A/N: Okay, this story is written in alternating perspectives, I'm sure you'll catch on.
No one reads author's notes.
"You should spend less time playing shogi and more time training," I informed him over the board.
"Stop talking." He pressed his fingertips together. I smirked. He was a good shogi player, I had to give him that. Not quite so good at making friends. But then, as he had brutally reminded me not much earlier, he had no intention of being my friend. Not that I had asked.
I contemplated him contemplating the board. Two weeks ago was the first time we had been in the same room without the pressure of battle upon us. If we hadn't started out bruising each others' pride we might have been friends. But his dishonorable surrender to me was as unforgivable as my salvage of his mission. Two times that we substituted honorable defeat with shameful victory.
Bruises healed, it was true, but our one upmanship was hardly therapeutic. We knew too well that arrogant words would fall on deaf ears. Our battles were played with action. I supposed it was childish. Trying to prove to each other that our respective humiliation was a one-off, an anomaly, a freak accident.
I turned my attention back to the board. He had moved a piece. I frowned, wishing I had a magic pose that would allow clarity of thought. I tried to predict his next move, but he always seemed to see an opening that I had missed. I thought back to our first battle, two years ago. My bad temper and lack of patience had been my downfall. If I had not thrashed my tessen, trying to smoke him out, I would have noticed what he was doing, would have left myself room to move.
I saw an opening, and was immediately suspicious. Had he left it that was as a trap? Patience, thought, clarity. I reminded myself. I looked it over, trying to visualise the board as it would be once I had moved, what he would do next, then what I would do. This was how to bruise the genius' ego.
"Are you going to move anytime soon?" His nonchalant voice distracted me.
"Are you going to shut up anytime soon?" I replied, trying to get my train of thought back.
He didn't flinch. "Just wondering if I could catch a nap."
I shrugged. "It'd make winning easier."
I saw him glance at the board and followed his gaze. I smirked. He hadn't looked at the opening I had seen. The genius had made a mistake.
Before he could reply I moved my piece. He looked down, and a strange look crossed his face, as though he had indigestion. My smile became harder to contain. Shikamaru looked at me like I was from another planet, his eyes wide. I didn't want to ruin the moment by showing him how hard I'd tried for it. So I subdued my grin and shrugged coolly.
"You should pay more attention to the game."
I knew from the narrowing of his eyes that this was my last victory at shogi.
She had won. I stared at her closely. She wasn't above using genjutsu on me. No, she didn't know any. I had genuinely lost a game of shogi to the sand princess. I had known from our first fight that she was smart, but then I could only predict so much from a single battle.
This hadn't been one of my predictions.
Temari was restraining herself from smiling, her nose buried in a mug of tea. She was slightly flushed from a full stomach, a long conversation and the steam from her tea. It looked pretty on her.
The sun was setting outside, casting long shadows along the ground, bathing her pink and orange. As usual, she didn't seem to notice her surroundings. But I knew that if it was demanded, she'd be able to name every object in the room, and how she could kill me with it.
Her eyes danced on mine, basking in her victory. I wasn't angry, but the fire of anger had just started to simmer in my chest. Only not quite. This wasn't a blind sensation, not any kind of embarrassment or bitterness. More like a need to rise to the challenge. The same fire she had lit in me the first time we had fought, when I was faced with such an impossible person that I had to prove she had flaws. I had underestimated her.
"You got lucky," I told her with a smirk.
"I thought shogi wasn't a game of luck," she taunted.
She was right, she hadn't been lucky, I had been stupid. I was never a sore loser, but I hated to make a mistake.
"Rematch." I started to reset the board.
The Sunagakure embassy loomed in front of us. The streets were completely darkened, a few stray candle lights emanated from windowsills. My lips tasted of sweet tea and my sides were tired from laughing. Having Shikamaru as a guide wasn't turning out so badly. Our shoulders occasionally brushed lightly as we walked, I suddenly realised. The distance between us had evaporated.
I stepped away slightly.
