Because god knew something wasn’t official until it had been stamped three times, reviewed six more, and then left in a drawer to mulch. Raidou put a blind hand out to accept the forms and tossed them on top of the waiting stack.
"You got much more left?" he asked.
"Just those terrain reports that Ueno’s working on, and a req to restock my med kit." Wood creaked and bones popped as Genma stretched in his chair, cracking his joints. "Got more for me?"
Raidou rubbed his eyes, wincing at the leftover sting from half-healed burns. "Rookie evals."
Genma sighed. "I thought so."
Katsuko looked up from her maps. "Which one do you want to start with?"
"How about your snuggle-buddy?" Raidou said dryly.
Genma made an odd sound, almost a choke, and grabbed the bottle of water on his desk to cover it. Katsuko ignored him, leaning back in her chair. She tapped the lead of a chewed pencil thoughtfully against her desk.
"Something on your mind?" Raidou prompted.
"Tousaki knows his limits," Katsuko said. "He's just very, very good at ignoring them. That move he pulled with the demon queen was smart, but he was half-dead afterwards."
"Agreed." Raidou glanced at Genma. "Shiranui?"
Genma nodded. "I didn’t see what he did, but from what you’ve described, it was reckless. Certainly squares with what I’ve seen of him in spars. He tried to hide his injuries, too. Even minor ones, but so did Kakashi."
"Which needs to stop," Raidou said. "But half of that demon-queen attack falls on me; I ordered him to take that last soldier pill, and bring the rot. I didn’t tell him to get crushed, but Katsuko’s right: he pulled a great move out of shitty circumstances."
Would’ve been nice if he hadn’t drained himself nearly dry in the attempt, but that was something to work on.
"Pulling good moves out of shitty situations is half of what it's all about," Genma said quietly. "The whole thing was a cock-up. If we'd known how bad the queen was, we'd never have gone in in the first place. She was shielding her chakra right up until I was in her chamber."
"I didn’t feel her until just before she broke the surface," Raidou said. "Ueno?"
"Felt her four seconds before that, maybe," Katsuko said, with a shrug. Her eyes stayed on Raidou with odd thoughtfulness, as if she was trying to read writing printed under his skin. "What I’m worried about, though, is just how far Tousaki would go to save a teammate."
"S’long as he doesn’t turn himself into a blood smear, I’d rather see him go for overkill," Raidou said.
Genma braced one elbow on the back of his chair, resting his chin on his hand as he looked at Katsuko. "What’s your concern? That he'd blow a mission to save a comrade, or throw his own life away? I could see either or both of those things."
"I’m not concerned about the first," Katsuko said. "As for ‘throwing his life away’— yes, I’m worried Tousaki would sacrifice himself for one of us."
"On a good team, we all would, under the right circumstances. That’s why judgement is so critical." Genma slid a senbon out of his thigh-holster, where he kept several racked in with his kunai, and set it between his teeth. "I think it’s too soon to tell whether he’s got good judgement."
"Given that he joined ANBU, the odds aren’t in his favor," Raidou said, winning a dry chuckle from Genma and a snort from Katsuko. "But I hear you both. Recklessness aside, any other issues?"
"He's got a way with people," Genma said. "Even Kakashi seems to be warming up to him, and he charmed the hell out of the Kawase family despite being half dead. If he washes out of ANBU, the diplomatic corps ought to give him a good hard look."
"He’s charismatic," Raidou agreed, and looked at Katsuko. "I’m pretty sure I already know the answer to this, but since you’re our only fragile female blossom—any creeper issues under the pretty face?"
"My gossamer petals remain unplucked," Katsuko said, inspecting her nails. "He is a very good pillow, though."
Very carefully, Genma extracted the senbon that had almost punched through his lower lip in his badly concealed attempt at not laughing. He cleared his throat. "You just asked Ueno her opinion on someone else's respect for boundaries."
"I care about her boundaries, too," Raidou said simply. And if Katsuko ever had an issue with Ryouma, Kakashi, or anyone else, he wanted to make sure he listened, no matter how many times he had to slap her down for stepping over someone else's lines first.
Genma’s eyes dropped, and the faintest catch of color touched his cheeks. "Of course."
On Raidou’s other side, Katsuko blinked twice, then looked down and fiddled with the spread of maps across her desk, biting the corner of her lip—which was maybe, possibly, curving up just the littlest bit.
Well, that had shut the room up.
Raidou rubbed the back of his neck. "So, Hatake."
Genma took a sip of his water, settled his senbon back between his teeth, and visibly put the last moment aside to focus on the next. "Despite hating every single one of us, he showed a remarkable amount of teamwork when it counted."
"I could have lived without his disappear/reappear trick," Raidou said. "But he tracked well, followed orders, and managed to get the civilians and you out of the mines, which I’m going to call a win."
"Hm." Katsuko hummed thoughtfully. "He doesn't work well with people he doesn't respect. I think this mission earned the team some points with him. But he's prone to snap judgments. He's got a habit of underestimating people."
"Also, he might be the ballsiest motherfucker to walk the planet," Genma said. "He bluffed that demon queen into backing down."
Raidou paused. "He what?"
"Bluffed," Genma repeated. "I was paralyzed and bleeding, he'd blown her tail apart with a Raikiri and wrecked his arm in the process. He didn't have anything left, but he just charged at her like he was going to give her a second dose. I think he said something like "Well?" And she turned tail and ran." He clicked his senbon, voice level and factual. "If he hadn't done that, I would not be here making this report."
Katsuko whistled softly.
"That’s why she hauled ass out of the ground?" Raidou said, after a minute to contemplate that new reel of mental images. "Dammit, I need to rewrite my report."
Genma shrugged one shoulder. "Sorry, captain. Should have made you aware sooner."
"Put in that he helped me and Ryouma shower, too," Katsuko added helpfully. "Beneath all the seething misanthropy, he's a pretty decent guy."
"I think my worldview is starting to tilt," Raidou said. "Did he bake you personal mini-muffins, too?"
"No," Katsuko said serenely. "But he did tuck us into bed." Which had led to the morning-after hair-petting incident, Raidou recalled. That had not been repeated, to his knowledge. Between pacing the deck like a silent cougar and sleeping in strange places, Kakashi had spent his time on the boat heckling Katsuko and Ryouma into eating, drinking, and taking painkillers
Genma’s quiet voice broke Raidou’s train of thought. "He was compassionate to the civilians we had to euthanize. That was…" He hesitated. "That was a difficult situation."
Put through standard filters, that translated to something like: I’d rather strip my own skin off than do that again.
Raidou sighed. "I’m sorry I put that on you both. If I’d known—" He’d spent four days going over how he would have done things differently, without any good answers. He shook his head. "Either way, you handled it well, paralysis aside."
"Namiashi-taichou… If we'd known what was down there, we wouldn't have risked going in, and those civilians—and Hisa-san and Fujiyama-san—would have suffered unspeakably." Genma looked up levelly. "You made the right call."
Katsuko nodded once, silent.
Raidou felt his mouth quirk. "Thank you," he said. He shouldn’t have needed to hear it, but it helped all the same. He straightened up, pulling his thoughts back into line. "So the take away I’m getting from this is, 1) Tousaki is smart, potentially suicidally loyal, and lucky, and 2) Hatake is an unexpected creampuff."
"A creampuff stuffed with wasabi, maybe," Genma said.
"And knives," Katsuko added. "Lots of tiny, vicious little knives."
"The attitude is a problem," Raidou agreed. "I think you're on the money with that note about respect, Ueno— He won't gel with us until he respects us, and this mission worked towards forging that. But he's the rookie, here; he's supposed to be earning our good favor." He sat back in his chair, fatigue clear in the curve of his spine. "I should put him on permanent latrine duty."
"He’d still hate us," Katsuko said. "Except then he’d smell like latrines while hating us."
Genma sighed. "We should figure out something one of us is better at than him, and give him that to do."
"Diplomacy," Raidou suggested.
"Making friends," Katsuko said.
"Okay, that would probably backfire," Genma admitted. "But it wouldn't hurt him to come face-to-face with the idea that he can and should rely on his teammates."
Katsuko toyed with her pencil and debated whether she should tell them that Kakashi was already starting to vaguely grasp the concept of teamwork.
I should stay, he’d said on the river boat.
It was a point in his favor, but she suspected Genma and Raidou would focus on the bit where Kakashi had considered abandoning Team Six at all—and she couldn’t tell one part of the story without including the other.
