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Liminal

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lim∙i∙nal
adjective ∙ technical

  1. relating to a transitional or initial stage of a process.
  2. occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold.
  3. situated at a sensory threshold : barely perceptible or capable of eliciting a response.

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Temari of the Sand was a lot of things: twenty seven years-old, bisexual, a veteran of the Fourth Shinobi World War, a master of tessenjutsu, and, currently, unable to do much more than sit and fume.

She examined the bandages that completely covered both of her hands, from the tips of her fingers to just past her wrists, trying to fight down another surge of anger as she bit her bottom lip. Beneath them, her skin was a wreck, lines of stiches crisscrossing the surface, courtesy of an enemy shinobi’s wind-based paper bombs and that particular bit of irony made this so much more bearable. The painkillers were, thank god, enough to take the edge off the pain, while still leaving her conscious.

“It’s… not good, is it?” She spoke up, struggling to keep her voice even.

After all, it wasn’t Sakura’s fault; if anything, her ministrations were the reason she’d be able to make any recovery at all, let alone a full one.

“It’s, ah, definitely ‘not good’. Though it could’ve been much worse,” Sakura replied, gently laying a hand on Temari’s shoulder, “I wish I could do more, but…”

“The chakra points in my hands have all been completely sealed, right?”

 The small dip of her friend’s chin was all the confirmation she needed.

She gave a half-hearted attempt at a grin, before her expression faltered, shoulders slumping, “Neji said as much at the time, but I didn’t think…”

There was a voice from the other side of the curtained-off examination area, one that she recognised as belonging to her usual ‘guide’ in Konoha, Shikamaru, but filled with more worry – no, she decided, compassion – than usual, “It’s not permanent. We know that much, thanks to ANBU’s interrogation of the assailants. They wanted to capture the Hokage – that’s what the scroll you grabbed was intended for, by the way – and hold him until their demands were met before returning him alive and well. Because that would’ve ended great.”

Sighing with relief, Temari stretched her arms up over her head, working the kinks out of her shoulders. Her ribs ached from yesterday’s fight, and she was sure her whole body was bruised to some extent, but it wasn’t anything a hot bath couldn’t fix.

Except for my hands, of course…

Still, she had survived, so she’d be counting this as a win; cautious optimism was the best way to survive the desert, not that she’d ever admit to it.

Shikamaru was still talking, and she tuned back in, confident she could intuit anything she had missed.

“…they outsourced the scrolls through an anonymous ‘sympathiser’, but they look like Orochimaru’s work. Hopefully, Taka will find something the next time they raid one of his labs.”

“We can only hope,” Sakura said before making a note on her clipboard, muttering something that sounded suspiciously like ‘snake-faced motherfucker’, but neither she or Shikamaru were going to call her out on that – self-preservation was something they both had in spades.

“So how’d you get them to crack, crybaby?” Temari asked briskly, the nickname carrying no ill-will or bite after so many years, shifting in place on the exam table, “Those bastards seemed pretty tight lipped.”

“Modified prisoners’ dilemma.” He shrugged past the curtain, taking her question as tacit permission to enter, and left it open, “I basically said ‘one of your friends is pinning everything on you’ to each one. Weren’t a particularly tight-knit group, didn’t take ‘em long to turn against each other.”

That was a clever trick, and she told him as much, earning her a roll of his eyes as well as the slight grin that was his equivalent of a victory cry.

He opened his mouth, probably preparing to say something that would start one of their back-and-forth verbal spars, but Sakura cleared her throat, calling their attention to her. For some reason, the medical-nin’s presence had slipped her mind completely, leaving Temari feeling sheepish.

“It goes without saying,” Sakura began, leveling a pointed glare at Temari that told her it, in fact, really didn’t go without saying, “that you won’t be traveling back to Suna in your condition. Two, no, three months, at the very least, then we’ll see.”

“And before you protest, that’s non-negotiable if you ever want your hands to heal completely. I swear, I’ll kneecap you if I have to.”

Temari groaned, bringing a palm half-way up to her forehead before she thought better of it.

Great, just great. Fan-fucking-tastic, in fact!

With both of her friends staring at her, she sighed, “Here’s the thing, my place is kinda getting completely gutted and redone. I’ve been fed up with the interior for a while, actually… They started this morning, since I was supposed to head out right after the meeting.”

There was no need to explain why she hadn’t.

