February 19, Yondaime year 4, towards the end of Asuma and Genma’s rookie year in ANBU
“Beer has arrived,” Asuma called through the door, after giving it a solid thump with his fist. “Fifty ryou bottle charge for every minute you make the delivery boy wait.”
Multiple sparks shifted behind the closed doors of the barracks hall. The one to his left jerked open not even a second later. “I’ll take it for two hundred ryou more,” Yamada said, leaning around the jam. He looked like he’d just come out of the shower, skin dewy and hair a damp mess of spikes. The fact that he wasn’t even bothering with a towel was another decent clue.
“Only two hundred extra?” Asuma replied skeptically. ”Five hundred and a handjob.”
Yamada groaned, tipping his head back dramatically. “You’ll make me a pauper.”
The door finally opened, and Genma gave them both a silent, inscrutable once over. The look he aimed at Yamada was particularly unimpressed. “‘Many battles have been fought and won by soldiers nourished on beer’,” he quoted, “which explains your poverty, Yamada, but not your track record.” His eyes shifted back to Asuma. “Blowjob, just the tip, final offer.”
Bottles clinked in the paper bag Asuma had balanced against one hip as he gave the naked ninja a rueful shrug. “Who could resist? Better luck next time.” He pushed the bag at Genma, blew Yamada a kiss, and slipped in past his teammate. Genma closed the door on Yamada’s curses with a laugh.
Just like every other room in the rookie barracks, there was just barely enough space for a bed, a dresser, and a tiny table in the kitchenette. Unlike most, Genma’s was remarkably homey feeling, with pictures on the wall and a clean sink, like some regular dude lived there—as long as you ignored the mad scientist chemistry set he had lined up on the kitchenette counter. Asuma wondered what new poison his teammate was working with this time, or if it was just prep for today’s session.
Paper rustled and plastic crunched worrisomely as Genma set the bag down on the table; he pulled out a half-squashed container of strawberries and gave Asuma a curious look.
“Kayan’s bribe,” he explained, and poked at the lump in his jacket over his left breast. It moved and chirped a happy Strawberries! in response, the tiny, child-like voice muffled but clear.
Genma made a noncommittal noise and set the container on the table. “I thought she preferred papaya.” Two six-packs of bottled beer followed, one a cheap brand, one a fancy craft brew with art nouveau labels. It wasn’t hard to guess which pack went to which shinobi.
“They were out of papaya. Apparently these are a close runner-up.” Asuma pulled the little loris out of the warm nest she’d made of his jacket pocket. As summons went, she wasn’t the most useful in combat, but her cuddly nature and adorable disposition more than made up for any faults. The fact that she actually enjoyed his presence—unlike most of the other monkey summons—was certainly a plus. Some days he even felt he was more the pet, rather than the other way around. Not that he’d ever call her that.
As soon as she was free, she unfurled like a very slow spring, both long arms reaching toward the leaky package of fruit as though it would come to her by sheer force of will. In spite of her apparent eagerness, the large gold coins of her eyes in that tiny striped face gave her a continued air of puzzled concern. He set her gently on the table and flopped down onto one of the chairs, letting her pry open the package on her own. Genma, ever the gracious host, pulled out a bowl and a packet of wasabi peas before opening a bottle of each brew. Such a gentleman.
“Hi, Kayan,” Genma greeted, seating himself; she ignored him in favor of a strawberry almost as big as her head. Asuma didn’t blame her. He’d go nuts over a strawberry as big as his head, too. “Why the bribe? Taichou give you extra scut and you want me to help out?”
Asuma took the bottle handed to him and did his best not to grimace. “If only. No, it’s to pick your brain. I got one of those offers I can’t refuse, but I’m thinking about refusing anyway. Where’s your ashtray?”
The apartment was small enough that Genma didn’t have to get up to reach for the ashtray, but he did anyway. He evicted a quartet of senbon that had been lying in it, and gave it a thorough wash in the sink. “That should be okay,” he said, as he dried it and set it in the table, “but if your lips feel numb after you use it, let me know.”
Asuma tossed him a little salute and dug out his cigarettes. He lit one, then held the pack out to Genma, who took one for himself and sat back down.
