Shikamaru got to Karaoke-kan a little after ten. He stopped outside to write a mental speech but after several minutes of reliving the past couple hours with Temari, he realized it was hopeless. She was like an addiction; one they didn't sell gum for. Without a doubt he'd be back at that hole-in-the-wall go parlor tomorrow in the hopes of playing a game with her and making her smile.

He stared at the neon lights and glass doors. The woman at the front desk regarded him shadily as he loitered. Screw the speech, he'd wing it.

Naruto welcomed him in to the brightly coloured room and pulled him into a duet before he could refuse. Shikamaru wasn't really a karaoke guy, and couldn't hit a note to save his life. He lip synced what he could, and scanned the room in the mean time. Ino sat at the back bench fighting Kiba for control over the song listings while Chouji munched furiously on chips beside her, each of them oblivious to his entry. There were a few people he didn't know, and he assumed they were part of the Suna basketball team. When the song was over, Naruto grabbed a meek boy with flaming red hair as Shikamaru's replacement. The boy looked about as enthusiastic as Sasuke, and barely moved his mouth as the lyrics went by. Shikamaru weaved between Sakura and Sasuke who were both determined to study off their phones as Tenten tried to stop Lee from breaking anymore microphones in his youthful iron grip.

"Hey," Shikamaru shouted over the music. Ino's mouth dropped open and Chouji's eyes went wide. Shikamaru squished himself in the seat between Chouji and the wall. Chouji was a massive guy, and about one and a half times wider than most their age. Sitting next to Chouji made Ino look even tinier by comparison, and she was always trying out the newest diet fad. Kiba grabbed the remote while Ino was distracted and took off to coerce Hinata into a song.

"Hey," Ino said quietly. He could barely hear her over the sound of Naruto rapping into the mic. He was actually pretty good.

Shikamaru scratched the back of his head, searching for what to say. He sucked at these kinds of things. His mouth refused to move. What had Temari said? "I've been acting like a little shit," he said hastily. Get it over with... "And that wasn't fair to either of you."

They didn't say a word, and at first Shikamaru thought they hadn't heard him. He tried to think of how else to convince them to take him back beyond getting on his knees and begging, but Chouji clapped him on the shoulder and smiled, completely content. They never had to say much to understand each other. "It's okay." Shikamaru felt he didn't deserve them, but Chouji's words put him at ease.

"What the hell does that mean," Ino asked angrily, looking back and forth between the two. "Are you talking to us again?"

Shikamaru winced. Right in the guilt. Chouji patted her on the back, but she brushed him off and stood up. "You can let him off as easy as you like," she said to Chouji, her voice rising. She pointed to Shikamaru, her hands shaking, "But don't you dare think I'm done with you." He had never seen Ino so mad. She hurled insult after insult, calling him 'irritable', 'annoying', and a 'moody-twat-face'. He would have laughed if he didn't feel so deserving of her wrath. She really ought to take cursing lessons with Temari. Ino was as bad at confrontations as Shikamaru was at apologies. One minute into her rant, and her eyes welled up with tears. "We missed you so much, you big loser," she cried, taking her seat again and collapsing into uncontrollable sobs. Shikamaru sat stunned, not knowing what to do. It was easier to console someone when you weren't the reason for the water works. The song ended, and Ino's weeping was extraordinarily audible in the little booth.

"Woah. Ino, are you crying?" Naruto's voice boomed across the room. Even Sakura and Sasuke looked up from their phones. Shikamaru tried not to groan. Oh shit.

Everyone crowded around them.

Tenten put a comforting arm around Ino while Sakura stood with her arms crossed. "What happened?"

Ino choked out some words with little clarity, though, "Shikamaru," was easily discernible.

Tenten stared at Shikamaru wearily, flexing her fingers. Tenten didn't look like much of a threat, but she was in almost every martial arts club their school had to offer, and was well trained in kendo and archery. Sakura wasn't trained in anything, but he had seen her toss Naruto enough times to know she was no push-over. Shikamaru stared at the door longingly. What he would give to live just a little bit longer...

