June 25, Yondaime Year 5

mask in handSagara Okiku, ANBU’s fourth commander, was having a good morning.

The twins had slept through the night. Mariko had scampered off to the academy on time, with a completed report on Tetsu no Kuni’s military samurai tucked under one arm. And Ikorou, kind husband that he was, had packed Sagara a bento. It was currently sitting in her desk drawer, a pleasant temptation.

She had even, through some miracle she didn’t plan to examine closely, managed to catch up on her paperwork.

In this frame of mind, she was almost forgiving when the entirety of Team Six — and two dogs — invaded her office, instead of the one lieutenant she’d actually summoned.

“Shiranui,” she said. “You have an entourage.”

Who appeared to have come straight from the training field, judging by the motley collection of filthy, blood-stained clothing. None of them were in uniform. Shiranui seemed to have been punched in the face. Namiashi’s cheek was gashed. Hatake looked like he’d been dragged through barbed wire. Only Tousaki was visibly uninjured, which probably meant he was concealing something internal.

Shiranui bit his split lip. “We were just finishing a post-training lunch. They insisted on accompanying me.” He gave his team a narrow look. “I’m sure this won’t take long, if you want to wait in our office.”

“We’re here to report, too,” Tousaki said, nervously stubborn. His defiant gaze made it as high as Sagara’s tea mug.

The tall yellow shepherd sat down in front of Shiranui, feathered tail coiled neatly around her feet. Her head reached his ribcage. The pug draped over Shiranui’s left shoulder sat upright and scratched one ear. Hatake, less demonstratively, slouched behind Genma and maintained the relatively successful pretense that his summons’ actions had nothing to do with him.

Namiashi tucked his arms behind his back, spine held ramrod straight, and didn’t move an inch.

The last meeting involving Team Six had ended with Namiashi’s temporary removal. Sagara supposed she could understand the closing of ranks, though it did come within a breath of insubordination.

“Vice-commander Kuroda has submitted a formal complaint about your conduct, Shiranui,” she said.

Shiranui went just slightly pale. Tousaki’s jaw clenched. Namiashi glowered. Hatake fixed his one grey eye on Sagara, and waited like a bear trap.

Sagara allowed the moment to stretch. She shuffled some paperwork, then said, “That will be all. Dismissed.”

Shiranui held his calm.

Tousaki exploded.

“That’s it? Don’t we get to respond? The Vice-commander wasn’t even there, he’s just got a grudge against Team Six. Shiranui-fukuchou saved Kuroda’s life in the caves an’ kept the rest of us going that whole mission—”

“Tousaki!” snapped Shiranui.

But Tousaki had his feet under him now. He barrelled on. “He’d’ve saved Fukuda if he could. He just about burnt himself dry for Kimiko and the baby. And unless you had Senju Tsunade-sama in the field with us, nobody else could’ve done any better—” He dodged out from underneath Namiashi’s quelling hand. “Kuroda’s just trying to shift the blame to somebody else so no one’ll remember he got Eizo killed!”

In the clanging silence that followed, Hatake said, “He’s not wrong.”

Sagara set her paperwork aside. “I think you missed my point, Tousaki,” she said. “Vice-commander Kuroda has made a formal complaint. I am required to make a formal response. Which I have done. You are all now dismissed and the matter is closed, unless you would like to put your accusation against the Vice-commander on record.”

Tousaki stared at her. It was much the same bewildered expression Mariko got, when she’d wound herself up into a screaming fit and Ikorou neatly diverted her the moment before she detonated. Except adult, male, and fractionally more dangerous. “You believe us?” he said finally.

“Is there a reason I shouldn’t?” Sagara asked.

Namishi’s hand clamped down on Tousaki’s shoulder. This time, Tousaki allowed himself to be quelled. Shiranui stood like a pillar, relief and shock like ripples underneath the blank mask.

Hatake’s head tilted. “Because Kuroda is your second in command?”

The next time Minato made a glowing comment about the singular intelligence of his protege, Sagara was going to repeat this meeting verbatim.

“A position that entitles him to several advantages,” she said. “My blind faith is not one of them. I have read your reports. I have read Team Thirteen’s. I have interviewed Fukuda Kimiko, and spoken with Uchiha Satomi and Yuuhi Kurenai. I believe I am in possession of all the facts.” She cupped her hand under her chin and regarded Team Six’s two rookies. “Did either of you witness Tsuda Eizo’s death?”

Tousaki hesitated, then shook his head. Flakes of dried mud drifted to the carpet. “They came back without him. Satomi told us what happened.”

“No,” Hatake said, reluctantly.

Sagara put iron in her voice. “Vice-commander Kuroda and I disagree on several principles, but I have never doubted his loyalty to Konoha. Hatake, you especially should know exactly how dangerous these accusations can be. Tousaki, you don’t help your commanding officers by losing control in front of them — you just display your vulnerabilities. I expect better from both of you.”

Tousaki swallowed. He glanced at his teammates, then dropped his dark head in a low bow, holding it in apology. “Commander.”

Hatake was white behind his mask. The dogs had frozen. Sagara held his gaze until he dropped it. He didn’t bow, but he didn’t look up again either.

They were painfully young, but they’d been adults since they’d taken their first kills. There was no space to coddle them, and Sagara wouldn’t have even if there had been. You didn’t grow strong trees without harsh winters.

Namiashi and Shiranui were only a breath older, and their shoulders carried much more weight. There was even less space for them, and Sagara had already taken more time than she could afford on a matter so irritatingly pointless — but that was Kuroda’s fault, not theirs.

She’d already spent her time on him. It had been satisfying.

“Is there anything else, lieutenant?”

Shiranui’s relief had faded somewhat. He said, low but clear, “No, Commander. Thank you, Commander. I apologize for my teammate’s outbursts, and for the trouble I’ve caused you.” He bowed as deeply as Tousaki, and straightened with a formal salute.

Sagara dipped her head in acknowledgement. “Captain?”

Namiashi was still glowering, though whether that was for the malalignment of his lieutenant, or the behaviour and/or reprimand of his rookies, Sagara couldn’t say. Either way, he was being careful to direct it only at the wall. He bowed, low and respectful. “Thank you for your time, Commander.”

“Dismissed,” Sagara said.

Shiranui seemed a little numb. Namiashi herded him and the subdued rookies out, trailed by the golden shepherd, who paused to give Sagara a dirty look at the threshold.

Loyalty, Sagara reflected, was a lovely thing.

She waited until the smudges of chakra and ANBU sparks faded from the edge of her senses, then got up and went to stick her head out of the door. At his desk, Naofumi ducked his head sheepishly.

“The whole team?” Sagara said. “Really?”

“Sorry, ma’am.”

“I should fire you,” she said.

“Yes, ma’am,” he said. “Would you like a cold green tea with your lunch?”

“Gods yes,” she said. “And call someone to get the mud out of my carpet.”

genma 12Team Six walked back to their own office in a peculiar caul of silence. Ryouma contrite in the wake of his chastisement, Kakashi withdrawn into himself to tend the knife wound Sagara’s indirect reference to his father had opened, Raidou tense like a storm cloud looking for a place to ground its electric charge, and Genma holding a precarious grip on outward calm, trying to sort a dozen conflicting feelings into neat piles. The dogs were just as subdued. Kin trotted anxiously at Kakashi’s heel, tail low. Pakkun rode Genma’s shoulder with his head turned to keep an eye on his summoner.

Genma had been prepared for an official inquiry. There’d been no question that Kuroda would file charges. He’d been braced to be told he was suspended, like Raidou had been. He’d even made lists and labels for everything in his desk and all his medical gear, to make an easier transition for his replacement, if it came to that.

He hadn’t expected a blank dismissal of the whole affair from the Commander.

Or for Ryouma to charge into the fray with a hot-headed defense. An evidently unnecessary hot-headed defense.

And he definitely hadn’t expected Kakashi to step in and stand with Ryouma on the matter.

Of course the rookies had insisted on coming into his meeting with Sagara, so in retrospect, he should have seen it coming. He’d been too narrowly focused on his own concerns to notice, and by the time he had, it’d been far too late to stop it. Even though he should have.

A secret part of himself was glad he hadn’t interrupted Ryouma’s passionate defense. Glad he’d stood dumbstruck to hear Kakashi’s stolid pronouncement that Ryouma wasn’t wrong. And he didn’t know what to do with the warm, curling gratitude towards his rookies that came with that, either.

He waited until they were safely behind closed doors, in the familiar windowless cave of Team Six’s office, to even properly breathe. The carpet and the back of the door were still stained with the coffee he’d thrown after that first disastrous meeting with Kuroda. Katsuko’s desk was still in place, covered in her doodles, marking her absence. But it wasn’t the same office. It wasn’t the same team.

He lifted Pakkun down to the floor, leaned against the door, and studied his comrades: Ryouma with his impetuous temper and malignant self-doubt; Kakashi, aloof genius with a secret heart of glass; Raidou, competent and generous, and ready to do battle with the gods themselves if someone he cared about was at stake.

“Thank you,” Genma’s voice came out quieter and rougher than he’d meant it to. “That was—” No words presented themselves. “I just— Thank you.”

Ryouma dropped onto the couch with a dusty thump, and directed his gaze at the floor between his feet. Kin left Kakashi’s side to lay her head on Ryouma’s knee, brow furrowed and ears drooping. He dropped a hand onto her nape and carded his fingers through her fur. “Not like we helped,” he said. Bitterness washed his words. “You cleared yourself, lieutenant.”

“That’s— that’s not true, Tousaki.” Genma lowered himself to the couch, shoulder to shoulder with his teammate. “Ryouma. You made your reports, and Sagara read them. If you hadn’t been there to witness when Fukuda died — when I— When we lost her, Kuroda’s story would stand and I’d be court martialed, or worse.”

He reached for Kin, who obliged, pressing her whole body against both men’s knees in a reassuring bulwark.

“And even if it didn’t make any difference to the commander, it — what you said — Hatake, you agreeing with him — Taichou, you being there. It mattered to me.