“So what’s this offer you want to refuse? Akimichi Kagura ask you out?” Genma asked.
Asuma chuckled, shaking his head. “I’d take that in a heartbeat,” he said. “No, Hokage-sama gave me an invite from the Daimyou.”
“To join his Guardians. Round ‘em up to twelve.”
The shielded intensity in Asuma’s dark eyes said he wasn’t kidding, even a little.
“Well, shit,” Genma said. “That’s… Shit, man, that’s the big times. What happened? They just deliver you a scroll, or call you into his office or what?”
“Into his office. Sagara-sama and taichou were there, too,” Asuma said. He took a long drag on his cigarette and puffed out a smoke ring that hung like a halo over Kayan’s head. “Still wondering if it isn’t just a joke.”
“I’m pretty sure Hyuuga-taichou doesn’t have a sense of humor,” Genma pointed out. Which was uncharitable. Their captain had laughed at something just last week, if Genma remembered rightly.
“Yondaime-sama does,” Genma went on. “But if Sagara-sama was there and the captain, then I’m gonna go with it being legit.” He looked at his friend and frowned. “They must have picked you because of your dad. I mean, not that you aren’t eminently qualified in your own right.”
Asuma rolled his eyes and took a handful of wasabi peas, crunching his disdain.
“Well,” Genma said, munching a handful of the peas himself. “Did they say why they chose you, or was it just one of those, ‘Your village has need of you’ moments? Sounds like they’re giving you a choice, if you’re still considering it.”
Asuma took a drink of his beer and reached a hand over to gave Kayan a slow, absent-minded pat. “To be fair,” he said, “I was too busy going ‘what the fuck is wrong with you?’ to ask a lot of questions. I mean, if they’re gonna pick anybody, why not—” He gestured in the air, drawing a look from the loris. “Why not Kakashi? That makes more sense.”
“You’re kidding, right?” Genma said. “He’s way too controversial. The Uchiha would never go for it, and even if they did, he’s not exactly well known for his ability to get along with his peers. The Daimyou’s Guardians are practically brothers. He’d never assimilate.”
“Yeah but I’m not that much better. I invent new ways to piss off Taichou daily,” Asuma said.
“I thought the garlic in his shampoo was a nice touch,” Genma said, “Especially since he couldn’t pin it on you. Half the cafeteria heard him bitching at the cooks for under-seasoning the stir-fry.” He drained his beer to half and twirled the bottle on the table, setting its contents swirling and foaming. “Anyway, that’s not the point. Unless taichou’s the one who suggested your name to the Hokage. But even if he did, Minato-sama and Sagara-sama are way too smart to solve a disciplinary problem with a promotion.”
Asuma made a face that implied he knew those words were accurate but didn’t like them anyway. “If I was a disciplinary problem I’d be a walking bruise.” No matter how much he enjoyed pranking and sassing, Hyuuga-taichou would have been putting him in his place far more often if he was crossing the invisible line of insubordination. Depressing, but true. He was losing his touch.
He sighed a cloud of smoke through his nose, and attempted to sneak a strawberry without Kayan noticing. She grabbed his hand by one finger and gave him a dirty side-eye. “I like ANBU,” he said to the loris, although his words were really aimed toward Genma. “Even the boring bits. Does that make me crazy?”
“Hell no,” Genma replied. “Well, no crazier than me, anyway, and they declared me fully sane at my last fitness eval.” He rolled a few wasabi peas out of their bowl and offered them to Kayan; after a moment of inspection she carefully selected a strawberry for him and accepted the trade. All without letting go of Asuma’s pinky. Traitor. “So it’s not like you’d be on an extended ANBU mission, then? Would you still report in to the Hokage at all?”
“Not a mission, no. Most likely I’d have my ANBU service temporarily suspended. It’d be like a reassignment with a new boss, mostly. Only super important stuff would need to be reported to the Hokage—everything else is managed in-house.” He managed to wiggle out of Kayan’s surprisingly strong grip, and attempted to offer some peas, too. The strawberry she gave him in response was significantly more squashed than the one she gave Genma. “Really, Kayan? Really?”
“Rude,” she scolded in response. He pouted; she ignored him and crunched on one of Genma’s peas. Ladies and gentleman, their relationship in a nutshell.
