A/N: I think I've finally discovered my niche: ultra-convenient plot tropes. I love them like Skittles, y'all, and I've had way too much fun writing this. This is the first chapter of a novella-length fic that will probably be about five chapters...[Edit 11/9/13: I never finished this fic but I occasionally plunk at it when I get bored with other things. If it ever is finished it will be novel-length and way more than five chapters. Thanks for reading!]
The One With the Man Boat
Temari woke up to the sound of two females screeching outside. Before she could sit up in bed and wonder what was going on, Sakura and Tenten came tearing through the curtain. They pitched forward, put their hands on their knees, and gasped for breath.
"A boat," Sakura said. "North of the island."
Temari bolted upright and tore off her blankets. She grasped beside her pallet for her skirt. "Are you sure?"
"We think so," said Tenten. "It's long and narrow. Hard to tell at that distance, though."
"Did you light the signal fire?"
"We lit it."
Temari stood up and shook sand out of the rectangle of fabric. Then she tied it like a short sarong around her waist. She bolted across the room to where Hinata slept, nestled in the curve of Ino's body, her face peaceful and reposed. Temari gave her shoulder a shake.
"Hinata," she said. "Wake up. We need your eyes."
Hinata was a little slower to come alive and catch on, but soon she and Ino both were throwing on their clothes and talking excitedly.
"A boat!" said Ino. "I can't believe it! I didn't think people ever came this way."
"Try not to get too excited," said Temari. "We won't know for sure until Hinata gets a good look at it."
Hinata was working a stiff top made of rabbit skins down over her shoulders. Ino took the bottom of it with careful hands and helped pull it down. Of the five of them, only Hinata still bothered wearing anything above the waist. The rest of them were content to be bare-breasted; it's not like there was anyone else on this island to see them. Temari had already cannibalized her old yukata and turned it into a dozen more useful items, anyway. She had her own rabbit skin top around here somewhere, but she rarely wore it; they were too hot in the summer, and too restrictive all the rest of the year.
"Hinata, hurry up," said Tenten. "Can't you pick a better time to be modest?"
Hinata's voice was muffled behind tough leather. "But what if it really is a boat?"
"Then we'll have plenty of time to come back and get dressed. No one will be able to see us from that far away."
Hinata insisted on covering up, which ate up five or six more precious seconds. Then Ino clasped her hand and dragged her out of the hut. The five of them tore through the sand toward the north side of the island and rounded the jetty to the stretch of beach Sakura and Tenten indicated. Temari was already straining her eyes to see whatever dot might be on the horizon. She finally saw something like a dark smudge, long and narrow, bobbing on the surface with no apparent direction.
Ino saw it, too, and responded with vocal disgust. "That's not a boat. It's a dead tree. Like a log or something."
"No, it isn't," Sakura said. "It's too wide to be a palm tree. And don't you see something moving inside?"
"No. I see an old, dead tree."
Privately, Temari agreed with Ino. It was too far away to see anything clearly, but it didn't look like any boat she'd ever seen in her life. But only Hinata would be able to tell them for sure.
"Hinata, check it out," said Temari.
Hinata nodded and activated the byakugan. She stared off toward the mystery object with intense focus, her normally shy face twisted into something much more intimidating. Suddenly, she gasped.
"What is it?" said Temari. "What do you see?"
She spoke as if she couldn't believe her own words. "People."
This was met with shouts of joy as Ino, Sakura and Tenten immediately began to celebrate, and Temari raised fingertips to her brow bone to try and steady her own sudden emotions. She started to ask if it looked like military, but the other girls' eager questions drowned out her own.
"Men or women?"
Still that incredulous expression on Hinata's face. "Men."
"Tenten. Sakura," said Temari. "Go back the the signal fire and throw everything on it that will burn. Hurry."
"You don't have to," said Hinata. "They already see us."
This stopped Temari short. How could anyone see them from so far away? Not even a telescope had the range of a Hyuuga.
Then Hinata raised a hand. She waved at the boat, slowly, like she was caught in a dream, and whispered a name.
Shocked silence settled on the beach. Neji. A guy that had died four years ago, during the same storm that had left them all stranded on this island. He couldn't possibly be on that boat. None of the men had survived...
Tenten spoke. Shouted. Demanded explanations. "Hinata, did you say 'Neji-nii-san?' Neji? Are you talking about Hyuuga Neji?"
