Chapter 18: Gifts

Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto in any way, shape, or form.

"Hokage-sama, I bring word from Squad eight."

Tsunade, who had previously been scribbling on a random piece of paper, looked up to see Ino, scroll in her hand. "It's about time. I sent them out a week ago. You'd think they'd want to hurry home to avoid blizzard season." Tsunade tried not to roll her eyes as she held her hand out, waiting for Ino to hand her the scroll. She read over the contents fairly quickly, her eyes narrowing just the slightest of bits.

Ino stared at her with a fixed, steady gaze, her clear blue eyes showing concern. "Are the rumors true? Has Akatsuki really been spotted in Sound?" she waited expectantly for Tsunade to give her a reply. Tsunade did not reply for the longest of moments, her gaze lingering on the scroll before she sighed and tossed it aside ungracefully. "It's nothing. Just a few hooded figures hanging around; probably just some rogue shinobi running a mock. Nothing for us to be too concerned about, I don't think."

"Should we really be taking the threat so lightly Tsunade-sama? I mean, Sound is vulnerable in it's current state, and wh-" Tsunade cut her off before she could continue.

"Realistically speaking, there is nothing that Akatsuki would want with Sound, aside from perhaps confirmation of Orochimaru's rotting corpse; I assume even they have a strong dislike for the snake bastard." she chuckled lightly, and dismissed Ino's concern with a wave of a hand. "Onto other news, what are you planning for Christmas this year?" Tsunade changed the topic fairly quickly.

Ino's eyes widened for a fraction of a second. "Oh...! Well... to be honest, I wasn't quite sure what to do as of now... I was thinking perhaps a formal dinner at Sasuke's if he were willing to accommodate so many people and all, but... Well, as you probably already know, Sasuke hasn't been the most compliant of people as of late. Not to mention his mood has been a bit of a drag too..." Ino tried not to frown.

"Ehh, the kid'll come around." Tsunade closed her eyes for several seconds. "After all, I'm sure he'll come to realize Sakura wouldn't have wanted this for him. I'm sure Naruto-kun will snap him out of it sooner or later." she mused.

"One could only hope Tsunade-sama..." Ino sighed a bittersweet and glum sigh as she stared out the window of Tsunade's office for a fraction of a second. "But anyway, I should get going. If you would excuse me, Tsunade-sama" she made a quick bow before she turned around and promptly left the room.

"Nothing to be too concerned about, eh?" Tsunade sighed, closing her eyes momentarily.

Three hooded figures. Two easily identifiable with red clouds, the third unknown. Lurching around a small village on the borders of Sound and Leaf. Seemed to be searching in the snow. Identities unknown. Probability of being Akatsuki, increasingly high.

She really hoped it wasn't who she thought it was... Furthermore, what could they possibly want with a tiny little village on the borders of Sound and Leaf...?

Sakura snickered to herself.

Sasori glowered.

"Come on! It's actually kind of nice!" Kisame tried sticking up for Sakura.

"This so does not scream S-Class criminal base." Sasori rolled his eyes, but refrained from commenting any further. Seriously, when he agreed to be a member of the deadly Akatsuki organization, he had expected something a little more... professional, or something; as professional as mass-murderers could possibly get, at least.

Meanwhile, Konan and Sakura proceeded to high-five each other with a loud "Whoop!" coming from both of them.

Yes ladies and gentlemen, they had indeed quite literally just "decked the halls with boughs of holly".

"Oh my! This is so adorable Sakura-chan!" Tobi squealed like a fan girl.

"Just wait and see Tobi." Sakura chuckled, almost deviously. "Diedara lost a bet; as we speak, he is picking out the biggest and greenest Christmas tree in all of Ame!" If she thought that Tobi was a fan girly, screaming wreck, the chaos that would soon surround them would leave Sakura unprepared.

Tobi was a child. He had to be. Sakura swore he had the mentality of a thirteen-year-old. He was almost as bad as Naruto -on second thought, he was worse than Naruto; that was saying something. Once Deidara had returned with the tree, Sakura had begun moving around the furniture single-handedly (props to her inhuman strength), and placed the tree at the furthermost corner of the room.

"Ooh! We should all decorate it together!" And before anyone could either agree or disagree with Tobi's thoughts, he was out the door, probably scrambling to find all of the remaining Akatsuki members currently not in the living room, which were Pein, Hidan, Kakuzu, and Itachi.

