May 4, Yondaime Year 5

kakashi 6Kakashi slept until the late afternoon, sprawled comfortably on the couch in a moving sunbeam, until Naruto burst back fresh from school.

“Is he still here?” Naruto demanded.

Kakashi hooked a thumb towards Minato’s room.

Whooping, Naruto charged in like a tiny whirlwind and pounced, rousing his father in a cloud of bed hair and confusion. Despite familiar surroundings, Minato was still operating in a mission frame of mind; he immediately tried to go to the office. It took a combination of emotional manipulation, small boy tears, and Otter—the afternoon ANBU guard—leaving and returning with a message from Sagara that simply said ‘No’ before he could be persuaded to have dinner instead.

Since it was a special day, they ordered take out ramen (Otter taste-tested for poison, while Naruto watched in fascination) and cued up the old favorite movies that Minato rarely had time to watch anymore, since there was only so much Captain Seaweed he could tolerate before declaring mutiny. Naruto settled belly-down on the rug, feet tangled up with his father’s, and drew increasingly incomprehensible pictures with his crayon set. He presented each one to Minato, who declared them all a work of mad genius.

It was proven fact that Minato had questionable taste (see: opinion on Captain Seaweed, frog motif, his son’s name), but Kakashi didn’t argue with him.

Minato dozed off again halfway through the second short movie, and didn’t stir even when Naruto clambered into his lap. Kakashi left them—the couch was comfortable enough, and Naruto was happy—and put his own vaguely restless energy into making Naruto’s next-day bento and re-reading a few of Minato’s more esoteric scrolls.

When the light was dwindling and Naruto was starting to head-nod, Kakashi stirred them both and sent them to bed. Naruto made no attempt to get into his own bed; he clambered into Minato’s, snuggled down on Kushina’s side, and demanded that Minato read to him.

Minato managed to stay heroically awake long enough to make it through half of Mr. Bunny’s Big Adventure, then his eyes hazed, his voice blurred, and the book drooped until it was resting on the slow rise and fall of his chest. Against his side, Naruto was already asleep.

Kakashi flicked the light off, closed the door halfway, and left them to it.

Turtle had swapped shifts with Panther, a tall, dark-skinned woman with an easy looseness in her shoulders. She was standing in the usual guard-spot by the front door. Kakashi nodded as he stepped over the threshold.

She nodded back.

Belatedly, he realized she was at least his senpai, if not more superior, and he probably should have saluted. The lines had gotten a little blurred over his two days of temporary, out-of-uniform guardianship.

“I need to step out for a minute,” he said. “If they wake up and ask, let them know I’ll be back.”

“Are you staying inside the village?”

“Yep,” Kakashi said, and added, more dryly, “I have a Hiraishin kunai. If I trip over my laces, I promise I’ll throw it.”

“Disturb him for a prank, and I’ll gut you,” Panther said pleasantly.

Kakashi blinked. “Noted.”

He saluted, got one back, and slipped away with the weight of her eyes resting on the back of his neck.

Genma still didn’t have his own place. He was living with Yamashiro Aoba in one of the jounin-exclusive apartment blocks on the north-east side of the village, just beyond where the Hokage’s monument melted back down into Konoha’s thick surrounding wall. Technically, Kakashi wasn’t supposed to know that, since the captain had described Genma’s living circumstances as ‘in flux’ and left it there, but Kakashi didn’t like loose ends.

Besides, it had been good practice to quietly stalk the lieutenant back to his (temporary) home-base after the third day of practice. A test against another chakra-sensor, and confirmation that Kakashi could hide the betraying ANBU spark they’d tattooed into him. Genma hadn’t caught him.

Neither had Katsuko. Or Raidou.

This time, Kakashi went to the front door. Someone—Aoba?—had added the personal touch of two small fruit shrubs either side of the doormat. The apartment block was one of the newer complexes, rebuilt after the Kyuubi attack. Everything was fairly clean and well-kept. The door numbers were brass, still shiny.

Kakashi knocked.

There was a muted flare of chakra seals. After a moment, a lean man with dark sunglasses, lopsidedly spiked hair, and a scowl opened the door—Aoba. He tipped his chin down; pale eyes regarded Kakashi over the top of the glasses. Then he leaned against the doorframe and drawled, “Yes?”

