She came through the forest at speed, bent on vengeance. Her weapons were primed and ready, and though she wasn't yet sure exactly how she would use them, she trusted herself to figure it out when the time came. That was her way, to equip herself with tools and skills whose utility would only reveal itself later, in the heat of battle. This exemplified the main difference between her and her target, for while he was a strategist, she was a tactician.
Waiting for him to come to her would have played to his strengths, which was why she was making this journey now, a mere three weeks after their last meeting. She could see him clearly in her mind's eye, crouched behind the high walls of his forest village, planning. Her only hope lay in surprise, in throwing him off balance and rendering his elaborate schemes impossible. She would strike him hard and fast, and there was no doubt in her mind that she would be victorious.
Ahead, through the tall trees, Temari of the Sand saw the towers of Konoha, where her target Shikamaru Nara waited. She sped up.
* * *
"Shikamaru Nara: Impressive intelligence, insufficient drive."
"Temari of the Sand: Substitutes aggression for subtlety."
--Notes taken by Third Hokage Hiruzen Sarutobi during the chuunin exams on the last
day of his reign
* * *
They stopped her at the gate, of course. One did not simply walk into a ninja village uninvited; she took a risk just approaching the entrance. But her silhouette, spiky-haired with a long iron fan strapped to her back, was familiar to Konoha's guards, and the pair on duty held their fire. They had reason to be glad of their discretion when they saw the identity of her companion.
"K-kazekage-sama!" stuttered one of them, a thin fellow with a shaven head. He swiftly rose from his guard post and stooped down in a low bow. "Temari-sama! The Hokage didn't warn us of your arrival!"
Temari folded her arms and raised an eyebrow. As the Kazekage's sister and the ambassador to the Leaf, she was skilled at condescension. "Your communication problems are none of our business," she replied archly. "But Lady Tsunade is expecting us, and of course you're familiar with my brother's temper." As if on cue Gaara, who had been idly examining a nearby stand of trees, turned his icy blue gaze on the guard.
"Throughout the Five Nations, there's hardly anyone who isn't familiar with the Kazekage." The second guard spoke smoothly, stepping over to join his cringing partner. "Of course that makes it convenient to impersonate him. His jutsu, though, is totally unique. It's been years since I last saw it; would the Kazekage mind giving us a small demonstration?"
Gaara's forehead wrinkled, and Temari scowled. Whip-like, her hand moved down to her belt to remove a long iron implement, which she then jabbed into the second guard's chest to emphasize her words. "People who see my brother's jutsu don't usually live to talk about it."
The man, whose long brown hair was bound into a ponytail, stood firm – evidently intimidation would not be so effective against him. In a dismissive gesture Temari flicked her wrist and caused the iron tool to open into small fan, silk painted with a crimson desert scene. Impatiently she tapped the fan against her thigh.
"Fine," she spat. "Show the man what he wants, Gaara."
"If you insist." The Kazekage's voice was as dry and eerie as his homeland. Suddenly a strange hissing sound issued from his back, from the gigantic gourd he wore. A trickle of russet sand rose from the gourd's mouth in a diffuse spiral. "Is this sufficient? Or do you need to see the Sand Coffin as well?"
At last the second guard seemed cowed; he took an involuntary step backwards and stared wide-eyed at the coiling sand. "No no," he said quickly. "This is enough. It's just that we weren't warned about your arrival, and you understand that we have to be cautious. I apologize." He bowed quickly, and his partner did the same.
"It's fine." Gaara didn't move a muscle, but his sand ceased its serpentine movement and dropped harmlessly to the ground. Then he started forward, past the guards and through the gates. "It's good to know our allies maintain such tight security."
Temari hurried after him, stowing her little fan and casting a poisonous look over her shoulder. Once they were out of earshot she allowed herself a satisfied smirk. "Actually their security was pretty lax. I'll have to talk to the Hokage about that."
Her companion turned to her with a concerned, uncertain expression that did not suit his features. "Those guards won't get in trouble will they? Because of what I did?"
She shrugged. "Probably not much. But in any case it's my responsibility if they do, so you should just forget about it."
"Okay." He fell silent, panting slightly and visibly struggling with the weight of the gourd on his back.
Temari tapped his shoulder and pointed ahead. "Do you see that round building there? The one with the red roof and the symbol for 'fire'?"
His eyes followed her hand. "Yes."
"That's where we're going. Lady Tsunade will be surprised, but I think she'll help me. She's a woman, after all, and she'll probably agree that Nara deserves a good kick in the pants." Temari was mostly talking to herself, testing out the appeal she would soon make to the Hokage.