"Oh what a great idea! I think I'll make some hot chocolate for everyone!" And Konan rushed to the kitchen, rummaging through the cabinets in search of hot chocolate, only to find that it was all gone. "Alright, seriously; who drank all the hot chocolate? I literally just bought that a few days ago." Konan surveyed the occupants in the room with a deadly scowl on her face.

"...So... umm... how about that Christmas tree guys?" Kisame looked awfully jittery as he sat uncomfortably on the couch, trying to avoid Konan's gaze.

Before Konan could open her mouth to scream at Kisame, Tobi returned with Hidan in tow, and then promptly left once more, mumbling to himself about something to do with "Itachi... room.."

"I swear, this kid gets excited over nothing." he glowered, throwing himself on a random couch and crossing his arms defiantly. He didn't even understand why he had to partake in these stupid festivities. Come on, he believed in one God, and one God only. 'Please forgive me Jashin-sama.' He feared that his almighty and ruthless God would take this as treason of sorts, and decide to kill him right then and there.

But as Sakura pulled chocolate chip cookies out of the oven, the thought of his almighty God was out the window. "Oh my Jashin! Are those chocolate chip? Those are my favorite!"

And so the cranky Hidan was appeased, as well as the displeased Itachi once he arrived (because even he had to admit he had a sweet tooth). Kakuzu and Pein were both reluctant and displeased to find out about their activities, but came nonetheless, Kakuzu having nothing better to do with his time, and Pein having his words twisted.

'Come on Leader-sama. How can you demand us to be unified as an organization, and not even have our own leader show up? Seems very hypocritical if you ask Tobi!'

'Yeah Leader-sama, lighten up!' Konan stuck her tongue out childishly, humoring the rest of the group and begging Pein to go against his own orders.

'Konan... shut up.'

Konan merely snickered, knowing she had won.

And that had been that.

So there they all were, acting as merry and giddy as a psychotic group of mass-murderers (minus Sakura) could possibly be. And, contrary to popular belief, perhaps they weren't as masochistic and sadistic and just plain creepy as everyone thought them to be.

And as this thought ran through Sakura's head, she heard a distinct crack as Konan hurled some heavy object at Hidan, more than likely fracturing/breaking more than a fair share of ribs.

Okay, maybe they were a little masochistic and sadistic and just plain creepy, but aside from the on-going fight between Hidan and Konan, they all seemed perfectly content being exactly where they were, alongside each other.

And when it came down to it, wasn't that all that mattered?

Having friends and family that cared for one another, no matter how much they insisted they didn't? It was the life. She missed this, oh so much, and was glad to a certain extent that Saki had in a sense killed her. She would have never gotten to know such wonderful people -Kisame, who, despite his past and appearance, had a kind, gentle soul (as long as he wasn't provoked). He was wiser than he let on, although definitely not a genius, and he definitely had a caring side to him. There was also Konan, who despite being the only female in Akatsuki and henceforth seen as a tough and vicious woman, was kind and compassionate, and cared more than she led on -at least, to those who she let in, such as Pein. And then there was Deidara, who Sakura didn't know too much of as of now, although he seemed to not particularly be in it for the killing -he loved to fight, that was for certain, but anything more than that and Sakura wasn't sure. But he was kind and funny, definitely not the smartest or the wisest or even the strongest of the bunch, but something about his character screamed Naruto to her, perhaps because of the blonde hair and the blue eyes, perhaps because of his silly antics and his need to fight, but him, partnered along with Tobi assured her that this organization, despite its reputation, did have their moments.

Then again, there were the certain few, such as Sasori and Itachi who Sakura just didn't know. Itachi was smart beyond his years, hands down one of the smartest in Akatsuki, so it still bewildered her as to why he had abandoned Konoha for a life of terror, pain, suffering and constant relocation. He would have been at the very top in Konoha -Hokage, even, wasn't looking all too improbable for him... so... why? Why destroy everything he had once held dear? Why, when he could have achieved greatness and glory all on his own. He didn't need to murder his clan in order to receive recognition. It was a thought that both bewildered her and sent shivers down her spine. How could a man, born into a great household with a great name, a man who was handed down everything he could possibly need to make a name for himself, ruin everything for the sake of "testing his capabilities"...? Something didn't add up, if you ask her.

With a sulky sigh, she decided to change her thoughts. There was really no way she would figure that out on her own, and it wasn't like Itachi would be all that open and willing to tell her. In fact, he might even feel the urge to kill her if she so dared to bring up the massacre. It wasn't like she and Itachi were friends or anything -she would hardly even call them acquaintances for that matter. They barely even qualified for a first name basis, and that was mainly due to the common friend they both had in Kisame.

