July 6, Yondaime Year 5
There was a split second, right before Raidou’s blow connected, in which Genma got a solid picture of everything he’d just done wrong. His shoulder was a centimeter too low, his chin angled infinitesimally too high, his pivot milliseconds too late…
And then there was the fact that he’d predicted Raidou would lunge right rather than left. That was the big mistake. The one that bashed his mask from his face, ground his molars against each other with a crack, made him see stars, and sent him flying.
He didn’t feel himself hit the ground: one moment he was airborne and annoyed with himself, the next he was laid out on his back with pain lancing through his skull. When he opened his eyes, there was nothing to see but orange fog. He tried to lift his head, but he couldn’t move. Visceral panic pounded in his chest. Had he broken his neck?
Reassuringly, he could still feel, from throbbing head to tingling fingers and toes. He reached for his chakra…
It wasn’t there. He had no chakra. None.
This wasn’t the dull heaviness that came with external chakra limiters, or the blank absence of medical chakra suppression — it was worse. It was as if every cell in his body had died. A surge of nausea shuddered up his esophagus. And then he lost time again.
The next burst of awareness came with what sounded like children’s laughter and a sensation of movement. Genma’s face and head throbbed, and his left eye was swollen nearly shut, not that he could see much with the right one anyway — orange light, flickering shadow.
He still couldn’t move, but it wasn’t as sickening this time. A concussion would explain his nausea, wretched head, shifting consciousness, and weird perceptions. He was probably on a stretcher, strapped in for safety.
He still couldn’t access his chakra, but he wasn’t shuddering with the bone-deep chill of chakra exhaustion. Maybe he was so far gone he was past that point? He’d never tapped himself out to life threatening levels before, but he’d seen other ninja die of it.
Of course there was the question of how he’d gone from sparring with Raidou — the last thing he could remember — to chakra-drained and heavily concussed. Head injuries could eat whole swaths of memory. There must have been a battle. A bad one, for him to be in this state. He tried to lift his head, but it was no good. A small, soft hand brushed his cheek and a light voice said, “Don’t worry, we’ll be there soon.”
“Where?” Genma asked. His tongue was heavy in his mouth, his jaw stiff and painful. “Where’re th’ others?”
“Don’t worry,” the voice came again. It was maddening not to be able to see a face. “You’re safe now.”
That didn’t answer the question. Or maybe it did. And maybe these medics weren’t from Konoha. Icy dread and renewed nausea curled like tentacles up Genma’s throat. “Who are you?” The vowels came out compressed and slurred.
There was more of that tinkling laughter, and then the hand again. “I’m Kaori. Who are you?”
They’d have his dogtags, enemy or friend, so they ought to know his name. ‘Who are you’ was the sort of question a medic might ask someone with a head injury, of course, but usually with more of a ‘can you tell me your name?’ phrasing, not the open curiosity of strangers meeting. Genma squinted, trying to see his petite-sounding interrogator. “Shiranui Genma.”
“You have a long name,” Kaori said. The child-sized hand came back, patting Genma’s forehead, the bridge of his nose, and then his exquisitely painful cheek. He flinched — fractured zygomatic arch? — and Kaori said, “Does it hurt a lot? I’m not good at fixing, but don’t worry, my sister Kikyou is! She’ll put your face back.” She patted him again, this time on the ear.
Genma was just beginning to contemplate the horror of ‘put your face back’ when Kaori brushed something soft over Genma’s forehead and added, “But Kikyou-neechan isn’t as good at sneaking. She always gets caught, so we went to get you instead.”
Through the headache and the vertigo, and the desperate attempt to remember anything at all that would explain what had happened to him, Genma found himself starting to wonder if the whole episode was a hallucination. Because Kaori sounded like a child. There were young medics, certainly, but not so young they ought to still be in their first years in the Academy. Taking children for further training before they turned seven had ceased as soon as the war had ended.
The light changed to a murky violet, and the feel of the air with it, becoming oppressive and damp, with a scent like rotting vegetation.
“Are you even real?” Genma asked. This was all probably a hallucination or a genjutsu, or the desperate product of his own dying brain cells, but he might as well try. It could be a child. The only dumb question was the one you didn’t ask.
Kaori’s giggle was a cascade of glass bubbles. “Of course I am! You’re silly.” Her fingers brushed his hair. “Are all humans as silly as you?”
“Uh…” Genma found his mind spinning as badly as his balance. He wasn’t sure he’d ever been lumped into the category of ‘humans’ by something that clearly didn’t think of itself as one. “I… I don’t know. What are—”
“Shhhhh,” Kaori whispered close to his ear. She pressed her palm flat over his mouth. “We have to be quiet now, so Tokage-san doesn’t catch us.”
Yes. Yes that made perfect sense. Genma had lost his team, been gravely wounded and drained of chakra, rescued by a child he couldn’t see, and now they were playing hide and seek from someone named Lizard. This was clearly delirium.
A ripple of thunder echoed in the dank air.
“Ooooh, Hideki, hide!” Kaori hissed. She pulled a thick, furry blanket over Genma’s head, and the sensation of movement ended. Thunder rumbled again, closer this time, with the suggestion of a voice in it shouting curses Genma couldn’t quite make out.
The blanket smelled intensely ripe and musky. Whether this hiding from a lizard was real or not was debatable, but the renewed lurch in Genma’s gut was concrete. But if they really were hiding, the sound of Genma vomiting would certainly give them away. Like the well-trained soldier that he was, Genma swallowed hard and hung grimly on, waiting for the all-clear.
After what seemed like an eternity, Kaori whispered, “He’s gone.” She peeled the blanket back, and Genma took grateful gulps of the swampy air, while Hideki, presumably, got them moving again.
Genma was too tired to try to make sense of it anymore. He stopped trying to move, or see, or call on his evaporated chakra. There was one more tense border crossing, with hushed sneaking and a feeling like the air was passing through the rollers of a wringer, and then suddenly there was blue sky and drifting white clouds, fresh, healthy air, and thank all the gods, Genma could see.
A dark-skinned hand held his own mask over his face, so the painted tanuki face grinned down at him. “Here!” Kaori said, in a voice beaming with earnest pride in a good deed well done. “I kept your face safe for you!”
“That’s just a mask,” Genma said. He lifted a hand — blessings and praise to the Buddhas of East and West, he could move again — to take it from her, and nearly dropped it in shock.
There was another tanuki face grinning at him. But this one was furred and animated, not red-paint suggestions on white ceramic. There was a bright light in tea-brown eyes, a narrow snout and shiny black nose, densely tufted ears that pricked forward. An open mouth full of sharp, carnivore’s teeth.
