The buzzy hit of nicotine, the sweet, smoky haze between them, and Asuma’s copper-warm chakra next to him were almost enough to transport Genma a year and a half back, before Asuma left to serve the Fire Daimyou. But the weariness in Asuma’s voice was too fresh, and his eyes were locked in the frayed, thousand-meter stare of a man who’d seen too much too recently.
Carnage in the capitol. Brothers-in-arms rising up as traitors. Losing every one of your teammates and dozens of others besides in an unholy blood bath. It was a ninja’s worst nightmare, and Asuma had lived it out.
“We heard how bad it was,” Genma said quietly. “Actually, we heard it was worse. My team was in the field when the news reached Konoha. We got a Code Broken Link in response to a request for backup.”
Asuma shook his head in sympathy. “Yeah,” he said. “I’m sure that scared the shit out of everybody.”
“My team was in bad shape,” Genma said. “Namiashi—my captain—told me when he got the message, but we didn’t tell the rest of the team right away. We had to get transport back by river boat. We broke the news once we were on the river. And yeah, it still scared the shit out of everybody. Hatake especially.”
Asuma twitched in surprise.
“That’s right, you don’t know,” Genma said. He took another hit off his dwindling cigarette. “I’m a lieutenant now, and I’ve got two rookies on my team. Hatake Kakashi’s one of them.”
“The first is definitely awesome,” Asuma said, looking at Genma with wide, surprised eyes under raised brows. “How is all of that working out?”
“Pretty well,” Genma said. “Surprisingly. Namiashi’s a good captain—I like him a lot. He’s not Hajime—” the thought brought him up short. Team Three had taken heavy casualties, Raidou had said, Hajime among them. “I guess he’s here. I’ll have to try and check on him when I’m done with my treatment. You came back last night, right? Was he with you? His mask is Squirrel.”
The weary, defeated look stole back over Asuma’s face as he nodded. “Yeah, with a hip wound. Just him and Ferret came back. Lost the other two.” He stuck the cigarette back in his mouth and took a long, deep draw.
Ferret must be Ryouma’s friend Ayane, the rookie from Hajime’s team. The two who hadn’t come back, Munenori Rokurou and Akamichi Yuudai, weren’t agents Genma knew well, but he’d known them. So had Asuma, probably.
Given the staggering losses Asuma was already dealing with, Genma decided not to ask.
“Namiashi said Hajime had a good prognosis, and Ferret was uninjured,” Genma said. “So there’s that.” It was small comfort, but… that was ANBU. No one liked to look too closely at the odds they all played.
Asuma nodded, glancing Genma’s way briefly before he stared out across the courtyard again. A light breeze rustled the geraniums in the pots next to them, tossing bright petals gaily in the sun. After a moment, his internal gyroscope seemed to find a new balance point. He ashed his cigarette, took another drag, and nudged Genma’s arm. “Tell me about the rest of your team?”
That was one of the things Genma had really missed about Asuma—his ability to find the surface of even the most storm-tossed sea.
“They’re— wow, where do I even start?” He took in a lungful of smoke and let it drift back out on a lazy sigh. “So there’s Hatake—Yondaime-sama’s own, right? He started out about as arrogant and awkward as everyone always says he is, but I’m kind of warming up to him. There’s something—” He drew circles in the air with the cigarette, watching blue smoke swirl, groping for a word. “He’s as lethal as they come. And seriously, seriously prickly. But I get the impression that underneath it all, he’s actually a kind of tender-hearted kid.”
Asuma grinned. “I have a hard time imagining him as lethal but tender,” he said with a chuckle. “That sounds like a kitten.”
Genma snorted. “Maybe not ‘tender’. But there’s something there. Although gods know, I might be blowing smoke here.” He tried to puff out a smoke ring to illustrate his point, but it didn’t hold together well. “Kakashi’s convinced he’s smarter, faster, more skilled, and just all around better than anyone else. The whole ‘working as a team’ thing practically fractures his teeth. But just when you think you have him pegged as a condescending loner, he’ll do something like turn up at your doorstep at ten at night to tell you your best friend you’ve been mourning for half a week isn‘t actually dead.”
