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Early Is On Time

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Childhood is the kingdom where nobody dies. ― Edna St. Vincent Millay


The world untwists.

Everything comes flooding on in. The field of stars had never left; Shikako had just been unable to perceive it. But here it is again. Here are her friends, again, and here she is. Here they are, Shikako-and-Gelel.

With two hands that move as one, they reach out. Shikamaru, Naruto, Gaara, Temari, Kankurō, Temujin, Kahiko, Nerugui… they knew them. Shukaku and Kurama, as well, trapped in their seals like fish in an aquarium.

With Gelel, as Gelel, everything was so easy to understand. Everything was so easy to know, and so easy to forget.

Kurama's rage could be understood — of course he'd be angry, who wouldn't be in his situation? — and calmed with understanding in the form of light. This is second time they've done this, peering into the seal, chasing away darkness there to see how important Kurama was/is/will be, even halved and trapped and alone.

Time itself is just another part of the shape of things. It's a gossamer-thin tightrope, a floor to stand on, a speck of dust, a wave, a matter of perspective. Shikako's last hope, her last seal, had been a fishhook for Gelel to reel her back in with. Back to this moment, the best moment, when Shikako-and-Gelel had been safe, and powerful, and forever.

This time, she has seen worse than Gelel. This time, she reached for Gelel and it reached back. This time, she can look at Gelel, and Gelel can look back.

We've been here before, croons Gelel, curiously. Or have we? Here hasn't changed, but we have.

Everything changes, she offers. And: Thank you.

Everything is clear and beautiful. No pain, nothing clawing-ripping-laughing. Why would she want to be Nara Shikako? Nara Shikako was nothing. Nara Shikako was a gut wound and the taste of a friend's blood. Nara Shikako was small, and she had been so powerless.

Then, the note of discord, the shadow where one shouldn't be but where they had nevertheless expected it to be.

You would fight a god? They asked him, curiously.

Yes, came the reply, fierce and bright. Give me back my sister. He pushed and pulled and he was so small and so powerless. Darkness struggling against their vast light, useless, but... true power doesn't lie in any one thing.

Good, they think. That will be indispensable.

She had reached just as Gelel had reached, this time. She lets go easier, knows what waits for her, knows she's going home. The burst of light, wild and beautiful, is just as before. And just as before, Shikako feels strange in her own skin, like she doesn't fit anymore. Shikamaru is holding her, crying, with two flesh-and-blood arms. Things grew all around them, a riot of new plant-life.

Her mouth does not taste of Aoba's blood. There's no pain.

"I made it home," she says to Shikamaru, and then she starts to cry.


She's dragged out of her shock by Naruto, again. Like last time, he scrambles across the distance between them, sounding so young when he cries, "Shikako!" and drops to his knees beside her and Shikamaru.

He looks just the same as the last time she saw him, just the same as he did last time she went through this. Shikamaru, though, he looks different. Younger — kids age so fast, and she and Shikamaru are now almost-thirteen instead of almost-fourteen. He has both arms. He's got tears on his face, and so does Naruto.

"I-" Shikako clears her throat, blinks away embarrassing tears. "I'm safe. We're safe."

Jashin couldn't reach her here. Jashin would never reach her again, had now never reached her, technically. Gelel had saved her and so had Shikamaru. There was no reason to panic or fall apart.

Last time around, Shikamaru's tight grip had been intensely reassuring. Last time it had kept her from flying apart at the seams, pressed her back into her own body. This time — this time his arms feel like a restraint. It hurts, being restrained when she was just so free and safe and powerful. Compared to Jashin clawing its way through her head, Gelel was familiar and comforting.

Being held by Shikamaru is... foreign, at best. As foreign as her younger body.

Shikamaru has just seen her die, though, so Shikako doesn't say anything about the bruises his fingers are probably leaving on her shoulders. It feels good to have someone so close, and when Naruto tangles his hand into the sleeve of her jacket Shikako tugs him closer, too.

Naruto rests his forehead against her shoulder; she can feel his shaking breath. It goes well with the shivering and twitching starting all across Shikako's body. She has the vague impulse to retch, just to make sure that none of Aoba's blood is in her, anymore, but that's irrational. All of Aoba's blood is still inside him, back in Konoha, and it's going to stay that way.

The land finishes rearranging itself. The sound of water and the rustle of foliage is comforting. The natural chakra feels like home, like it belongs to Shikako, although she doesn't dare draw on it.

"We need to finish the mission," Shikako mutters, beginning to extricate herself from Shikamaru and Naruto. Her feelings of being trapped have finally outweighed the comfort of the embrace. She needs to move. She needs to keep moving. If she loses momentum now, she'll never make it back to Konoha.

Anything to keep from thinking about where she just was, anything to keep from remembering what she'd seen of Jashin.

