July 23, Yondaime Year 5
Hakone had to hand it to Ryouma: if they ever gave out a prize for luck, Ryouma would win it. There was no way — no way — a cushy mission to search for some missing sake in Hotsprings Country was ANBU-rated, so right there, that was outrageous luck. Going missing on a cushy mission to Hotsprings Country, though, along with his entire team? The luck gods obviously just wanted to fuck with Ryouma.
Hiraizumi was a quaint mountain village full of the same kinds of people one found in every mountain village the world over: tradespeople, farmers, a handful of merchants, staff for a couple of shabby little onsen and a fancy one for rich tourists. A shrine to the local deities dominated the landscape, which up here seemed to be mostly basic Buddhist saints coexisting with tanuki spirits that predated organized religion.
Team Six had only technically been missing since they failed their check-in on July 11, but from what Hakone’s team had turned up so far, it looked like the last time anyone had heard from Six had been when they’d crossed the border into Hotsprings Country on the 3rd. Aburame ‘Did you know bees have a better sense of smell than dogs?’ Mayumi and her bugs managed to trace them to Hiraizumi on the 4th. An innkeeper remembered a family of five who’d checked in before the festival, gone out in their finery after bathing, and left long before dawn. That was hardly conclusive, but Mayumi’s bugs were definite — Team Six had been in that room.
Which was excellent, actually, since that meant that Team Nineteen was also staying in that room. As themselves, not some diabetes-inducing happy family. They were in regular jounin blues since they didn’t need to start an international panic, which ANBU uniforms tended to do in this former frontline region of the last war. The poor innkeeper still bent over backwards trying to reassure the ninja that the family who’d stayed there were a completely normal couple, their completely normal teenage offspring, and the husband’s completely normal and long-suffering elderly mother.
The point being, however, Team Nineteen was staying at the onsen for the night, ostensibly to gather information before continuing on to Tanigawa in the morning. Hakone was pretty sure that Sumeragi-taichou actually wanted a night on a plump futon with fresh tatami underfoot, but it wasn’t like the rest of them were clamoring to sleep in the mud and mosquitos.
So maybe Ryouma’s luck was catching? It better be only the good luck, or there would be words when they found the errant team.
Of course it was Ushio-fukuchou who put his foot in things, later that night. “It’s been almost three weeks. Doubt they’d go rogue, not with Hatake on their team. And Six has had some shitstorm missions so far. I’m calling it right now — I think we’re looking for bodies.”
Nakamura groaned. Mayumi’s hive buzzed loud enough Hakone could hear it. And Taichou, bless her level-headed heart, threw her dirty, balled-up sports bra at Ushio’s head and told him to stop trying to jinx the mission.
“I’m not jinxing the mission, I’m being a realist,” Ushio snorted. “You wait. I’m right.”
Nakamura caught Hakone’s eye, and rolled hers dramatically. She was, without question, Hakone’s favorite teammate. “Come on, kid, let’s go hit the bath.”
Before Ushio could assert privilege of rank and declare the bath for officers only, Taichou said, “Yes, please go bathe. If I have to sleep indoors with you, I’d rather you stank less.”
Hakone was on his feet with one of the onsen’s yukata over one arm before Mayumi had half finished protesting that her insects kept her clean.
“Fine. Hakone and Nakamura, bathe. Aburame, go buy us some food. The lieutenant and I will go over the plan for tomorrow. If you come back without pork buns,” she added, handing Mayumi a wallet, “I will trade you to Omashi’s team when we get back to Konoha.”
“She wouldn’t really,” Mayumi told them confidently as the three of them ambled down the corridor. “Who would she trade us for? Inuzuka Yamaki? They’re not even half as good a tracker as we are.”
They took opposite turns at the end of the hall — Mayumi left towards the entrance, and Hakone and Nakamura right towards the baths. “I honestly don’t know why we trust her to get our food,” Nakamura said.
