Long, long, long absence. I know. This was a tough cookie. I'm still not content, but I've made peace with the fact that I'll never quite be so here you guys go; the climax and at the same time, the end of more than just an Arc.

Chapter 16: Home, whoever that may be

"WHAT, HIDAN?!" Kakuzu spat at his partner after two hours of biting his tongue. "Just spit it out already, you've been chanting more than usual, and I've killed partners for less, trust me!"Screw self control, one of these days he was going to sell that religious dick to the highest bidder.

"SHUT THE FUCK UP! I heard something you dick!" Said partner, walking not two meter behind him, yelled back.

Kakuzu rolled his eyes. "What, your savior calling for you?" He said, tauntingly. He was getting too old for this bull-shit.

"More like, a shu-" Right then a masked figure dove forward from seemingly nowhere and disemboweled Hidan in one smooth movement of his sword. Before a drop of blood could hit the floor, the man had disappeared from their view.

Kakuzu blinked, and- "WHAT THE FUCK! That fucking hurts!" Hidan yelled in pain, looking around desperately, trying to keep his intestines where they were supposed to be. "Who the hell did that? Come here and face me you BASTARD!"

"Move, idiot!" Kakuzu gritted out, and fled the scene while scanning the surrounding forest for chakra signals, finding none.

Before he could find some higher ground to localize the unknown foes, a kunai hit him straight through a heart, ripping through the tissue. A wave of pain shook him, but after years of falling apart and sewing back together he could ignore the burning pain in his chest and move out of the way of the next attack.

Making an impressive back flip, he regained solid footing and cast a barrier jutsu around himself and his worthless partner.

Said partner was already busy drawing some of his religious seals on the floor for both offensive and defensive purposes, mumbling profanities. "What the fuck just happened…?"

"We were attacked." Kakazu deadpanned while he took care of stuffing back Hidan's organs where they belonged. Not that the man really needed them anyway, so he wasn't too careful.

Hidan didn't even hiss, but just looked at him thoughtfully. "Hell no, we weren't attacked, we were tested."

Kakuzu blinked; this was a rare moment of insight from his partner.

"You don't take the time to cut open someone's stomach in a battle. This fucking hurts the most, you know?" Hidan explained, motioning his stomach. "Whoever is trying to get us wants to know if I can still fight despite this. They know about us, or at least about our abilities."

That was at the very least unsettling. Whomever they fought against must also know he had more than one heart, he realized. The dripping wound was located at the right side of his chest after all. "You might be right." He replied. "Whomever we're fighting, let's make sure they don't survive to tell the tale."

Hidan gritted his teeth as Kakuzu sewed up the last part of the cut, stretching from hipbone to hipbone, but the message was clear: they were going to make them pay in kind.

Suddenly, a bright red explosion tag was placed against their barrier and within seconds the spiritual protection was obliterated in one big bang. The explosion allowed him to catch a glimpse of two shadows of cloaked figures, moving out of sight within fragment of seconds. "This could be problematic." Kakazu muttered to nobody in particular as he formed a snake seal.

"Raiton: Gian" and within seconds a laser-like beam of lightning shot from his lightning mask through smoke and rock alike in the direction of the moving shadows. Hearing no cry nor shout, he assumed he'd missed and he was correct. However, his partner had taken care of the smoke in the mean time, and he had leveled enough trees to take away their opponents hiding places.

When his opponents were revealed, Kakauzu felt an anti climax; it was just a young man and woman, judging by their looks from either Suna or Konoha. An ANBU and a Jounin. There was probably a price on both of their heads, but not significant enough for him to remember their faces by. He sighed; their surprise attack was probably a lucky shot.

Resolving to ending it quickly, he cast another Gian at the duo. What the woman did next surprised him though. She pulled out a large Tessen, and allowed the lightning to strike it. Instead of obliterating it however, it send the lightning straight back at him, nearly frying his partner next to him instead. His surprised gasp was overshadowed by her shrill laugh, and maybe, maybe she was worth his while anyway. She seemed somewhat-

Then a piercing pain shot from his head to his toes, tearing a scream out of his throat. He watched down and to his horror a sword pierced his chest once again, straight through his lighting mask. He grit his teeth and looked back, to see the shadow of a man, pulling the sword out and disappearing once more.

