The door to the briefing room creaked open and Katsuko slipped in, mask hung at her belt and a sheepish look on her face. She seated herself at the table, ignoring the sidelong glance the briefer shot her. “Sorry, Sako-chan,” she muttered to the woman. “Got held up.”
It was technically true, if one defined ‘held up’ as ‘fell asleep and woke up five minutes late to the meeting’. Katsuko folded her arms over her chest, slouching down in her chair as she gave her new teammates a lazy once-over. Two men, one short and dark-haired and the other long and lanky; the taller one had a senbon clenched between his teeth like the world’s deadliest toothpick. He was probably their Eros agent for this mission; he had that air about him, one of casual insouciance that could switch to full-on seduction and back in the blink of an eye.
He was also a lot hotter than the shorter guy, but she didn’t think anybody would appreciate that opinion if she voiced it out loud.
Katsuko glanced at the photo on the table and gave a low whistle. “Tsuda Gyosu? Man, the dude’s gotta be loaded if he could afford him.”
The briefer sighed. “Ueno.”
Katsuko grinned. “Sorry, Sako-chan. I’ll be quiet.”
Sako gave her a dry look before tossing another photo on the table. “This is Lord Kiyama, your assassination target, and these,” she held up a set of blueprints, “are the plans to his stronghold. Ueno, your task is to slip past Tsuda while he’s distracted by Shiranui and kill Kiyama in the central bedchamber.”
The Eros agent--Shiranui--glanced at Katsuko, gaze appraising but open. “You know my target? What’s he like?”
Katsuko scratched her head, thinking. “Ran into him four months ago in Wind Country. Really polite, for a badass motherfucker. Gave me a couple new scars, too. Bastard’s got a shit-ton of chakra-fied throwing daggers on him.”
“He likes a ranged fight?” Genma asked. “That’s interesting. Not that I’m planning to fight him.” He winked at Katsuko and was deeply pleased when she blinked, then waggled her eyebrows right back at him. It always made for a better mission when your backup wasn’t too uptight.
She was less hard-edged than Genma had expected from Hajime’s description, with shaggy, chin-length dark hair framing brightly-alive brown eyes in a pale, almost elfin face. She looked all lean muscle and sharp reflexes, with her ANBU uniform regulation crisp but not quite new enough to mark her as a rookie. (But then if you judged an agent’s greenness by the state of his black-and-whites, Genma looked like a raw recruit, with every stitch on him only a few months old.)
She had a pair of swords — short and long — sheathed at her hip in plain black, but their hilts made them look more than standard-issue. Kenjutsu user, Hajime had said, so they were probably family heirlooms or battlefield prizes, or both.
“I take it you never got up close and personal with him, seeing as he’s still alive for me to seduce?” he asked.
She shrugged sheepishly, as if it were an embarrassment to her that she’d let Tsuda live. "No. Bastard ran away after I punched him in the face with my kodachi. Sorry about that."
“You punched him in the face with a kodachi and it didn’t kill him?” Hajime asked, incredulous.
Katsuko made a motion in the air as if she were grabbing a short sword.
“With the hilt,” Genma said, translating her pantomime.
Their briefer cleared her throat and tapped a folder on the edge of the desk.
“Right, so what’s the plan? Am I going in civvies?” Genma asked. “If he’s a jounin he’ll detect a henge.”
“No henge,” Hajime agreed.
“Civvies,” their briefer said.
“What’s our cover for getting onto the estate?”
“You’re delivering some important documents from the Grain Traders Council in Grass Country. You both look like you could be from Grass, so that’s what we’re going with, because you’re clearly not from Wind.” She looked directly at Genma. “You’ll need to be sure to catch Tsuda’s eye while you’re there.”
“Oh don’t worry about that part,” Genma said. He stretched back in his chair and flexed his spine. “He’ll notice me.”
Katsuko gave a low whistle, admiring the stretch of sleek muscle. “Man, this mission’s gonna be awesome.”
Genma chuckled. "You think so? I'm pretty sure you're gonna be killing a fat old guy while I’m busy getting it on with your friend the knife-thrower here."
Katsuko flapped her hand at him, dismissively. “Details, details. That’s what the imagination’s for, Shiranui.”
“It’s Genma,” he said, the corners of his eyes creasing in an easy smile. As he settled down in his chair again, the scarred backs of his hands drew Katsuko’s attention. His fingers were long and thin, crooked in places where they’d healed badly. The left was markedly worse than the right, pink new skin growing in over the silver of old scars.
Scarred hands, senbon toothpick, Eros division...
The pieces clicked together. Katsuko had never been a fan of the rumor mill in ANBU, but it was hard not to learn a few unwanted things about her colleagues when people insisted on running their mouths in places she couldn’t get away from--like the elevator, or the line to the women’s bathrooms. Shiranui Genma was a favorite topic of discussion, being a veteran, exceedingly attractive, and in possession of a varied and checkered past. What had caught Katsuko’s attention, though, were the whispers of three weeks in Iwa and, even quieter, torture.
“Sure thing, Genma.” She grinned at him, expression showing nothing of what she knew, and glanced over at their briefer. “I’m guessing Hajime an’ me’ll slip in after ‘im?”
“Hajime will be acting as Shiranui’s business partner. Ueno, your chakra problem means a civilian cover won’t hold. You’ll have to go in when it’s dark. Use the servant’s entrance closest to the bedroom. Make sure there aren’t any witnesses.”
“Works for me,” Katsuko shrugged. “We do the mission, make a distraction, and get the hell outta town?”
“That’s the basic plan, yes.”
“Awesome.” She clapped her hands together and grinned. “I’ll be in charge of the distraction.”
“What?” Genma asked, arching one eyebrow at Katsuko. “I thought I was the distraction on this mission, and you were killing Lord Fancypants while I kept his philandering bodyguard occupied.” He glanced at Hajime for confirmation and got a slight nod.
Katsuko shrugged, tossing an almost childishly innocent expression at him that spoke of years of practice. “I can be the backup for your backup. I mean, at some point an explosion tag will have to go off, right?”
The briefer cleared her throat. “Actually, Ueno, no.”
Katsuko looked crestfallen.
“The whole point of this exercise is for Lord Kiyama—” She glanced at Genma, emphasizing the name. “—to be found dead in his bedchamber, with his very expensive Suna bodyguard still alive. So an explosion—” Her head swiveled back towards Katsuko. “—would not actually serve your purposes.”
Genma caught Katsuko’s eye and mouthed, “Lord Fancypants,” at her.
The other agent stifled a chortle behind a cough when the briefer glared at her, pasting her innocent face back in place.
Hajime sipped his coffee, as calm as a sunny meadow, just like an eros handler should be, but his eyes crinkled at the corners with amusement.
His team for the mission, Genma decided, was going to be good.
As for his target... Genma studied the photo of Tsuda Gyousu: thirty-seven years old, a little taller than Genma, dark-eyed, and dark-skinned with that exotic look of the desert tribes of Wind Country. A bingo-book ninja from Sunagakure who liked to take off his wedding ring and play with boys when he was out of town.
