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The B-Plot

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Overall, I’d have to rate my most recent trip through a space-time ninjutsu as a four out of ten. Sensei’s was awesome, of course, but Obito’s dimensional door—sort of a cosmic drain—involved less of a contortion sensation. Meaning that I felt less like a pipe-cleaner. On the other hand, apparently mixing poisons meant something stupid was inevitably going to follow. Dizziness, nausea, total loss of kinesthetic awareness of up and down...

I landed flat on my face, feeling the world spin around me like a kaleidoscope in a stained glass gallery.

I hate teleportation. Hate. Hate. HATE.

Because of course I needed to get my bearings anyway, I clambered up onto all fours about twenty seconds later. This was only after my stomach stopped acting like it wanted to crawl up out of my throat and make a break for the nearby grass. The sensation was pretty hard to ignore.

I groaned quietly, lifting one hand to my face to pinch myself. Maybe I’d get feeling back in a minute or two…

First, I sat back on my heels, wobbling a bit as I went from there and eventually got to my feet. I needed a moment, leaning on a tree, to finally clear my head and stop feeling like my inner ear had been put through a blender.

What the hell was that? Isobu asked, voice warbling a bit in my head.

I don’t know. Obito and Sensei shouldn’t try looking both ways at once? And maybe I shouldn’t get caught up in their stupid moments as often. Sensei’s were rare; Obito’s were not. Therefore, probability suggested that I would just be better off waiting for the stupid to pass me by.

It was brutal enough to send me spinning. Isobu said reproachfully. In my mind’s eye, his formerly peaceful icy bay had turned into what looked more like a whirlpool. Or maybe something a park ranger would call “the Devil’s Cauldron,” if the devil in question was a giant crab-turtle. I was pretty sure the spinning was more my fault than his, though.

Sorry. I mumbled mentally, blinking rapidly as I scanned the area for any indication of where I was.

That was one of those things that was harder than it had to be. While checking the local foliage told me that I was somewhere south of Konoha, some higher power had apparently decided that today’s fog wasn’t gonna burn off. The sun was definitely up, but that was about as much as I could say.

...I hate to say it, but I can’t tell where we are. I could feel Isobu’s chakra piggybacking on mine, peeking out through my eyes. Try extending your chakra...that way. This mist feels strange. Unnatural.

If the Water-specialized Tailed Beast said the mist was unnatural, I was going to go with it.

I instead channeled chakra into my hand, bit my thumb, and then summoned Tsuruya.

She appeared in a gigantic burst of smoke right next to me, since a four-meter bird with a ten-meter wingspan took up a lot of space.  

“Keisuke-sama?” Tsuruya asked, peering around at the encroaching mist. Then she focused her dark eyes on me and said, “Something very strange just happened. I feel as though many years passed in a single wingbeat…”

“...It might have,” I said carefully, feeling the hairs on the back of my neck stand straight up.

Don’t look at me. I’m immortal.

“This place feels very strange,” Tsuruya repeated, quieter.

“Yeah, it is. Can you give me a quick lift? You might feel better in the air.” I suggested. Not that I meant to be insensitive but...well, we had things going on. I was freaked out, but I had to be sure of what was going on before I could curl into a ball and quietly panic.

Tsuruya bowed her head and folded her legs underneath her so I could easily climb onto her back. I tried not to pull too many of her feathers on her way up.

And then we were off into the air, Tsuruya’s wings scattering the nearby mist.

The mist, which was infused with enough chakra to confirm it as a jutsu, seemed to have a range of about one kilometer (with allowances made for wind drift). Knowing what I did about weather, though, made me wonder if the caster was in the epicenter or hanging around somewhere upwind. Ordinary mist could be many kilometers wide and deep, sort of like if a cloud dropped onto the ground.

And besides, someone was putting it out, and several other people were running around in it like headless chickens. Water, wind-something, fire-lightning, earth-something...? That was a bit of a mix...

Do you want to investigate?

I don’t see how we have any choice. I replied. Staying in one spot to be found again is a great idea in theory, but not when there’s a fight going on. Aloud, I said to Tsuruya, “Fly toward the source of the mist. We need to find out what’s going on, and I don’t mind having to beat the answers out of people.”

“Of course, Keisuke-sama,” Tsuruya said, and then we were off.

It didn’t seem like we flew for all that long. I’d never actually tested Tsuruya’s “sprint” speed, but I was starting to get the impression that she was fast enough to make most other flying summon animals look like slugs.

We blew into the epicenter of the mist with all the subtlety of a tornado touching down, slashing the jutsu itself to shreds and exposing it all to bright sunlight.

On some days, I thought of that quote. The one that goes, “Meddle not in the affairs of wizards, for they are subtle and quick to anger.” It’s a good quote, though I could never remember where it had first come from.

And then there were days where a thought pinged off the control panel in my brain and hit the big red angry button on the way down. On days like that, I thought, “Fuck subtle.”

I didn’t even understand why I was so angry for a good two seconds after sliding off Tsuruya’s back, with a strong sense of déjà vu crawling up and down my spine. I mean, I was still motion-sick and just kind of mad at my situation, and so I was irritable on principle alone. But then I realized what was going on.

The clearing was far from empty. It was ringed by trees, sure, but they were common compared to the great Hashirama varieties I was used to. The air was cold and tingled faintly with chakra, since the jutsu I had dispelled was the clingy sort. Thanks to Tsuruya, the mist wasn’t nearly as thick, and I could finally see.

The first person I spotted was an old man, probably about the age of the Third Hokage, sans about ten years. He wore a straw hat and small, circular glasses, and dressed like pretty much any random peasant in the Land of Fire. He smelled faintly of alcohol, but I was pretty sure it was because of the hip jug (not flask) that he had at his waist.

The next person I identified--well, no. Let’s just say that I saw all three at once. It’d make things easier.

A pink-haired girl in a red dress, a tiny blond boy dressed mostly in orange, and then a blue-wearing boy with dark hair that spiked upward in a style I would first describe as “duck-butt” and second as “obviously Uchiha.” If it wasn’t for the fan on his back and all. If I had to guess, they looked like they were between the ages of eleven and thirteen, where puberty hadn’t kicked in yet and seemed like it was only beginning to entertain the idea.

And then. Out in the middle of the lake.

One half-naked guy with a sword shaped like an oversized butter knife, and then one white-haired idiot stuck in a Water Prison.

I skipped the slack-jawed stage of shock and went straight to jaded irritation. I’d been working on that reaction for a while, since it looked cooler to appear unflappable.

And besides, a cool entrance would be totally ruined by what would have been my honest emotional response.

I fucking HATE my life.

I take it the bird was right? Isobu asked.

Isobu-san, I said with rapidly thinning patience, I have not only been transported a good hundred kilometers from my last known location. No. Because that would be too easy. I am now thirteen years into the FUTURE.

“Keisuke-sama?” Tsuruya asked, concerned by my sudden silence. I was, after all, generally a bit chattier after sudden entrances.

I could feel my left eye start to twitch. And still, my voice remained steady. “Tsuruya, kill the water clones and keep the mist off us. I’m going after tall, dark, and ugly.”

Tsuruya gave me a hesitant second glance—with a demon turtle renting out space in my soul, there was always a chance I’d literally explode with rage—before nodding once.

Isobu interrupted then, more curious than concerned. As the other fuse to this bomb, he knew better than anyone how long my temper could be stretched. Any extreme reactions would be half his fault, anyway. How can you tell that it’s been thirteen years? Humans all tend to look the same to me.

Because that, I said, focusing my attention on the man in the bubble, is something that happens way in the goddamn future, and THAT is my teammate.

You aren’t making sense.

Oh fucking well.

“And you call yourself a jōnin?” I called out, striding forward. “You’ve fallen a long way if you’re just beating on genin now!”

Sakura, Sasuke, and Naruto were barely genin. They’d been in the game for what, a month? The Wave mission was supposed to be their wakeup call.

And look at me, crashing their show.

“Another little Konoha brat?” Zabuza’s voice was audible clear across the water, which had probably gone still because of the Water Prison. The technique was difficult at the best of times, and he was tied up just trying to keep Kakashi—older Kakashi, anyway—contained in it. If he let go, my ex-maybe-teammate would pull his liver out. “At least this one’s read the bingo book.”

“Special jōnin. I’d be an idiot if I didn’t.” Well, almost a special jōnin. Stupid paperwork.

I saw Zabuza’s eyes narrow. Kakashi, I noticed distantly, hadn’t said or done anything to indicate he was surprised by my presence. No point in giving up the ghost, right? And I couldn’t even be sure he recognized me.

Then again, he couldn’t move. What the hell was I expecting him to do?

“So, a tree-hugger special jōnin thinks he can take me on.” Zabuza’s voice seemed to roll, pitching downward. I’d probably insulted him.

Behind me, I heard and felt several clones explode in the face of Tsuruya’s Air Cutter jutsu.

Lips tilting upward in something that somehow didn’t become a smile, I put a hand on the hilt of my mother’s katana. “I don’t think so. I know so.” The hell I did. Zabuza was older, stronger, probably faster, and had at least twice as many years of shinobi combat under his belt.

I had just challenged a friggin’ Kiri jōnin, and my only backup was a pack of genin who couldn’t know who I was, a giant bird, an old man, and a turtle.

...Though the turtle certainly swung the scales my way, nothing else did.

Only call on me if you’re about to die. Isobu suggested.

Thanks for the vote of confidence, I told him sarcastically.

It was one. I don’t think you’ll need me. Much.

...Okay then.

Sane people expect a person with a sword to attack with it. I might have been one of them, most of the time, and played into that expectation. I was actually pretty good at faking it.

I dropped my sword in between one blink and the next, sending it spinning back toward Tsuruya, and launched into a seal-less Body Flicker. I didn’t check to see what happened to it, but I had confidence in my other skills carrying the day.

I keep describing myself as a kenjutsu specialist. Or letting other people do it. The thing is, I’m not.

I’m a combat specialist. I know how to make things explode at will. I can use a sword. I can use every projectile weapon I carry, and I can use any of a dozen highly devastating high-powered ninjutsu with near-impunity compared to most of my peers. I have the Three-Tailed Beast as backup.

And I knew what I was doing, when Zabuza didn’t have half a clue what I could come up with.

I pulled out of the jutsu half a meter from Zabuza’s left foot, already spinning on the water while supported by only one hand. Might as well go for a leg sweep, right?

Zabuza jumped, but he couldn’t run very far. Having to keep one arm inside the Water Prison, while Tsuruya popped his water clones like water balloons, was a handicap he could only afford when scaring a bunch of genin.

I wasn’t half as nice. Or as slow.

I created a quick water clone of my own, sending it under the Water Prison and using it to corner Zabuza.

And then I leapt over the sphere myself and aimed a kick at his head. He blocked with his sword, Kubikiribōchō, which showed that he was at least taking me halfway seriously. In theory.

And if I pushed enough chakra into the kick, at the right angle, to form a Rasengan coming off my foot...well.

That was about to be someone else’s problem.

Also, it turns out that even my cut-down variants of the Rasengan can launch a man five meters straight down! Who knew?

And he didn’t explode into a water clone, meaning that I’d got the real one with that attack. It was difficult to use a Replacement with one hand or no seals (even if I’d managed it by the time I was nine…), and Zabuza had never struck me as the type who could. Mostly because he insisted on dodging Naruto’s little kunai gamble.

Then the Water Prison gave way, and Kakashi stood up on the surface of the lake.

Madre de dios, it had definitely been at least ten years past my point in the timeline. Kakashi was a whole head taller than me and his chakra, no longer obscured by the Water Prison, set my teeth on edge just from the feedback I got. And he wasn’t using the Chidori either! I could also see his eye—and the long, vertical scar bisecting it. Which my Kakashi didn’t have.

This wasn’t even my timeline. Never mind time travel, I’d apparently upgraded to slider.

Your luck does nothing by halves, does it? Isobu asked.

“Get back to the shore,” Kakashi ordered, apparently trusting my Konoha headband and the fact that I’d charged an adult jōnin for his sake.

...I might have in the same circumstances. Might have. Just, uh, maybe not enough to trust my hapless students to a complete stranger, if I had any.

Oh well. I obeyed, not just because this Kakashi probably would have killed me without a second thought if he even suspected I was a threat. I happened to have also left my mother’s katana in the hands of my summoned partner, and I needed to go see how she was doing with it.


Kakashi Hatake is not a stupid man.

He is not going to make the same mistake with Zabuza twice.

While the arrival of the walking armory of a special jōnin is welcome, Kakashi doesn’t plan on leaving that issue unaddressed. The problem he faces is that Zabuza has successfully wasted more chakra than Kakashi is comfortable with, and he has no interest in collapsing at the end of the day without killing the missing-nin.

He doesn’t know where the fuck this miniature special jōnin came from, but he’s willing to take a chance for right now. Kakashi is certain he can defeat Zabuza. Making it back to Tazuna’s house after doing so would be iffy in comparison.

“Understood, captain,” the special jōnin says, stepping backward and out of range. “Falling back.”

Kakashi glances back, does a quick assessment.

One-point-six-two meters tall, black hair, dark eyes and face-bisecting scar between, Konoha uniform, older flak jacket style. Scroll holsters instead of kunai holsters—sealing specialist?—and heavy steel arm-guards wrapping over hands. Androgynous face and build, ambiguous-if-possibly-feminine voice.

Probably still capable of killing a few water clones. The crane will be if its master isn’t.

And he’ll deal with them both later.


Right after Zabuza got carted away by his lackey right under the noses of the Konoha-nin—except me, since I’m both prescient and paranoid—older-Kakashi fell flat on his face and didn’t get up again.

I, along with Kakashi’s team and his client, ran right over after that. A quick diagnostic check confirmed that he still had the stamina problem I expected, which led to the aforementioned dead faint. Not exactly the behavior expected of a veteran jōnin.

“If he does this again, he’ll get you killed,” I muttered under my breath as I started assessing the situation. Shit. Had to get Kakashi to someplace dry and warm and with food…

“Hey, hey, who are you supposed to be?” Naruto demanded, bouncing up to my elbow. “How’d you know about our mission?”

“Uh.” I was in the middle of hauling Kakashi’s arm up over my shoulder. Twelve years and puberty adding muscle mass meant that it was a lot harder than I remembered. “Gimme a sec… Tsuruya, could you lean down a bit more?”

“Of course, Keisuke-sama,” Tsuruya said, and folded her legs neatly underneath her. She also moved her wings out of the way so that I could make an adult jōnin fit on her back.

“Keisuke?” Sakura asked. “Is that your name?”

“Yep.” Once Kakashi was secure (ish), I signaled for Tsuruya to stand again. Then I made a show of turning to face the trio of Kakashi’s genin and crossing my arms, and said, “Actually, who are you supposed to be?”

“I asked first!” Naruto shot back immediately. “I’m Naruto Uzumaki, and I’m going to be Hokage someday.”

“…Huh. And you’re an Uchiha,” I said, eying Sasuke. “The fan’s a dead giveaway.”

I watched Sasuke bristle, though I didn’t focus on his reaction for long. After reading my timeline’s Kakashi’s body language for the last five years, I had solid experience in dealing with his personality type.

“He’s Sasuke, but enough about him,” Naruto said. “Answer the question!”

I shrugged. “You can call me Keisuke-senpai. Or Kei.” Change the topic, change the topic… “But I…actually don’t know what you’re doing here.”

Sakura looked confused. “Then how did you know that we’d be here?”

“He didn’t,” Sasuke concluded flatly.

I looked at Tsuruya. The crane tilted her head to the side before saying, “We were actually investigating this strange mist. Keisuke-sama and I decided to come this way when we ran into your conflict with…Momochi-san? I believe that was his name.”

“So, what was your mission anyway?” I asked. I already knew. Things that lived under damp rocks probably knew their mission by this point, but…

“That would be me,” Tazuna said, and I gave him a long, assessing look. Old man, civilian, miniscule chakra flaring with just-passing panic. Huh.

For some reason, I couldn’t easily visualize the whole story that went with this man. Other than the problem with the bridge, and then two Kiri missing-nin. There was something important I wasn’t bothering with…

It’ll return sooner or later. I can search for it. Isobu suggested.

“So, a guard mission?” I faked thinking aloud pretty well. I’d always been a natural at playing at ignorance. “Okay. How about I stick around until your sensei gets up? Then we can decide if I join in or I need to be run out of town with pitchforks.”

That seemed to work on them, at least.

No guarantees if it’d work worth a damn on the man himself, but...well, I’d burn that bridge when I got there.


Kakashi wakes to an unfamiliar ceiling, under a heated blanket. Someone moved his headband back over his Sharingan at some point, so he’s lost binocular vision again (woo), but at least his headache is less horrible. His chakra levels are barely enough for him to remain conscious, irritatingly enough.

But he manages to turn his head anyway, and ends up seeing a black-haired woman just as she places a bowl with a wet washcloth next to his head.

“Oh, you’re finally awake!” she says.

“I am. Though…” I can’t get up. “I need to speak to my students”—cut off by a yawn—“as soon as possible.”

“Are you sure? The other shinobi seems to be busy with them at the moment.”

So the special jōnin did follow them. He’s been wondering if that would happen. On the rare occasions he’s been awake recently, anyway.

“I’m sure. I need to talk to”—what was the pipsqueak’s name?—“my team as soon as I can, though.”

Soon enough, all of his little minions troop into the room. Including the older one, newly acquired and generally looking a little defensive. Why is that?

Kakashi narrows his eye and says, very clearly, “Name and registration number.”

The special jōnin is sitting on the only table in the room, in blunt defiance of this mysterious thing called “manners.” His genin are between him and the stranger, arrayed defensively even if they’re facing the wrong way. Ah, kids. The self-identified special jōnin says, “Ninja registration number 010871. The name’s Keisuke, if that means anything to you.”

Probably a boy, then. Would be awkward to guess out loud and get it wrong, though…

Keisuke is staring at him. Kakashi stares back, suspicious despite the quick recital. The numbers are wrong—too old for someone who barely looks older than Sasuke. And most Konoha shinobi have family names.

“So, question: How many years has it been since the Third Shinobi World War ended?” asks Keisuke, expression suddenly more serious.

“Thirteen,” Kakashi says. “Checking for a concussion?”

Keisuke nods.

“You could have checked while I was unconscious,” Kakashi points out.

“I don’t need a sleep-fighting jōnin punching my teeth out,” Keisuke replies flatly. “But now that I’m pretty sure you’re not going to, I have to ask you a follow-up.” The special jōnin looks at Naruto and says, “Show him the thing I gave you.”

“Huh?” Naruto fumbles with his kunai holster for a second. Smart of this kid to ask one of Kakashi’s genin to hold onto something that will probably turn out to be a weapon. Even if he’s chakra-exhausted, he’s not going to thump Naruto for something that Keisuke put him up to. “Oh, okay. It’s just a funny kunai though…”

Kakashi freezes, just for a second.

It’s a kunai. Of course it’s a kunai. But it’s a very unusual one—one with three pointed prongs and a handle wrapped in vellum instead of cloth or leather. Naruto has his index finger through the loop on the hit, giving Kakashi a perfect view of the black script down the side of it.

It’s a Flying Thunder God kunai. And it looks nearly new.

“Thought you’d recognize that,” Keisuke says blandly. “At least, if you’re Kakashi Hatake and not some twin I never heard of.”

Infiltrator. Has to be. There are no pristine Flying Thunder God seals anymore, not without breaking into some kind of memorial for Minato Namikaze. And he doesn’t know who this special jōnin is, where the hell someone could get a kunai without breaking into someplace secure, and he still can’t move.

“Where did you get it?” Kakashi asks, sharper than intended. His students look at him, more confused than anything.

What do they teach kids nowadays? The Academy’s fallen farther than he remembers. But then, he only attended for about a year anyway.

Keisuke’s eyes narrow a bit. “My teacher. And I have a feeling it’s been a lot more than a few hours since I’ve seen him.”

The Flying Thunder God jutsu is a type of space-time ninjutsu. Those are rare precisely because they’re unstable and difficult to control. Kakashi’s read some reports in the past about summoning jutsu gone wrong, or maybe earlier attempts to do what Minato-sensei could have done in his sleep once he knew what formula to use.

But…

“I was the last student that man ever had,” Kakashi says, voice surprisingly level.

“Yeah, I was going to ask about that,” Keisuke replies, eyes oddly dark. “Your eye has a long scar that goes this way.” The special jōnin gestures to indicate some kind of scar over his (her?) left eye, mirroring the line over Kakashi’s Sharingan.

“…And?” Kakashi prompts. He can feel the hairs on the back of his neck rising. Something is even more wrong here. Plenty is already, but there’s some angle he can’t quite grasp…

“The Kakashi I know doesn’t have it,” Keisuke responds.

Great.

“Sensei, what are you guys talking about?” Naruto bursts into the conversation. Belatedly, Kakashi realizes that, oh right, all of his genin are in the room.

What with the lack of violence and surplus of tension, he came pretty close to forgetting that little fact.

Keisuke sits back, though, point apparently made.

…Kakashi decides to let the topic go with that, but reserves the right to an interrogation later. Preferably sooner rather than later. Imminently soon.

Like now.

“Sasuke, Sakura, Naruto,” Kakashi says in a far more pleasant tone. Turning the cheerfully irreverent and spacy sensei routine back on is easy enough, even if Sasuke probably won’t fall for it. Whatever. He’ll deal with the Uchiha later. “Start patrolling.”

“What for?” Naruto asks. “That Zabuza guy has to be dead, right? You said he would be!”

Oh, the naïve days of youth. Kakashi doesn’t even remember what those felt like. (From Keisuke’s expression, the special jōnin is nearly as distant from the roughhousing genin days as he is. At least the intense look is gone.)

Naruto is promptly punched in the back of the head.

“Naruto, you idiot! We already talked about that with Keisuke-senpai!” Sakura shouts as she vents her frustration for all to hear.

“We already got started,” Sasuke says, since no one else seems to be interested in answering.

“Then go finish!” Kakashi orders brightly, making all of his kids scowl at once. Hah.

The genin troop out after a moment or two more, bickering loudly all the way. Sakura shoots him a quick look as she leaves, looking back and forth between him and Keisuke, and so does Sasuke. Naruto, trusting idiot that he is, does not.

He manages to move an arm enough to vaguely wave them off. Still feels like hell warmed over, though.

“I didn’t mention that the Kakashi I knew was about twenty centimeters shorter, either,” Keisuke comments into the silence. “They’ll figure out what I meant sometime.”

“So, what are you?” Kakashi asks, deciding to let that comment slide. Chances are he’ll find out in a minute. Keisuke strikes him as the type who wants to talk, and bounces cryptic commentary off of people just to see how they react.

He should know. He’s been that way for years now. Concentrated into the last month tenfold, though. Who knew having kids would be so much fun?

Keisuke sighs, and Kakashi watches as the stiff defensiveness evaporates from the younger ninja's frame. Keisuke sighs again, mostly looking tired. Bingo. “I…think I time traveled. Diagonally. Next time someone asks if I want to help their stupid space-time ninjutsu experiments along, I’m going to run to the next country and hide under a rock.”

Kakashi is not a philosopher. He doesn’t bother with certain branches of physics primarily because they’re impractical to the point of uselessness. While space-time ninjutsu is not necessarily on that list, time travel is. He’s always been of the opinion that if it did exist, his future self would have showed up sometime in the past to punch out his younger self for some of the decisions he’d made. Since this never happened—and knowing his own personality as well as he does—he dismisses the possibility out of hand.

That said, he isn’t…quite sure.

Because while Keisuke could easily be delusional or simply a talented liar—the acting job was pretty decent, though not perfect—he’s willing to allow that the rookie believes what’s being said. Kakashi simply doesn’t think that he does.

“So you actually are a Konoha-nin,” Kakashi says. He wishes he could sit up and maybe outline a chart to describe his train of thought. Because this should be an impossibility.

“Yeah. But the number might’ve made it a bit obvious that I’m not from around here,” Keisuke replies. “I think the kids have registration numbers a good thousand or so higher than mine.”

Kakashi makes a noncommittal noise. Keep the rookie talking… “So. How did you get this kunai?”

“From the source, where else?” Keisuke snorts. “It’s only been a few months since the end of the Third Shinobi World War from my perspective. I’m betting something happened to the Fourth Hokage, though. Otherwise you wouldn’t have been so shocked to see one.”

Not a bad guess. But one that hurt like a bitch anyway.

“The Uchiha kid is pissy in a way that I’ve literally never seen before,” Keisuke continues, chin in hand. The special jōnin actually looks defeated, surprisingly. Still might be an imposter or an actor, but Kakashi starts to entertain the idea that the pieces actually do add up to a coherent whole. It’d be nice if he knew what the puzzle in question is supposed to look like, though. “Uzumaki says he’s an orphan. I have no idea what Sakura’s deal is, but I do know that the Uchiha are a big clan and that there’s only one woman in Konoha with the surname Uzumaki. And I’m banking on something big happening to them, too.”

Bull’s eye. Kakashi sighs deeply, because there is so much brainpower and deductive reasoning going on behind that flat, dark stare. What a waste of an intelligent shinobi.

Keisuke stares back. “You don’t believe me.”

“Nope!” Kakashi says, in a slightly-more-chipper-than-needed tone. Might as well humor the rookie somehow.

Keisuke’s gaze is flat. “That wasn’t funny when Obito did it either.”

Oh, look. The ice down the spine sensation. Welcome back, old friend.

Kakashi goes cold all over, from combined anger and shock. There was no way. “How do you know that name?”

“I’m a Konoha-nin who operated through the end of the Third Shinobi World War, knew Minato Namikaze well enough to get one of his kunai, and I know the other version of you pretty well. I learned the Rasengan from the master himself. I tried learning medical ninjutsu alongside Rin Nohara before I got left behind.” Keisuke’s voice rose a little in irritation. “I was in the same graduating class as he was. We were friends.”

And that would explain the discrepancy in numbers. Obito’s is…well, had been pretty close to that.

Okay, so Keisuke argues a decent point. Kakashi still isn’t willing to give up entirely.

“I could be a fraud somehow, I guess. I don’t know if there is a Keisuke Gekkō in this reality. Slider luck doesn’t work like that.” Keisuke shrugged, looking more defeated by the minute. “Know anyone with that name, Captain?”

“Just one.” Hayate Gekkō had been a promising special jōnin, at least up until the accident. And then he kept his rank and compensated for his scarred lungs forever after. “He doesn’t have any family.”

Keisuke sighs again. Can it be possible to actually get tired of sighing? “Would be too much to ask for just that. Thanks for pegging the timeline for me, though. Shit. Hayate’s probably as old as you are and engaged or something by now. Freaking time travel bullshit…” The special jōnin takes off the headband wrapped around the mop that could charitably be called a hairstyle, running fingers through the tangles. “Look, if I stick around and help you mop up Tall, Dark, and Ugly, are you going to stick me in T and I if I follow you back like a lost puppy?”

“That depends on a few things. First of all, whether it’s actually necessary,” Kakashi says, deciding to address the issues there one at a time. “I suspected that Zabuza was somehow still alive since I woke up. You’re willing to take him on again?”

Keisuke nods.

“Good. Saves me some of the workload,” Kakashi still can’t sit up, or else he would be folding his arms into a dramatic thinking pose because he can. But he can’t. “Are you going to follow us back?”

“Probably. Konoha’s what I know,” Keisuke replies, looking out the room’s sole window for a moment in apparent thought. “It’s home, even if it’s different.”

“I can point you toward the Hokage. But your record will have to stand for itself even if you talk it up,” Kakashi tells her. “Keep that in mind.”

“Point.” Keisuke eyes him, sitting back a little. “I can’t even convince you that I’m not crazy. This is going to suck.”

“Crazy doesn’t mean wrong,” Kakashi says.

Though sometimes he wishes it always did. Consistency is nice when it happens.

Keisuke grunts something. Then, “Oh, whatever. It’ll happen when it happens.” She gets to her feet. “I’ll get your kids back up to speed with things and see if I can’t train them while you’re doing a corpse impression. We have maybe a week before the Kiri-nin should be able to hobble with that sword of his.”

Funny. That’s what he was about to say.

“Rest up, Captain. I’m not beating Zabuza down on my own unless you drop dead. Which isn’t gonna happen.”

Nice thought.

“Sounds like a plan. But…Captain?” Kakashi asks, curious but also slip-sliding into sleep again. He feels like he can trust this teenage explosive tag, just enough that he’s not afraid to try and recover. He has something over her. It helps.

“I followed a thirteen-year-old jōnin into hell once.” Or twice. Or more. Keisuke didn’t actually say much, even if the little ninja used a ton of words to say it in. “Figure I can do it again, even if you’re old now.”


I hadn’t really thought about trying to train a gaggle of teenagers. I mean, I was still a teenager too. No one in their right mind would assign me any major responsibilities with genin unless it was a mission—special jōnin or not, making newbies listen to me was something that came with time and vertical height. Which I didn’t really have—puberty was hitting me somewhat later than it had last time.

Anyway, teenagers.

I scratched my head.

New teenager genin. Also, new teenagers. New genin, too, but also teenagers.

I tied my Konoha headscarf back over my hair, then ventured into the lion’s den.

Instead of patrolling, the kids had ended up just kind of standing around on Tazuna’s lawn while Kakashi and I talked. Maybe they’d ended up sending Naruto’s clones around?

“What was all that about?” Naruto asked as I approached.

“Kakashi-sensei didn’t look happy to see you,” Sakura added, giving me a shrewd look. “And what was that about you knowing Kakashi-sensei?”

…Hm.

“Testing for imposters,” I said with a shrug. “Above your clearance level.”

Naruto frowned. His eyes closed reflexively, “Well, then what was the kunai you gave me?”

It’s your dad’s? Eeeeh, no, scratch that. It’s Kakashi’s teacher’s kunai? Mine too? Too many questions. I’d have to name-drop. Historical artifact!

You’re not making very much sense.

I have no idea how long I am going to be here and I can’t afford to give a bullshit answer that they see through.

“It’s a part of that,” I told him. To the entire team, I explained, “Ask your sensei if he feels like talking about it later. In the meantime, I’m going to see what you can learn before we have to fight Zabuza again.”

“You’re going to teach us an awesome jutsu?” Naruto immediately reversed his frustration and flipped to enthusiasm. Le oops.

“We have a week,” Sasuke said flatly. “I can learn two jutsu by then.”

“Of course you can, Sasuke-kun!” Sakura was so dialed into everything by Radio Sasuke that I wasn’t sure she had her own playlist.

Never mind.

I raised an eyebrow. “Uh-huh. How long have you all been shinobi, anyway? I never asked.”

“Only one month, Keisuke-senpai,” Sakura said. Her smile suddenly faltered as she went on. Also as I stared—my listening face looked a lot like a total blank mask. “But we’ve…we’ve been on lots of missions.”

I must have let my disappointment show. Oops again.

“But this is your first C-rank, isn’t it?” I crossed my arms, drumming my fingers on the inside of my arm. At this point in the timeline, the kids hadn’t had much training at all. Chasing Tora only counted for so much, even if the cat was an ornery son of a…well.

The last time I’d taught anyone a basic shinobi skill, it’d been my brother. And my brother hadn’t been under a time constraint like these kids.

I looked around the front of the house. Luckily, it was bordered by water, and I was pretty sure that water-walking would wear the kids out faster (and more safely) than tree-climbing. As long as I could get a few Shadow Clones out of Naruto before he exhausted his chakra, there wouldn’t be any noticeable drop in the security levels around here. Tsuruya could handle anything he couldn’t.

Unfolding my arms and instead placing my hands on my hips, I addressed the kids with, “How about I teach you how to walk on water?”


“Water-walking?” Kakashi asks the next day. He slept through most of the afternoon before, but he’d gotten his ability to walk back. If with crutches. Crutches represented progress.

He’s sitting on the porch and watching his kids, who are watching Keisuke.

Tazuna’s house sits nearly on the water, surrounded on three sides by a lagoon that stretches off into the distance. It’s not a very large house—nearly everyone in the Land of Waves is poor thanks to the shipping monopoly set up by Gatō—but there are two stories, a porch that extends over the water, and (barely) enough space for all of them. If the walls hadn’t been made of particle board and prayers, Kakashi might have felt more secure while dozing. As it is, there’s a reason he’s up and about even if he’s limping.

This also means that he can foist teaching duty off on the nearest convenient special jōnin and concentrate on not needing crutches as quickly as possible.

Keisuke is walking around on the surface of the pond, barefoot, until launching into a cartwheel that somehow ends in a handstand. After a second, the special jōnin decides it’s time to only use one hand. And then the fingers of said hand.

And then just the index finger, supporting Keisuke’s entire weight, somehow keeps balance on the water.

Then Keisuke goes back to both hands and flips upright a moment later. Not even winded? Huh. Must be another endurance fighter, like Naruto.

“Why water-walking?” Kakashi asks, as (two of) his students clap politely. No one apparently hears him.

Well, Sakura does, but doesn’t spare him more than a glance. Naruto’s too busy bouncing in place. So maybe just one.

Said blond idiot decides to cut in, with a loud, “Is it our turn now?”

“Yep. Have at it,” Keisuke says, and walks back over to the beach.

As Sakura takes a few cautious steps out onto the water (and Sasuke and Naruto take long strides that put them both in the drink almost instantly), Keisuke sits down on the porch next to Kakashi and says, “So, what’d you want to ask?”

Kakashi decides to change his approach a little. “So. Water-walking and not tree-walking.”

“Was that what you were planning on doing?” Keisuke asks. The special jōnin doesn’t seem nervous about possibly doing something wrong—more defiant, maybe. Kakashi doesn’t ask why.

“Was.” Kakashi tries stretching his legs a little and something in his left calf goes nope with a nasty flash of pain. Ow… “So, why’d you pick water walking?”

“Because they’re up against a guy who uses Water Release.” Keisuke says, looking back to where the kids have begun their misadventures. “And since this entire country—and the bridge—has entirely too much water around it, I figured they could at least figure out how not to drown.”

“And I’m sure the chakra control is just a side benefit,” Kakashi murmurs.

Keisuke shrugs. “If I got them to work on tree-walking, I’d be treating concussions all day tomorrow.”

If Kakashi knows anything about Naruto, he has to admit that Keisuke has a point.

“Keisuke-senpai, Kakashi-sensei, I did it!” Sakura shouts from the water.

And then the effort of showing off disrupts her focus at the same time that both of her male teammates fall through the water and ruin the surface tension immediately around them.

All three kids in the drink at once.

“You might want to stand farther apart!” Keisuke yells at them as they come sputtering back to the shore again.

“I don’t get this!” Naruto shouts back, flailing his arms wildly in frustration. “I just keep falling through!”

“Ask Sakura how she did it!” Keisuke responds, pointing at the sole kunoichi on the team. “If it still doesn’t work, then ask!”

Kakashi watches as the orange-est ninja in the country walks over to his crush and tries talking to her. About stuff not involving the crush.

It takes him a full minute to get punched in the head; a new record.

“Do you need some kind of stimulant to get back on your feet?” Keisuke asks, eyeing him carefully.

Kakashi stares evenly back. “No. I just need time.” In fact… He does some quick calculations of time elapsed, full capacity, and the recovery rate he’s dealing with. Then, “I should be walking by this time tomorrow.”

Keisuke nods. Then, “So, you’re taking Zabuza.”

“Unless you think you can,” Kakashi says, giving the special jōnin a sidelong look.

“I’d rather take my chances with his sidekick,” Keisuke replies, head shaking sharply. “Leave the veterans to the veterans.” Keisuke pauses, freezing in place for just a second. Then, unbelievably, laughter starts to shake those narrow shoulders.

“I’d ask what you thought was so funny, but now I’m wondering if you’re contagious,” Kakashi says blandly.

“No, no, it’s not”—the special jōnin takes a deep breath—“it’s actually funny. Zabuza’s about your age, right?”

“…Possibly,” Kakashi allows. “Your point?”

Kei smirks. “Ten to one odds that that fake hunter-nin is my age.”

Kakashi sighs and puts his hand over his face. “You’re saying that we have a battle of perfect opposites.” The only problem on Kakashi’s mind at that exact moment is that if he bangs his head on a wall in frustration, he’s probably going to need help to get back up again. Stupid crutches.

“We could. It’d be better to keep the genin out of this,” Keisuke looks out over the water again.

Kakashi belatedly notices that the kids have managed to get dunked another four times or so. Mostly because of each other.

“I’ll go sort them out,” Keisuke says, standing up again. “You can have ‘em back in a bit.”


The fateful day arrived sooner than I really wanted it to. Thing was, life worked that way. Shit you’re afraid of comes faster and faster, while stuff that’s worth waiting for takes its sweet time.

In my particular case, I was kind of caught between both sensations. That meant that I got to blink and then the week of recovery time was over. One week of training (the kids), recovering (Kakashi’s chakra), and doing basically all the work Kakashi would have (on my own), all down the drain in what felt like no time at all.

And I’d only noticed Haku secondhand that whole time, since Naruto had been woken up by someone he said was the prettiest boy he’d ever seen while training to exhaustion in the woods. Haku didn’t kill Naruto, possibly because he was a softie, and instead let the blond wander back to Tazuna’s house unperforated.

Which gave me some warning, though I’m sure no one intended that.

(Yeah, Kakashi got them started on tree-walking anyway. By that point, they weren’t my problem.)

The fateful day dawned bright and early, and for some reason Kakashi made the entire team accompany Tazuna to the bridge. I guess he figured that since the week was up, Tazuna probably needed a heavier guard than a bunch of not-really-all-that-trained kids. I left Tsuruya at Tazuna’s house to safeguard Tsunami and Inari.

(Inari got shut down by Sasuke this time. Not sure why.)

We got to the bridge and the stupid thing was littered with unconscious bodies. So, first clue.

And then the mist rolled in, because Zabuza’s mist was a thing. I’m still not sure how well the guy could fight without fucking over everyone’s sight.

“Keisuke?” Kakashi asked without looking, since he was too busy focusing on Zabuza. Since I stood opposite the still-masked Haku, the implication was obvious.

“Of course, Captain,” I said, pulling a scroll loose from my right hip holster. Might as well put on a show.

“Naruto, Sasuke, Sakura, you three are going to guard Tazuna with your life,” Kakashi said, apparently ignoring my response entirely. “Only intervene if Keisuke-san needs help.”

I scowled. “Appreciate the vote of confidence, Captain.”

Kakashi’s sole visible eye closed as he smiled under his mask. I didn’t have to poke at his chakra to confirm that he thought baiting me was fun.

“Your little lackey isn’t going to last long against Haku, Kakashi,” Zabuza said, voice low and growly.

“Oh, I don’t know. This lackey did pretty well against you.”

Banter. Ugh.

I hid my face behind my right hand, equal parts irritated and embarrassed. Muffled by my palm, I said, “Can we just skip to the part where we kill each other?”

I felt Kakashi nudge my shoulder, as though he had just reached over to give me a quick tap with his knuckles. Probably had. “Go ahead.”

I…didn’t exactly see much point in charging. There was a pretty good chance that Haku was faster than me even before he busted out the Demonic Ice Mirrors. Not to the same degree that he was faster than Sasuke and Naruto, granted, but there was a gulf there that I couldn’t bridge without some assistance.

The only question I had was whether said help would involve increasing my speed or just straight-up crippling Haku in the middle of the fight. If not before. What else were at-will explosives good for?

Haku also stepped forward. Well. More like shot forward—he was faster than I’d given him credit for and a whole hell of a lot faster than me.

If I hadn’t been training with two Sharingan users and the freaking Yellow Flash since I first got my headband, I probably would have died right there. But because I had and I had a couple of clues about Haku’s fighting style, well…

Heh.                                                           

I met Haku’s attack with the steel armguards I’d gotten from my Kakashi, hearing steel scrape against steel and draw sparks before I could pull out of the block. Haku didn’t seem to know quite what he was doing—was he surprised that someone his age could keep track of him?

“Impressive.” His voice was barely a whisper, but I heard it anyway.

Off to my right, Kakashi and Zabuza were apparently waiting for the other to take their eyes off each other.

Then Zabuza disappeared into the mist.

“Fifteen meters and”—here Haku tried to interrupt me by sticking a senbon in my throat, only to be blocked by a kunai—“closing on your three, Captain!”

There was a noise that sounded like two knives being sharpened as Kakashi found his mark.

And I needed to shove Haku toward the other end of the bridge. I needed a fake-out.

I had one. Kicking off and letting Haku think I’d lose him in the mist, I made hand seals and slammed my and Isobu’s chakra into the jutsu. Luckily, it was one of those stupid ones that didn’t need control as much as it needed a power supply, which I was happy to supply.

“Water Release: Water Trumpet!” Chakra twisted into water in my mouth, muffling anything I could have said after that, and a gout of water shot out directly in Haku’s supposedly undetectable path.

Hah, nope.

My attack blew Haku right off his feet and back toward the incomplete edge of the bridge. I charged after him, wondering if he’d take the bait.

My jutsu also gave him more than enough water to start using the Demonic Ice Mirrors jutsu if he was in trouble. Which he was, I thought. I could keep up enough to react to his attacks and avoid getting badly hurt, I had more chakra than he did, and I could hit a hell of a lot harder.

Come into my web, said the spider to the fly. The only question was if I could turn that speed-magnification jutsu right back on him.

“Haku, stop playing around!” Zabuza snapped, sounding a bit strained. I guessed that Kakashi must have gotten him at least once. I’d be pissed, too.

Haku came to a stop right in front of me, and I watched with unbridled curiosity as he used a variety of unique one-handed seals—honestly, it would be fascinating if I could get him to explain his technique—and then trapped me inside a very crappy hall of mirrors. Worst funhouse ever.

I watched as he faded into one of the mirrors, saying, “So, is this the part where you kill me?”

“You are correct,” Haku said, his voice coming from every single one of his reflections.

I grinned. “No. I’m sarcastic. And you’re dead.”

Isobu said, Ready when you are. In my mind’s eye, Isobu drew himself up on his humanoid forearms, at attention for once.

Just as Haku drew back his arm for what might’ve been a kill-shot for anyone else—all of his reflections did it, too—my grin just got wider.

I caught a brief look at my reflection—my eyes were shifting to look more like Isobu’s, gold rings on red—and felt Haku’s chakra jolt in sudden shock that quickly started sliding downward into terror. And then I let loose with the chakra I had been, until that point, hiding neatly inside my chakra coils.

Let’s dance, kid,” I said with Isobu’s voice overlapping and distorting mine. I didn’t need a tail to clean up around here. I could do it just in the initial form, unfortunately for Haku.

The mirrors didn’t last that long.

Neither did Haku.


Kakashi turns toward the source of the demonic chakra almost before he realizes what it is, and so does Zabuza. Power tears out from the center of the ice cage, almost like someone inverted a tornado and set it spinning aimlessly. The animalistic chakra is practically hatred made solid, setting every nerve Kakashi has on edge.

And from Zabuza’s body language, he is every bit as shocked.

And Naruto is back there

Keisuke is a Tailed Beast Host. Has to be.

Kakashi watches the mist disappear in the wake of that blast of chakra, the ice cage shattering in midair a moment later.

Keisuke walks out of the debris, carrying Zabuza’s apprentice over one shoulder, and Kakashi sees.

The special jōnin’s eyes aren’t dark anymore. They’re a series of concentric red rings, with one gold ring in the center to show where the iris should be.

“Where the hell did you get this brat, Kakashi?” Is that a tremor he hears in Zabuza’s voice?

Kakashi doesn’t say anything.

He didn’t get me anywhere,” Keisuke says, voice guttural and unnatural at best. He can hear the beast’s voice harmonize with the special jōnin’s, making a chill run down his spine. After a second, Keisuke lifts the hand not carrying Zabuza’s apprentice and says, “And by the way… I come in peace.”

…What.

Keisuke shrugs, raising only the shoulder not weighed down by Zabuza’s apprentice. “So, we calling this a draw or am I just gonna wait until you two are done?”

Zabuza’s teeth grind behind his bandage mask. When he speaks, his voice is low and furious. “Where did you get that power?”

“Not Yagura, if that’s what you want to know,” Keisuke says blandly. After a second, the special jōnin hurls the unconscious fake hunter-nin at Zabuza, who catches him.

“Not. What. I. Asked,” Zabuza growls, one syllable at a time.

“Mission gone bad, somewhere around the Mountains’ Graveyard,” Keisuke replies. “There aren’t any records, given that there was only one survivor. And he wasn’t from Kiri.”

Kakashi’s blood runs cold yet again.

That can’t possibly—

“Or maybe I’m wrong! Maybe there were actually four survivors.” Keisuke makes a show of checking those excessive armguard for bits of wear and tear. “Maybe one of them got to go home a little different.” The special jōnin shrugs. “But that didn’t happen here, did it? Rin-chan died and Yagura became the Fourth Mizukage and the world went a little bit crazy.”

“Is that what happened in the world you came from?” Kakashi hears himself ask.

“Sans like all of the detail, yeah. In fact…” Keisuke trails off, frowning suddenly. “Hey, wait…”

Just behind Keisuke’s left shoulder, the air swirls without a trace of chakra that Kakashi can feel. After a second or so, the midair spiraling space-time mess resolves itself into someone about Keisuke’s height, wearing an orange mask with an obnoxious smiley face drawn across it in black ink. He—or she—wears black in the form of an armored bodysuit that covers everything except a spiky black hairstyle and his toes, which are exposed.

Keisuke’s response is an utterly deadpan, “So, you finally found me.”

The person in the orange mask whines, “It’s not my fault you grabbed the kunai at the wrong time! Honestly, Kei, we didn’t even know where you were until the Three-Tails chakra went everywhere, and we had to hook up two sensing orbs to make any sense of it!”

And that voice…is very, very familiar. Achingly, horribly so.

Keisuke just sighs. “Come on, Obito. We’d better get out of here before Tobi realizes what’s up.”

“Tobi’s in this world?!” Maybe-not-his-Obito yelps, looking around quickly. Then he seems to come to a realization. “Oh wow, then this is that weird future universe you told me about! Hey, that’s this world’s Kakashi, isn’t it? When did he get tall?”

Kakashi doesn’t say anything. Can’t. Literally can’t—his throat is closed up and he’s frozen in place as surely as the carved heads in the Hokage Monument. That can’t be Obito, he’s…

Keisuke reaches over and whacks hopefully-not-Obito’s shoulder.

He jumps a little, pauses, and then takes several long strides toward Kakashi. Keisuke turns away and stalks toward Zabuza and his apprentice.

Kakashi retreats half a step before he realizes he’s doing it.

“Hey, hang on.” Maybe-Obito reaches up and pulls his mask off.

And it is him, the same age Kakashi remembers or nearly so. The right side of his face is badly scarred—which makes sense, given the rock—and the mostly-unharmed left side of his face come with a medical patch over what Kakashi knows is an empty socket. And he’s just grinning like an idiot, as though nothing leading to the aforementioned injuries ever happened. Like it wasn’t Kakashi’s fault.

“Kei, I’m gonna sit this fight thingy out and just talk to everyone, all right?” Obito calls over his shoulder toward the special jōnin. “I need to conserve chakra!”

“Sure, whatever! There’s only one left anyway!” Kakashi doesn’t even spare the effort to wonder what the rookie is talking about. Zabuza? Fights? Whatever.

None of that is as important as this is.

“Kakashi-sensei, who’s this?” Naruto asks, and Kakashi blinks as though pulled out of a stupor. Right. Kids. Witnesses.

“What, no one talks about the great Obito Uchiha anymore? Geez, Kakashi, you’ve been holding out on them!” Obito is just as horribly tactless as ever, and Kakashi practically feels Sasuke bristle.

“Hey, I thought that Zabuza guy thought you were the last Uchiha,” Naruto says to Sasuke in a stage whisper.

On that cheery note, Obito pushes past Kakashi with a grin firmly in place and says, “So, you’re Kakashi’s team, right?”


“So, long story short: there is drama behind enemy lines,” I waved a hand in the approximate direction of Obito crashing Team Kakashi’s party. He’ll probably get killed by Sasuke or something. “I still wouldn’t recommend trying to take us on right now.”

Zabuza let out a sigh. He crouched over Haku’s unconscious form, trying to figure out how seriously the smaller shinobi was hurt.

I knew how to put someone’s lights out. He’d have a headache and a goose egg of a bruise on the back of his head for a while, but I hadn’t been aiming to kill him.

Pretty much anyone else would have, I think.

“I’m surprised you let him live.” Zabuza remarked, lightly slapping one of Haku’s cheeks to see if the boy would respond.

“I’m a softie at heart,” I admitted. “And I guess I don’t really want to kill you. Not when I’m pretty sure the fight’s gonna be invalidated in less than two minutes.”

There had to be a reason for the constellation of little chakra signatures I could sense out on the water.

“Too bad I don’t share the sentiment,” Zabuza said. “I still want to kill you.”

“That’s your problem, not mine,” I shot back. “Or is the Demon of Kirigakure too stupid to know when to cut and run? You’re down an apprentice and there are three Konoha-nin here who can and would hand you your ass. Gatō’s money cannot possibly be worth this kind of risk.”

Zabuza laughed. “You think I don’t know that? I’m waiting for a break here, and I’m not talking about you.”

I frowned. “You mean you expect Gatō to backstab you? Guess you’re not as stupid as I thought…”

“You don’t stay a missing-nin for long without being able to tell when a contract is about to go bad,” Zabuza spat. “And Gatō is going to make a mistake.”

I glanced back out toward the water. “If I could make a suggestion…”

“He’s out there, then,” Zabuza said, not really answering me directly. But he did look in the same direction as I was. “Hah. You want me to scream for the sake of the ruse? Not gonna happen.”

“It might be better just to pretend to be more injured than you are. No one in that group has good enough hearing to know what’s going on until the mist goes away,” I suggested.

