July 7(?), Yondaime Year 5
Genma woke to the hushed sounds of sleeping comrades and canines. It was partly habit and partly mission-sense that roused him while the moon was still setting and the stars still twinkling. He checked his watch but the glowing hands hadn’t budged since he’d arrived in the tanuki’s dimension — broken, or stalled by tanuki magic.
Raidou lay to Genma’s left, sleeping half on his stomach, with one knee up and his head pillowed on one arm. The light quilt the tanuki had provided was tangled around his legs, and he’d shucked half free of his yukata, so his bare, muscled back was on full display. Waning moonlight played over warm, tan skin. His lips were parted in sleep…
Genma took a slow breath, and wrenched his eyes away.
He rolled to his right and considered trying to sleep, but now he was facing Kurenai. She lay on her back as if she’d been posed, with one arm raised next to her head, and the other resting gently on her stomach. Dark curls tumbled across her brow and cascaded over her pillow. While Genma watched her, she took a deep, sighing breath in her sleep, and turned towards him. Her yukata fell open, revealing the soft curve of a pale breast. Her eyebrows knit for a moment, and she pursed her lips; then she relaxed, and her breathing settled into the slow rhythm of deep sleep.
Sleep which wasn’t going to happen for Genma — he was so hard it almost hurt. Every bit of thwarted desire from the night before was thrumming through his body like it had a life of its own. And he definitely couldn’t take care of it here. Not with his two off-limits colleagues sleeping a bare arm’s reach away, the rookies almost as close on the other side of Raidou, and Kakashi’s all-too-perceptive dogs all around.
As quietly as he could, he eased himself free of his quilt and pushed to his knees. Raidou made a soft, drowsy, questioning sound.
“Just going to the toilet,” Genma whispered. “Go back to sleep, it’s not morning yet.” He held his yukata carefully out from his waist, trying to camouflage his erection as he got to his feet. There had to be a toilet, or an outhouse, or some sort of amenity that the tanuki who owned this cottage used. He padded barefoot over sweet-smelling tatami, slid the paper door open with a faint shush of expertly planed wood on on wood, and let himself into the garden.
A cool breeze ruffled through his hair, sending goosebumps up his spine. The shingled side of the outhouse stood in the back, with a white pebbled path winding towards it through the greenery. A row of hemp sandals sat tidily at the edge of the porch apron. Genma slid into a pair that looked his size, and made a quick, purposeful trip across the garden.
It didn’t take long, in the close dark of the outhouse, to find at least a temporary relief.
When he slipped back towards the cottage, the moon was nearly gone, and the first pale teal fingers of light were creeping into the eastern sky — if east and west even had the same meaning here in the tanuki’s dimension. There wasn’t a lot of point in trying to get back to sleep now. And really, they should have set a watch. Intoxication and exhaustion had lulled them into recklessness. Genma sighed, stretched, and went to wash his face in the bracingly cold water from the well.
He did as Raidou had done, and slipped his arms free of his yukata, letting it fall backwards at his waist, with the sleeves hanging at his side. He splashed his cheeks with icy water, then dunked his head in the pail. Despite scanty sleep, he was awake now. When he came up, tossing dripping hair back with a head shake, he found Kurenai standing on the porch. She squinted at him, blinking sleep from her eyes, and rubbed one calf with the opposite foot. Her yukata still hung distractingly open, falling in a loose fold over its thin obi.
“Toilet?” Kurenai asked through a yawn.
Genma pointed, then slapped another handful of icy water against his chest. He ought to just upend the whole bucket on himself, but that would drench the yukata, and clingy fabric was the last thing he needed this morning. Instead he washed himself as discreetly as he could, hurrying while Kurenai was occupied.
When Kurenai returned, he was clear-headed, if a little chilled, and she looked much more put together and alert. Her yukata was tied, if not quite crisp, and her posture alert. She carded her fingers through her hair, combing night-tied tangles free. “I’m beginning to believe you don’t actually sleep,” she said. “You’ve been up before me every morning on this trip.”
“I’ve always been an early riser,” Genma said. Her dark eyes were on him, an assessing expression on her face. “I do sleep.” He emptied the last of his wash water onto the ground, and dropped the bucket back into the well for another pull. “Don’t worry, this mission isn’t giving me nightmares. Sex dreams, yes, but that’s a whole different sort of problem.”
“I’d wondered if we were going to acknowledge last night.” She joined him at the well, close enough that the heat of her skin radiated against Genma’s cold side. He took a breath and put his focus into hauling up a fresh bucket of water. When he set the bucket on the wall of the well, Kurenai cupped her hands and took a long drink, before she looked up at him. “On the whole, I’m glad to hear that.”
“Glad I had the dreams, or that I’m willing to tell you I did?”
She took another drink. “Both. Raidou, I imagine, will be pretending it never happened. For a man so fundamentally honest, he’s good at lying to himself.”
Genma snorted a laugh. “He is. We sort of tacitly agreed not to make things awkward after the nightclub. And look how that worked out.” He tipped his head back, cracking his neck, then reached a hand up to sweep the wet hair off his neck. “I mean, we’re still functioning just fine as a team. But I’m glad I’m not the only one who hasn’t been able to stop thinking about the possibilities.”
“Can we discuss them when we’re not still on a mission?” Raidou said in a sleep-thick voice. He was already halfway to the well, tugging his rumpled yukata into order.
“Rai— Taichou. Yes.” Genma straightened up, feeling stupidly embarrassed.
Low voiced, Kurenai said, “I will be very grateful for the return of our chakra-sense.” Her cheeks were faintly flushed at being caught out.
“Yes.” Genma offered the bucket to Raidou. “I’m half crippled without my chakra-sense. We all are. But that’s no excuse for letting myself be so distracted. We should have set a watch last night. And we should have talked sooner without the tanuki around.”
Raidou leaned forward to keep his yukata out of the splash zone and upended the bucket over his head. While he raked the water out of his hair, he said, “Agreed. But it’s morning now and none of us are dead, so let’s move on. Next steps?”
“We need to figure out how much time has passed,” Genma said. He shoved all his complicated feelings aside — Rule Twenty-five — and took the empty bucket from Raidou to drop back down for more water. “The plan is the tanuki take us all back to Tanigawa today with Harubi and her children. I don’t think the tanuki will go back on their words, but something is very off here. The moon’s a different phase. And actually, I need to tell you about the well.”
Raidou and Kurenai both looked sharply at the well they stood next to.
“Not this one. One at the house where the tanuki first had me. It had some sort of magic on it that allowed me to see into our dimension. It had only been a few hours since they’d taken me, but somehow it was already night in the human world; at the place we’d camped and sparred, no one was there. All the tanuki kits could tell me was that the only times the tanuki went to the human world was for festivals. For all we know, weeks could have passed by now.”
Kurenai went still and pale. Raidou’s eyes flicked wide with alarm. He glanced down at his fingers, working out some mental math. “They took you in the early morning. Say it’s… three hours here to 12 hours at home, we’ve been here about eighteen hours. Which is… three days at home. Assuming the time difference is linear.”
“And if it’s not linear?” Kurenai pushed away from the well. “I need to find out how long Harubi’s been here. And get her ready to go.”
“I don’t know if the night I saw was the same day I got abducted,” Genma added. “I saw moonlight, but I couldn’t see the moon to tell you what phase it was. It was bright enough for me to see detail by, though. And there was no real sign of our spar.”
“I’ll wake the rookies,” Raidou said, grim-faced. “Shiranui, I want you to track down Himself and find out what it’ll take to get us home.”
Kurenai’s mouth thinned tighter. She jerked her obi straight and tugged the yukata into sharp alignment. “I’ll meet you at the platform.”
Genma gave Raidou a sharp nod, and headed for the veranda. “I’ll dress and go.”
Both of the boys banged inside to change — no attempts to let sleeping rookies lie anymore. Kurenai didn’t bother. She was as comfortable in a yukata as in special jounin uniform, and without chakra equally vulnerable in either.
They didn’t have enough information to base any calculations on. She found herself doing them anyway, substituting variables, modeling scenarios. Harubi had been missing from Tanigawa for three weeks by the time the shinobi questioned Nomiya. She clearly felt secure with Himself and the other tanuki, but not yet at ease. Had she been here for one week? Less?
Missions frequently ran long. Kurenai tried to remember the last time Konoha had sent out a search and rescue. How many teams would mobilize for the Hokage’s almost-son? How many other vital missions-in-progress would they disrupt or destabilize? Was there a radio relay in Saroma, or would they have to run all the way to Nagiso…?
The tanuki village was beginning to wake. A fat grey-muzzled elder came trundling up from the pond with a string of silvery trout dripping from one paw. He wore a conical straw hat and an open happi coat, and nothing else. But he stopped politely enough to wish Kurenai good morning and to point out the thatched cottage where Harubi and her children stayed. Kurenai declined the offer of breakfast and stepped swiftly up onto the porch.
She knocked at the wooden frame of the sliding door. “Harubi-san? It’s Yuuhi from Konoha. May I come in?”
No answer for a moment, stretching out long enough for Kurenai to contemplate entering anyway. But she needed Harubi’s trust and cooperation. She knocked again, louder.
Feet scuffed. The door rattled in its tracks and slid open a couple of handspans’ width. The little boy looked up at her, solemn and shy. He wore a blue-striped jinbei, worn but clean, and clutched a painted wooden kokeshi doll in his free hand.
“You’re the ninja,” he told her. He considered her gravely. “You don’t look like one.”
“I’m not in uniform.” She gentled her voice. After a moment she bent her knees into a graceful crouch that put them nearly at eye-level. “Is your mother awake? I need to speak with her.”
“No visitors allowed when Otousan’s not here,” he said automatically, then looked past her. “But you’re a girl…”
“We don’t have to listen to those rules anymore,” his older sister Sen said abruptly, coming up behind him. Kakashi’s golden dog, Kin, padded chest-high beside her.
“Kaasan can have anyone she wants visit.” Sen looked at Kurenai, narrow-eyed. She was wearing a child’s jinbei too, brown with yellow checks, but the pink scar on her cheek and the tight set of her mouth made her look more like a shinobi child than a civilian. “What do you want?”
“We need to get ready to leave,” Kurenai said, straightening. She had a sense that this girl would appreciate directness. “And I need to know how long you’ve stayed here, with the tanuki.”
“Why?” Sen countered.