It had taken months of work, months of rehabilitation and effort to get here. He flexed his hands in front of him pushing one against the other, stretching at tight tendons, feeling scars pull and nerves tingle.
It had taken months of work, and a lot of heartache. And some serious soul-searching, given how things were with Raidou now. How different everything was. But he was glad. He was finally remembering why he liked eros missions, and this was promising to be a fun one.
Sako was giving her the evil eye. Katsuko sighed and held her hands up, palms facing outwards and fingers splayed in the classic ‘look, no weapons’ gesture. “Alright, alright. I’ll be good.”
“I’ll hold you to that, Ueno.” Sako tossed a sealed scroll tube at Hajime, who caught it without looking up from his coffee. “Asano’s got the blueprints for the castle and the map for the surrounding area. He can fill you in on the details while you run.” She closed her folder with a decisive snap and stood. “You leave in five.”
Genma tipped his head back to look at her, voice tinged with amusement. "Do we have a target arrival time? I'd rather not show up all sweaty and worn out, unless that's Tsuda's kink.”
“Don’t push yourselves. It’s a two day journey; as long as you don’t run into any delays, you should make it with plenty of time to spare. Now shoo.” The woman flapped her hand at them. Katsuko grinned and stood, rolling her shoulders.
“You heard the lady,” Hajime drawled. “Let’s move.”
The three of them left Konoha and headed west, keeping a steady pace. The outskirts of Fire Country changed to the bustling towns of River Country, and then the border between River and Wind. On the second day they came to a stop on a hill overlooking a broad, flat plain. Kiyama Castle loomed high in the distance, the focal point of a walled and fortified town.
“So how are we gonna do this?” Katsuko sank down on her haunches, propping her elbows up on her knees. She craned her neck to look at her partners, quashing the impatience she felt as Hajime frowned down at the scroll. “Do you two go in first?”
Hajime answered. “We do. They’re expecting this delivery but they don’t know what the Grass Country Grain Council representatives looks like. The actual merchants, it turns out, had an unfortunate accident on the road already.” He flashed a slightly sinister grin. “So we go in with their traveling papers. We deliver the documents about next year’s grain prices, and then Lord Kiyama invites us to relax and offers us his hospitality and rooms.”
Genma nodded. “And then Hajime get a sick headache and retires to his chamber, and I go wandering and catch Tsuda’s eye.” He rolled his shoulders and cracked his spine, slipping into a travel-worn civilian’s posture, easy and unguarded, with all his energy coiling in his pelvis. A sexy, desirable, eminently fuckable young man from Grass who just might like to give a Wind-country ninja a try.
“I re-emerge for supper with his Lordship," said Hajime. "Gen joins us of course, and flirts with Tsuda, who will be at the table as well. And then I retire early. Gen makes a date with Tsuda for after Lord Kiyama’s bedtime, and I find you and give you the signal. There’s a drainpipe here...” He traced a finger along a blue line at the back of the castle grounds. “It has an outlet under an overhang where you should be able to hide until it’s time.”
“And then I fuck Tsuda’s brains out,” Genma continued. “You dye Lord Fancypants’ bedsheets red, Hajime gives me the high sign when you’re out and away, and we book it before Tsuda figures out his client is dead.”
“But first we set up a checkpoint,” Hajime said, frowning at his map again. “Somewhere we can stash our gear and call a rendezvous in case we get split up.”
“Drainpipes, yay,” Katsuko observed, sounding less than completely thrilled. Her eyes betrayed an eagerness that her voice didn’t though.
Genma could feel her watching him, feel her taking in the way he moved, the way his clothes sat on his body.
“You’re a rookie, right?” Genma asked. He shoved his mask off and flashed her a grin. “You ever run a mission with an eros detail before?”
“This is my first one,” Katsuko said. She pushed her mask aside and smiled back, unashamedly. “Never seen someone slip into a cover persona that fast.” It wasn’t an empty compliment; Genma had shifted his weight, changed his posture, done something with his expression, and all of the sudden it was like looking at a stranger who just happened to be wearing the same clothes.
He grinned. "I had a good teacher. And I've done this one a fair amount, so it comes easy." He rolled his shoulders, gloved fingers flexing. "Hajime's the one you want to take your cues from, once I'm in the middle of things."
“Thank you, Shiranui,” Hajime said, dryly. “Everyone, we’re moving out. There’s a cave a quarter-mile east where Gen and I’ll change, then head in the main gate. Ueno, after we’re done you circle around and enter the town through the opposite gate.”
“Sure thing, Boss.” Katsuko rose to her feet, arching into a full-body stretch as she tugged her mask on again. Hajime tucked the scroll away and took off running, followed by Genma with Katsuko bringing up the rear.
The cave they found was dry, if a little dark, and was blocked from view by an outcropping of craggy rocks near the entrance. Genma started stripping down as soon as Hajime gave the all clear, revealing sleek muscle and thighs to die for. Katsuko crossed her arms and leaned against the cave wall, dividing her attention between keeping watch and the small show Genma was making out of changing into civilian clothes.
He glanced at her. “When we meet up here after the mission’s over, don’t freak out if I’m a little...”
“That’s what Eros handlers are for,” Hajime interrupted smoothly, and started stripping down himself.
Katsuko met Genma’s eyes and nodded. “No problem,” she said, cheerily. “It’ll be fine.”
The guards at the town’s east gate were a mixture of highly trained civilians and low-tier shinobi. Both were easy enough to slip past with a simple concealment jutsu. The mild headache that came out of forcing her oversized chakra into shape was easy enough to ignore, and didn’t even slow Katsuko down as she slid through the shadows.
The castle was a looming monstrosity of fancy architecture and paranoia, with armored sentries posted at every feasible entrance. Katsuko wiggled in through the kitchen courtyard, hiding among the crates of fancy biscuits until the cook was called away on an emergency. The drainpipe Hajime had pointed out to her was situated near the kitchen’s swinging double doors; Katsuko clambered up it with practiced ease and swung herself into the outlet, unbuckling her swords and preparing for a long wait.
Getting in to see Lord Kiyama turned out to be even easier than Genma had expected. It looked like Intel had done a masterful job this time, in terms of setting them up with just the right covers: Kiyama wanted those grain prices — had paid for those grain prices — which wouldn’t be made public for at least another week. Hajime and Genma, as the Grass Country Grain Council’s special envoys, were ushered in as honoured guests.
It didn’t take Genma long to spot Tsuda Gyosu, either. The top-ranked guard from Suna was even better looking in person than he had been in the photographs, with a glow to his copper-colored skin that belied the touch of grey at his temples and the beginnings of crows feet at the corners of his eyes. Genma made sure Tsuda spotted him as well, catching the man’s eye with a slight smile and a quick head-nod. He could feel Tsuda’s eyes on him, appraising the cut of his clothes and the body they hid. Dismissing Genma as “not a threat” and at the same time classifying him as worth another look.
Line cast, hook baited.
Genma was fairly certain Tsuda would take the bait.
When Hajime announced that he was suffering from a slight headache from the dust of their travels, Lord Kiyama was nothing but sympathy. They would be shown to their chambers at once, and the lord’s personal physician would be summoned. It took no small amount of persuasion to convince his lordship that all Hajime really needed was a bit of a rest and perhaps some roasted barley tea to sort him out.
