November 7, Yondaime Year 5
They translocated in three legs, with each successive jump bringing more evidence of the Ichibi’s destructive path. Smoke on the horizon became a choking stench that hazed the air and turned the sunlight coppery. Piles of debris had been pushed together to clear streets and pathways. Buildings that lurched on cracked foundations, with blackened crowns over broken windows, were red-tagged uninhabitable. And everywhere there were grimly determined Suna ninja working side-by-side with skilled civilians to bring order from the chaos.
They didn’t linger long enough to register more than the beginnings of raised voices and weapons, and then Frog’s chakra wrapped around Genma like sucking mud and hurled them through the icy, airless void that tied time and space into something else altogether.
They stopped a final time in the rubble-strewn plaza where they’d last seen the Hokage, in front of the ruined Sunagakure Palace. Genma was sick and dizzy, and had to shove the bottom of his mask away from his face while Frog kept him on his feet. He wasn’t the only one. The teenager from Iwa clapped bound hands to her mouth with a miserable sound. Raidou sagged against Vulture, who braced her legs to take Raidou’s full weight if she needed to.
Instantly, the Konoha ninja and their captives were surrounded by a contingent of Suna ninja, who materialized from the surroundings like scorpions.
Kawase coughed delicately and took a few shaky breaths at the Ambassador’s side. “Hold,” he said in a raised voice, when he’d mastered himself. The ring of Sand shinobi did, though they hesitated.
Sadayo, looking like vengeance personified, stood with a firm grip on Kawase’s shoulder, armed and radiating icy danger. Her dark eyes searched the faces in front of her and landed on a half-veiled one belonging to a broad-shouldered man with a commander’s bearing.
“You,” she said with precise, glassy calm, “Notify Kazekage-candidate Shimizu that Ambassador Hatake requires an audience.” When the man scowled down at her rather than obey, her arm curled around Kawase’s neck, naked blade flashing. She laid its delicate curved tip beneath his remaining eye. “Do it quickly.”
Kawase didn’t flinch. “Do as the Ambassador says, Captain,” he said. Tension like wires animating a marionette threaded through his voice, but somehow the cunning old bastard managed to sound as if he were in command, and not a captive already half-blinded and at Sadayo’s mercy.
The veiled man selected one of his companions. “Bring Shimizu-san here. She’s in the market square.”
“If she isn’t?”
“Then someone there will know where she is,” he said. He jerked his head in a dismissal, making the veil ripple and flutter. The subordinate saluted and vanished with a soundless leap. Not quite a translocation, Genma noted, but in close combat the difference wouldn’t matter.
They waited in strained silence, punctuated by the noise of shifting debris in the plaza and streets around them, breathing acrid, dusty smoke. Genma pushed his mask back into place and straightened, trying to project battle-readiness that was nine-tenths illusion.
Raidou was standing without Vulture’s support now, too, at perfect, alert attention; in all respects a Ready Fearsome ANBU, except for the fact that he was swaying ever so slightly. But he’d had a dose of morphine on top of a brewing infection and a catastrophic injury to contend with.
Everything in Genma wanted to trade places with Vulture. But how was he going to protect Raidou if the Suna ninja attacked? Vulture, Lynx, and Frog were fatigued, but not nearly as badly as he and Raidou. He fingered the rings of the remaining kunai in his thigh holster and eyed the Suna ninja around them, trying to gauge which posed the biggest threat.
The wait grew slowly from uneasy to volatile. Frog moved to put himself between Genma and the nearest Suna shinobi, casually, as if he were just changing position to ease tired legs. He tapped the back of Genma’s hand when he did. OK?
Genma cured his fingers into a long-familiar shape and signed back, Ready.
Raidou was already between Vulture and Lynx, though Lynx had the Iwa captives to contend with. The man was still semi-conscious at best, which was worrying for him, but gratifying for the situation, since he posed no threat. The girl, with one leg injured and multiple fingers broken, was probably easily handled by Lynx if it came to it.
The Suna ninja shifted noisily, clanking steel and flexing muscles. Kawase said something Genma couldn’t quite catch to Sadayo, whose response never came, because the runner returned at last.
Still alone. He stopped in front of the veiled man. “Togasaki-taichou, Shimizu-san asks if we can bring our—” He hesitated, probably unwilling to say prisoners when the Konoha ninja had a hostage of their own. “—bring them to her in the Plaza of Flowers. There’s a command post there in an undamaged building.”
An escort assignment was quickly sorted out amongst the Sand nin. In deference to Kawase’s age and evident injury, they took a slow pace, which Genma was more than grateful for. Raidou strode with his shoulders back and head up, but the sway was still there. A subtle tremor shook just above Genma’s knees, and his arms and shoulders scraped against fresh bandages with every footfall, hitching his breath behind his mask.
Thank every god, the Plaza of Flowers wasn’t far.
The building that had been commandeered as a base of operations was squat, two storey, and utterly unremarkable. A quartet of Suna guards flanked the arched doorway on a shallow porch in front. Something about it gave Genma a deep sense of unease, but the Ambassador seemed to know this place. She didn’t hesitate, just marched up the two steps to the entrance side by side with her captive and into the cool interior.
Fans turned, and electric lights lit the corridor, so either the Ichibi hadn’t managed to destroy Sunagakure’s power grid, or someone had already repaired it. It seemed like any other nondescript office building, but looks could be deceiving. Maybe it was the very blandness that was pinging alarm bells at the back of Genma’s mind.
Their guards led them to a door towards the back, which opened into a fairly large conference room, like the room they’d been locked in when they first arrived with their message for the Kazekage. But this room held the proto-Kazekage already, and the walls didn’t thrum with chakra limiters.
Shimizu stood at the center of the long table, on the far side from them, with arms crossed and a scowl on her knife-thin face. Her voice came cold and crisp. “Let’s not waste time. You know what we did. You know why we did it. What do you want?”
“Suna’s admission of guilt,” Sadayo answered, as lethally edged as an obsidian blade. “Konoha will not go to war with Iwa over your lie. Konoha will not be blamed for the sealing failure. Suna will admit culpability for the Ichibi’s escape, Rasa’s death, its own destruction. An appropriate blood price will be paid for my son.” An undertone in her voice gave Genma a chill. Her eyes narrowed, holding Shimizu’s. “If this is done, I will ensure the renegotiation of treaties between our villages.”
Shimizu continued to lock eyes with Sadayo for a moment, assessing. Then she glanced at Kawase. He was turned away from Genma, and he didn’t speak, but some communication seemed to pass between them. Her scowl lifted, turning into something cooler and more poised. Genma watched her transform from warrior into commander and diplomat; into Kazekage.
“Suna will admit regret,” Shimizu stated. “We were responsible for the safety of your son, and we failed. Konoha will bear no responsibility for the sealing failure or the catastrophe that resulted. That will fall on Iwa, whose enemy agents infiltrated our sealing team. There will be no war. Suna’s focus now will be to bury our dead and rebuild our village.”
Her head dipped, and her voice softened, suffused with a different kind of sincerity. “An appropriate blood price will be paid for your son. His death was not our intention.”