“Well, to be fair, he probably—” Asuma started, and stopped to stare as Genma’s words clicked into place. “What? I think I missed a step back there. Who said I was dead?”
Genma glanced to the side. “Everyone. No-one officially, but everyone who knew anything about the situation in Hikouto said the same thing: there’d been a coup attempt; some or all of the Guardian Twelve rebelled against the Daimyou; and all of them, along with most of the palace guard and a good number of civilians, were dead.” He didn’t want to see the shadow steal back into Asuma’s eyes so soon, but he wasn’t going to lie to his friend.
“I spent the week telling everyone who would listen that they were full of shit if they thought you’d turned traitor. And burning incense for you.”
There was too much information to unpack in that explanation: what reason there might have been to put Asuma down as deceased, how quickly Kakashi got that information and from whom, whether his 'death' was public knowledge or not. Reiko hadn't said anything, nor her husband, but that meant little when Asuma spent the majority of his time either sleeping or at the hospital. Maybe that piece of information hadn't left top secret clearance. He could only hope.
One more thing he really didn't want to deal with right now.
Asuma looked down and away from Genma, uncomfortable with the sincerity in his eyes. That look that said he'd kick the ass of anyone who would slight Asuma's honor. An insistent doubt niggled at the back of his mind that he wasn't actually worth that loyalty.
"...thanks," he said finally, lost on what to say that wouldn't drag him further into that cesspit of memory, and drew one last time off his cigarette. The cherry glowed all the way down to the filter before he dropped it to smash beneath his heel. "Sorry to waste your incense."
Genma mirrored his movements, crushing his own butt underfoot, before slinging an arm around Asuma's neck. Asuma stooped obligingly.
"It wasn't a waste," Genma replied with more cheer than he ought to have, and used his superior position to drag Asuma over to the bench. "I'm crashing on Aoba's couch these days. His place isn't big enough for two sweaty dudes and the girls he brings home."
"Probably improved the smell, then," Asuma observed, and sat when given the opportunity. The bench had not yet warmed under the weak spring sun, pressing bars of cool concrete against his back and thighs. "Why are you at Aoba's?"
Genma sat beside him, shoulders and knees touching. "My place burned down," he replied with a shrug, blasé as only a ninja could be. "And before you blame me, I wasn't even home when it happened. It started in one of the other apartments in the building. Experimental exploding tags."
"That sucks." One of the perils of living in a city populated primarily with shinobi. The fact that apartment fires didn't happen more often was the real surprise. "Doesn’t get in the way of your team-building?"
"So far, not really." The hand on Genma's knee twitched, like he wanted another cigarette, but instead pulled a senbon out of a case in his pants pocket. Asuma hoped the one he picked to stick in his mouth wasn't poisoned this time. "Although if I don't find a place soon, I might end up back at barracks myself. Namiashi-taichou actually lives in the senior quarters where all the T&I guys live. Creepy if you ask me, but he seems fine."
"So Hatake and a guy living with the super spooks. That doesn't sound like a handful or anything. What about the other two?"
Genma gave a dry laugh at that. "Yeah, here's the funny thing: they're the steady ones on my team. There's Ueno—she's a kenjutsu user with some kind of redacted-to-hell-and-back file and an overpowered chakra system that gave me migraines for a week when I met her. She's got seals Minato-sama designed himself keeping her chakra from going supernova. Supposedly had her chakra system experimented on by enemy ninja when she was held captive as a genin. So she's a barrel of mental health. And the other rookie is that guy who made a name for himself at the end of the war rotting people's faces to slag."
The first didn't ring any bells with him, but the second Asuma remembered. All sorts of rogue bloodlines had surfaced under the pressure of war, particularly the weird ones, but if he remembered right, the rotting jutsu was actually a new technique. One that, academically, he could see piquing the curiosity of a medic like Genma.
On the other hand, the phrase 'rotting people's faces to slag' only conjured images of Hikouto's palace in ruins and Kazuma's shattered face at his feet. Asuma took a breath through his nose, exhaled to a count of seven, and then looked back over to his friend.
