August 1, Yondaime Year 5
Shirotani Haruto had quite been looking forward to reading Agent Yuuhi’s report on her latest mission with ANBU Team Six. Yuuhi’s reports were usually a joy to review: clear, detailed but concise, with savagely witty observations hidden between the lines. Since this one involved the Weird Shit team, there was already an office queue signing up to read the unclassified version.
Then Team Six was late.
And then, just past 1030 on the first day of August, the report came in.
Shirotani stared down at the stamped EYES ONLY folder, and then up at Yuuhi. “What?”
Intel Director Oita Gennousuke flipped open the folder with one hand, expertly wielding chopsticks with the other. This wasn’t the first report to land on his desk during an early lunch, and from the look of the paper-weighted chuunin heading toward his open door, it wouldn’t be the last. And he had a meeting with Shibata at 1330 —
Oita dropped a noodle on his desk and almost didn’t notice. “What?”
ANBU Commander Sagara Okiku eyed the folder with suspicion. Anything funneled directly from Oita’s desk to hers was best handled like a live snake — delicately at first, explosively if necessary. That went double for anything he escorted to her in person. Triple when it involved Team Six.
She read it once.
She read it again.
She stared up at Oita, who made an expansive gesture with both hands. “What?”
T&I was busy, and Shibata Tomohiro had a thick folder under his arm to prove it. The death of Konoha’s newly-recruited Mist informant Fukuda had been a disappointment, but in a single mission, ANBU had crippled Mist’s infrastructure, smuggled out a baby carrying a fascinating bloodline, and come back with some really good dirt on Kirigakure. Intel and Field Ops were all over that, and missions were being planned by the dozens.
Also, a potential sighting of Orochimaru in Lightning Country had teams scrambling north. The news out of Wind Country was civil unrest and draconian crackdowns in the face of drought and starvation. Rain Country continued to be a cesspit of infighting, like a boil on Fire Country’s neck. Fallout from the failed Hikouto coup was still spreading like an ink stain through mulberry paper.
And then ANBU Team Six went out again and didn’t come back. Missing ANBU teams were always a concern, but they’d finally reported in, safely inbound with yet another refugee family in tow for T&I to clear. Minato’s favorite team did seem to collect strays.
At 1150, Shibata was heading for the Palace for his noon briefing with the Hokage, when a pale-looking Oita rushed past him, harried by an anxious spook in grey with a clipboard.
Moments later, Sagara lapped him in the underground passage, looking concerned.
The doors to the Hokage’s office were shut. A pair of impassive guards in ANBU masks and armor stood sentinel at the door. When Shibata tossed a questioning look their way, they shook their heads.
He took a seat on the bench facing the door, prepared to wait.
Through the heavy wood, Minato’s voice rose a half octave above its usual timbre. “They did what?”
At a quarter past the hour, Shibata stood and walked back to the door. “I’ll just poke my head in and see if he wants to reschedule,” he told the guard on the right.
“Director,” she said. Her dark eyes, only partly hidden by her bird-like mask, said ‘on your head be it.’ Her body language said she would really rather not be in quite so close proximity to the director of T&I.
Shibata pushed the door open, and was met by a trio of unhappy faces. Minato behind his desk, standing and leaning over a spread of papers. Sagara on the left. Oita on the right. The spook that had been with him in the hall was nowhere in evidence.
The second Minato looked up and recognized the intruder, a note of relief washed across his face. “Oh good. Come in, Tomohiro. And Gennousuke, start back with the part where the magical tanuki stole the Daimyou’s sake.”
Shibata paused midstep, adjusted his expectations for the meeting, and seated himself in a vacant chair between Oita and Sagara.
Oita glanced his way. “ANBU Team Six reports that they were investigating the disappearance of several hundred kegs of sake maturing for the Fire Country Daimyou. The day after they arrived at the mission site, Shiranui Genma-fukuchou was abducted by … small tanuki children. The rest of the team invaded the tanuki’s home in the Summoning Dimension to rescue him.”
“Next door to the Summoning Dimension,” Minato corrected. “Kakashi’s report is clear on that point, if nothing else.”
Oita’s face betrayed more emotion than Shibata was accustomed to seeing. Primarily profound unease. Sagara looked like she had bitten into a raw onion. Minato had the air of a man who was still waiting to see where the boulders would settle after a rockfall.