In retrospect, this was a fatal mistake. While he managed to track his attacker, he bemoaned losing eye contact with the woman only moments later. Half a second after a wave of killer intent hit him and he swiftly looked back, he saw the woman charging at him, her Tessen held like a club. He could narrowly avoid her first attack despite his tingling muscles.


A narrow miss, avoided only by a nimble leap to the side. Another trio of swings forced him to roll backwards, making his pierced chest ache the fan coming close enough to whip a breeze across his skin. She rolled send a kick his way which he blocked narrowly. 'Oh shi-' was all he could thing before she used the momentum and turned round quickly, slamming the fan against his temple with enough force to decapitate a normal man. The pain of his back giving in and hitting the ground was vastly in superior to the all-overpowering throbbing in pain in head that seemed to take away both his vision and his calm.

It hurt, damn it hurt like hell! He used a quick defensive Doton technique to merge with the ground to recover for a second, hearing his partner faintly grunt and curse for all he was worth over the pounding in his head.

He'd had it up to here with these kids! This was plain embarrassing to be kicked down to this extend by a couple of children just out of their diapers! The shame in his gut gave birth to a fiery anger, swirling and swirling until he forgot all about the pouding in his head. Clenching his bruised knuckles, he undid the Douton technique, seemingly raising from the grave and back into the battlefield.

He had no time to lose. Clenching his jaw, he grit out "Fūton: Atsugai", and within seconds a tornado sprang into life. He heard his partner curse, and saw that the two flee the site. He chuckled with not a small amount of statisfaction. If only his worthless partner could get a hold of either of the two, they'd be done. But because the guy was quite worthless, his tornado would do the trick.

Kakuzu's Fuiton Jutsu ripped through the forest as if it weren't there, and every time he heard the sickening crack! Of a splitting tree, he imagined it was one of those kid's bones breaking. It didn't take long until they tried to make him dispel the technique, but this time he was prepared to counter a hit. The tessen was once again aimed straight for his face, and in the back of his eye he could see the boy looming around him, with no doubt waiting for the girl to make a strike.

He didn't move, smirking in the face of his opponent who came at him at a dazzeling speed until-

Within moments he released the jutsu in favor of his favorite kin jutsu and it was too late for the woman to avoid it. Without feeling much pain his limbs stretched and stretched, creating a web of wires. The woman's eyes went wide, knowing she'd walked right into his trap, and showed of his stitched smiling face.

He wrapped the tentacle-like wires around her body in mid air and – much to his delight – made her cry out in agony as he squeezed the air out of her. The pained look on the child's face made the roaring cry for restoration of his honor settle down pleasantly, and he figured that after he'd squeezed every drop of blood from her bruised, lifeless body, he'd even let Hidan use her as a sacrifice. His damn neck still hurt from the woman's hit and she would damn well pay the price for it!

While he gleefully thought of what he'd do with her, he was still mindfull of her partner looming around. He knew the guy had Hidan on his tale, but well aware that Konoha ANBU, which the guy without a doubt was, were usually evasive enough to avoid Hidan for awhile.

A broken, bruised face sprang into mind. Hadn't they killed an ANBU a while ago? The body had exploded within seconds after the guy had uttered his last words, but he remembered a similar mask. 'Heh' he thought as a smile twisted his stitched visage 'maybe they were out here for revenge'

He didn't get time to ponder more on that notion as he suddenly felt a searing pain in the place where his heart was supposed to be. Looking down, he found no new wounds, and the girl still struggling for freedom in his grasp. The pain however, was there and it was making him not just a bit angry, because this could only mean one thing…

"You idiot!" He yelled at his partner, who was laughing quite gleefully for someone who had a sword pierced through his chest.

"What! He's my sacrifice you fucking cheap-ass!" The man yelled back. Then, his face fell and he realized that his so called sacrifice was not withering on the floor in pain, but in fact cutting Kakuzu's wires down. "Ow"

'Ow' Indeed.

"You've got my blood you fucker!" Kakuzu yelled right back, trying to salvage his grip on the girl, but failing painfully while moaning the loss of yet another heart. At this rate he'd only be able to use his Douton Jutsu, and at any rate his visioin had turned to red. Never in his 92 years of existence had he ever...!