Ryouma darted a look at Genma’s face, like he was checking for a sign, then turned his eyes back on Kin, and leaned against Genma’s shoulder. Tentatively at first, more firmly when Genma didn’t move away. “We meant it.”

“I know.” All the neat piles of thought and feeling Genma’d managed to sort out washed together like a sand castle crumbling under a wave. He took a breath, letting the air out slowly, leaning against Ryouma as much as the back of the couch.

Kakashi made a low sound of agreement and folded himself to the floor at Ryouma’s feet, slouching against the couch. He didn’t look up, even when Kin dropped her nose questioningly to his shoulder. Pakkun clambered into his lap, stretching out with paws against Kakashi’s thigh and raised dark eyes towards his summoner’s masked and moody face.

Raidou rolled his chair over from his desk and sat opposite the couch, keeping all three of his teammates in his sight.

Silence stretched thin. Genma took another breath, trying to pull thought together. He sat up straighter, bracing a hand on Kin’s broad back. It was over and they needed to move on. The matter, as Sagara had said, was closed…

Raidou spoke at last. “You know Fukuda wasn’t your fault. Either of you.”

The matter was not, would maybe never be, closed.

“I should have checked her for injury after that fight. Maybe I still couldn’t have saved her—” Genma pulled away from Kin, away from Ryouma, and clenched his fists in his lap. “As hurt as she was, I probably couldn’t have saved her. But maybe if I’d armed her better. Or kept her out of that fight in the first place. Or something.” He shook his head. “Maybe she wouldn’t have taken that injury in the first place.”

“If you want to blame someone for that fight, blame me,” Ryouma said. “I gave her the knife and took her in. And I kept her running after she got hurt. But…” He hesitated, glancing down at Kakashi for a moment, then leaned back so his shoulder was in contact with Genma’s again. “She didn’t hold back or speak up, either. And I’m not sure we could’ve kept her back from defending Kimiko if we’d tried.”

All true. Reasonable, logical, and undeniable. She’d tried to kill Team Six, lost her whole team and her arm to them, and then reluctantly turned traitor on her own country and joined them, all in order to secure a future for her sister and niece.

Which she had. Kimiko and Sango were alive and safe, well out of Mist’s clutches and the threat of genocide.

If Fukuda were given the chance to make the choice again, Genma didn’t doubt she’d choose her sister’s life over her own every time. He glanced at his hands and sighed. “I know.”

Raidou’s chair creaked. He leaned in and dropped his hand squarely over Genma’s, covering and stilling them. His voice was warm and quiet, and filled with conviction you could sharpen steel on. “There’s no blame on anyone. You did the best you could. That’s enough.” Even when Raidou sat back, Genma could feel the heat of his leg pressed close.

Genma had broken in front of his team once, and regretted it. He tipped his head back and stared at the ceiling until his eyes didn’t feel like they might water, and his voice felt like it might be his own. There was no reason for him to be so emotional now, when the threat Kuroda had held over them was gone. Absolution had been given by the commander herself. The matter is closed.

“Never thought I’d see the day I got this attached to a Mist ninja who’d tried her best to kill me and my team,” he said, trying for humor. He missed the mark by meters, but sometimes it was the attempt that mattered.

From the vicinity of Kakashi’s knee, Pakkun’s gruff voice broke the silence. “Will someone hug him already, or do I have to?”

“You can join,” Ryouma said. He wrapped an arm around Genma’s shoulder and tugged hesitantly.

Kin clambered into Genma’s lap with considerably more confidence, planting giant forelegs on either side of his waist and nosing at Genma’s jaw until he tipped his head towards her. One betraying tear rolled down his cheek. She swiped it away with a rough lave of her tongue. When that didn’t dissolve him into instant happiness, she plied it again, licking at the side of his face with delicate enthusiasm. She was even careful of his bruises.

Surprisingly, it worked. After a few minutes he ducked his head down, turning towards Ryouma to hide from Kin’s ministrations. “All right, all right,” he said, laughing weakly. “You can hug me. I submit to being hugged.”

Kin huffed delightedly and licked his ear, and then what she could reach of Ryouma for good measure. Raidou unsuccessfully tried to swallow his laughter watching them. His leg, lodged against Genma’s, trembled with it.

Kakashi muttered, “That’s how it starts.”

“Kin is my secret weapon,” Ryouma announced. “We’ll start Kakashi on daily soldier pill doses so he’s got enough chakra to summon her all the time.” He pulled Genma’s head against his chest, and wrapped his other arm around Genma’s shoulder, holding Genma in a solid embrace.

Even through his swollen nose Genma could smell the sweat and dirt of their workout, and under that, the perfume of one of Ryouma’s expensive soaps. Hard muscle and bone that could break a man in half, and hands that could rot flesh with a sickly energy, were a comfort. And that shaking leg pressed against his was safety. Even the sullen grumble rising from the floor was reassuring. Endearing.

This was his team. They’d been his team since day one, of course. But somehow, without Genma knowing quite when, he’d become theirs, too. He clamped one arm around Ryouma’s side, pressed his knee against Raidou’s, and reached a hand down to brush Kakashi’s unruly hair. He didn’t know if his face was damp from laughter or relief, or just Kin’s generous licks. And he didn’t care.

kakashi distressedThe air tasted of salt.

Kakashi held still while Genma touched him, waiting for a cue, but Genma just ruffled him once, carefully, and let his hand rest on Kakashi’s head. Kin stretched out, draping over Genma and Ryouma like they were her personal mattress. There was laughter. Kin’s tail thumped against worn leather.

Genma hadn’t been suspended. That was good.

Kakashi’s chest was full of splinters and blood on the living room floor. That was stupid.

You just display your vulnerabilities.

This was not his moment. It was Genma’s. He breathed out and settled himself. Pakkun’s paws kneaded against his thigh, blunt claws, and Genma was laughing. Pay attention to that, Hatake, god.

Genma’s hand dropped to Kakashi’s shoulder and tugged gently. “Join us?”

It took Kakashi a second to realize that Genma meant on the sofa, and Kakashi thought no. He didn’t need comfort. He needed a moment. Genma needed comfort. Kakashi needed people to stop chipping at his edges. It wasn’t like Sagara had even said anything about his father, she’d just said Kakashi should know better

Which was true.

Ryouma’s hand curled over Kakashi’s other shoulder. He knew the story. Kakashi had told him. It all happened a long time ago. You don’t need to make me feel better about it.

Mostly because there wasn’t better. There was just dead.

Kakashi slipped out from under their hands, carefully shedding Pakkun. There was a quarter of sofa left behind Ryouma, another quarter next to Genma, and Raidou looking worried in his own chair. Genma’s bruised face was tear-streaked. Ryouma’s eyes were shadowed.

Kakashi sat down behind Ryouma, pulled his legs up, and rested his forehead between Ryouma’s shoulder blades. It wasn’t a hug. It was a lot more like hiding. Ryouma was solid, his shoulders were broad. Like any shinobi, he wasn’t entirely comfortable with someone right against his spine, but he only tensed a little. After a moment, he settled and tilted his head back, just enough that the back of his skull brushed against the top of Kakashi’s head.

Kakashi exhaled. Breathed in sweat and blood and Genma, that goddamned soap, something like stormclouds and thunder.

Pakkun leapt lightly onto the sofa, and curled up in the scant space between Kakashi and Ryouma, not quite touching either of them. Leather creaked and dipped when Raidou sat down on the other end.

It was just the four of them and two dogs, in a windowless office that felt gutted around Katsuko’s abandoned desk.

This was not better.

It wasn’t worse, either.

Kakashi said softly, into the space around the notches in Ryouma’s spine, “Can we stop getting in trouble for a while?”

“We might have chosen the wrong career for that,” Ryouma said, without moving. His earlier bitterness had faded; he just sounded wryly accepting. “But we could try.”

“We’d have more free time if we didn’t have to deal with issues after every mission. I’m for it.” Genma said, equally wry. “It’ll be easier now that we have our real captain back. I don’t have to spend every waking moment pretending I don’t want to garrotte the team’s commander.”

“That’s because you’re a morning person and don’t mind 5AM training,” Kakashi muttered.

Raidou gave a low, rumbling laugh. “I let you sleep in two whole hours this morning, and you were still late.”

Also true. Kakashi breathed out against Ryouma’s spine, and didn’t respond. After a moment, there was a rustle from the other end of the couch, and Raidou’s fingers didn’t quite brush his shoulder.

“Doing okay, Hatake?” Raidou asked.

There was an answer, and it was stupid. Kakashi made an almost inaudible canine sound. Kin immediately scrambled to her feet, to the squashed protests of his teammates, shook herself violently, and flopped down the other way, so that her fore-paws dug into Raidou’s thigh, and her haunches rested on Ryouma’s lap. Genma, in the middle, was thoroughly flattened.

“Subtle,” Pakkun said.

Raidou’s hand had vanished to deal with Kin’s claws. Genma, bulwarked on both sides by his strongest teammates, and covered in a blanket of warm dog, was laughing again with a crack in his voice. Ryouma freed a hand — to shove Kin off, Kakashi thought, but Ryouma reached behind himself and cupped his palm around the back of Kakashi’s neck.

He didn’t do anything else. He just held there, bleeding warmth through Kakashi’s mask.

It shouldn’t have helped, but it did, and Kakashi had no idea what to do with that.

Nothing, it turned out. The four of them sat like that, in cycles of silence and soft jokes, while Genma slowly re-grounded and Kakashi remembered how to pull himself away from the drowning dark. Kin dozed with her head settled on Raidou’s hip.

Someone knocked on the door.

“I’ll get it,” Pakkun said, with a tongue-curling yawn.

“How…?” Raidou began, but fell quiet when Pakkun extracted himself and a moment later, the door clicked open.

Out in the hallway, someone made a startled sound.

