July 4, Yondaime Year 5
They left Hiraizumi before the festival ended. Kurenai spun a little bit of her magic with the innkeeper, allying any suspicion. (“We’ll be gone before dawn, to make good time on the road. Don’t trouble yourself with breakfast on our account.”) The kindly innkeeper had filled her hands with wrapped onigiri for the journey.
Ka-chan led them to the cut-short trail, but it was Kakashi, pinch-eyed and frustrated in the moonlight, who showed them the lack of footprints, or disturbed foliage, or any other trail sign.
Except for the scent Raidou couldn’t detect, and the collective cold prickle on their skin, there was nothing to say anything had been here. The forest was alive with night-song: the chirping insects and whooping snow-monkeys were downright raucous. Hayama, infested with scorpion-dog demons, had been deadly silent.
Genma crouched and swept his chakra out like a scythe. Kurenai, more delicately, did the same. Ryouma bent his dark head over the exact point the scent-trail ended, having Kakashi repeat a blow-by-blow account of what he’d sensed and when he’d sensed it.
Emphatically not a chakra-sensor, Raidou hung back and kept an eye on the surroundings, guarding his people while they sank through the world’s skin.
No one turned up anything new.
The next step was to run an organized grid-search around the village. Twice, Genma, Kurenai, and Kakashi swore they felt something, and Ryouma rousted what turned out to be a very surprised — and very annoyed — badger, but there were no more scent-trails.
More disturbingly, when they returned to the original spot, Kakashi reported the scent was gone.
“What about your dogs?” Ryouma asked.
Reluctantly, Kakashi shook his head. “I need to save the chakra.”
They were all tired and slightly frayed by this point, and Raidou was starting to reconsider the sense of pressing on, but bedding down in a village under scrutiny held even less appeal. Though, beyond the strangeness of it, there was no proof that the vanishing watchers were related to Tanigawa’s sake theft — or even a threat at all.
In the end, Raidou split off a dense shadow-clone — overbuilt enough to last a few days — and stationed it above the village, with instructions to destroy itself if anything notable happened. Thus freed, Team Six and Kurenai were able to press north, towards Tanigawa and their original objective.
They travelled through the night, twitchily alert. By dawn, they’d covered more than a third of the distance, and the ground was starting to rise steeply. A lavender horizon revealed distant snow-capped volcanoes that marked the border between Hotsprings Country and Frost Country. Kurenai, still struggling to keep up with an ANBU pace (though a week with them had improved her), was starting to lag, and Kakashi wasn’t much better. Genma was shadow-eyed, and Ryouma’s temper, always a reliable marker of how he felt, was turning snappish.
There’d been no more unseen eyes for the last dozen miles. Raidou called a halt before the sun had quite crested the horizon. A thick grove of evergreens bordering a clear, cold stream made a welcome campsite. Ryouma drew the short-straw — mostly because his sour mood was beginning to erode even Raidou’s patience — and found himself stationed in a tree to keep watch. Kurenai spread her bedroll and collapsed on it, only persuaded to get back up and care for her feet at Genma’s urging.
Kakashi, mechanically, did his share of camp chores, vanished two of the onigiri, and fell into his own bedroll. Genma made a small, well-banked campfire to heat tea-water over, drank one weary cup, and followed suit.
Blessed with stamina over chakra-sense, Raidou was less exhausted. He stretched well-used muscles, found a comfortable tree to lean against, and sat down to annotate his map and make coded mission-notes in a battered journal, marking times and locations of the strange not-sightings.
When he was done, he handed Ryouma up a steaming tin-mug of tea, which was accepted grumpily. A mutter drifted down. “Demons could’ve waited one night…”
The stuffed tanuki, Raidou noted, had survived the trip, migrating from Ryouma’s banished yukata to the shoulder-strap of his armor. He was using it for something like a pillow. The puzzle box had vanished into Kakashi’s gear.
“We’ll owe you the second half of a festival,” Raidou promised, and climbed back down to find his own sleep.
Three hours later, he traded watches with Ryouma. Three hours after that, Genma took over. He’d tied the dyed straw charms around his wrist, where they made bright lines of color against black underpinnings.
Just after midday, before Genma’s watch had ended, Kurenai and Kakashi clawed their way back to the land of the living. A campfire lunch restored everyone to better humor. Kurenai excused herself with dignity to wash up around a bend in the stream and change clothes. Raidou, Ryouma, and Genma splashed with rather less dignity. The water was ice-melt cold, but at least it woke them up.
Kakashi, blearily awake, vanished for ten minutes and returned with damp hair and a clean uniform.
They packed camp, warmed up, and set out into the golden afternoon sun. The road was steeper, but they made better time nonetheless.
By late evening, the path split and curved down into a green valley, marked by a peeling wooden sign that proclaimed, in slightly misshapen kanji: Tanigawa Village, where Sake is Best. Ryouma squinted at it. Genma murmured the translation to him.
In the valley’s heart, lantern light glimmered on a broad stream.
Tanigawa was half the size of Hiraizumi, if that, but its buildings were bigger. Steep thatched roofs designed to shed snow towered over two- and three-storey windowless warehouses. Clustered around them like children were the peak-roofed homes of the sake brewers, and the few shop fronts that served the village. A broad ribbon of white marked the path of the Kinano river — source of the water that birthed Tanigawa’s famed sake; even at this distance, the rumble of the falls was easy to hear.
Light glowed in windows, and a trio of red lanterns marked the doorway of a little izakaya. It didn’t look like a town under siege.
A quick chakra sweep didn’t contradict that impression. There were people, pets, and livestock in the village, and the expected wildlife in the forests surrounding. No ninja. No strange chakra signatures. Nothing to set Genma on edge. He turned to Raidou and shrugged.
“It’s been long enough since the theft, I guess village life is back to normal,” Genma suggested. “I don’t sense anything weird. Maybe if we go into town and grab some grub, we can ask around? They’re expecting us, at least, so we don’t have to go in disguise.”
“Unless it’s an inside job, and we alarm them with scary ANBU uniforms,” Kakashi muttered.
Raidou shook his head. “Village this small, strangers’d be just as alarming.”
“We could always go in jounin blues, if you’re worried about the ANBU uniforms.” Genma slid his hair free from its tie, then retied it more neatly. “We’re representing the Fire Daimyou here, but we’re not in Fire Country. Might need the weight of the uniform to get what we need.”
Raidou looked thoughtful. He turned to Kurenai. “Yuuhi, weigh in. Are we more useful to your intel-gathering as masked ANBU or jounin with faces?”
“Jounin,” Kurenai said immediately. She seemed genuinely pleased. Was it because Raidou’d asked for her input, or because they’d actually thought about the possibilities without her prompting? “They’ll know Fire Country is taking this seriously, sending five shinobi, but they won’t be as terrified as they would be to see ANBU. We’re more likely to get useful information if they’re not just babbling to save their own skins.”
“Jounin it is.” Genma said. He knelt and removed his pack to extract the violet linen scroll he used for clothing and personal items. A twist of fingers and a weak chakra discharge brought his blues and a vest tumbling out. He divested himself of sword and armor, then other weapons, belt packs, and gloves, and piled them neatly on the ground, before peeling himself out of the clinging ANBU top. It was damp with a day’s hard use, but if he applied Kakashi’s water extraction jutsu it would give him another day’s wear without being too gross.
After the heat of the day, the mountain-night air was a blessing on his bare skin.
Next to him, Raidou and Ryouma were easing free of armor and underpinnings as well, until they were both stripped to the waist. Ryouma stretched and twisted, making the twining lines of the tattoo on his back undulate in the dim light of a crescent moon. Both he and Raidou still had strips of new, pink skin over their shoulders: legacies of abrasions from the harness ropes they’d use to tow Genma, Kimiko, and Sango through Mist’s treacherous sea.
Genma banished the memory before it had a chance to grow. On a mission was never the time to dwell on the previous mission, unless the two were materially related.