“When we asked questions in Tanigawa, people there said you’d been gone for three weeks.”
Sen’s mouth opened. Kurenai met her gaze, and the girl’s mouth closed. She turned abruptly. “Tadaichi, go get Kaasan.”
Puzzled but obedient, the boy trotted off. Sen pushed the door open wider. As Kurenai stepped inside, Sen said quietly, “Yesterday was three days. Today is four.” She smoothed a hand over Kin’s long fur. “That’s bad, isn’t it.” Kin licked her wrist.
“Not necessarily.” Kurenai kept her voice steady. If Raidou’s guess about linear time was still correct, just multiplied by a larger factor, that meant they’d lost only a week, ten days at the most. Yondaime-sama might not have called out the hounds yet. “We just want to pack up quickly and head out this morning. Did the tanuki bring all your things when they brought you here?”
“Yeah.” Sen hadn’t quite thawed, but she pointed to a set of neat boxes stacked along the wall of the little cottage, behind the rolled-up futons. She wrapped her other arm around Kin’s shoulders.
A door at the back slid open, emitting Harubi and the smell of cooking breakfast. “Yuuhi-san?” She seemed curious, but not alarmed. She was dressed for a comfortable day of work in a plain wrapped shirt and short trousers again, her long hair tied back under a bright bandana. Tadaichi hovered close behind her, cradling his doll.
“Good morning, Harubi-san. I’m sorry for the early visit, but we’d like to start off soon as we can. Sen-chan told me this is the fourth day of your stay here, so I’m sure there are friends you’d like to say goodbye to; perhaps they could help you pack…?”
“Yes,” Harubi said slowly. “Yuri-san and Fumi-san, they’ve been very kind to us… Forgive me, Yuuhi-san, but why the rush?”
“She’s worried because time is going faster at home,” Sen said. “We’ve been gone three weeks. Maybe four, now.” She looked up at Kurenai. “Does he think we’re dead?”
“I don’t know,” Kurenai answered honestly. “He’s told people you’re visiting family for the summer.”
Sen’s lips folded thin. Kin whined.
Harubi said tiredly, “I don’t care what he tells people. Well— Noriko. I’ll write to her. Maybe she’ll want to leave, too. If she has a place to go.” She straightened her back. “I don’t care about the time either, but you must have people waiting for you, Yuuhi-san. We’ll get ready as quickly as we can.”
“Eat your breakfast,” Kurenai said. “I’ll go fetch Yuri and Fumi. Where can I find them?”
In the end Sen and Kin went with her to point out the tanuki’s homes. Sen said little, but watched Kurenai assessingly. While grey-eared Yuri was bustling about, insisting on packing up a few kilos of riceballs for her new friends’ journey, girl and dog slipped away.
Kurenai watched them go, and wondered which of the shinobi Sen would confront next.
The captain was not sympathetic to Kakashi’s wish to stay in bed.
A short, sharp explanation about time imbalance later, Kakashi was less inclined to sleep. Genma had already vanished, fully uniformed. Ryouma scrambled up, wild-haired, and managed to make putting on his clothes and packing their kits a simultaneous process. Kakashi got out of his way. The dogs, prudently, went outside to pee on things.
While they were still getting assembled, Raidou jogged ahead to track down Genma and Himself, taking Genma and Kurenai’s kits with him.
Watching him go from the porch, Kakashi said, “Did he seem more wound up than usual?”
Pakkun yawned hugely. “How would you tell?”
Ryouma was rolling the futons — or trying to, while they escaped him and threatened a paper lamp. “Maybe he’s missing somebody’s birthday.”
Kakashi stepped back in to lend a hand. Between them, they got the futons and bedding stowed away in the long, low traditional cabinets, and Kakashi had to shake the surreal sense that they were tidying up a vacation cottage.
Also, he realized, they were alone.
“Um,” he began. Ryouma glanced up and tipped his head attentively.
Saishou’s low bark interrupted them. It was answered a beat later by Kin’s. Kakashi’s head pulled up.
One of Pakkun’s floppy ears twitched. “Oh boy.”
Ryouma frowned. “What?”
“Harubi’s daughter.” Kakashi was already grabbing his pack and striding out of the guest cottage. He cut through the neat garden and vaulted the low stone wall. Ryouma was right on his heels.
Coming up the path, a small determined figure walked fast enough that Kin had to trot to keep up. Sen marched towards them, chin high, staring first at Kakashi, then at Ryouma. To Kakashi’s surprise, she walked past both of them and stopped in front of Pakkun.
“Were you telling the truth?” she demanded.
“Yes,” Pakkun said immediately. “About what?”
“Half a ryou,” Sen said. “And you’ll take an IOU.”
Ah. Pakkun had said that. Are you sure you don’t want him dead? We do very reasonable rates. He’d been talking to Harubi, but Sen had been standing right behind her.
Ryouma said quietly, “Fire Country isn’t far enough?”
Sen looked at him. Her jaw was square and set, and her dark eyes were flat. “He knows people. If we go back, he’ll find us and he’ll kill us.”
Ryouma was silent for a moment. “Okay.” There was nothing in his voice except level acceptance. “What do you want us to do?”
For just a moment, there was a flicker of uncertainty on Sen’s face, as if she’d expected more of a fight and now found herself standing on open air. Then her mouth firmed. “Kill him. Make it look like a suicide. Don’t tell my mother.”
A sharp little twist of irony made Kakashi’s mouth pull sideways. “Why suicide?”
“Because he’d hate it,” Sen said. “The village will think he’s ashamed. And if Kaasan finds out, she won’t hate herself.”
Cold, calculated, there was more than a day’s worth of thought here. Kakashi sat down on the wall so he could look her in the eye. She was about ten, he figured. Old enough to be in the academy, if she’d lived a different life. Old enough to have killed already, if she’d lived his life.
“Do you want proof of death?” he asked.
A hesitation again. Slowly, she nodded.
Kakashi swung his pack around and dug through it until he extracted a pen and notebook. He ripped a sheet out, folded it in half, and handed both items to her.
“An IOU,” he said.
She bent and scratched quickly on the paper. The writing she handed back was neat, well-formed hiragana and kanji: I owe one half-ryou to Konoha ninja. Not the most sturdy legalese, but he wasn’t exactly planning to file it with Konoha clerks later. She hadn’t signed it, either: just added a little drawing of the unit for money. His mouth twitched again. The kanji for her name was probably “thousand”.
He added his mark, and passed it to Ryouma to do the same.
Ryouma signed carefully and passed the paper back to Kakashi. “We may have to find the right moment. But we’ll let you know when it’s done.”
Sen nodded. Kakashi politely ignored how, now the agreement was struck, she looked just a little bit shaky. Kin, who never ignored anything, padded forward and leaned her solid weight against the girl’s ribs. One brown, nail-bitten hand crept into Kin’s golden fur.
Pakkun vigorously scratched an ear. “All right, murder pact. And we haven’t even had breakfast.” He lowered his foot and eyed Sen. “Did you eat yet?”
Sen blinked. “Uh.”
“That’s a no. You’re worse than him,” Pakkun said, jerking his chin at Kakashi. “He faints, y’know. Goes down like a tree. A murderous tree, don’t worry, you’re hiring the right people, but I’m thinking food…”
Between his chatter and Kin’s steady pressure, they got Sen turned neatly around and headed back down the path towards the cluster of thatched tanuki homes. Saishou and Yori trailed along behind.
Kakashi stood, tucked the IOU carefully into his belt pouch, and looked at Ryouma. “Okay with this?”
Ryouma chewed on the edge of his lip. “Is it wrong that I am?”
Kakashi smiled, because that was honesty and it had been easy. “I’m probably not qualified to judge, but I don’t think so.”
“Well, you’re the only judge I’ve got, so I’ll take it.” Ryouma hitched his pack up on his shoulders. “C’mon, let’s go practice not looking guilty.”
Ryouma’d lost enough rounds of poker to know he wasn’t exactly Konoha’s most stone-faced ninja. He’d figured out ways to compensate for it, just about. Stick to billiards, unless it’s strip poker. Don’t think about secrets you don’t want to share. Keep busy on something else for long enough, and eventually you’ll distract yourself and everyone else too.
Keeping busy wouldn’t be a problem. By the time they made it down to the wooden platform at the village center, a steady stream of tanuki were already packing a sturdy handcart with boxes, bundles, and several delighted kits playing ‘King of the Hill’ with Harubi’s son.
Nearby, Raidou seemed to be arguing with a big male tanuki over the stacking technique for loading another handcart with a dozen wooden casks of sake. The tanuki was almost as tall as Raidou, and twice as broad. Ryouma recognized him after a moment as Kenta, the boss of the raiding party who’d captured them— yesterday afternoon? A week ago? Maybe he could give himself a headache thinking about time imbalances, and no one would suspect him of plotting how to stage a suicide.
Genma and Himself were on the platform, talking over steaming bowls of tea. This morning Himself was no bigger than Kenta, his size-shifting scrotum merely a comfortable balancing pad. A couple of teenage tanuki handed out steamed buns and rice balls; Himself tossed back two of each with barely a blink, said something to Genma, and burst out into belly-thumping laughter.
Kurenai and Harubi came out of a nearby cottage carrying the last set of bundles. Kurenai was in yesterday’s uniform again, with her own pack slung over her shoulder. A cluster of tanuki females escorted them, including Azami, who’d traded her teal kimono for an eye-searing orange and purple. She appeared to be sharing some last words of earnest advice: “—always welcome here,” Ryouma caught, as they neared.
Harubi set her bundle on the handcart, turned, and gave Azami a swift, stooping hug. “I know. And I’ll remember. Thank you.”
Azami nuzzled her cheek. “Leave a message at any shrine. It’ll come to us.”
“Maybe not a kappa shrine,” one of the other tanuki put in. “They’ll forget their own heads. Tengu, though, they’re good messengers, so long as you pay them well. But one of our lowland cousins’ shrines, that’s best…”
Kurenai’s head came up, though her brows bent only in mild interest. There was a poker-face Ryouma’d never match. He heard her first, casual question as he followed Kakashi toward the platform: “I’d wondered about your connections with tanuki outside this village…”
“Do you think she ever stops thinking?” Ryouma asked Kakashi.
Kakashi turned his head to tilt Ryouma a wry look. “Do you?”
