Disclaimer: In a parallel universe, another me owns Naruto. And everyone eats rainbows and poops butterflies.
In Letho Veritas
Chapter 1: Love is a fool
Festivals were troublesome.
'Well,' Shikamaru amended, 'it depends on your role in the festival.' Being on a security mission during a festival was definitely troublesome.
He had a headache. The heat in this part of the land of Fire was exhausting; he was glad his part of the mission didn't necessitate too much physical activity. A faint pang of guilt niggled at the back of his mind for making his partner do all the sweaty work, but their roles had been clear from the start, and Tenten said she didn't mind. Shikamaru had learned very early in life though, that women often said one thing and meant the opposite, and you could never be too careful around them. In that sense, they were naturally very ninja-like.
Slouching deeper into his chair, the Chuunin gave every impression of bored observation of the activities going on below him. He was on one of the hidden balconies of the client's many houses in the city, overlooking the main road where the festival procession was passing. The throng of revelers had swollen to a frantic, whirling cacophony of sound and color, with parade floats of every size, shape and theme moving at a snail's pace due to the sheer volume of people crowding about, dancing and cheering as raucous music blared from speakers along the road.
The client's float was not even in sight yet, and, despite his outward lassitude, Shikamaru was getting agitated. The client's regular security complement could cover most of the client's route during the festival, but Shikamaru and Tenten had concluded that this place was the hot spot, which the Nara now realized was true both literally and figuratively, where the highest likelihood of an attempt on the client's life would be possible. Shikamaru had therefore set up here while Tenten was posted close to the client to make sure he remained safe the rest of the way.
Tenten did not relish having to act as 'female escort' to the client during the festival, but the Hokage had told her in no uncertain terms to feel free to "kick the client in the nuts" if he forgot that Tenten was only playing the part of an escort, which had caused Tenten to smile in a way that unpleasantly reminded Shikamaru of Ino, Temari, and his mother.
Hmp. Troublesome women.
Shikamaru was starting to think Tenten was not too bad for a girl, though. His earlier attempt to get to know her at the start of the mission had actually been quite productive. While he didn't doubt her professionalism, he thought there was no harm in establishing a better rapport with a team mate who would be relying on him to lead this mission, in effect entrusting him with her life.
"You don't like me."
Shikamaru's quiet tone made Tenten stop short. She had become impatient with his lazy stroll and begun walking briskly ahead. They had plenty of time before arriving at the village for their next assigned mission, but Tenten was used to cutting travel time in half under penalty of doing five hundred push ups together with the Green Team. It was nice change of pace, being assigned on a team different from Gai's, but traveling with Nara Shikamaru felt like wading through molasses. In slow motion.
She glanced at him over her shoulder, "Feelings are irrelevant on a mission, Shikamaru. I'll follow orders, don't worry."
"I know, I know," he rolled his eyes upwards. So troublesome, "I was just trying to make conversation, is all."
"What?" she was confused, "By telling me that I don't like you?"
"Seemed like as good a starting point as any," it was hardly a random choice for discussion though. He was baiting her. He could have engaged her in a polite conversation on weaponry, battle strategy, maybe the weather even, but he disliked small talk. Life was too short to have boring conversations. If they weren't going to talk about something interesting, he'd rather cloud-watch.
"Hmph." She let him know what she thought of that, but fell back anyway to match his leisurely stride. "Fine. How do I dislike you?"
"Let me count the ways," Shikamaru rejoined, and she grinned despite herself.
- He was a chauvinist pig.
- He had not bothered to lower his voice during the Chuunin exams when he'd concluded that Tenten would lose to Temari.
- He had thereafter proceeded to soundly beat Temari with what appeared to be very little effort on his part.
- He was promoted Chuunin earlier than any of them.
- He had chosen Neji to be part of the Sasuke retrieval mission and returned the Hyuuga grievously wounded.
"It helps that you felt bad about Neji though," Tenten commented after Shikamaru had enumerated all the incidents that may or may not have pissed her off.
