August 7, Yondaime Year 5
Golden dawns weren’t rare, in Konoha summers. The opportunity to slip the twin leashes of official duties and single fatherhood came far less frequently. Minato wasn’t wasting this one.
Naruto had his first sleepover, an invitation from the Inuzuka clan to play with new puppies and, probably, experience the guilty thrill of peeing outside. Ogata-san was visiting her nephew’s family. Minato had reviewed his morning schedule, ruthlessly cancelled two meetings, collected his flak jacket and a holster of Hiraishin kunai, and headed up the Monument.
Sagara’s staff kept the ANBU training fields tightly scheduled, one team succeeding another throughout the day. A few of the earliest risers were heading sweat-soaked back to barracks, replaced by yawning young men and women in loose pants and tanks. Minato, used to masks, sifted through memory to match faces. Omashi Mitoba’s Team Eight, trailing back bruised out of thick woods; Sumeragi Shizuka’s Nineteen, their faces soot-blackened from predawn stealth training. Masaoka Reiko’s Twenty-Eight were fresh, warming up with shoulder-stretches as they jogged toward their assigned field. Minato bent his steps to join them before he caught a flash of familiar chakra.
He translocated, instead.
Namiashi Raidou’s Team Six had a sheltered spot between trees and riverbank, upstream from the falls. They were sparring in matched sets, kunai and shuriken against kodachi: burly Namiashi and rangy Tousaki attempting to disable Kakashi and Shiranui before the swordsmen could close. Kakashi seemed most familiar with his weapon, but Namiashi was pressing him hard. Tousaki kept accidentally allowing Shiranui in too close, before remembering himself and vaulting out of reach.
Shiranui, the sensor, noticed Minato first. He faltered, just for a moment. Tousaki, intent or oblivious, caught the blade of Shiranui’s kodachi between two crossed kunai and wrenched it out of his grasp. “Got you, Fukuchou!”
“Good job, Tousaki.” Shiranui raised empty hands in brief surrender. Genuine pride warmed his voice. “I was making you work for it, too. Shouldn’t have let myself get distracted.” He shoved sweaty hair back from his forehead, and nodded upwind toward the treeline. “We have a visitor.”
Three, by now, but Rook and Squirrel were keeping quiet in the high branches, their chakra and ANBU sparks muffled. Light duty for Squirrel, who was still rebuilding strength in his rebuilt hip. Just catching up to Minato should be enough exercise for him, this morning.
Minato strolled out from under the trees. Tousaki almost dropped his kunai. Namiashi and Kakashi, he was pleased to see, didn’t. They were locked in a deathmatch that seemed to involve all of Namiashi’s weaponry scattered like spiky caltrops around them, Kakashi’s standard-issue kodachi straining between them, and an oppressive ozone-edged killing intent that Minato had grown to miss.
He asked Shiranui, “Do you tap out for disarming, or first blood?”
Shiranui knelt, formally, bracing himself with one knee and one fist to the ground. Tousaki hastily copied him. “Disarming. If someone over there draws blood and it’s more than a scratch, I already warned them I’d pour alcohol on the wound until their eyes water.”
“Namiashi seems disarmed already,” Minato observed. “Or do biceps still count, for him?” He folded up the empty wrapper of his breakfast rat bar and shoved it into his pocket. “Mind if I join?”
“Taichou’s biceps definitely count,” Tousaki said, and went pink. He ducked his head. “Uh, Hokage-sama.”
Shiranui pushed to his feet, manfully restraining what Minato suspected was an overpowering impulse to kick his rookie. “We’d be honored if you joined us, Hokage-sama.” He cupped a hand to his mouth and raised his voice. “Call it a draw!”
Namiashi’s focus flicked, briefly, sideways.
He broke Namiashi’s guard, locked an ankle behind his knee, and slammed him viciously hard into a clear patch of dirt. Straddling his captain to control his hips, blade shivering point-down above Namiashi’s heart, Kakashi still didn’t take his eyes off his target. He said, “Sensei.”
“Your point,” Namiashi conceded, grouchily breathless. He turned his dusty head toward the others and rasped, “Hokage-sama. Did you say you wanted to join us?”
That, Minato figured, was warning enough.
He translocated across the field and knocked Kakashi tumbling off his captain. Kakashi hit the ground rolling and sliced as he came up. He’d calculated for Minato’s movement, but not quite well enough; Minato tagged a Hiraishin seal on the back of his shoulder, sent him sprawling again, and flickerstepped sideways to avoid Namiashi’s rush.
Namiashi split into three mirror images: shadow clones, evenly chakra-balanced. All three retreated, one towards the river, two toward the trees. Then ozone crackled and blinding lightning filled Minato’s vision as Kakashi darted in, Sharingan eye gleaming red, kodachi wreathed in electricity.
It had been far too long.
Lightning Release jutsu weren’t his strongest, but he had enough proficiency to shape four one-handed seals and seize control over the crackling energy, grounding it into inert earth. Kakashi swung at him anyway. Minato flung a Hiraishin kunai into the trees thirty meters away and stepped through the void to meet it.
Silvery senbon sliced through the leaves toward him. Minato dodged instead of blocking, and traced their angle back. Shiranui, his chakra compressed down to a ghostlike ebb, already leaving traps behind: a hair-thin wire here, an almost-natural leaf-litter there. Minato sliced through the wire, kicked up the leaves, and was gone again before the trap sprang.
A tree crashed, close in the forest behind him. Chakra punched like a diseased fist. That would be Tousaki; no wonder Kakashi’d complained… Minato backtracked, curious, and caught himself on air when the ground erupted beneath his feet.
And that would be Kakashi and Namiashi, working together.
He pulled on the Hiraishin seal tagged between Kakashi’s shoulderblades, appeared again behind them with Namiashi still lunging forward, Kakashi already turning. Tousaki was sun-caught beyond them, highlighted in the bright rays lancing through gaps in the forest canopy where two massive trees had fallen. Their interlocking trunks made a barrier three meters high, and Tousaki was already moving to close the third side of the square, with Shiranui a dim figure behind a glitter of senbon at the fourth.
“Oh, well done,” Minato said, genuinely impressed, and took them down anyway.
The ground was cold and there was dirt in Raidou’s nostrils.
He scraped himself up on wobbling legs. Searched for his team. Genma—there, folded over a tree branch like wet laundry, but spitting, scrabbling, getting up. Metal in his hands. Ryouma—hauling himself out of a jagged trench, wild-eyed, palms burning red. Kakashi—gone?
Light blazed through the grove of trees that marked the west boundary of the training field. Ice-blue and searing yellow, splitting, jumping, almost too fast to track. Chakra cracked and cracked again, like wood snapping. Translocations, dozens of them.
Raidou was starting to understand why Kakashi never seemed fazed by morning training.
Lightning seared from a clear sky, followed by the dull whump of something massive exploding. Branches and wood splinters burst above the treeline. On the closest edge, the trees parted like a book opening. In the gap created, a lean blond figure strolled forward, hands tucked casually into his pockets. Yellow sparks tumbled around his feet, playful fire.
Raidou made a sharp gesture: Run. Regroup.
Genma’s tree burst into flames. A shimmer went through the world, licking along the edges of Raidou’s chakra. The fire leapt from tree to tree, engulfing the small grove around them. Raidou could feel the heat tightening his skin, even while his chakra rang a warning bell: genjutsu. Bless Kurenai’s training. Genma translocated in an eye-blink.
Ryouma bolted on foot: not risking a space-time jutsu that would make him nauseous. Clones split away from him like a fan, streaking in all directions. He reached another thicket and vanished.
Minato’s eyes settled on Raidou. The universe bent subtly, in a way that suggested serious chakra movement. Raidou’s hands went numb. He forced them through a rapid seal-set, snapped the ground open under his feet, and dropped into the welcoming grip of his own earth affinity. Dirt closed over his head in the exact second that something flashed through where he’d just been standing. He splintered shards of chakra away, destabilizing the ground, and fled in the distracting earthquake.
He found Ryouma mostly by luck, crouched and panting in the hollow of a moss-covered tree. Raidou unearthed next to him, making Ryouma jolt and skitter sideways. When he’d recovered, he hissed, “Did you know the Hokage is this fucking scary?”
“I saw him during the war,” Raidou whispered, straining his blunt senses to find Genma. “Saved my life once.”
From a woman who’d walked on lava, and nailed a stone spike through Raidou’s ribcage. Kakashi had been there, too, a streak of blue light and destruction. Both of them turning a burning battlefield around. Raidou hadn’t spoken to either of them about it, then or afterwards. They probably didn’t even know.
Genma was either tamping down his ANBU spark, or he’d fled the field entirely. Since the rest of them had gone as invisible as possible, Raidou knew his guess—and was proven right, when Genma landed lightly in the tree above them and scared the hell out of them both.
“I understand so much more about Hatake now,” Genma said tightly.
Raidou nodded, but didn’t waste breath agreeing. “We can’t win this fight, but we can treat him like an enemy S-class. Goal is to survive, escape, report. Ideas?”
