Evening of May 14, Yondaime Year 5
There was a point in time when Asuma was pretty sure he did, in fact, like kids. He got on well with the Daimyo’s children; they were well-behaved and polite in public, hilariously cheeky in private, and generally didn’t cause any trouble. And these kids had to be the epitome of ‘spoiled rotten,’ right? So any other children had to be a walk in the park in comparison.
“Durian harvest?” Mariko exclaimed, nose wrinkling. “I’m a genin, not a farm-hand!”
The two other genin behind her nodded in agreement. Their jounin instructor pinched the bridge of his nose and stayed silent.
“The trees on this farm are over a hundred feet tall,” Asuma repeated, for what had to be the third time today. This wasn’t the first group to reject the mission out of hand. “Not to mention the fruit is larger and heavier than your head. It’s going to take two teams at least three days to harvest the entire orchard, which would normally take a civilian group around two weeks. It’s good practice for coordinating between teams, not to mention your climbing skills.”
“But we’re training to be ninja,” the girl replied. “Picking fruit and climbing trees isn’t real training, it’s… it’s…”
“Baby stuff,” one of her team-mates piped up.
“Baby stuff,” she repeated. “How are we supposed to become amazing jounin if we’re wasting our time on this?”
Their sensei was studiously looking at anything in the room that wasn’t his students or the mission desk. Aoba, who had entered the lobby with a pile of folders under his arm near the start of the argument, was doing his level best not to crack up laughing. Asuma was beginning to reconsider his previous opinion on children.
He flipped to the second page of the mission request sheet, to the section that listed anticipated outcomes and estimated skills needed for completion. “Harvest typically runs ten fruit a crate, at least ten crates a tree, with around a hundred trees. In order to get that done in the three days you’re paid for, you’ll need to harvest a little over four trees an hour. That’s assuming you only work eight hours a day.” Asuma privately suspected they’d end up doing quite a bit more. “Considering the weight of the fruit and the height of the trees, you’ll need decent chakra control and coordination to get through the day without ruining the product. It’ll be a good exercise in team-work and building stamina.”
“Jounin don’t pick fruit,” the genin replied sourly, not the least bit impressed by facts.
“They do if they want to get paid,” their jounin said, finally speaking up, and reached for the paperwork.
The genin groaned in a chorus of adolescent despair as he signed everything in triplicate, like anything related to mission-work required. Luckily, at this point in their career the genin were not also required to sign—Asuma had a feeling that wouldn’t have gone through without another twenty minutes of complaining. And after confirming the start date and receiving the mission folder, the jounin turned and left without another word. His genin followed after, the dourest flock of ducklings this side of Amegakure.
“I remember doing that mission,” Aoba said once the door shut again, stepping forward to the desk. “One of my team-mates dropped the fruit on my head from thirty feet up. I got a concussion on the first day. I still got paid, but I smelled like rotten durian for a week.”
“Doesn’t all durian smell rotten?” Asuma asked.
“Yeah, now just imagine that smell made genuinely rotten.” He plopped the folders he’d been carrying onto the desk and tapped them lightly. “More of the same I’m afraid. But I’ve got a good excuse to get you out of work early.”
Anything, Asuma nearly begged, then remembered who he was talking to. “Will it involve more paperwork?” he asked skeptically.
“Not from you personally,” the other man replied. “But there’s blood and bandages and antiseptic involved. And you’ll probably have to buy the beer.”
Asuma frowned slightly. “Who’s getting discharged?”
“Genma. He got in three days ago, and they’re letting him go tonight provided he’s got assistance.” Aoba smirked. “But since I have a mission, I volunteered you for the job.”
“I could kiss you.” The ancient desk chair complained mightily when he pushed away from the desk, getting to his feet and gathering the folders. “When’s the discharge?”
“As soon as you show up.” Aoba punctuated that statement with the jab of a key in Asuma’s direction. A scuffed up charm of something on a surfboard dangled from the key ring. “I’ll expect payment in vodka — none of that cheap stuff — and for gods sake, wash the bedsheets.”
He accepted the key, turning the charm over to inspect it better. No, that was in fact a pickle on the surfboard. Wave Country had a really strange idea of how to promote tourism.
“Decent vodka and a load of laundry.” Asuma pocketed the key. “I think I can handle that.”
Once inside the hospital, Asuma found his way to Genma’s room with relative ease—general admissions had been remodeled since he’d been out, and it was much easier to navigate now—and took a moment to look through the window before knocking. Genma appeared to be dozing, covers thrown aside, one leg swaddled in bandages and elevated, a pair of crutches leaning on the wall within easy reach. He was paler than when Asuma had last seen him, with the faint remnants of bruising on his face, and his hair looked like it could desperately use a wash, but he was still alive and in one piece, thank all the gods. Asuma exhaled, letting go of that stress for the moment, and knocked briefly before letting himself into the room.
Genma’s slumber was shallow enough that the sound of the opening door and the sunlight-on-polished-bronze feel of the new chakra presence in his room worked their way into his dream. Asuma leaned against the closed office door, broken shards of his bird mask in his hand. There was blood on his face, dripping from a gash on his forehead. Sooty stains blotched his armor. He held a scroll out towards Genma. “Lieutenant says you need to take this to the command center. Taichou’s being court-martialed for improper conduct.”
No. Wait. Aren’t… Aren’t I the lieutenant now? There was his desk, and Raidou’s. Or was that Hyuuga-taichou’s? Asuma’s not on my team anymore, he’s serving the Daimyou in Hikouto. How does he know about Raidou?
The room darkened, and a hard rain spattered against the window. The walls trembled as an earth jutsu shuddered through the foundations. Asuma swayed and grabbed at the door, leaving a smeared red handprint on the worn wood. For a moment he locked eyes with Genma, then he slumped to the floor in a spreading pool of blood. So much blood. Hundreds of cuts shredded his uniform and crisscrossed his skin like he’d been caught in a whirlwind of blades. Or Iebara’s blood-senbon. Genma lurched towards his friend—
And jerked awake.
Asuma was standing at the foot of the bed in slightly rumpled jounin blues, looking almost entirely uninjured. His right forearm was wrapped in a soft brace—remnant of the fracture he’d gotten defending the Daimyou two weeks ago. He jostled the bed frame with one sandal-shod foot. “Sorry. Looked like you were having a nightmare.”
Genma took a deeper, mind-clearing breath and eased himself up in the bed. “I was,” he said, blinking the sleep from his eyes and grounding himself in the present reality. Hospital room, his own. Late afternoon sunlight tinting the tiles orange and shadows violet. No one was bleeding out. He was the lieutenant. Asuma had served the Daimyou, and survived it.
And Raidou’s conduct was under investigation. It wasn’t a court-martial yet.
Asuma eased around the side of the bed to lean against the wall next to Genma’s crutches. “So I hear you’re getting discharged,” he said. “Ready to blow this joint yet?”
It was probably the combination of painkillers and unsettled emotions from the nightmare, but for a second Genma wanted to grab Asuma and cling. Instead, he reached for the glass of water on the bedside table to take a long drink. When he was sure his voice wasn’t going to crack, he said, “I was born ready. Are you springing me? My dad brought me clothes already. He had to go back to work.” He pointed to a paper bag on the floor next to the crutches.