“Really? I trust her extra,” Hakone slid the door to the private bath open, releasing a billow of steam. “She’s certainly not going to let any of her bugs get into the food for fear we’d eat them, and her bugs would tell her if any other bugs were already there.”
Nakamura said, “Huh,” and kicked out of her onsen-issued geta. She stripped off her shirt with little ceremony. “No gawking, kid,” she said, peeling free from her leg-wraps and trousers.
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Hakone told her.
“If you do dream about it, I don’t want to hear it.”
Hakone pointedly turned his back and stripped down himself.
Scrubbing the sweat and grime of their week on the trail of Team Six took several long minutes and copious applications of soap. And then there was the bath. The blissfully scalding, slightly sulfurous bath. As Hakone stepped in, the shock of the heat sent shivers racing under his skin.
Nakamura’s scarred, muscled shoulders gleamed in the yellowish light. The rest of her disappeared into the cloudy, mineral-rich water. Hakone stood thigh-deep, adjusting to the temperature.
“Stop being a wimp about the water and sit down,” Nakamura told him. “I don’t need your privates in my face.”
Hakone blew out a rough breath as he submerged. The blazing heat was a welcome distraction, but it didn’t last.
Obviously Ushio-fukuchou was wrong. Teams missed their check-ins all the time, and turned up late with a good explanation for their disappearance. Plus this was Ryouma they were talking about. And Hatake. Hakone didn’t know much about Team Six’s officers, but Ryouma seemed to idolize them both, so they had to be at least minimally competent. There was absolutely no reason to think they were looking for bodies…
Nakamura kicked a foot up, spattering Hakone with the splash. “You’ve got your brooding face on. Spill, Rookie.”
“I’m not brooding.” Hakone considered for a moment. “That’s a lie. I am brooding. Ryouma’s completely infected me and he’s not even here.”
Nakamura snorted in amusement, but she sat up a little, eyes sharper. “Team Six’s Ram? I didn’t know you two knew each other.”
Hakone shrugged. “We’re friends. And he’s the broody one, not me. This is stupid.” He sank down until the water lapped at his chin.
The look on Nakamura’s face softened. “Well, if he’s made it through all of Team Six’s weird shit so far, he’s got to be at least a half-decent ninja.”
“He’s an excellent ninja.” Hakone pushed himself back upright. “I’ve run several missions with him. And Ushio-fukuchou is full of shit half the time anyway. I don’t know why I let him get to me.” He took a chest-expanding breath, fighting against the steam-thick heat. “It’s just— You don’t think there was something in the mission brief that he and Taichou aren’t telling us about Six’s mission, right? I mean, is there a reason the lieutenant thinks we’re on a body-recovery mission besides just being a dick-for-brains?”
“Lieutenant Dick-for-brains has been doing this a lot longer than you have, or me, for that matter. But they’re good officers, and if there was something in the mission brief we needed to know, they’d tell us.” She yawned and stretched in a long, end-of-day, spine-cracking arch. “You want my advice, kid? Get some rest tonight and save your brooding for when we actually find some bodies.”
“Sure.” Hakone mimicked her stretch, working knots out of tense muscles with the onsen heat. “I mean, what are the chances, right? Team Six gets the weird shit, but how are they going to top unexpected giant demons and an S-rank Bingo Book legend?”
The look Nakamura gave him was frankly patronizing. “Now that’s just inviting bad luck.” She shook her head at him, then tipped her chin back and sank more deeply into the water, with eyes closed and arms stretched out along the rim of the bath.
Translation: Stop borrowing trouble, and enjoy the bath before the officers decide to come kick us out of it.
Well, she was right. There was probably one of the 99 rules that applied to this situation, too. Hakone rolled his shoulders, sank back down to his chin, and let his gaze unfocus in the steam. After a moment, he said, “What color-blind fool did this inn hire to paint the walls in here, anyway?”
“That’s my boy,” Nakamura murmured.
