|Aren't Any Heroes Here [2/2] [Katsuko]||[Mar. 26th, 2012|09:32 pm]|
[[Takes place directly after Aren't Any Heroes Here (1/2)]]|
”You overextended yourself again,” Hideki-sensei said, lighting a cigarette with a snap of his fingers. He took a deep drag off of it and stared down at her, a dryly amused expression on his face.
Katsuko grinned up at him from where she was sprawled out on the surface of the lake, covered in cuts and bruises. Her pathways ached with exhaustion, the trickle of chakra left in her system barely enough to keep her from sinking into the water. “Gotta keep up with Nori and Beni, Sensei. I’m not gonna be this team’s dead-weight.”
After a long moment of silence, Hideki-sensei sighed. He crouched down beside her, cigarette sending curls of smoke up to wreath his head. “There’s such a thing as overkill, Katsuko. Training’s all well and good, but the way you’re going it won’t be long ‘til you—”
burn yourself up—
She couldn’t breathe, it was dark and she couldn’t breathe—
Honoka fell, Higekuro’s dagger bursting through her neck in a shower of crimson and white bone—
"When I’m done with you,” Higekuro purred in her ear, breath blowing hot against her skin. “I’ll find that boy and take my time—”
“Ueno, don’t do this to me. Wake up—”
Higekuro’s skin burned under her hands; his face twisted in shock, and it was easy, so easy, to let go and burn with him—
Something struck her across the cheek, broad and heavy enough to send up little starbursts of pain behind her eyelids. She gasped, clawing at her mask, and large hands helped her untie the strings and rip the porcelain rat face off. Her chakra roared underneath her skin, boiling up her pathways as it tried to eat her alive; Katsuko keened, writhing in agony as her coils buckled underneath the assault. Distantly, she could hear a man shouting.
Someone ripped her chestplate open, yanking up her shirt to expose the seal on her stomach. Callused palms slapped down on the seal’s center, just below her navel; a foreign jutsu pushed underneath her skin, weaving a net that shielded her against her own chakra. Pain flared, then cut off entirely as sensation faded.
Katsuko passed out, for a bit.
When she woke, it was to cold air against her skin and Daichi cradling her in his arms like a rag-doll, his broad face lined and bleached winter pale. “Ueno.”
“Wh...what are you doing?” she croaked. “Get...safe. Higekuro’s—”
Daichi’s voice was oddly gentle. “Higekuro’s dead.”
Katsuko blinked. “What?”
In answer, Daichi wrapped his arm around her shoulders and lifted her up against his chest. She exhaled as the movement jarred her to the bones, making her vision grey out. After a moment sight and sound filtered back in, and the colored blur she saw eventually resolved into the forest clearing.
What was left of the clearing, anyways. The ground around Katsuko had been scorched bare, a ring of circular ash-marks burned into the dirt with her at its center. The trees closest to her had been smashed into kindling, branches lying splintered where they’d fallen.
Higekuro lay sprawled on the other side of the clearing, a few feet from where Honoka’s body still rested. His lower jaw and neck were completely missing, the flesh of his upper torso a blackened ruin. Dull grey eyes stared up at the sky in death, wind stirring the loose strands of blond hair haloed around his head.
Hooves scraped behind her, and Katsuko turned her head to see one of Daichi’s boar summons approach—not Kaguhiro, but a smaller male with a chipped left tusk.
“Daichi-sama,” the boar said. “Let me carry Honoka-sama home.”
Daichi was staring at his sister’s body, eyes bleak. “Yes,” he said at last. “Let’s go home.”
“I can summon clones,” Katsuko said. She glanced down at Daichi’s ruined left leg, noting with relief the bandages that had been applied to the stump of his knee. No blood stained the cloth; small blessings, she supposed.
“No.” Daichi’s voice turned steely. “I nearly lost you back there, Ueno. If my secondary hadn’t been fuuinjutsu...” His grip on her tightened. “Whoever put that insane seal on your stomach deserves to die.”
Katsuko blinked, then looked down at herself. Her chestplate had been discarded, leaving her in only the black ANBU shirt and pants. The hem was rucked up, revealing a glowing blue dampening seal over Kaminari’s handiwork. She could feel her chakra fighting to push past the edges of the dampening seal, a raging river held back by a temporary dam. Even now there was still enough excess energy left to make her muscles twitch.