"I do." Shikamaru said glumly, recalling that dark time, and going over once again what he could have done differently.
Sensing the impending heavy mood, Tenten said lightly, "But you forgot to emphasize one thing in particular that really makes me hate you."
"I'm a lazy bum?" he drawled.
"You really are a genius!" her open smile caused his sober expression to lift marginally, though he lacked the energy to smile back.
One of their stomachs rumbled. Not Tenten's.
"Break for lunch?" her jaw dropped open as he nonchalantly wandered off to find a suitable clearing in the forest for their meal. They had only been walking for two hours! Tenten wasn't even slightly tired!
Tenten's fingers twitched and she compulsively began to set up traps within the area, just for something to do. Shikamaru thought she might be experiencing actual culture shock with him.
Shikamaru smiled to himself. Tenten was endowed with a saintly level of patience though, well-cultivated through long exposure to two beautiful green beasts of Konoha. Aside from looking at him in disbelief every now and then at his incredible lack of drive, she respected his rank and had no objection to Tsunade appointing him leader of their two-man team despite his being her junior in terms of age. She might not have the battle experience of Temari or the familiarity of Ino, but he concluded he could work with her.
Add the fact that she was far nicer to him than both of the blonde females in his life, despite her averred dislike of him in general, and Shikamaru began to muse that he could actually request for more missions together with Team Gai's kunoichi. Not that he would ever request for more missions, of course. Just that if it was absolutely unavoidable for him to go on one that required female ninja, then she would be among those he'd consider.
It was unlike him to dwell on any girl for any length of time, since it was such a tiresome activity, but he'd had very little to do today. Sure, he had neutralized a number of threats from where he sat in apparent indolence, hands moving in subtle hand seals -- he was finessing some of his clan's techniques to a point where even seals would be unnecessary. He moreover had a full complement of security personnel at his beck and call, and with a few commands which, to the onlooker, appeared to be simple requests for refreshments and other amenities, had allowed them to subdue the would-be attackers he easily caught trying to set up an ambush within the area. It was still boring, though.
He found his mind wandering back to Tenten. His assurance to the Hokage that she would be more fitting for this mission than Hinata had mystified Tsunade at first. While the Byakugan would certainly aid in pinpointing any enemy and the Heavenly Spin would be a highly effective defense of the client during attack, the client had pleaded for ninja who would do their best not to disrupt the festivities and remain inconspicuous. The plan Shikamaru formulated would make that possible and Tenten was the natural choice.
"You're very easy to overlook," he complimented as they settled down to eat. Then he ducked.
"Thanks," Tenten smiled wryly and chucked another apple at him for good measure. She never missed.
Shikamaru sighed and rubbed his sore head. At least the heat was letting up. As late afternoon gave way to early evening, more tourists would probably be emerging from their hotels to join the night festivities; it was expected by midnight for the crowd to be double or even triple its current size. He hoped to wrap up security duty soon.
Finally, the client's float came into sight. A gaudy affair, bedecked with shiny accoutrements, streamers and pennants flying in the rising night air. Shikamaru decided the person perched foolishly in the middle of float, atop a glittering paper-mache throne, was indeed their client displayed like a sitting duck for the entire world to target.
Tenten had offered to henge and stand in for the client, but the entire point of this exercise, in the client's mind, was to expose himself to the highest amount of risk and rely on his security and hired ninja to protect him. Shikamaru thought there were certain occasions, important ones like the Chuunin exams and the induction of the new Hokage, where it was necessary for the leaders and political bigwigs to appear in honor of the event. A silly festival though, where everyone wore costumes, and the reason for celebration was nothing more than the coming of spring...
He did not at first recognize the court jester as his team mate. Was that really Tenten? He didn't know if he was going to smile or gawk. The monochromatic bodysuit looked very-- form-fitting, and he had never seen any ninja wear ruffles on her collar. Or bells on her toes, for that matter.
