Disclaimer: NARUTO and its characters were created and are owned by Masashi Kishimoto. Original characters and plot are the property of the author. No copyright infringement intended.
Title: Heaven Hold Us
Pairings: ShikaNeji, KakaGen, InoKiba
Rating: M / R (language, themes, violence etc.)
Summary: A series of Post-War BtB one-shots [BtB Flash-forwards]
Timeline: Post Fourth Shinobi World War. 4 months after the War.
HEAVEN HOLD US
by Okami Rayne
"Damn it. I told you I was contagious."
A cheap joke burned at the back of Genma's throat. Or maybe that was the infection. With effort, he swallowed down the wisecrack like a chunk of coal. Hot and stinging. Shit. The scraped-knee rawness thinned his voice to a rasp.
"Yeah? You sound rough."
"You look rough."
"I'm probably still contagious, you know."
"Little late for the hazmat talk. Might as well have stuck your tongue down my throat the last time I was here."
"Keep talking in those dulcet tones and I just might."
Genma laughed. It hurt. Ended up coughing over his shoulder and almost spitting his senbon into the neighbour's door. "Don't joke about my fantasies, Rai."
"You should take what Shizune prescribed for this."
"My pill-popping days are long behind me, partner."
"They're supplements, Genma. Not hardcore drugs."
"Pretty sure my drugs were cheaper."
"And you give me shit for being stingy."
"I give you shit for anything."
"True. All the same, you don't have to keep checking up on me."
"As you're so fond of reminding me…that's what partners do. You gonna let me in or what?"
The big brother stonewall silence, followed by that old familiar gimlet-eyed glare. Might've been slightly more threatening if Raidō wasn't stood in the doorway with nothing but a towel slung about his waist, smelling of soap, haloed by steam and not looking any less exhausted than he had the last time Genma had seen him. Too bad Genma couldn't attribute his partner's zero sleep quota to mystery lady friends putting him through his paces. Just to be sure, Genma darted a quick glance over Raidō's bare shoulder.
Raidō sighed and angled his body to obscure Genma's not-so-furtive attempt at reconnaissance. "Genma…"
Genma rolled a shoulder, loose and easy as the chuckle that husked from his flaming throat, senbon edging to the side of his mouth. "Hell, Rai. Just making sure you're not spreading your germs while you're sowing your oats."
"Is sex all you think about?"
"Depends…what's a partner gotta do for a nightcap?"
"Not have a dick, for starters."
Genma grinned, sharp and bright and too high-beam to be convincing. "That's main course territory. Lucky for me a skinflint like you always skips starters."
Raidō contrived to look irritated, rolling his eyes. "One day I'll have your ass for sexual harassment, Shiranui."
"You can have my ass for anything you want, Namiashi."
"Rough night, huh? You only come at me with this shit when you're trying to throw me off."
Genma winked. "I'm romantic like that."
Raidō scoffed, caught between embarrassment and begrudging amusement, one hand drawing the door back even as he reached out with the other to take the duffel bag from Genma's shoulder. "Rough night?" he repeated.
Dodging both the question and the glint of speculation in Raidō's eyes, Genma surrendered the bag, kicked off his shoes and brushed past with the brazen familiarity of the asshole freeloader he strived to be, knocking shoulders with his partner in what passed as rough affection. Figured if it worked for Waif, it'd work for him. He was every bit the stray, rocking up here with a bad case of feelings. Worse than fleas. Sucking him dry.
Careful, said Logic. Careful.
Coffee, said Masochism, Coffee.
Insomnia wasn't going anywhere, might as well let her snort a hot line of caffeine straight off his brain – which, to be fair, had run off far crazier mixes in the past. But it wasn't the past that'd brought him here. Here being his old haunt, his old home…well, up until Raidō had renovated it into an unrecognisable showroom.
Genma had wanted to take a wrecking ball to it.
Got his wish too.
The one good thing that'd come out of Pein's Invasion? The total annihilation of the apartment. No love lost there. But it had been rebuilt. Minimalist and manageable because Raidō wouldn't pay for a cleaner or the costlier crap. He'd gotten Yamato to reconstruct the building into a similar blueprint of its former image with just enough innovation to look modern without sacrificing the old traditionalism of tatami mats, genkan, and the staggered shelves and alcove.