"But, I fucking slashed the guy's gut open!" Hidan cried, looking more confused than ever.

"I'm not even surprised you can't even do your own proper sacrifices!" He grunted back at his worthless partner. He forced himself to relax; he was a professional, and if anyting he should keep his calm. He refocused his attention to his attackers, standing right in front of him in the clearing.

She was obviously bruised and it seemed that his wires had at the very least broken her fan, if not some bones. The boy favored his left leg and was bleeding a bit.

A meaningful glance passed between them, and they both instantly dropped their weapons. As the sound of metal hitting the floor echoed through the battlefield, they slapped their bleeding hands together. A moment later, the wind started to swirl around the man and Kakuzu realized that this woman didn't really need her fan to manipulate wind. Not at all, really.

A few seconds later, the wind had picked up too much dirt that had covered the forest floor to even see his partner. Though through Chakra sensing he could locate him, he could easily see that it was already too late; his partner was moving away from him.

Their tactic, probably from the start, had been to split them up and fight them one-on-one. He cursed silently under his breath and focused on his opponent, trying to figure out at first who it was.

The moment the dirt suddenly dropped its impassable formation and focused on piercing him, he knew it was the girl. The air around him spun with uncountable leaves and sand, and how they seemed to blend in the shadow they created, and wondered for a second if it was a symbolic act. He took no second longer to react and countered the piercing attack with a wall of earth, flushing the remains away with a following wave of water and a gush of wind. She might control that element of hers with an admirable precision, but she was merely a child with a gift compared to what he had.

Said child stood firmly a few meters in front of him, as if she hadn't even expected her technique to kill him. His green eyes glanced back and forth in search of her partner, the masked ANBU from the Leaf, but his theory was confirmed when he couldn't see nor sense the man anywhere near.

When a weapon with wind induced speed was suddenly approaching him he focused back on the woman, who regarded him with a thousand yard stare, merely observing like the ANBU had seemed to before her. He catched the kunai between his teeth and whirled around to shoot it back at her at the same force. A moment later, they were fighting at full capacity.

'I should have ended this quickly,' He thought as he saw her dodge one assault after another. 'This fight just got that much harder.'

Shikamaru couldn't focus on anything else but the man in front of him- not the man he had left behind with his capable partner, not the dark clouds that started to crowd above them, he couldn't even remember when he had set off from Konoha. There existed nothing but the man who had killed his sensei, the only guidance in a world of justified and unjustified violence intertwined so deep into each other he would have been lost without him. And was lost without him. If not for this state of mind, he would have probably asked himself if this was how Sasuke felt about his revenge…

However, a mind numbing sensation had overtaken him as soon as there was no Temari to distract him. Another part of his brain whispered that he should move fast and disarm the man as quickly as possible and get back to Temari, but as soon as he acknowledged the idea, it died. His mind was a calm rage that was hyper focused on the man, on his techniques, on his body and on how he would be killed. He knew this sudden inability to focus on more than just the man couldn't be right, and Tenzou-sensei would had his ass for it, but when the thought returned that his teacher would never ever have his ass for anything the calm rage squelched his musings in a wink, and he made his first move.

In a swift move, he converted a some chakra until it cracked and launched the bolt through his opponent, who he had released from his hold with a Kagemane he hadn't even known he was still holding. While the man avoided it with the awkward movements one makes when you have just regained control of it, Shikamaru fired a second, pumping more chakra into it however.

Hidan pulled out his scepter in order to avoid a hit. Once again, the best defense can be an attack. He launched the enormous thing at Shikamaru and now it was Shikamaru's turn to dodge. He jumped forwards, and clasped the cold metal of Hidan's weapon, not shedding a single drop of blood in the process. He pulled it towards him and surprised the man be getting even closer. Using this surprise, he lifted himself of the ground and swung himself over the man in a split second only to attack him from behind immediately after. A jolt of electricity missed the Akatsuki member's heart as he managed to dodge some of the effect, reduced his left arm to a black, burning piece of flesh. Shikamaru hurriedly made a back flip when the man lashed out with his regained weapon and spun around in an attempt to slice his head off.

He vaguely registered a lot of cursing from the other man, but frankly didn't seem to mind.

