Rating: T(ish?)

Warnings: Bad language, family fluff, author insanity, implications of/reactions to (canon) character death, mentions of slash, discussion of sexuality, etc.

Word Count: ~16600 freaking hell (complete)

Pairings: Raidou/Genma, slight implication of possible future Izumo/Kotetsu

Summary: Genma is a very good assassin. He takes a job, takes a life, comes home, repeats. Then one day a stray genin shows up on his doorstep. And then another. Lonely assassin? Not so much. Try resident shinobi den mother.

[In which Genma is a (very manly) mother hen, his apartment attracts strays, and all of his (bastard) friends are quite amused.] RaiGen

Disclaimer: I don't hold the copyrights, I didn't create them, and I make no profit from this.

Notes: Fucking god, Genma would not stop talking. I swear, this thing was meant to be a collection of little drabbles in multiple POVs strung together into a (shortish) story, and somehow it turned into an absolute monster. He just went on and on, I couldn't even find somewhere to stick a freaking period. And then all these other characters I have no experience writing muscled their way in and insisted on having cameos (you, Gai. You). So if this sucks…blame my brother, who demanded I write this after our discussion regarding Genma's badassery. (Really, though, he was on the Hokage Guard Platoon at 15-16 after only becoming a chuunin at 13. So, awesome.)

(Slight liberties have been taken regarding ages. Immense liberties have been taken in assigning backstories, families, etc. If anything's glaringly wrong…shh. It's fanfiction.)

Fallen here to grace

Genma is silent—it's one of the reasons he's so good at his job. Even for a shinobi, he's always been incredibly aware of his movements and his own body, every muscle and sinew perfectly controlled. Maybe it's a part of having grown up with Might Gai and his insane training regimens, or simply an inherited trait, but it makes him useful.

In the end, that's all a shinobi ever really needs to be.

He slips through the shadows of the grand estate like a swift ghost, darting between patches of heavy shadow and avoiding the bright moonlight that falls like pools of snow on the dark ground. Ahead of him, the building looms ominously, creaking gently as it shifts and settles. The guard at the corner is more jumpy than he should be, twitching every time a particularly loud noise reaches his ears, but he also doesn't move to investigate. Genma uses that to his advantage, leaping nimbly from the ground to the roof and landing silently on the warm tiles. He pauses there for a moment, breath caught in his throat, but there's no cry of alarm from below.

Below him and to his left, half-hidden by the climbing wisteria, is the shoji door that the lord's son leaves open for air every night, despite his father's orders. The rest of the windows and doors are rigged with seals and sensors, heavily guarded, and Genma had despaired of finding a way in until he noticed the young master's habit. Careless and dangerous, especially as his father is one of the most hated men in this part of Fire Country, but incredibly useful. Genma channels just enough chakra to his hands and feet to make himself stick and then slides through the narrow opening, clinging to the ceiling like a spider.

The boy is fast asleep on his futon, and never even stirs as Genma drops soundlessly to the floor, staying crouched for a moment to listen for anyone in the hallway. It's quiet, though, the family wing of the house barred to all but the most loyal family retainers, and Genma slips into the hall unseen.

The fact that he can leave the boy asleep and breathing is a small comfort—not enough, not when he knows just what this family will wake to, but a bit of a balm to his already tattered conscience.

(It was different, Genma thinks, back when the Yondaime was alive and Genma was his bodyguard. An elite tokubetsu jounin at fifteen, skilled and admired, trusted with the Hokage's safety more than almost anyone else in the village—Minato even taught them his famed Flying Thunder God technique. But then the fox came, then the Yondaime sacrificed himself, then the Sandaime had to return to his old position and brought with him his old guards. And now Genma is a simple tokujo, one of many, with just enough skill at assassination to make him valuable and leave him feeling like the scum of the earth.)

(Seventeen years old, seven years as an active shinobi under his belt, and he's killed more men than most of Konoha's veterans, even those who have lived through two great wars. Usually, he tries not to think of it, but sometimes it's impossible not to.)

The lord's room is around the corner and three doors down with a guard outside, nodding off at his post. Genma pauses in the darkness, considering his options, but in truth he already knows what he has to do. He's not being paid to leave witnesses, and it's sheer bad business to leave any clues that could trace this back to Konoha. Everyone knows that shinobi villages take assassination jobs, but none of them except maybe Kiri like to wave it in the civilians' faces.

The senbon falls into his hand like an extension of his fingers, and in less time than it takes to blink the guard is falling with the needle in his neck. Genma catches him before he can land, settling him noiselessly and then pausing, attentive to any change in the steady breathing on the other side of the door. There's none, though, and he eases the shoji door open just enough to see through.

His target, a minor lord who's taken it into his head to abuse his authority, is sprawled out on the bed, facedown, snoring lightly, and reeking of sake. Genma takes a moment to thank whatever stars are watching that the lord's estranged wife is occupying a different room tonight before he opens the door a bit further and slides through the gap. No sound, no stirring, even as Genma ghosts closer and palms another senbon. The floorboards don't even creak as he places a careful hand on the man's head and slides the senbon through his flesh and straight into a nerve cluster.

The man dies without a sound, and Genma doesn't even bother trying to feel accomplished. He just slips out the way he came in, vanishing into the darkness once more.

"Done already, Shiranui-san?" the cheerful chuunin at the Missions Desk asks brightly, accepting the report he hands over.

Genma nods, forcing a crooked smile in return, and tucks his hands into his pockets, rolling the senbon he's chewing on to the other side of his mouth. "Yep. Signed and sealed," he says. "Got anything else for me?"

The chuunin goes tense and shifty, but before he can answer a deep, calm voice cuts in. "I think not, Genma-kun."

It takes as much willpower as Genma has left after the long trip back, dodging a handful of chuunin-level missing-nin who had taken to haunting the road, not to jump and spin. Instead, he forces his heart down from his throat and turns slowly, dipping his head to the Sandaime. "Hokage-sama."

The Sandaime smiles at him, wise and kind, and Genma fights down the faint seed of resentment that tries to take root, as it does every time he faces a reminder of the Hokage he failed so utterly to protect. But if Sarutobi sees it, he says nothing, simply clasping his hands in front of him and asking pointedly, "How long has it been since you remained in the village for more than a week at a time, Genma-kun?"

Genma freezes, trying to calculate, and maybe it's a bad sign that he can't remember the last time he stayed in Konoha for even that long.

Sarutobi saves him, clearly already aware of the answer. "I had thought as much. You have been taken off the active-duty roster for the next month, I'm afraid. After that you are free to take as many missions as you like, but I believe the rest will do you good."

It's a near thing, but Genma manages to bite back his involuntary protests, because clearly, they're not going to matter. The Sandaime has been keeping an eye on all of Minato's former bodyguards, even if he doesn't need them, and Genma is self-aware enough to realize that from an outside perspective, his back-to-back missions look self-destructive and the next best thing to suicidal.

(Maybe that's even correct, but Genma doesn't think of it, pushes that thought as far away as he's able. Now that he can't be a bodyguard, now that he's failed, all his skills are really good for is assassination. He might as well make himself useful, right?)

The Sandaime's eyes are on him, dark and knowing, and Genma keeps his mouth firmly shut as he dips in a quick bow. "Yes, Hokage-sama," he manages as he straightens up, even though the words are bloody ashes in his mouth. "Thank you."

Sarutobi watches him carefully, and it's clear as day that he understands the impotent, undirected fury lashing at Genma's gut. But he simply nods a dismissal, and Genma leaves with his head spinning and his fists clenched, trying not to think.

With no mission to plan for, no target to gather information on, no way to distract himself, Genma knows that he'll be thinking far too much in the days to come. Closing his eyes and swiping a hand across his brow, just barely grazing his hitai-ate, he tries not to despair at the thought of a whole month grounded in Konoha, but it's hard.

So hard.

Genma loves his village, loves the people in it and land around it, but it's also the place that Minato gave his life to keep safe, and that fucking aches.

His apartment has gained a thick layer of dust since the last time he bothered to look, almost five weeks ago now. He's stayed here a grand total of nine days, spread out over more than forty, and it shows in the way everything's fallen into disrepair. Genma pauses inside the doorway, looking around with apathy settling deep in his chest. He drops his pack with a resigned sigh, but can't bring himself to dig out the cleaning supplies. Someday, maybe, but for now there isn't even anything in the kitchen beyond a handful of stale ration bars and a bottle of something that might have once been orange juice. He could call for takeout, reasonably, but it's not worth the effort at the moment.

Maybe the Sandaime is right. Maybe he's been taking too many missions lately.

Genma is fairly level-headed, especially for his age—it's one of the reasons he advanced so quickly after he made chuunin. He's also reasonable, for all he can be as stubborn as a pig. The Sandaime's question is unsettling, pointed as it is, and even more unsettling is the fact that he can't answer it. Genma knows the perils of burnout, the risk of taking too many missions too close together and going mad from the stress. He hadn't thought he was at risk, but the state of his apartment alone tells him that he was being unspeakably arrogant.

A glance down at his hands shows that they're entirely steady, the way they always are. Genma almost feels like they should be shaking, here in the hushed silence of what was once his home.

But Genma's always had steady hands—he was a candidate for med-nin, when he graduated, and learned the basics before he found out that killing people was more his style than saving them. Med-nins and assassins have to have the same composure and inner stillness, and it's one of those ironies that makes Genma want to laugh.

He sighs out into the hush, low and long, and tries to blank out the last time he actually felt comfortable here, both in his apartment and in the village. Six months ago, now. October tenth. The last day of the Yondaime's reign.

