Shikamaru had never explained why his father never came home some nights, and Temari had never bothered to look for an explanation. She'd asked him exactly once, after the first in a strange series of awkward and amusing dinners with the blatantly cheerful but neurotic and domineering Nara matriarch and her apathetic son.

"He's probably getting wasted somewhere," was what Shikamaru had said before kissing her in the way only she knew meant he wanted her to stop talking. "He does that sometimes."

She'd refused to accept that and had gone on a twenty minute tirade and had warned him about doing the same. And had smacked him upside the head when he closed his eyes.

Unfortunately, like father, like son. Shikamaru is probably out on one of his hills, lost in the fractal geometry of an evening sky so profoundly blue it was verging on purple, and trying desperately not to think even though that's what he does best. This she knows with the same certainty that she knows her fan weighs exactly twenty-one kilos and thirty-four grams and cephalopods are the vilest creatures ever put on this earth. She knows this with the same certainty that she knows she has a pebble wedged between her left foot and the sole of that same sandal as she creeps along Konoha's main drag in the twilight, working her way towards the shadow-shrouded hokages and an angry cinnabar sunset inflaming an endless mosaic of clouds overhead.

Behind her, the Konoha's second life springs awake, its narrow, twisting arteries slowly pumping with a thin flux of people wandering from bar to vendor, park to restaurant. She walks with the pulse of people even though most of them still look at her with the paranoid xenophobia of a population perpetually at war. She's never made a secret of her comings and goings, a brazen patch of explosive quartzy blonde in a predominantly brown and black world, clad in unapologetic violet, and she stalks the centre of the street as deliberately as a prowling cat and as inexorably as a force of nature.

Her prey tonight is predictable despite his formidable intellect, and she has a reasonably good idea of where she'll find him. Contrary to popular belief, Shikamaru doesn't have a hill. He has several, and his mood tends to dictate which one he chooses at any given time.

He's predictable in that he has to have a good reason for everything and anything, and that's what keeps her from going out of her mind when he walks into the village and brushes past her without so much as a second glance -- he always gives her at least one -- and moves on to his debriefing or whatever. This last time didn't look particularly good, with his chuunin vest torn up and a missing sleeve and a wad of gauze wrapped around his neck with a little too much colour for her liking. He didn't smirk at her, which is the only reason she's come looking for him.

It's not long before she finds the staircase that crawls up around the side of the Shodaime Hokage's face, a narrow path of tall steps carved out of the yellowed limestone and littered with deep, angular tool marks the entire way. In the shadow of the monument, the steps are lit by the pale lights of Konoha, and only then just barely, outlines in the obscurity. She's been up and down these steps so many times she practically slithers up the cliff face, her body light and fluid even with that twenty-one kilos strapped to her back.

She supposes if she were anyone else, except perhaps his brave and vicious mother Yoshino, she would feel hurt and neglected by his failure to report home the night he gets home from his work abroad. This especially since she has to come all this way to see him and has to abuse her blood ties with Gaara to find reasonable excuses to make the commute.

The path diverts from the border of the moment at around the level of the Shodaime's right ear, and takes off into the bushes of the slope, through a twisting cluster of thorny trees. She's not particularly used to dealing with all the peculiars of Kohona's remarkably superfluous flora, but she's no stranger to spiny plants, and she eases through them like the wind she harnesses so well, twisting and folding around overhanging branches and jutting underbrush. This isn't the most well-used path up the hill; there's another, longer route with less slope and more maintenance for the city's civilians, and most of the ninjas just use chakra to climb the cliff more or less directly, in arcing, gravity-defying bounds. Shikamaru walks this road, though, if only because it's the most direct straight-line route and he's too lazy to use chakra for something as simple as walking. He doesn't ever hurry, so she figures her chances are better if she takes it easy too.

Taking it easy is not something she does well. Between Gaara's old flash-fire temper Baki's unforgiving oversight, she'd spent most of her childhood on edge. If not for Kankuro's morbidly dark sense of humor she might had snapped a long, long time ago, unravelling like her namesake and spilling into a disorganized mass of tangled skeins.

Shikamaru was oddly immune to everything, and it never ceases to amaze her how he managed that.

She crests the rise at the top of the monument, her hair catching in the sudden breeze and for a moment she feels weightless, floating skyward as though emerging from a profound crevasse in the fabric of her life. For a moment, with her face tilted skyward and her eyes seemingly inches from the shredded pink cotton and the endless blue of the world's vertical limit, she feels free. Her foot stalls on the last step of the path and she drinks in the moment, wondering if she should ever look down again.