With her apartment a no-go, she’d have to stay at the hospital, constantly under Sakura’s watchful eye, and while normally the prospect of a pretty lady in close proximity was one she’d have welcomed, the lady in question was definitely a one-woman gal.

“Well, that certainly does… suck.” Sakura finished lamely, as the realisation of how much of a time-sink this situation was rapidly becoming sunk in, “Oh boy, does that just… frigging suck!”

Tsunade’s tutelage, extraordinary in its own right, had left Sakura with Sage Mode, Wood Release, and (unfortunately) a… varied and explicit vocabulary; one she was trying to distance herself from, as evidenced by the jar labelled ‘Language!!’ in a flowing script she was currently glaring daggers at – it was, Temari noted, about half-full of change.

Suddenly, their commiseration was interrupted by a beep from the phone on Sakura’s desk. The doctor hit the speaker button, and the hospital secretary’s voice could be heard.

“Haruno-sensei, your girlfriend is here,” they said, and the sounds of someone else speaking could barely be heard.

“Tell her I have coffee. Oh, and that Sai’s with me, and he made muffins!” The other person said, before the secretary repeated their message verbatim. Shikamaru rolled his eyes, grinning as Ino continued to pass rapid-fire bits of what would have amounted to a short conversation through the unfortunate desk jockey.

“Alright, thank you, Yuu, tell her I’ll be right down,” Sakura finally interjected, her smile radiating happiness. She looked over to Temari, what was probably an apology forming on her lips, but Temari simply gestured towards the door.

“Go on, shoo – before Sai tries to make small talk with that poor secretary. I’m not going anywhere.”

Sakura nodded, hurrying out of the room. To Temari’s surprise, Shikamaru made no move to follow. Quite the opposite, in fact: he hooked the leg of a nearby chair with his own, pulling it towards him and turning it backwards with one fluid motion – as per usual, no wasted movement, she noted with a smirk – before sitting down with his arms draped over its top rail.

She tilted her head quizzically, trusting him to understand what she wanted to know.

“Ino’ll only have eyes for her partners right now,” he explained, and there was no hint of anything except a quiet sort of pride in his voice.

It was the same pride present whenever she or Kankuro talked about Gaara and Lee.

She nodded, “Ah, and fourth wheeling is…”

He cocked an eyebrow, smirking.

“Troublesome,” they intoned in unison, before sharing a laugh.

She wasn’t sure how many people had ever actually heard either of them laugh, really laugh, genuine rather than mocking or sardonic.

It always threw her off how deep his laughter actually was, a resonant bass tone shared to some extent by all three members of the Ino-Shika-Cho trio; some instinct told her the way he’d throw his head back had been learned from someone else, but she couldn’t say why.

“They make her happy, huh?” She said, after a few moments of savouring the sound, as more of an observation than a question, “Like…”

“Ridiculously so. You should hear her, she could go on for hours,” he snorted, still smiling “Did you know Sai ‘paints’ in his sleep? ‘cause I do, since it’s ‘the cutest goddamn thing, except for the way Sakura scrunches up her nose when she’s concentrating,’ according to Ino.”

“Oh my god! She has it so bad!” Temari laughed, shaking her head, “That’s adorable…”

He rolled his eyes, and they fell into a comfortable silence. If it had been anyone else – except maybe Gaara, but even then the quiet was sometimes too much, stirring memories she’d rather leave alone – she might have felt compelled to fill the void with noise, but with him, she could just be.

 “You know, you could stay with me…” Shikamaru said slowly, cautiously testing the waters, because he knew that she’d snap like a steel trap if she sensed any condescension or chauvinism (not that either of those were a staple of his speech these days). He cleared his throat, and clarified, “until the work on your place is done”, which was completely unnecessary because…

Because what else could he have possibly meant.

What else could she want him to mean?

“You’d really let me stay?” She shook her head to try and clear her mind, before smirking, “I thought something like this’d be too much of a ‘drag’.”

Shikamaru frowned, and she almost winced as she realized her little joke had missed the mark and come off as disparaging.

“Of course I would. I…” He took a deep breath, “You’re my friend, Tem. Plus, I doubt staying here would be, well, uh, beneficial… where the psychological aspects of your recovery are concerned.”

Her lips drawn into a thin line, she narrowed her eyes at him, “You mean that I’d feel smothered by all the attention, and would most likely lash out in response, resulting in a worsening of my injuries.”