Sadayo’s expression remained unmoved, but murder glowered in the shadows of her dark eyes. She faced the new Kazekage in her torn and ruined kimono, with her own son’s blood staining her skin, her face battered and blackening with bruises. “Suna,” she repeated softly, “will admit guilt. It will admit fault. It will admit that no infiltration occurred, but that its own civil war was responsible for its ruin. Or does Suna claim it was destroyed by a village against which it seeks no retribution and thinks it can survive, unaided, against the invasion that will follow?” She tilted her head to an unnerving angle, looking like a wild predator about to sever the jugular of a weakened prey. “Does Suna not realize Konoha’s Hokage is absent, his placeholder will almost certainly be Shimura Danzou, and it will take almost nothing to ensure he burns Suna’s ruins to the ground?”
Genma hadn’t thought that far ahead, but it was clear as soon as Sadayo said it that it would play out exactly that way. Suna, too weak even to retaliate against a scapegoated Iwa, would be an enticing target for a Kage who wanted it. And if Danzou was Hokage, he would absolutely want it.
Shimizu’s posture and expression had turned slowly icy as she listened to Sadayo stonewall. “Rasa had a history of despotism and paranoia,” she said, spinning yet another version of the ‘truth’. “He believed the new seal would weaken his control of the Ichibi, and sabotaged the sealing. There was no infiltration, thanks in large part to Konoha’s generous aid.” She lifted her chin defiantly. “Do not threaten me with Shimura Danzou. Your Kage is missing, his whereabouts unknown. This incident has devastated Suna, yes, but if Danzou manages to take control of Konoha, ours will not be the only village facing a civil war. And then Iwa will swallow us both.”
Shimizu, too, was right.
“You underestimate the power of a uniting cause,” Sadayo said. “Our Kage is missing because of Suna.” She let this sit for a moment, long enough for everyone in the room to picture what a village of young, strong shinobi deprived of their beloved, rather than tyrannical and despotic, leader might do. Before Shimizu could speak again, she offered one concession. “Rasa’s history is well known.”
The tension radiating from Shimizu eased ever so faintly. “Then we are agreed. Rasa was responsible for the Ichibi’s release. Suna admits guilt for allowing Rasa’s tyranny to wreak devastation upon our village and endanger our alliance with Konoha. Suna admits guilt for our negligence that resulted in Hatake Kakashi’s death, and will make reparations.”
Every time someone referred to Kakashi as dead, Genma’s stomach clenched. Shimizu took a moment to gauge Sadayo’s reaction. Sadayo said nothing.
“As the next Kazekage,” Shimizu continued, “I hope that we will be able to maintain the alliance between our two villages.”
Sadayo’s eyes half-lidded, making her look suddenly much more like her son. After several seconds she inclined her head. “There will be amendments to the treaties, of course. But our alliance has survived too much to be blighted by the ambitions of one foolish, dead man.”
With carefully telegraphed motions, she withdrew the blade from Kawase’s face and slipped it back into its sheath, quelling the immediate threat. He turned his head slightly, so Genma could see his unbandaged eye. Sadayo restrained him with a hand on the shoulder, not yet releasing her hostage. “I have three additional requirements. A new area within the city designated as Konoha’s embassy, a medic for my shinobi injured by the Ichibi, and access to the nearest radio tower. Our last update to Konoha lacked certain… clarifying facts.”
“Of course,” Shimizu said without hesitation. Her eyes were trained on Kawase’s bandage-swathed blind side and the tiny red crescent Sadayo’s blade had left on his opposite cheek. A trickle of scarlet ran from it, crossing the tattooed clan mark on Kawase’s face.
He shook his head once, and she turned her focus back to Sadayo. “Several buildings in this plaza still have electricity. I’ll have one of them cleared for you immediately.” She nodded sharply at the Suna nin acting as her aid. “Summon Ishikawa Miho from the medic corps.”
The aide saluted her with a clenched fist tapped to the center of his chest, and vanished to do her bidding.
Shimizu continued to Sadayo, “I will escort you to our nearest radio tower. We can discuss the finer details of our report on these recent events.”
Sadayo inclined her head the barest fraction. “Lynx, with me. Frog, Vulture, report at once if you run into any problems.” She released her hold on Kawase’s shoulder. He was almost instantly flanked by two Suna shinobi, who helped him to a chair.
Before Lynx could respond to Sadayo, Minpei returned. Genma hadn’t felt them enter the room; he almost startled when they materialized at Lynx’s side. They were dusty and hot-looking, but surprisingly spry for all of their apparent age.
“We’ll dispose of these,” Minpei said, indicating the two Iwa ninja.
Sadayo looked coolly over at the Konoha ANBU and lifted a hand in a quick Konoha field sign.
Lynx nodded. There was a sharp crack as he broke the Iwa man’s neck, dislocating the skull from the spine. He handed the limp body over to one of the Sand shinobi at Minpei’s side.
“No, no, we didn’t—we—” the Iwa girl was suddenly hysterical, and sounded so very young.
Frog slit her throat with pristine efficiency, leaving the Suna ninja to catch her falling body.
Amida Buddha guide you to the Pure Land, Genma prayed silently, watching her blood spill down her chest and pool on the floor.
Minpei scowled, but they didn’t protest. They’d probably wanted those Iwa ninja alive, but they would almost certainly have killed them before handing them over, too, if Suna’s and Konoha’s positions had been reversed.
Genma turned to watch Minpei and their assistants take the bodies away. The air in the room seemed heat-hazed, or maybe that was just sweat dripping into his eyes. Genma blinked to clear his vision. Raidou, who had stood at an almost convincing parade rest for the entire proceeding so far, swayed dangerously, but managed to keep his feet.
Lynx glanced at Raidou, seemingly in passing, as he stepped up to Sadayo’s side. He bent down to murmur something into her ear. Sadayo turned to look at the Konoha ANBU, ending with Raidou. She didn’t say a word, but the expression on her face revealed the woman who’d raised Kakashi, and what, exactly, she expected from a Konoha shinobi. Raidou’s spine straightened, shoulders rocking back. His form went from almost perfect to regulation exemplary. The remaining Konoha ANBU followed his lead and checked themselves, tidying away any sign of weariness. Genma ground his teeth together, breathed carefully through his nose, and forced his own bandaged shoulders back, too.
The ambassador turned back to Shimizu. “I’m ready to leave, Kazekage,” she said, bestowing the title without waiting for it to be official. “One of your people will escort mine to Konoha’s new embassy now.”
How that was supposed to happen, when the aide who’d been sent to arrange it hadn’t reappeared, Genma could only guess at. But Shimizu deputized another of her assistants to lead them. They followed Sadayo and Shimizu with their respective retinue out into the blinding heat of the afternoon sun.
The air was still thick with acrid smoke and dust, and the stomach-turning scent of death. But this area—the Plaza of Flowers—had been relatively spared. The Ichibi had rampaged in a different direction, leaving these buildings unmolested.
Sadayo and Shimizu, with Lynx and a pair of veil-faced Suna elites, turned to the right and headed uphill, towards a radio tower that rose above the canyon walls.
The assistant who’d been delegated ANBU-minder was joined by four of her comrades, presumably because even short-handed and in the earliest stages of responding to a natural disaster, they couldn’t bear to let the foreign ninja have any chance of straying. She led them to a dry fountain in the middle of the plaza.
“Wait here,” she said, and vanished.
If it had been hot in the Kazekage’s temporary office, it was blistering here in the full sun. Six weeks away from the winter solstice, and it felt like midsummer. This time it was definitely heat haze and sweat interfering with Genma’s vision. He shut his eyes tightly, then opened them wide, calling a tendril of circulating chakra into the iris to better his focus. It didn’t really help.