Still wasn't quite a home.
Says the homeless guy.
Genma's place was gone. Ground into the dust. He was holed up in a three-storied longhouse – shinobi barracks – with an open-plan matchbox arrangement. Bed, cupboard, desk, dingy kitchenette, temperamental electrics and a shower that went from sub-zero to scorching at will. The toilet flush sounded like the intricate workings of a tailed beast's bowel movements and while his neighbours were tolerable the walls were too thin. Other than the bare necessities, he had his crazy cat for company – fuck knows how Waif had survived Pein's demolition – and a few precious trinkets he'd salvaged from the rubble.
A far cry from Raidō's setup.
So move, asshole.
Not like Genma couldn't afford it.
Not like he wanted to think about it either.
And while the reborn apartment's smooth and polished décor still irked him, it was an itch he scratched with impertinence, making a beeline straight for the low-slung couch. Must've been taking his courtesy cues from his cat – though he had the wherewithal to at least brush the imaginary dirt from the backs of his thighs, never quite able to shake the sense that he'd be sullying Raidō's immaculate illusion. Everything just so. Raidō never used to be like this – Genma chalked it up to a displaced condition masquerading as OCD.
Sounding like a shrink.
Or a jerk. Lack of sleep did that. Appealed to the inner asshole who used to run off fumes and quick-fixes. But that's not the part of Genma that had rocked up here tonight. Twisting on his heel, he hitched his slacks, sank down and parked his ass on the couch, spreading his arms along the backrest. Claimed.
Immune to Genma's territorial antics, Raidō grazed past, avoiding the strategically crossed ankles which might've sent him sprawling ass over elbow. "How about you actually commit to this bullshit. There's still a spare room, you know."
Genma tipped his head back, stared at the ceiling, spied a cobweb laced beneath the shiny light fixture and felt oddly gratified. "Thought you'd rented it."
"You wouldn't be here if I had."
"Been a while. Plenty of non ax-crazy occupants out there looking for a roof and a roommate. What's the problem, Rai?"
No response. Raidō dropped the duffel bag outside what would've once been Genma's old room – just to be a miniscule prick – and carried on down the narrow hallway into the kitchenette. "Coffee?"
Genma turned his head, let his skull loll against the backrest and stared at the mouth of the hallway, listening to the clang of mugs and the guttural purr of the percolator.
"What? No one got the balls to pass your T&I third degree?" Genma pressed with just the right amount of humour to keep from sounding pushy – or god-forbid, a little petulant. Yeah. Lack of sleep notwithstanding, he might've been marginally protective – or maybe possessive – of his partner. It'd never come up during his mental torture-sessions in the shrink's seat but he wasn't stupid. Raidō was many things to him and he wasn't sure how he felt about anyone fucking with that dynamic.
"If you're staying, then you stay in here," Raidō reiterated, grazing his knuckles over the closed door where he'd unceremoniously dropped Genma's crap. "Ok?"
Genma quirked a brow, head still tipped against the backrest. "Who said I'm staying?"
"You brought your shit."
Raidō gave a hesitant pause, then proceeded into the adjacent room, easing the door shut. No comeback. No comment. Genma frowned, reconsidered his blasé approach and gave the apartment's neat, minimalist surroundings the head-to-toe assessment through lidded eyes. No hint of another presence or personality…even the orchids and hanging-scroll Raidō used for the sake of salesy presentation had vanished from the alcove. Just a void…yawning wide as the sharp, angular spaces between the blanket chests and latticed shelves. The latter were mostly empty, bar a few volumes on finances – because Raidō was thrilling like that – and a single unusual-looking title.
That was new.
Genma rocked to his feet, reached up absently to rub at his burning throat and moseyed over to the shelves, ignoring the pull in his muscles. The ache in his forearms. The razor twinge of sinews twitching at the backs of his hands. Too much chakra expenditure without enough juice in his tenketsu. A shitty case of 'immune-system down' and not a single needle from his jutsu could puncture the real pain, much less numb it.
