August 15, Yondaime Year 5
By the time Genma and Raidou said goodbye to the rookies, the sky was a peachy gold and their shadows were long violet streaks on the ground, so it had to be getting on to 1900. Genma checked his watch, but didn’t manage to actually register what he saw, thanks to the lingering sedatives in his system.
“Look at them,” Genma said, eyeing the retreating backs of their rookies. Genma’s right hip and lower back were sore in a way he associated with healing fractures more than stab wounds. Judging by the way Ryouma’s step hitched, he was feeling something similar, but he still looked more alert than he had any right to be. “It’s like Tousaki just took a refreshing nap, and Hatake’s practically bouncy. I should have told them to skip the sedation once I was in there.”
“Yes, grandpa,” Raidou said, voice rich with amusement. “Would you like to shout at clouds next? Maybe kick some kids off the grass?”
“That’s not what I—” Genma started, and then his sense of humor kicked in, and he laughed. “Okay, that’s exactly what I sounded like. I should have said what I actually meant, which is why the hell is he so alert already while I still feel like I was drugged within an inch of my life? If that was light sedation, I don’t want to know what regular looks like.” He yawned, wiped reflexive tears from his eyes, and rolled his shoulders. “Did you still want to get soup? Or curry? Or something that isn’t death eggs? I’m starving.”
“For the record, you made the death eggs and I tried to warn you about them.” Raidou thumped Genma’s shoulder with rough affection. “We should get you something with rice, help soak up that crap in your system. A vegetable wouldn’t hurt either. How about Shitoku?”
“Three or four vegetables, and some fish would be nice,” Genma agreed. “It’s August—maybe they’ll have eel.” He looked up to check what street they were on, and nearly lost his balance. Raidou caught his elbow and steered them both towards one of the narrow alleys that connected Konoha’s busier streets. Pink and red lanterns bounced gaily in the light evening breeze, just starting to glow in the shadows between the buildings. Genma pointed at a stylized sign with a long undulating string of nearly illegible calligraphy, propped next to one unimposing little restaurant door. “Sasabune has unagi on the menu. That’s a good sign. Shitoku wouldn’t want to lose customers to them for want of a seasonal special.”
Raidou immediately changed course to Sasabune, with a cheerful, “Eel it is.” They dodged a pair of kimono-clad civilian grandmothers, and a small, disorganized flock of off-duty chuunin who were still deciding on a restaurant, and arrived at Sasabune’s open door. Raidou pointed at a bench outside. “Sit.”
Genma raised an eyebrow.
“I’m getting takeout. You’re resting.” Raidou’s smile was sunny, but he clearly brooked no argument. He gestured at the bench again.
Genma rolled his eyes and sat. “Eel bento,” he instructed, “with extra pickles and veggies, but no spi–”
“No spinach,” Raidou supplied. He ducked under fluttering indigo-dyed noren and left Genma to people-watch.
The grandmothers disappeared into a narrow candle shop door. The chuunin played a quick game of janken. “Yes!” the winner crowed. “Barbecue!” and led her compatriots out the end of the alley and onto the main street again, presumably heading for Yakiniku Kyuu. More diners drifted down the alley, some stopping to peruse menus, others confidently entering restaurants they’d already decided upon. Genma twisted around on the bench and peered into Sasabune’s atmospheric interior. Raidou appeared to be second in line to order.
That probably left time to duck back out of the alley to a convenience store and pick up some beer to go with dinner, though that ran the risk of annoying his dining companion if Genma didn’t make it back before Raidou had collected their bento and paid.
Also, it turned out that gravity was particularly strong under the bench Genma was sitting on. Beer would be cheaper at the place near his apartment, anyway. Or at least colder by the time they got it home. He leaned back against the building and let his eyes unfocus, until the lanterns were tiny, salmon-shaded suns against the darkening sky.
Shoes scuffed the ground and there was a pointed nearby throat-clearing. Genma opened his eyes—when had he shut them?—to find Raidou blocking his view of the lanterns.
Rosy light haloed Raidou’s head, setting little reddish strands of spiky hair alight. Genma blinked. Raidou held a paper sack in one arm, and offered his other to Genma. “Need a lift back, or can you make it on your own feet?”
Genma accepted Raidou’s hand and rolled upright. “I’m really much less fragile than you think I am, Raidou. Even if you can kick my ass at taijutsu. The walk will wake me up.”
Raidou grinned, lopsided and genuine, showing the slight gap between his teeth. He immediately ruined the charming effect by saying, “I agree with at least one of those statements. Lead on, then.”
“So you admit I might be able to kick your ass at taijutsu?” Genma grinned back, already feeling more alert now that he was on his feet. He didn’t lead so much as set the pace, with Raidou an easy companion at his left.
“Anything is possible,” Raidou said amiably. He kicked a small, tan rock down the alley, banking it off a trash can and into an empty produce box outside a greengrocer’s. “Not likely, but possible.”
“Mission before last proves that.” Genma turned onto a broad street that ran diagonally through Konoha, connecting the river docks, the warehouse district, and the commercial area where they’d found their restaurant. He stretched his arms over his head, relishing the cool whisper of a breeze on his belly when his shirt rode up. He told himself he had no business noticing, but he was fairly sure he caught Raidou’s eyes sliding rightward when he did it. And was fairly pleased about it.
Raidou’s civvies were ones Genma’d seen before. Slouchy, faded jeans with frayed cuffs and a small hole worn in one hip, and a white t-shirt that was just one size bigger than clingy. It was a nice contrast to the warmth in Raidou’s complexion, and a nice showcase for his physique. Also something Genma had no business noticing.
He stopped himself from noticing anything even more dangerous by halting in front of the convenience store. “Beer to go with our eel?”
“And your sedatives?” Raidou deadpanned.
“They’re wearing off, finally,” Genma said. Which even he knew was a flimsy pretense.
Raidou gave Genma the look he usually reserved for one of their subordinates when they said something stupid.
“Fine, tea or juice or something for me. But don’t let my medically-restricted ass stop you from getting beer if you want it. I don’t think I have any at home—we drank it all after the broken door fiasco.”
