"Fsglj?" rasped Asuma, surfacing abruptly from a dream that was equal parts nightmare and fencing hippos. Or maybe nightmares about fencing hippos, which was almost as bad. He shoved himself up on one elbow, almost rolled right off the mattress when he found the wall had unexpectedly moved, and caught a bleary flash of blond hair out of the corner of his eye.
As wake up calls went, that worked like a cattleprod and a red-hot boot to the backside.
"Koiji--" he started, tensing, before reality kicked in and reminded him who was walking and who was dust. One hand dragged over his face, clearing grit from eyes that did not want to be awake; the other drifted near his jacket, close to the outline of metal hidden in the lining.
Slight and short, with an angular little face that was far closer to sweet than stern--whoever this was, it sure wasn't the former second-in-command of the Twelve. And as far as he could remember, Koiji had never woken anyone up with a plate of--
"Izzat taiyaki? You're m'new favourite person ever!" He was in ANBU HQ, and an assassin was unlikely to announce himself or bring tasty treats. Besides, paranoia was for people who expected to die soon. Asuma levered himself up with a quick grin, hand falling away from his side. "I have no idea who you are, but pull up some--uh, floor. Or bed. Either's good."
Ginta didn't miss the threat of a concealed weapon, or the dropping of it. That was a good sign, definitely a good sign. He grinned, kicked off his slippers, and sat cross-legged on the foot of the bed. The plate of fish-shaped pastries he extended to Asuma. "I brought red bean and chocolate, and a couple of peanut-butter with banana cause they were the special of the day and I figured they were worth trying."
He studied Asuma's sleepy face, still creased and red where it had been shoved into the pillow. The mop-headed skinny kid had definitely grown into a decent looking man. Ripped, too, which suited him, Ginta decided. And he had enough of a beard-shadow to show he could probably grow one if he wanted to. Got that from his father, no doubt, although the Hokage's beard was a fairly trim one.
"So you really don't remember me? Oh well, and here I thought I'd made an impression. Sakamoto Ginta. I live next door now, but last time we saw each other I was probably... Let me think..." He stared off into space for a moment. Noticing where weapons had been hastily discarded. Where a brand new ANBU uniform hung gleaming in the open closet. Where the tattoo on Asuma's left upper arm was covered by a bandage.
Maybe he really was a rookie.
"Probably ten, I think. At some meeting between my grandpa and your dad, but that time you didn't give me the time of day. Had some kind of tutoring thing set up, I think. But you've got to remember the time we tried that water jutsu indoors and wrecked some fancy rug."
Just when Asuma was starting to wonder who'd lost their highborn little teenager in the middle of ANBU's HQ, the guy said his name and tripped a few brain cells. Ginta, the guy Tsume had mentioned last night. Sakamoto Ginta, in fact; and man, wasn't that a quick stagger down memory lane?
Asuma snapped his fingers a few times, trying to call up the face he almost remembered, and finally gave it up to look at the one in front of him--then gave he Ginta a full once over. Grey cargo pants with more straps than anyone surely had a use for hung loose enough to conceal a multitude of weapons. A bright koi fish splashed its way over summery blue cloth, weaving over the narrow chest and down one arm, distracting the eye. Well made, urban-trendy clothes, bought from expensive places by someone with cash to burn. He glanced back up at Ginta's face. Pale skin, gleaming, mirth-filled eyes; angles, shadows, and a lean, slightly hungry look well hidden in that bright smile that warned him to be careful.
Given that the guy was already sitting on his bed, Tsume's earlier comment could probably use some paying attention to. Asuma had no issue with men that walked the other side of the street, but getting pounced on by one first thing in the morning was toeing the line...
"Damn," he said cheerfully, taking one, "you didn't grow up at all. What happened? Forget to eat your greens?"
"Oh shit, is that what I did? Damn, I knew there was something!" Ginta laughed and snagged one of the taiyaki for himself. "Guess it's too late now, too. They say you stop growing when you hit twenty-one, and I just turned twenty-two last month."
As far as he remembered, he and Asuma were about the same age--Ginta was a little older, and had graduated a year ahead of him, so they hadn't really ever had much contact outside of those occasional playdates while the grownups met behind closed doors. Some secrets were too sensitive to trust with Academy cadet ears, even ones belonging to the scions of Konoha's leaders.
"I heard you were back, and you worked for a while for a blacksmith before you decided to turn pro again. That how you got so big? Cause your dad's shorter than me, even! When I took my oath I could look him right in the eye." He said it with a smile, no way he was slurring the Hokage to his own son. But hey, Asuma'd started it with the whole height thing anyway, and it wasn't like it wasn't obvious Sandaime-sama was a scrawny, tough old cuss. Just proved Ginta's point about how big wasn't everything, really.
He bit into his fish--Ooh hey, peanut butter and banana was pretty good! "You gotta try one of these," he said, offering the half-eaten cake to Asuma.
"It's way too early to play mental gymnastics," Asuma complained, taking the cake. "Pick a topic and stick to it, jitterbug. Slowly, for preference."
Now he remembered Ginta. Really remembered him. Scrawny, run-at-the-mouth little brat who laughed too loud and too long, had enough energy for six-dozen like him, and got into everything he shouldn't. Asuma had been wrong; he had grown up. Into what, exactly, was a different story.
But still, cake.
He shoved the half-eaten treat into his mouth (five years on the road made you anything but picky) and grinned at the weird blend of flavours sparking across his tongue. Not exactly breakfast for a man who didn't eat like a bird, but good enough for now.
