August 4, Yondaime Year 5
The hallway was embarrassingly silent.
Raidou looked at the broken door sagging off its hinges, the stunned crowd, Ryouma’s vanishing back around the corner, and decided he’d reached the limit of caring.
“Drink?” he asked Genma.
Genma dragged his eyes up from the carpet. Responsible lieutenant logistics warred visibly with exhaustion. Exhaustion won. “Yeah.” He stirred a splinter with his booted foot. “Let me just make sure my drawers are locked.”
Raidou nodded. Genma hadn’t once left the office without making sure his desk drawers were properly secured, but sure.
Wood crunched as Genma picked his way carefully inside. The coffee table was a write-off. That was a shame. Raidou had liked that table. Genma stooped and plucked his Daruma from the wreckage, frowning at a dent in its painted side. He set it gently back on his desk, where it glared with affronted eyes. It had earned the second eye after Raidou’s reinstatement. He suspected they’d need a much bigger Daruma to fix whatever was broken in the rookies.
Genma’s desk, unsurprisingly, was locked.
He unearthed a piece of paper, scribbled a note, and made his way back. The note went on the door jamb. Closed for repairs.
Yamada Kasumi, Team Thirteen’s opinionated rookie, attempted to talk to him. “So—”
Raidou looked at her; she clamped her mouth shut. “Tell Usagi not to touch my shit,” he said, and took Genma by the shoulder, steering him through the crowd.
They went to Raidou’s place first, pausing just long enough for him to swap his uniform for jeans and a button-down shirt. The bed lurked in the corner, soft and blessedly horizontal, promising sleep, except that Raidou was too wound up to indulge, thank you, Hatake.
Genma’s loft was next, where Genma repeated the process for broken-in jeans and a soft brown t-shirt that did golden things for his skin tone. He took an extra second to twist his hair up, pinning it in place with a lethal black senbon.
They didn’t actually talk again until they were outside, walking shoulder-to-shoulder down Konoha’s warm streets in the afternoon sun. Nothing was obviously cratered or smoking, so Raidou guessed Kakashi had taken his issues outside of city limits.
Genma inhaled deeply, lean ribcage expanding, and raised his arms over his head. His shoulders cracked one after the other. He dropped his arms and hooked his thumbs into his belt loops. “I’m still not sure what just happened.”
Neither was Raidou.
“Idiocy squared,” he suggested grimly.
“Idiocy to the tenth. Maybe even the hundredth.” Genma chewed his bottom lip, briefly without a senbon to distract his teeth. “Is something going on between them that we missed?”
Raidou pinched the bridge of his nose. Thought about the aching crack in Kakashi’s voice, the way Ryouma had whiplashed from rage to guilt, the way their two rookies had actually gone at each other with real intent, and felt his temples throb. “Gods, I hope not. But— maybe? Probably. Are you talking about their usual inability to human, or something that needs A Talk?”
A strand of hair had come loose and fallen over Genma’s face, tickling the corner of his mouth; he blew upwards, dislodging it. “It… seemed like a little more than their usual failure mode. Probably will need a talk. But right now I think I’d rather drink poison.”
“Agreed.” Raidou scanned over the village once more, searching for obvious catastrophe. It stayed quiet. “Fuck it. We’re officially off-duty. If they blow themselves up, the Uchiha Police can deal with it. They get hazard pay.”
Genma’s shoulders slouched comfortably, like a man dropping a great weight. “They do. At least until the day after tomorrow, this is officially Not Our Problem.” He flashed a quick, tired smile, and his shoulder met Raidou’s, a jostle that turned into a lean. “Where do you want to go? Izakaya Hachi has really good eel this time of year, and at least six good brands of beer.”
It wasn’t quite the Day of the Ox, if Raidou had his calender right — and he wasn’t entirely certain about that. So there likely was good eel in the village, being stockpiled for the civilian custom of eating it all on the right day to gain extra stamina for the rest of the year. But honestly, he just wanted alcohol and quasi-sane company.
“I was thinking The Hidden Hare,” he said.
“Sounds good to me,” Genma said easily. “As strung out as we are, probably better to stick with a ninja bar anyway.”
It was only a short walk.
The Hidden Hare was tucked well away from the civilian districts, in a narrow little alley between a blacksmith and a shoemaker. The windows were blacked out; there wasn’t a sign above the door. At first glance, it looked like a storage room for one of the neighboring businesses. At second glance, you might notice the seal scratched into the doorframe under layers of old paint.
Raidou leaned his tattooed shoulder against the wall, and felt a little spark as chakra connected. Something slick and metallic clicked smoothly in the door. Genma reached around him and turned the handle. The door opened freely, letting out a waft of warm, beer-scented air. Genma made a gentlemanly gesture, holding the door open.
Amused, Raidou crossed the threshold, and for the first time since they’d gotten home, felt his own shoulders relax a little.
It was the hottest part of the afternoon, and even warmer inside, but cold beer was an excellent antidote for overheated bodies and emotions. “Four Whipray Ambers,” Genma told the bartender, while Raidou found them a table.
“Four, huh?” Wadakami Aina, the bartender-proprietor, was a 50-something former ANBU agent who hadn’t let a career-ending injury stop her from providing essential service to Konoha. The Hidden Hare, with its ANBU-only entrance, was a sacred retreat where agents could share a drink and frank conversation. “Rough mission? Want some food to go with that?”
“They’re not all for me,” Genma said, nodding at Raidou across the room. “But we’re going to need at least two each. Food’s probably smart.”
“You know your options,” Aina told him. She gestured at her limited menu board.
Genma was past the point of making decisions, so it was just as well there weren’t many choices. “Niku-dango and edamame,” he said. “And pickles.”
“Coming up. Want me to run you a tab?”
“Sure.” Genma stifled a yawn, and turned to lean against the bar while he waited for their food. The Hidden Hare was still fairly empty — that would change as afternoon melted into evening, but it was a relief to have the place mostly to themselves for now. Raidou had claimed a table along the east wall. A few tables down from him, a trio of ANBU in uniform laughed and clinked their bottles together. Genma recognized the violet-haired woman and her companions from HQ’s halls, but didn’t know their names.
