August 20, Yondaime Year 5
The mission summons came sooner than Kakashi expected, delivered by Jiraiya kicking his door at three in the morning and waking up everyone on the entire floor.
Ryouma, fortunately, hadn’t stayed the night.
“Dodomeki,” Jiraiya said, thunderously cheerful and at least a little drunk. “Get your crap. We’re leaving in an hour.”
Hanging blearily off the doorframe, Kakashi squinted at him. “Why now?”
“Need your captain, too,” Jiraiya said, ignoring him. He peered down at a scribble on one palm. “And team… Twelve?”
Kakashi translated the crabbed, upside-down kanji. “Thirteen.”
“That’s the one.” Jiraiya waved buoyantly. “I’ll get the paralytic. Meet you at the main gate.”
The Sannin vanished with an obnoxious crack of chakra. Kakashi glared at the opposite wall, which offered no help. Down the hallway doors were already closing, people returning to interrupted sleep, except for Ryouma. Leaning against his doorframe, tall and shirtless and rumpled, he just looked worried.
“Dodomeki?” he said quietly.
Boyfriends, Kakashi reflected, were supposed to be reassuring. “I’ll bring you an eyeball,” he promised.
“Gross,” Ryouma said. He hesitated, hand flexing at his side, but didn’t leave his doorway. “Just bring yourself home safe.”
“Always do,” Kakashi said, which was mostly true. “Captain, too.”
Ryouma nodded, eyes still troubled. It was too dangerous to do anything else with the whole floor awake, thank you, Jiraiya, so Kakashi just tapped his temple with two fingers, a simple salute, and ducked back into his room to ready his things. After a few moments, Ryouma’s door clicked closed.
Kakashi summoned a runner to get Team Thirteen out of bed, and went to wake Raidou himself.
Except Raidou wasn’t in his apartment.
The scent of cologne hung in the air by the door, dispersed raggedly by night breezes. Underneath it, a blend of shampoo, deodorant, toothpaste, and nervousness. Interesting. Kakashi hadn’t thought the captain actually bothered with a social life.
The trail led to Minami Udon Bar, closed for the night, where it met with two more scents, both familiar. From there, the riverbank and the aftermath of a festival, where it muddied with a hundred other criss-crossing scent trails.
On a hunch, he left the festival and went by rooftop to Genma’s apartment. Halfway there, he picked up the trail again, clear and recent. All three scents braided together.
All three scents at the doorway.
All three bodies in the bed.
There was nakedness. Rumpled sheets and moonlit limbs tangled together. Kurenai’s lipstick on Genma’s jaw and Raidou’s neck. Genma was in the center, turned towards the elegant curve of Kurenai’s body, both of them tucked under the muscled protection of one of Raidou’s arms. Peaceful faces, easy breathing. The room smelled like comfort and sex.
Kakashi leaned his shoulder against the wall, a prudent distance away, and quietly cleared his throat.
Kurenai and Genma were similar wakers, though Genma was slightly faster. A subtle twitch, a hitch in breathing. Tension as the muscles readied. But stillness first; assessing, looking for the threat, gathering information.
Raidou jerked, sat up wildly, and blurted, “What the hell?”
“Taichou,” Kakashi said, with a little wave.
Genma exhaled, tweaked the sheet so that it covered Kurenai more fully, then sat up — a much smoother operation. “Hatake,” he said tightly, visibly trying for calm.
“Lieutenant,” Kakashi said. And, for good measure: “Yuuhi. Well done.”
Kurenai stretched out her toes, rolled languidly against Genma’s hip, and smiled.
Genma, with the razor-sharpness of a guilty conscience, went on the offensive. “Why are you in my apartment, in my bedroom? There’d better be someone important dead, because if there isn’t, it’s going to be you.”
“Jiraiya just woke me up,” Kakashi said calmly, with his wonderful, justified, absolutely valid reason. “We’re being sent out for the Dodomeki. He wants me, Taichou, and Team Thirteen. The order is to leave in thirty minutes. I went to Taichou’s apartment first…”
Genma blinked. He looked at Kurenai, then Raidou, and sighed. “Of course it’s a mission.”
Raidou rubbed his face. “At four in the morning. Did he say why?”
“He did not,” Kakashi said.
“Fine,” Raidou said, and lowered his hand to shoot Kakashi a look of acute dislike. “Hatake, get the fuck out.”
The hair on the back of Kakashi’s neck prickled. Not quite killing intent there, but its close kin. He didn’t push it. “Meeting at the main gate,” he said, and padded out.
He’d leave Genma his additional suggestions about security measures later.
Raidou was eight minutes late to the gate, which was Very Wrong, but still got him there a significant chunk of time ahead of Jiraiya. He’d showered, thankfully, since Kakashi hadn’t wanted to spend the next however-many-days smelling captain-sex.
Usagi greeted him with a punch to the chest that made Raidou grunt. “Mornin’, sunshine!”
“Get off, Usagi,” he growled.
She stepped back, hands up. “Okay, grouch. I thought you were a morning person, geez.”
The rest of Team Thirteen were scattered around the gate, dressed in ANBU armor with their masks clipped to their hips. Ginta, slender and yawning, pale hair still sleep-tousled. Abe, tall, blue-haired; rookie and medic. Kasumi, the team’s second rookie, who’d been cranky during Trials, cranky during the Kirigakure infiltration, and looked cranky now, as she scratched the side of her face and muttered about coffee.
The last member was new, though not new to ANBU. A willowy veteran with unusually long limbs and pale eyes, who introduced herself as Goya Himari, and carried a wicked-looking longbow strapped to her back.
“Joining Thirteen?” Kakashi asked, curious if she’d replaced Tsuda Eizo, the veteran killed in Kirigakure.
Goya shrugged. With her angular shoulders, it was an extended gesture. “Temporarily, at least.”
Which made her one of ANBU’s rare floaters, Kakashi supposed. Unanchored veterans with unique skillsets that hopped from team to team as need dictated. He’d imagined a similar position for himself, before Team Six. He wondered what else she could do.
An abrupt burst of chakra sidelined the thought. Jiraiya appeared in a swirl of smoke and a warm blast of beery fumes. His hair, usually wild, was a disaster. In the streetlamp light, his eyes were bright and bloodshot. “Well, kids, ready to hunt a monster? Who’re my captains? Namiashi, I know… Which one of you is Usagi?”
Usagi unclipped her rabbit mask from her hip and waved it, grinning. “That’s me! Looking forward to working with you, Jiraiya-sama.”
Jiraiya’s cheeks were flushed, too. He grinned back at Usagi. “I’ve always had good luck with redheads,” he informed her. Then, to Kakashi, “This is just what I was talking about when I told Blondie we needed more women in ANBU. And look! He gave me three for this trip.”
Usagi blinked. Yamada looked taken aback. Goya’s expression didn’t change.
Jiraiya, veteran spymaster and recipient of more than one educational concussion at Tsunade’s hands, wasn’t too drunk to read the room. He kept his smile and switched tactics, nodding at Usagi’s mask: “Quartermaster couldn’t resist the pun, huh? Good thing your name isn’t Gokiburi.” He belly-laughed at his own joke.
Cockroach. About as subtle as ANBU humor got. The Quartermaster had threatened Kakashi with that exact fate once. Maybe it was a standing joke.
“Can we leave?” Kakashi inquired. “Or do you have more funnies?”
Jiraiya eyeballed him. “Got ants in your pants? I just want to get the names here sorted out.”
Raidou cut in and listed each person: name, rank, job. Quick, efficient. Very captainly. If he was thinking: you got me out of bed at four AM, it wasn’t obvious.