"I propose an all-out attack," she said instead. "An attack of friendship. Nobody let up until he’s a properly socialized member of our group."
"I foresee that after-school special ending in homicide," Raidou said, sounding fascinated despite himself.
"Maybe we should get some suggestions from the guys in T&I," Genma said. "That whole developing empathy with your captor thing."
"T&I can be Plan Two," Katsuko said. "Right now, Plan One is wearing down his mental defenses with kindness and persistence. I volunteer myself and Tousaki."
Raidou snorted laughter and studied her, thoughtful. "I’ll grant you persistence, but I think kindness would wear you and Tousaki out in an afternoon. I don't need Hatake to be a lap-kitty; I just want him to work with us. And blunt his attitude."
"Captain," Katsuko said. "Trust me. Tousaki could charm the robe off a Buddhist monk. I’m just gonna stand back and let him work his magic. And also keep Hatake from killing him."
Genma looked up soberly. "We might want to wait until Yondaime-sama is back in Konoha and everything's settled in the capital. Or as settled as it can be."
That put a damper on the room. Katsuko coughed and set her pen down. "The terrain reports are done, lieutenant. Where should I put them?"
Genma held out a hand. "I’ll take them. Thanks, Ueno."
She rolled her chair across the floor to give Genma the stack of papers. Then she rolled back, propping her elbow on her desk once she was close enough. "Anything else, taichou?"
Raidou looked down at the spread of paperwork on his desk, then back up at Katsuko and Genma. "Hospital," he decided. "Before I commit hara-kiri with a pen. That req form can wait until tomorrow, Shiranui. Let's get you both properly fixed up."
"Are we filing the ones we've already finished now, or do you want to hand everything in at once?" Genma assembled the many reports he’d completed in a neat pile and added his seal to each page of the terrain reports Katsuko had given him.
"Got enough chakra for a clone?" Raidou asked.
Genma nodded. "As long as we’re letting someone else do the rest of the healing jutsu for the day." The requested clone appeared in a puff of smoke next to his desk.
"Same for you, Ueno," Raidou said. "I want initial reports handed in— except Hatake left his, dammit. Forget to tell him it was personal turn-in only. I'll take care of his." He popped his own clone into existence.
Katsuko called up her clones, holding her arm close to her chest to protect her half-set collarbone. All their bunshin departed the office laden down with stacks of the completed reports.
Of the three of them, Genma was the only one who still had an intact mask. And none of their uniforms were pretty—broken armor over blood-stained, sweaty blacks. "Jounin blues?" he suggested. "I know we’ve all got a set here."
Any ANBU who didn’t keep a spare uniform in his office—preferably one a little too big to accommodate bandages—was either arrogant or a fool.
Katsuko’s answer was to roll across the room on her chair, open the locker she shared with Ryouma and Kakashi, and extract her uniform. She had to stand up to reach it, but as soon as it was in her hand, she sat down again and chair-surfed back across the room. Abandoning her chariot at the bathroom, she left the men to change without her.
"I’d never have figured her for modest," Genma said. He got slowly to his feet, groaning at the way every joint had stiffened while he’d been writing reports, and opened his own locker.
"She’ll surprise you," Raidou said. A tired smile hooked the corners of his mouth. He opened his own locker and stared at his uniform with a look that suggested it had personally offended him at some point in the past. "Screw it," he muttered, pushing it to the back, and pulling out a pair of faded jeans and a soft-looking t-shirt in its stead.
"Civies. That’s smart," Genma said. "I should leave a set here." He’d managed to get his uniform off and was standing in front of his open locker in nothing but bandages and underwear when Katsuko came out of the bathroom refastening her sling.
She clapped a hand over her eyes and did a dramatic about-face.
"Sorry," Genma said. He wrestled himself into uniform pants and shrugged a loose blue turtleneck over his bandaged torso. His hitai-ate, belt, and thigh holster went on next, but he skipped the leg wraps, slipping bare feet into a pair of sandals.
Raidou looked almost healthy dressed in his civies, if you ignored the dark bruises mottling his arms and the red, flaking skin around his eyes.
"We’re clothed, you can come out," Genma called.
When she emerged, she narrowed her eyes at Raidou. "I thought you said jounin blues."
"He said jounin blues," Raidou told her, evidently happy to toss his lieutenant onto that mine alone.
Genma just shrugged. "I am in jounin blues. You can write the captain up for being out of uniform on duty if you want, but I’ve done enough paperwork today."
Katsuko shrugged her uninjured shoulder. "Eh," she said.
"Duty ended when Intel kicked me out. This is my precious free time, and it's draining away." Raidou took a deep, chest expanding breath and swung his locker shut. "Chop, chop, kids."
"So now I’m a kid, too?" Genma said, amused. "Demoted after my first mission."
"Welcome to the club," Katsuko said. "At least you weren’t fired. He fired me before."
Raidou snorted quietly.
"Do I want to know?" Genma asked. "No, save it. You can tell me when we’ve all been given painkillers."
He shut his own locker and glanced at the desk where the reports had been. Should have kept copies of his medical reports to take to the hospital with them, he thought. Once again, hindsight was doing him no favors.
Raidou led the way out of the building. There was nothing particularly remarkable about three injured but ambulatory ANBU limping through the halls of HQ, but they got a few curious glances anyway, from colleagues wondering if they’d seen action the capital or were just back from an ordinary mission. As they rounded a corner, Yamada Nobuhiro, one of Genma’s former teammates, popped out of a doorway with an armload full of folders. He flicked a questioning eyebrow. "Hikouto?"
Genma shook his head. "Mission. Tell you later," he said.
Raidou didn’t seem particularly concerned with the minor security breach that might imply. They were all ANBU, all bound by the same secrecy, after all. Genma took it as a good sign his captain trusted him.
They took an easy pace down the steps behind the stone faces of the four Hokage. As the least healed among them, Genma had a sneaking suspicion his teammates were making allowances for him, but Raidou’s bruises were hardly insignificant, and Katsuko’s careful posture said her shoulders and collarbone were far from comfortable, even with the sling.
The hospital was calm and orderly, as usual. They bypassed the lobby and headed straight to the triage desk, where Raidou identified himself as an ANBU captain, and Genma as their medic. The triage medic—a chuunin Genma didn’t know—immediately decided Genma was the person to talk to. He filled her in on their injuries and the treatments he’d provided, while she took temperatures and blood pressures.
When she’d recorded their vitals, she peered closely at Raidou’s burned face, then had him remove his shirt. Careful gloved fingers peeled back the bandages taped over his shoulders, and probed the healing burns and bruises, and the red lines where Genma had closed deep slashes.
"His legs were lacerated, too," Genma told her, "Both posterior thighs. I did a similar depth of healing on them, and the bruising wasn’t as severe."
"How painful are your injuries?" she asked Raidou. "Scale of one to ten?"
"Four?" Raidou said. "When I move around a lot."
The medic shrugged. "Not bad for field treatment," she said. "Kimura-sensei can take a look and determine the next steps." She sent Raidou off with a nurse to get changed and treated.
Katsuko was next. The medic palpated Katsuko’s shoulder, putting her through several range-of-motion and sensation tests, all the while glaring at the unpretty healing Genma had done on the demon bite on her shoulder. "We’ll have Hyuuga-sensei check you out," she started, but the medic in charge of emergency services, Nakamura-sensei, stepped into the triage booth and cut her off.
Katsuko looked up with a sheepish shrug.
"Ueno-kun," Nakamura-sensei said. "Nice to see you, though I wish it were under more pleasant circumstances, as always." He smiled. "We’ll get you patched right up. She’s an S-9," he added, which got a slight widening of the eyes from the triage medic. "Send her to Ryouri-sensei."
"Are you—?" Genma started.
"It’s okay," Katsuko told him. "They always send me to Ryouri-sensei."
Undoubtedly because of whatever violence had been done to her chakra system at the hands of enemy medics when she was younger. It was amazing she could be so calm now—maybe she was used to it.
"And Shiranui-kun," Nakamura-sensei said, as a nurse escorted Katsuko into the ward. "Still enjoying life as a field medic?"
"I am," Genma said.
"Best of both worlds: you get to cut Konoha’s enemies into pieces, and put your comrades back together," Nakamura said. "If I were a younger man…" He paused, catching sight of the notes the triage medic had scribbled down. "Wait, you’re injured, too? I thought you looked a little wan, but I assumed it was just fatigue."
Genma shrugged. "It was a bit of a rough mission."