Zabuza sat down next to Haku, and I felt him release the Hidden Mist jutsu. I mean, I could’ve dispersed it manually with a Wind jutsu and Kakashi would have been able to make Zabuza stay down in the sense that involved broken limbs, but it was nice that I didn’t have to push at all. I mean, there had to be some point to the diplomacy tutoring I’d been getting back home. Maybe.

As though on a cosmic queue system, the next event in line proceeded to take the stage.

Gatō. Backed by maybe fifty barely-trained mercenaries who were a disgrace to the entire idea of sword-using thugs.

He might’ve said something about cancelling Zabuza’s contract. Or that he never intended to pay him.

Between Zabuza, the implicit permission he could do whatever the fuck he wanted to his former employer, and the subpar obstacles in his way, and me, I fully admit to standing back and watching the master get to work.

Once everyone was dead, Zabuza wandered back over to me. Other than being covered in more blood spatter than before, he was pretty much in fighting shape.

“So, now what?” I asked.

“Now? Now I get Haku out of your way, pull off a hostile takeover of a shipping company, and never see you again.” Zabuza snorted. “Seriously, though. If I ever see any Konoka-nin around here for any reason ever again, it’ll be too soon. And I’m sure Konoha doesn’t give a shit about this lousy little backwater as long as I don’t pull the same things Yagura did.”

“Somehow, I don’t think that’ll be a problem,” I said carefully, looking at Haku.

“Whatever. Just tell Hatake he’s not our problem unless he makes one,” Zabuza promptly disappeared, with his apprentice, and I was able to wander back over to the rest of the group after I cleaned the bodies off the bridge.

So I might have helped install a missing-nin as a ruler of a tiny backwater country. So, the Land of Rice Fields and Orochimaru all over again.

…Eh.


“…and Kei told us stories, so I know what happened with the Uchiha clan,” Obito says, gesturing widely enough to nearly smack Naruto in the face. “Which sucks, but it wasn’t your fault or Kakashi’s or the Hokage’s or Itachi’s, really. I know everyone hears the version where Itachi did everything but I’m pretty sure that about fifty percent of the thing—blame—falls on the guy Kei and I call Tobi. Pretty much nobody knows he exists, but he’s also responsible for a lot of other crap. The other half of the blame is—Oh hi, Kei.”

“If you keep giving out spoilers, their heads will explode,” Keisuke tells Obito severely. “Or does this whole S-rank secret thing just not count in an alternate universe?”

“You did it first!” Obito shoots back.

“…True,” Keisuke admits. “I won’t tell if you won’t?”

“Deal!” Obito beams.

“Hey, don’t stop now!” Naruto shouts. “You’re supposed to tell me who my parents are!”

Keisuke’s face freezes up momentarily. Kakashi wonders, is it even possible that the little ninja knows exactly what happened to Sensei and Kushina-san? It shouldn’t be possible

But nothing about this last week has been in that category.

Keisuke and Obito exchange looks again. Keisuke says, “So, Captain. Stop me if this is actually going to break like eighteen rules. It might. It wouldn’t back home, but it might here.”

“That depends on what you know.” Kakashi manages.

“…That’s really vague, so let’s just start with the thing about Naruto’s parents.” Keisuke gestures for everyone to sit down before doing so first, to set an example.

After a moment, Kakashi’s team follows suit. Obito does, too, and he turns toward Keisuke with as much eagerness as Naruto did. Story time, said their faces.

“Naruto, your parents were Kushina Uzumaki and Minato Namikaze,” Keisuke says, sneaking a glance at Kakashi. “They would have killed to be able to watch you grow up, and I know they’re the kind of people who would’ve made great parents. They’re still alive in the universe Obito and I come from, but there’s not exactly a way to get…hm. Lemme get a sketchpad…”

Sketchpad retrieved from some hidden pocket, Keisuke commences drawing something with a tiny nub of a pencil while Obito sits back and rolls one shoulder to get the stiffness out.

Kakashi still can’t really believe he’s seeing this.

His new team of genin and his old team, at least in one universe, are together. Rin’s gone and the midget-him isn’t here either, but…

Well, at least Obito and Naruto get along like a house on fire. Sasuke looks like he’s struggling with powerful emotions…or that he ate something spoiled earlier. Better check on that at some point…

Sakura just looks dumbstruck.

“What happened to you in this world, then?” Sasuke demands, apparently aimed at Obito. “When—when that man—”

“By the time that happened, this world’s version of me was under like ten tons of rock in some Iwa-held backwater.” Obito raises a hand to the pressure scars on his face. “You can probably tell I didn’t get out of that one unscathed, either. But Kei was there, and things worked out eventually.”

“Six months later, maybe,” Keisuke mutters, scribbling furiously with Naruto leaning over her shoulder to watch her work.

“Yeah, pretty much! The Itachi Kei and I know is four and really tiny and I think he was probably told he had to take care of his new baby brother. Alter-you,” Obito added, pointing out the stupidly obvious. “Which leads us back to the Nine-Tails attack Kei told me about and the first appearance of the guy called ‘Tobi.’”

Kakashi asks, “So. Who is ‘Tobi’?”

Obito pauses. “Um.”

“The guy we call ‘Tobi’ is this world’s version of Obito,” Kei says without looking up. “He went violently insane sometime after Kannabi and after witnessing Rin’s death.”

The world crashes down.

No. No. That’s impossible! Obito wouldn’t—

He would never—

No no no nononono

Kakashi, vaguely, notes that he’s shaking.

If I hadn’t—

If I had—

Rin would still be—

Keisuke made it, why couldn’t Rin—

I shouldn’t have let her go!

I’m—

It’s my fault—Sensei, Kushina, Obito, Rin—

“You idiot.” Obito’s voice is way too close, what—

And—

Obito punches him in the face.

“Kakashi, what happened to Tobi is not your fault,” Obito says firmly, though he’s staying out of Keisuke’s range as best he can. The special jōnin does not look happy with him. “No one knew he was being played, not even him, and he never figured it out. He doesn’t know the truth and he’s an asshole and he needs to be stopped no matter who he was. I did. I was lucky.”

Keisuke sighs. “We’re on a time limit, Obito.”

“Augh, I know! It sucks!” Obito stands up, frustration in every movement. “But remember that, Kakashi! If you have to kick alter-me’s ass to hell and back, it’s not your fault he turned out that way and he deserves the beating. He’s a jerk.”

Keisuke nods. “And…well, Rin and Sensei are still on your side, Kakashi. These kids might be, too. Just keep them safe, all right?”

Kakashi nods numbly.

“Steady on, Kakashi. There’s a happy ending out here somewhere,” Keisuke says. Then, suddenly, she smiles faintly. “And I have a quick secret, which might make you laugh a bit. Who knows?”

“Oh?” Kakashi manages to say.

Keisuke leans in, grinning. “I’m a girl.”

Well. That’s weird. Almost absurd enough to make him laugh on reflex, but not quite.

“Bye, Kakashi! It was cool to meet you! I hope you stop feeling like crap at some point!” Obito’s final sendoff is, of course, about as dignified as the rest of him. Of course.

Keisuke tears the page off her sketchpad and threw it at Naruto.

And then they both vanish into a spiraling hole in the air, winking out of existence.

And that leaves him with three mini-ninjas to educate.

Joy.

"Is...is this my mom?" Naruto murmurs in awe.

...Okay, so maybe it wouldn't be horrific. Still bad, though.


Luckily, I’d managed to dismiss Tsuruya at range before hopping onto the space-time carousel, or I would’ve had a lot of explaining to do once she found her way back through the space-time continuum. But she was dismissed on time and so I didn’t. It would’ve been an awkward conversation.

To my mild surprise, we hadn’t come back to the same training field I’d been booted from—instead, we were next to the thirty-fifth gate of the Forest of Death, on the inside of the fence. Barely, but inside nonetheless. Sensei’s sealing equipment was everywhere, including five specialized tri-pronged kunai, a small seal altar, brushes, scrolls, and at least two bottles of ink. For a second, no one was in sight.

“…I just left a fucking Flying Thunder God kunai back there, didn’t I?” I muttered under my breath as we reappeared in the bright Konoha sunshine.

“It doesn’t matter, does it?” Obito let go of my hand and shrugged when I couldn’t come up with an answer. “Well, whatever you did, we still got back all right.”

As though the universe was out to prove Obito right, Rin jumped up from where she’d been sitting on the grass—other side of the fence—and shot over the barrier to hug us both. “Kei-senpai, Obito, you’re back!”

“Yep. And I am never leaving again,” I said, hugging Rin back fiercely. “That entire trip sucked.”

“Well, it might help to keep out of testing range the next time we try experimenting with Obito’s space-time ninjutsu,” Sensei suggested from the other side of the fence, looking and sounding amused. And relieved I was back in one piece.

“How long was I gone, anyway?” I asked.

“Four hours,” Kakashi said, finally announcing his presence from the top of the gate. He was pulling his headband down over Obito’s eye just as I looked up. Huh. A sympathetic anchor…

Something something quantum mechanics. Ooooooh!

“Well, it was a week for me. And man, have I got a story for you,” I replied, just as Rin pulled back. “Wanna hear it?”

“Sure, Kei-senpai,” Rin said. “Later.”

Oh, fine.

We walked back to Konoha proper with no more dimensional displacement accidents. I figured that was something to be grateful for.

Especially if it never happened again. Sure, canon was fun to watch, but I’d put in way too much time, effort, blood, sweat, and tears to get this mirror-verse to work. Fuck if I was gonna let anything keep me from reinforcing the brighter future I’d helped create.

“Kakashi, the version of you we met was even gloomier than you! How does that even happen?!” Obito suddenly demanded.

“How should I know? I’m not him. Thankfully,” Kakashi retorted. “He was probably too stunned you showed up to get annoyed.”

“Are you implying I’m annoying?”

“I’m not implying anything.”

“ARGH, SHUT UP AND LET ME HIT YOU.”

And the chase was on.

“Well, we had peace and quiet for all of eighteen seconds,” I commented. “So, how was the weather while I was gone?”

“Don’t start, Kei-senpai,” Rin chided.

Chapter Text

"Hayate, I think you ought to hear the truth," my sister says, as she and I pack lunches in the Namikaze household's kitchen.

"The truth?" I ask. Inside, my mind is spinning like crazy—this is the Big Secret. Mom and my sister never really told me much of anything, and I've gotten used to being kept in the dark. I'm not a shinobi yet—I just really want to be.

Without Mom, and after learning the truth about her, I feel like I have to be ready for big secrets. That's what being a shinobi is really about.

Maybe this is about that strange not-Kei chakra? I didn't notice it before—before everything, but it's definitely there. It's been there, moving a little, ever since I could clearly feel her chakra. It might've always been there, for all I know, but it doesn't feel like her.

"Well, part of it." Kei says, and the side of her mouth quirks in a half-smile. "So, wanna hear?"

"Yeah," I say, "even if I can't hear it all. Is it because I'm not old enough?"

"Hayate, there are people older than the Hokage who can't know." Kei pauses. "Well, yet. I want to hear what you think before I say anything about them."

The Hokage isn't that old. The Third Hokage was, but he retired. "I can handle it."

Kei finishes packing her lunch bento and gestures for me to finish mine. I stuff some extra rice in it to fill the gap, then close mine with a loud click so Kei can tie them both. I'm still learning shinobi knots, and things sometimes get loose if I do it.

"If you say so." Kei says, sighing. She's been doing that a lot lately.

Together, we move to the couch. I sit down on one end, so I have the arm-wrest to myself, and Kei sits cross-legged on the middle cushion and grips her knees.

"Sis?" I ask, surprised. She didn't seem that nervous a second ago…

"Give me a second, Haa-chan." Kei replies, shifting on the couch.

Before last week, I would've said Kei never called me that anymore. I…I don't think she's really done it regularly since I was a baby. I don't know if that means she's nervous or that I should be. Maybe it's just both.

Her chakra seems to go with option three.

"Okay, so…" Kei looks at the ceiling. "Remember that time we got Obito back? That mission?"

How could I forget? "Yeah, I do. You never said where you got him back from, though." I pointed out.

My sister's expression goes pinched again. "I didn't. And I'm still not gonna, so don't ask."

Rats.

"So, something happened on that mission?" I ask instead.

Kei nods. "Yeah. So, what I didn't mention…well, the long story is too long, so I'm just gonna say I'm a Tailed Beast Host now."

…What?

Kei looks away. I can feel her chakra going all weird, centered around a…a seal, on her chest. She's afraid I'm going to hate her—it's just so obvious. That's even more obvious than the not-human chakra right in front of me, in some ways.

And it hurts, too, because I can't imagine being that scared of my own sister.

I scoot closer to my sister and hug her really hard.

"Haa-chan?" Kei says, surprised. She pulls me closer almost on reflex, so I don't end up falling over.

I adjust my grip and squeeze harder. "Is it hurting you?"

"Him, and no." Kei replies after a pause. She rubs my back. "You're taking this, uh, pretty well."

I ignore that. "Are you okay?"

"Yeah, I…I am." Kei almost sounds surprised to hear herself say that.

"Then what's the problem?"

Kei laughs and hugs me back, just as hard. "Good point, Hayate."


"Monster!"

Someone says that to my sister on the way to school, about two days after she told me about Isobu-san. She's going to work, but it's the same building so we're walking together.

Only some jerk just popped up out of nowhere, to yell at us!

He's bigger than either of us, but he's not dressed like a shinobi and he doesn't feel like one. What he feels like is a drunk, a civilian, and a jerk. Maybe not all of those at once all the time, but he's afraid of us on top of that.

Well, of my sister.

Kei just smiles, but it's not a nice smile. I've heard about smiles like that, where it's really obvious someone's gonna get bit.

"Is that really the best you can do?" Kei asks, raising one eyebrow. "Because I've heard and fought worse."

"My sister's a special jōnin, so you'd better not mess with her!" I snap, refusing to be ignored.

We're kind of drawing a crowd…

Maybe next time I can get Kei to take me to school over the roofs. There are fewer idiots up there.

The man seems to abruptly realize that we have an audience, and looks around. He looks a little baffled by everyone giving him weird looks.

Kei tilts her head to the side and pauses. "…Have you been drinking?"

Eh?

I can feel other shinobi in the crowd, and I look around to spot an Uchiha MP officer approaching pretty quickly.

"So what if I have?" the civilian demands, and I can see that his face is all red and blotchy—but not just because he's angry.

Kei sighs and takes a couple of steps toward him, one hand outstretched. The man backs up, but she just lets her hand drop and says, "We all lost someone that night. I know you're hurting, but I'm not the monster here. Because there isn't one we can easily lash out at."

"Is there a problem here?" the Uchiha officer asks, finally reaching the scene.

The civilian man abruptly bursts into tears.

My sister looks at him, like she's trying to figure out if he's going to be a problem, and says, "I think he just needs some place to calm down."

The MP nods. "Do you want to make a statement?"

"No, we're already late." She jerks her head to let me know it's time to go. "Come on, little brother."

"All right."

Chapter Text

“Is it all right if I ask what the other nightmare was?” Kei asks, her voice hesitant despite her conviction before.

Where’s the flippant tone now? It’s weird to see her go back to being soft around the edges in the dark. Kakashi doesn’t know what to do with her when she sounds like any girl concerned about her friends, and not just another verbal sparring partner.

Well. He does. But he can’t see her angle.

Still. He tries. “Same as the last image.” He can’t help the bitterness that creeps into his voice. “And related to the Sharingan thing, since we weren’t talking about it.”

Red, red, so much red

Kei’s shoulder bumps his. It reminds him that her bony fingers are still wrapped around his, that they’re sitting so close together that touch is just…casual. It’s still hard to remind himself that she never means anything by it other than to comfort others.

Kakashi sighs deeply, closing his eyes. If she wants an answer, she’ll get it out of him sooner or later. She knows that. His throat tries to close around the words she’s pulling out of him, but Kakashi forces himself to answer. “…I dreamed that the Sharingan”—that my Sharingan—“burned the you out of your body, and the Tailed beast just went berserk. I wouldn’t…” I’ll never be capable of—“I couldn’t kill you when I’d done that, and Obito…”

Kakashi thinks dream-Obito would kill him first. He remembers the pain in that shade’s eyes and it hurts to think about it even know, when their Obito is probably in the village sleeping off his latest date with Rin or something.

Kei is very still as he tries to manage his thoughts. She’s waiting for him to continue, but he can’t read her and that scares him.

“Sensei had to put you down”—“I’m sorry, Kei!”—“but by then…” Kakashi shakes his head, trying to get the voices out. “There wasn’t anything left of our team.”

Obito on the ground, screaming his defiance at reality itself while the spiraling monster around him attacks for him

“No offense to your subconscious meant,” Kei says in a surprisingly mild voice, “but between the promise you just made and the fact that the Three-Tails and I get along okay, I think we’ll be all right.”

Kakashi looks at her, disbelieving, as she continues in a steady tone, “Not that it’s bad to worry—I’ve heard the stories before, and without the Sharingan involved—but I’ll do my absolute best to not let that happen.”

Kakashi gives Kei a very long look.

She actually believes that. She thinks she can hold off the demonic chakra in her chest, for…what? Until it gets bored enough to be friendly? He already knew Kei didn’t have the same perspective on reality as most other people, but he…didn’t appreciate the width of the gap. Kei’s going to guilelessly go along with this insane plan until it kills her—she gets like that. Often.

Not while he’s around. But Kakashi can’t do anything about it just yet, not without help.

So he sighs and rolls his eyes and hopes Kei leaves it at that.

“I can’t believe you avoided me for a month over that.” Kei says, sounding relieved despite the heavy atmosphere. She can read the mood—he’s seen her do it—but she doesn’t always bother where he’s concerned. “We really need to talk things out more.”

Kakashi doesn’t disagree, exactly, but sometimes he wonders and worries about what she could possibly want to bring up.

Though the last month was pretty miserable. He’d had to avoid everyone sans Sensei, because he never knew when she was going to be in the area. Anything had been a better option than hurting her, or at least that’s what he’d told himself.

Only to find out that Kei had never been the problem. The turtle had.

Kakashi looks down at the way her hand is still wrapped around his, pausing. It…it hadn’t been all a waste, he supposes. Though the genjutsu experience is still one he’d rather never go through again.

Kei shifts her grip on his hand, pushing her fingers between his so their fingers are interlaced.

Kakashi blinks, freezing in place and feeling his face heat up against his will—what’s she doing?—before Kei loops her other arm around him and pulls him against her in a hug. That doesn’t happen—he can count on one hand the number of times they’ve hugged, ever—and her face is really close to his, isn’t it—

Kei kisses him.

He can feel the faint brush of her breath against his cheek, can feel her lips brush over his mask—

She pulls out of the hug.

He has to let go of her hand to bring it up to his face. That—that happened, didn’t it? It wasn’t a dream?

She’s already leaving, sliding down toward the edge of the branch. “Promise me we’ll talk if something comes up, all right?”

Kakashi feels himself nod, his hand still to his cheek. That had happened. And he—and she—

She disappears into the forest, heading back in the direction of their campsite.

It takes Kakashi a couple of minutes to compose himself.

When he does, he heads back to the camp. His dogs are all there, with Pakkun in particular looking back at him like he’s an especially slow pup.

Kakashi makes a “tch” noise and steps carefully into the nest of dogs. Akino charitably moves out of his long-abandoned spot and gives Kakashi space to lie down with his head against Bull’s back, while Guruko curls into his side and Pakkun crawls onto Kakashi’s chest again.

He’s long asleep again by the time Kei’s watch shift ends.

But his dogs, who are lighter sleepers, are not.

She climbs down from the tree and wakes Ensui, who takes over watch duties.

Kei kicks her bedroll into position and climbs inside, falling asleep in minutes.

Bisuke and Akino creep over to her and lie down to her left and her right, tucking their noses against the sleeping girl. While they may not have been able to say thank you earlier, they can do it now. This girl helped their master sleep again, and the dogs appreciate the calm that’s returned to their lives.

And their night, since their little master kicks.

Chapter Text

The spar ends with the sound of wood hitting flesh and the thump of a body subsequently hitting the floor with a loud thud. I let my bokken drop to my side, in a null stance. My opponent, though, takes more than a few seconds to struggle back to his feet. His shoulders heave with exhaustion and pain, while I test my grip on my bokken's hilt and find that not even my palms have broken a sweat.

"All right, you're done now," I say, stepping over to help my opponent to his feet again. I grasp his good wrist with my hand and pull him upward as easily as if he weighed nothing at all.

"Ow. Ow!" My opponent, taller than me and broader-shouldered, rubs his forearm once I let go. "Cousin, could you take it easy on me next time?"

"No," I say, watching him shake out his stinging wrist and grumble.

"Not even when I'm older and I say so?" He asks, "Please? For your favorite cousin Tōshiro?"

I give him my most disapproving glare.

"Fine, fine; can't blame a man for trying."

Tōshiro slinks out of the dojo after another few minutes, leaving me to clean up after our spar alone. I wipe down the floors, our bokken, and our sparring gear shortly thereafter, before taking off my training gi and dumping it in the dirty clothes hamper. Within half an hour, the dojo is as though I never thrashed my thirty-year-old cousin up and down the length of the floor, twice.

As I leave, taking my bokken and my other personal equipment with me, I lock the dojo's doors and leave the key on a hook nearby. If someone wishes to use it after me, they may do so. I'm finished for the day.

"Are you coming to the meeting, Tomoe?" Takahiro asks as he passes me by in the hallway, the corners of his eyes crinkling in something like amusement.

"…I wasn't planning on it, but apparently if I don't I'll miss some sort of joke." I pause, scrutinizing his face for any kind of hint. "Brother?"

"Oh, you'll see," Takahiro says with a grin. Before I can snatch at his collar and drag him down to eye level to answer me, he's already bounding off and out of reach.

"…Hn."


I traverse the Uesugi clan compound without being stopped by servants or additional siblings. The covered walkway lets me see the beauty of winter in the Land of Iron without having to risk frostbite. The snow muffles the sound of people running to and fro inside the compound's various buildings. Though cold, I relish the chance to get away from the constant yammering of the crowd indoors.

But this does not stop me from being interrupted by an overenthusiastic sister-in-law.

"Tomoe-chan! Adorable baby sister! Wait for meeeeee—!"

I stop in my tracks and brace for impact.

Suzume barrels into my back and nearly knocks us both sprawling, but I anchor my feet to the wooden walkway with chakra. As it is, she makes me stumble somewhat, but I keep us both from hitting the floor.

"You should be more careful, Sister," I say reprovingly as Suzume stumbles back to her feet with a sheepish smile on her face. She pinches at the hem of her kimono and straightens its lines as best she can around her hugely swollen stomach. "Your child won't appreciate a tumble at this stage."

"Oh, I'll be fine. You were here, Tomoe-chan! That makes everything all right," Suzume enthuses, miming brushing dust from my shoulder as I turn around to face her. Then she grabs my hands in hers. "We need to get you dressed up properly for this meeting!"

I blink. "I don't understand. I have my formal armor in my room—!"

"Not that kind of dressed-up," Suzume interrupts. Her amber eyes are alight with mischief. "You have a furisode and Honorable Grandfather wants to see you at your best!"

"Armor is my best. It's stab-proof."

Suzume heaves a dramatic sigh. "Oh, Tomoe-chan…"

This had better not be another lecture on femininity.

"You need to be beautiful for this, Tomoe-chan." Suzume's hands squeeze mine. "Please, Tomoe-chan! You can't embarrass our family!"

I bite the inside of my cheek to keep from saying anything. Suzume knows where my buttons are and can exploit them. She can be ruthless in a cheerful way. The net result is the same; I do what she wants. Just like everyone else in the family does whenever she gets the bit between her teeth.

"This is going to be a rush job, I see." Suzume spins my unresisting body around and frog-marches me toward the baths. "We have two hours to get this done, so you're going to Utane-chan right now!"

"Suzume—"

"Don't 'Suzume' or 'Sis' me now, Tomoe-chan! You're slowing us down! Honored Grandfather can only hold the floor for so long!" Suzume pauses as we arrive, letting go of one of my shoulders. "Come on, come on!"

Left with little choice, I let Suzume sweep me away.

"Much better, Tomoe-chan," Utane says in her steady way. She checks the sleeves of my furisode again, pinching at the silk when the inner layers don't show. Offense corrected, she stands back to admire her work. "You wear this well."

I don't agree. All forms of kimono are too tight to be practical if I have to fight. A summer yukata can be loosened and allow some katas, but the furisode sleeves are dead weights. Makeup will run into my eyes during combat. What weapons I can carry without being gauche—a tessen and tantō—are small and weak compared to the katana.

"You're being very quiet, Tomoe-chan!" Suzume shouts in my face, making me recoil from reflex alone.

With my family, it is often easier to accept the unknowable nature of the older generation and simply comply with their wishes. I have not been called upon to act in my clan's defense properly, so this may be a test of my ability to work within restrictions. I should accept my family's whims and obey.

Though perhaps not today.

"What is the purpose of this clan meeting, Sister?" I ask Utane quietly. She is the younger of my two sisters-in-law, though married to my oldest brother Koguma. Were it not for her sedate nature, I likely would have struck out for another clan as a ronin.

"I have been left out of the discussion, Tomoe-chan," Utane replies, before picking up a kohl eyebrow pencil. "But I believe this is matchmaking."

"…I see." I sigh, looking at my sisters-in-law, who are not wearing furisode or thick cosmetics. Suzume's eyes are still dancing with laughter, which I no longer share. Utane purses her lips and her dark eyebrows pinch together as she scrutinizes me. Her eyes are judging my reaction.

As the only unmarried Uesugi daughter, it would be too much to hope for another cousin being the subject of this meeting. I do not have any unmarried female cousins, either, and in any case I would have heard if they had arrived in the main clan house. Marriage processions and the like are not subtle.

Except my own, it seems.

"Oh, don't look so sad!" Suzume holds a tessen, instead of the usual paper fan that I would expect. She pokes me with it and says, "Takahiro was every bit as nervous when he met me, you know!"

I rather doubt that. Takahiro wore a katana and wakizashi to his ceremony.

"You can afford to be less defensive," Utane tells me, holding one of my hands between hers. Suzume tucks the tessen into the back of my obi in case I find a need for it.

Though I remember her knuckles swelling during her pregnancy years ago, my hands are larger. I have calluses that she doesn't and never will. My hands are not soft or kind.

In this furisode, I am pretending that they can be.

I am a warrior, born and bred. I have fought grown men since I was small, and I have defeated all who dared oppose me on the battlefield. I am strong, but I am not gentle. I am not kind. I do not know how to be these things except through mimicry.

"Meet him, at least? For your honorable grandfather's sake," Utane entreats in a soft voice.

I nod.

"Then let's get going!" Suzume cheers, pushing our group out of the room and into the halls.


My first impression of my betrothed is not the most diplomatic of opinions. I am not expected to air them in public, however, and so I do not speak.

The youngest—and newly-adopted—son of the Asakura clan is a waiflike thing. He has red hair that is nearly the color of blood, pulled back into a traditional knot at the back of his head except for the strands that frame his face. He is younger than I am, with a small build and narrow, unmarked hands that speak of lack of experience with the blade. His dark haori and hakama do not make him seem mature—he seems like a child playing in his parents' clothes.

His eyes meet mine—a flash of pale violet—before he ducks his head again.

I do not avert my eyes from the negotiations. I may be a pampered noble by looks, but I have a prideful warrior's heart beneath these formal trappings.

The Asakura clan's head is a woman named Murasaki, with her long black hair swept out into a shape akin to a cloak. She wears a multilayered kurotome, with a fur stole wrapped over her shoulders and an over-robe that sweeps back along the floor. Every aspect of her appearance is designed to show wealth and power.

My grandfather, Momotaro, is well into his seventies and is still as strong as he has always been. Straight-backed and severe, he sits beside my father and my mother like a guardian statue.

Murasaki and my grandfather eye each other like rival dogs.

One must not show weakness, or that weakness will be your undoing.

"Tomoe," Grandfather intones in his low, slow voice, "meet your future husband, Isshinta Asakura."

The just-named Isshinta looks up to meet my eyes once more. This time, he manages to match me stare for stare, despite the tremor I can feel in his chakra.

Murasaki Asakura smiles a smile like a blade and says, "And my son, Isshinta, meet your future wife Tomoe Uesugi."

In a way, it's almost a relief to have it spoken aloud.

"You will have one month in this complex to determine if you will marry." My grandfather meets my eyes. His chakra feels more resolute than mine, and I steel myself for his secret verdict. You will marry this boy.

I bow my head.

If my grandfather does not want me to serve the clan as a warrior, perhaps I can still do so by securing the trickiest and least reliable of alliances. The Asakura clan will no longer be our rivals. Instead, our clans would rise together like paired hawks, stronger together than apart. We've done it before, with my aunt's marriage into the Takeda clan and the birth of my cousins. This will be simple.

If only I can make myself believe that.


The courtship, such that it is, begins in that room.

He exhales deeply as our respective families leave to give us a semblance of privacy, tension fleeing his frame. His eyes close, his lips move in something like a prayer, and I can feel his chakra devolve into post-battle shakes even from across the room.

This new Asakura son must be adopted, I think.

While many samurai clans will occasionally be seen with the odd hair colors more common in shinobi populations, the Asakura clan has long prided themselves in being of pure stock, as though it means anything. While it was possible that Murasaki could have adopted one of her retainers' sons as insurance against attacks on her heirs, she would have made certain that the extra child would be able to fight.

I see nothing about Isshinta—whether physically or in his chakra—that indicates he is a warrior. He feels like a merchant or a peasant, and his lack of confidence bodes ill for this marriage.

"Tomoe-san?" Isshinta asks, after regaining his composure somewhat.

I give him a level look, under my layers of courtesy and makeup. "Yes, Isshinta-san?"

There. Sufficient levels of tension for everyone.

Isshinta coughs. "Could you…perhaps we could leave this room? It's…you don't seem very comfortable here."

Projecting already? How attractive. And yet, I can't deny that I would rather be almost anywhere other than this empty meeting hall. "Perhaps, Isshinta-san. We will retire to the gardens." I stand first, because I know where they are. "Please follow me."

I feel him scramble to his feet and follow me out of the room. I push the screen doors aside without waiting for him to anticipate my movements—someone this young and green can barely read his own. It would be unfair.

The gardens are not far. We follow one lonely hallway before stepping out into the courtyard that holds them. Of course, they are deep in snow, but covered walkways make traversing them a simple matter. I head to the sheltered gazebo to one end of the icy gardens, silent.

Once we arrive, and I tease the fire-pit in the center of the structure back to life, Isshinta recovers his nerve again.

"Tomoe-san, m…may I ask a question?"

Or perhaps only a fraction of it.

I incline my head the slightest bit. "Ask."

"D-Do you like to fight?" Isshinta winces as he speaks, even as he holds his hands out over the newly-lit fire. He looks away and down, as though expecting me to immediately act upon his suspicion and clobber him. "I couldn't help but notice your hands…"

If this man is to be my husband, perhaps I should be honest with him. And it costs nothing to merely confirm an idle thought. "I am adept at wielding all manner of swords. Does that please you, future husband?"

Isshinta blushes almost to the roots of his hair. He stammered, "I-I…"

"How old are you, Isshinta-san?" I ask in a flat tone. No more jokes. How old is this boy?

"F-Fifteen…"

I look at him. I observe his formal clothes, his stance, his unlined face, his bright eyes. Small wonder I worried he was childish; he's barely a summer past his genpuku ceremony, if that. He is a man only by the barest of margins, and entirely untrained. They hadn't even cut his hair properly. It was one thing to let one's hair grow out differently after the ceremony, but this? This is a farce.

To wed this boy would be swallowing our clan's pride and honor for the sake of a political advantage. Grandfather must see that.

He must have a reason for letting this go on.

"And you, Tomoe-san?" Isshinta manages under my stern gaze.

"Eighteen," I answer. Eighteen is somewhat older than most samurai daughters when they wed their husbands, but my grandfather always arranges for matches to occur when his grandchildren are old enough to know our own minds. We understand our duties and our obligations to both each other and our clans.

"Ah," Isshinta says, and falls silent.

For a betrothal, this is not the most promising start.


After dismissing Isshinta for the day, I return to my rooms and fall into an uneasy slumber. What could the Asakura clan be planning, I wonder. What could be the reason that they had adopted this outsider into the clan? And why offer him to marry me?

I receive no answers from my sleeping self. Instead, I dream fitfully of ducking and weaving in the wake of an enemy I cannot not touch or see.

Which is what leads me to my poor mood in the morning.

"Tomoe? Tomoe, are you awake?"

I wake to my eldest brother, Koguma, calling my name through my bedroom door. I call back, "What is it, Brother?"

"Tomoe, you have to see this!" Koguma says it so cheerfully that I give the door a side-eye. Koguma may be thirty-four, but there are moments when I wonder if he forgets that.

Still, he won't let up until I agree to see this exciting thing, whatever it is. I stand and call to him, "Let me get dressed first."

"All right, all right, just hurry up!" Koguma's footsteps then pound away from my door, and I head to my closet for acceptable clothes.

One yukata later, and I head out the door to see what Koguma was talking about. My brother, for all his exuberance, is not usually awake before noon, and whatever had drawn his attention must be quite unusual.

I end up following my brother's path to the dojo, where the sound of laughter is unexpected but yet somehow right.

I carefully slide the door open, and am greeted by quite a sight.

My older brothers have a total of five children. Koguma's are the seven-year-old Takako, four-year-old Nobukatsu, and the two-year-old Yūki. Takahiro has two of his own, five-year-old Masako and four-year-old Junko. Three girls and two boys, all told.

And all of them except for little Yūki, who is in his mother Utane's lap, are shouting at my fiancé.

Nonplussed, I listen closer to their high-pitched voices.

Isshinta stands in a circle of children, dressed in a training gi and holding a shinai with both hands. He looks awkward at best and doesn't look up as I enter the dojo silently, concentrating on the children. And yet, he's smiling down at them.

Takako grasps his fingers between hers and is carefully manipulating his grip on the bamboo blade, chattering under her breath as Isshinta nods seriously to acknowledge her expertise. He was holding the shinai incorrectly, with his hands far too close together, and Takako knows that.

Masako, meanwhile, has her own shinai in hand and prods at his feet and knees, loudly correcting his stance and lecturing him on how he does not have his feet in the right places.

Nobukatsu, meanwhile, is speaking about why a bokken is far more interesting as a weapon than a shinai, child-sized or not.

It appears I may have taught my nieces and nephews all too well.

"Your little husband-to-be seems to want to follow in your footsteps, Tomoe." Koguma grins, nudging me as though to make a suggestive joke of some point. "Eh, little sister?"

I kick him in the ankle.

While Koguma hops on one foot and tries to avoid cursing while children are around, I stride across the dojo to my nieces and nephew and my husband-to-be.

Every one of them freezes in place when they realize I have arrived.

"T-Tomoe-san…" Isshinta stammers, before visibly gathering himself and trying to say, "I was only—"

"We were teaching Asakura-san how to fight!" Takako's pigtails bounce as she interrupts cheerfully, "He's not very good yet!"

Isshinta wilts.

I hadn't expected him to be much of a fighter after meeting him for the first time. But I suppose the children can be forgiven for expecting great things from their future uncle. Instead of saying any of that, I kneel down to the children's eye levels and say, "If everyone could please get their training equipment, we can get started early today."

The children give a collective shout and rush toward the hall where their sparring equipment is kept.

"If you wish to join, Isshinta-san," I tell him as the children rush about, "you will learn properly."

To my surprise, Isshinta flushes to the tips of his hair but manages a grin to boot. He says, somewhat out of breath, "I…I'd like that, Tomoe-san!"

Perhaps there is hope for him yet.


A week into the betrothal I embroider cherry blossom petals on my eldest niece's hair ribbons. It is not that I have nothing else to do—rather, I need a task to keep my hands busy and Takako happened to be around. So my niece and the other four children relax in the nursery with me and watch snow fall outside the window, content.

Or perhaps they sleep. Regardless, they are quiet while their parents are elsewhere.

"T-Tomoe-san," says a voice from the door. It is Isshinta, to my mild surprise.

For the first week of our agreement, he never sought me out of his own accord. I rather thought he was more interested in being a nanny than my husband. He even seems more talented with the former than the latter.

Still, he is no threat. "You may come in."

The door slides gently aside. Isshinta peeks around the frame, and his pinched expression softens when he sees the children. He steps through the doorway and closes it behind him without a sound.

I look up from my task as he sits down beside me, rather than sneaking glances. "Did you wish to speak to me, Isshinta-san?"

Isshinta twists the end of his long ponytail between his fingers, blushing again and casting his gaze toward the tatami floor. "Um."

"Isshinta-san?" I prod, placing my embroidery flat on my lap and stilling my needles.

"C-Could…could I call you 'Tomoe-chan,' instead?" Isshinta asks, "It's…it just feels formal, or distant? T-Tomoe-chan is…"

Better? Perhaps I should finally acknowledge that we are to be husband and wife? And yet, I don't feel quite comfortable enough to discard conventional terms entirely. Therefore, I respond with, "If I am allowed to call you 'Isshinta-kun' in return, then yes."

"Thank you, T-Tomoe-chan." Isshinta ducks his head again, then spots my embroidery. "Ah! Tomoe-chan, d-do you have any, um, other work?"

"Only this, at the moment." I lift the little ribbon so he can inspect it. The needlework is not my best, but Takako insisted on embroidered cherry blossoms despite the extra weight.

Isshinta carefully takes the ribbon and needles into his hands. "Oh, this is very good. Your stitches are very tightly controlled."

I pause, looking askance at Isshinta. He's finally stopped stammering, and is carefully turning my work this way and that. His tongue pokes out between his lips as he traces his fingertips along the stitch-work, nodding to himself.

Then he looks up and the spell ends. "I, um…"

"Go on," I say. "It's not a terrible surprise to hear that you are more skilled than I am."

"But I'm not, really…" Isshinta manages a deep breath before saying, "I just have more practice, m-maybe? I, um, I used to be a tailor…"

Being a samurai at fifteen is nothing special. But a tailor, a trade skill career where the master alone decides when you are ready to be something more? I have to admit to being curious. It's a life I do not understand, as clearly as Isshinta does not understand the samurai one.

"What did you make?" I ask, leaning forward in anticipation of an answer. I myself only bring technical skill to the table through many hours of practice. I do not trust myself to do more than repair what has been torn, and neither does anyone else.

"I…I didn't do a lot." Isshinta twists his hair again between his fingers, and just now I see the faint needle scars on his fingertips in the weak indoor light. Isshinta did bleed for his trade, as I have for mine. "Only a few formal k-kimono, when Hiko-shishō was too busy."

Fascinating.

"I d-didn't know you cared about that stuff…" Isshinta mumbles, looking up. His violet eyes are wider and brighter than I remember. "C-Could I…I could teach you s-some of it, Tomoe-chan? In exchange for, um, the kenjutsu."

I stay quiet for perhaps a little too long, because his eyes dart back to the floor after a moment. Then, nodding to myself, I reply, "Of course, Isshinta-kun."

Isshinta starts in surprise, as though remembering something important. "Oh! Um, you can have this back now, T-Tomoe-chan."

I take the ribbon back from him and resume stitching.

Isshinta only meets my eyes briefly before going back to staring at the tops of his knees.

"Do you have any family?" I ask, apropos of nothing.

"Ah, I…" Isshinta swallows hard, and I realize that I have sent him to a dark place in his head as soon as I feel his chakra shift. He doesn't respond at first, lowering his head so that his face is nearly obscured by long red hair. "I-I have three brothers, now. The Asakura clan—"

The Asakura clan history pours out of him all at once. Three elder brothers, all married and serving the daimyo in various fashions. One elder sister, and a plethora of aunts, uncles and cousins he cannot name. The clan head, Murasaki, features prominently in the retelling, and Isshinta speaks without heat about the death of the previous clan head, Murasaki's mother.

Which, given the timing involved, would have required my grandfather's cooperation to come about.

I listen without interrupting, hearing his voice settle into the steady, droning cadence of recitation after the first glorious battle described, or the birth of one or another of the various children that all clans seem to have at once.

None of this means anything to me. And from the feel of him, it means almost as little to Isshinta.

Isshinta's voice doesn't rouse any of the children, but he is still breathless by the end of it.

As he recovers, I say in a mild voice, "…You are not a blooded member of the Asakura clan, however. They do not slack on martial training."

Isshinta squirms in place, looking down. "Well, no, but…"

"I was asking after your original family, if it is not too uncomfortable," I clarify.

"It is, T-Tomoe-chan. I'm…" Isshinta shakes his head, stands up, and leaves before I am able to pull any more information from him.

I will need to be kinder and more circumspect in the future, I think.


Another week, and I am no closer to uncovering the mysteries of Isshinta Asakura.

Oh, I have found that he is good with children (being not much more than a child himself), and that he can cook to some degree. Upon discovering his hidden talents for tailoring, my sisters-in-law have both asked him to see what he can do for them as far as new kimono go. Never mind that he is not my husband yet. Never mind that he is, by his own words, an apprentice. Never mind that Suzume is pregnant and nothing will fit properly once the baby is born if she gets her measurements taken now.

From the outside, it seems as though my entire family falls in love with him aside from me.

"You value your warrior's heart too much to compromise for a man," says my mother, Kuroko. As she sits behind me, she teases my hair out of the twisted mass it always becomes by morning, tugging it back into shape.

My hair is long enough to touch the ground if I sit with it unbound, so she has plenty of time to think and speak.

I heave a sigh and close my eyes. "I can't be anything else, Mother."

"Nonsense." Mother pulls on one errant knot and quickly sorts it out. "All people wear many masks, but to add a little to yourself does not mean your self has changed. You are always a warrior, my daughter, even when we insist you dress and act as a different sort."

"He's too young for me, Mother," I say, rather than arguing her point. My mother is in no way a lesser woman for having never learned to fight. She raised four children and raises five grandchildren with more on the way. My siblings and I will be forever grateful for her.

"Your father was also younger than I when we wed, Tomoe," Mother replies, pulling another tangle apart. "That has not changed." This last is said with a touch of dryness, and she adds, "Your father and I have nonetheless managed to remain happily wed for forty years."

"You were both full adults by then," I argue, but without heat. "But Isshinta is a child. Fifteen is not adulthood for merchants or foreigners."

"The Asakura clan has claimed him as their son, Tomoe." Mother's tone is warning me, with just a touch of annoyance at my persistence. "He may have become one of us late in life, but he can learn. I have already heard from your brothers that he is an eager if untalented student."

"In kenjutsu? Easily." I have to acknowledge Isshinta's efforts, but I still resent the marriage. I do not dislike Isshinta himself, which would be like kicking a harmless cat, but in my head he is tied quite closely with the role of husband and my role as wife. Perhaps I am not being kind as a result. To him, or to myself. "I also found his talents with thread impressive, though I don't know much about it."

"There is a difference between learning for a trade and learning for one's family," Mother says, even as her comb pulls sharply on my hair. "Quiet, now. Unless your grandfather declares Isshinta unsuitable, then you will have to grow. I know you only too well, my daughter, and I know that you can become anything if you wish to. How else could you surpass your elder brothers so easily?"

I purse my lips, acknowledging the truth of her words but not appreciating it.

"In stories," Mother continues, "people from all walks of life may marry for love. We, however, do not. But I believe that you can grow to love Isshinta-kun, if he treats you with the same respect and kindness he has shown for our family. If he does not…well, you would not be the first widow among the Tōjo clan."

"Mother!" I turn and stare accusingly at my mother, who covers her mouth with one hand and hides her laughter.

The Tōjo clan, my mother's old clan, had not been known for particularly happy marriages. But it had been known for the unfortunate number of widows amongst its members. None of the stories I had read ever spoke about the specific fates of the unworthy husbands, but it was a reminder done in poor taste.

Everyone, after all, knew that the Tōjo clan had once claimed shinobi—pulled from the remnants of their shattered clans in the wakes of clan wars—among their membership. But even the daimyo could not render judgment on the basis of peasant whispers.

"Isshinta-kun is not a bad person, Tomoe," my mother placates me. "Love does not bloom in a month. Or perhaps even a year. But friendship can. Can you be friends with him, Tomoe?"

I purse my lips again, thinking. While I still can't see Isshinta as a proper husband, I can admit that he could easily be a friend if I let him. Friendships were safe. And I suppose that love has to start somewhere, if it does at all. "I…I believe I can, Mother. I'll try to give him a chance for that much, at least."

My mother nodded, saying, "That is all we can ask of you, then." She held up the comb. "Now, let me finish with your hair."

The silence after that is more comfortable.


 

It isn't until week three that I come to understand more about Isshinta. Friendships require trust. And until that night, he did not trust me.

Winters in the Land of Iron are dark and deep. Snow falls in a great silent blanket, muffling sound across the country. The sun rarely shows its face in winter, hiding behind clouds for the few hours it can, and the nights are long, and full of terrors for those who dare stray too far from home.

But this night is not.

It has not snowed in three days and nights, so the sloped roofs across the Uesugi clan complex have all been cleared. The snow drifts in the garden and along the ground are therefore unnatural and far deeper than they should be, but hold no dangers for me.

I venture out into the dark with a thick haori over my kimono and a scarf around my neck, eyeing the sky above with curiosity. Tonight, for once, the sky is clear of winter clouds.

Out there, in the silvery half-moon's light, I see the glow of a lantern in the garden.

Trusting my ability to feel energy, I venture off after it without fear of the dark.

The garden's pathways are clear, so I quickly move from stone to stone without the crunch of snow to give me away. My kimono and haori are mostly black, white, and gray, so I don't stand out in the dark against the background colors. Whoever is in the garden should not be able to see, hear, or feel me heading their way.

I hear the faint whisper of a voice before I can feel the person it belonged to. While the words are unintelligible, I can still understand enough to hear sorrow. Grief.

I reach into a nearby bush and snap a half-frozen branch.

The occupant of the gazebo gives a gasp and there is the sound of fabric rustling in the dark.

"W-Who's there?" a shaky voice manages, but he doesn't lift the lantern. He doesn't want to see.

I step out of the night and let him draw his own conclusions.

Isshinta sits alone in the gazebo, shivering in the dim orange light of his lantern. I have not seen him since dinner, but he changed into a plain white sleeping yukata at some point and yet still wandered out into the garden. He looks even smaller than usual, like a little red-haired ghost child.

"Ah, T-Tomoe-chan." Isshinta bows his head, but I've already seen the spots on his sleeve and his damp eyes. "Good evening."

"Good evening, Isshinta-kun," I respond, just as quiet. "Are you all right?"

"No, I-I'm not." Isshinta dabs at his eyes with his yukata sleeve again, sniffling. "But I'm s-sorry for causing any tr-trouble, T-Tomoe-chan."

"You haven't caused me trouble," I say, perhaps sharper than is appropriate, because Isshinta seems to wilt. I try again in a softer voice, like my mother would have done for me, "But I would like to know if there's anything I can do to help you feel better."

"Nn…maybe?" Isshinta doesn't elaborate, instead hugging himself and shivering. I can see his breath forming clouds in the lantern-light, and think that he may have made a few silly mistakes in coming out here.

I reach up and untie my scarf from around my neck. It's not the thickest or most durable creation, but I did make it to keep off the cold.

"Tomoe-ch—oh!"

Isshinta freezes as I loop the scarf around his neck, tucking the ends into the neckline of his yukata. He looks up, purple eyes wide with surprise, and I shed my haori to drape it around his shoulders, too.

"Y-You don't have to…" Isshinta trails off, and I sit down beside him. He swallows and, after a moment, says, "Thank you, T-Tomoe-chan."

"You looked cold," I tell him, looking at the lantern rather than his face. I'm ruining my night vision, but I don't want to make him any more uncomfortable than I already have.

What a strange thought. I don't remember caring about his feelings before deciding that we might become friends.

Isshinta draws a shuddering breath, and then there's a weight against my side. Startled, I look down to where Isshinta is hiding his face against the edge of the borrowed haori, but is still leaning against me.

I loop my right arm around him, feeling him shake. "Isshinta-kun?"

"Sh-Shinta. Not Isshinta." Is—no, just—Shinta looks up and meets my eyes, and I see how red his face is from crying. "I-I…you were right, before. I was adopted by th-the Asakura clan."

I nod. He needs to have room to talk, and not all opportunities are physical.

"I…my home village. A few months ago—it's not there. N-Not anymore." Shinta takes a shaky breath, hides his face again, and says, "Y-You've probably never heard of it, T-Tomoe-chan."

I stare at the top of Shinta's head, horrified. "Shinta-kun—"

"N-No, you sh-should know." Shinta leans into me, trembling. "T-Tomoe-chan, the Asakura clan saved me from wh-what happened after th-that, s-so I am grateful. It's…it's just that they're not family. M-My family's gone."

How long ago did this happen? Where did the Asakura clan get Shinta from, if they changed his name and history? What did he go through before he came here?

I almost can't understand how such a thing could happen. How Shinta, despite his nerves and his tears, can still be so strong when the world flipped on him not long ago.

"I'm s-sorry to burden you, T-T-Tomoe-chan." Shinta hiccups, still sounding miserable. He says, "I-I know you wanted a strong husband, and the c-clan's counting on me, but I can't. I can't be that person."

"It's not a burden," I tell him firmly. I reach down and lift Shinta's chin so he can face me, despite himself. "You are not a burden, Shinta-kun."

His violet eyes are dark and dim, despairing. "Th-This isn't what you asked for."

"I didn't ask for a husband at all," I correct him, but gentler this time. At Shinta's reflexive wince, I continue, "But in this, I'm not asking for you to be something you can't. Instead, please, consider me a friend."

Shinta blinks, uncomprehending. "Wh-What?"

