Their captors’ preferred method of prisoner transport was to take several twigs, transform them into sturdy poles, and lash the shinobi to them by their wrists and ankles. The dogs were muzzled with lengths of rope (except for Pakkun, whose jaws were too short) and tied two to a pole.
Hanging upside down, slung between the shoulders of two of the bigger tanuki, Raidou considered life from the perspective of a slaughtered deer. It did not have much to recommend it.
Mission report: The Daimyou’s sake was taken by mythical woodland creatures. Upon making contact, Team Six was defeated in twelve seconds and tied to trees. Requests for assistance were thwarted by being in the wrong universe.
From Kakashi’s pole, there was a snap and a scream. Raidou jerked his head around and saw a smaller tanuki clutching one of its paws. Kakashi’s mask had been pulled halfway down his nose. His neck was arched like a snake.
“Not a good idea,” Raidou said, relentlessly amiable.
One of the older tanuki made an aggravated sound, like a growling teapot, and conjured a heavy cloth bag. Two of them forced it over Kakashi’s head and tied it closed, which, Raidou had to admit, did solve that problem. Even if it made him want to bite someone himself. Kakashi snarled but subsided, while Pakkun made several choice comments that earned him his own bag.
Addendum: Inter-dimensional international incident nearly caused by personal issues and dogs. Avoided by improvised headgear. Future recommendation: Agent Hatake should never be made a political envoy.
Kurenai, sensibly, kept quiet and observant, watching their captors through half-lidded eyes.
Ryouma, less sensibly, asked, “I thought the lady in the teal kimono — uh, Azami — said you don’t steal from humans. Doesn’t this count as stealing us?”
A short tanuki with dark-tinted ears started to answer, before another cuffed her around the head. “Don’t talk to the prisoner.” But, only a few moments later, the cuffing-tanuki asked Ryouma, “You also smell like wolf. Did the Old Ones try to eat you?”
Raidou cleared his throat loudly.
Ryouma craned his neck, caught Raidou’s eye, and told the tanuki coolly, “I don’t tell stories to people who tie me up.”
The tanuki scowled, which was a fascinating expression to watch on a creature with a face like a living toy. It turned away, slapping Ryouma in the ear with its tail.
Kenta, the giant tanuki in charge, rumbled an order. The pole-bearers bounced into action and Team Six plus Kurenai, plus dogs, began a teeth-rattling journey through the lush forest. The rest of the tanuki flowed around them, darting through light and shadow with a grace that spoke of muscle and magic and threat. If the transformed prisoner-shuttle hadn’t already been a clue.
They ran for long enough that Raidou, disconnected from his chakra and blocked from the sun by the thick forest canopy, lost track of time and direction. He was certain they weren’t travelling in a straight line. The tanuki meandered through loops and switchbacks, changing direction at random. Since the landscape periodically stretched and twisted, boiling into strange colors and disturbing shapes, Raidou guessed they were flexing their magic too.
He considered telling them it wasn’t necessary. Even if Team Six could track down the Tanuki— camp? Village? It wasn’t like they knew where anything else in this world was. They didn’t even know what the shape of this world was. Besides, if the effort tired their fluffy little captors out, so much the better.
Except for the elements of uncertain future, missing Genma, and the distant awareness that, at some point, he was going to need to pee, the swaying journey was almost restful. His hands and feet were half-numb, but not bloodless. He’d done worse stress-positions in training exercises.
Without warning, sunlight lanced through a gap in the trees and dazzled him. Raidou blinked rapidly, clearing green blotches out of his vision, and realized the parade had stopped. They were on the edge of a bamboo grove, cool and green and so thick in places it had to be ancient, and in the clearing beyond, there were houses.
Cottages, really. Dotted between fruit trees and tended gardens like little fairy tales, with thatched roofs and curling blue smoke filtering out between the straw. Most of them had shutters and porches. A stream wound like a ribbon down a gentle hill and widened out into a cleverly dammed pond. Raidou could see the flick of bright fins under the surface.
Next to the pond, an open area held a large wooden platform that looked something like a stage, surrounded with carved log-stumps to serve as seats. A knot of tanuki had collected there, some sitting, others standing. Some wore clothes: kimono, yukata, a few dressed in the truncated pants and wrap-shirts of farmers, as if they’d been working in fields or foraging. Others wore only their thick brown fur.
Seated on the edge of the stage, an immensely fat tanuki with pure silver fur presided over them all. He wore a wide-brimmed straw hat and a bright red triangle of cloth knotted around his neck, and nothing else. In one paw, a long-stemmed pipe trailed purple smoke. He seemed to be balanced on a huge, round, fluffy silver beanbag…
Oh. No. Okay, apparently that part of the stories was true. Scrotum throne.
On the balance of today’s strangeness, that ranked somewhere around the middle.
There was no sign of Genma. Or Harubi and her children. A cold knot of disappointment tightened in Raidou’s stomach.
The pole-bearing tanuki trotted down to the stage and dropped their burden unceremoniously in the dirt. Since most of them were short, it wasn’t a long fall. Raidou caught the pole between his wrists to prevent it from hitting him in the teeth, and realized he now had control of about ten feet of stout wooden staff.
The silver tanuki — Himself? — looked down at them, the dogs, his warriors, the ninja again, and took a draft of his pipe. Smoke wisped between sharp ivory-colored teeth. “This is what those gnaw-eared dogs were up to? Are they finally developing a sense of humor?”
“Can’t say it felt very funny,” Raidou said. He braced himself on one elbow, rising carefully. Tanuki feet did not immediately stamp him down. Shifting the pole across one hip, he managed something like upright and considered his next move.
Addendum II: Standard diplomatic training severely lacking in the proper negotiating techniques for mythical creatures.
Well. When in doubt, stick to basics.
“My name is Namiashi Raidou,” he said, meeting the silver tanuki’s dark eyes levelly. “I’m a soldier from Konohagakure, of Fire Country. These are my team members. Yuuhi Kurenai.”
Kurenai nodded, elegant and unruffled, as if she were not smeared in grime and awkwardly wrapped around a pole.
Ryouma bobbed his head, dark-eyed and serious. You had to know him reasonably well to understand how much nervousness that professional veneer covered.
With some slack to work with, Kakashi finally succeeded in wrenching the bag off his head. He emerged wild-haired and wrathful, but caught Raidou’s eye and bit short any response before it made it past his teeth.
“And Pakkun, Saishou, Yori, and Kin.”
The four summons were a collection of white-ringed eyes, flat ears, and bristled fur — except for Pakkun, who was still bagged. The silver tanuki’s eyes lingered briefly on Saishou’s heavy belly, and Yori’s grey muzzle. Both dogs looked singularly unimpressed.
“My second-in-command was taken earlier today,” Raidou said. “His name is Shiranui Genma.” He repeated Kurenai’s description: lighter hair, eyes the same color, dressed like us, red charms on his wrist and a red spiral on his shoulder. “We’re here to get him back.”
Himself took another draw on his pipe, shifting to a more comfortable position on his rippling throne, and looked at Kenta — who seemed small, now, by comparison. “I don’t see how the flea-factories fit into this story, but did one of you take the human he’s talking about?”
Kenta’s ears flicked. “We didn’t, Greatest Grandfather,” he said. His tail curled sheepishly around his ankles. “But—Azami’s checking on the kits now.”
From Pakkun’s bag of muffled swearing, an acidic comment slipped out. “Of course Shiranui got kidnapped by children.”
Himself — did he have an actual name? — creased up with amusement, eyes twinkling. “Oh, this sounds fun. Take the sack off that little one so I can see him.” Quick, clever claws plucked the knots free and drew the bag off Pakkun’s head. The little pug shook himself and glared around. Himself said, “If you’re the ambassador from the Dog Pound, they really must be developing a sense of humor. After only 1563 years, too.” He broke off into booming laughter, slapping his belly until his whole body rippled.
Pakkun’s eyes bulged. “Dog p—,” he began. “Listen, you woman-stealing, kid-snatching, sake-thieving sons of—”
Saishou’s back paws, bound but still mobile, skidded down the pole and smacked Pakkun between the fuzzy eyebrows. Raidou glanced at Kakashi, but Kakashi had gone completely expressionless behind his mask. Either from reaching a critical mass of outrage, or because he’d moved on to a higher plane of concern.
Himself gestured his free paw at several of the larger tanuki. “Bring the tall one and the angry one here.”
That— did not seem ideal.
Raidou traded a glance with Kurenai, who gave him a helpless shrug, while tanuki descended on Ryouma and Kakashi. There was a ripple in the air, like a distant shift of pressure. The slice of ropes. Kakashi and Ryouma were hauled to their feet, wrists still bound, and marched away from poles that had once again become twigs. Ryouma walked stiff-backed, head and shoulders above his handlers. Kakashi moved with a focused grace that seemed feral.
Addendum III: I’m sorry to report your soldiers are dead because their captain was stupid.
“Hold on a damn minute,” Raidou said.
“Do you want to come up, too?” Himself asked. “That’s fine, bring him here. In fact, bring the sneaky one as well. I don’t want her feeling left out.” His eyes twinkled at Raidou and Kurenai in a grandfatherly way. “But you’ll have to wait your turn. I just want to have a word with these two first.”