They left for Tanigawa not long after daybreak. Mayumi’s bugs confirmed they were on the right road, and even if they’d been less sure, Tanigawa was the epicenter of the mission Team Six had been on, so it was obviously the place to go next. At a fork in the road outside the brewers’ village Mayumi held up her hand for a halt. A small cloud of black bugs swarmed around her, crawling out of the collar of her shirt and taking to the air in a hazy blur.
“They went both ways at this fork,” she said.
After three months of practically living with her, Hakone ought to have been used to the ‘Aburame Effect’, but he still found himself mildly creeped out by the way she let the bugs crawl on her face.
The officers conferred for a moment, then Taichou said, “Tanigawa first. Maybe we’ll find someone there who can tell us more.”
It proved to be the right decision. And they did find a body. Sort of.
The townspeople were surprisingly agitated for so early in the morning. Instead of a brewer’s hamlet sleepily waking for a slow summer day, they found increasing clusters of gossiping villagers as they neared the home of Nomiya, the brewer whose sake Team Six had been hunting.
Mayumi sent an advance brigade of beetles into the house to see what the problem might be.
“Nomiya’s dead,” she reported. “Suicide.”
That earned raised eyebrows from Taichou, a scowl from Nakamura, and a smug little smile from Ushio.
It only took a little persuasion to get the villagers talking to Hakone’s team. Yes, there had been ninja from Konoha here. ANBU, in fact, rather alarmingly. They’d come looking for the Fire Daimyou’s missing sake, then vanished for nearly three weeks, only to reappear with a scandal that rocked the village.
Team Six — or at least some of them — had visited Tanigawa less than eighteen hours previously, and called Nomiya out for all kinds of shameful behavior. Six had found the missing sake, and the master brewer, who wasn’t Nomiya at all, but his wife, apparently. And gone again, after making it clear that Nomiya had fucked over the whole town. So the man had killed himself.
There was a growing clamor when a pair of heavy-built brewery workers brought the body out and laid it on the porch of Nomiya’s house. The swollen purple face and ballooned hands made it clear how he’d died, though the body-bearers had removed the incriminating rope from around Nomiya’s neck.
While Sumeragi-taichou conferred with the new mayor — a broad-hipped woman with chapped hands and a take-no-prisoners attitude — the lieutenant and Nakamura talked to the other villagers to work out a timeline of when and where Team Six had been seen. That left Hakone and Mayumi to inspect the site of Nomiya’s suicide.
They let themselves into the house with little difficulty. There was a partly drunk cup of tea in the kitchen, and an empty bottle of hard spirits. A cut rope hung from a heavy rafter beam, with a kicked-over chair and a rank-smelling, damp stain on the wooden floor beneath it. A folded note on the kitchen table was short and to the point: I can’t live with what I’ve done. I’m sorry. I hope my family will forgive me.
“Well that’s not vague or anything,” Hakone said.
Mayumi hummed in distracted agreement. She was focused on the rope, where her bugs were swarming in a shiny, undulating mass. A narrow stream of them slipped back down to her shoulder and crawled into her ears and hair and collar, and under her dark glasses where Hakone hoped they didn’t go straight into her eye sockets, but they probably did.
After a moment she said, “It’s also forged.”
“Is it now?” Hakone studied the note — he was hardly an expert in documents and forgeries, but from a superficial comparison to a brewery ledger that sat open on the kitchen table, the handwriting looked identical.
“Two members of Team Six had their hands on that rope. Tousaki and Hatake.”
“I didn’t know this was supposed to be a hit.” Hakone studied the nasty stain and kicked-over chair. “I thought they were just looking for the sake.”
“Hatake and Ryouma, huh? I guess it was a pretty easy job, so it makes sense to give it to the rookies. Dig the latrines, cook the meals, stage the suicides… When I’m a senpai, I’m going to enjoy having someone else to do the scut work for me.”
Mayumi quirked an amused smile at him. “You’d enjoy staging suicides.”
