July 6, Yondaime Year 5
The magical tanuki sake they’d shared with Himself was intoxicating, but not in the ordinary sense: Genma was comfortable, effervescently happy, and profoundly relaxed, but sharp and alert, and fully in control. He lifted a squirming tanuki kit off his chest and laughed up at the brush-whiskered face. Almost instantly, three more of the little tanuki replaced her, flopping delightedly down on Genma’s feast-full belly. His neck and bruised ribs didn’t twinge, even when a pair of determined youngsters barreled into his side; it was as if he’d never had the spar with Raidou that set off this whole interdimensional incident. He rolled onto his side, spilling giggling kits, and looked for his teammates.
“You could help,” he suggested to Raidou and Kurenai, who lounged in the grass spectating as Genma was capsized by another wave of tanuki children. “Or just sit there and watch me get abducted again.”
“Tempting,” Raidou said, but he shoved himself to his feet and waded into the fray, picking up one of the smaller kits and tossing her up onto his shoulders. The kits, delighted with their new, even bigger playmate, swarmed him immediately. Even Kaori joined in, although perhaps not in an entirely playful spirit: she kicked Raidou in the shins, then joined Hideki in forming a protective barricade between Genma and the “Red Moon Demon.”
“He’s my friend,” Genma said, in what was probably a futile protest. At a tug on his arm, Genma looked down into Hideki’s big, beseeching eyes.
“Do you really have to go away?” Hideki asked.
“I really do.” Genma brushed a hand over Hideki’s soft ears. “My friends need me.” He gestured at Raidou, who was balancing two of the cousin kits on his shoulders while another three scaled his legs. “And my dad would be sad if I didn’t come home. It’s almost my birthday, and he always bakes a big cake.”
That, at last, seemed to be the argument that made sense to the little tanuki. Understanding dawned on Hideki’s face. “My dad makes us cakes, too.”
“And we get lots of presents,” Kaori put in.
“Only when you’re good.” Azami materialized behind Kaori and scooped her youngest daughter up onto her hip. “We’ll see this year.” It was hard to be sure, on her furred, masked face, but it looked like her eyebrow was cocked in ironic skepticism.
“We’re always good,” Kaori insisted.
Hideki didn’t seem quite so confident, seeing as they had just gotten in a great deal of trouble over Genma’s kidnapping. He looked up at his mother with an apologetic wince. “We try to always be good.”
“Well you can start by going quietly to bed,” Azami said. She held out her free paw for Hideki to take, and wrapped her tail over his shoulders when he came close.
“I’m not tired yet,” Kaori declared. “I’ll stay up and play with Genma-san some more, until he gets sleepy.”
“If Kaori-neechan doesn’t have to go to bed yet, I shouldn’t have to either,” protested Hideki.
“Yes, you do,” Kaori said. “Because you’re the baby, and I’m the big sister.”
“That’s not fair,” Hideki whined. He appealed to Genma. “Tell Mom it’s not fair. I’m not sleepy either.” His yawn belied him.
“You’re both sleepy, it’s past bedtime, and if you’re trying to convince me you’re well-behaved enough to deserve cake and presents on your next birthday, you aren’t doing a very good job of it,” said Azami.
“You should probably listen to your mother,” Genma told the kits.
The other adult tanuki seemed to be herding their own flocks of little ones away, too. A plump tanuki in an orange and violet yukata relieved Raidou of the burden on his shoulders, and an adult in a checkered jinbei took another three.
Reluctantly, Hideki and Kaori told Genma goodnight. Their father came over, towing Kikyou by one ear. “Early bedtime for you, too, missy,” he told her. “If you can’t sleep, you can meditate about obedience.”
Overhead, the stars had begun to spangle the sky, and the last of the late-setting sun turned the western horizon a deep magenta. As they made their way back to Kurenai, Genma slung an arm companionably over Raidou’s shoulders. “Thanks for the rescue, Taichou.”
“From tiny, fluffy children?” Raidou said. He gave Genma a charmingly crooked smile. “Anytime.”
“Tiny, fluffy mythical children who can kick your ass,” Genma said. “Or your shin. Did Kaori-chan manage to do any damage? I think she holds grudges.”
Raidou glanced down at the stiff protective bindings covering his lower legs. “I might be mildly scuffed.”
“Well, I appreciate your willingness to take a hit like that for me,” Genma said. “And your idiocy in coming here in the first place. I don’t know how we’re going to make any of this sound reasonable for our mission reports.” They rejoined Kurenai, who had wisely stayed out of the tanuki pileup.
Kurenai was leaning back on her hands, with her hair tumbling loose around her shoulders. A faint breeze ruffled the inky waves, blowing tendrils back from her forehead. Her hitai-ate was wrapped casually around her wrist, with the heavy metal plate cushioning one palm from the grass. She gave them a wry smile. “Your prior mission reports have not set a high bar for reasonableness.”
Genma stretched out next to her, and followed her example, pulling the tie free from his ponytail. The cool breeze through his sweat-damp hair was an astonishing sensation. It sent delightful shivers racing along Genma’s scalp and down his neck. He threw his head back, arching over until he almost touched the grass.
“Be fair, Yuuhi. Our prior missions have lacked for reasonableness.”
“And you won’t redeem your reputation for handling ‘weird shit’ with this one.” She smiled at him, warm and fond and full of amusement. Her bare lips flushed pink, as if she’d just been kissed, and would be happy to kiss again.
“Next time there are rumors of a sea monster menacing shipping,” she said, breaking Genma’s brief fantasy, “it’ll be ‘Where’s Team Six? Someone’s got to pull a conquest out of a catastrophe.’ ”
“Because our luck with shipping ports has been so good,” Raidou said with droll irony. He eased himself down barely an arm’s-length away, and his half-lidded gaze skidded over Genma’s chest and throat to Kurenai’s mouth, neatly reviving Genma’s moment of reverie. Then his eyes flicked up in surprise. “Incoming,” he warned.
Kurenai turned to look over her shoulder. Genma arched all the way backwards and got an inverted look at an approaching mountain of white fur. He scrambled upright, flipping to face Himself on his knees.
“I believe,” the enormous tanuki rumbled, “you owe me the rest of that story now.”
“Very well,” Raidou said, in carefully polite tones. “Here?”
Himself looked around. “I’d like to get the story from you without any bias from your youngster with the fleabags. They seem occupied for the moment, but I know a way to guarantee we won’t be interrupted. Dogs hate baths. Come with me.”
Raidou arched his eyebrows at his companions — a silent question: should we, or is he up to something?
Genma shrugged. The threat from the tanuki was so enormous, and the ninja so hamstrung without their chakra or weapons, it hardly seemed to matter. “The equivalent of a six-year-old took us down with no help,” he said softly.
“Don’t you like baths?” Himself asked, peering at Raidou. “Most humans love hot springs. Or are you still worried about your lieutenant? I can fix him the rest of the way first, if you like.”
“No, no!” Genma said. “I mean, I’m fine.”
“You’re bruised and your neck is strained,” Himself contradicted. “It won’t take a minute.”
The last thing Genma wanted was a repeat of Kikyou’s excruciating ‘fixing.’ Kurenai paled, and Raidou looked grim, too. The Wolf-god’s healing must have been just as bad. “It doesn’t hurt at all,” Genma said. He twisted left and right to prove it.