“Aoba volunteered me for the job, yeah.” Asuma retrieved the requested bag and handed it to Genma. “Would have shown earlier but I didn’t get word you were in.”
“Oh. Yeah. I… It’s been an interesting few days,” Genma said. “I didn’t really tell anyone. They notified my dad when I was brought in. And Aoba found out because he’s Aoba.” And worked in Intel, and had some kind of sixth sense that allowed him to gather gossip like black shirts gathered white lint. It hadn’t even occurred to Genma to tell anyone else.
They’d disconnected his IV already, so it was easy enough to skin out of the hospital gown and into the t-shirt his dad had brought. The jeans were another matter—without a slit up the thigh, they were going to be a challenge to get on over the bandage.
“Did you get a new place? Or is your sister being uncharacteristically nice and letting me crash with her, too?”
Asuma shook his head, watching Genma change with a casual air. “No, Aoba gave me his spare key. You get the bed at least until he gets back from his mission.”
“We’ll have to get Aoba a bottle of the good stuff,” Genma said. He got out of the bed and balanced carefully on his good leg, trying to work the bandaged one into the denim.
“Want help with that?” Asuma said.
“Yeah,” Genma said. “I really don’t want to have to cut these jeans. They’re comfortable. If it’s impossible, I guess we can slit the seam, but I’d like to at least try.”
It wasn’t until Asuma was kneeling at his side, tugging gingerly on the jeans to ease the pant leg over the bandages, that Genma considered how unwashed he was. “Sorry, I know I need a shower.”
Asuma looked up with a smile. “I’ve smelled worse.”
And there was that catch in Genma’s chest again. Asuma was alive. Lone survivor of the Guardian Twelve after the coup-attempt in Hikouto. Genma’d almost managed to forget that week of heartsick denials that his friend had died a traitor, their far-too-brief reunion before Team Six’s last mission notwithstanding. He put his hand down on the bed rail to steady himself. “Actually, I think I might need a bottle of the good stuff, too. Can you stay? At Aoba’s, with me, I mean?”
“Sure,” Asuma said easily. “Can’t stand it at my sister’s anyway.” Like it was no issue, and he hadn’t even noticed Genma’s plaintive tone. He gave another tug at the fabric, which stubbornly resisted. Genma winced.
“Are you allowed to drink right now?” Asuma asked, giving Genma’s bandages a skeptical frown.
“Technically, no,” Genma admitted. He flapped a hand at the difficult jeans. “Screw it, may as well cut them. Got a kunai on you?”
Dumb question, of course Asuma did. He was just making the incision into the seam when Genma’s nurse appeared with a white paper bag of pill bottles and a sheaf of discharge papers in her hand.
Asuma looked up from his squat, blade in hand, still—after how many days at home?—mission-tense.
“I won’t ask,” she said. “I’ve got your discharge instructions and medications, Shiranui-san. Sarutobi-san, you’re signing him out?” She didn’t give Asuma a chance to deny it. “Shiranui-san’s got an appointment tomorrow morning at 10:30 with PT, and he’s on some pretty heavy-duty meds. Be careful if he takes a shower he doesn’t get light-headed. He doesn’t need a concussion on top of everything else. You’re staying with him, right?”
“I’m right here,” Genma protested.
Asuma nodded. “Those papers have all the details?”
“Everything,” she said. “Medications, restrictions, diet recommendations, future appointments, and warning signs to look out for.” She gave Genma a fond look. “You know the drill, I’m sure, Shiranui-san. No cheating. Limited weight-bearing only as tolerated, and only with crutches. Meds on a schedule. And if it looks even a little red and streaky, or you get a fever, come on back to Emergency.”
Genma tucked his head down in an acknowledging nod. “I’ll do my best to stay out of trouble.”
“Sign here and here,” she said, handing him the discharge papers. He glanced over them to see what he was agreeing to, then signed his name where she’d asked.
“I’m surprised you’re not staying with your dad,” she said. “He seemed like he’d have been happy to have you at home.”
“He’s got a business to run,” Genma said. “I’d just be in the way.” And his father was a worrier. Some missions, like their last one, were better recovered from in the company of other ninja. Especially when there were going to be more interviews with Intel, visits from his spooked and unhappy team, far too many reports still to write, and nightmares like the one Asuma’d woken him from. Five more minutes, and he’d probably have shouted himself awake.
Asuma gave him a reassuring pat on the shin and got back to work on cutting the seam out of Genma’s jeans.
“Alright. Easy does it on the way home, Shiranui-san.” She took her signed copies, left Genma his sheaf of instructions and his sack of pills, and headed for the door. “You’re officially discharged.”
They stopped by Kakashi’s room on the way out, but it was empty and the bed stripped. He’d been discharged that afternoon, according to a clerk at the nurse’s station. That seemed far too early given how debilitated Kakashi had been, and Genma almost demanded to see Kakashi’s chart as his lieutenant and team medic, but Asuma didn’t let him. If Kakashi’s doctors, including Nohara Rin-sensei herself, said Kakashi was well enough to recover at home, Genma was in no position to second-guess. Besides, he was off the clock, on medical leave himself.
Reluctantly, Genma agreed to let it go. He’d just have to check in on Kakashi at the dorms in the morning.
The way back to Aoba’s neighborhood was slow going, uphill and on crutches. By the time they arrived, Genma was sweaty, tired, and sore under the armpits. “Did Aoba say if there were groceries?” he asked Asuma, as they neared the convenience store on the corner of Aoba’s street. “Because if there aren’t any, maybe you could get some takeout while I grab a shower?”
“I was thinking takeout anyway,” Asuma said. He hefted the backpack holding Genma’s belongings and medications, which he’d insisted on carrying. At the moment, Genma was grateful. “Anything specific in mind, or just cheap ramen?”
“Tonkotsu ramen with extra pork,” Genma said. “And get some gyoza. I can eat a whole order on my own, so get two orders if you want some.” He took a deep breath, squaring his shoulders to tackle the last long hill climb and the stairs to Aoba’s apartment. It was amazing how much a little injury could take out of you.
Asuma gave him a questioning look.
“Maybe I’ll just wait here while you get the food, and we can go up the hill together,” Genma said. His nurse’s admonition to be careful in the shower suddenly seemed less mother-henning and more prudent advice.
Inwardly, Asuma was relieved to hear Genma make that suggestion. Watching his struggle to move through the hospital itself, which was designed for disabilities, had been difficult enough, but once they were out on the street it had taken an exercise in extreme patience to not suggest any breaks. It was better, he’d learned, to frame a suggestion in such a way that it seemed like the other person’s idea, but he didn’t think that would work this time.
“Sounds like a good plan.” He waited a moment as Genma got himself settled on a street-side bench, pulling out his wallet to check the cash he had on hand as a reason for pausing. “What about calling up a rickshaw for the last leg of the trip?”