Raidou opened his mouth, but a swarm of descending tanuki flattened whatever protest he might have made. The next minute was a jumble of hot little paws and heavy fur. He surfaced with his wrists still tied, his feet free, and the pole-turned-twig lost in the shuffle. Kurenai, held between two kimono-wearing tanuki on his right, appeared composed, but her lips were pale.
Ryouma and Kakashi had been hauled to Himself’s feet. The immense tanuki leaned in and grinned at them with his very sharp teeth.
“You both have very good aim,” he told them. “And you,” he reached out and folded a paw over Ryouma’s dark head, patting him, “are respectful. You, however…” He squinted into Kakashi’s face, studying the uncovered grey eye. “You have issues. It’s not polite to aim for the eyes.” Himself glanced up at Raidou. “Aiming for the testicles is just lazy.”
This was so entirely not what Raidou had expected, that it took him a moment to track the meaning. The bun-throwing festival. When they’d joined the locals hurling tribute at the tanuki statue. Ryouma had dropped his one bun neatly into the statue’s bowl. The rest of them…
Kakashi angled his head at the silver tanuki, and said in a voice like leaden ice, “Take your hand off him.”
Ryouma was rigid under Himself’s large paw. He flicked a glance at Kakashi, and said quickly, “We didn’t realize the statue was you. And we were trying not to let the town know we all have good aim.”
“Hmmm?” said Himself. “Oh, the statue isn’t me. Except for the festival, of course.” He tousled Ryouma’s hair, claws raking briefly through dark strands, and let go, attention returning to Kakashi. A thoughtful puff on the long-stemmed pipe made the air haze. “You’re the connection to the fleabags, aren’t you. You’re just as possessive as they are. And definitely not respectful.” He shook his head, as if Kakashi had disappointed him. “You’re practically still a kit, though, so I’ll overlook it.”
If Raidou’s hands had been free, he might have covered his eyes.
Kakashi inhaled, let it out through his nose. A fraction of tension slid away from his spine. “What do you want, elder?”
“Hmm, good food, some fine sake, a pleasant evening under the stars…” Himself scratched his chin with a lazy grin, and then turned serious. “Also to know why the Wolves have sent human soldiers through a hole in our sky. With a senior citizen, a momma with a belly full of whelps, a half-grown puppy, and…” He regarded Pakkun. “And a mouthy bastard with a face only a mother could love. I’d like to know that.”
Pakkun made a trodden-on sound of outrage.
Raidou sighed, and prepared for yet another go round. “That would be the part where your people kidnapped Genma.”
Genma's meal with the tanuki children came to an abrupt end, when the fur all over Kaori's body bristled, and she stood up with a horrified look on her face. “Mom, she said. That single word contained volumes, and each word in those volumes was ’fuck!’
Kikyou came rushing from the kitchen, took one look at Genma, and snapped at Kaori, “Closet. Now. Hideki, help your sister.”
“What—” Genma started. Kikyou snatched the plate of chicken skewers out of his hand. He started to rise, but before he’d even got his feet under him, he was engulfed in a mass of brown fur, like a fish in a net.
When he elbowed and kicked, trying to get free, Hideki made a little whimpering sound, and the restraints tightened.
“She’s gonna be so mad,” Hideki said. He dragged Genma, who was still trying to fight his way out, across the floor.
“Not if she doesn’t find him, so keep quiet!” Kaori’s little voice had taken on serious steel.
“This is all your fault.” Hidek whined, raspy with anxiety.
“Me? You’re the one who wanted to come.” The bang of a closet door being slammed open came muffled through Hideki’s testicle trap. “Get the futon out,” Kaori ordered. “We can stuff him in it.”
There were a few scuffling, heavy sounds. “All right, now!”
At the moment Hideki’s balls loosened, Genma dove for the floor. And was promptly tangled in Hideki’s balls again, but at least this time his head was free.
“Let me go!” He thrashed at the constricting squeeze; it felt like his bruised shoulders and ribs wanted to crack in half. Hideki might have been a youngster, but he was viciously strong. “Can’t… breathe…” Genma gasped.
The pressure lessened just enough for Genma to draw in a lungful of air, then clamped again as he was thrust, still wrapped in Hideki’s scrotum, into the dark, cramped closet.
There was no way this was going to end well, but since he couldn’t seem to fight it, Genma hoped it would be to his advantage to play along for now, and learn what he could about the mother. He went still.
“I’ll be quiet,” he promised. Hideki’s grip loosened a little. But only a little.
Kaori closed the closet door.
“Ow! Be careful!” Hideki yelped.
“Well, keep them flatter so they fit!”
Genma’s peculiar prison twitched and tightened again, and the door snicked almost shut, leaving him with just a sliver to peer through. Hideki stood with his back to the closet, rocking slightly on his feet. His tail twitched unhappily.
Next to him, Kaori seemed more determined than afraid. “Okay,” she said. “So when Mom comes, we’re going to say that he followed us home.”
“What? That’s stupid!”
“Fine,” Kaori huffed. “Then you can tell her that we went to the Human World by ourselves, even though we’re not even allowed to use the watching well!”
Genma didn’t have to see Hideki’s eyes to know he was glaring at his sister over his sullen, “Fine.”
Genma squirmed just enough to get a good sightline through the gap. Kikyou was surprisingly absent from all this panic. Maybe she’d gone to buy the little ones some time?
Two voices, getting closer, filtered in. Kikyou’s familiar voice was raised and a little strained. The other voice was noticeably louder and sharper, heavy with the kind of authority that came naturally to parents, commanders, and schoolteachers.
Their conversation became audible, “—yes,” Kikyou was saying. “Kaori and Hideki were very well behaved. Everything was normal, Mom.”
“Really,” said the heavier voice. “Well, then, where are they?”
The entryway door slid open, and a broad swath of afternoon sunlight spilled across the tatami. The tanuki who came in with Kikyou was a full head taller — easily a meter and a half — and broader in a way that spoke of muscle hidden under her round belly. She was dressed in a bright teal kimono patterned with a cascade of parasols falling around the hem, and a pink and gold obi that made Genma wonder if tanuki might be a little color blind.
Kikyou danced in at her side, not quite meeting her mother’s eyes. Her ears twitched and swiveled, and her tail lashed nervously behind her.
“Hi, Mom! You’re back early!” Kaori said, with a bounce in her voice.
When Hideki remained silent, she elbowed him in the side until he added a hesitant, “Hi, Mom.”
“Kaori. Hideki.” The mother’s voice was flat and ominous. She graced them with a look that reminded Genma of his Academy sensei’s disapproval of unfinished homework. “What are you doing?”
“Nothing!” Kaori said. Her voice climbed a little higher. “Just… cleaning the bedding!” She thumped her tail against the futon several times for authenticity, raising little puffs of dust.
“See?” said Kikyou. “So well behaved. Mom, you must be tired, let me get you a cup of tea.” She tugged at her mother’s sleeve to draw her towards the dining table, but her mother was having none of that.
With her feet planted and her arms crossed, the mother pierced her son with an uncompromising look. “Hideki, what are you hiding behind your back?”
Hideki’s ears slicked back, and his head dropped. His tail hung flat behind him, with just the tip in shivering motion. Kikyou, standing behind her mother, made a fearsome face at Hideki. Kaori reached out surreptitiously and pinched his arm.
Evidently lying to a parent was a fraught thing no matter the species.
The mother waited Hideki out, as the atmosphere grew tenser, and Hideki’s grip on Genma grew tighter. “......nothing,” he mumbled at last.
Genma breathed shallowly, and shrugged his shoulders to try to get Hideki to loosen up again, but the poor kid was clearly terrified.
Evidently terror made your balls shrink tight no matter the species, too.
She waited a moment longer, while the tension grew like a thunderhead, before she said, “I see,” in that I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed tone that every parent seemed to master by the time their children were four.
“Well, something very interesting happened while your father and I were out today.” Her voice took on the cadence of a storyteller. “A group of humans appeared. They said that we had stolen one of them — a ‘lieutenant.’”
Oh thank every god and buddha and blessed bodhisattva who had ever walked the earth; his team — or at least a team — knew he was here.
The big tanuki turned her terrifying mom gaze on the crack in the door, as though she could see Genma through the paper and wood. “I don’t suppose any of my good, obedient, well-behaved children came across this lieutenant while they were playing…?”
Hideki, bless his little heart, snapped like a twig. He threw open the door with a plaintive, “But they were hurting him, Mom!” just as Kaori launched into her rehearsed, “He followed us home, can we keep him?”
Kikyou squirmed next to her siblings, wringing her tail with both hands. “We were going to tell you, honest!”
Genma, who was still being squeezed slowly breathless, managed a wheezing sound, but not much articulate.
“Let the human breathe,” the mother said. Hideki’s head whipped around, and his eyes went wide with anxious regret when he saw Genma’s purple face. His scrotum vanished away at once, leaving Genma to pant on his hands and knees while the mother gave Kikyou’s arm a little tug and propelled her eldest to stand in the line of shame with her siblings.