There were no rookies here. That was sacrosanct. The transition from rookie to veteran wasn’t marked by much ceremony in ANBU, but it was a rare officer who didn’t take their former rookies to the Hidden Hare for a drink on the last day of their first year. It made the Hidden Hare a refuge for officers and veterans who’d come to the end of their ropes shepherding their subordinates.
Genma was definitely at the end of his rope.
When Aina plunked a tray containing their food and four sweating bottles down on the bar next to him, Genma shook dire thoughts about arrogant, entitled prodigies and soul-damaged geniuses away, at least for a moment, and made his way back to Raidou.
“Hope you like Whipray,” he said, sliding into a chair. He uncapped two bottles and handed one to Raidou with the blue and silver stingray logo foremost.
“Does it contain alcohol?” Raidou asked. He downed half his bottle in a single long swallow.
“Eight-and-a-half percent,” Genma read from the label. “We can switch to shouchuu if you want to get drunk faster, but I figured we ought to start slow since it’s still light out.”
Raidou emptied the rest of his first bottle and wiped the foam from his lips with the back of his hand. Uncapping a second with a deft finger twist, he leaned back comfortably in his chair and took a much more measured sip. “This is fine.” He squinted at the label. “Wind Country?”
“I think the stingray is ironic,” Genma said. “Ask anyone what’s in Wind Country and they’ll say sand dunes, even though Wind has one of the world’s longer sea coasts.” He drained his own beer to the halfway mark, separated a pair of chopsticks with a snap, and took one of the sweet-sauced meatballs, content to keep avoiding the gnarlier topics for the moment.
“So it’s ‘fuck you’ beer,” Raidou said. He managed a wry smile. “Good for them.”
“It’s a ‘fuck you’ kind of day,” Genma said. “Seemed appropriate.”
Raidou snorted a rough, ugly laugh. “Lieutenant, I am shocked.”
“Captain,” Genma said seriously, “just so you’re aware, I intend to make myself thoroughly unfit for duty for the next twenty-four hours. And I hope you’ll join me.” He lost his grasp on false formality at the end, and snickered into his beer.
Raidou’s smile turned warm, with crinkle-cornered eyes and a lopsided lift to the right side of his mouth. He lifted his bottle for a clink to solidify the agreement.
They made their way through their bar food and beers. Raidou picked up the next round — a fruity Fire Country ale in a red-labeled bottle — and a plate of kara-age. Other ANBU drifted in, adding quiet voices and the soft clink of other bottles and glasses to the background noise.
And then the door clicked open and Omashi’s sharp-pitched voice came sailing into the bar. “Did you assholes hear Hatake just took out his own goddamn office?”
A half dozen heads whipped up, attention on this exciting new development
Genma met Raidou’s eye and cringed. He hunkered low over his beer, hoping to escape Omashi’s notice, but it was too late.
“Wait, Six is here.” Omashi arrowed for their table. “Namiashi, what the ever-fucking fuck?”
Raidou, bless his soul, stonewalled with solid basalt. “Nope.” He met Omashi’s eye and took a pointed sip of beer.
“Come on,” Omashi protested. “Your office is a fucking crime scene and—” He seemed to notice Genma for the first time. “Hi, Shiranui.”
Genma gave him a pained nod.
“There were at least a dozen witnesses so you may as well spill,” Omashi continued. “Sunada said all four of you came out of Sagara’s office looking like you’d had raw ginger enemas right before your rookies tried to kill each other—”
Raidou planted a fist on the table. “We are not discussing it.” Every word was lead-plated.
They had an audience now. The violet-haired woman and her teammates. All of Team 23. Omashi’s lieutenant, Kobayashi Sei, who slid a beer into Omashi’s hand as she arrived.
“Shiranui, you tell us, then,” Omashi commanded.
“Can you please, just for today, fuck off and let it drop, Omashi?” Genma muttered.
Omashi stared at Genma, eyes wide in surprise. “Hey,” he said, contrite, “I just meant—”
Morioka, captain of Team 23, reached over to give Genma a sympathetic pat on the shoulder. “Ignore him,” she said. “Omashi, read the room for once. They don’t want to talk about it.”
“Nope,” Raidou said, more agreeably. “We want to drink about it.”
Omashi’s eyes fell on the chorus line of empties at the back edge of the table, the open drinks in Genma’s and Raidou’s hands, and the on-deck beers sweating in the heat. He nodded slowly. “I guess you fucking do.” He sounded impressed.
“You know what?” Kobayashi said. “We’ll buy your next round. Call it a makeup birthday present, since you missed yours, Shiranui.”
“How do you know when my birthday is?” Genma asked, genuinely surprised. Kobayashi was a fellow lieutenant, but outside of ANBU, an acquaintance at best.
“Everyone knows when your birthday is,” Morioka said. “At least if they like pastries. Your dad baked a cake practically as tall as you are and put it out front at his bakery.”
Genma cringed again. He hadn’t been home yet. His dad had probably been sick with worry, with Genma unaccounted for during those missing weeks the tanuki had stolen.
“If you’re about to start complaining about being old, I’m rescinding that offer to buy the next round,” Kobayashi told him.
“No, it’s just… We haven’t been outside of HQ since we got back from our mission. And we were sort of late. My dad’s probably freaking out.”
“He’s fine.” Ginta, with his usual freakish talent, appeared out of thin air and slid into the seat next to Genma. He had that skill in common with Hatake, and damnit, Genma was not spending any more mental energy on Hatake until he’d gotten enough alcohol into himself to obliterate his sense of balance—
Genma dismissed Kakashi from his mind and turned to give Ginta a faintly annoyed look. “How do you know he’s fine?”
“Because his moms,” Ginta pointed at Raidou, “told him.”
The warm comfort of too much beer evaporated.
“Sakamoto,” Raidou said evenly. “Why have you been near my mothers?”
Ginta’s blond head tipped at a quizzical angle. “Surely you’re not afraid that I represent any kind of threat to their womanly virtues?”
