"We're a candle being burned at both ends and the middle," Temari said, picking herself up off the floor, off of him, and pulling her disheveled dress back into some semblance of order. "We have to burn out one day."
Something about the way the fabric was twisted suggested that she was engaged in a futile endeavor. Something about the way Shikamaru looked up at her from where he lay suggested the same.
"No, we're not," he said, shirtless and flushed.
"Then what are we?"
She was in his apartment, again. Standing, though barely, on knees that didn't want to support her after what they'd done. Her dress intensified its resistance, bordering on all out revolt, and all because she hadn't been able to wait even that long. Her analogy seemed most apt.
"I don't know. I'll tell you when I figure it out."
"When you get around to it."
He already knew what he thought they were, and she knew he had already decided by then. Nature and humanity had set the precedents: opposite-charge particles under pressure, inexorably drawn together before being torn apart in a flurry of Brownian motion; the star-crossed and ill-fated lovers of endless folklore from every culture; a binary system of extreme eccentricity revolving around a mutual focus but unable to touch; a classic story of forbidden attraction that inevitably ends in tragedy. The cliche hurt her in a profoundly physical way.
She refused to admit to anything. Better to believe it was temporary, fleeting, indefinite. A youthful indiscretion to be written off later but enjoyed to its utmost at the time.
She tore his pants off his legs and locked herself in his bedroom as a joke to hide the fact that she didn't like where the conversation was going. He knocked on the door once to make sure she had a chance to laugh at him. She mended a small tear to keep her mind off of things.
Her visits tended to have this delirious quality. Fantasy was paramount, a supreme desire to make-believe, to play house. She only did these small domestic things because she secretly wished she didn't have to be a burning candle, wick irreversibly charred and sweating molten wax. She did them because she knew that one day she would be nothing but a disfigured mound that had melted out of shape, a wretched stump bitter with the acrid smell of exhaustion and defeat, and that her heart would have flared out along with the rest of her.
Every time she left she kissed him, in private, like she would never see him again. Every time she left, she kissed him with all she had because she was sure that was the last night. She kissed him and told herself that was it, that was the end, and that she would tell him the next time he dropped in on a messenger run or an assassination or whatever it was he was doing in her city.
She put it off, but then he would show up like he always did and then where would she be?
Lying on her back, probably. Whispering his name because she had too much dignity to scream it, and because she is so used to pretending to the rest of the world and herself that this did not exist.
And so they would make another orbit of each other, each time leaving a little more of themselves behind, a nebulous cloud accreting between them and growing denser each time.
He was so damnably silent. If he had doubts, he never voiced them. At least she had the honesty and decency and courage to admit them even in a cryptic, round-about way.
Once, they ran into each other completely by accident. Both on solo missions, in the dense woods near the border Tsuchi shared with both their countries. It had been raining for days and a dam had broken, and a major bridge had flooded over. They shared a hotel room, incognito of course, for half a week. Her routine, their routine had been broken, but the fantasy persisted. Oddly, neither seemed insistent on the torrid, insensate sex that characterized the beginnings of their rare encounters, the explosive release of weeks of sharply defined tension.
Instead, they sat on the covered balcony dressed in clean civilian clothes and watched the rain, talking sotto voce because they were afraid of waking up the world. They made love, just once, when the sun finally came out, because they never did know when they would meet again.
She kissed him before she left, like always, but it had been softer, simpler, quicker.
Something changed. The nebula between them was acquiring a gravity all on its own.
The next time she saw him, she attacked him with more vigor than ever before, more blatantly seductive, more outrageously burlesque, just to prove that things were still the same. She was surprised when he calmly disentangled himself. That was it, she thought, for one heart-wrenching moment. That the end she'd been waiting for so long was finally there, with her, laughing at her impotence and mocking the pain that stabbed through her chest and drowned her lungs in her own blood.
She was sobbing uncontrollably when he came back from the kitchen with drinks, and dinner, and the most confused look she had ever seen him wear. He had the decency not to smirk, because he had a bad habit of saying 'I told you so' without actually saying it, and it was the most infuriating thing she had ever had the misfortune to have lorded over her.
Instead he put down the takeout he'd been planning on eating himself before her unannounced arrival and wrapped his arms around her.
When she woke up, she realized she was still dressed. His bed felt different through an additional layer of clothing, and it was strange walking out into the rest of the apartment without his blanket wrapped around her. She had even had an opportunity to take her hair down properly, and it wasn't tangled and matted with old sweat.