“Within two, three weeks, tops,” he agreed, earning him a glare, though she had to admit that he was probably correct, and furthermore, the offer was attractive.  

“Where would I-”

“Sleep?” He interjected, “I’ll take the couch, since Sakura will probably insist you use the bed.”

She arced her eyebrows, “Less chance of falling onto the floor, right?”

His only reply was a sardonic shrug.

There had to be a reason to say no. Surely she didn’t want to accept, right? Thinking on the fly, improvising, it was her speciality, but it was all she could do to ask ‘why?’

“I dunno. Call it an… apology, I guess.” His shoulders slumped, and he ran a hand through his hair while the other patted down his vest, looking for a carton of cigarettes that wasn’t there anymore, not since he had made up his mind to quit, about half a year ago by her estimation, finally giving in to his friends’ complaints.

She had never liked the smell of them that much anyway, even if she had the bad habit of filching the occasional smoke (or two, or five; Suna-nin never did things by haves) from him; as far as she knew, only two – three, if a cigarette placed on a grave each year counted – people other than herself rated the use of that battered silver lighter of his.

“I should have expected an attack. If I had been on guard, then…”

Rolling her eyes, Temari hopped down from the exam table, closing the distance between them before she leaned down, glaring at Shikamaru until he made eye contact.

“Those idiots, Antlers, attacked the Hokage with a half-baked plan, while he was accompanied by, oh, you know, just some of the strongest shinobi of this generation,” she said, having run out of patience for his martyr-complex bullshit years ago, “No one, not even me, thought that anyone might be so overconfident as to believe they could win against those odds.”

He didn’t reply, but held her gaze nevertheless (she had always liked his eyes, they were easily his most expressive feature), and she watched as he turned her statement over in his mind, giving a small sigh as he realized there was no refuting her words.

As a small smile formed on his lips, the awareness of exactly how close they were hit her; she could feel the faint heat of his breath ghost across her lower lip and chin, ever-so-slightly tickling her neck.

If I just…

Abruptly, she straightened up and awkwardly moved back to her spot on the table, unsure of why she had retreated so quickly. Shikamaru looked like a deer caught in a watchtower’s spotlight, surprise written in the arc of his eyebrows and slight part to his lips – not that she tended to pay his lips any particular attention, of course.

Rather than dwell on what had just happened, Temari fell back on a tried-and-true strategy: diversion.

“Besides, I’m the one with the fucked-up hands, this is my pity party.” Her words were accompanied by a haughty sniff and a comically exaggerated raise of her chin.

The tension evaporated when he laughed, and they got down to hashing out the broad strokes of their pending cohabitation, like who got to use the bathroom first in the mornings (Temari), who would be cooking (once her hands healed enough, they’d take turns), and how they’d split the grocery bills (50/50, because like hell she’d be a freeloader).

<><><> 

“Pawn to e3.”

“Knight to e3. Thanks for the pawn, Nara.”

“Mhmm. Rook to c6, that’s check.”

“Oh, fuck you. Bishop captures at c6, check… and mate. How’d you miss my other knight?”

“Thought I’d have one more turn, you usually wait until my queen is out of play.”

Temari considered the board in her mind’s eye, running through the possibilities. If she hadn’t gone for the kill right then, she would have been in trouble.

Would have been, but wasn’t.

She snorted, rolling her shoulders as she glanced at the clock.

“Sakura’s been gone for nearly forty five minutes. You think she’s okay?”

Shikamaru smirked, “She punched an alleged god in the face, remember? She’ll be fine, probably just got caught up saying ‘hello’ to Ino or something.”

She sighed, resisting the urge to fall back onto the table and give in to her body’s demands for rest.

Ugh. This isn’t even that comfy of a spot, and there aren’t any clouds...

Wait, did I really just gripe about that? Jeez, Shika’s lethargy might just be contagious after all.

“I’m just tired,” she looked up at the ceiling, hands resting in her lap, “I wanna get cleared so we can head to your place an’ sleep.”

“Well, if you’re willing to lose your favourite escort when she kills me, I could always forge her signature.”

She schooled her features into a pensive mask, tilting her head as if she were giving the plan serious consideration, “I mean, if you’re offering, that’d be fantastic.”

“Oh, screw you,” he scoffed, “you’d be bored shitless here without me.”

True, but she didn’t have to admit it.

