A/N: Yes, it's completely stupid to write a post-war fic WHILE THE WAR IS ONGOING, but I couldn't help myself. Therefore, I wrote this story in weekly fear that canon would shift in a way that would make this story something far and beyond AU. For the record: this story is canon up to Chapter 530. Hell yeah. (Please, Kankuro, don't die!)
A thank you to Kanji no Sakka and to Ballades for the beta read. A no-thank-you to my husband for heckling the crap out of me while reading the mushy bits. :shakes fist: We'll see who wins this battle, Mister! No mushy bits for you!
Inside the Black Ant
There were five of them in the woods, five shinobi gathered around a campfire only a half-day's journey from Konoha. The war was over. Finally.
Kankuro fed an armload of dry branches to their fire and sparks snapped above them like exploding tags, pellets of poison gas, or some other unforeseen doom.
Not again, Temari thought.
At once Gaara's gourd cork popped, Kankuro's chakra threads streaked upwards wielding flaming branches, Shikamaru sent a shuriken through the largest spark, and Temari blew flames and smoke in General Shikaku's direction with a pulse from her fan. Only the general did not move.
In the silence that followed, ashes from the flaming branches fluttered upon the sand shield protecting Gaara, Shikamaru, and their game of shogi.
Well, Temari thought as she sank onto her sleeping pad still clutching her closed fan. The post-adrenaline rush left her legs as weak as usual, but she didn't bother hiding it this time. It's the first time any of us stopped moving since Pain attacked Konoha...we're bound to be jumpy.
Shikaku wiped soot from his face and continued reading field reports from his sleeping pad. "Those sparks never stood a chance," he said mildly. Kankuro laughed as he lowered his flaming branches back to the fire pit; as usual, her brother was quick to recover.
Shikamaru sighed. "That was overkill, Temari."
She shut her fan back into her scroll. "What, the fan was overkill and your shuriken wasn't?"
He sighed. She clenched her teeth.
Gaara's sand hissed back into his gourd as he moved one shogi tile forward. Click. "Your move," he said. "Stop baiting my sister."
As the fire continued to snap and pop, the urgency that led each of them to this moment in the woods ebbed. Temari could see this in Gaara's posture - his chin on his knee, his shoulders hunched like a child's. She could see it in the way Shikamaru held his pieces - his knuckles curved and loose, as though the tiles might slip from his grasp at any moment. When Temari watched him play back at HQ, his fingers had been white and pinched with tension as he clutched his pieces.
Shikamaru yawned and scratched beneath his vest revealing a fine sliver of flesh and Temari's gaze narrowed. Unlike the others, she was far from relaxed.
"Damn...you look hungry," Kankuro murmured in a voice pitched for her ears alone. He was on the bedroll beside hers, grinning like a lunatic with crumbs and ash on his chin and smudged face paint on his cheeks. He looked like happy hell.
"If you offer me another damn cracker, I'll-"
"You know what I meant." He placed one of the crackers into her hand. She bit into it.
He laughed, mocking her pain as usual, and Temari was annoyed by the flush she felt rising to her cheeks. She never blushed. The best she could do was look even more pissed off so that no one got suspicious, but that only made Kankuro laugh harder. Shikamaru glanced their way with his hand above the shogi board, his forefinger and thumb still reaching for a tile. His eyebrows lowered before he looked back to his game.
Temari ignored her brother, but he wasn't finished. He sidled close and murmured, "Imagining those hands somewhere else?"
Dammit. One drunken confession...I'm never going to live that down.
Temari smiled. "Die."
But he wasn't grinning anymore. He looked concerned and that worried her. "You're being stupid about this."
After her drunken confession, Kankuro had told her, "You're both hot. I don't see what the problem is. Just...jump him and get it out of your system. Hold this in and you'll go nuts."
Remembering this and afraid of what Kankuro might say next - and he was just shit with volume control sometimes - Temari covered his mouth with her hand and brought her face close to his. He dropped the bag of crackers.
"Stop talking. Now." Shikamaru was off limits. She might take a guy out to spar or something after a battle, because contact fighting was a safe way to dissipate that energy and brought its own thrill, but what Kankuro encouraged was completely different. And hazardous. Didn't he understand it was dangerous to consider anything involving Shikamaru as trivial? The man didn't stir himself unless his damn Will of Fire was involved, and no one stood a chance against that. There would be no "just" getting it out of her system...might as well raise a white flag, and she had no idea what she would be surrendering to.
Kankuro's words beneath her hand were low: "This isn't healthy, and it's been getting worse..."
She ground her hand against his face and watched his eyes widen. "Shut up!"
Shikamaru shouted, "Oy!" at the same time Gaara clicked one of his pieces into place and said, "Temari, don't kill him." Shikaku continued reading reports, but there was an amused twist to his lips. Old man doesn't miss much.
Temari dropped her hand from Kankuro's mouth and rose abruptly. She grabbed her scroll.
"Sorry," she muttered. "I'll be back."
"Hey." Kankuro's gruff tone was an apology by his standards. "Where are you going?"
She made a rude gesture and stalked into the darkness.
She didn't go far, just up into a tree, but Temari waited until she'd cooled off and the shogi set was put away before she returned with a plan: sleep, wake up, drop the Nara boys off in Konoha, and then run like hell until she reached Suna. The less time she had to stare at Shikamaru's stupid hands the better.
The boys were in their bedrolls, but not asleep.
"Write them now, before post-war chaos sets in," Shikaku was saying. "Do it for your children or the children of your children. You wait too long and these accounts become less first-hand, less detailed. Less helpful. You start to forget things like why you chose one decision over another, and that sort of thing can be crucial later - the more details the better - especially if it's a long while before we go to war again."
"It better be," Shikamaru muttered, yawning as Temari skirted his bedroll. "I plan to be retired and toothless the next time something this troublesome comes around."
Temari's bedroll was now between Gaara and the forest, which meant that Kankuro had switched places. She kicked a corner of her brother's blanket, but he pretended to snore.
"Coward," she muttered. He smiled.
"Yes," Gaara said, responding to Shikaku. "I agree."
"An account from anyone is helpful," Shikaku continued, "but records kept by a Kazekage who was also a general…hell from a division leader, or a prince or princess of your people…from all of you kids - those will be the records that shinobi generations down the road will study and perhaps rely upon."