"Morning," he said, not looking up from the morning paper. "Tea?"
She nodded mutely, and sat across from him, eyes on the headlines as she wrapped her hands around the mug he pushed towards her. Perhaps hell had frozen over. Or explorers had returned from abroad with winged pigs.
The tea was nice, different from the spiced varieties available at home. Less sharp, more soothing. Eventually, she couldn't take it any more.
"What's going on here?"
"I'll let you know when I figure it out," he said, echoing himself from earlier, and it was frustrating. Her hands clenched into fists on the table.
"If you're going to make fun of me I'll just go now." The ache she couldn't explain was back, but there were no tears. She'd exhausted a year's supply in one night over the stupidest little thing, and she would not cry again for a long time. Certainly not over him.
"...alright. Are we going to talk about this?"
"...maybe." He smiled, like he had in that hotel besieged by rain that one time. Quiet, tinged with an unbearable sorrow she didn't know how to comfort.
His hand, those long, magical fingers, wrapped around her right, and he put down the paper with the other. It wasn't a game any more. He wasn't a boy in another town she could visit to satisfy herself. It was a youthful indiscretion that had outlasted her youth. At twenty-six, she was a woman. She needed to be responsible.
"Did you do this?"
She had to ask. He was too good, sometimes. Too smart, too manipulative. He played games, played to win, and he could have led her on, let her believe she was having her way.
He'd even explained to her once, about one of his favorite game. Go was the slowest board game of all. It was played on an enormous field, players depositing single stones at a time. But the best players could unfold an entire strategy without letting their opponent realize anything was remotely amiss.
Go was a game of surprise, and she'd been blind-sided by one of its masters.
"This. To me."
He reached for her other fist, enclosing it, caressing it, and pulling her hands towards him. Her wrists grazed each other, and she imagined them cuffed and bound. Captured, locked to the table surface, awaiting interrogation.
"What do you think?" he said, releasing her. What kind of interrogator refused to press his advantage?
"I don't know."
She found herself craving touch, and not with the same intensity and drive as before. Just simple things: arms, wrists, fingers. Lips and collar and thigh could wait for now. So she acted, without really realizing it. Fists relaxed, fingers groped blindly across the table because she was watching his eyes for the first time.
There was a moment of understanding in his dark, flat stare, a flicker of enlightenment that was meant for him and him alone, and she knew then this was not something he had cynically engineered for his benefit. It was frightening and exhilarating and endlessly antagonizing and all she had was a handful of fingers.
He left her alone in his place because he was still on duty that day. Normally, this would be when she would give him that desperate kiss and escape into the village's shadows and make her way free. She couldn't do it.
"I need a shower first," she said by way of excuse, but when the door closed and his footsteps receded, she turned and sat down at the table, grabbing handfuls of her hair in twin fists.
The table's surface lost her interest in the first fifteen seconds, and she lost herself wandering around. For the first time, she got to know his place. She already knew the basics: bedroom, front hall, bedroom, kitchen, bedroom again, bathroom, bedroom. But she'd never bothered to look past his lean chest or corded arms or the smoldering gaze he reserved for her.
A bookcase, packed with texts, and two rows deep in some places. No obvious organizational scheme among them, just the sort of random subjects a true polymath might enjoy.
On the windowsill, a plant, slowly dying from neglect. Had this been there last time? She didn't know. Withered petals surrounded its dry stem, still a vibrant fuschia even though they were long dead. She took pity on it and watered it without knowing why -- she kept no plants herself, and she was likely only prolonging its agony.
Pictures, a very few, but nicely framed anyway. An older man, with a goatee and some decidedly unattractive facial scars, slouching on a bench with an equally unattractive cigarette stub dangling from his lips, and a woman only slightly past a gorgeous prime with long black hair standing primly beside him. She had the demeanor of a kunoichi, even without the obvious Konoha service jacket. It must have been his mother, but not, because she had imagined some sort of snaggle-toothed, wrinkled hag with a dragon's lungs based on his description. She knew the man to be his father, so quod erat demonstratum.
That was the first time she felt envy without recrimination.
Another picture, this time of a different smoker, and three kids she remembered meeting once. He was sitting on the left, staring out of the frame with his perpetual frown. A blonde girl and a fat kid filled the other two positions in front of the smoking man, and the girl had her arms draped over both boys' shoulders and a cocky grin on her face. She wondered what it was like to be that girl, to have known him in a different but equally intimate way.
She listened to his music while she cleaned her fan.
