She’d needed a nap after the appointment with the chakra specialists. Just— half an hour. Half an hour to close her eyes and rest, and forget about the medics with their grave eyes and gloved hands and their diagrams, their careful illustrations of how she was falling apart from the inside.
Half an hour had turned into an hour, and then a few hours after that, and the next thing Katsuko knew she was being yelled at by Uchiha cops and kidnapped by one of her mission partners.
“Huh,” Katsuko said, and stared blearily around, yawning. “Whaddya know. Another roof.”
"Have you been drinking? Or taking anything?" Genma moved to the side and put a hand on her shoulder, ready to steady her or jump out of the way of any translocation-induced puking.
“Why do people keep on asking me that?” Katsuko sighed and hauled the hem of her shirt up, scratching at a persistent itch on her ribs that had been bothering her all day. “I’m fine, I was just taking a nap. How’re you doin’?”
"Fine,” Genma said, slowly. "You wanna sit down?" He gestured to a spot behind them and moved his hand to grip her upper arm, steadying her even further. "You always nap on the bank roof?"
“Ah,” Katsuko said. “Maybe not that particular bank.” She hadn’t noticed, to be honest. Any roof would have done, and that one was nice and flat and didn’t stink like the hospital. She smiled benignly up at Genma. “Roofs in general are nice for taking naps on. Sunny, warm— ‘til it gets dark, that is. What time is it?”
Genma looked at her, eyebrows raised. "A little before midnight,” he said, and tugged her down to sit beside him. “You went to sleep on the bank roof when the sun was still up?"
Katsuko flopped onto her back and crossed her arms behind her head, sighing. “Yeah,” she said. “I’m tired a lot of the time, now. Guess I really need my beauty sleep.”
He leaned in. "Tired a lot? You okay? You're not anemic, are you?"
“Hi, Genma,” Katsuko said, dryly. “Nice to see you again. How are you doing, Genma? I’m doing okay. How was your day, Genma? My day was great, thanks for asking.”
Genma laughed and rocked back. "Raidou calls me 'mother medic' when I do that," he said, stretching out his legs and opening up the sack he’d been carrying slung over one wrist. "I got rice balls, want one?"
“Food,” Katsuko said, and held out a hand in imperious command. Her stomach rumbled, loudly, and she grimaced. “Haven’t eaten since this morning. Gotta work on that.”
He dropped a rice ball into her outstretched palm and gave her a look. "Don't you get hungry?"
She closed her eyes. “Always,” she said. “My chakra burns up food as soon as I eat it, practically.”
He dug out another rice ball and handed it to her. "That sucks. Is that why you're so tired? Or did you really want me to stop asking you about that?"
Katsuko shoved a rice ball in her mouth instead of answering, chewing noisily with her mouth open as she made a face at him. “Mother medic,” she accused.
He sighed and lowered himself onto his back beside her. "Fine. Have it your way. I ought to at least get a thank-you for keeping you from getting an official MP write up."
“S’ank oo,” Katsuko managed, through a mouthful of rice. She swallowed and added, “Coulda outrun ‘em, though. Once I woke up all the way.”
"Yeah,” Genma said. “Except they'd have Sharinganed your ass before you knew what hit you. I woke up in the police station once with an ice pack between my legs and a hell of a headache."
Katsuko choked on her rice ball.
Slapping her on the back, Genma sat back up and waited until she’d stopped spluttering. “Usually you want to swallow the food and inhale the air,” he said helpfully.
“Screw you,” Katsuko gasped between coughs. “The Uchiha kicked you in the ’nads?”
“Actually, Raidou kicked me in the ‘nads,” Genma allowed, and was rewarded with fresh incredulous choking from Katsuko. “I can explain.”
She turned an impatient glare on him and crammed another mouthful of rice ball between her teeth, gesturing with her free hand for him to spit it out already.
“So there was this drunken bar brawl. Well, Rai was drunk, but I was sober, which really sucked, actually. Anyway, he was having a shitty day—” which was a little like saying the Fox’s attack had been an inconvenience “—and he went out drinking alone, and I found him playing civilians for suckers at darts. So I tried to get him to come back home with me, ‘cause we were supposed to have dinner together anyway, and I knew what he was getting drunk about.” He looked up at the horizon, remembering Raidou’s bandaged face that day, raked by Tsume’s nails. Raidou’s snarl for him to get away... “He fights dirty when he’s pissed, and I wasn’t wearing a cup, ‘cause I was in civvies.”