Raidou stretched, too, graceful in his strength, before he sighed and slipped the navy shirt on over his head. Hastily, Genma did the same. Kurenai, who was already in jounin uniform, stood with her arms crossed, alternating between watching her teammates while they changed, and scanning the path down into the village.
Kakashi, of course, had vanished. He reappeared just as Genma was wringing the last of the damp out of his ANBU underpinnings with Kakashi’s jutsu. He looked as fresh as if he’d just come from a bath. Genma folded the blacks and piled them with his pale armor, for resealing in a fresh scroll.
“There’s one advantage to jounin gear,” Ryouma said, turning slowly to look at each of his teammates in turn. “They might be too busy lookin’ at our faces to think of any lies.” His eyeline seemed to fall on the rumpled looseness of the shirt at Kakashi’s waist. “Ginta was right about the tailoring, though.”
“Ginta thinks everything should fit as tight as ANBU blacks,” Genma said. Had Ryouma ever used Ginta’s given name before, or had it been Sakamoto-fukuchou up until now? “Have you… seen much of him? Since the mission, I mean?”
Ryouma looked nonplussed, and then wary. “Not since the club. We’ve been spending all our time drywalling your bathroom.”
Genma wasn’t quite sure why he breathed a sigh of relief — was it for Ryouma or for Ginta? “And I appreciate your labor, believe me.” He activated his jutsu, and the scroll curled up around his ANBU kit. There was a soft pop as the mass of clothes, armor, and sword disappeared into the summoning dimension, leaving a vacuum to be filled, and then there was just the scroll, neatly sealed. Genma caught it one-handed before it hit the ground.
“Ready to go, Taichou?”
“Yep,” Raidou said. “Tousaki, since you made a point about it, let’s have your face front and center.” Genma resisted the urge to laugh. Ryouma was pretty, even if he was highly aware of that fact.
“Yuuhi, I want you next to Shiranui in case this is an ambush,” Raidou continued. He paused as he got to Kakashi. “Hatake, do your shadow-thing and watch our backs.”
Shadow thing? Like something a Nara might use? But that was bloodline. Did Raidou mean shadow clones?
Kakashi nodded once, and vanished.
Ah, that shadow thing.
“Smart leadership,” Genma murmured, mostly for Kurenai’s benefit. “Order him to do what he’s going to do anyway, and then no one’s being insubordinate.”
She gave him a quick, amused smile. “You two seem to have worked out how to handle him.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t go as far as that.” Genma fell into an easy pace next to Kurenai. “Getting there, maybe.”
Raidou and Ryouma made a solid bulwark in front of them. Muscle in the vanguard, stealth at their backs. It was a little strange to be the ones being escorted. Not that Kurenai and Genma weren’t one-hundred percent lethal in their own rights, of course, but it was a marching order that made sense.
The way down the narrow road into the valley was entirely safe and unremarkable. Crickets and frogs sang in the trees, a slight wind carried only the scent of cooking fires from below, and the few clouds in the sky shredded away, revealing a blanket of stars bright enough to light the path.
A group of worn stone statues to Jizo stood at a fork where the main path went into the village and a branch angled to the right, heading downhill towards the sound of falling water. There was a stone tanuki statue, too, old and moss-covered. It didn’t have any buns; Genma hesitated a moment, then dropped a square of chocolate he’d been saving at its feet. When Kurenai gave him a look, he shrugged. “It’s the local deity, right?”
A pair of stone lanterns strung with straw ropes marked the actual entrance to the village of Tanigawa. They’d only gone a few steps past it, when an elderly woman called out to them from the porch of her house. “Who might you be looking for, shinobi-san?”
Raidou held his hand out for a halt. He bowed low, showing all due respect to an elder. “Nomiya Tadatoki-san, ma’am. We should be expected.”
“Oh, you’ll be wanting the mayor’s house, then,” the old woman said. She set aside a ball of yarn she’d been winding and creaked down from her porch, slipping into a waiting pair of wooden geta at the bottom step. Raidou went to meet her half-way, with the others at his back.
“You’re a big pair, aren’t you?” the old woman said, peering up at Raidou and Ryouma. “I expect this is about the sake.”
Raidou just smiled. “Would you mind showing us the way?”
The old woman seemed to consider it. “Only if I get to go with that one,” she said, singling Ryouma out, with a smile that showed well-cared for teeth. “I haven’t had a proper escort since before my husband walked the long path.”
When Ryouma blinked, the old woman cackled. “Never had the attention of an old lady, son? Don’t worry, I’ll not harm you.”
Ryouma recovered quickly, offering the woman his arm with a charming grin. “My team might get jealous, auntie, but you look like you can take care of yourself.”
“Auntie!” The old woman broke into peals of delight. “Auntie! Oh to think! You are a charmer, aren’t you?” She shook her head and took Ryouma’s arm. “Come along then, Giant-san. If your team is jealous, it’s just because they missed their chance.”
Genma quirked an amused eyebrow. “Looks like you picked the right front man.”
Raidou’s reply was a mischievous wink that made Genma laugh.
“Standard Intel distraction technique,” murmured Kurenai. “We’ll make something of you yet.”
“ANBU captain is plenty for now,” Raidou told her. He kept a sharp eye on Ryouma and his ‘date’ as they followed her through the village. Several other villagers were out and about, enjoying a stroll before bath and bed, socializing, or attending to last-minute chores.
“Suki-san,” someone sang from a house ahead. “Suki-san! Who are— Oh.” The voice trailed off as a younger woman appeared.
“Ninja,” Suki said. “This one’s mine, but you can have your pick of the other three.”
Three, of course, because Kakashi was as invisible as a wraith.
“Are they here about the sake?”
“Why else would they be here?” Suki made a dismissive gesture. “They want to see Nomiya-san,” she added.
The other woman scowled. “Tell them to ask him where Harubi-san and the children are.”
Suki made a shushing gesture.
“You ask him,” the woman said, unimpeded. “Ask him where his wife and children are.”
“Have people been going missing, too?” Ryouma asked. A kind of weary dread curdled in his stomach, but not surprise. They’d been waiting for something like this.
“No, no, nothing like that.” Suki patted his arm. Her hand was light and cool, chased with veins under the fragile skin. She lowered her voice. “It’s just, we haven’t seen Nomiya Harubi or her two little ones since before the sake was stolen. Of course no one thinks she stole it. But it’s just gossip. She’s probably visiting her family, just like Nomiya-san said.”
The other woman snorted bitterly.
Ryouma looked back to his officers. Genma was thin-lipped, silent, his gaze flicking between the village houses. Raidou’s face was carefully blank, but he met the second woman’s eyes. “What do you think?”
She drew breath— then let it out, her gaze shuttering, as a blocky man stepped off the porch of the village’s largest house. A teenage boy, evidently a runner who’d brought word of the shinobi arrival, dogged his heels. Curiosity or worry had drawn a dozen other villagers. They stood murmuring, giving the shinobi a wide berth.
The man came forward. He was in his late thirties, dark-haired and thickly muscled. That barrel chest and heavy arms promised punishing power, but not speed. Ryouma watched his hands. Genma and Kurenai could pay attention to everything else.
“Nomiya Tadatoki,” the man said, in a voice even deeper than Raidou’s. “Owner of Nomiya Brewery, and mayor of Tanigawa. You’re the shinobi from Fire Country?”
“We are,” Raidou allowed.
“They’re here about the sake.” Suki patted Ryouma’s arm again. “I was just showing them the way to your house.”
“Thank you, Suki-san.” Nomiya’s big hands were tight, but the missing sake could be excuse enough. And even in Fire Country, civilians weren’t always glad to see ninja.
“Come on, Suki-san, I’ll walk you back.” The angry woman took Suki’s other arm. She looked at Nomiya like a knife, in one brief unguarded glance, then lowered her eyes to the dirt and walked away.
