It seems that writing the entire chapter at 2am works for me. *shrugs* Well, if it means I can update more often, then fine, I have no problem with that...sleep is overrated anyway. Here you go, munchkins - chapter 6.

"Shikamaru, wait."

He didn't pause, didn't slow down, didn't look back. He just kept heading for the door.

"Shikamaru, please, where are you going?"

The door drew closer, and he could hear people outside chattering as they strolled past, blissfully unaware of the torment burning through his veins.


Not trusting himself to reply, he broke into a run as he burst out of the building and into the stiflingly hot streets of the city. He had to get out of there before he did something he knew he would regret.

Putting on a burst of speed, Shikamaru shot away from the headquarters of the Council, the cries of his friends fading away as he sprinted around a corner, down an alleyway and out of sight.


The door of the Kazekage's office banged open and ricocheted off the wall with such force that a huge crack formed in the stone. The whole room shook with the impact, and Gaara looked up from his desk, his face impassive as always, but for his slightly raised eyebrows. His brother's reaction, however, was less restrained.

"What the hell do you think you're doing?" he asked incredulously as Sakura, Tsunade's protégé, stepped through the doorway.

The look she shot him was pure fire.

Kankuro wilted, shrinking away from her as if scalded, reaslising that maybe it was not the best idea to confront Sakura when she was in this mood.

"Sakura." Naruto's voice came from behind her, sounding weary and angry and much older than usual. "You shouldn't have done that."

Sakura shot him the same look she had shot Kankuro, but for some reason it didn't faze him. Perhaps he had been on the receiving end of it so many times that he was immune to it by now, or perhaps it was because she knew that he was right. Instead he came over and stood next to her, reaching down and gripping her wrist firmly. She looked down at his hand, clearly surprised and ready to throw him out of the window. She opened her mouth, but then, as she met his eyes, something in her collapsed. She took a deep breath and let it out, and as she did so she seemed to diminish in size a little.

"My apologies, Kazekage." She bowed her head jerkily in his direction, and he acknowledged her graciously by bowing his head in return. Naruto gave Sakura's arm a slight squeeze, and then shifted to face Gaara fully.

Naruto's serious expression was so out of character that it was all the convincing Gaara needed that something had gone badly, horribly wrong.

"We've had some bad news," he said abruptly, He was trying to be polite, but the look in his eyes was cold, hard ice. The muscle in his jaw twitched, and it was obvious that he had himself under control only slightly more than Sakura at that moment.

"I take it your meeting with the Council did not go as successfully as I would have hoped."

"It did not. It seems the Council does not believe in our good intentions as fully as you do, Kazekage." His eyes, usually so open and friendly, were unreadable; his voice steady, cold. In stressful situations like this, Naruto always managed to find some self-control.

This was fortunate, given that his companion lost all her self-control so quickly and so completely.

"We feel it would be best for us to return to the Leaf immediately, to avoid making matters worse. We thank you for your hospitality." With a respectful bow, he turned and headed for the door, pulling Sakura with him. She pulled her arm out from under his fingers in defiance, but followed him nonetheless.

"Naruto." The ninja stopped walking so naturally that he must have known that Gaara would not be ready to let them leave just yet.

"Where is Shikamaru?"

The tension in the room was almost visible as Naruto let out a sigh and turned back around to face the desk. He had not wanted to answer this question.

"He...took the result of the meeting with the Council rather badly," the young man replied softly.

Sakura laughed humourlessly. Gaara could tell how much it was costing her not to start breaking things again.

"What, worse than you two have?" asked Kankuro jokingly from the corner. Naruto did not react; the young ninja, usually so volatile, appeared not to have heard the comment. Instead he continued to watch the Kazekage.

"He left."

"He left?" Gaara's eyebrows lifted a little higher.

"Yes. We don't know where he went."

"Maybe he got bored of playing diplomat and went home," Kankuro's suggestion was met with an actual growl as Sakura lunged for him, eyes blazing.

"Sakura." She paused, her fingertips inches away from the puppet master's throat. The way in which Naruto had uttered this one word left no room for argument.

She turned to face him. Fire met ice.

Ice won.

With difficulty, she turned away from Kankuro.

What could have happened to break their control? Gaara wondered to himself, watching the pair struggle.

And Shikamaru... He did not know what had broken through the barriers of the most controlled ninja he had ever met, but he was not at all sure that he was comfortable being on the same side as the people who had managed to do it.

Kankuro, keeping an eye on Sakura in case she decided to attack him again, asked the Leaf ninja another question that they did not want to answer."What did the Council say that made Shikamaru go running off, then?"

"They...they said..." Now Naruto seemed to be struggling to get words out, his ability to take control finally faltering, Sakura took over. And what she said wiped any trace of a smile off Kankuro's face. It made Gaara's blood run cold.

