If she didn't have such a distinctive hair color and style, he wouldn't have noticed her weaving through the people in the hall. She wasn't supposed to be there. She was a day earlier than expected.
If he hadn't noticed her, he wouldn't have followed her out of the Hokage building and around the corner. She strode to an area with few people around and just a couple of trees. She didn't notice him.
If he hadn't followed her, he wouldn't have seen the shaking in her shoulders or heard the mumbled curse followed by the smash of her fist into a tree.
But he had.
Logically, he knew retreating and distancing himself from the unstable blonde made the most sense. Yet, he found himself awkwardly clearing his throat to draw her attention.
Her body froze as her head snapped in his direction. A fleeting look of surprise graced her features before a calm, indifferent mask fell over her face and she stood straight and squared her shoulders.
"Ahh… hey Temari." Shikamaru stepped closer as his eyes scanned her appearance more closely. She looked considerably worse than the last time he saw her. Thinner, with dark circles ringing her eyes. Exhausted. Agitated.
"Shikamaru. I didn't expect to see you." An embarrassed blush ran across her face.
"I didn't expect to see you, either. You weren't supposed to be arriving until tomorrow. Change of plans?"
Her eyes locked with his, with a cocky challenge in her tone, "I made good time."
"Yeah, looks like you did. I wasn't sure how you'd be after what I heard happened to Kankuro and Gaara." Shikamaru regretted the sentence as it rolled off his tongue. He watched as her hands clenched into fists at her sides and her lips pressed into a hard line. Obviously, it was a sore spot for her.
Shikamaru had heard the reports made to Lady Tsunade. Reports which stated that while Temari was returning home after her previous visit to Konoha, Kankuro had fought to try to save Gaara from a couple Akatsuki members which had attacked Suna and taken Gaara captive. Kankuro nearly died from his encounter, and would have if it hadn't been for Sakura. Gaara's luck had been less, and he was actually killed. If it hadn't been for Lady Chiyo, he would have stayed that way. Too late to help Kankuro and not allowed to help Gaara, Temari's sensitivity to the subject wasn't surprising.
"Yeah, well, I'm just fine. Nothing happened to me. I wasn't there when it happened, and even when I got there I couldn't do much." The words were thrown from her lips haphazardly, but they dripped with frustration and anger.
Going against his instinct, he pushed on. This was about her, and he wanted to get to the bottom of it. "You look like you've been better."
"Is that how you speak to a woman?" The accompanying glare he received would have turned many in their tracks, but he stood his ground.
"There is no way you could have made it here so fast unless you didn't stop to sleep on your way. If I'm being honest, it looks like you haven't been sleeping or eating much, though."
"Shut up, Nara. I didn't ask for your assessment. I am perfectly fine." The words were spit with venom and said with finality, an obvious desire to end the conversation on her behalf.
It was going to be a drag, but he continued on. "I think the tree would disagree with you." He nodded his head to the tree which had been an outlet to her anger just moments ago. Busted bark and a fist sized hole collaborated his statement.
"Enough!" Her fuse was shorter than usual. He saw her hand begin it's reach for the fan strapped to her back.
But his automatic reaction for self preservation was faster. His hands flew, quickly forming the seals for his shadow possession jutsu. Her hand froze just before it could make contact with the deadly fan. An uttered, "Shadow possession complete" was barely audible over the growl of frustration from her throat. He knew he was going to regret this.
"This isn't the place for that, Temari." Any fighting so close to the Hokage Tower would only bring the Anbu, and then there was also the possible destruction of nearby buildings and trees to consider. All this would only bring her embarrassment for losing her temper and could throw her ambassador duties into question. Not to mention they would both be in considerable trouble. He could practically already hear Lady Tsunade's and his mother's lectures.
"You don't get to tell me where and what I can do!" she fumed. She obviously hadn't considered the consequences, and he could feel her fighting against his jutsu. He had acted on instinct, and now had little less than five minutes before he would face her wrath, when his chakra would dwindle in strength and she would be able to free herself.
A sigh escaped his lips. He knew the troublesome woman wouldn't be happy without some sort of a fight. She had been looking for an outlet for her anger since he first saw her. So he began his dash for his clan training grounds, located within the Nara forest.
