Katsuko stared at him in amusement from a few feet away, idly tossing her kodachi up and down. “I am not short,” she said. “Take that back.”
"Shorter." Ryouma tipped his head a bare fraction, enough that he could glance at her sidelong; he was wincing slightly, as if he was in pain. "By at least eight inches. You're a midget speed demon of pain."
Katsuko cackled and caught her kodachi, sheathing it and her katana before ambling over to Ryouma and squatting down by his side. “I’ll take that as a compliment,” she said, reaching over to poke him in the forehead. “You gave me a workout, though. Looks like all that training’s paying off.”
"All that training kept me from getting killed in the first hour. It didn't do anything to stop you from putting me through the ground in the second." He propped himself up on his elbows, shaking his head abruptly to clear it. "How long did it take you to get back into mission shape?"
Katsuko shrugged. “Three months, but I lied like a rug to get out of the hospital. You’ve got frien-- you’ve got people besides the medic-nin helping you, and you’re in better shape than I was when I first got back. I’d say a month for you, tops.” She glanced at the shiny new peshkabz lying on the ground where he’d dropped it a few minutes and one disarm ago. “You picked up how to use that pretty quick, too. I’m proud of you, grasshopper.”
The smile that crept across his face was small but genuine. "Always been a quick learner. The brain isn't the problem--or wasn't until you conked me, anyway. It's the stupid muscles." He sat up the rest of the way and squeezed the bicep of his right arm with his left hand, rueful. "Too weak, too slow, an' tired too quickly. Good thing I can still take a beating."
“Hey,” Katsuko said, and poked him gently in the shoulder. “Don’t be too hard on yourself. You’ll be mission-fit and back to badass in no time. Chin up, or I’ll bop you over the head again.”
Ryouma jerked his chin up, literally, tilting his head back to expose his throat. "High enough?" He smirked at her as she snickered, then he said, "You said one month. I'm takin' that as a promise, y'know. Nobody else will commit to a number. Are you buyin’ me lunch to make up for the bump on my head, or is this the part where I play masochist and pay you for my bruises?"
Katsuko raised an eyebrow, but a loud growl from her stomach interrupted her reply. She glanced down at it, then gave Ryouma a sheepish grin as the growling continued on for several more seconds. “...Food? For the sake of friendship?”
"So I'm not your friend if I don't buy you food? This is the..." He counted rapidly on his fingers. "Fourth time. An' I cooked for you twice. How come I'm the only one who has to bribe my friends?"
Katsuko gave him her most innocent smile. “Because you’re the only one nice enough to keep your friends from starving to death! Just think of it as another facet of your nurturing personality and feed me. C’mon, Ryouma, I even know a restaurant where the owner’ll give us-- well, you, you’re paying-- a discount. If he doesn’t throw a ladle at my head first.”
“I vote for the ladle-throwing,” Ryouma said. He gritted his teeth, shoved himself up, and limped over to retrieve his new knife out of the mud. Serious cleaning and sharpening would have to wait until he made it home that evening; for now he wiped it dry on his thigh and sheathed it again at the small of his back. Stiffening muscles complained at every movement. He rolled his shoulders, working out the ache of hits that probably would’ve bisected him if she’d been using a sharp blade. Hell, if she hadn’t been pulling her blows, he’d probably be worrying about broken bones, not just deep-muscle bruises.
Still... He’d put up a better show than he would have last week, without a doubt. Akimichi Masaru’s miracle powders and the physical therapist’s strength-training regimen were adding muscle by the pound, and his hours of hard training--with Kakashi and on his own--were beginning to rebuild both endurance and speed. He still wasn’t nearly fast enough to keep up with Katsuko’s swords, but it was some consolation to remember that he’d never actually been as fast as her.
At least this time he hadn’t fallen until she dropped him.
“C’mon,” he said, and slung a muddy arm over Katsuko’s shoulders. “If you really are starving, I guess my wallet’ll stretch to a grilled rat or two.”
“Rats,” Katsuko said contemplatively, as if remembering a few long-ago meals. “Grilled is better than raw, at least.”
Ryouma tugged her closer. “For you,” he said, “I’ll have ‘em roasted.”
If Katsuko’s restaurant didn’t actually serve rats, it looked like it might be home to a few of them instead. At first glance it was no more than a dank, crumbling hole in the wall at the very end of Kurobuta Street, with burned-out lightbulbs and flimsy formica tables. A couple of chuunin glanced up as Katsuko and Ryouma entered, spent a narrow-eyed moment evaluating the newcomers, and then dismissed them entirely. Ryouma didn’t blame them. The food--rats included or not--smelled good.