Then he blinked as she executed a triple somersault right across the float, ended with a lavish bow to a wildly cheering audience, and emanated a death vibe that the Nara was very familiar with from experience with the females in his life.
"Damn," he noted an attack had materialized during the few seconds he had been struck dumb at Tenten's disguise. He noticed she had intercepted a number of senbon while she was doing the somersaults and probably had them cleverly caught between various points of her anatomy, that surprisingly pleasing anatomy which curved gently in the right places and stood firm where--- he clicked his tongue and mentally shook himself.
Blinding flashes of light simultaneously exploded in a tight circle around the float, effectively cutting off the reach of his shadow technique. They had caught on to his jutsu.
However, Shikamaru had anticipated this. Tenten was already faultlessly executing their Plan B, and tossing out smoke grenades spaced out between the flares as she twisted about in an acrobatic dance that made it look like part of the performance. The crowd, which had at first panicked when the flares set off, milled about, crying out after being half-blinded, but were soon enthralled as the smoke bombs detonated in sequence, releasing different hues of green, blue and pink smoke, wisping up into hazy phantom dragons. The smoke was a good enough conduit for Shikamaru's shadows, and he isolated and immobilized the attackers in a matter of seconds. With small nudges from his shadows he directed Tenten's aim through the haze and, relying on his guidance alone, her shots with the poison-tipped senbon were flawless.
The smoke dissipated and Shikamaru could only sigh as the client emerged with a contraption that raised his throne even higher above the float, resplendent in his dazzling king's robes and crown.
Tenten channeled her inner Lee and jumped up and down and did cartwheels of youth. For someone who wasn't supposed to draw attention to herself, she was quite the scene-stealer.
The captured assassins were questioned and found to be low-level rogue ninja who'd been hired by the client's political enemies, which meant the B-ranking given to this mission had been accurate. Night came and went, and the festivities began to die down eventually in the wee hours of morning. Shikamaru had to be a little more mobile during the evening while their client mingled among revelers in a street party, but the presence of other VIPs and a smaller venue ensured higher security so the night passed without incident.
The client finally signaled to Shikamaru that the job was done and he could go. The chuunin's eyebrow quirked when he saw the client shake his head at Tenten when she appeared to ask him if she was dismissed as well. The costumed king leered at her and patted his lap invitingly. Tenten shot Shikamaru a look. He shrugged.
She grinned and waved him away. 'You don't need to see what I'm about to do.'
With last look of pity for their client, Shikamaru retired to the room assigned to him. He knew Tenten could handle it.
That outfit she wore, though. He'd have to tell her not to wear anything resembling it again if they were going to work together anytime in the future. He could not help being a teenage boy but never thought it would have any bearing on missions. He had after all, grown up with Ino, who had a rather liberal clothing sense and the Hokage's very ample bosom was a common sight in Konoha, so there was no reason for him to think he'd be affected by Tenten in a tight-fitting costume. A worrying thought, What if it's just her? briefly crossed his mind. He'd think about it in the morning.
It seemed he had only laid his head down on a soft cushion when he heard the sound of bells and a hand was shaking him awake again.
A stark white face with black diamond markings painted around two large brown eyes was peering into Shikamaru's sleep-fogged gaze.
"I just need to know, Shikamaru, what was up with you earlier, while I was on the float?" Tenten demanded. Ah, the trouble begins anew.
"I was distracted."
The only light in the room came from the door, which was slightly ajar, leading out into the hallway. From this, he assumed she only wanted an explanation, not a bonding session with him, and thus had not turned on the lights so she could leave him to go back to sleep. How thoughtful.
Shikamaru immediately pushed the warm, fuzzy feelings building up in his chest far, far away. Becoming fond of this female was troublesome, especially considering his inability to control his reactions to her. It helped that she was now looking at him with narrowed eyes, obviously irked at his failure to elaborate.
"Good thing we had a back-up plan then." She drew back and crossed her arms, giving her best Neji-glare. Shikamaru yawned, message clear that he had a high immunity to such things.