Jiraiya grunted, but the interjection had worked to focus him. “Here’s the brief: The Dodomeki isn’t just a story to scare little kiddies with, and if there’s any truth in that legend about Fujiwara no Hidesato killing her, it isn’t the part where she’s dead. I encountered her in Kusa. She’s just as nasty as the story says. Eats her kills, and that includes villagers. Sets fires. Breathes a poison gas that’ll dissolve the flesh right off your bones, so we’re avoiding close combat until we weaken her. That’s why you’re here.” He nodded at Goya.
Goya digested this. “Interesting,” she said.
“Hold up,” Kasumi said acidly. “Maybe all of you were raised on scary bedtime stories, but what even is a Dodomeki? Aside from deadly.”
“Cursed woman,” Kakashi said, without thinking.
Kasumi’s glare turned arctic. “So we’re adding sexism into our bedtime stories?”
Kakashi felt his spine stiffen. Reflexive, pointless defense of his parents, who had raised him on legends and myths, told in the few quiet moments between everything else. “Do you want the answer or not?”
“I do,” Abe said, with a quick glance at Kasumi. “My family wasn’t much for traditional folktales either; all I remember is there’s a lot of eyeballs?”
“Cursed former thief who happened to have been a woman when she was human,” Jiraiya said. “She’s three-and-a-half meters tall, has hair like a Mangrove Country porcupine, giant claws, breathes poison fumes and maybe flames, and has those eyeballs you mentioned all over her body. Little bird eyes. Big glowing monster eyes. Not sure if all of them can see, but it makes her look like she’s got some kind of eyeball pox.”
Usagi’s eyebrows lifted nearly to her hairline. “And we’re just hearing about this now?”
“You wouldn’t have,” Jiraiya said. “She showed up a week or so ago, and Kusagakure’s kept the whole thing under wraps. I just happened to be nearby when they were fighting her.”
“Do we have intel on her location now?” Ginta asked. “I haven’t heard about any border towns in Fire Country being under any kind of attack.”
“Still in Grass Country, which is where we’re going. At the request of Kusagakure,” Jiraiya said, to the surprise of Team Thirteen. “They don’t have the strength or expertise to put her down, and even I can’t do it alone. But with this group we’ve got a chance. We even have a few established demon fighters in the squad.” He flashed a quick grin at Raidou and Kakashi.
Usagi grinned, too, and elbowed Raidou in the ribs. Ginta looked intrigued, Goya thoughtful. Kasumi’s lip curled, but she folded her arms and said nothing.
“If Kusa’s out of their depth, we can put down one of their pests. It’s the neighborly thing to do,” Raidou said, with a glimmer of returning humor. “Before it gets to our border.”
“Especially if they’re footing the bill,” Usagi said cheerfully.
Abe sounded worried. “I brought antagonists to most of the common poisons we encounter, but mythological creature isn’t exactly something they’ve got bottled up in the labs.”
Usagi thumped him on the shoulder. “Better dodge, then. We’ll bring some of her scrapings back in a jar for the lab.”
Kakashi decided not to point out that even if there were antagonists for flesh-melting poison gasses, they wouldn’t be quick-acting enough to make a practical difference. Abe seemed jumpy enough already.
Genma would probably appreciate some jar-scrapings, though.
A faint corona of pink on the horizon suggested the imminent arrival of dawn.
“Can we leave now?” Kakashi asked.
“Yes, yes,” Jiraiya said, and settled his pack more comfortably. There was a new gourd strapped to his hip, which notably did not smell of blood. “You’re as impatient as Naruto-chan. Go on, then, you take point. We’re headed to Shouwa.”
Not a village Kakashi had been to yet, but he had Grass Country’s maps long-memorized. Shouwa was a dot on the northeastern slopes of Mount Okishimappu, sheltered in the curve of a swift-running river. Easiest to reach by cutting through Akatani Gorge.
Four days, then.
Kakashi got started.
It took a while for Jiraiya to sober up, but he did eventually. He ran lightly for a big man, wooden geta clattering on stone, soundless on dirt and trees.
Kakashi set a quick pace, striking a balance between the shortest route and one that wouldn’t drag the group through every thorn thicket, vertical slope, or dank swamp. The Dodomeki was an urgent problem, but not an immediate emergency. Fire Country lives weren’t at stake, after all.
Thirteen stuck close together. Ginta and Usagi ribbed each other as they ran, almost habitually. Abe and Kasumi traded silence, bickering, and an occasionally useful conversation about something shinobi-related. Kasumi liked to fight with wire, Kakashi learned.
Goya stayed back, acting as rearguard. A useful position for a sniper.
Raidou kept close to Jiraiya.
The silence where Genma and Ryouma would have been was loud.
“So where’s the rest of your team?” Usagi asked that afternoon, when they paused in a green valley to restock canteens and hunt.
“Sick list,” Kakashi said.
“The fuck did you do?”
“Classified,” Kakashi said, and watched as Goya took down a running stag with a clean brain shot. One shaft right through the eye.
The first night, they camped in Fire Country. The air was warm and summer-soaked, spangled with fireflies. Stars glimmered in the violet sky like tiny seed-pearls. They roasted venison over the fire and traded stories.
Well, other people did. Kakashi mostly listened.
“So who cursed her?” Abe asked, at one point, between a Jiraiya tale of living furniture and Usagi’s version of a ghost story.
Ginta tilted his head questioningly.
“The Dodomeki,” Abe said. “If we’re going with her actually being a cursed woman, who cursed her?”
“Lost in antiquity.” Jiraiya made an extravagant hand gesture, as if he was trying to compact centuries into one movement. “Last story about her is recorded in a scroll that’s hundreds of years old. She supposedly promised a priest to stop doing evil back then. Guess religion didn’t stick.”
“Wonder what’s got her all worked up now?” Usagi said. “If she’s been quiet for hundreds of years, and now she’s setting things on fire and eating crispy villagers.”
Jiriaya opened his mouth, paused, closed it and shrugged.
Ginta rubbed his chin. “Tailed beasts and youkai aren’t that different, except that tailed beasts are worse.” His eyes flicked up, catching sparks from the fire, and landed on Kakashi and Raidou. “Jiraiya-sama said you had demon experience. What demons besides the Fox and those scorpion-dog things this spring?”
“That’s not enough?” Kakashi said.
Raidou frowned at him, then at Ginta. “The other one’s classified.”
“Helpful,” Usagi muttered.
Goya had been silently rubbing beeswax into her bow string. She paused now and glanced up. “Jiraiya-sama doesn’t have clearance?”
“He does,” Raidou said. “Sakamoto doesn’t. But I don’t think it’s something that’d be much help anyway.”
Since the last set of demons had been nonviolent, somewhat ridiculous tanuki, Kakashi had to agree.
Abe inquired, with dark fascination: “Was it sex demons?”
Kakashi looked at him for a moment. “Yes,” he said.
“Knew it,” said Ginta.
Raidou rolled his eyes. Usagi choked on her venison and had to be whacked on the back. Kasumi looked disgusted with all of them.
“That does remind me of a story,” Jiraiya began.
“I’ll take first watch,” Raidou said hastily, and stepped away from the fire, taking his dinner with him.
The next day was hotter. Sticky and humid, with an ominous black smear on the horizon. The promise of thunder tingled on Kakashi’s teeth, sparks and danger.
Around midday, when the wind died and everything sweltered, Jiraiya raked damp hair out of his eyes and declared, “We’re sleeping in a village tonight.”