In the back of the restaurant, where an open bar separated kitchen from dining area, a lanky old man was pitching pots and swearing. Ryouma watched for a moment before he glanced down at Katsuko again. “Be honest. You brought me here just so someone else could beat up on me, right?”
Katsuko elbowed Ryouma in the ribs, grinning. “Be nice. His bark is worse than his bite, otherwise he’d have been arrested by now.” She raised her voice, cutting off the old man’s stream of obscenities. “Wakahisa! Get over here and gimme a hug, you crusty bastard.”
Wakahisa slammed a pot down on the stove and turned to give her a beady-eyed glare. “So it is you, Katsuko,” he said, lethally pleasant, and stalked across the restaurant towards them.
Katsuko blinked. “Is... something wrong?”
Wakahisa folded his arms, looking down his beaky nose at her. “Brat,” he said, in that frigid tone of voice that had always sent her ducking behind Sensei for cover. “When was the last time you stopped by?”
“Ah,” Katsuko said after a moment, and reminded herself that she was a jounin and couldn’t use Ryouma as a meat shield. She smiled, sheepishly. “...Six months, give or take.”
“Give or take,” Wakahisa echoed, dubiously.
“But look!” Katsuko said, desperately, and dragged Ryouma forward. “I made a friend, and I brought him here to visit!”
Wakahisa narrowed his eyes at Ryouma and didn’t unfold his arms. “A friend, is it.” Despite the fact that he barely came up to Ryouma’s chin, he still did his best to loom over the younger man. “What’s your name?”
Ryouma tucked his chin in a little, bemusedly looking down at Wakahisa. He hooked his thumbs in his pockets, stance easy and relaxed, but Katsuko noticed the way his spine straightened fractionally to bring his full height into play. "Tousaki Ryouma. What's yours?"
“Wakahisa was my jounin-sensei’s mission partner before he retired and opened up the restaurant,” Katsuko added, when it became apparent that the old man was reluctant to give out any more information. “I’ve known him since I was a genin.”
Wakahisa gave her an irritated glance before turning his stare back on Ryouma. “How long have you and Katsuko been... friends?”
“What? No,” Katsuko said, finally catching on. “It’s not like that. He has a boyfriend. We’re friend-friends. Can we have food, now?
The look Wakahisa gave her promised that they were going to have a talk, later. “Fine,” he said, and turned away, waving a hand at the seating area. “Grab a table, place your orders. And no fist-fights inside.”
A harried-looking waiter came from the back of the restaurant to lay out menus and utensils as Katsuko chose a corner table that faced the street. She grinned at Ryouma and pulled out a chair for him, giving him a proper gentleman’s bow. “Madam.”
“I’m pretty sure he believed you the first time,” Ryouma said, sliding his hands a little deeper into his pockets and rocking back on his heels. “You don’t have to lay the gay stuff on all that thick.”
Katsuko’s brows twitched together. “Gay stuff? I just wanted to pull the chair out for you.” Her mouth twitched a grin. “But the ‘Madam’ is ‘cause you’d look cute in a dress.”
“You have horrible taste,” Ryouma told her. “And manners. And if Im tellin’ you this, you know you got a problem.” He took a chair at the other side of the table and pulled it out far enough for him to lounge comfortably, long legs stretched out straight. “Why’s your sensei’s old buddy still givin’ me the stink-eye?”
Katsuko’s lip curled at his rejection of her chair, but she flopped down in it herself and drummed her fingers restlessly on the plastic menu. “Wakahisa kinda adopted my genin team the first time Hideki-sensei brought us here. Guess he’s still pretty protective of us.”
“Never took a team himself?” That was unusual, in Ryouma’s experience; experienced jounin were scarce enough that most of them were badgered into taking at least one genin team over the course of their careers. With ANBU out of the picture, perhaps he should look into it himself. Maybe in a few years, when Saki graduated...
He plucked the cheap wooden chopsticks up out of their paper packet and spun them idly between his fingers. “Y’know, when I didn’t show up for six months, I had a reason.”
She flinched, almost imperceptibly, and looked down at her menu, tracing a finger down the badly printed listings. “My genin teammates and I don’t... Well, they hang out here a lot. I heard they were both on different out-village missions this week, so I figured now was as good a time as any to let Wakahisa know I’m not dead.”