“I’d rather have water,” Raidou said, with a little head shake. “This mission’s already left enough of a hangover.”
“When you put it like that… Yeah.” Genma started moving again. “Water it is. Or tea. Tea goes with eel.”
The closer they got to the warehouse district, and the darker the evening grew, the fewer people they encountered. It was still bruise-lit twilight, but a few streetlamps had already flickered on in anticipation of the coming night. Genma’s place above the silk warehouse loomed against the sky like a fortress. They headed around back to the exterior stairs. “Watch your step,” Genma warned, “in case I’m coming home to a pile of mouse livers on my doorstep.”
Raidou took the stairs a little more gingerly than usual. He paused at Genma’s front door, looking down. “Y’know, I actually thought you were kidding.”
“I wish I were,” Genma said. He glanced down at the patter of dusty paw prints and the little offering with a sigh. “I’ll clean that up in a sec. I don’t even think Hotaru is doing it, since she can’t come through easily if I don’t summon her. I think she recruited the local alley cats when she was here. Not sure how she got them to put the livers on a cluster of leaves like that, though.”
He reached around Raidou to unlock the door and deactivate his seals, intensely aware of the warm sturdiness of Raidou’s back.
Raidou slapped a light on as soon as they got into the kitchen, and set the food down on the counter. He grabbed a few small plates from the cupboard and turned to put them on the table—and paused. “Huh.”
Genma stopped spooning loose tea into a pot and went to see what had captured Raidou’s attention.
There was a cactus wrapped up with a bright yellow bow on his kitchen table. A pamphlet entitled, Cacti and Succulents, a Care Guide from Kaze no Kuni’s Best Horticulturalists. And a note, in almost but not completely illegible handwriting criticizing Genma’s security practices and wishing him a happy birthday. A postscript illustrated with a little skull warned not to touch the spines, as the cactus was poisonous.
“Looks like it wasn’t only cats visiting,” Raidou said.
“I don’t know whether to be delighted with my gift, flattered he got it for me, offended that he thinks I’m shit at securing my place, or violated by the break-in,” Genma said. He picked up the note, studying it for hidden messages. It wasn’t chakra sensitive paper or ink, as far as he could tell.
And it was an excellent poisonous cactus.
“I’d go for all four, with a side of what the fuck,” Raidou said, squinting at the cactus. “Do you know what it does?”
“Not for certain,” Genma said. “But if it’s related to the golden spine hogshead, it probably causes a blistering rash. You can make a really nasty purgative from the sap. Or it could be hallucinogenic, if it’s in the woolly button family, but you have to eat the flesh for that, and Hatake specifically said avoid the spines.” He picked up the little potted menace and held it at eye level, smiling despite himself. “It’s really a very thoughtful gift. For me, I mean.”
“Every now and then, I’m hit with the realization that I know very strange people,” Raidou said.
Genma set the cactus down as a sort of centerpiece and resumed making tea, while Raidou went back to setting the table. There was a bento box and chopsticks for each of them, and a cluster of plates of seasoned vegetables and pickles.
Raidou made sure to give the tiny, lethal plant a wide berth. He paused with a dish of bright yellow pickled daikon that matched the color of the cactus ribbon in one hand. “And Hatake outdid the rest of us on birthday gifts. That’s unacceptable.”
“Oh, I wasn’t expecting—”
“Unacceptable,” Raidou repeated.
Genma felt the color flaring in his cheeks. “Well. We could always call this dinner a birthday party.”
Raidou’s brain did a little stutter: but I don’t have cake.
Or presents. Or a plan.
Or a good reason to say no, except that birthdays were a semi-precious commodity when you lived a life that didn’t guarantee many, and Genma actually deserved a decent one. Not a half-assed thing scratched out from might as well, when they were both too tired to enjoy it.
On the other hand, when did Genma ever ask for anything?
“Paper,” Raidou said, decisively.
Genma blinked at him. “Paper?”
“And tape, hang on.” There was painter’s tape in the bathroom, and a thick roll of brown paper used for protecting surfaces against drips. Raidou tore off two squares and spent a tongue-between-his-teeth moment constructing. Then he dug through kitchen drawers until he found a candle of appropriate size.
When he returned to the kitchen table, Genma looked, if anything, more baffled.
Delicately, Raidou placed one of the freshly-made party hats on Genma’s head, put the other on his own, and, even more delicately, balanced the candle on Kakashi’s little death cactus. He lit the wick with a spark of chakra. A narrow flame caught and stretched. Warm shadows danced across the surface of the polished wooden table.
Raidou sat down, propped his chin on his hand to watch Genma, and said, “Make a wish.”
Genma’s mouth parted in surprise. The candlelight caught in his hair, sparking threads of amber. And in his eyes, turning them tawny-gold. He looked at Raidou, at the candle balanced on its absurd platform, and didn’t immediately crack up laughing, which Raidou took as a win. The bafflement was still there, sure, but starting to filter through it was simple, happy pleasure. “Okay,” he said. “Let me think…”
Long, elegant fingers made an unconscious gesture, counting invisible prayer beads. A droplet of liquid wax slipped down the candle’s side and trembled over a cactus spine.
Genma smiled. He blew out the candle.
“If I tell you what I wished for,” he asked, “will that made it not come true?”
Raidou opened his mouth to say yes, had Genma never been to a birthday party before, do not offend the capricious will of candles— when knuckles rapped smartly on the door.
He traded a glance with Genma, who gave a wary shrug, and got up to answer it.
Kurenai stood on the doorstep, holding a bakery box.
Raidou stared at her. Then over his shoulder at Genma, who’d shoved up from the table. Then back to Kurenai. “Huh,” he said at last. “Good wish.”
Behind him, Genma said, “We need another hat!”
Kurenai’s eyes flicked up to the top of Raidou’s head. She leaned around him to look in the apartment, taking in the table, Genma’s hat now leaning at a rakish angle, the still-smoking candle. Her mouth curved.