Careful, Logic reminded. Or maybe that was good old Self Preservation.
He was here to check in on Raidō. No hidden agenda. No orders from the higher ups. The novelty of choice. And care. His partner was a permanent fixture in the ever-shaky aftermath of everything fractured or falling apart…such was the mental and physical fragility of so many who'd survived the War.
He's not the same.
God. None of them were.
Sidestepping that massive landmine of a thought-field, Genma reached out, grazed his fingers over the spine of a thin book embossed with the title: Ama-no uki-hashi. The Floating Bridge of Heaven. Lofty title. Especially considering it was bracketed by volumes 1 and 2 of Financial Fitness.
No joke. That shit would put Genma to sleep faster than a KO. Snorting, he pulled The Floating Bride of Heaven free, flicked through it and tucked his head back in surprise. Jisei. Death poems of the warrior monks from the old Fire Temple. He'd seen this book before…seen it on another shelf…in another apartment…during another chapter of his life…
Pain tugged at Genma's brows. A pain that might've travelled, might've taken possession of his whole damned face but…
Genma ironed out his expression and gave a low whistle, twisting on his heel when Raidō approached with two steaming mugs in hand. He'd changed into a faded pair of black sweats and a grey top which looked about as ashen as his expression when he caught Genma handling the jisei book.
Feigning nonchalant interest, Genma thumbed through the pages, the worn sheets catching on the grooves in his thumb. "Finances and fatality. You've got to be the most depressing sonovabitch I know."
"Charity shop," Raidō dismissed. "Looked like a quick read."
"Right," Genma drawled, eyes scrolling over the poetry. "There's comedy value in these things if you look hard enough."
"ANBU humour?" Raidō riposted with just enough edge to kill Genma's gesture of flipping the next page.
"Tch." Genma clapped the book shut one-handed and slotted it back onto the shelf, avoiding Raidō's stare with the same ease with which he avoided the hook, line and sinker, "That doesn't smell like coffee."
"It's not." Raidō pressed the mystery mug into Genma's empty palm and moved over to the couch and perched on the armrest. "Drink it."
Genma made a show of lifting the mug in tandem with his brows, granting the steam a quick sniff before he humoured Raidō with a single slurp of the bright yellow contents. "Guess they've finally figured out how to bottle the Yamanaka flower shop."
"The turmeric will help your throat. The lavender and camomile will help you sleep."
"Didn't come here to catch up on my Z's, Rai."
Raidō treated him to the deadpan slit-eyed treatment for a good ten seconds.
"Easy," Genma purred, setting the mug down. "Didn't come here for a miracle either. Besides, my throat's too raw to convince you it'd be worth your while."
Raidō barked a laugh and gifted him with the barest of smiles. "You just want what you can't have."
"Ain't that the truth."
There must've been some bitterness singeing the underbelly of those words because they came out sounding a hell of a lot rawer than the throat infection could take credit for.
Raidō's expression creased gently. "Kakashi," he said.
Genma's jaw seized and his ears rang in the silence that followed. It took him a moment to recover from that leftfield crack to the temple. "Cheap shot," he husked after a way-too-long and way-too-revealing pause. "I sure as hell didn't come here for that."
"Yeah? And where exactly do you go for that? If Kakashi's not supporting you then—"
"You're my partner, not my priest. Leave Kakashi out of it."
"Hard to do when I know he's—"
"You don't know shit. And since you've decided to drag us there, let's just go all the way, partner. Who the hell are you talking to?"
Raidō blinked at him, looked genuinely thrown. "I talk to you."
Genma barked a laugh which turned the hot coals in his throat into a corrosive burn strong enough to water his eyes. He coughed hard and didn't have air enough to defend against Raidō's next blow.
"It's a difficult adjustment for him."
Genma stared at him, eyes blazing.
"Being next in line," Raidō persisted. "And without the Sharingan—"
Genma turned his back, went for the door.
Raidō lurched to his feet, swayed halfway into the move and yelped a strangled curse. The pain in the sound jolted Genma to a stop and he wheeled around. Raidō stood there, hands raised above his head, spilt coffee spreading a wet stain through his sweats. He'd missed his damned crotch by a quarter-inch.
