Disclaimer/Author's Note: Neither Shiranui Genma nor Inuzuka Hana belong to me. Neither does the story idea, really--it's all due to Chevira Lowe, who told me: "Genma, Hana, and a park bench" and told me to get working. I'm not sure if this will culminate the "Genma and Hana" series, but it's certainly the pivotal moment in their early relationship.
"So that's it, then," Genma said quietly. He kept his eyes fixed on Kumi's face; it would have been cheating to look anywhere else. He stared at the dark eyes and the bloodless lips and the smooth skin pale as paper under the crimson fang tattoos, and he wondered when he'd last seen his teammate's bare forehead. Not since their Academy days, surely.
"Yeah." Kumi's cracked lips stretched in a hard little smile, and his left hand drifted over the edge of the hospital bed to stroke the rough-furred head of the dog lying there. Kawamaru whined softly. "Sssh, boy," Kumi murmured. "It…won't be so bad," he added to Genma. False cheer rang hollow in his voice. "Shikon-sama's promised me a job in the kennels, working with the un-partnered dogs. Don't need a leg for that."
"Your uncle's a good man," Genma said. He sounded idiotic, even to himself. Kumi glanced up at him quickly and then looked away again, down at the pale fingers moving rhythmically through the dog's short grey fur. Genma could see the bones and tendons clearly through the thin skin of his teammate's hands.
Sekeri had looked like that when he'd last seen her, the night before he'd left on that disastrous mission. He'd kissed her cheek and smoothed the brittle strands of her remaining hair back from her pale forehead, and he'd smiled at her and promised he'd be back safe in time for her birthday, because that was all she wanted. All his dying little sister had wanted was his life, his safety, his smile.
And he'd come back home two weeks too late for her funeral.
He hadn't realized how the silence had stretched out until Kawamaru whined again and Kumi lifted his head. A little color came back into his pale cheeks, and he propped himself up on his elbows, looking over Genma's shoulder. "Tsume-sama!" he said. "Kaa-san! And, gods, it's half the clan…"
Genma swiveled on his stool and nearly cut his tongue on his senbon. Kumi's exaggeration wasn't far off the mark. Only one of the two women in the doorway wore the fang tattoos of those born into the Inuzuka clan, but all of the half-dozen children peering around them did, and he could see several more tattooed adults waiting in the corridor. Dogs flowed around their feet, ranging from the enormous one-eared male who stood beside Tsume-sama to the three tiny grey puppies who curled in little Hana's arms and on her feet. Nearly thirty pairs of dark eyes fixed silently on Genma, and a few of the dogs bared their teeth in uneasiness.
"Genma-kun," Kumi's mother said at last, stepping into the room after a quick glance at her husband's sister. "It's good of you to visit Kumi. We've—been wondering how you were."
And how did one respond to that? By sharing the harsh, naked truth that he hadn't even told Kumi, or by smiling his trademark lazy grin and dismissing her concerns with a flick of the senbon clenched in his teeth? "All right," he said. "I've been busy—just got back from another mission. Little thing. But it pays the bills." More specifically, it paid his mother's bills, and helped cover the expenses of a funeral for which his mother had defaulted on her rent to pay.
He grazed his fingertips lightly across Kawamaru's grey head and stood, shifting the senbon to the other side of his mouth. "See you in a couple days, Kumi. Take care." He winced as soon as he said it, because Kumi was here in the hospital because he hadn't taken quite enough care, and now he'd never have a second chance.
But the flash of bitterness in Kumi's eyes vanished almost as swiftly as it had come. "You too," he said, flicking his fingers in a light little parody of a salute. "And next time you visit, bring me some food."
"I think your family's got that covered," Genma said dryly, noting the stacks of bento boxes that several of the older children carried. He nodded respectfully to Tsume-sama and to Kumi's mother, took one last glance at his former teammate in the bed, and slipped silently out the door.
