For lovesrainscent. It's going to be beautiful.
Embracing the Inevitable
Shikamaru visited Temari's room at the inn for one reason only, and that was to apologize. He wasn't good at saying 'I'm sorry,' and even worse at figuring out when he should be apologizing at all, so he usually erred on the side of pretending nothing had happened. But this was one of those rare times when he knew he'd screwed up; even if he'd been unsure of Temari's feelings about the matter, there was school, years of training, and the law to make it painfully obvious.
Right after the second knock he saw that shadow pass behind the peephole to let him know Temari was looking out on him. But it still took forever for her to open the door, and when she did she was toweling her hair dry, her body wrapped in a terrycloth robe. Just out of the shower. He swallowed hard and thought about his mission here; he didn't think about the fact that women don't let men see them in their bathrobes unless there's a certain level of intimacy between them.
"Listen, Temari..." He couldn't stop a guilty hand from lifting to the back of his neck and giving it a scratch. "I'm sorry about today."
She just stared at him, gaze piercing, towel rubbing roughly against damp waves. Expecting more than that.
"I shouldn't have kissed you," he said. "Clearly, that was a mistake. You're a diplomat, and a woman, and as such should have been treated with respect."
"The kiss didn't bother me that much," she said. "I took issue when you grabbed my ass."
"I didn't technically grab it..." he began, but he trailed off at the look on her face and sighed. "I mean, I also should not have laid hands on you."
A long, cool silence. But then, miraculously, the corner of her lips quirked.
"You're right. You shouldn't have." He opened his mouth to respond, but words failed him when Temari plucked at the front of his t-shirt and drew him into the room. She shut the door behind them, then turned the deadbolt with a deafening click. Then she added, "...especially considering the professional nature of our relationship."
Right. He completely agreed. This did not explain why he was now on the wrong side of the door.
Temari advanced on him and slid her hands up over his chest. She wrapped her arms behind his neck, which forced her on to her toes and put her face close to his, and now he was really damned confused.
"What are you-"
He was silenced by her mouth on his. Which he'd probably secretly been hoping for, but didn't change the fact that she was right, they did have a professional relationship, he was her escort, not some kind of gigolo, which were the exact same points he'd been repeating to himself over and over, before, during, and after the last kiss. And that hadn't turned out well.
He reached behind his neck and untwined her arms, breaking free from the kiss.
"This isn't why I came here."
"I know," she said, and her eyes narrowed playfully. "I like that about you."
She kissed him again, and this time it was harder to pull away. Not only because he didn't want to get away, but also because Temari was pretty freaking strong in the arms. He gave in to her for a moment and let his consciousness be swallowed up by her warmth, her closeness, let himself pretend that this was okay, that he wasn't violating every law that existed pertaining to foreign shinobi fraternization, that he wasn't going to get demoted to genin and forced to weed gardens for the rest of his life while some other shmuck followed Temari around the village during her official visits. The bathrobe between them was thick and fluffy enough that he couldn't feel her body underneath it, but not enough to keep him from imagining how easy it would be to pull that tie and let it all fall open in front so he could see her naked and satisfy months of wild imaginings and desperate curiosity. He wouldn't be weeding gardens after that. He'd be fired.
"This isn't fair."
"What's not?" she said, but she kept her lips on his and he was forced to talk around them.
"Konoha has no- -mmph. No right to discipline you..."
"Stop kissing me, then..."
"You're going to get me in trouble, woman..."
Now her mouth was near his ear, lips brushing him when she whispered. Teasing, but dangerous.
"You don't have to worry about that. I'm not going to tell anyone."
He growled, frustrated, but she pushed him backward onto a couch. Then she climbed into his lap, straddling him, and worked on his hair tie with one hand while her mouth fell on his. It took all of his mental fortitude to keep arguing with her like this.
"Temari, we can't..."
"You're absolutely correct. We can't."
She gave a low chuckle that he felt in his groin. "Mm-hm. Very wrong." Then he saw, in the corner of his eye, her hand move toward the tie of her robe. And, knowing that he wouldn't be able to fight this lust much longer, he panicked.
"Temari, no. I don't have a- -I mean, I don't carry a- -I mean, I've never even needed a-"
She gazed at him with eyes that were surprisingly soft, and totally trustworthy. "Relax. It's one time. You're not going to get me in trouble, and I'm not going to get you in trouble. I promise."
He knew that logic was faulty, and it scared him that Temari, usually so rational, had abandoned intellectual examination at a crucial time like this. But he couldn't seem to figure out why it was faulty, couldn't poke holes through the flimsy pretenses, and the next thing he knew the tie was loose and Temari was running fingers under the edge of her robe. With a smile like fire, she shrugged her shoulders and let the robe slip down to her elbows.
He never saw daylight again.
Packing a bag with a two-year-old "helping" was a pain, but it could have been a lot worse. Temari had it easy with Kei, who was a smart and low-key child, and never seemed to get overly excited about things to the point of driving her crazy. She'd seen some children like that, and she didn't know how they made it to puberty without their parents tying them to a rock in the desert and leaving them for the vultures.
No, Kei just wandered back and forth on stubby legs, taking his stuffed animals and miniature puppets from his small bed across the room and bringing them to her. He had a thousand of them and was attached to every single one, which she could only assume was a trait he'd inherited from Kankuro because she had never had a doll or teddy bear in her life.
An inert monkey puppet was thrust up toward her, and she glanced down at its master who was watching her with hopeful eyes.
"This is the last one," she said. "I won't have room for clothes if we pack any more."
"And you need to take it to Kankuro and have him pull out the poison needles, first."
Kei glanced left and right, as if weighing the benefits of arguing with her about this. More than any other, it was this expression that gave him the face of his father. And it hit her hard.
"Do what I tell you," she said, without waiting for him to make up his mind. "I don't want to get shot in the ass while we're walking. Again."
He slumped a little, but then he hurried out of the room in search of his uncle. Temari took the opportunity to cram everything else she needed into the pack and get it over with, leaving space in a front pouch for the monkey. Kei soon returned with the neutered monkey and placed it in the pouch himself, then set about the arduous task of climbing up onto Temari's bed. Tiny hands grabbed the comforter, dark, messy hair popped up above the mattress, and was followed by a determined face. He worked his way up, feet scrambling for purchase, and once on the bed he lay flat on his back like he was exhausted.
"I made it," he said to the ceiling. Temari took it upon herself to provide the response.
"Where we going?"
She'd been dreading this conversation, because she was afraid that she would have to lie to him eventually. He was the most curious kid on the planet, and the never-ending whys and how comes would result in him having too much information if answered completely honestly. She shuffled through her ID cards, and slipped a few necessary ones into a pocket inside her yukata.
"It's where the Hokage lives."
"Why we going there?"
"To see a friend of mine."
"What's her name?"
Paranoid that she'd forgotten her wallet, she checked the pack again to be sure it was there. "My friend is a man," she said. "And his name is Shikamaru."
Kei let this sink in for a minute, his finger wrapping around and around a loose thread on the comforter. Then she saw the question forming on his lips, and before he could utter another why she interrupted him and sent him in search of his water canteen. He reluctantly slipped off the bed, and she heard the sound of his feet slapping the marble floors until he was way down the hall.
She sank onto the edge of her mattress and sighed, then rubbed her face with her fingertips. She didn't know how to answer another why, because she wasn't sure of the reason herself. She had no right to barge into Shikamaru's life and surprise him with a son that was nearly three years old, not after the way she'd mistreated him. But, then, she had no right to keep Kei a secret from him, either. She'd had noble enough reasons for doing it in the first place, but to continue to do it would be nothing more than selfishness and cowardice. In truth, the only concrete excuse she had for going to Konoha was that she'd been gone long enough. She had amends to make. That is, if Shikamaru would even agree to see her. Whether or not it would be smart to tell him the truth about her son remained to be seen.
