June 28, Yondaime Year 5
Kurenai found Yamashiro Aoba in the Fire Country division office breakroom, stirring the third sugar packet into his paper cup of coffee and looking like microwaved death. She cleared her throat. “Have you been home in the last forty-eight hours?”
He startled, saw her, and slumped against cabinets. “Don’t tell me you’re here with a mission.”
“Not for you.” She tapped the heavy file folder tucked in her arm. “We’ve got a briefing scheduled for an ANBU team, but no one’s seen them at HQ or the barracks. Shiranui’s file says he lives with you.”
A little light crept back into Aoba’s eyes. “As long as I’m not going with them.” He discarded the stir stick and took a long swig of coffee. “Genma finally found a new place. He’s probably there working on his plumbing.”
“That may be the first time you’ve used that word without intending a euphemism,” Kurenai observed. “Do you know where the new place is?”
Aoba’s eyes narrowed. “Are you doing the briefing?”
“Since Riei’s busy.” Shirotani seemed to have fixed on Kurenai as the ANBU Team Six expert, and Tomo and Hide were glad to dodge the duty again. Kurenai hadn’t protested. She didn’t exactly mind being the ANBU Team Six expert, especially if it got her out of the office early on a glorious summer evening.
She said, “I can requisition you as an escort. Get you off duty before someone drops another mission on you. Unless, perhaps, you’ve got more paperwork waiting…?”
Aoba dropped to his knees, deftly not spilling his coffee. “You’re really one of Genma’s bodhisattva, aren’t you? Get me out of here and I’ll convert right now.”
“I deal in favors, not worshippers.” But she offered him a hand up. “I’ll stop by the division office and let them know I’m taking you. Meet me in the lobby in five?”
It turned into nearly ten, with Tomo’s last-minute additions from the maps office, but Aoba was still waiting when Kurenai made it down. He was out of uniform, looking a little less drained in jeans, a swamp-green tank, and dark sunglasses. Photosensitive eyes, Kurenai remembered. Not doujutsu-related, so far as anyone knew. Perhaps he just thought the glasses made him look suave.
“We’re heading for the merchant district,” he announced as they started off. Apparently Genma had wrangled a too-good-to-be-true deal on a fixer-upper loft over a warehouse. Aoba’d been by when Genma first looked at the place, and was willing to agree that it had potential. “Or at least, potential for him to sleep somewhere other than my couch.” He slanted a quick, sideways glance at Kurenai behind his glasses. “He didn’t bring the orgy home, did he?”
Kurenai kept her face smooth. This was the game between Intel agents, at any moment of the day: How much does he know? What can I learn from him? “You sound disappointed. Were you expecting one?”
“Hoping for. Expecting. They’re not exactly the same thing.” He stepped easily out of the way of a pair of charging genin, his mouth set in something too smug for a smile. “Did you like the shirt I gave him?”
Kurenai let her gaze slide slowly over him, shoulders to waist. “It fit him better.”
“So you liked how it fit him,” Aoba parried. The smirk widened. “What did you wear?”
“A dress made from the skins of slaughtered men,” Kurenai said calmly. “I’m sure you can imagine.”
Aoba’s throat bobbed. He looked like he was, indeed, imagining.
The merchant district wasn’t far. A light breeze came off the river, carrying the shouts of dockworkers, but Aoba veered up a side street toward a traditional two-story warehouse. Its upper windows were flung open to catch the breeze. Faint music drifted down — fast, with a heavy bass beat. Kurenai crossed the street toward it.
Aoba led the way behind the building, to a back entrance and a narrow flight of stairs. The music was louder here. One song ended and another began with a skitter of guitar notes before the drums kicked in; the volume suddenly redoubled, as if in response to a favorite, and then shut off completely. Voices raised overhead.
Aoba looked intrigued. “I guess the rookies are here.” He swung open the door at the top of the stairs. Kurenai peered around his shoulder.
The loft ran the whole length of the warehouse, polished wood floors and slatted rice-paper windows. The outside door opened onto a well-fitted kitchen, with an enclosed bathroom at the opposite corner. Against the same wall, a set of shoji screens had come up to frame out a sleeping space.
Raidou crouched inside with a measuring tape, moving swiftly, calling out numbers. Genma recorded measurements in a small black book. Both of them were shirtless, skin shining beneath old scars. Genma’s hair was tied back in a short tail. Raidou’s jeans sagged under the weight of a heavy tool-belt.
Conscious of Aoba beside her, Kurenai looked for Kakashi instead.
He was fully dressed at least, sprawled beneath a ceiling fan among a welter of books and flashcards. Ryouma was beside him, curled protectively over a battered stereo. They’d been arguing, but fell silent as the door opened. Kakashi hadn’t moved, but Kurenai didn’t doubt he could have been at the door, with a kunai in his hand, before Aoba crossed the threshold.
“I don’t care which band you play,” Raidou said, without looking around. “Just choose one and stick with it, or you’re both going on the roof.”
“Shuriken Force,” Ryouma said, stubbornly. But he put the stereo down without hitting play and got to his feet in one long stretch of sun-brown skin. Without the excuse of heavy labor he’d kept his shirt on, a black tank over cut-off shorts. There was something to be said for ANBU muscle.
“Thought your guys finished the debriefing,” he said to Kurenai. “Something come up?”
Kakashi sat up, slowly, his narrowed eye fixed on Aoba.
Raidou came out of the shoji-screened room. “Make it twelve and a half,” he told Genma, and grinned at Kurenai. “Come to join the housewarming?”
Genma jotted down the number, tucked the book into his back pocket, and stuck the pencil behind his ear. “Is this a briefing or an intervention?” He told Raidou, “This is my friend Yamashiro Aoba, from Intel.”
“Should we be intervening?” Kurenai inquired. “I’d have brought something for housewarming if I’d known you were this far along. Aoba seemed to think you’d still be wrestling with plumbing.”
“Plumbing and electrics are done, and thanks to my team, so is the roof and the floor.” Genma crossed over toward them, beckoning. “Come on in, there’s cold barley tea in the fridge. Aoba, did you just get home? I know you missed me, but I wouldn’t have minded if you took a nap first.”
Aoba dismissed the very concept of naps with a careless hand. “That’s what coffee’s for. Who fell through the floor? I told you this place was a death trap.”
“The landlady’s contractor,” Ryouma said, a little too quickly. “We fixed it.” He was watching Aoba now too, hackles raised.
Aoba paused, took his sunglasses off, and stared distrustfully at the dark-stained wood. “Someone really did fall through the floor?”
“And the roof,” Genma said cheerfully, pulling two cans of barley tea out of the refrigerator. “Broken leg, but he’ll recover, and I get the place rent-free until January for making the repairs.”
Kurenai accepted the tea. “And your team?”
“We’re the free labor,” Kakashi said.
“You know Hatake,” Genma told Aoba. “This is Namiashi Raidou-taichou, and that’s Tousaki Ryouma, our other rookie. Why are you really here?”
“You already said it.” Aoba popped the tab of his tea and smirked. “I missed you. Also Yuuhi-san got me out of work early to be her tour guide to the warehouse district.”
They had all politely been ignoring the heavy folder tucked under Kurenai’s arm, but the moment couldn’t be put off much longer. She held it out to Raidou. “Next time, tell the HQ front desk where you’re going. Messenger hawks can’t find you indoors.”
Raidou ducked his head sheepishly, rumpling a hand through his sweaty hair, and took the folder. He flipped through it quickly. Paused, frowned, and read back. Then, baffled, he said, “Someone’s stealing the Daimyou’s sake?”
Genma blinked, and peered over his shoulder.
Aoba laughed. “That’s what was so urgent?”
Kurenai sighed. “Sometimes, Konoha accepts missions vital to the security of the village or the nation. Sometimes, we accept missions that pay really well. And sometimes those have something weird going on. You—” she pointed a polished finger at Raidou—”have a reputation for dealing with, and I quote, ‘weird shit.'”
“After three missions?” Raidou protested.
“We killed a demon queen,” Ryouma said.
“And infiltrated Kirigakure for the first time on record,” Kakashi added judiciously. “To rescue a blue baby.”
Well, the infiltration hadn’t been entirely Team Six’s work, but Kurenai had to grant them the blue baby.
“Wow,” Aoba said, almost admiringly. “You suck at protecting classified information, Hatake.”
“You don’t have clearance?” Kakashi drew a kunai. “Yuuhi, bar the door.”
Kurenai folded her arms.
“Down, Hatake,” Genma said. “No bloodshed on my new floors. Besides, I’m sure you know he has clearance, or you wouldn’t have said anything.” He pushed a can of tea into Raidou’s free hand and opened his own. “And Aoba, quit being an ass.”
Ryouma cleared his throat. “What about the mission?”
“Was your last team prone to getting the ‘weird shit’ missions, too?” Genma asked Raidou. “You could have warned us this was a karmic thing for you.”
Dear gods, they were distractable. Maybe it was the warm day, the hard work, companionship, young men turning playful off mission. Maybe they’d been drinking something harder than tea…
Kurenai said, “There’s an expense account.”
“Onsen,” Ryouma said immediately, like a prayer. Kakashi glanced at him and then away, holstering his kunai; his masked face had gone impressively blank, like hope quickly hidden.
Not supposed to want things on missions, Kurenai translated.
Genma raised a brow at Aoba; Aoba shrugged and shook his head. Raidou merely looked wary. He paged through the mission brief again, reading more closely this time. “Okay, where’s the catch?”
“Politics,” Kurenai said, wryly. “Tanigawa village is widely known to produce the best sake in six countries; it’s supplied the Fire Country Daimyou for generations. But the spring delivery went up in flames in Hikouto, and now all the casks that were supposed to be maturing over the summer in Tanigawa have gone missing.”
Kakashi’s brow drew down. “Demons?”
Genma winced. Aoba fluttered his hands in mock horror. “Oh no, not the sake. Genma, stay calm, I’m sure there are other breweries.”
“Thieves seem more likely,” Genma told Kakashi, sparing barely an eyeroll for Aoba. “Maybe some syndicate got wise about it being the Daimyou’s favorite sake and are holding the autumn batch for a ransom.”