Nomiya’s hands flexed. “Do you want to see the breweries?”
“Let’s hear the story first,” Raidou said.
“Come in, then.” Nomiya turned — not afraid to show his back to shinobi, Ryouma noted — and led the way up two steps into his house. The villagers milled, murmuring, behind them, but only two followed: an older man, his thinning hair nearly grey, and a middle-aged woman almost as broad as Nomiya. The mayor introduced them as Goto and Inada, owners of the two other breweries in the village.
“We aren’t hiding the sake,” Inada said, flat out. Her back was rigid, her shoulders tense. “I know that’s why your Daimyou sent you, to see if we’re breaking our bargain. We heard about the trouble in your capital. But we’ve sold our sake to Fire Country for six generations, even during the wars— We don’t care about politics here, just sake!”
Raidou winced when she mentioned trouble in the capital. He held up his hands, palms open, soothing. “We’re not here to punish, just to find out what happened.”
“No one is suggesting you’re at fault, Inada-san,” Genma added. “Maybe we could sit down, and you and Nomiya-san and Goto-san could tell us what you know.”
Kakashi was still out ghosting somewhere in the shadows. Kurenai had faded back into Raidou’s wake, her long lashes dimming her crimson eyes. Ryouma took the spot beside her, behind the officers on the crisp tatami mats. The three brewers arranged themselves opposite. Inada nudged Nomiya, and he belatedly offered tea.
Raidou accepted graciously, adding, “Yuuhi will help you.” He didn’t look around.
Kurenai eased to her feet. “If you’ll show me where the things are, Nomiya-san.” Her voice was a little softer, her gaze still downcast. Ryouma stared. Did she really think anyone would believe a Konoha kunoichi subservient?
But Nomiya gave directions with evident relief. “My wife’s visiting family. Barely know my way around the kitchen without her.” His big hands clenched on his thighs. “Piss-poor timing for all of this.”
“How long has she been away?” Genma asked sympathetically. “Does she know about what happened with the sake?”
Inada and Goto traded swift glances. Nomiya’s jaw tightened. “Three weeks. She took the children. For the summer.”
That might be true. The house certainly showed enough signs of neglect for a three-week absence: mud in the genkan, a crumpled jacket dropped in the corner, dust on the surface of a low chest against the wall. Nomiya wasn’t any more used to cleaning up after himself than making tea or helping in the kitchen.
Ryouma wished they’d gotten the name of Suki’s friend. They’d want to speak to her, when they were done here.
Raidou leaned forward, his hands loose on his thighs. “What do you think happened?” He watched Nomiya’s flinch, and added smoothly, “To the sake.”
“It had to be bandits,” Goto said, his voice age-rasped but still strong. “They took every cask. Every single one.” He shook his head. “My grandmother would have blamed a vengeful ghost.”
“We get bandits in the mountains,” Nomiya explained. “You ninja don’t send enough people here to clean them out.” He barely glanced up as Kurenai returned with tea, though she knelt gracefully to pass cups and pour. Nomiya wet his lips and set the cup aside.
“When the bandits come, is it usually the same group every time?” Genma was watching him intently.
Nomiya shrugged. “We don’t stop to ask names. We just drive ’em off.”
“The Higuma clan might have put them up to it, though,” Goto added. His eyes followed Kurenai, almost idly, as she returned to kneel behind Raidou. “They control half the black-market trade in Frost Country.” He clenched a fist. “My sake…”
“All of our sake,” Inada said harshly, setting her teacup down. “The Fire Daimyou’s sake.” She looked directly at Raidou. “It disappeared overnight. Every cask in every warehouse.”
“In one night?” Raidou sounded like he was trying to hide his disbelief, but not quite managing. “How much was that, exactly?”
“Thirty-five large casks,” Goto said promptly, “twenty-three medium, and eighteen small, private reserve. From my brewery.”
Inada gave him a dark look. She told Raidou, “Almost two hundred casks altogether. More than sixteen wagons’ worth.”
Sixteen wagons rumbling unheard through Tanigawa in the dead of night sounded even more unlikely than a vengeful ghost. Ryouma asked, “Do you have guards?”
“Not in the summer.” Inada tapped her fingers on her knee. “Even bandits wouldn’t bother stealing sake in the summer. It spoils too quickly in the heat. We guard it in the spring before the deliveries go out, and again in the fall, but in the summer there’s only the village watch. And he swears he heard nothing all night.”
“Fell asleep at his post,” Nomiya muttered. “Again.”
“What do you think happened?” Raidou asked Inada.
She drew a breath. “I think we’re cursed.”
Genma sharpened, setting his cup aside. “Why would you be cursed?”
Nomiya snorted. “Because her crazy mother’s superstitious and Inada believes it. Ignore her.”
Inada snapped, “Better crazy than soulless—”
“Oh, no. Let’s not do this again,” Goto said hastily, but Genma overrode him without raising his voice.
“What makes your mother think your village is cursed?”
Under his level gaze, Inada’s weathered cheeks flushed. She picked up her tea again. “She says we’ve turned from the local deities. And so they’ve turned from us. I didn’t say I believe it. But something took that sake, and it wasn’t bandits.”
There was a moment of silence. Raidou drained his tea. “Why don’t you show us the breweries.”
Once the rest of his team had been escorted inside the mayor’s house, Kakashi’s first stop was the breweries. The three warehouses were old but well-maintained, built of gleaming dark wood. They smelled of fermentation.
The doors had heavy locks — all old, but untampered. The roofs were whole. The windows undisturbed. The foundations sunk deep and solid, with no indication of tunneling. There was no evidence of recent chakra-work. Except for an obvious lack of sake, there was no sign anything had happened.
Inside the long, dark warehouses, vast brewing vats stood empty, waiting for the winter. Row after row of shelves were also empty, but dusty circles showed where the maturing sake casks had been.
If Kakashi didn’t know better, he might have thought Minato had Hiraishin’d in and helped himself to an early vintage.
His next step was to slip through the village, looking for signs of hidden storage. He found several root-cellars, already half-stocked with provisions for winter. A few larders with private reserves — small casks, homemade wines, nothing intended for the Daimyou. One tiny attic filled from joists to rafters with dozens of finely stitched festival costumes, carefully folded in paper and left to the dust.
The homes, for the most part, just contained families. A young couple trying to soothe a colicky baby. Laborers exhausted after a long day’s work. A fraught man attending to a bedridden elder. Ordinary people doing ordinary people things. If someone in the village was guilty, they were hiding the trail remarkably well.
The crowd was still gathered outside the mayor’s house, watching with wary concern. No one, notably, had run to defend a hidden cache — or just flat-out run for the hills. They stirred as the mayor’s front door opened.
From a rooftop, Kakashi watched the mayor lead Team Six and Kurenai to the breweries, trailed by two of the older villagers and just about everyone else. Most villagers carried belt-knives as a matter of course, but no one’s hand grasped additional weapons. They were fearful — and if news of Tsurugahama’s broken port had reached them, Kakashi didn’t blame them — but they weren’t panicking. Konoha, for all its errors, had built a solid relationship with Fire Country’s neutral neighbors. That coin was still good.
Kakashi left his team to it and went to break into the mayor’s house.
His nose found misery.
Stress clouded the air so thick it was like breathing iron. Heavy, masculine, with a sour undercurrent of old rice wine, bottled into airless rooms. The scent of brewing tea, for all that it was fresh, barely competed. Kakashi resisted the urge to clamp a hand over his face.
The downstairs had been tidy once, now sliding sideways into disorder. There wasn’t much to search. A few papers written in a labored hand — house accounts, mostly. An unexceptional kitchen. A small, traditional bath with mold flowering along the timbers. The storage trunk in the main room yielded a jumble of small tools and half-finished mending. At the bottom, Kakashi unearthed a picture in a damaged frame. It showed a pretty young woman with a strained smile. Nomiya stood behind her, one possessive hand on her shoulder. Two young children, a boy and a girl, stood very properly at her side, shoulders straight, unsmiling.