He took in their destination, and the bright roofs and balconies surrounding it. "This place …" he said hesitantly, "is so … colorful. It's beautiful."
Still considering her words to Tsunade, Temari made a careless gesture. "I guess so, if you like disorder. But it's got nothing on Suna."
His gaze flicked over to her face. "No," he agreed. "It doesn't."
* * *
"That's not the Kazekage!"
Tsunade was on her feet, leaning across her desk and pointing a taloned finger at the pair of visitors in her doorway. Her eyes, beneath her smooth forehead and purplish diamond tattoo, were locked on Temari's companion like a pair of flaming arrows.
"No it's not," said Temari quickly. "His name's Taro, and he's a natural mimic." She elbowed him. "Show the Hokage what I mean, Taro."
Instantly his features began to blur, sagging like wet clay and then hardening into a new form – a dusky, dark-eyed face beneath an unruly shock of black hair. Now he was a complete stranger, a tall lanky boy of about twelve, wearing the Kazekage's clothes.
Tsunade lowered her hand and straightened up. "A mimic," she repeated. "I see. But he didn't carry himself at all like the Kazekage – he's too timid. I take he's one of the clan that attacked your village a few weeks ago?"
"That's right. I've taken him as my student, and we've been working on ways to use his impersonation skills during missions. With wind manipulation I can even fake Gaara's jutsu, at least enough for someone who's not that familiar with it."
"You mean someone like a Leaf-nin?" The Hokage was looking hard at Taro, scanning him minutely. Under her scrutiny the boy flushed and seemed to shrink into himself. "The guards sent word ahead that the Kazekage and his sister had arrived, so I take it you used this boy to trick them." Her regard shifted to Temari. "I don't appreciate being deceived by an ally."
Temari was no more comfortable in the Hokage's glare than Taro, though she hid it better. Tsunade was formidable, and right now the look on her face was somewhere between disappointed and irate. "I apologize, Hokage-sama, and I take full responsibility for what I've done. But I wanted to speak with you privately, and I didn't want to explain myself to a couple of chuunin guards."
Tsunade scowled. "Well you're here now, so you can explain yourself to me."
"Taro," said Temari without looking at the boy, "I want you to wait for me in the hallway. I'll be out in a few minutes."
He hesitated; she could hear his clothes rustling as he fidgeted. "But—"
"Go now!" she snapped. "It's not a request!"
"Yes sensei." Reluctantly he left the room, the door banging shut behind him.
Tsunade sat down heavily and laced her fingers together on the desktop. Her pursed lips and arched eyebrows spoke eloquently.
Temari took a deep breath. Now that it came to it, she was finding it difficult to speak – this entire situation was deeply personal and embarrassing. "You know that during the recent crisis," she began finally, "Shikamaru Nara discovered the infiltrators after one of them tried to impersonate me?"
Tsunade nodded briskly. "That was included in Shikamaru's report."
"Did he explain how he knew she was a fake?"
"As a matter of fact he was a little vague about that. All he said was that he noticed some behavioral differences."
Temari grit her teeth – she absolutely did not want to say this. But only the truth would get her what she wanted. "What Shikamaru didn't tell you was that he uncovered the ruse because my clone made a mistake. She wanted to convince him the investigation was over so he would leave, and her method was … seduction."
The Hokage's mouth fell open slightly. "Seduction?"
"That's right. That woman said things to him, personal things, and also … touched him. Apparently she thought kissing him would be a good distraction."
Two smudges of color had appeared on Tsunade's cheeks, and the corners of her mouth were twitching in a movement that looked suspiciously like laughter. She cleared her throat and said, "And Shikamaru could tell by the way the clone kissed that it wasn't you?"
The implication was too much – an angry shout had worked its way halfway up Temari's throat before she remembered who she was talking to and choked it back. Diplomacy, she reminded herself, diplomacy was required here. One did not browbeat the leader of an allied nation, even when that leader was laughing at you. "N-no," she replied in a calm if somewhat strangled voice, "of course not. Shikamaru knew that I would never act that way. He worked through all the details and confronted her the next morning."
"And the mystery was solved. So what's the problem?"
"The problem, Madam Hokage, is that Shikamaru ran away without telling us any of this. We only discovered the details by interrogating the imposter" – and that had been a hellish experience, with Kankuro's shouts of laughter echoing around the tiny prison cell – "after he left. He didn't even have the courage to tell me about it himself, and he left me to be humiliated in front of my comrades. It's unforgivable." Temari's hands were balled into fists; speaking Shikamaru's crimes aloud made her want to kill something.