“That’s the sake talking,” Himself said with a laugh. “But have it your way. The hot springs will probably be healing enough without my help.” He turned to one of the smaller tanuki nearby. “Buckets, soap, and towels for our guests. And for myself, of course. You can meet us there.” To a second one he said, “You bring sake and some of those melons. You know the ones I mean.” Both tanuki scurried to obey. Evidently there really was going to be a bath. And Himself would be joining them. Just how big was the hot spring they were going to?
Genma got to his feet and offered a hand up to Raidou and Kurenai. “I don’t know about you, but honestly, I wouldn’t mind a bath.”
Kurenai’s mouth twisted wry. “We could certainly use one.”
Raidou loosened his armor and pulled his shirt away from his chest with a sticky sound. “Point,” he said with a grimace.
“Good. It’s decided then,” Himself said. He waited until the humans were all standing, then led the way up a swept sand path through a grove of bamboo and maples, tromping towards a cluster of lanterns just barely visible over the crest of the hill.
When they arrived, they found a beautiful rocky pool steaming gently, ringed with gaily painted paper lanterns in the trees, and several lit stone lanterns at the side. It was warm and inviting. And big enough to fit maybe six adult humans, or Himself’s furry white feet. They had pink pads, like a cat’s, and long, sharp claws like a bear’s. Or a wild tanuki’s, Genma supposed.
The serving tanuki arrived and set wooden buckets and folded towels down next to a cluster of benches on some paving stones near the pool, then turned to give Himself a bucket and towel of his own. They were as small as the ones she’d set down for the humans.
Genma gave him a puzzled look. Himself cackled, waved his assistant away, and jumped into the air. For a moment there was a whirling ball of white fur shimmering in the combined light of lanterns and moon, and then there was a man standing where the huge tanuki had been. He was taller than Raidou, and just as broad and muscled, if a little more stout. His long hair and luxurious beard were as snow white as the tanuki had been, but he didn’t look like an old man. There was something about him that reminded Genma of someone, but he wasn’t sure who.
Himself was also completely naked. Thick white body hair replaced the tanuki fur. Genma tried not to stare. Next to him, Kurenai had flushed slightly, and her red eyes were wide, but she made no effort to look away.
“Is this a… native aspect of your natural form?” Kurenai asked. Her composure was impressive, but even more amazing was how she could find it in herself to ask technical questions of a god.
“All tanuki are shapeshifters,” Himself told her. He picked up his bucket and dipped a generous amount of water out of the pool. His movements were as graceful as any jounin, with no wasted effort. Muscles bunched and rippled under flawless skin. “But it takes centuries of study to master. There are a few of us who have managed this level of skill.” He sounded proud but not boastful — just explaining a fact. “Feel free to go ahead and wash,” he added. “Your ribs will appreciate it, Shiranui-san.” Himself upended the bucket over his own head, refilled it from the pool, and set to work with a round ball of soap and a rough cloth.
After a moment, Genma slowly started unbuckling his armor and belts.
Once or twice in the night after their aborted stop in Hiraizumi, Kurenai had contemplated plans for the next time she shared a hot spring with Genma and Raidou. There would be a next time, she’d decided; the embers of interest at the nightclub and the izakaya were too bright to fade out entirely. It would need delicate handling, of course. She was beginning to grasp a better understanding of the complex dynamic of an ANBU team — rather more complex than most, in Team Six’s boundary-blurring case, but still not, she thought, immutable…
She hadn’t quite accounted for a shapeshifting tanuki god in their midst.
She hadn’t accounted for any of the rest of the past sixteen hours, either. Genma’s disappearance, that heartclenching chase, that instant when the grey wolf’s teeth crunched through Raidou’s armor, the moment the tanuki children led Genma back again. The scratch of Genma’s stubbled cheek against her lips, and the hard ring of Raidou’s arms around them both.
On the whole, she thought, it was probably better to have an ageless, inhuman chaperone here. At least to start.
She unzipped her vest. “You mentioned the hot springs were healing. Is that another tanuki magic, or just the salutary effects of minerals and heat?”
Himself shrugged through his soap suds. His snowy beard dripped down onto his chest, itself almost as thick-pelted as the fur of his previous shape. “It’s always healed my bruises. It depends on what you consider magic.”
And magic, Kurenai suspected, was a natural state for tanuki. In a world full of it, would they even need to distinguish its presence?
Chakra was a natural state for ninja, and she felt its absence like cropped hair: constantly unsettled by the missing weight, surprised every time she reached for it and found nothing there. The tanuki sake helped dull the edges of shock, even as it sharpened her senses. She felt the cool whisper of breeze across her skin as she tugged her shirt off, and then the fleeting warmth of an eddy of steam.
The ANBU were shedding their armor as well, building tidy piles of breastplate and arm-guards. A less baffling view, certainly, and more pleasant. Genma was bruised, a little stiff as he eased out of his tight shirt. He winced, stopping to press a hand to his lower ribcage, where dark contusions marked the results of his fight with Raidou. If the tanuki had healed his face, they hadn’t ventured lower.
Beside him, Raidou’s muscle-sheathed ribs showed only the pale lashings of old scars over summer-brown skin. No trace remained of the grey wolf’s horrific healing. Nor of the abrasions to his shoulders, those long pink scars he’d brought back from Mist Country. The wolf must have healed those, too.
She let herself drink them in for three deep breaths before she redirected her attention back to her own gear. At least her body could not visibly betray her. And she did badly want a bath.
The water from the pool, scooped out in heavy wooden buckets, was perfectly shy of scalding. Kurenai scrubbed, skin prickling with rough cloth and hot water and cool paving stones beneath her feet; enough of the tanuki sake fizzed in her veins that the very sensation of slick soap and exfoliating cloth felt intoxicating, entrancing. She had to remind herself not to lose focus. The tanuki god had brought them here to gain information. And Kurenai wanted more out of this evening, too.
She looked back at Himself. “You mentioned humans love hot springs. Have you had other visitors here, before Harubi-san? Or do you often visit the human world yourself?”
Himself appeared to think it over, scrubbing his barrel-muscled belly leisurely. “We visit the humans for the festivals, and we attend our shrines.” He shrugged dismissal. “But that’s not very interesting. I want to hear your stories. Tell me about the old battle-axe and her mates. I want to know how you ended up here instead of in your next incarnations.”
He seemed as naturally inquisitive as Kurenai herself. She glanced toward Raidou. Team Six’s secrets — and scars — were, after all, his to protect.
All of Raidou’s own scars were on full display, by now, as well as the truly magnificent skin beneath. She hadn’t taken the opportunity to fully admire, in Hiraizumi. He’d turned half-away from the pool, scrubbing down on the verge where paving stone met soft thick grass, but that three-quarter view was tremendously appealing.
Genma, she noticed, had taken up a position that lent him an excellent vantage as well.
Raidou sluiced himself down with half his bucket, straightened, and looked back at her for a moment, his eyes dark in the golden lantern light. He inclined his water-sleek head to her. “You’ll tell it better than me.”
Because she was Intel, she wondered, or because he trusted her to shape the story around his team’s fracture points?
She looked back to Genma. He was watching her now, too. Some of those fracture points concerned him already, in every sense of that word. She sent him a quick, winging smile, and said, “The team was badly alarmed by Shiranui-fukuchou’s abduction.”
“The kits told you they dropped a statue on their ‘Red Moon Demon.’ Namiashi-taichou was injured, not dangerously: cracked ribs, no internal bleeding, but it was a bad few moments before we managed to move the statue.” No need to mention Kakashi’s Raikiri, she judged. Best to keep that, and Ryouma’s lethal rot jutsu, as secret as they could. They might need a hidden card, later.
