They were all going to be all right. Choji, Kiba, Neji, Naruto, and Lee were all going to recover. He didn't give a damn about Sasuke, that damned traitor, or about the fact his first mission had been a failure. His friends were all going to recover. The tears came as all the stress and fear of the last 48 hours came crashing down on him. He didn't give a damn about those either or about his stupid reputation.
"Next time I will carry out the mission perfectly." He choked out the words, a solemn promise to himself.
As more tears came he felt two gentle hands on his shoulders. He looked up to see a pair of green eyes, they were wet as well. He looked into her eyes and all he could see was caring and warmth. Without a word he was pulled into a soft embrace and found himself sobbing onto her shoulder.
"I tried…" No more words would come.
He felt one hand tenderly caressing the back of his neck and a gentle voice whispering in his ear that it was all right, that everything was all right.
He didn't know how long they stayed that way. It seemed like hours to him. No one interrupted them. She didn't tell him to stop or push him away. For however long it was she stayed there comforting him. When the tears finally stopped, and he felt himself to be in control again, he carefully pulled away from her warmth. He stood there and looked at this girl who had seemed so terrible and frightening to him not so long ago. She didn't mock him or tell him he needed to be stronger. She just smiled at him and carefully wiped his cheeks. Was this really the same girl who had been talking about emotional training and inevitable losses just a little while ago?
He jumped as he heard a cough coming from behind him. He turned around to see his father standing there about 15 feet away. The Hokage and Shizune were long gone and there was no one else. His father's expression was absolutely blank as he spoke. "Shika, Neji and Choji are still in intensive care but Kiba and Naruto are both on the fourth floor and taking visitors. As team leader you should go see them."
Shikamaru nodded, he did need to see them. The mission was over but his responsibility to his teammates and friends was not. He turned back to the girl. "I have to go."
She nodded. "I understand I should go find my brothers."
"Would you have dinner with me and my family tonight?"
She was obviously stunned by the sudden invitation, but after a slight hesitation said, "I would love to."
That had been yesterday. Now he was on his favorite hilltop looking at the clouds float peacefully above. He wanted to find some normalcy again. He needed to somehow assimilate everything that had happened to him in just three days. All he wanted was some uninterrupted peace and quiet.
"Oi, lazy, I thought I could find you here!"
Shikamaru sat up and stared at the blonde walking up the hill towards him. She was dressed in her usual outfit and had her fan strapped across her back. What caught his eye though was what looked suspiciously like a picnic basket "How did you know where to find me?"
Without any invitation she dropped down next to him and opened the basket. "Well when I went to your house your mother told me that you liked to come here a lot." She pulled out a large cloth and spread it out on the grass.
A sudden stab of fear went through him. He was already certain that this could not be good. "Wait a second why were you at my home?"
She quirked an eyebrow at him and gave him one of her annoying little grins. "I wanted to thank your mother again for that lovely dinner. My brothers and I really appreciated it." I was also looking for you silly boy. "Your dad was out working but your mother was kind enough to invite me in and we got to talking." She began taking out wrapped plates and setting them out on the cloth.
There was another stab of fear. "And just what were the two of you talking about?" Shikamaru made the decision then and there that if any baby pictures had been involved he was moving in with the Akimichis.
"Oh, this and that, you know, girl talk." She loved seeing him panicked. She considered mentioning the photo album to him, but decided to save that for another day.
"What are you doing?"
"What?" She answered with mock innocence as she set out the last plate of food.
"This," he waved at the small feast she had set out in front of them.
"Oh!" She blinked as though caught completely off guard. "Well your mother mentioned to me that you didn't have breakfast this morning and she asked me if I would be willing to bring you a little snack. After all her courtesy I couldn't very well say, 'no,' now could I?"
"Interesting how you manage to be so polite around my folks."
She gave him one of her big smiles. Right before she smacked the back of his head… hard.
She pulled out two glasses and a thermos. "I am always polite… to people who deserve it." She answered pointedly before handing him a glass of tea. She took out a pair of chop sticks and handed those over to him as well. "If you are ready we can go ahead and have lunch. It's almost noon so I know you must be hungry."