Katsuko’s scrutiny intensified. “And then he kicked you in the nuts, and then you got schooled by the Uchiha?”
“Kind of. I think someone broke a chair over my back first, and then Raidou got me where it counts right when the Uchiha were coming in to bust up the fight. The whole bar was pretty much fighting by that point—any excuse, you know?—So they came in and saw him get me good, and I was going down, but then one of them went after him, aiming for his face...” Genma gestured at his left cheek, stroking parallel lines from his nose to his jaw in imitation of Raidou’s scars. “And that pissed me off. So I broke the cop’s collarbone, and he Sharinganed me, and next thing I knew I was sitting in the precinct with an ice bag between my thighs and a pretty firm conviction I was never gonna be a father.”
Katsuko howled with laughter, rocking back and forth. The wrapper from her rice ball fell from helpless fingers, and she clutched at her abdomen, gasping for breath.
“And then,” Genma went on, talking over her, “they threw me and Rai both in the drunk tank overnight, even though I was stone cold sober.”
Katsuko flopped over onto her back, cackling. “Oh gods,” she gasped. “Oh gods. What did Raidou do when he woke up?”
“He was awake,” Genma said. “In the drunk tank. It was… yeah, actually the rest of the story isn't really that funny."
She patted him on the knee. “S’alright,” she said. “Thanks for sharing that, though. Made my day.” Snickering, she added, “He kicked you in the nuts.”
Genma relaxed when it became apparent she wasn’t interested in pursuing that topic of conversation, chuckling and resting his hands protectively between his legs. "It wasn't even the first time. He's gone for it a couple of times when we were sparring, but I always wear a cup when I spar, because that's just not a way you want to lose a fight. And he got me once when I was in pajamas when we were… Actually crap, that's a kind of not-funny story, too."
“I’m sensing a theme,” Katsuko said, dryly. “Maybe we should come up with a signal for when we’re verging into not-funny territory. A danger dance or a hand gesture or something.” After a moment she sighed and dragged her fingers through her hair, staring up at the night sky. “I went to see the chakra specialists today. Things aren’t looking good.”
Genma shifted, nudging one leg out to bump against hers. "What happened?"
“My seal,” Katsuko said, gesturing vaguely at her stomach where Kaminari’s handiwork lay. “A while back there was a bad mission. Lost control, sent out a chakra blast large enough to knock me out and blow up half a forest. My chakra started deteriorating then. Medics are doing all they can, but...” she shrugged. “Heh. Have I even told you about my seal?”
"No,” Genma said, a little alarm entering his tone. “What seal? What do you mean your chakra's deteriorating?"
Katsuko rubbed her temples, already regretting letting that piece of information slip. “I just met you—I don’t even know why I’m telling you this.” No time left, a little voice in the back of her head whispered. No time left, and no one to hear your story.
Katsuko closed her eyes. “When I was in the labs, the head scientist put a seal on me.” She pressed a hand to her stomach. “It fucked with my chakra, permanently overloaded my coils. It’s the reason why I can pull off a couple A-rank jutsu without breaking a sweat—all that energy’s always looking for somewhere to go. Same reason why I can’t even light a candle with chakra without blowing the whole room up. All or nothing.”
Genma shifted beside her, letting out a long breath. "Fuckers. You were a kid, too. Doing that to a fucking kid. I've had chakra overloads in my hands. Just in my hands. I thought the pain'd make me pass out sometimes, and that was just temporary." One of those scarred hands settled gently next hers; Genma bumped her shoulder, a silent offer of comfort. "I have a friend, Rina. She does seal work. Maybe she could help you."
“No,” Katsuko said, sharply. “No more seal work, no more ink on my skin, just—” she stopped and took a deep breath. “I’m not laying myself out on a lab table for some stranger to poke at my stomach.”
Genma exhaled, long and low. He didn’t move away from her at all."Okay. Yeah, nothing like that. She just… She designed some of the medical seals they used to get the chakra coils in my hands to heal. But you don't have to talk to her."
“I’ll think about it,” Katsuko lied. For a seal specialist who didn’t know her, Katsuko would just be another interesting puzzle to poke at and make curious noises over. She’d had enough of being treated like a piece of meat attached to a fascinating inked seal design for a lifetime.