The boar summons let out an alarmed snort. “Daichi-sama! Kaguhiro-sama is—”
“Shit,” Daichi said, and Katsuko looked up in time to see his face go completely white. His chakra guttered, and the boar summons disappeared in a cloud of smoke.
She swore and scrambled upright, catching Daichi as he collapsed. He was trembling, breathing faint and ragged; when she pressed her fingers to his neck, she could barely feel his pulse.
“Don’t you dare,” Katsuko said, and scrabbled at his belt pouch to dig out a soldier pill. She forced it between his lips, shaking him when his eyes fluttered shut. “Don’t you dare die on me, you godsdamned fucking son of a fuck, wake up and swallow the damn pill—”
Daichi twitched and took a gasping breath; Katsuko nearly sobbed in relief when his jaw clenched and he closed his mouth, swallowing. His chakra flickered and stabilized to a weak hum, matching the steady beat of his pulse.
“Wait here,” Katsuko said, and staggered to her feet. She lurched across the clearing, passing by Higekuro’s corpse without a second glance; her swords lay discarded nearby, and she snatched them up before falling to her knees beside Honoka, reaching out a shaky hand to close the Akimichi woman’s staring eyes. “I’ll get your brother home,” she said, and snapped Honoka’s dog-tags off of the bloody chain around her ruined neck.
Daichi was still out cold when Katsuko made her way back. She tucked Honoka’s dog-tags into her pocket and crouched down, grabbing hold of his arm. “It’s a good thing you’re skinny for an Akimichi,” she said, and hauled him up onto her back.
The dampening seal was leaking now, sending excess chakra to her muscles and pathways without her having to call on it. Daichi’s weight was barely noticeable with her augmented strength; it’d be a race against time to get him back to Konoha before her chakra burned her to a crisp.
Katsuko took a deep breath and started to run.
It had taken her team most of the day to get to Taizan from Konoha. On her own, with Daichi’s dead weight slung across her back and her chakra pushing her to inhuman speeds, Katsuko was making the return journey in mere hours. She couldn’t stop, couldn’t speak, couldn’t think; her had world narrowed down to the taste of blood in her mouth and the mantra of get him home, get him home, get him home.
Daichi groaned in her ear, shifting restlessly. Katsuko glanced back at him, startled; her foot caught on a stray rock and she stumbled, listing sideways. Her chakra roared in her ears, pushing against the dampening jutsu.
It would be easy, so easy, to just stop and rest and let herself go up in flames; it wouldn’t hurt, not the way every part of her did now. The pain would be over. She’d been fighting against her chakra every second of the past five years, always knowing that someday her control would slip and something like this would be the result. No one would blame her; all she had to do was let go, and close her eyes, and it wouldn’t even hurt. She wouldn’t feel anything at all.
Daichi groaned again. “‘onoka.” His voice cracked; his hand tightened on her shoulder. “‘onoka.”
A sound escaped Katsuko’s throat, half-laugh and half-sob. “Damn straight,” she rasped, starting to run again. “Fuck dying. Fuck givin’ up.” She’d made a promise to Honoka. Oblivion would have to wait.
Forest gave way to open fields and the wind at her back, pushing her onwards. Katsuko sucked in a deep breath, ignoring the sharp pain in her side, and ran faster.
Time went a little strange. Sound faded out. Fields turned into swampy marshland, then back into forest. Daichi woke up enough to press a water bottle to her lips, which she drank from without even slowing her pace, but he passed out again before he could bully her into chewing on a ration bar.
Barely half an hour from Konoha’s forests, her legs gave out. It happened abruptly, the warning twinge of her muscles lost in the agony already overwhelming her senses; Katsuko didn’t even know she was falling until Daichi rolled off of her back and she hit the ground face first, breath leaving her lungs in a rush. After a moment, she blinked away the black spots in her vision and pushed herself up on her hands and knees, shaking.
Daichi was sprawled out on the ground, pale as death and hardly breathing. Katsuko started to crawl over to him; her knees gave out halfway, and she collapsed onto her forearms with a muffled curse. “Hakuin,” she begged at last. “Hakuin, help me.”