“Or stole it so they could deliver a poisoned batch later,” Ryouma suggested. “Though, poisoning it in the casks an’ letting Tanigawa deliver it like usual would make more sense…”
“Has there been a ransom?” Kakashi asked.
Kurenai shook her head. “The theft was only discovered days ago, when the Daimyou’s steward sent a message to Tanigawa requesting early delivery.”
“Demons,” Kakashi confirmed. “Drunk demons.”
“Maybe there’ll be some left for us,” Ryouma told him. “Are we supposed to, what, wage war for the casks and lug ’em all back?”
“Recovery isn’t expected, at this point — as you say, there’s the risk of poison.” Kurenai sipped her tea, soothing on her dry throat. “The primary objective is to make a point. The Daimyou is still consolidating his power, after Hikouto. Anything that undermines his position, or his prestige, must be eliminated.”
Genma nodded. “Of course.” He glanced sidelong at Kakashi. “Are there any theories besides Hatake’s demons? Any leads at all, or other teams investigating?”
Raidou flipped to the last page of the dossier. His brows twitched. “Yuuhi’s coming with us.”
Kurenai nearly dropped her tea. “Let me see that, please.” She managed to keep her voice level, but Aoba gave her a sharp look. Kurenai ignored him. Shirotani hadn’t said—
But there it was, neat kanji on a solitary line beneath the four ANBU names: Yuuhi Kurenai, Intelligence. Shirotani must have slipped it in along with Tomo’s last-minute maps. Or, more likely, he’d been planning to send her all along, to sift through the carnage after Team Six tore through. Someone needed to piece together the shape of the threat, after all, and Kurenai was the only agent with a close view of the Hikouto coup and its aftermath who’d also already survived one outing with Team Six.
Still. “I am going to give Shirotani nightmares for a month,” she said, and handed the folder back.
“Way to make the team feel good about their assignment, Yuuhi,” Aoba chided. “And here I thought you liked field missions.”
“I like them. I also like knowing about them in advance.” There was no point in concealing that failure from Team Six; Kakashi’s eye was far too sharp, and Genma was watching her with something like concern. She sipped her tea and gazed at Ryouma, who just looked baffled. At least someone else was further out to sea. “Are any of you familiar with Hotsprings Country?”
Kakashi shrugged one shoulder. “It’s on the way to Kumo.”
Meaning: Yes, several times. Probably most of them were still classified. Kurenai wondered if her security clearance was high enough to read the un-redacted reports, and then reminded herself she wouldn’t have time.
Shirotani was probably laughing himself sick.
Raidou pulled out a folded map and spread it over the butcher-block kitchen counter. “More familiar with the north-west border. How about you two?”
Genma shook his head. “I spent the war on the western front, too.”
“Same here. And more missions in the south, afterwards. I didn’t think many of us ran missions near Kumo.” Ryouma poked Kakashi. “Did you see Yondaime-sama fight the Raikage?”
“There’s a Raikage?” Kakashi’s eye widened in innocent fascination.
Genma bit down a chuckle. Aoba didn’t bother repressing his.
Kurenai tried to ignore them. She edged beside Raidou, pointing a red nail at the map. “Tanigawa is in Hotsprings’ northern mountains, almost against the border with Frost Country. Six days’ travel north-east.”
The clean, faintly musky scent of Raidou’s bare shoulder was beginning to grow distracting. She turned her head away. “You could shave three days if you took the civilian train from Nagiso to the border, but you’d have to swing far enough east you’d lose the time anyway.”
Genma leaned in on her other side to peer at the map: equally shirtless, equally distracting. “Don’t you mean ‘we’? But yeah, I see what you mean about the train.” He plucked the pencil from behind his ear, dislodging several loose strands of honey-colored hair, and traced the rail line to its terminus. “We’d still have to get through the mountains, and we’d be way too close to Lightning Country for comfort.”
“If you go up through the Kashimori pass,” Kakashi said, to no one in particular, “Tsurui Province would be starting to hold its summer festival about now.”
Ryouma brightened. “Fireworks? I always miss Konoha’s.”
Aoba laughed. “Is this a vacation or a mission? I thought you wanted to fight demons for the Daimyou’s sake.”
“We can multi-task…”
“Fire festival,” Kakashi said, ignoring Aoba. “There’s a torch-lit parade. And they throw buns at statues.”
“Buns,” Ryouma said, fascinated. “Why? What statues? Do they eat them afterward?”
“The statues?” Genma murmured, temporarily diverted. “Or the buns?”
Kakashi shrugged, and asked Kurenai: “Why are you coming with us?”
She smiled at him, thin-lipped. “Because Tomo and Riei don’t operate in the field, Momoe’s on medical leave, Susuki and Satomi are already out, and Hide’s scared of you Sharingan’ing him.” Probably. “You could requisition Aoba if you’d rather.”
Aoba sipped his tea, smug. “No can do. I just got home. I haven’t even filed my reports yet.”
“Good,” Kakashi said.
Raidou straightened from the map, rolling his eyes. “What the social outcast means is that we’re glad to have you, Yuuhi.”
That… should not have warmed her as much as it did. She found herself smiling back at him, anyway.
Aoba grumbled to Kakashi: “You could have pretended to be a little disappointed you couldn’t get me.”
“And lie to Intel?” Kakashi deadpanned.
“I’m pleased to hear you recognize it as a grave offense,” Kurenai said. She turned back to the map. “A few more things you should know about Tanigawa…”
She sketched them out in rapid order. A tiny mountain village, with the sake breweries its chief pride and economic center; the loss of the entire autumn sake batch was a major blow but not a devastating one.
No one needed to point out that the Fire Country Daimyou’s wrath might be.
The village headman was also the owner of the largest sake brewery. His messages to the Daimyou’s steward, faithfully reprinted in the dossier, were unilluminating: the sake had vanished into thin air between one day and the next. It was unclear whether the villagers had begun searching the mountains for the stolen casks or had merely dithered until the steward’s order came, but Kurenai suspected the latter. With no Intel agents on the ground, she was going to be the one who pressed for rumors of bandits in the mountains, or Kumo shinobi passing through.
“So we actually don’t know anything,” Ryouma concluded.
Raidou arched his back, stretching out his shoulders, and sighed with contentment. “Now we know it’s a mission.”
Genma leaned hipshot against the counter. “When do we leave?”
They left the next morning, an hour before dawn.
Thanks to Raidou’s standard schedule of early morning punishment, Team Six was bright and alert, though Ryouma still grumbled. They struck out in their ANBU black-and-bone, with enough supplies packed away in scrolls, rucksacks, and belt-pouches to carry them through a month on the road. Kurenai, in jounin blues and minimal makeup, refused to talk to anyone until the sun had risen.
They walked the first leg, warming up and easing in. The compacted dirt road was wide enough to walk abreast, and safe enough to chat quietly. Konoha’s gigantic trees turned the warming light dappled green.
By mid-morning, Kakashi and Ryouma were both restive, and Raidou allowed the pace to gear up to a jog, then an easy run.
The inevitable race was forestalled by a clever little genjutsu that ran Ryouma into a tree-trunk and Kakashi into a ditch.
“I am not sprinting,” Kurenai informed them both tartly, but she did, after some pressing, unbend enough to discuss the finer points of her jutsu with Kakashi.
They stopped for lunch at a small farmstead advertising fresh peaches. The colorful sign hanging on the gate was decorated with child-sized hand prints. A pair of youngsters maybe a year older than Naruto spotted the group and fell over themselves to yell that, ninja are here! One of them has red eyes!
Kurenai exchanged an ironic look with Kakashi.
The adults, sun-weathered and relaxed, took Team Six more in stride. They shared food and little fragments of local news, and pressed a jar of preserved peaches on Genma when they made to leave.
The road here was lined with fruiting cherry trees. It didn’t take Raidou, Genma, or Ryouma very long to push their ANBU masks aside and end up as red-mouthed as Kurenai. The cherries were bursting-sweet or biting-tart. Even Kakashi helped himself to a hidden handful, while Kurenai judiciously filled a small cloth bag for later.
They loped the afternoon away, passing homesteads and small villages. When the sky turned velvet, Raidou allowed that they might find an inn with actual futons to sleep on. They were still close enough to Konoha that, once they decided on a place just off the beaten path, the host didn’t even blink at the shinobi uniforms.
They ate miso-glazed river trout, homemade pickles, and — for the few with a sweet tooth — sakura mochi. The only other guest was an elderly woman travelling with her grandson. She sat comfortably on the back porch, watching the boy try to catch flashing silver fish in a small pond, and told a few of the Fire Country fables they’d all grown up hearing. The White Hare and the Sagacious Monkey, the Hunter’s Wife, the Dancing Kettle.
Kurenai retired first, yawning, to her private room. She wasn’t quite limping, but there was a stiffness in her legs that needed watching.
The woman and her grandson went next — reluctant, in the boy’s case, since the future obviously contained a bath. The host, a short and well-rounded man with salt-and-pepper hair, returned to offer evening drinks. Kakashi and Genma accepted tea. After a brief hesitation, Raidou turned down beer and settled for water. Ryouma, reluctantly following this good example, did the same.
“I’m not sure what we did right,” Raidou said, when the host had gone back inside, “but we should keep doing it.”
Genma stretched out on the sun-warmed wooden boards, propping his head on his arm at the edge of the porch, so he could look up and see the stars flickering to life in the summer night. “My dad would say, ‘Not knowing is the way of the Buddha’.”
Genma’s father had made a recent point of pressing a collection of tiny metal charms into his son’s hands. One of them dangled from Kakashi’s backpack. Another hung from Raidou’s belt. Ryouma had added his to the chain he wore around his neck, with his mother’s dogtags.
Ryouma said, “I was thinking maybe we all died of paint fumes in Genma’s place and this is ninja heaven.”
Kicking him was a lot of effort. Kakashi settled for bouncing a cherry pit off Ryouma’s forehead.
“Ow,” Ryouma said lazily. Then, “Hey, do you still have cherries?”
“Not anymore,” Kakashi said, with complete honesty, and threw another pit. Ryouma deflected this one effortlessly into the pond. Kakashi licked the last flecks of cherry juice off his teeth and settled back, letting his legs dangle off the porch.