"It's something my mother told me. That perhaps I wasn't ready to be a wife." I offer my left hand to him. "Shinta-kun, please. I…haven't been kind to you. But I want to apologize. For that, and for…I don't know. But I do know that I want you to be happy."

Shinta stares. "Y-You do?"

"Yes. Perhaps not as man and wife, but you seem to be a kind person." Unlike me. "You are well-liked in my family, so if you were to stay, I don't think there would be too many problems. I…don't know if I could be happy as a member of the Asakura clan, but perhaps we could be friends for now. Whatever else happens will be for the future. Possibly a distant one."

"I… I'd…" Shinta grabs my hand with both of his. His eyes are welling up. "Th-Thank you, Tomoe-chan. For listening."

"I haven't done a good job of that, yet. Shinta-kun, do you want to talk? To…vent?" I'm not quite sure what word to use. Perhaps I'm going too far.

Shinta leans his head against my shoulder, mumbling, "N-Not right now. Please, T-Tomoe-chan…" He still feels fragile, but he's relaxing against me. Perhaps that's enough.

I let my cheek rest against the top of Shinta's head. "All right."

It feels like we sit there, holding hands, for a long time. I don't regret any of it.


The wedding occurs after another week of getting to know one another, and of perhaps growing closer as friends.

Given that my family seems to believe in the wonders of alcohol, I don't remember most of it.

I do remember my white wedding kimono and the veil, and Shinta's Asakura clan family members. I remember my brother Koguma arguing with my cousin Tōshiro and the second son of the Asakura clan head, but nothing about the specifics.

The first thing I remember from that night is blood.

First blood in my mouth, then lightning in my veins, then I smell smoke and jerk awake.

"T-Tomoe-chan, we need to get out of here." I almost don't recognize the voice, too busy fighting the sudden dizziness that wracks my body. What happened to me? I can't remember anything other than fragments of the wedding itself.

And yet I'm in bed—or at least a bed—and still wearing my wedding clothes, with Shinta on his knees next to me. I must have been unconscious for hours, because it's dark outside of my room, and yet fire flickers in the distance. I can see chakra lights moving in the dark and hear the rattle of steel on steel.

I need my katana. Now.

My red-haired husband is clutching his bleeding forearm next to me, his head bowed.

I pause, staring at him in disbelief as I bring my fingers to my mouth and feel warm liquid dripping down my chin. I wipe it away with the side of my hand, and my hand comes away dark with blood. "Shinta-kun…"

"It's…it's something I can do." Shinta's head remained bowed. "I'm sorry I d-didn't tell you before."

"Shinta-kun, what's happening?" My voice is flat and cold, making him flinch. "What did you do?"

"Th-The clan. The Asakura clan—" Shinta swallows hard. "Th-They're attacking! I didn't know. I swear I didn't!"

I shove Shinta aside, scrambling to my feet. Where is my sword?

"T-Tomoe-chan—" Shinta's voice isn't relevant.

I dive into the closer and snatched up the tantō and katana pair under the linens. I did not store my armor in this room, a fact which sets my heart pounding, but there's nothing for it now. I will have to make do.

I turn, even as I place my tantō inside of my wedding kimono's neckline. I draw my katana as I approach Shinta, who stares up at me in frozen terror.

"Shinta-kun." I feel my face go masklike, cold and unresponsive. "Please tell me what is happening."

"The A-Asakura clan, th-they drugged us," he cowers, his violet eyes wide. "I r-recovered but—but your family—!"

So the Asakura clan are backstabbing snakes. I can't muster any rage over the half-expected betrayal, when I hardly expected any less of their behavior. But Shinta, whom I know and have considered a friend, is still here. Isn't attacking. Or defending.

I step closer, looming over Shinta. "Give me one good reason to let you live."

Shinta…bows. Not like a martial artist or a shinobi, or even a husband to a wife. Shinta, still on his knees, leans over far enough that his forehead touches the floor and his hands are flat on the floor. The sheer unexpectedness of this deep bow throws me off. I am no daimyo. But Shinta clearly believes I need to be apologized to as though I was.

This boy has been beaten into shape.

My anger goes cold. It's still there, lurking beneath this surface, but not aimed at Shinta. Not actively hunting.

That will change.

"Shinta," I say in a heavy voice.

He doesn't respond.

I kneel down, placing my hand against his shoulder. He's trembling. "Shinta, get up. We don't have time for this."

Shinta looks up, and his pupils are still almost large enough to blot out the purple in his eyes. "T-Tomoe—"

"I forgive you." There was never anything to forgive, I think. Shinta doesn't know what's happening. To strike him would be an insult to everything my family does—did, says a little voice in my head—stand for. "Will you help me save my family?"

"I-I'll try, T-Tomoe-cha…Tomoe?" Shinta hedges.

We have more important things to worry about.


There's an Asakura soldier down the hall from my room.

He's dressed in full samurai plate, the sort that prevents him from climbing walls. Someone must have opened the gate to let this helmeted monster inside. His armor is scuffed, not torn, and blood drips from the blade of his sword. He's killed tonight, and I intend to repay that evil with his head on the tip of a spear if I can manage it.

The Asakura soldier looks like he is prepared to find more warriors, or perhaps the house guards. I don't know if he attended the wedding—in full plate, he would have been turned away or shot to pieces long before.

He is not prepared for the bride.

I cut him down where he stands. Long experience with samurai armor has taught me where to strike.

The eye-slits of the helmets are always a good place to start.

Blood gushes across the hallway as my target slumps over in death, though his heart continues to beat. It splatters my wedding kimono as well, but I don't care. No, were it not for Shinta following me and acting as an extra pair of eyes, I would have been far messier about it.

My hands don't shake. I've trained too long and hard to allow myself to show weakness.

His chakra is erratic and terrified as it follows me down the hallways, but he keeps pace with me due to strength borne of fear and the fact that I am still wearing a formal kimono.

"I can't feel my family's chakra here." I…I don't know if it's because there's too much flying around from the invaders, or because they're dead. "Maybe somewhere else…?"

"I-I don't…" Shinta pauses, going still behind me.

I turn slowly to face him. "Shinta?"

"M-Maybe we should go away from the soldiers?" Shinta's eyes dart around the hall, fearfully. "Th-There may be someone they missed? Concentrate, T-Tomoe-chan."

As much as I am not interested in hearing platitudes, the idea has merit. I flick my wrist and blood splatters across the floor to join the rest of the enemy samurai's bodily fluids. Once my katana is no longer dripping, I bring my left hand up in a seal, with two fingers raised in front of my nose and the others folded inward toward my palm.

I close my eyes and concentrate. Is there anyone left?

My chakra does not usually work at range, not without devoting more effort than open combat allows. I always need to be still and careful, deliberate in my search. I can't afford to be distracted.

And occasionally, I am rewarded for my diligence.

A little spark of life, in the direction of my oldest brother's quarters. And it is alone.

"Follow me, Shinta." Without waiting for him to reply, I stalk past the dead Asakura soldier and stride down the hall. I sheathe my sword again, in case I need to perform a quick-draw while my opponents are in front of me.

"Tomoe?" Shinta asks from behind me.

I don't answer him. Instead, as I approach the little lost chakra spark, I pick up speed. First I am walking, then I begin to run full-out as I feel yet more chakra signatures converging on ours.

When one can sense, they can be sensed in return.

There's a place not far ahead where the halls intersect. It leads to Koguma's quarters, but it also runs near the enemy. We'll just have to live with that.

I skid to a stop just as the enemy barrels into the intersection, pursuing my chakra. "Shinta, get down!"

Shinta throws himself flat to the floorboards as I rip through the air at waist height. My katana's edge glows blue, and then the entire blade seems to be engulfed in unearthly fire that trails after my swing. The fire spreads, reaches out from the physical blade and extends another three meters past what might have otherwise been the outside edge of my attack.

The enemy, on both sides of the hall, collapses in pieces.

So do parts of the wall.

"A ghost blade…" Shinta whimpers from the floor. "I-Is that a samurai jutsu?"

"It is." I sheathe my katana again and stride past the human wreckage. Jutsu? So Shinta is shinobi-born?

Shinta scrambles to his feet and after me, as I turn into the next hall and continue to track the wayward spark of life.

Bodies carpet the hall.

Some, I recognize. Servants, guards, but no members of my family thus far. Though I know I will find corpses eventually, I just…try not to think about it. I will deal with the inevitable pain once I see for myself that my suspicions are true.

Some of the bodies, I stab. Just to work out my frustrations. My clan will never go down easily, as the evidence suggests, but it doesn't change how much I hate the enemy for what they've done.

"T-Tomoe…" Shinta begins, just as I slide the shoji aside and get a good look at Koguma's rooms.

There's blood everywhere.

I breathe in slowly, through my mouth, and examine the spatter. And the bodies.

Koguma may have died, but he took three Asakura warriors with him. His head isn't attached to his shoulders anymore, and his formal clothes are so dark with his blood that I can only recognize the body by the scar on the palm of his left hand. The enemy is thoroughly mangled, in pieces across the floor, but one of them managed to embed a spear in my brother's side.

I have no idea what blow actually killed him.

"T-Tomoe?" Shinta's voice quakes. His hand comes to rest against my arm.

I can't…I can't let this affect me. I need to find the life here, retrieve it, and leave. The clan is dead. The clan is never going to recover. The Asakura are probably going to burn our homes to the ground, and if we don't leave before then there will be no witnesses to their treachery.

No one left to make them pay.

"Forgive me, my brother," I murmur, clamping down on the rage that threatens to overwhelm me and expose us to the enemy. While Koguma can't hear me, I can. Perhaps he may be listening somehow, through me. The words need to be said. "I will avenge us."

Before Shinta can comment, I head to the next room.

The smell of blood is so thick in the air that I almost can't tell where one grisly scene ends and the other begins.

Utane and Suzume are both dead on the floor, surrounded by the bodies of four more Asakura warriors and a wreck of a corpse that might have been Takahiro, though it is difficult to be sure. In the back of the room, behind an overturned table, I see one pale arm lying motionless in a pool of dark blood. It's too small to be an adult's arm.

Behind me, Shinta throws up.

I close Suzume's glassy eyes, my jaw clenching. She's dead, and there's nothing I can do for her, but…

Oh, the Asakura clan will pay. I will kill every last one of them. I don't care how long it will take me, because I can be patient, but I will kill them all in the end.

I move over to Utane, intending to perform what last rites I can. She is lying face-down on top of a—oh! I place my katana on the floor and lift Utane's cooling shoulder, pushing her body aside.

While his hair is plastered to his face with blood and he's barely breathing, my youngest nephew is still alive. I pat his cheek, smearing blood across my hands. I don't know how badly Yūki's been hurt, but I can at least try to see if he'll wake.

He doesn't.

I lift Yūki with my left arm and tuck his head against the side of my neck. I bow my head to Utane, who died protecting her children and to Suzume, who did the same. To Takahiro, who fought for the same cause. I will remember them.

I will avenge them.

Shinta coughs behind me. I turn my head to look at him, as he wipes his mouth on his sleeve.

Shinta ducks his head and says, "I-I can carry Yūki-chan, Tomoe. I can't fight, b-but…"

For a moment, I contemplate the idea. Shinta has had all too many opportunities to kill me since this evening began. Of all the living people in this castle, I can trust him alone. Can't I?

"I c-can heal him, Tomoe. Please."

I hand Yūki to Shinta, who kneels on the floor and rolls his left sleeve up with my nephew in his lap. He opens Yūki's mouth, and I have the briefest glimpse of his baby teeth before Shinta pushes his jaw shut on the meat of his arm.

Shinta winces when blood starts to flow, and I can feel the chakra flow from Shinta to Yuki, filling my nephew's body. The closest metaphor I can think of involves a sky full of stars, but I am not seeing the chakra move and settle.

Yūki stirs.

"We're leaving," I tell Shinta, over Yūki's head.

"How?" Shinta picks Yūki up as though my nephew is his, without hesitation.

"There are ways out of even a burning castle." I pick up my sword and stand. "Follow me."


Move.

Another Asakura soldier, another sword in the back of the neck where the armor is thin. If they get in my way, they're dead. They just haven't stopped moving yet.

I carefully ease the corpse to the ground, to prevent his armor from making noise. Quite aside from how little I want to deal with the entire Asakura force, Yūki is asleep in Shinta's arms and I have no interest in waking him.

To show him what our clan's holdings have become would be crueler than any blow.

I duck behind a storehouse with Shinta in tow, watching shadows flicker in the torchlight as we go. The enemy is more careless here, more sure of themselves. I can't afford to be as stupid. While I would easily be able to scale the castle walls on my own, I would not be able to do so with a child in my arms and a noncombatant husband on my back. Therefore, our method must be secret and swift, and provide no opportunities for enemy archers to fire on us.

This storehouse is key.

It gives me exactly half a second of warning as snow on its roof shifts—wherein I jerk my leading foot back—to avoid having my leg impaled by an arrow.

Shinta's back meets mine, and I feel his chakra rising in panic. I steel mine, waiting for either the second shot to confirm heading so I can kill the archer, or—

"The blushing bride. We'd wondered if you'd attend the after-party." Murasaki's voice is perfectly devoid of emotion, as she and her armored retinue seem to seep into reality. Genjutsu? But I've never— "Come out of there, Tomoe."

We're surrounded. It has to be a shinobi trick of some kind. There's no way I could miss such a large force within barely ten meters of us! She must have—she…

With a platoon of samurai at our backs, Shinta, Yūki and I are herded away from the exit tunnel and toward the main courtyard. Shinta holds my left arm with one trembling hand, his face nearly white with fear, as we are led to the killing ground.

The courtyard is gravel and sand, kept free of snow by servants in most years. But today, it is occupied. Besides the Asakura warriors, and us, I can see bound people sitting in the center of a vast ring of dark sand, flanked on all sides by logs.

The hair of the back of my neck stands up.

Mother. Father. Grandfather. And all of us, being prepared for the funeral pyre.

Murasaki turns when she reaches the center of the courtyard and her guards surround us with a ring of blades. Her long dark hair flares out like a trail of ink—or the darkness of deep winter gloom, flickering with firelight.

"I knew we'd missed one." Murasaki smiles without a trace of amusement, examining her long nails. "Isshinta, give her the child. This will be over soon, my son."

Shinta shakes his head, still clutching my arm with one hand and Yūki with the other.

"Oh? This is your last chance, boy." Murasaki's eyes seem to narrow. "Live with the dogs, and you will die like one."

"You wanted me to marry her, M-Mother." There's just the barest hint of hesitation as Shinta speaks, and his voice is almost inaudible even to me. "Th-That means she's of our clan, right?"

"That new wife of yours has killed many of our clansmen before," Murasaki growls. "How naïve to think that there would ever be peace between us. Our blood burns, Isshinta." She tosses her head, irritable. "But not yours, it seems."

My grandfather's head remains bowed, as he sits amidst the corpses of his children and his clan's future. Oh, Grandfather, how could you be so blind? This woman was never going to be pacified by a political marriage.

"I should never have brought you into this clan. Once a shinobi-born, always, or wasn't that what your clan used to think?" Murasaki snaps, "The flesh-peddlers would have kept you if I had known you would betray our family like this!"

Shinta wilts, dropping his gaze to the ground. His grip tightens on Yūki, but he lets go of my arm to clutch my nephew with both hands.

"You. Uesugi bitch. Look at what your clan's scheming has wrought." Murasaki throws a hand out, drawing our gazes to the rest of the clan holdings. "Your castle burns. Your eldest brother and clan's heir is beheaded. Your parents are soon to follow, and I will personally raise the pike that carries your grandfather's skull for the crows. You, young warrior, are nothing. Your strength means nothing. You will all die like the dogs you are."

Murasaki's voice takes on a sardonic lilt as she says, "So, kindly drop your sword. I'd like this to be finished before dawn."

"D-Don't," Shinta pleads, his eyes wide. "Please, Tomoe."

"Speak again and I will have you killed, Isshinta," Murasaki barks. She lifts a hand, and I hear archers lining up their shots. "You will not escape this castle alive."

Does she expect him to retain even a scrap of loyalty after being spat upon? Fear rules Shinta, often, but even a wounded dog has pride. A wounded dog will snap.

Shinta clenches his teeth, but does not go back on his words.

I am sick of listening to this woman talk.

I reach down inside of myself, into the core of power underneath all humans and hiding inside their bodies. I've only ever used this power a few times, and it may not be enough, but there was always a reason I held the title of the strongest samurai of the Uesugi clan.

Murasaki recognizes what's about to happen only after it already has.

There's no reason to hide anymore. There's no way out of this.

So I open the First Gate.

Murasaki's head goes flying across the courtyard and lands in the arms of her eldest son. Then the night devolves into darkness, fire, and screams.


I cough blood onto the snow, limping badly as I make my way back to the courtyard.

The Asakura warriors are dead. The archers are dead. The head of their clan is dead.

My family is dead. My parents were dead before I even saw them, and my grandfather refused to abandon their bodies in the pyre. Though if he'd been younger, maybe he would have been able to.

I'm going to die. Every breath pulls at the ugly slash wound on my right side, filling my body with agonizing fire. Breathing out is nearly as painful, because I am counting down until I have no more breaths left.

I sink to my knees, watching my blood paint the snow red. My hands are cracked from the intensity of the chakra I used, while my arms shake as I grow weaker and weaker.

Shinta, hardly an arm's reach away, wheezes. There's an arrow in his stomach. Or two arrows. There are two holes, so one must have passed through, right? His blood coats the ground at his front and his back, dying the ground red, while he lies on his side.

Yūki still sleeps through the bloodshed, sheltered under Shinta's arm. Now he can freeze to death with the rest of us.

Well. If Shinta and I don't bleed out first.

I summon my strength and crawl over to them. I clasp Shinta's hand with one of mine and cupping Yūki's cheek with the other.

"T-T-Tomoe…" Shinta gasps, looking over to me. His violet eyes are dazed with pain and shock, and I know he won't last much longer.

"I"—and here, I stop to cough a fine spray of blood across the snow—"am h-here, Shinta."

"G-Good…" Shinta's hand tightens on mine, just for a moment. His right hand twitches against his stomach, near the shaft of the arrow. "O-Oh, it h-hurts…"

I nod, feeling my body tremble with pain and exhaustion. "S-Sorry, Shinta…I couldn't protect a-anyone…"

Shinta's left hand twitches feebly. "You d-did what you could…" He coughs, dribbling blood down his cheek. And yet, even with his teeth dyed red, Shinta manages to force a smile. "S-So…let me do…wh-what I c-can. T-Tomoe…"

I stare at him, uncomprehending. "Shinta…?"

"Take…m-my chakra…please…" Shinta's eyes are half-lidded, unfocused. His breathing is shallower than before. "Before…" Shinta struggles, tugging on the hem of his left sleeve, where I know he's already forced Yūki and me to bite on his arm. But if I do that now—

I know that look in Shinta's eyes. It doesn't matter to him. I don't have the capacity to heal him, and he knows what he offers may give me a chance to escape with my nephew.

There is no choice.

I lift Shinta's arm to my lips.

"Maybe…th-this time," Shina wheezes, "I'll s-see…them…"

I bite down, with tears welling in my eyes.

My wounds itch, ripple, and close as Shinta's remaining chakra surges through my body. Even before he goes still, I know there is not going to be enough to heal me completely. Still. It's enough for what I have to do. I will not waste Shinta's gift.

I leave a bloody kiss on Shinta's forehead, before carefully scooping my nephew out of his arms.

I gather my sword, a spare, bloodied haori, and a scarf before fleeing into the night. If I am going to ensure my nephew's survival, I need to be as far from the scene of this madness as I can go. If I am not mistaken, my sister Sumomo has a winter home in the Land of Rice Fields. Perhaps I will go there. I will see what can be done.

And then, when my nephew's safety is assured, I can begin avenging the clan as it should be done.

I can see the Uesugi clan holdings burn for miles.


Land of Rivers

One year later...

"—And they have hot-pot!" I crow, as we troop into the roadside restaurant-and-inn, immensely cheered by the idea. Honestly, it's been a long day and my fingers smell like ink and explosive residue and everyone is so tired that a good meal will do us good.

Ginmaru Kiyosato breaking his leg put all of us out of sorts. Sure, he's being transported back to Konoha, but it's still a blow.

I'll grab any scrap of happiness I can get at this point. I think my team feels mostly the same.

"Can you try slowing down, Wataru?" Junpei gripes, even as he follows me and I follow the smell of food. His customary mustache got a little scorched in our last fight, but at least now he has enough breathing room to, say, shave the rest to match.

The rest of my team—the teenaged Ryusei and team midget Honoka (okay, so she's actually just ten)—troop in afterward, trailing dust and acrid smoke-stink. They don't look any happier than Junpei, though Honoka immediately zeroes in on the scent of food and goes for a table.

"The decision's out of my hands, Junpei," I tell him cheerfully, "since Honoka-chan beat you to the table. I can pay if you're still worried about it."

Junpei groans. "Fine, fine. Just don't order anything with leeks!"

Ryusei scoots past Junpei and me, making a beeline for Honoka's chosen table. I hear him say, "You can't eat all the meat before the soup gets here!"

"Watch me!" Honoka replies.

Junpei sighs. "Okay, okay, you win. You and the kids. Always thinking with your stomachs…"

The restaurant in the inn has a good dozen tables with four cushion seats at each one. The area under the tables is lined with tatami mats, which are clean of road dust and other grime. Each table is isolated from the next by rice paper and bamboo screens, to form multiple booths. There are windows, but the restaurant is mostly lit by paper lanterns.

At our table, where blue-haired Ryusei sits across from Honoka and the two of them silently fight over a scrap of uncooked beef, there are already four placemats set and enough chopsticks for everyone.

Junpei takes the seat to the left, while I sit closer to the door and ignore Honoka's audible growling by my right elbow.

I hope the broth pot shows up soon, or else the youngest two members of the team are probably going to kill each other with chopsticks.

"Give it," Honoka snaps at Ryusei, her eyes flickering red in frustration.

"You already ate three!" Ryusei argues, "And they're raw!"

"So what? Had worse on my last mission, and I'm hungry!" Honoka's eyes are definitely Sharingan red now, and yet Ryusei is unintimidated.

"That's enough, kids." With his own chopsticks, Junpei easily snags the scrap of steak out of both kids' grip and drops it on his plate. "Now, you wait for the next round and we'll cook it properly. There's no reason to eat badly when there are better choices."

Honoka drops her chin to the table and pouts.

"You're not going to get food any faster like that." I click my chopsticks with an air of smug superiority to emphasize the point, drawing myself and puffing my chest out. "No, instead you should demand faster service and curse those who would leave you hungry! Life is too short for long waits!"

Honoka snickers, but my other two teammates give me exasperated looks.

Ryusei complains, "You're weird, Gekkō-san."

"Do his job for a week and see how normal you are, Ryusei-kun." Junpei shakes his head.

So what if mine-creating is a seriously exclusive specialty? And not because people don't try. Really, it's the kind of job that kills practitioners nearly as often as the enemy, especially if they're dumb and don't sweep for bombs before planting new ones. Survivors still tend to walk away with bits missing, unless they've got a knack. Or years of experience supplementing dumb luck.

I'm not dumb. I'm eccentric, as people tend to say. Sure, they say it about Dai, too, but Dai's the world's most overblown genin and I blow things up for a living. Or make sure important stuff doesn't blow up. Pulling double duty is fun.

I mime clutching at my heart in shock. "I resent that, sir! It's an insult to my honor! I demand a duel at dawn!"

Junpei rolls his eyes. "And this, kids, is why you get concussions treated by a medic-nin. Too many knocks to the head."

I stick my tongue out at him.

Fortunately, lunch arrives not long after that in the form of a boiling pot of soup and a parade of ingredients to cook in it. It forestalls any more arguments and maybe keeps Junpei from murdering me for overacting.

But I can't help it, really. Honoka and Ryusei are still kids, though they're also blooded genin at this point in the war. It's depressing to think that Honoka even needed her Sharingan so early in life, and Ryusei's still recovering from tearing a tendon in his back someplace from when somebody kicked the hell out of him.

So, as an adult, it's my job to make sure they laugh every once in a while.

Just not where the enemy can kill us.

"So, Honoka-chan, what do you do for fun?" I ask, as Honoka swirls a long strip of meat around in the soup with one hand and dumps half a bottle of soy sauce on her rice with her other hand.

"Trying new things." Honoka's tongue pokes out of the corner of her mouth as she concentrates on her multitasking. "Tried carving things. Out of wood. Made a flute once."

"Ryusei?" I ask, since Honoka doesn't seem to want to talk.

"I mostly look after my younger sister." Ryusei is watching Honoka like a hawk from behind his ever-present shades, to keep her from stealing the chicken he put in the broth. "But I like visiting the hot springs, I guess."

Hm. Can I tease him for that? Because while everyone knows Jiraiya of the Sannin is a raging pervert who peeps on the bathhouses, he's never really been caught. And Ryusei's thirteen. He's not really secure enough in himself for stupid teasing, and besides, the implication is inappropriate anyway.

"How old's your sister?" I ask instead.

"Eight. She's in the Acade—hey! That's mine, you brat!" Ryusei snarls, nearly upending the table as Honoka shoves all of her stolen food into her mouth.

"Soooo…Junpei, handle this for me!" And I'm out of the booth before he can stop me.

Junpei needs to learn to handle kids sooner or later. I want to take a look around the restaurant for security's sake.

We aren't the only ones here. (Besides the staff, anyway.)

Over in the corner booth, there's a woman sitting alone with a tea set. Fascinating, but also kinda-sorta weird when you get down to it. There's a whole pot of green tea in front of her, plus a pair of cups and two small bowls of anmitsu jelly and fruit. While it's not unusual to find someone with a sweet tooth, I'm still surprised that she's eating alone.

Isn't it lonely?

That's probably presumptuous of me, though. I just need to know she's not from Tani or Suna.

I imagine they want to ask somebody about that whole minefield problem they have now. Especially me. Because I may or may not have been in the alleged kill-zone the night before in order to turn it into one. Even if my alibi says I was really fifty kilometers away on a different front.

As I finally get a look at her booth past the screens, though, I freeze up a second in surprise, because of two details.

The woman looks up as I pass, and I see heaven. Dark, soulful eyes with a touch of dreaminess or cool disinterest! She has high cheekbones, a noble's complexion, and the swan's curve of her neck is so graceful. Full lips, too. Her hair is long and as dark as a moonless night, falling down her back in an inky cascade. She's wearing a modest, rough-hewn kimono, but there's no mistaking this woman's beauty.

The second thing I notice, which keeps me from falling entirely to her siren's sway, is the sword across her knees.

"May I ask you about your katana, stranger?" I try, and my eyes keep shifting between her sword and her face. She's as beautiful as the moon, and that sword is, just from the way it sits, one of the most finely engineered tools of war I have ever seen.

Her expression remains blank. "My…sword?"

"Yes! Even from here, I can tell the balance is beyond perfect. And is that genuine shark-skin for the wrap?" I'm gushing, aren't I? I'm gushing. Oh, no.

It's happening again.

"It's not for sale," she says sharply, apparently baffled by my attention.

"I don't want to buy it!" I insist, waving my hands as though to stave off the thought. "I just want to bask in its glory. Because this weapon is glorious."

"…It's a katana." I think I've lost her.

"Do you have any idea how shoddy modern mass-forging can be?" I make a sweeping gesture, pointing out my new friend's dress. She isn't wearing standard shinobi equipment that I can see… "Maybe you don't? I've snapped a blade or two and I've never been a kenjutsu specialist. That shouldn't happen. Please, tell me your name, o vision of moonlit kenjutsu mastery."

Yep, I've definitely lost her.

But at least it's not a hostile sort of blank expression. She is genuinely baffled.

"Um. Maybe I should introduce myself?" I sit back on my heels and extend a hand. "Wataru Gekkō, of Konohagakure."

She doesn't take my hand to shake it. Instead, she bows her head—samurai?—before saying, "Miyako. Of wherever."

So, maybe not a samurai?

"Well, Miyako-san, I'd really like to pick your brain about swords. I've used a few, but you're probably better than I am if that's your primary weapon, so…" I trail off, hoping. I clap my hands together in front of my face and hold them together, in a silent appeal. "Please?"

She takes a long sip of her tea. Then, "It would be…acceptable."

Yes! "Oh, that's wonderful! I have so many questions!"

And if I hear Junpei's voice drifting across the inn, saying, "He's at it again!" I don't care all that much.

Chapter Text

Raidō was not surprised to see Genma looking at the window everyone used to enter (and exit) the Hokage's office—the man had hearing sharp enough he'd probably heard Raidō walking on the roof. Undeterred, Raidō slipped inside without a sound (that he was aware of), and strode to the middle of the office, in front of the Hokage's desk.

"Welcome back, Falcon," the Hokage said, then turned to Genma and dropped another file on the stack at the edge of his desk. As the Hokage bowed his head over his paperwork again, he made a dismissive gesture and said, "Please take these to the Academy, Shiranui-kun."

"Yes, Hokage-sama," Genma said, and picked up the stack. Even with his arms straight and elbows locked, the files reached his chin and cut off how much he could flick the senbon around.

Raidō might have watched the sun glint off the metal as Genma walked past him, but he definitely turned his head and watched the on-duty Hokage guard leave. It was force of habit, though he knew Genma wasn't about to defy procedure just for the hell of it. ANBU reports were for the Hokage's ears only and making sure the door closed was a reasonable thing to do before speaking.

Genma met Raidō's eyes behind the mask, just for a split second. A quick grin as he fixed his senbon between his teeth and a "well, what can you do" shrug at being asked to leave. Then he was heading out.

For some reason, Raidō's brain skipped the part about keeping his thoughts to himself as he took in the view of Genma's rear—and the new pants that fit him slightly tighter than normal.

"That ass," Raidō heard himself sigh, soft but still there. The sound of that thought of all things voiced caught him with enough surprise he coughed, and then hoped the others would take it as an attempt to clear his throat.

Genma's hearing was too good, though. The other ninja's back straightened just enough to make it clear he had heard the words as he hurried out of the room.

Raidō tried not to sink into the floor. His face burned and, fuck, he could not have just said that aloud. Where had that even come from? Why did he say it? It wasn't—he hadn't… Argh! Running around with Gai in a green leotard would only be half as embarrassing. Genma was never going to talk to him again. The Hokage was going to kick him off the Guard.

"Falcon," the Hokage prompted.

When Raidō turned back to him, the Hokage stared back with a carefully blank expression—the one he used when playing politician. If he had heard, or knew anything, he did not let on.

Forcing down the shaking nerves from his voice, Raidō managed the unflappable demeanor ANBU required. His face was undoubtedly redder than the building outside the window, but his mask kept that hidden.

"Yes, Hokage-sama," Raidō said, and launched into his report.

The mission had been mostly uneventful, and that allowed Raidō's attention to wander to Genma, and for his gaze to lift to the sign on the ceiling that reminded him his answers were not there.

The Hokage sat back in his chair, looking up at the ceiling with his arms crossed, as though he hadn't been listening too closely. Raidō didn't ask why, so eventually the Hokage's blue eyes alighted on him in the silence. The Hokage asked, "Is that all, Falcon?"

"Yes, Hokage-sama."

The Hokage paused, as if he had expected a different answer, then said, with a glance out the window, "You're dismissed."

Raidō nodded, and then left through the window he came in. He needed to head home and get out of his ANBU gear, or at least drop it in his locker at headquarters. As he darted out of the building, keeping to covered alcoves and the architectural quirks of the rounded Administration Center tower, Raidō found himself pausing before he left the area entirely.

Genma stood on top of the Academy's slanted wooden roof, looking casual enough for someone capable of getting up there. His hands were in his pockets and he was leaning up against a support strut. The idle waiting stance might have worked on a street corner, but there was a big difference in "loitering" on a sidewalk and a rooftop.

Given that there were only a few people who would pass by that way, and it gave Genma the perfect vantage point to catch Raidō on his normal route home, Raidō quickly decided the weather (cloudy, with an ominous overcast of rain) was perfect for a leisurely stroll through the streets.

His ANBU uniform attracted some attention until he used a low-level genjutsu to avoid any more prying eyes, but after he left Genma behind, Raidō took to the rooftops again and made his way towards the East Gate. The increased speed did little to help with the weather. The rain decided to fall halfway to his apartment, and when he arrived, he was thoroughly soaked despite his cloak.

Still, after fumbling a bit with his apartment key and deactivating the tripwire above the door, he made his way inside. It was like hitting a wall of heat, even though he'd expected his apartment manager to cut the heat at some point in the two weeks he'd been gone. Perhaps there was some point to paying bills in advance, and in any other circumstance he'd have been grateful.

As it was, Raidō made a beeline for his bathroom, stripped off his uniform and cloak and mask, and took a very cold shower.


The next morning Raidō made his way to the training ground and was met by a grumpy, white-haired porcupine. It—or rather he—said, "You're late."

"I said noon, Kakashi," Raidō said, and glanced up at the sun. "It's barely after ten."

"Tch." Well, someone had clearly had about as much fun yesterday as Raidō had.

"Why are you even here this early?" Raidō asked as he stretched and shook out his limbs. It was Kakashi's day off too, and punctuality wasn't exactly his strong suit.

Kakashi made another noise. It very clearly communicated a sentiment of "I have a bad attitude today, and now I'm gonna take it out on you." In typical Kakashi fashion, he wanted to cut straight to the point and get to the business of stabbing one another.

Teenagers.

Raidō let it slide though. If he pressed, Kakashi would undoubtedly ask why he was early. Raidō had no intention of opening that can of worms. Anyway, he'd place fifty ryō on the fact it had something to do with Kakashi's long-term unrequited and unspoken attraction to his teammate, and her obliviousness to it.

"Let's just get started," Kakashi growled.

By the time noon rolled around, Raidō had a bruise on his shoulder from where the pipsqueak had managed to land a solid hit. Kakashi was good, but he still had a ways to go before he was close to being better than Raidō. And anyway, the hit had been a kick, which was typical of Kakashi's style and not remotely what they were supposed to be working on.

Then again, it had always been obvious that Kakashi's kenjutsu was more like taijutsu with a sharp metal object than Raidō's preferred methods. He had technique, yes, but running around like a bouncing ball with a switchblade wasn't what Raidō liked to see.

Stepping back to end the fight, Raidō rolled his shoulder to get some feeling back in it. It would hurt in the morning, but he was still good to go for another few rounds—and wanted to, but stopped. While he could continue, Kakashi could not.

Kakashi was slightly hunched over, and while he had put up a good fight, the speed boost the eye gave him had only served to burn right through his chakra. His breath came in short pants, and Raidō could see sweat staining the kid's dark mask even darker.

"Next time you use that eye, Kakashi, make sure you can win before you fall on your face," Raidō told him.

Kakashi just rolled his eye and pulled his headband over his other, then muttered very sarcastically, "I'll be sure to remember that."

The kid'd been training with Gai too much for his own sanity. Fortunately, Raidō didn't have to worry about Kakashi fainting in the street and failing to show up to work in the morning, because Obito kind of poured out of the air.

Raidō was never going to get used to the kind of shit the infamous "Team Minato" kept pulling off.

"Wonder what he's late for," Raidō said as Obito disappeared with his sparring partner with a quick wave and hasty apology.

With nothing better to do, and his plans for the afternoon cut short at about the time they were supposed to have begun, Raidō wandered back into the village. Surviving on take-out meant he rarely needed to stock up, but it was occasionally nice to have actual food. The problem was he really didn't know what to get. That was the other downside of surviving on takeout.

That little dilemma was solved when he walked down the street in the market and spotted a certain senbon-chewing shinobi staring at what Raidō was fairly certain was some kind of winter squash. Just like that, his appetite was gone.

Genma looked up, because of course he knew the sound of Raidō's footsteps. Fully intending to treat it like nothing had happened, Raidō kept walking.

"Yo," Genma said, waving with the hand that wasn't weighed down by pumpkin. "I missed you the other day."

Raidō had intended to say something coherent in return, but something about Genma suddenly made it impossible. All Raidō could do was follow the swish-swish of the senbon and feel the heat rising over his cheeks and ears. If he met Genma's eyes, he'd probably explode.

Genma's casual cheer faltered the longer the two of them went without saying anything. Finally, with his brows furrowing as though in concern, Genma broke the oppressive silence. "Raidō?"

"I think Fuse-san was looking for you, something about covering a shift," Raidō blurted out, and then in a new wave of reddening mortification, decided the roofs would be a good place to walk.

He got about as far as the next roof before he stopped and muttered to himself about how stupid his excuse was. He pressed the heels of his hands against his eyes, groaning aloud. The Inuzuka woman would have no idea what Genma was talking about, and then Raidō would have something else to dodge Genma over.


The rest of the week passed, and Radio managed to maintain his cool—running short-term missions and reporting to the Hokage without another incident. Although they had known each other for years, the looks that week Raidō got from Genma were unreadable. The other man could feel the sudden distance between them, Raidō was sure of it, but never actually said anything. That damn senbon danced around his mouth and then sat there while Genma pondered something the second Raidō noticed him looking.

He took the opportunity for a day off when it came up to wrap his head around the impending spectacular end to the waiting game he had managed for so long. There was no chance Genma had missed those two words, or the meaning behind them, and Raidō would eventually have to stick around long enough to let the other man say something.

But hell if he was gonna face that. Raidō spent the morning pacing inside his apartment, banging his head on the metaphorical wall. When he wasn't pacing, he sat on his futon with his back to the wall, rubbing the scar that stretched over his face as though it was new and itched like hell. A nervous habit he'd almost broken, over the years, but now it was back in force.

What he felt for Genma, what he wanted from—with him, was more than the one-night stands Raidō was used to. Sex was an easy thing. No attachments if he didn't want or need them.

And then there was Genma. Honey eyes and easy smile, a quick remark in any available ear and a low, reassuring laugh. Raidō knew Genma's movements and tells as perfectly as his own, and Genma in turn seemed to have memorized his footsteps and his heartbeat. They'd been in sync until this week, and it was Raidō's fault. Just because he couldn't stop staring.

Raidō doubted Genma finding out he was interested in men would ruin their friendship. Genma reacted to unexpected events—up to and including getting his leg broken—with a kind of easy humor that Raidō had never cared about quite so much. As for the question of whether Genma would return the feelings that had driven that remark… As far as Raidō knew, Genma had never had a serious relationship, which was good or bad news depending on the day and the way Raidō's brain wanted to flop.

This was a bad day.

His thoughts seemed to chase themselves in circles forever, but stopped as someone knocked on the door.

Raidō grumbled something about getting up, and then reached the door quick enough for most people, but stopped short as he opened it to a blond man with an expectant look on his face. By reflex, Raidō stammered, "H-hello, Hokage-sama."

"Emergency meeting, Namiashi-kun," the Hokage said with a cheerful smile, and then slammed a hand down on Raidō's shoulder.

Fwish.

Raidō regained his balance from the sudden teleportation, and looked around the Hokage's office as the clone that had brought him there dismissed itself in a puff of smoke. Of the Hokage Guard, only Genma stood in the room.

Hands in his pockets and a smug smile beneath the knot of his bandana, Genma clamped the senbon between his teeth with a slight metallic click, eyes wide. He turned to the Hokage sitting at the desk, opening his mouth to say something—

Poof.

That Hokage dismissed itself as well.

An idiot would be able to figure out something was going on. Raidō had an idea, but it wasn't one he was going to say aloud. So, he turned back to Genma and asked, "What's happening?"

"I didn't think the Hokage would actually do it," Genma said, still stunned.

Raidō felt his heart start to beat faster. Lub-dub, lub-dub. "Do what?"

"Lock us in a room so I could talk to you." Genma shifted his weight from foot to foot, glancing everywhere in the room except for directly at Raidō. Then he explained, "You kept running off, leaving me to stare at your ass instead of complimenting it."

There was no missing what Genma meant by that, and Raidō could feel himself try to sink into the floor. The heat rising over his face and ears and neck was going to burn him alive. Worse, he was almost anchored to the spot by the sudden realization that no, he wasn't about to lose a friend to his thoughtlessness.

In fact, he might have gained something. Raidō would be sure to appreciate that sentiment once the mortification passed.

"When you finish dying from embarrassment, want to go get sushi?" Genma asked. Somehow, through the faint reddish flush to his cheeks, Genma managed to keep his voice light. With a quiet laugh that sent Raidō's heart pounding, Genma said, "I got Fuse-san to cover my shift today."

"Why would she—oh," Raidō said, and then rubbed his scar awkwardly once he realized his brain had momentarily shut down from sheer relief. He managed to say, "I'd love to!" on the second try.

Genma's grin was nearly blinding. "Great! Now, help me figure out how to break out of this office. 'Cause I don't think the Hokage's coming back for us."

Chapter Text

I sit down at the table hard enough to make Akihito-shishō look up from his reading and the ashtray full of cigarette butts and, well, ash.

"You're up early, Rin-chan," he says and I narrow my eyes at the trail of smoke drifting upwards.

He shouldn't be smoking in the first place, and he really shouldn't be smoking inside, but my thoughts are jumbled up enough because of Kei and a dream that I can't even manage to tell him to put it out. Somehow though he gets the message, and smushes the butt into the tray. Maybe it's the no smoking sign on my pajama shirt?

"Something wrong?"

All I can manage is a sigh.

Glaring is Akihito-shishō's normal expression, and method of communication since it's quicker than yelling, but he doesn't seem to use that. Instead he puts down the newspaper and waits.

If I'm up early enough to catch him before he's gone off for his shift, I'm up early. The time means I didn't bother to get ready. Although since I'm up I should grab something to eat, but my stomach is already full of butterflies, or maybe moths. My mouth does taste funny, but that's more because I haven't brushed my teeth yet.

"Is it about Kakashi-kun?" Akihito-shishō asks, probably because Kakashi came into the hospital last night after a particularly stupid attempt to blow himself up trying out a new jutsu.

"No," I answer, probably a tad too wistfully, and immediately change it to, "yes." But that doesn't seem to quite sum up my dilemma. So I drop my face onto the table and sigh.

Akihito-shishō remains silent, so after a while I have to look up at him.

"It's about Kakashi," I say, "and Kei, and Obito too."

Mentioning the other two members of Team Minato seems to make Akihito-shishō relax a bit, and he asks, "What about them?"

"It's not so much about them, as it is me," I say because how can I put everything about them in words? I can't even figure out what I'm feeling about them, and so far putting words to those feelings has gone less than great. I try anyway, right as Akihito-shishō is taking a sip of his coffee.

"I think I like all of them and I don't know what to do," I say.

Akihito-shishō coughs, probably because he swallowed the coffee wrong, and either the news or topic caught him off-guard. He clears his throat though, and then puts down both his mug and newspaper.

"I'm going to be late," he says, excusing himself nearly twenty minutes before he even needs to leave for work. "I'm sure you'll figure it out, Rin-chan."

He's out the door before I put my elbow on the table and prop my chin up on it. It slams shut, and I let out another sigh that blows a few strands of brown hair from my eyes. Expecting him to stick around for a full talk was probably a bit much, but it would have been nice.

Cutting my losses, I turn to Sasa-chan's tank and the smaller cage of crickets on the shelf above her heating lamp. Akihito-shishō's a lousy listener anyway. Sasa-chan's much better.

"What do you think?" I ask as I drop a few crickets in her tank. She crawls along the scattered rocks and sand after them, piercing them with her stinger before grabbing them with a pincer and devouring their still twitching carcass.

My mouth tastes like crickets, not moths, I decide with a sigh.

"What do you think about Obito?" I ask before I check the wet cotton ball in the cricket's cage. It's still wet, so I pop my head back to Sasa-chan's level, and sit on the floor.

"You must've liked him well enough to not sting him," I say, and suddenly feel extremely silly for talking to a scorpion.

It's the kind of silly thing that Obito would do. And just like that his laugh echoes in my head and I can just see his grin. It's wide and it splits his face in two because Obito is open like that. He'll laugh at everything, including his own silliness.

It's not Obito's smile that's stuck in my head this morning. It's Kei's. The slightly crooked grin that she had even before the cut across her face and the odd things she says that we don't always follow.

Thinking of Kei, I can't help but touch my lips because the dream had felt so real, and I can still feel the pressure and warmth of Kei's.

It's enough to make me sigh. So I do, and drop my head against Sasa-chan's tank. My cheeks are burning, or at least they feel like they do, which makes the cold glass feels nice.

Those crickets are still jumping around in my stomach, making my mouth taste like bugs, and the ones in the cage decide to start chirping.

Eeet. Eeeet. Eeet.

I'm not getting any answers here.

This is the kind of thing Kei's mom would have been good for. Or at least I think so. Akihito-shishō's already made it clear he's not going to be any help, and even though Tsunade-sama respects me as a medic-nin, I don't think she's someone I can talk to.

Picking myself up from the floor, I make sure everything is ship-shape for Sasa-chan's tank, then get dressed.

It's late enough in the day that most people should be awake, minus the shinobi sleeping in on their day off. I lock up and leave the house, making my way to the only other adults I know.

By the time I reach Kushina-sama and Hokage-sama's apartment, I've completely rethought my decision. Sure, the Hokage had been the sensei for Team Minato, but he hadn't been my sensei and I only really speak to him—well, like I do Kakashi—when he's around Obito and Kei, or Kushina-sama.

Before I can pull my hand back and not-knock on the door, it opens.

The Hokage stands in the doorway, and he looks down at me confused for a second before he recognizes me and smiles. "Hello, Rin-chan. I think you just missed Obito and Kei."

"I…I uh… " I manage to get out, "I wasn't looking for them."

"Oh? You weren't?"

I shake my head, but that's not going to accomplish anything. "I was actually hoping I could speak to you, Hokage-sama."

He's genuinely surprised by that, but he nods and steps aside so I can enter instead of standing outside like the idiot I'm increasingly feeling like.

"What'd you want to talk about, Rin-chan?" he asks once we're seated.

The place is comfortable enough, but I'm making it awkward enough that none of it matters. I have no idea what to say. Everything I can think of just makes it sound more and more like I'm imposing by going to the Hokage.

But he was their sensei, which means he should know them the best, right?

Thankfully Kushina-sama chooses that moment to walk into the room with Naruto. She lights up immediately. "Hi, Rin-chan," she says and sits down next to the hokage, handing off Naruto to him.

Naruto for his part is just happy to be able to grab his father's hair.

I just want to sigh again. It's almost easier. But then I'd have to come up with some excuse for why I'm over at the Hokage's place in the first place.

There's no telling how either of them will react to my crush on Kei. I don't feel like either of them would hate me for liking Kei, but I don't know either of them all that well. Sure, Kushina-sama has been teaching me how to cook, but that's rather limited.

I decided to play it safe and bring up the subject by asking them a question. "How did you know you were in love with each other?"

The Hokage takes on a pose to answer the question like he's getting ready to explain something exciting to Naruto, but Kushina-sama beats him to it. She also skips right over it and says, "Do you have a crush, Rin-chan?"

It doesn't take too much thought to figure out why I'm talking to them, or at least I don't think it does.

"More than one," I say.

That's about when the Hokage catches on. And I can tell the exact moment he does because his eyes widen and his expression kind of evens out the way I've seen Kei do when she's faced with something she doesn't feel like she can handle.

Kushina-sama just grins wider. I might have expected he to lean closer, but instead she jumps up and squishes me in a hug. "Young love," she says, or at least that's what I can make out of the long babble before she takes a breath and keeps going. "Is one of them Kakashi or Obito? That's why you came to us, isn't it? You've got a crush on one of them and want to ask him out? Wait? Doesn't Obito like you?"

The Hokage is pale, and if we were in the hospital I'd be worried he'd just lost a lot of blood—or someone just delivered bad news to him. I guess maybe I did? If this counts as that.

I nod meekly once Kushina-sama lets go and lets me sit back down. "I think I like him back, too," I say, and then watch the Hokage somehow go even paler.

There's a few seconds before he jolts and then hands Naruto over to Kushina-sama. "I'm needed in the office, can you take it from here, Kushina?"

He doesn't even wait for an answer before his disappears with a gentle fwish.

"Don't mind him, Rin-chan," Kushina-sama tells me with a wink and a dismissive wave of her hand. "Minato's just realizing his genin aren't genin anymore."

…They haven't been genin for years.

My stomach grumbles loudly while I'm speechless and that seems to be the signal for Kushina-sama to offer me food.

"I might have forgotten to eat breakfast," I say as she hands Naruto off to me and then wanders around the kitchen.

She's a whirlwind, grabbing pots and pans and leafy things from the fridge, easily whipping up something that smells good enough I catch myself drooling. Naruto's drooling too, although the rubber kunai in his mouth is probably the reason for that.

What Kushina-sama eventually sets in front of me is enough to feed half a dozen people, but it all smells good so I don't complain. I don't exactly get to eat it though because she sits down and leans forward.

"So, you like Obito, eh Rin-chan?"

And the butterfly-moth-crickets are back.

After swallowing the one mouthful I managed before she asked her question, I manage a short. "I like him more than I did at Tanabata."

"Why Tanabata? Did something happen then?"

A lot of things happened at Tanabata. Kakashi, Obito, Kei. I sigh. They seem to be the thing to do, but they don't really accomplish much. Words are needed for that.

"Everything is so complicated," I say and drop my head onto the table.

Thud.

"And I think the only feelings that've changed are mine." And then I look up because I shouldn't be speaking to the tabletop. "It's only…" And then I trail off and decide I don't have to talk if there's food in my mouth. So I get started on the first bowl in front of me.

Seeing Kushina-sama change from excited gossip to serious mode is… odd. She's kind of like Gai in that way. It's clear though she's only doing it because she wants to help me, so I take another few bites and then put down the chopsticks.

"I don't know where to start," I confess, and then am interrupted by the sound of a bowl dropping to the floor.

