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Fluid Boundaries[Mar. 4th, 2018|07:52 pm]

[Begins the evening of July 6, Yondaime Year 5, immediately after the end of The Last of the Wine]

The magical tanuki sake they’d shared with Himself was intoxicating, but not in the ordinary sense: Genma was comfortable, effervescently happy, and profoundly relaxed, but sharp and alert, and fully in control. He lifted a squirming tanuki kit off his chest and laughed up at the brush-whiskered face. Almost instantly, three more of the little tanuki replaced her, flopping delightedly down on Genma’s feast-full belly. His neck and bruised ribs didn’t twinge, even when a pair of determined youngsters barrelled into his side; it was as if he’d never had the spar with Raidou that set off this whole interdimensional incident. He rolled onto his side, spilling giggling kits, and looked for his teammates.

“You could help,” he suggested to Raidou and Kurenai, who lounged in the grass spectating as Genma was capsized by another wave of tanuki children. “Or just sit there and watch me get abducted again.”

“Tempting,” Raidou said, but he shoved himself to his feet and waded into the fray, picking up one of the smaller kits and tossing her up onto his shoulders. The kits, delighted with their new, even bigger playmate, swarmed him immediately. Even Kaori joined in, although perhaps not in an entirely playful spirit: she kicked Raidou in the shins, then joined Hideki in forming a protective barricade between Genma and the “Red Moon Demon.”

“He’s my friend,” Genma said, in what was probably a futile protest. At a tug on his arm, Genma looked down into Hideki’s big, beseeching eyes.

“Do you really have to go away?” Hideki asked.

“I really do.” Genma brushed a hand over Hideki’s soft ears. “My friends need me.” He gestured at Raidou, who was balancing two of the cousin kits on his shoulders while another three scaled his legs. “And my dad would be sad if I didn’t come home. It’s almost my birthday, and he always bakes a big cake.”

That, at last, seemed to be the argument that made sense to the little tanuki. Understanding dawned on Hideki’s face. “My dad makes us cakes, too.”

“And we get lots of presents,” Kaori put in.

Only when you’re good.” Azami materialized behind Kaori and scooped her youngest daughter up onto her hip. “We’ll see this year.” It was hard to be sure, on her furred, masked face, but it looked like her eyebrow was cocked in ironic skepticism.

“We’re always good,” Kaori insisted.

Hideki didn’t seem quite so confident, seeing as they had just gotten in a great deal of trouble over Genma’s kidnapping. He looked up at his mother with an apologetic wince. “We try to always be good.”

“Well you can start by going quietly to bed,” Azami said. She held out her free paw for Hideki to take, and wrapped her tail over his shoulders when he came close.

“I’m not tired yet,” Kaori declared. “I’ll stay up and play with Genma-san some more, until he gets sleepy.”

“If Kaori-neechan doesn’t have to go to bed yet, I shouldn’t have to either,” protested Hideki.

“Yes, you do,” Kaori said. “Because you’re the baby, and I’m the big sister.”

“That’s not fair,” Hideki whined. He appealed to Genma. “Tell Mom it’s not fair. I’m not sleepy either.” His yawn belied him.

“You’re both sleepy, it’s past bedtime, and if you’re trying to convince me you’re well-behaved enough to deserve cake and presents on your next birthday, you aren’t doing a very good job of it,” said Azami.

“You should probably listen to your mother,” Genma told the kits.

The other adult tanuki seemed to be herding their own flocks of little ones away, too. A plump tanuki in an orange and violet yukata relieved Raidou of the burden on his shoulders, and an adult in a checkered jinbei took another three.

Reluctantly, Hideki and Kaori told Genma goodnight. Their father came over, towing Kikyou by one ear. “Early bedtime for you, too, missy,” he told her. “If you can’t sleep, you can meditate about obedience.”

Overhead, the stars had begun to spangle the sky, and the last of the late-setting sun turned the western horizon a deep magenta. As they made their way back to Kurenai, Genma slung an arm companionably over Raidou’s shoulders. “Thanks for the rescue, Taichou.”

“From tiny, fluffy children?” Raidou said. He gave Genma a charmingly crooked smile. “Anytime.”

“Tiny, fluffy mythical children who can kick your ass,” Genma said. “Or your shin. Did Kaori-chan manage to do any damage? I think she holds grudges.”

Raidou glanced down at the stiff protective bindings covering his lower legs. “I might be mildly scuffed.”

“Well, I appreciate your willingness to take a hit like that for me,” Genma said. “And your idiocy in coming here in the first place. I don’t know how we’re going to make any of this sound reasonable for our mission reports.” They rejoined Kurenai, who had wisely stayed out of the tanuki pileup.

Kurenai was leaning back on her hands, with her hair tumbling loose around her shoulders. A faint breeze ruffled the inky waves, blowing tendrils back from her forehead. Her hitai-ate was wrapped casually around her wrist, with the heavy metal plate cushioning one palm from the grass. She gave them a wry smile. “Your prior mission reports have not set a high bar for reasonableness.”

Genma stretched out next to her, and followed her example, pulling the tie free from his ponytail. The cool breeze through his sweat-damp hair was an astonishing sensation. It sent delightful shivers racing along Genma’s scalp and down his neck. He threw his head back, arching over until he almost touched the grass.

