Afternoon of May 16, Yondaime Year 5

genma 1By the time the team had finished their ramen Kakashi was head-nodding, and Genma was gulping cold tea in a desperate attempt to get more caffeine into his body. He stretched and rubbed his eyes, then dug out his wallet. “Alright, I’ve got this,” he told them, eying the stack of bowls to estimate how much this was going to set him back. Ryouma had cleared his down to a few spoonfuls of broth; Genma’d made it partway through a second bowl before the ravenous hunger he always had after chakra healing had given way to fatigue; Kakashi might have finished a whole bowl if he’d been able to stay awake for it; and Katsuko was scraping the bottom of her third bowl and eying Genma’s and Kakashi’s unfinished portions.

“Ueno, you can finish mine. And then do you think you could get Hatake back to the Palace? I think he’s still staying there.”

Katsuko lunged across the counter to take Genma’s bowl like a tiger dragging off her prey. “I will carry his royalness home,” she said around a fresh mouthful of soup.

Kakashi blinked awake with the carefully hidden panic of a student caught sleeping in class. “What? I don’t need an escort.” As he woke more completely, ruffled irritation crept into his tone. “I thought you wanted help with your thing.”

“I do,” Genma said. “We do, but—” He yawned only partly for effect. “But not today. Tomorrow will be better. I’m wiped out after that healing session.”

Ryouma turned to look at Genma, concern creasing between his brows. “You need to get back home?”

“I should probably grab a nap,” Genma agreed, counting out bills and coins to pay for their lunch. “But if you come with me to my dad’s place first, I’ve got a bunch of study materials I can give you. Anatomy charts and stuff.”

Kakashi eyed them narrowly, clearly dubious about Genma’s excuse.

Katsuko slurped a noisy mouthful of noodles and gave Kakashi a wounded look. “What, you don’t like my company?”

“Consider it the last stage of the bodyguarding mission,” Genma said, pushing to his feet with the help of his cane. “You can guard each other against kidnap and demons and whatever other dangers the road to the Palace may hold. I’ll take Tousaki with me on some civilian recon.”

“But—” Kakashi started, then stopped. He scowled at Katsuko. “You ran away on your last attempt.”

Genma frowned. Katsuko had run away? Had she been that badly shaken at seeing Genma being worked on? He turned a questioning look towards her, but she seemed perfectly composed, draining the last of the soup from Genma’s bowl like she was drinking ceremonial sake.

“I didn’t run away,” Katsuko said, unrepentant. “I just let Nohara-sensei borrow you. And look! You’re still alive and everything.”

It sounded like Katsuko had been avoiding an awkward situation more than fleeing the hospital. “Good,” Genma said, before there could be any further discussion. “Then Tousaki will escort me to Shiranui Bakery to retrieve several documents, while Ueno and Hatake continue their mission to deliver Hatake to his quarters at the Palace. Where he will rest.” He stared Kakashi down, implacable. “That is an order, in case you needed that clarified, Hatake.”

Kakashi was smart enough to know when he was beaten. He sighed. “Yes, Lieutenant.”

Katsuko waved cheerful assent, still eying Kakashi’s unfinished ramen.

“Coming, Tousaki?” Genma asked.

Ryouma rose fluidly from his stool and nodded at Katsuko and Kakashi. “See you two later.” He sparked a crooked smile at Kakashi. “I’ll let you know if I need help with flashcards.”

Out in the street, with bright sun in his eyes and movement to stir his blood, Genma felt a little more awake. Only a little. He yawned broadly. “I’m sure you’re familiar with this from being a patient in the past, but in case you’re ever tempted to forget it as a medic, major chakra healing takes a toll on the patient as well as the medic. We’ll get to work in earnest tomorrow, but I think you’ll get some use out of my charts for now.”

“Homework’s good,” Ryouma said. “And you look like you could sleep straight through tomorrow.” He hesitated, chewing on his thoughts for a moment before he said, “What Kuroda-taichou said, about learning medical terms. Kakashi did offer to drill me, actually. I figured I can probably memorize enough of ‘em to get by with the type of field-work we’ve been doing, but— D’you think that’ll be enough?”

Genma rubbed his face with his free hand, considering carefully. “There’s a lot of anatomical terminology you’ll need. And… Kuroda-taichou was an ass— was impolite about it, but he’s not entirely wrong. You’ll need to do some reading and writing.” They turned up the street to the bakery. “I’ve read your file, but it’s not very specific. I know you can write your name. Can you…” He winced as he put too much weight onto his healing leg all at once, but it was more of an anticipatory grimace for the question he was about to ask. “How much can you— are you comfortable reading?”