Naruto has dumped the contents of his bowl onto the floor, and is picking his food off it. He looks happy enough, and given that he's probably shoved much less sanitary stuff in his mouth, I'm not too worried. Kushina-sama not either, so it doesn't appear Naruto's going to get me out of this.

"Maybe start at the beginning?"

It's a decent enough place to start.

"I've like Kakashi, or at least I did, for a while." That's not it though. He's not really a problem. Somewhere between him telling me he would never feel that way about me and now, I've stopped caring about it. Sure, he's hot, but the only thing in common we have is Obito and Kei.

"I don't think I have a crush on him anymore." Thinking of the reasons I did like him, his looks, the skill that I'd been naively impressed by, his attitude that had seemed cool at the time but is now just… sad, they all seem so shallow. "I like him, but there's nothing there, and he'll never feel they way about me that he does Kei." The way I might feel about Kei.

"There's nothing wrong in moving on from someone, Rin-chan."

I sigh. I know there's not.

But I also don't want anyone to get hurt. I know how much it hurt me to hear Kakashi wouldn't like me like he did Kei, and when Kei told me she didn't feel that way about me, that she might never. She doesn't feel that way about Kakashi, at least I don't think she does- but if she did, I think I know how much it'd hurt me. If Kei ever liked me, well, I don't want Kakashi to feel that way either.

Naruto drops the bowl on the floor again and shakes me from my thoughts before I can sigh again. He giggles, then plops the bowl on his head. It makes a cute hat for a toddler, although I'd want to wash my hair after wearing it.

"I think I'm the only one moving on," I say, and drop my chin back onto my hands, "and only with Kakashi."

"And Obito?"

I drop my face onto the table, and I think the ends of my hair might be in a bowl of broth. Maybe I should wear Naruto's hat since I'm going to have to wash my hair anyway?

When Obito died, and Kei brought me back his goggles, there had been too many emotions to process much of anything for a long time. I had been sad, but for those months he had been gone, I hadn't had to consider how I felt about him. He had been dead, and you can love a dead person however you want, and it didn't hurt anyone.

"I don't want to hurt him either," I say, because I don't. I don't want anyone to get hurt.

Kushina-sama pokes my head, and I look up. "Why would you hurt him, Rin-chan?"

"I'm still not ready to be what he wants," Again, I sigh. It's like I can't help it. Just the thought of Obito and Kei and trying to figure out how to keep anyone from getting hurt more requires them. "He's funny and loyal and kind, and it's not fair to him when I might like… someone else more."

But wouldn't liking Kei more and never being what Obito's waiting for hurt him?

Sigh.

He's sweet, and now that we're older, I think he looks better than Kakashi. There's just something about his goofy smile that definitely makes the butterflies flutter around in my stomach.

"Who's this someone else, Rin-chan?"

Kei. But I can't tell Kushina-sama that, can I?

Maybe I can.

I've never heard her say anything negative about stuff like that, and she certainly doesn't think badly of the tailed-beast hosts. I know they're not the same thing, but, well, sometimes people have a habit of thinking similar things about stuff like that. And the shinobi population tends to care less about who you love. I'm not out there risking my life like Kei and the others are, but I see enough in the hospital, and know that too often people don't even make it back.

I take a deep breath, not to sigh this time, more to build up the nerve.

"It's Kei," I say.

Kushina-sama's reaction isn't what I feared. Outrage was the worst case scenario. Best case I might have expected some kind of comment about Kei turning into a heartbreaker, or how it does complicate things.

What she does say is, "Have you told her yet?"

What?

"Kei hasn't noticed Kakashi's crush on her yet, and he tried to ask her out after the fight with Minato."

That is true, but that's not the problem I have with Kei. "I told her about Obito, and how Kakashi didn't like me, and that I might like her at Tanabata." Sighing, I drop my head, then immediately look back up because I don't want to give Kushina-sama the wrong impression about Kei's reaction. "Kei was nice about it, she just wasn't…" Sigh. "She isn't- she said her heart doesn't work like that. Maybe it's just slow to feel things, but-"

Sigh.

"I really like Kei," I say after yet another sigh. "She's loyal, and strong. Fiercely protective of the people she does love,"- and maybe one day I could be more to her than I am now. It makes me think of the dream I had, where I had gotten a taste of that. It wasn't real, but that only made me want to know what it would be like if it were. "And she's pretty." Maybe not like what most people would call it, but her smile's just as butterfly-inducing as Obito's. "Watching her fight, that's when she looks her best."

And then there is the fact she's always there. Sure, I met her after Obito, but she was there when he was gone. It feels like she's still going to be there. Kei's steady like that, like she's around to keep everything together.

"Liking her hurts Obito. He's waiting for me… and… and I'm waiting for her."

"And Kakashi is waiting for her," Kushina-sama offers up.

I nod. "And if Kei does end up liking me, that will hurt Kakashi, and I'll hurt Obito."

"Oh, Rin-chan," Kushina-sama says, and stands up from her spot to wrap me in a hug. "You're forgetting the part where your heart can get hurt too. You need to think about what you want, and a little less about hurting them."

I know I like both Obito and Kei, and that I did like Kakashi, but I also know I don't want to hurt any of them.

"You're young, Rin-chan," Kushina-sama says. "You don't have to figure everything out right now."

Maybe that's the problem? I'm trying to figure everything out when there's not a good answer because I'm not taking how much I'm getting hurt into account.

"Thanks, Kushina-sama, I think I'll do that," I say, and realize my eyes are leaking, so I pull out of her hug to wipe the few stray tears away. "Would you mind if I came to you again if I need more help? Akihito-shishō's not very good with relationships."

"Of course, Rin-chan," she says. "So long as you help me tease Minato once he realizes what kind of heartbreakers his students have become."

Even though it's my heart they're breaking, I can't help but laugh at that. "Deal."

Chapter Text

Raidō leaves me at the gate, angling left towards the Aburame clan and Genma's apartment. It's not too hard to imagine why, not when it's his and Genma's place. I stop long enough for the guard on duty to not-so-casually tell me Kei's back with a small laugh. It's good news, but at the same time doesn't mean much, so I leave without a word.

I'm not expecting her to be back for long, and I'm not expecting to even see her. She comes back and sleeps, then leaves. Even if I've told myself I'll finally work up the nerve to tell Kei how I feel or ask her out, and make sure she knows that's what I'm trying to do, I don't plan on doing it tonight. She's probably sleeping, and I'm tired too.

I've not been out of the village like Kei has, but ANBU's kept me busy. Long enough that as I hop across the rooftops, I can feel my low chakra reserves tell me I should have just walked along the streets. The mental tally of what food I have in my place is low too. Nothing there that's still good or easy to make.

I pass by my place, and head instead for Sensei's. He won't mind if I swipe a few packages of noodles, and I've got more than a few spare sets of clothes there. If it weren't for the fact Tatsumaki liked crying at two in the morning, I'd contemplate crashing there for the night. As it is, I land lightly on the roof and climb in through one of the hall windows.

"Kakashi's home," Sensei says softly to someone in the main room, and I brace myself for the loudness that is Naruto. It doesn't come, and I think of turning to get my clothes and changing out of the ANBU gear that is badly in need of cleaning.

After a few seconds, Sensei raises his voice to address me specifically, "Kakashi." And I turn back to see what he wants. "Kei's here."

My heart jumping because I haven't seen Kei in a year, I immediately slip into Body Flicker speed as Sensei continues speaking. As a result, I reach him and Kei before he has a chance to finish his request.

My heart then sinks as I get a good look at Kei, for what feels like the first time in a couple of years. Even before the last string of missions, she was gone for the year before that, and only a few of those missions had included both of us. Looking at her, I can see that she's been gone for too long.

Her hair's never been the tamest thing, but it's clear she hasn't cut it in a while. Even though the bangs have fallen in front of her face, and the top of her knees hide her jaw and mouth from view, it's obvious she's been crying.

This isn't the happy reunion I wanted, but I push that aside and put my hand on her knee. She doesn't look up, and I know my face is covered by the black mask so she couldn't see the frown even if she did. My first words to her in over a year are to ask her what's wrong.

She mumbles something that at that moment I don't hear. Not the words themselves, not when she shoves my hand aside. I can't hear them past the slight hitch in them and the dull monotone she uses as she forces herself to sit up.

Whatever it is she wants to say, I reach out for her hand. She still doesn't look up, even when I say her name.

Something is wrong.

I'm not a dog, but if I were, my hackles would be raised. I can't shake the anger at whatever's hurt Kei from my chest. I can't take it out on her though, never her. Instead, I turn to sensei, who is worried, but there is guilt there too, and I nearly growl out, "Sensei, what happened to her?"

The guilt on Sensei's face amps up again, and he opens his mouth to speak, but Kei interrupts him before he can say anything.

"I lied to you."

She lied to us? About what? Even as her hands dig into the thick fabric of the couch, I wrack my brain for what she could be talking about. I haven't even spoken to her in a year.

Could it be a mission report?

Or does it have to do with her visions?

She says weird things frequently, and sometimes she leaves things out. Maybe she doesn't think we notice, but none of it seems like it's anything important. And nothing that would put us in danger. Kei wouldn't do that to us.

She wants to keep us safe.

Like we want to keep her safe.

Like I want to keep her safe.

Gently, I squeeze her hand, hoping she'll look up or something, but she doesn't even seem to notice.

"Seventeen years ago, I started lying to everyone around me."

Seventeen years ago she was an infant. How could she have started lying then?

"And it just," she keeps saying, even though her voice is breaking through her tears. "It was easier to keep going. Like you said Sensei, why stop?"

What did Sensei tell her?

I look up to him for an explanation, but those blue eyes are focused on Kei, and he won't say anything to me. Not when Kei's talking. Squeezing Kei's hand, trying to work my fingers between hers to loosen her grip on the cloth, I turn my attention back to her.

"What are you talking about?" I ask, and try to keep her nails from tearing anymore. She doesn't release the edge of the cushion, or loosen anything in her posture.

Slowly, I reach out for her other hand. Even if she won't look at me, I'm going to let her know I'm here.

She starts speaking though before I can, telling us the truth about her lie. "I haven't always been Keisuke Gekkō."

My hand stops. I stop. She's always been Kei. She's been Kei since we met, even if we didn't get along at first, and then we did. She's Kei.

But there was The Dreamer, and Id. But they'd only been there once, and then they'd disappeared.

Were there more?

Is that what this was about?

Was the Kei I knew like them?

Worried about Kei and wanting an answer, but far too hesitant to say anything myself, I look up at Sensei. He meets my stare, and I wonder if he's wondering the same thing. "What do you mean?"

With the question asked, I turn back to Kei.

She rocks slightly like a gentle breeze has caught her hanging from a clothesline. She still doesn't look up, and it's almost more than I can bear seeing her like this. It's definitely more than I can stand without trying something.

With my attempt to reach out to her cut short and that hand pinned in place, I try to lift her chin with the other.

She jerks away from that, so I squeeze her left hand tighter as she explains what her world, what our world was or is to her. Her hand is bleeding. The nails have torn against the light fabric and I can see the spotting there, and know my gloves would be showing it too if they weren't too dark for it.

"I don't—" understand? Since when have I ever understood what Kei's thinking or how she sees the world? I've caught glimpses of it, and it alternatively amazes and frustrates me. "Kei, are you saying you saw the world as some kind of storybook?" That she sees us this way?

If I wasn't already fighting back tears as seeing Kei like this, I'd be doing it now. Kei's always acted like her visions followed a specific series of events that didn't bend to reflect the future in front of us—

Or her.

"That's why your visions never accounted for you. You weren't supposed to be here." She wasn't in the story.

She doesn't look up though, even if being able to look her in the eye would help me figure out what she's thinking. We don't always needs words to communicate; our missions before her absence proved that.

And yet when she speaks it's too quiet to make out, aside from scattered words and a soft, "Change the plot."

Because she thinks we are all products of someone's imagination. Like the characters in Jiraiya's books?

"So that's why you said you'd seen it before, and why you were so dead certain that certain events were going to happen," Sensei says, thinking aloud and coming to the realization a few seconds after me. Or maybe he's just filling the silence to give something for Kei to latch onto.

She does, nodding and saying something about being detached enough to see how events line up. She probably watched our entire lives play out.

The more I think on that, the less I like the implications. Are we just something Kei wants to play with? Does she even think we were real?

Then after a deep sigh, Kei says, "And then I got attached."

"Attached?" I ask quickly, so quickly, and feel guilty over the flare of hope I felt at her comment. Even before Kei can explain, or give me more hope, I pull back and bury it. I've failed to tell her for years. What reason do I have to hope Kei will like me like that?

None. Not when we're not even on the same page.

"Hayate first," Kei answers with far more pain in the two words than I want to ever hear from her. It's not a surprise though. She loves her brother. She's spent the last year making sure Sensei, Genma, Obito, everyone was there for him even when she was gone. Even when she was hurting.

"I didn't—"

And I can't help but wonder how long she's been hurting. How long this has been going on and we either didn't know, or just didn't see how deep this all went and just didn't do enough.

"He was just a minor character. His death didn't matter."

I flinch back at that, and even though my eyes are locked on Kei, I can see Sensei do the same in the edge of my vision.

Hayate's death didn't matter?

What?

This is not Kei.

"And then he was born. And he—and I couldn't not love him," Kei says, changing her words as her thoughts slid back into place. "I met Obito and Rin later." She keeps talking about them, and I draw back.

Even though I already know what happened to them in the world of her visions, I can feel my body go cold at the way she talks about it.

And then she shifts to herself. Except it's not to explain how much she's attached, it's more like some twisted progression of the expectations she had set for herself without any of us knowing, and how much she failed.

"Kei," I say, squeezing her hand with mine even if it's so cold and feels like ice because I am scared and this is not something I know how to deal with. "Stop." Sensei is quiet, so I go on. "Please, you're hurting yourself."

"And you." I expect her to look up at me when she says it, but she doesn't. "Kakashi, you were—"

I don't want to hear it. I don't want to hear what I was in her visions, not the way they happened.

"You were different, in the story. It just kept hurting you over and over because it made things dramatic."

She's still looking at the floor and her feet, but I refuse to flinch back at that. This isn't about me. I'm fine. A little tired, and beating myself over not telling her how I feel, not calling her out on all the suspicions about the inconsistencies in the way she talks about her visions, but I'm not the one in pain right now.

And as she laughs, it only reminds me how much this world has hurt her. Her mother. Her father. Obito. The tailed beast. The years away on missions. This.

"If Obito and Rin made it, I thought, you'd be okay. What did it matter if some twenty-year-old phony died in their place, as long as it filled the quota?"

A quota? Is that how she sees this? She's saved them from some death in a reality that doesn't exist, except maybe in her head, and now someone else needs to fill their place?

"I'm sorry I didn't say this before, or I've hurt you by saying it. Maybe I just didn't want to believe I could lie so much."

My hand's still on Kei's, and I start to squeeze it lightly so she'll know I've heard her apology and accepted it. Even if there's no reason for it and I have so much more I want to say to her.

But she starts crying again, and pulls her hand away to wipe her face.

Sensei's eyes remain narrowed as he thinks. Quietly this time. And he doesn't say a word, even once Kei starts shaking.

She pulls back from me.

My knees are sore and I'm tired from the ANBU mission, and know I have more I have to do in a few hours, but I need to do something for Kei now. As I stand up though, and move, I can feel the tears I held back leak out my eye and slide down my mask, leaving the edges along my cheek wet.

I need to step away, into the hallway and away from Kei.

Dragging my dirt-and-probably-bloodstained glove over my eyes and snotty nose, I pull a kunai out of my holster with the other hand.

Kei needs time on her own to think. But that doesn't mean I can't give her something to help. Pakkun helped after we lost Obito, and her mother.

I summon him, and then after a second thought, the rest of the pack as well. If one dog helps, eight must help even more.

They don't even need me to tell them what to do before they turn toward Kei, and then run to her. Pakkun takes the lead, climbing onto her lap while the others flank her until she's thoroughly surrounded.

She pays attention to them, stroking Pakkun.

After looking up at me to let me know I did the right thing there, Sensei says something to Kei, and then he approaches me.

"Kakashi?"

"Yes, Sensei?" I ask, pulling the fabric back up over my mouth. It's wet and clings oddly because of the spotty way the tears had hit it. It doesn't do much, not here. Sensei, like Kei, has known me long enough to read my face even with everything covered.

How long has Kei known me? Or a version of Kei known a version of me?

Gently, he steers me towards what had once been the spare bedroom. It's Tatsumaki's and Naruto's now. But I can still remember throwing kunai at the ceiling where a mobile now hangs, after my father died.

"This came up while we were throwing a party for Kei at Tsunade's," Sensei tells me. Then, like I didn't know that this information was going to be more than an S-class secret, he added, "I don't think either of us should say a word of this to anyone."

Crossing my arms, and inhaling through my nose with a loud sniff, I ask, "What do I tell Obito and Rin?" If she stormed out, everyone would have noticed something was off with her. "Or anyone else who asks?"

Sensei grimaces at that. "She thought I sent her away from the village as punishment."

I can feel my metaphorical hackles raise again at that.

Part of it was true. The Shimura and Hyūga clans wanted Kei out of the village in retaliation for her behavior at the meeting. But the Hokage had kept her out for her safety. Or, if not her safety, the safety of the idiots who would view it as their sworn duty to harass a kunoichi who badmouthed them once or twice.

"You should have let me do something," I mutter. Even though I don't mean it fully, I do enough for the sake of the village to make it worth saying. ANBU agents act on behalf of the Hokage. If the clans posed a threat to Kei, to Konoha's jinchūriki, the Hokage could easily order ANBU to remove the problem.

That was the kind of slippery slope Danzō had worked on, though. Sensei isn't Danzō, but anger had a way of setting precedents that no one would be able to back out of later on.

Even though I know that wouldn't have worked, it doesn't stop me from wanting to do something about it, to have done something about it. To have stopped it before Kei got this hurt.

"Kakashi," Sensei says.

"I'll stay here with Kei. Hayate and the others will be worried if you're both gone for too long."

Sensei nods at that, but the pained smile is back on his face. "I need you to do something tonight, Kakashi."

I don't want to do anything else tonight but make sure Kei's all right. My chakra is low, and the last mission has left me tired enough I could easily sleep until noon tomorrow.

"One last mission to act on the information from Kei's visions," the Hokage says, and I immediately turn back from the direction Kei's in to stare at him.

If Kei's confession has done anything, it's convinced us both that we need to listen to her visions.

"What do you need me to do, Hokage-sama?"

"I need you to watch the Hyūga compound." The Hokage says, "Kei's convinced that a Kumo-nin is going to try kidnapping Hiashi's daughter."

I can feel my eye narrow as I think. The Byakugan is something people have tried to steal multiple times, and if the transplant of Obito's eye into me has taught anyone anything, it's that stealing the Byakugan might be just as easy as taking the eye. Particularly from a child too young for the Caged Bird Seal. Doubly so for the clan's heiress.

"Understood," I say.

Fwish.

Just like that, Sensei's gone and I have a mission.

I can't leave Kei just yet though. Not like this.

There's still something I have to say to her.

She's been gone for over a year, and during that time our most concrete interactions had been secondhand, through the security checkpoints. Every time I passed through the gates though, I'd asked someone if she was back.

I hadn't been as obvious or consistent about it as Hayate had been, but I wanted her back.

The feelings behind wanting to know when she'd be back, behind all the failed attempts at asking her out or trying to impress her, had grown over time. Somewhere along the year, I'd told myself I'd tell her how I feel. How I really feel because I'm not doubting or unsure about any of it. Absence made the heart grow fonder, didn't it?

And yet now, I know it's not the right time to tell her. As I walk back towards Kei, and see her surrounded by the dogs, rocking gently, I know I have to tell her something.

I just don't know what.

But Kei's words rattled around in my head. What did it matter if some twenty-year-old phony died in their place, as long as it filled the quota?

When we'd lost Obito, and when Kei became the host of the three-tails, she'd been thirteen, not twenty. But if she had been mentally there, does that make her Tsunade's age? Or something else entirely? While she's always acted odd—mature—she doesn't act as much like she's too old for her age like she used to.

But the little nagging thought, wondering if Kei will ever think of me as something other than a kid compared to her, is pushed aside by the rest of her words.

Does she really think there's some death quota to be filled, and that someone will have to die for it to be met? Or that she doesn't belong in this world? That her death wouldn't matter?

She doesn't even look up as I reach her, although Pakkun does. The rest of the pack does as well. "Do something," their lowered ears and large eyes say.

Gently, I lower myself onto the seat beside Kei and scratch at Akino's ears.

I can't tell Kei that I love her, not now. Maybe not for a while. She needs to deal with what's on her plate before I give her more to chew on. It's not fair to her to expect her to deal with this now.

She thinks we just value her for her prophecies, or her status as an S-ranked shinobi, but she's so much more than that. She's so much more than whatever changes she's made from a reality that doesn't exist, or a reality where she doesn't exist.

I can tell her that.

Forming the thought into words, I lean over and press my forehead to Kei's head so that she knows I'm here and that I need her to hear me.

"No matter what you think, I'm glad you exist," I whisper, and don't dare speak any louder because I can feel the urge to tell her more building in the back of my head. She doesn't need to hear it. She needs this. "Not your prophecies. Not your power. Just you."

Chapter Text

Parched to the point Kei would have probably made a comment about a skeleton in the desert, Obito lifts his canteen up. A single drop beads at the lip before it falls down, catching the light in a suitably dramatic fashion. Alas though, it is not enough.

Six hours is far too long to go without water, in the same sense that one hour feels like seven. Even on a briskly chilled day with an overcast sky.

“Man, I’m so thirsty,” Obito says, giving up on getting any more water from the canteen.

He’ll refill it when he gets the chance, but Kakashi keeps steering them away from the villages they pass. Come on, there wasn’t even anyone in that village. The result: the canteen remains empty and Obito remains thirsty.


 

Kakashi, prepared for everything and possessing the right combination of planning, foresight, and impulse-control, is not. He has plenty of water. He also has more pressing things to worry about, like paying attention to the mission objective. Rather than listen to Obito whine about being thirsty, Kakashi tosses the plastic over and crouches down to observe.

Shinjitsu.

After what probably only amounts to ten minutes, Obito is bored and messing with something in a wrapper that is making way too much noise.

Crackle crackle crackle crackle CRACKLE

“Go find Bisuke, Obito,” he says. “It’s time for a shift change.”

They can’t have all the dogs running around at once, and they can’t stick around long enough to the members of Shinjitsu to start recognizing them. The ninken are supposed to be strays on this mission, not easily picked out by their blue vests.

Thankfully, Obito troops off with his candy wrapper in hand, and Kakashi can return to spying uninterrupted for a little longer.

Entirely too long.

“They should be back by now,” Kakashi mutters to himself as the two men he’s been watching walk away. Obito and Bisuke are nowhere in sight.

His dogs are not that hard to find, not when he’s told them to stay close. Obito has undoubtedly found Bisuke, so Kakashi stretches, cracks a few joints, and heads off after Obito.

For someone with the nickname “Phantom Obito” he’s terrible at covering his tracks. At least it makes it easy for Kakashi to find where he ran off to.

Turns out it’s a well, and it smells off, just like the other places. Suppressing the urge to rub at his nose, Kakashi settles for scrunching it up beneath his mask and breathing through his mouth. “Don’t tell me you filled it up from that.”

Obito shrugs and takes a long drink from his bottle before he screws the cap back on. “Look, do you really think a little stomach bug will be that bad? I’ve been hurt worse than that and I’m fine.”

That would be a yes. Because of course he did. If he hadn’t been smelling something sick in nearly all the villages they passed today, Kakashi might have just rolled his eyes and let Obito deal with it. Whatever it was, it had affected most of the nearby population.

“Did you at least boil it first?”

“Lighten up, Kakashi,” Obito says instead of answering. “It’s from a well people drink out of. It’s not like there was a dead body in it.”

Kakashi files that answer under “no” as Obito returns the water bottle to his pack.

It’s not like boiling it would have even required Obito to start a campfire. He’s a walking matchbox and a small fire jutsu could get the job done.

“Kei’s gonna kill me if I get sick for drinking water without boiling it!” Obito says, right after Kakashi can see the gears of cause and effect click in Obito’s facial expression. “Rin, too, but she’ll at least take pity on me.”

Kakashi sighs. “Let’s just go.”

Chapter Text

 


The house is quiet and dark, the windows open to let in the cool night air after the warmth of summer that arrived in spring. The sound of a knife cutting through the plastic screen is almost silent and definitely not near loud enough to wake the sleeping family inside, much less the boy who is sprawled out on his bed, one leg over the edge and a thin sheet twisted around the other foot.

The boy makes a few sounds, but they're only half verbalized sleep disturbances that quickly give way to snores.

A shadowy figure, tall and broad shouldered but compact enough not to impede movement climbs through the window. He grabs the edges with gloved hands and sets a booted foot down without any more noise than he had made breaking into the house.

Leaving no more trace than a shadow, the man leaves through the window he entered through, this time with the boy. The only thing left behind in the room is an empty bed and a screenless window.


The sun is shines bright in a clear blue sky and four high school aged students walk down the sidewalk. Their conversation is full of a forced levity that falls silent as they pass a school. The tallest one, a black-haired girl with short hair stuck under a hat even in the summer heat stops and stares at the front steps of the building the proudly proclaims its status as Summer Tree Middle School.

"Kei!" screams the voice of a boy from somewhere down the street.


Penelope Garcia waits with hot pink nails clutching a tablet to her chest and her equally vibrant lips pulled back into an unusually upset frown. Everyone looks at her, and she's not a profiler, but they are, and she can tell they know this is going to be a hard case by the way she's waiting. Hotch it the last one through the door, and she only waits for him to sit down before she starts speaking.

"This is an extra creepy creeper this week," Garcia says, and clicks the remote to bring up the pictures of two bodies on the monitor.

Garcia only knows that the two mutilated bodies (one tossed into a commercial dumpster, the other in a curbside recycle bin) are children because the files said so. The faces are gone and the tongues cut out and Reid has already noticed that even as she looks down and focuses on the names.

"Jessica Donalds, age 13, she went missing seven months ago and was found two weeks ago. Louis Jacobson, 15, went missing three weeks before Jessica, but was found two days after her. Both were assumed runaways at the time they went missing, and they were in the foster system."

Garcia clicks again and eight pictures, spanning age, race, and gender eliminating any pattern, appear on the screen. These are happier pictures, taken by families or the forced formality of school pictures, but they're far more human than the crimes scenes. She looks at those for just long enough to remember their smiles before she gets into the icky. "In the past year and a half, eight children have gone missing from their homes, screens cut but otherwise nothing to suggest the child hadn't just left. All of them were also in the foster system and had previous histories of running away." She clicks again, and the last two pictures take the space on the screen. One is a preteen smiling boy with messy black hair and braces, the other is a girl with a hat and the perfect expression for a moody teenager who looks like a slightly older version of the other.

"Two days ago, Hayate Gekko, 12, went missing from his home. Screen cut, no signs someone kidnapped him. Mother files a missing person's report, everyone's convinced he didn't run away." Garcia shakes her head and waves her hands to emphasise what she's saying, then points back to the screen. "Less than forty-eight hours later, his older sister, Keisuke, 15, also went missing. This time while walking to school with three other children, two of which are foster children in the Gekko household. To add even more hinkiness to this, one of them went missing for several months a few years back, and none of them are talking."

"Taking foster children who had a prior history of running away and would be assumed runaways when taken is a very different M.O. than taking a child off the street in broad daylight," Reid says and looks up. He he talks, he lets the pages of the file fall back down to the folder. "Factor in the fact the brother went missing less than two days before Keisuke and that she was headed somewhere in a group, are we certain the disappearances are related?"

"How cooperative was the sister when her brother was taken?" Hotch asks.

That was something the local detective had been sure to tell her, so Garcia doesn't bother looking down at her notes. It was unusual enough that she remembers it. "The three older children of the Gekko household had already left for school before the mother noticed Hayate was missing." There's nothing unusual about that though, the suspicious part happened after. "When the three teens were told, the two foster siblings broke down crying while Keisuke and I quote 'looked ready to break someone's neck.' She went silent when asked if she knew of any reason someone would want to take her brother and refused to speak after that."

That bit earns the reaction Garcia had been waiting for- the stares that say, "something's up."

"If she knew something and the foster siblings are covering for her, we need to know what it is," Morgan says.

Hotch nods and is already pushing his chair out as he speaks, "Wheels up in twenty."


"Non nobis solum nati sumus. Not for ourselves alone are we born." - Cicero


JJ looks through the tinted window of the one way mirror for the interrogation room. Inside there is a woman with her back straighter than the chair and a glare that looks like the sprinkler system would see some use if there was anything flammable in her line of sight.

A second room holds a girl, fifteen or so, clutching tissues that sport the same purple that's smeared and streaked down her cheeks.

In another room, a boy with black hair he spent too much time gelling paces around before he sits down and massages his shoulder.

The last room has a boy hunched over in his seat with his face covered by a surgical mask and a mop of fluffy silver-white hair.

The special agent turns around to stare at the adults in the hallway that are not part of the BAU. One is a man with surprisingly yellow hair and the kind of pretty faced calm she had seen on enough news casters to know he was hiding his worry. Two more women are there, both in business attire with the kind of polite smile required at work.

Hotch looks through the windows at everyone, taking a few seconds longer to make the circuit before he makes his decision. "JJ, I want you to take the Nohara girl. Morgan, the Uchiha." He pauses and looks at the father in the hallway. "Reid, see if you can get the Hatake kid to talk to you."

He walks down the hall towards the mother without saying anything more, and JJ takes that as a sign to get to work. One of the women, Candice Clarence, follows JJ as she heads for the room the girl is in. She has a warm smile and JJ hopes, that at the very least, the woman won't scare the girl.

The door handle is cold as she grabs it, and she watches the girl jump slightly in surprise when she opens the door. "Hello, Rin, my is JJ and this is Candice, I was wondering if I could ask you a few questions."

At that, the girl's eyes go wide with a kind of apprehensive fear, but she nods. JJ allows herself to look like she's forcing a painful smile as she sets the file on the table and sits down.


Morgan watches everyone take in everyone and waits for Hotch to hand out orders. The split isn't as he expects, but he can work with it. A smile at the child advocate earns him at least a little leeway as he lifts the file up and heads to the room.

"Obito, right?" Morgan asks as he opens the door and catches the kid up and pacing again.

"Yeah," the teen says, and rubs the back of his head, far more open than the account of clamming up made him expect. "You here to ask me more questions?"

Morgan raises his eyebrows and shrugs. "Yeah, kid, I am."

The boy shrugs and then drops his hand down before he uses it to pull out the chair to sit down in. "Not sure what good it'll do you."

Morgan sits down and lays the file on the table, folder closed. "Yeah, heard you bumped your head pretty hard."

"Yeah," Obito says and rubs his head with his left hand again. "No harm done, though. I've got a hard head."

Morgan opens his mouth to say something, but then the boy grins with a disarming smile and lifts his right arm. It's stiff and the hand sticking out of it is too strange looking to be real. "Kept me alive when I got buried in rubble."

At that, Morgan flips open the file and looks down. As he does, he watches the kid for a reaction. "Says here that you went missing for a few months after that–"

The kid slams his hands on the table and stands up, eyes wide with a fearful worry. "You don't think this is related to that, do you? He was a creepy dude, but I would have known–there's no way Kei–" he stops talking suddenly as his eyes widen slightly, then tries to backspace, "the dude was old, like, grandpa old, no way he could have taken Kei."

"He managed to get you out of the rubble and to the building he kept you in," Morgan says, and then looks down at the picture of the abandoned warehouse. "He had guys to help him with you, he could have used them to take Kei and Hayate."

Obito shakes his head. "Nah, man."

"You seem pretty sure about that."

Instead of explaining why, the kid clams up. He crosses his arms with some difficulty, then sits back in his chair. Morgan stares at the kid. There is no doubt in the special agent's mind that the kid knows something.

"I'm thirsty," Obito says in what is possibly the least subtle way to change the topic, "can I get a soda or something?"

The request is something Morgan considers for a few seconds before he speaks. "Sure kid, what flavor?"

"Orange?"


Reid almost says something when Hotch tells them who to speak with. While he is older than the father who's in his mid-twenties, he doubts he looks old enough to earn the man's respect. There is a job that needs to be done though, so he points at the door with the hand that's holding the file. "After you, Mr. Namikaze."

Minato Namikaze, 25. Kakashi Hatake, 15. A legal adoption after the death of the child's father. Reid's not certain what the dynamic between the two will be like, but he hopes it'll work for the best.

The blond man heads into the room and Reid watches the teen. He looks up and looks at first Mr. Namikaze, then to Reid, then back to his father.

"Hi, Kakashi," Reid says, and looks between the father and son before he decides to sit in the chair opposite the teen. "My name's Dr. Spencer Reid."

Kakashi looks at him, but doesn't say a word. The mask makes it hard to see the teen's expression, but his eyes are still visible and give enough away for Reid to read him well enough to know he's going to be hard to crack.

Spencer Reid taps his fingers on his knee and holds his mouth open while he thinks of something to say, but it's only for a second. "Why do you wear the mask?" he asks, it's something simple, not about any of the missing children, nothing to make Kakashi defensive.

"Hmph," is all the sound he makes before he looks at something off to Reid's right.

"He has allergies," Mr. Namikaze offers up. Reid nods politely, although letting the question go unanswered would have worked better. Trying to get Kakashi to speak won't work if he can let someone else answer for him.

Kakashi continues staring at the apparently interesting part of the wall. There is dog fur all over his shirt, and several of them stand up off his sleeves in the flourescent lighting.

"Almost forty percent of American households have one or more dogs," Reid says, hoping to avoid questions the father could answer instead. If he talked enough, Kakashi would look at him eventually, then he could ask a question. "It's estimated fifteen to twenty percent of the population is allergic to dogs, and almost one third of those people own dogs."

Even before he's stopped talking, the teen's eyes have flicked to him.

"What do Kakashi's dogs have to do with his missing friend?" Mr. Namikaze asks.

Reid ignores the man's words, and keeps his attention on Kakashi, who has turned to look at him. There are a few different color hairs on his shirt and a few more of different lengths.

"How many dogs do you have?"

Kakashi tilts his head at the question. "Eight."

"That's a lot of dogs," Reid says, really without thinking. It earns him in response another nonverbal noise from the teen that he's fairly certain would have been followed by an insult if they weren't in a room with the boy's father.

He manages to save some face though, and hopes the exchange gave him enough leeway to ask about the missing girl. "Does Keisuke like them?"

"Yeah." Rolled eyes.

Reid pulls two pictures out of the file, one of Keisuke and the other of Hayate, both with the blue background of a school picture. "Were you friends with her brother as well?"

Kakashi just stares at him.

"I'll take that as a no then," Reid says, striking out and hoping to find something useful now that Kakashi is at least answering questions. "But you were with her when she was taken?"

"Are you stupid? I already said that, idiot," is what the look Kakashi gives him says.

Reid's eyes narrow though, as he looks at the teen's posture that's far more relaxed than it should be. There's no worry in it, at least not the kind Reid would have expected to see from a teen who's friend had gone missing.

"I'm not clear on what happened," Reid says, purposefully placing some false confusion and uncertainty in his voice, "can you go over what happened when Keisuke was taken?"

Kakashi keeps his arms folded over the Henohenomoheji face on his shirt. It's impossible to tell what his face is doing behind the mask, but assuming his jaw is set isn't too far fetched.

Reid flips open the file. He doesn't need it. The one read through was all he needed to know what was in the file and what each of the three teens had said about what happened.

"You, Keisuke, Obito, and Rin were walking to the high school," Reid says then pauses, "and when you passed the middle school, that's when Keisuke was grabbed?"

The look from Kakashi is almost enough to make Reid regret leaving out parts. Being looked at like he's an idiot isn't something he's too familiar with. Spouting out facts and information that get him weird looks is something he knows. Purposefully getting something wrong in order to make Kakashi think he's an idiot and correct him, that's uncharted territory.

He'd taken a look at the map of Summer Tree, and of the nearby city, on the flight from D.C. It had been easy enough to plot all the houses, the two crime scenes, and to find the schools. The quickest and most direct path to the high school from the Gekko house did not go near the middle school, but it's possible passing by it was part of their normal path.

"Did you regularly walk past the middle school on the way to yours?"

Kakashi keeps his arms crossed and continues to glare. It might have been comical how determined the teen is to stick to the rebellious bad boy attitude if it was not standing in the way of Reid figuring out what happened.

When Mr. Namikaze does not answer in place of his son, Reid does turn to stare at the man, if only to gauge a reaction. The twenty-five year old's blue-eyed stare is narrowed and directed at his son, not the agent in the room.

The start time between the two schools was an hour. Passing by the middle school to drop Hayate off would not have been part of their normal routine. The answer to Reid's question was no.


Hotch makes his decision and hands out assignments quickly. A motherly person for the girl who just needs some compassion and a sympathetic ear, JJ. Morgan to the pacing boy who will probably respond well to an honest face. The last boy, he will be tough to crack, but the kid's father had enough of a pretty boy face hoping Reid's similar look would help him connect isn't as long a shot as the others.

Miyako Gekko is for him to deal with.

He knows the look in her eye. It's cold rage that is held back only by the woman's stone-still posture. Two of her children are missing and instead of being out there looking for them, Hotch and everyone else are asking her questions. She wants to be out there. If she finds whoever has taken her children, well, Hotch thinks he has a fairly good idea what would happen. He knows what he'd do, what he did.

"Mrs. Gekko," Hotch says after he's opened the door and let her turn the murderous stare to him, "I am Supervisory Special Agent Aaron Hotchner."

"Where are my children?"

"That is what we are trying to figure out," he replies calmly, then stops in front of the chair. "May I sit?"

She blinks, and Hotch sits once she nods ever so slightly.

The file in his hand is thick. It has more than just the information on the case, of the two discovered bodies, of the missing children, of her two missing children and the cold case for the kidnapping of her foster son. It has the information on Miyako Gekko and the life she lived before settling down to a peaceful life in Summer Tree.

Garcia, for all her bubbly eccentricities, was a saving grace. Her ability to dig up things buried even six feet under means he knows of information even background checks had failed to turn up.

"Is there anyone from your past life who would want to harm your children?" Hotch asks, and waits to see her reaction.

As expected, she blinks and starts to tell him she does not know what he's talking about, then stops. Her mouth closes purposefully as she changes her answer. "No one. They are all dead."

"Then who killed your late husband, Mrs. Gekko?" Hotch asks, then touches the file. "School counselors and the caseworkers for the other two children you are fostering have reported that your eldest daughter, Keisuke, has expressed an unnatural worry about something bad happening to Hayate."

Miyako Gekko remains as stone-faced as she has been, eyes still ready to kill him if it would mean finding her children. "My husband's death was an unfortunate accident. My son had a health scare when he was infant. My daughter became worried. You and I both know the monsters that are out there, so, I nurtured that protective streak."

"So you taught her how to use a sword?"

"Katana," Miyako corrects him, "and yes."

Hotch stares at the woman and waits for her to blink. Then he asks, "What about your other children? Have you taught them how to fight as well?"

"Obito was held prisoner by a man for several months before he came under my care. Before that, he was in several different foster homes and was bullied by some of the other children who thought he was weak," she tells him, without wasting a second.

She looks down at the file on the table, then back up to him. "They are not the adolescent monsters you are envisioning, Agent Hotchner."

The sound of Morgan knocking on the door interrupts her from saying anything more, and Hotch turns at the interrupting agent.

"We might have something, Hotch," Morgan says, thumb pointing at the hallway behind him.

"If you would excuse me, Mrs. Gekko," Hotch says, then stands up.

Once he reaches the door, Morgan tilts his head to whisper, "The kids know something. Obito's trying really hard to avoid letting something slip. So is the girl. Reid's kid has clammed up. They didn't follow their normal path that morning and according to the girl, Kei had a weapon on her."

Hotch doesn't even pretend that Mrs. Gekko is not trying to listen to what Morgan is saying, so he turns to the woman. "Mrs. Gekko, do you think your daughter would have gone after her brother's kidnapper on her own?"

The woman's glare disappears, and he can see she doesn't even have to think about her answer. "Yes."

Hotch turns to Morgan and they both know what it means. There is no need to order Morgan to tell the others to find out exactly what happened, but before he leaves, he turns to Mrs. Gekko. "Can your son have a soda?"


Morgan punches the button and listens as the can of soda tumbles down the inside of the vending machine. If he's not careful, he'll end up having to clean up the inside of the interrogation room. Holding the can and trying not to shake it on his way back is all he can hope for though.

"Careful, kid," Morgan says as he sets the can on the table, and Obito grabs for it.

Sure enough, the kid pops the top and the soda foams up, but thankfully doesn't spray everywhere. The kid quickly picks the can up, licking the side and using his sleeve to mop up the spill on the table.

"Uh, sorry," Obito says.

"So, kid, you wanna tell me what you were doing at the middle school?"

Obito stops with the can in front of his mouth.

Morgan waits for the kid to set the soda down before asking, "Why don't we start with why Kei had her sword with her?"

Obito takes a drink instead of answering, and Morgan knows the kid is definitely hiding something.

"We know she went looking for her brother, kid." Morgan says, "We wanna find her and her brother, but to do that we need to know what happened."

"Um, uh," Obito waffles for a moment and guzzles the soda. Then he sets the can down and taps it against his other hand. "She, uh, she didn't tell us."

"Was she planning something?"

"I don't know, maybe?" Obito says and scratches his head. "Probably. She wanted to do something."

Morgan nods. "Okay, kid, just walk me through the morning. Close your eyes and start with what Kei was like when you woke up."

Obito does as he's told and closes his eyes. "We got up and got ready for school. Rin and I–we were upset, sure, but Kei was mad. But she was that quiet kind of mad that she gets when she's about ready to pummel someone for picking on Hayate."

"Okay, good, kid," Morgan says, hoping he can keep Obito talking, "what next?"

"Rin was taking too long in the bathroom so I went to brush my teeth in the kitchen. Mrs. Gekko just kind of rolled her eyes. I'm not supposed to do that." He stops speaking and turns his head to the side. Then, "Kei just kind of stood outside the door and looked at us in the kitchen. When Rin got out, we were running late, so it was a blur: breakfast, bookbags, out the door."

He doesn't want to ask directly if Kei has her sword with her, or suggest something, but Morgan needs to know what happened. So he asks, "What did you do next?"

"Same thing we always do," Obito answers and shakes his head. "We get in the car, and cut across the shopping center to meet meet Kakashi at the park… but he had a few of his dogs with him."

"Dogs?" Morgan asks.

"Yeah," Obito says with a little laugh. "Kakashi volunteers at the shelter even though the place kills him. Brings home strays all the time, too."

"Ok." Morgan hadn't pegged the other kid as the volunteer type, but allergies definitely explained the mask. "Does he normally have his dogs with him?"

Obito shakes his head. "No, and Kei doesn't normally have her katana with her. Kakashi slid in next to her in the back though, and the dogs all climbed in. Kei told me she just wanted to swing by Hayate's school. So I did."

"Do you normally drive past the school?" Morgan asks, although he thinks he already knows the answer.

"If we get up late or Mrs. Gekko can't drop him off, we'll drop Hayate off sometimes. We'll pick him up sometimes, too." Obito stops talking and bites his lip. "I knew something is off as soon as she asked." He stops and messes with his false hand. It's clear he just needs a few seconds to figure out what to say, so Morgan lets him without prompting. "Kakashi's got a thing for Kei and he'll do whatever she asks. She likes him too. Even if neither of them will admit it. I realized they planned something when Kakashi whistled and let his dogs out of the car."

"Is that when you got out?"

"Yeah. I parked the car along the curb, then we all got out. Kei, had her katana and watched the dogs for something. I tried to make a few jokes to lighten the mood," he stops to laugh feebly, "it didn't work too well."

Morgan smiles a bit. Garcia and this kid would probably get along. "So you make a joke and then what happens?"

"Kei stopped to stare at the school," Obito responds. "Then we heard Hayate shouting Kei's name. Kei took off. Me and Kakashi, we took off after her and Rin called the police."

Morgan can't believe what he's hearing. It sounds like something on TV that's written for entertainment, not reality, but it's the best lead they have. "Where was Hayate during this?"

"I don't know." He rubs the back of his head. "His scream came from down the block, but when I got there, there were a few adults around this old van and Kei was fighting with one of them, and then I got hit on the head."

"Ok, I need you to focus, Obito, can you do that for me?" He gets a nod in reply. "Focus on the men, what did they look like?"

"I don't know," Obito says and opens his eyes. "They looked normal. I was too far away to see anything." He grabs his can of soda and leans forward. "Look man, I know we broke the rules, but I don't want Kei to get in trouble. She's just trying to find Hayate. She can handle herself."


JJ smiles at the girl and waits for her to finish wiping the tears in her eyes. When she brings the tissue down, it's got the purple on it.

"I know you're scared for your sister," JJ says, and offers a new tissue. "I know you must be worried sick about Keisuke and Hayate, so I need you to tell me what happened that way we can find them and bring them home."

"I'm sorry," Rin gets out between a sob and blowing her nose, "I know you just want to help, but…" She just trails off.

JJ sighs inwardly and decides just asking the girl about what happened isn't going to work. "You called the police, though. You must have thought we could do something to help."

"I did, but I didn't know what they–I just didn't want anyone to get hurt." She looks up to JJ with brown eyes that are red from crying. "I heard Hayate scream for Kei and then the others ran. I didn't want anyone to get hurt. I knew they wouldn't listen to me and Kei can be reckless–so can Kakashi–so I called the police."

Rin pauses, and JJ can hear the girl's shoes tap on the floor in the silence. "I was wearing heels, so I couldn't run after them. When I reached them, Obito was on the ground and Kei was gone."

JJ keeps herself from narrowing her eyes and squinting at the girl. Appearing suspicious of what she's being told isn't going to help. She needs to appear as a friend. "You didn't stay on the phone though, you hung up before the officers could get there."

"I dropped my phone."

"Yeah, I saw that. It was pretty cracked. I think you're gonna need a new one."

Rin nods. "Yeah."

"Is there a reason you didn't answer the officer's questions when they arrived?" JJ asks, and hopes it's not going to make the girl stop talking.

JJ follows Rin's gaze as she looks to the side. The girl might be looking at the wall, but the other side of it has the interrogation room with the white-haired kid.

"Kakashi?"

Rin stops herself from nodding, and JJ knows she needs to get the real reason out of Rin. She takes a gamble and hopes it pays off. "He's kind of cute."

The gamble pays off when JJ sees Rin jump slightly in her seat.

"It's okay, your secret's safe with me," JJ whispers with a smile. After a second, Rin smiles back, and JJ winks. "I had a crush on a boy like that when I was your age. He was so cool and had no idea I even existed."

Rin sighs heavily. "He likes Kei, even if he won't admit it. Kei's blind as a bat to it, even though she's got a crush on him that she won't do anything about because she knows I like Kakashi. I'm not invisible, I'm just not Kei."

"That sounds tough," JJ tells her, and means it. Being a teenage girl is hard, even more so when boys are involved. And If Kei is the leader of the group, it explains why the other three are keeping silent. "How close are Kakashi and Kei?"

"Close," Rin says with a shrug. "He was an only kid, and his dad babysat Kei before I came to live with the Gekkos."

"Did Kakashi tell you not to tell us what happened because it would get Kei into trouble?"

Rin sits up straight and clamps her mouth shut. Before JJ can find a workaround to that question, the phone in her pocket buzzes and she pulls it out.

"No one is in trouble, Rin," JJ says, and looks down at the text.

"Kei planned something. Kakashi helped." It's from Morgan and sent to everyone.

JJ stands up and turns to Rin who still looks worried. "We're going to find Kei and Hayate," she tells the girl and then leaves, pressing the speed dial for Garcia as she does.

"Shower me with praise, Blondie," Garcia says before the second ring.

"Hi, Garcia," JJ says and looks at the conversation Morgan's started in the room with Obito. The two-way mirror behind her though also shows JJ the stalemate Reid's reached with Kakashi. "Can you pull the phone records and internet history for Kakashi Hatake and Keisuke Gekko? We think they might have been planning something."

"Will do," Garcia says as her fingers start typing on the other end. "Call you back when I–" she stopped though, "–oh yeah, those two were definitely planning something. Statistics about child abductions, laws, and tons of talking. Looks like she was planning on using Kakashi's dogs."

JJ nods and looks through the interrogation glass at the white-haired teen, who's staring at the wall and avoiding both Reid's and Mr. Namikaze's stares. "Thank you, Garcia. Let us know if you find anything more."

"Will do," Garcia says, cheerily, then adds, "bring those babies home."

Click goes the telephone. JJ looks at Hotch and his conversation with Mrs. Gekko that looks to be going better than she had expected. Knocking on the window gets Reid's attention, since there's not much chance he'd check his text messages. Sure enough, the technophobe just turns to her and leaves the room to talk instead of looking at his phone.


What JJ say is more than enough for Reid to chew on and it doesn't take him more than a few seconds to come up with a plan to find out what Kakashi and Keisuke had planned. He pokes his head in and says quickly, "Mr. Namikaze, can you please step outside for a moment?"

Reid looks back at the white-haired teen in the room. His arms are still crossed and he's glaring at the one-way mirror. Mr. Namikaze is more than willing to help where he can after Reid explains the situation, so the special agent reenter the room without the boy's father.

Kakashi notices, and there's a flash of emotion on his face. It's not something he expected. He's worried.

"You don't seem very worried about Keisuke," Reid says as he sits down.

The look Kakashi gives him says clearly enough, "That's because I'm not."