Kei came back with a canteen, and she filled it for him at the bathroom sink. He wore it over his shoulder, and a pouch of wooden kunai strapped to his thigh. Temari had her own pouch with weapon-grade kunai, and she fastened it at a height that lined it up with her fingertips. She couldn't bring her fan this time, what with the heavy pack she'd be wearing. And even though her son would be able to walk for a little while, she was going to have to carry him for most of the trip. Especially considering the slow way he meandered when he got distracted.
"Mom, Konoha's far away?"
"How far away?"
His eyes got huge, and she gave him a reassuring smile. This was a lie she didn't mind telling. He'd be thrilled when they made it in three days, and she'd be able to avoid all the we there yets when they got closer to their destination.
She shouldered the pack, then pretended not to notice when Kei grabbed one last stuffed ferret for the road. Compared to a butt cheek full of poison needles, it wasn't a battle worth fighting.
O O O
Shikamaru sat in the dirt just outside the village wall, leaning back against the massive wooden door with his eyes closed. He was an idiot for being here. No, he was an idiot for being here for three hours. For putting himself through this misery to see Temari, who had made it very clear to him how much he meant to her. Nothing.
Her letter burned inside his vest pouch, through the layers of tough canvas, through his shirt, until he could feel it against the skin of his chest. How long had he waited for something like this from her? And now here it was, years after he'd given up on it, and all it said was "Coming to Konoha on Saturday. Hope I see you."
He didn't want to see her. Not after she'd just dropped out of his life and broken his heart. He was long past the point of being embarrassed about that. She'd broken his heart. And all they'd had was one night together.
"I love you."
"You don't love me, silly boy. You're just horny."
"You think I would risk my job like this for sex?"
"You're not risking anything. You know you can trust me."
He'd trusted her. And now he wished to god that he hadn't. One night, one time that had turned into a second time in the wee hours of the morning, then a third right after breakfast. Then he'd walked her to the gate, choking on feelings he wasn't used to and didn't know how to control. He loved her. He didn't want her to leave, when he knew it would be another six months until he saw her again. But it had been so easy for Temari. A peck on the cheek once they were beyond the walls, then she slipped away. And after six months dragged by, Shikamaru made his way to the gate to pick up the Suna liaison only to find that Temari would not be coming; her duties as chuunin examiner had been taken over by Kankuro.
He wrote her a letter. When a month passed with no response, he wrote a second. Then he got an escort mission that took him to Suna for an afternoon, and he humiliated himself by going to Gaara and asking to see her. But was informed that she was unavailable, which wasn't even a good excuse like saying she was on a mission.
It wasn't until after the next chuunin exam that Shikamaru's understanding of the situation was made complete. A full year since his One Night with Temari, and Kankuro again acting as chuunin examiner for Suna. By reflex more than anything, Shikamaru asked about Kankuro's siblings, and got way more information than he'd ever wanted.
"Temari's about to pop a kid."
Kankuro's lip had curled with disgust, but Shikamaru was confused.
"What are you talking about?"
"Babies. She's in isolation right now, but she'll be coming home as soon as she squirts the little monster out. Any day now and my life will be filled with screaming and shitty diapers."
"You're on the ball today, huh?"
Then he was finally able to admit to himself that she was done with him. She had a man in Suna, maybe always had. They were going to have a family. Shikamaru would be an afterthought, if she even thought of him at all. He wrote a new series of letters, long, gut-wrenching ones that he ripped up and threw away rather than send. No point in letting her know how much she'd hurt him. No point giving her any more power over him, when she already had everything.
Feet on the gravel in front of him jerked him out of the semi-doze, and he sat up and shielded his eyes from the setting sun. There was no mistaking that figure, silhouetted in fire and gold, or the same hairstyle she'd been wearing since she was fifteen. Temari.
He climbed to his feet, shoving his hands into his pockets and trying not to notice the fact that almost four years and a pregnancy had made her even more beautiful than before. Her hips was curvier, and her eyes held a depth that softened her cruelty, her impulsiveness. She carried a huge pack on her back, nearly as wide as it was tall. His instinct was to offer to help her with it, but he quashed it. Let her carry her own damned pack.
"Hey," she said.
He just stared at her.
"Thanks for seeing me."
She waited, but when he again refused to respond, she went ahead. In true Temari fashion, she went right for the sore spot and jabbed her finger in it.
"I came here to tell you that I'm sorry. It wasn't my intention to hurt you."
"I know that."
Her eyebrows raised slightly. "You do?"
"Of course I do. Intentionally hurting me would mean that you'd considered my feelings at some point."
She sighed, glanced away. "I considered them..." she said, with rising intonation as if she might add more. But she shrugged without finishing the thought. "I'm sorry."
There was contrition in her voice, a surprising moment of weakness that she would not have been capable of four years ago. He was pissed at himself for being even slightly mollified by that, and he gazed off toward the forest.
"I guess you have a kid, now."
Her eyes sparked with interest. "Yeah, I do." Then she turned her back to him, and he didn't know what she was doing until she pulled away a khaki-colored flap that he'd thought was part of her pack, but was actually a thin blanket. Wide, green eyes stared out at him, blinked slowly, and before Shikamaru knew what he was doing he had backed away, two, three steps until the wooden door stopped him.
"What's wrong?" Temari said, concern on her features, and she craned her neck around to look.
"You brought it."
"Well, yeah. What else was I going to do?"
He couldn't help the misery he felt when he looked at the kid. To be forced to acknowledge Temari's other life, her real life, her family. He hated the face that looked so much like Temari, and maybe Gaara, but still had that hint of foreignness, dark hair and a narrow jaw that belied the assistance of that other man.
"I guess I thought you would leave it home with its fa-"
Quick as a snake, Temari reached out and covered his mouth with her fingers.
"Don't say it. The F-word is taboo."
"Because there isn't one. There never was. Just a night of extreme selfishness on my part."
He watched her for signs that she was being dishonest or vengeful, but all he saw was guilt and regret. No father. Not a family after all, but a single mother and a kid without a dad. It was amazing how quickly this knowledge turned his loathing into sympathy. But not for Temari.
"That's how you do things, isn't it?"
Anger flared up in her eyes, but died just as quickly. "I guess I deserve that."
He looked at the baby again, who met his gaze with surprising steadiness for a two-year-old. Then it spoke, voice high with curiosity.
"What's the F-word?"
Temari cringed, and the baby kept watching Shikamaru as if expecting him to give the answer. He looked at its mother for help, but when he got none he was forced to come up with something on the fly.
"Oh," said the baby.
Temari glared at Shikamaru. "But that's a dirty word that will offend people and make you look like a heathen."
"Oh." The baby began to wiggle in the papoose-thing it was in. "I want down."
"Gladly." She worked the kid loose from several folds of fabric, then plopped it on the ground and readjusted the load on her back so that she was carrying the pack right in the middle. Now that Shikamaru could get a look at the way the child was dressed, he realized that it was a boy. It was hard to tell otherwise, the way his hair dangled past his collar like a little girl's. Didn't his mother have any more sense than that?
The boy toddled over until he was standing right in front of Shikamaru, then bent his neck all the way back to look up.
"You have pants."
He wondered if there was going to be a punchline, but this just seemed like a random observance.
Temari laughed reluctantly, then gave a perfunctory introduction. "Shikamaru, Kei. Kei, this is the friend I was telling you about."
Shikamaru's head was spinning. He didn't know what to make of the knowledge that Temari was single, nor this atmosphere that was slowly becoming one of camaraderie when all she deserved was scorn. His walls were starting to come down, which was incredibly frustrating considering how long it had taken him to build them.
