Leaving the rebuilding of the Sabaku home to be overseen by Baki, and the overseeing of Baki's health to a doctor from Ichor, Gaara, Temari, and Kankurou escorted the Konohans home.
Shikamaru explained the Gem to Tsunade, who rolled her eyes and glared at the Konoha elders for not being able to figure such a thing out themselves. For their bravery, Shikamaru, Naruto, Kiba and Chouji were allowed to bypass the hunt, and were given the mark of a man of the village. Temari, Kankurou, and Gaara were also made honorary members of the Konoha tribe. And Sakura, for her outstanding work as a healer, was rewarded with the title of head Medicine Woman.
The evening of their return, a feast was held in their honor.
"You know," Kankurou mumbled through a mouthful of food from his seat between Kiba and Sakura, "I might just stay here. I'm a member of the tribe now, so why not?"
"I must return to Suna," Gaara said from where he sat between Naruto and Temari. "I intend to turn it into the land that Grandfather would have wanted it to be." The two brothers then turned their eyes curiously to their sister, who had been unusually quiet during their ride back to Konoha.
"You're each planning on going separate ways?" she asked, clearly upset by their decisions.
"Yes, Temari. But don't let what we want to do sway your decision. What do you want to do?" Gaara asked. Temari was ashamed by how much better Gaara, the youngest of them, was at being their big brother sometimes.
She didn't answer right away. Instead, she focused on her food, completely ignoring the talk around her. And she especially avoided meeting Shikamaru's gaze. But, as dinner wound down, she had no choice but to communicate with him eventually.
"You are welcome to stay with my family for as long as you're in the village," he told her. "My mom would probably like the female company," he added quickly.
"Thank you," she answered, staring at the fire that burned in front of her. "I plan on riding out first thing in the morning, though," she told him, but made sure that Gaara and Kankurou heard her as well. "Will you be going with me, Gaara?" she asked.
"I plan to stay here for a week or so before I go back to Suna," he informed her, then just barely managed to dodge a bear hug from Naruto.
As the debatably-idiotic blond gushed on about how great of friends he and Gaara were (their party suspected he had gotten a hold of the wine), Temari quietly excused herself, making her way toward the Naras' land slowly as she let her mind wander.
"It really is too bad you feel like you have to run away," Shikamaru said, coming up beside her. He watched her jaw clench as he goaded her. "I think we might have been friends."
"We are," she replied tensely. "As we should be after all we've been through together. I don't have to stay here to prove that I… To prove how I feel."
Shikamaru stopped, allowing her to get ahead of him. Women were so troublesome.
"It was nice to have met you, Temari," Sakura said, smiling up at the woman on the chestnut mare.
Temari, rifle strapped to her back and saddlebags full of provisions and gifts bestowed upon her by the generous people of Konoha, nodded back at the pink-haired medicine woman. Then she gave her brothers one last visual-hug each. (The Sabaku family weren't a particularly affectionate bunch.) It seemed that every person she had encountered while in Konoha was there to see her off. Except one.
The lazy Nara hadn't been in his home or anywhere near it when she had awoken that morning, and his parents had informed her that he had left before sunrise. He was probably sleeping somewhere, not caring that this might very well have been the last time they would see each other.
"I'll send word to Suna if I decide to settle elsewhere," she told Gaara. "Otherwise, I'll see you in a year or two." With that, she turned her mount around and began to trot from the village gates, staring ahead with hard eyes. She comforted herself with knowing that any other woman might have cried.
That stupid, lazy Nara.
Shikamaru moved from where he had watched Temari's goodbyes from a distance, ambling up to the cloud of people that waved at her retreating back. In his jeans and the green, button-down, flannel shirt that she had gotten for him in the settlements, he watched her go, trying to decide if he should follow.
When he had gotten dressed, he had fully intended to go with her, but as he looked around the only home he had ever known, he wondered if he could really leave it all behind.
Gaara, ever the perceptive one, was the first to notice Shikamaru's arrival, and he turned to eye the inky-haired individual. They were both silent until Kankurou reached over and adjusted Shikamaru's hat.
"There," the ex-outlaw said with a smile. "Now you look like a real cowboy."
Shikamaru mumbled a, "thanks," and looked back at Temari. She was almost a dot on the horizon. He wanted to kick himself for not being able to bring himself to go with her. "Not like she needs me," he muttered to himself. A pair of reins were set into his hand, and Shikamaru looked the Sabaku brothers in their eyes.
"Yes, she does," Gaara said, his voice authoritative and wise, and leaving no room for argument.
With a look at his mother and father who had also come to see Temari off, Shikamaru climbed up into the saddle of his horse. A reassuring nod from Chouji was the final push it took for him to shoot off at a gallop to catch up with the blonde.
It didn't take long before the sound of hooves thudding against the dirt reached Temari. She took a deep breath, afraid to let herself hope that it was who she wanted it to be, but unable to stop the thought from crossing her mind, regardless. Acknowledging that she was setting herself up for disappointment, she turned to look at her pursuer.
"Don't look at me like that," Shikamaru muttered as he slowed his horse to walk beside her.
She hid a grin. "Where do you think you're going?" she asked, feigning nonchalance.
"Following you, troublesome as it is."
"And who says I want you to follow me?"
Shikamaru raised an eyebrow. "Honestly, I don't care if you want me to follow you or not. I just left everything I've ever known behind me because I finally found something worth working for, and I'm not going to let it get away that easily."
Temari was silent, but she allowed herself to beam openly at him.
"So where are we going?" he asked her, and she turned her gaze back to the trail that would eventually bring them into the desert.
"It doesn't matter," she said. "Somewhere where the grass is greener, and the sky is bluer, and the rain is clearer. Or maybe somewhere dangerous and horrible."
He nodded, "Fine with me." He reached tentatively across the gap between them and eventually brought himself to grab her hand.
She laughed at the blush that spread across his cheeks, to which he argued that it was just the heat, but she let him hold her hand, anyway.
There was something comforting about thinking that this would be their lives from then on, and no matter where the sandy trails took them, or what obstacles they encountered, they'd have each other. And they'd bicker about everything and nothing, but still always be there for each other, and that would make any wasteland bearable.
A/N: It's over. That's it. Granted, it wasn't my best work, but I'm still pretty happy with the ending.
Thanks to everyone who read and reviewed, favorited and added alerts!