Genma just grinned and ate his strawberry, clearly pleased with his higher ranking in the loris’ mind. “Managed in-house by who? They’re all shinobi, right? So presumably they all came from Konoha.”
“So far as I know.” Asuma doubted the Daimyo would have ninja from another country—the Hokage would be up in arms over that. “From what I understand the Daimyo has his own police force on top of the Twelve on top of whatever security the capital has. Which makes sense. Even with the Hokage’s speed, it’d be hard for Konoha to react as quickly as anyone local.”
His teammate nodded thoughtfully and took a moment to finish his beer. Kayan attempted to close the strawberry container, gave up due to how mangled the packaging was, and began to groom herself. She’d eaten easily half. Asuma expected she’d be in a fructose coma for the rest of the night.
“Other than ‘Yondaime-sama asked me to’,” Genma finally said, leveling a long and steady look at him, “what are the reasons for accepting the post?”
Asuma took the time to eat his strawberry of reproach and give the question the thought it deserved. “Prestige,” he offered eventually. “Maybe broaden my skills, learn new jutsu. Travel without having to be incognito. Pay increase. Finally ending up in someone else’s bingo book.” He nodded to himself as he re-considered the last point. “That’s a good one.”
“As if you aren’t already,” Genma replied with a grin. “But yeah, that’d guarantee you a place on enemy bounty lists for sure. Wonder what the going rate is in Mist these days.”
“Not nearly high enough if no one’s come for my head yet.” Asuma finished his cigarette and smudged it out with a grand flourish, or at least as grand a flourish as one could get in that tiny apartment. “I’m worth at least ten million ryou. I mean, have you looked at this ass lately? This does not come cheap. And no way whatever get-up the Daimyo puts his Guardians in would flatter me as well as the ANBU gear. There’s a con: probable lack of fashion.”
“It is an impressive ass; I can’t argue with that,” Genma said. “I wouldn’t pay ten million for it, though. But then I’m pretty sure I can get it for trade-in-kind, if I play my cards right.”
“Pfff, you just can’t afford it,” Asuma said, waving an airy hand. “Imitation is never the same as the real thing.”
“Which is why you’re already in those bingo books, Sarutobi.” Genma regretted it as soon as he’d said it—Asuma was far more than just his well-known name. But it was true the Sandaime’s only son had been a high-value target on enemy lists for years. There was a reason Asuma had grown up with an ANBU presence. Maybe it was why he’d become one as soon as he’d turned eighteen: he had something to prove, mostly to himself.
“That was low, sorry,” Genma said. “You know I think you’re worth at least ten mill.”
Asuma tossed him a forgiving wink. “Sweet talking me into a discount, huh?”
“Any advantage I can get,” Genma agreed. “But seriously, what other reasons are there to turn it down? Besides the fact you’d be parted from my company, of course.”
“Of course,” Asuma said, raising his beer in acknowledgement before killing if off.
“You’d still be doing service to Konoha, you’d be protecting the freaking Fire Daimyou, and you’d be with a group of shinobi who are practically as legendary as the Sannin. Well, if you except that fuckwad Orochimaru…”
Kayan looked up, startled at Genma’s suddenly dark tone.
“Sorry, Kayan-chan,” he said. “I need another beer. You want another beer, dude?”
“I always want another beer.” Asuma did the honors this time, extracting a pair of mismatched bottles from the twin six packs. He uncapped them and handed Genma his with a soft clink.
That was one of the many things about Asuma Genma liked: he didn’t ask questions Genma couldn’t answer. They drank in companionable silence, while Kayan groomed strawberry juice off her face.
“So,” Genma said at length. “When do you have to give them an answer?”
The face Asuma made would have curdled milk. “The sooner the better,” he said, lighting another cigarette. “Preferably tomorrow.”
Asuma nodded, completely in agreement with that sentiment.
“What’s taichou say? Did he say anything?” Their captain might be a hardass, but he was smart. And definitely someone whose opinion they could trust. “Did he look like he was on board with this, or was Sagara-sama doing an end-run around him?”
“All of the above?” Asuma said. “He told me, ‘Go get trained, and when you come back maybe you’ll be worth your mask.’”