Too busy with her thoughts, she didn't notice that she was staring at Itachi, and she definitely didn't notice that he noticed, and was now staring back at her with equal befuddlement and curiosity.

Seriously, what was up with the kunoichi?

He didn't like attention -he tried his best to just stay in the shadows, where nobody pried much into his private life or private affairs. And whatever it was that she was thinking, he highly doubted that it was anything but that.

Sigh, he sure disliked women.

Particularly this one, if he were being honest. But what could he do? She was a friend to Akatsuki, and henceforth, was an ally to him, although he accepted this begrudgingly. She was from his hometown; not only that, but she was his brother's woman until just recently. To think that she hadn't taken an attempt for his life yet was amazing in his opinion. Then again, she stated herself that she was betrayed, even by his own foolish brother. This sent small warning bells off in his head, but he decided to ignore the matter, namely because he himself didn't care all too much about the kunoichi's private affairs, although one thought did strike him as odd.

Why would a village betray a girl such as this...?

She was kind. She was intelligent to boot. She was strong. She was capable. She was reliable. She was trustworthy. She was compassionate. Her greatest traits were those he lacked, and Konoha would have stuck to his side through thick and thin, if not for the crime he had committed. So why turn their back on a girl who would have given her very last drop of life to prevent a thorn in Konoha's side? She herself had now indirectly become that, seeing as she was the center piece to the plans they would eventually take into play.

No, something was very wrong with Sakura's betrayal... but, nevertheless, it had nothing to do with him, nor did he care too much about it. She was neither friend or foe to him, and keeping her, above all else, at arms length would be the smartest move here.

"So, Temari, what's up with you and Shikamaru? You seem to really dislike that guy." After having shopped for roughly two hours, Temari and Saki found themselves at a small parlor that served beverages and snacks, lounging around with their bags of clothing all around them.

"Oh, what?" Temari had a slight blush at the sudden mention of Shikamaru. "Not really... his laziness just irks me... slightly..." she looked away slyly. "He's really smart so he keeps things interesting, but he's also too lazy to do much of anything." Temari tried not to scowl. That stupid bum had only taken her out on a date once in the past three months. And come on, was it really asking for too much to have him hold her hand every once in a while? It didn't even have to be in public either, she wasn't all for that public affection anyway...

"He's so anti-social too." Saki frowned.

"He's just very careful with who he deems worthy enough to socialize with. He's very analytic so he can pick up on lies and in general fake people without much effort at all." Temari explained. 'It kinds just sucks... you can never trick the damn bastard.' Temari scowled.

"Oh..." Saki attempted not to glare. Could that have been why...? He didn't think her good enough to associate himself with her?

The nerve of some people.

It definitely couldn't have been that he saw through her lies and her deceit... nah, couldn't be. With a slight furrow of her brow, she but into her straw harshly and sucked on its contents.

Temari noticed this, but decided not to pry into it. Was it perhaps that Shikamaru didn't like Saki all too much? Sure, Shikamaru wasn't the kindest of people when first introduced to somebody, but he always made sure to treat them with enough respect to not have them enraged.

The more she thought about it, the more she realized that perhaps Shikamaru wasn't all too fond of Saki to begin with; the signs had all been there, frankly, she just hadn't bothered to really look into it.

But why was that...? Saki seemed nice enough. Sure, probably not the smartest of the bunch, and perhaps not the funniest or even the kindest, and not to mention she was a complete Sasuke fan-girl, but.. still...

She couldn't be that bad, right?

"Hey! Ino, over here!"

Ino, almost immediately after entering the restaurant, was hollered in by none other than Chouji, who was stuffing his face with food, while simultaneously hollering at her. Were she not already used to Chouji she would have cringed in disgust. Instead, she let out a smile as she waved, slowly walking towards their direction. She took her seat, sandwiched in between Sai and Kiba as a platter of food was magically presented in front of her.

She would have asked what brought Chouji here, remembering that he was not in the original group of people who came to visit her at the hospital, but that would have also been a stupid question. This was like a second home to Chouji; he probably beckoned Kiba, Sai, and Hinata over once he noticed them.

So there they sat for a while, eating as they laughed and talked about nothing in particular, Kiba sneaking Akamaru some meat underneath the table.