“Seconded,” Usagi said.
“Thirded,” Raidou said.
Goya wrapped her unstrung bow carefully in waxed canvas, and nodded agreement.
Tarama was closest. A tiny village that had suffered immensely in the war and rebuilt itself with fat goat herds: the only animal willing to thrive on the tough, barely-edible plants that grew in the surrounding gorges. Tarama supplied Konoha with more meat, milk, and fibrous thread than its larger neighbors, and took great pride in doing so.
While Raidou and Usagi bartered for shelter, and Jiraiya signed autographs for the goat herder’s starstruck daughter, Kakashi watched a handful of goat kids bounce back and forth over a fence with blithe disregard for its actual purpose. They were almost-spherical little creatures, with soft muzzles and tiny hooves, and he felt obliquely sad looking at them.
Lieutenant! How many goats can you buy on an ANBU’s budget?
Ginta appeared at his elbow, knocking Katsuko’s echo out of his head. “That’ll be here soon,” he said, nodding at a flicker of heat lightning in the distance. “We never got a chance to work out how to coordinate a lightning attack, but I have a few ideas we could try.”
Kakashi cocked his head. “I’m listening.”
South of the village, there was an open area of scrubland.
With their captains’ joint permission, Ginta and Kakashi went to explore its possibilities. Rain drove everyone else inside, including the goats. Thunder boomed over the hills, bone-achingly loud. Patchy grass flattened or blew away as the wind clawed it out by the roots.
They made an eerie pair, Kakashi acknowledged, especially in their matching armor. All black where they weren’t blanched-white. Pale skin, paler hair. Ginta’s edge of gold drained away by the storm light.
Lightning flashed overhead.
The last time Kakashi had been this close to a thunderstorm, he’d used it to detonate Iebara. He’d almost charred his coils to nothing, but there’d been a moment, in that waterfall of light and desperation, when he’d been lightning. The simplest, truest form of a strike.
They started small: fistfuls of tame lightning, pulled from their own chakra. Shaped creations first, showing off fine control. Kakashi made a white-blue wolf, with jagged teeth and crackling fur; it howled soundlessly and exploded, leaving a ragged crater and smoking dirt. Ginta created a monkey, woven from such thin strands that the effect was almost smooth. Rounded ears, solid white eyes. It leapt up a dead, leafless tree and danced on the highest branch until Ginta let it unravel, and the tree caught fire. Rain quickly smothered the flames.
Kakashi shook out his hands, smiled slightly, and said, “Try this.”
The air was full of electricity; it was easy to steal some for his own use. He shaped quick seals, Rabbit, Boar, Ram, and lightning arced over his skin. It burst outwards, racing over the ground in leaping, random shapes, forming a rough circle about two meters wide, with Kakashi at its center. He crouched defensively, and beckoned at Ginta. Come and get me.
Ginta’s eyes narrowed, ice-chip blue.
He whipped a kunai at Kakashi’s face; it hit the edge of Kakashi’s shield and deflected harmlessly. Ginta vanished in the moment of flight, a kawarimi’d tree trunk falling in his place. He reappeared almost in the same second, attacking Kakashi’s blind spot—
No, a clone. Which vaporized the moment it touched lightning.
Kakashi tilted his head, senses extending. The hammering rain muted scent and sound. The jutsu interfered with his chakra sense, flares of energy spiking at random. He pushed up the black cloth band that covered his Sharingan. Blinked once, as his vision expanded and changed to chakra-blue.
A flicker of movement.
The Sharingan mapped the trajectory. Kakashi turned, meeting the real Ginta, this time wreathed in his own glowing field of electricity. Kakashi had a moment to study the tight-knit armor of sparks, the subtle golden tint to Ginta’s lightning. Then the two fields connected. And detonated.
Kakashi hit the ground a dozen meters away, rolled a few times, landed on his back, and waited for the ringing in his ears to subside. He sat up, tasting iron, and snorted when he caught sight of Ginta. All that blond hair was a lot less sleek when it was vertical.
“Still alive?” he asked, watching the distant figure stagger to its feet.
Ginta gave a full-body shake, spraying rain water and mud, spat, wiped his mouth, and flashed an all clear hand sign. “Mostly,” he yelled, over a flash and boom, and jogged over as Kakashi made it back to his feet. “That didn’t go exactly how I’d expected. You okay?”
“Yep.” Kakashi raked wet hair out of his eye. “It was effective, though. Non-lethal, but it got through the defense. If you’d had a second person or a ready clone, you would have gotten me.”
Which was useful to know. Prior to this, he’d thought of that jutsu as being a particularly hard one to bypass. Its bigger, nastier brother had served him and Sango well in Kirigakure for exactly that reason.
Ginta grinned. “I’ll show you the shielding jutsu. How’d you create the cage effect? Can you cast it at a distance? If someone without my shielding can’t get in or destroy it, could something inside get out? Like, you know, a Dodomeki?”
Apparently adrenaline agreed with Ginta. Or encouraged him.
Kakashi waited until the shower of words died down, answered the questions — no, it couldn’t be cast beyond a distance of a few meters; yes, it might contain a Dodomeki, but the chakra expenditure would probably be fatal to the caster; yes, it really was called Lightning Burial: Banquet of Lightning; no, Kakashi hadn’t created it or named it, just stolen it — and extracted as much information about Ginta’s static-shock amor jutsu as he could in return.
They swapped jutsu and repeated the experiment, with similar results.
By now, the storm was right on top of them, and it was becoming almost impossible to hear each other.
Lightning forked down nearby and split a tree in half. Kakashi felt the surge and thrum of it in his whole body. Terrible danger. Familiar comfort. Ginta’s eyes glittered recklessly.
Kakashi had only known a very few other lightning users, his father among them. Thunderstorms did this to all of them. He suspected other phenomena would have the same effect on other chakra types: forest fires, earthquakes, volcanoes, typhoons, hurricanes. But the chance was rarer, and the likelihood of serious injury much higher.
White light blazed and struck the ground nearby, completely ignoring a convenient tree.
Okay, so there wasn’t zero chance of injury in a thunderstorm.
“We should probably—” he began, but thunder drowned out the rest.
Ginta understood anyway, hand-signing an acknowledgement. They turned back to the village.
The next strike nearly killed them.
Light blazed above them, burning up the sky, and time
It was only because the Sharingan was uncovered that Kakashi was able to react fast enough. In that fraction-second, he tracked the bolt zig-zagging down as if it were made of syrup, oozing through superheated air, long, lethal fingers branching out towards them.
He slammed raw chakra into his left palm. The lightning snapped towards him like a massive, elemental predator scenting blood.
The microsecond before it struck, he shaped one seal. His chakra compressed like a hammerstrike and burst into birdsong; the lightning cleaved around it, splitting apart without striking.
The problem with cutting lightning was that he couldn’t control it. The two forks lashed away from him, towards the next glowing target — Ginta. But Kakashi had bought a moment of delay and Ginta was viper-quick, even with normal eyes. He caught both forks and redirected them. One into a nearby tree, which exploded in a shower of boiling sap. The other into a cluster of rocks that split apart with a sound like giant bones snapping.
Another microsecond later, the thunder hit and deafened them both.
In the dizzying aftermath, Kakashi had just enough time to think ow and awesome before the next strike threatened, and they both ran like hell for the village.
“Raikiri?” Usagi said. “Actual Raikiri? And I missed it.”
“I missed it,” said Jiraiya.
“Split a lightning bolt,” Raidou said, in an entirely different tone of voice. “Split a lightning bolt.”
