August 7, Yondaime Year 5
Kakashi-niisan had told a lot of stories about his team. There was Tousaki-san the Bucket Ninja, who melted people into puddles. Kakashi-niisan said Tousaki-san was sometimes a jerk and smelled like a flowery trashcan, but he also punched monsters and carried Niisan around when he was hurt. And Tousaki-san had given Naruto juiceboxes and let him pick the movie, and he had a pretty dragon on his chest, so he was all right. Naruto let him play with the puppies, while he investigated the other two.
Crescent Moon was Niisan’s captain and Tanuki mask was his lieutenant. Their actual person names were Namiashi-taichou and Shiranui-fukuchou. Namiashi-taichou punched things even harder than Tousaki-san did, although usually they didn’t explode afterwards. He had knuckles all white and tough with scar tissue, and a nice big lap that wasn’t nearly as bony as Niisan’s.
But Shiranui-fukuchou’s lap was warmer, which was funny because he wasn’t as big as Namiashi-taichou. He had a nice smile, and he listened the whole time to Naruto’s story about punching dragons, without interrupting. At the end he said: “What if it had been a nice dragon?”
“Then I’d win it,” Naruto said. “I’m good at winning things. And then I’d ride it up on a mountain and jump off the top and fly. You can all come too,” he added, generously. “Since Kakashi-niisan likes you.”
Everybody looked at Kakashi-niisan then, even the dogs. Namiashi-taichou said, interested, “He does? Did he tell you that, Naruto-kun?”
“Noooo,” Naruto admitted, “but he tells stories where you’re smart and do cool things. So that’s the same thing. Right, Niisan?”
Kakashi-niisan looked down at the puppies in his lap, which you weren’t supposed to do when someone was talking to you. The puppies were very cute though. The grey one was asleep and the black one was chewing on Niisan’s pants. Niisan got it to chew his finger instead. “Naruto-kun, why don’t you ask Shiranui-san about his talking cats?”
“I like dogs better,” Naruto said. Then he remembered that probably wasn’t very nice, especially since he was sitting in Shiranui-san’s lap. “But I would like your cat if it’s a good one, Shiranui-san. What does it talk about? Does it teach you bad words?”
“Cat is a bad word,” Pakkun muttered.
“I only met her recently,” Shiranui-san said, snugging Naruto a little more comfily onto his crossed legs, “but she seemed very smart. Except she thinks I should eat mice.”
“That doesn’t seem very smart,” Naruto said. “Maybe you should take her to Tousaki-san’s room and eat prawn crisps instead.” He looked craftily at Tousaki-san. “And juiceboxes.”
“Cats don’t drink juiceboxes,” said a small cold voice from the open window.
There was a cat sitting on the sill, perfectly balanced with her tail wrapped around her paws. She was stripey brown and smaller than Pakkun. The puppies yipped and squeaked and began to tumble over towards her, but their mama grabbed one by the scruff and Kakashi-niisan caught the others. He piled them all in Tousaki-san’s lap and reached out to pick up Naruto instead.
Naruto wrapped his legs around Niisan’s waist and held on. He could see better from here anyway. He saw Shiranui-san get up on his knees and bow to the cat, with his body between her and Tousaki-san’s lapful of puppies. “Hotaru-san,” he said, in the most polite voice.
Pakkun rolled his big bug eyes. “Oh please,” he said. “It’s a house cat, not a tiger.”
The cat hopped down from the window, stretched her back in a long arch, and strolled across the floor. “I’m sure only your large relatives are dangerous, too,” she said to Pakkun.
He yawned and scratched one floppy ear with his back foot. “Depends on the target.”
“Just so,” the cat said. She stopped in front of Shiranui-san. “Is this the company you usually keep?”
“Partly,” Shiranui said, sitting back on his heels. “This is my team. You’ve met Namiashi-taichou. This is Tousaki. That’s Hatake, with the Hokage’s son, Naruto-kun.”
Naruto waved. The cat blinked slowly back at him.