Like them, she was wearing civvies. Unlike them, she’d put some effort into hers. A dark red shirt, sleeveless and slim, tied at the nape of her neck by impossibly thin straps. A wrap skirt, sheer and black and short, knotted at her hip. Her hair was loose over her shoulders. Red gems sparkled at her earlobes. The total effect was long legs, lean shoulders, a little bit of danger.
“You got started without me, I see,” she said. “Do you know about the mouse livers on your landing?”
“We do,” Genma said, wearily.
“Is that cake?” Raidou asked, stepping aside to let her in, and spotted the folder under her other arm. He frowned. “Is that a mission?”
“Yes to the first.” Kurenai slipped out of her high heels, nudging them to line up neatly with the boots by the door. “Mission reports for the second. Someone was worried you wouldn’t have the forms. The rest of the office is fighting over who gets first crack at decrypting the ledger you brought in, so these truly aren’t due until tomorrow.”
Genma stood to fetch place settings and pour another cup of tea for Kurenai. “Tomorrow when? I’ve got forms galore in my file cabinet in our office.”
“Midday for preference.” She handed the box to Raidou—it was surprisingly heavy—and set the file down in an unoccupied chair to be ignored for now. “To be honest, by this point you’re somewhat stale news. We’ve had reports coming in from Tochigi for days. The ledger is unique and your prisoner might have been, but…”
Raidou pulled a face. Genma, who possessed more manners, didn’t, but his mouth thinned.
Kurenai shrugged. Her eyes remained sharp on them. “You look better than I expected.”
Raidou set the cake down and took a brief detour to make Kurenai’s party hat. Over his shoulder, he asked, “What were you expecting, ninja paste?”
“Not a three-hour hospital check-up and then release, certainly. A few more bandages, perhaps.” She sat at the table, accepting the cup of tea Genma slid over to her, and reached up to brush gentle fingers over the last remnants of a faded bruise on his cheek. “I hope that was the extent of your healing.”
Raidou curtailed a thought about there being a bruise on Genma’s hip she could kiss and make better, if she wanted.
Between that and paper crafts, he missed Genma’s response. When he returned, the two of them were sitting close together, Kurenai’s hand resting lightly on Genma’s arm and her mouth set in a worried slant. Genma was making a crappy attempt at a reassuring smile.
“Told you about the blood thing, I take it,” Raidou said. He dropped the new hat on Kurenai’s curls, where it looked charming and ridiculous, and took the third seat. “Medics didn’t make him stay in the hospital. I’m taking that as a good sign.”
“No transfusions or iron infusions this time, either,” Genma said. “And at least now we know why I needed them before. Probably. Even if we don’t know the exact cause, yet…” His eyes flickered away, landing on the file, a plate. He didn’t comment on Kurenai’s hat, probably because he wasn’t really looking at anything. “We only got two bento, but we can definitely split them three ways—”
“I’ve eaten,” Kurenai said, clipping that attempt at distraction before it seeded. “You’re worried that jutsu from Ibaragashi is the cause?”
“The timing is suspicious.”
Raidou listened to them explore theories and pitfalls. Kurenai had a sharp, incisive mind, and it seemed to help Genma to talk about it, once he realized no one was planning to grab him by the scruff and haul him back to the hospital. They pulled on some of the same threads: why wasn’t Ryouma affected, had the baby tanuki screwed something up when they’d healed Genma? And some new ones: was Genma’s unique chakra blend an element of the problem? He did have an affinity for iron jutsu…
Raidou interjected only to pour tea and slide food in front of Genma. Once he’d cleared his own plate, he rested his chin back on his hand and watched two of Konoha’s brighter minds spark.
They did look well. Tired, certainly; stubbled, shadow-eyed, marked with the fading memories of bruises. But Genma ate with real appetite, and Raidou’s hands had moved nimbly on the paper-crafting, with no sign of lingering combat soreness. A little more of Kurenai’s tension ebbed.
She hadn’t let herself worry, this past week. They had their jobs; she had her own. They hadn’t taken Kakashi when they set out, but plenty of teams survived missions without Kakashi there to detonate Bingo Book nin or stitch together the folds of the universe. Kakashi himself was clearly doing enough worrying to meet any given quota.
Still… It was good to see them again, safe in Genma’s kitchen, ridiculous under the stiff brown paper hats, which Genma wore at a debonair tilt and Raidou wore crammed squarely over his brows. When Genma plucked the last grain of rice from his bento box, Kurenai stirred and pushed her own contribution toward him.
“I heard we spent your birthday together at the tanuki feast, and none of us knew.”
“It was somewhere in there.” Genma’s smile turned impish, though he didn’t reach immediately for the cake box. “I enjoyed it like it was my birthday, anyway, even if I didn’t realize it was the actual date.”
She smiled back. “I suppose that means I was the first to give you a birthday kiss, then? There’s my luck for the next year.”
Their eyes met. Genma’s smile burned away. He said softly, “I suppose you did.” His gaze dipped to her mouth, then lower, following the shape of her neckline.
Then he straightened. He reached across the other side of the table, tipped Raidou’s paper hat to a jauntier angle, and sat back with a fond smile. “Rai and I went to the Hidden Hare the day we got back, and I got a lot of birthday kisses from my fellow ANBU, but yours was the first. And best. So far.”
“That sounds like a challenge.” She raised her brows.
Raidou cocked one brow in turn. He was still leaning on his hand, a lazy pose that spoke of contentment, not unease. “Given the competition, not much of one.”
“A devastating assessment. So much for ANBU’s reputation. What would you consider competition?”
Genma’s gaze lingered on Raidou, as if he was curious about the answer, too.
“Anything lasting more than four seconds would be a start,” Raidou said dryly.
Kurenai tapped her nails against the glossy tabletop. “Oh?” She couldn’t quite decide how to read his expression, the half-lidded eyes, the deceptive repose; he lounged like a tiger, between languor and lethality.
“Ginta made it over the four second mark,” Genma said, “but he was trying too hard.”
“At least,” Kurenai said, “Ginta tried.”
“Ginta has the moral compass of a napkin,” Raidou said. “And the common sense to match. Are we taking his advice now?”