“Mmhm,” Abe said, projecting an aura of almost believable medic-calm as he poked the edges of the burn on Kakashi’s palm, except his fingers were shaking slightly.
Ginta pulled a wad of blood-stained cotton out of one ear. “What?” he said loudly.
Your team thinks we’re cool, Kakashi signed at him. Mine is mad.
“Sakamoto is deaf and you both could have died,” Raidou said. “Is there a more appropriate emotion? What should I be feeling?”
“Pride?” Usagi suggested.
“Judgement,” Kasumi muttered, applying salve to bandages.
“Stow it,” Usagi told her. She kicked Raidou ungently on the knee. “When did you turn three hundred? Your rookie just did the coolest thing ever. Stop being miserable about it.”
“You want him?” Raidou said.
“Yes,” said Usagi instantly. “Hatake, you’re mine, get over here.”
“Wait, no,” Raidou said.
“Too late. Hatake, march.”
“Not until I’m done with him,” Abe said, taking Kasumi’s salve-bandages and binding them around Kakashi’s hand. Kakashi twitched his fingers testingly, which made Abe scowl at him.
“Did we just get Hatake?” Ginta asked, wiggling a finger cautiously in his ear and wincing.
Usagi gave him an exaggerated thumbs up.
“Excellent! Which one did you trade?” He extended his hands for Abe’s inspection: both palms were bright pink and shiny, as if he’d managed to get the world’s unlikeliest sunburn. Abe frowned and took the salve from Kasumi, applying it directly.
“No one!” said Usagi, making sure Ginta could read her lips. “Freebie rookie!”
“I feel very wanted,” Kakashi said, to no one in particular. “It’s nice.”
The barn door opened, letting in a blast of cold wind and a rattle of hail. The goat herder’s daughter trotted in with a large pot of curry and rice, followed by her younger brother carrying a pitcher of milk.
“Ma said you’d have your own dishes,” she said, setting the pot down on the hard-packed earth floor. “D’you need anything else?”
Goya, who’d been attentively waxing her bow string and ignoring everything else, said, “Water?”
“Well’s outside,” the girl said.
“Or you could just hold up a cup in the air out there,” said the boy, helpfully.
“Thank you,” said Goya, gravely.
The boy grinned, showing two missing front teeth. He seemed to want to linger, fascinated by ninja — or maybe just by something happening that wasn’t goat-related, but his sister dragged him out.
Abe peered dubiously into the pot. “What do you think it is?”
Kasumi looked at him, looked at the pens of warm, sleepy goats bedded down in straw, looked back at him. “Guess.”
The curried goat was delicious. Only Usagi and Kakashi were willing to try the milk, everyone else declined due to lactose-intolerance (Ginta, Goya, Abe, Raidou), dislike of its origins (Kasumi), or alternative beverage sources (Jiraiya: gourd).
Ginta’s hearing returned after Abe did some delicate medical futzing with his eardrums, and then he regaled them with exaggerated versions of the lightning-splitting until Kasumi threw straw at him.
The storm lasted through the night, but the barn was cozy and the watches were short.
The third day, Raidou fell into step beside Kakashi and said, “About the other morning.”
“I don’t care,” Kakashi said.
Raidou gave him a disbelieving look.
“Except that you’re a giant hypocrite,” Kakashi added.
“There it is,” Raidou said, sounding resigned.
“You disagree?” Kakashi asked. “‘No ANBU agent is permitted to fraternize with a senior officer.’ Your words, day one. Except that I’ve read the ANBU rule book and it doesn’t say that anywhere. So is it an unwritten rule, or just one you thought was important because you slept with Tousaki before he joined ANBU?”
Raidou didn’t quite wince. “It’s an unwritten rule, intended primarily to protect rookies.”
“How sweet,” Kakashi said.
“Not really,” Raidou muttered. “Look into the history sometime. Look, the point is—”
“You’re a grown up, Shiranui’s a grown up, it’s not going to affect the team, you’re sorry I saw but I shouldn’t have been in Shiranui’s bedroom, please don’t tell Tousaki.” Kakashi scowled at nothing in particular. “Something like that?”
Raidou looked at him steadily, unreadably, for a handful of seconds. “Do you want to tell Tousaki?”
Ryouma already had complicated enough feelings about his captain and lieutenant. Kakashi couldn’t even begin to predict what he’d feel about this. Disappointment? Betrayal? Jealousy?
“With all due respect, fuck off, Taichou,” Kakashi said.
Raidou’s expression didn’t change. He fell back alongside Usagi, who was complaining about damp socks.
It was a cold, misty afternoon. The air tasted like water and the sun looked like a raw egg yolk. Kakashi stayed out in front, tracking the trail as it climbed slowly into the mountains.
They camped halfway up Mount Hyakujo that night, on a bare ledge overhanging a narrow valley. Wild goats and hares pricked Kakashi’s senses, but both captains forbade a cooking fire. They were within spitting distance of the border now. Even though Grass County and Fire Country had an alliance, no one quite trusted anyone. And there was always the possibility of rogue ninja.
The teams shared ration bars and mountain stream water, listened to Jiraiya and Ginta compete for most unlikely bedtime story, and split the watches. Kakashi got the short straw: 0200–0400.
He watched clouds, missed Ryouma, kicked himself for missing Ryouma, and went down a mental list of which stolen jutsu might work on an ancient, acid-cloud-spitting demon.
On the fourth morning, they crossed the border.
Around noon, they ran into a Kusagakure patrol and got the latest intel on the Dodomeki’s movements.
Mid-afternoon, they found the first signs of blight and fire-damage: a poisoned stream, fish floating belly-up in the oily water. Kakashi collected a sample for Genma, careful not to touch the water with his fingers.
A winding goat path led to a burned-out field of blackened animal corpses. Among them, one human body still wearing scraps of clothes. Kakashi estimated the top of the skull might have reached the middle of his ribcage. Child, then. Maybe a young teenager. There were teeth marks in the femur.
Usagi nudged what might have once been a shepherd’s crook with her booted toe. “Well that’s lovely. Are people her actual diet, or is she just being a dick?”
“Dick.” Jiraiya squatted down on his geta to inspect the remains with a critical eye. “Or she’s been driven mad by something. All the legends say she’s a pickpocket. Violent outbursts from her were to scare away people so she could eat their livestock.”
“Concerning,” Abe murmured.
It was hard to smell anything over the stench of carbonized flesh, but Kakashi thought there was an extra lingering edge around the body — something musty and sweet. He tracked it to the edge of the burned field, and lost it among a pile of rotting sheep. Teeth marks here, too.
“We know she’s hit Kitakura, Rusutsu, and Ten’ei further north,” Jiraiya said, when Kakashi reported his findings. “Let’s see if we can get ahead of her. Might even find out what’s pissed her off, if we get lucky.”
“This site is at least a few weeks old,” Ginta said, rubbing a black smear between his fingertips. He’d unearthed a small seedling struggling to grow up through the ash. “I’m surprised the local village would leave a corpse here like this. Unless she destroyed the whole village, too.”
“Ah,” said Ginta, a little later.
Wooden buildings had burned almost completely. Only the metal skeletons of fastenings and tools had survived, warped and brittle and half-buried in damp ash. A kitchen knife. A length of rough-forged chain. The straps from a shed door.
There were boot prints through the wreckage, but no attempts at repair. A long fresh trench had been dug into the scarred soil, then filled back in. A mass grave. Whoever had dug it — Kusa ninja, most likely — had missed the small body on the hill.
“Poor bastards,” Usagi said quietly.
