayu. "I know my brother must seem like an awful person, but...he loved Hatsu so much. We left Kumo because Hatsu was too good, too talented for his age, they were destroying him."

Mayu raised her eyebrow at this apparent retelling of a life story but decided to let it play out. Free information was free information, and the poor girl must be starved for normal contact if she only had Watana and Katsu for company. Natsu ran a finger around the edge of her bottle, and Mayu squinted as the sun became lower in the sky and sent rays across the clearing.

"Life as missing-nin is...difficult. We were barely getting by when a man offered us a contract. Pretty easy stuff - terrorize a few towns in Fire and Wind Country, play with the border patrols...stir up trouble, in other words."

"What man?" Mayu asked, curious, and Natsu just shrugged.

"Black hair, black eyes...he wore a mask over the bottom half of his face, but I think he was attractive. Nondescript clothes. Anyway, the pay was good, and we're trained in evasion." She gave a self-depreciating smile. "Not against somebody like Hatake Kakashi, though. We didn't expect Konoha to care about a few border towns enough to send an elite team, but I guess it's different from Kumo that way."

She ran a hand through her hair. "Hatsu tried to fight instead of surrendering after Katsu and I were taken down. Like I said, he was a prodigy, so the only choice he really left your sensei was death. That's one scary assassination jutsu your sensei has," she said sadly.

Mayu blinked but didn't mention she had no idea what jutsu that was.

"Yeah, Kakashi-sensei is pretty scary in general. But...you said you're not mad at him?"

"No," Natsu shook her head. "I'm mad at Kumo, for making it so we had to run. I'm mad at the man who played my brother into taking that stupid job. I'm mad at myself for not ever having the courage to tell him no..." she trailed off.

Mayu cocked her head to the side. Maybe she could work with this.

"Like now? You know Kakashi will wipe the floor with you," Mayu said.

She glared. "He doesn't have his elite team behind him this time, and Katsu may not be a genius, but he's strong, and so am I. Katsu...our brother was precious to him. He was the youngest, and always so kind. Losing him was like losing his heart," Natsu said wistfully. "For both of us. Now, I just have Katsu left, and he's the most precious thing in my life, and even if I'm not happy about it, I'll do anything he asks. I can't be his heart, but I can be his weapon," Natsu said sadly.

"You don't think he loves you just as much as he did your brother?" Mayu asked, though she could read the answer in the other girl's face, who just shrugged.

Mayu pressed a little harder on the rope. It was reinforced with wire and was taking a long time to slice through with her tiny knife.

"Natsu," Mayu said gently. "What do you think the Iwa nin will do to your brother when Kakashi doesn't show up?"

Natsu's eyes snapped to hers and narrowed. "Why wouldn't he show up? Everybody knows his reputation for never leaving comrades behind, and you're his student."

Mayu sighed, then decided to take a chance here. If she could convince Natsu and Katsu to just let her go...

"Three reasons why he won't come. The first is that he was injured on our mission, and might not be capable of coming if he's even awake yet. The second is that we were ordered not to cross into Earth Country." Natsu's eyes widened but she continued talking.

"The third is that he won't endanger my teammates that way. They're...important to him."

"And you're not?" Natsu asked.

Mayu shrugged, and answered - why not tell her? She needed Natsu to accept that Kakashi wouldn't be coming for her, or they'd both end up dead - Mayu after some quality time with Iwa T & I, most likely.

"No," she said bluntly. "Not outside of being a comrade. He barely tolerates me, has never been comfortable with me the way he is with my teammates."

"Why?" Natsu asked, honestly curious and looking a little affronted on Mayu's behalf.

"Sensei...he lives in the past. My teammates remind him of people he loved once. I'm just kind of...an extra, I think," Mayu said with a shrug, trying to look unaffected. "So, you see, I don't think he's coming, and I doubt the nin on their way will be impressed with you not delivering on your promise to hand over Hatake Kakashi."

Natsu bit her lip in thought, but before she could answer Watana appeared in front Mayu and slammed a kunai into the meat of her thigh. Not expecting it, she screamed.

"Hurts, doesn't it?" he hissed, as Natsu cried out in alarm and stood.

"It hurt when your Nara dog did it to me, too. Since you're so convinced Hatake isn't coming, I guess that means I can do what I want with you. I've been imagining this," he said, spittle flying in her face. "You have no idea -"

Katsu appeared and sent Watana flying across the clearing with a throw of one muscled arm. He looked at the kunai in Mayu's leg with a slight frown.

"I told you to watch her, Natsu," he growled. "Could you be any more useless?"

"S-sorry brother," she whispered, looking down.

Mayu gritted her teeth past the pain, and with a few more swipes of her knife, sliced through the rope binding her.

Sweating, she slowly extended ten chakra threads across the ground, hoping they wouldn't notice the glow in the low lighting. She really needed to learn how to suppress the chakra enough to hide them from view.

She inched them along until they reached the pile of her things, and slipped them into her tool pouch. With one more deep breath, she burst into motion, rolling away from Natsu and Katsu and coming to her knees as she swung the strings, exploding tags attached at the ends while feeding chakra into them to activate and slammed them haphazardly on the ground in the general vicinity of the three ninjas. She was blown backward by the force of the explosion.

Adrenaline pumping through her system, she had barely hit the ground before she was rolling back to her feet, eyes squinted against the smoke and dust in the air, heading for where her bag was. She sobbed out in pain as the movement jostled the kunai in her leg, and reached down to tug it out - she was pretty sure it wasn't next to any major arteries. Hopefully.

The rock with her things piled on came into view through the fog of dust and smoke, and she swiped at her weapons pouch, then scrambled behind a boulder. Reaching into the bag she pulled out the last vial of Mayu Cocktail and peeked over the rough surface of the rock.

"Where is she?" Katsu roared from about ten feet away, disoriented and bleeding, while Natsu picked herself up off the ground.

Mayu's eyes went over them until she spotted - yes, there. Watana, standing with his back to her, searching the area. Her senses filled with fury and she found herself standing from behind her cover.

"Hey, Watana!" she yelled, and pulled back her arm and threw the vial as hard as she could.

Which, considering she was a kunoichi now, was pretty damn hard. He spun around, mouth open to say some - probably awful - thing, and was met with a face full of fire. He screamed as the glass shattered and he went up in flames.

Mayu didn't have even a moment to celebrate her triumph when something slammed into her and bore her down into the dirt. She struggled as Katsu pushed his weight onto her, and wrapped his huge hands around her neck. She struggled against him, but he seemed impervious to her blows, even when they drew blood and she broke one of his fingers trying to pry his hands from her throat.

"Fucking Konoha shinobi - I'm going to send you back in pieces," he screamed, face red with rage. "Screw sending Kakashi to Iwa, I'll let him live with the fact that he abandoned his precious -"

His weight was lifted off of her suddenly, and she sat up, gasping for air and clutching her throat, disoriented. She rolled to her knees, and looked up, then rubbed her eyes when she saw a broad back in standard Konoha gear, with a familiar poof of grey hair sticking above it.

"Ka-Kakashi-sensei?" she rasped (being choked wasn't great for the vocal chords, it turned out). "You came?"

"Mayu-chan, such little faith you have in your poor old sensei," he said in a mild tone, and she blinked because he actually sounded a bit...hurt?

"Now, you stay here while I have a talk with the nice man about the proper way to treat my cute little students. Sasuke, Naruto, protect her."

Then he was gone, disappearing into the smoke, and was replaced by Naruto's worried face. Sasuke was standing guard over them, but she saw him glance at her every once in awhile as though to make sure she was still there.

"You...you really came," she whispered.

Naruto scowled as he gently tipped her face to study the bruises. She probably looked like a trainwreck after all the slapping around she'd been through.

"Of course we did!" Naruto said. "We're a team, believe it! Kakashi was really worried about you when he woke up, you know."

Mayu swallowed as she heard the clash of metal on metal, and felt a wave of heat hit her as somebody let loose a fireball, followed up by the crackle and flash of lightning. The smoke was starting to clear, and Mayu could see two figures - one large and one tall and lanky - fighting from about thirty feet away.

"There - there's another kunoichi here somewhere - Nats-"

The girl in question blurred in from the right, and Sasuke, Sharingan activated, stopped her advance with a kick that she blocked, but still sent her skidding back. She paused and studied them.

"Guess you were wrong about Kakashi coming for you," she said in a calm voice.

"Guess I was," Mayu replied, staring back at her.

Naruto stood and turned to face the girl.

"Why are you doing this?" he yelled. "You admitted you don't blame Kakashi-sensei, yet you allowed your brother and Watana to hurt Mayu!"

Natsu blinked. "How do you -"

Mayu groaned. "You could hear me through the comms, couldn't you? I thought they were broken," she said and cringed a little as she remembered the things she'd said about Kakashi.

Ugh, she must have sounded pathetic.

Natsu recovered, then shrugged. "Like I said, Katsu is my most precious thing, so I'll do what I can to support him, no matter what I personally feel."

The girl sprung into action again. Mayu gritted her teeth as she watched her team take the girl on. She was fast and strong, but between Naruto's stamina and clones and Sasuke's Sharingan, they were managing to hold her back.

"Well Mayu is precious to us, so we won't let you hurt her!" Naruto shouted as he leaped over Sasuke's back and sent Natsu flying with a punch.

Mayu blinked back tears at that and concentrated on pulling out explosive tags and waiting for a chance to blow somebody up.

Kakashi was still fighting with Katsu, who was screaming at him.

"You killed Hatsu! My only brother!"

"He left me no choice," Kakashi said calmly from across the clearing. "You were attacking citizens of the Land of Fire. I offered him a chance for surrender, and he refused. Will you do the same, or will you preserve your life and that of your sister?"

"I'll never surrender to you," Katsu said in a low tone, and Kakashi sighed.

"I thought you might say that."

The sound of a thousand birds filled the clearing. Natsu jumped away from where she'd been re-engaging with Naruto and screamed.

Kakashi's arm was encased in blue lightning, and he became a blur, heading towards Katsu. 

He's dead, Mayu thought, but then Natsu was gone, and reappearing in front of her brother, Kakashi's hand sticking through her chest.

Everything stopped for a moment, Kakashi and Katsu frozen in shock. Finally, Kakashi removed his hand and jumped backward, and Katsu fell to his knees next to his sister.

"You idiot," he whispered to her lifeless face. "You could never do anything right, could you?" he said angrily as tears filled his eyes.

"Hey! Don't talk about her like that!" Naruto yelled, and Mayu was shocked to see tears in his eyes, too. "You're the one that messed up - she was only doing this because of you! Because you were precious to her..."

"You think I don't know that? She was always doing everything for us...without Hatsu, we lost our heart, but she...she was always the glue that held us together."

He reached out with a trembling hand and touched her cheek.

"Please," he whispered. "After I'm gone, bury me next to her."

Then he was blurring at Kakashi again, and Mayu watched, shocked, as they threw each other around the clearing, though it was obvious Katsu's heart wasn't in it anymore. Finally, Kakashi drove a blade into the man's chest. 

Kakashi carefully laid the man down, then turned and returned to them, kneeling down in front of Mayu.

"Where are you hurt?" he asked in a gruff voice, and she blinked in shock at him.

"I..." her thoughts felt sluggish, but she knew there was something, something she needed to say. "I..."

"Mayu-chan?" he asked in concern. "Are you dizzy?"

"Iwa!" she blurted. "There are Iwa nin coming!"

"That's right," Naruto said in a worried tone. "That guy - Katsu - said they were on their way."

"I can't believe the stupid comm was working the whole time," Mayu muttered, slumping down. "The output must have been what was broken..."

"Focus, Mayu," Kakashi said sharply. "Naruto, Sasuke, take these scrolls and seal the bodies into them, then grab Mayu's things. We're leaving before Iwa -"

"Before we what, Hatake Kakashi?" a light voice said, and her teacher closed his eyes for a moment before turning to face a new threat.

"Don't I feel special! They sent the famous Smash Team to bring me in," he said lightly, standing and moving to put himself in front of his students.

Mayu bit her lip. She knew that Kakashi had to be about spent - he had been unconscious only two days before from chakra exhaustion, and had probably pushed himself just to get here - where he had then fought a jounin level missing-nin. She suddenly felt very guilty for doubting him but decided to dwell on that later.

The woman who stepped into the clearing was tall and curvy, with dark brown tresses that fell to her waist. Her companions were two hulking giants of men, and Mayu was surprised suddenly that it was still light out, though the sun was casting long shadows across the earth - it felt like forever ago that she noticed the low position of the sun while talking to Natsu. What felt like hours had probably only been about half an hour.

"Naruto, Sasuke," she said in a low voice. They cocked their heads at her. "I've got smoke bombs and exploding tags. With my chakra threads, I can plant ten around them. We'll have to give Kakashi support where we can - choose wisely, don't get in his way or make him feel like he needs to do something stupid to protect you. My leg is hurt, so I'm stationery..."

"We're only here because some missing-nin kidnapped my student," Kakashi said calmly, looking so bored Mayu was surprised he didn't pull out his book. "As you can see, we've taken care of them. Is there any way we can just...forget this ever happened?"

The woman snorted and drew the sword at her hip.

"'Fraid not, Hatake. If you surrender now, though, we'll let your kids go. We could care less about a few baby ninja."

Mayu was horrified when she realized he was considering it. He tilted his head, and the woman smirked, then leaned forward, about to take a step, before she just...stopped.

"Shadow Possession Complete." Mayu had never been so happy to see her nii-san as she was in that moment.

"Let's see if we can't talk this through, hmm?" Ensui said as he stepped out from behind some rocks, holding his hands clasped in a sign in front of him.

"Way I see it, you're still outnumbered," the woman hissed from where she was being held.

"Sure about that, now?" Ensui drawled, and a huge dog appeared as well, a tall Inuzuka woman with wild hair and a fierce grin following.

On the other side of the campsite, an Aburame appeared, air buzzing around him with insects.

"As I was saying," Kakashi said in a mild tone, though his posture had eased a bit with relief, "we were minding our own business on a mission in Grass -"

"Grass?" The woman blurted and then sighed.

"I don't suppose you're the same team of Konoha nin who saved the Daimyo's godson?" she asked in a long-suffering voice.

"We were, actually!" Kakashi said, and Mayu just knew he was eye smiling.

"We're done here," the woman said in a flat voice. "The Tsuchikage has been foaming at the mouth at the thought of owing Konoha for anything. We let you go, we call it even, got it? So you can tell your Hokage not to expect any favors in the future."

Kakashi nodded amiably.

"Got it," he said, then looked to Ensui, who released them, and without fanfare, they turned on their heels and ran.

"You trust 'em?" The Inuzuka said in a mild voice.

"Hell, no," Ensui drawled.

"Ensui-niisan," Mayu said. "You - how are you here?"

He crossed over to her in long strides, squinting at her in the fading light.

"Damn, sweetheart, they did a number on you. I was tracking these jokers, remember?" he said in a soft voice. "Though it looks like your team did the job for me, huh?"

He ran a gentle hand down her arm and she swayed a bit, starting to feel dizzy.

"I burnt that weasel Watana alive. Told him I'd kill him for hurting Shika," she muttered, leaning into him.

"Megu, I think we need your expertise over here," he said, and the Inuzuka was suddenly kneeling next to her.

"I smell blood, girly," she said, and Mayu pointed at her leg.

"The little twerp stabbed me with a kunai," she said dreamily. "Said it was revenge for the one you got 'em with, nii-san," and Ensui swore.

"I'm sorry, sweetheart," he mumbled as Megu ran a glowing green hand over her leg.

"It's not deep," the woman said. "Your mesh musta absorbed most of the force"

"'S not your fault Ensui-nii. I think...I'm going to go to sleep now."

She ignored his protests and did just that.

000

When she woke up, she was in a bedroll, and there were quiet voices around her. She was also surrounded by trees again instead of rock.

"Thank god," she muttered, drawing the attention of Naruto and Sasuke, who had been bickering over the last bit of stew next to the fire.

Naruto jumped up and ran to her, while Sasuke followed at a more sedate pace.

"Mayu! You're awake!" Naruto yelled, and she winced.

"Awake, and in pain," she groaned. "Help me up, I'm one big bruise."

Two sets of hands helped her into a sitting position, and she swayed a bit in place.

"How long was I out?"

"Half a day," Naruto said. "We buried Natsu and Katsu next to each other, well, Ensui used an earth jutsu to do it quickly. Sensei passed out again, so Ensui carried him on his back and Megu carried you. They wanted to get back into Fire Country right away, in case Iwa came back with backup."

Sasuke handed her some water, and she gave him a thankful look before taking a few gulps. No matter how many times she got the crap beat out of her, it never became more pleasant.

"You scared the hell out of me, kid," Ensui said from behind her, and she winced.

"Sorry," she muttered.

"I've been tracking Watana and the siblings with my team for two weeks - they're damn good at evasion. Imagine how surprised I was when Baken picked up your scent along with theirs in Grass country, and we followed it straight over the Iwa border, with your wayward team right on your heels."

Mayu cringed. "I'm sorry - it's just. Kakashi-sensei and Naruto were injured, and somebody had to stay with them while somebody got our stuff and...I wasn't really thinking about Watana," she admitted. "I just wanted the rest of our medical supplies..."

Ensui sighed. "Not your fault - not anybody's fault really. Your teammates told me about your C-rank turned A-rank - no wonder your teacher was wiped after."

She nodded and ran a finger across the bandages on her thigh.

"Megu said that'd be fine, but we need to get it checked out as soon as we're home," he said in a stern voice, and she nodded again as he stood to go talk to the Aburame about the watch schedule.

That night she tugged her sleeping roll next to his, and he raised an eyebrow but didn't say anything, though he did sigh a little when Sasuke and Naruto ended up scootching closer as well. She was drifting on the edge of sleep when a thought hit her, and she sat up with a gasp.

"Oh, shit!" she yelped.

Ensui sat up next to her, kunai in hand, looking around their campsite frantically. She was peripherally aware of the others doing the same.

"What is it?" Ensui finally asked, when he couldn't sense any danger.

Mayu looked at him with wide eyes. "Shikamaru is going to kill me!"

Chapter Text

Mayu was sulking - she could admit it. But if she had to ride on someone's back because Ensui and her team had decided she was too injured to run, why did she end up on the tiny, bony girl while Kakashi got to be carried by Ensui? So unfair.

She turned her head to glare at the man, who had taken to smugly eye-smiling at her whenever he caught her looking, and her thoughts stuttered to a halt. Was her sensei...sniffing Ensui? He was! She had turned her head just in time to see him angle his face and take in a discreet whiff.

She thought about it for a second and then shrugged. All the Nara men she knew did smell amazing unless it was Akinobu-sensei coming off a bender. It was a mixture of the spicy shampoo and soaps that the clan made from some herbs in the forest and whatever magical combination of pheromones they seemed genetically predisposed to expelling. So she couldn't blame Kakashi for partaking in the amazing cocktail that was Ensui's scent.

Mayu opened her mouth to call him out on it anyway because she was bored, but a change of wind knocked some of Megu's ridiculous hair into her face, and she ended up choking and sputtering for the next thirty seconds. After she had extracted the hair from her mouth, she settled in for a good brood.

Ensui had Megu only do the minimum amount of healing to conserve her energy in case any of Team Seven's 'fucking horrendous luck, what the hell, Kakashi?' followed them and they ended up 'attacked by a rabid bear or something.' That meant the wound on her leg was stitched up and any traces of infection were burned out, and her concussion was taken care of, but her bruises were still firmly in place. The ones around her throat were particularly sore, and though she had no mirror to see them with, the way Naruto's eyes swam with tears when he looked at her, and Ensui's pissed off mutterings about bringing Watana back to life so he could kill him told her they were probably pretty intense.

Which meant if she didn't get to the hospital before any other Naras saw her, she was going to be faced with some very angsty family members. Including Shikamaru. She grimaced to herself as she thought of him.

Romantic interest wasn't something she'd dealt with as Diana Holmes - she'd always been too smart for her peers, and too aware of exactly what people were thinking when they looked at her. It didn't exactly make for a romantic encounter when she could tell when she was annoying somebody (which was often) or when they were more focused on her breasts than on what she was saying.

Plus, she'd only been seventeen when she had died, and other than a ridiculous crush she'd nursed for Anthea for about six months after she'd turned fourteen, there hadn't been a lot of time for her to explore that side of life. That had simply been her hormones focusing on the only non-family member that she had any semblance of trust in. Anthea had been beautiful, deadly, efficient, and completely untouchable - the perfect combination for her past self's fourteen-year-old brain.

Shikamaru was...different. First of all, she'd loved him in some form since she was six years old. This felt more...innocent than the fantasies she'd harbored of Anthea, that ran more along the lines of 'you saved me from the evil men who had me tied to a chair in my underwear, let's make out.' Mayu just thought Shikamaru was the most beautiful thing she'd ever seen, inside and out, as corny as that sounded. She couldn't actually imagine ever being with anyone else - who could ever keep up with her?

Mayu scowled at her annoyingly sappy thought process. Why was she even stressing about this? Nothing had really changed - she was still completely devoted to him, he was still her favorite person, and neither of them was going anywhere. They were both too young to really contemplate anything else, so worrying about it was worse than useless. And it was painful listening to her own angst, she wasn't really built for it. Decision made, she pushed all hormone-driven preteen drivel to the back of her mind cave, and told it firmly to stay put.

They had finally stopped for the night, and Megu gingerly set Mayu down on a log on the edge of the clearing they'd chosen before giving her a once over. "Will I live?" Mayu asked in an annoyed voice, tired of all the fussing, which prompted a cackle from Megu.

"Grumpy little thing, ain'tcha? You're fine. Look like you just came from a fightin' ring, but you'll heal up."

"Reassuring," she muttered as Ensui set a bored-looking Kakashi next to her. Megu ran a green palm over him and proclaimed him well enough to survive another night, as well, before they left them to go set up camp.

Mayu didn't miss the fact that she'd been set up - they were far enough away from everybody else that any conversation they had would be private. She'd been dreading this moment since she woke up on the correct side of the border.

Mayu looked down at her feet and clasped her hands in her lap, but she could feel Kakashi's gaze on her. Finally, he sighed, and she glanced at him from the corner of her eye. He looked as uncomfortable as she felt, and for a moment she hoped he would stay silent. Alas, it was not to be.

"So, Mayu-chan," he said, and she tilted her head towards him so he would know she was listening. "I think we have a few things to talk about." She made a strangled noise of agreement and waited for him to continue. And waited. Finally, she sighed and turned to look at him, and was met with an eye smile.

"Ah, that's better," he said, and she glared. "I think we should probably start with clearing the air." he cleared his throat and shifted. He's so bad at this, she thought to herself. It was a little disorienting, watching somebody who took on multiple extremely strong ninja on his own in the past four days have such a hard time talking about his feelings.

I'm going to have to help him out, or we'll be here all night. She huffed. "You came for me," she said bluntly, then waited.

"Of course I did." He was looking at her steadily, and she swallowed back her guilt.

"You heard my reasons for thinking you wouldn't," she responded and gritted her teeth when her voice wobbled.

"They were stupid reasons," he said harshly, and she bristled.

"They weren't," she hissed. "You've made it clear from almost the very beginning that you can't stand the sight of me. Even after you decided training me was easier than dealing with my family, which, sorry about them, I really have no control over their actions -" she shook her head and forced herself to stay on topic. "Anyway, you may have noticed, but I'm pretty good at reading people, and every time you're around me, you wish you weren't. You favor Naruto and Sasuke because of...personal reasons, which is fine. But, why would I think you'd drag your two preferred students into enemy territory when you're injured and exhausted for the student that you...that you..." hate, she didn't say, but knew they both heard.

May decided not to hold back her thoughts - it was too late to preserve her pride in this, anyway, and she wouldn't let him get away with pretending she'd had no reason to believe he wasn't coming. "I tried so hard, you know! I made myself be quiet, and I was polite and did everything I could to prove I was good enough. And you-you used my stupid insecurities to humiliate me and then you left me alone when I needed you. Do you have any idea how I felt when I was sitting in that forest, unable to walk, in the dark, knowing you weren't coming? The man who's revered for never leaving a comrade behind. And yet you left me." Mayu swiped her hands across her eyes, annoyed at her tears. "So, yes, I didn't think you were coming, but can you blame me?"

Mayu ignored the pointed not-looks she was getting from the rest of their party - they'd probably heard at least part of that since she had raised her voice. Kakashi, for his part, looked like she had reached into his chest and ripped out his heart. She bit her lip but didn't take any of it back. She did add on something else to the end in a quiet voice. "You did come, though. So, thank you."

He sighed and scrubbed a hand over his hair. "I knew from the moment Tsunade-sama assigned me your team and I passed you that it would be tough for me. I don't...form many attachments, for reasons I probably don't need to say out loud to you. I was prepared for working with two people who would remind of...things I'd lost. But I miscalculated," he muttered, and she scrunched her brow in confusion.

"Miscalculated...?" she asked.

"Yes. Naruto and Sasuke, they're easily distractible. They didn't try to get close to me...but you. From day one you were trying to form bonds with us, and no matter how much of a jerk I was, you didn't give up."

Mayu blinked at him. "So...the puppet, on the first day? The forcing me to do boring crappy training while you helped the boys? The constantly being late...that was all some convoluted plan to make me hate you so that I wouldn't...what? Become attached?"

He scratched the back of his head. "Ah, well, yes," he eye smiled at her. "Except the being late part. That's pretty normal for me."

Mayu gaped at him, mind racing as all of his actions from the past month began adding up to a very different picture. "So you don't hate me," she said in a flat voice.

"Nope!" he chirped.

"You just wanted me to stop trying to turn my genin team into some sort of family," she continued, and he nodded amiably.

Mayu blinked a few times, then had a thought that had her slapping a hand over her mouth to stop her laughter. Kakashi gave her a strange look while she got herself under control. "Sorry, sorry," she gasped. "It's just...I realized that we can basically blame my family for this. Which is hilarious because they're the ones that were so affronted by the fallout."

"Oh?" he said, and she nodded.

"Yep! They all insisted that I give you guys a chance, and went on and on about bonds and second families. Usually, I'm horrible at making friends, you know." she said.

"I would never have guessed," he said wryly, ignoring her glare. He then sighed. "Well, it was a stupid plan on my part anyway," he said in a mournful voice. "It turns out cute little genin are just too much for any heart to resist." he reached out and set his hand on her head. "When I thought Naruto was dead after that woman stabbed him, I realized he was precious to me whether I wanted him to be or not. And when I woke up and realized you'd been taken..." the air around him darkened. "I knew that I had to get you back. And not only because you're my comrade."

Mayu swallowed and looked away. "Oh," she said in a small voice. "Well, despite you being a monumental jerk these last few weeks, I've decided that you're not so bad either," she muttered, feeling a blush tint her cheeks. She glanced at him and saw he was beaming at her, and the exposed portion of his face also looked suspiciously red.

"Well!" he said, clapping his hands together. "I'm glad we've got that all figured out. Now, on to the next topic. Let's talk about all these secrets of mine and Naruto's that you seem to have figured out," he said cheerfully. She gulped at his slight air of menace.

"Uh...what do you mean?" she squeaked out.

"Well, you know about his status," he said, though he didn't say the word jinchuuriki out loud. "And also that both he and Sasuke are related to people I knew in the past."

Mayu's eyes darted around, looking for an escape. Damn that stupid comm, anyway! "You know, I'm gonna see if Ensui needs some help cooking dinner - eep," his hand wrapped around her arm to stop her from standing and hobbling off.

"Mayu," he spoke in a voice that said I'm talking to you as your commanding officer. She sighed.

"I heard about your team - an Uchiha, a medic, and the Yondaime. I know that they...didn't make it." Mayu bit her lip and eyed his tense posture, but didn't offer comfort. She had a feeling he wouldn't react well to that. "So, it made sense that you might feel some...responsibility to Sasuke, since he was probably related, however distantly, to the person who gifted you your eye." he flinched, and she cringed, and said, "Sorry. I just...I can't help but put things together."

Kakashi sighed and loosened his grip so he could pat her arm. "Continue," he said in a bland voice.

"I...figured out the stuff about Naruto...a while ago. It wasn't that hard once I paid attention. The last name Uzumaki, the way the villagers treated him, some even called him a demon, you know. Idiots," she spat, and Kakashi hummed in agreement. "Anyway, I suspected his parentage after I noticed he looked a lot like -" she was cut off as Kakashi slapped a hand over her mouth and shook his head.

"We'll talk about that part later, in a more secure location," he said with a sigh, and she nodded. "I don't have to tell you, I hope, that this is a secret. Even from him."

Mayu thought about that for a moment, then met Kakashi's eye. "I won't lie to him," she said. "Not about this. If he asks, I won't lie."

Kakashi's eye narrowed. "This is dangerous for him, Mayu," he said in a warning tone, but she refused to budge.

"I think we've proven that our lives are dangerous in general," she said, and crossed her arms, tipping her chin up in the air.

Kakashi sighed explosively. "The Hokage has a soft spot for you," he said, and Mayu snorted at that, "but even she won't be able to overlook you spilling an S class secret," he said bluntly.

Mayu thought about that, then shrugged. "I guess I'll just have to live with that."

Kakashi dropped his face into his hands, mumbling about idiotic baby ninjas. Finally, he raised his head. "Okay, if he asks, don't lie. Tell him you've been ordered, by me, not to tell him, and that he should come talk to me about it," he said.

Mayu narrowed her eyes as she thought that through. Finally, she nodded. "Okay, I can live with that."

He gave her a sardonic look. "Wonderful. Now, one last thing," he said, and she wrinkled her nose. "You knew about Watana being a threat, and went off on your own anyway," he raised his hand to stop her from speaking, "I know why you did it, but it was still stupid. It put yourself and your team in needless danger. I'll come up with a fitting punishment for you later," he said and looked way too pleased with that. She grumbled, but couldn't really deny that she'd made the wrong call.

"Great! So, tell me about these Puppet Katas of yours," he said with an eye smile, and she blinked at him.

"How do you even know about that?"

"Sometimes," he began in a solemn voice, "when you're an elite ninja..."

"Ugh, never mind," Mayu said, then sighed. "Have you heard of the Hashino Deadly Dance Style?"

000

Team Seven limped into Konoha exactly ten days after they had left it, Ensui, Megu, and the Aburame whose name turned out to be Goro by their sides. Kakashi and Mayu had refused to be carried through the gates, and so entered on their own two feet.

They turned over the jewelry, which Daiki had recovered for them along with Mayu's puppets while Kakashi was still asleep, to the missions desk with a promise to hand in reports by the end of the next day. Tsunade was busy with the council and couldn't see them, but Kakashi had warned them they'd probably have to give a verbal report due to the change in mission status halfway through.

Kakashi herded his wayward genin to the hospital, ignoring their grumbling. In the ten days they'd been gone all of them had been thrown around, one student had been stabbed through the chest, another had activated a bloodline limit, and the third had been drugged, kidnapped, smacked around, and stabbed in the leg. He might not be the world's best teacher, but even he knew a check in at the hospital was the right thing to do.

In the end, Mayu was the only member of the team admitted due to the fact that she'd been drugged heavily along with getting a concussion. Kakashi walked the boys home before ambling back towards the hospital so he could chat with (intimidate) her doctors.