Genma was peering intently at Raidou again, searching for any lingering sign of the injury. Raidou gave him a wry half-smile back, and twisted to pick up his soap: Look, lieutenant, no cracks!
Himself beamed. “Kaori-chan managed something with sufficient weight to crack human ribs? That’s my girl!”
“Her aim was good too,” Raidou said, with the air of giving credit where it was due. Himself combed soap suds through his beard, looking smug.
“Once we freed Namiashi-taichou,” Kurenai continued, “we realized Shiranui-fukuchou had vanished. Hatake-san summoned his dogs, of course, to track. They alerted us immediately to the recent presence of tanuki. We realized that the lieutenant’s disappearance had to be connected with Nomiya Harubi’s; both had paid respects at tanuki shrines or statues, and both had disappeared while…in need of protection from violence. The lieutenant, of course, was engaged in everyday sparring when he was taken, but what is commonplace to shinobi may appear alarming to outsiders. And we guessed that if the tanuki of this region had already sheltered one victim of abuse, they might have thought the lieutenant in need of similar aid.”
A faint flush colored Genma’s cheekbones. He picked up his bucket, upended it over his head, and sloshed back to the edge of the pool for more.
“They’re good kits,” Himself rumbled. “Their hearts are in the right place. And you were injured, Shiranui-san.”
Raidou’s head jerked up. “He was?”
“It was just a minor concussion,” Genma muttered. “My team could have handled it.” He straightened with his steaming bucket, shoved the wet hair back from his face, and said more clearly, “I appreciate their kindness, of course.”
“Concussion?” Kurenai demanded, more sharply than she’d meant.
“Minor concussion. And Kikyou-chan, uh, ‘fixed’ it. I’m not sure how to explain it.”
“I thought you must have had some healing, but—” Genma’s hesitation made her wonder what, exactly, the ‘fixing’ had entailed. Nothing as bad as the grey wolf’s teeth, surely. She shook her head, dipped her scrubbing cloth again, and took up the thread of the tale.
“Hatake’s summons told us that the tanuki reside in a separate dimension, something akin to the dogs’ own Summoning Dimension. That led, of course, to the question of whether the dogs could help us follow. Namiashi-taichou left an offering at your shrine while Hatake-san worked on the reverse-summoning seal. If you’d attended to the offering, it might have saved us all a great deal of trouble.”
Himself’s head snapped down. “If I’d attended to the offering? What did he leave me, then?”
“My canteen,” Raidou said levelly. Genma looked sharply at him, brows pulled tight together.
Himself’s dark eyes rested on Raidou, then Genma. He nodded. “An interesting offering. Was it full?”
“You’d know if you collected it,” Raidou said. His voice was still perfectly even, but the dripping water shone on the bunched muscles of his shoulders and back. “How many prayers do you really hear?”
For a moment the predator glared out of Himself’s eyes. His lips curled back, baring teeth just as white and sharp as in his canine form. “All of them.”
So why hadn’t he known about the abduction that occurred under his nose, the human hidden in his village? Kakashi had called the lie on Himself’s claim of omnipotence, before; how much was bluster now?
Kurenai wrung out her hair, considering the significant range between some and all.
Genma said carefully, “This whole incident would have been avoided if I’d been better at guarding my left. Raidou’s offering meant a lot to him, and I’m humbled he made it. I’m sure there’s no need to argue theology after the fact.”
They could leave that to the Intel analysts, who would find five years’ worth of lunchtime feuds and several never-to-be-published monographs in the contents of the forthcoming mission reports. Assuming Sagara, Oita, and the Hokage ever let the reports from this mission be declassified enough for common Intel pencil-pushers to debate, that is.
“Theology is boring,” Himself announced. “Let’s have sake instead.” He rinsed off one last time, set the bucket aside, and lowered himself with a pleasurable hiss into the steaming pool.
One of the attendant tanuki trotted up to the pool edge with a round wooden tray, brimming with ice. This time the sake cups were almost reasonably sized, and the carafe no larger than what Kurenai could purchase at any Konoha restaurant. The attendant poured for Himself, then set the ice-filled tray bobbing on the surface of the water, just within reach. Another attendant appeared with plates of chilled, sliced melon, which it arranged around the edges of the pool, only filching a few.
Himself leaned back against the smooth rocks lining the pool and sipped his sake. “So after you left your offering, you went to the fleabags’ world. What did you offer them?”
Kurenai coiled her clean hair and knotted it at the back of her head. “The opportunity to do a good deed, at first.”
The tanuki god sprayed his sake across the glimmering surface of the pool. “Oh, you didn’t,” he cried in delight, slapping his belly, sending a wave that almost submerged the floating sake tray. “How’d that work for you?”
“Almost fatally,” Kurenai admitted ruefully. She wrung out her washcloth, left it spread over her overturned bucket, and took all of one step toward the bath before her hair tumbled from its knot, heavy waves brushing her shoulder blades again. She sighed. Yamanaka Susuki made it look so easy.
“Here,” Genma murmured. Cold steel slipped between her fingers. He’d knotted his own wet hair up around another senbon. Sleek and straight, it gleamed the color of dark honey in the lantern light.
She shook her head. “If I had two, maybe…” There was a reason she didn’t often wear kanzashi. Her hair was far thicker than Genma’s, and much curlier.
“Let me.” He stooped for another senbon. She stood still, his hands deft in the wet mass of her hair. The back of her neck prickled in the cool breeze. His hands were warm, and he stood very near.
Genma said quietly, “Almost fatally?”
“Almost fatally,” Raidou said firmly, coming up beside them. “You may want an elastic instead.”
“I had one earlier…” Genma gave up on the slick senbon, stooped again, and came back with a simple elastic hair-tie.
Kurenai could have taken it from him. She tipped her head back, offering the wealth of her hair to him instead, and said, “The three Old Wolves met us in their den. They were…not pleased to have human visitors. Hatake’s summoning bond with dogs extends to the dogs’ gods, apparently, but not to the contract holder’s companions.”
Genma’s hands wound deep in her hair. They were very steady, no tremor at all. She could feel the tension, though, in the tug against her scalp.
“I’m impressed you got as far as their den,” Himself admitted, pouring himself another cup of sake. “They usually don’t let anyone in. Even Tokage-san is more welcoming, and he’s cold-blooded.” He waved a slice of melon at the shinobi, beckoning them toward the bath. “I assume they threatened to kill you. And that’s when you ‘bargained’ with them? Did they make Hatake break his contract?”
Genma’s hands eased free of Kurenai’s hair. The whole mass stayed in its piled knot, baring her neck and shoulders. He was still breathing evenly, an iron control.
Raidou took them both by the elbow, and pushed them gently toward the water.
Kurenai stepped down into the pool, savoring the rising heat as it lapped over legs and belly, to just under her breasts. The bottom was pebbled for grip and waist-deep even on Himself; smaller tanuki must float like otters.
She found a seat on a ledge on the other side of the oblong pool, where she could submerge up to her shoulders, and said, “We told the wolf-gods we needed their help in finding our missing friend. The female wolf-god asked Tousaki to let her bite off his hand. He’d pled the most for their help. He agreed.”
Genma’s mouth shaped a soundless word. He stood immobile, just within arm’s reach, Raidou’s hand still locked on his elbow; the gentle lantern light gilded the frozen mask of his face. His voice came finally, cracked. “He did what?”
“He seemed to have both hands at dinner,” Himself pointed out.