Kasumi, of all people, went back for the body. Raidou opened up the end of the trench with a simple jutsu, closed it again. They all left shortly afterwards.
It smelled like Konoha, three weeks after the Fox.
Three more villages, burned to nothing. That wasn’t even counting the half-dozen they already knew about, plus farms and fields, hunters’ huts, two rivers spoiled black, and a third of Mount Okishimappu’s northeastern slope charred to cinders.
The walls of Akatani Gorge had acted like a forge to hold the heat in. The valley floor was blistered, baked soil. No plant life left.
Shouwa, a dot on the map, was a smear in real life. Heaps of ash drifted like sand dunes. Kasumi stirred up a half-melted kunai in the wreckage of a shed. Raidou crouched to study a blown-out trench, where it looked like dirt had been hurriedly yanked for an earth jutsu. Kakashi found dried purplish-grey splashes that smelled like rotted citrus and bile, and made his sinuses burn.
Abe made a disgusted noise. He’d discovered a blackened leg still wearing shreds of pants and part of a sandal. It ended mid-thigh, in a crusted pulp of flesh and gnawed femur.
“Shinobi,” Goya said, dispassionately.
Kakashi examined the find. The ragged bone end just looked burnt, but he could smell that citrus-and-bile combination here too. The Dodomeki had an interesting mouth.
“Must have been recent, there’s not much decay,” Ginta observed. He kicked ash away from a glint of metal and unearthed a stained set of dogtags. “Kusa chuunin. They’re still sending chuunin after this thing?”
Jiraiya frowned. “Probably just to evacuate the civilians. If they’re lucky, this was a rear guard, and some of them managed to get away.”
And hadn’t returned to collect fallen dogtags. Too busy, too short-handed, or too afraid.
Ginta stowed them in his armor.
They found three more sets of dogtags — two chuunin and a jounin. The bodies were just parts, too destroyed to salvage. Whatever chakra secrets might linger in the flesh were burned beyond reclaiming.
“Well, she’s not here,” Usagi said, slapping soot off her palms. “Now what?”
“Now we track,” Jiraiya said. He gave a little wave in Kakashi’s direction. “Do the nose thing.”
Some days, Kakashi didn’t feel entirely respected in his workplace.
Kakashi summoned his four from the forest, when he’d dealt with troublesome emotions by group-slaughtering a giant stag. They landed attentively at his feet. Shinchou, the burnished copper of ancient money. Koseki, midnight-black and focused as an icepick. Hagane, the cold white of winter ice. Tsuyoshi, sullen-grey and sporting a newly broken fang. None of them spoke human.
Hagane flicked an ear, lip lifting at the Dodomeki’s unnatural scent.
The following conversation went roughly like:
And then just movement.
It took two more days to even get close to the Dodomeki. For Kakashi, it was like living in dual headspaces — the clean, sleek arrowhead mind of a predator, and the disordered tangle of everything human. Team Thirteen, with their… themness. Jiraiya — firmly, unignorably himself. The discomfort of Raidou and the unhappy friction between them. No Genma to smooth down the rough edges. No Ryouma to distract with chatter or an unexpected, brilliant idea.
Humans got bored, antsy, annoying, even hunting down a murderous and probably insane demon.
If Kasumi said one more thing, he was going to let Hagane bite her.
They found the remains of the villagers who’d tried to flee Shouwa, and the shinobi who’d escorted them. They collected more dogtags. They found two more farms burned off the map.
They met three different Kusagakure patrols, exhausted and hollow-eyed, stinking of smoke. Some of the younger shinobi eyed the ANBU with flat suspicion; the older Kusa just seemed relieved to have additional boots on the ground. And frustrated at their own lack of success. They knew their territory, and yet their target kept misting through their fingers.
They weren’t the only ones.
“Konoha should’ve just sent us out with an Inuzuka,” Kasumi said to Abe, after they’d parted ways with the last Kusa patrol. Her voice was just loud enough for Kakashi to hear.
Kakashi drew a shallow breath through his nose.
“And what have you contributed, Yamada?” Raidou asked sharply, before Kakashi could say anything. “Because it’s certainly not teamwork.”
Kasumi’s shoulders went rigid. “Nossir,” she said, through tight lips.
Raidou waited a moment, but she said nothing else. Abe gave her a wide-eyed look. She just compressed her lips and stared over the top of Raidou’s head.
“Problem?” Usagi inquired, landing beside them. She and Ginta had been flanking Jiraiya, mining him for political tidbits (Ginta) and interesting stories (Usagi). Further back, Goya kept a watchful eye on the entire group.
“No,” said Raidou, with a last look at Kasumi. “I don’t think so.”
“M’kay,” Usagi said slowly. “Then why are we all standing around? Nose-boy, hup, hup. At this rate I’ll be grey before we get home.”
Kakashi was still staring at Raidou. He blinked and got back to work.
Hagane was not allowed to bite her.
The trail kept breaking. It circled, redoubled, went up sheer rock faces, through rivers, vanished between trees as if the creature could jump ridiculous distances, and reappeared in unlikely places.
There was nothing in the legends about the Dodomeki being able to dimension-hop or shapeshift, but Kakashi was starting to wonder.
It was late evening when they finally lucked out. Koseki pursued a fresh scent under the thorny arch of a red barberry, and vanished with a startled howl when the dirt opened up beneath his paws.
Kakashi broke the summoning connection before the wolf-dog could land, and flickered his chakra in the pre-agreed signal for found something.
“That’s a hole,” Usagi said, some minutes later.
“Yep,” Kakashi said.
“Did we know she could tunnel?” Usagi said.
“Nope,” Kakashi said.
“Interesting,” Usagi said. “Dibs on not being the first one down there.”
Raidou was studying the hole with a frown, as if he was comparing the width of his shoulders to the diameter of the tunnel and not liking the answer. Or perhaps he was just remembering scorpion-demon mountain.
What was it with mythical creatures and mountains?
Ginta kicked a pebble over the lip of the hole. They all listened to it rattle its way down in the darkness.
“Not it, either,” he said, and summoned a shadow clone. “You go.”
The clone peered dubiously over the edge. “You know I’ll just pop the second I hit bottom.”
Ginta patted its shoulder, which gave the odd effect of a man comforting a malfunctioning mirror. “I’m not so stupid I’d waste my chakra on your cheap death. Who’s got the rope?”
Rope wasn’t technically ANBU standard gear, despite Kakashi’s strong opinions to the contrary, but he, Raidou, Goya, and Kasumi all produced options. Kasumi’s offering was a sturdy line around a wire core, which Usagi speedily fashioned into a snug harness around the clone’s hips and shoulders. She cracked a glow-stick and tied it to one shoulder strap. “Yank twice if you get in trouble. Or just die, I guess.”
“Don’t ruin my rope,” Kasumi told it.
“You two are really good at that encouragement thing,” the clone said brightly. “Natural coaches.” It eased out over the edge, stepped down, and vanished.
Usagi grunted as the weight hit her shoulder, but her base was solid and immovable. Her biceps flexed. She reeled out about sixteen meters of rope with ease, then the line slackened. Kakashi was very glad he’d sent Koseki back — a fall that deep might not have killed him, but it definitely would have broken something.
“Well?” she called down.
The clone’s voice floated back up. “Whole lotta hole. It levels out and heads northwest. How far do you want me to go?”
“Until you find something!”
Jiraiya peered down into the darkness and asked rhetorically, “What’d she do with all the dirt? Eat it?”
Garnish for goatherds, Kakashi thought.
