Ryouma dropped his kunai and lunged for the statue.
He hit it shoulder-first and full speed. Pain slammed through his side. The statue didn't even rock. It was a monolith, big as the stone tanuki statue back in Hiraizumi, taller than Ryouma and four times as broad. Ryouma fell away, scrabbled back to his feet, and hurled himself at the stone again.
This time he kept his feet, but the statue didn't shift, and Raidou was dying—
"Tousaki, stop!" Kurenai caught at his arm. "You'll break your shoulder before you move that. Summon clones. Or an earth jutsu—"
"I can't," Ryouma gasped. "My chakra—"
But it was there when he reached for it, rushing through his pathways as if it had never drained away. Or been blocked. His hands tingled painfully, like the blood returning to a frozen limb.
Raidou lay on his back, his torso almost completely trapped beneath the statue's base. There was no blood on his mask, or on the one outflung hand.
The statue wasn't big enough to have trapped Genma, too. Why wasn't he here helping?
Kurenai knelt, swiftly pulled off Raidou's mask, and checked his airway. Over her shoulder Ryouma saw Raidou's warm brown eyes wide with pain or fear, but his face wasn't yet purpling. His mouth opened without sound.
Kurenai touched his cheek. "Hold on," she said fiercely, and pushed to her feet.
Six Kakashi clones shoved in around her, grappling at the rounded shoulders of the statue, its enormous paws clutching bowl and bottle. They weren't trying to lift the thing, just stabilize it. Kakashi himself stood behind them, shaping seals blurred with speed.
Rock groaned and shifted. The statue ground down. Raidou made a breathless, desperate noise, like a kitten squashed underfoot. Kurenai shouted, but Kakashi had already stopped, his hands frozen in the terminating Ram seal.
"Raikiri," he said.
Kurenai shook her head. Her face was bloodless white, her eyes like wounds. "The rock could shatter. He'd be ripped apart."
"Water," Ryouma said. His voice scratched in his throat. "If we soften the soil—"
He reached for the river, felt Kakashi do the same. Water arched up like ribbons and seeped down again into the soil beneath Raidou, softening and loosening the hard ground. Not too fast, or he'd sink down and be buried just as surely—
The statue lurched down again despite the clones' grips, grinding another horrible sound out of Raidou. The clones' shoulders strained, rounding like bows. A tendon popped. One clone cried out and blew away in smoke.
This wasn't working. Ryouma threw a desperate glance at Kakashi. "Can you split it? Without killing him?"
Kakashi's skin was paper-pale above the mask. His eye darted over the statue, down to Raidou, back to Ryouma. "Get back."
He pushed up his eyepatch.
Kurenai pulled Ryouma back. Two more clones burst.
Chakra lit like blue-white lightning in Kakashi's hand. It hissed and sizzled, throwing off arcing sparks that withered the grass where they struck. One of the remaining clones looked back, then bent its head again and strained against the statue.
Kakashi moved like wind, like a lightning-strike, almost too fast to see. A searing trace of light, and then the crack of splitting stone — and then smoke, obscuring the world again. Ryouma lunged forward.
Kurenai's wind jutsu cleared the air. The statue was gone, and Kakashi's clones with it. Kakashi had stumbled several paces beyond, his Raikiri burning a furrow into the soil. And Raidou dragged in a lungful of air, coughed, and rolled halfway onto his side.
Ryouma dropped beside him. "Are you okay? Can you breathe?" That was stupid, Raidou was breathing, in huge raw gulps. Ryouma reached for his armor buckles.
A small leaf fell away from Raidou's chestplate as Ryouma eased it off. It must have been caught in his armor during the spar. The leaf was bright green, uncrushed, split neatly in two.
Kurenai scooped it up and stood back, frowning. Ryouma ignored her, trying to remember the order of triage Genma had taught him and Kakashi had drilled into him. Genma still wasn't back to coach him through it, but Raidou was breathing, no open wounds, no massive external bleeding—
"Cracked ribs," Raidou rasped. "I think." He groped vaguely at his side.
"Okay." Genma always managed to stay calm at this point, and Ryouma had no idea how. He felt like a thin crust of control over a bubbling pot of panic. "If, if the ribs are broken enough to float, they'll move the wrong way when you breathe in. I've got to pull your shirt up—"
"Cut it off." Kurenai knelt beside him, slit a kunai smoothly from Raidou's navel to his throat, and peeled the black panels back. Raidou managed an ironic eyebrow lift.
His chest was mottled red with massive bruising, but his ribs all moved the right way when he breathed. His abdomen was hard with muscle, not internal bleeding. Not internal bleeding, thank all the gods Genma believed in — they'd drilled those signs for days after Fukuda's death. When Ryouma sank his chakra carefully into Raidou's pathways he found the steady churn of chakra disturbed, but not displaced.
Kakashi crouched by Raidou's head, one hand braced on the muddy grass. His voice was ice-calm. "Lieutenant's gone. Orders?"
Ryouma's head jerked up. "Gone?"
He hadn't seen Genma since the statue appeared. He couldn't sense him. But he'd thought—
He'd barely thought. Desperation and terror. He'd lost his head, and if they'd lost Genma too—
Raidou's stomach muscles tensed. He grated, "Find him."
Kakashi straightened, pulled a scroll and a kunai, and slit the side of his finger. He shook the scroll out, smearing blood across the black ink characters, then clasped the scroll between two fingers and set his hands to seals.
Ozone bit at Ryouma's nose. The soft whump of displaced air encircled him: two presences at his back, one at his side. Sardonic Pakkun, lean Tsuyoshi, and another dog that might have been Tsuyoshi's littermate, dark grey with a creamy belly.
No friendly Kin, no wagging tails. The two wolf-dogs darted into the trees. Pakkun hit the dirt and snarled, revealing sharp white teeth that looked better suited to crunching through a beer bottle than drinking from one. He swung around on Kakashi. "Why does it smell like tanuki? What did you do?"
"Tanuki," Kurenai said, and looked down at her leaf.
Kakashi looked like several pieces had slotted together in his head and then detonated. "What?"
Pakkun beat a wide circle with his nose to the ground, finishing up on the torn earth where Ryouma had first seen Genma fall. "Tanuki. It reeks of them. How'd you miss them?"
"I—" Kakashi stared around the clearing, his Sharingan eye red and glaring. "What?"
The pug trotted back, eeled between Kurenai and Ryouma, and sniffed at Raidou. "Dimension-hopping little bastards. What'd you do? Tell me you didn't knock over a shrine."
"No," Kakashi said. His face stilled, cut glass beneath the mask. His eyes fixed on something in the distance. "No. But Nomiya Harubi prayed at one."
Kurenai looked sharply at him. Pakkun groaned. "What did she give them?"
"Two hundred casks of sake," Kurenai said. She held the cut halves of the leaf out to Pakkun. "This was tanuki, too?"
Pakkun sniffed the leaf halves, wrinkled his nose, and sneezed. "Yes. What was it?"
"About a thousand kilos on my ribs," Raidou said. He was trying to sit up; Ryouma reached automatically to help him. Together they managed to wedge Raidou half-upright, breathing shallowly, sweating. "Tanuki?"
"I didn't think they were real," Ryouma said numbly. "The myth thing, not the animal. I thought people just— made them up. Like gods. Just stories."
He thought of the torchlight procession in Hiraizumi, the laughing villagers pelting a stone tanuki with buns. That sense of something watching them from the shadows, the sharp foxy smell Kakashi had given them as genjutsu-memory, the strange chakra trail that broke off in the direction of Tanigawa.
Raidou-as-Rie, throwing a bun directly at the testicles of a statue identical to the one that had almost crushed him just now…
Genma, dropping chocolate at a moss-covered crossroad statue's feet.
"They stole the lieutenant? He was kind."
Kakashi dragged a hand over his face. "After the captain hit him. Nomiya beat his wife."
"I sparred with him," Raidou protested.
"Tanuki do show up in some stories as protective guardian spirits, as well as tricksters," Kurenai said. "Usually they're protectors of children. It could be why they were paired with the Jizo at the crossroads."
"You knocked him out," Kakashi told Raidou.
"Down," Raidou said, horrified. "I knocked him down. I— How do we get him back?"
