May 3, Yondaime Year 5

ryouma 8There were possibly less pleasant places to be on the day after a hard mission than the ANBU Quartermaster’s office. Hospital, maybe. The morgue. Meeting someone’s parents on what you thought was a second date.

On second thought, you could just walk out on a date. Ryouma doubted anyone had ever successfully walked out on Quartermaster Morita.

“I didn’t ruin my gear intentionally,” he tried. “And I didn’t scratch the naginata! Look, brand-new.”

“That’s because it’s been under your bed for two weeks,” Morita snapped. “Don’t think I can’t see the dust, Tousaki. Did it ever occur to you to look for your mask?”

“Since I was dying at the time,” Ryouma said sharply, “no.”

Morita rolled his eyes. “If I had a ryou for every time I’d heard that, my budget would be in much better shape. You still have all four limbs, right? Still have your face? Then you’re fine. Try again.”

Ryouma picked up his reeking, blackened chest-armor from the table and held it out. “I was swimming through rot.”

“And you let it into your kit,” the QM said, unimpressed. He flicked the catch on the kunai holster and let the few remaining blades spill out. Their razor-sharp edges were spotted with rust. “You didn’t even bother cleaning it afterwards.”

“I had chakra exhaustion and lung inflammation,” Ryouma said dangerously.

Morita touched the ring-hilt of a kunai with a gentle fingertip, rocking it on the table. “Yesterday, a kunoichi with third-degree burns apologized to me for allowing the guard of her katana to melt,” he said. “You lost your sword. And your mask. You destroyed your gloves—though, granted, I never should have given you palm-coverings in the first place. Your uniform, armor, boots, and belt are so permeated with reek they may never be usable again. You let your kunai rust.” He shoved the holster back across the table. “A soldier is as good as his weapons, and you have ruined yours. This was careless, Tousaki.”

“I didn’t—” Ryouma started, and cut himself off. Morita wasn’t looking for excuses. He wanted apologies, apparently, or maybe atonement.

Well, Ryouma wasn’t sorry. He’d done the job, he’d killed the demon queen, and he’d have drowned in her guts if Raidou hadn’t dragged him out. Was he supposed to have demanded Raidou go squelching through the muck to find the sword and mask he’d lost, or hauled up to do it himself? He’d have pitched over inside three steps and drowned for good.

He could have cleaned the kunai, though, either in his brief moments of lucidity on the boat or at some point this morning, between rolling out of bed and getting lost on his way to the QM’s office. There was no excuse but laziness there.

He said stiffly, “I’ll do better next time. And I’ll take care of the kunai.”

Morita snorted. “Guess that’s as good as I’m going to get.” He pulled an arm guard out of the pile and turned it over, looking down at the rot-smeared straps with weary eyes.

A new armload of bloodstained armor dropped with a heavy thud onto the tabletop at Ryouma’s side. “What was that you were saying about a soldier only being as good as his equipment, Morita?” Shiranui Genma’s voice was as light and even as ever, like sunwarmed sand, but there was danger lurking beneath. “I have a lovely new scar I can show you that matches this.” He gripped the vest in both hands and twisted. The chest-plate flexed reluctantly, opening up along the bloodstained gash in the broken plate over the belly.

The QM shot him an irritated look. “I didn’t say only, Shiranui.” He pulled the vest from Genma’s hands and turned it in his own, studying the breach. “What did this?”

“Demon,” Genma said, as easily as if Ryouma hadn’t spent the last twenty minutes trying not to divulge classified information. Maybe the QM had clearance after all. Genma added, “The one that got me was the size of a horse. The one Tousaki lost his equipment to was as big as a building.” He fished a few folded sheets of paper out of his zippered sweatshirt and handed them over. “Details are in here. Ueno sketched it for you.”

If even the QM was getting reports, Ryouma must have slept through a lot of paperwork.

Genma looked like maybe he’d been up half the night finishing that paperwork. His face was drawn and sallow, sunstreaked hair scraped back in a rough tail at the base of his neck, eyes still shadowed as if he hadn’t yet recovered from the sleep he’d lost on their journey back. He wore faded, frayed jeans and a silk-screened teeshirt under his rust-colored sweater. Ryouma tried to recall if he’d ever seen the lieutenant in anything but uniform or jounin workout gear, and couldn’t. He looked — younger, somehow, which was ridiculous; he couldn’t be more than two or three years older than Ryouma to begin with. But ANBU armor and authority always aged him, lent him an extra air of danger and confidence. He didn’t look any less competent without it, but he did look more tired.

Whatever was in the QM’s version of the mission report had grabbed Morita’s attention just as completely as the ruined armor had. He studied it page by page, flipping back and forth to check details, and lingered especially long on the last. Katsuko had drawn a sketch, after all. It looked surprisingly artistic, to Ryouma’s untrained and upside-down eye. “Claws, teeth, tail,” Morita muttered to himself. “Looks chitinous, and chakra…” He put the report down and picked up the vest again, looking it over as if he could dissect it layer by layer. Finally, he looked up to Genma.

“Lose the layers, Shiranui,” he said. “Let me take a look at that injury. You, too, Tousaki. One of ’em got you on the leg? I want to see that.”

Public nudity was always preferable to chastisement. Ryouma went for his belt.

genma 8Genma wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting, or why he hadn’t expected this. Morita Rei was never one to stand on ceremony, and after a decade as ANBU’s quartermaster, he clearly had no qualms about telling agents to strip. Genma shrugged and shucked off his hoodie and t-shirt, folding both and laying them on the counter, while Ryouma simply unfastened his jeans and unceremoniously dropped them around his ankles.

Ryouma had black trunks on underneath, but the wound on his thigh was clearly visible. More a scar than a wound really—a tight pink line where Genma had closed the slash in the field, and Konoha’s medics had healed it altogether when they’d returned. It shared space on Ryouma’s tan skin with older, silvery scars. The new one was by far the most extensive, at least of the scars on his legs. Genma’d seen the evidence of more than a few serious fights on Ryouma’s upper body, but they were mostly hidden by his green Shutdown Assassin t-shirt.