"When are Naruto and them getting back from their mission?" Ino asked in between bites of her delicious barbecue.

"From what Shikamaru told me," Chouji paused for the slightest of seconds to pick up some more meat, "it should be sometime within the next few days. He mentioned something about some troublesome ambassador meeting and blah blah blah." Chouji nodded. "The usual for Shikamaru".

"Ahh... well, I was thinking that perhaps we'd have a get together at either Sasuke's house or the Hyugas," she made a quick glance towards Hinata, "but I was thinking perhaps it'd be nice if we stopped by the cemetery... y'know... for Sakura..." she trailed of slightly. "But, of course, I don't want to decide this without Sasuke and Naruto, seeing as they were also her teammates and stuff." Ino explained.

Hinata smiled warmly. She was sure, from wherever it was that Sakura was, that'd she be delighted to know that even now they were still thinking of her, and that they'd still spend Christmas with her, in a sense. "I-I think that sounds like a w-wonderful idea" Hinata nodded in agreement.

"Yeah, but some of us won't be able to cope with seeing Sakura's grave on Christmas..." Kiba closed his eyes momentarily. "I know for certain Sasuke will probably be against your plan, seeing how grumpy he's been lately." Kiba said.

"Well, Sasuke needs to suck it up." Ino growled. "Just because he's hurting doesn't mean that we should exclude Sakura from our Christmas festivities. She is still our friend, dead or alive, and Sasuke needs to cherish her life, not leave her in the dust and try to hide the pain. He'll never move on if he stays the way he is now." Ino sighed, still remembering his words that night when they were on the roof.

He was ready to give up on life. Ready to live without giving anyone a second chance, and that, Ino just couldn't allow. Not just because he was her friend, and not just because she knew Sakura wouldn't want that for him -no, it was something deeper and more... hell, she couldn't even quite put her finger on it.

Ino, no matter when and how or even why, had loved Sasuke at one point. Albeit, probably not as much as Sakura, who had been willing to throw away anything and everything just to save him from the darkness, but she had loved him nonetheless. And seeing him, falling apart in front of her very eyes... well, it hurt her too. She had accepted that Sasuke belonged to Sakura -she was happy for it. There was no way she could make Sasuke as happy as Sakura ever did, that's for sure...

But the problem was, Ino had only ever loved Sasuke. There hadn't been anyone else, no one she had been interested in, and no one who paid any particular interest in her. Sure, she had gone on dates and had countless of boyfriends in her years, but none ever stuck out to her; none of them ever screamed "hey, this could be the one!" or "you know, I fancy him more than the average person". Nothing like that, nope.

Kami she was lonely. So, so lonely, and she wasn't blatantly aware of it until now. Before, it had been enough to see Sasuke and Sakura happy -because their happiness was her happiness, after all. But now, with Sakura gone and Sasuke slowly slipping, the emptiness in her heart grew three-fold and she was forced to remember that she relied so heavily on the happiness of those around her. It especially didn't make matters any better when everyone was sad. Hinata, Lee, Neji, Kiba, hell, even Akamaru. Who would keep the group happy and cheerful during such festive times, when they were all going through their own ache? Ino bestowed this responsibility upon herself, but it was a lot harder than she had anticipated.

"I... I agree..." Hinata's soft response snapped her out of her thoughts.

All eyes turned to Hinata, and she looked away quickly, not liking the attention she was getting. "Sakura... S-She wouldn't want us to hurt, but she would also appreciate the fact that we are still with her, no matter what. People who leave their friends... they're worse than trash, right?" she tried to smile a reassuring smile. She had heard Naruto quote his sensei, and that quote had always stuck out to her. It signified what friends were to her; people who you should always cherish and never give up on. Someone who you should protect and defend until your last dying breath.

And this is why, no matter what, Hinata could not give up on Sakura. Because she knew, deep down inside, that Sakura wouldn't want her to give up, and because she knew that if she were for some reason in Sakura's position, after everything that had happened, Sakura would not give up on Hinata. She would insist and insist that she were alive -she'd shout it to the whole world.

And if Ino wasn't going to listen, and if no one was going to listen... well...

She'd have to make due with her own voice, didn't she?

Something didn't sit well with Hinata. If Sakura died, which Hinata was still skeptical of, there had to be another reason. There just had to be. There is no way Sakura would meet her end with a stupid Kaboom. No way in hell. Sakura created explosions and craters and all sorts of massive destruction. For her to be taken down by one was completely unlikely. Sakura would never have it.

