Shikamaru is bored.
Which, in itself, is a state he finds himself quite often. But this time, it's a bit more embarrassing. He stares at the freckles sprinkled like galaxies on Temari's nose, at the way the morning sun hits her green eyes, shining on the gold flakes mixed in with the colour. She's gorgeous. She has that fierce confidence that attracted him in the first place, the straight set of her shoulders screaming her defiance to a world bent on crushing her. Her voice is strong, a bit rough, but...
But he can't focus on what she's saying, his mind constantly bringing him elsewhere, going over his next mission's intel, thinking about the flowers he needs to buy for the Nara shrine. He has one of the strongest, boldest, most beautiful woman of his generation in front of his, and all he can think of getting out of here.
Shikamaru is a coward.
That's one of the things he knows about himself, one of those things he has accepted and made into a strength, because his cowardice isn't going anywhere. It's absolutely out of the question that he tell Temari they should stop dating. They just came out of the bloodiest fight either of them has been in, and for a time, both needed the comfort.
Instead, he decides to use the tools at his disposal. While Temari talks to him about something he can't seem to pay attention to, he plans a way out of this relationship he isn't interested in anymore.
The answer is glaringly obvious to him, and is passing by the tea house where they're staying on her way to the Medic Corps Station. He deliberately only sends her a glance, catching her eyes and nodding like a good friend would do. Even Temari stops talking and smiles, waving a little at the legend walking by.
Cold, calculating mind focused on Sakura, he turns back to Temari, pretending once again to be interested by what she's saying.
He didn't miss the look Sakura sent him. The pain in her eyes, the tension in her jaw and the downward turn of her mouth. It all corroborates what he was expecting. Seeing him on a date with Temari is hurting her. She's still in love with him.
Shikamaru remembers well that raining day, the sound of the water hitting the tent above them as Sakura made a final round to check on her patients, before following him outside. The rain was pouring, so dense they were soaked two steps from the tent's opening. He had gone to get her for the post-war council they were organizing, to decide what would happen of the Alliance now that the common enemy had been defeated.
The final battle had seen its dust settle down two weeks prior, but all the villages were too badly hit for anyone to go back to living in them, and the number of injured shinobi and civilians was almost as high as the body count. Sakura had to train an entire platoon of medics just to tend to the wounded, herself only helping when their state was dire, because she needed to grow the medic ranks more and more.
In a way, her busy work was a blessing. He had been there when she came back from the Valley, her strong arms carrying two bodies over one shoulder and a third one over the other. He had seen the dead stare she hadn't yet been able to shake off, the pallor of her skin underneath the grime and the blood, how the dried, cracked splatters of red had covered both her arms like gloves.
She had knelt in the dirt, where now stood the medic tent, because they didn't have one in the new camp at that time. Carefully, the bodies slid from her shoulders, and she laid down in the mud her dead team.
Sasuke and Naruto had bled out from their missing arm on that rock, just as she was arriving. And while she tried to revive them, Kakashi had died from chakra exhaustion on top of the hill she had left him on, propped against a tree. She hadn't seen Sai in days, and she had no way of knowing if today marked the date she became the last living member of Team 7.
Two weeks later, and he could steel smell death on her skin, disbelief and fury battling inside her soul. Konoha had lost its golden boy, its Hokage, and the last of one of their greatest bloodlines. Sakura was next in line for the hat, and it was only a matter of time before she would take the mantle. Her lack of reaction at the prospect spoke volumes about her mental state.
Which made it all the more startling when she grabbed his arm, stopping him on the way to the tent where the council was waiting for them. He hadn't seen such determination in her eyes in a long time. The rain was washing the grime off her hair, plastered on her face as she looked at him. The water made it look like she was crying, but she hadn't shed a single tear when she brought back her dead team and he doubted she was breaking down now.
“Nara Shikamaru,” she said. He had blinked, caught off guard by the official tone she was using. “My name is Haruno Sakura. I ask your kind permission to enter an official courtship with you.”