Kakashi hooked his hands into his pockets. “Shiranui home?”

“Maybe,” Aoba said, like Kakashi couldn’t feel Genma’s restrained chakra signature from here. “Who wants to know?”

Apparently it was gatekeeping hour.

“Hatake,” Kakashi said, playing nice. “I have a message for him.”

Aoba gave him a cool look. “Gen’s just off a mission, which I’m pretty sure you know. He’s sleeping. Give me the message, I’ll pass it on.”

That was not a sleeping signature.

Kakashi let his chakra ripple subtly, enough for another sensor to catch. “I can wait.”

“Suit yourself,” Aoba said. “If you have a crush, there are better ways to get his attention, though.”

Dropping his housemate into a river might be one.

Kakashi controlled his gathering irritation. “I can wait,” he said again.

Aoba shrugged. Kakashi was starting to think he’d actually interrupted something, except that Aoba was fully dressed, unrumpled, and didn’t seem in a hurry to get back to anything. “Of course,” Aoba added, “if you have orders for him, that’s another matter. Just show me the scroll.”

“You police all his mail?” Kakashi inquired.

“I’m in Intel,” Aoba said. “Making sure documents are legit is part of my sworn duty to Konoha.”

“So, yes,” Kakashi said.

“How else would I know when I needed to worry about him?” Aoba said, wryly.

Maybe Genma hadn’t gotten a new apartment because he lived in fear of being ax-murdered by his rejected roommate.

“I hear some people use words,” Kakashi said, slouching back on his heels.

Aoba opened his mouth—and paused when a door clicked somewhere behind him. Steam and soap caught Kakashi’s nose. A moment later, Genma came around the corner wearing a towel knotted sarong-style around his hips, and not much else. He’d clearly just stepped out of the shower; his hair hung loose and wet between his shoulderblades, and steam curled up from his skin. The demon scar cut a livid pink line across his lower belly, knotted and angry-looking. “Leave Hatake-kun alone, Ao-chan,” he said calmly. “Weren’t you on your way to the store or something?”

“Oh, it’s like that, is it? Guess your tactics worked out after all, kid.” Aoba tipped a wink at Kakashi—who thought about deeper rivers—and stepped out of the way. “I’ll just go to the store then. You need anything while I’m out, Gen? Cigarettes? Lube, cond—”

“Aoba,” Genma said.

Aoba put his hands up, disarming, and left.

“He’s pleasant,” Kakashi said, after a pause.

“He’s actually a really good guy,” Genma said. “But he can be kind of an ass when he’s trying to impress you.” Clearly, ‘impress’ and ‘irritate’ lived a little too close together in Genma’s mental dictionary. He waved one hand at the couch. “Have a seat. Captain tell you where to find me? I know we have training tomorrow, but I can’t imagine he’d tell Sagara we were ready for a mission alre—”

Kakashi closed the door, but didn’t step further inside or take his shoes off. “I have some news.”

“You have—”

“Asuma’s alive.”

genma 12If Genma had been holding anything, he would have dropped it. He felt his fingers flex and clenched them quickly to hide it, but Kakashi was nothing if not perceptive. “Wait here,” Genma said. “I’ll get dressed.”

Kakashi’s masked face remained unreadable, but Genma could feel that lone grey eye on him all the way up the hall.

In his room, he took a minute to steady himself. Asuma alive could mean many things, and—if the rumors about the Guardian Twelve were true—few of them good. Alive and in an interrogation cell in ANBU’s sub-basement? Alive and awaiting execution as a traitor? Alive, but just barely?

Of course it could also mean Asuma’s loyalty had been proven, that he had survived, maybe even unhurt, or at least not badly hurt. Merciful Kannon who sees and hears all prayers, let it be so.

Jamming his legs into underwear and jounin uniform pants went quickly. The dark blue shirt was harder, pulled over stiff shoulders that burned and tingled where nerve connections were still reforming. His gut stabbed a sharp reminder at him that he wasn’t fully healed, and the previous day’s walk with Ryouma down the side of the monument had been a lapse in judgment.