Firefly light danced over the pond, occasionally winking out when a fish leapt accurately.
“So… Kurenai,” Ryouma said, briefly making Kakashi wonder if Kurenai had given him permission to use her given name, or if he’d just gone and appropriated it like he did with everyone else. “If this is our reward, are we her punishment detail?”
“You’d think she was punished enough already on our last mission,” Genma said.
“She likes sake,” Kakashi said.
Ryouma considered this. “Reward for everyone…?” He rolled onto his stomach, bracing his chin on stacked fists. “You two seem to be getting along better.”
Of course he’d noticed. He’d gotten an introduction to Kurenai at her most acidic. Kakashi vaguely remembered explaining something like, Yuuhi dislikes me. I hurt her friend. There’d been bigger issues to focus on.
Like the captain, who was doing his second mission with a pair of outside eyes watching.
Kakashi tucked that thought away like a splinter, and drawled, “You say that like I’m not charming and sociable to everyone we meet.”
“I saw you showing that kid how to catch fireflies and let ‘em go,” Ryouma said, with a smile turned soft at the edges.
“That was cute,” Raidou said aside to Genma.
“I’d say he was trying to make nice for Yuuhi, but I’m not sure she noticed,” Genma said, like he was being subtle.
Raidou considered this. “I think I might have missed some context.”
Genma murmured back, “You and me both. Hatake’s like a pumice stone, though. I suspect he rubbed Yuuhi wrong sometime before the last mission.”
“The pumice stone can hear you,” Kakashi said, too comfortable to bother being annoyed.
Raidou made an amused sound. “Did you rub her the wrong way?”
Kakashi folded an arm under his head, looking up at the weathered porch timbers overhead, and considered how truthful he wanted to be. It was old history, and only part of it belonged to him.
Granted, the part that had fractured and torn everyone bloody.
“We used to be friends when we were kids,” he said at last. “I hurt someone she cared about, and we stopped. No one died.”
A moment of silence drifted by. Ryouma rested on his hands, watching with thoughtful eyes.
“Break up?” Genma asked, gentle. “Something like that? Those are hard.”
Kakashi blinked, a target unexpectedly struck by an accurate dart. “Something like that,” he admitted. “Is it my turn to ask personal questions yet?”
“Sure,” Genma said easily. “What do you want to know?”
Kakashi sat up and studied Genma’s shadow-strewn sprawl. A half-dozen potential questions flitted by, a few immature, some just cruel. A flicker of memory stirred, recent and made hazy by a veil of drugs. They’d played games in the bunker, after Ibaragashi, two truths and a lie, and Ryouma had said something about…
“Have you ever cross-dressed?” Kakashi asked.
Genma didn’t even blink. “With or without a henge?” he asked languidly.
“Without,” Kakashi said. “Henges don’t count.”
Ryouma looked up, curious. Raidou had also turned his head to watch.
Genma’s mouth curved, framed by a silver senbon. “In kimono,” he said. “Not in street clothes, though.”
There was no stress in his scent. Truth.
“Why?” Kakashi asked, fascinated.
“For fun. For a party.” Genma’s chuckle rippled like a stream. “But I looked good. I did the hair ornaments and everything.” He twirled his senbon in a liquid silver circle, as if to underline the sentiment. “Furisode are a pain in the ass, it turns out — so many layers. And those shoes… Kunoichi who work wearing formal kimono deserve hazard pay.”
There was a distinct undercurrent of warmth curling through Raidou and Ryouma’s scents. Kakashi decided not to read into that.
“What about you, Taichou?” he asked.
Raidou came back to the conversation like a man resurfacing from a long dive. “Hm? Oh sure, but not kimono. Regular dresses are fun. Easy to move in.”
Genma’s smile was pleased, as if he found the world well-balanced. “I remember. You said in Arechi Safehouse.” To Kakashi, he asked, “What about you?”
“Apparently I’m missing out,” Kakashi said.
Ryouma glanced up, eyes glinting in the lantern light. “We could fix that.”
Kakashi considered it. He’d worn kimono, and he’d seen high-collared dresses with clever, concealing pockets. When it wasn’t for missions, he had a vague notion that the idea was to feel sexy or pretty, or maybe enjoy clothing with a dramatic sweep. He suspected he’d just feel strange.
Kurenai had looked downright dangerous in her red dress, but Kurenai could look dangerous in a sack. Kakashi looked his most dangerous in black, or shadows, or blood — when he wanted to be seen at all.
He shrugged lightly. “You already got me into Hakone’s shirt.”
Ryouma’s scent was still warm. “Is that ‘be grateful for what you got’? But you sounded interested…”
“All knowledge is useful,” Kakashi said. He stretched until a few vertebrae popped, and added, “So is sleep. And hygiene. I’m stealing the bath first.”
He pushed to his feet and padded back inside.
“He knows it’s a shared bath, right?” Genma spun his senbon, watching stars come in and out of focus behind it.
“I’m not volunteering to tell him,” said Raidou. He didn’t move from his comfortable spot leaning against a support column for the covered porch.
Ryouma sighed agreement. “He’d probably stab first and grab a towel later.”
“If there was anyone on this team I would expect to be able to produce a kunai despite being naked as the day he was born, it’d definitely be Hatake,” Genma said. Where Kakashi would have hidden the weapon was a question that didn’t bear scrutiny.
“Jutsu,” said Ryouma, who must have also contemplated where, and come up with a practical solution. “Ice kunai.”
“I’d bet you good odds he was born masked,” Raidou said.
“He could have been,” Genma said. “Sort of. I helped at a birth once, during the war. The baby came out with the amniotic sac still wrapped around its head. The midwife said it meant the baby was blessed by the seven lucky gods.”
“Kakashi must’ve had the seven unlucky gods,” Ryouma said. “Or this is the lucky version and the other would’ve been a whole lot worse…”
Genma laughed. “I was just thinking that same thing. Bishamon seems to have blessed him, anyway.” He touched the the small amulet of protection in battle his father had given him, identical to his teammates’. Like Ryouma, he’d added his to the chain with his dogtags.
Ryouma rolled onto his back, shoulder-to-shoulder with Genma, and joined the star-gazing. The edge of the roof hid half the sky, but the visible portion had shaded deep violet. Genma could just make out the constellation of the leaping dolphin.
“I guess we’re all the lucky ones,” Ryouma said. He sounded less than confident about that.
Raidou smiled, as content as a buddha. “I believe it.”
“I do, too,” Genma said. He let his elbow fall against Ryouma’s. “Look where we are right now. Luck doesn’t mean life holds no hardships. It just means you come through them and find happiness on the other side.”
“Also means we weren’t born in Kiri,” Raidou said.
“Also that,” Genma agreed.
Ryouma propped himself up on one elbow, looking intently down at Genma. “Are you happy, Lieutenant?” He turned the same look on Raidou. “Are you?”
The simple answer was ‘of course’. The unexamined answer. But that wasn’t what Ryouma seemed to want. Genma lifted his head and met Ryouma’s gaze. “Right now, in this moment, I’m completely happy.”
Raidou studied Ryouma for a moment before he answered, “I’ve got a team I’m proud of. Right now, I’m downright delighted.” Before Genma could ask it, Raidou added, “And you?”
Ryouma’s mouth worked as if he was trying to form words that wouldn’t come. Finally he swung up to a cross-legged seat next to Genma, and shook his head. “I should be,” he said. A bitter weight nailed every word down. “You’re right. If this isn’t enough, then—” Dark eyes glinted in the soft light of the porch lanterns. “How do you stay in the moment like that, with what you have?”
“Attend Buddhist school as a kid,” Raidou said, nodding a wry smile at Genma. “Or have a mom who teaches you how to meditate at her knee.” Probably Raidou’s other mom, the Academy sensei Genma hadn’t met yet, Genma guessed.
Raidou pushed away from the pillar and sat up to face Genma and Ryouma both, making himself the apex of a triangle with the other two. “But mostly, feel whatever you’re gonna feel and don’t kick yourself for it. You can’t force yourself happy,” he said. “You can make yourself miserable.”
Genma sat up, too, with his back to the open yard. He was open to attack, but Raidou could see any threat that approached. Ryouma, raw and unexpectedly honest, was the truly vulnerable one.
“Taichou’s right,” Genma said. “You can’t fight the sea.”
Ryouma laughed hoarsely. “We fought it pretty well in Kirigakure.”
“We didn’t try to pretend it was air, though,” Genma countered. “We went into it expecting waves, and when we left it, it was still the sea. Only we came away different than we’d gone in.” He put a hand on Ryouma’s shoulder, half for comfort, and half because in their studying together, he’d learned Ryouma seemed to listen better when touched. “ANBU is hard. Your rookie year is the hardest. It changes you. I think the biggest change for me was figuring out how to keep thinking of myself as a good person, mission after mission. And how to keep thinking the world was full of good people.”
Ryouma kept his gaze on the polished boards of the porch floor. “I know there’s still good people in the world. That’s the team.”
“What about you?” Raidou asked.
“Taichou,” Ryouma said with a crooked smile. “I’ve never been a good person.”
“You’re good enough, Ryouma,” Raidou said.
Genma rubbed Ryouma’s back in small circles, feeling the edges of a shoulder blade, firm muscles anchoring the bone, and through the thin cloth of Ryouma’s uniform shirt, knots of scar marking the countless times Ryouma had put his life on the line for Konoha’s sake.
“Only the good worry they are bad. The truly bad don’t think about it at all,” Genma said. “You said the team is good. Ryouma, you’re one of the team.”
Ryouma didn’t respond immediately. He sat, head bowed, taking slow breaths that shuddered through him under Genma’s hand. Genma just kept rubbing careful circles, and waited. Eventually Ryouma lifted his head. “You’re good officers, y’know. You make things sound possible.”
Raidou reached over and knocked his knuckles against the top of Ryouma’s ANBU tattoo. “Someday you might even listen to us.”
Genma chuckled. “We can only hope.” He patted Ryouma’s back a couple of times like he was trying to push good humor back through Ryouma’s skin.
Amazingly, it seemed to work.