They had a growing audience, now, as shinobi and civilians alike paused on their way through the plaza to stare at the strangers in their midst. Genma caught more than one curse aimed their way. Which made the Konoha ninja work even harder to project bland auras of confident competence. We belong here, we were invited here, and we will absolutely kick all your asses if you try anything.
Vulture and Frog both cast more than one assessing glance at Genma and Raidou, but this half of Team Six wasn’t letting anyone down. Anymore. Genma grimaced behind his mask, thinking of Kakashi (a blood price for my son) and Ryouma, and prayed, this time that the gracious Amida might spare his teammates from a trip to the lands of lotuses or devils. Surely if Orochimaru wanted them, he wanted them alive.
And alive they still stood a chance of escape.
Nobody spoke. The Suna ninja guarding them kept silent, distrustful watch, and the four ANBU said nothing to each other or their escorts. Conserving his energy and trying to endure the heat was as much as Genma felt genuinely capable of, and he was sure that Raidou, at least, felt the same.
By the time the aide in charge returned, Genma was biting the sides of his tongue to distract himself from the raw inferno under his bandages, and the nausea coiling in his gut.
Moving helped. The promise that soon they’d be in a protected space and he could take off the damn mask and wash his face with cold water helped more.
And make sure Raidou’s face wasn’t any worse, and he was… ‘Okay’ was not the correct word. Not dying, not getting septic, not in brain-scrambling agony.
They turned down a partly shaded alley where the temperature dropped a few precious degrees. Their guide stopped at a round, plaster-walled building with a sign hanging over the door proclaiming it to be the offices of a trading company. Inside was a breath cooler still, and broad-bladed ceiling fans turned overhead, proving the building had an electric supply.
It smelled like a trading company’s offices. A heady melange of spices and smoke, tea and dust greeted them as they entered. The main room seemed to have been hastily cleared of desks and filing cabinets, judging by the impressions left on the carpeted floor. A trio of closed doors stood at the far wall.
“Someone will escort the Ambassador here when she and Shimizu-sama are finished,” the aide told them. “This building has a kitchen.” He pointed at the doors. “And a bathroom, as well as a private office for the Ambassador, and two conference rooms you can use however you see fit.”
There had to be more of the building beyond those doors, given how large it had been on the outside. Maybe the conference rooms were hidden in the back.
“We will bring you bedding. Do you need anything else?”
“The medical care we were promised,” Vulture said immediately.
“As soon as Ishikawa-sensei is available, one of us will bring her here.”
That didn’t sound like it would be as immediate as Genma had hoped. But with a village in shambles it was unsurprising, he supposed, that medical staff would be in short supply. He hoped the Ichibi had spared the hospital.
Vulture looked at the rest of her temporary team.
“They can go,” Frog said. “We’ve got this. Right, Tanuki? Moon?”
Raidou didn’t move his head, and he sounded like he was doing his best to speak without moving his mouth, but he grunted out a yes.
“We’re good,” Genma said. A bald lie, but the sooner the Suna ninja left, the sooner they could get their masks off. And Genma could get a look at Raidou’s condition.
And sit down.
“A guard will be posted outside,” the aide said. “If you need anything, ask one of them, or you can ask for me. I’m Morimoto Kojima.” And with that, he and the other Suna ninja finally cleared out.
Almost the minute the door clicked shut, Raidou’s knees buckled.
“Shit.” Genma watched, horrified and too far away to help, as Raidou started to slump. Thank every mercy, Vulture was still alert. She snaked an arm under Raidou’s, catching him before he could fall.
Genma’s breath was hot against his face. He took a single, lurching step towards Raidou and Vulture. It felt like he was trying to push through a swamp. No, quicksand. No. That was Ono’s chakra.
And Ono’s arm against his back, holding him on his feet.
“I think I should sit down,” Genma said. His voice sounded slurred to his own ears.
“I think so, too,” Ono said.
Vulture had Raidou on his back, with two gloved fingers against the pulse point of his neck. It was hard to see the rise and fall of his chest under the stiff ANBU vest.
“He needs hydration,” Genma said. “I… My kit. In my kit…” In my medkit I have all the supplies we need. Ono, you—No. Frog.—Frog, you start an IV. Vulture, don’t take off his mask yet. But none of his instructions made it out of his mouth.
A rushing, roaring noise drowned out the sound in the room.
Confusingly, he was on the floor, too, with Ono, maskless, looking at him with worried eyes. “Hey! You with me?” Ono asked.
Vulture reached for the edge of Raidou’s mask.
“Don’t—” Genma rasped. Too late.
As soon as her gloved fingers curled around the chin and started to lift, Raidou went rigid, grating a godsawful guttural sound.
“Leave his mask. Let me—” Genma lurched to his knees, but his balance failed. He shoved chakra through stiff muscles to stabilize them, reaching out instinctively to break his fall. And froze where he landed, as every sand-scoured nerve across his neck and shoulders short-circuited in an electric explosion.
“Morphine,” someone said. Maybe Ono. A tiny pinprick was lost in the noise. A heavy, numb, dizzy, thick-tongued chill slid under Genma’s skin. He closed his eyes and tried to remember how to breathe.
Raidou’s rockslide into unconsciousness was interrupted by someone trying to rip his face off. There was absolutely no thought left in the gasping, glitching, melting fire pit of his brain. His body just punched, hard.
Since Vulture’s brain was still online, she rocked liquidly to the side. The blow glanced off the smooth face of her mask and sharp edge of a jawline. She caught his fist before he could yank it back.
Her other hand pulled his mask the rest of the way off.
Bandages or skin or half his skull peeled away with it. Raidou spasmed. He might have made a noise, might have just choked. She blocked his other hand, planted a knee across his sternum so he couldn’t lurch up, and behind the narrow gray lines of her mask, he saw pale blue eyes go wide.
And finally, mercifully, Raidou blacked out.
For a long time, he was nowhere.
When he was finally somewhere, it didn’t seem right. Raidou came back to himself, barefoot and cold, on an endless sea of black sand. The sky above was starless and empty.
He touched his face and felt a hole. The left side of his face was nothing, an empty socket from eyebrow to jaw. Black smoke drifted away from the edges, like a fire smoldered somewhere in the center, but nothing felt warm. Unnerved, he dropped his hand.
Something moved behind him.
Raidou jerked around, reaching for weapons he wasn’t carrying.
A giant white tiger, glowing like moonlight, padded out of the darkness. Muscles rippled smoothly under thick, monochromatic fur. Its eyes were pale green. Its long whiskers were slender glimmers of light. It was twice his height and walked with a predator’s effortless grace.
It said, “You really should not have angered the tanuki.”
Raidou said, diplomatically, “What the fuck.”
The tiger stopped uncomfortably within reach and sat on the black sand, which glimmered with reflected light. Its tail curled neatly around massive paws, exactly like a housecat. It lifted its head, scenting the dry air, and said disapprovingly, “Hiderigami has stayed far too long.”
“The… drought demon?” Raidou said.
“Drought spirit,” corrected the tiger.
“Oh,” said Raidou. “Sure. Go back to that bit about the tanuki?”
The tiger gave him a long look, as if it didn’t appreciate his cavalier attitude towards the appropriate nomenclature of demons, spirits, and assorted mythology, but relented, “You were given a gift few mortals could even conceive of, and you squandered it.”