Genma accompanied Hajime and Kiyama’s steward Michiba-san to the lavish suite of rooms that had been provided to them. Then he had to convince Michiba all over again that Hajime was really quite fine, just a little travel-worn and dehydrated, and needed only a nap and a bath before dinner.
When they were finally alone, they communicated mostly by sign, lest they be overheard.
Hajime reclined on his bed, sipping cold tea. He raised one eyebrow.
He noticed me, Genma signed.
I know that, returned Hajime impatiently. Did he like what he saw?
Definitely. Genma smirked. You were right about the dark-blue shirt.
I’m always right, Hajime signed back with a self-satisfied grin. It’s my job.
Genma rolled his eyes, but returned the grin. “If you don’t need me here,” he said aloud, “I think I may go have a look at Kiyama-sama’s gardens.”
“Go ahead. If you’d wake me a half-hour before dinner, I’d be most appreciative,” replied Hajime. He flicked signs to Genma as he spoke. I’ll check out the residence and make sure the plans we got were accurate.
Genma nodded. He checked himself in the mirror, letting his hair fall where it may, loose and shiny, and tucking his shirt in a little more closely. He looked like a Grass Country denizen with money and style, especially with the blackened-silver hoop earring in one ear. It dangled a traditional Grass Country good luck charm for travelers that tinkled like a tiny bell every time he shook his head.
He’d have to remember to take it off when they got to the “getting the hell out of there” portion of the mission.
“Rest well,” he said. Don’t get caught.
Hajime flicked his fingers dismissively at Genma. You either.
The castle’s garden was a marvel of coolness and moisture, a minor miracle in the arid desert heat where Lord Kiyama made his home. Genma wandered the paths, admiring the perfectly raked stones and well-tended flowers. He made sure to pass by the door to Lord Kiyama’s offices where Tsuda lurked just inside, and was rewarded a half hour later, when the bodyguard materialized behind him.
Genma jumped, like any startled civilian would.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to frighten you,” Tsuda said, His voice was honey-deep and just a little raspy. “It’s easy to forget how quietly I tend to move.”
Genma chuckled and turned to face Tsuda. “I’ve been around ninja before but never one of your caliber, Tsuda-san. I had no idea you were there.” He caught Tsuda’s eyes again, looking up from under slightly lowered lids, tilting his head at a shallow angle. “Are you taking a break from your guarding?”
“Kiyama-dono is still well guarded,” Tsuda said. He glanced back towards the open door. “I thought I should make sure our guests were finding everything they needed.”
“We are,” Genma assured him. Tsuda was standing just a little too close for this to be an entirely casual conversation. “Hajime’s resting before dinner, and I’m enjoying your remarkable gardens. These camellias are impressive.”
“Are they your favorite flowers?” Tsuda asked.
Genma shook his head. “Actually,” he said, turning to hold Tsuda’s gaze, “chrysanthemums are my favorite.”
Tsuda’s eyebrows flickered, his pupils dilated a few fractions, and a smile tugged the corners of his thin lips up.
When Tsuda’s tongue tip darted out, Genma had to suppress a grin of satisfaction.
“Mine, too,” Tsuda said. “Would you like to see my personal garden, perhaps later this evening when Kiyama-dono and your traveling companion have retired?”
“I’d like that very much, Tsuda-san,” Genma said.
“Meet me here at ten,” Tsuda said. “Gen-san.” One broad hand came up to caress Genma’s shoulder briefly.
“I’ll look forward to it,” Genma told him. He stepped away. “I should go and see how Hajime is doing now.”
Tsuda nodded, and vanished, leaving a little sparkling swirl of sand in the air as he translocated away.
Show off, Genma thought, and smiled at his reflection in the pond.
There were spiders in the drainpipe.
Correction: there were really fucking big spiders in the drainpipe.
Katsuko quashed one such enterprising specimen underneath her heel and sighed, folding her hands behind her head. There was barely enough space to sit up in the narrow alcove, but some miracle of ventilation meant that it was at least five degrees cooler than outside. She’d take what she could get.
A thick curtain of hardy desert vines covered the alcove, shielding her from sight and blocking her view of the goings-on of the castle. She’d been here for hours, it felt like; the kitchen smelled like spices and cooking meat, so dinner had to have been served by now. A subtle flare of chakra down in the courtyard made her tense for several long seconds before she recognized Hajime’s signature.
“Took him long enough,” she muttered, and pushed aside a few vines to peer through. Hajime was leaning against the low-built wall of the courtyard, hidden by several stacks of crates and barrels. He caught her eye and smiled, hands flickering in scout-sign. You alright?
Spiders, she signed back. Big F-U-C-K-I-N-G spiders.
His shoulders shook with quiet laughter. Personal problem. Mission going as planned. Will get you when it’s time for final phase.
Katsuko waved an affirmative and lay back as Hajime vanished, presumably to whatever part of the castle they were housing his and Genma’s fussy Grass Country merchant personas in. Her stomach rumbled loudly, reminding her that she hadn’t eaten since breakfast; with a sigh, she dug into her belt pouch and pulled out a ration bar, tearing the wrapping open with reluctance. No matter how much money the village poured into its Black Ops unit, they never seemed to be able to improve the taste of the little rectangular blocks of nutrients.
A couple of hours passed like that, alone in the alcove. Katsuko stretched as much as she was able to, keeping the blood flowing, and dozed fitfully. Her dreams were full of fire and smoke, the screams of the dying and the silence of the dead. When Hajime appeared in the courtyard again, chakra flaring in the signal for all clear, she nearly fumbled her swords in her eagerness to get outside.
Night had fallen; the shadows draped thick around them, effective as a cloaking jutsu. Hajime’s voice was a soft whisper in the dark. “Genma’s meeting Tsuda in the gardens in five. Come with me.”
Hajime showed her a little side door in the empty kitchens that lead to a staircase, then vanished in a puff of smoke. Katsuko blinked before realizing that he’d sent a clone and rolled her eyes. “Show-off.”
She buckled her swords at her waist and began the long climb up. At the top of the stairs a bright orange dot flared: a footman on a smoke break, back turned towards her. Katsuko ghosted up behind him, fingernails brushing the hinges of his jaw, and snapped his neck in one brutal twist. The man’s cigarette fell to the floor and sputtered; she ground it out with the heel of her boot and eased his body out of the way.
Genma stood alone in the darkened garden for five or six minutes, listening to the sounds of late-summer cicadas and the much-too-warm breeze stirring waxy-leaved desert foliage. He had half a breath’s warning — the sensation of chakra at the back of his neck — and then Tsuda was there with steel in one hand, cold against Genma’s throat, and a grip on Genma’s right arm, wrenching it up behind his back.
It took every bit of training Genma had in him not to defend himself.
“Who are you, really?” Tsuda whispered in Genma’s ear.
“Ge- Gen. Akane Gen. I’m with the Grass Country Grain—”
“You’re with Grass Country, alright,” Tsuda interrupted. “But not the Grain Traders. What are you? A chuunin?” He sounded sharp but not completely threatening. The kunai, Genma noticed, was pressed flat against his throat with no chance the blade would make an accidental cut.