Because he was just so fluffy and gay, and not at all a twisted little assassin who’d apparently been keeping tabs on Raidou’s family—
Genma’s elbow thumped bruisingly into Ginta’s ribs before Raidou could represent an immediate threat to Ginta’s throat. Ginta coughed, clutching his side, and gave Genma a wounded look. “Ow. Unkind, Genma.”
“Sakamoto,” Raidou growled.
“Relax,” Ginta said, still rubbing his side. “I haven’t even met your moms. I heard it from Usagi, and she heard it from Abe, who was at the bakery buying buns for our team when your moms showed up with the good news.”
Raidou gave him a narrow look.
Ginta returned it guilelessly, palms raised and empty, as if he didn’t have an arsenal tucked away somewhere in his nicely tailored, expensive clothes. His blue eyes ticked once to Genma, just a shade warm; pleased his friend was home, inviting him to share this very funny joke. Raidou grunted, but reluctantly unbristled.
The door opened again, spilling another knot of people into the bar. All wearing civvies, but all moving with the liquid grace of high-level shinobi. Usagi split out from the pack, dropping down next to Raidou. “Hey, Namiashi! I hear your boys went batshit.”
Raidou put his head down on the table. “Did they get arrested yet?”
“Don’t think so,” Usagi said.
“Then we’re not talking about it. In fact, unless you have beer or birthday wishes for Genma, we’re not talking at all.”
“Oof, grumpy.” Usagi rumpled her fingers through Raidou’s hair, making him sit back up to swat her off. “Cheer up, buttercup, it’s not all bad.” She looked at Genma. “Birthday boy, huh? How old? What’d you get? Any birthday kisses yet?”
Genma blinked at her. “Twenty-two. Sixty hours of the worst debriefing I’ve ever been through post-mission, and beers with Raidou. And… yes. Maybe?” Two spots of color rode high on his cheeks, though that might have been from the beer. “Not today, though.”
“Twenty-two?” Usagi said, delighted. “That’s it? You’re a baby.”
“Because you’re ancient at twenty-five,” Raidou said.
She ignored him. “Only one birthday kiss? Namiashi, you’re letting the side down.” She leaned across the table, cupped Genma’s face between her hands and planted a firm kiss on his startled mouth, making the surrounding crowd whoop. When she sat back, grinning, Genma looked faintly shell-shocked. “There. Two down, twenty to go. Volunteers?”
“Aren’t you dating Satomi?” Raidou demanded, as Omashi whistled, Ginta laughed, and at least three people he didn’t know put their hands up.
Usagi’s grin widened. “What’s your point?”
“You’re actually dating now?” Genma asked, still shell-shocked but also pleased for her. “Like girlfriends?”
Usagi nodded, just a little pink herself.
Ginta took advantage of the distraction to launch a tactical strike on Genma, darting in to steal an extremely thorough kiss. When they parted, Genma’s mouth was red, his cheeks were redder, and Raidou was convinced the world was a cruel and unfeeling place that contained insufficient beer.
“Nineteen,” Omashi crowed, and leaned over the seat back to kiss Genma’s flaming cheekbone, roughly affectionate. Genma flailed at him, and he sat back with a cackle. “Eighteen.”
Morioka booed. “Cheeks don’t count, lips only.”
“Hey, fuck you, my lips are a gift applied anywhere,” Omashi said, raising his beer with one hand and a rude gesture with the other.
Morioka snorted, caught Genma’s eye with a silent question, and settled eighteen with a polite, chaste peck on his mouth. Kobayashi got seventeen. Raidou went to get more beer.
“Missing your chance,” Aina said, lining up bottles on the gleaming wooden bar.
“Lowering your tip,” Raidou said.
Her mouth curved, deepening wrinkles at the corners. “Touchy.”
“Bartender,” she said, amused. “Tempura?”
“Gods, yes,” Raidou said.
She waved him away, ducking into the tiny back kitchenette where oil bubbled promisingly in a cast iron pot. Raidou took his armful of beers back to the table, which contained several more people than he remembered. Masaoka Reiko, captain of the team who’d so competently extracted Team Six from Arechi Hill Safehouse and escorted them home, was sitting on Genma’s other side, watching him with bright eyes. Her lieutenant, a slender man with pale, curly hair, was laughing as Genma protested that, no, really, he was fine on birthday kisses and didn’t need any more, thank you. The next table over was full of Team 23 and the relocated violet-haired kunoichi and her friends. Raidou thought they were from Team 34.
A swarm of small beetles buzzed past his face, settling in Genma’s hair like jewelry. They waved their little antenna, and one walked delicately down the side of Genma’s face to settle on his nose. He went cross-eyed looking at it.
“Bug kisses do not count,” Usagi said.
Genma laughed, careful not to shake his head too much, and gently brushed the insects off. They swirled up like a crown and flitted away. A lean woman with dark sunglasses waved shyly at Genma, and he jolted, recognizing her. “Makio!”
Raidou knew the name, too, from Genma’s file. Aburame Makio had been on his team last year. She mouthed: happy birthday! Genma beamed at her. His eyes were bright, skin flushed with alcohol and affection, shoulders loose and hands easy, and Raidou couldn’t help his own mouth curling into a smile, just a little.
They’d wanted a distraction.
He muscled back into his seat, jostling Usagi’s elbow, and set the bottles down, defending two while the others were immediately stolen. He handed one of the survivors to Genma, who took it with more gratitude than it really warranted.
Aina came by a few minutes later, bearing wire baskets of deep-fried vegetables and shrimp, which were greeted with cheers. She set the nicest one down in front of Genma, and he stared bemusedly at the thin beeswax candle jammed into a piece of tempura sweet potato. The little flame danced.
“Happy birthday, youngster,” she said, and leaned down to press a lipsticked kiss to Genma’s temple. “Make a good wish.”
Genma thought for a moment of all the things he could wish for. There were the big ones like peace and prosperity for Konoha and Fire Country. Practical ones like financial security for his dad, good health, safety on missions, and for the rookies to get over their combined traumas and personality defects and stop being problems.