Their eyes met and Raidō flushed. "Don't you say it."
Genma pressed his lips around the senbon, wrestling for a moment with his dying anger and his budding amusement, mouth twisting at the seams. "Any closer to the mark and you'd be getting the rub down treatment."
Raidō rolled his eyes skyward, but there was no real exasperation in it. In fact, his whole expression looked a little off-kilter – his colour too. He swayed in his effort to set the mug down.
Genma went to him, accosted the mug and gripped his bicep. "Sit down."
"You practically gift-wrap this shit for me, Rai. Sit. Down."
Strong-armed into a reluctant squat at the edge off the couch, Raidō teetered on the verge of a sigh and a snarl. "Almost a month now. Can't seem to shake this damn thing."
Genma set the mug down and crouched at Raidō's knees, grazing the backs of his fingers over his partner's forehead. "Shizune told you. No one's immune to this. We're all going through it. Gonna take time."
Raidō shot him a dry look from beneath his sweaty brows, lolling forward with forearms braced across his thighs. "You're managing."
"I'm used to putting my system through the mill. You're more delicate."
"I'll kick your ass."
"Well sure, I already gave you permission to do what you wanted with it."
A rough, tired laugh and Raidō leaned in to press his brow against Genma's shoulder. The gesture was so unexpected it took the Shiranui a moment to respond before he reached up and patted the back of Raidō's head, dropping a knee to the floor to keep his balance. Raidō was leaning heavily into him now and Genma felt an uneasy stitch pulling through his chest.
"Genma," Raidō breathed.
"Right here, partner."
"Don't worry. Your dick isn't any smaller."
Another laugh, ragged around a cough which rocked though Raidō like a mini seizure. "Not that. Kakashi."
"Forget it." Almost came out like a plea, but the oven that was Genma's throat baked the words into a charred and black husk. "Forget it," he said again, softer this time.
Raidō groaned. "Feel pretty rough."
Took a lot for Raidō to confess that. Took a lot more for Genma to avoid calling on Shizune. Never was like Raidō to get laid out by sickness. He didn't cope all too gracefully with it. Knowing that, Genma would preserve his partner's dignity…or maybe preserve the small but vital privilege of being the only person Raidō felt safe enough to be this vulnerable with.
Fucking hell, Shiranui. Mushi's couch is calling.
Or maybe Kakashi's distance was making him acutely aware of Raidō's closeness…and shit, he'd missed that intimacy. That bond. Platonic or not. It was human. It was connection. And it was someone he loved about as much as he loved anything in this wrecked world.
"Rai. Time to hit the hay."
"I do talk to you…maybe not in words."
"You don't talk about Asuma," Raidō said, another shock-statement that stung way more than time should've allowed.
Genma tensed, his palm rigid against the back of Raidō's head. What was it? Open season on his heart? Genma swallowed hard, the infection like a magma pit at the base of his throat, lava trails snaking towards his chest. "Neither do you."
"You know why."
Sighing, Genma turned his lips against Raidō's hairline and fastened his grip on his friend's head. "Wasn't on you."
"If he was here, Shikamaru wouldn't be in—"
"Okay," Genma cut in – sharp and no-nonsense now. Because this was sliding fast into territory he just couldn't – wouldn't – go. "Come on. Get up."
He didn't make it a choice. Hauling his partner up, he slung a limp and clammy arm across his back and steadied Raidō with his hip, about a hop, skip and jump away from just lugging the Namiashi over his shoulder. Thought better of it though. Wasn't exactly firing on all cylinders himself. It took him a good ten minutes to knock what little resistance remained out of Raidō and get him lying down. Took Genma half that time to duck out into the kitchen, gather medications, brew some herbal crap, grab a cool cloth and return to hover by the beside like a pedigree retriever, on-point and alert despite his offhand aura which Raidō managed to see through despite his weak vision and slow tracking.
"Don't look so smug…" the Namiashi muttered, easing back onto the pillows.
Genma smirked, made a half-assed attempt to take the edge of his concern with another crass joke. "Ah, don't take it too hard. Inevitable that I'd get you into bed eventually."