Ryouma snorted dismissively. “Comfortable? That’s a big fat nothing. The characters go all… squiggly, and I get headaches.” He frowned at his feet, talking more to the pale tan stones of the roadbed than to Genma. “I can piece out hiragana and katakana when I need to, mostly. Kanji are a lot harder. You gotta get all the little strokes in the right order, and they won’t hold still.” He seemed to realize he might be making a case against himself, and jerked his head back up. “I can work on it, though,” he said in an earnest rush. “If I try hard enough, I’ll get ‘em down.”

Genma still felt like he was picking his way through a minefield. Although Ryouma hadn’t detonated with the first question; a good start. “We’ll work on them together. I know some of the hiragana are easy to confuse when you’re learning them. I used to get yu, wa, and re mixed up all the time when I was learning to read. And some of the katakana, too. And I don’t think there’s probably anyone except literature scholars who can read and write every kanji.”

Ryouma’s crooked smile snuck back. “You don’t wanna know how long it took me to learn to write my name.”

“Your name is hard,” Genma said. “Names in general are hard. There are so many different kanji you could potentially use, and more than one way you could read each kanji. Honestly, I usually write my given name in katakana. It saves people mispronouncing it.” He quirked a smile back at Ryouma. “You could do that if you wanted. Kana are perfectly acceptable in most cases, especially on charts where your reg number is there to distinguish you from anyone with a similar name.”

Ryouma shrugged. “I like the dragon.” He tapped the covered tattoo on the left side of his chest in an absent gesture. As they drew nearer to the bakery, recognition sparked in his eyes. “Hey, this is your dad’s place? I like the cakes here.”

“I didn’t know you come here.” Genma smiled, pleased pride spreading warmth through his chest. “You’ve met my dad? We can go in and say hi before we go upstairs to get my charts. I don’t think I can eat anything else, but he’ll probably try to give us pastries.”

Ryouma hesitated a moment too long for it to be simple indecision. His shoulders twitched in a quick, almost defiant shrug. “I didn’t know he was your dad, but sure. Think if I brag what a great lieutenant you are, he’ll give me your share too?”

There was the mine Genma’d been expecting, but it was outside the boundaries of literacy and squarely in “family” territory. Maybe Ryouma’s discomfort with Ehime Chiyo’s outpouring of gratitude had triggered something for him. Genma ran through a quick mental check of what he knew of Ryouma’s personal history: war orphan at seven, and orphaned again when his custodian grandfather died.

“We could also skip it and just go straight upstairs for my stuff,” Genma offered. “But if we do go in, he’ll probably give you cakes just on principle, you don’t have to butter him up.”

Ryouma cracked a laugh. “Good thing you haven’t brought us around too often. Katsuko’d eat him out of business.”

“Which is exactly why I haven’t brought the team around,” Genma agreed. That one stop on the day he’d first met Katsuko on wall-duty with Raidou notwithstanding.

Genma hesitated, almost at the bakery’s door, looking at Ryouma.

Ryouma just shrugged. “Up to you.” He didn’t look like he was going to melt down over this.

Genma nodded. “Dad’ll be unhappy if he hears us walking around upstairs and I haven’t come in to say hello. We’ll make it quick, though,” he added through another yawn. “I’m really starting to feel the chakra drain.” He held the door open for Ryouma, ducking under the noren after his rookie.

“Welco— Genma!” Yuuichi’s face cracked into a wide, startled smile.

“Hi, Dad,” Genma said. “This is—”

“I recognize you,” Yuuichi interrupted. “Mocha cream roll cake, and… and… chocolate dorayaki? Right?”

Ryouma blinked, nonplussed. “Uh… for today? Or last time?”

“Oh, last time,” Yuuichi said. “Actually I don’t have any chocolate dorayaki today, I’m afraid. But the red bean is very nice.” He produced a pair of them, holding them out like he was tempting wildlife to come closer.

Genma just shook his head. “It’s okay, Dad, we ate already. We had your salted egg buns at Higher Grounds, and then ramen. I just have to get some stuff for Tousaki-san from upstairs.”

Ryouma glanced at Genma, then reached out and accepted the dorayaki. “I’ve got studying to do later, though. Sugar’d help.”