So, if Sakura were truly gone, she'd find the real reason for it. and she'd make whoever did it pay.

And if she weren't gone, well, she'd just have to figure out why she couldn't or wouldn't come back and make whoever did it pay anyway. No one hurt her friends and got away with it. The heiress had gotten considerably strong over the last few years, what with intense training with Shino and Kunrenai, backed up with personal training with Neji and other clan members.

She was a force to be reckoned with, that was for sure, easily able to fend for herself against people such as Shikamaru, Shino, and even Neji himself.

Shikamaru let out a low grumble and a long awaited sigh as the meeting was dismissed. This had, by far, been one of the worst meetings he had had the pleasure of attending.

'I'm so declining Tsunade's request next time.' There was a reason why she never went and hardly ever partook in these boring politic meetings with boring old men and women with boring ideas and requests. He was the last to leave the meeting room, waiting for the area to clear out before he slowly stood up, stretched, and stared out the window, examining the last dying rays of the setting sun. Once they left Suna they would no longer have the pleasure of meeting such warm temperatures, for he heard it was already snowing back in Konoha. And frankly, he didn't know what was worse, this unbearable heat or the chilling winter that was to come. After all, if it was hot, all you had to do was take of your clothes, and one could only put on so many layers of clothing without looking like a blueberry, only to end up still being cold in the end.

He was only slightly surprised to see Temari leaning on the wall, waiting expectantly as he stepped out of the meeting room. She usually waited for him outside of the building, not caring for the troublesome formalities of having to greet every elder she walked past; she was, after all, an increasingly notable ambassador of Suna with growing talent and promise, despite her proclamation that she could "hardly give a damn about these stupid politics".

"Took ya long enough" She didn't look up from examining her nails.

"It's not my fault those old bags like to drawl this on for an eternity. I swear, it's like they do it on purpose or something." Shikamaru mumbled.

"Well, it's not like they have anything to look forward to when they go back home. They're old men and women, too old and frail to live a shinobi life. This is their thrill in life, as of now." Temari shrugged as she began walking off, Shikamaru following alongside her, as if it were routine for him to do so.

"Not like I have anything better to do with my time anyway." he commented sarcastically, his hands making their way to the back of his head, as is routine for his lazy and relaxed walk.

"Oh yes, staring at clouds and running away from your responsibilities does tend to be time consuming, doesn't it?" She eyed him with a bemused expression.

"Tch, what would you know anyway," he grumbled incoherently looking the other way.

"I heard that" she merely smacked him on the back of the head.

"I also have a girlfriend to see to, y'know." he said almost too quickly, trying to change the subject so as to not get beat up more.

"Yeah? The king of lazy has time for a girlfriend? Who would have thought." she praised sarcastically.

"Well, you like what you like, right?" he shrugged, smiling down on her with one eye open.

"Damn straight... if it were up to me I'd like someone more in tune with his romantic side."

"And if it were up to me I'd choose a woman less troublesome, but where would the fun be in that."

At that comment, Temari chuckled slightly and softly nudged Shikamaru on the rib. He responded by removing one of his hands from the back of his head and slowly wrapping his arm around Temari's shoulders. "How about we go get some dinner?" Temari nodded slightly, before following Shikamaru's lead.

Fifteen minutes later, Temari found herself in one of the fanciest and most expensive restaurants in all of Suna. She awed at its glamour.

"Shikamaru this restaurant takes weeks to reserve a table." she exclaimed loudly.

"Good thing I'm a master at making plans, right?" he chuckled slightly. "You really think that little of me that I can't even make simple reservations ahead of time?"

"It's not like you've ever thought things through enough to do so." Temari gave him a frown.

"Well, let's try to change that from now on" He merely mumbled as he grabbed her hand and led her inside.

"Shikamaru... what's up with you today?" she didn't budge and merely stood her ground, releasing her grip on Shikamaru's hand.

He paused and turned around, a dumbfounded look on his face. "You don't like this?" he questioned.

"No, I do, really... but... it's just so... un-Shikamaru-like" she tried to explain. "And its a high-class restaurant! We're not even dressed appropriately for the occasion!"

"Formalities can go to hell; it's too troublesome to dress up anyway, and who the hell are we trying to impress, right?" he brushed it aside with a wave of his hand. "Just come. Eat. Enjoy." He persisted once more, grabbing her hand and pulling her once more into the restaurant.