“Be fair, Yuuhi. Our prior missions have lacked for reasonableness.”

“And you won’t redeem your reputation for handling ‘weird shit’ with this one.” She smiled at him, warm and fond and full of amusement. Her bare lips flushed pink, as if she’d just been kissed, and would be happy to kiss again.

“Next time there are rumors of a sea monster menacing shipping,” she said, breaking Genma’s brief fantasy, “it’ll be ‘Where’s Team Six? Someone’s got to pull a conquest out of a catastrophe.’ ”

“Because our luck with shipping ports has been so good,” Raidou said with droll irony. He eased himself down barely an arm’s-length away, and his half-lidded gaze skidded over Genma’s chest and throat to Kurenai’s mouth, neatly reviving Genma’s moment of reverie. Then his eyes flicked up in surprise. “Incoming,” he warned.

Kurenai turned to look over her shoulder. Genma arched all the way backwards and got an inverted look at an approaching mountain of white fur. He scrambled upright, flipping to face Himself on his knees.

“I believe,” the enormous tanuki rumbled, “you owe me the rest of that story now.”

“Very well,” Raidou said, in carefully polite tones. “Here?”

Himself looked around. “I’d like to get the story from you without any bias from your youngster with the fleabags. They seem occupied for the moment, but I know a way to guarantee we won’t be interrupted. Dogs hate baths. Come with me.”

Raidou arched his eyebrows at his companions — a silent question: should we, or is he up to something?

Genma shrugged. The threat from the tanuki was so enormous, and the ninja so hamstrung without their chakra or weapons, it hardly seemed to matter. “The equivalent of a six-year-old took us down with no help,” he said softly.

“Don’t you like baths?” Himself asked, peering at Raidou. “Most humans love hot springs. Or are you still worried about your lieutenant? I can fix him the rest of the way first, if you like.”

“No, no!” Genma said. “I mean, I’m fine.”

“You’re bruised and your neck is strained,” Himself contradicted. “It won’t take a minute.”

The last thing Genma wanted was a repeat of Kikyou’s excruciating ‘fixing.’ Kurenai paled, and Raidou looked grim, too. The Wolf-god’s healing must have been just as bad. “It doesn’t hurt at all,” Genma said. He twisted left and right to prove it.

“That’s the sake talking,” Himself said with a laugh. “But have it your way. The hot springs will probably be healing enough without my help.” He turned to one of the smaller tanuki nearby. “Buckets, soap, and towels for our guests. And for myself, of course. You can meet us there.” To a second one he said, “You bring sake and some of those melons. You know the ones I mean.” Both tanuki scurried to obey. Evidently there really was going to be a bath. And Himself would be joining them. Just how big was the hot spring they were going to?

Genma got to his feet and offered a hand up to Raidou and Kurenai. “I don’t know about you, but honestly, I wouldn’t mind a bath.”

Kurenai’s mouth twisted wry. “We could certainly use one.”

Raidou loosened his armor and pulled his shirt away from his chest with a sticky sound. “Point,” he said with a grimace.

“Good. It’s decided then,” Himself said. He waited until the humans were all standing, then led the way up a swept sand path through a grove of bamboo and maples, tromping towards a cluster of lanterns just barely visible over the crest of the hill.

When they arrived, they found a beautiful rocky pool steaming gently, ringed with gaily painted paper lanterns in the trees, and several lit stone lanterns at the side. It was warm and inviting. And big enough to fit maybe six adult humans, or Himself’s furry white feet. They had pink pads, like a cat’s, and long, sharp claws like a bear’s. Or a wild tanuki’s, Genma supposed.

The serving tanuki arrived and set wooden buckets and folded towels down next to a cluster of benches on some paving stones near the pool, then turned to give Himself a bucket and towel of his own. They were as small as the ones she’d set down for the humans.

Genma gave him a puzzled look. Himself cackled, waved his assistant away, and jumped into the air. For a moment there was a whirling ball of white fur shimmering in the combined light of lanterns and moon, and then there was a man standing where the huge tanuki had been. He was taller than Raidou, and just as broad and muscled, if a little more stout. His long hair and luxurious beard were as snow white as the tanuki had been, but he didn’t look like an old man. There was something about him that reminded Genma of someone, but he wasn’t sure who.

Himself was also completely naked. Thick white body hair replaced the tanuki fur. Genma tried not to stare. Next to him, Kurenai had flushed slightly, and her red eyes were wide, but she made no effort to look away.

“Is this a… native aspect of your natural form?” Kurenai asked. Her composure was impressive, but even more amazing was how she could find it in herself to ask technical questions of a god.

“All tanuki are shapeshifters,” Himself told her. He picked up his bucket and dipped a generous amount of water out of the pool. His movements were as graceful as any jounin, with no wasted effort. Muscles bunched and rippled under flawless skin. “But it takes centuries of study to master. There are a few of us who have managed this level of skill.” He sounded proud but not boastful — just explaining a fact. “Feel free to go ahead and wash,” he added. “Your ribs will appreciate it, Shiranui-san.” Himself upended the bucket over his own head, refilled it from the pool, and set to work with a round ball of soap and a rough cloth.

After a moment, Genma slowly started unbuckling his armor and belts.
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