“She wanted the sacrifice,” Kurenai said, “not the flesh. I think. She bit down, but left him barely scratched. And she agreed to help us. The grey wolf — healed Namiashi-taichou, in their own fashion. And then the black wolf ripped open the fabric of worlds, and sent us here.”
“She probably just wanted to watch him wet himself in terror,” Himself said irritably. “And that grey one is just as bad. Worse, actually. They feed on fear, you know. Feh. Wolves!” He washed the taste of the word from his mouth with a swig of sake. “Ripping holes in my sky without so much as a by your leave!”
It was so much the crotchety temper of a feuding neighbor, irate over some improperly pruned trees, that Kurenai almost smiled. Genma seemed halfway reassured; he let Raidou tug him down the rest of the way into the bath, onto the ledge near Kurenai. When Raidou’s hand dropped, though, Genma caught it. “This ‘healing’ the wolf did on you — how bad was it? Kikyou-chan was trying to be gentle with me, and I damn near blacked out. If they were trying to make it hurt…”
Raidou squeezed his hand. “I’m okay. It was quick. And, uh, interesting, in a let’s-never-do-that-again way. Honestly, I think it was worse for Kurenai watching.”
Heartstopping, horrifying, a terror as blinding as any since the Fox or the war—
“When we stop by Tanigawa again,” she said thinly, “I have some ideas for genjutsu.”
Raidou propped his free right arm up on the edge of the bathing pool. His hand settled on the nape of Kurenai’s neck: the same sort of solid, grounding touch she’d seen Team Six offer among themselves before. He said, “Make it more painful for Nomiya.”
Himself smoothed his steaming beard, eyeing them shrewdly. “You’ll keep your promise to Harubi-san. Do not involve her or her kits in any way.”
“We have no intent of causing further trauma to Harubi-san or her children,” Kurenai said. Raidou’s thumb stroked gently against the back of her neck, a soothing motion, almost a caress. Did she look like she needed soothing? Or, perhaps, did he?
Maybe so. She let her tense muscles relax into it, into the delicious heat of the pool and the steady warmth of his hand, and said, “Were you meaning to share the sake?”
The wooden tray floated toward her on a tiny rising wave. Himself’s narrowed eyes didn’t stray from her face. “So we understand each other: this one—” the sweep of a massive hand indicated Genma, on Raidou’s left— “had no intent of being abducted by my grandkits. You will not involve Harubi and her kits in any plan to visit hallucinations of my asshole neighbors on Harubi’s husband.”
That wording still left loopholes wide enough to run a genin team through, and half of them were intentional. Kurenai poured, briefly focused on the angle of her wrist, the shape of her hand. Soothing rituals in their own way.
Raidou’s hand was still warm and heavy on the back of her neck.
She lifted the cup, and met Himself’s eyes. “We promised we wouldn’t make her a murderer. I agree to this: nothing we do in Tanigawa will involve Harubi-san or her children, nor come to trouble them.”
“Agreed.” The twinkle returned to his night-dark eyes. “And well-weaselled.” He toasted her back. “You’d make a fine tanuki. It’s a shame you were born human. Maybe in your next life.”
A better compliment than snake-minded, Kurenai suspected, and certainly preferable to a wolf-god offering to make Ryouma her pet. She smiled at Himself. “One can only hope. Speaking of new lives: have you given any thought to the goodwill tokens you’ll want to send to settle Harubi-san and her children in their new home? We’d be happy to transport any gifts you send to smooth her way…”
Water splashed to her left, briefly diverting her attention; she caught a glimpse of Genma’s wary little headshake. Don’t push your luck. She lifted her brows. The going’s still good…
Himself laughed again, sending wavelets rippling. “You’re as bad as Kaori-chan. I believe I gave you a very nice piece of calligraphy for your Daimyou. Perhaps you’re thinking we should send household furnishings for Harubi-san’s new home?”
“You could. She’d probably be grateful, making a fresh start with young kids,” Raidou said. He leaned forward, releasing Genma and Kurenai. “She’d have an easier road with proof of her skills, though. We can get her brewing tools from Tanigawa, but you’re the only one with her sake.”
Himself swirled the sake in his cup thoughtfully, while Genma frowned, Kurenai stayed expressionless, and Raidou contemplated the series of choices that had led to negotiating in a bathtub.
“I suppose we don’t need all one-hundred and eighty seven casks,” Himself said at last. “Very well. Ten for Harubi, one for the five of you, and one for your Daimyou. I think that’s more than fair.”
Genma’s face lightened. Kurenai’s lips curved.
“The sake is for you to drink,” Himself added sharply. “No giving your cask to the Daimyou. I’ll give you another scroll to make that clear. ‘Wealth shared with the deserving comes back a hundredfold.’ ”
“‘The generous enrich themselves by giving,’ ” Raidou quoted back, and dipped his head. “Your gesture is appreciated. Thank you.”
Genma tugged the floating tray over and filled the two remaining sake cups. He didn’t have Kurenai’s flawless grace, but his wrists were lean and golden under the lantern light. Water droplets slid from his fingertips as he raised a toast. “To generosity, and our very kind host.”
Himself echoed the gesture, ageless and silver in his temporary form. Raidou tipped his own cup and took a chilled swallow of Harubi’s gift. The sake went down like distilled peace, radiating calm from his core to his skin, and a thought occurred.
“Will the effect remain in our world?” Raidou asked. “Or will the sake go back to its, uh, normal self?”
Himself winked. “A little something extra may have flavored this batch when we opened the cask. The sealed ones are probably more ordinary, if just as tasty.”
“So much for peace in the Daimyou’s court,” Kurenai murmured.
“Peace in the Daimyou’s court is even more mythical than tanuki,” Genma said, studying his empty cup. He placed it back on the tray, gave a happy little sigh, and sank down into the steaming water until it touched his chin.
Since the Daimyou’s court had recently exploded, Raidou allowed that Genma had a point. He set his own cup down and leaned back against the smooth stone, which managed to radiate even more heat than the steaming water. It was a little like a burning massage; his muscles were incapable of staying tense.
Genma, safely returned on his left, and Kurenai, a study of ink and snow on his right, went a long way towards grounding the sense of alcoholic tranquility into something genuinely real. Since they were naked and the leader of a transdimensional band of thieves was watching them all like a fascinating set of butterflies he hadn’t quite gotten around to pinning, Raidou kept his hands to himself, but more than a few smoky thoughts drifted by.
He crossed one ankle carefully over the other knee, and addressed Himself. “If you don’t mind me asking, why don’t your people and the wolves get along?”
Himself rolled his neck with a crackle of vertebrae and sighed. “You did meet them, right? Would you get along with them? Imagine having to live next door to those arrogant, uncultured brutes for sixteen hundred years. You’ll notice there are hardly any shrines to them, but why would there be? They never answer prayers.”
Raidou blinked. Himself had said something like that before, but there hadn’t been time to dwell on it. “You’re sixteen hundred years old?”
Himself blinked back. “No, that’s just when they showed up. I’m not really sure how old I am.”
Meaning he was more than sixteen hundred years old?
Kurenai opened her eyes. “How much of the human world have you watched, in that time?” she asked eagerly. “Our histories are so incomplete…”
“Humans have very short lives.” Himself waved a dismissive hand. “Villages come and go. I remember — oh, when was that? Well, it was long before you were born — we helped them terrace some rice fields. The poor things didn’t know what they were doing. You can still see the terraces, even though those humans died and trees grew up in the rice fields.”
Kurenai visibly swallowed her disappointment, along with the rest of her sake. “Was that in the villages in these mountains? Tanigawa or Hiraizumi?”