"When are you going back to Suna?"
"I have some time off work. Maybe in a week."
"It doesn't take a week to apologize to me."
Vulnerability flashed across her face, another uncharacteristic hint of weakness.
"It does if you want to do it right."
He blinked and she was right in front of him, and this time he couldn't back away because the wall was already blocking him. Emotions rushed through his body at her proximity: fear, confusion, but also frustrating, infuriating hope. She reached up with one hand to touch the pocket of his vest, and he flashed back to that night when she'd come on to him. There had been an apology then, too, and she'd taken advantage of the situation. No way would she try that again. Would she?
"It's important for you to understand something," she said. "It wasn't disinterest that made me avoid you. Things got complicated when I found out I was pregnant."
"You could have told me," he said. "You could have explained what was going on. I wouldn't have judged you if you'd been honest with me."
"I'm sorry, Shikamaru." She stroked the front of his vest like she was petting an animal, a touch that he could hardly feel. "Really sorry." Then she leaned up to kiss him on the cheek, but somewhere in the middle of it his traitorous mouth turned and caught hers like it was the most natural thing. He was sick to realize that he still wanted her, as much as ever, even though he couldn't trust her in the slightest. She kissed him back with more passion than what was fair; he hated her for controlling him, for owning him, for, even now, doing exactly what she wanted regardless of how much it hurt him.
He broke the kiss, then dropped his forehead to hers. "What do you want from me?"
She sighed, fingers still tracing his pocket. "Whatever you're still willing to give."
She was too cruel.
Yoshino's company sense was tingling. She could feel it in the air, like a change in barometric pressure, that there was going to be a twist in today's routine. That meant injury or visitors, and since neither of her boys were on missions she went ahead and got started on washing the curtains.
She'd cleaned the bathroom, dusted, swept, and changed every sheet in the house by the time the curtains were almost dry. She left them a little damp so they wouldn't wrinkle, and was in the process of hanging them back up in the living room windows when she saw her son coming up the walk with a young woman following behind. The woman carried a child, both of them looking tired and dirty from a long road trip, and Shikamaru wore a large pack that she assumed belonged to the traveling pair. Interesting.
She opened the door for the three of them. Shikamaru waited while the woman walked in first, took off her sandals, and then the little boy's. She put him on the floor, but he stayed close by her side. Not hiding, but not really wandering, either. Just standing, looking up at Yoshino with serious, observant eyes.
Shikamaru took off the pack and set it down more carefully than he would have with his own, then made introductions.
"This is Sabaku no Temari."
Yoshino took note of the woman's forehead protector as she bowed.
"Actually, she's the Kazekage's sister," said Shikamaru, to which Temari smiled, bemused.
"You know, there was a time when Gaara was my little brother."
He grinned at her, a bit goofy. The spark of amusement in his eyes caught Yoshino off-guard, because of how long it had been since she'd seen any kind of levity there. Years. For years, he'd been caught in this melancholy that she didn't understand and that he refused to talk about. And now, this. A real smile that made him look his age, instead of like a broken old man. Whatever had happened to him, whoever had hurt him, this Suna kunoichi had healed something in him. And Yoshino, comprehending nothing but suddenly relieved from years of worry, instantly loved her.
"I told Temari you wouldn't mind if she stayed here for a week," Shikamaru said. "I figured it would be easier than being cooped up in an inn with the kid."
Yoshino bent over to look the little boy in the eye, amazed at the resemblance between mother and son. How she longed to squish those cheeks, but that would have to wait until he knew her better. Until then, she'd settle for spoiling him.
"What's your name?" she said.
"And how old are you?"
He held up two fingers.
"Two?" She mimicked his hand sign. "Do you think you can eat that many big cookies?"
She expected a happy nod, or maybe an exclamation of joy. But he cocked his head to the side instead, thinking. "What kinda cookies?"
Nostalgia flooded her body, making her breath catch in her throat. God, she could remember a time when her own son was like this. Tiny face, tiny hands, pensive and curious about everything, slow to excite.
"How about this?" she said. "You tell me what your favorite cookie is, and I'll make you a whole batch."
He perked. "You can make ginger cookies?"
"You bet I can. I make the best ginger cookies in Konoha."
Temari made a face. "Those things barely qualify as cookies. No offense."
"That's why they're good," said Shikamaru.
"Would you like to help me bake them?" Yoshino asked Kei, who nodded, but Temari grabbed the back of his collar before he could toddle off toward the kitchen.
"Not until you're cleaned up, buck-o. You smell like something that should have been thrown out a long time ago."
She asked for directions to a bathroom, and Yoshino watched the two of them head down the hall until they were out of sight. Then she looked askance at Shikamaru, who had been watching, too.
"So, are you in love?"
She'd been mostly teasing, but he surprised her by not glaring or getting huffy. He merely looked thoughtful, still gazing toward the end of the hall. "Probably."
"Should I bother putting her in a guest room?"
That got a reaction out of him. "Mom. That's not funny."
He shifted onto the other foot and rubbed his neck. Fidgety kid. "Because. You're my mother."
"That's astounding logic, my son."
"Seriously. There are unspoken rules about that kind of thing."
Distraction. Misdirection. Shikamaru rambling rather than addressing the real issue. He did it all the time, and she didn't miss the fact that he'd never answered the guest room question. He was in deep, and damned if it hadn't snuck up on Yoshino like a thief in the night. In love. Her little boy.
"She's raising another man's child," she said. "Are you prepared for that?"
A quickly-lifted shoulder and a look of honest cluelessness. "I don't know, but I wish you would stop doing that."
"Jumping ahead. Reading my mind. Can't you just let me pretend that my worries are private?"
She smiled at him and put an arm around his waist. It was instinctive, and old habit that had never died, to wait for the feeling of his head on her shoulder. But it took just a second to remember that her son was over six feet tall, and she rested her head on his shoulder instead. "Don't worry, Shikamaru. You still have your secrets. I never did figure out what hurt you so badly."
He said nothing, but he didn't pull away, either. For now, that was good enough.
O O O
Temari soon returned with Kei, whose cheeks and hands were pink from scrubbing, and the two helped Yoshino whip up the cookies. Shikamaru sat at the counter and looked on, chin in his hand, oddly content. After the first batch went into oven, Kei wandered into the living room. Temari followed him, and Yoshino listened to their conversation as she put the baking soda and salt away in the pantry behind the door.
"What are you doing?" Temari asked.
"Waiting for cookies."
"Be forewarned, you won't be getting any until after dinner."
Yoshino smiled to herself. She longed to sneak him one before then, but to subvert Temari's authority in this would move beyond benevolent hostess territory and into that of family. An aunt or grandmother. She'd have to leave it alone.
"Are you tired?" Temari said. Kei didn't answer verbally, but Temari responded to whatever clue he'd given. "It's okay if you take a nap there, but don't lie around like that. It's dangerous to leave your abdomen unprotected; I tell you that every day."
Yoshino peered around the door frame into the living room, and caught a glimpse of Kei on the floor, sprawled out in front of the couch. There was something strange about the way he was lying, on his back, his arms behind his head as he gazed sleepily at the ceiling. Completely defenseless, as Temari had said. Not the way shinobi taught their children to rest. Shikamaru had driven her batty doing stuff like that. Hell, he still did. Sleeping stretched out and supine, arms high, just begging for a kunai in the heart. Everybody else's kid learned well before they were three to sleep on their side, one arm in front of the chest, a position that offered the most protection and was the fastest to rise from. Every single one, except for her stubborn, frustrating child. And her stubborn, frustrating husband as well, who didn't technically count as a child, and yet still had his moments. There had to be a genetic component to guilelessness of that caliber.