He faced the mirror, braced his palms on the dresser, and stared his own reflection down. Pale, breathing too fast. Far too emotional. Rule twenty-five, Shiranui, he told himself, as he picked up his hitai-ate. The cold steel plate was a reassuring solidity in his hand. He slicked his damp hair back, tied the bandanna over it, and went to rejoin Kakashi.

“Alright,” Genma said when he got back to the living room. Kakashi was still standing by the door, as if he’d never moved. Maybe he hadn’t. “What do you know about Asuma?”

“He’s not a traitor,” Kakashi said, giving the statement the full weight it deserved. “He was injured. Yondaime-sama brought him home this morning.”

“How—” The fragile shell of calm Genma’d gathered around himself cracked. He had to take another breath before he could trust his voice. “I told you he was loyal. How badly hurt?”

“I don’t know,” Kakashi said carefully. “He delivered a report, so he was well enough to speak.”

That was a good sign. That was an immensely good sign. Asuma was conscious, he could deliver a report, enough of one to exonerate himself from any suspicion. The good news didn’t seem to register, though. Genma’s legs felt shaky. “And he’s back in Konoha? You learned this from Yondaime-sama himself?”

Kakashi’s visible eye narrowed. “Do you need to sit down?”

“Probably,” Genma said. He sat carefully on the couch and took another slow breath. “I think I also need a cigarette and a stiff drink, but I’ll take more details, if you have them.”

Kakashi hesitated, looking down and to the left, as if his covered eye could see through the walls of the apartment all the way to the Hokage’s Palace at the base of the mountain. He seemed to come to some resolve, though, and lifted his chin to look at Genma again. “He defended the Daimyou. Yondaime-sama said they found him with his back to the safehouse door, and a sea of dead at his feet.”

Genma could picture it. He’d seen the carnage Asuma could wreak on a battlefield—it was why he’d been tapped for the Twelve in the first place. “Did any of the other Guardians survive?”

“No,” Kakashi said, with the crisp finality of a battlefield report.

Genma took a moment to digest that. “The fight must have been hellacious.” And Asuma had survived it, with his loyalty intact. Genma’s fingers twitched over imaginary beads, offering silent thanks for prayers answered. “Do you know where Asuma is now? You said Yondaime-sama brought him back this morning. Is he in the hospital?”

Kakashi shrugged slightly. “That’d be my guess.”

Genma checked the clock on Aoba’s desk—nearly nine already. If Asuma was even allowed visitors, it was likely only family, and the hospital might not kick loved ones out, but they didn’t let visitors in this late unless…

Unless it was to say goodbye. Which it didn’t sound like was the case.

He’d have to go tomorrow. When he went to see Hyuuga-sensei again, he could go find Asuma, too. Maybe if he went in uniform, he’d have a better chance of getting in to see his friend.

A weight shifted as reality finally took hold. Asuma was alive.

Genma looked up at Kakashi, standing uncomfortably near the door, and a fresh realization came to him. “You came straight here from meeting with Yondaime-sama. You didn’t come to tell me the news on the captain’s orders, you came on your own initiative.”

For an instant, a guilty look fleeted across Kakashi’s face, but his expression wiped quickly blank again. “There isn’t an announcement yet. I just thought— you’d want to know.”

“I did. I do. I—” Genma nodded, meeting Kakashi’s gaze. “Thank you, Kakashi.” He looked away before the moment got awkward. “Do you want a cup of tea? Or anything? They probably won’t let me see him tonight; maybe I can see Asuma in the morning when I go back to the hospital. I have to go anyway.”

Kakashi’s eye flicked down to Genma’s torso, and the covered scar. “For your stomach?”

“Yeah,” Genma said, nodding. “And the liver and kidney stuff. They let me out yesterday, but I got the impression Hyuuga-sensei would rather have kept me in. She wasn’t overly impressed with the results of my technique for metabolizing the demon poison. How are you doing, did you get some rest?”

“Yes, lieutenant,” Kakashi answered, with the world-weary dryness of one who’s learned it’s easier to just answer and avoid the inevitable chase. “I even took a nap today. Twice.”

Genma nodded sympathetically. “I did, too. Tomorrow’s practice, we’ll start with assessments of everyone’s fitness and recovery. I’ll—” He stopped, as the curve of Kakashi’s left cheek under the mask caught his eye. There was a hint of bruising in the gap between his mask and the hitai-ate pulled down to hide his Sharingan eye, too. “Is your cheekbone still swollen? I thought that was almost healed by the time we got back to Konoha, but it looks flared up again. Do you have a toothache?”