Morita came from behind the counter and headed straight for Genma, stooping down to eye level with the long red line carving a diagonal across Genma’s stomach. He glanced up at Genma with cursory politeness, hands already poised over the scar. “May I?”

Genma shrugged and nodded. “It’s still a little tender,” he said, as Morita’s fingers touched down to probe the depth and extent of the injury. Morita’s hands were quick and firm, and absolutely merciless as he felt out the borders of the scar. When he pressed the right edge and center, where the cut had gone deepest, Genma had to take a deep breath.

Morita sucked on his lip with an unhelpful, “Hm,” then turned to Ryouma. “Let’s see that leg.” He had to crouch on his haunches to get a good look at Ryouma’s healed wound, which he subjected to much the same prodding as he had Genma’s. Judging by Ryouma’s reaction, it wasn’t quite as painful.

Ryouma shifted his weight, glancing over at Genma. “If we’re looking for vulnerabilities in the uniform, you should take a look at the lieutenant’s shoulders, too,” he said. “He an’ Katsuko both got messed up.”

“I was going to mention that, actually,” Genma said. “I know mobility is important, but four of five of us on the team took shoulder damage. Ueno, the captain, Hatake, and me. Tousaki’s the only one who didn’t.”

Morita straightened, casting his eyes over the freshly healed wounds on Genma’s shoulders. “What’d you do different?” he asked Ryouma.

Ryouma blinked. “Saved the day,” he said, grinning.

“I’m fairly sure it was a group effort,” Genma said mildly. “And possibly a statistical anomaly.”

Ryouma shrugged agreeably, silently mouthing anomaly like he wasn’t entirely sure what to do with the word.

While Ryouma pulled his jeans back on, Morita snorted and ducked back around the counter. “We tried shoulder coverings,” he said. Genma remembered the old ANBU uniform, with its wing-like epaulets. It had gone out of use long before he’d joined. “Cuts flexibility, raises injuries,” Morita went on. “I don’t care what you tell me about the jounin uniform; that flak-jacket is sleeveless, and the shirt under it doesn’t protect jack. My uniform is a perfect balance. Guards your vitals, gives you the freedom to move. If I start adding stuff, I might as well send you out in plate armor.”

“Guards your vitals?” Genma rubbed a hand over his new belly scar.

“You still have most of your intestines, sir,” Ryouma murmured.

Genma turned his head slowly to look Ryouma in the eye. “You’re not actually helping, Tousaki.”

Ryouma ducked his chin down obediently, not quite hiding his smirk.

“The fact I would have been cut in half without my armor notwithstanding,” Genma said. “I know that vest can take a direct hit from a steel blade. Why did mine fail?”

“You weren’t hit with steel,” Morita said. “Your report said you’d brought some of the carcass home? I’ll need to look at it, but my guess would be that demons are on their own level.” He scrubbed his hands together, looking pleased. “Which is good. Gives me something to work with.”

“Glad to oblige,” Genma said. He picked up his t-shirt and pulled it back on. “In the mean time, think you can see your way to setting Tousaki and me up with some replacements?”

“For you, Shiranui, give me a day,” Morita said. “For the rookie — there are some rice sacks in the corner. He can help himself.”

“Wow, what did I miss?” Genma asked.

“I apologized,” Ryouma said.

“They’re high-quality rice sacks,” offered Morita. “Lovely designs.”

Genma snorted. “Come on, rookie. Let’s let Morita-san work. He’s got to paint you a new mask and everything.”

“Thanks for your service, Morita-san,” Ryouma said quickly.

Whatever snarky thing had been on its way out of Morita’s mouth died there. He lifted his chin instead, surveying them both, and nodded a dismissal. “Agents.”

Ryouma went out the door first, Genma second. He just caught the quiet, “Good healing to you both,” Morita offered.

“Thanks,” Genma said, turning back briefly. “If Namiashi-taichou hasn’t been in to see you yet, he will be. Sorry to keep you so busy.” He’d have to remember to bring some pastries for Morita when he picked up his new armor tomorrow.

Morita flapped a dismissive hand. “Namiashi always keeps me busy. Go take care of your rookie.”

Genma saluted, slung his hoodie back on, and went to find Ryouma in the hall. “That went well,” he said. “What are you up to now? Want to grab a bite? I ought to at least buy you a meal for saving the day, after all.”

ryouma 4Ryouma glanced sideways. “Does it come with a lecture on group effort?”

The corner of the lieutenant’s mouth twisted. “Only if you really want to give it.”

That didn’t sound quite so much like a Sit down and shut up, Tousaki. Ryouma shoved his hands in his pockets and studied Genma a little more carefully.

If anyone on the team was going to be nominated for a Most Likely To Remain Professional At All Times award, so far he’d have put his money on Genma. The lieutenant always showed up early to team practice, stayed late, provided juice boxes and rat bars and bruise balm from a seemingly inexhaustible supply. He’d kept it together on the mission, when he was paralyzed and bleeding out; issued orders even from a clinic bed; turned his attention to healing others as soon as he was back on his feet. He did actually have a sense of humor, Ryouma was fairly sure, but for the most part he kept it battened down under a thick coat of responsibility.

So was this just responsibility again, like the juiceboxes and the rat bars? Rescue the rookie, make sure he’s eating right, send him on his way? Or was it just the impulsive offer of an off-duty man who wanted lunch and didn’t particularly want to eat alone?

“I’m not so good at lectures,” Ryouma said, testingly. “Tend to fall asleep in ’em. I’m sure you’ve noticed.”

“Harder to fall asleep when you’re the one lecturing,” Genma said, which yeah, okay, Ryouma deserved that. “But I’d just as soon not get lectured by my own rookie, anyway.” He struck off down the hall, throwing Ryouma a nod and a fleeting smile that invited him to fall in. “In case you were wondering, you did great with Morita-san. He only offers the pretty rice sacks to guys he likes.”

“He’s a bit old for me,” Ryouma said, shortening his stride just a little. Genma wasn’t quite limping, but his gait had lost a little of its quick grace. That angry red line across the hard planes of his stomach had looked healed, but not comfortable. Ryouma thought uneasily of the chakra Genma had poured out like water in Hayama and on the boat, healing others while his own belly was only held together by a handful of catgut stitches.