The other ninja squinted in a way that implied he was going to refuse purely on grounds of pride, before dropping his shoulders in surrender. “If we did that, we could buy more beer without needing a clone to carry it, I guess.”
“Always practical.” He patted Genma’s shoulder briefly. “I’ll be back in a coupla minutes.”
The inside of the convenience store was a mirror of almost every other convenience store that ever existed—a mishmash of last-minute items one might need in the event of an illness or a party, actual items of practical use, and food with questionable contents and even more questionable expiration dates. Asuma bypassed all of that in favor of the actual ramen shop tucked in the very back, where at least he could be assured that the food had in fact been cooked recently.
Ordering the food took longer than sending the store’s errand-boy for a rickshaw. And cooking the food took longer than the rickshaw needed to arrive; by the time Asuma stepped back out with his bags of goods, Genma was already being helped into the passenger seat by the considerate rickshaw puller.
The trip up to Aoba’s front step (so to speak) only took five minutes, but without the help of a professional it probably would have taken much, much longer. And much more pain and sweating on Genma’s part, too, Asuma was sure. That alone was worth a generous tip.
“So I have no idea what the place is like,” Asuma warned once they reached the apartment door, unlocking it and holding it open for Genma to precede him. “He said something about washing the bedsheets, so…”
Genma paused just inside the doorway, glancing back over his shoulder in a kind of double-take. “He said that? Like—he’s cool if I—if we use his bed?” And then under his breath, more to himself: “He must be worried about me.”
“Well, you did kinda end up in the hospital for a coupla days.” Asuma waited until Genma had hobbled further into the apartment before he stepped in himself and closed the door. It was tidier than he had expected—the living room sported the kind of modern, clean lines seen more often in apartments that were barely lived in. And a plant by the front door? If Aoba hadn’t given him the key personally, Asuma would have never pegged this as a bachelor’s place. “I just assumed he meant you’d take the bed.”
Genma crutched himself over to the couch, slowly taking in the apartment, before he carefully lowered himself to sit. “I usually sleep on the couch. Which is supposed to be temporary.” He sighed, looking off to the side—Asuma followed his gaze to a cluster of smoke-stained boxes stacked neatly in one corner of the room. “I really need to find a place of my own. I’ve just had non-stop missions since my old place burned down, and Aoba’s been really nice about it. Plus, yeah, second hospitalization in a month. If I were my medic, I’d be doing a mental health check on me.”
He hastily glanced back over, just in time to see the bowl of take-out ramen Asuma was handing over. He accepted it, and added, “Don’t worry. They were both unavoidable mission injuries, I’m not glory-hounding or self-destructive.”
Asuma left the remainder of the take-out in its bag on the coffee table, opting instead for a bottle of beer. “Nah, I don’t think that. That’s not how I’d see you glory-hounding, anyway.” He sat next to Genma, careful not to jostle anything. “You’re more the type to burn yourself out trying to heal others, I think.”
Genma paused in the process of opening his food. “How much about my mission did Aoba tell you? Did he read the mission report already or something? Damn Intel weasel.”
“Nothing?” Asuma opened the bottle and kept the cap to fiddle with. He could tell without asking that this wasn’t an apartment to smoke in. “If he read it he didn’t say anything to me about it.”
Genma rested the takeout container on his knee, leaning back against the couch and closing his eyes for a moment. “Well, I guess I fail genin-level information confidentiality.” With a sigh, he sat back up straight to get at his food. “My team took heavy injuries. So did I, obviously. I came pretty close to a faceplant trying to fix them. Namiashi had to chakra-transfuse me.”
“Your captain, right?” Asuma gave him a faint smile. “Good to see some things haven’t changed while I was gone. I’d’ve been worried if you’d done anything other than faceplant.”
Genma raised an eyebrow at him. “Like what?”
“Glory-hound. Try to take everyone out by yourself.” He took a swallow from the bottle, not really tasting it. Cheap beer wasn’t for tasting anyway. “And anyway, if the powers that be thought you were at risk of that, they wouldn’t have let you out of the hospital.”
“Yeah, no. Not me. Although my rookies are gonna drive me to drink.” Genma held out a hand, and Asuma obliged by opening and passing over a new bottle of beer. “Hatake tried to take on Iebara fucking Shigematsu on his own. And my other rookie’s the possible suicide risk. Not immediately, I think, but just—first real ANBU mission, with baby-killing and the whole works. Hit him hard, and then we ran into the Phantom of the Bloody Mist and crew, so I never got to debrief him before things went to shit.”
…Well. When Genma said ‘classic ANBU mission’ the other day outside the hospital, he really meant it. Asuma nodded, rolling the bottle cap absently through his fingers. “They’ll keep an eye on him.” ANBU administration always seemed to keep a close eye on its agents’ mental health, especially its rookies. “And with your leg like this, your team is bound to have some decent down-time. You’ll get to talk to him.”
Genma nodded over his noodles, eating but clearly preoccupied. “We have talked since, while we were holed up waiting for evac, and he seems like he’s righting himself, so I’m not too worried. Just the right amount, right?”
“The right amount for a lieutenant.” Asuma nudged Genma’s good knee with his own. “Worrying is part of the job. Pretty sure it’s written into any contract where you have to handle other people.”
“Yeah, it was one of the criteria for getting promoted to special jounin, I think,” Genma said. His preoccupation abruptly shifted at that point, and Asuma stoically endured his careful scrutiny. “Speaking of people I worry about, are you okay?” Genma asked.
Was that meant generally, or was that a reference to the fact he hadn’t eaten any of his own food yet? Asuma shrugged, chose to assume the former, and drank more beer. He wasn’t sure what he could and couldn’t say about Hikouto—didn’t know what he was ready to say. Maybe nothing was better, if Genma would let him get away with that. “Still with my sister. Higher-ups put me on genin mission desk. No wall duty, though. Got the paperwork rolling to get back into active duty.”
“Active duty ANBU, or just active duty jounin?”
Asuma rubbed the mouth of the bottle against his lower lip. “I hadn’t thought about ANBU,” he admitted. Truthfully a lot of what he was doing was purely by rote, because he had to—or rather, because he didn’t know what else to do. He only knew that staying with his sister without even some sort of job to get him out of the house wasn’t an option. “Jounin, I guess. I mean, I technically didn’t get through my rookie ANBU year. I’d probably have to go through the full application process again, yeah?”
Genma’s expression turned thoughtful. “I don’t actually know. You didn’t resign your commission, you took a leave from ANBU to serve the Daimyo, right? And you were ten months into your rookie year.” He tapped his chopsticks against the ramen bowl. “I kind of expect they’d count the year in Hikouto as equivalent time served, and reinstate you as a non-officer.”
“Maybe.” It was certainly possible, but he couldn’t help but have his doubts. “Either way the paperwork still has to finish going through. And I have to go through the annual skill check. Maybe after all that’s done…” He shrugged.
That careful, evaluating look got turned on him again. “Do you want back in?” Genma asked.
“It’s a fair sight better than desk work,” he replied. “I just don’t know if they would want me back.” He paused, and added, “I’m stuck with psych check-ins right now.” And why would ANBU want to bring in someone who already had potential psych issues?