Genma drops his vest onto the couch, releasing another cloud of dust, and sets his hitai-ate on the coffee table. His hair swings free, falling in his face and over his eyes as he blindly makes his way to the larger of the two bedrooms. It's dusty there, too, but Genma can't even be bothered to change the sheets as he flops face-first onto the bed, grime smearing his uniform. That makes him want to laugh, too, because he used to be a neat freak, six months ago. Now, he can't bring himself to care.

It's still daylight outside, the middle of the afternoon, but Genma kicks off his sandals and closes his eyes, wondering if it will be possible to sleep the entire month away even as he drifts off into darkness.

(Then the dreams start, and Genma remembers why he doesn't want to.)

There are so many nightmares locked away in his subconscious that they all start to blur together after a while, meld and mix and take him by surprise.

But there's one in particular that he dreads, from a mission three months ago. In it he stands in a small clearing, rough tents set up around him, and there are bodies piled thick on the ground. Some are men, some are women, most fighting-fit even if they were no match for a trained shinobi.

But it's the children that he sees most vividly, children dead by his own hand, some smeared with blood and others fallen where they stood, senbon stabbed deep into delicate vitals.

He wishes that this was an exaggeration, an embellishment of his sleeping mind, but it's not. It's reality, a memory, and Genma is so sick with self-disgust that he wants to die.

Minato, he thinks. Yondaime. Hokage-sama, how much would you loathe me, if you could see me now?

When he wakes, almost twenty-four hours have passed, and it's very nearly afternoon of the next day. Genma's aching, growling stomach is what finally drives him from the bed and into a musty set of off-duty clothes. They're a little too short in the arm and leg, but Genma just rolls the sleeves up, palms a few senbon, slides another into his mouth, and heads out with his wallet in hand. It's been a while since he's eaten more than a few mouthfuls at a time, just enough to keep him going on the mission and then on the road. Here in Konoha, the thought of food prepared and served to order is almost alien, and Genma wanders for a little while, taking in the options, before his body's demand for food sends him ducking into the nearest stall.

Ramen, he realizes after a moment, and remembers the last time he was here, when Minato dragged all three of his guards to lunch. He wavers in the entrance, debating whether to keep moving, but then Teuchi spots him and waves, a delighted grin breaking over his face.

"Shiranui-kun!" he calls brightly. "It's been a while!"

Genma offers the man a crooked smile as he steps fully inside, taking a seat at the counter. It's not just Minato who brought him here, of course—he, Gai, and Ebisu used to frequent the stand after training. Ramen was cheap, high in calories, and easy to eat, perfect for three exhausted genin. Or, well, two exhausted genin and Gai.

"Hey, Teuchi-san," he says. "It really has. How's your Shiro Ramen? As good as I remember?"

Teuchi laughs. "Better! I've improved the recipe a bit. Care to give it a try?"

Settling back on his stool, Genma plucks the senbon from his mouth and tucks it away. "Why not? It's been a long time since I had a hot meal, so I might as well splurge."

"We appreciate your work, Shiranui-kun," Teuchi tells him, turning back to the stove. "You and all of the shinobi keep this village safe at great risk to yourselves, and the rest of us are more grateful than words can say."

Genma thinks of children sprawled out on the frozen ground, parents with their throats cut. Of a boy who liked to leave his door open to feel the fresh breeze, and doubtless woke up last week to find his father stone-cold dead. But Teuchi knows little of such things, and if he does, he will doubtless never connect the polite, calm, easygoing teenager he's known since childhood with slashed throats and pools of blood and blank dead eyes. Civilians never do, after all, unless they have the reality of it shoved directly in their faces. Even with the war, it was held at a distance, fought well away from Konoha in foreign fields, and kept from ever touching the hidden village directly.

"Thanks," he tells the man, even as his throat closes around the words. "We're just doing our jobs."

A bowl settles in front of him, steaming gently, and Teuchi smiles. "Enjoy," he says warmly, even as he turns away to greet another customer.

Genma picks up his chopsticks and digs in. The first bite floods his mouth with so many flavors it's nearly painful, and he has to force himself not to spit it out. But his taste buds adjust quickly, and the hot noodles sliding down his throat and into his empty stomach are like ambrosia. He eats as quickly as he dares, suddenly realizing just how blindingly ravenous he is.

"Another?" Teuchi asks cheerfully as he passes by.

Genma swallows his last mouthful of warm, salty broth and debates it for about half a second before he's nodding and pushing his bowl back to the man. "Shōyu this time, please," he requests, "and an extra egg on top."

"Coming right up." Teuchi snags the bowl and turns away, and Genma relaxes back in his seat again, closing his eyes and savoring the warmth of the sun from the entrance as it hits his back. He's a morning person, truthfully, though long practice has left him able to operate just as well at night. Nevertheless, he'll always love the early morning sun more than any moonlit sky, no matter how pretty. Ironic, perhaps, considering his name and how it comes from the borealis, but he's been up with the sun since he was a toddler, and it's not likely to change any time soon.

In the distance, faint enough to ignore with a bit of effort, the sound of reconstruction echoes. Genma tilts his head, trying to pick out what they're working on now, but can't quite pinpoint it. Still, that's good. It means the rebuilding of the village proper is done, and has moved to the outskirts. Six months isn't a lot of time, especially given the amount of damage the Kyuubi no Kitsune inflicted, but people are motivated, almost desperate to rid themselves of any reminders of the tragedy.

(A part of Genma wonders what kind of life the poor jinchuuriki, Uzumaki Naruto, will ever be able to have with that kind of mindset hanging around, but he pushes it away. The boy's still an infant, and hopefully by the time he's old enough to face the villagers, things will have mellowed out a bit.)

Another steaming bowl settles in front of him, making his open his eyes and murmur his thanks to the cook. Genma eats more slowly this time, savoring each bite, but it's just as good as the first helping. He lets himself settle into place, into the moment, and allows himself to breathe fully for the first time in more than a month.

Then a shadow falls over him, big and broad, and Genma strangles a sigh as he sets his chopsticks down. Of course, because the day was going well, and apparently he just can't have nice things.

"Genma?" Raidou asks with faint surprise as he takes the next seat over. "I didn't realize you were back in the village."

Why would you have? Genma wants to ask, but seals his lips on the rude retort and simply bobs his head, stuffing another chunk of egg in his mouth to give himself a reason not to answer. By the time he's chewed and swallowed, the sharp edge of his tongue is firmly under control, and he can say noncommittally, "Just got back. You're doing well?"

A part of him wants to wince at the short, stilted conversation, because Raidou is someone he's looked up to since he joined the Hokage's Guard. Two years older, bigger, taller, more skilled, more professional—Raidou is everything that Genma, lean and gawky and somewhere between shy and aloof, has always admired.

Raidou himself—sweet and patient and kind to a fault, even to an awkward sixteen-year-old trying to fill shoes just a bit too big—is someone Genma has always purely adored.

(For a while, he'd thought that feeling returned, because Raidou would sometimes look at him and smile, and it would be as bright as a noontime sky and just as gentle. They'd had time together, nine months that Genma still can't bring himself to forget, and then the Kyuubi came and Minato died and week later Raidou was standing in front of him, saying something about how Genma was too young and they'd both been through a tragedy and maybe it would work out better if they kept their distance for a while.)

(A week after that Genma caught Raidou kissing a pretty blonde civilian girl and realized for the first time what people meant when they talked about heartbreak.)

Raidou is taking, but Genma isn't listening anymore, staring down at the dregs of his bowl, a few strips of carrot the only thing remaining. Pulling out his wallet, he drops enough money on the counter to more than cover his bill and pushes to his feet.

Beside him, Raidou goes still and silent, clearly startled, but Genma can't bring himself to look over at the other tokujo. He's been polite, he's talked, he's pretended that they're both fine, but he's tired. It's too much to ask for more of him right now, and for once, he's not going to give Raidou the chance to change his mind.

"See ya around, Teuchi-san," he calls, waving, and gets a wave in return. Then, before Raidou can stop him, he ducks through the door and out into the street, letting himself get lost in the tide of people.

If the rest of the month is going to go like this, Genma's going to lose his mind before it's even half over.

The apartment is still dusty, and Genma still can't bring himself to clean it, even after four days of aimless drifting. He pauses in the doorway, sighing a little to himself. His muscles ache from six solid hours of training, and maybe Gai rubbed off on him more than he ever wanted to admit, but for once his mind is pleasantly blank with exhaustion.

One step into his apartment, and Genma freezes, because exhausted or not, his instincts are still working just fine, and right now, they're screaming that he's not alone.

Genma glances down, a flicker of his eyes taking in the floor, and he frowns, because whoever's broken in obviously isn't a trained shinobi. There are footprints in the dust on the floor beyond Genma's own, the size of either a child or a small woman. But any shinobi worth their salt would automatically cover their tracks if they were trying to surprise him.

With one eyebrow already climbing, Genma follows the trail through the living room, past the kitchen, and towards his bedroom. Along the way, they resolve into two distinct tracks, a lighter child with a shorter stride and a heavier child with a longer one. They march right through his bedroom door without hesitation, and Genma steps up to the frame with his arms crossed over his chest.

On the floor in front of his bed are two boys, not even genin yet if the lack of hitai-ate is anything to go by. One, with black hair spiky enough to put a porcupine to shame, is bowed over, arms curled around his bent knees and face hidden, while the taller one leans over him, brown hair rumpled and an arm around porcupine-boy's shoulders.

"It'll be all right, Ko," the brown haired one says insistently. "We'll just stay out of sight and wait it out."

"In my house?" Genma drawls, clicking his senbon against his teeth. "Do I get a say in this?"