A furious shout of, "What the hell do you think you're doing!" initially trailed him, before quickly turning to deathly silence. Only the hard thud of a foot landing from one rooftop to the next filled the air. Eventually it changed when it turned to the crunch of leaves and sticks as Shikamaru maneuvered them through the forest. Shikamaru avoided looking back and making eye contact with Temari as he was sure she was only becoming angrier by the second. So, instead, he focused only on traveling as fast as possible.
When they finally arrived at the training grounds, Shikamaru assessed the surroundings. A grassy dirt clearing surrounded by the plush green trees of the forest, a panting and enraged blonde, and the sun shining brightly down. That all seemed about right.
"I'm going to kill you, Nara." If looks could kill, the one she was giving him had him already dead.
He sighed. "I expect no less from you, woman. It's a drag, but I figure you need a good fight before you put your fist through any more trees or cause any other trouble." With that, he released his jutsu and jumped back out of her range, as she drew her tessen from her back.
"You brought me to the wrong place if you're worried about trees!" She charged for him. He knew her fighting style well enough to see her movements were slower and sloppier than usual. Still, he knew better than to underestimate her. Her anger propelled her at him. It made her reckless, and her movements less strategic and logical. Dangerous. He would need to be extra careful.
She closed in. The metal of her fan connected with a hard smack to Shikamaru's side, before a "pop" signaled he had used a substitution jutsu. The replacement log broke into splinters as it flew through the air. Her strike could have broken ribs.
"Fight me, Nara!" she yelled in exasperation as she turned, panting and searching for where he had hidden himself.
Shikamaru noted that a simple swinging of her fan had tired her. She was in worse shape than he had realized. Best to keep this from being too drawn out.
"We both know that direct fighting isn't really my style," Shikamaru drawled, as five shadow cords sprang at Temari, closing in on her from the surrounding forest. Instantly her fan flew open, exposing all three moons. She jumped on it and shot into the air, hovering just out of the reach of his shadows. But her fan wavered slightly. Unsteadily.
She would stay up there until she plummeted, if she needed to. Shikamaru pulled his shadows back. Temari lowered slightly on her fan, before she dropped the rest of the way from the sky, but now close enough to do so without injury.
Once on the ground, she quickly stood, turning in his direction. Only confirming Shikamaru's suspicion that she wouldn't waste her time in the air, but had used it as an opportunity to determine his location. Her gaze zeroed in on him, quickly making eye contact before starting her next attack with a triumphant smirk.
Her back leg slammed into the ground for stabilization as she began her powerful swing. He saw it. She was pushing every last ounce of her remaining strength and chakra into this jutsu. This would be her last move of this match.
"Wind Scythe Jutsu!" Her cry cut through the air, much like the torrent of slicing wind that flew at Shikamaru. His shadow wrapped around a tree behind him and to the left, with just enough time to use it to yank himself behind it to safety. A moment later the wind carved through his previous perch, sending limbs flying.
Simultaneously, he had sent another tendril of shadow at Temari, while she was distracted with her jutsu. Now she saw it right before it reached her, and attempted to jump to the side, but her legs buckled beneath her and she stumbled. Just as he predicted, she had reached her limit. She fell towards the ground.
His shadow wrapped around her, catching her before she hit the ground. Her head dropped and her body shook with exhaustion, giving in to the shadow's embrace.
Shikamaru walked slowly towards her. Ironically, he realized, he approached her as if trying not to startle a young doe, but at least it seemed to be working. She only watched him approach through the fringe of her bangs with a wary look of tired resignation on her face.
Perhaps they could talk now. "You haven't been eating."
Her body tensed. "I haven't been hungry."
He sighed, how was she still so troublesome? "You haven't been sleeping."
"I haven't been tired." Defiant. She glowered at him from his shadow's grasp.
Frustration crept into his voice and he snapped, "We both know that's a lie, Temari."
"Why do you even care?" she accused.
"How could you think I wouldn't?" His words surprised both of them. They were filled with anguish, and they hadn't been planned. Temari broke her glare and looked away. He wasn't sure where his words came from, but he recognized them as true. He cared. Maybe it was because she was a comrade, a friend, or...
Her now slightly softened voice cut into his thoughts, "I wasn't there. I couldn't do anything. I was useless!"
Now he fully saw how she was ripping herself up into pieces inside. Masking her pain with anger. His desire to comfort her was strong, but so foreign that he struggled to find the right words. "You are the opposite of useless. You are Temari of the Sand, the strongest and cruelest kunoichi I know. You can't blame yourself."