“I’ll get you a little box,” Yuuichi said, assembling a complicated looking flat piece of cardboard into a domed carrier with a few quick folds. He tucked a couple of additional sweets into the box and held it out for Ryouma to put the dorayaki in.

“Tousaki-san,” he said, working to commit the name to memory. “Any friend of my son’s is always welcome, especially such a loyal customer. You should have introduced me sooner, Genma.” His eyes widened a little when he saw the cane. “And no more crutches! But you look tired, Gen. Have you been getting enough sleep?” Another glance at Ryouma brought a light of mistaken understanding to his eyes. “Oh. Is Tousaki-san your—”

“Rookie,” Genma cut in, forestalling the speculation. “He’s my rookie. I’m his lieutenant. And I’m going to teach him medical jutsu.”

At his side, Ryouma straightened into an almost ridiculously perfect parade rest, bright eyed and practically vibrating with eagerness. Yuuichi gave Ryouma a slow blink, then raised an eyebrow at Genma.

Genma ignored it. There was undoubtedly going to be a lengthy discussion with his father later, no matter what he said or didn’t say right now.

“We’re going upstairs, I’m giving Tousaki some materials to study, and then I’m taking a nap here,” Genma said. “And Tousaki is going back to quarters.”

“Where I’ll get completely swarmed by my neighbors,” Ryouma put in, hefting his bakery box. “You should look into getting a contract to supply the ANBU mess, Shiranui-san.”

Yuuichi’s cheeks tinged pink at the compliment, but shook his head. “I’d never be able to keep up production enough to feed all of ANBU. I’d have to hire an additional baker and put in more ovens, and we don’t really have room here.”

“Don’t worry, Dad,” Genma told him, “I’m pretty sure confections and tea sweets aren’t really on the Akimichi nutritionists’ lists of approved mess hall foods anyway.”

Yuuichi chuckled. “Probably not.”

Genma yawned, and Yuuichi gave Genma another critical look. “Go give your rookie whatever you’re planning to give him and take your nap, Genma. You look like you could sleep a week. Do you want me to wake you for dinner? I could make sukiyaki.”

Genma was tired enough that he considered saying no, but home-cooked sukiyaki was impossible to turn down. “Definitely. Come on, Tousaki, the stairs are around back.”

ryouma 1Going around back involved passing through the bakery, which was full of scrubbed wooden tables and stacked trays and mixing bowls soaking in a sink. Massive wall-mounted ovens still radiated heat, even with the day’s baking over. On the single stove, bamboo steamer baskets balanced tall over a simmering wok, while pots of chestnut and red bean paste slowly cooled. A thin dusting of flour clung to every surface.

“He cleans in the evening,” Genma explained, hauling open the door onto a packed-earth courtyard and a low storage building. A few chickens, scratching in the dirt, looked up inquisitively. Genma ignored them, heading for an open staircase clinging to the back wall of the bakery.

At the top of the stair, a small array of potted plants framed the door, a welcome mat, and a grey and white cat dozing in the sun. Genma stooped, carefully, to ruffle the cat’s ears. “Mochi-chan’s our mouser,” he told Ryouma. “You wouldn’t believe how tough it is to keep mice out of the storage.”

“All that flour and sugar? Not surprised.” Ryouma crouched to offer his fingers to the cat as Genma unlocked the door. Mochi-chan favored him with a long, careful sniff, then stretched out on her side and proceeded to ignore him.

Genma shucked his shoes at the threshold, sliding with easy familiarity into a pair of worn house slippers. Ryouma bent to unlace his boots, flicking a glance up under his brows to drink in the lieutenant’s family home.

It was big, was his first thought. There were separate areas for eating and relaxing, clearly demarcated by rugs and furniture. The kitchen opened off the dining nook, while the carved wooden cabinet of a family shrine stood between two windows in the living room, festooned with paper charms and greenery. An incense burner and a little pyramid of oranges sat in the center, before a small memorial tablet. Above, a smiling photograph of a woman with honey-colored hair looked out over the room, straight-shouldered and proud in her chuunin vest.

Genma was saying something. Ryouma dragged his gaze away and shuffled obediently into the guest slippers Genma offered.

“This way.” Genma stepped up out of the genkan and beckoned down a short hall. Framed photographs lined one wall; doors opened off the other. Two bedrooms, with a bathroom at the end. Ryouma sneaked a look at the photos as they passed, and stopped.