He said, “You’re doing better?”

“Much, thanks.” Genma stretched a little, swinging his shoulders, like a man enjoying new freedom of movement. “I was annoyed when they made me stay overnight, but it was definitely the right call.”

“In the hospital?” Ryouma hadn’t known that. Then again, he and Kakashi had taken off while the officers were still mired in paperwork. He eyed the lieutenant again. “You didn’t really fry your kidneys, did you?”

Genma scrubbed a sheepish hand through his hair. “Eh. A little. And my liver. No beer for me for the next week or so.”

“That’s a wise decision,” Ryouma told him earnestly. “I’ll support you in it. I can drink all my beer and yours, too.”

That won a snorting laugh. “So noble. You’re a true hero, Tousaki. Definitely ANBU material to the core.”

“I told you I’d be a good addition to the team,” Ryouma said. He held open the door to the stairwell, and hesitated. “I should’ve asked earlier, but… Did the girl pull through?”

Genma’d stepped onto the first stair already; he paused, looking back. The laughter had fled from his pale eyes. “She survived surgery, which was the main thing. They’re not sure if her chakra system will fully recover, but since she’s not a ninja, and she’s so young, it may not be a big problem even if she has some issues.”

Some issues, Ryouma suspected, would be understating it. How long had she spent underground, slowly dying in the dark? Would she ever sleep without a light again? Bear children, with the memory of the parasite growing inside her? Even assuming she could.He had no idea what the growing demon-eggs had done to their hosts, and no desire to ask.

He let the door swing shut. “D’you think they’re gonna send anybody out to clean up? We left kind of a shambles. Or is that the local lord’s job?” He pondered this for a second. “Do we get paid more for wiping out a nest of demons than for bandits? We sure got hurt more.”

genma 13Like the rest of ANBU’s hallways, the stairwell was carpeted, dulling their footfalls as they climbed out of the Quartermaster’s domain. “Good questions. Which one of those do you want me to answer first?” Genma asked.

Ryouma’s head tipped to the side in surprise, as if he hadn’t expected Genma to actually try to field all his questions. “Whichever,” he said. “No, wait. I want to know about our pay. Especially if I get docked for ruining my armor.”

“Don’t worry. After they get through our reports, there’s no way they’ll find you liable for the damage,” Genma assured him. “Morita was just busting your balls.” He repaid Ryouma’s favor at the top of the stairs, holding the door for Ryouma this time. “We should get paid more, but it might take a while to get sorted out. We ran into an A-rank situation, but the lord who hired us was quoted a B-rank rate. Konoha could probably make a case for it being Fire Country security related, and hit up the Daimyou to make up the difference, but with the situation in the capital…” He shrugged, lips twisting wry.

“Daimyou’s gonna be paying for security in the capitol, not bug-killing in the provinces, yeah.” Ryouma sighed, rubbing the back of his neck. “I heard in the cafeteria this morning that Hokage-sama took three teams with him to Hikouto and they sent another two the next day. Nobody’s saying much more, though.”

“I haven’t heard much, either,” Genma said. Word at the hospital had been hard to come by—mostly rumors and hearsay—but it had sounded like the damage had been mostly limited to the Daimyou’s palace itself. The only burning question he’d had—what had happened to Asuma—was still unanswered. Every source agreed that the Guardian Twelve had turned on the Daimyou, but some said there was division in the ranks, with some of the Guardians remaining loyal.

And all the Guardian Twelve were dead.

He wasn’t going to give Asuma’s soul, or his own, peace by dwelling on it. He didn’t want to believe Asuma was capable of turning traitor, but time could change a man, and it had been more than a year since Asuma’d gone to serve in the capital.

“If it’s classified, you can just say so,” said Ryouma, drawing Genma back.

“What? No, I—” Genma scrubbed a hand through his hair. “Sorry. I don’t know how much of this you caught yesterday, but a friend of mine is—was— A friend of mine was a member of the Guardian Twelve at the Daimyou’s palace.” He cleared his throat. “I’ve been trying to find out more, but all I know so far is that there was a coup and the Twelve were involved.”

“That’s shit,” Ryouma said emphatically. “I’m sorry.”

“Thanks.” Genma held open a fire door that separated one wing of ANBU offices from another. He kicked himself for having let his thoughts get away from him like that in front of Ryouma. But hell, they were only human. “How are you feeling today? Recovering?” he asked, changing the subject with little finesse. Ryouma would see through it, but it didn’t really matter.

“I’m upright and walking and everything,” Ryouma said with an enthusiasm only faintly tinged with sarcasm. He waited for Genma on the other side of the door, then swung into step beside him, following easily when Genma turned down another of ANBU’s featureless corridors. “Slept about sixteen hours and ate three plates at the cafeteria when I woke up, which helped a lot. I’m at about seventy-five percent chakra capacity today.”

Seventy-five percent? For a man who’d needed chakra transfusions in the field to maintain basic body functions, that was impressive even with four days of recovery under his belt. Genma glanced over, studying Ryouma’s posture and color, feeling the steady russet warmth of his chakra.

Ryouma tucked his hands into his pockets, sauntering along with a casual grace that gave proof to his improved health. “Haven’t coughed in two days,” he said. “Thanks for that.”

“Thanks for putting up with the treatments,” Genma said. “I know they kind of suck. Maybe next time try not to breathe in quite so much slime? For my part I’ll see what I can do about not getting sliced up and paralyzed.” He held out his fist for a bump. “Agreed?”

Ryouma bumped back. “I’ve got it all planned out for next time,” he said. “We send Katsuko’s clones in, and we sit back and sip cocktails.”

“Very civilized. I like it. Although taichou might frown at drinking on the job…” Genma shrugged and smiled. “I’ll just have to spike the sports drinks.”

“Alcoholic juice-boxes? You should sell them in the barracks. You’d make a fortune.” A mischievous gleam sparked in Ryouma’s eyes.