All at once, understanding came to Yoshino. A rush of icy wind that slowed her heart and made blinking impossible, but propelled her into the living room to kneel in front of Kei, to stare down at the small child that had so much in common with her son. It wasn't the looks, and that was the reason she'd missed it before. No, it was the temperament. The steady way his eyes studied her, unfazed by her sudden proximity, perfectly content to keep lying there and wait for her to make the first move. The way he carefully thought about everything he said before he said it. Shikamaru had grown out of that by the time he'd graduated Academy; he'd learned from the kids at school to mouth off and complain about every little thing that didn't go his way. But he hadn't always been like that. There used to be a time when he was slow to rile and react, exactly like this. Exactly like Kei.
Now that she was actively searching for evidence, more of it started to pop out at her. There were some physical attributes in common, some damned incriminating ones, now that she recognized them. His build, for one thing. Tall and thin, which Temari most certainly was not. Knobby knees that she could still clearly see in her memories of little Shikamaru, as he ran away from her when it came time to clean up his toys. And when Yoshino brushed at his dark hair with her fingers, it fell away from his neck and revealed a triangle of teeny, tiny moles above his collar. She'd always thought they looked like the constellation Oushi, from the first time she'd seen them on Shikaku's neck, more than twenty-five years ago. Then again, on her son, a few years after that. Now, here they were on Kei. Like the smell of alcohol on breath, or blood under nails, they told the whole story. Chiisai Oushi.
Yoshino stared up at Temari, who stared back, her face stricken with fear. She knew. Of course she knew who the father was. And, now, she knew that Yoshino knew, too. The only one who didn't know, apparently, was poor, uninformed Shikamaru.
She was furious. At her stupid son, for being so stupid as to have sex with a stupid girl and not use a condom and get her pregnant when he couldn't have been more than sixteen. At Temari, for hiding it from him all this time. And that fury bubbled up toward the surface like it always did, threatening to become scathing, accusatory words. But just then Shikamaru walked into the room, stopped behind Temari close enough that he was probably touching her, and Temari pleaded with her eyes. Begged silently with her lips. Please. Please, Yoshino-san.
"What are you guys doing?" Shikamaru said. "The cookies are almost done."
Her son never paid attention to things like that, to baking or timers. The only reason he cared was because ginger was his favorite, the only cookies that weren't so sweet that they made him gag. Temari was still staring, trying to compel Yoshino to stay quiet with the just the strength of her desperate face. But Yoshino looked down at Kei, who finally seemed excited as he climbed to his feet so he could head into the kitchen. On impulse, she snatched him up and held him close to her body. He was still a bit acrid from his road trip, the way only small boys can be, but he was warm, and beautiful, and his arms easily looped around her neck as she stood.
"Come on, Kei-kun," she said. "There are some fresh cookies with your name on them."
"Before dinner?" he said. And even though she was still mad, she couldn't help but smile at his hopeful little face.
"That's right," she said. "It's always cookie time in this house."
O O O
Temari had rarely encountered tension like the kind that emanated from Yoshino during dinner. It was thick and noxious, broken only by the moments when she was distracted by Kei, spoon-feeding him his green-tea rice like a baby.
"You don't have to do that-" Temari had tried to say, but Yoshino's eyes had snapped her way, black and dangerous, daring her to try and make any more rules.
"He's sleepy," she said. "Don't be in such a hurry for him to grow up."
After that, Temari stayed quiet. Truthfully, Yoshino wasn't doing anything that was going to permanently damage Kei. But she'd moved into a grandmotherly role with surprising speed and energy, and Temari didn't know what to do with that because she'd never had a grandmother before. Kei certainly hadn't. But, while it rankled on her to have Yoshino be so heavy-handed with her child, in a weird way it also made her happy. Nostalgic, maybe, for something she'd never experienced. And she doubted that Yoshino would stay this doting and domineering forever. She was just pissed, and rightfully so.
After dinner, Temari attempted to give Kei a real bath. But he was exhausted, unable to keep his eyes open any longer. So she held him aright while she gave him a quick scrub and rinse, then took him into the guest room Yoshino had provided and tucked him into the double bed he would be sharing with her. She placed one of his stuffed animals beside him, and he was asleep before she said goodnight.
Shikamaru had taken over the bathroom the moment Temari had left it, and now she could hear the shower running inside. So she steeled herself and headed downstairs, prepared for the tongue-lashing she was about to receive. Better to get it out of the way now, while Shikamaru was out of hearing range. Better to clear the air, rather than to let it stay stifling forever. But she didn't know what she could say. There was no way that Yoshino would be mollified by Temari's story, that she'd taken advantage of Shikamaru when he was a kid and lied to the world about it because the truth would destroy his career.
She found Yoshino in the kitchen, grumbling to herself as she washed dishes. Her husband sat nearby in silent companionship, studying six or seven scrolls that were rolled out on the counter. He didn't glance up as Temari walked in. The man had been introspective at dinner, speaking only in order to respond to introductions, and Temari couldn't tell if that was from disinterest, or anxiety at his wife's angry mood, or just because he was a Nara male.
"I'll help you with the dishes. Yoshino-san."
"Damn right, you will," Yoshino said, and surprised her by abandoning her soapy rag and moving over to dry the bowls instead. "Get to work."
Guilt prevented Temari from getting too hot about being ordered around, and she plucked the rag out of the steaming water. She wrung it out and got started on the glasses, washing them all before speaking, as a kind of peace offering. Yoshino took them from her one and a time, rinsing, drying, and putting each one away faster than Temari could wash another. She'd obviously been doing this for a very long time. Back home in Suna, the kitchen staff did it.
Temari moved on to the utensils, and it was Yoshino that finally broke the silence.
"So, are you going to explain yourself, or not? I've been waiting all evening to hear this."
"I don't know what to tell you," Temari admitted. "I'm sure you can imagine how it happened in the first place, and as for keeping quiet about it..." She glanced back at Shikaku, wondering how much he knew. "...I was wrong. I came here to make it right."
"I can't imagine what kind of logic you thought you were using."
"I thought I was protecting him." She worked cookie batter out from between the wires of the whisk as she searched for the right words. "I thought it would be cruel to turn his life upside-down like that."
"By the way," Yoshino said bitterly to her husband, who glanced up with mild curiosity, "we're talking about the fact that the adorable little cherub we had with us at dinner is your grandson."
Unfazed, Shikaku went back to his scrolls. "You don't say."
"Don't tell me you already knew that."
He scratched his head with the blunt end of his pen, then made a few marks on a scroll. "I had my suspicions."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
He looked up, eyes flicking back and forth from Yoshino to Temari, a smirk on his lips. It seemed for a moment that he might explain, but he just shook his head and kept his thoughts to himself. Yoshino apparently understood more than Temari did, though, and she glared at her husband.
"Do you really think now is the right time to goad me?"
"Good point. Maybe I should wait until you put down the knife."
Yoshino finished drying the deadly-looking cleaver she was holding, but then dropped it in the drain without putting it away. She seemed to be done with her husband, because she again turned her anger on Temari.
"You had no right to hide this from Shikamaru," she said. "He should have been there when his son was born. He should have seen him walk for the first time." She clenched her jaw, then forced the next words out. "You stole those moments from him, and he will never get them back."
Temari chewed on that for a while, washed a few spoons and plastic chopsticks. That was something she hadn't considered before. She'd spent too much time worrying that Shikamaru would feel forced to act like a father, and that his sense of duty would clash horribly with his maturity level and leave him miserable. Shikamaru, at sixteen or seventeen, would not have wanted the responsibility of a kid. But, the older he got, the more he might look back on those lost times with regret.
"I'm sorry," she said.
"Tell that to him."