His muscles were steel-hard against Ryouma's supportive arm. That tension had to be murder on his ribs; it was probably the only reason he wasn't already on his feet, hurling himself at the world.
Ryouma'd be there with him, if he could.
Genma was the steady anchor of their team, the linchpin they all orbited. Calm and certain and capable, warm hands, easy voice. He'd held Ryouma together on that first awful night in the ANBU Trials, and on almost every day since then.
Team Six without him was—
Tsuyoshi and her littermate slunk back out of the trees, hackles raised, lips curled back in edgy snarls. They circled around Kakashi's feet, radiating anxious threat. He sank a hand into Tsuyoshi's ruff, and she leaned hard against his legs.
Kurenai said slowly, "You called them 'dimension-hopping little bastards.' I assume you meant that literally. Do they come from the summoning dimension? Could they have taken Genma and the Nomiya family there?"
"Sure," Pakkun said. "If they didn't drop 'em off a thousand miles away, or get bored and toss 'em in the ocean. Not much attention span on a tanuki. Less after sake."
Kurenai's lips tightened into a narrow gash. The cut leaf crushed between her thumb and fingers.
Ryouma said, "You come from the summoning dimension. Can you take us after him?"
Pakkun looked away. "We could take you to our dimension. Tanuki Dimension is a whole other place. You'd be better off—"
Kakashi reached down, grabbed the loose skin at Pakkun's scruff, and lifted the pug up to eye-level. Pakkun's paws dangled helplessly.
"You know a way," Kakashi said, flat as a sword's blade.
Pakkun's ears pinned back. "It's dangerous, kid. You'd have to talk to the old ones, and they don't like to help."
"We're dangerous, too," Ryouma said.
Pakkun looked down at him with something like pity. "Not like this, kid."
"Well, so we'll convince them! We'll ask nicely. Hell, we'll do a strip-tease, or— or whatever else your old ones want." There had to be something. There always was. These old ones might be big or cruel or remote from human concerns, but they came from the same place as Pakkun and Kin, and Pakkun and Kin knew loyalty and sympathy and kindness.
They were wolves, at heart. They'd understand pack.
"Or," Pakkun suggested, twisting slightly as he dangled, "I'm just saying, you could try an offering at the shrine."
"Would that work?" Kakashi demanded.
Pakkun's lips curled back in an unconvincing attempt at a smile. "It might?"
A deep, nasty growl rumbled in Kakashi's chest. "He's one of ours. We're going."
Kurenai said quietly, "All of us?" She was looking at Raidou, her brows pinched tight. "Even if cracked ribs are the worst of it, you'll have trouble walking. You won't be able to run."
Raidou wrapped an arm around his ribs, gritted his teeth, and pushed off from Ryouma's shoulder. He made it to his feet without wavering. His face was sheened in sweat, but his voice stayed steady. "If it's my fault, I need to go. They won't believe me if I'm not there. Tousaki can strap my ribs. I've run on worse."
Pakkun twisted around gently, looking skeptical. Kurenai looked much the same.
"If I can't keep up, I'll stop."
"Like you have ever stopped in your life," Kurenai muttered. But she picked up Raidou's armor, brushing the drying mud away. "The armor may help stabilize your ribs, at least."
At least one thing would be stable.
Kurenai retreated eventually, fording the river with Kakashi to pack up their camp. Ryouma dug athletic tape out of their supplies and carefully strapped Raidou's ribs, following Raidou's directions as much as his own recent lessons; apparently this wasn't the first time Raidou'd cracked a rib and not nearly the worst. His torso was beginning to purple alarmingly, but his chakra still coursed clean, and he reported only the expected soreness at Ryouma's careful palpation.
Kakashi and Kurenai came back, armed and armored, with their entire camp sealed into three dense scrolls and Ryouma's armor slung over Kakashi's shoulder. They helped squeeze Raidou back into his armor — with the buckles let out one notch — while Ryouma stripped and poured himself into his own.
And then they were done. The campsite was gone, the tiny fire buried, only a patch of broken mud left to mark the spot where Raidou had lain. Ryouma adjusted his ram-horned mask over his face. His vision narrowed, his too-fast breath curled back. He forced himself to slow.
Raidou injected one syrette of morphine into his own shoulder, clipped the cap to his dogtags, and tucked the chain back under his shirt. His face was masked again, unassailable.
Kakashi had two packs — his own, and Genma's. The wolf-dogs slunk in his shadow. Pakkun sighed and heaved himself up to his feet.
"Don't say I didn't warn you," he said grumpily. "Where's that scroll?"
It took a while for Kakashi and Pakkun to reverse-engineer the summoning scroll into something that wouldn’t turn them all inside out. Kurenai and Ryouma spent the time crouched right next to them, offering suggestions: the first of which was for Kakashi to stop arguing and take a soldier pill already.
While they worked, Raidou went to the shrine. It was ridiculous — this whole thing was ridiculous — but he had to try. Kakashi’s wolf-dogs trailed after him.
The shrine wasn’t much of anything. Just a dingy, abandoned shell left to rot in the forest. Raidou braced an arm around his ribcage and looked at the faceless statue.
“I’m a soldier from Konoha,” he said tightly. “We’re here to help the village. You’ve taken my lieutenant, and I’m asking for him back. Please.”
The morning was so still, not even wind answered him.
That probably hadn’t been supplication enough. Harubi had brought flowers and warehouses with her, and children in danger. Raidou had a fist that ached faintly with the imprint of Genma’s mask.
Stiffly, he lowered himself to one knee and tried to feel humble instead of blackly furious.
“He’s in no danger from me. We were sparring — training. It wasn’t a real fight. He’s my second-in-command and our medic. I trust him with my life. He trusts me with his.” Raidou ground his back teeth together. Humble. “We need him. If you want sake, I can get it for you. Or— whatever you want for him.”
He placed his full canteen at the statue’s feet, next to the wilted flowers and empty sake cup. It was one of his most important pieces of gear, and water was a feature in half a dozen legends.
Nothing continued to happen.
Smashing the shrine to kindling and dust would not help his cause. Nor would threatening it.
He pushed back up to his feet, turned, and walked away.
In his absence, Kakashi had drawn a large and complex set of seals in the dirt, and was directing Ryouma and Kurenai to bleed on them. They’d each sliced the back of one forearm with a kunai, and were holding their arms outstretched. Thin red trickles poured onto the design, which swallowed them like something living. Kakashi gave Raidou a significant look. Raidou dug out a kunai and put the clean, sharp blade to use.
When they were done and bandaged — something Kakashi insisted on, before they went into a world where scent dominated vision — Pakkun sat down in the center of the circle and said, “Brace yourselves.”
Kakashi took Ryouma’s hand, then Kurenai’s. Raidou hastily mirrored him, linking all four of them together. Kurenai’s fingers were cold; Ryouma’s gloved. Pakkun closed his eyes. When he opened them again, they glowed the electric blue-white of Kakashi’s chakra.
The world lurched, then twisted sideways and folded like an envelope.
Bursting lights, like stars exploding. A rush of impossible speed. Kurenai’s hand clenched hard enough to make Raidou’s bones creak. Ryouma’s startled yell streamed into the void. Kakashi’s chakra twisted around them, mixed with something old and strong and definitely not human. They careened off the edge of the universe and slammed to a stop that would have driven the breath from Raidou’s lungs, except he wasn’t sure he had lungs anymore. For an agonized moment they were stuck, grinding against an infinitesimal gap and not fitting.
Then, like skinned rabbits, they popped through. Sudden sky freewheeled above them, and here was the ground rushing up to meet them.
They hit. They splashed. They sank.
Not ground, then.
Somewhere in the fall, Raidou lost his grip on people. He flailed, trying to find anyone in the murky water, trying to find up. Agony ripped through his chest, scoring lines of fire along his ribs. He gasped, which was bad; inhaled filthy water, which was worse. Before panic consumed him entirely, a set of sharp teeth sank into the back of his collar and hauled him to the surface, where there was blessed air and gravity in one direction, and enough coughing to turn the world red. He yanked his mask off to breathe and got one arm over his rescuer’s back, grabbing a handful of soaking fur.
Tsuyoshi, or her sister, growled in his ear and struggled towards the shore. Around them, coughing, spluttering, and the distinct sound of Ryouma retching suggested everyone had enjoyed the experience just as much as Raidou had.