There was one way out of this, maybe, that kept the mission intact, if Tsuda believed him. “Y— yes. How did you know?” Genma asked. He made his voice breathy and young-sounding. A chuunin far out of his depth.
“I thought so,” Tsuda said. He relaxed his grip on Genma’s arm just a little. The knife stayed where it was. “You’re too fit to be a grain merchant. Even a vain one who works out. And your hands have too many scars...”
Genma swallowed, feeling his Adam’s apple bob against the blade, projecting as much of his nervousness as he dared. He tried not to think too deeply about what Tsuda must have assumed from looking at his hands.
“What’s your mission, Gen?” Tsuda’s voice was low and oily, just shy of menacing.
“To escort Hajime-san.” Genma blew out a nervous breath. “I’m.. I just... I’m just supposed to protect him on the road, and he didn’t want to be seen with a ninja in uniform. He thought it might make him a target.”
Tsuda chuckled. The knife fell away. “Well, I guess we’ve all been there, haven’t we? Anxious clients making our jobs harder. You’re new at this, aren’t you?”
Genma nodded. “I got promoted in the spring.”
“Don’t worry, you’ll learn. Next time the thing you need to do is make sure your counterpart — that would be me, in this case — knows who you are and why you’re there. Then there won’t be any mixups like this.” Tsuda’s hold shifted from restraint to embrace. Genma heard the subtle clink as the other ninja dropped his kunai back into its holster.
“I- I will. Thank you. I’ll remember this.” Genma turned towards the other man, looking up from under lowered lids. Tsuda was smiling like a cat who’d licked the cream. “So... Do you still want to show me your garden, Tsuda-san?”
Tsuda’s answer was to claim Genma’s mouth in a hard-edged kiss and slide a hand down the curve of Genma’s ass. “I do,” he said. “I definitely do.”
The moon gleamed dull yellow in a dark sky. Lord Kiyama’s bedchamber lay on the opposite end of the castle gardens; at this time of night, the only people about were servants or those who had no business being there in the first place. Katsuko darted through the shadows, breathing slow and even, evading the standard tripwires and traps that came as part and parcel of expensive castle security. The gardens themselves, full of large, flowering trees and bushes not usually found in desert country, provided excellent cover.
Right now, Genma would be busy charming Tsuda out of his pants and Hajime would be keeping close watch nearby, alert for any sign of trouble. Pausing suddenly behind a twisted desert evergreen, Katsuko glanced around. One hand went absently to her kunai holster, thumbing the wrapped hilt a second before a low, throaty moan shivered through the garden. Katsuko froze. The man moaned again, louder this time; his voice was familiar and very, very close.
She dropped down into a crouch, scooting behind the trunk of the evergreen. Parting two low-hanging branches, Katsuko peered through the bristly needles...and blinked.
In the scant light provided by the moon, two men were twined together. Genma’s head was tipped back against Tsuda’s shoulder, his throat a long line of sweat-sheened skin marred by the bobbing of his Adam’s apple. Tsuda himself was naked to the waist, pants unzipped and wiry arms wrapped around Genma’s shorter frame. Genma’s pants tangled around his thighs, hips moving in an undulating rhythm that left nothing to the imagination. Tsuda was sucking red marks onto Genma’s neck, wholly focused on the stretch of bare skin before him. Katsuko doubted anything short of a flare of killing intent would gain the man’s attention now. Quietly, she eased back, circling around the two as she continued on her way to Kiyama’s bedchamber.
The guards posted on either side of Kiyama’s door were easily dispatched, throats slit and bodies hidden in a manner of minutes. There were traps layered around the door hinges three inches deep, but the window was cracked open to let in the night breeze. Faint snoring drifted from the recesses of the chamber. Katsuko slipped over the sill and crossed the floor on feather-light feet, coming to a stop by the canopied bed.
Lord Kiyama Yuinon was a large, florid man with a dark grey beard and curling mustache. His hooked beak of a nose whistled as he sighed and turned over in his sleep, silken night-shirt rustling. Katsuko drew her kodachi and yanked the man over onto his back, clapping a hand over his mouth as his eyes flew open. He met her gaze for one terrified instant before she dragged her blade across his throat, blood spilling across her hands.
There was a reason Genma liked working with Hajime as his handler. Besides being a damn good ninja and a decent human being, and having an understanding of what an eros agent needed, he also understood timing. The ever-so-refreshing cool breeze that wafted a scent of honeysuckle into the garden was Hajime’s first signal: Katsuko was finished with her part of the mission. That meant Genma had maybe five minutes to wrap things up here before Hajime came looking for his erstwhile traveling companion.
Tsuda was still enthusiastically engaged in his dalliance with “Gen the Kusa chuunin”. He had remarkable staying power for a man nearing forty, and despite his arrogance, he was a considerate lover. Under other circumstances Genma would have been enjoying every minute. If it weren’t a mission. If Tsuda wasn’t an enemy who could snap Genma’s spine with ease from his current position. If Raidou wasn’t waiting in Konoha for Genma to come home...
And even with those caveats, Genma wasn’t having to fake his own arousal. He was hard in Tsuda’s calloused hand, with his pelvis rocking eagerly back to meet Tsuda’s thrusts. Tsuda grunted faintly with every breath, pushing urgency into the rhythm. He nipped at Genma’s earlobe and neck.
It wouldn’t take much. A little chakra pulse and there’d be no worry about finishing this before Hajime showed up. With Genma’s cover “blown” — such as it was — there was no need to pretend his chakra was a civilian’s. He just had to hope Tsuda had never slept with anyone trained in the erotic arts.
“More,” Genma begged.
Tsuda responded immediately: speeding his fist, tightening his arm around Genma’s chest. Thrusting deeper. “I’m gonna make you come so hard,” he whispered against Genma’s neck.
Genma moaned an inarticulate reply. It was true. Genma was going to make it true — more than true. He pushed chakra through his pelvic coils, opening tiny gates at the junctures in his groin. The energy shot through him like a flash flood, wild and raging, dragging him into a thundering orgasm.
Dragging Tsuda right along with him.
There was a sharp gasp from the man at his back, a whole body clench, and then the rapid, rhythmic pulses of Tsuda getting everything he’d wanted and more.
For thirty seconds Tsuda kept going, gasping and groaning like a man in pain. Exquisite, unbearable torture. Genma focused on his heart thudding against his ribs, the hot breath rasping in his throat. The sweat slicking his skin. It was over, Tsuda just didn’t know it yet.
Just as the Suna ninja finally slowed, catching his breath with a satisfied chuckle, Hajime’s whisper came shattering the still garden night. “Gen? Are you out here? Where did you go?”
Genma froze, acting as panicked as any chuunin caught shirking his duty. As any man caught with a stranger’s cock in his ass.
Tsuda came to his rescue at once, pulling back and steadying Genma. “Thanks,” he whispered. “That was fun. Sounds like duty calls.” He patted Genma’s back and helped Genma get his clothes back in order. “If you’re in town again tomorrow night, let’s do this again,” he said.