Was— was he getting scolded by a dream tiger?
“Look,” Raidou said, irritated, “I’m aware. In my defense, I didn’t think my rookies would go rogue the next day and murder someone.”
“In your defense?” the tiger echoed, sounding disturbingly like one of Raidou’s own thoughts.
“Expectations have been recalibrated,” Raidou said. The next time Team Six ran across a middle-aged man with any hint of abusive tendencies about him, Raidou was going to knock Kakashi and Ryouma out first and ask questions later.
The tiger made a low, rumbling sort of sound that, on any other kind of creature, might have been a snort.
“Are you here for any specific reason?” Raidou asked. “Am I here for any specific reason? Is there a way I can make it up to the tanuki? Or is this just how the universe yells at people?”
“The walls are thin right now,” said the tiger.
Raidou waited a few beats, but the tiger just flicked its tail. Raidou sighed. “I think you’re talking to the wrong person.”
“If you want someone to go dimension-hopping, yeah. You want Hatake or Yondaime-sama or— Jiraiya-sama, maybe. And if you want to talk contracts then it’s the same three, or Genma—he just renewed a contract with the cats.” Raidou squinted with his half-face. “Are you one of Genma’s cats?”
The tiger’s muzzle wrinkled, exposing unnaturally white canines. They almost seemed to glow, like starlight sharpened to a point. “I am contracted to no mortal.”
A prickle went down the back of Raidou’s neck. Something like the red warning of killing intent, but even more ancient. He was acutely reminded that he was unarmed, unarmored, and had absolutely no idea where he was. Or what he was with. Just because something looked like a tiger…
He said, carefully, “I meant no offense.”
The tiger huffed and seemed to settle itself. It turned and licked its own shoulder with a rasping sound, before rumbling, “I should remember how little humans know.”
Raidou felt his mouth slant sideways. It pulled on the empty hole in his face, making a flutter of smoke curl around his remaining eyebrow. “Most of the time, almost nothing.”
“Indeed.” The tiger stood, stretched, and prowled closer. “Then let me be clear.”
Raidou’s eyeline wasn’t quite level with the tiger’s chest. He had to tip his head back, which opened his throat.
“The walls are thin right now,” said the tiger, “because of your world.”
Pakkun’s voice tickled Raidou’s memory. Think of a fan folded up really tightly. There are leaves touching each other—like my world and the tanuki world—and others that don’t.
Kurenai, thoughtful in the wisping steam of a tanuki hot spring, Is the human world the linchpin of the fan, then?
Raidou said, “What did my world do?”
“Banished its guardians. Broke the old agreements.”
Well, that sounded like humans.
Raidou rubbed the back of his head. “If the stability of the universe is based on my world keeping its shit together, someone made a really dumb choice. Even the villages can’t keep a peace treaty going for more than a decade.” He looked up at the tiger’s arctic frost eyes. “What guardians? Like—gods?”
The tiger stared down at him. “You don’t know? You touched one today.”
Raidou blinked, one-eyed, then reached up a hand to the edge of the hole in his face. “The bijuu?”
“That’s your word for them.”
“Okay, but—guardians? The Kyuubi tried to eat us.”
“And what had your people done to her?”
Raidou had his mouth halfway open to answer—we didn’t try to eat it!—before his brain tripped over ‘her’. He stalled uncomfortably and found himself remembering the Ichibi’s iron kettle, small enough to be carried by a single shinobi.
He shook his head. The Ichibi had razed its village to the ground. The Kyuubi, as far as Raidou knew, had been nothing but respected by its various jinchuuriki before it had tried to burn Konoha off the map. Maybe Suna had fucked up, but Konoha didn’t torture her own.
The tiger’s eyes narrowed, as if it could read every thought in his open skull.
“Look,” said Raidou, a little desperately, “this is so far over my paygrade I can’t even see the top. I’m just a soldier. I don’t command villages, or control bijuu, or spackle interdimensional walls. I go from point A to point B and hit shit really hard. That’s my niche. You need to talk to someone a lot smarter or a lot higher up, preferably both.” A hopeful thought occurred. “If you know where Yondaime-sama jumped to, I’d be happy to make an introduction.”
The tiger sighed, as if Raidou had disappointed it. Its breath was cool and smelled like ozone.
“Your godling is between the Fields and the Void. He may return, but I cannot reach him.”
“Oh,” said Raidou, his small balloon of hope deflating like a collapsed lung. “What about Hatake?”
The tiger tipped its head and sniffed again. It held its mouth slightly open for a moment, inhaling dry desert air, and for a wild second Raidou thought it was about to sneeze in his face. “The storm cub is still in your world, though not as anchored as he once was.” Its nose wrinkled. “His companion smells unpleasant.”
Hope reinflated Raidou’s chest with warm air. “Like rot and soap?”
“Death and grass, yes.”
Raidou didn’t punch the air, only because he didn’t want a mystical tiger to bite his arm off. “That’s Tousaki! Where are they? Are they okay? If you want to talk to someone about breaking dimensions, Hatake is your guy.” He considered this thought and hastily edited, “Fixing broken dimensions.”
The tiger made another rumbling sound, which might have been cousin to amusement. “The storm cub’s mind is not one that welcomes guests. Nor would his contract permit it. He is in your world, as I said.”
“Where in my world?”
The tiger looked at him for a long, long moment with its green eyes, like the eerie lights of a far northern sky, then lowered its head until Raidou could feel its breath on his face. His elation withered into sharp, cold nerves. He swallowed. “Please?”
“The walls will only hold so long,” the tiger said. “Ask your world to consider what happens when they break. And make peace with the tanuki. I’m tired of listening to them bitch.”
Before Raidou could process that or even twitch, the tiger’s head snapped to the side and bit him. Thick canines punctured skin over the meat of his shoulder, but there wasn’t pain, there was—knowledge.
Yawning open before him was the supernova of a celestial mind, a drenching cascade of stars and nebulae and unreachable edges. The tiger was a constellation, a galaxy, a god. And it was pissed.
White stripes glowed like burning platinum. The interlacing blackness was so dark it ate holes in the desert. Byakko’s green irises were seafoam and ocean trenches, narrowing as its pupils dilated until all Raidou could see was the deep, crushing dark of black holes—
And then there was sky. The high, pale blue of somewhere very cold. Somewhere the tiger cared about. And Raidou could see
a mountain range with narrow black peaks
a village gathered in the crux of a gorge
temple ruins wedged into the side of a sheer cliff face
tunnels that snaked down and in, until rock gave way to slick floors and clean walls, the flash of a steel scalpel, and
a heart, laid bare
Raidou woke up.
Now there was pain—his face, his shoulder—but there was also Genma, lurching up from a bedroll, yelling something about bleeding. He stopped when Raidou flailed, lunged over, and managed to grab Genma’s wrist.
Genma said, “Rai?”
“Hatake and Tousaki aren’t in Iwa,” Raidou said, and fell over on his goddamn face.
Genma used every trick of contortion and balance he knew to catch Raidou without tearing open his own shoulder wounds, but in the end he had to reach his right arm out, and that was going to cost him. Was already costing him, holding Raidou’s unconscious weight. Worth it, though. The alternative—letting Raidou land face first in the tangle of scratchy sheets around Genma’s legs—was not happening.