The reaction is immediate. Both boys spring to their feet and jerk around to face him, eyes gone wide. Genma studies the two of them for a moment, his other eyebrow rising to join the first. He says nothing, letting the silence speak for him.

The boys trade looks that seem to hold whole conversations, tense and wary. Then the brown-haired boy makes a frustrated sound, clearly directed at the black-haired one, and porcupine-boy flinches. He looks back at Genma, dark eyes wide and entreating. "Please don't report us!" he cries, hands clenching into fists. "Zumo an' I were just looking for a place to stay, and this house has been empty for weeks, so we thought it was safe. Sorry for bothering you."

That last sentence is utterly miserable and defeated, tacked on despondently, and Genma feels himself waver. Damn it, he's a hardened assassin. Puppy dog eyes aren't supposed to make him go all warm and squishy inside, but even with the clan marking on the boy's chin, Genma can pick out shadows of stress and weariness and barely-faded grief in the kid's face. Genma lost his mother when he was six, his father to the Third Shinobi World War, and his hero and mentor to the Kyuubi. He's capable of recognizing loss in others well enough, after that.

Raking a hand through his hair, Genma sighs, rolls his eyes at himself, and asks wearily, "And just what were you trying to wait out, then?"

The brown-haired boy, also dark-eyed but lacking any clan markings, bristles and takes a half-step in front of his friend. "The people at the orphanage," he spits, looking a bit like a wet cat with the way his brown hair flops over his eyes. "They want to take Ko to an orphanage, even though we're almost genin."

Genma studies both of them carefully. The second boy—not Ko—lacks the grief and weariness of the other, and has clearly been eating more. He's more filled out, and his skin is a healthier hue. So, logically… "Kyuubi orphan, huh?" he asks Ko, feeling a pang of sympathy for the Academy student.

Ko nods, eyes downcast. "Hagane clan lands were just inside the wall where the Kyuubi first appeared," he says softly. "I'm the last one left. Now they want to put me in an orphanage, even though genin can live on their own if they want to."

Legally, Genma knows, Academy students are children, while genin are adults. However, it's a little more complicated than that, since a genin has to prove he can live on his own—sufficient savings, acceptable housing, and basic housekeeping skills—before the Children's Welfare Council will sign off on an emancipation. If Ko's trying to avoid the orphanage, he's going to need a better game plan than hiding out in an empty apartment for a few weeks.

Unfortunately, Genma's got an idea for that, and he can't talk himself out of it.

Stalling—and hoping for another solution—he looks at the other boy. Zumo? Something like that, he thinks. "Your family can't take him in?"

Zumo's mouth tightens, and he looks mutinous and sad all at once. "I've got six brothers and sisters," he says, "and I'm the first shinobi in my family. Mom's an assistant seamstress and Dad's a farm hand. They can barely pay for my Academy supplies, let alone afford another mouth to feed."

Genma was afraid of that. He sighs and tugs off his hitai-ate, raking a hand through his hair. "Fine," he says, rolling his eyes again, because he's a sucker and it's absolutely ridiculous how easily he's giving in. Able to withstand torture, sure, but two pre-genin kids with big eyes? Yeah, right. "Fine, I'll talk to the Hokage. Spare room is down the hall, futon is in the closet. Dinner's at seven, yeah?"

Two jaws drop, and two pairs of eyes go wide. Zumo splutters, apparently at a loss for words, but Ko's gaze has brightened about twelve degrees just from those simple sentences.

"Really?" he yelps. "You're gonna let me stay? But we—"

"Yeah, yeah." Genma flaps a hand at him. "Whatever. I've got a month off anyway, might as well keep an eye on you in the meantime. I'm Shiranui Genma, tokubetsu jounin."

There's a pause as both boys gather themselves, trading excited glances, and then Ko pulls himself upright. "Hagane Kotetsu," he says formally. "Thank you, Shiranui-san!"

"Kamizuki Izumo," the other one offers. "Thank you!"

Genma looks between the two of them and realizes that, in taking in one, he's somehow managed to adopt both. Resisting the urge to roll his eyes again, he nods. "Just call me Genma; I'm not that much older than you." They look all of twelve, maybe eleven, still entirely knees and elbows and awkwardness. He pinches the bridge of his nose and wonders how he's going to bring this up with the Hokage; there's no use going to the Children's Council, as they'll debate and nitpick and delay until next year sometime, with Kotetsu stuck in an overcrowded, underfunded orphanage somewhere. Still, Genma isn't generally one to take advantage of his connection to the Hokage.

Hopefully the old man will at least hear him out.

"Go get whatever stuff you need," he tells Kotetsu. "I'll be back in a bit, so don't break anything."

He leaves through the window before either boy can say anything, cursing himself for his stupid weakness to big eyes and pleading words. Deadly assassin with no mercy or not, throw a kitten at him—especially a wet, sad-looking one with a tragic backstory—and he loses every last ounce of backbone he possesses. Damn it all.

Thankfully, the Hokage's just finishing up a meeting with his advisors when Genma gets there. He bows to the Sandaime's former teammates, murmuring a greeting as they sweep past, and straightens up to see the Sandaime himself watching him with a raised brow.

"Already, Genma-kun?" Sarutobi asks with clear exasperation. "I gave you a month's leave; I'm hardly going to change my mind not even a week in."

"Ah," Genma says weakly, "no, that actually wasn't what I was here for. Do you…have a second?"

Sarutobi raises the other brow to match the first, but nods, beckoning Genma into his office. "I do, if you don't mind staring at piles of paperwork rather than my face. I'm afraid the workload was rather overwhelming this morning."

Genma follows him in, chewing nervously on his senbon. "Hagane Kotetsu. He's—"

"Last of the Hagane clan, a minor family with notable skills in genjutsu and with close-combat weapons. I know of him," Sarutobi affirms, even as he picks up his pen. "A tragedy, to lose so many skilled shinobi in one blow. What of him?"

It takes an enormous amount of effort not to fidget. Genma realizes that he hasn't exactly been a shining example of mental health these last six months, but surely Sarutobi won't deny him on those grounds. Right? "I know the kid. It's only a month or two to the Academy graduation, and then with a couple months of D- and C-ranks he'll be able to get his own place. I figured he could stay with me in the meantime, since the only other option is the orphanage."

There's a long, silent pause as Sarutobi regards him over the top of his stacks of paperwork. This time, Genma does fidget, because as much as the Sandaime looks like a kindly grandfather, he's able to cow ANBU with a single stare. Then Sarutobi sighs and sets down his pen.

"I'll drop a note with the Children's Welfare Council," he promises. "You are certain, Genma? Nearly a genin or no, he is still a child, and you will have responsibility for him. I have no doubt that you can handle it, but are you sure you are ready?"

Genma thinks of Kotetsu's tired eyes, far too old for his face, and the way he stared uncomprehending at the thought that someone might actually want to help him. He thinks of his empty, dusty apartment and the way he feels like a ghost in his own life, detached and drifting, and how the appearance of two young boys made him leave the house when he hasn't except for food or training since he returned.

But it's just a little too soon to hope, and he stays silent.

The Hokage smiles at him as though it was an answer, warm and approving, and scribbles a note on a free piece of paper. "Very well," he says. "Your request is approved. I'll let the Council know. I think," he adds carefully, "that you may even end up being good for each other."

"Thank you, Hokage-sama," Genma says, dipping into a bow, and this time, he truly means it.

Genma is halfway home before the understanding of what he's done fully hits him, and he staggers to a halt on the edge of a rooftop, frozen in place as shock courses through him. He has a kid now, for all intents and purposes. He's just signed on to care for a kid, regardless of the fact that he himself is seventeen and barely capable of navigating daily life as it is right now. He's an assassin, a cold-blooded killer, and there's absolutely no guarantee that Kotetsu will even make it to genin. Two-thirds of Academy students fail, after all.

"Fuck," Genma mutters wholeheartedly. Maybe if he turns around and goes back to the Hokage right now

Then he thinks of Kotetsu's wide, sad, lonely eyes and that's enough to make something inside him cave like paper in a monsoon. No, no take-backs allowed, apparently.

"Fuckity fuck fuck," Genma sighs, and resists the temptation to pound his head against the nearest hard object repeatedly.

"That is not the language a youthful Konoha shinobi such as yourself should be using, Genma," a voice says reprovingly, as a figure settles on the roof beside him in a crouch. "I had thought you had a stronger spirit than that, my friend."

Genma doesn't look at his genin teammate, too busy concentrating on the way he just managed to fuck up his own life by being a complete and total sucker, damn it. "Yeah, yeah. You'd curse, too, if you were in my place, Gai. Ah, what the hell am I going to do with a kid?"

Gai's eyes go very, very wide. Genma replays that sentence in his head and realizes with a wince how it sounded. Even as Gai's mouth opens in preparation for a shout, Genma snaps his hand out to cover it. "Not like that," he hisses. "I adopted an Academy student. No relation."

Gai wilts, peeling Genma's hand from his face to reveal a pout. "And I was hoping to be named godfather. That was a cruel letdown, Genma."

Involuntarily, the image of Gai proudly presenting a newborn with a green spandex onesie fills Genma's mind, and he hastily shoves it back down where it can't do any harm. "Any partner of mine is going to be rather lacking in the proper equipment to produce any kind of godson for you, Gai," he reminds his friend with a roll of his eyes. "I can put you down as my emergency contact, though, if it'd make you happy."

The flash of white teeth is enough to blind an unprepared person, and if that didn't do the job, Gai's green-clad nice-guy pose complete with a double thumbs up would probably finish them off. "I would be honored, my youthful teammate!" he cries. Then he sobers a bit, a frown flickering over his face. "You do not have one right now?"