“I stop thinking all the time! Well, sometimes.” Like last night. And he… hadn’t really been thinking about that, either. What they’d done, how Kakashi’d looked, in moments of moonlight and shadow; how he’d sounded, felt, tasted, in shivering pleasure or unexpected laughter—
At least now he wasn’t thinking about unsanctioned murder. They were midway between handcarts and platform, none of the officers close enough to hear, none of the tanuki paying attention. He kept his voice low. “You okay this morning?”
Kakashi’s eye widened briefly, then curved. Out of sight, between their bodies, his fingers circled Ryouma’s wrist. “Yes. You?”
“Yeah.” And he wouldn’t have expected that, if he’d thought about it: how easy it felt to walk beside Kakashi, to joke casually with him in daylight, even with the memory of Kakashi’s taste on his tongue. As if nothing at all had changed between them, or… As if there was no shame in the change, or fear. He didn’t need to run. He didn’t want to run. And that should have alarmed him in itself, but—
He was smiling, he realized, probably more like an idiot than otherwise. He scrubbed his face hastily with the other hand, made an attempt at finger-combing his hair. “Did you see they left soap for us after all? Must’ve been on my pillow last night, I woke up with a dent in my ear this morning. We’ll have to make time for laundry when we get back to Tanigawa. If you don’t want to smell us all the way home, Lieutenant.”
Kakashi’s hand dropped. Up on the platform, Genma looked down from his conversation with Himself. He cupped his hand under his tea bowl, frowning slightly. “I think I’m fairly used to your post-mission odor by now. Or is this your subtle way of telling me my uniform stinks so badly Hatake’s dogs complained?”
The dogs were still bullying Sen through breakfast, presumably; Ryouma didn’t see any wagging tails in the area, though plenty of tanuki tails bustled by. Himself bent his enormous head to sniff at Genma instead. “You smell fine to me. Very human.”
“No complaints here,” Kakashi murmured against Ryouma’s ear.
Ryouma swallowed down his stupid smile while Genma was still busy trying not to look alarmed at Giant Tanuki Face snuffling over his hair. If he was a little flushed, maybe Genma would take that for suppressed laughter. Or not notice at all: Genma seemed a trifle too caught up in hiding his own relief when Himself leaned back again.
The lieutenant covered it with a healthy swig of tea, and looked around. “Loading almost done?”
“If Taichou’s satisfied with the sake…” Ryouma glanced back, too. Raidou and Kenta seemed to have come to some agreement; they were lashing ropes over the tower of barrels now, while Harubi’s boy and a couple of knee-high tanuki kits clambered around trying to help. Raidou could probably keep them from getting strangled or squished or smashed, if Kenta didn’t follow through on his threats to tie them to the wheels first.
“Speaking of sake,” Himself rumbled. He plucked a long whisker from his muzzle and dipped it in his tea. Ryouma didn’t blink, and yet he still missed the moment when whisker became writing-brush, its smooth bristles black with ink. The paper might have been magicked out of a plate, or another whisker, or thin air. Himself wrote fluidly for a moment, wiggled his nose in satisfaction, and sat back. “Have them wrap that label on your cask.”
Genma set his tea bowl down, picked the label up, and read aloud, “A promise between friends spans worlds and eons.” He looked up at Himself, brows raised.
Himself met that gaze with sharp black eyes. “Remember it.” He picked up his own tea bowl again. “When you drink the sake together, you can revel in the memory of your brief visit with us.”
Genma handed the label down to Kakashi and bowed, hands flat on his knees. “If I live to be one hundred, I will never forget this.”
“You’d better not!” That was one of last night’s kidnapper tanuki kits, Kaori, scrambling up out of nowhere to plop herself in Genma’s lap. “You should visit. You told Hideki-kun you’d visit. Greatest Grandfather, maybe we should go along and make sure they get back in time for Genma-san’s birthday cake all right…”
Those negotiations seemed like they could go on for a while. Ryouma and Kakashi beat their retreat back to the sake handcart, where Kenta grunted approvingly at the label, spat on the back of it, and slapped it over the largest sake barrel. It adhered as if painted with the QM’s strongest epoxy. Even Raidou looked impressed.
Kakashi leaned in toward Raidou and asked neutrally, “Did someone make a promise with the ancient elder of a species renowned for double-dealing?”
Raidou winced, faintly, and waved him off. “We’ll discuss it later.”
“Huh.” Kakashi settled back on his heels.
They hadn’t, actually, asked the officers what had happened during their bath with the terrifying Intel agent and the literal tanuki god. Maybe they should have.
Now wasn’t the time, though. Harubi, Kurenai, and the female tanuki went up onto the platform to share Himself’s breakfast and tea. Kenta offered Raidou a gourd bottle of something that smelled like coffee and turned out, when it got to Ryouma, to be liberally spiked with paint thinner. Kenta slapped his belly and howled with laughter. “That’s some real tanuki sake! That’ll put fur on your balls.”
Kakashi, wisely, declined.
Sen reappeared, trailing dogs and with her pockets stuffed full of buns. She gave Kakashi and Ryouma a quick, conspiratorial glance, collected her brother from his tangle of tanuki kits, and went to join their mother. The little tanuki Hideki trailed after to demand one more hug from Genma, Kaori move over…
Ryouma finally stopped coughing, and even managed to snag a few nikuman of his own from the trays going around. They were soft and fluffy, filled with seasoned pork. He ate two, and crammed two more into his belt pouch for later.
And then suddenly they were moving: Himself coming down from the platform, Genma trying to juggle one jealous kit in each arm, Kurenai pressing the tanuki ladies with last-minute questions. Harubi hugged her friends again, and thanked them, and collected her children around her. Sen stood very straight, with her hand buried in Kin’s fur.
“We part as friends,” Himself rumbled. “And know that you have a place here, Harubi-san, should you ever wish it.”
“You, too,” Kaori told Genma. She glared fiercely at Raidou. “And you be nice to him, or we’ll know.”
Raidou gave the angry little kit a reassuring smile. “I will be.”
She sniffed, but held her tail anxiously with both paws, and had to be collected by her mother before she would relinquish Genma. Hideki, equally reluctant, was pulled away by his older sister. Genma’s mouth made a funny little shape, like it didn’t quite know what to do with itself. He tucked his hands behind his back.
Himself said, “Follow me.”
Raidou had been expecting a violent dimension shove, much like the wolves had done, though hopefully with less falling and trauma. What actually happened was a short, idyllic walk through the ancient bamboo groves. Himself led the way at an easy stroll. Kurenai and Genma towed the cart piled with Harubi’s belongings, which bounced cheerfully over the rutted road. Raidou and Ryouma sweated and strained to haul the cart stacked with sake barrels. Kakashi lent a shoulder from the rear, and made sardonic comments about potholes.
They arrived at an old torii gate. Sitting in front of it, a fat little guard was eating anpan in a deck chair.
“Bunpei,” said Himself.
The fat little guard squeaked, dropped his breakfast, and scrambled to his feet, grooming hasty crumbs out of his whiskers. He wore only his thick fur, which was dark brown except for a splash of white on the chest. “Greatest Grandfather! I, uh, didn’t expect you today. And—” he peered shortsightedly at the collection of humans and dogs, “and, and visitors…”
Raidou was beginning to suspect this gate did not see a lot of traffic.
“Indeed.” Himself’s tail twitched. “Seeing as Azami and Kenta’s kits snuck right past you to bring them here, it’s surprising you didn’t know about them.”
Bunpei’s velvety ears pressed flat to his skull. He wrung his paws and stammered, “Greatest Grandfather, I— That is to say—”
“Don’t be mean to Bunpei-ojisan!” shouted one of the sake barrels.
Raidou blinked back at the cart, and was almost entirely unsurprised to see a collection of small furry heads pop up from between the barrels. The smallest shook a wrathful paw. “Kikyou-neesan got him drunk. It’s not his fault he fell asleep!”
Bunpei looked mortified. “Tsu-chan, don’t speak to Greatest Grandfather that way!”
Another head lectured the first. “Kikyou-neesan didn’t get him drunk. Yuriko-obasan said he was already drunk and asleep, and she was going to shave his tail until he learned better.”
A third head giggled. “He’s too old for a shaved tail.”
“Not from Yuriko-obasan,” said the second head sagely.
“Children,” Raidou said, with more patience than he knew he had. “Get out of the cart.”
The collection of heads swivelled towards him. The littlest one’s ears flicked. “No,” she said.
“I want buns!” demanded a fourth.
From up the road, a sharp, unexpected voice snapped: “None of you are too old for shaved tails.” Azami stood with her fur fluffed out, hands firmly planted on her hips in the universal sign of motherly outrage. Raidou felt his own spine straighten a little in pure sympathy. She bared her teeth at the cart. “Out.”
One by one, with lowered ears and drooping tails, the stowaway kits surrendered to greater authority and disembarked.
Azami gave the apparently vacated cart a narrow glare. “Hideki…”
A sake barrel quivered, and Raidou realized belatedly that its silhouette was wrong because it had a tail. The barrel unfolded slowly into Hideki, who exited the cart with great reluctance and several backwards glances. Azami nodded once to Himself, gave Bunpei a look that nearly frazzled his whiskers, and herded the group of protesting children back up the path.
Ryouma leaned testingly on the pull-bar of the handcart, and startled when the cart lurched. “Whew. How heavy were those kits?”
Himself chuckled. “As heavy as they thought they needed to be to slow you down, I imagine.”
Nice of you to intervene, Raidou considered, but ultimately did not say.
Kakashi was less restrained. “Can we go home now?” he said, with an acid bite.
Himself made a knowing sound. “You’ve spent far too much time with those humorless fleabags, Hatake Kakashi-san. Their lack of manners has rubbed off on you. But yes, by all means.” He waved a paw towards the gate. “Your path is right through here.”
Pakkun leapt lightly up onto the cart, and then onto Ryouma’s shoulder. “I’m gonna ignore you said that, your scrotumness. ‘Cos I’m polite.”
Kakashi snorted and then coughed, as if he’d surprised himself. Saishou sighed.
Genma flicked a curt ANBU handsign without looking back: Silence. Then dipped his head at Himself. “I apologize on behalf of my subordinates. Please forgive them, and accept our thanks for your hospitality.”
Himself hummed quietly, and gave a curling little smile.
Pakkun stirred, and Raidou just knew he was opening his mouth to make some stupid comment about not being anyone’s subordinate, when Genma whipped around with the molten wrath of every bitterly overextended superior officer in his eyes and hissed, “Zip it.”