"You're a good people person," he said. "Hell, you kept me in line and you weren't even my LT. You'll figure them out."
There was a brief hesitation before Genma shifted to stretch his arms along the top of the bench, slouching more comfortably. His arm was warm where it brushed against the back of Asuma's shoulders. "It's not that bad, really," Genma said. "This morning I heard confessions of inappropriate behavior; gave advice on how to give a decent apology; made all three of them train while Namiashi was at an emergency meeting; punished smart-assery; and fielded questions about ANBU salary in terms of goats."
He shifted the senbon to the other corner of his mouth in a cheeky smile. "So, you know. I'm managing the promotion okay."
And as if to underline Genma's new level of responsibility, one silver-haired shinobi stepped out of the hospital and turned to their occupied bench. Considering his face was (almost literally) buried in a pile of paperwork, Asuma assumed he was homing in on Genma's chakra presence.
"I can't get soldier pills for Tousaki without a second signature," Kakashi said once he was within hearing distance, still not looking up from the papers he was rifling through. "Something about him being chakra-fried and he doesn't have a medic's sign off yet. Lieutenant, can you—”
Kakashi finally looked up about a meter from the bench, appropriate form in hand, and stopped short at the sight of Genma’s companion. Asuma gave him a little wave.
“Sarutobi,” Kakashi said blankly.
That’s what he got for trusting chakra-sense over eyesight. And assuming the restrained energy signature next to Genma was a medic.
“Mornin’, kitten,” Asuma replied genially.
Genma made a choked sound, hurriedly covered by a cough that made him clamp a hand over his stomach. Kakashi looked at him for a flat moment, wondering why it had clearly been necessary for him to share Katsuko’s fondness of pet names with the universe.
Then he looked back at Asuma.
The Sandaime’s only son looked taller than Kakashi remembered, even sitting down. Which tracked, since the last time they’d really seen each other eye-to-eye had been in the aftermath of the Kyuubi, after Kushina’s funeral and before Hiruzen’s. Asuma had been a pale, scruffy slouch in funeral blacks then, chain-smoking cigarettes like he had plans to never breathe again.
The scruff was a beard now, dark and neatly trimmed. The shoulders were broader, filling out with the muscles of adulthood. He’d tanned in his time away from Konoha, skin burnished to a sun-warm brown. There were tough calluses on the backs of his knuckles, legacy of taijutsu, and, if Kakashi had to guess, something with the weight of knuckle-dusters. A fresh pink scar drew like a ruler’s edge up the side of his throat. Any other injuries were hidden beneath a battered pair of jeans and an old, long-sleeved jounin shirt, but he sat like his right arm ached.
He looked a lot like his father.
“Congratulations on not being dead,” Kakashi said at last.
Asuma’s eyes darkened, and something very subtle changed in the shape of his face. A hollowness, like the bones beneath were pressed a little too close to the surface. Grief, exhaustion, or maybe just a twitch at the reminder—he’d come close, then. “Congratulations on ANBU,” he said. “I hear Genma’s breaking you in nicely.”
“In a manner of speaking,” Kakashi said.
Genma had recovered from his coughing fit. He glanced between Asuma and Kakashi, and said with etched irony, “I didn’t realize you two were friends.”
“In a manner of speaking,” Asuma said, with a faint smile.
“We’ve shared some mutual annoyances,” Kakashi said, which was about the only way you could say ‘we occasionally viciously tortured each other at school’, and also that they’d both trailed after the coattails of legendary Hokages, which mostly meant scowling at each other in the echoing hallways of the palace.
And they’d both grown up looking like dead men.
Kakashi shifted his stack of paperwork and shoved the right form at Genma. “Lieutenant, sign this?”
Genma took the special release and read it over. He accepted the pen Kakashi handed him, ticked several boxes, added his signature, and handed the form back. “Did you get everything else?”
