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“I’m not cut out to be a shinobi.”

Temari could have told Shikamaru that months ago if she’d known that was how he felt about the trajectory of his life.

From their fight at the exams, Temari clocked Shikamaru for what he was: too soft. She suspected that, contrary to what he said, his lack of eager participation in their match had very little to do with any perceived shame of losing to a kunoichi. He could try in vain to hide his intelligence quotient behind a veil of apathy and misogyny, but that didn’t change the fact that Shikamaru didn’t want to fight. 

And damn him, he’d gotten promoted anyway.

The whole situation is his responsibility, cut and dry. His motley crew got separated and picked off one by one— honestly, what was the Hokage thinking when she sent amateurs out on a mission as sensitive as this, surely the Leaf could have spared four chunin and a jonin long enough to bring Sasuke home— and two of them just might die as a result, one of which is from a prominent family and the other apparently is Shikamaru’s best friend. 

Temari stares Shikamaru down and catalogues the raw emotion pouring out of his shaking figure: the bitterness in the tears he’s fighting, the panic accompanying his anguish about the genin clinging to life in operating rooms, the complete and utter disappearance of his usual nonchalance, the resignation that comes with his confession.

That’s the thing, though. The failed mission is his responsibility, but he thinks it’s his fault. For a supposed genius, that’s the stupidest thought he could be having right now— no, the second stupidest. The first is obviously that he’s willing to give up on his future so easily. 

He certainly didn’t give her that impression during their fight. Yeah, he conceded, but it was calculated. Against Temari’s wishes early in the round, he made it clear that he wasn’t a quitter, especially if the stakes were high enough.

Funny how losing a public battle against a female was high enough stakes for him to keep his head screwed on, but the very real possibility of losing his best friend has him sticking his head in the sand.

If he’s looking for someone to argue with him, to convince him to remain a shinobi, he’ll have to look elsewhere. Maybe the man shrouded in shadow at the end of the hall will have kind words of wisdom or consolation for the hysterical chunin; they’ve got to be related, Temari figures, and if Konoha is anything like Suna, they’ll prefer to keep to their own.

All Temari has for Shikamaru is her angry agreement with his idiocy. He’s not cut out to be a shinobi if he’s going to take every failed mission so personally. 

“Crybaby,” she calls him, and she hopes it stings enough to help him make a decision one way or the other.

 

/-/-/-/-/

 

So he didn’t give up on being a shinobi. 

Temari has to use both hands and a few toes to count the number of times she’s been grateful for that simple fact. The same stupid jutsu she should have lost to when they first met has saved her ass repeatedly. And it’s never any of the other Naras, never Shikaku or another jonin relative, who finds her on the verge of death in the middle of nowhere. Maybe Lady Hokage is trying to maintain the peace between their villages with the way she keeps sending Shikamaru after her: greeting Temari at the village gates no matter what time she arrives, escorting her around the village, sending her off with scripted good tidings and the sarcastic banter they’re refining, finding her remote location and saving her life in the nick of time. 

Temari has to admit Shikamaru is useful to have around. Dare she say she enjoys his company.

Planning these chunin exams is a drag. That’s his default response to every inconvenience, Temari notices. Getting promoted when he thought there wasn’t a chance in hell that would happen. The accompanying paperwork. Setting his alarm earlier in the morning. Longer hours on duty. The stiffness of the regulation uniform. Business meetings. Everything is a drag.

For once, Temari might be inclined to agree with him. These joint chunin exams have been incredibly tiresome to orchestrate. But they would be a lot more exhausting if Shikamaru wasn’t pulling his weight and then some in developing the competitions, so she keeps her chiding to a minimum.

Shikamaru makes no such acquiescence with his complaints. Some of the exam’s participants got their registration turned in at the last minute, and he had to stay up late to get their slots secured, and then he had to wake up early to escort Temari from her hotel to the exam site, and now he has to proctor the exam he painstakingly created, and he can’t be in three places at once so it has to come from behind a screen and the tech was running slow this morning, and the coffee in the break room was stale and mostly grounds by the time he got to it, and he somehow has misplaced the schedule for the first round of exams among his meticulously organized notes.