“You’re serious.” It wasn’t really a question, but it was.
“As a heart attack,” Sagara told him. Oita, who had suffered a frightening bout of angina in December, gave her a dry look.
“They recovered the lieutenant, as well as the missing wife and children of the chief sake brewer,” Oita continued. “And several barrels of sake, which has been quarantined pending every test I can think of. I’m sure your people can assist there, Tomohiro.”
“We don’t have a lot of experience interrogating liquids, but I’m sure my people can try,” Shibata said.
“Except after-work outings, hmm?” Minato smirked.
“True.” Shibata took a breath and ran his tongue over scarred lips. Where to begin with all this? “I trust you’ve already got the civilians and Team Six in lockdown somewhere. Wasn’t Yuuhi on this mission? Does she report being whisked away by fairytale creatures, too?”
Oita’s thin brows pinched in distaste. “Yes. Her report corroborates Team Six’s — and fills in most of the details they left out.” He gave Sagara another pointed look, no doubt concerning the running feud between their departments on the level of detail ANBU tended to provide in their mission reports. Or lack thereof, which Oita’s agents then had to pry from Sagara’s.
“Magical shape-shifting tanuki are real,” Oita said, almost as if the words themselves hurt his tongue. “They have a god, apparently, who took pity on a battered wife, stole several hundred barrels of sake, invited Team Six to dinner, healed the scars off two of them, and capped the evening by extracting Yuuhi’s promise not to take vengeance on the abusive husband.”
“Something about the wife not wanting to be a killer, just to get away,” Minato clarified.
Sagara sighed. “Complicated by Hatake and Tousaki killing the husband anyway.” Two onions. One of them rotten. “Though without prior knowledge of Yuuhi’s deal.”
“Assuming we take this all on face value,” Shibata said, after a moment to digest the ‘facts’, “or even if we don’t, does this create a problem with the Daimyou, if we’ve killed the brewer of his favorite sake?”
Minato waved that off. “Turns out Nomiya Harubi-san was actually the master brewer all along. Six brought her and her children back with them; apparently Yuuhi had the idea that she might set up as a brewer in Hikouto. Or here, maybe, I was skimming at that point.” Presumably through a glaze of horror.
Shibata worked his tongue over dry teeth again. “All right. Take me back—” His voice scraped to a whisper as he ran out of moisture. He unwrapped a lozenge and sucked it carefully for a moment before resuming, “—take me back to the beginning. How, exactly did the team’s lieutenant manage to incur the wrath of these sake-stealing tanuki? Which, I assume we’re talking shape-shifting tanuki from bedtime stories, not the feral little bandits who overturn our garbage cans at midnight?”
They were not talking feral garbage can bandits.
And it turned out it wasn’t particularly Shiranui’s fault the tanuki children had abducted him. In fact, assuming that all the details were as the various reports stated, his abduction may have been a fortuitous thing. Konoha now was the sole ninja village aware that:
- Magical tanuki existed, and were, if not a separate species from mundane tanuki, at least separated from them by virtue of having chakra mastery, much like the various summoned animals.
- These tanuki and their god inhabited their own dimension, separate from but akin to the Summoning Dimension. Which might not be a single dimension at all, but a series of dimensions.
- They were capable of chakra-like healing far beyond anything humans could do.
- Wolf gods also existed, in the Dog Summoning Dimension, and were also capable of miraculous healing, but were considerably nastier about it than the tanuki.
- Humans might be able to travel to the Summoning Dimension, or Dimensions. Although Hatake expressed some doubt that he’d be able to replicate the experiment. He felt the Wolf guardians of the Dog Dimension would prevent future access.
The upshot was, Team Six had met some very powerful potential allies, and immediately pissed them off. Although since Six’s rookies had killed the brewer’s husband without officer approval, and thus without awareness there was a deal to be broken, that matter might be handled diplomatically with the Tanuki Lord. The Wolves sounded like a lost cause from the outset, so they weren’t worth considering.
“They arrived this morning?” Shibata asked. “Where are they now?”
“The civilians are in secure apartments in the west wing of the Palace. Team Six and Yuuhi are in a briefing room at ANBU HQ,” Oita said. “All guarded.”