“Now, what do you have to say for yourselves?”
The three children, given license to defend themselves, launched an all out assault in a cacophony of competing voices.
“—kept on hitting him and hitting him—”
“— and they just watched and didn’t even do anything—”
“—and then I dropped a statue on him!”
But Kikyou was the loudest and talked the longest, finishing off with, “We just did what you and Dad did for that other human and her kits.”
Mother tanuki held up her hands for silence, which had a surprisingly immediate effect. Her tail was bristling, and her canines flashed. To Kikyou, she said, “We’ll discuss your eavesdropping ways later.” Kikyou’s ears, already low, drooped further, and she clutched her tail like a shield in front of her.
“Now,” the mother went on, “one at a time, explain. Why did you take this human?”
Kikyou began, hesitantly at first, but gaining courage as she went along. The three of them had been playing near the border, and Bunpei the border guard was asleep, so they just thought they’d better take a peek and make sure there wasn’t something they needed to wake him up about…
Skepticism lived in Mother tanuki’s eyes, but she didn’t interrupt.
So they just looked and that’s when they saw Genma being beaten! And they’d thought about waking up Bunpei, but he’d had a lot of sake and there wasn’t really time, so they knew it was up to them…
Hideki even jumped in, to his mother’s evident surprise, explaining that the other humans there weren’t even trying to help. They just stood there watching Genma being half-killed. He sounded thoroughly horrified as he recounted the fight, glancing anxiously back at Genma like he wasn’t convinced Genma was really out of danger even now.
Kaori followed up with her proud tale of how they tricked the other humans and pinned the red moon demon with a leaf-statue, and snatched Genma from his certain fate. “And then,” she told her mom, “Hideki carried me and Genma-san, and I took care of him and his face that fell off, and made sure he didn’t bump his head again. And we were going to come straight back, but Bunpei was awake, and we didn’t want to get him in trouble, so we snuck in through the Turtle World. They didn’t notice us at all! And then the Lizard World.” Her ears twitched at the memory, and her voice took on a more ominous tone. “Tokage-san was shouty and mean like always, but Hideki hid us really good and he didn’t find us. And then we came home and Kikyou-neesan fixed Genma-san.”
Mother tanuki, though still angry, seemed to be softening a little about her children’s ill-conceived Good Deed.
Genma straightened up and offered the mother a bow of greeting, now that he wasn’t choking and she wasn’t busy with discipline. “Their hearts were in the right place,” he said, “but really, I wasn’t in any danger. Those were my teammates. My friend and I were just practice-fighting. He was helping me with—”
Kikyou slapped her tail hard against the floor. “They are not your friends!” she told Genma. Then to her mother, “When I was fixing him, he had so many injuries — some were old, even. And those other humans, they tricked him and now he thinks they’re his friends!”
“Yeah,” Kaori echoed. “His friends.” She made the word sound even more dubious than Kikyou had. “Can’t he stay here with us, Mom? Please?”
“He’s really nice,” Hideki added.
Genma scrubbed a hand through his hair, preparing to fight this fight over again. Maybe Mama tanuki would be more nuanced in her understanding, and less inclined to keep him as some kind of pet. “I’m a ninja,” he said wearily. “I have scars from old fights with actual bad people. But the ones I was with are my friends and teammates. We fight the bad people together. They need me back, and I need to go back.”
The mother eyed Genma carefully, weighing his story against her children’s. “Well, the other humans are with Greatest Grandfather. We’ll take this one to him, and let him sort it all out. And maybe he’ll have some ideas about what we should do with you.”
“No! Mom! You don’t have to tell Greatest Grandfather. Please?” Kikyou begged.
“Please?” Kaori looked even more alarmed than her sister. “I don’t want everything to taste like eggplant again!”
At Genma’s puzzled look, Hideki tugged Genma’s arm, and explained, “Kaori got in trouble once because she took Greatest Grandfather’s pipe while he was napping, and Greatest Grandfather made it so she could only taste eggplant for a whole year.”
That sounded like an extreme punishment for a minor offense, but Genma didn’t really have a reference for what a year might mean to the tanuki, who seemed to be exceptionally long lived, or maybe even immortal.
“Yes,” the mother said. “And I thought that taught you not to take things that didn’t belong to you.” She gave Kaori a severe look. “Maybe this time his punishment will stick.”
Kaori crumpled. Her whiskers sagged, her tail tucked flat against the back of her yukata, and she whispered, “We were just trying to help.”
Her mother sighed, and ran a hand over Kaori’s head in a rough caress. Then she tucked Kaori against her side and started for the door.
Genma was still in just his underpinnings. He was about to ask for his armor when Hideki darted away and came back with it clanking in his arms. He looked shyly up at Genma as he offered the armor up.
“Thank you,” Genma told him. He buckled himself in and felt immediately more able to deal with the insanity that his life had become.
When they were outside and Genma was putting his boots back on, he finally had a chance to speak to the mother. “They told you my name, but what should I call you, ma’am?”
The mother tanuki gave him an approving look. “Azami. You’re more polite than your friends.”
Whether it was Team Six or another ANBU team, Genma didn’t doubt there had been some rudeness. They probably hadn’t knocked politely at the front door. “Which of my friends are here?” he asked.
“They all smelled like old wolf,” she said. “One of them really stank.”
“One had a festival toy with him,” she continued.
Hope sprang up like a wildfire.
“And they had dogs.” Her brows drew down. “Rude dogs.”
“That’s them! That’s my team!” Genma’s voice cracked, and he didn’t care. “Are they hurt? Are they safe? Kaori-chan said she dropped a statue on Raidou—”
The look Azami gave him was the grown up version of the one he’d gotten from Kaori: disbelief, dismay, and distaste all at once, with a heavy overtone of judgement. “When I left them, they were unhurt,” she said. “A little mouthy, though, so I can’t make any promises about them staying unhurt.”
Genma’s heart sank; he steeled himself. This was a mission and they were in hostile territory. He had no access to his chakra — it was probably true for the others as well. A child tanuki had taken Genma down almost effortlessly. And the only one in that little party with sense enough not to provoke a fight was Kurenai.
“Was there a woman with black hair and red eyes with them?” Please, gods, let her be there, too.
“Yes. Only one with a lick of sense, if you ask me.” Azami tossed her head, and her tail waved behind her.
Genma pressed his hand to his chest, where his dogtags and the charm his father had given him hung beneath his armor and shirt. Bishamon was a god of war, and a god of war would certainly know how to employ judicious retreat. Keep them from starting a fight they can’t win, he prayed. Even though it was probably already too late. And if they did already, then just keep them from getting themselves maimed or killed before I get there.
Not that he knew what he was going to do when he got there, but he’d think of something. Maybe, if they were very lucky, the worst that they’d come out of this with was with an indelible taste of eggplant.
The tanuki didn't exactly make their prisoners comfortable, while they waited. Standing about with their hands tied was still better than lying pinned beneath several dozen kilos of tanuki, though. Or rather, Kurenai suspected, a few kilos of tanuki and several dozen kilos of tanuki testicle.
The tanuki god — Himself — seemed to be enjoying himself well enough. He rocked back on his scrotal perch, eyes half-slitted closed, and blew smoke rings at the sky and occasionally at the ninja. Kakashi managed not to cough. Ryouma tried to mimic his straight-backed disdain, but inhaled at the wrong moment and nearly crippled himself. Raidou, stone-faced, seemed to have fallen asleep on his feet.
The dogs huddled around Kakashi's feet, and growled whenever a stray tanuki came too close.
At first the audience had been mostly the tanuki who'd caught them. But more arrived all the time, trickling out from houses and gardens, toting strings of fish from the stream or baskets of fruit from the orchard. A toddle of kits bumbled up, all soft ears and pointed, inquisitive faces, and loud speculation about whether these humans had balls.
Kurenai flicked a swift glance at Raidou. His stone mask hadn't shifted, but his head tilted slightly, watching the kits.
Then the crowd began to shift, eddying away from a cleared path. Azami, straight-backed in her teal kimono, led the way. And behind her—
Genma, fully armored, with his mask clipped to his belt and his pale face bare of injury. His roving gaze snared only momentarily on Himself's vast silver bulk before it raced on, finding Ryouma head-and-shoulders above the crowd, Kakashi lean and dour, Raidou transfixed with sudden relief, Kurenai—
She smiled at him, almost giddy with it.
His anxious face split with delight. A fluffy tanuki kit, walking two-legged in yukata at his side, tugged at his wrist; Genma answered it without looking down. He looked healthy, whole, without a hitch in his stride or a shadow on his face. His sun-bleached hair was mussed from its usual neat tail, and a reddish stubble caught the light on his jaw.
He hadn't managed to shave that morning, Kurenai guessed. But the faint stubble wasn't any longer than a few days would justify, and none of the men had shaved since they left Hiraizumi. Time hadn't moved differently for him, in this world.
Except Raidou's punch should have left a bruise. Had the tanuki healed him? Or was this merely another trick, a too-perfect copy?
"Greatest Grandfather," Azami announced, "here is the human. And here," she added wryly, gesturing two small kits and a half-grown adolescent forward, "are his abductors."
