August 16, Yondaime Year 5
Under the shadow of another looming medical appointment, breakfast at Genma’s was much less enjoyable than Ryouma would have expected. Raidou was brusque, Genma impatient, and Kakashi irritable. Ryouma had no appetite, forced himself to eat anyway, and gave himself a stomachache.
They left for the hospital early.
Naito Rumi-sensei saw them all together. She was a short, plump, grandmotherly-looking person, with steely eyes and cold papery-skinned hands. She had the results of the prior day’s tests in heavy clipboards on her desk, but she went through the basics of an intensive chakra evaluation anyway. Glowing hands traced down Ryouma’s tanuki-healed arms, pressed on the bared scars on Genma’s shoulder and thigh. The wrinkles around her mouth deepened. When she sat back in her wheeled chair and beckoned them to dress again, she was almost frowning.
“Your test results point to a form of aplastic anemia,” she said bluntly. “Shiranui-san’s bone marrow was failing to produce sufficient blood cells of any type. Tousaki-san’s symptoms are significantly less severe, but his marrow shows signs of insufficiency as well.”
Genma’s white-knuckled grip on his knees loosened a little. “You said was failing. Does that mean it’s recovering?”
“Mm. Your marrow does show signs of cellular regrowth, although I don’t like the look of that bone lesion on your femur. And your recovery is well behind Tousaki-san’s.” She consulted the clipboards again. “The nick to your femur could account for the greater severity, but not for disparity in resolution.” Pages flipped. “That self-induced fever two months ago might have served as a potential stressor.”
Raidou levied a speaking scowl at Genma, who ignored him. “The nick… Where the kunai strike was?” Genma touched his thigh. “It must have allowed Iebara’s jutsu easier access to the marrow.”
He looked up at Naito-sensei. “You’re the chakra specialist. Are there any traces of the jutsu still detectable?”
“The jutsu? No. Its damage lingers, but there’s no foreign chakra in your system, and no corruption of your own.” She frowned briefly at Ryouma. “I don’t like the flavor of your chakra, boy, but I understand that’s self-induced. And fading, at any rate.”
“My chakra?” Ryouma straightened in his chair. “I haven’t used my jutsu since— well, probably five days or more, anyway.” He glanced apprehensively at Kakashi, standing in grim silence behind him.
Kakashi’s folded arms tightened. He spoke over Ryouma’s head. “Don’t like it because it’s distasteful, or don’t like it because it’s doing something dangerous?”
She waved a papery hand. “There’s no corruption to his system, either. Just a… rancidity, dissipating. I doubt one sensor in fifty would pick up on it without intently examining his system. Though the two of you must prefer to avoid him when he’s at work, hmm?”
“His chakra feels…” Genma hesitated. “Unpleasant, right after he’s used his decay jutsu. But it fades off pretty quickly for me. Usually within 24 hours at most.”
Ryouma winced. He didn’t look back at Kakashi.
Naito-sensei nodded as if she’d expected nothing less. “If Tousaki-san hasn’t suffered irreparable damage to his own chakra system by now, that could account for the faster recovery. Bone marrow is closely linked to chakra regeneration.”
“So Shiranui-fukuchou isn’t healing slower than he should,” Ryouma said, seizing on this sliver. “I’m just healing faster. Somehow.”
“You could be healing faster, he could be slower, it could be both.” She sat back, folding her hands over her white coat. “This is the first time anyone subject to this particular jutsu has survived. If this were a typical aplastic anemia—something caused by a toxin you’re no longer exposed to, for example—then I’d say Shiranui-san’s recovery is delayed, and yours is accelerated.”
“You think delayed because of the fever I had on that mission in July,” Genma said.
“Self-induced,” she stressed, with a stern look. “Among other possible reasons. I can’t know for sure. But the nick in your femur hasn’t healed well, either, which makes me suspicious.”
Raidou scratched the back of his neck. “If his blood’s all screwed up, wouldn’t you expect it to heal slowly?”
Naito-sensei shook her head. “Not necessarily. You don’t need a clot to form new bone. But a little encouragement should see it done; I’ll handle it myself before you go.”
“Can you do anything for the marrow problem?” Genma asked.
“Blood and platelets if things get worse, but I don’t think they will.” One finger tapped against an arthritic knuckle. “Eat your leafy greens and a steak or two, get sufficient rest for a change—don’t pretend you regularly get eight hours of sleep, young man, I wasn’t born yesterday. And don’t do anything that’s going to open a vein. Grow your beard in if you’re a clumsy shaver.”
Genma rubbed his smooth-shaven chin, looking vaguely offended at the implied insult against the steadiness of his hand. Raidou snorted.
“What about missions?” Ryouma asked.
“Medically forbidden,” Naito-sensei said promptly. “For both of you. Don’t make that face at me, boy. Weekly blood component monitoring and clotting testing for both of you, now that we have a baseline, and I’ll decide when you’re free to risk your necks again. We’ve got a Hokage that needs guarding in the meantime, don’t we?”
Genma didn’t quite sigh. “And training?”
“No edged weapons. And keep a close eye on bruising. Anything over six centimeters, you see a medic immediately.”
“Perfect team to guard the Hokage,” Kakashi said, dust-dry.
“You and Taichou can smash any threats,” Ryouma said. “We’ll cheer you on. And, uh, bring snacks.”
His stomach still hurt. But there was relief on the horizon now, like the grey promise of dawn: Not liver failure, not leukemia, not hemophilia.
Just that damned jutsu. But Genma was healing, and Iebara was dead. The room had a little more air to breathe.
“You’re sure there are no neoplastic changes in the marrow, right?” Genma asked. “May I see the biopsy report?”
Naito-sensiei’s gaze sharpened. “Help yourself,” she said after a moment. “While I fix that femur, if you please. We’re over-time already.”
She passed the clipboard over, scooted her wheeled chair forward, and flexed her fragile, arthritic hands. Despite the swollen knuckles her handseals were still crisp and clean. “Don’t bop me with that clipboard, young man,” she warned, and set to work.
As with most minor medical procedures, there wasn’t much to see. Naito-sensei did her work. Kakashi raised an eyebrow at one point, which Raidou took to mean something interesting had happened on the jutsu-plane, and Genma’s leg looked exactly the same. Except hopefully now without lesions.
(When Raidou asked later, Genma explained that ‘lesion’ was just the fancy medical term for a defect, and not automatically cancer.)
(“Why don’t they just say that?”)
Genma read the report, handed it back, and thanked Naito-sensei for her time, which seemed to please her. On the way out, they passed her next appointment in the waiting room: a nervous-looking chuunin with an unnatural dark blue streak down the side of her throat, which seemed to be pulsing. Ryouma collared Kakashi before he could ask any distressing questions, and the team hustled into the hallway.
“I didn’t say anything,” Kakashi hissed.
“And you’re not gonna,” Raidou said automatically.
Kakashi rolled his eye and shrugged loose from Ryouma’s hold, but he didn’t immediately vanish off into the distance, or one-eighty right back to the blue-faced chuunin. He fell into step at Ryouma’s side, head angled so that his line of sight included Genma, and Raidou had a little moment of mental slippage. When had he gotten into the habit of expecting the worst from Kakashi?
“What’d the biopsy report say?” Ryouma asked anxiously.
“You had mild hypocellularity,” Genma said, which meant nothing to Raidou, but apparently made some kind of sense to the rookies, since they both nodded. “Mine was a little more significant but not terrible. Basically there are fewer than expected cells. But no neoplasia—no cancer cells. Yours had a lot of young cells, mine fewer, but that means the marrow is starting to make all three types of blood cells as it should again.”
Relief washed out of Ryouma in a long, melting exhale. He took a moment, then bumped his shoulder roughly against Kakashi’s. “I’m so fucking glad you exploded that bastard.”
The blank line of Kakashi’s mask shifted oddly. It took Raidou a moment to realize Kakashi was grinning.
“I’m this close to figuring out his jutsu,” Kakashi said. “I’ve almost stopped detonating rabbits.”
He said this as they walked out through the hospital’s main doors, causing a small boy to pause mid-step and give their group a very alarmed look, before his father ushered him away. Civilian, Raidou assumed.
“Any useable meat on the carcasses when you explode them, or are you just making rabbit mist?” Genma asked, with bright academic interest.
That father really could hustle.
“Mostly bigger chunks. So long as you don’t mind picking bones out, it’s not bad.” Kakashi tilted his head back to squint at the morning sky, which was already the unforgiving hammered-blue of later summer. No clouds, all heat. “Last few didn’t explode at all.”
“Maybe I’ll be up to healing cuts by the time you master a controllable slice,” Ryouma said. “We could team up in training.”
Raidou glanced at Genma, who already looked thoughtful. Medically forbidden from missions also meant medically forbidden from violent training — at least it did on Raidou’s goddamn team — but jutsu training was a good use of time, and Ryouma hadn’t been getting to focus much on his new field. If they could involve Kakashi too…
“Smart thinking,” Genma said. “Tousaki, you should enroll in the next field medicine course while we’re grounded, too. Get your basic lectures and requirements in so you can take the Grade 1 exam. And you and I can work on chakra healing.”
Ryouma tapped his sleeve-covered tattoo, already looking much brighter than he had over breakfast. “I’ll get on it, Lieutenant.”
Genma nodded and looked at Kakashi. “You can set us up with rabbits that need putting back together, Hatake — preferably living.”
Kakashi seesawed a hand. “I can promise fifty percent living.”
“That’ll do for a start,” Genma said.
Well, at least they could guarantee the unsavable ones a quick death, Raidou thought. And then lunch for the team.
Inspiration led to a natural segue. “Hatake, while they’re practicing medical jutsu, I want to work on your taiju—where the hell did he go?”
Next to Ryouma’s shoulder was empty air. Ryouma blinked and looked down, then up and over the busy street. There were several grey-haired individuals, but none under forty. “Uh.”
Genma’s head cocked, narrow-eyed. He sent out a sweep of chakra that tingled against Raidou’s skin, and then pointed to a store across the street with a baffled shake of his head.
The sign was sun-faded, but perfectly legible. A Likely Story.
“He went to the bookstore?” Raidou demanded. “For the love of—”
There was a moderate crowd spilling out and around the door, clutching bags and battered colorful paperbacks. Most parted hastily when Raidou stomped over, though a few grizzled ninja merely looked at him and looked away. Since Raidou wasn’t prepared to start an actual street brawl, he sidestepped the few obstacles and shoulder-checked his way into the busy store. It was crammed inside. And hot. Display racks had been pushed up against the wall. A tiny elderly woman was balanced up on the register counter, which made her very slightly taller than the crowd. She was waving her arms and laughing, trying to direct some sort of order among the chaos. The store owner, maybe? Her salt and pepper hair was coming loose from her headscarf.