There were years of silent pain in that non-explanation. Ryouma set his chopsticks down again. “The three of you seemed pretty close when you stayed over at Dainichi Nyorai, years ago. Things changed when you came home again?”
Katsuko fidgeted. “Yeah, you could say that. I... wasn’t very nice, when I came back. We generally try to stay out of each other’s way now.”
He looked at her for a long moment, expression still. "You weren't very nice,” he repeated, slowly. “Were you supposed to be nice, after surviving your sensei's death and six months of torture an' experimentation?"
She chuckled, a little nervously, and slid her gaze somewhere over his left shoulder. “It’s not a big deal,” she said. “People fight. Friends grow apart.”
He gazed at her silently, long enough that she began to shift uncomfortably. Then he picked his chopsticks up again and started twirling them around his fingers. "Well, I don't talk to what's left of my genin team, either, so I guess I'm not the guy to be preachin' at you. What's good here?"
“The rice noodle soup here is awesome,” Katsuko said, leaping on the offered subject change. “Beef or chicken flavor. Wakahisa makes a new pot of broth every day. The fresh shrimp spring rolls are pretty good, too. Watch out, though, if he’s pissed at you he’ll put peppers in everything.”
Ryouma raised one dark eyebrow. "So is he more pissed at me or you?"
Katsuko considered this. “Me, probably,” she said, glumly. “Disappearing for six months, and all. This sucks. I hate peppers.”
"Gotcha." He drew his legs back, stood up, and headed towards the kitchen.
Katsuko blinked and stared after him. “Wait, what are you doing?”
"Making sure you don't get peppers," he said, not looking back. Katsuko got to her feet and trailed after him, curious despite herself. She hovered in the background as he sauntered over to the bar that separated the kitchen from eating area, leaning against the support-post and crossing his arms across his chest. "Got a moment, Yamada-san?"
Wakahisa looked up from the cutting board, wielding a bloody cleaver in one hand. “What is it?”
"Katsuko's sorry she hasn't been by in six months,” Ryouma said, casually. “She's awfully sorry now, since I went missing a while back an' they declared me dead. But I got back, eventually, an' now Katsuko's thinkin' hard about missin' people an' how important it is to tell 'em you care. So she brought me by, kind of like an excuse to drop in, but now her nerve's failin' her, so I think if you want a hug you're gonna have to initiate it."
There was a faintly strangled sound that took Katsuko a moment to realize she was making, and then Wakahisa’s narrow-eyed gaze landed on her and she mostly wanted to kick Ryouma in the knees. She covered her face with her hands, peeking out from between her fingers just in time to see Wakahisa slam the cleaver into the wooden cutting board point-first.
“Brat,” Wakahisa said. “Is this true?”
Katsuko let out a muffled sound of mortification, feeling her skin warm against her palms. “Just ignore Ryouma,” she said. “He was dropped on his head as a kid. Off the Monument. More than once.”
Wakahisa sighed and wiped his hands off on a damp towel. “Six months,” he said at last. “Six months of no word. I thought you’d died, girl.”
“I’m sorry,” Katsuko said, and stepped in closer. “I didn’t mean-- I’m sorry.”
“Nori and Beni won’t even talk about you,” Wakahisa said, turning to lean against the counter. He seemed older, suddenly, his face lined and tired. “You three used to be inseparable. I don’t know what happened, but--” he broke off, glancing at Ryouma, and made an impatient sound. “That’s neither here nor there. Get over here, brat.”
Katsuko shuffled awkwardly into Wakahisa’s outstretched arms, pressing her face against his shoulder as he patted her on the back. After a minute, she cleared her throat and said, “Does this mean you’re not going to put peppers in my soup?”
“Hah,” Wakahisa said. “We’ll see.”
“I could do with one or two in mine,” Ryouma put in. “It’ll keep her from tryin’ to sneak bites.”
“I object to that,” Katsuko said, twisting half-around to glare at him. “I steal your food because we are friends. Accept this.”
Wakahisa snorted, ruffled her hair, and released her. “Get out of my kitchen, and I’ll see about getting you some food. You’ll want beef noodle?” He was already moving back to the chopping block, as if her answer didn’t matter; clearly he already knew her favorite. He did cut a dark-eyed glance back to Ryouma, in silent question.
“Beef noodle for me, too,” Ryouma said. “And shrimp spring rolls. You can leave the pepper out of those.”