“This’s you?”

The kid couldn’t be older than four — small enough to stand on a chair in order to reach the counter, hands buried wrist-deep in sticky dough, beaming a pearly-toothed smile. He was so covered in flour that his hair was nearly as pale as Kakashi’s, but no one could mistake the lieutenant’s whiskey-brown eyes laughing out of that child’s pudgy face.

Genma turned back, leaning on his cane. The edge of his mouth tugged up as he recognized the photo. “Yeah. I wasn’t the bakery’s most efficient assistant at that age, but I was enthusiastic.”

“So this’s you, too.” Ryouma prowled down the line of photos, finding the lieutenant five years old, at Academy entrance; ten, maybe, at genin graduation. The exuberant smile had dimmed a little. Did he know, even then, what they were graduating into?

“What Academy class were you?”

“I graduated in October, Sandaime year 22.” Genma brushed a speck of dust off the top of the frame. “Actually, Hatake graduated the same year, but we didn’t have any classes together. As far as I know, he didn’t remember me when he got assigned to the team.”

October of the year 22… Ryouma frowned. “We would’ve been in the Academy together, too. I was behind you. Entered in April of the year 21.” The first time. He looked for another photo to comment on.

Genma was moving on, though, passing the first bedroom and heading for the second. “I think I knew that from reading your personnel file when you got assigned to Team Six. They kept the classes pretty segregated, so we probably never had a class together before you had to withdraw.” He slid the pocket door open and paused, glancing back. “I’m sure that sucked.”

Withdrawing hadn’t been the hard part. He couldn’t even remember how it’d happened, exactly, those early days all fogged with grief and confusion.

Anger had come later. So had fear.

He said, “Yeah.” Genma was standing a little to the side, not quite blocking the doorway; Ryouma leaned in around him and whistled in appreciation. “Nice posters, Lieutenant.”

A travel poster for Tea Country hung over the bed: terraced mountains, blue skies, tiny fishing boats dotted along a lazy river. Band posters hung between the windows, with singers and logos Ryouma didn’t recognize. At the near side of the room, over a chest of drawers, was a lurid movie ad with a shirtless, handsome hero standing bodyguard behind a gorgeous woman in a torn kimono with a katana in her hand.

“Didn’t peg you for an Uematsu Michi fan,” Ryouma said, delighted. “Sword and Flower? I saw that like six times when it came out in theatres.”

Genma’s smile turned broad and real. “Yeah? I love her work. Did you see Village in Heaven last year?”

“Twice, between missions. She’d changed fight choreographers, though, and I think it showed.” Ryouma edged further into the room, looking around. Single bed, dusty weapons rack with a much-patched chuunin vest displayed proudly on its stand, a few books neatly arranged on a shelf with a collection of tiny wood and ivory carvings from southern Wind Country.

“I keep meaning to clean up in here,” Genma said, a bit awkwardly, “but I still crash here every so often, and it’s…” He shrugged. “Comforting, I guess.”

Comforting sounded right, Ryouma thought. He wondered why Genma’d ever left.

Genma cleared a stack of blankets off the top of a wooden trunk, then lowered himself carefully down next to it. He propped the lid open and reached inside for an armload of books, folders, loose papers, and scrolls. A second armload followed. Genma reached back for a third.

“Uh,” Ryouma said. “All of that?”

Genma laughed. “No. Don’t worry. I just need to get to the stuff from when I started my training. Most of this is from later classes.” He sorted through a sheaf of papers, then ran his fingers through the tumbled scrolls. “Here’s Basic Anatomy—you probably know most of this stuff already, so just focus on learning the terminology. And I think Chakra Basics has a purple cover…” He pushed a folder aside, and pulled out a second scroll triumphantly. “Here it is!”

Ryouma set the pastry box aside and hunkered down beside him. “This is medic chakra basics, I’m guessing, not the regular kind, ‘cause I’ve got that one pretty much down.”

“Yeah,” Genma nodded. “It assumes you know the fundamentals already. This has diagrams of the coil nexus points and maps of the major and minor coils. That’s where you’ll want to start.”

A single looped tie held the purple scroll closed. Ryouma teased it open and let the scroll roll out across the polished wooden floor. Tight columns of text alternated with delicate watercolor diagrams: a forearm here, a spread-eagled human figure there. Thin blue lines wove a dense web over every drawing.