Mayu had been...unexpected. For twelve years, Kakashi had succeeded in keeping people at arm's length. Bonds, he'd discovered, were generally confusing and painful, and he was self-aware enough to know he'd only hurt somebody who got close to him. So Kakashi accepted Konoha as his precious thing to protect, a mantle that he tried to carry as well as he could after Minato-sensei died. He understood that the people of the village were Konoha, so even if he couldn't attach himself to them individually, he never let them die and never left them behind if it was at all possible.

So when Tsunade had put her foot down and gave him three bumbling, socially awkward children to raise into a competent ninja, with two of them being remnants of the people he'd loved the most and lost, he had come up with a plan. A very simple plan to protect his heart and theirs. It was easy to distract Naruto and Sasuke from anything emotionally charged with him. For one, they were pretty focused on each other and their ambitions. They both easily accepted his asshole persona, much as most everybody else did, as an indicator not to get too close.

What he hadn't planned for was a tiny, determined girl with too much intelligence and a burning need to do the opposite of what he wanted her to. Mayu swept in and started looking up at him with those wide grey eyes like he was important, and he had panicked. Sharingan no Kakashi didn't panic much, but when he did it was usually followed by one of his epic failures, few and far in between and catastrophic in nature.

So he'd pushed harder, tried to make her hate him by pretending he favored the boys and ignoring her. Kakashi had thought his heart might melt when she started following him around in some misguided attempt to impress slash annoy him into taking her seriously. He had been reluctantly impressed as she kept her cool each time he pressed, determination clear even through her dejection.

Kakashi had known things weren't jelling with his team, and that it was a dynamic he had created but hadn't really understood until he had watched her square her little shoulders and take her hits stoically during his first 'tracking' lesson. He'd been so sure she'd give up after an hour - the exercise really had been way above her level. So he'd dismissed the boys and gone home, and none of them had thought for a moment that their teammate would still stubbornly be out trying to sniff out hidden urine samples. Kakashi knew he had embarrassed her and hurt her feelings, and figured that would be that the next day. Mayu would back off before either of them became too emotionally compromised.

And then Shikaku had shown up on his steps well after dark, tension, and worry in the lines of his body, asking if he'd seen Mayu anywhere. At that moment, as fear and adrenaline and not again had flooded his system, Kakashi had an epiphany. It was too late - he was already compromised by his students. And, as was a pattern with him, he had already let them down, and he had ended up having to watch as somebody else cleaned up his mess. Mayu had been alive, but Kakashi had finally gotten what he'd wanted right as he realized he didn't actually want it - she had given up on him. On top of his own shame, he'd had to watch his other two students struggle with their own guilt over their actions.

Luckily, Ensui had literally punched him out of his sulk, and given him hope with a few words: 'if you want to fix what you broke...' Which indicated he could actually fix it. So he'd started trying to awkwardly right his wrongs, and was incredibly proud when he discovered that Naruto and Sasuke had started to mend the rift on their own without needing guidance from him. They would be a good team.

And Mayu had seemed to be thawing towards him again as he'd complimented her on work well done and started seriously training her. When Naruto was stabbed and he thought his student would die, Kakashi was once again hit by how much he cared about his little group of misfits after such a short time. He hadn't wanted it, but when he realized that he had a little family, a true team, Kakashi promised himself that this time, he'd protect them. Then he'd passed out - and when he woke up, it was to a frantic Sasuke saying Mayu was gone, and when they'd turned on the comms...

Every slap he heard Mayu take as they raced across the Iwa terrain - and he was so, so proud when neither of his students even twitched at directly disobeying an order from the Hokage to save their teammate - felt like a blow to his own body. What was worse was hearing the confidence in Mayu's voice when she said 'Three reasons why he won't come...' and listed them off with such fake nonchalance that his heart had clenched. She called herself an extra, and Kakashi had the revelation that there were things he had to protect in his students other than their innocence and their lives - he had to protect their hearts. Apparently from his own bumbling idiocy.

Then Mayu had screamed, and all thoughts other than getting there and killing the three ninjas holding her had scattered. He never wanted to come upon a scene like the one that met him when he finally arrived at where Mayu was being held again. Smoke and fire riddled the area, and Mayu was on her back, frantically fighting against the huge man, Katsu, who was screaming in her face, his hands wrapped around her slim throat.

Kakashi shuddered and was pulled out of his dark thoughts by the sound of yelling voices, and he jerked when he realized they were coming from Mayu's hospital room. Barely a thought and he'd sped to her door, relaxing when he saw Mayu sitting propped up in her hospital bed, bruises stark on her tiny face and neck. Her face was twisted into a petulant scowl that Kakashi had a feeling he'd be seeing more of now that she was done acting the sweet, accommodating genin.

The object of her glare, a preteen, gangly Nara who was starting to grow into the tall, broad-shouldered but otherwise lean physique his clan favored, was the target of her ire. His hands were clenched into fists at his sides, and Kakashi shuddered a bit - an angry Nara was never good for anybody.

"What do you mean, you were kind of kidnapped but only for a second?" the boy exclaimed and Mayu's eyes darted away from him.

"Mayu-chan, I'd hardly quantify two days as a second," Kakashi said, unable to resist stirring the pot as he leaned against the door. "Though I guess it didn't feel like a long time to you since you were drugged most of the time." Shikamaru whipped around, and Kakashi eye-smiled at him, the perfect punishment for Mayu wandering off on her own coming to him. Best of all, it didn't require any extra work from Kakashi. "Don't look so upset, Shikamaru-kun. Her team rushed in and saved the day, despite injuries from fighting four high-level ninja unexpectedly only days earlier. Bad intel, you know. Poor Mayu wouldn't have wandered off on her own if the rest of her team hadn't been in a sad way, I'm sure."

He watched in fascination as the boy's face reddened, and his eyes darkened in rage. Kakashi shivered and wondered if maybe he wasn't being a little unfair to his poor little student when Shikamaru spun back around. "You wandered away on your own?! Mayu, did you not listen to anything dad said?"

Mayu looked torn between genuine remorse and anger when she answered. "Shikamaru, I'd just watched half my team come close to death, and the remaining member was basically in shock. I didn't have time to worry about some chunin level ninja who shouldn't even have known where I was! I'm a kunoichi, not some victim!" she yelled back.

"Maybe if you stopped and thought before doing something stupid, Watana wouldn't have been targeting you in the first place!" he yelled back, and Kakashi shifted uncomfortably when Mayu flinched. Maybe he shouldn't have given his input on this one.

"If I hadn't 'done something stupid,' I'd be dead or worse, and a megalomaniacal sociopath would still be trying to run Konoha! It's not my fault Watana is - was - crazy, or that we have some kind of mole helping prisoners escape and blabbing my movements to -"

"Mayu," Kakashi said sharply, before sticking his head out the door to check out the thankfully empty hallway. He increased his hearing with chakra application for a moment, but only heard the steady heartbeat of somebody sleeping in a room down the hall and the footsteps of a few people two hallways away.

Mayu was looking sheepish when he came back into the room with a stern look. "Sorry, Kakashi-sensei. I don't filter well on painkillers."

He sighed. "We'll work on it - a ninja should be able to keep her mouth shut no matter what the situation," he said sternly. She nodded miserably, staring down at her bruised knuckles, and he sighed, caving to the pitiful sight she made. "It's fine, Mayu-chan, you've had a hard couple of days. Has your doctor come by yet?"

"No," Shikamaru answered for her, still tense but seeming a bit calmer. "Dad went to find someone." Mayu twitched a little, and Kakashi had a feeling Shikamaru wasn't the only one that had given her a stern lecture. "A nurse came by and took her blood and vitals, though."

"Shikamaru-kun, could you give me a moment with my student?" Kakashi asked in a light voice. The boy turned a glare on him, and he curved his eye into a smile in response. "There are a few things I wanted to discuss with her. It'll take just a moment."

"Go on, Shika," Mayu murmured, still not looking at the boy. Shikamaru slumped and rubbed a hand over his face.

"Fine," he muttered, and slouched out of the door, dejection in every line of his body. Kakashi closed it after him and then went to sit in the chair next to her bed.

"What did you need to talk to me about," Mayu said in a small voice. Kakashi sighed, then reached out to ruffle her hair, earning a scowl.

"I just wanted to see how you're doing, Mayu-chan," he said cheerfully. There was an awkward pause, and then a shrug.

"I'm okay," she said. "My family isn't happy with me, but..." her hand clenched in the blanket covering her legs. "They act like it's my fault! I'm not the one who made people corrupt, you know. I just got caught in the middle. And even now, after all these years, I'm still paying for it."

Kakashi sighed and looked out the window to gather his thoughts. He was bad at this, he knew, but he also knew he had to try. "Well, your family is worried about you. It's hard to see people you love hurt. They aren't really mad at you, just the situation." he fidgeted at the talk of love and family but bravely continued on. "As for the rest...your intellect is probably always going to land you in trouble, Mayu." He held up a hand when she opened her mouth to comment. "It's the same for anybody who stands up for what they believe in. You're going to keep making enemies, but that's the reality of the life you've chosen. Being exceptional is...not easy."

Kakashi felt his cheeks heat and, as always, was glad for the mask. Mayu was staring at him in shock. Finally, she said in a quiet voice, "You think I'm exceptional?" There was a careful hope in her eyes, and Kakashi stared at her, wondering how somebody so bruised and dirty could still be adorable.

He looked out the window and shrugged. "Sure." A brilliant smile overtook her face, and he twitched. Kakashi rubbed a hand over the back of his neck, then decided to hell with it, and returned her smile with a real one of his own.

He then cleared his throat. "There's something else." Mayu cocked her head to the side, still glowing from his compliment, and he wished he didn't have to bring her down with the next subject. "Watana, he was your first kill, right?"

Mayu stilled in shock, then her eyes widened. "Uh...yes?"

"I was just wondering how you...felt about that," he said lamely, and inwardly cringed. Mayu actually looked a bit amused at his discomfort, the brat.

She shrugged and joined him in looking out the window. "Honestly, I just feel relief and...I don't know, a little satisfied."

Kakashi hummed, and studied her, waiting her out. "I mean, he hurt Shikamaru, the first time he tried to take me. And then he put my team in danger. I guess...I know it was the best choice, and I don't feel sorry about it. Is that...bad?" Mayu asked.

Kakashi shrugged. "No. Everybody has different outlooks on these things. As a kunoichi, you'll need to make decisions on who lives and who dies. And you'll need to find your own ways of dealing with it without losing your humanity. Remember, though; it's important not to start disregarding life too easily. That's a hole that's much easier to avoid than to climb out of." And how he wished he wasn't speaking from experience.

Mayu nodded, and seemed lost in thought for a few minutes before speaking. "I think...if it had been Natsu, or even Katsu, I would have felt...worse about it."

Kakashi nodded easily. He himself was regretting the girl's death. "There are some enemies you can sympathize with - that is the problem with all of our enemies being human. It will especially be hard for you as a member of the police force," he said bluntly.

Mayu's eyes snapped to his one gray one. "You...you really think I'll be accepted?"

Kakashi rolled his eyes. "Of course you will be. Uchiha Fugaku may be a stuck up, overbearing stick in the mud but he's not an idiot. I'm guessing you'll have different departments fighting over you once you hit chunin." Kakashi leaned back a little as she turned her wide eyes to him, looking like Gai right before he burst into manly tears of joy. Luckily, they were interrupted by the door banging open and Tsunade herself entering the room, yelling about idiot genin who couldn't go even one month without falling face first into trouble.

As Mayu meekly submitted to an exam and Yoshino, Shikaku, and Shikamaru filed into the now-cramped room, Kakashi backed out into the hall. He stuck around long enough for the assessment - she'd be staying overnight due to the concussion paired with so long being drugged with an unknown substance. Her leg would heal up fine, and Tsunade was already working on the bruises on her face and neck.

Three days of rest and then she'd be back on her feet. With a sigh of relief, Kakashi left to run one last errand before heading home to bed - one he dreaded. Genin were such a pain.

Uchiha Fugaku was sitting in his office at the Military Police Force building looking over a case file with a frown on his face when Kakashi sauntered in fifteen minutes later. His expression didn't change when he saw who it was, but his face did lose a bit of color and he stood faster than he normally would. "Sasuke -?"

"He's fine, Fugaku-sama," Kakashi said. "Though I do need to talk to you about something that happened on our mission."

Fugaku relaxed minutely before sitting down and gestured for Kakashi to do the same across from him. Kakashi shut the door, knowing that the seals etched into the walls would keep their conversation private, and sat.

He had already decided not to beat around the bush, so skipped the pleasantries and fell into his 'report' voice - slightly bored but efficient. "We were assigned a C-rank mission to retrieve stolen jewelry from a group of bandits. Intel said they were civilian, no truly violent crimes on record. We discovered that the intel wasn't up to date once we approached the target for recon. The bandits were working with four missing-nin, a mix of high chunin and jounin level. They had kidnapped the godson of Earth Country's Daimyo and were holding him for ransom." Fugaku's hand tightening on his pen was the only indication that he was upset. Kakashi had a feeling that whoever had put together that Intel was going to be in for a sad surprise.

He continued on as if he hadn't seen the tell. "My team was able to protect the child and fight off the enemy ninja. However, while retreating as I fought off what we believed to be the last man of the group, they were ambushed by a kunoichi. Naruto ended up taking a sword in the chest that was meant for Sasuke." Fugaku actually jerked at that, and Kakashi realized he was concerned. That's right, he was friends with the fourth, he thought to himself. "Naruto's fine. His...healing rate is better than average." Fugaku nodded his head, understanding what Kakashi wasn't saying, and relaxed.

"Sasuke didn't realize at first that it wasn't a mortal wound," Kakashi said carefully, and Fugaku closed his eyes for a moment.

"He's activated the Sharingan," the older man said in a flat voice, and Kakashi nodded his head amiably.

"Yes. He also killed the woman who stabbed Naruto. His first kill, I'm assuming." Sasuke's father looked suddenly tired, the lines of exhaustion on his face deepening.

"I understand. Thank you for letting me know, Kakashi-san."

It was a dismissal, and Kakashi was almost gleeful to share the emotional rollercoaster ride that the C-rank-turned-A-rank had become. "One more thing," he said, and he thought Fugaku might do something as undignified as slumping. Of course, he just motioned for Kakashi to continue.

"I assume because of your station as clan head and chief of police that you know the history of Sasuke's teammate, Nomaka Mayu, and the current threat from Watana Chiko?"

Fugaku inclined his head, looking interested in the direction the conversation had gone. "Is she...unharmed?" the man asked carefully, and Kakashi was a little surprised that he seemed more than moderately concerned about the answer.

"She's currently at the hospital, but Tsunade herself checked her over and she should be fine. While the rest of us were recovering from the events of the mission, Mayu was taken by Watana and the two missing-nin he escaped with."

Fugaku straightened, his eyes zeroing in on Kakashi, who continued blithely. "I was still asleep from chakra exhaustion for the first twenty hours she was missing. By the time we were able to follow they had taken her across the Earth Country border. She had managed to turn on her comm without them realizing it, so we could hear most of what they were doing and planning. They kept her drugged the first two days, but woke her about twenty minutes before we were in position." At this point Kakashi paused, wishing he didn't have to go over it again, but knowing how important it was that Fugaku knew how much of a cluster the mission had been. The Uchiha all had...questionable mental health, and Tsunade had been working with the clan head for the past four years on ways to mitigate the more mentally painful aspects of their doujutsu, no matter how much she had to drag the stoic clan kicking and screaming into the light.

"They tortured her," Fugaku stated, voice devoid of emotion.

Kakashi shrugged. "Beat her up a little. Watana lost it and stabbed her in the leg with a kunai. For the most part, she handled it well, but we heard it all through the comms." Kakashi's lips quirked a bit. "We also heard her blow up the whole damn encampment two minutes before we got there. She even killed Watana."

Fugaku grunted a little in surprise, and Kakashi nodded as if he'd said something profound. "All three of them did well." He flicked his eyes to Fugaku. "Sasuke protected his teammates more than once. Defeated a ninja above his level with a newly activated Sharingan. Showed good teamwork with Naruto and Mayu. He'll go far."

Fugaku inclined his head, and Kakashi figured that response was as enthusiastic as it would ever get with the man. Kakashi wondered for a moment if he was that stoic in bed. Nah, it's always the quiet ones...his eye glazed for a moment in contemplation, before a clearing throat drew his attention back to Fugaku.

"Well," Kakashi stood. "I'll let you get back to work, then!" he said cheerfully, and with a little finger-wave, disappeared in a swirl of leaves, enjoying the slightly annoyed expression on Fugaku's face as he did.

000

Mayu slipped out the window, gingerly climbing down the outer wall of the hospital to avoid re-damaging her recently healed thigh. She had to appreciate Tsunade's skill, despite her less-than-stellar bedside manner. Mayu adjusted her storage scroll, which somebody had helpfully put in a small cupboard in her private room, then patted it fondly. It was thanks to finding it that she'd been able to wear something other than a hospital gown-and-sheet combo home.

Knowing that she was setting herself up for yet another scolding, but not particularly caring, Mayu limped off towards the Nara compound. Mayu had snapped at about the fifth lecture from Yoshino and told the Naras crowded in her hospital room to go home already. She refused to feel guilty when she remembered their stricken faces - she wasn't a kid anymore after all. Well, depending on your perspective. Then she'd waited until the hospital quieted down for the night before initiating her escape plan.

While she didn't exactly hate hospitals, they also weren't a good place to get some actual rest. Between the nightly rounds from the nurses, the constant beeping of machines, and the occasional moan of pain or flurry of activity, a good night's rest was impossible. And she really, really needed a safe, comfortable place to decompress.

When she got to the Nara clan gates, Mayu turned right instead of heading left towards her house, making her way down to an apartment block created specifically for members of the Nara clan who were living the single life. She took her time going up the three flights of stairs before she found herself in front of the apartment she wanted.

With a sigh of relief, she unlocked the door, pumping a bit of chakra into the knob to disable any traps. Ensui had keyed both Mayu and Shikamaru to his wards last year in case they needed to get in. His traps were all on the side of 'deadly' and killing his brother's children wasn't something he wanted to have to deal with.

"Ensui-nii?" she whispered before slipping in, wanting to give him warning that somebody was entering - though he had probably known she was there before she was done climbing the stairs.

"Mayu-chan, you're supposed to be in the hospital," Ensui's tired voice said as a lamp switched on, illuminating a small living room and kitchen area, with Ensui standing next to the couch.

She shrugged. "I'm feeling okay, and I couldn't sleep there. Could I please stay on your couch?"

Ensui studied her and then shrugged. "Alright. Go on and jump in the shower. I'll grab you something to sleep in."

And this was why Mayu loved Ensui. After she was showered and wearing one of his overly large t-shirts and a pair of his loose shorts, he bullied her into a nest of blankets and pillows on the couch, then sat down across from her and gave her an enigmatic look. She fidgeted for a moment, before finally sighing and giving into the inevitable. He knew something was bothering her, and he expected her to get on with telling him about it.

"If Naruto wasn't...what he is, he'd be dead," she said in a quiet voice, and Ensui jerked in surprise. Mayu traced a line over the scar tissue on her chest and gave a humorless smile. "If he scars, he'll have one to match mine, you know." She regretted bringing it up when a shadow passed over Ensui's face.

"Dad and mom and Shikamaru keep...keep scolding me like I'm some kid who didn't follow the rules. But things went really, really wrong Nii-san. Sensei and Naruto almost died, and Sasuke...he was really shaken up. I wasn't thinking about mortal enemies or rules. I was thinking about getting my team through what had happened. I just..."

"Was doing your job?" Ensui gave her a wry smile. "Don't worry, sweetheart, they'll catch up. When you first came to us, you were this tiny little thing that seemed to jump from one troublesome situation to another, and your eyes were so damn sad sometimes that...we couldn't help but want to wrap you up in foam." she bristled at his description, and he chuckled. "We know you're tough as steel, kid, no need to get worked up. They just want to protect you from hurt - they'll clue into the fact that you're all grown up soon enough."

Mayu huffed. "Shikamaru..."

"Is really stupid for a genius sometimes," Ensui said bluntly, shocking Mayu into a giggle. "Sometimes us boys are pretty idiotic when our people are threatened," he said with a shrug. "He'll come crawling over here looking like a kicked puppy tomorrow when he realizes he was bein' a jerk."

Mayu studied his face, a mixture of pain and fondness. She wanted to ask, had wanted to for a while, but she knew whatever was the cause of Ensui's pain was something she should leave alone. She already had a pretty good idea of the general story, anyway. "Think I should make him sweat for a bit before I give in to the Nara Pout?" she said instead, just to hear his small bark of laughter.

"Oh sweetheart, of course, you should."

000

The next morning Mayu was drifting in and out of a comfortable doze as Ensui moved around his kitchen, making tea and omelets. She buried her face in a pillow that smelled like Ensui's spicy shampoo when there was a knock at the door. If she ignored them, they'd go away. That's how these things worked, right?

Ensui sighed when he saw she had no intention of moving from her spot on the couch and went to open the door. Mayu tensed when she recognized who was at the door and shoved her face further into the pillow.

"Mayu," Shikamaru's soft voice said from beside her. She stubbornly ignored him, and he sighed. She listened to the rustle of fabric and the thump of his body as he sat down next to the couch. Then a tentative hand was on her shoulder. "Mayu, please," he said, and she really couldn't resist turning her head to study him with one blurry eye when he used that sad voice.

Annoyingly, something in her relaxed when she saw his earnest expression, but she knew better than to let this go. They'd both be miserable if he treated her like someone who couldn't take care of herself every time she was injured in the line of duty. He moved his hand to her cheek, and she leaned into a bit but didn't say anything.

"I'm sorry I acted like an idiot," he whispered. "I know it wasn't your fault, and I shouldn't have been mad at you."

"Even if it was, it's not your job to decide that," Mayu replied after a moment. "Kakashi-sensei had already spoken to me about it."

Shikamaru swallowed and nodded. "You're right," he said simply, and Mayu couldn't help but appreciate his lack of excuses. "It won't happen again, I promise."

Mayu sighed, and his face was so hangdog that she had no choice but to reach out and tug him towards her. His lips quirked up into a pleased half smile, and then he was lifting the blankets and gently rearranging them until he was on his back and she was on her side, back against the couch and head resting on his shoulder. She relaxed into the heat and hummed happily when the hand attached to the arm wrapped around her started running through her sleep-knotted hair.

"Kept my promise," she murmured sleepily against him.

He made a humming sound to let her know he was listening. "I told you I'd blow up anybody that tried to keep me from coming home," she said smugly, and he jerked in surprise.

"What..." he asked faintly, and she tipped her head up to give him a grin.

"Let's just say Watana's last moments weren't pleasant. Also, I'll need to avoid barbeque for awhile," she said, wrinkling her nose as she remembered the not-so-great smell of burning human flesh.

His eyes widened and for a moment they stared at each other. Finally, he got over his shock and a small, fierce smile appeared on his face. She returned it, finally feeling something settle in her after the past awful week.

The next morning Shikamaru was sitting with her on a blanket in the yard showing her some formations he'd been working on while she was out of town for their Epic Partnership ("Seriously, Mayu, we aren't calling it that."). Naruto had shown up at the door with Sasuke in tow, looking nervous, and Yoshino exclaimed in delight before pulling the boy out into the field. Sasuke was working on his own katas a few feet away but listening with half an ear to Yoshino.

"I had a friend who was a lot like you, Naruto-kun, and she had a very distinct fighting style that worked well for her. Fast healing, strength, and a lot of energy combined with a fairly compact form," Yoshino said and looked so sad for a moment that Mayu's eyes narrowed with suspicion. She shared a look with Shikamaru and knew he was thinking the same thing she was.

"I worked really closely with her team as a medic, and used to spar a lot with her so I'm pretty familiar with the style - enough to at least get you started," she said cheerfully. "I'll give you a starter lesson today, but you'll need to double check with your sensei that working with me on the side won't mess up whatever plans he has for you. He's free to come over for dinner anytime your team's not on a mission to talk about it. Now, this is a bit of a brawler style - a lot of powerful jabs, kicks, and punches that are a bit of a mix of other styles. My friend was brutal in close combat," she said with glee.

"Hey, your friend sounds pretty cool!" Naruto said, and Yoshino gave a small smile.

"She was, yes." she agreed, and Naruto sobered for a moment before giving a serious nod.

"I'll do her legacy justice, believe it!" he promised, and Yoshino laughed.

Shikamaru and Mayu went back to their discussion. "Right, so this is if we're overwhelmed by stronger forces and need to make a path of escape," he said. "I think if you used that poison powder to force them back, and then peppered the area with exploding tags that were heavy on light and sound to disorient them, we could -"

"What are you doing?" Sasuke asked, tilting his head to the side as he looked over their shoulders. Mayu quickly explained and had to blink at Sasuke's unimpressed glare.

"Shouldn't you be thinking up formations for your actual team?" he drawled. "This would have been useful on our last mission - possibly something for a scenario where we had to protect a client from multiple stronger opponents, or extract a team member from a hostage situation?"

Mayu sighed. "Well, yes, but it's actually Shika who's good at this stuff, not me."

"I'll help you guys out with it," Shikamaru drawled, "but it would involve letting somebody from another team in on your skills and weaknesses," he said. Mayu gave him a surprised look - after all, he was volunteering to add hours of work to his schedule. "What? If it keeps you safer, of course, I'll do it," he huffed, cheeks reddening a bit. "Plus, you already supply my team with exploding tags and smoke bombs, so it only makes sense to help yours out, too."

Sasuke hummed. "We'll have to talk to Naruto, but I doubt he'd mind. It's not like you don't already know everything about Mayu, anyway." Mayu blinked at him in shock before smiling at him. He'd come so far in such a short amount of time - already including even Naruto in team planning activities.

He seemed to understand what her look meant because he let out a disgruntled "Hn," and went back to his morning exercises. In the background, Yoshino had sent Naruto tumbling across the ground with a powerful jab to his sternum, and Mayu took a moment to be thankful it wasn't her.

Three days later she was declared healthy enough to go back to practice and found herself longing for her chemistry lab as the world's harshest critic took it upon himself to 'help her' perfect her puppet katas.

"You were two seconds late on the spin," Sasuke stated. "Do it again."

"What!" Mayu wailed. "But I've done it five times! Can't we just move on..."

"No," he said and narrowed his eyes at her. "Do the movements through the spin ten more times while Naruto and I spar, then I'll come back and watch again." He deactivated his Sharingan and turned his back on her protests.

"You're a monster!" she yelled at him but found herself leaping into the first somersault anyway, using her strings to tug the beetle twins out of her backpack as she rolled so they landed lightly in front of her in their ready position when she came to her feet. She moved into an airborne spin, and they followed, abdomens facing out, as she triggered their acid spray - which was actually salt water while she practiced - creating a stream of liquid that formed a twisting shield around her. Her feet lightly hit the ground, and she pushed off into a backflip, pushing Buri forward, sharp antenna ready to pierce anybody unlucky enough to be in the way, while Kichi followed to land in the guard position by her feet.

She then moved into the corkscrew spin that she kept messing up, creating an intricate pattern of whirling chakra strings from her outstretched hands as she forced both puppets to follow her lead, triggering Buri's release of senbon with a click, though nothing actually released since she hadn't filled the senbon holders under his shell. She landed lightly and winced a little as Kichi clacked awkwardly when she came out of the spin. Okay, so maybe Sasuke had a small, tiny point.

With a sigh, she started the pattern again after replacing the puppets in her pack. She had finished her sixth run when Kakashi's voice spoke from up in a tree to her right. "Aw, Mayu-chan, you look so cool with your Deadly Dancing Puppet Technique."

"What - how did you even hear that name?" she groaned, cheeks growing red. He eye smiled at her from the top of his book instead of answering and called Naruto and Sasuke over from where they were beating the hell out of each other and calling it sparring.

"Today I picked up two D-ranks for you! I thought you'd like something nice and relaxing for our first day back." he ignored their groaning and shooed them into the direction of a catering company that needed them to wash a mountain of dishes after an event they hosted. After Kakashi refused to let them use Naruto's shadow clones - and who could blame him, that many Narutos close to crockery was asking for trouble - they set up a system where Naruto washed, Mayu rinsed, and Sasuke dried.

"Shika wants to know if you two want to come over tonight," she said with a yawn. "To talk about formations."

Sasuke grunted and Naruto enthusiastically agreed.

"My mom wants you two to come over for dinner this week," Sasuke finally grumbled as they were walking to their next destination - dog walking for the Inuzuka. "You too, Kakashi-sensei."

"You - you mean like, with your family?" Mayu squeaked out, earning odd looks from her teammates.

"Uh...yes?" Sasuke said.

"So...I guess your dad would be there, huh?" she played with her fingers and looked at the ground, her cheeks flushing red and then draining of color when Sasuke nodded. "But - but what if Fugaku-sama hates me?" she cried.

"What," Sasuke said, while Naruto patted her shoulder with a confused expression.

"No way would he hate you!" he said cheerfully. "You're awesome Mayu-chan!"

"You think so?" she asked, eyes going wide and imploring. "It's just...Fugaku-sama is so distinguished and accomplished! Naruto," she said, turning to him with bright eyes and grabbing onto his hands with her own, "did you know he's considered the best investigator Konoha's ever seen? He's a legend," she breathed, barely noticing when Kakashi tripped over his own feet and Sasuke gave her a look of horror. Naruto's eyes brightened at her words, and he started peppering her with questions about 'the great Fugaku-sama.'

"Maybe we should skip dinner," Sasuke grumbled, and Kakashi nodded from where he was hiding behind his book.

Later that week Kakashi had barely poofed into existence at the bridge and given his customary 'Yo,' when he had three wide-eyed genin tugging him to sit under a tree with them.

"What's this all about?" he mused as Naruto shoved a sheaf of papers under his nose.

"We want to know what you think of these formations we came up with!" he said excitedly. "Shikamaru helped us, and if you approve, we want to practice them today with your help."

Kakashi hummed as he went through them, and Mayu saw his eyebrow twitch in surprise. "Shikamaru-kun did these, hmm?" he said, and Mayu nodded.

"Yes! Isn't he so smart?" she said, and actually clasped her hands under her chin.

"You're so creepy," Sasuke said in an exasperated tone, but she ignored him. They had spent two afternoons with Shikamaru. On the first day, he'd had them to spar against each other, humming and taking notes before sitting them down and asking question after question about their capabilities, chakra stores, and comfort with various techniques and weapons. The next day, he'd come up with a few scenarios that they went through and adjusted after he talked through them. He had then laid his head in Mayu's lap and fallen asleep as Sasuke and Naruto argued over a few of the strategies.

"Well, I was going to have you do endurance training -" he ignored Mayu and Sasuke's horrified looks, "-but maybe we'll work on this instead. Hmm, let's start with...this one!" he said cheerfully, pulling out the scenario Shikamaru had purposefully sketched out to recreate their disastrous mission.

"Right!" their sensei said and bit his thumb before summoning a large dog wearing a vest with a henohenomoheji on one side and the leaf hitai-ate on the other.

"Oh! I didn't know you had summons," Mayu said.

"Amazing, something you didn't know," Kakashi drawled. "This is Bull, he'll be your client today. Bull, you're a terrified, helpless little child being protected by my cute little students from my evil kidnapping self," he said.

"Right," the dog said, and flopped on its belly. Naruto gave the dog a doubtful look, but Kakashi was already forming a sign and creating a shadow clone.

"Begin!" he called, and Mayu squeaked in surprise as Sasuke dove for Bull, snatching him up and grunting at the weight as he leapt backward.