Genma turned to look at Tsuda one last time as he fastened his pants and tucked in his shirt. The fabric clung stickily to his skin.
“Gen?” Hajime called again, voice drawing nearer.
“You’d better go,” Tsuda said. He grinned and winked, and translocated away, leaving “Gen” to deal with his “employer” on his own.
“I’m coming, Hajime-san. I just stepped out for some fresh air,” Genma said, half-voiced.
“Well, come to bed,” Hajime said, sounding displeased. “I don’t want you waking me when you come in.”
Genma caught up with his handler at the edge of the garden. Hajime looked at him and nodded. Genma nodded back. Mission success — so far.
Kiyama’s blood was still drying on her hands when Katsuko slipped over the castle walls, taking the back streets and alleys of the town on her way to the east gate. The guards there were as easy to slip past as the last time; she breathed a sigh of relief, grateful that she didn’t have to slit any more throats tonight. She circled the long way round and climbed the rocks to the little cave they’d chosen as their rendezvous point, slipping her mask off as she ducked into the entrance.
Their mission packs were stowed behind a large pile of rocks further in, disguised with a light concealment jutsu and a judicious application of dirt; Katsuko dug up a couple of sanitary wipes from hers and set about trying to clean the crusted blood from her hands. She managed to get most of it off, but her nails were a loss: little half-moons of dark crimson remained trapped under the cuticles. Propping her swords against the wall, Katsuko dropped into a loose tailor’s seat to wait for the rest of her team.
Fifteen minutes later, quiet footsteps outside and the faint flare of Hajime’s chakra made her look up from her studied contemplation of the floor. Genma ducked in first, expression unreadable, and went straight for his backpack and armor. Hajime came in after, calm and unruffled. “No complications?” he asked Katsuko.
She nodded. “Got in, got out. Came here.”
Genma looked at her, then Hajime, then moved even further into the shadows to strip off. His hair was sweaty and lank, and he smelled like sex. Digging his canteen out from his pack, he slopped water on a fistful of sanitary wipes and started cleaning himself off, brisk and efficient. Feeling Katsuko’s gaze on him, he looked up and met her eyes with a flat stare.
Katsuko nodded at him and looked away, leaning back against the cave wall. “Clean getaway?” she asked Hajime.
“No complications.” Hajime wasn’t looking at her, instead watching Genma with an assessing gaze. When the Eros agent had finished cleaning himself off and started pulling his armor on, Hajime stepped in and laid a hand on his shoulder, speaking to him in a low voice. Whatever he said made Genma’s posture relax, just a bit.
Katsuko waited until Hajime had moved off to start changing and Genma had gotten all of his armor on before getting to her feet, taking her swords with her as she moved to Genma’s side. As he looked at her, puzzled, she dug into her belt-pouch for her stash of chocolate (a little squishy, but still edible) and held out a wrapped piece to him in silent inquiry.
Genma gazed down at it like he had no idea what it was; after a minute, though, a surprised smile lifted the corners of his mouth and he reached out to take it. "Thanks." The plastic wrapping crinkled as he ripped it open, biting into the little dark square. "Everything went okay on your end?"
“Yup. Didn’t even have to use my chakra, for the most part.” Katsuko took out a piece of chocolate for herself and paused, looking down at the blood caught underneath her nails, before offering it to Genma instead. “You want another? Not really hungry.”
He looked down at her hands. "I have a nail brush, if you want to use it."
Her fingers twitched. “Really?” Katsuko asked, surprised, then caught herself. “I mean— thanks. I’d appreciate it.”
Genma knelt down to dig in his pack, trading his nail brush to Katsuko for the piece of chocolate she still held. "It’s an Eros thing,” he told her quietly, when he caught her gaze on his little leather case of grooming supplies. “I’ve got shampoo, conditioner, shave cream, aftershave... You probably don’t need those last two.” He shrugged and chuckled. “Anyway, I know what it's like when your hands are disgusting after a mission."
Katsuko’s dark eyes flicked to his scar-chased knuckles, and Genma could have choked on the chocolate still melting on his tongue. He turned away from her to find Hajime’s eyes on him as well.
“I need a smoke,” Genma said abruptly.
Hajime was already holding out a pack. “You have time for one cig, Gen, and then we’ll move out. The sooner we’re back over Fire Country’s border, the better. We’ll make camp on the other side of Three Rivers Gorge.”
Genma nodded and took the cigarettes, heading for the cave’s mouth. Hajime followed him, setting a hand lightly against Genma’s shoulder again. Genma tried to shrug it off, which just made Hajime hang on.
“Gen?” Hajime asked. There was a whole world of concern in his voice.
“It’s nothing,” Genma told him. “Give me a light.” He took one slender tobacco stick out with hands that didn’t shake. It seemed like a lifetime ago that he’d had that first mission with Raidou. That had been an Eros mission, too, and Genma had smoked half a carton trying to come back into himself in the hotel room afterwards.
The smoke was thick and dry on his throat, chasing thoughts and memories away as the ash burned down towards his lips.
After a long minute, Hajime let go. “Anything painful?”
“No. Tsuda was a real gentleman,” Genma said, blowing smoke out in a thin laugh. “Had lube all ready to go and everything.”
Hajime nodded. “Hands?” he asked carefully.
“Didn’t touch them.” Genma said. “I’m fine. Let me smoke one more and we can go.”
“You’re the boss,” Hajime told him. “I’ll go keep Katsuko company while you finish.”
And that was another great thing about Hajime. He knew when to leave you alone. But not too alone.
Katsuko glanced at Hajime as he came back, worrying the nail brush with her thumb. “Everything alright?”
“He’ll be fine.” Hajime started packing up his and Genma’s bags, tone brisk. “We’ll head out after he’s done.”
She eyed the plume of smoke rising over Genma’s bowed head and said nothing, applying herself to working the dried blood from underneath her nails with the brush instead. The tips of her fingers were a bit pink, but clean by the time Genma returned, cigarette butt disposed of and some of the empty look gone from his eyes. He nodded at Katsuko in thanks and pulled his mask on, but not before unwrapping the second piece of chocolate and popping it in his mouth. She grinned at him.
Hajime, who had already put on his rabbit mask, clapped him on the shoulder and turned to look at Katsuko. “Let’s move out.”
Katsuko slipped her mask over her face and stood, shouldering her pack. “Sure thing, Boss.”
They left the cave and the town it overlooked behind, traveling on swift feet. Dawn had stained the horizon a bright red by the time they arrived at Three Rivers Gorge. They set up camp in a small clearing by a brook, lighting a smokeless fire. Hajime slipped away to hunt, hopefully for something small and furry that consisted of more meat than a ration bar. Genma went to refill their canteens at the brook, and Katsuko finished laying out her bedroll and followed after him.
He glanced at her as she hovered awkwardly over his shoulder, half-afraid that what she was going to do was a mistake. "Hey. You need something?" He handed her a filled canteen, jaw cracking on a yawn as he stooped down to work on the next one.
Katsuko sank down onto a nearby rock, fiddling with the canteen strap. “No, just wanted to talk.” Taking a deep breath, she forged on ahead. “About your hands, I mean. You don’t need to go into detail, but... I figured there was something we had in common.”
