Title: Half a Thousand
Pairing: Shikamaru/Temari if you squint
Warning: Spoilers for chapter 328... oh whatever, I don't know why I'm even pretending you all haven't read this chapter 20 times and back already.
Summary: The distance between Suna and Konoha is roughly half a thousand miles. Of course, for someone like Shikamaru, distance is relative.
Disclaimer: Naruto is the property of Kishimoto Masashi.
half a thousand
The distance between Suna and Konoha is roughly half a thousand miles.
The first time he sees her again after nearly two years, they're in Grass Country, each accompanying their respective delegation of Genin hopefuls at the Chuunin Exam. They're standing in the clamoring crowd up in the peanut gallery, watching the fight unfold in the pit below, and the distance between them is about twenty people-lengths. When their eyes meet, she cocks her head to the side a little and gives him her trademark grin: all teeth.
Later, she walks in on the tail end of a minor scuffle he's just finished sorting out.
"Get back to your sensei," he's coldly telling the snotty little punk with the Cloud hitai-ate who just seconds ago was paralyzed under the hold of his Shadow Jutsu. "And don't ever let me catch you picking illicit fights with other examinees again. Next time, you'll get something worse to worry about than a bloody nose."
Once the kid is out of sight, he turns to the young girl pulling herself out of the dust and says, "Are you okay?" She nods quickly, gives him a small smile. The girl is a Grass Genin, alert, wiry – not older than ten at most – and that bloody nose was her own handy work. He's seen her perform in a match earlier, and has little doubt she's going to be one of the precious handful promoted to Chuunin this year. At the moment, however, she's nursing a badly twisted ankle, which the hotheaded boy from Cloud must have picked up as an easy advantage.
"Go watch the matches," he advises her, patting her shoulder, then watches as she scampers off.
Temari, who up till then has been observing the episode from under the shade of a nearby tree, emerges from behind his elbow and asks, "Done flirting with ten-year-olds?"
"Good to see you too," he returns casually. "Really thought she could have taken him herself, but I wanted to save her the trouble. Plus, I could use the practice."
"That's right," she counters, smirking. "I heard they made you an examiner. What, did your village run out of competent shinobi all of a sudden? I imagine your idea of supervising a match is to advise the combatants to somehow kindly limit the possibilities of killing themselves and then sauntering off to take a nap."
He ignores the obvious bait, zeroing in instead on her presence in Kusagakure, "Are you here on official business too?"
"Something like that. I'm a Jounin now, you know. Great responsibilities are simply part of my daily routines."
"They stuck you with baby-sitting duty, didn't they?"
She laughs, a quick, silvery sound. "How'd you guess?" He shrugs, subtly gives her the once-over, and notes that she hasn't changed much over the years, only in places where it matters.
"Ch'. Since you have such important matters to tend to, I won't take up any more of your time," he announces. "And I don't expect we'll be seeing much of each other while we're here either."
"True," she answers, already walking off. "But I dare say I'll see enough of you pretty soon."
He doesn't find out what she meant by that cryptic parting comment until a month later, when he is back in Konoha and walks into one of his favorite teahouses to find her sitting comfortably at one of the window tables, fiddling with a skewer of colorful dango. She sees him immediately and waves him over, the same knife-edge grin from before playing on the corners of her lips.
"Diplomatic liaison to the Hidden Leaf," she explains proudly over a pot of Kukicha tea. "I'm due to report to your Hokage tomorrow over the business of preparing for the next Chuunin Exam. Guess Konoha's flexing some muscles to prove to the shinobi world that it's still top dog, eh?"
He shrugs lightly, noncommittal and already bored by the mind-numbing tedium of politics. This time around, the small table forms the distance between them. "How long are you staying for?"
"At least until the exam is through," she answers, pouring more tea. "A year, give or take. Say, think you'll have time later to give me a grand tour of the village?"
"Number one, you've already been to Konoha," he says. "And number two, I already have plans."
"So cancel them," she says flippantly. "I want my grand tour."
