The first time he spotted them, three weeks had passed since the Kyuubi rampaged through Konoha. Two haggard kids, every bit as dirty and exhausted as him, but for very different reasons. Genma’s chest clenched, his heart pounding hard in his ears at the mere sight of them. They’d clearly fallen through the cracks in wake of the disaster, disappeared much as he’d done.
Genma let himself get lost in the faceless masks of ANBU, let the guilt - the loss - of Minato-sama overwhelm him. Even as Sandaime-sama handed him down his first mission post-disaster, Genma was lost.
Lost in his failures, in the memories that haunted his every waking moment.
The Yondaime took a huge risk, picking a sixteen-year-old kid for his Guard Platoon. The ink was still fresh on his new promotion to tokubetsu jounin when he received the call. A personal summons from the newly appointed Hokage, Minato Namikaze.
He’d been scared shitless, even more so when the offer was presented to him, Raidou Namiashi and Iwashi Tatami. If Genma was a kid, then Iwashi was just a babe. A chunin way too young, baby fat still clinging to his cheeks, a tiny powerhouse that barely came up to Genma’s shoulder. One of those young prodigies the whispers claimed.
Minato-sama’s Guard Platoon was all under eighteen. Genma’s head spun the first time he realized that. Surely there were better, more capable candidates for such a high profile position than them, than
Genma still didn’t know what Minato-sama saw in any of them.
In the end, it didn’t matter. One look at those gentle blue eyes and Genma believed. He would protect his leader -his kind, selfless, terrifying Hokage- with his very life.
Only, he hadn’t.
Barely a year on the job and Minato-sama was dead -his wife was dead, his son orphaned, and his village destroyed.
Genma hadn’t done the one thing he was supposed to. He’d blown it, let down the one person, besides his beautiful angel Shizune, who believed in him wholeheartedly. Who was he kidding?
I was never good enough.
Sandaime-sama retained his old Guard Platoon, so Genma lost himself in ANBU. The Kitsune mask was penance for his abhorrent failures.
What good was a shinobi would couldn’t do his job?
Food tasted like lead on his tongue, not that hunger ever came. Genma ate for Shizune, for Raidou, for Iwashi who stuck to them like a lost puppy after the attack, and the worried looks his friends sent him when they thought he wasn’t watching. The guilt ate at him, clawed at his insides, haunted both his unconscious and waking thoughts. He didn’t sleep much. When he did, Minato-sama stood before him with a gaping hole in his chest and laughing blood.
It ran down his chin like a waterfall, twisting that once kind smile, so red, red, red-
-Genma woke screaming and clawing at his face each and every time. Raidou was there,
, to pull his hands away and slap some sense into him. “Get it together,” he’d yell through the panic-stricken fog of Genma’s mind. “You’re needed too much to lose it right now, Gen. We’re shinobi, we endure.”
Where the hell would he be without his best friend? With Shizune’s letters? Without Iwashi who looked at him from the doorway, half scared and always concerned.
What he wouldn’t give to have Shizune in his arms.
So he pulled the pieces together, held them tight with the determination Raidou’s actions, Shizune’s words, and the worry of Iwashi’s young eyes gave him. He was needed. He didn’t know why, or by who, but he would be ready when the opportunity presented itself.
His chance for redemption, salvation.
Genma didn’t expect it to come in the form of two homeless orphans.
With a bouquet of lilies in his arms, he’d fought himself every step to the Memorial Stone that day. The funerals were done and over with. Every lost soul was buried in the cold, unforgiving ground. Those alive were left to pick up the pieces, to rebuild the village and some semblance of a normal life once again.
He wasn’t the only one to lose someone he loved. The ones who lost entire families even called him lucky. Heck, Genma mourned someone the entire village did, the Yondaime Hokage. Their fearless, selfless leader. Only, to him, Minato-sama was so much more than just a title. He was the man who drooled on official documents after passing out at his desk. He was the clutz who always banged his knee on the exact same spot. The nerd who got excited over fuinjutsu textbooks. The big brother who always had a kind word, an encouraging smile or a gentle touch.