Hakone couldn’t argue with that. “More than all these hunt and chase missions we’ve been doing,” he grumbled.
She ignored him in favor of studying the note and a brush and inkstone that lay near it on the kitchen table. A single-file parade of bugs traipsed down her hand and over the stationery items, then marched back up. “Hatake wrote the note.”
“Sharingan,” Hakone said. “Makes sense.” He paged through the account ledger, set it back where he’d found it, and made a slow circuit of the rest of the kitchen. “I guess we should check if there’s anything else interesting here, but it looks pretty straightforward. Shall we go see if Taichou and the others figured out where to go next?”
Mayumi nodded and straightened up. Bugs amassed around her, returning from the various nooks and crannies of the house she’d sent them to investigate. They made a shiny crown in her black hair, a choker around her neck, then steadily vanished back into their host until she was just a pale-faced woman in Konoha jounin blues, wearing sunglasses indoors like she was trying to hide a hangover.
She tipped her chin up and looked somewhere over Hakone’s left shoulder, in a posture he’d come to recognize as her ‘Communing with Distant Hive Members’ pose. Then she turned her hidden gaze directly on him. “The trail leads out of the village.”
“I’ll just do a sweep of the upstairs, so Fukuchou doesn’t complain we didn’t look with our own eyes,” he told her. “Even though you already looked with what? A hundred pairs of eyes?”
“A hundred and sixteen,” Mayumi corrected. A few last bugs buzzed affectionately at her nose before disappearing in a fashion Hakone wished he hadn’t watched. “But let’s not give the lieutenant any excuse to quote the rulebook at us.”
Just as Mayumi’s tiny infiltrators reported, he found nothing beyond confirmation that a woman and children had once lived here and were now gone, and a few tell-tale signs of an unhappy home. It corroborated the story they’d gotten from the villagers about the reasons for Nomiya Harubi’s disappearance. And it didn’t begin to explain where the hell Team Six had vanished to for three weeks.
He and Mayumi caught up with the rest of their team back at the edge of the village, and backtracked to the fork in the road. Along the way towards the river they found minor evidence of a campsite, for eyes that knew how to look. Not a lot, but enough for Mayumi and Ushio-fukuchou to go on. For all the man’s faults, he was a truly talented tracker; Hakone had to give him that.
And then it was another humid, sticky, mosquito-filled trek along half-washed-out roads and switch-backed mountain trails following the elusive Team Six. At least this time they were descending the mountain. Until, of course, they were climbing another one. It was getting towards sundown when Mayumi announced she’d found their quarry.
“Half a kilometer ahead,” she told them, holding up a hand so her returning bugs could crawl down her sleeve.
“About time,” Nakamura said.
“They’ve got civilians with them. The brewer and her kids. And nin-dogs. No one looks injured.”
Sumeragi-taichou looked pleased. “That’s a first for Team Six. Let’s go—”
“They also smell like tanuki,” Mayumi said.
Ushio gave her a disbelieving look. “Why would they smell like tanuki? Maybe your insects are confused.”
“Oh boy, here we go,” Hakone told Nakamura under his breath.
Mayumi turned her head to face Ushio, mirrored gaze unreadable, eerily blank-faced. When she spoke, her voice was accompanied by a low, buzzing hum, like a faint echo of a malfunctioning stereo speaker. “We are not confused.”
And that was why the Aburame were the most inbred clan in the village. The Hyuuga and Uchiha might be snobbish about bloodlines, but no one wanted to marry into that kind of creepiness.
Sumeragi-taichou stepped in before Ushio could terminally embed his foot in his mouth with some remark about the size of insect brains. “Are we talking about furry little trash thieves, about yea big?” She held her hands apart in the approximate width of a sack of rice, “or something more mythical?”
Mythical. Right. Because this was Team Six they were talking about. Even so, Hakone didn’t expect it when Mayumi said, “The second one.”