He rolls his eyes heavenward, suppresses whatever variation of 'how troublesome' raring to skitter off his tongue by habit – nods like he has a choice. They finish their tea, pay the bill, and step outside together. It starts to rain heavily, the sky stark white and pouring water down in sheets. Unfazed, Temari marches briskly off into the empty streets, lifting her hands and opening the palms to catch the fat droplets of rain falling down. He follows her closely, keeping a three step distance.
"Do you have a destination in mind?" he asks after about twenty minutes of walking in mutual silence. "Or are you just going to wander around aimlessly until we both catch a cold?"
She gives him a sly, considering look over her shoulder, but says nothing. Rain flattens her hair, pasting it to the skin of her scalp. Water trickles down her face and neck, following the clean, shapely line of her throat and disappearing neatly below the collar of her kimono.
"Won't you take an umbrella, at least?"
"You take one," she says. "I didn't say you have to walk in the rain with me."
Again, he rolls his eyes. She continues to walk at a constant pace, her sandaled feet stomping heedlessly through quickly forming puddles and splashing noisily. When she lifts her legs, the hem of her robe parts slightly, showing a glimpse of small, white ankles and round calves.
"After the last visit, I used to dream of rain," she muses aloud, lifting her face to the sky and absorbing the storm eagerly. "I'd lie in my bed at night sleeping, and dream of endless, endless thunderstorms, water everywhere, nice and cool and enough to fill several lakes. I'd jump into the biggest of them all, fully-clothed, and just splash around all day long like a little girl. You forest-dwellers have no idea how good you have it."
"If you love water so much, why don't you just move here?"
She scoffs huffily, like he's the one who's not making any sense. "Don't get me wrong. The Wind Country is beautiful in its own way. You just have to be there in order to understand. The jagged contrast of the rose-colored village walls against the smooth plane of the desert. The perfection of the sun, peeling all excess from the land. Sand getting everywhere, threatening to consume everything. Things like that."
"Sounds interesting," he concedes, awed into sincerity by her unexpected poetics. "Shame I've never had a chance to visit."
"You should," she says, smiling back at him. "Especially in winter, when the desert is ice-crusted and harsher than any other time of year. It'll be a sight to see."
She stops suddenly in her track, and whirls around to face him, her mossy eyes dancing with a strange fever-light. "Suna is my home, and always will be. But as long as I'm here, I'll enjoy all this water as much as I can. How about coming out for another stroll with me the next time it rains?"
"You won't have to wait long then," he says, looking up at the leaden clouds. "Rainy season just started last month. But if I'm to accompany you on this tiresome venture, I insist that we used umbrellas."
Her smile widens, the glint of teeth like sparkling rainwater. "See you within the week, then."
"Hey, Chouji, did you hear about Shikamaru's new girlfriend?"
"Shikamaru has a girlfriend?"
"Yeah! It's that Sand kunoichi, you know the one he fought with during our first Chuunin exam? I saw them together the other day, on a date!"
"Are you sure you weren't mistaken? Where did you see them?"
"Pft! How on earth could I be mistaken? I saw them with my own two eyes, didn't I? They walked right by the flower shop while I was on shift. I even ran out into the street after they'd walked past to make sure. It was them!"
"They were walking?"
"Then how did you know they were on a date?"
"Oh, Chouji! A boy and a girl are never 'just walking' together. I of all people should know a date when I see one. And Sakura told me she saw them having lunch together down at the ramen stand last week."
"So I suppose, by your logic, a boy and a girl can never 'just have lunch' together either?"
"Yea – hey! That piece of barbecue meat was mine! You promised I could have the last one this time!"
"I don't remember saying that."
"Well, one of these days you're going to have to let me have the last piece, alright?"
"Um, I'll… see what I can do."
A letter from Sunagakure changes everything.
The night before the rescue team is due to depart, he arrives at her rented room to find the whole place in a shamble, as though a cyclone has just swept through. She is sitting cross-legged on her rumpled bed, busily stuffing necessities into a small traveling sack. He notes to himself that she travels light, always ready to shred the excess and leave all the baggage behind.