He stole another cake, grateful he didn't have to worry about meat appearing in candy-goodness, and steered the conversation safely away from fathers. "Yeah, I played blacksmith. Half a dozen other things, too. What about you? You trip and fall into ANBU, or did someone kick you here?"
"Walked right in and told Arakaki he ought to hire me," Ginta said with a cocky grin. "Almost exactly three years ago, actually. And Arakaki Hisoka is a smart man. Knows a good thing when he sees it. I was in Hunter uniform and mask before a week was out. Did a lot of spook work up in Lightning." He raised his eyebrows just a little, like he and Asuma were co-conspirators now. Anyone as smart as Asuma was--and Ginta remembered him being sharper than a freshly forged tanto--would have no trouble guessing what an ANBU doing undercover ops in Rai no Kuni three years ago would have been up to, after all.
"How about you? Hand-picked hothouse flower, or a volunteer primrose like me?" he asked. It could go either way, really. Higher-ups might want Asuma in ANBU because it was the kind of experience a future village leader would need. Assuming they were still hoping he'd rise to the top like his father. Given his lineage, whether he ended up wearing that broad-brimmed hat of ultimate authority or not, it was a good bet Sarutobi Asuma was headed for seniority in Konoha's hierarchy.
Or they could want him out of harm's way, which ANBU most certainly was not. If they didn't want him here, though, Ginta was pretty sure Asuma simply wouldn't be here. Rebel renegade or not, he was back under the village council's thumb now. Under his father's thumb.
It made Ginta wonder, just a little, what his own life might have been like if Sakamoto Gousuke had survived the fight with the demon fox.
"You didn't seriously ask me to identify with a flower, did you?" Asuma asked around a mouthful of cake. "Because it's still way too early to find my masculinity in question." At least Ginta had slowed down a fraction; long enough for Asuma to actually follow that almost-linear trail of thought.
His left hand, still clean of cake-crumbs, found its way to his waist and absently tugged at a frayed thread unravelling from his fire-kanji sash. He'd volunteered alright, but he wasn't quite prepared to talk about why, yet. Particularly not to a skinny childhood not-quite-friend who'd bounced into his room with a ready grin and an ulterior motive.
Besides, how did you put my entire team just died and I thought signing up for another one seemed like the thing to do into words that made actual sense?
Well--like that, he supposed.
He glanced at his talkative breakfast companion, thought he saw something a little softer in those sharp blue eyes, and flipped the conversation back on itself. "So, up in Lightning--kill anyone I know?"
Soft was one thing, subtle was another. Asuma wasn't really sure he liked either.
"Depends," Ginta said seriously. "Did you know Ambassador Koga? Or a scumbag arms dealer everyone called Blue Jay?" Or Lightning Country's minister for defense, or the assistant to the Raikage's chief lieutenant, or any Kumo ninja...
He could feel Asuma's eyes on him, assessing, judging. It was an unfair advantage Ginta had, and he knew it, knowing what Asuma had been up to, at least in broad strokes, while he remained a total cipher. "I like to think I was one of the forces that made the right dominoes fall, but you know as well as I do how much discretion I had about my targets. Or how much I'm at liberty to tell even a fellow agent about it after the fact."
He watched Asuma's hand fingering that sash like a religious relic. He supposed it was one. Touchstone and identity and a tie back to a tragedy. Interesting that he chose to continue to wear it, but then he'd been on the virtuous and victorious side. It was an emblem of pride, a sign of where, when the irons were in the fire, Asuma's loyalties had lain.
You had to like a guy who had the fortitude to wear that badge still, after everything that had happened to him.
Asuma whistled softly between his teeth. "Kept you busy, didn't they?" Even on the other side of the world, he'd heard about Ambassador Koga--or at least about the way he'd died. They ought to award points for that kind of originality.
Still, that was what a country got for using their pseudo-peace agreement as an excuse to get in close and kidnap little girls. At least the Hyuuga had gotten their Heir back, even if they'd had to sacrifice Hiashi's brother to do it.
fairly recent street bum, Asuma considered himself remarkably well informed.
He reached for another cake, realized he'd had three to Ginta's one, and pulled his hand back. Thoughtfully, he licked his fingertips. "As much as I appreciate the hopefully non-fatal cakes, I'm guessing politics isn't the reason you decided to try my bed out for size." He couldn't have stopped the innuendo--and its accompanying sideways grin--for love, money, or a thousand little cake things. "Anything in particular you're after, or was the open door just too tempting?"
After three years of living in one room with eleven other people, one night alone in an empty apartment had proved a little too lonely. Cracking the door had let in just enough noise to preserve the illusion of company.
And now he had real company. How about that?
"Oh I always try to seduce new rookies with taiyaki," Ginta laughed. He took another cake--red bean, yay!--and pushed the plate closer to Asuma. "At least the good-looking ones. But usually I wait till they're settled in. In your case, I figured an open door was an invitation, and anyway, it's not like we're strangers. You sprained my fingers for me when I was eight, and I'm pretty sure I remember giving you a bald spot at some point. That makes us practically brothers, right?"
It was interesting to find those memories of bored boyhood mischief at the Hokage's palace coming back now. He hadn't thought about it in years. Not in a lifetime, it seemed. Looking at the man in front of him now, seeing the hint of the boy Asuma had used to be still lurking in his eyes, brought a delight Ginta hadn't expected. His grin was broad and genuine; happier than he'd felt in weeks.
For the first time in what felt like forever, he wasn't thinking about Kakashi. Which he just had. Damnit. He scowled at himself and grabbed another fish, popping it whole into his mouth.