Himself gave her a quizzical look. “Those villages are still standing. This one is gone. I think they called it Ryoushitsu-something.”
Kurenai glanced at Raidou and Genma in turn, eyebrows arched in question. The name clearly meant nothing to her. Raidou offered a blank shrug. Genma shook his head. “I don’t know that one.”
Himself chuckled, a sound that rolled like old alcohol and past seasons. “It was long before you were born. Before the dogs moved in, for that matter.”
“Moved in from where?” Raidou asked.
“They used to live between the rats and the cats, near the tengu,” Himself said. “Lived there for generations, actually. But their neighbors got fed up with them, banded together, and kicked them out. Which says a lot. Rats and cats teaming up?” He raised a hand and sketched elaborate kanji in the air. “‘A common enemy makes foes into friends.’ ”
Raidou was not surprised. He hadn’t met that many summons in his life, but the wolves had seemed more savage by a wide margin. Popular speculation said Yondaime-sama’s toads were as alcohol-loving as the tanuki. Orochimaru’s snakes were rumored to be coldly intelligent, just like their summoner. Anyone who’d survived the Third War knew Tsunade’s slugs were healers. Were the wolves younger than their counterparts, or just naturally more untamed? And who had they taken their new dimension from?
Raidou rumpled a wet hand through wetter hair and almost wished Kakashi was here to ask. Or at least Pakkun.
Kurenai filled their cups again, including Himself’s. “Is there much communication between neighbors, here? Trade, correspondence…? Do you have drinking parties with kappa?”
Raidou snorted into his sake. Genma laughed, making ripples spill out across the water’s surface.
Himself’s mouth broke into a wide grin that made Raidou think, trickster. “Oh, the kappa. I could tell you stories about the kappa. When they visit they always bring their own cucumbers, because they’re very fussy about their vegetables.”
Raidou didn’t have many memories of his paternal grandmother, but one involved being bounced uncomfortably on her knee while she told him that if he ever tangled with kappa, his best chance was to fling cucumbers at it and run in the opposite direction. He’d always thought she was just trying to make him appreciate his greens.
“Huh,” he said. “What other stories have you got?”
Many stories, it turned out. Himself was as excitable and distractible as Kaori and Hideki had been — or at least he pretended to be. The moon rose higher and the stars wheeled slowly overhead while he glided and danced from tale to tale. When the heat started to get to Genma, and he got out to sit on the side of the pool for a moment, Himself suggested they all cool off with some melon, while he regaled the shinobi with an elaborate account of a prank the tanuki had played on an unscrupulous blacksmith.
It was by far the sweetest, most succulent and refreshing melon Genma had ever had. Kurenai kept pouring, and they kept drinking, without ever feeling drunk. The convivial, open-to-joy effect of the libation seemed to stretch out with each fresh cup.
A breeze rustled through the leaves, sending a rill of shivers along Genma’s shoulders. He took a last bite of melon, set the empty rind aside, and slid back into the steaming pool.
“An excellent idea,” Himself declared. He waved as the other two joined Genma in the water. “You three should stay here as long as you like. When you’re ready to sleep, just follow the path back to the firepit, and one of my kin will take you to your beds.”
“You’re not staying?” Genma asked.
“I’ve bathed enough,” Himself said. “I believe I have ‘goodwill tokens’ I need to arrange.” He shook a few remaining droplets from his shaggy beard, then somersaulted himself back into the huge, fur-covered form they’d first met. He gave Kurenai a sly, approving look. “Harubi-san and her kits will have everything they need for their journey back to your world tomorrow.”
Raidou grinned, pleased with the world. “Goodnight, Greatest-Grandfather.”
“We’re grateful for your generous hospitality,” Kurenai said. “And—” she raised her nearly empty sake cup and drained the last few drops with a connoisseur’s true appreciation, “—your truly excellent sake.”
They bowed farewells.
And then they were alone — just the three of them, in the mist and heat and moonlight, with paper lanterns casting golden highlights on bare skin.
Kurenai’s unruly hair, curling in the steam, did its best to escape from Genma’s elastic. One graceful tendril hung down in front of her ear, drawing Genma’s eye down to the waterline. Steam and darkness cradled her pale skin.
Next to her, Raidou’s broad shoulders were a sculpted bulwark. He ducked in to his chin, then sat back up, spilling water down his chest in little rivulets through slicked-flat body hair. They were both close enough to touch.
Genma stretched out his arms along the ledge behind them. The heat from the back of Raidou’s neck made Genma’s breath catch. His fingertips brushed the softness of Kurenai’s shoulder.
“This isn’t even slightly how I thought this mission would go, but we did it,” he said, grinning at his companions. “We found the stolen sake, we found the missing woman and children, and we’re bringing at least a little of it, plus the sake brewer, back for the Fire Daimyou.”
Kurenai leaned against Raidou, angling to give Genma a full-lipped smile. “There will be fights in Intel HQ for the privilege of reading your mission reports for this one.”
The dark water cupped her breasts the way the red dress had in the club. Her ruby eyes flashed just as bright and inviting, and Genma wanted nothing more than to lean across Raidou and kiss her. And then Raidou. To kiss Raidou, with their unshaven jaws rasping together as their lips met…
Genma shifted on the bench, sliding closer until his thigh touched Raidou’s. Heat rose that had nothing to do with the sake they’d drunk or the water surrounding them. His breath came fast.
“Do you remember that night we went dancing?” he asked hoarsely.
Kurenai planted one hand on Raidou’s knee. “Not easy to forget.” Her voice was breathy and low, her eyes locked with Genma’s.
“Rings a bell,” Raidou said. His cheeks were heat-flushed, his eyes dark. He sat carefully still, waiting for a thunderclap to follow the lightning.
“I would have kissed you. Both of you. If we hadn’t been interrupted. If you’d wanted me to.” The words came easier than Genma would have expected. This was Raidou of the Iron Boundaries, his captain, and Kurenai, Intel agent assigned to report on the behavior of this team. He should have been wary, but the setting, the sake, and most of all, the desire he could see burning in his companions’ eyes, spurred him to continue.
“Do you want me to?”
Kurenai didn’t hesitate. “Yes.”
They both looked at Raidou.
After a moment, he, too, said, “Yes.” He locked eyes with Genma and gave him a crooked smile. “If you can tell me it’s a good idea.”
Genma’s breath caught between parted lips. “I… I don’t think it’s a bad idea. We’re alone, we’re safe. And we’re all— we all want the same thing.” With a little more blood flow to his brain, he could probably have done a whole presentation on why it was a fantastic idea.
Raidou’s eyes were on Genma’s mouth, his tone regretful, when he said, “We’re all drunk on magic sake. And you’re on my team.”
“I think we’re all still clear-headed enough for consent,” Kurenai said. “And I’m not on anyone’s team.” With her left hand still braced on Raidou’s knee, she leaned across him, cupped Genma’s face with her right hand, and pulled him in for a long, gentle, thorough kiss.
He had to lean across Raidou to reach her. His shoulder and chest braced against Raidou’s side. His hips angled in, so Raidou could feel every faint tremor as Genma kissed back. And Genma could feel the tension shuddering in Raidou.
Kurenai pulled away with a soft breath to look at both men. “But you two will have to work this out between you.”
Genma squeezed his eyes shut, holding exquisitely still for a moment, before he pulled away, too. He wanted them both, and they both wanted more, and he couldn’t believe he was stopping.
But Raidou wasn’t ready.