"Remember the formation!" Mayu yelled as she jumped into a backflip and smoothly pulled the beetle twins from her pack. Naruto had already created four clones to slow Kakashi down as he joined them in a sloppy approximation of their 'starting' positions.

The three of them exchanged a determined look as Kakashi-clone dealt with the Naruto-clones and real-Kakashi leapt for them.

Mayu collapsed on the couch that evening with a pained moan, ignoring Shikaku's amused huff. "Tough team practice?" he said wryly, and she flapped a hand at him.

"Kakashi-sensei's a monster," she said, and gratefully accepted a glass of water from Yoshino, doing a double take after she drained it and handed it back.

"You - that's a medic's uniform!" she exclaimed as Yoshino nervously adjusted the hem of the shirt.

"Yeah...do you think it looks okay?" she said nervously. Shikaku grunted in reply, making Yoshino slump and Mayu send him a surprised look. Usually, he was ready with a compliment to cheer his wife upon the very rare occasion that she showed self-consciousness. His lips were an unhappy slash on his face, though that was the only indication that he was upset.

"You look amazing!" Mayu said to break the uncomfortable silence. "So professional. But, I didn't realize you'd already done the training - and so fast!"

"Ah, well, I wasn't sure how it'd go, so I signed up a month ago and have been doing them during the day when you're at practice..." Yoshino tapered off.

"And you passed! You're a medic now! Wow, are you going to the hospital then?" Mayu gushed, forgetting her tiredness and jumping off the couch.

"Yep!" Yoshino said, seeming to gain back some of her confidence. "My first shift...I'm a little nervous," she admitted.

"You'll do great, I know it," Mayu said firmly.

"You will. The patients won't know what hit them," Shikamaru's lazy drawl said from the door, and Mayu brightened.

"You're home! How was practice?" she asked, and he groaned and collapsed onto the couch much like Mayu had a few minutes ago.

"It's pretty cool that you're going back to work, mom," Shikamaru said. "Mayu and I will take care of dinner, so don't worry."

The dark cloud around Shikaku seemed to grow, and Yoshino sent him a nervous look before forcing a smile on her face. "Thanks! Well, I'd better go before I'm late. I love you!"

They waved her off, and she'd barely shut the door and gone down the porch steps before Shikamaru was sitting up and glaring at his dad. "What's your problem," he said bluntly. "Mom was really excited, and you made her feel bad."

Mayu twitched in surprise - she'd never heard Shikamaru use that tone on his father before. Shikaku slapped the paper he'd been reading down and gave his son a narrow-eyed look. "Don't use that tone on me," he said. Mayu studied his face as Shikamaru huffed.

"It's not like you're the type to think women should stay home and do housework, so why are you so worked up?" he sounded honestly confused.

"You're worried about her," Mayu said slowly, causing both of them to look over at her. "But why? The hospital isn't any more dangerous than other buildings in Konoha."

Shikaku huffed and slumped down, running a hand over his face. "Good field medics are difficult to come by," he finally said, and both children jolted in realization.

"But...she's not approved for fieldwork," Mayu said.

Shikaku flapped a hand. "She was one of the best before she retired. Her team could trust her to take care of herself and her patient. It's probably only a matter of time before the Hokage asks her to get certified for fieldwork."

Mayu swallowed and Shikamaru slumped in his seat. "Well, is that something you think she'd be...interested in?" she asked.

Shikaku studied her for a second before letting out an explosive sigh and leaning his head back to stare at the ceiling. "It wasn't something she excelled at, it was something she loved. I think she's missed it," he said by way of answer.

"Well then, I guess we'll just have to support her, the way she's always supported us," Shikamaru said in a steady voice next to her. Mayu considered that for a moment, then nodded.

"Yes, it's not very fair to ask her to be okay with our dangerous lives and then tell her she's not allowed to have one," Mayu said with a sigh. "Besides, she's supposed to be super terrifying. Even Tsume-san says so."

Shikaku chuckled and lifted his head to look at them fondly. "You're right. I'll apologize for being a jerk when she gets home," he said lazily.

"With flowers!" Mayu demanded, and Shikamaru snickered from his spot.

"With flowers," Shikaku said with a sigh and stood up with a groan. "While I'm doing that, I have a special task for you two," he said with a grin, and both of them stilled in fear. That grin never meant good things for them. He tossed a folder on the table, and Shikamaru slowly reached out to grab it. Mayu looked over his shoulder as he opened it and saw a picture and short description of a mid-level chunin.

"I'm assisting Inoichi in training his intelligence team in evasion," Shikaku said smugly. "I thought this would be a good opportunity to have you put all that theory on capture and soft interrogation I taught you to use. I asked him to hide a blue envelope somewhere within Konoha and keep it a secret from anybody below chunin level. See if you can get the information from him."

Mayu blinked. "Um. Does he know he's being used as a training exercise?" she asked, and Shikaku gave them another one of his knife-sharp grins. "You have two days to deliver the envelope to me."

"Right," Shikamaru said and collapsed back on the couch. "Is it too late to go back on our promise to make dinner?"

000

Mayu and Shikamaru darted through the house, running into each other and cursing as they tried to find all their gear. "I'm so late," Shikamaru groaned. "Ino's going to kill me."

"Ino! You should try dealing with Sasuke when he's in a pissy mood!" Mayu said in a panic, hopping up and down as she pulled on a sandal then dropping to her knees to pull another one from under the couch. "At least Ino just nags - Sasuke will probably use his Sharingan to subdue me and then drown me in the creek!"

Shikaku snorted at their antics as he deftly spun around Shikamaru, who was in the hallway sloppily wrapping bandages around a thigh. Mayu ran up and started pulling his hair back for him, careful not to pull it, and he gave her a grateful look as he strapped on his kunai pouch.

Okay, so life with Yoshino as a strong, independent working woman was turning out to be a bit of an adjustment for all of them. Luckily, she was still preparing bentos for their lunches ahead of time, including extra in Mayu's so Kakashi and Naruto could share, something Sasuke's mom had taken to doing as well.

Mayu raced into the kitchen and grabbed their bentos and two apples for their breakfast before heading out the door, giving Shikaku a kiss on the cheek as she passed. She tossed Shikamaru his apple and box when they separated at the gates, and took to the trees to speed her way to the meeting spot.

"I'm sorry!" she wailed as she dropped down next to Naruto and Sasuke, who was looking unimpressed. "Mom started taking shifts at the hospital and it's so hard to remember to set our own alarms." her face fell into a pout which only increased as her messy bun came apart and half her hair fell into her face.

"Yoshino-san started working again?" Naruto said. "That's great!"

Mayu nodded enthusiastically as she pulled the pins out of her hair and redid her bun with more care than she had the first time. "Mm! But, it turns out the three of us are really bad at taking care of ourselves," she admitted sheepishly.

Sasuke snorted, and she glared at him. "Can we please get to work now," he muttered, and Mayu rolled her eyes but indicated that he should take the lead.

An hour later Kakashi arrived right as Sasuke sent Mayu flying with a well-placed kick. He easily plucked her from the air, then set her down and patted her head. "Watch your left when you try to use that move with the twins, Mayu, hm?" he said, and she nodded, wiping sweat from her brow with her arm.

"Do you think you could show me how? I know I leave it open but I'm having trouble covering it and engaging with Kichi," she explained.

He hummed. "Try twisting your body further to the right," he suggested, moving behind her and adjusting her stance. "Then, move your elbow down instead of up - you should still be able to activate if you practice a bit. Here, Sasuke, Naruto, recreate what just happened..."

Ten minutes later Kakashi was satisfied with her ability to block, and she beamed up at him as he complimented her fast correction. "Well, today I thought I'd teach you..." he trailed off, eye going mysteriously wide, and the three of them leaned forward in interest.

"Water walking!" he said.

Before they could reply, they were interrupted. "Nomaka Mayu," a voice growled, and they all turned to see a furious Yamanaka Inoichi stomping towards them. She meeped and quickly darted behind Kakashi, who had gone into what his students now interpreted as his 'ready to kick ass' slouch. Naruto and Sasuke moved up to flank him, keeping Mayu behind them.

"Yo, Inoichi," Kakashi said, but the other man ignored him in favor of leaning to the side so he could glare at the small girl cowering behind him.

"You want to tell me why I found one of my people tied up in Nara forest after he'd been missing for thirty-six hours?" he barked and crossed his arms over his chest.

"Um...what?" she squeaked.

"Hey, don't go around accusing innocent people!" Naruto yelled.

"Innocent?" Inoichi said in a dangerous voice and stepped forward. He paused when Kakashi straightened.

"What is this about, Inoichi-san?" he asked, and his voice wasn't bored anymore.

"Apparently yesterday morning one of my chunin level interrogators was subdued and taken to the Nara forest by two figures cloaked in black," he said. "They started interrogating him about some envelope Shikaku-san asked him to keep safe. When he wouldn't answer, they left him there, returning only long enough to interrogate him and give him water."

"Well, two black cloaked figures doesn't exactly tell me how you came to the conclusion that my student was involved," Kakashi said.

Inoichi pinched the bridge of his nose. "No, but the fact that one of them said soft interrogation was 'dull' and they should just break his fingers," Kakashi slumped and Sasuke brought two fingers to rest on his forehead while Naruto winced, "and the other told her not to be 'troublesome' gives me a pretty good indication of the perpetrators."

Mayu's eyes widened in alarm as her team slowly turned and leveled her with unimpressed stares. She raised her hands up, palm out. "Dad told us to!" she squeaked. "He said that you asked him to help train your staff in evasion -"

"I most certainly did not!" Inoichi yelled, affronted.

"Well...maybe you should," Mayu sniffed as she came to the realization that Shikaku had set her up. "I mean, your chunin was taken out by two rookie genin. Pretty embarrassing."

"Mayu," Kakashi groaned and tipped his head back.

"It's true!" she said defensively. "Shikaku said it was good training for Inoichi's team and Shikamaru and I. He's been teaching us capture and interrogation techniques for a year - this was our first practical test." She slumped. "I guess you probably let him go, huh?" she said dejectedly, ignoring Naruto's horrified look. "I think he was ready to crack, too - I was going to use Bukimi to scare him a little after practice."

"What had you already tried?" Kakashi asked after a pause, and she brightened.

"Well, since he's a Konoha shinobi we decided not to do anything too awful," she said in a serious voice, and her team nodded solemnly as they leaned in to listen. "So we started with the basics - you know, isolation, a bit of thirst and hunger, and Shika used his shadows to intimidate him. He's so scary when he wants to be," she said fondly, and Sasuke rolled his eyes.

"Right," Inoichi said in a dejected voice. "I'll go take this up with your father, then, shall I?"

000

The next evening Mayu found herself standing at the door to Sasuke's house, nervously smoothing down the material on her dark blue kimono. The door was opened by one of the most beautiful women she had ever seen. She was obviously Sasuke's mother, with her delicate facial features, dark eyes, and black hair.

Mayu bowed. "You must be Mikoto-sama. I'm Nomaka Mayu. It's very nice to meet you," she said.

"Well, Itachi was right, you are a cute little thing," the woman said, and motioned for her to stand. "It's nice to meet you, too, come in, come in. Naruto and Sasuke are in the tea room. Dinner should be ready shortly."

Mayu followed the woman into the house, admiring the elegant beauty of it. She let out a small breath of relief when she entered the room with her teammates. "Hey," she said and moved to sit next to where they were playing a game of Go. "Your mom is really beautiful, Sasuke," she said, and he gave her a half smile.

"Yeah, she is," Naruto said, looking a little dazed. His eyes cleared after a moment though, and he added, "but Sakura-chan will always be the most beautiful to me!" he exclaimed, and Mayu wrinkled her nose.

"Ugh, you're still carrying that torch?" she said.

Naruto glared at her. "Why wouldn't I be? Sakura is beautiful and smart, and kind..."

"She's silly and vapid and -" Mayu was cut off as Naruto dove at her, tackling her to the ground and forcing an oomph of air from her mouth.

"Stop it!" she hissed at him as she struggled to flip them over.

"Not until you apologize!" he yelled, ignoring Sasuke's pleading for them to quiet down.

"Never!" Mayu said and jabbed her extended fingers into a pressure point Yoshino had shown her. Naruto yelped and loosened his hold, and she put her feet on his stomach and sent him sailing onto the couch. He sat up and rubbed at his shoulder while glaring at her, and she straightened her kimono and ran her hands over her hair, putting her nose in the air and turning away from him.

"Ah, otouto, your teammates don't seem to have a lot of dignity," a calmly amused voice said from behind them, and Mayu turned her head.

"Itachi-sempai!" she said, standing up and going into a bow. "How are you?"

"I am well, Mayu-chan. I hope you have recovered fully from your mission?" he asked, returning her bow with a short nod of his head.

She straightened and grinned. "Yep!"

"Itachi-niisan," Sasuke said, coming up beside her, and she did a double-take at the expression on his face. It was almost...sweet. "Welcome home."

Itachi's face softened as he looked at his brother and Mayu's heart squeezed in her chest. They loved each other very much, despite Sasuke's weird hang-ups. "You've already met Mayu, but this is Naruto."

Naruto energetically bounced over. "Hey! Nice to meet you!" he said with a grin, and Itachi seemed a bit taken aback - well, for Itachi anyway. Mayu wondered if it was the exuberance or all the orange. Probably both.

"It's nice to meet you as well. Mother sent me to tell you dinner is ready," he said.

Mayu swallowed and clasped her hands in front of her, and Sasuke snorted from her side. She glared at him, and Itachi raised an eyebrow.

"Mayu has a creepy hero-worship thing going on with dad," Sasuke said from next to her and smirked as she exclaimed and punched him in the shoulder.

"Shut up, Sasuke!" she hissed.

"I notice you didn't deny it," he said, and she put her chin in the air and looked away, ignoring Itachi's amused face. They followed Itachi down a hallway towards the source of some seriously delicious smells and entered a traditional dining room with a low table. Itachi had them sit on one side, Mayu in the middle with Sasuke and Naruto next to her, each of them kneeling on a pillow. There was a large spread of traditional foods on the table, and Itachi moved to the other side to kneel down as well. A few moments later, Mikoto entered the room and took the place beside Itachi, across from Mayu.

Naruto shifted uncomfortably, and Mayu had to hide a smile when his stomach growled. A few minutes later, Fugaku entered the room, and Mayu was awed at how commanding a presence he had. Itachi was looking at her with what might be surprise, but she was too busy trying to study the head of the Military Police Force without being creepy about it. From Sasuke's slightly slumped posture, she was failing.

"Sorry I'm late," Fugaku murmured before sitting. He turned his attention to Naruto and Mayu as Sasuke introduced them in a low, respectful voice Mayu had never heard him use before.

He reached for a bowl of rice, signaling for everyone to begin putting food on their plates. Naruto slumped with relief and Mayu gave a small grin.

"I heard your recent mission was quite the adventure," Mikoto said, and Naruto perked up before regaling them all with a much-exaggerated version of the tale. Mayu elbowed him when his table manners got too bad, but all in all, he remembered to slow down and swallow before he spoke. All those dinners with Yoshino were paying off.

"So you're still working with puppets, Mayu," Fugaku said when Naruto wound down, and the table looked at Mayu with interest.

"You...you remember that?" she said in a high voice, cheeks turning a bit red, and he gave a small nod.

"I do. It was hard to forget, after all. Your puppet was quite memorable." He said before lifting a small bite of rice to his mouth.

"Bukimi," she said by way of explanation to Naruto and Sasuke, who sighed.

"Do I even want to know how you came across my dad while wielding a giant spider?" he drawled.

"A giant spider? Really?" Mikoto asked in horrified fascination.

"A puppet she built herself, no less," Fugaku said. "Shikaku told me you taught yourself from books and scrolls he put together for you. That's very impressive."

Mayu took a sip of water and willed her cheeks to stop burning. "Um. Well, Ensui-niisan took me to the Suna puppet fair once, too. That was very helpful. And mom taught me how to do chakra threads since she's a medic and had to learn the basics as a test in her early training. I also have a sensei in the Nara clan who helped me learn woodworking."

"Well, it's still impressive that you chose to create your own path, and have seen such success in it," he said serenely, and she was surprised to feel Sasuke flinch next to her. She furrowed her eyebrows and glanced at her teammate, whose fists were clenched in his lap as he stared at his plate. Her eyes darted to Mikoto and Itachi, who were both looking annoyed in that 'I feel nothing' way most Uchiha favored before her eyes moved back to Fugaku.

He was looking serene, but she could see he had meant his comment to be pointed. Ah, so he doesn't approve of Sasuke's obsession with following in his brother's footsteps. Not that I blame him, but he doesn't need to embarrass Sasuke in front of his teammates.

"I'm flattered that you think so, Fugaku-sama," she said. "Actually, Sasuke has been very helpful with adapting my puppetry to combat situations." Mayu paused to let that sink in, ignoring Sasuke's sidelong look.

Naruto, as oblivious as always, chimed in. "Yeah, he's such a slave driver! Poor Mayu has to keep starting over on her puppet katas every time the b- Sasuke decides that she hasn't done them perfectly," he said with a chortle, and Mayu resisted the urge to pinch him.

"Puppet...katas?" Itachi said, looking intrigued.

"Yep! They're pretty cool - you can come to watch us in the mornings while we wait for Kakashi-sensei to show up if you want to see," Naruto continued happily. "It usually takes him a few hours to come to team practice."

Itachi's eyes narrowed, and Mayu swallowed, bidding a fond farewell to Kakashi. There was an awkward silence for a moment until Mikoto asked them about their team training. Sasuke hesitantly told them about their strategy and formations sessions, and Itachi hummed in interest. "Nara Shikamaru is helping you with that?"

"Yep," Mayu said, and beamed. "He's a genius when it comes to strategy," she said, ignoring Naruto's wrinkled nose.

"Yeah, he's pretty smart I suppose," he said with a shrug, and Sasuke hid a chuckle behind a fist when Mayu sent Naruto an affronted look. Mikoto's lip quirked in a smile, and Itachi looked down at his plate in what Mayu assumed was amusement.

The rest of the dinner was fairly calm, with Mikoto directing gentle questions towards Naruto. Mayu realized pretty early on that he was the reason they had wanted to invite the whole team to dinner, probably as a way to discreetly check in on the boy. They probably knew his parents pretty well, since Fugaku would have needed to work with the Yondaime on a regular basis...and then they were probably told they couldn't interact with Naruto after his death. The thought was a gloomy one, and she spent some time imagining turning the third Hokage green and sparkly until Itachi caught her attention.

"Are you still interested in joining the MPF, Mayu-chan?" he asked. Fugaku glanced at her in interest, and before she could answer Naruto was doing it for her.

"Believe it!" he said cheerfully, seeming to have lost all traces of discomfort under Mikoto's gentle questioning. "She's going to be a great investigator - she already creepily knows things about people just from looking at them." he then pointed at Fugaku to punctuate his point, who twitched a little at the rude action, and Mayu and Sasuke gave identical sighs. She poked him, hard, and he dropped his finger and yelped.

"Creepily knows things?" Mikoto asked, leaning forward in interest.

"It's called deduction, and it is not creepy," Mayu said with a glare at her teammate.

"It's pretty creepy," Sasuke said in a bored tone next to her.

"Yeah, like when Granny Tsunade tried to give us our first C-rank, and Mayu looked at our client and was all," he blanked out his face and raised his voice an octave while widening his eyes, and Mayu huffed in affront, "You're lying! You aren't really an alcoholic and you're scared and trying to hide it, now tell us the truth! Or, the time Akira kissed her without permission, and she told him his parents were getting a divorce, and she was right! She knew just from seeing them pick him up after school. Or the time -"

"Yes, Naruto, thank you," Mayu said, elbowing him and ignoring the way her cheeks had pinked.

"You know these things from simply looking at people?" Fugaku said, and she swallowed when she saw his full regard was on her.

"Well...yes, I suppose so. It's not a magic trick or anything, though. It's reading clues and tells, accumulating enough knowledge to make sense of them..." she shifted uncomfortably.

"What do you see when you look at me?" Mikoto asked, leaning forward with interest.

"Uh..." Mayu said, eyes darting around. "It's kind of invasive, Mikoto-sama, I don't think..."

"Oh, it's fine," the woman said confidently with a patronizing smile.

Mayu's eyes narrowed at her, and Sasuke's hand gripped her arm. "No, Mayu," he hissed, and she faltered, then looked over at him. The table had gone silent, and she gave a shaky smile.

"Well," she said cheerfully, "I can tell you were a jounin before you retired, and you still keep in pretty good shape - genjutsu specialist?" Mikoto inclined her head, expression unreadable. "You weren't upset about retiring, even if you do miss it sometimes - you loved raising Sasuke and Itachi, and enjoy your duties as the wife of the clan head. You hate edamame, but since it's a favorite of your family's you've never said anything, and make it multiple times a week and eat it without complaint," Mayu almost grinned when Mikoto jerked in surprise and her family members gave her identical narrow-eyed looks.

"You went to the market this morning, and stopped for tea with some friends," she said, eyes trailing down Mikoto's sleeves to study her hands. "And..." Mayu twitched a little and her eyes widened and met Mikoto's who looked panicked. "Well, I should probably stop there, like I said, it gets a little intrusive."

Mayu ignored the suspicious glances she and Mikoto were receiving and took a bite of rice. Sasuke had relaxed next to her when he realized she wasn't going to verbally eviscerate his family. "Well, Mayu, that's all...accurate," Mikoto mused. "Though I have to say, I'm not happy with you for outing me as an edamame hater," she scolded teasingly.

Mayu gave the woman a tentative smile back. She wondered how Sasuke would feel about being a big brother. Fugaku and Itachi were both giving her piercing looks, and she did her best to ignore them through dessert, relieved when she finally said polite goodbyes. No wonder Sasuke's such a basket case, she thought to herself. Fugaku is a little intense.

000

Their next C-Rank mission went a little better than the first. Tsunade had glared at them as she handed over the scroll, which they were to deliver to an outpost a day's run away. "Try not to fall into any pitfalls or insult diplomats from other countries," she muttered and waved them away.

Kakashi had spent the day before their second C-rank running them through 'if shit goes down' drills until they could barely walk.

"If we get separated, and you run into unexpected trouble that's above your rank, I want you to use Mayu's smoke bombs to signal me," he said in an uncharacteristically serious voice. "Throw them up in the air and hit them with kunai or senbon if you can - Mayu, you can use your chakra strings to crush them." her eyes narrowed and she nodded once. "Green, pink, then green means you're injured. Two pinks means you've run into non-shinobi forces. Pink, pink, green means that you're being attacked by A-ranked and higher threats, and that I should come immediately." They nodded along with him as he continued to work out smoke signals, and he made them repeat them back to him until they could recite them with perfect recall.

There were no pitfalls or angry diplomats or unexpected missing-nin on the mission, though Naruto did stumble through some poison ivy and spent the whole run back squirming and whining. Luckily, his enhanced healing meant that it sorted itself out by the end of the day, but he vowed to learn more about local flora after Mayu lectured him extensively on the dangers of his ignorance. Sasuke called him an idiot, and Kakashi drooped in despair. He did, however, treat them all to ramen, and Mayu had to laugh when she realized it was out of relief that they'd all stayed out of trouble.

Though she couldn't exactly blame him - their first C-rank had eventually been reclassified as two completed A-ranks. Nothing to scoff at for a green genin team and their jounin sensei. Mayu knew that if they had been paired with anybody else, except maybe Sarutobi Asuma, they'd probably be dead.

Shikamaru and Mayu ended up capturing two more chunin on Shikaku's orders before Inoichi gave in and let the jounin commander come up with a training program for his staff. Mayu had to admire her dad's cunning - he saw a hole in the training of their intelligence staff and pointed it out with prejudice until everyone around him caved. When they finally wrangled the location of an envelope out of a young, terrified chunin, they discovered two coupons for ice cream cones at their family's favorite stand.

Shikamaru groaned, and Mayu giggled at his put out face. "Come on, Shika, you can take me out for ice cream now!" She grabbed his hand, and almost scowled when her heart leapt in her chest when he didn't pull away. Seriously, being in love was so annoying. She didn't even want to contemplate what her mind would look like once her hormones really hit.

As a result of Shikaku's 'training exercises' chunin from T & I had started twitching when they spotted Mayu and Shikamaru, and Shikaku had joked that Shouta started some sort of support group for ninja traumatized by his children. Kakashi finally put his foot down - well, he showed up unannounced ten minutes into dinner time one night, happily nodding at Yoshino's offer of a plate. After his food seemed to disappear without him actually eating it, he clapped his hands together and eye smiled.

"Well, that was delicious, Yoshino, thank you," he said, and she gave him a small smile.

"Was there something you needed, Kakashi?" Shikaku asked in a bored voice. "Not that you aren't always welcome, but you're almost disturbingly on time today. We weren't even halfway through our meal."

"Ah, yes. Well, I'm going to need you to stop encouraging my student to kidnap Konoha ninja," Kakashi said, and eye smiled. "She's gaining quite the reputation, you know, and for some reason, people are blaming me."

Shikamaru snorted, and Kakashi's eye darted over to him. "I assume Asuma will be having the same conversation with you, as well. Both of us have had our mission reports mysteriously disappear twice, and have been forced to redo them."

"Ah," Shikaku nodded his head. "I've had similar problems. Guess that's why they say, 'never piss off a paperwork ninja.'"

"Right," Kakashi said easily. "Which is why Asuma and I have come to an agreement with them. Mayu and Shikamaru will stop kidnapping and traumatizing their staff, and they'll also spend the next two days helping them catch up on filing as they fell behind when three members of their staff went missing," he said cheerfully.

Shikaku lowered himself into his seat as three furious glares were sent his way. "Shikaku!" Yoshino scolded. "How could you?"

"Eh, it was a good experience for everyone," he said with a wave of his hand and flinched when Yoshino actually growled at him. "Besides, seeing how the administrative side of things works will be good for them," he continued easily, shooting Shikamaru and Mayu a lazy look that they recognized meant pay attention. Kakashi was nodding along, and the two genin shared a thoughtful look before Shikamaru shrugged.

"Fine," he said lazily.

"Great! You'll be meeting your contact in front of the T & I building at eight for the next two mornings."

"What about team practice?" Mayu asked, worried about her teammates' reaction when she didn't show up because she was being punished.

"Asuma and I decided we'd do a joint endurance training session tomorrow."

"They're going to kill me," Mayu said faintly, and Shikamaru looked grim enough that she thought he probably agreed.

000

By the end of the second day, Mayu had to appreciate the cunning of Kakashi and her father. They must have been looking for a way to gain access to the missions and T&I administration sections without giving away that they were investigating. Setting Mayu and Shikamaru up for 'punishment' was the perfect way to do it.

In the midst of filing and avoiding the glares of the administrative chunin force, they both spent time looking through files, sign-in logs, and prisoner records. By the end of it they'd written a small list of suspects for the leak that lead to Watana, Katsu, and Natsu's escape along with the knowledge of where Mayu's team would be, none of which they recognized, though Mayu was surprised to see that one was an Uchiha. A career chunin named Isamu who had never activated his Sharingan, but an Uchiha all the same. She remembered Natsu's description of the mysterious client that had hired them, and after a moment of thought snuck his mission file home with her, and marked any missions he had that had him in the same area as the siblings when they were still rampaging around Fire Country.

Mayu bit her lip when she saw his mission assignments and incident reports filed on the three siblings' movements matched up three times in a time frame of four months. She also flagged the file of one of the medics that had been in to see Watana a few times over the past four years. He was a genin, and always went with a medic with more seniority, but something about his file seemed off to Mayu.

Kabuto sounded talented on paper, so why in the world was he still a genin at fifteen? After looking at notes on his chunin exams - all six of them - she realized that he had forfeited on four of his tests. Also, the only other prisoner he attended was Mizuki, another half-crazed traitor. She tapped her fingers on the desk and then decided to note that Shikaku should have his mind walked. Mayu handed the information off to Shikaku, who sighed and rubbed a hand down his face but didn't say anything.

She was relieved to join the boys at the bridge the next day, and after bitching at her for abandoning them to Kakashi and Asuma's tender mercies, they spent some time sparring as they waited for their sensei to appear. When an adorable pug appeared and told them in a bored voice that Kakashi wouldn't be able to make it, they agreed to run and grab some dango.

They were halfway there when the alarms sounded. Mayu jolted in shock and exchanged looks with her teammates. She listened for a moment and blew out air as she recognized the pattern. Jounin were expected to report to the commander, chunin were responsible for making sure the streets were cleared of genin and civilians, who were to get inside.

"Come on," she muttered. "The Nara compound is closest, you can stay with me until they sound the all clear." Part of her wanted to run straight to Shikaku and see what the fuss was all about but knew he would be Unimpressed and she would be in Big Trouble if she tried it. Ignoring emergency procedures could get her thrown into a cell for a few days. The streets were already starting to empty, and she knew they needed to move if they didn't want to have angry chunins on their heels.

Distracted, she turned without looking where she was going to head towards home and ran straight into a black-clad figure with an oomph. She gaped at the boy wearing what amounted to a jumpsuit with cat ears, and let out a small meep when he fisted her tunic and lifted her off the ground.

"Watch where you're going, little girl," he growled, and before she could help herself she giggled, even as she grabbed his wrist for leverage to keep herself from choking.

He scowled and shook her a bit, and Naruto yelled at the boy to let her go. "Sorry, sorry," she said, taking a moment to study him and the pretty blonde girl standing next to him, whose features were similar enough that they must be related, standing next to them in annoyance. "It's just, cat ears, really?"

The boy's cheeks turned red in anger and he tightened his grip. She choked a bit, and considered breaking free, but wasn't exactly keen on causing an international incident with random Sand nin. Naruto was yelling in the background, but she mostly tuned him out.

"Kankuro, let her go," the girl said in a bored voice. "You know we're supposed to avoid trouble."

Before he could answer, something hit the boy's hand, and he yelped and dropped her. She landed in a crouch, and straightened, pulling the wrinkles from her tunic as she did so and sending Sasuke, who was tossing another rock nonchalantly in his hand, a grateful look.

"Kankuro," a soft, dead voice said from a few feet to the right, and Mayu jumped back to join her team when she saw the two Sand nin's faces fall into masks of terror. Her eyes darted to a small, red-haired boy with the kanji for love carved into his forehead, and a large gourd on his back. "You're a disgrace to Suna," and Mayu would have shivered if she didn't know that showing weakness to this crazed boy could mean death.

"Come on Sasuke, Naruto. We need to get inside," she said steadily, grabbing their sleeves and taking a step backward as cat-boy - Kankuro - stuttered out fearful apologies.

"Wait a minute!" Naruto said, and Mayu had to resist the urge to slap him. "What are Suna nin doing in Konoha?"

The blonde gave him a disdainful look, doing a more admirable job of hiding her fear than Kankuro, though there was a faint tremor in her hands. "I knew Konoha ninja were soft and distractible, but how stupid do you have to be to not even realize the Chunin Exams are being held in your own village?"

"The wha-" But Sasuke seemed to have caught on to Mayu's well-hidden distress because he was helping to drag Naruto away.

"Shut up, idiot, we need to go."

Still oblivious, Naruto struggled for a bit before Mayu finally gave in and said "Naruto, please," and even he wasn't oblivious enough to miss how out of character that was, because he studied her for a moment before allowing them to drag him down the mostly empty street. Without another word they took to the roofs, the back of Mayu's neck prickling as she felt those dead eyes on them until they were out of sight.