Genma does, but it's Raidou. That's a whole can of worms he's definitely not about to get into with Gai. He loves the guy, really—he and Ebisu were both some of the best teammates a kid could have—but his love life is not up for discussion without a whole bottle of sake getting involved in the process.

"No," he says noncommittally. "Not as such." Then he sighs and swings his legs over the edge of the roof, leaning back on his hands and chewing absently on his senbon. Gai is three years younger than him, and Ebisu a year older, but they've managed to stay close when a lot of other genin teams drift apart after their promotion. More through Gai's efforts than his own, admittedly, but then, Genma's let a lot of stuff drift lately.

Finally, he glances over at Gai and asks softly, "Think we're gonna be okay?"

Gai smiles at him, not an overblown flashy grin, but something smaller and more meaningful. "Yes," he says sincerely. "I truly do, Genma. You are a good and youthful person. Surely anyone you have accepted into your life will also do well. This student is very lucky to have found you."

At that, Genma snorts, the humor of the situation hitting him all at once. "Broke into my apartment, the little bastard," he says mirthfully. "He and his friend. And they just looked so much like sad stray kittens that I couldn't toss 'em out."

Gai chuckles as well. "You have a soft heart, my friend," he agrees. "What will you do now?"

Genma tips his head back, thinking of his dusty apartment and completely bare cupboards. With another sigh, he rolls his shoulders and says, "Well, I'll have to pick up some food. Cleaning supplies, too, probably. Haven't been home for long, and my place is a mess. Kotetsu's kind of scrawny, so he'll need real meals, not just takeout. And I've no doubt Izumo's going to be staying over more often than not, since they're all but Siamese twins. So groceries enough to feed two growing boys and myself. Extra blankets probably wouldn't hurt, either."

With a brilliant grin, Gai pushes himself off the roof and lands in the street below, scaring a handful of passing civilians. "Let us go, my friend!" he calls back up to Genma, flashing another double thumbs up. "I will assist you in your youthful endeavor to provide for your new ward!"

Giving in to a chuckle, Genma lets himself drop as well, landing lightly on the balls of his feet. "Thanks, Gai," he says honestly, smiling at the other boy. "I appreciate it."

Maybe this won't be a complete disaster after all, with friends like Gai to rely on.

It's getting dark by the time Genma staggers back into his apartment, only to just about break his neck tripping over two pairs of discarded sandals by the door. Gai, half a step behind him, manages to catch the back of his shirt before he can either fall or drop his load of bags, thankfully, and pulls him back to upright.

"Thanks," Genma sighs, toeing the shoes out of the way and heading for the kitchen as he wonders if this is going to be his life from now on. He's grown used to Gai's ridiculous strength, so he doesn't look twice at the fact that his teammate is carrying double Genma's load and managing to support it with a single arm. Were he any less secure in his masculinity, he'd never have survived being a genin with this boy.

However, judging by the choked sound of shock from the doorway, Genma's new roommates have never witnessed such a display before.

Chuckling a little, Genma deposits his bags and beckons the two students forward. "Hey, no worries. Hokage-sama approved everything, so you're good to stay here, Kotetsu-kun. This is Might Gai, my old genin teammate. Don't let the bowl-cut fool you, he's a taijutsu genius. Gai, these are the brats I was telling you about. Spiky's Hagane Kotetsu, and his shadow is Kamizuki Izumo."

Gai dumps everything on the counter and whirls around to present the startled boys with his very best nice guy pose. "Hello! My youthful friend has told me of your plight, Kotetsu-kun, and of your initiative in coming to a truly admirable solution! Should you ever require something when Genma is not available, I will do my best help you, and should I fail, I will run a hundred laps around the village on my hands!"

"Er," Kotetsu says, which…yeah, alright, Genma's willing to admit that that's a pretty common reaction to Gai. The boy casts a what-the-hell glance at Genma, who just snorts, and then turns back to the chuunin. "Thank you?" he says tentatively.

Apparently this is the correct answer, because Gai beams at him before spinning to face Genma. "I must go, my friend. It is time for my nightly exercise routine. I hope you forever remain youthful!"

Genma offers him a crooked grin and a nod. "See you, Gai. You still using Training Ground Nine? I might stop by tomorrow morning if you're in the mood for a spar."

"Yes!" Gai exclaims. "I will wait for you then, my friend!" With one last wave, he jogs out of the apartment, already picking up speed.

There's a long moment of stunned silence from the doorway as Genma starts putting food away. He doesn't comment, though—losing one's Gai virginity is always a bit of a head-trip.

"That…was a shinobi?" Kotetsu eventually manages.

"Ko!" Izumo hisses, slamming an elbow into his side. "That was his teammate, don't be rude!"

Genma just chuckles. "No, it's fine. I've heard a lot worse, but Gai's one of the most dependable people you'll ever meet. Like he said, if I'm ever on a mission and something comes up, go to him."

Kotetsu's breath catches as he finally seems to register what that means. "Then…?"

"I told you, Hokage-sama approved everything," Genma tells him wryly. "Congratulations, you're now my legal ward. Got your stuff moved in?"

When Kotetsu looks too overwhelmed to answer, Izumo nods. "We were staying in one of the remaining buildings on his clan's grounds," he says, a little sadly. "There…wasn't much to get."

There are far too many Kyuubi orphans in this village, Genma thinks, mouth tight. He looks over at Kotetsu, who's got his eyes fixed on his toes, and strangles yet another sigh. "Look," he says. "We all lost someone in the attack. I'm not going to try to replace your clan, Kotetsu-kun, and I wouldn't want to try to replace the person I lost. But even so, there's no reason this can't work, right?"

Kotetsu looks up at him, eyes wide again, and then nods tentatively. Genma grins at him in return, and holds up a package of noodles. "Great. Soba or udon?"

Genma's an early riser by nature, though the last five days of forced vacation he hasn't been able to stir himself much before noon. So it's a bit of a surprise when he wakes to false dawn spreading across the sky, the moon still up and the birds asleep. He lies there for a moment, wondering at it, before he remembers the two students sleeping in his guest room and the unhealthy thinness of Kotetsu's face.

I'll pack them a lunch, Genma thinks, levering himself out of bed without a second's hesitation, the lethargy of the previous days banished entirely by this new concern. I still remember how to make a bento, right?

He can't recall the last time he even had to—likely in the Academy. Possibly on his genin team, because Gai was entirely hopeless in the kitchen and Genma would often take pity on him and bring him something homemade. His father died when he was eight, so he'd had plenty of experience cooking for himself by then. But his father was an only child from a civilian family, his mother long since dead, and Kotetsu is no doubt still used to having a fairly large family. No wonder the kid's looking thin—he's not even thirteen, too young to have been taught many life skills beyond the obvious, and he's been pretty much on his own for months. Proper nutrition is a big concern. He's already shorter than Izumo, and lighter, and while it's possible that's just his body type, Genma wants to be absolutely sure before the kid's growth gets stunted any further.

Meal plans already forming, Genma staggers out into the kitchen, turns on the coffee pot, and gets to work, careful not to wake up either of the boys yet.

As it turns out, he does remember how to make a bento. He even—out of some sort of nostalgia, or possibly those poorly-hidden mother hen instincts his friends always tease him about—makes a third lunch for Gai, making sure to pack it with high-protein foods.

At half past seven, the door down the hall creaks open, and two walking bedheads stagger out. Genma swallows the urge to go for his hairbrush (or cluck. Damn Aoba and his chicken impressions whenever Genma would try to be thoughtful) and steers both of them to their seats, where omelets and toast are waiting.

"Eat," he orders. "Then go get dressed and get to class. If anyone tells me you're skipping I'll hang you from the Hokage Mountain by your ankles. Lunches are there. Don't forget them. Got it?"

Kotetsu just blinks at him, stunned, and Genma decides it's high time to stage a tactical retreat. He's wearing his uniform, though his hitai-ate is on the table by the door, so he waves and snags the two extra bento boxes. "Back by dinner time," he reminds the boys before ducking out into the bright sunshine and raising his face to the light.

Yeah, he thinks, with a feeling like surprised relief bubbling up in his chest. Yeah, okay. This could be good, maybe.

And after so long, after six months of grey sameness and subtle, aching grief, maybe is just about all he needs.

When the boys get home, Genma is on his knees scrubbing the floor, berating himself for not doing it sooner. He absently waves them around the clean part, tapping his senbon against his teeth in concentration as he tackles a particularly ingrained spot. They both slip past him carefully, and a moment later water runs in the kitchen —probably washing their bento boxes, Genma guesses.

A few minutes after that, there's a soft thump. Genma looks up in surprise as Kotetsu drops to his knees beside him, face set into stubborn lines, and catches the rag Izumo tosses over. Izumo joins him on the floor, and they both turn to Genma for instruction, expressions daring him to argue.

Fighting the urge to grin stupidly for no obvious reason, Genma simply tilts his chin at a section of floor that's still grey-brown with dust.

"Help yourselves," he drawls, and the two dive in, mulishly wading through dust bunnies and almost four months' worth of filth.

Later, when the apartment shines again and they're all collapsed over the sofa, Genma closes his eyes and wonders at the unsettling burr growing behind his breastbone, though he stubbornly refuses to put a name to it.

"Takeout?" he offers, in an attempt to drown it out.

"Oden!" Kotetsu cheers, seemingly regaining his energy at the mention of food, and Genma can't help but laugh.

(That stupid annoying burr doesn't go away. If anything, it gets bigger. But he ignores it.)

(Not yet, he tells his heart. Not yet.)