"So I see," Nakamura said. "Shirt off, please, Shiranui-kun." He gestured at the triage medic, who helped Genma get the shirt over his head, and started unwinding bandages from his shoulders and torso. The slash on Genma’s belly extended below the waist of his pants, but Nakamura was already giving Genma a disapproving look with the wound only half-exposed.
"This is deep. Who stitched this?"
"A civilian doctor in a rural village," Genma said.
"And your shoulders?"
"Same," Genma said. "I wasn’t really able to do a lot of self-healing. My team wasn’t in great shape and I was caring for a civilian in critical condition as well. Ehime Hisa-san. Do you know anything about her? We brought her in about six hours ago."
"I’ll find out for you," Nakamura said. He pressed on the wound the demon's stinger had made—it felt like he’d shoved a scalpel in it. A trickle of warm liquid ran down Genma’s back.
Genma went stone still, sucking a breath through clenched teeth.
"What are these, teeth marks?" Nakamura said. "Bed sixteen. Let’s get him in a gown. I want to clean this puncture wound and get a better look at that belly wound."
"You probably ought to run a liver and kidney panel on me, too. I was poisoned and had to use the tsuyoi kaen technique for about twelve hours," Genma said.
Nakamura gave him a long, steady look. "How bad, exactly, was your mission?"
“Eh,” Genma said. "Maybe a little worse than average. Not that bad."
"Forget what I said about wanting back in the field. I like hospital work just fine," Nakamura said.
Kimura-sensei was an older gentleman with grandfatherly hands, warm chakra, and a vicious lack of mercy.
"Gah-ah-ow," Raidou said, as his internal cartography was restructured with painful, precise efficiency. Genma had healed the surface injuries, layering new skin over deeper damage, which had done an excellent job of keeping Raidou’s blood where it was supposed to be, and not letting raw muscle flap all over the landscape. But the underneath was, in Kimura’s words, a godawful disaster, what the hell did you run into, idiot knothead?
Medics never appreciated taijutsu fighters.
"Really big claws?" Raidou suggested, which earned him a whack on the back of the head, in the name of decent bedside manners.
It was harder to trance out under Kimura’s hands. Where Genma’s chakra had cajoled, piecing Raidou back together piece by careful piece, Kimura’s demanded. The end result was prettier, but the ride was much less fun.
"Done!" Kimura said, after a geologic age. He slapped Raidou on the back of one bare thigh. "You can put your clothes on again."
"Hnk," Raidou told the sweat-dappled bench he was lying on. He cleared his throat and tried again. "Thanks."
Kimura waved him off, already moving onto the next patient. For a mid-week afternoon, the hospital was surprisingly busy. Every nurse was harried, and every medic had hollow shadows beneath their eyes. The second Raidou had scraped himself upright and poured himself back into his jeans, someone was wiping down his bench and installing another patient on it.
The capitol must have taken some hard knocks, to send casualties here.
He grabbed his shirt, accepted paperwork (always paperwork) and a paper cup of water from a nurse, along with instructions to drink more, and made his escape. It took a second to catch his stride again; his muscles felt like sun-hammered taffy, and his chakra had been put through the wringer. But when he did, it was easier going. No more bandages, and no more bone-deep catch of a body that didn’t quite want to move right.
Time to find Katsuko again.
The hospital was fringed with chakra dampers, dulling the constant nerve-prickle of jutsu that even he could feel. It even managed to dampen Katsuko’s massive chakra, but her ANBU spark was there. A constant little beacon against the edge of his senses, subtly different than anyone else’s. He followed it up two flights of stairs, limping when his right thigh decided to cramp, and into a back-set wing of special offices, where Konoha devoted a small but significant fraction of its medical resources to the care of unique bloodlines, unusual injuries, and heavy chakra damage.
The gentle sound of swearing filtered down the hallway. Raidou set that as his north star, and followed it to the source.
"—toe-licking, piss-shitting, goat rotted—hi, taichou—mouth-breathing—" Katsuko was saying, when he opened the glass-plated office door. Chakra shifted, and, very quietly, bone gave the crunch of rapid re-healing. "Mother—"
Raidou raised both eyebrows.
"—hugger," Katsuko finished.
"You only just got to the collarbone?" he asked.
Ryouri-sensei came around the exam table, flicking her long purple braid back over one shoulder. "Had to make sure the chakra was in order first," she said. "Namiashi, you look like hell."
Raidou tipped his chin down. Even in solid-heeled boots that gave her an extra two inches, Ryouri only came up to his mid-chest. Despite that, she was square in the shoulders, powerfully built for a tiny-framed woman. Two green arrowheads marked her left cheek, legacy of her clan. Her white labcoat draped across the back of her desk chair, discarded. Just like every other time he’d seen her, she was wearing plain jounin blues, no vest, and an expression of slightly acid judgement.
And then there was the sixth finger on each hand, because every doctor on this floor had some kind of inherited weirdness.
"Rough week," Raidou said dryly, and nodded at Katsuko. "How’s the patient?"
"Less than patient," Ryouri said, to Katsuko’s visible eyeroll. "The collarbone’s knitting. I was going to work on the cuts next—which, what the hell, did you drag her through a hedge with teeth?"
"Yes," Katsuko said. "Angry, vengeful hedges."
"It’s a surprisingly common problem," Raidou said.
"I’m sure," Ryouri said, and turned away, putting her hands back on Katsuko. Healing green chakra rose like a veil across scar-cut skin. The bandages had already been removed, and Katsuko’s jounin shirt was off and folded up, held against her stomach; Raidou watched as scabbed wounds drew together, skin bonding until there was nothing but raised, reddened lines. Only specialized medics could heal without leaving scars, and only for agents who exclusively served in infiltration and espionage. Regular shinobi lived with their marks, and were thankful they weren’t worse.
Or celebrated them, depending on the ninja.
"I could do a better job if these weren’t old," Ryouri said, sounding annoyed. She poked Katsuko in the shoulder, where demon teeth had left a half-moon circle of notches carved over the unbroken clavicle.
Katsuko hissed. "Watch your nails, evil woman."
Ryouri hissed back, longer and louder, and exacted revenge by healing the thin slice across the side of Katsuko’s throat. Then the mostly-healed gash on her forehead, and a ragged wound on Katsuko’s outer left thigh, where a serrated demon leg had slashed her. A half-dozen other cuts, scrapes, and lesser injuries were attended, while Katsuko focused on the opposite wall and visibly counted seconds. The long, messy injury down the outside of her right arm was the last thing to go.
"There," Ryouri said, sitting back and getting her breath. Small beads of sweat caught the light at her temples; it wasn’t easy to dance with Katsuko’s chakra, or force it to bend inwards for healing.
Katsuko let out a shallow breath, then scrambled back into her shirt, dragging it on so quickly that she got it backwards and had to stop, pull it off, and try again. "Thanks, sensei," she said, muffled through cloth.
"Welcome," said Ryouri.
Raidou kept his eyes at face level, not on the sweeping, netted hack-job of scars that criss-crossed Katsuko’s lean stomach. He’d seen them before; quick glimpses when her shirt rode up in training, and the two memorable times she’d suffered catastrophic uniform failure in the field, but mostly she was careful to keep them hidden. She finished pulling her shirt down to her hips and immediately crossed her arms low, layering an extra shield over rumpled blue cloth. Her eyes ticked away, not quite landing on Raidou or Ryouri.
Fourteen, her file had said. The parts of it he could read past heavy censorship. She’d been fourteen when some lunatic with a scalpel had sliced her apart and played medical hopscotch with her insides. Which still made her an adult, according to shinobi law. You were an adult the moment you graduated and accepted the hitai-ate, and everything that went with it, but—
A very small adult, in a much bigger world.
Raidou forcibly re-routed his thoughts before he tried to punch the entire universe in the face. "All set? Or does Ryouri-sensei need to yell at you first?"
"She’s been yelling at me, taichou," Katsuko said plaintively, which Raidou didn’t doubt. She turned huge, liquid eyes on Ryouri, radiating an aura of abused injustice, like a half-drowned kitten.
Ryouri remained unmoved.
Without looking away, Katsuko hissed at Raidou out of the corner of her mouth, "Save me."
"What’ll you give me?" Raidou asked.
"I won’t shank you next time we spar," Katsuko returned, still in the same urgent hiss.
"Next three times."
Katsuko made an impatient ‘YES FINE’ gesture; her eyes were starting to tear up with the effort of not blinking. Which might have helped the sympathy vote, if Ryouri weren’t made from the emotional equivalent of granite and shoe leather.