His back stiffened; the look he turned on her was narrow and infinitely less friendly than before. "In common?"
Mutely, Katsuko set the canteen aside and pulled off her gloves. The bandages on her right arm were beginning to come undone; she unraveled them and shook them loose, raising her arm to let Genma see the acid and cigarette burns marring her skin from wrist to bicep.
Genma’s eyes widened as he let out a harsh breath and sat back on his ass, losing his hostility. "Shit. How long ago?"
“Five years ago, for six months. Lightning.” Katsuko rubbed at her wrist, self-conscious. “You were in Iwa, right?”
“Yeah,” Genma said numbly. Twice, but he couldn’t tell her that. No one knew about that second time but Kakashi, who’d been there, Arakaki, a handful of diplomats and medics, one red-haired woman from T&I, and the Hokage himself.
And Raidou. He’d told Raidou just a few weeks ago, breaking his oath to keep the secret in the process. Did it even matter anymore?
He shook the thought loose. Katsuko was sitting there, looking like she felt as naked as Genma had when he’d stripped off after the mission. Six months. How had she survived at all? He’d barely made it through three weeks the first time, a week the second.
“I heard you were... I heard about you, a little,” he said quietly. “I heard you had some kind of chakra problem because of a medical experiment. I didn’t know it was an interrogation. I don’t even...” He looked at his hands, at the new scars layered over the old ones, then at her ravaged arm where barely any whole skin was left. It was as scarred and twisted as Raidou’s face and chest.
“I have no idea what kind of strength that must have taken.”
Katsuko looked away, pulling her arm in closer to her body. Shielding it, but not hiding it. “It wasn’t an interrogation,” she said flatly. Genma had to strain to hear her. “I was just a test subject. Sometimes they’d get...” She paused, eyebrows knitting for a moment. “Bored.” A wisp of breeze picked up the tail of her bandage, and she reached for it, winding and unwinding it around her fingers. Her arm stayed bare.
“Bastards,” Genma said. It wasn’t even close to strong enough. He still had the cigarettes Hajime’d brought for him, and he wanted one badly, but those burns — little, circular, exactly the diameter of a lit butt... He put a senbon in his mouth instead. “How’d you get out?”
Katsuko looked down at her feet, the dry grass, the reflection of the rising sun pinking the water. “ANBU found us,” she said. “Well, me. I was the last.” Her head came up, her dark eyes full of something Genma couldn’t quite read. They fell on his hands. “There’s more than one kind of strength.”
It was Genma’s turn to look away. “ANBU came for me, too, after three weeks. Iwa was out of patience with me by then, since I wouldn’t talk.” He chewed his senbon, feeling the metal grate against his molars. “I was lucky the ANBU squad got there when they did. My teammates... didn’t make it.” Kobo hadn’t even made it as far as the Iwa cells, and Seijuro— Seijuro had broken, apologized to Genma, screamed when they snapped Genma’s fingers, and died when the interrogator slit his belly.
(But on that second trip to Iwa, Genma’s teammate had survived. He’d held up under mental torture, held up the same way Genma had held up. The way Seijuro hadn’t. It had taken a lover’s death, not an interrogator’s implements, to break Kakashi.)
“You were the only one left,” Katsuko said, quietly. She’d gone days without seeing the lab table, when Kaminari had something else to occupy her attention. It’d been how she’d survived half a year underground —a week of experiments interspersed with anxious days spent recovering in the cells, ever-alert for the rattling squeak of gurney wheels. For Genma to have Iwa’s focus bent on him for weeks in a row, with no time to pull himself together between—
“Was it hard?” she asked. “Afterwards, I mean. With them telling you it’d just take some time, and you’d be fine.” She’d been fifteen, not stupid. The counselor they’d assigned to her had been a chuunin with kind eyes, round and soft from ten years of his wife’s home cooking. Katsuko had had nothing to say to him.
Genma gave a hollow laugh. "Is that what they told you? I got lots of pills, and a lot of… scrutiny. To make sure I really hadn't broken."
Katsuko snorted. “Stupid bastards.” She grabbed her canteen and popped open the cap, taking a long swig. “That’s no way to treat someone.” They should have been thanking Genma for everything he’d sacrificed, everything he’d suffered. Everything he’d held on to for the nebulous concept of ‘the village’.
"There was a kid there with me, actually," Genma said, giving her a sidelong glance. "Taisei. He was thirteen, I think. If it was five years ago, you were probably a kid, too, right? He was like you, I guess. A project for them, not a… Whatever I was. A prisoner." He tipped his head back and took a deep breath. "Taisei's in Konoha now. He's not a ninja anymore."
“Thirteen,” Katsuko mused. She smiled, crookedly. “There was a genin from Kusa in the cells with me around that age. Ichiba. Kind of like a little brother.” She shook her head, grimaced. “You said Taisei’s in Konoha? How is he?” Besides struggling with the nightmares, and the scars, and the memories.
Genma looked at her for a long minute. "Not even a little bit sane. But he's happy. Usually. Except when…" He shrugged. "You know how that is, I bet. I try to go see him every few months. Like a little brother…"
“It’s good that he has you,” Katsuko said. “Someone who was there.” She looked down at her hands and added, quietly, “He’s very lucky.”
“Ichiba...” Genma said softly. “He didn’t make it?”
Katsuko looked up then, meeting Genma’s eyes with a frightening steadiness. “No. They took him hours before the ANBU showed up.”
“I’m sorry.” The gap between them was no more than two feet; it felt like a chasm. Genma rocked himself a little closer, so that he could feel the heat of Katsuko’s skin on his own bared shoulder. “That’s how Seijuro went, too. They...” He took a breath and stopped himself. “You don’t need to hear this.”
There was the faint creaking of armour straps and fabric in motion, then Katsuko’s slender hand hovered hesitantly over his shoulder, like a bird unsure whether it was safe to light. He turned his head to look up at her, sitting a few inches above him on her rock. Her hand touched down. “Tell me,” she said.
“We’d been interrogated for a little over three weeks. They brought me and Seijuro into this room where Taisei was. Seijuro didn’t even look like himself. Seijuro. His face was destroyed. Black. They put us face to face across this table. Put my hands in cuffs built into it. He said he was sorry. Said he’d broken. He didn’t even know anything worth telling them. I was the one who knew the code they wanted.”
A shudder ran down Genma’s spine, and Katsuko’s hand lifted.
“No, it’s okay,” he told her. “It’s okay.” Her hand came back.
“And then they made one last try to get us to tell them what they wanted to know. Started in on me. On—” he hesitated. “My hands. Made Seijuro watch. I don’t even remember what they asked. Taisei started counting. He was a medic — in training to be a medic — before they caught him. There are fifty-four bones in a pair of human hands, and he told me they could probably break each one twice, so he counted. One-hundred-eight, like beads on a prayer necklace.” He laughed. “Makes you wonder, doesn’t it.”
“Gods.” Katsuko’s voice was little more than a breath. She leaned against him, resting her head against his. It was strangely comforting, and he felt a little guilty seeking solace in her scarred arms.