Well that was a mood-swing. Asuma eyed the slender ninja in front of him, flicked a glance at the rapidly emptying plate, and wondered whether the taiyaki had somehow managed to cause offense.
He tugged absently on sleep-mussed hair. "Y'know, I don't think I ever paid you back for that bald spot. My sister laughed for a week." Katon-jutsu were damn dangerous in eight-year-old hands, as the entire staff of the Hokage's palace (and one or two respected foreign ministers) had learned. "Remind me I owe you a thank-you punch."
It was a little weird to think back that far. And even weirder to remember the laughing little boy Ginta had been, compared to the sleek-looking assassin he was now. Though it was nice to see he still had a killer sweet-tooth.
Asuma stole another cake.
"And what's with the sad face?" Watching that bright smile fade to a shadowed frown had been a little like watching the sun darken. He leaned over and messed up Ginta's hair before the man could dodge. "I thought you were pleased to see me, asshole."
Ginta dodged away from Asuma's hand with a sharp flinch--for half a second--then he straightened back up and head-butted the still-retreating hand, flashing Asuma a grin, if a less easy one than before. "I am, jerkface. Never been gladder." He reached up to smooth his hair back down--a losing proposition with the straw-like stuff--as Kakashi liked to point out.
You have the most annoying hair.
And dammit he was thinking about Kakashi again. And what's worse, letting Asuma read it all over his face, like he was some unschooled genin.
"I just... oh, it's stupid. Boy trouble. Did you already figure out I still think girls are gross? It's your fault, you know. All those times you called me gay when we were kids must have done it. Probably ought to write a psych paper on it and confuse the dorks in Intel who think all Hunters are brainless heavies who can't read."
Asume snorted a laugh. "Yeah, they could call it 'I got my revenge on all the mean boys by sleeping with them'." His hand fell into his lap, joined by the one that had been fiddling with his sash. He made himself leave it alone. "And just for a leap of sanity, girls aren't gross. Girls are awesome."
His hands needed to stay away from Ginta, too, apparently. In-between that flinch and headbutt, before that sharp little grin had reappeared, there'd been something damn dangerous sliding over Ginta's face. Like a predator's glare, as it forced itself not to strike.
Or maybe he should ruffle Ginta more, just to make him get over it.
"So, because I'm morbidly curious, what'd this boy do to you? Anything I need to kick his ass for? Because I don't mind the workout." He grinned, only half-kidding.
"He started sleeping with my only straight friend," Ginta answered. "And it's not like I had any claim on him or anything anyway, but you know how sometimes you realize after you can't get a thing how much you actually wanted it? There was a spark there, and I know he felt it. But then they had this mission, and the other guy who used to be my friend--and I don't even know if he is anymore--got really fucked up, and I went to see him and they were in bed together." He paused for a breath and grabbed one of the few remaining cakes, but didn't eat it.
"I guess the two of them had already hooked up. On my birthday, too, which makes it all kind of extra sucky, 'cause I had a date with the guy--the one I liked, I mean, not my friend--that night for my birthday, but we got really drunk so we only ended up making out, and next morning he was gone. Off to screw the guy I thought was my friend."
His eyes finally snapped back to focus, meeting Asuma's amused gaze. "Anyway, he could probably kick your ass right back if you tried anything."
Best friends, birthdays, and cuckolded partners--apparently gay guys had the same problems as straight guys. Just without the benefits of ever getting to see boobs. Asuma dug around in his pocket, found a battered carton with one lonely cigarette left, and sparked up. Smoke spiralled in a thin double-stream through his nose, making whispy patterns in the air.
"Well that sucks," he decided finally. "All of it. Especially the birthday bit. I hope you tore him a new one."
He decided not to mention that his own particular track record had seen him in and out of a few married woman's beds. As far as he was concerned, he was a damn sight better than most inattentive husbands--at least for a night--and that was what counted.
"And if you're basing my ability to kick ass on the last time you saw me, I should warn you, I'm at least at a nine year old skill level." He grinned, flicking a glowing fleck of ash from the end of his cigarette, and slid to his feet. "I don't know about you, but I need some real breakfast. And you clearly need to do something about your taste. What are the chances there's a strip joint in town with a decent buffet?"
"It's a Sunday morning." Ginta pointed out, hopping to his feet as well. "I don't think there's any skin clubs open this early, and their food usually sucks anyway. But we could go get waffles. I know a place with great crepes, and they have this coffee that's like mocha caramel cinnamon latte with about five shots of espresso in it, so it really gets you going." He didn't think about the fact that the last time he'd been in there, it had been with Ryouma. Letting a break-up--if that was what it was--spoil a good restaurant, especially one with really good sweets, was a stupid idea. He'd decided rule twenty-five applied to restaurants three years ago, when he'd split with Tomoya.
Of course Tomoya hadn't been in a position to be showing up in any of their old haunts, right afterwards. And when he'd turned up again, he'd gotten the hint pretty quickly: Ryusaki's Grill, the izakaya on Temple street, Rocking Horse World, Heaven, and all the other clubs and bars and restaurants that they'd once frequented together were Ginta's now.
But Ryouma wouldn't be likely to show up, Ginta told himself. Or Kakashi. Definitely wouldn't see Kakashi in there, since the man didn't like sweets much and seemed to prefer soldier pills to liquid caffeine.
He really wished he could stop thinking about that damn man.
Asuma was giving him a look. Ginta grinned and stretched, cracking his back, forcing gloom away. "What do you say? I'll even treat, for old-time's sake... But next one's on you. Got to keep up appearances: hazing the rookies includes making them buy their senpai meals."