"Do you actually need her for anything else?" Raidou asked the medic.
Ryouri scowled at him, unimpressed on every level. "I hope you both realize that Ueno’s chakra is actually a serious matter, and it took heavy strain this last mission."
"Unreasonable strain?" Raidou said.
Ryouri was silent for a moment, then she said, "I’d recommend some time with Hyuuga Aizu. And continuing to meditate at least twice a day, more for preference."
No, Raidou translated. He’d seen Katsuko use significantly more chakra than she’d drained in the demon fight, but not in combination with also having to clamp her signature down hard, hiding it from the demons’ acute senses. He doubted that had been fun, or painless.
"Guess that means we should train more," he told Katsuko.
She brightened. "More sparring?"
"More small jutsu," he said.
"Oh." She drooped.
Ryouri gave a small, satisfied nod. "Now I’ll let you take her."
Raidou crooked a smile and stepped forward to rumple a hand through Katsuko’s hair, which was badly in need of a proper shower. "C’mon, trouble. You’ll get to hit me soon enough."
Narrow shoulders relaxed, settling down from Katsuko’s ears. She looked up at him with a blossoming grin. "Promise?"
"Past odds are in your favor," he said, and tugged her off the table. "We should find out where the lieutenant is, in case he’s being held hostage by medical staff, too."
"He’s probably happier than we are," Katsuko said, trotting towards the door. "He’s with his own kind."
She had a point.
"Well, then we should rescue him for his own good, before they turn him against us."
Katsuko considered that, one hand on the doorknob. "Oh god," she said, with dawning horror. "What are you waiting for, taichou? We have to find him before it’s too late." She yanked the door open and bolted out, then returned a second later. "Thanks, sensei!" And ran again.
Raidou snorted laughter, and bowed to Ryouri. "Thank you," he said, a touch more formally, before following the errant sun-blaze of Katsuko’s chakra.
Ryouri rolled her eyes, but the edge of a smile touched her lips. "Safe hunting."
Extensive healing always made Katsuko a little giddy afterwards. Maybe it was because the pain was gone. That, or Ryouri-sensei had performed a narcotic jutsu without Katsuko noticing. Either way, she felt like jittering out of her skin. She loitered impatiently in the hallway, waiting for Raidou. He was walking slower than usual, the way he always did when injured or exhausted; better to keep Katsuko waiting for ages than show even a little pain.
He raised his eyebrows when he finally caught up. "Stalled out?"
"I’m showing respect to an elder, taichou," Katsuko said. "I know how much it hurts your joints to keep up with the kids these days."
"It'd help if the kids had needed less carrying," he said dryly, and rumpled her hair over her eyes as he passed. "C'mon, youngster."
She snickered and fell into pace with him, shoving her hands into her pockets. "Oh, hey. You totally owe me lunch for this mission."
"I didn’t die. And I kept the boys from fighting." Katsuko sighed. "I deserve so much free food for that last one."
"Not dying is the basic tenet of your job, for which you get a standard wage that you can use to buy food," Raidou said, almost by rote. "And I'm pretty sure you goaded Hatake and Tousaki as much as you pacified them. But nice try."
They found Genma in bed 16. Nakamura-sensei was healing his belly-wound, lecturing him even as flesh closed up under green-glowing hands. “... if your labs had come back just a little worse, I’d be keeping you inpatient for treatment.”
"So you're not keeping me inpatient?" Genma asked hopefully, tensing as his stomach muscles forcibly fused back together.
"I'm not saying that yet."
"I can take whatever meds you want to give me at home—"
"You should be treated here. You're lucky you didn't end up in acute kidney failure, and your liver is definitely showing signs of toxicity."
“A medic’s yelling at our medic,” Katsuko said, watching from a safe distance away. “Wanna rescue him?”
Next to her, Raidou frowned slightly and stepped forward. "I'm his captain. What's going on?"
Genma looked up, sheepish, and gave them a wave. Nakamura said, "I'm not sure if it's the effects of the jutsu he did to raise his temperature, the poison itself, or both, but there's some organ damage. Repairable damage."
Raidou pinned Genma with a look.
“I didn’t have a choice,” Genma said, unrepentant. “Well, I did have a choice, I guess. But the alternative was not surviving the mission.”
“He does have a point,” Katsuko said helpfully.
Raidou’s expression didn’t change. “His point can keep him in the hospital overnight.”
Nakamura nodded. "Surviving is an ongoing process." He looked at Genma. "I like your new captain. He's sensible."
Genma didn’t roll his eyes, but he seemed severely tempted to. "You didn't have to put it like that, sensei." He turned to Raidou. "I'm fine, taichou. It's just some minor abnormalities in my labs."
"I can translate 'organ damage' just fine, Shiranui," Raidou said. He glanced at Nakamura. "He'll stay overnight."
“But—!” Genma protested.
Raidou didn’t give him the chance. “That’s an order.”
Genma sighed and saluted. “Acknowledged. Nakamura-sensei, if all you want to do is medicate and monitor me, can you at least let me go check on Hisa-san when we're through here? I promised her and her family I'd be there for her."
"I’ll go find out where she is while Mari starts an IV on you," Nakamura-sensei said, ignoring Genma’s hangdog expression.
“Hisa’s safe, she has her parents, and Konoha’s best medic-nin are with her,” Katsuko said, clasping her hands behind her back. “I think all we’d do is bring bad memories in with us.”
Raidou looked at her, surprised. Quietly, he asked, "You don't want to see her?"
And now Genma was looking at her, too. Katsuko shrugged, wishing she’d kept quiet. “I do. When she’s conscious and recovering. I mean, if something ripped up my stomach like that, I wouldn’t want anyone to see--” she stuttered to a halt and snapped her mouth shut.
Understanding dawned in Genma’s expression. He sat up, carefully protective of his own just-healed belly. "It's okay. It's probably better if it's just me who goes. I can talk to her parents and make sure they understand what the medics are telling them. Besides, it's not like I'm going home tonight."
Katsuko ducked her head in acknowledgement. “Lieutenant.”
Raidou glanced between them and let out a quiet sigh. “Would you pass along my regards to the Ehime family? They’re welcome to send a messenger if they need anything from me.”
Genma nodded. Katsuko stood there and quietly loathed herself for being about as easy to read as a children’s book. Raidou dropped his hand on her head, rudely mussing her hair and shoving it down over her eyes.
“If Shiranui tries to leave prematurely, you have my permission to leg-lock him, Nakamura-sensei.” He nudged Katsuko. “C’mon. We should get some real food into you.”
“Get me udon,” Katsuko said. Who knew, maybe it’d work this time.
Genma gave them a look. “That’s just mean, taunting a man when he’s sick. I was planning to get sukiyaki, or maybe curry-don.” He turned betrayed, pleading eyes on Katsuko.
“Wow, no,” she said, rallying. “That’s only cute when I do it. I’ll find you some crackers or something, lieutenant.”
"Actually, given the lieutenant's fried internal organs, he's probably allowed unsalted broth," Raidou said, glancing at Nakamura-sensei. The medic nodded.
“It was worth a try,” Genma said, shrugging and leaning back against the pillows.
She shrugged philosophically. “Fall seven times, get back up eight. It’ll work one day, lieutenant.”
“But never on you, I’m guessing, since you’re the master,” said Genma.
Katsuko nodded sagely. She’d flipped back into something resembling good humor, like an acrobat on a high wire, but she still seemed edgy. He’d only caught glimpses of her tortuously scarred abdomen when he’d worked on her shoulder injuries, but between the scars he’d seen and what he’d learned about the seal containing her chakra, it wasn’t hard to imagine what kinds of wounds the enemy medic had inflicted on her all those years ago.
“I’ll go see what I can find out about the patient you were asking about,” Nakamura said. “Give me five minutes.” He ducked out of the room, leaving Raidou and Katsuko standing awkwardly at the foot of the bed.
Raidou had that ‘just been through chakra healing and need to sleep for the next fifteen hours’ look to him, but all traces of the burns on his face were erased, and there were no bandages peeking out from the collar of his shirt.
Katsuko looked more lively. She, too, was unbandaged, and her arm was moving loose and easy, free of its sling. Extensive healing usually wore patients out, since it drew on the patient’s chakra as well as the medic’s, but it didn’t seem to have made a dent in her abundant supply.
“It looks like Ryouri-sensei and Kimura-sensei were able to get you both patched up. Other than hungry and tired, how are you doing?” Genma asked. “Was Kimura-sensei his usual charming self?”