Pakkun’s voice turned very dry. There was a brief exchange, then Pakkun said, “Shiranui, a messenger’s waiting for you in the lobby.”

ryouma intenseThe couch couldn’t be seen from the door, but even so, there was a brief flurry of startled activity before Genma made it to his feet. Kin slid away, looking reproachful. Ryouma tightened his fingers on the back of Kakashi’s neck, then dropped his hand.

“We’re coming,” he said.

“It can’t be anything internal,” Genma said, as if he were trying to convince himself. “If Kuroda wanted to have another go at me, he’d come here himself, or summon me to his office. Maybe, uh, my dad wants something.”

He glanced at the door, but the runner must have already headed off on their rounds; Pakkun was turning away, yawning again. Genma grabbed a senbon out of a pencil holder on his desk and clamped it between his teeth.

“You can come if you want,” he said. “But it’s probably nothing.”

Like hell it was nothing. Ryouma could see the tendons on the back of Genma’s hands. He pushed to his feet. “I like your dad. We can get dorayaki.”

Genma’s mouth tilted around the senbon, but the smile didn’t reach anywhere near his eyes. “Yeah. My dad likes you too.” He glanced at Raidou and Kakashi. “Hell, we can all go get dorayaki. And probably some safety charms. I think Dad picked some up at the temple for everyone while we were in Water Country.”

“That’s sweet,” Raidou said.

Kakashi said, “That’s weird.”

“That’s Dad.” Genma shrugged, stiff-shouldered, and turned for the door.

There were no shortcuts through ANBU HQ’s mazelike hallways, no windows, no signals of time or direction. Ryouma still got lost sometimes, on floors he didn’t know. They walked quickly, the click of dogs’ nails lost in the dull carpeting, taking the stairs up to the lobby instead of waiting for the lift.

A skinny genin waited by the front desk, soaked to the skin and still slightly dripping. Ryouma threw a startled look out the lobby doors. The morning’s sunshine had fled; lightning-lit rain lashed the hard-packed ground outside. Genma’s pace quickened.

“I’m Shiranui,” he said. “What’s the message?”

The genin straightened automatically, then took a wary second glance at their muddy training gear. She seemed disappointed; maybe she’d expected full armor and masks here in ANBU HQ. But she recited her message in a professional, well-rehearsed monotone.

“Watanuki-san sends her regards and apologies. The contractor working on the roof slipped in the storm and has gone to the hospital. Watanuki-san expects work to be significantly delayed unless, perhaps, Shiranui-san finds himself at leisure to meet earlier than arranged…” She trailed off, but added brightly, “Watanuki-san told me to pause significantly there.”

“Who’s Watanuki-san?” Ryouma asked, bewildered.

“My new landlord,” Genma said distractedly. He tugged the blood-crusted collar of his shirt and asked the genin, “Did she mean now? She probably meant now. Uh… tell her I’ll be there in half an hour.” He added, to his teammates, “I need to get cleaned up.”

“You’d clean up for your landlord but not the Commander?” Ryouma asked.

New landlord,” Genma said.

Evidently, he needed to make a good first impression.

The genin cleared her throat. “Watanuki-san said, if you’re able, Shiranui-san, the sooner the better. The, uh, roof is leaking. Badly. If you can help, the matter of rent might be re-discussed.”

Genma’s gaze sharpened at the mention of rent. “If it’s an emergency, I guess she won’t mind how I look. Did she say if the contractor left their tools?”

“Probably?” Off script now, the genin furrowed her brows. “I don’t think they’d’ve taken the tools to the hospital. He fell through the roof,” she added with relish. “And then through the floor.”

Raidou stirred uneasily. “This is your new apartment, Genma?” He sounded as if he was pretty sure it wasn’t worth a rent cut.

Genma turned, looking back at him. “It’s a lot better than it sounds. There’s a ton of space, and basically no neighbors. There’s even a view.”

“A lot of view,” Kakashi muttered.

“Through the new skylight,” Pakkun added.

The genin’s jaw dropped in delight. She fell into a crouch, in front of Pakkun. “He talks. Is he an Inuzuka?” She looked up. “None of you are…”

Ryouma tapped Kakashi’s shoulder. “How do you know? He might be tattooed.”

“Great-grandfather was,” Kakashi said softly. His hand dropped to Kin’s head; she leaned against his thigh, her plumed tail slowly wagging.

He did have sharp teeth. Ryouma had seen them once, stained with blood, through the tatters of a shredded mask. He reminded himself not to stare.

The genin offered Pakkun her knuckles to sniff. “It’s still raining,” she pointed out. “Watanuki-san was really desperate.” Her voice shaded wistful. “Can I pet you?”

“You may scratch my ears,” Pakkun allowed.

Genma’s senbon clicked against his teeth. “Oh gods, the silk.” He told Raidou, “It really is an emergency. My new place is a loft over a silk warehouse. Things are probably getting ruined if the hole goes all the way through—” He broke off. “I hope that roofer landed on the bolts. That’s a long fall.”

Of course Genma would worry about a roofer. Kakashi and Ryouma exchanged long, speaking glances.

“I need to get going,” Genma decided. He looked out the narrow glass panels in the doors again, at the rain pounding dirt into mud. “I’ll see you at training tomorrow. We’ll get dorayaki another day.”

Lightning flashed, brightening the lobby for a perilous second. Thunder cracked so loud overhead that Kin yelped.

Raidou snagged the back of Genma’s collar before he took the first step. “Hell no,” he said. “We’ve had enough problems this week without you committing suicide by roof. We’re going with you.”

Genma turned slowly, both brows raised. “I won’t refuse the help, but if I’m likely to die by roof, aren’t all of us in the same danger?”

“Kakashi can channel lightning,” Ryouma pointed out. “He’ll be useful. And I can carry things.”

The Lieutenant Eyebrows lowered. Genma shrugged rueful acceptance. “If you’re coming, it’s in block nine of the warehouse district.”

Kakashi headed for the door, watching lightning ripple across the sky with a gleam in his eye. Kin barrelled out into the rain as soon as he had the door open. Pakkun sat up, tail thumping gently, and told the genin, “You may carry me, small human.”

Oh.” She looked genuinely tempted. “I have other messages. I’m sorry! Your ears are so soft.”

Ryouma had never seen a dog preen before, but Pakkun managed it.

He sighed, scooped up the pug, and tucked Pakkun under his tee-shirt. Genma and Raidou were almost out the door, following Kakashi. “Stay here until the rain lets up,” Ryouma advised the genin.

She squared her shoulders. “I have messages.”

She’d make jounin someday.

“Good luck, then,” Ryouma told her, and darted out into the rain.

He was soaked instantly. Pakkun’s hard little claws scrabbled against his chest, finding a comfortable perch; his head popped briefly out of the collar of Ryouma’s shirt, then retreated. “Wouldn’t object to a translocation,” he rumbled.

“My stomach would,” Ryouma told him. He narrowed his eyes to slits, focusing on distant figures in the rain. Kakashi had translocated. It figured.

The run to block nine of the warehouse district was fast and slippery and very, very wet. Most of Konoha’s citizens had cleared off the streets, waiting out the storm in their homes or restaurants or beneath shop awnings. Ryouma skidded on street corners, streaked over puddles, and arrived at a long, two-storey building with a concrete-block lower floor and a traditional wooden first storey. Missing tiles gaped on its slanted roof. Near the ridgeline, an enormous hole yawned. A slim, dark figure crouched next to it, and chakra itched at Ryouma’s senses.

The officers were down below, crowded into a narrow entry porch behind sliding wooden doors. A round, middle-aged woman in a drenched happi coat was trying to explain.

“The floor’s rotten there, Shiranui-san, that’s why we postponed your move-in, but after the last storm we had to get the roof fixed first, and now Mitsui-san’s gone and broken his leg—”

Genma’s shoulders sagged in relief.

A heavy drip plopped between Ryouma’s shoulders. He looked up at the leaden sky, between missing roof tiles. “So rent’s half-off for the first six months, right?”

Genma glanced sharply back at him. The senbon clicked between his teeth, an exasperated sound Ryouma already knew. “Watanuki-san and I have an agreement about my rent, provided I complete the interior renovations. If my team and I add in the roof…” He eyed her expectantly.

Apparently negotiations were best left to the master. Ryouma shrugged, eased Pakkun out of his shirt, and set the pug on his feet in a dry corner. After a second’s thought, he peeled out of his sodden shirt, too, and hung it on a protruding nail.

Watanuki-san stared at him.

“We can come back on a sunny day, too,” Ryouma told her, and headed out to join Kakashi on the roof.

genma 14Genma had to hand it to Ryouma — he knew how to work his natural advantages. Watanuki-san trailed after Ryouma, shielding herself from the rain with a bit of cardboard, and watched every second of his effortless climb up the side of the building. Pakkun, who had more sense and greater immunity to Ryouma’s charms, went further inside, where it was dry.

“You can fix the roof today?” Watanuki asked.

Genma hesitated. It was a big hole. “If you have enough replacement tiles and lumber,” he said, “we’ll try. We can put a tarp over it if we don’t quite finish in one day. Hatake’s stopped the water getting in for now with a jutsu.”

Kakashi’s name didn’t seem to register with her — the famous names and bitter politics of the ninja world of Konoha didn’t mean much to the civilian population — but at the mention of the word ‘jutsu’, Watanuki-san gave a sharp, pleased nod. “That’s why I’m happy to have you as a tenant,” she said. “No rent until the first of the year, and if you’ve finished the interior work by then, we’ll discuss new lease terms.”

No rent was a much better deal than the fifty-seven thousand ryou-a-month Genma’d already negotiated, and even that was half of market. Genma smiled, and felt his lip split open again.

That was when Watanuki-san finally noticed Genma’s face. And Raidou’s. Kakashi’s of course, was hidden by his mask, and he was already a sodden figure on the roof, anyway. She reached for Genma’s elbow — he had to stop himself from flinching — and towed him back under the awning. “You boys look like you’ve had a rough day. Was it a mission?”