He was just about to tell her he was not hungry and to leave him alone when his stomach betrayed him with a low growl. Temari laughed at him. He glared at her, but that only made her laugh even harder. He took a look at all the food and couldn't deny it looked and smelled wonderful. And it wasn't like he could pretend he wasn't hungry. He sighed and admitted defeat. "Troublesome," he muttered as he began to load down a plate with food.
As they ate he was surprised to find himself really enjoying their meal together. Their conversation was light and playful as they both steered clear of painful subjects. They compared their villages and the differences between living in a desert and forest region. They talked about the values and uses of different jutsus. They talked about friends and people they knew. They talked about every day normal things. It was a very pleasant meal.
That of course, meant it was the polar opposite of the dinner they had had the previous night. When Shikamaru had invited her to his family's home for dinner it had been done completely on impulse. He hadn't thought about it before issuing the invitation. She had accepted immediately, but had then later informed him that she could not come without her brothers. He had thought she had just changed her mind and was using her brothers as an excuse. She had insisted that she really wanted to come but that Suna culture was simply more traditional than Konoha's and that her brothers would be insulted if she went without them. Then his dad had spoken up and told Temari to bring her brothers, that they would be welcomed.
Shikamaru would not have invited them. True they were allies now. True without their help Kiba and Lee would have surely died, just as he would have without Temari's. But that did not change the fact that he did not trust or like either of them. He considered Kankuro nothing but a loudmouth bully who liked playing with dolls and wearing make up. As for Gaara… he did not think he would ever get over what he had done to Lee in the exams and what he had wanted to do in the hospital. Though Gaara was supposedly much more humane and less, well, psychotic since their last meeting he had still felt very nervous at the sight of him at their door. He had quietly taken him aside and told him in no uncertain terms what would happen if even a single grain of sand left his gourd. Gaara had taken his words surprisingly well and even assured him that he did not ever use sand during social events. The dinner itself had actually gone well with all three siblings on their absolute best behavior. After dinner was a different matter.
With the meal over Temari had volunteered to help his mom and dad with the dishes. And somehow the three boys had all wound up sitting very close together on the living room sofa. The two brothers then began asking him a series of questions about what he thought of their sister and about his plans for the future. It had felt like an interrogation and he had gotten the very distinct impression that if he had tried to leave or answered a question wrong that Gaara'a sand just might make an appearance after all. He didn't understand what the big deal was. It was just a dinner, right? When Temari had returned from the kitchen he was suddenly the only one on the couch as the three of them were in a small huddle having a very quiet talk. He wasn't sure what the hell had just happened but he was sure something had. Both her brothers kissed her on the cheek and he thought he might have heard the words, 'blessing' and 'idiot.' When his parents came out of the kitchen the two brothers quickly thanked them and left.
Of course after that came the best part of the evening, he got to watch as his mom asked her a few questions. Shikamaru had so enjoyed watching the over confident blonde girl answering questions about her personal life and her thoughts on him. He knew from experience what it was like to have his mother's undivided attention and just what it could do to someone. His opinion of Temari went up a couple of notches seeing how well she stood up to it. I mean fighting a crazed flute girl with a curse seal was one thing, but his mother was actually scary.
"You seem to really like the chicken." Temari commented as he helped himself to a third serving.
"Yeah, my mom doesn't usually make it this spicy but it's really good."
"I made it." She said, clearly pleased with herself.
He stared at her. "Really?"
Her mood instantly soured. "What do you mean, really? I'll have you know I have cooked for my family since I was eight. I am as skilled in the kitchen as I am on the battlefield."
He held up his hands defensively. "I'm sorry I am just so used to thinking of you as a fierce kunoichi I have trouble picturing you in an apron."
She crossed her arms over her chest. "Being one doesn't mean I'm any less of a woman. I'll have you know I am a master of all the feminine arts."
Shikamaru quirked an eyebrow. "All of them?" She blushed and looked away. Seeing that made Shikamaru feel strangely pleased with himself. "So my mom let you cook in her kitchen?"
Temari nodded as she took a sip of tea. "Yes, your mother asked me if I wanted to make anything for you and she let me."