When he didn’t move or speak, a crease formed between the dark-ringed eyes, and Kaori’s worried voice came in perfect time with the movement of the tanuki’s mouth. “Did you hit your head again?” She turned with a menacing snarl, and scolded, “Hideki, I toldyou not to bump us so much!”
Genma pushed himself up on the pile of blankets, twisting his aching neck and back cautiously, to see another tanuki face looking back at them with its ears pressed down in remorse: the chastised Hideki. Whose back they were travelling on. Except Hideki’s back was completely visible, and his black-tipped tail trailed down to make the pillow that had cradled Genma’s head.
No. What they’d been traveling on, Genma realized, was a sled made of Hideki’s enormously extended scrotum. Just like every ridiculous fairy story he’d been told since childhood. He turned to look at the bewhiskered Kaori, flopped onto his back into the cushy plushness of Hideki’s family jewels, and dissolved into giddy laughter that made his banged-up head ring.
Kaori peered closely at him, concern evident in her expression, then she glared at Hideki. He circled around to meet her, somehow leaving his balls exactly where they were, like he’d spooled out a little more line to give himself some slack.
“You were the one who said we had to go as fast and quiet as possible!” he protested.
“I did not.” Kaori scowled.
“You did, too. Or Tokage-san would have caught us, and you know what Mom said she’d do if that happened again.”
“I said fast and quiet and careful.” Kaori bared dagger-sharp canines. “You saw that demon break his head and make his face come off! Now what if Kikyou-neechan can’t fix him?”
Genma sat up again, took a breath to steady the seasick whirling in his throbbing head, and brought his hands together for a kaibefore he remembered he didn’t have any chakra to call on. If this was a genjutsu, there was no dispelling it.
“Kikyou-neechan can fix him,” Hideki said. “Kikyou-neechan can fix anything.” He circled back around so his scrotum-sled trailed behind him, and set off. It was almost as smooth a ride as floating downriver on a boat.
“She’s still gonna yell at you if you made him worse,” Kaori said.
“I’m not worse,” Genma told her. Since there was no dispelling it, the most useful course of action seemed to be to go along with it. Sometimes if you could find the logical inconsistency in a genjutsu, it would start to fall apart, like waking yourself up from a nightmare when you realized you couldn’t read the words on a printed page. “What happened to me? Where are we?”
“That red moon demon was hurting you, and we stopped him!” Kaori said. She curled her tail around her feet and sat up a little straighter, chest puffed out in pride. “I dropped a statue on him, because I’m stronger, and Hideki grabbed you.”
“You are not stronger than me!” Hideki said without slowing.
“What demon?” Genma said. The argument broke off abruptly. “Were my teammates with me? Were they hurt, too?” When that got him a blank look, he amended. “Friends. Were my friends with me?”
The tanuki exchanged a dark look, before Kaori said, “I didn’t see any of your friends. Everyone else was just watching the red moon demon hurt you.”
At the back of Genma’s concussed brain, a thought was trying to form. “How many others were there? What did they look like?”
Kaori settled closer to Genma, stretching one slender hind leg out and stroking her tail with her… Paws? Hands? They looked a little like both. “There was one that felt like cold lightning,” she said. “Another one felt like hot water.”
Recognition sank into Genma’s bones.
“And there was one with weird eyes. That one felt like wisps of steam.” Kaori tipped her chin up, and bobbed it three times, as if she were counting. “Three. And the demon.” Her voice shaded to something dangerous and disgusted. “That one just felt like mud.”
Lightning chakra that powered Kakashi’s raikiri. Water and fire that made Ryouma’s rot jutsu possible, air and water and strange eyes for Kurenai, and Raidou’s water and earth natures making mud, with a red crescent moon on his masked face.
There hadn’t been an epic battle, and Genma’s memory wasn’t shredded by a dangerous head injury. He’d sparred with Raidou, gotten concussed, and then the tanuki—
“You dropped a statue on him? He’s my friend! We have to go back!”
Kaori’s fur bristled from shoulders to tail, and she tossed her nose in the air. “It wasn’t a real statue, silly. It was just so Hideki could grab you.” She stood up on her back legs. The air seemed to shimmer around her, and then she was wearing a flower-print yukata with a yellow obi. Her face was still clearly tanuki, but her body had become something halfway between woodland animal and folkloric human.
She braced her paws on her hips and gave Genma the sort of condescending, judgmental look that was ridiculous when Kakashi did it, but only because Kakashi wasn’t a child anymore. “You should get better friends. My friends are nice to me.”
“Raidou is nice to me.” Genma’s head hurt. The number of questions the confusing circumstances were piling on him just kept growing, and it was hard to triage the important ones. He set them all aside for the moment in favor of, “What about the rest of my team— friends? Did you drop fake statues on them, too? Are they hurt?”
Kaori gave Genma a look that managed to convey both disbelief and pity. “I don’t know.” She floompfed down into a cross-legged seat, sending ripples through Hideki’s furry testicle-sleigh. “I just dropped my statue on the demon and Hideki took you, and then we came back.”
“They wouldn’t just let you take me,” Genma protested. “Did you do something to lock their chakra down like you did mine? Or paralyze them, too? And where are you taking me?”
Kaori’s nose scrunched up at his barrage of questions. Too many, and too complex for her. Genma ought to have gauged his speech to her childish manner, but it was hard when every time he looked at her he had the sensation of watching a storybook illustration come to life.
“I told you,” Kaori said, clearly annoyed at being made to repeat herself, “I’m the best at sneaking. They didn’t even see me. And we’re taking you to Kikyou-neechan, remember? So she can fix your face.” That brought the crease of concern back between her brows. She leaned close, peering close. “Does it hurt, not having a face?”
Genma reached up, brushing light fingertips over his bruised and swollen cheek and puffed-closed eye. Even though he hadn’t really expected his fingers to meet raw flesh, it was a relief to find that his skin was still intact, barring a few minor abrasions where his mask had raked it. “I have a face. This is my face. The one you picked up is a mask,” he told her. She blinked at him. “For pretend,” Genma tried. “For making my face look different.”
“Oh!” Kaori nodded enthusiastically, having finally found common ground to connect on. “We do that, too!” The air around her rippled like the horizon in a heat wave, and Genma found himself staring at a very believable kappa — one with a fluffy, sable-colored tanuki tail.
Hideki twisted back on himself to have a look, and burst into cackles.
Kaori reverted to her kimono-clad form with a snarl. “You can’t even do it at all!”
“I can too. If I wanted to,” Hideki insisted. “But I wouldn’t be a smelly old kappa.”
Genma closed his eyes and let the little tanuki bicker. Gods in heaven, he was tired. He had no chakra, he was injured enough to be dizzy and sick, and that made him effectively a prisoner to people who made a very good pretense of being a pair of mythical shape-shifting tanuki ripped straight from a scroll painting.
