The elevator was running slow again. Ryouma punched the “down” button for the third time and briefly considered trekking to the opposite end of the hall and down six flights of stairs to the hospital lobby. Not that he was in any particular hurry, but waiting was a pain, and he probably could use the exercise...
Of course, he had now had several pages of various exercise routines folded in his back pocket, not one of which involved stairs, and all of which he was going to have to try this afternoon before he reported back to hospital for his consultation with the Akimichi nutritionist. This was probably his last chance to take it easy.
The elevator arrived at last. He waited for a nurse pushing a wheelchair-bound teenager to exit, then a red-eyed woman in civilian clothes and a tottering old man leaning on a walking stick, and slipped inside the empty cage just as the doors began to close.
Someone else, even quicker, nipped in after him.
“Ground floor?” he asked, already reaching for the control panel. Then he stopped, finger just resting on the button, and stared. And swallowed.
Well, that explained why he’d looked so familiar from a distance. Katsuko stared back, wide-eyed, at a man she’d given up for dead months ago. For a moment, the only sound in the elevator was her ragged breathing.
Her voice cracked. “Ryouma.”
He was thinner, harder and darker, with new shadows in his eyes and hollow cheeks--but he was here, and he was breathing, and he was alive. She didn’t even know she’d moved until she collided with him, wrapping her arms around his chest in a frantic hug.
She was solid enough--and hit hard enough--to rock him on his feet; Ryouma flattened his hand to steady himself against the wall of the elevator, even as his other arm rose instinctively to her shoulders. And stopped.
He’d never lied to her, but he hadn’t been honest, either. He’d used her, and it was small consolation if she’d used him, too; at least she’d been open about what she needed from him. Kakashi said he didn’t care, and maybe Katsuko didn’t, either, but Ryouma had had a long time to brood over guilt.
Maybe this was what it felt like to be Kakashi.
He lifted his hand at last, curling lightly over the sharp line of her shoulder. This close he could feel the strength of her chakra, even without opening up his to sense it; it was like standing blindfolded near a bonfire. He half-expected his skin to sizzle in the heat.
She’d been warm in bed, enthusiastic, fierce at first and then unexpectedly sweet. He tried not to think of that. Tried not to think of her voice lonely in the dark, the way it cracked and steadied as she told her story, either.
“Sorry,” he said, quietly. It wasn’t much of an apology, but it was all he had.
She choked out a laugh that turned into a sob halfway through, burying her face in his shirt to muffle the undignified noise. Her chakra reached out, seeking, and stirred a little at the disorganized mess she found in his coils. Wherever he’d been, it’d chewed him up and spat him out good.
“Shut up and let me hug you,” she muttered, grip tightening. “You’re alive. Do you have any idea--whatever, it doesn’t matter now. You’re back.”
If this went on any longer she’d be bursting into tears like the soft-skinned princesses in the novels Makoto refused to admit he read. Katsuko let out one last cough-sniffle and looked up at Ryouma, giving him a watery grin. “You jackass, you had me worried.”
“Had myself worried some too,” Ryouma admitted. His hand drifted almost without thought, skimming down her shoulder-blade, returning. “I’d’ve been back earlier, but you know how it goes. Get your face in the Bingo Book at last, and every bounty-hunter with a decent genjutsu to his name is tryin’ to knock you out and sell you off. I got back three days ago.”
“Holy shit,” Katsuko muttered. Her embrace tightened even more, as if she could hold him together with merely the strength of her arms, keep him from cracking along the stress-lines off six months’ imprisonment. “Are you all right?”
“Yeah,” Ryouma said, and then answered honestly: “No. Maybe.” He’d woke that morning alone in a sunny room, and lay without moving for nearly two hours before an annoyed messenger came to remind him that he was late for his appointment with the physical therapist. It was hard to remember, sometimes, that the empty-eyed idiot had been an act.
“What about you?” He looked down at her, belatedly catching the dark circles under her reddened eyes, the newly chiseled thinness to her features. It wasn’t just her chakra that was so hot, he realized. Her skin was warm enough he half-expected to see sweat. “Are you running a fever?”
Katsuko flinched, clearing her throat as she pulled away. One of her hands refused to cooperate, curling around his elbow with stubborn implacability. She gave it a tight-lipped look of annoyance and glanced back up at him. “It’s a long story. Definitely longer than an elevator ride. Wanna go talk somewhere else?”
