The bamboo-lined pathway hadn’t seemed that long when he’d started on it, but its winding course snaked and curved without end, and the distant hill stubbornly refused to get closer. Determined to be on time, Raidou kept walking, ignoring the growing flickers of doubt. He breathed relief when he finally spotted a clearing up ahead, surrounded by tall maple trees—
Which melted like an ending dream.
He did not, miraculously, fall on his face, but it was a near thing. The pathway was still in front of him. The clearing was gone. Bamboo waved in the breeze. The world looked exactly as real as it had a half-second ago, except for how the landscape had altered.
A tight, hot shiver clenched his stomach.
Genjutsu. He should have expected that. Obviously he should have expected that. He’d just assumed he’d actually get to meet the Crimson Eye of Konoha before she turned his brain inside out.
In retrospect, he was probably lucky it had just been trees.
He set his shoulders back and finished his trek — much shorter now — to the two women waiting on the porch. At first glance, Yuuhi Benihime could have been the matriarch to any old-blood clan. Iron-grey hair drawn back into a severe bun; a slight frame clothed in the traditional kimono, obi, and zori. She leaned on a dark wooden stick, which had been carved with a deliberate curve twisting down the shaft, like a polished root.
Since it was a poor ninja who stopped at the first glance, Raidou took a second, noting details. Her bun was studded with lethal wooden kanzashi, unadorned by flowers or ornaments. The kimono was black watered-silk, swirling with complex, unsettling patterns. Her obi and collar were crimson, the same color as Kurenai’s lipstick. The same color as both their eyes — fresh, arterial red. An edge of something fine and steely glimmered around her, like a warning: tread carefully.
At Benihime’s side, Kurenai stood almost half a head taller, wearing the same Intel-styled uniform he’d last seen her in. Her hair tumbled loose and dark around her shoulders. The family resemblance was obvious. Proud, classical bones and pale skin. What was young beauty on Kurenai had become elegant, weathered poise in her grandmother. Benihime looked like she might be approaching sixty; Raidou knew she was on the north side of eighty.
He bowed deeply. “Thank you for seeing me, Yuuhi-sama,” he said, trying for calm and polite.
Looking down at the leaf-strewn ground it occurred to him, belatedly, that this could still be a genjutsu. He’d never done his own kai.
If he started questioning everything, he’d never stop. And that way led to panic, which was a short, ugly trip back to broken ocean towns. He had to start with a seedling of faith, until Benihime — or sense — told him otherwise.
He straightened up to find her regarding him with pursed lips. “Well,” she said, after a cool silence. “You’re a well set-up young man. Spent all your time training that muscle, and none on your mind?”
He blinked, foundered, and offered a shrug. “I was encouraged to stick with my strengths, ma’am.”
“And pay no heed to your weaknesses. I see.” She surveyed him a moment longer, then allowed, “You may enter.”
She turned, slipped gracefully out of her zori, and slid open the door to pad inside the— tea house? The building was a small pavilion, wooden-walled and thatch-roofed. Perhaps converted to a private space for meditation. Or teaching.
Raidou unlaced his boots and followed her.
Inside was another testament to tradition. Fragrant tatami mats arranged in a square, a raised platform displaying tea-making equipment. Flat cushions, graceful blossom arrangements in fine vases framing a hanging calligraphy scroll. There was no source for interior light; diffused sunlight spilled gently through paper screens.
Benihime knelt on the far cushion, laying her stick down at her side.
After a brief hesitation, Raidou lowered himself down one one of the remaining cushions, feeling long-limbed and bulky in the intimate space. Kurenai slid the door closed, dimming the outside light, and took her place on the final cushion.
Benhime wasted no time on pleasantries. “Shibata-san has assured me that you are worth my time. My granddaughter, on the other hand, believes you could not endure a genjutsu she conquered before she was eight. Which is it to be, Namiashi Raidou?”
Raidou took a moment to compose his answer.
“A piece of both,” he said at last. “I know your time is valuable. I don’t intend to waste it, but I can’t promise what results you’ll get out of me. I’ll try, but— I’ve been trying for a long time.” He glanced at Kurenai, who regarded him expressionlessly. “I don’t know what Yuuhi-san endured at eight, either, but I don’t underestimate shinobi, even young ones. I’d trust her counsel on genjutsu over mine.”