“Goal isn’t just to give him a good workout?” Ryouma said. “He’s not even out of breath.”
“You want to run out there and let him bench press you, be my guest,” Raidou said. “I want to get something out of this. Rare chance, let’s grab it.”
“We did this with Iebara,” Genma said grimly. “Hatake pulled focus while Tousaki and I kept to the shadows and tried to provide side support. But to survive this—we may have to accept a sacrifice. Right now, Hatake’s volunteering again.”
On the other side of the training field, trees shattered.
Raidou’s stomach soured, but it was pragmatic. “Call that Plan B. Plan A gets us all out. Tousaki?”
Ryouma bit his lip. “We can’t slow him down. We can’t do a sacrifice. We failed at a trap. What about a distraction? Difference between him and an enemy S-class is we know him, and we know at least one of his weaknesses, so…”
Rapidly, he outlined a plan that was simple, risky, and evil. But it had a chance.
Raidou nodded. “Let’s do it.”
Kakashi had put on muscle since Minato had last seen him. His stamina was better; so was his raw strength. He’d evidently been working hard in his months with Team Six, and he’d picked up a few dirty tricks since they last sparred.
He still had a regrettable habit of destroying the landscape, but Senju Hashirama’s chakra-imbued trees grew fast. Minato let himself enjoy the opportunity to not hold back, too.
Jutsu met taijutsu; elemental releases clashed and slivered into bright stabbing shards. Lightning, Earth, Fire, Wind, Water. Kakashi ripped half the river from its bed; Minato blew it back and half-drowned Kakashi with it. They bruised the blades of their hands against each others’ bones.
How many weeks had it been since Minato’d felt so alive?
Kakashi began to flag, eventually. He lasted longer than Minato expected, given the strength-sapping jutsu they’d been trading; but his speed was losing its edge, his blows their power. Minato was about to suggest he take a seat and leave the rest of his team to pick up the slack—where had they hidden themselves?—when the shrubbery between two precariously leaning trees shivered.
It was a rhododendron. Minato saw that, quite clearly. Thick foliage, dark-green leaves, nothing like enough structure to prevent those half-rooted trees from falling. Nothing to protect the small, bright-haired boy who shoved his way between fading flowers and held out grubby arms.
“Niisan!” Naruto said happily. “Found you!” And then, with a pearly beaming smile: “Dad!”
The trees swayed.
Minato dropped a kunai and ripped through space.
He had a splinter-second moment of weight in his arms, Naruto’s chubby hands locked around his neck, Naruto’s little giggle of surprised delight. The trees creaked. A heady smell of fresh sap and earth struck his nose—
He wrenched away again, Hiraishin this time, landing safely in the open field of torn earth and grass, the three-pronged kunai embedded in the mud at his foot. The weight in his arms no longer clung around his neck. The scent of broken tree limbs still clogged his throat.
Naruto was gone. He was holding a meter-long broken oak log, Kakashi had disappeared, and Team Six’s chakra were meteors in the distance.
Minato dropped the log. He drew a deep, steadying breath.
He raised his voice. “Squirrel.”
“Hokage-sama.” Squirrel dropped out of the trees on the other bank of the river—a prudent distance away, given recent events—and jogged across the water, limping only a little. Rook was at his heels. Both of them had their chakra clamped down very tight.
“Radio Bear,” Minato said. His voice stayed level. He was, distantly, proud of himself. “Check in on my son.”
Squirrel touched his radio collar. “Bear, come in. This is Squirrel with Flash. What’s the status on Spark? Over.” He plucked the receiver out of his ear and turned the volume up.
Bear’s lower voice came back crackly. “Bear here. Spark is sleeping in a puppy-pile. Literally. Do you have an extraction code? Over.”
Squirrel’s mask tilted questioningly. Minato let his breath out. He shook his head.
“Negative on the extraction, Bear.” Squirrel lifted his finger off the transmitter. “Do you want to visit him, sir? Bear has a marked kunai.”
“And disturb half the Inuzuka’s dogs before breakfast?” Minato shook his head again. “It was a genjutsu. A good genjutsu.” Tousaki or Shiranui or both, working together—one for the trees, one for the boy? Tousaki had met Naruto once. Naruto still talked about getting juiceboxes from the people-puddle ninja, mostly when Ogata-san was refusing to let him have another snack before dinner.
Minato probably wouldn’t maim him. Maybe.
“Nothing further,” Squirrel said into the transmitter, watching him. “Squirrel out.” He tucked the receiver back into his ear. “What now, sir?”
“Now,” Minato said, grimly, “I catch up with them.”
An opponent as strong as Minato elevated the world. There was no time for thought, less for emotion. But in the flight from the battlefield, there was a breath for Kakashi to snatch one fleeting second of horror. That had been Naruto.
Except it wasn’t.
Of course it wasn’t. The Sharingan had dissected the illusion before it caught Kakashi by the throat. Genjutsu, cleverly done. Minato was still going to fall on them like a tectonic shift. And Kakashi was getting tired.
Later, though, he was going to be proud of his team.
He caught up with them quickly. They’d slipped into the next training field, empty of people and even more densely forested. Genma landed on a broad tree branch and paused there, panting. Raidou dropped down a step away, skin filthy where it wasn’t drenched in sweat. “Hound, what next?”
“Can’t outrun him,” Kakashi rasped. “Hide.”
“Where can we hide from him?” Ryouma demanded. “The women’s showers?”
“Earth Country,” Genma said.
“Ueno would hide us,” Raidou said.
Kakashi crouched on a higher branch, breathing through a lactic acid cramp, and made an impatient sound. “He’s not a sensor. Conceal your chakra and spark, go to ground. He might overlook us.”
At least until his next meeting. Maybe Kakashi could slip into the village and stir up a little inter-clan conflict. The Uchiha had been suspiciously quiet recently.
Chakra swelled in the distance. Thought wiped out, emotion went under glass. Even Raidou didn’t miss it. Ryouma and Genma both paled.
“Move,” Kakashi hissed.
The team split apart like a star detonating. Raidou vanished underground, closing loamy soil above his head. Genma cloaked an area-effect genjutsu around himself and melted into dappled leaves. Ryouma took advantage of a nearby river curve, leaping from tree to tree and dropping into the water with barely a ripple. His chakra nature blended with the current, blurring the edges until his signature and spark faded out.
In a different context, Kakashi might have enjoyed watching these displays of competence, but there was no time. He folded his chakra up and flattened it against his bones, tight, tighter, extinguishing his presence in the world. Crushed down his ANBU spark, and retreated to a shadowed dell filled with thick, lethal thorn bushes. Crouched in the center, surrounded by a lush green fortress, and waited.
In the silence, something itched at his brain.
Minato was fast, so fast, but even he didn’t have perfect vision. And yet he’d found Kakashi every time, drawn like a magnet. Almost like…
Kakashi twisted, opening his Sharingan. Fate-lines webbed the world in blue. A thick cord of them wound around his throat, over his shoulder, to circle the Hiraishin seal stuck to his back. It glowed ice-blue, and pulsed, once.
Oh, that bastard.
Behind him, Minato said with arctic calm, “Who was responsible for that genjutsu?”
Kakashi slammed out of his hiding spot. At his heels, thorn bushes shredded apart under a vicious circular wind, surrounding him and cutting off his retreat.
“It was cleverly executed,” Minato said, still with the eerie calm Kakashi knew from bad council days and worse war ones. “Not, perhaps, perfectly thought through.”
In the field, this would be the moment for a desperate gamble, something risky and chakra-expensive and likely to leave Kakashi in the hospital for a week. And, with any luck, too stoned to hear Rin yelling at him.
Here, he didn’t need to blow out his coils for a brief advantage against a man casually wielding a hurricane.
He unfolded from his crouch and turned to face Minato. “Worked, though,” he said, because Minato didn’t pull punches in training, and neither did Kakashi. “You have a chink, sensei.”
“And your team took advantage of it.” Minato folded his arms and let the storm die. “It was well done.” Sharp blue eyes swept the forest before returning to Kakashi. “Did they leave you here, or did you split off from them?”
“They didn’t stake me out like a sacrificial goat, if that’s your concern,” Kakashi said. He eased forward, letting his hands hang loose at his sides. Empty palms. Minato was a stone statue, watching him. Tranquil surface, lava underneath. Kakashi stopped deliberately just inside of arm’s reach. “It was my plan to split up. I like this team. If you murder them, I’ll have to find a new one, and that’s time-consuming.”
Minato looked at him for a moment, weighing, then said, “What if I invite them to breakfast?”
Kakashi blinked. “To meet them properly, or terrify them somewhere they can’t run?”
“I can’t multi-task?”
Kakashi snorted and stepped closer on silent, careful feet. Minato wasn’t a man prone to being flinchy or distant—that was Kakashi’s territory—but Naruto was the fatal strike against a heart that could withstand almost anything else. Minato’s fingers were flexing, just a little. On a ninja of his caliber, that tell was a scream.
“They didn’t know,” Kakashi said quietly. “I mean, they did, but… not really.”
