Please see first chapter for disclaimer, rating, warnings, pairings, etc.
Special Thanks: goes out to rao hyuga 18, McKazekage, Guest, and greetingsfrommaars for all your wonderful, encouraging reviews! Also thanks to everyone who has added this story to their favorites and alert lists - you all encourage me so much, too!
Author's Note: Sorry there was not a chapter earlier in the week, as per my usual update schedule, but my grandmother is in poor health, and since this week has been a little rocky on that front I just haven't had the time or energy to update before now. Thank you so much for your patience, and I hope this chapter was worth the wait and you enjoy it!
Temari had never believed in luck: Thank goodness, or she'd blame her current situation on a particularly nasty string of bad (rotten, awful, horrendous) luck. It had been a month since their explosive sparring match, a miserable marching onward of interminable days which left a sour taste in Temari's mouth and a constant headache throbbing behind her eyes. As she'd expected, Gaara sent her out with Itachi on every single one of the Uchiha's assigned missions, claiming they worked well together.
Well, sure, they got the job done. They both had nearly impeccable mission success stats. They both fought with equal, nearly unparalleled skill. But they couldn't agree on anything! Had her little brother completely lost his mind?
Things started off simply with a couple of escort missions, just quick two or three day jobs. Then they'd been sent to the Land of Grass to nab a rogue ninja. After that came the trip to Tea Country, where they met with the daimyo and then spent three straight days trying to wash the scent of a thousand teas from their skin and clothes, even though every meal introduced yet another of the bounty they'd been sent back with.
Now Temari found herself in the middle of the Land of Waves, in the dead of winter, on her and Itachi's most dangerous mission yet. The encoded instructions Gaara had sent with her nearly burned a hole through her pocket into her skin, leaving her feeling jumpy.
This was too much like another mission she'd been on, one that went horribly, horribly wrong.
Miserable, she tucked herself a little deeper into the tangle of dead foliage shielding her from casual passersby, trying to blow as much warm air into her freezing palms as she could - quietly. Itachi had been gone for an hour already, and though they'd both agreed it would take a while to scout out their target, she hadn't thought it would take this long.
I knew it. I should have gone. Why did I let him talk me into staying here? She checked to make sure no one was within earshot before shifting position, wincing as circulation returned to her numb left foot. I'm from the desert! I don't handle cold or wet well. At all. Remember? Though Temari's hiding place hid her well from curious eyes, it did absolutely nothing to shield her from the icy raindrops weeping from above. She hated many things, but she despised only a few more than the cold and the wet.
Right as her nose started to drip for the hundredth time (literally - she'd been counting), Itachi appeared around the curve in the road. He whistled softly, low-high-low, and turned his gaze in her direction as she stumbled out of her hiding place.
"Took you long enough," she groused. Tucking her hands under her arms in attempt to warm them, she studied his remote expression. "Well?"
"I think they're expecting us. They've got guards patrolling the wall, and once I got past those, I saw even more posted around the mansion. The place is a fortress, though one which is, thankfully, not impenetrable." Most unfairly Itachi seemed unaffected by the cold except for some red lining his cheekbones and highlighting the tip of his nose.
The sound of voices from around the curve jerked Temari's attention in that direction. She quickly turned to step to the side of the road, out of the way of the oncoming traffic. But before she could, Itachi snatched up her hand, drawing it through the crook of his arm. He settled his free hand over hers, the warmth of his palm engulfing her own icy fingers.
"We belong here," he murmured. Affixing an easy smile on his (cursedly handsome) features, Itachi drew her forward, keeping his head turned toward her even as he watched the curve of the road out of the corners of his sharp dark eyes.
No, we don't belong here, Temari thought bitterly. Especially me. But she didn't voice the words, instead forcing a light smile onto her own face as she unwillingly followed his lead.
A group of people around their own age, perhaps a year or two younger, appeared around the corner. Caught up in their own conversation and laughter, they ignored the couple keeping to the opposite side of the road as they stumbled on, singing in horribly off-key, drunken tones.
Temari relaxed when their voices finally faded into the distance. Assured no stragglers were coming, she yanked her arm from Itachi's loose grip, tucking her hands once again under her arms. "It's almost dark," she observed. Her breath fogged in front of her lips as the temperature dropped a few more degrees. And she thought it'd been cold before!