“Hmm. Less foolhardy than expected, for ANBU.” Benihime’s crimson gaze skimmed over him like a razor. “Extend your chakra.”
It was common shinobi practice to keep your chakra furled beneath your skin for the business of day-to-day living. Especially in a village Konoha’s size, where the busy, uncontrolled energy of civilians could scrape raw on your senses. Some people took it further, turning themselves almost sideways to the world. Kakashi barely glimmered in his sleep. Others, like Katsuko, could only dim themselves with extreme effort.
Raidou had never really had to bother. His chakra liked to hold close to his bones, building density until he siphoned it off for jutsu. It actually took a little effort to crack it open purely for the sake of being open. In a genjutsu-master’s presence, it felt rather like offering his throat to sharp teeth.
Benihime said, “Fill the room.”
He was reminded of sensitivity drills they’d practiced a lifetime ago in the academy. Stretch your senses. Further. How many people do you feel? Civilian or shinobi? That was when they’d first starting weeding out the few who could specialize as sensors, capable of detecting a spark more than a mile away.
Raidou had very definitely not been one of them, but he could expand himself to the corners of this small space. He breathed out through his nose and opened his hands, releasing energy outwards in a steadily increasing radius. The trick was to keep enough chakra inside the bubble, or you’d just end up with a skin that could only detect what its exterior touched.
Against that inner sense, Kurenai glowed like soft fire. Her shape was undefined and smudgy, but that was more likely Raidou’s issue than hers. She put him in mind of a lantern, heat trapped under glass. The harder he focused, the more she slipped away.
By contrast, Benihime was a beacon. Blazing, brilliant, and entirely controlled. Corralled in that tiny frame was the immovable strength of a mountain range. Raidou’s breath caught.
Behime gazed thoughtfully at a corner of the room, as if she could actually see the ebb and flow of his chakra. She nodded to Kurenai, who rose and walked a slow circuit around the platform, inside the margins of Raidou’s chakra. He watched her curiously. Her chakra rippled, like a tickle on the inside of his ribs. He thought, maybe, he could feel where his own energy bent and moved to accommodate her, but like all things chakra sense-related, the feeling was vague.
He was almost relaxed when Kurenai paused, tilted her head, and flared her chakra like an oil lamp exploding.
That did not tickle.
Raidou flinched, strangled a yelp, and scrambled to hold his chakra circle together. It shied raggedly away from Kurenai, losing integrity to become a brief, chaotic jumble before he could control it again. The exchange only took a fraction of a second, but unhappy shivers remained. He added more energy to steady his chakra, smoothing and strengthening it against further sucker punches.
“Hmm. That’s enough,” Benihime said.
Kurenai returned to her cushion, flashing a brief, apologetic smile at Raidou. There was a lilt to it that made him think he wasn’t the first she’d thumped in a tender spot.
He withdrew his chakra, relieved to have it settle back into its usual, comfortable channels, and attended when Benihime spoke again.
“Well, you’ll never be a genjutsu-master,” she said. “I hope you’re not disappointed, boy.”
He snorted quietly. “I’d settle for reasonably competent.”
She regarded him, eyes sharp. “Sugita Amane taught that ability in genjutsu derives first from one’s elemental chakra nature, that the Air of thought and will is more naturally predisposed towards manipulation of sense and perception than dull, immutable earth. He was wrong-headed in a number of other ways, of course. I incline more towards the Ninomiya Kayama school of thought: the quality and mutability of chakra matters more than its elemental nature. What did you perceive in the way your chakra interacted with Kurenai’s?”
“Not a lot,” Raidou admitted, reflecting on his dull, immutable earth nature with a rising tinge of annoyance. “It tickled a bit when Yuuhi-san moved through it. I could feel where she was, and that… I moved to make space for her, I think.”
He thought about telling Benihime that he’d read Sugita and Ninomiya, along with just about every non-classified genjutsu text he could get his hands on. I’m not stupid, dammit. But he doubted that would impress her. More likely she’d just ask why he hadn’t figured out the problem himself.
He wondered, briefly, if this was how Ryouma felt when his literacy came under fire.