Except one of them evidently couldn’t shape-shift, which was either hilariously ironic or ironically hilarious.
Kaori settled down beside him again, and asked. “Were you pretending to be a tanuki?” Before Genma could answer, she added, “You need more practice. You forgot the tail!” She hiked up the back of her yukata and swished her lush tail in demonstration.
A soft sound, like a soap bubble popping interrupted them both. There was a little puff of sunshine-yellow smoke, and a third tanuki came tumbling out of thin air to land softly on two feet. She was bigger than the other two, wearing a pale pink yukata patterned with sprays of blue bellflowers. The look on her face was pure exasperation, and her arms were crossed. It didn’t take much deduction to guess her identity, even before the other two cried, “Kikyou-neechan!”
“How did you find us?” Kaori demanded.
“How did I find you?” whispered Kikyou. “Deaf Uncle Toki could have found you with the racket you’re all making! I might as well have gone myself, at this rate!”
Hideki hung his head, abashed, but Kaori was unrepentant. Her only concession was to lower her voice a little. “Kikyou-neechan, we got the human! His name’s Shiranuigenma.” She leaned in as if confiding a great secret. “He has a pretend face.”
Kikyou gave a very passable version of an eyeroll, tipping her nose skyward, and snorting, “It is called a mask.” Don’t you know anything? remained unvoiced. She hopped onto Hideki’s evidently impervious-to-harm testicles and pushed Kaori aside to peer closely at Genma. “This is his real face, and it’s hurt,” she announced. “Let’s get him back to the house. Hideki, I hope you haven’t bumped his head.”
Kaori stuck her tongue out at her brother. Vindicated. Hideki’s ears drooped and his head hung low in a dramatic sulk, but he started moving, with three passengers now, picking his way with exaggerated care.
“He didn’t bump my head,” Genma told the sisters. “Hideki-kun, you didn’t bump my head.”
Kikyou gave him a distrustful glance, then went back to scanning their surroundings as Hideki ferried them through presumably hostile territory. Hideki seemed cheered, though. His ears perked up again, and he shot a small smile at Genma over his shoulder, sensing the potential for an alliance.
Kaori, meanwhile, launched into an enthusiastic retelling of The Daring Rescue of the Human. She only had to be reminded to keep her voice quiet three or four times.
“And then I dropped a big statue on the demon!”
Much more quietly, Kaori repeated, “And then I dropped a big statue on the demon, and squished him!”
Genma closed his eyes, said a prayer for Raidou, and tried to will his headache away.
The tanuki’s house, when they finally reached it, proved to be a thatch-roofed cottage with a broad veranda of polished wood. The paper doors had been left open, revealing a vast room more than a dozen tatami mats wide, built around a central hearth. A deer-scare clanked musically in a small bamboo grove near the door, and wind chimes chorused from the eaves.
Genma climbed woozily down from his living stretcher, with Kaori and Kikyou hovering anxiously at his sides. When they were all safely on the porch, Hideki turned a mid-air somersault, wrapping himself up into a sphere of brown-furred scrotum. As he fell back out if it, his balls shrank away, and he transformed from four-legged forest animal to yukata-clad myth.
Kikyou ushered them all inside, and fussed at Genma until he agreed to lie down with his head on a small buckwheat-filled pillow that Kaori produced from deeper inside the house.
Hideki bent close, patted Genma’s shoulder, and whispered, “Kikyou-neechan will fix you now.” Then he backed off to hover on the periphery, out of his sister’s way.
Kikyou knelt at Genma’s left, with Kaori an eager shadow at her side. Kaori gazed at her big sister with rapt attention.
Whatever ‘fixing’ entailed, it didn’t seem to involve bandages or other medical accoutrements. Genma pushed up on his elbows. “Don’t. I’ll be fine. I just need to put something cold on my face.”
Kikyou shook her head at him and lifted dark paw-hands lit with a soft white light. It had to be a jutsu, but without access to his own chakra, his senses were too blunted to feel it.
He leaned away from her, but Hideki put a paw on his shoulder again. “It’s okay. It won’t hurt. Kikyou-neechan is just checking first, not fixing.”
Kikyou brushed her glowing paws over Genma’s head. She’d barely touched down before a worried look crossed her face. “You shouldn’t move around so much. You have a concussion.”
Kaori echoed her sister’s worried expression. “That means you hit your head. You should lie back down.”
Maybe she really was a healer. He let Kaori press him back down onto the tatami and pillow. He wasn’t sure he trusted tanuki diagnostics, especially when he couldn’t feel the energy Kikyou was using, but it probably wouldn’t hurt to let her examine him. If they’d wanted to kill him, they’d had plenty of opportunity to already.
Kikyou’s fingers passed over his forehead, traced the socket of his eye on the uninjured side of his face, and then crossed the bridge of his nose to land on his injured cheek. He hissed when she pressed on the wound, and Hideki scrambled closer, looking alarmed.
“Contusions,” Kikyou declared.
“That means bruises,” Kaori translated helpfully.
Kikyou’s fingers continued their painful march, skimming his swollen-shut eye, finding a split lip Genma hadn’t even known about.
“Open your mouth,” she said. When Genma did, she pressed fingers along the inside of his cheek and nearly gagged him. He coughed and flinched away.
“Nee-chan, don’t!” Hideki whimpered, and scooted another dozen centimeters towards him.
“It’s fine, Hideki.” Kikyou said, sounding distracted.
Kaori loudly shushed Hideki for interrupting.
“One of your teeth is cracked,” Kikyou said. “And you bit the inside of your mouth.”
Both Kaori’s and Hideki’s ears drooped in sympathetic dismay.
“Can you fix him, Kikyou-neechan?”
Kikyou hesitated, then nodded. “But first I have to decide what else I need to fix.”
Her claw-like nails scraped the back of Genma’s neck as she put a paw under it. He didn’t think it was broken. Stiff, yes; anything worse, unlikely.
She pressed carefully along each vertebra, nodding to herself and murmuring under her breath. Then she moved on, and frowned at his armor. “I can’t feel through this turtle shell.”
When she didn’t make any attempt to remove it, Genma reached for a buckle. “It comes off.”
Kaori, delighted to have something tangible to do to help, leapt into action, undoing the fastenings with lightning fingers. She filched the armor away almost without disturbing Genma, like an expert pickpocket.
“Those things on his feet, too,” Kikyou directed. Kaori hesitated a moment, and then tugged Genma’s boots off as well.
When Genma was free of vest, armguards, and footgear, Kikyou resumed, slipping her paws under his back. She seemed to be tracing old wounds, finding the places the Hayama demon had bitten and stung him, and sliding along the scars the Kyuubi had left him with.