“My people could handle first-round interviews.” Shibata said. “Shinobi and civilians. We have the expertise to screen them for genjutsu-based effects and residual poisoning, but we’d need a Hyuuga medic with high level clearance — someone who specializes in chakra system analysis — to see what the healing has done to them, and whether they’ve suffered any injuries to their coils from this dimension hopping.”
Minato nodded. “Once T&I’s cleared them, the internal disciplinary issue is yours,” he told Sagara.
“It should be Namiashi’s, but since your brat is proving too much of a handful, maybe we should have a talk.” Sagara put an emphasis on ‘talk’ the way other people might say ‘public flogging’.
“Give a teenage war hero a baby genin, and we all end up with bad habits,” Minato said with wry humor. He tapped the untidy pile of reports. “And send a runner to Sakurai Michiko before you start getting any more details from Kakashi on that reverse summoning jutsu. Next best thing to being there myself.” His gaze turned wistful. “I’ll settle for the fourth or fifth retelling.”
“If one of your people gives me your schedule, we could arrange the discussion of the reverse summoning for a time you can be there,” Shibata suggested. “We have several interviews to conduct, after all.”
“Lynx should have it.” Minato give Shibata a rueful smile. “I think you were supposed to be on it now, in fact. And I’ve got a 1300 I shouldn’t miss. Anything on that briefing that can’t wait for tomorrow?”
Shibata checked his own notes, and pulled a single paper from the sheaf. “Just this. We have corroboration about our snake friend being seen in Lightning Country. That Kumo genin who turned up wanting asylum has had a great deal of interesting information to offer.”
Oita’s eyes lit up.
“Don’t worry, that’s what we’re talking about at our 1330,” Shibata told him.
Minato reached for the paper. “Give me the brief at lunch tomorrow, if I can’t clear anything earlier. If we have a location fixed, I’ll send a toad to Jiraiya-sensei. He’s still in Wave Country, as far as I know, but the passage to Lightning is still good this time of year.”
“Will do.” Shibata raised a hand to his lips, brushing at numb scars to be sure his lozenge hadn’t caused any leakage. Then he smiled at his companions. “This has been quite an entertaining briefing. If any of you care to join me in interrogating some sake later this evening, I’m sure I’d enjoy the company. Say 2100 at my house? I’ll ask Koemi to make pork buns.”
“That’s it?” Sagara still had that bad onion look in her eye. “We’re all just on board with— all of this?”
“Hakone’s team was on the mission to look for Six,” Shibata said. “And he told me, so I know he told you, that Six was coming back with civilians and sake, and there was something about tanuki. I’ll admit I wasn’t expecting it to amount to anything this fantastic, but Team Six does seem to end up with unusual mission reports. Let’s not forget the Hayama demons, for example. How much stranger are chakra-using tanuki than chakra-eating scorpion-dog demons?”
“Don’t you dare be reasonable at me,” Sagara said. “It’s weirder and you know it. Both of them are weird.”
For just a moment, Shibata saw the pigtailed genin Sagara Okiku had been when he’d met her, some thirty years ago.
He felt his scars stretch as he grinned. “Yes, yes, it’s weird.”
Oita, with professional calm, said, “Weird, but far from the only bizarre occurrence this summer. Or this year. Or the last ten. There’s always rumors of yokai, and some of them confirmed. Though,” he admitted, “if this weren’t ANBU and Yuuhi, I’d be inclined to believe they’d been sampling the sake.”
“Kakashi’s report said he came back without scars,” said Minato, throwing his support to the ‘weird’ side of the question, evidently.
“Ah well then,” Shibata said. “That proves it. In fact none of Team Six are in the hospital this time, are they? Very suspicious.”
Minato flipped the file closed and tossed it to Shibata. “So go see which of them is actually a tanuki in disguise, will you?” He sounded light, but there was honed steel underneath: if there is anything to be worried about here, find it.
Shibata acknowledged the order with a formal bow. “If I do find a tanuki, I’ll be sure to get it to heal my scars, too.”
He’d lived with his ruined face for twelve years, and for the most part, embraced it. The horrifying disfigurement was an asset when it came to interrogations — no matter how gently he might speak, his face was a visual reminder to his subjects of what could happen to them if they didn’t cooperate. But if the scars really could be erased: if he could turn back those twelve years, speak in a normal voice, eat and drink without a thought, kiss Koemi properly again… It was a tantalizing what if.