Luckily Neji stepped in and mediated, giving Ino enough time to calm down and explain that it was just a misunderstanding.

"I'm sorry, Ino," Shikamaru said awkwardly as they left Karaoke-kan. Ino decided to call it a night, mortified that she had cried in front of all of her friends and a bunch of kids from Suna. Chouji and Shikamaru followed suit, since the three of them lived in the same neighbourhood. Sakura and Sasuke took their leaving as a chance to escape, and Tenten decided she no longer wanted to be responsible for the destruction Lee was causing. Hinata politely excused herself, explaining she was tired and had to get up early, and Neji promptly declared he would take her home. The room cleared out after that, and Naruto vowed he'd make them all stay longer next time.

Ino walked beside him, a pout on her face. She could pretend to be mad all she liked, but Shikamaru could tell she was pleased. She had a weak spot when it came to him and Chouji. The three of them had been friends since childhood, and that was hard to forget. "It's fine," she sniffed, "Apologize to Chouji, too."

"He doesn't have to," Chouji said. "I already know he's sorry."

Ino elbowed Chouji in the side. "You're too nice to him, you big softie." They took a seat at a dimly lit bus stop and waited. "So I guess we're team ten again," Ino said softly, referring to their primary school sports day. They had been placed in the same group, and though Chouji wasn't the most fit, or Shikamaru the most enthusiastic, or Ino the most compliant, their teamwork won them first place in multiple events. The three stuck together ever since.

"Ino-Shika-Chou," Chouji agreed. They searched for stars in the hazy summer night; an almost impossible task with the glaring lights and vibrant screens. They would have better luck in their own neighbourhood, away from the city, where the street lamps were every kilometer.

"There's something we've been meaning to tell you," Ino said slowly. "Promise you won't freak out."

Shikamaru righted himself, his neck aching terribly. Ino and Chouji both looked grim. Whatever it was, it wasn't good. He nodded, "Alright."

"You remember Sasuke's brother, Itachi, right? The one who used to have ties with Akatsuki." Itachi was an aged-up version of Sasuke (of whom he held no fondness). They had the same dark hair and brooding eyes that caused girls to send them little love notes and start secret fan clubs and covet anything the object of their affection may have touched. Shikamaru was pretty sure he saw one of Sasuke's used erasers on the front page of ebay for 10000 yen.

Itachi was his family's pride, the Uchiha gem, the once-in-a-generation genius who would go to Todai, get into graduate school, and make a living everyone could be jealous of. The moment he cracked, the rumours started to spread. Some said he shot up in darkened alleyways and made drug deals with hookers and stole purses off of elderly women. Shikamaru doubted any of that was true. The only fact everyone seemed to know for sure was that Itachi had gotten mixed up in the wrong crowd; namely that of Akatsuki, a well known gang of unruly yakuza.

"He's part of the police force now," Ino continued. It was a miracle Itachi got out without being convicted of any felonies. Now he was supposed to protect the public? The world was a crazy place. "And he got wind of Hidan." Shikamaru froze. He could hear the screeching tires and the sound of Asuma's heart pumping slower and slower with each passing second.

"He's here," Chouji said heavily when Ino couldn't finish. Solemnity didn't suit him. "Asuma's killer is back in Tokyo."


Temari got home late as expected, whistling the tune of the last song that played through her headphones. Kankurou was still waiting up for her when she opened the door, though he claimed he had been working on his puppets and wasn't worried in the least.

"Ew, stop being so happy," Kankurou said inching away from her in his chair as she whistled away. He constantly told her to quit her job because she came home and behaved like a giant black hole that sucked all joy out of the room. It made him depressed to look at her. Now, here he was, complaining about her good mood. Nothing pleased Kankurou, and everything made him disgruntled.

She set her cup down and leaned against the counter. "What makes you say that? Do I look happy?"

"Yeah, practically giddy," Kankurou said. A large wooden body lay across the kitchen table amongst several pots of paint. He held his brush to the face, delicately applying stroke after stroke. "Gaara says he'll be late tonight. Apparently he went out with some kids from Konoha." He shook his head in disbelief. "Since when does Gaara go out?"

