Morning of May 12, Yondaime Year 5
Katsuko’s dreams that night were loud and chaotic and full of fire. Tsuto Tomoko screamed at her from the far end of a burning hallway. The flames warped and suddenly it was Raidou standing there, staring at Katsuko in horror as the ceiling caved in above him. Lightning streaked down through the hole in the ceiling and brought howling rain with it. The hallway disappeared, replaced by a blood-soaked field strewn with the dead.
The air stunk of rot. Ryouma lay sprawled out like a rag-doll in the grass before her, eyes staring sightlessly up at the grey sky. Someone had cut his throat as cleanly as Katsuko had slit Tomoko’s. A few feet away, Kakashi pushed himself up with one arm and clutched at his tanto, which was embedded up to the hilt in his chest. His elbow buckled and he crumpled back down to the ground. He didn’t move again.
“Ueno,” Genma said behind her. Katsuko spun around. The lieutenant was pale as bone, hand pressed tightly to the wound in his stomach. Blood welled up between his fingers. “Go. Warn Konoha—”
The blare of Katsuko’s 4:30 alarm cut through the nightmare’s suffocating grasp. She cursed and snatched the clock off of the bedside table, chucking it as hard as she could across the room. It hit the wall with an audible crack and clattered to the floor.
“Oh, hell,” she realized. That had been her last backup clock.
It was still dark outside. Katsuko sleepwalked through a five-minute shower and brushed her teeth underneath the spray. She toweled her hair off, yanked it into an elastic, blinked at the results in the mirror, and shrugged. Then she staggered, naked, out of the bathroom to root through her dresser drawers. She managed to put one pant leg on, and was struggling to get her other leg in past the waistband when her broken collarbone twinged and she remembered, abruptly, that there was no team practice today.
Katsuko sat down in the middle of the floor, still with only one pant leg on, and stared blankly down at her hands. Her fingers were trembling. She clenched them into fists and concentrated on breathing.
Facts. She needed to focus on the facts. Kakashi and Genma were still in the hospital; Ryouma was home, safe and sleeping. That was three-fifths of Team Six she knew the whereabouts of. That was three-fifths of her team she could still look after.
She couldn’t do anything for Raidou, except hope and trust that Kurenai’s report would tip the scales in Raidou’s favor.
Katsuko finished putting her pants on.
The run to the hospital was cold and lonely. Katsuko cradled her sling-bound arm to her side and wished for dawn. The entrance lobby still smelled like bleach, but the nurse on duty was in a frighteningly good mood for someone working so early in the morning and let her go up to Kakashi’s room without any fuss.
Room 17 was dark and quiet, save for the steady beep of the heart monitor. Kakashi was fast asleep, chest rising and falling underneath the white blankets. Katsuko hovered awkwardly for a minute before pulling up a chair and collapsing into it with a sigh.
“I didn’t think this plan through as well as I should have,” she told his slumbering face. “I forgot people slept, which is dumb. I’m dumb. You’re dumb. Get better faster.” She knuckled her eyes before adding, “You worried me.”
His eyebrows pinched together at the sound of her voice and he stirred. One eye cracked open and focused hazily on her. “U’no?”
Katsuko pulled on a smile and whispered, “Morning, little sparrow. Are you alive?”
He blinked at her, gaze turning inward as he ran a self-check. After a moment he blinked again and refocused. “I hope so, because if this is the afterlife, it sucks.”
“Hah,” Katsuko drawled. “You can go back to sleep now. I just dropped in to say hello.”
Kakashi glanced the clock, eyebrow twitching eloquently when he saw the time, and gave her a worried look. “Everything okay?”
She felt her smile tilt. “Yeah. I’m used to waking up this early, is all. No emergencies. Want to hear how the team’s doing?”
Blankets rustled as he sat up hurriedly, wincing and gripping the edge of the bed to keep his balance. “Yes. Is everyone— Is there word on the captain?”
“None,” Katsuko said, struggling not to let her exhaustion show. “We’re waiting for Sagara-sama’s decision. Lieutenant’s still in the hospital. I’ll check in with him, see if he’s heard anything. Tousaki’s resting back at barracks, but I’m sure he’ll be in early today, too.”
Kakashi nodded once, tense. Then he asked, “Has anyone seen the captain?”
Anxiety twisted hot and tight in her throat, made her want to snap, but Katsuko fought it down and leaned back in her chair. “No. Not since yesterday.”
He looked down, lowering his voice. “Maybe no news is good news.” He sounded like he was trying to convince himself.