“Sorry. It’s not fair to you, Raidou,” he said. “I don’t care that we’re on the same team, but it matters to you. Maybe if you can come to terms with it, we can— if we all want this when we’re completely sober— I can wait.”
Raidou leaned back, too, and blew a long breath skyward. He sat up a little straighter, and looked first at Kurenai, then Genma. “Look, I like you both, I really do, and in other circumstances…” He blew out another breath. “But none of us really knows each other that well. I’ve already slept with one member of this team, and I’m not sure it’s done Tousaki’s mental health any favors, no matter how okay he thinks he is.”
Kurenai’s eyebrow flick said that information hadn’t been part of Team Six’s dossier.
“Before Tousaki joined ANBU,” Raidou explained. “It was a one-night thing. Yondaime-sama and Sagara-sama are aware, and still allowed me to be his captain.”
Before she or Genma could respond, he took a quick breath and pressed on. “If we make this a thing, the rookies are definitely going to find out when Hatake smells it on us.” A complication Genma hadn’t thought of, and should have.
“But most of all,” Raidou said, looking right at Genma, “I’m supposed to be your captain. I can screw with your career. I could order you into danger tomorrow.” He brought a hand up to touch Genma’s face. “If this goes sour, how could you trust me?”
There was tenderness in the gesture, and wistfulness. Genma reached up and wrapped his hand around Raidou’s forearm. And wanted to kiss him more than ever. “Because you’re a good man, and a good captain. And because I know it worries you. That’s how I can trust you.”
He let go and sat back with a sigh. “Other than that though… I really don’t think you’re to blame for Tousaki’s mental health issues. But you’re dead right about Hatake. Hell, he’ll probably be able to smell that we were horny as fuck and didn’t have sex.”
“How fortunate,” Kurenai observed, “that we have access to a bath.”
Genma had to laugh. “You have a point. I don’t know how good his nose is, but maybe the soap will confound it.” He sighed and looked up at the stars twinkling overhead. “You know, about that other thing though. You could just be pissed at me for any reason and order me on a suicide mission, it wouldn’t have to have anything to do with us having a personal relationship. Any captain could. That’s why they don’t make officers out of people who would do something like that. Kuroda excepted.”
Raidou opened his mouth to argue. Closed it. “Okay, point. But what if you got injured and I lost my shit and put the team in danger? Again?”
“We can what-if all night, but really?” Genma shook his head. “This team seems to happily go into danger on my behalf whether you or I want them to or not. Even when I’m actually just fine. Like Hatake reverse-engineering a summoning scroll and dimension hopping, and Tousaki, who I am most definitely not in a relationship with, offering his hand to a demon wolf.”
Kurenai touched her mouth, looking thoughtful. Raidou didn’t interrupt.
“The thing you need to know about me, Raidou, and maybe it’s something you still need time to trust, is that whatever I am to you, and whatever you are to me, I’m a Konoha shinobi first and last. And I’m pretty sure you are, too. We both took that oath, and neither one of us would break it.”
Raidou looked at him with a complex mix of emotions on his face — fond, rueful, touched — before it softened into his familiar crooked smile. “I know that.”
This time it was Genma who brought a hand up to caress Raidou’s cheek — stubbly, strong-jawed, steam-warm, and sake-pink. “Then we’re good.” He shifted into the pool, crouching to face Raidou, and reached his other hand for Kurenai’s. “And sometime when the stars are aligned or something, we’ll pick this back up.”
Kurenai laced her fingers into his and leaned forward to bestow another kiss. Not quite so lingering, but just as full of promise. “Don’t wait too long,” she said when she broke it.
It was almost physically painful to let her go. Genma sat back on his heels, submerged in the pool, and took a moment to compose himself. It was no easy feat to will this much arousal away.
As much as they were trying not to pressure him, it was a little much to be the filling in a regretful kiss sandwich. Raidou focused on ice-melt thoughts until he could extract himself. He didn’t go far: just to the center of the bath, where the water dipped a little deeper, lapping past his shoulders. Genma and Kurenai were both still within reach, wrapped in shadows and blood-warm water, and if circumstances were different, Raidou wouldn’t have held back.
But they weren’t. So.
Maybe he was the only one who cared. Maybe he was being too rigid. Maybe, in the grand scheme, life was short and it didn’t matter which lines he tangled — but that was temptation talking. He knew, deep in his own bedrock, that there was right and wrong here.
No matter how much he wanted to slide his hand between Kurenai’s thighs, or wind his fingers through Genma’s hair to anchor his head for a kiss, he was not going to be the colossal screw up who destroyed a shipping line, lost a subordinate, and fucked his own team in the space of three months.
So, that was that. And as soon as his blood-flow redirected north, he’d find an intelligent way to articulate it so they’d both understand that Genma’s later was Raidou’s never.
Or, a quiet little thought interjected, at least until the end of the year.
He was assembling words to that effect, when a sudden pale flicker behind Kurenai caught his eye. It resolved into something like a furry cannonball, launching out of the darkness and splashing down between her and Genma. They both jerked back, hands going for weapons neither one of them currently possessed.
A short, dark snout broke the surface, followed by eyes like glinting black marbles, and ridiculous floppy ears.
Pakkun sneezed explosively. “Wow, it smells like hormones in here. What were you doing?”
Genma unfroze first, gliding back to the ledge. He sat on Kurenai’s other side this time, settling down cross-legged with one arm draped casually over his lap. “Having a bath. What are you doing?”
“Getting tanuki stink off.” Pakkun stretched out in the water, all four paws paddling until his back breached and his curly tail popped up. After a moment’s effort, he stopped and floated in a spiral caused by his own eddies, until he bumped against Raidou’s shoulder. “Just having a bath, huh? All three of you. At night. Under moonlight.”
Raidou addressed Kurenai. “How upset do you think Hatake would be if we drowned him?”
“I’m sure he’s shared the impulse, at times.” Kurenai had recovered, too, leaning back with her arms crossed over her breasts. “Summons do have the convenient ability to return to their home dimension when they’re in danger, though. Or is that possible for you, from here?”
Pakkun kicked off Raidou’s arm and floated over to Kurenai. He rolled onto his back in front of her, paws steaming gently in the air. “I’ll tell you for a belly rub.”
“Mm. And if I have more questions?” She unfolded one arm, crimson nails just grazing Pakkun’s wet fur. His front paws quivered. “Your Old Ones’ history, for instance.”
The little pug studied her with shameless bright eyes. “I’m prepared to negotiate.”
“No need to negotiate; just start talking.” She lowered her hand and rubbed Pakkun’s belly with a little more enthusiasm than her cool tone implied. Raidou couldn’t really blame her. Even with Pakkun’s old man whiskey-voice and regrettable personality, he was unbearably cute.
One of Pakkun’s hind legs briefly drummed the air. He made a snorting, squashed-face sound of delight and went boneless under Kurenai’s ministrations. He seemed to have forgotten their deal, until she made to withdraw her hand.
“I can’t get home from here without a gate, same as you,” he said hastily, answering the original question. “The kid didn’t summon me here. There’s no jutsu to break.”
Genma made an interested sound. “The tanuki kits were able to sneak from one dimension to the other by a shortcut. I think we went through a lizard dimension, and possibly a tortoise one. It was orange. But I was concussed at the time, so my memory isn’t necessarily reliable.”
With her free hand, Kurenai tapped a single finger against her lips thoughtfully. “So even tanuki children can cross dimensions at will, but dogs can only transit through a jutsu gateway. Except for the Old Ones, who can create their own.” She looked down at Pakkun. “But you’re clearly closer to the tanuki than you are to our world’s dogs, even if Saishou and Iori seem closer related to the Inuzuka’s ninken. Where did you come from?”