His feet touched solid ground. He staggered ashore and collapsed in a sodden heap, clutching his side. Ryouma joined him, maskless and gasping, followed by Kurenai and Kakashi. Pakkun flopped down at the waterline and said, “Ow.”
When the floating black dots had cleared from Raidou’s vision, he squinted around.
The sky was lavender. The sun was the deep orange of an egg yolk. Rolling hills stretched out towards broad horizons. The long grass, rippling in a warm breeze, was springy soft and dark teal — a color Raidou associated with deep lakes and shadowy forests, not sunlit fields.
“Hope goin’ home isn’t always this bad for you,” Ryouma gasped to Pakkun.
The little pug gathered himself up and gave Kakashi a withering look. “It’s supposed to be like hopping through a door. That hurt.”
“Overcalculated the counterweight,” Kakashi said, bracing himself on his elbows. His hair, plastered to his face, looked like dark pewter. “Sorry.”
In the golden light, Kurenai’s eyes were almost purple. “We’re not in pieces. Yet.” She pushed sodden hair out of her face and looked around. “How do we find the old ones?”
“Head to where it feels dark and forbidding,” Pakkun muttered. He glanced warily at a distant circle of craggy rocks, rising up like a bleached ribcage from a thick forest. The sky did seem more leaden over there.
Tsuyoshi tipped her head back, ears flat, and gave a long, ululating howl that rose like a fingernail tracing wet glass. Her sister joined in.
Wincing, Ryouma rubbed his ear. “What was that?” he asked, when the echoes had died away.
An answering howl sliced the air. It came from the opposite direction of the stone circle, over the crest of a low hill. Note by note, more voices joined in, until the landscape reverberated with wolfsong. Some were thin and young-sounding. Others, deep as a cavern, like they poured from a chest bigger than Baiji’s.
Kakashi got to his feet, eyes half-lidded, head tilted back. “My pack,” he said, like Raidou might say family.
Ancient parts of Raidou’s brain were telling him to find a tree, any tree, and climb. The trained, practical, vengeful parts that were actually in control thought, Reinforcements.
Tall grass parted as the first lean body came bounding towards them. Kin, golden-orange in the strange light, hit Ryouma in the chest and knocked him to the ground, laving his face with her long tongue. Raidou recognized giant Baiji, the brindled mastiff, following a moment later. Then the dogs he’d trapped in their training exercise, when Kakashi had played hunter and set teeth on them. And so many more. Warriors, fit and sleekly muscled, heavily scarred, with gleaming canines and glinting eyes — where they weren’t broken or gouged out. Youngsters, half-grown into heavy paws, bounding in excitement with leaps that took them higher than Raidou’s shoulders. Trackers with short legs and long noses close to the ground. Oddities Pakkun’s size or smaller. Raidou recognized a few breeds here and there, but mostly it was a chaos of traits and colors, some more wolfish, others pure mutt. The biggest was nearly twice Baiji’s size. The smallest barely wider than Raidou’s palm.
A heavily pregnant female pushed forward, silver fur darkening to black in a ridge down her spine. Her eyes were almost colorless. “Saishou,” Kakashi said, and crouched. She touched her nose to his masked cheek.
What followed was one of the strangest conversations Raidou had ever witnessed. Kakashi, with his economy of speech and movement that seemed so disjointed in human interaction, slotted into place as naturally as breathing. Raidou recognized that questioning head tilt echoed back by listening dogs; the silent, watchful glances that lingered a second beyond comfortable; the predatory edge polished like a fine weapon. Here, Kakashi’s hair and mask just looked like markings, no more notable than that shepherd’s black-tipped ears, or that hound’s white-ticked coat.
It explained a lot.
Raidou glanced at Kurenai. She was watching silently, drinking in the details of a new world. Ryouma had wrestled Kin down and was listening, fascinated.
When Kakashi finished his canine speech with a lilting growl, half the assembled dogs flinched back. Some dropped down all together, pressed flat to the grass. The warriors bristled, fur ridging.
“Tanuki?” Kurenai murmured. “Or the old ones?”
A growl still lingered in Kakashi’s voice. “The old ones.”
That was… not entirely encouraging.
One of the wet wolfhounds was bracing Raidou’s side. He let himself lean slightly against her. “What’s the plan here?”
“We petition for help,” Kakashi said. His eye flicked over the crowd of dogs. Wherever he looked, the pack reorganized. The youngsters slipped back; most of the fighters came forward. One grey-muzzled mutt with nearly white eyes — “Yori.” — settled himself stiffly at Kurenai’s side. The pregnant female, Saishou, shook herself and snorted, staying in her chosen spot by Kakashi. His hand settled between her pointed ears. “They’re volunteering to go with us.”
“Is that safe for them?” Ryouma asked quietly.
Saishou looked at him with her clear, colorless eyes. Something about her expression was recognizably ironic. Raidou’s mouth quirked at a kindred spirit.
“No,” said Kakashi, but his voice wasn’t sharp. “That’s why they’re volunteering.”
Ryouma’s eyes dropped to Kin. The golden shepherd licked his knuckles, feathery tail fanning the air. He rumpled her ears and shoved to his feet, then paused. “Does chakra work the same here?”
Kakashi raised his hands, but Kurenai gripped his wrist. “Save your chakra,” she said.
He scowled, but lowered his hands. Kurenai shaped concise seals. A ribbon of water lifted from the lake, twisting in the sunlight.
“Seems to work,” she observed, and let her jutsu fall apart.
“Have you not been here before?” Raidou asked Kakashi, alarmed.
Kakashi shrugged one lean shoulder and muttered something that sounded a lot like, small risk of fatality, which was a brand new minefield of horror that Raidou was not going to explore until after they got the lieutenant back. Along with several other questions about what, exactly, they’d just done.
He looked, instead, at the distant stone claws where ancient — and apparently temperamental — dog gods lived, and said, “Let’s go.”
Chakra still worked, but the orange-shifted light wasn't the only thing strange about the Dog Dimension. Shadows fell oddly. Perspective and distance seemed to shift: Kurenai couldn't keep an accurate estimate of how far away those stone claws seemed. Seventy-five kilometers, a hundred?
Raidou couldn't run that.
He was trying, anyway. One hand pressed to his side, the ceramic mask pulled down over his face. She could still imagine the clenched jaw, the forehead sheened with sweat, as every footfall jarred. Ryouma eyed him warily, but said nothing. Kakashi never glanced back.
ANBU. Raidou only seemed like he had common sense. The other two didn't even bother pretending.
And where was hers, when it came down to it? She hadn't spoken a word against this whole mad adventure. She hadn't tried to hold Raidou back, or even left a clone or a message for Konoha to find. She'd trusted her own life and three of Konoha's most valuable soldiers on the word of a small brown pug, all in the desperate hope of saving a fourth.
Too late to turn back now. She ran grimly on.
The rolling grasslands turned to woodland. Raidou was audibly struggling for breath now, low shallow gasps that ended on a hiss. A massive tawny hound came up beside him, shoulder-high to Ryouma, and crouched low.
Raidou lurched aside, the relentless rhythm of his steps broken. He tried to circle the dog. But the thick neck stretched out, and the dog bit down on the back plate of his armor, jerking Raidou to a stumbling halt.
He twisted his neck to look back, torso held painfully straight. His voice scraped the lowest registers. "What?"
The dog rumbled, far deeper.
Kakashi slowed briefly. "Her name is Kabe. She's offering you a ride."
Raidou repeated, blankly, "What?"
"Thank you," Ryouma told the dog, fervently. He grabbed Raidou's arm. "C'mon, Taichou. You can hold her scruff. Uh, that's okay, Kabe-san, right?"
Kabe grunted and slewed her head around, dragging Raidou by his scruff in turn. He yelped. "All right, all right. I'm getting on. Let go." Leaning on Ryouma's shoulder, he levered himself up onto the dog's back. His elbow was shaking, and sweat slicked his shoulders.
Ryouma crouched over him protectively, one hand reaching back for his belt-pouch. He said something, low. Raidou shook his head. "Tell you when I need it. Let's get moving."
Kakashi took the lead again, with the heavy-bellied silver female loping at his side. Kabe unfolded to her feet again, surprisingly careful. Raidou grabbed her loose ruff, clamped his legs around her broad barrel, and somehow didn't fall.
