A/N: This is the final chapter of what I originally intended to be a much shorter piece. But constructing a plot of sufficient complexity to do justice to Shikamaru turned out to be more demanding than I realized, and I'm still not sure I succeeded. The encouragement I got from all of your comments is part of what kept me going; I've never had this kind of response to a story before. I would like to thank everyone who reviewed, and extend special thanks to mafalda, MavisBeacon, sunaprincess7, and Miss T Hyuga, who reviewed kindly and consistently. Readers like you are the best motivation.
He stood again on the balcony, with the miraculous grandeur of Suna laid out before him. Twenty-four hours previously he had stood on this same spot and come to two understandings – one about the mission, one about himself. The first he had dealt with swiftly, saving many lives. The second he was still pondering, turning over in his mind to consider it from multiple angles. He was hoping to find something he had missed, a loophole or shortcut that would make his task easier. Inexperienced though he was in such matters, he had a sneaking suspicion that this search was futile, that there was no safe path across the terrain he meant to traverse. Had Asuma still lived, that would have undoubtedly been his opinion.
The door behind him opened and footsteps crossed the balcony. Temari leaned against the railing beside him to join him in his appreciation of the nighttime view.
"Now we finally understand everything," she said, speaking into the void at their feet. "We didn't even have to call in the interrogation specialists – they couldn't wait to talk."
He nodded, a wasted gesture as she wasn't looking at him. "They hoped to steal your jutsu by pretending to have done it already," he said. "It was clever."
"Yes. Once they had Gaara they were going to move the victims out of the village to a hidden location and begin experimentation. They thought a thorough examination of us by skilled medic-nin would enable them to copy our jutsu."
"And the imposters – would they have stayed behind in the village?"
"Yes, apparently. They were going to stay behind to keep up the charade for a while longer, then stage a move away from Suna under the pretext of starting new lives elsewhere. Of course they'd really be going to join their comrades, who by that time would have hopefully acquired the power they wanted."
"What about the victims? What was to become of them after their jutsu was replicated?"
"Supposing they—I mean supposing we—survived the experimentation, we were to be killed." He could tell she had turned her head to look at him, because her voice got slightly louder. "You saved our lives."
"I had help. You, the Kazekage."
She snorted. "Again with the false modesty. I don't give compliments very often, Shikamaru, so you'd better appreciate it when I do."
At last he summoned the courage to look at her. She was scowling but also smiling slightly. She still wore the old outfit she'd put on earlier, having declared that she was going to burn the one worn by the imposter. Her fan, though, was now tied securely in its proper place across her back. It seemed she didn't feel like herself without its familiar weight.
"I do appreciate it," he said simply.
Her scowl deepened momentarily in puzzlement, and then she snickered. "Good," she replied. "You're learning."
"If it's all right with the Kazekage," he said, turning away again, "I'd like to start for Konoha tonight, instead of waiting until morning."
She straightened up, surprised. "But why? What's the rush? Gaara told me you came to him first thing this morning, and he thinks you were up all night. Knowing your pathetic stamina, you must be exhausted. Doesn't it make more sense to rest here overnight and leave tomorrow?"
"Yeah, it makes more sense. But there are … things I've got to deal with in Konoha. I've already been away too long."
"But if you wait until the morning I'll be able to escort you home. Unless you were planning on going alone?" She sounded genuinely puzzled, if not a little hurt. Or maybe he was imagining that last part.
"I think I'd better. You've got stuff to handle here – cleanup, paperwork, your brother. I can get myself home just fine." He was deceiving her, but only slightly. The 'things' he had to deal with were not in Konoha per se but rather in his own mind, and he couldn't work them out in her presence. She was a distraction to him, and the source of his confusion.
"What do you mean by 'my brother'? The medics checked Kankuro out and said he'll be fully recovered in a day or two."
"I meant Gaara."
"Gaara? But I thought they never got to him."
"They didn't, physically. But when she was found out the woman impersonating you transformed into Kanako Kimura and begged the Kazekage for her life. She was betting that his guilt over what he'd done would distract him, and she was right. He halted his attack and I had to subdue her in the end."
Temari digested that in silence. "Gaara … was derailed during an attack? By guilt? I can't believe it."
He met her eyes again. "It happened. You said it yourself – killing so many from such an early age unbalanced him. He's different, he's found a purpose, but that doesn't change the past. Something he said to me earlier makes me think part of him doubts his fitness to be Kazekage, and what happened with the imposter confirms it."
"And you think I can do something about this? I'm no good with that sort of thing."
An eerie feeling of déjà vu overtook him. "I … bet you're better than you think. Even tough women generally are."
"Pft. Still the same obnoxious chauvinism. I knew we'd come around to that eventually." She sighed. "But in this case you might be right. I'll do what I can to help Gaara."
There it was again, that soft look. The sense of eeriness deepened, and was joined by fear. "I'm sure you will," he said. "If there's nothing else, I'm going to start home now. There's no need to walk me to the gate – I know my way." He took a few steps in the direction of the door, forcing himself to move slowly though he really wanted to run.
"Wait!" she called after him. "There is something else."
He stopped, fighting for calm. He wasn't ready for this yet. He looked at her and almost flinched at her beauty. "What?" he asked roughly.
Uncharacteristically, she hesitated. "I … wanted to tell you something. I've been hiding it from you a while now, but I think you deserve to know."
He was on the verge of panic.
She took a deep breath and went on. "It wasn't Gaara who requested your presence here. It was my idea. Actually, I insisted on it. I knew if anyone could help us, it would be you." She said it quickly, looking at the ground. She even appeared to be blushing slightly.
He cleared his throat. "Yeah, I know. The Kazekage told me." Somehow he was able to stretch his mouth into a smile. "I figured if you wanted to avoid admitting you needed my help, I should let you."
She shot him a sharp look, folded her arms. "Needed your help? I wouldn't go that far. But sometime in the future we might find it convenient to call on your assistance again. So be ready."
"Sure thing. I guess you know where to find me."
She smirked. "Of course. In the Leaf, doing something stupid."
He considered a retort but knew she was too much of a pain to let him have the last word. So all he said was "Huh," before crossing the rest of the way to the door and stepping through it, leaving her behind for now. His final image of Temari was of her standing in the clear desert moonlight, victorious.
An hour or two outside of Suna, alone on a sea of sand, he was overtaken by a sudden gust of wind. It nearly knocked him flat, and it raised up a whirling cyclone of sand that walled him in and blocked out the stars for an instant. Then it was gone, just as suddenly as it had come, leaving him gasping for air and with grit in his eyes and mouth.
He wondered if Temari's jutsu could reach this far, and smiled at the thought. Perhaps her double had finally awakened and told her about the kiss.
He was under no illusions about himself; he knew he was a coward. This early departure from the Sand was nothing less than a retreat. He was fleeing first from the wrath of Temari and Gaara, inevitable once they interviewed faux-Temari, and second from the terrifying sweep of feelings he had come to recognize but not control. It had taken an imposter, a bad actress, to bring him face to face with his own desires. No longer could he avoid the truth.
His cowardice was of a particular kind, applicable mainly to the unexpected and unpredictable. It could be overcome by planning and careful thought. Thus his current retreat was a strategic one, designed to give him a chance to assess his situation and decide on the next move. He was at heart a shogi player and had no choice but to behave like one, though of course love was not a shogi match and there would probably come a time when events defied his comprehension and he had to rely on luck. For now though, he had the luxuries of distance, time, and analysis. He would bide his time and plan his move, and then he would come back for her.
He would come back when the wind died down.