August 1 – 4, Yondaime Year 5
“So,” Ayane said, snapping her chopsticks apart, “I heard your team brought back Six.”
“Yep,” Hakone said, and filled his mouth with noodles.
Ayane waited. Hakone chewed, swallowed, and swirled another bundle of noodles onto his chopsticks.
“In case you missed the last twenty minutes of conversation, I’ve got a new team and I’m still in ANBU,” Ayane reminded him. “My security clearance is just as high as yours. What happened?”
Hakone shrugged one shoulder. “I heard you. Your new captain is more aloof than Hajime-taichou, but you like your lieutenant, and you have a plan for dealing with Miura if he doesn’t stop staring at your ass when he thinks you’re not looking.” He plucked a spiral piece of fishcake out of his broth and inspected it critically. “What happened is, we got sent to find ‘em. We found ‘em. They were unhurt, and they wouldn’t say a damn thing about why they were so late or where they’d been. My lieutenant was pissed.”
Ayane could sympathize. She bit down frustration and ate her onsen egg first, as always. As always, Hakone scooped his own egg out of his bowl and added it to hers.
“Thanks,” Ayane said. She ate that egg, too, and then finally slurped up a mouthful of noodles. And then, when she couldn’t stand the wait any longer: “What do you think happened?”
“Did you see the report before Shirotani whisked it upstairs?” Hiaishi Riei asked.
Aoba lounged against the file cabinet next to her desk. “Nope. He just went pale, sealed it back up, and bolted for Oita. All I know is it was about ANBU Six. Which means it’s definitely something either bad or weird.”
“Well, Kurenai handed it in,” Riei pointed out. “And then headed out before I could even offer tea. No one’s seen her around HQ since, but there are extra ANBU guarding the Palace west wing. Do you think they brought back another kekkei genkai?”
Aoba shook his hand as if he were waving away smoke. “Another kekkei genkai? Why, whatever would make you think Konoha is collecting those, Riei-chan?” He sniggered. “But I doubt it. This one was political. I think they rescued the Daimyou’s secret mistress and the illegitimate heir.”
“From Hot Springs Country?” Riei said dubiously. “Unless— It was a mission to a sake brewery, right? Yoshihara-sama might have visited when he was a young man, before he took power, and fallen in love with the master brewer’s daughter… Or, no, the sake brewery was just a cover for the real mission, which was a desperate bid to rescue the Daimyou’s kidnapped mistress before she was spirited over the border to Lightning Country!”
“Could be,” Aoba said. “I mean, even the Daimyou was young once, right? Doesn’t explain why they were late, but it definitely covers the shroud of mystery and Shirotani having a coronary event about it.”
“Well,” Riei said, “leaving aside the possibility of war with Lightning Country, I hope it’s true.” She sighed, a little wistfully. “If Kurenai gets to go back to Hikouto to be draped in pearls and jade by a grateful Daimyou, maybe Shirotani will let us tag along.”
“2000 ryou says it was monsters,” Norita Takeshi said.
“Not taking that bet,” Himura Tadao grunted, jerking his barbell cleanly off the floor. “It was monsters already, at least once. Or didn’t you hear about the giant fucking demon head they dragged back from Hayama this spring?”
“That’s why I’m betting on monsters again,” Takeshi said. “And you really shouldn’t be in the pool anyway, Intel always plays with weighted dice. What’s the lowdown?”
Tadao lowered the bar, chakra glow fading around his fingers. “Kidnapped by a horny spirit who fell in lust with Team Six’s beauty.”
Takeshi snorted. “Ryouma wishes.” Then he stopped. “No. Don’t tell me. He didn’t actually—”
“Shirotani’s not talking,” Tadao said. “But I met an ANBU lieutenant in the breakroom.”
“Gods,” Takeshi breathed. “You think he’d introduce us?”
“Sakamoto, you are such a little shit.”
“That’s why you love me.” Ginta grinned at his captain as she plopped her tray down at his table. “Look, I’m even more of one now.” He swiped a fried shrimp from Usagi’s plate. After a suitable round of tabletop combat, he popped the bite into his mouth, victorious. “So why else am I a shit?”
She took one of his peach halves in immediate vengeance, scarfed it down, licked her fingers, and then counted on those same fingers: “Horny lust spirit. Accidentally discovered a passage to hell. Enma is real, for fuck’s sake. Sex pollen. What am I missing?”
“Sex plant. It’s not just the pollen. They brought back samples, but it was so overwhelming they fucked each other senseless on the way back, and now they’re in a private hospital wing to detox and recover.”