"If I see one around, I'll be sure to get him the appropriate nibbles," Asuma said, with a wry glance at Ginta's blond head. The other man's eyeline barely came up to his chest. Was everyone in ANBU a midget?
He headed for the door, grabbing his rucksack along the way--then pulled a U-turn to hunt for his keys. After thirty seconds of scrabbling through the tangle of armour and clothes spread all over the floor, he gave them up for (temporarily!) lost, and decided he didn't need them anyway. It wasn't like he had anything to steal. At least, nothing that wasn't already on his back.
Ginta was standing by the door, pale eyebrows arched up to his hairline. Asuma pinched his cigarette out, tossed it into the sink (mental note: buy a trashcan) and headed for him, absently feeling the weirdly smooth line of his jaw. One night's worth of growth certainly wasn't enough to make up for the two-month beard he'd had before.
"Quick, very unsubtle question before I'm too sugar-addled to think," he said, shutting the door and following Ginta down the corridor. "Were you around for Fox?"
He'd heard about it, half a year after the fact. And knew as much as one could get from a hastily sent messenger bird. But none of that compared to hearing the real story. And Ginta seemed to be in a sharing mood.
"Yeah. I was here." Ginta gave his tall companion a curious look. "I guess that happened when you were already gone." There were more than a few ninja who'd managed not to be in Konoha the night the Kyuubi attacked. Many had been on missions; some, like Asuma, had been traveling for personal reasons (which in Asuma's case was putting it very politely.)
"I was in the second wave. Well, the first real wave, since the first ninja to fight it were caught completely by surprise. You heard that much, right?" He bounced down the hall on the balls of his feet, making up for the difference between his stride length and Asuma's with the quickness of his pace.
"This's my apartment," he said, pausing at the shut door and unsealing it with rapid fire bursts of chakra. "Let me get shoes and money."
Asuma leaned against the doorframe and kept his feet on the hallway side of the threshold. Ginta had apparently retained his sense of indoor manners, at least when it came down to where he wore his shoes, but Asuma didn't plan on unlacing himself and then re-lacing himself after thirty seconds just to make nice. Easier to stay outside.
"All I heard was that a demon tried to eat my hometown and choked on a man," he murmured, hooking his hands into his pockets. Twin metal bracelets slid down to catch against his wrists. "I was past the eastern border of Kaze no Kuni and heading for the coast. Caught a rumour, paid about everything I had for the fastest hawk I could find, and got enough back to know my family was still breathing. The Fox'd already been dead for six months by then, and the Old Man was back in charge. Wasn't much point coming home."
Saying it now, he felt like an ass. But the truth was the truth, and one angry sixteen-year-old who hadn't gotten over himself would've only been a distraction to the reinstated Sandaime.
Put like that, it almost sounded convincing. He pulled a face at himself while Ginta hunted for his money.
"So you were in the second wave," Asuma prompted, eyeing the lean figure amongst the nice surroundings. Ginta's room contained actual furnature. "Is it true the Fourth took it head on?"
"Second wave, yeah," Ginta agreed. Interesting that Asuma didn't tread on his tatami with his boots. You could take the boy out of the palace, but not the palace out of the boy, evidently. As was more than evident by Ginta's own carefully lined up indoor and outdoor shoes in the entry.
He grabbed a handful of coins from a bowl on his dresser with one hand, while the other deposited his wallet into one of the many pockets on his pants. They were awesome pants, he decided. Weapons all over the place, not to mention scrolls, powders, maps, tools, papers... They were easily as useful, if not more so, than his mission gear. Although the fabric was probably not woven with the idea of stopping a kunai strike... Still, he should talk to the quartermasters. Show them the pants. Pockets! Compartments! That was the thing.
He stepped into his sandals and rejoined Asuma on the outside of the door, carefully sealing everything back up with locks and chakra. "I got knocked out of the fight after about twenty-seven hours in; the assault team I was on got caught by three of the tails. Four out of twenty are still alive to talk about it." It was easy to let that part of the story roll off his tongue. He'd told his story, as had all the survivors, over and over, until it was something he knew more by rote than by real memory.
The memories, for the most part, only came out in their dreams.
"I wasn't there when Minato-sama cast his jutsu. But he did what you said. Sacrificed everything to subdue that fucking monster. He used a Death Summons jutsu to seal the Kyuubi's chakra inside his own kid, and gave his own life in the process." His voice held a bitter chill. "That kid's around--an orphan. I guess Konoha's welfare system is raising him somehow. I think everyone pretty much feels like a bastard about it, because it's Yondaime-sama's kid, but he's not human anymore. He's the Fox. You can see it in his eyes."
You heard a lot of stories, being a shinobi. Saw a lot of shit. But death by demon fox (with a kid involved) just went straight off the scale of madness. And leaving the kid alive--
That sounded like the Old Man at work.
Asuma hitched his rucksack a little higher on his shoulder, wished he hadn't already smoked his last cigarette, and tried to touch base with reality. Home less than a week and he was starting to get a little tired of the tragedy. Tsume with her wounded dog and twisted chakra. Ginta with his crappy boyfriends and shadowed eyes. ANBU with its complete lack of curvy looking women...
"Anything else I oughta know about?" he asked, setting off down the hallway. "Demonic pigeon attack, maybe? Giant rabid stoats? Where'd the Fox even come from?"
Ginta cracked up, giggling like the kid he'd been long ago. "Pigeons! Stoats! That's brilliant. Can you imagine how bad it would have looked to the rest of the world? I mean, get taken out by a nine-tailed kitsune, and at least there's myths and legends and stuff. It's all epic. But pigeons! They could have shat all over the monument. Crushed Konohagakure under steaming piles of demonic guano!"
