They've been married for six hours when the moon rises on their reception. Yoshino watches the full white disk lift itself to its highest point in the sky. When it reaches its highest point, she rises, and claps her hands. The wedding party comes to silence.
Sakura raises her head from where she's been whispering to Ino on one side, while Naruto has Shikamaru's ear. When Yoshino claps, they both turn to look at Yoshino. Ino gives Sakura's arm a gentle squeeze. Naruto pats Shikamaru's shoulder. The newlyweds come together, Shikamaru taking Sakura's hand and guiding him to his mother.
She comes down from her seat at the high table, and stands in front of them. The guests fall into step behind them as they walk, leaving the sweet garden decorated with soft twinkling lights and garlands of spider lilies to enter the dense forests of the Nara compound.
When they reach the lip of the forest, Yoshino does not turn. Nara women, Shikamaru's cousins and aunts, they come forward and lay gentle hands on Sakura's shoulders. Shikamaru's uncles, they stand between him and Sakura as the women undress the new bride.
She will leave her bridal garments at the lip of the forest, enter the thick gathering of trees a new bride, and will exit them a Nara woman, like those who help her now. Guests who are not family turn back here, and slowly leave the estate.
The men keep their dark eyes on Shikamaru, while they women artfully rearrange Sakura's hair from one ornate style to one only vaguely less complicated, and use their own bodies to shield her from the rest of the guests.
The men blindfold Shikamaru. He does not need to see. With his eyes restricted, he expands his awareness to his shadow. There is no one stepping on it, because the men around him are Nara men and they know better.
He can feel their shadows the way he can sense their chakra, and he can feel the shadows of the forest that looms ahead. He feels his wrist being pulled, and then Sakura's hand placed in his.
He knows how this goes, or at least how it is supposed to. They are led to the forest by the wedding party and the clan head. The women will undress the bride if she is not already a member of the clan, so that she can learn to feel shadow the way that they do.
They will paint the sigil of their clan onto her shoulders, the back of her hands, the tops of her feet, her stomach, her chest, and between her shoulder blades.
Yoshino will step aside, and let Shikamaru lead Sakura into the forest. Then, for the rest of the night, she will have to learn how to navigate the darkness.
Shikamaru feels the shadow around him press in around his own, feels himself get sucked in. Sakura is only a step behind him, though not blindfolded. She will need her eyes for a while longer, in a way that Shikamaru does not now need his.
He doesn't pay attention as their wedding party steps away in silence. He guides Sakura further in, and he counts the trees he puts behind them until they are a little less than half a meter into the forest.
He listens to Sakura breathe, obviously cold. The forest lets in almost no light, and it's still early spring. Shikamaru is still dressed, and when Sakura learns how to bend shadow (not if, but when), she will guide them both to the other side of the forest where the Nara women will be waiting to dress her in their new home.
For now Shikamaru can hear Sakura shiver, can feel the way she takes in a breath of the night air.
The deer are deeper into the forest. They won't approach Sakura yet. They only come near Shikamaru because they've known him his entire life. Sakura is still a stranger, but the Nara sigils on her skin will help them get accustomed to her.
The ink is made with medicinal herbs gathered in the forest, imbued with the yin chakra of the Nara women, to help the deer recognize Sakura is someone to be trusted. To help the shadows recognize that she is to be welcomed into their fold.
Sakura takes her hand to herself and Shikamaru lets her. She's a shinobi, and an incredibly hardworking, talented one at that. She understands how to move in the dark, how to open up her other senses to the world around her when she's deprived of her sight.
But the darkness of the Nara forests is almost impenetrable.
She takes a step out, and Shikamaru hears it as he feels it. Her shadow has melted into the shadows of the leaves and the trees and Shikamaru's own. He feels her pick up her foot and set it back down.
Her feet crunch down on twigs and soft green grass. She doesn't bother using her hands to feel her way; she's smart enough to know that won't help.
He stands still. Feels her take a breath and settle, channeling chakra to her nose and ears. He doesn't say anything though he knows that won't help either. This is her duty, to guide him through a forest he has known since he could walk. And he knows she can do it.
But she does not have to do it alone.
It’s not explicitly against custom, for the Nara to help their new spouse learn how to feel shadow. Shikamaru’s aunt Sayaka had guided her naked husband Hide through a long meditation on the forest floor until he understood.