She sat back a moment, and Genma thought she was finished, but she leaned over him to flatten her glowing paws along his ribcage. When she probed fresh bruises too deeply, Genma sucked in a sharp breath and twitched away.
Kikyou bared her teeth and hissed at him: a feral sound that sent a chill down his spine. He froze. “Hold still,” she demanded.
Genma caught a breath. These might still be enemy agents and Genma might still be delusional from head injury or a genjutsu he couldn’t break, but that threat spoke to something much more primal than anything his training had prepared him for.
He didn’t move at all for the rest of her exam. Not when her paws mashed painfully on his scarred abdomen, not when she jabbed her fingers along the furrow where Iebara had sliced his thigh. And not when she spent far too long feeling his groin, like she was expecting something more than what she found.
“I can fix some of it,” she said, when she was finally satisfied. “But some of it is too old.”
Kaori’s eyes shimmered with admiration, and Hideki looked relieved.
“Good work, you two,” Kikyou told them.
Kaori danced in place, shivering with delight, and Hideki puffed out his chest and looked like he would burst with pride.
“Now shoo,” Kikyou added. “Go make tea while I fix him.”
Kaori patted Genma’s hand before she jumped to her feet. “Can’t I watch?”
“Tea,” Kikyou said, in a tone that brooked no argument. Kaori surrendered, if reluctantly. Hideki seemed inclined to disobey, but Kaori grabbed him by one arm and dragged him further into the house over the sound of his protests.
Kikyou’s tail lashed back and forth like the trailing streamer of an obi, and the glow around her hands took on a golden hue. When she pressed her paws to Genma’s temples, a wave of pressure curled through his skull. He shuddered with it, groaning in the back of his throat.
This was nothing like chakra healing. There was no steady buzz of energy, no feeling of the life in his cells expanding and growing. This was a sword strike. An explosion. An inferno.
It was killing him.
And then it wasn’t.
His headache was gone, like it had never existed. He felt as clear-headed and alert as if he’d just had a week of good sleep.
She moved on to his face, and this time he tried to pay attention. As before, the healing started with pressure that built to something that hurt. There was an unnatural feeling of blood moving backwards in his veins. His cheek burned with heat. Then his whole body. Sweat streamed down his face and pooled under his shoulderblades. His cheekbone felt like it was crumbling to dust. His teeth were live wires in his jaw.
She pressed harder, and paying attention wasn’t sufficient anymore. When she rebuilt the world and forged his cracked tooth whole again, Genma arched his back and moaned.
And then it was over. Nothing stronger than the fading memory of pain remained. His heart was still racing, and his body soaked with sweat, but his face was whole and his vision clear. He lay still, panting, and watched as Kikyou sat back like she was waking from a meditative trance. She squinted down at him. “Finished… What’s wrong? Does something still hurt?”
“No, no, I’m fine.” Genma tried to sit up, and found his neck and sides were still plenty stiff and bruised.
“It does still hurt,” Kikyou said, sounding dismayed. She held her paws together, conjuring the healing light again.
“No,” Genma said. “I mean, yes, it hurts a little, but it’s okay. You fixed the important parts.”
She sat back, looking uncertain for the first time Genma had seen. “I’ve never fixed a human before. You’re a lot harder to fix than a cup.”
“You did an incredible job,” Genma said, and tried not to consider the fact that he’d just been healed by someone who usually repaired inanimate objects. “I’m a healer— a fixer, too. And I couldn’t make a concussion just go away like that.”
Kikyou’s furred face couldn’t have shown it, but she almost looked like she was blushing. “I’m still learning,” she said, not quite meeting Genma’s eye. “But I’m the best in my class. Everyone says so.” Her tail twitched around over one knee, and she smoothed it so every hair lay in the same direction.
A sliding door slammed open and Kaori and Hideki burst through with a rattle of teacups and a plate of cakes on a tray.
“Awwwww,” Kaori said, skidding to a halt. “You already stopped.”
Genma was honestly glad the littler tanuki hadn’t been there to watch him writhe. Though it wasn’t entirely clear Kikyou had been aware she was hurting him with her healing, so maybe they wouldn’t have recognized it either? But then they had recognized he was being “hurt” by Raidou, and intervened, so—
Hideki interrupted Genma’s circular logic with a nudge. “The cakes are really for Kikyou-neechan, because she gets hungry when she fixes things, but I saved one for you.” He held out a floury looking white daifuku that shimmered with the promise of red bean paste inside.
“Thank you,” Genma said gravely. He took a cake, and when Kaori offered it, a cup of tea.
Kikyou set to devouring a small mound of identical daifuku with the ravenous appetite of a bear just awakened from hibernation.
With his head no longer ringing with concussion, Genma organized his thoughts while he sipped the tea. In Scenario One, this was a real experience. Tanuki were, in fact, living mystical creatures that could shapeshift and do magic. Including testicular magic. In Two, there had been some kind of battle, he’d been concussed, chakra-drained, and captured, and his current dissociation from reality the product of brain damage or drugs. Or Three, this was an elaborate genjutsu. Maybe a training exercise courtesy of Kurenai. If that was the case, he wanted an explanation of how she’d woven it so that he had no access to his own chakra.
Three was a scenario he couldn’t find an effective way to prove or disprove, except for the chakra thing, which was outside of the whole idea of genjutsu, since genjutsu relied on chakra to work at all.
If this was scenario Two, the interrogation ought to have started already. Even if he was hallucinating that his captors were tanuki, they ought to have asked him something meaningful by now, instead of providing tea and surprisingly delicious sweets.
That left the highly improbable scenario One.
When Kikyou looked like she was slowing down, and Genma’d eaten his daifuku and drunk three cups of tea, he cleared his throat. “Tanuki-san — Kikyou-san, Kaori-chan, Hideki-kun — thank you for your hospitality. But I really need to get back to my friends now.”
All three of them opened mochi-powder-ringed mouths to respond, but Kaori got there first. She planted herself in front of Genma, hands on her hips in a ‘do not argue with me’ pose. “I told you they’re not your friends! They’re mean and they hurt you.”
“No, they—” Genma started, but wheels were turning behind Kaori’s dark eyes.
“You can stay here,” she pronounced. “We can be your friends. We’re nice!”
Hideki nodded an emphatic agreement, and scooted closer to Genma to underscore the fact.
Kikyou, with the wisdom that comes of being the eldest, said, “We’ll have to talk to Mom and Dad, but I’m sure they’ll agree.”
“That’s, uh, very nice of you,” Genma said, flummoxed. “I mean, we can definitely be friends. But I still want to go back. They weren’t really hurting me.”
“Kikyou-neechan just fixed your face!” Kaori protested.
“I know. But my friend didn’t mean to hurt me. It wasn’t a real fight.”