And that was why he'd liked Asuma when they'd been kids, he thought. Why he was probably going to find himself still liking him now. He had a fine appreciation for the absurd--a rare trait in the stuffy upper-echelons of shinobi society.
Too bad he seemed about as straight as a guy could get.
And honestly, did he really need to be complicating his life with thoughts like that? He should find Genma and get laid. The guy had been by looking for some company the night before Ginta's last mission, and he'd turned him away. Probably a mistake.
He pushed open the door to the stairs, assuming Asuma would disdain an elevator as much as he did. Too confining. Too risky. An elevator was fine if you were injured or exhausted, or really drunk. For going up, anyway. But down, there was really no excuse. He wasn't sure why ANBU even had an elevator, although he supposed a lot of ANBU got injured, exhausted and drunk...
"That thing about where it came from? Big debates. I never heard any kind of definitive answer, but my money's on it being a summon of some kind. It's right out of the fucking storybooks, but sometimes those stories I guess are true."
Asuma lifted an eyebrow, following Ginta down the stairs. "Funny, you'd think the humongous paw prints would kind of stand out. Unless all the trackers were off sick that day." Which, given that the monster had destroyed half the damn village, wasn't completely unlikely, but still... "Didn't anyone trail it back? See if it had a lair?"
One of Ginta's slim shoulders lifted in a neutral shrug. Asuma took that to mean Well duh. But they didn't find anything.
Stupid question, really. If they had found anything, they'd have done something about it years ago.
They reached the bottom floor and headed past the manned front desk. Ginta tapped two fingers to his left biceps as they passed the chuunin; Asuma waved at her. At some point he was probably going to have to get the hang of ANBU's version of a salute, maybe after his tattoo stopped itching, but he kind of doubted it.
"So you got any money on who summoned it?" he asked, eyeing the back of Ginta's messy-haired head as they wandered out into Konoha's sunshine.
"If I did," Ginta said, "and I was right, I'd be a wealthy man. Of course I'm already a wealthy man, technically. But my money's all in trust, mostly. The family money, I mean." He jangled the coins in his pockets, taking one of the large fifty-ryou pieces out to toss it glinting in the sun.
"With what happened with Kumo, after, there was a lot of suspicion. A lot. But it was all blind alleys. Of course there was plenty of other fallout from the Kumo mess, but as far as anyone knows, they don't have the know-how to summon a bijou. 'Specially not a nine-tail. There's some rumors Suna was experimenting, but it's all rumors, nothing substantiated. If they are, it'll probably come back to bite them on the ass. And they were weak after the war, anyway. Nothing for them to gain breaking their truce with us."
It was interesting to talk to someone who hadn't been there for any of it, to recap for him the highlights.
"I figure, whoever was behind it, either they were doing an experiment and it got out of control, or they had a really serious grudge against Konoha. Or maybe both. Know who I mean? Snakey-snakey man. No offense, but I gotta agree with my grandfather on that one: your dad shoulda hunted him down and killed him the second he turned traitor."
It was funny how people always said 'no offence' right before they offended you. Asuma slid a sideways look at his short, talkative companion, and cracked his jaw thoughtfully.
"Ordinarily, I'd agree with you," he said. "But I don't call your granddad an ass, so how about you not call mine an idiot? He had his reasons." None of which Asuma could see eye to eye with, but there was a difference between disliking your own family and standing for someone else bad mouthing them. And despite what the Sandaime could forgive, Asuma stuck to his own brand of loyalty.
He caught the coin above Ginta's head as it flicked up again, snatching it neatly out of the air with two fingers. Warmth from the sun and Ginta's pocket bled into his skin. He tossed it back.
"Strikes me that any ninja village could've benefited from the Fox hitting Konoha," he added. "You were the strongest before it happened and unless I'm wrong, you're still rebuilding. Someone else had to pick up the client slack in the meantime." He hooked his hands into his pockets, bracelets sliding down to catch at his wrists. "That or the other four just got really, really lucky."
"You can call Grandfather an ass. He was one, you know. He'd probably take it as a compliment." Ginta pocketed the coin and fished another one out. A foreign coin from Lightning Country that'd he'd been carrying around since his days as 'Seishi'.
Twice in one sentence Asuma'd referred to Konoha as if it weren't his own village. He'd been gone a long time, sure, but if he was still loyal to his dad--which he obviously was, or he wouldn't have gotten all defensive like that--and he'd taken the oath...
"Speaking of being an ass, what's with all this 'you' shit? I was under the impression that tattoo on your shoulder made it a we, and if it doesn't, I think maybe we've got a problem."
Asuma paused, then caught himself and kept walking. "Ginta, nobody's a 'we' with you. You're a little subspecies of weird all by yourself."
But he had said 'you', hadn't he?
One hand slipped out of his pocket until only the thumb kept it anchored in place; fingers hung loose to brush against the crimson-stained cloth of his sash. Ginta was fiddling with a Lightning coin, rolling it skillfully across his knuckles. Asuma wondered if that was his version of a talisman, or if he'd just picked it up and hadn't put it down yet.
He really had to stop fiddling with the damn sash. It wasn't like touching it would bring them back.
Annoyed with himself, he shoved his hand back into his pocket. "So what happens with this 'problem', then? I get another shot to fall in line, or are we looking at a report for a verbal misstep?"
"We're looking at I kick your ass if you do it again and I report you. But for now I'll just bust your balls about it. Stupid rookie kid. You always were trouble." Ginta grinned under serious eyes. Asuma's gesture--that touch of fingertips to cloth--was telling. It was hard enough to come back in when you'd been on an extended undercover job; must be hell to come back when you'd spent the last three years in someone else's private army.