Shikamaru made a harsh, disbelieving sound. "You just died." His voice cracks heavily. "The mission can just-"

"But I'm okay," she rushes to say. She wipes at her eyes with her sleeves. She does not think about how she wasn't dead yet, on that altar. Nope. Shikako isn't going to think about any of it because they are on a mission and now is not the time. She adds: "Please. I'm sorry, but I need... I can't..."

Shikamaru softens and draws back. "Okay. Okay. We'll finish this." He takes a slow breath, putting himself back together. "We'll finish this, then we're going home."

She nods. The two of them stand, and Naruto, and Shikako glances down — there's the huge hole, the new skin. She doesn't want to look at that, or make anyone else look at it, but she's so cold. Being covered in her own blood isn't nearly so gross now as it had been before, although the tacky-warm feeling of the cooling blood is a pretty awful sensation.

"Naruto, can I — it'll get blood all over it, but can I borrow your jacket?" Shikako asks. She feels kind of shitty about this, because she knows he'd give her anything and she knows that he loves that jacket, but she needs it. She adds, "I'll pay for it to be professionally laundered," to assuage her own guilt.

"Yeah," Naruto says, voice unusually hoarse and quiet. He slips the jacket off and Shikako slips the jacket on and the thick orange fabric is more reassuring than any tight hold could possibly have been.

They join the Sand siblings, Temujin, and Kahiko. Haido is, of course, nowhere to be found. Shikako realises for the first time that she doesn't actually know how he died, although she suspects that Naruto, well... kinda vaporized him? His body is certainly nowhere to be seen. She's not totally sure that the Kyuubi chakra cloak can do that, but maybe. Or maybe it was Gelel.

"What have we done?" Temujin murmurs quietly, face ashen.

"Invaded our country," Temari replies, with an ease that belies the impact of her words. "Killed a lot of people. Attacked shinobi of Suna and the Hidden Leaf. Attempted to release some kind of ancient chakra beast." She drums her fingers against her leg and arches an eyebrow. "Answer your question?"

Temari is just as impressive as ever. This conversation went just fine without Shikako last time, and she's content to let it pass her by without comment, sliding her hand into Naruto's and studying the Garden with her eyes and her chakra and not thinking about how 'ancient chakra beast' is, honestly, inaccurate. Not thinking about that, or other ancient-but-not-chakra-beast things, lurking out there, waiting to be released.

No, no, no, no, no.


Eventually, Kankurō jerks his thumb over his shoulder at Shikako and says: "I say we just knock him out, and if we need one of those stones, we could make Sparky over there give it a go."

Sparky!

Shikako laughs, bright and clear. She can't help it. Everyone turns to stare at her. Especially Kankurō — because, of course, he barely knows her, now. He doesn't know that they're friends, yet.

Since they're looking at her, she shrugs. She tells them, "It might work, but I don't think I should give anything a go until I see Tsunade-sama."

"Absolutely," she hears Shikamaru mutter.

Gaara looks away from her, after a pause, goes back to staring at Temujin. Eventually he asks, "If we take you to the stronghold, will you give the order to stop?"

There's more discussion. Gaara gets his way because of course Gaara gets his way.

"Temujin. Tell your fleet to stand down and bring this fighting to an end," Gaara says, which is about when she tunes back in.

Kankurō turns to Shikako, surprisingly. "Hey, speaking of mercy, Sparky," he says. Temari and Shikamaru both choke, for very different reasons.

"Yeah...?"

"When you let us go — thanks, by the way — you quoted something, right? 'The quality of mercy'...? What the hell is that from?"

(Temari groans. Mutters something like, "Seriously?")

Shikako can't tell him about Shakespeare or that it's from a play. Kankurō would never let it go. She says, "It was from an old court transcript."

"What's the rest of it?" Kankurō asks. "There's more, right?"

("Kankurō...")

"It's... pretty long?" she says. But, nope, that's not going to get him off track. Theatre nerd. Right. Also, Gaara is watching. Intensely. Shikako sighs, and tells them: "The quality of mercy is not strained; it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. It is twice blest; it blesseth him that gives and him that takes."

"Holy shit," says Kankurō. There are practically stars in his eyes. Then, a little suspiciously: "That's not that long, though. There's more."

Well, thinking of The Merchant of Venice is so much better and more distracting than anything else... although she's not sure she can translate the whole thing on the fly, especially the part about Shylock being a Jew. "I'll mail you the full text?" she offers.

It seems like Kankurō is going to argue, but Gaara says, "Enough," and that's the end of that.

Shikamaru has Naruto go get their bags, but he refuses to let Shikako carry hers. "Not until you see Hokage-sama," he mutters. She can't really argue with that.

"Are you sticking around?" Temari asks.

"Yes," Shikako says, immediately. They stayed before. Keeping everything as similar as possible seems important, for now.

Shikamaru huffs, but agrees like she knew he would: "Even if we left now it would still take us three days to return to Konoha, so we might as well stay and see what happens with the rest of the fleet. That way we can give a full report to Hokage-sama about the situation."