“And these are Hatake’s companions, Pakkun-san and Saishou-san. I haven’t learned Saishou-san’s pups’ names yet.” He bowed his head again. “This is Hotaru-san.”
“This is my house,” Naruto said. “How come you’re here?”
Hotaru-san blinked again. “I came for an answer.” She leapt up lightly onto the table, walked past Pakkun with her tail gently waving, and looked at Naruto from closer. “Your lineage is sealed to the Toad line.”
“Um,” Naruto said. “My dad’s friends with Gamabunta-ojisan. And I’m gonna be the Toad-Dog King!”
“Indeed,” Hotaru-san murmured. Her tail waved again, graceful like kelp in water, not happy-wagging like a dog’s. She looked down at Shiranui-san. “Did you come to ask advice from these summoners, then?” She sounded a bit like Ogata-san when she was pleased.
Shiranui-san stayed kneeling so his head wasn’t taller than the cat. “I talked to Hatake-san about his experience as a summoner. The Hokage was called away before we could talk extensively about the Toads.”
“Kakashi-niisan brought his dogs for me to play with,” Naruto explained. “Are you a good cat? Do you bite people Shiranui-san doesn’t like and don’t bite people he does?”
The cat tilted her head. “I… Pardon me?”
“Shiranui-san is nice and he gives good cuddles,” Naruto told her. “But he’s a ninja too. This is his team and he’s their lieutenant. He heals them when they’re hurt and then he very sneaky kills their enemies dead. And he cleans up when Tousaki-san melts people into puddles.”
Namiashi-taichou made a choked sound and bit his fist. Shiranui-san went very slightly pink. Hotaru-san tilted her head back the other way. “Are you attempting to determine if I am the right summons for him?”
Naruto looked up at Kakashi-niisan. Niisan squeezed him a little tighter, and lifted up his eyebrow like he wanted to hear the answer to that question too.
“Yep,” Naruto decided. “You have to be okay with people-puddles. An’ with dogs. You’re only small so maybe you don’t have to fight the dragon, but you can’t ever ever bite Shiranui-san.”
The cat sat her bottom down on the table and wrapped her tail around her white paws. “What if he does something foolish?”
“Well, maybe…” Naruto looked at Kakashi-niisan again.
“I’m sure if Hotaru-san ever bites me, she’ll have a very good reason for it,” Shiranui-san said, getting up carefully to his feet. “But I’ll try to make sure she never has cause to.”
“You could bite him ‘cause, um, you need to drag him out of danger!” Naruto said. “Or maybe there’s a monster creeping up on the campfire and you have to wake him up very quiet! Oh, or maybe, maybe…” He thought hard. “Evil spirits crawl into your bed at night and cast a spell on you while you sleep!” he finished triumphantly.
Tousaki-san murmured, “What kind of bedtime stories are you telling this kid?”
Kakashi-niisan hitched one shoulder, bouncing Naruto slightly. “Ninja stories. Is that any worse than your Five Rings?”
“I want a Captain Seaweed story for bedtime tonight,” Naruto said. “And a ninja story.” He looked back at Hotaru-san. “So you’re only gonna bite Shiranui-san when there’s monsters, right?”
Hotaru-san’s whiskers twitched. She looked down at her paws. Small sharp claws slid out of her toes, then in again. Hotaru-san looked up. “I agree to those conditions on biting,” she said, and turned her head to stare at Shiranui-san. “Do you agree to the contract?”
Shiranui-san blinked. His gaze went to Namiashi-taichou for just a moment, and then he stood up straighter and his face went calm like a ninja’s. “If you’ve found me worthy to anchor your gateway, I would be honored to, Hotaru-san.” He paused. “Do… we have a contract scroll? A new one, I mean?”
Hotaru-san hunched down on the table, curled her spine, and made a horrible, hacking, choking sound.
Naruto clutched frantically at Niisan’s neck. “She’s dying!”