Ryouma peered down, fascinated. “Okay, I knew the nexus points, and I had that kinda vague idea about coils that everyone does, but — is this what Hyuuga see? No wonder Hitomi-sensei just laughed when we complained about her looking at our underwear.”

Genma’s nose crinkled in amusement. “I honestly couldn’t tell you what Hyuuga see, but I imagine it’s something like this. There’s a reason so many of them go into medicine. And I’m pretty sure this scroll was written by Hyuuga Masayuki or something like that.”

Ryouma rolled back to the beginning. There was the author’s name, in tiny dense characters. He could recognize Hyuuga, 日向; he’d seen those simple, blocky kanji often enough, while Hitomi-sensei was filling out mission reports. The second set, 昌之, were another matter. “Hell if I know how to read that,” he said frankly, and shoved the scroll over toward Genma.

“You don’t need to read it,” Genma said, without even looking. “Just study the diagrams. Copy them out, maybe, to get a feel for them. There’s a whole section to the back…”

He took the scroll and unrolled it halfway, rolling up the other end in a neat, practiced tube as he went. “Here,” he said finally, flattening the open section over Ryouma’s knees. “The same systems from different angles, and overlaid with the bones, nerves, and blood vessels, so you can see how the coils go in three dimensions.”

Ryouma was beginning to get a bit dizzy looking at it. The colored drawings didn’t swim in his vision the way the stark columns of black text did, though. He could focus on this drawing of a hand, with its red muscles and white ligaments and blue tenketsu, without the pinch of an oncoming headache. It was just—

Overwhelming. Frightening. Awe-inspiring. Knowledge, laid out in his lap, given freely just for the asking.

He looked up. “Thank you. I dunno how I’d ever pay you back for this, but I’ll try.”

genma 6Genma looked up, too, startled by the roughness of Ryouma’s voice. The naked emotion he found on Ryouma’s face was almost embarrassing. “You don’t have to thank me,” he said, looking away. “Just learn it fast, so the next time one of the team doesn’t dodge well enough, you can help me patch them back together. Or you know, if it’s me again…” He laughed, touching his nose. “I already have you to thank for preserving my looks.”

“That doesn’t count,” Ryouma scoffed. “It’d be a crime not to.”

He flirts with everyone. You walked right into that, Shiranui.

Genma cleared his throat and turned back to start reassembling the course materials and scrolls littering the floor around the trunk. “I’ll try to get these better organized, so when you’re ready for the next scrolls I can find them easier.”

Ryouma ran his fingers gently over the scroll in his lap, petting it like it was made of velvet. “I’ll take my time with these two. Kakashi offered to help out; maybe he’ll take a look at the text, see if there’s anything I should know. Or Ayane, she’s got time…”

Hajime’s rookie. She definitely had time on her hands, at least until the ANBU hierarchy found her a new team.

Ryouma’s lips thinned. “I guess our new captain’d be the one to ask for word on Team Three’s reformation, but he doesn’t much seem like he’d share.”

“Not likely,” Genma agreed. “And I would strongly advise you not to ask him.” He grimaced at the reminder of Kuroda’s unwelcome appearance that morning. “I can ask Hajime next time I see him, though. I was going to visit today after my session, but…” He yawned and waved a hand. “Team business came first.”

“I’m not sure if you could call Hisa-chan and her family team business. Team reward, maybe.” Ryouma’s face lit up again, banishing the consternation over Kuroda as if it had never been. “D’you think there’s any way we could get word to the captain about them? Even a note by messenger? Or is that violating his parole, or something?”

Team reward. Genma had to agree. “I’ve never had anything like that happen before. I mean, I’ve had people I’ve helped be grateful for it, but never…” He swallowed a sharp, unexpected lump in his throat. Hisa had come out of that stinking charnel-house of a demon’s nest and survived. “I was— I’m already planning to send a note to Taichou. He should get to see Hisa-chan and her family before they leave, if he can. He deserves to hear their thanks. I wish he could have been with us today.”

“If you wanna write something now, I’ll find a runner,” Ryouma offered.

“I will.” Genma sat up, pushing a few stray hairs off his forehead. “That’s perfect. If he gets the note this afternoon, there’s a good chance he’ll get there in time.”

And if Kuroda had a problem with it, that was a disciplinary action Genma was willing to face.

“Help me get up?” He reached a hand up to Ryouma, who obliged with a confident grasp. Resettling on the edge of his bed, he picked up a pen and a pad from the bedside table and started jotting out the note.