Hopefully she wouldn't die in the Hokage's office again... although that gave Tsunade some pretty good political momentum against Danzō, and she came out of it just fine, really, so... she'd probably best just let it happen again.

She's still tired, probably even more tired than last time around, but Naruto's jacket is just as warm as always and it's impossible to feel hopeless with her brother on one side and Naruto on the other, especially with Naruto's cheerful, sunshine chakra blazing right there.

"I could carry you," Naruto suggests, like last time, when they finally get moving. "If you- if you're tired or anything." He bit his lip, looking worried.

"I'm fine," Shikako says, and dregs up another smile, this one small and appreciative. She's missed Naruto.

Temujin leads us into the fortress and calls for all of his friends to stand down. The evacuation of the captured civilians begins, and this time Shikako is not allowed to physically help. She's parked outside to reassure them — which is exhausting in its own way, but her customer service smile from a lifetime ago is ready for the workout.

"You're safe and you're all going home," she tells them again and again. Gaara stays with her and the civilians because people from River might recognize him and would not be reassured to wake up to Gaara of the Desert looking at them. Or, that's the excuse Shikamaru throws out. Shikako is pretty sure he's there to guard her.

Maybe she can nip this protective brother thing in the bud? Hopefully, even.

Shikako goes to talk to Gaara who, like last time, is looking at the Garden.

"There are Suna shinobi on their way," he murmurs, with a quick flick of his eyes towards her to acknowledge her presence..

Gaara's ability to sense in the desert far surpassed Shikako's, of course. She nods. Then, she tells him about Temujin's offer.

"I see," Gaara says, neutral.

"It's up to you, in the end. But, uh, I'm not so sure they should hang around for so long."

He turns towards her. This time, Shikako is struck suddenly by his focus on her, by the way he's clearly giving her his full attention. She hadn't noticed it last time, or hadn't known him well enough to see it, but... he respects her. He wants her opinion.

She explains, like she did before, how having an army hanging around might be bad for Wind. She wraps her arms around herself and worries at the edges of Naruto's jacket's sleeves. The fabric cuffs are soft and thick. She adds, "Just something to consider, I guess."

Gaara nods and turns back to staring out over the land. Shikako waits, and he speaks again. "The Gelel. Is it gone?"

"As much as anything can be gone," she says, and then realizes how strange that sounds, how much sense it doesn't make. Gaara is literally side-eyeing her. She mumbles, "It, uh, scrambled my thoughts a little. It isn't like it was anymore, it couldn't stay together without the mine, but..." Shikako scuffs the ground with her shoe, the newly fertile soil. "Something like that doesn't really go, even if it can't stay. You can feel it, right?"

"It's... peaceful," Gaara says, voice as soft as my own.

"Yeah. Not the Dead Wastes anymore. Not dead at all."

"It's a garden." Gaara nods "Life made from death." He looks pleased. No, he looks relieved. And not about the Garden.

About her. Because she's alive, oh, Shikako had never even thought about that, before, that Gaara would have grieved, for those brief moments she was dead. She had been so focused on Shikamaru, and Naruto... Shikako had thought she and Gaara didn't become friends until after this, really, until Grass, but she was wrong. They're friends now. Already. Maybe since she talked to him on the roof of the hospital.

"Shi Kara Ikioi-en," she agrees, and struggles to keep the sudden emotion from her voice. They're silent for awhile; Shikako gets her sudden rush of feelings back under control. Now isn't the time for that. Now is the time to ask Gaara for something she'd been too out of it to think about last time.

She hesitates, but... "When you're explaining this to the Suna Council," she mutters. "I know you can't lie or anything and I'm not asking that, but.. if you... if you could leave out that I..."

He looks at her again. Gaara is so serious, and at times impossible to read, and he is already her friend.

She hopes she isn't straining that, now. Maybe last time around he and his siblings left it out without her even asking. It's presumptuous; she's... kind of asking him to commit treason, considering that he's not the Kazekage yet. But she doesn't want all of Suna hearing that she came back from the dead like their Garden. She's not sure if it got out last time, but it won't this time, if she has anything to say about it.

Gaara inclines his head, silent. Shikako stands with Gaara and looks at the Garden of Life from Death until it's time to leave.


(When they make camp that night she's exhausted but she brings up the need for secrecy with Naruto and Shikamaru as well. "We're not going to debrief to anyone but the Hokage," she tells them. "Not Dad, or Kakashi-sensei, or the Sage of Six Paths himself. Tsunade-sama only."

"Not Dad?" Shikamaru demands.

"Tsunade-sama can decide if he needs to know," Shikako says grimly. "Tsunade-sama first, no substitutes." Danzo can try to get at them first all he wants, but she makes her brother and Naruto promise, so he's shit out of luck this time. Shikamaru probably won't do anything besides demand to talk to the Hokage this time, to say nothing of Naruto's loud protests.)