Izumo watches Kotetsu pick at his lunch. They've both been staying with Shiranui Genma for a full week now—both, because Izumo is hardly about to let his best friend out of his sight after what happened six, almost seven months ago, and certainly not in the presence of a strange tokubetsu jounin, no matter how seemingly easygoing and generous. Kotetsu seems to be adjusting well to leaving the shattered ruins of his clan home. He certainly has fewer nightmares, sleeping in Genma-san's neat guestroom that's somehow become their room, and Izumo is unspeakably grateful.

(Sometimes he wonders what would have happened if Kotetsu had refused to spend the night of October 11th at the Kamizuki home, but he always shies away before he can reach the end of that line of thinking.)

"You okay, Ko?" he asks, wondering what's wrong.

Kotetsu is silent for another moment, gathering his thoughts. Then, out of the blue, he says, "We're going to pass the graduation exam on our first try, right, Zumo?"

Izumo blinks at him, unsure of where this is coming from. Kotetsu must understand that, because he glances at Izumo's face before looking back at his meal. "Because Genma-san always gives me extra food," he says softly. "He always asks if I want seconds. When he said we could stay with him, I thought he meant…under the table, you know? Hiding. But he went to the Hokage and made it official. Even then, I thought he'd leave us alone and let us figure everything out ourselves. But last night he helped us with our homework, and he always has breakfast made for us, and…"

Then Izumo has to smile, because he gets it. Feeling much better about Kotetsu's preoccupation now, he flops onto his back and crosses his arms behind his head, watching the clouds drift. "Yeah," he says firmly. "We're definitely going to pass on the first try. And maybe then Genma-san will make daikon salad and thick fried egg."

Kotetsu makes a face. "No," he protests, "Oden and tuna with grated nagaimo!"

From there the discussion devolves into a wrestling match, but that's okay, because Izumo is fairly certain that if they ask politely, Genma-san will make all of their favorite foods without complaint.

Genma's barely taken four steps into the Jounin Standby Station, looking for a possible sparring partner, when the chicken noises start. He rolls his eyes and flips off the perpetrator without hesitation. "Fuck you too, Yamashiro," he drawls.

Aoba grins at him triumphantly. "Hey, Shiranui, no way in hell you can deny it anymore," he taunts. "I heard you took in two lost chicks. And not the hot kind."

"For the record," Genma reminds him, "I've got zero interest in the 'hot kind.' I still like dick. And one of the kids has a family, so technically it's only one stray." Though that does bring up a point Genma's been batting around in his head. Izumo's spent a grand total of one night at the Kamizuki house in the two weeks Kotetsu's been living with Genma, and it's reached the point where Genma would likely worry more with the brat at his own home rather than in Genma's apartment.

"Still, you've adopted the Hagane kid," Inuzuka Tsume says amusedly. "Always knew you'd make a good bitch, Gen-chan."

Being an equal opportunity kind of guy, Genma flips her off, too. "Ah, shut up. He's all right, for a brat. Better'n yours are likely to be, Tsume."

At the kunoichi's side, Kuromaru lets out a deep, growling huff, the nin-dog's version of laughter, and Tsume snarls in reply. But there's humor in her eyes, so Genma figures no one's going to get eviscerated just yet.

"Can it, you guys," Nara Shikaku huffs from his position sprawled over a section of couch. "Some of us are trying to sleep here."

"Oh, go blow, Shikaku," Tsume returns good-naturedly. "You're just avoiding Yoshino when she's sleep-deprived. Sure that spawn of yours is full Nara?"

Shikaku ignores her, which Genma knows is probably for the best. He rolls his eyes and looks around for someone who isn't likely to feed him his own intestines in a friendly spar (such as Tsume, fresh off maternity leave as she is) and then stiffens. Raidou is emerging from one of the side rooms, and from the look on his face, Genma just lost whatever chance he had of sneaking out unseen. Fighting the urge to curse, Genma tucks his hands into his pockets and nods at the other former bodyguard. "Raidou."

"Genma," Raidou answers with a faint, wan smile. "Can I talk to you for a minute?"

No, is what Genma wants to say, but he nods regardless, ignoring Tsume's wolf-whistle and follow-up leer. "Sure," he says. "Somewhere in particular you had in mind?"

Raidou leads him out into the street, avoiding a fruit cart and then leaping to the roof of the building across the street. Genma follows, no matter how much he wants to ditch the other man and head for home. He'd planned to get a spar in and then spend a bit of time checking over his gear and cleaning his weapons before the boys got home, but he's more than willing to skip the spar if it'll get him out of this talk.

Thankfully, Raidou doesn't draw out the wait, settling on the edge of a roof overlooking the wall. Genma takes a seat beside him, keeping a careful distance between them, and from the pang of regret that crosses Raidou's face, he clearly notices.

"You're looking better, Genma," the man says, looking down at his hands awkwardly. "Last time I saw you, I thought… But you're looking lot better now."

It's because of Kotetsu and Izumo, Genma knows. He's been so focused on taking care of them, on living, that he hasn't had time to brood over Minato's death or Raidou's rejection. It feels like moving on in a good way, because this at least is something the Yondaime would have approved of wholeheartedly. Regardless of the lives Genma has taken, right now, he's giving something back, putting just a little more good in the world every time the grief eases around Kotetsu's eyes, or Izumo laughs without care.

"Yeah," he says softly, smiling a little. "I…feel better, too. The Hokage gave me some down time, and it's helping."

Raidou is watching him, and some part of his expression is tight and wary, almost regretful. He looks at Genma almost the way he used to, when they were a 'they', and says with clear remorse, "I hope he's good for you, Genma. I hope he makes you happy."


Wait a second.


Genma blinks and replays that. Replays it again. Because Raidou can't possible mean—

"What?" he demands, voice cracking on the word, but when he turns, the other man is already gone.

Never, ever, even under the weight of grief, has Genma been one to get angry easily. Nor is he one to curse and swear at a fellow Konoha shinobi with any sort of sincerity. But right now, watching Raidou make his steady, ponderous way down the street, looking like the weight of the world's been suddenly dropped on his shoulders, Genma is honestly tempted to reach for one of his many senbon and nail the bastard in the ass. And not the fun way.

But, because he doesn't want to be on the receiving end of one of Nara Shikaku's what-did-I-do-to-get-stuck-with-this-bunch-of-mentally-unbalanced-morons-masquerading-as-jounin lectures, he grits his teeth, drags his violent impulses back under control, and rises to his feet. Do good, he thinks firmly. Do good, give something back. It's a good idea, so run with it, Shiranui.

Taking a long, slow breath, he turns on his heel and heads for the Hokage's office for the second time in as many weeks, hoping the Hokage won't kick him out this time, either.

Again, though, luck is with him, and the Hokage has just finished with morning conferences. As Genma slips in, he sighs and pulls a stack of reports closer.

"No, Genma-kun," he says without looking up. "There are no take-backs; I do not care what the boy has done. There are also no missions for you for at least another two weeks. Longer, if you ask."

It takes quite a bit of effort for Genma not to roll his eyes. Apparently his temper isn't entirely under control yet. "I'm sorry, Hokage-sama," he says politely, "but I actually was after the old student sponsorship forms, if you have a copy."

There's a long pause, and then the Sandaime chuckles softly, glancing up with a soft smile. "My mistake, then," he says, putting his pen down and turning to rummage in one of the cabinets. "For the Kamizuki boy, I presume?"

Grateful for the easy acquiescence, Genma allows the tension to ease out of his shoulders. "Yes, sir," he answers. "It's not like he ever leaves my place anyways, and before that he was living with Kotetsu on the Hagane lands. I figure this will at least give his parents some peace of mind."

Sarutobi hands over the papers, patting Genma's wrist fondly as he withdraws. "Well?" he asks expectantly, though he's still smiling.

This time Genma really does roll his eyes, but it's entirely fond. This man has been like a grandfather to him, after all, looking in on him every so often after his father died, congratulating him on his achievements and consoling him in his failures. "All right," he admits with a sigh. "Yes, we're good for each other. Now stop meddling."

Sarutobi's easy laughter follows him out the window as he leaps away, heading for the main part of the Academy.

Class is just getting out for the day, students filing past in groups or pairs. It only takes a moment's search to spot the black and brown heads bent together. Genma snorts fondly, and calls out, "Oi, Kotetsu-kun! Izumo-kun!"

The heads pop up in unison, and Genma laughs as he waves them over, the last vestiges of his anger draining away entirely. A couple of the lingering parents shoot him suspicious looks, because he's a teenager in a jounin uniform who wouldn't usually have any business hanging around the Academy, but Genma ignores them easily, reaching out to ruffle the boys' hair as soon as they're close enough.

"Hey, brats," he greets. "Have a good day?"

Kotetsu scowls at him, more for the hair-ruffle than the nickname. He likes to think he's really cool, and Genma hasn't had the heart (or, well, more the correct opportunity) to tell him he looks rather like an off-color porcupine. Nevertheless, he proudly offers up a sheet of paper for Genma's inspection. "We had a history test yesterday, and I got a ninety percent."

Genma grins at him, even as he glances towards Izumo. "And how'd you do, kid?"

"A hundred," Izumo says almost shyly, ducking his head. This time Genma laughs, wrapping an arm around each of their shoulders and pulling them into a quick hug. "Good job," he says warmly, pretending not to notice the way both boys have flushed. They haven't had Gai to boost their security masculinity-wise yet. "I'd say all that hard work deserves a reward. How about we hit the Korean Barbeque place?"

That suggestion gets resounding approval, and Genma has to wonder if he was such a bottomless pit when he was their age. Probably.