“Training,” Genma said. “This is Namiashi-san. And that was Tousaki you were just talking to.” He glanced into the dim interior of the warehouse itself. Rolls and mountains of cloth stacked nearly to the roof in some places formed neat aisles, except for the area right under the jagged, splintered hole that marked where the roofer had come through the floor above them. Water pooled on the floor, tinged reddish with either dye or blood; Genma hoped it was the former. Several bolts of cloth were soaked with rainwater and leaching color from the silk into the protective muslin coverings over them.

Raidou had headed straight for the hole, looking up with a practiced eye. His mother Ume had talked at length about Raidou’s skill as a handyman, that day six weeks ago when Genma had stopped by to give Raidou the news about Katsuko.

It seemed like yesterday, and at the same time, like it had been months.

“Do you already have the materials for the repair, Watanuki-san?” he asked.

“Yes, everything for the roof,” she said. “The floor…”

“The floor was something I was already planning to deal with. I’ll just be doing it a little sooner than I’d expected,” Genma said. He left Raidou to his inspection and followed his new landlord to a small office near the door.

“I’ll write this new contract up and you can sign it,” she said. She’d already opened a scroll and dipped a brush into a bottle of ink. Her hand paused, brush-tip poised to make the first character. “It will just be you living here, then, Shiranui-san? It was originally going to be you and that young man with the beard, wasn’t it? Are you sure you can do the work by yourself?”

“Just me, Watanuki-san. But I’m not by myself for the work. Namiashi-san is a skilled carpenter.” He gestured at Raidou. “And my other two teammates are already hard at work.” The scrape of tiles overhead suggested Ryouma was stacking them, or counting them, or otherwise making sure the roof job could proceed.

If Asuma decided he wanted back on the lease, well, that was something they could negotiate when the time came, too.

Raidou had clambered up a wall and walked across the ceiling. He crouched inverted, feet anchored to a wooden beam, prodding a board with the point of a kunai. Sodden sawdust sprinkled down over the floor below. “You’ve got dry-rot,” he said, as if he were making pleasant conversation. “Joists are still good, but everything else needs to be replaced. Might be able to save the nails.”

It looked a lot more like wet rot to Genma’s untrained eyes. “Everything? The whole entire floor?” Because that was going to be far more lumber than just the little patch job Genma’d anticipated. It’d eat up even the free rent in no time.

Watanuki-san looked pained, too. “It is an older building,” she said.

“At least this section.” Raidou indicated a broad area around the hole where the wood looked dark.

“We already have the lumber for that,” Watanuki said. “It’s stacked upstairs. “We knew that needed replacing. But if it’s the rest of it, I just don’t know.”

Genma sighed. “Can you check the rest of it from there?” he called.

“I need light,” Raidou answered. “Do the electrics work?”

Watanuki took a few steps and flicked an industrial-looking switch on the wall. Electric lights flickered and came to life, bare bulbs shining in rows down every aisle.

Raidou started down one of the joists, walking a few upside-down paces, stopping to poke the boards at his feet with his kunai, and repeating. Watanuki went back to writing out the new lease.

There was a thump from overhead, and a crashing sound. “Watch out,” Ryouma called. Dust cascaded down through the hole, and a broken piece of tile followed it, shattering on the cement floor.

When Raidou got back with the immensely relieving news that the worst of the rot was all in that area near the front, Genma signed the new lease. He also promised they’d move the bolts below the hole out of harm’s way before they got started in earnest.

A few bows later, and Team Six was alone again. Two in the raging storm on the roof, two standing amongst stacks of silk cloth worth millions of ryou. Genma and Raidou shoved broken boards into a pile, moved the spoiled bolts to a corner outside Watanuki’s office, and tossed fresh canvas over the remaining inventory.

The electric lights flickered, dimmed, brightened, and settled. Genma gave them a dubious look. “Think water is getting on the wires?”

Raidou didn’t wait to see if it was a lightning strike on the transmission line or a short in the building; he snapped the switch off.

Thunder rattled the walls.

“Maybe it was just the storm. Lighting hit a power pole nearby.”

“Maybe,” Raidou said, without any conviction.

“You’re right. We should shut off the mains.” Genma sighed. “I don’t want my new apartment to burn down, too. Especially before I’ve even moved in. I think the fuse box is around back.”

They made their way through the dark aisles to the back door, near the stairs. Raidou stepped out into the rain to tug the main block free from the fuse box. He wasn’t immediately electrocuted in the attempt: that was reassuring.

“Once we get that hole patched,” Raidou said, ducking back inside, “we should have a talk about your taste in rentals.”

Pakkun, who had disappeared some time ago, sneezed an agreement from the stairs. “Forget the talk, go straight to therapy.”

“It’s not that bad up there,” Genma protested. “Come on up, Raidou, I’ll show you.”

It still felt a little odd to use Raidou’s given name, like maybe Genma ought to seek permission first. But they were off the clock now, and in Genma’s own soon-to-be home.

He led the way up the stairs, slid open the unlocked door at the top, and led Raidou and Kakashi’s dubious dog inside. “Wish I’d thought to bring a flashlight.” The upper story was one big, empty space, the same area as the floor below. It had slatted windows on all four sides, letting the gloomy light in where the shutters were open. And of course, there was the new ‘skylight’.

Kin’s head poked in through the gaping breach in the roof, mouth open in doggy enthusiasm, and then she bounded through, chakra walking across the ceiling until she was well clear of the rotten section of floor. The timbers trembled under Genma’s feet when she leapt down. She rushed over, tail whipping back and forth so hard her whole back end shook with it. When Genma reached a hand out to pat her, she barked once, then shook violently, flinging water droplets everywhere.

“I’m not sure that counts as helping,” Genma told her, when she’d finally stopped. She just wagged harder and licked his hand.

“Hatake, your dog is a menace,” he called up to the roof.

Pakkun, who’d shown some degree of prescience and stayed out of Kin’s shower radius, gave Genma a look. “You ought to specify exactly who you mean, before you go maligning people.”

Genma chuckled, and patted Kin’s damp head. “How’s it look up there?”

Wet,” Ryouma called back.

“Great. We’ll be right up.”

Genma glanced around the space at the neat stacks of lumber, nails, screws, and gods-be-praised, tools. There was rough framing around a space that would be the bathroom, once it had walls. A new toilet and sink were already installed. Sharing the plumbing, a shower was tucked against the outer wall, tiled and ready for use as soon as he put up a shower curtain. The soaking tub next to it was a luxury salvaged from a house in the Uchiha compound that was being remodeled — it was good to have friends in the clans. In the area that was going to be his kitchen, there was a gas range — second-hand but in beautiful shape — that Asuma had found, and a butcher block sideboard and large enamel basin, with hot and cold taps gleaming on new lengths of copper pipe.

“It’s not bad, right?” he said to Raidou, who was looking at everything with the same critical gleam in his eye he applied to scrutinizing his team’s taijutsu efforts. “That part of the roof looks brand new.”

raidou 2‘That part’ being the section around a large, contractor-shaped hole. Other than that small detail, it was fine craftsmanship.

“It’s got potential,” Raidou said, shading his eyes when lightning blazed through the sky. Thunder rattled the world. He raised his voice. “S’there a reason you’re taking on more projects, instead of, say, something fully furnished? Do you have gambling debts we don’t know about?”

Genma tilted his chin up, looking at the rain sleeting over Kakashi’s jutsu shield. “Asuma needed something to focus on, to give his mind a break, after Hikouto. We were going to fix this place up together.” He shrugged one lean shoulder. “But he decided he couldn’t stand being around other ninja, being in Konoha. His sister didn’t help matters. Anyway, I’d already had a hard enough time finding a place. I figured I’d just… make it work. You know?”

Asuma had left the village? But— Genma hadn’t said a word.

How many other little hurts didn’t they know about?

Raidou said, carefully, “There are always officer apartments at HQ.”

“I know,” Genma said. “I thought about it. And my dad offered I could move back home. Of the two, officer appartments was definitely my choice. But then I got to thinking about the ghosts of ninja who must have lived in them before me…”

Raidou had wondered that about his own apartment occasionally. He was holding out hope that the previous occupants had retired gracefully, gotten married, and gone on to raise kids or chickens, depending on their personal preferences. It was a nicer thought.

“Anyway,” Genma said, more brightly, “you can’t really invite people over for a hot threesome in either of those places, can you?”

Raidou didn’t trip over thin air, but only because he wasn’t actually moving. “You bring anyone back here,” he said, after a beat, “all they’re going to get right now is tetanus.”

“Good thing I’m a medic,” Genma said, mouth curling in a way Raidou decided not to read into.

Above them, Ryouma shouted, “We’re not getting any drier!”

Raidou grabbed that distraction with grateful hands and made his way up to the roof. He took the shortcut through the ceiling-hole, while Genma went around outside to use the contractor’s ladder. They found Kakashi sitting Buddha-like on the apex, keeping up the rain-shield. Ryouma crouched by the hole with a collection of tools on one side, building materials on the other, and the expression of a man who was pretty sure he needed to hammer something, but hadn’t decided what.

Genma wiped rain out of his eyes. “Have either of you ever done any construction before?”

“You put things down and nail ‘em, right?” Ryouma said.

That would be a ‘no’.

“I’ve built things,” Kakashi said.

“Houses?” Raidou asked.

“No,” Kakashi said.

Raidou rubbed the back of his head. Construction projects were supposed to be a staple of genin D-rank missions, but Kakashi had been a genin for about a minute before he’d made chuunin and joined the war effort. And Ryouma’s early shinobi career had been a trainwreck; Raidou doubted he’d spent any of it studying the pictures in construction manuals.

“Okay,” Raidou said. “Roof 101.”

He gave them a rapid breakdown of trusses, battens, the necessity of a good underlayer, cleating, and how to measure the proper distance for laying down ceramic tiles. (“Starting by not dropping them on your teammates.”) The contractor tools were clearly old and well-used, but equally well-cared for. Ryouma, unleashed with the hammer, made short work of replacing the shattered battens and cleating the underlayer in place. Kakashi slunk down to take command of the measure-stick and tile placement, which seemed to please some meticulous little corner of his soul. Genma, who had done minor construction during his genin days, crouched down at Raidou’s side, asked more pertinent questions about tile structure than Raidou was actually capable of answering, and liberated the hammer from Ryouma to nail in the final row.