He hesitated, briefly, before offering, “Coffee?”
She grinned. “You’re buying.”
They rode the elevator down to the ground floor and left the hospital with little fanfare, wandering down a street at random. It didn’t feel awkward, walking together in companionable silence. Every so often she would bump her shoulder against his, a friendly nudge that served no other purpose than to remind herself he was there.
Three blocks down they ducked into an out-of-the-way cafe with plush corner booths that offered a clear view of the street, quiet enough not to jar a twitchy shinobi’s nerves but crowded enough that no bored customers would try to eavesdrop. Ryouma ordered a light roast, dumping in enough milk and sugar to make her teeth hurt , and Katsuko got herself a decaf with enough cream to turn it murky white.
“Three months after you went MIA,” she started, fingers drumming restlessly on the rim of her mug. “I went on a mission. Standard retrieval of a compromised Intel agent in the field--should have gone like clockwork. I was partnered with two Akimichi. Twins.”
Honoka had been their heavy-hitter, using her inherited builk and deceptive agility to devastating effect in close quarters. She’d been the first to die, a kunai buried in her throat to the hilt. Katsuko closed her eyes. “Things went south, really hard and really fast.”
Ryouma knew how that went. He took a cautious sip of his coffee, didn’t burn his tongue, and took a longer drink. “Did either of them come back?”
Katsuko looked away. She didn’t seem to be seeing the poster advertising caramel-apple lattes on the nearest wall; her gaze was far more distant, dwelling on blood. “The sister didn’t. The brother lost his leg, but I managed to carry him back home.”
That was the trouble with pairing relatives on missions. Ryouma’d seen it more than once, during the war. Losing a teammate was bad enough, but to lose your own family on the battlefield, to come home without the one who’d always been there... He’d been glad, a time or two, that he’d had no one to lose.
“What about you?”
Katsuko’s lips quirked. “I was stupid. Too attached to them. The shinobi who’d killed the sister started taunting me, saying...well, it doesn’t matter now. I snapped in the middle of doing a jutsu and lost control. Blew up the shinobi, his friends, and the forest three miles around them. Woke up an hour later with my chakra trying to burn me alive from the inside out.”
Daichi had been struggling with both the loss of his leg and Honoka, but had managed to hold it together long enough to slap a hasty dampening seal on the worst of the mess and order her in a raspy voice to take them home, damn it. Dazed, confused, barely able to string together a coherent thought over the roil of energy in her system, she’d obeyed.
She shrugged. “Don’t remember running back to Konoha with an Akimichi slung over my back, but that’s what the report says happened. Next thing I know I’m in intensive care with the medic-nin telling me my coils are decaying and I’m one missed hand-seal away from lighting up like a New Year’s bonfire. And that’s what it’s been like ever since. I don’t feel the cold much, anymore.”
Ryouma took a deep breath, let it out again slowly, and very carefully did not damn to all hells the Cloud nin who’d ruined her chakra system and the Konoha medics who hadn’t fixed it. Swearing might make him feel better, sure, but it wouldn’t help her.
Nothing he could do would help her, damnit.
“Have they been able to stabilize your chakra? Or are you just staying off missions until you get it sorted?”
“I’m in chakra therapy.” She took a drink, licked her lips, and added, “They’ve managed to help me re-establish control, so I’m taking missions.” Her mouth twisted. “The exercises hurt like a bitch, though.”
“I can imagine.” He’d never done chakra therapy; even now, with his chakra weak and rebellious after six months of careful disorder and neglect, he was just back to the old exercises of meditation and molding, tree-walking like a genin again. His chakra bent slowly to his will, but it came.
But Katsuko’s had been like a forestfire even then, raging through her pathways, overwhelming his when she’d given him a transfusion that had filled his system without perceptively diminishing hers. And now, with her coils decaying from an overload they were never meant to handle, she was burning up. Slowly, sure, until she missed that hand-seal and the forestfire caught up with her...
He reached out without thinking, fingers brushing the backs of her knuckles where they curled around her coffee mug. “Tell me they’re figuring out how to reverse what that bitch did to you.”
After a moment, Katsuko sighed. “It’s permanent,” she said, giving him a wan smile. “The best we can hope for is a way to stop the decay and calm down my chakra. They said that if they had some of the notes or reports from the experiments they’d be able to make a counter-seal, but...”