“I wouldn’t expect them to. They knew of a weakness; they used it. It’s good fieldwork.” Minato nodded once, distantly. “But that’s another reason I want to know them better, in turn.”
Because the better you knew your weapons, the less likely they were to stab you? Or because he wanted to measure the lethal influences in Kakashi’s life?
Either way, not because Minato had suspicions of where Kakashi had been spending his free time.
Kakashi leaned back on his heels. “If you invite them, they won’t say no. But if you’re inviting them as my teacher, you can’t fire them as the Hokage if Tousaki says something idiotic or Shiranui doesn’t know how to handle a toddler. Because Tousaki will, and Shiranui won’t.”
“I left my coat back in my office,” Minato said, with a ghost of humor. “And Naruto’s sleeping over with the Inuzuka, so he won’t be in danger of picking up any more bad words.”
Kakashi narrowed his eye. “You can’t interrogate them about why I got suspended, either.”
“Sagara told me,” Minato said blandly. “Is there more to it?”
Minato waited a moment, then said, “All right.” Meaning he knew there was more, and he’d wait for Kakashi to talk about it, or not. Between them, they had a long history of not talking about things they needed to talk about. It was something Kakashi appreciated.
“Well,” Kakashi said, with a bright, masked grin. “If you can find them, you can invite them.”
And he translocated.
Minato tracked him down thirty seconds later, but it was still worth it.
The nagging little voice that Genma had ignored when they’d conceived their plan was loud now, pointing out all the ways that tricking the Hokage—the Hokage—into thinking his own child was in danger for the sake of a training exercise was a terrible idea. In the moment they’d been focused on creating an escape opportunity for Kakashi. Now, hiding in a dense tangle of moss-covered tree roots, Genma had plenty of time to contemplate the potential consequences for the rest of them. It was mostly an adrenaline-fueled jumble of terrors that included everything from team dissolution, to arrest, to death at the hands of Konoha’s most feared ninja.
Rational thought said Minato-sama wouldn’t go that far. In fact, he ought to be impressed that they’d taken extreme measures, on the fly, in the heat of battle, to protect their threatened teammate. As long as he saw it that way, they were in the clear, right? It wasn’t likely he’d have been pleased to see Team Six abandon Kakashi, after all.
What was it Genma’s commander during the war always said? There’s no such thing as cheating at being a ninja? No blackmail too heinous, no plan too ruthless, no deception too despicable?
Yeah. He really hoped Minato subscribed to that school of thought.
Meanwhile, he had to get farther away. Ryouma’s and Raidou’s ANBU sparks and chakra signatures were long gone, and his own was so tightly tamped down it almost hurt to move. It made his bones heavy, and his muscles stiff and cold. He kept the genjutsu flowing—a risk, but Minato wasn’t a sensor, so as long as he wasn’t nearby he wouldn’t notice the subtle ripple of chakra that kept Genma’s illusion alive.
It would help if he knew where his hunter was. And where his team was. He’d have to uncloak to do a chakra sweep. Genma crept through damp ferns, oozing through gaps in the slippery rootwork, and tried to put a little more distance between himself and the Hokage’s last known position before he risked it.
Kakashi’s ANBU spark flared back into Genma’s awareness, along with a beacon stronger than the spark, and a double pillar of light, one ice blue-white, one sunflower gold, that told him their plan had failed in the end. Kakashi was with Minato, still in their original training field. And not fighting, which meant Kakashi was either captured or he’d surrendered.
Raidou and Ryouma remained absent from Genma’s sensory map. He pulled his own chakra down as quickly as he’d cast his net, and prayed he hadn’t been discovered. His options now were to stay put, stay concealed, and wait until the Hokage had to give up the hunt and attend to the business of running Konoha; or stay concealed and run. But that wasn’t really in the spirit of a training exercise, which this still was. They’d already taken liberties with convention when they escaped to a different training field from the one they’d been assigned.
He decided to compromise. Stay concealed, stay in the training fields, and hope he could stay one step ahead of Minato’s pursuit. He shoved himself through a fork between two massive, rough-barked trunks, and scrambled up a steep slope to the north. His genjutsu flowed with him, blending his body into shadow, his breath into misty morning air, his scent into mulch and soil.
He held out for 22 more minutes before the game was up.
With his chakra senses tamped to nothing while he hid, Genma had no warning. He hauled himself up onto a broad sycamore branch, and found Kakashi and Minato waiting for him.
“Sensei wants breakfast,” Kakashi said, with no hint of apology. He pulled his hitai-ate back down over the scarlet whirl of his left eye. Minato stood implacable behind him, with his arms folded, and a deceptively mild expression.
There was absolutely no way out of this that didn’t involve someone getting hurt. Genma cast a targeted kai at the pair of them. They stayed exactly as they were. Both of them.
“Were you suborned or are you here under duress?” Genma asked Kakashi. He knelt in formal obeisance, and added, “No offense meant, Hokage-sama.”
“I’ll take it as a compliment that you think I could compel Kakashi to do anything he’d rather not,” Minato said.
“That makes three of us, sir,” Genma said, “including Namiashi-taichou. I’d been hoping you knew a trick.”
“I’ll jump through hoops for treats,” Kakashi said. He tapped his fingers against his thigh, on the side away from Minato, in very brief ANBU code: obey, retaliate.
Genma flicked his eyes up to Kakashi’s face and away again, acknowledging the message.
“Namiashi and Tousaki are waiting. Recovering.” Minato said. He gave Genma a professional once-over, scanning for injuries with the same practiced eye any commander might, and added, “You’re all welcome to join me for breakfast.”
That sounded a whole lot like, ‘You’re all ordered to join me for breakfast.’ Maybe for a debrief of the morning’s training. Or possibly for poison-laced revenge. Genma kept his speculations off his face. “We’d be honored. Were Namiashi and Tousaki injured, or are they just fatigued, sir?”
“Namiashi’s all right, but Tousaki could use some more practice breathing underwater.”
Given how recently Ryouma’d had a brush with aspiration pneumonia, that was a little worrying. Also that wasn’t a ‘no’ to Genma’s question about injuries for either of them.
Minato’s tranquil gaze didn’t waver. “The tree genjutsu was yours, I gather.” He might have been referring to Genma’s most recent illusion, but more likely to the one with Naruto. Either way, the answer was the same.
Minato studied the branches overhead, before he said, “Clever execution. Terrible judgment. Your idea?”
Since Ryouma and Raidou were already captured, they could well have laid it all out for the Hokage in excruciating detail. A lie here was risky.
Genma stayed in his kneeling crouch, with his heart thudding heavy against his ribs. “I’m the most skilled on our team at area effect genjutsu, so I was the natural choice for it. Tousaki should get credit for excellent strategizing. The blame for poor judgment lies solely with Namiashi and myself, as the officers present.”
Soft-spoken threat stretched the moment razor thin. Genma focused on Kakashi’s booted foot in front of him and tried to keep his breathing slow and even. A drop of sweat rolled down his temple. Even the birds in the area seemed to have gone silent.
Finally, Minato said, “It worked.” Before Genma could react, the Hokage jumped down to the mossy ferns below and strolled away.
Genma took a single shaky breath, and looked up at his rookie. Kakashi rewarded him with an elaborate eyeroll, then dropped down to follow.
“Fuck me,” Genma whispered fervently. He let his chakra fill his frame back out—no point in suppressing it now—and leapt down to join them.
Ryouma’d just about stopped coughing when the Hokage returned, trailed by Kakashi and Genma. He tried, automatically, to straighten.
Raidou, still dusty-haired, stopped trying to beat dirt out of his clothes and shifted back into parade rest. The Hokage waved them down. He looked preoccupied, but Genma didn’t seem any more bruised, so maybe the Hokage was still deciding on execution methods for all of them.
He might be content with just one sacrifice, if Genma had backed up Ryouma’s story taking blame for the genjutsu…
The Hokage said, “You didn’t run.” He stopped a few meters away, hands tucked easily in his pockets, head cocked. The late summer sun glowed in his hair. “You owe me a round of dishwashing, Kakashi.”
Kakashi looked personally betrayed. He told Ryouma and Raidou, “We were gone for seven minutes.”
Raidou jerked his chin at the nearest tree, where two masked ANBU lounged. “I thought Squirrel could do without the exercise.”
Squirrel waved genially. Genma’s face lit up for a moment, before he remembered he was facing impending death and shut down again. He’d served under Fukeda Hajime last year, Ryouma remembered belatedly. Sometimes it was hard to remember the officers had a life before—a life outside—Team Six.
No one ever forgot about Kakashi’s life before ANBU. The Hokage pulled one hand out of his pocket to check his watch, told his guards, “Ten more minutes,” and looked at Raidou. “One more chance. No jutsu.”
Raidou’s head came up.
He grinned slowly. His teeth were very white against the dirt. He cracked his knuckles and his neck, and then he went after the Hokage like a sledgehammer.