When their father was alive, Gaara used to leave the house more often than Kankurou knew. Temari was a light sleeper, and at night she could hear him creep through the hallways. She never knew what time he returned at, or what he did, but she was certain he never slept and that no one but she knew of his escapades. Going out with friends, however, was an entirely different story. Gaara remained rather withdrawn in the sense that he didn't form friendships, just polite acquaintances.

"He had a session with Tsunade yesterday," Kankurou said. "Maybe that's where this came from."

"It's possible," Temari agreed, though she doubted that was the case. Tsunade was a psychologist not a miracle worker, and if Temari was damaged then Gaara was broken. She dumped her things onto the couch and headed for the bathroom.

Temari prepared the tub and stepped into tepid water, letting it cool her skin. She liked the heat. She flourished in the heat. The one thing she did not appreciate was the humidity. Summer was coming to an end, and while she'd miss the warmth of the sun, she couldn't wait to have some form of control over her thick, bristly hair. She raised her feet out of the water to stare at the light tan line that met the tops of her boots mid-calf.

She whistled the little tune again. Giddy. Was she giddy? She grinned. Her cheeks were starting to hurt, but she couldn't stop smiling that stupid dopey smile, the same way she couldn't stop thinking about how Shikamaru had wrapped his arms around her and hadn't let go until they were tangled and drenched across the floor.

Stop it, she told herself. She told herself the same thing when she saw the way he looked at her as he let her go. Men looked at her chest, her hips, her legs, her face, but Shikamaru looked at all of her, and that made her feel seen in a way that wasn't just physical. Her wild, impulsive side said to kiss him. He wasn't the kid she mocked him to be. His shoulders were wider than hers, his legs longer, arms stronger; and he made her heart beat just a fraction faster than the norm. Then her senses kicked in and punched her wild side in the face. Don't encourage him if you're not serious. But encouraging him was fun. He kept up with her wit and her banter, rendering awkward silences impossible. It was almost like a battle; a battle against boredom and a fight for excitement, for that shiver, for that breathlessness. Poor Shikamaru, she thought. He could win at shougi as much as he liked, but this game was hers, and no strategy in the world would save him.

The heat was back, and not in a good way. Temari had to forgo her leather jacket and combat boots for an airy sheer top and lightly heeled wedges. They didn't do much good. Beads of sweat formed along her back and thighs making her feel clammy and damp. To make matters worse, her hair was adamant on redefining volume, and exploded out of her head in an attempt to be seen from space. She gave up on it and rushed out the door. It was too time consuming to care.

Temari stepped into Tsunade's office and was pleased to find it nice and cool. "Morning," she tried to say, but got caught up in a yawn.

Tsunade put on her glasses and crossed her legs. "Long night?"

"Yeah." She yawned again. "I was up until midnight waiting for Gaara to come home."

Gaara tiptoed through the front door just as the clock hit twelve. Both Kankurou and Temari scrutinized him thoroughly, half expecting him to be extremely wasted or covered in piercings. Instead he was sober, unmarred, and, even stranger, pleasant. They had seen Gaara express a variety of emotions, none of which ever even came close to showing up on the geniality-meter. His state of constant neutrality was as close to amiable as he got, so it was no surprise to Temari when Kankurou nearly flipped the table as Gaara smiled in the midst of telling a brief story.

"Konoha High has some interesting people," Gaara mused as he unpacked his bag. Temari gaped while Kankurou sat with his brush in hand, the paint dripping into his lap. "I wouldn't mind seeing them again." He escaped into the bathroom while Temari tried to form a sentence. Kankurou put away his paint, noticing there was more on his pants than his puppet.

"What did you talk to Gaara about during his session?" Temari asked curiously.

Tsunade pursed her lips. "I can't discuss Gaara's sessions with you, the same way I can't discuss your sessions with him." She chuckled at Temari's poorly concealed indignation. "You don't have to worry. Gaara has some problems to work out, but he's a very kind boy. Why don't we talk about you today?"