And then there were the little, personal wishes. Like a fix for the situation where the one person at the table who wasn’t giving him a birthday kiss was the only one he really wanted a kiss from.
He looked up across the tiny candle and saw Raidou smiling fondly, pink-cheeked from beer, with the anxious lines of the last several days nearly erased from his face and posture. His eyes were a little tired, but three days of nothing but brief naps, black coffee, and soldier pills would do that to anyone.
Genma looked back down, closed his eyes, and made his wish. Let my friends be happy.
Someone clapped him on the shoulder. “You’re obviously not pregnant, since you’re a medic and you’re drinking. So what’d you wish for, a gross of condoms for when that sex pollen gets you going again?”
Genma turned to find the speaker, Arai Futoshi, a veteran floater, leering at him.
“Sex pollen. You know, that made your whole team so horny you missed your check-in by three weeks?”
“Sex plant,” Usagi corrected. “Ask Ginta.”
A ripple of laughter fluttered around Genma’s head. He took a long, cold swallow of beer and tried to make sense of that.
“Arai, de-sphincter your fucking head. It was a lust demon an’ you know it.” Omashi leaned across Genma to take a handful of edamame.
“What are you even talking about?” Genma asked.
“I thought they had to chase down Tousaki after he want AWOL to play in a band or something,” Morioka’s lieutenant offered. Uchiha Yusuke, Genma’s brain supplied belatedly. One who didn’t take after the clan phenotype. Maybe that was why they’d let him join ANBU. “It makes sense. Why else was Sagara raking them over the coals?”
Genma gave Raidou a helpless look.
Raidou took a relaxed sip of beer. “We were shrunk to the size of ants and spent three weeks in a giant’s pocket.” He plucked a mushroom from one of the tempura platters. “Obviously.”
Ginta, at Genma’s side, was very quietly cracking up in hysterics.
“That’s not— I thought the giant thing was still super classified.” Genma leaned forward to pierce Raidou with a reproachful look. “Sagara’s gonna kill you if she finds out.”
“Giants? Wait. Giants?”
Genma didn’t bother to turn around to see who was talking.
“Oh, come on, that’s the dumbest cover story I have ever heard. It was the sex pollen — sex plant — thing,” Arai said. “I heard it from Akimichi Kou-chan at the hospital. And from my source in Intel.”
“Your source that’s as imaginary as your girlfriend?” Omashi scoffed.
While they bickered, a few of Makio’s beetles came back to investigate the table. Genma used a chopstick to transfer a droplet of beer to the polished surface for them.
Raidou tipped an amused smile at Genma, and munched happily on fried things while the off-duty ANBU argued their theories. When the arguments wound down, he sat back and spread his hands wide. “No, you’re right, it was the sex plants. That makes the most sense.”
Omashi’s eyebrows climbed high on his forehead. “Really?”
Raidou’s answering look would have made a Hyuuga proud. “No.”
Genma raised his bottle to clink a congratulating toast against Raidou’s, over Omashi’s outraged screech.
“I told you they didn’t want to talk about it,” Morioka pointed out.
Omashi scowled, but he let it drop.
The party eventually broke up, as groups of friends went back to doing whatever they’d come into the bar to do. Genma apologized to Makio for getting her beetles drunk and promised her lunch soon. The violet-haired kunoichi and her group went back to their table and Genma still didn’t know their names.
Eventually it was just Usagi and Ginta sitting with them.
“Well done. I’m proud of you both,” Ginta said serenely. “And thank you. The sex plant theory is making me a lot of money right now.”
“That’s my little shithead,” Usagi said congenially.
“You started all those rumors, didn’t you?” Genma spun his empty bottle on its base.
“I spread misinformation to protect your highly classified but profoundly interesting mission from the prying eyes and ears of our nosy comrades!”
“You’re profiteering,” Raidou said, sounding resigned to it.
“Profiteering only happens when there’s scarcity,” Ginta said. “And there’s definitely no shortage of rumors in this town. I’m just taking advantage of an abundant natural resource.”
Genma tried to come up with a clever response, but all he managed was an ironic, “Wow.”
Ginta beamed. “My favorite was the sex-change one.” He launched into a detailed elaboration of the many stories he’d seeded around ANBU and in a few strategic ancillary locations like Intel and the hospital.
Genma studied the litter of bottles that covered well over half the table and yawned, paying only vague attention to Ginta’s tale of intrigue. “Did we drink all of these?” he asked Raidou. “I’m drunk, but I’m not twelve-beers drunk.”
“Pretty sure we were helped,” Raidou told him.
“Good.” He yawned again, a proper, jaw-cracking, eye-watering yawn with a stretch.
“Am I actually boring you?” Ginta made an elaborately hurt face.
“No. I’m just tired.” And Ginta was a little tiring even under the best of circumstances. “I should go crash, I think. Thanks for my birthday kisses. I won’t tell Satomi if you don’t,” he added to Usagi.
“That’s a shame,” Usagi said with a wicked grin, “because I was planning to tell her in detail.”
“Please don’t,” Genma said. “I don’t want to wake up to a jealous Uchiha armed with a dull kunai standing over my bed.”
Usagi just laughed. As Raidou started to stand, she reached up and patted his cheek, and told him, “He’s still three kisses shy.”
Raidou whacked his hipbone against the table and staggered painfully into the aisle, which at least distracted him from the urge to throttle his friend. “Ow—sonuva—”
Usagi snickered. “Graceful.”
“We’re no longer friends,” Raidou said, rubbing his hip. “You’re dead to me.”
“Uh huh.” She stood, and, unusually, kissed him on the cheek instead of whacking him on the arm. He blinked at her. She smiled. “Lighten up, grumpy bear. You’ll chase all the cute critters away.”
On the other side of the table, Ginta was assisting Genma to his feet, steadying him when verticality and alcohol combined to add a little sway in Genma’s step. None of them had drunk that much, at least compared to some nights Raidou could only sort of remember, but sleep deprivation and stress would kick you sideways before alcohol even got involved, and they’d had plenty of both.