Minato dodged. Even without jutsu he was snake-fast, flickering into motion like a flame. He spun into a kick aimed at Raidou’s back, and then Genma darted in from the side and Kakashi skidded into a low sweep, and Ryouma thought, What the hell.
If they were going down, they’d do it together. And maybe one of them would land a blow on the way.
But the Hokage didn’t immediately flatten them, this time. He was still a blur of speed, agile and acrobatic. He sidestepped another of Raidou’s punishing strikes, caught the extended arm, and flipped up into a spinning kick that used Raidou’s momentum as well as his own. Extra momentum Minato needed, Ryouma realized, as he caught one foot on his lifted arm and felt the blow shudder through to his bones. Without chakra behind his muscles Minato was shorter and lighter than any of them, and if they could just pin him down—
Raidou and Kakashi had the same idea. They were working together to box Minato in, sacrificing Raidou’s shoulders and hips and slab-like abs to blows that rocked but didn’t floor him. Genma, conscious of his own taijutsu weakness, deliberately offered himself as the distraction. And Ryouma had the reach…
There was a moment when he almost thought they’d done it. Genma made a sudden sharp movement toward his kunai holster, and Minato’s gaze flicked toward him. Kakashi struck from behind with a low kick to the knee. Minato wove away, and Ryouma got a grip on his wrist.
It would have been a killing blow, with jutsu. Even without jutsu, he thought it could work. He twisted savagely into a rotational wristlock. Tendon and bone flexed beneath his grip.
Minato kicked off the ground, flipped over Ryouma’s head, and nailed him down with both knees in the spine. Ryouma hit the ground and lost the lock. A foot dug into his kidneys. Minato grunted, and his weight left Ryouma’s back.
Ryouma rolled painfully over in time to see Raidou grappling Minato into a proximity of full mount. Minato had one knee up into half guard and seemed to be going for a submission hold anyway.
Raidou broke the hold and punched the Hokage in the face.
“Meeting ambassadors tonight!” Rook called urgently from the trees.
Minato grunted and headbutted Raidou back. He got his knee up, hitched his hips out from between Raidou’s legs, and broke out of mount. Raidou went for a leglock, but the opportunity had already passed. Minato kicked him back and scrambled up to his feet, licking blood from a split lip. His eyes glittered dangerously.
Squirrel called, “Time.”
The Hokage wiped his mouth. He didn’t take his eyes off Raidou, climbing slowly to his feet. “That wasn’t ten minutes.”
“I forgot to start my watch,” Squirrel said.
Minato’s eyes narrowed.
Ryouma said desperately, “You wanted breakfast. Sir?”
The Hokage’s hackles eased. He looked at Ryouma for a moment, almost thoughtfully. “I did.” Another bead of blood oozed out of his lip; he thumbed it away and told Raidou, “Well done. I gather in the field you wouldn’t stop.”
Raidou flexed his jaw like he was trying to pop ringing ears. He smiled ruefully. “In the field, you would have pasted me in ten seconds, sir.”
“Well, I already did,” Minato said, and grinned at him.
Raidou rubbed the back of his neck, but an answering glint lit his eye. “Two more minutes now and I would’ve had you. Sir.”
Behind them, Kakashi flopped down on the grass and complained, “Someone tell me when they’re done bonding.”
As if in pointed contrast, Genma picked himself stiffly up—Ryouma hadn’t even seen him go down—and offered, “Hokage-sama, if you’d prefer not to take this to your own medic, I’d be happy to fix your lip.”
“As much as I’d like to endure in stoic manliness, I’d rather avoid any awkward small talk with ambassadors.” Minato tipped his head up in perfect ease. Genma’s stride hitched just barely, but his hands were steady when he raised them green-glowing to the Hokage’s face.
A moment later, Minato touched his lip with the edge of his thumb again and nodded his thanks. “I meant the breakfast offer. My housekeeper’s off, but I can contrive something reasonably filling.”
“Notice how he didn’t say edible,” Kakashi observed, without moving.
Was he trying to offer an escape route, or just generally complaining? He did actually look exhausted, from the boneless slump and the narrow dusty slice of face that Ryouma could see. His chakra felt disconcertingly low—unsurprising, after that blazing first fight, but food and rest would help…
“I could cook breakfast,” Genma offered. “If you’d like.”
Minato’s eyes glittered. “Perfect.”
A short while later, dripping dust onto the Hokage’s immaculate kitchen tile, Raidou leaned over and muttered in Genma’s ear, “If you don’t recognize a spice, for the love of gods don’t put it in the Hokage’s eggs.”
Genma turned pink. “At least I only poisoned myself that day.”
Raidou snorted quietly. Genma pulled a pan off the pot-rack with a determined clang, and went to investigate Minato’s fridge.
The Hokage’s fridge.
In the Hokage’s home.
Where Raidou was standing.
If he didn’t think about it too hard, he might not fall over.
The place was actually smaller than he’d expected, especially for being in a palace. It was oversized for its two occupants, but still only a room or two bigger than Raidou’s childhood home. He’d always pictured something more… grand. With gilded things. There were colorful child drawings plastered over the fridge, sharing space with leaflets from Naruto’s preschool advertising an upcoming class play. None of the magnets matched.
Raidou squinted at a grey-topped stick figure, and realized he was looking at Kakashi battling some sort of blob. That tall stickman with the bucket might be Ryouma. And the… sort of cat-faced thing was… Genma? Which left the red scribble with legs as Raidou. Or possibly a shrub on fire.
“Cute,” Raidou decided, and raised his voice. “Hatake, when did you fight a slime monster?”
Kakashi’s baffled “What?” came from somewhere in the region of the living room. It sounded muffled, suggesting he’d made good on his threat to commune with the sofa.
Ryouma poked his head into the kitchen, spotted the artwork, and brightened up. Which was better than the terrified glaze he’d adopted between the training field and the front door. “Is that us?”
Minato leaned against the kitchen doorframe, and told the rumpled, grouchy teenager that followed him, “He started drawing a book while you were away. You fought a dragon.”
“I heard,” Kakashi grumbled. “He told his entire class, who told everyone else. A baby medic got all excited about it while he was practicing putting Tousaki back together.”
“Kakashi has fanboys,” Ryouma said.
Minato’s keen blue eyes settled on Ryouma for a moment, curious. Raidou guessed Kakashi hadn’t enlightened his teacher about Ryouma’s habit of achieving first name informality as fast as possible.
“Fanboy,” Kakashi corrected, oblivious. “Singular, young, misinformed.”
Genma, more observant, left eggs and miso on the counter, and came over with a bunch of green onions in one hand and a chef’s knife dangling from the other, to peer at the drawing. Ready to intervene if Minato had opinions or Ryouma had stupidity. “I’m curious to know what Hatake’s been telling Naruto-kun about Taichou,” he said, nodding at the red squiggle. “Also, why am I a cat?”
“I believe that’s meant to be a tanuki mask,” Minato said. “Naruto’s execution of animal drawings generally comes down to ‘dog or not dog’. Where ‘not dog’ is cat, I suppose. Easier to draw than toads…” He paused a moment, letting the air rest, then turned those eyes on Genma. “Will you be keeping the tanuki mask, Shiranui?”
Genma’s expression cycled from surprised to conflicted. “I… can see why you’re asking. Would you prefer I take a different mask, Hokage-sama?”
“The diplomatic crisis hasn’t risen to that height yet,” Minato said. “So long as we seem unable to contact your new friends, I doubt it ever will. I was wondering on a purely personal note.”
“I’ll be honest,” Genma said slowly, “I hadn’t considered that changing it was even an option until you asked. But I like my mask and my code name. I think I’d prefer to keep it.” He glanced at the scattered members of Team Six, lurking about like uncomfortable alley cats. “Unless my team objects, of course.”
Raidou’s mouth twitched. “After everything, it seems like more of a good luck charm now.”
“If the tanuki still like anyone, it’ll be you,” Ryouma said.
“You’d look stupid as a cockroach,” Kakashi said, supportively.
A little smile flitted over Genma’s face. “Cockroach is reserved for rookies who make trouble. But thank you.”
“Must be a high threshold for trouble,” Minato murmured to Kakashi.
“QM discretion,” Kakashi said. “You have to annoy him to get bugs.”
“You’re probably on thin ice, then, Hatake,” Genma said. “I’ve heard through the grapevine that Morita-san doesn’t want to hear another word about uniform changes if it doesn’t come with design specs, field testing, and a budget.”
Kakashi’s eye glittered with challenge. “Be right back. Getting paper.”
He vanished out of the kitchen.
“Now you’ve done it,” Raidou said dryly.
“If he writes the specs legibly we can call it a win.” The danger of rookie-squashing seemed to have passed. Genma took his green onions and his knife back to the chopping board, and set about investigating the rice cooker for usable leftovers. He made a pleased little sound.
Ryouma was trying to meld with the wall. Since it was beige, and he was the tallest, darkest, most awkward man in the house, he was having limited success.
Sometimes, Raidou wondered how Ryouma had ever survived long enough to make jounin.
“Tousaki,” Genma said, taking pity on him. “You want to wash these onions and dice them thin?”