He was startled by her presence when he returned, late in the afternoon, another first in a long chain. She was heading out the door anyway, and she kissed him, another light touch just brushing his lips.
"I'll see you again," she said, turning to go.
"I'd like that," he said, and that was the new way of things in the world.
More things changed. She dropped in more often, but more often he was not there. He adopted an accelerated tempo of missions, an increased workload, and it puzzled her. She still used him, but less frequently and less violently, less rushed, less demanding. Sometimes that didn't even happen.
They started writing letters. Or, more correctly, he started writing letters, and she started replying. Nothing romantic: the first one, and she saved it, said only 'Rough mission. Mostly alive.' He didn't sign it.
Once, picking herself up off of him -- they'd just been kissing, and her dress seemed much happier about that -- she realized he'd installed a cork bulletin board on the one empty wall of his place. It was slightly skewed, and the every other screw was stripped bare to the metal, or not completely sunk. It was shocking to imagine him being bad at something.
"Don't laugh," he said, pulling what was left of his ponytail out of the band. "I've been meaning to put that up for a while."
"What is it?"
"A tack board."
"I couldn't tell. I meant, what is it for?"
"I'm not sure yet. Are you staying?"
There was a slight plea in his voice when he said that, something pulling at her insides.
"I can't," she said, and the edge of his eye twitched a little. "I want to, but I can't. I have to go."
"Okay," he said, and smirked.
On subsequent visits, the board was filling up. His pantry emptied at the same time, healthier food exchanged for instant noodles and fruit replaced by high-sugar energy snacks. Pictures and names pinned up in sloppy rows, with bits of information scribbled down with a miniscule, manic hand. She'd never seen his writing before, and she wondered how he could read it, because it was so small and hard on the eyes. She could barely decide on the meaning of three words to a sentence, and none of it made sense.
He'd stopped playing board games, she noticed. His chess set had acquired a fine patina of dust, a grey sheen that reflected no light from any angle. It frightened her.
"Are you okay?" she was compelled to ask, once, again as she was on her way out the door.
"I'm not sure," he said.
"You're an idiot, so I guess I shouldn't ask you. Do I need to have you sent to a professional?"
He scowled at that.
"Well, are you okay? It's a yes or no question."
He paused, and this time he was the one to kiss her goodbye.
"I will be."
As she left and headed down the stairs, she heard him mutter something under his breath. But the wind was her element, and she sharpened the consecutive pressure waves so that they were as loud as though he'd been standing next to her.
"...stars, Temari," he said. Then: "If I burn out, you're going to be able to see me." And: "Dad was right."
His door clicked shut. None of that made sense. She wondered if she was starting to worry.
She came home one day to find him sitting on her couch, his fingertips annealed together and his eyes closed. He was thinking about something intense and profound. He was playing a game with the world, and he only played two kinds of games: board games, and big, dangerous, life threatening games where he often came out by the skin of his teeth. He'd given up on board games.
This pose, she'd discovered, was not about thinking ahead. He could do that without any effort, engineering endlessly complex, interlocking schemes in his mind that unfolded with tectonic sureness or lightning rapidity. This pose, she'd discovered, was actually the error check. When all his pieces were in place, when the plan was about to come together or fall violently apart. This was the time to abort, and the time in which he went over the endgame in his head.
She discovered she really was worried.
He came out of thinking like coming out of a trance, except that he was always fully aware of the world. When he came out of it, she knew he was fully aware of her, standing in her doorway and staring at him.
"Will you close the door?" he asked, one eye open and the brow arched up. "Someone's going to see me and I don't have a visa this time."
She did, and their veil of secrecy came down again. She propped her fan up against it, angled just under the doorknob, and stalked over to where he sat, insinuating herself into his lap, arms around his neck. What was he doing?
"Do you trust me?"
Another abrupt question, another upheaval and another piece of her once-solid world disintegrating because of him. Why couldn't she have ended it when it still made sense?
"What are you doing?"
"I can't tell you. You have to trust me. Do you?"
He was insistent, and his eyes turned mechanically, dissecting his environment, and meeting hers. He was taking her apart, piece by piece, in his head. Determining and assessing strategic value, with an intensity that was terrifying. She was getting wet.
"Do you trust that I'm not going to do something to your country?"
Because ultimately that's where her loyalties had to lie. No matter what, if she wanted to live and they asked her to prove herself, he would have to die at her hand.
Please don't be stupid, she begged him silently. Please.
But she just nodded and didn't know why. He was still staring at her.