"There's not much to talk about," Temari said carefully. She could tell Tsunade about Shikamaru, but she had the feeling she'd just be reprimanded for messing around, or end up being forced to acknowledge her relationship issues.

"Let's start with yesterday, then."

"I saw you, I worked, I went home. You see? No fights. No trouble. It's all good." She thought about how far back this stupid little suspension was putting her. She'd have to go back and find out if she could catch up on the courses she was missing, and if she couldn't... well, she didn't like thinking about that. She had plans set out for herself, rigid plans; plans that didn't accommodate delay.

"You have more demons than you're willing to admit," Tsunade said. "There are a lot of things we haven't properly discussed yet." Temari let out a tsk. Tsunade ignored her and scratched at her notepad. "I won't pressure you into opening up and facing your problems; we'll do that at whatever pace you like. If I see improvement, I'll report it to Baki."

And if you don't, you'll report it to the university.

The message was clear. She crossed her legs and folded her arms, a mocking mirror image of Tsunade's form. "Alright," she said with an air of confidence she wasn't sure she had. She had to start strong if she was going to start at all. "Why don't we go from the beginning, then?"

Tsunade nodded.

Temari didn't remember much before Gaara was born. She had images of her mother kissing her good night, and her father fondly mussing up her hair. She dismissed them as hopeful dreams.

Her mother passed away during Gaara's birth, and her father never let it go. He wouldn't touch the premature infant, wouldn't hold it in his arms. He left all three children with their uncle, Yashamaru. To Temari, Yashamaru looked like mother. To Kankurou, he looked like Temari. They lived in Tottori back then, in a little house by the water with a burnt orange roof, where the paint peeled and the door didn't shut properly. She used to have competitions with the neighbourhood kids. Who could run the fastest? Who could leap the farthest? Who could sneak into old-man Ebizou's yard and catch a fish unnoticed? She was the kid that didn't back down from a dare, the one missing two teeth and had scrapes that told stories of adventures gone wrong. Kankurou copied everything she did, even if it meant scaling a fence four times his height, or taking a bite out of a wriggly earthworm. When she thought about it, their time with Yashamaru was the calm before the storm. They used to go to the dunes on the weekends. Gaara was too small to tag along with Temari and Kankurou's after-school romps. The older kids teased him for being too slow, and for the stuffed bear he carried in his arms. Yashamaru gave it to him for his birthday and he never put it down. Every afternoon they left him standing at the gate with his brows furrowed together, trying not to cry. Their trip to the dunes was the only time the elder two included him in their games. Even back then he was quiet and shy. More often than once, they lost him amongst the sand, but he'd pop back up a couple minutes later covered in a thin layer of earth with his pale eyes as round as saucers.

They played for hours, letting the wind tousle their hair and the sun kiss their cheeks. Getting home was a sleepy affair, with Gaara draped across Yashamaru's shoulder as Temari and Kankurou stumbled about in a daze. Gaara loved the dunes, and insisted they go back every weekend. She told him that was too much; she was tired of it, and wanted to stay home. She didn't understand him back then, or she didn't care, but she did now and it made her sad.

Their father visited a few times a year. He seemed to grow grimmer with each visit and more foul tempered. Sometimes he drank, and when he drank, he cussed. He yelled at anyone who would try to calm him down, but mostly he yelled at Gaara. In truth, he scared her. She cowered beneath her covers, burrowing into the blankets where she could drown out the sound of breaking glass and raised voices. In the mornings he was sorry. He gave them gifts to make up for the hurt and the tears, and left promising he'd be better.

Temari worked hard at school. He didn't yell when she had a good report card. She studied hoping that the next time he visited he would smile at her grades and tell her she was clever while mussing her hair. Then maybe he wouldn't be so mad at Gaara, too. Kankurou told her she was being stupid for thinking father's words meant anything. Temari kicked him for that. Kankurou didn't know anything; he was the stupid one. He was a year younger and still thought eating a watermelon seed would bear fruit in his stomach. He was wrong. Father was going to come back and prove him wrong. Kankurou told her she could dream all she liked; at least father didn't hate her.