"Is there anything they can do for you? You said it was bad news…"
“Chakra therapy,” Katsuko said, dryly. “Chakra therapy, and more chakra therapy. They seem to think that working on my control will help when my coils start disintegrating.”
He tried to envision the chakra coils threaded through every line of her body, the way they would be on an anatomy chart. What could they have done to her in Kumogakure that would have caused her chakra to go on permanent overload? Maybe it was like the taijutsu technique of opening gates? But that technique tore apart muscles and organs, not the coils. It liberated the energy that held cells together and turned it into chakra. It wasn’t sustainable.
But maybe, if her ‘scientist’ had found a way to make it sustainable, that much chakra coursing through her coils over time would damage them.
“I don’t understand,” Genma said, staring at the midnight lights of Konoha in the streets fanned out below them. “Is it a gate thing? What do you mean disintegrating? If your coils are being damaged by the overload, how is better control supposed to help? Shouldn’t they be trying to fix the overload at the source?”
"The seal itself is disintegrating," Katsuko answered. "When it does, my coils will collapse along with it. If I lose control during a jutsu, or mess up a hand seal, or…" She waved a hand in the air in a vague circle. "Or mess up, really, the seal will just fall apart.” Her voice was calm and matter-of-fact, at odds with the dreadful scenario she described. “If I can manage to avoid doing that, they figure I've got months. Maybe even a year, year-and-a-half. If I'm lucky."
“If you’re lucky?” Genma stared hard at her profile, at the breeze tousling her hair back in dark strands, at the placid fall of her lip and the way the moonlight picked up the barest hint of a worried crease in her brow.
I’m looking at a dead woman, he thought suddenly. She wasn’t just facing the staggering odds of disability or early death that came with wearing ANBU’s spiral on her shoulder: she was sitting there talking about being lucky to live another year before violence that was done to her in the service of Konoha when she was barely past puberty finally caught up with her.
He didn’t even think about what he was doing, he just raised one arm and draped it over her shoulders, pulling her against his side as if the night were chilly. She stiffened in confusion, then reached up to pat him awkwardly on the back and leaned against him, accepting the gesture even if she didn’t understand it.
Next to him her chakra burned like a furnace, bright and brassy and sharp-edged, like a saw-toothed blade. It was almost uncomfortable, like a too-bright light in his peripheral vision. Her face turned up towards his in a question, but he didn’t have an answer for her. He just shrugged and shook his head, not letting go.
“Bastards,” he said at length, because there was nothing else he could say. “It’s not okay. I’m not... I’m not okay with that.”
Katsuko laughed at that, poking him gently in the side. “I hope that’s an understatement.”
Genma’s reply rocked her back on her metaphorical heels. "I want to kill every fucker in Kumogakure that had anything to do with what happened to you,” he said, low and slightly threatening. “And go kick the balls of every medic at the hospital until they do something for you. How can they just let you die?"
Katsuko blinked at him. “I,” she said. “Um. Just... give me a second. I didn’t expect that kind of reaction.” She ran her fingers through her hair and reorganized her scattered thoughts. “The medics—they’re still working on a fix for me. They haven’t come up with anything yet, but... there’s still time.” Not enough time, but she’d take what she could get.
"I hope so,” Genma said. “I hope… Maybe I should talk to Rina. I mean, even if you don't want to talk to her, I could. She's really smart about seals. Really smart. I'd be completely crippled if it weren't for her." He looked away. "I'd probably be dead if it weren't for her."
“Hey,” Katsuko said, gently, and tugged on a stray lock of his hair. “It’ll be okay. If you... if you trust her, I could ask the medics to give her access to my files. They’ve got diagrams of my seal in there. In triplicate. Color-coded, even.” For all the good it did.
"Yeah, that'd be good,” Genma said. “She could look at the diagrams, and talk to your docs and stuff. Maybe she'd have some ideas. She did this chart for me, back when… the first time. If you want, I could show it to you."
Katsuko looked at him, brow creasing. Genma’s expression was carefully neutral, concerned anger showing in the slight downturn of his mouth. He didn’t meet her gaze, fixing his stare somewhere far off in the distance.
“If that’s alright with you,” she said, carefully. “I’d like to see them.”
"Yeah. They're in my room. You want to come down? Rai's not home yet, he's doing sentry at the Hokage Palace."
She shrugged, giving him a cheeky grin. “Sure. It’s not like I have anywhere else to be.”