"Good. I have a favour to ask."
He produced an thin scroll, sealed with the wax emblem of the Kaze daimyo, and pressed it into her hands. He also gave her a vial, filled with dark purple fluid. It flickered with illicit intent, contraband she should not ever have.
"Where did you get this?" Her voice came out like a hiss. If she did not trust him, he should have had a kunai buried in his heart then.
"I had it made," he said, as though he were discussing the peculiarities of the failed political experiment Yuki no Kuni had tried several generations ago. "You go on duty body guarding the daimyo in four days. Find his majordomo, the one responsible for scheduling his appointments, and find a way to switch this schedule with the one he's made for the week after this one. Feed this to his majordomo. Food, drink, whatever. It'll cloud his memory and he won't remember that he didn't make this schedule. Just a few drops."
If anyone was going to sneak in an assassin or anyone else who wanted to get close to the daimyo for nefarious purposes, this was it. Shikamaru should have had no fewer than ten kunai buried in his chest now, one for every potentially threatening phrase.
"Do you trust me?"
"Can you do this?"
Her heart, her traitorous heart, her heart that had sworn an oath to her country, to her brother, a heart that knew any betrayal on her part would end with a shattered country, a shattered ruler, and a brother shattered again after so many years spent putting him back together -- her heart pounded acid into her veins and demanded only one answer.
"Good," he said, and winced. "Tell me if you decide you can't."
He kissed her once, quick and chaste, and disappeared before she could ask any more. He didn't say he trusted her, but he didn't need to. She had all the evidence necessary to send every Anbu Sunagakure had chasing into the night, and he would never come back from that.
But nothing happened. She switched the scrolls, and did it again the next month too, and nothing bad happened. Intensely curious, she watched the daimyo with an eagle's discerning eye, and paid close attention to the briefings his personal doctors were required to give. He wasn't poisoned, or ailing, and never assaulted. The majordomo had a few foggy moments that were potentially embarrassing in the court, but nothing more came of it. The people on Shikamaru's schedules were businessmen, nobles, lobbyists seeking to curry the daimyo's favour. They promised this and that, in exchange for this or that, and Temari considered them all with her warrior's condescension. None of them were fighters or ninjas. Only a few had any chakra worth mentioning and most seemed unaware it was even there.
Their cycle continued to repeat. They would meet now sometimes just to be together. They never talked about the favours he'd asked of her. The tack board continued to fill up.
Things again shifted abruptly one morning when she woke up alone and nauseous and wondered where he'd gone when she realized she was supposed to be alone this morning. Fifteen minutes of dry retching helped her stomach little, but she managed to avoid puking stomach acid up into the back of her throat.
"Oh, shit," she said, knowing that this was the worst possible outcome.
She should have seen it coming. They'd used protection at first, but then sometimes they couldn't wait. And then that became the norm, and shit shit shit shit.
She couldn't get rid of it. Word would get around, because everyone was beholden to her brother, and if he found out her life was forfeit. Children were a touchy subject for him. One time he had slaughtered a band that had robbed an orphanage -- they hadn't even touched the children, but he didn't grant them the mercy of an instant death.
Even worse, when she arrived unannounced in Konoha three days later, stalking him from an opposite rooftop, she watched a blonde -- the blonde, from his team picture -- give him a strong hug and a friendly punch in the arm. The blonde left his dark apartment looking too suspiciously nonchalant and too well-groomed and too damn beautiful and something hot and furious switched on inside of her.
Shikamaru's bulletin board was now almost four sheets deep, still more pictures and notes and by now it had to be an endless fount of information. She didn't care. She wanted him dead, in that moment. Everything boiled down to him. Everything. The vomiting, the rage, the confusion, the secret betrayals, the secret liaisons, the trysts, the things he inspired in her that she could not leave alone.
She entered through the balcony, touching down lightly outside and slipping in through the door -- he left it unlocked. Sloppy move, for someone as smart as he was supposed to be. He was sitting on his couch, elbows on his knees, hands in that damned thinking position.
A zen master draped in shadow, a lurking angler fish with nothing but a sliver of light from the street lamp outside dancing on his forehead, unwittingly moments away from certain death. The fan came out, unfurled to all three points, and the light on his face disappeared.
"Who was she?"
It was a snarl, no less.
"You met Ino. Exams, way back when," he says, calm as ever. His eyes are still closed as he stands.
"Is that what you do? Get a girl to do your dirty work, get her pregnant and then switch off? Are you doing her no..."