"Fire Daimyou is my daimyou, too, right? So that makes us a we, whether or not you remember you're a Leaf nin. But it'd be a hell of a lot better for everyone if you remember."
There was a chance, still, that Asuma's loyalties were divided. But it seemed remote. What Ginta knew of the coup plot, and Asuma's role in it, came from reliable sources in the Hokage Palace. And there was no way he'd have been inducted into ANBU already, if he weren't under pretty tight scrutiny. Too many security risks.
He played with his coin, feeling it heavy in his fingers. It was thick and silver, with a raised pattern of wild-flowers on one side, and an intricate geometric criss-crossing of lattice on the other. They had a whole different aesthetic in Lightning Country.
It had been hard to come back in, after some of his missions there. But he'd never forgotten what his tattoo meant.
Having his loyalty questioned twice in twelve hours was a game that wore a little thin--three times if you counted Tsume thinking he was an enemy ninja with a basement fetish. But trust was a hard thing to win back; he'd expected that.
Still didn't stop it being damn annoying, though.
"I spent two years being just a me before I ever joined another we," he said, fighting down the urge to bristle. "Managed to watch every back that put itself on the line for me, and there were a few. So if you're worried about your skin, don't be. I know where the line between 'teammate' and 'enemy' is, even if I don't much care about Leaf-nin and not."
Five years and several-dozen countries taught you a lot more about people than it did about borders.
Ginta's coin inscribed another silver arc into the air as he flicked it gently. Asuma watched it, then turned his gaze on the late morning crowd breaking around them, and changed the subject. "So queer and in ANBU, huh? Just how pissed are your family?"
Was an ass, Ginta'd said about his Granddad. So at least one of them had died of shock.
Touchy, touchy... Well, that was worth keeping an eye on.
"Changing the topic to something you think will make me squirm? That's kind of a rookie-interrogator tactic, Asuma," Ginta laughed. "I think the ANBU thing kind of balances out the queer thing. I mean, if I get killed off early, they can mourn their losses and pretend I left a weeping girlfriend behind. My grandmother tries to set me up with marriage meetings every month or so."
He tossed the coin in a high arch, snatched it out of the air, and shoved it back in his pocket.
"Kimonos and stuffy parents and photographs and everything. Usually I try to make sure I have a mission come up the night before the meeting's scheduled. You'd think they'd get a hint. Grandfather got it, he wasn't stupid. Course he told me I had an obligation to the family and all that shit, but shit, I breed koi. He did, too. I told him if he wanted more Sakamoto get, all he had to do was find a few suitable breeders and donate the genetic material."
His laugh turned bright and brassy, and he kicked a rock out of the path.
"Old man hit me. Can you believe it? His own grandson!"
Asuma almost choked himself on a laughing snort. "Dude, you told the guy to go out and play stud horse. What'd you expect?" He remembered Ginta's granddad, all six foot scowl of him. Not a ninja you crossed. "Guess we should be thankful you didn't give him a cup of spunk with a bow on it."
Though, knowing Ginta, he probably had.
As they meandered over the bridge, heading into Konoha's more civilian districts, Asuma took a second to pause halfway. His gaze drifting over the budding cherry trees that grew on both sides of the river, marking spreading branches he remembered climbing. The breeze chased ripples over the water's surface, before slipped away to ruffle long grass that fringed the sloping embankments. There was even a momma duck chased by a fleet of fluffy little ones.
Say what you liked about Konoha, it always had looked pretty in the spring.
He caught back up to Ginta, who'd paused to wait for him. "So what happened to your Granddad anyway? Something big and noble, or did you hit him back a bit too hard?"
"Fox," Ginta said, voice falling low again. "Fox got him. So it was very big and noble. The funeral was very impressive. Of course Minato-sama's funeral was an even bigger deal, and there were a lot of funerals for a few weeks there. But Konoha sent Sakamoto Gousuke out in style. Let me out of the hospital for it and everything."
He hadn't thought about that since the anniversary last October. The annual cleaning of Grandfather's grave. The leaving of offerings. Ginta had burned tobacco for him, and poured out a bottle of the best sake he could get his hands on, drinking cups to his grandfather in the dark, after the official ceremonies were over, because Mother and Grandmother wouldn't. They liked to pretend that the man had been a saint.
Ginta felt more comfortable with him as a fellow sinner.
"He never even met the guy I ended up living with. I hooked up with him after. Well, around then. I already had one of those stupid crushes you can get on a guy who's totally wrong for you..."
Oh the bitter irony. History just loved to repeat itself, didn't it?
"He was hurt fighting the kyuubi, too. So we had rehab together. Actually, Grandfather would have hated him."
"In all fairness, your grandfather hated most people," Asuma pointed out. "It was his thing." Along with being one of the more terrifying ninja to ever draw breath. Though that might just have been the hate; even the Hokage's son hadn't been immune. Of course, Asuma hadn't exactly been living up to the family legacy.
He stepped aside to avoid shouldering a civilian woman carrying a basket of fish, dodged two men with a ladder swung between them, and almost tripped right over a goat on a string. Apparently Konoha still did its market day on Sunday.
Ginta didn't seem to be paying much attention to the bustle around them. As far as Asuma could tell, he didn't seem to be paying much attention to anything but whatever was going on inside his own skull.
Damn but the man had a lot of boyfriend issues.
"Out of interest," Asuma asked, "you ever dated a guy that was right for you?"
