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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 so 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.


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