The door to the conference room they’d been installed in slammed open. “Shiranui, what’s— He’s bleeding? You’re bleeding? Shit, what the hell happened?” Ono, maskless and wearing just the underpinnings of his uniform, looked from Genma to Raidou and back in shocked confusion. A woman who had to be Vulture, also maskless and armorless, but easily recognizable by her stooped shoulders, pushed past Ono to pull Raidou’s unresisting body off of Genma and ease him back onto his bedroll.
Two more faces appeared in the doorway, one bandaged and black-eyed. Guards Genma recognized from the embassy. So at least some of the Konoha staff had survived.
“Shiranui? Genma?” Ono jostled Genma’s knee. Genma managed an undignified groan in response, but did manage to get his brain processing a little more. A fresh set of bloodstains seeped into the shoulder of the beige t-shirt someone had changed Raidou into. At some point. And someone had started IVs on both of them. And rebandaged Raidou’s face, and presumably Genma’s shoulders and arm.
“I don’t know,” Genma said. “Raidou’s—Namiashi’s—his shoulder just started bleeding. And then he woke up and said something about our other teammates and pitched over. I didn’t want him landing on his face. Is he okay? Let me—”
“No one is letting you anything,” Vulture said. “Namiashi’s stable. I’ll look at his shoulder.”
“You want to maybe lie back down?” Ono suggested.
“No.” Yes. But no. Was Raidou delirious from fever? Bleeding in his brain from soldier pill toxicity? Were his other wounds bleeding under the bandages?
“What the hell?” Vulture’s voice rose half an octave. “Was there some kind of animal in here? Something bit him.”
“I… don’t know. I just. I was asleep, but then I woke up and he was bleeding. Ono, move.” Genma tried to push past the wall of Ono’s chest and was met with firm resistance, and searing pain over his shoulder and down his arm.
“The medic said you need—” Ono started, but another voice overlapped his.
“That is an animal bite.” The bandaged guard looked at his counterpart. “Odagiri, see if you can find out what did that.”
Genma managed to lean past Ono enough for a look when Odagiri came into the room to search for whatever animal might have snuck in and bitten Raidou. The wounds weren’t deep, but they were distinct. Two pairs of opposed punctures that looked like they’d been made by big teeth. Very big.
A chill ran right through Genma. Whatever had done that wasn’t just some stray dog or hungry rat.
More like the Hayama demons. Or a giant summoned snake…
“Fucking move,” Genma gritted, and this time he did manage to shove past Ono. He wrapped a hand around Raidou’s wrist—warm, dry, with a steady pulse and a low thrum of familiar chakra. Vulture didn’t stop him when he tried to cast the simplest of triage jutsu. It felt like dragging shuriken over slate, but the chakra came together well enough to give him the answer he needed most of all. Raidou was, as Vulture had said, stable. There was no brain hemorrhage. No oozing intra-abdominal bleed. Nothing newly threatening but that strange shoulder bite, which was already clotting even without a bandage.
Raidou was a little feverish, and his face was still horrifically damaged, but much less so than the last time Genma had seen it. Someone—probably the medic they’d been promised—had laid in enough deep healing to cover the worst of the avulsions with a layer of healthy subcutaneous flesh. Even better, Raidou was, mercifully, unconscious. Probably in no small part thanks to whatever narcotic was in that IV. If it weren’t for the bite wound and the room full of alarmed comrades, Genma would almost believe he was delirious and hallucinating.
“There’s absolutely no way an animal got in here,” Odagiri said, completing her circuit and rejoining her fellow guard at the door. “Are either of you a summoner?”
“I— I am.” Genma looked up at her. “Cats. But I’m so low on chakra, there’s no way I could have summoned something with teeth that big.”
“It does look kind of like a cat bite, though,” Odagiri’s partner said. “I’m not saying you were trying to hurt your partner—”
“There’s no way,” Ono said. “You weren’t with us, so you didn’t see it, but they were both just about tapped out before we even got here. Shiranui put everything he had left into stabilizing Namiashi out at that oasis.”
“I’ll vouch for him, too,” Vulture said. “Plus, Ishikawa-sensei, the Suna medic, said she couldn’t do more than the minimum for him until he recovered more chakra. Both of them, really.”
“Which is why you really need to lie down,” Ono said, with a pointed look.
“I… Do.” Genma agreed. He was bone-achingly cold and faintly trembling with chakra depletion, especially after casting that triage jutsu. But he’d needed to know. To reassure himself. He stared at Raidou’s still, pale face. The unbandaged side had been cleaned, but a few dried flecks of blood remained. Bruises and scabbed abrasions littered the rest of Raidou’s skin—souvenirs of the Ichibi and the cave-in. He looked down at his own bare arms and saw much the same.
And he could just about hear Raidou telling him to lie the hell down and let someone else do the mediccing.
With a groan, he let Ono help him down to the least painful position he could manage, with his head and shoulders propped on a bundle of fabric.
“We’ll search the rest of the building,” Odagiri volunteered.
“We’ll join you in just a minute,” Vulture told her. She produced a roll of gauze from somewhere and began to wrap the bite wound.
“You need anything?” Ono asked Genma.
“Blanket,” Genma said. He let his eyes shut for a moment. When he opened them again, he was covered, Vulture was already gone, and Ono was nearly out the door.
Ono turned back.
“It could be a demon.”
Ono stared at him for a long moment, then sighed. “Of course it could. Your team really is cursed, you know that, Shiranui? Try to get some sleep. I’ll let you know if we figure out what it was. Or if anything else insane happens.”
It felt like hours had passed when Genma woke again. Something had happened to his watch, probably when they’d taken off his armor and shirt. It didn’t really matter. It was enough later that his mouth felt as dry as the desert outside. His chakra was still a ghost of what it should be. Despite the blanket Ono had found for him, Genma shivered.
A sliver of yellow light illuminated the bottom edge of the door. Raidou’s breaths came sonorous but steady. Nothing else had come in to bite anyone. Genma wanted to reach out and check on Raidou anyway, but that would mean moving his arm, and some animal instinct to avoid pain held him back. He shut his eyes and let his breaths fall into rhythm with Raidou’s instead.
Minutes? hours? later, a soft knock preceded the door creaking open. Genma croaked out a dry-throated, “Yes?” Next to him, on the other bedroll, Raidou’s sheets rustled.
Lynx, maskless but in full armor, came in and set a low-lit lantern on a table strewn with medical supplies.
“What’s happening out there?” Genma asked.
“The ambassador’s just come back,” Lynx said. “We’ve found a few more of the embassy staff. And Boar and Panther’s bodies. Have you had anything to eat?”
“No. Probably should,” Genma said. “Boar and Panther.” He grimaced. “I’m glad you recovered them. Are the embassy staff you found… Alive?”
“They all evacuated in time. Although one man went back—I found him sorting through the rubble for file cabinets.” The distinct note of approval in Lynx’s voice said he’d have done exactly the same himself, as the Hokage’s secretary. “Frog was pleased to see his cousin survived, and the rest of us are pleased to have a competent administrator on hand. I’ll see what Ono-san can scrounge up for food. D’you mind if the ambassador looks in?”
“It’s fine with me. Is she okay? She took a bludgeoning today, too.”
“I’ll let her give her own report,” Lynx said wryly. “Take care of yourself, Tanuki.” He slipped back out the door, leaving the lantern behind.