“Still need to do a rations run,” Kakashi said. “The QM had your 20’s, though.” And a whole lot of attitude about the rush-job Team Six’s uniforms had required. But the uniforms had been perfect, clean, and ready to go. Kakashi had already dropped them off in the office. He was starting to suspect Morita Rei was significantly more bark than bite.
“Good work,” Genma said, with a nod that was faintly puzzling. What kind of rookies had the lieutenant been dealing with, that basic tasks warranted high praise? “When you’re getting rations, make sure you get—”
“Vanilla for Ueno,” Kakashi interrupted. Very slow rookies. “Peanut-butter for Tousaki, sesame-ginger for the captain, and millet-konbu for you. Unless you just want fruit and nuts.”
Asuma looked like he was visibly restraining himself from saying something. It was very similar to the expression Ryouma made, right before he said something.
Katsuko didn’t make an expression. She just said things.
Genma dug a subtle elbow into Asuma’s ribs. “Both. Apricot and almond if they have them.”
“Okay,” Kakashi said. Memory nudged him in the back of the brain. He looked down at the uncluttered ground beneath the bench, at Genma’s empty hands, back up at Genma’s face. He frowned. “I told you to get Rin breakfast.”
Genma gave him a puzzled look. “I di— Shit! I left it at the desk when I checked in, I’ll be right back!” He jumped up and tore off to the check-in desk with enough speed to leave a little dust trail whirling in his wake.
Kakashi looked at Asuma. “I blame you for this.”
Asuma scratched his chin, short fingernails rasping against his beard. “Yeah, can’t argue with that.”
Silence drifted down, made more awkward by the rustle and scrape of distant people passing by. The hospital was always busy, no matter what entrance you picked. Kakashi considered leaving.
He made it a three-quarter turn, before words came up without permission.
"It's good you made it home. The lieutenant was worried."
If it hadn't been for Kakashi's near-second pause, Asuma might have missed that comment entirely. They weren't friends, there was no need for small talk, especially not in Genma's absence. Why the bother?
He must like Genma. Not that it would be a surprise. Genma was one of those people who was hard to hate.
"Who told you?" Asuma asked, before Kakashi could head off again. "I heard the first report out said I was dead."
Kakashi tilted his head slightly, bringing enough of his angled face into view that Asuma thought he could detect a faint smile under the mask.
“Take a guess,” Kakashi replied dryly.
As the son of the late Sandaime, it took less than a second to process what Kakashi meant. Even if Yondaime-sama hadn’t told Kakashi about the coup directly, a lot of stuff just got picked up by osmosis and accidental eavesdropping. Considering the heavy touch of wryness in his voice, though, Asuma was going to go with ‘told directly’.
He wondered what else the Yondaime might have told Kakashi. Then he decided he didn’t actually want to know. That would require thinking, and as far as he was concerned he’d far exceeded his quota for the day.
Asuma wrestled for a moment over what to say—ask more about what Yondaime-sama might have said? get details on this mission they were heading out on? threaten to break kneecaps if Kakashi mistreated Genma?—but decided less would be more, in this instance.
“Thank you for telling him.” He looked away from Kakashi, to the hospital entrance Genma had gone back through. “I appreciate it.”
Kakashi shifted in his peripheral vision; when Asuma looked back, it almost seemed like the other ninja was blushing. Was Kakashi blushing?
“Stopped him moping,” Kakashi said, tone short, and stepped back into the steady stream of people exiting the hospital. It didn’t take long for his distinctive mop of hair to disappear from sight.
… well, the bit about him being a terrible conversationalist hadn’t changed in the last few years. Good to see some things stayed the same.
Almost as though on cue, once Kakashi had disappeared from sight, Genma re-entered it. His hands were full enough to make elbowing through the hospital doors more cumbersome than usual—one holding a box from his father’s bakery, the other a string bag of fruit. The expression on his face implied he’d probably just escaped an impromptu lecture. Or was concerned about the state of his pastries, giving the way he was inspecting the box.
“I think he likes you,” Asuma said without preamble, once Genma was within earshot again.
His friend looked up from the box of pastries, harried expression morphing into something that questioned if they were using the same language. “How strong are the painkillers you’re on?”