"That's why you date, right? So you can find the right guy? Or maybe it's one of those things where you, you know, have the right person at the right time, until he becomes the wrong person because time has moved on. Like that Zen thing about the teacher coming when the pupil is ready?"
They passed a fish stall with a plastic tub of live turtles for sale, and Ginta stopped to admire them. "Hi, turtles. Too bad you're gonna be soup soon." The stall's keeper gave him a look that could have curdled milk, which Ginta completely ignored. He hurried to catch up to Asuma again, who had stopped a few steps beyond and was obviously waiting for him.
"You're right about Grandfather," he said, falling in step with his taller companion. "Never liked a single soul, except your dad, and Danzou-san, and I think Homura-san. Oh, and Grandmother. He adored her. I think that's why he really had a problem with me being gay. Well that and the usual macho squeamishness straight guys have about other guys' equipment, and where it goes when two fags are screwing."
While he was waiting for Ginta to finish irritating stall keepers, Asuma mentally translated that first little speech into No, dude, I've never dated a guy who was good for me. Ginta seriously needed to learn how to speak in short sentences; that talk a mile for every step thing wasn't fooling anyone.
Well, maybe a little.
Then Ginta got his wires seriously crossed. Asuma almost accidentally body-slammed a civilian as he turned to give his companion a blank look. "Your granddad didn't like you being queer because of your grandmother? Dude, I realize sharing is a healthy thing, but maybe cross-generation incestuous leanings should be a second date topic." He rolled his shoulders, shrugging his jacket up. "'Specially if you're going to tack on mention of your equipment, too. Hell, I haven't even eaten yet."
"You had taiyaki," Ginta pointed out helpfully. "Half a plate of them. But I didn't realize this was a date. Should I have brought you flowers?" He angled a grin up at Asuma, bright eyes twinkling with glee. Asuma's own expression clearly implied he thought Ginta was under the influence of some highly questionable substance or other. Civilians flowed around them, casting curious glances at the pair of ANBU and their none-too-delicate conversation. Ginta raised his voice just a little, for the sake of the eavesdroppers.
"I wasn't talking about my equipment in particular. Well, maybe I was. But I mostly meant it in the abstract. And anyway, the thing about Grandmother had nothing to do with incest. Grandfather was so in love with her femaleness that he couldn't get his head around the concept of me not being straight. Of any guy not being straight. It's one of those things where the abstract didn't make sense to him, but he could ignore it until he had to face the concrete example of me." He grinned proudly. "Grandmother still thinks if I just meet the right girl, I'll convert. Like the right vagina pheromones will fix my poor broken brain."
A woman with two children in tow gave them a dirty look and hurried away. A teenage boy with a fighting cock in a wicker basket snorted and elbowed his friend. "Bet the little one's the chick."
"Bet he can hear you, too," Ginta sang back.
Asuma snorted loudly as he watched the outspoken boy flush red. The mother with her kids put on a fresh turn of speed. He slid a sideways glance at Ginta. "The concept of 'overshare' just isn't in your mental makeup, is it? Little weirdo. And you should always bring me flowers."
He wasn't fooled. Ginta was just playing, now. Having fun with all the shockable civilians, hoping his breakfast pal would get embarrassed and start flapping. But Asuma was made of sterner stuff.
Well, mostly--the image of vaginal pheromones was probably going to crop up in some dark hour of the morning and tumble him out of bed.
"Isn't it traditional for gay guys to have daddy issues? Or be joined at the hip with their mothers? Your mom's got to still be around; it's not like she would've died a ninja's death." Unless she'd fallen in the Fox attack, too, and he'd just swallowed his own foot.
"I don't know my daddy," Ginta said with a grin. "And my mom's joined at the hip with her husband, not me. None of that stupid pop psych shit applies. I don't want to be a girl, I'm not afraid of women, I don't have an overbearing mother, and I sure as hell haven't got a daddy issue. I think that's your territory, not mine." He glanced at Asuma, to see how that blow landed, and found the other man' s face hard edged, eyes narrowed. A face that screamed threat.
"Dude, chill out. If you can't identify your own strengths and weaknesses, you can sure as hell bet someone else is going to do it for you. There's not a ninja in Konoha--well at least not anyone old enough to remember you leaving--who doesn't already get it that you and your dad don't exactly see eye-to-eye. And not just because you're a tall fuck, either." He raised his hands in placation, apologetic and wry at the same time.
"It's not a big deal. Hell, there's more than a few guys figure you're a hero, standing up to not just your dad but the damn Hokage. That takes some brass balls, my friend. I'm on your side here. I mean, weren't we just talking about how I crossed Sakamoto Gousuke?"
It always felt a little disrespectful somehow, saying his grandfather's name like that, instead of Grandfather. But it made his point, he hoped.
"You realize calling someone your friend doesn't actually make them your friend, right?" Kind of like how calling someone a brother didn't change your blood. Ginta had used both now; Asuma had to wonder if he was desperate for people in his life, or if he just liked flinging around endearments and seeing where they fell.
Knowing Ginta--not that he did, really--it could be either.
Of course, that wasn't going to stop him earning a punch in the face if he didn't quit dragging Asuma's dad into the conversation. And adding insult to insult with freakin' lectures. Or thinking Asuma was dumb enough to get all fluffy-feeling over a compliment.
Even if Asuma had started it.
Disgruntled and slightly wrong-footed, aware he was wearing more on his face than he liked to, Asuma stepped around Ginta and took a side-trip to the nearest stall. Behind hanging pouches of fragrant dried tobacco, a man built mostly out of biceps directed a seller's grin at him. "Something for you?"