Sagara glanced at him, and with no particular sympathy, broke the fantasy. “I don’t think I’d recognize you with lips.”
She was truly a good friend.
He smiled at her with what he knew looked like a snarl. But she’d been there for longer than those twelve years; she’d get his affection. “And I wouldn’t recognize you with tact, so it’s a good thing we’re talking wild improbabilities.”
Minato checked the clock and came out from behind his desk, white coat swirling behind him. The Hat, as always, stayed on the wall. “Wild or not,” he said, clapping a hand on Shibata’s shoulder for a brief squeeze, “it’s worth pursuing.”
The ANBU guards outside sensed his approaching chakra, and swung the heavy doors open. “Keep me informed,” he told his trio of advisers, as if they’d do anything less. All three of them bowed and followed him out the door.
Minato and his retinue of guards turned right, towards the more opulent wing of the Palace where diplomacy was conducted and Konoha’s money earned.
Oita, Sagara, and Shibata went left. They didn’t speak until they were in one of the secure passages that branched under the Palace and the streets of Konoha to take them back to their respective offices.
“Never a dull moment,” Shibata said. For security’s sake, he cast a distortion genjutsu around the three of them that would turn their conversation to uninteresting smalltalk for any eavesdroppers. “I’ve got some ideas about handling the interrogations.” There was no need to sugar coat things. “Yamanaka Inoichi’s working for me now. His methods aren’t entirely pleasant for the subject, though. Not terrible, but not a picnic under sakura blossoms. I’m not usually in the business of inflicting harm on your agents, but given the circumstances…”
“Just return them functional,” Sagara said.
Shibata nodded. “I’ll try to return them better than I found them. Yuuhi, too. As for the civilians, I’m assuming a sensitive chakra scan could confirm they truly are civilians, and not chakra-using shape-shifters from another dimension.”
“I appreciate that you think I know the answer to that,” Sagara said. “But yes, I’ll have the civilians delivered to you.”
“I’ll send someone to the hospital for Hyuuga Mitsu. She’s worked with us before,” Oita said. “Should be able to handle your chakra system analysis on Yuuhi and Team Six, too.”
“Good. Then we have a plan.” Shibata stopped at a junction in the tunnels. “I’ll read these reports and get my people organized, and then my meeting with you, Gennousuke. 1330. Unless you want to move that up and do it now.”
Oita checked his watch. “Better push to 1400 instead, if you can.”
“Sounds good. I’m rearranging my day for all this interesting tanuki business, anyway.” Shibata gestured towards the fork that led to both ANBU HQ and T&I, “After you, Okiku.”
Oita went right, towards Intel’s sprawling complex. Sagara and Shibata continued left, but their paths parted after the elevator that took them up to the top of the Hokage Monument cliff.
In the long, anonymous hall that led to T&I’s squat building, the people Shibata passed fell into two distinct categories: shinobi from his department, and Everyone Else. His people, in jounin blues, intel greys, or the sweeping black coats that marked them as interrogators, offered a respectful, “Director,” and a shallow salute. The rest hugged the opposite wall when Shibata went by, and tried to pretend they weren’t staring.
One man, though, aimed himself for an intercept. Shimura Danzou’s limp announced him just as clearly as the murmured “Danzou-sama” that a woman in Intel’s grey offered in greeting as she passed. He approached at an almost stately pace. At first glance, it was the confident bearing of an arrogant commander. To Shibata’s eye, it was accommodation to pain. Shibata’s own neck and shoulder had been a constant nagging irritation for the last several days, since the rains came. Danzou, who limped on the best of days, was probably grinding his molars to keep the pain off his face.
It was no coincidence that Danzou was here. Since the interruption was inevitable, Shibata quickened his own pace to meet him.
“Danzou-san,” he said pleasantly. “What brings you up to our perch on the heads of Hokages past and present?”
“Shibata-san. Good afternoon.” Danzou nodded politely, one battle-scarred veteran to another. If he noted the reminder that his face wasn’t amongst those on the cliff-side monument, he didn’t let it show. “I understand Konoha has acquired more strays. A sake brewer, this time.”
