For TaintedMoonlight, for her honesty and inspiration. For SJT, for being the most vocal reviewer ever. For my husband, for putting up with me.


He dreamed of rain. Every night, without fail, he dreamed a downpour that drenched the earth. A barren landscape stretched out in every direction, drinking in the torrent of water falling from the sky. It seemed like this was the first shower the land had ever seen.

Shikamaru knelt, soaked to the bone, letting the water run down his face. He watched the raindrops forming rivulets in the sand, pushing it aside, making wild circular patterns in the ground. The sand was turning to slush, running together and being swept away.

Soon the ground was stripped down, and Shikamaru began to see the smallest blades of grass uncovered. In his first dreams there had been no grass, now it was becoming more frequent. Maybe in time this would become a green field. Maybe not.

"Shikamaru-kun," a sultry voice called to him through the rain. He shouldn't have been able to hear her, but still could. He turned to see Temari, drenched as he was, water pouring down from her hair and streaming along her fan.

His eyes opened. The sun had long since risen, he guessed from the angle of the shadows, and bathed his room in a white light. He groaned and rolled over. The dream always ended when Temari showed up. Every time. A shame, since he could imagine worse things than a soaking wet desert princess. With another lazy groan he swung his legs onto the floor. He had to stop dreaming about her.

The role of pining after Sabaku no Temari, Shikamaru had decided many years earlier, was suited to a more motivated individual. A highly skilled ninja who could help her beat people into a pulp, someone refined enough to know all the aristocratic bullshit that surrounded her station, a man with a high tolerance for paperwork and a weird fetish for training. Maybe someone who didn't manage to shoot himself in the foot quite as often as Shikamaru himself did.

The shadow-nin grimaced. A perfect description of Hyuuga Neji.

He had thought about courting Temari. Her old clan, high station and volatile brothers completely ruled out the idea of just dating her. It would have been troublesome. The gifts, the arranged meetings, the family interaction. It would have taken up all of his cloud watching time. She was pretty enough, maybe even beautiful, definitely smart and impressive as hell with that fan. But not worth giving up cloud watching for.

With a sigh, Shikamaru sat down at his desk, pulling open the bottom drawer and pulling out a small package. He wanted an average wife, not too pretty or too plain. Definitely not a ninja. And definitely not anyone scarier than his mother. He told himself that after every dream. His dreams were supposed to be a place for his average future wife, and average future family, and his clouds.

He withdrew from the package a hand fan emblazoned with the Nara clan symbol and beautifully painted deer. It had been his father's engagement present to his mother. It would have been the gift that started the process of courting Temari if the Hyuuga hadn't been that bit quicker. It wasn't often that he looked at it, her preferred to forget that it had ever existed. He could just go back to being her clumsy, boring escort.

Shikamaru knew that it was a bad idea to be looking at the fan, but his eyes traced the patterns painted in green, brown and gold. Looking at it always sparked a melancholy in him that he found difficult to shift. It reminded him of a time when he had been nervously prepared to ask her to see him as more than a friend. And today was not the day for such a thing.

Today he would be meeting the Sabaku no siblings to guide them for the first family meeting with the Hyuuga clan. Usually it would have been a meeting of the parents, but since she was an orphan her brothers were substituting. And since Neji himself was an orphan, Hyuuga Hiachi and his wife would be substituting. Hell, at least if Neji and Temari did get married they'd have a real family. He wouldn't begrudge either of them that.

Shikamaru pushed the fan back into the dusty bottom drawer. He had no place thinking about her like this. If the Hyuuga clan was the one she wanted to join, then that was her decision. If she wanted to run off to Amagakure and join their cult then he was in no position to stop her. Her happiness was the most important thing.

Temari and Neji were a perfect fit in almost every way. They were both powerful shinobi, who knew politics and aristocracy inside out, and any child of theirs would without a doubt be head branch material and possibly a kage one day. Shikamaru couldn't really put his finger on why the union irked him so much. Maybe it was just too perfect. Love was supposed to be blind but this match was as pretty as a picture.

But the most irksome thing of all was the sense of humiliation that came with thinking of her so constantly. He never told a soul, but still he felt the social stigma of pining for someone who would never offer him a second thought. It felt pathetic.