Himself's vast belly trembled. "So your kits really didsteal these humans' lieutenant." His furry cheeks pouched, but the black eyes were sharp and watchful.
The smallest kit, in a honeycomb-patterned blue yukata, shrank back against Genma's legs. Genma patted its head absently, his gaze still skimming over his team, holding every time he caught their eyes. Kin was on her feet now, her tail a blur; Genma looked down at her, and cracked another grin.
Surely scent wouldn't lie. But the tanuki were master tricksters, and just as scent-oriented as Kakashi's dogs. They'd think of that, too.
"We were rescuing—" a tanuki kit in a flower-patterned yukata began, but the pink-clad adolescent yanked her back with a quelling glare, and offered instead, "We're sorry for causing trouble, Greatest Grandfather."
"They thought the humans were beating him and tried to help." Azami still looked wry, but she was starting to look a little fond, too.
Raidou said abruptly, "What should you not put in eggs?"
The tanuki stared at him, but Genma's relief finally reached his eyes. He shook his head. "Dried sea ear fungus. I heard you had a statue dropped on you. Are you okay?"
That stony mask shattered over Raidou's crooked grin. "Yeah. Broke some ribs, healed by wolves. Long story." He headed for Genma, but pulled up short as a sea of tanuki flooded between them: some still four-legged, some yukata-clad, all of them mulishly stubborn. Thunder darkened Raidou's eyes. He jerked toward Himself. "Seriously? We haven't hurt any of your people."
Himself gazed thoughtfully down at Raidou, and said, "Bring the kits' human here."
The sea surged forward. One of the kits squealed protest, and was quickly shushed. Tanuki heads bobbed around Genma's shoulders, herding him forward. Himself leaned over to study Genma's face.
"The chocolate was very tasty," he observed.
Genma's eyes widened. Himself chuckled. "So, what shall I do with you now?"
"Send him home," Ryouma said.
Himself's ears tilted. Ryouma plunged on. "Your kits must’ve seen Genma and the captain sparring and thought it was a real fight. So that's, that's— understandable. Really sweet of 'em. But they got it wrong. Genma's our lieutenant, we'd do anything for him. He's teaching me healing. And Raidou's teaching him not to drop his elbow in a fight. And we need him back. Hell, we went to the wolf gods for him! So if you could just...give him back. Please. We'd appreciate it." He seemed to be running out of steam; he finished, lamely, "We won't even sic Kakashi on you."
Genma was staring at him. They all were: Himself shrewd, Kakashi narrow-eyed, the smallest tanuki kit hugging its tail. Big Kenta had worked his way over to stand next to Azami, bracing the three miscreant kits. Newly arrived tanuki murmured at the mention of the wolf gods, and Genma gaped, searching Raidou and Kurenai's eyes for confirmation.
Kurenai nodded tightly. Raidou looked rueful, and shrugged.
Pakkun heaved himself up from Kakashi's ankles, wormed between two tanuki, and plopped his haunches down on Ryouma's foot. His oversized head cocked at Himself. "Tanuki are tricksters. Never heard you were slavers or killers. If you plan to keep the kids, the hell are you gonna do with 'em?"
Himself grinned down at Pakkun. "Show them a good time."
His teeth were far smaller than the wolf gods', but looked just as sharp. Kurenai found that she was not, particularly, curious about what the tanuki lord's idea of a good time might be.
The silver tanuki turned back to Raidou, blowing a smoke ring over the shinobi's heads. "But first they're going to tell me why they went to the wolf gods, of all the gods they had to choose from. How they got there. And what they said to get those mange-crusted old crocks to help."
Genma bowed respectfully. "I want to know, too. But please untie them. They aren't going anywhere, and just one of you could flatten them if they tried anything." He snapped a glance at his team. "Do not try anything."
"I think he means you," Kakashi told Ryouma, making no effort to lower his voice.
"No one is doing anything," Raidou said sternly.
Himself smirked and waved a lazy paw-hand. The ropes binding Kurenai's wrists slithered free and slipped to the ground as dry pieces of grass. She flexed her hands carefully against the rush of blood back into cramped fingers.
Chakra was still beyond her, her senses as numb as any civilian's. But it was good to have her hands back. She saw Ryouma shaking his wrists out with an expression of undisguised relief, and she wondered again at the suicidal courage that had drawn him to offer his arm to the wolf god's jaws.
Or… not courage, perhaps. Devotion.
Genma was six steps and four tanuki away from them. Ryouma took the distance in a rush, vaulting right over one alarmed tanuki, and grabbed Genma up in a bone-jarring hug. The kits squeaked outrage. Ryouma ignored them utterly.
After that first startled moment, Genma's arms came up. He squeezed Ryouma's ribs just as tightly, his head snug against Ryouma's shoulder. Raidou loomed up behind them and grabbed them both. Kin leapt around them, barking joyously.
Kakashi stepped back, against Kurenai's side. "Doing okay?" he asked quietly.
Kurenai looked at him, startled. His eye flicked down to hers. She touched fingertips to the soft skin below her eye, blinked, and rubbed the wetness away. "I'm surprised you're not joining the puppy pile."
"No, you're not," he told her, without any bite. "You could, though."
She looked up at him. He gazed steadily back.
One didn't ask Hatake Kakashi You don't mind? He'd already said as much, in his own way.
"Thanks," she said, and went to slip under Raidou's arm.
They drew her in. Genma eased out of Ryouma's squeeze, reaching for Raidou and Kurenai. Touching Raidou's shoulder, Kurenai's hair, anything he could reach.
Half of Kurenai's attention caught Ryouma drawing back, looking for Kakashi. A splinter was still observing the tanuki around them. The rest was lost to the sunlit warmth of Genma's eyes, the hard pressure of Raidou's arms, the musky scent of their sweat, here and solid and grounding. Safe.
She reached up, catching Genma's jaw between her palms, feeling the scratch of his stubble against her fingers. He was tall enough that she had to stretch to kiss his cheek.
Genma leaned into her hands. His head tilted down, tipping against Raidou's shoulder. His arms tightened, drawing Raidou closer, pressing Kurenai between them. He inhaled deeply, and she felt his breath against her skin.
A young tanuki said doubtfully, "Well, maybe, but where's the red moon demon?"
The moment broke. Genma threw his head back with a laugh. "There is no red moon demon, Kaori-chan. That's what I keep trying to tell you. Raidou has a moon on his mask, but he's a human. These are my friends."
Raidou leaned back, loosening his grip without letting go, and looked down. "Are these the kits I should be thanking for the rib-thumping?"
The kit in question was barely waist-height, standing upright in a flowered yukata. She planted fisted paws on her hips, head tipped back so far that only the fluffy tail counterbalanced, and said firmly, "You shouldn't hit your friends."
Raidou extricated himself slowly from Genma and Kurenai, his hands skimming Genma's biceps, Kurenai's sides. He crouched down, elbows braced on his knees, to meet Kaori's eyes. "No, you shouldn't. But we're not just friends, we're soldiers. Our job involves a lot of fighting, so we have to practice."
Kaori's black nose crinkled, whiskers waggling. She looked up at Genma again, doubtfully.
Genma crouched down and slung an arm over Raidou's shoulder. "Really. It's true."
"Well…" Kaori looked back at Raidou. "You should take care of your friends. He's only going to live for a hundred years, you know. That's not a long time."
Kurenai's heart clenched, just a little. She wasn't sure any ninja had ever lived that long.
There was a noise from the platform: the massive tanuki lord heaving up to his feet and stepping back. The wooden platform quivered under him. His vast silver testicles expanded as he sank down again, swelling out to cover the entire platform like a pillowy fur futon. "You may join me, humans."
Genma straightened into a bow. "We would be honored, Greatest Grandfather-san."
Ryouma and Kakashi were standing well back, Ryouma's arm wrapped loosely around Kakashi's shoulders, Kakashi's jaw stiff beneath his mask. They didn't look honored. But Genma beckoned to them, and, reluctantly, they came.
Everyone removed their boots. Because that was polite.
Genma clambered up first, followed more gingerly by Raidou. They each offered a hand to Kurenai, who accepted and stepped lightly onto the platform, as if walking on a living rug of tanuki scrotum was perfectly ordinary.
Ryouma unslung his arm from Kakashi’s shoulders and went next. Kakashi hesitated. Pakkun, Saishou, and Yori pressed at his heels, attuned to his uncertainty and wary of the circle of predators around them.
Regular, unmagical tanuki were a cousin to dogs, a few hundred times removed. Like foxes. But it wasn’t like there was a family bond. In Kakashi’s world, dogs killed tanuki. And foxes.
Kin, young and eager, bounded up after Ryouma. Bared teeth and bristling fur met her. She skidded to a halt in front of a female tanuki wearing a shimmering orange kimono, who snapped, “He said humans, not you.”
Kin’s ears clamped to her skull. She backed up hurriedly.
Kakashi thought coldly, I have six knives. He stepped up and blocked Kin’s retreat with a knee before she fell off the edge. Ryouma had turned protectively, glowering. Genma, already seated, gave Kakashi a look that said, oh god, please don’t make things worse.