“That's one word for it,” Raidou said. “But he stuck all my pieces back together, so can't complain too much.”
“Yeah, I hear you on that one.” Genma stretched, testing freshly healed muscles in his abdomen. Brand new nerve connections sent an unpleasant shiver of sparks racing under his skin, radiating out from the scar. He smoothed his palm over it, trying to deaden the sensation. “How about you, Ueno? Feeling back together?”
“I’m good,” she said, a cipher of politeness. How brittle was she?
Genma glanced up at Raidou. “Hey, Ueno, can you give me a minute with the captain?”
“I’ll wait in the hall,” she said just as flatly, and vanished without another word.
Genma blew out a long, tired breath. “This hospital trip is really not going how I’d planned.” He tucked his knees up, making room for Raidou to sit on the gurney if he wanted to. “Is this typical for her when she’s injured?”
Raidou stayed where he was, looking over his shoulder in the direction Katsuko had gone. “No,” he said, turning back after a moment. “She's been off since Trials. I don't know if it's the new team, or the attack-that-wasn't, or what.”
“And I’m guessing she’s not giving you much to go on,” Genma said. “Tousaki’s not the one I’m most worried about on this team, anymore.” He scrubbed a hand through his hair, wishing he’d thought to grab a shower between debriefing and medical care. “You going to be okay? She might have chakra to spare after healing, but you look like you feel like dirt. Do you have a plan?”
“Food, sleep, talk to her,” Raidou said, ticking off items on his fingers. “But I don’t think she’s in imminent danger of exploding.”
“Fair enough,” Genma agreed. “Sorry to leave you with all the work on your own. I really didn’t think I was going to get grounded.”
Raidou shrugged one shoulder. “It's not work, it's my team,” he said. He turned to look Genma in the eye. “And you need to rest. You've been running ragged since you could stand, and I can't use you if your kidneys are melting. Listen to the medics; take the night off.”
Genma blinked, startled by a feeling he couldn’t quite identify. Pleased, maybe? Not that he needed anyone worrying over him, and that wasn’t what Raidou had said anyway. This was about function, but... “Captain,” he said, touching his shoulder in salute, because he couldn’t think of a better response.
A nurse poked her head through the curtain, with Nakamura-sensei right behind her. “Here’s your patient, Mari-san. Shiranui-san’s one of our field medics, so he will undoubtedly be an excellent patient for you,” he said, clearly more for Genma’s benefit than Mari’s.
Genma smiled at her and presented his left arm. “Hook me up. Nakamura-sensei and the captain are making me stay in and subsist on IV fluids and crackers while the rest of my team goes out for udon.”
“You poor thing,” Mari said blandly, all efficiency with her IV setup.
“I got an update for you on Ehime Hisa-san,” Nakamura said. “Nohara Rin-sensei is taking charge of her care. She’s out of surgery but still in recovery. Stable. The surgery was successful, but I didn’t get any more than that. Am I right in thinking the details they wouldn’t tell me have something to do with the poison you encountered?”
Genma glanced at Raidou. “I really don’t know how much we’re at liberty to explain. Taichou?”
“You’ll have to take it up with Intel,” Raidou said. He glanced towards the door.
“Not the first time I’ve heard that,” Nakamura said with a chuckle. “Alright, I’ll get your man in fighting shape and send him back good as new, and leave the mysteries of how he got in this state to higher clearances than mine.”
“I’ll come find you in the morning, Captain,” Genma said.
“If we let you go in the morning,” Nakamura said. “Let’s see how you respond to treatment first.”
Genma rolled his eyes, but Raidou’s face said he was firmly on the medic’s side in this.
“If something happens with, uh, anyone on the team—” Genma started.
“Get some rest, lieutenant,” Raidou said. “I’ll check back in the A.M.”
“Not too early,” Nakamura said. “You need rest, too, Namiashi-san.”
The corners of Raidou’s mouth tilted up in amusement. “Copy that,” he said, tapping his tattoo. “Take care of him, sensei.”
“That’s what we do best,” said Nakamura.
Genma waited until Raidou had gone before he sank back against the pillow. “You are going to let me go talk to the Ehime family, aren’t you?”
“Once you’re admitted I suppose I can’t stop you,” Nakamura said. “You’ll be the ward medic’s problem then, not mine. But you might want to have a look in the mirror before you go. You said they were civilians, right?”
“You're in a hospital gown with an IV in, and tanuki circles under your eyes. Did they know how badly you were wounded? And have they actually seen your face?”
“How’s that funny?”
“My mask’s a tanuki,” Genma said. “So at least they’ll recognize me.”
Nakamura smiled. “Somehow I doubt that will comfort them.”
The doctor had a point. None of the civilians had seen Genma’s face—throughout their journey home, he’d been masked. Though they’d seen him paralyzed that first night, he’d done his best to hide the extent of his injuries once he was up and moving. He’d reassured them the poison was completely out of his system and his wounds minor, knowing both were lies. There was nothing to be gained from making them worry about the medic keeping their daughter stable.
“How bad are those labs, anyway?” he asked.
Nakamura handed him a sheet of paper littered with abbreviations and numbers. Genma flicked his eyes over the page, feeling the fight go out of himself as he read. He looked up when he’d reached the bottom. Nakamura raised an eyebrow at him.
“Yeah, okay,” Genma said, handing the paper back with a sigh. “I’d make me stay in hospital, too.”
“Nohara-sensei and Hyuuga Hatori-sensei have developed some excellent new techniques for exactly this kind of thing,” Nakamura said. “I’m sure they’ll have you out of here in just a day or so.”
Great, Genma thought. So much for meeting the captain tomorrow morning.
“This is all set, sensei,” the nurse said. She opened up the stopcock on the IV line—the solution flowing in felt cold and strange.
“I really do have to go see Ehime-san,” Genma said. “And I don’t want to look terrible. Can I change back into uniform?”
“You want me to unhook this IV that I just started so you don’t have to be seen in a hospital gown?” she asked. There was a whole universe of I don’t think so behind her question.
“Sorry, no. You’re going to the ward, getting a bed assigned, and getting your meds started,” Nakamura said, curtailing discussion. “But I’ll go talk to the family for you, and tell them where they can find you.”
Some days there was just no winning. Genma closed his eyes and nodded. “It was worth trying.”
“It’s always worth trying,” Nakamura agreed. “Feel better, and don’t let me see you as a patient again anytime soon, Shiranui-kun.”
“Sensei,” Genma said, tapping a tired salute.
Nakamura beckoned the nurse to the door, discussing something with her that Genma couldn’t quite catch. He left, and she came back over, smiling now that her victory was assured. “An orderly’s on the way to escort you to the ward,” she told him. “Do you need anything? Are you cold? You look cold.”
“Maybe a lit—” Genma started. She was already draping a blanket over his legs before he could finish.
“Do you have anyone worrying about you?” she asked.
Genma blinked, surprised he hadn’t thought of it himself. “They usually notify my dad if I end up in hospital.” He brightened. “Maybe he’ll bring me custard buns.”
She smiled at him and tucked the blanket up to his chest. “That’s good. I’ll keep a look out for him.” She reached down with a careful hand and brushed Genma’s hair back from his forehead. “Get some rest, shinobi. You’ve earned it.”
Had he? Of the thirty-three missing villagers, they’d rescued two, found the corpses of twenty-three, and euthanized eight. Three of the mercy kills had been by Genma’s own hand. He’d tried not to think about the tears in the eyes of the first woman he’d found, with her belly full to bursting of demon spawn and her hope entirely vanished. She’d been one of the twelve missing from Hayama village—one of the lucky ones they had a name for—Nanba Umeko.
He took three deep breaths, closed his eyes, and tried to picture her now. May Amida Buddha rename you in the Pure Land, Nanba Umeko-san.
For each of the thirty-one dead—those whose names they’d been able to match to the bodies they’d found, and those whose remains had been unidentifiable—he repeated his prayer, counting out their names on invisible prayer beads.
He made it almost twice around a sixteen-bead strand praying for the dead. For the last bead he counted, and the first of a new cycle, he prayed for the two who’d survived.
Katsuko was waiting in the hallway outside, leaning against the wall. Her arms were folded across her narrow chest, and the rumpled fall of hair over her forehead almost hid the dark, focused stare she was levelling at the opposite wall, as if it held the secret of something important. There was no trace of a smile around her usually expressive mouth.
She wasn’t okay, and Raidou didn’t know why.