“Yes,” Katsuko said, a little muffled. “Beef noodle. Good.” Ryouma wasn’t sure whether she was talking to him or to the old chef; maybe both. Maybe it didn’t matter. Her eyes were glassy, cheeks still flushed red. She grabbed Ryouma’s arm as soon as Wakahisa turned back to his pots, and towed him back to their table. “You didn’t have to do that,” she muttered, low.
“I did,” Ryouma said. He caught her hand as it fell away from his arm, gripped her tight. “For six months, I spent nearly every conscious moment thinkin’ of the things I wish I’d said. Swore to myself, if I ever got back, I’d say ‘em. Maybe that still doesn’t give me a right to say your things for you, but-- You’ve got to talk, Katsuko. I didn’t, and it’s sheer luck I got a second chance.”
Katsuko pulled her hand away, but she didn’t bolt. Instead she slumped down in her chair, loose-limbed as a puppet when its strings were cut. “Talk,” she said. She laughed a little, quiet, rueful. “Talk.” She lifted a hand, rubbed her face. “I talk. I just say things people don’t want to hear.”
Ryouma’d done that, too, and some of them had driven a wedge between him and Kakashi so deep that only his capture and assumed death had cleared it. But they’d come out stronger on the other side, hadn’t they? Even with such uncertain ground to start from.
Kakashi had tried talking--and reaching--too. Maybe that was what made the difference.
He dropped into his chair again across from her. “Why don’t they want to hear it?”
Katsuko gave him a weak smile. “Do we have to talk about this before food? My delicate constitution can’t handle airing dirty laundry before I have my protein.”
Ryouma snorted. "Says the woman who kicked my ass six ways to Tea Country. Sure. I mean--you don't have to tell me anything. Or listen to me at all. But I think it'd help."
She leaned back in her chair and folded her arms. “Later,” she said. She glanced around the restaurant, taking in the dented walls and the dirty windows that hadn’t been cleaned since her genin days. “This place has too many memories in it.”
"Sure,” Ryouma said, quietly. “Whatever you want."
She reached across the table and patted him on the cheek. “Hey, it’s a big brother’s job to look out for his sister, right? And it’s a little sister’s job to hit her brother over the head with her kodachi for fun. I mean, for training.”
Ryouma narrowed his eyes at her. "How come your verson of fun is so close to my version of pain?"
Katsuko spread her hands, giving him a smug smile. “Such is the way of siblings, grasshopper,” she said. “Get used to it. I’m sticking around.”
He sighed and lounged back in his chair again, stretching his long legs out underneath her chair. "Guess I'll have to stock up on painkillers."
“So many painkillers,” Katsuko said, and kicked him in the shins.
Wakahisa arrived with their food while they were still in the middle of an under-the-table ankle-kicking war. He eyed Katsuko’s innocent expression, setting her bowl down in front of her with a stern, “Behave, brat.”
“Don’t I always?” Katsuko started to say, but interrupted herself with a muffled “Ow!” when Ryouma kicked her left shin.
"I'm trainin' her up," Ryouma said, the very picture of earnest good intentions.
“Good luck with that,” Wakahisa said, dryly, and patted Katsuko on the head before leaving them to it. Katsuko glared at Ryouma’s smirk and picked up her chopsticks, applying herself to scarfing down rice noodles instead of kicking shins.
The broth was just as good as she remembered, and Katsuko had to refrain herself from just drinking from the soup bowl as her stomach growled like an angry wolf. She was so absorbed in her food that she almost didn’t notice the door to the restaurant opening. Even then she wouldn’t have paid any attention--except that two familiar chakra signatures brushed against her senses, and then a man said, “Wakahisa! Good to see you again.”
“Nori,” Wakahisa said, tone absolutely neutral. “Beni. I thought you two were out for another week.”
“My mission ended early. Beni’s, too.” And oh gods, that was Nori, all high-class accent and a hint of a laugh in his voice. “What’s this? Usually you’re happier when we drop in instead of going straight home.”
Katsuko laid her chopsticks down and turned around in her seat, heart pounding. Nori had cut his hair short since the last time she’d seen him, blond locks trimmed close to his scalp. He was looking at Wakahisa, wide mouth curled in a smile.
Beni was standing next to him, chuunin jacket stained and mud-spattered. His red hair was still in that hideous short ponytail, but at least he’d let his bangs grow out more to soften the effect. His gaze landed on Katsuko and she met his eyes, crossing her arms over her chest.
“It’s you,” Beni said, and Nori blinked and looked over at her in shock.