When they finally shut the door behind them, she had to take a few deep breaths before she could concentrate enough to remove her sandals. The boys, disquieted by her strange behavior, followed her to the kitchen, where she started a pot of tea.

Finally, sensing Naruto's impatience, she spoke. "That boy...there's something wrong with him," she said in a calm, serious voice. "He's dangerous, and he...he's a psychopath, I think."

Sasuke scoffed. "All shinobi are dangerous."

"No," she said with a slash of her hand. "Did you see his comrades? They were terrified. And his eyes...and. He smelled like blood. Like layers and layers of it, as if he's killed so many people that it just..." she tapered off. "Promise me you two won't start something with him," she said suddenly, looking up at her teammates, who seemed uneasy. "Promise me!" she snapped.

Naruto slowly reached out and grabbed her hand, patting it soothingly. "Okay, Mayu. We promise," he said in an unusually solemn voice. "If we can avoid it, we won't fight with him."

Her eyes darted to Sasuke, who huffed out a breath before crossing his arms over his chest. "Fine," he agreed. Naruto herded her to a chair and sat her down before moving to take over making the tea.

"You're terrible at making tea," Mayu grumbled but let him fuss over her. She raised an eyebrow when Sasuke grabbed dango Yoshino had left in the fridge for a snack and plopped it in front of her. She gave them a small grin, feeling better for their small kindnesses.

"I wonder what's up with the alarms," she mused as she took a sip of too-bitter tea.

Sasuke shrugged. "Your dad will know, right? We can ask him when he gets in," like it was accepted that they'd be squatting with her for the rest of the day. Oh, she thought as something clicked in her brain, this is what people meant when they talked about how strong bonds between teammates were.

"Mmm," she hummed. "I guess I should figure out lunch since we were interrupted." After years of living with Yoshino, both Shikamaru and Mayu were proficient enough in the kitchen to fend for themselves, even if Mayu found it dull and the youngest Nara found it annoying. Naruto cheered and asked her to make ramen.

"Idiot," she said affectionately, "like I know how to make the non-instant kind. How about tempura?"

"Did you know about the chunin exams?" Mayu asked Sasuke after lunch, who nodded.

"Dad's been busy with security efforts and diplomatic training for the force," he explained. "But I doubt we'll be nominated - we've only been genin for three months."

Mayu nodded, but as expected Naruto put up a fuss. Used to talking over him, Mayu pouted. "How did I not know about this? I know everything," she huffed, and Sasuke rolled his eyes at her.

"So..." Naruto said sheepishly. "What are the chunin exams, again?" Sasuke thunked his head on the table while Mayu gave her blonde teammate an unimpressed stare. She knew he had screwed off in the academy for the most part, but really?

000

They spent the afternoon lounging around the house after lunch, Mayu and Sasuke reading and Naruto trying to distract them before one of Shikamaru's old trap kits gained his interest. Yoshino came home at about four, looking exhausted. She smiled at the three genin as they followed her like ducks into the kitchen, and accepted Mayu's offer to make her tea gratefully before she collapsed into a chair.

"Do you know what the alarms were for?" Mayu asked bluntly as she handed her mother tea.

"How was your day, mom? Oh, mine was great, thank you," Yoshino sniped without heat before sighing. "Yes. A few high-level suspects escaped custody today," she said in a sober voice. "Killed two officers, injured five more." Yoshino's eyes darted to Sasuke as he stiffened.

"Your brother and father are fine," she quickly assured him, reaching out to squeeze his hand. "I saw them myself when they stopped by to check on the injured officers."

"Do you know who..." Sasuke drifted off, and she shook her head.

"No, sorry," she said, and Mayu could see she regretted worrying him. "Are you staying for dinner?" Yoshino asked after an awkward moment, and Naruto gave an enthusiastic yes, but Sasuke hesitated.

"I should probably get home..."

"Wait for Shikaku, he'll walk you," Yoshino said in a no-nonsense voice that even Sasuke wouldn't dare argue with.

Mayu was helping Yoshino with dinner while Naruto and Sasuke sat bickering at the table when she heard a commotion at the door.

"We're home," Shikaku's bored voice said from the entrance.

"Welcome home!" Yoshino called. Mayu looked over her shoulder but didn't move from where she was frying rice. She blinked when not only Shikaku entered, but Shikamaru, Itachi, and Kakashi as well.

"Ah, there are my wayward students," Kakashi said. "I was worried when you didn't try to stick your nose into trouble at all today."

Itachi bowed to Yoshino as he entered, and Shikamaru made a beeline for Mayu, who let out a breath of relief when he sidled up next to her. "Where were you?" she said quietly, listening with half an ear as Sasuke hurried to his brother's side.

"We were right next to Chouji's aunt's restaurant when the alarms went off, so we spent the afternoon there," he said lazily, but his eyes were studying her face intently. "Something upset you," he muttered, and she shrugged, but leaned against him.

"The two police officers that were killed were Officers Uchiha Kenji and Uchiha Rin," Itachi said solemnly, and Mayu turned in time to see Sasuke's face twist in pain.

"Take over for me," she muttered to Shikamaru, dropping her wooden stirring spoon and moving to stand at Sasuke's left shoulder while Naruto moved to flank him on his right. Kakashi ambled up to stand behind them all as Yoshino offered condolences on their loss.

"The kitchen's getting pretty crowded," Shikaku drawled. "Kids, why don't you take Kakashi and Itachi into the sitting room. Yoshino and I will finish up dinner. Are you staying?" he asked the two extra adults. Kakashi's eyes flicked to Sasuke before giving a small nod after Itachi bowed and accepted.

"Mother and father will be busy until late," he said by way of explanation to Sasuke. "They asked me to stay with you." Mayu studied the way his body was angled to keep himself between Sasuke and points of entry in the room and her eyes widened. Was Itachi nervous in general, or was there a specific threat against Sasuke?

They were herded gently from the room, though Kakashi opted to stay in the kitchen. Mayu and Naruto sat on either side of Sasuke, whose shoulders were curled in while his hands were clasped in his lap. Mayu shared a nervous look with Naruto over his head, and she tipped her chin towards the blonde, clearly saying do something. She was terrible at this sort of thing. Shikamaru had politely pulled Itachi into a game of Shogi, giving them the illusion of privacy.

"Sasuke..." Naruto said, and put a tentative hand on his back. The other boy tensed for a moment before relaxing. Mayu cautiously leaned into his side, and for a few minutes, they sat in silence, listening to the low murmurs of the adults in the other room and the occasional scrape of shogi pieces moving across the board.

Finally, Sasuke spoke in a low voice. "Rin used to babysit me when I was younger. She was always very...kind."

Mayu pressed her lips together and leaned into him more fully. "I'm sorry, Sasuke," Naruto said quietly, his blue eyes swimming with tears. After that, they all went silent until Yoshino called them in for dinner. It was a bit of a tight fit around the table, but Mayu squeezed in between Sasuke and Shikamaru, with Naruto on Shikamaru's other side, so the adults could sit at the ends of the table and across from them comfortably.

Naruto kept peppering the adults for information on the escaped suspects, but they easily dodged his questions. Mayu was starting to get a creeping suspicion about who it was that had escaped custody. How was their internal security so shoddy, anyway? It seemed like every other day traitors were popping up and people were escaping.

"Hey, why didn't you tell us about the chunin exams?" Naruto suddenly exclaimed. "We had to find out from a team of Suna nin. One of them was this really creepy kid - he even scared Mayu."

"I was not scared," she muttered, and Sasuke scoffed, looking recovered from his shock.

"Please, you were literally shaking," he sniped.

Shikaku and Shikamaru gave her sharp looks. "Oh?" her father said, putting down the chopsticks. "That doesn't sound like Mayu."

"She practically dragged me away from him," Naruto said, oblivious to Mayu's embarrassment and the adults' concern. "She said...what did you say?" he asked.

"She said he was a dangerous psychopath who killed so much and so often that he smelled like he was covered in layers of blood," Sasuke said in a faux-bored voice.

"Right! And she made us promise to stay away from him," Naruto said with a nod.

"What did he look like?" Kakashi asked, dropping into his captain voice.

Mayu straightened in response and looked at him. "About my height and age, maybe a little younger, red hair, green eyes, kanji for love on his forehead. He was pale and carried a large gourd on his back. He and his companions are here for the chunin exams."

Shikaku and Kakashi shared a look while Shikamaru grabbed her hand under the table and squeezed. "You know who he is," he drawled, picking up on the tension.

"Gaara of the desert," Shikaku confirmed, slumping over his plate with his chin in his hand. "Son of the Kazekage."

Mayu scowled and slumped down. "Excellent," she muttered to herself. A murderous Kage's son was running around Konoha, and apparently, their security still sucked. Great combination.

"That reminds me!" Kakashi said cheerfully, and papers seemed to appear out of nowhere into his hands. "I've nominated you for the chunin exams."

Yoshino choked on her tea, and Naruto brightened. "Hey, I knew we were awesome enough to be in the exams!"

"What," Itachi said, while Sasuke got an odd glint in his eyes.

Kakashi ignored them all. "If you want to enter, fill these out and show up at the address listed three days from now."

Yoshino had recovered from inhaling her tea in record time and turned to give Kakashi a sharp look. "Don't you think they're a little -" but he'd already disappeared in a swirl of leaves. Shikaku sighed as both Itachi and Yoshino turned furious eyes on him.

"You know it's not up to me. The Hokage and the council approved their nominations." He rubbed the back of his neck and slumped. "All of the rookie nine were accepted."

Mayu's eyes darted to Shikamaru, who shrugged. "I was going to tell you later," he drawled.

Mayu swallowed any words about how dangerous the exams could be - it wouldn't do to be a hypocrite, after all. "Well Seven and Ten will just have to team up and help each other out, then," she said, and was rewarded with a half smile from Shikamaru, a pleased hum from Sasuke, and a yelled 'Believe it!' from Naruto.

000

Three days later found Mayu and her team watching a crowd of genin try to force their way past what were most likely plants, and managing to block the way to the stairs they were trying to access while they were at it. Mayu was tired from three days straight spent in her lab and practicing with Team Ten - which meant way too much time spent with Ino. On top of her usual bossiness, she seemed to have fallen headfirst into puberty.

Her chest and hips were starting to develop, and she kept flirting with any male in sight. Though the reaction of the boys was pretty hilarious, Mayu had to admit. Chouji blushed and went quiet, Sasuke looked murderous and ignored her, and Naruto sputtered and flailed when he noticed at all. Shikamaru either ignored it or gave her strange side-eyed looks, even muttering a 'troublesome' when she hung off his arm or fluttered her eyelashes at him.

All six of them were armed with as many smoke bombs, explosive tags, and ninja wire coils as they could conceivably carry. Mayu had her scroll carousel on her hip and her pack with the twins on her back. Bukimi was in one of the carousel scrolls, and the boys each held storage scrolls containing survival and trap kits Shikamaru had put together for them.

Mayu's carousel included Shikamaru's kits, extra smoke bombs, and one scroll held a specialized medkit Yoshino had helped her put together. Shikaku's old tool pouch was sitting on her back right hip, and her kunai pouch was in place. They were ready.

Mayu put her hand to her head as she felt a strange pressure, and blinked rapidly as the scene in front of her seemed to waver. "I - stop for a second," she murmured to the boys, who turned to look at her in concern.

With a small wave of her hand, she kept her eyes focused on the scene in front of her and dropped into her mind cave. A file labeled 'Real Time' was open in front of her, and she blinked and tilted her head as she saw that there were two separate scenes playing side by side. One seemed to waver in and out of existence, and after a moment, she oh'd in realization. She was under a genjutsu - probably a fairly simple one. It seemed that her mindcave kept her from being easily fooled by genjutsu. She'd have to test that...later.

Reaching out, she touched the image that felt 'wrong,' and willed chakra into until it dissolved, then dropped back into reality.

"Do you see it?" she whispered to Sasuke, reaching out to grab Naruto's collar as he made to step forward and demand to be let through.

"Yes. Should we..."

Mayu shook her head, and kept a hold of Naruto's collar despite his protests, moving around the crowd and ignoring it after making sure Shikamaru wasn't one of the genin standing around. Her lips quirked when she saw he wasn't - of course, Shikamaru wouldn't fall for something so simple. Mayu sighed as Naruto strained against her grip.

"Hey, hey what are you doing?" He protested. "The exams are that way!"

Sasuke grabbed his arm and helped her to tug him away, leaning forward to hiss something into his ear. "What do you mean it's a genjutsu?!" he yelped, and Mayu groaned as everyone's attention turned to them.

"Naruto, if you don't shut up and come with us right now, I'll set you on fire," she said calmly. He looked at her, and gulped, before letting out a nervous laugh.

"Okay, okay, no need to get violent," he said and turned to follow them up the stairs. Mayu jumped back as a green blur appeared in front of them, blocking their way. Mayu blinked slowly in shock at the strange-looking boy in a green jumpsuit and orange leg warmers in front of her.

"Ah, so you too saw through the illusion!" he yelled, and Mayu turned when she heard a sigh behind her to see a pained-looking Hyuuga boy and a kunoichi with her hair pulled up into two buns on the side of her head.

"Believe it!" Naruto cried. "Nothing gets past Team Seven!"

"Naruto!" Mayu said between gritted teeth. "What did I say about not drawing attention to ourselves." And the setting on fire scenario was starting to look better and better.

Before he could answer, the green-clad boy pointed a finger at Sasuke, his eyes going wide in realization. "Team Seven! Then you must be Uchiha Sasuke. I demand that you fight me!"

They were drawing a crowd now, and Mayu glared at the boy as Sasuke looked him up and down and scoffed. At that, jumpsuit straightened in indignation. "My name is Rock Lee, and I demand that you fight me. I will prove that my Genius of Effort is far more Youthful than the genius of one born with it! There is no way I will lose!"

Sasuke's eyes narrowed and he leaned forward into Lee's space, and Mayu realized that the stupid boy was going to accept. Her already fraying temper snapped, and she proved her speed training was paying off when her hands whipped forward and latched onto the boys' ears before they could dodge. She gave a vicious twist and tugged them towards her, ignoring the way their faces contorted with pain.

"Idiots!" she hissed. "You're a disappointment to Konoha! We are in the midst of an international exam full of potential enemies and you're starting testosterone-fueled fights amongst each other?" she shook them to punctuate her point, ignoring their protests. "Sasuke, what would Kakashi-sensei say? What would Itachi say? Now, you two are going to stop this ridiculous posturing, and Rock Lee, you are going to let my team pass without another peep, got it?"

The boy, whose eyes had filled with tears, nodded frantically, and she let his ear go. "Forgive me, fair flower, you speak the truth! My own sensei would also be most disappointed if he were to witness me behaving in such an Unyouthful and Shameful Manner!"

Mayu ignored him, and turned her attention to a snickering Naruto, latching onto his ear with her free hand and ignoring his protests as she dragged them both past a crying Lee, barely noticing the looks of awe being sent her way by Lee's teammates.

"Ow, ow, ow Mayu-chan! Stop, what did I do? That bastard is the one who -"

Mayu tuned Naruto's complaining and Sasuke's angry hissing out until they reached the top of the stairs, where she finally released them. "You two had better follow the plan from now on," she said, and stomped down the hall, ignoring their protests.

She skidded to a halt when she saw Kakashi standing outside of the room they'd been looking for, chuckling at them. Mayu gave him an unimpressed look when he explained that if all three of them hadn't come none of them could have competed.

"No offense, sensei, but duh," she said flatly, and he slouched into a pout.

"Mayu-chan, you're so mean," he complained.

"You're telling us," Sasuke muttered, rubbing his ear.

"Good luck, my little genin, and I'm proud of you," Kakashi said, then disappeared with an eye smile.

Mayu huffed and stomped into the room, drawing up short at the sheer amount of child ninja in the room. She pinched the bridge of her nose and grumbled a bit, wondering if it was too late to go home and forget all about this stupid exam.

"Sasuke-kun!" Mayu cringed at Ino's voice and opened her eyes to find the source. She relaxed a bit when she saw a bored-looking Shikamaru standing with his team against the wall.

"There's Team Ten," she said with no small amount of relief as her own teammates joined her, and she moved quickly through the crowd until she was next to Shikamaru. She buried her nose in his neck and sniffled.

"My teammates are so stupid," she said sadly and grinned as his chest shook with his chuckles and he wrapped her in a hug.

"Hey!" Naruto said, and she could feel Sasuke's scowl on her back. She ignored them and breathed in Shikamaru's spicy scent.

"Are you...sniffing him?" an amused voice said, and she turned her face enough to see a grinning Kiba standing at their side, Hinata blushing next to him and a solemn Shino at their backs.

"He smells good," she said, completely unashamed. "Even Kakashi-sensei can't resist sniffing a Nara," Naruto and Sasuke spluttered and Shikamaru yelped out a 'what?' but she kept talking over them. "Besides, like you're one to talk about creepy sniffers," she teased.

Kiba crossed his arms over his chest and glared. "It's not creepy -"

"It is, a bit," Mayu said gleefully, feeling herself relax into the banter. "I bet you can smell what I ate for dinner yesterday." Akamaru barked and Kiba deflated.

"Whose side are you on, anyway?" he muttered at his dog. "Besides, I'm not the only one who can tell what everybody ate last night without being told."

"Don't be ridiculous, I only know that if the signs are there," Mayu said imperiously, leaning more of her weight on Shikamaru, who swayed before bracing himself.

Before he could answer, they were being told to take their seats for the written portion of the exam. Mayu pouted, and Shikamaru gave her one last squeeze before muttering a "Troublesome. Good luck," in her ear, and they separated to their assigned seats.

000

Mayu gasped for air, staring at the destroyed forest around them and wondering how everything had gone to hell so quickly. Seeing that Orochimaru was distracted by Naruto for the moment, she reached shaking hands into her pouch and pulled out three smoke bombs. Carefully, she extended her strings, attached them to the bombs, took a deep breath, and lifted her hand, extending the strings as far into the air as she could. When she was sure they cleared the canopy, she pumped chakra into them until they burst in a pattern.

Pink, pink, green, for A-ranked threats and higher. Please, sensei, please be watching, she thought desperately as Naruto collapsed from whatever Orochimaru had done to him. She could only pray he was alive.

"And what do you think you're doing, little kunoichi?" the man hissed as he turned towards her. She crouched in front of Sasuke, who was on his knees, eyes wide, and groaned at the wave of killing intent the S-class missing-nin sent at her.

"You can't have him or his eyes," she gritted out, mind flashing to the file she'd seen all those years ago, full of notes on experiments done on the Uchiha.

"And how do you know his eyes are what I'm after?" the man crooned as he stepped forward, and Mayu retched as she hit her knees, putting one hand on the ground to keep from falling face first into the dirt.

"P - people. Are. They're always..." she gagged around the fear running through her, and closed her eyes, sending chakra to reinforce the barrier around her mind cave. The fear eased up enough so she could breathe again, though it didn't dissipate by a long shot. "People are always so surprised at what I know," she finally got out, and he hummed in response.

How did it get to this point? And why is our village security so fucking terrible, Mayu thought. The survival test had started out so well, too. They'd barely been in the forest for an hour before they'd been attacked by a team from Kiri. Mayu had almost been shocked at how easily they'd taken the team out, and had tentatively decided their terrible luck had turned when they even found the scroll they needed - heaven - tucked into one of their pouches.

They'd agreed to track down Team Ten if possible and head for the tower, when a huge gust of wind had come out of nowhere and separated Naruto from them. Then the creepy grass nin had appeared, and become even more creepy when Orochimaru shed her body like a skin and started to spout things about needing the bodies of prepubescent boys. He'd then knocked them around like it was nothing, thwarting every escape attempt and never coming even close to being set on fire, blown up, or poisoned by Mayu despite her best efforts. Her puppets lay in pieces around her, and she would cry about that if she weren't already about to cry over how screwed they were.

Even Naruto in Kyuubi mode hadn't been able to stop him, and now he was - no, he's breathing, look, calm down, she told herself and took a deep breath. "Find yourself another Uchiha," she muttered.

From thirty feet away, his arm extended too quickly for her eye to follow, and crashed into her side hard enough to send her flying into a tree. Dazed, gasping for air, she watched as Sasuke screamed her name. Sharingan whirling, he stabbed a kunai into his leg, pulling himself out of his fear-induced haze.

Orochimaru simply laughed as he attacked, dodging every punch and kick until he almost lazily sent Sasuke flying through the air with a sidekick. The boy hit the ground and rolled a few times, before lying still, dazed for a moment. Weakly, he pushed himself onto his hands and knees.

"I must say, I expected more from the brother of Uchiha Itachi, but I guess two geniuses of his caliber in one generation would be asking for too much," Orochimaru said in his hissing, strange voice. "Unfortunately, he's unavailable to me, so you'll have to do."

Mayu had prepared ten explosive tags on the tail end of her chakra strings while the man taunted Sasuke, and she sent them towards him while he was semi-distracted, stumbling to her feet and running towards Sasuke as fast as she could, ignoring her aching ribs and back.

The explosion almost knocked her over, but she pumped more chakra into her legs, so desperate to get to Sasuke that she wasn't paying attention to the forest floor.

With a gasp, her foot hit a root sticking out of the earth, and she sailed forward, unable to stop her momentum. She braced herself to hit her teammate, already cursing her clumsiness that would cost them both precious time. From the corner of her eye, she saw a white blur moving towards Sasuke, and realized she was going to collide with it, but couldn't do anything to stop it.

Then...blinding pain on her arm as she struck her teammate, sending them both to the ground. She looked down and screamed as she realized the thing attached to her arm was Orochimaru, his teeth clamped around the bare skin of her bicep, neck unnaturally extended from his body.

He opened his mouth and pulled his head back towards his body. "You stupid little bitch," he growled. "That gift wasn't meant for you!"

She couldn't answer, couldn't think, because the pain was spreading, along with the seal that Orochimaru had somehow formed on her arm with the bite. She scratched her arm with the other hand, letting out another scream of pain as it moved up, up, towards her neck. And she could feel it, as though it was something alive. It was reaching for; trying to enter her mind and take her will -

She knew she was still screaming, and that Sasuke was frantically trying to drag her away, repeating her name over and over again. Bile rose in her throat because she felt violated by this presence that was not her own, moving under the skin, whispering things into her ear.

Without conscious thought, she dropped into her mindcave and was brought to her knees immediately upon entering. She looked around in horror as the whole thing shuddered and shook, and her file cabinets, in their neat little rows, began to fall, drawers flying open and files - memories, knowledge - spilling out to spread across the floor.

For a moment, she gaped at the destruction, but another harsh shudder had her looking up, and she gasped when she saw cracks starting to form on the ceiling. "What - " she whispered as they extended out in a spider web pattern, and had to jump out of the way as a large chunk of ceiling fell.

Scrambling to her feet, she lifted herself off the ground and to the hole, peering through, and had to stop another scream from escaping when she saw what was causing the damage. A huge, white snake was floating in the darkness outside the dome, furious, and as she watched it reared back before slamming forward into the dome once again. Even though she'd built elasticity into it, and covered it with a sheen of oil to make gaining purchase for outside entities difficult, the sheer strength of the snake was allowing it to cause significant damage to the cave walls with each hit.

He'll break through within three hits at this rate, she thought, panic rising. I can't stop him...there's no time to build more defenses. And when he does, he won't take over. That trauma...it'll kill me.

She forced herself to calm down and was flung backward as the snake once again slammed into the dome. Her mind raced for a solution- any solution when she felt something drip into her hair. Impatiently, she wiped it away and looked down at the oil that had dripped from the ceiling onto her hand. And... oh, she thought to herself, suddenly giddy.

Then there was no time to rethink her plan. She sped up through the small hole in the ceiling just in time to see the snake rear back for another hit. Remembering what Sasuke looked like every time he emitted one of his clan's famed Great Fireballs, Mayu reared back, and yelled "Fire Release: Great Fireball!" before placing her pointer finger and thumb into a circle and putting them around her lips, and leaning forward to expel a great ball of fire onto the dome, lighting it up into an inferno as the snake struck. She supposed didn't need to actually know how to do jutsu to make it work in her mind.

The snake, covered in oil from its earlier attempts to get in, lit up in a scream, and Mayu laughed as she fell back into her mind cave, barely seeing the destruction around her as the great snake writhed in the darkness around the dome before disappearing.

000

Kakashi sped through the forest, heart beating in his chest, Itachi a silent shadow beside him. The moment he'd seen the signal from the tower - pink, pink, green - where he waited with the other jounin-sensei and Sasuke's brother, he'd known.

"There's an A-class or above threat in the forest, it's attacking my students," he'd said in a calm voice he used when shit was really going down on a mission, then he'd leapt to the window and was gone before anybody could demand he follow the rules and stay where he was. Because that was a plea for help from his students, and damned if he would ignore it.

Itachi was the only person who was fast enough to keep up with him, and Kakashi was glad for his presence when he felt the killing intent hit. He barely faltered in his steps, but his heart skipped a beat, and he forced more speed into his legs.

He burst into the clearing as multiple exploding tags that he recognized as Mayu's went off, and changed his momentum to dive to the left, Itachi easily following. He landed in a crouch, taking a moment to survey the scene in front of him, and his throat went tight.

Naruto was lying unmoving across the clearing, his orange jumpsuit making him easy to see. The smoke from the explosion was blocking his sight from the rest of his team, but he thought he saw a figure standing on the other side of the destruction. Then, he heard Mayu's scream, horribly familiar from the last time he had found himself racing to rescue his wayward student.

Barely a thought, and he was on the other side of the clearing, kunai out, and jerked at the site of a distended neck linking the body standing in the smoke with the head whose teeth were currently clamped into Mayu's arm. Sasuke was sprawled out under her, eyes wide and shocked, and Kakashi wanted to weep when the teeth unlatched and a too-familiar face returned to its body.

"You stupid little bitch," Orochimaru's voice said. "That gift wasn't meant for you!"

Kakashi's eyes darted to her arm as she started screaming again, and only his training kept him from faltering as he put himself between the threat and his students, Itachi a reassuring presence at his side. Because Kakashi had seen that mark before, on Anko, and on the bodies of Orochimaru's failed experiments all those years ago when he and Minato had been on the cleanup team after Orochimaru was discovered. That was the curse mark, and he knew Mayu would either live with the consequences of it, painful and life-altering, or she would die fighting it off.

"Captain," Itachi's calm voice said over the sound of Sasuke's panicked voice calling Mayu's name and the girl's pained screams. "I'll hold him off if you want to get your students out."

"Itachi," Orochimaru said in a delighted tone. "How nice it is to see you again."

"Orochimaru," Itachi greeted. "I'm afraid I can't say the same."

Mayu's screams had abruptly cut off, and Kakashi wanted to turn to see because he had to know, but he couldn't turn his back on an enemy as strong as Orochimaru.

"Kakashi, go," Itachi said in an urgent voice.

He gritted his teeth, then spun and grabbed Sasuke, who was panicking, and a painfully still Mayu before leaping back.

Orochimaru didn't move to follow them, all of his attention focused on Itachi. In two leaps, Kakashi landed next to Naruto, who he was relieved to see was still breathing. It was awkward, but he somehow managed to pick him up as well and was headed back to the tower as quickly as he could.

Sasuke had gone silent in his arms and was shaking uncontrollably. Shock, probably. A pair of ANBU forced him to a stop as they landed in front of him. "Orochimaru has compromised the border. Uchiha Itachi is currently engaged in combat, I'm taking his victims to the tower for medical care. Please assist Itachi." The crackle and heat of a huge fireball lit up the forest when Kurenai and Asuma landed beside the ANBU.

"Kakashi, what -" Kurenai said, already reaching to take one of his students.

"Orochimaru," he said shortly as the ANBU took off in the direction of the sounds of fighting. They both gasped, and he allowed Kurenai to take Naruto and Asuma to take Sasuke.

As they took off for the tower, Kakashi feeling better for having his comrades at his side, he took a moment to feel for Mayu's pulse. There, but faint. Relief filled him - there was still hope.

"Is she -" Asuma, who was fond of Mayu ever since the tracking training saga, sounded honestly worried.

"Alive," Kakashi said shortly. "When we get to the tower, somebody needs to find Tsunade, though."

A few moments later, they'd arrived, and they sped past a team of genin arriving and into the building, then up the stairs to a room with four beds.

Kurenai gently laid Naruto down on a bed, then left to fetch the Hokage. Kakashi set Mayu down on the cot next to him and then turned to study the marks on her arm. Asuma's breath caught as he recognized them for what they were, and Sasuke, who was now swaying next to him, stumbled forward.

"Sensei," he choked out. "Mayu - Naruto,"

"Alive," he said and pulled Sasuke towards him into a quick hug. "Kurenai is getting Tsunade -"

A scream sounded from Mayu, and Kakashi and Asuma had to dive to keep her from falling off the cot as she began thrashing.

The scream never ended, turning into a high pitched wail that seemed to continue on and on. "What's happening?" Asuma yelled.

The mark on Mayu's arm was glowing, and Kakashi opened his Sharingan eye, which he'd uncovered without thought the moment he realized Orochimaru was in that clearing.

"I don't - her brain - it's - it's flaring chakra. I've never seen it concentrate in the mind like that!" Kakashi gritted his teeth as he held her down, knowing they were probably bruising her but not sure what else to do.

He almost slumped in relief when he heard Tsunade's voice behind him. "What is going on here?" she asked, running over from the doorway.

"Orochimaru - curse mark," Kakashi yelled over Mayu's wails. "I think - I think she's reacting badly to it. The chakra in her brain..."

Tsunade had gasped in horror at the mention of the curse mark and rushed over to study the whirling, glowing marks on Mayu's arm and neck. Sasuke was yelling in the background, but Kakashi couldn't deal with him right now, because, in the center of the curse mark, something was bulging outward.

"Tsunade!" he yelled.

"I see it," she said grimly, and then they weren't talking at all, because Mayu was seizing on the table, fluttering lids revealing that her eyes were rolled up into her head.

"Shizune!" Tsunade said, and her apprentice appeared next to Kakashi at Mayu's head, and she was inserting a piece of leather between her teeth and putting a green, glowing hand to her forehead. Kakashi was barely aware of a struggling Sasuke being dragged away by Kurenai as he struggled to keep Mayu on the bed without hurting her.

"What the fuck," Asuma whispered, and Kakashi followed his gaze to the curse mark. The bulge was growing, and Kakashi's stomach roiled as he realized something was coming out of it. Slowly, a glowing tail emerged, and Tsunade let out a series of curses.

"She's expelling it," Tsunade said grimly. "I didn't...none of his old notes ever detailed this happening before."

Kakashi watched as more and more of the glowing snake was revealed, and he saw that as more of its length was expelled from Mayu, the marks on her skin slowly receded, being drawn out by the snake.

"Is it -" Asuma asked.

"Yes," Kakashi whispered. "It...it's on fire." White flames licked at the writhing body of the snake, and when its head finally emerged, pulling the last of the marks with it and leaving only a red, nasty looking bite mark behind, the whole body fell to the floor, emitting high screams of pain as it burned.

At the doorway, Sasuke had gone silent and pale, staring at the glowing construct in horror. Finally, the snake went quiet and still, and then disappeared altogether. For a long moment, there was stunned silence, and then Shizune's voice broke them out of it.

"She's going into cardiac arrest, shishou," and Kakashi swore his heart stopped as well.

