A/N: I've decided to combine this chapter and the next one into one, so that I can catch up to what has already been posted on AO3 more quickly. Please enjoy!
With the rapid technological and architectural advancements happening in his own village, Shikamaru contemplates moving to Suna, where the buildings will forever be short to avoid earthquakes, meaning the clouds, though more rare, will always be visible. He knows he cannot do this for two reasons: one being his new position as advisor to the five Kages. All five. Unsurprisingly, when he became Hokage after Tsunade stepped down following the War, Kakashi promoted Yamato to the position of his head advisor. In actuality, Yamato is Kakashi's voice of reason, the one with common sense to combat Maito Gai's — Kakashi's other important advisor — brash, passionate decision-making. While Shikamaru is always in the room during meetings, his primary responsibilities have to do with advising all of the Kages on matters that need to be dealt with by all of the great villages. In times like this, with another Kage Summit approaching quickly, Shikamaru tends to be frustratingly busy, going around to the different villages and having endless meetings.
"She's not home. She's not in the garden, she's not anywhere." Kankuro's voice enters at the same time as he does, pushing the door open and interrupting the silence in which Shikamaru and Gaara sat. Shikamaru, one arm resting on the back of Gaara's rather stylish black sofa, turns away from the window and looks at the Kazekage. He frowns in response to Kankuro's news and faces Shikamaru.
"I'm sorry about this. We'll work out temporary accommodations until we can find her," Gaara says, looking quite apologetic. Normally when in Suna, Shikamaru would stay with Temari. It's been about six or seven months since he's seen her. He's spent the last three preparing for the Summit, and he knows Temari has duties unrelated to him or Gaara, so the absence isn't odd to him, but it is odd that she didn't meet him at the village entrance when he first arrived much too early in the morning. Even stranger is that he hasn't heard from her in about a day or two. Normally, this would not be too bad, but it is his birthday. They aren't sentimental, but she would have sent him a message or called him on his birthday. Many consider twenty-one to be a milestone. For a shinobi, to live to be that old is a blessing.
"Should I be worried?" He asks, looking at Gaara, then Kankuro, then back to Gaara, his expression calm despite the question. He knows that he shouldn't be, Temari can handle herself, but it's a question he feels like he needs to ask.
Kankuro shrugs. Gaara says nothing, the expression on his soft face unreadable. Shikamaru muses quietly about how much the Kazekage resembles his sister, their similarity growing with age. They have the same heart-shaped faces and strong jaws, the same teal eyes, the same serious air. They're spitting images of their mother, which Shikamaru only knows because of the framed photo of her that Temari keeps on the mantle above her fireplace. It's from Gaara's birth: the Kazekage is a tiny baby next to his tired, sweaty mother. Temari once caught Shikamaru looking at it, smiled sadly and said, "right before she died."
Though she has grown to love her brothers and her friends, and perhaps even Shikamaru himself, Temari values her solitude. It isn't bizarre that she would go off by herself for a while, but she would alert someone. If not her brothers or Shikamaru, then….
"Have you reached out to Tenten?"
Gaara seems genuinely perplexed for a second, but he quickly maintains his composure. He glances to Kankuro who nods wordlessly and sends a quick text. Shikamaru, seeing that there is not much else for him to do, stands and stretches.
"Well, I'm off," he says with a yawn, "I need to catch up on missed sleep. Let me know if you hear anything."
Gaara nods and watches him walk out of the room. Kankuro opens his mouth to say something, but Gaara puts a hand up, wordlessly silencing him. He waits until he can no longer hear Shikamaru's soft footsteps before putting his hand down and directing his attention to his brother.
"What are we going to do when he realizes Temari is not gonna show up?" Kankuro asks, his voice low and deep. "Or worse," his volume increases a note and he leans on Gaara's desk, "she shows up with a baby that looks just like him!"