Uneasily, Kakashi put it back.
Upstairs, there were just two bedrooms. A room previously shared by Nomiya and his wife, the other containing two small, child-sized futons. And Kurenai.
Kakashi stiffened reflexively. She flicked a glance at him, then returned to investigating the dresser drawer she had eased open. Kakashi shook off his surprise — clone, or real Kurenai? He’d seen one of her go to the breweries — and padded up behind her, avoiding the moonlight slicing through the small window.
“Find anything?” he murmured.
“Mostly the absence of anything,” she said. “Which is more concerning.”
The drawer was empty. So was the rest of the dresser. No clothes, no toys in the closet, no abandoned socks in the corner. Even the bedding had been stripped.
The other bedroom contained things that clearly belonged to Nomiya, but nothing his wife might have owned. None of her clothes, or carefully kept precious items. Not a single hairpin.
Kurenai’s clone crouched and made a disturbed sound. It was a clone; Kurenai was good, she’d added scent, travel-sweat and road dirt, but she hadn’t layered in the full complexity of herself. Kakashi leaned over its shoulder and said, “What?”
He didn’t really need to ask. The clone’s fingers framed a trail of brown marks on the tatami, faded by scrubbing, but distinctive. Old blood. Caused by something violent enough that it had sprayed, not just dripped. Kakashi straightened up and looked at the walls. He couldn’t risk turning on a light, but there was enough moonlight to see, when he looked close enough, places where timber had been dented by force.
The clone found another old stain near the window. It didn’t touch this one.
They went back downstairs. The bathroom, on second viewing, was bare of anything traditionally feminine. Nomiya’s razor and toothbrush were still here, but there were no combs, make up, or supplies for a woman’s monthly.
“They’ve been gone three weeks. A few of the villagers are suspicious,” the clone told him softly. She gave the living area a hard look. “A murderer might clean up afterwards, but Nomiya isn’t tidy enough to have managed this.”
It was possible to kill cleanly, but civilians generally didn’t. There would be more sign here.
“An abused woman on the run might try to erase any evidence of her existence, if she had time to plan. But she couldn’t have taken all her things, and the children’s, without help.” The clone looked at him. In the grey light, its eyes were black. “The sake thieves?”
“She’d have access to the warehouse keys,” Kakashi said. “But you think someone would have noticed her taking off to talk to strangers.”
“Maybe someone did.” The clone’s expression turned sly. “Talk to the village women. Suki and her friend. They like a handsome man.”
“Send Tousaki,” Kakashi said dryly. “I’m going to check the perimeter. Let Yuuhi know.”
The clone gave him an ironic look, but only said, “We’ll meet you at the tanuki statue.” It blinked out of existence with a nearly-silent pop and a shimmer of falling mist.
Kakashi let himself out of the bleak house, and inhaled clear air gratefully.
A sweep of the village’s perimeter was unrevealing. There were trail signs — animals, travellers, villagers — but nothing unusual. Nothing with long, demon-sized claws. No scent of sulphur, or an unnatural chemical tang. Not even the strange chakra-burn from Hiraizumi. The few rutted wagon tracks heading to nearby fields and rice paddies didn’t seem overly laden.
A twist of decay led him to a half-eaten hare. There were no freshly dug graves.
Only one thing made him pause. On the northern tip of the valley, near the tall waterfall, a craggy hollow held a pale gleam. When he dropped down to investigate, he found a broken shrine. The housing had mostly collapsed, and the statue it contained had been worn faceless by seasons; there was just a suggestion of clothes on the round figure, a knobbly object clutched in one hand. The ropes surrounding the figure seemed new, though. The dangling paper charms hadn’t yet rotted away in the wind and weather.
At the statue’s feet, a small sake cup lay tipped to one side, next to a trio of stale cakes. A bunch of ragged, wilted flowers looked grey in the shadows. Crushed moss made a faint impression; Kakashi thought someone might have been kneeling.
He inhaled. Any lingering scent had faded days ago, swallowed by wind and summer heat. There were just the remnants of a prayer.
He turned and made his way back to the tanuki statue.
For all that Kurenai appreciated the end product of a sake brewery, she’d never had any interest in the process itself. The brewery tour would have been as dull as she expected—Here are the vats, here are the empty shelves, here isn’t the sake…—if it weren’t for the people leading it.
Her brief search of Nomiya’s kitchen had only reinforced her initial impression that the ‘wife visiting relatives’ story wasn’t nearly as innocuous as Nomiya meant it to appear. The clone she’d left in the mayor’s house was still investigating. Which left Kurenai free to hang back at the tail of the group, silent and sharp-eyed, watching the way Nomiya forced himself to defer to Raidou. Wealthy and powerful by his village’s standards, big by anyone’s, Nomiya wasn’t used to having his authority supplanted, and he didn’t like it.
He didn’t like his fellow brewers, either. There was a subtle tension between all of them, breaking overtly now and then as Nomiya criticized Inada or condescended to Goto. Weeks of pressure suddenly catalyzed by the shinobi arrival, Kurenai thought, but the cracks hinted at something deeper. She wondered if the mayoral position was elected, and how Nomiya had won.
Ryouma fell back beside her. “D’you believe in curses?” His voice was low, but Goto’s had sharp ears; Kurenai saw the old man glancing back.
Kurenai lowered her eyes and pitched her voice to carry. “I’m not sure I know what to believe, right now…”
Ryouma frowned at her. But Goto was slowing his pace too, matching to Kurenai’s other side. “You shouldn’t listen to Inada. There’s bandits in these mountains, not vengeful ghosts.”
She’d pegged him right. Kurenai glanced up quickly, then dropped her gaze before it met his. “What about the local deity? We passed through the festival in Hiraizumi…”
“Waste of money and good food,” Goto snorted. “Nomiya-san’s right. Superstition’s held us back for too long. We didn’t have electric generators in the village till ten years ago, and it wasn’t because of the cost. No, it was the priests saying the forest spirits objected, and they needed offerings and tithes to placate ’em. Well, we brought the generators in and sent the priests off packing. Now almost every house in the village is wired, and no one’s heard a peep from the forest.”
Ryouma said, “Progressive attitude.” He managed to sound almost deferential. Maybe there was hope for him yet.
Goto waved a hand. “The fact is, with electrification we’ve been able to almost double our production. It’s brought prosperity, not some gods-ordained ruin.”
“And prosperity has brought bandits?” Kurenai asked.
“Poverty makes bandits, young lady.” Goto seemed to be enjoying himself. “Prosperity makes enemies. Now, I could tell you—”
“Goto-san!” Nomiya said, sharply. “The captain wants to know which of your workers ordered the casks for this year’s stock.”
Goto excused himself with a murmured apology; beyond him, Kurenai caught a glimpse of Raidou looking frustrated. She wondered whether Nomiya had summoned Goto to interrupt her conversation, or his own.
The brewery tour ended soon after. It was full dark, the sky lit by a fingernail moon and a brilliant river of stars. Nomiya waited by the brewery door until the last ninja exited, then closed and locked it. “I hope you’ll do me the courtesy of staying at my home tonight,” he told Raidou. His broad face looked disturbingly dour in the yellow glow cast by the security light over the brewery door.
Raidou inclined his head with exacting politeness. “Konoha appreciates your generosity, but we would disturb you too much by coming and going at all hours. We’ll find a campsite nearby to set up, while we organize our scouting parties.”
Kurenai missed Nomiya’s response in the flicker-moment of her clone’s memory cascade. She blinked away the overlay of Kakashi’s masked face and Nomiya’s empty house, and caught Genma looking sharply at her. She shook her head. He relaxed minutely.
The sake brewers left. Raidou watched them trudge into the darkness, and said, “Yuuhi?”