So. Perhaps nothing had changed there, either.
But Raidou stiffened when he was uncomfortable, sat straight-backed, breathed deeper. She knew those signs well enough by now, and she didn’t see them here.
And Genma, who knew him far better, hadn’t withdrawn yet either. “I’m starting to get the impression you and Ginta have a secret sordid past,” he said easily, leaning back in his chair. “Maybe he was trying to make you jealous?”
Raidou’s eyes widened dramatically. “You caught me. It’s a love that dare not speak its name. We get back at each other through public romantic gestures and sarcasm. He’s winning, but I still have the high ground.”
Genma’s snicker broke midway into a helpless laugh. “Romantic sarcasm. Wait, wait… He’s winning…” He dissolved again.
The image was irresistible. So was Genma’s laughter, the inviting warmth of it, the boyish crack in his voice that caught Kurenai off-guard and tugged her in. They met each other’s eyes and broke down all over again, until Genma finally drew a steadying breath and managed, “How do you keep score?”
Kurenai giggled. “Number of bystanders hoodwinked?”
Raidou grinned at them. “Yeah, you just keep laughing.” He tugged the cake box toward himself. “I’m gonna be over here eating cake.”
“Devious.” Genma hooked a finger through the cardboard handles and tugged the box back. “Stealing a man’s birthday cake and denying him a kiss.”
“Leaving you to content yourself with quantity, if not quality,” Kurenai said. “At least the cake should be good. I’m told it’s the baker’s son’s favorite flavor.”
Genma gave the cardboard latch a practiced twist, opening the box like the petals of a flower. The pastry within had survived the journey: its towering peak of piped chestnut cream still pristine, glistening candied chestnuts studding its slopes. Genma’s lips parted, gratifyingly. “Chestnut cream? You got this from my dad?” He looked up. “Wait, did he tell you you’d missed my birthday?”
Spoken like a man with no aunts, grandmothers, or other busybody relations. “Of course I didn’t tell your father I was buying a cake for his son,” Kurenai said patiently. “I merely asked for recommendations for a friend. Kakashi told me the date, earlier this week.”
The delighted surprise in Genma’s face broadened to shock. “Kakashi?” He looked down at the cake again, then towards the end of the table, where a small fat cactus sat in a terracotta pot beside a tangle of yellow ribbon and a brochure. “He broke in here and left that as a gift.”
“Ah,” Kurenai observed. “That’s…somewhat thoughtful.”
Raidou lifted his other hand, palm up, surrendering logical expectations of human behavior on the altar of Hatake-ness.
“I didn’t think you and he really got along that well,” Genma said, diplomatically.
“We have achieved a recent rapprochement. Do you actually like cacti?”
“It’s poisonous!” Genma shoved up out of his chair to fetch it back and show her. The spiky little cloud of thorns looked sufficiently unappealing in themselves, even without the enthusiastic recital of the likely physiological effects. Kurenai murmured appropriate praise and considered whether Kakashi had anticipated this outcome. Possibly. He could be surprisingly foresightful, when sufficiently motivated. And he did have a childish attachment to getting the last word.
Raidou took advantage of the brief distraction to fetch clean plates and utensils. They puzzled for a moment over the candle still delicately balanced on cactus thorns: did it count if he’d already lit and blown it out once?
“Creative deployment of resources at hand,” Kurenai murmured to Raidou, while Genma carefully removed a drop of fallen wax from the cactus spines using chopsticks.
“Rule Thirty-Six,” Raidou agreed. A shinobi never wastes opportunity or supplies. He squinted doubtfully at the candle. “Except when it might poison the cake.”
“Mm,” Kurenai said. “You seem… a little less certain about which opportunities to waste, tonight. Or am I misreading?”
Raidou’s head turned. He looked at her for a moment, almost startled. Had he really expected only subtle verbal fencing, with never a blunt thrust to the heart of the matter? The edge of his mouth quirked up, eventually. “Do you ever misread?”
Or perhaps he was enjoying the verbal fencing. It was closer to the edge of flirting than he’d let himself come before, while still maintaining a plausibly deflective shield.
He’d absorbed more than one lesson from her grandmother’s training, apparently.
“Occasionally,” Kurenai said. “I thought I did, that night after Embers. But I think my mistake was in confusing opportunity for intent.”
Genma set his chopsticks down and leaned against the table. “The thing that’s different tonight, compared to Embers and the tanuki bath, is that we’re all sober.”
“We are.” Raidou’s crooked smile faded. He looked at Genma for a moment in silence. “Is it a good idea yet?”
“It was already a good idea,” Genma said wryly. “Being sober makes it a better idea, since no one can go home thinking there was any doubt about anyone’s consent. Plus we’re alone in my apartment, with no tanuki spies or interrupting rookies or wisecracking dog summons.”
He glanced at the door, which was shut; at the windows, which overlooked the darkened warehouse district, with no prowling neighbors in sight. “If you want to reinforce the wards so Hatake can’t break in with another cactus, we could do that after cake and before anything else.”
‘Anything else’ being the chasm between lust and common sense. One of which Raidou had in spades; the other was getting harder and harder to find.
Genma’s eyes were dark in the lamplight, reflecting bright highlights. Kurenai’s were intent, heartbeat red. Sun and moon, he’d thought of them once. Genma’s warm gold to Kurenai’s refined pearl. He’d been drunk at the time, maybe a little concussed, but the description was still apt. Side by side, they were stunning.
He wanted them.
“And then what?” he asked.
“Are you actually looking to be convinced?” Kurenai said pleasantly, with only the faintest trace of an edge. “Or are you looking to shift the burden of convincing yourself? We’re all adults here, Raidou, and no one’s giving the orders. What do you want to happen?”
Irritation bristled up his spine. He straightened in his seat. “I want to make the right choice—” he began, bit it short. “No, scratch that. I want to throw you on that bed and go down on you until you scream. I want to bend Genma over the goddamn couch and make him forget his birthday and his name. I want to watch you ride him until neither of you can stand up. To start with. And it’ll be great. But then it’ll be tomorrow, and I want to know what the hell we’ll do then.”