“So in other words you have no idea because he was as inscrutable and dry as always,” Genma translated. “Did he tell you that in front of Sagara-sama and the Yondaime, or after the meeting when you were alone?”
“After the whole spiel, when we were alone,” Asuma said. “You know, his kind of sweet talk. ‘You’re an ass, but you can be useful every now and then. Rarely.’”
“Huh,” Genma said. “That kind of sounds like he’s telling you you should take it.” He frowned at his beer, studying the decorative label as if it were going to offer some kind of answer for his friend. An inky river under a pale, full moon looked a little like a path, if he squinted. “If it were me… I guess I’d take it. It’s not the kind of opportunity you get twice. Is it for a limited hitch, or is it indefinite? If it’s limited, I’d definitely take it.”
“Limited, yeah, a couple years at a shot. Unless I really love it, I guess. Or they hate me and kick me to the curb,” Asuma smirked around his cigarette, blowing a stream of smoke at the ceiling. “Which would only be more proof that taichou and I are meant to be together forever.”
“True love will wait,” Genma said sagely. “Or follow. Maybe he’ll quit ANBU and move to the capital to be near you. Except I’m pretty sure his family is arranging a marriage for him, so yours would be an illicit affair.”
“Best kind,” Asuma said.
“You’d know,” Genma agreed.
Kayan gave up on grooming her own fur and eased carefully across the table, reaching for Genma’s dangling hair.
“Don’t tangle it,” he told her.
Taking that as permission, she climbed up onto his shoulder and carefully separated strands of his hair with her tiny nails.
“Just because I’m telling you to take it,” Genma said, “don’t think that means I want you to go. On a personal level, this sucks. I like having you at my six in a fight. And, you know, here.” He shrugged, gesturing at the room around them. Truth was, he’d lucked out in this particular rookie comrade. Or maybe the higher ups had designed it that way. Whatever the reason, Asuma had turned out to be more than just a good teammate: he was a good friend. That was a precious commodity.
“More like you’re at my six,” Asuma replied, but with a smile. As far as he was concerned, there were few people who were better to have at your back than Genma. Those poisons he played with were amazing and wonderful things, off and on the field. Asuma would know.
But that was in large part why taking the offer was difficult—good friends were hard to find and harder to keep. Who knew what the capital and the other, no doubt more-skilled Guardians would be like? Was it worth it?
Asuma slouched down low in his chair and blew more smoke at the ceiling. “Admit it. You’re really just keeping me around for my monkey. Will you write me love-letters while I’m gone?”
“I’ll write Kayan letters, and she can read them to you.” Genma reached up to tickle the little loris’ exposed stomach; her large eyes half-closed in pleasure, her little fingers never pausing as they combed through the ninja’s hair. Genma, on the other hand, stared longingly at Asuma’s cigarette, before breaking down to light up one of his own. “Although you’re a terrible influence on me. I’ll probably do better on sprints if you leave and I can kick your filthy habit.”
“Yeah, yeah. You just run slow because you enjoy the view.” Asuma rubbed his knuckles against the stubble on his chin, careful not to poke himself in the face with the lit cigarette. That wouldn’t look good on a medical file, even if he could plead drunkenness (he couldn’t). “I suppose,” he decided finally, “I should take it. It is once in a lifetime. And not permanent. I’ll get to come home eventually.”
“Yeah. You should.” Even though he agreed, Genma did look downcast at the prospect. ‘Coming back eventually’ probably would be at least a year from now, after all. “We sometimes get missions out to the capital. Maybe you could sneak away for a tryst. Or maybe the other Guardians will be hot and we can have an orgy.”
“I’ll always have time for trysts and orgies. Just for you.” Asuma reached over to pat his friend’s hand, then raised his beer bottle for a toast. “Here’s to this post being boring as hell and me not coming home in a box. Or starting any wars. That would be awkward.”
Genma just gave him a dry look before raising his own bottle to clink against Asuma’s. “I’ll avoid boxes and inciting rebellions here, too. It can be our pact.”
“Whoever starts a war pays for dinner when we hook up again,” Asuma suggested. Genma laughed and agreed.