“I listen plenty,” Ryouma scoffed. “I just don’t always obey.” He got to his feet and stood for a moment, looking down at his officers, then said in a low voice, “Thanks.” With more volume, he declared, “I’m gonna go turf Kakashi out of the bath before he prunes.”
Genma saluted him. “Enjoy. You can use any soap you like, too, once Fussy Nose-san is out of there. I like your blackberry and rhubarb soap.”
Ryouma’s face lit with a swift smile. “He said he didn’t mind the fruit or herb ones so much as the flowers, so it’s lemongrass and rosemary this time. I’ll leave it for you.”
When Ryouma’d gone in, sliding the wood and paper door shut with a soft snick, Genma took a deep breath. He rotated to face Raidou and put his back against the post. “That was good, I think.”
Raidou looked at the closed door, paper panes glowing orange from within. Then he turned to Genma, face creasing with amusement. “‘I’m happy in this moment’? Buddhist asshole.”
Lingering tension split and shattered; Genma cracked up. “Even the Buddha’s shit fertilizes the Pure Land,” he said. “Or something like that.”
Raidou pondered it for a moment, lips pursed. “It’s possible I may never get rid of that image.” A snort of laughter escaped despite his best efforts.
“Then we’ve all taken a step towards enlightenment.” Genma took another deep breath, and stretched his back and shoulders, feeling his ribcage expand. “It’s not a bad philosophy. Staying in the moment, I mean. Did the mom I met or your other mom teach you to meditate?”
“Other mom,” Raidou said. “Ninja mom. Ume — the one you met — likes working in chaos. Shun attempts inner peace. Sometimes I think she’s successful.”
Genma nodded. “That was my guess, based on my meeting with Ume-san.”
“What about your dad?” asked Raidou.
“He’s really more Shinto than Buddhist,” Genma said. “He tries for inner calm, but you’ve met him.” He shrugged fondly. “It was really Soho-boshi, the monk who taught me at the temple, who gave me the practice.”
“There aren’t too many religious soldiers in ANBU,” Raidou observed.
“That’s not surprising. I’m not a particularly good Buddhist,” Genma said. “I eat meat, and I kill people. The killing makes me ritually unpure for the Shinto priests, too.” He picked his senbon up from a crevice in the floorboards where he’d dropped it. “I don’t know if I really believe, but I guess I believe enough that I feel better if I meditate, and say a sutra or two, and make my shrine offerings. But I acknowledge it’s inconsistent with being in ANBU.”
Raidou nodded. “Ume doesn’t believe. Shun wants to, but I know she has doubts. Mostly, we just observe the festivals and the shrines. And I hope there’s some truth in reincarnation. My next life, I want to do something else.”
There was something worn and weary underlying that thought. Something deeply hidden. “I hope there is, too,” Genma said. “Especially for people like the kids we had to kill on the Tsuto mission, who died for someone else’s crimes. You and me and other ninja, though…” He nudged Raidou’s foot with his own. “Why not do something else in this life, if that’s what you want?”
Raidou grinned, wide and lopsided, the way he did when he was fully relaxed. “I didn’t say I wanted to do it now. I like this life. Just, y’know, next life I could be something else, like a, uh—” He fumbled for a minute, before he came up with, “Heron.”
That was certainly a right turn.
Even in the dim lantern light, it looked like Raidou’s cheeks flushed. “They’re elegant,” he defended.
“Alright, I’ll give you that,” Genma said, laughing. “I was expecting something like, y’know, ‘rice farmer’ or ‘sculptor’ or something. But elegant is good. I can see you being elegant.”
“Liar,” Raidou said. But he was laughing. He stretched out on the porch, long and lean through the waist, chest and shoulders broad and powerful, with his arms pillowing his head. It wasn’t a lie. Raidou wasn’t much like a heron in this life: his elegance was more in the mold of a clouded leopard, but it was there.
“You think Kakashi’s drowned Ryouma by now,” he asked, interrupting Genma’s train of thought, “or do we have a shot at the bath?”
“If they’re still in there, we can oust them. Officer’s prerogative.” Genma stuck his senbon back between his teeth and climbed to his feet, then offered a hand up to Raidou. “I won’t even mind the fact it’s a shared bath.”
“That’s because you were properly socialized,” Raidou said. He let Genma haul him to his feet.
“Thank the gods two of us are,” Genma said. He slid the door open and padded barefoot into the inn. “And Yuuhi. If we include her, we actually outnumber the ill-mannered for a change.”
Raidou’s step hesitated at the lintel for a fraction of a second, then he chuckled low and deep in his chest, and followed Genma inside.
That evening at the ryokan was their last good night for almost a week.
The summer heat settled in as they left Konoha’s woodlands, and the humid air turned muggy as a steam-room. Brief storms lashed by, drenching their clothes without clearing the air. Kakashi taught Ryouma and Genma his trick of pulling water out of clothes, or tried to; they sweated through again ten minutes later.
“It’s like marching through soup,” Ryouma said, shoving sweat-sodden hair off his brow. He’d begun to fantasize about shaving it all off.
“At least we’re heading for the mountains,” Kurenai offered.
“That’s the spirit,” Raidou told her. But even he was finding it hard to be cheerful after their second night of poor sleep. It was too wet to sleep without tents, and too hot inside them. The cicadas droned mercilessly, even at night. They were big, ugly bugs — bigger than in Konoha, Ryouma swore — and during the day they varied their screaming with bouts of trying to fly up Genma’s shirt or lay eggs in Raidou’s hair.
“You do kinda look like a tree,” Ryouma told him. “Big, brown, ready to fall over and kill us all—”
Raidou bounced a hopeful bug off Ryouma’s face, like an ungainly kunai with too many scrabbling legs. “Don’t tempt me.”
Ryouma only yelped a little bit. The cicada crunched and then squished when he pulled it off his neck and stepped on it.
After that he tried to stay by Genma, but Genma was growing short-tempered, too: he’d tied a damp bandana over his hair in hopes of cooling down and discouraging the cicadas, but it steamed in the muggy air without ever actually drying. He actually snapped at Kakashi about drinking enough water—”Do you want heatstroke? I swear to every god, Hatake, if you faint again…”
Kakashi didn’t quite mutter mutinously as he pulled out his canteen, but he did give Genma a glimmer of a dark look, between plastered hair and sodden mask. For Kakashi in mission mode, that was practically the same thing.
They left their ANBU masks off. It was hard enough to breathe the thick air. Raidou insisted on full armor otherwise, though they were still in Fire Country and the roads weren’t busy at the height of summer. They took narrow country lanes to swing a wide loop around Goshogawara with its gates and guards, and then left the road entirely to cut cross-country through the Kuroshou marshes. It shaved half a day off their journey, Raidou said, but Ryouma wasn’t sure the mosquitos were worth it.
Tempers wore thinner. Kurenai’s feet blistered. (“It’s not the running,” she said bitterly, “it’s the damn sweat.“) They spent weary minutes before sleep picking little burrs and foxtails out of their legbindings; even one missed foxtail could work its vicious little barbs through to the flesh beneath. No one wanted to cook, or eat, and they argued over whose turn it was to dig trenches or stand guard. All of them missed Katsuko and her inexhaustible clones, and none of them said it.
By the time they crossed the mountains into Tsurui Province of Hotsprings Country, Ryouma wasn’t the only one hoping for murder.
But the humidity seemed to ease a little, even if the heat didn’t. There was a breeze, finally, coming off the low green mountains. Raidou paused to consult his maps, while Kurenai splashed the rest of her water over her face and Genma tiredly ordered everyone to eat another rat bar, I don’t care if you’re not hungry, Tousaki, your body needs it. Kakashi stood on a rock and brooded.
“That’s Hiraizumi,” he announced suddenly. “They’re holding their festival tonight.”
Ryouma squinted at him. “Do you just have all the festival calendars in the north-east memorized?”
Kakashi grabbed Ryouma’s biceps, yanked him up to his feet, and pointed at a gap between trees. “Festival lanterns.”
They were standing on the crest of a steep slope, between cedar trees and hinoki cypress, with flowering rhododendron thick around them and the thatched roofs of the village barely visible far below. Ryouma followed Kakashi’s hand and eventually saw it: the moss-stained steps of a winding path, working up the slope at an angle away from them, between trees strung with thick straw ropes and hung with paper lanterns. A couple of teenagers, girl and boy, had been hanging the lanterns. Now they were kissing.
“I thought you said this was a fire festival,” Ryouma said. “Not fertility.”
It wasn’t much of a joke, even less of a peace-offering, but Kakashi seemed to recognize the attempt. He glanced sidelong at Ryouma, then snorted. “And give you ideas?”
“Hey, like cicadas mating on my bedroll didn’t? Actually, yeah, that just grossed me out.”
Raidou made a quelling sound, easily translated: We have discussed the bug sex and we are not discussing it again. He rolled up his map. “If that’s Hiraizumi, then we’re making good time. We’ll stop in the village tonight.”
Genma drew a deep, reviving breath. His rat bar wrapper flared briefly into flames and ash.
Kurenai said, “Choose an inn with good baths, Namiashi, or there may be bloodshed.” She raked out her loose hair, damp curls tangling between her fingers, and bound it up again swiftly. “Henge going in?”
Raidou glanced over the bedraggled crew — armored, sweaty, mud-splashed and bug-bitten — and then down at the steep-roofed village in the valley below. “We’ll be lucky to find an unbooked room. Luckier to get it as a group.” His gaze touched Genma, then Kurenai. “Happy family? We could get away with parents and kids, if Tousaki and Hatake can find it in themselves to be sullen teenagers.”
Genma turned to Kurenai. “If you’re the mom, who am I?”
She’d given up on most makeup several days ago, but Kurenai’s mouth was still red as a wound. She smiled, dangerously. “What made you assume?”
Ryouma didn’t even sense the chakra. One moment she was there, sweaty and muddy in jounin blues. The next, an elderly woman with crimson petals printed on her black kimono was straightening the carved wooden pins in her steel-shot hair.
Genma sighed, and lifted his hands. His henge was almost as smooth, though this time Ryouma caught the inverting edges of chakra. Genma lowered his hands again as a handsome middle-aged man, crows-feet at the corners of his eyes and laugh-lines beginning around his mouth. He looked a little like his own father, with more hair and a trimmer middle, and he wore a festival yukata, blue cotton printed with leaping white koi. “We could be a two-dad family?”