Raidō had just enough energy to play his part and gave Genma the longsuffering glare from beneath heavy lids. But the look softened fast – too fast – and Genma might've sensed what was coming next if he'd looked a little longer instead of reaching to switch the lamp off.
Raidō caught his wrist halfway.
No escaping it. Genma allowed the touch, let a single controlled breath stream from his nose and settled his gaze patiently on Raidō.
Raidō looked almost repentant as he mumbled, "I took it from his apartment…the book. Before Pein. Before…when I was trying to put things together after you started to go to pieces."
Genma said nothing, just stared, his molars grinding hard.
Raidō's gaze went hazy, went distant, went far back along the timeline to bring the memory into focus. "I don't steal. I don't know why I took it."
"I don't care," Genma grated. "He probably owed you a drink. Call it even."
"I didn't get why he had it. Then I remembered the Fire Temple. The monks. You think he felt…accountable?"
"Who's to say? You want his pillow talk confessions, ask Kurenai."
"I'm asking you."
WHY? Genma wanted to snarl it. Scream it. Tried to snatch back the brief flash of pain knifing across his face. Failed miserably and barked a hoarse laugh to cover the scar his pain left behind.
What the hell did Raidō think?
That Genma and Asuma had bonded over their drunken shit-shooting sessions and the odd spells of sobriety in-between? That they'd actually known anything more than what the other wanted to let on? Or let lie? That just because Asuma hadn't cut his throat back in that fucking basement – which Genma might've welcomed back then – it meant anything more than the Sarutobi had more restraint in his heart than Genma had goodness in his own.
"You know what your problem is, Shiranui? You and Kakashi ...you guys don't believe in second chances..."
To Genma's shock, his horror, the memory actually gave him pause. Long enough and painful enough to doubt the lie which came spilling out of his mouth, "Asuma put out in conversation about as much as he put out generally when drunk. Less than you'd think."
"Don't do that."
"It's true. Kurenai was lucky, up until he wasn't. That's all it was. Shit luck. He'd tell you that himself."
"What? What do you want from me, Rai?"
"I want you to tell me what you saw."
On any other occasion, those words might've been ambiguous and curveball-worthy. But Genma knew what they meant, what they referred to…what they threatened. He cut Raidō a look, bronze eyes tapering into warning slits while he chewed on steel and silence for a good ten count before he simply shook his head. "No."
"You want to know what I saw?"
"Asuma. I saw Asuma. I saw Hayate. And a whole lot of other ghosts."
Cursing, Genma pulled his wrist free and pushed away, felt Raidō's fingers trail his arm and catch at the crook of his elbow, gripping hard.
"Saddest part, Gen? I knew it wasn't real."
God. "It doesn't matter."
"It matters. Everyone else believed…everyone else had something to hold onto…everyone else had hope."
"It wasn't about hope. It was a mindfuck, Rai. It wasn't real."
"I know," Raidō snapped, eyes burning with fever – and not the sickness kind. "I knew. Knew it wasn't real even when it should've been…gods, what the hell does that say about me?"
"That you're smarter than the rest of us."
"Tell me, Genma."
"Because I've got nothing to say."
Raidō's look called bullshit. And maybe there was truth in that too. Maybe Genma had the words, just not the willing. Maybe that was for a shrink to determine or some other expert to decide…either way, it didn't change the sad and sorry fact that Genma stood there in the silence that followed, wishing he was a bigger person and a better partner.
Truth was, he was too fucking selfish and too fucking scared.
If he lost Raidō…
His gut clenched hard at the thought of it, the threat of it.
"There's no point talking about this, Raidō."
"No point talking about anything, right? Because "no words but action" did such wonders for you in the past."
"It wasn't real."
"I KNOW that, Genma! Tell me what the hell it means that I knew it wasn't real. I wanted to believe it, dammit! I wanted to buy it. I wanted to be sold. I wanted to—"
And all Genma heard was…
I wanted to go.
A flip switched in his brain. He went cold. Went distant. Went away even as he came forward in a rush, gripped Raidō's head between his palms and shook him once, harsh and unforgiving. "Enough," he snarled. "Enough."