If Kakashi had randomly abandoned them for some kind of fantasy novel premiere, Raidou was going to kick his skinny butt up and down the training field until dawn.
He spotted a flash of silver-white hair through a break in the crowd and elbowed his way towards it, nearly falling at the last moment, as he lurched into a gap between people.
It was not Kakashi.
It was a clear space in the crowd with very narrow margins, surrounding someone a lot taller than Kakashi, with a lot more hair. Next to him, Kakashi looked small, and pleased, and not at all bothered by the broad, calloused, friendly hand rumpling his head.
“Uh,” Ryouma said again, from behind Raidou’s shoulder.
“Is that—?” Genma began, just behind Ryouma.
Quick details presented themselves. The short green kimono and matching pants. The red haori. The red geta. The red tattooed lines slicing down from eyes to jaw. The hair, again, a spiked silver river barely contained in a single tie.
Jiraiya, the Toad Sage, one of the Sannin, a legacy from two Great Wars, turned at Kakashi’s look and grinned down at Raidou.
“Hey, kid,” he boomed. “What do you want me to sign?”
Genma’d known Jiraiya was tall, but he hadn’t known quite how tall. Taller than Ryouma, for one. And broader, bulkier, and just all around more massive in physicality and energy. Jiraiya didn’t blast chakra out like Katsuko—he basked in it. A second sun to match Konoha’s resident celestial source, Jiraiya’s former pupil, Minato-sama.
Everything about the man was a little larger than life, from his mountainous hair to his towering geta, his booming voice to his radiant grin. His prodigious hands looked like they could crush Kakashi’s skull as easily as caress it.
In Jiraiya’s shadow, with a crisply new orange book in hand, Kakashi looked the happiest Genma had ever seen.
Poor Raidou had no idea what was happening in front of him.
Genma looked around for the tower of Jiraiya’s books that had to be somewhere near the man, found it, grabbed one, and shoved it into Raidou’s hands with a hissed, “He wants to sign a book for you.”
Jiraiya took the book out of Raidou’s hands before Raidou had managed to take a reflexive hold of it. “My fifth volume,” he rumbled. “Good choice, good choice. Are you a Junko partisan, or are you on Otsu’s side?”
Raidou’s brown pupils flicked subtly left, right, left again as he worked out a rapid strategy to address the ambush he’d accidentally walked into. It was only a second or so, and then his gaze settled and his expression firmed. “Neither,” he said confidently. “You write completely terr—”
Genma ground his elbow into Raidou’s flank.
Raidou snapped his head around with an enraged question in his eyes.
“I think Otsu is going to double cross Takeshi in the next volume,” Genma said. “But I don’t trust Junko either.”
Jiraiya seized the bait beautifully, while Raidou stared as if Genma had grown a pair of horns. “But Otsu is so sweet and open-hearted,” Jiraiya said. “How could you suspect her? She’s the purest character I’ve ever written.”
“That’s why I don’t trust her,” Genma said. As he’d told Aoba, when Aoba went on and on and on at great, sake-fueled length about why Junko was a demon and Otsu and Takeshi’s love must be protected at all costs. Genma’d never actually read the books, but he may as well have. “Maybe they’re in on it together.”
Jiraiya ruffled Kakashi’s hair again. “You hear that, sprog? You and this guy should be friends. He thinks just like you.” He picked up his pen and held it poised over the book. “Who should I sign this to?”
“Aoba,” Genma said, without hesitation. If he was buying a signed copy of Jiraiya’s book, it was at least going to someone who would appreciate it.
“Alright then, Aoba-kun.” Jiraiya scribbled an inscription and stamped a red-inked seal next to it. Behind them, the crowd was growing restless.
“Aoba?” Kakashi barked, like the very idea that Aoba and he might share a taste in reading material was the gravest of insults. He didn’t pursue it, though. “Jiraiya-sensei, this is my team. Namiashi Raidou, captain,” he said with a gesture. Raidou had the presence of mind to bow politely without Genma having to nudge him.
“Shiranui Genma, lieutenant.” Genma bowed in turn.
There was a faint hesitation before Kakashi continued, “Tousaki Ryouma, rookie.”
Jiraya looked them over with growing disappointment on his expressive, tattooed face. “Not one woman?”
Someone clutching a tattered first edition at Genma’s back muttered something about there being a long queue of women who’d stood in line for hours for this opportunity.
“Uh,” Ryouma mumbled, backing awkwardly into a bookshelf, “we can move…”
“Are you staying?” Kakashi demanded quickly, fixing Jiraiya with a look Genma would almost describe as imploring. “How long?”
“We can talk at the Palace after the signing,” Jiraiya said. “I’m having lunch with your sensei. In fact all of you should come. I’ve been wanting to meet this infamous team for some time.”
The disgruntled woman made another sound, this one less annoyed and more shocked. Jiraiya winked at her over Genma’s shoulder. She dropped her book.
Genma and Ryouma both bent to retrieve it for her, and nearly cracked skulls. Ryouma, with his longer reach, snagged the book and gave it back to the flustered woman.
“So I’ll see you at the Palace? Lunch is at 1300. Don’t be late or I won’t bring you a signed copy of the new volume,” Jiraiya said. He raised an eyebrow at Genma. “And then you’ll never find out if your theory about Otsu is right.”
Genma had been doing fairly well, he’d thought, at keeping his head, but for a second his mind ran aground on a sandbar labeled ‘you were just invited to lunch with the Hokage by one of the greatest living ninja.’ He grabbed Raidou’s elbow and maneuvered behind him, so they could use Raidou’s greater bulk as a plow through the crowd. “I’ll just pay for this,” he said. “And we can get out of here.”
Kakashi, who continued to look delighted with everything in his life, vanished and reappeared on the far side of the crowd, near the register. Raidou, approaching this problem with his usual unyielding will, plowed through the crowd with pointy-elbowed vengeance.
When Genma’d paid for his book and they’d escaped to the cooler air outside, Ryouma asked, baffled, “Was that the Sannin Jiraiya?”
Kakashi gave him an odd look. “Yes? Who else would it be?”
“I don’t know!” Ryouma said. He raised his hands in agitated surrender. “You said once he gave you alcohol poisoning, but I didn’t expect— That was like, like, your kindly uncle who is also a rockstar god. There were fifty people lined up for him!” He gestured at the throng still filling the bookshop and spilling into the alley. “Some of them were probably grandmas!”
“I didn’t need that image in my head,” Genma told Ryouma. At least the thought of grandmas reading Jiraiya-sama’s salacious books was a distraction from, ‘I’ve been wanting to meet your infamous team for some time.’ Genma glanced at his watch. 11:28. They had 90 minutes to kill before the appointed rendezvous. He turned to Kakashi, “He’s your—” There wasn’t a word that seemed to apply that wasn’t ‘uncle’ or ‘grandfather’ and neither of those were correct. “I mean, you know him. Does he actually want all of us to show up for lunch? We can’t just— I mean it’s the Hokage’s lunch.”
Kakashi gave Genma the exact same disbelieving look he’d given Ryouma. “Yes?”
Raidou had stretched as far as he could around the bizarre shape their morning had taken. He snapped back into himself with a sharp, “Hatake, one, stop acting like this is all normal when you know full well it isn’t. And two, don’t randomly vanish when I’m trying to talk to you about your taijutsu.”
Kakashi blinked once, unfazed by Raidou’s ire. “You were trying to talk to me about taijutsu?”
Raidou pinched the bridge of his nose. “Get your ass on the training field. Right now.”
Kakashi blinked again. “But I thought you said I wasn’t supposed to vanish?”
There was going to be bloodshed any second now, unless Genma intervened.
“Get your insubordinate ass to training field two,” he said. “If it’s occupied we’ll find another one. We have 90 minutes before lunch. You can either work on your taijutsu with Taichou, or run laps until you puke. Your choice. That’s an order. Go.” Genma pointed towards the distant training fields, and hoped he’d defused the Raidou bomb before it could detonate.
Kakashi hesitate a moment, probably trying to decide whether it was worth the extra punishment to argue back, then shrugged and loped away. He glanced back when he’d gone a few paces to see if they were following. Ryouma gave his officers a wary glance, then hurried to catch up.
From their several paces back, the officers heard Ryouma’s, “Those are the books you read?”
Genma turned to Raidou and slowed a little, to let the rookies gain some distance. “I don’t actually read them. Aoba just talks about them. A lot.” He pushed his hair off his face. “Try not to break Hatake’s face while you kick his ass?”
“Little early for me to start judging your reading habits,” Raidou said. Early in… Not the morning. Genma let the happy memory of their rising together seep back into his awareness from the place he’d sequestered it. Just for a moment.
Raidou rolled his shoulders and twisted his neck with a good crack. “I’m not going to break his face. I’m not even going to really kick his ass. Well, maybe a little. But since Jiraiya-sama’s— I don’t know, his grand-sensei? Which makes him some kind of family, I guess. I can’t blame Hatake for being excited to see him.” Raidou’s tone shaded warm. “He just needs to stop doing that godsdamn vanishing thing. I may actually be getting hives.”
“I can give you an antihistamine, but I’m not sure it would help.” Genma followed Raidou’s example, and stretched his shoulders behind him until they popped. “The communicating-before-vanishing thing was one of the basics he was supposed to be improving, though. I still don’t see how we’re supposed to give him more advanced assignments in personal development when he can’t even get ‘don’t run off in the middle of a conversation’ down.”
“Shock collar,” Raidou suggested, but reconsidered, “Except he might enjoy the electricity. Is there such a thing as a bad-smell collar?”
“We could ask an Inuzuka for suggestions.” Genma chuckled. “Bet they know some good methods. Or maybe Jiraiya-sama, but I’m not sure I really want to ask the Hokage’s mentor how to make the Hokage’s student come to heel.”
Raidou’s expression said all there needed to be said about that idea. “Agreed.”
Genma clapped Raidou’s shoulder, grinned at him, and broke into a jog. “Come on, let’s go see if you can taijutsu him into submission before we have to shower and dress for this lunch with the luminaries.”
It wasn’t clear what burr had gotten into Genma and Raidou’s respective underpants, but the result was an unusually painful tumble around training field two. Genma and Ryouma both sat out, owing to their convenient hypocellularity, which meant Kakashi got Raidou all to himself.
All of Raidou. Which was a lot of Raidou.