“We saw you,” Kaori insisted with the dogged stubbornness of a child. “All three of us. And that’s three against one, so there.” She nodded firmly, confident in the unassailability of her argument. In silent agreement, Hideki tucked his arm under Genma’s and splayed black, claw-tipped fingers over Genma’s gloved forearm.
Kikyou looked thoughtful. “You really can stay here, you know. You don’t need to be afraid. The other human was afraid, too, at first.”
Genma felt himself sharpen up. “What other human?”
“The one who came here with her kits,” Kikyou said, as though Genma surely knew who she meant, and was a little silly for asking. When she noticed that Hideki and Kaori were giving her blank looks, she waved an airy paw. “You were already in bed. I heard Mom and Dad talk about them. Her mate was hurting her, and the kits, so Mom and her friends went and brought them here so that they’d be safe. And then Dad said that his friends would go and teach her mate a lesson.”
“We always miss everything interesting,” Kaori said with a pout.
Hideki sighed sad agreement.
It would be much too much of a coincidence for the woman and her kits to be the missing sake brewer’s wife and children. And probably throw suspicion back on this being some kind of fever dream. But Genma had to ask. “Is her name Harubi-san?”
“I don’t know her name,” Kikyou said, like that was beside the point. “But after Dad came back, he told me that I was ‘getting to that age.’” She paused and frowned, looking away for a moment. “I don’t know what he meant by that. But he also said that I shouldn’t let anyone hit me. And Mom said that if they do, I should hit them back, twice as hard.” She turned a critical eye on Genma. “Didn’t anyone tell you that?”
Kaori scowled at Genma, too. “Yeah, didn’t anyone tell you that?” she echoed.
“Uh.” Genma groped for an answer that wasn’t, Yes. I was taught to be a killer from the age of five. Although he hadn’t really started learning practical ninja skills until he was seven. It would still sound alarming to a civilian.
They seemed to take that as a no.
“When I’m big,” Hideki said, “I’m going to beat up the red moon demon and teach him a lesson. And also the other ones who didn’t help you.”
“Raidou’s not a demon,” Genma said. “He’s my captain and my friend. We were practice-fighting, it wasn’t a real fight.”
“But you were injured.” Kikyou pressed. “And it wasn’t just that time. What about the older ones, the ones that I couldn’t fix? The ones that looked like giant claws?”
Kaori and Hideki turned horrified faces on him, searching for the claw wounds that they had clearly missed in their anxiety about Genma’s broken face.
Genma opened his mouth to try and explain sword wounds and surgical scars, but Kikyou wasn’t done. “You weren’t safe in your world. Here, you’ll be safe. With us.”
Hideki, who had taken up residence against Genma’s side, pressed himself closer, gripping Genma’s arm like he was anchoring Genma to their world. Kaori, not to be outdone, plopped herself down in Genma’s lap. “Yeah. With us.”
Hideki looked up, innocent goodness shining in his mask-ringed eyes. “I can get you more daifuku, if you want.”
Genma’s experience with children was limited to the ones who came into his dad’s bakery, and his memories of his own childhood. Neither of which were particularly instructive now, when he was being blackmailed by young tanuki.
He looked helplessly over the youngsters’ heads, and found Kikyou smiling in triumph. She’d won her argument, as far as she was concerned. Genma sighed. “All right, I’ll eat another daifuku and stay. For now.”
Hideki hopped up immediately and raced into the kitchen to retrieve more cakes.
Kaori stroked Genma’s hair. “You’re as soft as Big Akiri,” she cooed.
“Thank you,” Genma told her. He reached a tentative hand up to pet her head. “You’re soft, too.”
“I know.” Kaori rearranged herself so she sat snugly in Genma’s lap, curled against his chest. Her legs and feet looked more like the back legs of a woodland tanuki, softly furred with round-toed paws and little black foot pads. She kicked them happily against Genma’s shins and took a daifuku for herself when Hideki staggered in with a platter laden so high he couldn’t see over it.
“Where did all these come from?” Genma marveled. “Is there a bakery nearby?”
“They’re from the festival,” Hideki said. “All the grown ups go and get them and bring them back. And then turn them into daifuku.” He picked one out of the pile and handed it to Genma. “This one has a strawberry in it. It’s my favorite kind. You can have it.”
“I don’t want to take your favorite kind,” Genma said.
“You can,” Kaori assured him. “Cause there are more inside. Also at Grandma’s house and Great Grandpa’s house and Auntie Rika’s house and Auntie Ayako’s house and—”
“That’s a lot of daifuku.” Genma accepted Hideki’s offering.
“They aren’t all daifuku,” Kikyou said. “Some of them are still regular buns.”
“That your parents got from the Fire Festival in Hiraizumi?” Genma prompted.
Kikyou shrugged. “Lots of people leave us buns, but during the festival we get more. Dad says they carry around a statue and humans throw buns at it.”
Tanuki hiding in the shadows to observe the festivities and collect the thrown buns would explain the maddeningly evasive and effervescent chakra presence the ninja had felt at the festival. Which he couldn’t sense now at all. Were the tanuki to blame? There was no sign they were actively doing anything to obliterate his chakra sense. Maybe just being near them had caused it. But if it did, then how had the ninja all sensed something at the festival? Thinking about it made him reach unconsciously for his chakra again. And shiver at its absence, like tonguing the gap from a pulled tooth and wincing at the ache.
“My friends and I were at the festival,” Genma said. “We felt an unusual chakra presence. But now I can’t even feel my own. Or yours.”
Kaori looked up at him, tickling his chest with her long whiskers. “You said that word again. Cha-kra. What is that?”
Hideki, busy with a daifuku half-stuffed in his mouth, said, “Yeah, whafs chafwah?”
“It’s something everything alive has,” Genma said. “In my world, at least. It’s energy that comes from being alive.” He tried to remember his earliest Academy lessons on chakra theory; how had his sensei introduced the subject? “There’s physical energy from your cells being alive, and there’s spirit energy, from your mind being alive. They blend together to make chakra. If you don’t have chakra, you die.”
Which raised the terrible spectre of his inability to sense his own or any other chakra again. If he was dead, and this was the Pure Land, it was very different from anything the monks and priests had ever described. And also a surprise, because he was sure his karmic debt was far too high to have earned him a place at Amida’s feet. But if this land of kind-hearted tanuki children and magical transforming buns was one of the Hells… The priests had been very wrong about that, too.
Kaori gave him a puzzled look.
“When you said my teammates — my friends — felt like cold lightning and hot water and steam, and mud, you were describing their chakra.” If she could feel theirs… And if he still had his…. “Can you feel mine?”
Kaori scrunched her face in thought, with her ears perked forward and the tip of her tongue protruding between her sharp canines. Then she reached up and patted Genma’s chest. “You’re a pot cooking on the fire.”