Pakkun blinked at her. “Me personally, or all of us?”
“Start with the Old Ones. And then explain why you can talk, while Saishou doesn’t.”
The dark furry wrinkles that served Pakkun in place of eyebrows creased more deeply. He licked his snout. “We don’t know where the Old Ones came from. Wherever gods are born, I guess. They showed up first, anyway, and wolves followed. Dogs came later.”
“How much later?” Genma asked.
Pakkun gave a furry little shrug. “Do we look like we write shit down? Just later. A long time ago.” He kicked his back legs until he fetched up against the arm Kurenai held across her chest, and propped his head against her elbow. “I can talk because I’m smart.”
Kurenai scratched him under the chin, clearly amused. “And Kin isn’t?”
Pakkun snorted. “The girl who spends half her time following Tousaki around like a pet? Yeah, she’s a genius.”
Genma gave him a significant side-eye. “Kin’s still a puppy. Or at least she acts like one. But Saishou’s full grown, and doesn’t talk either.”
Pakkun returned an irritated look. “Saishou’s still young by our standards. Look, most of us learn eventually, when we’re older. All the surviving elders speak, when they want to, which isn’t often. You think it’s easy figuring out how to mimic your mouth-flaps with this face?” He lolled his long tongue out. “The kid speaks our language anyway, so it’s not like Saishou needs it. I learned young because I wanted to.” A little tinge of pride colored his voice. “The kid taught me.”
For the challenge? Raidou wondered.
“How old are you, exactly?” he asked slowly.
Pakkun sniffed. “Forty-six.”
Kurenai blinked, hand pausing for just a moment before she resumed scratching Pakkun’s miniature barrel-chest. Raidou readjusted his brain to account for Pakkun being twice his own age.
Genma volunteered, “Hideki, the youngest tanuki I was with, was in his sixties. He acted like he was closer to seven or eight, in human terms. Do you count years the same way we do?”
That tiny fluffy kit had been sixty? What about the angry little almost-teenager who’d kicked Raidou’s shin? Three hundred?
Pakkun made a face that was essentially a shrug. His wrinkles rippled in fascinating ways. “Numbers aren’t really essential. I can count, obviously, since I just did. But mostly we just need one, a few, and a lot. I mean, how much difference does it make knowing that His Testicle Lordship is fourteen-thousand or old as balls?”
Genma dissolved into a quiet fit of laughter, leaning back against the warm stones. It took him a minute to fight his way back to calm, especially after he muttered His Testicle Lordship and broke up again. Kurenai glanced at him, maintaining her poise, but visibly fighting a smile. Raidou had to press a hand over his own mouth.
Kurenai asked, “Why don’t dogs and tanuki get along, from your point of view?”
Pakkun tilted his head, ears flopping. “Because they’re assholes. Did you like them?”
“They have their moments,” Kurenai admitted. “And their… not-moments.”
“Uh huh,” Pakkun said dryly. “What about you, kidnap-boy? Which part did you like best — the bit where they broke your captain’s ribs, or the bit where they still haven’t given you your chakra back yet?”
Genma’s eyebrow arched. “They deliberately took my chakra? I thought it was an effect of being outside our own dimension.”
“It’s definitely tanuki,” Raidou said. “We all lost our chakra briefly when they stole you, had it in the dog dimension, still had it in this dimension until the tanuki showed back up.”
Genma frowned. “But I asked them what was wrong with my chakra, and they didn’t even know what it was. They described you in terms of your chakra natures — that’s how I figured out they’d seen you — but they acted like it was a foreign concept.”
Pakkun yawned, showing pearly white teeth and the ridged roof of his mouth. “You asked adults or children who’d never been to the human dimension before?”
“I asked the children I was with,” Genma said, far less defensively than Raidou would have responded. He’d been kidnapped by kits. Who else was he supposed to have asked? “If they were actively doing something to my chakra, I couldn’t tell it. I just couldn’t sense mine. But obviously I still have it, or I’d be dead. And I don’t think this is the afterlife.”
“If it is, I have complaints,” Raidou muttered.
“Displeased with the company?” Kurenai asked silkily. Before Raidou could answer, she went back to Pakkun. “The tanuki told us stories about tengu and kappa. Some of those stories took place in our human world, and some of them were set in these alternate dimensions, like your home. How much do you know about the connections between them? Do the worlds all connect to ours, or to each other? Why was your sun orange, but the tanuki sun is yellow — and yet their moon is full when ours was crescent?”
Pakkun was starting to look a little cross-eyed.
Kurenai snatched a breath and added, “How are summoning dimensions created? Do they exist before the summoning contract?”
Raidou had wondered that last one himself. The few families with summoning contracts were notoriously tight-lipped about their origins.
Pakkun extended a back leg and spread his toes. “Rub my pads.”
Delicately, Kurenai complied. She seemed a little surprised, as if the texture wasn’t quite what she’d expected. Pakkun’s eyes went half-lidded and Raidou had cause to reflect, again, on how weird this day had been. Even by his standards.
“Okay, first, I’m not a scholar, historian, or scientist, and before you start complaining, you tell me how much you know about the metaphysics of your dimension.” The little pug shot all three of them a look. Raidou rolled his eyes, but Genma and Kurenai, held hostage by the lure of knowledge, kept their silence. Satisfied, Pakkun carried on. “I have no idea how the dimensions were created. As far as I know, they just exist. But I can tell you that we think all the worlds are folded together, like origami, except they’re sort of folded through each other.”
Kurenai’s head tilted. “You mean, occupying the same space?”
Pakkun nodded. “Some parts, yes. Think of a fan folded up really tightly. There are leaves touching each other — like my world and the tanuki world — and others that don’t. Except it’s really more like an unimaginable number of fans stacked together and sliding through each other.” He glanced at Genma. “You said the kits took you through the lizard dimension and a tortoise dimension before you got here? Probably had a series of established gates they could slip through, where the worlds are touching.”
Kurenai pursed her lips slightly; it made her mouth bow-shaped. “That makes sense, with what Himself said. Is the human world the linchpin of the fan, then? It would explain how all the creatures mingle there… I wonder if it’s the origin world, reflected here, or if all the connecting dimensions have merely fed into it.” She tweaked Pakkun’s toes, making him snort and retract his leg. He immediately extended the other one. “I’ve seen dogs like you on noblewomen’s laps in court. Are you a pug because you’re related to mortal pugs, or are you mirroring the existence of something in the human world? Or is there an essential Pugness, and you’re its ideal?”
Pakkun gave a shout of laughter, something almost human and almost howling, undercut by a baritone rumble. “I am the pug,” he cackled. “All lesser pugs yield before me.”
Raidou felt his mouth twitch. He considered himself a fairly smart guy, but he’d lost hold of the thread somewhere between ‘the universe is a fan’ and the notion of Pakkun as quintessential pug. Genma, seated to Kurenai’s left, looked like he’d followed the trail better, but he still regarded Kurenai with open admiration, and traded a glance with Raidou that said, succinctly, How the hell do we keep up?
Raidou, content with his place in the universe — multiverse? — as someone designed to hit things really hard until they couldn’t hit back, gave an eloquent shrug. Genma’s mouth tilted, and he hauled himself higher out of the water, getting more air on overheated skin. Raidou was starting to feel more than a little broiled himself, and not just because of the view. But the heat was diffuse now, circulated back into his veins instead of concentrated where he didn’t want it, so he felt safe in standing up to sit on the edge of the pool. The steamy air was a welcome shiver against his skin.