Ryouma watched him for a moment, then turned back to his Chakra Basics scroll, tracing a finger over one of the diagrams.

Genma folded and addressed the note. “When you meet with Hatake or Ayane, get them to help you write out what you already know in terms of medications, treatments, and procedures. Basic medical stuff. Just an outline is fine. I can look it over and see if there’s any stuff we need to cover before we get into higher level work.”

Genma could hear the grin in Ryouma’s voice without looking up. “Kakashi already volunteered for medical terminology flashcards.”

“The illegible leading the illiterate… I think there’s a proverb about that,” Genma said. “Tell him I said to work on body part kanji first, and to label the cards in kana, too.” He thought for a second, and added, “And tell him I said I’ll consider it appropriate work towards his performance goals if they’re clean and easy to read.”

“Incentive from you, challenge from me. He might even enjoy this.” Ryouma rolled up the scroll and very carefully tied it with a neat bow. “Anything else I can help you with, before I go?”

“Nothing I can think of.” Genma handed over the note. “Except… Seriously, don’t toy with Kuroda. He’s got a lot of ego tied up in being in command.” He got to his feet with the help of his cane, testing the strength in his healing leg. The numbing effect of the work the medical team had done was wearing off. “You want a cup of tea before you go? I’ve got some really nice monkey jasmine from Tea Country. I figured I’d take my meds with something good before I sacked out.”

Ryouma glanced at the clock on Genma’s dresser before he made his decision. “Yeah. I’d like that. We’ve got those dorayaki, too.” He tucked both scrolls into the crook of one elbow, freeing his hands for seals. “Mind if I send your note off with a clone, first? So’s Taichou doesn’t miss visiting hours.”

“That’d be great,” Genma agreed. He thought about having Ryouma send his clone straight to Raidou’s moms’ house, but that seemed like a hit-or-miss chance of reaching the captain, not to mention an invasion of privacy. “Have your clone take it to HQ; they’ll have someone on staff who will know where to find Taichou and can send a runner.”

Ryouma waited until they were back in the front rooms before he created his clone. The way Ryouma shaped his chakra was familiar after their weeks working together, but this time Genma really focused on it, feeling the rusty-satin edges of Ryouma’s energy as he raised and released it. A really skilled sensor could probably have identified the jutsu without looking at this range. Genma felt the heat of Ryouma’s Fire nature, and the turbulence of Water. There was raw power there, tightly focused, but a little wild. It was what gave Ryouma’s offensive jutsu their punch.

When the clone was out the door, Ryouma turned a questioning look on Genma.

“I was thinking I should look for my scroll on chakra-tuning,” Genma said. “I didn’t really spend a lot of time on it — I mean I learned to tune my own for medical jutsu, but I didn’t study the parts for people with different natures than mine. And it’s kind of second-nature now. I’ll read it through before we meet up again, so I can explain how to do it without sounding like an idiot.”

“One idiot is enough,” Ryouma agreed. It sounded mostly wry, but there was a hint, as there always was with Ryouma, of genuine belief in his inferiority. That was another thing Genma needed to figure out how to deal with, and he didn’t think the key was in any of his scrolls.

“You’re Earth and Fire, right?” continued Ryouma. “So at least part of it’ll be similar.”

“Fire and Earth,” Genma corrected. “I manifested Fire first, when I was too young to remember. Scared my poor dad half to death. If Fire’s your base, too, we can definitely start from there.” He moved into the kitchen, getting tea canisters out of one cupboard and a pale ceramic teapot painted with wisteria from another.

Ryouma trailed after him, dropping the scrolls and pastry box off on the table and lounging hipshot against the counter while Genma spooned tea into the pot’s strainer with a wooden scoop. “I’m pretty equally distributed, actually.” He went silent for a moment, and Genma glanced up to catch a complicated expression on Ryouma’s face. “My dad was Water and Fire, and my mom was solid Fire,” Ryouma said. “She never made jounin.”

Before Genma could respond, Ryouma jerked his head towards the shrine in the living room. “That’s your mom?”

Deflecting. Genma wasn’t trained in interrogation or psych, but he could recognize that much from a lifetime’s training as a ninja, where deceit was stock-in-trade. And he definitely needed to sign up for that counseling class. Honestly, he was getting the feeling it ought to be mandatory for officers.