No one spoke. Temari wondered what the boys were discussing…writing detailed war reports obviously, but there was something else in the silence. A decision.
She unclasped her scroll and then eased into her bedroll fully clothed. She didn't bother removing her flak jacket or hair ties - she hadn't in days. Temari knew she smelled pretty ripe at this point, and the only way she would get the ties out of her knotted hair was with a knife. Her scalp itched and ached from the constant pull of her ponytails.
The rustle of her blankets seemed loud above the snap of the fire.
"Yes," Gaara said eventually. "We'll do it, and you can have copies if we get copies of reports from others within the Leaf."
Shikaku grunted his approval and Temari wondered what had been decided. At any rate, the motivation behind Gaara's decision was obvious. He had been convinced the moment Shikaku mentioned the word "children." She closed her eyes and turned onto her side. The foot of her bedroll was already warm from the fire. Cozy. Gaara is so soft-hearted now, she thought, but she was proud. Her opinion of manliness had changed a lot in the last few years.
When Temari discovered the next morning that her family would be staying in Konoha until she and her brothers each wrote detailed accounts of every bleeding second of every feint and counterthrust with every enemy faced during the war, Temari felt less sanguine about her brother's pact with Shikaku.
"This is shit," she told Gaara privately. "I don't like it." Earlier that morning, Kankuro had caught her staring at Shikamaru as he re-tied his hair. His fingers…his hair…the curve of his neck and shoulders. Lower down, the way his trousers hung from his hips and followed the curve of his ass.
Temari fisted her forehead briefly, then let her hand fall to her side. She retained only one means to escape Konoha without doing something stupid and emotionally reckless: leave Hidden Leaf Village as soon as she saw the Nara boys safely to its gates.
"I'm sorry," Gaara said, his tone mild.
"Gaara, the Daimyo won't understand our delay, and the council will never agree to sharing information freely like this, even if it's information any Leaf villager fighting alongside us had access to. Besides, there's work waiting for us at home!"
"The council doesn't need to know and we'll tell the Daimyo that one of us needed rest…you seem more agitated than usual. You should use this time to relax."
Temari blinked at him. "Relax?" Her jaw tightened. Dammit. If even Gaara has noticed… "Gaara…"
"Temari, we won't have time to write accounts once we reach Suna."
He was right. It always took at least a solid week of paper shuffling to catch up after a mission. "Fine! For how long?"
Gaara returned her angry question with an empty stare, but she saw a flicker of curiosity cross his features as he studied her. "As long as it takes."
As they raced toward Konoha, Temari decided to leave all four boys at Konoha's gates. She had traveled to Suna alone before, and nobody needed to read her stupid account of the war.
But Temari's plan altered when she walked down the final bend in a road that had become so very familiar to her over the years. It was hot. The path was dusty. Straight trees stood tall beneath the unflinching sun. In a foolhardy gesture that Temari expected from the Leaf, Konoha's newly-painted gates remained open despite everything that had happened to the village. Welcome to Konoha. We're friendly here. Our ninja boys cry when their friends get hurt, our people treat each other like family, and we'll treat you like family too if you let us. Temari had such a nostalgic feeling of peace that she decided to bathe before sneaking off. She kinda missed talking to the lady who ran the bath house. What was her name again?
As they registered their entry at the booth and Shikaku sent word home of his arrival, Temari smelled food. Grilled food. She decided that, after her bath, she would eat a decent meal too. The barbeque place across from our inn. The restaurant owner knew how much she loved spicy food and always mixed the sauce up extra hot for her...even if it had been months since her last visit.
Then Temari stepped through the gates and realized that the inn was gone. The barbeque place was gone. There were other, newer buildings inhabiting Konoha now, some made of wood and some still little more than sturdy tents, but reality made her stop in the middle of the freshly-smoothed dirt road. It wasn't her home but it made her throat clench anyway: the Konoha she knew no longer existed. This could have happened to Sunagakure if Gaara hadn't sacrificed himself... She forced herself to breathe.
Shikamaru walked right into her.
"What?" he sounded annoyed.
Temari frowned and continued walking. "Pain," she said, and that was enough. He understood. He walked beside her now. Scratched his head.
"Yeah." He looked beyond his upright elbow. "Everyone sure did a lot of work while we were gone though...huh."
Temari followed his gaze. "Where's the inn?"
"Don't worry about that," his father said from ahead of them. "You can stay with us."
Temari felt her eyebrows lift. "I really don't think-"
But Kankuro agreed, Gaara said nothing to contradict him, and Temari was forced to agree too. Anything else would have looked suspicious, so she compressed her lips and tried to ignore how trapped she felt. I'll escape after everyone is asleep...stick to the mission. Stick to the mission...stick to the mission.
But when Shikaku steered her family down a side-road, when he spoke of things like spare rooms and space for Kankuro to properly clean his puppets, when he mentioned a quiet roof where Gaara could think and promised slow games of shogi and good sake, it wasn't long before the general's enticements worked on Temari's willpower like a jutsu. Shikaku had been through this before and he knew exactly what they needed. Besides, Gaara was right. She was more agitated than usual, and it was entirely possible that her agitation had absolutely nothing to do with the lazy idiot walking next to her, nor the healthy dose of battle-heightened sexual panic that Shikamaru currently inspired in her. Maybe she just needed a bath, a real dinner, and a solid night of rest.
Just one night. One night of rest never hurt anyone. One night.
Temari realized her lapse in judgment the moment she slipped off her sandals, unclasped her scroll, and stepped barefoot and weaponless into the Nara home.
The wooden floor was smooth beneath her feet, worn down by generations of footsteps. The house smelled of steamed rice. The sunny living area was so completely removed from the blood-soaked nightmare that occurred somewhere on the road behind them that even General Shikaku seemed transformed. He was smiling. It wasn't a big smile, no bigger than his son's, but it was just...weird. It was so real and understated...something he didn't even seem to think about when he caught sight of his wife.
It reminded Temari of the way Shikamaru looked at her sometimes.
Temari felt nervous. Her dry mouth became drier. Her stomach fluttered like some weak-willed little girl's might. She knew about battles and war, she knew about death and killing, but this whole cozy happy home thing was something entirely different...it was something she'd never had, not even when her mother was still alive.
To make matters worse, it was the first time she saw Shikamaru's bare feet. They were filthy - all of them had filthy feet - but they were even sexier than his damn fingers, and that was just plain messed up and wrong and impossible. She knew that - objectively - his feet looked just as disgusting as Kankuro's did, but she found herself staring at them and studying the shape of his toes anyway. Shit.