This was the best they could do—with their lifestyle, there were few guarantees of a future. There was certainly no way to make serious plans about it; there was only the present, and enjoying any peace it brought while they had it. So they drank their beers, smoked their cigarettes, and threw peas at each other when the conversation warranted. Asuma would take what he could get, even knowing that tomorrow he’d most likely be leaving.
Better to laugh or else you’d cry, right?
3 thoughts on “Short Straw”
Well. I suppose you have to live fast if you’re going to die fast.
I really enjoyed the atmosphere and the premise of this chapter. I read with interest about every little detail they discussed, whether it be the specifics of the ninja world affairs, Asuma’s promotion with its probable advantages and disadvantages, Gemma’s reaction, and everything in between. It was stimulating and I liked figuring it out and immersing into the shinobi jargon, for lack of a better phrasing.
The dynamic between Asuma and Gemma and the rest of the characters (the Hyuuga taichou subplot was notably cute, sue me) feels intimate (what with the trust, banter, the innuendos and the teasing), domestic (in that shinobi kind of way, with monkey summons, poison lab on the counter, and senbon in the ashtray. And naked comrades), and generally well-developed in how teammates sometimes say one thing while meaning something more nuanced. I love how various facts about the characters are revealed organically as the dialogue unfolds, like here:
“Although you’re a terrible influence on me. I’ll probably do better on sprints if you leave and I can kick your filthy habit.”
“Yeah, yeah. You just run slow because you enjoy the view.”
Informative, sentimental AND funny—which is something I can say about a lot of dialogue sequences in this chapter. I liked how these two analyzed their taichou’s comment on Asuma’s promotion. That familiarity and “coded” speech between the captain and his soldiers, and between one soldier and another, makes one feel wistful. It speaks to the realistic layers/complexity in these types of relationships.
It was as amusing as it was endearing to see Kayan and Genma trade strawberry for a wasabi pea. The fructose coma—that’s a funny one. And the strawberry container getting half squashed in the bag—that’s so relatable, lol.
When Genma said, “I thought the garlic in his shampoo was a nice touch. Especially since he couldn’t pin it on you. Half the cafeteria heard him bitching at the cooks for under-seasoning the stir-fry,” this weird thing happened—I totally got it backwards lol. At first I wondered if taichou’s hair smelled of garlic so bad that he couldn’t taste the seasoning in the stir-fry anymore. But then, why would he use a shampoo smelling of garlic anyways? Then I thought, did Asuma tinker with the seasoning in the stir fry before it was delivered and put what was supposed to go to the meal into the shampoo instead? And it’s only when I wrote it all out that I’ve finally arrived at the (probably) correct conclusion of what happened: Asuma wanted to “punish” taichou for being a picky bastard and bitching at the cooks, and so he later put garlic in his shampoo as an expression of irony. And since half the cafeteria heard taichou’s bitching, he couldn’t pin it on Asuma (though I’m sure he knows, and isn’t it sweet that he still doesn’t think Asuma is “crossing the invisible line of insubordination.” He must have a soft spot for the guy). Now that I think of it, this should’ve been obvious to me from the start. Oh well, better later than never!
Would that be alright if I asked for clarification here about something I’m not sure how to interpret in the chapter?
Thank you for your fantastic work and for such a lovely reply to my comment under A Man Who Is Not Afraid. I’m glad to hear you guys are still so proud of that chapter—it puts my heart at ease.
Oh my gosh, I am so remiss at replying. I just realized this lovely, wonderful feedback was here. Thank you so much! I have always been fond of this chapter, too. Genma before he took on a lot of responsibility was a little looser of limb and easier going. He’ll get there again, but it was fun to back up and write that younger version of him.
I’ve always adored that moment between Genma and Kayan with the wasabi pea and the strawberry. And I love, as you do, the nuance and subtle detail of the things we glimpse in the background.
To answer your question, you arrived at the right conclusion eventually. Or at least a plausible version of it. Whether Asuma put garlic in Hyuuga-taichou’s shampoo as punishment for sins against the cooks, or merely took advantage of the fact that the cooks’ ire would provide a plausible alternative culprit (did one of the cooks do it?) doesn’t really matter. Asuma saw his chance and took it to prank and maybe mildly rebuke their captain, and it was hilarious.
Thank you so much for your insightful and delightful analysis!