Temari handed her the last chopstick, then rinsed the soapy water from her hands. She pulled out the plug, letting the water begin to drain, but Yoshino snatched the plug away from her and stuffed it back in.
"We're not done," she barked. "There are counters and a table and chairs to wipe down..."
"Sorry," she said again. She was getting good at apologizing. "I didn't know..."
Yoshino turned slowly to face her, watched her with a strange expression. Then, all of a sudden, she wrapped her arms around Temari and pulled her in toward her chest. Temari stood awkwardly in the embrace without returning it, shocked and disarmed.
"I know you didn't know," Yoshino said. "You didn't have a mother around to teach it to you, did you?"
"I don't..." She couldn't continue. She was so confused by the complete one-eighty that she had nothing to say. But Yoshino had plenty to say.
"You should have had a mother to help you. You had to figure all this out on your own, didn't you?" Then her voice softened, all traces of her anger gone, and became a low, soothing tone. "And I'm sure you did the best you could."
Temari didn't understand. Yoshino had abandoned her attack, and now was simply holding her, in a comforting, nurturing way. Except that she didn't need to be comforted or nurtured; she wasn't a little girl with a boo-boo. She was a grown woman that had decisions to make and plans to carry out, and she always did the best she could, never leaving a thing unfinished. That wasn't something you needed to be hugged for. Just like it wasn't something to be proud of. It simply...was.
These were the things she was telling herself when the first tears came to her eyes, quickly spilling over and running down her cheeks. Why, in god's name, was she crying? She wasn't sad. She wasn't even upset. There was no reason to be blubbering like this, no reason for the soft sobs in her voice that made her sound like an injured animal. She was humiliated when her nose began to run, and she tried to pull away from Yoshino, but Yoshino was stronger, or else Temari had gone soft, and she pulled Temari's face down to her shoulder, snot, tears, and all.
"You did the best you could," she said again, and she rubbed Temari's back with a warm hand.
"I know that!"
"That's all anyone can do."
"Then why do you keep saying it!"
Yoshino shushed her, which pissed her off, but she couldn't muster up the energy to fight anymore. It was easier to stand here and be held, easier to let the tears fall, even though they made no sense. She was just tired from her trip. Too tired to argue.
"How did you keep this a secret from Shikamaru?" Yoshino murmured, which Temari would have taken as a challenge three minutes ago, but now sounded like simple curiosity. "He had to at least be suspicious..."
"I waited as long as I could to break it to my brothers," she said, a tremor in her voice that she couldn't control. "I was already five months along but they didn't know that. I don't think they ever knew how big I was supposed to be."
"Men don't know anything," Yoshino said with a pat. "I understand."
"And it's Suna tradition to go into isolation when you get closer to having the baby. For two or three months, only, but I took six. And Kankuro and Gaara had their own problems so they didn't notice..."
"...and Kei was already three or four months old when I announced that he'd been born and that I'd be coming home soon, and the guys are stupid about babies, so they didn't know what to expect, and I kept Kei hidden from the servants as much as possible. I think a couple of them were confused, but I just told them he was big for his age and I'm sure they thought it would be smarter not to argue. Then eventually the difference wasn't that obvious anymore and I could let him run around without people getting suspicious." God, now she was rambling. How pathetic.
"What about the servants you took with you while you were in isolation?"
"I didn't take any. I didn't want anyone to find out how far along I was."
Yoshino grabbed Temari's shoulders and held her away so she could look her in the eye. Temari took a quick swipe at her face with her sleeve, disgusted with herself.
"You had the baby by yourself?"
"There was no other way to do it," she said. "There weren't any women that I could trust."
"Oh, good god." She pulled Temari close again. "You poor child."
"It wasn't like that," she said. "It wasn't that bad. You're making it sound horrific but it didn't kill me..."
"I know, dear. You just did what you had to do."
"Exactly. There's no point in whining about things like that. You just do it."
"Of course you do. And you're going to do what you need to do with Shikamaru this week, aren't you?"
"I know you will. I trust you, Temari-chan. I won't get in your way or cause you any trouble."
Temari sniffed, and, before she could stop herself, wiped her nose against Yoshino's shirt. Oh, god, even Kei never did shit like that. But Yoshino didn't flinch.
"I tell you what. I'll finish up the kitchen, and I want you to go take a bath. You must be exhausted."
"Shikamaru's in the shower."
Yoshino made a sound of disgust. "I cannot believe that boy. He takes over the bathroom and leaves you to do the chores. Well, you just help yourself to the master bath. It's attached to my bedroom and has a nice, big tub. Take as long as you want."
Glad for an excuse to leave, Temari hurried away to get her pack from upstairs. She was utterly humiliated at the way she'd just behaved, and she still didn't understand what had happened.
But she had to admit to herself that, right now, she felt better than she had in her entire life.
Shikamaru had a pleasant evening with Temari, which ended up being more talking than making out. He still had his reservations with her, but they were hard to cling to. He was beginning to construct a realistic-feeling scenario in his head of what had happened with her three years ago, and could sort of understand why she hadn't wanted to talk to him about being pregnant, or other mistakes that she'd made. Still didn't, apparently. Whenever he tried to broach the subject, Temari would deftly redirect the discussion to something else. That was okay, though. He wasn't sure he really wanted to hear about it.
They talked about other stuff instead, like how they'd spent the last couple of years, what it was like raising a baby alone, how Shikamaru's career was going. Now and then, Shikamaru would venture to kiss her. But he was gun shy. A part of him kept expecting her to refuse, to brush it off. Or even, as she might have done in the old days, laugh at him. But she wasn't the same woman anymore, and she accepted every kiss with tenderness, and something else that he could feel inside her, something she was trying to suppress: guilt.
But they got a lot out in the open, and when Temari pried herself out of his arms to head across the hall and go to bed, she was smiling. It pained him to see her go, when all he really wanted was to have her in bed with him. Sex would have been great. Cuddling would have been smart. But she kissed him on the cheek and twisted away from his attempt to hold her.
"I don't want Kei to wake up alone in a strange house."
"Can't he read, yet? Leave him a note."
"Funny. Maybe tomorrow."
"And I'm not exactly prepared, anyway. The last thing I need is another unplanned baby."
"I won't touch you. I promise."
At this, she barked out a laugh. "It was never you I was worried about, dope. Good night."
The next day was Sunday, so he slept in until his stomach told him it was time for breakfast. He went downstairs, looking for Temari, but all he found was his mother sitting in the floor with Kei. She had a massive dictionary out and was pointing to words, reading them aloud for him. It took him a minute to realize that she was teaching him kanji, because the words were so ludicrously difficult. For an adult, let alone a two-year-old. Brazier. Conflagration. Cremation. Kei watched her with wide eyes, one of his little eyebrows quirked with dubiety.
"What are you doing?" Shikamaru asked.
"What does it look like?" She went back a page and pointed to something there. "What's this one, Kei-kun?"
"Arson," he said, then he gave a huge yawn. "It's cookie time, now?"
Shikamaru knew evasion when he saw it, but Mom was way more tolerant with Kei than she would ever have been with him.
"Are you tired of reading?"
Mom left the dictionary there and climbed to her feet. "Wait here and I'll see if I can find you some of Shikamaru's old toys to play with. And a cookie."
"Where's Temari?" said Shikamaru.
"She had to go to the village center to submit her visitor pass. I told her we'd watch Kei."
"What do you mean, we?"
Mom raised a hand to a hip, and he knew that he'd said something he was going to get in trouble for.
"It means that if you see that precious child wandering near something dangerous, I expect you to get off your lazy butt long enough to stop him from getting hurt. That's what it means."