The lights had a certain smeared quality to them.
“Okay?” he asked Genma.
Genma grinned, hanging cheerfully from Ginta’s neck. “Excellent. I am the exact amount of drunk I wanted to be when we started.”
“Poisoner intoxicate thyself,” Ginta said, with a laugh. He patted Genma on the ass. “Well done, champ.”
It took Genma a second to look down. “Hey,” he said, in vague protest.
That was clearly enough of that.
Raidou untangled Genma’s grip, taking a firm hold on his elbow, and steered him towards the door. Just before they reached the handle, Raidou turned and fixed Ginta with a look. “Sakamoto, if I hear rumors about this tomorrow, I will find you and kill you. Know that.”
Ginta pressed a slim hand to his throat, theatrically wounded. “I would never. Plus there are at least two dozen witnesses in here. Any one of them might be the source.”
“You better jump on them, then,” Raidou said, and pushed Genma outside. The door closed on Usagi’s cackling laughter.
The sun was setting over the village, golden-glorious, draping the buildings in warm fire and painting the sky with pretty bruise colors. Raidou blinked, disconcerted that it wasn’t already night — it felt later. At least the air had cooled a little.
Genma turned away from the horizon and tipped his face up to Raidou. He looked thoughtful, almost pleased. “Did you know your hair turns red at sunset?”
Raidou had not.
He wasn’t quite sure what to do with that information, now that he had it, except be flattered that Genma had noticed. Worried that Genma had noticed. “Mom’s a redhead,” he said, which was at least neutral.
Genma’s hair was almost blond in the light. That same fine strand had fallen across his face again, resting at the edge of his mouth. Raidou’s fingers twitched with the desire to stroke it back. He stuffed his hands into his pockets.
“C’mon,” he said. “Home, sleeping.”
Genma slung a lean-muscled arm around his shoulders. “My place is closer, if you want to crash there. Or have another beer before bed so we can keep our drunk going. I’ve got sake, too, if you want to switch it up.”
All three of those sounded like bad ideas, but when had they actually had a good once recently?
Genma had a couch.
“Just no more Whipray,” Raidou said.
Genma smiled. “Noted. Too bitter for you? I think you brought the beer that’s in my fridge right now, so it should be one you like.” His face scrunched into a frown. “I’ll have to clean my fridge, though. I think I had eggplant in there.” He brightened up again. “At least the miso will still be good, that stuff never spoils.”
Somehow, it didn’t surprise Raidou that Genma was a rambly drunk. He made an encouraging sound, and Genma obliged by keeping up a steady, pleasant, mostly one-sided conversation for the walk back to his loft. The narrow metal stairs behind the building were black and warm after the day’s heat.
There was a small cat sitting on the top one.
Genma was leading the way. He stopped first, blinking down at it, then crouched with a slight wobble, and offered his hand to it. “You’re new here, kitty. Have you come to hunt mice in the warehouse?”
The cat narrowed brilliant green eyes, and said, “Finally. Where the hell have you been?”
Genma jolted backwards, only prevented from falling down the stairs by Raidou’s legs. “What? How drunk am I?”
“Not that drunk,” Raidou said, staring at the cat. “Uh. Summons, I’m guessing. You have a message for us?”
“Not you,” the cat said, dismissively. The voice was distinctly female, with a sandy alto quality.
Genma staggered back to his feet, assisted by the railing and Raidou’s hand on his shoulder. “So, me then? What’s the message?”
Who in the village even summoned cats? Someone in Intel? Gods, don’t let it be Kuroda.
The cat gave Genma a long, considering look, unblinking, and said, “Scratch my ears.”
Genma leaned over and scratched the cat’s ears, giving Raidou a helpless, baffled look as he did so.
The cat leaned into his hand, eyes slitting narrower with apparent enjoyment. She was a brown tabby, with neat white paws. After a moment, she ducked liquidly away. “Adequate. Let me inside.”
There was a talking cat — obviously a Summons, but who summoned cats? — on his doorstep. And Genma was, as promised, entirely unfit for duty. But that didn’t mean he was going to let a potential enemy agent into his home. “I need to know who sent you, first,” he told the cat.
Her ears laid back. “No one sent me. I volunteered.”
“Oh. Uh…” Cats were touchy creatures, capricious and easily offended. That must go double for Summons. Who had chakra. Genma’s intelligence finally made its way past his blood alcohol level. He let his chakra sense unfurl and felt the warm brightness of the creature in front of him. Sunny yellow, like a midsummer day. It was organized and tidy, with nothing that felt like hostile intent ruffling its shape.
Behind him, Raidou’s evergreen shade was a reassuring bulwark. If this went sideways, it would be two on one. And it was an ordinary, cat-sized cat.
“Okay.” He unlocked his door and swiped his palm across a script-embellished seal on the door jamb to deactivate the protections he had against intruders. “Can I at least know your name?” he asked, as the cat pushed past him to enter as soon as he’d cracked the door open.
She paused on the threshold to look up at him, tail swishing gently. After a moment’s consideration, she said, “You may call me Hotaru.” She strolled in and began to thoroughly investigate his loft, starting in his screened-off sleeping area, sniffing at every corner. She inspected his half-full laundry hamper and trapised across his bed, leaving tiny paw dents in the covers. Then the bathroom, where she jumped in and out of his bathtub and hopped up on the vanity to give his grooming supplies a critical eye.
Genma followed her warily, with Raidou at his side, while she headed back to the main living area of the loft. She sniffed under the low table that would be a kotatsu in winter, balanced delicately along the spine of Aoba’s donated couch, and ended her tour in the kitchen. After a cursory inspection of the lower shelves, she leapt up onto the counter and stalked through the cardboard boxes holding Genma’s dry goods. With each one she inspected, her tail twitched faster, and her ears flicked back further. Finally, she turned around and gave Genma what could only be described as a chastising glare. “Don’t you eat?”
“I eat,” Genma protested. “I just haven’t been home for a few weeks. But there’s rice and ramen, and I have miso and pickles in the fridge. And eggs. Probably.”