Ryouma ranged between them: lengthening his stride to catch up to Kakashi, dropping back to keep an eye on Raidou. The golden-furred shepherd shadowed his side. Kurenai pushed through the growing stitch in her side and tried not to fall behind.
And suddenly they were scrambling up a steep shale slope, beneath the twilight of the stone claws' shadow. Kurenai dragged in ragged breaths, open-mouthed. Had they really been running that long?
Ahead of her, Ryouma asked Kakashi worriedly, "This was further away ten minutes ago, wasn't it?"
"Don't rely on your eyes here," Kakashi told him.
Ryouma's shoulders tightened. He tipped his head back, staring up at the looming spires of stone against a deepening slate-colored sky.
Kurenai looked, too, through Meikougan eyes.
There was chakra in the world here, in every struggling blade of glass or shard of stone. The dogs blazed with it. The three ANBU were denser pillars, netted with deeply cut pathways. No genjutsu tangled them, but the hilltop above—
She'd been in Konoha the night the Kyuubi attacked. She'd seen that firestorm of chakra, brighter than the inferno it unleashed. This wasn't, quite, the same.
But there were more of them.
"Kakashi," she said, as quietly as she could. "Sharingan."
Kakashi formed the Bird seal. A spark of lightning chakra lanced through the black mesh patch stretched over the left eye of his ANBU mask. His red eye met hers for half a heartbeat, before he turned and looked up.
Every muscle tensed. He stood so exquisitely still that he almost faded from view against the rough grey and black of the rocks. After a breath-searing moment he murmured, "Pakkun?"
"I warned you," Pakkun said.
Kakashi exhaled. "They're what we're here for." He shaped himself again out of stillness, and kept climbing.
Shale cracked and slid beneath their feet. They balanced themselves with chakra, as on moving water. The dogs climbed just as easily, hackles raised, heads hanging low. Even Kin's ever-waving tail clamped between her legs as they climbed higher. The grey-muzzled cur shoved his shoulders under Kurenai's hand, and she felt the stiff ruff prickling.
Above them on the hilltop, the chakra presences moved. Pacing. Waiting for them.
Just below the crest of the hill, Raidou tugged Kabe to a halt. He slid down from her back, wavering on the unsteady shale before he caught himself on Ryouma's ready shoulder.
"Ground rules: no one gets killed." Raidou straightened, painfully, keeping one hand clamped on Ryouma's shoulder. "Hatake, these are your people; take point and we'll follow your lead. If things go sideways, everyone scatters. We'll meet back up at the dog camp." His voice lowered, granite firm. "If anyone falls behind, they get left."
Of all the reckless, self-sacrificing, senseless idiots—
"I hope you don't mean me," Kurenai said, sweetly venomous. "I've tried not to hold you up."
Raidou's head swung back to her, startled.
Kakashi drawled, "The morphine apologizes for making Taichou stupid. It didn't mean to." He tilted his head back to gaze up at the curving stone spires above them and the incandescent chakra presences within. "If they can't sense us already, they can smell us. There's no point sneaking."
"Take your masks off," Pakkun said.
Kakashi looked down at him, lion-dog mask tilted in question.
"ANBU masks," Pakkun amended.
Ryouma lifted a hand to his curving-horned ram, then hesitated. "How come?"
"How would you feel about a lamb wearing a human face?"
"Creeped out. I'm plenty creeped out already." But he pulled the mask off and clipped it to the side of his belt. His skin was cinnamon-brown in this otherworldly light, his face sharp-cut and tense. His lips drew thin over his teeth as he looked at Raidou's grey, sweaty features. "I'll walk with you, Taichou."
"It's just a couple of cracked ribs," Raidou said, exasperated, but he didn't refuse the help as they scrambled up the last few meters of slope.
Kakashi gestured for Kurenai to join him at the vanguard, flanked by the pregnant female and the grey-muzzled elder. The rest of the pack spread out behind them in a broad fan. Pakkun leapt up to ride hunched on Kakashi's shoulder, as Kakashi led them into the wolf gods' den.
It smelled like blood and wild things.
The colossal stone ribs arched and converged in the center to make a towering sort of roof, pierced and pockmarked by a random constellation of holes. It almost put Kakashi in mind of coral, except on land and mountain-sized.
The light darkened blue, twisting through shadows and alcoves. Hiding places that would have made Kakashi's neck tingle, if his skin weren't already crawling. Killing intent soaked the air.
A memory slipped into the light, just for a moment. His mother's voice from years ago, teaching an important lesson: Ninja are wolves. The first Kages tamed us. But we are still wolves, even bound with rules and brought to heel, and we cannot forget it.
Compared to the immense energy ahead of them, he was feeling more pup-like.
Claws scraped stone, and a monster slunk out of the dark.
Fur like ink, gleaming teeth longer than Kakashi's arm, lambent yellow eyes. As big as the Kyuubi had been; bigger than Minato's giant toad summons. It padded forward silently, and predatory threat unrolled before it.
This was death, and they were standing in its home.
Pakkun flattened himself against Kakashi’s shoulder. Behind them, the stench of fear filled the air like rank smoke. One of the younger dogs whimpered, flattening to the ground.
The wolf stared at them expressionlessly, and two more immense beasts came forward to flank it. One was the color of perfect snow, almost luminous. The other was the ashy grey of a scorched field.
The weight of their attention was crushing.
A growl rumbled through the world. It took Kakashi a second to realize there were words in it. “Why do you bring humans here?”
Pakkun fought to sit up. Saishou beat him to it. She stepped forward, bracing herself in front of Kakashi. Her ears were pinned flat to her skull, but she raised her nose and made a soft, insistent sound. The grey-muzzled male, Yori, left Kurenai’s side and limped forward to stand at her shoulder. He was achingly lean next to her. Kin crept around Kakashi’s other side and touched her nose to Saishou’s flank; she was shaking, her eyes showing whites all the way around, but she stood there.
The black wolf lowered his head to study the three of them curiously. His breath was scalding. This close, he was all Kakashi could smell: wilderness and slaughter, the iron-tang of earth and the rank, overwhelming musk of a very definitive male. He had to be ancient, but his eyes were clear. His teeth were the bright white of scrubbed bone.
This growl made Kakashi’s bones vibrate. “Help them?”
The white wolf made a sound like breaking rocks, laughter magnified until it bounced off the walls. The grey wolf snarled. Fate-lines snapped through the Sharingan, showing a twist of future that made Kakashi’s lungs ice. He grabbed Kurenai by the arm and lunged to the side, too fast for grace. The grey wolf moved like a snake and bit through the air where they’d just been standing. Its head swung, thwarted. Kakashi hit the ground in a skid, crashed into the closest pillar, and leapt again, yanking Kurenai with him.
Kin barked in furious terror. Saishou leapt into the grey wolf’s path.
The black wolf moved even faster and caught his brother by the ear, teeth clamping down. A dark streak of blood sprayed across the ground, and steamed. The grey wolf reared back, snapping and snarling. Saishou scrambled out of the way of their deadly paws.
She’d been one of Kakashi’s best fighters, a handful of years ago, before she’d retired to start her first family. She landed at his flank like she’d never left it, guarding Kurenai’s open side, while Kin bolted on their heels. Yori, with an old dog’s sense, had ghosted quietly out of the way. Kurenai’s fingers were clamped bloodlessly on Kakashi’s shoulder. Even when they made it out of range, swallowed back into the pack, she didn’t let go.
Ryouma grabbed Kakashi’s other shoulder, bared steel in his free hand. He looked wildly at the fighting wolves. “Do we wait or run?”
“Wait,” Kakashi said.
The future and present converged in chakra-blue lines, and ended with the grey wolf pinned, the black wolf’s teeth at his throat. After a furious moment, the grey wolf allowed himself to go limp. The black wolf shook him once, for good measure, then released him.
The white wolf gave that breaking rocks laugh again, watching the grey wolf disdainfully. She — just as definitively female — glanced up with a spark of interest at the trespassers on her land. The black wolf licked blood off his teeth and nosed her ear.
Both of them moved so fast that, this time, even Obito couldn’t help Kakashi dodge. A giant paw knocked him flat on his back and pinned him, claws framing his head. Crushed against his side, Kurenai made a faint, thin sound.