Raidou’s mouth twisted. “Progressive,” he told Genma, “but not inconspicuous.”
He shaped the same seals with a more obvious chakra swell, a pop of ozone and unsuppressed smoke. A woman took his place, red-haired and comfortably rounded, with twinkling brown eyes and soft civilian hands. Her kimono was a muted blue figured with white lilies and waves, bound with a vivid obi in yellow and red.
Kurenai tapped one smooth nail against her mouth, her brown eyes alight. “A fine pair,” she commented. “You do this old woman’s heart proud. Though not my daughter, I think, not with that hair— You’d better pass it on to Kakashi.”
Ryouma henge’d himself quickly, before she could advise anything for him. With no idea what template the others were using for their new faces, he fell back on the familiar, not so many years removed: his own lanky body at thirteen, shorter and skinnier, awkward enough to mask any betraying ninja grace. His yukata, he realized with dismay, looked exactly the same as Genma’s.
Kakashi studied their new faces, stepped off his rock, and transformed with a cool ripple of chakra. He’d chosen a short, slender teenage girl, with Raidou’s rusty hair color and a striking blend of Kurenai and Genma’s refined features. He was dressed for farm-work in a wrapped shirt over short cotton pants, and his voice was high and light. “Why are you traveling in your festival clothes?”
Everyone else was probably wasn’t a good excuse. Ryouma looked, instinctively, at Genma.
Who was rolling his eyes at himself, and shaping a new henge: the same handsome older man in sturdy homespun, a dull grey yukata with the hem tucked up into his obi, over pants close-wrapped below the knee. Raidou followed suit into a printed cotton kimono with a more comfortable-looking obi. Kurenai produced a fan from her sleeve and snapped it open, and her kimono was softly striped in cream and grey.
Ryouma was starting to get dizzy. He tried mimicking Kakashi this time, and ended up with pants that didn’t quite cover his knees and sleeves that didn’t meet his wrists. That was true enough to his memory of childhood, though; he let it go.
Kurenai tapped her fan against her breast. “Kaede.” She pointed at Genma.
“Gendou.” He shrugged.
Raidou decided on “Rie.” Kakashi said merely, “Ka-chan.”
Ryouma stared at him. “Ka-chan? You look older than me.”
“Nee-san to you, brat,” Kakashi said, unperturbed.
“Children,” Kurenai said, in a voice that promised her patience was not unlimited.
“Ryuu.” It was all he could think of, and at least he’d recognize it. Genma and Raidou both glanced sharply at him, but neither of them spoke.
“Very well.” Kurenai’s fan moved again. Her voice was low, faintly graveled, as if by years and smoking. “Gendou is a rice farmer, well-enough off, settled at Shinotsu village. His daughter’s heard of the fire festival at Hiraizumi and begged to go…”
She spun up the story around them, histories, occupations, personalities: Ka-chan the treasured eldest daughter, a little spoiled, flighty and prone to questions; Ryuu younger and less certain of his place in the world, short-tempered, open to the wrong sorts of company…
“Are we on an intel-gathering mission here?” Ryouma asked.
Kurenai snapped her fan shut. “We’re less than a day from Tanigawa. Of course we are. You may not pick up anything, but I expect you to be listening for it.”
Genma nodded firm agreement. He added, “Oppressed teenage boy should be carrying the luggage, which we ought to have if we’re changing to festival clothes. Maybe one of the packs?”
Sullen wasn’t a very hard mood to fake, it turned out.
With gear redistributed and last instructions given, they started off again, swinging northwest to come back down at Hiraizumi from the main road. Gendou led the way, with a firm stride but an attentive ear bent for his wife and his mother. Ka-chan skipped alongside. Kakashi, at least, seemed to be enjoying himself.
Hiraizumi’s main streets were already bustling, and the first two inns they tried were full. Gendou’s luck held at the third inn, a smaller place on a quieter street; it was shabby but clean, with an attached bathhouse. “Mixed bathing only,” the innkeeper said, “but we’re a family establishment.” And for a small additional fee, it seemed, they could reserve an hour for themselves.
Gendou glanced at his mother, then his wife. “I’m sure we can spare it just this once…”
“For Obaasan!” Ka-chan burst out, at his elbow.
Rie weighed her purse, looked at her mother-in-law, and then sighed. “It is a special occasion.” She counted out each coin carefully.
The innkeeper showed them to a nicely sized tatami room, with futons stacked in a closet and a sliding door opening onto a small porch and a tiny interior garden. Ka-chan prowled around, poking into every corner and opening every door. Ryuu found himself saddled with the chore of following the innkeeper to a storage room for another heaping load of bedding.
When he got back, the plans were already laid: baths first, then the festival, with dinner to be sought from the vendors’ stalls. “Takoyaki!” Ka-chan said, bouncing rapturously. Did Kakashi even like the stuff?
The innkeeper cleared her throat. “The bath isn’t currently in use, Gendou-san. If you like, your family is welcome to use it now.” She had towels and soap, as well as a stack of the inn’s clean yukata. “If you’ll just follow me.”
There was a tiny room for undressing, opening onto the larger bathroom with four taps and the big soaking pool at the end. No shower fixtures; they’d have to scrub down on stools in the traditional style, and at least one of them would have to wait his turn, with nothing to do but watch…
Kurenai checked the lock on the door, then deftly shaped the seals for a jutsu Ryouma didn’t recognize. The sound of the innkeeper’s shuffling footsteps abruptly faded. Kurenai’s henge was gone, and the mud was drying on her uniform.
“I have been waiting for this moment for five days,” she said, reaching for the zipper of her flak vest. “I imagine most of you feel the same. If you’re squeamish, feel free to look away. If not, may I remind you that you have nothing I haven’t already seen, and I imagine the reverse is true. But if you think you can keep that henge up while bathing, Kakashi, you’re welcome to try.”
Genma’s henge dropped away. He glanced at Kurenai, then at Raidou, and then started stripping down. Raidou mirrored him, separating their filthy underpinnings from armor, and tossing the washable gear onto the tiled floor for a scrub.
Kurenai, with less armor and a looser uniform to shed, took the first tap. Her skin was porcelain-pale, unscarred. Her body was slim but soft, with a generosity to hip and breast that combat kunoichi could seldom afford. When Genma took the tap beside her, his light skin looked gold by comparison, his shoulders broad with muscle. The raking scars across his back were fading pale, but the knotted lines on belly and thigh were still livid dark.
Ryouma already knew Raidou’s body too well. He turned away, and made the mistake of meeting Ka-chan’s eyes.
The girl’s face was a stranger’s, harder to read than Kakashi’s masked expressions ever were. But she stretched, and kept stretching, long and lean, until she slid back into Kakashi’s shape and leaned against the door. “I’d rather save the chakra.” Kakashi had to look down at Ryouma, still in his teenage disguise; after a moment his eyes lifted away. He pulled that crumple-covered orange book out of his belt pouch. “Go ahead.”
Of course he’d rather read. Ryouma bit down a snarl, dropped his henge, and reached for his armor buckles.
The kids were having emotions again.
Raidou didn’t spend the effort untangling Ryouma’s dark expression or Kakashi’s porn-cloak of privacy. There was soap and hot water to attend to. The runoff started brown, became grey. When it was finally clear, Raidou dumped a last bucket of water over his head and followed Genma and Kurenai.
The bath was more of a rock-lined pond, sourced from a natural hot spring and dammed by smooth stone. Steam drifted over the surface. Kurenai had sunk to her shoulders, hair carefully pinned up out of the water; she rested at the far end with her head on a folded towel, eyes closed. Genma floated an arm’s length away from her, submerged to his chest. He looked like a man having a quiet religious experience.
Raidou lowered in, hissing at the heat, and reminded himself not to stare.
Kurenai’s cheeks were flushed, but her mouth was bare, make-up sluiced away. Her lashes were dark calligraphy strokes. She was a moonlight woman, pearl and shadows. Genma, scarred and suntanned next to her, looked like a man stolen from summer. Heat glowed on his cheekbones.
Raidou found a ledge and sat on it. Warm granite pressed against his back, easing strain from the long muscles.
Several moments later, Ryouma joined them. In defiance of bathing protocol, he ducked immediately underwater and came up with a splash, dark hair plastered down like an otter. His face was flushed. Raidou couldn’t begin to guess what he was thinking, but it was doubtless unhappy.
Raidou said, “Ever go to festivals when you were a kid?”
Ryouma blinked, swiped water out of his eyes, and shook his head.
“Every year,” Kurenai said, with a faint smile. Her eyes stayed closed. “Even now. My little sisters are fiends for cotton candy.”
“Yep,” Genma said. “Obon especially. I liked the fish-netting game. But when we let the lanterns go, it always made Dad a little sad.”
Raidou didn’t doubt. It was one thing to raise a flame for your ancestors’ spirits. Entirely another to burn one for your young wife. Genma had mentioned his mother only once; he’d been two when she’d died.
In ninja villages, death festivals carried a lot of young flames. After the war, and the Fox, the sky was always crowded.
“You’ve never been?” he asked Ryouma.
Ryouma settled back on a ledge, water lapping at his collarbones, and shook his head again. “Maybe when I was a baby, but I don’t really remember. I didn’t go while I was in the Academy, and afterwards I was always on missions.”
Something, somewhere in there, had not been okay. Raidou had read Ryouma’s file: father vanished at five, mother killed at seven, that grandfather— By seven, Ryouma should have been to a dozen festivals, ought to have seen fireworks.
How do you stay happy? Ryouma had all but asked, only a few days ago. Raidou realized, in answering, they’d missed a very basic step: start with happy memories.
“Call this your first, then,” Raidou said. He glanced, fleetingly, at Genma and Kurenai. “We’ll have to make it a good one.”
Kurenai opened one eye, dark scarlet in the blue shadows, and looked thoughtfully at Ryouma. She closed her eye and sank back. “I’ve always wanted to be an indulgent grandmother.”
“Half of everything there is to eat at a festival is fried,” Genma said. “For starters, we’ll get you one of everything.”