“Right until I got court-martialed,” Genma agreed. “Clearly what I’d need to do is find some patsy to be the front man.” He stopped at an unmarked door in the middle of the hall, pressed a coded sequence against the keypad lock, and pushed it open. Late afternoon sunshine and the scent of spent cigarettes filtered in. “We can cut through here,” he said, “and save ourselves some walking. Want to go into town or hit the cafeteria?”

ryouma 1“Town,” Ryouma said instantly, wrinkling his nose at the crushed cigarette butts someone had left on the gravel path. He’d never seen this courtyard before — hadn’t known that the inner bowels of HQ had access to sunlight or greenery. Somehow the maze of windowless corridors implied that anyone who worked in here would never see daylight. Maybe that was why the QM was grouchy.

“We deserve meat, after the last couple of days,” he added, following Genma past a stone bench and a slightly bedraggled young maple. No windows opened onto the courtyard, but there was a single door in the far wall, unlabeled and forbidding. Ryouma stared it down. “How about the Yakiniku Q?”

“Sounds good. I could use a break from fish and ration bars, too.” Genma’s fingers flickered over the code-lock beside the new door. A buzzer rang; the door groaned off the latch. Genma grabbed the handle and hauled it open onto another blank hallway. “As far as missions go, those weren’t terrible meals, though. I think the worst thing I ever had to eat for a mission was duck eggs.”

Ryouma stared at him. “If that was the worst…”

“With the baby duck inside.”

Boiled embryonic duck eggs had been a fairly popular streetfood in southern Fire Country, imported from Mangrove, when Ryouma was small. He didn’t mention that. “Ah,” he said instead, vaguely. “Okay.” He thought this over, and added encouragingly, “Eww.”

Genma blinked. “You like them,” he accused.

“Haven’t had one in years,” Ryouma hedged. “Tastes can change.” They turned down another hall, and hah, he knew where they were now. Someone had spilled coffee on the carpet in front of an office door and they still hadn’t quite managed to clean up the stain. He struck out a little more confidently. “If balut are the worst, what’s your favorite?”

“Favorite thing on a mission?” Genma shoved his hands in his pockets and tipped his head back, thinking. “I did a bodyguard job for a daimyou’s son’s wedding banquet once. I can’t even pick one favorite from that night, there was so much good stuff.” He hummed softly to himself. “Matsutake gohan, maybe.”

“Mushroom rice?” Ryouma snorted. “Some fancy banquet.”

“Not just any mushrooms!” Genma looked faintly scandalized. “Matsutake. They’re in season for about a week, if you can even find them. And they taste amazing.

Ryouma’s experience with mushrooms was mostly grubbing in rainy forests for a protein source and hoping whatever he found wouldn’t poison him. He said dubiously, “Sure. I’ll take your word for it. But beef’s better, right?”

Genma shook his head. “Beef’s more nutritious, but matsutake… Matsutake gohan and red tuna sashimi, some umeboshi and a bottle of really good sake — that’s what I want for my last meal.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Ryouma said. “Just in case I’m around when the time comes. ‘Taichou!’ you’ll say. ‘I draw my last breath for Konoha and country.’ And Rai— Namiashi-taichou will get all stern-looking but secretly weepy, but I’ll say ‘Wait, lieutenant! You can’t die yet!’ And then whip out the picnic basket I’ve been secretly carrying for years, just waiting for the right moment.” He added reflectively, “It’ll have to be years. Probably take me a while to save up.”

Genma’s mouth twitched, straightened, then broke on a laugh. “You should write dramas, Tousaki. The world of fiction lost a shining star when you became a ninja.”

“I know,” Ryouma said comfortably. He sank his hands into his back pockets and threw a little more swagger into his step. “There’s always hope for a second career, though. Or third. I’ve got to be a rockstar first.”

“It’s good to have a fallback plan.” Genma pushed through the lobby door and turned back, holding it open. One eyebrow lifted under the tawny fall of his hair. “You might also work on not calling the captain by his personal name.”

Had Ryouma given himself away that badly?

No, he couldn’t have. It was just half a name, no worse than the slip-ups he’d been making with masks all through their mission. Though not even Katsuko used the captain’s personal name…

But Genma hadn’t seen their chakra-transfer at the foot of the demons’ mountain, and Kakashi hadn’t guessed until Ryouma told him. Raidou must have told the lieutenant, which certainly made sense for a captain so concerned about boundaries. Of course he’d want another watchful eye. Ryouma gritted his teeth.

Didn’t trust me not to throw myself on you after all, taichou?

Or — had Raidou not trusted himself?

“Captain gets antsy about people being too friendly?” he said, half at random. “Thanks, lieutenant. I’ll keep it in mind.”

genma 3“I’m pretty sure his favorite word is ‘boundaries,’” Genma said. “Not that that’s any bad thing. He gave me the ‘family names out of mask, mask names in them’ talk the first day we met, and I know we repeated it for the team at orientation.” He shrugged. “That’s ANBU policy, anyway. Some captains allow personal names between team members after they’ve been together a while, but it usually happens organically.”

“Some captains allow—” Ryouma started, sounding outraged. He choked himself off half way, giving Genma a dark look. “I’ll work on it,” he said stiffly.

“You didn’t think being ‘the baby killers’ let us off the hook on protocol, did you?” Genma asked, amused. “If anything, I think there’s more bureaucracy and formal decorum in ANBU than in the regular ranks. At least in terms of rules and regulations.”

Ryouma sighed. “Yeah, I’d noticed. Surprised you’re even allowed to go to lunch with me, lieutenant. This doesn’t count as fraternization?”

“Only if we hold hands,” Genma said. “Or worse, but that’s not a line I intend to cross, don’t worry.” Ryouma was certainly an attractive man—under different circumstances, it could have happened. But even then, he wasn’t so sure Ryouma was really his type. Too… temperamental.

“Lunch should be fine,” he continued. “Teammates are allowed to hang out together and even like each other. Just not like each other.”

“Glad to hear my manly virtue is safe with you,” Ryouma muttered, looking downcast.

Genma blinked. Had he actually hurt Ryouma’s feelings? He was still trying to figure out how to say, ‘no, really, you’re very good looking’ without it sounding completely patronizing, when Ryouma broke stride.

“Wait. All teammates? The captain just said officers and agents.”