As soon as he’d offered to show her the charts, Genma regretted it. But Katsuko was dying from a chakra problem that maybe Rina could fix. Or help fix. And ever since that sunrise conversation with Katsuko on the creek bank a week ago, he’d been thinking about her. About what she’d been through, and how she’d survived. She felt small and delicate under his arm, despite her outsized chakra and well-toned muscle. He squeezed her shoulder, then stood up.
“Come on, then. I can make us some tea. You have to excuse the mess, though.”
“Eh, cleaning,” Katsuko said, flapping a dismissive hand as she got to her feet. “Much better things to do than tidy. Like breathe.”
Genma chuckled. “Yeah, don’t say that to Raidou, though. He’s one of those guys who has a place that looks like no one is ever home.”
He led the way to the roof-stair door, a shadowy vestibule much trafficked by ANBU HQ’s residents. A small litter of cigarette butts was scattered near the door. Genma rolled his eyes. “Fujita’s been smoking up here again. I don’t know what his objection is to burning his butts. You’d think he’d be more paranoid about leaving evidence he was here, you know? Not like you need to be paranoid in village, but it’s a bad habit.” He scorched the butts to ash, casting a fire jutsu without a second thought.
Katsuko's face twitched to blankness and her dark eyes darted away, but her voice was light and teasing when she drawled, “Some people just think that the world's their ashtray. Only solution is jail or justifiable homicide.”
“Yeah,” Genma agreed. He held the door open for her, then followed her down the dimly-lit stairs. Something about his fire jutsu had triggered her, and he was an idiot for having done it, he told himself. He hadn’t even thought, it just came second-nature. Was it the memory of the burns on her arms, or the awareness that casting a simple, low-power fire jutsu was beyond her reach and might kill her if she tried?
Did it matter?
She put her hand on the door that lead out to the third floor.
“Sorry about that back there,” Genma said quietly.
"It's no trouble," Katsuko answered. "If I freaked out over everything that brought up old memories, I'd never leave my room."
“Yeah, I know what you mean,” Genma told her. He let her into his apartment, kicking off his shoes in the entryway and waiting while she did the same. When he switched on the overhead light, he swept a hand towards the low dining table. A small stack of magazines and half-finished paperwork spilled across its surface. “Have a seat,” he said. “I’ll make tea, if you want.”
She thought she’d gotten over it years ago, but the snap of fire jutsu and the acrid tang of cigarettes made something in her curl up in fear. Maybe it was having the whole mess with her seal brought up anew at the hospital appointment. Maybe it was the conversation on the roof, that silent moment of understanding with Genma of what it was like to be broken down and forced to heal crooked. The old scars on her arms throbbed at the memory of ugly laughter, the reek of burnt flesh as the orderly ground the still-glowing end of his cigarette into her skin—
No. No. Think of something else. Anything else.
Katsuko shrugged with forced nonchalance and lowered herself into one of the floor chairs, leaning back with a sigh. “You one of those tea experts?” she asked, eying the traditional iron teapot on the counter. “Can’t say the same. Dump enough sugar in it and I’m good to go.”
Genma gave her an unimpressed look. "You put sugar in your tea?"
She grinned at him, surprised when it came out mostly genuine. “I put sugar in everything.”
He snorted, arranging assorted tea paraphernalia on a tray. “You need to meet my friend Ginta. You're clearly two of a kind.” He glanced around his kitchen, looking for something.
Katsuko blinked. “Ginta? Sakamoto Ginta? You know him?”
“Yeah.” Genma glanced at her in surprise. “You too? He and I hook up sometimes. Used to hook up. Before Raidou and I…” he winced. “I should probably talk to him about that.”
Katsuko raised an eyebrow. “Haven’t told him you’re a one-man man, yet?”
His eyes widened in alarm. "”I… I don't know. Is that what I am? I mean, I haven't talked to Ginta yet, but it's not like we have an arrangement. And Rai and I haven't really talked it over, either, it just sort of all happened.”
She cackled. “Let’s put it this way. Would you be upset if Raidou hopped into bed with someone else right now without telling you?”
Genma’s expression darkened, but all he said was, “I wouldn't like it, but it would be his business, not mine.”
“Congratulations!” Katsuko crowed. “You are feeling the pangs of committed monogamy. It’s official: you are now solely a one-dick man.” She paused. “Unless you count your dick. Then that makes it two.”