"Everybody who isn't a medical professional, out!" Tsunade snapped, turning her attention to Mayu and laying a glowing hand on her heart.

Kakashi let Asuma pull him to the door, eyes glued to his student's tiny, still form until they were through the doorway, shock clouding his brain.

"Kakashi," Asuma's voice said, urgent. "Kakashi, Sasuke needs you," and he was broken from his stupor. He spun around to see Sasuke on his knees on the stone floor, head in his hands and shoulders shaking.

Right, he thought to himself. Right. He walked over until he was kneeling next to Sasuke, and pulled him gently towards him until his head was resting on his chest. "Shhh," he said, and awkwardly patted his back.

"My fault," Sasuke said in an anguished voice, and when he looked up Kakashi's breath caught - because there was three tomoe swirling in his red eyes now. "It was meant for me, and that idiot - she, she fell in front of it. Just tripped over a root and..." He choked on a sob and buried his face back into his hands, and Kakashi snorted.

"Of course she did," he said. "Sasuke, it's not your fault some crazy S-class criminal attacked you," he said in a calm voice. "And Mayu will tell you the same thing when she wakes up, I'm sure."

"But what if -" Sasuke whispered, and Kakashi took a deep breath.

"Tsunade's the best there is. She's brought people back from worse," he said with more confidence than he felt. Because if Tsunade didn't save her...Kakashi didn't want to have to survive any more of his precious people's deaths. He wasn't sure if he could.

000

Mayu sat with her back against the crumbling wall of her mind, head bowed in exhaustion. She'd poured all of the chakra she had into cracks and crevices that fucking snake had left behind, and it was barely enough to keep it from tumbling down around her.

In front of her, memories from her spilled files kept playing in front of unseeing eyes, and for an indeterminate amount of time, she simply floated. Mayu knew, on some level, that she had almost died feeding that much chakra into her construct, but something had pulled her back just in time. Did that mean Sasuke was alive? She had a blurry almost-memory of Kakashi and Itachi appearing in front of them after she'd been bitten by the creepiest missing-nin in the world, but she wasn't sure if that was a dream or reality. She knew that if Kakashi saw her signal, he would come, but what if he hadn't?

Slowly, awareness settled in, and she blinked as a familiar voice broke into her thoughts...or, it was familiar once, wasn't it?

"Do you want to play Shogi?"

"I've...never played."

"I can teach you if you want."

With some effort, she focused her eyes on the memory playing in front of her and huffed a small laugh as she watched a tiny, adorable Shikamaru collapse in the seat across a Shogi board in front of her. She leaned back against the wall as he explained the rules to her, and smiled as he trounced her in the first few games. Her heart ached when Shikaku and Yoshino appeared, with fewer lines and grey in their hair than they carried now, but still with the same beloved faces.

"Shikamaru will win within the next three moves." Mayu laughed shakily as she watched Shikamaru's face fall into panic as she realized how easily he'd beaten her.

Then - "You're amazing!"

"I...am?"

"Yes! You're a genuine genius! Let's play again!" Mayu's expression turned soft when he smiled shyly at her from her memories, and then the scene was fluttering off into the darkness, and one of Yoshino dragging her out of the lab to spar took its place.

"Right," she said softly. "No more lazing around - I've got to fix this up and get back to them, I guess." With a deep breath and a poke at her chakra reserves, she turned her attention back to the walls of her mindscape, carefully starting on the worst of the cracks, and taking care not to use too much chakra at a time again.

Slowly, she repaired the damage, taking breaks to let her chakra recover when needed. Time, she knew, was strange in her mindscape, so she had no idea how long she'd been stuck there. Finally, the walls were holding steady, and she turned to the overturned cabinets with a grimace.

"Okay, this time I think I'll attach you to the floor a little more firmly," she muttered to herself, before moving to pick the one closest to her up off the floor. "Actually...maybe I can take this as an opportunity to reorganize..."

000

Mayu awoke exactly where she thought she probably would - in the hospital. What she hadn't expected was to awake to the sound of sirens and panicked feet running up and down the hallways.

A large boom shook the walls, and she huffed. Really? She just got done cleaning up her mind after a similar situation, did she have to deal with this in reality, too? A scream pulled her attention back to the situation, and she shakily sat up, annoyed at how weak her limbs felt.

As quickly as she could, she swung her legs over the side of the bed, grimacing as she realized she was wearing a hospital gown and nothing else. A quick physical check told her that while she was weak and shaky, she could walk. Her chakra was at about half capacity from her last-minute fixes to the walls of her mind cave - next time a giant snake tried to attack her mind, it would find a much more difficult target.

Slowly, Mayu slid to the ground and breathed out in relief when her legs held her. Quickly, as the sounds of fighting were filtering in, she stumbled over to the cupboard on the other side of the room and flung it open. "Mom, you're a freaking angel," she muttered and grabbed up a pair of sweats that her mother must have put in there, and pulled them on as quickly as she could.

After a moment of fumbling around the room, she found two scalpels hidden in the back of a cupboard and palmed them before moving slowly towards the door. She was reaching for the handle when she heard a familiar voice.

"I - I won't let you hurt any more of the patients!" Hinata's sweet voice said.

"Yosh! Hinata, you are most youthful and full of courage! I too will protect the patients, or I will do two hundred laps around the village on my hands!"

A laugh, and then "Kids, you're both wrapped in bandages and barely able to stand - how do you think you can stop us?" Mayu peaked around the door, and her eyes widened at what she saw.

Four patients were huddled in the hallway, two in wheelchairs, one with a walker, and the other on their feet, but swaying in place. Mayu saw by the way they cowered that they were civilians. Hinata and Lee, clad similarly to Mayu, stood between them and three...Sand nin? What the fuck was going on? Hinata's hands were wrapped, and Lee looked as though the whole right side of his body had been hurt if the way he was favoring it and standing were any indication.

Then she didn't have time to think anymore, because the Sand nin were moving. Hinata met the one in the middle with Byakugan activated, and Mayu had only a moment to be impressed as she faced him without fear, hands moving with confidence despite her injuries. Lee was holding off the other two with difficulty, despite the fact that he was fast and powerful despite his major injuries.

Pumping chakra into her body to counteract the fatigue, she sped down the hallway, scalpels in hand, and flipped easily over the heads of the patients, who gasped in surprise as she landed in a crouch in front of them.

"Hinata, Lee, I'm here to help!" she called, before moving in on Lee's right in a light spin, slashing out at a thin dour-looking woman, who barely managed to lean back and avoid getting her throat cut.

"Mayu! I am most happy to see you awake and well!" Lee yelled as he knocked the nin he was fighting back with a fierce kick from his uninjured side.

"Ha!" Hinata said as she pushed two palms forward and sent her opponent flying. "Y-yes. Naruto will be very happy," she said.

Mayu pressed forward, feet and hands flying forward in a series of punches and kicks and keeping her opponent on the defensive. "Thanks, guys," she said and grunted as a kick made it through her guard. Lee's opponent had recovered, and Hinata turned to help him since hers seemed to be knocked out.

Mayu feinted left, then flipped over the Sand nin's head, hand flashing out and slicing across her jugular. The woman slapped a hand to her neck, her blood spraying in an impressive arc, and for a moment Hinata faltered at the gruesome sight, and the last Sand nin took the chance to slam her into a wall. Mayu jumped into the fray with Lee, and between her darting in and opening small cuts and nicks to distract him and Lee's energetic attacks, they were eventually able to knock him out.

"You okay, Hinata?" Mayu asked.

"Y-yes," the girl said from where she was clutching her ribs.

Mayu turned to the most healthy-looking of the patients. "Go into one of the rooms and grab the bedsheets," she said and was relieved when the white-faced woman did so without complaint.

"Th-thank you," an old man in a wheelchair said. "Thank you so much. They were going to..."

"Cowards," Mayu spat. "Attacking the hospital. What the hell is Sand thinking, attacking a village so much stronger than them?" she grabbed the sheets from the woman when she returned, barely hearing as Lee thanked her profusely and Hinata went to check on the civilians. She could hear fighting in other parts of the hospital, and her heart went into her throat as she realized Yoshino might be there somewhere.

"Lee, help me tie the two live ones up," she said, cutting strips from the sheets and handing them to the boy, not sparing a glance for the woman she killed.

Hinata silently took some too, and between the three of them, they were able to get them tied and shoved into a bathroom. "We need to gather as many civilians as we can and get them to the shelter," Mayu said, mind racing through regulations.

"There are tunnels below the hospital," Hinata said in a quiet voice, and Mayu nodded.

"Okay - you four, stay behind us. We'll probably need to fight our way out. Stay out of the fighting, and if it looks like we're about to lose, you run, understand?" Mayu said with authority, and they nodded.

"Hinata," Mayu said as she crept forward to peer around a corner. "What's the status of your injuries?"

"U-um, mostly healed fractures, my chakra coils were compromised in places and aren't quite healed, but I'm able to direct around them. I can fight," she said with determination.

"Mmm, I saw that earlier. You're pretty scary when you're trying," Mayu said, and Hinata turned bright red. "Lee - what's your status?"

"I am fine, my bright flower!" he exclaimed.

Mayu turned to him and pointed. "Lee, I need to know your weaknesses, or I won't be able to come up with a plan to get us out of here alive. Now, status."

He deflated, and looked down, before looking up with newfound determination and nodding his head. "Most of the bones in the right side of my body were crushed, but Lady Tsunade performed a very Forward Thinking and Brave Surgery which has repaired me! However, I am only at about forty percent capacity, and I'm afraid only one hit to my injured side would be most unfortunate!"

Mayu frowned and ran her eyes over him. "Well, you're still plenty strong enough - stay with me, I'll cover your right side. What about chakra?"

"I do not have chakra, fierce leader! I was born without the ability to use it, which is why I am considered a Genius of Effort by the wise and charismatic Guy-sensei!"

"Really?" Mayu said in interest but shook her head to clear it. Right, time to focus.

"Okay. Hinata, take point with your Byakugan. Lee, you're on the left, I'm on the right. Civilians, stick close, and no screaming," she said.

Slowly, they made their way down the hall until they came to the stairs. Hinata scanned it before nodding and reached forward to open the door. They slipped into the stairwell and began creeping down, the two patients in wheelchairs were luckily able to leave them behind, one with a broken leg and the other with 'old joints, but it's fine, dear.'

They were on the third floor. The tunnels were four flights down. No way they weren't going to run into trouble. They made it to the second floor before Hinata signaled them to stop. Lee and Mayu leaned in close to hear her. "It looks like there are a group of twenty civilians or so. Six nin are fighting on the landing and stairs between the basement and first floor. I think...that four are enemy nin and two are our own."

Mayu gnawed on her lip in thought, trying to ignore the shakiness of her limbs and her slight dizziness. "Okay, I'm going to go down and assist. You two, guard our civilians against anybody coming from behind."

She could see they wanted to protest, but she shook her head then jumped over the side of the railing to land on the one below. Her eyes widened when she saw the medics that were fighting off the four large men. One was a chuunin she didn't recognize, but the other was Yoshino.

"Mom, incoming!" she called, and poured chakra into her legs and dove forward, hitting one of the enemy nin in the back and crouching there as they stumbled, a quick jab stabbing one of her scalpels into a kidney. She wrinkled her nose as how easily it slid through his skin, but ignored her discomfort to ricochet off of him and next to her mother, who had barely faltered because she was awesomeusing Mayu's distraction to grab a large bear of a ninja with a Sound hitai-ate by the throat and slam him down onto the landing, his head hitting one of the stairs with a crack before his body went limp.

"Mayu-chan, you decided to finally wake up from your nap, huh?" She said in a barely trembling voice.

"Yes, and imagine my surprise when I woke to an invasion," she said in a dry voice as they moved to stand back to back.

"Haru, fall back and protect the civilians. My daughter and I will take care of these two," her mom said with a sharp smile, and Mayu returned it before they whirled into motion, perfectly in sync from years of morning spars.

Mayu slashed and cut with her scalpels, which she was becoming pretty attached to, actually, and was impressed when she saw that Yoshino was somehow cutting into her own opponent with chakra shimmering around her hands. So scary, she thought, and couldn't wait to tell Shikamaru about this just to watch him lose all the color in his face. She stubbornly didn't even consider that he wouldn't be fine at the end of all of this.

Finally, their last two opponents were lying at the bottom of the stairs, dead, and Mayu called up to Hinata and Lee that it was clear. Yoshino and the chunin, (Haru, Haku?) raced to help the patients.

Then, Hinata was once again leading them towards the basement. Yoshino quietly took out three more nin before they hit the tunnels, and they moved as fast as they could through the maze-like paths. Finally, they came to a thick door being guarded by two tense-looking chunin.

"The leaves fall from the tree, brown." one of them almost snapped

"And in the spring, they return, green again," Yoshino replied, and Mayu rolled her eyes at the level of lame that password was.

They rushed the patients into a large room holding the civilian and genin population of Konoha, and Mayu let out a breath of relief. Mayu, Hinata, and Lee didn't argue as Yoshino insisted they sit with the other patients before she left with her chunin assistant to check on those who really needed medical attention.

Mayu leaned against Hinata, annoyed at how heavy her body felt, and wincing at the muffled explosions she could still hear coming from the village. "What...how long was I asleep?" she asked, baffled by what she'd woken up to.

Hinata gave her a look from the corner of her eye. "U-um. I don't know exactly, but, it's been a month and four days since we started the second test," she said quietly, and Mayu gaped at her.

"A month!" she exclaimed. "I've been asleep for a month?!" Hinata nodded.

"My...my team?" Mayu asked the question she'd been avoiding even thinking about since she awoke. Her last memories were not encouraging, after all.

"They're fine, Mayu-chan," she said, and Mayu hung her head and took a shaky breath.

"It's true!" Lee yelled and cringed when he was hushed by a medic with a bloody bandage wrapped around her head. "Your teammates were most Youthful and Dedicated! When they weren't training for the tournament, they were by your bedside!"

Mayu stared at him. "The...tournament?"

"The third test of the chunin exams! I'm afraid I did not make it through preliminaries," he said with a sad glance at his bandages.

Mayu set aside the question of how they'd been allowed to compete when technically they hadn't finished the second round and motioned around her. "And...this?" she said.

Hinata shook her head. "I don't know," she said quietly. "I was at the tournament, but I became weak and my father brought me back to the hospital," she admitted. "Soon after, the attack began."

Mayu nodded, and she had other questions, she did, but...first, she was going to take a little nap...

000

Mayu was being carried when she woke up. "Papa?" she whispered.

A low chuckle. "Not quite, sweetheart. I'm afraid he's dealing with cleanup."

"Ensui-nii," she whispered. "You use the same soap, you know. Smell good. Kakashi thinks so too."

Ensui tripped and made a sound like he choked on his tongue. "What...?"

"Was I really asleep for a month?" she muttered, eyelids too heavy to bother opening them.

"Yeah, you were," his quiet voice said, and she realized she'd hurt him again.

"Sorry. Didn't mean to," she whispered, and he gave another small laugh.

"Yeah, your grumpy teammate told us. Said you fell in front of the attack," he said, exasperated. "Seriously, sweetheart, only you could keep managing to accidentally take fatal attacks for other people."

Mayu made a protesting noise, but couldn't actually argue. "Shikamaru?" she asked in a small voice, and Ensui sighed.

"A mess, what do you think? But he pulled it together enough to train for the tournament - Naruto managed to convince him that you wouldn't want him to sulk around your hospital room all the time. Though, when he wasn't training, he was next to your side," he said in exasperation. "It helped that Tsunade-sama thought you were somehow repairing the damage that damn snake did to you and that you'd wake up when you were ready."

Mayu hummed. "Naruto and Sasuke were able to compete?" she mumbled. "Was afraid I messed it up for them."

And she could sense him rolling his eyes at her. "Yes, Tsunade-sama said that living through an attack from Orochimaru could be considered enough of a survival test," he explained. "She was in a bad mood, so nobody fought her on it."

"They're okay?" she asked, and he shrugged.

"A little beat up, but fine. Before you ask, Shikaku and Shikamaru are fine, too. I think I saw that Inuzuka you run around causing trouble with, too."

"Good," she mumbled. "The attack?"

"Sound and Sand combined forces," he snapped out. "Damned idiots didn't realize Orochimaru had killed their Kazekage and was impersonating him." he went silent before adding reluctantly, "Orochimaru attacked the Hokage. She's okay, but she ended up getting injured. He separated her from the rest of her guard - Itachi was able to stick with her, though, and I guess he spanked him pretty good. Orochimaru shouldn't be a problem for awhile, though I have no doubt he'll come crawling out of the woodwork again."

Mayu's mind reeled with the information, but she could feel sleep pulling at her again. She dozed in and out as the familiar sound of her house's front door opening hit her, and the creaking of the stairs as Ensui carried her upstairs and into her bed. Then, she was falling deeply into slumber, satisfied, at least, that her family and team were alive. The rest could wait until she woke up.

Chapter Text

Mayu woke to the smell of blood and had to fight back a gag as she realized it was coming from her clothes. Right, she was still in the gown and sweats she'd been wearing when she killed those Sand nin. Swallowing back bile, she slowly sat up, wincing at the way her head was pounding, but knowing there was no getting back to sleep as she was.

She grimaced at the dried blood and dirt that had flaked off on her sheets and sighed in annoyance as she shakily stood on sore, weak legs. Couldn't Ensui have helped her change before putting her to bed? Mayu staggered to her dresser and pulled out clean underthings and pajamas before opening her bedroom door. She stopped to listen, but the house was still, and she realized nobody else was home.

Right, any able-bodied shinobi was probably out dealing with the aftermath of the invasion. Breathing through her nausea and cursing Orochimaru's creepy bite-mark, she kept one hand on the wall as she made her way to the bathroom. When she got there, she winced at her reflection. She'd lost weight - not a ton, but most of it was in muscle mass, and she had to close her eyes against the reality of how much work she had in front of her to get back into fighting shape. Her skin was pale and the bags under her eyes were so deep they looked almost like bruises. She looked like a victim, and she didn't like it.

Turning away from the mirror, she slowly stripped off the gown and sweats, then switched the shower onto warm, hoping to combat the cold radiating throughout her body. Once it was running hot, she stepped under the spray, and without looking down at her body started to thoroughly wash. She bypassed the floral scent she and Yoshino favored when not out on missions, and instead liberally used the Nara soaps, the comforting spicy smell relaxing her.

Feeling better after her shower, Mayu got dressed and stumbled her way down to the kitchen, pouring herself a large glass of water and pulling leftovers out of the fridge. After a few bites, she pushed them away, stomach roiling after not eating for so long. Exhausted from the effort of feeding and cleaning herself, she grabbed her glass of water and slowly walked back up the stairs. Knowing she didn't have the energy to change her sheets, she turned into her parents' room and collapsed into their large bed. She was asleep almost immediately.

When she jerked awake from a dream where a whispering, leering snake was chasing her through the rows of filing cabinets in her mindscape, she was half sprawled across Shikaku's chest, and Yoshino was cuddled up behind her, arm flung across her lower back. Daylight was seeping through the curtains, and she realized she must have slept for at least fifteen hours.

Feeling warm, safe, and comfortable, she snuggled further into Shikaku's soft t-shirt, and he tightened the arm he had wrapped around her shoulders. "You awake?" she muttered, and he gave a small grunt of affirmation.

"Love you," she whispered, and she felt his lips against the top of her head in reply. She drifted in and out of sleep for another hour, until the need to use the bathroom and her growling stomach won out against comfort. Carefully, she extracted herself from a protesting Yoshino and sleepy Shikaku and padded down the hallway to the bathroom on steadier legs than she'd had yesterday.

After she was done she slipped downstairs, annoyed at how out of breath she was from the effort. Note to self: avoid month-long comas. Opening the fridge, she pulled out some white rice and eggs and went about making herself an omelet. She had eaten half of it and was half-heartedly poking at the rest when the front door opened.

"I'm home," a quiet voice said, and Mayu was out of her seat and through the kitchen doorway faster than she thought was possible in her current state. Standing in the hallway, staring at her with wide eyes, was a dirty and bedraggled looking Shikamaru.

"Shika," she choked out and swayed in place a little as dizziness from her dash from the kitchen hit her.

"Mayu," he said, and then he was in front of her and grabbing her into a crushing hug. "Mayu, my Mayu, you're awake," he said. "You're awake."

"I'm sorry," she said on a sob. "I'm so sorry, I didn't mean to..."

"Shut up, you have nothing to be sorry for. You lived. You were attacked by a Legendary Sannin and you lived. Thank you," he whispered and rubbed her back as she clung to him.

"It was so bad," she wailed, and let him herd her to the couch where he sat down, pulling her into his lap and wrapping his arms around her as she curled into him. "He...he was in my mind, Shikamaru. I could hear him, whispering to me, trying to take over. He almost destroyed it, he was so close..."

"Shh." He pulled her close to him. "You were stronger, you beat it," and now he was sounding choked up too. "It's okay, Mayu, it's alright now."

"It's not!" she wailed. "He...he broke my mind and I had to spend so much time fixing it, and I left you and my team all alone. And...and my body is so weak, and he killed Bukimi and the twins!" she was hysterical at that point, but she could still remember what it felt like, trapped in her crumbling mind for what had felt like years, all alone, wondering if she'd ever be able to repair the damage.

"Oh, sweetheart," a trembling voice said from the doorway, and then Shikaku and Yoshino were joining them on the couch. "You're here, and that's what matters. All the rest we can fix," her mom said from Shikamaru's side, reaching out to pet her hair and pull it out of her sticky face. Shikaku's large hand started rubbing circles on her back, and she shoved her face further into Shikamaru's shoulder as her sobs finally subsided.

"Sorry," she muttered, and Yoshino hushed her. Shikaku stood and left the room, and returned a few minutes later with a warm, wet cloth. Pliant and exhausted again from her crying stint, she let him angle her face towards him and clean it up, and for a moment she was six again. Then her eyes sharpened on his face, and her brows furrowed.

"You're exhausted," she mumbled and darted her swollen eyes to take them in. "You're all exhausted."

"Well, we were just invaded," Shikaku said sardonically, "makes for a lot of work, you know."

Alarmed, Mayu sat up. "What - what happened with that? How bad is the damage? What -"

Gently, Yoshino pushed her back against Shikamaru's chest, then reached a green hand to run over her. "Most of the damage is structural," she said as she checked her daughter over. "Orochimaru's summons took out a section of the east wall, and the market district was hit hard as well. Casualties weren't too bad - we had some idea that he would try something, thanks to the spies you and Shika ID'd a few days before the exams."

Mayu blinked at them. "You mean - the Uchiha chunin and the medic?" she asked, and Shikaku hummed as he set the washcloth to the side.

"Yes - before they were able to escape custody, a Yamanaka mind walked the Uchiha. He didn't know a lot, but he did know that Orochimaru was planning something - and that Sasuke was a target," he said grimly.

"What? Why were we not told this before we agreed to enter the scary death forest?" Mayu said, furious. Shikaku sighed and rubbed a hand down his face.

"We were trying not to cause panic. We thought with the heads up we could increase security on Sasuke and within the village. Also, we didn't want to reveal classified information to a genin team," he said dryly.

Mayu gaped at him, unable to talk past her anger for a handful of seconds. "You - you didn't want to reveal classified information," she finally said in a shaky voice. "Well, that worked out well for you, huh? Sasuke's probably traumatized for life because some creepy mega-strong ninja attacked us to steal his body, and my mind was ripped apart by a sentient snake because the all-knowing adults decided we couldn't handle keeping classified information to ourselves," she said scathingly.

To her surprise, Shikaku leaned over his knees and put his face in his hands. "You think I didn't regret it every day you were lying in that hospital bed?" he said roughly, and he sounded so wrecked that the anger drained out of Mayu as quickly as it had appeared, and she sighed.

"Sorry," she whispered. "It's not - of course, it's not your fault. I'm just a little off balance right now," she closed her eyes and leaned against Shikamaru, who was oddly silent. Yoshino broke the quiet by standing up.

"Well, I have to get back to the hospital, and I know Shikaku needs to get to work. I'm guessing Shikamaru just got back. Can you stay with Mayu? She really shouldn't be alone right now. None of the signs that your mind is degrading are showing themselves, Mayu, so Tsunade's theory that you were self-repairing seems sound." When she hesitated, Mayu turned her head and opened her eyes to study her. She looked - concerned. "Mayu, as soon as Tsunade has a moment, she'll want to talk to you about how you were able to expel the curse mark and repair its damage," she said carefully. "That's not - nobody has ever been able to counteract Orochimaru's curse mark before."

"Is that what it was called?" Mayu said, and rubbed a hand across the scarred-over bite mark on her arm. "Fitting." Shikamaru tightened his arms around her and buried his nose in her hair, and she squeaked.

Exhausted from her cry, she let herself be led upstairs by Yoshino, who paused at her doorway, took one look at her sheets, and sighed before leading her back to her own bed. She happily crawled between the sheets but pouted when she realized Shikamaru had gone.

"Shika?" she mumbled, and Yoshino laughed.

"He badly needed a shower, but I'm sure he'll sneak in here soon." Yoshino hesitated, then, "Be kind to the boys, okay? You know they don't handle stress so well," she teased, and Mayu's heart clenched.

"I know," she whispered. "I didn't mean to -"

"Shush, it's fine. Shikaku can handle a little scolding," Yoshino said.

"Can you send him up...?" Mayu asked, and then the bed was dipping behind her.

"I'm here," Shikaku said, and she turned and let him hug her for a few minutes. "I have to go now, Mayu-chan," he said and ran a hand through her hair. "You rest up, okay?" she nodded and he kissed her forehead before slipping out of bed.

She listened, half asleep, as her parents moved in and out of the room, getting ready for their days. They both kissed her goodbye before leaving, and a few minutes later Shikamaru slipped into bed next to her.

Barely awake, she grabbed onto him, and then blissfully fell asleep.

000

She didn't make it out of the house until the next day, and her eyes widened at the destruction she could see across the village. The huge chunk missing from the eastern wall was already on its way to being repaired, but whole buildings had been reduced to rubble. Yoshino gave her a sad smile but didn't comment as they made their way to the hospital, where Tsunade was apparently feeling well enough to look her over.

The hospital itself hadn't sustained much structural damage, though Shikamaru had told her it had sustained the most casualties. It made Mayu want to go out and slit a few more throats, but she kept that thought to herself. Her family had been keeping a disturbingly close eye on her and it didn't take a genius to figure out they were worried about her mental stability. Fantastic.

When they got to the exam room, Mayu almost turned around and walked back out when she saw the group of people waiting for her. Yoshino grabbed her shoulders and gently turned her around, and Mayu shot her a betrayed look for the ambush. Tsunade, Shikaku, Shizune, Inoichi, and a large, white-haired man with two red lines on his face were all waiting in the oversized examination room.

"I'm not undressing for all of you," she said flatly but allowed Yoshino to help her onto the exam table.

Tsunade snorted. "Like anybody here wants to see that." she moved forward and stuck a thermometer in Mayu's mouth before she could reply, then grabbed her arm to take her pulse and blood pressure.

Mayu allowed her gaze to move around the room, taking in everyone's faces. Shikaku looked bored, but there was a tenseness to his posture that told her he was concerned about the upcoming conversation. Inoichi looked interested, and the mysterious white-haired man was giving her an assessing, narrow-eyed look. Yoshino was in her 'ready to kick ass' posture, and Shizune and Tsunade looked the way they always did when dealing with a patient. Pleasant and focused and annoyed and focused, respectively.

"Ouch!" Mayu said as Shizune stuck her with a needle and started drawing blood. The other woman just smiled at her, and Mayu sighed. Her attention was pulled to the door as it opened and Kakashi stepped through.

"Sorry I'm late -" he began but was cut off when Mayu pushed past the medics and slammed into him, wrapping her arms around him.

"Sensei!" she said. "You're okay!"

He gave an uncomfortable chuckle and patted her back awkwardly. "Of course, I am," he replied, and she pulled back before he broke out into hives from feelings overload.

"You saved me! You saw my signal!" she said, and his eye curved up.

"I couldn't just leave my cute little students to fight an S-ranked criminal on their own, could I?" he said and patted her head.

"Ah, Kakashi-kun, it makes me feel so old to see you with your own students," the stranger drawled, and her sensei waved at him before herding Mayu back towards a glaring Tsunade.

"Yo, Jiraiya-san," he replied, and Mayu's eyes widened.

"Your ex-teammate is a creepy dick," she blurted at the Sannin and then winced. Right, her brain-to-mouth filter hadn't been functioning so well the last few days. Probably because there were still some cracks and leaks happening in her mindscape. Border-line insanity was turning out to be such a pain.

To her surprise, Jiraiya threw his head back and roared with laughter, while Yoshino scolded her and Shikaku and Inoichi both pinched the bridge of their noses. "Oh man, she's got an attitude, kind of reminds me of a moody little brat I once knew," he said once he'd stop laughing. "Ah, how the wheel turns."

Kakashi sighed. "Mayu-chan, this is Jiraiya-san. Jiraiya-san, my troublesome little student, Nomaka Mayu."

She bowed, cheeks still red. "It's an honor to meet you, Jiraiya-sama," she said, and he gave her a little wave.

"Right, well, if we're all done wasting my time," Tsunade said, "Mayu, sit." she meeped and did so, and the room went quiet. "Everything looks fine on the surface, Mayu," she began, and her parents and sensei all relaxed minutely. "I want to get you in for some imaging of your brain to make sure, but there doesn't seem to be any lasting physical damage. I still recommend some time to recover - I'm taking you off the active list for a month," she said, and Mayu exclaimed in shock.

"But! My team!" she argued and was silenced by Kakashi shaking his head at her.

"We're being separated for a month, anyway, Mayu-chan," he said. "In the face of the invasion, we're low on manpower and funds, so I'll be running high-level missions for the next four weeks. Also, Naruto will be going with Jiraiya for a month for some...special training, and Sasuke's father has decided he needs a few weeks to focus on clan training."

Mayu studied her teacher closely. "Where are they?" she demanded. "Obviously, they're not okay if they both need a month off, too." she went to stand, determined to find them and get her answers, but Kakashi just rolled his eye and pushed her back.

"They're fine. I'll let them decide what to tell you, but both of them need the specialized training," he explained. She relaxed when she saw he was telling the truth.

"What about me?" she asked in a small voice and must have looked pathetic because he looked panicked. Yoshino snorted and pushed past the awkward man to jump onto the bed next to her.

"Well, we'll need to get your body back into shape, so I thought I could work with you on that if you don't mind spending the extra time with me. You'll need a few weeks to rest up, but after that we'll come up with a good training regime, and I'm sure Kakashi-san will check in on you between missions," she said the last part in a low, threatening voice, and her sensei made a terrified noise in the back of his throat.

Mayu thought about that and nodded slowly. "Okay, just as long as you promise Team Seven isn't broken up forever," and gave Jiraiya a suspicious look. "And you better take care of Naruto!" she said, pointing at him and glaring.

He raised his hands in surrender. "I promise, I promise," he said. "You'll get him back in better shape than he left." She studied him for a moment, really taking him in.

"Well," Shikaku said, obviously trying to cut off any deducing Mayu was about to do on one of the strongest ninja alive. "We have a few things to talk about, Mayu-chan."

"You want to know why I'm not frothing at the mouth or dead," Mayu said and rolled her eyes.