"Go on." Raidō twisted free and shoved Genma back from him with surprising strength. "Go on," he echoed. "Give me the inspirational spiel and the speech about eight times up."
"I'll give you a fucking speech impediment if you keep running your mouth," Genma uttered in a chill threat, fingers balling into a punch he struggled not to throw, even if the tilt to Raidō's jaw was an open invitation. Shit. He wanted to hit him. Wanted to hug him. Wanted to cut and run.
He had no clue how to deal with this. This wasn't like Raidō. Raidō didn't lash out. Raidō didn't lose his shit. Raidō had the whole inner-demon containment thing down to a fine art, framed by steel-plated sanity. Genma was the head-case. The loose cannon. The cynic.
Because that's easier, isn't it?
The switch in his brain flipped back on. His fist loosened, so did the lock on his jaw, the senbon tilting away from his partner's brow to target some vacant space just to the side…just to the side. Just where Genma liked to be these days. Just out of reach. Right on the fence. One foot in, one foot out. That halfway point between entrance and exit. Humour and hard-assery. A duty-calling desperado. Wanted and wanting and doing whatever was necessary, no questions asked, because he had debts that were due and holy shit what a…
A detonation, small but seismic…enough to send a raikiri shaped fracture zig-zagging along the substratum of whatever hard-won sanity still stood between what he needed to feel and who he needed to be.
Go. Just go.
Hissing, Genma raised his hands like he'd pulled them a hairsbreadth from a bloodbath. Made a show of lifting them in a screw this gesture and backtracked in a blind drift, moving out of the room, slamming the door on the moment, the memories and whatever might've happened had he thrown that punch.
He cut…but he didn't run.
Came close though. Got halfway across the room before he relegated himself to the low-slung couch with Raidō's half-empty – half-full – mug of coffee for company and comfort. He took a swig, almost choked on the bitterness and laughed out loud at the irony. Hollow sound. Barely packed enough punch to break the silence.
What a silence.
No tick, tick, tick of a clock to grate nerves or keep track. Just one more thing that wasn't like Raidō. He always kept a clock. Was a stickler for time as much as money. Genma didn't know what childhood cog had cranked Raidō into such a miser. It's not that he wasn't generous in other areas – his support, his care, his unending patience – just had a weird obsession with financial security…which probably hinted at other issues of stability and safety.
Armchair psychology, Shiranui.
Not like he was qualified to take his partner to task on the workings of his brain when Genma's grey-matter was the Holy Grail of head-cases. That said…in the aftermath of the War, there were plenty of damaged minds rolling around. The scary fact was, he was one of the stable ones.
Keep telling yourself that.
He did. And Raidō knew this. This and a whole lot more than he let on. Guess that was part and parcel of their partnership…and Genma might've stopped to consider whether he cherished or cursed that about their dynamic, but that required energy of the kind better reserved for doing what needed to be done.
Bitch was, he had no idea what Raidō needed.
What any of them, all of them, needed.
It crucified him to see the tortured look flitting in and out of Raidō's expression like some skittish apparition waiting to be known. It was a familiar look – a look he'd seen skirting the fringes of Kakashi's faraway gaze ever since the War. Grey and haunted.
We fought for more than this…
And they might've won, really won…if it hadn't been for that fucking Mugen Tsukuyomi. The big Cloud Nine mindfuck that'd seen so many hard-as-Ibiki's-iron-balls Jōnin coming loose at the mental seams. Not that anyone could've defended against a genjutsu on that level, that scale. Bleeding hell. It'd taken a chunk out of everyone. And not just chakra systems and consequently immune systems and nervous systems. It'd bit deep into the mind. Left a gaping wound behind. Some were healing faster than others. The younger Jōnin.
No. Not all. Still, enough of them seemed to be limping back towards mental stability. But for Genma's generation…some weren't bouncing back as fast as they ought to be, physically or mentally.
Ought to be…?