With a sigh, Temari relented, grabbing his hand and following him in.

Dinner was perfect, down to the desert, when violins and flutes and all sorts of fancy instruments began playing, and Shikamaru asked her hand for a dance. "But you hate dancing" Temari insisted.

He merely shushed her with a finger to her lips before whisking her away into a never-ending continuum of spins and strides. Temari wasn't even aware of the fact that Shikamaru knew how to dance, let alone so gracefully, and she wondered why he never showed off his skills. Temari noted, with dull amusement, that since the moment they had arrived, they had received nothing but curious and even disapproving glances towards them. This was done, if not because of the manner in which they were dressed (casual in a high class restaurant, where everyone was dressed fancy), then it was done because they were loud and ill-mannered (But in Temari's opinion, it was stupid to eat french fries with a work and not your hands anyway).

They laughed shortly after returning to their seats and finishing their deserts, laughing all the way there. They recognized, with much amusement and laughter that if they did not leave soon the complaints against them would stack up to a new high and they would be kindly escorted, or as Temari would say, kicked out, by one of the guards.

Shikamaru quickly paid for the bill, and Temari was faintly surprised by the fact that he remembered to bring his wallet, and they ran out, laughing. "This place sucked anyway, right?!" Temari mocked.

"Worst service ever" Shikamaru grinned.

After their wonderful night out at a restaurant where they stood out like a sore thumb (although, Temari had to admit the oddity of the situation would definitely make a memorable one), Shikamaru took a detour to a lone park, where he indulged Temari in the act of pushing her on a swing for a good hour. It was one of those things that Temari had always loved doing since she was a child –she couldn't get enough of the feel of the wind on her face, and the fleeting feeling she felt, as if she were flying, when jumping off at the swing's highest peak.

"But you always say I weigh too much!" Temari questioned his actions curiously.

He merely silenced her with an "I've been working out; shhhh!"

And after the park, they were left staring at the lit up city from atop a lone building, standing much higher than the rest of Suna.

"Okay Nara, no more of this funny business. Something's wrong and I want to know what that is. Spill." she flicked him on the forehead and stared at him expectantly, the weight of her words heavy on her heart. Shikamaru was never this kind unless he were about to drop a bomb on her. And well, the last bomb he had dropped on her was the death of Sakura, so one could easily identify why she had been so worried…

"Tch, I told you already, nothing's wrong!" he glared, breaking eye contact from the city view and turning around, elbows helping his lean on the railing of the building.

"You never act this way! Nara, you better tell me, so help m-" She began pointing an accusing finger at him, but he firmly grasped her wrist, making her gasp slightly and altogether stop her rant before she could truly unleash hell on him.

He hated it when she called him Nara –she knew this too, which is why she only ever bothered to use it when she was scolding him. The formality was annoying, and it only came out when she was angry or trying to be stern with him. Her temper was annoying too, but he somehow found a way to deal with it more so than the whole 'Nara' crap.

"I just... I don't want you to ever feel like I don't appreciate you" he cut her off, quick and swift the words left his mouth as if it were the most embarrassing thing in the world to admit.

"...What?" the way her face broke into a dumbfounded expression was very uncharacteristic of her, but then again, this was all very uncharacteristic of Shikamaru, so she couldn't really be blamed for that.

"Look... I just..." he didn't really know where to begin. "Between our missions and the current distance between us, I know we never really get to spend as much time together as we'd like to." he paused slightly to swallow the bulge in his throat, not used to ever talking about anything serious, or speaking that many words at once, for that matter. "I know it's hard, and I know it must bother you that the times that I am here or that you are in Konoha, we don't really do anything special because of me (-being a lame ass, Temari decided to fill in with a slight roll of her eyes)... but, well... I guess what I'm trying to say here is..." he played around with his words. "I don't ever want you to feel like our relationship lacked anything... I don't want to have any regrets... in case anything were to happen... to either of us..."

Just then, Temari saw it in his eyes; vulnerability.

And this is what it had all been about.

"Shika..." she didn't really know what to say, but she instead put her hands on his cheeks tenderly and made him look her in the eye. "I love you for you. I don't need these fancy dinners to appreciate what I have with you... and nothing will ever happen to us, okay? It's not good to think that way..." she gave him an endearing smile for comfort.

"But... Sakura..." his voice cracked a little, and at the very mention of her name, Temari teared up as well. "Sasuke... you've seen how he is, Tem... and to the think that something like that could happen to any of us... to you... I just... I can't imagine what Sasuke must be going through, nor do I ever want to. You're the most important thing in my life, even though I know I don't always show it..."