There was a ripple of air-currents. A swirl of steam. The water level raised a scant half-inch. On the other side of the bath, a little closer to Ryouma than Kurenai, Kakashi sat with a wash-cloth over the lower half of his face and a small, damp folded towel on his head. He was presumably naked, but convenient drifts of steam made it hard to tell.
He said, “The games are best. You can win goldfish.”
The look Genma gave Kakashi nearly made Raidou duck his own head underwater. In part because he shared that baffled curiosity: We have a childhood memory in common? One that’s normal?
Ryouma, on the opposite shore, looked excited and a little overwhelmed. “Do you eat the goldfish?”
“No,” Genma said, horrified. “You keep it. In a bowl. Or you let it go in a pond.”
“Goldfish are not sushi grade,” Kurenai murmured.
“Wouldn’t survive the journey home, either,” Kakashi said. “You can win other things.”
This entirely diverted Ryouma. The remainder of bath hour was a volley of questions and answers, until Kurenai splashed them all and demanded quiet to soak. She got about four minutes before the hostess knocked quietly on the door and informed them their time was up.
Genma and Kurenai slid seamlessly back into their henge before they’d even left the bath. Raidou followed suit once he’d towelled dry. It was frankly strange to watch Ryouma slip into a body that was so clearly his, just younger. A clean-faced boy with the promise of height and muscle, even more expressive than Ryouma was now. At thirteen, Raidou would have taken one look and fallen hard.
Looking now, he could only wonder at the people who should have seen that promise, and—
Ryouma’s jounin-sensei had tried. A youngster herself, a branch-house Hyuuga, wrangling teenagers in a war. Fun would not have been her priority.
Kakashi, transmuted back into his slip of a teenage girl body, informed Kurenai obnoxiously, “Tousaki looks adopted.”
With a smooth ripple of chakra, Genma’s hair darkened and the shape of his eyes angled narrower. Subtle changes that the spa-owner would likely miss, but enough that Ryuu was clearly Gendou’s son.
“Really, Ka-chan!” Gendou said. “Stop picking on your brother.”
Kaede gave him an approving look. Her eyes, too, seemed suddenly darker. Ryuu stepped closer to his father. Ka-chan tossed her head and made for the door.
Hastily, Raidou swirled his own henge into place before the latch could click. There was an awkward second of adjustment — shorter, curvier, balance in all the wrong places, don’t forget the obi — and then all five of them were clean, dressed, and festival-ready. Raidou borrowed an old memory to make his yukata brightly floral: a pink-and-purple plum blossom design Ume had been especially taken with one year. Gendou and Ryuu were both handsome in blue and white koi; Kaede, elegant in her black kimono with dancing scarlet petals.
And Ka-chan, in blazing sunset orange.
Raidou finally put two and two together, and realized Kakashi had to be channeling the Yondaime’s family. The young son for attitude; Kushina for everything else.
In either case, it was hard to see anything of Kakashi in the slim, spoiled girl who forged eagerly ahead of them towards the bright lights of the festival. Hiraizumi wasn’t notably large as villages went, but it had drawn a crowd from the neighboring hills. The winding stretch of dirt road that served as a main street was thronged with people and vendors. Bright lanterns swung merrily from decorated trees, illuminating game-stalls and food-carts, dancers in elaborate costumes, hard-working people wearing a rainbow of colors — and a surprising amount of tanuki statues.
Raidou blinked at one particularly impressive specimen, carved from dark grey stone. The mason had given it a traditional straw hat, a jug in one paw, a bowl in the other, and an immense pair of testicles to sit on. The bowl was piled high with little items: pastries, glittering trinkets, a polished wooden pipe that gleamed in the firelight. Flowers were strewn around the statue’s feet.
“Is that what we’re supposed to throw buns at later?” Rie asked her husband.
Behind Gendou’s kind eyes, framed with crows feet, Genma looked blank. He glanced at Ka-chan, who had crouched, arms wrapped around her knees, to look at a tank filled with brightly colored turtles. She grinned. “Yep! So buy us lots of buns.”
“Can we eat ‘em first?” Ryuu asked hopefully.
“If we buy the buns now and you eat them, what will we offer Tanuki-sama?” Gendou’s eyes glittered amusement. “Maybe we can leave you with your full belly as an offering.”
Ryuu scoffed. “Nobody does virgin sacrifices anymore, Dad.”
“Maybe if we revive the practice, this year’s harvest will triple,” Gendou said.
“And a lot of use that will be without Ryuu-kun to help harvest it,” Rie said. She made a shooing gesture at the children. “Go find a food-stall you like, starveling vagabonds.”
“Stay within eyesight,” Gendou added, as Ka-chan grabbed Ryuu by the wrist and pulled him away, making imperious commands as they wove into the crowd.
Watching the two of them, adults slipped back into a childhood neither one of them had had, made his heart twinge.
He breathed out, letting the unexpected catch wash through him and away. Happy family. Eyes open for information. Gendou offered his arm; Rie accepted, careful not to crush her yukata sleeve, and said, “I think you should win me a prize, husband.”
Genma glanced at the shorter, curvier Raidou on his arm, and didn’t have to fake the blush that washed across his henge’d cheeks. “Well, wife,” he said, “what prize would you like? Shall I try the ring toss?” He gestured at the nearby stall, with its tiered shelves of prizes glittering in the late afternoon sun.
“How about that balloon game over there?” Rie said. Gendou followed her gaze to a colorful stall with a small crowd of contestants — mostly giggling teens, and children with a parent or two in tow.
“I guess we’re not too old, are we? I feel like we’re courting all over again,” Gendou said. “Didn’t I win you a balloon once back before Ka-chan was born?”
His mother shook her head fondly at them. “Go flirt while the children are busy.” She shooed them towards the stall. “I see some new friends I can chat with.” She set off with determination towards a group of silver-haired festival-goers who were resting on benches outside a tea-seller’s stall, watching the youngsters bouncing by. She didn’t know a single one of them, of course, but with her intel training, Kurenai would make Kaede one of their inner core in no time.
And get all the juiciest gossip.
“Mother is a force of nature,” he told Rie. “No one can resist her.”
“Well, you had to inherit it from somewhere,” Rie said, concealing a laugh behind her free hand. “Now, balloons!”
Jittery warmth spread through Genma’s chest. He grinned at Rie and led her to the stall. Bright little balloons swirled and tumbled in a shallow ‘river’ in front of the stall. “What color, then? Yellow, to match your obi?”
Rei’s nose crinkled and her cheeks dimpled. “You are supposed to decide, husband-mine. If I give you all the answers, I may as well win it myself.” She poked Gendou’s ribs for good measure.
He yelped, laughing. “Yes, yes, my precious flower,” and paid the vendor for his chance to win her a prize. The vendor handed over a pair of needle-thin chopsticks that tapered to slick, blunted points. They almost felt like senbon in Genma’s hands.
But Gendou didn’t use senbon, and he didn’t have chakra. He crouched next to the trough, and studied the mass of balloons, with their trailing elastic tails tangling in the water. Finding one with an accessible tail was the first trick. He chose one at last, held the chopsticks poised for a moment, then plunged them in and grasped the string.
Without chakra it was all down to a gentle touch. Gendou eased the balloon free, tugging it delicately away from its mates. It was a pretty shade of blue, ringed with slender white and gold stripes. He lifted the string out of the water. Slowly, slowly… The string stretched, slipping against the chopsticks. He gripped them tighter, lifted again. The balloon was almost out of the water…
And the elastic slipped free. A little girl next to him, who had been watching with fascination, said, “Awwww,” and patted his knee consolingly.
Gendou shook his head and smiled. “I’ll try again.”
He paid the vendor for a second chance, and went to work. While he was selecting his next target, Rie struck up a conversation with the vendor. She hadn’t grown up near here, her family were from further away. This was a special holiday they’d saved for. What was this village like? What was this festival like? Where were the best places for sightseeing? She kept it up, all the while watching approvingly as Gendou pulled a fresh balloon free. This time, he succeeded. He held the balloon aloft and grinned at his wife. “Well? Will this one do?” The prize he’d picked this time was a dark purple with metallic gold and silver lines swirled around it like threads.
The vendor took the balloon from Gendou before Rie could even answer, and handed it to her. “Keep going,” he said. “You can keep trying until you drop one.”
It hadn’t been that long since Genma’d been a child at a festival, plucking balloons like this, while his father paid the vendor. How had he forgotten the rules? Somehow the war had put a wall between that happy past and the man he was today. He shrugged, sliding back into Gendou’s memories instead. “It’s been a few years since I played this.” He fished for a fresh string, and this time pulled out a green and white balloon. A third try netted him the prize blue one that had eluded him before, but the unlucky fourth balloon slipped away.
The little girl was still watching him. She didn’t seem to have a parent with her. He glanced at his wife, then turned to the girl. “Shall I give you one?”
She ducked her head, suddenly shy.
“Which color? Maybe the white one? It matches your obi.”
She still didn’t speak, but when Gendou put the white balloon in her hands, she grinned, and cradled it like a doll.
Rie wrapped up her conversation while Gendou handed the vendor back the chopsticks, and looked down at the girl. “Where’s your mama?”
The girl pointed at another stall.
“Go show her your balloon, Mika-chan,” the vendor said. When she scampered off, the man said, “Thank you. Her father hasn’t been well.”
Which meant the family didn’t have a lot to spare for games, Genma translated.
“I was going to give her a free chance, when there were fewer customers around,” the vendor confided. “Where did you say you were from?”
For a second, Genma’s mind went blank. Raidou, bless him, rattled off the name of the tiny village Kurenai had given them as a backstory.
“Can’t say as I know that one,” the vendor said. “South, is it?”
“South,” Gendou confirmed.
Rie offered just enough additional details to make their home village, Shinotsu, sound both charming and entirely dull.
“Maybe you don’t know about the tanuki, then,” the vendor said. “There’s a great tanuki spirit who protects this mountain and all the villages on it.” He paused to take some coins from a group of young girls in bright yukata, and hand them each a set of the treacherous chopsticks.
Gendou nodded. “And the buns?”
“The buns are for good luck and a good harvest,” the vendor said. “Make sure you throw a few tonight. Maybe Tanuki-san will come down the mountain to visit your fields and bring a blessing.”