Silence, and then Kakashi gave her a disapproving look. "Mayu, the seal Orochimaru put on you is very serious and has killed and hurt good people. It's not something to take lightly."

She slumped and looked down at her hands. "Sorry, sensei. I just -"

"I know," he said and inched a little closer to her.

"Can you - tell me a bit about it?" she asked and looked over to Tsunade, who sighed and leaned against the wall next to her teammate.

"It's called the Cursed Seal of Heaven. It grants chakra and power to the recipient. It also...erodes the mind. I believe, and have for awhile," she said slowly, "that the seal contains not only Orochimaru's chakra but a piece of his...consciousness, as well."

Mayu stared at her for a moment, unable to speak past the horror growing in her. She remembered the feeling of his chakra moving through her, the whispering in her ear...her vision went dark around the edges, and she found herself gasping for air. A large hand on her back and a familiar, trusted voice calmly speaking to her drowned out the memories, and she was able to suck in air again.

It was Shikaku's voice that had brought her back, and for a moment she turned and buried her face in his shoulder, trying to get control of her shaking. After a few minutes, she straightened, already planning on a good, long meditation session once she was done here. She was suffering some trauma from this attack - not exactly surprising.

"Sorry," she whispered to the room, and accepted a small plastic cup of water from Tsunade, gulping it down greedily. "That's just really, really disturbing."

Yoshino was petting her hair from where she was sitting on the opposite side of her from Shikaku, and Kakashi was hovering in front of all of them like a large, awkward bird.

"It's nothing to be ashamed about, Mayu-chan," Inoichi's soothing voice said from across the room. "It's normal to feel violated after a situation like this." he hesitated, then continued. "Shikaku told me that you said something when you woke up yesterday about a sentient snake attacking your mind. Can you tell us a little bit about that?"

Mayu stared at him, mouth moving without making a sound for a moment. "Are you here...as my therapist?" she finally squeaked, and Jiraiya let out another loud guffaw of laughter.

Inoichi sighed. "I'm just here to help us identify any residual damage, and also to understand how you were able to expel the cursed seal. That's..."

"Never happened before?" Mayu asked, and wrinkled her nose. "Well, to be fair, I doubt he's ever bitten somebody with a mind as organized and powerful as my own," she said bluntly. "I've been creating a defensible mindscape since I was six years old."

"You what?" Shikaku said, a rare look of surprise on his face. Inoichi looked intrigued, and Kakashi seemed...worried. Tsunade had gotten a sharp, interested look on her face that Mayu was pretty sure wouldn't bode well for her.

"Defensible mindscape? And how did you manage to create something so defensibly sound that it was able to repel the cursed seal?" Inoichi asked eagerly.

Mayu gave him her best deadpan expression. "No offense, Inoichi-sama, but I'm not going to give away the secrets to my mind's defenses to the head of a clan known for their mind-reading-and-takeover jutsu."

Inoichi stiffened, and Kakashi's posture changed into his 'deadly-bored' slouch and he moved to subtly position himself between her and the rest of the room. Oh shit, she thought to herself, a cold sweat breaking out across her body as Tsunade straightened.

"And who says you have a choice, Mayu-chan?" she said in a hard voice.

Mayu's hands clenched into fists, and she had to tense all of her muscles to hold back a shiver. "The laws that state that ninja aren't required to give away secret techniques to other clans in the village," she said calmly.

"You're calling this a secret technique? Something you created as a child?" the Hokage said, disbelief in every line of her body.

"I said I've been building it since I was six," Mayu said icily, not dropping Tsunade's gaze. "And yes. If it's powerful enough to counter something you all thought was unbeatable before, then it's strong enough to be a Nomaka family secret technique."

Tsunade stalked over to her. "This technique could save other people from a terrible fate," she gritted out. "He was after Sasuke - what if he succeeds next time, and you could have stopped it?"

"Did you not hear me?" Mayu snapped. "I said it took more than half a decade to make my defenses strong enough to fight him off. If I'd been a little slower, or my mind a little weaker, I'd have died. I think I did die at least once in there," she said and nodded when she saw affirmation in Kakashi's stiff posture. "Teaching this to Sasuke would result in his death if Orochimaru got to him within the next decade if he was even able to manage it in the first place. I doubt anyone outside of papa, Itachi, Kakashi, and Shikamaru could learn it at the moment - you have to be extremely intelligent and already have a very organized mind."

Tsunade studied her for a moment before huffing and looking away. "Fine, brat, you win. But you'll need to do the paperwork to register it," she said tiredly. "What else can this super-secret technique of yours do, anyway?" she asked.

Mayu shrugged, knowing that she'd have to put it all into the paperwork eventually. While she didn't have to list off every capability, or the how-to, a general overview was expected so that she could be sorted into the correct missions and teams. "I think it helps me identify and see through genjutsu," she said slowly, "but I only just discovered that, and I'll need to do some testing."

Kakashi gave her a sharp look. "That's...something we'll talk about next month," he said, and she gave him a small smile.

"Yeah, I still need some time to find my equilibrium and sort some things out before I'll be ready to work on anything involving my...technique," she said honestly.

"So I guess we'll need to reschedule for me to do a mindwalk," Inoichi muttered to himself, and fear flashed through her. She was on her feet and would have darted out the door if Kakashi hadn't grabbed ahold of her.

"Mayu-chan! Calm down!" he said in his Commanding Officer voice as she mindlessly struggled against him. She stilled when she realized what she was doing, and took a deep breath.

"Fucking...post traumatic stress disorder!" she said angrily, avoiding the room's concerned gazes. She spun on Inoichi, knowing her mood swings were a little out of control, but unable to help herself. "You stay out of my mind, or you'll find out exactly -" she was cut off by Kakashi's hand over her mouth.

"I think what Mayu-chan is trying to say is that she's not comfortable with outside individuals crawling about in her brain after her extremely traumatic experience," he said cheerfully, and she relaxed back into him.

"We need to make sure Orochimaru's influence is gone," Jiraiya said from the corner.

Mayu tugged Kakashi's hand down. "I can tell you, he's gone. I burned every trace of him out of my mind."

Tsunade twitched. "You burned it, huh? I guess that explains why the snake that came out of your arm was on fire," she said with a cackle. "Serves little-Orochimaru right," she mumbled.

"Tsunade-sama, are you...okay?" Mayu asked, distracted by the slight tremble in the Hokage's right arm.

Tsunade shrugged. "It was quite a fight between my old teammate and me - I'll be fine," she said, and Mayu's gaze narrowed when she realized she was lying.

"Anyway, Jiraiya's correct." she held up her hand when Yoshino stepped forward to protest. "I'd like to give Mayu a month to get her equilibrium back, and we'll discuss again. However, I want her to check in with Inoichi once a week. Obviously, she's not all the way recovered from her ordeal."

Mayu glared. "I'm right here, you know," she muttered. "Also, I just need time to work through it on my own - I've got my own process for dealing with trauma," she said stubbornly.

"That's an order, brat!" Tsunade yelled. "Now, I'm leaving. Mayu, someone will be around to grab you for your tests later. Jiraiya's going to inspect you for any remnants from the seal. Just shut up and let him do it," she said as Mayu opened her mouth to protest. "If I hear you gave him or the medics a hard time, I'll lock you in a cell for three days. Kakashi, come with me, I have a mission for you."

Her sensei gave her a squeeze around the shoulders and then followed Tsunade out, orange book in hand. Mayu sighed and returned to the exam table, ignoring Inoichi and allowing Jiraiya to step into her space. The man was huge, and she studied him as he looked her over, muttering to himself. Immature, uncomfortable with being in the village, but generally optimistic. Huh, he and Naruto will get along well. When Yoshino came over to fuss with Mayu's hair, he shot her mom an appreciative glance, and Mayu 'accidentally' kicked him in the knee. To her annoyance, he just chuckled and she spent the rest of the time glaring at him and ignoring Inoichi and Shikaku's heated argument happening in the hallway.

Finally, Jiraiya proclaimed her 'Bastard-seal free' and a medical-nin came to drag her away for tests. Shikaku and Yoshino had to go back to their duties, but other than some residual weakness, Mayu was deemed fine to get herself home. She knew her parents felt guilty for leaving her on her own when she was still technically injured and so weak, but the village needed them more than Mayu did at the moment.

Once she was set free by the medical staff, she went to visit Sasuke and Naruto, who was still in the hospital after whatever trouble they'd found during the invasion. When she entered their room they were, unsurprisingly, arguing, and didn't notice her at first. They were sitting cross-legged on one of the two beds in the room, playing cards. Naruto looked okay, if a little tired, but Sasuke's arm was in a cast and he held himself like his ribs were hurting.

"Idiot, that's not how you play!" he was hissing at a smug Naruto.

"You're just mad that I won!"

"No, I'm mad that you cheated -"

"Hey, guys," she said, walking towards the bed. Their heads whipped towards her with comically identical expressions of shock. There was a moment of silence, then -

"Mayu-chan!" Naruto launched himself at her, and she staggered back with the force of his hug. "You're awake. You're okay. I mean, I knew you were because Yoshino-san wouldn't lie, but, you're awake!"

He pulled back, and she saw his eyes looked a little glassy with tears. "Yeah, sorry I worried you," she said with the gentle voice that only he seemed to be able to pull from her.

"Idiot, move," Sasuke said from where he was standing behind the blonde and gave him an impatient shove. Then, Sasuke was standing in front of her, studying her with a look of vulnerability she'd never expected to see on his face. "Mayu, are you..." he trailed off, looking uncertain, and she huffed.

"Come here," she said and pulled him into an awkward hug. "I'm fine," she said quietly.

He pulled back and scoffed. "Liar," he mumbled. "You look like crap."

She stuck her tongue out at him. "Well, sleeping for a month straight isn't exactly good for you," she replied, and let them push her over to the bed. She clambered onto it and turned so her back was to the wall and her legs were sticking straight out in front of her. They joined her on either side and for a moment just sat in comfortable silence.

"So, my family is basically tip-toeing around me right now because they're afraid Orochimaru's snake-soul damaged my mind," she said bluntly. "So I'm gonna need you two to fill me in on everything I missed."

They blinked at her. "What - Orochimaru's what?" Naruto yelped.

000

Two hours later, after they'd shared their 'what we've been up to for the last four weeks' stories, Naruto was staring at them in shock. "You two don't look surprised. Why don't you look surprised?" he demanded.

"Ah, well...it's possible...I've known for a while," Mayu said, and grimaced at his stunned face, glad for the privacy seal she'd stolen from Shikaku's office drawer and put onto the wall behind them.

"How long is awhile?" Naruto asked, looking scared.

"Um. March of this year? Give or take? And I accidentally told Sasuke in Grass when you were injured." He gaped at her, and she saw the moment he connected the dots.

"It was you! You're the one who put that 'So You're a Jinchuuriki, But Don't Worry You're Not Evil' packet on my bed!" he accused, sticking a finger in her face. "And who named that, anyway?" Sasuke slapped a hand over his face.

She sighed. "I have no idea what you're talking about. Why would I reveal an S-class secret and risk being punched through a wall by the Hokage?" she said pointedly, and Sasuke snorted.

Naruto narrowed his eyes at Sasuke. "Wait. You're not upset, either. What the hell?! I've been worried about revealing this to you for...for...forever! And you already knew? Why are you not upset?"

Mayu scoffed. "Please, just because ninety percent of the village are idiots doesn't mean we are. Besides, it sounds like it was useful," she said with a shrug. "I can't believe Crazy Gaara was a jinchuuriki, and that I missed you having a Bijuu Battle Royale!" she exclaimed. "I missed so much this month," she moaned, and Sasuke smirked. It sounded like the chunin exams had been...eventful.

"Don't call him that!" Naruto said. "It wasn't his fault he was treated so badly by his village and given a bad seal!"

"Yes, yes, I know. But...I can't believe he did that to Lee," she said quietly. "He was really impressive despite having undergone surgery when we were fighting during the invasion. Weird that it was his teammate that put Hinata there. Without the two of them, I doubt I would have gotten those four patients out alive," or myself, she didn't say.

They were silent for a moment before she spoke again. "So the super secret training Jiraiya's taking you for," she said slowly. "Is that...jinchuuriki stuff?"

Naruto shrugged and looked uncomfortable. "I think so - he wouldn't really say. When he trained me for the chunin exams, he let me sign his summoning contract, which was awesome!"

Mayu gaped at him. "The Toad Sannin let you sign his contract? Naruto, that's - do you know what that means?" she exclaimed.

He furrowed his brow at her. "Uh, that he thinks I'm awesome?"

Mayu took a deep breath and prayed for patience while Sasuke muttered something probably not-nice next to her. "Naruto, it means that he considers you his student," she said slowly. "Like...an apprentice. I bet he's planning on taking on your training full time once we make chunin."

Naruto's jaw dropped. "What - that's. Are you serious?"

Mayu shrugged. "Usually, people only offer contracts to family or apprentices, so there's a good chance. Even if he doesn't formally take you on, he'll probably be taking an interest in your training."

She ignored his crowing about how Jiraiya just saw how awesome he was, and shared a commiserating look with Sasuke. "And what about you?" she said.

He side-eyed her, and she sighed. "What's so important that your dad decided he needed to pull you from team training for a month to focus on clan techniques?"

Naruto's cheers cut off, and he blinked at Sasuke in confusion, who sighed. With the air of somebody who's given up on fighting against idiots, he activated his Sharingan. "Sasuke," Mayu whispered when she saw the three tomoe against the red backdrop.

He shrugged and released it. "I need to...adjust to it," he said grudgingly, and Mayu nodded her understanding. After a moment, she groaned and flopped over onto Naruto.

"I just realized," she said, looking tragic, "that this month Naruto gets to go do special jinchuuriki training with a sannin, Sasuke gets to learn cool Sharingan tricks with Uchiha Fugaku, and I'm stuck doing endurance exercises and trying to prove to the Hokage that I'm sane and not being influenced by a snake-obsessed maniac. That is just so. Unfair." she said with a pout.

Her teammates took that in for a moment, then burst into laughter. She scowled at them, but couldn't really be angry - she was too relieved that they were both alive. From the story they'd just told her...well, it had been close to not ending so well for the two of them.

They were starting to calm down when there was a knock on the closed door, and she reached behind her to pull down the privacy seal as it opened. Shikamaru stepped into the room, and Mayu brightened, then gaped when she saw what he was wearing.

"Shika!" she yelled in excitement, and leapt off the bed. "You're a chunin!" She ignored Naruto and Sasuke's surprised exclamations as she threw herself at him for a hug.

"It's a total drag, but I guess they were impressed with my match against the Sand girl," he said, and looked so dejected about it that she leaned forward to kiss his cheek. He blushed a little, and gave her a small smile. The moment was broken by Naruto, of course.

"What do you mean it's a drag?" the blond said, completely indignant. "Did anybody else make it? Why hasn't the old lady come by to give me my vest?"

"Idiot," Sasuke muttered. "We obviously weren't promoted." his lips were pursed in annoyance, and Mayu bit her lip when she saw how upset he was.

"Well, you didn't get to finish your match, I guess. I know it's selfish but...I guess I'm a little relieved I'll still be taking my test with you two," Mayu said softly, and looked down at the ground as the room went silent.

"Mayu! You're so cute!" Naruto finally said and launched at her with his arms open and tears on his face. Shikamaru sighed, then grabbed her and plucked her out of the way before Naruto could latch onto her. He tripped and fell on his face, and Shikamaru had to avoid his angry flailing about on the floor.

Mayu glanced over at Sasuke, who looked less upset and more thoughtful now. "I suppose it would be a pain if we didn't all get promoted at once," he said with a shrug, and Mayu beamed at him.

"Yeah. Plus this way we get to be Kakashi-sensei's students for longer. He's one of the strongest jounin in the village - we can learn a lot from him!" she added, and Naruto scoffed and muttered something about him being a pervert.

Shikamaru and Mayu said their goodbyes, and she dragged him to one of the Akimichi restaurants to celebrate his promotion since both Yoshino and Shikaku wouldn't be home until late that night. "I have to report in first thing in the morning for a mission," he said when they were walking home.

"That was...fast," Mayu said, and he shrugged.

"Things are a bit unstable now," he said seriously. "We have to continue taking missions while handling village repairs and increasing security and border patrols. People can't see us as weakened right now, even though we technically are. Ten percent of our forces are injured or dead after the attack," he said, and Mayu jerked.

"That many?" she whispered, and he nodded.

"So I guess I'll be on my own this month," she said with a small smile, and he reached out to grab her hand.

"Yeah, mom and dad will both be pretty busy. I'm sorry, Mayu..." she shook her head.

"Don't be. I'll be busy too - I need to rebuild my puppets and get back to fighting strength," she said. "I'm fine, really."

He gave her doubtful look but didn't comment. She asked about his mission and watched him fondly as he sighed dramatically and told her about the team he'd be running border patrol with for the next few weeks.

"I'm really proud of you, you know," she said when they were almost to their house. "The only one of all of us to make chunin. You're so cool, Shika," she said, and he shifted uncomfortably.

"You would have made it if it weren't for Orochimaru," he said confidently. "You'd have outsmarted and blown up a few foreign nin and the council would have fallen over themselves to promote you," he teased. She giggled, then shrugged.

"I'm not sure that setting people on fire is considered good for international relations," she responded a little wistfully.

000

Mayu only got an hour of sleep before she was jerked awake by the phantom feeling of something trying to break through the walls of her mindscape. "Damn," she whispered at the ceiling and got up to get dressed.

She meditated for a few hours, studying and picking apart her memories from the attack, then spending time weaving chakra into the still-weak stone walls of her mind. Mayu had a feeling she wouldn't be sleeping well for a while, and when she opened her eyes, it was with a sense of focused determination. Well, if she wasn't going to sleep, she could spend her time making sure she was a hell of a lot more prepared for the next shit storm than she had been against Orochimaru.

One thing was obvious to her now: she hadn't been taking her career as a kunoichi as seriously as she could have been. Treating her puppets like her cute little pets instead of the weapons they're meant to be, flitting from project to project in her lab...no more. It was time to focus. With that in mind, she grabbed some drafting paper and supplies and went down to the kitchen where the light was better. She had some plans to make and designs to sketch out.

Twenty hours later, she stumbled into the midmorning sun and towards Akinobu's shop. Shikamaru had left at some point, and Yoshino had come home so exhausted she could barely see straight. Shikaku must have just been bunking in his office because she'd seen neither hide nor hair of her father since the hospital room.

For once, Akinobu didn't moan and groan when he caught sight of her. Instead, he hissed, and dragged her into his cramped office, slamming the door behind him. "What the hell are you doing up and about? Last I heard you were in a goddamn coma!" he said, taking an angry drink of tea.

She narrowed blurry eyes at him. "I woke up, obviously. Now, I need your help," she said and shoved a pile of papers in his hands. "There, three new schematics for you that are guaranteed to blow minds. In exchange, I want unlimited shop time this month, and I want somebody here to teach me metalworking in the little shop behind this one and to help me with the more complex pieces on these," she said, shoving more papers at him.

He sputtered but quieted down as he looked through what she had put together. "These..." he said slowly.

"Are amazing? Awe-inspiring?" she grabbed his tea and took a drink.

"I was going to say terrifying," he muttered, but sighed, and she knew she had won. "Fine. You've got three checks you haven't picked up from the projects we profit share on. If you want, I can order you the materials you need and take the cost from those."

Mayu narrowed her eyes at him. "You're being nice. Why are you being nice?"

He glared at her and took back his tea. "It's called pity, kid. Come back tomorrow and I'll introduce you to your teacher. Now leave."

Mayu stood with a huff and decided to go spend some time in her lab for awhile. After all, she had some projects she'd been putting off there that she thought would come in handy later.

The next day, she'd gotten a grand total of five hours of sleep before her mind's insistence that it was still under attack awoke her, and she groaned before dropping into meditation and working on convincing her subconscious that the very evil snake was gone, yes he was. Mayu knew that the phantom tremors would be waking her up until her defenses were up and running again. Until then, she would just have to deal with being sleep deprived and slightly twitchy. It helped if she was focused on a project, and without her family around to stop her, it was pretty easy to drop into her work and stay there for hours at a time.

Her new metalworking teacher was a civilian girl a few years older than her named Rika. Her hair was dark blond and cut in a short bob, and she had kind brown eyes and a round, pleasant face. Mayu had seen her around the shop before, but they hadn't interacted much until now. Rika-sempai, as she'd taken to calling her, was sweet, patient, and seemed to find Mayu's sleepy ramblings and scathing commentary cute. She called her kohai and forced her to take eating and drinking breaks, and on the few occasions that she fell asleep on the workbench, kicked everyone else out and turned down the lights.

Rika-sempai also made no secret of the fact that she thought Mayu was brilliant. Which, to be fair, she was, but most people didn't gush about it. Mayu found it flattering and disconcerting, but mostly just blushed and stuttered when Rika started fawning over her.

Rika was also a very, very talented metalworker, and she and Mayu spent hours and hours going over theory, metal types, and how to use the dozens of tools available to her. Rika didn't try to convince Mayu not to use the more dangerous methods of metal working. Either she knew Mayu handled much more dangerous tools every day as a kunoichi, or she realized Mayu would just teach herself without supervision if Rika didn't take the time to do it with her.

Mayu took to breaking into Akinobu's shop after hours to work on her projects. The one time he caught her, she just shrugged and pointed out that their deal did say unlimited hours, after all.

Two and a half weeks after she'd woken up, she stumbled home at two in the afternoon after Akinobu had demanded she go home and take a break when he saw the number of bandages she was sporting on her hands and arms.

"For fuck's sake, what do you think your dad will say if you kill yourself in my shop!" he'd yelled while Rika fluttered around her with a first aid kit.

Mayu had scoffed and put her nose in the air. "Please, like I'd be stupid enough to die using a power sander."

"You seem stupid enough to die from lack of sleep and food," he said in a dangerous voice, and she bristled, temper short from said lack of sleep and food.

"Like you have room to talk about healthy habits," she'd snapped, and found herself literally tossed out and told not to return until the next day.

Vowing her revenge, she had stomped home, unconcerned with the wary looks she was getting. Sure, maybe she hadn't showered in a few days, and it's possible she'd only gotten about half her hair into a ponytail, and the bandages were perhaps concerning...well it wasn't their business anyway.

When she arrived at her front porch, she stopped short when she saw Sasuke and Itachi standing on it, obviously having just arrived. "Uh, hi," she said as they both slowly took in her appearance.

"What. The hell," Sasuke said, then grabbed her arm and dragged her inside.

"What - Sasuke, what's your problem!" she yelled.

"You're my problem!" he said, and she leaned away from him as she saw how furious he was. Itachi followed them into the kitchen serenely, but she could see even he was a little stiff. "Shikamaru stopped by this morning asking if I knew where you were. He came back last night and had to leave again for another mission - he said you never came home, and that Inoichi stopped him at the missions office because you haven't been making your appointments and you're never home when people stop by!"

"Oh...oops, I forgot about those," she said, then, "I missed Shikamaru?" and for some reason, her traitorous eyes filled with tears. Sasuke looked over at her and groaned.

"What the hell is going on with you?" he growled as he forced her into a kitchen chair. "You look half dead, Mayu! Have you even been eating? Or sleeping?" Her silence must have been answer enough, because he sighed and put two fingers to his forehead in agitation. "What, screwing with our minds by almost dying once wasn't enough? You gonna try it again?"

Mayu jerked as though he had hit her, and Itachi finally spoke up. "That's enough, Sasuke," he warned, and the boy subsided.

"I just - I try to sleep, but I can't," she whispered. "My mind believes it's still under attack, I think. Everything is still jumbled, and the walls are still cracked..." she was crying silently. "And I'm just so tired," she said on a sob.

A hand landed on her shoulder, and she glanced over to see Itachi giving her a steady look. "It'll get better," he said soothingly. "Your mind underwent a fairly big trauma, and you haven't had any support to help you through it."

Mayu nodded, and took a few deep breaths to calm herself down, embarrassed at her breakdown. When Sasuke put a cup of tea in front of her, she glanced up at his pinched face and sighed. "I'm sorry I worried you," she mumbled. And how weird was it that Uchiha Sasuke was actually worried about her?

He 'hn'd' at her and looked away, and she realized that Itachi was at her stove making omelets. Alarmed, she stood to go intercept him. "I can do that!" she squeaked, because arguably the village's strongest shinobi outside of the Hokage and Jiraiya should not be making her breakfast. Sasuke rolled his eyes and forced her into her seat again.

"Aniki is perfectly capable of making an omelet, Mayu," he muttered at her. She wrinkled her nose and stuck her tongue out at him.

Giving in, she took a sip of tea, stomach roiling a bit at the smell of food. Mayu hadn't realized until she saw Sasuke's face just how unhealthy she'd gotten. She felt unbalanced and out of control and she hated it. She chewed on her lip for a moment and studied her teammate, making a decision. She needed to talk this through with somebody, and outside of her team and family, she didn't think she trusted anybody else with the details it would reveal about her mind's defenses.

"You trust your brother," she said bluntly, and Sasuke gave her his best duh face, while Itachi gave her an interested look over his shoulder. "I mean, if I tell you about my secret technique, you'll keep your mouth shut about it, right? Both of you? Because I could use some help from some actual intelligent people and have no intention of letting the details about something that keeps my mind safe from outside influence getting around the village. I don't know if you've noticed, but we seem to have a lot of traitors and megalomaniacs running around."

Itachi snorted, and Sasuke eyed her closely. "You have a secret technique," he said flatly, and she sighed.

"I mean, I guess - we're calling it that so the Godaime can't force me to reveal it to the Yamanaka clan. It's something I've been working on since I was six," she said calmly, "and it's what allowed me to destroy the curse seal Orochimaru put on me."

Sasuke stared at her in shock, and Itachi put a plate in front of her. "You saved my brother," he said serenely. "I promise that anything you reveal to me here will not be repeated, through torture or loyalty."

Mayu studied him closely for a moment. "You know that I literally tripped over a tree root and fell into the attack meant for Sasuke, right?" she said dryly, and Sasuke made a small noise. Mayu looked at him and frowned for a moment before rolling her eyes and reaching across the table to smack him. "That's for feeling guilty, idiot!" she snapped, annoyed. "Like it's your fault Orochimaru is crazy. God, we really need to fix security in this village," she muttered before shoveling a bite of omelet into her mouth. And of course, Itachi could cook as well as he did everything else. Mayu eyed him as he moved around making another omelet and wondered if he was actually human.

"You're hurt because you took an attack meant for me," he said between gritted teeth.

"We're teammates," she said with a shrug. "Plus, this worked out much better - I'm the only one on the team who could have repelled the attack. Believe, me, Sasuke, you wouldn't want that...thing in your head, and neither would I," she said seriously. "Seeing you deal with that would have been much more painful than some missed sleep."

He blinked at her, looking a little shocked at the admission, and she blushed and concentrated on her omelet.

"And that is why I will not give away your secrets," Itachi said serenely as he sat at the table with two more plates of food. "Please, if Sasuke and I can be of help, let us."

Mayu tapped her fingers on the table for a moment. Doing this on her own just wasn't working, and she wasn't stupid enough to keep trying to push through without help. She had too much to do to wallow in angst, after all.

"What do you know about mindscapes?" she finally said before taking another careful bite of her omelet.

"Mindscapes are psychological scenes which exist in the mind, built through imagination," Itachi answered promptly, and Mayu looked down to hide her smile. Itachi was just as much of a dork as Sasuke.

"Yes, and they are generally what any mind reading or walking technique utilize. It's a visualization of our thoughts, knowledge, and memories, and we all subconsciously have them to some degree," Mayu said. "I've been working on creating an organized mindscape for six years, beyond what even the Yamanaka or geniuses like Kakashi-sensei and Itachi-sempai create almost reflexively." she nibbled on her lip before continuing. "Every memory, every piece of knowledge and every experience is filed away, and placed behind thick walls and other defenses I've built."

Itachi raised his eyebrow. "Surely, not every..."

"Yes," she said firmly. "I meditate every day if I get the chance, to keep it organized. Also, I have an eidetic memory, so they are filed with perfect recall. That's...not all," she said. "When I was six, I came across a book that detailed a technique certain monks use to give their mindscapes metaphysical form by weaving chakra into the construct."

Itachi blinked once before his eyes widened in realization. Sasuke was frowning at her, still connecting the dots. "And you've been doing this basically since you began working on the mindscape. That's..."

"Opened a whole can of worms? Yeah, apparently there were some unintended benefits and consequences," she admitted, running a hand through her hair.

"Like the ability to fight off foreign chakra attempting to integrate into your own thoughts," Itachi said slowly, and she nodded.

"Yes, but, in the course of fighting him off, my mindcave was practically destroyed," Mayu said with a shudder. "That's why I was in a coma for so long - I was repairing it, getting it in working order."

Sasuke blinked at her. "Mindcave? Seriously? You had to choose the creepiest thing you could come up with for your super-secret technique," he muttered.

"What? Caves are well-hidden and defensible! They're also full of secret passages and -"

"So," Itachi said, and he didn't raise his voice but still pulled their attention back to him, "what you're saying is that by giving your mindscape metaphysical shape using chakra, you've made it so that you could fight off things others could not, but also created an unexpected problem in the face of those attacks. If the person attacking you is strong enough to do damage, you cannot just think it away - that damage has an almost physical form that must be repaired."

Mayu blinked at him - he sure was fast on the uptake. "Well - yes. And for the most part, it is repaired, though I'm still working on a few weaknesses here and there. The real problem is that my psyche seems to believe I'm still under attack when I'm asleep or distracted. It's...a problem," she said with a grimace. "I'm also experiencing some mood swings and lack of control," she admitted sulkily, and Sasuke snorted. She made a rude gesture and shoved another bite of food into her mouth.

"Tell me what you're experiencing, exactly," Itachi demanded, so she detailed the tremors and phantom whisperings she was hearing in her sleep, or when she got too relaxed. Sasuke's lips were pinched at the end, and she couldn't help but feel a little warm and fuzzy at his worry.

"So the problem is," Itachi said slowly, "that the damage was so severe you're experiencing...echoes of it in your mind. Understandable, from your descriptions of the attack. Also, while your...mindcave...makes you less susceptible to the long-term effects of emotional trauma, I'm guessing you're still working through that part of it, as well. Somebody who values her mind and autonomy so fiercely would probably find such an attack more disturbing than others would," he said mildly, and she looked away.

"May I think on this, while you shower and take a nap?" he finally said, and she raised her eyebrows at him. He met her gaze steadily, and she sighed, already knowing she'd lost, and would indeed be napping.

After her shower, she walked into her bedroom and stopped short at the sight of Sasuke seated at her desk, scowling at a scroll. "What -" she said, and he glanced at her.

"Aniki stepped out for a moment. He suggested I read in here while you nap," he muttered, and Mayu would never admit how relieved she was to hear that. The prospect of sleeping had been made worse by knowing that she was alone in the house, vulnerable to attack.

She quirked up her lips in a smile to let him know it was alright, then crawled into bed. Just talking it out with somebody made her feel more secure like there was a solution on the horizon. Mayu had always been careful with her mental health since in her memories of Before she saw what a brain like hers could do to somebody - going out and dragging her uncle from drug houses was one of the most horrifying things she'd experienced in either life. The thought that she was so close to losing it now...well, it was just unacceptable.

"Itachi-nii will come up with something," Sasuke said suddenly, and she glanced at his stiff posture. "So don't worry so much."