It’s all a drag. It’s also kind of amusing to watch him frantically dig through each stack of registration papers for the schedule Temari can see sticking out of his pants pocket.

But they’re… friends. They’re friends now and these are things that friends confide in one another. He has to keep his bitching to a minimum in front of the other professionals, so Temari hears the brunt of it behind closed doors. 

She doesn’t mind it that much. She could do without it, but she knows she does her fair share of griping. 

His face is priceless when he finds the schedule. 

“Aw, great.” He doesn’t sound like he’s thrilled about his discovery. “I spent way too much valuable time looking for this.”

He’s right— somehow, he always is— but Temari kept her eye on her own copy of the schedule all along. The exams didn’t come to a screeching halt because some chunin spent fifteen minutes of his lunch break looking for a piece of paper. Temari made sure that wouldn’t happen.

In a moment of self-awareness, Shikamaru sighs and grabs at the back of his neck. “I’m sorry,” he seems to collect himself when he faces Temari, “this is all a lot more than I thought it would be. I haven’t been sleeping and I don’t really have time to rest during the day anymore.”

The joys of being a chunin. Temari remembers those from before her second promotion. But she’s a jonin now, and that comes with heavier burdens to bear than early alarms and gross community coffee. 

“Poor baby,” she dryly responds without an ounce of sympathy. 

She rolls her eyes but she also smiles at him. He may not know it, but this is part of the reason she’s here. Goodwill between nations, observing the first exam as proctor of the second, and to be an extra set of hands when needed. And Temari would never say it aloud, but she relishes being needed. 

While Shikamaru goes about monitoring the exams, Temari walks to the break room to grab a turkey sandwich for him. He wisely avoids any gender-related jokes about the circumstances, but he does lament that all of the ham sandwiches were claimed before Temari got there. 

“Poor baby,” Temari mockingly repeats, taking a bite of her own sandwich.

She wonders, with everything else going on, how long it will take him to notice that she’s got ham.

 

/-/-/-/-/

 

Their sarcastic riffing becomes Temari’s favorite part about seeing Shikamaru.

It nearly was a casualty of war, but they slowly built it back up among the village reconstructions and postwar negotiations. Each creative jab at one another is truly an artistic masterpiece. They effortlessly switch from the pinnacle of professionalism to quick-witted quips at the other’s expense, and it’s fun. Kankuro witnessed their bickering a few months ago and privately told Temari that she and Shikamaru reminded him of an old married couple, and Temari has not known peace ever since.

The banter is fun but sometimes dangerous. One of them— usually Shikamaru— will say something a little too close to flirtatious territory, and then they wind up in painfully awkward silence until one of them is called elsewhere or thinks of something objective to say.

Neutrality is key, Temari thinks while she takes her time finding the book Shikamaru has requested from the Hokage’s shelf. They need to think of something neutral to discuss because otherwise he might toe the line of their relationship dynamic again and Temari might be okay with him doing that. 

She pulls the book from the shelf and coughs at the swirl of dust her movement creates. “I don’t think any Hokage has touched this book since it was first put on the shelf,” she wheezes, proud to have cleared the air between them.

“The Hokage still isn’t touching it,” Shikamaru points out. “I am.”

And isn’t that a thought: Shikamaru as the seventh Hokage. 

He’d never go for it, so Temari doesn’t share that thought with him. It’s pretty much established that Naruto will take the mantle once Kakashi decides he’s ready for it. Shikamaru will be there, of course, but he’d desert the village before vying for the Kage title himself. But Temari can picture it so clearly in her mind’s eye, the vision enhanced by the sight of Shikamaru easily collapsing into the Hokage’s chair and moving things around as if it were actually his desk.

In spite of herself, Temari quite likes that image. In spite of herself, Temari quite likes him. She knows no white robes or lack thereof are going to change that.

Temari sits on the edge of the Hokage’s desk and hands over the book. “Remind me why I just spent a half hour looking for this. It’s older than Lady Fifth.”

She loves it when Shikamaru explains things to her. He never dumbs down the principles or the history of the Leaf though there’s no reason for Temari to have prior knowledge of these things. He’s methodical and rational and surprisingly patient when she asks follow-up questions that may or may not be relevant. 