By the time they're all seated and have ordered, Genma's feeling brave enough to make his offer. He clears his throat, interrupting the boys' bickering over what desert they're going to get, and sets the sponsorship papers on the table in front of Izumo, who's wide-eyed.

"Ever heard of a student sponsorship?" he asks, and at the twin uncomprehending expression, explains, "It's an old system that mostly fell out of use under the Nidaime, but it was supposed to provide shinobi who were the last of their clan with an heir. Basically, your parents sign this, giving up all right to pass on their techniques to you. So that means your mother can't teach you how to do anything beyond the basic stitches for mending, and your father can't teach you his tricks for growing crops, but I can get you started on chakra control and the like without worrying about your jounin sensei biting my head off for it. In return for your parents waiving rights, I pay for your shinobi supplies, food, and the roof over your head until you're at least a genin. Clear enough?"

Izumo is gaping, eyes even wider than before, and Kotetsu's mouth is hanging open. Genma raises a brow at them, and then reaches out to snag the forms before the waitress can drop their food on top of them.

"But—" Kotetsu starts.

"Why?" Izumo finishes for him, the question all but bursting out. "I understand why you took Kotetsu in, because clan children have a much better chance of passing their graduation test and becoming genin, but—why me?"

Genma sighs, slouching back in his seat and pulling the senbon from his mouth to flip it through his fingers. "'Cause Kotetsu cares about you," he answers eventually. "Because I've never seen loyalty like the two of you have for each other outside of the Ino-Shika-Cho trio, and it's inspiring. Because you've spent so much time at our place that the one night you spent at your parents' house, the apartment felt as quiet as a tomb, and neither of us really knew what to do with ourselves." He flashes Izumo a crooked smile, wry as anything, and finishes, "Suck it up, brat, you're stuck with us. And it's your own fault, too."

Because you're good, the two of you, he thinks but doesn't say. Because together, I think you guys are going to be great, just as long as someone gives you the chance for it.

Izumo looks down at his lap, floppy brown hair hiding his eyes for a long moment, and then looks up.

There's steel in that steady gaze.

"I'll take the forms to my parents as soon as we're done eating," he promises, and smiles. It's brilliant, just as brilliant as the grin Kotetsu is wearing, and Genma returns it with all he's worth.

"Perfect," he says, and means every bit of it.

Maybe it's the fact that he's recently adopted yet another stray that forces his hand. (Aoba would make even more chicken noises and call him a mother hen of the greatest degree, but Genma doesn't care about that bastard's opinion anyway.) Maybe it's simply the combination of circumstance and opportunity, but Genma doesn't care by that point. What's done is done, regardless of reasons.

He's on his way back from the weapons shop, four new bundles of senbon and two vials of very interesting poisons from the apothecary's in hand, when ahead of him something explodes.

Of course, Konoha is and always has been a ninja village. There will forever be idiots trying overly-complicated jutsus in crowded places, even when common sense dictates they shouldn't. However, this particular explosion came from the training center part of the Academy building—close to one of the classrooms, if Genma isn't mistaken—and the instructors usually keep a very close eye on their students.

Shouts rise, sudden and raucous, but before Genma can decide whether to investigate, a small shape hurtles full-tilt around the corner and barrels towards him at a flat-out sprint.

It's the instinct of many years as a shinobi that Genma neatly sidesteps the fleeing boy, snags him by the back of his shirt, and hoists him up in the air. A quick glance takes in the soot smeared over the kid's face, the mulish cast to his features, and the long, wide old scar across the bridge of his nose. Genma raises a skeptical eyebrow, rolling his senbon between his teeth.

"You did that?" he asks dubiously. "Explosive tag?"

The boy—who can't be much more than ten, by Genma's estimate—squirms, spiky black ponytail bobbing as he tries to wriggle free. Apparently realizing that it's not happening, he slumps and scowls. "Pipe bomb," he admits sullenly.

Before Genma can respond, one of the chuunin instructors staggers around the corner, sees the grip Genma has on the student, and stumbles to a halt in front of him. "Oh, thank you, Shiranui-kun," he gasps. "I thought I was going to have to chase the brat halfway across the village."

Genma waves off the thanks, shifting his grip as the kid starts wiggling again. "Don't worry about it, Moto-sensei," he answers lazily. "Kneejerk reaction and all that. You look a bit harried. Want me to take him to the Hokage and explain the situation?"

The relief on the teacher's face is bone-deep. "If you wouldn't mind, Shiranui-kun," he says with gratitude. "I'm afraid what my class will do if I leave them unattended any longer. Sandaime-sama has dealt with him before, so you just have to drop him off. Thank you."

Even as half of his brain starts to wonder just what the hell he's getting himself into, Genma nods and tosses the brat over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes. "Yeah, sure," he agrees, waving the older man off. "See you around, Moto-sensei."

But as soon as the teacher is out of sight, Genma turns and continues in the direction he was originally going, ignoring the thrashing boy. Eventually, the kid seems to tire himself out, because he growls in frustration and goes limp.

"You've got a bony shoulder," he complains.

Genma rolls his eyes. "Yeah, yeah, and you're a shrimp. Can it."

Thankfully, the kid does, and the silence lasts until they're nearly at Genma's apartment building. As they pass through the doorway, the boy points out, frown all but audible, "This isn't the Hokage's office."

"No shit," Genma drawls. "Really? I hadn't noticed." His landlady is watering a few of the potted plants around the edges of the room, and he waves cheerfully to her. "Afternoon, Hanako-san."

She waves in return, even as she shakes her head. "Another one, Genma-kun?" she asks in amused resignation. "Kidnapping is a crime. I thought a shinobi would know that."

"It's not kidnapping if I give him back," Genma assures her. "Don't worry, Ko and Zumo are more than enough for me to deal with on a regular basis."

"If you says so," she murmurs with polite disbelief, turning back to her watering can, and Genma heads for the third floor, whistling cheerfully all the while.

When he steps through the door, Kotetsu and Izumo are in the main room, their homework spread out on the table, along with the onigiri he'd left in the fridge for them. They both look up at his entrance, and Kotetsu blinks.

"Umino?" he asks in surprise.

"You know him?" Genma asks, depositing the boy on the couch. He slides into the corner, clearly not entirely happy to be there, but his eyes are on the other two boys and bright with curiosity. So he's not a malicious prankster, Genma thinks with a bit of relief. That's a step in the right direction, then.

"Everyone knows him," Kotetsu scoffs, because he occasionally gets too big for his britches and then Genma has to take him to a round of morning training with Gai to get him back down to normal. Clearly seeing the threat implied in Genma's expression, Kotetsu hurries to add, "All the Academy students, I mean. He set a trap that managed to hang Gokudo-sensei from the ceiling by his ankles." When he looks back at Umino, his eyes are bright with entirely misplaced enthusiasm. "So? What did you do this time?"

Izumo coughs, and adds with a wholly unconvincing innocent expression, "Entirely academic interest. We just want to know what to expect tomorrow."

It would probably be a lot more convincing if he weren't quite so obvious about planting his elbow in Kotetsu's ribs to get an agreement.

"Ouch!" the other boy yelps, then notices his friend's expression and rearranges his expression into dutifully supportive lines. "Yeah, what he said."

Genma rolls his eyes at the two clowns and turns to the third boy. "Anyway, I'm Genma, and you probably know the terrible twins already. Want some food? We've got some leftover yakisoba if you'd like, or if you're willing to wait a bit, I was going to make dengaku chicken and daikon salad for dinner."

Izumo brightens considerably at that, returning to his homework with enthusiasm and dragging his best friend reluctantly along in his wake. Umino looks uncertain, and with the sullenness fading from his expression, Genma again catches a glimpse of the wounded sort of loneliness that he first saw in the street. This is another Kyuubi orphan, he's certain, and he's definitely not dealing with it as well as Kotetsu is. Lack of support, most likely—Kotetsu has Izumo, but not many kids can claim bonds like that.

But then the kid looks up, something reluctantly hopeful in his eyes, and says, "I'm Umino Iruka."

Just a name, but it's a beginning.

Genma smiles at him, and reaches over to carefully ruffle his hair. "Nice to meet you, Iruka-kun," he says. "You're staying for dinner. Couch is yours tonight if you want it." He heads for the kitchen, rolling up his sleeves, and pretends he can't hear Kotetsu and Izumo demanding prank details as he leaves. (He also feigns deafness when they start discussing how best to get their hands on some exploding tags. Just, no. For the sake of his sanity, no.)

Iruka stays the night.

The next day, when Kotetsu and Izumo drag themselves home from school, complaining about strict teachers and too much homework, the younger boy is right in step with them. As they collapse around the living room in indignant heaps, Genma leans against the doorway and smiles, entirely despite himself.

Well. One more can't hurt, right?

"Back again, Genma-kun?" the Hokage asks in wry amusement, already reaching for his filing cabinet as the tokujo slinks sheepishly into his office. "Which do you want this time, legal guardian papers or sponsorship forms?"

At least he's stopped thinking Genma's trying to circumvent the mandatory one-month leave. Genma ducks his head, rubbing a hand through his hair. "Ah. Um, a set of each? I don't really know which one Iruka-kun's more likely to go for, so to be safe…er."

The Hokage is beaming at him. It's really rather unsettling, and Genma wishes he would stop.

(Or, of course, that Aoba, waiting outside of the office, would quit it with the fucking hen noises. One of these days Genma's going to set all three of his little brats loose on the bastard, and then they'll see who has the last laugh, damn it all.)

A week after Iruka moves in, Izumo comes home in the middle of the school day, alone and in tears. Genma is reading by the window when the door slams open with enough force to nearly fly free of its hinges, and he startles to his feet just in time to see Izumo storm through, cheeks wet and nose bright red.