Kakashi looked at the silver grandfather and said through his teeth: “Is she unwelcome?”
Himself, apparently coming from a mold of gods Ginta might have prayed to, said, “Are they housebroken?”
“Are you?” Kakashi said.
Genma put a hand over his eyes.
The tanuki in the orange kimono bristled like a porcupine, but Himself broke into booming laughter. “There’s hope for you after all, pup-kit,” he said. “Alright, Fumi, let them up. I have questions I want answered, and that human needs his dog entourage with him to feel safe.” He turned his great head back to Kakashi. “Come explain how it is you have a back door to the mutt domain.”
Kin, starting to slink towards Ryouma, caught Kakashi’s eye. She raised her head, flicked her tail, and strode the last few steps, settling down regally at Ryouma’s side as if she’d meant to do that all along. Saishou leapt onto the platform and lay down next to Kin and licked one of her golden ears. Yori curled up with his back pressing against Kurenai’s spine like a grey bolster.
Pakkun scrambled up on Kakashi’s shoulder, grumbling softly. “Mutts. Like we’re supposed to care about bloodlines. Inbred stink-badgers.”
Kakashi pressed his lips together and sat down on Ryouma’s other side, between him and Kurenai, facing the silver tanuki. The undulating fur beneath them was disturbingly warm.
“My family has a contract with residents of the dog dimension,” he said, stressing dog. “That’s how we got in.”
Himself sucked on his pipe. “That’s not how those contracts work.” Silver-blue smoke trailed between his teeth. “I know about those contracts. They go to you in your world. You don’t go to them.”
“Huh,” said Kakashi. “Strange.”
In the corner of his good eye, he saw Ryouma glance over with a quick grin.
“Yes,” said Himself, in a similar tone of voice. “Very.”
Silence stretched between them. The giant tanuki puffed on his pipe and waited. Kakashi reached across Ryouma to scratch Kin’s ears.
One of the tanuki gathered around the edge of the stage whispered, “You really ought to answer him before he gets bored.”
There was a burr in Kin’s fur. Kakashi devoted himself to extracting it.
On his other side, Kurenai said calmly, “We reverse-engineered the summoning scroll. It likely won’t work without the dog’s unique pack-bond, so you needn’t worry about more shinobi visiting. After that, we… bargained with the wolf gods for passage.”
Kakashi stored a look of betrayal away for later, when they didn’t have an audience.
Himself smiled at Kurenai, as if he’d discovered a shiny and much less boring plaything. “Bargained? This should be good. What could you possibly have bargained with? I hope you don’t owe them any favors. They tend to be very nasty about repayment.”
Kakashi put a casual hand on Ryouma’s thigh and clamped his fingers down before Ryouma could open his mouth.
Raidou, seated between Kurenai and Genma, leaned forward. “I’d like to give you the whole story, but let’s get a few things straightened out first. My plan for this day ends with us going home, in one piece, with no one missing. How about yourself?”
Curling up over his shoulder, Himself’s fluffy white tail twitched playfully. “I told that whelp I intend to show you a good time. You tell me your story, we’ll have some good food and drink, and enjoy a nice starry sky. And then when everyone is satisfied, all of you will go back where you belong.”
Kakashi contemplated that for loopholes, and decided there was more hole than loop.
“Uh huh,” Raidou said, after a moment. “Do you have Nomiya Harubi and her children?”
Himself’s jovial enjoyment wiped away like chalk letters in rain. “Are you hunting for Nomiya Harubi and her children?” he demanded. The edges of his testicle-futon curled up, ready to fold over and trap them all.
Genma scrambled forward on his knees, bowed nearly to formal supplication, which was intelligent but stomach-clenching to watch. “No! We aren’t. We’re looking for her, but we’re not hunting her.”
Ryouma had gone stiff, fingers curled in Kin’s ruff like he planned to pick her up and hurl her out. Raidou was also up on his knees, but braced behind Genma like he was ready to catch whatever weight fell. Kurenai had frozen to absolute stillness. Kakashi’s fingers drifted to the sharp edges hidden under his clothes. He wanted to reach for his chakra, but there was still just void and nothing.
Himself’s pale lips curled in a snarl. “Then why are you asking about her?”
Kurenai, with quiet precision, began, “We’re concerned for her. We know some of what happened—”
“We know her husband beat her,” Ryouma broke in. “She must’ve asked you for help. But you’re not the only ones who can.”
“Who can what?” Himself asked, with scorn. “Answer prayers?”
Ryouma bared his teeth. “We don’t answer prayers. We take missions. You saved her, but we can kill him.”
Outside the circle of tanuki, beyond the rising edges of Himself’s trap, a quiet voice said, “I don’t want him dead.”
Himself stilled. The furry edge nearest the voice uncurled, lowering enough for Kakashi to see that the cluster of tanuki had split like a wave, surrounding two elderly female tanuki wearing only their own dark fur, shot through with silvery threads, and a human woman.
It was the same woman Kakashi had seen in the photograph at Nomiya’s house. She looked about Minato’s age, fine-featured. Her hair was deep raven black, bone-straight and loose down her back. Her skin had been pale in the picture, sun-starved; her nose was sunburned now, and her cheeks had freckles. She was barefoot, wearing truncated trousers and a linen wrap-shirt. Dirt smeared her knuckles, as if she’d been gardening.
Behind her legs, two small children peered nervously around. The older, a girl, clearly took after her father — she had his nose, his mouth, and if she grew into her feet, she’d have his height one day. The boy, at least a few years younger, looked like his mother. A scar curved down the girl’s cheek, recently healed and still pink.
There was Harubi’s reason for leaving, Kakashi guessed.
“No, you didn’t ask for that,” Himself said to her. “These humans — do you recognize them?”
Harubi’s eyes flickered along the line from Ryouma to Raidou, pausing briefly at Kurenai. “They look like shinobi,” she said. “Konoha. You’re here for the Fire Daimyou’s sake, aren’t you?”
A disturbed ripple went through the tanuki.
“Originally,” Raidou said. “We’ve been reevaluating our priorities.”
From Kakashi’s shoulder, Pakkun piped up. “You sure you don’t want him dead? We do very reasonable rates. Half a ryou would cover it, and we’ll take an IOU.”
Kakashi reached up and closed a hand over the pug’s muzzle.
“I’ve thought about it,” Harubi said. “But I’m not a murderer, and he doesn’t get to make me one.”
Some lives aren’t worth burdening yourself with. Ryouma was silent and tense at Kakashi’s side. Kakashi released the knife under his shirt, and, without stopping to think about it, wrapped his hand around the back of Ryouma’s neck. The muscles were like iron.
Ryouma glanced at him. His eyes raked over Kakashi's face like he could see something in it, or wanted to, and Kakashi wondered if he was remembering that conversation, too. Ryouma's jaw firmed. He gave a short nod, and turned back to Harubi. “How d’you feel about relocating him?”
Harubi studied them for a long moment. “We could talk,” she said.
The threatening edges of Himself’s balls settled back down, returning to a placid futon shape. “In that case, we need sake,” he said. “And food.”
The youngest tanuki cheered, throwing their paws — and in a few cases, each other — up in the air. The older tanuki looked variously satisfied, dubious, or relieved. One of the older females patted the back of Harubi’s hand with her paw. The other tweaked the little boy’s ear, producing a piece of fruit from behind it, which made him smile shyly. The girl watched Team Six with hard suspicion that gave Kakashi a twinge of fellow-feeling.
Genma sank back from his kneeling bow, relaxing his hands. Knuckles gone ashen-grey turned briefly red in the backwash of circulation, then faded to their normal color. He gave a tiny, controlled sigh — which quickly became a yelp when two small tanuki scrambled across the platform and tackled him in the ribs. Alarmed, Raidou made a grab for them, but Genma warded him off, mouth curving.
Kurenai relaxed back into movement, and leaned wearily against Raidou’s shoulder. After a moment, very carefully, she reached out and touched the smallest girl tanuki between the ears, and won herself a lapful of fluff and pelting questions. Yori vented a sigh, but stayed in his self-appointed position at her back.
“So that’s it?” Pakkun rumbled in Kakashi’s ear. “We’re all friends now?”
“You don’t have to drink,” Kakashi said.
“I didn’t say that.”
“So,” said Raidou, to Himself. “About the Daimyou’s sake.”
Himself's belly wobbled alarmingly when he laughed. So did his testicles, what the hell. Every time Ryouma thought he was beginning to adjust, something like this reminded him.
Kakashi's hand on the back of his neck was grounding, though. So was the dark, wary look in Harubi's daughter's eyes. He looked at her, half-hidden behind her mother's hip, and scraped himself together for a smile.
They were here for her, really. And Kakashi was here for him.
"Hmm, yes," Himself told Raidou. "Excellent sake. Harubi-san is well worthy of her title as Master Brewer." He smirked, sharp-toothed, and waved a paw at Harubi. "You'll join us, won't you? And the kits can play. Bring me some of that sake," he added to a matronly looking tanuki. "And food for our guests! Plenty of food of every kind."