“Lost in a snowstorm and had to huddle together naked due to hypothermia,” Ginta said proudly, ticking theories off on his own hand now. “Bad mushrooms gave them amnesia. Since they didn’t recognize each other, one thing led to another… I mean, you saw how Genma and Raidou were dancing with Kurenai at the club. And anyone who says they don’t want to fuck Tousaki is either a lesbian or clinically dead.”
Usagi leaned on the table and cupped her chin in her hand, entertained. “Are they all sex-themed? Do we need to find you someone sparkly to take the edge off?”
“Always,” Ginta said. “Do you have someone in mind?”
“No one I’d wish you on.” Usagi smiled sweetly.
“Rude.” Ginta took another one of her shrimp as punishment. “And they aren’t all sex-themed. Hatake got turned into a fluffy white bunny and the rest of them had to protect him until he turned back. Tousaki went AWOL to follow Shuriken Force’s tour, and the rest of them had to hunt him down before he got declared missing nin. It rained.”
Usagi blinked. “And they melted?”
“Nope, just rain. They got wet. Very slow going when wet.”
Usagi snorted around a wicked grin. “That’s not my experience.”
“Nice. I’d ask Uchiha Satomi for details but she’d gut me like a fish and you’ll probably tell it better anyway. But later. I haven’t told you the best one, yet.”
“Damn! I wish I’d thought of that one.” Ginta rolled his shoulders and leaned back. “No. But my last two are good. One: pregnancy. But it’s not Kurenai who got knocked up. Team Six pissed off a fertility god, and now they’re all with child. They’re already showing. Obviously delivery will have to be by caesarian.”
“Hatake is going to burn your entire face off,” Usagi observed through strangled laughter.
“Probably. Anyway, last one. Sex change. They went to sleep one way and woke up the other. And evidently they’re even hotter. I mean, you saw them before. Gay Konoha’s loss is lesbian Konoha’s gain.” He sighed dramatically. “So about the someone sparkly…”
“—an’ then Kakashi-niisan whacked off its head,” Naruto said, flourishing his stick in demonstration. “An’ everybody cheered. An’ Tousaki-san said Hatake you are the coolest ninja I know.”
“Who’s Tousaki-san?” Ino whispered to Shikamaru. Ino didn’t usually hang around to listen to Naruto’s stories, but this one was really good.
“He melts people into puddles,” Shikamaru said, distracted. “Except not this time, maybe.”
“Oh, he melted somebody,” Naruto assured them. “There was another dragon, uh, hiding in the bushes. An’ it jumped out and grabbed the captain — he’s Moon-Mask, he punches really hard — but he couldn’t punch through the dragon. But Tousaki-san melted it! All its guts came out and got squished under everybody’s shoes and it was smelly and gross—”
“Ewww!” Choji said dutifully. “I hope somebody made him clean it up.”
Naruto flashed him a grin. “That’s what the lieutenant is for. He has a Clean Up Messes jutsu. An’ then he took them all out for ice cream. So that’s why Kakashi-niisan was late getting home, but next time I get to go kill dragons with him…”
“He’s back,” Shun said.
Ume slumped forward on the kitchen table, crumpling the homework she’d been marking. “In one piece?” she asked her folded arms.
“I haven’t heard otherwise,” Shun said, with her usual measured precision that was as reassuring as it was annoying.
Ume let out a huge breath of relief. “Thank gods.”
Shun touched her on the shoulder. Then retreated to the safety of the tea boiler to make a cup of something strong and calming before she added, “Maaya did mention something about running into a jubokko, but I think she was mistaken.”
Ume raised her head slowly. “She thinks our son ran into a blood-sucking tree?”
“I think she was mistaken,” Shun said.
Ume shoved her chair back. “He’s three weeks late and now there are murderous trees? I’m going to ANBU. I’m going to ANBU right now.”
“You’ll embarrass him,” Shun said.
“Good,” Ume snapped. “Maybe next time he’ll write!”
Shun pushed a cup of tea into her hands. “Perhaps, instead of storming a military complex, we could tell Yuuichi-san his son is also safe? I’m sure he’d appreciate it.”
Ume squinted at her wife, took an angry gulp of tea, and slammed the mug down. “Fine! Be reasonable!”
She stomped out of the door. Fondly, Shun followed her.
“All of them?”
Yuuichi set his wallet on the counter. “All of them.”
“Perhaps if you told me what sort of blessing it was you were seeking…” The young priest traced a worried circle on the smooth wood of the counter.
“I need all the blessings,” Yuuichi insisted. “You can’t be too careful.”
“Just… one minute, Shiranui-san.” He disappeared into the interior of the temple, black robes flapping around him.
Yuuichi took the moment to admire the architecture. The beautifully carved gables supporting the enormous tiled roof. The bronze turtle brazier, where softly smoking joss sticks perfumed the courtyard air. The five-storey pagoda soaring into the blue sky. For the first time in three weeks, he could breathe without a knot under his sternum.