He waited for her to realize he was there. It took a moment, then she blinked and her gaze slid over. “Hey,” she said.
“Hey,” Raidou said.
“The lieutenant alright?”
“He looks like I kicked his favorite pet, but I think he’ll survive,” he said. “Which makes you the last duckling on my list, Ueno. Where d’you want to go? Home?”
“What’re you gonna do after you’ve got everyone squared away?” she asked, sidestepping the question. “Paperwork?”
“It’s not gonna do itself,” he said.
“Hah.” Her gaze went back to the wall, fixing on an old scratch. “I’m hungry.”
“Still want udon?”
She glanced up at him from under her hair, sly. “You buying, taichou?”
Even if she was actively bleeding out, Katsuko would still try to get people to buy her dinner. Raidou knew; he’d seen it. It was one of her very few consistencies. He smiled. “You think I’m made of money?”
“Love, maybe,” she said. “Which takes the form of money.”
“Your flattery is transparent and futile,” he said, amused. “I’ll buy you a soda.”
“I take it back. You’re made of evil and cruelty.”
“You say that like it’s news.” He tossed his arm around her pointy, lethal shoulders, pulling her away from the wall, and was gratified when she leaned in against his side. She fell into easy lock-step as they headed for the exit.
There was a decent udon stand half a street away from the hospital. The owner saw them coming, and either clocked the slight drag-step in Raidou’s walk, or the paleness of Katsuko’s face, or just knew his likely pool of customers on a street so close to Konoha’s temple of healing, because he called, “Sutamina?”
Stamina udon. Meat, raw egg, healthy vegetables, hearty broth.
Katsuko gave a quiet moan of longing.
“Four bowls,” Raidou said. “To go. And two ramune.”
“Egg rolls,” Katsuko added, like she needed them to live. “All of the egg rolls you have.”
The stand-owner didn’t even blink. He probably saw a lot of shinobi.
A thankfully short space of time later, Raidou had a collection of warm, delicious-smelling plastic bags dangling from his arms, two soda bottles in one hand, and a significantly slimmer wallet. He left the stand-owner happily counting out money, and turned east, towards the looming Hokage’s Monument that shielded the view of ANBU HQ behind their enormous stony heads.
“Make-your-mind-up time,” he told Katsuko, who was still hovering close to his side—though, probably now because he was playing packhorse with dinner. “Where do you want to go?”
She hesitated, which told him everything. “Wherever you’re going,” she said, looking down at one of the swinging bags. “I don’t really have a preference.”
He’d meant to go back to Team Six’s office, and probably fall asleep over the endless sea of paperwork that had become his life. But Katsuko had the same look in her eyes as she’d had on the night they’d found out their old team was dissolving. Five minutes after that, she’d nearly taken Mitarou’s head off. In fairness, she’d thought Mitarou had just killed Raidou, but it had been a training exercise, and if she’d really thought for a second, she’d have known better. He’d stayed with her that evening, and helped her pack up her suitcase of knives and her handful of possessions, and made pretend everything was fine until she’d started to believe it, too.
He was more tired tonight, but he hadn’t lied to Genma: it wasn’t work when it was his team.
“How about we go back to my place?” he said. “The furniture’s more comfortable, and there’s a TV.”
Some of the tension knotted in Katsuko’s stomach dissipated. “Sure,” she agreed. “My apartment’s a mess, anyways.”
"You just moved in," Raidou said. "How much damage can you do in three wee—never mind."
Katsuko snickered and bumped her shoulder against his arm, jostling the bags he was carrying. He pulled a face at her.
The walk back to the barracks was brisk, despite their exhaustion; hunger was an excellent motivator. Raidou’s room was as neat as ever, not even a stray sock lying about to make Katsuko feel better about her own sloppy cleaning habits. His battered guitar was still in its usual place in the corner, lovingly maintained despite its nicks and scratches. She closed the door behind Raidou as he went to dump the bags on his kitchen table and nearly dove after him, snatching up the first takeout container of udon she could get her hands on.
Raidou pushed her down into a kitchen chair and stuck a pair of chopsticks into her hand, and then dropped into the chair across from her. “Try to chew,” he said, dryly, and freed another bowl of udon from the bag.
Briefly, Katsuko considered drinking her udon straight from the bowl. Then she shrugged and brandished her chopsticks. “What if I chew really fast?”
"So long as you don't choke and die," he said, like he was making a gracious allowance, before popping the lid off of his takeaway bowl. For a man who wanted to lecture her on dining etiquette, the way he dug into his noodles was borderline ravenous.
“Hypocrite,” she said, through a mouthful of udon.
"Do you see me choking?"
“Oh, hey,” Katsuko said, remembering abruptly. “Speaking about choking, did you sleep with Ryouma?”
Raidou inhaled his udon the wrong way and nearly asphyxiated. He hacked and coughed, pounding on his chest, and finally strangled out a weak, “What?”
“Make the beast with two backs. Engage in pork fencing.” Katsuko made a detailed gesture. “Skewer the yakitori. Go spelunking. Mine for coal. Should I go on?”
"I will pay you actual cash money not to ever say any of those words again," Raidou managed, adrift on a distant sea of horror.
“That’s not a ‘no’,” Katsuko said, deeply satisfied with herself.
Raidou’s face was already scarlet from almost suffocating to death, but it blushed brighter at that. “Oh my god,” he muttered, looking like he wanted to drop his head onto the table. “I am not having this conversation with you. I am not having this conversation ever again.”
Katsuko crowed in triumph. “I knew it. I knew it. You climbed that like a tree.”
He pointed his chopsticks at her in a shocking breach of manners. "How do you know it?"
“Your faces. They did the,” she waved her hand vaguely in the air, “the whole, ‘oh we totally banged’ thing. Wait. You said ‘ever again’. Who else knows?”
"I am never rescuing you again," Raidou muttered direly. "Next time you can wander the streets alone, begging for pork buns. The lieutenant knows. So does Yondaime-sama, and yes, that was the most awkward conversation of my life."
“Oh.” Katsuko contemplated this. “Ohhh. That’s— yeah.” She gave Raidou a sympathetic look. “Well, Ryouma’s hot. And flexible. So at least it was worth it, right?”
Raidou propped his elbow on the table and rubbed at his mouth as he studied her, struggling with his moral compass. Then he dropped his hand and admitted, "Yes. But it was months ago, before he joined ANBU."
Katsuko nodded. “I’m not worried about it messing with the team. I trust you both. Would have said something about it to you, otherwise.”
"Oh," Raidou said blankly. After a moment, he smiled at her. “Thank you.”
Katsuko smiled back, and then realized they were going to have a Moment unless she took preventative measures. She cleared her throat. “Hey, so about the choking.”
He turned back to his food. "I'm not giving you details."
“Fair enough,” Katsuko said, because there were many things she didn’t need to know and what Raidou liked in bed was definitely one of them. It would have been nice to find out more about Ryouma, though. For all Ryouma’s charm and handsome smile, he could be a frustrating enigma. “You guys were pretty subtle, though. The ‘oh crap I boned him’ face is just easy to recognize on anyone.”
"Oh really?" Raidou said. "Who'd you bone?"
She sparkled innocently at him. “I’m not giving you details.”
He snorted. "Probably for the best." He uncapped his soda and took a swig, and then said, thoughtfully, "I'm surprised you didn't say anything sooner."
“Wasn’t about to go blabbing in front of the team.” Katsuko shrugged. “Maybe I was just waiting for the right moment to make you breathe in noodles.”
“Well timed,” Raidou said, dryly.
“I’m amazing that way,” Katsuko said, digging out the egg rolls. “Modest, too. You should feel lucky I grace you with my presence.”
"I'm definitely feeling something," Raidou said, and thumped his chest again. "Heartburn, maybe."
Katsuko pointed an egg roll at him. “Heartburn of gratitude, old man.”
Raidou snorted again and turned back to his udon. Silence settled over the room again for a moment as Katsuko stuffed half an egg roll into her mouth.
Then Raidou spoke. “Hey, Katsuko?”
He almost never used her given name. Katsuko looked up warily, still chewing.
“What’s going on with you?”
She’d been waiting for something like this ever since they’d left the lieutenant’s bedside—or, truthfully, ever since guard duty on the wall, when Raidou had said the name Orochimaru and Katsuko’s vision had splintered at the edges. Her control had slipped more times these past couple weeks than it had during the first six months Team 18 served together.
