Yet again he encountered her at the worst possible moment, in the thick of a situation that left him looking foolish and incompetent. Given a choice he would have much preferred to receive advance warning of her arrival, enough time to arrange things so that she might find him somewhere where his particular talents shined brightest – in the midst of a strategy meeting, or at a game of shogi. Of course it would have taken a certain amount of effort to engineer the encounter in this way, something that would have raised the suspicions of anyone who knew him, but Shikamaru was adept at laying elaborate plans without appearing to do anything at all.
This time, of course, he didn't get the chance. When Temari of the Sand found him he was lying in a dirty gutter, covered in mud from the morning's rain and decisively squashed beneath the bulk of his best friend and teammate, Choji Akimichi.
"Well," she said, in a voice as dark and rich as the afternoon sunlight, "I was told I might find you with your teammate, but nobody told me to look underneath him."
Shikamaru couldn't see her from his position on the ground, but there was no mistaking her voice, colored as always by amusement and a little scorn. Or maybe she only sounded like that when talking to him. He groaned and began to push ineffectually at Choji. "Get off me, Choji. Sounds like that troublesome woman from the Sand is here again."
Choji shifted his weight and stood ponderously to his feet. He turned and folded his arms, scowling down at his teammate.
"They're gone," said Choji. "I'll never catch them now, because of you."
Shikamaru was taking deep breaths, hoping those pains in his chest were not from broken ribs. He made no move to get out of the gutter. "If you did catch them, what were you planning on doing? Would you really use your expansion against little genin like that?"
Choji snorted. "Would serve them right," he said stubbornly. "Someone has to teach them not to insult their superiors." He unfolded his arms and offered Shikamaru a hand up.
Shikamaru took it, wincing as various bruises made their presence known. Temari, tall and broad-shouldered with her blond hair tied up in four pigtails, was standing behind and to the left of Choji, watching it all with that smirk he knew so well.
"What did they say to him?" she demanded.
Choji's eyes narrowed. Leave it to her to ask the most dangerous question possible.
"Nothing important," said Shikamaru dismissively. "Just kid stuff. Choji overreacted, and I stopped him with my shadow possession."
"Then how did you end up on the ground?"
He shrugged. "Choji's got a lot of chakra, especially when he's worked up. I lost control for a second, then overcompensated and yanked him over backwards."
"I see," she replied, still smirking. Then her green eyes narrowed fractionally, glinted with mischief. "Could it be that they said he was f—"
"What is it that you wanted?" Shikamaru cut her off, casting a nervous glance over at Choji, whose color had suddenly drained and whose eyes were bulging. He did not want to have to restrain his teammate again. "You must have come here for a reason."
She pinned him with a knowing look, his evasion not lost on her. "Well," she said after a moment, "I came looking for you. You're to come back to Suna with me, to assist us with a matter there. Here are your Hokage's orders." She extended her arm to hand him a small scroll, tightly wrapped and stamped with the Hokage's seal.
He broke the seal with his thumbnail and unrolled the scroll. There were only a few lines written there, which he scanned and immediately committed to memory.
"This doesn't say what you want me for," he said, looking up at her from the paper. "It also doesn't say when we're supposed to leave or how long I'll be gone."
She shrugged, the giant iron fan strapped to her back shifting up and down with her shoulders. "The nature of the mission will have to wait until we're on our way – it's sensitive. We'll depart as soon as you can get your gear together, and you'll be in Suna indefinitely – as long as it takes to finish the job."
It sounded like a pain. "It sounds like a pain," he said.
"Isn't that what you say about everything?"
"That's because everything is a pain. Who else is coming with us?"
"No one else. It'll be just you and me going to Suna."
Choji made a noise that sounded suspiciously like a strangled snicker. His own humiliation now quite forgotten, he raised his eyebrows and rocked back on his heels. "Sounds like fun, Shikamaru! I can't wait to hear about it when you get back – everyone will be interested in your trip to Suna. Have a good time!" He waved jovially and started down the street, and as he looked after his friend Shikamaru could swear he saw Choji's shoulders shaking slightly, as though he was laughing.
So much for loyalty. Friends were supposed to protect each other's weak spots, the way Shikamaru did with Choji's weight, yet Choji had abandoned him to face his biggest weak spot of all – Temari.
But the orders were authentic, and could not be avoided. "I'll meet you at the west gate in an hour," he told her, striving for a sort of curt professionalism. "That should give me enough time to make arrangements and gather my gear."
"An hour it is, then," she said agreeably, then turned on her heel and departed in the same direction as Choji.
Shikamaru waited a moment before ambling away from the gutter. He was going to take the long way home. In truth he could have been ready to leave in just fifteen minutes, but he intended to delay as long as possible. She might be able to make him come to Suna, but he'd be damned if she'd make him hurry.