“Looks a little narrow for the creature you described,” Goya observed to Jiraiya. “Perhaps she repurposed the tunnels after something else abandoned them.”
“Could be. An earth jutsu could have done this, too.” Jiraiya glanced at Kakashi. “You sure her scent actually goes down here?”
Kakashi gave him a look. The three remaining wolfhounds loitering nearby also lifted their heads and gave Jiraiya a look. Not because they understood him, but because they were good pack animals in their own razorblade way. “No. I thought this was a good way to waste time.”
Without taking his attention away from the hole, Raidou reached a hand up to cuff Kakashi on the back of the head. Or at least make the token gesture, since Kakashi cocked his head to avoid the whack.
“Not helpful,” Raidou said.
Kakashi shrugged. “Ask a stupid question.”
The hole, open to the air, reeked of fresh Dodomeki. With an underlayer of old, stale scent. Repeated exposure.
“You ever heard of verifying your intel, kid?” Jiraiya said, with an exaggerated eye roll. Annoyed enough that he hadn’t even called Kakashi ’sprog’; he’d defaulted to his generic placeholder for younger ninja whose names he couldn’t bother to remember.
Reflexively irritated in turn, Kakashi just shrugged.
Ginta made a short, choked sound. Collective heads snapped around. Ginta, suddenly pale, gave them a ghoulish grin. “Clone just died.”
A dozen meters away, the ground cracked open.
Her naked spine came up first, breaking through the dirt in a ridgeline of bone. Ribs bracketed deep, starving hollows. Her skin was tobacco-yellow, crusted with earth and riddled with eyeballs. Tiny black bird eyes. Huge, bulging creature eyes — some blinking, some blinded, some just empty holes in her flesh, oozing rank pus. She clawed her way out of the ground, smoke spewing up through cracking fissures. Her arms were sinewy, unnaturally long, tapering down to three black, shiny talons. Ragged feathers grew along the outside of her forearms, like she’d been shot full of broken arrows. A tattered semblance of a kimono hung from her shoulder, baring a concave sternum and one deflated breast.
Kakashi banished his dogs and burned the protective mesh that shielded his Sharingan. His vision shifted blue, chakra and fate unwinding through the world.
The Dodomeki unfolded from the earth — tall, taller. Her legs were skinny, scaly horrors that turned black halfway down and ended in bird claws. Her face was cadaverous, split by a black, wet mouth full of sharp teeth. Thick discharge crusted the only two eyes that looked human. Her head swung around, fixing on Jiraiya. The long spines that hung from her scalp flared, standing up like a threat display.
She screamed and vomited a gout of foul gaseous liquid that Jiraiya dodged by a handsbreadth. The noise was like white-hot nails driven into Kakashi’s eardrums. The smell—
Her chakra raged beyond the confines of her skin, a boiling, hungry roil, even more poisonous than her breath.
“Guess she missed me,” Jiraiya quipped. “Sorry, sweetheart, it’s never going to work out between us.” He spun quick seals and spat a stream of oil at the Dodomeki, following it immediately with a fire jutsu. The oil caught in mid-flight, splattering her with liquid flame. She shrieked and reared back. Jiraiya flashed a retreat to the ninja — all of whom were already bolting back from the column of rising fire. “Ready, set, go, kids!”
They scattered. Raidou and Usagi to the north. Abe and Kasumi fled west, Kasumi threading lattices of razor wire behind her, strung with dangling explosion tags. Kakashi, Ginta, and Goya cut south, leaving the east to Jiraiya. Goya strung her bow as she ran, an impressive feat on a weapon that large.
The fire gasped out behind them, leaving the Dodomeki singed but not obviously injured. She screamed again and lunged for Jiraiya, only to stumble as the ground went soft under her. Sticky and entrapping mud clung to her legs, sucking her down: Jiraiya’s swamp-trap earth jutsu.
The Dodomeki grinned back, mouth splitting the entire width of her face. Smoke wisped from the corners. Liquid frothed around her teeth. She gagged, a lurching, full-body movement, and spewed out a purplish-grey cloud. It rolled over the landscape, expanding faster than a horse could run. She snapped her teeth. A bright spark popped.
The cloud exploded.
Fire roared in its aftermath, chasing fumes over blackening grass. Faster than Jiraiya, this time. He leapt back, twisting water out of the ground to extinguish his clothes and hair. The Dodomeki surged out of the mud, scrambling free in the distraction. She moved like a centipede, low and scuttling, circling back to attack Jiraiya from the side.
An arrow punched into her side. She shrieked, whipping around. Goya’s bowstring sang. Two more arrows thwacked into the Dodomeki’s sternum with the snap of breaking bone. One skewered an eyeball straight through.
The noise the Dodomeki made was something between a bird’s cry and a woman’s scream. Rage, pain. She swiped one of her long arms down her chest, snapping through the arrow shafts. The punctured eye spilled blood-tinged vitreous jelly down her ribs. She surged towards Goya.
Kakashi and Ginta met her with chained lightning. Slender, lethal golden strands from Ginta, caged by blue-white bolts that struck the wet ground and blew apart like deadly fireworks. In Sharingan vision, they blazed. Kakashi took over guiding both, driving the Dodomeki away from Jiraiya, while Ginta wove intricate genjutsu that turned one Jiraiya into fourteen sages into bursting flower petals into a hundred dead villagers screaming for the Dodomeki’s blood.
She scrabbled back, disoriented, and hit Kasumi’s wires, which detonated. Wire became instant shrapnel: a thousand slicing cuts.
Raidou slammed a semi-circular earth wall up, protecting Kakashi, Ginta, and Goya from collateral damage. Usagi vaulted over the top, landing next to Jiraiya. In the noisy, bloody confusion, she stole a half-second for Jiraiya to shove a sealed scroll into her hands.
The Dodomeki spun around, savage and bleeding, lacerated eyes streaming thick fluid down her angular body— and saw them. Despite the genjutsu, despite her injuries. What were her eyes? She vomited a boiling cloud of poison at them. It caught fire barely after leaving her mouth. Jiraiya grabbed Usagi by the back of her armor and threw her over Raidou’s cracking, falling wall, spinning in the same movement into a blisteringly fast jutsu that pulled a shield of swamp water together. The burning acid hit it, rupturing into a ball of steam and flame that engulfed him.
There wasn’t time to intervene. Usagi landed, translocated, fell at Goya’s feet. Shoved the scroll at Ginta. “Open it, open it!”
A chakra flare. A tiny bottle landed in Ginta’s hands. He grabbed three arrows out of Goya’s quiver.
Raidou’s wall collapsed.
The Dodomeki flicked around like a whip, mantling up in a disturbing articulation of joints and limbs, and flung herself forward. She ran on all fours, faster than even Kakashi would have guessed. A moment, she was out of reach. Another moment, she was so close he could see the threaded, swollen capillaries in her human eyes, smell the rancid sweetness of her breath. He met her with his kodachi before she could reach the group. She flicked it from his hands almost contemptuously, and hit him in the ANBU mask so hard he tasted red. He landed on a knee. In the split-moment it took to regain vision, he looked up into a gaping chasm of teeth.
Goya shot her in the face.
The arrow went through her open mouth and came out the back side of her jaw, arrowhead glistening with blood and slime and something else.
The Dodomeki screamed, wrenched away from Kakashi with blurring speed, and slapped Goya aside with one brutal, taloned hand. The bow snapped in half. Goya slammed into Ginta, who’d leapt to catch her, and they both went spinning to the ground. Usagi threw herself in front of them as the Dodomeki reared back to strike again, and Kakashi lunged up.