Silence filled the space between them. Katsuko was too tired to break it.
The medics kicked Katsuko out around six. She said her farewells and trudged over to the lieutenant’s room. The lieutenant was asleep, pale and wan against the stark hospital sheets, breathing steadily.
There was an older man already sitting in the chair by the lieutenant’s bedside. Katsuko hesitated on the threshold, seeing the shape of Genma’s eyes and jaw in the man’s worn face, and put two and two together. She’d met Shiranui Yuuichi once before, when Genma had brought her and Raidou to the Shiranui bakery. There was a bakery bag leaning up against the foot of Genma’s bed now, smelling like sweet things.
“Shiranui-san?” she said.
Genma’s father turned to look at her in surprise. The lines at the corners of his mouth deepened as he frowned, vague recognition dawning in his expression. He stood from his chair and gave a small bow, then straightened and crossed the room to her. “Yes?”
“Ueno Katsuko. I’m part of the lieutenant’s team.” She bowed back. “I’m just checking in on him. Have you been here all night?”
Relief and worry washed over Yuuichi’s face. He looked at Katsuko’s bedraggled state, finally taking in her sling and various bandages. “Oh! Ueno-san!” He winced at the volume of his own voice and glanced over his shoulder at Genma, but the lieutenant was dead to the world. “I’ve been here since about four. Someone came to the bakery. But you’re hurt, too. Oh dear. Do you need to sit down?”
The worry he exuded was almost palpable. He also smelled like fresh buns. Katsuko eyed him and wondered what would happen if she admitted that she felt like falling over. “Um,” she said, and gathered herself. “I can— I’ll get a chair.”
Yuuichi hurried back over to the chair he’d been sitting in and pulled it out for her. “You sit here, I’ll go find another one. And some tea. Can I get you some tea? Do you like tea? I’ll just get some from the little break room. The nurse said I could feel free to.”
She made a faint sound of alarm at the torrent of words and got out, “I like tea.”
He motioned for her to sit in the chair and hurried out of the room as soon as she settled in, a small, worried whirlwind of a man. Katsuko waited until after the door closed behind him to say to Genma, “I see now why you’re always calmer than a mountain hermit. Somebody in your house had to be.”
The lieutenant didn’t wake up, but Katsuko hadn’t expected him to. The universe wasn’t kind enough for that.
It wasn’t like she knew how to handle worried civilians, but worried civilian parents were another matter. She knew, in theory, what to say to a father afraid for his child’s life and safety — the same way she knew, in theory, how to stage a military coup.
The door opened again and Yuuichi swept in, a cup of tea in each hand. He gave one cup to Katsuko and went back into the hall to retrieve a small wheeled office chair he’d probably stolen from the break room. He rolled it over, sat down, fidgeted, and then got up to fetch the bedside table that always lurked in hospital rooms. Katsuko listened to the metallic squeaking and wondered idly why all hospital furniture was wheeled. Was it because wheels made things easier? Maybe they did. Maybe she just needed more sleep.
Yuuichi took a seat again, sucked in a breath, and visibly forced calm on himself. He smiled tiredly at her, anxiety still lurking behind his eyes. “I know better than to ask about your mission, Ueno-san. Thank you for coming to look in on Genma.”
“He’s part of my team.” Katsuko shifted in her seat and took a sip of tea. “And he always looks out for us, so we should look out for him.”
Alarm sparked again when Yuuichi gave her a soft, touched look. She didn’t know why it startled her so much; parents were supposed to be happy when their kids received compliments. She was just tired.
“I’m glad,” Yuuichi said, glancing at Genma and then back. A proud smile bloomed under his worry and anxiety. “He’s a good boy. Man. He always used to bring home stray kittens when he was a child. Not that you’re a stray kitten.” Embarrassment stamped two bright spots of color on Yuuichi’s cheeks when he realized Katsuko was staring at him. “I’m sorry. I…” he glanced around, grabbed the bakery bag from the foot of the bed, rooted through it, and came up with a paper box. He offered it to her. “Would you like a bun?”
Katsuko’s stomach answered with a loud growl. She flushed, mumbled her thanks, set her tea cup down on her chair arm, and very carefully took a bun — a single bun, because she was polite and knew what manners were — and bit into it. Delicious pastry sweetness immediately flooded her taste buds. She paused, suppressing the overwhelming urge to stuff the rest of the bun into her mouth, and took another slow, measured bite.