The result was a tidy patch job of lighter new tiles among the older, weathered ones.

“Keep holding that jutsu,” Raidou told Kakashi.

Raidou, Genma, and Ryouma dropped down off the roof, went back inside, and clambered upstairs to stand around the ragged hole in the floor. Genma held up a glowing hand to cast some additional light through the dim room.

“Okay,” Raidou shouted. “Let it go!”

Chakra rippled and vanished. Rain hammered down, striking like handfuls of iron filings. The patch remained water-tight.

Raidou hooked his thumbs into his pockets and grinned. “One problem down. Nice work.”

Genma smiled and dropped a grateful hand on Ryouma’s naked, wet shoulder. “Thanks for helping with this.” He raised his voice. “Thanks, Hatake! You can come inside now.”

“You’re welcome,” Kakashi said, dripping two feet behind Genma’s back. Genma didn’t, quite, twitch.

Kakashi threw the recently abandoned shirt at Ryouma’s head. Ryouma caught it absently, stuffed it in his back pocket so that it dangled down, and looked around the loft with interest. “You could fit the whole team in here,” he said.

“In a loft with no air conditioning, no functioning bathroom, and no furniture,” Kakashi said. “Cozy.”

“The plumbing’s connected,” Genma said, with a sidelong look at their one-eyed beacon of cheer. “If you need to use the toilet, be my guest.” He gestured affably at the unfinished cage of studs framing one corner of the loft, which would eventually be a small toilet and a large bathroom.

Kakashi glanced at the gleaming porcelain fixtures and said dryly, “Thank you.”

Pakkun’s old-man-rasp drifted up from downstairs. “It’s hot. If we’re staying, someone needs to put a fan in.”

The little pug wasn’t wrong. The storm, for all that it howled fiercely, was oppressive and muggy. With the roof closed up, the air inside the loft was still. They were all soaked to the bone, but Raidou still felt like he needed a shower. Genma pulled at his own shirt-front, peeling nearly translucent cloth away from skin.

Ryouma studied the splintered hole in the floor. “Are we staying?”

“I’m game,” Raidou said. “Lieutenant needs a home. Hatake?”

Kakashi sighed. “Fine,” he said, and performed the strange little justu that pulled the water right out of their clothes. He dumped the extracted rain into Genma’s new tub — which was apparently where Kin had been resting, since she bounced up with a damp, offended bark.

Kakashi responded with an odd tonal growl. Kin snorted. Raidou decided not to ask. “Tousaki,” he said instead. “You in?”

“Hell yeah.” Ryouma hefted the toolkit he’d carried down from the roof, and slanted them a wicked grin. “I’m always up for nailing.”

Now it was Kakashi’s turn to snort.

Genma’s mouth stayed open for just a beat too long, then he said, “I really appreciate your, uh, all staying to help. I’ll send a clone to get us some drinks.”

“And a fan,” Pakkun yelled. “Three fans!”

“And an electrician,” Raidou said. “There’s a woman between Enomoto’s barbershop and the bookseller who’s good — Goto Akari. Try her first.”

“Probably no fans until we get the electricity fixed, but I’ll bring back ice,” Genma said. He glanced at Raidou. “It’d take a fair amount of chakra to make a clone who can negotiate. I’ll leave a clone here to work, and go see Goto-san myself.”

That worked. Raidou nodded and crouched to take a closer look at the hole in the floor, envisioning just how many boards they’d need to rip out.

“So, Tousaki,” he asked, “ever use a saw?”

ryouma 11Ryouma hadn’t.

Raidou rectified that quickly, and a host of other new experiences: ripping up rotten floorboards, clambering between joists, pulling nails with a cat’s-paw prybar and hammering them in again to strengthen a damaged joist with a heavy ‘scab’ board. They tracked down the nearest load-bearing beam and stood on it together — first Ryouma, then Kakashi and the clone — until Raidou determined it was capable of safely supporting the lieutenant’s home.

The still, muggy air grew hotter as they worked. Kakashi cracked a window, but rain swirled through until the wind blew it shut. Raidou peeled off his shirt. Kakashi kept his shirt and mask, stubbornly, though a dark patch of sweat spread between his shoulder blades.

By the time Genma returned, they were bickering over the orientation of the new floorboards.

“Smooth side up,” Ryouma insisted, skimming his palm over the flat, heavy board. “D’you want the lieutenant getting splinters in his toes?”

Kakashi rolled his eye. “They’re both the smooth side. You have to sand them down afterwards.”

“They won’t match,” Ryouma said, looking at the dark, age-polished expanse of boards stretching toward the kitchen area.

Raidou huffed amusement. “We’ll stain ’em. Watch your fingers, Tousaki.”

“You guys work fast,” Genma said from the stairs. “Goto-san is downstairs checking the wiring. The power is probably going to come on and go off a few times.” He picked his way through the detritus of rotten boards and bent nails to stop near their expanded hole, hefting a pair of heavy, clinking bags. “Drinks. And ice.”

“I’m coming.” Pakkun burst out of the bathtub, where he and Kin had taken shelter on the cooler surface, and galloped for the kitchen sink.

Genma’s mouth crooked. “Maybe I should have bought more beer.”

“Beer?” Ryouma straightened hopefully.

“Down, Tousaki,” Raidou told him. “Finish the floor first.”

Hammering was starting to lose its appeal. But Genma dumped the ice in the sink, stashed the drinks — and Pakkun — inside, and came back, shedding his rain-resoaked shirt as well. His torso was pale in the dimness, leanly muscled. He took the spare hammer from the clone, stuck two nails between his lips, and knelt down beside Raidou at the far edge of the hole.

Raidou’s skin was summer-brown already, evenly tanned over solid, sharp-cut muscle. Genma had the ANBU tan: darker shoulders, ivory chest. The ridged scar on his belly was still pink with newness. His clone hefted a board off the stack and levered it down, and Raidou and Genma leaned in together to slot it against the next.

Ryouma looked away. “Think we can beat ’em?” he asked Kakashi, half at random.

Kakashi pushed sweaty hair off his forehead with the back of his wrist. “At stacking wood or not wearing shirts?”

“I can’t wear less shirts,” Ryouma said. “Unless you’re chipping in…”

“Fewer,” Pakkun called from the kitchen sink. “Someone open this beer for me?”

Can someone,” Kakashi corrected right back. “And no. You’re not helping. No beer for you.”

Melting ice cubes sloshed sulkily against enamel. Ryouma glanced back over his shoulder and saw Pakkun peering dolefully over the edge of the sink. Apparently the temptation of beer wasn’t enough to venture out, though, because Pakkun rolled over after a moment, all four paws sticking up in the air, and began to sing.

He had a strong bass, and no sense of tune. Ryouma was pretty sure those hadn’t been the original lyrics, either.

“Hope he didn’t pick up his singing skills from you,” Ryouma told Kakashi, reaching for the next board.

“Now you’ll never know,” Kakashi said, but he flicked a glance back, and shaped a fast handful of seals. Chakra lanced out. The water in the sink rose, an ice-studded wave, and fell again. Pakkun’s singing broke off in an indignant yelp.

“Falling behind,” Raidou commented.

Challenge glittered in Kakashi’s eye. Ryouma scrambled to catch up.

Genma’s clone gave an unfair advantage, and Raidou knew what he was doing, but Kakashi was fast and Ryouma was determined. They fell into a rhythm, Ryouma placing the boards, Kakashi setting nails a precise thirty centimeters apart. The other side of the hole grew closer. Sweat slicked Ryouma’s hands, left damp prints on the boards, dripped into his eyes. He met Kakashi’s eye across the board and grinned at him.

Kakashi grinned back, sweat-damp mask crinkling, eye alight. His hair was damply spiked, clinging to his temples and the side of his head. His hands never faltered, setting the nail, driving it in with two quick blows, moving on.

Ryouma reached for the last board two seconds before Genma’s clone, and slid it in to fill the gap. There was a half-centimeter space between boards, but maybe Genma wouldn’t drop anything down it. And Raidou and Genma had actually covered substantially more ground, but Ryouma wasn’t letting that stand in the way of triumph. He sat back on his heels and pumped his fist at the roof. “Rookies take the day!”

The clone looked pointedly at the new patch of floor, measured the stretch of raw boards on either side of Genma and Kakashi, and quirked a brow.

“Still finished first,” Ryouma told it. “This time, that’s good news.”

The clone’s other brow rose. “There was another time? Do tell.”

Genma rocked back on his heels, wiped sweaty hair out of his eyes, and laughed. The clone popped like a soap bubble.

“Still want to hear?” Ryouma asked. Adrenaline fizzed in his veins: victory without the fight. He bounced up, testing the new boards, and they held.

“About how you’re quick on the draw?” Pakkun asked lazily from the sink. “Kid, we know.

Well, Raidou certainly knew, but—

The lights came on. In the warehouse below, someone whooped.

Ryouma stood, blinking stupidly, eyes slitted against the sudden glare from unshaded overhead bulbs. Kakashi was looking at him, head tilted slightly, as if he were still waiting to hear. Ryouma pretended not to see.

The stairs creaked briskly — Genma would always have a warning for intruders — and a sturdy woman in rain-sprinkled coveralls poked her head in. “Shiranui-san? I worked out the problem with the fuses—”

She stopped, staring. “Oh,” she said. “Uh. I can see you’ve all been hard at work, too.”

Genma rocked up to his feet and crossed to the door in four long strides. “We got the roof patched and the floor patched. So is everything good with the electrics?” His voice lowered slightly to a kind of stage whisper, still clearly audible. “If it’s not, don’t tell them. They already think I’ve moved into a haunted deathtrap.”

“I didn’t say haunted,” Raidou objected.