“You should get fish,” Hotaru announced. “And chicken.” She seated herself on the counter, tail still lashing, and begin to lick her paw with deceptive nonchalance. “I can bring livers of rats and mice—there are plenty in the walls—but you must provide the fish.”
She wanted to feed him rat and mouse livers? Genma was starting to wish he’d had one more beer before they left the bar.
Raidou sat heavily on the couch, stretched his arms along the back, and yawned broadly before he asked, “Is the message just dietary advice, or did you have something important to impart? Because we’ve been awake for three days, and that’s gonna kill him a lot faster than missing out on vitamins.”
She stopped washing to stare at him. “Why are you still here? The tanuki said you aren’t a mated pair. Yet.”
Several competing oh shits crashed inside Genma’s inebriated brain at once. The tanuki had sent her. They’d broken their word to the tanuki about Nomiya. Or Ryouma and Kakashi had broken Kurenai’s word to the tanuki, anyway, and that was a problem. Also, the tanuki had sent a cat? Also mated pair? Yet???
Raidou looked like he was having a similar conflagration of thoughts. Whatever this cat wanted or was here to say, Genma very much wanted her to say it and leave, so they could get back to drinking and pretending they didn’t have problem rookies or troubled superiors or any concerns of their own besides how hungover they’d be in the morning.
“He’s here because I invited him,” Genma said. He grabbed a pair of bottles from the fridge, which emitted less of a stench than he’d feared when he opened it, and joined Raidou on the couch. “Why are you here?”
“You let me in.” She jumped off the counter with a small, soft mew of impact as she hit the floor, and sauntered across to inspect Genma’s legs. Evidently satisfied, she rubbed against his shins and twined herself between his feet. “Your grandmother had a contract with us.”
Genma reached down to scratch Hotaru’s ears almost without thinking. She was a cat. He liked cats. And he was definitely too drunk to be doing this right now. Not that it seemed there was a choice. “My grandmother? My dad never said anything about it. And I mean, wouldn’t my mom have known something like that?”
“Fumiko never passed the contract on. She just stopped summoning us.” Hotaru eeled out from between his legs, jumped onto his lap, and turned several small circles before she found the best spot on his thighs to settle down.
Evidently she was staying, then.
“We don’t have a gate to your world like the tanuki do,” she continued peevishly. “I had to borrow theirs to come here. And then hunt for days before I found you.” Her tail tip lashed, and her claws dug into his jeans for a moment, before she noticed and retracted them. “Mochi was very helpful. You should give her more fish, too.”
“Mochi’s my cat at the bakery,” Genma told Raidou, not remembering if Raidou already knew that. He was still trying to make all the new facts line up in a meaningful way.
If the tanuki had helped the cats find Genma, then maybe they weren’t angry?
Raidou, who managed to get his legs under him faster than Genma, leaned forward to ask, “Are you here to make a new contract?”
“Maybe,” Hotaru said. She tilted her head back to look up at Genma, narrow-eyed with distrust. “What happened to Fumiko’s?”
“I don’t know,” Genma said. He opened the beers he’d brought over, handed one to Raidou, and took a swig of the other one. “My grandmother died during the Second War before I was ever born. I never knew her, or my mom, really. Mom died when I was still in diapers. Maybe she didn’t even know about the contract?”
Hotaru’s tail lashed against Genma’s wrist, beating hard enough that it almost stung. Her claws flexed in and out, stinging pinpricks into his skin through his jeans. “Yes,” she muttered to herself. “That might have been it. A very long silence…” She rolled onto her back, and pinned Genma with a fierce stare that was only made a little comical by her bared-belly posture. “You have no other contract. The tanuki would have known. The dogs came with the nasty little boy, not with you.”
Genma tried very hard not to laugh. This was not a funny moment. But he was drunk and beyond sleep deprived, and there was an angry-ish cat summons rolling around on his lap who had just called Kakashi a nasty little boy. He didn’t outright cackle, but he definitely snorted and choked on his beer.
Hotaru made a low little growling sound, like Mochi did when she was tired of being petted.
“No.” Genma said hoarsely. “No contracts.”
Hotaru’s eyes slitted almost closed. “Mochi said you give very good belly rubs.”
That was a trap even the most inexperienced genin ought to be able to spot. Mochi liked belly rubs, yes. She rolled on her back and purred like a hive of bees when he did it, but after two or three passes, she would, inevitably, eviscerate Genma’s hand.
Which had taught him to have faster reactions…
He reached down to give Hotaru’s soft belly a gentle swipe. “Is Mochi one of you? A Summons, I mean?”
A soft little motor began to rumble under his fingers. “Mochi is a cat. Yes, there.” She wiggled, opening up more of her belly for access, and purred louder when he obliged. “All cats are clever. Not like dogs.” There was frank disgust in her tone.
“Himself didn’t like the dogs. But Kakashi’s dogs are clever — the ones I met, anyway — and Kin is sweet,” Genma said. “Although a wolf god threatened to amputate Tousaki’s arm and another one bit Raidou in half, so—”
“Nearly bit me in half,” Raidou interjected, as if that were sufficiently mitigating.
“Nearly bit him in half. So…” That was the third pass of his palm, and Hotaru was still purring and relaxed. Genma’s shoulder started to tense anyway, prepared to snatch his hand out of the danger zone. “So you don’t like the dogs, either?”
“Some of them are all right,” Hotaru said, “but no one likes their Old Ones. Our Old Ones, now…” She captured Genma’s hand with soft paws, sniffed a knuckle, and gave it a sandpaper swipe before she let him resume petting. “You won’t meet them. But they won’t object if a few of us sign another contract. They don’t care to visit this world, but we make our own decisions.”
“That sounds like cats.” Genma yawned through a hazy, cotton-wrapped feeling. She’d licked his hand, still amenable to belly rubs, which seemed encouraging. “Do you want me to sign a contract with you? If the original scroll is lost, how do we even do that?”
Raidou was halfway down his beer, and still yawning, but he seemed interested in where this was going, too.