“Fukuchou,” Ryouma said with transparent gratitude, and threw himself into onion-wrangling as if he’d never wanted to do anything else in his life.
Somehow, over the next few minutes, Genma skillfully maneuvered the Hokage into tending a pot of miso soup on a slow boil, which Minato seemed to find more fascinating than the simple dish warranted. Ryouma was promoted to tofu-slicer, seaweed-finder, rice-seasoner, and finally egg-beater. Working with a pair of long cooking chopsticks, Genma conjured several fluffy omelets into existence, and blanketed them over steaming heaps of fragrant fried rice. Raidou was tasked with hunting down the ketchup.
He missed Kakashi setting up camp in the dining room, but not the following argument when Genma asked Ryouma to set the table and Kakashi refused to move his already elaborate sea of papers.
Raidou stepped out to moderate, but paused to look more closely at one of the rough sketches. Kakashi had changed the sleeveless black underpinning to a long-sleeved, form-fitting shirt with flexible, articulated plating stitched into the shoulders.
“What about the tattoo?” Raidou asked.
“What about having functioning shoulders when you’re thirty?” Kakashi shot back.
“Jounin vests don’t have shoulders, either,” Ryouma said.
“They don’t have upper arm protection,” Kakashi argued. “But the jounin undershirt has sleeves, and the vest’s shoulder coverage is wider. And your neck is protected.”
“The collar did save me a time or two,” Ryouma admitted. “But you’d strangle yourself if you tried to put that plating up the turtleneck.”
“ANBU underpinnings are already reinforced,” Raidou said. “That turtleneck can turn a small blade.”
“What about a big one?”
“Dodge,” Genma suggested, from the kitchen doorway.
It probably said something about the morning tension, that Kakashi, Ryouma, and Raidou automatically ducked. Peering around Genma’s shoulder, Minato looked amused.
Raidou straightened up. “Food,” he told Kakashi firmly. “Military design later.”
Grouchy but obedient, Kakashi swept his papers into a loose heap and piled them on the floor. Genma and Minato passed plates around, and the team settled into their chairs.
“You’ve seen my back. That’s how well the jounin vest protects you from a serious back attack,” Genma said. “I wish I’d had ANBU armor on.”
Raidou had seen Genma’s back, too, and wondered which scars he was referring to. The long, ragged claw marks that went from shoulderblade to opposite hip, or the delicate little half-moon slice lurking uncomfortably close to Genma’s spine.
“Forgot to dodge?” Kakashi said.
Raidou scowled at him, but Genma just shrugged. “Fox. I tried to dodge.” He paused, as if realizing the extent of the pit he’d just walked out over, and flicked a glance at Minato and Kakashi. “Even so, I was one of the lucky ones.”
Kakashi’s face, always half-unreadable, went opaque.
“We were all lucky,” Minato said. His tone was quiet, almost gentle, but it firmly closed the topic. “As I think your team still is, Shiranui—do you often cook for them?”
Genma might have kept Ryouma from saying anything stupid, but he’d stepped right in and done it himself, instead. Everyone in the village had lost people they cared about to the Fox. But it was Kushina’s sacrifice that had saved Konoha, and widowed the man for whom Genma was cooking breakfast. The man to whom Genma’d sworn an oath of loyalty. He fervently wished the floorboards would open up and swallow him whole.
Of course they didn’t. He couldn’t apologize, either, without reopening the wound.
He took the out Minato was offering. “We take turns cooking on missions. Although we learned to never let Ueno handle anything more complicated than boiling water when she was still with us. I hope there’s a designated cook at her new posting, for all their sakes.”
“The ambassador’s residence in Stone, isn’t it?” Minato said. “They have staff. All reports have been uneventful, so far.”
It was a relieving answer to the question Genma hadn’t asked: How is Katsuko? She’d been tapped as the Ambassador’s security chief in mid-May. Counting the days they’d lost to the tanuki, she’d been gone seven weeks, and no one on the team had heard a word from her. Her abandoned desk haunted Team Six’s office; Genma’d seen Kakashi glare at it in passing more than once.
“Glad to hear it. Uneventful is what everyone wants where diplomacy and Ueno are concerned,” Genma said.
Kakashi dove hard left, away from the topic of Katsuko. He looked up at his teacher and informed him, “Shiranui just found out he’s got ancestral ties to cat summons. Namiashi can manage genjutsu now. Tousaki once got paid in soap.”
Minato accepted it with a fascinated, “Not uneventful at all. Has all this happened since Shiranui got kidnapped by tanuki and you invented a new reverse summoning technique to save him?”
“The soap preceded the dimension-hopping,” Kakashi said, and sat back to let madness commence while he focused on vanishing things from his plate.
Ryouma, bless him, leapt into the gap to tell the tale of The Mountain Bandits, The Soap Makers, and The Handsome Ninja Who Saved The Day. It was a good story, and Ryouma was an entertaining storyteller. Minato encouraged him, inquiring about the particulars of Ryouma’s use of a ladle full of lye as an improvised weapon, and whether bergamot worked with sandalwood and tobacco as a soap scent. (The lye ladle worked better than expected, and the scent was exceptional, Ryouma would be happy to get a bar for Minato if he wanted one.)
By the time Ryouma had finished, the rest of their plates were clean and their bellies full. Genma got up to refill tea for everyone, then braced himself for his turn explaining the not-so-figurative cat Kakashi had let out of the bag.
“Yuuhi Benihime’s kept me apprised of Namiashi’s progress with genjutsu. But the summons aren’t in Shiranui’s record yet,” Minato said. He turned his penetrating blue gaze on Genma. “A consequence of your journey through dimensions, I assume. You’ll be registering it soon?”
Genma blanked for a second, at the unexpected question. “Register it? With the records department like you’d register a new jutsu?” He cringed at how stupid the question sounded as soon as he’d asked it. “I— don’t know if it’s official. The cat—Hotaru-san—said she’d be evaluating whether I was worthy of a contract, and I haven’t heard back from her yet.”
“The Jutsu Records department keeps a separate Summons Registry,” Minato said.
“I should have thought of that,” Genma said. “Maybe Konoha has a record of my grandmother’s contract. But Hotaru-san said the contract scroll had been lost. I assume when my grandmother died.”
“Sandaime set the registry up when I was a boy—Jiraiya-sensei’s on it, but your grandmother might not be, depending. We lost knowledge as well as lives, in the wars.” Minato paused in silent tribute to the fallen. Genma nodded. “Still, it’s worth checking,” Minato continued. “And registering, if your cat decides she likes you.” He raised his tea cup, turning it so the design faced him, then asked, “Did she make you drink?”
“No,” Genma said, “But she advised I eat mouse livers. Is that common with summons, that they want you to consume something to prove your worthiness? I was hoping I could avoid the rodent entrails.”
“I thought the mouse livers were ‘cause you’re anemic,” Ryouma put in. “The medics said—” He shut his mouth hastily, under the look Genma gave him, but now two cats were out.
Minato glossed over Ryouma’s medical betrayal, “With toads it was sake. Ceremonial exchange of sakazuki.” He gestured at himself: shorter and slighter than any of them. “As you can see, Gamabunta took me for a lightweight.” A fond smile lit his face. “The hangover lasted for days.”
Genma wasn’t sure what response was appropriate, but sympathy seemed like a good start. “That sounds painful. I’ve had ordinary hangovers that knocked me flat.”
He glanced at his other teammates. The rookie tattle-tales weren’t inclined to jump in, even though they’d been witnesses to Genma’s latest hangover. Kakashi looked smugly pleased, probably because he’d been right about the mouse livers, and he wasn’t the one being grilled. Ryouma seemed caught in a nexus of anxiety and fascination.
Raidou, who’d been a fellow sufferer of the hangover, however, was giving Genma an intense squint. “Anemic?”
Genma winced. “Yes. They want me to get a couple of additional tests. And I’m supposed to report in for an iron infusion or two.” Or five, but if it turned into five he’d tell Raidou when it happened.
Raidou said, “And you’re going with him, Tousaki.” Assigning Ryouma to serve as official tattletale, as if Genma habitually avoided medical care without supervision.
Ryouma glanced apprehensively at Genma.
Genma heaved a sigh. “Tousaki, you and I are going to have a little talk about medical confidentiality while we’re there.”
Ryouma winced and dropped his gaze, like he was pondering a hiding spot under the table.
Minato ignored the minor drama in favor of teasing out the actual problem. He tapped his fingers thoughtfully against his teacup. “You haven’t shown signs of anemia in the past, have you? Any possibility it’s linked to the blood-draining jutsu Iebara used on you a few months ago? You took the brunt of that fight, as I recall.” He glanced at Kakashi for corroboration.
“Tousaki was hit with the same jutsu, and he’s fine. We ran his hematocrit yesterday when we did mine, so he could see how the test is done,” Genma said. “But I guess Iebara did hit me harder.” He rubbed the knot of scar on his thigh through his pants. “Tousaki has a much higher tolerance for soldier pills than most people, too, so maybe that’s a factor somehow.”