Ryouma leaned in, dark eyes fixed on hers. “Did ANBU bring anything back when they raided the facility?”
“No. They set the whole thing ablaze and got us the hell out of there.” She frowned down at her mug. “Any records would be with Kaminari in whatever hole she’s hidden herself in now.”
Ryouma looked very much like he wanted to kill something. Katsuko patted him on the cheek, fondly. “Enough. What’s done is done. Here I am babbling, not even giving you a chance to tell about how you came back from the dead.” Her gaze turned sympathetic. “...You don’t have to talk about if you don’t want to.”
He took a deep breath, taut expression easing a fraction, and shrugged as casually as he could. "It's not much of a story. No swash-buckling or daring escapes... I told you, I got knocked out by some bounty-hunters up on the way to Snow Country. Spent a month in Lightning Country while they tried to figure out what to do with me, drugged out of my head on chakra-suppressors, and then they shipped me down to Suna. I played brain-damaged, and the cocktail they had me on was chancy enough they believed me. After the first month or so they mostly gave up on gettin' anything useful out of me, and started tryin' to sell me off again instead. ANBU came for me three weeks ago." A corner of his mouth jerked up. "That's my second rescue. I'm pulling ahead."
“Lightning?” Katsuko’s breath hissed out between her teeth as she grabbed his hand, glancing over him again for injuries. There was a new scar on the side of his neck, raised lines of tissue jagged as, well, lightning. “Did they--?” Torture you got stuck in her throat; she grimaced and met his gaze, noticing new lines around his mouth and eyes that she hadn’t seen before. He’d been captured by Kumo before, she remembered, recalling the strips of flayed skin on his chest and the ruins of a snarling dragon tattoo. For that to happen a second time--
“Not then,” he assured her quickly, expression telling her he knew exactly what she had wanted to ask. “After what happened with Shiki, and last year at Dainichi Nyorai--I've been a diplomatic problem for Cloud before, and they didn't buy me from the bounty hunters so I could be a bigger one. I'm more surprised they didn't just kill me quietly. But I've got enough of a reputation up there, I guess, that they thought I'd be more useful traded to Suna. Don't know what they got in exchange for me, but I hope it bit them in the ass."
Katsuko sighed and leaned back, releasing her death-grip on his hand. “Well,” she jibed, struggling to regain her equilibrium. “You definitely deserve some sort of award for getting through all that. I don’t know about a medal--so tacky, don’t you think? Maybe a trophy, something with a plaque on the base that says ‘Cloud’s Number One Pain in the Ass for a Year and Counting’.”
“I could do with a trophy,” Ryouma said automatically. “They tossed most of my stuff, while I was gone. Trophy sounds like a good way to start over. Can it have the little half-naked guy up top, holding a lightning bolt or something?”
Katsuko eyed him thoughtfully over the rim of her mug. “For you?” She set the mug down and announced decisively, “It's going to be a reconverted wrestling trophy with two guys in the most compromising position I can find. All plastic and fake gold paint. Because this trophy, see, this trophy also doubles as my congratulations for landing Hatake's very fine ass."
Ryouma choked on his coffee. Katsuko blinked. A trace of uncertainty pinched her brow, and she added hurriedly, “You’re still with Kakashi, right?”
“Um,” Ryouma said, when he could breathe again. “Yes. I mean-- Now, yes.”
He’d almost forgotten that she knew--that Kakashi had run into her, bare days after their return from Plains Country, and found her still wearing Ryouma’s shirt. Kakashi hadn’t said much about that discussion. Ryouma hadn’t asked for details. Hadn’t wanted them.
But he owed her more than coffee. An apology, an explanation--Sorry I cheated on my not-a-boyfriend with you, hope he didn’t take it out on you...
“We’d fought,” he said. “Just before I took that mission with you. That was why I left. Had my head up my ass, as usual, and-- And it wasn’t fair to you. I meant it all, everything I said, everything I did. But you were right not to take it anywhere afterwards. You deserve better than a guy who can’t get his head straight until he ends up in a locked room for six months with nothing to do but think.”
“Six months,” Katsuko said softly. She shook herself after a moment and leaned over the table, tapping him gently on the forehead with her knuckles. “Don’t beat yourself up about it. It was one night, and you made it wonderful. I don’t regret a thing. And...I’d hate to lose a friend.”