Genma’s eyes narrowed slightly, connecting the dots. Asuma watched him warily, squashing the anxiety that surfaced anytime a topic so much as brushed sideways against Hikouto. Not that he couldn’t trust Genma, just… he was so done thinking about it all.
“They have you on a watch?” Genma asked. Clearly whatever painkillers they had him on weren’t enough to blunt his faculties. He sighed. “I guess that stands to reason, given what I know about what happened.” He shifted where he sat, throwing one arm across the back of the couch, transparent in his offer of comfort. “You’re not. Right? Or if you are, if you’re making exit plans you’ll tell me first before you do anything?”
Asuma scowled at him. And, like he’d repeated at least a dozen times to his psych handlers in the last week, said firmly, “I’m not suicidal.”
And he wasn’t. Still sorting through the mess but… not suicidal.
Genma didn’t think Asuma was. Not really. Any shinobi who’d lost his entire team on a mission was automatically considered a suicide risk by Konoha’s medical office, and with good reason. Asuma had lost more than a team, he’d lost eleven sworn brothers in the bloody coup attempt in Hikouto. Worse, he’d lost a good half of them to treachery. He’d probably lost some by his own hand.
But Asuma was also ANBU. And a Hokage’s son. He’d survived the Third War and the Kyuubi’s assault on Konoha. Was the shattering of the Daimyou’s Guardian Twelve any worse?
In their aborted rookie year together, in the wake of missions gone sideways, Genma’d seen Asuma go out and get obliterated in drink, seen him train until he collapsed from low blood sugar and fatigue, seen him throw a punch at a wall that left a hole to the studs (and taught them both something about plaster repairs afterwards.)
He’d never seen Asuma even a little tempted to give up on life.
The right sleeve of Asuma’s uniform top was pushed up to accommodate the soft splint on his forearm and wrist. In the gap between the splint and his bunched up sleeve, Genma could see fresh, red burn scars writhing over Asuma’s skin.
Maybe Hikouto had been worse.
“I had to ask,” Genma said. “If you were, and I didn’t try to stop you… If I missed it—” He cut himself off with a quick headshake. “No offense meant. I know you’re made of diamond at the core.”
Asuma’s scowl melted into a sort of apologetic half-smile. “I don’t know about diamond. I don’t think my liver can pass the Mohs test yet.”
“Keep drinking all that beer without any food, and you can probably cirrhose it to at least quartz hardness,” Genma said. If Asuma was able to joke in the face of veiled questions about suicide, Genma probably could let go of some of his worry. “Or did you eat already before you came to spring me?”
Asuma gave his nearly empty bottle a startled look, like he had no clue how the contents had vanished. “Um, no, actually,” he said. Before Genma could pursue the question of fledgling alcoholism in the wake of unspeakable trauma any further, Asuma noticed Genma’s picked-at ramen, and lifted his head to give Genma an accusing look. “Not that you should be talking.” He mimed taking a bite with his own chopsticks. “You probably shouldn’t be drinking at all.”
Genma sighed and stared down at the noodles and pork half submerged in opaque broth. He’d been hungry at the bottom of the hill. What had changed?
“I probably shouldn’t,” he agreed, punctuating it with a sip of the forbidden beer. “And if I’m going to go against medical advice and drink anyway, I should probably try to actually enjoy it.” He held the bottle out for a clink against Asuma’s. After a moment, Asuma obliged.
“Enough about depressing bullshit,” Genma declared, when Asuma had lapsed into remote silence again. “Tell me about living in Hikouto. Konoha has to seem like such a backwater after living in the capitol.”
“Not really.” Asuma drained his beer, shook his head, and put the empty on the coffee table with the bags from the convenience store. “More people, but a lot quieter. In the chakra sense, anyway. Not as many ninja there as you’d think.”
“Huh,” Genma said. “I guess that makes sense. I know a lot of the government types have samurai on staff for security, since technically all shinobi are the Daimyou’s. Unless they’re unaffiliated.” He set the ramen aside for a moment in favor of rustling through the bags for the box of gyoza. “What about the embassies? Wind has an embassy, right? Suna shinobi there?”
“The embassies have a handful of shinobi, yeah, but they usually stay with their delegates.” Asuma twisted and resettled on the couch with one foot tucked under the opposite knee, angling in to face Genma. He looked less tense now, talking about easy facts untouched by tragedy. As he walked a bottlecap across the knuckles of his uninjured left hand, he ticked off countries with the right. “Wind, Grass, Rain, Earth, and Water are the big ones, though a few of the smaller countries have quarters in the city. Some retired shinobi live in the city, some passing through on missions. Outside that, though, not all that many came to the palace proper.”
“Must have made it easier for your sensors to spot anything incoming,” Genma said. “And made it easier to cheat at bar games. How much money did you take off unsuspecting civilians at darts?”
Asuma gave Genma a genuine smile at last. “None, you ass. I had a reputation to uphold and shit.” He stole a gyoza from Genma’s abandoned container on the coffee table, chewed, and swallowed, before he allowed, “Also I didn’t have to pay for room and board out there, unlike the one time I cheated around you…”
“See,” Genma said, “now there’s a real recruiting pitch. ‘Come work for the Daimyou, live rent-free in the glorious capital of Fire Country, and develop a conscience even a monk would envy.’”
Asuma’s smile died, and his gaze dropped to the bottlecap, stilled between two fingers. “No, not really,” he said distantly. “Those Fire Temple monks can out-conscience pretty much anyone.”
You’re an idiot, Shiranui. In one of Asuma’s infrequent letters last year, he’d mentioned one of the Guardian Twelve being a monk, hadn’t he? Had the monk remained loyal, or had he been one of the traitors? Did it matter? He’d certainly been one of Asuma’s friends.
“Yeah,” Genma said. “I guess you’re right.” He picked at the label on his beer bottle while Asuma uncapped another for himself. For a long, awkward moment, Aoba’s apartment was silent. When had it gotten hard to talk to Asuma? But there was so much neither of them could say — sworn to secrecy and not on the same team anymore. Genma’s leg ached, and all the things he’d spent the day trying not to think about came pressing in.
“So uh,” Asuma said, in the world’s most inelegant subject change. “Did they say how long they think you’ll need those bandages?”
“Couple weeks,” Genma said, grateful for the safe topic. “I have to do the PT, and if the remaining hematoma starts to ossify, I’ll have to do another surgery, probably.”
Asuma flicked an eyebrow upward, and Genma could guess at the question.
“It was a bad cut, and I made it worse trying to get it to stop bleeding in the field. You know how I’m always saying self-surgery isn’t an option unless your other choice is death?”
Asuma gave a sage nod. “Classic ANBU mission. Knowing you, your teammates are in better shape?” It wasn’t quite a question.
Genma thought back to that rookie year with Asuma, to missions Team 14 had come limping home from. Hyuuga-taichou’s carefully worded mission reports that Toshirou-sensei had seen straight through.
“I’m smarter about it now,” he said. “Hatake’s in bad shape, and I spent a lot of energy getting him stable, but I made sure to treat myself first. IV and blood pills and the whole circus.”