He opened his mouth, words choking him when he couldn't find a single thing to answer. “I thought no one used that ritual anymore,” he had manage to squeal through his panic.
“I take this very seriously,” she had said, vicious and so deeply honest he couldn't do anything but believe her. Which meant there was only one way to answer her.
“Haruno Sakura, I refuse your request.”
She had dropped his wrist, nodded once, and waited without so much as batting an eye until he started to walk again. They got to the tent, and she was the picture of professionalism. They hadn't spoke about it, or spoke at all, since then.
But if Sakura is still hoping for something between them, he could use that. All he would need would be a kiss, right when Temari could accidentally see it, and he would be relieved from this relationship. And with a formal courtship, Sakura wouldn't be able to say anything if he decided to break it off in the middle (if his knowledge of the thing is correct. No one had used it in decades)
Suddenly, Shikamaru is paying attention again. If he speaks the right ways at the right times, he could cut this conversation short and catch Sakura before her first training class at the Station.
Standing in front of her office door, he takes a deep breath. He needs to play his cards right. Free from Temari, not only would he be much happier, but he could focus on his clan and help his mom. She's struggling to take care of things she never had to worry about before, her skillset much more suited for espionage and stealth assassination, than political manoeuvres and trade deals.
“Come in!” he hears once he's knocked twice. He opens the door to find a clean, if a bit disorganized office, where she's filling some... authorization forms if he's reading this right. She looks up, her eyes widening slightly when she recognizes him.
“What can I do for you, Shikamaru?”
He clears his throat, before reaching for his weapon pouch. “I hope everything is going as you expected? No troubles with setting up the Medic Corps?” he asks, his fingers wrapping around the cold weight.
She raises an eyebrow, leaning back into her chair with her arms crossed. “I'm setting up the last few procedures. Is this about the Council? I told them I was accepting, what more can they possibly want? I'm not rushing this for their sake, I refuse to botcher the work so they can have their Hokage sooner.”
“No, no, this isn't about the hat,” he tries a smile, knowing the subject is dangerous. “I'm glad everything is going well.”
“Shikamaru, what's going on?” she sighs, leaning forward now, until she can put her elbows on the desk and rest her chin on her linked hands. She must have picked that from the Godaime, because right now she looks strikingly like her old mentor.
He takes out the necklace and, praying he didn't get the ritual wrong, bows at the waist while handing to her.
“Haruno Sakura. My name is Nara Shikamaru. I ask your kind permission to enter an official courtship with you.”
When she asked him, she obviously didn't have a betrothal necklace. You're supposed to use your parents' or make one yourself, but the tradition is so out of date he had to ask for his great-grandfather's. His mother had gave him the weirdest look, but she was too exhausted by her duties to question anything he was doing, and he had taken advantage of that.
It's a simple piece, tight enough to rest on the muscles framing the neck instead of hanging lower on the chest. It's made of firestrong metal shaped into beads, a material only found by Mist miners in ore veins that come from the submerged volcanos around the Kiri islands. Meant to symbolize the strength he places in their future relationship, and the bonds forged between them.
The Nara symbol is carved on half of the beads, the other half left blank in between each Nara one, and he should carve the Haruno symbol on a bead after one date. It used to be a way of ensuring people knew each other well before marrying, a proper courtship ritual spread over many weeks.
He doesn't move, when she gets up, not even when her fingers brush over the necklace.
“You know, Shikamaru, I always knew you were deadly smart, and that made you a tad too cold. But I would never have pegged you for being cruel.”
She forces his fingers close, hiding the necklace from view. He swallows hard, frantically searching what he did wrong, why she refused him when she clearly still loves him.
“I thought that, despite my feelings for you, we were friends enough that you would respect me. If you had simply come to me and asked for a position in the Hokage office, I would have given it to you. You're competent and a mastermind, there really would have been no reason to r-refuse.”