There was the initial domestic flurry: Yoshino complaining about the unexpected guests, then apologizing for her rudeness, and then Shikaku kissing his wife in a thorough manner that made everyone uncomfortable, including Yoshino...before she kissed back and Temari wished the floor would open beneath her.
Then there were baths where the uniform of war and the grime of battle were stripped from their bodies. Yoshino slipped a pair of clean, faded clothes into the bathing room for Temari to use because her uniform was beyond recovery. Temari stepped into the borrowed trousers and pulled the loose shirt over her chest, but her first thought was not of gratitude.
I smell like a Nara.
Her anxiety intensified. In battle, she used anxiety to sharpen her mind and the wind she fought with, but Temari couldn't do that here. She took her frustration out on her tangled hair, but when a comb tine snapped against one particular snarl, she knew it wasn't enough. Throwing the comb against the wall did nothing except invite Yoshino to call through the door, "Are you okay?"
At dinner Temari's anxiety became panic.
She was already seated and eating when Shikamaru emerged from his bath and shuffled to the seat across from her. He sat with a barely audible groan and lifted his chopsticks without looking at anyone. Temari could not look away. His uniform was gone: the ponytail, the flak jacket, the bandages, the mesh shirt that extended to his palms. Instead his hair hung loose, jagged, and damp against his shoulders. His wrists were bare, exposed when he lifted his chopsticks to eat and the sleeve of his loose, black shirt slid to his elbow. His clean, naked feet brushed hers for a fraction of a second beneath the table.
Temari forced herself to breathe normally, to continue feeding herself, to participate in the table conversation about nothing that interested her.
But once, just once, Kankuro met Temari's eyes. He said nothing. He didn't need to.
After dinner, Temari was desperate to write her report and get out of Konoha as quickly as possible. That or drink a bottle of sake, but she suspected that alcohol would not improve the situation.
The moment Temari lay her chopsticks across her bowl, she said. "Where are we working? I'll begin immediately."
"There's no rush-" Shikaku began, but Yoshino rose in a swift gesture that sent her chair skidding along the floorboards.
"Let me take you…" Her words were rushed, her expression as composed and polite as that of any dutiful hostess, but entirely out of place on Shikamaru's mother.
Shikaku grunted. He swallowed his mouthful of fried squid. "Then, Shikamaru, you should work on yours too…you two were in the same division."
Yoshino glared at her husband, but he didn't get it, and Shikamaru didn't seem to either. Temari did. Damn, even his mother noticed…and look at her coming to my rescue. I need to get out of here. Now. She felt her cheeks heat in anger not at Yoshino but at herself. She hated her lack of control.
"Oh, man," Shikamaru whined. "We just got home!"
"Let him rest," Yoshino began, but Shikaku glared at his son.
"Stop being such a lazy ass and go write the damn report!"
Yoshino's eyes were apologetic when she looked at Temari, which somehow made everything just a little bit worse. Kankuro was laughing, but it wasn't at Temari for once. Nervous laughter. Everyone was uncomfortable now.
Temari rose, shoulders straight. Get over it, she told herself, and pushed her chair into its proper position. "Well. C'mon, Lazy." She flicked his shoulder as she passed him. She was about to get stuck in a room with him for who knew how long; it was important that she act like herself.
When Yoshino left the study, they were alone.
Why is it still so hot in here? When Temari had mentioned the room's stifling heat, Yoshino opened the garden-side doors and an entire month's trapped heat and air escaped, but the dense warmth lingered even now.
A branch cracked in the woods outside and Temari reached for a fan that wasn't there. Her hand slammed into the bookshelf behind her and scrolls smacked her shoulders from above, but it could have been worse. If she'd had her fan, Temari would have blown a hole through a wall of the house and felled a quarter acre of the forest beyond. Might have solved the heat problem, though.
"Settle down...so damn noisy." Shikamaru sounded perfectly calm. He slouched a careful distance from Temari with one elbow against his father's desk and his chin in his palm. He was frowning at her. "It's just a deer."
"Asshole. I know it was just a deer." Now.
There was no reason for the adrenaline, no reason for the sweating and increased heart rate. Her physiological reaction to this situation of non-reactors was so messed up and stupid Temari didn't know where to begin, though she was pretty clear what the source of her anxiety was. She knew how to behave on the battlefield, on the move, on a mission, but she had no idea how to cope with her over-productive hormones. You can't beat the crap out of something the naked eye can't see...unless you're a Hyuuga or something.
Kankuro's right. This isn't healthy.
She'd only been alone with him for a few minutes and already the sharp bones of his wrists put her on edge. Wrists! Everyone had wrists: bone covered in flesh, flesh dusted with fine strands of hair. Shikamaru's wrists were crisscrossed by faint tan lines, a ghostlike impression of the mesh that usually covered them, and as far as her body was concerned, he might as well have been naked.
Look somewhere else. Shit. No, not the feet… Temari clenched her jaw. Even his damn shadow looked appealing. At least he re-tied his hair…
She heard his toes click against each other in the silence.
"Your toes. Stop that."
He sighed his familiar long-suffering sigh, but obeyed. "Yeah, yeah. You know…you're bitchier than usual today. Started at dinner. I thought you liked curry…"
"Dinner was fine except for the fried squid. I'm just hot."
"Just hot," he echoed. Temari looked away.
She heard him scratch his neck. "You look weird in my mom's clothes."
Bees droned, moving like soldiers among the wildflowers beyond the study's open screen door. They flew home, now. Temari wished she could too.
He sighed. "You know… you could ask her for something different to wear, something other than trousers."
She couldn't explain that it was the smell of the clothes that bothered her, not the style. "Nothing will make it any less hot in this room."
"Sun's almost down. Breeze will pick up then and that'll help. Besides, you already bullied my mom into getting us cold drinks. She'll be back soon."
"I did not bully her."
"You said the room was hot. You keep saying the room is hot."
"So? The room is hot."
"You're from Suna. If you're complaining about the heat…"
"Just…" she began, and then realized she was falling into his trap. This entire stupid conversation about absolutely nothing had been a trap to break the silence. He wasn't openly smirking, but she could see that his eyes were alive again, paying attention, watching her. Damn dangerous expression as far as she was concerned, but she couldn't completely suppress her smile. His smile followed and her body reacted.