"Now that is really troublesome." He took another bite of the chicken.
"How is my cooking troublesome?" She set her glass down and began reaching for her fan.
Not wanting to be hit by a 70 pound fan he answered quickly. "It's just that she must really like you. When it comes to making food in the kitchen she's like a wolf guarding her territory. She won't even let me or dad make a sandwich when she's home."
Temari considered this…and then hit him over the head with her fan. "Ow! That hurt! Crazy woman, what the hell was that for?"
She set her fan down. "You should be glad your mother likes me."
He rubbed the top of his head. He was sure there would be a bump there later. His mom, Ino, Temari, what horrible sin had he committed in some past life to cause him to be cursed with all these troublesome women? "I should have known she would, you're two of a kind."
"Just what does that mean?" He saw her reaching for her fan again.
Fearing a return to the hospital (or worse) he answered. "I just mean you're both really strong women who don't know when to leave me alone."
This answer actually seemed to mollify her. "You should be glad Nara Shikamaru to have strong women in your life. You need us to keep you motivated or you wouldn't ever accomplish anything! I swear I've never met anyone even half as lazy as you."
He laughed at her. "I'm sorry did you not meet my dad yesterday? He has to be at least 90 as lazy as I am."
"And I'll bet he would never have made Jonin without his wife there to keep him on track and focused. You should take a lesson from that lazy. You're going to need a wife who won't let you just sleep all day."
"Got anyone in mind for the job?"
She blushed again but managed to not look away. "I'm sure you'll find someone who is willing to put with you."
He shook his shoulders. "Too bad it can't be you Temari."
"WHAT!" She looked at him in complete shock.
"I have already decided that whoever I marry is not going to be too beautiful or too ugly. So I can't marry you since you're much too beautiful." He told her simply.
Once again the boy had managed to leave her completely confused. It was disconcerting how often he did that to her. She was honestly not sure whether to be offended at being told he would not even consider her as a wife, or be pleased at his calling her beautiful.
"I also want her to be my age or a little younger so I'm afraid you're too old."
Well that settled things.
"Ow! Ow! Ow!" Shikamaru ducked and covered his head as an absolutely furious Temari stood over him with a raised fan and murder in her eyes.
"How dare you! I am Sabaku no Temari daughter of the Fourth Kazekage, first daughter of the most noble house in Suna, the wind mistress of the desert, I have dozens of royal suitors including the eldest son and next Daimyo of wind country, and I am also the woman who saved your miserable ass just two days ago!" She screamed at him. "You should be down on your knees thanking me that I would even consider letting you court me!"
"So you want me to court you?" He looked up at her from beneath his arms.
"Yes you idiot! Why do you think I asked my brothers for their permission?"
Shikamaru lowered his arms and smiled at her. "All right."
"Huh?" She felt her anger leach away to be replaced, yet again, by confusion.
He rolled his eyes at her. "I said all right, I will make an exception and consider you as a potential wife, even if you are too beautiful and too old." He said as if he was granting her a very large favor.
Temari felt her jaw tighten along with her grip on the fan. As she continued to stand over the now relaxed boy she actually considered whether or not Tsunade would declare war if she beat Shikamaru into a bloody pulp. As a woman Tsunade just might understand that some men were simply too annoying to let live. Ultimately she decided that however satisfying it might be she owed it both Konoha and Suna not to risk a war. Instead she sat back down and finished her meal.
The two of them ate in a semi-comfortable silence. She did not fail to notice the self satisfied grin he had. Why did she have the feeling that he had somehow maneuvered her into saying what she had? Everything she had told him was true. Back home there was an actual list with no less than 43 names on it of official suitors. They ranged from foreign nobles to elite Suna Jonin to wealthy merchants; and every last one of them had sought her out. Of course she understood that most of them had no interest in her as a person. The vast majority on that list had never even met her and might not have ever even seen a picture of her. Their interest in her was for the political connection her name offered or perhaps for the 5 million ryu dowry that came along with her. But there were plenty of names not on the list of handsome young men who admired her. She had received literally hundreds of flowers, chocolates, and love notes from admirers. These she always received with real appreciation, but it never went further than that. She was too busy with training and watching out for her brothers to have time for romance. But more than that no one had ever really caught her eye. She was 16 but she had never had a boyfriend or a real kiss.