The person he failed the most.
And yet, as Raidou said, he was needed. His reason for hanging on was huddled together before the Memorial Stone, on their knees, thin arms wrapped tightly around each other. Trembling and dirty, grime and dried blood coating ripped clothed that had seen better days. They were so filthy, he couldn’t tell the colour of their hair.
Gremlins, his mind supplied unhelpfully, they look like dirty little gremlins.
The kids were talking in low, hushed voices, unaware of his approach. The exhaustion and hunger probably had something to do with that. They clearly hadn’t had a safe place to rest, let alone a decent meal or bath, in the last few weeks.
“It’ll be okay, Izumo. We’ll just lay low and wait it out,” One said to the other. “Then everything will be okay.”
Genma blew his bangs from his face. “If that’s your plan, you’re doing a pretty bad job at keeping hidden.” He sounded tired, even to his own ears. The fatigue tugged at his limbs, seemed to go bone-deep. No matter, everyone was exhausted right now. Every shinobi had a part to play if Konoha was to be rebuilt.
He was no different.
The reaction was immediate. Both boys leapt to their feet, hands clenched tightly together. When they turned to him, he could just make out their pale faces beneath the layers of grime. “W-What do you want?” The one dubbed Izumo demanded.
He’s thought them close to puberty, but those wide, hollow eyes made Genma reassess his judgement. “Just came to pay my respects.” He held up the lilies, then motioned with the bouquet towards the obelisk.
“...You’re ANBU.” The other murmured in terrified awe.
A quick glance down confirmed the kid’s declaration. Well heck, he forgot to change out of his uniform.
I haven’t exactly been thinking straight the last few weeks.
With a sigh, Genma scrubbed a hand through his brown hair. “Must be more tired than I thought.” Half dried blood splattered in patches across his grey flak jacket, his kitsune mask rested on its clip at his hip. He’d just returned from an S-rank mission and had three hours before he was scheduled to leave on his next.
It was a miracle he hadn’t started confusing his head with his ass yet.
The boys stared at him, a strange mix of awe and fear in their eyes. They remained planted on the spot, simply clinging to each other tighter when Genma stepped forward and placed the lilies before the Memorial Stone. A whole column of fresh names stared back at him, more and more added by the day as bodies were uncovered from the ensuing rubble.
Too-large eyes bore into him suspiciously as he rubbed a kink from his neck. Watching the pair from the corner of his eye, Genma sighed around his senbon. His hand dropped to his side. They looked about as good as he felt. “You need a bath.”
The bolder of the two bristled, dirt-coated face contorting into an angry scowl. “Well excuse us! We ain’t all lucky enough to be active shinobi yet.”
“Kotetsu,” Izumo hissed as he clasped his friend’s shoulder. It didn’t take an ANBU to pick up on the fear laced through that warning. So they
Academy students. Probably close to graduation if their size was any indication. Only half the school lay in ruins from a stray Kyuubi tail. It would take months to get it up and running again.
Kotetsu jerked his arm from his friend’s hold. “Don’t gimme that tone, Zumo.” A finger jabbed at Genma’s chest. “He gets clean clothes, food, probably has a safe place to sleep too. He ain’t suffering at all, but he’s got the
to be a jackass to us?” Those dark eyes turned on Genma, blazing with raw emotion that had very little to do with anger and everything to do with the loss, grief, hopeless, the kid forced down. “Bullshit. It’s all
Genma took a step back, hands raised in defence. “Hey now, I-”
“None of that matters and you know it!” Balling his hands into fists, Izumo stopped one foot on the ground. “No one cares and getting mad at an ANBU isn’t going to change that!”
“It’s not fair!”
“So what? Nothing’s going to change. You’re all I got left and you go picking fights with ANBU?! Do you wanna get taken away? Is that it?!”
With clenched teeth, Kotetsu stared down at the ground. “...No.”