And they’d run missions back to back, when they were all only just recovered from the Tsuto mission. The Mist infiltration had been exhausting, he’d taken the maximum ‘safe’ number of soldier pills, and he’d deliberately induced a high fever in himself to keep Kimiko and Sango warm. Plus spent a lot of chakra healing Team Thirteen’s injuries at the end. Could that account for it?
Minato studied Ryouma with a thoughtful, “Hmmm.” Then returned to Genma. “Well, it’s good to hear you’re already working out a treatment plan. Hopefully you won’t need the mouse livers after all.”
“I fervently hope not,” Genma agreed. “But you’ve made me think. What if there is a connection here? Tousaki and I are the only known survivors of Iebara’s jutsu, and we don’t know what it could have done to our ability to produce red cells. Maybe if Hatake perfects his copy of the jutsu, we could study the effect on other live subjects.”
“That’d require keeping ‘em alive, first,” Ryouma pointed out. That sounded marginally reasonable, didn’t it? The sort of thing an intelligent shinobi talking like a normal person would say.
Kakashi looked intrigued. “Maybe on mice. If I did just a small injury…”
“If you killed them without exploding them, I could always eat the livers,” Genma said. “I guess.”
Raidou stared him down. “Are you signing up for more weirdness to your red cells?”
The Hokage propped his chin on his hand, eyes alight. “Think of the advances to research, though.”
Genma shook his head. “No, no. If I have to eat liver it will be chicken, on a skewer, at a yakitori stand. Like a sane person.”
Probably safer that way, anyway. Chicken-shop aunties drained all the blood out of their birds before butchering them, too, but they didn’t usually involve chakra-staining jutsu with consequences no one really understood. Ryouma poked at the last scattered grains of rice on his plate. “You should probably steer clear of jutsu practice for a while, Fukuchou. Just in case.”
Kakashi looked offended. “I’m not going to bleed our lieutenant. Kuroda, maybe…”
“What happened to the mice?” Genma demanded. “No human trials until you can keep mice alive, please.”
“We all know what happened to the mice,” Raidou said, grimly. Genma chuckled.
“Probably should’ve started with mice instead of pigs,” Ryouma said. “Except they’re so tiny, you’d’ve ended up with, like, a blood toothpick. At least the explosions would’ve been smaller…”
The Hokage’s hand had moved from propping up his chin to covering his mouth. “Remind me to clear my schedule the next time you arrange a trial,” he said. “Speaking of which, Kakashi: I’ve been reading your notes on your reverse-summoning technique. Did you intend incomprehensibility, or was that merely a side-effect of the sleep deprivation?”
Kakashi shrugged. “I don’t know. How much sleep have you been getting?”
Raidou choked on his glass of water. He thumped it down on the table and croaked: “Hatake.”
Kakashi’s eye curved in an unrepentant smile.
Raidou turned to their host. “Hokage-sama, I apologize, we’re still working on installing manners.”
“I had him for seven years and never managed it,” Minato said cheerfully. “Let me know if you succeed.”
“Manners or not,” Genma said hastily, “I have to agree with Hokage-sama. I couldn’t make heads or tails of your notes on the reverse summoning, and it wasn’t just because of your handwriting this time.”
Kakashi scratched the back of his head and sighed. “It wasn’t an experience that translates well. Do you just want to see it?”
That was the prelude to a Sharingan memory; Ryouma’d learned to recognize them. He shoved to his feet. “Taichou and I can clean up.”
The Hokage looked up, brows briefly knit. “I thought you were a ninjutsu man. Surely the dishes can wait.”
“Well, yeah, but—”
“Space-time jutsu?” Minato’s gaze cored through him. “You had that bad reaction at the Trials, didn’t you. But the Sharingan is Kakashi’s memory; it shouldn’t affect you.”
“It’s not that.” It mostly wasn’t. He’d survived the journey through the void in the first place, hadn’t he? “But you’re talking theory, and summons, and I—”
“You’ve got a fantastic instinct for theory,” Genma said, quietly and firmly. “And a unique perspective, since you were there for the transfer. If anyone has a chance of understanding it, you do.”
Ryouma flushed to the tips of his ears. He put out his hand, found the back of his chair, sat down again. “Fukuchou,” he said. He couldn’t think of anything else.
Genma smiled at him, across the table.
Kakashi stepped on Ryouma’s toes, gently, and didn’t move away. A solid pressure, and a grounding warmth, as he flipped up his hitai-ate and spun them all into memory.
Morning sunlight, summer grass peeled back to bare dirt. A scroll laid out, brown with old blood and streaked red with new, weighted down by rocks. Kurenai crouched, studying, her black curls falling past her intent frown, and a thought scratched like a nail on the mirror of the memory: How do I not kill everyone doing this.
“Copy those seals,” Kakashi’s voice said, crisp and uncompromising. “Use Yosegi Injo’s Sixty-Four Quadrants as the base. Eight sets of eight.”
“Eight?” Ryouma said, bewildered, peeling more grass back with careful jutsu.
“Yes, eight,” and a flash of impatience, hot, but icing over—We don’t have time for this, why don’t they teach this better—
Time seemed to skip, like a scratched record. Ryouma knelt at the edge of the circle, his hands planted in the dirt, chakra flowing out from his palms to stabilize the bared earth. The twists and curls and sharp straight lines of seals began to etch into the hardened soil, flowing out from the tips of two kunai. Kurenai, precise and careful; Kakashi fast, confident, while his thoughts raced far beyond.
Minato talked about the creation of space-time jutsu: like pulling a needle between two pieces of fabric, and the thicker the thread, the thicker your needle needs to be. If we’re the thread, and my chakra’s the needle—
Yosegi Injo called for Sixty-Four Quadrants, but Suno Busshi argued for One Hundred and Eight—
Pakkun perched on the summoning scroll at the center, the anchor they orbited.
Map to his chakra, follow him back: Yosegi says density itself doesn’t matter, just the bounds of the container and the match between signatures—
I’ll burn myself out.
“Tousaki!” The voice snapped out cold and clear. “Which seals shape the feedback loop?”
“Standard Horse paired with Dragon and Monkey, but that only works—”
No, no, that would work, translated from handseals into written seals: seals to feed off each other, to twist strength back on itself with a fluid intelligence, to magnify into exponential growth—
Endo Tsuyoshi was writing about transference of matter, but if we follow his ideas through…
Don’t let me kill everyone doing this.
The record scratched again. Complex spirals of seals cut deep into the soil. Kurenai stood to the left, holding out her bare arm with blood dripping down. The seals soaked up the red drops and glowed, blue-white with chakra, in this altered vision.
The view swung, as if with a turning head. Ryouma stood across the circle, one arm-guard unbuckled and the glove stripped down. He laid a kunai to his forearm below the elbow and spoke through gritted teeth. “If we get smeared across the back of the universe the lieutenant’s gonna be so mad at us…”
“The blood’s to anchor you into the summoning, so you don’t get spun out and smeared across the universe.” Kakashi knelt, rigidly careful, to cut his own arm and then Pakkun’s leg. Pakkun trembled but made no sound. Their blood mingled and soaked and burned into the seals. The chakra-glow twisted and flared, snapping into new connections.
Kakashi blinked. Raidou was there, bleeding; then they were bandaged, gloves pulled up, arm-guards buckled on, and Pakkun said, “Brace yourselves.”
Hands clasped in peripheral vision, closing the chakra circuit. Pakkun’s eyes turned the color of lightning. Lines like a sparkler’s afterglow blurred crazily across the seal design, and the world turned inside out.
This part, Ryouma would never forget.
But he hadn’t expected Kakashi’s experience of it. The howling void blazed with knife-edged light, spearing him through, slivering him apart. The glowing lines wrapped and folded and turned on themselves, like a thousand different twisted paths leading to ten thousand different grisly ends. Too many for the Sharingan to track, too many to eliminate and choose, and he’d miscalculated somehow, the formulae were wrong—
The counterweight, he’d overcalculated the counterweight, he was going to kill them all, they’d tear apart in this nothingness and he’d never even—
I can still fix this. I can still save them.
He shaped chakra into cords, into cables. He bound them close and wrenched them from there to here, in this boundless void behind the back of the universe. And he found the fate-line that rang true, and he forced them through.
The Dog Dimension pinwheeled around them, lake and lavender sky, and then the genjutsu broke.
They sat rigid around the table in the Hokage’s kitchen. Raidou was sweating. Genma’s knuckles whitened where they curled around his cup. Ryouma’s stomach turned over and bile burned on his tongue.
Kakashi cleared his throat. “In retrospect, Suno Busshi’s One Hundred and Eight Quadrants probably would have been the better choice.”
“I’m classifying that as a kinjutsu,” Minato said, in a voice as flat and colorless as ice. “You will not use it. You will not teach it. Your notes will be filed as they are, at the highest level of classification.”
Kakashi’s gaze dropped to the table. “Yes, Hokage-sama.”
Genma said, horrified, “I can’t believe you did that because of me.”
Ryouma shoved his chair back. “Excuse me,” he said thickly, and went out to throw up.