It wasn't really a coincidence that he ended up at the stone bench on the road leading out of Konoha. His team had always met there, back when there had been a team, because it was midway between Kumi's home and Tahiro's, and because their sensei figured it made a good place to sit while he watched them run laps around the village. Tahiro had wondered aloud once if laziness was a requirement for becoming a jounin sensei, and Sensei had made him run another five laps, 'to teach him the value of rest.'
Tahiro was resting for eternity, now.
So was Sekeri. But while Tahiro had died in a blaze of fire and blood, shouting in a voice breaking with pain and puberty for his teammates to Run, damn you!,Sekeri had died in bed, gasping for breath with lungs that refused to sustain a body that was slowly decaying around her.
He spread his arms along the back of the bench and stared up at the cold grey sky. The tip of his senbon had scratched the inside of his cheek, and a faint metallic taste of blood filmed his tongue. He ran his tongue absently across the shallow cut and wondered if it was going to snow.
For one wild moment, it was Sekeri's voice. But Sekeri never called him by name; it was always aniki or niisan, certainly not the more respectful Genma-san. He closed his eyes, but down on the senbon, and opened his eyes again.
Inuzuka Hana stood at the edge of the path, hugging one of her puppies and staring soberly at him out of tilted dark brown eyes that looked far too serious for a five-year-old. Had Sekeri ever looked that solemn? His little sister had always had a smile on her face and a laugh on her lips, even at the worst times when pain wracked her frail body and even aniki could do nothing for her.
I'll be back for your birthday, Sekeri, I promise. You just wait for me…
He had returned home two days before her tenth birthday, eighteen days after she died.
"Kumi-niisan used to race me across the field," Hana said quietly. "He always let me win."
Genma cleared his throat. "I remember." He'd spent a lot of time—too much time?—at Kumi's home over the past five years, training and relaxing and simply enjoying the company of his brash teammate and the whole, huge, boisterous Inuzuka family. As soon as she could walk, Hana had begun tagging after Genma and her cousin. When she'd entered the Academy six months ago and been given the three puppies to serve as her nin-dog partners, it was to Kumi and Genma that she'd first run with a face glowing with pride. Genma had simply ruffled her hair and congratulated her, but Kumi had tossed her up in the air and told her that she was a real Inuzuka now, and did she think she could beat him in a foot race? They'd raced with Genma as the finishing post, and when Kumi had deliberately tripped twenty feet short of him, Hana had sprinted past him and thrown herself into Genma's arms with a grin so joyful it hurt to remember.
"He won't ever run again," Hana said. She wasn't crying, but her face beneath the blood-red tattoos was nearly as pale as Kumi's had been.
"No," Genma said. There was nothing else he could say. What was he supposed to do, try to comfort her? There was no comfort he could give. He leaned his head back and wondered how long it would take for her to go away.
She stood there in silence, long enough that he would have thought she'd left if it hadn't been for the slight, childish flutter of her chakra at the edges of his senses. At last she whispered, "I went to Sekeri's funeral. For you. Because you couldn't come."
Genma stared at her. She stared back, small and cold and pale, with one dog hugged close to her chest and the other two sitting on her feet. She bit her lip, and he saw the tiny trickle of blood down her skin as her sharp canines pierced the flesh. Without thinking, he tugged his bandana hitai'ate off and gestured to her. It would serve well enough as a handkerchief.
She came obediently, but at the last second she hesitated, dark eyes glancing from the bandana to his face. Slowly, she bent and placed the puppy on the ground. He whined and pawed at her knee, but she shook her head and looked back at Genma.
He tried to smile at her.
She moved without warning, as only a ninja child could. Almost before he knew what had happened, she was in his lap, her arms thrown around his neck, her face buried in his vest. He caught one broken word: "Aniki…"
For a long moment, he sat frozen, shocked into stillness. Then slowly, hesitantly, he folded his arms around her shivering small body and held her close.