Katsuko took a bit longer than usual to finish chewing. Raidou didn’t say anything. Swiping the crumbs at the corners of her mouth away with her thumb bought her another second of delay. But once she’d swallowed her roll, she did them both the service of getting straight to the point. “Is it affecting my performance on missions?”
Raidou’s long silence meant she was braced for it when he finally said, "Yes."
Nothing she hadn’t expected. It still made all the muscles in her body lock up in brief terror. “Did I slow the team down? Was there something else I should have done? If I could have prevented some of our injuries, is there any way I could—”
He held his hands up, palms open and fingers spread. "Whoa, back up. You think I'd've let it run if things were that bad? You've just been a step off your game. I thought it was time to have a conversation about why."
“Oh,” Katsuko said, and lapsed into embarrassed silence. Her face burned.
Ceramic scraped as Raidou pushed his plate away. "What is it?" he asked, quietly.
Katsuko had perfected the art of deflecting unwanted curiosity with a smile and layers of skillfully woven bullshit. Right now, though, she didn’t have any rambling stories or nonsense to derail the conversation with. Scrabbling for an explanation Raidou would accept gave her nothing but blank silence in her own head. She leaned back in her chair and let the air rush out of her lungs in a long sigh.
Raidou was still waiting.
“Part of it’s the new team,” she said at last. “I don’t have any complaints, but I’m still getting used to it.”
“And the other part?”
“Things just… escalate. One after another. First the scare with Orochimaru, then the mission, then—” she made a frustrated gesture and ran her hand through her hair. “Everything. Nothing like this happened last year, but now it’s like—” Like all the horrors from her past were rearing their ugly heads, clawing their way out of the deep graves she’d buried them in. Orochimaru, the girls underneath the tatami, nightmares that refused to leave when daylight came. “—I don’t know. I can’t explain it.”
Raidou didn’t know what he’d expected, but it hadn’t been that. Katsuko had never buckled under pressure before; she’d only gotten harder. Last year, he’d seen her cut a man’s spine out with one sword and blind a kunoichi with the other, and she’d slept like a baby afterwards. She was war-bred all the way through.
He had watched her break in other ways, but it’d always been like a grenade. Outwards, with shrapnel, and only ever aimed at the enemy. He could count on one hand the number of times she’d seemed visibly troubled, and most of them had happened in the last month.
Well, there had been that thing with the poisoning, but nothing counted when you were under the influence.
“Let’s not blow it bigger than it is,” he said, to himself as much as to her. “The last couple weeks have been rough for everyone, and that mission would’ve tested a veteran team. The only real slip I saw you make was at the house, with those two little girls under the floor. Can you tell me what happened there, at least?”
Katsuko’s eyes rested on him for a long moment, the clear green-brown shadowed with exhaustion. Then, resigned, she said: “He’d brick up the bodies underneath the floor when he was done with them, back then. You’ve read my file.”
Raidou had vastly underestimated how completely unqualified he was to deal with this.
But there was no one else in the room.
“Actually, that whole section of your file was redacted,” he said. “All they left were the broad strokes, and a page about Yondaime-sama’s shutdown seal, if your chakra ever runs wild. Nothing about floor bodies.”
Katsuko’s eyes flickered, and her mouth twisted. “Redacted. Of course.”
“Your mission history was a party to read, though,” he said, like that helped. Katsuko didn’t grin. Raidou sighed. “Look, you’re a grown-ass adult and your business is none of mine. If you want to talk about it—if that would help—I’m here, and I’ll listen. If you want to tell me to step off, that this was one slip because it’s been a bastard of a month, I can do that, so long as you get a handle on it.”
Her slim shoulders set tensely. She opened her mouth.
“Wait, one other thing,” he said. “I don’t mean get it perfect—we’re all screw ups off the field. Sometimes on the field. Witness me sending our only two chakra-sensors down into a demon nest together. But no more blank-outs on a mission.”
A thin crystalline tension descended, which Katsuko filled by looking at him and saying nothing. And more nothing.
Then, at last, she said, “Alright.” She shifted slightly in her chair, and twitched one sharp shoulder. “I can do that.”
Probably they weren’t going to talk about it, then. Maybe he should push, but—he’d had captains who’d made him talk things out, and others who’d let him keep his silence, and he couldn’t say which was better. Even his mothers disagreed: Ume liked to process aloud, with any family member who’d listen; Shen kept things quiet, to herself. They were both well-balanced.
None of them had seen bodies stuffed under a floor, though.
“Okay,” he said finally, and let it drop.
Katsuko didn’t. “I’ve already said too much,” she said, eyes raking over his face. “And I can’t tell you much more, anyways.” There was a subtle, bitter emphasis on can’t. She pushed herself up suddenly from her seat. “I should go. It’s been a long day.”
Alternatively, he was being an idiot, since redacted meant classified, which meant she doubtless couldn’t talk about it even if she wanted to, so all he’d done was stir up a hornet’s nest and left no outlet for the sting. She was leaving.
He shoved up hard enough that his chair toppled over backwards. “Wait—”
Katsuko hesitated, looking faintly hunted.
Raidou didn’t have any pretty words to hand her, or much that would make it better, but he knew he didn’t want her rattling about alone with ghosts in her head. “Don’t go. I still, uh— I said we can watch TV, and you haven’t even finished your food. And, uh.” She hadn’t fled yet. He moved around the table, to the edge of her personal space, and stopped. “There’s like eight-hundred pieces of mockery you still need to give me about Tousaki, and I’m not doing all the dishes by myself.”
She glanced down at the table littered with plastic take-out containers. “What dishes?”
“Just don’t go,” Raidou said. “Please?”
Katsuko blinked at him. “Uh,” she said, in a perfect mirror of his inability to do words, but some of the flight-tension uncoiled, swept aside by surprise. “Okay?”
“Okay,” Raidou said, relieved.
They stood next to his kitchen table, about a foot and a half away from each other, separated by a barrier of exhaustion and unexpected awkwardness, which had never happened before. Katsuko’s shoulders drooped slowly; she was pale and sharper-edged than she’d been a week ago. She’d lost weight on this mission, as well as control. She tipped her head back and gave him a helpless look. Now what, taichou?
Three days ago, she’d plummeted off the back of a demon queen and nearly died. He’d known what to do then.
It had needed much less words.
Maybe he should have just done that instead, but perhaps it wasn’t too late now. He stepped forward, deliberately telegraphing his intent, and put one arm around Katsuko’s narrow shoulders, bent like a question mark. She ducked her head, tension twanging like a harpstring wire, then folded into him. He wrapped both of his arms around her, hard, and dropped his chin down on the wild mess of her flyaway hair. This close, he could feel the low-level shiver vibrating through her muscles.
Definitely should have done this first.
“Sorry,” he said quietly, into her hair.
Katsuko almost didn’t hear Raidou over the low buzzing between her ears. She brought her arms up, hands hovering at Raidou’s sides. After a moment, she ventured an uncertain, “What do I do now?”
"You could hug back," he suggested. With her face mashed up against his collarbone, she could feel the low rumble of his voice. "If you want to."
He was warm, and his arms around her felt safe. Katsuko held herself stiff for another second before giving in, letting Raidou take her weight as she sagged against him. Cautiously, she wrapped her arms around his back, settling her palms just underneath the broad wings of his shoulderblades.
"Okay," she said, quietly. Her voice felt very far away. She tightened her grip around him and realized, distantly, that she was shaking. It’d be better for her to leave, barricade herself in her room so no one would see her weakness. But Raidou was the only other person here, and he wouldn’t tell anybody if Katsuko let herself have this one little thing. She buried her face into the crook of his neck and let her mind go blank.
She didn’t know how long they stood there, but eventually Raidou shifted. Katsuko tensed, but he was only shuffling them over to sit down on the neatly made bed. Katsuko leaned against him and curled into herself, unwilling to release him for even a second. “Sorry,” she said into his neck, haltingly. “I don’t know what I’m-- could we just stay like this? For a bit?”
Raidou pulled her closer, rubbing one hand slowly up and down her back. “Sure,” he said. “As long as you want.”
He didn’t say anything else, just sat there patiently with her like he had all the time in the world. Katsuko closed her eyes and let herself drift.
Intel had sealed her files, like they did everything connected to Orochimaru, but as her ANBU captain Raidou deserved to know more than the bare bones. She wanted to tell him more, which was frightening enough by itself. Frustration rose in her throat like bile, pushing her out of her light doze.