No one answered her, of course. She wasn’t far gone enough yet to expect any kind of reply from the dead. Katsuko grunted and dragged herself over to Daichi’s side, running on willpower and sheer, idiotic stubbornness. “Don’t die,” she said, fumbling for his pulse. It fluttered beneath her fingers, weak and erratic. “You’re not gonna die, y’hear me? That’s a—that’s an order, agent.”
Black was creeping in at the edges of her vision. Katsuko rested her head on Daichi’s chest, breathed in deep, and closed her eyes.
Urgent voices, distant and deep. Hands pressing against her pulse, foreign chakra washing over hers. Strong arms wrapping around her, lifting her up and cradling her against a broad, armored chest.
Katsuko tipped her head back and slitted her eyes open. An ANBU agent in a brightly painted eagle mask stared down at her. She blinked up at him. “Oh, good,” she said.
Then she passed out again.
She was flat on her back on an operating table, staring up at the glaring overhead lights. A dark-haired woman in a medic’s hat pressed a green-glowing hand to her sternum, sending healing chakra through Katsuko’s ravaged pathways. In the background, more medic-nin clattered about and shouted.
“—vitals are stabilized—”
“—another IV, she’s dehydrated!”
“—need a Hyuuga in here as soon as—”
Katsuko licked her lips. “Daichi,” she croaked.
The dark-haired medic leaned over her. “Your partner is safe, ANBU-san,” she said, gently. “You can rest now.”
Katsuko didn’t remember closing her eyes.
Takeshi from Intel was already waiting for her when she woke up. “Agent Ueno,” he said.
Katsuko blinked fuzzily at him, floating on a sea of painkillers and exhaustion. “You’re that guy,” she said. “Folder guy. Person. Who gave us our mission. That one.”
“Yes,” Takeshi said, patiently. “I was the one who gave you the mission to Taizan. I just need to ask you a few questions, and then you can sleep again.”
She was in a hospital room, tucked into starched white blankets with a host of IVs and heart-rate monitors clustered around her. Takeshi was seated in a chair pulled up to her bedside. There was a window in the far wall that let in the afternoon sun; fractured rays of light fell across the Intel agent’s lined face, throwing the dark bruises underneath his eyes into stark relief.
“Yukimura’s dead,” Katsuko said, quietly. “So’s Honoka.”
Takeshi nodded. “I know. We found the scroll he’d given you in your belt pouch.”
Katsuko closed her eyes. “Then what do you want?”
After a moment, Takeshi said, “Tell me what happened to Higekuro.”
“He killed Yukimura and Honoka,” Katsuko said. “So I killed him.”
“And you’re sure he’s dead?”
“Blew half his damn face off,” Katsuko snapped. “No one comes back from that.”
Takeshi let out a long breath and sat back in his chair, some of the tension leaving his shoulders. “Thank you,” he said. “Yukimura was a friend of mine. That will be all, Agent.”
“What about Daichi?” Katsuko demanded. “Is he still...?”
“Agent Akimichi is in stable condition,” Takeshi said. “He’s in better shape than you, even. He regained consciousness this morning.”
She’d kept her promise to Honoka. She’d brought Daichi home, safe if not exactly sound. Katsuko sighed and turned away, eyes burning. “Thanks.”
“You saved his life, Ueno,” Takeshi said. “It’s an honor to have you with us in ANBU.”
She waited until the door had closed behind him before she finally let herself cry.
Katsuko’s dreams were full of fire and lightning, the voices of the dead echoing in her ears. Hakuin and Ichiba sat at the foot of her bed, smiling at her. Hideki-sensei smoothed back the sweat-drenched hair from her forehead and held her hand, murmuring soothing nonsense. They faded away, eventually, to be replaced by Honoka. The Akimichi woman didn’t say anything, just settled herself in the chair Takeshi had left behind and rested a bloody hand on Katsuko’s stomach, just above the seal.
Honoka was gone the next time Katsuko opened her eyes; sitting in her place was Katsuko’s mother, clad in black gi and hakama.
“You’re not even dead yet,” Katsuko said. Her eyes were still sore from crying, her nose stuffy and swollen. “Send Hideki-sensei back. I want him instead.”
Ueno Hisae folded her arms and raised one dark eyebrow, eerily accurate for a hallucination. She didn’t draw her swords and attack Katsuko like usual, which was strange; then again, this entire dream was rather out of the ordinary. In fact, Hisae’s katana and kodachi were nowhere in sight; not even figments of Katsuko’s imagination could sneak weapons past the medic-nin, she guessed.