The matron scurried off, collaring several other tanuki as she went. Himself's black gaze fell back benevolently on Raidou. "You humans are all so skinny. Especially those three." A curved claw pointed out Kakashi, Genma, and Kurenai.
If Kurenai was insulted, she didn't show it. "We've had to rely on speed, not natural defenses. Harubi-san, would you sit with me? We spoke with your friend, Noriko." She eased the tanuki kit out of her lap and edged back from Raidou, opening their seated semicircle. Kakashi nudged Ryouma over to make more room. His hand dropped from Ryouma's nape, but his thigh tucked warm against Ryouma's hip. Kin grumbled and rearranged her front half into Ryouma's lap.
Harubi shooed her children gently. The boy hesitated a moment, then tore himself away to join a tumble of kits. The girl stuck resolutely by her mother. She was perhaps ten years old, more sturdy than skinny, with her dark hair tied back from the scar on her cheek. Her eyes skipped distrustfully over the shinobi, too hard for a civilian her age.
Harubi knelt facing Kurenai, with the girl burr-like at her side. "I didn't catch your name."
"Yuuhi Kurenai. I'm a kunoichi of Konohagakure no Sato. I specialize in intelligence." Kurenai met Harubi's eyes directly. Her voice was low but clear. "My companions are members of an ANBU team. They specialize in difficult situations."
Harubi's brown eyes skimmed over them. "They don't require intelligence?"
Kurenai's lips curved. "That's why I came. Though they've done all right on their own, so far."
A faint smile echoed on Harubi's mouth. "What did Noriko say?"
"She wanted us to ask your husband where you and the children were." Kurenai's red gaze held steady, with no hint of the false humility or subterfuge she'd shown with the brewers in Tanigawa. "She was angry. At the rest of the village, and at herself. She told us what Nomiya did to the rice merchant's guard, that no one intervened then or ever. That you stayed to protect your children's inheritance. And that you might have left, at the end, to keep them safe. She wanted us to find you. And, I think, to avenge you."
Harubi's brows pinched. She looked exhausted under her tan and freckles, a papering of new health over years of strain, but she seemed to have cried out all her tears. "She suggested I poison him once. I was never sure if she was joking." Her hands knotted in her lap. She looked down at them, and then up at Kurenai, fiercely. "I traded the sake to Greatest Grandfather for his help. I won't ask for it back."
Himself puffed on his pipe. "The Fire Daimyou does have very good taste in sake. If he misses this year's batch, it will make him long for the next all the more."
"Can we get that in writing?" Raidou asked.
A handful of acorns appeared from somewhere in Himself's voluminous white fur. He stuck the pipe between his teeth and bounced the acorns in his palm. They spun in the air and came down as a scroll, bottled ink, and brush. He swept the scroll out grandly across his paunch, dipped the brush, and wrote in graceful characters that could have adorned any elegant tea-room.
Kakashi snorted softly. "A pleasure denied is a pleasure doubled."
"I don't think that's what Taichou was asking for," Ryouma said doubtfully. He scratched Kin's ears. "How about we make a, uh, three-way deal? We take Nomiya somewhere he won't come back. Harubi-san gets to go home and take over the brewery, and Tanigawa holds tanuki festivals again. And we take home what's left of the sake."
The festivals were a stab in the dark, a guess based on Goto's mocking comments during the brewery tour. It didn't seem to be a very successful guess. No one rallied at the thought. Several of the older tanuki muttered amongst themselves, aghast.
Maybe they didn't like getting pelted with buns, after all.
But Harubi looked thoughtful. Her daughter eased a little, enough to lean against her mother's side. Harubi lifted a hand to stroke the girl's hair, and asked Ryouma, "Where would you take him?"
"Uh." The problem with thinking things out as you went along was that sometimes it required a lot of thinking. "Southern Wind Country? Mangrove? We know a really excellent swamp with leeches…"
"Cliff edge," Kakashi murmured. "Middle of the ocean. A wolf god's den."
"Forest of Death would work too," Genma added wryly, "but I believe we just agreed not to kill the man."
Raidou glanced across at Kurenai. "Or Konoha. Intel always has use for extra bodies. I'm sure Shibata could persuade Nomiya-san to a new, more useful career, if he was so inclined."
Kurenai said quietly to Harubi, "You know him best. Would he leave if threatened? Would you live without fear, while he did?"
Harubi's lips pressed together. She looked down at her daughter's scarred cheek. "He might leave. But his friends would stay, and his family. He has a brother; his brother had children."
The girl made a disgusted little noise. Harubi smoothed her hair and let out a breath. "I feel safe here, most of the time, but we can't spend the rest of our lives here." She lifted her chin. "We don't have to go back to Tanigawa, either. What is your Konoha like? Do you have a river?"
"We have a river," Kurenai said, watching her closely. "It's good clear water, when ninja aren't turning it into dragons. Konoha may be too warm for good sake brewing, but I don't doubt you could find a suitable home in Fire Country. The Fire Daimyou is very fond of your sake, Master Brewer."
Something sharpened in Harubi's gaze, like a knife-blade beginning to scour clean from rust. "Perhaps he'd appreciate a source closer to home."
"In Fire Country you'd be closer to the source for your rice," Genma put in. "In the higher elevations to the south, there are good mountain streams and a cooler climate, too."
Kurenai looked at him, and then at Raidou. "Our negotiating authority does not bind the Daimyou, of course. But I have recently spent time in Hikouto, some of it in the Daimyou's presence. I believe that you would be welcome in Fire Country, Harubi-san. You could return to Konoha with us, and make your decisions from there."
There was a light in Harubi's eyes, almost. Hope awakening. She dropped her hand to her daughter's shoulder. "What do you think, Sen?"
The girl's wary scowl hadn't faded. She looked at Kurenai, not her mother. "Why are you helping?"
Of course she looked at Kurenai. Kurenai was the one actually helping, proposing a plan that could realistically work, a life Harubi and her children could live. Kurenai was the one who could meet Sen's angry, mistrustful gaze and say steadily, "Shinobi don't always get the chance to help people. We want to take this one, while we can. Maybe someday you'll be in a position to do the same."
"So you're feeling guilty 'cos you kill people." Sen folded her arms, mulish. "I don't want to help anyone. People suck. You're only helping 'cos your Daimyou is going to shout at you if you drag home empty-handed."
Kurenai blinked, taken aback. Sen drew herself up in bitter triumph.
Genma said, "You're right."
Sen hesitated in turn, looking suspicious. Harubi's hand clenched on the girl's shoulder. The tanuki around them grew silent, listening. The kit in Genma's lap craned up to look at him in alarm.
"Some people do suck," Genma acknowledged. "But most of us—" He swept a hand out, indicating his team— "know and care about people who've been hurt by other mean, terrible people."
"I knew it!" the tanuki kit in his lap announced.
Genma patted her head gently, without looking down. "We don't want to help you because we feel guilty about killing people. We want to help you because you remind us of people we care about that we couldn't help, because we were too young, or too powerless, or it was too late to do anything."
Or because we were those people. Ryouma looked down, at his fingers in Kin's fur, at his knee under Kin's head.
Sen said, "You're kind of a sap for a ninja."
Genma laughed, ruefully, and didn't disagree.
Maybe sappiness was enough. The girl's tightly held arms had relaxed a little, and she leaned back into her mother's side. "I suppose Fire Country could be nice."
Harubi wrapped her arm around Sen's shoulders, expression tilting between apology and pride. Her thumb brushed the scar on Sen's cheek. Her mouth firmed. She said to Kurenai, "I'll try your Daimyou."
"If you will be happy there," Himself rumbled above them, "we will be happy for you." His black gaze bored down at the ninja, over a warning edge of tooth. "Harubi-san and her kits will remain under our protection, whether she's here in our mountains or yours."
Kakashi and Pakkun announced in tandem, "Liar."
Oblivious to stares, Kakashi added, "You're tied to the mountains, aren't you?"
"Yep," Pakkun said wisely.
Tanuki bristled and hissed — even the kit, standing up in Genma's lap with its paws on the alarmed cage of his arms. Himself merely licked his teeth, took a long draw on his pipe, and blew three perfect smoke rings around Kakashi and Pakkun. "I live here. Other tanuki live elsewhere. And I have many friends. Tengu, foxes, kappa…"
Ryouma stiffened. Kakashi's eye narrowed. Raidou said mildly, "Our village doesn't have the best history with foxes. Perhaps you already knew that, but I'd like to think you didn't. Hatake isn't really on speaking terms with diplomacy, but he is very sorry for any offense he just caused."
Kakashi dropped his gaze, and reached over to scratch Kin's ears.
"Harubi and her children will be safe in Fire Country, for as long as they choose to stay," Raidou promised. "And if they ever want to leave, they'll be free to do so. If your sense of smell is anything like Hatake's, you should be able to tell I'm not lying."
Himself blew another smoke ring, rolled up the dried calligraphy scroll, and tossed it at Raidou's knees. Then he slapped his belly like a drum. "Sake!"
"I'll see what's keeping them…" An older tanuki darted off the edge of the platform.
Raidou said, "We don't have to stay here forever if we eat the food, right?"
Genma's face froze. "I...certainly hope that's not how it works."