That was interesting. If Genma had to put money on it, he’d guess Ryouma was talking about Kakashi and not Katsuko. He knew Ryouma liked men, given the whole Raidou situation.

“The rules forbid sexual liaisons between officers and subordinates,” Genma said. “They merely discourage relationships between peers.” He glanced at Ryouma, trying to gauge his shifting mood. “And they pretty much overlook it if you’re on two different teams, as long as you’re of equal seniority.”

Ryouma lifted his chin like he was accepting a challenge. “All right, that gives me a hundred or so possibilities. Not bad. Bet I can do it in a year.” He sounded deadly earnest.

“All of them?” Genma asked. “You’re going to have a hard time with the straight guys and the lesbians. Probably take more than a year if you want to keep it consensual.”

“We’ll do a threesome,” Ryouma said amiably. “I can enlist Ayane.”

And Ayane was… Genma thought furiously. “Rookie swordswoman on Hajime’s team? She’s flexible? Nice. Tactical and creative solution to the problem. Good thinking, Tousaki.”

It was actually kind of fun, evading and deflecting Ryouma’s attempts to wind him up. Like sparring without the bruises.

Ryouma gave him a smug look. “I’m bringing all sorts of advantages to your team,” he said, then spoiled his own brag. “Actually, I think Ayane’s straight. Or straight-ish. But you said Katsuko’s off-limits and I don’t know many of the other ladies in ANBU.” He looked thoughtfully into the middle distance. “Guess I could make that the first job to do…”

“You do realize they’re all trained assassins who will probably object to being called ‘ladies’ like that, right?” Genma asked.

“Huh. You think?” Ruyouma frowned slightly in contemplation. “Guess I always figured when you and she both know she can break your neck with two fingers, it doesn’t hurt to be polite.” His trademark crooked grin returned, lighting his face like a tiny sunburst of charm. “Hitomi-sensei spent long enough beating manners into me, I try to use ’em. Occasionally.”

Genma snorted. “Really? I can’t wait to see them.”

“Wasn’t that why you invited me to lunch?” Ryouma asked, as wide-eyed and innocent as a pre-schooler. “I was gonna show off how good I am at chopsticks…”

“And then we take tea and wagashi and sit under the cherry blossoms and compose haiku? I don’t know,” Genma said. He spread his arms wide and kicked one leg forward, modeling an invisible kimono. “I don’t think I’m really dressed for manners. Maybe we should just go for tempura instead.”

“No tempura,” Ryouma said. “You promised meat.

The turned a corner, and there was the building lobby. Genma spun around to face Ryouma, hands lifted in the Tiger seal. “Kai.”

Ryouma blinked at him.

“Huh, still Tousaki. For a minute there, I thought you might be Ueno using a genjutsu on me,” Genma said, straight-faced.

“Wait.” Ryouma’s expression fell straight past innocent and into comically betrayed. “All those times you’ve been shoving rat bars and juice boxes at me, it’s just ’cause you thought I was Ueno?”

“It was the insistence on meat that made me think of our resident bottomless pit,” Genma said. He held the door for Ryouma, and shivered as the chilly breeze hit his face. “Also, I’ve been bringing electrolyte complement rehydration packs to workouts, but if you want me to get some Captain Seaweed Apple-Dapple Juice Boxes for you, I can look into requisitioning some. Shall we go back to the QM?” He leaned against the open door and gave Ryouma a smile.

Ryouma gave him a side-eye as he slipped past. “Rescued me once, an’ now you’re throwing me back to the wolves?”

The problem with all this verbal sparring, as lighthearted as it might be, was it meant Ryouma was still working to test the edges of Genma’s authority. Time to cut it short, and maybe establish something a little more solid for common ground.

“That’s not how ANBU operates. And not how I operate.” Genma tipped his head up to meet Ryouma’s gaze. “No soldier left behind.” He let his eyes stray to Ryouma’s scarred wrist for a moment, then reached up and tapped his hidden tattoo. “We’re brothers now.”

ryouma 2There was no mocking in the amber-hazel eyes. Ryouma dropped his own gaze, before the sincerity could hurt.

“Never had brothers,” he said. His wrist itched; he rubbed it discretely against the rough fabric of his jeans, which didn’t do much to scratch it. “Do I get to call you aniki now, instead of lieutenant?”

Genma let the lobby door swing shut. “Only if one of us is actively dying. Which I don’t intend to see happen anytime soon.” He fell into an easy walking pace, almost a saunter, heading down the path that led to the Monument cliff and the village below. “Speaking of which… I didn’t really get a chance to debrief with you. I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts about the mission, now that we’re home.”

Relief loosened Ryouma’s shoulders. He hadn’t realized how tightly his muscles had knotted until he felt them ease, with even joking about family left in their wake and only mission-talk ahead. Analyzing mistakes and second-thoughts and should-have-dones was easy. He’d had plenty of practice with the Intel debrief already.

“I spent too much chakra too early,” he said. “And again, with the queen. I put everyone in danger, draining myself that low and requiring transfusions from Namiashi-taichou to keep me going. Took soldier pills before I really needed them, too, which meant I didn’t have the leeway to take more later. I could have jumped when the queen fell over, and tried to attack her from another angle, but I knew that armor-plating shell thing was thick and I still think going through the weak spot Kakashi’d created on her back was the fastest way.” He tried to think of any other mistakes he’d made. The Intel debriefer had required an exhaustive list, but it was hard remembering them all without prompting, now.

Genma glanced back at him, brows raised over mild eyes. “You’re being kind of hard on yourself, don’t you think? Those are valid points, especially about the chakra and soldier pills, but I’m pretty sure you observed more on the mission than your own shortcomings.”

“Well, yeah, but I thought—” Ryouma cut himself off. Why question the man who didn’t seem to want him to flay himself for public instruction or amusement? He said instead, “Sure. D’you want other people’s shortcomings? Or things we did awesomely?” Intel hadn’t been nearly as interested in the second one.