"Hush, Kankuro - he could still be nearby," Gaara cautions. He hates to lie, especially to someone that he trusts, someone who is supposed to trust him, but his sister comes above any relationships, political or otherwise, that he might have. He would never admit to anyone else, perhaps not even himself on most days, but his duty as a brother comes before his duty as a Kazekage. If he had to trade his whole village to keep his brother and sister safe, he would do so in a heartbeat. When Temari confessed last month that she did not tell Shikamaru about her pregnancy and had no plans on doing so, Gaara said he would support her, even if he didn't agree with her decision. Shikamaru would not know about the child until Temari is ready to tell him.
"We will figure it out," Gaara continues, responding to Kankuro's worrisome questions. "I know every particle of sand in this village. I can keep Temari and the child hidden."
Kankuro opens his mouth to respond, but is cut off by the sound of a notification on his phone. He glances at it. "Tenten says everything's fine, that the baby's beautiful." He's about to put it away when it buzzes again. "Oh!"
"What?" Gaara leans forward as Kankuro turns his phone so that his brother can take a look. Tenten has attached a photo of the baby. It's asleep - a small creature with rich, reddish brown skin and a full head of dark chocolate-colored hair. It has long eyelashes, full, curved lips, and a button nose. It was the perfect blend of both its parents. Another text appears from Tenten:
no name yet, total cutie tho - sleep's like its dad!
Kankuro stands up straighter, putting his phone away, and watches Gaara, who has a soft smile on his face. He sits quietly at his desk, looking at the spot that Kankuro's phone was just in. After a few seconds of silence, he glances up at his brother.
"Send that to me, will you?" He asks and Kankuro responds with a nod. "It seems Temari and the baby are in good hands. We won't alert Shikamaru unless they are in trouble. For now, we try to act as normal."
"And what if he asks when she's returning? As your top advisor, she has to sit in on meetings about the Kage Summit. It cannot appear that she has abandoned her duties."
Gaara sighs. It almost feels like Kankuro wants him to tell Shikamaru. He was even more against Temari's decision to hide her pregnancy than Gaara was, even threatening to tell Shikamaru at one point. It was the first time Gaara has seen his siblings get into a major argument in years and, if Temari was not almost nine months pregnant at the time, it would have turned physical. Instead, she gave Kankuro the silent treatment for days until Gaara forced him to apologize. Now, it seems like Kankuro wants to take matters into his own hands with Temari gone.
"I will deal with anyone who questions Temari's absence," Gaara responds evenly. "Now, please, I need to be alone."
Gaara can see on his face that Kankuro is not pleased with this response, but nonetheless, he bows and exits the office. Sighing, Gaara rests his chin in his palm and considers his predicament.
A couple of blocks away, in a vacant apartment set up for him suspiciously well, Shikamaru has just woken up. He checks his phone and, upon seeing no messages from anyone at all, calls Tenten. He knows something is amiss - he can feel it. This apartment is too much to his taste to have been a makeshift set up done by Kankuro. It's as if this has been here for a while, yet it looks so fresh and unlived in. It's not unlikely that someone just rented it within the past month or two, and there are enough accents that he likes to have been a coincidence. There are even outfits appropriate for Suna's weather in his size in the closet. This is Temari's doing.
"Yo, Shikamaru!" Tenten's high-pitched voice fills his ears. She sounds carefree, happy, light. Shikamaru knows right away that this is a ruse. He doesn't know Tenten as well as he should, considering she is his girlfriend's best friend, but he knows from Temari that Tenten is prone to bouts of melancholy, especially when she is alone. Before he left for Suna, Shikamaru knew that Neji was on an extended mission, as was Lee, and Gai is busy helping Kakashi with the Kage Summit, meaning that Tenten has spent much of her time alone as of late. Unless Neji returned early, there is no reason she should be quite so bubbly.
"Where is Temari?" Shikamaru asks, not bothering with pleasantries. "I'm in Suna and her brothers say she's nowhere to be found." He doesn't bother not trying to sound worried. Tenten has seen him cry more than once, and Temari has been the reason behind some of those tears. He's too old - twenty-one, as of today - to be ashamed of his emotions anymore.