“We have a copy,” Hotaru said. “Amended, of course. Not all the original signatories wished to resume. Some have had their fill of the human world, but others may join, if you impress them.” She twisted upright and jumped from Genma’s lap to sit on the floor with her tail curled around her paws, and her eyes fixed on them. “They sent me to investigate, first. To see if you can be trusted to anchor our gateway into this world.”
No one had ever explained what it meant to be a contract holder to him quite like that before. It was a weighty responsibility, and it said a lot about his grandmother. And Kakashi. And exactly how transgressive Kakashi’s reversing the summoning jutsu had been.
Also, a question bubbled up through the seriousness, just what exactly would it take to impress a cat?
He leaned back into the couch, shoulder to shoulder with Raidou, and tried to make sense of the new shape of the world.
“Wait. If you talked to Mochi, does that mean you talked to Handsome Bastard at Raidou’s moms’ place, too?”
Yeah, that was the thing to focus on. Not the magical talking cat offering an arsenal of shiny feline weapons, but what tourist spots she’d seen.
Hotaru blinked languidly. “I talked to all the bakery cats, and all the dock cats. None with that name. Though a few were rather handsome.”
Raidou stared at the little cat and found himself contemplating the unsettling question of whether summons and regular animals…
Probably better not to ask.
“That thing you said about anchoring a gateway into this world,” he said. “Is it dangerous for the summoner?”
On the surface, probably a dumb question. Kakashi summoned his dogs without a problem, but Kakashi was also a terrible barometer for success and safety. Raidou’s practical knowledge of summoners was tiny, except that contracts almost always belonged to old families and high-level ninja, and the secrets about their contents were closely guarded.
The team had also spent hours over the past few days with excitable, white-faced Intel agents wanting to know exactly what Kakashi’s reverse-summoning jutsu had done, and why it hadn’t killed them.
So, there was that, too.
Hotaru licked one white paw consideringly, and cleaned the side of her face. “Life is dangerous,” she said. “Hunting, hiding, fighting. A summons contract requires your blood and chakra, and our time and teeth and claws. You might summon us into a fight you have no hope of winning, or send us scouting into a trap, or leave us behind to guard your escape. Some of us are bored in our world, and curious about yours; we know the risks. But we do not intend to accept them blindly.” Her pointed ears flicked back, forwards. She set her paw down again. “Fumiko and her mothers were good to us. That’s why I came, after the tanuki told us about their visitors. But we aren’t so bored that we’ll take a contract with a summoner we can’t trust.”
Which didn’t quite answer Raidou’s question, but he got her meaning. Not so risky they weren’t willing to try it.
He looked at Genma and raised his eyebrows. What’re you thinking?
“That makes sense,” Genma said slowly. “As much as any of this makes sense.” He rubbed a hand over his chin, scraping stubble, and pressed his thumbnail against his lower lip. “What about the Hokage? Would you swear loyalty to Konoha? I mean, I’d hope you’d consider me worthy of your trust, but my loyalty is to Konoha and Yondaime-sama and his successors.”
Hotaru’s ears flattened. Fur ridged along her spine like offended striped glass. “We aren’t offering a contract to your village,” she hissed. “Or your Hokage.” She stretched, long and sinuous, flexing dangerous claws, and yawned like a threat. Pearly fangs glinted in her mouth. She fixed Genma with a hot green glare, tail twitching irritably. “Fumiko always had to think everything out, too, but she knew when to make a decision. I’ll expect your answer when I come back.”
Startlingly fast, the lithe little creature leapt up onto the windowsill, hooked the sliding window open with her claws, and vanished out.
In the consternated silence that followed, Raidou took a long sip of beer.
“Okay, then,” he said. “Welcome home.”
Genma had jerked half out of his seat, like he planned to go cat-chasing through the city. He sat back down. “My life has gotten very weird recently.” He followed Raidou’s example and applied beer to the problem, taking a soothing drink. “Everything that just happened, happened, right? I don’t think anyone spiked my drinks at the bar, but maybe I should be worried.”
Raidou considered this. “Kind of a tame hallucinogenic.” He studied his hand, which failed to melt, warp, or do anything of particular interest. “I think this is just reality. It’s been happening a lot lately.”
“In that case, I fucked that up, I think.” Genma sighed. “I should talk to someone who has a summons. Hatake’s the logical choice, but… Today.”
“Veto,” Raidou said.
Genma picked at the label on his beer. “I wish Asuma was here, maybe he could explain it. He signed his dad’s summoning contract with the monkeys. He used to bring this little loris over who liked to eat fruit and braid my hair. But he’s fucked off to parts unknown.” He grimaced. “I understand why, because he was definitely not okay after Hikouto, but damn his timing. Who else is there?”
Raidou turned over a few thoughts. The Hokage had his toads, but no time or resources to spare. The Sannin were all known for their summons, but none of them were in the village. A few of the Uchiha summoned crows, but… Uchiha.
“Kurenai,” he said at last. “She knows everything.”
Genma’s pinched frown melted into a brief, relieved smile, as if just the notion of Kurenai made everything better. “She does. We should definitely talk to her.”
“Yep.” Raidou saluted this idea with his beer bottle, confirming their plan of action. “But in the morning, when we’re not drunk and stupid. She can tell us if the idiots got arrested, too.”
“Maybe in the later morning, so we’re not hungover, either. Or as hungover.” Genma sighed and let gravity have its way with him, sinking into the upholstered sofa and leaning against Raidou’s shoulder. It was warm and relaxing, and only a little difficult to remind himself to keep the contact chaste. “If she tells us the idiots got arrested, though, we’re not getting them out. They’re still not our problem until at least the day after tomorrow.”
“Hatake can take care of himself,” Raidou said. He yawned elaborately, and slumped a little lower, lolling his head against the back of the sofa. Reflexive tears glistened in his lashes. “Tousaki can make eyes at the Uchiha until they take pity on him.”
The yawn was contagious. Genma tried to fight it, but the attempt was futile. “Thanks for sharing that,” he told Raidou, through a yawn of his own.
“You’re welcome.” Raidou’s eyes crinkled again. Charming and funny.