“That’s my mom,” he confirmed. “She was a chuunin, too. She died when I was really little, so I don’t really remember her.” He looked across at the photograph, at a face he knew in two dimensions, but didn’t remember in three. “My dad says I take after her. She was Fire nature, too but really skilled with Earth jutsu. If she’d lived…” He shrugged. Who knew if she’d have manifested a second nature? She hadn’t by the time Genma was born, and Genma’s had come when he was still in his early teens.

Ryouma’s eyes were on Genma now, studying him intently. “Your dad’s a civilian, though.”

Genma nodded. “Yep. So it’s not just breeding that makes a ninja, no matter what the Hyuuga and Uchiha like to say.” He poured the tea into a pair of matching cups and handed them both to Ryouma to carry, while he hobbled over to the kitchen table. “My dad’s from southern Fire Country — Izena, if you know the area. My mom had a mission there when she was eighteen. My dad — well, if you ask him, he’ll tell you it was just her, but I think he likes ninja, and she happened to be the one who liked him back. Three months later they were married and back in Konoha.”

Ryouma didn’t take a chair until Genma was seated, and he chose the one with easiest access to the door. His posture and tone were anything but relaxed. “And he stayed here when she died?”

Talking to Ryouma about anything personal felt like trying to chakra-walk up a crumbling sandbank. The trigger was definitely family or fathers this time. “I’ve never really asked him why he stayed,” Genma said slowly. “His parents — my grandparents — were older when they had him. I never knew them, either, they were both dead before I was born. And my mom’s mother was still living in Konoha when I was born. Dad took the death benefits and opened the bakery.” Genma felt his gaze drawn back to the shrine and the portrait of Shiranui Etsuko. “I guess that’s kind of macabre, if you think if it as a memorial.”

Ryouma tapped a finger against the side of the pastry box. “Or a mom providing for her family the last way she could, maybe.”

“Yeah,” Genma said. “I like that better.” He yawned as he started to take a drink of his tea, making his eyes tear. When his vision cleared, Ryouma was opening the pastry box. “Anyway… Yeah. That’s how I came to be born in Konoha. When I set the bathroom towels on fire when I was little, I’m pretty sure my dad was glad he’d stayed.” He reached absently for one of the dorayaki and broke an edge off. “I can’t imagine what he’d have done if he’d realized he had a ninja kid in Izena. What do other civilian parents do in small towns? Find the closest Konoha outpost and beg for help?”

“Guess it depends on whether they find the ninja who was passing through nine months before the kid was born,” Ryouma said, crinkling his nose in wry amusement.

“Or whose great-great granny was a ninja back in the day before they retired to a life of farming.” Genma’s leg was starting to ache persistently. He groped in his pocket for the bottle of pills they’d given him when they sent him home. “Hell of a conversation to have to have, though, especially if someone was fooling around. I’ll bet there are a lot of, ‘Oh yeah, my dad’s great grandma was part of the Nara clan. Didn’t I tell you?’ conversations when that happens.”

Ryouma snorted. “Always easier to blame the ancestors, if there’s no one nearer to hand.” He wrapped long fingers around his tea cup, warming his hands against the rough-textured glaze. “Your dad seems to have done okay. With you, and all.”

“I guess so,” Genma said, embarrassed at the compliment. “I’m sure if you bought him a drink or two, he’d tell you plenty of stories about how hard I’ve made his life.” He choked trying to swallow his pill, at the realization of what he’d suggested. “Please don’t. Ever.”

Mischief lit Ryouma’s rich brown eyes. “Ask for stories? Or buy your dad a drink?”

“Either. Both. I mean neither.” Genma buried his face in his hands — if he could feel the flush, Ryouma could undoubtedly see it. “Gods and saints, if he didn’t already think we were dating… Which don’t worry, I’ll set that record straight at dinner.”

ryouma happyI’m not worried,” Ryouma said. He was beginning to enjoy himself. “I got dorayaki out of it.” And nobody’s parents had ever thought him fit dating material, before. Not that he’d ever met anyone’s parents, or wanted to, but—

But he’d liked the elder Shiranui-san, which surprised him. There was nothing in that small, wiry man, with his grey-sprinkled temples and flour-dusted apron, to spark any recognition or pain. The few times Ryouma’d stopped by the bakery before, Shiranui had always been bustling and cheerful, clearly overworked but still entirely willing to spend ten minutes walking a customer through every baked good in the display case.