Ryouma swore breathlessly, then cut short, flattened under the black wolf’s other front paw.
The white wolf had closed her teeth delicately around Raidou’s waist and picked him up. She settled herself comfortably on the ground, and put him back down between the circle of her front paws, like a cat with a wounded mouse. He held himself rigidly still, either in terror or because she’d just squeezed his broken ribs.
Teeth filled Kakashi’s worldview.
The black wolf sniffed him, made a disgusted sound, and rumbled, “Human wolfling. Your ancestors corrupted our blood and stole our foolish cubs. I should kill you on principle.”
Apparently there were some lessons his mother had neglected. Or his father. Dread made Kakashi want to pant, high and useless in his chest. He forced himself to breathe slow. “But you won’t,” he said, on pure gamble. “We have a contract.”
Which, until now, he’d always thought was mutual.
The black wolf snorted. “Only with you.” His gaze went meaningfully to the rest of Kakashi’s team.
The white wolf stretched her neck to look curiously down at Ryouma with gold eyes. Her growl was softer, like an avalanche of fine sand. “We could help,” she said silkily. “What will you give us?”
Ryouma’s voice was a trampled rasp. “We’ll go away again…”
The white wolf grinned. “I can make that happen myself.” Her tongue flickered red between her teeth. “Your friend is lost, little one, because you are careless, selfish people. Why should we help you?”
Kurenai squirmed against Kakashi’s side, until her mouth could find his ear. On the barest breath, she started, “How do they—?” The black wolf’s paw pressed down, forcing the air from both of them. Kakashi felt bones grind in his chest, just shy of breaking.
How did the wolves know about Genma?
Ryouma was silent. Kakashi could just see his hand flexing, long fingers wrapped helplessly around around one huge claw. He couldn’t get his hands together for seals. Neither could Kakashi.
“Because it’s not just us,” Ryouma said at last. “Genma’s a better person. And if you know he’s lost, you know that. He’s worth saving. And we’re the only ones who can.”
The white wolf huffed, and the air smelled like old blood. “A better little murderer. We kill for food.”
“Sometimes for fun,” the black wolf rumbled.
The white wolf shifted to flatten Raidou under one of her paws, and leaned her head over to study Ryouma. The shifting yellow tones of her eyes flared bright, unnatural gold, and she bent lower to sniff Ryouma’s straining fingers. She made a curling little sound of amusement. “Let me bite off your hand,” she said, “and I’ll help you.”
The wolf god's breath seared Ryouma's face. He stared up at the caged bars of her teeth, the bleach-white fur of her muzzle, and for a moment he could see his own arm between those teeth, his own red blood staining her fur—
She knew. She tilted her head again to catch him in the glare of that burning golden eye, and she knew, she could see Akiyama in the cave during the ANBU Trials, the scalpel slicing down, the white gleam of tendon and the red rush of terror.
Genma had saved his hand, that time. Stopped the bleeding and stabilized the rest until hospital medics could take over. Ryouma hadn't known his name then. He'd barely thanked him.
Time to pay that debt.
His voice shook. "Let me up. You can have it."
Trapped under the black wolf's other paw, Kakashi snarled, a high frantic sound like a cornered animal.
Raidou snapped, "No! Ryouma, don't be a fool—"
His voice broke off in a yelp of pain as the white wolf sat back, sleekly satisfied, and picked Raidou up in her teeth.
"No, don't—" The massive paw pinning Ryouma eased away, and he rolled from beneath and scrambled up. "I'm here. Don't hurt him."
The white wolf's ears flicked. She lowered her head delicately, dropping Raidou where Ryouma had lain. Raidou hit stone on his injured side and gasped aloud. The black wolf's paw came down, trapping him.
Kakashi's dogs had drawn back into a tight, worried huddle at the back of the den. Ryouma could hear Kin's anxious whine from here. The grey wolf paced in front of them, his tail lashing, nails scoring the stone. He wanted to eat them all. And he'd probably get his way, if Ryouma didn't follow through.
Ryouma stepped away from the black wolf, toward the white.
Sound seemed to be going funny. He could hear the click of the grey wolf's nails, the thin thread of Kin's concern, but his own footsteps seemed muffled. Raidou's broken breathing was very clear. Kakashi had gone silent, or maybe Ryouma just couldn't hear him. He wasn't sure which to hope for.
The white wolf's head lowered. Both eyes fixed on him, sun-gold, circled with burnt-black rims. She stared, pitiless, into the darkest little corners of his soul, and told him, "Hold out your arm."
Raidou yelled. The sound didn't make sense. Ryouma's own heartbeat seemed to be the loudest thing in the world, now.
He thought, distantly, No healing jutsu. Kakashi could cauterize it. Or he'd bleed to death. That might not be bad. He'd seen men's lives ebb away. It looked, sometimes, as if they were going to sleep.
Fukuda had lived, and fought, with one arm. Until she'd sacrificed her life for the chance to save her sister.
Debts coming due.
He unbuckled his armguard, let it fall. Drew off the glove.
Held out his right arm.
The white wolf's teeth closed delicately above his wrist, points sharp as knives. Skin broke. Ryouma closed his eyes.
Half a dozen heartbeats hammered by. The teeth sank deeper. He felt blood begin to run. He clamped his teeth down, refusing to scream—
The teeth withdrew.
The wolf's paw came up, batted him gently over, and braced him as he fell. She lowered her nose down to his eye-level. The golden eyes still burned, but this time the judgment did not seem to find him wanting.
"Brave little rabbit. You don't have a wolf heart, but maybe in a few hundred years. Would you like to stay?"
Ryouma dragged in his first aching breath. His arm hurt. He looked down and saw two neat scratches on either side of the bone, with a little blood trickling toward his wrist.
He let the breath out.
"I want to find my lieutenant."
The white wolf sighed, a hot gust that ruffled his hair. Then she pulled him in against her chest, burying him in thick, iron-scented fur and her deep, slow heartbeat. Beneath the long guard hairs, her fur was softer than any blanket.
He felt the massive muscles in her neck stretch as she leaned out again. There was a crack of electrical discharge; she sneezed. Her avalanche voice rumbled through Ryouma's bones. "I suppose you all want the same?"
Ryouma's hearing was back. This time, he caught the timbre of Kakashi's snarl, if not the sense. It sounded deeply obscene.
The grey wolf growled nastily. "You're letting them go?"
Ryouma twisted in the white wolf's grip, managing just enough of a turn to see through the curtain of fur. The black wolf yawned massively and shifted one paw back. "She decided. You'll abide." It sniffed curiously at Raidou, splayed flat on the stone. "This one is injured." The other paw pulled back, baring Kakashi and Kurenai.
Kurenai rolled, staggered, and made it to her feet just long enough to drop down again next to Raidou. Kakashi blurred.
A lightning-step from Kurenai's side to Ryouma's, iron-hard fingers digging into Ryouma's shoulders, dragging him from between the white wolf's paws and shaking him til the world rang. "What were you doing?" Black tomoe spun in his scarlet eye. His skin was pale, scraped, his hair filthy with dust.
"Somebody had to," Ryouma said, dazedly. If his knees buckled right now Kakashi would probably punch him, not hug him, but it was tempting all the same.
Kakashi's fingers dug bruising-deep into Ryouma's shoulders, then dropped. He seized Ryouma's arm, turning it over to check the bite. Two identical puncture wounds on the underside were already clotting. Kakashi's breath hissed out through his mask. He released Ryouma's arm and reached up instead to cup his face.
Kakashi's gloves had grit in the palms, and his fingers were rough with abraded callus. The heels of his hands braced Ryouma's cheekbones; his fingers curled in Ryouma's hair. He shook Ryouma's head again, but more gently, as if he'd sunk from fury into despair.
The white wolf bent down, and her massive tongue dragged up Ryouma's shoulder and the side of his face.
Kakashi snarled. His right hand whipped down and up, shuriken glinting toward the wolf's eyes. She leaned back, avoiding easily. Kakashi dropped his other hand to Ryouma's right wrist and dragged him away, back towards Raidou and Kurenai and the black wolf's dubious shelter. His stride didn't even hitch when he stooped down to scoop up Ryouma's discarded armguard.