Hinata nodded, astonished but convicted. "He's there, Tenten-chan. He's alive..."
"Oh, my god..." Tenten sank to her knees in the sand, her eyes reflecting that astonishment. "He's alive? Neji?"
"He's coming for us!" said Sakura. "He got home somehow and he came back-"
Hinata shook her head at this, still gazing toward the boat. "He never got home, Sakura-chan. None of them did."
"What do you mean?"
"They're all on the boat."
O O O
"What is it? Do you see anything?"
Neji reached up and wiped a drop of sweat from his forehead before it could roll into his eyes.
"I think I need to be relieved."
"Why? What's going on?"
"What are you seeing?"
He cleared his throat, then gave another futile swipe at his forehead.
"A beach full of naked women."
In a flash, four other men were on their feet, staring in vain toward the island as the boat pitched dangerously beneath them. But all they could see was a shadow that represented trees, and smoke curling up and away into the sky.
O O O
Temari finally located the stupid rabbit-skin top, in the crate where she kept her gardening supplies. It was really just a wide strip of the leather, held together by laces in the back, that encircled her ribcage and covered her breasts. This was done out of necessity rather than fashion, since animal skin, like everything else on this island, was in short supply.
She couldn't care less that Neji had seen her boobs. They were alive. Like magic, all the guilt and shame over the fact that she'd done absolutely nothing that night were gone. Not that there was much she could have done; she'd used up all her chakra trying to navigate the ship through the storm. But none of that mattered anymore. They were alive. Alive, and headed this way; not to rescue the women, Hinata had said, but to join them. For now, that was good enough.
She hunted down Sakura and made her lace the top up good and tight so it wouldn't come loose, as it was occasionally want to do. After helping Sakura with hers they went back down to the beach to join the others. Hinata was still involved in a silent conversation with Neji, mouthing a few words and then watching for Neji's response, occasionally nodding or smiling at whatever he'd mouthed back to her. Ino and Tenten were dressed, too, chests adequately covered by leather or fabric. They were antsy, sitting down and folding their legs as if preparing to wait, then jumping up to pace around, complaining all the while about how long it was taking. She had to admit that she was getting a little tired of waiting, too. As far as she could see the guys had only cut their distance in half. It was the anticipation that was killing her; they had so little in their lives to look forward to nowadays that she'd forgotten how to be patient.
"Hurry the hell up," she murmured at the boat. "I'm getting old, here."
After a moment, Hinata giggled. "Neji says they're rowing as fast as they can."
"Oh, does he?"
"And they can't abandon the boat because it's full of supplies."
Temari waved hugely toward the boat. She thought she could see a raised arm in response. "And what else does Neji say?"
"He says the other guys are disappointed that we got dressed before they were in visual range."
"Ha-fucking-ha." She scowled theatrically for Neji's benefit, amused at the sheer audacity. She couldn't imagine any of them saying anything like that in the past, but their civility had no doubt suffered during their long years alone. They'd probably gotten used to spouting exactly what they were thinking, just like the girls had gotten used to going around half-dressed.
Just the fact that Neji had passed it on, through Hinata, spoke volumes.
Temari did her own pacing until the boat got close enough that she could see the jury-rigged way it had been constructed. It was more like a raft, made from palm trees and other flotsam, and she thought she could see a patchwork sail that had been pulled in, made from the same kind of textiles she and the women were forced to use. The guys keep rowing until the boat was near enough to the beach that the incoming tide could be trusted to keep it from floating away, then they jumped out and began running across the water on chakra-stabilized feet, a spray rising up behind them as they kicked their way through the waves. Soon Temari could make out their ragged shorts and bare chests, their suntanned skin and wild hair; only Neji had his hair pulled back in what might have been a braid.
Temari didn't know what to make of the guys that were headed her way. The scrawny, baby-faced boys with whom she'd spent her last mission were gone, replaced by scruffy, broad-shouldered men. Chouji had lost all of his unnecessary fat, revealing the muscles that had probably lay underneath it all along. He was still square, but it was all strength, no gluttony. They all looked like they'd grown a foot, which was a little intimidating considering that she and the other girls hadn't gained much more than an inch apiece. But their faces weren't any harder or more cynical for being older, or for the years they'd lost on whatever island they'd been trapped on. No, all Temari could see was open, unabashed joy, grins that widened with each step that brought them closer. In that one way, at least, they looked younger than they ever had before.