"Shut up." She felt breathless.
Now he was smirking.
A soft knock was followed by the gentle slide of the inner screen door. Yoshino entered carrying a tray of fruit, two glasses, and a pitcher of something that tinkled with ice as she moved.
"Apples," Yoshino said. "I'm sorry I don't have anything better. I'll get something different from the store tomorrow. Do you like melon?"
"Yes, but apples are lovely, thank you," Temari told her. Shikamaru just looked annoyed. She wanted to punch him but instead snagged a precise sliver of fruit from the bowl. The apple tasted cool and crisp.
"Oh…my…." She forgot where she was, forgot everything. Distantly, she heard Shikamaru make a noise of annoyance, but all she could think about was how clean and good the slice of apple was. She snagged three more and lost herself in the taste. So much better than dry crackers…
With a small smile, Yoshino overturned one glass and filled it for Temari. Temari drank. She didn't recognize the beverage, but it was at once sweet and sour, and the heat of the room no longer seemed to matter. "Thank you," she said. Smiled.
Yoshino held the empty tray to her chest and bowed.
"Good luck," she said. "Work hard," and she was out the door, closing the screen again.
"Why's she acting all weird?" Shikamaru muttered. He stretched his legs beneath his father's low desk. "But I guess it's all right since she's being nice to you. Usually Mom's a real pain."
"You should show respect for your parents."
Temari frowned. "She's probably acting this way because my brothers and I surprised her by coming and she's uncomfortable." In Suna, people were often intimidated by her brother's position, and she wondered if Yoshino felt this way. Her frown deepened. "Gaara shouldn't have accepted your father's offer."
She could hear her brothers elsewhere in the house. Shikaku had given them an unused room near the back where Kankuro could clean his puppets without fear of ruining anything. Gaara was thanking him for his kindness and talking about the future in his quiet, earnest manner.
"Meh," Shikamaru said. "Since when did you worry about stuff like that anyway? It's weird."
"I always worry about stuff like this," she snapped, but Temari felt a flash of annoyance because she'd let him see another layer of herself. Again. "We should have stayed at the inn..."
"The inn is gone. Remember?"
"Of course I remember, but I'm sure there's a new inn somewhere in town."
He laced his fingers behind his head. He was studying her in a way that she didn't care for. "Yes, but...this is more convenient for everyone, isn't it? You're not being very logical right now."
Meaning: why are you making a fuss and being such a pain? She had his full attention now. This was not what she wanted. If he inquired after her well-being, things were going to get very awkward, and she could see the question forming. It was poised on his tongue. If she knew him as well as she thought, the only reason he didn't speak the question was because he was still busy deciding whether she would kill him for asking it or not.
"We should get started," she snapped. The sooner begun, the sooner finished. "Where're those damn blank notebooks your father was talking about?"
He made a noisy show of rolling onto his knees and crawling to a nearby bookcase. She averted her eyes from the sway of his hips and heard the thwip of a volume plucked from a shelf. He slid it to her and the notebook skidded along the tatami mat in a hush.
"Just write what you remember from the battle, however trivial." Shikaku had told them.
Temari repositioned her cushion. She sat primly at the spare writing desk across from his with her feet extended behind her and her rear seated on her heels. She secured her sleeves so they would not dangle. She lifted her pen.
Shikamaru sat with his head slumped against his hand and a pen lax in his lazy grasp. "I understand why we're doing this - I learned a lot by reading Dad's journals. Kept me and my friends from dying a few times, but what a..." pain.
"Stop complaining and write."
They pushed pens down the page in orderly columns. In the almost-silence, Temari was aware of the others moving through the house. Rhythmic scraping as Kankuro cleaned his puppets. Low-voiced Gaara still talking with Shikaku. Random kitchen noises from Shikamaru's mother as she tidied for the night.
The first stirrings of an evening breeze breathed through the room, easing the heat.
"However trivial..." Shikamaru muttered, but there was a half-smile on his face. That damn smirk. Temari studied him for a moment, taking in the curve of his brow that mimicked the slant of his lips. Just what the hell is he remembering? She knew he wanted her to ask, but he bantered the way he won battles: first the feint, then the thrust. If I ask, then he'll catch me with something unexpected. So what might such a question lead to?
She could feel the vibration of his big toe as it thrummed the leg of her desk.
The barest movement of his eyes showed he was aware of her scrutiny.
Temari faced the half-empty page before her. "I don't want to know."
The details she remembered most from the battle were things she couldn't write down, things that didn't matter. The pride she felt when Gaara spoke to the joint army before the battle began. Then, later, the tangle of emotions felt when she glimpsed her resurrected father, emotions long ago tucked into memory. Hatred, frustration, pain. This time she was older and knew that fathers should not train their children to be weapons. This time she felt anger too.
The worst part: after Gaara's kidnapping a small piece of her had hoped that every evil thing her father ever did had been done because someone else controlled him. Until she saw the former Kazekage in battle, there had been a chance for that…there had still been a small, slim chance that he hadn't manipulated her favorite uncle into attacking her terrifying but innocent and lonely baby brother…a chance that her father had never intended to betray the Leaf….
"You might as well write it down," Shikamaru commented, but he wasn't smirking. The bored look was gone from his eyes and the concern in the shadows beneath them made her breath hitch. She felt warmth start in her belly and forced it to stay there, deep down. His simple words were almost as dangerous as a direct question about her well-being.
She wrote the Kanji for father.
"Just shut up and work," she told him.
Late that night, she could not go on. They worked by lamplight now, and the shadows of a hundred moths danced against their pages. She was only half-way through her account of the first big skirmish because she'd felt a need to start with the Kage Summit. Wars started when they were declared, before the first exchange of blows. And then she decided to back-up a little further, because she had advice about taking journeys with stupid people: Be sure your idiot brother doesn't spend all of his pre-trip preparation time fondling puppets instead of remembering to pack clothes suitable for the destination. It was important to prepare for every eventuality. And remember to worry first about yourself because you can't save your friends if you're dead.
"Dammit," she muttered. "If my children or my children's children need to read this, then what the hell were we doing out there getting our asses kicked and watching our friends die? Why risk everything…?" She felt tired, so very tired. Will we have to fight this war all over again? Will we survive next time?
She rubbed her eyes.