Her heart broke a little at the sight of him, and at the sound of his words. The tragic loss of Sakura gave him a realization that no one's life here was permanent. He knew this; he knew that shinobi lives were lost every day. But he had never experienced it personally -it had never hit so close to home before. Sure, Leaf members had fallen before, but none of his rookie 9. None of his friends or comrades. And it made him realize that war could be fast upon them, what with the growing threat of Akatsuki, and with war always came death and soon enough his generation of friends would be put on the battlefield of war.

His friends. His Temari. Him.

Temari enveloped him in a hug so tight she felt like she was squeezing all the air from him, but he hugged her back even tighter and didn't complain. He cried on her shoulder, and she on his. "Everything will be okay Shika... no one else will be hurt, okay?" she tried to soothe him as her silent tears fell, not entirely sure if the words were meant for him, or for her as well.

She knew this was all fear brought on by Sakura, and now that Shikamaru expressed his fears, she couldn't help but understand and fear herself. God she missed Sakura. She missed her so much...

"She's in a better place, watching over all of us..." she sniffled slightly. "She'll be there to help us when we need her... she's never let us down before..." she gave a soft smile.

They hold each other for a while, as they both cried silent tears, mourning the loss of their friend and fearing the path of the future.

Christmas was only a couple weeks away, but Sakura was frantically running around, trying to figure out what she could possibly give Kisame. It was a lot harder than she had previously thought. Sure, she considered him a good friend, but she had just recently been introduced to him, and although he knew a lot about his characteristics, she didn't exactly know much about his likes and dislikes. Not to mention getting a gift for an S-Class criminal to begin with could already prove difficult...

She came to realize perhaps she didn't know Kisame a swell as she thought she did...

Hell, she didn't know Konan at all either. They all had their own dark past, and they were all probably privy to such matters. Talking about one's past isn't exactly the way to make friends in an organization comprised of mass murders who more than likely had some terrible, unspeakable past that left them mentally or emotionally scarred. This being said, how was she supposed to get Kisame an uberly amazing present if she couldn't exactly figure out what he would appreciate most or at least like?

She sure as hell wasn't going to give him another damn fish, that's for sure. At least, not if she could help it...

But who was she to go to for help...? There wasn't anyone in this base who could help her figure out what Kisame would like other than...

'Other than Itachi... That's right, they're pretty close, all things considered most members aren't even close to their partners... But... I don't want to ask Itachi' she cringed just thinking about it. Itachi wasn't all that fond of her, this much she knew. Sure, he could talk to her if he needed to, and he was civil with her, of course, but he hadn't seemed at all lenient in being friends with her at all; hell, even Sasori seemed friendlier to her than Itachi... and she had killed him...! Seriously, she had to wonder why exactly Itachi was being so... scary around her. Then again, if she thought about it, he was probably like that with everybody other than Kisame. Approaching Itachi with a matter such as this, regardless of who you were, was probably not something anyone wanted to do.

But... did she really have any other choice?

Kami she sure hoped she did…

But, all that put aside, there was one more person she wanted to give a gift to, and it had to be absolutely amazing. After all, Hinata deserved it… She had given Sakura the gift of her true friendship, and it was only right for Sakura to gift her something in return, even if she couldn't exactly say "Hey! It's Sakura! I'm actually not dead!"

But, a gift from cute little Suki was entirely different now, wasn't it? With that in mind, Sakura grinned as she went out in search for a fabulous gift for Hinata.

Ino sighed happily, finally relieved of her shinobi duties for the remainder of the holidays. It had been a busy past couple of weeks in which she had been worked to the bone, but now with all that extra money for Christmas gifts and presents, she decided that it had definitely been worth it. Now it was time to do some Christmas shopping and spend all the hard-earned money, she decided with a grin on her face. She had planned to meet up with Hinata and TenTen today in order to get some shopping done, and she hoped nobody had to bail out today –it had been a while since she had really hung out with Hinata, after all. Hell, now that she thought about it, she hadn't seen much of TenTen either, but she figured that was because she was currently busy with her shinobi duties. She had heard that TenTen had just recently begun training her taijutsu heavily, deciding that if all her ranged attacks failed her, she needed to have some back-up to protect her. So, she had been found nearly every morning at around 4 jogging laps alongside Gai and Lee, a routine everybody avoided due to the severity of Gai's exercises.