"Hn. Seems they got started - and finished up - a little early." Itachi shook out his arms and flexed his fingers a few times, his expression no longer one of a smitten lover but a focused ninja. With full darkness encroaching, everyone had returned to their homes and settled in for the night in front of cheery fires, warm cups of tea, and steaming bowls of soup.
She'd give her left arm and a leg for the same, even if only for a few minutes. But it was not to be - at least not until much later. First they had to complete their mission - and then get away unnoticed.
They slipped through the already-darkened streets, keeping to the shadows whenever possible. Like wraiths in the night, they passed by without sound or notice. Temari kept her gaze on the back of Itachi's head, knowing he moved with the confidence of one familiar with his way. After all, he'd been the one to scout out the mansion earlier, scoping out this same route. As night embraced sky, the pair arrived at the top of the tallest hill overlooking the tiny seaside village. A massive stone wall hid the mansion from view, but Temari could almost feel it there.
"Time to do this?" She breathed the words through her half-frozen lips, hoping the cold wouldn't hinder her movements. They would need to move fast once they committed themselves to their plan of action.
"Hn." Itachi motioned for her to follow, leading her in a wide circle around the wall to the point where he'd slipped in earlier. Crouching at the base of the wall, he silently counted down with his fingers, then formed a stirrup for Temari to place her foot into so he could hoist her up. When she straddled the wall, she held on with the strength of her legs and reached down to give Itachi a hand up. Neither of them wanted to use any equipment which could leave marks on the wall - ones which could be traced later, if anything went wrong.
Once on the ground again, this time on the inside of the wall, they made their way across the brown lawn in a crouch, hurrying toward the house. The floodlights set high on the walls of the mansion spilled cold white light across the ground, but there were enough statues and dormant shrubs to provide shadows in which they could hide.
They encountered the first guard when they reached the wraparound porch. Temari pulled a senbon from the pouch at her waist, carefully took aim, then gave it a toss. The thin projectile entered the man's rather scrawny neck, neatly nicking his jugular. He only uttered a single muffled groan before dropping.
"Meet you back at the wall in five minutes," Itachi whispered close to her ear. Temari shivered, even though his warm breath had thawed some of the chill encasing her skin, if only briefly.
She nodded, waiting until he'd slipped under the porch before she headed for the nearest tree. Keeping an eye and ear open for any trouble, she nimbly scurried up the trunk, briefly testing each branch before fully resting her weight upon it. The last thing she needed was to tumble out of the thing, break her neck, and sound off an alarm.
The top branches lined up perfectly with the roof, and it was no problem for Temari to step from one to the other. Staying low so her profile wouldn't show against the clear night sky, lit brightly by the moon and stars, she made her way swiftly along, planting explosives as she went. Under her breath, she continued counting down from three-hundred, hurrying but at the same time very precise in her movements.
When she reached her starting point again, Temari peered over the roof-
-Jerked her head back, biting back a curse when she realized a guard stood right beneath her. He leaned casually against the tree, the glowing butt of his cigarette the only thing giving away his presence-
-Spang in the middle of her escape route.
Don't panic. Closing her eyes, Temari drew in a deep breath, ignoring the stink of smoke as she inhaled. One-hundred-seventy-four...
Itachi was probably already on his way back toward the wall. If he got there and didn't find her there, would he think her simply slow in setting her charges and wait a few extra seconds? Or would he assume she'd run into deeper trouble and backtrack toward the mansion looking for her? But as soon as he cleared the porch, he would have activated his own charges. Hers weren't activated yet, since she hadn't come off the roof. If the ones below blew while she was stuck in place...
She shivered, her chill having nothing to do with the nip in the air. Think, Temari. You've wiggled out of tight spots before.
Sliding an eye over the edge again, Temari peered down at the guard. His cigarette winked at her again through the branches - every single one of them barriers between her and him. Impossible to jump down off the roof and onto him, plus he would undoubtedly hear her if she tried to climb down. There were no other trees close enough to the house for her to utilize for her exit strategy, either. As long as the guard held his position, Temari was trapped on the roof.