A couple of adolescent tanuki dropped their bristling enough to snicker. The cuddly little male in Genma's lap rose onto his hind legs and patted at Genma's face. "Eating doesn't make you have to stay!" He added, a little forlornly, "But don't you want to stay, Genma-san? Your, um… friends… can stay too. If you want. If they promise not to hit anymore."
Genma's tension faded into a soft smile. He patted the kit's ears. "We have to go home, Hideki-kun. Our families will be sad if we don't. But maybe if I'm here during the festival again, we can see each other."
"No more kidnapping humans unless I say so," Himself rumbled at the kit. "Ah, here we are at last!"
A lively procession of tanuki streamed towards the gathering place. Several hoisted platters three times their size, with no apparent strain; others lugged enormous casks, or towed a precious cargo of dishes on a furry litter. The youngest kits still romped and played with Harubi's small son, while the adolescents were enlisted in setting up lanterns and tables. Giant Kenta was directing the laying of a bonfire. A couple of grey-muzzled fellows settled down with drumsticks and their inflated testicles. Azami reappeared with a flute.
Scent eddied toward them: roasted meat, sweet fruit, fresh rice. Raidou licked his lips. "Also, if eating anything does trap us here, you have to put up with Hatake and his dogs forever. I'm just saying."
"That would be a good joke on the Fleabags." Himself chuckled, patting his belly. "Probably not worth the pain of keeping him here, though. And as Genma-san said, your families would miss you."
Well, Genma's would.
Saishou unwound herself from her spot at Ryouma's spine and shouldered past him to stand in front of Himself. She looked up with ears half-cocked in disapproval, rumbling softly. Then she slipped off the platform and padded toward the meat smell.
Himself's whiskers quivered. He called after her: "You, I like!"
Saishou swished her tail. Kakashi leaned against Ryouma's shoulder and shook with silent laughter.
"What'd she say?" Ryouma whispered. "You're being rude but at least you're feeding us, I'm eating for ten these days?"
Pakkun snickered. "Pretty much."
Kin sighed heavily against Ryouma's knee and heaved herself up. Her fringed tail buffeted Ryouma's head lightly as she trotted over to stretch out in front of Harubi's daughter, all soft fur and warm eyes and hopeful panting. When she rolled onto her back, exposing her creamy golden belly, Sen cracked. One small hand stole out to stroke Kin's fur.
"Gently, Sen." Harubi rubbed her daughter's back, circular soothing motions as Sen's hands sank into Kin's fur. As Sen eased, Harubi turned her attention to Genma and the tanuki kit cuddled in his lap. "Is it true some of the children took you?"
Genma looked wry. "It's true." He retold the story of the smokey kidnapping from his own point of view — an innocuous morning spar followed by a confusing journey through dimensions, a concussion healed, a set of very determined kits insistent he needed saving… "They'd heard your story," he said, watching Harubi. "They wanted me to know I should never let anyone hit me."
Harubi looked down again, at her daughter Sen. "It didn't start as letting him hit me," she said tiredly. "Not at first."
Not until she had something to protect, Ryouma thought.
He almost spoke. His throat ached with the need for it, and the fear of it. He watched that wary, angry little girl smile as she scratched Kin's soft belly, and he wanted to say It's still not your fault. You survived. You got away. You'll outlive the bastard. But she knew that already. Why would she want to hear it from him?
They'd worked out where Harubi would go, but not what would happen to Nomiya. If she was leaving, did that mean he got to stay, with his big house and his brewery and his village that pretended blindness for the sake of the prosperity he brought them?
Kakashi's hand drifted sideways and closed over Ryouma's knee.
A couple of young tanuki kits clambered back up onto the platform: Kaori-chan in the flowered kimono, and her adolescent sister. They each bore a towering stack of round lacquered trays. Ryouma jumped up, grateful for the excuse, and went to help them.
A trio of older tanuki were coming with a series of giant trays clearly meant for Himself. Kaori eyed Ryouma skeptically, but finally allowed him to help pass out the smaller trays. "Are you the oldest?" she asked him in nothing like a whisper. "You're the biggest."
"I'm, uh, junior-est," Ryouma told her. "Raidou's oldest. He's our captain. Then Genma, then me. Kakashi's youngest, but he took the oath before me, so he's sort of senior."
"Hmm." She looked doubtful. And she insisted on giving Genma the first tray, anyway.
The food looked amazing, and it smelled even better. White rice with fragrant wild mushrooms, cucumber salad, miso-glazed eggplant, simmered cubes of wild boar belly. There were corn croquettes and grilled brook trout, tempura sweet potatoes and black soy beans. Tea eggs, pickled plums and daikon, dumplings both steamed and fried—
"How d'you expect us to eat all this?" Ryouma asked, overwhelmed. He'd put the third tray down in front of Genma, and there was still one more.
Kaori looked puzzled. "There are chopsticks! And spoons for the sauce, if you need more."
"Kaori-chan can help us eat when our bellies get too full," Genma added.
The little tanuki beamed at him. "I'll be back!" She swept her tail out of the way and waited for Ryouma to hand the next tray down.
Warm afternoon sunlight was beginning to shade into evening. Kenta had got the bonfire lit and left a throng of gleeful tanuki leaping about it. He came back with a giant cask over his shoulder and a sake cup big enough even Ryouma would need both arms to carry it. "Greatest Grandfather," he said deferentially. "Should I pour?"
Himself gave a lordly nod. A couple of burly young tanuki came up to hold the sake cup while Kenta tapped the cask and poured. The earthy, floral smell of the sake bubbled out to mingle with the rich scents of food. Ryouma's mouth watered.
He set the last tray in front of Sen. She looked up, still wrist-deep in Kin's golden fur. This time he didn't try mustering a smile.
"It'll get better," he said.
She stared back at him. He ducked his head, scratched Kin's ears, and went back to Kakashi.
Kaori's sister had set out trays for both of them. Ryouma tucked down at Kakashi's side. There was no formality to the beginning of the meal; Himself was already eating, his rice-bowl the size of Ryouma's head. The tanuki kits curled in Genma's lap and against his sides, blissfully shoving Raidou out of the way, and plied him with their favorite treats.
The first bite of sweet potato tempura reminded Ryouma how hungry he was. Coffee at dawn, and one rat bar since then; Genma hadn't been around to remind them to eat. He forced himself to go slowly, to pay attention to the crackle of golden tempura and the smooth potato within. The fatty richness of pork belly, and then the sour crunch of takuan pickle cutting through it. He bit into a dumpling, and it flooded his mouth with savory juice.
If the tanuki ate like this every day, he wouldn't blame Harubi if she hesitated to leave for Fire Country.
A few more older tanuki came up onto the platform, with their own trays and small jugs of sake. They chatted and laughed with each other and with Harubi, sneaking sly glances at the ninja in their midst. Out in the gathering space the party was in full flight, with the drummers setting a lively beat while young tanuki pounded their paws around the fire.
At last Himself drained his cup of sake and announced, "Time to share a drink. All of you!"
Ryouma swallowed his last bite of creamy croquette. Himself was holding his cup out; Kenta upended the cask over it. Genma looked down at his empty trays, blinked, and looked suspiciously at the tanuki kits. They beamed, and tugged him to his feet.
Raidou offered Kurenai a hand up. She helped Harubi in turn. Ryouma clambered up on his own, and Kakashi unfolded, reluctantly, when Kurenai hissed at him.
Himself cleared his throat.
There was going to be a speech. Ryouma stared fixedly at Himself's left elbow — shoulder was a bit too high without craning his neck — and tried to lick the last flecks of black soy paste off his teeth.
"My human guests," Himself proclaimed. "Fate, and a few unruly kits, have brought us together."
Kaori, her sister, and their brother Hideki all had the sense to bow their heads at that, looking sheepish. Himself rolled on.
"Loyalty, compassion, kindness — these are traits that humans often lack, but they burn in each of you. So for tonight, I declare you honorary members of my family. Our friends from the Dog World are welcome tonight, too, as beloved cousins. May the ties of kinship remain long after the night has been forgotten."
He lifted the massive cup easily in one paw. "And now, we drink!" He drank, dribbling clear sake from the wide brim, then smacked his lips and passed the cup down to Kenta. Kenta accepted with both paws and a bow, and turned to Harubi.
Pale, but steady, she drank, setting her mouth just to the rim of the giant cup as Kenta tipped it. Kurenai followed. Even her elegance was a little spoiled by the breadth of the cup; she wiped her mouth as she stood back, looking surprised.
Raidou took the cup from Kenta, holding it in both arms, and made the wise choice to lower his head rather than tipping the cup. His brows climbed halfway up his forehead as he straightened.
Then, unexpectedly, he smiled.
Genma looked wary, then just as startled. He wiped sake off his chin with the back of his hand. "Huh," he murmured. His smile came easier, lighting his face. "You'll like this," he told Ryouma.
How strong was the tanuki sake?
The cup was half-empty by now, but that meant there were still ten or twelve liters of clear fluid sloshing in the bowl. Ryouma took its weight cautiously, conscious he had no chakra to strengthen his arms. The cup itself was surprisingly heavy, but liftable. The challenge would be drinking without dumping it down his front.