Still, something almost like approval crossed Benihime’s stern face, just for a second. “Now look for the difference in Kurenai’s,” she instructed.
Kurenai extended her chakra. It spread and filled the room as Raidou’s had, a gentle ripple that made his skin tingle, but instead of sliding around him, leaving room, it slipped over him, a subtle pressure that pressed against his skin, almost sliding under the surface.
He gave her a wide-eyed look.
Kurenai’s crimson mouth twitched, hiding a smile. She withdrew her chakra.
Benihime said quellingly, “Don’t look so startled, boy. She didn’t goose you.”
Raidou was deeply thankful, just then, that it was not in his nature to blush. He cleared his throat and sat up, aiming for a more captainly mantle of composure. “Her chakra’s more delicate,” he said. “And, ah…” intimate. He settled on, “Close.”
His arrow must have hit somewhere near the target, because Benihime gave a satisfied nod. “That’s what Ninomiya never quite managed to put into words. Your chakra—like the chakra of a great many other fine ninja; don’t look so sulky—has a natural repulsion to others. It clings tight to your bones, and will not readily mesh with another's." She held up a closed fist, smacked it gently into her open palm, and let the fist bounce away. "Kurenai's chakra has a more adhesive quality, seeking out and sinking in, like a thousand tiny hooks in each thread." Her open hands touched, fingers meshing together. "That’s the true secret to genjutsu mastery, boy. The rest is just finesse. And practice. You’ll never weave a genjutsu that a decently educated shinobi can’t detect, but I see no reason why you couldn’t learn to break one.”
Hope crested—then fell again. Raidou shook his head. “It’s not breaking that’s the problem. With enough sharp edges, I can break out of almost anything. But sharp edges don’t help if I never see the illusion.” He swallowed an aggravated noise. “I can manage up to chuunin level, just about. But in ANBU— well, I’m sure you got the file.”
"You recognized, and eventually broke, most of the genjutsu at Tsurugahama," Kurenai pointed out. "All but the one that killed Katsuko."
"He wouldn't have, if they'd been Yuuhi," Benihime said, a trifle peevishly. Annoyed that Kurenai had broken her role of silent assistant to speak? Well, if she didn't want opinions, she should have asked for Kaede.
"As it was, he recognized the first genjutsu only when the caster strained credulity. Molten sword-blades as bonds?" Benihime sniffed in disdain. "If they couldn't kill within the genjutsu itself, they should have seized their opportunities to slit your throat, not left you to burn all unknowing. You have Kirigakure's shortsighted cruelty to thank for your life. The first three seconds of any genjutsu casting are the most crucial, and both you and they wasted them."
Annoyance flickered in Raidou's eyes. "And the thirty seconds after, I know. Do you actually have a solution for this, or not?"
Any Yuuhi grandchild, challenging so defiantly, would have been bound up in genjutsu before their next breath. Kurenai half-expected to see the weave of chakra settling over Raidou, glazing his dark eyes as it took hold. But perhaps ANBU captains merited more tolerance than granddaughters, because Benihime merely smiled at him.
Her smile had edges to it, but he was ANBU. He was used to those.
"Whatever you may have heard, not even I can devise a lesson plan within ten minutes of first meeting. You may demonstrate your patience. Kurenai will make tea."
Her hands folded in her lap. Her eyes hooded. The weathered lines of her face settled into a remote, meditative stillness Kurenai knew well. There would be nothing more, until Benihime was ready.
Well, at least she hadn't banished them to the garden to wait. And Raidou's mouth was tight, but his temper was leashed, for now. Kurenai caught his gaze. He grimaced at her.
"You're doing well," she murmured to him. "And it's not a full tea ceremony. She'd have one of my aunts here for that. It won't take long."
His brows tilted doubtfully. "What does doing badly look like?"
Benihime's index finger tapped lightly against the smooth silk of her kimono. Kurenai repressed a smile, and turned to light the portable iron brazier. "If she sends you to the Nightmare Grove, you'll know."
Aunt Taeko must have come this morning to prepare the utensils; all was laid out in perfect order, from the stoneware jar filled with clean, fresh water to the lacquerware natsume with its loose mound of powdered green tea. Kurenai poured water into the iron kettle, wiped bowls and the tea scoop with a linen cloth, and watched her grandmother.
