He felt as though the entire world were pushing down on him in a single instance; he stared down the gloomily lit hallway, his mind's eye perfectly mimicking the last moment he'd been there, despite his greatest efforts to remove the memory from his thoughts. Emotions were nothing but troublesome to him. He felt his chest growing tighter, his eyes tracing across the nondescript doorframe, her shadowy figure appearing to him, slumped over with her hands pressed against her face. He could feel the way she trembled in his clammy fingers; hear the broken sobs that wracked her frame.
But he tried to push that all from his mind. He was here because he had to be here. Maybe if he thought of it like a mission, it would make this less troublesome ... But no. In his mind—in his gut, his heart, his soul—he knew that this was something completely removed from the likes of a mission. It was a promise, guided by fate like the tide follows the moon. He was meant to be here.
The boy breathed out a deep sigh, stuffing his fists ever deeper into his pockets. His entire countenance looked calm—bored, even—but beneath the heavy-lidded eyes and casual meander were nerves that quivered with every shuffle-step he took closer to the door.
He lifted his hand to knock; behind the door he could hear faint chatter—a woman's voice. His hand frozen just above the door, his ears tried to distinguish exactly what they were saying. The thought of running away occurred to him many times in that single moment. But he knew what a moment could do. He knew all too well that a single moment could change your entire world.
His hand finally fell; a single knock resonated through the air around him. The voice behind the door stumbled. He thought it might be polite to knock again, but before he had the chance, the door was wrenched out from beneath his raised fist. A shadowy figure appeared through a crack in the door; her dark hair fell across her eyes. Even from the shadows the boy could see that they were a luminous red. She was completely unchanged from the last time he'd seen her.
Though her voice was steady, the boy watched as diamonds began to congeal along her red-rimmed lids. They glimmered in the dank light of the hallway. The vision reared upon in his mind again; he was watching her crumple down to the ground, her hands pressed against her face. But she blinked back the tears, taking a deep breath.
"Sorry to bug you so late, Kurenai-sensei," the boy, Shikamaru, mumbled. He reached an arm around and scratched at the back of his head. He hoped that Kurenai-sensei wouldn't break down and cry: he wasn't sure how much more he could handle.
"N-no, it's okay," she said softly. "I didn't know that you were back. I mean—" she broke off. He understood what she was trying to say: I didn't know you were still alive.
A long moment passed, interrupted only by the sound of a playful coo that came from behind Kurenai. Shikamaru awkwardly cleared his throat. "I thought maybe I could ... come and see ..." he trailed off. He didn't even know the child's gender, let alone its name.
"Oh, yes!" Kurenai said. She forced a smile and a giggle, throwing open the door. Within, the boy perceived an immaculate house. The only exception to this observation was a large rug in the living room where toys and rattles had been scattered.
The brunette stepped aside, letting Shikamaru duck beneath the doorway. He stood there rigidly, hands stuffed deep into his pockets; his heavy-lidded eyes grazed across the apartment, finally drawn by the playful babble of a child back to the carpet in the living room.
In the backdrop of blazing sunset, she'd been painted in a silhouette. Her fingers were not busied with a toy, but instead she gently stroked the petals of a single poppy that Kurenai had growing. Kurenai scurried over to her, picking her up as she murmured light-heartedly, "What are you doing over here?"
Shikamaru scratched at the back of his head again. He had never been great with kids—he always preferred them when they were a little older, a little more capable. Kurenai-sensei had the child propped up on her hip as she walked over to Shikamaru carefully, gazing dotingly into the child's face. He was struck again—rendered motionless by his own emotions. From his perspective, he was staring into the future: a future personified in chubby, ruddy cheeks; bright brown orbs, and unruly, curling chestnut hair.
He swallowed hard as the little one turned their eyes towards him. Something about them seemed to gaze straight into the depth of him; they were "old eyes", he thought—eyes that had already lived through an entire lifetime.
Shikamaru didn't know what to do. Finally, inspired by some instinct within him, he reached a tentative finger towards the baby. After a couple of seconds of hesitation, the child reached out and grabbed Shikamaru's long finger with her own tiny ones. She turned around and smiled at Kurenai, who was giving Shikamaru the same solemn smile she'd greeted him with. "I guess she likes you."
"I hope so," Shikamaru said to Kurenai; then looking at the baby girl he said: "'cause your father wants to make sure I train you myself."
Kurenai grinned at the girl. Shikamaru slipped his hand gently out of the girl's grasp, stuffing his hands back in his pockets. This whole meeting might have been easier if he'd brought Ino and Chouji along—but he also felt responsible, in some way, to meet this child on his own. She was the king, after all. Her care had been personally entrusted in him by Asuma-sensei. He had been thinking about this meeting ever since they'd started on their journey home.
"So ... what did you name her?" Shikamaru asked.
"Ayame," Kurenai replied. She bestowed a glance in Shikamaru's direction momentarily, her crimson eyes flashing brilliantly, before their attention was stolen again by the little one. The baby wiggled her legs in Kurenai's arms.
"Ayame, huh ..." Shikamaru said, watching absentmindedly as Kurenai went and put the baby back in her play area. "It suits her." Shikamaru's eyes shot to the single poppy that was blooming in the boxes by the window. Their petals were as dark as Kurenai-sensei's eyes.
Kurenai offered Shikamaru a seat at the cramped table in the kitchen. He didn't particularly want to accept—but something in Kurenai's pressing gaze made him stay. She probably hadn't heard much from her own team. Any information Shikamaru could give her would probably alleviate at least some of her worries. Though, of course, he vowed to keep the events of the war to a minimum ... Especially considering what had happened with Asuma ...