Yuuichi wasn’t fooled, if his pleased look was anything to go by. “Do you like it? Have another. Genma told me you liked our pastries. I think he said you like the vanilla custard?” He rooted through the box and pointed out a bun. Katsuko took it and bit into it approvingly.
“These’re good,” she said, belatedly.
He gave her a broad, happy smile and offered her the box again. After a minute of silence interspersed with Katsuko’s chewing, Yuuichi said, “Gen-chan—” He stopped and corrected himself. “Genma and your whole team were on this mission, right? Are the others… Are they okay?”
She swallowed hard around the lump in her throat. “They’re…” She looked down. “They’re going to be okay. They’re all in one piece.”
Yuuichi’s chair creaked as he leaned over, hand coming up like he was going to pat her shoulder. Katsuko went still. After a moment his hand retreated. Soberly, he asked, “Are they all in the hospital?” A second thought followed on the heels of the first. “Did you sneak out of your hospital bed to come looking for Genma?”
“Of course not,” Katsuko said, as if she hadn’t done exactly that for members of her previous team. “The hospital cleared me to go home last night.” I just came over early because I was having nightmares about your son and the rest of my team dying in horrifying, violent ways.
She fidgeted as he gave her a searching look. He said tentatively, “Genma’s mother was a shinobi. And Genma. You know what Genma’s like, I suppose, since you’re on his team.” He hesitated, then plunged on. “He doesn’t always sleep all that well right after a mission either.”
“Yeah, exactly,” Katsuko said, relieved that Yuuichi got it. Civilians with shinobi family members could never fully understand what ninja went through on missions, but they understood more than civilians without any. She cleared her throat. Should she make small talk by asking what Genma was like as a child? Whether there were any embarrassing pictures? Yuuichi seemed like the type to unironically keep embarrassing childhood photos framed on his wall somewhere. Maybe she could get a copy of one and leave it on the lieutenant’s desk as a present. Maybe she could superglue it to the lieutenant’s desk.
Even when Yuuichi sat still, he was never motionless. He’d take glances at Genma every so often, tap his fingers absentmindedly against his tea cup. He was a ball of pent-up energy and anxious worry. It made Katsuko’s teeth itch.
But these buns were really, really good. She gave up on manners and stuffed the rest of the vanilla custard one into her mouth. Yuuichi picked through the box and pointed out a few more buns for her, a pleased look on his face. “This one’s matcha. These two are red bean. Here’s a curry bun.” He looked at the lieutenant. “If Genma wakes up hungry, I can always bring him more. You look like you could use a decent meal, and…” he sighed, “He’d tell me to feed you. He’s always talking about your team.”
Katsuko froze. “Oh?” she asked suspiciously, around a mouthful of bun. “What does he say?”
Yuuichi blinked at her, registering her alarm, and laughed disarmingly, waving his hands. “Don’t worry, it’s nothing bad. He says you’re always hungry. And quite reliable. Tousaki-san doesn’t know his own worth. And Hatake-san gives your captain a headache. And he quite likes your captain, I think.”
“Oh,” Katsuko said again, in a different tone of voice. She swallowed the rest of her bun. “That’s okay, then. Sometimes when the lieutenant wants to teach us like, a life lesson or something he quotes things by old dead monks. Says he learned them from you. Did you really teach him those?”
Yuuichi’s eyes crinkled. “In a manner of speaking. When Genma was three, I sent him to the school at the Nichi Ren Temple. His mother died when he was just two, and she was the ninja in our family. I honestly had no idea what to do with a toddler who could set the towels on fire.”
You were supposed to say sorry when someone told you their wife had died, right? Or not just ‘sorry’, it was something like ‘my condolences’ or…
Katsuko snagged another bun out of the box. “How many towels did he set on fire?”
“All of them.” Yuuichi chuckled. “All the ones hanging in the bathroom, anyway. He really didn’t want to take that bath. He was so mad.” He glanced at Genma, who twitched in his sleep. “He hates when I tell people this story.”
When she tried to think of the lieutenant as a kid all she could come up with was a miniature version of the current Genma, watching the world pass by from his high-chair with an unimpressed look on his face and a tiny senbon stuck in his mouth. Had he ever had a baby rattle? Or a pacifier? What about diapers? Logically she knew everyone had been an infant in diapers at one point in their lives, but a part of her was convinced that Genma had sprung from the ground fully-formed and already judging people.
Katsuko’s temples throbbed. It was too easy to make the mental leap from the lieutenant as a kid to kids in general, and down that path of thought Tsuto Tomoko and her dead, staring eyes lay in wait.
