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What We Become [Katsuko][Jul. 8th, 2012|02:00 am]
[Backstory; takes place December the year Katsuko is 19, three years before the current storyline and three years after How to Disappear]

They arrived back at Konoha the first day of the Winter Festival. Katsuko handed out the mission pay to her team, giving each of them a friendly slap on the shoulder. “Nice job, all of you,” she said. “Go home, enjoy yourselves. You’ve earned it.”

Sagara chortled, dashing off a sloppy salute. “Don’t have to tell me twice, Taichou.”

Kiyosuke, their medic, gave him a stern glare. “The first thing you and Mayu are going to do is check yourselves into the hospital. No bar crawling for you two until they reinforce the stitches.”

Mayu groaned, wrapping a slender arm around Sagara’s waist. “That’ll take hours. C’mon, Kiyo-chan. It’s the Festival!”

Kiyosuke bristled, angular shoulders rising almost to his ears. “Don’t call me that!”

“Children,” Katsuko interjected, dryly. They started and turned to look sheepishly at her. “Play nice and don’t give Kiyo-chan an aneurysm.”

“But you’re the youngest, Taichou,” Sagara complained, full mouth twitching. Beside him, Mayu stifled a giggle.

“Physically, yes. Mentally...” Katsuko shrugged, smirking. “Well, I guess there’s a reason they put me in charge.”

She left them laughing at the base of the Hokage’s Tower, waving at her until she turned the corner.

“Ueno-taichou, wait!”

Katsuko glanced over her shoulder. “We’re not on a mission anymore, Kiyosuke-san. I do have a first name.”

Kiyosuke fell in beside her, smiling. His cheeks were a little more flushed than the crisp air of the day called for. “Then, Katsuko-san, I was wondering— after Sagara and Mayu are cleared, do you want to go for a drink? I mean, all of us. It was your first mission as a jounin, right? So we all thought that— afterwards, maybe, we could celebrate together.”

She raised an eyebrow. “‘Celebrate together’? Nishimura Kiyosuke, are you propositioning me for a foursome?”

What?” He sputtered, caught between laughter and horror. “Oh gods, no. Sagara and Mayu were on my genin team, it’d be like incest. But with you—” He coughed, reddening all the way up to his hairline.

Katsuko considered him. Kiyosuke was dark-haired and handsome, with long-fingered hands and a smile that lit up his eyes. He’d been thoroughly professional on the mission, betraying none of the interest that warmed his gaze now. It was nice, for a bit, just to dwell on the feeling of being wanted.

She shook her head, ruefully. “I’m sorry, Kiyosuke-san. I’m already seeing someone today.”

“Oh, well,” Kiyosuke said, face falling. “That’s alright, Katsuko-san. Some other time, then.”

They said their good-byes at a nearby intersection, Kiyosuke taking the shortcut to the hospital with a slight slump to his shoulders. Katsuko walked in the opposite direction, hands shoved in her pockets, and didn’t look back.

Her apartment smelled like three weeks’ worth of dust. She dropped her pack on the floor and headed to the shower, cranking the water up as hot as she could stand. She stood with her head bowed underneath the spray until her skin flushed a dull lobster-pink, steam fogging up her vision and the little mirror over the sink.

Katsuko got out when her fingers started pruning, toweling her hair dry with brisk efficiency and padding over to the closet. The kimono was still in the plastic wrapping she’d left it in last year, matte black with a dark grey obi; she shook it out and folded herself into it, fastening the ties with steady hands. In the left-hand sleeve were three memorial tablets, names carved into stone with stern implacability: Hakuin, Ichiba, Asuma.

She slipped on her zori and stepped out into the hallway, closing her apartment door behind her. The walk to the tea shop was quiet and uneventful; festival-goers, dressed in bright colors to ward off the winter cold, gave her somber blacks and greys a wide berth. Oshizaki-san already had her thermos of oolong steaming on the counter, along with four little porcelain cups nestled in a bamboo carrying case. When she went to pay him, Oshizaki-san clasped her hand and pushed the money back over the counter, a sympathetic look on his round face. After a moment, Katsuko managed a wan smile and said, “Next year, then.”

“Of course, Ueno-san,” Oshizaki said placidly, and patted her on the shoulder.

She left the shop and ducked down a side alley to avoid the crowded main road, walking at a sedate pace. Her path took her to a secluded courtyard near Konoha’s east wall, where a tiny shrine lay nestled among low-hanging trees. The shrine’s priest, Izumoto, was sweeping the courtyard’s cobblestones when Katsuko pushed open the creaky wooden gate; he gave her a toothless smile as she ducked her head in a respectful bow and waved her in, the sleeves of his robe flapping in the breeze.

There was a pouch of incense and a book of matches on the low table before the altar. The statue of Guan Yin looked down at her with benevolent eyes, stone hands held out in an offering of peace and compassion. Katsuko lit three sticks of incense, bowed three times, murmuring a silent prayer before tucking the ends of the sticks into the sand-filled bowl at Guan Yin’s feet. Curls of smoke rose to wreath the goddess’s face in wispy grey.

A stone path wound around the shrine and the altar it housed, leading further back to a grassy clearing. A small, man-made pond, kept running year-round through judicious application of minor warming jutsu, bubbled merrily away under a stand of hardy bamboo.