It took Genma a second to close his mouth. “Shower, to start,” he said, at last. “Breakfast. And then go train like normal, except you and I will know why my taijutsu is a little worse than usual.”
Raidou couldn’t help the reflexive smile, or the twist of tension releasing in his chest. He recalled what Genma had said, back in Himself’s hot tub: I’m a Konoha shinobi first and last. That was still true.
For Genma, perhaps, it didn’t matter what they did in their off-time, so long they were both the same men on mission.
Raidou glanced at Kurenai, and lifted his eyebrows.
“It’s different in Intel,” she said, thoughtfully. “Maybe because we don’t have to rely on teammates the way you do. Maybe because I was a field agent, first. Sex doesn’t have to be something that reshapes your world. It can be a tool, or a relief valve, or just a good time with a friend.” She lifted a hand to trace the rim of her cooling teacup, still watching them. “Which I’d like to think we are.”
“Of course we are,” Genma said. “I mean, I’d like to think so, too.”
“We are,” Raidou said. “Regardless of what gets decided tonight, I want that to remain true.”
“It doesn’t have to be tonight,” she pointed out. “I have to work tomorrow—I didn’t come here just planning a birthday seduction.”
“You didn’t?” Genma said, with exaggerated sadness. “Now that’s just disappointing.” He reached out and circled a hand gently around Kurenai’s wrist, dropped the other on Raidou’s shoulder, and gave them both a squeeze. His fingers were warm, even through Raidou’s shirt. “We could plan a real date on a day Rai and I didn’t just get back from a mission and obligatory hospital trip for concussions, too. I won’t speak for Raidou, he might be a machine, but I have a little doubt about my stamina for tonight.”
Raidou chuckled. “You still haven’t had your cake.”
“You make a compelling point.” Genma released them to reach out and deftly pluck a candied chestnut from the cake. He licked cream from the side of his finger and ate the treat in a neat bite. “I’m not eating this alone, though.” This time, his hands were too quick to see, ninja-fast, as he liberated two more chestnuts and held them out, one in each hand, for Raidou and Kurenai.
“I meant with a fork,” Raidou said, laughing, but accepted the sticky offering. It tasted like sugar and summer, and he tried to focus on that, not on thoughts of what Genma had just done with his tongue.
Kurenai lowered her head and very delicately took the other chestnut with her teeth, lips barely grazing Genma’s fingers. He swallowed, cheeks gone a little red, and she sat back with sleek, elegant satisfaction, licking a fleck of cream from the corner of her mouth. Between the two of them, it might have been one of the sexiest things Raidou had ever witnessed—if not for their rakish, ridiculous paper hats.
It was still in the top ten.
But Kurenai was right: it didn’t need to be tonight. Given that Genma was only just managing to stay upright and had a recent hole in his hip, it shouldn’t be tonight.
Kurenai took the knife from Genma with a glance and a small smile, and took over attending to the cake. She apportioned modest slices onto three plates, and handed them out. Unsurprisingly, they were delicious.
With a few bites left to go, Genma set down his fork and yawned once, then again, widely enough that small tears glimmered in the corner of his eyes. A half-second later, Raidou joined him, accidentally cracking his jaw in the process.
“Thanks for that,” he said, rubbing his face.
Kurenai’s lips pressed together, concealing laughter or her own contagious yawn. She tilted her wrist to check a slim-banded watch. “Should I let you boys turn in?”
“I could make stronger tea,” Genma said. “Or coffee?”
Kurenai looked at Raidou, lifting an eloquent eyebrow.
“Or you could sleep,” Raidou said dutifully. “Like a smart man following medical orders.”
Genma tilted his head to the side, eyes half-closed in reluctant defeat. “I could. If I were my patient, I’d tell me to sleep. You too, Rai. We both had head injuries healed today.”
“And I’ll want to hear more about that, sometime soon,” Kurenai said, rising. “Or I can just read your report and we can talk about… other things. Tuesday, perhaps?”
Genma’s mouth lifted at the corners. “As long as we don’t get sent out again. And you don’t. I doubt we will that soon, though.”
Raidou rapped his knuckles briskly on the wooden table, and stood to escort Kurenai out. “I think, translated, that means something like: it’s a date.”
She smiled up at him as Genma rose, neither one of them moving away from the table just yet. “Let’s say 1800 at Minami Udon Bar, assuming no interventions. I look forward to hearing more of your ideas then.” She lifted up onto her toes and pressed her mouth to his.
Someone caught their breath—Raidou wasn’t sure if it was him or Genma. Kurenai’s lips were warm and soft, curving against his in a way that was somehow tentative and testing all at once. Raidou cupped a hand under her elbow, supporting, and kissed back. Kurenai broke away. Her mouth was red-red-red, lipstick still pristine. Raidou desperately wanted to find out what it would take to smear it, but he held himself in check. Kurenai’s smile persisted, but her eyes held questions.
Raidou glanced at Genma, smiled back at her, and repeated, “It’s a date.”
Genma watched their kiss with a gnawing hunger that had nothing to do with food. He licked his own lips, taking in the parted petals of Kurenai’s skirt that revealed just enough moonlight-pale thigh to be a promise, and the stretch of red silk over unbound breasts. And Raidou’s flexing biceps that shoved the tight sleeve of his t-shirt higher; the way the waistband of his jeans gapped at the back and dipped down, exposing a dimpled lower back and the elastic at the top of his boxers.
“Definitely a date,” Genma said. He took a step closer to them both, not sure which of them he wanted more. It wouldn’t be more than a kiss to seal the deal, tonight, but even so his heart stepped up its tempo.
Kurenai made the choice for him, pressing the length of her body against his, and turning her face up with open-mouthed expectation. Genma met her eagerly, pulling her in with one hand on the small of her back and the other cradling her skull through the tumbled waves of her hair. He kissed her long and deep, until she had to break away for a breath. When she met his eyes, her dilated pupils swallowed half the red of her irises. He flicked his tongue out to trace the edge of her upper lip.