“Um,” Goto said. She was compactly built, not tall, and her eyes were about level with Genma’s collarbones. She seemed to be having great difficulty dragging them any higher. “Yes, the wiring’s good. The fuse box is from my grandmother’s day though, so I’ve replaced it entirely, should solve the flickering problem. Did you still want me to look at the wiring up here?”

“If you’ve got time.” Genma stepped back.

“Rain hasn’t stopped yet,” Goto shrugged. She followed him in, staring openly: at Raidou, at Ryouma, at the dog in the sink, at Raidou again. Her voice cracked. “Is that Raidou-kun? Ume’s boy?”

Raidou grinned at her, casually cheerful as a chance meeting on the street. “She’ll be thrilled you remember her. How’ve you been, Goto-san?”

“Can’t complain,” Goto said, sounding slightly dazed. “You were about shoulder-high last time, I think. Still a shinobi?”

“This is my team.” Was that pride in his voice?

“They’re very, um, tall,” Goto said, staring at Ryouma’s dragon tattoo. “Aren’t you a little old to be doing genin work?”

Ryouma resisted the urge to flex. “We’ve off-mission. Helping with the lieutenant’s new place.”

“New place. Right.” She dragged her eyes back to Genma’s. “Wiring. Are you looking to change up the light fixtures, install fans, or just get a safety inspection up here?”

Fans.” Pakkun flopped over heavily in the sink, causing a miniature tsunami that sloshed onto the floor.

Goto stared. Genma said hurriedly, “Uh, yes, fans. All of that. I can move the dog if you want a drink.” He plucked a grumbling Pakkun up out of the sink, held him awkwardly dripping for a moment, then fished a beer bottle out and splashed Pakkun back down. “I know it’s hot up here.”

Goto laughed. Hands planted on knees, head down, shoulders shaking, until finally she straightened and accepted the bottle from Genma, wiping tears from her eyes. “I am going to eat out on this story for weeks,” she said. “All right, Shiranui-san. Let’s get started on fans.”

kakashi boredFans happened. The temperature dropped a few degrees.

Raidou directed the sanding and staining of the new floorboards like a happy general. There was an unexpected level of skill needed just to darken wood. Ryouma took to it with enthusiasm, wiping generous swathes of dark brown oil stain across the bright new boards. Kakashi followed behind him and neatened the edges where enthusiasm splashed over.

The end result was a walnut streak across Ryouma’s forehead, dark half-moons under Kakashi’s fingernails, and a neat section of sturdy floor that almost blended.

It was… satisfying.

Not like stealing a jutsu or slaughtering an intelligent threat, but still tangible success. The lieutenant had a floor. And a roof. Next step: a home.

Well, the next step was probably bathroom walls, but they needed more materials first.

The storm growled outside, a colossal predator prowling through the sky. There was a brief, barometric tilt as the atmosphere swung out of balance, and then the hammer-strike of lightning restoring order. Kakashi’s blood sang with echoes.

“So much for the storm being mostly over,” Genma said.

“Must be a squall line,” Raidou said. “Good test for the roof.”

The pressure fluctuated. Ryouma sneezed. Across the street, just visible through the rice paper windows, a white flash lanced down and struck something that exploded into sparks. The power blacked out.

Ryouma said, “That wasn’t me.”

Goto swore and thumped downstairs to check the fuse box hadn’t melted.

“I thought your speciality was rotting things, not electrocuting them,” Genma said. He raised a palmful of white light. “We can open the shutters on the north side. Sounds like the wind’s from the south.”

“What about candles?” Raidou suggested. “Or a generator.”

“Or glass windows,” Ryouma said. But he went readily to wrestle the shutters open. The old windows resisted him, sticking in their frames, but he managed to open a few before the wind banged them shut again.

“Glass windows before winter, definitely,” Genma said.

There was a small convenience store around the corner. Kakashi, as the only resident appreciator of a good storm, was volunteered for candle-fetching duty.

(“And snacks!” Ryouma yelled after him.)

He returned with several sturdy beeswax pillars, bottles of cold tea, onigiri for the famished, and the shopkeeper’s dour warning that someone had almost certainly hung themselves from the rafters and the warehouse was not fit to store shoes, let alone live in. Kakashi disliked her.

Goto reported that the fusebox had survived its brush with the storm. Once lit and installed, the candles added a cheery glow between looming shadows. Genma, in his most calm voice, decided the east corner would be the best place to install his shrine.

Pakkun informed the room, “It doesn’t smell haunted. More… moth-y.”

“Do you know what this was used for before silk?” Raidou asked Genma.

“I think they used to do silk production here, actually.” Genma took a long drink of tea, and pressed the cold bottle to his throat. “So maybe you smell the silkworms?”

“They boil silkworms in their cocoons to extract the silk. Maybe it’s the ghost of thousands of angry silkworms?” Ryouma said. He added ghoulishly, “Small and oozy and creeping over you…”

“Happy housewarming,” Kakashi said, and liberated an onigiri before Ryouma could take them all.

“Kuwa-himesama is the goddess of silk. She’s probably protecting this place already,” Genma said. He sounded completely sincere. “I’ll, uh, I’ll get some mulberry leaves for my shrine, or maybe a bonsai.”

Raidou wasn’t the first to blink, but he was the first to smile in the candlelight. “That’s a good plan.”

He sounded sincere, too.

They seemed to be having a moment, so Kakashi dropped down next to where Ryouma had seated himself — close to the drying patch of new floor — and asked, “Where did you learn about silk production?”

“Mission,” Ryouma said. “Guarding a silk-worm dealer in Mangrove Country, after the war. Those cartels are fierce.”

Kakashi digested that. “Were the worms grateful?”

Ryouma gave him a sidelong look. “If you’re asking whether they tried to seduce me, I’ve gotta say no legs is just as bad as too many,” he said blandly. “Also, my max for an orgy is, like, eight.”

Grateful took a strange shape in Ryouma’s world.

“Eight legs or eight worms?” Kakashi asked. “Bearing in mind that either answer is going to lead to more questions.”

“Eight legs’d be four people. Or, what, one scorpion-demon an’ me?” Ryouma tilted his head thoughtfully. “You saw the lieutenant and the demon queen. I’ll bow to the voice of experience.”

The demon queen had only had six legs, unless Ryouma was also including the pincers. And Kakashi was starting to suspect this conversation had gotten away from him.

“I don’t think that’s an experience the lieutenant wants me to share,” he said. “Do people never just say thank you?”

Ryouma said sunnily, “One time I got paid in soap instead!”

Kakashi snorted laughter. “Remind me to send them worms.” He hesitated for an undecided moment, then carefully propped himself against Ryouma’s shoulder, where he could watch the captain and lieutenant discuss important matters, like silk gods and bathroom studs.

Ryouma didn’t stiffen. He just tugged the damp hair at Kakashi’s temple. “What, you’d rather I smell like death all the time instead of only half the time?”

“I’d rather you didn’t smell like a candy-flower factory threw up on a morgue,” Kakashi said. “What’s wrong with scentless soap?

Ryouma straightened up abruptly. “They’re not that bad, are they? I like ‘em.”

Kakashi scratched the back of his head. It occurred to him, in all the times that he’d criticized Ryouma’s love of soap, he’d never actually explained why.

“I know other people like them,” he said. “For me, for dogs, probably for Inuzuka, scent tells you a lot about a person. What they like, where they’ve been, if they’re healthy. Covering that up… makes you less personlike.” He wrinkled his nose. “You smell nice, mostly. When you smell like death, you’re supposed to.”

Ryouma stared. “I’m not sure if that’s creepy or sweet. Maybe both.” Kakashi shrugged. After another beat, Ryouma offered, “Are there soaps you dislike less?”

“The fruit ones aren’t so bad,” Kakashi admitted. “And the herb ones.”

“Less like a lady’s bedroom?” Ryouma settled back and gave Kakashi a crooked smile. “Okay. I can do that.”

Someday, Kakashi was actually going to remember that explanations — even short ones — went a long way with Ryouma. He leaned more heavily against Ryouma’s shoulder, ignoring the fact that it was naked and sweat-streaked. “I’d offer to change one of my annoying habits, but there are only so many hours in the day.”

“I’d need most of ‘em just to decide on one,” Ryouma said, without bite.

Kakashi elbowed Ryouma in the ribs, mostly on principle, and tilted his head at the ceiling. The thunder was beginning to quiet again, slinking towards the horizon. The static pressure of lightning was easing off. Kakashi held back a sigh and resisted the urge to go storm-chasing.

Kin had snuck over to sit between Genma and Raidou, tail thumping the boards as she listened to an animated conversation about bathroom fixtures. Raidou rubbed an absent hand over her ears. A moment later, Genma scratched the soft fur between her eyes. Kakashi felt his mouth tilt.

Pakkun splashed over in the sink. “If the work is done for the day, can I point out that there is beer in this sink that I am not drinking? Because someone needs to fix that.”

happy genmaThe watery light coming in the windows had edged towards pink. Genma tore himself away from planning where to put the bathroom mirror and whether he’d need a bigger hot water heater to cast an eye over their accomplishments. The roof was patched, the floor reboarded and far more sound than it had probably been in decades. Three lighted fans hung from the ceiling, waiting for the power to come back on and bring them to life. Goto-san was just turning the screw on a bracket in the kitchen, hiding new wiring in dull silver conduit, ‘the better to avoid fire danger,’ she’d said. Genma had instantly agreed to that expense.

It sounded like the rain had nearly stopped.

“I’m done with work,” Goto-san declared. She leaned against the butcher block and gave Pakkun an amused glance. “Not much more to do until the power’s restored. I’ve already had my beer, though, so I think I’ll clear out. You can settle up with me when I come back with the light fixtures tomorrow, Shiranui-san.”

“I can at least cover your emergency fee,” Genma said. He dug in his pocket for his wallet — it was damp, but the money inside was dry.

Raidou followed him over to her to say goodbye.

While Raidou saw her down the stairs, Genma turned back to his rookies.