Raidou almost took a step back.
Ryouma clamped a hand over Pakkun’s muzzle. Kakashi, very definitively, kept silent.
Kurenai said delicately, “Should we scout ahead?”
Raidou jerked his chin at the gate. “Hatake, front and center.”
Kakashi didn’t argue. He took a wide berth around Genma, all four dogs falling into step at his heels, and strode past Himself and Bunpei without looking at either of them. When he reached the gate, his pace didn’t check; he just walked through. And vanished.
The view through the gate was the pathway, undisturbed, and the other side of the lush bamboo grove. Ryouma made a short, bitten-off sound, and jerked against the bar of the hand-cart. Harubi’s little boy said shakily, “Kaasan?”
Raidou almost yelped when Kakashi’s head — just his head — popped back through the gate. “Seems safe. Except it’s evening.”
Genma looked at Himself with pointed concern. The tanuki elder shrugged, making his fur ripple like a marshmallowy landslide, and said to Harubi’s children, “It’s safe, Tadaichi-chan, Sen-chan, Harubi-san.”
The little boy recovered first with the resilience of small children, and laughed. “His head is floating.” He pulled away from his mother, threw his arms around Himself in a quick, hard hug, and dashed through the gate with an excited yell.
“Tadaichi!” Sen shot after her brother, vanishing between blinks.
Kakashi disappeared again as well, possibly because he’d just been tackled.
Harubi took a deep breath, squared her thin shoulders, and walked determinedly after her children. Just before she reached the gate, Kurenai caught her hand and gave it a reassuring squeeze. The two women went through together.
Genma went next, managing the cart of Harubi’s belongings by himself. Raidou and Ryouma went last, pulling the — much lighter — sake cart.
Just before the gate vanished over them, Himself said, “We’ll be watching, Namiashi-san.”
A step later, they were back in their own world, and all of Raidou’s missing chakra roared back into his bones like the most welcome flood tide.
Genma almost stumbled at the threshold between worlds, when his chakra rocketed through his leading leg, and then the rest of him. And with it, his chakra sense. It was like walking from a blackout into bright sunlight. He felt Ryouma and Raidou pop back into the world behind him — a double blast of flashfire green and suncrest red. A few paces ahead, Kakashi’s steady blue-white glow, the cluster of mustard yellows that came from his dogs, and Kurenai’s midnight-dense plum were more palpable than anything Genma was used to. Team Six’s ANBU sparks were blaring beacons. Even Harubi and her children, with their vague, staticy civilian chakra felt loud to Genma’s senses.
For the first time since Katsuko’d left the team, Genma was glad she wasn’t with them.
The exit from the tanuki’s world was a small path through a bamboo grove, identical to the one they’d walked through, but when Genma looked back, the shrine was nowhere to be seen.
They emerged from the thicket onto the forked road to Tanigawa, where the cluster of stone Jizo and tanuki glowed soft pink in the last light of a setting sun. He checked his watch and found the hands moving again, but it showed only a few minutes past 0600, the time it’d been stuck at since that fateful morning spar. Judging by the sunset glow and the season, it had to be closer to 2000.
Ryouma and Raidou seemed to be having a much easier time of managing the sake cart, with chakra suffusing their muscles and half-ton tanuki kits no longer weighting their load. Harubi had relinquished Kurenai’s hand to take her childrens’ again.
“Kaasan, how come it’s getting dark?” Tadaichi asked. Sen turned solemn eyes on her mother, waiting for an answer.
While Genma tried to think of a way to explain it that would make sense to a six year old, Kakashi answered without hesitation. “Time moves differently between the worlds. It was morning there. It’s night here.”
That simple answer seemed to satisfy the children, to Genma’s surprise. They were much more interested in the way Kakashi was rolling tiny lightning sparks between his fingers, like he was playing with electrical clay.
Genma understood. He found himself testing his own chakra control, sending it to hands and feet just to feel the tingle of potential power and the push-back from the solid earth.
“Is everyone in good shape?” he asked. It was more formality than worry — he felt fine, his chakra-sense was already settling back to normal, and the others looked unruffled — but as medical officer he had to ask.
“Best I’ve been since you got nabbed,” Ryouma said with fervent relief. “Taichou and I can take the carts now, if you sensors wanna scout.”
“I’m fine, Lieutenant,” Kakashi said. “What’s our plan?”
“We need to figure out exactly how much time has actually passed here,” Genma said, “and whether we need to send an immediate relay back to Konoha. We could head back to the spot we camped before and set up a base there, and then a few of us could scout the village. What do you think, Taichou?”
“That works,” Raidou said. “Harubi-san, I want you and your children to stay close to Yuuhi at all times. Hatake, can your dogs run an advance while we make camp?”
“You can ask us directly, y’know,” Pakkun groused. “C’mon, old man.” Yori sighed heavily, but trotted off with Pakkun towards the village. He still favored his stiff leg, but moved with the determined purpose of any shinobi on a mission.
The rest of the party took the rightward fork towards the sound of the river. Genma relinquished his handcart to Ryouma, after Raidou made himself a shadow clone to help with the heavier sake cart.
When they neared the river, Raidou called a halt and sent Genma and Kakashi ahead.
“Hatake, you take left guard, I’ll take right,” Genma said. There was absolutely nothing unusual about the area. The air was warm and a little humid, with a faint breeze. It smelled of soil and growing things. Birds chirped and sang, and a troop of feeding macaques called to each other from the treetops.
A thorough chakra scan should have been reassuring: animals and birds, and even the trees and plants, vibrated with healthy life force. There were no other humans outside the village within Genma’s range, and certainly none at their intended campsite. There was probably no reason to be so cautious, but now that they were back in their own dimension, a cascade of delayed urgency made Genma’s neck tense.
“Anything?” he asked after a moment, when he felt the faintest edge of chakra pressure nearby.
Kakashi materialized — Genma was learning his team — behind Genma’s left shoulder. “There’s a wasp nest on the north side. Otherwise, nothing. Are you expecting something?”
“Not— No. Not really. But we’ve been caught flat-footed more than once on this mission, and we have civilians with us now.”
Kakashi turned a sharp-eyed, assessing look on him. “Tanuki won’t get the chance to steal you again, Lieutenant.” He took a step back. “I’ll make another circuit.” And vanished.
A small, prideful part of Genma wanted to protest that he wasn’t afraid, just being professionally cautious. But honestly, it was reassuring to hear Kakashi’s promise. Even if it was certain that should the tanuki decide to interfere again, there was nothing the ninja could do to stop them.
Another long, thorough chakra scan turned up nothing. Genma pushed ahead to their old campsite to find no evidence it had ever been occupied. The grass wasn’t trampled, there was no remnant of ash or sand to mark their former fire pit. The latrine trench Ryouma had dug in the thicket to the south was nothing but a faintly more fertile looking line of undergrowth in the leaf litter.
Genma met up with Kakashi again at the halfway point. “I almost made a clone to hold the campsite for us, but I realized I was being a little paranoid,” he said. “I’ll go back for the others, if you want to start setting up.”
Kakashi tapped a non-standard salute, two fingertips to his temple, and vanished towards the campsite.
When Genma got back to Raidou and the rest, Kurenai and Harubi were leaning against the cart of Harubi’s belongings, conversing. Saishou rested in the shade of the cart next to the women. Sen was sitting on the end of the sake cart, feet swinging, and watching Tadaichi chase Kin in a long orbit around the carts. Raidou and Ryouma were both alert and on guard, and Kurenai’s head snapped up the instant Genma came within sight. At least Genma wasn’t the only one feeling uncomfortable with the sudden lack of threat.
“It’s all clear. Hatake’s starting setup,” Genma told them.
Ryouma brightened immediately. “Somebody who isn’t me gets to dig latrines?”
“It’s a rookie’s job,” Genma said. “And it’s not like it’s a difficult earth jutsu to make a trench.” He’d seen Ryouma use the jutsu before, so this was clearly pro-forma complaining.
Ryouma drew himself up, full of injured dignity. “Latrine trenches are the worst trenches.” He glanced at Sen and Tadaichi, clearly hoping for a response.
“Latrines are where you poop!” Tadaichi broke off from his chase and gleefully took the bait. “Poop, poop, poop!”
Harubi tickled her son on the side. “Maybe you can help dig a trench.”
“Nooooooooo,” Tadaichi shrieked, giggling madly. Kin barked once, joining in the excitement.
Genma had to laugh. “Whoever digs the latrines had better get a move on before we lose the light. Tousaki, go see what help Hatake needs, Taichou and I will take the carts.”
Pakkun and Yori came trotting around the bend, an odd couple — one rangey and grizzled, the other a plump sausage on stumpy legs, in a blue vest and hitai-ate.
“Are we not doing stealth?” Pakkun inquired. “Good to know. How about breakfast? Can we do that?” Yori nipped him on the ear. Pakkun rolled his eyes and added, “Village is quiet, chickens are roosting, nothing to report. Did notice that sunflowers are blooming, though.”
At this elevation, this far north, there shouldn’t be sunflowers until mid-July. Genma frowned. “Fully blooming? Or you mean a few early ones?”
That information sank like a cold lump of granite in Genma’s chest. “I hope we’re only talking a lost week or two.”
“You said we’d been gone three weeks,” Sen said — not quite an accusation, but there was tension in her voice. She frowned down the path where Ryouma had disappeared. “But you were only in the tanuki’s country for, like, a day.”
“The flow of time may be irregular,” Kurenai said, more calmly than she felt. “Let’s get to camp. A few of us can head into the village later. We’ll get more information — and deliver your message, Harubi-san.”
“I haven’t had time to write yet,” Harubi said, hoisting Tadaichi up onto Genma’s cart.
“We can do that at camp, too. I have paper in my pack.” Which she could access now, thank all the gods. Even the ANBU’s paranoia couldn’t dampen the spine-searing relief of her returned chakra. She gave Harubi a reassuring smile, and a hand up beside Tadaichi.
Genma and Raidou — and Raidou’s shadow-clone — threw themselves against the carts’ pull-bars. The carts jounced rapidly off the rutted lane, through leaf-litter and over small bushes. With the river a reassuring murmur to their right, they worked their way between trees and around rocks until they reached the sheltered grove where the rookies had set up camp.
Three small tents surrounded a rock-circled fire. Kakashi was already setting up a tripod and kettle. Caffeine first, Kurenai hoped. Late evening might be falling here, but her stomach still thought it was morning.