“No, it’s just a hairball, I think—” Shiranui-san still looked worried, though. Namiashi-taichou stood up beside him, holding his shoulder. Behind them, Tousaki-san and Saishou tried to huddle up around the squeaking-scared puppies.
Pakkun said, “Oh, gross.”
Hotaru-san hacked one more time, and a long thin scroll case slid out of her mouth and clattered onto the table, all shiny with cat-spit. She sat back upright, looking proud. “The amended contract. You must sign in blood, as we have done.”
“Thank you.” Shiranui-san picked up the scroll and dried it tidily with the hem of his shirt. He spread it open on the table. Pakkun moved out of the way, peering curiously over.
Kakashi-niisan and Namiashi-taichou leaned in, too. Naruto clung to Niisan’s neck and looked down at the scroll. It looked ordinary, just like all the scrolls that cluttered Dad’s office and library. The writing was maybe a little scratchy and blotchy, like it had been done with a very sharp pen dipped in ink instead of a writing brush. There were a lot of words, which Shiranui-san read slowly, his lips moving a little, like he was trying hard to understand it. Then there was a long list, sometimes with more words, and sometimes just with an inky cat’s paw print.
Some of the paw prints were bigger than Naruto’s head. Shiranui-san’s eyes got wider when he saw those. But he kept going, all the way down to the end of the list.
He nodded to himself, just a little bit. Then he took a slim blue-wrapped scroll out of his utility belt-pouch. He opened it with a tiny puff of smoke, pulled out a writing brush and inkstone, and set them on the table too. Finally he unholstered a kunai and made a neat cut over his left forearm. The blood dripped and pooled on the inkstone. Shiranui-san watched it for a moment, then looked up at Hotaru-san. “I see several names here. Will I meet the others soon?”
“When you summon them,” Hotaru-san said. She sat down with her belly on the table and her paws tucked into her chest, her tail wrapped around close. “The contract language specifies the chakra molding patterns and handseals to open the gateway and tailor your call. The amount of chakra you pour into the summons will determine the size of the gateway, and therefore the summons that can fit through. We have each agreed to answer the first matching summons, and to give you our chakra pattern at that meeting. Once you’ve met one of us, you may summon that cat again by name and chakra pattern.”
Shiranui-san wrapped a white bandage several times around his arm, tied it off, and tucked the rest of the bandaging away. He wet the writing brush between his lips to make the tip pointy, then dipped it in the pool of blood. “Is it possible to summon more than one of you at once, the way Hatake does with his dogs?”
“It may be possible,” Hotaru-san allowed, the way Ogata-san said Naruto could do something when she really meant he shouldn’t. “I would advise you to be very careful whom you try.”
“Do you not all get along?” Shiranui-san paused with his brush midair over the scroll.
Hotaru-san yawned. Her teeth were very small and they looked very sharp. “Cats,” she said, “are not dogs.”
“Fukuchou,” Tousaki-san said, behind them. He must have gotten bored with telling puppies they were safe, because he had one cuddled in his arms but the others were asleep or nursing with their mama. He was tall enough that he could see over everybody else’s head, and he pointed at the scroll with the hand that wasn’t holding a puppy. “That’s a tiger print. Do you really want to summon two?”
Shiranui-san looked over his shoulder at Tousaki-san, then at Kakashi-niisan and Namiashi-taichou in turn. “I’m pretty sure I once warned you against calling for tigers at all.” He took a deep breath and closed his eyes. His lips moved again, very quietly: “Kannon-bosatsu, guide my hand.”
He opened his eyes, leaned down, and signed his name neatly on the scroll.
“Print your fingerpads below,” Hotaru-san directed, and Shiranui-san carefully dipped each finger in blood before pressing all five to the paper.
Hotaru’s eyes went very green, the pupils just thin slits of black. A raspy purr rumbled through her sleek body. “Now,” she said, “send me home.”
Shiranui-san dried his bloody fingertips on his bandaged arm, then reached his clean hand carefully toward Hotaru-san, stroking her stripey shoulder. “How do I do that?”
