A/N: a ShikaTema centric fic, with GaaraHina in background. Hopefully won't be too long an epic, since I'm writing another at the moment (Return, Bleach fandom), but you never know.
Apologies for shameless self-promotion :)
Disclaimer: NARUTO is not my story. This one here is my story, with borrowed characters.
It was only because of Yoshino's impatience that we were getting hitched. For real. Next week.
Yeah, yeah, Nara Shikamaru proposed and all, but what with one thing and another, we didn't exactly have the time to plan seating charts and bridal showers, y'know? I had my genin team to take care of, and he was now in ANBU (though I wish he'd be out of that soon, I don't enjoy the idea of him risking his neck) as key tactician.
And yes, we had been engaged for five years.
Come on, first with Akatsuki, with that creepy Orochimaru/Kabuto hybrid as a side dish, then some weirdo with a llama (don't ask) adds on to the confusion... life as shinobi made wedding planning very hard. Even harder when we belonged to different villages.
"Kankurou, we're off. You make sure you send me the package as soon as it arrives okay?"
The puppet user nodded. "Yeah sis, it's not like we haven't done this three hundred times already."
"Whatever. Bye now."
I had three adorable teenage genin. Students: love them or hate them, you can't hit them over the head with an iron fan. Right now, I was relaxing while dinner was being cooked. The clouds drifted lazily overhead, and I warmed to think of my fiancé.
Yuuta sucked on his fingers after being scalded again by the pot. "Temari-sensei, why can't Nagisa do this? She's the girl after all."
"Like a guy's too good to cook?" Nagisa asked, tossing her mid-length brown hair over her shoulder. I grinned. She had obviously picked up something good from me. "Besides, I caught all the fish for tonight."
"I gutted them," Haruki put in, afraid he'd be asked to cook instead.
I stretched. "That you did, Haruki. Very well too." The boy, a slightly built eleven-year-old, needed reassurance on his worth. He had very fine skills with a blade; I was thinking of recommending him to the Hatake swordsmanship training school after the kid makes chuunin. That was assuming Hatake Kakashi had time to train them personally, even now that Naruto was Hokage.
"You're all ganging up on me. Even you, sensei!" Yuuta mock-sulked. The fish stew smelt really good though.
I grinned lazily at the lanky, blond kid. "You're the fire manipulator around here, kiddo. Think of this as further training."
We dived into the fish stew not long after. Yuuta certainly knew his cookery. Despite his whining, the kid was capable. If it wasn't for his almost-constant bickering and unbreakable bond with Nagisa, the kid might make chuunin a lot earlier than his teammates.
"Smells great," drawled a familiar voice.
I got to my feet in an instant, my fan in my grip. "Nagisa, Yuuta, Haruki, behind me. 'Ban' formation. Now!"
A lean shadow detached itself from the darkness. "Temari of Sunagakure. It's been some time."
"Who the hell are you?" My fan extended. I had to protect the kids. This was only their third mission. They must be able to return to Gaara: my priorities realigned immediately.
"I'm hurt. It's Shikio. Don't you recognize me?"
My fan did not lower. "You left the village months ago. I've a bad memory. How am I supposed to recall what you looked like?"
"Considering our history," Shikio said smoothly, "I'd've thought you would at least think fondly of me. Or at least send me an invite to your upcoming wedding."
I narrowed my eyes. "We don't have a history, Shikio. And I'm glad you remember that I'm getting married. No-" he was taking two steps forward "-stay back."
"I don't think so." Another step.
I steadied my breath. And in seconds whipped up a tornado.
"Who did it?"
I knew I was gripping the arms of the chair very, very tightly. Like I cared about furniture.
Four days to the wedding and the bride was lost? How could anyone lose a bride?
Gaara regarded me with his pale eyes. "She was on a mission with her genin team. They said a man calling himself Shikio appeared, Temari fought, and then, when they opened their eyes, Temari was gone."
Shikio. I racked my memory. The name rang a bell. "Shikio, the stalker? The one from ANBU that left Suna after she rejected him eight months ago?"
"From the description and their recounts, yes. The stalker."