His sword fell on the ground just out of his reach, and he saw the man smile in triumph, going in for the kill. Shikamaru just stood there until –

His hands started to dimly glow and without even uttering a word he gathered the required amount of chakra into his hands, slapping them together.

Hidan's eyes went wide in shock, and he was close enough that Shikamaru could see the black lightning mirror in his eyes. His new, elementally changed version of lightning shot straight through the man's body, and burned his intestines.

Shikamaru allowed a small smirk to overcome his features as the man choked up his blood, and did he see an ounce of fear in the man's eyes? If not, than Shikamaru would make sure that it would soon be there.

Charging again, he continued to shoot black, radiating lightning at the man, leaving a fearful black fire in its wake that would scorch the forest and his enemy alike.

Temari send another tornado at him and was pleased to see he had even more trouble to avoid a hit than the last one. He might have superior strength and jutsu, but she learned just as quickly as she moved and attacked. The searing twister tore through his earth wall with ease, tearing it to pieces in a heartbeat.

The earth made a comeback immediately after. Through superior elemental manipulation, the ground rumbled, split and cracked to reveal molted rock making its way to her.

The man smiled his morbid smile, the stitches flexing and enhancing the look of inhumanity as his attack hit her. She jumped out of the way from the molted rock that seemed to follow her at frightening rate, but the hit of the remaining non-boiling rocks from the crack was inevitable.

But she wasn't giving up. This might not have been her battle in the first place, but it was her battle now. Her fan laid broken and discarded at the edge of their battlefield as she canneled one fuiton jutsu right after the other.

Wind had a disadvantage over earth in general, but right now, with superior speed and superior killing intend, she felt that her favorite element was an even match for the ancient man's earth elemental Jutsu.

"You're stronger than you look, girl." The disgustingly stitched up man taunted her "But you're getting tired and you know what that means".

She really, really wanted to just bash his face in, but he had been trying to make her retaliate for ages now. She was making no progress; he guarded that last heart with his life and wasn't half as cocky as he'd acted during the beginning of their fight.

She decided that a change of pace would do her good, and with that thought in mind she readied a few explosive tags. Within seconds, the entire battlefield was turned into a minefield, but one of which she was into control. The moment the first bomb went off, possibly tearing off a limb or two, she knew she was enjoying this a lot more than was sane.

It just didn't seem to bother her as much as it used to, and for a brief moment, she considered that this might just be what Gaara had felt all these years.

Maybe they weren't so different after all.

In the mean time, Shikamaru's white calm rage was reaching its climax. The man was getting desperate and had started summoning zombie like creatures to act as a decoy or a defense. But it was no use, for he could not hide from Shikamaru's assault.

It was tiring him, but the fear that Hidan's body just seemed to scream was worth every drop of chakra Shikamaru pumped into him.

Regaining his sword, he channeled the black lightning into it and renewed his assault. The battle rushed by in a blur, Shikamaru unable to recall how his injuries had been sustained as he stood with cold indifference at his loss.

In the end, only one of them was standing, and it was him. He gathered his remaining chakra and gripped his trusty sword twice.

The man's body was bruised and black where it had taken hits from his lightning. Blood was oozing out all orifices, and for once the disgusting sight pleased Shikamaru. But the battle was over, as he laid on the ground with his feet too scorched to stand, his hands cut off and his chest full of holes, and Hidan knew this.

He loomed over the man, making no show of severing each limb from the battered body. He would have enjoyed the sound of it, if it hadn't been over-stemmed by the gruel cries of horror from a man who had once been considered immortal.

But what was immortality without a head? Without a body to control? The man tried to struggle, move out of his way, but Shikamaru was relentless.

"Who are you?" Hidan asked, trying to squirm away with every separate piece of his body.

Shikamaru didn't falter pumping even more chakra into his hand, the radiating darkness becoming larger and more lethal with ever second. He merely stared the man in the eye and prepared to strike the lethal blow."Death" (1)

Just before he brought his hand down and the dark lightning connected the body parts, electrocuting every single cell, he saw the immortal relax and meet his end. Nothing but black, unrecognisable former limbs remained as he walked away back to his partner.