“Whatever, Nara. Keep telling yourself that.” She said with a smirk, relishing his glare when the door suddenly slammed open and cut off his chance to reply.

Sakura rushed into the room, stammering out a string of apologies as she tried to straighten the lapels of her lab coat. Trying – and failing – to supress a fit of giggles, Temari took in her friend’s dishevelled state, Ino’s ‘hello’ evident in her smudged lipstick and askew headband.

Not to mention the-

“You’ve, uh, got something, on your neck.” Shikamaru stated, tapping the spot on his own throat, “Right on the jugular, ‘bout halfway up.”

His observation elicited an embarrassed yelp from the doctor, who hastily moved to grab some tissues from her desk, dabbing furiously at the spot in question.

Bright purple lipstick came away easily enough. Unfortunately, the hickey under it didn’t.

“Sorry, but Ino left a little more than lipstick.” Temari said, smiling ruefully as Sakura’s blush rapidly approached the shade of her hair.

Saukra groaned, counting out a handful of coins from her desk, and tossing them in the swear jar, “Fuck! I have a meeting with the board today, they’re going to think I’m so unprofessional!”

Temari and Shikamaru shared a glance, because if any word was antithetical to Haruno Sakura, ‘unprofessional’ would probably be it.

“You’ll be fine,” Temari reassured her, backed up by a confident nod from Shikamaru, “and if anyone says anything, point out that the chief medical officer can’t frivolously waste chakra on something as superficial as a hickey.”

“Yeah, exactly,” he agreed, “I mean, as long as you weren’t using a medical supply closet, or a surgery suite, it isn’t like you were bothering anyone.”

Sakura looked between the two of them wearing identical shit-eating grins and rolled her eyes, “I hate you. Both of you.”

<><><> 

They were finally released from the hospital once Sakura was satisfied Shikamaru wouldn’t make things worse while taking care of Temari’s wounds, and the two of them made their way to his apartment, only stopping to grab a few instant noodle cups from the supermarket.

“D’you need anything else?” Shikamaru asked as they stepped back out into the street, shielding their eyes against the sun which had nearly reached its apex; he raised his arm holding the plastic bag that contained their purchases, and she held up a bandaged hand.

She sighed, mentally tallying her possessions that weren’t in storage, contained in the duffle bag slung over her friend’s shoulder, “Nah, not right now. Just a bath, some food, and sleep; preferably in that order.”

He nodded and they finished the journey in silence. Temari had been to Shikamaru’s place before, and vice-versa, mostly when exam planning piled up and copious amounts of coffee, time, and uninterrupted focus were needed, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that things were… different this time.

Well, I’m bringing an overnight bag, she mused, which is more than usual, and plus, I won’t be leaving tomorrow.

Shaking her head to clear it, she decided that her injury was probably the main source of her malaise. Best not to let it bother her.

They mounted the metal steps to his apartment on the eighth floor, but Shikamaru paused at the door.

“Shit. I guess you’ll need a key, right?” He asked, clicking his tongue in dissatisfaction while his eyebrows scrunched up, “What a drag.”

“Hey, you’re the one who offered,” she countered, rolling her eyes, “We’ll get it tomorrow. I should get some clothes anyway, unless you want me to steal yours.”

He scoffed, raising his eyebrows, “I doubt you’d appreciate my particular brand of aesthetics.”

“I bet I’d look just as good as you do, jackass.”

Oh god, why did I say that? Temari felt a bit of heat colour her cheeks, forcing out an awkward chuckle as Shikamaru fumbled with the key, seemingly embarrassed by her statement.

Play it cool, play it cool!

“Hurry it up, Nara, some of us are running on several cups of coffee and no sleep.”

“What do you mean ‘some of us’?” he muttered, finally pushing the door open, holding it for her as she stepped inside. His apartment hadn’t changed since the last time she’d visited; the walls were still painted a pleasant light green, which matched the colour of a battered (read: well-used) couch and the cushions on the two other plush chairs.

There was a window next to the sliding door that opened onto the balcony, with a platform set up on its sill that held several small succulents and a couple cacti – most of them, gifts from her and her brothers… well, her and Gaara, since Kankuro insisted on sticking with his puppetry motif (or so he had told her); she presumed the others were from Ino.

Walking over, she peered down at the plants, smiling fondly as she lifted a hand to gently brush the leaves of one, the first she had given him.