"I always have a back up plan," he explained stretching out on the lounge chair fully before pulling himself to sit up with a sigh. "What a long day."
He was baiting her! She just knew it! He sat on his ass all day and had the gall to-- Tenten counted to five. She tossed her head to move the jester hat's dangling bells away from her face, then turned on her heel, ready to stalk away and change out of this horrible costume the client had made her wear. She hoped neither Gai nor Lee would ever hear that she had consented to it. There would be nothing to stop them from pressing the green jumpsuit again on her and that would be the end of Tenten's social life in Konoha.
"Tenten." She looked back at Shikamaru. He had a strange expression. "You did a good job. Thanks."
She waited a beat for anything further, but he had shut his mouth very decidedly, as if talking would somehow implicate him in some crime.
"Okay." She was ready to conclude that in order for one to be a genius, one had to be slightly eccentric as well. One moment Shikamaru was a chatty cat, the next he was close-mouthed and chose each word with care. Tenten was too drained to figure it out right now.
"Well, all things considered, we accomplished our mission, so yeah, good job too." She returned the compliment. "I'm glad we had this chance to work together." She gave him a small smile, wondering why it was he never smiled back. Probably stress from being team leader, but the mission was done, surely it was not that taxing on his facial muscles?
"You want to know why I was distracted?" he suddenly asked. She nodded. He scratched the back of his neck, damning himself even as he decided to speak. "Well, look at you."
"Yes, I've already let the client know what I think about this travesty of fashion." Tenten grimaced as she picked fretfully at her gloves. "I didn't realize it would offend you even from afar. It's not a reason to let down your guard though."
It was Shikamaru's turn for his jaw to drop open. Was she deliberately misunderstanding him to fish for compliments? "Tenten, you're a kunoichi. You're supposed to have a pretty good assessment of your womanly attributes, which are all part of a female's arsenal that may be employed in the attainment of an objective."
"Uh," she heard something about womanly attributes and arsenal, but his flat delivery and pained expression were distracting. "What are you saying, Shikamaru?" Doe eyes blinked at him in complete innocence.
Shikamaru stood up and, taking hold of her elbows, gently propelled her to stand in front of a mirror. The false dawn filtered in to give an eerie damask tint to the room. While Shikamaru's face was shadowed as he stood behind her, Tenten's delicate features were accentuated through the makeup, and her silhouette clearly visible in the reflection.
"You're very pretty Tenten. When you wear clothes like this, you can be very distracting to males."
Because Shikamaru had some sensitivity when it came to women, even if many said otherwise, he did not deliver the statement with the bored drawl he employed with almost every utterance. His tone was quiet, again, and perhaps without him meaning for it to be, somewhat caressing.
"Oh," the physical jolt of shock he felt through her body convinced him it was not an act. "Oh. Haha. I knew that." A lie. Tenten could lie about many things, but it seemed she got flustered in situations like this. Interesting. Troublesome, but interesting.
"So," she processed this, and he watched her keenly in the mirror. "I distracted you, and as a result created a risk for the mission?" he could see she didn't like that conclusion and was preparing to accuse him of chauvinism again.
"My fault, entirely," he acknowledged quickly, "I ought to have better focus."
"Yes you do," she scolded, although the effect was rather diminished by the fact that she was in a clown outfit. "Geniuses shouldn't be distracted." She craned her neck to look up at him, and smiled to soften the sting, "It worked out in the end though, so that's ok." She nodded, as if coming to a decision, "Okay. I promise to be more-- self-aware of my..."
"Womanly attributes." Shikamaru's mouth quirked. He wondered if she was aware that she had absorbed some of Rock Lee's mannerisms in proclaiming his goals in training.
"Womanly attributes, so in the future I can---" her gaze suddenly flickered downwards to the floor, as she realized what 'utilizing her womanly attributes' might actually entail. "I'll-- ask Ino about it, I guess."