Her eyes returned to him, now filled with unbridled torment, "You don't understand. I almost lost my brothers. My family. Almost lost it all..." Her voice cracked with emotion, causing her to cut her response short. She shut her eyes hard to push back the stinging tears trying to escape.
Shikamaru drew even closer and replaced his shadow with his arms, wrapping her in a hug. Her face pressed into his shoulder. He was surprised that she didn't jump, pull away, or fight him at the action. He spoke down softly into her head and hair as he held her. "It's not your fault, and you're not alone. You don't have to worry about being alone. I'm here. Your brothers are safe."
Shikamaru could feel Temari's breaths shuddering in his arms, but within a short time they began to normalize and deepen. Shikamaru noticed her weight shift and soon he felt himself supporting her body completely. He leaned his head back and confirmed that she had given into her fatigue and fallen asleep.
She obviously needed it, and she would most likely wake up if he tried to carry her into town. Not to mention, he knew the last thing either of them wanted was any of his friends seeing him toting her sleeping form through the streets. So, he slowly lowered the both of them to the ground, pushing back into a tree for support. Her body pressed into his, and her head rested on his shoulder. He couldn't help but watch her sleep. As the sun fell and the shadows of the trees lengthened, the golden light intensified her already golden skin and hair. Had he ever seen her so peaceful before? Why had she always kept her guard up, but now dropped it for him? His hand moved automatically and smoothed her hair back from her face.
He had held Ino's body many times when she had performed her mind control jutsu, but something about this moment with Temari felt different. The warmth of her body nestled against his own felt right, like a puzzle piece had found its place. Warm. Right. His.
He mentally shook himself. He must have been exhausted from dealing with this woman, and not thinking straight. He knew he could just lay her on the ground next to him, but still he didn't. A feeling in his chest refused.
Still unable to place the feeling, and tired of trying to figure out his own muddled thoughts, Shikamaru leaned his head back against the tree and took the opportunity to rest for himself. As with everything else involving her, this was all too troublesome.
It was a nudge to his side that eventually broke him from his sleep. Cracking open his eyes, he could see Temari prodding him gently with her foot as she stood. The sun had just started its rise from the horizon.
"It's early, woman," he moaned as he rubbed his eyes.
"You're still my escort, I assume, and it's time for you to do your job," she responded. "I have a meeting with the Hokage right away this morning. Since I was early yesterday, I couldn't see her. She was in meetings with the Konoha elders, but I was told I could be her first meeting today."
"She still won't be in for awhile. Lady Tsunade isn't usually much of a morning person." Shikamaru grumbled while he stretched, watching Termari from the corner of his eye. She brushed dirt and leaves from her rumpled clothing, but the circles under her eyes had lessened, and she looked better than the previous day. Rested.
"Then we'll have time to get some breakfast first. I plan on leaving, on my way back to Suna right after I speak with her." Temari offered a hand to help pull Shikamaru up from the ground, which he took with a frown.
Once standing, he still held onto her hand, "You plan on taking a little longer on your return?"
She blushed, catching his concern within his words, "Yeah. I do."
His face relaxed. Content with her answer, he realized that he still continued to hold her hand, causing him to quickly release it. The moment left them both standing awkwardly with heated cheeks, until Temari turned and started back through the forest to Konoha. Shikamaru sped to catch up.
After a minute of walking in comfortable silence, Temari spoke again, "You know that doesn't count."
Her statement broke his thoughts and seemed to come out of nowhere. "What?"
Her eyes stayed forward, only glancing his direction as she spoke, "Yesterday. It doesn't count. It wasn't an actual rematch. I still want one, you know."
Shikamaru held back a laugh, choosing to smirk and roll his eyes instead, "I know. It's a drag… but I know." She grinned, pleased with his response.
Temari led the way out of the forest. Apparently she had paid close enough attention as he dragged her out there to be able to navigate the way back. The thought made him smile. For now, he was happy to do nothing but follow her and try to keep up.
Author Note: I'm finally able to share this story which was part of the "Shadows of the Wind" ShikaTema zine. (The theme of the zine was "Serendipity".) It was really fun to do and I got the chance to work with a wonderful artist who did an illustration for it, tons of other talented folks (writers and artists) who were involved, and it was brought together by the amazing mods.