The senbon clicked between clenched teeth when Genma sucked in a sharp breath. Something heavy settled into the pit of his stomach, twisting uncomfortably. They’d lost everyone. That’s why there were at the Memorial Stone, why they looked so haggard. Shit, kids their age shouldn’t be on their own. It was hard enough seeing Kakashi and Iwashi struggle.
Was there no one to take care of them? Why the hell weren’t they at the orphanage with the other kids?
You know why,
a small voice in the back of his head supplied.
It’s overflowing with children from the attack. Everything is utter chaos over there.
They’re all alone.
Genma found himself reaching for his supply holster before he realized it. “Here,” pulling two ration bars from the pouch, he tossed one to each boy. Damn, they were teary-eyed. This wouldn’t do at all. “They taste like cardboard, but they’re good nutrient supplements.”
Izumo and Kotetsu caught the bars on impulse. Good reflexes meant there was no muscle deterioration from lack of food yet, there was still hope for these two. Kotetsu eyed him suspiciously, even as Izumo almost devoured the bar whole. “What’s the catch?”
Genma shrugged, his senbon bobbing as he spoke. “No catch, I just know what it’s like to be hungry.”
The kid’s brows knitted together, mistrust etched into his facial features. It was the loud grumble of his stomach that finally had Kotetsu ripping into his ration bar. Genma shoved his hands into his pockets, fighting down the dread silently rising in his chest. He knew when he tossed the bars to them, that sliver of kindness wouldn’t be enough. These boys were teetering on a precipice, one that could make or break their future.
It was in that moment Genma realized he’d already made his choice. “Come on, I’ve only got about two hours.” He ruffled their hair on the way by, briefly noting how his fingers got caught in the matted locks.
Two sets of bony hands raised to their heads. Izumo and Kotetsu eyed him warily, hesitant. Genma couldn’t blame them, not after all the shit they’d probably seen the last few weeks. Kids their age shouldn’t have the look of veteran jounin in their eyes.
Kotetsu took a protective step in front of Izumo. “Why the heck should we trust you? We don’t know who you are.”
He grinned then, senbon clicking between his teeth as he turned to face them. Was that all? A problem easily resolved. “The name’s Genma Shiranui, tokubetsu jounin, a former member of the Hokage Guard Platoon, age seventeen. And you guys?”
Two jaws went slack and two sets of eyes stared at him as if he’d just grown a second head. They looked to each other for guidance, then back at him with identical looks of puzzlement. “...Izumo Kamizuki, Academy student, age eleven.”
“Zumo!” His friend growled in anger. “Don’t trust this guy. He’ll report us and we’ll get dragged back to the damn orphanage.”
“We have to start trusting someone soon, Ko, or we’re not going to make it.” Izumo fisted his hands into the hem of his shirt. “Why not Shiranui-san? He gave us food.”
Genma clenched his senbon between his teeth when Kotetsu’s eyes suddenly brimmed with unshed tears. “...What if you get hurt again?” he asked quietly.
What? Genma saw red, the urge to protect these two helpless kids almost overwhelming. He knew how people hurt war orphans but never expected to run across that type of behaviour in his village, especially after such a devastating disaster. Konoha was supposed to be better than that. I’ll gut whoever touched him.
Izumo looked down at his feet. “I-”
“No one's going to hurt either of you ever again,” Genma found himself declaring before he thought the words fully through. “I’ll make sure of that.” Resting a hand lightly on Kotetsu’s shoulder, he gave a light squeeze he hoped to be comforting.
‘Get it together, you’re needed too much’
, “You’ve done great looking after your friend, let me help you with that now.”
Kotetsu’s face scrunched up as he tried to hold back the tears threatening to spill over. “...I’m Kotetsu Hagane, Academy student, I just turned twelve.” He reached for his friend’s hand and held it tightly. “Izumo needs something to eat. H-He hasn’t had food in a few days. I couldn’t find us anything...”
Bringing a hand to his chin in pretend though, Genma clicked his senbon between his teeth. “How does udon with tuna and daikon salad sound?”
The look of wide-eyed astonishment he got in response almost broke Genma’s heart. He couldn’t bring back what they lost, but maybe, just maybe, he could help them build a better future.