Tenten barely pauses and her tone becomes more serious. "You know, she texted me a couple of days ago. She's been real stressed lately, so I suggested we go to Yugakure for a short vacation. She already has a head start and if you haven't heard from her it's likely because connection is sometimes poor in the surrounding area. I'm actually leaving later today, but I'll text you when I meet up with her!"
"Okay," Shikamaru says, nodding. He doesn't believe her, but he cannot place why. Because he is not one to jump to conclusions with no evidence, he decides he will leave it alone for now. Wherever Temari is, she does not want to be found, at least not by him. Her brothers must know her whereabouts, as must Tenten. He will not probe - yet. "That's good to hear, thanks."
"No problem!" Tenten responds cheerfully. "And Shikamaru - happy birthday!"
A wave of fatigue washes over him. "Thanks, Tenten. Talk to you later." He hangs up and decides that he should get to the bottom of this.
Neither Sasuke nor Tenten respond to Neji, instead exchanging glances. Tenten is keeping a secret from him, him, that, somehow, the Uchiha is privy to. He counts in his head to keep himself calm. He turns to his girlfriend, though she makes no indication that she will respond to his inquiry.
"I know you're considering lying to me," Neji says, his voice even, "but I suggest that you do not. Let's start more simply. Who's child is that?"
"Temari's," Tenten responds quickly, "but you know that already. I really didn't want to tell you this because it's not my secret to share, but she was pregnant with Shikamaru's baby, and me and her brothers are the only ones who know, and she came here so that I could help her deliver it. And I did a damn good job, too."
Neji feels his lip twitch and he resists smiling. He has questions, he needs answers, and he will not allow himself to be distracted by his girlfriend being irritatingly adorable. He frowns, so that she knows he means business, and barely glances at Sasuke, who seems disinterested in this whole thing.
"Why is...he here?"
Tenten doesn't respond as quickly. Her mouth twists into a strange sort of frown, and she glares at the floor, blinking rapidly. Sasuke, annoyingly, takes notice of this and responds for her. Neji has the urge to literally throw the man out of his house.
"The blonde chick tried to kill herself in the bathtub while Tenten was dealing with the brat. She called me because I'm the only person she knows who is not an idiotic gossip that would go tell someone about this."
Neji sighs. Tenten is leaning so far forward that her head is tucked between her knees. Her shoulders are shaking, but Neji knows that she is not crying. Even now, seven months shy of her twenty-second birthday, Tenten does everything in her power to resist the urge to cry. She still associates it with weakness, and she would be damned if she made any indication of being weak, especially in front of Sasuke. Neji thinks this belief of hers is nonsense, but there is no convincing her otherwise. Instead, he kneels down in front of her, resting a hand on her shoulder.
"Tenten," he says, in as soft a voice as he can muster, "clearly, Temari is dealing with something we cannot begin to fathom. We have to call her brothers, then Shikamaru. She needs them now."
Tenten does not lift her head, so her voice sounds muffled when she responds. "I promised her that I wouldn't tell anyone."
"Well," Sasuke says, for once in his life agreeing with Neji, "you've already broken that promise by telling Hyuga and I. What difference does it make if you tell a few more people?"
Tenten lifts her head and turns to glare at Sasuke. "Either you're an idiot or you think I'm an idiot, which would make you an idiot ."
This time, Neji does smile. Nothing makes his day more than hearing Tenten sass people, especially a person he finds so deplorable.
"Remind me never to help you again," Sasuke snaps. "Take this fucking baby, I'm out of here." He lifts the baby off his chest, hands it to Tenten with the utmost care and tenderness, and stands. He looks down at Neji with a deep frown. "Your interior design sucks, by the way."
Without waiting for a response, he walks out of the door. Tenten watches him leave with a small, playful smirk on her face. "What a prick."
"Agreed," Neji nods, but is quick to change the subject, "now, Tenten–"
He's interrupted by the sound of her phone ringing. She reaches for it quickly, grabbing it off the glass coffee table, but is careful not to stir the child. She frowns, "shit! This has to be a fucking joke–" she continues mumbling expletives until she answers the phone with a fake, cheerful tone, "Yo, Shikamaru!"