Asuma gave him a look laced with skepticism.
“OK, yes, the rest of my team is in better shape medically, except for Hatake. But we also brought home—” Genma stopped himself. The prisoner was with T&I, but the fewer people who knew about her, the longer Konoha could leverage her.
“I told you about Iebara. That’s going to be public knowledge, since we’re removing him from the Bingo Book. Confirmed kill, no ambiguity. But his jutsu was vicious, and I got hit with it. Tried to heal the wound and missed a branch artery, and I wasn’t clotting great because of soldier pills, so it bled into the muscle for several hours after the fighting was over. I started getting hypovolemic and shocky, so I kind of massacred an emergency cauterizing jutsu—”
Asuma held up a hand with a fond look. “Smarter about it now, he says.”
“I only needed chakra from my captain once— twice. But that was because—”
Asuma still looked amused. He picked up the box of gyoza and waved it at Genma. Genma took the hint, and popped a whole one in his mouth.
So ok, it was harder than it used to be to talk to Asuma, but it wasn’t like everything had changed. For the first time since the ANBU Trials, Genma felt something he hadn’t even known he was holding onto unclench.
Asuma clung to each moment of normality like they were uncertain shelters in a storm. Only a year had passed, but so much felt different that he honestly wasn’t sure where he fit anymore. A space was left behind when he went to Hikouto, and now that he was back he found he didn’t fit anymore—he’d grown, or maybe the space had shrunk, or maybe both. Konoha was both brighter and darker than he remembered, like the contrast on a movie that was turned up too high, and people he’d considered friends now felt like distant acquaintances. Or maybe he was the one that was distant now.
Genma had been his closest friend a year ago, closer than any other person in Asuma’s life. And Genma didn’t really seem all that different, like everyone else did. Which only left Asuma as the remaining variable of change. Maybe he really had changed that much in the last year.
Chiriku would have been glad to hear that.
It was distressing to continue to feel unmoored even around Genma. But he kept that to himself, tucked down in the pit of his chest. It’s only been three weeks, Asuma reminded himself. No one could adjust back to normal life in only three weeks.
So he did his best to converse like a normal person, trying to stick to topics that Genma would naturally wax on about, or that he could talk about without being an awkward mess. They managed to kill off another three bottles of beer (mostly Asuma) and the remainder of the gyoza (mostly Genma) by the time Genma needed to take his night pills, and mutually decided Genma should probably get that shower before those pills knocked him unconscious.
He helped Genma strip in Aoba’s bedroom, knowing there wouldn’t be enough room in that tiny bathroom to do so while trying not to slip on the tiles. The bulky bandaging went next, revealing a bruised, unhappy wound on Genma’s right thigh. Sutures and extensive chakra healing kept the gash itself closed, and there were no signs of it having re-opened during their walk from the hospital, but Asuma could tell that was going to leave a wicked scar.
He didn’t ask about the scar on Genma’s stomach, or the other scars he thought were new. He didn’t want to find out if he’d forgotten anything.
Given that standing for a whole shower wasn’t really a possibility with that wound, Genma opted to park himself on the side of the bathtub, utilize the detachable shower head, and mop up any spilled water later. Asuma peeled off his shirt and the soft brace to help; in hindsight that wasn’t the smartest of decisions, because then Genma could see the full extent of the burns previously hidden by that shirt. Which, of course, he had to ask about, because medics were incurably curious about that sort of thing.
“Third degree?” he asked, tweaking the temperature of the water and holding the shower head loosely in his other hand. “Did they do grafts, or just jutsu?”
Asuma looked down at his arm, closing his hand into a fist. The scars were still red, the skin shiny from repeated healing sessions. It looked bad now, but in a few years’ time they’d be much less noticeable. “Mostly second,” he replied. “And mostly jutsu. More worried about function and nerve damage than making it look good.”
“How’s it feeling?” As expected, water ended up all over the bathroom floor as Genma sluiced the remaining grime from his mission off. “You had a couple of fractures too, right?”
Asuma dropped a spare towel on the floor to soak up the extra water and sat on the lid of the toilet. “Nightstick fracture,” he confirmed, choosing to ignore the first question in favor of the second. He offered the bottle of body wash he’d found in Genma’s pack of toiletries. “Also jutsu-healed. Just keeping a brace on it for a little longer to remind me not to do anything stupid.”
Genma reached past the soap, touching Asuma lightly on the arm. “If you need anything… massage, burn cream.” He took the soap then, exchanging it with the shower head, and more quietly added, “A friend to listen…”
The offer hung in the air with the rising steam. Asuma kept the spray of water directed into the tub, watched it swirl down the drain, and tried to imagine telling Genma about the way Kazuma had turned from friend to foe so easily, the way Chiriku had slipped away between one breath and another.
“I’ll keep it in mind,” he replied, just as quietly.
Genma nodded. From the corner of his eye, Asuma watched him soap up, open his mouth as though to speak, then change his mind and remain silent. It took him several minutes to decide on a new topic of conversation.
“So is your sister as sweet and personable as I remember her being?” he asked eventually.
Ah, Reiko. That was always an easy thing to talk about.
“Sweeter,” Asuma replied. “She’s on pregnancy attempt number two. Apparently it’s not taking well, so she’s taking it out on everyone in earshot.”
Genma’s expression bordered somewhere between smelling over-ripe durian and eating over-ripe durian. “What trimester? She in the puke all day stage, or is she on bedrest and hating it?”
Asuma traded the shower head for the body wash again. “First trimester. The way she tells it, she’s so sick she’s losing weight instead of gaining, but she’s still going in to the office every day.” He shrugged one shoulder. “I haven’t listened that closely, to be honest.”
“Because who wants to listen to an angry woman vomiting?” Genma chuckled. “I don’t imagine she approves much of this arrangement.” He waved his free hand, indicating his currently naked state and the complete lack of fucks they were giving about the situation. “If you even told her you were going to see me today. She’s not expecting you for dinner, is she?”
Asuma wrinkled his nose and shook his head. “No. I try my best to only be there when I’m sleeping.” Which he’d done a lot of, conveniently, right after he returned to Konoha. All the hospital visits, paperwork, and finally the desk job filled the rest of his time once he couldn’t find an excuse to sleep all day, but that wouldn’t last forever. Begging ANBU to take him back just so he wouldn’t have to deal with his sister on the other side of the dinner table was beginning to look very tempting. “Aoba dropped the news on me at work. I came by right after I got out.”
Genma ran a hand over his head, looking thoughtful for a moment, before he gestured with his elbow. Asuma followed the motion, spotted a bottle of conditioner in that direction, and traded it for the shower head once more.
“You’re a good friend,” Genma said, “even if you are doing it for entirely self-serving reasons.” He sighed deeply as he scrubbed in the conditioner, swaying slightly where he sat. Looked like the pills might finally be kicking in. “I can’t say I can offer much advice other than continued avoidance for your own sanity’s sake. Obstetrics isn’t a big part of field medic training.”