A friendship in Konoha was something I knew to be useful. I would be here often enough, there were plenty of missions for an ambassador. The closer I was to this village, the stronger our alliance would become. But there were limits. Different levels of closeness that made the difference between a strengthened tie of villages and a liability.
If I had been honest with him, I would have admitted that his company was appreciated. It wasn't that I was one of those girls that always needed someone around. I spent half of my life trying to get five minutes to myself. But at night, in my rooms at the embassy, it seemed empty. I was used to my brothers being there. After three weeks, I was missing Sunagakure badly. Kankurou should have been acting the fool, I should have been trying to tease a rare smile out of Gaara. It was lonely here.
I bowed to Shikamaru.
"Goodnight, Temari-chan," he yawned. I had decided that chan was not so bad. It would give me a laugh if he became so used to calling me by it that he forgot to revert in front of Gaara.
He turned to walk away. I thought briefly about stopping him, but the request would be too awkward for me to vocalise.
I turned towards the embassy, sighing at the dark tower. The guards bowed to me as I walked through the doors.
I had bigger problems than homesickness. The Chuunin exams were only a few months away. The examination istelf was not a problem, the security was. Dozens of feudal lords would arrive for the event. Konoha nobles as well would come out for the battles. All of them would be abandoning their personal guard, their guarantee of safety, in exchange for the protection of a single ANBU force. More importantly, in my mind, the Kazekage would forego most of his own protection in the same way.
The Konohagakure ANBU would be ample protection against almost any force. But it had not slipped anyone's mind that the Third Hokage had died at the Chuunin exams. The Fourth Kazekage had died around that time, too, though it was a death mourned by significantly fewer.
Gaara had seen me for so long as just a pawn, a grunt, someone to be taken advantage of until I was no longer of use. Though I knew it was foolish, I had always loved him. Feared him, yes, his lack of control over the Ichibi made that necessary, but loved him as my little brother. Now that he loved me back, I would not let anything take that away from me. We were finally a real family.
I sat on my bed, stripping off my stockings and lying back, staring at the ceiling. Hokage had so far refused to let the Sunagakure ANBU occupy the village during the exams. It was the only protection that I would accept. They weren't superior to the Konoha ANBU, but if push came to shove, I know they would protect the Kazekage above all others.
There were rumblings in Kumogakure of breaking their alliance with Suna. The Raikage was tempremental at best, I didn't trust him. If we moved the Kazekage out of his safe zone, it might be tempting an attack.
I frowned, realising I was staring at the ceiling, lost in thought.
Curse that Shikamaru.
"This is fine."
The gates of Konoha loomed in front of us, emblazoned with the fire symbol. She hadn't really needed my guidance for this walk, but I felt like walking with her one more time. Something had possessed me to follow this mission through to the very end, even if I didn't need to. I suspected it was her troublesome influence.
She had looked at me when I met her in front of the embassy. A kind of weird, vulnerable look. It wasn't the kind of look that should suit her, but it did.She seemed to slip easily into any role she wanted to play, even that of mildly startled foreign emmissary.
"Catch you around," I had meant to say. "Hate to see you go, but love to watch you leave."
But that's not what really came out.
"The next time I see you will be at the Chuunin exams, right?"
Smooth. She wasn't even gone and I was already thinking of the next time I'd see her. She was sure to fall for such overwhelming suavity. I had enjoyed her company for the last couple of weeks, although I wasn't letting her know that. If she knew, her ego might overflow and kill me.
"Yeah, see you around." She almost smirked as she said the words.
See? That was the kind of cool I was aiming for, and failing to achieve. No big deal.
She started to walk away, but stopped, turning back to me. I raised an eyebrow, hoping she'd say something equally embarrassing.
"You need to hurry up and become a jounin. You should be able to do it quickly if you stop complaining and take your missions seriously."
The only way she could be more like my mother would be to develop a passion for yelling at my father. I rubbed the back of my neck. Just like my mother, she was probably right. Just like my mother, I didn't want to hear it.
Temari flashed me a grin, softening her words. Okay, my mother would never do that. She turned and walked away.
I sighed. "What a pain."
But I still couldn't help myself from watching her until she faded into the horizon.