Her voice failed her, because in her rage she'd forgotten where she was, bathed in darkness, in his house. His playing field. His eyes snapped open, and he forced her to drop her fan. He stood in front of her half-eclipsed by her own shadow. Her hands were stuck, now, in that familiar position, and then they came apart, forced to relax at her sides. She fought it every step of the way, but he was stronger and older now, and she had not experienced this since he had defeated her long ago.
"Ino is married," he said, barely a hiss in the darkness. His eyes narrow, almost like a serpent's. "And I am certain that Kiba does not appreciate you impugning her virtue. I know I don't."
Her eyes, it seemed, were the only part of her that could manage expression. She still wanted to believe he was at fault for everything, and the bald admonishment stung. Normally she did most of the talking, but he had her now. He could force her to do anything, bound in his shadow.
"I like talking to you," he said, "because you're smart and level-headed, and you aren't an emotional pain in the ass like most girls. If you're ready to be Temari again, I'm willing to listen to whatever you have to say. But Ino has nothing to do with us."
She was still fighting. Still trembling against the invisible bindings that held her. Still furious, still confused, and unable to escape the level gaze he was giving her, the one that reached into her and took her to pieces. But she was not ready to talk, not by any means. The instant he let up, she would throttle him.
He seemed to know it, and shrugged. So did she.
"Do you have any idea what you do to me?"
He paused, as though she could answer, long enough to hear an answer.
"This. You do this to me," he said, and he turned one way, forcing her to turn the other way and look at the bulletin board and it's super-dense array of information. "This is work. This is not a project Naruto gave me. This is not strategic planning for the country or the village. My chess group has not seen me in three months."
He grabbed his forehead, and so did she. His zen master calm had evaporated and he suddenly seemed older, jittery. He was full of caffeine and poisoned with insomnia. His eyes were ringed in gray, heavy with unrequited sloth.
"I'm so tired, Temari. I just want to sleep, and sleep, and sleep. But you're impossible. You're always here, when I least expect it. I can't figure you out, and I can't stand that. I can't even remember how it started, because it's been the same for so long. Years."
She stopped fighting him. He let her go, and slumped down onto the couch.
"So do you want to talk now?"
She stared at him in the dark where he'd fallen. Only his feet stuck out into the light now, and the rage had crumbled.
"...sorry," she said, mumbling and ruing that she was giving in so easily. She hated so much. Hated her enemies, hated incompetence and ignorance, hated weakness, hated losing. Hated people for their hypocrisy and stupidity, hated the way they groveled at Gaara's feet after they'd abused him for so long. Hated Shikamaru for his smugness and invincibility, for his imperviousness to the confusion that had haunted her for so long.
Except that he wasn't invincible any more. He was just as messed up as she was. Just better at covering it up. She wanted to hold him until things were okay again.
"I have bad news."
"This," she said, taking his hand and pressing it to her belly.
He could have said a hundred things. He could have joked (you're not fat), he could have run screaming (oh holy hell I'm not ready for this), he could have gushed (that's wonderful), he could have been confused (you're kidding right), he could have passed out. She would have killed him for any of those.
"Oh," he said, and reversed her grip so he was holding her wrist, and pulled her down on top of him. And then he held her until things were okay again.
She couldn't hate him, no matter how hard she tried.
"I want her to have a father," she said, trying to avoid shattering the darkness by keeping her voice a whisper. "I want her to have a father, but she can't."
"I am not marrying some random dude just so she can have a father. It's not fair to her. It's definitely not fair to me. It's not fair..." To you, but she couldn't bring herself to say it.
"How do you know it's a she?"
"I'm her mother. I know." She could feel him rolling his eyes without looking, and she punched him. And then, less than fifteen seconds later, their fingers were entwined again. She only felt safe, insulated.
"I'm not leaving her here with you, either," she said. "Because she's going to be my daughter."
"I know that. I wasn't asking you to."
"So what are you talking about?"
"That," he said, and gestured with his head at the bulletin board. By then it seemed like it should have fallen off the wall. "...she could have a father."
She was too confused and tired.
"Just shut up," she said. "Just shut up."
She tried, though. She tried to pretend everything was going to be fine. No one knew. No one had to. She continued her duties, ran her missions.
Some things had to change, though. More things, as much as she hated change. She fought at longer range, never letting anyone come close to her or her cargo. She lurked with greater stealth, so no one would know where she was, her or her unborn child.