Ryouma scrambled out of the largest tent, tugged his boots on, and loped over to give Genma a hand settling his cart. “Figured Harubi-san and her kids can have your tent. You and Taichou can take ours, and Yuuhi-san keeps hers. Me and Kakashi’ll stand watch.”
“I don’t think any of us will be ready to sleep anytime soon,” Genma said. “But sure, that will work.” He checked his hands for blisters. Raidou held up his own in silent demonstration, and Genma grunted approval.
“It’s dark and I’m not tired,” Tadaichi announced.
“You’ll go to bed anyway, if Kaasan says so.” Sen jumped down from the sake cart, tucked her hands behind her back, and looked around warily. “We’re staying outside? Is it safe here?”
“Very safe,” Genma reassured her. “We’re protecting you, and you won’t be outside, you’ll be in a tent. Even in a typhoon, you can stay dry in a good tent. And our tents are very good.”
Looking dubious, Sen wandered close enough to poke at one oiled-canvas wall, then ducked to look inside. Tadaichi kicked his sandals off and scrambled in under her arm. His voice came echoing back. “They’ve got futons! But they’re not real futons, they’re just blankets on the ground— Ow, nee-san, I’m not being rude…”
Investigations should keep them busy for a little while. Kurenai pulled a scroll out of her belt pouch, unlocked it with a fingertip of tingling-sweet chakra, and pulled out paper and ink brush for Harubi. “Do you want us to give a message to anyone other than Noriko-san? Is there anything else you’d like us to bring back?”
Harubi’s mouth thinned. She rolled the ink brush between her fingers. “No.” She pulled a flat box out of the cart, spread the paper on its surface, and sat down to write.
The kettle hadn’t yet come to a boil when Harubi finished. She waved the letter dry — close-written, but still barely half the page — folded, and sealed it with her thumb print. Then she handed it to Kurenai. “You don’t need to wait for an answer. I’ve told Noriko where to write to me.” Doubt flickered suddenly in her eyes. “It’s — I can tell her to write to Konoha, right? That you’ll know where to reach me?”
“Of course. If you move on to Hikouto, or anywhere else, we can get letters to you.” Kurenai smiled at her, coaxing one in return. “Konoha chuunin generally charge a hefty fee for message-service, but in your case I’m sure they’ll settle for a jug or two of sake…”
“With my sake, they’d be getting a deal.” Harubi’s halfway smile wavered, and faded. “When you see my husband…”
Kurenai’s fingers cramped around the memory of a seal. She kept them still. “This story is yours. It ends how you want it.”
Harubi looked across the fire, at Sen coming out of the tent, at Tadaichi carefully dusting off his sandals before slipping them back on. She shook her head. “I don’t want him haunting me. I just want to take my children somewhere safe, and make sake, and never think about him again.”
“It’s getting late enough we can probably get into town without too much notice.” Genma came out of the dark trees into the warm glow of firelight, wiping his hands on his pants. “I don’t know which rookie ended up doing the digging, but there is a latrine, and we have the food the tanuki gave us when you get hungry.”
Harubi’s eyes widened. “Are— are you all going?”
“Hatake and Tousaki will stay,” Raidou said, tightening his armor strap. Kin yipped and rubbed reassuringly against Harubi’s hip, and Raidou cracked a small smile. “And dogs. The rest of us will get this done, and then we can all go home.”
Harubi pressed her hands together, and ducked a little nod that almost became a bow. “Thank you.” She turned away, one hand trailing absently through Kin’s fur, and called Tadaichi away from the fire.
“We won’t be long.” Raidou settled his armor and collected Genma and Kurenai with a jerk of his chin. As they left, Kurenai heard Kakashi asking the children if they’d ever heard of the adventures of a pirate named Captain Seaweed…
Sharingan no Kakashi, professional killer and amateur storyteller. Kurenai smiled to herself, and lengthened her stride heading back toward the village.
They reached Tanigawa at moonrise. A waning gibbous moon, arcing down from full. They’d had a waxing crescent on their last visit. Two weeks at least, Kurenai thought, and her stomach clenched cold.
Several houses in the village were already dark, but the izakaya spilled light and sound out onto the street. In the center of the village, an upstairs window glowed in Nomiya’s tall house. Kurenai checked on the street outside Noriko’s sister’s house. “How do you want to do this, Namiashi? Visit Nomiya quietly, or call him and the village out?”
Raidou scowled down the dusty street at the glowing window. “Let’s do this quick. Yuuhi, how about an area effect to get everyone out here?”
That was easy enough. “Five minutes. Head for the village center; I’ll be there shortly.” She knocked on the door. Behind her, only the whisper of air announced the ANBU’s departure.
Two minutes passed before Noriko answered the door. She’d clearly not been expecting visitors, this time; her hair was coiled in a loose braid for sleep, and she wore a dark sleeveless robe shrugged hastily over her yukata. Her eyes widened when she saw Kurenai standing alone on the doorstep. “Shinobi-san! Are you— Did you—?”
“This is for you.” Kurenai unzipped her vest and drew the letter out. “Tell no one. Justice is limited, but this may reassure you.”
Noriko stared at her, then down at the letter. She unfolded it gingerly. Her breath caught.
“She wrote it today,” Kurenai said. “Do you know the date?”
“The 23rd,” Noriko said, distracted. “She’s safe? She’s with you? Is she coming— Oh, no…”
Kurenai left her there, reading her friend’s words, and walked toward the village center. She could see the pale gleam of ANBU armor in the street outside Nomiya’s house. A few curious bystanders had already ducked beneath the hanging noren of the izakaya, but they needed more. Kurenai reached for seals, for chakra, and then for every spark of waking mind in the village.
She sent the alert as a compulsion, an itching curiosity groping after a half-heard voice: “There’s something happening at the mayor’s house.” Voices raised in the izakaya. Lights flickered on. Doors rattled open behind her, and the first stumbling footsteps hit the street.
In the Nomiya house, the ground floor lights came on. Then a single bulb on the porch, bathing the street in a dim yellow glow. Genma and Raidou stood still, armed and armored, their masks reflecting the eerie light. Crescent Moon. Tanuki. Konoha’s faceless tools.
“It’s the 23rd,” she murmured as she reached them. “Two and a half weeks.” So much for Raidou’s guess about linear time — but still, not nearly so bad as it could have been.
Genma’s breath hissed hollowly behind his mask, but neither of them moved, even to glance down at her. Genma’s hands were locked behind his back, in a perfect parade rest that broadened his shoulders and drew up his spine. Raidou stood just as still, his hands loose and killing-ready at his sides. Kurenai took up her position behind and to his left, tucked into his shadow, with a direct line of sight to the door.
Nomiya came out in a rumpled indigo jinbei, like half the men in the gathering crowd. He saw the ANBU, and stopped squarely on the doorstep. The porch light caught the bob of his throat as he swallowed.
Mutters grew in the still night air. What’s going on? Who are they? You fool, those’re Fire Country ANBU. What’re they here for? Mayor Nomiya, what’s going on? What is he waiting for?
Nomiya collected himself and slid the door shut behind him. “Another team here from Fire Country? Welcome. Have you found our missing sake at last?”
“We know what happened to your wife,” Raidou said. His voice echoed faintly within the mask, inhuman, but still coldly clear. “She used the sake to buy her freedom from you.” He turned his head, raking a faceless black gaze over the gathered villagers. There were nearly a hundred by now, and more gathering every moment. “From what everyone here allowed to happen to her and her children.”
“What? My— That’s preposterous.” Nomiya cracked a rough, nervous laugh. “My wife’s staying with her family this summer.” He looked out at the muttering crowd, and his face reddened. “Are you trying to imply she’s… she’s behind the theft? And she’s taken my children?”
“No.” Raidou turned back to him. “Her children. You’ve forfeited your rights to them. Harubi is gone; she’s not coming back. Fire Country is hereby terminating its contracts, effective immediately, with you.”
The brewer Inada pushed her way to the front of the crowd. “What do you mean? Are you the shinobi who went to look for our sake? Did you find it?”
Grey-haired Goto joined her. “Are you breaking contracts with all of us, or just him?”
“Just Nomiya. For now.” Raidou’s icy voice promised that could change. Goto shrank back, grabbing Inada’s sleeve.
“This is ridiculous.” Nomiya folded his arms, muscles tense over his barrel chest. “I’m sure it’s a misunderstanding.” His gaze darted to the crowd, to the shinobi, back to his villagers. A frantic calculus of safety, Kurenai judged. Invite the ninja inside, with some hope of containing the damage? Or stay outside, vulnerable to the crowd’s fickle opinion, but less likely to be murdered in front of a hundred witnesses?
She flexed her fingers, gently.
“There is no misunderstanding,” Genma said. A lethal chill edged each word. “We found evidence of violence and spilled blood when we were here last. At the time we were prepared to discover bodies, and were relieved to find Harubi-san and her children alive and safe. Harubi-san has healed fractures and fresh bruises. Her daughter Sen has evidence of injuries, too, and a deeply instilled terror of her father.” He turned, very slowly, and his voice rolled out to the crowd. “What is there to misunderstand?”
“I knew it.” Noriko’s bitter voice rang above the rising murmurs. She shoved forward, breaking out into the dim porch light with clenched fists and with the faint outline of folded paper in the front of her yukata. “We all knew it. We saw what he did to that rice merchant’s guard. We knew he did the same to her behind closed doors, but he talked about electricity, he talked about contracts, he was making us good money, and so we turned our backs—”
“I have done nothing but good for this village!” Nomiya shouted. He stepped forward to the edge of the porch, spreading his hands, as if beseeching the villagers back to him. “I protected you from those bandits, I brought improvements that benefit all of you, including my competitors, and I never once laid a finger on my wife! These foreigners have no proof behind their claims, but I’ve lived here all my life. You know me!”
“I saw you raise a hand to her,” someone from the crowd called. “Saw you do it last March! Said she was flirting with the barrel-maker’s son.”
The murmurs rose. Nomiya’s jaw worked sideways. “I may have lost my temper once or twice, but she provoked me. Flirting with other men — anyone who came to the house, or the brewery. She was crafty. Maybe— Maybe she did steal the sake. She told me she was taking the children to visit her parents, but that was a lie like all the others. She probably seduced some fool from the rice merchant’s guild to steal our sake, and he’s hired these so-called Konoha ninja to cover her tracks. Don’t be tricked by a whore and her pawns—”
“Are you making a formal accusation against Konoha?” Raidou asked levelly.