They passed from the sunlit path into the thin shade of a grove of cherry trees, their blossoms past and their leaves darkening with the advancing spring. Ryouma buried his hands deeper in his pockets, shoulders again hunching against the chill. Genma tugged the zipper of his sweatshirt up. “Both,” he said. “And anything else you can think of, really, even if it wasn’t a mistake. Like, it wasn’t a mistake that we didn’t have topo maps of the mine interiors in the area, but they would have been really useful.”

“Intel should’ve provided ’em along with the other maps, if they had ’em,” Ryouma said. “If they thought it was bandits, and they knew there were mines in the area, it’s a pretty safe bet the bandits might’ve holed up in ’em…” He brooded over this. “I guess we should’ve seen there were mines, though, when we looked at the maps the first time. And requisitioned any additional info from Intel. Maybe there wasn’t any, but we should’ve made sure of it.”

Genma nodded. “Exactly. It’s one of those things that seems obvious in hindsight, but somehow we missed it on our way out. That’s a demerit for me, since I was map-reader for the team.”

“You weren’t the only one,” Ryouma pointed out. He tried to remember if he’d seen any mines on the map, either when Genma marked out the locations of the missing villagers or as they planned their route, but if the mines had been marked he hadn’t known the symbol. He did remember the mountains, but he’d known about those anyway. “We shouldn’t have sent our only sensor-types into the mountain together. The rest of us lost you before we even lost radio contact. On the other hand, if taichou hadn’t sent Kakashi, he couldn’t have found you when the demons took you. And if he hadn’t sent you, whoever it was would’ve been paralyzed for real.”

Though Raidou, Katsuko, or Ryouma himself, with their sharper taijutsu skills, might have avoided being stabbed or paralyzed at all. But that was probably one of those things he didn’t actually need to say.

Genma slid his hands into the front pockets of his hoodie. “The captain and I actually talked about that. The thing is, I don’t think there was any way we had of knowing what we were going to run in to in there: the big demon was hiding its chakra right up until it was already way too late. When we thought it was just the little demons, it made sense to send in sensors who could find the civilians, if there were any still alive to rescue, and the medic who could stabilize them. But, yeah. Hindsight. Should have sent me and you instead of me and Kakashi.”

Ryouma glanced over, quickly. Still no mockery in the lieutenant’s eyes or his pale, pensive face. Maybe he meant it.

“I couldn’t have found you, if I’d been there instead of Kakashi,” he said.

Maybe he wouldn’t have needed to. Maybe he could have staved off the horde of demons that had separated Kakashi and the lieutenant; he’d done well enough out in the woods, against a flood of the bigger demons. But Kakashi was a jutsu genius and he fought like a fiend, and there was no point in second-guessing a fight Ryouma hadn’t seen.

Genma sucked a breath between his teeth. His shoulders curled beneath the hoodie, hunching in against the chill of the thought. “Yeah. I was lucky he showed up when he did. Another couple minutes and I’d have been heading into my next life.”

“He’s good at timing it like that,” Ryouma said dryly, and didn’t scratch his wrist.

They passed from under the shade of the trees, back into the warm spring sun. Training fields spread out on either side of the path. A dark-haired woman was calling up a dusty whirlwind in one; Ryouma squinted against the light, trying to identify her. Not Katsuko, with that long flying hair. She’d been a whirlwind of her own accord, though…

He said abruptly, “What’s the deal with Ueno’s chakra? She could’ve given me a transfusion without blinking. Hell, she could’ve filled me up. But when I asked she just said it wouldn’t be a good idea for her, and foisted me off on the captain instead.”

genma 5That begged a question: just how much of Katsuko’s story was common knowledge? “I take it you haven’t asked her about it?” Genma said.

“Not all of us are graduates of Kakashi’s School of Invasive Personal Questions,” Ryouma pointed out.

Genma chuckled. “True. He asked Ueno about her chakra the second he met her, while you were still taking your oath. I can tell you what she told him: she got on the wrong side of an enemy medic who messed with her chakra system. She also insulted Kakashi’s hair, just on principle, I think.”

“She has good taste,” Ryouma said absently. “Kakashi’s hair should be insulted at every opportunity.” His expression said it wasn’t Kakashi’s hair or Katsuko’s taste turning the gears of his thoughts. “The way you said that,” he said at length. “Telling me what she told him… Is that true? I’d never heard of an enemy medic who turned people into chakra powerhouses, and you’d think the rumor-mill would’ve caught that quick enough. Honestly, I thought maybe it was some kekkai genkai.”

Tousaki Ryouma was a shrewd man. Genma slowed his pace a hair, glancing over. “You don’t miss much, do you? As far as I’ve been able to find out, that’s her official story and she’s sticking to it. If there’s more to it, neither she nor the captain have told me details. I do think it’s possible her chakra system was permanently damaged as the result of medical jutsu, and it’s likely the exact details of how is classified to the ends of the earth. You know the taijutsu gate theory?”

“I can open the first two,” Ryouma said. “Nearly gave myself an aneurysm the first time I tried it, though. You think they got her gates wedged open, or something?” He whistled softly. “How the hell is she even alive?”

“That would be why the details are too classified for the likes of you and I,” Genma said. “And it’s just conjecture. I don’t know for sure, but it fits the data. Explains why she needs to eat so much, to feed all that chakra burn. And why she can’t really do small jutsu. You notice she never makes fewer than a half dozen clones? With that much raw chakra wide open and always on, there’s no way she could safely give someone a chakra transfer. She’d have burned your coils right out. She’s got some hard-core seals keeping her chakra contained so it doesn’t burn her own system up. I had to learn how to send them into full lockdown, in case of an emergency that I hope we never see.”

Ryouma’s eyes widened. “I didn’t think—” He looked down quickly, catching Genma’s eyes. “They gave you the seals, but not the story?”

Genma nodded. “The seals, and one or two useful details for me as a medic for treating her in the field. The rest, like I said, is just an educated guess. I do know she was young when it happened. Barely into adolescence. She would have been still growing—that probably helped her survive it.”

“Poor kid,” Ryouma said softly. He looked down at his own booted feet, scuffing silently through the few remaining fallen sakura petals. “No wonder she didn’t talk about it.”