The Chidori missed.
The Dodomeki rippled aside, an undulation of speed and rage, and cut through the wave of earth that Raidou flung at her. Kasumi’s slicing wires almost caught one clawed hand, but the Dodomeki dodged that too. Abe yanked Kasumi back just before a return strike cut her in half.
The Dodomeki grabbed Usagi by the throat and yanked her off the ground. Usagi choked, thrashing. The Dodomeki shook her viciously and sank stained teeth into Usagi’s bare shoulder. Usagi gave a throttled shriek.
Kakashi hit the Dodomeki in the back, sinking twin kunai into each shoulder joint. In a human, he would have speared the space between the glenoid cavity and the humerus, sizzling nerves and arteries, skewering the joint into frozen uselessness. In a demon, it was all just anatomical guesswork. The Dodomeki dropped Usagi, ratcheted an arm back with a horrible clicking sound, and sank her claws into Kakashi’s armor. He yanked a kunai free to go for her throat. The Dodomeki was too fast; she hauled him forward, pinning his arms to his sides with her long fingers, and screamed in his face.
Then she inhaled.
Acid or fire. At this range, too close to dodge.
In a glassy moment of clarity, Kakashi thought: Ryouma is going to be so pissed.
Then — the Dodomeki’s throat gargled. It was a strange noise, almost bubbling. Black poison ran out of both sides of her mouth. Her human eyes widened.
The paralytic on Goya’s arrow had finally kicked in.
A blur shifted behind her, as a translocation solidified. Jiraiya, face blistered with burns, eyes narrowed to slits, landed behind the Dodomeki and shoved a handful of Rasengan through the back of her ribcage.
Her eyes bulged.
The front of her chest heaved and split around Jiraiya’s fist. Blood ruptured into the air like a wet iron slap. She dropped Kakashi.
He hit the ground in a messy crouch, slammed his chakra into both palms, and shaped the fastest seals of his life. Iebara’s jutsu burned cold between his fingers. He grabbed the Dodomeki’s blood with it — there was only a trace of affinity, slippery, fighting him. Catching shadows with a single loop of wire. He forced it, driving hooks in, and yanked.
The Dodomeki stopped. Her skin quivered. Every remaining eyeball rolled to look at him, blankly shocked. She burst like a wet peach.
Unlike a deer or a human, the backlash was not subtle. It was like the opposite of being set on fire. Bits of Kakashi’s chakra splintered, rotten ice in his arms. He broke the jutsu, wrenching away from the agonizing wrongness of that death, and hissed as his fingers went numb.
On the other side of the blood splatter, Usagi groaned, rolled over, and asked faintly, “Did we win?”
Abe was busy for a while.
Usagi’s shoulder was the worst, scorched white by acid burns and mangled by the Dodomeki’s teeth. The joint still flexed and her fingers still moved, so she made light of it, sitting on a rock and cracking jokes while Abe irrigated and slathered and bandaged.
There wasn’t much he could do for Goya’s broken jaw, except lay in some baseline healing to stabilize the injury and offer painkillers. She seemed more upset about her bow, carefully wrapping its splintered pieces in cloth to take home.
Jiraiya’s face was a shiny, blistered tribute to the wisdom of dodging fireballs. He was missing most of one eyebrow. He also didn’t appear to notice, too busy poking the Dodomeki’s remains and making fascinated coded notes in a tiny notebook. Abe had to chase him nervously around, attending to whatever bits of Jiraiya’s face he could reach, until the medic finally lost his temper and ordered Jiraiya to sit.
There was something about high-level ninja: you didn’t get there without at least one medic installing a few levers in the forebrain for instant obedience. Jiraiya heaved an exaggerated sigh, but he sat. “Fine, kid. Fine. Do your worst.” Kakashi’s sharp hearing picked up the additional mutter: “You’re as bad as the princess herself.”
Ginta’s ribs were bruised. Raidou and Kasumi were largely unharmed. They helped gather the pieces of the Dodomeki into an oozing, poisonous heap.
“Assume we’re taking this home?” Raidou said.
“Damn right we are,” Jiraiya said, wincing under Abe’s ministrations.
Kakashi crouched stiffly by the Dodomeki’s severed head — still mostly intact. The remaining human eye was half-open, sclera injected with blood so darkly red it was almost black. The mouth was slack, hinged ajar around Goya’s arrow. Ropey liquid dripped from the teeth.
“Was that Iebara’s jutsu?” Ginta asked, squatting at Kakashi’s side. “Rumor said it was nasty — didn’t realize they meant on the caster, too.”
Rumor wasn’t supposed to know anything about Iebara’s jutsu, since it was classified and quasi-forbidden. Which just meant it was surprising it had taken Ginta this long to mention it.
Kakashi flexed his right hand. Pain lined the bones, hot wires framing out a second skeleton. It was an improvement. Sort of.
He said, “She looked sick.”
Ginta’s blond head tipped quizzically. He’d taken his mask off; his face was smoke-stained and sweaty. “She looked starved,” he agreed. “Maybe that’s why she was so ravenous. What’d her chakra look like?”
“Corrupted,” Kakashi said.
Ginta gave a delicate little shudder. “That’s how it felt. But who knows if that’s how she always was. I haven’t spent a lot of time around demons, other than the big one.”
Kakashi looked down at the heap of remains. The bones were all intact, partially degloved of flesh. Long ribs curved like barrel staves, longer femurs like bleached birch saplings. The skin was sheared and shredded, pulled apart by exploding blood, most of the eyeballs destroyed. The viscera was soup. It stank of bile and acid, the weird off-metal tang of inhuman blood, and the thick sweetness of metabolic derangement.
“I have,” he said. “Recently. None of them felt like that.”
“Be more cryptic,” Usagi said, startling him. He turned to find her standing an arm’s length away, poking gingerly at her bandaged shoulder.
“Don’t test him,” Raidou said, dumping a last clawed foot on the pile. “Because he will, and then no one gets answers.”
Usagi snorted and made to poke Kakashi with a booted toe. He slid aside. “Spill it,” she said. “You’re thinking things. Was it poisoned? Rabid? Poisoned and rabid?”
“Dying,” Kakashi said.
Raidou looked at the heap. “Dead, I’d say.”
“Before we killed it,” Kakashi said patiently. “I think it was dying.”
Which was odd, for a supposedly-immortal being. Legends, historically, were light on the general husbandry and healthcare of demons, but Kakashi couldn’t recall any of them referencing a cause of death other than something bladed.
Jiraiya, now extra-shiny where he wasn’t bandaged, returned to finish his note-taking. “I hurt her pretty badly when I fought her last month. Maybe one of those wounds festered, but…” He tugged at a frazzled section of burned-short hair, and made a dissatisfied sound. “She looked sickly then, too. Smelled like a refugee who hadn’t eaten in weeks. And she was even skinnier this time.” He sniffed. “Smell that? That sweet, fermenting smell? Still reeks of it even with all the blood and guts.”
Usagi looked baffled. “Sweet? What?”
“It’s ketosis,” Abe said, following on Jiraiya’s heels. “She was starving.”
“She was eating everything in sight!”
“Wrong diet?” Abe suggested.
“She’s got a carnivore’s teeth,” Raidou said.
“Well, there’s a medical mystery for you,” said Ginta cheerfully. He looked at Abe. “Think there’s enough big pieces left for some kind of necropsy?”
“Do I look like a coroner to you, lieutenant?” Abe said. “I work on the living. Speaking of which, can I please do something about your ribs now? Your lips look blue.”