She looked at the boy sitting across from her. Why are you special to me? He was a Konoha Chunin and heir to one of its stronger clans. Despite his world weary attitudes he was all of 13 and as she had seen was still learning about life. He was supposedly a genius (though she still had her doubts) and was undeniably a talented shinobi. He was brave and devoted to his friends and village. And of course he was cute, especially when he had that little smirk of his. There was also the little matter that he was the only one to ever beat her down in a fight. Is that what it is? That he beat me once? If we had a rematch I would so kick his ass. But that wasn't the reason. She honestly didn't know why she cared about him. She only knew that she did. In her entire life there had only been five people she had truly cared for, and two of them were gone; her brothers, Baki-sensei, her uncle Yashamaru, and her mom. No one else had ever been allowed into her heart, not even her bastard of a father. But now there was a sixth name engraved on her heart. When she had seen him cry in the hospital she had ached for him. She had known then and there that she would give anything to take away his pain. That was when she realized that her infatuation had become something much more serious.
"Why are you staring at me?" He asked as he collected the plates and handed them to her.
"I am trying to decide whether or not I should hit you again." She took the plates and put them back in the basket. He shook a finger at her.
"If you do that troublesome woman you'll never get the marriage of your dreams."
"Oh? Do you really think the Daimyo's son would refuse me just for that?"
"Have you ever cooked for the Daimyo's son?" He said a bit too smugly.
She gave him a huge smile. "Yes actually, he has visited Suna many times and my father always had me prepare the meal when they ate together. He and I have talked several times and he is quite infatuated with me, he likes to call me his, 'little desert blossom.'" She decided to leave out the part about him being about 300 pounds and having all the charm and intelligence of a pig in heat. She thought she saw just a little worry on Shikamaru's face.
"It occurs to me that before I could seriously consider choosing a wife I should make sure she really can cook more than just one dish. I don't suppose there's anyway I could get you to make an entire meal?"
"Well I wouldn't want you to go hungry so I just might be willing to do that. But not in your mother's kitchen."
He looked at her in genuine surprise. "Well where then?"
She finished folding up the cloth and stuffed it back into the basket. "If I make dinner for you it will be in my kitchen."
"You're inviting me to Suna?" That couldn't be what she meant. It was.
"Of course," she looked at him as though it were the most obvious thing in the world. "I don't know how things are in Konoha but in Suna we take hospitality very seriously. You invited me into your home; it would be the height of rudeness for me not to invite you into mine."
"Follow the same traditions I do. I promise you they would have no problem with you paying me a visit."
Shikamaru took a deep breath. "It's not that simple. I'm a shinobi of the Leaf. I can't leave the village without the Hokage's permission."
She stood up and so did he. "I understand that. But my brothers and I are leaving tomorrow morning and I don't know when I'll be back." She looked him in the eye and tried to sound as serious as she could. "If you really want to get to know me you can't just depend on me coming here. I am shinobi as well. Look, you have the invitation and there's no time limit on it. You can decide what you want to do with it. Now I have to return this to your mother. Thanks for a very interesting lunch." She turned and began to walk slowly down the hill.
Shikamaru fell into step beside her and tried to take the basket. She deftly moved it to her other hand and away from him. "Do you have any plans for the rest of the day?"
"Well nothing that couldn't be changed if I had something better to do."
"Have you ever played Shogi?"
She nodded and smiled at him. "That's what you want to do?"
"It's a lot of fun and I am hoping we can have a good game."
She shrugged her shoulders. "Fine, but I have to warn you I am pretty good and I won't go easy on you."
"Of course, there's no point unless you're trying as hard as you can to attain your goal." He reached out and gently took her hand into his. She blushed and looked at him, but did not try to pull away. He gave her hand a gentle squeeze. "Even if it takes awhile and it's not always easy."
She smiled at this lazy underage ninja and decided it was a good thing she had not beaten him to a bloody pulp. "I couldn't agree with you more."