Raidou was sitting up, Kurenai's bracing hand on his shoulder and a new bruise starting on his jaw. Breathing shallowly, but not whistling. The black wolf sniffed at him again. Kurenai glanced up nervously, but Raidou was looking at Ryouma.
"New rule," he rasped. "No volunteerin' for limb loss."
"I wasn't volunteering." Ryouma tried to crouch beside him, hampered by Kakashi's shackle-grip on his wrist. His own breathing seemed to be going shocky-short now, matching Raidou's. He wondered if he could sit down.
Better not. He scrambled for thoughts. "Your ribs—"
Raidou grabbed him, hauled him down, and locked both arms around his head.
Ryouma's knees gave out. He thumped down, bent almost double, right wrist caught behind his back and the left hand somehow clutching at Raidou's armor. His breathing skidded past control; he could feel himself shaking. A few moments more, and he'd come apart.
They couldn't afford it. The wolves were watching, and Genma was still missing. He dug his fingers into Raidou's armor straps, and then pushed himself away. Raidou released him with a reluctant little oof of pain; Kakashi didn't.
"Your ribs, Taichou," Ryouma said.
Raidou’s ribs had several opinions, starting without how much they didn’t like being bitten, bounced off a stone floor, or stepped on by a building-sized wolf. But there wasn’t blood on his breath, so they’d probably keep.
“Still attached,” he said, and made his best effort to get up. Kurenai was there to brace his good side. Her hands trembled, but her grip was strong.
There was vertical, and splintered breathing, followed by a headrush. When his hearing returned and he could see past the dancing red blotches, Raidou found himself looking up the nostrils of the black wolf.
“Gyah,” he said, and took a hasty step back.
The ground dipped unexpectedly. His ribs jarred. Pain happened. It went on for some time, and Raidou was reminded precisely why broken bones anywhere in the torso were the absolute worst. They connected to everything.
He breathed tight and shallow, and managed, “The wolves agreed to help? When can we leave?”
“You have broken pieces inside, human,” the black wolf informed him, like Raidou might not have noticed.
“Genma can heal them. Once we rescue him,” Ryouma said.
The white wolf’s head lowered into the corner of Raidou’s vision. “We can heal them,” she rumbled.
Kakashi grabbed Ryouma’s other wrist, locking both arms down by his side. “No, thank you,” he said, icily.
The white wolf chuckled. It wasn’t a nice sound. “You’re going to rescue your good-man friend from a village of tricksters with three people and an invalid?”
Kakashi bristled. His voice twisted rough with vicious harmonics. It still sounded light next to the wolves and their cavernous chests, but the spill of killing intent that went with it made Raidou’s skin burn. “We should trust you instead?”
The black wolf’s ears pricked forward. It studied Kakashi with bright gold eyes, and for a terrible second Raidou braced for the clash of teeth and a falling body.
The black wolf said, “Is Hatake Shimo in your bloodline?”
Kakashi’s shoulders twitched. “Great-great grandmother.”
“Terrible woman,,” the black wolf said. “How fortunate that trait survived.”
Kakashi growled. The black wolf stretched and ignored him.
Kurenai’s voice slipped through the red-shivering air like a blade wrapped in silk. “If you heal him, freely and without obligation, we’ll accept. Otherwise, we’ll make do.”
The grey wolf made a harsh sound. “Snake mind. You get nothing for free.”
The black wolf rose and padded over to the grey wolf, a dark threat. Raidou waited, again, for violence, but the black wolf just lowered his great head and touched his nose gently to the grey wolf’s cheek. A growl thundered in the grey wolf’s chest, but it didn’t bite. After a tense moment, it gave a shuddering sigh, closed its eyes, and tucked its head under the black wolf’s chin. The black wolf licked the bloody ear it had savaged earlier.
Raidou was starting to suspect he had misunderstood the interplay of relationships here.
“Fine,” the grey wolf grumbled.
As fun as it was to be talked about in the third person like he wasn’t here, Raidou actually had his own thoughts about being healed by a giant mythical being who thought it was funny to play let’s-bite-your-arm-off.
“Pakkun?” he grated, making Kurenai and Kakashi twitch. Ryouma, snowmelt-white, was still in a shocky place beyond surprise.
The little pug edged out from behind the two dark wolves, sidled past them, and blurred into a run that brought him to Raidou’s knee. He was wild-eyed, fur standing on end.
“Can they heal?” Raidou asked him. “Or is this just more fucking with us?”
Pakkun licked his lips nervously. “They can heal.”
“Without killing me in the process?”
Pakkun lifted his eyes to the white wolf, who was watching them like they were a little stage show laid out for her personal entertainment. He lowered his voice. “If they want to.”
Lovely. Raidou had always wanted to trust his life to the whims of capricious demon-gods. On the other hand, the wolves could obviously kill them whenever they felt like it, and the road to rescuing Genma wasn’t likely to get any safer.
A tiny insane part of him was also a little curious.
“Okay,” he said. “Let’s do it.”
Kurenai opened her mouth, then pressed her lips together in a tight, flat line. Her eyes were molten. Ryouma was still on his knees. He dragged himself back to his feet, using Kakashi as a ladder. Kakashi’s hand remained tight around Ryouma’s wrist. Even upright, Ryouma still leaned heavily; Kakashi didn’t shove him away.
“You agreed to let us save Genma,” Ryouma said, shaky but clear. “And we can’t do it without Taichou. So—”
The white wolf yawned, exposing dagger teeth. “Bargaining is boring. Get on with it.”
The grey wolf, who was beginning to remind Raidou of Kakashi, gave an aggravated snort and freed itself from the black wolf. It came forward, towering and lethal, and lowered its head until its rank breath spilled over Raidou’s bare shoulders.
“Humans,” it said, disgusted, and lashed out, twisting its head sideways to bite him around the torso.
Teeth pierced Raidou’s armor, then his skin. He felt blood burst beneath his shirt. Bone raked over bone. His ribs crackled, then caved. Raidou thought, with the pure clarity that flared in the vacuum of bad decisions, shit.
Ryouma yelled. Light blazed in Kakashi’s hand. Kurenai, face gone so colorless it was grey, reached for Raidou.
The wolf’s giant wet tongue wrapped around Raidou’s chest and back, burning hot, and energy like solar flares and bloodlust poured beneath his skin. For a brief, wild moment, he felt like he might detonate from the inside out. The heat sank into bones, muscles, and tendons; things cracked and twisted, and then Raidou could breathe again.
He gasped. The wolf’s teeth released. Its tongue swiped him one more time, then it pulled its mouth away, leaving Raidou covered in saliva, apparently alive, and slightly traumatized. He dragged his hands over his chest-plate. Punctures and slime met his fingers. Kurenai grabbed him by the arm and helped him tear his armor off.
There were ragged holes in his ANBU underpinnings, but the skin beneath was unblemished and whole. If there had been blood, it was gone now. Kurenai’s frantic hands skated down his back and pulled away clean. No pain sparked in their wake. Raidou inhaled. His ribs flexed and didn’t hurt.
He drew another shuddering breath and strangled out, “That seemed like overkill.”
The grey wolf gave him a narrow look. “I don’t like you,” it said, and stalked away behind the white wolf, where it lay down with its back to them all.
The lightning faded slowly, unused, from Kakashi’s hand. Ryouma said faintly, “Taichou?”
“I— I think I’m okay,” Raidou said. He pressed his ribs hard; they held like they’d never been broken. The collection of bruises and scrapes from the Tanuki’s rock and the spar with Genma were gone. Even the faint muscle pain that accompanied a long mission run had vanished. He felt… practically bouncy.
He turned his head to Kurenai. She kept her grip on his arm and her own expression with the same white-knuckled professionalism. “Your color is better,” she told him.
He tipped a wobbly smile at her. “Your friends are right,” he said. “We do get the weird shit.”
They'd joked about it. And Raidou was still joking.
Better than running screaming, perhaps. Kurenai was finally starting to understand why ANBU humor was so vile.
"You're all still breathing," she said. "Let's keep it that way. Please."
Raidou wrapped his free hand over her shoulder and squeezed gently. "Seconded."