But he was calm. So damn calm. "Maybe they'll just want a story. Maybe they'll want to understand more about us." He shrugged. "They won't necessarily need to read these accounts to learn about war; maybe what we write will keep future shinobi from seeking war. Hell, I spent a whole week searching through my dad's old journals till I found out how he got those scars on his face."
Temari scoffed. Seemed like a lot of effort for Shikamaru just to uncover a secret. Probably did it to avoid doing something else. "Couldn't you just ask him?" His expression said that he could not, and Temari paused, drawn in despite her best efforts. "How did he get them?"
But Shikamaru was writing again. He had her full attention now and her anger had abated. "There are things we can't talk about…that's what I learned. I'll show you that journal sometime but, anyhow. That's why writing shit down is useful. Some of this stuff you just can't say face to face because it's too troublesome."
His fist was scrunched against his forehead and his brows were lowered in concentration. He was scowling at the words upon the page, each character formed with exceptional precision and care. She hadn't noticed his careful pen strokes before. They weren't like him at all. Temari blinked.
"Since when did you have legible handwriting?" It used to take her an hour and a second-opinion to translate his single-sentence missives.
His pen kept moving. "No use writing this troublesome thing if nobody can read it."
Logically sound, as expected of him. Temari felt a smile pull at her lips; her mood shifted from grim to something normal. She couldn't help herself. It was these little, insignificant, unexpected things that made him so appealing to her. Besides, she'd figured out long ago that "troublesome" sometimes meant he was interested and cared about the results of his efforts. He just didn't want to appear eager.
She'd heard rumors that he failed his classes because he was too lazy to move his pencil, so she'd seen right through his single-sentence messages. The moment she'd known the world had gone to hell, Shikamaru's message to her had contained only three words: Asuma is dead. Everyone in Suna had known of Asuma's death by then, so she'd known that wasn't his point. He'd needed to tell her, and it explained the rest of the message, written in someone else's hand and heavily encoded: The Akatsuki are on the move again. Leaf sent two teams. Have you heard from the other Kages yet? Nothing here. Coordinates enclosed.
Temari had known right away that Shikamaru was on one of those teams, and she had known it was too late to rush there. All she could do was wait. Kankuro switched guard duties with her so that she could spend the day watching the horizon for a bird from Konoha. It was the day Temari realized that Kankuro understood everything despite his incessant teasing. Thinking about it now, she wondered if all of Kankuro's pushing and joking wasn't about getting things out of her system at all...
Temari looked at Shikamaru's bowed head and the shadow it cast on the page before him. She saw her name and the words surrounding it: events that were now as much a part of their history as the day she'd almost had to kill him and the day she'd saved his ass and the day she'd actually cried for a man who hadn't really seemed like a man at all when she first met him.
"Refill?" she asked, lifting the nearly-empty pitcher.
He didn't look up. Kept writing this new piece of their history together. "Yeah."
It didn't happen that day. It happened the next day, and they didn't see it coming.
One moment, they were writing detailed battle reports in Shikaku's office and the next they were snug and tangled within the close darkness of Kuroan's belly - inside one of Kankuro's puppets. Afterwards, neither of them could quite figure out what had happened, though Temari suspected her lack of attention was due to the very faint, casual pressure of Shikamaru's bare foot against her bare knee during the fifteen minutes prior to their capture. She had no idea what his excuse was. He never did say.
The puppet didn't reek of gore the way it usually did: it smelled sterile, clean, freshly varnished. In the darkness Temari pushed Shikamaru from her, embarrassed by the places where their bodies connected, too numerous and awkward to consider though a whole lot of him was squashed against her chest. He reacted with a grunt, but there wasn't far for him to go; his skull cracked against Kuroan's inner ribs.
"Dammit, Temari! Don't take it out on me. Not like this is my fault."
She continued to struggle until they were in a somewhat less awkward position, but her face was hot. She was sweating and breathing hard. Swearing. He didn't seem to be much better off. Even through their clothing, his arms were damp against hers and the air within the puppet felt humid. Heat and sweat. Temari thought she might suffocate, though she knew this was impossible given the puppet's joints and the tiny pinpricks of light that penetrated the darkness…not enough to illuminate, but enough to assure her that fresh air was possible.
"We have to calm down," he said. "It's too hot…"
"I know!" The varnish and heat made her dizzy.
She wondered how long Kankuro had been planning this, though it was possible his scheme was a recent invention, an idea hatched while cleaning puppets the previous night. It was never good when Kankuro had time to think. She could imagine him calculating, seeking some way to permanently win their old argument about Shikamaru. Devious bastard. A clear mental picture came to her: Kankuro laughing to himself as he stripped and sanded and rubbed puppet bits all through the previous night. The image made Temari bare her teeth.
"Kankuro!" Her fist connected with Kuroan's belly to no effect. "Let us out of here, you grinning bastard!"
"He's gone," Shikamaru stated calmly. "And you really do need to calm , he just captured us. You think yelling at him is going to change his mind?" He paused, inhaled. "I smell...mmm. Hmm. That's interesting." He paused again and annoyance infiltrated his tone. "Ugh, and varnish. It's clean in here, I guess. He had this pretty well planned out, didn't he?"
"That or he concocted the plan while cleaning puppets last night. He tends to act rather quickly on his ideas…."
"Why this, I wonder…"
"Don't wonder. It's just because he was bored," she snapped.
Shikamaru shifted, and she felt her left breast press against his bicep. His firm bicep. Oh...shit. She jerked from him and banged her head.
"Dammit...there is not enough room in here."
"So when did you start wearing perfume?"
So that's what he thought was interesting. "It's not perfume; it's something your mother gave me."
Temari had used it despite reservations at consuming a precious luxury and suspicions of her hostess's intentions. Still, Temari wanted to cover the Nara smell and she thought it would help. Her efforts were useless now that they sat bicep to firm bicep, thigh to...oh, shit...thigh, closer within Kuroan than they were when seated at their desks.
There wasn't enough light to see anything clearly, but she could hear the familiar, moist sound of Shikamaru's mouth parting in that small, slanting smile of his and the slight, "heh," that was more a breath than a word or a laugh. Her heart fluttered. Traitor. "Damn woman."
"Don't smirk at me."
"You can't even see me."
"I don't need light to know you're smirking at me. Just shut up and use that clever mind of yours to get us out of here."
He sighed. "Oh, man…you're always so pushy."