“We don’t even know you are Konoha,” Nomiya spat. “If you’re the team who was here two weeks ago, you could’ve been lying even then. You might not even be ninja—”
Genma had been standing at Raidou’s right shoulder, several steps short of the porch. Abruptly he was on the porch itself, his tied hair faintly ruffled, his masked face centimeters from Nomiya’s. Nomiya lurched back. Genma paced him, one smooth step forward. His low voice filled the crowd’s sudden silence. “I assure you, Nomiya-san, we are Fire Country’s best. Feel free to test us.”
Killing intent seeped through the air, acrid on Kurenai’s tongue, cold down her spine. Someone in the crowd whimpered at the controlled fringe of Genma’s release. Nomiya caught himself against one of the porch pillars and visibly locked his knees.
But the goal here wasn’t to showcase Konoha’s strength, or even to instill a worthy terror in Tanigawa’s villagers. Kurenai’s promise to Harubi and to Himself still held. They didn’t want Nomiya to die of fear, or of stupidity.
They just wanted him to suffer.
Kurenai shaped a seal, spun out her chakra, and set Nomiya’s mind cowering in a fragile shell of nightmare.
Nomiya buckled to the ground like a nerveless bag of glands. The dim light showed a darkening patch on the front of his jinbei trousers. It looked like he’d just succumbed to terror, but Raidou could feel the razor slice of Kurenai’s genjutsu catching hold.
A little part of Raidou thought, Ouch.
In the weeks Raidou had trained with Kurenai, he’d learned that particular sting on an intimate level, every time she’d cut through his proto-shield. Kurenai had a talent for the sharp and ironic. If Raidou had to make a wager, he’d guess Nomiya was currently experiencing the world as a ten-year-old, running away from something dark and terrible and father-shaped.
Raidou turned to look at the stone-struck crowd. Some scared, some angry, but many, especially among the younger woman, looked electrified. Noriko’s face was lit like a beacon.
“You are who you choose to follow,” he informed them shortly. “I suggest a change of leadership.”
A moment of shifting silence rippled by. Then a voice from the crowd; the same man who’d seen Nomiya hit Harubi. “Told you he was guilty. What’s he got to be so scared of if he didn’t do it?”
A murmur went around. This time, it seemed mostly agreeing.
Genma stepped back, hands open and loose at his sides, having never touched Nomiya. “Perhaps,” he said delicately, “someone could help him back into his home before he stains the porch.”
Someone giggled nervously. Goto folded his arms and turned away, striking a clear distinction between himself and the fallen man. Inada sighed as if the whole affair had made her tired, and volunteered two of her young brewing assistants forward. “Junichi, Keigo, get him out of here.”
Two burly men came up the stairs, skirting the ninja like they were live explosives. They hoisted Nomiya up like a bag of grain, wrinkling their noses at the smell. The big man lurched between them, blinking and confused, wet-eyed. He made an aborted attempt to struggle as they dragged him back inside.
Inada stepped forward. “Nomiya won’t hold his head up in this village after tonight. We’ll make sure of that. You, ah… You say you won’t recover any of the sake…” She faltered, apparently realized she was failing to appear sympathetic, and hastily amended: “Of course not. We understand that. We hope the best for Harubi-san, of course. And her children.”
Big of you, Raidou thought.
Kurenai said, silken, “And you’ll ensure that no woman in the village suffers like Harubi-san did, won’t you.”
It wasn’t a question. Genma, standing behind her, folded his arms. Muscles flexed under his bare skin.
Inada, a woman herself, gave these twin threats a slightly sardonic look. Raidou would almost have admired her, if this village didn’t make him think of a poisoned well. “Or Konoha will return to burn us all down? I… admit there have been times when I should have spoken, but stayed silent. Without Nomiya — and Harubi — I am the biggest brewer here.” She raised her sharp chin. “And I have daughters, too.”
“Who has sons?” Raidou asked.
A few braver souls dared to raise a hand.
“Teach them better,” Raidou said.
The hands dropped. Silence fell. Raidou hoped, somewhere in the night and fear, that a few minds were turning. He signaled Genma and Kurenai. “We’re done here.”
Kurenai’s fingers twisted, a subtle movement ending her genjutsu, and she walked down from the porch. Genma fell into step behind her. All three of them walked out of the village, leaving the crowd to listen to the muffled sounds of Nomiya’s ugly sobs.
Raidou waited until they were past the crossroads before he let his shoulders relax. “All things considered,” he said ruefully, “I still think we should have killed him.”
Kurenai sighed. “You’re not alone. But I don’t particularly want to spend another night in these woods with a pissed-off tanuki god, do you?”
“If it didn’t involve violating a contract with a deity, I’d still go back and do it,” Genma told her. “You made sure he suffered, though.”
“And pissed himself,” Raidou said. “Don’t forget that bit.”
Genma laughed with distinct satisfaction. Kurenai smiled tightly. “After the last two days — or two weeks — I had some good ideas.”
Raidou smiled behind his mask. “You always have good ideas.”
Kurenai glanced up at him. Thin moonlight fell through the trees to cast bars of shadow on her face. Her smile eased into something real—then fell away entirely, and she looked away. Genma took a single step closer to her, bumping his bare shoulder very briefly against hers in a comforting gesture.
Raidou cleared his throat, and turned his attention to navigating the way back to camp.
Genma broke the silence a while later. “What do we want to tell Harubi-san? We delivered her letter, made her husband piss his pants in front of the whole village, and he definitely won’t be bothering her again?”
“That sounds right to me,” Kurenai said. “We kept our word. He won’t haunt her, but he’ll never have the village’s respect again.”
But Raidou had to wonder. A smart man could turn even excruciating public embarrassment to his advantage. The ninja mind-slaved me. Konoha can’t be trusted. It’s all a trick to steal our sake and ruin my reputation…
It was easier to believe the better of someone, than admit you’d spent years ignoring their violent flaws. Raidou sighed silently and rubbed a hand through his hair. Really, a quick execution would have been tidier all round.
But they’d promised. So he just had to hope that Inada was smarter than that.
A wisp of smoke and the smell of roasting meat let him know when they were getting close. A moment later, Kin came bounding out of the undergrowth to plant her giant paws on Genma’s chest and lick his mask. Genma staggered back under her weight, laughing, and fended her off enough to tip his mask back. He ruffled his hands through her golden fur, smiling like she was a balm after something toxic. “Hi, pretty girl! Did you do the hunting? Something smells good.”
Kin yipped, dropped down to playfully circle around Genma, then diverted to headbutt Kurenai in a blatant attempt to win an ear scratch from long, talented nails. Kurenai chuckled softly and complied, making Kin shiver all over and beat the air into submission with furious tail-wagging.
Just watching the three of them, Raidou felt his chest lighten.
Harubi’s little boy tumbled through a bush, looked at them wildly, and shot off back to camp. “KAASAN, THE NINJA ARE BACK!”
“Good thing we’re not trying for stealth,” Raidou said dryly.
As they made their way into camp, he was surprised to find Kakashi and Sen crouched together next to the fire, apparently deep in discussion about the finer points of open-air cooking. Four skinned rabbits hung suspended on wooden spits over the flames, dripping fat that hissed and spat. Yori lay on the other side of the fire, warming his old joints. Pakkun was curled up against the bigger dog’s shaggy side, half-asleep.
A little further away, Ryouma and Harubi shared space on a fallen tree-trunk, each holding a steaming cup. Harubi’s knuckles were tense and blanched, but Ryouma held her attention with a lively story — something about Mangrove Country and hunting giant lizards. Saishou stretched out at their feet, panting lightly and licking the ear of the small giggling boy who’d collapsed dramatically down next to her.
Harubi looked up with dark, anxious eyes.
Raidou pushed his mask up. “It’s July 23rd. No one’s dead,” he said. “And no one’s bothering you again.”
Genma crouched down next to her, bracing his elbows lightly on his knees. “Your friends are safe, too. You and your kids can put this chapter behind you and look forward to life in Fire Country.”
Harubi drew a long, deep breath, and bought a moment by taking a drink from her mug. Then lowered it with an uneasy laugh. “I guess this isn’t the moment to second-guess. No.” She looked past Genma, at Sen, who was watching them warily. “Thank you. I— will probably have more questions tomorrow. Not now. I don’t want to think about it now. Just. Thank you.”
For now, Raidou thought, a distraction might be warranted. He nodded at Harubi, to acknowledge, and asked, “Whose idea was it to let Hatake cook?”
The rabbits, plump and savory, vindicated Kakashi — and Ryouma, who’d switched from kid-wrangling to Harubi-settling duties as the evening wore on and her nerves wore thin. She seemed easier, more settled, as they ate. When Tadaichi crawled into her lap, tired from romping, she wrapped her arms around him and rocked him gently, murmuring into his hair.
Sen hunched on the other side of the fire, licking grease off her fingers, and watching Ryouma and Kakashi with hungry eyes.
She didn’t protest when Harubi told the children it was time for bed. Even Tadaichi seemed ready for a nap, once he’d won a promise that Kin could sleep with them. Genma distributed spare toothbrushes from his kit, and they all trooped down to the river to wash up.
Sen managed to collar Ryouma on the pretext of borrowing his toothpaste. She was white-faced in the moonlight, eyes like coals. “You’re still going to do it, aren’t you? You’re not just going to walk away ‘cause your officers say it’s safe?”
“We took the job,” Ryouma said. “We’ll go tonight.”
She hesitated for a moment, then ducked her head. “Okay.” She stuck the toothbrush in her mouth and turned away.
Ryouma didn’t find a chance to talk to Kakashi until the kids were already in bed. Harubi sat up a little longer, talking with Kurenai. Maybe she liked undercover spy stories better than stories about fighting Mangrove Country scaled lizards, or maybe she was just too keyed-up to sleep. The officers crouched over a set of maps, discussing train routes in low voices. Ryouma met Kakashi’s eye across the fire, jerked his head toward the latrine trench, and set off on a slow saunter through the brush.
Kakashi joined him a moment later. They only had a few minutes. He tried to make them count.
“I figured shadow clones, solid as we can make ‘em. We’ll only be gone an hour or so. Nobody’s gonna be up for sparring tonight, and a good shadow clone’ll carry on any conversation short of a brawl. Which even Taichou won’t want, on account of the kids are sleeping, and last time he punched somebody tanuki attacked.”