What a joke. Genma had home turf advantage. He knew rock-bottom health and he knew Crazy-Ville. Had been a resident in that ass-end of insanity more than a few times. He'd been it, seen it, done it. Knew the bypasses back to sanity. But Raidō? This was probably his first trip to that dark, dark place…which was ironic considering the whole point of the genjutsu was to elicit happy memories…
"Saddest part, Gen? I knew it wasn't real."
On wheels. With handbaskets hanging off the handlebars. Ghosts pedalling away, spinning the mental tires of better men, better minds. And all Genma could do was sit there like a jackass, trying to keep his own gears from slipping while the people he loved struggled to work their brakes. Action was his credo…but what the hell could he do? Act as a stabilizer?
Taking this whole bike metaphor way too far…
Was starting to think like Kakashi. Excessive and borderline eccentric.
He sucked another hard breath and almost coughed up the dredges of Raidō's coffee, bile and sludge slushing around in his gut. He focused on the nausea and the burn in his throat to keep from feeling anything else…anything more. Leaned back into the couch. Stayed put like one of Kakashi's loyal mutts and fought off the urge to take action. There was nothing he could do…and nothing he could say.
So he slept.
Wasn't a conscious effort or even a choice, it just happened that way. One minute he was staring at the cobweb caught on the light and the next minute he was…
…knocking back the saké like hangovers had no hold on him.
"Remind me never to accept a liver transplant from you, Shiranui."
The deep baritone rumbled out on a droll note and drew Genma's gaze a short distance along the bar's countertop until it hit on a tan wrist shackled by a thick iron bangle. The hand attached to said wrist lifted from around the base of a bottle, a few notes of money slotted between the long fingers, a movement which had the smooth curvature of the bangle catching the light.
Genma's lip quirked drily around the rim of the next saké cup, several of them lined up in front of him like shot-glasses. "Got a better chance of a liver than an apology, Sarutobi."
"Not in the market for apologies."
"Because you can live without an apology."
"Well, after being run-through with a giant scythe, I think I lucked out on the vital organ transplant part, didn't I? Come to think of it, I lucked out on the living part too."
Genma paused with the rim of the saké cup against his lower lip, his breath shivering across the surface. He kept his eyes fixed straight ahead to keep from looking across again – could feel the weight of Asuma's gaze like a hammer above the anvil of his…guilt.
"What do you need to hear from me to let go of that?"
"I'd ask who died and made you the shrink but hey…poor taste and all that."
"Or maybe you think I need to hear something from you."
Genma knocked back the shot, aggressive enough to threaten whiplash, and reached for another. "An apology doesn't change shit."
"Don't want an apology."
"Yeah? Then what? What the hell do you want me to say?"
"I don't want you to say shit. It's what I want you to do."
Genma tapped down the saké, sawed his jaw from side to side and looked over, reluctantly tracking his gaze from Asuma's chest to his face. Read the easy smile and saw the dark bronze-hued eyes for all the respect they held and all the resentment they didn't. And that hurt because…
"This isn't real."
"Is that your go-to line now?"
"Call it as I see it," Genma paused, amended, "Saw it." Shit. He shook his head. "You wouldn't have been this forgiving if you'd lived."
Asuma's brows lifted, the easy smile digging deep into the laugh lines scoring either side of his mouth as he huffed a chuckle. He spread his hands. "Perks of being a Bodhisattva in the afterlife."
Genma snorted, but he didn't roll his eyes or look away. Didn't knock back another drink either. Felt much too sober and way too…
"Sad," Asuma finished, dropping his hands, lighting up a smoke, sticking it between his lips and twisting on the bar-stool to brace his elbows against the counter. "I hear you. Even if you're not hearing me. But that's ok. I know you'll do what needs to be done when the time comes. You always do."
"Well kick the pedestal out from under my ass, Sarutobi. I'm no one's white knight. You'd have been the first to say it."
"Yeah. But now I know better."
"Let me guess, Bodhisattva advantage."
Asuma took a drag on his cigarette, humming around the slim filter-end. "I wasn't there…but you were, in your way. That counts for something. Maybe everything."
"Counts for shit. Look where the kid is now."