"Obito and Rin, they are worried though, worried enough to talk to us." Kakashi makes a derisive noise behind his mask, and Reid keeps talking. "Here's what I think. You and Keisuke planned to use your dogs to search around the school, and then, when you found something, Keisuke got taken."

Kakashi stares at him for a split second, daring him to say something, then resumes looking at the wall.

"I also think that the other two aren't speaking because you told them not to." Reid knows he's right because Kakashi's posture straightens and he actually looks at Reid. "You don't want them to talk because Obito and Rin will tell us something you don't want us to figure out, and I think that fact is that Keisuke let herself get grabbed. Is that true?"

Reid can't tell if Kakashi is getting ready to answer or not, so he keeps talking. "If she has, you should be worried."

He pulls out the pictures of the two crime scenes where bodies were dumped. Kakashi inhales sharply and looks very disquieted at the sight of one of the bodies, Louis, who was about Keisuke's age. It's badly mutilated and something Reid could not have stood the sight of when he first started working in the BAU.

"The men who took her are capable of doing this. I know you looked up the survival statistics of kidnapping victims. The chance of finding her and Hayate alive drops after the first twenty-four hours. A less quoted statistic though is that seventy four percent of the kidnapping victims who are murdered are killed in the first three hours."

"Kei's not dead," Kakashi says, but his voice is a little too wobbly to convince Reid he actually believes that as strongly as he did when Reid first sat down.

"Then tell me how you found the people so we can find her."

"Kei did that."

Reid taps his fingers on the file and hopes Garcia can pull something more off the teens' computers. If Keisuke was the only one who knew how to find the people who took her, the fastest way would be her laptop or phone. Waiting for crime scene processing could take weeks they do not have.

Reid's train of thought is interrupted by an immense rumble, like part of the building has collapsed, which is the familiar sound of a thunderstorm inside a large building. Immediately, Reid looks up at the small rectangular window behind Kakashi, which shows a clear blue sky, and he reevaluates his initial though. Lightning can strike nearly thirty miles from a storm, but the chances are low, and when multiplied by the lack of storms in the forecast and that thunderstorms themselves are comparatively rare in this part of the country, the probability is far too low.

"Stay here," Reid orders Kakashi, then stands up and heads to the door. Morgan and Hotch are both at the doors and stepping into the hall while everyone who had been sitting in the office to his right is already out of sight down the hall. "What's going on?"

Reid can't make out anything from the mass of noise and commotion around the corner, at least not until the uncracked voice of a preteen kid cuts over it with a loud, "Mom!"

Miyako Gekko shoves Hotch to the side as soon as she hears the shout, and then runs down the hall. Reid doesn't try to stop her because he's too busy turning around to stare at Kakashi who looks like he was caught in the middle of standing up.

"Told you so," Kakashi remarks in a complete deadpan, even if his posture looks like a dog ready to jump at something.

Hotch reaches the door to say something to Reid, but then someone from the office runs into their portion of the building. "Keep them back," the man says.

Before Reid can even start to wonder what is going on, Miyako Gekko is ushered back into the room, this time with one twelve-year-old kid stuck to her by the combined power of a hug.

"Where's Kei?" Kakashi asks. He's at the door and slipping under Reid's arm before the adult can stop him.

The kid is fast.

Reid can see the entrance to the building by the time he catches up, and the source of the noise. There is dust everywhere and a hole in the wall that's currently plugged by a full-sized white van with designs advertizing a gardening service. The front window is in a million pieces thanks to a few pieces of dislodged building.

A few kids are sitting or standing clear of the rubble pile while officers pull more out of the side door. The driver's side door is open and there's a few people crowded around the person in the driver's seat.

Reid can't really make out who it is and the dust in the air makes it hard to breathe, so instead of running into the mess like Morgan would have, he stops. Kakashi does not though, and climbs onto the hood of the van before anyone can stop him.

Mrs. Gekko is not too far behind and makes enough noise pushing her way towards the van. Reid turns around to see the others arrive.

Hotch is calm and he looks around before he asks, "What happened?"

"Driver crashed through the wall," one of the front guards says. "She's hurt pretty bad. Looks like a gunshot in addition to some bumps, and a busted face from hitting the steering column."

"Is the driver Keisuke Gekko?" Hotch asks.

"Yeah, it's sis," the boy Mrs. Gekko had been clinging to says, and Reid can tell from the picture it's Hayate.

Hotch doesn't nod, but the silent stare is as good as one. "Reid, I want you and JJ to finish up here, and then head to the hospital. I want a full picture of what happened once Keisuke's out of surgery."

Keisuke's pulled out of the van and she's conscious enough to order people around as they load her into the ambulance. Unsurprisingly, given the fact she ran off after her brother, they were to make sure Hayate and the other kids were safe, as well as Obito and Rin.

Reid's not quite sure what to expect from Keisuke once she's out of surgery. He's listened to everything the other teens have had to say and there are still large gaps their understanding of what exactly it was Keisuke did.

Garcia's information helps fill in some of those gaps, but also creates more. Runs of similar crimes running back decades, groups of five kids here, ten there. Sometimes bodies show up mutilated or just executed. Garcia doesn't think Keisuke had discovered that connection, but given the fact the girl had gone into the wolf's den and emerged on her own, Reid's not going to put anything past her.

The nurse comes over to tell Reid and JJ that Keisuke is awake and that they can question her.

"I'm actually curious, Spence," JJ confesses as they reach the room.

He has to admit he is, too. Years of interviewing victims that they force to re-live every moment in vivid detail so they can stop the UnSub and keep more people from dying, and of picking the brains of the worst humanity has to offer makes Reid look forward to asking someone, "Why did you save them?"

The two of them enter the room and it's clear the girl's been through hell. Her face is a mass of bruises with stitches keeping everything together. It's hard to tell if the bandages are the cause of her hairdo that puts the term hat hair to shame, or if it's just how it normally looks without a hat.

"Como estan?" Keisuke asks, slurring the words before giggling, which causes JJ to scratch her head and exchange a look with Reid. Keisuke Gekko is without a doubt heavily medicated. "You here to ask me questions?"

"Ye–," Reid has to cough to clear his throat before he can answer. "Yes. I'm Dr. Spencer Reid and this is Special Agent Jennifer Jareau. We're with the Behaviour Analysis Unit with the FBI."

Keisuke's eyes are practically glazed over by the time he finishes his long sentence.

"We just want to ask you what happened when you went after your brother," JJ says as she sits in the chair next to the bed. "Easy questions."

Reid remains standing a little behind JJ. He's not certain Keisuke's lucid enough to answer their questions, but none of the statements the others gave had indicated the UnSubs had been stopped. If Keisuke has information that information that the others have not provided, then they need to know. Given that she somehow managed to find the UnSubs on her own, Reid's fairly certain she does.

"Whaddya want to know?"

"How did you find the men who took your brother?" JJ asks. It's not where Reid would have started, but it's something.

"Tracked the van."

"The van you crashed into the police station?" Reid asks quickly, without stopping to think about it.

Keisuke smiles and giggles a bit at that. "Yeah." She kind of remains silent and needs prompting to explain how she found the van, but once she does, the answer is something Reid would never have thought of, but will make Garcia proud. "Stupid thing was parked on the street for a few days. Googled the company. No Twitter, Facebook. No reviews. Idiots didn't even have a website."

JJ smirks at that. "What made you look for them at the school?"

Kei's face goes momentarily blank then she scrunches it up. After a few seconds of thinking she blinks again, her gaze stuck somewhere on the floor above. "Hayate mentioned almost getting hit by one of the motherfuckers walking home from school last week."

"There was a gardening van by the school?" JJ asks, then turns to Reid. His eyes narrow while thinking about it, but they quickly exchange a look. It's information they should pass on to Garcia.

"Yeah, Hayate said they'd been around for a few weeks." Keisuke winces in pain and the movement pulls oddly at her stitches. "A kid at his school went missing, too."

JJ steps out of the room, phone already at her ear when she reaches the door. There's no need to ask about the company when they have the van sitting half in their police station.

"So, you tracked the van down?"

"Then I let myself get caught." She smiles like that part was some part of a genius plan and Reid can only be glad that the reckless plan had the statistically improbable best outcome.

She stops looking out of it and focuses for a second. "Is Obito okay?"

"He's fine," Reid tells her. From what he's heard, Obito's head is as hard as Morgan's and a few bumps aren't enough to keep either of them down.

Keisuke nods slowly and he can see the exact moment the movement starts hurting her head. It also serves to derail her attention away from the conversation. He's not at all surprised she has a concussion. Thirty percent of car crashes result in the driver or passenger getting a concussion, and Keisuke had not been wearing her seatbelt, which only increased the chances.

Concussions can make focusing hard though, so he helps bring her back to answering questions. "After you got caught, where did they take you?"

"Don't know," she says, too quickly to have been able to think about it, "someplace." Before Reid can ask her to close her eyes to try and remember, she gives him something more to work with. "Railroad tracks." Her face scrunches up. "We drove over a lot of them. It's downtown, the old industrial district." Something clicks in her head as the door to the room clicks shut with JJ's reentry. "That's why I didn't recognize any of the buildings coming out."

That information lines up with what Hayate and the other kids said. They had been in what they thought was a warehouse in a place with lots of large, older buildings, many of which had been boarded up. Garcia's expert ability to narrow down parts of Summer Tree and the nearby cities based on the same description had given them the same section of the city as a possibility.

They've already sent teams to the building. All they found was an empty warehouse, several dead bodies, and a katana. They need to know what happened though.

"After they took you to the building, what did you see?"

"I found Hayate," Keisuke tells them, and closes her eyes. "The mooks pulled me out of the van, and Hayate was in this cage…like…thing. The idiot tried to put me in it, but he was holding me in one hand and my sword in the other." She chuckles and the sound unnerves Reid is a way he's used to from UnSubs, not teenage girls. "He needed a third hand to unlock the door."

"So you used that opportunity to act?" JJ prompts.

Keisuke tries to bring her hand up, but only gets about halfway. "No nose touching, got it," she says to the IV.

"Kei."

"Back to the story, right." She turns to Reid and he's once again faced with the fact she's hard to peg, and he doesn't think it's just the drugs. "He unlocked the door, then I slammed my shoulder into him to get him away from the door. While he was reeling, I grabbed my blade from where he set it down."

She lifts her hands up in front of her chest and holds them like she's wrapped them around the hilt of her blade. They move while she talks. "I took him out. Then the one who came from behind. I ordered Hayate to run for the van."

"And the other kids?" JJ asks when Keisuke stops talking.

"The ones in the pen Hayate was in ran to the van too. There were others in the building, but." Her voice breaks and it's clear she's starting to cry. "I couldn't save them. I had to get Hayate out. As soon as he was in the van, I climbed in and started it." She laughs again. "They left the keys in the ignition."

"When did you get shot?"

Keisuke stops and looks down at the blanket over her lower body. "Fucking bastard shot me in the leg when I was running to the van." Her toes wiggle underneath the fabric. "Didn't feel it too much as the time. I just got in the car and floored it." There's a smile on her face as she holds her hands up. "The metal siding on the building split like an orange peel. Of course once I got clear of the place, my leg felt like it was on fire." She looks up at both of them and reaches up with the IV-less hand to scratch at the side of her face. "The pedals were covered in blood, my foot just slipped off when I tried to press the brake. Tried to press it again, but it was the gas. So. Crash. Right through the wall."

There's still one last thing Reid wants to know. "Why'd you do it?"

"Hayate's my brother," Keisuke states plainly. "So I saved him."


"It gives me strength to have somebody to fight for; I can never fight for myself, but, for others, I can kill." - Emilie Autumn


Bonus Scene:

Kakashi sits in the waiting room, arms crossed. With the mask on his face he looks more like a patient in the hospital than many of the others, but the glare keeps the nurses from staring.

"Psst," comes Rin's voice from around a corner, "Kakashi."

"What is it?" he asks, far more grumpily than is called for, but Kei's still in the room and he's not family so he's still not allowed in to see her.

Rin sticks out her tongue then motions for him to go over to her. "Come here."

After looking around to make sure none of the nurses or secretaries are watching him, Kakashi stand up and walks over to Rin. "Well," he says.

She just sighs and grabs his shoulder to shove him in the direction of the hallway. With Kei confined to her bed, it seems Rin's taken the role of making sure everyone plays nice, which means reminding Kakashi when he's acting "too much like a cactus." He's about ready to demand where Rin is taking him when he realizes that Kei's room's only a few feet away.

"Door's unlocked," Rin tells him. Then she looks down at the watch on her wrist. "Nurses won't be around to check on her for an hour or so."

Kakashi tries to think of something to say. "I'm just here to make sure she's fine," is what he pulls out, adding in a dismissive noise in the process. "Minato and Kushina are worried about her."

Rin stares at him and it's clear she doesn't believe him. "Right," she says, and then shoves him towards the door.

Chapter Text

The day dawned bright and early, as it generally did in places with topography that was flatter than a pancake. And when it came to flatness, it was hard to beat an open ocean view.

On one hand, the view of the sunrise over the waves was magnificent. On the other? I didn’t live on a coast. I didn’t live within a hundred miles of a coast, and my hometown barely had access to rivers or lakes. I lived in a glorified, overgrown military outpost that had decided to call itself a hidden village once the population got higher than a couple hundred thousand. A beach did not factor into my morning view in any way, shape, or form.

“Shit,” was all I said aloud, and my voice was immediately swallowed up by coastal winds howling over the sound of seagulls. Not that I’d tried all that hard to be heard.

I sat up in the sand, dislodging all kinds of beach debris and the occasional live crustacean. My pajamas would have probably been a lost cause after this particular adventure if they hadn’t been preemptively ruined by ninja life. I was really just sealing the fate of a T-shirt and a pair of old mission pants. So I just grimaced at the grit and started slapping loose sand from my clothes as I finally got to my feet. Bare feet. Dammit.

A different person probably would have taken the opportunity to panic. The last thing I remembered was going to sleep in my own bed, in my apartment, in my home village. Whatever the hell had happened to put me on a beach I didn’t recognize and hadn’t conjured up for Isobu’s benefit, I had clearly missed it. I wouldn’t have missed Obito’s Kamui technique firing off again, not after the last time someone had used it in my bedroom, but I couldn’t be sure how I had gotten here.  Wherever “here” was.

I’d panic once I finished taking stock.

No weapons aside from my holdout? Check, since I seemed to have ended up on this random tropical beach with only whatever I’d worn to bed. I had stuck a plain kunai into a storage seal painted onto the sole of my foot—which most people would mistake for a tattoo at first glance—but that was it. I’d need to rethink my policy of what made an emergency weapon once I got back to Konoha.

Speaking of. No clue where I was? Also check. The weather and plant life—palms, weird tropical flowers—didn’t really mesh with what I’d seen of the Land of Fire’s coastlines during monsoon season. At least, I was pretty sure it was monsoon season. As for familiar chakra signatures? I couldn’t feel any chakra signatures nearby aside from mine and Isobu’s, which were sort of requirements for me to be considered alive.

Waaaaait a second.

Isobu? I knew he had to be somewhere he could hear me, or else I’d be too dead to ask. Where are you?

I am here, he responded, but I cannot see you. Everything feels...strange.

I closed my eyes and formed the Dragon seal with my fingers. Then I cast my mental net outward, trying to figure out what was throwing Isobu off...and came up with a result that made absolutely no sense.

The little quirk about being a sensor-class shinobi with a giant sea monster inside of me was that I had to filter out internal and external chakra sources relative to myself before I could even start getting an accurate reading. Isobu was ever-present, and his influence on my search parameters would otherwise just throw all my data into chaos. He was also the reason I couldn’t completely suppress my chakra to avoid detection (and hadn’t been able to since I was thirteen). The two problems were pretty well intertwined.

But at that moment, I couldn’t feel Isobu’s chakra just inside me, though I knew I wasn’t actively using it. No, it was there in my mindscape and my chakra coils—but faded. The real bulk of him was out in the physical open ocean.

He sent me a mental image—pretty much a world of solid blue, with light filtering down from above—that pretty much confirmed my suspicions.

I opened my eyes as soon as that projected sensation went white. Out in the distance, a gray-green shape exploded from the water like a breaching whale. I watched, stunned, as the creature did a slow pirouette and showed off all sides of his crablike shell and his red underbelly, then smashed back down into the water with a titanic splash. Even from what looked like two kilometers offshore, Isobu was perfectly distinguishable and his joy was dead obvious.

So when the inevitable tsunami rolled in as a result of his frolicking, I didn’t say anything about it. “Mass” and “water displacement” and “I can’t fly to get away when you do that in the real world” came to mind, but it was all secondary to getting to higher ground post-haste. And not ruining Isobu’s fun.

A real ocean! Isobu sounded happier than I had ever heard him. I am free!

Feeling guilty about that was a waste of energy, but I felt sick anyway. Sure, part of that could be attributed to the way the ground seemed to sway dangerously when Isobu’s tsunami made landfall, but not all of it. Isobu deserved to be free in the ocean and be able to go wherever he wanted, but he’d long since resigned himself to only being able to chase that dream after I died.

...And yet somehow I wasn’t dead.  Isobu was out there, I was still walking around, and we still had a connection.

Wait. This is wrong. Isobu’s joy suddenly cut off as the realization struck him, too. Are you dead, Kei? Are we both dead and waiting to be reborn?

I’m pretty sure I’m alive, I told him as I peered at the ground from the top of the...coconut palm. At least, I was pretty sure that’s what the green things were. If we were dead, I think we would have gotten some kind of warning—or gotten to say something cool before dying.

Good. Isobu blew out a stream of bubbles in his version of a relieved sigh. Baffling, but good.

Any ideas? I asked. I still hadn’t gotten out of the tree.

The Great Belly Flop Tsunami was already receding, without causing too much damage to the inland jungle or to the tree I’d been cowering in. I’d gotten out of the way in time. That said, it had left a few dump trucks’ worth of sand and ocean-borne matter that didn’t really need to be in the trees. I’d still stay out of its way until I was sure Isobu couldn’t cause another one by accident.

My apologies, Isobu said, once I finally sent him my impressions of the last few minutes. I was...overwhelmed.

No harm done, I assured him as I finally climbed back down to solid ground. But I take it you’re confused as hell, too.

He didn’t answer that.

Once there was enough solid ground—as opposed to wet sand or fields of mud—I made my way through the beach detritus to the actual beach. While it had only been a few minutes, all of the light gray sand had been transformed to grayish sandcastle fodder and thrown all over the place, with upended driftwood and random seagoing wildlife strewn across everything. An awful lot of edible-looking wildlife was just begging to be examined with a stick, though the specified species of any of them eluded me.

You know, I said, as approached a shark of some variety to use as a test subject, I think our seal is still intact. It’s just that you’re somehow on the outside instead of the inside.

The seal is not a door, Isobu argued, though I could tell he was as spooked as I was.

I continued prodding at the shark to get some idea of what it ate and also to keep my mind occupied. There was so much that I didn’t know about this situation that I’d take any information I could get, no matter how irrelevant.

It let me keep enough of my cool to say, I don’t think there’s such a thing as a delayed reaction to having my soul ripped out as collateral damage. And we both know that’s what happens when these seals break.

…Well, you may not be entirely wrong, Isobu allowed. He turned this way and that in the ocean, or at least sent me his impressions of doing so. He was fully submerged again, weaving through the water with ease he’d never quite managed in my mindscape, where everything just wasn’t right for him. I have missed this feeling. I know you wish you were in your home, but this is my home. The waves, the open sea…  I just need a little longer to enjoy it.

I could never begrudge him that. Take all the time you need.

While Isobu patrolled the coast in a way he hadn’t since before I was probably born, I did some beachcombing. The localized beach disaster left fish all over the place, so I grabbed a weird leaf the size of my entire torso and started gathering some of them up.

I rescued the sharks first, picking up anything with triangular teeth and carefully escorting it back into the surf so it could go on its merry way. They kinda looked like lemon sharks, so there was a bit of cultural baggage lingering in the back of my mind about shark-fin soup and rampant slaughter. Even forty damned years after I’d learned that shark fin soup existed, I still hated that practice. So I wasn’t going to leave them to suffer.

Anything that was not a shark and bereft of spines, however, was probably on the menu. Eventually.

You and I can both make potable water. Isobu reminded me unnecessarily, even though he was supposedly devoting his attention to chasing an entire school of silvery fish. It was one of those things that Shirozora had taught me how to do while trying to get me to launch dragon-shaped waterspouts, but apparently Isobu had known the whole time and just never given enough of a crap to tell me. What you need is a container.

And thus did I begin following survival advice from a giant sea turtle monster who otherwise wouldn’t leave me alone. Who had not, to my knowledge, ever really needed to know how or why fresh water even existed, never mind actually needed to hydrate. Giant chakra monsters were above such plebeian concerns.

Eventually, I got several things sorted out to something approaching satisfactory standards. Food (fish and coconuts), water (jutsu-desalinated), and a mediocre shelter made of palm fronds were pretty easy to put together with the amount of survival training that had been hammered into my head over the years. I needed a base camp of sorts before I could feel secure enough to explore and probably get into trouble, knowing my luck.

While I worked on that, Isobu did what he wanted. Isobu’s colossal shell spines slowly approached the beach as I looked up from time to time. It wasn’t obvious at first—he was so damned big even at a distance that the size change was subtle at best—but it eventually became apparent that he was approaching slowly to avoid causing another massive wave that would have wiped out my work. His spines looked a bit like a shark’s dorsal fin, and for once I couldn’t see his head as he swam. He’d never lowered his head in my mindscape, because he probably didn’t see the point of actually swimming efficiently in my mindscape. There was no real point in an unreal space.

I went back to setting up a fire—Local Ninja Cheats at Making Fire with Sticks, More at Eleven—and thus cooking the catch Isobu had conveniently swept up for me. Anything I was dubious about got fed to the gulls, but gutting all the fish with my survival kunai would have given them plenty to eat anyway.

I am going to be the next Bear Grylls at this rate, I said to Isobu, who was finally in waters shallow enough that he couldn’t keep his head below the waves.

He was an ordinary human, Isobu said, even as he finally started putting his arms into action and dragging himself further up the...continental shelf? Either way, if he kept going he’d beach himself.

Well, it wasn’t like he couldn’t turn into a giant rolling spiked ball of death to move however he wanted on land. I left him to it and kept cleaning fish.

Isobu finally made it to shore as I was gutting a blue fish that looked a bit like a parrotfish, but without a beak. I’d hoped it meant the creature would be eating less in the way of rocklike substances, but I couldn’t be sure.

And then Isobu interrupted my thoughts with, The fish here are all unfamiliar to me. They seem to be similar, but when I look closer all I see are differences.

I looked up from where I was throwing entrails to the seagulls, flinging things off the end of my survival kunai. And I kept looking up, because although Isobu had always been damned near the biggest living thing I’d ever seen, I had thought he maxed out at a hundred meters. He already would have blotted out the now-risen sun and cast a shadow over the entire beach, but what the fuck?

“You will catch flies with your mouth open like that,” Isobu told me in a somewhat reproachful tone. His voice, even in his most modest, self-effacing squeak, and even from nearly ten meters away, would have rattled glass windows. It certainly blew my hair back from my face.

Still, I shut my drooping mouth long enough to come up with something slightly more productive. It was: “You had a growth spurt.”

“I cannot hear you,” Isobu said, lowering his huge head so it was level with the sand. He had to move his spiked arms out to the sides, bracketing me and my little campsite almost without thinking. What did you say?

I said you got bigger, I told him, suddenly quite worried. I hope you’re not too big to notice me shouting now.

Not when you mutter like that, Isobu replied, and I sighed aloud in relief. I know you said something, but your voice does not carry well to my ears when I am... Isobu’s right hand made a vague gesture that I recognized as one of my staples when I couldn’t find the right word. He probably meant “colossal,” but it was a bit of a toss-up if he’d even noticed his size change until I’d brought it up. This is easier. And it does not hurt you.

Hooray for functional telepathy. Highly selective telepathy. Which was attaching my brain to that of an island-sized turtle monster who nonetheless cared about me enough to be concerned even in the midst of his dream come true.

I smiled. Selective telepathy was just fine.

So, what else is weird about this place? I asked, while returning to the task of cooking. Specifically, to skewering all the fish I wanted to cook on sticks, and then carefully angling them toward the fire in such a way that they didn’t fall in.

It was kind of silly, really. I wasn’t hungry yet and Isobu didn’t need to care about eating. Despite being larger than before, he probably hadn’t made the transition to a biological existence or else he would have complained about it already.

If he somehow had made that kind of change without either of us noticing it, then there was no way I was going to be in charge of feeding him. He could kill his own armadas like a big boy.

Isobu didn’t seem to take any note of my griping thought process. Instead, he said, For a start? This.

When I looked up, he was already turning his huge shell to one side so I could see his leftmost tail better as he lifted it out of the water. It took some shuffling, because even with his arms he wasn’t terrible maneuverable unless he wanted to try his hand at turning himself into a tractor tire.

There was something big, brown, and very much hostile wrapped around Isobu’s tail like an attacking anaconda. It even had its double row of teeth hooked into the particularly spiky end of Isobu’s tail-tip. Going by the way it coiled around his tail so many times, it was probably twice as long as the appendage even if it was skinnier.

I stared in open-mouthed shock.

These are not a feature in our oceans either, Isobu said bluntly, before he swung his left tail in a motion not unlike a cracking whip. The big brown sea serpent flew off the end as though suddenly turned into the world’s fishiest Slinky. If not for Isobu’s spikes, I might’ve even entertained the idea that it survived the toss without getting itself gutted all the way back to its backbone from multiple angles.

But alas, no.

I sighed aloud, plunking myself back down on the driftwood log I’d chosen for a chair. We’re a hell of a long way from Konoha, aren’t we?

That would be putting it mildly, Isobu told me.

Dammit.

Dammit, dammit, dammit.

I ran my hands through my sand-encrusted hair, shaking little grains out and onto my shoulders. My fingers ended up snarled in salty tangles, and I pulled the knots out with all the ferocity I usually saved for combing.

I needed to think through this.

I hadn’t ever really made a habit of asking Isobu about his life before being caught by Hashirama Senju and handed over to Kirigakure. Isobu, until now, had never offered any of his experiences for reference or otherwise, probably because reminiscing about his freedom was too painful. But I was pretty sure that a Tailed Beast was about the best possible expert on fish, monsters, and other things to be found in the vast blue ocean. After all, he’d been one of them.

And if he was right, then I was farther away from my other friends and family than I’d been since I was born. Immediately, my thoughts jumped to Kakashi and Hayate, because those two were going to start a fucking riot if I went missing without a trace. Obito would help until Sensei got him to start searching, and Rin would probably have to run every kind of damage control in existence. I could only hope they were all safe and hadn’t been targeted by whatever the fuck had sent me this far out into the middle of nowhere. Oh god, and what about my students? I’d been putting them through Chūnin Exam prep and they’d be expecting me to show up for training. And Sensei and Kushina and Tatsumaki and Naruto and his team and Gai and oh my fucking god I needed to get home.

And I didn’t have the slightest clue how to do that. If even Isobu was lost, then I was dead.

You still have me, Isobu broke in, before the weight of that realization crushed me.

I looked up, belatedly realizing that at some point I had gotten to my feet and started doing a pitch-perfect headless chicken impression. I froze in place and let my arms drop to my sides, even though Isobu had been inside my head for so long that there was very, very little I could do that could really embarrass or surprise him. Still, behaving like a panicky kid was not helpful.

Isobu’s red-on-gold eye didn’t waver, and he lowered his head so I could easily approach him. He even crossed his arms underneath his spiky chin so I could use them as platforms. With that kind of invitation, how could I say no?

Once I was sitting on the lower jaw spikes that camouflaged Isobu’s mouth from immediate view, I sat back until my back was against one of them and I had a foot next to Isobu’s strangely humanlike nose as a way to brace myself.

“Sorry for panicking,” I said somewhat grudgingly, though Isobu had known me for long enough by now that he wasn’t surprised. I laid my right hand flat against the tip of his nose. In a clearer voice, “You’re the best survival buddy anyone could ask for.”

I did say we were partners. That will not change even if you are preoccupied with your problems.

An embarrassed flush crept up the back of my neck. “You didn’t have to say it like that, jerk. You were worried too.”

And I will still be worried five minutes from now, an hour, or a day as long as we are in an unfamiliar place. But I wanted you to know that you can rely on me. Isobu sighed, and salty air blasted up from his mouth with enough force to ruffle my clothes. Since you seemed to have forgotten.

“Well, you know me. I’m a slow learner that way,” I said sheepishly. I looked directly into his eye, which on its own thoroughly dwarfed me. “So, I guess we need a plan.”

Isobu just sighed again and nearly blew me off his face. In the interests of that not happening a third time, I climbed up from his face and onto his head, then flopped onto my back to think.

I was a jōnin of Konoha. I was marooned on some foreign shore, sure, but I knew how to survive in the great outdoors. I was not alone, as Isobu would remind me until the end of time. I would survive this and go home and see everyone again.

I just had to figure out what I was going to do. I rapped my knuckles gently on Isobu’s head. “So, is this an island?”

I have given serious thought to scouting around this...landmass properly, Isobu said rather than answering me immediately. He lifted his head, and me, to look around. I will tell you if it is an island, and then we can prepare to leave it.

“And while you do that, I’m gonna scout the island itself for resources. If it is an island,” I said, sitting up. I rolled fully to my feet and glanced down at the drop off his head. Pretty high, and with zero leeway, but maybe I could dive…

Don’t, Isobu interrupted, dropping his old-fashioned affectation in impatience. Do not even think about it.

“Spoilsport,” I muttered, but climbed down his head anyway. A hop, skip, and a jump and I was back on the beach. Any normal person would have broken at least one bone, but hey, ninja training and conditioning was good for something.

Avoid being eaten by anything too small. It would reduce the chances I would find you whole.

“In something’s stomach!” I yelled up at him, but he was already pushing off into the sea again. Keep me updated on what you find. I’ll do the same. And you stay safe too.

Isobu huffed a laugh, dislodging the more enterprising birds that had decided to colonize his head after I left it. As if anything around here could hurt me.

Given the sea serpent, I wouldn’t have been quite so quick to assume that. But leaving Isobu’s bravado aside, his mission was important. And he wouldn’t have been the most feared creature in our world’s oceans if he hadn’t been able to take care of himself. For the most part.

I heard that.

I snickered under my breath, then devoted my attention to cooking the rest of my catch. I’d start my first shift as an adventurer afterward.

A total lack of paper or ink meant storage seals were not going to be a thing. I could reseal the survival kunai into the already-existing one on the sole of my foot, but making these stupid things reusable came at the cost of storage capacity. Preserving or packing anything would have to come after I’d made a container. Knowing my luck, there wouldn’t be any convenient beach trash for me to use and I’d have to make everything out of coconut fibers.

What I wouldn’t have given to live in the era after the invention of duct tape.

Anything interesting? I asked Isobu through our link, since packing the fish up in leaves for transport was a fairly mindless task.

After a few seconds, Isobu finally said, You are definitely alone. There is an old fishing village on the opposite side of the island, but no boats in the water or people on the beach.

Well, shit. Then I guess I’d better head over there and check it out, shouldn’t I?

It depends on why this place is abandoned. Isobu sent me an image of sun-bleached buildings and a thoroughly empty main street reaching back from a sheltered bay. There were docks and ships around, but the ships were shipwrecks and the docks looked like they’d seen better decades.

Still, free shelter and firewood. And I’d probably be able to steal any crockery I wanted for the next leg of the journey.

You know, we haven’t really tested our capabilities like this, I said to Isobu, after deliberately not making any move toward heading for the abandoned town. He’d just snap at me if I did, especially without considering warnings. I don’t feel any different, but do you think I’d still be immune to poison or disease if you’re out there instead of in the seal?

Isobu thought about it, in between sending me more images of underwater life that I couldn’t recognize. There is no way to be sure until you test it.

I looked down at my hands. Well, then it’s a bit convenient that I just cut my finger on what looks like an oyster. I’m pretty sure I’ll be fine, but...

WHAT?

While Isobu bellowed at me from the other end of the island—and disturbed birds so thoroughly that they fled over my campsite—I started braiding thin vines to form rope. Once I had enough, I tied all the slightly charred fish into a bundle so I could finally travel with them. Stringing coconuts together was a waste of the water inside them, so I just carried two with me and set out on my journey. Assuming I found what I was looking for, I wouldn’t be back.

I’d never been trained in jungle traversal specifically, but treating the place like the Forest of Death seemed like a good start. Half of what was in that place was either poisonous, predatory, or both, and a number of the animals had decided to imbibe Miracle-Gro instead of food during their formative years. Seeing thirty-foot-long tigers never exactly got old, but it was certainly a hell of a rude awakening for foreign teams. Konoha-born shinobi just rolled with it.

...Or freaked out. But most of the kids got over that part pretty quickly.

My only specific concern was that I was still underdressed in the shoe department, so I had to be more careful where I put my feet. Staying off the forest floor was harder than it would have been in the Forest of Death—smaller tropical trees did not a walkway make—but I did my best. And when I did have to return to the ground, I made sure to avoid anywhere that looked like the dirt was moving. Other life forms could deal with the jungle ants. I refused.

I made it to the top of some kind of hill, then climbed even further up a tree to get a better view. In about twenty minutes, I’d ninja’d my way through what would have probably taken a normal person a few hours to cross. When I spotted the village’s highest building, it was like all of my survival training and the associated bruises had been worth it.

Now, I just had to get there. Crossing the forest would do for now, but I had to wonder if just hitting the beach and running around the rocks would be the faster choice. Sticking to my choice for the moment, I asked Isobu, Find anything else that’s interesting?

There are more serpents where the first one came from. I got the distinct impression that Isobu was using a sailor’s knot to turn one of said beasties into a non-issue, but he was kind enough not to send me a visual.

I was suddenly a lot less willing to run over the waves after that little tidbit. Not that waves and water walking skills really got along that well. How many of those things do you think you’re going to have to beat up?

That depends, Isobu said, and this time I got the image of a...what the fuck?

Why does that sea serpent have hair? I demanded, because unlike the first one? It didn’t really resemble a fish so much as a biome-displaced legless horse. With hells of sharp teeth and the kind of face that looked entirely too small for them, but regardless of the minor details like that it didn’t look like the other one.

You may as well ask why my siblings and I do not resemble one another. He was already tossing the aggressive thing away, giving it a swat with his right tail.

Weren’t all of you guys deliberately designed? ...By Kishimoto, anyway. I had no idea if the Sage had decided that rampant biological impossibilities was the popular trend, too.

Isobu gave me the impression of a shrug.

He could do that as many times as he wanted and I would never understand how he did it. His joints and that gesture, together, didn’t make any sense.

I gave up and started trekking toward the village again, noting absently that my mollusk-inflicted cut had already healed. Isobu could fight as many overgrown mutant eels as he wanted, as long as he was still having fun. The jungle was less fun for me, but hey, I’d be fine.

When I finally got there, assisted by one last chakra-powered leap into the village, my first impression matched Isobu’s.

The village was almost entirely gray, with faded, peeling paint providing the only notable color. Whoever had been here last had just left the exposed wood to rot in the salty sea air. Some of the buildings looked like they’d fall over if I touched them. I’d never managed to destroy a bar with one finger, so I was briefly tempted to try it out before my impulse control caught up. I would need some of the bottles in the bar, and would need to hold off until I was done scavenging.

So I eased the door open and stepped inside with my bundle of fish. I dropped my coconuts on the counter and commenced the world’s quietest liquor raid.

Weirdly enough, most of the various bottles I found were unopened. I dumped out something that smelled like grain alcohol for the bottle alone, then reconsidered and decided to look for something else when the contents started eating the floorboards.

You see why I was being careful? Isobu was chewing experimentally on one of the other sea serpents. Not sure why he bothered—he’d told me once that he didn’t have organs so much as a TARDIS-like internal dimension. Maybe he wanted a pet and it had refused to comply. If I had approached too quickly, he went on as if he didn’t have anything in his mouth, the wave alone would have washed the town away.

And since you were thoughtful enough not to, I now have all the...beer bottles I need. And they were legitimate beer bottles, which didn’t exist in Konoha. I didn’t recognize any of the brands on the faded labels, either, and the thick layer of mingled mold and dust on the entire damned bar was making the entire process of assessing my score messier than it had to be.

I finally decided to just grab a few of the larger non-corrosive liquors and dump the contents out for convenience’s sake. I also stole a bag from a side room, just to keep everything together.

This is kinda like playing a more insane version of some survival horror game, I said to Isobu after a moment’s thought. Only I’m pretty sure there’s less radiation.

...And how would you know?

...God dammit, Isobu. I didn’t need that thought.

He laughed at me, because apparently I was more entertaining than whatever new sea beasts he was “befriending.” In the superior firepower kind of way.

With my prizes secured, I set about exploring more of the town.

Its second impression wasn’t any better than the first. In fact, it was indisputably worse.

The village’s more residential area looked just as bad as the main road, with the cherry on top being a half-dozen flattened houses. I didn’t see any signs of actual people, corpses or otherwise, but something big had descended from on high and just mashed the structures down like sandcastles. No storm would have left a fucking handprint in the foundations, and I was at a loss to define what would have. The boot prints around the place were equally large, and seemed to walk out toward the nearest stretch of coastline.

Akimichi clan members were capable of getting that big but lacked the requisite malice, and I was sure that a Susanoo or other projected attack would have left other signs. This part of the village well and truly looked like a giant had gone to town.

Isobu, take a look at this, I suggested, sending him the clearest mental image of the damage I could manage. I had to jump about ten meters straight up to get it.

It looks like something my siblings or I could have done, Isobu said, after a small delay. But there would have been other evidence. And we do not have feet shaped like that.

...Out of all nine of you, Saiken, Kurama, Gyūki, Son Gokū and you are the ones that have hands, right? Isobu didn’t even have rear legs. I sat back on my heels as I thought, running a hand over the ridges in the massive boot-print. They were impressions made in dry sand—or at least sandy soil that had long since dried out—and crumbled at my touch.

This mystery was starting to freak me out.

One could make the argument that Shukaku can make his paws into hands, at least. And Saiken’s hands are much too small.

Which still probably meant that Saiken could pick up a small car and throw it. Size was entirely too relative when it came to Tailed Beasts.

I sighed to myself, then paused and sighed out loud since it wasn’t like anyone was around to hear me. I’m going to keep exploring. Let me know if you find any interesting ships on the bottom of the bay or something.

Isobu made a noise that was some kind of affirmative before going back this his explorations.

Looking at the devastation of the village, I bit the inside of my cheek to help myself think. Though I was no expert on the local anything, I could get more information if I had a pair of eyes in the sky. Kind of silly that I hadn’t realize I could just bring Tsuruya into our little conspiracy. And hey, she’d probably even know how to get home!

...Well, assuming she knew where we were. And if not, well, she could always go home once the summon time limit ran out and tell everyone else that I was alive.

I picked at the newly-healed cut on my finger. I’d summoned Tsuruya so many times that the blood price was practically painless at this point. And besides, I was a fast healer.

Boar, Dog, Bird, Monkey, Ram. With the hand seal sequence complete, I pressed my right hand against the ground and watched the seals start to spread. “Summoning Jutsu.”

The universe stuttered. I felt the jutsu take a small portion of my chakra, as it always did, but then the air itself seemed to punch me directly in the chest, right where Isobu’s seal sat. Distantly, I heard Isobu shout something in surprise, and then I was lying flat on my back in the dirt and something was blotting out the sun.

Isobu? I thought up at him, once I’d gotten my breath back. I couldn’t have been stunned for more than a few seconds, since Isobu didn’t comment immediately on it, even to complain.

What just happened? Isobu asked, leaning down to look at me more or less directly. The gold in his eye seemed to glow even in the shade, and he had me surrounded by his arms as though I was a child he needed to protect. His voice took on a concerned tone as he asked, Did you just summon me?

Actually, I was hoping to get Tsuruya, I admitted as I sat up and shook the dirt from my hair. Despite the initial surprise, I was fine.

I admit to not understanding the mechanics of space-time ninjutsu as well as you do, Isobu said after a moment. Explain your thought process to me.

If I could summon her, we would have been able to get a message or maybe a lift home. But something, I don’t know, redirected me? Like a phone operator, even though I know I signed Tsuruya’s scroll. And even if the contract was cancelled, it should have just gotten me nothing. Or else teleported me to a summon realm. Like Jiraiya and Rin. Though since I had signed Tsuruya’s contract back when I was thirteen, I wasn’t sure if there was any other animal that I had an affinity for. Surely that much time to influence me would have made it permanent?

I do not like the implication that whatever sent us both here has the power to sever contracts written in spirit and blood, Isobu told me, settling more of his weight on his elbows as he focused on me.

He didn’t really need to—if he flicked his tails hard enough he could probably launch himself back into the water without any problems. And I knew he loved being able to swim freely. But apparently he thought I needed a babysitter.

Until I got over yet another person this stupid situation had taken from me, I had no choice but to agree.

“I don’t like it either,” I said aloud, pressing my fingers over the seal on my chest. The pain and shock of it were long gone, but it had been an unpleasant surprise. Now we just needed to adjust our plans for the fiftieth fucking time to compensate for it. So I would redirect my thought processes if I had to use a crowbar to pull it off. “But, well, now that we know summoning links you to me, should we try this the other way around?”

You want me to try summoning you. Isobu’s mental voice came out as flat as the average local topography (mainly literal sea level) and his vast red eye narrowed. What usually happened when you allowed the crane use the Reverse Summoning on you?

I shrugged, then decide to sit up. “Mostly, I felt like I was getting yanked someplace. It didn’t hurt, and it got me where I needed to be, so I put up with it.”

There was a reason Rin fussed over me despite my jinchūriki status. I ignored pretty much anything that didn’t actively hurt me, symptoms-wise.

Isobu slowly raised one hand to his face in a gesture that was all too familiar to me. Clearly, we need to leave the matter of food and shelter for just a moment. We need to know what we are capable of here, or else we may get other unpleasant surprises.

I tucked my legs into a yoga sitting position, then raised my hand like I was in class. “Isobu?”

What? He’d hooked his blunt fingers in the spikes along his jaw and sighed, looking down at me again. I was a natural when it came to exasperating people, even when I wasn’t trying and the victim was a giant turtle monster and also one of my best friends.

How to put this…? “I feel like I should point out that summoning you didn’t actually cost me any more chakra than summoning Tsuruya did.”

Is that so?

“Yeah, it is,” I replied, and rolled to my feet. “Wanna go test if you can randomly throw me in the water?”

Isobu rewarded my flippant tone with a long, level stare. It was a little like being under my mother’s judgmental eye whenever I did something particularly reckless. Sure, she’d been dead for more than ten years and Isobu wasn’t a parent, but the feeling somehow remained.

Fine. I will head out to sea and summon you. Be prepared to hold your breath.

Oh, that boded well.

Isobu avoided using his rolling death tank mode, instead choosing to drag himself out to sea like the giant turtle he was. He could probably have leapt, too, but even thinking about that option reminded me of the Great Belly Flop Tsunami and how I didn’t need to see a repeat performance. Or worse, Isobu trying to top it.

He may have flattened a bit of prime beachfront real estate, but who cared at this point? It wasn’t like there was anyone around to appreciate it besides me, and people had accused me plenty of times over the years of being a bit too destructive.

I still couldn’t figure out if Isobu was a bad influence on me, or if I was the bad influence on him.

I am ready to begin the summoning, Isobu sent, once he was a distant gray-green mountain of spikes in the bay. Only humans need to use blood, conveniently enough.

Yeah, that’s pretty easy on you and your total lack of a circula—And then there was the same sensation of being pulled to one side by a vaudeville hook I remembered. Then cold argh fuck and I was underwater.

There was something about the ocean, even in tropical waters, that was always a shock to the system. Figuring out which way was up took about half a second, and then I was on the remainder of my lung capacity without needing to worry about water shooting up my nose. I didn’t need to surface just yet, but it felt wrong to be upside-down, since Isobu always just knew and was probably judging me.

Then I opened my eyes.

The water was clear. Not just clear, like in a glass of tap water or anything so mundane. Beneath the waves, I could see the sandy bottom of the bay and the sunken galleon hiding there. I could look up and see the sun hitting the surface of the water and shattering into a million pieces and refracting like crazy. Fish darted around, a riot of color and activity patrolled by the occasional shallow-water shark that probably hunted all night. I’d seen a lot of great views in my lifetime, but this had to be one of the best underwater ones.

And if I swam forward just a little, I could grab onto Isobu’s chin spikes and get hauled back to the surface with no trouble at all.

You know what’s weird? I don’t really feel any pressure right now. I know I’m about two meters below the surface, but I’m fine. I thought at him, while I used his spikes as a wall to kick off of. I spiraled lazily through the water, though I knew by the end of this little journey I’d be dealing with wet clothes and complaining all the way. It was just too pretty to not enjoy the moment.

I had wondered about that. Isobu’s pupil was much wider than it normally was on the surface, even though the light wasn’t all that bad. Since we arrived here, have you noticed any other adjustments to your body? I know I am larger, and perhaps my fingers are more flexible.

Well, I’ve always been a pretty fast healer, thanks to you, but I didn’t used to see cuts close in seconds. And obviously my lung capacity is different, I told him. Granted, a couple of minutes was nothing by shinobi standards, but I had never been specifically put through underwater endurance training like Kiri-nin. What really worries me is that I don’t feel the water pressure. I just feel the water itself.

That is probably due to my influence, Isobu replied. When I gave him my best disbelieving look, even if it was underwater, he said dryly, You are the partner to a Tailed Beast who specializes in Water nature transformations. I have more than a few tricks up my nonexistent sleeves. Granted, I have never given them to a human, but so much about this situation is already strange that seeing us influence one another is almost at the bottom of the list.

But before this the connection was mostly through chakra, I pointed out. Any non-spiritual physiological differences are still weird enough that we should at least track them. I paused. Also, what the fuck? It would’ve been nice to know if I had some kind of resistance to killer water pressure before this.

Isobu rolled his eye—okay, I was officially the bad influence of the two of us—and tilted his head forward, scooping me into the dip between his jaw spikes and the rest of his face. I let all the air in my lungs stream out in a rush of bubbles, and was free to take a deep breath when we hit the surface.

Sure, I was still sitting in the improvised bucket of seawater that was Isobu’s facial structure, but hey, I could breathe again. While he tilted his head to empty the water out, I clambered up his face and onto his head for the second time that day.

I will drop you off on the shore. And then you will work your way through your entire arsenal if you can, Isobu stated. There was no arguing with that tone, so I didn’t bother. We need to know not just the changes, but the limitations of those changes.

Fiiiiiiine. But really, it would be something more productive than even exploring the island. Isobu’s lap around the place had confirmed there were no other settlements, and I hadn’t seen any signs of large predators that’d target a person. Surviving on a deserted island with all the right skills was more an exercise in avoiding being irrevocably scarred from isolation and boredom once things were all sorted out, right?

How would you even know?

...I think I read a book on this kind of thing, once?

Isobu dumped me on the shore with no ceremony whatsoever, then settled back into the water to lurk.

Half an hour of experimentation later, and I’d confirmed that all of my Water ninjutsu more or less worked as I remembered. I hadn’t practiced with seawater in ages, but the chakra costs were the same as with the rivers and lakes I was more familiar with. I’d gotten into the habit of brute-forcing my way around having to actually use environmental water in my attacks over the years, so going back to my roots (and the somewhat lower chakra costs of actually using water that was there) had actually been kind of nice.

So, that was about one-third of my arsenal taken care of. I launched one last Water Dragon Bullet out to sea, where Isobu obligingly bit its head off, then started work on the rest of my techniques.

Unfortunately, I was out of options as far as fūinjutsu went. While I was capable of inflicting horrific damage with spontaneously generated explosives, as always, my bigger and more complex seals aside from the revised summoning technique all needed me to put their structure together on paper if I wanted to get the maximum effect out of them. Sure, there was a workaround to most of that, but I liked my soul where it was and feeding myself to a Shinigami didn’t really have much appeal.

And then there was the matter of my kenjutsu techniques, which all were stymied by my lack of a sword. Projecting my bastardized edition of the Samurai Sword technique through a kunai just didn’t compare. In the end, it was yet another thing that had to go on my shopping list for whenever I found human civilization again.

The last thing on my list? Isobu’s chakra. Reaching for it produced a sensation not unlike slamming my fingertips in a door, and a complete lack of response in Isobu that was more worrying than my pain. His chakra was still in the seal and still flowed inside my coils, but apparently I was down to passive abilities (that I had never noticed before) and had to leave his energy out of consideration for my arsenal.

While I contemplated the sharp reduction in my ability to defend myself and started meditating on ways to compensate for the loss, I pinged Isobu. Ready for a status update?

Report, Isobu said, in a passable imitation of Sensei’s commanding tone.

Kenjutsu relies on a weapon I don’t have, Water Release ninjutsu is fine, fūinjutsu is down to anything without paper or ink, and when I tried to use your chakra just now I got an emphatic “nope.” I sighed when I finished rattling things off. Though I also have the Academy Three and the Rasengan, among other things.

So, you are reduced to your own skills and strength.

Yeah, back to basics over here. You?

Isobu made a scoffing noise. Unlike you, I have never needed to rely explicitly on the strength of our bond. My power is my own.

I mentally subtracted the attitude implied by his word choice, then said, But you can still use the Rasengan and fūinjutsu, right?

Well, as much as Isobu had ever used. He mainly manipulated the properties of matter to make them explode, like I did. It wasn’t from a lack of talent—rather, he didn’t need the vast majority of utility seals that I’d ended up learning to make my life easier. Other than helping his fellow Tailed Beasts through fūinjutsu, he could do all I could and more just by throwing his power against something with enough force. Now that he could write in the real world whenever the hell he wanted?

I am as strong as ever.

That answered that.