Temari was still fighting for her life, having rid the man of at one arm and his calm. Her clothes were torn, soaked with blood not solely her own and Shikamaru mused he had never seen a face more beautiful than her own blood streaked one. In the obliterated landscape, she looked nothing short of ethereal.

Without a second thought he rushed to her side, meeting her eyes and striking one blow at the man right after the other. He found chakra in reserves he didn't even know he had, slowly losing the feeling of numbness and gaining once again a smile on his face.

His black lightning sizzled in the night sky and Temari's laughter thundered over the destroyed forest ground. Within minutes they had the man on the ground, squirming, screaming, but defenceless.

Shikamaru and Temari shared a look, and a smile. He took a deep breath, and gathered all the remaining chakra he could excess in his body, and uttered one simple word:

"Raiton: Shikyo"

Within seconds lightning struck through the man's body, scorching his insides, frying his brains and destroying all that was once alive. When the only thing that remained was a static feeling in the air, the remains of the man's body we're as black as ash. For good measure, Temari kicked them which resulted in a crunch.

Whatever life there had been in the man, it was now gone for all eternity. With that last attack, the next generation had surpassed the former.

Shikamaru took proof of their kill, and hoped that the man's belongings and ash would be enough. The chakra residue should do the trick.

They walked away with a great degree of effort that suddenly overwhelmed them now it was finally over. He caught Temari as she almost fell. Willpower can only get you this far, even if you are as stubborn as her. He lowered them to the ground and took of his mask, and willed himself to meet her eyes. He found nothing but acceptance and exhaustion. A waterfall of feelings suddenly overcame him, things he simply hadn't felt came crashing down. The dread of what had happened, what he had lost and what he would have to face was enough to make him vomit whatever there was in his stomach. Suddenly, all his wounds seemed to spring into live with a feiry ache, and he felt downright miserable.

And so time passed without either of them speaking a single word, simply recovering slightly. He held her while he silently broke down, not desperately weeping but silently mourning.

"He meant so much to me." He managed to choke out silently, voice cracking from exhaustion and emotions that seemed to hit him now his quest for vengeance was over. "I… never imagined he could die. It didn't even seem possible." Now that the battle was fought and the enemies defeated, he had time to process everything.

Temari was not above showing concern or caring, and with great effort she took his arm and hugged it in a silent way of showing she was still there.

Together they watched the dark clouds break and clean the bloody forest with its rain, and sat there without caring for anything but the comfort and reassurance of each other's heartbeat. At some point their backs met the ground, and not much later there was laughter, and sounds that were completely unrelated to that.

Maybe it wasn't supposed to be like this, Shikamaru reasoned somewhere in between all this, but danm didn't it feel right. By the time they pulled themselves together, got up and he slit on his mask again, the early moonlight failed to reveal any distinct features anyway. They walked all the entire way home, collapsing shamelessly on each other a few times along the way before stumbling into the city hidden in the leafs.

Somehow, he felt lighter.

At the very same moment a man, dressed in a red cloak made to withstand the hardships of the desert and to hide more than a man's body and his pupil received the message of the loss of two former comrades from a messenger bird. In the end, the red-head thought, it was good that he'd taken the boy as his pupil, since his comrades we're falling one by one and if anything, he knew that you always needed a proper plan B.

And what better plan B. than a double agent of his own?

The feeling didn't entirely stick in the aftermath. Temari had made a home in his room in ANBU, and they were thoroughly enjoying each other's presence in various ways. Within his little room, deep underneath the village and his friends, his family, his duty and all the lies that held them together there was a time for them and in Shikamaru's case, a time for recovery.

ANBU, the Hokage nor any of his friends knew he was back. Hiding from them, from the consequences seemed like the best thing to do right now. Every night he thought, 'just one more night, and then I'll return to life.' Every morning he saw her eye the door, count their minimal food reserves and think 'just a few more hours'.

But they were both kidding themselves; they were glad forget life for awhile. Because every morning she had done this, she would look at him with those shining green eyes and that unkept hair, hiding nothing and taking all in and he would pull her back into his bed and try to forget all else for just 'five more minutes'.

To some extent, he really hadn't changed from those lazy days back when he was a genin.

"I don't know much about relationships." Temari says tensely one evening. "And possibly even less about successful ones." They hadn't been talking much about this.