Suddenly, Naruto's voice wafted out over the water, deadened a bit by the sound of crashing waves.
The name broke Temari out of a daze; she could feel it hit them solidly. What the hell were they all doing just standing here? As one they began running out toward the men, sending chakra into their feet to keep themselves from sinking as they landed lightly on the cool surface of the water.
The guys doubled their pace at the girls' initiative; they were twenty meters away, then ten. But then Temari began to doubt herself. Why was she running so hard toward these guys? What was she going to do, grab one? It's not like they were her childhood friends and former teammates. No, there would be no excuse for a total loss of control, here; she could let the Konoha-nin greet each other first, then make her reintroductions afterward.
So she slowed a bit right before they made contact, hanging back as male and female crashed together in a laughing, hugging pile of bodies. She smiled at the way Sakura knocked Naruto back so hard that they both ended up in the water, and how Kiba scooped Hinata up like a baby, holding her close to his chest while she squeaked and clung to his neck.
Ino had managed to get her arms around both Chouji and Shikamaru, and was scaling them in an effort to hug them closer. Shikamaru smiled at something she was saying, but his eyes fell on Temari and he deftly twisted loose from Ino's grasp, giving her a consolatory pat as he did so. His mouth curled up in a half-grin, and that's when Temari realized he was headed straight for her.
"What's the matter?" he said. "Shy?"
"No, I just-" She was cut off when he snatched her up and hugged her, lifting her feet off the water in the process so that she had no choice but to wrap her arms around his neck. "Oh, god!"
She felt, rather than heard, him chuckle. "I don't remember you being so short, Temari-san. Are you sure you're getting enough calcium?"
"Oh, shut up!" she said. "Just because you're a freaking giant, now..."
His arms tightened around her as he laughed. She wasn't sure she could remember a time when someone had hugged her like this. Maybe Mother, although the memory of those days wasn't very clear. Maybe Kankuro, when he was three years old and terrified of Baby-Monster-Gaara. But no one since then. Certainly not. So for a moment she buried her face in his neck and allowed herself to enjoy the feeling of being held so tightly, crushed against a male chest. He was acrid and musky, the smell of a man that had been outside for god knows how long. She'd forgotten this smell, forgotten how horrible/pleasant it was, forgotten sweat and tang and salt and dirt.
She'd forgotten men.
"Shikamaru..." She pulled back and looked him in the eye, hoping to convey to him how pissed she suddenly was. "You son-of-a-bitch! I thought you guys were dead!"
It was someone else that answered from behind, a male voice that had a hint of a growl.
"Might as well have been dead. Four years with nothing but ugly dudes to look at?"
She turned to see Kiba, who managed to pry her away from Shikamaru and gave her a hug of his own. She wasn't sure how she felt about being passed from one guy to the next like property, especially when she barely knew the one that was being so possessive of her right now. But she decided that was too happy to be a feminist bitch right now.
"What," she said, "no one would put on a coconut bra and dance around for you?"
"I would have punched them in the face if they'd tried it."
She laughed at the mental image, then released him so she could hug Naruto. Hesitance gone, she made the rounds this way, grabbing the men one after the other. Even stoic Neji. They were overjoyed to see each other, and kept hugging and laughing until they couldn't mold enough chakra to keep from sinking anymore. Then Chouji and Kiba grabbed the boat, hauled it far up onto the sand, and the girls helped the boys carry their equipment to camp. On the way, Shikamaru explained how the men had happened upon the women out here in the middle of nowhere.
"About a year ago, Neji thought he noticed some smoke with his byakugan, but it was so far away and so dispersed that he couldn't be sure that was really what it was."
"Our signal fire," said Sakura.
"I think so," he said. "Neji started watching the eastern sky more often, and eventually he saw it again, this time a few miles to the north. We figured it had to be so far away that the wind was able to give us the wrong idea of its exact origin, but we began plotting the relative distance of the smoke each time it appeared and the starting point at the horizon, and when Neji saw it again two months ago we were able to narrow down the possible origins to within a half-degree."
"You should have seen our island," said Naruto. "Shikamaru turned into a giant compass, or something. He cut down trees and made a grid that covered the whole beach, and, well, I don't really know what he was doing, but it worked."