What solution could there be, for an ANBU captain who couldn't identify genjutsu? It wasn't a problem Yuuhi often faced. Their bloodline limit, the Meikougan, lent them an easy stepping-stone over the most basic of concerns. They could see the gossamer layers of chakra that wove a genjutsu, in finer detail than even the vaunted Uchiha Sharingan ever could. A tool but not a crutch, as Benihime was fond of saying; the doujutsu's use had to be learned, practiced, mastered. Raidou could never attain that advantage, any more than he could change the very nature of his chakra, but perhaps—
At the very least, he could learn to disrupt the genjutsu's hold on his chakra coils without actually stabbing himself.
Mentally reviewing chakra disruption exercises, Kurenai scooped matcha into bowls, ladled hot water from the kettle, and whisked the thin tea to a fine froth. She set the first bowl in front of Benihime. "Grandmother. The Chuudan method—"
"Will work admirably, once he realizes what's happening." Benihime's lashes lifted. She took the bowl in graceful hands, turned it once to admire its rough simplicity, and sipped. "I believe, Namiashi-san, that the particular density and quality of your chakra may serve after all. Your chakra repels others, rather than attracting, like the wrong end of a lodestone. If you can develop that quality into an active push, you may be able to employ it as a chakra shield of sorts. Area-effect genjutsu would slide away, instead of sinking in. A targeted genjutsu might still grip, but you would have warning."
Raidou stared at her for a long moment. Silence drew out, thin and brittle; a muscle clenched in the side of his jaw. His eyes were very dark.
He said finally, "If it's that simple, why hasn't anyone suggested it before?"
"Because it's not simple," Kurenai said sharply. "It's— "
Brilliant, certainly, but that wasn't what Raidou was waiting to hear. He didn't know where the cutting edge of genjutsu research lay, and likely he didn't care. He wanted a solution to his problem. He'd probably just expected it to come in the convoluted trappings of arcane mysticism, rather than with the stark perfection of a master's tea bowl.
And it was perfect. Exquisitely tailored to his chakra type, his unique strengths, his particular weaknesses—Kurenai's mind raced ahead, imagining the shield erected at the beginning of a mission into hostile territory, spun out of and anchored into that dense mass of chakra, then half-forgotten until the moment of need… It would work. Of course it would work!
She bit down her rising excitement. "It's a unique construct," she said, as repressively as she could. "Few shinobi would have the chakra density or capacity to sustain a shield for any useable length of time, and most of those who do would have the wrong type of chakra for the shield."
Benihime set her tea bowl down with a decisive thump. "I have certainly never met anyone else with that chakra strength and density and control who was quite so bad at genjutsu."
Raidou's mouth pulled sideways. He picked up his tea bowl, looked down at it, and looked up again. "Are you saying this has never been done before?"
"Chakra shields are well-attested," Benihime said calmly. "You have known at least one Hyuuga in your time, have you not? A shield of the type I envision— Well. It will never work if you do not make the attempt."
His eyes narrowed. "If there's a chance, I'll take it."
"Then drink your tea," Benihime said. "And we will begin."
For all that Benihime claimed she couldn’t devise a lesson plan in ten minutes, she had one assembled in record time. It involved more sitting. At her direction, he closed his eyes, picked a breathing pattern, and spent the rest of the morning layering his chakra over his skin in varying thicknesses until she finally deemed one acceptable.
“Now,” she said. “How long can you maintain that?”
Raidou squinted down at his fingers. He couldn’t see anything, but the energy tingled faintly against his fingertips. “A few hours, maybe, if you don’t need me to do anything else.”
“Then you will do so,” Benihime said, satisfied. “Kurenai will accompany you.”
A flicker of exasperation crossed Kurenai’s face. “Throwing pebbles at his shoulders, I presume, and taking notes when the shield breaks?”
“I see you’ll have it well in hand,” Benihime said calmly.
And that, apparently, was that.
A little nonplussed, Raidou bowed, expressed his thanks — Benihime waved them away with a sniff — and let Kurenai herd him out, grabbing his boots on the way. It felt extremely strange to move in a chakra-shield, as if his skin was both hypersensitive and padded in cotton wool. The layer was barely thicker than an oil droplet, but it was everywhere. He’d never been so aware of the back of his knees. His clothes felt cloying.