“Yeah,” Katsuko said. “Me.”
They stared at each other in silence for a moment. Finally, Nori sighed. “What are you doing here, Katsuko?”
“Eating,” Katsuko said. “Last I saw, you didn’t own this restaurant.”
His gaze narrowed. “Did you come here because you heard we’d be out of the village?”
Katsuko shrugged. “Figured it’d be best if we didn’t run into each other. Look how well that worked out.”
This, clearly, was the genin team who didn’t want to hear what Katsuko had to say.
Ryouma set his chopsticks across his half-empty bowl and leaned back in his chair, looking up at them. The blond--Nori, was it?--was close to Katsuko’s height and build, though what was tall and lanky for a girl ended up as merely average height and skinny for a guy. Genjutsu user, probably. He looked like one solid hit would snap him.
The red-headed chuunin was burlier, but barely two inches taller. He was also badly freckled, which stole a little of the menace from his glare. “Why’d you choose today to come?” he demanded, starting forward. “You trying to start a fight?”
“I just said I was trying to avoid you two,” Katsuko snapped. “Because I knew this would happen.”
“Maybe if you didn’t deliberately provoke us--” Nori began.
All three of them were beginning to leak the raw edges of killing intent. Ryouma wasn’t much of a chakra sensor, but he could feel Katsuko’s chakra like a forestfire, barely contained. Beside her, the two men were guttering candles. Were they idiots?
He planted one sandalled foot on the floor and shoved his chair back another few inches, scraping brutally across the concrete floor. “Hey, Katsuko,” he said, deliberately drawling. It worked for Kakashi, after all. “Introduce me to your friends.”
Both of the men switched their glares to Ryouma, which only confirmed his opinion of their idiocy. He slouched a little deeper and raised his brows blandly. Across the table, Katsuko’s nostrils flared and her jaw set, but the thin dangerous sense of her killing intent faded away. Leashed, for now.
“Sumiyoshi Nori,” she said, jerking her chin at the blond. “And Arata Beni. This is Tousaki Ryouma.”
Nori’s lip curled. “New friend, Katsuko? I thought you were done with those.”
Beni’s gaze trailed over Ryouma’s muddy tee-shirt and training pants, touched on his less-than-bulky biceps, and dismissed him entirely. “Found replacement buddies for us already?” he asked Katsuko.
“Time for an upgrade,” Ryouma said, and smiled.
“Stay out of this,” Nori said, low and cold.
“Ryouma is a jounin and my teammate,” Katsuko said sharply. “You’ll show him respect.”
Something flickered in Beni’s pale eyes, there and gone. It might have been hurt. But it didn’t weaken the sneer in his voice. “Or what?”
She looked at him for a moment, her mobile, expressive face gone still. Then she jerked her chin up again, indicating the rest of the restaurant. “Or I’ll tell on you to Wakahisa.”
Ryouma wasn’t the only one who glanced over his shoulder. The old jounin had come around the corner of the kitchen bar to watch them, arms folded menacingly over his narrow chest. He was holding a ladle like a kunai.
“Pull up a chair if you’re going to eat, boys,” the chef ordered. “Otherwise, if you want to finish this conversation, I’ve got an empty lot out back.”
Ryouma laced his fingers together, and cracked his knuckles. “You do a good bowl of noodles, Yamada-san. But I can’t say I’d mind workin’ it off already.”
“We’re not even done eating yet,” Katsuko sighed. She got to her feet, shoving her hands in her pockets. Nori was looking at Beni in concern, but he made no move to stop the redhead. That was alright; Katsuko hadn’t expected him to.
“Don’t care if you’re a jounin or the Empress of Tea Country,” Beni said, flushing with anger. “Let’s settle this--”
“No,” Katsuko said, calmly.
He rounded on her, jabbing a finger in her direction. “You! You don’t have any right to tell me what to do, not after--”
“Don’t I?” Katsuko smiled at him. “You talk big now, on home territory with Nori backing you up, but you’re as much a coward now as you were--”
“Katsuko!” Nori snapped.
Beni lunged at her.
Katsuko blocked the first two blows and slammed her knee into his gut. He staggered, cursing, and she shoved him away. Ryouma moved in, fast and deadly, and caught Beni in a chokehold that drove a grunt of pain out of the shorter man. Ryouma twisted, dragging Beni further off balance, and started dragging him towards the back of the restaurant with grim purpose.