His mother Yoshino had spent years in ANBU shadows; she had been one of the fastest outsiders in history to master the craft, yanking Shikaku out of the forest within an hour of stepping inside.
For some people it was easy. It took some couples all night to get out of the forest. Sometimes, it was because navigating shadow was difficult. Other times, it was because well fed and happily inebriated newlyweds recognized one of them was naked and that they were completely alone. Shikamaru had a good armful of cousins that had been conceived in the forest.
But Sakura is too focused a kunoichi to even want sex at this point. She was taking this ritual seriously. It wasn’t as if she would not be welcomed into the Nara if she could not feel or manipulate shadow. Many who were born outside of the family could only feel it, could not bend it the way that blood Nara could.
If they stepped out of the forest and Sakura hadn’t so much as understood that her shadow was a limb not separate from her, she would still be a Nara and the Nara women would still dress her as one of them.
But she could be like a dog with a bone when it came to a problem she wanted to solve, a problem she felt like she was capable of solving. She wouldn’t have become the Godaime’s apprentice, the strongest medical shinobi in the world even surpassing her mentor, if she wasn’t so damn stubborn.
They’d spend all night in the forest if they had to. And while Shikamaru knows Sakura can take care of herself, can suss out how this works for herself, he’s not a fan of her walking naked and cold through the forest. He wants to bundle her up in Nara greys and greens and drop them both into the bed that waits for them when this little journey is over.
He wants the ink of the sigils to stain their sheets with the smell of crushed yarrow and marigolds. He wants to wake up to Sakura complaining about how he shouldn’t have let her fall asleep without taking her hair out of its ornate bun.
He wants to have a smoke and make a pot of coffee while she wanders the house that has been prepared for them, rearranging furniture as she goes. He wants to catch her by the hip and kiss her, hide his smile when she snatches the cigarette from his fingers and crushes it in her palm. He wants to take a nap at the kotatsu with their hands clasped together.
He wants to get this over with.
Shikamaru takes three steps forward, sure steps, capable steps. Sakura stills in front of him, shadow and all.
"Give me your hand," he says, wrapping his fingers carefully around her wrist. "Let me show you how we do it."
She holds his forearm, and they face each other in the darkness.
"They work the same way," he says. "Your Byakugō, and our shadows. Think of it that way."
His breath must be warm, because he can sense the way her skin rises in response.
"Like my Byakugō," she murmurs.
She activates the seal, and the dense feeling of her chakra is nearly overwhelming in the subtlety of the night. But it helps. Something shifts in Sakura, something clicks, and her chakra is folded back into her seal.
It's second nature, quick and easy for the Nara, but difficult for others. Shinobi who understood how awareness works, how balance works, when they come into the Nara clan, they find this easy.
There were a handful of Hyūga in the clan for the sake of strengthening ties, branch cousins without the Byakugan. Inuzuka found it easy as well, because they worked with partners.
Working with shadow was a matter of working with oneself and with someone else. A second self, really, that was also you. One that was attached to you physically, but not so.
Sakura had fine chakra control, had been pegged as a genjutsu type when she was in the academy. She was a medic. Her chakra control was in the ninety-ninth percentile.
She knew how to push her chakra into someone else's body and how to pull it back out, which essentially gave herself unfettered access to another person's tenketsu. Often. If she knew how to do it with others, she knew how to do it to herself.
It was difficult because the shadow wasn't a physical part of the self. It was more abstract. It was somewhere between feeling one's own chakra and feeling one's own limbs. Like feeling your blood.
It was control. Very fine, very delicate control, so second nature, so close to muscle memory that it was effortless.
Sakura could pull chakra into her fist without a breath. Could unfurl her seal without forming a hand sign to do so.
She breathes in and then out. Then, Shikamaru feels it when she feels it. The blackness of the forest around them, the way the shadows twist in the night, the way the leaves quiver and shake and how their shadows melt into Shikamaru's, into Sakura's, from here in the heart of the forest all the way out to the edges where the Nara women were waiting.
She flexes her hands, and Shikamaru feels the shadow sense tunnel into his wife's consciousness. Not slowly, not hesitantly, but sure. Like she’s tracking her own blood moving through her body, like she’s tracking her chakra through her tenketsu. She squeezes his arm, and she begins to walk. Shikamaru doesn't wait, doesn't hesitate.
He follows her out of the forest.