Seasons passed, as though anyone not a native could tell in Sunagakure. She and Shikamaru continued to evolve. She wanted more complex things than lust now. Stupid things like playing with his hair, wanting to wrap her arms around him in the middle of the night for no reason other than he was there and would be gone in the morning.
She changed. Looser dresses were no longer cutting it, and finally she had to ask Gaara to cut her from the duty roster for a time. It was difficult, asking him for time to talk in private, because he was embroiled in negotiations with Naruto, and the demand for S-level bodyguards was at an all time high with the level of bigwig traffic that had bloomed between Ho and Kaze. Trade agreements were being settled, crops and wood from the north in exchange for iron and precious minerals from the south. A marriage was being considered between the two royal houses.
But he came, because she was still his sister no matter how superficially estranged they might have been.
He was still intimidating when he stood in her doorway, with his dispassionate eyes and chilling stare. He had grown, too, looking more and more like their mutual bastard of a father, and that frightened her.
"May I come in?"
"Please," she said, biting her lip. She was seated, facing away from the door. She wasn't wearing the loose shirt she'd managed to hide behind for so many months. She wanted him to see what she really looked like now, bloated with promise and treachery. She hoped he wouldn't do something crazy.
"You have requested time off from your duti..."
Gaara trailed off as he saw her. She looked up at him with hopeful eyes, searching his face as he fixed on her protruding stomach.
"You," he said, quietly, frowning. "You are a mother. How?"
"I met a man," she said, after a pause. And then, defensively: "A good man. He's strong. He's smart."
Gaara moved closer. Barely a pace away, standing next to her legs where they were pressed together in front of her. The omnipresent gourd weighing him down, an uncomprehending stare on his face.
"Will you...will you love it?"
"Her," she said, correcting him. Not surprised at his question. The mark tattooed into his forehead. "Yes. She'll be my daughter."
"Will he love her?"
"He wants the chance."
Gaara, the Kazekage, the most invincible man Sunagakure had ever known, was kneeling now, at her feet.
"Will she love me?"
Temari was stunned at that. Silent for perhaps too long, because his eyes turned to her, beseeching.
"Yes," she said. "You'll be her uncle. She'll love you if you love her."
"She'll love me, if I love her," he repeated, turning his eyes back towards her womb, the protrusion that presaged another life, one that he might one day hold dear. One with which he had a blank slate, a chance to start over. A chance to be happy. A life that might teach him what love was really like, a life that might not fear him.
"The father...does he love you?"
And this was it, then. Not all the false starts, all the time she wished she'd known what to say. All the confusion left her, rising out of her, frightened away by the bloody mark on her little brother's head.
"I think he does."
"Ow," she said, twisting. "She's bloody strong. She kicks like a mule."
The Kazekage missed a meeting because he had his ear pressed to a pregnant woman's belly, listening to a double heartbeat.
She wasn't able to visit Shikamaru any more. She was too heavy to move, and her child -- she hadn't thought of a name yet -- was playing havoc with her chakra system. He came, sometimes, sneaking in. With her in this condition, she learned he'd taken over the duty of controlling access to the daimyo. He was almost constantly in thought, or in motion.
"Why are you doing this?" she asked, finally, as he sat on the edge of her bed, his fingers pressed together and his eyes closed. "What is this all for?"
"You," he said. "Because you chose to trust me. That's all."
"Then trust me," she said. "Tell me what you're doing. Because you're going to get yourself killed before you see her born."
He didn't say anything, only frowning deeper.
"I won't get to see her born unless I do this anyway."
"So what is it?"
His hands unfolded, and for the first time in ages, she saw the genuine smile he shared only extremely rarely. The third time, for her, and this time there was no sorrow, no hidden fear. Confidence chased the new lines and the dark circles from his face, and he seemed like a boy again. A boy with an enormous brain, who knew he was winning, who knew no one else knew he was winning, and who knew his winning would astonish everyone. A boy who lived for shocked faces, and an admission they'd all underestimated him.
"This," he said, and he bent down, pulling a sheaf of papers from a bag he'd been carrying.
"You're smarter than that."
"I was joking."
She took it from him, flicking through the pages, scanning the endless lines of text. And she had to admit, she had underestimated him.
It was titled: 'Formal Declaration of Permanent Alliance Between Ho no Kuni and Kaze no Kuni'. It wasn't signed yet, but the look on his face told her it would be.
He was burnt out. He would need rest. He would need to be lazy again. But he was brighter than ay star.
She didn't have to say she loved him. He'd always known, or he wouldn't have bothered. But she did anyway.