“Unannounced news seems to travel fast,” Shibata said. He recast the smalltalk illusion on himself and Danzou. “The Daimyou’s favorite sake brewer. Worth collecting, I think.” Danzou was a Council member. He’d learn the specifics soon enough, but now he’d be indebted for the early tip-off. How he’d learned about Team Six’s arrival with their strays at all was still a question to be teased out. Oita’s shadow, who’d disappeared before the meeting with the Hokage, came to mind. “Are you a sake fan?”
Danzou smiled pleasantly at Shibata’s obvious attempt to divert the conversation. “It has its merits,” he said. “The Daimyou’s favor, for instance. I imagine he’ll be pleased. Though I can’t imagine why such an acquisition would take a month to procure.”
“Mmm. Perhaps there were extended negotiations involved.”
Danzou nodded in a way that almost seemed a concession. “Perhaps. In which case, Team Six should be commended for their success.” His gaze sharpened, searching. “And of course, such a valuable asset would require attention of the highest order. Am I keeping you, Shibata-san?”
In other words, why is T&I involved in this?
“Not at all,” Shibata said. “In fact, my next meeting was pushed back by a half hour. I do have the usual desk full of paperwork to attend to, of course, but I have a few extra minutes.” He spread his hands expansively. “Would you like to accompany me to my office? I don’t have sake, but we could certainly have some tea.”
Danzou’s expression turned shrewd, barely hidden beneath his friendly veneer. “Thank you, Shibata-san,” he said, after a moment. “I much prefer tea to sake, anyway.”
“Excellent, excellent.” Shibata set an ever so slightly faster pace than Danzou had approached with. Still considerately slow, of course. But fast enough to exacerbate Danzou’s limp. “I have some oolong from southern Wind Country that I think you’ll like.”
They stopped at T&I’s front desk briefly, where Shibata told his assistant Nene, “Could you ask Yamanaka to see me in say, half an hour? I have some questions about his last report.” A complete fabrication, but it would give him a pretense to end the conversation with Danzou and pique Danzou’s curiosity in an oblique direction.
Nene jotted down the character flower on a notepad, and produced a slim stack of pale blue forms. “These need your signature.”
“Paperwork,” Shibata said with a chuckle to Danzou. He stacked the forms on top of the folder full of Team Six’s and Yuuhi’s reports. “What did I tell you? The glamorous life of the administrator. Let’s go add these to the piles on my desk and see if the poor thing collapses under the weight.” Shibata’s voice trailed off to a dry rasp. Nene handed him a lozenge.
Shibata led Danzou down hushed hallways to his office. He deposited the papers on his desk as if they were of little importance, beckoned Danzou to take a seat in one of a pair of comfortable chairs next to a small table — his ‘reading nook’ and possibly the nicest interrogation chamber in the building.
While the fragrant tea steeped, he sat in the opposite chair with a sigh. “Every once in awhile,” he told Danzou, “I almost feel my age.”
Danzou’s commiserating expression would have been, to a less astute man, excellent concealment for the calculation gleaming in his eye. “Time comes for us all,” he said. “But age is not without its own merits. Experience, resilience,” he tipped his head at Shibata, an acknowledgement of shared scars, before lifting his tea like the rustic cup was a priceless relic, “and an appreciation for quality.”
“Indeed.” Shibata sipped his tea, than sat up a little straighter. “So what did you want to talk about, Danzou-san? Or was this just a social call, in which case, how is your social life these days?”
Danzou paused just for a fraction of a second, as Shibata’s barb about his well-known nonexistent social life hit home. But there wasn’t a hint of offense when he said, “I’m afraid my work occupies too much of my time for any other indulgences. Which reminds me — my sources tell me that rumors of Orochimaru have appeared in Lightning Country. Has our Kumo deserter provided any confirmation on the matter?”
Shibata smiled conspiratorially. “Ahhh, we come to the point.” Success! Team Six, tanuki, and sake brewers avoided. “Of course this isn’t public, but the Council will be briefed shortly. I’m sure you can be trusted not to let confidential information escape your control.” Appeal to his vanity and patriotism. “Our Kumo deserter has been a fount of knowledge.” He paused to sip at his tea and rewet his tongue and throat. And draw out a little more tension.
Danzou was nearly as masterful at the game as Shibata. The only thing that betrayed his pique was a slight dilation of his pupil, hard to see in his dark brown eye.