Kakashi blinked once, caught off guard by the question, then sighed. “It’s fine, lieutenant. Just took a second knock in a spar last night.”

“In the same place.” Genma tried to gauge the seriousness of the injury from a distance, but with the mask hiding it, it was difficult. “Any concussion or loss of consciousness?”

“No, lieutenant.”

“What first aid have you applied?”

Kakashi gave him a look that suggested Genma was making mountains out of molehills. “It’s a bruise.”

“It’s a facial injury with what looks like fairly significant swelling, in the same location as a recent and incompletely healed injury, and we’re about to resume training tomorrow,” Genma said. “My question stands.”

Kakashi’s shoulders slumped as he gave up the fight. “Bruise balm.”

“Can I have a look?” Genma asked. He was pushing it, judging by Kakashi’s almost-flinch at the question, but it wasn’t an injury he could just ignore. “The swelling’s pretty obvious; Namiashi-taichou will notice,” he said. “If I’ve already checked you out now, I won’t have to do it again tomorrow in front of the rest of the team.”

The look Kakashi gave him would have stripped paint. Without taking a step away from his spot by the door, he reached up and very slowly pushed his hitai-ate onto his forehead. His scarred Sharingan eye remained firmly closed, but there was plenty of swelling and bruising in the hollow below it. When he eased the top of his mask down a bare centimeter or so, Genma could see the edge of an abrasion where the blow must have landed.

It would probably be asking too much to make Kakashi walk across the room. Genma pushed himself to his feet and went to his reluctant patient instead. “I don’t suppose you’d let one of the Hyuuga medics check it out to make sure you haven’t chipped the bone? I can feel for any chakra disruption from bone damage, but that means I’d have to touch it.”

“It’s not broken,” Kakashi said curtly, but he turned his head sideways, offering Genma access.

Genma was as gentle as he could be, ghosting his fingertips over the injury. A few slow pulses of chakra echoed back cleanly. “You’re right,” he said. “Not broken. How about I take some of this swelling down?”

“Do whatever you want,” Kakashi said. He sounded a little distant, like he’d checked out of this interaction until Genma got back out of his personal space.

Putting his hands together, Genma focused his chakra, added a Rabbit seal for delicacy, and set glowing palms over Kakashi’s cheek. Five minutes later, the bruise looked a week old, the swelling was reduced by more than half, and the abrasion was a mostly healed scab. “How’s that feel?” Genma asked, stepping back.

Kakashi flexed his jaw, stretching to check his range of motion, then nodded and shuttered his mask and hitai-ate back into place. “Better,” he said. He tilted his head at Genma like he was trying to figure out a puzzle. “”Does it help when you have people to badger?

“Does it help what?” Genma asked, but he knew the answer. “It helps to have a job to do.” He sat back down on the couch, tired.

kakashi 6Yes, Kakashi translated.

They’d seen that on the mission too, when the lieutenant had dealt with his paralysis by managing everyone else’s care. Even now there was a restless twitch in his fingers, like they wanted to pick up a senbon. Genma was not a man who liked empty hands, Kakashi suspected. Or being helpless.

Which made him one among many.

If Kakashi were a better person, he’d know how to offer some comfort, but he’d already stretched his boundaries to their limits by making this trip. He hadn’t told Genma anything that wouldn’t be public knowledge soon; it was only a matter of time before word about Asuma got out. Konoha was about as water-tight as a sieve. But a word more would be too much, even to another ANBU.

“I should go,” Kakashi said.

Genma looked up, eyes light beneath his backwards tied hitai-ate. “Before you do, I was actually going to come find you tomorrow, but we could do this now. You have any thoughts about the mission, now that you’ve been home a few days and had time to process?”

Probably should have seen that one coming.

“Intel didn’t get everything they wanted already?” Kakashi asked.

“This isn’t for Intel, this is for us. You’re a rookie agent on your first team, and that was your first mission.” Genma braced one elbow on the arm of the couch, propping his chin on his hand. “You’re also a smart, capable ninja. Newcomers sometimes have insights veterans miss.”