"Hm." Why did the phrase 'corruption of innocence' immediately flash through Shikamaru's mind when he thought of Tenten asking Ino for feminine advice? "If you like. Although you seem to be doing just fine. I assume you've kicked the client where the Hokage instructed?"
"He tried to grope my clone!" Tenten blazed in righteous indignation. "You don't do that, no matter how a girl is dressed!"
"I'll put it in my report as 'he had it coming,' then," he said with a straight face.
"Please do." Tenten regarded him, saw he was indeed exhausted from the day's events. "I'll let you get some rest now, Shikamaru. Thanks for, well, being honest."
Shikamaru knew he would find this girl interesting, and was glad to confirm his presumptions. The more time he spent with her, the less troublesome it seemed. And as he watched her go, he suddenly wished she would stay.
"You probably haven't kissed anyone yet, either." He said the first thing that came to mind.
She stopped, without turning. He knew he had crossed the line when he saw the tight set of her shoulders.
"It's not a deficiency. I was just stating--" he trailed off, uncertain. She slowly pivoted, and walked deliberately towards him. The look on her face was inscrutable.
"Shikamaru," she said quietly. Her voice was firm, with no flustering or hesitation this time. "My goal is to become a strong female ninja. If necessary, on a mission, yes, I will employ my 'female attributes', as you say, so please be assured that during a mission I will not falter if it is called for. But beyond missions, whom I exchange intimacies with is a personal matter."
Underneath her glare, Shikamaru was the first to look down. He had hurt her pride. She had not threatened him, nor shouted at him, nor burst into tears. She was unlike any girl he'd met.
He quickly bound her to his shadow when she moved to leave again, forcing her to look up at him.
"I'm very sorry Tenten." He hoped she would hear the sincerity in his voice. "I didn't mean to question your capability."
"Shikamaru," she bit back a potentially hot retort and again took a deep breath. This man! She could flay him alive for practically calling her naive. So maybe she was, about some things, but he had no right to taunt her. What was his problem?
Her eyes raked across his face, which was discomfited and dismayed. Was he genuinely sorry? Well, Gai always said true strength lay in compassion; she supposed that philosophy was applicable in this case. She was still angry though. "Give me a minute ok?"
They stood in silence for a while. He didn't dare release the jutsu, when Tenten had just blithely admitted to emasculating another man earlier; his own masculinity may very well be at stake.
Then he thought of something. He stepped forward, forcing her to mimic the action. She watched him, confused, as he brought them as close as he dared. "I'll tell you something in return. I don't know, but somehow it might make you feel like forgiving me."
She waited. He lowered his voice. As a man, he was somewhat embarrassed to reveal this, given the well-circulated rumor that he was dating Ino and Temari at the same time, but he had inadvertently uncovered one of Tenten's secrets, he would offer his own.
"I've never kissed anyone either." With a sheepish smile, he released the jutsu. Then he had to catch her because Tenten was so surprised.
"Really?" she asked.
"Well, I've kissed my mom..." he frowned as she began giggling.
"Sorry, but admitting you kiss your mom is only making it worse, Shikamaru."
"Okay, forgiven." Tenten smiled up at him, a little surprised he'd gotten taller than her in just a few years, "Why do you insist on continuing this discussion when you're so tired?"
"Well, I like you."
They stared at each other, and Shikamaru suddenly felt all of the day's events catching up with him and burying him in fog. "I - I meant-- I liked working with you." What was going on? Why did his brain stop working at 4 in the morning? What was he saying to this girl?
Tenten looked at him the way one might look at a lost wild animal, with pity and extreme caution. "I think... you were right about my costume. Maybe... we should say good night."
Shikamaru sank onto the bed and willed himself to believe he would remember this as a very strange dream come morning.
A/N: There are a number of nice Shikaten fics out there, but I noticed they're either AU or futurefics where Tenten is already cool and super strong, or that at the start of the story they've already established this easy friendship with each other. I should take that as a hint that pre-time skip Tenten and Shikamaru just aren't compatible, but I am a glutton for punishment so I tried it anyway.