She sensed his hand reach toward her in the darkness.
"Touch me and die."
"Geeze. I'm not going to touch you...just get more comfortable so I can think." He braced a hand against the wall directly above her head and then shifted positions, easing his legs over hers and moving so that the two of them sat at a right angle from each other - Temari against Kuroan's spine and Shikamaru against the puppet's ribs. His legs arched over hers, and there was some squashing as Temari lowered and curved her legs to fit beneath his. Her legs were trapped, but that didn't matter. She felt able to breathe again.
"That better?" he asked.
She made a noise of affirmation. His thighs pressed against her shins, which was…different, but there was air between them. She reached to roll the hem of her trousers and heard him do the same with his shirt.
"Well this isn't about the reports." He sighed. "Oh, man. We're never going to finish those damn things."
"Shikamaru…don't over-think this. Kankuro was just bored. He'll let us out when he's had his fun."
"Heh." He wasn't convinced. If she pushed the issue any further, he would guess everything, so she ignored him and grabbed for the first thing she could think of.
"What were you smirking about yesterday? Something you couldn't write down?"
He didn't even pause to recall the moment.
"I was thinking about how annoyed I was when I found out you were in my division."
Temari felt as though he'd slapped her. The relief she'd felt when they were placed in the same division, when she'd known that she might be around to protect him if his brain failed and he over-stepped, or if he fell apart, or if he couldn't keep it together to begin with, when she'd known that she might get to watch that sexy brain of his at work again, had been a relief strong enough to clear her mind and gather every shred of courage she possessed.
"Annoyed?" Temari was pleased with the control she kept over her voice.
"Well..." The word was about six syllables long and included sounds that didn't belong to the word at all. She felt him shift and heard the scritch-scritch of his hand on his neck. He was covering something.
"Do go on."
He vented an explosive sigh and breathed, "Trousers. Do you have any idea how distracting they are on a curvy woman like you? It took me a week to get used to the robes from the last time I saw you..." His sigh was extended. "What a..." pain.
Temari was glad for the darkness because there was time to recover from something like that when no one could see your face. The…hell? Did Kankuro poison him with truth serum or something? Maybe it was the heat.
"Trousers were part of the uniform everyone put on," she said, neutral. "What did you expect me to wear?"
"I know it was the uniform…" He sounded annoyed. This pleased her far more than it should have. She didn't care.
"Attraction is a normal part of a shinobi's life. It's natural to be attracted to your friend. Why are you embarrassed?" She was starting to feel in control of the situation again.
"I know, I know...it was just-" another explosive sigh "-so damn unexpected."
"What was?" She was a little offended. This was the first time he'd been attracted to her? No, it wasn't that...
"Fine. You want to know? It was your ass, okay? It was…just…right there. All of it. Every little…everything." He sounded exasperated. "Made it pretty damn hard for me to concentrate on saving it."
Temari had to squeeze her lips together. She knew that even the slightest hint of a smile would be heard in the complete darkness of Kuroan's belly, and the laughter she felt bubbling inside was out of the question. When she'd composed herself she said, "I see."
"Absolutely nothing left to the imagination," he muttered.
"Good to know," but the words came out a bit breathless despite everything. "Next time I'll wear a cape to cover the…er...everything…"
"Heh. The next time I see you, you're going to be troublesome about this, aren't you?"
"As your elder, I feel obligated to improve your skills as a ninja."
"You're evil." His tone said that he didn't mind, and they lapsed into a comfortable silence. It shouldn't have been comfortable at all, but it was.
But when he spoke again, there was only the faintest touch of humor to his voice, and she felt the mood shift in the darkness. He had remembered something. "So what about you? What were you unable to write down...?" And then he spoke the words she'd hoped Shikamaru would never say to her in a tone of voice that unhinged Temari even when he said normal things like "Hello" and "Troublesome woman":
"Are you okay?"
Temari leaned against Kuroan's spine and exhaled. Inhaled. Touched her chest. Kankuro's right. I can't keep doing this. She couldn't let whatever this was between them remain unresolved. It was just too damn painful. This had nothing to do with post-battle stress at all...
She was aware that she'd been silent for a while.
"Look. You've figured out why we're in here, haven't you? You're not stupid…."
"Whatever it is, this is between you and Kankuro and it's no idle prank."
"Except...if this were only between you two, then I wouldn't be here as well, would I? And he wouldn't have left, either." Yeah, it's about us. Get to the point. Or are you there yet? I thought you were quicker than this.
She heard the moment when he figured it out, when the details made sense. Everything was exposed and plain in the darkness: the parting of lips, the slight change in breathing, the tension in his thighs where they touched her shins.
"…huh…" He didn't say anything else.
Temari pushed her sleeves up her arms. It was getting hot again. A bead of sweat rolled down her lower back.
"Look. After a fight or something stressful like that war, I can't suppress my emotions the way I can on the battlefield. And I know that's good. That's how it's supposed to be or you turn into some mindless killer who doesn't care about people, and I never want to be like that again."
Temari turned toward him, shifting because her legs were falling asleep.
"So…Kankuro wants you to be like that…?"
She sighed. "No, but he's got this stupid idea-"
"-this was definitely a dumb idea..."
She wiped her neck with a corner of her sleeve. Everything was sweaty, now. "Kankuro seems to think that if I don't have sex with you I will turn into a mindless killer." She thought about the broken comb in the bathroom and the wall she would have demolished if she'd had her fan on her. Come to think of it, Shikaku could have been badly hurt the other night too... "Maybe he's right, but he does not understand our relationship. Casual sex with us isn't an option anymore, and I can't force myself on you and then expect our friendship to remain intact. Besides, you deserve better than that. Hell, I do too." She tried to laugh. "We pretend we don't care, but we're the sort who actually give a shit about how other people think, you know?"
She was trying to deflect the tension, to turn this into just a casual, friendly discussion, but his silence unnerved her.
Again she tried to laugh it off. "Yeah, you know. You were attracted to my ass. For me it's always been your fingers…but that seems to extend to your wrists this time. I don't know…the bone structure or…I really have no idea. Dead sexy. Anyway, I'm fine when we're in the middle of a fight, but as soon as it's over...boom! I start noticing the damn tan lines on your wrists." She fanned herself and muttered, "Kankuro finds this all extremely amusing."
Shikamaru moved at last; Temari heard the brush of his ponytail against Kuroan's ribs as he leaned back. And then she heard his smirk.