“Aw, look at you,” her voice was much softer, approaching the tone she used to use with Sarutobi Mirai years ago, “Still going strong, huh?”

It’s like a little piece of home right here, isn’t it?

She began to hum – some sappy pop ballad she’d never admit to actually liking – and decided to check on the rest of the plants, just to make sure Shikamaru wasn’t slacking on their care; he wasn’t, and she was pleasantly surprised to see they were, in fact, thriving.

Eventually, someone coughed, and Temari shook herself from her daze, turning to face Shikamaru, who had somehow found time to change into a simple black t-shirt with a bright red ‘no symbol’ emblazoned on the front. His hair was still tied up, and she was struck by the realization she’d never seen him with it down.

“I left your bag on the bed. I did unzip it, since…” he trailed off, rubbing the back of his neck awkwardly.

“My hands are fucked up, I know,” she sighed, shaking her head, “Look, I’m fine with you saying it, alright? There’s no point in dancing around the subject, and we’ll both go crazy if we try. So, uh, thanks… for doing that and trying to be all ‘sensitive’ and junk, but I’d appreciate ‘normal’ more.”

He considered her words, nodding more to himself than her as he absent-mindedly touched his thumbs together, almost like he was preparing to form an ‘O’ with his hands, pop a squat, and close his eyes so he could really think about the situation. Which was hardly necessary, but strangely endearing.

“Alright, ‘normal’ it is.”

“Promise?”

“Promise.”

She grinned, relief washing over her like a cool breeze on a hot day, “Thank fuck. I was worried you might try an’ coddle me.”

“Now, I’m gonna go take a long overdue bath,” the proclamation was thrown over her shoulder as she turned to make her way to the bathroom, “You know how I like my ramen, so don’t mess up, ‘kay?”

“Use the gloves!” he called, already moving towards the kitchen “Sakura will actually kill me if you don’t!”

<><><> 

Having a shadow ‘help’ her eat ramen was a novel experience; at any rate, it was until the chopsticks missed her mouth, poking her in the cheek and sending their cargo of noodles tumbling towards the table.

Shikamaru the decency to look embarrassed, his hands clasped together in the rat sign that was the focus for the majority of his shadow jutsu, “Sorry! I-”

He looked so off-balance, Temari couldn’t help but laugh, spurred on by the absurdity of the whole situation – she tried to stop herself, she really did, but without the use of her hands, all she could do was bite her lip which wasn’t enough.

“Don’t worry about it,” she finally managed to say, happy to see that his expression was more bemused than offended, “It’s been a long day; no harm, no fowl.”

Her eyes drifted down to where his cup sat, untouched, chopsticks still resting on the closed lid.

No wonder he slipped up, if he hasn’t eaten yet.

She lazily swept a hand towards his food, “Go ahead and eat, crybaby, I’m fine for now.”

Having her primary source of entertainment/food/clean bandages/etc. collapse on her wouldn’t do at all.

<><><> 

Eventually, they finished their lunch, and Shikamaru began to clear the table, humming something just under his breath that she couldn’t quite make out.

Temari stood slowly, arcing her back and stretching her arms up languidly while fighting back a yawn.

“Wanna watch something?” She asked, the rest of the day unfurling in her mind’s eye, an unfathomable void of ‘boring’.

“Why don’t you take a nap?” Her roommate sniped over his shoulder, temporarily stopping his song, “It’s been a rough couple of days, and you haven’t really slept, have you?”

Though that last part was phrased like a question, Temari heard no uncertainty in his voice, and decided protesting wasn’t worth it.

Sleep actually sounded like the best thing ever, now that she considered it.

“Fine, fine. Wake me up if anything good comes on,” She capitulated, before cutting him off when she heard him breathe in, “and I mean ‘good’ by my standards, Antlers. No chick flicks.”

He muttered something she was going to assume was agreement, and she ambled from the kitchen to his bedroom (my bedroom, really, the part of her brain that wasn’t running on fumes pointed out), not even bothering to strip off her – admittedly loose – clothing before falling into bed.

Calling his bed (my bed now, her brain chimed) comfortable would have been an understatement; it was downright plush, luxurious even, and as she squirmed her way under the covers, she realized she knew the song Shikamaru had been humming, because it was the one she had hummed while tending the plants.

That bastard, she thought, an irrational feeling of happiness the last thing she registered before sleep seized her.

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