She laughed, low and husky. “I can tell you have some ideas of your own.”
“I do,” Genma promised, and turned, releasing his hold on Kurenai to reach for Raidou. “For both of you.”
Raidou angled towards Genma. His eyes smoldered, dark and intoxicating, but he didn’t lean in. “Restful ones, I’m sure,” he said, with a teasing lilt. His eyebrows lifted a bare millimeter. A question, an invitation…
Genma squared up to Raidou, closing the distance between them until they were chest to chest. He slipped one knee between Raidou’s, nudging them apart, and tilted his hips in. His hands found Raidou’s shoulders and hard-muscled back.
It felt like there was no oxygen in the air.
“I’m sure we’ll sleep very well, eventually,” Genma said, and kissed Raidou as thoroughly as he’d kissed Kurenai.
Brawny arms wrapped Genma’s torso. One hand settled on Genma’s left hip, heavy and insistent. The other carefully avoided the bandage on Genma’s right to caress and steady his lower back. Raidou kissed back, slow and intense without a hint of escalation. A promise of things to come.
It was less than Genma wanted, and far more than he’d hoped for. When they broke for air, he tipped his head back and laughed, almost dizzy and definitely flushed. “Tuesday, then. This week can’t move fast enough.”
“Happy Birthday,” Kurenai said. She smiled warmly and kissed him again, this time a fond peck on the cheek.
“Thank you for the cake. And the visit. And everything,” Genma said. He watched as she slipped back into her high heeled shoes. They were hardly practical, but the things they did to the lines of her calves and the curve of her rear were undoubtedly as much a reason she wore them as the few centimeters they added to her height.
She couldn’t have been expecting Raidou to be there. If Genma’d been alone when Kurenai arrived, he had a strong intuition about how the night would have gone, post-mission fatigue be damned. And it would have been fantastic.
But this, with its flexing of Raidou’s rigid boundaries and its promise of Tuesday to come, was better.
Raidou who, it seemed, intended to stay a little longer, since he’d made no moves to don his own shoes.
Genma flicked on the outside stairway light, while Raidou held the door for Kurenai. They both watched her descend the steps, until she’d reached the bottom and turned the corner into darkness. Then he shut the door quietly, leaned against it, and gave Genma a soft little whistle.
“From now on, I plan to take birthday candle wishes much more seriously,” Genma said. His lips still tingled from Kurenai’s and Raidou’s kisses, and arousal still stretched taut as a primed trap at the core of his pelvis. “I had no idea they could work so well or so immediately.”
“Probably a good thing we each only get one a year,” Raidou said, with a tilted little smile. “Imagine the chaos.”
Genma chuckled in wordless agreement. Neither of them seemed inclined to move. He met Raidou’s eyes. “So. More tea?”
“Something decaf,” Raidou said. “Neither one of us needs to stay up all night.” That seemed to break the spell. Raidou stood away from the door, and followed when Genma turned towards the kitchen.
“Alcohol is still an option,” Genma said, “if sedation is what’s called for. But I also have some herbal tea that’s supposed to assure good dreams that I picked up on a mission to Kusa last year.” He got down a second teapot and the metal canister of dream tea. “You’re welcome to sleep here, by the way, although I’m pretty sure you already know that.”
“I do, but I like hearing it anyway,” Raidou said, with a fondness in his voice that made Genma’s chest warm. Raidou waved Genma to sit on the couch while he took over making tea. When it was steeping, he brought it and a fresh pair of teacups over, using Genma’s copy of Chemical Biology of Venoms and Toxins as a makeshift tray. He sat next to Genma on the couch and poured them each a cup. When he handed over Genma’s he asked. “How’re you feeling?”
“Physically, emotionally, or health-wise?” Genma said, “Because there are three different answers.”
Raidou made a gesture that clearly meant ‘all three.’
“Physically,” Genma said, “still a little horny, definitely tired, and pleasantly full of dinner and cake.” He patted the subtle protuberance of his relaxed belly and grinned. “Emotionally: happy, surprised, pleased, and a little apprehensive I’m going to wake up soon and find out I fantasized this whole evening while still under anesthesia for the biopsy.” Raidou’s eyelids flickered at the mention of the medical procedure. Genma added, “Also apprehensive about what those biopsy results are going to show, but I’m prepared to ignore that for the rest of the night. And health-wise: a little sore and bruised, a lot chakra-low, and otherwise fine.” He sipped his tea, and let his knee rest against Raidou’s. “How’re you?”
Amusement twinkled in Raidou’s eyes. “Physically, emotionally, or health-wise?”
“Yes.” Genma said, with a laughing eye roll. “Smartass. When did you start taking lessons from Hatake?”
“Ouch,” Raidou said without inflection. “Physically, ditto. Health-wise, same. Emotionally…” He looked down, as if the answer lay somewhere between his feet, then shrugged one shoulder and met Genma’s gaze again. “Concerned I’m making the wrong choice, hopeful that I’m not.”
“It’s not a decision you can’t change,” Genma said. “If you decide it’s not what you want, I’ll be disappointed, but I’ll get over it. I assume the same for Kurenai.”
Raidou laughed. “I feel like you just told me I can use my words.” He knocked his knee against Genma and let it rest there. “I know, Genma. And I appreciate that.”
Genma dropped a hand on Raidou’s shoulder for a rough pat. “I guess one of Minobu-sensei’s special lessons for preschool ninja stuck with me.” He sat up and poured two cups of tea, and handed one to Raidou. “Something’s weighing on you, though, and it isn’t the tryst we have planned. What’s up?”
Raidou gave Genma the same vaguely suspicious look he used when Genma answered a question he’d been just about to ask, or handed him a map or form or pen before he had a chance to reach for it. He sighed, sat back against the couch cushions, and took a long sip of tea before he spoke. “Hatake accused me today of not supporting him. Said I look out for you and Tousaki, and ignore him unless I need something.”
Genma considered that. “Do you?”
“Yes,” Raidou said, with unvarnished honesty. “I gave him a therapeutic ass-kicking on that first mission, but otherwise, yeah.”