Barring the muddy wrestling match they’d had on their first mission, Raidou had mostly left Kakashi’s taijutsu alone. Genma being the primary candidate for needing improvement in that realm. And Ryouma, occasionally, since his Nikutai Tokasu only needed the lightest touch, which was fine when he had hands prepared to rot a face off, and less useful when he forgot himself and slapped you with bare skin.
Kakashi had excellent form and a versatile arsenal to draw from, thank you very much, and did not actually need Raidou chasing him around a field and yelling random pointers, such as You’re taller than you think you are! and Stop dodging and engage!
Things came to an impasse when Kakashi treed himself in the safe haven of branches too light for a larger man to stand on, and informed Raidou that if this was a real fight, Kakashi would have shoved a Chidori through his chest twenty minutes ago.
“What if you didn’t have the chakra available?” Raidou said tartly, and punched Kakashi’s tree down.
Kakashi leapt to the next tree, a spreading oak with old fire scars spiralling up its trunk, and balanced lightly on a whippy branch. “Kunai,” he called down. “Explosion tags. Poison. Genjutsu. There’s a degloving jutsu that doesn’t take nearly so much chakra.”
“Or running?” Raidou said, with an edge of scorn.
“Strategic retreat,” Kakashi shot back. He considered bouncing an acorn off Raidou’s forehead. Or a branch.
“This isn’t practice for a real fight,” Genma said, with exaggerated patience from his perch on the split-rail fence. “This is practice specifically for your taijutsu. Get on the ground and practice your damn hand-to-hand skills. You don’t see me refusing to work on guarding my left just because in a real fight I’d have poisoned my opponent with a senbon before he ever got close enough to land a blow.”
In apparent support, Ryouma cupped his hands around his mouth and howled cheerfully: “Punch the captain, Kakashi!”
It wasn’t like Kakashi didn’t. But fine, if they wanted to make a ground-combat point. He slipped down from the tree, cutting the distance short and fast with an edge of chakra, to appear right behind Raidou, and cracked a solid blow into the back of the captain’s neck.
At least, that was the intent.
With uncanny instinct — or perhaps something more; was there an odd chakra ripple? — Raidou dropped to the side, avoiding Kakashi’s attack with a smooth shift of muscle, and came back up like a landslide. Kakashi dodged on pure reflex. Knuckles grazed his cheekbone. Raidou reversed, coming back with speed, but now Kakashi had caught a second to rebalance. He accepted the hit out of necessity, but rolled his shoulder back to make it glancing, blunting some of the damage, and caught Raidou’s forearm. Twisted away, sliding into Kusagakure’s Inago-kawa style of flowing punishment, and wrenched Raidou’s arm down over his opposite shoulder, hard enough to snap the elbow.
It left his back open. Raidou lunged close, spoiling the lock before bone gave way, and grabbed Kakashi’s jaw with his free hand. The blade of his palm pressed a hard warning against Kakashi’s throat, but now Kakashi had Raidou’s belly at his back, and three free limbs.
Raidou was taller and heavier, but so was just about everyone. It was old, easy instinct to go for the weak links: tendons in the wrist, freeing Kakashi’s jaw, then a hammering elbow to the upper abdomen, shocking the spleen. Fall in the gap that created, letting deadweight hit the unsuspecting grip and tear loose. If he’d been allowed a kunai, he would have driven it into the thigh here, slicing the huge artery. Instead he drove stiff fingers into the back of Raidou’s right knee, hitting painful pressure points and collapsing the joint. Raidou grunted. Kakashi kicked his opposite ankle out from under him and scrambled aside as gravity took care of the rest.
Raidou hit the ground. The ground hit back, since someone had seen fit to strew it with splinters of exploded tree. Kakashi rolled to his feet.
Except that he’d forgotten that Raidou was made of cold-forged stubbornness. Before Kakashi was quite upright, an iron-banded hand wrapped around his trailing ankle and yanked so hard his hip popped. He hit the ground. Made friends with splinters.
Raidou landed on him like an anvil.
They rolled through a bed of angry mulch, trading blows and vicious knee-strikes. At one point, Raidou tried the headlock he’d won with last time; Kakashi distracted him with an earnest attempt to break Raidou’s nose. Raidou returned the favor with a wrist-lock that nearly dislocated Kakashi’s thumb.
On the ground, Raidou was no less lethal, using his weight, strength, and reach with painful efficiency. He wasn’t as fast or flexible as Kakashi, but he shrugged off hits that would have stopped anyone else with functional nerve endings. And his stamina was better. Kakashi could feel himself starting to flag.
In a real fight, he did everything he could to avoid this exact situation. He was a distance fighter, with the exception of fast, calculated clashes for the takedown. And even for those he used weapons: sharp edges, sharper chakra, a fistful of lightning. In a long, extended grapple, he was in trouble.
They flipped over, Raidou’s obnoxious muscles in their element. Kakashi lost his half-formed choke hold and met the ground with his spine, shoulderblades digging into the gashed dirt. Raidou fell on him, hard, pinning his hips, capturing his hands, and laid an arm like a metal bar across his throat. Kakashi sank an inch into the yielding ground.
He considered his options.
Raidou leaned on him. Kakashi felt his collarbones creak.
“I yield,” he rasped.
“Nope,” Raidou said.
Kakashi stared at him, outraged. “What?”
“You’re stronger than this,” Raidou said. “Break the hold.”
“I would do that with jutsu,” Kakashi snapped. He grunted when Raidou’s weight increased, squashing the air out of his lungs.
“You’re smart,” Raidou said amiably. A droplet of blood slid down from a gash on his cheek and dripped on Kakashi’s collar. His left eye was swollen half-closed, bright red now in a way that promised blue later. “Think of something else.”
Kakashi was thinking several things, most of them involving bladed edges and lightning. His chakra rippled restlessly, unwilling to stay quiet. He veered from the temptation. Considered angles, advantages. Raidou was heavy.
“You wanted to get better,” Raidou pointed out.
Kakashi made a breathless, unintelligible noise. Strangled wrath and accompanying promises.
Raidou dipped his head, mouth flicking up with amusement. “Come again?”
Close enough. Kakashi snapped his head up, wolf-trap fast, and bit Raidou on the chin. His teeth sliced cloth and skin. Blood burst into his mouth. Raidou swore and jerked back in shock, lifting off Kakashi’s chest, tearing free. Air and leverage presented themselves like glowing prizes. Kakashi wrenched his wrists loose and shoved Raidou hard in the sternum, unbalancing him further. Raidou lurched, breath checking. Kakashi kneed him solidly between the legs and scrambled free in a welter of bark and flung grass.
There was yelling from the sidelines. Genma, probably. Blood pounded in Kakashi’s ears too hard to make out the details. He fell back in a crouch, chest heaving, and waited for Raidou’s next move.
Raidou had his hands braced on his knees, head bowed. He took a handful of deep breaths and straightened gingerly, almost to his full height. His chin was bleeding freely. The front of his neck was a red wash. He touched a ragged puncture, studied his bloody fingertips, and winced.
Kakashi tensed, ready to bolt. Or bite again, if he had to.
“Okay,” Raidou said, hoarsely. “I was thinking more of a reverse hold, but that works too.”
Kakashi blinked. Raidou waved at him to relax, and sat down on a soft tuft of grass, moving with caution. Kakashi eyed him suspiciously, but if there was a forthcoming trick planned, it was suspended by Genma and Ryouma leaping into the field.
Ryouma didn’t often get to watch a good fight that he wasn’t participating in, and this one in particular felt like a privilege. Kakashi’s vicious grace; Raidou’s economy of movement; techniques he knew and some he didn’t, performed at a speed that strained the eye to follow. Genma, on the fence beside him, kept up a running commentary on the likely physical effect of each hit and the necessary technique to heal it.
The commentary paused when Kakashi lurched up and, from the looks of it, made a good-faith attempt to bite Raidou’s face off.
“Fuck,” Genma muttered. He dropped off the fence and pulled a slim yellow scroll out of his pocket. “This is why I always carry a scroll with basic first aid.” He broke into a jog, raising his voice: “I don’t care if you’re not done, you’re done.”
Raidou flapped a red-streaked hand concedingly. Kakashi backed away. His mask was shredded over his mouth, darkened with wet spots. His hair was stiff with dirt and spiked with splinters. He looked like a feral ghost come down from the mountains.
“I said, punch the captain,” Ryouma told him. “Not eat him.”
“I did punch him.” Kakashi’s voice rasped into a growl, chasing a shiver down Ryouma’s spine. “It didn’t take.”
“That’s fair, I guess.” Ryouma kept his own voice light. He glanced back at the officers. Genma had produced an instant ice pack from his first aid scroll, and was passing it over to Raidou with illustrative gestures. “Good thing he doesn’t hold a grudge. You want a hand with those splinters? Are you hurt anywhere else?”
A little of the wolf faded out of Kakashi’s eye. He raked a hand through his hair, shedding dust and splinters, and grimaced. The mask wrinkled over his nose. A new hole stretched wider, baring a flash of blood-streaked tooth. Kakashi turned, stooped, and spit.
When he straightened again, with the mask resettled lower on his nose, the shredded holes hid under the shadow of his chin. “I hurt everywhere,” he said. His voice sounded human again, and annoyed. “What’s up everyone’s ass today?”
“Maybe he’s worried about meeting Jiraiya-sama.” Ryouma brushed splinters off the back of Kakashi’s shirt. A few had embedded themselves deeper. “Or about Fukuchou.”
Who wasn’t dying, and after a morning being supportive, maybe Raidou’d needed to vent some of that pressure too. Or maybe he just enjoyed punching Kakashi.
Genma had moved on from lecturing on the proper placement of ice packs to disinfecting the deep gouges on Raidou’s chin. Ryouma lowered his voice. “If you don’t want us dragging to the Palace after you today, Taichou’s sparring accident is a good excuse…”
Kakashi snorted. “ ‘Hi again, Jiraiya-sensei, it turns out my team couldn’t come because I bit my captain’s face off.’ That wouldn’t get any follow-up questions.” He tipped his head back, angling to look up at Ryouma. “Do you want to meet him properly? He’s funny. He’s also an idiot, but we’ve learned not to hold that against him.”
“Do I want—? He’s one of the Sannin.” Retired, sure, and apparently now an equally famous novelist. But still one of the world’s strongest living shinobi, a ninjutsu master with few rivals, one Hokage’s student and the next Hokage’s teacher. “Of course I want to meet him. Stammer at him. Whatever. But…”
He dropped a blood-tipped splinter to the ground. He could say, I thought we agreed you weren’t taking me home, and then Kakashi would point out they’d never actually agreed to anything, and probably add new appalling facts about his mother being scarier than the Hokage and a Sannin. Only his mother wasn’t here, and the Sannin was.