“We’ve managed to place our missing Sannin in the border area between Snow Country and Lightning Country,” Shibata said, when he felt the moment crest. “Of course, that was nearly three weeks ago, so it’s possible he’s moved on, but we know he has had some sort of base of operations there.”
Danzou looked intrigued and satisfied, though oddly unsurprised. That was… interesting. Shibata knew Danzou had his own network of spies and informants, but until now, he hadn’t thought their reach extended beyond the borders of Fire Country.
“I’m reassured that this case is in your capable hands, Shibata-san,” Danzou said. He might have meant to sound like an approving mentor to his junior colleague, but his smarmy half-smile turned it into pure condescension.
Shibata smiled blandly back. “Your trust does me credit.”
Danzou inclined his head in approval. Then his expression grew serious, his voice low and confiding. “It’s long past time we put an end to the Orochimaru debacle. Hiruzen so seldom blundered, but in this…” He sighed heavily, shaking his head.
Shibata didn’t care for Danzou’s politics, his manner, or his methods, but he had taken pains for years to convince Danzou otherwise. And here was one thing on which they could agree. He echoed Danzou’s sigh. “Hiruzen was a great thinker, but he never truly understood the ways men feel. If he’d nurtured Orochimaru’s ambition from the outset, perhaps Orochimaru would never have turned down that dark path. But in the end, it was Hiruzen’s own feelings that blinded him. When he learned his student was a monster, he should have put him down swiftly. Instead he let the rabid dog bite Konoha’s hand.”
Danzou’s faint smile was belied by the subtle, anticipatory tension in the rest of his body. “Sentimentality is a dangerous trait in a Hokage,” Danzou said, his tone mild. “We must hope that the Third’s mistakes will not carry over to the Fourth.”
“Indeed.” Shibata sipped his tea, then met Danzou’s one good eye with his own. “You and I, and others who understand what’s at stake, have a duty to the Fourth and to Konoha, to provide unflinching guidance, so the mistakes of the past are never repeated.”
This time Danzou’s smile was genuinely warm and approving, as if Shibata were a student who had just gotten the correct answer to a difficult question. “Of course. We all want what’s best for Konoha.” He took a last sip of tea and rested the empty cup back on Shibata’s table. “Well, I will not keep you from your work, Shibata-san. Thank you for your time — and for your excellent tea.”
“It’s always a pleasure to share tea with someone who appreciates the nuances.” Shibata set his own cup down, and rose to accompany Danzou to the door.
Just as Shibata was about to open the door, Danzou said casually, as if in afterthought, “Are you acquainted with Sakamoto Gousuke, Shibata-san?”
If Danzou was Konoha’s hawk, Sakamoto Gousuke was its golden eagle. Shibata raised his eyebrows, playing along with the ploy. “I’ve met the councilor once or twice. I’m afraid he’d retired from active service before I was in a high enough position to work with him directly.”
“Indeed,” Danzou said, with the same shrewd approval. “As it happens, Sakamoto-san has quite an extensive tea collection. I’m sure he would be pleased to make the acquaintance of another who would ‘appreciate its nuances,’ as you say.”
An opportunity to get closer to the heart of Minato’s in-village opposition was even more than Shibata had been angling for. “If you facilitated the meeting, I would be relish the chance to sip tea with such an esteemed leader.” He bowed lower than was necessary. “Thank you for stopping by, Danzou-san.”
When he had his office to himself again, Shibata massaged the tight scars on his jaw, then made himself a fresh cup of tea and took a seat at his overburdened desk. With a man like Shimura Danzou, flattery and deference were the keys to all sorts of locks. Sakamoto Gousuke was less vain, but no less demanding of respect. This was a priceless opportunity. The adage about keeping friends close but enemies closer was never wrong, especially in a ninja village.
He jotted a quick note to Sagara. I may have opened that can of eels we were concerned had gone bad. It definitely smells, and I’d hate to give myself botulism.
When he’d sealed it and sent it whizzing through the pneumatic system to be delivered to her desk, he reached for the paperwork and Team Six’s files. First five quick signatures for Nene’s requisitions. And then the documents he’d been itching to read since the moment he left Minato’s office. He flipped open the file and started at the top.
…in my spar with him, Shiranui sustained a blow to the head with a minor loss of consciousness. At that moment, someone dropped a two meter tall granite jizo on me—