TenTen sure was devoted, Ino had to commend. The thought that this had only begun after Sakura's death slipped her mind for the time…

Ino had waited at the town square for roughly five minutes, before she spotted the approaching figures of Hinata and TenTen, Hinata wearing her usual attire with some woolen mittens and a scarf, and TenTen was wearing…

"TenTen!" she exclaimed loudly, aghast. "What the hell…!" she couldn't even finish her sentence, unsure of what she was trying to say.

"A strong mind can withstand anything, and a strong body and a sound mind is the key to success…!" proclaimed TenTen loudly,

"-says Gai-sensei and Lee-san," Hinata finished off slightly. With a frown, the determined pose that TenTen had just been in scrunched over into a defeated curl.

"Gai said this would prepare my body" she tried to stifle back a tear.

Ino could only stare. It was nearly snowing, and everyone around them was wearing coats and scarves and fuzzy boots-

-and here TenTen was, clad in nothing but a flimsy tank top and her usual ninja bottoms.

"This is ridiculous" she simply stated.

"No" TenTen shook her head, "You know what's ridiculous? We were running laps this morning Ino… on our hands…" TenTen gave her a look that looked as if she were going mad. "And you know what the worst part of it was? Gai proclaimed that training under such cold weather would toughen up our bodies, and they had the brilliant idea of doing their laps naked." TenTen emphasized, a shiver running down her spine and it wasn't from the cold weather, ladies and gentlemen.

"I'm sorry for your loss" Hinata spoke softly, a blush appearing on her face.

"I don't suppose Neji was there too?" Ino questioned. Meanwhile Hinata blushed some more at the thought of her cousin doing such unsightly things with the rest of Team Gai. TenTen merely shook her head. "Yes, I'm quite sorry for your loss".

"I doubt Neji's body would have been enough to keep me there" TenTen rolled her eyes.

"You'd be surprised what that body would be capable of." Ino winked.

"Ino!" TenTen blushed and smacked her friend on the shoulder, not wanting to look at her teammate that way –which, could probably be a lie, depending on the way you looked at things.

"I kid, I kid!" Ino through up her hands innocently, but laughed nonetheless.

"You're going to give poor Hinata a heart attack." TenTen merely commented, patting the younger girl's head softly. "I swear Neji would have your head if he knew the obscenities you were speaking in front of his cousin."

"What Neji doesn't know what kill him" she winked and stuck her tongue out childishly. "But enough of that, let's get some shopping done" Ino was dragging both TenTen and Hinata into a random store before either of them could blink.

My, this was going to be a long shopping adventure… Ino never knew when to stop once she started, and TenTen was slightly wary of it. If she had to choose between training with two naked males and shopping with Ino, she'd choose Ino, but just barely. After all, TenTen wasn't much for shopping and for some reason Ino just simply loved using TenTen and Hinata as Barbie dolls (Sakura would do the same too, back when they would have these trips), stating that Hinata was just too cute and that TenTen had a way of looking completely innocent just like Hinata whenever she put her two buns down. But hell, it wasn't her fault… just… having all those pairs of eyes on her when she was dressed all… womanly-like was enough to send her blushing.

It also didn't help when they decided to bring up Neji or teasingly stated "Wait until Neji-san sees you in this!" but TenTen tried her best to ignore all that. After all, TenTen and Neji were nothing but teammates, their relationship completely platonic, and she refused to fall under the influence of Ino (and Sakura, way back when too). After all, why would they even get the idea that her and Neji could…

No, stop it brain, it was best not to dwell on these topics.

With a defeated sigh, she let herself be dragged away by Ino.

End of Chapter

Yay! I finished relatively on time ^_^ I would have had this up sooner but I went to the beach for a few days and had no internet, my apologies!

I've started slowly working on the next chapter for Sakura's New Past, but I am trying to focus on the revisions more than the actual chapter, but we'll see where that takes me. Check my profile for updates on what I'm working on, and you'll have more information there.

If you guys don't yet hate me for taking forever and a day for updating anything, leave a review and tell me what you thought of this chapter? ^_^

Wasn't much going on in the plot, but I am slowly setting it up, so be patient with me. The next chapter will probably just be the Christmas festivities, and then I'll get down to the plot of the story and hopefully some itaxsaku goodness shortly afterwards, please be patient with me ! _

Anyway, that's all for now, any and all feedback is much appreciated!

-Marzyy-chann~~! :))