The expression on his face was pure consternation. After a second, he shook his head and laughed. “I can't believe we’re sitting here talking about my dick and who I share it with.”
“I can,” Katsuko said, cheerily. “Now where’s my tea, tea-slave?”
“Don't you think if we're going to play a slave and master game, we ought to establish a safe-word first?” Genma brought the tea tray and a box of rice crackers over, setting them on the table before plopping a bowl of sugar down in front of her with a flourish.
“Please,” Katsuko scoffed. “We’re not wearing nearly enough leather for a scene.” She dragged the bowl of sugar closer, possessively.
“You need to think more creatively. Leather is so pedestrian.” Genma laughed, a little edgily, and looked away.
“You don’t have to show me those charts, you know,” Katsuko said, taking a wild guess as to what was making him so uncomfortable. “We can hang out, I can steal all the food from your fridge and bother you until Raidou comes back.”
“No. I mean. I'll show them to you,” Genma said. “I want you to trust Rina. I want you to let her help you, so you need to see what she can do.” He stood up and went over to his dresser, pulling out the bottom-most drawer and lifting out a sealed box. He palmed the seals, lifted the lid, and started to take things out: some photographs, a stuffed toy donkey, a broken ceramic bowl, and several scrolls. He put everything away again except for one of the scrolls, which he brought back to the table. “I haven't looked at this in a long time, really.”
Katsuko folded her hands in front of her on the table and looked up at him, studying his expression. “Thank you,” she said at last. “It just— it means a lot, that you’re willing to show me this. Thank you.”
Genma shrugged, looking away from Katsuko’s face. “It’s no big deal,” he told her, but the way the scroll shook in his scarred hands as he unsealed it proved him a liar. He cleared a space on the table to unroll the papers, revealing an almost beautiful ink drawing of a pair of hands and forearms, palms up, with bones and muscles, blood vessels, nerves, and chakra paths each traced out in a different color. Even a cursory glance revealed awkward junctions and splices, almost inorganic corners, but every line was intact, every circuit complete.
“Okay. So, this is how it is now. There’s other views, too, if you want, but this one shows everything pretty well,” he said. He flipped up the paper, revealing another one underneath showing the hands from the back, and a third that held side views.
Katsuko leaned in to study the diagram, expression serious and intent. “How many sessions did this take to complete?”
“I don’t know for sure. It was... Let’s see. It was March when they brought me in, and I was in the hospital for eleven weeks.” He stared past the curling edges of the papers, remembering those months, and the months of outpatient rehab that had followed. “And they sometimes did two treatments a day. So... a lot. But I was back on active duty by September. That’s not that bad, really, if you consider everything.” His eyes strayed to the date on the page, carefully inked in Rina’s neat script. “Rina made these diagrams March seventeen, about a week after I got brought in. When it still looked like this.”
He pressed his thumb against a slightly smudged swirl in one corner of the drawing, feeding in a pulse of chakra and activating the ink, which came to life on the paper, reversing time. Healthy chakra-channels collapsed, intact nerves frayed and split, whole bones fragmented, until the hands on the page looked like they’d never function again.
Katsuko let out a soft breath, and her hand touched down on Genma’s shoulder, warm and steady. "This was the same year I was captured," she said quietly, staring at the date.
Genma pushed chakra into the ink again, animating healing this time, instead of destruction. He looked at Katsuko, trying to make sense of what she’d just said. “I don’t know whether that’s sad or ironic or funny.” A push of chakra and the hands deteriorated, another and they knit together again. There was something almost hypnotic about the way the broken parts came together, as seals flared in the diagram. “I’m gonna go with sad that they made you wait this long to get help.”
Katsuko shrugged, her lips turning up in a bitter smile. "There's not much they could have done, anyways. They were pretty clear from the start that my coils were fucked up beyond repair."
“They just didn’t get the right person,” Genma said, wanting to make it true by saying it. “When Rina did this, she was just starting out, I mean, Ito-sensei did most of the work, she just diagrammed it and worked out some of the seals. But she’s a lot more skilled now, and she learned a lot doing the work on me. When I was hurt this last time, in March, when Rai and I got ambushed by Sago—” He cut himself off, catching her eye. “I’m assuming you already got the rumor-mill’s version of that, right?”
"Sago?" Katsuko asked. "That's the man who did this?" She looked pissed, staring down at the diagram, and her chakra flared, hot and bright with killing intent before she clamped it down.