“I’ve got one more job we need to do, and then beer and food,” Genma said. “If you haven’t eaten it all, already.”

Pakkun looked despondent. Kakashi and Ryouma, tripoded against one another, didn’t seem much interested in getting back to work, either.

“We just need to clean up downstairs a little more — clear out the debris that fell.”

Rather than expend physical energy, Kakashi clasped his hands together and materialized a clone. It gave him an unimpressed one-eyed look, and declared, “Lazy.” But it thumped down the stairs to start throwing broken boards into a pile.

Ryouma wasted no time following suit, sending a clone of his own to help Kakashi’s. “Now beer?” he said.

“Now we clean up here,” Genma said. He didn’t bother with a clone — there wasn’t much to do but sweep up some sawdust and stray nails, and make sure the cans of stain were sealed and the rags disposed of.

Kin, whose enthusiasm for the day was undimmed by the prospect of work, and didn’t seem particularly interested in beer, followed Genma happily around, tail wagging and tongue lolling, as he tidied up the mess.

When he was finished, he dropped a hand to her head. The creak of the stairs announced Raidou’s return. “Now beer,” Genma declared. “What do you say, Hatake? Is Pakkun allowed a beer?”

“I’m not sure what should concern me more,” Kakashi said, addressing no-one and everyone. “That my summons wants to drink, or that my team is enabling him.”

“Your summons is wearing a hitai-ate,” Ryouma said. “Doesn’t that mean he’s legal to drink?”

“I figured him drinking was the usual thing, since he’s complained about his lack of beer several times now.” Genma eyed the dog in the sink. “How are you not having chills sitting in an ice bath, anyway?”

“What ice?” Pakkun asked. He rolled over onto his back with his legs in the air again, head pillowed on a beer bottle. One paw twitched, sending a brown glass bottle clinking against its neighbor for emphasis.

Kakashi heaved himself to his feet with a sigh. “Fine.”

Raidou had stopped at the top of the stairs to watch the drama. Genma filled him in. “Hatake’s worried we’re abetting his summons’ drinking problem.”

“The only drinking problem I have is not being able to get one,” Pakkun groused.

“I said ‘fine,’ you whiner.” Kakashi hauled Pakkun out of the water and draped him over Ryouma’s shoulder. He rubbed the dog affectionately between the ears before rescuing the beer from the sink and shoving it back into Genma’s shopping bags.

The wet dog dripping down his bare skin didn’t seem to perturb Ryouma at all. He hitched one arm around Pakkun to secure him in place, sighing as if he’d just applied an ice pack.

“Rain’s clearing up,” Raidou said. “Want to sit on the roof?”

“Sounds good to me. You can see all the way to Sarusawa Pond from there.” Genma reached for the bag of rice balls and other snacks. He went to the window to close it, then changed his mind. “May as well go out this way. It’s not like the neighbors are going to complain.” The neighbors being a grain wholesaler, a furniture maker, and a few miscellaneous additional warehouses for local merchants.

They emerged from the window to find lotus-blossom colored clouds and clear-washed air, cooler now that the storm had blown through. A few of the growling thunderheads still congregated in the east, flickering lightning between them, but the setting sun cast a warm glow on the wet streets of Konoha below.

They found a place where the roof slope was shallowest to sit, heedless of the damp seeping through their pants. Kin circled them like a herding dog trying to keep an eye on all her sheep at once, but finally chose a spot to settle once everyone else was seated.

Beers went around. They’d neglected to bring up a bowl — not that Genma had dishes yet anyway — so Ryouma was appointed the task of lifting Pakkun’s bottle to slake the pug’s thirst.

“He who bears the dog, beers the dog,” Pakkun announced, lying sprawled in Ryouma’s lap, immensely pleased with himself and his beverage.

Genma snickered and raised his own beer in a toast. “Thanks for all your work today. And for leaving me and Taichou some of the onigiri.”

“I wasn’t going to,” Ryouma said, “but Kakashi convinced me you’d need your strength to battle evil spirits tonight.”

“I’m not sleeping here tonight,” Genma said. “I don’t have any of my stuff here, and I’d kind of like to get a bed before I move in.” He paused, then added, “And it’s not haunted.”

Ryouma pointed his half empty beer bottle at Genma with an outstretched arm. “Now you’ve said it,” he accused. “I’ve seen this movie.”

“I haven’t,” said Kakashi. “Don’t tell me how it ends.”

The Plum Wine Thief?” Genma asked. “I haven’t been having nightmares or compulsions to move. It was a total fluke Watanuki was even looking to rent it.”

Raidou stopped with his bottle halfway to his mouth. “There is a movie?”

The light of mischief in Ryouma’s eyes when he grinned at Genma was impossible to resist. Are you thinking what I’m thinking? it asked. Let’s gang up on them.

“Oh,” Genma said. “Yes. There is.” He peeled the cellophane from one of the onigiri. “First the main character loses his house in a flood and has to move in with his sister. I lost mine in a fire and moved in with a friend, it’s already totally different.” He took a bite of the rice ball and nodded at Ryouma to continue the story.

Ryouma picked up the thread fluently. “So he’s living in this crowded house, kids running all over and his sister fighting with her husband, and he’s desperate to move out. Starts looking at apartments. There’s this absolute dive he dismisses out of hand, but then he starts dreaming about it.”

“He keeps looking at places,” Genma continued, “but there are hardly any vacancies, and every time he finds a place, it gets rented right before he can make an offer.” He looked up in mock thought. “Actually that’s a little like with me. I really did have a couple of places rented out from under me.” He shrugged. “Life imitates art, I guess.”

Kakashi leaned in, intrigued. Raidou looked like he couldn’t decided whether to be horrified or exasperated.

“Don’t worry,” Genma said. “We won’t spoil the ending.”

“That’s it?” Kakashi looked disappointed. “Bad dreams and renting difficulty?”

“Hardly,” Genma said.

“He keeps walking by the place,” Ryouma said. “Like he’s taking a new route home and it’s there. And he keeps dreaming of it, like he’s standing at the bottom of the stairs to this place, and every night he goes a little further up.”

“It’s starting to creep him out a little, but the sister and her husband are fighting even more, and the kids are horrible little jerks, and he’s getting desperate.” Genma took another long swallow of beer, and passed the bag of snacks amiably to Raidou.

“So he ends up taking the place,” Ryouma went on before Raidou could interrupt. “He’s gonna fix it up, but there’s a red stain in the bathtub that comes back every time he scrubs it, and there’s a scarred beam in the ceiling like something heavy was hangin’ from it, and every night he smells plum wine, like a bottle broken in his bedroom.”

“But then the dreams stop, and everything seems like it’s going to be okay,” Genma said. “He gets the place looking a little nice. He paints the weird beam white, and his friend says it’s just rust from old pipes staining the tub. He even gets a girlfriend. But then he wakes up one morning, and the smell is intense, and right there in the middle of his floor, there’s a broken bottle of plum wine. Only he doesn’t drink and he has no idea where it came from.”

Kakashi was completely hooked now. Pakkun was listening, too, although he was pretending not to. Kin got up from her spot to go lay her head in Raidou’s lap. He dropped a hand to her ears.

“And?” Kakashi demanded. His tea rested on one knee, completely forgotten.

And Raidou looked like he wanted to be anywhere else. His eyes were fixed on the distant hills, his expression one of practiced disinterest. He didn’t like scary movies. He’d told Genma that only a few weeks ago. It seemed he didn’t like scary stories, either.

“And that’s where it gets kind of stupid, actually,” Genma said easily. “I think the director tried to put too many things in the story. It turns out there’s this crow that is bringing the bottles of plum wine. Stealing them from a brewery. Only it’s not really a crow, it’s a shapeshifter who fell in love with the man who lived in this apartment when it was new, a hundred years ago. So—” He stopped entirely. “Wait, you said not to tell you the ending.”

Ryouma looked at him like he’d gone completely crazy.

Raidou had relaxed, though. The tension melted away from his shoulders. He gave Genma a wry half-grin. “A lovesick crow? Really?”

“A lovesick shapeshifter crow,” Genma corrected. “Who thinks the main character is the reincarnation of her dead lover. There’s a little more. Want me to keep going?” He was wildly in the weeds now.

Kakashi gave Genma and Ryouma puzzled looks, then caught sight of Raidou, and the dawn of understanding lit on his face — as much of his face as Genma could see, anyway — giving way to frank amusement.

“You could,” Raidou said, with a teasing-fond note in his voice. “But I’ve seen The Feathered Princess. I know how that ends.”



Genma could feel his cheeks color. “You did? I thought that one was too obscure for anyone to have seen but me.”

Raidou jostled Genma’s foot with his own. “That’s because you’re secretly a snob.”

“That’s what Aoba says about my taste in beer, too,” Genma admitted, throwing his head back and draining his bottle. The warm light of the sunset had to be hiding at least a little of his blush, he hoped.

“So how do they both end?” Kakashi asked.

“Uh, well, The Feathered Princess ends tragically, because love stories set in Warring States Era Tea Country always end tragically,” Genma said. “Although you could say it’s a happy ending, since the lovers do get to be together at the end. Just together dead.”

Kakashi, connoisseur of romance that he was, took that in stride without a blink. “What about The Plum Wine Thief?”

“I’m guessing also tragically,” Raidou said.

“Actually, well, yes and no,” Genma told him. “It’s a horror story — those only work if there’s a survivor to tell the tale. I mean, it does end tragically for the main character. But the girlfriend survives.”

Kakashi gave Ryouma a pointed nudge. “Details.” Pakkun opened one eye to add weight to the demand.

Ryouma broke his accusatory glare at Genma long enough to say, “Renter guy gets killed by the ghost. He’s supposed to take its place in the haunting. Girlfriend burns the building down. She’ll probably never step foot in another bathtub, though.” Then he turned the heat on Genma right back up to broiling. “Why’d you ruin it?”

Ryouma wasn’t sitting at a good angle to have seen Raidou’s face. And he presumably didn’t know about Raidou’s dislike of horror movies. It wasn’t Genma’s place to betray a confidence like that.