Genma nodded. “It explains a few things about her.” They walked a little way in sober silence, before Genma broke it. “Anyway, Ueno’s chakra issues and how we used our chakra sensors aside, any other thoughts about the mission? Or about the team, or ANBU in general? You really got thrown in the deep end with this team.”

Ryouma’s lips quirked in a wry expression. “I’ve been getting thrown into the deep end my whole life. I’m a good swimmer.”

Given what Genma know about Ryouma’s past, that was probably an understatement.

Ryouma tipped his head back, studying the clearing sky. “Do all the ANBU teams have medics?” he asked. “We’d have been screwed without you.”

“No, but they should,” Genma said. “Given the intensity of our missions, there are a lot of casualties in ANBU. Although sometimes I think teams with medics on them get the more risky missions. But look how few field medics there are even outside of ANBU. There just aren’t that many people who have both the skill for medical jutsu and the temperament for ANBU, or so they tell us.” He eyed Ryouma. “Actually I bet you could do medical jutsu, if you wanted to. You’ve got the chakra control to do your rot jutsu, and you’ve got the right natures for medical stuff. If you ever want to learn some, I’ll teach you.”

ryouma 6Ryouma dropped his chin so fast he nearly pulled a muscle in his neck. “You’d teach—? But I thought you had to be super educated for that stuff. Years of apprenticeship in the hospital. I can’t even read.”

“To be a hospital medic, you have to do years, yeah,” Genma confirmed. “But field medicine…” He tilted his head, studying Ryouma. What was he looking for? “I could teach you a few really useful basic jutsu in a few months, probably. You obviously didn’t have to know how to read to learn all the other jutsu you know, right?”

“Bribed or bugged other kids into reading the lessons to me at the Academy,” Ryouma said numbly. “But that was only sometimes. The rest of the time I just had to listen to the sensei and muddle it out on my own. Even creating my own jutsu was mostly trial and error and accident. But—”

But medical jutsu. That was different. That was rare, valued, respected. Anyone could kill; how many shinobi could heal?

He curled his fingers into his fists. “You don’t think my rot jutsu’d get in the way? I mean, I’ve mostly only ever twisted my chakra to kill. Seems like it might be…risky, trying to go the other way.”

They’d reached the edge of the training fields and the broad, smooth expanse of stone that fell sharply off into the rugged cliff of the Hokage Monument, but Genma stopped and turned to face him. His amber gaze was steady, serious. “You’d have to practice on a lot of dead fish, and then on live animals, before you tried anything on a person. But everyone does, when they’re learning.”

Ryouma’d practiced the Nikutai Tokasu on dinner-scraps and tree-stumps and captured rats long before he’d ever used it in combat. He jerked his chin in a nod.

“It might be a little harder for you at first,” Genma said judiciously. “Since it’s probably a similar chakra manipulation. But I doubt it’s impossible. I mean, you should have seen the mess I made of the first fish I tried to do a basic wound closure on.”

Basic wound closure. How often had he seen comrades bleed out, because they didn’t have a medic in the field and bandages and pressure just weren’t good enough?

If he’d studied field medicine when he was fourteen, instead of inventing rot jutsu, Kenichi might still be alive.

Or all of them might be dead, because the Nikutai Tokasu was the only tool a scared, outclassed genin could possibly have used to kill an ambushing Iwa jounin. And while the Human Flesh Melt Technique hadn’t saved Ryouma’s genin teammate, it’d damn well avenged him.

But if he could somehow have both…

He swallowed. “If you could teach it, lieutenant — if you’d be willing to — I want to learn it.”

Genma shrugged, and started off again towards the edge of the cliff. “I can’t promise I’ll be the best teacher that ever lived, but I’ll do my best. If you can manage even a few simple medical jutsu, every captain in ANBU will want you for his team when your rookie year is up.” He looked back over his shoulder. “And if you try it and hate it, you can always just stick with rotting things.” The corner of his mouth curled up, wry. “Preferably downwind from me.”

“Everyone’s a hater,” Ryouma sighed. He gathered chakra in his feet, tipped over the cliff-edge, and followed Genma down the rugged path between Nidaime and Sandaime’s heads. The strain of vertical walking pulled at his thigh; maybe he wasn’t as healed as he’d thought, after all.

But exercise would prevent the scar from stiffening, and taking the exposed staircase that switchbacked its way down the cliff added at least twenty minutes to any descent. Of course there was the lift, on the inside of the mountain, but neither of them were wheelchair-bound yet. And the lieutenant was still walking fairly straight, though he’d pressed a hand to his belly and his brows were beginning to knit in a peculiar abstraction. Ryouma lengthened his stride to catch up. “Bad idea?”

genma 12“Possibly not my best idea ever,” Genma conceded. They were about level with Sandaime’s chin whiskers, not quite halfway down the cliff face, which made it too far to climb back up and take the stairs. He took a slow, steadying breath, kept his palm pressed firmly against quivering abdominal muscles, and quirked a wry smile at Ryouma. “You know what they say about medics; they make shitty patients. I was supposed to lay off exertion until after I get one more healing session tomorrow. I guess this actually counts as exertion.”

“Whoa. Shit,” Ryouma said, alarm threading through his voice. “I didn’t know that. You’re not going to bust it open, are you? You want me to carry you down?” He made a move towards Genma full of heroic intent.

“Wha? No!” Genma said, startled and amused. He took a step backwards, holding his stomach with one hand and pushing the other out to ward off any attempted rescue. “Oh gods,” he wheezed. “That’s… Thanks, I appreciate it, but I’m fine. It’s not going to come back open, it’s just going to punish me with a little pain for my unwise choices.”

“Hah,” Ryouma said, dropping back. His mouth curved in amused empathy. “My thigh’s not too happy with me, either. We can blame it on the QM poking us.”

“Definitely,” Genma agreed. “I thought for a second there I was gonna go down like a house of cards. What was Morita-san trying to do, see if I still had my appendix?”

“Probably pissed at you for proving him wrong about the armor,” Ryouma said. “Which, thanks for the rescue.” He stepped onto a rocky outcrop, balanced briefly, then dropped a body’s length down.