"I heard from Naruto," he says by way of greeting. "It's urgent, isn't it?"
She gives him a what-do-think sort of look, and goes back to her packing without a word.
"Are you planning not to come back?"
"I don't know," she snaps, not looking up. "I'm not very sure of any of my future plans at the moment, to be honest. In case you didn't realize, my village is under attack and my youngest brother maybe in mortal danger. That kind of situation is not exactly conducive to long-term thinking, if you know what I mean…"
"Temari," he intones firmly, catching her wrist to draw her attention. Her bone is surprisingly fine; his fingers curl around the white wrist effortlessly. She makes a sharp intake of breath at the point of contact, but does not recoil. Their eyes meet unflinchingly over her half-packed bag.
"I want you to write me," she says abruptly, and just like that, the conversation changes. "Here." She reaches into her sack with her other hand and pulls out a thin stack of white envelopes, held together by a green rubber band. "Ten in all. Write me, if you can. They're already stamped and addressed."
Indeed, the top envelope shows her loopy handwriting on its front cover, her name and address penned in three lines of austere black. For a brief moment, he's taken aback – it's such a... un-Temari thing to do. She notices his bafflement, and presses the envelopes into his hand without a further word. He realizes suddenly that he's still holding onto her wrist – the distance for once negated – and lets go hastily. It doesn't matter. She's already somewhere he can't touch.
"Do you know why I'm doing what I'm doing?" she says quietly, dropping her eyes. "Well, do you?"
"Why?" he asks.
"It's because I love my family, and when you love that much, you don't want to have to think back years down the line and know that you couldn't do anything for them. Do you understand that?"
He finds he has nothing to say in reply, so as usual, she gets the last word.
In the months that Temari is gone, Shikamaru does not touch any of the envelopes that she gave him. He is busy with his work – that is a given – but above all he is busy contemplating distance. He is perhaps just now coming to realize what a strange, mesmerizing, terrifying concept it is to wrap your mind around.
Distance calculated in rooms and scrolls and secret smiles. Distance in thin air and words unspoken and small gestures of the hand. Time as a measurement of distance, and even that seems inadequate.
The distance between Suna and Konoha is roughly five hundred miles. Half a thousand. It is a five-day journey for a normal traveler. Three days for a messenger. A homing eagle can make the trip in one and a half. There are all manners of means to close this distance – letters notwithstanding – but the reality is that physical distance does not matter. Distance is relative. There is no distance in touch, only in the mind, and the distance between Suna and Konoha is an alliance, is words exchanged and laid down in blood on parchment, and as long as that alliance stands, there is no distance, the distance is insubstantial, not worth considering…
But should the bond break, the chasm will open up beneath his feet and he will fall into the void.
The funny thing about life: when you try your best to run away from something, it has a way of catching up with you when you least expect it.
Three hours after the news of Leaf Jounin Sarutobi Asuma's death reaches Sunagakure, Temari receives all ten of her envelopes, sealed.
Every single one of them contains the same simple message: 'I understand'.-
Shikamaru wakes at some point in the middle of the night and arches his back fully into the tree trunk he's been sleeping against, wincing at the sound of his spine cracking. Because the night is damp chilly with a snapping breeze, he is surprised to find himself uncold, the fire he built the evening before still blazing heartily as opposed to having died down to embers as he would have expected. He didn't think the firewood would have lasted so long…
He startles, jerking to a sitting position, and darts his eyes around wildly. His gaze drifts across the fire to see Temari sitting on a wooden log, legs crossed, eyes narrowed and focused on his face. Her clothes appear dusty and remarkably travel-worn; the deadly fan lies folded and dormant at her feet. Cast in the pink glow of the flame light, her pale face looks haggard and serious, corded tension apparent in the line of her shoulders.
He blinks. "Have you been watching me sleep?"
She snorts contemptuously, and tosses him a disdainful look. "You wish. I just got here. And before you say anything, I have to inform you that San is currently in a state of near dead exhaustion back in Konoha, and I fully expect you to compensate me for any medical expenses incurred."