In the warm, low light, Raidou looked a little less pallid. Genma told himself it was probably just the light itself, and not actual color returning to Raidou’s face, but it still made him feel better. He shifted carefully onto his side, pulled his blanket in closer, and watched the steady rise and fall of Raidou’s chest, drifting in that disconnected way only drugs or fever could produce.
It couldn’t have been very much longer before Sadayo slipped in. She stood in the doorway for a moment, studying the room and its occupants, before crossing to crouch down next to Genma. She looked far better—she must have had a chance to bathe, and she’d shed her ruined kimono for a standard jounin uniform. Her hair was put up in a practical bun, and someone skilled had healed her broken nose—it was straight and no longer swollen, and the bruises under her eyes were faint yellow-green, as if they were many days old.
Her voice had a quality Genma associated with wartime frontline commanders when she said, “Status report, Tanuki.”
Genma pulled himself painfully into a cross-legged seat. “Moon woke up briefly and said Hound and Ram aren’t in Iwa, then fell unconscious again. It could have been he was dreaming or delirious. I don’t know.” He shivered with his blanket gone, and braced himself carefully with palms on his knees, fighting not to sway.
If Sadayo noticed, which she probably did, she didn’t say anything.
“Something bit Moon while we were in here. I didn’t see what happened—I was unconscious—but it was big. No one else saw it either, or could figure out how it got in. Odagiri-san—no, her partner—thought maybe I’d summoned a cat, but there’s no way I could have. Not one that big. I’m not sure I have enough chakra at the moment to work a summoning jutsu at all.
“Moon and I are both heavily chakra depleted. I don’t know the current extent of his or my injuries. I don’t think it would be safe for me to take another soldier pill, though. And definitely not Moon. You should consider us both incapacitated for now.”
If she wanted to roll her eyes at that statement of the obvious, she didn’t let it show beyond a somewhat dry delivery of, “Ishikawa-sensei concurred with that assessment.” She went on more crisply, “I’m informed that you have the equivalent of partial-thickness burns across your upper arms, shoulders, and neck, with one or two deeper areas. The type of injury is not necessarily serious, but the size and location is. There are also indicators of infection.”
That shouldn’t really have been a surprise, given Genma’d detected incipient infection in Raidou hours ago, and he personally felt like hell, but somehow it was.
She gestured to his IV. “Suna’s resources are depleted, of course, but I was able to secure antibiotics, which Konoha will replace when our relief teams arrive.”
“I hope with high-level medics,” Genma said, with a glance at Raidou. “Did Ishikawa-sensei give you an update on Moon?”
“Full thickness injuries to much of the left side of his face,” she said. “Signs of infection, which may endanger his eye if it spreads. Regardless, I’m told he has a very good chance of surviving.”
An icy clod of nausea dropped into the pit of Genma’s stomach. “A good chance,” he echoed softly. “That’s good.”
Would Raidou be happy if this ended his career as a ninja? And what about the chance that he wouldn’t survive? Genma dug rough-edged nails into his knees and sent the fear somewhere else. Somewhere he could deal with it later, on his own, when he wasn’t trying to report to his field commander in the middle of a disaster zone.
“That’s— When I checked him earlier I could tell someone had already done some healing work where the damage was worst. Ishikawa-sensei, I assume. Will she be back to do more? It sounds like he might need grafts.”
“I’m doubtful,” Sadayo said. “Suna’s injured are many and their medics are few. Unless Moon deteriorates, his cosmetic needs will have to wait for Konoha.”
Unsurprising, but still hard to hear. That put any realistic hope of treatment for Raidou at five or six days away. Team Six had covered the distance between Konoha and Suna in a little over three-and-a-half days, but they were a small group, ANBU jounin, and had used translocations judiciously to speed their journey. A relief detail would include more chuunin than jounin, and any high-level medics weren’t likely to be used to travel or working in the field.
He’d just have to pray that Raidou didn’t get worse, and that he recovered his own chakra stores extremely quickly. If worse came to worst, he would take a soldier pill no matter how ill-advised, if there were no other options and Raidou needed immediate stabilization.
Sadayo got to her feet and moved to the space between their bedrolls, where she crouched again. She eyed Raidou critically for a moment, before she reached out and tapped him firmly on the shoulder. “Moon, wake up.”
It took her a couple of attempts to bring Raidou around and make him focus, but he eventually managed to get his unbandaged eye open. He rumbled a heavily slurred, “‘bassador?”
“What bit you?” she asked, without preamble.
Raidou squinted at her, made a soft, throaty noise, took another breath, and then said, “Dream tiger god.”
What? Letting aside the fact that dreams don’t leave physical wounds, it was as good an explanation as any, but… More evidence Raidou was not necessarily tracking.
Sadayo let his absurd answer sit for an extended moment, then said, “Elaborate.”
Raidou awkwardly, painfully got himself upright, with equally awkward assistance from Sadayo. He took a couple of seconds to reorient himself and be certain of his balance. Then looked at Genma, eye roving carefully up and down, likely satisfying himself Genma was still breathing.
Genma gave him a little nod, and quirked the fingers on his left hand into the sign for proceed.
Raidou didn’t nod so much as faintly twitch his head, but his gaze flicked back to Sadayo. Speaking mostly out of the right side of his mouth, he said, “This is going to sound insane.”
Sadayo flicked her hand in a gesture that seemed to indicate the general state of the world, then enclosed the room in a delicately crafted silencing jutsu. “We are long past that. Proceed.”
Raidou recounted a tale that sounded as utterly divorced from reality as most dreams, in the flat, factual cadence of an oral mission report. Genma could see how these things could have seeped into Raidou’s subconscious: a tiger for his summoned cats, and all the times the rookies had invoked tigers on missions. The tanuki and their likely ire over the death of Nomiya. The bijuu, of course, and the thin walls between dimensions that were letting demons through.
But dreams did not leave bleeding bite marks.
“Then it bit me, here,” Raidou said, touching his shoulder. “And for a second it was like I was in its mind and it was massive. I— I can’t even really describe it. It wasn’t just a tiger. It was a universe, and I think it showed me where Hatake and Tousaki are. We thought the Snake would take them to Iwa, but he didn’t.” Raidou took a quick breath and continued, “They’re somewhere north and way west, the little mountain country. I saw a black mountain range, and a village, and what I think was a ruined monastery built right into a cliff face.”
“Sky Country,” Genma said, staring at Raidou. “That’s Sky Country. That’s—” Genma gulped a half-breath as it fully hit him. What this dream was. “They still worship the shijin there. You’re describing their god Byakko, Guardian of the West.”
He reached past Sadayo to capture Raido’s wrist and feel for a pulse. Feel the shape of his chakra where it bent around the bite marks on Raidou’s shoulders. It was a real wound, indistinguishable from any that an actual tiger might have left if it were biting as gently as it could.
Raidou met his eyes. “There were tunnels,” he said, voice low and deadly serious. “Then I got a glimpse of a scalpel and… someone’s open chest.”
It felt like the floor had collapsed under Genma. Like the room had lost all its air. All he could hear was a traumatized and frantic child. We have to find the Hokage. There’s a girl all cut open and people are dead in the wall and Orochimaru-sensei is killing people.
All he could see was the fresh black curse seal throbbing like a malignancy on the girl’s neck.
If Orochimaru had Kakashi’s or Ryouma’s chest flayed open, it was too late. Even if they knew exactly where to look, by the time anyone could get there, it would be far too late.
His voice shook. “We have to send search teams now.”