So that was why the seagulls were going nuts. Isobu’s experiments with control leaned, on the whole, toward “this user has no sense of scale” than anything, and local fish paid the price.

I bit my lip as I thought. While the skills we had carried over, Isobu’s chakra itself didn’t.

Until I could figure out what the hell had happened and deal with it, I’d need to focus on what I could do.

It is not all that different from the time before you got that tattoo, is it? Isobu mused.

I raised my left hand overhead, as though grasping at the sun. The sleeve tattoo seal that ran from my wrists to my shoulder blade was active so I could channel chakra through it. If I pushed a bit more, I could make the ink seem to sway under my skin, letting the crane and the copy of Isobu seem to be occupying an active ocean. Without Isobu’s chakra in the mix, I could probably do...well, basically anything I wanted with it. Frying my own chakra coils again wasn’t something I was capable of under my own power.

Gotta look for the silver lining, right?

Ah, well, I suppose if we see anyone and I have to fight them, it’s not like I’m defenseless.

I punched the air a couple of times, then settled into the Strong Fist starting pose. I wasn’t anything like as strong as Gai, but his intense training methods gave me a good base to work from.

Isobu snorted. Be realistic; we hardly need fear anything in these waters. All we truly require is planning time and supplies before we set off.

Does that mean I get to ride on your head until we hit the next island?

I will consider it. Or he’d make me ride in his stomach because it was safer to hide in a pocket dimension than to travel the sea on the back of a giant turtle. There were still big sea serpents out there somewhere.

...Gai would probably try to fight them. It’d been a long time since Manda, hadn’t it?

If the next thought in that sequence is “I should try fighting one,” I am going to veto it.

I laughed quietly to myself, shaking my head. Boredom hadn’t eaten my judgment away that much. Not yet.

Isobu and I passed the rest of the time until sundown with yet more companionable ribbing. I gathered food for what was going to be my first real sea voyage in years, then set up a real shelter in one of the surviving buildings in town. There was still enough scrap material to MacGyver a canoe or something if I knew the first thing about engineering seaworthy vessels, but Konoha training sadly neglected that particular skill. All I really knew was that things needed to be waterproof and have a...thingy that sat in the water and kept them from turning over. Inverted shark’s fin.

Basically, I completed what tasks I knew how to tackle. Isobu entertained himself.

It was almost like home.

Just before the sun finally disappeared under the western horizon, I finally gathered as many blankets from around the abandoned town as I could find, then made a nest on the floor of my chosen den for the day. And of course, that was the local dive I’d raided for bottles earlier. With a cheery little blaze in the fireplace, heat suffused the building even as the sun finally gave up and went to bed.

I found a buoy, Isobu said while I rolled one of the blankets into the shape of a lumpy pillow.

I frowned. As disinclined to the entire discipline of oceangoing anything as I was, I was...pretty sure that buoys were those floaty things that people used to mark coastlines. Some of them had lights on them, to warn ships of one hazard or another. What’s it look like?

Take a look. Isobu ran an assessing eye over the entire device, then sent it to me.

The buoy in question bobbed in front of Isobu’s eye as he surfaced, his night vision being far better than mine. The base looked like the usual rounded, fluid-filled vessel I barely remembered from pictures, but made of rusted iron instead of neatly painted steel or aluminum. Rather than any kind of ladder structure, or a light on top, someone had attached a wooden sign and a big, clanking bell. It was also sadly bereft of lazy sea lions.

Is this thing attached to the seabed?

Yes, Isobu responded, in the kind of tone that implied I was a complete ignoramus for not understanding how buoys worked.

I liked to think of myself as more “ignorant” than “ignoramus,” but Isobu’s nautical understanding frankly would have made most of my comrades sound clueless anyway.

I looked through my mind’s eye at the emblem on the wooden sign in front of Isobu, while my real eyes closed. Painted black wood served as a background, while the middle ground was two crossed bones as sharply angled as the cardinal points on a compass rose. The foreground image? A grinning skull bisected by a crescent moon with both points facing upward. Or maybe it was a mustache.

I scratched my head. ...Well, I’m stumped. Do you think it might be a pirate flag?

In what universe do pirates have flags? Isobu demanded, turning the buoy around with a careful twist of his chakra in the water. The other side had a plain white cross with the same crescent balanced across the middle, sans the skull.

You mean the ones that attack the Land of Water don’t use them?

Why would they need to? The majority of water-bandits in the ocean are shinobi or former shinobi, or else dead men walking. And you know exactly how interested many shinobi are in advertising themselves without backing from their villages.

My brain stuttered for a second, unable to process the idea that pirates wouldn’t, before I remembered that I’d lived at least one lifetime where both Captain Hook and Captain Jack Sparrow were cultural icons. Sure, they weren’t real, but skull-and-crossbones flags were always pirates. Unless they were football teams. I refused to believe that my brain was lying to me.

...Those are stories.

Shhhh, let me be excited for a second!

Isobu waited precisely one second. Go to sleep. If this is important somehow—

And if it is, how should I know? Other than pirates-versus-ninjas being an age-old debate

—it can wait until morning. I will keep watch for ships.

Isobu, who was not a cetacean, could nevertheless sleep kind of like one if he wanted to. It wasn’t a biological requirement to avoid his brain breaking down, but he took naps if there was nothing else going on. Try not to sink them instantly?

If they do not seem hostile, I may not.

I sighed. Good enough.

Isobu settled deeper into the water, sinking down toward the seabed and the anchor that held the buoy in place. If I looked out to sea, I would not have seen anything but placid water despite knowing damn well there was a giant sea monster out there.

...Wanna watch what I remember of the pirate movies I’ve seen?

Isobu rolled his eye, looking up at the moonlight filtering down through the waves. The sight of it was strangely comforting. Good night, Kei.

Chapter Text

Yatsu

Yatsu has been awake since four in the morning. He doesn’t especially want to be, but between his duties to the main house and his lousy sleeping habits, he’s awake long before his alarm clock twitches to life. He doesn’t have time to lie on his futon and laze about when the work of the household always needs doing.

He’s already spent two hours this morning assisting around the Hyūga compound. From cleaning the rooms of absent shinobi, to helping prepare breakfast, to chopping firewood, his mornings are anything but free. After this he still has to serve tea to whomever he’s told to, gather linens from every room in the compound and bring them to be laundered, and assist in the kitchen until every member of the great and noble Hyūga clan is ready to start their morning. Or at least the important ones.

So what if his mother is coughing alone in her room, being ignored in favor of the main house’s many members? So what if he’s already seen Taiga and Hiroto rendered unconscious by the seals on their foreheads, and been unable to sleep between the gripping fingers of fear? Yatsu knows that the only people who matter to the functioning of the main house are their own. Everyone else is a nail to be hammered flat.

Yatsu stills his shaking hands, trying to make the tea tray lie level. If he shows any signs of hesitation, Elder Harumi will make him join the others. He can’t afford to be bedridden and delirious on the same morning he has a mission. Those who shame the clan don’t last long.

“You’ll be fine, Yatsu-kun,” says old Anzu as she swiftly rearranges the tea tray so it balances. Yatsu blinks at it slowly, as though the idea only belatedly makes it through his head.

“Thank you, Aunt Anzu,” Yatsu murmurs mostly out of reflex.

Anzu gives him a long, patient look, then pats his arm with her gnarled hands. “You’ve done this several times before. Harumi will not hurt you.”

Yatsu just nods, because there is no point to arguing with Anzu now. If he wants to prove her wrong, all he needs to do is be late. But the satisfaction of being right is no replacement for being alive. Once again, his mother’s face steals into his thoughts—kind, but starting to become vague as the years pass. He can’t leave her alone in the world.

“Then follow orders,” Anzu says in a much cooler voice. Her hand tightens on Yatsu’s arm and he feels a thrum of chakra run from her fingertips and into his arm.

Anzu is insulated from the worst excesses of the main house by her position. No one wants to see the head cook incapacitated. She isn’t entirely ignorant of what Elder Harumi is to the rest of the branch house. But to save herself, she’ll let Yatsu face the gauntlet with just a kind word behind him. She so seldom interacts with the main house directly, she’s almost never at risk. Yatsu can’t quite work up the energy to hate her for it.

Still, if he’s late he’ll look death in the eye. Yatsu has no intention of allowing that to happen. And so, with a shallow bow to Anzu for her unwanted advice, he heads for the Elder Harumi’s quarters as quickly as he can without disturbing the tea.

Elder Harumi lives in the center of the compound, near the area shared by the head of the clan and his two sons. Yatsu has little to do with either the heir—Hiashi—or his twin, the latter of whom is consigned to something near foster care in the branch house. The branch house guards the main house and their precious Byakugan, and it’s only right that the branch house and the main house are tied together by the bonds of two brothers. Twin brothers, even!

It’s a pretty fiction that gets some branch house members through their days. Yatsu is not one of them. All it means is that the head of the clan is cold-blooded enough to sacrifice his own son to a lifetime of servitude.

Elder Harumi’s door looms ahead of Yatsu, and it’s all he can do to keep his paces evenly spaced. No need to put this off even longer.

Yatsu announces, in perhaps a weaker voice than he’s entirely comfortable with, “Your tea, Harumi-sama.”

“Bring it in, then,” she snaps impatiently.

Yatsu swallows down his fear and opens Elder Harumi’s door one-handed. She sits at her writing-desk, contemplating some sort of poem propped up on a holder, while a fresh sheet of mulberry paper lies across the flat surface in front of her. Her sleeve is not drawn back to write, however—instead, her brush is still on its holder and her sumi inkstick and inkstone are both untouched.

And Elder Harumi is looking at him out of the side of her head, because he can see the bulging veins in her face even from the doorway. He doesn’t know her maximum range. Her Byakugan is active and he doesn’t know how long she’s been watching him. Elder Harumi can see his heart beating and just as easily stop it dead.

Yatsu doesn’t dare respond in kind. The Byakugan is not a threat in the hands of the main house—it’s a promise, and one of pain. To turn his eyes on Elder Harumi would be to incite her wrath.

Yatsu enters the room with his eyes directed firmly at the floor, and does not channel a single scrap of chakra toward either his eyes or his hands. I am no threat, I am no threat…

He places the tray on the floor next to her table. Elder Harumi is a calligrapher without peer, and sullying her implements is an insult he might not survive making. Then he bows deeply, pressing his forehead to the floor.

“You have better manners than the last boy who brought my tea,” Elder Harumi remarks as she carefully shuffles to face the tray. Yatsu didn’t prepare it, so if there’s something wrong, her wrath hopefully won’t fall on him. “Sit up.”

Yatsu hears her lift her cup from the tray before he manages to get upright again. He keeps his eyes on the floor, letting his hair droop forward and hide them from view. If he makes himself small and nonthreatening, perhaps she will take pity on him and send him from the room unharmed.

“Go amuse yourself elsewhere, boy,” Elder Harumi orders. “I have no desire to be stared at all morning.”

Yatsu bows his head, grateful for the reprieve, and leaves as quickly as he dares. Elder Harumi’s Byakugan is probably still active, so running is out of the question until he is finally unobserved. But he has no idea when that may be, so he has to fight to keep his pace slow and measured though his heart hammers against his ribs.

Yatsu makes it halfway back to the kitchen when the pain hits. No—

It starts on his forehead, almost cold at first. Then molten iron is injected into his head. His vision goes white with pain, and he stumbles into the wall. He can’t breathe—his fingernails dig into his headband and none of it helps—

Just as quickly as it strikes him, the pain vanishes. When Yatsu gets his vision back, he’s on his knees and gasping for air. His hands shake with mingled shock and fear, both of which start to bleed into something that might be anger.

Yatsu can’t think of anything he did wrong. Elder Harumi got her tea, dismissed him without issue, and let him go. He is out of her line of sight and should have been safe. Or perhaps, with her Byakugan, all Elder Harumi really decided was that if he threw up, fainted, or died, he could do it somewhere other than her room.

“Yatsu-san? What are you doing on the floor?”

Yatsu pushes himself up into a sitting position, only to meet the eyes of the clan head’s younger son, Hizashi. The kid is probably only about eleven, still young enough to not have the slightest clue what he’s risking by even being in this part of the building. Perhaps the clan head might discipline Elder Harumi for striking his son, even if Hizashi is just a branch house member now.

Or perhaps not, and the kid is just stupid.

Hizashi wraps both of his hands around Yatsu’s left bicep, shaking him insistently. “Yatsu-san? Do you need to see someone?”

Yatsu isn’t sure what to say to that. While the Hyūga clan does have medics, he’d have to explain why he needed a checkup. And no one would allow a clan member out into the field after being affected by the Caged Bird Seal, even if the activation was just enough to hurt like hell.

“I’m fine, Hizashi-kun,” Yatsu mutters, forgetting the proper honorific. This boy will lead the branch house one day, won’t he?

Thankfully, Hizashi doesn’t seem to notice. Instead, he helps Yatsu to his feet.

“Thank you, Hizashi-k—um. Hizashi-sama?” Yatsu tries, and he’s fairly certain he’s missed the mark yet again. He must be more confused than he thought.

Hizashi frowns up at him. “You don’t have to call me that, Yatsu-san. Come on, I’ll get you back to the kitchen.”

Using the child almost as a crutch, to Yatsu’s everlasting shame, the two of them make their way back to the kitchen. Hizashi is shooed out a moment later. Immediately after throwing the branch house’s heir-apparent out, Anzu hands Yatsu a fortifying cup of tea as a sort of consolation prize, or at least that’s how he feels about it.

“How did it go?” Anzu asks, her voice hardly audible under the bustle of the kitchen.

Yatsu glares at her. If not for his headband, she would see the seal standing out across his forehead from its recent activation. Not that it ever really goes away.

“That bad, hm…” Anzu shakes her head. “I’ll see if I can’t get a main house member to put on a headband when Elder Harumi is finished with her tea.”

Yatsu bites back his first five responses, all of which are rude. What comes out instead is, “Why didn’t you come up with that scheme earlier?”

It still counts as “less rude.”

“Elder Harumi requests tea too early in the morning for me to call in any favors,” Anzu replies frostily. “The worst thing that could have happened is if Elder Harumi became impatient.”

Yatsu’s eyes dart toward the door. He knows perfectly well what happens when the main house truly loses their tempers at branch house members. Taiga and Hiroto are just the most recent examples of the main house’s abuse. There are others. There are always others.

Anzu sighs and suggests, “Go and see your mother before you have to leave for your mission. Take the rest of the morning off while you can.”

Let without much in the way of options, especially so close to nine in the morning, Yatsu just bows his head and leaves.

His mother, thankfully, is awake by the time he makes it back to their shared quarters. The sun is up and shining, and someone helpfully wheeled her out into the warm sun. Under a blanket Yatsu made himself, she looks serene and content. When he arrives, even if he still feels unsteady, the weight on his shoulders seems to lift.

“There you are, dear,” his mother says, opening her arms for a hug, which he gladly gives her. When he pulls back, he carefully takes note of her face.

Her eyes don’t quite focus the way they used to, and the lines on her face are more prominent than ever, but she’s smiling at him. Her long hair is shot through with intermittent streaks of black among the gray. With her Caged Bird Seal obscured, Yatsu can almost pretend it’s just tiredness and old age that sap her vitality.

“Your eyes are a bit red,” his mother notes, putting both of her hands on the sides of his face.

“I’ve just been awake for too long, Mother,” Yatsu lies, averting his eyes. He considers for a moment, then reaches back behind his head and pulls out the hair tie keeping his long hair out of the way. “I have a mission later today, though.”

“Again?” his mother fusses. “You just came back from one.”

Strictly speaking, Yatsu completed his last mission several weeks ago. But he’s not certain how much of what she says is motherly fussing and how much is related to her genuinely losing track of time. Days in the Hyūga clan compound bleed together.

“You know how it is, Mother,” Yatsu says quietly. “I have to go soon.”

Yatsu’s mother frowns, as if searching for a word that’s just not coming to mind. She pinches a bit of his hair away from the rest and twists it between her fingers. Her hands both shake when unsupported, but she doesn’t seem to care. “Not too soon? I can still fix your hair for you.”

Yatsu closes his eyes, then sits down with his back to his mother’s wheelchair. He makes sure she can reach his hair to do what she wants, then says, “Of course, Mother.”


Fuse

It’s probably not a good sign that the first thing Fuse hears, upon waking on the morning of a mission, is a rock hitting her bedroom window. The second is her partner Teikō, bolting upright and bouncing off her bed with a growl in his throat and all the fur along his spine standing up like a saw blade to boot. Fuse sits up groggily to the sound of furious barking as it begins, already crabby to start the day.

From down below her partially-open window, a familiar voice shouts, “Fuse-chan? Fuse-chan, you’re going to be late!”

As Teikō’s ears perk up and he subsides with a grumpy growl, Fuse stretches and yawns widely. She pushes her hair back out of her face and gives up on the idea of more sleep. The sun spills across Fuse’s bed as she rolls out from under the covers, before turning on her heel and sticking her head out the window.

Down below, a big yellow dog with floppy ears barks, “Don’t make me come up there and get you!”

“What time is…?” Fuse pauses, her eyes falling on the alarm clock nearby. Which had not gone off when she needed it to. Between that and the position of the sun—“I’M LATE!”

Teikō sits back at the door, his butt planted firmly on Fuse’s mission boots so she won’t forget them. Instead, she rushes around her apartment in a panic that definitely means she’ll forget her footwear. Between cramming a breakfast bar into her mouth, trying to sort her sleep-braids out and failing, and packing her mission bag, the shoes are the second-furthest thing from Fuse’s mind.

“Fuse-chan, do you need any help?” asks her cousin’s voice from outside the door. While her partner Asagi continues to bark encouragement from outside, Satomi is clearly thinking of pushing her way into Fuse’s apartment.

“I’m—ow—fine!” Fuse replies, finally giving up on her hair and undoing all of her ties. Her fluffy brown hair immediately droops into an unmanageable mass with braid crimps in it. She’ll deal with this later.

“No, you’re not!” her brother yells from the next bedroom over.

“Shut up, Shippō!” That said, perhaps another set of opposable thumbs will help speed things up. “But you can come in, Satomi-chan!”

Satomi strides into the room a moment later, with her partner Asagi at her heels again instead of barking at the window. She surveys Fuse’s space, taking in the general state of disarray. Fuse meant to wake up early and pack then, but this plan has clearly gone out the window along with Fuse’s composure. Satomi can tell just by looking, so she snags her younger cousin by one shirt sleeve to get her attention.

“Yeah?” Fuse asks, halfway into a pair of pants. She has one leg conquered, at least. The other is stuck at her ankle and has her balancing on one foot.

“Clean yourself up and I’ll pack for you, okay?” Satomi suggests, her voice full of fond exasperation.

Fuse sticks her tongue out of her cousin, but does as she asks. While Satomi and Asagi bustle around the apartment—to Teikō’s vocal disapproval—Fuse prepares for her mission. She gathers the kunai on the nightstand, including the one imbedded in it. She doesn’t really use shuriken much, but she scoops them up from around her unrolled jutsu scrolls and accumulated tea cups just in case. She double- and triple-checks her mission gear once her weaponry is assembled, and makes sure that Teikō has his equipment collar as well. While she was caught without a working alarm clock, Fuse has no intention of being caught flat-footed in the field.

“How’d you know to come find me?” Fuse asks, picking through her room in the last few moments she has before it’s time to go. She has to have a ration bar here somewhere. It’s a tasteless and leathery substitute for food, but it works in a pinch and will keep her from being hungry five seconds later.

“I just knew you’d forget your alarm,” Satomi grunts in response, as she crams a bedroll into Satomi’s mission pack. It is a task that takes both hands and possibly a foot. “You were out too late last night, and you always forget when you go to bed late.”

“I don’t always forget,” Fuse gripes, against all evidence to the contrary.

Teikō makes a noise that might be a canine laugh.

“Oh, you forgot too,” Fuse mutters. Kunai and shuriken gathered, road food packed… Hm. Maybe there’s still something she’s forgotten in her haste. Oh, the boots! “Satomi-chan,” Fuse adds as she tugs her shoes on, “is there any more information about the mission so far?”

“Aside from the briefing?” Satomi asks, and at Fuse’s nod she just shakes her head. “Sakumo said he’d rather talk to all of us together.”

“You can’t even tell me who else is on the team?” Unlike normal mission briefings from the Hokage, where all of the members of the team would get info together, Fuse had only been informed she had a mission by Satomi. On one night’s notice.

Satomi’s face does a complex dance, like she’s trying and failing to hide either a laugh or a grimace. It’s not clear. Then she goes back to trying to stuff the bedroll into Fuse’s pack.

Fuse wrinkles her nose. That seems...ominous. “Okay, not telling me anything doesn’t actually make me feel better.”

“You’ll see when we get you out of here,” is Satomi’s response.

Definitely ominous.

Fuse zips up her shoes up to her knee. Tapping her heel on the floor to make sure they’re tight, she decides she’s ready. “Teikō, we’re ready to face...the gauntlet.”

Satomi flings Fuse’s pack at her, and she catches it and slings it onto her back with the ease of long practice. Sure, it only needs to go downstairs, but it’s fun to pretend.

Satomi grins and says, “And now, it’s time for breakfast.”

To Fuse’s ears, it sounds half like a prayer. As Teikō and Asagi push ahead of them and out of the room, joining the family’s other dogs’ voices in a cacophony of cheerful barking. Fuse and Satomi follow their dogs down the stairs and into the mad rush of activity that marks this household’s mornings.

Most of them don’t even live here, Fuse laments. No, instead her parents are everyone’s favorite aunt and uncle, and this means every Inuzuka in the clan between the ages of six and fifteen have crowded into the big gathering room on one end of their house. Her brother might be eighteen, but he’s among the kids and eating his fair share of the massive breakfast spread out on a banquet table. Nearby, the dogs have their own galley of dog-friendly food and are eating their share with considerably better manners.

Asagi and Teikō are already eating alongside their pack-mates. Waste not, want not.

Satomi and Fuse share a glance before they rush to fill their own plates. An Inuzuka feast is not to be missed.

“Hey, that’s my fish!” Shippō yells, as one of the other kids snags the last scrap of meat from the big serving dish.

The cousin in question blows a raspberry at him before devouring the chunk of fish in one bite.

“Early birds, Shippō. Early birds,” Fuse says sagely, before deftly swiping a bowl of rice from the crush of people and putting two flat omelets on top of it. After a split second to think about it, she adds a few pieces of pickled daikon to her bowl and chows down.

Shippō swears under his breath, then decides any extra hot air can be saved for the food competition.


Miyako

Miyako waits at the meeting-place for almost half an hour before the first of her teammates appears. Though she does not know who will be accompanying her on this particular assignment, she has prepared herself for any and all eventualities on this mission. The last step is to prepare her mind for the task ahead, and meditation serves that purpose when other activities will not.

“Miyako-chan, morning!” Wataru says as he arrives.

Miyako opens her eyes slowly, blinking the bluish cast out of her vision. Perhaps she has been here longer than she thought.

Wataru grins up at her, shielding his eyes against the rays of the morning sun. While there are benefits to meditating atop a light post, her teammates’ necks do not experience them.

“Is this all your stuff down here?” Wataru asks, but he clearly doesn’t expect an answer. Instead, he flings his pack—full to bursting with explosive notes and his supplies for making them, among other things—at Miyako’s. The two standardized Konoha supply packs would match, if not for the differing contents that make both of them bulge in different ways.

Miyako drops to the ground without a word, landing in a casual crouch. Upon landing, she immediately makes her way to her pack and starts clipping her weapons back onto the holsters she’s left empty while meditating. She has several of them.

“Guess we’re on the same mission this time, huh?” Wataru says, cheerfully stating the obvious.

It always sounds like he’s asking a rhetorical question, but Miyako understands his tendencies well enough by now. Wataru knows she doesn’t enjoy small talk, and thus can hold both sides of a conversation at once until she decides she wants to participate. It is an interesting balancing act for the chattiest shinobi in the village.

Miyako clips her katana to her belt, on the left side of her hip. She’s always forgone the kunai that shinobi prefer, retaining her wakizashi. For range, she has a recurve bow and a quiver. For mid-range, she is carrying a naginata on a collapsible pole. Anything else is wasted weight.

“It’s pretty easy to spot teammates like this,” Wataru says, jabbing a thumb back over his shoulder and toward the gate. “Just look for the guys looking like they’re looking for guys.”

Miyako raises an eyebrow. Not the most eloquent phrasing he’s ever used.

“Yeah, I know.” Wataru shrugs. “You try looking for the next one?”

Miyako sighs. “Is there a point?”

“Well, no,” Wataru admits. “But it’s a way to kill time, and after that it’s gonna be all killing people, so we might as well break it up a bit.” He scratches his permanent stubble, then winces as though he’s forgotten something. “Dammit, my razor.”

Miyako hands him her wakizashi, sheath and all.

“...I don’t know about you, but this seems like overkill,” Wataru says delicately, trying to hand it back. “I’ll just deal with the beard, okay?”

Spoken like a man who did not, in fact, live by the sword. But then, Miyako has always known that little detail about Wataru, even if he obsesses over weaponry in abstract. For him, it always comes back to bombs.

Miyako lets Wataru beat a hasty retreat as fast as he wants and hand the sword back to her. She has a different concern: Going by the body language of the newest person to enter the square, there is another person looking for a group with which to wait. Miyako may not be interested enough to reach out with her chakra sense, but she has working eyes.

“Him,” Miyako says shortly, inclining her head to the other new person.

“Wha—? Oh, right,” Wataru says, hitting the heel of his hand against the metal plate of his headband. “So, who’s our new teammate? Want me to guess?”

Miyako shakes her head. If he guesses wrong, it will be a social catastrophe. Almost as bad as the time that her sister-in-law had used the wrong end of the chopsticks to pick sashimi off the plate.

Miyako briefly closes her eyes against the memory. Suzume is long gone.

“I could read his lips from behind,” grumbles their newest acquaintance as he approaches. To Miyako, he says somewhat louder, “Don’t cover for his idiocy.”

Miyako does not know this particular shinobi, but the white eyes are a clear indication of Hyūga clan heritage. Originally, seeing so many pale eyes in one place unnerved her—now, with more experience regarding how the Hyūga clan members actually behave, they just annoy her. He wears his hair in a loose, low ponytail that obscures his ears, and his clothing is more robe-like than Miyako is accustomed to seeing shinobi wear. Having long, loose sleeves like that seems like it would interfere with the delicate stances and precise strikes of the Gentle Fist style, but Miyako has never been one to correct a potential opponent’s flaws before she tears into them.

“Oh, Yatsu-kun!” Wataru says with utterly false cheer. Miyako knows this expression: Wataru means to annoy this man into submission. “You’re less scorched than I remember.”

Yatsu’s left eye twitches. “If it wasn’t for your overzealous mine-laying compulsion—”

There is a long scrape of metal touching metal. Unnoticed by either shinobi, Miyako has retrieved her sword-cleaning kit from her pack and started sharpening her katana’s business edge.

“You’ve met Miyako-chan,” Wataru goes on brightly. “She’s on our team too.”

Yatsu looks one smart remark shy of activating his Byakugan. Miyako watches him, unblinking, as the Hyūga clan member gathers the scraps of his patience to forcibly calm his temper. She can see this mission will be...interesting. Even this soon.

If she must use her killing intent as a weight to keep the peace, she knows exactly where to apply pressure now.

As a sign of peace, or nearly so, Miyako inclines her head to Yatsu. “Miyako Yukishiro.”

“Yatsu Hyūga,” Yatsu responds grudgingly, tossing his head like an angry horse.

“And Wataru Gekkō!” Wataru puts in, perhaps feeling left out.

Miyako prods Wataru in the back with the hilt of her sword. On cue, he deflates.

Yatsu looks carefully between them. Miyako does not want to speculate too much, but Yatsu looks like someone who would enjoy scheming. Her mother is—was—somewhat similar. Perhaps he will probe for weakness.

Yatsu opens his mouth to say something. At that exact moment, however, Miyako spots someone wearing the same expression he had just a few minutes ago. In fact, this person is accompanied by another person who is striding directly for them, so perhaps the look of abject confusion is not as common as Wataru insisted. There are also two huge dogs trailing along after them, each muttering to the other in the way that Inuzuka dogs do.

“Hello, everyone!” says the woman who arrives first. She’s older than Wataru or Miyako by a slim margin, with long red fang marks tattooed on each cheek. Her dark eyes are brighter than is probably justified this late in the morning. She does know that their mission is supposed to be leaving in a few moments, does she not?

The woman behind her has the same tattoos, marking them both as members of the Inuzuka clan. Wataru had taken Miyako out on a cafe date once before, and in doing so had provided her with a spotter’s guide to Konoha clans. They’re so visually distinct that many of them don’t need particular clan uniforms or symbols visible in the open, but often they wear their marks proudly anyway.

Though, in Miyako’s opinion, the dog-ear bun hairstyle makes the second woman look much younger than she probably is.

And the second woman causes an immediate reaction in Yatsu. His eyes narrow and his expression shifts into a sneer of pure disdain. “Fuse.”

Her expression, upon spotting him, resembles the face Miyako’s eldest brother once made upon stepping in dog feces. “Yatsu.”

This team is going to get along brilliantly. Miyako is sure of it.

“Ten ryō on Fuse-chan,” Wataru whispers to Miyako, secure in the knowledge that the two subjects of his bet are unlikely to notice.

The first Inuzuka woman, looking between Yatsu and Fuse, has an expression that says she’s realized she’s just walked into an active minefield. Her yellow, floppy-eared dog takes in the scene for a second or two, then gives a canine shrug and starts chewing on his rear left leg instead of bothering with human nonsense. The other dog, big and brown and jowly, is sitting perfectly at attention while the two shinobi throw death glares at each other.

If Fuse or Yatsu had been Sharingan-wielding Uchiha instead, one of the two feuding team members would be dead already.

Before the two of them can make good on the implied death threats, there’s a sound like a thunderclap. The noise alone makes all the shinobi wince, while the dogs leap to their feet with their teeth bared. At their core, they are still dogs.

Miyako watches carefully for the smoke that shows the Body Flicker jutsu is in use, unfazed by the racket.

Poof! And thus does their glorious leader appear in a burst of white smoke, as predicted. Miyako is getting used to shinobi eccentricities one aspect at a time, but at least this one is a convenient discovery.

This person is someone Miyako knows more by reputation than anything. While he’s tall and his white hair stands out in a crowd, the real aspect Miyako has always focused on are weapons. And the White Light Chakra Saber is a tantō that she admires from afar for its sheer cutting power.

The White Fang of Konoha, Sakumo Hatake, stands before them with a casual smile on his face.

Miyako feels it when Wataru snaps to attention. “Captain!”

Yatsu and Fuse, who were at each other’s throats a moment ago, each relax from their combative stances. Yatsu compresses his expression into professional-under-pressure as best he can, while Fuse crosses her arms and looks away sulkily.

“Does anyone have any last-minute adjustments to make?” Sakumo asks, as though his team hasn’t just barely avoided fracturing in front of him.

Miyako wordlessly picks up her collapsible naginata and compresses the pole a little further. Then she sticks a sheath over the blade.

The unnamed Inuzuka woman follows the movement with her eyes. Then her eyes fall on the bow, the swords, and the rest of Miyako’s gear as she packs the sword-cleaning kit away. “Are...are you sure all of that is necessary?”

“She likes to be prepared!” Wataru answers for Miyako, not sounding at all sheepish. “I’m sure it will all be useful, Satomi-senpai.”

Miyako takes note of the honorific. Wataru uses “-chan” on so many women that this title stands out, even if he’s usually joking the rest of the time. He must hold Satomi Inuzuka in some esteem. After the meetings the team has had so far, it is a nice change of pace for two people in this group to be happy to see each other.

“The rest of us are ready to go, Hatake-san,” Yatsu says, bringing his arms to his sides, perfectly straight and under control as though he only plans to bow. All of the hate that marred his expression is gone now, but Miyako is not fooled. He and Fuse do not get along.

She does not want to imagine what will happen if the two of them are left alone to sort out their differences.

Sakumo takes all of this in with the patience of a Fire Temple monk.

Satomi looks to him, nervous energy clear in her frame.

“Let’s go. I’ll tell you what our mission will entail as we travel,” Sakumo says, iron seeping into his tone. “Fall in.”

Together, the team of six darts through the open gate.


Wataru

Sakumo, in his infinite wisdom, doesn’t tell anyone the full extent of their mission until they make camp for the night, after a full twelve hours of running. While Wataru isn’t a stranger to long days, traveling north from Konoha sets his nerves on edge. They didn’t go toward Kitano Town, which is more toward the northwest than their vaguely eastern heading, but some of the landscape looks the same and will for quite some time. Maybe their destination is Uzushiogakure instead?

He really hopes it is. Kitano Town still makes his skin crawl.

Miyako’s hand lands on his shoulder, jolting Wataru out of his thought spiral. When he looks up, a grin pasted on his face, her stoic silence is somehow more comforting than words. Miyako pats his shoulder again and moves on to unpack her things, and Wataru is free to take a deep breath and move on.

Sakumo gathers them by the fire once everyone’s dinner—mostly rations—is occupying their hands.

“Our mission is information retrieval,” Sakumo explains in a completely level tone, “and the Hokage has officially assigned two squads to my discretion. I will lead Yatsu-kun and Fuse-san for one objective. Satomi will lead Miyako-san and Wataru-kun for the other.”

Given that the rest of them are all chūnin, it’s not really surprising that the two jōnin—well, Satomi’s a special jōnin—get to lead. Wataru does feel sorry for Fuse-chan since she has to deal with Yatsu, but he’s much too happy to get to stick with Miyako to feel much sympathy.

Yatsu and Fuse, meanwhile, are already glaring at each other as though they both wish they could set the other on fire with their minds. Sakumo has one hell of a job on his hands.

At least it’s not Wataru’s problem!

Honestly, he feels a little bad about that. He usually tries to look out for the younger members of his team and keep their spirits up by being a clown, but Yatsu paralyzed his arm the last time they met. There are such things as grudges.

“Bring it back in, people,” Sakumo reminds them, and both Yatsu and Fuse snap back to attention.

Satomi levels a glare at both of them.

Miyako settles herself into a seiza position next to Wataru’s arm, serene. Or at least stoic again. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell when she doesn’t feel like talking.

“Our first objective is to retrieve an informant from the Land of Water,” Sakumo goes on, as though no one temporarily reverted to being five years old. “The second is to stop the inevitable pursuit and draw them off long enough to ensure our escape. Two full teams should give us enough of an edge to get everyone home alive, but this is an A-rank mission for a reason. Any questions?”

Wataru raises his hand. “Who’s the mark?”

Sakumo looks like he wants to sigh, but it’d compromise his dignity. “Our current information says to expect a woman about your age, but disguises are perfectly possible. Once the first team makes contact, she’ll join our escape effort or else she’ll die. Our best efforts will not pull a dead weight.”

Wataru feels Miyako nod in patient agreement. Of course she does.

“Who’s going to make contact?” Fuse asks, for once not sounding bitter about having to be in the same conversation as Yatsu.

“Our team will.” Sakumo crosses his arms when it looks like Yatsu might protest, and says, “You have two different sensor abilities, and I’m the team’s captain. The Hokage specifically ordered me to make contact.”

“Works for me,” Wataru says with a shrug, leaning back.

“Who cares if it works for you?” Yatsu demands. “You’re with your girlfriend.

There’s another scraping metal sound. Somehow, Miyako has acquired a kunai and is patiently sharpening it. With the rest of the team’s eyes on her, Miyako glances up with deliberate slowness and puts her hand against Wataru’s arm.

Wataru grins at her while Sakumo says patiently, “Leave your personal problems in the village.”

Yatsu huffs, but he still subsides with bad grace. Fuse sticks her tongue out at him while he’s not looking, because of course she does.

It’s like dealing with children. Only Wataru is reasonably sure that children are a lot easier to deal with than bratty adults. Children, for the most part, don’t have a problem with telling him exactly what they’re thinking instead of couching their replies behind four layers of passive-aggressive mannerisms. This team needs a good brawl to sort out everyone’s feelings, since it seems the usual routes of spirited debate or getting yelled at by team captains aren’t working.

Sakumo leans forward, his hands clasped in front of his mouth. As his dark eyes land on each member of the team in turn, they all automatically sit up a little straighter. His gaze focuses on Yatsu, and then Fuse, and he says, “The village is depending on our success. While we are a full day’s travel from home, I can still send you home with your tail between your legs if you aren’t capable of handling this mission.”

There isn’t really much to say to that announcement. While Wataru can see Yatsu’s jaw grind from a couple meters away, no one so much as makes a peep. They do all have a sort of professional pride—sure, they’re paid to lie, cheat, steal, and murder—but there’s such a thing as a job done well. No one here has ever been refused a mission when it’s already underway. “Unreliable” is one of the worst reputations in the business. It’s a dire insult, but one that Sakumo, of all people, has the right to make.

“We’ll travel together until we reach the border,” Sakumo continues, as though he didn’t just threaten everyone’s careers. “After that, we’ll split to complete our objectives. Wataru-kun, Miyako-san, Satomi, I don’t expect to see the three of you until we reach Konoha territory again with our informant.”

Satomi nods grimly as she strokes her partner’s head. While they have the team’s focus trained on them, she takes the opportunity to say, “Wataru-kun, I’d like as many explosives as you can create for this mission. Miyako-chan, I’ll be relying on your sword.” She pauses, her expression turning sheepish. “And...everything else you brought.”

Asagi lifts one ear when Miyako pointedly returns the kunai to Wataru’s weapon pouch. Wataru didn’t notice it disappear in the first place, but he supposes it’s nice to know Miyako isn’t just summoning them out of thin air.

“You know, not nearly enough people ask me for that one,” Wataru says with a grin, while Miyako continues sharpening her other weaponry. “Right, Miyako-chan?”

Miyako glances up and nods once.

“For good reason,” Yatsu mumbles. When Wataru looks at him, he turns his face away as though pretending someone else talked.

At least Wataru isn’t going to be on his team!

With the conversation effectively over, Sakumo assigns himself first watch while the rest of the team settles in for the night. Wataru makes certain that his sleeping bag is as far from Yatsu’s as possible in case the other man decides to kill him. Just as a precaution.

Chapter Text

I slept badly. I would go so far as to say that if there was a time I slept worse in this particular way, I couldn’t remember it.

While I could write off nightmares as a cost of doing business in a very bloody business, my dreams had always been a bit screwy. Between a childhood spent talking to me, myself, and I in lucid dreams, the turtle sitting in my headspace for the other half of my life, and the existence of the Tailed Beast mind-skype, my head was crowded at the best of times. I had precious few normal dreams, and the last one I remembered involved an old-fashioned fisticuffs brawl with a starfish.

This situation decided not to follow that pattern. Starfish or otherwise.

YOU HAVE BEEN CALLED.

Just like that. No dream scene, no mindscape—just words drilled into my head like they’d stomped in without checking in with the ears first. Sound didn’t even get a say.

YOU ARE THE THIRD.

I tried yelling back that whoever was sending the message needed to take a number, but no sound came out. Annoyance bubbled to the surface of my mind, redoubling in strength when the second attempt produced no results either. So much for lucid dreaming.

YOU WILL ASSEMBLE THE NINE.

Oh fucking hell n—

And then I woke up.

It was kind of a shitty dream.

I groaned and rolled over, out of my nest of blankets and onto a dusty floor. I managed to avoid getting splinters in my face through sheer luck, because nobody had planed, polished, or indeed swept the floor in quite some time. Then I wriggled out from under the table I’d been using as a last-ditch guard against the effects of spontaneous roof collapse, rubbing my face with the inside of my forearm.

I sat there, blinking, as I spotted something amiss. My left arm and the epic ink adorning it were the same as ever, my right wasn’t supposed to have anything on it other than the occasional kenjutsu scar. Instead, a black band encircled my wrist like one of those carnival bracelets that were always a complete pain in the ass to remove without scissors. Rather than meeting neatly on the inside of my wrist, the band broke and left a neat square inch free. And in that spot, glowing, was a neatly drawn character for “three.”

A chill crept up my spine.

“Being Screamed at by Some Asshole, A Concert in C Minor,” was officially the shittiest dream I’d had in a very long time.

I tried digging my fingernail carefully under the band, but the damned thing sat flush against my skin like I’d gotten another tattoo. Being solid black, I couldn’t see any seal lines to analyze. And it was still fucking glowing. Purple, even.

I shook out my wrist as the glow faded, but my nerves refused to settle entirely. Having evidence that I was being shoved around on a cosmic shuffleboard court by powers unknown was rather uncomfortable.

And then, finally, I looked out the door and saw nothing but gold and red in shadow. I blinked twice, and so did it.

There is a ship, Isobu said, as I tried to figure out how the fuck he’d gotten on land, on the opposite side of town from the sea. Then what he’d just said got through to my brain, and I gave up on that thought.

What does it look like? I asked, while gathering up the blankets and tucking my very meager belongings into one of them like a sling.

Isobu shimmered in place, and then poofed away as I finally recognized the genjutsu for what it was. In his place, and significantly smaller, Isobu projected the image of a rotund ship with a sort of…whale motif. He slowly rotated the projection like it was a three-dimensional diagram, and I approached to poke at the image.

I wasn’t familiar with figureheads, not really, but was pretty sure I’d never seen one take up the entire front of a ship since the heyday of the trireme. Said figurehead was in the shape of a white baleen whale, though sadly there was no matching tail at the stern. It had four masts, with the shortest one in the back and the other three four sails tall. Each of the three taller masts one was topped with black flags flying the same symbol that Isobu and I had noticed on the buoy last night. Overall, it was a bit tubby-looking despite both the implied size of the ship, given the humans Isobu had projected running around on the deck, and the way the sides bristled with cannons.

…How can you even see that? I wanted to know. Isobu couldn’t have been on the surface with them, or else the ship probably would have started shooting at him already.

Artistic license. Isobu cut the genjutsu, then simply sent me a mental snapshot of what he could actually see: the bottom of the ship, complete with the little fin things that helped them stay level in the water. I still wasn’t sure what they were called. And those are an extension of the keel.

Why do you know that? I paused. Also, what the hell is a keel?

I have spent hundreds of years in the ocean, Isobu told me with all due bluntness. And I have been attacking ships for most of it. It pays to know where an object’s greatest weakness lies.

…I don’t know what to say to that. I walked outside, shading my eyes with my left hand as I peered out to sea. Next time I went to a beach, I was bringing binoculars. So I take it they’re not hostile? I mean, you didn’t rip the keel out and let everyone drown.

I did not rule it out. Isobu lurked underneath the approaching ship like the ultimate tribute to Jaws, only with a shell. I am merely keeping my options open until you inevitably botch first contact.

I groaned aloud. I’m not that bad.

You are worse.

Oh, shut up. I spent so much time talking to Isobu that nearly everyone in Konoha thought I was either completely expressionless and judgmental or not paying attention at all. The latter crowd were generally more correct, because ignoring Isobu bordered on impossible. All the same, I refused to screw up something so basic as greeting people in a brand new place.

I doubt they can see you as you are, Isobu remarked. As he settled onto the seabed to wait, a big green sea serpent passed in front of his face, blanched, and swam rapidly away.

I could try lighting one of those SOS bonfires, but… Well, if the crew was heading here already, what was the point? I ran a hand over my face and decided that I could at least do the bare minimum to look like the marooned sailor the pirates probably could expect to find. As opposed to a misplaced human superweapon.

Though all bets were off if I felt threatened. There were limits to how much I would tolerate from other people before just deciding to take to sea via Isobu and leaving burning wreckage in our wake.

If you are going to speak with these humans, I suggest keeping an open mind, Isobu suggested lazily.

Easy for him to say. Aside from me, he didn’t deal with people regularly. When he did, his past go-to options included “kill them all” and “kill almost all of them, but leave enough to spread rumors.” Only his siblings consistently required more effort from him than that. And, well, okay, he was a pretty effective communicator when it was just us.

Not so open that my brain falls out, I argued, then stopped to smack myself in the forehead. I let myself get distracted way too easily. Okay, no, you’re doing the thing again where you play devil’s advocate to everything I say. I want to see what this big ship is for, who’s on it, and what they’re like. I am going to set a bonfire to get their attention in case I don’t have it already.

And without waiting for Isobu to call me on not walking the walk, I set to work. Scrap wood, loose shingles, and whatever else I could find that wasn’t structurally important to anything went into the pile, which I ignited a careful distance away from any of the remaining buildings. Of all the silly things I could be proud of, the fact that I’d made a proper beach fire was probably one of the more mundane ones, but I’d take it.

I sat down at the fire and started reheating one of the fish from the day before, on a stick. I’d eaten the other silvery fish yesterday with no ill effects, so they were probably safe for human consumption. If they turned out to be poisonous or something, well, too late now.

They just launched a smaller boat. I count three people on the shore party, Isobu reported. He sent me a quick image that almost overlapped with the fire, of a seabed-side view of a boat being rowed to shore. I cannot tell you what they are saying, but I am not sensing any particular hostility.

That’s a start, I said. Thanks.

Then I broke out the rest of the fish and set about heating all of them back to piping hot, too. If I was going to host a shore party, I could make it a beach party easy enough. I could barely see the little dot on the horizon that was probably the boat Isobu was talking about, nearly swallowed by the all-encompassing bulk of the parent ship.

…Wait, this was where the term “mothership” had come from, wasn’t it? One big capital ship and then a bunch of little ones attached to it?

How is that relevant?

It kind of isn’t. I’m just amazed I can use that word in the correct context, and not about aliens.

Isobu gave a silent groan of frustration.

I left him to it and climbed onto a high point on the nearest sand dune, for at least as long as it lasted once I stepped on it. Standing on the tips of my toes, I greeted the rowboat with the widest wave I could manage.

Someone stood up on the bow of the rowboat and waved back.

Two other ships launched, heading around the bay. One is going toward our landing site. The other is traveling the long way around the island.

They’re probably scouting for whatever ship could have realistically put me here.

The second ship is much smaller. It likely holds only one human and…it just took off. Isobu paused, sounding irritated all of a sudden. That vessel is traveling ten times the speed of the other two.

I frowned thoughtfully, then retreated to snatch the fish out of the fire before they charred all the way through. Once the food was safe, I leapt into a tree and shot up the rough trunk for a better look. Jumping would have been easier, but I had no intention of revealing my abilities to strangers before I damn well had to.

True to Isobu’s word, I could see what looked like an over-engineered raft. Some kind of engine stuck to the back and there was a sail for some obscure reason, and the little monster of a craft cut through the water like it was flying.

Isobu? I thought at him as I slipped back down the tree.

What is it?

I haven’t seen a vehicle that fast since the last time I was alive. What the hell kind of tech levels are we working with here?

I would not know. I just recall hearing you complain about radios and a total lack of adequate pens existing at the same time.

Well, crap.

I scratched the back of my neck, wandering back over to the dune and plopping myself down on it. Given the choice between going out to meet the boat or picking at the bizarre binding on my right wrist, I chose the more immediate problem. The pirates could handle their own shit.

I know you are not the type to drink yourself into a stupor and make poor decisions—past even that first one—but I do not recall you getting another seal permanently added to your collection, Isobu commented as I scratched at the kanji and only succeeded at raising red lines on my skin. Those faded fast, but the black marks remained. Even a tribute to me.

It doesn’t hurt, but dammit, this makes me feel like that one asshole with a barcode on the back of his head. Sure, kanji wasn’t quite that bad, but I’d been branded by some faceless creep and was still trying to decide if I was more afraid or angry about that. Maybe both.

Frustrated, I turned a key in my head and gave Isobu access to the memories I’d accumulated for the past twenty-four hours. The dream was the important part, and thus what I pushed to the forefront. Then I dragged my hand over my face and stared blankly out to sea, watching the pirates slowly approach.

…When we see this creature again, I will kill it. If Isobu had been one of the Tailed Beasts with claws, he’d have pierced stone. As it was, his fingers digging into the seabed crumbled boulders into powder. How dare anyone try to control us?

I slowly shook my head. I don’t know what to tell you. I woke up after the dream and it was there, and I don’t know what it’s supposed to mean. I paused and replayed Isobu’s first statement in my mind again. Also, I never really saw it…

Regardless, it will be destroyed, Isobu snarled. After a long moment, he glowered up at the various vessels floating in the water. These humans had better be more helpful to you than that was.

Low bar to clear, Isobu. A very low bar.

I lazed around for a little longer in the morning sun, probably for about another few minutes. But after that point, I hit my personal boredom tolerance limit and decided I had better things to do than court sunburn. Or build sandcastles, though the idea struck me anyway.

No, instead I trekked back over to the town and toward the unmaintained docks that somehow still stood there, awaiting their next visitors. I’d forgotten about them until I noticed the pirates heading to it, so I figured I had enough manners left in me to say hello in person. As long as doing so didn’t require me to acquire splinters, anyway.

As the pirate…rowboat finally got within jumping distance of the dock, I took a second to try and assess my possible new friends.

There were three of them thus far, not counting whoever had gone off to circle the island like an overenthusiastic pond skater.

Honestly, even though I knew Jiraiya and other tall people, I had to do a double-take when I finally figured out the relative scale I was working with. Standard deviations of human sizes went out the window, because the big guy in the back was easily twice the size of the guy at the bow of the ship. Vertically, and then maybe another three times horizontally. If not for the pirate regalia, I would have pegged the guy as basically Hagrid.

…Probably evil Hagrid. That grin was kinda unsettling, especially coming from a stranger twice my height. Seemed that he’d been mainlining whatever local Miracle-Gro variant was in the water here, because those sea serpents sure hadn’t been eels either.

After that, realizing that the dude in the cowboy hat was about twenty centimeters taller than me, and that the guy with the turban and paired katana was considerably shorter than I was, were really just footnotes.