For the briefest flash of a second, Asuma's eyes flinched with raw pain. And then he sniffed, sucked another lungful of smoke and recovered his expression as if he'd never let it slip. "I'll tell you exactly what you told Raidō about me…that it's not on you."
Genma stiffened in his seat, jaw tight. "So you're haunting houses now? Creepy as fuck and not reassuring in the slightest."
Asuma exhaled a cumulus plume and let another roll-of-thunder chuckle rumble from his chest, shaking his head. "You need reassurance, Shiranui?"
"No," Asuma agreed, soft yet heavy, weighted with the same gravity as his next words. "But she will. Think you can handle that for me?"
Genma didn't get the opportunity to open his slack jaw any further to answer. Asuma flashed a smile, twisted lazily and kicked out with way more speed and strength than should've been possible given his lax posture. His heel slammed into Genma's bar-stool, upending it so fast Genma could only pinwheel his arms as he crashed backwards into….
And the rapping of knuckles on wood.
It took a while for the knock, knock, knock, to penetrate the giant what-the-fuck haze hanging in Genma's head like maybe he'd manifested a hang-over from all the shameless saké-bingeing he'd been doing in his sleep.
There I go again, wanting what I can't have…
A barroom blowout wasn't what any doctor would order – let alone a shrink. But it's not like he appreciated his shitty subconscious throwing up Asuma like projectile vomit all over the walls of his mind…shit was messy enough in there without—
KNOCK, KNOCK, KNOCK.
Frowning, Genma rocked upright from his sprawl and felt the crick and crunch of every protesting muscle as he dropped his shoulders and cracked his neck.
Scrubbing a hand over his face, Genma cursed a blue streak and rolled his steps towards the door, shifting his centre of gravity, moving into a defensive pattern without even realising it. So maybe his subconscious wasn't all that shitty.
No. Just my luck.
And knowing his luck, it was probably one of Raidō's lady friends – which might've put a spring in Genma's step given how much he normally delighted in cock-blocking Raidō left-right-and-centre just to one-up his partner on the jackass front. As it happened, he wasn't in the mood or the right frame of mind for tricks…or trouble, for that matter.
But Fate didn't give a shit about his mood or his mental health.
Scowling, he pulled back the door.
And went rigid with shock.
He wasn't the type to get knocked back on his heels. Life had dealt him enough kicks to the sternum to grant him just enough equilibrium to swing back or stand steady. But occasionally, something would floor him.
Now, was such an occasion.
And if he hadn't dreamed, hadn't seen, heard and sensed Asuma with a lucidity which made him question his sanity as well as the hereafter, he'd have still halted in the doorway, frozen stiff and taken aback.
It had nothing to do with the broken way she looked…and everything to do with the broken way she looked at him when she spoke his name. "Genma."
A/N: Greetings, oh ye faithful! Those dear readers and reviewers who still might follow me here despite the radio silence as I focus on my original works – and to those who were brought here via the alerts on my various social media haunts. I once said that if I ever returned to the BtB Series (or fanfic writing in general) I would be doing one-shots. And I hope to make good on that, as and when inspiration strikes – there's no schedule with this, so I can't make promises or give a forecast of future fics to come…I'm literally shooting from the hip! What I can say is, the BtB instalments will be short and sporadic and either set PRIOR (BtB fall-backs) to the events in BtB or AFTER (BtB flash-forwards) the events, including POST-WAR. Yes. I said I'd never go post-war – and chances are I'll stick to the safety of the secondary character sidewalk when it comes to that long and painful road…it's too masochistic/sadistic, even for me. And you guys know my appetite for angst!
A/N 2: To any of you who still follow my works and revisit this series – Thank you! It'd be lovely to hear from you guys if you're still about and still interested in my random one-shot splurges (that being said, there is a second instalment to this current "one-shot"…no shocker, right? ;)) Please forgive typos - they sometimes escape my tired eyes!
A/N 3: To those of you still dropping me messages here, on FB and Tumblr – THANK YOU. My appreciation for you transcends words. Your continued support and kindness are life-giving chakra to my writer's veins! Bless you! Much love for you guys, always!
A/N 4: Playlist theme for this post-war end of the BtB timeline is When It's All Over by RAIGN.