Shikamaru wanted to react, to make her shut up not to burst this nice little bubble they had build up, but she had always been the braver one of the two of them. Temari effectively cut him off by continuing. "I've never had time for it, but I do know that with your job and my brother, this probably isn't going to work out."

"So? I mean, if you don't want to…" He let the question linger, feeling more confused than rejected.

"Never said I didn't. 'Just telling you, so you know what you're up to."

"What I'm up to? What is this to you, signing a contract?" Shikamaru's eyes narrowed dangerously, his voice sharp. "This is what trashy novels call 'love', and it's supposed to be unconditional and stronger then fate and yada yada yada."

"You know damn well that this is no love story. Hell, if anything, It'd be a tragedy by the way you're acting." Temari countered just as sharply. "And at least I'm taking this serious. There is more than just a proverbial distance between us. There's a three day travel and a crap load of loyalty issues as well, and that's just a start."

"Relax, I get it. Sheesh." Shikamaru sighed in frustration and combed some hair out of his face absent-mindedly. Women and their ways of overcomplicating things…"This is something we both want, right?" He added, almost like an afterthought.

At Temari's affirmative nod, he continued. "Right. So, let's just do what we do best. Screw rules, customs or feelings and do what we were doing before we got all awkward and official."

"And what are we supposed to be than, oh wise one?" Temari joked cruelly. "Frenemies? Friends with benefit? Lovers? Master and slave?"

"This is just what it is; love. It's us, it's twisted and probably not very maintainable, but most definitely worth a try." And that stopped Temari's joking. He was serious, after all. "After all, naming every aspect in life is terribly overrated and constricting. The man that spoke the words; 'let it be' was a downright genius, if you ask me."

Temari nodded, "you're right."He gave in to the unconscious desire to let his thumb run over the back of her hand, and took no shame in watching Temari looking with obvious amuse. "But you want to name this. Us." He said after a pleasant silence.

Temari sighed, the smile slipping of her visage. "I guess. I'm a straightforward woman. I like absolution, and your poetically right words to give me that."

"Okay then, should I kneel or buy a ring first." Shikamaru said teasingly, and Temari laughed open heartedly.

"You know what I mean, you idiot." She said, barely keeping her laughter inside. "It's all right, I guess. I can feel your aversion for the words girlfriend/boyfriends and I agree that the term lover is overused, nor do I have a better term. So let's just stick to yours until I get to buy a romantic dictionary." She added, winking. "I heard Icha Icha was just fine."

"You would know." He said, and left it at that. "And I'm not adverse to the word boyfriend. You could call me that any time you'd wanted. I just think that the word does not cover the load, you know?"

"Lovers, then? Because I do, you know," Temari said, mirth in her voice as she spoke. "Love you." Maybe that had been their first verbal admission. It didn't feel like it though, and Shikamaru did not feel like everything was suddenly clearer after hearing it.

"So do I. And I have no problem saying it, at all." He admitted. "But love, I've come to understand, is more than three words mumbled before bedtime. Love is sustained by action, a pattern of devotion in the things we do for each other every passing day. I do not need those words. I need that smile, those lips on mine and the way you frown when you disagree with me. I need that, no words what so ever."

"Yeah, you're right." Temari said, though not as enthusiastic as Shikamaru would have liked. Falling in love, becoming an 'item' was supposed to be romantic, but in their case this had been nothing more than another debate. It had not been romantic, nor had their relationship been at any point so far. It had been hot, but he knew that it was more than lust that he felt for her. He didn't need romance to prove that, and frankly didn't have the time to court her properly. But there was something he could do…

He grabbed her hand and held it over his beating heart, making her feel every beat, every confirmation of his continued existence. And the evidence of that pretty little thing that was between them. "Can't you feel it?" He was not insecure about his feelings, and knew she wasn't either.

Temari's widened eyes met his own, but her words came out accusingly. "I swear, if you start spouting shit about 'just for you', I'll end this 'us' here and now."

"Of course not." He offered in a matter-of-fact tone, still not letting Temari pull back her hand. "But you get it, right?"

This was intimate, he realized. Much more intimate than making out or confessing. Even if their feelings were long since out on the table and confirmed, this was the moment of no return; life isn't always about wanting and getting a choice. Those three words were just said too much, they had become too casual. This was his heart on a platter, and three words were not enough.