Kakashi huffed, soft and amused. “Flattery, lieutenant?”

“Honesty,” Genma said, but his mouth hooked up on one side. “But maybe a little flattery, too. It works with a lot of people.”

Kakashi just bet.

He folded his arms, leaning thoughtfully against the entry-way wall. “We needed better intel. You can say that for any mission, but demons and bandits are not the same. One ANBU team wasn’t the right tool. They needed squads, several of them, and a sealing team.” Assuming Konoha could even spare them, but that wasn’t really the question Genma was asking. “That said, with what we knew, I think the captain made fairly smart choices.”

Genma nodded once. “Given how unprepared we were for what we found, we came out of it better than a lot of teams might have. We were lucky not to lose anyone.”

“Or skilled,” Kakashi said quietly.

“That, too,” Genma said, looking a little pleased.

“What were your thoughts?” Kakashi asked.

“I agree with you on the Intel situation.” Genma tapped his mouth with two fingers, no code that Kakashi recognized. “And I think we performed well under the circumstances. There are some decisions I wish we could go back and revisit, but it would have been hard to make them without all the information. If we’d known what was down there… It would probably have been a smarter call to seal the mine entrances and call in backup. Even if it meant losing the civilians.”

“Might have been kinder to kill them anyway,” Kakashi said, studying the tiled flagstones. They were grey slate, with specks of blue embedded in the stone. “Fujiyama lost his whole family. Hisa may still not pull through.”

He’d fought with himself over that choice in the mines, but Raidou had been bent on saving someone, and despite all the blood they’d spent—Katsuko’s cracked bones, Ryouma’s poured out chakra, Genma’s near evisceration—two broken lives and eight mercy-deaths was a slim victory, but it was still something.

If Fujiyama wanted to join his wife, he could pick up the knife himself.

“I checked on Hisa-san earlier today,” Genma said, eyes darkening. “She’s being kept in an induced coma while they work on her chakra system. Her parents kept thanking me—us—for saving her.” His lips pressed together in a thin line behind his fingers, whitening, as if the memory was a jagged thought.

“Did you hear a prognosis?”

“It’s still on the cusp. She’s getting round-the-clock chakra support since they removed the parasite. If they can get her chakra system self-sustaining, she’ll probably make it. But she’s—” Genma sighed. “She has a high chakra base for a civilian, but there’s not a lot of margin to work with.”

She’d only been a tiny thing, with her brown pigtails and checkered farmer-girl dress. Her mother had shared the same coloring, dark-eyed and worried. Her father had been a grey slip of a man; Kakashi mostly recalled narrow, hunched shoulders and a quiet voice asking questions.

They’d probably stop thanking people if she died.

Though maybe not. At least she could go above-ground, peaceful with her parents, instead of in tearing, paralyzed agony while a demon clawed her stomach apart.

He rubbed a hand over his face and let the thought slide away. Maybe she’d live.

“Did you want to cover anything else?” he asked.

genma 13“That was mostly it,” Genma said, “But maybe one other thing.” If Kakashi was in a rare, communicative mood, Genma was willing to take advantage of it. “Is there anything you observed about your teammates on the mission or afterwards that you think the captain and I should pay special attention to?”

There was a long silence. Kakashi’s visible eye deflected up and left a few times, as if he were mentally reviewing the mission, and he shifted his stance slightly, adjusting the angle of one shoulder and tucking his hands into his pockets, but when he finally spoke, it was only to say, “Nothing you don’t already know.”

So much for communicative.

“Alright,” Genma said. “What about your thoughts about the captain and me? If you’re not comfortable giving me direct feedback, I’m sure the captain would be willing to hear it in private, too.”

Kakashi didn’t bat an eye. “You fuss,” he told Genma, looking directly at him. “You don’t trust people with their own care.”

“I don’t?” Genma considered that for a moment. There was Kakashi’s facial injury today—that had possibly been over the line since they were off duty. And the situation with the rookies’ blisters and chafing, but pressing about that had turned out to be a wise choice given the state Genma remembered finding them in. All the other medical care he’d given on the mission had been acute and necessary.