A rolling baritone interrupts her train of thought.

"I told you so," he says, and she's immediately annoyed. So much for enlightenment. At least it means he's feeling alright.

"Told me what?" she fumes, and she finds him perched on the branches of a desiccated tree not too far away from the head of the path. His shadow is innocuously stretched out beneath him, resting against another tree, sleeping.

"That you'd understand one day."

She snorts in amusement, remembering that conversation. She crosses her arms, mostly on habit, and slides towards his perch with an oiled lilt in her hips. Seductive, if he was looking at her, but he hasn't yet.

"What makes you think that?"

"The look you had on your face," he says, which is downright infuriating, considering he isn't even looking in her direction.

"I thought you'd be drinking out further over the rise," she says, trying to resist the urge to cut the tree out from under him.


"Secret." It's where he goes when things don't go to plan. He'd hate to know she's figured it out already, but she's curious to know why he's here -- this isn't a hiding spot she's seen yet. She's at once proud and incensed; proud that's she's found a new one, incensed that she didn't know until now.

"I don't drink alone anyway," he lies, but she knows better.

"I'm joining you."

It's not a question; she's never given him much choice in this sort of thing. He finally turns to look at her, and he gives her the faint smile she's been waiting to see ever since he got back.

"Fine. Just watch your...step," he says, and the smirk vanishes and he rolls his eyes.

Temari stops immediately in her tracks, her foot planted in something soft and unmistakably wet. Sticky, too, judging from the sound her sandal makes when it lifts.

"You're standing in my shadow," he says, sighing with his trademark patronizing annoyance.

She hadn't realized she was passing through it. When she looks down, the stench hits her, a miasma of old copper and rotting flesh and sulfurous bacteria, and it comes from the pitch black pool of emptiness splayed out over the ground in front of her and splashed up across her right foot.

"What the..," she gasps, and reaches out tentatively with one hand to touch his shadow where it splays over the pale tan she's had virtually since birth. She can feel it now, cool and slick where it rests against her lower leg, like cold leather, and she shivers. She doesn't remember it ever being like this, not when they'd fought or sparred, or anything else, and it strikes her he must be doing something to it.

"Don't touch it," he warns, "It's not dry yet."

It's blood, and Temari's left eyebrow lifts slowly as she withdraws from the black patch on the ground, dragging her foot free. Deep crimson lines slough through the dirt, cementing the loose sand together in a smeared impression of her sandal print. She looks to him for an explanation, and he shrugs, wincing as he upsets the cut on his neck. He never did have a very good pain threshold.

She refuses to look horrified. She's seen worse.

"You clean your fan," he says by way of explanation, and she leaps up onto the branch next to his slouching figure, glowing in the sunset in spite of the drab colours he always wears. He snorts in faint amusement, which is about as excited as he gets about most things. "Mom never liked stepping in it by accident either."

"I'm not your mother," she says, wiping off her sandal's sole on his pants before sitting down next to him, bracing her weight on her hands and settling into a crook in the branch. She hates it when he compares to his mother, despite the fact that she has a fair deal of respect for the woman.

"Ugh. No, you're not." She smiles when one of his hands moves over to cover hers. "You're worse by far."

Her smile dims, even though he probably means it as a compliment.

"Asshole. How much longer 'til it dries?"

"Two hours or so."

She makes herself comfortable, unlimbering her fan and balancing it against the main trunk of the tree.

She's glad she bothered to come look for him, or else she'd have spent the evening alone in a room with only his board games and books for company. As interesting as he tries to make pre-Konoha Fire history and political brinksmanship sound -- not very -- she'll never be in the mood to enjoy it by herself, or so much of a loser that she'll play go against herself like he does. There isn't anything else for one person to do at his place anyway.

"Next time I'll bring something to eat, then." She is definitely not his mother.

Shikamaru just nods, never taking his eyes off the red clouds lining the horizon, splattered there as a reminder of the aftermath of his last outing, but she knows he's glad she's there.

Temari laces her fingers into his and he gives her the barest squeeze, a wordless acknowledgment of her joining. Minutes later, or maybe only seconds, she's aloft with him, two minds free from the binds of a tangible, blood-soaked world...and she finally, finally gets it.

Just another gorgeous evening in a lost city somewhere past the borders of morality.