Katsuko stared after them for a beat before following, her hands clenched into fists at her sides. Nori gave a short, sharp sigh and brought up the rear, like he had when the three of them had still been a team.
“Door to your left,” Wakahisa said, flicking a glance at Ryouma and nodding. He looked at Katsuko, eyes tired, before turning back to the stove.
The empty dirt lot behind the restaurant was choked with weeds and littered with trash. The old cherry blossom tree still stood tall near the fence, trunk scarred from the time Katsuko had flubbed a katon jutsu.
She watched as Beni wrenched free of Ryouma’s hold, panting, to retreat a safe distance away. Nori joined him, arms folded across his chest and a pained expression on his face.
“The ambush was five years ago, Katsuko,” Nori said. “Let it go.”
Katsuko nearly drew steel. “Let it go?” she said. Her nails dug into her palms, a sharp pain that cleared her head enough to think. “I get that while I was in the labs you two finally worked up the nerve to kiss and hold hands, but did you even wait ‘til I was declared missing? Did you even care?”
“Of course we cared, you selfish bitch,” Beni rasped, rubbing at his throat. He looked at her, eyes wild. “It was six goddamned months for us, too.”
You’ve been gone for months, Kakashi had said, voice as brittle and fragile as glass. You were declared dead.
But Kakashi’d been happy to see him back. Had grieved his loss, and welcomed his return with a bone-grinding hug instead of a fist to the face. Had listened to what Ryouma could tell him, refused to press him for what he couldn’t, and reminded him at every moment that he was home and safe and wanted. Loved.
Katsuko’s teammates had just...moved on. And, evidently, expected her to do the same.
“I remember you,” he said, low, lethal. They glanced at him, puzzled, angry. He didn’t smile.
“I was at Dainichi Nyorai when you two came back, babbling about your sensei dead and Katsuko captured. My team and me, we went out looking for her, while our medic healed you up. While you went home. Our captain ordered us to end the search, when we couldn’t find a trail. What was your excuse?”
Beni lunged forward, but Nori caught him even faster, a hand iron-hard on his shoulder. It shouldn’t have been enough restraint, but Beni stood still, so tensed he was almost shaking. Behind him, Nori’s chocolate-brown eyes flicked from Ryouma to Katsuko, and then back again.
“We saw Sensei get killed,” he said quietly. He sounded tired, as if he’d hit this point in the argument too many times already. “We saw Katsuko get dragged away screaming.” His gaze dropped. “It hurt to hope too much.”
Katsuko made a thick, guttural sound of inarticulate rage. Ryouma didn’t look at her. If he didn’t see, he didn’t have to stop her. And she couldn’t stop him.
“It hurt,” he said instead, and took a step forward, towards that invisible line. “You felt sad. Maybe punched a few walls, took a walk or two in the rain. While she got her chest ripped open so they could muck around inside. She survived anyway, no thanks to you or me or any of us. Came home, with her chakra screwed to hell and back, needin’ you to be there for her--and I’ll bet you told her to let it go, didn’t you? To get over it. Because every time you looked at her, your guilt and cowardice was eatin’ you up on the inside, just like her chakra was eatin’ her--”
“Ryouma!” Katsuko’s voice cracked like ice. She was in front of him, suddenly, small and thin and vibrating with fury, facing two men with murder in their eyes. “Stand down,” she snarled at them.
“How much did you tell him?” Nori demanded, raw-voiced. He’d finally lost that too-good-for-this sneer, and his breath hissed hard in his throat. “Talking like he has any right to judge--”
“She didn’t tell me anything,” Ryouma said harshly. “She doesn’t have to. She doesn’t have to say anything. But you owe her an apology on your knees.”
Beni was leaking killing intent again, straining against Nori’s slackening grip. But the edge was dull, like a chipped kunai; that much wouldn’t even give a genin bad dreams.
Ryouma grinned, fierce and feral, and unleashed his own.
There was guilt on Beni’s and Nori’s faces, buried deep underneath the anger; Katsuko could still tell, even after years apart. Maybe that was what blunted the edge of their killing intent and made it so easy to brush aside; maybe she’d surpassed them long ago, when she’d shut them out of her life and narrowed her world down to training, killing, and revenge.
Whatever it was, the wave of cold, burning fury that came from Ryouma startled her enough that she stepped aside, leaving the way to Nori and Beni clear. Katsuko saw when his killing intent hit them; Nori blanched and Beni rocked back on his heels, an instant before a second, stronger wave of intent dropped them to their knees.