“I wonder if I do, too.” Genma rubbed a hand over his chin, stroking sparse, stubbly whiskers the wrong direction and back again. “Maybe it’s because he keeps everything about himself so hidden you’d never know he needed support if he did. And he’s highly competent, so you can leave him to his own devices on a mission or in training, and know that what needs to be done will be done. Not that Tousaki and I aren’t competent, but Tousaki is also the polar opposite of Hatake when it comes to needs.”
“He has them, for starters,” Raidou said. “Thing is, Hatake said something about that, too—he told me why he joined ANBU.”
Genma blinked. “Really?”
“I know,” Raidou agreed. “Gave me a couple reasons, but the main thing was that he wants to get better. And that the last thing we told him to do was work on the basics.”
“Ah.” Genma took another sip of the floral, grassy brew, then stared into its pale yellow depths. “I guess we did. But he has gotten better. Think about the antisocial bitter pill who wanted off our team the minute he laid eyes on us, back in April.” He looked up at Raidou and ticked his points off on one hand. “He was touchy, antagonistic, insubordinate, uncommunicative in the extreme. And look at him today. Even him being willing to call you out on being unsupportive is a big change for him. April-him would have just gone over your head and demanded a transfer.”
“Yeah,” Raidou said. He rubbed the skin behind his ear with a grimace. “That’s true. On the other hand, his ass just got suspended for an unsanctioned kill that he’s been touchy, antagonistic, insubordinate, and uncommunicative about.”
Genma conceded that point with a grimace of his own.
Raidou drained the last mouthful of tea and set his empty cup down next to the pot. Hiking a knee up, he turned on the couch to face Genma. “Thing is, if I’m guessing right, his version of getting better doesn’t mean improving his people skills, it means… expanding his knowledge base. Ueno started that, with offering to teach him Hyoho-Niten. But now she’s gone, Tousaki’s learning how to medic, you’re learning how to sensei, I got special lessons from Benihime…” He frowned. “I think he’s jealous. Everyone’s got a thing.”
“Except him…” Genma mirrored Raidou’s posture: knee on the seat, back to the arm of the couch, facing his friend and fellow officer. “And we recommended Ueno to audit the officer training course, too. Which I’m sure he knows about.” He blew out a discomforted breath. “We’re coming up on another review cycle soon. What does he want to do? If he’s got an area he wants to explore, we could probably find someone to apprentice him to. If that would redirect his energy away from the insubordination, antagonism, and deliberately poor communication.”
“He’s got room to improve his taijutsu,” Raidou said, starting with familiar territory. “I don’t know if that’s what he wants, but he fights like he’s smaller than he actually is, sometimes.”
“Probably because he never had to learn better after he hit his growth spurt,” Genma said. “Since what he was already doing was good enough.”
“Yep. Lazy habit.” Raidou cracked a knuckle, already sketching a rough training map in his head. Step one: kick genius around a field until morale improves. Step two: repeat step one. “I’m thinking, though, that Yondaime-sama and similar intend for Hatake to be on command track. I know that’s what Hatake wants. Or thinks he should want.”
Genma was shaking his head before Raidou had finished speaking. “He can want it all he wants, and so can the higher ups, but if he’s not ready for it—and he’s definitely not—then it’d be a waste of resources and worse, potentially create a real problem down the road. There’s a reason for people like Sato Ken—you know him? Lieutenant on Team Sixteen.”
Raidou grimaced. He knew Sato.
“He should never have been put in a command position,” Genma continued, “but he got pushed through for political reasons.” He twisted his hair up on the nape of his neck, pulling it into a shining knot, and let it unwind again. “And then down the line you get another Kuroda.”
It wasn’t hard to picture Kakashi’s odd rigidities cementing into a smarter, more dangerous version of Kuroda. Or worse, and more probable, someone like Danzou, who cared for the village far more than the lives in it.
“On the other hand,” Raidou said, “we held him back once and that didn’t work out exactly as intended. Maybe he needs some extra responsibility to focus him up.”
“Rewarding him for misbehaving out of spite isn’t exactly what I’d consider good mentorship,” Genma said, with a wry tilt to his mouth. “But I take your point about directing his energies. Did you ask him what he wants to be learning?”
“Didn’t get that far,” Raidou said. “But just before you and Tousaki woke up, he said that once we figure out your blood issues, he wants to get more out of this team. He didn’t say what, exactly. Just ‘more’.” He tapped his knee, thumb knocking against the bone. “At this point, I don’t think we’d be rewarding him for misbehaving—he was punished, suspended, got his hide stripped by Sagara. Apologized, even. Granted, not well.”
Genma snickered. “I suppose my cactus is him trying to make amends, too.” He glanced at the kitchen, an equal mix of pleased and exasperated, then dropped his head back against the sofa cushions. “The other thing is, no one gets recommended for command track in the first six months of their rookie year. It’s rare enough to start classes in your rookie year at all.” He stretched his arms out along the sofa back, rolling his shoulders. It was a warm, fleeting pressure against Raidou’s back. “Maybe we should meet with him together, and lay the options out for him. Command is hardly the only career path in ANBU.”
“Worth trying,” Raidou agreed. “But let me know in advance if you plan to suggest custodial staff, so I can make it to a safe distance.”
Genma gave a crowing, exhausted laugh. “I can’t even make him clean up his handwriting.”
“Pick your battles,” Raidou said. “That one may be unwinnable.”
“At least Tousaki has a workaround for his problems with writing. Maybe we should make Hatake dictate his reports, too, except I think Intel might kill us if we asked.” Genma lifted his head to direct a knowing glance at the door. “Even with Kuenai on our side.”
Raidou shared the glance. A warm tingle—promissory, impatient, nothing to do with the rookies—slipped down his spine. He let it wash away for now, and reached across to clap Genma lightly on the knee. “Sounds like a problem for tomorrow. Right now, you’re owed some sleep.”