The daily rigmarole of preparation always wore on Shikamaru's nerves. Shower, shave, brush teeth, do hair, get dressed, breakfast. It took him a half hour to get ready and if time wasn't wearing on he would have gone back to bed for a while. But he had an appointment with the Kazekage, and it took a braver man than him to be late for that.

The walk through Konoha passed too quickly. The whole occasion had an air of formality before the princess had even reached the city gates. The meeting of two major clans was a big deal, no matter what the reason, but a potential engagement between them was massive. He wasn't playing the most important part in this, but in this situation a tiny hitch could seriously mar the event.

Shikamaru stopped at the thought. His mind played very briefly on the idea of simply turning around and going back to bed. He shook his head and kept walking. His chance with Temari was gone and it couldn't be regained through pettiness. Also, the only reason Gaara or Hiachi would accept for him not showing up would be his death. Anything else and that excuse could be used for every future event.

The gates of Konoha were a familiar sight to him. Every six months he would come here to greet her, then a month later to see her off. Now his visits here were more frequent with her visits both as an ambassador and suitor. Soon he would be replaced with a female escort, since an engaged noble couldn't be alone with a man who wasn't her fiance. The thought stung, but at this point his heart was too tired to feel the lances that it used to, now their eventual seperation just joined a long, dull ache in his chest.

He rested against the gates. Temari wouldn't have been on time. She would already be there and give him a superior smirk when he arrived late, or be half an hour late and offer a completely insincere apology for making him wait. Not Gaara, though. He would have the trip planned down to the minute. So arriving one minute early, Shikamaru felt no surprise at seeing three figures walking towards the village.

Gaara walked between his two siblings, eyes unblinking, trained on Shikamaru. The shadow-nin had never really forgotten the man's blood curdling death threat from many years ago in Rock Lee's hospital room. The Kazekage gave him chills, but he respected his dedication to Sunagakure. He had simply accepted that the redhead was the kind of man that you could entrust your life to, but wouldn't invite out for a beer.

Kankurou, on the other hand, was someone who had grown on Shikamaru enormously. They had also started out on fairly wary terms, Shikamaru couldn't appreciate his cruel streak, and Kankurou was no fan of laziness. However, after word had spread that Hidan had been annihilated and Zabuzu's second heart taken out by a single chuunin, the puppeteer's honest admiration had eventually turned into a sound friendship in spite of their philosophical differences.

Shikamaru's eyes were drawn to Temari and he felt a small smile tug on his lips. She looked beautiful, as always. Her hair was a mess, days of wind and rain sending it wild, there were still traces of sand on her skin and through her clothing. A bunch of purple flowers were cradled in her arm, probably part of the afternoon's proceedings. She had an exotic, barbaric look about her that always pulled at his heartstrings, it was almost strange to hear her speak the same language as him.

She looked distracted, staring off into the distance even as they approached the gates. Her eyes had a faraway look in them, like the weight of the world was on her shoulders. He had become accustomed to that look ever since they had become close enough for her to let her guard down around him.

"Kazekage-sama, Temari-sama, Kankurou-san," Shikamaru inclined his head in greeting, receiving the same from the group.

"Where's my 'sama'?" Kankurou quizzed him. Shikamaru snickered.

He turned and led them toward the embassy. It wasn't necessary, more a formality to show respect, and Tsunade-sama was meticulous when it came to gestures of respect toward Suna. As their closest allies, a jounin escort for a ten block walk was the least to be expected. They filled in time with small talk, or at least, Kankurou did. Gaara rarely spoke without necessity and Temari was still far away, simply following her brothers.

Shikamaru appreciated any chance to catch up with his friends, but wished it was for a different occasion. He was ushered into the embassy along with the Suna-nin, a gesture of familiarity that he hadn't been comfortable with at first, but it had become natural with time. The group didn't have a lot of time to get ready for the meeting, but he knew full well that his friend would take the fifteen seconds to throw on formal hakama and consider himself ready.

As expected, Kankurou led him out to the balcony while Gaara and Temari confined themselves to their rooms, getting ready. The puppeteer sat at a small tea table where a bottle of sake and bowls were laid out. He immediately poured two servings, offering one to Shikamaru as he sat down.

"It's good to be back in Konoha."

Shikamaru downed the alcohol. He couldn't think of anything he wanted more right then. Taking Temari to a courting arrangement was definitely cause for heavy drinking. "You haven't met the Hyuuga clan yet, have you?"