And then, every now and again, he’ll finish with something that leaves Temari a little breathless, and they get stuck in those stupid silences.

“Just love me,” is his particular choice of concluding words this time, exasperated but undeniably intentional. 

It’s not even his words that get to Temari. It’s that she has to stop herself from leading her snarky comeback with “I think I do.” 

There’s a palpable shift of energy in the Hokage’s office. The space between them is stifling, and the moonlight through the windows makes working overtime almost feel like a romantic rendezvous, and with no additional noises of daily business, every sound they make is pronounced; every half-finished thought muttered, every heavy swallow, each shallow breath and sigh and yawn. 

“We have to understand where we come from so we know where we’re going,” Shikamaru vaguely explains as he flips open the cover of the historical book, not entirely changing the subject but reiterating his previous point, as if that will erase his “just love me” and the resulting tension. 

The focused crease in his brow deepens when he can’t separate the individual pages. He tries again to delicately pry the old paper apart without damaging the book, and there’s something about watching him do it that makes Temari hot under the collar. His gentle thumbing at the edges of the pages is practically a caress; if Temari thinks about it too hard, she can almost imagine how that same touch would feel if it were tucking hair behind her ear, or if his prying were directed at the buttons on her blouse instead, and she needs to get out of there now. 

She’s about to vocalize this thought when it happens. 

Shikamaru’s eyes widen for a fraction of a second before they squint shut in pain, his lips rolling inward to prevent any outcry. Temari goes on high alert, peering through the windows to see if any attacker is using some painful jutsu. No one appears to be nearby but that means close to nothing in the shinobi world.

When she deems the coast clear enough to request a status update, she leans across the desk and lowers her voice, not masking any of her worry. “What’s wrong?”

What’s wrong is the tight grip Shikamaru has around the base of his thumb. What’s wrong is his heavy exhale as he forcibly unclenches every muscle in his body. 

“Paper cut,” he grits out as if he’s been stabbed.

It’s then that Temari learns the hailed genius of Konoha is a massive tit. She’s so shocked and instantly relieved that yes, he’s alright, he’s just more dramatic than Kankuro, she can’t fight the laughter bursting from her lips. 

“You big baby,” she teases through her clipped version of a giggle. 

Temari reaches out toward Shikamaru and is met with a skeptical look. She captures his wrist and brings it to her face, giving him a look that reads trust me. Her eyes don’t leave his when she slides her fingers up to his thumb and presses a firm kiss to the barely split skin. 

“All better,” she says, releasing her hold and sitting upright. 

Shikamaru shakes his head. “All better,” he repeats, subtly tugging at his collar.

 

/-/-/-/-/

 

It’s been a long day.

Shikamaru is grateful for each agonizing minute because they added up to the least probable but most favorable outcome. The Ootsutsuki and Kara are minimal threats now. Naruto, Sasuke, Boruto, and Kawaki are all safe. Hell, Shikadai is safe, staying the night with Inojin and probably sound asleep by now. 

The front door of his house has never looked more inviting. Shikamaru slides it open and, for the first time all day, has a second to catch his breath. He hangs his coat on the rack by the door and stretches. His old bones and aching muscles sing at the relief. 

Dinner is probably in the fridge but he’s too tired to go about theoretically reheating it. A shower would be nice and would take the least amount of time to accomplish. He tiptoes toward the bathroom, the texture of the matted floor welcoming to his senses. He pauses to peek into his bedroom and smiles, his heart content with the lump between the sheets.

He is home. He is safe.

The cool metal of his wedding ring around a long, corded necklace lands against his chest when he gets his shirt off in the bathroom. He idly reaches up to touch it; another talisman of safety and peace, a tangible reminder of why he spends every waking second working himself into the ground. It’s for quiet nights like these. For the peace of mind that comes with Ino and Sai opening their home to his son, with his wife comfortable in the home they’ve made together.

Just as he gets ahold of the golden ring, there’s a rustling from behind his cracked bedroom door.

“Baby?”

All of the weariness melts from Shikamaru’s bones at Temari’s half-asleep beckoning. It wouldn’t matter if they were separated in a crowd of hundreds of people; she’s been calling him baby for so long he’s learned to respond to it like it’s his given name.