Or maybe Kakashi meant he fussed about other things. There was that conversation about Katsuko’s chakra, and he certainly found himself badgering Kakashi and the rest of the team to remember to eat.

“You’re right, maybe I don’t trust you,” he said at length. “But on the whole so far neither you nor Ryouma have impressed me with your abilities to handle your own care all that well.”

“I didn’t say you were wrong.” Kakashi’s mouth quirked under his mask in what might almost have been a hint of amusement. “But I could point out that I didn’t need bone-setting, blood transfusions, chakra transfusions, minor surgery, or a hospital stay at the end of this mission.”

Unlike Katsuko, Raidou, Ryouma, and Genma himself. Genma pursed his lips against a smile of his own. “You have a point. So in the future, I can worry about you less—is that what you’re saying?”

“Think of all the energy you’d save,” Kakashi said.

“I’ll consider it. Although if I let anything happen to you, I suspect there’d be a line of rather high-ranking individuals out for my blood. Not to mention Rin-sensei.” Genma shrugged. “You see the bind I’m in?”

This time the glint of amusement in Kakashi’s eye was unmistakable. “I’ll try to be less likable,” he drawled, “for your sake.”

“No need to go to extremes,” Genma said. “I was actually just starting to enjoy this new, more likeable side of you.”

“The one where I tell you what you do wrong?”

“Well, at least you look like you’re enjoying it,” Genma said. “That’s actually pretty novel.” He quirked a smile Kakashi’s way. “And you came to tell me my friend was alive. You didn’t have to do that.”

Kakashi shrugged awkwardly, evidently unsure what to do with gratitude he considered unearned.

Baby steps, Genma told himself. Compared to the rest of the team, Kakashi was hardly the only one with social fluency issues.

“What about the captain?” Genma asked. “Any issues for him? I can disguise the source if necessary.”

Kakashi frowned. “If I had a problem, I’d tell him directly.”

“Good to know,” Genma said. That was one good thing about Kakashi’s painful directness, he supposed. And so far he hadn’t seen a lot to criticize about Raidou’s leadership himself. “If that ever changes, you know where to find me.” He stretched and leaned back. “Last one, then. How well do you think you’re fitting in with the team, and how well did you work on the mission?”

“Jaggedly,” Kakashi said in answer to the first question. “But I was useful on the mission. Tracked, hunted, held my own.” His mouth tightened into a grimace under his mask. “Though I didn’t get to you quickly enough when the wall came down, and I missed my footing with the queen. If I hadn’t fallen down that shaft, I could have ended that fight a lot faster.”

“That wall coming down caught us both off guard,” Genma said. “If we’d known there were demons tunneling in the walls, we’d never have separated in the first place. But if you hadn’t fallen down the shaft, would you even have found the queen’s chamber at all?”

“Yes,” Kakashi said simply. “I was following your ANBU spark.”

Genma nodded. Given the complexity of the mine, whether Kakashi would have made it in time to stop Genma becoming demon fodder was a what-if probably better left unexamined. “Were you moving blind? Would a light have helped you?”

“I had a light jutsu,” Kakashi said, “but I cut it. Didn’t want to give them the head’s up.”

That had been in Kakashi’s report, Genma remembered, now that Kakashi said it. And an assertion that if he hadn’t fallen, hadn’t lost the use of his arm when he used his raikiri no jutsu on the demon’s scorpion-like tail, he could have killed the demon outright with a second raikiri, instead of just cracking its armor.

Which would have saved the rest of Team Six from the fight: saved Ryouma’s chakra and lungs, saved Katsuko’s collarbone, saved Raidou from the demon’s acid. It was a heavy burden Kakashi had placed on himself.

“You know,” Genma said, “even if you’d managed perfect hits, there’s no guarantee you’d have killed her. We didn’t get to dissect her, since Tousaki’s jutsu didn’t leave much to analyze, but for all we know she had multiple hearts, and there was no telling exactly where they were in her body.”

Kakashi sighed so softly Genma would have missed it in a noisy room. “Yeah,” he said, looking down. It didn’t sound like he quite believed it, even though Genma’s logic was unassailable. Genma sympathized; it was hard to let go of the idea that you could have done more, no matter how much evidence there was to the contrary. Especially for someone like Kakashi, who was a perfectionist by nature. And there was only slim evidence here.