Mayu made a sound of agreement and fell asleep to the sound of rustling paper and Sasuke's steady breathing. When she awoke with a start, it was getting dark, and she could smell dinner cooking and the quiet rise and fall of voices below. With a yawn, she stood and stretched, feeling better despite waking to the feeling of her mind shaking apart again.

Sighing, she shuffled down to the kitchen, expecting to find Sasuke and Itachi. They were there, but also present, sitting at the table looking exhausted, was her father. She cheered up at the sight of him and scurried over to fling herself at him.

"Papa!" she said happily, and he let out a huff of laughter before wrapping his arms around her and pulling her into his lap, unconcerned with the fact that the heir to the Uchiha clan was five feet away making rice balls, and that she really was getting too old for this.

"Mayu-chan," he said gruffly, and she let out a little puff of air at how hard he was hugging her. "Akinobu-san stopped by my office today," he muttered into her ear, and she deflated.

"Please don't lecture me," she said in a small voice. "Sasuke already did, and it was very effective." Her teammate grumbled from where he was sitting across the table, and Shikaku chuckled.

"I wasn't going to. Itachi-san said you spoke with him about it, though he wouldn't reveal what you said," and she realized he sounded hurt.

"Oh! Well, I didn't mean to keep it a secret from you," she said softly into his shoulder. "I just didn't want to bother you...you've been so busy that you aren't even coming home..."

"I'm never too busy for you," he chided gently, and she smiled a bit.

"It's okay, Itachi-sempai, we can talk about it in front of dad," she said to the man, who hummed in acknowledgment before bringing the food to the table. Mayu reluctantly slipped into the chair next to Shikaku.

"Is this your mom's recipe?" she asked excitedly. "I love Mikoto-sama's rice balls!"

Itachi nodded his head before sliding into an empty chair and serving himself some food.

"This is very good, Itachi-san," Shikaku said in some surprise. "I have to thank you for taking care of Mayu-chan. You too, Sasuke-kun," he said.

"It was no trouble, Shikaku-sama," Itachi said serenely. "My family and I consider Mayu to be our responsibility, as well."

"You'll find it's a heavy burden," Shikaku said faux-seriously, and Mayu elbowed him.

"I've thought about a solution to your problem," Itachi said once they had all filled up on rice balls. "I have already taken some steps for you, I hope you don't mind. I thought that you might favor expediency."

Shikaku's eyes narrowed, and Mayu shifted in her seat. "No, that's fine Itachi-san. Sasuke trusts you, so...that's enough for me," she said firmly. Of course, her own deductive reasoning also told her Itachi would be as good as his word, to the extent any shinobi was.

"What problem is that?" Shikaku asked, leaning back casually in his chair. Mayu winced and gave Itachi a pleading look. She didn't think she could tell her father what she'd been going through the past few weeks without breaking down. He pursed his lips, but calmly laid out the situation for Shikaku as though giving a report.

Mayu stared down at her plate as her father stiffened next to her. "Mayu-chan," he said in a calm, even tone that told her he was barely keeping his emotions in check. "I want you to know, that if you're ever going through something like this again, you can come to me. I don't care if the village is on fire around us, do you understand?"

She glanced over and saw him looking at her with such intensity that she nodded without hesitation. "Yes, I promise," she whispered, relaxing a bit at his declaration.

"Okay, then. Itachi-san, you said you had a solution in mind?" he said gruffly, and Mayu hesitated for a minute before reaching over to grab his large hand with hers. He relaxed minutely and shot her a little half smile.

"Yes. I went and spoke with Inoichi today," Itachi said, ignoring the way Mayu's eyes widened. "I explained that Mayu probably wouldn't feel comfortable with somebody from the Yamanaka clan right now, due to her trauma, and he agreed to assign her a non-clan member for her sessions." Mayu relaxed a bit. "I would suggest Mayu utilize this person to discuss the lingering effects of trauma that are not directly related to her secret technique. I also told him you were having trouble sleeping, and he supplied me with pills to assist you while we work on the underlying problem."

He stared hard at her when Mayu went to protest, and she shrunk back. Scary. "You cannot be expected to face any problem rationally on little to no sleep," he said. "This is a temporary measure, be assured. Inoichi made it clear that she shouldn't be sleeping in an empty house while using sleeping pills for security reasons. If you are amenable, she can come and stay with us on the nights you and Yoshino-san are unavailable. I understand you've both been spending most of your nights at work," he said to Shikaku without censure.

Shikaku ran his hand down his face and tilted his head in a nod. "Tonight I'll be here," he said firmly, "and I'll talk to Yoshino to see what her schedule's like. But I believe there will be a few more nights where we're out," he admitted. "So that would be appreciated." Mayu scowled at them for talking about her schedule as if she weren't there, and Sasuke smirked at her.

"I also had a thought on convincing your mind that it is no longer in danger," Itachi continued, and Mayu perked up. If she could deal with that underlying problem, the rest of her issues would become moot. "I have worked with shinobi before who struggled with similar issues - the subconscious belief that they were always in danger after returning from difficult experiences. One practice that seemed effective was the use of affirmations."

Mayu raised a skeptical eyebrow. "You want me to give myself pep talks in the mirror every morning?" she asked dryly, and Sasuke snickered.

"You are bold, you are beautiful, you are perfect!" he said, and Mayu threw a rice ball at him. Itachi sighed, waiting for them to calm down before continuing.

"No. I want you to affirm that you're safe, and no longer under attack, while...weaving chakra into your mindscape. From what you said, that's an almost-daily activity. If Orochimaru is able to push his consciousness, or some part of it, into his chakra and transfer it into somebody else's thoughts..."

"Oh!" Mayu said and slapped a hand to her forehead. "You think I can do the same, but to myself. That's - that's brilliant!" she said. "Itachi-sempai, you're so smart!"

Shikaku sighed. "Mayu-chan, don't let Shikamaru hear you talking that way, he'll get jealous."

Sasuke wrinkled his nose, and Mayu stuck her tongue out at her father. After some more discussion, Itachi solemnly told her the date and time of her appointment with her new therapist and handed Shikaku the bottle of sleeping pills.

"Perhaps you would like to spend the day at the Uchiha compound tomorrow," Itachi said. "Sasuke and I will be training, but you could work on your projects out in the sun."

"Won't I be interfering with your super-secret training?" she asked.

"I am not stupid enough to believe that there will be any secrets on your team after this," Itachi said, and she blinked at him before exchanging a look with Sasuke.

That night after the Uchiha brothers left, Shikaku fussed at her a bit before tucking her into bed, watching with sharp eyes as she swallowed down the sleeping pill. "Do you ever regret it?" she mumbled at him as her eyes grew heavy.

"Regret what?" he asked as he adjusted her blankets.

"Taking me in...I know I'm kind of a pain, with the experiments and the constantly getting into trouble..." she broke off on a yawn.

"Never," he said gently. "None of us could ever regret you, Mayu-chan. Now go to sleep, I'll see you in the morning, okay?" and he sat down on the bed next to her until she fell asleep.

The next few days were spent either running verbal circles around her assigned therapist until the woman was gazing at her with soft doe eyes and writing reports about her brave recovery from her terrible mental trauma, meditating in a tree while Sasuke's brother kicked him around a training ground, and fiddling with some of her projects on her front porch.

Three days into her 'affirmation therapy' Mayu had to admit it was working. That might have something to do with actually getting some sleep and eating, as well. The sleeping pills kept her from dreaming, even if she did wake up feeling groggy and hungover. On the fourth night, she skipped the pill and slept the full night without a problem. Shikaku gave her a relieved smile when she reported into him and walked her to the woodshop for the first time since Akinobu kicked her out after extracting a promise that she'd stop to eat her bento and be home that evening.

Akinobu glared at her for a bit but seemed to calm down after she slipped a new schematic onto his desk when he left for lunch. It was the closest to a heartfelt conversation they'd ever get, but that was fine - he knew it was an apology, and she knew she'd been forgiven. Rika-sempai was as enthusiastic as ever and had even been working on a few of the pieces Mayu had abandoned when she'd been thrown out the last time she had been there.

Kiba stopped by that evening to see her, giving her a huge hug and putting Akamaru into her lap for some cuddle time. Hinata was trailing behind him, looking unsure of her welcome until Mayu smiled and offered her some tea.

"Sorry we didn't stop by before - Shino and I've been busy helping with repairs, and Hinata's been stuck in physical therapy," he explained.

Mayu waved that off, and they spent the next hour chatting about what she'd missed while in her coma, and Hinata's recovery.

"I can get back to training, now," the shy girl admitted quietly, "though Kurenai has been out on missions, so I don't know when she'll have time. Lee-san's sensei offered to help me since he's staying in-village as a Hokage's guard, but..."

"She's a little shy 'bout goin' on her own," Kiba said, patting her gently - for him - on the arm, "and Shino and I are too busy. I know ya got the same problem as Hinata and Lee, so I thought maybe you'd wanna go. Their sensei is crazy, but if you wanna get into shape fast, he's good for it."

Mayu blinked at them for a minute, taking in Kiba's pleading posture. He really needed her to help Hinata out, who for some reason seemed comfortable around her. Fighting through enemy forces while wearing hospital gowns must be a bonding experience. "Well...I am getting tired of sitting around," she said slowly and was rewarded with a smile and slap on the back from Kiba and a bark from Akamaru.

"Great! Lee's team meets at sunrise in training ground eleven," he said cheerfully.

"Um, I could come and pick you up?" Hinata said in a timid voice, as though bracing for rejection. "We could walk together."

Mayu shrugged. "Sure." From the slightly guilty looks on their faces, she was guessing that whoever Lee's sensei was, he was more than just a little crazy.

000

Mayu lay on the ground, gasping for air and regretting everything. Hinata wasn't doing much better, though she was somehow looking noble and lady-like about it. Team Gai was still going strong, all of them counting off pushups as their sensei stood on a training post, the sun rising behind him and reflecting off his unnaturally shiny hair.

"My team! I am so proud of your Most Youthful Endeavor to help Lee and his bosom companions, made in his time of need, recover from their Harrowing Experiences and once again become as strong in body as they are in spirit!" he yelled to the sky.

"Gai-sensei!" Lee shouted from where he was on his three hundredth push-up. His eyes were glittering with tears and there was a look of fierce determination on his face. "If my bosom companions and I do not recover our youthful vigor within one month, we will run around the village with our legs tied together one hundred times!"

"Lee!"

"Gai-sensei!"

"Lee!"

The student and teacher fell together into manly tears, and Mayu gave Hinata a wide-eyed, terrified look. She would protest Lee's declaration, she really would, but she didn't have the air to spare. The girl was suddenly, intensely thankful for her team, strange porn-reading sensei, emotionally stunted boys, and all. Hinata was obviously having similar thoughts.

One thing she had to say about Team Gai, though - they were all in insanely good shape. Even the kunoichi, TenTen, was still going strong on her pushups. Through the disturbingly thin material of Gai and Lee's jumpsuits, she could see their muscle definition, especially on Gai. The man was a tank, and surprisingly spry. He was also extremely enthusiastic, and when Hinata had bowed politely and explained why they were there, he had declared that he would help the students of his comrades while they were unable to, or swim across the pond in training ground eleven one thousand times.

He'd also called Kakashi-sensei his eternal rival, which. Huh. It would make sense that Kakashi's friends were a strange bunch, really. Gai had extricated himself from his touching scene with Lee and flounced over to them.

"Mayu-chan, Hinata-chan, now that our warmup is over, we must discuss your Goals and Dreams and identify your Style of Fighting so I may come up with the program that best fits your needs!" he gave them a thumbs up and a wide grin.

"Warm up?" Mayu said faintly.

"Yes! Don't worry, I'm sure by the end of the week you'll be able to do the full routine with my students!" Mayu blinked for a moment before sending Hinata a glare, who meeped and cringed. Well, Mayu had wanted to start training more seriously - it didn't seem to get much more serious than Gai's love of physical fitness.

"I assume Hinata's style and strengths are similar to that of Neji. NEJI!" he bellowed, and the solemn boy who was responsible for Hinata's injuries in the first place appeared next to Gai.

"Yes, sensei?" he asked seriously, eyes darting over Hinata's form as though checking that she hadn't keeled over. Mayu's teammates had told her about Naruto's fight with the Hyuuga, and from what she'd seen, his Love and Peace talk seemed to have, once again, hit its mark. The two cousins must have spoken and made up before this practice because Hinata seemed unconcerned with her cousin's presence.

"Would you be so kind as to show Hinata the exercises that I started you out within the dawn of your youthful endeavor of becoming a ninja?" he beamed at Neji, who didn't even blink at his request. Instead, he bowed to Hinata and offered her his hand. She blushed and stammered out a thank you as he hauled her up and led her serenely towards the other side of the training field.

Maito Gai's attention then focused completely on her, and Mayu had to force herself not to flinch away. "Ah...thank you again for your assistance, Gai-sensei," she said nervously and grimaced at his beaming thumbs up.

"Now, tell me about your specialties! My Eternal Rival has told me a bit about you, but I'll need a more thorough idea of your needs before we can truly begin!"

Mayu did the Nara slow blink to give herself a moment and staggered to her feet. "Well, the taijutsu I use is a family technique taught to me by my mother," she said hesitantly. "It relies on speed, flexibility, and dexterity more than power. I use puppets in tandem, though I'm in the process of...rebuilding after the attack by Orochimaru." she forced herself to say the Sannin's name without inflection, and she saw he was intrigued by the idea of a taijutsu style he hadn't encountered.

"Actually, the new puppet I'm building is a bit heavier than what I'm used to, and I plan on carrying it on my back when going into combat situations," she said. "I'm...a little concerned about the extra weight throwing off my taijutsu. I was going to speak with Kakashi-sensei about it, but..."

Gai studied her for a moment before calling Lee over. "If you would not mind, Mayu-chan, could you spar with Lee so I may see your style in action?"

Mayu brightened - she hadn't sparred in, well, months. "Sure! Just...it's been awhile Lee-san, so don't kick me through a tree, okay? I really, really don't want to go to the hospital again."

"Yosh! I will take care of you with everything I have, Mayu-chan! I am in debt to you, after all! Twice now, you have saved me from my own foolish arrogance and kept me on the path of the true ninja! I will not disappoint you!"

Mayu stared for a moment. Did he mean the time she twisted his ear before the chuunin exams and when she insisted he give an accurate report of his physical condition at the hospital? "Uh...it was no problem, really. You don't owe me anything," she said a little desperately.

"As expected, you are most Kind and Giving! It is no wonder your beloved was so upset by your convalescence!"

"My what?" she said a bit faintly, but Gai was already herding them to an open area to begin sparring. When he told them to begin, Lee seemed to disappear from her sight.

Luckily, she sparred with Yoshino enough that she reacted quickly, jumping up and into a twist, barely avoiding the kick to her side. Remembering how powerful Lee's hits were, she spun out of the way when he sent a punch flying towards her stomach instead of blocking. When he followed up with another punch, she took the opportunity to grab his hand and throwing him over her shoulder.

He easily righted himself in midair and landed on his feet, beaming and exclaiming on her Youthfulness. It only took him about two minutes to subdue her, and she scowled from where she was lying facedown on the ground with her arm twisted behind her back. "Yield," she said with a sigh, and he let her go and then helped her stand. She put her hands on her knees and fought off dizziness and frustration.

"This is such a drag," she said, temper flaring. Her mood swings had improved the past few days, but it's not like patience was ever a strong suit of hers, anyway. "The next time I see Orochimaru, he's getting a face full of acid."

"Your enthusiasm is truly inspiring!" Gai boomed from next to her, and she flinched. "I must say, your fighting technique is very graceful and beautiful. Perhaps you could tell me more about it while we rest in the shade! Lee - go get Mayu some water!"

"Yes, sensei!" the boy said with such determination that you'd think Gai had asked him to go out and defeat Orochimaru for her.

Gai and Lee listened with enthusiasm as she told him about the Hashino Deadly Dance Style. "Right now, I'm on stage four. Mom said I was almost ready for stage five before I was injured. I'll need to get back up to speed, first," she said, then hesitated before sharing the next bit. "She said she only perfected through stage four before her grandmother died, though. We're going to look over the scroll together to try and continue it, but," she shrugged helplessly and Gai looked thoughtful.

"Perhaps your mother would be willing to converse with me on the topic of this Deadly Dance Style! It is my goal to learn as many styles of taijutsu as I can, and my student Lee shares this dream!" he declared.

"You'd have to ask her - it's a family technique, but, since she's the last blooded Hashino..." Mayu bit her lip as she thought about it. "She might be willing to let you take a look in exchange for your help, but I'll have to ask. Right now she's really busy at the hospital - we lost a lot of medics the day of the attack," she said, and Gai nodded solemnly.

"Lee-san, I assume you remember your speed training that we began upon your induction as my student?" he boomed, done with the sad subject matter.

Lee straightened comically. "Yes, Sensei!"

"Then I leave it to you to instruct Mayu-chan! We must build up her speed and strength without taking away her flexibility and fleetness of foot!" he declared, and Mayu resisted the urge to groan at the thought of more exercise. She really hoped Kakashi-sensei returned soon.

Gai released them an hour and a half later, cheerfully instructing Hinata and Mayu to return the same time the next day. Sweaty and exhausted, Mayu showered and collapsed on the couch for a nap before heading to Akinobu's shop. Her month was almost up, after all, and she really, really wanted something to show for it.

The next morning Gai cheerfully presented her with a black, slim vest with square pockets littered throughout and a stack of palm-sized metal disks that were surprisingly heavy. "I have brought you this weighted vest!" he said cheerfully. "You are to wear it at all times, and eventually the extra weight of your puppets will be nothing! We will slowly add weight to this every three days," he said as he bullied her into it over her tunic.

"Uh," she said as she staggered a little under the added weight on already-sore muscles.

"Do not worry! By slowly adding these disks and creating a training program that focuses on speed, flexibility, and dexterity, we should continue to hit the Right Balance so that you may master the style of fighting your family was once famous for!" he declared, and sparkles appeared around his head.

Feeling oddly touched by the thought he'd obviously put into her dilemma, she found herself beaming at him. "Thanks, Gai-sensei! Um, how much did the vest cost? I don't have money on me, but as soon as I see one of my parents..."

"Nonsense! Lee has spoken to me about how you saved him from disgracing himself with the Power of Your Words and Conviction! Consider this a thank you gift for teaching him such important lessons, and for guarding him fiercely as you bravely fought your way through the hospital!"

"Uh...that's not necessary..." she said faintly, but he would hear no more of it, and she finally gave up.

Yoshino and Shikaku both came home that night and took in the vest, new bruises, and smiling face of their daughter. She sat them down and went about making dinner, chattering on about Gai-sensei and his team and her new training regime as she did so.

"Mom, did you know he's a taijutsu specialist? Lee told me he's perfected over one hundred and fifty styles! I told him about the problem we ran into with the stages, and he said he'd be willing to help us out, just for the chance to learn something new. I told him it was up to you..."

They both nodded along, and Mayu ignored the palpable air of relief floating around them at her recovery. After she'd gotten ahold of her downward spiral and used Itachi's idea of weaving reassurances into her chakra construct in her mindscape, things had improved quickly. She had forgotten exactly how powerful her mind could be for a while there. Mycroft had been careful to impress the importance of maintaining her mental health onto Diana Holmes, but between the emotional trauma and the actual destruction Orochimaru had wrought on her mind, she'd lost the plot a little.

Oh, well, you live and you learn. Next time she wouldn't wait so long to seek help. The therapist had been completely useless, of course, but Mayu knew it would take a greater mind than what they threw at her to crack through her misdirection. Luckily Itachi-sempai was actually the genuine genius the village hailed him as.

"Things are calming down a bit at the hospital," Yoshino admitted. "I should be back to a normal schedule soon, so I can help out more with your training. I'm sorry I've been so unavailable. Maybe I should have waited until you and Shika were both chunin to go back to work."

Mayu rolled her eyes as both her parents hunched over, looking horribly guilty. "Mom, you said yourself that's what my genin team is for. Sasuke and Itachi-sempai were able to help me just fine, and Gai-sensei doesn't seem to mind taking me on. I think he might be a little bit in love with Kakashi-sensei, not that I blame him. Sensei's pretty dreamy."

Shikaku choked on his tea and Yoshino let out a bark of surprised laughter. "What? He's much too old for me, plus I'm pretty sure he has a crush on Ensui-niisan ever since he punched him in the face. There's just no competing with that," she said cheerfully before shoving rice in her mouth and watching Shikaku lose all the color in his face at the thought of Kakashi violating his poor little brother. She decided not to mention that she'd caught Ensui checking out her sensei when he came to pick her up from practice one day. She'd save that for the next time she needed to distract them.

000

"Shika!" Mayu launched herself off the front porch where she'd been playing shogi with Sasuke and slammed into the dirty, bedraggled Nara, her weight combined with the extra pull from the vest sending them crashing to the ground.

"Mayu," he wheezed, and she wiggled up to inspect his face, which was dirty and a little leaner than usual, sharp eyes looking for injury. She squeaked when he grabbed her and pulled her down for a hug and then relaxed into it. "My Mayu," he muttered into her hair, and her breath caught. He'd said the same thing when he'd seen her for the first time after she awoke from her coma, but she wasn't sure that he'd even realized he was doing it.

"Yeah," she agreed after a few beats, and shoved her nose into his neck, pouting when she realized the spicy scent from the Nara soaps was missing after so long on the road. "You need a shower," she muttered, and he chuckled. After a few beats, he gently pushed her back so he could sit up.

"You look better," he drawled, ignoring the face Sasuke was making in their direction. "Where were you last time I came home?"

Wincing at the accusatory tone, she shrugged and looked away. "I was having some trouble sleeping -" Sasuke snorted and she stopped to stick her tongue out at him, "-so I was at Akinobu-sensei's shop. I'm better now, though!"

The two boys exchanged a look that Mayu figured communicated their intention to gossip about her later, and she rolled her eyes and pulled Shikamaru inside. Sasuke excused himself to go home, and Mayu started putting together dinner while Shikamaru showered.

By the time he came back downstairs, both Yoshino and Shikaku were home, and Mayu found she couldn't stop smiling all night. It was good to have her whole family in one place again. Even if they insisted on lecturing her about her sleeping habits and diet.

"I have four days off," Shikamaru drawled when his mother asked. "And then I'm to report into Intelligence. I'll be doing missions with Team Ten as well as that rotation."

Shikaku ruffled his hair. "I'm proud of you," he said and Mayu and Yoshino both nodded.

"So what's up with the extra weight?" Shikamaru asked, gesturing to her vest, and Mayu went over the training regime Gai was putting her through.

"Mom, that reminds me - can I invite Gai-sensei over for dinner tomorrow night to talk about the Deadly Dancing Style?" Mayu asked.

Yoshino leaned back thoughtfully. "You know, I never even considered asking a taijutsu expert for help mastering the rest. I think...if he agrees to keep the style to himself and possibly one student, that would be...acceptable. It's better than letting it die out, anyway," she said with a small shrug.

Gai did indeed agree to help Yoshino out, with the stipulation that he would teach Lee as well after Mayu passed the chunin exams. Shikamaru raised his eyebrow at Mayu as if to say you're really going to do this? She just shrugged back - she actually liked Gai, he was one of the strongest and weirdest shinobi in the village, and she just had to respect that.

She and Shikamaru spent a full day and a half lazing around until Ino and Chouji showed up to bully him into a team practice, and Mayu returned to working at the wood shop in between practices with Gai. After just two weeks, she could already feel the difference in her strength, and it made her almost giddy. That evening Pakkun showed up with a message letting her know that team practice would reconvene in two days.

"Oh no! I have so much to finish before Naruto and Kakashi-sensei come home!" she yelled and stood up from her half-finished dinner. "Bye mom, Shika - I'm going to spend a few hours at Akinobu's!" She ignored their protests as she darted off.

The next morning, after waking up draped over her completed puppet, she wiped the drool off of it and stood back. "Oh, you're beautiful," she whispered and extended her chakra threads.

Shikaku received various reports that day of his daughter slowly walking through the Nara compound, face scrunched up in concentration, with a large armored spider that stood to mid-thigh skittering next to her like some disturbing pet. Akinobu's whole shop walked around looking smug - after all, they'd all pitched in to help the girl that they kind-of-sort-of considered their shinobi mascot build up her puppet arsenal again. Rika-sempai even shed a few tears, patting the spider on the head and bidding it a fond farewell.

Mayu took a nap when she came home, leaving Junior crouched in the living room downstairs, where he startled each of her family members in turn as they returned home for the evening.

When Kakashi cheerfully appeared only an hour late to practice the next morning - after all, he had missed his cute little genin - he drew up short at the site of what used to be a very nice clearing for sparring. Now, it was covered in craters and blown up bits of targets. And...some sort of twisted hunk of metal.

"Okay, Shika, I made these just for you!" Mayu's cheerful voice said, and he held back a groan at the sight of his students plus the youngest Nara standing calmly amidst the destruction. Kakashi was going to be in so much trouble for this. Mayu was holding up what looked like a cylinder in the boy's direction, and the copy-nin slumped at the excitement in her voice. Usually, anything that made Mayu excited was bad news for the terrain.

"It's a flash-bomb! You don't want to look right at it, but it'll light up an area for five seconds. I thought it'd be useful when you need to create and move a shadow quickly in low lighting. Naruto, can -"

"You got it, Mayu-chan!" a clone appeared and grabbed the flash bomb from Mayu than took off across the field before pulling what looked like a thin piece of metal from the top. Seconds later, a large flash of light engulfed the field, and Kakashi was forced to squint his eye shut against it even in the afternoon sun.

When he looked over again, she was beaming up at the Nara, who was giving her a soft smile that Kakashi had never actually seen on a biological member of that particular clan before. It was so disturbing that he had to put a stop to it immediately. Nobody should be staring at his cute little student like that!

"Shikamaru-kun, I didn't know you were part of Team Seven now," he said as he cheerfully appeared next to them. His plan to intimidate the boy was completely thwarted when two of his three students almost knocked him over with the force of their enthusiastic hugs.

"Kakashi-sensei! I missed you!" Naruto yelled, and he had to admit something softened in his chest when Mayu and Naruto released him. Even Sasuke looked pleased to see him. "Ah, my students! Look at you, still alive after a whole month without me here to bail you out of trouble. I'm so proud."

Ah, there were those sweet little glares he'd missed so much. "Though I see you still had to cause trouble, but one step at a time," he said, gesturing to the training ground. Mayu's eyes lit up, and she bounced on the balls of her feet excitedly for a moment.

"Sensei! You have to see what I made for us. Well, for us and Shika's team. And Team Gai, too, since they've been helping me -" her voice became muffled as she shoved half her upper body into a large bag to rummage around until she came out holding up another cylindrical shaped black tube in the air in triumph. Kakashi snatched it out of her hand to examine it, and Sasuke twitched towards him in alarm.

"Uh, sensei, don't pull the pin at the top, okay?" Naruto said with a nervous laugh, and Kakashi raised his eyebrow as Shikamaru mumbled something about 'learning the hard way.'

With a sigh, he tossed it to Sasuke, whose eyes widened. "Well, show me how it works," Kakashi said cheerfully.

Mayu motioned for Sasuke to go ahead, and the boy shrugged, then tugged the long piece of metal twisted into a loop at one end out of the top and turned and threw it about twenty feet away. Mayu had started counting down under her breath. "Five, four, three, two, one..." all of the children solemnly covered their ears, and a moment later Kakashi realized why as the cylinder exploded with a huge boom, sending dirt and clumps of grass sailing through the air. When the smoke had cleared and his ears had stopped ringing, there was a new crater about five feet in diameter in the training field, and Mayu was looking smug.

"They're called grenades, and there's no chakra required," she said. "It's all chemical." then she turned wide expectant eyes on him, and he had to fight through his shock to pat her on the head.

"Ah, Mayu, that's very destructive."

She beamed at him, and Shikamaru sighed. Kakashi smiled at his team. It was good to be home.

Kakashi finally calmed them down enough to sit in the shade under the branches of a large tree away from the destruction. Shikamaru had slouched off soon after he arrived, citing his own team practice he needed to get to. Currently, he was listening to Naruto's retelling of his month.

"He made me meditate all the time," he was saying, looking put out. "And he constantly ran off to do 'research,' whatever that means. But eventually, I made him teach me a cool jutsu! I learned it, like, super fast," he bragged.

"Well, let's see it, then," Kakashi said lazily, and Naruto jumped up, making a familiar sign, and two shadow clones popped into existence beside him. He then held his hand out to the side, and his clones worked their hands over his, faces lined in concentration, and Mayu leaned forward in interest as a whirling ball of chakra appeared in his palm. Then he turned to a tree, and slammed his hand into it, yelling "Rasengan!" Mayu's jaw dropped as the tree exploded outward.

"Woah," she said, and looked over at Kakashi, who looked a bit like he'd been punched in the gut.

"Pervy Sage said that the Fourth Hokage created that and that it was super impressed that I learned it in a month," he said smugly.

"That's...very good, Naruto," Kakashi-sensei said, voice subdued, and Mayu agreed and began enthusiastically asking questions about the process, Sasuke listening avidly, to cover for her sensei's odd mood. Poor sensei, she thought and leaned into him a bit to offer comfort.

"Okay!" he said when he'd recovered. "Sasuke, how was your training?"

The boy shrugged. "I've adjusted to the mature Sharingan," he said. "Itachi and my father also taught me an evolved form of our clan's taijutsu style to compensate for how much faster my body will want to move in response to being able to judge my opponent's movements more effectively. I've also been working on increasing my speed and dexterity in general. Itachi worked with me on incorporating ninja wire into our clan's fire jutsu, and taught me the Great Fire Dragon." he said the last a little smugly, and Mayu couldn't really blame him. That was an impressive list.

"Show us!" Naruto breathed in excitement, and Mayu nodded enthusiastically. They watched the huge dragon made of fire tear across the training grounds in awe after Sasuke stood and nonchalantly went through the signs before expelling a monster of flame from his mouth.

"Your clan is so cool," Mayu breathed after he sat down, and he smirked.

"Well," Kakashi said, "as always, your brother was thorough in his task. That's very impressive, Sasuke-kun - the only other Uchiha I've known besides Itachi to master that jutsu at your age was Shisui-san."

"You and Naruto are going to be so scary!" Mayu said, eyes glinting in glee.

Kakashi gave a pointed look around the field. "I'd say they aren't the only ones, Mayu-chan," he said wryly, and to his amusement she blushed and looked down, playing with the grass. He'd heard some disturbing reports about his female student's mental and physical health this past month, but she seemed to be recovering well enough. "Well, it's your turn. What have you been up to this month other than creating explosive devices and presents for Shikamaru-kun?"

She brightened, then stood and stepped back a few paces. "Oh! I learned metalworking, sensei! And I built a combat puppet and - here, let me show you." With a flick of her wrist one of the scrolls from her carousel unrolled, and she easily ran her thumb along the length, pumping chakra into it until with a poof of smoke her puppet appeared in midair. She quickly extended four strings from each hand to grab ahold of it and lower it carefully to the ground in a ready position, flicking the scroll in the carousel so it neatly rolled back up again. It was possible she spent a full sleepless night practicing that trick. Maybe. In any case, her teammates looked suitably impressed with it, and with her puppet.