“No. The ones who did this, they’re dead. This was four years ago,” Genma said, gesturing at the papers. “Last March Raidou and I got ambushed on a mission by Sago the Butcher, a missing nin from Mist. He burned Rai’s face and chest, and he went after my hands. Just the left, and he didn’t do nearly as much damage as the Iwa bastards did the first time around, but it was still pretty bad.” He held out his left arm, showing her the newly healed scars that laced over old ones.
Katsuko rubbed her own forearm, where a network of old torture scars lurked under bandages.
“Look, the thing is,” Genma said quickly, “it looked hopeless, but it wasn’t.” He flipped to a page showing the back of his hands and keyed the chakra-ink, so that the bloody wreckage Iwa had left was clear. He pointed to one particularly bad section, where the green tracery of his chakra coils was a broken jumble. “You wouldn’t think there would be any way you’d ever get chakra flowing through there again, but they fixed it. They always warned me it was fragile, though, so when I came in with my hand messed up again in March, I was pretty sure it was over for me. But Rina developed new seals and stuff, and it’s actually better now than it was before.”
He held out his hands again, flexing the joints. “I mean, you saw me work jutsu. I’m fine now.” He met her eyes, wanting her to believe him. “So maybe she can help you. Or if not Rina, someone else. She learned seals from someone. Maybe the Hokage. You can’t just give up.”
Katsuko let out a breath and pressed a hand to her stomach, feeling the heat of her seal through the thin fabric of her t-shirt. “I never said I was giving up,” she said, steadily. “I’m just afraid. I’ve been afraid ever since the labs, and I don’t think I’ll ever stop being afraid.” She met Genma’s eyes. “But that doesn’t mean I’m giving up. Fear can suck my dick.”
Genma’s expression flickered from sympathetic understanding to startlement, and then he let out a surprised bark of laughter. “Yeah. Exactly. Mine, too. Although honestly it gives a lousy blowjob."
Katsuko snickered and took her hand off her seal, drumming her fingers against the table instead. “And that’s why no one likes fear.” She looked down at Genma’s scroll again, at the delicate tracery of veins and torn chakra pathways made whole again. “You trust Rina with your life.”
It wasn’t a question.
"I do," Genma said, simply. "If not for her, I don't think I'd even be here right now."
Katsuko nodded and took a deep breath. “Then... I’d like to talk to her about my seal. If she could heal injuries like this,” she flicked her fingers at Genma’s diagram, “then maybe she could help me. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not looking forward to being prodded and poked and drawn on, but... I’ve still got things to do. Debts to repay. Dying would get in the way of that.”
Sensei. Hakuin. Ichiba. Asuma. All those poor, nameless souls who’d burned to death in the labs, still trapped behind iron bars. Kaminari was going to answer for what she’d done to her victims; Katsuko had spent too long training herself into a one-woman reckoning to turn back from that now.
"Yeah. Okay. I'll ask her when she's gonna be free. You could come over and meet her, just to meet her or something. If you want." Genma fiddled with the papers, rolling the edges between his long, crooked fingers. His gaze flicked over the sweeping lines of ink; he seemed torn between staring at the diagram in morbid fascination, or turning away from it in horror. "You want to keep looking at these?"
“I’m fine,” Katsuko said, gently. “You can put them away, now. Thank you for showing me, Genma.”
His lips curved, gratitude and relief and the slightest bit of embarrassment tinging his smile. He ducked his head, rolling up the papers and re-sealing them as quickly as possible. As the last seal went into place he visibly tried to shiver the tension out of his spine, exhaling soft and quiet. "Damn, maybe I should be drinking something stronger than tea. Some nights you can just tell what kind of dreams you're going to have if you're sober, you know?"
Katsuko chuckled. “Yeah, I know what you mean. I think we all have those kinds of nights.” She dragged her hands through her hair, letting out a sigh. “It’d be nice if I could dream about unicorns instead. Something fluffy and harmless-looking. Like kittens, or toast.”
“Now I’m picturing a unicorn with toast stacked up on its horn and kittens on its back,” Genma said, laughing.
“Toasty the unicorn,” Katsuko agreed, straight-faced. “And his kitten friends Pounce and Bloodfang.”
“Your brain must be a bizarre place,” Genma told her, grinning. He put the scroll and his other treasures carefully back in their box, breathing through the knotted anxiety in his gut that looking at those diagrams always brought up. But it seemed like Katsuko understood, and in a way he wasn’t sure anyone else he’d ever talked to really did. As he repacked the box, he paused, holding a yellowing envelope. “You want to see something?”