One-hundred-fifteen. She could make her way farther along the roof, then get him with a well-aimed senbon or kunai. But he stood in the shadows, the closest circle of light from the wall resting several dozen footsteps away. She couldn't guarantee a solid hit even if she tried. She also couldn't afford to sit still and wait for him to move, either. She needed to make a decision (one-hundred-one), and get off the roof - fast.
A muffled cough from below brought her eye over the edge of the roof again. The red tip of the cigarette moved forward slightly, away from the trunk. She heard the crunch of dead leaves as the smoker took two - three - four steps forward.
Just far enough to clear him from the branches' cover.
Ninety. Grinning savagely, Temari withdrew a kunai from the holster strapped to her leg, crouched on the edge of the roof, took a deep breath, then jumped.
Her aim had been slightly off, she realized as her hand just brushed his shoulder on the way down, but it didn't deter her. Before he could fully recover from his surprise - which, thankfully, made him gasp in a throat-full of smoke and kept him from shouting an alarm - Temari came smoothly out of her shoulder roll onto her feet and easily struck him across the throat with her kunai.
He dropped soundlessly, eyes wide with shock. Temari stepped forward and crushed out his cigarette with the toe of her boot, snurling her nose at the acrid smell of the smoke curling off it. Don't you know those things will kill you?
Returning the kunai to her holster, Temari pulled out her detonator and adjusted the time on it. Seventy-three. Stuffing it into her pocket, she raced back across the lawn, darting from shadow to shadow, knowing she needed to get over the wall before the first charge went off. She was cutting it terribly close, but as long as she didn't run into any more trouble, she knew she would make it.
Fifty-four. She was almost to the wall. A quick glance upwards showed an empty top, but she knew it wouldn't be for too much longer.
A shout from behind her, in the direction of the house, sounded the alarm she'd hoped wouldn't be raised. Someone must have found one of the guards she'd killed - or, perhaps, one Itachi had had to eliminate?
Thirty-one. She took comfort in the fact they wouldn't have time to disarm the charges, even if they were found. Hopefully the guards would think the intruders had made their way into the house, looking to steal instead of destroy, and wouldn't even find the explosives.
She reached the wall, letting out her breath as she flattened her back against it. A quick glance to her left, then her right, showed she was alone. Was she the first one back after all? A prickle of unease shot along the base of her neck. Itachi? Had the shout been to summon help to subdue him? Was he even now being taken into the very house which would blow in fewer than twenty seconds?
Temari's hand went instinctively to her pocket. She knew she was still close enough to stop the timers on the charges on the roof with a press of a button. But that would do no good if Itachi had been able to set his before being captured...
Tilting her head, she shot a quick glance to the top of the wall. She could scale it and leave, save herself. There was time. But could she really leave Itachi - as much as she disliked him - to die?
Cold sweat broke out along her hairline and under her clothes. Her breath started coming in sharp, shallow pants, and she fought back the wave of panic threatening to engulf her. Stay calm.
The hair on the back of her arms and neck stood straight out, prickling in warning-
She lashed out instinctively, breath catching in her throat when Itachi caught her shaking fist with the palm of his hand. He shook his head once, sharply, in warning, then cupped his hands in front of him.
Relief flushed through her, and she barely managed to get her foot in the stirrup of Itachi's hands so he could toss her atop the wall. She reached down - four seconds - caught his hand, pulled him up alongside her, and then they both dropped over the other side.
The explosion lit up the night sky, sending streamers of bright orange, red, and yellow flames arcing into the air as the sound rolled over the wall, down the hill, and through the village below. Sparks danced freely through the air as Itachi and Temari, ears ringing, hurried down the hill to freedom, hearing the sounds of a futile attempt to save the Land of Waves's biggest crime syndicate's headquarters behind them.
Somehow, they had pulled off their hardest, most dangerous mission yet.
Itachi drew in a deep breath - scented strongly by hot tea and spicy jasmine - and took a moment to relish simply being alive. Picking up one of the two cups of steaming tea he'd just poured, he moved across the room to kneel next to Temari's shivering, blanket-wrapped form sitting on the floor in front of the fireplace.
"Drink," he ordered softly. "It'll help warm you up."
She turned away from the fire, blinking away the thoughtful haze clouding her blue-green eyes as she worked her left hand free of the blanket to reach for it. "Oh. Thanks."