"Yeah, okay," he said, mostly to deflect her anger. He followed her into the kitchen and grabbed some cookies, along with a cup of bitter tea that had probably gone cold a while ago. When he returned to the living room, Mom had dumped out an old cardboard box of wooden building blocks that Shikamaru hadn't seen in years. Kei sat in the middle, his cookie held between his teeth as he fit one of the red beams into a green base. Man, that was nostalgic. He spent hours with those blocks as a kid. When he was like eleven it had occurred to him that he hadn't seen them in a while and he'd assumed that Mom had thrown them away. He'd been too embarrassed to admit that he missed them, so he let it go, and now, of course, he was way too old to play with them. But it was nice to see that they'd survived Mom's insane, obsessive-compulsive purging of his toys throughout the years.
He sat in the chair closest to Kei so that he could put his cup of tea down on the coffee table, then leaned back and ate his cookies as he watched the kid build some sort of tower. If you could call it that. It had serious structural integrity issues, and it leaned off to the right without a support beam, and, for some reason, the roof was made out of a tree and a horse. And Kei kept adding things to the top, oblivious to the way it wobbled dangerously.
"Hey, kid," Shikamaru said, pointing. "If you don't want it to fall over, put something under that side over there."
Kei studied the blocks for a moment, then reached for another horse.
"Not an animal," Shikamaru said. "A beam. A buttress."
Kei just stared at him, so Shikamaru sighed and got to his knees in the floor beside him. He grabbed one of the wide, yellow beams.
"See? This one has a notch in the top and it's fat at the bottom. It'll hold up your tower if you stick it under here." He wedged the notch under one of the horizontal slats of Kei's tower, then put the yellow beam against the ground at an angle. "It's a buttress, now."
Shikamaru snorted. "Yeah. Close enough." He picked up a green base and two blue slats. "But if you really don't want your tower to fall over, you need to plan it out from the beginning. Build it wide and strong at the bottom, and then you can make it as tall as you want." He assembled the beginnings of a building, making sure to use several brackets and strong pieces, then showed Kei how he couldn't even knock it over if he threw another block at it. He was actually kind of impressed with himself; he didn't remember building anything this good when he was a kid. "See? It's sturdy."
Mom walked into the room right then, and when her eyes landed on him her mouth curled up into a smirk. Shikamaru realized what he was doing, and he put the pieces he was holding down as nonchalantly as possible.
"I'm not playing with them," he said. "I was just explaining to Kei how to build a tower."
"I can see that," she said. Her eyes sparkled with something that set off his alarms. "I just, um...came in here to tell you that I forgot that I need to go to the morning market before they close. So I'm heading out."
"Wait, what?" Shikamaru got to his feet so quickly that he kicked his "sturdy" little building over. "What am I supposed to do with..." He gestured at the dark head below. "...with that?"
"Just watch him." She took her purse from the hook behind the door and rifled through it. "He won't starve before Temari gets back."
"Mom, no..." He followed her to the front door, frantic. "You can't leave me alone with him. What if..." Something occurred to him that made him panic. "What if I have to change a diaper..."
"He doesn't wear diapers, Shikamaru. And there's nothing to be getting this worked up over. I'm willing to bet money that he'll sit right there and play with those blocks all afternoon." She opened the door and slung her purse over her shoulder.
"How do you know that? You can't know for sure-"
"Just give him whatever he wants, as long as it won't kill him." She strolled down the path with a little wave behind her, then disappeared around the neighbors' house. Shikamaru stared at the empty space she used to occupy, horrified, then glanced back over his shoulder at Kei. The boy ignored him in favor of his newest building project, his hair dangling in front of his eyes so that Shikamaru couldn't even see his face.
Damned women. Temari and Mom both. They shouldn't give birth to children, or volunteer to babysit them, if they didn't intend to follow through with caring for them. And now here he was, watching some kid he barely knew on his day off, and he didn't have a clue what to do with him.
He forced himself to sit beside Kei, but he'd lost the motivation to play with blocks or give any more engineering lessons. Kei seemed to have grasped the concepts well enough, though, and the tower he was working on now had a much stronger-looking base. Shikamaru said nothing. The kid was doing just fine, not looking up, and he had an irrational fear that if he talked to him or distracted him it would break his concentration and cause him to...do stuff.
But, just as Mom had said he would, Kei devoted his full attention to the blocks. He played with them all the while Shikamaru sat there, terrified. He played with them until terror turned into nervousness. He kept right on building as nervousness melted into curiosity. Then into impatience, followed quickly by sheer boredom. He played with them while Shikamaru fell asleep, then jerked awake, a half-hour later, with a burst of fresh terror. But Kei was still sitting there, surrounded by a whole village-full of towers, and Shikamaru finally yawned and went in search of his Shougi board.
He returned a minute later to find a living room floor covered with towers, but no Kei. Panic threatened to rise up in him again, but then he heard the flush of a toilet from the bathroom in the hall. Kei came sauntering into the living room, and Shikamaru sighed.
"Did you have to wait until I was gone to pee?"
Kei just stared at the Shougi board with wide eyes. "What's that thing?"
"It's a game. Do you want to play?"
"Probably not for a two-year-old."
There was no way to tell if that "okay" meant Kei wanted to play or not. But Shikamaru sat down in the floor and put the board in front of him, and soon enough Kei crawled over and watched him dump a bag of pieces onto the board. The boy took the other bag and followed suit, putting his pieces on the ground in front of him instead. Shikamaru began to set up his side, and he could hear the ticks across the board that let him know Kei was taking his lead. He didn't give any attention to the kid until he was done with his pieces, but then he glanced over to see if Kei had done it correctly, or just thrown the pieces up there in some random order.
At first, it seemed like he'd gone the way of "random order." They were definitely not in the traditional Shougi lineup, and, in fact, they weren't even set up one piece to a square. Kei had just lined them all along one edge of the board, and when the line reached the end it turned and continued down the next side.
But something did strike Shikamaru about them, and after studying them for a moment he realized that the tiles were laid out black side up, in order of kanji strokes. The same way that they would have been in the dictionary that Mom was making him study from, starting from the challenging king and ending with the silver.
"Can you read these?" he asked. Kei gazed at the pieces for a moment, before pointing a tiny finger at the first tile.
"King," he said.
Shikamaru nodded, perplexed. "Right..."
The finger moved to the next symbol. "Bishop."
"Walking..." Kei stared at the piece with a puzzled look before settling on, 'army guys,'" and Shikamaru was so relieved by the honest mistake that he laughed aloud. It really would have been too weird for a little kid to know them all, especially since he'd never played. And it made sense for him to read the kanji in the more-familiar way.
"That's one way to say it," he said. "But it's really 'pawns.' Isn't that easier?"
"Right. They're all on readings."
Kei's green eyes continued down the line of tiles, naming each kanji in his childish voice and making no more mistakes. He brightened near the end, when he got to one that seemed to hold special meaning for him.
"It's me! Kei."
"Right, but don't forget the second half of it. It's 'keima.' The knight."
His brow furrowed. "No. It's me. Kei."
"You're right that the first kanji is kei, but you can't leave out this other guy." He circled the second kanji with his finger. "Ma. And that kei kanji isn't even the one you use for your name. See?" He reached over and snagged the dictionary, then flipped through until he found the standard kanji used for the name. "It's this one..."
Kei face scrunched up even more, displaying anger for the first time. "No. I'm not that thing."
Shikamaru lifted a hand, wondering if he was about to experience a tantrum. "Okay. It doesn't matter..."
"I'm a knight," Kei said. "Mom say so."
Shikamaru stared at him, at a loss for words. Had Kei really been named after the Shougi piece? That went beyond strange, although he wouldn't put it past Temari to flaunt social norms and pick an unconventional spelling of a conventional name.
But only if it meant something to her.