Right on cue, Genma yawned, which made Raidou yawn, which made Genma laugh. “Tea working for you, too, huh? I can see it in your eyes.” He straightened up from his couch-slouch and did a little twist, stretching his spine with a series of pops. “This was a fantastic birthday, by the way. I think the hats really did the trick.” He grinned and, because he was a ridiculous man, reached out to ruffle Raidou’s hair. “Where do you want to sleep? With me, or…?”
Raidou ducked away, amused. “Like that’s gonna lead to sleeping. Couch is fine. You get the bathroom first. Go on, hup.”
“Hey,” Genma said mildly. “It would lead to sleeping eventually. Probably really satisfying sleep.” But he levered himself stiffly to his feet, one hand bracing his abused hip, and made for the bathroom without further protest. The door—recently installed, still unpainted—clicked softly closed, and water hissed on.
They’d showered at the hospital, but it had been a cursory scrub-job at best, just enough to strip off the primary layer of grime and stress and blood. Raidou didn’t begrudge Genma wanting his own soap.
While Genma worked on steaming the air, Raidou hauled himself off the couch and did a last-minute round-up of the apartment. Seals activated, door locked, mouse livers disposed of. He made the bed, put a glass of water and a bottle of painkillers on the bedside table, and dug out spare blankets to throw on the couch. Washed the few dishes, rinsed out the teapot, wiped down the table (avoiding Kakashi’s death-plan present), and made room in front of the couch to do a truncated version of his usual evening stretches.
Genma padded out of the bathroom while Raidou was swearing quietly at a rebellious hamstring, wearing a towel and a rueful expression. “Can you give me a hand with something? I got my dressing wet and need to change it. Ordinarily I’d create a clone to help me, but I’m low enough on chakra…”
There were water droplets on Genma’s bare shoulders. He’d wrapped his hair in a second towel and tied it up on his head somehow. It made his neck look slender and elegant. Solid muscles corded his arms, wrapped over his ribs. A damp bandage clung to his right hip.
Raidou managed not to swallow his own tongue. He heard himself say, “Where’s your first aid kit?”
Genma held up a small zippered canvas pouch.
“That works,” Raidou said.
It wasn’t any great feat of medical engineering. Genma leaned his good hip against the couch. Raidou peeled off the rejected dressing, whistled at the truly spectacular bruising, and applied salve and a new dressing to the little puncture lurking behind the crest of hip bone. He was pretty sure Genma could have managed alone, upside down, and blindfolded in a hurricane, what with being a trained medic and flexible enough to reach his own hip, but Raidou wasn’t begrudging the opportunity to carefully press his fingers against warm skin as he smoothed the last strip of tape down. He leaned back to admire his work.
“Should hold you,” he said. “How’s it feel?”
Genma twisted to look, bracing a hand on Raidou’s shoulder as he did. “Bruised. But dry again. Thanks. I figure the last thing I need is some kind of bone infection on top of the clotting problem.” There was a little moment of silence. Genma added, hastily: “Not that that’s likely.”
Raidou snorted. “I know.” He swatted Genma’s good hip with rough affection and stood up. “Though maybe don’t tell Tousaki that.”
“Oh hells no,” Genma said. “He’s going to be problem enough once we start getting past trauma and injury and into studying disease. He’s going to be sure he’s dying. I’m dying. You’re dying. Hatake is definitely dying…” He laughed. “You see it in every medic class.”
Raidou considered this view of the future, squared it with his working knowledge of Ryouma, and made a mental note to sign the team up for wall duty when that started. At least Ryouma could think they were all dying at home. He tilted his head at Genma. “So what were you dying of, back in medic class?”
Genma blinked, then looked a little sheepish. “Leukemia, ironically. Also I’d had one of those nasty tropical fevers on a mission about six months before I started a section on latent infections, and I was convinced I was going to die of encephalitis.”
Now it was Raidou’s turn to snicker. “If anyone on our team was going to die from a swollen head, you would not be my first guess.”
Genma grinned. “Like I said, Tousaki will definitely think Hatake’s dying.”
“Might do Hatake good to have someone worry at him,” Raidou said, amused. “Tousaki… well, they make tranquilizers.”
“I’ve tried worrying over Hatake, but he complains I fuss too much. Or he stalks off to brood somewhere I can’t see him. But maybe Tousaki will get through to him.” Genma yawned again. “Speaking of tranquilizers.” He started to turn away, paused, and turned back, tilting his head thoughtfully. “The offer to share the bed still stands. I’m pretty sure I couldn’t do much more than sleep right now even if I took a soldier pill with a triple-strength coffee.”
Raidou laughed; it came out a little softer and sleepier than he’d meant. “If that’s your version of pillow talk, it needs a little polishing.” He glanced back at the sofa, which was a perfectly fine sofa, but not nearly as comfortable or height-accommodating as an actual bed, and also did not contain a future filled with Genma. Raidou gave a crooked smile. “Alright, you win. Let me brush my teeth.”
“Spare toothbrush under the sink,” Genma said, smiling back, and went into the bedroom, where he made pleased sounds at the clean bed, and louder ones at the painkillers.
There was a pink toothbrush under the sink, still in its original packaging. Raidou brushed his teeth, washed his face, shucked his jeans and folded them neatly on the sofa, and did a final circuit through the apartment, turning off lights before he went into the bedroom.
Genma had made it as far as pajama pants before he’d given up the fight. He was face-down in his pillows, hair a glorious disaster, one damp towel hanging from a peg, the other abandoned beneath it on the floor. The blinds were closed, but a little bit of moonlight still filtered into the room; it draped over Genma’s bare back, turning his skin to pearl and shadows. When he shifted, his muscles flexed and the light moved like clouds over water.
Raidou stirred himself, and gently but firmly persuaded Genma to actually get under the blanket before he died from wet hair.
“S’August,” Genma grumbled, but let himself be moved.
Raidou climbed into bed. It was soft, deeply comfortable—Genma had sprung for a good mattress—and the pillows smelled like soap and Genma’s favorite aftershave. Raidou lay for a moment, watching the light on the ceiling, listening to the soft, peaceful sound of Genma’s breathing getting slower and deeper, and fell asleep thinking about the closet he really needed to install in here, so Genma had a place to keep things off the floor.