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The Last of the Wine[Dec. 16th, 2017|07:50 pm]

[Begins the evening of July 6, Yondaime Year 5, immediately after the end of Lost in the Dark and Trapped in Wonderland]

The tanuki refused to let Ryouma up. They crouched on his shoulders and weighed down his thighs, claws biting into his arms, tangling in his hair. He couldn't see; he could barely breathe. The wild, foxy musk of tanuki burned in his sinuses.

They were going through the packs.

One of them had opened Kakashi's trap-keyed scrolls with no more reaction than a cough at the released smoke. They bickered in low voices over the contents, shaking out pouches of shuriken, sniffing suspiciously at rat bars. "Poison," one decided. "Here, Daichi, you try—"

Daichi snapped. The first tanuki squealed. "Settle down," the biggest tanuki rumbled. "What have you found?"

The furry tide shifted. Ryouma wrenched his head. He didn't manage to unseat the tanuki perched on his scalp and shoulders, but he did catch a slanting view of brown backs moving, clearing away.

The biggest tanuki sat upright in the center of the scrape, head and shoulders protruding above the torn-away roof of vegetation. It seemed to be cushioned on some kind of furry throne, possibly the backs of more of its followers. In the cleared space before it, the most damning of Team Six's equipment was laid out: kodachi, kunai, wires, shuriken, Genma's poison kit, Kakashi's tanto and puzzle box, a deconstructed medkit with all the syrettes and pill vials.

One young tanuki came last, walking on its hind legs, and carefully set down the fluffy plush tanuki toy Kakashi had won for Ryouma at the festival.

The tanuki boss frowned down at it. "What's this?"

"Evidence!" a black-muzzled adult burst out. It bustled up, walking on its hind legs as well, waving the rice-straw charm the games vendor had given Rie. "This is a human luck charm. Clearly they came hunting us. The little model is—"

"A festival toy, you nitwit," someone else said, in a clearly female voice. She pushed out of the throng: walking upright, over one and a half meters tall, resplendent in a brilliant teal kimono with pink and gold obi. Several of the other tanuki — those not currently engaged in pinning shinobi — had begun to shift toward something larger and disturbingly human-like as well.

The female tanuki bent, swooped up the plush toy in one sharp-clawed paw, and sniffed it thoroughly. "It's been well-handled," she announced. "Rubbed against scent-glands — well, what passes for 'em in humans." She turned, sharp black eyes piercing the crowd of tanuki to find the humans pinned beneath. "Were you at the festival in the hot spring town?"

Ryouma blinked.

Kurenai said, "Hiraizumi. You were there?"

"Ah. Hiraizumi." Teal Kimono said the word in a way Ryouma recognized, as if she were committing it to memory. Then, without answering, she paced through the little hollow, tanuki shifting around her.

Raidou was nearest. She bent, staying carefully clear of his pinned hands, and sniffed the juncture of his throat and shoulder.

Flat on his stomach, pinned down by scowling tanuki at every joint and some sort of furry mass on his back, Raidou angled his chin politely against the mud, and said, "Hi."

Her bushy tail twitched beneath her kimono hem. "You smell like wolves," she said. "Like old wolves."

"That seems likely," Raidou said pleasantly. "I was licked by one earlier."

The tanuki boss's ears pricked. "The Old Wolves don't interfere with humans. They hate humans."

Someone else muttered, "They hate everybody."

"It wasn't the friendliest lick I've ever gotten," Raidou said. "Question for you, ma'am: why did your people steal my lieutenant?"

Teal Kimono drew back, imperious as any Konoha clan matriarch. "We don't steal from humans unless they cheat us of what we are due. We certainly don't steal a lieutenant — whatever that is."

"A man," Kurenai said. Her voice was tight, but stayed almost as level as Raidou's. "Hair a few shades lighter than your fur, eyes almost the same color. Dressed like these. He had a red straw charm on his wrist and a red spiral on his shoulder. His scent would be on that medical kit."

One of the smaller tanuki crept forward to sniff at the assortment of gear laid out on the ground. It seemed to have overlooked the medical kit entirely, and focused on Kakashi's puzzle box instead.

The black-muzzled tanuki sighed dramatically. "Feeble excuses. You come blaming us for your own miseries — if this lieutenant ever existed at all, which I doubt. You bring dogs to hunt us—"

Pakkun snorted. "Please, asshole. They're ninja. There are better things to hunt in their own world than you."

The tanuki stirred, muttering. Claws pricked deeper into Ryouma's skin. The tanuki boss said, "Ninja. Hunters of men."

"Sometimes," Raidou said. "But Genma — the man you have — is our friend. He was taken this morning, just yanked out of our world. And someone dropped a giant rock on me, which turned into a leaf. Are you telling me that wasn't you?"

More muttering, louder and angrier. The tanuki on Ryouma's shoulders thumped its back paws emphatically, drumming on his armor. Pakkun growled, and a tanuki snarled back.

Ryouma yelled, "What about Nomiya Harubi?"

Silence, swift as a sword-cut. The tanuki boss swiveled to stare at him. Teal Kimono turned, her ears tilting. The tanuki on his shoulders shifted with surprise, giving Ryouma just enough leverage to force his head off the ground.

In that widened edge of vision, he saw Kakashi, flattened but curved around on himself, one hand very near his boot. Metal glinted between his fingers.

He was watching Ryouma, waiting. For a distraction? Or for a solution?

Or maybe just for Ryouma to offer another limb.

Ryouma swallowed, and looked back up at Teal Kimono and the tanuki boss.

"We came out here because of Nomiya Harubi. She prayed to you, we found the shrine. We know you took her and her children." They hadn't known, not for sure, but the tanuki's reaction was proof enough. "But Genma didn't pray to you. He left chocolate at the crossroads statue, that's all. He was sparring with the captain, and he got knocked down, and someone took him. And if it wasn't the same people who took Nomiya Harubi, who was it?"

"Not us," Teal Kimono said firmly. The tanuki crowd shifted, muttering.

The tanuki boss said, "Who's looking after the kits today, Azami?"

Teal Kimono's ears flattened. Her tail swept the ground. "Kikyou has the younger two at home. But— You don't think—"

"I think we'd better check," the boss said, grimly.

"I'll go," Teal Kimono said. "You'd better take everyone to Himself. Whether they came chasing Harubi-san or something else, he's going to want to know."

"And how they got here," the boss said, looking straight at Raidou. The edge of his lip curled up, baring a gleam of white fang.

Raidou smiled pleasantly, keeping his teeth hidden. "I'm sure we'll have lots to discuss."

Teal Kimono snorted. She looked over them again, black eyes skipping from Kurenai to Kakashi before landing on Ryouma. Six shuffling little steps brought her to him, her clawed paws level with his eyes.

Her cold nose brushed his neck. He flinched.

"It's good you have this," she said. "Look after it." She stuffed the fluffy little tanuki toy back under the strap of his armor. Her tail thumped his face as she straightened.

"Don't lose any of them on the way," she said sternly. "I'll see you at home, Kenta."

She dropped to four paws. The air shivered around her, thick with a chakra-burn Ryouma recognized. The vivid kimono faded into soft brown fur, brindled over the shoulders and darker at the legs. She yipped once and was gone.

"Well," the tanuki boss sighed, "you heard Azami. Somebody make me some rope."
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