“Not my baby, not my problem,” Asuma replied. A bit harsh, but a reality. He and Reiko had never gotten on well, and he didn’t see that changing just because there was a new addition to the family. If anything, he felt sorry for the poor kid even getting born—but he knew better than to say that out loud. Family and reproduction were too important to Konoha’s culture to be publicly blasé about. “You’re looking wobbly. Narcotics working yet?”
“I think so. My leg still hurts, but I don’t care anymore.” Genma gave him the glazed-eye smile of a tired but well-medicated patient. “You’ll just have to be that awesome uncle that rescues the kid for an afternoon, sugars him up, and sends him back. I bet we could get my dad to help with that. Kids don’t care if the cupcakes are day-olds.”
The mental image of his short-tempered sister trying to corral a toddler amped up on frosting was definitely delightful. Asuma laughed and shook his head, offering Genma back the shower head. “You’re a subversive son of a bitch. C’mon, let’s finish up and get you in bed before you end up passed out in the tub.”
“Ninja,” Genma replied. “Subversion is one of my core competencies.”
It only took a moment longer for him to rinse off the remaining soap and conditioner. Asuma helped him get back to his feet, careful of the soaked towels wadded up on the floor, and wrapped him up in the one remaining that was still dry. By this point Genma was listing heavily, the cocktail of hospital-approved drugs and unapproved beer making him loose-limbed and pliant.
“Are you trying to take advantage of me in my vulnerable state?” Genma slurred, picking his way carefully to Aoba’s bed while also using Asuma as a crutch. “Because if you are, I approve.” He nodded to himself. “Ninja again.”
Yeah, definitely next time nix the beer.
“You’re keeping me away from my sister, aren’t you?” With a grunt of effort Asuma plopped Genma onto the apparently freshly-made bed, then returned to the bathroom to shut off the light. He’d pick up the towels in the morning. “You got enough left in you to wrap your leg back up?”
“I can do that.” Genma peered around the room, looking for the bag of medication and bandaging they’d brought in prior to the shower, but the motion clearly made him dizzy. He squinted his eyes closed and bowed his head. “Did you bring the gauze in here?”
Asuma retrieved it and pulled out the contents, laying each item on the bed where Genma could easily reach it. Non-stick gauze pads, ointment-saturated dressings, rolls of plain bandaging, medical tape and bandage scissors, and a small pot of pale green, fragrant salve. The last Genma smeared liberally over the wound and bruised area of his thigh, and with Asuma’s help layered the dressing and gauze pad over the sutures.
“Guess I should have thought about boxers befo—” Genma interrupted himself with a giant yawn, then tried again. “Before I bandaged it. If my team needs me—” yet another yawn “—in the middle of the night, you can hold ‘em off while I get dressed, right?”
“If I have to,” Asuma replied, amused, as he stuffed the medical supplies back into their bag. Even exhausted and high on opiates, Genma just couldn’t suppress that mother-hen aspect of his personality, could he? “At least get under the covers before you make me promise to protect your virtue.”
Genma pivoted on his hips and lowered himself gingerly onto his back, easing the sheets and blankets over his injured leg and high enough to attain a semblance of modesty. “You’re the last person I’d ask to defend my virtue, Monkey-chan,” he said, aiming for light-hearted teasing. It came out tired and tentative. A year and a half ago Asuma would have shucked out of his pants and climbed under those covers with every intention of divesting them both of any virtue they had left between them.
A year and a half ago, when everything was different.
Asuma gave him a fond smile. “Assuming you have any virtue to begin with.” He tossed the re-assembled sack of medical supplies on the floor at the foot of the bed, and smoothed the blankets over Genma’s feet. “Go ahead and sleep. I’m gonna put the food away.” He hesitated a moment, then turned out the overhead light, leaving the room illuminated by a single, paper-shaded orange lamp at the bedside, and slid the door shut behind him.
Genma stared up at the wooden slats criss-crossing Aoba’s bedroom ceiling—the architect had evidently taken cues from traditional house-design when they built these flats. Lines intersecting lines intersecting lines. His and Asuma’s. His and his last team’s. His and Team Six’s. Intersecting trajectories that never converged… He let the heavy drag of the painkillers tow him under, with the lamp still casting low amber shadows across the slatted plaster. He was asleep before the echo of Asuma’s footsteps had died down the hall.
The estate in his dream was sprawling and ancient, built before there had even been a hidden village called Konoha, when Fire Country was divided into a dozen minor fiefdoms and the ninja clans swore their allegiances to local lords or no one at all. Genma slipped silently from shadowed room to shadowed room, bypassing understated opulence at every turn. At the entrance to the target’s bedroom, there was a tall ceramic vase with a gold seam running around the rim and down one side, mending a crack and turning a ruined item priceless.
The door was open a few centimeters, but it was dark within. Genma’s earpiece crackled with static. Distantly he heard Raidou’s voice, Code broken link. Abort mis— An explosion. The high pitched whine of shattered electronics.
His heart raced. From inside the room, he heard Katsuko scream.
He tore the door open, and fell.
And kept falling, through earthy-smelling, lightless nothingness until he landed hard, with the breath knocked out of him and a fierce ache in his gut. Rain spattered onto grey paving stones. There were black-clad shinobi everywhere, dressed for a funeral. None he knew, but all in their hitai-ate and dog tags, lined up orderly ranks on the parade ground.
He pushed himself to his feet, trying to see past the ninja nearest him to the five frames set up next to the Heroes’ Stone, black-bordered and draped with fabric veils. Thin grey light reflected off the glass, obscuring the faces of the dead. In front of each photograph there was a vase of white chrysanthemums, and a small brazier with sticks of incense smoldering fitfully in the misty rain.
The ninja around him moved away when they caught sight of his face, creating a bubble around him.
“Who are we mourning?” he asked the woman nearest him. Her eyes went wide, then she shook her head. “Shiranui-san, I’m so very sorry.”
“You aren’t to blame,” she said. “You couldn’t have—”
A man next to her shushed her, put a hand on her shoulder and pulled her away. “Forgive her, Shiranui-san,” he said quietly. “It’s just such a shock.” He wiped roughly at a tear that threatened to spill.
Genma moved through the crowd, which parted around him like he was contagious. He could hear their murmurs now, hear his name. That’s him. Shiranui. What’s he doing here? I thought he was—
The rain fell heavier. As he approached each frame, the fabric rippled, or the light changed, so that he could never see the face of the deceased. There was a scroll next to each portrait, but the ink had run in the rain, rendering the calligraphed names unreadable.
He turned to face the sea of shinobi on the parade ground. “Who died?” he demanded.
As one, they shuddered in revulsion, broke down weeping, and turned anguished faces away. One small, formally dressed child took a few hesitant steps towards him, but its mother snatched its hand and dragged it back. There was blood staining the front of its kimono.
The ache in Genma’s gut twisted, and he looked down to see the same blood covering him. He stumbled forward a step, his leg buckled under him, and he fell again.
And woke with a gasp.
The room was dark, the air still. He lay motionless, with his stomach still twisted with phantom pain, and his heartbeat shuddering in his chest and throbbing in his healing leg.
Aoba’s ceiling. Aoba’s bed. And next to him, the warm, steady presence of Asuma.