Immediately noting something was wrong, Itachi withdrew the cup from her reach. "You're injured," he said sharply. He felt like an idiot for not noticing before.
Temari stared at her left hand, then quickly withdrew it. "No," she said defensively, but the pink flush staining her sharp cheekbones belied her.
Setting down the cup next to his leg, Itachi paused with his hand hovering over the blanket. "Your shoulder?" It wasn't hard to put the clues together and make the educated guess.
Silently, Temari let the blanket slide down her shoulder as she reached up her left hand, secured the neck of her loose purple top, and tugged it down. She winced as the air hit her bare skin, already turning colors from the developing bruise. "I dropped down off the roof, missed my target, and had to go into a shoulder roll." Tugging her top and blanket back into place, she expectantly held out her left hand. "It'll be fine in a few days. Nothing broken, so there's nothing to freak out about. Now, I'd like my tea, please."
Reluctantly, he handed over her teacup. As she sipped, he stood and went to get his own, still seeing the colors of her developing bruise hanging before his eyes. Though he, too, had run into some trouble making his way back across the lawn, he'd managed to escape unscathed. It hadn't occurred to him to think Temari hadn't, especially since she'd beaten him back to the wall.
Leaving her alone next to the fire, Itachi settled down next to the window. They successfully escaped the Land of Waves via boat, then arrived at the inn where they'd prearranged to spend the night. Pretending they were nothing more or less than a traveling couple, they had settled into their room and ordered food to be brought to them. They had yet to get any sleep, still halfway caught in the adrenaline high caused by their successful mission, but after finishing his tea, Itachi knew he wanted nothing more than to curl up on his futon and sleep until time to leave the next day.
He slid a glance in Temari's direction out of the corner of his eye, just in time to see her shiver again. Though she'd not voiced a complaint, he knew she'd hated every moment of their mission because it had been cold and wet the entire time. Itachi had volunteered to scout out the mansion in hopes she'd find a halfway warm, dry place to hunker down until he returned, but she'd been almost as wet as he when he'd found her again.
Swallowing the last of his tea, now tepid, Itachi returned his cup to the tray before pulling the band out of his ponytail and curling up under the warm blankets on his futon. "Good night, Lady Temari," he said softly.
Though she didn't turn around, he heard her whisper back, "Good morning, actually."
Itachi closed his scratchy eyes even as he chuckled tiredly. "So it is. Good morning."
He was nearly asleep by the time he heard Temari set her cup down on the tray, then slide into the comfort of her futon, less than an arm's length away from his own. She let out a long sigh, and Itachi fought the urge to roll his head the slight degree needed to look in her direction, continuing to feign sleep. She'd made it more than clear she didn't welcome his offers to help her, though he wished he had thought to offer her some pain medicine from their emergency med kit.
Something told him, though, she wouldn't have accepted it even if he had. She'd been lost in some sort of fog since they returned to the inn, a distant expression on her face while they ate. He wanted to ask her about her obvious melancholia, but hadn't dared. She didn't pry into any of his moods - and yes, occasionally he did fall into them if something reminded him of Konoha or his younger brother - so the least he could do was respect hers.
But the same compulsion which had sent Itachi diving into the water to save Temari back in Konoha a decade ago led him to want to try to snap her out of her fog now. Even if he already knew how she'd react: the exact same way she had then, with anger and hatred.
That's your problem, he thought to himself as he rolled onto his side, his back to Temari and her soft, even breaths. It's what makes you a bad ninja, no matter your success rate. You care too much.
He squeezed his eyes shut and tried to lock out the little voice at the back of his mind, which sounded disturbingly like his father's. Though Uchiha Fugaku was long dead, Itachi still couldn't escape the long-reaching shadow of his negative opinion of his elder son.
Curling his hand into a fist around the edge of his blankets, Itachi forced himself to swallow back the choking fear he never would.
*~To Be Continued~*
Author's Ending Notes: I'm sorry I didn't update earlier in the week, as per my usual schedule, but my grandmother is in poor health and things have been a bit rocky this week. I've spent much of the past few days either without the time, the energy, or both to update. I'm hoping to update again sometime in the coming week, and then get back to my normal once-weekly update schedule after that. In the meantime, thank you for your patience, I hope you enjoyed this chapter, and I hope to see you all again for the next update!