No wonder Genma was so good at taking care of his team. He’d come by it honestly.

“You ever brought anyone home before?” he asked, in sudden curiosity. “Or’s your dad just been waiting for you to bring a handsome stranger through the door?”

Genma’s brows pinched. “Once or twice. I think he worries I don’t have a life outside ANBU.”

Do you?” Ryouma tried to imagine the lieutenant dating, having hobbies, kicking back for a beer with friends who’d never worn the mask.

It was, surprisingly, less difficult than it had once been. There was personality imbued in every item of that bedroom down the hall. A boy who loved music and travel and cheesy action films, who kept all his medical textbooks and collected delicate little carvings, who studied healing even while he’d been learning how to kill. The lieutenant was ANBU’s creation, but here, drinking monkey jasmine tea and nibbling his father’s dorayaki, was Genma.

“Of course!” Genma’s blush had faded; he sat back, looking amused. “There’s sleeping, doing laundry, working out…” An impish gleam lit his eyes. “And miscellaneous.”

“Tutoring rookies,” Ryouma reminded him. “That’s all ANBU-related, though. Do you still collect Wind Country netsuke?”

Genma hummed softly, looking pleased. Ryouma was willing to bet that if Genma ever had brought dates here, none of them had run enough missions to southern Wind Country to know its art. “They’re not cheap. I inherited most of those from my maternal grandmother. She always let me play with them when I was small.” He broke off another piece of dorayaki and offered, “But I collected a couple of them. The mice on the peanut, and the little owl.”

Ryouma tried a sip of his tea. Smooth and mellow, with an intoxicating jasmine aroma. It didn’t even need sugar, as long as you chased it with a bite of dorayaki. “Was she a shinobi, too?”

Genma nodded, stifling another yawn. “She and my grandfather both were. She was a resource manager for Intel under Shodai, which I’m pretty sure means she was a handler.”

Ryouma whistled. “So that’s where you get the nerves of steel.”

Genma scratched the back of his neck, smiling lopsidedly. “I don’t know about that.” He paused. “Do you really think I have nerves of steel?”

“You went down into the belly of a mountain to rescue civilians from an army of demons,” Ryouma reminded him. “You directed our medical care in the field while paralyzed and fever-burned. You tottered out of your sickbed to perform emergency demon-removing surgery on a civilian. You coordinated the attack on Tsuto, nearly talked us out of that fight with Fukuda and her team—hell, you kept your head and kept her alive when I’d just meant to let her die—should I keep going?”

That faint pink flush was back, burning across Genma’s cheekbones. He waved a hand hurriedly. “I was just carrying out the missions. But I guess— I hadn’t really thought about it that way. When you put it like that…” He looked at his tea cup, at his crumbled dorayaki, at the shrine in the living room. And then, at last, at Ryouma. “Thanks.”

Hadn’t the lieutenant got his own performance review?

Maybe not, Ryouma realized. He was an officer, after all, not a first-month rookie or brand-new senpai. And Raidou, who would presumably handle any evaluation of the lieutenant’s performance, was out of commission. Although Genma and Raidou had met up at least once, while the captain was off-limits to anyone else…

Ryouma squashed that small surge of irrational jealousy, and chomped down half his dorayaki.

Genma yawned again and rubbed the heel of his hand against his eye. His flush had faded back into hollow-cheeked exhaustion. “Sorry.” He blinked, bleary-eyed. “It’s not the company, it’s the pills.”

“And you were supposed to go straight to bed.” Ryouma swallowed the rest of his dorayaki guiltily and shoved his chair back. “Thanks for the tea. And the scrolls. And— all the rest of it. I’ll stop by tomorrow. Unless you want the day off?”

“Sure, I’ll be here or in the office. Come by when you’ve got your study materials together. I want to see the flashcards Hatake produces for you.” Genma levered himself up from his chair, steadying one hand against the table.

“You don’t need to see me out,” Ryouma said, alarmed. “I’m going.” He snagged his scrolls and pastry-box off the table, paused to burn his tongue gulping the rest of his tea, and sketched a salute. “Sleep well, Lieutenant.”

“Thanks, Tousaki.” Genma tapped a return salute. “See you tomorrow.”

The cat was still sunning herself on the balcony when Ryouma let himself out. Ryouma crouched to scratch her ears, and released a long, slow breath. “Well,” he told her. “I think it’s gonna be okay.”

She nipped his fingers.



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