Genma tipped his head back in thought. “The thing that worries me more is whether the tanuki who raid the garbage dump outside Konoha are as magical as these tanuki. Where does our reality end and the other reality take over?”
Pakkun made that snorting sound again. “If they’re raiding garbage, that’s probably a good clue. Not all foxes are the Kyuubi, kid.”
“Thank all the mercies of heaven for that,” Genma said, making a fleeting warding sign.
“How many of those mythical creatures are actually real, and can cross dimensions?” Kurenai asked. “Or do they exist in our world to begin with, like the Tailed Beasts?”
“Do I look like an encyclopedia to you?” Pakkun said grumpily. “Tailed Beasts one through nine are real; I don’t know where they came from. Kappa are real. Tengu are real. Tanuki are — unfortunately — real. Demons are real. Hungry ghosts are probably a human myth. If actual god gods are real, someone needs to kick ‘em in the eye.”
Genma looked over sardonically. “After what happened today, I’m not kicking any gods anywhere.”
Kurenai smiled, an expression balanced delicately between fond and resigned. “I give you a year at most before you get to put that to the test.”
Raidou almost made a warding sign himself. “So, monsters yes, demons yes, gods maybe, but ghosts is a step too far?”
“Probably, I said.” Pakkun extended his front paws for Kurenai to rub. “If you want to jump down a well at midnight and try to feed yourself to something footless and angry, be my guest.”
Despite the heat, Raidou’s hair prickled. He rubbed the back of one arm. “I’ll pass.”
Genma eased himself entirely out of the water to sit on the edge. Steam rose off his gleaming skin like dragon’s breath, coiling up into the night air. His hair was coming undone in the heat; he tugged it free and wound it back up into a graceful knot. A few tendrils escaped at the nape of his neck, shining gold in the lantern light. “Save your ghost stories for Obon and people who actually want to hear them. What I want to know is where our rookies have disappeared to. I thought you were with them.”
“You thought wrong,” Pakkun said comfortably. “They’re near the pond having deep important conversations, or something. I considered joining them, and then I decided to do something not boring instead.” He waved a dismissive paw. “Saishou’s probably nearby.”
Genma regarded the floating sake tray with its collection of empty cups, then looked thoughtfully in the direction of the pond. Tumbled rocks obscured the view, encircling the baths for privacy. “Huh,” he said.
Raidou followed the general direction of his thoughts, which went something like: magical sake + moonlit water + privacy = …
It better equal Ryouma keeping his hands to himself, because Raidou was not going to submit a report explaining they were missing a rookie because he’d gotten himself Chidori’d over the landscape of another dimension.
“Tousaki’s smarter than that,” he said.
Genma looked unconvinced. “Probably.”
“They seem… close,” Kurenai said, choosing her words with care. “More than I’d expected.”
Kakashi had mentioned, back in the little inn near the cherry trees, that he and Kurenai had been friends once, before he’d hurt someone she’d cared about. ‘Something like’ dating. Something with a break up. Yet, despite the little orange books he liked to read, intimacy seemed like a realm of experience Kakashi wasn’t interested in. Raidou cocked his head inquiringly. “What would you have expected?”
Kurenai gave Pakkun’s paws one last rub, then reached back and pulled herself out of the water to join them. Her pale skin was flushed pink, and her legs were smooth and shining. Raidou guessed she must wax, since she was silky-skinned all over, then reminded himself he wasn’t supposed to be looking. She sat unselfconsciously on the edge, feet dangling in the water, and said, “Kakashi’s not as terrible at people as he likes to believe, despite his occasional moments of blinding stupidity.”
Right. They were talking about the rookies.
“Team Six aren’t his first friends,” Kurenai continued. “But— hmm. The possessiveness could simply be that. But I didn’t expect Tousaki to turn Sakamoto Ginta down for Kakashi.”
Pakkun made a startled sound, gulped water, and sank. He popped up a second later, snorting and shaking his head. “What?” he croaked.
“What?” Genma echoed, swiveling to stare at Kurenai. “I know he and Ginta didn’t hook up that one night, but I didn’t know he turned Ginta down flat. For Hatake? Seriously?”
“Watch yourself, Shiranui,” Pakkun rumbled.
“Well, Ginta certainly believes he still has a chance.” Kurenai’s mouth curved in gentle mockery of their expressions. She leaned down to fondle Pakkun’s floppy ears. “And maybe Tousaki was just enjoying the new and unusual sensation of teammates that don’t want in his pants.” Her tone indicated some doubt in this motivation.
Genma relaxed. “Oh. Okay then. I thought you meant Hatake had made a play for Tousaki, too. That makes more sense.”
Raidou rubbed a hand over his face. “Don’t even say it. We don’t need another complication.”
Kurenai was starting to look amused. “You could go interrupt this ‘deep important conversation’ and find out.”
“Or I could drown myself,” Raidou grumbled. “That would be equally fun.”
Genma reached over to grasp his shoulder, possibly in an attempt to be soothing. “Don’t overheat. Also, it wouldn’t be the first time teammates ever hooked up in ANBU.”
Raidou glanced at him sidelong. “Hokage’s quasi-adopted protégé. Melty-handed orphan with abandonment issues.”
“Yondaime-sama was the one who put them on this team together,” Genma said reasonably. “I doubt he did it blindly.”
Pakkun floated out to the center of the pool, still lying on his back. “Next time I see him, I’ll tell him you think he’s trying to get the kid laid.”
Genma actually slapped a hand over his face. “That’s not what I said.”
“It was underneath,” Pakkun said happily. He rolled back onto his belly and paddled to the opposite side of the pool, where he scrambled awkwardly up onto the side. He sprawled on the stones with his long pink tongue hanging out, panting. “Don’t panic yourselves. The kid’s still learning how to make people-friends. Tousaki’ll probably survive.”
So long as he didn’t offer any more limbs to carnivorous deities, Raidou thought. Kakashi had never squandered an opportunity to kick Ryouma around the training fields, but at least he’d drawn the line at demanding blood sacrifice.
Raidou remembered the moment right after the white wolf’s demand, before the grey wolf had bitten him back to health. Kakashi had grabbed Ryouma and shaken him, even more frantic than Raidou had felt. And Raidou had felt pretty frantic. They probably needed a moment alone, as much as Raidou needed to keep glancing at Genma, just to make sure he was still here.
The air was starting to chill again. Raidou said, “I could use another round in the springs. Care to join me?” He tilted his head to include Kurenai. “Both of you.”
Genma looked at him, hesitating for a brief moment, then smiled. “You’re on.” He slid back down into the water, taking the center position, and stretched his arms out along the ledge on both sides. “The rookies will be fine without us. Who knows when we’ll get another chance to enjoy a hot spring with friends?”
Kurenai gave a little hum of agreement and took a place on Genma’s right, leaning her head back against the inner crook of his elbow. She sighed softly. “Agreed.”
Raidou settled in on Genma’s left, hissing as the water burned pleasantly up to his collarbones. He was a little regretful he hadn’t taken the middle spot himself, but he could hardly deny Genma.
Moments later, four cold little paws thumped down on his shoulder, followed by the soggy weight of a small dog. Pakkun draped himself so that he could dangle his legs in the water, and huffed out a breath. “This is nice,” he rumbled in Raidou’s ear.
Raidou rolled his eyes, but scratched the pug behind the ears and leaned back against the warm, solid wall, as the heat leached into his bones.