She arched an eyebrow. “Sure. Is it a unicorn?”
“Not exactly.” Genma sat down at the table again, opened the envelope, and fished out a small, faded color photograph of a dark haired woman smiling and holding a plump baby, who was waving a stuffed toy donkey in one hand. “Here. That’s my mom.”
Katsuko let out a soft breath, studying the photograph with a wistful, almost reverent look in her eyes. “She’s beautiful,” she whispered, leaning in and letting her fingertips hover over the image like she wanted to stroke the young woman’s disarrayed hair. “She... she loved you?”
Genma felt like he’d made a mistake. Like somehow he was going to hurt Katsuko no matter how he answered. “She did,” he said finally, because it was the truth. “Here. Here’s another.” He handed Katsuko a second photo, this one of a dark-eyed little girl and a nearly-blond toddler looking up from a mostly destroyed birthday cake. Much of the cake was smeared over the children’s faces. “That’s my sister Yumiko on her seventh birthday. And me. You probably figured that out already.”
“You were both adorable devil children,” Katsuko said, offering Genma a genuine grin.
“You don’t even know the half of it. That picture was taken a half-hour before Yumi’s birthday party was supposed to start.” He laughed and handed Katsuko another photo, a very formal black-and-white portrait of the dark-haired woman in a wedding kimono, with a tall, slender man with eyes like Genma’s standing next to her, also clad in formal attire. He paired it with a second photo of the same couple, but this time in color, both in uniform, and both clearly laughing. Someone’s out-of-focus arm blocked part of the image, and a litter of beer bottles decorated a table behind them. “Mom and Dad. I don’t know why I’m showing you these. I can stop if you want.”
Except he did know. It was a relief—a touchstone—to look at these photos of the long-ago, before those hand charts had ever even seemed a possibility.
“It’s fine,” Katsuko said quickly. She spread the photos in front of her, gazing at them with a hungry longing in her eyes. “It’s just... nice. Seeing people who loved each other and their kids so much.”
“You didn’t have that?” Genma guessed. “Were you a war orphan?”
“No,” Katsuko said after a moment’s hesitation. “Both my parents are alive. My little brother, too.” A bitter expression fleeted over her face, leaving a tired look behind. “I’m not... welcome at home. Haven’t been for years.”
“That’s just... Shit.” Genma looked down at the photographs and Katsuko’s bowed head. “Why?” He regretted the question as soon as he’d asked it. “You don’t have to tell me. Obviously they’re fucked up, whatever reason they have.”
“I don’t know,” Katsuko said. Her slender shoulders folded in, and for a moment she looked utterly worn out, like she was waiting for a finishing blow. “Sometimes you’re just not enough.” She slid the photos back to Genma with a wan smile that didn’t reach her eyes. “Thank you for sharing these with me. It... it means a lot.”
It made more sense now, why Katsuko might just decide to let her life spool out without fighting for it. And it pissed Genma off in ways he couldn’t really articulate. He took the photos back and handed Katsuko one more. It was much more recent, and burned to charcoal on one edge. In it, a teenage Genma in jounin blues grinned at the camera with his arm slung around the shoulders of a pretty girl who could have been his twin if she’d been a little older. She was leaning on crutches, with stiff braces on both legs.
“This is Haruko,” he said a little thickly. “You remind me of her.”
Katsuko handled the photograph with care, staring down at the girl’s brown eyes. “Your little sister?” she asked. “She has the same smile as you.”
"Yeah." His lips quirked slightly and he glanced up, across the room. A table set against the wall held a small, well-tended shrine and a cluster of memorial tablets. "She really wanted to be a ninja, but she couldn't because of her legs. I always used to tell her it was better if she wasn't, so she could be the one Shiranui to live to be ninety."
Katsuko ran her fingers lightly over the charred edge of the photo. “What was she like?”
“Um.” A slightly helpless look crossed his face as he struggled to find the words. "She was really funny. She was always joking around. Definitely the baby. She was smart, and she was really good at music. She liked animals." He shrugged, sheepishly. "She one time woke me up by putting a turtle in my bed."
A giggle escaped Katsuko before she could stop it. “A turtle?” She grinned, laughter bubbling up out of her. “Did she drop it on your face?”