Genma followed suit, landing with as much finesse as he could manage, and trying to keep the wince off his face. They stuck fast to the barest of ledges. “My pleasure,” he said. “No one gets to yell at Team Six’s rookies but me and the captain. Especially when the rookie in question is a good part of the reason the team made it home to get yelled at.”

Ryouma’s gaze didn’t deviate from the village below them, but his lips twitched as a very faint flush of pleasure crept over the backs of his ears. “I got annoyed that first day,” he said, “when you tried to make me eat a rat bar. But I’ve appreciated ’em ever since.”

That was probably as much of a ‘thanks for being a decent lieutenant’ as Genma could hope to expect from a man as tightly defended against real interpersonal intimacy as Ryouma seemed to be.

Not that he was much different from anyone else in ANBU.

“Well, now I know you prefer the peanut butter ones, it’s easier to stay in your good graces. About rat bars, anyway,” Genma said. He steeled himself for the next jolt. “How’s your leg holding up? You want to maybe ease off the long jumps and take a slower pace the rest of the way down?”

Ryouma had gotten ahead again. He looked up at Genma, waiting for him to catch up. “Sorry,” he said guiltily, when Genma got down to him. He held one hand out in an invitation for Genma to set the pace as they pushed off once more.

“It’s ok,” Genma said. “I’m kind of half tempted to just translocate the rest of the way down and save myself some jarring.” But Ryouma had reacted fairly poorly to a translocation back during the trials—some people just didn’t do well with space-time jutsu. “Actually, our chakra’s probably not recovered enough for that yet,” Genma said, backtracking, “so let’s not. We can just go a little slower.” He picked as direct a route as he could. They’d made it as far as Nidaime’s chin—another ten meters or so and they’d be at the mews where the messenger falcons were housed and dispatched. They weren’t in uniform and had no reason to go in, but they could at least take the stairs from there.

Like they should have done in the first place.

“Go down past the distance birds?” Genma said, pointing at the nearest roof, where the hawks used for messages going in and out of Konoha were kept. “Maybe we’ll overhear some rumors on the situation in Hikouto.”

Ryouma chuckled. “On the off-chance they’ll be decoding messages out loud near an open window? You’d have better luck at the radio installations.” When Genma didn’t answer immediately, he added, “Sorry. I forgot you knew a guy there.”

“It’s okay,” Genma said. “It’s… There’s nothing I can do about it, what’s done is done. All that’s left is reciting sutras for the dead.”

Ryouma’s eyes didn’t leave the hawk he was tracking as it flew down towards one of the open windows in the mews. “D’you really think those help?” he asked.

“I… don’t know. I think they probably help the living feel better more than anything,” Genma said slowly. “The Buddha and Bodhisativas — they’re enlightened. They don’t need our prayers to have compassion for the souls of the dead. And we’re ninja, it’s not like any of us is on a fast track to the Pure Land. Not me, and not my friend. But I can’t do nothing. Especially when people are dragging his name through the mud without knowing what really happened.”

And if Asuma really had done the unthinkable and turned his blades against the Daimyou and Konoha, he still deserved those prayers. Needed them even more. It couldn’t hurt to remind the Buddha that Sarutobi Asuma, whatever his flaws, was also someone who was loved by his friends.

“You could try getting in fights whenever somebody says anything bad about him,” Ryouma said sympathetically. “That always helps me feel better.”

“True,” Genma agreed. “Time honored technique, and Asuma’d undoubtedly approve.” He smiled at the bittersweet thought. “Thanks, Tousaki. I actually feel a little better.”

“I’m getting the hang of this healing thing already,” Ryouma said, with not a little self-mockery. They reached the roof of the mews and skirted around it, trying not to disturb the birds inside. Up close it had a pungent, though not unpleasant scent. The falconers kept it scrupulously clean, but there was always an edge of raw meat, dust, and a hint of something reptilian that lingered.

“Hey, I actually meant that,” Genma said. “You helped. Half of being a good medic is wanting the other guy to stop hurting. I can teach you a few healing jutsu and techniques, but you’ve already got the right instincts.” He eased around the railing onto the stairs and started down. “If you’re still game to learn?”

“I am,” Ryouma said, too quickly to be casual or cool. His ears colored faintly again. “You even have the time for it?” he hedged, glancing at Genma from the side. “I know the captain keeps you pretty busy.”

If Genma wasn’t mistaken, Ryouma wanted this, the way a kid wanted candy. No, the way a starving kid wanted a good meal. Maybe all those years of rotting enemies to death was weighing more heavily on Ryouma’s heart than he liked to let on. Maybe that instinct to help needed a better outlet.

Genma nodded. “I’ll make the time, and I’m sure the captain will be on board with it. Having someone else with medical training on the team would be an amazing advantage for us. Besides, it’s a great way for both of us to get some development credit: you’ll be learning new jutsu, and I’ll get teaching hours in. We can use one of our continuing education blocks for it.”

“Shit,” Ryouma said, grimacing at the thought. “Yeah, that’d—that’d be smart. I haven’t got any credits this year yet. Keep missing the seminars.”

“Yeah,” Genma said. “I missed the last one I was signed up for, right before the Trials. My last mission with my old team ran long, and we got back a day after the class was over. This way we can both for sure get our hours in.”

Ryouma shoved his hands in his pockets and ducked his chin down. “You sure you’re okay with it? I learn some stuff pretty fast, but this might not be it.”

“I’m sure,” Genma said. “I’ve never tried to teach this stuff to anyone before, but if we’re both committed to trying it, it can’t go that badly, right?”

Ryouma cracked a crooked grin as they reached the bottom of the stairs. “Better bring a gas mask. And shout your instructions from downwind.”

“And eat after we work, not before?” Genma tipped his head to the side and quirked half a smile. “I’ll risk it. It’ll be worth it if I teach you enough you can save me some stitches next time my armor fails and I get my belly sliced open.” He tucked a hand into his hoodie pocket and pressed it against his sore abdomen. “Anyway, speaking of food, shall we? That yakiniku is calling my name.”

If Genma ended up buying lunch—which seemed likely—he’d chalk it up to team development costs: worth it. Like teaching Ryouma the jutsu would be. Very worth it.

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