He picked up the keima tile and rubbed his thumb over the face, studying the kanji. Cassia tree and horse. Known together as the knight. Just looking at the piece gave him a jolt of nostalgia, remembering the time Asuma had called Shikamaru the keima, had told him what an important and mobile "piece" he was in battle. Shikamaru had shared that story to Temari, during their One Night, but at the time she'd blown it off with a joke.
"Well, you're certainly hung like a horse."
It was coincidence. It had to be. Kei was only two, not old enough enough to have gotten half of his DNA from Shikamaru. Unless...
"Huh?" He was stacking the Shougi pieces now, the points rotating out from the center like a spiral staircase.
"Do you know your birthday?"
A grin lit up his face, all traces of anger gone.
"It's five days!" He held out a hand with all the fingers splayed out. "In five days I'm gonna be three!"
It took his brain less than a second to do the math, and he shoved away from the Shougi board, stumbled backward on his haunches until he reached the sofa. Then he sat there, chest heaving, while Kei laid his Shougi pieces in a perfect copy of Shikamaru's tiles on the other side. Then the boy looked up, black hair dangling in front of his eyes, and smiled.
The house was empty when Temari came back. She wandered through from room to room, calling for Yoshino, Shikamaru, Kei, but there was no response except the vast echo of emptiness. She carried her files upstairs and put them away in her pack, then went into the kitchen to see if someone had left a note. There was no note, but as she was standing at the counter she caught a glimpse of movement outside. Shikamaru, way out by the forest.
She headed that way, her sandals crunching through a thick layer of autumn leaves, and came to a dead halt when she was close enough to take in the whole scene. Shikamaru had stretched out on the ground, arms behind his head, and was gazing up into the blue. Beside him, in the exact same position, was Kei. But Kei wasn't gazing up at anything. He was asleep.
Temari came closer, and Shikamaru lifted his head at the sound of her approach. He gave her a crooked smile and sat up.
"What are you doing?" she said.
"I brought him out here to watch clouds." He glanced down at Kei with a disappointed look. "Doesn't seem like he was very impressed, though."
"He was probably more impressed than you think. I wish you wouldn't encourage him to fall asleep that way, though."
He shrugged, and Kei stirred in his sleep. He sat up and blinked groggily, then caught sight of Temari and brightened. He got to his feet and wobbled her way, still too tired to walk a straight line.
Temari was staring again, this time at his hair. Someone had tied it onto the back of his head with a black rubber band, and she was horrified to discover that when it was pulled away from his face like that it made the features he shared in common with his father a lot more obvious. Now there was nothing to hide the jaw line and the high, Konoha cheek bones. He wasn't a mirror image by any means, but it was still too close for comfort.
"Hi," she said, patting him on top of his little ponytail. She cringed inwardly, and realized that she was going to have to tell Shikamaru the truth sooner rather than later. The fact that he hadn't noticed on his own was a miracle of obliviousness. "Don't you look fancy."
Shikamaru frowned. "Couldn't tell if he was a girl or a boy. It's cruel to let him walk around that way. What are you going to do the first time someone calls him Keiko?"
"Beat the hell out of them." She looked down at her son. "Where's Yoshino-san?"
"Have you been with Shikamaru all day?"
He nodded with surprising enthusiasm, then held up a hand and ticked off on his fingers. "I builded some towers, I played Chougi, and I eated cookies for lunch. Twelve." He held up all ten of his fingers, seemed to notice that he didn't have enough to convey the right number, but was on too much of a roll to try and correct it. "Twelve cookies."
"You ate cookies for lunch?"
"Yes!" He ran circles around her, all signs of tiredness gone. "Twelve!"
"Didn't you want a sandwich or something?"
"What's wrong with sandwiches?"
He stopped in front of her and held up his hand again, counting. "Cause, Mom. Sandwish is bread, and meat, and cheese, and lettuce, and man-naise..." He sighed loudly, exasperated. "It's so troublesome."
She jerked her eyes over to Shikamaru, who looked vaguely embarrassed. "Is that right," she said.
"Yes." Kei scowled. "I hate sandwish."
"Oh, god." Temari pinched the bridge of her nose. Was this what little boys turned into when they had a father? One day. One day alone with Shikamaru, and Kei was a Nara. How much more could he be warped over the course of the next fourteen years? "What happened to Yoshino-san?"
"She 'suddenly realized' she had to be gone all day," Shikamaru said, getting to his feet. He brushed dead leaves away from his pants, then knocked one off the back of Kei's shirt. "Not suspicious at all."
"And I was given very clear orders to let him have anything he wanted, if it wouldn't kill him. He wanted twelve cookies."
"Of course he did. Are you sure you weren't just trying to make sure you never get babysitting duty again?"
Shikamaru gazed off toward the setting sun, squinting one eye. "It wasn't that bad."
"Well, let's go inside and find something with vitamins in it for my child to eat, before he dies of malnutrition." Kei dashed ahead toward the house. Temari made a move to follow him, but fingers slipped into her hand and held on, pulling her to a stop. Shikamaru wrapped an arm around her shoulder and drew her in close, and before she could ask what he was doing, his mouth fell on hers and brought her questions to a stop. She laughed reflexively, put a hand on his chest and pushed him back.
"What was that fo-"
He kissed her again, and this time she was sorely tempted to let him continue. But she wasn't sure how she felt about letting Kei see stuff like this when things between Shikamaru and her were still uncertain. It didn't seem right. So this time, when she stopped him, she did it with enough arm strength to let him know she wasn't kidding.
"Let's save this for later. When he's asleep."
Shikamaru looked at her seriously. "You should stay with me tonight."
"What about Kei?"
"Show him my room and tell him you'll be sleeping in there if he needs you."
"I can't do that," she said. "He won't understand."
His lips brushed over her ear, along her jaw. "He doesn't need to understand. He's little."
She sighed, irritated at herself for the way his mouth on her skin made her tremble. Nearly four years celibate was too long. "I'll think about it."
She did think about it. She thought about it through dinner, and while cleaning up the kitchen with Yoshino, and by the time eight o'clock rolled around she was all tied up in knots, a pressurized canister of sexual energy Shikamaru disappeared for a half-hour while she was getting Kei ready for bed. When he returned with a small paper bag and look of triumph in his eyes, she smirked at him, then glanced over her shoulder to make sure his parents weren't listening in.
"Was that your first time buying condoms?"
He smiled sarcastically. "Yes, and they're all hoping to get out of the box, soon. Let's not disappoint them."
It was tempting to kiss that arrogant look off his face, but Kei came toddling into the room, clad in his one-piece, footed sleeper, and wrapped himself around Temari's leg. Kid turned into a serious mama's boy when he was tired. She scooped him up, let him drop his head onto her shoulder, but kept him awake long enough to take him upstairs and show him where she would be sleeping. He stretched his whole body toward the bed, wanting to be put down there, but she hung onto him and took him into his room, instead.
"You'll be in this bed," she said. "If you need something, you can come next door and find me."
He didn't argue; as usual, he passed out when his head hit the pillow. She turned off the room light and left the door open a crack, then went to hunt down her new bed buddy. Here was hoping this one wouldn't sleep sideways and kick her in the butt all night long.
O O O
Shikamaru's hands felt like velvet on her skin, heavy and smooth, more possessive than she remembered. He'd changed a lot in the last four years; hell, he'd changed in the last four hours. With each passing minute, he treated her more and more like she belonged to him. When she was nineteen, no doubt she would have balked against that. But after all these years of belonging to no one at all, being possessed felt damned good.
He still had his underwear on, but he was clearly very interested in getting hers off. He grasped at the thin material while he kissed her, and she lifted her hips for him so he'd be able to work them down. But a tiny knock at the door made them both pause. Shikamaru groaned, not quietly, and Temari suppressed a chuckle. She pulled her underwear back into place before answering.