"This is Bukimi Junior, but I just call him Bukimi or Junior," she said, patting its head. "He's pretty heavy, but Gai-sensei has been helping me build strength without sacrificing speed by slowly adding weights to this vest every day, so soon I'll be able to carry him on my back when going into combat situations," she said cheerfully, pulling at the edge of the black weighted vest.

"Ah, Mayu-chan, that's very...terrifying," Kakashi said faintly, leaning away from the huge arachnid prancing around the grass in front of its mistress.

"You think so?" she said shyly, pleased. "Do you want to see what he does?" Without waiting for an answer, she moved out to the middle of the field. "Naruto, can you make some clones?"

Three clones charged her, and with a look on concentration from his mistress, Junior jumped straight into the fray. With a movement of her finger, wicked looking blades extended from the first joint on all of its eight legs, and Junior went into a spin, cutting through two of the clones with the extended blades before the third jumped back. Before the clone could recover, Junior landed lightly on the ground. It then spun to face the clone, and with another small movement from Mayu, a hail of senbon flew from four of its eight eye sockets, piercing and dispelling it.

"Hey, that worked better than I thought it would!" she cheered. "Those senbon are coated in a paralytic. He also shoots powdered poison from three of his eyes at enemies. The metal casing on his back and head will act as a shield both for him and me," she said distractedly as she resealed him in the scroll. "Oh! And, you guys, I realized I'm an idiot," she said, face falling into annoyance. "When I went to the Puppet Fair in Suna, the puppets in the tournament fights were able to take hits without completely falling apart like my puppets do. I had thought it was something wrong with my craftsmanship, but then I realized as I was looking at different chakra conductive woods, that I had it all wrong. They're chakra conductive!" she said in exasperation, throwing her hands up and looking at them expectantly.

"Uh, so?" Naruto said. "What does that have to do with anything?"

Mayu huffed. "Naruto, why are our bodies able to take hits that would shatter the bones of civilians without more than a bruise?"

Kakashi straightened. "Ah. I see. Hmm."

"What! See what?" Naruto demanded as Sasuke hummed in recognition as well.

"Idiot. We're able to take more damage because we instinctively feed chakra into the spot we're about to be hit to strengthen it. So, she just needs to create a barrier with chakra on her puppets to protect them, as well." Sasuke explained.

"Right! I can't believe I didn't see that," Mayu said, and pouted. "Poor Bukimi and Baru and Kichi. If I had realized earlier..."

"They still would have been destroyed," Kakashi said dismissively. "Orochimaru is an S-class criminal, one hit from him probably would have shattered them despite the chakra feed."

Mayu looked down at her hands and swallowed. "Yeah," she agreed. A hand landed on her shoulder and she glanced over at Sasuke, who was giving her a steady look. With a deep breath, she shook off her melancholy and gave him a small thankful nod.

"Anyway, I think I'll need to work on that...if you guys are willing to help me out," she said a little shyly.

"You can count on us!" Naruto said with a grin, and Sasuke and Kakashi both grunted in agreement.

"I haven't done much physical training since I was recovering," Mayu said with a shrug, "but Gai-sensei was already helping Lee and Hinata with building their physical fitness back up after long hospital stays, so he helped me, too. He's also working with mom on the Hashino Deadly Dance Style - he thinks he can learn it and then help me get to the next stage," she said, then did a double take at Kakashi's slumped form.

"Kakashi-sensei? Are you okay?" she asked.

"My students all replaced me so easily," he said mournfully.

"What! We didn't replace you!" Naruto said, looking horrified.

"I left for a month, and when I came back you'd already found somebody you like better than me," Kakashi said dramatically, and Mayu and Sasuke did identical eye rolls as Naruto fluttered around their pouting sensei.

"Kakashi-sensei, we may have gotten some specialized help, but you're our sensei and team leader, and we really need your help with training," Mayu said firmly. "Papa is helping me with capture and interrogation, and Gai-sensei is helping mom and me with our family style, but you're who we need to teach us to function as a team. Also, Itachi-sempai said that I need to master at least two elemental techniques to be considered for the MPF, and I know that tracking will be useful too. Sasuke is really good at learning new jutsu - if you focused on how to memorize and copy jutsu, I know he'll do your legacy as the copy-nin justice! And Naruto -"

"Yes, Mayu, thank you," he said, amused. "Stop taking the wind out of my sails and let me tell you my training plans for you, hmm?"

"Well, if you'd just get to the point," she muttered with a sniff.

"Well then! We have eight months until the next chuunin exam -" Kakashi began, and was cut off by Naruto's protests. "Naruto, there was a bit of a problem with the exam schedule. Kiri historically would be next, but as they've shut down their borders, Hot Water village ended up being the host ahead of schedule. To keep from putting too much pressure on them, as they're a smaller village, they were given an extra three months - so, there are nine months between exams this time instead of six." he ignored Naruto's pouting and Sasuke's glowering and continued. "So, I've decided on a training and missions schedule that should benefit all of you. I suspect you'll be a little overpowered for the chunin exams, but probably all of the villages will have the same issue, so it should still be a fair fight."

Mayu hummed thoughtfully. "Plus, while we're genin we'll have more time and attention from a strong sensei to start specializing and increasing our strength. If you aren't worried about actual ranks, doing it this way is better for our growth in the long run."

Kakashi nodded happily. "Plus, you get to spend more time with me."

"So what is this training schedule?" Sasuke said suspiciously, and Kakashi beamed at him.

"Well, I think we can all agree that we're good enough to do mostly C-ranks now. We'll take one or two a week on average, give or take depending on the length of missions. Three days a week we'll do team practice in the mornings. We'll focus on team formations and mastering elemental affinities. In the afternoons, I'll switch off doing individual training - Mayu in tracking and her puppetry, Sasuke in jutsu copying and creation, and Naruto in a mix of trap setting and learning new jutsu. Outside of your time spent with me, you all need to keep up with your own training routines, as you did this month. Mayu with Gai and Yoshino, Sasuke with his family, and Naruto - keep up with the meditation exercises Jiraiya taught you, and Yoshino said she'd work with you once a week on the taijutsu style she is teaching you. I'll join you for awhile so I can work with you on it, as well. I'm also familiar with the style."

Mayu hummed. "I also need to spend time in the lab and shop. I have some gadgets I was hoping you'd look over, sensei," she said seriously. "And...if you're interested, I can keep making grenades and smoke bombs and such for our team, but I might need some help purchasing supplies."

"We use them in a lot of our formations," Sasuke said, "and all of us use them in our personal arsenals as well. Even Itachi-niisan was impressed."

"I used your smoke bombs a few times this month, and my team was very jealous," Kakashi said smugly, and Mayu's cheeks flushed with pleasure at their praise. "I would suggest that we create an account for team expenses - we could put a portion of our mission pay into it that Mayu-chan could pull from."

"Mayu shouldn't have to contribute money to that since she puts in all that time!" Naruto said, and Mayu scowled.

"No, you guys put in a lot of extra time helping me with my puppetry - we should all contribute to the fund equally," she said, narrowing her eyes. They squabbled for a bit, but Mayu wouldn't be moved, so instead, Sasuke and Naruto agreed to spend half a day a week assisting Mayu in puppet practice.

Once that was decided, Kakashi declared their meeting over and told them to show up at the gates ready for a two-day courier mission at dawn. "Naruto," Mayu said before they could part for the day. "Is Jiraiya sticking around to train you for a while?"

He shrugged. "I don't know - he travels a lot, but he said he was here for a month or so to help Granny Tsunade out with something. Why?"

She met his eyes firmly. "What do you know about the Uzumaki clan?"

"I have a clan?" he said, and she winced.

"They were...mostly wiped out when the Village Hidden in the Whirlpool fell. But, Naruto, they were known for their seal work. Famous for it, actually." Mayu said.

"Seals...what, like the scrolls and explosive tags you make?" he asked, expression suddenly intense.

"I mean, that's basically beginners stuff. With sealing you can do a lot of amazing things. And your clan were naturals at it, partly due to their large chakra stores. Naruto," she said, meeting his eyes squarely, "Jiraiya is a seal master. You should ask him to teach you - it's practically your birthright." Also, your father was a genius at them, she didn't say.

Sasuke made an interested noise, and Naruto got that determined glint in his eyes that Mayu knew meant that no just wasn't an answer he'd accept. He nodded firmly. "I will. Thanks, Mayu-chan." he then gave her his brightest smile, and she couldn't help but return it as something in her that had been wound tight since she awoke in the hospital loosened. It was good to have her team back.

000

Two weeks later, Inoichi had declared Mayu free of Orochimaru's influence after a few awkward sessions. Her therapist had insisted that they avoid any mind walking from the Yamanaka clan so as not to trigger Mayu's trauma. With some pressure from Itachi and Shikaku, and what Mayu assumed was reassurances of her sanity by Gai and Kakashi, Tsunade reluctantly agreed. Mayu was relieved, but also a little horrified at the huge breach of security that she was. Oh, well.

They had just returned from their second courier mission after Team Seven was reunited, and Mayu and Sasuke were arguing. "You burnt the leg off my puppet!" she yelled.

"I was saving your ass," he replied with a sniff, and she stomped her foot.

"You broke formation, and don't give me that bullshit excuse about your magic eyes seeing something I couldn't. This is your fault, and you're buying the materials I need to fix poor Bukimi Junior," she said with a pout.

He scoffed. "No."

With a shriek of anger - this was the third time they'd had this same conversation - she pounced on him. "You'll pay for it whether you like it or not, you peacock!"

"Get off me!" he said, pushing her away from him with a hand on her face as they wrestled on the ground.

"No! Not until you agree to pay for Junior's repairs!" She hissed, then yelped as he managed to roll them over so he was straddling her stomach.

"Ha!" She crowed as she used a chakra thread to grab his wallet from his pouch and bring it to her right hand, which she clutched protectively to her chest before he could snatch it back.

"Um, sensei, aren't you going to stop them?" Naruto asked nervously as their wrestling match devolved into a slap fight. Kakashi just hummed from behind his book, unconcerned with the scene his team was making.

"No! You can't have it!" Mayu yelled, then shrieked as he attempted to pry her fingers from his wallet.

The fight ended abruptly as Sasuke was plucked off of her by two extensions of shadows and unceremoniously tossed ten feet down the street. He managed to twist in the air and land in a defensive crouch, and for a moment everybody paused to adjust to the change in the situation.

Kakashi waved at Team Ten, who had joined them on the street, Asuma with his eyebrows raised at the student standing in front of him, looking murderous and releasing the hand signs for his shadows. The blonde girl - Mina? Tino? Whatever, Kakashi couldn't remember her name, was yelling at Shikamaru about attacking Sasuke, and Chouji looked as long-suffering as an Akimichi was capable of.

Mayu sat up, still clutching the stolen wallet to her chest, and blinked in confusion for a moment before her eyes fell upon the Nara boy. The petulant expression she'd been wearing since the unfortunate loss of Junior's limb to friendly fire dropped off her face. Her eyes widened and... glistened with tears?

"Shika!" She wailed and flew from her spot on the ground into his arms. "Sasuke burned Bukimi Junior's leg off! And now he won't agree to buy the wood to fix him." She sniffled into his chest as his expression softened and he put his arms around her.

"Is that right?" he said lightly but turned hard eyes set in a suspiciously shadowed face at Sasuke, who actually looked a little nervous. "I was wondering what possible reason he could have for attacking you unprovoked," He continued, and his expression clearly communicated you will regret this as he stared Sasuke down, who was sputtering at the word 'unprovoked.'

Mayu sniffled again and nodded. "He's been so mean to me all day," she said pitifully while sending Sasuke a smug smile from under Shikamaru's chin where he'd tucked her head.

"I'm sure he's seen the error of his ways," Shikamaru said pointedly, and Sasuke looked away with a "hn." Kakashi mentally applauded his survival instincts.

Mayu straightened up from the hug and beamed at Shikamaru, who returned her smile with that disturbing soft one of his own that no Nara should ever wear, ever.

"We were going to stop by a merchant that sells the right wood on our way to eat. Do you want to come?" Kakashi smirked a little at his book when The Eyes made an appearance and Shikamaru immediately caved.

"Sure. We were on our way to eat, too. We don't mind going with you, first." He wrapped an arm around her waist as they started down the road, impervious to Sasuke's sulking.

"We don't, huh?" Asuma said, looking highly disturbed.

"There's no fighting it, Asuma-sensei," Chouji said with a shrug. "Shikamaru never says no to Mayu. Just give in." Ino and Naruto both nodded solemnly and moved to follow, Ino grabbing a miserable-looking Sasuke's arm and dragging him along while fluttering her lashes and attempting to flirt.

Kakashi casually fell into step with Asuma, who looked like his whole worldview had changed as Mayu giggled and Shikamaru tipped his head towards her, nodding at whatever she said. "That's just..."

"Yep," Kakashi said with the air of somebody who has already lived through hell.

"Shikamaru is either surly, sleeping, or focused. He doesn't..." Asuma sputtered and waved his hands at their two students.

"Yes, well, Mayu spends most of her time setting things on fire, creating terrifying objects, and sniping at people. That kid shows up and..." Kakashi trailed off, and he shivered in tandem with the two male members of Team Seven.

Asuma lit a cigarette, then chuckled. "I don't envy Shikamaru once they get older. You, Sasuke, and Naruto will be a terrifying combination."

Kakashi stilled at the implications. "I'll kill him," He said, the air around him darkening and pulling their students' attention. He eye smiled and waved, releasing the killing intent.

"Ignore sensei, he's weird," Mayu said to Shikamaru, who was eyeing him suspiciously.

They continued on for a few minutes until they got to the section of the market that crafters frequented, and Mayu stopped suddenly in front of a stall selling instruments, her eyes widening as they fell upon something there.

Interested, Kakashi sidled closer as she ran a reverent finger down a violin displayed on the table. "This is beautiful," she said wistfully to the pleased vendor, and Shikamaru eyed her from where he was slouching, hands in his pockets.

"Do you play?" He asked, confused, and she shrugged and met his eyes, letting her hand fall back to her side.

"I used to...a long time ago," she said with a sad smile, and Shikamaru's eyes widened as he picked up on a hidden meaning to her words. "I doubt I even remember how," she said, and with one last look at the instrument continued on to a merchant two stalls down. She began bickering with the man there over prices, but Kakashi ignored that in favor of watching Shikamaru.

He could see the moment the boy made a decision, and almost rolled his eyes as he turned to the merchant and started haggling. Fifteen minutes later Mayu returned, tossing Sasuke his now-lighter wallet and carrying a bag full of what Kakashi assumed was the special chakra-conductive wood she used for her puppets.

Then, her eyes fell on the black violin case the slouching half-asleep Nara was carrying in one hand, and they jerked up to his in surprise. "Shika, you..."

The boy rubbed the back of his neck with one hand, then shrugged. "You seemed to like it, so..." as he trailed off, and as Mayu stared up at him with big eyes, Kakashi felt a little ill and also had the strange urge to say "aw" and mean it for the first time in his life.

Then, Mayu leaped across the space between them to hug Shikamaru, who looked extremely pleased with himself as she babbled on about how great he was. "But wasn't it expensive?" she finally asked, chewing on her lower lip as she leaned back to look up at him. He just shrugged and tucked a lock of hair behind her ear with his free hand.

"Now that I'm a chunin, I have access to my inheritance, so it's fine," he said nonchalantly, and at this point, Ino was swooning a little at the scene. Mayu gave him her true, happy smile, the one where her eyes almost squinted shut it was so big, then leaned forward and kissed his cheek.

"This is awful," Kakashi said to Asuma, who was looking a little pale. "My cute, deadly little student..."

"Think they've realized?" Asuma muttered before releasing a puff of smoke.

Kakashi waved his hand in the air dismissively. "Mayu yes - she's too in control of her own mind not to. The Nara...from what I've heard, they're kind of idiots when it comes to women or romance in general," he muttered, mind flashing to a different, older, and much more deadly Nara who seemed oblivious to Kakashi's advances.

"I should teach him some countermeasures to the Sharingan," Asuma said, eyeing Sasuke who was giving the scene in front of him a suspicious glare.

"Like it'll help him," Kakashi muttered as they finally moved towards the restaurant - an Akimichi BBQ place. When they were seated, with Kakashi and Asuma at the heads of the table, and Mayu sitting between Sasuke and Shikamaru on one side with the other three students across from them, Kakashi brought up the violin.

"There's no record of you being able to play on your genin paperwork, Mayu-chan," he said mildly, and she shrugged.

"Well, like I said, I'm not sure I even can play anymore. Also, admitting that you can play an instrument as a non-clan kunoichi is like asking to just fuck and sing for your whole career," she said, and Asuma choked on his tea and ended up spraying it across his plate, while Ino gasped in horror. Everyone else took it as a normal Mayu thing to say, though, and Kakashi just sighed.

"Mayu-chan, that's an oversimplification," he chided, and she shot him a you and I both know I'm right look. He didn't comment. A few minutes later, Kakashi's nose twitched at a familiar, spicy scent, and he forced himself to remain relaxed as Ensui sauntered over to the table.

Mayu gasped when she caught sight of him. "Ensui-niisan!" she yelled, and clambered over a disgruntled-looking Sasuke to get out from behind the table, then threw herself at the jounin for a hug.

"Hi sweetheart," he said, face softening from 'I am a killer' to 'I am fond of you,' and Kakashi had a startling realization. Mayu was like Nara-nip. They were all lazy, apathetic, and a little terrifying, but when she showed up they turned to mush. It was disgusting. Also, maybe, a little bit endearing. He wondered if there was a trick to it. Maybe he should start over-using the word 'dull.'

"You were gone for so long! Six weeks! I missed you," she said with a pout, and Ensui allowed himself to be pulled to her side of the table, where she shoved at Sasuke until he was squished up against a dozing Shikamaru, and pulled Ensui down next to her. It was a tight fit, but considering she shoved herself right up against Ensui until he was forced to put his arm around her, they made it work. Mayu flagged down a waitress as Ensui greeted the rest of the table lazily, and asked her to bring more meat over.

Mayu was in the process of peppering Ensui about his health, going so far as to gasp out a "You hurt your ribs! I can tell!" and pushing up his shirt to reveal a very well-muscled torso so she could look them over.

"Mayu-chan, stop undressing me in the restaurant," he muttered, gently slapping her hands away, then slumped when she turned wide, accusing eyes at him.

"You haven't gone to see a medic yet, have you?" she stuck her lower lip out. "What if your ribs are broken? Did you know five percent of shinobi deaths are the direct result of broken or splintered ribs? They could puncture multiple -" Ensui slapped a hand over her mouth.

"Mayu, I'll go see your mom as soon as we're done, okay?" he muttered and glared at Kakashi when he chuckled at the man's predicament.

After they were finished eating, the group stood outside the restaurant, Kakashi waiting for his genin to finish whatever whispered conversation they were having a few feet away so he could walk Naruto and Sasuke home. So he was a little paranoid after the last month, so sue him.

"How has she been, really?" Ensui rumbled into his ear, and Kakashi forced his body not to shudder and glanced over into what was probably Ensui's version of a worried face. Which still mostly looked like the face somebody would make right before they calmly ripped out your entrails.

"I was out on missions until about two weeks ago, but from what I heard, she had a hard time for awhile." Ensui slumped a little and ran a hand down his face. "If you'd like, we can go out for a drink when you're done letting your sister-in-law look over you and can talk about it," Kakashi said casually, whipping out his book and studying the page lazily.

A moment of silence, then, "No way I'm leaving my house once I get there. If you want that drink tonight, you'll have to bring it over. Two hours," he said, then ambled over to grab Mayu and Shikamaru, who appeared to be asleep where he was leaning against the wall.

"Look what Shika got me, nii-san!" Mayu was saying, holding up the violin case. Kakashi was still reeling but covered it to eye-smile down at Naruto and Sasuke, who were both grumbling about not needing a babysitter.

"Meh, it's easier to just follow you around instead of having to run to wherever you are when you get into trouble," he said lazily and grinned under his mask at their indignant sputtering. He had a feeling it was going to be a good night.

000

Kakashi woke up the next morning feeling sore in a pleasant way he hadn't experienced in far too long. He was sprawled out across a broad, bare chest, and was surrounded by that pleasant, spicy scent he'd become so fond of the past four months. A large, callused hand was resting on his hip, right above where the blankets had slipped down during the night. A memory of that hand hauling him up and backward to meet a deep thrust, from practically right where it was lying now, had him swallowing and heat crawling up his spine.

He glanced at the relaxed sleeping face of Nara Ensui, surrounded by a halo of his dark hair, and decided he wouldn't mind if Kakashi woke him up for another round.

Thirty minutes later, they lay panting next to each other, Ensui running a hand through his soft silver locks and nuzzling into his neck.

"What made you finally say yes?" Kakashi said. 

"You mean to your awkward half come-ons?" 

Kakashi glared with the eye he had open, trying not to feel too exposed as Ensui studied his bare face and traced his jaw with the pad of a finger. "Honestly, I wasn't sure they were come-ons until Mayu let something slip when she was half asleep from exhaustion after the invasion."

Kakashi sat up in alarm. "What did she say?" he asked, already sounding defeated, and Ensui let out a loud, real laugh. Kakashi jolted and stared at him, feeling a blush run up his chest to his cheeks because Ensui was incredibly handsome when he laughed.

He tugged Kakashi back down to lay next to him. "Nothing horrible - she just mentioned that you seem to enjoy the way I smell."

Kakashi groaned and buried his face into Ensui's shoulder, muffling his complaints about his nosy, all-knowing student. "So is it true?" Ensui rumbled. "Do you like the way I smell?"

Kakashi did not pout at that, he didn't. Even if they were distracted for the next ten minutes as Ensui declared he had to nibble on his lip after he stuck it out like that. Breathing heavily, Kakashi finally pulled back. "Well, it's not my fault you smell so good," he grumbled, and Ensui laughed again, causing his thoughts to stutter to a halt.

Kakashi's brain was brought back to reality when Ensui answered. "After she mentioned that, I thought back over our interactions during the last month or so before the invasion, and realized that you probably were awkwardly asking me out. So, I took a chance and invited you over." he grinned wickedly. "Glad I did," he said as he slid a tanned hand down Kakashi's pale flank. "I knew you'd be gorgeous like this, sweetheart. Naked, in my bed, not even wearing your mask." He leaned forward and caught the other man's lips in a sweet kiss.

"You should know," Ensui said when he pulled back, face going serious and shadowed (and he needed to learn how to do that trick - Shikamaru and Shikaku both used it to look scary as fuck, too) "that I'm a possessive bastard. If we stop whatever this is today, I should manage not to tear apart anybody else that touches you. But if we continue on, I won't be able to share," he said in a warning voice, and Kakashi warmed a little, and gave a nonchalant shrug that he was pretty sure wasn't fooling anybody.

"You want to be exclusive, hmm?" he said. "Should have guessed, you're a Nara after all. Too lazy to go more than one place for it," he said thoughtfully. He then made a show of thinking about the offer, ignoring the growing fear in his chest. Exclusive didn't mean love or anything, and everybody knew Ensui had never gotten over the death of his former teammate and lover, so really, this just meant convenient sex, right? He looked over at Ensui, who looked relaxed, but Kakashi could feel the tension running through his body, pressed up against him as he was.

"Eh, I guess I can do that," he said dismissively and chuckled at the dark look Ensui sent him.

"Well, sweetheart, don't put yourself out on my account," he said sardonically, and Kakashi flashed a fang at him when he grinned, having learned yesterday just how much Ensui liked that. With a growl, the man rolled him over onto his back, and for the next hour or so they didn't talk at all.

000

Humming to himself, Kakashi knocked on the Nara's front door, tossing the scroll in his hand into the air before catching it. After three more knocks, an annoyed looking Shikaku pulled the door open roughly. "What," he growled.

Well, it was barely dawn, so Kakashi couldn't really blame the man for his grumpy greeting. "Good morning, Shikaku-san. I'm afraid I have a mission that can't wait until later for Mayu-chan." he gave his best eye-smile, and the man glared at him for a moment before waving him into the kitchen.

"I'll go get her," he grumbled. "Help yourself to the tea, you know where it is by now."

"Thank you, Shikaku-san. Should I make you a cup?" the man just waved him away, and Kakashi continued humming as he started water boiling and grabbed out two cups and the tea from the cupboard.

"Kashi-sensei?" a sleepy voice said from behind him, and he turned around to take in Mayu, still in her pajamas, her dark hair a messy rat's nest around her as she rubbed a fist over one eye. With a gasp, he put a hand over his heart.

"Mayu-chan! You're so cute when you first wake up!" She sent him her best deadpan look, and he beamed back at her.

"Papa said you have a mission for Team Seven," she mumbled and shuffled over to the table. He set a cup of tea in front of her and sat down with his own cup.

"Actually, it's just for you and me," he said, and her eyes sharpened in interest.

"It's a track and grab mission - one of our chunin went rogue last night. Originally it was just supposed to be me, but when I told Tsunade-sama that I was training you in tracking, she approved me taking you along. And we all know you've been working on capture and interrogation with your dad," he said pleasantly, and her lips quirked up, eyes shining with enthusiasm.

"We're really going on a tracking mission, just the two of us?" she asked breathlessly, and he nodded good-naturedly, taking a sip of his tea.

"It's a B-rank - all capture missions for missing-nin are at least rated that high, regardless of the shinobi's skill level. Can you tell me why?" he said mildly, and she narrowed her eyes in thought.

"I think...capturing a target without killing or losing them is probably more difficult," she said slowly, and he smiled at her from under the mask.

"That's right. Since it's a rank above what we'd usually allow a genin to do, you'll need to follow every instruction I give you without argument or delay," he said, and she gave him a solemn look and nodded.

"I promise, sensei. I won't let you down."

"Great! Then, go get dressed, and then I'll come help you pack. This shouldn't take more than a day and a half if Gai's claims on your improved endurance and speed are correct." Mayu wrinkled her nose at that, but drained her tea and scurried up the stairs to get ready.

000

Mayu crouched down next to her sensei, looking closely at the small scuff he pointed out in the dirt. "What does this tell you?" he asked, and she tilted her head.

"He slept here last night - tried to cover it, but failed." she then pushed chakra into her nose and took a shallow breath before wrinkling it. "Ugh, he used the bathroom over there and didn't cover it well."

He patted the top of her head. "Good job, Mayu-chan! Now, what direction did he go?" She stood and carefully walked around the clearing, eyes sharp and breathing lightly through her nose like Kakashi had taught her.

"He...laid a false trail here...a bad one," she said with a disdainful sniff. "But he actually went...this way," she pointed east and he tossed her a piece of candy.

"That's right! Good job, Mayu-chan!" she grumbled a bit, but, used to being treated like one of his nin-dogs by now, she popped the candy in her mouth. It was her favorite, after all.

They followed the trail for another half a day, stopping to sleep for only a few hours. Mayu knew that if she wasn't with him, Kakashi wouldn't have stopped for even that long, and she made sure to ignore her muscles and low chakra levels that were protesting the brutal pace. Finally, Kakashi held up his hand in a signal to stop, and Mayu landed lightly next to him on a branch.

"What do you smell and hear?" he whispered to her, and she obediently fed chakra into her nose and ears. The wind was blowing towards them, and she cocked her head to the side as she picked up the scent of the man they'd been chasing for the past twenty hours, along with...

"He's met up with somebody," she breathed, and when she focused on her ears, she could barely hear the rumble of two low voices in conversation. Kakashi patted her head in approval, then signed for her to follow him quietly.

Slowly, they snuck up on the voices until they could make out two figures in the low light. One was a short, squat man in a standard Konoha chunin uniform. The other was a tall blonde woman, wearing a red battle kimono with her hair pulled back into a high tail, an Iwa headband on display.

"I have the security measures for the Academy," the chunin was saying gruffly. "Where's the money I was promised?"

Mayu rolled her eyes as she took in the scene. Idiot, she's obviously going to kill you. Kakashi nudged her and used a mix of standard signs and ones he'd created especially for their team to outline a plan of attack. Originally, Mayu was going to stay back and watch as Kakashi subdued their target, but now she was going to help by causing a distraction.

With a nod, she watched as he eased back and disappeared without a sound. Sensei is so cool!

After counting to twenty, she used her chakra strings to send ten smoke bombs into the clearing in a circle around the two shinobi. The woman tensed, but before she could jump Mayu had pumped enough chakra into the bombs to set them off, throwing up a cloud of smoke that obscured the area - and Kakashi's arrival on the scene.

She leaped from the branch onto the ground, releasing the scroll from her carousel that held Junior and catching him as he poofed into existence. Mayu then circled around, listening to the sound of muffled yells and kunai meeting in the air. Sure enough, their original mark stumbled out of the cloud of smoke a few seconds later, and Mayu sent Junior flying towards him.

He must have been a high-level chunin because instead of panicking he fell into a defensive posture and jumped back. With a smug grin, Mayu activated the trigger to release the paralytic powder in three of Bukimi Junior's eye sockets, pushing chakra into the strings to increase his speed as she sent him flying into a circle around the chunin, releasing the powder in a cloud that blended with the smoke around him. The ex-leaf ninja's eyes widened as he breathed it in and realized his mistake.

Mayu pulled Junior back into a guard position in front of her and counted to twenty, watching with interest as the man slowly lost control of his limbs and dropped to the ground, twitching. Then, she reached into her pouch and pulled out ninja wire, approaching the chunin cautiously in case he had a way to fight off the effects.

Using Junior's legs to roll him over onto his back, finally confident he wasn't faking, she removed his weapons, flak jacket, and shoes and carefully but quickly tied him up just the way Shikaku had taught her, aware that Kakashi had leaped from the smoke carrying his own opponent and was watching her with interest.

"Shikaku-san did a good job teaching you," he praised, and she beamed at him. "And you're really getting good with Junior."

"Thanks, sensei," she said, a light blush dusting her cheeks.

"Well, we now have two prisoners to take back, and only one storage scroll that works with living beings. Guess that means we'll get back late," he said with a sigh, then set about teaching her the difference between storage scrolls for dead bodies and those for live ones. Deeming the Iwa nin the most dangerous, Kakashi put her into the scroll. "Make sure they're unconscious for this, otherwise it's pretty unpleasant for them," he said cheerfully, and knocked the glaring woman out. He then threw the chunin over his shoulder and set off for home.

Worried that the woman might have had comrades nearby that would come looking for her, he set a grueling pace, and Mayu kept shooting him worried glances until he finally sighed. "Mayu-chan, I assure you this is not too much for me, even with the extra weight. There's a reason I'm considered one of the top ninja of the village after all," he grumbled, and she stuck her tongue out at him for his grumpiness but stopped worrying so much.

They arrived dirty, tired, and bedraggled forty-five hours after they'd left, and dropped the scroll and runaway chunin off at T&I. "It's starting to get cold," Mayu said with a yawn as they went to the missions office to report in.

"I like the winter," Kakashi said, lazily flipping the page in his book.

"Me too," Mayu said, breathing in the fresh fall air. "Hey, sensei?" she said as they entered the mission room.

"Hmm?"

"Thank you for bringing me on the mission. It was fun, and I learned a lot!" he twitched a little as she turned bright, happy eyes towards him. "You're so cool, Kakashi-sensei!"

Ignoring his slight blush, he patted her on the head and gave her another piece of candy. "You did good Mayu-chan."

Their moment was ruined by the bored-looking chunin at the desk. "You two are to report to the Hokage upon arrival," he drawled, and Kakashi nodded lazily, but Mayu could see the way he stiffened just a little.

Biting her lip in worry, she followed Kakash