Katsuko set the tea thermos and cups down by the pond’s edge and fished out the memorial tablets from the pocket sewn into her sleeve, tucking her feet underneath her in seiza. Hakuin’s tablet she laid out first, propping it up in its little wooden stand so it caught the light. Ichiba’s was next, three inches to the right of of Hakuin’s. Asuma’s she lingered over, remembering smoke and copper-tinged kisses, before setting it down at last.

The oolong tea was still steaming when she unscrewed the thermos top, filling up the four little cups to the brim. Three she set in front of each of the memorial tablets; the fourth she took for herself, cradling it between her palms before taking a long sip. After a moment she sighed, shoulders loosening.

“Long time no see, guys,” she said, smiling. “I missed you.”

Wind stirred the bamboo, sending up a dry rattle. The memorial tablets were silent, as usual. Hakuin’s voice in her mind was always that same hoarse rasp he’d spoken in the day he’d died; Oh, my child. Forgive this old man his weakness. Be strong. Ichiba’s was fainter in her memory, screaming her name as they buckled him down to the gurney. Asuma’s she could barely remember at all, just the press of bloody lips against hers— her first kiss— and a soft Don’t give up on me, beautiful.

“I finished my first mission as a jounin today,” she said after a moment, gaze fixed on the pond’s surface. “Four years of training after the labs, and now I’m the one making sure my team gets out alive.”

Too many close calls, too many almost-misses, and now Katsuko could understand the tired look in Hideki-sensei’s eyes when he’d thought no one was watching. No matter how many precautions she’d taken, no matter the number of contingency plans she’d had in place, she’d almost lost two of her team during the mission.

“I was in charge of three chuunin,” Katsuko said, tracing the rim of her cup with her forefinger. “You’d all have liked Sagara, I think. He started a mud fight on the way to Wave Country. Took three days to get my uniform clean. Mayu was our ninjutsu specialist; she only eggs Sagara on. Kiyosuke...” She chewed on her lower lip, thinking. “Kiyosuke was nice,” she decided. “But he’s... not someone I’d want to burden with my problems. I’m better off alone, for now.” Less people to leave behind that way.

She took another sip of tea. “Sagara took an arrow to the side when we were raiding the bandit camp. Mayu nearly blew the whole damn place up trying to get to him— practically finished the mission for us. I almost lost both of them, then, but Kiyosuke pulled us through.” There was a hefty bonus in Mayu’s and Kiyosuke’s pay slip for that. “I kept calm, I can say that much. Felt like a fake, though. I was younger than all three of ‘em.”

Hakuin would have swatted her over the head and insisted that youth was no measure of maturity. Ichiba would have looked at her with wide eyes and demanded she continue the story. Asuma... she didn’t know. She’d known him days, at most, but she had the feeling he would have said her age just made her more badass.

“It’s difficult, sometimes,” she said, staring down at the tablets. “I see their faces when I dream— the orderlies, Kaminari, Inazuma. You guys, always, but I’m starting to forget what you looked like. It’s... It’s hard, going it alone. I can’t go back home, and I got into a fight with Nori and Beni the last time I saw them.” It’d been ugly, with words like death-wish and mission suicide thrown around. Hideki-sensei’s ghost had stifled the air between them, guilt fueling wild accusations and uncontrolled vitriol. “I don’t think I’m going to be talking with them again for a long time.”

Katsuko sighed, rubbing her forehead. “Kami, look at me. Winter Festival and already I’m complaining. You guys don’t care— you’re dead.” She shifted out of seiza and into a loose tailor’s seat, the pleated folds of her hakama bunching up around her thighs. She propped her elbows on her knees and rested her chin on one bent fist, setting the tea cup on the ground. “I made it— I made jounin, even if I had to leave everything else by the wayside. And I don’t know why I was the only one who got dragged out of the dark, but I’m going to make sure I was worth it.” She swallowed. “Just wait for me, okay? I’ve got a score to settle. We’ve got a score to settle. And I’ll be whatever I need to be to make that happen.”

She couldn’t speak for the dead, but the silence that settled over the little clearing made it seem like someone was listening. “I say the sutras every day,” she said, smiling faintly. “In my head, if not out loud. I don’t know if I can believe in gods that left us down there, but it...helps. I can remember the lessons and you, Hakuin, whacking me over the head when I couldn’t get the order right. I can remember Ichiba laughing at that. I can remember being happy, for a bit.” After a pause, she added, “And I remember my first kiss.”

Asuma had dropped into their lives near the end, a handsome dark-eyed stranger with a reckless grin and a kind voice. He’d been a breath of fresh air in the stifling dark, a memory that Katsuko that held close when the nightmares threatened to undo her. She laughed, a little ruefully, and said, “Don’t flirt with too many pretty girls while I’m gone, Asuma. I’ll hold you to it when I see you again.”

The tea cups in front of the memorial tablets had stopped steaming. Katsuko raised hers in a final toast and tipped her head back to finish the last dregs from the bottom, setting it down with a grimace. “I’ll meet you on the other side, guys,” she said, and swept her hand out, knocking the three filled cups over. Cold oolong tea spilled on the grass and soaked into the ground.

Katsuko left the cups where they fell and gathered the memorial tablets back up, slipping them back into her sleeve pocket. The thermos was next, tucked underneath her arm, and then Katsuko picked up the bamboo carrying case in one hand before slowly getting to her feet. She stood there for a moment, face tipped back toward the sky and her eyes closed, before shaking herself and turning away. She strode out of the clearing, feet steady, and didn’t look back.
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