Well, he knew going in that this wasn't all going to be sunshine and roses and smoke bombs, Genma tells himself, raking a hand through his hair. He's just surprised that it's Izumo, who's by far the most levelheaded of the three. Kotetsu and Iruka are both hellions, though Kotetsu's got a very deep-seated honorable streak and Iruka's heart is probably twice the size of anyone else's—and likely twice as soft as well, no matter how he tries to hide it.

With a soft sigh, Genma follows the sound of muffled sniffling to the boys' bedroom, and he leans against the doorframe for a moment before rapping his knuckles on the wood. There's no response, but Genma steps into the room anyway, crossing to Izumo's futon and settling next to the boy. He rubs a hand over the shaking back, offering what comfort he can, and then asks softly, "What's this about? You okay, Zumo?"

There's a long pause, and then the boy firmly shakes his head, though he doesn't lift his face from the blankets. "One of the other boys said me an' Kotetsu were gross, because we're always hanging out together and sharing food an' everything. He said that if we didn't stop acting like—like we were—like that, they wouldn't let us become shinobi." Now he lifts his head, and if anything, he's crying harder than when he got home. "But I don't want to stop, Genma-san! Ko's my best friend, and if I have to choose between being a shinobi and being his friend, I'm going to pick being his friend, no matter what!"

So that's what it is. Genma had known it was going to come up at some point, but he'd been hoping for some time a little further down the road. Like puberty. Or never. He'd have been fine with never, too.

Carefully, he wraps an arm around Izumo's shoulder and tugs him closer, tucking the boy against his side. "Let me guess: the kid was from a civilian family?" he asks gently. "And Kotetsu heard what he said and just laughed at him, right?"

Izumo nods jerkily, pressing his wet face against Genma's shoulder. "Ko's an idiot," he says flatly.

"Mm," Genma hums. "He certainly has his moments. This time, though, it wasn't his fault. You understand what that kid was saying, right? About you and Kotetsu?" At Izumo's nod, he forges on. "Civilians and shinobi think about those kinds of things a bit differently, Izumo. You know, I don't feel anything for women. When I want a romantic partner, I look for another man. It's just the way I'm wired. Some people like one or the other, and some people like both. It's just biology. Shinobi are of the opinion that life's too short to risk missing out on love to make someone else happy, so they tend to be all right with whatever preferences people have. Civilians look at it a bit differently, for whatever reason. So Kotetsu, who was raised in a shinobi clan, knew the kid was full of shit. He probably didn't realize that you didn't know. He didn't mean to hurt you, Zumo."

Izumo stares up at him, wide-eyed, for a long minute, and then says tentatively, "You like…men? And that's okay?"

Genma smiles down at him, giving him a light squeeze with the arm still around his shoulders. "Yeah," he says. "I do, and it definitely is. Whether you and Ko like each other that way, or just want to stay best friends forever—whatever it is, that's up to you guys, and only you. Got it?"

When Izumo nods, clearly still a bit shaky but getting better, Genma smooths a gentle hand over his messy hair. "Good," he affirms, and gets to his feet. "I'll go make you some tea, and then let the Academy know you're sick and will miss the rest of the day. How about indulging a terminally bored tokujo and playing a board game with me?"

That signature Izumo smile, bright and sweet, finally makes a reappearance, and he bobs his head shyly. "Yes, please, Genma-san. Thank you."

The kid's going to be just fine, Genma knows. He squeezes Izumo's shoulder one last time before he ducks out the door, and is content when no sound beyond a quiet rustling of sheets follows him out.

For his first real childcare crisis, that actually didn't go too badly.

(Now all that's left to deal with is the rapid approach of puberty.)

(God damn it.)

The nightmares still come sometimes, though less often now that his apartment holds more than his own lonely heartbeat. Genma thrashes in his sheets at the sight of blank dead eyes and weeping children and blood freezing cherry-red on frosted ground. Bad tonight, worse than most nights, and he hates it, hates what he does even as he loves this village Minato gave his life for.

He'll do anything to protect Konoha, to honor the sacrifices of his Yondaime and his father and his fallen friends, but nights like this, it haunts him.

And then something small and warm settles against his left side, his right side, against his legs. Genma lets out a shuddering, shaking breath as the warmth rouses him just enough to break the dream before he's dropping back into sleep. Still, his hands grasp automatically, gratefully at whatever's closest, pull the three fragile forms just that little bit closer so that he can protect them, so that they can protect him.

(When he wakes in the morning, covered with children, he stares at the ceiling for a long moment before huffing out a laugh and draping one arm across his eyes.

Pathetic, he wants to say, but that's the thing.

It isn't.)

Genma's twenty-fifth day as resident shinobi den mother starts badly and very quickly gets worse. It's less than a month to Iruka's birthday, his first birthday without his parents, and he's acting out in an attempt to distract himself or everyone else—likely both—from the approaching date. Kotetsu isn't the type to take any kind of prank lying down, and Izumo, perhaps predictably, sides with Ko. It's also a weekend, so as much as Genma would love to pack the whole lot of them off to school and wish the teachers best of luck, that's not an option.

Genma has been awake for four hours now, and in that short amount of time has had his hair dyed scarlet, his kunai pouch filled with spiders, his dresser drawers turned upside down, his scentless deodorant switched with something distinctly flowery, and his new senbon hidden. Kotetsu is a menace, lurking in corners for an ambush with his glue-spiked hair quivering in anger, and as much as Izumo tries to keep out of the direct conflict, his calm is being severely tested by the itching powder lacing his clothes. Iruka himself is showing off evasion skills that would make a chuunin jealous, and trap-making abilities to put a tokujo to shame. Genma's already had to disarm six that contained rather nasty surprises.

When he finally staggers over to switch on his coffee pot, and the unmistakable smell of percolating vinegar fills the air, it's the last straw. He turns, his generally even temper finally on the verge of snapping, and is about to bellow for the boys to settle any last changes in their wills when the doorbell chimes cheerfully.

"Oh my god why me," Genma mutters, sidestepping another trap—this one consisting of honey, feathers, and a launcher that looks suspiciously like Genma's favorite hairbrush—and staggering to the door. He pulls it open, even as snarling screams in the background signal that Kotetsu has finally managed to run Iruka to ground, and can't even bring himself to feel surprised when it's Raidou standing on the mat.

It's just that kind of day.

"Hi, Raidou," Genma says, not even able to summon up his hurt or anger after the crucible of the morning. "Can I help you with something?"

In the distance, something distinctly glass shatters. Genma closes his eyes and counts to ten. When that fails to produce any apparent effect on his straining temper, he tries counting backwards from ten to zero. No change, so he switches to naming off prime numbers, breathes out slowly, and steps into the hallway, pulling the door firmly closed behind him. The noise cuts off.

When he opens his eyes again, Raidou is watching him with one eyebrow raised, clearly taking in the bright hair and the smell of lilacs that's clinging to his skin. "Ah…?"

Genma rakes both hands through his hair, resisting the very strong urge to just pull until he rips it all out. "Those boys are monsters," he explains in a near-growl. "Apparently they've been hiding it in order to lull me into a false sense of security, but now that all the forms are signed and sealed they think it's just fine to make my life hell."

Raidou's face twitches in the way that means he's swallowing back a grin, but before Genma can do more than narrow his eyes at the other tokujo, he asks, "Boys?"

"I'm sure you've heard Aoba and his fucking chicken noises," Genma says dryly. "He's only been making them every time I'm within hearing distance for the past three weeks."

This time, Raidou actually snorts, and tension that Genma hadn't even noticed eases from his shoulder. "It's Aoba," he points out, lips curving into a faint smile.

It's entirely unfair that that expression can still make Genma's heart beat faster, but after dealing with four hours of the aftermath of the Kyuubi attack made tangible, he can't bring himself to care about a former rejection, no matter how it stung at the time. Kotetsu and Iruka both lost far more than Genma did, and they're coping, no matter how poorly. It makes his obsession with losing Minato seem…not so much lesser as less important in the long run, regardless of how essential the Yondaime was to Konoha as a whole.

Genma finally lets out a full breath, pressure easing from his muscles as he huffs out a soft laugh and slumps back against the door. "Yeah," he agrees mirthfully. "Bastard. But he's kind of got a point here. I might have possibly taken in a couple of strays—Academy students and beasts, all of them. This morning's been…a bit of an ordeal."

Raidou takes another look at Genma's new hair color and chuckles quietly. "So I see," he says. At Genma's back, the apartment door trembles like an explosion just went off behind it, and Genma closes his eyes again and pinches the bridge of his nose. He really, truly does not want to know at this point.

A big, broad hand settles over the nape of his neck, pulling gently, and Genma blinks his eyes open to see Raidou firmly steering him down the hall. "Come on," the other tokujo says decisively. "I think you deserve breakfast out for dealing with that all morning. Let's go to Hojo's."

"Coffee," Genma groans desperately. Then he pauses, ducks away from Raidou's hand, and leans back through the door of his apartment, eyes firmly shut so as not to see the extent of the damage. "I'm going out, brats!" he calls. "This place had better still be standing—and clean—by the time I get back, or so help me I'm sending you all to boot camp with Gai for the next month." Then he leans back out, determinedly shuts the door before a single wounded cry can reach him, and returns to Raidou's side, far more cheerful.

"Gai?" Raidou asks dryly. "Isn't that a bit…?"

Genma grabs a lock of his scarlet hair and tugs a bit to make his point. "Not hardly," he says flatly.

Raidou laughs, and with only the faintest hint of hesitation, throws an arm around Genma's shoulders and pulls him away. "Hojo's. My treat," he offers.