The Hokage had stopped laughing, though a faint ghost of a smile still hovered around her lips. "So if I'm hearing you correctly, ambassador, you deceived my men and infiltrated my village to pursue a purely personal agenda?"
It sounded bad, when put like that. Temari knew a moment's shame. It was short-lived, though. "All I want," she said, "is permission to speak to Shikamaru."
"To what end? Revenge? He did save your life."
"I know that. But he also insulted me and I can't let it pass. I want to hear the story from him, and to know why he took the coward's way out. I want him to feel as uncomfortable as I did. Maybe it's not the shinobi way, but every woman has her pride."
Tsunade suddenly looked wistful. "I know something about that myself. I injured some men for pride's sake, in my time. But Shikamaru is valuable to me. Do you intend to harm him?"
"Physically?" Temari considered. "Not much. Mentally – well, that's another issue. But I swear he'll come out of it a better ninja."
"Hmm." The Hokage was silent a moment. "If Shikamaru's got one failing, it's that he thinks too much. He's excellent when he has time to plan ahead, but he lacks the ability to lose himself in battle, to simply react. He'll never become a jounin without that killer reflex."
"Does he even care about something like that?"
She shrugged. "Probably not, but I care. I want him as the Leaf's next jounin captain, if he can learn to rely on his gut as much as his head. And you may just be the push he needs." She grinned wickedly. "I'll grant you permission to stay here and seek out Shikamaru, and I'll record your visit as a training exercise, provided you promise to keep him as off-balance and out of his element as possible."
"That," said Temari grimly, "is my intention. I expect Taro can help me as well."
A look of understanding passed between them, colored by amusement on one side and determination on the other. If Shikamaru could have seen it, it would have confirmed his worst fears.
"It's decided then," said Tsunade. "I'll give the order to let you move through the village unobstructed. But you're going to have to wait a few days before making contact with Shikamaru, so if you want to surprise him you may want to lay low at first."
"Wait a few days? Why?"
"He's scheduled to take a few Academy students out on a survival exercise tomorrow. It's nothing major, just a short trip into the forest, but he'll be away for several days."
Waiting was not optimal – Shikamaru was very perceptive, and there was a good chance he'd pick up some sign of her presence in the village. But getting him alone in the woods, with no home to flee to and no comrades to hide behind, could be very advantageous. "Send me along," said Temari eagerly. "It'll be good for Taro, and that way there's no chance Shikamaru will find out I'm here before I confront him."
Tsunade shook her head. "He's already been assigned a partner for this mission, and too many escorts is counter-productive to the goals of the exercise. The whole point is for the students to do certain things without help."
"I know a thing or two about survival, Hokage-sama. I'm from the desert, after all. Why not let me replace Shikamaru's partner?"
"I don't think the person I assigned would appreciate that."
"Suppose this person agreed to let me take his place? I can be very persuasive." Indeed she could, given a certain lack of interference and enough room to swing her giant fan. No one was going to get between her and her target.
"If you can convince Shikamaru's partner to step aside for you, I have no problem with it. But intimidation won't work, Temari. I suggest you take the same approach you did with me – the truth."
Temari frowned. Telling the humiliating story to a stranger was distinctly unappealing. She could probably trust the Hokage not to spread the tale around, but she couldn't be sure of anyone else. "Why would that get me anywhere?" she demanded. "I assume most Leaf-nin would be quicker to side with Shikamaru than me."
"In most cases, you'd be right," Tsunade agreed. "Shikamaru's quite popular. But this person is well-versed in the frustrations of working with him, and understands a woman's pride as much as I do. No, I think you have an excellent chance of winning the support of Ino Yamanaka."
* * *
Temari had some trouble finding the shop, despite the Hokage's detailed directions. She'd been to the Leaf many times before, of course, but always in the past she'd been escorted by Shikamaru, and content to follow his lead through the crowded streets. Now she was on her own with Taro in tow, and utterly paranoid that she'd bump into her quarry by happenstance. It was hard to navigate when you jumped at every man in a chuunin vest or ponytail.
Eventually they made it, though, to a cheerful two-story building whose lower floor bore a wooden sign painted with the Yamanaka name. The only thing visible through the open doorway was a riot of foliage. Temari stepped cautiously inside.
Within, the air was moist and fragrant, the light dim and green. Flowers were everywhere – rising from pots on the floor, hanging in planters from the ceiling, lining shelves on the wall. They came in every conceivable color and shape, from modest carnations to exotic orchids. It was overwhelming, after a lifetime spent in dry lands where the few native plants all had thick skins and sharp spines.