Of course, the Sannin wouldn’t know Ryouma as anything other than Kakashi’s awkward, illiterate teammate. Small mercies.
“If you gave the captain blood poisoning, the lieutenant probably won’t let us go anyway.”
But Raidou still had a chin, when they checked on him. Genma’s healing jutsu encouraged the gouges to scab, and then to scar. The scars faded, angry pink to pale, like the practice wounds those teenage medic trainees had seared into Ryouma’s arms two weeks ago. Raidou rubbed his jaw, smearing dried blood. “I have a new rule on the training field,” he said dryly. “Who can guess what it is?”
“Don’t kick the captain in the balls,” Ryouma suggested, since Katsuko wasn’t there to say it.
“I have two new rules.”
“Don’t bite the captain’s face even if he deserves it?” Kakashi recited dutifully, at the same time as Genma suggested, “Dodge… better?”
Raidou also blinked, then rolled his eyes ruefully. “Yes, fine, ‘no such thing as cheating at being a ninja.’ Yes, I asked for it.” He pointed at Kakashi. “Next time, it’s not gonna work.”
Bickering about ‘next time’ kept them occupied through Genma’s final checks — plenty of bruises, splinters, and minor cuts for both of them, but only Raidou’s swollen eye required further healing. After ten minutes of bruise reduction even he looked reasonably presentable again, at least for shinobi purposes.
“We have 35 minutes before lunch,” he announced as Genma packed up the first aid scroll. “Lieutenant and I need to turn in mission reports. All of us need to clean up. We meet at the Palace at 1250. Hatake, what’s the dress code?”
Kakashi stared at him. “Intact clothes?” Something about his voice suggested he was unsure of both the question and the answer.
“Uniform?” Ryouma asked. “Armor or blues?”
“Sure. Or civvies. Jiraiya won’t care. Minato-sensei probably won’t either, since it’s not a formal thing.” Kakashi paused for a moment. “Something you don’t mind getting spilled on, if Naruto’s around.”
Showers happened first. Kakashi was filthy enough to need it, but during the war years Ryouma had promised himself never to turn down a chance to get clean. He took this one — in a separate cubicle from Kakashi — and broke out the apricot-almond soap he’d been saving. Shaved, dressed, styled his hair. Restyled it.
“You’re going to be late,” Kakashi observed. He was wearing a fresh mask and blues that looked exactly the same as the set he’d worn that morning, if significantly cleaner. “Jiraiya really won’t care about your hair. You’ve seen his.”
“I care,” Ryouma told his mirror, but he followed Kakashi out.
They met the officers at the doors to the Hokage’s Palace. The great double doors stood open, allowing an intermittent trickle of visitors: uniformed shinobi collecting missions or dropping off reports, well-dressed civilians come to negotiate new contracts, a restaurant delivery boy bent double under the weight of an enormous basket on his back. Two chuunin stood in the cool shade just inside the doors, checking visitors’ IDs and directing them onwards.
The officers were both freshly shaved, showered, and crisp in flak vests and jounin blues. Raidou relaxed infinitesimally when he saw Ryouma and Kakashi approach. Had he worried they’d be late? Kakashi never was for the things that really mattered.
They showed their tags to the chuunin at the doors, skipped the directions, and followed Kakashi up stairs and through corridors. Masked ANBU, Turtle and Squirrel, guarded the doors to the Hokage’s residence. Genma and Squirrel exchanged brief nods. Squirrel kept his professional silence, but Genma’s smile lingered through the front door and into the crowded genkan.
Jiraiya’s red lacquered geta shared space in the genkan with a pair of child-sized sandals, battered combat boots, and two sets of women’s shoes. Open-toed sandals, the kind you’d wear around the village on a warm summer day. Additional guests? Nohara-sensei, a housekeeper, the Hokage’s secret lover, Kakashi’s mother…?
Ryouma was not going to ask Kakashi if he recognized his own mother’s shoes after— how many years apart? He wasn’t going to be awkward about eating lunch with the legendary and terrifying people who mattered to Kakashi. He was going to be polite, and quiet, and unobtrusive. He was—
“NIISAN!” A blond blur launched out of a door down the hall, tripped over Raidou’s boots, and collided with Kakashi’s knees. Undaunted, Naruto picked himself up, swarmed up into Kakashi’s arms, and waved frantically at all of them. “And Shiranui-san! Where’s your cat? Oh hi, Bucket Ninja! Did you know Jiraiya-ojiisan’s here? He made me a book about a toad king who lives in a mountain and eats foxes. You can read it if you want.”
“Um,” Ryouma said. “Maybe you can read it to me?”
“Oh, yeah,” Naruto said, and wriggled straight out of Kakashi’s arms onto Ryouma’s shoulder. He was warm, and solid, and slightly sticky. “DAAAD!” he yelled, directly in Ryouma’s ear. “I’M GOING TO READ STORIES TO TOUSAKI-SAN! You can come too,” he informed the other members of Team Six generously. “It’s in my bedroom.”
Genma’s gaze darted up and down the hall, checking for exits or incoming angry Hokage. He didn’t actually reach for the doorknob behind him, though, so possibly he was just defaulting to unknown situation threat assessment.
Raidou clapped Ryouma on the shoulder. “Go ahead, Tousaki. We should greet our hosts.”
“This way,” Naruto urged, gripping Ryouma’s padded collar and drumming his heels against Ryouma’s back. The flak vest absorbed most of the impact, but not quite all. “Jiraiya-ojiisan made the book just for me, so it has all the pictures and none of the words. I get to make up the story that goes with the pictures. I’ll tell you about it now. There’s a toad king, and he’s the biggest ever but he can be small when he wants. Like me. He lives in a mountain named Mount Myou-something and he’s the smartest toad there is. And—”
“What’s his name?” Ryouma interrupted, as they reached an open door and Naruto urged him in.
Naruto scrambled down, picked up a professionally-bound picture book from off his rumpled bed, and turned back to Ryouma with an expression of deep sympathy. “His name is Toad King. That’s why the story is about him. Sit down there. Nooo, on the bean bag chair! And I sit on you. But take off your vest, it’s not comfy. Okay. You can turn the pages and I will read. Long ago, long ago, there was a toad king named Toad King…”
The illustrations were bright and glossy, and Naruto’s hair was a soft, sweet-smelling fluff beneath his chin. A low murmur of conversation came from rooms further down the hall, but no one else came looking for them. Ryouma settled his arms around the boy, obediently turned pages as directed, and hoped there was another book after this one.
Genma’s second visit to the Hokage’s personal residence wasn’t any less stressful than the first. At least this time he hadn’t fought dirty in a spar with the Hokage in the preceding hour. But that time Minato-sama had invited their attendance. This time one of the Sannin was waiting for them with a possibly unsuspecting Hokage. Merciful gods of war and hospitality, let Jiraiya-sama have informed Minato-sama that we were coming.
And then there was the tiny, baffling whirlwind that was the Hokage’s son. But Ryouma was handling that with a surprising degree of skill, at least from the outside.
Genma glanced at Raidou, who looked uncertainly back, and then at Kakashi. “Maybe you should go see if—” he started.
Jiraiya’s voice boomed from around the corner, “That’s why you should wear geta. It takes much less time to remove your shoes.”
Seconds later the man himself appeared, flanked by Konoha’s golden-haired leader. “But think of all the time we save not hopping around cursing stubbed toes,” Minato said. He was wearing jounin blues, as he usually did, but with a pair of pink-checkered house slippers that were so incongruous they almost startled a laugh out of Genma.
Minato gave Team Six a cheerful nod. “Welcome back. I see Naruto already claimed his first victim?”
“Are you implying reading one of my books is torture?” Jiraiya asked.
“Hey, Toad King is great. The Tale of the Gutsy Shinobi is great. Your newer stuff…” Minato seesawed a hand in the air. “Well, Kakashi likes it.”
“Yondaime-sama has many skills,” Kakashi murmured to his officers. “Literary criticism is not one of them.”
Minato beckoned them to step up onto the tatami, and opened a cabinet to reveal an assortment of house slippers.
“Of course Kakashi likes it,” Jiraiya said, shepherding everyone into the living area proper. “Because he has good taste. It’s a shame how some people just can’t appreciate the finer things.” He grinned broadly, including Genma and Kakashi in a conspiratorial wink. “Kakashi’s lieutenant here has good taste, too.” He produced a copy of his latest book from the sleeve of his kimono. “As promised, for punctuality.”
Genma took the book with both hands and a deep bow. And a sudden, consuming terror that he was about to be quizzed on his opinions on the rest of Jiraiya-sama’s oeuvre.
“Take a look at the flyleaf,” Jiraiya said. He plopped down into one of the upholstered armchairs and leaned forward. On the floor next to him, Nohara-sensei sat cross-legged, dressed in comfortable civvies, looking less like the head surgeon at Konoha’s hospital, and more like someone Genma’s own age. Someone he might run into in a coffeeshop line, or at the laundromat.
When Genma opened the book cover, he found written,
For Genma-kun, to make Aoba-kun jealous. I still can’t believe you don’t trust poor, sweet, kind, gentle, loving Otsu. See page 127, but only after you’ve read the first 126. Jiraiya
Followed by a red-stamped seal with the characters for shinobi and author.
There was only one appropriate response: Genma stammered his way through a formal thank you, and offered an even deeper bow. He could feel the heat in his cheeks.
Raidou stood a little to Genma’s right, at formal parade rest with his hands folded behind his back. He studied the ceiling as if the cypress joists were uniquely fascinating.
Minato chose, or more likely resumed, a seat at the end of the sofa nearest to Jiraiya and Nohara-sensei, and gestured for the rest of them to join him. Raidou chose a chair that matched Jiraiya’s at the other end of the sofa, and Kakashi folded himself on the floor next to Rin, leaving Genma the obvious and terrifying choice of sitting on the couch next to the Hokage. At the opposite end, but still… on the couch. With the Hokage.
Kakashi was eyeing the book in Genma’s hands with some mixture of envy and suspicion. Nohara-sensei, next to him, smiled brightly. “I heard Naito Rumi-sensei gave you some good news today, Shiranui-san.”
Genma grabbed the conversational change with two grateful hands. “Yes, for both Tousaki and myself. It looks like cell generation is improving in the marrow. Tousaki is much further along, actually. Maybe he was never as severe as me in the first place.” He added ruefully, “We’re both on medically restricted duty for now. Hopefully not for more than a week or so. We definitely need to do more tests on that jutsu.”
Jiraiya’s gaze sharpened. “Jutsu?”