Getting his boots re-laced was a fumble-fingered challenge, but he managed without losing hold of his chakra or tripping down the porch step. Kurenai slipped rather more gracefully into her heels.
“So,” Raidou said. “Where do you want me?”
Kurenai frowned at her wristwatch. “Walking, I think. We’ll take a couple turns around the garden before we start on the pebbles.” Shading her eyes against the sun, she pointed at a stone lantern in the bamboo grove, halfway down the hill. “Stay away from that lantern, unless you want to test your shield against the garden maze.”
Raidou squinted at the lantern, marking it firmly on his mental map “Noted. Any other deadly landmarks to watch out for?”
“If you see flowers, don’t pick them.” She shared a half-smile with him, her mouth making a wry red curve. “At least we don’t have giant centipedes.”
“The day is still young.” One path seemed as good as any other; he picked a paved trail that wound around the other side of the hill, away from the lantern. Kurenai followed, heels clicking on the flagstones.
They completed two circuits at a leisurely pace, Raidou silent, Kurenai serene. By the third turn, sweat had started to prickle at his temples. Perhaps ‘hours’ had been an exaggeration.
Kurenai had been throwing occasional glances at him, in between surveying the expansive gardens and artistically rough path. Her eyes narrowed now. “This part would be easier if I were a Hyuuga,” she murmured. “Unfortunately, the Byakugan also comes with the terrible downside of being a Hyuuga.”
She stooped to scoop a handful of loose pebbles off the path, and flicked one accurately between his shoulderblades. The sting was sharp and surprising. Not because she’d thrown the pebble particularly hard, but because his chakra transmitted the tiny strike like a raw nerve.
“Ow,” Raidou said, but he kept the shield intact.
Kurenai’s expression warmed. “Well done.” She bounced a pebble thoughtfully in her hand. “You should practice this in your downtime — when you’re working out, or spending time with friends. Whenever you’ve got plenty of distractions.”
“Work it like muscle memory, you mea— ow.” The second pebble bounced off his right biceps. As before, it wasn’t a hard throw but it stung like a hornet. Kurenai threw with the barest snap of her fingers, signalling as little as possible.
Raidou rubbed his arm. “There needs to be a way to mute that for physical attacks, or combat is going to be… problematic.”
“Well, the Hyuuga do it,” she said. “Not that we’re likely to find anyone willing to divulge the secret techniques of the Hakkeshō Kaiten, but we ought to be able to extrapolate the principles.”
Sure, craft a new technique and replicate the ancient secrets of a notoriously paranoid clan in a few weeks. How hard could that be?
“Worth a shot,” he said, on the principle of blind optimism.
Kurenai grinned at him, and that was even more surprising than getting hit right in the chakra. She’d operated on subtlety until now, half smiles and slanting eyebrows, sidelong glances with more undercurrents than a riptide. This expression was open, unweaponized. “I like your style, Namiashi.”
He grinned back.
“I saw Hyuuga Hiashi perform the Hakkeshō Kaiten once, during the war,” Kurenai said. “He didn’t exactly sit down for a Q&A afterward, but I think I understand the basics.” From direct observation, Raidou wondered, or Intel sneakery later? “There’s the repulsion-type chakra, which you’ve got. You shouldn’t need the doujutsu—or the tenketsu control, which is likely an aspect of the kekkai genkai. The spin would… not mesh well with your fighting style, I think. But a subtle chakra ripple — enough to distribute the impact of a blow over a wider area…”
Raidou was still caught on the mental image of trying to replicate the Hyuuga’s — frankly insane — death twirls in an actual fight. That was a technique that only worked if you could literally see through the back of your own head.
He refocused on the more important part. “So, if I understand right, the idea is to solve the pinpoint pain issue by making it full body pain instead?”
“Duller full body pain?” Kurenai offered. “You can’t sever your connection with the chakra shield entirely—you’d lose the genjutsu warning, and it wouldn’t last long, anyway.”
“I love this idea already,” Raidou said. He rolled his shoulders back, resettling the chakra shield, and inclined his head to her. “Okay, throw more rocks at me.”
Kurenai’s grin flashed by again, and she obliged.