Sumeragi blinked. “What, seriously?”
Ushio shook his head. “I realize this is the fabled Team Six we’re talking about here, but mystical tanuki? I highly doubt it. You’re probably just picking up Hatake’s nin-ken.”
“We know what nin dogs smell like,” Mayumi said. “The chakra we smelled on Team Six is different.” Her creepy hive-voice modulated to be a little more human sounding, but Hakone could still hear the undertone of an insulted buzz.
“She is seriously so scary,” he whispered to Nakamura.
She elbowed him hard in the side. With a, Shut up! Do not insult the dangerous bug woman, heavily implied.
Sumeragi scratched her cheek for a moment, deliberating, before she shrugged. “Okay. Let’s move.”
Mayumi fell in step with Hakone as they walked. “Don’t worry,” she told him, light and cheery as ever, with no trace of a malevolent hum, “We took it as a compliment.”
“Let’s let them know we’re coming,” Sumeragi said. She flared her ANBU spark twice, in a long-short pattern. After three months with it, Hakone barely had to flick a thought to send a burst of chakra to his own tattoo and echo the captain’s signal. We’re here. No distress.
His teammates did the same, creating a winking beacon for Team Six to orient to. There was a slight delay, and then an answer from the unseen ANBU, in the same rhythm.
“You lose your bet, Fukuchou,” Nakamura said. “They’re alive and kicking.”
“We haven’t done a head count yet,” said Ushio, morbidly optimistic. He nodded in the direction of their quarry. “Wait until we have proof of life.”
Was the man seriously hoping they’d find dead comrades around the next hairpin turn? What a ghoul. Hakone added another tick mark in his mental Reasons to Hate the Lieutenant file.
One spark separated from the firefly cluster ahead of them. And with it, as they closed on each other, a distinctive burned coffee-bitter chakra that Hakone knew well. “That’s Ram,” he said. “I know him.”
Sumeragi twitched her head to the side. “Go. We’re right behind you.”
Hakone didn’t bother running. With Ryouma’s chakra as a guide, he translocated to a couple meters in front of his friend. Ryouma pulled up short.
“Ram,” Hakone said. “Where the hell have you guys been?”
“Hakone?” Ryouma looked surprised, and tired, like maybe he hadn’t slept well for a night or two, but there was no blood, no limp, no obvious bandages. “What the hell are you guys doing out here?”
“Looking for you, dimwit.” Hakone peered into the overgrown woods behind Ryouma, but none of his teammates were with him. “You missed your check-in by two weeks, and we were the closest team in the area. Are you all alive? Please say yes and disappoint my lieutenant.”
“Lieutenant-Dumbest-Man-I-Know-And-That’s-Saying-Something?” Ryouma smirked, clearly pleased with his life. “We’re alive. Nobody’s even scratched, anymore. And we finished the mission and secured the best sake brewer in six countries for the Daimyou.”
“Nice. Just wanted to keep it a surprise from the Hokage for some reason?”
“Uh, no. Just got…delayed. Kakashi’s running to Saroma now to check in.” Ryouma glanced up through the pine boughs, checking the angle of the sun. “Or maybe running back, by now. We’ve had slow going.”
“Uh huh. Slow going. You ate some wild mushrooms, didn’t you?”
“Maybe your lieutenant would feed you the bad mushrooms,” Ryouma scoffed, “but not mine.”
Right, Six’s lieutenant was a medic and a poisoner.
“No, we got a family of civilians with us. The brewer I told you about, and her two kids,” Ryouma continued. “And two handcarts, which you’re welcome to help pull.” He scanned over Hakone’s shoulder into the trees. “Where’s your team?”
“Back up the path. On their way down.” Hakone waved a small black bug away from his face. “Mayumi’s already here, if you count her little friends.” Ryouma was in ANBU gear, but his mask was pushed to one side. “No masks so you don’t scare your civilians?”