“These painkillers are awesome,” Katsuko said. “Man, I love drugs.”
“Should you really be saying that in front of your own mother?” Hisae asked. Her voice was raspier than normal, like she’d been shouting. There were no strands of white in her long black ponytail, nor any sign of emotion on her face. She was the same as she’d always been: beautiful, ageless, merciless. Unreachable.
“You’re not my mother anymore, remember?” Katsuko said. “You told me you didn’t have a daughter, after the duel. You kicked me out.”
Hisae’s expression didn’t change. “I gave you the family swords.”
“Yes,” Katsuko said, hiding her confusion. “You did.”
“A messenger from the hospital found me and told me the news,” Hisae said, at last. “I came here as soon as I was able.”
Katsuko couldn’t help herself; she laughed. “See,” she said, giggling. “Now I know you’re a hallucination. Mother wouldn’t say things like that. Mother wouldn’t care.”
For a moment, she thought Hisae was going to hit her. Katsuko flinched, raising a hand in defense; the heart monitor hooked up to her wrist beeped alarmingly, and Hisae’s expression went blank again.
“I’ve spoken with the chakra specialists,” Hisae said, after a moment. “As it is now, losing control would cause you to overload and your coils to detonate. You will resign from ANBU and as a shinobi and move back in with the family.”
“Nuh uh,” Katsuko said, still smiling a little. “That’s not how this works. You gave me to Konoha, remember? That was part of the deal when you came to the village to be with Dad. Amnesty in exchange for one of your kids to serve as a shinobi. One of your kids with a bloodline limit. But I didn’t have a limit, did I? I was just me. I guess your mother’s kekkei genkai got drummed out of the gene pool. And you gave me to them anyways. No take-backs.”
Usually at this point the dream wavered, reality breaking apart at the edges, and Katsuko woke up. Even mere hallucinations of her mother were stubborn, though; Hisae frowned at her, brow creasing, and refused to cease to exist. “Is this all you are?” her mother asked. “Just some tool of a ninja village, throwing away honor and integrity to blindly follow orders?”
“Call it whatever you like,” Katsuko said, tiredly. “The way I see it, honor’s killed more people than it’s saved. I don’t serve for honor, Mother. I serve because the people I love are in this village, and I’ll protect them until the day I die. Now go away and let me sleep.”
There was a long silence. Hisae stared down at her, a thoughtful look in her eyes. “I’ve underestimated you,” she said, and stood up. “You’re stronger than this, Katsuko. If you give up now, I will be very disappointed.”
“Don’t worry, Mother,” Katsuko said, already drifting off. “Dying’s not on my list of things to do for today.”
At some point, they took her off the painkillers.
Katsuko woke up clear-headed and feeling like she’d gone twelve rounds with a rabid bear, dry-mouthed and nauseous. The dark-haired medic from the operating room was standing next to the bed, a clipboard in her hand and a sympathetic look on her face.
“Wa’er,” Katsuko croaked.
“I’m sorry, Ueno-san,” the medic said. “But we can’t let you have fluids for another twelve hours.”
Katsuko glowered at the woman. “Wha... what do you want?”
The medic hesitated. “It’s.. it’s about your chakra, Ueno-san. One of our Hyuuga doctors took a look at your coils, and the diagnosis isn’t promising.”
“All right,” Katsuko said at last, after the silence had grown unbearable. “What’s the verdict?”
The medic looked down at her clipboard. “When you lost control of your chakra, Ueno-san, it started deteriorating the seal on your stomach. We’ve got you under enough inhibiting jutsu right now to keep you balanced, but it will take weeks of intensive chakra therapy before—”
“That’s enough,” Katsuko said. “Help me sit up.”
“I’m not listening to this lying down,” Katsuko snapped. “Either you help me sit up, or you give me the full report in print and let me figure it out on my own.”
The woman tucked the clipboard underneath her arm and took hold of Katsuko’s arm, helping to untangle her from the blankets and swing her legs over the side of the mattress. Katsuko braced her hands on her knees, breathing raggedly, and steeled herself before looking the medic in the eye.
“How much time do I have left?”