“Minato-sensei didn’t tell you?” asked Kakashi.
Jiraiya turned a reproachful eye on his former student. “He did not.”
Minato gave a tiny shrug.
“Hatake copied Iebaru Shigematsu’s jutsu,” Genma said. “When Iebara used the jutsu on Tousaki and myself in a fight in June.”
Jiraiya’s eyebrows arched.
“And then killed him with it,” Raidou added.
“You killed the Phantom Terror of the Mist,” Jiraiya said to Kakashi. “And you didn’t tell me,” he added to Minato.
Minato was unruffled. “Naruto did a good job updating you on everything else. Kakashi can handle this one himself.”
Kakashi said blandly, “It’s hard to stay in touch when you don’t have a fixed mailing address.”
“It’s my delivery address that’s the problem? You’ve never written a letter once in your entire life, sprog,” Jiraiya said, laughing. “But go on. Tell me now.”
Kakashi did, supplemented by Genma’s additions, and interrupted by infrequent questions from both Jiraiya and Rin. Midway through, Ryouma came back to add his own parts of the story, while a fascinated Naruto bounced from lap to lap, too excited to choose just one.
At the end of the tale, Jiraiya looked genuinely impressed. “Good job not dying,” he told Kakashi. He beamed at the rest of the team. “And good job not letting Kakashi die. This is why I always said we needed medics on every team. Of course no one listened to me at the time.”
Genma was fairly certain that Tsunade-sama had also advocated hard for every team to include a medic, but he wasn’t about to contradict Jiraiya.
Minato, who had no such reservations, said, “Didn’t listen to you, or didn’t have the resources? It took Tsunade-hime fifteen years to fully restructure the hospital training program, and her work still isn’t done, as Rin occasionally reminds me.”
Rin nodded once, decisively. “Her goal was a medic for every four-man squad. We can barely staff half of that. Though you’re doing your bit in recruiting, Shiranui-san.”
Jiraiya’s focus turned to Genma, as sharp as razor wire. Genma said, “I… I wouldn’t call it recruiting exactly. But I’m—that is, I encouraged Tousaki to work on his field medic certification.”
Raidou smiled. “Tousaki has a natural aptitude.”
A ruby flush crept over the tops of Ryouma’s ears and across his dusky cheeks, and he ducked his head.
“Shiranui’s the first one who noticed it.” Raidou leaned forward and knocked a knee against Genma’s for a fleeting second, dispersing some of Genma’s nerves. Genma gave him a quick, thankful smile.
“He really does have an aptitude,” Genma said. “My nose would be a crooked mess if I hadn’t had Tousaki to set it on that mission. Since we’re on duty restrictions for now, he’ll have time to take a few proper classes, instead of just studying with me in our spare time.”
“Time is the most precious commodity,” Jiraiya said. “It’s why I had to retire. So I’d have time to write my novels.”
If by ‘retire’ Jiraiya meant ‘leave Konoha to conduct extended espionage throughout Fire Country and beyond,’ that might be true. Genma really had no idea when Jiraiya had time to write. But he’d also never done extensive undercover work. Maybe there was a lot of down time.
“Speaking of time.” Minato leaned forward, growing intent. “This team lost three weeks, recently, in the Summoning Dimension. Kakashi reverse-summoned himself and his teammates through his Dog contract. I know you managed something similar when you first signed the Toad contract, but their description doesn’t sound anything at all like yours. Kakashi?”
Jiraiya turned his intent gaze on Kakashi.
Kakashi started to give a quick, crisp explanation of the way he’d used his Summoning Scroll to do the impossible, then paused and tapped his left temple. “Want to see it?”
Before Jiraiya could answer, Minato scooted Naruto off his lap. “Run and ask Ogata-san if you can help her with lunch preparations, please.”
“Is it a mission?” Naruto asked.
“A very important mission.”
Naruto puffed up his chest and raced to the kitchen.
Kakashi rose up on his knees so he was closer to level with Jiraiya and lifted his hitai-ate. Rin rose, too, and crouched next to Jiraiya, facing Kakashi.
When Kakashi had spun the Sharingan’s memory out for Jiraiya and Rin, the way he had a week previously for Minato and Team Six, he sat back down.
Jiraiya leaned back in his chair. He’d lost a little of the color under his vivid facial marks. Rin retook her cross-legged seat on the floor carefully, as if she were holding a full jug she was trying not to spill. She remained utterly still, eyes wide and alarmed, with her fists clenched in her lap so hard her knuckles were bloodless.
After a moment, Jiraiya said roughly, “You realize you should have used Suno Busshi’s One Hundred and Eight Quadrants instead.”
Everyone was a critic.
“I know,” Kakashi said, annoyed. “If I wanted to spend twice the chakra for half the stability. But it’s an academic point: Sensei made it a forbidden jutsu.”
He managed to not sound bitter, just about.
Jiraiya exchanged a look with Minato. “Rightly so. That should never have worked in the first place.”
Kakashi squinted at this unexpected betrayal. Under frost-grey brows, Jiraiya’s dark eyes glittered. Without the audience of young, impressionable, somewhat nervy ANBU, Kakashi suspected his answer might have been different.
And then there was Rin. “You didn’t tell me you nearly got torn to pieces,” she said sharply. “Were you injured? Any aftereffects?”
Concern, splintered and raking on the surface, but Kakashi knew her well enough to read the little thrill underlacing her tone. A doctor’s intrigue at new puzzles; a shinobi’s instinct for new weapons.
He laid his hand on her knee, palm up. “You tell me.”
Her fingers were warm and dry when they closed around his hand. A shared water nature would have made connection easy if years of familiarity hadn’t already worn a smooth path. Fire was her second nature; it wound around and through her chakra like fine, bright threads, a lantern-light glow to his inner senses. He held himself deliberately open and relaxed as her chakra slid up his arm, pooled in the collection of nodes around his collarbone, then slowly ebbed away. She removed her hand, flexed her fingers. Smacked him hard on the shoulder.
“Ow,” he said, mildly.
“You got lucky,” she said. “This time.”
Ignoring this flagrant student-on-student violence, Minato addressed Jiraiya in tones of academic curiosity: “I thought of your own visit to Mount Myouboku, when Kakashi showed me that jutsu.” The sacred mountain home of the toad god, which Kakashi had always thought as an odd choice, what with regular toads being firmly against mountain-living. But gods — or the demi-demons of alternate animal dimensions that served functionally the same purpose — were odd. “There aren’t any similarities in the method, execution, or results, are there? For one thing, Bunta was right there to welcome you.”
Jiraiya shrugged. “Because I petitioned the toad gods. I prayed for the meeting, and Gamabunta accepted my prayer. Mostly, I think, because he was curious about whether a human can outdrink him.” A wry smile turned the corner of Jiraiya’s mouth. “A human cannot.”
On Kakashi’s other side, Ryouma had been doing his best to blend invisibly with the carpet, but now he looked up. “Nomiya Harubi prayed to the tanuki shrine, before they took her and her kids. Is that the way getting a summoning contract usually works?” A beat, a thought, a stammered addition: “Uh, Jiraiya-sama, sir.”
Jiraiya ignored that, too, to focus on Ryouma’s question. He shook his great head slowly. “Usually a summoning contract is passed down from generation to generation,” he explained, adopting his rare tone of genuine education. “The toads still had to accept Minato as a contractee, but I was the one who added him to the scroll. But for a new summoning contract, when there hasn’t been one before, then yes. The summons chooses the ninja. Though I’m not aware of other summoners who have been to their summons’s dimensions.”
Tsunade and Orochimaru were the likeliest candidates Kakashi knew of, but Tsunade — and her slugs — put their entire focus into the hinterlands that lived under the skin. And Orochimaru, as far as Kakashi knew, was out there being crazy and dangerous in different avenues. If someone else was angling for Jiraiya’s title of Sage, Kakashi hadn’t heard about it.
“Hotaru came to find me,” Genma said thoughtfully. “She said my grandmother had a contract with cats, but died before she had a chance to pass it down.”
Minato nodded. “That’s not unknown, once a potential summoner’s been brought to the summons’ attention. The invasion of the Summoning Dimension — as opposed to accepting a polite invitation — is.” He gave Kakashi a pointed look.
Kakashi leaned an elbow on his knee, and inquired: “How many grateful letters did the Daimyou send about his brand new source for local, convenient, delicious sake?”
“Only one,” Minato said easily. ”Though we also shared a brief in-person discussion. After the disruption to his supply this summer, he’d already been planning to build a new brewery on one of his rice-producing estates near Harima. If Harubi-san accepts, they’ll be ready for a master brewer by autumn.”
Raidou blinked. Genma smiled. Ryouma outright grinned at this vision of a bright future for Harubi and her children. Kakashi mentally mapped the distance from Konoha to Harima and judged it short enough for adequate protection, long enough to keep Harubi comfortably away from capital politics, and just connected enough for Sen’s sharp mind to take her anywhere she wanted, when she was a little more grown. Good.
“But our agents still haven’t been able to make contact with your tanuki friends,” Minato added, “so don’t get too overinflated with your own importance.” He tilted his head towards Jiraiya. “I asked Bunta about his neighbors, particularly their healing abilities. He told me to mind my own turf and not go looking for trouble.”
Unexpectedly, Raidou spoke up, startling a group grown used to his wooden man routine. “Is healing a common gift among summons? Or, uh, other dimensional beings? Hatake’s wolf elders did it. Tsunade-hime’s slugs are known for it.” He looked at Genma. “Wondering if your grandmother has a giant healing tiger stashed away somewhere.”
Jiraiya scratched the back of his head, making his hair even bigger. “Usually only the gods of their dimensions can heal, and the gods are bound to their dimensions. They physically can’t leave. And like I said, almost no one is ever summoned to their dimensions. So your little tanuki kit who healed Shiranui-kun is an exception. But from what I’ve gathered, the tanuki are all exceptions.” He pulled a face. The red lines tattooed down his cheeks crinkled. “The only non-god summonses I’ve ever known be willing — or able — to heal outside their own dimension are Tsunade’s slugs. Another exception.”
Raidou sat back with a thoughtful but uninformative, “Hm.”
“The closest I’ve seen of a summons attempting healing is Hotaru’s relentless pushing of mouse livers,” Genma said.
Jiraiya’s laugh was deep and rich, made resonant by his broad chest. “Bunta’s tried to convince us his sake is healing, but all I’ve ever gotten from it is drunk. And then a headache and bad stomach the next morning.”
“You should try tanuki sake,” Kakashi advised. “It’s trippy.”
On his right, Ryouma choked briefly, and croaked a hoarse apology when Genma leaned over to check on him.