No, not steady. Tense. Asuma’s back was to him, steel-taut. His breathing was quiet but ragged, punctuated by soft, stifled sniffling.
Genma turned towards his friend. “Asuma?”
Asuma went silent and still, frozen like he’d been caught at something.
There was a heavy exhale, another held breath, and a slow inhale. “Yeah,” Asuma said, rough-voiced and strained. “You?”
It would be easy to lie. Say yes. Accept Asuma’s lie. Safer, when they didn’t know each other’s edges anymore, didn’t know how to fit together, where to be careful, or how to help each other stay strong.
So it was almost a surprise to himself when Genma heard his own voice rasp, “I’m not.” He turned onto his side, dragging his unwilling leg over, and reached for Asuma’s broad shoulders.
Asuma rolled onto his back and dragged his hands over his face, sniffling again and catching his breath, before he turned the rest of the way over to face Genma. A sliver of light from the street lamps outside came through the slatted blinds, picking out dull sparks in Asuma’s eyes, and a faint sheen of damp on his cheek. He didn’t speak.
Genma reached one hand carefully up to brush the moisture away.
“Bad dreams,” he said. He took a breath to steady himself and tried to figure out what to say. How to unlock whatever it was that stood like a vault door between them. In the end, he just curled his fingers into Asuma’s hair, substituting touch for words that wouldn’t come.
Asuma blinked once, then several times, and swallowed. His head nodded a tiny bit under Genma’s hand. “Yeah,” he whispered. “Me, too.”
That impulse to grab and hold and never let go came again, and this time Genma gave in, rolling closer and raising the arm between them until Asuma acquiesced, too, and settled with his head on Genma’s shoulder, his hand splayed over Genma’s solar plexus, rising and falling with each of Genma’s breaths.
At least this felt right.
“Want to tell me about it?” Genma asked. “Or should I go first?”
He should have been expecting Asuma’s reply of, “You first.”
“I don’t know how to start,” Genma said finally, when silence had stretched out too long. “I… There was a funeral but I didn’t know who’d died. I think it was my team, everyone there seemed to think I should know. But there were five portraits, not four. I’d heard my captain call the mission abort, and then an explosion. And there was a little kid, covered in blood—my blood, I think.” He rubbed a hand over the scar on his abdomen from their mission to Isegawa, barely a month old. The dream was evaporating as he tried to chase the details. And he was acutely aware he was lying next to a man who had just lost his entire team. Genma’s nightmare was Asuma’s reality. “I… Sorry.”
The silence stretched out again, a crushing, accusatory silence. Genma ground his teeth together, silently castigating himself.
Asuma took a soft breath, then said in a near whisper, “Shitty dream. Like being a ghost that didn’t know they were dead.”
“Yeah,” Genma said. “I guess… Yeah. Maybe that was it.” Outside a gust of wind tossed the maple tree outside Aoba’s window, sending a dappled flurry of shadows scurrying across the ceiling. A mirror to his unsettled mind. He’d lost count of the concerns he’d been shoving into dark corners, but not a single one of them was content to wait until morning now.
Asuma lifted his head slightly, scruffy beard rasping against Genma’s bare chest. It was as close to an invitation as Genma was likely to get.
“Asuma, listen,” Genma said. “This shit I’m in right now, it’s so classified I could probably get in trouble for just thinking about it with another person in the room. But you’re my friend, and you’re ANBU, too, even if you aren’t active-duty. I need to talk this out with someone who isn’t going to make a note in my personnel file, or go after my team if I say the wrong thing. You know?”
There was a little puff of breath against Genma’s skin, a twitch that was probably a smile tugging at Asuma’s cheek. “Yeah,” Asuma said. “Pinky swear.”
There was only one way to make that legit: Genma reached down to where Asuma’s hand rested on his belly and hooked his pinky into Asuma’s.
Somehow, even with that, the words were hard to get out. “There’s a lot,” he said. the fire that had left him homeless nearly two months ago. The attack at the ANBU Trials, and Orochimaru’s phantom threat. The coup at Hikouto, and whether Konoha was on the cusp of another war. Asuma. Hajime. Genma’s dad, with his not-unfounded anxiety for his son’s safety.
And there was Team Six. Ryouma with his crippling insecurities and minefield of issues. Katsuko’s nightmarish hidden past and her unstable chakra. Kakashi’s thorny unapproachability and near-constant limit testing. But rising like cream to the top…
“Right now, it’s my captain,” Genma said. “And my team. He’s suspended for… I don’t even know how they’re going to class it. Criminal charges for unsanctioned kills if they really decide to screw him to the wall. And it’s bullshit. At least, I think it’s bullshit.”
Asuma was silent for a minute before saying, “Not as bad as treason, I suppose. You think they’d shitcan him for it?”
“For murder? And massive property damage that affects trading capacity at a key port? The way the post-mission interviews have gone so far, I wouldn’t be surprised if they went after the whole team.”
“You followed his orders to trash a port?” Asuma’s voice was full of disbelief.
Genma shook his head. “The mission was split. I had the two rookies with me in Ibaragashi City. Namiashi and Ueno were in Tsurugahama. And their half of the mission went sideways. Really, really sideways. From what I got from them, the port damage and the civilian deaths were unavoidable. Or… Well, understandable. Mist was there with a bigger force than we were expecting. When I said we took down Iebara and his team? That was just me and the rookies, and we were way outside of town. Mist had another whole unit in Tsurugahama waiting in ambush. If the rookies and I’d crossed paths with Iebara and his crew somewhere populated, too… I don’t even want to think about it.”
Asuma nodded. “Can’t reasonably take the whole team out for that if they weren’t all in the same town. Assuming your superiors believe your mission reports. Know if you’ve pissed off any of them recently?”
“No. I…Honestly, it’s not my own skin I’m worried about here. My half of the mission was an unqualified success,” Genma said. “It’s Taichou. And the way the rookies and Ueno are reacting. I’ve been trying to keep them on track, and focused on the positive. Telling them this is all a routine formality — there were losses, Tsurugahama complained, and so there’s got to be an inquiry. Missions go to shit sometimes, and collateral damage happens. Given that our mission was critical to Konoha’s safety—” he stopped himself, flinching away from the details that would link Team Six’s mission back to the events in Hikouto.
“Our mission was a success, both sides of it, even if there were losses.” He stopped for a moment, fighting with himself.
“But?” Asuma said quietly.
“I’ve been lying to my team to keep them from freaking out. Telling them I’m sure everything is going to be fine, when I know there’s a chance it won’t be.”
“Gotta keep up a good face,” Asuma said, not leading him one way or the other.
Genma blew a strand of hair out of his own face. “Maybe I don’t have all the facts. Maybe Namiashi really did go rogue, even if he came back to himself after the fact. Maybe I missed something. We’ve only been a team for a month. All I know for certain is how injured he and Ueno were when we met up at the safehouse, and that Intel has been down our throats since the minute we crossed through the village gates.”