She exhaled in relief. Good. He wasn't going to be a baby about it.
"I thought shinobi undergo extensive emotional training and that attraction is just a normal part of the shinobi life."
She felt a smile pull at her lips. "Just because I had extensive emotional training doesn't make me very good at suppressing everything. I'm just better at hiding and controlling my emotions than you are." She paused. "Suppression only really counts in the middle of a battle, and you suck at it if you were distracted by my...assets."
"Heh. You're right, though."
"Of course I am."
"Casual isn't going to work for us."
She pretended she didn't care. "At least you have sense. I like that about you, Shikamaru. Everyone else only sees two or three sides of an issue, but you-"
He cut her off. "So far I've come up with about 200 scenarios where you and I don't work, and about 200 where we do. I'm sure I could come up with more, too."
"Well…I didn't say they were all good. There's the scenario where you actually turn out to be one of the Pains and another where your entire existence has been one massive genjutsu inflicted on me by my mother because she hates me. And there's the one where everything works out perfectly without a single problem because we can travel instantly from one village to another…and one where the villages are about a five minute walk apart."
"There's the yellow flash," she suggested, bemused. His in-depth analysis seemed much, much more like the idle daydreams she'd been entertaining lately and she was glad that he could apply himself to something so ridiculous. "Also, we could both swear loyalty to some animal and meet up outside of space and time. I know this weasel with an eye-patch..."
"Heh...I hadn't thought of that, but I thought of the flash - that's in one of the scenarios where everything works… Anyhow. My point being that there's no reason we shouldn't try. If we wanted to. I mean…I completely understand what you're saying about the post-battle feeling alive and whatnot. The only reason I hadn't tried anything on you yet is that I was pretty sure you'd kill me."
"You're afraid of me."
"Woman, I'm no idiot. Of course I'm afraid of you. Your ass alone just about got me killed back there."
"I'm definitely wearing my poncho next time..."
He laughed. "Look. If we want...I'm not the only one here capable of thinking through a tricky situation. It might be hell for a while…you've got a village to re-establish before you can leave Gaara, and I get that. And my friends need me here...I don't think I can leave them until I know everyone is safe. I don't even know where we fit best, or how it would work exactly - and that's so just damn weird and new for me, but…"
"But it wouldn't have to be a random fling."
He sighed. "No. Seriously…a random fling? That's troublesome no matter who it is. You never know if a chick is going to get all clingy and weird and manipulative…even if she claimed a fling was fine. I let one of those chicks kiss me once, just a kiss, and..." He sighed. "What a pain."
Temari shifted her legs again, inching closer. "Shut up."
"Hey…but you're not a girl. How come you're getting all mad now? Wait. That's not what I meant…of course you're a girl, but you'd never be like that..."
"You sound a little bit, I don't know...afraid right now." Flustered. She hadn't seen that side of him for a long time. He backed against Kuroan's ribs, stiff, and she felt a bit predatory as she moved toward him.
Because there wasn't light to find what she wanted directly, Temari put a hand against his shoulder and walked her fingers down to his wrists in a slow dance that was at once teasing and serious. He stopped babbling and by the time her fingers reached his wrist he had relaxed too.
"Heh. Wrists. You're seriously the most demented woman I've ever…" That didn't stop him from shivering when she slid a thumb over his wrist bone. "...uh..." She could feel the wrist hairs beneath her fingers lifting. Goosebumps. What an amateur. She grinned.
"See?" Maybe the purr was over the top. It amused him, though….
"Mm…yeah." He inhaled. Exhaled. "You're on to something, there…wrists."
"Do you know why my brother thinks we should be together?"
"Because he wants your happiness?" His tone said what he thought of this theory.
"Heh. No. He said we should be together because we're both hot."
He laughed. "This is no doubt why he locked us in something this small - make it so we can't run away from each other, and then make it so we can't get too close either. You know...if he really thinks you need to get laid, he had to know it's not happening in here. Maybe this was his way of acknowledging your point."
"Yeah, I don't think so. I'm afraid this is the part where that asshole is just a stupid little brother annoying the crap out of his older and much more mature sister."
"Who's hot." He was laughing again.
She drew closer and his laughter died. She heard the brush of his ponytail as he turned his head toward her. She could feel his breath upon her face; it was so hot in the puppet by now that his breath felt cool against her cheeks.
It took a few tries to find his lips in the darkness, but that was part of the fun. His head kept moving, and she didn't know if he was trying to help her or just turning the whole thing into a game, but when she at last pressed her lips to his - How could a man's lips be that soft? - the crash of sensation and emotion overwhelmed her, and it seemed to overwhelm him too.
He was articulate against her mouth. "Oh...man."
She parted her lips and he made a soft noise of discovery when her tongue found his - a sound that she knew meant he had encountered something surprising, baffling, entertaining, and troublesome in the way he liked best. The intensity he returned to her then…well, even after fighting beside him, she hadn't known Lazy was capable of that.
She didn't expect kissing to be so confusing in total darkness, but it was. They had to breathe, but when her lips withdrew for those snatched moments, she never knew what they would find next: his smooth chin, the side of his nose, his jaw. His lips brushed the soft lobe of her ear, his tongue dragged against her neck. She tasted the metal tang of his earring post and the salty sweat that was everywhere else. Neither one of them seemed capable of pacing or common sense. They bumped noses and teeth and with each sensory moment Temari felt more out of control than the moment before.
Her breasts were crushed against his arm, his arm still trapped by her hand upon his wrist. When she released him and used her fingers to hold his head steady so that she could find his lips again, he reached his arms around her and then groaned as she fell against him. She ignored the pulled muscle in her side from the awkward angle.
"Oh...this is...why are you so good at this?...I don't...Temari...this isn't fair..."
"Are you complaining?"
She caught his wrist, put his hand somewhere in the vicinity of her ribs, and said, "Then stop talking. Just…" She patted his hand. "Anything. It's not like we can do much else in here."
And then his hands were on her, sliding until they found her hips and then gliding down, down, down, as unhurried as a lazy cloud and she knew instinctively that his slowness spoke of self-mocking reverence. She could feel it in the way he grinned as they kissed, in the way even his tongue seemed to mock himself in its deliberate hesitations against hers. She'd expected him to be grabby here and slow with everything else, but he was surprising her a lot lately. She was amused. Will of Fire…apparently.