Genma was not a man given to naked fear. Worry, yes. Healthy concern, sure, judicious caution, maybe even a little bit of anxiety, but Raidou had never seen him afraid. Yet there it was, in the dilated pupils of Genma’s light brown eyes, the shiver in his voice.
But the words were still practical, even if they weren’t something achievable.
“What search teams?” Sadayo said, flat as an anvil, before Raidou could find a way. “Konoha is five days away. Suna has no one to spare.”
“Frog and Vulture. Some of the embassy jounin,” Genma said immediately. “You said I’m not in bad shape. I could—”
“Absolutely not,” Raidou said, forgetting to speak on one side of his face. Pain ricocheted like a burning slap as rigid, inflexible skin failed to stretch. He took a few slow, deep breaths through his teeth.
When he could focus again, he found Genma looking wretchedly apologetic and Sadayo simply watching them both in silence.
“No,” she said, and her voice was perhaps a little softer. “Konoha’s presence here is too small to spare even one person, let alone half our force. I did not risk all our lives re-negotiating a truce just to have it crumble without supervision.” She took a slight breath and sat back, shifting from her crouch to seiza. “If it was Kakashi you saw, he has survived worse injuries.”
Raidou didn’t know if that was Sadayo’s version of optimism or realism, but it drowned any speck of sympathy he had for her in a furious wave of nausea. If it was his mothers in her place…
Well, there wouldn’t be a surviving treaty, but Kakashi might know how to navigate a basic human conversation.
He squashed that line of thought as unhelpful.
“We don’t know who Byakko showed Moon,” Genma said. “That could have been Ryouma or Kakashi or some stranger. But we know it’s Orochimaru, and we know what he—” Genma paused, swallowed, went on “—what Konoha found in that ‘laboratory’ five years ago. He wasn’t just vivisecting.”
“I’m aware,” Sadayo said. “I was on the council when… that place was discovered. We all visited it.”
“Then you know he was working on curse seals. He’s already succeeded once. Now he’s had five years to perfect and expand on it.” Genma’s voice was firmer, jaw squared, but his eyes still had the hunted look of a man who felt more like a rabbit than a predator. “If we can stop him before he does something to— compromise our agents, we have to try.”
Raidou’s heart sank. He hadn’t thought of that. But now he couldn’t think of anything worse than managing to arrive while Kakashi and Ryouma were still alive, only to find them corrupted and unsalvageable. What a leader other than Minato might then order done.
Sadayo exhaled through her nose, short and sharp, and began to rise. “I do not have time for this. We do not have the resources. There is no rescue party until Konoha arrives.”
Five days from now.
“But why would Byakko come to me directly if there’s nothing we can do?” Raidou said.
“Why do gods do anything?” Sadayo said, but then she paused halfway to her feet. “What did Byakko mean by apologizing to the tanuki?”
Genma blinked, caught short, and Raidou could almost see the thoughts scrolling behind his eyes. That’s extremely, extremely classified. “Err… Taichou?”
As she herself had pointed out, the ambassador had just negotiated a brand new, binding truth for the future of two countries. If she didn’t already have the highest level clearance, she’d earned the field promotion.
“This is also going to sound insane,” Raidou rasped.
“More than before?” Sadayo said, but clearly didn’t expect an answer. She lowered back into her seiza, moving like all her joints didn’t twang and ache, and made an abbreviated gesture: continue.
“So,” Raidou said, gathering himself for another painful round of talking. “We had this mission a few months ago…”
To Sadayo’s credit, she only interrupted him twice—once for Kakashi’s wolf elders, and once for Himself’s seamless healing. She didn’t react at all when he recounted Nomiya’s staged suicide and the fallout that had followed. Nor when he told her about Intel’s repeated, rebuffed attempts to make contact with the elusive tanuki tribe. When Raidou finally wound down, voice creaking like a rusted cart wheel, she said only, “I see.”
Her poker face really was exceptional.
Raidou said, “How I’m supposed to find the tanuki is another question. They found us last time.”
“At first, but you gained access to their world through Kakashi and his dogs,” Sadayo said. She looked at Genma. “You summon cats.”
“I do,” Genma agreed cautiously. “But I don’t think I could replicate what Kakashi did to reverse the summoning. What he showed us about how he did that… Even if I had enough chakra right now to try, I doubt it would be survivable.”
“But your first cat,” Raidou said, remembering. “Hotaru—she said she found you because of the tanuki, so she must have some way to talk to them.”
Genma blinked again, slowly. “You’re right, I could summon Hotaru. Should summon her. I need my gear.”
“And some chakra,” Raidou said. “Is Frog—”
“Give me your wrist,” Sadayo said, holding out her hand to Genma.
A worried crease pinched between Genma’s brows, but he laid his upturned wrist across Sadayo’s palm. Raidou barely felt the flicker of her chakra spreading over Genma’s skin.
“Fire nature,” she said. “And earth. You’re my exact opposite.”
Making her water and air. Raidou was unsurprised.
She lifted his wrist and lowered her head, pressing his pulsepoint to her forehead. Genma, smartly, froze. Raidou watched, a little disconcerted, as the ambassador’s eyes closed and her expressionless face smoothed out entirely, going slack with inward focus. Her chakra must have started to transfer, because Genma winced, then shivered.
Raidou lifted his remaining eyebrow.
Cold, Genma mouthed.
Raidou crooked two fingers in the ANBU short-form for, Duh.
Sadayo’s chakra resources outmatched her son’s, because she gave Genma more than Raidou would have expected. The experience was obviously uncomfortable, but when Sadayo released him, there was more color in Genma’s cheeks, and greater alertness in his eyes. Wordlessly, Sadayo rose and left the room. Her silencing jutsu remained, enclosing Genma and Raidou in a fragile bubble of muteness.
“Well,” said Raidou.
“Yeah,” said Genma.
Sadayo returned almost immediately carrying a folded bundle of dirty, smelly clothes without obvious distaste. She set the bundle down in front of Genma and retook her seat. “Summon your cat.”
Genma had his mouth halfway open to, Raidou assumed, offer a thank you. He closed it again, looted his belt pouches for the Cat scroll, and opened it across his lap. A kunai was located and used to open the pad of his left thumb. He swiped a bloody slash across the inked paper, which drank it in greedily, and bent his head over a half-dozen hand seals.
Raidou felt the surge of chakra, dull but still tangible to his senses, and then the much more obvious whumph of sudden smoke that always accompanied clones and summons. From its center leapt a small tabby shape, which landed delicately at Genma’s side. Hotaru blinked up at Genma with pale green eyes, and Raidou’s brain did a weird little sideways shiver into the memory of tigers and teeth and the universe unfurling in his mind like a bear trap full of stars.
He shook himself back to find Hotaru staring at him. The little cat turned to examine Sadayo, then back to Genma. She sniffed the air, sat down, and curled her tail around her paws. “You look horrible. Both of you.”
Genma reached out and brushed the fur on her narrow shoulder with his fingertips. “It’s been a very bad few days. We need your help. You remember Namiashi-taichou?”
“Why would I have forgotten him?” Hotaru knocked her head grumpily against Genma’s hand. He stroked her cheek with a fingertip. “Who is this? She smells like your bad-tempered boy with the dogs, but much better because it’s without the dogs.”
“Ambassador Hatake,” Genma said. “She’s his mother.”