He looks up at the hitch in her voice, and his insides freeze when he sees a tear roll down her cheek.
For the first time since coming up with this idea, he feels horribly sick. Bile rises up in his throat as a wave of hot and cold sweat makes him dizzy.
She survived the death of the most important people in her life without shedding a single tear. He managed to hurt her enough, in a vicious enough way that it caught her completely off-guard, and she slipped up. A month of hiding her emotions and he—
Numbly, he nods.
He gets out.
As he walks down the street, back to the Nara Compound, he realizes the glaring mistake he made in his calculations. Sakura had been hurt enough, lacked confidence in such an impressive way, that of course her first thought would be that he was trying to get something from her.
Shikamaru is a coward.
He's also disgusted with himself.
He sends a letter to Temari, to explain that he can't maintain a relationship with her without loving her the way she deserves, and he isn't a man good enough to deserve her love either.
He sends his mom on a vacation to Konoha's countryside, with a few of her friends from her ANBU days to keep her company. Not before she can witness the investiture ceremony, though. No one in Konoha would miss the day the last Sannin alive would become Hokage, following both her master and her teacher's footsteps.
Sakura takes on the hat with a grace that wins over the civilians, and eyes of steel that convince the shinobi.
Her first move as Hokage is to send an ambassador to every Alliance nations and minor countries, as well as a financial and political advisor to the smallest countries so they can grow and stabilize their post-war economy.
Hist first move is to go to her office, wearing the formal Nara Clan Head kimono, with the ceremonial naginata carved from Nara deer antlers strapped to his back. His hair is tied low, in a traditional braid, because he knows how different he looks to his own self like this, and he'll take every point in his favour to do this.
“Nara-san,” she says, acknowledging his outfit and probably thinking he's here for clan business. Technically, she isn't wrong.
“Hokage-sama. May I have a moment of your time?”
“Of course, take a sit.” She pushes her paperwork aside, and once again he's stricken by her professionalism, by the full, undivided attention she gives him simply because he's a citizen of her village.
“I'm here to present a formal apology. I have wronged you, and my honour has been stained by my actions.”
He releases the naginata from its straps and lays it down carefully on her desk.
“Please accept this gift from the Nara Clan's armoury. It was the weapon Lady Shikaru wore when she signed the Joining with the Shodaime.”
Shikamaru rises from his seat and bows to the waist, as low as his rank allows him to show his submission. Hiding his hands in his sleeves, he faces her once more and nods deeply, before turning to leave the room.
Parting from the weapon is a tremendous gesture, that he would never have made if he didn't consider his mistake to be of equal value. Any wrath from the Nara Elders he will shoulder quietly. This is his fault to repair.
“Shikamaru,” Sakura calls from behind him. He turns around, looking at her in her cream clothing, white and red coat that makes her look even more pale. She seems exhausted. He resists the urge to bite his lip in worry.
“I miss being your friend,” he says, not waiting for the words she's struggling to find. “I miss you, and I don't want my fuck up to keep me away from one of my last remaining friends.” He takes a step forward. “On my Ancestors' shrine, I swear to you my intention was never to get power through you. It certainly wasn't much better, but it wasn't to use you to get a position. I promise you, Sakura.”
“I believe you.”
She rises in turn, walking around her desk to come close to him. Her arms are linked behind her back, and she looks every inch the leader she is now.
“I knew what I was risking, giving a genius something so easy to use as a weapon. I love you, and the thing that pains me the most, isn't that you don't love me back, but that you thought it was trivial enough to play with it.”
He opens his mouth, but she interrupts him. “I wish you could have loved me,” she says, her voice sad and her eyes tragic, the ghosts of her team haunting her tired face.
She pats his arm, the closest thing he'll get to forgiveness, and he takes that as the dismissal it is. He nods once more, and she turns around, walking back to her desk. The blood-red kanji on her back spell out her title.
He breathes through his nose, and leaves the office.
He's just fallen in love with Sakura. And he ruined it.