The sound-deadening genjutsu might be overkill at this point, but Kurenai wasn’t taking chances. She slipped through the seals, cast her chakra out, and stepped in close. “I left a clone in Nomiya’s house. Hatake entered shortly after.”
Briefly, she summarized their findings, emphasizing the missing traces of three peoples’ lives as much as the old blood stains. “I think Nomiya Harubi left on her own, but she had help,” she concluded. “Someone needs to talk to Suki-san and her friend. Hatake’s patrolling a perimeter now; he’ll meet us at the tanuki statue.”
Raidou scratched the back of his neck. “This was weird before. It’s weirder now.” He dropped his hand. “Yuuhi, I want you to talk to the women — take Shiranui with you. Tousaki, you and I are going to step into the izakaya, buy a lot of drinks, and see if anyone wants to complain at us.”
Kurenai glanced at Genma. “One pretty boy is interchangeable for another?”
Genma’s mouth curled toward a smile. He looked away, but not before Kurenai caught the hint of a rising flush. “I hope Suki-san isn’t disappointed by the substitution.”
“No comment.” Raidou’s mouth tugged, too. He thumped Ryouma’s shoulder. “C’mon, Tousaki, I’m going to show you how to lose impressively at darts. We’re gonna make people feel manly.”
“An’ ruin Konoha’s reputation forever…” Ryouma trailed after him obediently.
Kurenai tipped her head at Genma. “Suki-san may not be the one you need to charm. Her friend was angry. You could hint you’ve seen enough of Nomiya to sympathize.”
He glanced toward Nomiya’s house. “I won’t have to pretend.”
“Good.” Kurenai’s own anger was cold, deeply buried, and growing.
She dropped the silencing genjutsu and retraced their steps toward the edge of the village. Genma corrected her once, with a slight shoulder-touch; he’d seen the house Suki-san’s friend came from. It was small, plank-walled and thatch-roofed, but light still gleamed between the narrow wooden shutters.
A teenage girl answered the door. Her eyes rounded; she stepped back involuntarily, then regained her composure. “Shinobi-san?”
“We’re looking for Nomiya Harubi-san’s friend.” Mother or aunt to this girl, Kurenai guessed. “She wanted us to ask where Harubi-san and the children are.”
“And did you?” The woman came through a sliding door into the genkan, her dark eyes unafraid. She was still dressed in a dark cotton kimono and plain obi, as if she’d expected these late-evening visitors. Laughter-lines framed her mouth, but her lips were drawn thin.
“We asked,” Kurenai said quietly. “And then we searched. And now we want to talk to you.”
The woman looked at Genma. “Where are the rest of your band? Team?” She pronounced the word the way Ryouma did, when he wasn’t quite sure it was right.
Genma gestured back towards the izakaya at the village center. “Asking other people in the village what they might know about the situation.” He lowered his voice. “But from what you said before, we guessed you might have more to tell us than most others.”
The woman hesitated, then reached for a wood-framed lantern on a shelf near the door. “Tell your mother I’ll be back soon,” she instructed the girl. She lit the lantern and came out between Genma and Kurenai. “This way. Around the back.”
The restrictive kimono kept her steps short but fast. Kurenai kept pace easily. “Your niece?”
“My sister’s oldest.” She wasn’t afraid to speak to ninja about her family; she was looking down the street instead, alert for any hint of her neighbors. Satisfied, she ducked down a narrow alley between houses and led them to a tiny, sheltered garden, with a wooden bench looking over a raked spread of gravel. “This is Yoshida-san’s meditation garden, but he’s been deaf for twenty years. He won’t hear.”
Kurenai sat at the other end of the bench. “What don’t you want him to hear?”
“Plenty of things, recently.” The woman met her eyes. “My name is Noriko.”
“Kurenai. This is Genma.” No surnames here; Noriko wanted trust more than identity. Kurenai reached a hand up, and after a moment Genma folded down on the edge of the bench next to her, where he could still watch the mouth of the alley.
Noriko fiddled with the shutter of the lantern, then placed it on the ground and folded her hands in her lap. “You searched Harubi’s house?”
“She’s not there.” Kurenai had no intention of withholding that information. Gratitude could work as many wonders as greed. “Neither her nor the children. Nor their bodies.”
“Oh.” Noriko sagged a little, boneless with relief. “I wouldn’t have put it past him. Harubi said once— And we’d all seen him lose his temper, that time with the rice merchant’s guard…”
“Nomiya has enemies?” Kurenai pressed.
“Either enemies or hangers-on. More of the latter, these days.” Noriko’s fists clenched. “He’s so often right, that’s the trouble of it. About electrification, about the contracts, about driving off the bandits last year. He’s a good brewer and he makes a good leader for the village. And so everybody pretended not to notice what he did to Harubi…”
Genma asked quietly, “What did he do to the rice merchant’s guard?”
Noriko looked up at him with a flash of fury. “The man tried to flirt with Harubi, so Nomiya beat him unconscious. I don’t know if he died. The merchants took him away before he woke up. And people said Nomiya was defending her.” She spat the words. “He was just making sure everyone knew what he’d do to anyone who tried to help her.”
A muscle twitched in the side of Genma’s jaw. His voice stayed level, calm. “Was that something he thought he had to worry about? Had she been unfaithful to him?”
Kurenai looked sharply at him. Noriko boiled over. “What if she had? How does that excuse him beating her? If you—”
“It doesn’t excuse him,” Genma interrupted. “At all. But it might explain where she is, if she had someone to go to.”
“Ah.” Noriko bit her lip, then shook her head. “She loved him, that’s the worst part. At least at first. And then there were the children, and she just wanted— She talked about going away, to her parents in Kanagawa or somewhere else, but he’d have come after her. And the brewery would be her children’s, someday. She couldn’t make them beggars.”
Kurenai flexed her hands and carefully did not say, She should have come to us. Maybe they could still rectify that, though. If they could find Harubi safe, first.
She asked instead, “Has there been anyone through the village lately that she might have asked for help? Traders, travelers, anyone who could get a message out?” Particularly if she’d promised them payment.
Twelve wagon-loads of sake vanished in one night still loomed as an insurmountable obstacle, but they were close to discovering the who. After that, how would follow.
Noriko shook her head, then hesitated. “She did slip away for an afternoon, just before she disappeared. She asked me to watch the children. But she was only gone an hour or two, not long enough to meet anyone. And there were no strangers here, anyway.”
“How soon after that did she disappear?” Kurenai asked.
“The same night. I think.” Noriko chewed her lip again. “It was the night the sake vanished, and no one asked about Harubi for days. They were all too busy searching for the sake.”
“Did Nomiya beat the children, too?” Genma asked. “Does he have a storehouse, or land elsewhere, that the rest of the village doesn’t know about?”
Suggesting Nomiya could have killed them all, then stolen the sake to distract villagers’ attention and give him time for a cover up? The solution was elegant in its simplicity, but even more impractical than Kurenai’s current theory of a sympathetic bandit gang hiding in the mountains. How was one man supposed to move two hundred sake barrels in one night? Not to mention accessing the barrels in Goto’s private stash.
“I don’t think he’d hit them yet,” Noriko said wearily. “But it was only a matter of time. Harubi kept saying, if he ever hurt them, she really would leave him. Maybe he did.” She sighed. “If there is a storehouse, I don’t know about it. But you could find it, couldn’t you? You’re here to find the sake, I know that. But if you can find Harubi, if you can get her justice— I don’t have much, but here—”
“Keep your coin,” Kurenai said, pushing Noriko’s hand gently back. “Someone’s already paid.”
“Is there anyone else you think we should talk to?” Genma asked. “Or anywhere Harubi liked to go?”
Noriko shook her head. “Suki thinks Harubi was snatched by forest spirits. There’s an old shrine Harubi liked to pray at, when she could get away, but you won’t find it in the dark. Go tomorrow. It’s near the waterfall.” She gave them directions oriented by landmark as she stooped to pick up her lantern and rose stiffly from the bench. Kurenai nodded, memorized, and promised to return.