After asking if he'd like something to eat or drink, Kurenai sat down at the table with a cup of steaming tea. Shikamaru busied himself with twiddling his fingers.
"I'm sorry to hear about your father," Kurenai said after a long pause. Those words were like a knife to Shikamaru's throat. He sucked in a deep breath and held it, recovering as fast as he possibly could.
"Ah ... you heard about that."
"Unfortunately, I haven't heard very much. I wanted to ask how my old team was doing."
"Oh, them ...?" Shikamaru scratched at the back of his head again. "Well, they all made it back safe."
Kurenai released an audible sigh. "I'm so glad to hear that. We lost so many fine men and women ... I was afraid that maybe ..."
"They're all strong shinobi now, sensei."
A fleeting smile touched her lips, before it was quickly tainted by sorrow. "War ... really changes people."
"Yeah ..." Shikamaru didn't know where she was headed with this subject, but he wished she'd stop. It took everything to just maintain his composure sometimes. He felt like his facade was cracking each time Kurenai turned her sad eyes upon him.
"I wish I could've been there, Shikamaru. I regret it every day."
Shikamaru swallowed. He didn't know what to say to her. Comforting women had always been troublesome ... He never really understood what was the right thing to say. If only Ino had been here, then she would've known what to say ... "The duty you have right now, sensei," Shikamaru began, measuring his words carefully. He didn't know where they'd come from, or what he was trying to say, but he let his thoughts meander on. "That duty is just as important as what we were doing."
Kurenai didn't seem to accept his answer. Her brow was still clouded over, even as she turned away and forced a curt laugh. "I guess Asuma-sensei rubbed off on you ... You always were his favourite student."
"Ah, so you've told me."
Kurenai was about to reply when an abrupt whimper cut her off. She whirled around and looked at Ayame, who was crawling over to her mother. The sun was almost all but set now.
"Looks like somebody's tired."
The brunette woman picked the child up and cradled her in her arms. "I'll just go and put her to bed and then we can—"
"Well, I was actually just going to head out myself, sensei." Shikamaru stood.
"Oh ...," she hesitated. "Alright then, I'm sure I'll see you again soon." She started down the hallway, calling over her shoulder, "And, knowing Asuma, he's probably made you promise to be here with her every day from dusk until dawn!"
Shikamaru gave a short laugh, calling out a "thanks" before quickly letting himself out. He let the door click shut carefully behind him, before letting his eyes slowly close. He didn't know what to think of that moment—in fact, this lazy genius didn't even know how to process what he had felt in that moment. He could hardly remember a word spoken with Kurenai. All he could think of was the tiny little finger wrapped around his; the bright brown eyes staring up into his.
He brushed a hand over his face, trying so hard not to think the thought that kept rearing up in his head: this girl was just like him. This girl had lost her father—this girl hadn't even known the man he was. Unlike him, she'd never get to know him. He couldn't decide if that option was better or worse: to know someone for a short time, or to never know them at all. To only hear the good things about them—to not have good memories tainted by bad ones—tainted by regrets.
What a drag ... He thought to himself, taking another moment to compose himself. With increasing urgency, he rushed ever quicker towards the front door of the building, hoping to escape the emotions that sought to crush him beneath them completely.
He stumbled out into darkness. The stars dappled the sky brilliantly—a sight that he'd been unable to admire for so long. He sucked in a breath of cold air, rubbing a hand through his hair. Shikamaru leaned outside the house, the light from Kurenai's apartment window casting a rectangular gleam on the packed earth. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a crumpled package of cigarettes. He'd always thought it was foolish of Asuma-sensei to have smoked these in the first place; but since coming home, he'd gotten into a habit of it himself—feeling, if some way, that there was a connection between him and his lost sensei as the smoke drifted up slowly towards the sky.
He slid the papery cigarette between his lips, striking a match and lighting the end. The paper curled and hissed as smoke began to spit from its end. Shikamaru took a deep breath, releasing his exhalation slowly. Oddly enough, it calmed his nerves.
"Well, Asuma-sensei," he muttered after a couple more breaths, "I've met the king today."
He felt his chest swell—but with what? Pride? Remorse? Sorrow? He was quick to take another deep breath of the bitter smoke, closing his eyes slowly as he did this. Behind his lids he tried to procure Asuma-sensei's countenance. The recreation was hazy at best—sometimes it was the glint of his head-band he saw clearly; others it was his easy-going smile. But each time he struggled to realize his sensei's face, Ayame's face reared up in his thoughts. She looked just like her father—the same wise eyes and everything.
"She looks just like you, Asuma-sensei."
Shikamaru could feel tears choke off his words. No matter how many times he tried to bite them back, they still came rolling quietly down his cheeks. He leaned his head forward, letting the tears spatter on the ground. He clenched his fist and teeth, squinting his eyes closed in frustration. "I promise I'll teach her everything you taught me, Asuma-sensei!" This was a resolve he made not just because of his promise to Asuma—but it was his duty to his own father.
At that moment, the light in Kurenai-sensei's apartment flicked off. Save for the flickering lantern that hung on the corner of another slumped-over building, Shikamaru was plunged in complete darkness. He took these moments in darkness to collect himself. He steadied his breath and dried off his tears with the heel of his hand. He took a few more deep breaths of the cigarette. When he'd regained control of himself again, he pushed away from the wall and started walking back towards his house.
He threw the smouldering cigarette onto the ground, plunging his hands in his pockets as he walked past it. A knowing smile crept back onto his lips. He thought of the giggling baby with her ruddy cheeks and unruly hair and warm brown eyes. His face broke into a grin.
"I'm glad you're back, Asuma-sensei."