Kakashi nodded. “We can translocate to cut the time.”
“I might throw up,” Ryouma warned. He zipped up his fly. “And the lieutenant’d sense us, anyway. You’re good enough to mask your spark while translocating, but I’m not. You could go ahead, though. Scout it out, make sure we can do it quiet. D’you have rope?”
Moonlight caught the faintest narrowing of Kakashi’s eye, the curve of a smirk. “Always.” He lifted his hands into seals.
His chakra, already dim, turned sideways for just a moment. Two mirror images peeled away, wreathed in smoke, with a weighty chakra presence that blazed almost more vibrant than the original. An ANBU spark burned in both.
Genma’d sense the jutsu, if he was paying attention. Ryouma surged through his own seals, sheared off half his chakra, and stepped aside from the second version of himself suddenly occupying the narrow space between trench and trees. The shadow-smoke from Kakashi’s jutsu hadn’t yet cleared; with luck, Genma would never notice there’d been two.
His kage bunshin looked keenly at Kakashi’s doubled clones. “One of you for helping carry firewood back? Smart.”
Kakashi’s clones exchanged a glance.
“Sure,” one said.
“Firewood,” said the other.
“Yes.” They studied Ryouma, and his clone, with bright eyes.
“Holy shit,” Ryouma’s clone said. It looked as agonized as Ryouma felt. “We don’t have time, but when we get back home—” It pivoted, jabbing a finger at Ryouma’s armored chest. “Don’t you stop for fun on the road.”
“I’m going for murder,” Ryouma said. “You think I’d stop for sex afterward?”
“Yes,” his clone said.
He… probably didn’t have time to argue with that. “Get going before the officers miss you,” he said. “Don’t forget the firewood.”
Kakashi laughed softly. “I’ll see you there.” The barest flicker of chakra skimmed across Ryouma’s senses, and he was gone.
Ryouma clamped down on his own chakra and bolted into the trees after him. The clones could handle gathering firewood, setting a first watch, even explaining themselves to the officers, at need. He’d just have to hope they didn’t trip over a branch and explode themselves. At least, not before the officers went to sleep.
The run wasn’t long. He stretched his legs and filled his lungs, and even managed to wring some enjoyment out of the warm night, the mountain breeze, the easy flow of his body moving as it was meant. His knee hadn’t troubled him since the last session with Niimi-sensei. Kakashi still wanted to have sex with him — he must’ve been thinking of it, or his clones wouldn’t have come out so single-minded. Ryouma was going to kill a yellow-livered bastard of an abusive father, and this was one job he wouldn’t lose an hour of sleep over.
Tanigawa’s stone lanterns loomed up, burnt dark at this hour of night. He left the road and circled behind breweries and warehouses, angling toward the steep-roofed house he remembered. A chakra ember flared for him in the darkness, and he dropped gratefully into deeper shadows behind the kitchen door.
“Yuuhi did good work,” Kakashi murmured. “Half the village is still awake and meeting in Inada’s warehouse. Nomiya’s a mess. There are two guards outside his front door.”
“Good night for suicide,” Ryouma whispered back. “You gone inside yet?”
“For a moment. He’s in the kitchen.” Kakashi unwound a length of rope between his hands, rougher than their standard issue. “I borrowed this from his brewery. Seemed appropriate.”
And much less suspicious than using Konoha’s smooth, narrow, black-dyed rope. Ryouma suppressed a brief urge to kiss him. Just adrenaline, probably.
“Sen didn’t say whether she wanted him to know. What d’you think?”
Kakashi’s head tilted. “What would you want?”
That didn’t take much thought. Or… three years of it, from another point of view. “I’d want him to know exactly who sent us, and why.”
Something fierce and violent glimmered in Kakashi’s eye. “I’ll hold him. You tell him.”
Ryouma swallowed down the visceral response. He unclipped his mask from his belt and set it over his face. “Let’s earn that half-ryou.”
He opened the kitchen door. Kakashi moved in first, like a lightning strike: ripping Nomiya up from his crumpled seat at the table, pinning him bent backward over the counter. One gloved hand blocked Nomiya’s startled scream. The chair wobbled and tipped.
Ryouma caught it, set it upright. There’d been no more sound than a scuff. He heard nothing from the guards at the front of the house. There was a genkan and a long tatami room between them, but Ryouma still kept his voice low, a chest-deep growl. “You look like hell. Your daughter wants you there.”
Nomiya bucked against Kakashi’s grip, wide-eyed with panic. His heels beat against the cabinets. Kakashi swept his feet out from under him, pinned them with a practiced ankle-lock, and jabbed a nerve cluster at the base of Nomiya’s neck. The muffled yell gurgled away. Nomiya clawed at Kakashi’s arm-guards, found no purchase, tried a punch to the ribs. Kakashi deflected him effortlessly.
Ryouma said, “Just so you know, your life was worth half a ryou. But we’d have done this for free.” He bared his teeth behind the painted stillness of his mask. “Harubi will think you killed yourself for shame. The whole village will. But Sen will know you died squirming like a roach under a boot. Not because you lost face in front of the village. But because you hurt her.”
Tears of pain, or fear, welled in Nomiya’s eyes. His beefy hands slipped off the smooth surface of Kakashi’s arm-guards again. He made a breathy, bubbling moan: it might have been Please.
Kakashi shifted his grip and held the rope up. “Be brave. It’ll hurt less.”
“Or don’t,” Ryouma said. “Your choice.”
Rage clawed at the back of his throat. He wanted to smash Nomiya’s big sledgehammer hands, his coward-cruel face; he wanted to make Nomiya beg, and he wanted to rot the man from the inside out. He said, almost a snarl, “Let’s do it.”
Together they wrestled Nomiya beneath the central ceiling beam. The man fought until the noose tightened around his neck, and then he made one last attempt to plead or pray. Ryouma didn’t listen. They secured the rope, knocked over a chair beneath the kicking feet, and then hunted through the kitchen for paper and ink. Kakashi sat down at the table with a book of brewery accounts, and opened his Sharingan eye.
Eventually, Nomiya stopped kicking.
Nomiya’s handwriting was easy to pick out — cramped and irregular, with messy blotching where the brush had skittered away from an unpracticed hand. By comparison, Haubi’s accounting was clear and legible. It was the work of moments — with his Sharingan gloriously working again — to forge a credible note.
I can’t live with what I’ve done. I’m sorry. I hope my family will forgive me.
He didn’t waste time on details. Without knowing what the commanding officers and Kurenai had said during their little town circular, it was safer to be vague. He doubted anyone was going to dig too deeply, anyway. Nomiya was a liability now. He wouldn’t be missed.
Kakashi left the folded paper on the kitchen table, and closed his Sharingan before looking at the body.
Swollen, grossly protruding tongue. Cyanotic lips. Broken blood vessels in the bulging, half-open eyes. Recent medical reading supplied technical terms: petechiae, ecchymosis. The real world effect was a bloated purple face and air that was beginning to smell strongly of crap.
“Proof of death,” Kakashi said.
Ryouma lifted the left hand, still limp and warm, and wrestled the wedding ring off the third finger. Nomiya had broken his nails scrabbling at the rope. A trace of blood remained on the thin gold circle. Ryouma studied it dispassionately, before wrapping the ring in a piece of cloth and tucking it into a belt-pouch.
He cast a last look around the kitchen, searching for things out of place, and nodded. “Good work.” Then made for the door.
Kakashi studied Nomiya for a moment more. A big, violent man. Now dangling meat. In the quiet aftermath that followed murder, Kakashi wondered, not for the first time, where he’d gone.
He closed the door on his way out.
Ryouma had already slipped, wraith-like, out of the village. Kakashi caught up with him in the forest.
“Are you o—” was as far as Kakashi got, before Ryouma turned and shoved him against a tree. The gesture was violent, but the hand that pushed Kakashi’s ANBU mask aside was careful. Kakashi did not go for knives, which a distant part of himself noted with a sort of congratulatory surprise. Ryouma kissed him, hard.
There was something desperately unsexy about it. Teeth and adrenaline and rough bark pressed against the back of Kakashi’s head. Kakashi went with it anyway, for a moment, because he wanted to, because his nerves were the shivering mix of iced-over and hyper-alert that went with deadly moments, and Ryouma’s mouth was a hot press of focus. Then Ryouma dropped his head to bite at Kakashi’s neck, and there were little tremors going through Ryouma’s shoulders, and Ryouma wasn’t talking.
“Ryou— ow.” Kakashi smacked the back of Ryouma’s head. “Stop.”
Ryouma pulled back. His pupils were blown, skin turned a strange golden-grey in the dim light. When he finally spoke, it sounded like an effort. “You don’t want it?”
“I’m not sure you want it,” Kakashi said. He anchored a hand in Ryouma’s chestplate, before Ryouma could do something stupid, like bolt, and wrapped his other hand around the back of Ryouma’s skull. “Are you even here right now?”
“I’m here,” Ryouma said, like a reflex. “I want it.” He stopped anyway, just for a second, and that breath was enough. Awareness flickered back into his eyes; the tremors eased faintly. “Still not a good idea, is it.”
In unfamiliar territory, between a roiling village and their commanding officers? Kakashi politely didn’t comment. He rubbed his thumb over Ryouma’s temple, instead, stroking back sweat-soaked hair. Ryouma’s eyes slid closed.
Just touch, then?
Kakashi released his grip carefully and wrapped his arms around Ryouma, over cold armor and iron-tense muscles. When Ryouma didn’t immediately break away, Kakashi dropped his chin to rest on Ryouma’s shoulder. Ryouma shuddered, but exhaled a long, relieved sigh. His arms crept up to circle Kakashi’s back. He tipped his face against Kakashi’s head. His chakra was a violent roil under splintered sheets of control, like magma beneath a troubled glacier.
When he spoke, his breath ruffled Kakashi’s hair. “My clone’s gonna laugh its fool head off, if I don’t banish it first.”
“You do get smug when you’re right,” Kakashi agreed.
“It’s like I know me,” Ryouma said, making Kakashi snort. Ryouma pressed his mouth against Kakashi’s hair, inhaling. It seemed to help. Ryouma got a little heavier, letting Kakashi take his weight. “Usually I… can wait til I get back, though. Sorry. I did warn you.”