I stood, agitated. "He was mental! He tracked her from Suna to Konoha every time we met up, and he tried to poison me on-" I frowned "- gods know how many occasions!"
"He was on our hit list, but as he was former ANBU he managed to injure or kill most of our agents. Except for her," Gaara nodded at the door. There was pink tinge in his face as Hinata walked in, bearing a tray of drinks and document.
"Shikamaru-kun," Hinata smiled as she greeted me. She was no longer as shy as she was, blossoming under the iron care of Gaara. The kazekage squeezed her fingers as he left the office for the council meeting. "I was the last to see Shikio. Unfortunately the man severely injured my teammates and we had to return before backup could arrive."
"I understand." I did, but the sour feeling expanded in my stomach. Three days had passed already. Who knew what had happened?
"He has a base, about seventy-eight klicks from the West Ridge." She spread a map out on the kazekage's table, absentmindedly moving Gaara's mug to another ledge. "And I know he has stayed here for the past month. Unfortunately, we have never been able to locate the actual exit."
"Too many tunnels. Here, here, and here-" she marked the points on a photograph - "are those we have witnessed him using. But he gives us the slip every time. Inside the tunnels are booby traps; a staged rockfall killed three of our best trackers and maimed one for life. My byakugan doesn't work either. He's placed jutsu barriers across different tunnels."
I heard the sorrow and fury in her calm tone. She continued, "Gaara and I were waiting for you to arrive. We go along tonight when you make your move." She looked at me, her resolve clear. "How do you think we should do this?"
I woke, bound and gagged, lying on a camp bed. The cloth in my mouth tasted so foul I had to force myself not to throw up; if I did I would choke on my own vomit.
"Awake at last."
Bastard. How the hell did he dodge Hinata and the other ANBU trackers? They had been hunting him for months!
Shikio pulled my bangs away from my face. "You've been out for three days. I had to resist touching your beautiful sleeping form... I had to cut myself to do so, or else I would have violated you." He pulled the gag from my mouth and I heaved a sigh. He stroked my cheek. "I should get you a drink, you're probably dehydrated."
As I sipped I considered my options. I didn't know where I was, beyond 'dark' and 'cavern', I had no idea how much chakra I had, and my fan was not in sight. Oh, and I was bound. He took the cup and straw away.
The only man who has permission to engage in bondage fun with me is Nara Shikamaru. I fumed inwardly, testing the bonds. You are so very, very dead.
"It's no use, you know," said Shikio calmly. He loosened his silver hair and re-tied it. "They're made of chakra-absorbing rope. I didn't want you to leave."
There was one thing I learned from Nara. I said nothing and closed my eyes.
As I suspected Kankurou was eager to join us too. "Five jounin against one ex-ANBU. Piece of cake."
"He took down four excellent shinobi," said Gaara reprovingly. "We must not be complacent."
"Aye aye, kage-sama," smirked Kankurou. He nudged his future sister-in-law. "Where to next?"
I took the initiative. This was my wife-to-be we were saving, after all. "West Ridge first, then I'll outline the plan."
I knew I would have trouble remaining calm and objective. But this was dissimilar to the time Asuma was killed. Then, all I wanted was vengeance. And Hidan's face was still rotting beneath the ton of mud I dumped on it.
Now I prayed to any god who would listen that Temari would be safe.
"She'll be fine," Chouji murmured as we dashed along the road to the Ridge. He had come to Suna to help me with any last minute stuff, him being my best man and all. Now it was a great big fat favor I was asking of him, and I was glad he was by my side.
I swallowed the lump in my throat, grateful for his simple reassurance. The bag of hard rubber balls thumped against my back. I shifted slightly; they were interfering with my stride.
"You sure they're enough?" Kankurou asked. I could see his concern beneath the makeup.
"I take any more of their toys your twins would unleash their puppets on me. I couldn't handle that."
He took my quip at face value and grinned. "'Course you can't. We puppeteers are deadly fighters."
"We're almost there." Gaara's voice was still impassive. Briefly I pondered how many attacks I could throw at him before I got killed – in case Temari chose to ask brother dearest to intervene in our family quarrels. Then I smiled grimly.
I'd give my right arm to quarrel with her right now. Even if I get squashed by the Desert Coffin later.