Temari reached out to pat Shikamaru on the back, but snagged her hand, clasped it in his own and wouldn't let it go. She understood the need. They were all in constant contact with each other, an arm draped over a shoulder or looped around a waist, fingers ruffling hair or rubbing the back of a neck. Like they couldn't stand to be alone, now that they'd found each other. Temari kept catching herself being overly physical with guys and girls alike. But she couldn't help herself.
"How long did it take you guys to get here?"
"Seven days," said Neji.
Temari halted in her tracks, and when Shikamaru got to the end of her arm he came to his own abrupt stop.
"Seven miserable, nauseating days." That was Kiba. "Following the stars at night and sleeping under our sail during the day so we wouldn't get sunburned."
Temari stared at them all in shock.
"What the hell were you thinking? What if you'd gotten here and found nothing? Was there even room on that boat for enough water and food to keep you alive for two weeks?"
Shikamaru smiled grimly. "Not really, no. Just one week."
"But, what if you'd had to turn around..."
"Temari..." His fingers tightened a bit around hers. "We were never going to turn around."
Realization came to her, and she tried to shake his hand off in anger. But he held fast and she was unable to disentangle herself. "So it was a some kind of suicide mission?"
"That's not it," said Chouji. Ino rode on his back with her chin resting on his shoulder, and he had his arms crossed behind himself to support her hips. "We had to trust Neji's eyes and Shikamaru's brain, because there was nothing left for us on our island. We had to believe we would make it."
"Our island wasn't like this one," said Neji, his own hand caught in Tenten's. "It was smaller. It couldn't keep supporting us in terms of food and fresh water. We wouldn't have survived much longer one way or the other."
She couldn't argue with that, and yet she could still see the relief in Shikamaru's eyes, and maybe a hint of guilt. He'd convinced everyone else to trust him, but had he really trusted himself?
"It doesn't matter anyway," said Ino. 'They made it. That's all I care about." She hugged Chouji tightly around the neck in a way that would have strangled anyone else. He just smiled.
When they got to camp, Ino and Hinata went to fetch fresh water and leftover salted fish for the boys, and Temari took Shikamaru and Neji into the hut to show them the amenities.
"We're not exactly prepared for company," she said. "We only have these three beds at the moment. But we can sacrifice some of the padding to make more futons, and we have a few blankets and pelts that aren't in use. I think it'll be okay."
"We've been sleeping on a boat for the last week," Neji said. "The ground will be fine."
Shikamaru was staring at the pallets that served as their beds, his eyebrows furrowing deeper and deeper as he studied them. Temari suppressed a smirk.
"Three beds," he said.
His eyes narrowed a little more. "How exactly does that work? They look pretty small..."
"That's my bed," she said, pointing. "This one is Sakura's and Tenten's, and Ino and Hinata share that one over there."
Neji seemed to be paying attention now, too, but neither he nor Shikamaru asked any more questions. She had to laugh at their expressions.
"Don't worry too much about it," she said. "I think it was physical closeness they needed more than anything else. I'm sure you guys can relate."
"Not to that extent," said Neji.
"Well, they seem to be shifting their attention to the men just fine."
For some reason, this comment bothered Shikamaru. "Yeah, I want to talk to you about that..." He glanced back over his shoulder at Neji, who was watching him with a raised eyebrow.
"You want me to you leave you alone?"
Shikamaru nodded. "For a minute."
The atmosphere was awkward, a little tense, and Temari tried to lighten it with a joke. "We're going to gossip about you for a while. I hope that's okay." Neji just jerked his head and left the hut, letting the thin curtain fall behind him.
She was alone with Shikamaru, now, but it wasn't doing much to alleviate the tension she was feeling. How long had it been since she was alone with any guy? And although she was trying not to dwell on it, this one attracted her. Maybe it was her own need for intimacy, which she'd never felt inclined to share with one of the other women. But it was probably just the fact that she was twenty-three years old and still a virgin. That was depressing enough, all those years in the presence of only women, but now that men were here it felt completely unbearable. She couldn't help but wonder how long it would be until that little problem was remedied, and which new citizen of their community would be assisting her. At the moment, she wasn't sure she'd be able to refuse an offer from any of them. But one candidate interested her a lot more than the others.