"Thirded," Kakashi said savagely. He'd dragged Ryouma's arm over his own shoulders, stabilizing the taller man without loosening his own grip. Ryouma, still chalky-pale beneath his tan, looked as if he needed the support.
Kakashi lifted his baleful glare to the black wolf. "How do we get to the Tanuki world?"
"We push you," the black wolf said. He strolled back over to study the humans, white jaws lolling around a long crimson tongue. "A wolfling, a rabbit, a snake, and a man. Tanuki will spit you out in seconds. Don't come back here."
"Except you," the white wolf said, her molten-gold eyes fixed on Ryouma. "I'd keep you."
Ryouma shuddered. The white wolf ran out her tongue in a silent, terrible laugh.
The black wolf twisted his head sideways with the sudden violence of a viper strike, snapping at something in the air. His teeth caught and jerked. The world tore. Light spilled through, the comforting warm yellow of a sun Kurenai knew. She could smell greenery growing, and the distant tang of rain.
A massive white paw swept out, caught the shinobi as casually as a housewife's broom, and shoved them through the hole between worlds.
She almost expected it, this time. She tumbled, orienting herself—green, blue, that rift in the sky, with a tiny dog jumping through and the black wolf's eye glaring down like a new sun dwindling—then green again, a forest canopy that reached up and struck the breath out of them. Branches snapped, leaves sliced, but Kurenai hit a heavier branch with a palmful of chakra, and that slowed her just enough to drop down to the next in a more controlled fall.
The pregnant silver dog, Saishou, hit the branch beside her, scrabbled for purchase, and kept her feet. A moment later, grey-muzzled Yori bounced off a branch above them and landed heavily on his side. He yelped, struggled to his feet, and limped to the edge of the branch to look down.
Kurenai joined him, carefully. The tree limbs here were broad and straight, deceptively like the chakra-grown forests around Konoha. The light was right, too, and shadows fell where they should, dappled through the gaping holes in the canopy above her.
Raidou was catching his breath several branches below, with Pakkun perched beside him. Kakashi and Ryouma had landed in the next tree over. Ryouma had his back against the solid tree bole and his lap already full of anxious golden shepherd. Kakashi, releasing his wrist at last, stood looking up toward the sky.
Kurenai looked, too, and saw the rent in the sky close as if it had never been. The warm yellow sun glimmered down the horizon. There was nothing to indicate whether this truly was another world, or whether they'd returned to their own in the wolf gods' cruel idea of one last joke.
Saishou sniffed her way along the tree branch, and the dark hackles rose along her spine. Yori growled.
"This place stinks of tanuki," Pakkun said, crouching low.
Ryouma closed his eyes, like a prayer, and tipped his head back against his tree.
Kurenai dropped from her branch down to Raidou's. Saishou and Yori followed her: the silver dog graceful despite her bulk, the old one favoring one paw. Pakkun grudgingly made room for them.
Raidou was big and solid and whole, sweat drying on his shoulders and leaf-scratches reddening on his cheeks. He had his ANBU armor in hand, somehow, the punctured chestplate drooping from the loosened straps. Regular round holes pockmarked his black tank in a vicious march across his torso. He blinked down at his armor, and looked up again at Kurenai.
"We should stop," she told him, and momentarily hated herself for the change in his expression. "Tousaki's having an acute stress reaction. He may pick himself up, but he'll get worse later if you push him now. You need food and rest. And we don't have the faintest idea where we are. If we blunder off now—"
"You're right." He dragged a hand through sweat-soaked hair, shoving it back from his brow. Then he straightened his spine and rolled his shoulders back, a man settling into a marathon when he'd been trying to run a sprint. He said, louder, "Hatake."
Kakashi landed on their branch with barely a whisper of chakra. "Taichou?"
"Find us a safe place to camp. We're taking a rest."
Kakashi's brows flicked up. The tomoe in his Sharingan eye still spun slowly, a hypnotic danger to anyone who stared too long. "But—"
"That's an order."
Kakashi's jaw clamped tight under the clinging black mask. He darted a glance back at Ryouma, motionless in his tree. He looked at Raidou's torn shirt, and then at Kurenai. He dipped his chin. "Taichou."
A soft whistle, muffled through the mask. Pakkun, Saishou, and Yori dropped with Kakashi to the forest floor and vanished into the trees. Kin curled tighter on Ryouma's lap, her fringed tail beating softly against his legs.
Kurenai let her breath out. One problem down. They only seemed insurmountable if you tried to tackle them all together.
"Tousaki next," Raidou said. He folded a comforting hand over the blade of her shoulder. "You wrangle the dog. I'll get him out of the tree."
He'd almost certainly given her the easier task. Kurenai passed him a wry, grateful smile, and leapt for Ryouma's tree.
The dog looked up as they landed. Ryouma lifted his head, too, blinking hard. There was loose golden fur stuck to his cheek, where he'd pressed against Kin's side, but his eyes were a little clearer now. The chalky pallor was fading. He scrubbed a hand over his face, and looked at Raidou. "Doing okay, Taichou?"
"Nope," Raidou said easily. "Look at this. Ripped my shirt and didn't even give me a cool scar. Now we know where Hatake gets his manners."
Ryouma tripped over a laugh, looked startled. "He's never been that cranky." He rubbed a hand down Kin's side, and she turned and licked his face. He scratched under her chin. "Where'd he go?"
"Scouting," Kurenai said. She crouched, holding out a hand to the dog. Kin glanced at her, turned back to Ryouma, and leaned her ears into his hand.
He was looking down, though, into the murky depths of the forest floor. He swallowed. "Guess we better get moving."
There were tricks to scouting new territory.
Ideally, when you weren’t randomly dropped into an unknown forest, you had time to plan ahead. Kakashi’s preferred method was to ghost between secluded view-points and get a long overview of the topography, while his dogs circled low and hunted for threats.
In this world, he and his team had spun out of a hole in the sky and crashed noisily through a grove of trees. He wanted somewhere to hide, and he wanted it now.
They needed a safe place that didn’t look like an obvious bolthole. Somewhere that wouldn’t trap them if locals descended. Caves were out. Trees were unprotected. He just needed a scrape, and thick enough vegetation.
There was one sun, high and yellow. If it had the same arc as their own sun, then that was west, and west smelled less like tanuki. Pakkun had already turned that way; Kakashi could feel the muted pulse of his chakra. Saishou had angled further north, but she was curving around. Yori, slow but thorough, lagged behind.
Kakashi would have given a lot for Tsuyoshi’s fast legs and keen nose right now, more for her lethal teeth. He would have given a lot for all of his pack, instead of a pregnant mama, an old man well past retirement, and an untested youngster. It was possible he could summon more here, but it was equally possible he’d do something regrettable to the structure between universes and paint them all over the landscape.
They were smart, and they weren’t human. They’d be safe in their own world.
Other thoughts about wolves could wait.
The air smelled like water — a stream, there, winding silver through the forest. Kakashi struck towards it and found what he was looking for. A deep grove surrounded by dense, unfamiliar bushes with long, nasty thorns. Dark purple berries hung in clusters, giving off a rich, perfume-y, and most importantly, loud scent. The riverbank was dotted with them.
He left the dogs to do a wider sweep, and went back to bring the others.
It was slower moving the whole team. Raidou wasn’t a sprinter. Kurenai, though fast, wasn’t as adept at speed and concealment woven together. Ryouma was faster than Raidou and stealthier than Kurenai, but he ran distracted. Kin stayed on his heels the whole way.
When they reached the grove, Pakkun guided them through the thorn thicket to a shallow, depressed bowl of nearly bare earth. Small tufts of grass sprouted here and there, but mostly it was a warren of gnarled roots spearing across the earth. Bushes curved up above them to meet like a low roof, turning the light an undersea green. There was a faint animal scent clinging to the den underneath the berry smell, but it was old, faded by a season, and not tanuki.
Ryouma sat. Kin clambered into his lap, pinning him. Kakashi elected not to do the same, but it was a close thing.
Raidou crouched stiffly and reached for the empty space at his belt, where a canteen should have hung. He laughed dryly. Kurenai pressed her canteen into his hand. “We’ll want to avoid the water here, if we can.”
Raidou drank a measured amount and handed the canteen back. “Afraid we’ll get trapped in fairy-land?”