"Haven't even seen this Neji guy since our first chuunin exams." Kankurou shook his head, looking down over the city. He seemed pensive for a moment. "What do you think of him?"

"Neji?" The question caught Shikamaru by surprise. "He's alright. A good fit for Temari."

"Good," Kankurou nodded, his thoughts seeming to grow deeper still. "You've known Temari for a while now, you probably know her best out of the people in Konoha."

His tone of voice suggested that he had just offered a great compliment and Shikamaru's eyes narrowed. The older man looked like he was preparing to ask a serious question. "You have something on your mind."

"This whole thing," he answered after a pause. "It seems kinda stupid, I know. Temari doesn't even have much of a clan, and this Hyuuga kid doesn't have parents either. But we're not doing it for us, we're doing it for her."

The shadow-nin looked out over the city, not wanting to be part of this conversation. It was only his need to keep his feelings a secret that forced him not to excuse himself from escort duty altogether. If Temari had to marry Neji, he didn't want to be a part of it.

Kankurou continued. "She never had a mother, you know? To teach her women's things. Our nanny was Baki-sensei. If Gaara didn't make her go through all this, she'd probably fling herself into something headfirst and get herself hurt."

"I... uh..." He didn't know how to answer. Thinking of Temari from a protective brother standpoint had never been his strong suit. In his opinion, if the guy was him she should rush headfirst, if it was anyone else she shouldn't even be looking. "It's good that you look after her."

"I actually thought you'd give her a shot," the puppeteer said with a sneering laugh. "Shows what I know."

Shikamaru downed another shot of sake. This whole conversation had taken a turn for the decidedly uncomfortable. Was Kankurou saying that he'd have the family's blessing to pursue her? The thought made him mentally kick himself for his hesitation even more. His thoughts flew back to the fan in his drawer. It could have been the start of something.

"I woulda liked it," the older man mused. "But you haven't, and you think the Hyuuga is okay. So I gotta ask you something. I know you're young, but you're the only one in this village who knows both of our families. If the marriage gets approved, Gaara wants you to act as Nakodo."

The shadow-nin choked on his sake. "Nakodo? But that should be..."

"And Temari should have her parents here and bride and groom should probably have never made any attempt to kill each other in the past. We can't do this the traditional way, and you're as close to our family as anyone." Kankurou paused, sipping his sake. "It would mean a lot to Temari. To have you there."

Of course, only immediate family and the Nakodo were allowed to attend a noble's wedding. Only the families and he would be there for the many steps of courtship. The Nakodo, the go between. He would be the one negotiating Temari's marriage. He was sure that this was some kind of cruel joke. Gaara couldn't ask this of him, he couldn't accept it, he wasn't that much of a masochist.

But then, to reject this offer would insult the Kazekage and hurt Temari. Dammit, why did the whole world seem to be laughing at his infatuation?

"How troublesome," he muttered. He'd have to be a sucker to agree to this, just because it was what Temari wanted. He'd have to spend the next six months making sure that Neji and Temari's marriage was blessed with as much good luck as possible and convincing the respective families that it was a good idea to cave in to each others' demands. Not only would it be an enormous amount of work, but only a complete pushover would actually arrange the wedding of the object of their own affection.

Shikamaru opened his mouth to agree but was stopped by the look on Kankurou's face. The puppeteer was looking over his shoulder in shock. Shikamaru followed his awed gaze and felt his heart stop.

Temari stood in the doorway, dressed in a midnight blue junihitoe. She had chosen a five layered version, which fell over her curves in a figure of absolute nobility. Her hair had been pulled up in a formal knot which made her neck seem long and delicate. Shikamaru almost laughed, she still had her tessen on her back.

He had always known that a kind of rugged tomboy sexiness was in her repetoire, but feminine beauty was something he rarely saw. Gaara stood beside her in his Kazekage robes, the tiniest of smiles on his lips. Kankurou practically glowed with pride.

"What do you think?" Temari asked, looking directly at Shikamaru. His mouth was too dry to speak.

I think that I can't do this.

"You look beautiful," he grumbled, amazed that his tongue was obeying him.

"Just tell me you're not the type that cries at weddings." Her sly smirk was hidden behind a hand fan that bore the Hyuuga clan symbol.

I'm not going to be at your wedding.