For a brief moment, Neji is hopeful that Tenten will tell Shikamaru the truth, but she disappoints him almost immediately. She pauses, listening to Shikamaru, and then nods, replying with a rather believable lie with no hesitation. Tenten is normally quite honest, but between this, and her desire to lie to him when he first got home, Neji can't help but be a little annoyed by his girlfriend's behavior. He wasn't expecting to come home from a long mission to find his girlfriend acting completely out of character. He understands that she's trying to help her friend, but even Temari must know that a secret like this would not stay a secret. Maybe Sasuke would not let it slip, but someone would find out somehow. How could a child be raised in secrecy?
Mere moments after Tenten hangs up her phone, Neji's vibrates. He takes it out of his pocket and sees that he has a text from Shikamaru.
back ? need 2 talk
"You're not as good at deception as you think you are, so I suggest you quit while you're ahead." Neji turns his phone so that Tenten can see the screen. Tenten's mouth drops open. She frowns, looking down at the baby cradled in her arms. That baby that looks so much like Shikamaru, that will probably continue to grow more and more like its father as it ages. Tenten had been so focused on Temari's well-being, that she didn't think about how Shikamaru would play into all of this. Neji is right, he'd find out at some point. It isn't fair to keep this from him, but…. it isn't her place to tell him, either.
"What are you going to say to him?"
Neji stands up. He looks down at Tenten, who is rocking the baby slowly and carefully. The baby breathes softly, completely at peace in Tenten's arms. Seeing this makes Neji picture what it will be like when he and Tenten eventually had children, if it ever came to that. He's pleasantly surprised by how gentle she is with the baby for someone who allegedly hates kids.
Every rational part of him is screaming at him to tell Shikamaru what's happening here, especially because Shikamaru would do that for him if their roles were reversed, but…
Tenten, who spent years supporting him through his darkest times, who cheered him on and gave him love even when he didn't deserve it, who became his family when his father died, even if he didn't want a family at the time, who is his family now – Tenten, who is not asking for much from him, only secrecy. He gives his Hokage that and more everyday. Sighing, he puts his phone in his pocket.
"I will not interfere, but if I run into him and he reaches out to me again with more specific questions, I will not lie either," Neji responds, crossing his arms over his chest. "When Temari awakens, I suggest you two discuss when and how you are going to tell him. He's the smartest man in Konoha. He will figure it out, probably quickly, and the shady behavior is only going to make that happen faster."
Tenten nods and grins. "Of course, of course. Thank you so much, Neji, I mean it. I'm sorry for getting you involved in this mess, but I'm the person Temari trusts most in the world, and you're the person I trust most in the world."
Neji returns her smile with a small one of his own and leans forward to kiss her forehead. He gives her shoulder a squeeze and walks to the bedroom to get ready for bed. Tenten leans against the back of the couch and exhales. She positions the baby on her chest and closes her eyes.
While Neji and Tenten are just heading to sleep despite it being morning-time, Temari is finally waking up. It's ironic, but the only thing she remembers thinking about while pushing the baby out, while resting after pushing the baby out, while using the recently-sharpened kunai she found in Tenten's room to open her wrists, is clouds. After months of compartmentalizing, of forcing herself to disregard Shikamaru and her ideas of what he might feel about this pregnancy, she thinks of clouds while her baby is being born. Temari doesn't believe in any Gods, but if she did, she would blame them for such a coincidence.
Anyone who doesn't know her well would assume Temari and Tenten get along so well because they hate weakness, but that isn't the case. Quite the opposite, really. Temari could appreciate anyone who allowed themselves to be weak. There's strength in vulnerability, or at least that's what Temari is telling herself now as she curses her inability to be vulnerable. She wants to blame her father for raising her and her brothers the way that he did– though, to even say that he raised them at all is laughable– but Gaara welcomes vulnerability. Kankuro has also mellowed with age. Temari, up until now, has retained her reputation for ruthlessness. That is, she's known for not taking any shit. She and Tenten are the same in this regard, but she considers it a fatal flaw, while Tenten thinks its her most valuable asset. Temari values her village, values her duties above all else— she is known to work alone because she didn't like having to watch other people's backs. Her village and her brothers have always been her priority. Anything and anyone else is second to that.