Katsuko stared down at them. “And that,” she said, finally. “Is why you don’t piss off a jounin.”
“Katsu,” Nori got out, teeth gritted. “Make him--”
“Stop?” Katsuko smiled, pleasantly, feeling the cold knot of anger underneath her breastbone tighten further. “No, I don’t think so. You’re going to answer a few questions first, while Ryouma has you down there.”
Beni snarled and pushed himself up on one hand, but Ryouma’s killing intent spiked again and he collapsed back down to his knees. Katsuko licked her lips and tried to think, tried to remember all the questions left unanswered in favor of petty arguments and grudges.
In the end, it all boiled down to one very simple sentence. She looked down at them and said, quietly, “Was I not good enough?”
Ryouma’s killing intent wavered for a brief moment, enough time for both Nori and Beni to lift their heads and stare her, shocked. Then it strengthened again, redoubled in fury, and Beni dropped his eyes back down to the ground. Nori went white around the lips but held her gaze, something new in his expression.
“I shut you out, after the labs,” Katsuko said. It was easier to admit that now, here, with them held in place by Ryouma’s killing intent and unable to retaliate. “I said things. We all said things. But you stayed with me in the hospital even when I tried to drive you away, you told my mother to piss off and helped me move into my apartment when she kicked me out-- when did that change? Was it too much? Did you just get tired of it?”
“You idiot,” Beni grated, still glaring down at the ground. “You’re our teammate, even when you’re acting stupid and throwing yourself at death face-first--”
“Don’t you get it?” Nori said, voice ragged. “You didn’t want anything to do with us. Disappearing for weeks, taking high-casualty missions, not talking for days-- you’d already checked out, your body just hadn’t gotten the memo yet.”
“You kept on pushing,” Katsuko snapped. “Pushing and prodding, not letting me rest--”
“We thought you were dead for six months,” Nori said. “Beni kept on seeing you on street corners and in shadows. We’d both hear you scream in the middle of the night and nobody would be there. Excuse us for trying to make sure you were real--”
“You froze up,” Katsuko snarled. “You both stood there and watched while they dragged me away.”
"Cowards," Ryouma said, softly.
Beni made a small, stifled sound, and Nori put a hand on his shoulder. He looked up at Katsuko, his gaze steady. “We all know what we did,” he said, quietly. “And we’ll carry that with us for as long as we live. Let us go, Katsu.”
Katsuko took a deep breath and stepped back, shaken. “One last thing,” she said.
“What do you want?” Beni said. “We’ve already told you everything--”
“I know you guys still check up on my little brother,” Katsuko said. “And my mother. Are they... are they doing alright?”
This, out of everything, was what pushed Beni over the edge. He leapt at her; Nori tackled him, and both of them went crashing back down to the ground again.
“You idiot,” Beni roared at her, over Nori’s shoulder. “After everything that woman-- she has your picture up on the shrine for the dead. She’s not worth--”
Katsuko closed her eyes. “I’m sorry,” she said, breathing fast. “Ryouma, just-- just let them go.”
After a very long moment, Ryouma’s killing intent eased. Beni and Nori were silent, and she couldn’t bring herself to look at them again. A large, calloused hand wrapped around her wrist, and she jumped and turned around to see Ryouma, jaw tense with restrained anger.
"Come on," he said, and pulled her away, towards the back door of Wakahisa’s restaurant. Katsuko followed him, numbly, not fighting the hold on her wrist.
“Katsuko,” Nori called, as Ryouma swung the door open.
She glanced over her shoulder. Nori had gotten to his feet. He met her eyes, expression unreadable. “Makoto’s doing fine,” he said. “He hasn’t gotten sick in a while, and he’s still painting. He misses his sister.”
Katsuko nodded, wetting her lips. “Thanks,” she said, and turned away.
Wakahisa was lurking by the back door to the kitchen, still holding his drying ladle, completely ignoring the large pot bubbling over on the burner. He reached to clasp Katsuko’s shoulder as she passed. She twitched a wan smile at him, but shrugged free with barely a hitch in her step.
Ryouma released her wrist and dug for his wallet. Wakahisa shook his head. “Just--bring her back,” he said.
“Sure,” Ryouma said. He ducked a nod and followed her.
Her pace quickened as she hit the street, long legs stretching, hands jamming deep in her pockets. Two chattering genin dodged almost unconsciously out of her path. Ryouma lengthened his stride to catch up with her, shortened it again to fall into step at her side. She didn’t look up at him. Her jaw was set, lips thin, eyes locked on the middle distance. What was she seeing?