A clanging bell at another stall let the fair-goers know someone had won a prize.
“We’d better go make sure our kids haven’t set anything on fire,” Rie said. She swung her balloons from their strings with one hand, and slipped her other arm through Gendou’s again.
“They’ll be begging for taiyaki,” Gendou said.
“You’re the one who wants taiyaki,” countered Rie.
“And you’re the one who will buy me some,” Gendou said. He grinned at her. “Let’s go then. We can check with Mother and see if she wants some, too, on the way.”
“It’s your neck at risk if you interrupt her gossip.” Rie shrugged amiably.
“True. We can always get her some without asking. If she doesn’t want them, I’m sure the kids will take care of any extras.”
They ambled through the crowd, through clouds of smoke drifting from a yakitori stand, and the sticky-sweet smell of a candy vendor’s stall. It was nice. Easy, even, to stroll arm-in-arm as Gendou and Rie. Maybe this was what Kurenai and Aoba liked about Intel work — the chance to, once in a great while, pretend to be someone with a simpler life.
Ka-chan was fourteen, small, and annoyed about it. Behind her eyes, Kakashi tried not to overthink things.
There was, theoretically, no limit to what a henge could do, so long as you had the chakra and the skill. Kakashi had spent time as a houseplant — and it had been a thinking houseplant, despite the lack of room for any actual brain. He’d been able to turn back, even though he’d had no hands to shape chakra.
Henge was metaphysical. It frustrated the logical. It shouldn’t work, and yet it did, and even the most intelligent scholars couldn’t entirely explain why. As far as Konoha knew, someone very smart, a long time ago, had figured out a way to make themselves something else, and still keep their self intact.
Kakashi had a private notion that someone, a long time ago, had gotten very lucky. And luckier still, when they’d found a way to share the trick.
There were side-effects, beyond the risk of accidentally blowing yourself apart. Henge shaped a new vessel and poured you into it. In turn, the vessel shaped you.
Become a kunai, find your thoughts turning sharp and simple.
Become a tree, find your thoughts shaped to slow and serene, anchored to a lifetime that stretched far beyond a few decades.
Become a teenage girl…
Well. It didn’t take much effort to bounce and scamper and get needlessly excited over games and crowds and bright shining lights. His face was uncovered, his muscles were thin and untrained, his balance was all wrong. He was still himself, in the back of his own mind, but he was also realizing just how big the gap between fourteen and eighteen was. She wanted to have fun.
Ryouma, in his old-new body, seemed to have decided the same thing.
They’d flitted between food-stands, creating a loudly-debated list of things they wanted to try; stopped to admire a stand with jewelry and temple blessings for sale; looked over a half-dozen colorful game stalls, and ignored most of the frankly boring adults. Ryuu wanted to challenge the target game with slingshots and smooth river stones. Ka-chan eyed the prizes with interest. She had to turn her head to see them all; her left eye was blind.
The biggest prizes were carved wooden puzzle boxes. There were also fluffy tanuki plush-toys, each about the size of an adult’s hand, and little luck charms braided from dyed straw.
“Bet you can’t win a box,” she said, with a sharp little grin.
“Bet you I can too!” Ryuu threw back. He fished in his sleeve and came up with two coins. The vendor accepted them in ready exchange for a wooden slingshot and five heavy stones.
A rope staked into the dirt marked the firing line. Ryuu stood behind it and squinted at the targets: a collection of small hoops with paper skins stretched over them, dangling from red strings tied to a tree branch. They bounced in the light wind.
“Break one to get a small prize. Two gets you a medium. Three gets you your choice,” said the vendor.
Ryuu lifted his chin. “What does five get you?”
“Five more rocks,” said the vendor, tucking his hands amiably into his pockets. “Hasn’t happened yet.”
With dauntless confidence, Ryuu picked his targets, lined up his shots, and missed the first three.
“Oops,” Ka-chan said, helpfully.
Ryuu narrowed his eyes, picked a blue hoop set a little way off from its friends, and launched his fourth rock. This one connected. Ryuu clenched a victorious fist, but the little target spun on its string without breaking.
“Did you bring any more money?” Ka-chan asked.
Ryuu sank his teeth into his lower lip, stretched his last stone back in the slingshot’s worn leather cradle, and punched a neat hole right through the center target. Ka-chan, despite herself, gave a little whoop.
Ryuu flushed pink, but looked pleased all the same.
“Well done!” the vendor congratulated him, and offered a tray of brightly colored charms. “Take your pick.”
“If I pay for my sister, can we count my target for her instead?” Ryuu asked.
The vendor blinked, then looked at Ka-chan. He seemed like a nice man, face sun-weathered and framed with laughter lines, but the quirk of his mouth said, no threat here. “Sure,” he said. “As long as she hits one target.”
Ryuu paid another two coins, and handed Ka-chan the slingshot. The vendor laid out another five rocks.
Ka-chan picked up one of them, weighing it in her hand, and tested the stretch of the slingshot. Kakashi thought, badly balanced piece of junk.
The first shot was a whisper too wide.
The vendor grinned, tucking his hands into his pockets. Kakashi adjusted his aim and put four holes through four different hoops. Ka-chan turned with a bright grin, set the slingshot back down, and asked Ryuu, “Which prize do you want?”
Ryuu beamed at her, face lit like a sunrise. “Nee-san is the coolest.”
The vendor’s mouth was open. He shut it abruptly and gave Ka-chan a shrewd look. Then he reached up to his shelves, pulled down one of the wooden puzzle boxes, and, after a moment’s thought, one of the fluffiest tanuki toys. He pressed the toy into Ryuu’s hands, the box into Ka-chan’s, and gave her a little wink. “Enjoy the festival, tanuki-sama.”
Ka-chan blinked. Inside his own head, Kakashi folded up laughing.
A broad hand came down on his shoulder, startling him so much he almost dropped the box. “Are you making trouble already?” Gendou asked.
“You were supposed to be choosing food-stalls,” Rie added.
Busted. Ka-chan hugged the box to her chest and said indignantly, “We did!”
Ryuu rattled off a hasty list. “Takoyaki, roast corn, karaage on a stick, shioyake, and dango.”
Gendou leaned over and stage-whispered, “You forgot about the taiyaki.”
“And okonomiyaki,” Ka-chan added.
Rie made an amused sound. “Is that all? Come along, then.” She ushered them away while Gendou bowed politely to the vendor and apologized for his rowdy offspring. The vendor, clearly on a mission, waved this off and insisted Gendou take two of the lucky charms with him.
When Gendou caught up with them again, fingering one of the red-dyed charms thoughtfully, Ka-chan asked him, “Can we get melon soda, too?”
Gendou glanced down at her, and for a second Kakashi had the dizzy double-vision of looking up at Genma’s face, distorted like melted glass. It passed after a moment, but it left a cold prickle up the back of Ka-chan’s neck. Wrongness in the world.
There was a reason Intel agents didn’t use henge for long-term missions, besides the chakra drain. A reason most jounin didn’t use it for anything beyond grabbing a quick advantage in a fight. The mind didn’t like being held in the wrong shape. The longer you forced it, the more fractures would crack and spread.
They wouldn’t stay here for more than one night.
“Where’s Obaa-san?” Ka-chan asked.
The elderly villagers of Hiraizumi had more than their fair share of medical complaints, and Kaede had listened to all of them.
But she’d gotten snippets of the information she was hoping for, too: a long digression about arthritic knees led easily into the topic of the villages further into the mountains, and how strange it was that no one from Tanigawa had come down for the festival this year. It was a small disaster for the sake sellers at the neighboring stall, who’d made do with inferior sake from the southern river valleys. Kaede sampled, grumbled in agreement, and ordered another bottle for her new friends.
The women asked about her family. Kaede expanded on her son’s good heart, his clever wife, the grandchildren who charmed and bedeviled her daily; she’d been worried about this trip, she’d heard young folk had gone missing—
No, thank the gods, there was no danger of that sort here, not since the ninja war ended. Of course sometimes you heard strange sounds in the mountains, or saw the flash of lightning on a clear day, but mostly shinobi kept their quarrels out of the villages, and kept to themselves when they passed through. There’d been a little group from Lightning Country recently— no, two months back, it was, when old Hatori died, though everyone knew the Kumo nin had nothing to do with that—
Kaede listened, and paid for the drinks, and asked more questions.
By the time her son and his family wended their way back, clutching roasted corn-on-sticks and paper boats of takoyaki, two of Kaede’s informants had already nodded off. The swift twilight of the mountains was drawing down, and strings of electric lights came on above the stalls. Near the stone tanuki statue, young men in open coats and rope headbands began to light torches.
Kaede creaked off her bench and waved off Ryuu’s offered corncob. “Too messy for me, dear, but— Oh, takowasa!” She looked, startled, into Gendou’s dark eyes. “You remembered.”
Gendou passed her the bowl, and a smile. “Of course I remembered.”
That— wasn’t, entirely, the dutiful son. She’d half-thought they’d all forgotten those charged moments in the club and the izakaya, but now she wondered.
Ka-chan tugged on her sleeve. “Obaa-san, look! I won us all prizes.”
“Of course you did, dear. Oh, how clever—” She let herself be drawn into admiration and praise, Ryuu’s dramatic retelling of his sister’s victory and the vendor’s surprise, a collaborative attempt to solve the puzzle box. Ryuu, sticky-fingered, wasn’t allowed to touch.
They ate sitting on the stone steps of the village pharmacy, its doors shuttered now and its proprietor presumably mingling in the crowd. Ryuu licked his fingers clean and went for the puzzle box again; Ka-chan unbent enough to let him try, but reclaimed it smugly after five fumbling minutes. Ryuu pulled a fuzzy tanuki plush out of his sleeve and started trying to nest it in Ka-chan’s hair instead.
Since they weren’t throttling each other yet, the adults ignored them. Kaede told Gendou and Rie, idly, a little of the gossip she’d learned. “No visitors from Tanigawa in the last three weeks, and no Tanigawa sake for the festival at all. And Kumo shinobi stayed here two months ago; they might have passed through Tanigawa, first.”