“I heard,” Jiraiya said, because Minato was a giant gossip when toad-messengers were involved. “But your reports were a little scanty on detail. Though if rumor is to be believed…” He waggled his eyebrows.
It was a long-standing strategy of Jiraiya’s to assume there were salacious details hidden in the under-depths of every story, and if he dragged enough lures across the water, something would bite. Since Kakashi had long ago learned his lesson, Ryouma was too nervous to squeak, and the officers remained happily clueless, he wasn’t especially worried about any secrets catching on that dangling hook.
Though, if Ryouma ever wanted to work undercover, he needed to figure out some way to stop his ears turning red.
Actually, Genma also looked a little pink around the cheekbones. Raidou had gone as expressionless as a block of wood.
On reflection, with Katsuko absent, perhaps Team Six weren’t quite the opaque group of dissemblers the average elite shinobi was supposed to be.
Kakashi said to Jiraiya, “If we’re putting stock in rumors, is it true you now have illegitimate twins in Suna?”
“No, no, no,” Jiraiya said cheerfully. “I slept with twins. I didn’t ask after their parentage, but trust me, they were babes, not babies. And big fans of my books. I promised them I’d make them minor characters in the next volume.”
In the kitchen, the low murmur of Ogata’s voice suddenly became much louder, as she directed Naruto to assist with tasks that were both noisy and distracting.
Kakashi wrinkled his nose. “Gross.”
Unoffended, Jiraiya just grinned at him, “Don’t worry, even late buds eventually blossom. You’ll get there.”
The last five years, when Jiraiya had said a similar thing, Kakashi had flushed and diverted, insulted, or offered biting sarcasm in response. Which had mostly won him laughter from Jiraiya, who took such reactions as a victory. This time, Kakashi had a warm little secret tucked away in his ribcage. For a second, he thought about smacking it into Jiraiya’s face, but only for a second.
“I was going to show you Iebara’s jutsu, but now I think you’re not interested,” he said instead.
There was a quick flicker in Jiriaya’s eyes. A glance towards Minato, the slightest head tilt in return. Rin studied her nails in quiet fascination.
“A man can be interested in Wind Country twins, his student’s student’s personal growth, and never-before-reproduced, notoriously lethal jutsu,” Jiraiya said. “Have you really mastered it? Or do we still think Iebara had a bloodline trait?”
“I don’t know what we think,” Kakashi said dryly. “But it’s not a bloodline. I have it about ninety-five percent complete. It just needs a little more finesse.”
“And to stop corrupting your chakra,” Genma said.
“And to stop corrupting my chakra,” Kakashi said. “But that seems to be a transient effect.”
Jiraiya leaned forward, humor replaced by sharp engagement. “Interesting.” And then, once again, he turned to Minato. “Remind you of the after-effects of anyone’s jutsu? I’m thinking that one he was working on that incorporated fuuinjutsu to mitigate the corrupting effect. Before he went—” Jiraiya swirled a finger at his temple, in the universal symbol for someone no longer participating in objective reality.
There was only ever one he for Jiraiya, when it came to crazy.
Minato rubbed his chin. “He never perfected it, that I heard of. The seal he was using to store the corrupted chakra could only absorb so much before it overflowed.” His blue eyes were bright on Kakashi with renewed interest. “He was using the Abarai seal array. I wonder…”
“Abarai was a good instinct, but it was never going to be robust enough,” Jiraiya said dismissively. “Maybe if he modified it with an Eight Bridges overlay…”
Genma and Ryouma were both watching this exchange with rapt, quasi-terrified interest. Genma with the parted lips of a man keeping up, but not confident enough to share his own thoughts yet. Ryouma with a crease between his eyebrows that suggested the more esoteric names were skating by him, but he was grounded on the broad strokes.
Raidou’s eyes had the glaze of a man who’d departed the conversation several moments back. While Rin was sleepy-lidded and smiling — listening, understanding, but not especially interested. Orochimaru’s work was an old ghost story to her, and she’d probably been awake all night again.
“Eight Bridges might buy you time,” Kakashi said, turning the idea over in his head. A more complex architecture, with little pocket dimensions strung along its framework. “But it would still rupture eventually and dump the mess into your chakra, along with a backlash of its own. Probably at the worst moment.”
“What about something anchored outside of the caster?” Ryouma suggested, and then looked startled, as if he hadn’t meant to say that.
Minato looked intrigued. “What do you mean?”
A hesitation. Kakashi tilted his head, encouraging. Ryouma licked his lower lip nervously and said, “A seal outside the caster, instead of planted under the skin. Put it in the dirt, sieve your poisoned chaka back through it. When it breaks, have it built to sever the connection and dump the poison in the ground.”
That, Kakashi thought, had promise. Minato seemed to think so too, if the sharp blue glint in his eyes was any indication.
Genma’s expression lightened with understanding. “Oh!” he said, still quiet. “With an earth element—”
Jiraiya, unnoticing, rolled right over him. “Clever! It’d take pre-planning to lay a trap but there are plenty of useful jutsu that rely on a prepared ambush.”
“Or a scroll,” Kakashi said. “Just make it in advance.”
Minato started to add something, but paused, as they all did, when Jiraiya looked more closely at Ryouma. As if actually paying attention to him for the first time, instead of writing him off as an attractive but mute piece of furniture. “Tousaki…” he said, slowly. “You’d be the right age. Miyako’s boy?”
Ryouma’s breath caught. He could hear his own pulse pounding in his ears, feel the chakra surging disordered under his skin. His voice cracked, thin, too fast: “You knew my mom?”
“I did.” Jiraiya leaned back in his chair with a puzzle-solver’s satisfied air. “And your dad, in passing. You take after them both, now that I’m looking for it. Pretty like your mother, but with your father’s eyes, I think.” His broad mouth curled. “Glare at me like I’m flirting with your best girl and I’ll know for sure.”
Glare—? Ryouma had a few sun-faded memories of his father’s big, scarred hands, confidently beating eggs or sharpening kunai. His face seemed dimmer, distant: black hair and black eyes; a strong jaw, seen mostly from below; what else?
Questions clawed up his throat and tangled on his tongue. How did you know them? What were they like? Was she angry? Did he laugh? Did people like them? Was anyone else assigned to the mission when he didn’t come back? Did anyone try to save her, when she died?
“Don’t worry, don’t worry,” Jiraiya said heartily. “I never crossed the line. She was a beauty, though, Miyako-chan.”
“Sensei,” Minato hissed.
“What?” Jiraiya said, offended. “She was!”
“Jiraiya-san.” Raidou leaned forward, face set, his voice iron. “She was his mother, and she’s no longer with us. Have some respect.”
The Sannin’s grey brows lowered. His attention settled on Raidou like a boulder, crushing the air out of the room. Raidou squared his jaw and met the glower. Genma’s hands tightened, white-knuckled, on his knees.
Then, as suddenly as it had settled, the oppressive threat evaporated. “My apologies,” Jiraiya told Ryouma easily. “No disrespect meant.” He glanced at Minato. “What are you feeding your ANBU captains these days? Whatever it is, it’s working.”
“Food is an excellent idea,” Minato said, pushing off the sofa. Raidou, Genma, and Ryouma scrambled to their feet automatically; Kakashi tipped his head back to give them an ironic look, but unfolded himself as well. Jiraiya extended a hand to help Rin up.
“Dad, Dad, are you ready?” Naruto was at the door, lured by the sound of movement. “Ogata-san said you were talking important things and I should be patient but I don’t have to be anymore, right? You’re all done! Come see what I made for lunch!” He grabbed for his father’s hand and towed him down the hall.
Rin followed, covering a smile. Genma headed for the door, then paused, looking back.
Facing him in the emptying living room, with the lieutenant at the door and Kakashi and the captain at his back, Ryouma found words at last. “Do you remember anything else about her? Was she smart? How well could she fight? Did she have a signature jutsu? What kind of music did she listen to, what did she like to eat? What was she like?”
Jiraiya made an open-handed, regretful gesture. “She was smart and spunky, and held her own as a ninja by all reports. We never had any missions together. I didn’t know her well, but she was absolutely fearless in social situations. I think Orochimaru was scared of her. Of course,” he added, “most girls scared him, so that’s not necessarily saying much. But she was a spitfire. I liked her.”
Smart. Fearless. A spitfire. Ryouma realized he was touching his throat, the small beads of a dogtag chain lumpy under his shirt collar. He couldn’t quite make himself drop his hand. “And my dad?”
Genma took two steps back into the room, soft-footed, soundless.
“I mostly knew him by reputation.” Jiraiya shook his head. “He was a little older than me. Very trusted. Very serious. He took a lot of… difficult missions. ANBU-type missions.”
His gaze drifted from Ryouma’s face. “He was the shadow that made her light shine brighter. That war… it took—”
He broke off. Stood silent for a moment, and then said, “Listen, Tousaki-kun. If you want to talk to some people who knew your parents better than I did, I can make some introductions for you, but you might not like them. None of us are who we were when your parents were young.”
“I don’t care,” Ryouma said, hoarsely. “Yes. Please. Thank you, Jiraiya-sama.” He bent his head.
A massive hand clapped his shoulder. “Your mother is one of them,” Jiraiya told Kakashi. “She’d be a good place to start, before we go knocking on that sourpuss Danzou’s door.”
Ryouma stared at him. Kakashi stared back. He said, blankly, “What?”
“Bet you never thought your parents were your age, once,” Jiraiya snorted. “Went to bars. Got drunk. Had inside jokes. Sakumo was hilarious. He could make your mom laugh til her drink came out her nose.”
Silence drew out between them. “No,” Kakashi said finally. “She never talks about it.” He looked at Ryouma again, then diverted the topic as swiftly as parrying a kunai in mid-flight. “How did they know Tousaki’s parents?”
“Same way you know the shinobi around your age and rank. There was a whole cohort of kunoichi that were especially close back then.” Jiraiya rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “You know, Tsunade would be another good one to ask. If Minato will let me drag her wastrel ass out of whatever dive she’s losing all her money in, I’ll bring her around to see you. You just make sure you have at least three full bottles of Golden Moon shouchuu on hand.”
He spoke of Konoha’s most legendary medic-nin and the only living Senju as carelessly as any other jounin might speak of a ne’er-do-well genin teammate. As carelessly as Kakashi invited people into the Hokage’s home to eat the Hokage’s lunch. Ryouma was still staring when the Hokage’s son barrelled into the room, collided with Kakashi’s legs, and accused, “You’re late. Dad says if you’re any later I get to eat you.”