That hesitant question about her family--and Beni’s violent reaction--had seemed like a turning point, and there was a whole tangle of issues there Ryouma didn’t know how to unravel. Katsuko had never mentioned her family much. He hadn’t known she had a little brother. Had thought she was as alone against the world as he and Kakashi were.
Beni and Nori had helped her move into a new apartment when her own mother kicked her out, she’d said.
Maybe she was.
He held his tongue, biting it only a little, while she turned down side-streets at random. Trees loomed up over roof-lines at last; their alley dead-ended in grass and scattered forest. Ryouma didn’t know this part of Konoha well enough to know if it was a public park or a tucked-away training field. The trees had already shed most of their leaves, and the grass was thin and yellow beneath its brown-edged shroud.
Katsuko stopped only when leaves crunched under her feet. She stood with her back to him, the sharp line of her shoulders rigid and brittle as flint under her shirt. Wind rattled in the barren tree limbs.
“Sorry,” Ryouma said at last. “So much for talking. Did I make it worse?”
Katsuko made a strangled sound that stopped short of being a laugh, scrubbing a hand through her hair. “We talked without drawing steel on each other. It’s an improvement.”
“Knew I was an upgrade,” Ryouma murmured. After a moment, leaves crunched gently underfoot as he stepped up behind her and leaned down, wrapping long arms around her in a gentle embrace. He rested his chin on her shoulder, warm and comforting. “You’re gonna be okay,” he said at last, voice quiet.
Katsuko closed her eyes and leaned back against him, feeling some of the tension she was carrying dissipate. “I’m always okay,” she said. “I don’t care if I have to go it alone. I’ll be okay.”
He gave her a little shake. "Who says you're goin' it alone? I came back as more'n a ghost."
“Hush,” Katsuko said, reaching up to tug on his nose. “You’re ruining my dramatic moment. There was wind blowing through my hair and everything.”
"Yeah, you looked real emo. Another couple minutes watchin' you and I mighta shed a few tears myself." The pressure of Ryouma’s chin on her shoulder disappeared as he straightened, freeing one arm to ruffle her hair. The other he kept draped over her collarbones, anchoring her in the present.
“What can I say?” Katsuko grinned. “I’m an amazing actress. Missed my calling when I went into the murder business instead.”
"And I shoulda been a rockstar."
“We would have taken the entertainment industry by storm,” Katsuko said, and curled a hand around his wrist. After a second, she added, “Still, I like where I am now. Wouldn’t change anything. Even the bad parts.”
Ryouma snorted a little. "Really? I'd change plenty, if somebody was runnin' around handin' out redos. Guess it's a good thing they're not on offer. Save alternate history for the movies, an' just go on finding happiness with what we've got."
Katsuko smiled. “I’ve got you, right?” she said. “You and Kakashi. You guys need looking after.”
He scruffed her hair again. "Says the girl who's mooched seven meals off me without givin' more'n bruises in return. C'mon, I'm still hungry. You owe me pie."
“I’ll buy you pie if you give me a piggyback to the bakery,” Katsuko said, slumping against him. “I’m tired.”
Ryouma dropped his arm from around her collarbones and grabbed her by the waist, swinging her up over his shoulder, head-downward like a sack of rice. Katsuko squawked in surprise, then broke into indignant laughter as he turned them around and started walking toward the man road.
“Tousaki!” she said, pummeling his back. “Tousaki, you big oaf, let me down!”
"Oaf, huh?" He bounced her on his shoulder. "So much for gratitude. All I get are insults. An' fists in the kidneys."
Katsuko cackled and poked him in the ribs. “Oaf. Lint-licker. Goat-toucher. I could go on.”
"I could drop you on your head,” Ryouma said. “Might improve things."
“I always land on my feet,” Katsuko said. “Like a cat. Except when I don’t. Makoto always said--” She stopped, cleared her throat, and fell silent. After a moment, she said, “I should introduce you guys sometime. He’d like you.”
"Sure,” Ryouma said, easily. "Most people like me. The ones who don't write me off as a thug, anyway." After a pause, he added, "He's your little brother, right? I'd like to meet him."
“Yeah,” Katsuko said. “That’d be awesome.” She tapped fingers idly against his spine for a moment. “Ryouma? Thanks. For today.”
The edge of a smile crept into his voice. "Anytime."
Katsuko exhaled, an answering smile flitting across her face, and finally let herself relax.