It was possible that, in attempting to share the authentic experience, Kakashi had let a little too much filter through. It had lived in his brain long enough to rub the panic off and compartmentalize as an interesting experiment. Something to review and dissect, safely under glass, when he had the free time.
After all, everyone had survived. And the Wolves had been so much worse.
Well, somewhat worse.
He tugged his hitai-ate back down over the Sharingan and wondered if it was too late for damage control. Genma’s face was the color of a frozen windowpane. Raidou’s hand creaked ominously on the table edge. Minato, usually Kakashi’s staunchest ally in risky and unorthodox jutsu, had killed it like a stodgy council member. And Ryouma was still in the bathroom.
Kakashi’s stomach gave a bitter little twist. Katsuko would have liked it, in her own mad way. He shoved the thought aside and said to Minato, “Did you want to know anything else, or was this enough breakfast bonding?”
“Don’t be an ass,” Minato said shortly. “You’re brilliant and you saved your team and you know it. You may be one of the only shinobi in Five Countries who could have possibly pulled that off. And you’re already trying to figure out how you can do it again, next time we ask you to. Well, you won’t. Not for— a while, anyway.”
Kakashi sat back in his seat, grouchy but a little soothed all the same, in the inner place that still lived for Minato’s praise. “Would you try it?”
Minato sighed. “Yes. But only paired with you, for the Sharingan, and with Bunta anchoring—you wouldn’t have had such an imbalance if you hadn’t used Pakkun for the anchor. Though, the pack-bond may be what allowed you to bring all four of you through in the first place…” He stopped with a grimace. “But not now. Kinjutsu. I mean it, Kakashi.”
Kakashi put his hands up in surrender. Now that Minato had dropped the blank Hokage face, it was easier to see the deep alarm underneath. He’d scared Minato, badly. Which… didn’t happen often.
And there was another factor. A forbidden jutsu was one of the few things a higher-ranked official, even the Hokage, couldn’t order you to use. No matter who found out about the reverse-summoning—and someone would, even with it classified to the highest level, Konoha was a sieve—they couldn’t make Kakashi do it.
Kuroda, for example. Or an Uchiha clan head.
Ryouma slipped back in, trailing the strong smell of mouthwash. He settled back into his seat, grey-faced, and accepted the wordless cup of tea Genma pressed on him.
On the other side of the table, Raidou shook his head with a jerk, like a man dislodging anchors. He stood up, reached over the flower arrangement Ogata must have left, and hit Kakashi in the head.
“Ow,” Kakashi said. “What?”
“You are doing sit ups for the rest of your life,” Raidou said. “I could strangle you. Sorry, Hokage-sama, you’re right and it was very courageous, and I know we pressured you, Hatake, but for the love of gods.”
Kakashi rubbed his stinging head. “None of you are making a good case for future honesty, just so you know.”
Ryouma said, low, “It was my idea in the first place.”
Raidou gave an explosive sigh and sat down. “Shiranui, hit him for me, too. I can’t reach.”
Genma reached towards Ryouma, who eyed him warily, but there was no hitting; instead, the lieutenant’s hand closed over Ryouma’s shoulder and held there. Genma looked at him for a moment, demonstrating the only calm in the group, and then transferred his gaze to Raidou and Kakashi in turn. “All three of you are incredibly brave and brilliant and stupid. Thank you, and please don’t ever do anything that risky for my sake again.”
Two flags of color flared on Ryouma’s pale cheeks. He ducked his head and mumbled, “We couldn’t leave you.”
“We found Harubi and her children,” Kakashi pointed out. “And the missing sake.”
Genma gave a resigned sigh. “We did complete our mission objective successfully. And I can’t say I wouldn’t have taken the same risk if I’d been in your place, no matter how rational I want to think I am.” He flicked a glance at Kakashi; Kakashi braced himself for the but. “If you’d followed Suno Busshi’s One Hundred and Eight, would that have made it easier to find the right chakra thread, or just have made the counterweight less of an issue?”
Kakashi blinked. “Both,” he said slowly. “In theory. But it would take twice the chakra, and risk being unstable. Which would be less of an issue if you had a larger anchor, like Gamabunta…”
“I’m going to tell Bunta to squash us flat if we ever suggest it,” Minato said. “That’ll at least give us a chance for second thoughts. Namiashi, I trust you’ll ask more questions in future, too.”
Raidou had been watching the exchange in silence. At being directly addressed, his head twitched back. Kakashi waited for the knee-jerk, Yes, Hokage-sama. But it didn’t come.
Raidou frowned. “With respect, sir. I trusted my team. I would do the same next time.”
Minato said, “Hmm.” His blue gaze rested on Raidou like a mountain. Genma and Ryouma tensed.
With the benefit of experience, Kakashi could see the gears clicking under the surface, as Minato absorbed this mild critique and reevaluated. It was a rare quality. One that Kakashi had yet to master.
At last, Minato said, “Well, if even Yuuhi didn’t protest, I can hardly put the onus on you.” He transferred his focus to Kakashi, which was like being gently razor-bladed. “You’ve earned that trust. Keep it.”
This seemed like a good moment to ease the tension. Kakashi smiled brightly behind his mask, and said to his team, “I want it on record that I’m always trustworthy and everyone should listen to me all the time.”
Genma’s right eyebrow made a slow ascent up his forehead.
“I said I’d try,” Ryouma said, effectively redirecting the entire room’s attention. He looked like he regretted it immediately.
He had said that, though. I’ll try. When you make sense. Right before they’d had sex for the first time. So now was obviously a spectacular time to mention it. Sometimes Kakashi wondered if Ryouma’s brain operated entirely on word association and no actual sense.
Raidou looked between them, then at Minato, then Genma, then back at Ryouma. “Corollary,” he said. “Whenever Hatake comes up with an idea, everyone inclined to follow it is required to get a second opinion. That includes you, Hatake.”
Since Kakashi was sleeping with blurts-pre-pillow-talk-out-in-informal-meetings-san, and planned to continue, Raidou probably had a point.
Minato murmured, “But does that second opinion need a second opinion?”
Kakashi rolled his eyes. “Follow that line of logic and everyone will have to consult the entire village before they go grocery shopping. Anarchy, extended lines, lack of shopping bags. Or we can have independent thought and the occasional day trip to Tanuki-land.”
“Three-week trip, as it turned out,” Minato noted. “Though we’d expected some delay in tracking down the thieves behind the missing sake, and I even made allowances for a detour or two to one of Hotsprings Country’s famous onsen on the way back. Did you manage one, after all?”
“We had one very nice night on the way out,” Shiranui said. “And an hour at a small bath in Hiraizumi when we arrived for their festival. But we pushed the pace as fast as we could with civilians in tow, on the way back. Since we were overdue.”
Mild reproof, or earnest assurance? Minato wouldn’t be surprised if Shiranui intended both. He was developing a better grasp on their measure, now, beyond psych profiles and mission reports. Namiashi was stubborn, skeptical, but with a wry humor underriding that surface of stolid good sense, and a dogged loyalty that Kakashi at his most obnoxious wouldn’t shake. Shiranui was whip-smart and perceptive with it, keenly aware of weaknesses in opponent and ally, never hesitating to address either.
Tousaki…showed a streak of unexpected shyness, but he’d come briefly to life as a storyteller, so perhaps the awkwardness was merely a demonstration of the ‘thirst for approval from authority’ mentioned in his file. He’d certainly blushed at both Shiranui’s compliment, and the mention of Namiashi’s biceps.
No other signs of the complication Namiashi had fretted over, four months ago. Namiashi seemed easier in his own skin, and Shiranui didn’t seem sensitive to any underlying concerns.
Appropriate boundaries successfully set, then. Despite any temptation in bathhouses or otherwise.
“We did mean for this assignment to be an opportunity for lighter duty,” Minato said. “You coped well, in all respects. Though I have to wonder if the next foreign mission will result in an entire village trailing you back to Konoha.”
Namiashi scratched the back of his head ruefully. “If it’s a ninja village, I promise we’ll send advanced warning.”
“So long as it’s not a retaliating ninja village, intent on reprisals, I’m reasonably sure we’ll cope.” Minato sipped his cold tea, grimaced at the bitterness, and set the cup down. “Kimiko-san and Harubi-san are both settling in well, for the time being. I suspect Harubi-san will choose to move on before winter; Konoha really doesn’t have the right conditions for sake making. The Daimyou will doubtless be prepared to offer resettlement options by then. In the meantime, they might appreciate familiar visitors.”
Shiranui rewrapped his hands carefully around his own cup. “As I understand it, everything about our trip to the Tanuki’s dimension is highly classified. Are Harubi and her children also sworn to secrecy?”
“Harubi-san understands our concerns and has agreed to our conditions. The girl, Sen, is old enough to understand.” Minato had known younger chuunin, after all. One of them sat across the table from him. He tilted a lopsided smile at Kakashi. “Tadaichi-kun might still slip up and mention his summer vacation with the tanuki, so we arranged a short visit with Yamanaka Inoichi. The boy will believe it a dream, if he remembers at all.”