The door opened a bit, and a dark head appeared at knee level.
"Mom? You in here?"
"Mm-hm. What's wrong?"
"I'm scared all by myself."
Shikamaru breathed a curse.
"Do you need me to come back and sleep with you, Kei?" Temari asked.
"No, that won't be necessary," said Shikamaru. He slipped out onto the floor and snatched up Kei, then brought him and the stuffed ferret he was carrying back toward the bed. "Let's play Village, Kei. I'll be the boring, safe little village, and your mom can be the wild, beautiful, unexplored wilderness. And you..." He plopped the boy into the middle of the bed, near Temari. "...can be the wall."
"Okay," was Kei's happy reply.
Shikamaru climbed in next to Kei with a sigh. After a moment he rolled toward the two of them and reached for Temari, draping his arm over Kei in the process. He massaged her hip, then patted it, then just left his arm there.
"So close, but so far away," he murmured.
"Hey," said Kei. "You forgot the wall's here."
"Go to sleep already."
Temari laughed quietly, but the humor grated against the feeling of duty that she couldn't shirk. She had to tell him, and it would be stupid to keep waiting. He was obviously making an effort to include Kei, to get to know him like a father figure, and it wouldn't be fair to expect that of him without letting him know the full truth.
"Shikamaru, there's something I have to say to you."
She was ready to do this, but she hadn't exactly prepared to do it with Kei right there. So she tried to come up with a way to break the news discreetly, and probably just ended up making a fool of herself.
"You know how there are three sets of genetic information in this room?"
"Well, one of them is a random combination of the other two..."
He snorted. Then he laughed, good and hard. "If I hadn't already figured that out by myself, I would have no idea what the hell you were talking about."
"You figured it out?"
She lay there, quiet, for a long time. Her first reaction was annoyance, that he'd guessed on his own but left her to worry about it. But that feeling became one of gratefulness, that he'd allowed her to decide for herself how and when to tell him. And, also, that he hadn't rejected her over it.
"Aren't you pissed?" she finally said.
"Think I'm too busy being relieved..." His voice caught and he refused to continue.
"I'm sorry, Shikamaru." Barely twenty-four hours had passed and she was begging forgiveness again. "I know I hurt you over this, but I couldn't stand the thought that your career would be ruined because of me-"
"I don't want to talk about it, Temari. I've had all afternoon to think about it. Let's just skip all the troublesome explanations and focus on moving forward."
She smiled to herself, recognizing this as the most romantic proposal she could expect from a guy like him. "When?"
"How long will it take for your brothers to get here?"
"Three days, probably."
"Do they know who...assisted you with the...baby-making?"
He mulled this over for a minute, then reached for her again and clasped her hand in his. There was no more complaining from 'the wall,' who had apparently fallen asleep.
"Let's do it tomorrow."
The next day was incredibly hectic. Shikamaru had to tell his parents everything, and then stand there and try not to look humiliated as they smiled and winked at each other and pretended to be surprised. Then he had to tell Kei, although he skipped the whole "I'm your dad" thing and explained, instead, that he was marrying Temari and, as such, would become Kei's dad. He had no idea when kids started asking about where babies came from, but he figured he'd avoid any such curiosity with cleverly-chosen verbiage. Instead, Kei wanted to know if that meant they could play village every night. Shikamaru took the opportunity to give his son his first noogie.
Kei was interested to learn that he would soon have a dad, but far more excited about the grandma and grandpa that came with the package. He took to the darling position of "first grandchild" like a fish to water, and began immediately taking advantage of the fact that Yoshino had no defenses at all against adorable little boys that called her "Gammy."
Shikamaru and Temari were married that evening at the civil union office, with Shikamaru's parents, Kei, Chouji and Ino in attendance. When asked by the judge if they wanted poetry to be read at their ceremony, or if someone wanted to sing a song, he was urged by Shikamaru to see if he couldn't perform "the fastest wedding in history." Then he took his new family home with him, which was the only place he wanted them. Home, with him. He didn't care about honeymoons or vacations, could care less if his parents knew what he was up to with his wife. Temari's opinion seemed to boil down to "fuck me before I die." She was an incredible woman.
The box of condoms never got opened. A small part of Shikamaru was disappointed that he'd missed seeing Temari barefoot and pregnant, and he told her that he expected her to focus on growing a girl baby, so that they could name her Mai. She snorted at his terrible joke, but got right to work on fulfilling his request.
There was a visitor to Yoshino's room that night. A tiny knock on the door, followed by the sound of padded feet, and a small body climbed up into bed with her and Shikaku.
"Gammy? I can sleep with you?"
She blinked groggily and sat up, trying to get her bearings. She just didn't come awake as fast as she used to. "Is something the matter, sweetheart?"
"Dad tell me to sleep in here."
She felt him nod against her arm. "He want to play village with Mom again. But they don't need a wall this time."
This last was delivered in perfect mimicry of Shikamaru, and happiness flooded Yoshino's chest, caused her to hug Kei close and laugh into his hair. There was a groan from Shikaku's side of the bed, then a gruff voice said, "remind me why I didn't kill our son a long time ago."
"So he could give us precious grandbabies," she said.
A conceding grunt, and Shikaku moved over to make room for the boy.
Kei wriggled himself down under the covers between them, and soon was fast asleep. His head in Yoshino's belly, feet in Shikaku's crotch.
A/N: This story was entirely inspired by lovesrainscent's Shikaku/Yoshino drabble, entitled "Cuddle." She posted it way back in the summer, I think, set me to dreaming, and I've been working on this ever since. I highly suggest you check it out; the title of the compilation is "Two That Are One."
1. This is easily the most autobiographical thing I've ever written. Much of the material came from my own life; much is a fantasy of how things should have gone, in a perfect world.
2. I hate sandwiches, for the same reason Shikamaru (and Kei) does. That's a heck of a lot of effort for a something that tastes like bread. Might as well just eat bread.
Some Japanese stuff that probably only amuses me:
1. Re: Shikamaru wanting to name a daughter "Mai." There's a Japanese word that means "older brother and younger sister," and the word is keimai. Get it? *geeky snort* It's easy for me to act like that's a joke, but the truth is that there are probably a million brother/sister pairs in Japan named Kei and Mai, and their names are written with the "older brother" and "younger sister" kanji. So I guess the Japanese don't think it's funny.
2. Oushi means bull, and refers to the Taurus constellation. Chisaii oushi means "little bull." I just made it up. Both my husband and my son have this marking on their necks, and I've always wondered if my husband's father had it, too. But my husband never met him, and so we'll never know.
3. In case you missed it, Yoshino was teaching Kei all the words that begin with the "fire" kanji. Man, I'm such a geek. I should probably be a Shikamaru/Shiho fan.
4. While I was studying the relevant kanji for this story, I stumbled across some information that I absolutely loved. I desperately tried to work it into this fic, first during the Shougi scene, then later, during the scene where Temari and Kei spend the night with Shikamaru. It never made sense, and so I'm forced to put my sad little joke here and hope the rest of you think it's funny.
The kanji on the knight shougi piece are made up of the "cassia tree" and the "horse." In fact, when Asuma told Shikamaru he was the "knight" in the manga, he actually called him the "horse." It was translated as "knight" for the western audience. Shikamaru's name, while written in katakana in the manga, would begin with the "deer" kanji if it were written in the standard, Japanese way. If you put "horse" and "deer" together, you have the kanji for baka. :) So "Shikamaru the Knight" is really just "moron." You have no idea how funny I find this, and I'm convinced Temari would use it against Shikamaru if she had the chance. In the story, "You're certainly hung like a horse" was my western replacement of the Japanese joke that I'd put there at first: "Makes perfect sense, baka."
Thanks so much for reading, and please review. :)