He grabbed her hand, holding it almost fiercely. "I'm not lost. I came back, see? An' if you'll keep me, I'd like to stick around."
Her smile this time was wide and bright, with no hint of sorrow lurking at the corners. “Yeah, you did. You did come back. Thank you for that. And you’re definitely sticking around, if I have anything to say about it.” After a moment she cleared her throat and looked away, an awkward expression on her face. “I hope you know that I’m actually going to have that trophy made. I’ll show up at wherever place you’re staying and just leave it in a place of honor on the kitchen table.”
Ryouma chuckled. "I'm at Kakashi's for now, until I get a permanent place--or he finally gets fed up and kicks me out again. Let me know when you drop it off. I want to be around when he sees it."
Katsuko raised an eyebrow. “At Hatake’s? Really?” She smirked. “Nice job. Though I’m not sure how happy he’d be to see me again. Last time we talked he looked like he wanted to Chidori my face off. There was growling, too.”
“Oh, hell,” Ryouma said involuntarily. “I’m sorry. He was pissed at me, he had a right to be, but--he didn’t actually pull a chidori, did he?”
Katsuko held up both hands, opening and closing them as if she were about to sprout claws. “He was doing that hand thing he does before he managed to calm down.”
Ryouma couldn’t actually see Kakashi making claw-hands--maybe she meant his trick of clenching his fists til the knuckles bled white, as if he were restraining himself on the edge of violence. He could imagine that readily enough. Imagine Kakashi, furious, anxious, betrayed; and Katsuko, with one night’s pleasant memories turning abruptly to ash...
He rubbed a hand over his face. “I’m apologizing six months too late to both of you. Again. For what it’s worth, Kakashi really was just pissed at me, and we’ve mostly gotten over that. Still. I probably owe you ten minutes as a punching bag, don’t I? Will that be enough?”
Katsuko sat for a moment in studied contemplation, taking a sip of decaf as she looked at Ryouma. After a moment, she sighed and set her mug down. “Lean over,” she ordered him, beckoning imperiously.
He blinked at her, confused, and did so. In a lightning-fast motion Katsuko stood, channeled a bit of chakra into her open palm, slapped him over the head, and sat back down. Her lips twitched as he jerked back in surprise and pain, his eyes round as dinner plates.
“You’re being stupid again,” she told him calmly. “Stop that. Don’t insult me by suggesting that a second time. If I wanted to hurt you I would have gone to the hospital after I talked to Hatake and beaten you with an IV stand. ”
He stared at her for a moment, still startled, and then started to smile. "You'd have wasted your time. I got patched up at the hospital and went home again, after they reamed me out for soldier pill misuse." His smile slipped a bit. "I would've been sleeping it off right next door, about the time you and Kakashi met up. I meant to set things straight when I woke up and cleared my head again, but... But I was a coward. And then I had a mission. So." He lifted his head and met her gaze. He wasn’t smiling at all now, a sober look in his eyes. "I won't be stupid again." After a moment's thought he added, "Not that kind of stupid, at least."
“Guess that’s the best I can hope for,” she huffed, amused despite herself. “Don’t let me catch you doing that again.”
“No ma’am,” Ryouma said meekly. And he couldn’t help himself: the grin slipped out again, sideways and sly. “I’m good at figuring out new kinds of stupid to be...”
She kicked him under the table. He yelped, and spilled his coffee. She snickered and promptly buried her nose in her own mug, doing her best to look round-eyed and innocent. If his shin and scalp weren’t still aching she would have been adorable.
“I’ll keep it to a minimum,” he promised, reaching for napkins to mop up the spill.
“Good,” she said, and grinned. “Keep it like that. No explosions or anything.”
“I thought you liked explosions!” he protested.
Katsuko shook a finger in his face. “That’s exactly why. Explosions are my thing. You go find a different thing, like knitting or something.”
Knitting might actually be a good alternative to finger exercises meant to recover his hand-seal dexterity. He filed the thought away, crumpled the soiled napkins on the edge of the table, and picked up his mug again. “Katsuko. Thanks.”
She didn’t have to ask What for. Just knocked the edge of her mug gently against his, in their own kind of salute, and drank.
He sank back again in his chair, and began to relax at last.