Earth and Fire. That was a good description of Genma’s dominant chakra natures. He sighed with relief. Even if he couldn’t feel it, he wasn’t chakraless. This wasn’t the afterlife. He’d never heard of a condition that made a person unable to feel their chakra, but maybe it was like a spinal cord injury that left the body alive but insensate. Which was an appalling thought. He fervently hoped that whatever was wrong with his chakra sense was something much less permanent than paralysis.
Hideki, who was still holding Genma’s arm, looked up with worry written all over his furry face. “But why is your… cha-kra… so little? Even Momo-chan has more than you, and she’s just a baby.”
“Everything from the human world is like that,” Kikyou said with academic authority. “It’s because they die fast. Matsunoki-sensei says that humans only live for a hundred years.”
Hideki’s grip tightened on Genma’s arm, and Kaori shrank back in alarm, then turned in Genma’s lap and stood, digging sharp paws into his thigh and groin, to frantically pat Genma’s head.
Awkwardly, Genma wrapped his arm around her in what he hoped was a comforting hug. “It’s okay,” he said. “I’m only twenty-one. That’s a long way from a hundred.” Which he didn’t think he’d live to by any stretch, but that wasn’t important at the moment.
“That’s not long at all!” Kaori said. She pulled back to get a better look at his face.
Hideki stared up in astonishment. “You’re younger than me.” His eyes widened even further. “Does that mean you have to call me nii-san?” He glanced over at Kikyou for confirmation
She frowned imperiously at her unruly siblings. “Shiranuigenma-san is a guest. He doesn’t have to call you anything. Now clean up this mess before Mom and Dad come home.”
Hideki scowled and began sulkily piling empty teacups and plates back onto the tray, while he swept the tatami with his brushy tail.
“I’m— You can just call me Genma. Can you sense my chakra, too? Now, I mean?”
“Yes, of course,” Kikyou said. “But it is quite small. Though you still have more than the other humans. They had almost none.”
Genma straightened. Assuming all of his experiences since that morning spar with Raidou were as linear and real as they could be, he was still on a mission, and his mission still involved a missing woman and children who might be able to lead him to the missing sake. Who might be the humans Kikyou was talking about.
“Where are the other humans? Can I meet them?”
“I think they’re with Aunt Yuri. She was showing them the fishing pond. Her kits—” Kikyou stopped abruptly, ears pricked and whiskers quivering. Her gaze fixed on the door. “And what are you all doing here?”
Genma turned to look, as a furry nose slipped out from behind the door post. Followed by an equally furry body in a blue striped yukata. The newcomer stood with his tail in his hands, as three more tanuki in colorful summer clothes slunk in behind him. “Kikyou-neesan,” he said, with the beginnings of a polite bow. And then he caught sight of Genma. “Is that the human?”
Kikyou and Kaori swiveled as one to stare holes through Hideki, who hunched his shoulders and started sweeping faster.
Kikyou turned her fearsome glare on the new tanuki quartet. “Yes. You will call him Genma-san and you will not tell anyone that he’s here. Or else I’m sending you all home with shaved tails. Do you understand?
Tail shaving was clearly not an idle threat. The four shrank back in the doorway, cowering with flat ears and their tails clutched tightly in their paw-hands. “Yes, Kikyou-neesan,” they chorused, not quite in unison. They gave her a wide berth as they moved into the room.
Politely, one-by-one, they presented themselves to Genma, bowing with a murmured, “Genma-san.” They were clearly on their best behavior, under the watchful eye of their minder.
The temptation of the new was too much for the littlest of them, though. She darted out of the lineup, tripped on the hem of her orange-flowered yukata, and pitched headfirst towards Genma. He reached out to catch her, but she righted herself with a lash of her tail. Her small paws grabbed the glove on his forearm and tugged. “Are you really a human?”
She sounded like she was no older than the Hokage’s child.
“Yes,” Genma said gravely. “Are you really a tanuki?”
She reared back, eyes wide, and did a quick self inventory, running her paw-hands over her ears and nose, and turning in a quick spin to try to get a good look at her tail. Then she settled with a twitch of her whiskers and a swish of her tail. “Yes. My name’s Hana. It’s nice to meet you.”
“It’s very nice to meet you, Hana-chan.” Genma bowed as best he could with Kaori still in his lap. There was nothing in any protocol manual he’d ever studied about how to cope with suddenly being the guest of benevolent tanuki, but he had had training in working with civilian children. Mostly during the war, when he’d dealt with evacuees. All he could remember was the advice not to lie to them if something was going to hurt, though, and that wasn’t very helpful here.
With Hana having broken the ice, the other three new tanuki came crowding in. The boy in the blue striped yukata ran a paw through Genma’s hair and down the side of his face. “How come you only have fur on your head? Where’s the rest of it?” A little girl in a red and yellow jinbei said, “My mom says that humans eat bad tanuki children. Is that true?” She stood out of arm’s reach, just in case it was.
“That’s just how humans are,” Genma said. “And no of course we don’t eat tanuki!” It wasn’t quite true, but Genma was going to give serious second thoughts to ever eating woodland tanuki again, no matter how hungry and desperate he might be.
A boy in a yukata that had probably once been green but had become a dubious shade of brown through repeated applications of dust and mud, circled Genma several times, pushed past Hideki and jinbei girl, and dove into Genma’s lap, displacing Kaori, who kicked viciously. The boy, unfazed, backed out with his fur ruffled, and put his hands on his hips. ”Where are your balls?”
“They’re right where they belong,” Genma said, coloring faintly.
All activity ceased, and every furry, masked face riveted on Genma.
“But they’re stuck in your clothes,” blue yukata boy protested. “How do you carry your stuff?”
“Or go fishing?” put in the boy in green.
The little girl in the jinbei asked soberly, “Did an evil spirit put a curse on you?”
“No,” Genma said. Unless the curse was whisking me away to a world where everyone is a tanuki. “They’re… Humans wear clothes over them most of the time. They’re not…. They can’t do the things yours can. They’re just for, uh —” Oh hell, he was not about to have The Talk about where little tanuki came from with a bunch of kids who might be technically older than him but were definitely too young to be worrying about things like sex and reproduction.
His interrogators pressed in, voices overlapping in a cacophony of questions.
Hideki and Kaori, Genma’s self-appointed protectors, came to his rescue, forming a bulwark against the other youngsters with arms wide and tails bristling.
“Be polite,” Kikyou warned.
“Yeah,” Kaori said. “He was injured because he was fighting a demon.”