"Is my ass everything you'd hoped?"
She felt his smile broaden. "Not sure yet…" His hand slid higher now, slipping under the hem of her shirt. He traced the edge of her waistband using his pinkie and the speed of a slug; she felt a wave of cold goose bumps rise despite the flood of heat she felt everywhere else. "Let's see…" His pinkie nudged lower, dipping beneath her waistband. She felt her chest quiver with each strong, excited pulse of her heart.
But the pulled muscle in Temari's side was unbearable now, and her knees ached from Kuroan's hard floor, and besides that the heat was already well beyond what her swimming, spinning head could tolerate...and things were about to get much, much worse if he kept going.
"Sorry," she said, pulling away. "Side-cramp…" She'd hope to ease back into her former position, but her thighs were trembling from the effort of supporting her in the heat, and she collapsed against Kuroan's spine instead. Panting. "Damn..." She exhaled and laughed a little. "My, my, Lazy..."
"That's really…" He sighed. "Mean."
"I know." Her bangs dripped stinging sweat into her eyes and she blew at them. Blinked the sweat away. It didn't help. "I'm just a mean person."
She heard his arm moving and was surprised when she felt his hand grasp hers. "I know you want everyone to think so. My dad said something about women like you once." She heard him smile. "Right before you saved my ass, actually, and you showed me he was right."
"About tough chicks showing a kind side to the men they like."
She laughed, fanning herself with one hand and tugging at her shirt with the other. "You're kidding, right? I was a real bitch to you that day. I didn't even like you then. Yet. Well...I sort of did. You were interesting."
"Heh. Yeah, but you smiled…and then you sat with me even though you didn't have any reason to."
"I was bored," she lied, amused.
"Yeah, well, I told myself I wouldn't get drawn into another battle with you." His fingers played with hers and he sighed. "What a pain…you won again."
"That was a draw. So's this."
"No, I'm pretty sure you won just now."
She groaned. "Shit. Shikamaru...what now? What are we going to do about this…?" She didn't want to think about how complicated life was about to become. Then again…maybe it wouldn't be. Except... "You can't even think your way out of a puppet."
"I'm sure I could...I just didn't feel like thinking my way out of this damn thing. Touching your boobs kinda completely zapped my motivation."
He shifted, moving his legs and body until he sat beside her.
"My ass is so numb right now. How long is your idiot brother keeping us locked up in here, anyway?"
"No idea." She experimented…leaned against him to feel the smooth, slightly damp fabric of his shirt against her cheek. Felt good. He leaned his head against the top of hers and her fingers played with his wrists while his skimmed her hips. "Don't really care anymore…"
"I see I'm rubbing off on you…" He reached his other hand to her face…his fingers grazed her lips before reaching to smooth her sweaty forehead. "Thank you, by the way."
"After Asuma died…I guess it wasn't really a letter. I don't know what you call our notes…missives?"
"Oh. That." When word of Shikamaru's safety finally arrived, it was a while before she could compose a suitably vague reply in response to his...letter. One that no one else in the cryptology department would understand. He had written, "Asuma is dead." She wrote back, "You aren't."
"Well…" she said. She wanted to keep it light but couldn't while remembering the fear she'd felt that day, the fear she hadn't allowed herself to feel as they fought on the battlefield. Levity was impossible. Temari's throat felt tight. "Well," she said again. "You were alive…what else was there to say?"
"You really confused the hell out of the cryptology depart-"
He broke off when she kissed his cheek. She didn't cry, because that wasn't her way, but she came close when his hand clutched hers. "You know…I was glad then, but I'm even more relieved now. That was...terrifying." She swallowed.
"Temari." His kisses fell slowly: one lingering on her temple, and then another soft moment when his lips met the apple of her cheek, and another that was more of a nuzzle against her jaw. "Yeah. For me too." His forehead touched hers. "Terrifying, but..." He kissed her again, on the mouth this time. "I was a better..." again, and with each pause "...soldier because you were...there..." And again, but deeper this time, so sincere and slow that her chest ached from it. This was different from anything she'd experienced with anyone else before, and it was more effort than she'd imagined from him. The speed was about right. Better than right. I could do this for hours...
"Me too..." she mumbled.
"Mmm...better put that...in the report..."
They kissed like that, slow and lazy and sweet and perfectly suited to their prison.
When Kankuro let them out later, the first thing Temari did was race to the bathroom. Nature dealt with, the second thing she did was stare at herself in the mirror and wonder if there was anything she could do about her face. The hair, the lips, the blotchy skin. She didn't usually care about that sort of thing, but...
Not like they don't know what we were up to. She straightened her hair at least.
Then she hunted down her brother.
Kankuro was outside, leaning against a tree, watching deer. He didn't even have the grace to look frightened or to look her direction at all.
"Don't say I don't love my mean, scary sister."
If he'd said it with his stupid grin or any other tone of voice, she might have yelled at him, but he was sober. Serious.
She sighed and leaned beside him against the tree. "Idiot."
"How do you feel?"
The deer wandered toward the woods, stepping on twigs and crashing through bracken, but Temari felt no trace of anxiety. Her ninja skills were still sharp - she knew that Gaara was on the roof writing his report and she could sense Shikaku and Shikamaru watching them from the study. She could hear Yoshino humming somewhere deep within the house, and construction noise from the village, but not even the sound of Yoshino dropping a pan in the kitchen made Temari want to scythe the house with wind.
"Better." She nudged his foot with hers. "I'll kill you if you do that again but...thanks, you crazy jerk."
He shrugged. "Eh. You're welcome."
Shikamaru's theory returned to her and, now that she saw her brother, it sounded a lot less crazy. "You...wait. Were you actually respecting my wishes with that whole thing?"
He grinned this time. "Yup. You said random sex wouldn't work for you. Took me a while to figure out how to make sure that wasn't a side-effect. I actually had to alter Kuroan's dimensions a little bit, just to be on the safe side. So...how did that go for you."
Temari whistled. "Wow, you're evil."
He lifted a finger. "No. I'm literal."
She laughed. "I am definitely going to kill you."
She heard footsteps in the grass and turned. It was Shikamaru. "No," he said, one eyebrow lifted. "You're going to thank him nicely and come inside." He grabbed her hand. "Time for dinner..." He pulled her three steps away from Kankuro and murmured loud enough for her brother to hear, "We'll plan our counterattack later."