Of all the things Genma has missed about being together with Raidou, that's one of the main ones. Raidou knows him, knows when to pamper him and when to step away, and Genma doesn't think he's ever been as thankful for it as he is at this moment.

"Godsend," he breathes, "you're a godsend, Rai, thank you so much."

The arm around his shoulders tightens, just a touch, and then a hand gently tugs one a lock of bright red hair. "Sure," the big man says with fond, gentle amusement. "Whatever you need, Gen."

Maybe later Genma will hate himself for giving in like this, for settling so easily, but for now, there's warmth and friendship and all the feelings he'd thought gone since that night in October, and he's not about to cast those things off so readily.

(When he gets back, the apartment is shining and absolutely spotless, everything back where it should be and all three boys diligently working on their homework around the low table. Genma pauses in the doorway and feels something in his chest expand and settle comfortably.

His morning with Raidou has reminded him just why he loves the man to the point of stupidity, but it's also showed him that things have never been quite as bad as he was making them out to be. Genma is generally a rather levelheaded person, especially for a high-ranking shinobi, but he has a tendency to make light of situations when he shouldn't and to obsess over things he thinks of as a personal failure.

But Raidou doesn't blame himself for the Hokage's death, and their fellow guard Iwashi doesn't either. Genma had asked Raidou about it, and Raidou had looked at him with surprise and said, "But we didn't fail. We gave Yondaime-sama enough time to do what he needed and save the village. His sacrifice was his own choice, and he did it to save everyone. That's the strength a Hokage has to have, the kind of choice he has to make, and we gave him the opportunity to do so. We succeeded."

Genma has never seen it that way, has never before looked at it in any way but through the lens of failure, he died, failure. So this is…different, and it eases the iron bands around his chest until he almost can't feel them anywhere. A good change, and a truly welcome one.

"Genma-san!" Izumo cries suddenly, finally noticing him, and bolts to his feet with the others close behind. They hesitate, clearly uncertain, and Genma blows out a quiet sigh before offering them a crooked grin.

"Hey, brats," he answers. "Got it out of your systems, then?"

A moment later he's dog-piled by relieved Academy students, and laughs as they bear him to the ground.)

("You're doing better, Genma," Raidou says, the next time they meet at the Jounin Standby Station, where Genma goes after walking the three boys to school. "I—after the attack, I thought you were going to self-destruct, and that…"

Scared me, he won't say, but Genma hears it anyway. He offers Raidou a wry and crooked smile, because he felt the same way. He's seventeen, a shinobi, an assassin who's one of the best in the force at killing silently, and he lost the first person to give him a job protecting rather than destroying. Perhaps it's too much to expect him to be entirely stable, but then, most shinobi aren't anyway. Genma just has to…adjust a bit, going from mostly-sane to mostly-not.

"Yeah," he answers, and tips sideways to rest his temple against one of Raidou's strong, broad shoulders. "Yeah, I know. But the kids…"

Even when they're driving him absolutely insane, things could be worse.

Things could be a damn lot worse.)

The Hokage's message hawk comes at dawn on the thirty-first day, carrying only a red slip of paper—meaning 'urgent mission, come at once.' Genma catches his breath when he sees it, but manages to take the paper without choking. As soon as the hawk is airborne, he's leaping for his uniform, pulling on his vest.

A month ago he was desperate to get this kind of notice. Now, though, there's a sick knot of worry twisting in his gut, and he pauses in settling his kunai pouch. The boys are going to be waking up soon, and while Genma would normally not waste a single second getting to the Hokage's office, he can't leave them without a word. Not like this.

Silently, he slips down the hall, tying his hitai-ate over his thankfully-returned-to-brown hair, and into the sleep-warm room.

"Brats," he says just loud enough to stir them. "Hey, brats, get up for a minute."

Kotetsu is the first to stir, sitting up with a grumbled, "What?" On his right, Izumo rolls over and blinks his eyes open as Iruka pulls back his blankets just far enough to see out.

But when they see him in full gear, from his reinforced fingerless gloves to the dark cloths covering his poisoned senbon, they all realize what's happening.

Genma crouches down to ruffle Kotetsu's hair, offering him a brief smile. "Hey, kid, sorry. Hokage called me." With a sigh, he looks over the three of them. "I'll probably be back in less than a week, and I'll get someone to drop in on you from time to time. Zumo, you're in charge of groceries. Ko, I left my recipe books on the shelf, so try to cook at least one meal a day, all right? Ruka, can you help keep the place clean? There's money for anything you guys need in the red lacquer box in the dish cupboard. Got it?"

"Got it," Kotetsu whispers, but he's pale, and when he lunges forward to wrap his arms around Genma's chest, Genma doesn't resist. Iruka does the same, Izumo half a heartbeat behind, and Genma wraps his arms as far around them as he can, resting his cheek on three dark heads.

"Don't worry," he tells them softly. "I'm good at what I do, and I'll be back as soon as I can, okay?"

"Bye, Genma-san," Izumo whispers.

"Good luck," Iruka murmurs obediently, but none of them are letting go. Genma gives them another thirty seconds before he regretfully pulls away with one last hug. "Close the window after me," he orders, "and keep each other safe." Then he hops onto the sill and leaps out, preforming a shunshin in midair and flickering out of sight.

The Hokage's window is open, too, and Genma blurs through it to land in a crouch in front of the desk. "Sorry I'm late, Hokage-sama," he says formally, rising to his feet. "I'm out of practice saying goodbye."

The Sandaime smiles faintly, standing halfway in the shadows as he looks out over a waking Konoha. "Then make certain you never say it in earnest, Genma-kun," he advises, unstirring. "The scroll is on the desk. Go, but be sure to come back."

Genma looks down at his hands, remembers that wisteria-framed doorway and sleeping boy and the death that followed. But over the last few weeks, these hands have brushed Izumo's hair, wiped dirt off Iruka's face, straightened Kotetsu's clothes. He's made lunches for three growing boys who want to be shinobi, but not to the exclusion of everything else. He's helped with homework and scrubbed floors and soothed away nightmares, hugged and held and pushed them forward, and in the same way he felt good as Minato's bodyguard, he feels good now, like he's doing good, just by being.

He takes the scroll, and when he turns to go, Raidou is in the doorway, watching him with something cautious and careful in his eyes. Genma knows how he would have acted before, but now, so very far distant from the battered, faltering person he was a mere month ago, he just smiles and leans forward to steal a quick-brush kiss as he passes.

"Later, Rai," he murmurs, flicking the other man a lazy two-fingered salute. "Watch my brats for me, yeah?"

Raidou smiles in return, and though he isn't as demonstrative as Genma, his expression is achingly, wonderfully warm. "All right," he agrees softly. "We'll be waiting for you, Gen."

They will, they all will, and that's reason enough to hurry home.

He comes back.

(How could he do anything else, with the four of them there?)

Kotetsu is the first one he sees as he trudges through the gate, a head of spiky black hair bobbing around the gate guards as they fend him off. It's been a week and a day, and Genma is weary down to the bone, but he smiles at the sight of the Academy student. Izumo is at his shoulder, as always, trying to contain Kotetsu's energy. Iruka is the first to spot Genma, and gives a cry as he shoots forward to latch on to the tokujo's leg.

Genma laughs a little, even though he knows he must look a sight—there'd been no time to stop for medical treatment on the way back, and cornered spies tend to fight like rats. But his left arm is still working and out of a sling, so he drops to one knee in the middle of the road and loops an arm around Iruka's shoulders.

"Hey, brat," he says warmly, and looks up as Izumo and Kotetsu hurl themselves against him. "Brats," he amends with a chuckle, and scuffs at whatever hair he can reach. "You guys okay?"

Behind them, big and looming but smiling sweetly, Raidou meets his eyes and nods.

"We missed you, Genma-san," Izumo says, pulling back. He's smiling, too, eyes bright.

With his face buried in Genma's shoulder, Kotetsu mutters, "Speak for yourself," but he's got a death grip on Genma's shirt and doesn't look to be letting go anytime soon.

"I got Moto-sensei and Namiashi-san with that feather-and-honey trap," Iruka says proudly. (Genma wishes his second arm was working without he could smack himself in the forehead. Geez, this kid.) Then the boy ruins it by pouting and says indignantly, "No one else disarms them like you do, Genma-san! They don't even notice!"

Well, yes, probably—it's not exactly common to trap one's own village—but Genma gives in to a chuckle and tugs on the kid's ponytail. "Yeah, yeah," he says wryly. "Just keep it to when I'm out of the village, brat, got it? I don't want to be called to the Hokage's office 'cause an Academy student's taking out the chuunin."

Clearly hearing the implied praise, Iruka grins. Genma rolls his eyes, ruffles his hair fondly, and levels a mock-serious look at the other two boys as well. "That goes for the terrible twins, too. Understand? Find someone else to take the fall. I'll have you running laps with Gai."

There's horror from three quarters, and Genma laughs. He stands, slinging his good arm over whatever shoulders he can reach, and manages to stay on his feet even when blood loss and exhaustion make the world spin. "Okay," he says cheerfully, "now who's gonna take me to the hospital?"

It's a bit amusing to watch them run around like headless chickens—er, chicks—frantic even though he's conscious and standing and they hardly need to be. Still, when Raidou steps up to brace him with a shoulder against his and an arm around his waist, Genma is truly grateful.

"Welcome home," Raidou murmurs.

"I'm back," Genma replies, and as the boys crowd around to sweep them both away, it really feels like it. Like the first breath after drowning, like the catch halfway through the fall, he's safe.

He's home.