Kurenai glanced aside, self-conscious and showing it, which told Kakashi her rope was starting to fray. “I know it sounds childish, but— Before today, tanuki and wolf gods only appeared in fairy stories, too.”
Raidou paused. “You have a point.”
Kakashi covered his aching sharingan. Then drew a scroll from his belt, teased a fragment of chakra into it, and unfolded the contents into the world with as little energy-bleed as he could manage. He pulled Raidou and Kurenai’s backpacks free; unfolded blankets, rations that could be eaten cold, a spare set of canteens, and a medic kit.
Raidou’s pack went to him first. “Shirt,” Kakashi told him. “And armor.”
Raidou looked wearily amused at being ordered around, but he stripped to the waist and dug out his spare clothes. Kakashi handed everything else to Kurenai — “Eat first” — except one blanket and the med-kit. Those he took to Ryouma.
There was color in Ryouma’s skin, but not much of it. His hands were buried in Kin’s golden fur, clutching hard. Not shaking, but — Kakashi touched the back of his wrist with careful fingertips — not warm.
There were so many rules, all of them designed to forge strength. Kakashi had scratched them onto his heart after Sakumo, and tried to scratch them out after Obito. They were still his roadmap, and none of them allowed space for this. Ninja weren’t supposed to be coddled.
But Ryouma had offered his hand to a monster — a monster Kakashi had taken him to — and he’d stood still when it had bitten down.
There could be space, Kakashi was learning, for care.
He draped the blanket around Ryouma’s shoulders, sat down next to him, and drew Ryouma’s arm into his lap. Deep scratches framed either side of Ryouma’s wrist, centered between the tendons. The half-moon scar from Akiyama’s scalpel still shone pink on the inside of Ryouma’s wrist. It was the same hand he’d nearly lost in the Second Trial. The same hand he’d taken from Fukuda. Of course he’d offered this one.
Blood had already clotted. Except for wolf teeth being filthy, there was really no justification to do anything further. Kakashi opened the med-kit, laid out his supplies, and carefully, thoroughly, cleaned the marks, applied Genma’s favorite ointment, and bandaged Ryouma’s arm. When he was done, he closed the kit and folded Ryouma’s fingers around a ration bar.
He made his voice gentle. “Eat. You complete lunatic.”
Ryouma had been watching Kakashi’s work with a kind of hypnotized calm. It took him a moment to blink back to himself. And another, looking at Kakashi, to say, “Sorry. I didn’t know what else to do.”
In his place, Kakashi would have tried to slam a raikiri through the white wolf’s eye, and given how fast she could move, gotten them all killed.
Kin’s tongue swiped over his knuckles. He rubbed the soft fur between her ears and tried to think of any way to say: I’m grateful your gamble worked, but don’t consider this approval for future suicidal self-sacrificing plans.
He said, “I shouldn’t have put you in front of murderous wolves.”
Ryouma had started to open the ration bar with his teeth. He paused. “Did you have another option?”
“Probably,” Kakashi said. “I just have no idea what it was.”
Ryouma sighed. “Yeah.” He made a loose fist with his bandaged hand. “I really thought she was going to. That they’d kill everyone if I refused. But she didn’t.”
Kakashi leaned against Ryouma’s shoulder, as much to reassure himself as Ryouma. Ryouma tensed minutely, then relaxed again, and Kakashi awarded himself a point for not screwing that up. “I never guessed they’d be like that,” he said quietly. “Gamabunta isn’t. Tsunade’s slugs just heal people. Even Orochimaru’s big snakes listen to him.” He considered this. “Unless there are bigger snakes he doesn’t summon.”
“They didn’t sound like they much liked the idea of summoning. Maybe the really big ones don’t. Or wolves are just different than toads.” Ryouma’s weight got a little heavier; he was leaning back. “Or maybe it’s a good thing you spend all your chakra on other stuff…”
“I told you,” Pakkun said suddenly, next to Ryouma’s ankle. “I warned you a lot. Loudly!”
Kakashi winced. “You did.” He scooped the little pug into his lap, and bit the inside of his lip when he found that Pakkun was shaking. “I’ll listen next time.”
Pakkun made a rude sound. “No, you won’t.” But he pressed up against the inside of Kakashi’s thigh, and allowed Kakashi to rub his back apologetically.
Ryouma jammed the ration bar between his teeth and reached over to scratch Pakkun’s ears. “You stuck with us, anyway. Thanks.”
Pakkun twitched one ear grouchily, but allowed the ministration. A moment later, Ryouma blinked down at his half-finished ration bar. “And this is chocolate.”
He sounded surprised. Either because he knew Kakashi didn’t like chocolate ration bars and was carrying one anyway, or because he was still in a state to enjoy chocolate.
“Well observed,” Kakashi said dryly, but he took it as a good sign. Ryouma was paying attention to his senses again.
On the other side of the hideaway scrape, Raidou had finished pulling on new armor. He’d wrapped a blanket around himself and Kurenai, and was sharing foil packets of cold rice and stewed pork. Kurenai, shadowed by post-adrenaline exhaustion, didn’t have much of an appetite, but Raidou was patiently single-minded. It helped him to focus on someone else, Kakashi thought.
Saishou and Yori were bracketed around them. Yori licked one of his hind paws gingerly — Kakashi needed to look at that — while Saishou rested her head on her front paws and kept a half-lidded watch over them all.
And now there was just… waiting.
“How long, Taichou?” Kakashi asked.
Raidou glanced at him. “Four hours. Then we’ll move.”
A lot could happen to a man in four hours. They’d already lost time in the dog dimension. They didn’t even know where they were in the tanuki world — Genma could be days away.
Kakashi sighed, and nodded.
In the end, it only took two hours. Ryouma ate another ration bar, drained a canteen, and dozed. Pakkun snored softly in Kakashi's lap. Kurenai listed against Raidou's shoulder.
Kakashi and Raidou compared quiet notes on everything they knew about tanuki myths, which wasn't much. Raidou had a collection half-remembered from childhood. Kakashi had academic notes from Maruta Tsubasa's treatise on the origin of some of the stranger fairy tales, which, in retrospect, were almost universally wrong. Neither one of them contained useful information, such as how a tanuki could block chakra, or where you should hit one for maximum damage.
“We’ll just have to reconnoiter,” Raidou said finally. “And see what we can find.”
“And hope they don’t drop another rock on you?” Kakashi said. “We need a plan. Or a hostage. Preferably both.”
Kurenai muffled a yawn. “Take a hostage. Interrogate, then build a plan—”
The roof tore off.
A huge, dark-furred head loomed over them. Kakashi scrambled to his feet. Ryouma jolted awake and lunged for weapons. Raidou swept Kurenai behind him. Smaller furry bodies began to pour in, heedless of thorns. Saishou and Kin met them head on with bared teeth. Yori snarled and leapt for the giant one, clamping his jaws down on its thickly-furred cheek.
Kakashi reached for his chakra. It wasn’t there.
He hadn’t felt anything—
Ryouma went down under a welter of bodies. Raidou grunted behind Kakashi. Kurenai screamed, cut short. Kakashi drew his kodachi and went for the first throat.
There was blood, and then there wasn’t. It melted away like an illusion. Hot, furry weights crashed into his back. Claws scrabbled at his clothes. He twisted, shedding bodies, and raked his eyepatch up.
Nothing changed. His Sharingan was blind.
Teeth snapped down on his wrist. Nerveless fingers dropped the kodachi. Kakashi snarled, breathless. Foam-flecked jaws snarled right back at him. Weight landed on his neck. His knee hit the ground.
A sharp-tipped claw touched the corner of his right eye. Kakashi froze. In that split-second, they crushed him to the dirt.
Somewhere distant, Saishou’s rising whine raked terror down his spine. He couldn’t hear his people. Now he could feel the tanuki, wild and overwhelming, drowning everything else out.
“Stop,” he gasped.
The claws cupped his chin, little pin-pricks biting through his mask, and turned his head just enough for him to see a mid-sized tanuki. “Why,” it demanded, “are you here?”
“How did you get here?” said another.
“They wanted hostages,” rumbled the big one. Yori dangled from one of its paws, held by the scruff. “To torture.”
Ryouma’s voice, half-strangled but breathing, got out, “You have our lieutenant!”
There was a little pause.
“What?” said the one holding Kakashi’s chin.