Her delusions came to an end the year she was to turn eight. Yashamaru was so proud that he made all her favourite meals. She was top student of the year and was awarded a beautiful certificate embossed with gold characters and a shiny medallion. She kept it in her folder and made sure it didn't wrinkle or bend on her walk home. It had to be perfect. She couldn't wait to show her father. This time he was sure to smile and pick her up, and do all the things fathers were supposed to do with their little girls. He arrived right as Yashamaru tucked them into bed, telling them sweet stories of their mother, the kinds Gaara liked. The front door clacked against its frame. It could only be her father and she leaped out of her sheets to greet him. Yashamaru called after her, but she ignored him and sped along the darkened hallway and found her father seated in the dimly lit kitchen, a glass in his hand. He didn't notice her. He stared at the portrait of mother and Yashamaru that hung on the opposite wall. The two siblings looked like twins in the old photo, though Karura had a softer, more feminine face.

He was drunk. She could smell it off him. His eyes were dark and his face haggard. He looked as if he hadn't slept for days. He took a swig of the dark murky liquid in his glass, and set it down on the table with a bang. She spied her certificate beneath it. A damp ring leeched through the paper, rippling at the metallic surfaces, and bleeding the ink.

Temari ran up to him and swiped the certificate from the table. His drink tipped onto its side. Rum spilled across the surface and he leaped out of his chair with a curse.

"You ruined my certificate," she said, trying to keep her voice from breaking. This wasn't how it was supposed to go. It was supposed to be perfect. He snatched it from her hands and it crumpled in his fist. He told her to shut up. It was just a piece of paper. He lit it on fire to show her.

"It's not fair," she shouted as he let it burn above the kitchen sink. Her hard work twisted and curled in the heat, flaking off in black crisps, and her childhood naivety burned with it. She just wanted him to be happy. Why couldn't he be happy? He grabbed her by the hair and wrenched her head back. Her scalp burned and her eyes stung and the smell of his stale breath made her cringe. It's not fair, he mocked savagely. Go ahead, cry. He shouted into her ear, pulling at her hair. Cry because it isn't fair. She screamed that she wasn't, she wasn't, let go. Yashamaru pulled him off her by the time her toes were almost off the floor and her head felt like it was on fire. She sat alone in the kitchen with her knees at her chest as the only two adults in her life fought outside. Hot tears streamed down her face. Kankurou peeked from the hall with Gaara at his heels. They watched her like observers at a zoo, nervous that the tiny caged animal might snap at their fingers if they got too close.

"Told you so," Kankurou whispered from where he stood. Gaara held his bear to his chest. She flushed at the pity in his voice and barked at them to leave her alone or she'd go over there and make them. She hated them. She hated everyone. And no one, not anyone, would make her cry again, because the only one she trusted was herself.


Shikamaru sat at the bench a few blocks from Tsunade's office, flicking Asuma's lighter on and off with the tip of his thumb. He sat in the shade but the pavement was hot and cooked him through, making his shirt stick and his forehead sweat. He ground his teeth and parked a wad of gum between his molars. It wasn't enough.

So the police knew Hidan was in town. They could search for him, but they wouldn't find him. And if they did, he'd just escape again. Would they even bother going after him? Asuma's case ended ages ago when the police realized it was hopeless trying to search for someone the Akatsuki were keeping under the radar. Perhaps they had bigger fish to fry. Shikamaru's fingers itched in his pockets.

It wasn't enough.

The Akatsuki wasn't the largest yakuza gang in Japan, but it certainly was the most powerful and notorious. Even those who weren't necessarily in Akatsuki but boasted of links and relations were generally feared. Hidan wasn't just a foot soldier though. He was a religious lunatic with a knife and had a position in the core of the group. He wouldn't be easy to track.

Shikamaru had half a mind to search for Hidan himself. He knew what Hidan looked like, from the memories and the posters. Shikamaru wasn't sure what he'd do if he found him, though. An eye for an eye. Ino told him not to freak out. This was probably what she meant.

The first thing he wanted was a smoke, and the last thing he wanted was a session with Tsunade. He looked at his watch. He'd better get going or the old lady would find some awful way to make up for the lost time. His feet didn't move. He felt heavy, and tired, and so sick of everything. It was a lot easier to stay where he was and dwell in his cloud-envy.