They left Noriko at her sister’s house. Down the street the izakaya was closing, its owner wiping down tables and bringing in stools. Raidou and Ryouma must have already moved on. Kurenai and Genma followed, walking slowly through the dark street. They wouldn’t run where there were civilians to see.
Kurenai said, “I should apologize for doubting you. But you could have phrased that question about infidelity better.”
He groaned. “Yeah. I screwed that up. I was thinking about my next question, instead of the one I was asking.”
That was far too simple an admission to be so incalculably warming. Kurenai smiled into the dark. “We’ve all done that. And you recovered well. I do want to hear your theory about how Nomiya murdered his family and stole the sake.”
“I don’t want to think he murdered them, but it’s hard not to make that leap.” Genma kept an easy pace next to Kurenai, footfalls soft on the packed earth road through the village. “But if he could make the sake vanish so easily, he probably wouldn’t need a distraction to cover up vanishing their bodies.” The chorus of frogs and insects grew louder as they approached the woods beyond the village, underlain by the ubiquitous thunder of the falls.
When Kurenai looked up inquisitively, Genma asked, “How far is it to the actual falls? Not the little rapids, the real deal. If he dumped their bodies there… But then we’re back to why bother with stealing the sake.” He shook his head. “I’m tired and not thinking my best. Probably why I made that error with Noriko-san, too. Why don’t you tell me your theory instead? Mine doesn’t hold water.”
Kurenai’s soft laugh floated over the wildlife sounds. “Mine’s still got plenty of holes. I think Harubi bargained with someone to shelter her and her children in exchange for access to the sake. She could easily have met someone that day to finalize the plan. Bandits would have the manpower, and Harubi leaving of her own volition would explain the emptied house. She didn’t want to leave any trace behind for her abuser.”
“It makes sense,” Genma said. “I can see her bargaining the sake for safe passage. But why would she give them Goto-san’s and Inada-san’s sake, too? How would she, even? Some of the stolen sake wasn’t in any of the warehouses.”
“So much for the adage about identifying motive and thereby narrowing down the means.” Kurenai tipped her head back, exposing a gleam of pale throat as she studied the stars. “And does that strange chakra presence we sensed at Hiraizumi have anything to do with it? If my hypothetical bandits have a missing-nin with them, we have a whole new set of options…”
“Whole new set of problems, you mean,” Genma said. “Missing-nin, enemy-nin, demons, ghosts… The best option we’ve got so far is a murderous husband, a runaway wife, and suspiciously well-equipped mountain bandits. And it’s only half-baked.” He sighed and kicked a small pebble down the road, watching it skitter and bounce in the weak moonlight. “Because even if that is the answer, it still doesn’t explain how it happened in one night. Could a really sophisticated genjutsu do that? Blank everyone’s memories? Make a whole town forget how something happened?”
“Even the most high-level genjutsu still affect perceptions, not memories,” Kurenai said. “But an area-effect genjutsu could prevent the villagers from noticing anything unusual, or encourage them to avoid the warehouses until the theft was complete.” She started talking faster, spinning out a new theory that actually fit the facts. “Actually, the best method would be to cast a genjutsu that causes the brewers to perceive their warehouses as empty before the sake’s taken. That could give you up to two weeks to siphon the casks out. You wouldn’t need twelve wagons; you’d barely need one. And it would explain the sake-seller’s apprentice getting lost on the road from Hiraizumi, too. The thieves couldn’t let anyone approach until they’d finished their work.” She finished with a gleam in her eye.
That was why she was on this mission: to be the smart one. Genma found himself getting excited now that they had a theory to work from.
“That would be brilliant, if that’s what they did,” he said. “And it’d explain how all the private reserves got raided, too, if ninja were involved. They’d just have to hope the villagers didn’t call in other ninja to find the missing sake before they got it all out. Now we just have to figure out whether we’re looking at missing-nin or enemy agents. I suppose there’s a chance the Fire Daimyou’s sake just happened to be stolen along with everything else, but I wouldn’t take a bet on it.” He stretched his arms over his head as he walked, rolling his shoulders to limber them up. “And we need to figure out what connection Harubi-san might have with another ninja village.”
“Tomorrow,” Kurenai said. She nodded her head for emphasis. “We’ll take another look at the theory in daylight, and then start poking holes in it.”
“Maybe we’ll get lucky and the others will have turned something useful up.” Genma slowed his pace, sweeping chakra out to feel the echoes of bright ANBU sparks ahead in the dark. “Or at least brought us snacks from the izakaya.”
Surprisingly, it was Kakashi waiting for them at the cluster of stone monuments. Genma waved a greeting. “You drew sentry duty?”
Kakashi inclined his head at the other two, stretched out at the base of one of the larger monuments. Raidou had his feet irreverently propped on the head of one of the smaller stone Jizo — but then if a bodhisattva couldn’t take the weight of a weary traveler’s feet, perhaps he wasn’t so enlightened after all. He and Ryouma both smelled like cigarettes and beer, an impressive accomplishment for a relatively short night’s work.
“I think the locals tired them out,” Kakashi said. He held out a small paper sack. “Edamame?”
It wasn’t a cigarette, but oddly, Genma was finding himself craving them less recently. Even the prompting scent of smoke on Raidou’s and Ryouma’s clothes wasn’t enough. He took a few of the offered pods. “Thank you. Have you found a campsite yet, or are we sleeping here at the fork in the road with buddhas and tanuki to watch over us?”
“About a kilometer west,” Kakashi said, offering the bag to Kurenai. “There’s a grove near a river bend. Should be sheltered.”
“Sounds good.” Genma squatted down beside Raidou and Ryouma. “Sooner you get up and moving, the sooner you can lie down on a nice, soft bedroll.”
Ryouma’s answer was the faintest of snores.
Genma chuckled. When Raidou just peered at him from under heavy lids, he said, “You’re setting a bad example for the rookies, Taichou.”
Raidou squinted at Genma, sighed, and clamped a hand on the back of Ryouma’s neck, hauling himself and Ryouma both upright. “I’m up, I’m up. Did you find anything?”
“More evidence that Nomiya is not winning any prizes for popularity, and enough to make me think we might still have to be looking for bodies. But Yuuhi’s got an interesting theory that might be better for our missing mom and kids than that. Might also be a headache for us, but what else is new?”
“I’ll take a headache over dead kids,” Raidou said. “What’s the theory?”
Kurenai quickly outlined the information they’d gathered from Noriko and the theory she’d based on it. She reiterated her plan to poke holes in it in the morning after everyone had slept. Without a word, Ryouma rose to begin the trudge towards their campsite.
Kakashi took rear guard, a somber shadow at their backs. He was always quiet, but he seemed particularly withdrawn as he dogged their heels. When they got to the campsite, he kept his silence while they activated scrolls and set up a pair of tents and a small hearth. Raidou took pity on Ryouma and helped with digging the latrine, while Kurenai folded down onto her bedroll and started the wearisome nightly routine of blister care.
When Raidou and Ryouma returned, Genma had water ready for tea. “Hatake, you did the perimeter scout,” Genma said. “And you don’t look happy. What’d you find? Anything we should be worried about tonight?”
“Do I ever look happy?” Kakashi gave Genma a look full of irony. Genma had to concede that seeing Kakashi happy was vanishingly rare. He held his tongue, though, and eventually Kakashi rewarded him with a description of the prayed-at shrine, the cleared-out house, and the bleak photograph. “If we find Harubi-san and her children, are we supposed to bring them back?”
Genma considered the question. “No,” he decided. “We’re here to find the sake. If we discover she’s responsible for the sake’s disappearance, we take her into custody and bring her back for the Daimyou to deal with. If she isn’t responsible, and she and her children are safe and don’t want to return, that’s their prerogative. We only bring them back if they want to come back, or if we get sent out here with another mission that says we have to.”