Yuuichi turned to find the head priest himself behind the little counter where the temple sold blessings and charms. He smiled broadly. “Kentaro-boshi! Did you hear? Genma’s home! Of course he missed his birthday, but we can celebrate it a little late. I haven’t had a chance to see him yet, but I heard from—”
The old priest put a hand on Yuuichi’s arm. “I’m very happy for you. We will have tea to celebrate.” He tapped the younger priest on the top of his shaved head. “Tea for our guest. And pickles.” The young priest bowed and scurried away.
“Now Yuuichi-san. Hotei-kun said you wanted to buy every charm? Even the charms for safe pregnancy?”
Yuuichi nodded emphatically. “I don’t know why Genma and his team were so delayed coming home, but I heard things. He’s in ANBU now. You can’t be too careful.” He sighed when Kentaro gave him a skeptical look. “Besides,” he said. “I promised his mother I’d protect him.”
“That’s what I heard.”
“All of them?” Intern Ando’s voice rose sharply in alarm.
Rin paused as she entered the break room, her coat half-shed. Fujiwara-sensei made a helpless gesture with his hands and said, “It is ANBU Six.”
“Yes, but — Nohara-sensei!” Ando said, catching sight of her, “are the rumors true?”
“Which ones?” Rin asked wryly, hanging up her coat and stretching her shoulder. “I’ve heard several.”
Fujiwara-sensei looked thoughtful. “Doesn’t Nakamura-sensei have a niece in ANBU? I wonder if she knows anything.”
“They are scheduled for their medical examinations tomorrow,” Rin said hastily, before those two could decide to storm Nakamura-sensei’s office for information. “We’ll know more then.”
Ando grimaced. “I hope I don’t get Hatake again.”
“If I understand you correctly,” Danzou said evenly, rubbing his temples, “there is no proof that ANBU Six’s delayed return was because they had been abducted by spirits and trapped in another dimension.”
The agent averted his gaze, looking sheepish. “Well, no. But there isn’t any proof that it didn’t happen, Danzou-sama, and Team Six does have a reputation—”
“Enough,” Danzou said. He lifted his hand from his temple and waved the agent away.
This was the fifth report he had received regarding ANBU Six’s whereabouts, each more fantastical than the last, each from a different source within Konoha. With so much chatter in the air, it was impossible to separate truth from wild rumor.
Danzou was beginning to regret not pressing Shibata when he’d had the chance.
No matter. There were far more important things that required his attention — the loose ends from the Hikouto coup, the potential benefit to be derived from Mist’s destabilization, and now, Shibata’s confirmation of Orochimaru’s presence in Lightning Country.
He returned to his desk and sat stiffly down. The rain had yet to let up, and the damp had sunk into his joints, making them ache. He was just about to summon his assistant for more tea when chakra flickered at his open window.
An agent in the grey uniform of Intel crouched on the windowsill. She gave a brisk bow, then said urgently, “Danzou-sama, I have news about ANBU Team Six!”
“I quit,” said Morita Rei, ANBU’s beleaguered Quartermaster.
Aiko, one of his assistants, patted him kindly on the shoulder. “It’s not that bad.”
Morita shoved his entire hand through one of the holes bitten into the chest plate and wiggled his fingers in despair.
“Admittedly, it’s not great,” she added.
“Giant wolves,” Morita wailed. “I was prepared for blades. I can handle fire. And ice. And acid. I can design circles around Iwa and their godawful epaulets. But now I need to defend our kids against gods?”
“Is that really any more difficult than a giant scorpion-dog queen?” Aiko asked.
A long curving tooth sat on a shelf, part of an array of terrible pointy things the Quartermaster’s office had collected over the years. He gave it a look of extreme distaste. Its fine point had torn through his last four attempts at a tighter woven mesh for the undershirt, but he had high hopes for the fifth, now that they’d solved the conductivity problem of integrating metal through the cloth.
(Understandably, ANBU disliked their nipples being electrocuted as much as the next person.)
“Yes,” he said sniffily.
She patted his shoulder again. “Challenge is good for the soul. You get started. I’ll make tea.”
Morita yanked his newest sketchbook out of the pile and flipped to the first blank page. He taped Hatake’s (offensive) note to the top corner, and began to rough out a human shape, muttering under his breath. “Shoulder pads and goddamn pockets, does he think I haven’t considered them, pointy-haired asshole…”
Kakashi sneezed loudly.
Ryouma, sprawled and dozing on the team couch, startled awake. He rubbed his face. “Someone’s talking about you.”
“What else is new?” Raidou muttered, squinting at his seventh report.
Genma, half asleep at his own desk, mumbled, “I don’t want to know.”
Kakashi sneezed again.