"Back at this bench, I see."

Temari stood with one hand on her hip while the other shielded her face from the sun. It was strange seeing her out of the leather jacket and combat boots. She almost looked soft with her breezy white tank. The material fluttered just above her navel revealing a very lean body, and her legs looked even longer with her slight heels. He had trouble staying focused on her face.

"Not rushing off to work?"

She took a seat beside him in the shade. "I called in sick."

He edged away from her. "Have you caught a summer cold?"
"Nah, I just don't feel like going." They sat in silence for a moment, both staring at the wispy clouds in the distance. Cars crept by at a brutally slow pace and drivers assaulted their horns. The stillness with Temari was as comfortable as conversation, and he didn't want it to end. She didn't take her eyes off the sky. He wanted to know what she was thinking about in that impulsive head of hers; what made her bite her lips and stare off into space as if she had been transported to another world? Her shoulder brushed against his. "Do you want to go to the beach," she asked out of the blue.

"Now?"

"Yeah," she said, getting up and pulling her along with him. "Now. I could use a dip in the water. Are you game?"

"Alright," Shikamaru said, meeting her gaze. There was no point in fooling himself. He wasn't going to his appointment with Tsunade. He was getting caught up in Temari again, and he made a mental note to keep his head this time. She was leading him around like a dog on a leash, and he had the feeling she knew exactly what she was doing. She led him down the street to another bus and he hustled to keep up. They boarded the bus and squished themselves in to the crowded aisle, clinging desperately to the bars. Temari cursed as she was pushed into his chest, her chin at his shoulder. Her hair tickled his face.

"Comfortable," she said sarcastically. The bus rattled as it sped down the street. It was hot and sticky, and to make matters worse, Temari shifted against him, her hips bumping into his and her breath hot at his ear. He chewed furiously. Think of dead puppies. Think of old people. Think of literally anything else.

"What are you doing," he asked through gritted teeth when she wouldn't keep still.

"I'm trying to find a comfortable way to stand." She groaned. "I'm not used to anything with a heel." Temari lifted one foot to rest it, grazing his leg along the way. He was torn between pushing her off and claiming her lips, neither of which was possible in their current situation. She was so much more than he could handle.

They made their way onto the Shonen-Shinjuku Line after escaping the close proximity of the bus. Shikamaru walked a couple paces behind Temari to cool his steaming head. It wasn't working so well. Her hips swayed as she followed the flow of traffic into the station. She noticed he was lagging behind and grabbed his arm.

"Where are we going," he asked once they found a seat on the strangely empty train. Advertisement after advertisement flew by as they raced through the city.

"Zushi," Temari said, propping her feet up on the seat opposite. She looked around before pulling her feet out of the peep-toe wedges. Little red marks lined her toes, and her heels blistered. She touched them gingerly and winced.

He had only been to Zushi once or twice, but he remembered seeing little wooden shacks lined up in the sand selling all sorts of summer sports and wear. "There are shops by the beach," Shikamaru muttered, grabbing the bandages she was applying gracelessly. They stuck together around her fingers in a useless gummy heap. He switched his seat and sat across from her, holding her foot in his lap. If she couldn't even put on bandages properly, medical job prospects were out of the question. "We can get you some flat shoes once we're there."

Temari looked at him uncertainly as he ripped open a fresh bandage. "I can do that myself."

He motioned to the waste stuck to her hands. "Sure you can."

She bit her lip and said no more, though she still regarded him suspiciously. "Thanks," she said cautiously, as if someone being kind to her was unknown territory. She held her wedges up in the light, turning them in her fingers mournfully. "Who knew something so pretty could hurt you so bad."

He nodded as he fixed up her heel, hoping her words didn't mean anything beyond her shoes.

A/N: I didn't have a chance to respond to the reviews from last chapter, but I will now, just sorry for the lateness before-hand! This is kind of half the chapter I was intending to write, so I guess next time is part two. Reviews please! And don't be afraid to give constructive crits!