"I get it." She said, not even hiding her pleasant blush.

He met her eyes and smiled back unrestrained. "I knew you would." That was a lie, but in his defence he could say that he'd sure hoped she would.

They met each other's eyes, smiles reaching from cheek to cheek and laughter filling the evening sky and Shikamaru thought that they might just have had their first romantic moment. Maybe they didn't have a need for courtship, but that moments like these were just fine.

Temari giggled once again. "For someone who's adverse to spouting poetry, you are ridiculously gifted."

He smiled, and kissed her lightly. Her eyes were playfully, daring. Brave, even. For some reason, in a way it had never done before, this gave him strength. His mourning wasn't over, the numbness wasn't gone and he still didn't feel like facing the day light. But using her as a crutch, he was able to not only lift himself out of his –their- bed, but also to get dressed for the first time in days. He lit the candles, illuminating that trusting, smiling face that made lewd, playful comments as he tried to tidy the place a bit.

"You know, I'd promised myself I'd never do this." He said, while he got a blank piece of paper from one of the piles of rubbish that we're covering his room's floor.

"Do what?" Temari asked quizzically, but he never answered her question.

It was time to bite the bullet and pick up what his sensei left behind for him. With that thought in mind he wrote a note, consisting of only one word, and put a bright red ribbon around it. He felt bitter, he still felt hurt, but this is a decision that Tenzou – no, life – had made for him a long time ago. He could already hear Tsunade complain when she found out what he had just accepted, and the Captain Commander's hand on his shoulder, telling him not to outgrow him too soon. For now, he closed his eyes and let a single tear slip over his face, reaching the ground and disappearing.

This was it. There would be no more hiding, no more avoiding duty. This was the future that had always been looming over him. He'd never be normal again. Maybe he'd never been that. It didn't make him feel any better, but this was not about him. Hidan, Kakuzu, hell, entire Akatsuki; people like them would continue to come and go, and he would do his bloody part if that was what he was supposed to do.

It was what Tenzou would have done and did until his dying breath. It was too late to turn back, so he would move forward. With that thought in mind, he opened the door and left his sanctuary a slightly more sane man. He delivered the note, turned in a very short report of his deeds and walked straight out of the underground building, into the blinding, scoring summer sun.

Shikamaru's father would blow his lid if he ever heard about him joining ANBU. Behind his back, even. But he would be beyond livid if he ever found out what he did today. However, Shikamaru had a backup tactic, and decided that today was the right time to tell his parents, and friends for that matter, of the fact that he had been promoted to Jounin.

Of course, in all the celebrations he forgot to add that he had been a Jounin for the past 5 and a half months. In his head, he celebrated his promotion with some bitterness that his teacher was not there to see him take up the red scarf.

It didn't matter anymore. He was going home, wherever that may be.

(Title) Home, whoever that may be. This isn't a typo, but a way of the author asking her own main character the question; what is hope? I guess you guys can fill in the blanks.. OR CAN YOU? In retrospect, you'll find you probably can't.

(1) A little bit of national history involved here. Who are you? (Wie bent u?) last words of the Count of Nychlenborch, a dutch freedom fighter. After being stabbed in the chest near the heart-area by unknown assassins, the old count asked who did it; on which the assassin replied: Death (de dood).

Notes: Please note a vital difference here: Temari and Shikamaru work together rather seamlessly here, in contrary to Kakuzu and Hidan who are really in there for their own gain. This is illustrated by the fact that while Kakuzu keeps an eye on Hidan, he really doesn't pay much attention to his attacks or tries to make a combined effort. This is one of the reasons why they are taken down with relative ease. I wanted to show this, instead of just saying 'our teamwork improved', to show not only the progress of my main characters, but of their relationship, which is one that is mostly one of unspoken words and hidden gestures. I hope I did not disappoint.

Oh, and Shikamaru is definitely dragging Temari down with him, probably without realizing this. I'm not trying to dive too deep into it because the fic is about Shikamaru and not about Temari, but I hope it's quite visible that not only Shikamaru's mental health is somewhat wavering.

Oh and dear reviewers, please tell me what you liked best and what confused, upset or angered you. I only write this, I have no idea of how it translates into your minds.