“And then the woman — It was a woman. I never saw her face until it was over. Never saw any of their faces, they always wore masks. Like ours, only blank.” He touched the painted ceramic rat face fixed at her belt, hanging between them. “She pushed Seijuro up against the wall next to Taisei and told me to choose. Did she kill my friend, or the crazy kid I didn’t even know?”
“Did you choose,” Katsuko asked. Her voice was calm. As calm as Genma’s. “Or did they take the choice from you?”
“I flipped her off,” Genma said. He stretched his scarred hands out in front of him, fingers splayed like they had been, but whole now, carefully pieced back together over three years ago. Slowly, painfully, as if the bones were still broken, the tendons still a tangled mess, he lifted his right middle finger. “She ran her blade across Taisei’s throat, and the kid laughed. He was so happy. He was telling her, ‘Pick me pick me!’ So she turned and just gutted Seijuro.”
He shut his eyes and could see that terrible little room as if he’d never left it, hear Seijuro’s gasp, smell the blood, see his partner’s intestines falling in pink loops onto the cement floor before Seijuro even had time to realize he was dead.
“Five minutes later — Ten maybe. Practically no time at all — ANBU showed up."
“ANBU,” Katsuko snorted, bitterly aware of the irony of the mask hanging at her hip. “Never on time, never enough.” They’d been in time for her, they’d been in time for Genma — but not for Seijuro, not for Hakuin, not for Ichiba and Asuma and all the others who’d died without getting to see the sun one last time.
Genma was a brittle presence at her side, coiled tight like a spring. Katsuko rubbed a hand over his shoulder and down the first few inches of his spine, humming a tuneless, soothing melody like he was Makoto or Ichiba instead of three years older and her senior in ANBU.
"Yeah. Well…" Genma shrugged, pulling himself together with visible effort. "Almost never on time." He took a deep breath, blowing it out past his senbon. "Do you remember the team that came for you? Were you…" He hesitated, choosing his words with care. "Was there a medic with them at least?"
“A woman,” Katsuko answered quietly. “Tiger mask. Blue eyes. Restarted my heart, then knocked me out with a chakra spike when I asked her why she hadn’t gotten there sooner.”
Genma barked a startled laugh. "You were that close to gone? Fuck." He leaned against her a little harder, as close to a hug as you could get without arms being involved. "Fuck. They really… Yeah. Never on time, never enough."
Katsuko closed her eyes. “There was a monk,” she started, slowly. “An old man, in the cell next to mine. Hakuin — he never told me his last name. He’d been there months longer than I had. He held my hand the second night they brought me down to the cells and sang me to sleep. They tore his temple apart and dragged him down into the dark, and he still had it in him to call me ‘child’ and make sure I ate.”
"He must have been a bodhisattva." Genma coughed, a little self-conscious. "Sorry, I know that sounds weird. I’m one of those freaks who didn't lose his religion even when they tried to beat it out of me."
Katsuko chuckled. “That’s more than I could have managed. Hakuin taught me n’ Ichiba all the sutras while we were down there. He’d whack me over the head when I got ‘em wrong during the first couple months. Near the end, he...” she faltered. “Near the end, he couldn’t move so well. And then a day before the ANBU came, they. They took his eyes.”
“A day,” Genma echoed. He sat up a little straighter and slid his arm behind Katsuko, as hesitant as she had been to touch him, and as determined not to let her bear her witness alone.
He’d taken eyes for missions. Taken eyes and brought them back to Konoha in carefully prepared boxes that preserved them for study, or as proof of death. It turned his stomach just to think of it.
“Were you with him?” he asked.
"At the end," Katsuko answered. She leaned back against Genma’s arm, unhesitating. Her voice steadied as she spoke. "I held his hand, and Ichiba chanted the sutras, and I fell asleep. When I woke up, he was dead."
Genma nodded, tucking her closer to him. She felt narrow-framed and fragile despite the corded strength in her muscles and the almost-violent strength of her chakra. It pushed at Genma like a light turned too bright.
“Some blessings look like curses,” he said bitterly, quoting something he barely remembered from childhood.
Katsuko laughed dryly. “I don’t think I can see the blessing in that curse.”
“Yeah,” he agreed. “Me either. I’m way too unenlightened.” That got a more genuine laugh from his companion.
“Was ANBU looking for you? Or was it... Were you like Taisei? Lucky they were looking for someone else.”
"I don't know," Katsuko answered, sounding raw. "Six months is long enough to have been given up for dead, and from what I learned there was an ANBU outpost within a day's travel the whole time. I don't know why they came when they did."
“You weren’t in ANBU when they took you, were you?” Her head shook a tiny no. “Then... Yeah. Six months. Even if you had been in ANBU, if they didn’t know that facility was there, and they didn’t find you...” Genma blew a tight breath through teeth clenched hard on his senbon. “Something else must have tipped them off, and you were just lucky.”
It was a hard world, where luck meant you didn’t get your eyes ripped from your living flesh. “Your chakra — they’d already done that to you by the time ANBU got there?”
Katsuko’s free hand drifted up to rest on her belly as she felt the seal there stir, chakra prickling at her distress. “Yeah. They threw me back in the cells just before they took Ichiba.”
Genma looked inquiringly at her, then nodded and wrapped his fingers around her shoulder. "It's okay. I shouldn't have asked."
“It’s alright,” Katsuko said. “It’s alright.” She smiled wanly and patted him on the shoulder, chuckling a little. “Kami. We’re a couple of miserable wretches, aren’t we?”
Genma chuckled, dark and wry, arm brushing against hers as he stretched out. "Yeah, I guess we are. So what lie did you tell the psych guy to get them to leave you the hell alone and get back to work?"
Katsuko grinned, a little guiltily. “I called him ‘Roly-poly-san’ and told him I could still beat him with one hand tied behind my back. I also told him his mother was good in bed.” There had been more, bland falsehoods about not that bad, really, and how the pills helped stop the nightmares. Roly-poly-san (she’d never bothered to find out his real name) was as eager to be rid of her as she was of him, by the end, and couldn’t clear her fast enough.
"Yeah.” Genma laughed. “I told mine the truth for about five minutes, and then I just learned to tongue my pills and keep my mouth shut. Lucky for me I had a friend who came and…" He paused, choosing his words. "Helped. In a lot of ways. Cause my hands were useless for months, you know?"
Katsuko knew. She’d been able to move her fingers, at least, but even reaching for a glass of water during the first month had torn the freshly healing scabs and stitches on her arms. Nori and Beni had tried to be there, at first, had kept her company in the hospital and during the recovery at home, but...
“Changing the bandages hurt like a bitch,” she said at last. “Couldn’t wear long-sleeved shirts for the longest time, afterwards.” She gave Genma a commiserating look. “Same thing for you with gloves, right?”
“Yeah. And shoes,” Genma said. He felt the question shiver through her as her eyes flicked to his sandal-shod feet. Only his toes were visible, long and bony like his fingers, but not nearly so scarred. Why had he said it? Outside of the medics who’d treated him, Rina, who’d been there for those excruciating first steps, and Raidou, who’d asked about the odd discolorations striping the soles of his feet and deserved an honest answer because he was Raidou, no one knew. No one needed to know, and no one asked or whispered or pretended they weren’t staring, because there wasn’t anything to see.