"They accused him of kidnapping Temari."

Shikamaru lay back against the burning sand and stared unblinkingly up at the sky.

He wasn't exactly sure where he was. He had just run as far and as fast as he could until it began to get dark.

Until his fury was dulled enough by his exhaustion for him to be able to stop.

So what now? asked a sardonic voice in his head that reminded him so much of Temari that he wanted to scream. Do you feel better now that you've run away from your problems?

A little, he thought to himself defensively.

Feel ready to stop acting like a child?


As if his own mind was trying to punish him for this reply, Temari's laughing face flashed before his eyes. This was swiftly followed by the one of the worst images that haunted his dreams – well, nightmares. Her lying motionless on the ground. Broken. Almost unrecognizable as the girl he-

A stifled groan broke through his lips, and he hid his face in his hands.. He couldn't take this for much longer. The strain was already beginning to show. He was alone, hallucinating, and talking to a voice in his head...he was pretty sure that was a bad sign.

Well, it's not a good sign, a voice chimed in, and Shikamaru was once again filled with the urge to punch something. An urge he was entirely unaccustomed to – violent outbursts simply weren't in his nature.

He pushed himself to his feet, more as an attempt to distract himself from his emotions than anything else. He was unaccustomed to those too. Emotions. He'd never really seen the point in them before, and had certainly never felt them so keenly that he was unable to keep them hidden inside. They had been optional, and he had scorned them as an unnecessary burden, drowning them out and burying them deep, pretending that they didn't exist.

It's unsettling when the walls you've built up around you come crumbling down, as if they were made of nothing, he thought to himself as he watched the sun begin to set over the desert. It would be dark soon.

And suddenly Shikamaru was tired. He was so, so tired. He couldn't think straight, and that never happened to him. All he wanted was to stop feeling, to stop hurting, to stop caring. When had he even started caring, anyway?

When you met her, said a quiet, truthful voice in his head. And the images swarmed again. Shikamaru flinched. They were so vivid. It was like he was really seeing her. And he wanted to see her. He wanted it more than he wanted to breathe.

Then come and find me. The voice that was her and yet wasn't her sounded mocking, almost cruel. What's stopping you?

Everything. Everything and nothing.

You're a coward, came the whisper, and now Shikamaru couldn't tell which voice was speaking. There were so many now. He would fear for his sanity if he didn't have so much more to be afraid of...

The Sand, for one thing. They would be after him soon, now that he had, seething and blind to reason, run away from the Council.

The first act of the guilty.

Cursing himself for acting so unbelievably stupidly, Shikamaru resigned himself to the knowledge that he could not return to the Sand. Even if Gaara didn't believe the allegations of the Council – and Shikamaru could not rely on this, even if Gaara had shown the Leaf ninja support before - there would be little that the Kazekage could do to defend him now without damaging his own reputation and his power over the Sand nation.

Shikamaru tried to analyse his options. He was having difficulty separating himself from the situation enough to see things clearly. Normally this would be second nature to the tactical ninja, but he was shaken. Emotions messed with his judgement, and right now he was angry. He was angrier than he had ever been before in his life, and it was threatening to consume him.

The unfairness of it all washed over him. He had done nothing but worry about Temari's wellbeing since he had first heard of the kidnapping. He hadn't eaten, he had barely slept, and when he had slept, he had dreamt of her.

And now he was a suspect?

Even worse than the shock of being accused of kidnapping the woman he was trying to save was the realisation that now the Sand would be chasing him...and letting the real culprits get away. Letting Temari get away.

Shikamaru realised that he was breathing hard, and that his fists were clenched. He took a deep breath to steady himself.

Think, Shikamaru.

He knew what he should do. He should return to the Leaf as quickly as possible. Tsunade had ordered him to return if their mission failed, and it would be foolish to disobey her. That's what the others would be doing. He should follow them, and let the Sand deal with their own problems.

But he knew what he wanted to do.

Temari wasn't his responsibility, even if he had convinced himself that she was. He shouldn't care so much about what happened to a moody, impulsive, utterly confusing girl from the Sand. Why did he have to care? Her nation clearly didn't want his help. He should just leave. Make the right decision, and forget about Temari.

He knew what he wanted to do.

All his life, Shikamaru had made tactical decisions. He knew he could rely on his brain to make the logical choices, and lead him to the best course of action. His instincts, like his emotions, had never really had a part to play.

His brain was telling him what he should do. His brain was telling him to go home. But...But his instincts were telling him that going home would mean going insane. It would mean admitting to that voice in him that it was true.

That he was a coward.

Shikamaru watched the warmth leak out of the sky as the sun left him behind in the desert with countless grains of sand, and he made his decision.

He knew what he wanted to do.