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Underneath the Underneath

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I’m not interested in them.

You know how troublesome women are- you almost married one, remember?

It’d rather not- being here’s good enough, ain’t it?

In hindsight, Shikamaru didn’t know where the conversation had started from. They’d talked about a lot of things that night- Ino’s impending nuptials, Asuma’s broken yet mending relationship with Kurenai and the child they were raising together, how it seemed like, once the war ended, everyone was settling down in some manner…

Everyone, that was, except Shikamaru.

It wasn’t that no one was interested in him, Asuma had pointed out- he just didn’t seem interested in reciprocating their interest, even the ones that would have made perfect sense to be with. He wasn’t interested in them; how could he be, when he spent most of his time outside of work with Asuma? It wasn’t like spending all his time with an old man would endear him to any prospective brides, nor would doing so give him the opportunity to meet anyone who could possibly fulfill such a role.

Not that Shikamaru cared for that, as he’d said and as he knew Asuma was fully aware of. If they’d stop being so them – demanding, intolerant of his ways – and maybe more like Asuma – patient, willing to let him be when able, but capable of getting him to work when it mattered – then, and only then, would he make a possible consideration of dating them. But there was only one Asuma- the one he spent time with, and why would he date someone who was Asuma-like, when being with Asuma was good enough for him?

He’d said it offhandedly, grumbled it even, in the middle of a game of shogi. His mind had been on the game, only marginally aware of the conversation they were having, so it was only when Asuma had gone quiet, the game stalling once Shikamaru had made his move, did what he say catch up with him. He hadn’t meant it that way- Shikamaru knew he hadn’t, and so did Asuma, didn’t he?

He’d wanted to protest, to write off the words he had spoken with a ‘that sounded way less weird in my head’, but something had held him back from doing so; he’d noticed it, Asuma had noticed it before he had, and really…uncertain awkwardness was really all he could’ve asked for at that moment.

The game never did end up getting finished.

--

When he next saw Asuma, the older man had been with Kurenai and their child, playing in the park with the children of other parents.

The scene had hurt. Shikamaru hadn’t wanted to think about the why.

He’d left, not noticing the stare Asuma shot his way once his back was turned.

--

“We need to talk.”

The words came after an awkward stalemate of four days.

Shikamaru hadn’t expected them to come at all- it wasn’t a situation he was familiar with enough to think over, no strategies that he could devise that could account for anything Asuma possibly could have said or done, nor any strategies that could account for his own reaction to whatever Asuma decided…it’d been an uncomfortable feeling, being without his normal fallback plans, so much so that when the words finally came he’d been relieved.

Asuma had caught him alone when he’d spoke, the two of them the only ones taking up space in Shikamaru’s favorite napping location.

Before any sense of awkwardness could come between them, Asuma sighed and nervously ran a hand through his hair. “Look, Shikamaru. I’m not…good for you- hell, I’m not good for anyone, but especially not for you. I know you didn’t mean to say what you said- you’re the most guarded kid I know even though you don’t act like it, and this…confession of yours…I can’t answer it, you know that, right?”

Shikamaru closed his eyes, an unfamiliar pain lancing through him, but he only let out a quiet breath. His voice was even when he finally spoke, his eyes opening to gaze at the sky above. “I didn’t ‘confess’ to you. You’re right- I didn’t mean to say what I said. You know having serious conversations with me while playing shogi never ends well, and it’s not like I even really knew what I was saying. So don’t worry about it- there’s nothing for you to answer anyway.”

Asuma remained quiet for a few beats, and then pulled a pack of cigarettes from one of his pockets. Carefully he tapped one of the sticks out of the box and tucked it between his lips and lit it with a sigh. “There are things, I think, that you don’t like considering; things that are ‘too troublesome’, things that you don’t want to deal with, regardless of the outcome. Sometimes, Shikamaru, I think you’d be better off if you’d just face them, instead of running away.”

Shikamaru leveled his gaze at Asuma, although the other man refused to meet it. “And what, is this one of those things? That ‘confession’ I gave you, that wasn’t a confession at all? I think I’d understand my own feelings better than anyone else, don’t you?”

Asuma ‘hmm’ed quietly as he took a long drag of the cigarette, the smoke wafting slowly through the air as he let it out. “I’d say that were true, if I didn’t think you were the type to hide away from things you didn’t want to acknowledge.”

Shikamaru scoffed, annoyance pulling at the corners of his consciousness. “What do you know about me that makes you so confident that you understand my feelings better than I do? You’re not a mind reader, Asuma.”

“No, but I don’t have to be,” Asuma said, his gaze slanting to meet Shikamaru’s. “I understand what you’re trying to hide, only because I’m trying to hide for the same reasons you are.”

Shikamaru didn’t respond. Asuma deftly rubbed the burning end of the cigarette against a dirt patch and then stood, stretching to loosen the stiffness in his back. With a final look down at Shikamaru, he said, “I know what fear’s like- I know it every time you, Ino, and Chouji go out on missions, and I know it every time I’m not around to keep Kurenai and our son safe, despite knowing that Kurenai is perfectly capable of taking care of herself and our kid. I know what it’s like to be afraid of being rejected so you hide away, but I also know what it’s like to be accepted. Maybe when you figure out what it is you want, you’ll understand what I meant when I said that I can’t answer it, instead of that I won’t.”

With that Asuma left. It still hurt, that mysterious pain he didn’t understand, but Asuma’s words comforted a part of him that he hadn’t known needed comforting. He was afraid; terrified, even, of what he’d find by digging in places Asuma said he was avoiding. But, at the same time, he was curious.

Asuma had said that he couldn’t answer him, not that he wouldn’t; the meaning of his words would make sense in time, if only he were willing to face it.

Maybe he would.