“And it’s too damn hot to wear ’em for fun,” Ryouma confirmed. “Did they send you out from Konoha, or were you in Hotsprings already? Wait—” He did a rapid calculation on his fingers. “How many missions have you completed by now?”
“Seven,” Hakone said. “Eight if you count this one. All successes.” He flashed Ryouma a quick grin. “We’re in blues this time for the same reason. Although Mayumi will scare your civilians anyway.” Several more bugs buzzed Hakone’s ear, possibly proudly. “Nice job on the assassination, by the way. Would have convinced me it was a suicide if I hadn’t had Mayumi’s help.”
Ryouma visibly paled. “You were in Tanigawa? You—” He glanced around quickly, then grabbed Hakone’s elbow and towed him closer. Low-voiced and rapid, he said, “He was a yellow-bellied bastard who beat his wife and kids and he deserved it, but don’t tell my officers, okay? They think— Shit, no. If you know, then your officers know… Fuck.” He rocked back on his heels and scrubbed a hand over his face and hair, nearly dislodging his precariously perched mask. “Maybe you can just ask everybody not to mention it?”
It took an effort of will to keep Hakone’s eyebrows from climbing to his hairline. “What did you do?”
“It’s not so much what I did as what I didn’t do. Which was tell my officers.” Ryouma tucked his chin down, equal parts defiant, sheepish, and frankly panicking. “Look, it’s a long story. But Nomiya’s kid asked u— me to do it. And she had a right to.” Worried brown eyes darted over Hakone’s head again. “Is that your team?”
Four bright ANBU sparks riding four distinctive chakra flavors were approaching quickly. Grassy Sumeragi, curry-ish Nakamura, mushroomy Mayumi and her fizzing cloud of companions, and Ushio who had the utter gall to have a chakra like red miso and expensive chocolate.
“That’s my team,” Hakone confirmed. And pressed ahead, “So the kid asked you to kill her old man, and you roped Hatake into it but you didn’t tell your officers? Why? Was keeping the bastard alive part of your mission, because you have thrown fecal matter at the rotating air distributor if that’s the case.”
Ryouma gave him a brief, baffled squint, then shook his head. “Nomiya didn’t have anything to do with the mission. His wife didn’t want to think of herself as a killer, that’s all. The kid’s okay with it. And—” He grabbed a breath and continued more quietly, “My officers already think I’m not stable. So please keep it quiet, will you? At least until I tell them myself.”
“I’m not sure how it reflects on your stability, but sure,” Hakone nodded. “My team already knows, though, so if you don’t want them mentioning it to yours, you’d probably better get back there and confess in a hurry.”
“Confess what in a hurry?” Nakamura purred as she emerged around the trail.
“That he’s in love with Sagara-sama,” Hakone said. “Go on,” he added for Ryouma’s benefit.
“Well he can’t have her, she’s mine,” Nakamura said. She laughed and flicked her hand at Ryouma. “Scoot then, Rookie. Go tell your officers your big secret. And you, rookie of mine, if whatever you’re covering up comes back to bite me, I will make you do cartwheels until you puke.”
“It won’t,” Hakone assured her. That was why he loved Nakamura: she knew when to leave things alone. He turned his back on Ryouma’s departure and bumped elbows with his senpai. “By the way, you know Sagara’s married, right?”
“If it’s not stopping Tousaki I don’t see why it should stop me,” she said with a wink. “So how sad is the lieutenant going to be?”
“So sad. They don’t even have any injuries.” Hakone let the smile he’d been suppressing curl the corners of his mouth. “But he can have fun trying to get a straight answer out of them about where they’ve been. That ought to cheer him up.”
Mythical tanuki, Mayumi’d said. And Ryouma’s team was “delayed.” Tanuki weren’t exactly luck gods, but they were definitely tricksters, and it seemed like something had fucked with Team Six. Ryouma seriously, seriously needed to see a priest or something when they got home, and get his luck situation sorted out.