Maybe that was why I dropped my planned “Ahoy there” for a considerably less enthusiastic, “Yo.”

Kakashi would have been so proud of me.

When the first pirate looked totally wrong-footed, I made it worse with, “Welcome to wherever the hell we are. Do you know where this is? Because I sure don’t.”

Cowboy Hat schooled his features into some kind of order, then said, “We saw your bonfire. Uh, did you need a rescue?”

I looked around at my total lack of boats, boat-building materials, and anything associated with either that hadn’t rotted or dried into uselessness. Also at my lack of shoes, hat, or any other real survival gear for an island adventure. Then I looked back at him. “Yep. Thanks for being willing to stop by. I’ve only been here a day and already I’m sure I don’t want to make it two.”

“Why are you even on this island? There haven’t been any storms in weeks and the Sea Kings kicked all the actual residents off ages ago!” screeched Turban. Because, well, he hadn’t introduced himself and he wore a turban.

I wanted one of those swords, though.

I raised a finger, opened my mouth, and then paused. Uh, Isobu, do you happen to have any idea? Because I just remember waking up on the beach.

I remember only that I awoke in the ocean.

Well, dammit. And in the meantime, the pirates sort of leaned forward collectively, as though trying to catch the next detail of a grand story. Which I did not have, because either my memory had been fucked with or there genuinely hadn’t been anything between me being in bed in Konoha and then suddenly being transported to this random beach.

I disappointed them by shrugging and saying, “I have no idea.”

The Cowboy Hat and Turban looked so crestfallen I almost felt bad for them. Like, I’d last seen that kind of exaggerated despair from Naruto when I told him he had to let other people eat mochi before he claimed the rest of the batch.

I sat back on my heels and accepted a rope passed up from the somewhat-bigger-than-average dinghy, so I could help them secure it. There wasn’t much to secure it to, given the state of the dock, but there was such a thing as optimism even in the face of defeat. Maybe I should say something to change the topic…

“So, are you guys pirates?” I tried, hoping to get some information about their crew. Pirates were supposed to be braggarts in the stories, so maybe they’d be happy to gush on that topic?

It quickly became obvious that this was not the right question to ask.

“ZEHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!”

Now, the big guy had been pretty quiet until I said that, and for a second I’d almost forgotten he was there in favor of salvaging my first impression on the other two. But while his crewmates puffed up like angry birds, probably to shout “What are you, stupid?!” in my face, the big guy’s weedwacker of a laugh almost made me jump out of my skin.

Does that mean you would rather not—

I know what your solutions tend to be, so please stop there.

Not all of my solutions end in the deaths of hundreds.

Sure, you say that now

“Say, how long did you say you’ve been out in the sun?” asked Cowboy Hat. When I focused on him again, as opposed to the voice in my head that also happened to be out at sea, I found a rather concerned expression staring back at me.

“Uh, like a day?” If my memory was right, anyway. I rocked back on my heels until my butt hit the boards, then flexed my legs out so they could dangle over the edge. Now I just need to come up with a plausible lie. “I’ve kinda been getting by on coconuts…”

Cowboy Hat and Turban exchanged worried looks, they hopped up out of the boat and onto the dock. With the big guy and his awful voice balancing the little boat, they didn’t trip or anything. I craned my neck to look up at them, but otherwise didn’t move. Instead, I said to Turban, “You’re pretty worried over someone you just met.”

“Even if you’re an idiot, you’re still in Whitebeard Pirate territory. We look after our people,” said Turban. And he handed me a canteen.

I tried gently pushing it back into his hand, but he insisted. I quirked my lips wryly and said, “Look, I’m fine. I sometimes stop paying attention if I hear something. It’s no big deal.” With that, I stood up with the canteen still in hand, while Turban looked like he would rather have made me sit back down for my own safety. I dodged the attempt without looking like it, then added, “Actually, since you’re here to rescue me, maybe I can pay you with lunch? I have fish, fish, more fish, and coconuts. And questionable booze of several types.”

Look, I had some idea of how to be a good host. All the particulars had been chucked out the window, and some of the stuff I was offering wasn’t strictly speaking mine, but hey, I tried.

“Well, if you’re offering, we’ll take it!” said Evilest Hagrid, and I suppressed an inward shudder at hearing that laugh again. But the smile pasted on my face seemed to pass for real well enough. No one commented or grimaced.

Phrasing, you jerk.

Are you certain—

I’m fine.

A quick hop off the docks and a walk across the beach later, and we found my food. Really, it was kind of worrisome how many fish had been caught by Isobu’s wave, and I didn’t really try to justify to anyone how I could have caught so many with no equipment whatsoever. Luckily, they didn’t ask. I would have had to lie, and I wasn’t really much good at it.

“So I never did introduce us,” says Evilest Hagrid, picking up one of the coconuts and making it look like a grape in his massive hands. He pokes it open with a knife that might as well be a sword. “Marshall D. Teach, of the Whitebeard Pirates.”

They had middle names here? I was officially not in Kansas anymore.

Also, Evilest Hagrid suited him better. The name “Teach” rang a bell, but it was a quiet sort of bell that frankly was more of a chime. Still, I made a mental note and decided to check in with Isobu later.

I tilted my head to one side, looking from Teach to the still-unnamed members of the crew. Assuming they were of the same crew, anyway. “So…you two are…?”

“Eastwood,” said Cowboy Hat.

No.

“Sinbad,” said Turban.

Noooo.

What is it this time?

“I, uh,” I said, still not over those names.

Ignoring Isobu, I shook myself, and then found myself defaulting back to old as shit guidelines. As in things I hadn’t needed to use in my entire life span, but my forefathers had during the Clan Wars. Sure, I wasn’t directly descended from a single shinobi clan, but surely some customs had crossed cultural barriers for the sake of my internal logic if nothing else?

“You can call me Kei,” I said, meeting each pirate’s eyes in turn. Then I shrugged. “Everyone else does.”

“Who else?” asks Teach.

Shoulda figured I’d set myself up for that. So I slumped down and picked up one of the fish, picking listlessly at it. I was an old hand at acting like a sack of concentrated sad anyway. It probably looked like a total emotional shuttering, but I was just drawing on genuine feelings of homesickness and a half-assed acting ability to sell it.

I bit down on the silvery fish, not meeting anyone’s eyes.

“H-hey, isn’t that poisonous?” Sinbad asked, panicked. “Ah, no, please don’t eat that!”

I blinked at him, then swallowed the bite. Well, the inside of my mouth might’ve tingled a bit yesterday, for about as long as it took me to finish eating, but I was fine. Aside from being hells of hungry.

“You have so much to live for!” wailed Sinbad, while Eastwood just looked like he was gonna cry.

Teach stifled a laugh, but not very well.

“I ate one of these yesterday. I’m fine,” I said, nonplussed. Isobu, was this actually poisonous?

Not to me. Probably not to you, either.

Oh. Yay for more passive abilities I hadn’t known for sure were a thing.

Just avoid asking friends to sample your cooking.

Shut up.

“But you can’t die before the division commander meets you!” Sinbad said, though I was still eating the fish.

“I won’t. So, is the rest of this stuff poisonous?” I asked, waving a hand and, though touched by Sinbad’s concern, I was not really in the mood to receive it.

Eastwood picked up a fish on a stick—not quite a fish stick but I didn’t care for technicalities like that—and pointed at me with it. “None of the rest of these are. Just quit eating the Grand Line lead bullet fish before you make us all sick by proxy.”

Too late. I tossed the stick I’d used to cook the fish into the fire as a form of trash disposal, but by that point all that was left was a fish head and a tail fin anyway. I was still hungry, but the rest of the food was for my guests. “Done.”

“That is not remotely what I meant,” said Eastwood, with just a hint of nervous sweat crawling down the side of his face.

Still, Teach and Sinbad both picked a fish out of the pile, and Teach’s was about the size of the sharks I’d rescued yesterday. Sinbad bit a flat-faced fish’s head off almost instantly.

“It’s fine, though. The rest is for you guys as a thank-you.” I stretched my legs out all the way and then crossed my ankles, leaning back in the sand.

“You said something about booze?” asked Eastwood, after the other two were occupied.

“I’ve only got these, but there are more in town.” I held up a beer bottle I’d kept unopened, since the others were being used as improvised water bottles instead. They still tasted like burning, even after I’d made sure to rinse them out with the smallest water ninjutsu I was capable of. “Other than that, all I’ve got are coconuts.”

Eastwood frowned, rubbing at the stubble on his face. “I’m surprised anything in the town’s still edible even after all this time. It was abandoned five years ago.”

I wobbled a hand in midair. “There definitely wasn’t any food. But alcohol keeps pretty well.”

Eastwood or Sinbad probably would have replied, or maybe Teach might’ve started on that motorized laugh of his that was starting to remind me of a dental drill. However, I heard the sound of a craft rocketing through the water, and then everyone paused to listen as it got louder. It wasn’t obvious at first, necessarily, but then it finally engulfed the wave-made backing track of my life.

And then the aforementioned little watercraft shot up the back of a wave like a ramp, sending it flying right into the shallowest possible end of the surf. The craft’s nose barely avoided embedding in the sand like a dart.

The craft’s rider was not so lucky, face-planting squarely in the first patch of dry sand in his wake and sending his orange hat flying. Eastwood and Sinbad both winced, but Teach just started chuckling again.

I shot to my feet, bounding over the piles of driftwood and reaching the downed man in maybe two quick leaps. A part of me belatedly blared a warning—that I shouldn’t reveal any of my skills to people I wasn’t sure I could trust—but the rest of my mind jammed in medic mode and didn’t let that first part steer. Sure, I hadn’t been officially certified for medical ninjutsu usage without assistance in over a decade—and had never technically been a medic-nin before that, either—but I could do first aid.

I got as far as rolling him over onto his back before I realized he was snoring. The guy didn’t even look like the impact had made him flinch, much less mussed his black hair or left a mark. No, instead his snoring continued unabated.

He was a younger man than any of the pirates I’d seen so far, and in pretty decent shape, so I cautiously narrowed my list of possible instant-onset unconsciousness conditions by ruling out heart attack and stroke. It wasn’t like I had medical equipment to do a full battery of tests, or a brain full of diagnostic criteria.

Cautiously, I tried prying an eyelid up and watched the pupil still respond to light.

“Don’t worry so much! The commander’s always doing things like this!” Teach said, around his laughter.

“Teach is right! He’ll be up again in a few minutes,” added Sinbad, who by that point had cut the top off a coconut to make a very low-effort rip-off of one of those weird tiki drinks. I…probably would have been exactly that lazy when it came to using my swords as utensils, at least when I had one.

I frowned. I couldn’t sense the commander’s chakra at all, which ordinarily would mean he was dead. But he was still breathing. And aside from Isobu, there still weren’t any chakra signatures in range at all. Despite the obvious abundance of life-forms running loose around here, apparently the Ten-Tails had never landed in this (part of the) world.

It made my diagnostic jutsu, which relied on reading chakra flow, pretty useless.

“Did he seriously just fall asleep?” I asked, even as I gently took hold of his tattooed bicep and shook it. All it did was change the tempo of his snoring.

“It happens,” Eastwood said dismissively, removing his cowboy hat for a second to run a hand through his light brown hair. “So, you a doctor something?”

“Actually, I failed my exam,” I said, picking the still-unnamed commander’s hat out of the dirt and brushing it off. After a moment’s consideration, I dropped it over his face. “Smarter people banned me from practicing medicine for the sake of my patients.”

At least I was knowledgeable enough to know my limits.

If this was, say, narcolepsy, I really wasn’t trained well enough to help. Rin would have snapped her fingers and recalled some kind of solution to any problem ever listed in a Konoha medical textbook, but I maintained my streak of ending up in over my head. I, instead, was just about qualified to be an EMT. In the middle of a minefield.

Really, though “demolitions expert” and “doctor” both started with the same consonant, my skills leaned heavily in the first direction. Not like I’d actually mention that to these people unless I had a reason to.

“You can’t be that bad, can you?” Sinbad asked blankly, his large eyes rather wider than before.

Eastwood made a face. “Maybe we should mention that to Pops…”

I was about to ask them if they were second-generation pirates carting a retiree out to sea while going around plundering, but at that point the commander woke up. Specifically, he sat up like he’d been shocked and had one arm raised in a half-wave.

“Hey every—wait.” He looked at me, since I was crouched next to him. Then he picked up his hat, which had dropped into his lap, and stuck it back onto his head in its proper place. “Weren’t you on the beach?”

“And now so are you,” I said. I raised a hand in greeting. “Yo.”

For a second, the guy was so totally guileless that I wondered if he’d managed to concuss himself on landing. Either that or, between the freckles and the total lack of lines on his face, he was really young. As in, I wouldn’t have followed his directions if he was my commanding officer out of sheer paranoia that he’d fuck up due to inexperience.

Kinda funny coming from me, really. I’d been in some sort of command position since I was like eleven.

A lightbulb switched on inside his brain. Or so I hoped. “Oh, right, you. Who are you again?”

I fought down the eye tic I just knew I was developing. “The name’s Kei. I’ve been stuck on this island for two days. And you are…?”

The guy sat up fully, then pulled off what my old elementary school teachers would have called “crisscross applesauce.” He rested his right hand on his crossed ankles, and tipped his hat with his left. “Portgas D. Ace, Second Division Commander of the Whitebeard Pirates.” He dropped his hat back on his head and leaned back, spotting his fellow pirates, and added with a sweep of his arm, “And these guys are my men.”

“I met them while you were taking a dirt nap,” I said, getting to my feet. I offered him a hand up. “So, gonna join us for lunch?”

“Sure!” Ace replied, and I got to watch his crewmates making frantic “no” motions over his shoulder. They stopped when he turned around and immediately started marching toward food.

I trailed uncertainly after, especially once I realized that Ace was reminding me of someone.

By the time I made it back to the fire, Ace had eaten about half the fish in no seconds flat. And then I realized that he reminded me of about half of my friends after long physical training sessions. Together. We were hell on restaurants.

“Where does it all go?” I wondered aloud, as every remaining scrap of my food-finding mission disappeared in short order. Ace wasn’t big enough to eat like that, right?

“I’ve asked the universe that every day since I first met him,” Eastwood replied.

“Ever get an answer?” Sinbad asked mildly, protecting his coconut from Ace’s grasping hands.

Eastwood tilted his hat so it covered his face. And then he let out a pained, “I wish.”

While Ace continued to devour anything foodlike that couldn’t talk, Teach got to his feet. I had to admit that I was side-eyeing him, because I still wasn’t used to being in the presence of a human that damned big, but all he did was push off with a wave and a “I’m going to scout the rest of this island.”

Ace made a noise that might have been along the lines of “sure,” but Teach was already leaving.

Well, he was about the size of an elephant. Must have eaten his greens and drunk a lot of milk as a kid. He’d probably be fine as long as he didn’t find the few sea serpents that Isobu hadn’t walloped.

“Wasn’t the best I’ve ever had,” Ace concluded, a fishbone hanging from his mouth as he talked, “but it was all right. Bit overcooked.”

“Given that I was just using fire and brute force, I’ll take that as a compliment,” I said, resting my face on the palm of my hand.

Ace snapped his fingers, and a tiny puff of flame shot out above his knuckles. He didn’t seem to notice or care, while his crew didn’t look bothered either. “Oh, right, I remember now! Pops wants to know if you wanted to head out with us?”

I blinked, trying to figure out how he’d done that with no chakra whatsoever. Then I registered what he said, and came up with, “Well, I don’t want to spend more time on this island. Any help avoiding that would be great.”

Luckily, I’d never intended to come across as a particularly well-spoken person.

“Well, that is what Pops asked. You’re gonna have to talk to him about your plans, though,” Ace said, which was probably not the most reassuring thing he could have said.

I had no idea what their damned captain was even like. Still, I shoved down any sense of unease with the knowledge that Isobu had my back regardless of what happened next.

“Then I’d better go say hello,” I said, forcing a somewhat lopsided smile.

“Right. So, Eastwood, Sinbad, can you make sure Teach gets off the island alive? Or that he finds water or something.” Ace clearly didn’t need to look after his men like a mother hen, at least. As he got to his feet, he added, “I’ll take Kei back to the Moby Dick right now.”

“On that?” I asked, jabbing a thumb at the raft he’d cannoned in on. It was upside down and if the universe had any sense of humor it would have been on fire to complete the look.

Striker’s fine,” Ace insisted, while his men moved off to locate their giant comrade. But he betrayed some sense of nervousness by how he darted over to the craft. “The engine works, it has to work—”

I helped Ace flip his boat over again, though besides the engine it was a pretty light craft. It looked like a raft and a speedboat had a baby with some impressive hybrid vigor, and yet still hadn’t gotten rid of the vestigial sail. While I stood back a bit, Ace checked the thing over for damage like a guy trying to make sure his car had gotten out of a fender bender intact. Something like that, anyway.

Once the inspection ritual was over, we got to work. Since I had the bow—if a tiny craft like this could even have such a thing—I guided it out into the bay, the water lapping up to my knees as I went. Ace was already on the lone seat by the time I got that far.

Walking on water would not have helped my cover.

Ace looked down at me as though assessing me for something. I must have met general approval, because he said, “Grab onto the back.”

“And not the front?” I asked, since there was just empty space by Ace’s feet. I could sit pretty low in the water and not unbalance the boat no matter how fast it went.

Ace shrugged, leaning back in his seat with his hands laced behind his head. “Hey, they’re your feet.”

…What.

Do you need some kind of encouragement? This is taking far too long.

Come to think of it, the bottom of the boat looked a little…scorched.

I climbed up onto the craft and hooked my arms around the mast, trying to stay as low as possible even if I had to turn myself into a yoga-based knot. If we crashed, I’d probably faceplant into the mast and crack it while my elbows brained Ace, but if he thought that was an acceptable price, whatever.

“Ready?” Ace asked, glancing back at me.

“I would hate to see what this would look like if I wasn’t,” I said dryly, since I had my arms and legs wrapped around the mast. I probably looked like a koala.

Ace grinned, and then his feet caught fire.

I suppressed a squeak of surprise, overriding it with sheer fascination after a second to get over the shock. From the ankles down, his feet actually disappeared, like he was turning into fire. Fire Clones didn’t last all that long, but as I watched as the fire was diverted continually from his body and into the engine’s intake. And he didn’t lose mass! It went against every rule of chakra usage I’d ever learned, including not apparently using any for an exciting effect.

A split second later, the raft shot toward the big whale ship as though my added weight meant nothing at all.

Definitely not in Kansas anymore.

…Maybe I should have ridden like a killed deer. Or sidesaddle. Or made Ace stand up so I could sit in front of the damned mast. My arms had not liked that jolt or any of the ones after that, as the raft bounced all over the damned place.

You say that like the situation could not be much worse.

Don’t give me ideas. Or worse, give the universe ideas.

“Hanging in there?” Ace called back over his shoulder.

“You are so lucky I don’t get seasick,” I grumbled back. Sure, I’d never spent a lot of time at sea, but ninja shenanigans involved so many acrobatics that people with sensitive inner ears didn’t do all that well. If I didn’t throw up after ricocheting off thirteen non-horizontal surfaces in a row and then having a flip-heavy swordfight, mere waves were nothing.

Ace barked out a laugh. “You’ll be fine; we’re almost there!”

I tried to glare a hole through his back. The big Whitebeard insignia tattooed across his back made a pretty good focusing aid to that end.

“So, anything I need to know about your captain before I meet him?” I asked, as the engine started to slow and I finally understood how huge the white whale boat really was.

Ace said nothing, but I got the impression that he was grinning in anticipation of that question coming back to bite me in the ass. Call it a hunch, based on the way his shoulders were shaking.

Apparently, I was mastering the art of asking questions pretty much everyone already knew the answer to.

Perhaps you should add that to your list of epithets. Tidal Blade, the Fourth Hokage’s student, jōnin-sensei, and now “asker of impertinent questions.”

You are doing the opposite of helping.

“You still there?” Ace asked, since I’d gone quiet.

“Yeah.” I shifted my grip on the mast as we finally pulled up next to the ship. Using just a tiny bit of chakra to secure my grip, I swung around to the front of the mast the second that Ace abandoned his seat, giving me a place to put my feet without exposing my abilities. “Maybe I’ve been out in the sun too long.”

“Check in with the doctors once the meeting’s over, then.” Ace took one step toward the curved bow of his little raft-boat-thing and bellowed, “Someone throw me a line for Striker!”

Obligingly, someone threw heavy rope over the railing. Ace caught the line and immediately started binding Striker’s bow to the much larger ship. I leaned back against the mast and planned my ascent up the side of the ship.

“Do you need a ladder?” Ace asked, belatedly realizing that I might actually have a problem with being asked to climb up sheer wood with only a bit of help from two rows of cannon-ports. Which were a good twenty-five meters above the water line.

I shrugged, finally letting go of the mast. I was gonna get my sea legs somehow, dammit. “Give me a boost and I’ll handle the rest.”

Ace lifted the brim of his hat, measuring the distance from our position at sea level and the Moby Dick’s deck. It was probably a good fifty or fifty-five meters, which sounded fucking ridiculous on its face, but Ace didn’t seem to find anything wrong with my assessment.

I probably needed to drastically revise my idea of what “normal” was here, and act on that instead. So I took the first step of that plan.

Ace held both his hands out, knitting his fingers together. “Okay, Kei. When you’re ready.”

I quirked my lips to one side, even as I prepared to jump. “Was that a pun?”

“Hey, you’re the one whose name’s a letter,” Ace replied.

Tch. Wasn’t like anyone had noticed before.

Without a further word, I leapt with my right foot forward, and maybe I put a bit of chakra into it for the sake of showing off how high I could go in a single bound. Superhero shit, for nostalgia’s sake. I could have landed neatly on the railing just under my own power.

I just didn’t expect Ace to be able to provide enough force for me to easily land on the deck on his own.

Thus, instead of landing where I planned, I kept going up until I stuck myself to the big spar running across the top of the top sail of the middle mast. I swung around it as close to the bar as I could manage, to avoid hitting the sail itself, and ended up sitting on top of the thing like it was a gymnastics balance beam.

“Well, now I guess I know if I can make it to the top of the Hokage Mountain in two leaps,” I said to myself, looking down past the furled sails and toward the deck. Hopefully, no one had heard my shriek before it morphed into a whoop of joy.

I did.

You hear everything and therefore don’t count.

“Ace, what the hell?!” demanded a somewhat indistinct shape that must have been the guy who threw Ace the mooring rope.

“I don’t know!” Ace yelled back, even as he zoomed up to the deck with his legs transformed into a single pillar of flame. At least, he seemed to glow orange a bit. “Kei, are you all right?”

I waved down at them, and at the crowd suddenly milling around on the deck. Apparently, we’d caused a bit of a commotion.

Interesting first impression.

Shhhh.

“Do you need help?” Ace called up to me, though the wind was doing its level best to snatch the sound away.

“Probably!” I shouted back down.

While the sheer height on the jump was a surprise to me, the sensation was short-lived once I’d realized I needed to start the gymnastics routine. The pirates, on the other hand, seemed to be having a lot more fun gawking, making fun of others for gawking, and laughing at Ace. Made the whole thing just take longer, really.

The Moby Dick, I realized belatedly, was a fair bit larger than it looked at first glance. On top of being somewhat snub-nosed but over two hundred meters long despite that, the deck was almost half that length wide. While the polished wood was obscured by the number of people on board, I had to imagine that the ship was well-maintained despite its size. If I looked over the back side of the mast I was sitting on, I could see what looked like a massive chair made of some kind of yellow material, but my sense of scale was a bit screwy. There was no way any single person could use that thing, right?

Then I remembered how big Teach was and told my skepticism to take a back seat already.

After a few moments of watching the people milling below like comically-inclined ants, I swung around on the spar to head toward the crow’s nest. A redheaded man with a pretty ridiculous-looking pompadour sat in the little basket of a structure, and he’d been working on stifling his guffaws for at least a minute before I moved.

I meandered over to him with my arms out to the side mostly for show, treating the mast’s swaying like a balancing act. Or a training exercise. With Gai taking the lead on every major shift in training my social circle seemed to commit to, everything ended up being a training exercise sooner or later.  

I leaned over the edge of the little railing, chin resting on one hand. I extended the other in a wave. “Yo.”

“‘Yo’ yourself,” the guy said, and finally looked up. He appeared to be five to ten years older than I was, with a scar on the side of his face and a goatee-style beard that was such a different shade from the rest of his hair that I assumed one or the other had to be dyed. “I’m not sure if you can see their faces from up here, but—” He started laughing again, since laughter was literally contagious around here or something.

“I have a pretty good imagination,” I said mildly, while he doubled over wheezing as he tried to catch his breath. “So, can I climb down now?”

“Sure, sure—wait, don’t you want a lift?” the man asked, snapping back from cackling to concern in a flash. “I can make the jump just fine.”

Good to know. I could officially add “invulnerable to fall damage” to the list of things people around here were expected to be. I just didn’t want to try it with bare feet.

“Ah, I think I should just try things the old-fashioned way, given how the last offer went,” I smiled somewhat sheepishly, already clambering around him and to the rigging.

“Pff, Ace just doesn’t know his own strength. And now he can’t rescue you since he’d set the sails on fire,” he said, still amused. When I was halfway down the first sail, he added cheerfully, “I’m Thatch, by the way!”

“Nice to meet you!” I called back, before focusing on my descent. Something about his name stuck out, for some reason, but I filed it away for later.

It took me about a minute to get to the lowest mast, at which point I just decided to drop to the deck. I landed in a perfect shinobi crouch, almost like I hadn’t felt the impact at all. Hooray for chakra, superpowers, and really forgiving physics.

Most of the pirates around me burst into applause, making me blink at them in surprise. It wasn’t like they couldn’t have done the same, if Thatch was any indication.

“Nice recovery!”

“Was it fun?”

“Way to stick the landing!”

“Uh, thanks?” I managed, and got a hearty clap on the back from Eastwood, who must have managed to row all the way back to the Moby Dick pretty quickly for a guy whose counterweight outweighed him four times over. Unless they’d made Teach row, too.

I’d never known what to do with being the center of attention in a non-hostile sense. Hostility was easy—killing everyone was simple. But I did not do large crowds.

And then Ace delivered a flying kick to one of his crewmates—apparently selected at random—with a shout of, “Everyone get back to work already!”

The crowd dispersed with some grumbling and a few not-so-covert cases of money changing hands, and I glanced around with absolutely no idea what the hell had happened. Pirates were weird.

“Sorry about that,” Ace said, once I decided to focus on him again. He bowed his head in a formal-ish apology that I personally hadn’t seen used since the last time Hayate had blown up something he wasn’t supposed to.

“It’s fine. I’ve climbed bigger trees back home,” I said, not really sure which part he was apologizing for and hazarding a guess. “Uh, also, your crew’s pretty nice.”

Seriously. I’d gotten a much colder shoulder from everyone I’d ever met back home, except for Obito, Rin, and my family. Maybe Konoha’s society was just a stuffier place than a pirate crew could ever be. Homesickness ached like the blazes, but I didn’t miss that particular problem.

“Only some of them are mine,” Ace corrected me. As if I’d be able to tell who was in the Second Division just by sight. “But they’re all my brothers and sisters.”

My eyebrows rose. Not so dissimilar from Konoha’s team structures, then. Just…bigger. While the Moby Dick was probably the size of a cruise liner or something, I had no idea how many people could be on the ship without any chakra for me to sense. Not guesstimating the number of crew members from observing the crowd suddenly seemed like a rather important mistake.

“Then where is ‘Pops’?” I asked, shoving my unease out of the way.

“This way,” Ace said, and set off immediately toward…one of the cabins. Past the giant lounge chair.

There were probably a lot of those. Not for the first time, I wished I knew more about ships than just the names of some of the parts, the fact that they floated, and that potato-peeling was probably a chore on them. All of my practical knowledge was geared toward land-based combat and the million ways there were to make it easier on me.

Well, this particular cabin door linked up with the deck directly. Maybe it was the captain’s cabin?

…Why was it about six meters tall? Actually, everything on this ship was over…sized…

Aw, hell.

I somehow get the feeling this is going to be one of those situations where if I let my surprise show on my face, I’m going to get laughed at.

Better than being attacked, Isobu rumbled. His chakra marked his position almost directly below the Moby Dick, poised for the perfect strike on the ship if negotiations—if that’s what these were—went badly. For the attackers.

“Pops, we picked up the stray!” Ace called out, rather than knocking or really bothering with any kind of formality. Probably said something about…everything regarding this crew, really.

I stood up on the balls of my feet to get a look over Ace’s shoulder, but needn’t have bothered. The guy stepped aside as soon as he got a response.

The response in question was in a booming voice that rolled like an earthquake. The actual thing he said, after that, was, “Come in and let me take a look at you.”

My first thought upon seeing the captain, after all the hype built up for the last hour or so, was…mixed.

On one hand, he was huge. Like, at least two meters taller than Teach, built almost identically to Jiraiya but with a serious infusion of giant genetics. The guy was probably twenty or more years older than my sorta-grandfather, going by the deep-set crow’s feet around his face and the wiry cast to his huge hands. Sitting back in a giant reclining chair, he looked like nothing less than the bewhiskered king of this show.

On the other, he was surrounded by women in pink nurse’s uniforms, and hooked up with half a dozen machines and IV lines. He had a catheter running from a ventilator to his nose, and his skin looked clammy and worn-out even when I factored in his age.

All of these assessments crossed my mind in about three seconds, and the thing that followed them was, “So, Ace, I think I owe Teach an apology.”

“What?” Ace asked in genuine puzzlement.

“I’ll tell you later.” I stepped forward, met the captain’s eyes for just a split second, and bowed with my hands clasped modestly in front of me. I kept my head down as I said, “Thank you for saving me, Captain Whitebeard.”

We could have easily traveled to the next island without his assistance, Isobu butted in, just to be perfectly clear.

Shh.

“There’s no need to be that stiff. It was nothing.” When I glanced up, the captain waved one hand that had to be big enough to pick up a wine barrel single-handedly. In fact, the mug by his elbow was a barrel. Still, I recognized the dismissive gesture for what it was. “Rescuing a lost sailor is reward enough for any son of the sea.”

“Then I’m glad your code extends to me,” I replied, ending my bow. Well, if this guy went by “Pops” with his entire crew, maybe he wasn’t much for formality in general. So, I stuck my hands in my pockets and asked, “What happens now?”

“First thing’s first,” said one of the nurses—a woman with a severe-looking expression who was probably around forty years old. She looked me up and down, and if anything her face pinched more. “You’re getting a checkup and then new clothes.”

I mentally ran through the varied outfits I’d seen since getting onto the ship, making the occasional adjustment for how badly I’d underestimated the variety of shapes and sizes of the Whitebeard Pirates’ members, then said, “I didn’t think pirates had uniforms.”

I mean, my pajama pants had originally been a part of my uniform, but their days were long past. The T-shirt had been a happy accident of a gift from Aunt Inari, who misread a size or two and gave me something I could practically disappear in. The combined effect did sell the “marooned islander” look I’d ended up with. I had to wonder what would have happened if I’d been in full Konoha uniform and not looking like a castaway.

“Only the nurses have uniforms, but at the very least you need shoes,” said the nurse. She patted my shoulder, but with her expression the effect was somewhat incongruous. “We’ll handle everything in time for lunch.”

As I was whisked off to the medical bay, I had enough time to think, What have I gotten myself into now?

Isobu’s answer was a snort of laughter, and I mentally flipped him off before surrendering to the inevitable.

Chapter Text

After the nurses mobbed me—and subsequently discovered that there wasn’t anything wrong with me other than a touch of dehydration—I was ejected from the medical bay and into the care of a crewmate who hadn’t been on deck when I decided to go for Olympic gold.

“My name is Izo,” he said when I asked. At that point he’d had a length of measuring tape around my neck. My body language must have come across as rather jumpy, because the next sentence out of his painted lips was, “Relax and drop your shoulders. You’re throwing me off.”

“Sorry, I’ve just, uh, never gotten an outfit tailored.” Still, I did as ordered. “Couldn’t I just visit a shop on an island and buy clothes? It feels like I’m wasting your time here.” Sure I didn’t have any money, but I could probably scrounge up whatever the local currency was if I tried hard enough. It would just take longer.

“Have you ever heard the phrase ‘if you want something done right, you do it yourself’?” Izo asked rhetorically, measuring across my shoulders next. “Because that is precisely what is going on here.”

“Oh,” I said, trying not to crane my neck to see what he was doing. “I still feel a bit guilty…”

“The others know better than to tell me what to do with my time,” Izo replied to my unasked question. “If I couldn’t pursue my hobbies, being in charge of the Sixteenth Division would be a lot less fun.”

How many divisions did this crew even have?

My first impression of Izo had been a bit confused. I hadn’t expected to find anyone wearing full makeup on a pirate crew, mostly because I could barely see non-specialized products surviving on land, much less at sea. But Izo, with only a single lock of hair dangling out of his intricate coif, clearly had mastered every cosmetic available. Rin could have asked him for tips on the makeup. I was personally more interested in how he avoided wrecking his silk kimono if the Moby Dick got into a firefight, since even my Konoha uniform tended to come out worse for wear after I did much of anything.

“Besides, it’s been a long time since I’ve been able to work on entirely new designs,” Izo went on, measuring around my waist after a bit more careful prodding. If he pulled any more of an Ollivander, I would have accused him of witchcraft. “Do you have strong opinions on how the final product should look?”

I looked at Izo’s pink kimono, then thought of the other crew members’ outfits I’d seen. Well, if this didn’t turn out the way I wanted, I would just have to come up with some spares on the next island. “No flowing parts, and I definitely need pants with pockets.”

“And the pattern?” Izo asked without looking up.

Very few people had ever bothered asking that question. It was why I had so many scrap-worthy cheap T-shirts. “Waves would be nice.” I pursed my lips as I thought. “Also, long sleeves. I didn’t know it was possible to get sunburn on top of tattoos before.”

Izo nodded to himself, then finished up the rest of the measurements without further comment until, “Grab one of the pairs of sandals, then head to the galley. We’re done here.”

I stepped off the block, then found half a dozen pairs of plain straw sandals in a basket next to Izo’s paired flintlock pistols (and hadn’t those been a surprise). After a quick shower to get rid of the beach smell and a change of clothes into old but serviceable replacements in the same style, I was feeling considerably better.

Well enough to actually listen to Izo. I asked, “Could I get directions to the galley?”

“Just follow the crush,” Izo replied, already turning back to his design desk.

True to Izo’s words, there was a crowd of pirates shooting off toward some collective destination just outside his soundproofed studio door. I waited until the majority of them had passed before sauntering vaguely after them, though my stomach insisted I needed to move faster.

The galley, once I got there, proved to be absolutely huge. Like everything else on the ship. I didn’t know if the pirates ate lunch in shifts or not, but it still seemed like a massive crowd of people I didn’t particularly want to wade into. While there were about a zillion tables for people to congregate around, the food service section was pretty much cafeteria-style. Hanging out in the kitchen, behind the big serving window, was Thatch.

I made a beeline for him, figuring that as long as I got food, the rest would sort itself out.

“Hey, it’s you,” Thatch said in greeting when I finally moved my tray his way.

I looked down at the tray for a second, then up at him. “Did you make all of this, Thatch?”

“Yep!” Thatch grinned. “My cooking is my pride and joy.”

That was more than I could say for my cooking skill. I’d describe myself as “passable,” and I’d only really gotten that much figured out because it was a necessity.

“Thank you for the food, then. I’m sure it’s going to be great,” I told him seriously.

I looked around at the food, momentarily stymied by the choices. Konoha, for all its many virtues and productive farms, didn’t have anything too far out of what old-me would have called a Japanese selection. Apparently, the Whitebeard Pirates somehow had access to corn, Western-style cherries, the recipe for meatloaf, and a hundred other things I hadn’t seen in decades.

My stomach was going to stage a revolt.

I decided to save myself some misery and mostly picked items that were more familiar to me. Rice, fish, and pickled vegetables were much safer options. I did think about picking up the world’s tiniest slice of cherry pie, just to test myself, but the tin was empty by the time I got there. Giving up since apparently the universe was putting me on a diet, I turned to the galley at large and tried picking a spot to sit.

High school all over again. Or literally every time I ended up in a new garrison, during that one hell year.

I sighed to myself and headed for the door, deciding I could eat outside just fine, when a familiar face flagged me down.

“Over here, Kei!” said Eastwood, waving a hand. Signal locked, I immediately headed toward him and his tablemates—Sinbad and Teach, again. And a pile of plates.

His table groaned under the weight of the plates piled onto it in the approximate shape of a fort. Teach sat tall above one end, so part of the structure had to be his fault. The only person missing from the obvious quartet was Ace, and I could see a hat on top of the leftmost stack that indicated otherwise.

“Ace is playing dead again,” Sinbad said with a wave of his hand, indicating the fort.

I leaned forward in my seat, peering over the pile, and spotted the back of Ace’s head. He’d face-planted into his plate...after conquering a good two dozen others. The last appeared to include crab legs, which could defeat many an unwary foe. A loud snore confirmed that he was still alive.

“Did he choke,” I began, “or is this the same thing as last time?”

“It’s the second thing,” said Sinbad. “Just go ahead and eat. Thatch outdid himself today.”

I ate in relative silence, letting the storm of chatter wash over me. If I closed my eyes and pretended hard enough, I could almost be in one of Konoha’s public parks during Tanabata, or some other loud festival.

I didn’t really taste anything.

Ace popped back up almost as soon as I finished my plate, with pretty much the entire contents of his plate of fried rice stuck to his face. While I stared across the table at him, he blindly groped for a napkin and failed to find one. His head dropped back onto his plate once as he nearly nodded off again, then he popped back up like a groundhog.

I threw my napkin across the table in the shape of an origami bird and hit him in the face. Not like it made a difference in the overall mess, but going too easy on a pirate would probably be misconstrued as pity.

Look, I’d learned something other than fūinjutsu from Konan over the years.

Teach cackled. “Is that a new fashion statement, Commander? Someone should tell Izo!”

“Screw you,” was probably what Ace said, but he unfolded the napkin to wipe his face anyway. The rest of the table burst into laughter again while they waited for him to catch up on what he missed.

I, on the other hand, noticed that there was one untouched plate left at the table. “Is that cherry pie?” I asked Teach.

“Of course! It’s the best thing here,” Teach replied, grinning and showing off all of his oversized teeth. “And it’s all mine!”

My eyes narrowed. Then I’d just have to beat him there next time.

...And there I went, thinking that there’d be a next time and I could form a rivalry over food. I deflated, shaking my head. I would get another chance at trying out old food choices assuming I stayed with the Whitebeards, even if I had to use my shinobi-derived thieving skills next time.

I just wouldn’t directly confront him about it.

You never seem to.

Confrontation isn’t my thing, I replied, drumming my fingers against the inside of my other arm. Until it is.

“You got really quiet there. Is the pie that important?” Sinbad asked, after he’d waved his hand a bit to get my attention.

I blinked. “Oh, no.” I covered my mouth as I faked a yawn—which became real halfway through.  “Sorry, I didn’t sleep very well last night.”

“Cat naps help,” Ace suggested. “That’s what I do.”

“Uh-huh.” I gave him my very best skeptical look. This coming from the guy who had face-planted while operating a motorized vehicle, and then again into his lunch. In the same day. Often enough that his friends all knew about it and wrote it off as “it just happens.” Rin would have benched him immediately.

The rest of lunch passed pretty much without incident—aside from a food fight apparently started somewhere in the Fourth Division’s seating area, which I avoided—and when all the pirates ran around to work on their various responsibilities, I was left to relax.

It lasted about long enough for me to realize I didn’t have any reading material or any training I was willing to do. Since my third option after that point would have been to find the nearest person in need of assistance and help out, but I lacked any idea what I could do to help with the running of a ship, this translated to me quickly getting bored.

I didn’t know much about furling sails or weighing anchors or whatever other nautical things I’d never had to learn. The size of my ignorance both worried and amazed me in turns, and as a result I just tried to keep out of everyone’s way as they went about their chores.

I sat on the railing near the bow, mentally running down the checklist of what I was willing to do to alleviate my boredom.

Then I made my decision.


Thatch, it turned out, was very expressive when it came to jaw-dropping disbelief. I could have put his picture in a dictionary if I found a camera.

Did this world have cameras? Or dictionaries?

Thatch found his voice in time to stop that train of thought before it careened out of control. Still looking baffled, he said, “Wait, you’re telling me that peeling potatoes is the only thing you’re sure you know how to do on a ship?”

“That’s overstating it a bit,” I muttered, but I kept peeling potatoes at a speed that probably would have put mechanical peelers to shame. Twenty years of blade skills added up to something, even if Mom had probably never imagined I’d be paying my way across the sea through food prep. “I can cook some basic things if I have the right ingredients or enough time to plan.”

“That’s not what I was asking and you know it,” Thatch said. He shook his head, even as he chopped his way through two racks of ribs. “But really? You don’t know anything about ships?”

“I really don’t,” I replied. “I’ve never tried to steer anything bigger than a rowboat.” And even then, it wasn’t like it was really necessary. Hello, water walking and other assorted shinobi cheats. And a total lack of sea-based missions because no one would ever dare let me near Kirigakure. “Didn’t I mention this earlier?”

Thatch’s voice came out pained. I was a frustrating person to deal with when I was being deliberately unhelpful. “No, you didn’t. How did you even get on that island?”

“I have no clue.” I finished off the potatoes, then finally met Thatch’s gaze squarely. “I woke up on the beach, I ran around until I found that town, and then I met you Whitebeards. This is the extent of my knowledge.”

“And you don’t have a hometown or something that we can bring you to?” Thatch suggested after a while to digest that. He also kicked a barrel full of eggplants in my direction, presumably for more peeling duty, and I accepted the trade by shoving the potato barrel back at him across the meticulously-cleaned kitchen floor.

I picked one of the fatter eggplants up, inspected it for bruises, and then said, “I doubt you’d recognize the name.”

“Try me. I’ve been almost everywhere since I became a pirate,” Thatch said rather more cheerfully.

“Konohagakure, the Hidden Village of the Land of Fire,” I said bluntly. If I’d had my headband I probably would have pointed at the carved leaf symbol, but unfortunately I didn’t. “City and country, in that order.”

Thatch paused, and he was silent for long enough that I started peeling the new veggies, too. He cleared his throat, then admitted, “That’s a new one.”

“Yeah. It’s on a continent that I’m pretty sure isn’t anywhere near here.” I sighed, pausing in my peeling and plucking the end of the eggplant skin off, allowing the resulting dark purple spiral fall into the garbage bucket. “It’s another reason I’m glad you guys picked me up. Even if I don’t know anything about boats, it’s great to have people around who do.”

“You’re welcome,” Thatch said, with his knife embedded partway through the pig’s backbone. When I looked up again, he frowned thoughtfully and added, “But what’s a continent?”

I brought the heel of my free hand up to smack solidly against my forehead. Yep. Houston, we have a problem.

“It’s a landmass that’s a lot bigger than an island,” I said once I’d clamped down on the urge to scream in frustration. I couldn’t provide too much information about Konoha or the Elemental Nations to just anyone—or indeed, to anyone—but the pirates and I were clearly not using the same frame of reference.

“How big, exactly?” Thatch asked, sounding more curious than anything. He’d even stopped food prep to listen.

“I don’t really know what comparisons I can make,” I said, frowning thoughtfully. “I think...wait, first, do you use kilometers or miles?”

“Miles,” Thatch said instantly. “I don’t know what a kilometer is, but it’s distance too, right?”

Well, there went a lifetime of retraining my brain to think in metric. Now I had to unlearn it. “It’s not uncommon for continents to be a couple million square miles.”

Thatch boggled. “What.”

“I take it you don’t have them here?”

“No, no we—” Thatch shook his head rapidly. His pompadour flailed. “No, we definitely don’t. What do people even do with all that land?”

“Fight over it, mostly,” I replied, because that was what shinobi had been invented to do. I started on the next eggplant, then said, “But hey, it’s home. The ocean really isn’t.”

The two of us worked in silence for a while. Thatch finally got around to fully dismantling the pig carcass he’d been preparing for the hundredth serving of ribs, while I carved my way through the rest of the vegetable courses’ preparation like a devoted lawnmower. Around us, the kitchen did not bustle because Thatch didn’t really recruit “volunteers” from other divisions until later in the day.

I had legitimately volunteered. This made me something of an anomaly, but I stood by my assessment that I’d be in the way elsewhere.

Thatch broke the silence with, “Do you think it could be?”

“Do I think what could be what?” I asked distractedly, having forgotten the context by then. In my defense, I was descaling a fish the size of a small rhinoceros, which required more concentration than vegetables did. I liked my fingers where they were.

“Do you think the sea could ever be home for you?” Thatch looked so serious then that I honestly didn’t know what to say.

That did not stop me from opening my mouth anyway.

What. “Is this a proposal?” I asked blankly, against the tide of rising what the fucking hell? I liked Thatch as a human being, but no. Just no. All of the no. “Because, well, what? We met literally two hours ago—”

“Not what I meant!” Thatch held his hands up defensively in attempt to stall me before I freaked out at him, though he did forget to get rid of his knife. “Not remotely what I meant!”

“Oh, thank goodness,” I gasped in relief, because wow my brain was jumping to all kinds of weird conclusions lately. Once my heart stopped its staccato beat in favor of something a bit slower, I took a deep breath and asked, “So what did you mean?”

“Maybe I shouldn’t say anything if Pops didn’t…” Thatch mumbled.

I chopped my hand through the air.  “Hey, no. I need to hear this if people are making decisions about me behind my back.” I’d learned after the last time that had happened and I’d gotten badly hurt as a result. It took months for everyone to forgive Sensei for it, too.

Thatch looked like he wanted to protest, but my glare made him reconsider. He left his knife stuck in another pig carcass, then said, “Pops will probably ask you if you want to join our crew.”

Eh? “You’re not serious.”

Thatch looked momentarily crestfallen. “Of course I’m being serious! Pops always is when it comes to finding new members of the family.”

Why?” I demanded, because this kind of shit didn’t happen unless Naruto browbeat his enemies into being friends. Ninja villages trained their own soldiers from the ground up primarily to avoid these kinds of offers ever getting any traction. The exceptions generally either had to lose everything they’d previously cared about to be accepted—like my parents—or were hunted down ruthlessly as missing-nin. “Even if I didn’t just admit to being hopeless at sailing, I barely know any of you and while I’m grateful I’m not still on that island, I haven’t even told you what my goals are.”

As if on cue, my right wrist started to ache exactly where my brand-new mark sat. Dropping my knife into the barrel of vegetable scraps, I rubbed at it and the kanji that was making my life so complicated.

I will find the being that marked you and tear it limb from limb.

Leave some for me.

“Rescuing people gets us a lot of new recruits, actually,” Thatch pointed out and in the process ended up totally missing my point. When I started to grit my teeth in annoyance, he got back on topic. “Our crew is our family. And Pops has a tendency to take in people who don’t have anywhere else to go. Once you’re one of his children, you always will be.”

“...That does not actually change the fact that I barely know any of you,” I responded in a voice so flat it was nearly hostile.

I didn’t need any more reminders of how desperate I was to get home. The captain might’ve thought he and his crew would fill some of that void, but they were all dead wrong. My family was out there; I just needed to find my way back to them.

My wrist tingled.

I already had my first clue.

Still, I decided to take pity on Thatch and his crushed hopes.

I took a deep breath and said without looking up, “Look, you seem like nice people. But in the end, my family’s at home and I need to find my way back to them.” Even if my only lead thus far was an obnoxious monster that had branded me to make me dance to its tune. “It’s not fair to you if I join your family and then bail at the first opportunity to go back.”

There. I’d phrased it as a matter of the heart. I’d taken the captain’s feelings into account, or at least tried to. I hadn’t used words that implied fault or blame, because neither party was really responsible for my shitty situation. When I dealt with the one who was I’d get my hands around its maybe-existent neck and wring it like a dingy washcloth.

Hopefully that would work.

“So,” I concluding somewhat lamely, “I can’t join your crew.”

“Th-that’s…”

I looked up and—was he crying?! I was a monster. “Agh, no! I’m sorry I can’t, but I have really good reasons!”

“Th-that’s the saddest thing I’ve ever heard!”

...what.

The next thing I knew, I was comforting a seven-foot-tall pirate as he cried over a barrel of onions. Whether it was the onions or my half-assed sob story that were the worse influence on his mood, I had no idea. I just got him a glass of water and a handkerchief and let him mostly sort himself out.

It was, however, the first time I had ever seen a grown man not use the “cutting onions” excuse when it was perfectly valid. There was even an impaled onion on his cutting board.

Isobu?

Yes?

This place is weird. I passed Thatch another hanky, then amended it to, But it’s kind of growing on me.

Like a fungus.


Aside from bunking somewhere in the nurse’s quarters—since the smell of antiseptic was almost comforting after the sheer funk of unwashed humans in the crew quarters—my next three days with the Whitebeard Pirates passed more or less in the same fashion as the first day had. Every day there were meals, chores, freak weather occurrences including but not limited to rains of animals, and food prep with Thatch. I got my sea legs quickly, no one breathed a word of any more recruitment efforts to me, and Izo finally came up with clothes he could stand to see me in (which was not the same as “clothes the nurses had to wear”).

I wasn’t really at first sure if I was allowed to wear clothes from Izo since I’d said I wasn’t going to join the Whitebeards, but Izo insisted. And whether because I was a doormat or just grateful that Izo had still gone to the trouble of completing the outfit for me, I complied.

It was nice to have my own shoes again, even if they weren’t the sandals I was used to. Flats were a decent compromise.

There were a few incidents, though.

Like getting caught staring at Namur. “What do you want, guppy?”