Time had passed, but she didn’t know how much. Were the shadows in the room longer? Their food was still out on the table, probably cold. Katsuko stirred and managed to lift her head up, avoiding eye contact with Raidou by examining the rest of furniture.
“Mrmph,” she said. And then: “Y’really need to get a couch.”
"S'on my list," Raidou said. He didn’t sound annoyed or impatient. "Groceries, couch, beat my team up..."
“Heh.” Her arms were beginning to ache. Reluctantly, she let Raidou go and scrubbed at her face. Her voice came out rusty and cracked. “Thanks. I, um. I needed that.”
She needed a lot more than that. A hug was a band-aid, even if it stretched long. But they were manacled by what Katsuko couldn’t say, and Raidou didn’t know.
“Any time,” he said instead, reaching for the midway between gentle and normal. Even if Katsuko felt fragile, she wouldn’t want to be treated like a soap bubble. “You can stick there longer if you want to. I don’t have anywhere I need to be.”
It was the right thing to say. She tipped against him, pulling her legs up to prop her chin on her knees, and wrapped both arms around her shins. Against his side, she was just a tick above normal human warmth; her chakra made her burn hotter than most. “Okay,” she said, sounding immeasurably tired, and just faintly relieved.
He slung his arm around her back again, snugging her in close, and rumpled her hair.
When this was over, he thought, he’d have to send a thank you note to his moms. Unlike the average ninja family, who seemed to treat human contact like a communicable disease, he’d been raised to appreciate the value of a hard hug, band-aid or otherwise. At least it was loosening some of the tension in those narrow, wire-strung shoulders.
Or maybe that was exhaustion.
Very gently, he pressed his fingertips to the back of Katsuko’s neck, calling up seedlings of chakra to hit the knotted trigger-points that usually needed strong pressure to work out. They gave like stacked dominos, and she made a very quiet noise: oh. That didn’t seem to be a bad noise, so he kept going, working carefully across the arches of her shoulders. She melted slowly against him, like a cat in a puddle of sunlight.
Eventually, she murmured, “Hey, Rai?”
He looked at her.
She hesitated, then said, “I’m still hungry.”
For a second, though, it had looked like she wanted to say something else. He laughed anyway, because he’d take any constant in a storm. “Yeah? I think there’s still a bowl of udon with your name on it, and a metric ton of cold egg rolls. That do?”
“Give me some of your udon, too,” she said, with a shameless, reflexive grin. But then the hesitation again. She added, “Please?”
He snorted. “Hell no. You can eat your own udon and your own heap of ridiculous grease.” He reached behind her, catching the edge of the blankets, and pulled them loose from their military-grade sharp lines, yanking them over Katsuko’s head.
She squawked, but then wrapped them around herself until only her nose showed, and a tuft of ruffled brown hair. Raidou left her to nest. He unearthed actual bowls to pour the remaining udon in, and tossed them into the microwave to reheat. The egg rolls went in after.
He made tea on the theory that you could never go wrong with tea, and dimmed the lights on his return. The shades were already drawn; the light outside was rich and warm, fading towards late afternoon. He pushed a steaming bowl and a mug into Katsuko’s hands, and set a plate by her blanket-bundled knee.
“If you get crumbs on my bed, they’ll never find your body,” he told her.
One hand snaked out of the blankets, retrieved an egg roll, and vanished. “I’m a trained ninja,” she said with her mouth full. “I can handle some crumbs.”
“In my experience, trained ninja are some of the messiest people alive.” He glanced at the dark TV screen, with its stack of videocassettes piled neatly on top. “Still want to watch a movie?”
“Yeah,” she said. “Pick that one with that hot actor. You know, the one with the hair.”
Given that Katsuko’s tastes were wide-ranging and slightly outside the normal bell curve, that could apply to anything he owned. He grabbed Strawberry Pie, which was funny, light-hearted, and had at least one drag queen and two well-rounded lesbians to provide a bit of rainbow. The musical score was mellow enough to fall asleep to, if he remembered right.
He slid the tape into the video player, set it going, and took the remote back to the bed. Katsuko had firmly established herself in a comfortable nest of blankets, but she’d also unwound enough to reveal her face and hands. Her hair was even more messy than usual, sticking up in little bolts of static. He dropped down next to her and leaned his back again the wall, pulling his udon bowl into his lap.
She hesitated for a moment, then edged back into his personal space. Not the bright, brassy Katsuko who’d casually throw her legs across anyone’s lap, or take complete possession of the office couch; this was slow and careful, as if she was still afraid he’d take offense and kick her out into the hall.
There were moments for gentleness, and then there was the time to re-establish normality. He brought a knee up and thumped it against her hip, jostling her hold on her udon bowl. Only quick hands saved her dinner from flying up the wall.
He grinned at her. “Stop stalking me like a baby deer and come over already, I’m not going to spook.”
She blinked once, then turned a hot, offended glare on him and invaded his personal bubble like a miniature army of one-woman wrath. A brief flurry of jostling followed, and a yelp—his this time, when a sharp elbow caught him somewhere uncomfortable and his tea almost upended—then things settled as Strawberry Pie’s title card rolled. Katsuko half-lay against his side, legs stretched out, head resting against his ribcage, food stockpiled carefully within reach. She cradled her mug of tea between her hands, like a warm pilot light.
At this angle, he couldn’t really hug her anymore, but he could drop one hand down to settle on her head, carding gentle fingers through her hair.
She sighed and settled more heavily against him.
Raidou wasn’t prone to flashbacks; he’d done his time in the war, and he’d done his time with counsellors afterwards. His psyche was as stitched, buffed, and healthy as he could make it. But every now and then, something popped up to yank him back into the foxholes. This time it wasn’t so bad, just a fleeting memory of mud under his back, cold pressing down on his face, and the weight of comrades on both sides, trying to sleep through the dark.
It hadn’t been strange then. It had just been survival.
Compared to that, he’d take fast food, a movie, indoor plumbing, and a quasi-comfortable bed in a heartbeat, and open it up to anyone else who needed it. Especially Katsuko.
He refocused to find her looking up at him, eyebrows quirked. His hand had fallen away from her head. He picked it back up, rumpling her hair, and said, “Better?”
“I’m good,” she said, though her eyelids were at sleepy half-mast. “Are you good?”
Raidou thought about it. “Other than feeling like I’ve been beaten with small sledgehammers? Yeah, I’m good.”
There was still paperwork to do, and mistakes he needed to go over so he’d never do them again, but his team was safe and home, and despite trying hard, none of them had actually lost a limb, or a head. In fact, Team Six’s first mission had been a success.
And at least an A-rank, thank you, Intel.
“Y’mean a really big sledgehammer,” Katsuko said drowsily, settling back. “In the shape of a demon queen. Spraying acid onto your face. Don’t do dumb shit like that again, okay?”
“In my defence, you had just stabbed her in the eyes,” Raidou said.
“You think that would’ve made it easier to dodge,” she said. “What with her reduced depth perception and all.”
“I can make you sleep on the floor,” he said.
“I was worried,” she said, derailing their usual back-and-forth into unexpectedly sincere terrain.
Raidou paused. “It’s ANBU, Katsuko,” he said quietly.
Her shoulders hunched. “Don’t have to tell me that,” she said, grouchy. “That’s why I stabbed more eyes instead of freaking out.”
But then she’d fallen.
Carefully, he dropped his hand to her shoulder, letting his fingers curl over the sharp edge of her collarbone, thumb resting on the curve that sloped down from her neck. “I didn’t thank you for that, did I?” he said. “We couldn’t have won that fight without you.”
She blinked once. He couldn’t tell whether that was genuine surprise, or haven’t we already established that I’m awesome?
“Point is, it’s my job to worry,” Raidou said. “It’s your job to kick ass and take names, which you do better than most. So let me do mine, and you do yours, and I’ll promise not to take any more acid in the face, okay?”
That felt just enough like tempting fate that he slipped his free hand over the edge of the bed and silently tapped the wood frame twice.
Katsuko wasn’t fooled; she reached across and knocked twice on his skull. “Sure, taichou,” she said gently, like he needed to be coddled.
He’d probably deserved that.
“You’re missing the movie,” he said.
She laughed softly and returned to the television, settling back in against him like he was her favorite armchair. He snagged a pillow, pulling it under his head, and got comfortable—or at least as comfortable as overtaxed muscles would allow. He meant to watch the movie and stay awake until Katsuko was asleep, so he could clear the dishes and avoid a food-based disaster. But he found himself drifting.
The last thing he felt was Katsuko’s hand absently petting his knee, then he slipped under.