San is – of course – Temari's nine years old stallion, one of her most frequented topics during their rainy day strolls of a million years ago. He suddenly feels his own exhaustion catching up to him, and rubs at his bitter eyes wearily. The distance is particularly expansive tonight.
"Would you mind if I?" he asks, drawing out a packet of cigarettes.
"Not at all," she says, raising an eyebrow. "When did you start smoking?"
"Not too long ago," he answers, averting his eyes. Thankfully, she catches the hint and falls silent. Then, "Give me one." He complies. They sit in silence for a long moment. The smoke rises straight up, spooling from their lips like comic speech bubbles and dissolving into the sky.
"Half a thousand," he mumbles under his breath.
"Nothing. I'm just thinking – half a thousand miles – I sent the letters less than a week ago. You rode half a thousand miles on horseback in two days."
"Don't forget the time it took to track you down," she says, frowning. "Do you forest-dwellers always prefer mucking through the undergrowth to using the perfectly functional main road?"
"The habit has been known to pay off in the past."
She makes a dismissive noise. "Anyway, the moment I learned from your teammates that you were on a 'secret mission', I knew exactly what you were up to."
Now it's his turn to raise his eyebrow. "You did?"
"Yes," she says, nodding sagely. "And I said to myself, obviously something's gone wrong with that clever brain of yours again, and I'll have to chase after you myself to make sure you don't get yourself killed. Again."
"Is that right?"
Her expression grows stormy suddenly, the setting of her jaws brittle and intense. He is startled by the whiteness of her knuckles, her hands stiff and wrapped around themselves in fists on her knees. "I don't know if Naruto told you this, and I never saw it myself, but Gaara – for a moment back there – he died. He didn't, but at least for however long it was there, he was dead."
He nods slowly, but she doesn't seem to have noticed. "I've been thinking about it, you know, keep coming back to that all this time. I mean, I guess that's just how it is. You care for people, and never do anything about it for years and years, and then they die and there's not a damn thing you can do about it. And you live with this feeling like you've contributed to their death somehow, but you never know what it is exactly so you can't even wish to take it all back. That's when you start to realize the gods don't owe us much beyond that."
"So if you think I'm just going to let you be stupid and strike out trying to get revenge on your own, you have another think coming, blockhead."
He opens his mouth, and is unsurprised when no words come out. Blockhead. That's what she calls her horses, and Kankurou. She really isn't big on endearments. It's the little details he has to focus on now, to keep up that pretense at least, because he really isn't capable of much else at the moment. He looks up in time to see a new crease split Temari's brow.
"Bottom line is, I'm coming with you, end of argument," she continues blithely. "You probably don't even have a plan yet, do you?"
"Um," he offers eloquently, "well, sort of."
"Typical," she spits, disgusted. "Just start by telling me what your next move is."
"There's," he says, forcing his tongue to wrap around the words. "There's a post town about fifteen miles north of here. If we hurry, we can make it there by morning."
"Good enough," she says, springing to her feet and offering him her hand. He grabs it and allows her to pull him up, holding on for a moment longer than necessary. She doesn't seem to mind. Her long fingers press lightly in his palm, the flare of warmth sudden and intense.
"Are you really coming with me?" he asks, somewhat incredulously. "Do you have a plan?"
"Yes, but I must tell you it mostly involves knocking you unconscious and dragging you back in a tied-up sack when you're not looking," she deadpans, slinging her fan over her shoulder. "Ready?"
For a moment, he stands rooted to the spot, at a complete loss for words. Then he realizes that none is needed, and nods quietly, shuffling to follow in her wake as they wade into the wavering darkness of the dense forest, the canvas of night stretching thickly around them.
At some point before dawn breaks and they arrive at that post town in the north, he will have to tell her that this 'secret mission' of his is nothing more than a standard scroll delivery imposed upon him by the over-concerned Hokage. At some point, he will have to break the truth to her. Right now, though, he still has five hours and fifteen miles of darkness in which to bask in the glorious knowledge that, when it all comes down to it, there is no distance at all.