Kakashi blinked, looked down, then bent to scoop Naruto up in one arm. “I already tried to eat the captain’s face today. Trust me, he doesn’t taste good.”
“Eww,” Naruto announced in delight, and promptly tried to crawl over Kakashi’s head to get a good look at Raidou’s face. “Where did you eat him? He doesn’t still have holes in his face. Biting is dirty, Niisan.” He sounded deeply impressed.
“Biting is strategic,” Kakashi corrected. Regarding the light of battle in Naruto’s eyes, he added prudently: “For a last resort.”
“Kiba-kun used to bite people every day but Tanaka-sensei said stop.” Naruto settled back in Kakashi’s arms. “We should go bite lunch now, Niisan.”
“Sure.” Kakashi cast a quick glance at Ryouma, tilting his head towards the door, then started toward the hallway. “Did Kiba-kun stop biting?”
Ryouma followed at his shoulder. Genma waited for them to clear the doorway, then fell in behind, as if he were just as interested in Naruto’s response. Heavier footfalls behind them signalled Raidou, then Jiraiya.
“Kiba-kun only bites now when he gets excited,” Naruto explained, hanging head-down over Kakashi’s shoulder. “So, like, when we’re ninja at playtime. Or when his sister got her puppies. Or when there’s meat at lunch. Or—”
His voice broke off in a squeal as they turned into another doorway, and Kakashi flipped him off his shoulder and turned him right-side up. Minato and Rin were already standing behind tall-backed chairs at a long table: Minato at the head, Rin at his left hand. At Minato’s right, several thick zabuton cushions elevated the seat of another chair. Kakashi plopped Naruto down onto the cushions and stepped aside.
“You sit here, niisan.” Naruto scrambled up onto his knees and pointed at the chair to his own right. “And, um, Tousaki-san next to you, and Shiranui-san sits next to Neesan, so… Namiashi-san, you can just sit wherever’s left, I guess. And Jiraiya-ojisan at the end!”
Genma glanced at Rin, received an amused smile and nod, and stepped up to his assigned chair. “Namiashi-taichou can sit next to me. Far away from the face eaters.”
“I’m not a face eater,” Naruto insisted, plumping down onto his bottom. Minato drew out his chair and sat; the rest followed suit. “And if Niisan ate Namiashi-taichou’s face he probably deserved it.”
“Let’s call truce on talk of face eating,” Minato suggested. “At least until after lunch. Tell us what you helped Ogata-san make, Naruto-kun.”
Naruto lit up and launched into narration. Ogata-san, a short, lean woman with an iron-grey topknot and a black eyepatch cutting across her weathered face, returned from the kitchen to set tiny glazed cups and a round-bellied flask of warm sake at every adult’s place. The rest of the meal was already laid out: steamed rice mixed with barley, a clear dashi soup with tiny prawns and wild mushrooms, pickled carrots and daikon, braised burdock root, blanched okra salad, miso-grilled eggplant, delicate white fish simmered in sake, stir-fried slices of pork in a shoyu-ginger sauce. Cold glasses of barley tea dripped condensation onto tiny paper mats scribbled with colorful designs.
“I did the drawings,” Naruto bragged. “See, that’s me petting Shiranui-san’s cat, an’ me riding Niisan’s dogs, an’ me with Tousaki-san’s bucket…”
Ryouma lifted his glass up to stare at the drawing. There did seem to be a round silver blob, and a yellow head poking out of it. Under his breath he whispered to Kakashi: “Did I ever learn why Naruto-kun associates me with buckets?”
“Because you melt people,” Kakashi said, as if that could be considered a perfectly sensible explanation.
To a three-year-old, maybe.
Buckets seemed to be old news to Naruto, at any rate. While the rest of them ate, he demanded stories from Jiraiya: places he’d been, new things he’d seen, scary people he’d met, monsters he’d fought. Jiraiya obliged with vividly embroidered detail. Ryouma wasn’t sure how many of the stories were true — surely not the orb-weaving spider with a human woman’s head and torso? Then again, Team Six had fought scorpion-demons and tanuki, so maybe Jiraiya wasn’t exaggerating all that much.
Minato certainly didn’t seem to think so. He leaned an elbow on the table, frowning, as he listened to Jiraiya’s story. “Jorogumo haven’t been a threat since the Warring States era.”
“Neither have the Jakotsu Babaa or the Dodomeki,” Jiraiya said lightly, popping a bite of pork into his mouth. “But the serpent bone hag was reported in several locations on Mount Ibuki, and I fought the Hundred Eye myself last month.”
“Probably still running around because people keep not believing when their smartest teammate says it’s demons,” Kakashi said to the world at large, pulling the plate of simmered fish away from Raidou’s chopsticks to hoard by his rice bowl.
Genma stole a piece of fish as it passed. “Hayama made a believer of me, trust me.”
Jiraiya made an encouraging noise. “Something happened in Hayama?”
The officers glanced at each other, then at Naruto, clearly unsure what was suitable for small ears. Minato said briefly, “Bandits holing up in an abandoned mine unsealed a sleeping monster, which used them as… egg sacs, essentially, for its spawn. It later started sending out scouts into the surrounding villages for more victims. Isayama Province lost over fifty civilians before this team stopped it.” He nodded, gravely, to Raidou. “Research Division has the head if you’d like to see it, Sensei. I believe they’re still arguing over what to call it.”
“I would definitely like to see it.” Jiraiya lifted his sake cup to Raidou, then the others. “Big job for a small team.”
Raidou eyed him narrowly for a moment, as if determining whether the comment hid mockery, then nodded and lifted his own cup in return. “It’s a good team.”
“Lieutenant almost got pregnant,” Kakashi contributed.
Genma choked on his mouthful of sake. Naruto’s blue eyes widened. “Boys can have babies? You said I couldn’t,” he told Rin accusingly.
Rin leveled an equally accusing glare across the table at Kakashi. “Well, not by yourself. And not yet. You can ask your niisan about it when you’re older.”
“I didn’t almost get pregnant, anyway,” Genma said, voice cracking. He coughed again and reached for barley tea to clear it. “I got stabbed, paralyzed, and cut open, but Kakashi rescued me before anything worse happened.”
“Niisan’s good at rescuing people,” Naruto agreed, with his mouth full.
“He is.” Ryouma kept his voice low. He dared, just barely, to nudge his knee against Kakashi’s under the table.
Kakashi’s expression didn’t change. His chopsticks moved steadily from platter to plate, loading up on pork and eggplant. But his leg pressed back, warm against Ryouma’s thigh. He looked up the table at Minato and Rin. “Were Research ever able to do anything with the demon’s venom? I understand the clean-up team retrieved some stingers.”
“From what I heard, they’ve extracted and replicated the paralytic in the venom.” Rin spooned up another mouthful of soup, while Genma and Kakashi exchanged Exciting New Ways to Poison Self and Others! glances. “But it’s not getting released to field agents until we can synthesize a reliable antidote.”
Genma’s bright enthusiasm dimmed a little. “When it’s ready for field testing, I’d like to be on the list of agents who have access.”
“Take it up with Poisons Control,” Minato advised. “That’s one decision nobody here has to make. Fortunately.” He refilled his own sake cup, then Rin’s, and looked down the table at Jiraiya. “Your reports last month didn’t mention youkai.”
“I was too busy writing the next chapter of my novel to commit incidentals to paper,” Jiraiya said breezily.
“Ah,” Minato said. He leaned his elbow on the table, glanced thoughtfully at Naruto, and said: “Does this chapter have kissing scenes?”
“Kissing is gross,” Naruto said. He told Kakashi, “Toad-kings are better.”
“Lots of kissing scenes,” Jiraiya said warmly. “There’s one on a bridge under moonlight, with the heroine’s throbbing bosom pressed against the Scarlet Bandit’s carefully gender-neutral chest — and let me tell you, writing a love scene with ambiguous pronouns is no joke—”
“Grooooosss,” Naruto wailed, and slid off his chair under the table.
Minato tilted sideways to see under the table. “Do you want to finish your lunch with Ogata-san in the kitchen? No kissing there.”
“I want to eat my lunch on the floor,” Naruto announced. “I’m a Toad-king.”
“Toad-kings don’t get cake, I think. Bad for their stomachs. But if you can convince Ogata-san differently…”
“Ogata-san likes turtles best!” Naruto wormed up between Rin and Genma’s chairs with a horrible lurch, which Ryouma realized belatedly was an attempt to walk like a turtle with an enormous shell. “I’ll eat all your cake, too…” He wobbled toward the door.
“I’ll come with you.” Rin set her chopsticks beside her empty plate and nodded around the table. “The next time you encounter a youkai, try to bring back more pieces of it.” She grinned fondly at Kakashi. “Easier than kidnapping foreign medics for me.”
“I’ll bring you medics carrying demons,” he said. “Or demons carrying medics.”
She snorted and followed Naruto out, shutting the dining room door firmly behind her.
“Now that everyone in the room has clearance and interest…” Jiraiya drawled. “Did you honestly think the only reason I came to visit was to bask in the adulation of my adoring readers in Konoha? Some things are best conveyed in person.”
Minato’s gaze sharpened. “Youkai, the Snake, or bijuu?”
Demons, Orochimaru, or world-eaters.
Raidou swallowed a suddenly-dry bite of pork and set his chopsticks down. Were Team Six even cleared to hear this conversation?
“Youkai,” Jiraiya said. He cast a wry little smile around the table, eyes glinting. “You and I can talk about the less credible things later. No need to bore these kids with them.”
Well, that answered that. Kakashi and Ryouma both looked disappointed, though Raidou had no doubt Kakashi could get the full answers whenever he wanted them, speculation and blind alleys included. Genma seemed pensive, mouth pressed into a tight line. Raidou was happy to wait for Intel’s quarterly update on Orochimaru, with its verified information and the tacit understanding that a lot of intelligent and higher up people were already bending their minds around the problem so Raidou didn’t have to.
Bijuu were a national emergency. Raidou preferred never to hear about one again, if he could help it.
“Youkai,” Minato repeated calmly, as if Jiraiya had asked about mochi choices for dessert. “Which rumors have actual substance behind them?”
“The Dodomeki I had first-hand experience with, so that one’s true.” Jiraya said. “It was well within the borders of Grass Country, so it’s really their problem, but it didn’t give me a chance to declare myself a neutral party. I didn’t kill it, but it didn’t kill me either, so I count that as a win.”
Ryouma blinked. Whether his surprise came from learning that cursed, fire-breathing women with hundreds of glowing eyes bejewelling their long, thieving arms were real, or that you could walk away from a fight without someone dying, Raidou couldn’t say.