Maybe that was why he’d said something. Because Katsuko was someone who wouldn’t gasp in horror and fail to understand.
Like Raidou, actually.
“They didn’t really get to my hands until late in the game. They started with my feet, so even if I managed to escape, I wouldn’t be able to run away.”
Katsuko blew out a long, slow breath and closed her eyes. The sunrise lit her face softly golden, picking out strands of her hair like fire. After a moment she opened her eyes again and turned to Genma, looping both arms around him in an awkward hug. He hesitated, then wrapped her in his arms as well, twisted towards her, and dropped his head onto her shoulder.
“I know about burns, too. Raidou, my—” Partner? Best friend? Lover? “—boyfriend.” Where had that word even come from? But it was the right one. “He was burned really badly. On the face and chest. On our last mission he got burned again. I know how awful those bandage changes are,” he said quietly.
Katsuko’s grip tightened. “How is Raidou now?” she asked. She didn’t let go.
“Better. Healed,” Genma said. “He still thinks I’m crazy for calling him handsome. But he’s wrong. There are a lot of reasons to call me crazy.” He chuckled softly. “Same as you, right? But that’s not one of them. He’s... He... I like his scars. I don’t care about his scars. They’re just one small part of him.”
Genma was a different person when he talked about Raidou. The lines of tension around his mouth eased; a smile creased the corners of his eyes and stayed there. Katsuko patted him on the back, gently. “He sounds like a good man,” she said, sincere.
Genma eased out of the hug, keeping one shoulder pressed against hers. He sat up a little straighter. "He is.” After a second, he laughed. "Well, as good a man as you can be and do what we do for a living."
Katsuko smiled. “You guys have known each other for a long time, then?” she asked. “How did you meet?”
"On a mission. Where, else, right? But we didn't hook up right away. For a long time we were just best buddies, cause he was straight. Well, except obviously not, but…" Genma shrugged, embarrassment flitting across his face. "Anyway, we're awesome on missions together, so we try to partner up as much as we can. He lives next door to me, too, which is either a fascinating coincidence or the hand of fate, take your pick."
She wiggled her eyebrows, expression taking on a definite leer. “I’d call it convenient for you two, but hey, that’s just me.” Before Genma could reply to that, Katsuko changed the subject. “You guys live in HQ? I’m on the third floor.”
"Yeah. For now. I'm in 320 and he's in 318. I'm surprised I've never met you before, seeing as we live on the same floor."
“What, really? I’m in 315. I’m a room away from you guys.” After a moment she blinked in realization and gave Genma an indignant shove. “I’m a room away from you guys and I’ve never heard anything. You’re an Eros agent, try to be louder!”
Genma shook with laughter. "You want to listen to that? I think Rai might have a problem with you listening in, though, he's kinda shy."
“Do I want to listen to that, he asks,” Katsuko muttered. “As if having your own pretty-boys-having-sex soundtrack is a hardship. And Raidou’s shy? Aw, that’s cute. Guess that means you’ll have to be twice as loud to make up for him, though.”
“Don’t count on it,” Genma told her with a low chuckle.
The smell of cooking meat drifted back from the direction of the campsite. Katsuko glanced over her shoulder and grinned. “Looks like Hajime’s back.”
Hajime, bless him, was cooking breakfast. And hadn’t interrupted. Genma had no doubt he’d eavesdropped, though. Hopefully just on the last part of the conversation. Genma yawned and stretched, arching his back and straightening his legs out in front of him. “Breakfast would be good. And then crash—” Another yawn caught him mid-sentence. “Crashing. For a little while.”
He got to his feet and turned to give Katsuko a hand up as well, reaching past her hand, but hesitating at touching her forearm. “Uh... This might not work. Can you just grab my arm?”
She nodded and wrapped her fingers around his arm above the wrist, offering a wry smile of understanding. He was careful not to grab back as he helped her stand. “Is there nerve damage?” he asked, still looking at her forearm. “Rai’s got some where he was burned. Makes some places numb and others really sensitive, so I have to be careful. And my hands...” He shrugged, drawing in a hiss of air through his teeth. “They work, the chakra works, the nerves work. But they tend to hurt.”
“I don’t have any feeling in the damaged skin, except for my wrists and the inside of my elbows.” Katsuko said. She rubbed both arms as if she were trying to chafe some warmth into them. “Those are... very sensitive.”
“Yeah. I’ll bet,” Genma agreed. It was hardly surprising given the extent of the visible damage. And there was her chakra, burning like a thousand suns. Every time Genma touched her he felt the pressure of it. Whatever they had done to her, it had been far more than just the ruination of her skin.
“Who’s up for hare?” Hajime asked, interrupting at last. “If you two slackers are done lazing around, I’ve got breakfast about ready.”
“Coming,” Genma told him. “I just need to fill my canteen.”
“I thought you went to do that half an hour ago, Gen.”
“Yeah. Well.” He shrugged. “Took longer than I thought.”
Katsuko turned to stare at Hajime’s fire where three skewered rabbits roasted over the flames. She clapped her hand over her mouth in a pantomime of horror. “Hajime, you cannibal, you.”
“Huh?” Hajime said.
She stared pointedly at the rabbit-faced ANBU mask clipped to Hajime’s belt. “They could have been cousins of yours!”
Hajime groaned. “Oh. That.”
“He’s probably heard that a hundred times,” Genma said, laughing, “but I still think it’s funny.” He grinned at Katsuko. “At least we don’t have to eat rats all that often. Or cats — or whatever this is supposed to be.” He patted his own mask at his hip. “Anyway...” He picked up his and Hajime’s canteens. “Thanks. For the talk.”
“Anytime, my friend,” Katsuko said. She’d meant to say it jokingly, but what came out was something sincere and little bit too raw, hanging in the air between them. Katsuko coughed, grateful when Genma turned away to refill the canteens.
“Ueno.” Hajime was holding out a stick with a skewered rabbit at the end. “Breakfast.”
“You’re pretty nice for a cannibal, Boss,” she told him, grinning when he rolled his eyes at her. She took a seat by the fire, looking over her shoulder at Genma.
“You alright?” Hajime asked her, quietly. Katsuko rubbed her arms, thinking about scars and nightmares and days spent underground, in the dark; about crooked fingers and the weight of memory.
“Yeah,” she said, honestly. “Yeah, I’ll be fine.” Hunger asserted itself and she started on the rabbit, tearing into it ravenously. A few minutes later Genma came back from the stream and handed Hajime his water canteen before accepting his own rabbit on a stick. He smiled crookedly at Katsuko as he sat down; she snorted and poked him in the shoulder. “Eat,” she ordered. “You look like you’re gonna fall over.”
"Aw, come on, I'm not that frail-looking,” Genma complained, grinning. Still, he applied himself to his roasted rabbit with as much enthusiasm as Katsuko had, if not more. She hid a smile and turned her attention back to eating, conscious of Hajime’s gaze on them both.
Yeah. She and Genma were alright.