“Can’t feel a thing,” Asuma lied, with more cheer than he felt. “And I mean like, he likes you well enough he won’t genjutsu you into walking into walls during training, not like he’ll stay the night and make you breakfast the next day.”
Genma took a long moment to digest that information, seating himself back on the bench as he did so. The skepticism on his face and radiating from his voice was nearly palpable. “He told you that.”
“He said he was glad I made it back, because you were worried.” Asuma shifted to get a better look through the box’s plastic window, sighting doriyaki nestled among plainer looking buns. “I thanked him and he said he did it to stop you from moping. Then he ran away blushing.”
That was apparently news to Genma. He leaned back against the bench, tipping his chin up to stare at the sky above them. “Huh,” he said, after a long pause. “That’s… huh. Now I feel kinda bad about making him do paperwork for being a smart-ass.”
“No, he still deserves that. His veins are filled with sarcasm, not blood.”
Genma smiled faintly. “Actually, I’m pretty sure it’s blood in there.” One hand lifted from the pastry box long enough to flick through a brief ANBU sign—medic—and indicate himself. “Insider knowledge.”
The pause after he spoke said more, though, a silence full of weighty thought that Asuma hadn't realized he'd missed. A thin line formed between Genma's brows as he stared down at the pastry box on his lap, clearly contemplating how to phrase whatever it was he wanted to say next. Asuma settled back against the bench to wait him out.
"I'm getting yanked out on a mission later this afternoon," Genma said eventually, "as soon as they patch up my abdomen the rest of the way." He glanced over sideways, gauging reactions, and leaned against Asuma's shoulder once more. “Hatake—my whole team—they’re a good team. Not the same as our rookie team was. Probably better.”
Asuma tipped his head at Genma’s statement. There was something more behind Genma’s words. “I don’t doubt it. Think they’re up for this next mission?”
"It's not going to be an easy one. Classic ANBU." Which, in Genma's typically understated manner of speaking, meant 'very unsavory killing to do that might end with us all dead'. He looked up from his pastries. "Are you gonna be all right until I get back?"
"Yes," Asuma replied, if not firmly then at least honestly. "I have a lot of paperwork to keep me company. And my sister. I'm staying with her for now, at least until the powers that be decide what to do with me."
Some of the tension eased out of Genma's face, fading away with a relieved little sigh. Asuma much preferred the smile that replaced it. "Good. We'll go out and celebrate you being home as soon as I get back. You'd better take wall duty if they give it to you, so you can be there at the gate to greet me."
Asuma wrinkled his nose. "You would give me the boring job."
"You just had a whole year and a half of excitement," Genma replied with a chuckle. "Think of it like rice at the end of a spicy meal." And it seemed as though he might say more, but just then a nurse in faded grey scrubs emerged from the hospital and zeroed in on them.
"Shiranui-san," the nurse said, "Nohara-sensei is ready to see you now."
Genma nodded and set aside his box and bag of fruit. "I'll be right there." As the nurse retreated to a respectful distance, Genma stood and dragged Asuma up into an embrace.
"You... be here. When I get back from my mission." Genma's fingers bit into Asuma's shoulder. "Got it?"
"I will," Asuma promised. "I'll see you soon. At the gate.”
The hug tightened, briefly, before Genma let go. He reclaimed his items of tribute from the bench, and with a more reserved nod of parting, allowed the nurse to escort him away.
Asuma stuffed his hands in his pockets and watched until the hospital swallowed them back up. The constant flow of foot traffic seemed more grating without Genma’s steadying presence, abruptly louder and closer than he’d thought before. Compared to this, or the constant social interaction that escort duty required—or, hell, even spending more than an hour in his sister’s house—wall duty sounded absolutely spectacular.
Maybe he should look into that. Scheduling a fitness-for-duty exam and adding the assignment preference sheet to his pile of ‘welcome back’ paperwork would be a good start to the process, at least.
So. Just go do it, then.
Asuma took a breath, pulled his hands from his pockets, and walked back into the hospital.