Her tea cup steamed gently on the arm of her chair. She studied it and then looked at her one working hand, which was currently clutching a matcha bun. After a moment of thought Katsuko dunked her bun in the tea, stuffed the bun into her mouth, picked up her tea cup, and downed the whole thing. The bun helped insulate the inside of her mouth from the burning, bitter liquid.
Yuuichi watched her like she was the star of a nature documentary. After a minute he offered her the bun box again. “Short rations on your mission? Judging by you, maybe I should assume Genma’s going to be hungry, too.” He hesitated. “When he wakes up.”
Matcha bun and tea made for an interesting combination on the way down. Katsuko swiped the back of her hand over her mouth. “He’ll be glad to see you here,” she offered, awkwardly. “It’s good, that you come visit him. It’s… it’s nice.”
The sheer idiocy that came out of her mouth sometimes made her want to slam her head into a wall.
Yuuichi gave her a wide-eyed, startled look. “I always do. I never like it, seeing him hurt, but it’s… It’s something you don’t exactly get used to, but you get to know the routine.” Yuuichi’s voice turned sympathetic. “He worries about you, you know. Probably gets that from me. I should make sure to get charms for all of you when I go to the temple next. I’m sure if your parents—” He stopped and picked his next words carefully. “I’m sure there are people in your life who would want to wait at your bedside, too.”
Oh god she’d made him think her parents were dead. “I’m not—” she started, and then the rest of his sentence hit her. She cleared her throat and looked away. “My parents are still alive, Shiranui-san,” she said, quietly, and rose from her chair. Bending was awkward with her sling, but she still managed a polite, respectful bow. “I’m sorry for causing any confusion. I should go now. Thank you for the buns.”
She’d revealed more than she’d meant to. It was painfully easy to see the moment Yuuichi put two-and-two together; horrified realization crossed his face and he stood bolt upright. “Ueno-san. I’m—” He paused, looking as awkward as she felt. “Please come by the bakery any time you’d like. There are always a few extra pastries going spare. Genma is very fond of you, and any friend of my son’s is— Please. I hope you recover quickly.” He bowed back to her.
“Thank you,” Katsuko managed, and fled.
Her feet carried her out of the hospital and away from her empty, cold apartment, towards the towering faces of the Hokage Monument. She made the climb to the top of Yondaime’s stony, spiky hair and stumbled past ANBU HQ. It was easy to get into the barracks; she stared straight ahead and walked like she had urgent business, and anybody who saw her recognized her and got out of her way.
Ryouma’s door was locked, but he didn’t have wards up the way more paranoid agents did. She picked the lock, closed the door behind her, and turned towards the warmth of Ryouma’s chakra presence, feeling a thousand years old.
An expanse of tan, tattooed skin greeted her. Ryouma stirred in his sleep, dark brows furrowing. The mattress creaked as he rolled onto his side to face the wall opposite Katsuko, blanket slipping perilously low around his hips.
Katsuko was too tired to even blush. “Of course you sleep naked,” she told his inked shoulderblades. Belatedly, she clapped a hand over her eyes. “I don’t know what I expected.”
Her head throbbed, and her eyes stung, and her bones ached, and Ryouma would keep her safe while she slept. She didn’t care about anything else. Katsuko kicked her shoes off and lowered herself into bed next to him, careful of her sling-bound arm. It was warm in the room, and dark. It smelled like Ryouma and nothing at all like hospitals. She closed her eyes and let out a long breath.
Ryouma made a drowsy noise. The bed dipped as he rolled onto his other side and bumped up against her. “Katsu?”
“Shhh,” Katsuko said, eyes still closed, and reached her good hand up to gently pat his face. His nose scrunched up underneath her palm. If her voice was a little thick, well, Ryouma was the only one here. “No talking, dear. Just sleep now.”
“Y’woke me up,” Ryouma grumbled, but he threw a long, muscled arm over her and shoved his face down into his pillow again. She blinked rapidly to clear her vision and curled her hand around his elbow to anchor herself.
“Sorry,” she whispered. “I’ll be back to normal when I wake up. Promise.”
He mumbled, “Y’r never normal. G’sleep.”
The giggle took Katsuko by surprise. It was an ugly, inelegant sound, clogged by unshed tears, but it was real. She stifled it before she could lose control and tucked her face underneath Ryouma’s arm.
Safe. She was safe.
Katsuko breathed out.