“I must have fallen asleep during a double feature and gotten them mixed up,” he said. Which was so flimsy a lie the weight of a single grain of rice would have ripped it to shreds, but maybe Ryouma would let it slide. Or Kakashi would redirect, since Kakashi seemed to have clued in to the real problem.

Kakashi gave Raidou an expectant look.

Raidou just laughed. “I don’t like horror movies. The lieutenant was trying to save me from nightmares.” He thumped Genma amiably on the ankle. “After he tried to give me them. I hope a drunken ghost sits on your head and sings.”

Ryouma sighed and fed Pakkun more beer. “We had you going for a while, at least…”

Pakkun licked foam from his whiskers and skewered Genma with a critical eye. “Your mistake was having a conscience.”

“It’s how I’ve actually managed to accumulate friends,” Genma told him with a laugh. “You should try it before you knock it.”

“Too messy,” Pakkun said. “Humans have to have all those inner voices. Dogs don’t need ‘em. We just know.”

What dogs just knew was a mystery Genma decided not to pursue. He picked up the snack bag and fished out a stick of dried sweet potato. “Next time I’ll try to remember important facts about my friends ahead of time, so I don’t have to trip over my own conscience halfway through and ruin a good prank.”

raidou 6Raidou was a little too old to get warm in the chest just because Genma had said friends, but he did all the same.

They’d fixed a house. As a team. No one had fallen or bitten someone else or burst into flames. Ryouma had learned. Kakashi had listened. Genma, looking out over a village washed shining-clean, was smiling.

Sagara had taken their side.

It would have been a perfect moment, if they’d all been here.

Pakkun stretched, scratched one floppy ear, and, almost as if he’d heard the thought, asked, “So, is your exploding girl on a solo or something? I wanted to meet her.”

Kakashi’s chakra, relaxedly half-open, snapped closed. Ryouma’s restless hands went still.

“She was re-assigned,” Raidou said, and wondered why Pakkun didn’t already know that. Didn’t Kakashi talk to his summons?

“She left,” Kakashi said, with an acid bite.

Pakkun blinked at his summoner, opened his mouth, closed it. Kin’s ears lowered.

Genma said quietly, “She didn’t have a choice. And it’s a good assignment for her.”

“She had a choice,” Kakashi said. “She chose to go.”

He’d burned the letter Katsuko had given him. Raidou wondered, not for the first time, what it had said.

“For her brother,” Raidou said. “For all her family, but especially her brother. Would you have asked her to stay?”

Kakashi scowled. “He was an adult, and a civilian—”

“He was losing his sight,” Raidou said. “He was an artist; that’s his livelihood. He asked Katsuko to go, for his sake, to fix her relationship with their family. Even if you put that aside, it is a good career move, it was at the Hokage’s request, and it gets her away from Kuroda.”

Kakashi’s voice was colorless. “She didn’t say.”

Ryouma asked quietly, “Has she written to you?”

“No. I’ve sent a letter, but I don’t expect a response,” Raidou said. “She’ll have her hands full with her jounin squad and her parents, and whatever Iwa’s getting up with.” He smiled, felt it pull a little sideways. “Besides, it’s Katsuko — staying in touch is not her best skill.”

Genma said, “It’s probably a sign things are going well, since we haven’t heard anything about squads getting sent to Iwa. But I could ask around. Aoba’s in Intel, and Ginta tends to know a lot of things he has no business knowing.”

Raidou’s complete lack of surprise about the things Ginta knew could have been measured in acres.

Ryouma had fallen silent again, one hand curled over his healed knee, the other resting on Pakkun’s narrow back. His eyes were doubtful.

“What’re you thinking, Tousaki?” Raidou asked.

Ryouma flinched, just a little, at being directly addressed. He hitched one shoulder, not quite looking at anyone. “Just that if she wanted us to know, she’d find a way to tell us. It’s been more than a month, and she knows where we are.” He ran his palm down Pakkun’s spine. “She’s been gone longer than she was here.”

Meaning: perhaps she’d already moved on.

Pakkun blew out a long breath and propped his head on Ryouma’s thigh. “It’s not the time, kid,” he said, gruffly kind. “It’s what you do with it. War ended five years ago; we’re still feeling it.”

Wordlessly, Genma reached out and touched Ryouma’s shoulder. Ryouma sighed and, for a moment, leaned into the lieutenant — finally accepting comfort instead of shrugging it off. He said, “We killed monsters and people and beat each other up a lot. But she left before she got to hug the lieutenant.”

Puzzled, Raidou asked, “Was that a life goal?”

“If she had to stay in ANBU until she was willing to hug me, she would probably have died in her armor and mask at ninety-nine,” Genma said, squeezing and then releasing Ryouma.

Ryouma tilted him a smile that looked almost real. “She’s missing out.”

The setting sun had already glimmered pink over Genma’s cheeks, but now he turned outright red. He looked down at his feet for several moments, then said quietly, “If I’m honest, I’m pissed she got yanked off the team, too. I was looking forward to seeing her go command some day. She was—” He broke off, regrouped. “We’re a good team without her, but we were a good team with her. I don’t know what she really wanted, and I didn’t have any influence on her decision regardless, but I wanted her to stay.”

It wasn’t the first time Genma had shown them the unvarnished, un-lieutenant side of himself — that ship had sailed when he’d danced in a see-through shirt, and worse, when he’d broken down on the last mission — but it was the first time he’d done it sober, without duress, just to share a small piece of truth.

Raidou said, “I did, too.”

Ryouma nodded once, mouth drawn down. Raidou glanced at Kakashi, who sat slightly apart from them. Kin had slunk over to rest her head on Kakashi’s foot. Her tail fanned anxiously.

Raidou said, “Hatake?”

He didn’t really expect an answer, but after a quiet moment, Kakashi said bleakly, “She was going to teach me Hyoho Niten.”

Ah. Right, Genma had mentioned something about that.

Katsuko’s family sword style. That was months of practice, perhaps years. A gift, once offered and accepted, that forged a commitment. Neither Katsuko or Kakashi would approach that lightly.

Or take the loss of it lightly, either.

Raidou thought of his own genjutsu training with Benihime and Kurenai. Ryouma and Genma’s blossoming medical apprenticeship. They’d come together around the same time — granted, for very different reasons — but they’d meant growth for everyone. And Kakashi, with his endless hunger for knowledge…

Hadn’t said a word. He’d burned his letter, and put his focus into helping Ryouma study.

Ryouma shifted, eased Pakkun out of his lap, and moved down the roofline to settle next to Kakashi. Not quite touching, but a wall at Kakashi’s side. Kakashi tipped his head and gave Ryouma an ironic, I-see-what-you’re-doing look. Ryouma shrugged.

Kakashi’s fingers ghosted over Kin’s head. “There are other things to learn.”

“We’ve still gotta master Iebara’s jutsu,” Ryouma offered.

“I can help with that, too,” Genma said. “And teach you some fairly speciality stuff about poisons.”

“Any time you want to polish your taijutsu,” Raidou said.

In anyone else, it would have just been a comfort. There are still things. We can help. For Kakashi, it was like applying a live wire. His head turned, electric interest kindling in his visible eye. He said, “Now? No, tomorrow. We’re free tomorrow?”

Ryouma said, “Which one? All of them?”

Pakkun gave a whiskey-laugh. “Of course all of them. Before lunch.”

Kakashi’s eye curved.

Apparently it was as simple as that, for once. Relieved, Raidou took a sip of his beer and said, “We can start morning practice with taijutsu and blood-death, see where the day takes us.”

“Poisons for lunch,” Ryouma agreed, with cheerful fatalism. “More getting our heads kicked in before dinner. Maybe we can get the lieutenant’s bathroom walled in, too.”

A month ago, that would have been genuine protest. Today, Raidou suspected that if the answer had been we start tonight, Ryouma would have jumped in with both feet.

Genma drained the remainder of his beer, set the bottle down, and angled himself to look at Raidou directly. “Ueno told me to make sure to look out for you. So… are you doing all right?”

Raidou blinked. Should’ve seen that one coming. But he didn’t brush it aside. Everyone else had been honest. He looked inward for a moment, sifting down through the strata of worried-about-Genma, furious-at-Kuroda, dear-god-rookies, should-it-be-this-hard? “Yes,” he said at last. “I’m sad; I miss her. I’m worried for her in Iwa. But she’s got a strong team. She’ll command them well.” He felt his mouth tilt. “Probably we should be more concerned for Iwa.”

That drew a collective group snort. General feeling among Konoha’s adult shinobi was that Iwa could blow itself off the map and the rest of the world wouldn’t miss it.

“I wish she hadn’t gone,” Raidou said. “But she’ll come back, eventually, and we’ll have some good stories to tell her.”

“She won’t be on Team Six again, though,” Ryouma said.

“No, she won’t,” Genma said. “But Team Six will be a team she can be proud of having helped launch.”

Raidou tilted his bottle, trapping sunset light in the glass. “I’ll drink to that.”

“Me, too,” Pakkun said, hopeful.

Kakashi handed Ryouma the beer he hadn’t drunk, and Pakkun re-draped himself very definitely over Ryouma’s knee. There was an ease about the three of them that hadn’t been there this morning. Kin had settled contentedly, head still resting on Kakashi’s ankle. Her eyes were half-closed. Kakashi’s hand rested on the back of her neck.

Genma eyed his own empty bottle. “You’ll have to share.”

Wordlessly, Raidou took a drink and handed the rest of his beer across. “One request,” he said.

Genma lifted an eyebrow.

“Hatake doesn’t get to poison any of us while you’re teaching him,” Raidou said.

“Aww,” Kakashi said sadly.

Ryouma tugged on Kakashi’s hair, winning a yelp. Genma laughed softly, cradling the beer Raidou had given him, on the roof of his rebuilt home with his restructured team, and said, “No promises.” After a judicious moment, he added, “But I’ll make sure to have plenty of antidote on me.”



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