“What about Nomiya?” Ryouma asked in a low voice. He seemed as withdrawn as Kakashi, almost shut down. Genma was reminded of the hours after the Tsuto mission in Ibaragashi. He nudged Raidou’s foot with his own, and gave Ryouma a significant look.
“If Nomiya’s responsible for the sake’s disappearance, or his family’s, we take him into custody,” Genma said.
Kurenai gave him a wry look. “How are you defining ‘responsible’?”
“Responsible in a criminal way,” Genma said. “I’m pretty sure we can all agree on what that might mean.”
Raidou held up a hand. “In Fire Country, yes. But we’re outside the border here. Different laws. I’m not sure Hotsprings even has a criminal code for spousal abuse.”
“Which would explain why she waited so long, if there was no help to be had,” Kurenai offered. She brooded over her blisters, applying a careful cushion of moleskin to the back of her heel. “Though even in Fire Country, she might have had to go a long way to get help. In these isolated villages, a mayor’s word can be more powerful than the Daimyou’s.”
“We can offer her asylum,” Raidou said. “If we find her.”
“And if she pays us, we can execute her husband and leave all the people who knew about it and did nothing untouched.” Kakashi glared at the fire that Ryouma was silently stoking. “Unless she has a lot of money. Then we can burn the village to the ground.”
Ryouma looked up at him sharply, then back at the glowing coals.
Genma let out a slow breath, watching the collective mood slide into dangerous territory. “That kind of mission would be the Hokage’s call to make,” he said quietly. “But we can certainly make it clear, if we find her and she accepts asylum, that it would be in Nomiya’s best interests not to go looking for her.”
Raidou gave Genma a small nod. “Either way, it’s not a problem we’re solving tonight. Eat, sleep. We’ll be smarter in the morning. I’ll take first watch.”
“You took middle watch last night,” Genma said. “And you and Tousaki both look beat. I can take first and give second to Hatake, so you both get a little more sleep tonight.”
Kurenai rose to her feet, silent and purposeful. “I’d like to set wards, first.” She opened a belt pouch and extracted a roll of what looked like exploding tags, elegantly calligraphed.
Kakashi’s gaze sharpened, he pushed the hair off his face, and for an instant both eyes reflected red in the firelight.
While Kurenai peeled off a handful of the tags and charged them, Ryouma fished a trio of foil-wrapped packets out of the coals. He gave one to Kakashi, one to Genma, and set the third aside at Kurenai’s place. Without so much as a word, he crawled into his tent.
Genma frowned. “Give me just a minute,” he told Raidou, and followed Ryouma in.
Ryouma didn’t look happy at the intrusion. Mostly he looked leaden.
“What’s wrong, Ryouma?” Genma said, pitching his voice low enough that it wouldn’t carry.
Ryouma hunched over his pack, punching it into a pillow shape before he lay down curled on his side with his back to Genma. “Just tired,” he said at last. “Do better in the morning.”
So would Genma, probably. If he was ever going to screw it up with Ryouma, forcing him to talk when they were both teetering with exhaustion would be a good way to start. He sighed heavily, and put a hand on Ryouma’s granite-tight shoulder. “Whatever it is, if you decide you can talk about it, you can talk to me.” He sucked his lower lip over his teeth, hesitating, then added, “We won’t let Nomiya do anything to his wife or kids. We’ll — I’ll make sure he knows he’s being watched from here on out.”
Almost inaudibly, Ryouma muttered, “S’what he already did. And we can’t do anything about it.” His shoulders shuddered once, and he curled himself even tighter, shoving his head into his makeshift pillow with ferocity. “S’okay,” he said tightly. “I’ll keep my cool.”
For a man who made his living creating corpses, Ryouma had some startlingly deep holes in his foundation. What had set him off on the Tsuto mission? Killing the wife and daughter. There had been dead children on their first mission, too, but those little girls had been victims of demons, not other humans.
This was far too big a problem to fix right here and now.
There was more than enough evidence to conclude Nomiya had beaten and maybe murdered his family, or driven the wife to suicide. That was another nasty possibility that Genma hadn’t focused on yet, but he knew it happened. Trapped and desperate, she could have taken her children over the falls with her, with a prayer for a better life in their next incarnations.
Harsh possibilities, but not any worse than the other horrors ANBU missions presented on a regular basis. Genma found himself seesawing again, on Ryouma’s fitness for the role he was in. If only he could read, maybe he’d make a good jounin-sensei. Or if medical training paid off, and Ryouma turned out to have a real aptitude, maybe he could become one of the regular medical corps.
But no matter what he needed, they couldn’t solve Ryouma’s problems while they were on a mission.
“I know you will,” Genma said. He gave Ryouma’s shoulder a squeeze. “Try to get some rest. I’ll give you last watch, so you can sleep through the night.”
“Thanks, Lieutenant.” Ryouma’s voice sounded thin and scratchy. “Get some food before your watch.”
When Genma re-emerged, Kakashi looked up from the mug he was warming over the fire. “How’d that go?”
“How do things like that ever go?” Genma said. He sighed and crouched next to the fire to pick up his cooled food pouch. Seasoned rice with vegetables and chicken released a mouth-watering fragrance when he pried the edges of the foil apart.
“He’s unhappy with the direction this mission has taken. I can’t blame him for not liking it, but—” He weighed his request. Kakashi was a rookie, too, Ryouma’s peer. But they all were. All battle-hardened, experienced jounin and special jounin. Being a rookie in ANBU wasn’t the same as being new at the shinobi life. “Keep an eye on him. And send up a flag before things go sour, if you think they’re heading that way.”
Kakashi regarded Genma for a thoughtful moment, before he said, “What if I agree with him?”
Fatigue was bludgeoning his good judgment, and his patience. Genma gave Kakashi a flat look back. “What if I agree with him? What if we all do? That doesn’t matter. We have a mission to focus on. We can have feelings about it when it’s over.”
Kakashi’s eye sharpened, and he tapped his fingers to his tattoo in a crisp salute. “Lieutenant.” Taking two tin mugs of tea with him, he ducked into the tent after Ryouma.
There was a moment of silence. The fire popped and crackled, sending a slender column of sparks dancing upward on the smoke.
“Never thought I’d see you tell Hatake to be less emotional,” Raidou said quietly.
Genma groaned and threw his head back, watching the wisps and tendrils of smoke disperse into the stars overhead. “When we get home, when this is over, you and I need to do some thinking. There’s a problem there.” He gestured with a head flick at the occupied tent. “It’s been festering since our second mission.”
“Since Raidou got himself suspended and all other problems faded in comparison?” Kurenai glided out of the darkness to rejoin them, without her roll of seals.
Of course she’d been listening. She was Intel. Genma had lived with Aoba; he knew better than to assume any conversation wasn’t being eavesdropped on.
“Since that, yes. And then the island mission and my mess with Kuroda.” Genma handed Kurenai her packet of takeout from the izakaya.
“As much as I like to think we’re the cause of all badness in the world,” Raidou said, “I think Tousaki’s been carrying his problems a lot longer. Hatake, too, if we want to go down that road, though his mostly surface off-mission.”
“I don’t mind that he’s got issues. I mean, I have issues. And I sound like a hypocrite faulting him for having issues affect him on a mission, after what happened with Fukuda.” Genma shook his head. The problem wasn’t the existence of Ryouma’s issues, it was whether their missions were making his issues worse. And whether that in turn could jeopardize a mission. “I think we just, we keep an eye on him. Make sure he’s got a backstop and we don’t get blindsided.”
Raidou nodded, turning to look at Kurenai. His voice was a low murmur, almost lost in the rush of breeze through fluttering bamboo leaves above them. “Thoughts? You’re the closest thing we’ve got to Pysch out here.”