Hotaru sniffed. “My condolences,” she said, and redirected her attention back to Genma and Raidou. “You clearly need a medic. Both of you. Is that why you called me?”
“No, listen,” Genma said. “It’s about the tanuki. They—”
“I knew they were angry, but they aren’t violent,” Hotaru interrupted. “Usually. Whoever did this was not a tanuki.”
Well, Raidou thought.
“Actually it sort of was,” Genma said. “A different kind. But that’s not important. I need you to get a message to Himself. It’s not just about us. I mean, we want to apologize to him, but we need to find Hatake and Tousaki. And our Hokage. And whatever has become of the Ichibi.”
Hotaru gave him a long, deeply skeptical look, and sighed. “Oh, is that all.”
Raidou felt this was a bit rich coming from someone whose entire responsibility in all this was to, effectively, pass a note.
“If you’re too busy, I’m sure we can ask someone else,” he growled.
Hotaru’s eyes narrowed to thin green slits. “I’m going to let your rudeness go, since you are clearly suffering from a head wound.” She turned to Genma, in a way that suggested she was going to ignore everyone else from now on. “Wanting to find your comrades I understand. The rest you could have explained better. Why are they missing? Why are you so injured…” she sniffed the air, “and sick? What does the Ichibi have to do with this? Please do not tell me you two tried to fight one of the nine beasts on your own.”
Genma gave her a pained look and launched into a rapid summary.
Hotaru’s tail lashed throughout the retelling. Her needle claws pricked the sheets when Genma described the nearly successful sealing, the betrayal, the aftermath. A satisfied little purr accompanied Rasa’s death, but she actually growled when Genma got to Manda, fur rippling down her spine like pine needles in a storm.
Genma skimmed over their injuries and the political machinations, but he made sure to describe Raidou’s new credentials as Visited By Star-Tiger.
Hotaru’s ears flicked backwards and forwards. She rose and stalked over to Raidou, circling him, sniffing him—especially the bandaged shoulder. She was close enough that he saw the exact moment when her pupils dilated.
She backed off, tail tip twitching, then came forward and sat down next to him.
“Well,” she said. “I can’t imagine why Byakko would have chosen you as his messenger, but the ways of the gods are far beyond my knowing.”
Raidou elected not to react to this backhanded insult. He got out: “Does that mean you’ll take our message?”
“What do you want me to tell Himself?” Hotaru asked. “That you want a meeting so you can apologize? You realize that this looks a lot like you’re only apologizing because you want his help? He won’t like that.”
That… was a very good point.
Genma opened his mouth, closed it, sighed through his nose, and said, “You’re right. We have no excuse.”
Well, not exactly. Intel had been trying to make contact with the Tanuki for months, without success, and Team Six had been expressly forbidden from getting involved, for fear of additional international (interdimensional?) consequences.
And it wasn’t like Team Six hadn’t been busy in the meantime.
It was possible Raidou had lost some patience for Himself’s extended butthurt over the untragic execution of a deeply unpleasant human.
Hotaru looked at Sadayo. “You’re a diplomat. What do you suggest?”
“In my experience, when all options are difficult, it’s best to resort to honesty,” Sadayo said. “The tanuki are owed an apology and Konoha has been remiss in providing it. Konoha begs forgiveness, seeks to make amends with whatever reparations Greatest Grandfather would consider fair, and requests aid with a problem that has the potential to affect multiple dimensions, not just our own.”
Sadayo’s version of truth still had considerable spin, Raidou noticed, but you couldn’t argue that anything she’d said was a lie.
Hotaru considered this and inclined her head. “Wise council.”
Genma said, “You should also tell him that Harubi, Ichiro, and Sen are doing well. They’re happy and safe.”
“Alright,” said Hotaru. “Anything else? I suppose you want this meeting immediately.”
“Waiting will not make circumstances any more favorable,” Sadayo said, which sounded a lot nicer than yep.
“Very well.” Hotaru turned back to Genma, walking across his sheet-covered knees, and sat up to put her front paws on his chest. Her claws slid out to prick his bare skin. “Next time,” she said, “summon us before the fight, stupid human.”
Genma’s skin shivered, muscle twitching beneath, but he just raised a hand to cup Hotaru’s small skull. “I’ll try.”
She made a throaty grumbling sound, and shoved her head into the offered palm for a brief moment, then sat back. “Send me back. You can summon me again in twenty-four hours.”
Genma raised his hands for the canceling seals. Just before she vanished, Hotaru said, “Mouse livers,” and then was gone in a little burst of smoke.
Sadayo raised a slender eyebrow.
“She worries he doesn’t get enough iron,” Raidou said.
“I imagine there isn’t much hijiki in the cat world,” Sadayo said, after a miniscule pause. “You’d think she would recommend a larger liver, though.”
Genma gave a startled little laugh. “I showed her a package of hijiki and promised to eat it daily. She informed me seaweed was not an acceptable substitute.”
It might have been the ghost of a smile on Sadayo’s mouth, or a simple trick of the lamplight. Whatever it was, it was gone in seconds. She stood, brushing dust from her knees. “I will check back in twenty-four hours. Send word if you hear anything sooner. Lynx will be in with food shortly.”
“Ambassador,” Raidou said. Genma echoed him.
The door made no sound when she closed it behind her.
In the too-warm silence that followed, Raidou awkwardly lowered himself back down, stifling a wince as everything protested. One bedroll over, Genma followed suit, carefully lying down on his side. He looked…
Well, terrible. But fractionally less terrible than he had a moment ago. Maybe just doing something had thrown a leash back on his fear. His eyes were calmer, face a little more relaxed between its lines of pain and exhaustion.
Raidou tried very hard not to think of flayed open chests and bright scalpels. His heartbeat thudding through his cheekbone was a decent distraction, if not a welcome one.
Genma said, a little hesitant, “Rai?”
“‘m’okay,” Raidou said stiffly. There was nothing actually wrong with his jaw; the surface architecture was the problem. Swelling, restriction, pain. Talking that much had… probably been a bad idea. “Not in trouble. Just’ tired. Talk at me?”
“Sitting upright that long was probably a bad idea.” Genma stretched a careful hand across the gap between them and wrapped his fingers loosely around Raidou’s forearm. Some of his calluses were torn; they flaked dried blood off Raidou’s skin. He obliged Raidou’s request with a ramble that probably bypassed a few brain filters. “I might be wrong, but I think the Ambassador has a secret sense of humor. Also, I’m still cold. Her chakra was cold, and then I used it up summoning Hotaru, so now I’m just cold in that stupid out-of-chakra way. The rookies—”
He hesitated. There was an endless supply of suggestions to fill that gap, most of them horrible. Raidou hoped the truth involved a palmful of rot down Orochimaru’s throat and a fistful of lightning up his ass, so long as the rookies were smart enough not to shake hands.
“The rookies are going to be so mad they missed this,” Genma continued, picking up his train of thought. “Ryouma so he could practice medical skills, and Kakashi so he could score some points over me for being as chakra drained as he gets on missions…”
Genma’s hand was cold. Raidou reached across himself, folding his left hand over it. Genma hesitated a moment, then kept talking, a stream-of-consciousness nonsense that filled in some of the edges around pain.
By the time Lynx arrived with food, they were both drowsy. Genma ate, Raidou drank. They both took meds and Genma kept talking and, at some point, Raidou started to drift.
He dreamed of forests and rivers, the sun on green leaves, and no more tigers.