And chaste, remember? Chaste.
There were too many questions left about the day, anyway. The matter of the uncollected birthday kiss was hardly the thing Genma should be thinking about. But…
“Is Usagi trying to set us up?”
Raidou was quiet for a moment before he answered. “Probably. She’s all newly paired up, wants her single friends to be happy.” He looked tired.
He was tired. Genma was tired. And nothing had changed between them since that night in the tanuki’s hot springs. Neither the desire, nor the reasons to leash it.
“I’m happy right now,” Genma said. “This is nice.”
It wasn’t a lie. They might have been even more happy if they could follow through on Usagi’s suggestion, but there was a lot to be said for the friendship they were forming. He clinked his half-empty bottle against Raidou’s with a loose grip. “You can tell her we’re already happy.”
“Not if it means I have to get up.” Raidou slouched even lower; his warm, muscled arm pressed against Genma’s. He inclined his head towards Genma, with a drink-blurred but thoughtful expression. “If the contract won’t turn you inside out, think you’ll take it?”
“I’d be a fool not to, wouldn’t I?” Genma eyed the still-open window where Hotaru had exited. “The things she said — help in an otherwise unwinnable fight, scouting where we can’t go, rear guard so we can escape — I wouldn’t intentionally summon her, or anyone, into a situation I thought would kill them. I mean, I hope I wouldn’t. But that’s an offer you don’t turn down unless you think it’s a trap.”
Raidou nodded and let his head fall back again, unfocused gaze on the rafters above. “I’m seeing your future filled with judgemental cats. Should be fun.” His mouth quirked up. “Especially with Hatake’s dogs.”
“Kakashi’s dogs are alright. Pakkun I can bribe with beer, and Kin likes me. Of course she likes everyone, but I still think it counts.” Genma let his own head drop back. The senbon in his hair slipped free and clattered to the floor behind them, and his hair fell loose. “Do you think I should take it? Assuming it’s not suicidal?”
“I would.” Raidou gave a small, decisive nod. “Think you can summon a fifteen-foot cat? I’d want twelve of them.”
“Even just one would be amazing.” Genma grinned, sketching the shape of a huge cat in the air. “A horse-size cat you could ride, maybe. Or a tiger! Think about going into a fight with a tiger the size of an ox!”
Raidou laughed, sandy-warm and rough. “Unsubtle, but badass.”
“Since when have you ever been subtle in a fight?”
Raidou raised a finger, paused with his mouth open, then closed it and put down his hand. “Just because I’m too tired to think of an example doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.”
“I believe you,” Genma said fondly. “Actually, you were pretty damn subtle when Hatake’s dogs were hunting us.”
“There you go,” Raidou said, vindicated. He rubbed a hand over his face and cast a look at the door. “S’it gonna make things more awkward if I sleep on your couch?”
Another yawn split Genma’s face at the mere mention of sleep. “No,” he said through it. “It’s not awkward, anyway. This is just—” He waved a hand, unable to summon words to describe the not-exactly-awkward situation they were in. Awkward happened when one party confessed attraction and it wasn’t reciprocated. This was just… “—complicated.”
He ought to get up and get Raidou a blanket and pillow, but it was hard to find the motivation to move.
“You can have the bed, if you want. Or we can share. Not like we haven’t shared a tent a dozen nights running, and that wasn’t awkward.” It just required careful turning away from each other when morning brought inevitable reflexive arousal.
Raidou turned his head to give Genma an ironic look. “Couch is good. We’re friends, me and this couch.” He patted one of the plump cushions like it was a sturdy pet.
“Okay.” Genma leaned forward and staggered to his feet. Raidou slapped a palm to the small of Genma’s back to steady him when Genma threatened to topple, and dropped it again as soon as Genma’s equilibrium stabilized.
“I am definitely going to be unfit for duty tomorrow,” Genma said, ignoring the warmth that lingered from Raidou’s touch. “If you wake up before I do, hangover powders are in the medicine cupboard in a light blue box.” He turned to offer Raidou a hand up as well. “I’ve got a spare toothbrush if you want to brush before you pass out.”
Raidou let himself be hauled up, and staggered off to Genma’s newly walled and tiled bathroom, which only a few weeks prior he’d helped Genma build. He returned a short while later with a scrubbed face and minty breath, to find Genma in the kitchen. Raidou’d shucked down to a slim-fitting t-shirt and loose black boxers for sleeping, following the cardinal rule of sofa surfing — one Genma knew well from his months of bunking in with Aoba — never in your jeans. Raidou set his shed jeans in a neatly folded pile on one of the dining chairs, and hung his button-down shirt over its back.
It was probably a good thing Raidou’d decided to sleep on the couch.
Genma tore his eyes away and handed him a full glass of water. “Drink up.” He downed one himself, and refilled the glass.
Raidou drank, wiped his mouth, and handed the empty glass back. “Tomorrow’s gonna be better, even if we have to kick it in the teeth first.”
“It’s the ANBU way,” Genma said. “Sleep well, Raidou. You know where I’ll be if you need anything.” He pointed to the screens that stood for his not-yet-built bedroom walls.
Raidou nodded, yawned, reached a hand out for a clumsy, affectionate pat on the arm — there was the awkward — and went to stretch himself under the blanket Genma’d set on the sofa for him.
When Genma came back from his own pre-bed ablutions, Raidou was softly snoring. In civvies, off-mission, Raidou looked more vulnerable with his face relaxed in sleep. His softly parted lips were a dangerous temptation. If Genma was going to navigate past mutual attraction to simple friendship, he needed to stop thinking about things like the shape of Raidou’s mouth, the reddish stubble on his jaw, the broad shoulders and firm pecs…
Like that, Shiranui. You’re drunk. Go to bed.
He lingered anyway, for just a moment more, to twitch the blanket higher over Raidou’s shoulders and turn out the lights. Soft light from street lamps outside the warehouse filtered through paper windows to gild Raidou’s silhouette, but it was dark enough to hide his face in shadow.
With one last, regretful look, Genma turned and made his way across the long loft to his own bed.