That proved to be even more riveting than Genma’s inadequate and inaccessible testicles. Kaori and Hideki progressed quickly from recounting the story of Genma’s rescue to a fully acted pantomime. Somehow in the course of the telling, Raidou had grown to four meters tall, with poison-tipped claws and a double tail, and the rest of Genma’s teammates had become depraved spectators who kicked Genma down every time he seemed like he might prevail.
Genma took the opportunity to slide towards Kikyou and ask, “You seem to know a little more about humans. Do you really want me to explain my anatomy to them?”
“We don’t learn that much about humans,” Kikyou said, frowning like she smelled something unpleasant. “We’re supposed to stay away from them until we’re older, because a lot of them are mean.” She turned so she was facing Genma, blocking his view of the Drama of the Moon Demon still playing out for the younger tanuki. “You’re not mean,” she said earnestly, “but the ones who hurt you, they’re bad and it’s okay to not be friends with bad people.”
Hideki had escaped the stage, leaving Kaori in what was probably her natural environment: the center of attention. He padded over to Genma. “You should listen to Kikyou-neechan,” he said. “She’s always right.”
Genma’s problem explaining human reproductive anatomy to young tanuki children was neatly usurped by the problem of explaining ninja to slightly older tanuki children.
“You don’t know that I’m not a bad person,” Genma said. “I’m a ninja. Do you know what a ninja soldier is?”
Kikyou and Hideki both shook their heads.
“Those people, my friends, we’re all ninja. That’s our job, like some people are farmers or bakers or teachers. We protect people. But sometimes we hurt people, too. And we have to practice fighting, so if someone is really trying to hurt us, we can fight back.” And that was painting what they did in the most positive light possible.
Kikyou remained unconvinced. “Then your friends should have been protecting you. Why didn’t they help you when the red moon demon hit you?”
“When I’m in trouble, all my friends protect me,” Hideki said. He sounded like he was trying to lead a particularly dense student to the point by example.
“Raidou’s not a demon,” Genma insisted. “He’s a man, just like me. That moon mask comes off, just like my mask came off. He was trying to help me learn to be a better fighter.” He felt like he was running in circles, but from the looks on their faces, it was clear Kikyou and Hideki thought they were running in circles, too.
“Look,” Genma said, “take me back. Take me back to my friends, and you can see for yourselves. They’re probably incredibly worried about me. And they need me. I’m their fixer if they get hurt.”
Uncertainty colored the mutinous look on Kikyou’s face. “I can’t,” she said in a near whisper, with a quick glance at Hideki. Hideki seemed nonplussed at the idea that can’t was even part of his big sister’s vocabulary, but then Kikyou explained. “There are guards. We only got through the last time because they were sleeping.”
Hideki nodded in stalwart agreement. “They smelled bad, too. Like… sour rice.”
This whole day was leading to a place where, if Genma ever made it back to Konoha, his mission report was going read like a fairy story. Tanuki stole the Daimyou’s sake and drank it all, was not going to be an easy sell to a debriefer.
Hideki looked blank.
“Don’t you know what sake smells like?”
“Hideki’s a baby!” Kikyou said, in tones of outrage. She glared at Genma. “He’s not even allowed to look at sake until he’s at least two hundred.”
“‘M not a baby,” Hideki muttered. In Kikyou’s case, it fell on deaf ears.
“There’s no way you can take me back?” Genma asked with alarm. Never having to write that mission report would hardly be a fair trade for never going home again.
“I can’t.” Kikyou sighed. “But if you want, I can let you see the human world.”
“We’re not allowed to use the well!” Hideki said, scandalized.
“You’re not,” corrected Kikyou. “Mom and Dad said that I could use it if it was important.” Her authority as oldest-and-therefore-in-charge shone like a beacon.
“This is important,” Genma said quickly. If he could see his team, maybe there was a way they could see him. Maybe he could pass a message to them. Or somehow find a way back to where he belonged. Barring that, at least he could see if Raidou was all right after his encounter with Kaori’s fake statue.
Kikyou stood up and raised her voice. “All right,” she said in she-who-will-be-obeyed tones, “time to go home.”
“Awww.” The boy in the greenish yukata kicked at the tatami. “I wanted to ask the human more questions.”
Kikyou shook her head at him and puffed out her fur, glaring until he backed down. His siblings grabbed him and tugged him towards the door, although the littlest, bravest one took the time to dash over and hug Genma’s knee with a, “Bye, human Genma-san.”
When they’d scampered off, Kaori offered her sister a sulky pout, disappointed at having lost her captive audience. But she came over readily enough when Kikyou beckoned, and brightened considerably when Hideki told her, in an awed hush, “We’re going to use the well.”
Kaori’s eyes grew big. She whispered something to Hideki, who whispered back loudly enough for Genma to make out, “Mom said Dad said.”
Kikyou led them through the house to an enclosed yard with bamboo and cherry trees on three sides. A wooden well stood in one corner. Kikyou approached it confidently, set the iron bucket on its long rope to one side, and rolled back the bamboo-mat lid.
The water level was higher than made sense. It brimmed nearly to the top of the well, as if some force were lifting the water above its natural level.
Kikyou looked at her siblings. “Do you remember where we found Genma-san?” They nodded, and at a signal from Kikyou, all three tanuki thrust their paw-hands into the water. It rippled around their wrists, reflecting the cloud-dotted blue sky above them, and then stilled. As the surface fell into glassy smoothness, the mirror image of the sky gave way to a bird’s eye view of the river bank where Genma and Raidou had been sparring.
By Genma’s inner clock, it had been a few hours since then. The sun high overhead and already sinking towards the west proved it. But the riverbank Genma was looking at was all violet shadow and soft mist. Moonlight glinted on the water.
There was no sign of his teammates.
“That can’t be right,” Genma said. “How can it be night there already?”
Kikyou leaned over to peer into the well herself, and said, “Because it’s the human world. The time is different.” She leaned further over and plunged her whole face into the well for a few seconds, then sat back up and shook the excess water from her fur in a glittering spray of drops. She looked at Genma with a steely eye. “I don’t see your friends.”
Genma followed Kikyou’s example and dunked his face into the well. It felt cool and wet, as water should. But he was looking through air. Dark, midnight air. Somehow, despite his held breath, he could smell the swampy funk of the river. A chorus of frogs and cicadas sang over the distant roar of the falls.
There was no sign of any of his team, or any people at all. One small patch of grass was slightly disturbed, which could have been from their spar, but just as easily from an animal passing through. There were some marks scratched into a bare patch of earth, but in the dark he couldn’t make them out. He tried to push chakra to his eyes, to drink in what light there was and look for anything to help him find his team, but he had no chakra. The emptiness where the sensation of his chakra coils should be was dizzying. He took a sharp breath and got a nose full of well water for his trouble. Gasping, he backed out of the well and coughed violently on his hands and knees. Kaori helpfully patted his back, and Hideki offered his tail to dry Genma’s face when he could breathe again.