His hand on Asuma’s shoulder traced familiar curves and planes — the sculpted blade of Asuma’s shoulder, the iron strength of a deltoid capping an arm that had thrown countless blades and punches in a lifetime of military service. It was familiar, and almost reassuring, but Asuma’s silence left Genma as unsettled as his nightmare had. Asuma was supposed to talk it out with him, help him put some substance behind the optimism he’d been feeding his team. Not agree that Genma’s promises were empty.
His hand found a new-feeling scar, still tight and healing, on Asuma’s shoulder. “Sorry,” he said quietly. “I’ll figure it out. You have enough to worry about without me crying on your shoulder.”
Asuma gave a dry little chuckle, like the irony was just too ripe not to laugh. “That would make two of us.” He took a breath, tracing blunt fingertips over numb skin on Genma’s stomach, where the scar from the demon mission was new and nerves hadn’t reconnected yet. “You do the best you can and leave the rest up to the gods. Nobody can do more than that.”
“Yeah.” More things that had changed. The old Asuma wouldn’t have been so comfortable bringing up the gods, or talking as if there might really be something to Genma’s faith. Genma wished he could find his faith now, but Kannon’s mercies seemed remote and the world’s concerns weighty. “You want to tell me your dream?” he said finally. “You listened to mine. Might help you not dream it again when you go back to sleep.”
Asuma’s first instinct was to say no, that talking would only further cement the nightmare in reality, but it was too late: just mentioning that he’d had a dream brought it flooding back to the front of his mind. He blinked once, twice, lashes catching on Genma’s skin, and shifted so he could pillow his hand between his cheek and Genma’s shoulder.
“When I wrote you,” he started, then tried to clear his throat. It did nothing to ease the tightness in his chest. He tried again. “When I wrote, did I mention Chiriku?”
“Yeah. He was the monk…” Genma paused a moment in thought. “The monk from the Fire Temple, who was so Zen he could even calm the Daimyo’s fussypants auntie down, right? And he wiped the floor with you when you sparred, but you paid him back by getting him drunk on that rose-flavored stuff from Wind Country.”
The memory of Chiriku so drunk he swore he’d lost his kneecaps bubbled up briefly, but it only served to intensify the keen loss of his presence. Asuma couldn’t help a soft huff of laughter or the burn of tears in his eyes.
“Yeah,” he replied. “That’s the guy. When it—” His throat closed up briefly, as unwilling to talk about the event as he was to think about it. “When it was over, he—he wanted to pray, even for the guys that killed him. I prayed with him.” He squeezed his eyes closed, working hard to keep his breathing even. His cheeks felt wet again. “I dreamed I got the words wrong.”
Genma shifted to rub Asuma’s back, slow and firm, grounding. “He doesn’t strike me as the kind of man who would have minded,” he said quietly, after a long moment of silence.
Asuma laughed again, this time more wet and more bitter. “I know,” he said. “He was just happy that I tried. I know it’s stupid, it’s just… fucking dream logic. I was so sure getting the words wrong would… send him to the opposite of the Pure Land, I don’t know.”
If such a thing even existed. Not that it mattered—whether or not there was a world for souls beyond death, the end result was that Chiriku wasn’t in this one. Or Kazuma, or Masaki, or any of the others. They were all somewhere else now, forever out of reach, despite everything Asuma had done to try and stop the fighting. He really had gotten the words wrong; the dream was just another reminder of what his inattention had cost him. If he had just seen it all coming sooner…
“You don’t have the power to send him where he doesn’t belong,” Genma replied. His voice was quiet but firm, full of a certainty that Asuma had lacked when he first woke from that dream.
And then, just as quietly, Genma started a meditative chant. It was something Chiriku had often done—usually at the end of the day, just before retiring. Asuma could clearly see the monk sitting on the edge of his cot, beads in hand, repeating the simple chant namu amida butsu over and over in a calming drone.
His lungs ached fiercely, a stabbing pain that wouldn’t let him inhale or exhale. He was never going to fall asleep to the sound of Chiriku’s prayers again. He was never going to see Chiriku make it to a leadership position in the Temple. He was never going to see or hear Chiriku again, period. Ever.
Asuma finally managed to suck in a tiny breath, not quite a sob, and rolled away from Genma, onto his back, pressing a fist to his mouth. He couldn’t think about this right now. He couldn’t.
Genma cut himself off mid-chant and followed. “It’s okay,” he said, wrapping an arm around Asuma’s waist, holding him close. “Breathe. Let it out.”
It’s not okay, Asuma couldn’t help but think. It’s never going to be fucking okay.
But he focused on his breath anyway, counting the space between each inhale and exhale, the way the air whistled through his fist as he breathed. Tried to keep the movement slow and smooth, tried to stop each hitch before it could start. Didn’t succeed at first, but it required enough effort, enough focus that he managed to lock those thoughts away again. Managed to shore up the dam against the grief sucking at the bottom of his lungs. Managed to keep himself from having a complete breakdown, not where Genma would have to see it.
Once he could breathe again, face wet and nose clogged, an undetermined amount of time later, Asuma finally opened his mouth to lie, “I’m okay.”
“And I’m Hokage,” Genma replied, voice teasing but shaded with concern. He saw through the lie, and wasn’t going to let Asuma stand behind it. “You want a cup of tea? Or some of Aoba’s good stuff? I know where he keeps it.”
Ordinarily Asuma would laugh at the tease, but he didn’t have the energy for it. Instead he just sighed, and put his hand over Genma’s, where it was resting on Asuma’s belly.
“I can just see you trying to make tea at this hour,” he said. Though he hadn’t really cried (not really), his throat still felt sore. “Your nurse would kill me.”
“She doesn’t have to know. And I don’t know how you make tea, but I think I can manage, if you want some.” Despite the assurance, Genma made no move to get up. After a pause, his voice turned softer, more serious. “I know tea’s not… Not enough.”
Nothing’s enough, Asuma thought, but he knew Genma knew that. Academically, if nothing else.
“It’s okay,” he said, and wasn’t entirely lying this time. No, it wasn’t okay, but it was okay that Genma didn’t have anything that could bandage the still-raw edges of this wound. It wasn’t Genma’s fault that nothing could bandage such a wound.
Genma accepted that in silence, but after a moment started to prop himself up on one elbow. “Should I get that tea?” he asked. “Or Aoba’s top shelf whiskey?”
Asuma shook his head, just a little. “I’m good. I think I should just try to go back to sleep.”
Thankfully, Genma appeared to accept that. He tugged the covers up higher, over his own shoulder and higher on Asuma, and settled back down. It was a neat reverse from earlier in the night, Genma’s cheek resting on Asuma’s shoulder, breathing warm and soft against his skin.
“Wake me up if you can’t get back to sleep, okay?” he said, and wrapped his arm back around Asuma’s waist. The weight was more comforting than Asuma had expected.
“I will,” Asuma replied softly. He didn’t really expect to fall back asleep, not with that dream echoing in the back of his mind. How could anyone get back to sleep after dreaming you’d sentenced your best friend to some kind of metaphorical hell?
Eventually, after a long time spent staring at the ceiling and listening to Genma’s measured breaths, he slept. If he dreamed, the memory of it was gone by morning.