As the eldest, and the only girl, Temari has never prioritized herself. Even during her pregnancy, never once did she think about what she might want. She thought about what would be best for her baby, her village. It wasn't until last night after the labor, after she heard Tenten leave with the baby in her arms, that Temari considered what she wanted. In doing so, she learned that she could never do that again because in that moment, she wanted nothing more than to die. Last night, she learned that she could be a selfish woman when her mind is set on her own desires. The single-mindedness of it terrified her. The fact that she didn't think about the baby proved to her that she had it right all along; she is not in the baby's best interest.
She sits up in bed, wincing. Whoever healed her did a good job stitching her up, but the pain is still there. She's been through worse, though, so after a few minutes of sitting immobile, she forces herself out of bed. She has to lean against the nightstand to steady herself. She stands there, taking slow, deep breaths, until she feels ready to move again. She is dressed in a pair of Tenten's pajamas, the pants stopping short on her legs and the shirt being just a bit too tight around her chest. Tenten has the decency to leave her another change of clothes, though Temari always felt weird about wearing Tenten's cultural garb. She ignores this feeling and gets dressed, fighting through the pain so she can act quickly. She needs to be gone before Tenten wakes up. She slips on her shoes and leaves the guest bedroom. She knows it would be better to leave through the window in the bedroom, to avoid waking Tenten or the baby, but she can't resist. She has to see her son. The living room is right next to the guest bedroom, so she sees them immediately. Tenten is stretched out on the couch, two pillows under her head and her feet propped up on the armrest, and the baby is on her chest. There's a lilac-colored blanket on top of them. Tenten has one hand on the baby's back and the other holding his butt. Temari takes one step closer, wanting to get a better look, but she decides against it. She smiles sadly, but refuses to allow herself to linger anymore. She whispers, so low that she almost doesn't hear herself, "I'm sorry, Ten," and leaves the house.
The sun has only been up for an hour in Konoha, but in Suna, the day starts off quietly for Shikamaru Nara. He would never be awake before ten in the morning of his own volition, but he could not turn down a breakfast meeting with Gaara, and he wanted to call Tenten before he left. His boss would not have minded– Kakashi isn't a morning person himself– but if Temari happened to be at the meeting, or if she heard that Shikamaru stood up her little brother, she would throw a fit. Part of him wants to skip it, just to see if she will finally come out of hiding. Instead, he gets in the shower and prepares to leave.
Once dressed and ready, Shikamaru checks his phone. Nothing from Temari, Tenten, or Neji. There's a notification from Kankuro, reminding him of the breakfast meeting and a text from Ino inquiring if he safely made it to Suna, but that's it. Frowning, he unlocks his phone and reviews the message he sent Neji. He sees that Neji read the message right after he sent it, but there is no response, which is strange for Neji.
He considers involving Ino because she makes his life both easier and harder. For example, she would nag him about failing in his duties as a boyfriend because his girlfriend thought it would be easier to avoid him than seek his help in whatever issue she's having. That would make his life slightly harder because Shikamaru hates to be lectured at. However, once she was done nagging, Ino could use her mind-transfer techniques on Tenten and figure out what's going on with relative ease. Shikamaru doesn't want to take it that far, though, at least not yet. If Tenten, Neji, and her brothers refuse to loop him in, Shikamaru would figure things out himself.
A lesser man would be annoyed, hurt, angry, but Shikamaru only smiles to himself, remembering his first impression of Temari: she's troublesome. Clearly, that hasn't changed. In fact, Temari has gotten more high-strung and insufferable with age, but Shikamaru takes after his father. He wouldn't be content in life with a mellow, easy woman. From Temari, to Ino, to his mother, Shikamaru is surrounded by troublesome women, and he likes it that way. He would put up with Temari's wild goose chase until his curiosity becomes concern. If anything is seriously wrong with her, Gaara would have told him, so he would let it be…
But, annoying as it is, his curiosity got the better of him. After his rather quick meeting with Gaara, who yet again made excuses for Temari's absence, Shikamaru goes to her apartment.