Jiraiya added, “I’m almost 90% certain the Bone Hag is active on Mount Ibuki. She’s guarding gravesites, just like the legends say, but she seems harmless as long as you’re not a grave robber.”
Kakashi cupped a hand under his chin, interested but unworried. “What did the Dodomeki want?”
“Me, dead. Which is why I count my survival as a win.” Jiraiya laughed, helped himself to a slice of pickled daikon, and then sobered. “I couldn’t say for certain, but it started eating the locals’ livestock. And when they fought back, the locals themselves.” He ate another slice, used his thumbnail to chase a leftover scrap out from between his teeth, and drained his sake cup. “She set a lot of fires, too.”
Raidou tried to imagine what an equal fight between a demon and a Sannin looked like. How much of the landscape had survived?
“Did she have chakra?” Ryouma asked, respectfully refilling Jiraiya’s sake cup. “Or other powers?”
“Yes to both. Plenty of chakra. Nothing like the Fox, of course, but she’d give any sensor a headache from a kilometer off. She can also breathe out some kind of toxic gas. I only caught a whiff, and my throat and sinuses were raw for a week.” He raised his sake cup in a cordial salute to the departed. “I heard from one of my Kusa contacts it dissolved the skin right off the face of a shinobi who took a direct hit.”
Raidou whistled softly, remembering the demon queen’s attempt to spit acid in his eyes. Genma traded a glance with him, looking alarmed.
“Was close combat possible at any point, or distance only?” Ryouma asked, intent.
“Close combat is how that Kusa ninja lost their face and those villagers got eaten. I wouldn’t recommend it.” Jiraiya glanced around the table, from Ryouma to Kakashi, then Genma and Raidou. Where his gaze landed, the recipient spine straightened slightly, so a ripple went through the team. “But if you weakened it considerably from a distance, first, then maybe…”
Genma asked, “What if we could get our hands on the paralytic venom they got from the Hayame demon? Paralyze her from a distance.”
It was Raidou’s turn to be thoughtful, biting on a problem with a logistical answer. “Senbon might still be too close range, depending on her reach and speed. Shuriken fly further, but you’d stand a higher chance of grazing yourself with the blade.”
“Arrows?” Genma suggested.
“Not many archers in the village,” Raidou said. “But a longbow would give you the distance. I think a few Nara might favor them, for their deer.”
“A projectile isn’t the only way to create distance,” Kakashi said. “If she’s hungry, she’ll chase prey. If she’s angry, she’ll chase a tormenter. One person, fast enough, could lead her to a trap.” He considered this, then added: “And if she’s too fast, multiple runners could split her attention, until they led her to the right target.”
Minato had been watching them, chin resting on his fist in a quirk of position very like Kakashi’s. The corner of his mouth curved slowly as his eyes flickered from speaker to speaker, watching the interplay of Team Six pooling their collective murder efforts. “How about it, Sensei?” he said. “Want to take Team Six with you when you go back out, in case Kusa hasn’t taken care of her yet?”
“These kids?” Jiraiya said, as Raidou tried not to fall off his chair. The glittering black gaze went around the table again, evaluating. “Maybe, when they’re not trying to bleed to death. We could set up an ambush, drive or lead her into it, then take her down. Bring along an archer or two, and the venom Rin-chan mentioned. That paralytic is a good idea.” His thick fingers tapped his sake cup, which was doll-sized in his grip. “Of course we don’t have any idea if it would work on her. Also legends about her say she erupts into clouds of toxic steam and fire when she’s cornered.”
“Does she bleed?” Kakashi asked.
“Definitely. All over my favorite haori, in fact—” Jiraiya did a sharp double take. “You want to use Iebara’s jutsu on her.”
“I do,” Kakashi said. He slid a look sideways, regarding Ryouma. “Tousaki finished off the Hayama demon with his Nikutai Tokasu, but the chakra cost nearly killed him. It sounds like the Dodomeki is an even more complex creature, based on her powers, and maybe of equal size?”
Jiraiya shrugged loosely. “I’ll know after I look at that skull.”
“If she bleeds, then she needs blood,” Kakashi said. “We know she has chakra. The loss of either, significant enough, in any other creature will kill it. It’s possible, if she’s paralyzed, that Tousaki and I could rip her apart between us before she dissolves herself.”
Genma frowned — not in skepticism of this plan, Raidou judged, but in general thought. “I thought the legend was that she exploded into a toxic fiery cloud when Fujiwara no Hidesato killed her.” The frown deepened. “Although if he’d killed her, then presumably she’d still be dead. Unless she’s like the bijuu and doesn’t really die, exactly.”
“Or has returned,” Minato said. He drummed his fingers on the table again, giving Jiraiya a look that Raidou couldn’t interpret. Neither could Kakashi, if that grey eyebrow lift was anything to go by.
Jiraiya nodded slowly. “Or has returned,” he allowed. “That’s a very old legend, after all.”
In the little silence that followed, Ryouma said, “Unless there’s more than one.”
“Oh lovely,” Raidou said. “Baby eyeball-armed women. That’s just what Kusa needs chasing its goats.”
Genma made a warding gesture of deep aversion.
Jiraiya laughed, surprising Raidou, and said, “I like you, kid. Even if you don’t like my books.”
Raidou considered a tactful response, reflecting that he was in the presence of Konohagakure’s Hokage, and said, “Put a condom in the next one, then we’ll talk.”
“Now there’s a marketing idea,” Jiraiya said, with interest and no apparent offence. “Instead of a bookmark, we include a condom with each purchase of a first edition.”
Raidou didn’t roll his eyes, because his mamas had raised him right. “That’d be a start.”
“Your captain doesn’t bend an inch, does he?” said Jiraiya to Genma, still affable. “Well, that’s okay. You realize they’re novels, not instructional manuals, right?”
In a debate of literary merit, Raidou suspected that Jiraiya would have him hog-tied and spit roasted in very short order, but Raidou was also starting to suspect that Jiraiya enjoyed it when people argued with him.
“I don’t expect an action movie to teach me new moves,” Raidou said. “But it’s jarring when they’re wildly inaccurate. Wouldn’t you agree?”
Jiraiya winked, gratingly. “Maybe you just haven’t had the full panoply of experiences, yet. You’re young, give it time.”
Not many ninja made it to Jiraiya’s age, and even less ANBU, but sure, Raidou thought. Sure. And did not enrich his personal banquet of experiences by throwing a plate at Jiraiya’s head. “I’ll try that,” he said.
In the corner of his eye, he saw Ryouma mouth ‘panoply’ with a frown. Kakashi leaned over to murmur in his ear. Ryouma’s expression cleared.
“Back to the topic at hand,” Minato said firmly. “To your personal knowledge, three mythical creatures have recently resurfaced. Team Six’s scorpion-demon isn’t attested in any sources we’ve found yet, but their tanuki are certainly well-documented. Oita and Shibata have been collecting reports for me of other youkai surfacing, in Fire Country and elsewhere.”
They had? Raidou wished, suddenly, that Kurenai was here to add her calm, level voice. Youkai hadn’t seemed like her area of interest before, at least not prior to the tanuki, but now…
“Are they detecting a pattern of any kind?” Jiraiya demanded. His humor was gone; its absence made him look older. “If there are more of these things showing up, maybe someone is summoning them.”
Raidou didn’t like his emphasis on someone.
“Oita’s been mapping them,” Minato said. “No discernible pattern so far. The reports truly seem random. No official word from Lightning County, of course, but our ambassador in Earth Country mentions rumors of tengu sightings, and a minor daimyou in Mangrove Country called in shinobi from Sand to deal with a yurei-haunting.”
“Successfully?” Kakashi murmured.
“Well, he hasn’t come calling for our aid yet. Though possibly because he’s dead.” Minato set down his chopsticks and refilled his own sake cup. “I don’t know what kind of summoning is possible. One creature, or even one type… But this seems more like barriers breaking across our world, rather than anything targeted.”
Raidou’s belly knotted.
“That… seems worse,” he said, at length.
Genma looked like he dearly wished he had a senbon to chew, if the twist of his mouth was any clue. He licked his lips as a poor substitute, and said, “There are always rumors. Omashi said his team ran into some villagers who claimed there were kappa in the local springs, and Ginta told me about a catfish youkai supposedly causing earthquakes in Waterfall… This isn’t the same, though, is it?”
“It’s interesting,” Kakashi said, which Raidou thought demonstrated a fundamental lack of priorities. “It means something’s changed.”
Rising horror made Ryouma’s voice a little shrill. “We didn’t break the universe when we went to the tanuki world, did we?”
“We dealt with demons in Hayama eight weeks before we ever encountered the tanuki,” Genma said soothingly. “Maybe we encountered the tanuki because something was already brok—changed.”
“Or it’s a coincidence,” Raidou said. “A minor spike of activity, or more people knowing where to report sightings. Correlation isn’t causation. Might mean nothing.”
Kakashi gave him a very dry look. Raidou elected to ignore this.
Jiraya’s look was harder to ignore, partially because his face was so much bigger. “Skepticism is a good trait in a shinobi, but don’t let it keep you from seeing real threats.”
Since this was also true, Raidou just grit his teeth and nodded once.
“We’ll continue gathering data,” Minato said smoothly. “Sensei, if you’re available, I’ll set aside some time this afternoon for a meeting with Oita.”
Jiraiya nodded. “I was going to ask for that meeting if you hadn’t suggested it.”
Minato flashed him a quick smile, then turned those diamond-blue eyes on Raidou. “Namiashi.”
Raidou’s spine straightened.
“I’m not sending you to Kusa, yet,” Minato decided. “But I need teams who can meet a challenge, and I may need you to act quickly when we know more.”
Raidou thought it was unlikely that Minato had forgotten half of Team Six was on the sick list until further notice. Probably he meant to fold Kakashi and Raidou into another team, if the need arose.
Wouldn’t that be fun.
Raidou tapped his left shoulder and ducked his head, salute and acknowledgment together. When he lifted his head, Kakashi was looking at him with a faint curve to his one visible grey eye, like there was a weird little smile lurking under the mask.
You don’t support me.
Raidou was doing it again. Kakashi had taken them through dimensions, torn Iebara out of his own skin, protected baby Sango against Mist’s lethal assassins… His successes on Team Six still outweighed the one radical failure at Tanigawa. Raidou needed to stop assuming he was going to fuck something up just because Kakashi’s personality annoyed him.
Raidou looked at Kakashi square on and let his mouth tuck up at the corner. Small, appropriate for the Hokage’s table, but a real smile, not sardonic.
Raidou turned back to Minato, listening to the organization of the future around a world filled with more magic and mystery than any of them had ever expected.