And then, of course, shielding Kakashi while he drank.
Thinking about whether Kakashi could drink without lowering his mask, Ryouma lifted the cup and bent his head.
The sake touched his lips.
It was dry and a little floral, with an earthy, rice-y base and a refreshing crispness over a mellow undertone. The alcohol lurked beneath. But it wasn't just alcohol that rose up and kicked Ryouma between the teeth.
An intense physical awareness of the world, the sunset on his shoulders, the breeze in his hair, the soft prickles of fur under his feet. The blood in his veins and the breath in his throat. The musky scent of tanuki all around him, stronger than food or sake, heady as the fifth cocktail going down. He could feel Kakashi at his shoulder, a presence that shaped the air.
Warmth, and safety, and an anchor in the world.
He lowered the cup. "Whoa."
Ryouma’s pupils dilated like ink in water. Tension spilled off his shoulders. His scent — acrid since the moment Genma had vanished, worse after the wolves, blackened in front of Sen — finally settled, curling to thunderheads over calm seas.
Warily, Kakashi looked at Harubi. She was standing with ease, a smile touching her lips. Next to her, Kurenai’s eyes were nearly as dark as Ryouma’s, gleaming crimson. Genma had turned to look at the bonfire, where kits tumbled gleefully near the crackling sparks with Harubi’s son. He expression was soft. Raidou, equally relaxed, was watching Genma.
All of them, especially Genma, had poison training. They wouldn’t just stand there.
Kakashi watched them just stand there.
The purely intellectual part of his mind, which studied the world and took notes, thought, interesting.
Ryouma offered the cup to Kakashi. Kakashi accepted it, balancing the weight, and squinted at the contents. Liquid sloshed innocently. It smelled like sake. There was nothing smeared inside the rim. No powder granules in the base. Himself had drunk, but Himself was a magical interdimensional being with unknowable body chemistry.
Kakashi pictured the conversation with Minato. And you drank the mysterious drink why?
Everyone else did?
Then again, Minato shared Gamabunta’s toad sake and came home with ringing hangovers, so who was he to comment on peer pressure?
Kakashi looked at Himself. The immense tanuki lord was watching with glittering black eyes.
“What’s in it?” Kakashi asked.
“Rice from Kamakura polished to forty percent,” said Himself, without guile. “Water from Kinano River, rice koji, and yeast. Or do you put something else in the Fire Daimyou’s sake, Harubi-san?”
“A blessing for good sense,” Harubi said. She looked at Kakashi, and something — not judgemental, but something — in her expression made him feel young and foolish, as if he was missing a piece of adult knowledge. She said, “Tanuki magic affects it a little, but it won’t hurt you.”
One of the kits piped up — the older one, who ordered her siblings around. “They drink it and laugh and tell stories.” Grouchily, she added, “We’re not allowed to have it until we’re older.”
Himself’s laugh rumbled through the twilight air. Genma rumpled the kit’s soft ears, which made her swat at him, but look pleased all the same.
“And if I don’t drink?” Kakashi pressed.
One of Himself’s curving ears flicked. “Then you’ll envy your friends who did, and regret missing the opportunity forever afterwards.”
That wasn’t a threat, exactly.
Curiosity won out, as it usually did.
Ryouma stretched, leaning casually in front of Kakashi. Kakashi slipped behind his outstretched arm and lowered his mask for the hidden moment it took to drink. He was too nervy to really taste anything. He swallowed, yanked his mask back up. Made to pass the cup to its tanuki-bearer, but Pakkun slid down Kakashi’s shoulder before the hand-off was completed and shoved his head into the cup, taking a deep swallow. The tanuki bristled.
Pakkun raised his head, licking his lips. “Thanks, cousin.”
The tanuki unbristled himself with effort and hurried the cup away.
Kakashi felt— strange.
It started with warmth. First in his throat, then sliding down into his stomach, twining tendrils around old, old tension that had crouched there so long it was almost a comfort. A permanent ache that meant he was alive and paying attention. He swallowed, and the feeling uncoiled itself, peeled away like a strangling vine pulled from its parent plant. In the space left behind, he could draw a full breath. He inhaled and felt lighter.
His senses, always pretty sharp, seemed acute. Colors brightened, scents amplified. The wind was a caress.
It wasn’t like morphine, clouded and dizzy. Or the tipsy delirium of blood loss. It wasn’t even like the night at the club, with everything briefly drowned under flaming alcohol. He was clear-headed. His thoughts felt like his own. They just… didn’t hurt.
“Wow,” he said quietly.
“Right?” Ryouma smiled, unguarded. It changed everything about his face.
A small commotion caught Kakashi’s attention. The two small tanuki who’d commandeered Genma’s lap and plied him with treats had now captured his hands. They were scrabbling backwards, trying to tow him off the platform. A third tanuki, even smaller, set one shoulder against the back of Genma’s knee and shoved.
Since Genma was a shinobi, this made no appreciable difference, but he kindly allowed himself to be pulled down and hauled away.
“Hey,” Raidou said.
“You just missed your chance to invite him bonfire dancing,” Kurenai told Raidou, light and amused.
Raidou glanced at her, eyebrows quirked. Still within earshot, Genma called back, “You could come with me.”
Kakashi watched with interest as Raidou stepped down from the platform, extended a strong hand to help Kurenai down, and did exactly that. Genma’s kits were loudly dismayed at the intrusion of the red moon demon, but Kurenai was made much of, and no one actually squashed Raidou with a rock.
“I think we’ve been abandoned,” Kakashi told Ryouma. “On testicles.”
“I keep trying to forget,” Ryouma confided, making Pakkun snort. He looked over at Harubi and her daughter, tucked together with Kin curled around them like a gleaming golden bulwark. “They’ll be okay.”
For once, he didn’t sound like he was trying to convince himself. He sounded certain.
“Yep,” Kakashi agreed. He ducked a shallow bow at Himself and said, “Excuse us. I’m rude and your scrotum hospitality is uncomfortable. We’re going over there now.”
He stepped off the platform, landing back on solid ground, scooped his boots up, and glanced over his shoulder at Ryouma.
Ryouma said earnestly, “We liked the sake, though.”
The furry mattress rippled under Ryouma’s feet, lifting and depositing him gently next to Kakashi. He grabbed his own boots, but didn’t put them on. Himself raised the enormous ceremonial sake cup in a farewell toast.
“Show off,” Pakkun muttered, and leapt down from Kakashi’s shoulder to trot away.
Harubi, with a sake cup in her hand and a plate of colorful sweets balanced on her knee, seemed content to stay next to Himself for the moment. Kakashi hoped she’d use the time to work out logistics, or at least negotiate one cask of sake back. Sen watched Ryouma and Kakashi leave with dark, steady eyes.
The kits seemed to be trying to sacrifice Genma to the bonfire.
When he drew closer, Kakashi realized, in fact, that they were attempting to dance. One kit sat on each of Genma’s feet, furry little arms wrapped around his shins. The third straddled his shoulders and clutched his ponytail in both paws, apparently for reins. Genma was staggering because he was laughing, while the small shoulder-riding kit chided him to move faster.
“You can dance better than that, lieutenant!” Ryouma called. “I’ve seen you!”
“That was not child-appropriate dancing,” Kakashi murmured.
“Well, there’s our kind of dancing too, but that’d probably scare the kids.” Ryouma sighed, but with a smile still lurking at the corners of his mouth, and called, “Nevermind, you’re doing fine! Don’t fall in the fire.”
Genma caught his breath and made a few graceful, child-friendly spins. He pivoted on one bare foot, sweeping a squealing tanuki kit through the air with the other, then switched legs and repeated the move. He wasn’t quite as sure-footed as he would have been with his chakra-sense intact, but good enough to delight his tiny kidnappers.
Kurenai applauded. Genma flashed her a quick, surprised smile, and rolled neatly forward onto his hands. His feet went up in the air, kits clinging and squeaking. The tanuki on his shoulders lost its grip. Genma switched his weight effortlessly to one hand, and caught the little creature before it could fall, tucking it securely against his chest.
This time, Raidou applauded, and Ryouma whistled.
Genma let his balance go and collapsed on his back in the grass, letting his feet thump gently down, and groaned something about being too full to dance. All three kits immediately piled onto his stomach and bounced.
“This looks like our moment to beat a hasty retreat,” Ryouma said in Kakashi’s ear. “Taichou can do the rest of the rescuing.”
Raidou was already wading into battle, which was earning him a lot of flat ears and hissing, while Genma tried valiantly to defend his stomach and Kurenai offered helpful suggestions, only somewhat undermined by the laughter in her voice. Pakkun, stretched out closer to the fire, added a few lazy comments.
Clearly they had it in hand.
“Where to?” Kakashi asked.
Ryouma blinked and smiled, as if he’d expected more of an argument, then cast a look around the lantern-lit dusk. The moon was rising, enormous and full. Back home, it had just been a sliver. “Around the other side of the pond? Can still see everybody, but we’re not gonna get stepped on. And those look like cherry trees.”
Kakashi tucked his hands into his pockets, pleased to be chosen for this little venture, and said, “Lead on.”