More than one head snapped around to look at Ginta’s normal, flesh-toned mouth. Ginta rolled his eyes and tapped his monkey-mask, which did have a blue grin. “Funny.”
But he allowed himself to be steered to the rock-turned-medical-station and submitted to Abe’s rib-poking.
Kasumi, who was cranky when people were healthy and apparently rather thoughtful when they were injured, busied herself setting up camp outside of the limits of the battlefield. She found an untainted source of water, built a fire, herded Goya into sitting down, and persuaded her to drink a few mouthfuls of warm tea. Usagi joined them, wincing her way down to sit by the fire.
Kakashi looked at Jiraiya over the remains, and tipped his head. “Now what?”
“Now we let Blondie know he can go ahead and bill the Kusakage for a completed job.” Jiraiya grinned, good humor restored to its usual unquashable level. He bit the corner of his thumb, swiped a bloody streak across his palm, and crouched to slap the ground.
A chakra thump. A dimension shift. Jiraiya’s hand rested on top of the warty head of a small, orange-skinned toad wearing a blue haori.
“You’re missing an eyebrow, boss,” said the toad.
Jiraiya touched his forehead, grunted. “Good to see you, too, Goro. Tactful as ever. Got a message for you to take back to my student.” He ripped a page out of his tiny notebook, sealed it in an equally small scroll, and handed it to the toad — who swallowed it.
Toads were so weird.
Goro burped discreetly, thumped a clenched, webby fist against his chest, and took in the remains of the Dodomeki at Jiraiya’s feet. His tongue flicked out, thoughtfully licking one of his own eyeballs.
“Know her?” Jiraiya asked. “Or anything about her, like why she was here in the first place, and eating people like they were festival dango and her date was paying?”
“Anyone who’d take her to a festival would have to have one hell of a weird fetish,” Goro said.
“So you did know her?” Jiraiya grinned, smug for a man with half his face fried. “She wanted a piece of me, but I turned her down.”
“Sure, boss, sure,” said Goro dismissively. He stirred a bent hair spike with one long, orange toe. “Never met her. Never wanted to, either. Maybe Gamabunta knows someone who knew her. I can ask him when I get back. How’d you blow her up? I don’t smell explosive tags.”
Jiraiya’s eyes gleamed. “My boy Kakashi here’s got a fancy new trick. You can ask Minato about it.”
“Huh,” said Goro, sounding vaguely interested. He hopped back to his original landing spot and eyed Kakashi up and down. “Coming along, tadpole.”
Kakashi, used to the lukewarm judgement of toads, just snorted. Goro gave an amused little salute and vanished when Jiraiya banished him.
Kakashi looked back down at the puddle of Dodomeki. “Scrolls?” he said.
“Scrolls,” Jiraiya said.
The process of sealing bits of monster away was harder when Kakashi’s hands didn’t work. His fingers twitched and cramped around seals, pins and needles stabbing the nerves between bursts of numbness. He was starting to worry he’d done actual damage to himself.
He did negotiate the release of an eyeball (for Ryouma) and a poison-coated incisor (for Genma) before Jiraiya poured the last pieces into a pocket dimension and zipped it closed.
Jiraiya examined his hands, probing with careful chakra tendrils, and shrugged. “Needs a chakra specialist, sprog. Doesn’t look like your fingers are about to fall off, though.”
Kakashi turned around and almost walked face-first into Raidou’s chest.
“You’re injured,” Raidou said. Not so much a question.
“Debatable,” Kakashi said. Not so much an answer.
Raidou held out a hand. Kakashi sighed, resigned, and offered his palms up. Raidou studied the unmarked skin of each hand with deep suspicion, prodding with his blunt chakra sense.
Kakashi winced. “Ow.”
“Make a fist,” Raidou instructed.
Kakashi did; it hurt. Raidou broke the grip apart like it was a wicker basket. Kakashi shook his hand out. “Ow,” he said again, pointedly.
“Seals?” Raidou said.
Kakashi pulled a face, and didn’t say it. Raidou looked at Jiraiya, who gave a silent little headshake.
“Sick list,” Raidou ordered. “You can keep Usagi and Goya company on the way home.”
“Oh goody,” Kakashi said.
“Hey,” yelled Usagi, from Kasumi’s camp. “I am a delight.”
Goya raised one hand and made two quick signs.
“Her too!” Usagi added.
Kakashi headed their way, kicked a rock closer to the fire, and sat on it grouchily. “How’s your shoulder?”
“Hurts. What’s wrong with your hands?”
“Jutsu,” Kakashi said. He tilted his head towards Goya. “How’s your face?”
“Mm,” said Kakashi.
Ginta came up behind Kakashi’s shoulder, because everyone was angling for a broken neck today. “That why you looked a shade away from barfing while we were collecting body parts? I knew you weren’t squeamish.”
While Kakashi wondered how Ginta had collected this information from the one visible quarter of Kakashi’s face, Kasumi sat back from the fire and pulled a heated meal packet out of the flames. She poked another one in, turning it so the foil made maximum contact with the hottest parts of the wood. “Are you going to need spoon-feeding?”
Kakashi bristled, head turning to snap at her — then caught a better look at her face. Her eyes were dark and serious, mouth set in a plain, unmocking line. Collecting information, nothing more.
“No,” Kakashi said.
“Painkillers?” Abe said, because everyone wanted a broken neck and to be in Kakashi’s business. Which amounted to about the same thing.
“I’m not dying,” Kakashi said, exasperated.
“Neither am I, and I got morphine,” Usagi said happily, which explained the glaze in her eyes.
“Highly recommend the painkillers,” Ginta said, toasting the group with his refilled canteen. “They pair quite nicely with the local vintage of sulfurous water.”
Raidou settled down on the other side of the fire. “Leave him alone,” he said. Kakashi was almost grateful, until Raidou added: “Or he’s going to try and prove he’s fine and break a finger.”
“Gods, please, no more,” Abe said. He accepted a meal packet from Kasumi and flopped down next to her with a tired groan.
The food was standard mission fare — not good, not terrible. Goya made do with a sachet of protein powder scrounged from the bottom of Raidou’s gear, mixed with a canteen of the dubious local vintage. Kakashi managed his own food without dropping it in his lap or revealing his face, though the effort was almost more tiring than it was worth. As night closed in around them, the conversation dwindled. Ginta nodded off leaning against his own hand and almost tipped into the fire. Usagi ordered him to go lie down, then yawned hugely.
Raidou, Jiraiya, and Kasumi split the watch. Everyone else slept, Kakashi included.
Morning greeted them with fog, light rain, and a Kusa patrol very eager to escort them to the border. Kakashi woke up feeling like he’d grafted hot metal from his fingertips to his elbows, and was not inclined to be polite. Or hurried.
Jiraiya, sunnily cheerful and somehow freshly groomed, intervened before there was an international incident. He skillfully diverted any awkward questions, such as ’Where is the body?’ and “How did you kill it?” and kept the patrol distracted while the ANBU scraped themselves together.
Abe, exhausted from his healings, had to be shaken twice before he even rolled over. Raidou was already awake. Ginta bounced up. Goya and Usagi staggered painfully upright. Kasumi did everything with the exact same amount of cheer she had every morning — i.e. none. Kakashi briefly considered henge-ing himself into one of his own wolfdogs and biting everyone in the face, but he didn’t trust himself to shape accurate seals.
Raidou made them all eat. Jiraiya autographed at least three copies of his book for the Kusa patrol, to the squashed irritation of the patrol captain.
At that point, generally more alive and, in some cases, medicated, the Konoha ninja got on the road.