Kakashi looked up, changing the subject. “How do you think I’m doing with the team?”

“You’re pulling your weight,” Genma said. He considered careful wording, but Kakashi would probably prefer a direct approach. “Your skills in the field are impeccable, you follow orders, you show up to practice and work hard, you do your paperwork—if a little illegibly, and you took good care of your injured teammates after the mission.”

Kakashi looked expectant, waiting for Genma to fill in the unspoken ‘but…’

“But you’ve given your teammates the idea you don’t much care for their company. As soon as you’ve finished whatever team-related task is assigned to you, you disappear,” Genma said. “I’m not telling you you need to like them, but camaraderie is an important part of team effectiveness.”

Kakashi was silent for a moment, expression thoughtful as he turned that over. Then he nodded once. “Thank you, lieutenant,” he said. He tapped fingertips to his tattoo’s shoulder in a quick, fluid salute—not quite second nature, maybe, but certainly practiced. Genma was only partway through reflexively returning the salute when Kakashi turned and let himself out, closing the apartment door with a soft click.

Genma blinked.

“Like that, Hatake,” he told the empty room. “Exactly like that.”

He seemed to have a peculiar talent for triggering Kakashi to bolt.

Sighing, he flopped back against the couch cushions and stared up at the ceiling. “Well done, Shiranui.”

The door latch clicked again, and the polished brass glow of Aoba’s chakra presence washed into the room.

“Aww, did I make him run?” Aoba asked. When he caught sight of Genma’s face, he sobered right up. “What’s the matter?” He put a paper sack of purchases from the convenience store on the coffee table and sat next to Genma on the couch. “Kakashi’s one of your rookies, right? Did the girl… did she not make it?”

“No. I don’t know yet,” Genma said, sitting up again. “It wasn’t about that.”

Aoba dug around in the sack and extracted a cold milk tea, which he put in Genma’s hand. “You look like someone handed you bad news. What happened?”

“Eh, I just… Every time I try to connect with Kakashi, I fuck it up.”

Aoba raised an eyebrow.

“As his lieutenant, I mean,” Genma said. “He’s touchy as hell. Actually, he had good news for me, if you can believe it.”

“Oh?” Aoba liberated a pair of cellophane-wrapped onigiri from the sack, put one pointedly on Genma’s knee, and unwrapped the other for himself.

“Obviously this doesn’t leave the room,” Genma said.

“Obviously,” Aoba agreed. “Roommate’s code. And if it’s really classified—”

“I know,” Genma said. “It’s not, probably. It sounds like it will be public in the morning, anyway. But it’s big. Kakashi came straight here from Yondaime-sama.”

Aoba stopped eating to look at Genma.

“Asuma’s alive. In the hospital, I think. Yondaime-sama brought him back with him today. He’s been debriefed. Protected the Daimyou from the traitors in the Twelve.”

“He’s… Are you sure?”

“As sure as Kakashi was, and he seemed certain. He didn’t know how bad Asuma was hurt, but if he’s awake enough to be debriefed—”

“That’s not good news, Genma, that’s great news.” Aoba’s mouth spread into a delighted grin. “When are you gonna go see him?”

“Not tonight,” Genam said, looking at the clock. “They wouldn’t let me in. But I have to go back and see Hyuuga-sensei again tomorrow afternoon, so I’ll be at the hospital.”

“So you’ll go then,” Aoba said. “You can tell him hi for me, too.”

“You could come.”

“And get in the middle of your tearful reunion? I don’t think so,” Aoba said. He reached over and gave Genma’s shoulder a jostle. “You were right. He was loyal.”

“Yeah,” Genma said. “He was.” He uncapped the tea and took a long, sweet swallow.

“Feel better?” Aoba asked.

Genma nodded.

“Eat your rice ball, Gen-chan.”

Huh, it was kind of annoying being told to eat. Genma unwrapped his snack. “That’s supposed to be my line, according to Kakashi. He says I fuss.”

“You do,” Aoba said contentedly. “Sometimes. But it’s okay, it just shows you care. You were born under a serious star.”

“I was?”

“It’s why you need people like me and Asuma in your life,” Aoba continued. He leaned against Genma’s shoulder. “I’m glad he’s home.”

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