Kurenai set her chopsticks down on a scrap of foil she’d folded into a little chopstick rest. A twist of fingers and chakra turned the air still around them with her sound-muffling jutsu to protect their conversation from listeners in the tent. She gave Genma and Raidou a thoughtful look. “None of you think he’s stable, Kakashi included. But he responds well to the two of you—better than to anyone else in his record.”
He did? That was unexpected.
Kurenai continued, “He wants you to think well of him. Which is why he’ll talk to Kakashi, but not to you.”
“I recommended him for secondary review after the Ibaragashi mission, but so far as I know, it didn’t go anywhere. That office is backlogged at the best of times.”
“If they did a secondary review,” Genma asked, “what then? If we’re good for him as a team, but the missions are terrible for him, I don’t see an easy answer here.”
Kurenai shrugged one shoulder, and her hair fell back on that side, exposing her earlobe barren of an earring for the mission. “It depends. If he were an immediate danger to you or to Konoha’s interests, he’d be removed. But he’s completed his missions satisfactorily so far, without unduly endangering himself or his team. Or—” Kurenai flickered a glance at Raidou “—causing unnecessary collateral damage. Whether he sleeps well at night… isn’t, perhaps, terribly high on Shibata-san’s lists of concerns.”
Genma snorted, and Raidou’s lips quirked in amused resignation.
“Counseling is an option,” Kurenai continued. “But since you asked for my professional opinion, I think he’d respond better to his team than to a stranger. Do you think the team would be better off without him?”
She picked her dinner back up.
“No!” Genma blurted before he could think. His visceral rejection of Kurenai’s suggestion surprised him. “I mean, no. We’re a good team. He’s a good teammate. He’s just, when he has a turn like this, mid-mission, I have no idea what to do to get him out of it. He hasn’t jeopardized a mission yet…”
“Do you have reason to believe he’ll jeopardize this one?” Kurenai asked.
“Did we have reason to think I’d destroy a port?” Raidou asked, desert-dry. He leaned forward, bracing his elbows on his knees, and gave Kurenai a weighty look. “So we’re clear, this is all off the record. Not for an Intel report.”
Genma’s mouth went dry. He should have considered it. He joined Raidou in frowning at Kurenai. “If you’re putting anything in a report, it’s that I said this team should stay together. We’re an effective, cohesive team.”
Kurenai took a bite of her dinner. “I’m here to gather actionable information for your mission. You’re the ones who need to file reports on the health and fitness of your teammates.”
Raidou’s mouth curved into a crooked half smile. “Thanks, Kurenai.” He arched his back and stretched, popping the joints in his shoulders and neck, much less tense. And he knew Kurenai. If he trusted her, then Genma would, too.
Genma ducked his head in an apologetic bow to Kurenai.
“Not to be an optimist,” Raidou said, “but maybe tomorrow will start with missing kids falling out of trees, a bunch of sake barrels floating down the river, and Tousaki making us breakfast. That could happen, right?”
“It could happen if you kicked him out of bed and ordered him to cook,” Genma said. He followed Raidou’s example, rolling his shoulders and slithering the tension out of his spine. “Sorry for my rudeness, Yuuhi.”
Kurenai tilted a red-lipped smile at him. “Paranoia is an occupational hazard. But let’s be clear. If you don’t want Tousaki pulled off your team, what do you want?” She softened again. “Think of this as prep work for that mission report…”
Genma glanced at Raidou. “I don’t know. A map to his issues, so we can anticipate what’s going to trigger him off, maybe? His file is fairly thin. Outside of his reading problems and his being orphaned and trained late, we don’t know much about him.”
“We know someone broke his knee young,” Raidou said, with a swift look at the tent.
“I’d thought that was a combat injury,” Genma said. He frowned, trying to picture Ryouma’s medical history file. “But maybe it wasn’t.”
Kurenai set her chopsticks carefully aside. “You have all the pieces, surely. He was orphaned young, and left Konoha with a man who’d been dismissed from the chuunin corps for drunkenness on duty. He came back three years later with a knee broken and half-healed, with no evidence that his education had progressed any further than the day he left the Academy, and with moderate to severe authority issues. His first fractures over this mission showed when he heard Nomiya had abused his wife and children. What do you think his triggers are?”
“I didn’t know about the disgraced chuunin,” Genma said. “That’s not in the file. That’s the grandfather? It certainly all fits, but…” He spun a chopstick between his fingers like a thick senbon. “I can’t even ask why Konoha would send a half-trained child away with a drunk. There were a lot of mistakes around the war, and a lot of orphans.” He stabbed his chopstick through the empty foil packet.
“Does Intel know if Tousaki’s grandfather died?” Raidou asked. His eyes were on the fire, and his words measured.
And how the grandfather died? Even a half-trained academy student would have a solid arsenal of skills to use against a drunk old man. Genma caught Raidou’s eye, certain they were sharing a thought. “Tousaki didn’t develop his rot jutsu until he was a genin or chuunin himself, right?”
“Genin,” Kurenai said. A slight frown made her brows crease. “If there’s a file on Tousaki Yousuke’s death, I haven’t found it.”
“How about a last known whereabouts?” Raidou’s voice shaded dark as he added, “I’d pay for that mission.”
Kurenai tipped her chin. “And yet you were worried about Tousaki wanting to kill Nomiya?”
“We can’t currently do anything about the grandfather whether he’s alive or dead,” Genma said. “Even if he were alive, revenge for abuse a decade in the past isn’t going to erase the damage it did. So right now, yes, I’m worried about Tousaki wanting to kill Nomiya. I don’t think he will. But I’m worried.”
“I’m not worried about him killing Nomiya,” Raidou said. “I’m worried about him being distracted and getting himself killed by some goddamn demon or Mist ninja or falling tree.” All valid worries, and probably more likely than Ryouma going rogue, Genma had to admit.
“Also slightly concerned about Hatake burning down the village,” Raidou added, “but I don’t think he was serious. Mostly.”
“Who can tell with Hatake,” Genma said. “He didn’t sound like he was kidding. I’ll be happy if we manage to avoid any unplanned civic destruction — it would be a first for us. So far we’ve brought down a mine, a port, and a water distribution system — though that last one was within the mission scope.”
“Announcing his intention would technically make it planned civic destruction,” Raidou said, which wasn’t exactly the point Genma’d been trying to make. It didn’t really seem to be the point Raidou was chasing either. He scrubbed a hand over his face, yawning behind his fingers as his palm scraped over his beard stubble. “I think we’re going in circles.”
“You’re his officers,” Kurenai said quietly. “You have the authority to pull him off this mission. Will you?”
“If I have to,” Genma said. “But right now I don’t think that’s where this is going.” He caught Raidou’s yawn, echoing it with one of his own. “This is… I just think we need to keep an eye on him and backstop him before there’s a real problem.”
Raidou reached over to clap a hand on Genma’s shoulder, clambering to his feet. “He survived the last three. If he falls apart, we’ll pull him. But I think — I hope — he’s stronger than that.”
That felt like a good final word on the subject. Genma got to his feet, too. “A good night’s sleep ought to help his mood, too. I’ve got first watch and Hatake’s taking second. If you take third we can let Tousaki sleep until dawn.”
“Done.” Raidou twisted his back one way and then the other, one last limber up before settling down for the night. “Don’t stay up too late, Yuuhi,” he advised. Grabbing a cup and his toothbrush, he headed for the river’s edge to wash up before bed.
“I anchored distraction wards about fifteen meters out,” Kurenai said. “If something crosses the perimeter, they’ll flare.” When Genma nodded, she picked her chopsticks and rice back up, but didn’t take a bite. A complicated emotion flitted across her features before her gaze landed on Genma. “Don’t spend your whole watch worrying, either.”
Genma wasn’t sure what to make of the sudden curl of warmth in his chest. “I won’t. I— thank you, Yuuhi.” Feeling numb-tongued and a little out of his depth, Genma went to wash his face in the icy water next to Raidou. When he got back to the fire, Kurenai’s seat was empty, and her shoes were outside her tent.