"No, it was worse. She put it under the covers at my feet, and it went up my pajama leg." Genma stretched his bare foot out and shook it, like an imaginary turtle had gone up his pants leg, and did a little seated dance that clearly translated to ‘oh my god there is a turtle climbing up my thigh’. “You’ve never seen anyone get out of bed faster.” He grinned at Katsuko, eyes creasing at the corners.
Katsuko set the photo down gently on the table and scooted around, settling herself down by Genma and hesitantly wrapping an arm around his shoulders. It was half-impulse, half-- well, she really didn’t know. Just something that resonated in answer to Genma talking about little siblings and broken families.
“Tell me more?” she asked, a little awkwardly. “It’s-- it’s nice. Hearing about it.”
There was something surprising and unbelievably tender about Katsuko’s gesture, something that made Genma freeze for a moment, before he relaxed into her embrace and leaned against her slender side. He could feel the too-hot buzz of her chakra like a fever or an electric current, and the uncertainty in her touch.
Maybe it was just that she was the same size Haruko had been, or maybe it was her frightening fragility packaged in a tough exterior, but when he looked down at Katsuko, she was everything like his little sister... and nothing at all. He swallowed, glancing at her bandaged arms and remembering thick circles of overlapping burns; at least Haruko had never had to face torture.
If she had, would she have come out as diamond-bright as Katsuko?
“She probably would have liked you,” he said, still gazing at the photograph. “She’d have thought you were funny, sleeping on the bank roof and rolling off like that. She always said she wanted to fly. I used to piggy-back her around and go roof-running. It was good training for me, and it was about as close to flying as I could give her. This one time I missed a jump and we fell. She ended up with a black eye, and I twisted my ankle pretty bad, and we were both scraped all up. Yumi, our big sister, was so pissed off, but Haruko just laughed.” He shrugged at the memory. “I’m not exactly sure why that reminds me of you, but it does.”
“Maybe the whole falling-off-a-roof bit,” Katsuko suggested, dryly amused.
“Yeah,” Genma agreed. “Probably that. Let’s go with the obvious.” He chuckled and yawned, and reached for his tea. His stomach rumbled for the rice balls he’d skipped, but it was late, and he wasn’t sure he cared enough to look for something else. “She would have been nineteen this year, in December,” he said, turning the photograph over in his fingers. On the back was written his and Haruko’s names in Yumiko’s elegant script, and a bolder, more exuberant annotation in Haru’s hand, ‘Nii-chan’s new uniform!’
He shrugged his shoulders when Katsuko turned her face up at him. “This was from the summer I got promoted to Special Jounin, when I was seventeen. She was thirteen. That fall was the Fox. It set the whole neighborhood on fire, over in the Five Wells area. She didn’t get out of the house in time.”
Katsuko didn’t say anything, but she tightened her arm around Genma, gripping his shoulder with a hot palm. Her dark eyes never left his face.
He flipped the picture back over and put it back with the others, looking away. “Okay, wow. Sorry, didn’t mean to get all...” He shrugged again, not finding the words he wanted, and slipped the photographs back into their envelope. “I was supposed to be cheering you up, not making you sad.”
“Hey,” Katsuko said, gently. “It’s fine. You can’t have the good without the bad. You don’t need to leave stuff out for me. Have you ever told anyone about Haruko?”
Genma glanced at her. "Told them what? I mean, my friends all pretty much know I used to have two sisters. I don't really talk about them a lot, though."
She wasn’t good with words or feelings. She stabbed people for a living; mastery of social situations wasn’t exactly a job requirement. Still, it was Genma. If nothing else, maybe he’d be able to understand what she was trying to say.
“I...” she looked down at the table, struggling to come up with the correct words. “It’s... good. To talk about things, you know? Helps get some of the bad memories off your chest. You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to, but... I’m here. If you want to.”
Genma tilted his head to one side, smiling slightly. One scarred hand rubbed at his forearm, an embarrassed flush staining his cheekbones. "Um. Thanks. You too. I mean, if you want someone to talk to. Or whatever. I won't even make fun of you for putting sugar in your tea."
Katsuko snorted. “Not even a little bit?”
"Maybe a little bit."
“Well,” Katsuko said, comfortably. “I guess I can live with that.”
His smile widened. "You want to hang out until Raidou gets back? We could play hanafuda."
After a moment, Katsuko grinned back. “Sure,” she said. “I’d like that.”