All the curtains are drawn shut so Shikamaru walks into complete darkness. When he turns on the light, things seem ordinary, save for the faint smell of bleach. Upon second glance, Shikamaru notices that it is cleaner than usual. Temari normally keeps her space pretty organized, but this is next level. The kitchen counters are shining, everything is put away, and certain things are...missing. He walks around, checking cabinets and closets. Strangely, her fan is tucked away in the storage closet next to the mop. So wherever she is, she didn't think she would need protection. Either she has escorts, or someone met up with her - there must have been some truth in Tenten's story. The two likely met up somewhere between Konoha and Suna. The who and how are all but confirmed, now Shikamaru thinks about the why. Surely, Temari left him hints, even if she didn't mean to.
He goes to the bathroom to pee, but while he's there, he looks inside her cabinets. The medicine cabinet looks normal, and so does under the bathroom sink, but Shikamaru quickly notices that there are a few key things missing, like her stash of tampons and the prescription drugs she took to deal with any painful injuries after hard missions.
Shikamaru frowns and he leaves the bathroom. He goes into Temari's bedroom as his last stop after looking through the whole apartment so that he can sit on her bed and think. As soon as he opens the door, his eyes immediately register the out-of-place thing in the room: a baby's crib, carved out of wood and so intricate with its designs that he knows Kankuro made it, right next to the bed.
Much to his constant irritation, Shikamaru is well-known throughout the villages– perhaps even the world– for his genius intellect. His IQ is well over 200, he's an expert strategist that advises people many years older than him, he could be a professional shogi player if he wanted, and, if he ever had the desire to do so, he could probably read through a thousand-page book in an hour, maybe less.
Now, Shikamaru is not a prideful man. He would be the first to admit that his emotional intelligence is not quite up to par. He hates confrontation, which is why it took him ten months to try to figure out what his girlfriend is up to, and he is not beneath avoiding things he does not want to deal with. He knew something was going on with Temari for a while. She'd been ...different, in ways he chose not to address. The assumption he made, and avoided, was that she wanted to end things with him. She started isolating herself, stopped accompanying Gaara to Konoha, texted and called Shikamaru less, but she never made any indication of what was wrong. Shikamaru was more than happy to live in ignorance if it meant he didn't have to deal with getting dumped.
This, he should have expected. He can picture Ino laughing in his face when he tells her about this. Then, she would surely lecture him. Temari couldn't even trust him enough to tell him that she's…
He sits on the edge of the bed, his back to the crib, and rests his elbows on his knees. He holds his face in his hands, staring out of the window with a deep frown. This isn't something he can ignore until it goes away. It won't go away– not the baby, not this gaping hole that he feels growing in his chest as he thinks of Temari, thinks of how she– and her brothers, and Tenten, and maybe even Neji, who is supposed to be his friend– hid this from him. For once, hundreds of solutions have not popped into his head within seconds of discovering his problem. He has no idea what he's going to do about this. The only thing that he does know is, despite the stinging he feels in his eyes and the tugging he feels in his chest, he would not cry here, in this strange, empty apartment that used to be so familiar to him.
A/N: Just want to say, sorry if some characters are out-of-character. In my Naruto re-watch, I've just finished with the arc where Naruto and Jiraiya get Tsunade, so I'm still re-familiarizing myself with everyone's character. Also, up until very recently I didn't like Sasuke that much, hence why Tenten is kind of mean to him (but I like to characterize Tenten as a little mean in general, lol). Please also keep in mind that these chapters were written months ago, so they don't reflect my current writing talents or my most current understanding of the characters. I've done very minimal editing story-wise just because I'm ready to be done with this, lol. Anyway, hope you enjoy! Until next time!