"Listen," Shikamaru said. "Have you noticed anything strange about the way everyone else is acting?"
"You mean touchy-feely? We're all doing that."
"Yeah..." He stared over her head, as if deep in thought. "Not just that, though. I guess you wouldn't have noticed."
"Everyone seems to be pairing off already. Neji with Tenten. Naruto with Sakura..."
"Oh, that. Yeah, I noticed. Does it matter?"
"It matters, because they're all getting attached to former teammates. Members of old three-man cells."
Oh, no, Temari wouldn't have seen that. She didn't have much knowledge about who used to be partnered with who. But now that he'd told her, it bothered her as well. None of them were related by blood to their old cells, like Temari was with her brothers, but there was still a closeness that came with all those years and battles and near-death experiences that created a bond very similar to the sibling bond.
"I wonder why they would do that?" Temari said.
"Convenience? Comfort? I don't know."
"I noticed you didn't pair up with Ino," Temari teased. "Is that because Chouji got to her first?"
"Ha," said Shikamaru, more with disgust than humor.
"Maybe it isn't really 'pairing,'" she said. "Maybe all we're seeing are people who care about and missed each other."
"Maybe." He didn't look convinced. "I guess I'm wondering what else it could turn into, especially right now when we're all emotionally starved."
"And horny," said Temari, before she could stop herself. Shikamaru gave a wry smile and let his eyes fall to the ground.
The conversation stalled uncomfortably right there, and Temari's hands decided it would be a good time to tie her hair back with the length of palm twine she kept wrapped around her wrist. Her hair was far too long for her old pigtails to be feasible; now she just wore it in a thick, unruly ponytail that reached to her waist.
It drew her attention to Shikamaru's hair, which stopped just below his shoulder blades. Dreads were beginning to form at the ends. How long it had been since he'd washed it? Or cut it? It had to have been chopped short at some point or it would be as long as hers by now, but like all the guys you could tell he'd been neglecting it.
When she looked at his face again, she found something that disturbed her. He was watching her with a look in his eyes that she'd never seen before: hunger bordering desperation, like a starving man staring at a full banquet that he was not allowed to touch. It was then that she realized she'd seen this expression on the faces of all the men today, in some form or another. Even on Chouji, while watching Ino skip off in search of clean water. On Naruto, when Sakura had come up out of the ocean dripping wet after tackling him. An expression of near-starvation. Not the way a man should look a woman that was almost a sister. Temari wasn't Shikamaru's sister, nor was she his former teammate. But there was still something troubling about his face, and after a moment she figured out what it was: not only did he look hungry, he also looked afraid. As if he wouldn't be able to stop himself from stealing something from the table for much longer.
She cleared her throat and crossed the hut to stand near the curtain. "So, what should we do about the others?"
After a moment, he was able to tear his eyes from her. He took an unsteady breath. "I think we need to make some sort of anti-fraternization ordinance. No sex or fooling around or whatever for a week or two, just until everyone calms down. Maybe that will give them a chance to think more clearly and assess other romantic options."
She laughed. "Your comrades are going to love you for that."
"I think I can convince Neji that this is the right thing to do. If we present a united front, the other guys will fall in line."
"You sure you're not just hoping Ino will assess other romantic options?" She grinned, but he nodded seriously.
"She'd better. I don't think I'll be able to be around her if she hooks up with Chouji. It's too..." He fumbled for his phrasing, before settling on, "...wrong."
"Okay, so no fraternization for a week. I guess I can order the women to do that."
"But, you know, this might be a battle you can't win. We're different people, now. We're relating to each other in different ways. And maybe that's okay."
"Maybe," he said. "All I know is that hormones are probably going to make us act in ways we'll regret later. Our community is too small to support screwing around and pissing each other off. We need to keep that from happening until everyone has a chance to wise up a little."
She gave him a mock-salute. "Sir, yes, sir. Will that be all?"
His lips turned up in a smirk. "That's all."
"Good." She crossed the room to him again and took one of his dreads between her fingers. "Now, about this hair..."
A/N 2: I know, I know. I'm sure Naruto could, like, summon Gamabunta and they could teleport or apparate to safety or whatever, but let's all pretend for a second that these guys don't have god-like powers that make it hard to write a fun story. Everyone who's with me, click the review button!