Asuma cast a glance over the neatly organized wares, trying to spot the scarlet and gold packaging of his own brand. "Got any Red Sun?"
"Good choice." Tanned, weather-beaten hands darted to the right, extracting cartons from the middle of a tall stack. "Ten or twenty?"
"Three twenties." Asuma hooked up a return grin along with a handful of cash, slightly sharp edged. Then he tossed two cartons into his rucksack, kept the third in his hands, and left the salesman holding his change. "Thanks, man."
He turned to find Ginta at his elbow, eyeing the merchandise with bright, curious eyes and just a little tension around his mouth. The guy moved like a cat.
Asuma pulled a cigarette from the pack, reversed it and stuck it back in to make it lucky, then lit himself a second one. "Concept of personal space beyond you, too?" He dropped a hand on Ginta's head, ruffled blond hair roughly, completely failed to care about the tiny not-quite-flinch that got, and carried on before Ginta could respond. "So where's this breakfast place? Because I think we're about to run out of village."
"Did I miss the memo where 'friend' became a dirty word?" Ginta asked. His smile was brittle and his voice low, as he ducked away from Asuma's hand and ran his own fingers through his hair to settle it back into its ordinary disarray. It was like getting a static shock, almost, the way that touch had set blond strands all over his body on end. He kept out of Asuma's reach backing away from the stalls and checking the street behind him.
Which was obviously what Asuma wanted, but fuck it. The guy had some serious issues about his dad, but it wasn't like that wasn't obvious from the start. If he also had issues about the idea of friendship, well... Ginta didn't need another Kakashi in his life.
Shut up about that damned man.
Asuma didn't look murderous over the word. More thoughtful than anything. Absorbed in his cigarette, though his eyes were sharp and focused. Maybe he was just having a shitty day. And he'd always been pretty hands-on when they were kids. Taijutsu guys were like that.
"It's on the next block," Ginta said, indicating the direction with the nod of a head. "You superstitious enough you gotta finish that cig before we start walking?"
"If I was, then I'd've gotten dead long before this." He flicked the cigarette to the other side of his mouth, and put feet to concrete, cocking a quizzical glance at Ginta. "Is that actually a real superstition, or are you just making shit up again?"
The smile he got back was even edgier than the last one had been. The laugh that chased it was a little shatter of sharp notes.
Asuma sighed and raked a hand through his hair, messing up tangled black spikes still stiff with yesterday's gel. A fish-merchant bumped into his left elbow; he side-stepped to avoid a second one. Ginta weaved his way neatly through the crowd, avoiding every touch, like a silver minnow flashing in a stream full of clumsy trout.
What the hell did he mean, friend was a dirty word?
Asuma finished his cigarette and flicked the butt away before they turned the corner. Half a step behind Ginta's shadow, he hooked his hands into his pockets and cleared his throat. "Look--I'm not so flush with good people right now that I plan to chase away the guy nice enough to lead me to food. Want to call it square?" He tried a grin, lopsided and mostly honest. "Promise I can teach you much dirtier words, if you like."
Ginta skipped a step ahead, turned around and looked up at Asuma. Did he mean it? Actually... Yeah. He did. This was Asuma, who, whatever he'd been through, was still a pretty together guy. Not a neurotic like Kakashi. Who he was going to stop thinking about right now.
"We can call it square," he agreed, falling in step next to Asuma again. "Or round or triangular or... No, not triangular, that always causes problems." Ginta's smile was a little wry, but genuine.
"So... You want to start teaching me those words now, or shall we wait till we get to the restaurant?"
Asuma's answering grin was full of mischief.
"Good choice! So... You were in the southern countries, right? What's the nastiest thing you can say in Sea Country dialect?"
Asuma snorted a laugh and paused in the doorway of the first restaurant Ginta looked more than twice at. A quick flickering glance inside, weighing and measuring people against exits, was an instinct so old he didn't have to think about it. "I could insult your mother and proposition your sister, if you had one. Or ask how much you charge by the hour."
Ginta's eyebrows swept up, framing an ironic smile. "Can you do all three at once?"
Asuma held the door open. "A gentleman doesn't kiss and tell." He angled a suggestive glance at the pretty red-headed barrista behind the counter (who wasn't quite close enough to hear the conversation), and followed Ginta into the restaurant's cool interior. Comfortable looking booths lined the walls, just secluded enough to afford the illusion of privacy. He picked one at random. "I can also show you which gesture means 'I hope your donkey explodes, foreign pigdog'. And if you ever visit a border town in Suna's southern desert, never insult a man's mustache - he'll probably be forgiven for trying to kill you."
Ginta laughed, attracting a lazy grin from the waiter who swanned over with just enough of a hip-swing for Ginta's blue eyes to flicker sideways. Asuma offered a smile just shy of flirty (it always paid to be nice to to the people who handled your food), and accepted a menu. The waiter's attention didn't stray much from Ginta's equally languid grin; Asuma made a mental note to teach one of them how to say you, me, and an alley? in Sea Country slang before breakfast was over. Ginta could probably use the wind-down.
"Oh - and this is the greeting they use in Deragashi Port, down in Tea Country. Just make sure you don't bend your thumb, or you'll end up saying you like it backwards on a camel. They have this amazingly succinct sign-language..."
As the conversation swept up and Ginta joined in, trading stories of foreign lands and the occasional diplomatic incident, Asuma felt something finally wake up, warm up, and relax behind his ribcage. It wasn't exactly what he'd expected from his second day in ANBU. But then again...
Yeah. Fighting words and dirty talk seemed just about right.