“Ooh!” Naruto knew this one. “You go Swish Thwack Boom, and they go Poof! Like Dad and Niisan.” He demonstrated with wildly twisting fingers.
Kakashi-niisan coughed quietly, shoulders shaking. He braced Naruto on his hip and crouched down next to Saishou and her pups, beckoning Shiranui-san over. Namiashi-taichou and Tousaki-san trailed behind.
“Feel the connected threads between us?” Niisan asked. He did something that fizzed and tickled, somewhere in the air or underneath Naruto’s skin. “And here, where it’s weak? You just disengage, like this.” He stroked Saishou’s head, then reached around Naruto to fit his hands together.
Three seals: not exactly Swish Thwack Boom, but close enough. Saishou and her pups faded into a gentle puff of smoke. Tousaki-san stood for a moment looking at his empty arms, before he put his hands in his pockets instead.
Shiranui-san practiced the same three seals, looking thoughtful. “I won’t hurt her, will I?”
“Ask her,” Kakashi-niisan suggested.
Shiranui-san turned back to Hotaru-san. “I don’t want to hurt you when I try this.”
“I have been in this world longer than is comfortable,” Hotaru-san said, reaching a paw out to bat at the scroll. It rolled up neatly. She yawned wide and bit down on the scroll, swallowing it in several awkward gulps. “Send me home. I will sleep and hunt and sleep again, and then I will be ready for your call.”
Pakkun made a sneery face at her. She ignored him.
Shiranui-san stroked her soft back one more time. “I’ll look forward to seeing you then.” His brows pinched together a little, as he tried the fizzy tickling thing Kakashi-niisan had done. He shaped the seals, one, two, three, and then Hotaru-san was gone.
“I still like dogs better,” Naruto said.
Pakkun hopped up onto Kakashi-niisan’s other shoulder and leaned around to snuffle Naruto’s hair, very tickly. “That is because you are smart.”
That was true. Naruto snuggled Pakkun back.
Tousaki-san said, “If you summoned a tiger, do you think it’d let us pet it?”
Shiranui-san said in a faraway voice, “I have no idea. Why is that the question you have about all of this?”
“They look soft,” Tousaki-san said, “and it’s been that kind of day. You holding up okay, Fukuchou?”
“Yep.” Shiranui-san shook his head and straightened up. “I’m fine. Just a little— This whole day has been unexpected so far. I guess I’d better get over to the Jutsu Records Office and register this now.” But he didn’t move yet, or even pick up his bloody writing brush and inkstone. He looked at Kakashi-niisan. “Hatake, did that feel right to you? That release?”
“Felt fine,” Niisan said. “No exploded cat limbs anywhere.”
“We should have cake!” Naruto announced.
That made Shiranui-san look puzzled, instead of just worried and pale. “Why?” And to Kakashi-niisan: “Was that a possibility, Hatake?”
“Very slight,” Niisan said reassuringly. “Barely worth mentioning.” He ruffled Naruto’s hair. “Celebration cake? What kind?”
“Bakery cake,” Naruto said. Ogata-san’s celebration cakes were so so good, but she wasn’t here. “The kind with fruit an’ flowers an’ action figures an’ chocolate writing. There’s one in the village near my school that’s taller than Dad!”
“I’m so glad it wasn’t worth mentioning,” Shiranui-san was saying to Namiashi-taichou, with a flat little shudder, but he looked around properly at Naruto when he heard that. “That’s my dad’s bakery. That was my birthday cake, but he’s taken it down by now.”
“We can get another one!” Naruto said, delighted. He thumped his heels into Kakashi-niisan’s side. “Let’s go, Niisan!”
Niisan tilted his head toward his officers. “Cake?”
“As long as Minato-sama doesn’t mind us taking Naruto-kun out,” Shiranui-san began.
That was enough. “Cake is the best,” Naruto sang. “Cats eat mice but I eat cake. I’m a ninja, I’m a ninja, oooooh I’m a ninja and I eat cake…”
Pakkun howled along with him, all the way to the bakery.