Shiranui winced. “I hope Yamanaka-san’s treatment for Tadaichi-kun was less exhausting than our interviews with him.”
“It took place while the boy slept, as I understand. Better results for converting memory into dream.” Of course, some dreams persisted longer than they should. Some of Naruto’s, lately…
The thought might have been a summoning. Out in the hall, the door banged. Naruto’s cheerful voice sang out, “I’m ho-ome!”
Namiashi and Shiranui froze into their chairs, like rabbits catching a predator’s scent. Tousaki glanced at the door, then the window. Kakashi advised dryly, “Stay very still. He can sense movement.”
“I got to hold puppies an’ sleep in a giant pillow on the floor an’ Kiba’s uncle made pancakes shaped like dogs an’— NIISAN’S BACK.” Naruto rounded the corner of the doorway, took in the tableau at one glance, and launched himself at Kakashi.
Shiranui hastily scooted his chair out of the way. Kakashi caught Naruto easily, squashed him with a rough hug, and then boosted the boy up to his shoulders. Naruto clutched stiff grey hair in both hands and drummed his heels joyfully against Kakashi’s chest. Kakashi pointed around the table. “Look, new victims.”
“Tousaki-san the Bucket Ninja!” Naruto caroled.
Tousaki managed an awkward wave, mouthing the word ‘bucket?’
“An’—” Naruto squinted across the table. “One of ‘em’s Tanuki and one of ‘em’s Red Moon, huh? But they’re not wearing masks so how do you tell?”
In the hall, Bear leaned around the doorway, bowed to Minato, and held up a jumble-stuffed duffle bag. Minato nodded. Bear set the duffle bag against the wall, saluted, and disappeared.
Team Six’s officers looked briefly envious. Perhaps Shibata should start incorporating overenthusiastic preschoolers in his interrogation sessions. But Kakashi bounced Naruto on his shoulders, and asked, “Which do you think is which?”
Naruto thought it over, then freed a hand to point at Namiashi. “He’s got kinda red hair and he looks like he could beat everybody up, so that’s Red Moon, right? Sorry you couldn’t punch through the dragon,” he told Namiashi kindly.
“I don’t think you told me about the dragon,” Shiranui murmured.
Namiashi’s stiffness was beginning to melt into amusement. “It was classified,” he told Shiranui, gravely, before tipping his head back to challenge Naruto. “How do you know?”
Bare feet thumped Kakashi’s shoulders. As usual, Naruto hadn’t stopped to put on house slippers after shedding his shoes. “I just do,” he decided. “So the long-hair guy is Tanuki-Mask-fukuchou. Am I right? I’m right!”
“You’re right,” Shiranui agreed. His shoulders relaxed a little too, as he apparently decided Naruto wasn’t going to try climbing in his lap next. “Good reasoning.”
Naruto slumped happily against Kakashi’s head. “You were gone forever,” he complained. “You missed the fireworks. Dad caught me a fish but we flushed it down the toilet.”
“It was dead first,” Minato clarified. “That’s important.”
“Should have saved it for jutsu practice,” Kakashi said, politely not inquiring into the circumstances behind fish-murder.
“I asked Ogata-san if we could eat it but she said it was too small. Kiba-kun said he’d eat it but we’d already flushed it. Guess what! Kiba-kun’s sister has three puppies and I got to play with all of them. But none of them say bad words yet. Can I play with Pakkun-san again?”
Kakashi tilted his head at Minato, asking permission.
Well, the dining room had plenty of space. Minato waved a hand. “So long as he doesn’t teach Naruto any more bad words.”
Kakashi shook his hands out in a familiar tic, encouraging the flow of chakra back into his palms, then slid out of his chair with Naruto still balanced on his shoulder. Naruto swayed and chirped with glee, clinging to Kakashi’s hair again through the quick, efficient, bloody summoning. Smoke bloomed; Minato spun a thread of his own chakra out to funnel it through the nearest open window. And there was Pakkun sitting with his squashed face on the edge of the table, with a much larger silver-black dog on the floor. A tumble of very young puppies cavorted around her paws and chewed each others’ ears.
“Saishou?” Minato said, unexpectedly warmed. “It’s been years.” He pushed out of his chair to greet her, just as Naruto frantically squirreled down Kakashi’s shoulders and plunged into the delighted pile of fluff. Saishou nosed one of the puppies off its sister’s stubby tail and looked up at Minato for a moment of shared parental understanding.
Behind them, Tousaki said in slow bewilderment, “But Saishou and Yori only went back to their own dimension two weeks ago. I don’t know much about dogs, but—”
“Gonna stop you while you’re ahead, kid,” Pakkun said.
Tousaki stopped, obediently. Shiranui, who’d leaned slightly out of his chair to watch the puppies, straightened curiously. Even Namiashi looked interested.
Pakkun extended a leg and began to clean his toes.
Kakashi rolled his eye. “Time is different in the dog world. As far as I can tell, it speeds up and slows down at random.”
“So, like the—” Tousaki started, and cut himself off. He ducked his head, flushing a dull red.
All the evidence suggested that Tousaki could probably carry on a complete conversation, but Minato was beginning to wonder. At least Naruto, who was currently engaged in singing the puppies a rapturous song of his own composing, hadn’t noticed. He did look up after a moment and command peremptorily, “Come play with puppies!”
Kakashi eased himself down into a cross-legged seat on the polished floor, a little slouchier than normal. Minato’s experienced eye diagnosed the chakra-drain of an extensive summons on top of a hard morning’s work, but Kakashi didn’t seem to mind. He reached out, gentle-handed, and was almost immediately rewarded with one of the shyer puppies seeking refuge in his lap.
The rest of Team Six left their chairs with more enthusiasm than obedience. Apparently even hardened young killers who grew nervous at a preschooler couldn’t resist the lure of fur and floppy ears. Tousaki and Namiashi both crouched to pet the puppies, their broad hands and long fingers almost covering the round little bodies.
Shiranui, better-mannered, offered Saishou a sweet smile and an open hand. “Congratulations. They’re beautiful. I’m glad to see you so well, Saishou-san.” He added to Pakkun, less shyly, “Glad to see you again too, Pakkun-san.”
Saishou puffed up with maternal pride, eyes bright, tail gently waving. She leaned in to nuzzle Genma’s ear, leaving him with a brief wet lick before the puppies distracted her into breaking up a squeaky little argument.
From the table, Pakkun announced, “If you were really glad you’d have beer.”
“It’s breakfast time here,” Minato said, amused. “You want beer for breakfast, you should be looking for Jiraiya-sensei.”
Pakkun considered this. “Tall pervert, permanently afflicted with toads? No thanks. Easier to train up youngsters.”
Naruto halted his song mid-verse. “Dad, what’s a pervert?”
They were supposed to have years before Minato had to explain this. “Right now, it’s a bad word,” he said, leveling a flat stare at Pakkun. “Fifty ryou in the swear jar. And no beer.”
On the other side of the puppy pile, Tousaki scrunched up in a tall man’s attempt at making himself smaller. Guilty conscience, Minato guessed. Though Naruto’s occasional cheerful reminiscences about The Time I Visited Melty Ninja’s Room mostly featured juiceboxes and action movies, not swear words.
Pakkun rolled a buggy little eye toward Kakashi, and muttered out of the corner of his mouth, “Kid, can you spot me fifty ryou?”
Kakashi theatrically patted down his pockets, careful not to disturb the puppy already dozing on his knee. He shrugged and told Minato, “You’ll have to take it out of his hide.”
“His hide?” Naruto hopped up, stepped carefully free of the puppies, and then bolted back to the table to throw his arms around Pakkun. “He needs his hide! Or he’ll get cold!”
Pakkun made a squashed sound, without ever trying to escape. He turned enormous sad pug eyes on Minato, over Naruto’s shoulder, and muttered in Naruto’s ear, “Can you cry on command yet?”
Movement, and a veiled chakra-flicker, distracted Minato. Lynx stood in the doorway, mask properly shielding his face, a thick folder in his hand, and the set line of worry in his shoulders.
“Can it wait?” Minato asked.
Team Six’s heads came up, as one.
Lynx hesitated, then shook his head. “It’s stamped time-sensitive, Hokage-sama.”
Minato swallowed a word he wouldn’t let himself say in front of Naruto, and pushed back to his feet. He grazed his hand through his son’s hair and looked at Kakashi. “Ogata-san should be back by noon. Can you—?”
Raidou stood. “We’ll go.”
“Come here, Naruto-kun,” Kakashi said, which was effectively yes.
“Everybody’s going?” Naruto asked, distressed.
“They just don’t know how to toddler,” Kakashi assured him, waving the rest of Team Six back down.
Looking bemused, Namiashi sat again. Naruto seized the moment to plop into his lap. “Since Dad’s going back to meetings, let me tell you about the time you punched a dragon…”
He would be safe with them. Kakashi was, after all.
Minato met Shiranui’s anxious eyes and gave the young man half a smile. “Payback time,” he said, and left.