That took Kakashi a second to place. Then he realized: by the tanuki pond, before they’d done anything. Ryouma saying: Maybe I’d do something worth hating.
Ryouma had a low bar for hatred.
Kakashi didn’t know how to fix that right now. The longer they stayed here, the more likely their clones would be discovered and fallout would hit the fan. He pressed what he hoped was a reassuring kiss against Ryouma’s temple, and said, “Come on. We need to go back.”
“Yeah.” Ryouma held tighter, though, just for a moment. Then dropped his arms. “Race you back? Stealthily.”
Kakashi’s mouth quirked. Transparent, but there was still restless adrenaline in his blood that needed to go somewhere. “You’ll lose.”
A familiar glint returned to Ryouma’s eyes. “Willing to bet on that?”
Kakashi thought for a second. “Winner gets one favor of their choice to be decided later, no questions asked.”
“No translocation, and you’re on.”
Well obviously. Kakashi grinned, then froze, staring in shock over Ryouma’s shoulder. “Taichou?”
Reflexively, Ryouma jerked around to look, and Kakashi bolted into the trees.
He still lost by a whisker. Ryouma took a deer path that was a fraction shorter, discovered on the way to Tanigawa while Kakashi had been busy translocating. They traded places with their clones on the outskirts of the camp, muting the chakra disturbance as much as possible. A keen sensor would have noticed, but Ryouma’s clone reported that Genma and Kurenai were both asleep. Raidou, less of a concern, was also snoring quietly.
Sen was awake, sat next to the banked fire. Saishou lay curled against her hip, heavy sides rising in slow sleep. The girl held a half-peeled stick in her hand, exposed surface gleaming like a new bone. She picked off a fragment of bark and tossed it into the fire, making a spark crackle.
Ryouma scuffed one foot lightly on the ground. Sen’s head came up. She squinted at them, eyes darting from armor to weapons, to the masks clipped on their belts, before settling on Ryouma’s face. He crouched down in front of her. Kakashi spread his senses out, keeping a featherlight touch on five sleeping bodies, watching closely.
Sen’s jaw tightened. “You couldn’t do it.”
Silently, Ryouma dipped into his belt pouch, pulled out the scrap of cloth he’d wrapped the ring in, and unfolded it. Bloodied gold reflected the firelight. Sen stared at it. Ryouma said quietly, “Learn to trust, Sen. It’s hard. But it’ll take you from surviving to living.”
Kakashi looked sharply at the back of Ryouma’s head.
Sen took an unsteady breath and picked up the ring, turning it between her fingers. It was big in her hands. She closed her fist around it, like an anchor. “Did he know it was me?”
“Yes,” Ryouma said.
Sen’s face was unreadable, ash-pale. “Did it hurt?”
“Yes,” Ryouma said.
She lifted her eyes to Ryouma’s face. “Did he hurt you?”
Ryouma shook his head gently. “He cried.” A hesitation, and Kakashi thought perhaps Ryouma was done, out of emotion to spend on this sharp, fractured kid, but Ryouma kept talking. “I had— somebody like him, once. When there was no one else. I couldn’t do anything then. I was… glad, to do it now.”
Sen’s expression shifted, just a little — surprise, suspicion, doubt. Ryouma waited. Sen was smart; Kakashi saw the moment when she believed him. She said, “What happened to him? Yours.”
“He died,” Ryouma said simply. “When I was maybe your age. Because he drank too much, before I could kill him. I went to Konoha afterward. Remember what I told you yesterday, at dinner? ‘It’ll get better’? That’s how I know.”
Sen looked down at her clenched hand. “You kill people for a living. How is that better?”
“Uh,” Ryouma said. “That’s… a fair question, yeah.” He glanced back at Kakashi, looking for help. “Sometimes they deserve it, though. And we’re not always killing people.”
“Sometimes we kill monsters,” Kakashi said, thinking of demons, and leeches, and men who scarred their daughters. “We protect our village, and Fire Country. It’s not always nice, but it’s better than being beaten by the people who are supposed to protect you.” He looked thoughtfully at Sen, and considered where a girl who hired assassins would be in ten years. “There’s a place for you, in Konoha. If you decide you don’t want to make sake.”
“I’m not a ninja,” Sen said.
“No,” Kakashi said. “But we need civilians, too.”
And not just ones who grew rice and forged swords. There were places in the world where ninja couldn’t go, but Konoha still needed to. Not everyone who worked for Intel was a shinobi.
Ryouma pushed to his feet. “You’ve got time. And options. And a long day ahead tomorrow, if you feel like you can sleep now.”
Sen blinked, looking between them, then back down at her hand. When she unfolded her fingers, the ring still sat there. Real, solid, not going anywhere. It seemed to hit her then. She took a slow breath, and Kakashi thought there would probably be tears later, in private. But for now, she set her narrow shoulders back and reached down to give Saishou’s scruff a firm shake. The dog stretched, uncurling, and heaved reluctantly to her feet.
“Back to bed,” Sen told her.
Saishou yawned, tongue lolling past sharp teeth. She sniffed Sen’s hand, cast Kakashi and Ryouma a look that promised a long conversation in Kakashi’s future, and padded wearily back to the civilian tent. Sen hesitated in her wake.
“Thank you,” she told Ryouma, a little awkwardly.
Ryouma ducked his head, equally awkward. “Sleep well.”
Kakashi stopped her when she reached him, and said softly, “This is your choice to live with. If you tell your mother, you hurt her. If she tells our commanders, you hurt us. It’s too late to change your mind. Do you understand?”
She raised her chin, eyes gone molten. “I won’t change my mind ever.”
Kakashi’s mouth tugged sideways. “Good. Think about Konoha, when you’re older.”
She shouldered past him and ducked back into her tent, closing the flap behind her like a slammed door.
Ryouma let out a breath, and turned. “Well. Rock-paper-scissors for the rest of the watch?”
Kakashi settled down by the fire, investigating the kettle that had been left to keep warm on a flat rock. Still half-full of water. Someone, probably Genma, had stacked mugs and few teabags next to it. “I don’t think I’d sleep,” he said. “You want to?”
Ryouma hitched one shoulder. “Not really.” He drifted closer to the fire, watching Kakashi out of the corner of his eye. “You doing okay?”
Kakashi put teabags into two mugs, filled them with water, and grabbed Ryouma by the wrist as soon as he got within reach. Ryouma didn’t stumble; he let Kakashi pull him down, dropping into a messy tailor’s seat at Kakashi’s side. Kakashi shoved a mug into his hands. Then Kakashi leaned against his shoulder.
Ryouma twitched, but stayed where he was.
The campsite was silent, but for the gentle noise of the fire and the distant, successful scream of a hunting owl. Sen was still awake, her chakra signature a fraught tangle, but papered over with a rudimentary control. Young ninja often had something similar, and civilians who’d lived through wars. Kin had already moved to flop over her legs.
At this rate, he was going to retire Kin from training and just let her be a therapy dog.
Everyone else was still asleep.
Kakashi kept his voice soft. “I’m okay.” He cradled the warm mug between his hands. “Staged suicides aren’t my favorite.”
Ryouma was quiet for a moment. “I’m sorry. I should’ve thought.”
The tea was green and heat-stale. Kakashi drank it anyway. “It’s part of the job.” He tipped his head sideways to rest on Ryouma’s shoulder. “Nomiya earned it.”
Ryouma balanced his mug on one knee, and brought his arm up to brace Kakashi’s shoulders. His fingers slid through Kakashi’s hair, stroking gently, carefully, like you might do with something a little wild. “Thanks for going in there with me.”
Tense, cold parts of Kakashi began to warm and unwind. Touch worked both ways, apparently. “I’d do it again.” He smirked. “Next time I’ll expect the tree afterwards.”
“To, uh, avoid? Or…?”
Sometimes Ryouma really was very cute.
“Or,” Kakashi said. “Though I’d like if the next ‘or’ involved a bed. Especially if you need to throw me into it.”
Ryouma laughed, surprised and delighted, before catching himself with a guilty look at the tents. Genma’s chakra flickered, then settled. Ryouma lowered his voice to a murmur in Kakashi’s ear. “We could probably even spring for a door with locks. Unless that’s not risky enough for you?”
“I can be flexible,” Kakashi said, amused and interested and faintly nervous all at once. It was a good twist of feelings, steadied by Ryouma’s arm against his back. Better than thinking about a man dangling like unpicked fruit. Or Ryouma’s grandfather, or Kakashi’s history. Or three weeks lost in a strange world. “You should know I’m making a list.”
“Does it involve any of our flashcard words?” Ryouma asked, hopefully.
Kakashi tilted his head up. “What do you think?”
Ryouma took that for the invitation it was, ducking his head to steal a quick fireside kiss. His mouth was warm, even through the mask. His hand stayed in Kakashi’s hair. “We-ell, we’ve done three already… We could do a lot more with a bed.”
Heat slid interestingly down Kakashi’s spine.
Kurenai’s chakra flickered. Unlike Genma’s, it didn’t settle. When she came out of the tent a moment later, rumpled and yawning, Kakashi and Ryouma were seated a chaste and respectful distance away from each other. “Both still up?” She rubbed one eye and focused on the mug in Kakashi’s hand. “Is that tea?”
Wordlessly, Kakashi assembled a mug for her and held it out. Kurenai accepted it like a woman taking a lifeline, and looked up at the moon, tracking the few hours she’d managed to sleep. She sighed.
Ryouma asked, cautiously, “Insomnia?”
“More like my body thinks it’s early afternoon,” she said, rueful. “If I stay up the rest of the night, maybe I’ll sleep tomorrow.” She sipped the steeping tea and only wrinkled her nose a little. “The tent’s open if either of you want it.”
Kakashi glanced at Ryouma, who shrugged. He was still eyeing Kurenai as if he expected her to start writing things down any moment. It occured to Kakashi that Ryouma probably didn’t spend much time around Intel agents, and Kurenai had a well-established habit of making people nervous just by existing.
“Tell her about the time you got paid in soap,” Kakashi said.
Ryouma blinked. Kurenai tilted her head with bright, bird-like interest. Kakashi made a go on already gesture, and then ducked out to find his pack while Ryouma launched into an awkward but increasingly confident rendition of the story. When Kakashi returned, Kurenai was leaning forward with interest, and Ryouma had started to add a few flourishes. Kakashi settled down with the wooden puzzle box he’d won at the festival, and worked on solving it while he listened.