“How different is it?” he rasped. “How different is time here?”
Kikyou looked perplexed. “Why does it matter? We only go to the human world on festival days, and we always know when those are because that’s when the buns come.”
Genma sat back on his heels and stared up at the sky: rich, almost turquoise blue, with cotton ball clouds, and a bright July sun. It was a perfect summer day. He’d been here for four, maybe five hours. Maybe longer, if he added in the time he’d been concussed and drifting. And for all he knew, weeks had passed in the human world. His world.
“When,” he asked in a whisper, “is the next bun day?”
“Well,” Kikyou said, “we just had one, so not for a while.” She thought for a moment, while Genma grappled with that unenlightening information, then added, “If you want more buns, we still have lots left.”
Genma’s stomach growled a yes before he could say no. Even in this world’s timeline, it had been several hours since his rat bar breakfast at dawn, and the two daifuku he’d eaten weren’t exactly sticking to his ribs.
Kaori, problem solver and go getter in the group, immediately seized Genma’s hand to haul him into the house for more food.
“It’ll be dinnertime soon,” Kaori said, swinging Genma’s hand as she walked, “so we’re not supposed to eat more snacks, because Mom says it ruins our appetites. But you’re so skinny, I don’t think Mom will get mad.” She paused her happy chatter to pat Genma’s flat belly. “Why are you so skinny? Is it because your mean friends ate all the food and didn’t leave any for you?”
“I get plenty to eat,” Genma said. “I’m slim, but no one in my world would call me skinny.”
Kaori shook her head, tutting at Genma. “Skinny,” she repeated. Then she patted her own luxuriously round belly, arching her back to make it protrude even further, and smiled in contentment. “See?”
Hideki and Kikyou had followed them in, and both made agreeing sounds. Kikyou slapped her own belly so it echoed. Kaori let go of Genma’s hand to run and whisper something to Hideki. They both giggled, and then, before Genma quite realized what was happening, a thick, furred pillow draped itself over his abdomen, simulating the tanuki belly he lacked. A pillow connected to a blanket threaded between his legs, and then connected to Hideki’s crotch.
Genma danced away so fast he lost his footing, and without chakra to stabilize himself, crashed to the floor.
All three tanuki burst into uproarious laughter, wheezing and guffawing and slapping their bellies, which only set them off harder.
And okay, in some part of his mind — a part that wasn’t worrying about his team, doubting his own mental health, stressed about the loss of his chakra, frantically trying to figure out a way home, or still on full mission alert — it was funny.
But it was hard to access the humor through all those other layers. He picked himself up, stiff and sore because he still had the body bruises Raidou had given him, and followed Kikyou back to a seat near the hearth.
“I bet I can eat more daifuku than you,” Hideki said, plonking himself down next to Genma. “I’ll get more ones with the strawberries.”
“Nooooo,” Kaori whined. “We always have daifuku. I want taiyaki.” She gazed soulfully at Genma, like a puppy begging for a treat. “You like taiyaki best, don’t you Genma-san?”
Kikyou made a forbidding gesture. “Genma-san is our guest. We should ask him what he wants to eat.”
Two anxious tanuki faces turned on him. Hideki licked his lip and fiddled with his tail, waiting for the answer. Kaori, who was less patient, prompted, “What would you like to eat, Genma-san? It’s okay if you say taiyaki.”
Taiyaki and daifuku were unsurprising choices for a child. They were also festival food. Maybe that was all tanuki ate? Although they were known for liking tempura, weren’t they? And fish? What Genma needed was a proper meal — something with more protein and nutrients than daifuku or taiyaki could provide. But it was hard to disappoint Kaori…
“Maybe rice balls with salmon?” Genma suggested. “Or teriyaki skewers?” He tried to think of festival food that fit the bill. Takoyaki had some protein, if there was enough octopus in it… “Or takoyaki? We could save the taiyaki for when the stars come out, so it’s special,” he added, when Kaori’s face fell.
“I can make grilled fish skewers,” Kikyou offered.
“But I don’t like fish.” Hideki’s ears flattened back and his shoulders hunched.
“And grilled chicken skewers, too. But no more sweets. You’ve both had more than enough.”
As soon as her back was turned, Hideki muttered, “Nee-chan ate more daifuku than any of us.” One of Kikyou’s ears twitched, but either she hadn’t heard, or she was choosing to ignore Hideki.
Kaori and Hideki led Genma to a low dining table, and after a moment’s thoughtful hesitation, Hideki procured a small cushion for Genma to sit on. “Because your balls are stuck in your clothes and they don’t work,” he said with gravest sympathy.
Kikyou, who had disappeared through a sliding door into the kitchen, called her siblings. “Kaori, come make the tea. Hideki, fetch more buns. And don’t get the squished ones.”
“Yeah,” Kaori said. “Don’t give Genma-san any squished ones. He’s a guest.” Echoing her sister to order Hideki around seemed to be one of her favorite games. She tipped her head up at a saucy angle and trailed Hideki through the door.
As soon as he was alone, Genma felt like he had woken from a dream. Except he was still in the dream, in a tanuki’s home, with a beautifully arranged display of late-blooming irises in the alcove, and a calligraphed scroll that read, “Not knowing is Buddha”.
But something felt more real. Like he could think more clearly.
He listened to the chatter from the kitchen as the tanuki prepared a meal for him, and thought, I’m not their guest. I’m their captive.
How had he been so beguiled by them? Was that part of their magic, too? They hadn’t just stifled his chakra, they’d ensnared his mind to make him their willing prisoner.
The horror of what he’d seen in the well-window hit him hard — hours or days had vanished, and so had his team. He didn’t need to simply find them, he needed to return to his world, find his team, or at least find his way back to Konoha, and hope to all the gods he hadn’t been gone so long he’d been declared killed in action.
And then there was a possibility even more dire than coming back to find his name chiseled on the Heroes’ Stone, his father in mourning, his team disbanded or worse: he might never make it back at all. With no chakra to work with, in a land full of creatures who were basically gods, he was little more than their plaything.
But thinking that way was defeatist and unproductive.
“Rule 87,” he told himself. “A shinobi’s heart remains true against self-doubt.” Chakra wasn’t what made a ninja, it was strength of mind and years of training. There would be a way out. If the tanuki could go to the human world for festivals, then Genma could go with them. If they wouldn’t take him willingly, he’d find a way to sneak through. Obon was coming— surely the tanuki went to that festival. At worst, he’d be missing for a couple of months.
For now he needed to stay focused, and stay on mission. There was still a missing woman and missing sake to find. Rule 49 applied just as aptly. A shinobi is in all things patient, waiting for the moment when the truth reveals itself.