"I'll cry for Neji, he's the one who has to live with you."

Temari merely peered at him over her fan, a cheeky look playing in her eyes. She looked so damn beautiful. Damn Hyuuga bastard with his good looks and good family. He didn't deserve her.

He knew that Temari would hate his sexism, but he felt that a woman should have a husband stronger than her, better looking and higher stationed. Someone she could depend on in every way if she ever wanted to. At that moment he couldn't imagine a man good enough for Temari. He didn't think the person existed who could outshine her.

"Nara's agreed to be your Nakodo," Kankurou said with a grin.

Nara's eyes widened. He did? When? "I never actually-"

"C'mon, you need some clothes to wear to the meeting. My stuff should fit you."

Shikamaru was hauled off his feet despite his objections. Kankurou managed to stuff him into slightly baggy clothing, yanking his hair down and leaving the shadow-nin feeling slightly violated. Wasn't this day bad enough already? He could have sworn that he heard Temari laughing outside the door.

Kankurou's unfairly well groomed appearance after days on the road and two minute's preparation made Shikamaru feel completely unprepared. The guy looked like he had just stepped out of a day spa. This was all going way too fast. He was about to walk into the Hyuuga household as the Sabaku no Nakodo, which had not been on his schedule for the day.

Temari's eyes widened appreciatively as he stepped out of the door. The look on her face made his palms start sweating. He blushed and looked away.

"You don't brush up half bad, Shikamaru-kun." He could tell that she was using the fan to hide a smile. He coudln't help a dorky smile spreading on his face as well.

The thing that struck him the most was how comfortable she looked in that dress. They all looked comfortable in their formal, restricting, overdone clothing. Like they wore it out every other day. For ninja they didn't seem to have a problem with not being able to move. While Shikamaru felt like he'd been attacked by a seamstress with a grudge.

At least he'd be walking with people who knew how to wear this stuff. Maybe he wouldn't be seen by too many people who knew him. Thankfully, Neji wasn't the gossiping kind.

Gaara nodded to Shikamaru, indicating that they should leave. He led the way with Kankurou as the brother and sister linked arms. The siblings looked perfect, the three children of the Yondaime Kazekage, raised as aristocracy and as shinobi. The perfect image that he just didn't seem to fit with.

This wasn't a side of the siblings that he saw often. It was the kind of thing that he hadn't seen until the first time Kankurou had invited him to the Kazekage's home. He had, in a half-drunken stupor, seen Temari and Gaara coming home from a diplomatic event. He had thought at first that it was a drink induced hallucination, but soon Temari had changed into casual clothing and crashed their little party, telling tired anecdotes about the event as if she'd just come from a long day of work. Because thats what it was: work. To any outsider it might have looked like a party, a meeting of rich friends, but really it was just another workplace with fancier clothing.

People on the street stopped to stare at the procession, headed for the Hyuuga compound. Of course gossip had spread. Older couples twittered excitedly to each other excitedly. Temari in a court dress was reason enough to stare, for multiple reasons, Shikamaru conceded. Temari in a court dress arm in arm with the Kazekage walking to her engagement would have made him stare if he wasn't walking with her. And it worked in his favour, everyone was too busy looking at them to look at him.

The Hyuuga compound wasn't far away. It loomed over the city, an elegant monolith, easily identifiable from a distance. The walls obscured the gardens, but the bulk of the manor was too tall to hide. Shikamaru's chest grew tighter with every step toward the building, where Hyuuga Hiachi stood, a woman on either side of him.

Another few steps revealed the taller of the two women to be Shizune. The first twinge of fear hit him. Shizune wasn't involved with this event. Something was wrong. She wasn't even carrying Tonton. Shikamaru exchanged a look with Kankurou.

As they approached, Shizune stepped forward holding out a scroll. "Kazekage-sama, I'm sorry to interrupt this occasion, but we've received news from Suna."

Gaara took the scroll and opened it with his brother and sister reading over his shoulder. The three stood in silence for a moment, reading. Shock blanched the faces of the older two, while Gaara frowned deeply.

"Hiachi-san," the Kazekage started. "Our apologies, but Suna..."

Before he could finish his sentence, there was a rustle of cloth and a metallic clank. Shikamaru whirled around to see Temari's obi and outer robe discarded on the ground, while their owner had mounted her fan and was already flying homewards.