Gendou’s pleasant face sharpened. Genma said, “But the sake went missing more recently than that. And why would Kumo steal the sake?” He took a thoughtful bite of takoyaki, then put his chopsticks down. “Wait, did you say there’s no Tanigawa sake at all? The thieves stole all of it, not just the Daimyou’s private batch?”
Their voices were low, washed over by crowd noise, but Kurenai spun up a little sound-muffling jutsu anyway. “It seems likely. Otherwise the village could have passed off a batch of the lower grade for the Daimyou, and blamed any drop in quality on the middlemen. But there must be three or four breweries in the village. Who could steal it all? And why would the villagers stay away from the Hiraizumi festival, even if they’ve no sake to sell?”
“Shame, maybe,” Genma guessed. “But it’s probably something worse. It could still be Kumo. Although why hold a whole village hostage?”
“They could be dead,” Ryouma said, looking up from his attempt to stuff the tanuki down the back of Kakashi’s yukata.
“It’s a possibility,” Kurenai admitted. “Stop that, you’re supposed to be fourteen, not four. People are watching.”
“Thirteen,” Ryouma corrected, but he took the tanuki back and stuck it in the front of his own yukata, so it could survey the world. “I was a chuunin at fourteen. Do you think they’re not dead?”
“I hope they’re not dead,” Genma said, picking up his chopsticks again. “Otherwise this mission just jumped straight up to S-rank.”
“No one’s been up there to check and didn’t come back?” Kakashi turned his puzzle over and started from the other end.
“One of the sake sellers sent his assistant, after the deliveries didn’t arrive. The boy came back two days later swearing he lost the trail. Common wisdom has it that he’d been drunk the whole time.” Kurenai eyed him thoughtfully. “It sounds like a genjutsu, of course.”
Genma grimaced, flicking his free hand in a warding gesture. “S-rank.”
Kakashi put his puzzle down. The delicate girl’s face creased in a frown. “For what purpose? They haven’t concealed the theft. Hiding the village confuses civilians, but not other ninja…” He paused, and the rosebud mouth set in an ugly line. “Ambush?”
Raidou lifted a hand to scratch the back of his neck, pausing briefly as he encountered the elaborate twist of heavy curls. “Would you expect ANBU on this? I’d figure a chuunin squad, except for the Daimyou having opinions.”
“If what you wanted was hostages from Konoha, you wouldn’t want ANBU.” Genma rustled in a paper bag and came up with a handful of fish-shaped taiyaki. He offered one each, courteously, to Kurenai and Raidou. “It’d be a lot easier to take chuunin down without bloodshed.”
Kakashi met Ryouma’s eyes. Both of them looked uneasy.
The wariness didn’t suit those open, unscarred children’s faces. Civilian faces, Kurenai reminded herself. All of them had been killers at a younger age than Ryuu and Ka-chan looked now.
“We’ll scout tomorrow,” she said firmly. “Kakashi and I will be able to identify any genjutsu. Perhaps you’ll finally get a chance to test your defenses, Raidou.”
Raidou grinned crookedly with Rie’s gentle mouth. “You’re on.”
Kakashi gave an acknowledging little finger flick, and bent back to Ka-chan’s puzzle. Clearly he had no intentions of moving on before he’d forced it to give up its secrets.
“We look awfully grim for a family enjoying the festival.” Genma stretched, then patted the slight softness of Gendou’s belly. “First we’ll enjoy the fireworks and the bun throwing. I ate so much I’m as pot-bellied as old Tanuki-san himself.”
The stone statue of old Tanuki-san was nearly invisible by now, obscured by the gathering villagers. Full dark had fallen, and crackling torches lit the night with a sweet resinous perfume. Someone banged a drum. Young men chanted, and women answered them.
A band of children came running, rice-straw baskets on their backs heaped with fist-sized steamed buns. The crowd surged around them as they handed out buns. Kurenai dropped her voice-muffling jutsu hastily. A teenage boy came up, red-faced, and pressed several buns into Ka-chan’s hands. “Enjoy the festival,” he blurted, and sprinted back to his giggling friends.
Ryuu bristled. Ka-chan blinked down at the offering, and her face softened into something that was almost a smile. Then she turned, dropped all the buns into Ryuu’s lap, and went back to the puzzle.
Ryuu stared at her. “I’m gonna throw ’em,” he announced loudly.
Ka-chan’s shoulder hitched. Gendou chuckled, got to his feet, and scruffed a hand over his son’s hair. He patted Ka-chan’s head more gently and told Rie and Kaede, “I guess it’s time. I’ll get enough buns so we can all throw some.”
“At the statues, please,” Rie put in. “Not the poor local boys.”
“Awww…” But Ryuu stuck with them, as the crowd began to form up. The young men with torches circled the big stone tanuki statue while the local priest gave his blessing. Then there was a rattle of drums and a flurry of shouts. The first soft buns pelted the tanuki statue, and the young men were off, waving their torches and chanting on their way through the village to the next stop.
Villagers streamed after them, throwing buns as they passed. Apparently the objective was to hit the statue without stopping to take aim or impede the parade. Even Kaede’s elderly informants joined the throng, sandwiched between a troupe of drummers and a band of young women with elaborate fans. Children dodged in and out of the parade, handing out buns and only occasionally eating them.
Another band of torch-bearers passed, and Gendou led his little family into the line. Ka-chan tucked her unfinished puzzle box into her sleeve and reclaimed two buns from Ryuu. She tossed them with deadly accuracy, one into each of the tanuki’s beady eyes. Kaede aimed for the broad belly, a reasonable target for an old woman. Gendou’s bun bounced off the tanuki’s nose and pattered to the growing heap at its feet.
Rie, giggling evilly, pelted her bun straight at the tanuki’s enormous testicles.
“Mom,” Ryuu complained. “You stole my idea!”
“Baby,” Rie said sweetly, “you should know by now that all your ideas are mine.” It had the ring of a direct quote. Kurenai suspected Raidou was channeling one of his own mothers heavily tonight.
Ryuu heaved an exaggerated teenage sigh and turned, walking backwards, to toss his bun. It landed in the hollow bowl held in one enormous paw. Ryuu looked startled for a moment, then delighted. He pumped a fist in victory, nearly tripped over his own feet, and scampered to catch up with Ka-chan. “Did you see—”
The parade wended on. Through the village, with bun-throwing at two more statues; then beneath a torii gate and up a rough stone path, hung with lanterns that glowed pink and green. Up and up, with the drums banging ahead and behind them, and the cool mountain breeze streaming the torch-flames sideways.
Kaede’s feet ached in unsupportive wooden sandals, but the wind was in her hair and the fresh mountain scent in her nose, and when she slipped on the mossy stone Gendou took her elbow. A dutiful son, of course. She smiled at him. He grinned back, torchlight in his eyes.
The path leveled out into a wide space of packed earth beneath the overhanging trees. There was a wooden shrine, a roof and three walls hung with heavy straw ropes and paper charms. And there was the wooden tanuki statue, the deity of these mountains, even larger than the stone replica carved down in the village, and far older.
Its carved features were blurred with years and weather, until the barest suggestion of a sharp snout and masked eyes remained. One of the paws had broken off and been replaced by a new carving of paw-and-jug, but even that was cracked and dark with exposure. Only the massive round testicles were smooth, polished with rubbing, and heaped around with the soft white shapes of thrown buns.
Something prickled down Kurenai’s spine. The barest suggestion, a shinobi’s instinctive recognition of someone watching from the shadows.
She looked at Kakashi.
He had gone as inhumanly still as the carved statue. An edge of wintry chakra flickered out like a knife against Kurenai’s senses. Genma’s chakra followed in a broad sweep. But neither of them dropped the henge, or went for a kunai. Genma glanced at Ryouma, brows raised. Kakashi looked puzzled, and tugged Raidou’s sleeve until he leaned over to let Ka-chan whisper in Rie’s ear.
Kurenai asked Genma, very quietly, “What was it?”
He shook his head. “I don’t know. Whatever it was, it’s gone already.” He didn’t look relieved.
“Okay,” Rie murmured. Kurenai lifted her head just in time to see Ka-chan slip away. She returned a moment later, slightly fuzzy around the edges. Kakashi’s chakra was wearing too thin for a substantial clone.
“I should go,” Ryouma whispered harshly. “If something gets him alone—”
“If something’s out there,” Kurenai said, “these people will need your help more than he will.” She lifted her chin, trying to see over too many taller shoulders. The priest seemed to be giving another blessing, or perhaps finishing the first one. Several young women came forward, blushing, to rub the tanuki’s testicles. The wind sighed in the trees overhead.
Kakashi slipped back again. Between one breath and the next, the clone at Rie’s side faded away. Kakashi shook his head.
Raidou met Kurenai’s eyes. She nodded, and lifted her hands for the silencing jutsu.
The priest’s words cut off, along with the crackling of the torches and the whispering wind and the soft sounds of the crowd. Kakashi said quietly, “There was something. But I don’t recognize the smell, and the trail breaks off a short way out.”
“Demon?” Ryouma demanded.
Kakashi hesitated, and Kurenai’s stomach cramped.
“I don’t think so,” he said. “At least, nothing like the Hayama demons.” He paused again. “Or the Kyuubi.”
“Good.” Genma put a hand on Ryouma’s shoulder, strong and steady against the boy’s slight frame. “Which direction? Could the smell have been chemical?”
“Not chemical. More…musky, I’d say, but it wasn’t quite.” Kakashi growled in soft frustration, as if the lack of proper words was as bad as the absence of a trail, and lifted his hands.
Genjutsu swirled and caught. Kurenai blinked hard, resisting the urge to drop her henge, to look through the layers of chakra with Meikougan eyes. She forced herself to experience instead.
Tree-shrub-fox-not fox, a strange odor almost like chakra burn, there and then gone—
The sense-memory cut away. She blinked again. Beside her Genma stumbled, his hand closing tight on Ryouma’s shoulder; the boy barely kept him up. Neither of them had expected the genjutsu. Raidou, primed by his month of training with Benihime, hadn’t even flinched, but Rie’s soft mouth was white around the edges.
“North,” Kurenai said. “Towards Tanigawa.”
Raidou said, “Perhaps we should rethink spending the night.”