"Welcome!" called a feminine voice from across the room.
Moving quickly through the gloom, careful not to brush the delicate blooms as she passed, Temari made her way to the other end of the shop, where there was a short wooden counter. As soon as she saw the girl who stood behind it she knew she'd found Ino. She matched Tsunade's description in every particular, and moreover Temari recognized her from their few brief encounters. Now, as then, she was tall and beautiful, with sleek blond hair, pale blue eyes, and a complexion as white and clear as Gaara's. Here among the flowers she seemed totally at home.
Temari was suddenly aware of her rumpled clothing, and the fact that she hadn't yet stopped to wash off the sweat of her journey. Silently she cursed herself for her weakness – she was a soldier, not any kind of preening beauty queen, and she had nothing to be ashamed of. "You're Ino Yamanaka?" she asked in a voice that seemed too loud and rough for this setting.
"I am," the girl replied with a smile. In front of her, on a piece of lavender tissue paper, was a bunch of daffodils. Ino was methodically clipping their stems with a pair of sharp scissors. "And I know you – Temari of the Sand. Is Shikamaru with you?"
"Not this time. In fact, Shikamaru's what I came here to talk to you about."
Ino's eyebrows shot up and she laid the scissors aside. "Really?"
"I understand you're scheduled to go on a mission with him tomorrow?"
"That's right. It's survival training, and I'm an expert in medicinal plants."
"Well, I'd like your permission to take your place."
Ino rocked back on her heels with a peculiar glint in her eye. "You're that eager to spend time with Shikamaru? I can't say I'm surprised, but eating leaves and bugs isn't my idea of a romantic getaway. And there'll be students, you know."
Temari felt her face grow hot. It seemed everyone in this village, from the Hokage on down, thought she was in some sort of relationship with Shikamaru. Perhaps she shouldn't have rescued him from Tayuya all those years ago. "Taro!" she barked over her shoulder.
Her student had been gawking at a display of tulips, which did not occur in Suna's desert. On hearing his teacher's voice he clapped his hands to his sides and turned in her direction.
"Go outside," Temari ordered. "I want you to guard the entrance. If anyone tries to come in, stop them. I'm counting on you."
"Yes sensei!" He snapped out a salute before moving quickly to the door.
"That's not exactly good for business," Ino observed without rancor. If anything she appeared intrigued.
"It won't be for long. I just don't want him to hear this. It's embarrassing, but Lady Tsunade told me I should be honest with you."
Ino's eyes were shining. "Oh, please do."
"I'm not here for some kind of romantic encounter. I'm here for vengeance."
Then she told Ino Yamanaka her tale, and by the end of it Ino's nostrils were flaring and her clear complexion had darkened with outrage.
"He did what?" she demanded. "Oh, that's exactly like him, the coward. Unforgivable! To run off after all that, without saying a word to you, when you obviously like him –" At a loss for words, Ino took up her scissors and resumed cutting the daffodil stems, this time rather violently.
"I'm glad you sympathize," said Temari quickly, "but don't misunderstand. When it comes to Shikamaru, I don't—"
"Of course he was scared," Ino cut in, seeming not to hear her, "since he hasn't got a lot of that kind of experience with women. But he's taken on the Akatsuki, and he can't handle a simple conversation? Oh no, he just decided it was too troublesome to bother with." Ino's scissors made a regular snick-snick noise, a harsh metallic counterpoint to her words. "I hate it when he says that word, 'troublesome.' I once threatened to cut out his tongue if I ever heard it again." Snick-snick. "I should have done it, too. He wouldn't be kissing any clones then, would he?" Snick-snick.
"I guess not," said Temari. "But I really don't—"
"If there's one thing I can't stand" –snick-snick—"it's a man who's got no respect for a woman's feelings. So you need my help, right? To get close to Shikamaru?" Snick-snick. "Consider it done. You can take my place on the mission."
"Thanks," said Temari with relief. The Hokage had been right – Ino's sympathies were entirely in her favor here. But the other kunoichi seemed to be laboring under a misapprehension, a mistaken assumption that needed to be cleared up now. "But I definitely don't—"
"Just promise me one thing," said Ino. She held up her scissors and a daffodil whose petals were somewhat misshapen.
"That you'll show that lazy coward what 'troublesome' really means." The scissors flashed and said snick-snick once more, and the head of the deformed daffodil fell to the ground at Temari's feet.