“I’m sorry, you said you were a fishman?” I asked reflexively, since I’d been caught.

“I didn’t say anything,” Namur snapped, which kinda just made me feel like I was being an ass. “Never seen a fishman before?”

I hesitated under the weight of his glare, not sure if I was about to screw up epically or not. “No, I have not. I’m sorry about staring.”

“HEY!” And both of us turned to find Ace running over. When he skidded to a stop—thankfully not igniting anything—he bowed to me and said, “I’m sorry about the misunderstanding.”

Namur and I looked blankly at each other, even though we’d been close to having a very awkward conversation a second ago. Some things ran deeper than mere conversational flubs, and shared confusion was among them.

Namur went first. “About what?”

Ace was still bowing. “Kei, I’m sorry if I offended you by addressing you as a man anytime this past week.”

“...You would not believe how often people used to do that back home. Or maybe you would.” I scratched the back of my head. Then it occurred to me that that wasn’t what Ace probably wanted to hear. “I accept your apology.”

Ace straightened up immediately, almost dislodging his hat, and then then looked at Namur. “What were you two talking about?”

“I was being stupid,” I said, shouldering any responsibility for offending Namur immediately. “I’ll stay out of your way, Commander Namur.”

Both Whitebeard commanders didn’t seem to know what to say to that, or at least didn’t manage to come up with anything before I made my escape.

Izo was sympathetic for about five minutes before he told me to get out of his office so he could finish working on the “surprise.”

I could take a hint if I was hit hard enough over the head with it. Checking first to see that Namur was cruising the water beside the ship instead of lingering on deck by looking out a porthole, I decided it was probably better to face the somewhat distant music. While the corridors and masts of the Moby Dick were nothing like the forests back home, the deck felt open. Exposed. Heading up there again felt like I was being forced to abandon a hiding spot.

I was still climbing the stairs when the current lookout shouted, “Marine ships, port side!”

I see them. Isobu’s chakra slowly turned in the dark waters underneath the Moby Dick until his head was pointed in the direction of the enemy vessel. Do you want to see what the pirates will do in response to an attack?

If it’s not too much trouble.

Not attacking is never the trouble. You know that.

And because I didn’t want to be a target (and Marco could take care of himself), I slunk across the deck instead of running as the pirates ran all over the place. One of these days, I’d actually be able to deal with being on a pirate ship like a normal individual, but today was not that day.

“Who the hell are the Marines?” I asked Eastwood while he checked his pistols. I was crouched behind Whitebeard’s throne, while Eastwood stood tall and proud and perforate-able.  

“World Government forces,” Eastwood replied distractedly. “And as you might imagine, not too fond of pirates.”

“I dunno, pretend I don’t have an imagination,” I snapped, and once again I internally cursed the fact that nothing in the armory had been a) open for guest use or b) suitable for my use. Haruta had broken the last spare sword recently, according to the quartermaster. And I sure as hell didn’t know how to use a rifle well enough to make a difference. “What do we expect from them?”

“Oh, probably a Vice Admiral or two. Someone to get the commanders’ blood pumping,” Eastwood said, cocking the weapon in his right hand. He pushed the brim of his hat up with the end of the barrel. “Don’t worry about it.”

I glared up at him, then went to find a spot where I’d be out of the way (or maybe available to help reload). I only had a kunai to fight with, which wasn’t gonna be a lot of use in a naval battle. Didn’t ships usually kill each other from miles and miles away with massive bombardments?

Isobu was probably busy rolling his eye as he said, What was that phrase before? “In for a penny, in for a pound?” You are traveling with pirates, have become friends with pirates, and are now considering taking up arms alongside them.

I was still being a bit of an indecisive brat about this, wasn’t I? Can you blame me for not instantly wanting to piss off what sounds like the only local authorities?

...Do you want me to answer that with any level of seriousness?

I pouted while a cannonball sailed overhead, drastically overshooting the ship. Yeah, I know, shinobi are basically government-sponsored mercenaries. ANBU are worse. I don’t have much moral high ground, but maybe I don’t want to fight everyone yet. Until I know who “everyone” is.

I could just remove the problem by removing the enemy ships. No one on board either of them would have to know that you and I are in contact, which would suit your need for secrecy.

...Maybe I can just let them handle it. From the sound of things, the Whitebeards were a well-oiled fighting machine, and didn’t need a wrench like me getting involved in combat operations.

I finally looked up from my epic wallflower impression as Ace wandered by, apparently unconcerned with whatever new implement of death was flying through the air. Why wasn’t he at least paying attention?

“I heard from Thatch that this might be your first sea battle,” Ace said. “You holding up all right?”

“I’m fine,” I grunted. “It’s just been—”

And that was about as far as I got before a cannonball punched through him in a burst of fire. The hit took out the lower third of his ribs, that section of spine, and probably most of his vital organs, but there was no blood.

In fact, he was leaning over and looking a little confused at worst, though the railing behind him had been obliterated and his body was missing significant chunks that were...on fire. What?

“What’s with that face?” Ace asked, while I gaped and his entire torso knit itself back together in a roiling wave of flame. “Never seen a Logia before?”

A what? I demanded internally, getting to my feet and feeling my attention trying to jump in six directions at once. Ace getting thoroughly hole-punched was just one of them. My fingers itched to prod at the missing space or maybe stick my hand through despite the flames, as much out of horror, wonder, and surprise distilled into a single emotional cocktail as just reflex. How is he not dead?

Ace still looked confused, probably mirroring my face perfectly. I still couldn’t get over the missing chunks problem. “Wait, you saw Marco turn into a giant fiery chicken yesterday and this is what throws you off?”

“I heard that, Ace!” Marco called down from the crow’s nest.

“So what?” Ace shouted back up. Then he turned his attention back to me. “I ate the Mera Mera no Mi, you know, a Devil Fruit? Logia-class? Lets me turn into fire?”

“...What.” I managed, then smacked my hand into my face. “What the fucking—”

I’d just seen him pull off an automatic dodging ability on par with Obito’s Kamui, and it was because he ate a fruit of all things? At least the Transformation technique was a basic Academy skill with a hundred variations. Obito’s power was literally unique. The only way to use it was to have one of Obito’s eyes.

I was probably freaking out.

It sounds somewhat similar to the process that created the Ten-Tails, Isobu commented. Specifically the part about fruit.

That is not helping!

I smacked my face again, willing myself back under control as Ace completely put himself back together. “...Forget it. Just.” Razzem frazzum aaaaaargh.

“You need a minute?”

I automatically ducked out of the way of more long-distance shots in our direction and into cover, though Ace had yet more rounds fly through him to no apparent ill effect. If the shot that had temporarily dismembered Ace hadn’t compromised the railing’s structural integrity, I might have beat my head against it. Despite the lack of convenient brain-reset options, I still managed to say, “Go. Set the thing on fire.”

What kind of hell have we gotten into this time, Isobu?

I could provide a list of the factors that put you on the deck of this ship at this time, and how the situation could escalate. But that is not what you really want to hear.

...No, it’s not. I just...I really want to go home. Even if I get frustrated with things there, it’s familiar. I pressed my left forearm over my eyes, blotting everything out. If not for the total lack of chakra besides what Isobu and I were toting, I might’ve been able to pretend just for a second that I wasn’t out on a pirate ship out in Middle of Fucking Nowhere, Random Ocean. Or whatever Thatch had called it.

The New World. An apt name, unfortunately.

You said it, I groaned internally.

But there was nothing for it. My wrist ached like an old bruise, a reminder of the thing that wanted me to venture out into this seafaring island-ridden world.

I probably only sat there for a couple of minutes, but eventually the powder magazines on the Marine ships ended up exploding one after another, which put an end to the battle. At that point, I wandered back over to the other side of the ship and watched the burning wreck go down, spitting flame and smoke and leaving lifeboats in its wake.

“That was a bit boring,” Eastwood remarked from my left. When I glanced at him, he added, “Only Namur, Marco, and Ace even got close. Usually, we end up boarding, but I guess the three of them got into a competition.”

“I missed that part.” Because I’d been busy moping. “So, which one did most of it?”

“Oh, Ace. Marco’s flames don’t actually burn.” Sinbad jumped in, having procured a spyglass from somewhere, and handed it to me. “If you look close, you can see Namur throwing marines into the sea from here.”

I looked through the spyglass and, on the second ship I scanned, I did indeed see the fishman performing one of the least gentle search-and-rescue jobs I’d ever seen. It kinda looked like...yeah, he was punching them off the ship. I revised my assessment accordingly.

“I can see Marco circling, I think,” I said. If I looked close, I could see the simpler version of the Whitebeard insignia on the bird’s chest, exactly where Marco’s tattoo was. Fascinating, if kinda confusing given that he was made of, well, fire. “...Did Ace’s powers really come from eating a fruit?”

“Hm? Yeah. That’s what Devil Fruits are for,” Eastwood said, oblivious to my continued internal crisis. “Logias are pretty rare already, but Marco’s a Mythic Zoan. They say the only other one that’s ever been found got eaten by Fleet Admiral Sengoku.”

“I think I understood most of those words, but not in context.” I handed Sinbad his spyglass back and sighed. “Well, great. I have no idea what’s going on anymore.”

I never really had, had I?

No.

Sinbad patted my back. “It’s all right. I didn’t know much about Devil Fruits back when I started out back in East Blue. You’ll learn.”

“Does kinda raise the question of how you got this far out into the New World without knowing, though,” Eastwood mused. “You must have had a weirdly quiet trip.”

Does sleeping through it count?

I wandered away without replying and Eastwood and Sinbad both let me. Maybe I’d go and take a nap or something if this was how I was reacting to things outside of my understanding. Or finally request access to the Moby Dick’s library, like I’d been avoiding doing because being a meek little mouse of a guest was apparently a thing I did now.

Or I could catalogue socks, I supposed. Hadn’t had more than one pair of those in over twenty years.

Turning a corner or five, I found myself staring down the hallway that led to both the medical bay and the nurse’s rooms. While I could go and hide in my hammock until everything outside calmed down, the idea only held so much appeal. Being on deck meant I could see what happened to the various pirates, or maybe the Navy personnel, but frankly I wasn’t sure I could take another bad shock like the Devil Fruit powers people played with.

I sighed and started to turn around. Maybe I’d find the library if I kept walking around. Better to ask forgiveness than permission or something, right?

I may be wrong, Isobu said, cutting through my wandering thoughts like a hot knife through butter, but I seem to recall humans being capable of floating.

...Sort of? I hedged. We don’t tend to have a lot of body fat relative to marine mammals, and I’m sure whales and walruses or whatever can just float by not moving. We’re kinda not designed for water. Why do you ask?

I ask because it seems one of your friends has the approximate buoyancy of an anchor.

I took a very deep breath, closing my eyes. Show me.

Isobu’s eye view overrode the dark inside my eyelids. At first all I saw was the brilliant blue world he lived in, but then he focused on the comparably tinier flecks of debris and wreckage. I could see bodies, and chunks of the Navy ships that had been gutted by the Whitebeard Pirates. Isobu’s view shifted again, and it took him a bit too long to focus on Ace plummeting toward the infinite blue abyss like, well, an anchor. He was already twenty, thirty feet down and sinking rapidly.

Ace was looking directly at Isobu, and he made no attempt to so much as twitch in panic. Actually, the lack of movement aside from his eyes was probably the weirdest aspect of the situation in my opinion. The fact that there was a giant turtle monster in the water just didn’t register with me anymore.

And then Namur streaked through the water like a torpedo, scooped Ace up like he weighed no more than a damp kitten, and disappeared. He didn’t appear to take any notice of Isobu, who probably looked more like amazingly hostile seabed than any living creature. Or maybe he just wasn’t letting it show?

...That was weird, I concluded, once I could see the insides of my eyelids again.

He may have seen me, Isobu said dryly. After a few seconds, I felt his chakra start to move farther away from both the wrecked Navy ships and the Moby Dick. Unlike whales, who couldn’t literally control the medium through which they moved, Isobu would leave no waves or other evidence of his existence in his wake.

Unless, like with the sea serpents, he decided otherwise.

If this is the case, your cover as a mild-mannered, uneducated vagrant may be a thing of the past.

I’m not sure I follow, I told him as I headed for the library instead of the deck. I had some reading to do. I mean, if they only see you once, it’s not a pattern.

I know you. Sooner or later, the truth will out and you will browbeat people into accepting your strangeness or wash your hands of them.

Do I seem like Naruto to you? I wondered as I headed into the library and was greeted by shelves upon shelves of hard-backed books. It was like an alien landscape.

You do not want me to answer that question.

Given that I’d lost every snark battle I’d had with him for the last week? No, I probably didn’t.

So I gave up.

Somewhat later, while I was reading up on some kingdom somewhere called Wano that kinda reminded me of the Land of Iron, I heard riotous laughter and both Ace and Namur shouting, “I’m telling you, there’s no way it was a sea turtle!”

I turned a page and let them run off with the context to that punchline entirely unexplained.


Doing some research in the Whitebeards’ library gave me a few survival tips. Among them, the three basic categories of Devil Fruits.

I refused to be quite so ignorant again.

Zoan: Animal shapeshifters who could take on traits of whatever their fruit said they could. Marco the Phoenix and Fleet Admiral Sengoku were at the far end of the power scale as far as Zoan-type fruits went, but there were dozens of others. Zoan-type users had three forms: human, human-beast, and beast form, and healed bizarrely quickly compared to baseline humans.

Logia: Elemental shapeshifters, such as Ace’s Mera Mera no Mi. Users could produce, transform into, and control whatever type of energy or matter defined by their fruit. There were a couple of notes about other elemental forms—smoke, magma, light, ice—but most of the info I found indicated Logia fruits were the rarest of the lot. Except for Ancient and Mythic Zoan fruits, as Eastwood had told me.

Paramecia: Catchall, basically. Paramecia-type fruits laughed in the face of logic or common sense, ranging from the ability to produce shockwaves in anything (as Captain Whitebeard’s did) to sprouting blades out of nowhere and so on. That said, they also contained the largest proportion of useless or even actively detrimental powers.

And for some reason, none of them could swim. I didn’t buy the explanation that it was some kind of sea curse, though only because it sounded pat. The note about how it took a minimum of knee-height submersion to cancel out a Devil fruit user’s strength was useful to know, but anything about sea prism stone just made my hands itch. No one apparently knew what it was, which made me want to run experiments with it.

Isobu, make a note. Once I figure out how to use the Coral Palm again, we need to find a hostile Devil Fruit user and start testing. The coral produced by the technique stopped even Sensei dead before, and couldn’t be removed by the victim. Maybe it could stop Devil Fruit power the same way it disrupted chakra.

Noted. Though I could test it now if you were not so devoted to the idea of keeping me a secret.

Who the hell were we going to experiment on, the Whitebeards? Even if they did attack Isobu as soon as they saw him in person and Isobu was literally immortal, I didn’t want anyone to get hurt in that confrontation.

“You’re still in here?” asked a voice, and I looked up to see Haruta looking down at me with an expression of open curiosity on his face.

I mirrored it, because even after seeing Haruta’s Shakespearian getup three times, I still didn’t get it. Especially the Elizabethan collar. “Uh, yeah. Dinner rush prep was hours ago.”

“Did you even eat anything?” Haruta asked, looking around at the mess I’d made of the library table. While I had put books here and there, and taken a mess of notes, there was no plate or cup to be found.

“Uh, maybe,” I said, since I couldn’t think of anything to say at first.

Instead, I leaned back in my chair and stretched with my arms overhead and my fingers knit together. My shoulders and my spine gave a series of pops, telling me I’d been stuck in one place for entirely too long. Cycling my chakra kept my muscles from falling asleep, but joints were another matter. The second I finished, my stomach rumbled ominously.

“Guess I can take that as a no,” Haruta said, amused enough to stick his tongue out at me in the face of my halfhearted glare. “I figured something was up when we didn’t see you in the galley at all.”

I felt the very tips of my ears heating up, but otherwise the only sign of my embarrassment was how I looked away rather quickly. “I get caught up in reading sometimes.”

“No kidding.” Still, Haruta led me out of the library and to the galley without further comment on my reading habits.

We didn’t spend all that long in there, effectively raiding the fridge and then running away while Thatch was elsewhere. Haruta might’ve said something about pranks, but I didn’t pay all that much attention. I just felt like I needed to go back to the library as fast as I could. It wasn’t—I didn’t need to do whatever research I could with the kind of feverish devotion I once used for constructing seals I needed but couldn’t ask for.

I was stronger than that.

Then you could at least attempt to calm down. You are agitated.

Haruta followed me pretty much the whole time, looking steadily more worried about my mental state until we got back to the library with food in hand. I tried to find the less-heavy fare I’d most likely not regret eating, though I was aware I was playing Russian roulette with ingredients lists anyway.

“Hey, Commander Haruta?” I asked, while I poked at what looked like some kind of onion soup. It had cheese on top, but could I call it “French onion soup” in a world that didn’t have a France?

“You don’t really need to be that formal,” Haruta replied, while struggling to avoid getting any soup on his ruff.

I could be polite, though. “Okay. But I wanted to ask you something.”

“Sure,” he replied. “Something bothering you?”

“Yeah, I…” Well, a lot of things were bothering me. I’d just have to prioritize. “I don’t even know enough to know the right questions to ask. Maybe I should just try later…”

Or not. Drat.

“Would it be easier if you had a chance to visit an island or something?” Haruta asked.

“Being on land doesn’t help,” I replied, then I gave in and tried the soup. Per Thatch’s usual, it was excellent. Given that the recipe was so foreign, it didn’t stir any feelings of homesickness—or at least, any more than usual. “The rules are just too different.”

Haruta stuck his tongue out again, thinking. Then, “Well, if one of us goes with you—we could be like interpreters, or something! And you could explore the New World a bit? Learning stuff through books is great and all, but it’s more fun to actually visit some of the places we look after.”

I stared at Haruta for a long moment, my expression blank. At this point, I didn’t know why the Whitebeards were still trying to recruit me, but it seemed like they were a stubborn bunch. It wasn’t like I had a single skillset—that I’d shown them—that they couldn’t already replicate. And I certainly hadn’t been all that social, either.

“Uh, Kei?”

“It’s nothing, Commander Haruta.” I sighed to myself, then focused on finishing the soup so I could go back to studying. It was a bit too hot to slurp, though, so I probably just ended up looking disinterested.

We sat in silence for a little longer, while I finished my soup, until Haruta broke the awkward pause wide open with, “Well, what do you do for fun?”

I didn’t know how to answer that. All of my go-to options were a million miles away. A chance glance around the room resulted in my eyes alighting on Haruta’s sword. An easy answer came to mind immediately. “Well, uh, I know how to use swords...sort of…”

“Great! Well, I’m not as good as Vista, but we can spar later? I’m sure there are some practice swords lying around, somewhere,” Haruta said, with forced cheerfulness.

I rested my head against my hand. Haruta really was trying.

Still, it wasn’t a bad idea. I’d been hiding away in the library since the events of the attack the other day, except for when it was time to help Thatch work. Maybe a workout would help...

But not too much of one. “Go easy on me, okay?”

“Ah, don’t worry! I’ll play nice.”

I didn’t show off a single one of my advanced techniques during the spar. Really, my loss was an impressive bit of acting, the story of which I decided I would share with my students once I got back home.  


I’d been aboard the ship for ten days before reality blindsided me again.

Now, I hung out with Thatch a lot. While I was picking up seafaring terms, I had a tendency to make experienced pirates cringe when they heard me try to use it. Taking this as a sign that I was probably a liability on deck, no one objected to me staying in the galley during chore time and helping feed what amounted to a literal army. No one had said anything to me, but I had no interest in being a total freeloader. Thus, peeling spuds became my new semi-official day job.

And then, one day, he wasn’t there.

“You looking for Thatch?” asked one of the pirates who had been shanghaied into food prep. There were consistent volunteers from the Fourth Division (insofar as they really could, given who their commanding officer was), but this guy was a new face to me.

“Uh, yeah,” I said, ever the epitome of composure and grace. I’d been getting better since getting used to life on a ship, but I definitely preferred sticking to people I knew. “So, where’d he go?”

“He’s out on an expedition right now,” he replied.

That didn’t mean much to me. It seemed like all the commanders had duties that ranged from “cook everything that isn’t actually poisonous” to “check every single cannon on board” to “drown in paperwork.” Thatch’s mission or vacation or whatever it was could easily have been a common occurrence. I just hadn’t been around the crew long enough to know.

“But I can work here without him supervising, right?” I asked, suddenly unsure.

The pirate I’d been talking to used one hook-hand to yank a sack of potatoes in his direction. “Just don’t cut yourself or you might end up like me!” he said with a grin.

That certainly answered my question.

One day, you are going to become restless with your mundane life choices before I do, Isobu muttered as I got to work without complaint. Have you forgotten about that creature?

I cut into a potato with perhaps more force than strictly necessary, earning an earful from a pirate about wasting food that I only listened to enough to nod in the right places. No.

We have not made a move to leave the pirates and set out on our mission since you arrived. Isobu was probably four or five miles away, underwater in some kind of trench, and I nonetheless oriented toward his exact position before trying to glare a hole through the wall.

I didn’t need the reminder.

You are becoming complacent. Isobu started swimming farther afield, aggravated enough to stir up the local serpents—or Sea Kings, as the pirates called them—and subsequently getting into a fight with them in the abyss.

He needed to work off some stress, too.

I continued butchering vegetables.

You… Isobu’s tails lashed, gutting a creature that had not learned the first lesson everything else that fought Isobu would: Fighting him in the water was certain death. Going back to the village may mean I am forced back into the seal. I can almost accept that. But I am also looking out for your interests, not just mine. And you need to go home.

I put down the knife before I stabbed someone. The pirate from before must have seen my expression, because he snuck the knife away without comment.

Isobu?

Yes?

That plan is the one that wants me to basically reassemble the fucking Ten-Tails, I said in a frigid tone. When Isobu went silent, I continued, Even if I didn’t know that there are other, stronger, hostile jinchūriki out there—what else could “the Nine” even be—we could actually doom this world if we screw this up!

I was selfish. If I hadn’t met the Whitebeard Pirates, I doubt I would have really cared about that point. I would have just wanted to get home so badly that no other considerations would matter. Isobu and I probably would have cut a wide swath through their oceans in order to complete our mission.

But at the same time that I was selfish, I had a heart softer than any ninja should.

I’d been befriended, and now I didn’t want to leave what meager comfort zone I’d managed to scrape together. Not in favor of a mission that could end hundreds of lives if I wasn’t careful. Especially when I still didn’t know enough about how to avoid that.

You really are a soft-hearted fool.

Either that or I’m well past succumbing to Stockholm Syndrome.

I ended up ejecting myself from the kitchen for being a safety hazard while distracted. And I went to go take a nap.

The nap went thus:

YOU HAVE BEEN CALLED.

YOU ARE THE THIRD.

YOU WILL ASSEMBLE THE NINE.

And then I woke up upside-down, one foot stuck in my hammock and my face mashed against the floor, to the sound of a commotion up on deck. My wrist ached again, right where the kanji sat, and even I had to admit that this was getting out of hand.

But hey, the outside world called.

“Did something happen?” I asked from the floor as a nurse ran by.

“Thatch is back!” she yelled, having not stopped to check if I was upright or anything. Which, well, okay. I probably wasn’t gonna die of tripping onto the floor.

That was fast. Still, I got up and headed after the crowd, because apparently pirates were like magpies—chasing after something shiny all the time. And I wasn’t really any better.

The deck of the Moby Dick seemed to be the party’s epicenter, like every other major event I’d seen thus far on the ship. The crowd of pirates focused inward, so I stalked around the outside of the celebration until I could find a better vantage point.

“Yo, Teach,” I said, once I found the easiest landmark in the crowd.

“Hm?” The guy had to look down almost until he was staring at his elbow to even notice me, which was a biiiiit pathetic in hindsight. Stupid giants.

“What’s going on?” I asked, peering over people’s heads as well as I could.

Thatch was in the center of the crowd, carrying both a travel bag of some kind and a big purple thing that looked kind of like what would happen if an enterprising botanist successfully crossed a durian with a bunch of grapes.

I didn’t end up getting a direct response.

“What kind of Devil Fruit is it, Thatch?” I heard Ace’s voice ask.

“I don’t really know,” Thatch answered with a laugh. “I don’t even know if I want to eat it. It does look pretty neat, though!”

“One more hammer in a crew full of them isn’t going to be a problem,” Namur said, though the joking tone didn’t really make much sense to me. How many of the Whitebeards were drowning hazards already?

“Hey, I actually like swimming,” Thatch shot back at Namur. “I’ll have to think about it.”

Perhaps it is the fishman’s duty to retrieve… “hammers?” Isobu muttered. I still prefer to call it being an anchor.

Sounds more nautical, at least. “I wonder if there’s any way to know what type it is?” I muttered to myself.

If there was, I imagine you would have seen it during your research. There were no pictures.

Yeah. Still, I wonder why they can’t swim after eating one of those. Is it a question of density? I shook my head. No, that would make too much sense for what I’d seen. Ace could eliminate half his body mass or more by turning into fire, and heat rose. It also didn’t explain the apparent full-body paralysis.

At the same time, Isobu sighed. Our theory still fails utterly to explain why. Perhaps it really is a kind of curse?

Honestly, I probably would have left the entire crowd to their celebration so I could go back to pondering the shape of the universe. It was just that I happened to look up at Teach’s face, since he hadn’t answered me before, and saw the expression there.

I have seen Kurama make less terrifying faces. And I know for a fact that he has ten more teeth.

Even from my bad angle, I could see Teach’s pearly whites—well, what ones were left—all on display in a way that put Namur and his shark head to shame. The sheer greed in Teach’s maniacal grin was startling in its unexpectedness because I was literally hanging with a pirate crew. It shouldn’t have been unexpected.

And yet here Teach was, standing out like the sorest of thumbs.

I looked away, but I kept his face in the corner of my eye just to know when things changed.

As quick as the expression appeared, it vanished like it had never been. Burned into my memory, sure, but probably not into anyone else’s. They’d all been focused on Thatch and his Durian of Doom.

Isobu?

If it is about apologizing to this human again, I advise you to retract it preemptively.

No. But it does have to do with him.

I faded toward the back of the crowd, then left.

I just had one more reason to talk to the captain, now.


“YOU’RE LEAVING?”

Once I was sure the yelling was done with, I lowered my hands from my ears and said, “I have to.”

Somehow, me deciding to leave meant that all the division commanders who had befriended me were choosing to flip out. I’d gotten used to the idea that my departure might not be greeted with cheers about the time I realized how friendly these people were, but seriously?

Somehow, I’d still been surprised that Thatch, Ace and the others reacted so much.

“Who says? Who’s scaring off my best assistant?” Thatch demanded, as though he hadn’t been flailing his arms and carrying on a moment ago. He met my eyes squarely and promised fervently, “I’ll fight them!”

“Thatch, your entire division helps you out in the kitchen,” Haruta said bluntly.

“It’s not anyone’s fault,” I explained patiently, slipping the loop of my sleeve off my middle finger. I pulled the cloth back from my right wrist to show off the mark the Faceless Bastard had put on me. “This mark is a symbol of my mission. And I can’t complete it if I don’t leave.”

“What kind of mission?” Eastwood asked, looking blankly at the mark. It probably didn’t mean much to him. Hell, without context even the kanji sitting on my wrist seemed arbitrary.

“It’s something I have to do before I can go home,” I said vaguely, and Thatch’s anger abated despite me not actually explaining anything. He knew how much not being able to go home was hurting me. “It’s the price for being able to.”

Ace crossed his arms over his chest. “You’re not gonna give us any details?”

“It’s probably better if I don’t.” Because otherwise they’d get involved. How to phrase this… I tapped my right index finger knuckle against my lower lip, thinking. How would I get Gai to butt out of a fight? ...Oh, right. Then I said, “This is one of those things I need to do myself.”

This seemed to strike a chord with everyone.

“That kind of mission sucks,” Sinbad muttered. “What kind of family makes people deal with things all on their own?”

There they went assuming that I even wanted to see half of the other jinchūriki. I’d met Gaara and knew Kushina, but the rest? The Whitebeards didn’t need to be involved in the inevitable fights to the death. Not over me.

I just shook my head rather than sharing my thoughts. “I wasn’t going to join the crew anyway, Sinbad. I already said so.”

“But you’re hopeless at sailing!” Sinbad argued.

“I’ll be fine,” I insisted. I wasn’t a part of their crew’s hierarchy and thus didn’t really need to obey their orders anyway.

Just because I’m getting a boat doesn’t mean I’m gonna be using the thing.

I will meet up with you the moment you are out of their sight.

Even I didn’t have the ability to fail so utterly at sailing that I could capsize before Isobu could eat it. I could drift and do better, even if parts of the New World oceans had such unfair features as loop de loops.

Izo looked around at all of the worry on his crewmates’ faces and said, “You know very well that we can’t force anyone to stay if they don’t want to. If Kei decides to go elsewhere, then that’s her choice.”

...God dammit why was I always a sucker for being guilt-tripped into things? I gathered my willpower and still said, while looking down at the floor, “I’m going to leave tomorrow morning. I’ll send you letters, if I can.” Then I bowed deeply, adding, “Thank you for taking care of me.”

“Don’t make a big deal out of it,” Haruta said, and I gave the commander of the Twelfth Division a crooked smile when he stuck his tongue out to soften his words. “Seriously, though, if your mission gets too tough, you can come back. It’s not goodbye forever. It’s more like ‘see you later.’”

Assuming I ever managed to find my way back to them without any chakra markers? “Sure. You’ve got it.”

“Good!” Haruta replied, clapping his hand on my shoulder. “You’re the biggest clumsy goof of a landlubber we’ve ever met, but you’re our friend!”

“Do I get any say in this?” I asked, only half-joking.

“NOPE!” everyone replied.

Chapter Text

I did not sleep well that night.

Even if I hadn’t had another dream that consisted of a disembodied voice screaming in my head, going to bed early screwed up my schedule. I snapped awake at some ungodly hour as soon as I felt the air pressure drop hard enough to make my ears pop, then sat up in my hammock with a groan. The Moby Dick was anchored for the night, but storms bothered me for a reason totally unrelated to seasickness or barometric pressure.

I stretched far enough to crack every vertebra that would allow it, then wandered up toward the deck as usual. My roommates were variously asleep, reading, or elsewhere, but no one commented as I left and wandered out for some fresh air.

Once there, I sat down where the railing had previously been destroyed. The carpenter—shipwright, they called him—was a champ about battle damage, apparently, since there was no sign it had ever been.

“Can’t sleep either, Thatch?” I asked of my erstwhile insomniac companion.

Thatch shrugged, still engrossed in staring at the purple hell-fruit he’d brought back to the ship. As I watched, he rolled it around in his hands. “I just have job to do and a decision to make. You?”

“...I’m just really homesick.” When Thatch looked at me askance, I went on, “Storms like this remind me of people back home.” Then I dragged my hand over my face and sighed again.

“Do you want to talk about them?” Thatch asked. I looked up past my fingertips and he gestured with his Devil Fruit-laden hand as he said, “I don’t know if it’ll help, but otherwise we’re just going to sit here moping.”

“Well, I’ve probably done enough of that already,” I admitted, resting my head against my upraised hand. “It’s the thunderstorm, you know?”

“What about the storm?” Thatch prompted.

Out at sea, lightning struck a wave and lit the sea in an eerie green glow. The main mass of thunderheads loomed on the horizon, but that bolt was almost like Thor was conducting test-fires. We’d get hit with a killer thunderstorm shortly assuming that the New World’s weather patterns actually followed normal rules. Or maybe we’d be hit by the business end of a cyclone when the local weather god threw a fit.

“Some of the most important people in my life remind me of storms. Or maybe storms remind me of them,” I said quietly, rubbing one of my eyes and dislodging sleep dust. I flicked my fingers and a loose eyelash flew over the edge of the Moby Dick and out to sea.

Thatch rubbed the scar on the left side of his face in a nervous gesture I’d last seen with Iruka. He sat down next to me, hooking one of his legs around the nearest railing post and putting his Devil Fruit down on the deck.

I side-eyed the evil-looking death-fruit, but didn’t say anything about it. Instead, I kicked my legs idly as I thought. “One of them is—he’s like a bolt of lightning all on his own. I thought that when I first met him. I even called him ‘Sparky’ before he introduced himself.”

Kakashi and I were both bad at first impressions. He came across as a cool, collected badass when really he was a giant dork. I was a giant dork from start to finish, S-class shinobi or not. And I missed just the two of us reveling in our bookworm sessions so much it almost burned. Having him by my side, feeling his warmth and knowing if either of us stumbled, we’d be together—

I’d get back to that as soon as I fulfilled my quest conditions. For now, it couldn’t hurt to be optimistic.

“He’s a huge fan of these cheap romance novels and he got me into them, too,” I said fondly, since it wasn’t like Thatch was going to tell anyone I was a sucker for the Icha-Icha series if he didn’t know what they were. “He wants to just read them, but I like pulling them apart and arguing with the author, so we have to pick what times we can do either one.”

Thatch snorted, and after a second I found myself smiling faintly. With any luck, I’d see him soon. I’d even let him sit with his feet in my lap instead of the other way around when we got into our book battles.

“There’s my kid brother, too—though maybe I shouldn't call him that anymore,” I went on. “He’s twenty-three and likes to tell me he’s not a baby anymore, so I can’t tell him what to do.” I rubbed my arms to calm the goosebumps struggling to rise under my sleeves as the thunder rolled closer. “That feeling, when the world’s standing on a razor’s edge and all your hair stands on end…” I paused. “Well, maybe not your hair.”

“That would be the power of hair gel at work,” Thatch said, which honestly raised more questions than it answered about the tech level of this place.

“I can see that,” I said after a while, eyeing Thatch’s pompadour. I shook my head. “But I feel that kinda thing now, and it reminds me of him. When I get back, I’m going to probably have to make up for being gone with so many training sessions. Or promise to pay for all the takeout he’ll order for the next year.”

If he—if he lived long enough to even decide on a punishment like that. The Chūnin Exams could still screw that up.

“The last one is one of my students,” I said, trying to stay on topic for one last hurrah. I leaned back, pointing at one of the biggest, angriest-looking clouds on the horizon. “See that cloud, with the lightning that keeps doubling back?”

“Yeah, I see. I wanna hear how this comparison goes,” Thatch said, attempting to hide a snicker and failing. “Somehow, I can’t see you as a teacher.”

“I didn’t say I was any good,” I muttered, but it was just simple humor. I felt a smile creep onto my face anyway as I finally let the urge to pace and talk overwhelm my reservations. On my feet, I felt more in control and not like I was floating around at someone else’s whim.

Without apparently really thinking about it, Thatch mirrored me, but leaned back against the railing and let me gesture as I needed to without getting anywhere close to accidental hitting range. Describing any one of my students always required movement.

“Kaito’s a handful. Soaks up everything I teach him, keeps up in any exercise I can think of, but the second he gets riled up, oh man. As much as I love the kid, his temper’s a bit…” I twisted my hand in midair, at a loss for the exact word I needed. “But, hey, when I get home I’ll be able to help him with that.”

...Kaito, Aiko, and Roku were going to break me in half through the force of their hugs alone when I got back.

It was probably a bit messed up that I was looking forward to that almost as much as deconstructing Jiraiya’s works with my boyfriend or owing my brother six months’ worth of sparring matches.

“So,” I said after my mental daydreaming fog wore off, “what are you doing sitting out here, Thatch?”

“Me? I’m on first watch.” Thatch grinned at my disappointed frown. And after I’d poured my heart out—well, a small fraction thereof—to the sea and a sympathetic ear, too! “Sorry if you wanted any longer stories, but sometimes the reason is pretty simple.”

“And you took that with you as a snack?” I joked, jabbing a finger at the Durian of Doom.

Thatch laughed. “No, no! Besides, everyone tells me these things taste horrible.” He bounced the thing in his open palm, as though juggling one-handed. “It’s a big decision, you know?”

I stared blankly at Thatch for a long moment before giving him my best clueless shrug. “I really don’t. So, I guess I can’t give you advice or anything.”

“That’s fine; I wasn’t looking for any,” Thatch quipped easily, rolling the Devil Fruit along his arm like it wasn’t some kind of weird superpower-imbuing food. Even if it was to taste what nails on a chalkboard was to hearing, the motion struck me as a careless gesture.

My gaze followed the faintly glowing thing as though nailed to it. “Do you plan on getting rid of it?”

There was no chakra—and I cursed myself for thinking danger would have that much of a blatant warning around here—when I got hit.

If I hadn’t been standing, I would’ve been crushed against the deck or the railing. Instead, the hammer-blow that slammed into my side sent me sailing right over the edge of the Moby Dick in an arc just as a bolt of lightning illuminated the deck.

I caught a glimpse of Teach looming over Thatch before I fell.

And then I was falling.

What is happening?! Isobu demanded in shock, his chakra whirling in the distance and changing direction. Neither of us had expected to be attacked. He was on the other end of the island, out of immediate reach.

I didn’t have time to answer him.

Years of training kicked in, sending chakra toward my hands and feet as I twisted with the force of the hit. I only needed one hand sign properly formed to use my countermeasure, and I did so without reservation. If I hit the water, it would take me too long to get back to the fight.

Down below, the waves surged up to meet me in the form of a roiling, glowing waterspout, shedding water like flecks of foam from slavering jaws. A fraction of a second later, two glowing yellow eyes peered out of the mass, and the head of the waterspout contorted to form the Water Dragon Bullet’s signature shape.

It roared like a living creature, joined by the distant snarl of Isobu breaching the surface of the waves kilometers away. Isobu’s voice rolled across the water before being swallowed by thunder, but the message was clear: He was on his way.

The dragon’s head caught me around the waist, flinging me back upward and arcing onto solid wood just above the first row of cannons. I hit the hull with three limbs at the same time, let the dragon dissipate into harmless water, then dashed directly up the side of the ship with hardly a pause to form chakra scalpels around my fingertips. In my left hand, I carried my unsealed emergency kunai for what good a real blade might do.

I threw myself up and over the railing again, cataloging changes and reassessing the situation almost automatically. Thatch: Down and bleeding on the deck. Teach: Already running for the other edge of the ship. With Teach retreating, I defaulted to my oldest training: in absence of other help, I was a first responder.

I hurled my kunai at Teach with as much Water and Wind chakra as I could coat it with. I was already turning my attention to Thatch by the time Teach yelped, stumbled, and plummeted off the other railing and into the dark.

I darted back to Thatch, assessing his injuries even as I stripped off the bolero jacket Izo had given me, using it to bind the bleeding man’s arm. I couldn’t do the same for what looked like the second stab wound, since it was on Thatch’s torso, but I could put pressure there. I could do something.

Speaking of something. Isobu, if you see that bastard in the water as you get close, kill him.

Show me exactly what happened, Isobu said, even as he surged underwater toward the Moby Dick.

I sent him as many of the confused images as I could bring to mind. There was no continuity, not like a proper film, but Isobu could link it all together. I just tried to focus on making sure as much of Thatch’s blood stayed inside his body as possible.

The entire time, I never used chakra. I couldn’t risk it.

Even if I hadn’t been specifically banned from using medical ninjutsu back home, I didn’t know enough about local human anatomy to risk going in blind. I hadn’t sensed any chakra besides mine and Isobu’s in the entire time I’d been here, and I couldn’t assume that anyone just happened to have a chakra circulatory system they weren’t using. My world had been shaped by the Ten-Tails’s rampage across it, as had the people living there. These people—there was no way that they had any resistance.

People belowdecks had started running around starting from the time Isobu roared. Someone kicked a door open—against the hinges and splintering the wood—and then there were people all around me and Thatch. Mostly Thatch.

I snapped my gaze up and met the eyes of a nurse named Janey, saying as if by rote, “Teach stabbed Thatch and ducked over the edge of the ship. I’m keeping pressure on the injury, but someone needs to find that bastard before he hurts anyone else.”

Ace, who had just arrived, burst into flames and stalked toward the other railing. I noticed, then dismissed his rage as not my immediate concern. A blue flare overhead a moment later told me Marco had joined him in the search for the traitor.

“Let me take over,” Janey suggested, and I spotted two more pink-uniformed nurses over her shoulder.

Good enough. I let Janey get past me and put pressure on the wound as people shouted for stretchers, doctors, and the rest of the nurses who generally tended to Whitebeard. Pirates scattered around the ship, shouting orders at each other and trying to do too many things at once.

Thatch was bundled up in a stretcher and taken into the ship without much specific fanfare.

Which direction did he head in? Isobu growled, half to himself. I was sure I heard him mutter something dire about New World weather and rains of frogs, but was already getting to my feet and trying to figure out what to do next.

I have no idea. Do the best you can—but make sure you don’t attack Ace or Marco.

How you think I could mistake a fiery blue bird for a man on the run is a question I do not need answered. I am not nearsighted.

No, you’re farsighted.

Maybe that wasn’t going to work out. Already the wind howled overhead like a monster Isobu’s size, lightning spewing everywhere. And the Moby Dick was the tallest object around, with the main mast getting struck repeatedly.

I stopped the nearest Division Commander, Namur, and almost forgot the awkwardness between us as I said, “Teach should be wounded. I threw a knife at him before he went off the port side.”

I didn’t just throw a knife at him. But I wasn’t sure I’d compensated for his body mass correctly. What would have killed a normal-sized man might not have been enough for him.

“We’ll get him,” Namur snarled, but he was already looking past me and darting toward where, belatedly, I realized Teach had left a blood trail before falling off. A shark fishman would be able to track him even in a storm, right?

He couldn’t have gotten far away, could he?

Isobu, watch out. Namur’s in the water. Make sure you don’t kill him by mistake.

I understand.

“Kei, are you all right?” asked a rather sleep-rumpled Haruta. His sword was stuck in his belt without its sheath and the Shakespearean collar he wore normally was entirely missing.

I looked down at myself, because I wasn’t sure of the answer to that question. My hands were covered in blood, as were the knees of my pants from Thatch’s blood pooling on the deck. My left side ached where Teach had hit me, but my healing rate would take care of that problem practically before bruising started. Still, I wasn’t hurt so much as I was angry at myself for not expecting something to happen, and for letting Thatch get stabbed.

And not to mention I was missing my holdout weapon. One last cherry on top of this terrible sundae.

“None of the blood is mine,” I told Haruta, sighing. “Worry about Thatch and Teach.”

“Oh, we’re well ahead of you there,” said Vista as he passed by. “And Haruta, get up in the crow’s nest. Marco went out without checking in.”

“Fine, fine,” Haruta said, and was gone in an instant.

I drifted over to where some members of the Sixteenth Division were starting to clean up the blood, with Izo supervising. Mops and heavy-duty cleaning agents made their first appearance in maybe twenty minutes.

“Let me help,” I suggested quietly when Izo turned toward me. Without anything to do, I was just spinning my wheels in place.

Izo took one long look at me, gripped my shoulder, and then said, “You saved Thatch’s life. Thank you.

Running on reflex alone, I might’ve denied it. All I’d done is keep a bit more blood in him and wound the man who’d attacked him. We didn’t know if Thatch was going to live or die. That was down to his will and local medical procedures. So really, Izo was being a bit optimistic.

But it didn’t feel right. So instead, I merely said, “I did my best.”

Izo patted my shoulder and let me go with a vague suggestion to sit down somewhere.

All we could do was wait. Wait for Thatch to recover or die, wait for Teach to be captured or escape…

I sat down in an unoccupied corner of the deck, nearly curled into a ball with my face hidden under my hand. Not because I was afraid, or even tired. No, I was doing my level best to suppress my adrenaline-enhanced chakra and be productive about it instead of burning someone.

Isobu? If Thatch dies, we’re adding “killing that fratricidal bastard” to the to-do list.

If he escapes, I will have no objections. Isobu was already around the tip of the island and searching for any swimming shapes that didn’t belong to Namur. In fact, I will see to it personally. No one strikes you and lives.


THAT BASTARD!”

It was probably for the best that Whitebeard’s cabin was reinforced. I’d never seen Ace lose his temper (without a target), but he was currently burning up and not in the figurative way. I surreptitiously stepped to the side as he raised the ambient temperature by an uncomfortable amount. Marco’s flames were neither active nor hot, but being a phoenix apparently gave him the leeway to just stand next to Ace, hand on his shoulder, and not melt.

Whitebeard sat on the edge of his bed with a jug of sake at his knee. The jug itself was probably as big as the barrels he’d been using as mugs earlier, but none of the nurses had taken this particular vessel away from him before the meeting.

Probably for the best, too.

“Thatch is still alive,” Marco reminded Ace, and though Marco’s hand was fried to a crisp more than once, the blue flames overrode the damage time and again.

Kinda masochistic of him, I thought.

I suggest you listen to their conversation rather than thinking up witty asides.

Ace took a deep breath and the flames finally went out. Shortly after, Marco’s hand stopped needing to regenerate. I caught a glimpse of hideous blisters and desiccated flesh before the blue flames swallowed it up again and left whole skin in its wake. Not something I wanted to see again.

“And meanwhile the guy who stabbed him in the back is still out there,” Ace snarled, looking like he was ready to burst into flames again at any moment. “And he was one of my men.”

“It’s not your fault,” I said, finally speaking up. The only reason I was even here was because I was the last person to see Teach, since Thatch was still unconscious. When the others noticed I was still there, I said quietly, “I was the one there. I was careless.”

“You already suspected Teach?” Marco asked, his eyes narrower than usual. It wasn’t quite an accusation, but I didn’t want to push my luck either.

“I didn’t expect him to do anything,” I corrected him. “I just didn’t trust him. But I think people already knew that.”

“You were worried about how it’d sound if you accused him of something,” Marco suggested, but I was already shaking my head.

“Commander Marco—” He’d never given me permission to not use his title, right? “I’m not a part of your crew. Teach was. It wasn’t my place.”

As though drawn there by a magnet, all three of our gazes drifted to Whitebeard.

The old captain was...I didn’t know the exact word I was looking for. While the initial reaction to Teach’s betrayal had been only subdued compared to that of his commanders, the old man wasn’t the type to maintain a boiling rage. He was proud, sure, and stubborn, but he was experienced enough to calculate risks. I could see the same number-crunching that he’d gone through earlier on the deck of the Moby Dick, with Thatch’s blood still trapped between the boards.

Whitebeard had wasted no time making Teach the first son he’d ever disowned. Teach, any allies he’d ever find, and all of his deeds weren’t going to be scrubbed from the records or anything like that, but if he ever appeared again he’d certainly need to watch his massive back. He was an enemy from this day onward.

Or at least that was how Vista explained it to me.

But Whitebeard had made his judgment and now his first and second mate were trying to hash out the details.

“At this point, it’s more your place to say things like that than it is his,” Marco commented darkly, and I had to admit he had a point. Though I still wasn’t truly involved in the pirates’ affairs, an enemy deserved far less consideration.

“And you’re sure it was the Devil Fruit that started it?” Ace asked, though I’d already said more or less just that.

“I only know what I saw,” I said, though I had my suspicions. It was never quite that simple. There had to have been a confluence of factors the Whitebeards had never put together, one of which was simply that Teach hid far more ambition than anyone suspected. The Devil Fruit was just an excuse. A trigger at worst.

It’s just like Orochimaru before he started experimenting on children, and look where that got us. But it wouldn’t help if I said that, so I kept my trap shut.

This silence did not seem to go over particularly well. The longer it went, the longer everyone stewed, and then the tipping point arrived.

“I still should have known!” Ace growled. He looked almost like he was going to explode into flames again, but he instead ran one hand through his hair and knocked his hat off. “He was up for promotion before I was, but he’s been with us for years and I didn’t see this coming.”

“None of us did,” Marco reminded him. The were-phoenix looked up at the ceiling for a moment, then said in an attempt to change the topic, “Kei, how did you get away unscathed? Thatch is a division commander. You’re…not.”

“You’re right, but…“ I raised my left arm, so he could see the bruises there better. They already looked like they were three days old, even under my Isobu tattoo. “Teach hit me, but I heal really well. The second…” I made the Tiger seal with my fingers.

Both Marco and Ace jumped back as water spiraled out of the air and condensed into a puddle a foot to my left. Then it sprang up into a humanoid shape, still transparent, before turning into a proper Water Clone. Then there were two of me standing in that room.

“What the hell?” Ace demanded, flames flaring along his shoulders. So much for self-control.

“You see,” I said, as both my clone and I turned to face the pirates, “water is my weapon. I can’t use it for everything, but when I got thrown off the ship, the sea tossed me back up.” I shifted my weight, then twisted my wrist. The Water Clone popped and dispersed into ordinary, inert water that I gathered into a Rasengan-like ball above my upraised right hand. “Teach didn’t know I could do this. So he just smacked me around and actually fought Thatch.”

“But…you can still swim.” Ace strode my way, then reached out and touched the ball that was about as dangerous as a water balloon. Under his flaming hand, the ball quickly started to boil. It was, after all, only ordinary freshwater. “I checked that right when you got on Striker with me. If you’d eaten a Devil Fruit, you wouldn’t have been able to do anything as soon as you touched seawater.”

“It’s not a Devil Fruit power,” I said, closing my fingers under the water ball and letting it flash away into steam under Ace’s fire without my reinforcement. I turned my face toward Whitebeard and simply said, “But I survived Teach hitting me thanks to this. The fall would’ve killed me otherwise.”

Only if he had managed to actually stun you, and thus render you incapable of catching yourself on the water’s surface. And even then, I would not bet on the ocean. Isobu said it like he didn’t harbor a vicious streak a mile wide and a grudge toward Teach for activating it. He could have been discussing the weather.

Teach thought it would kill me. It’s the only reason I can think of that he didn’t bother, say, stabbing me like he did Thatch. It seemed that my goofball tendencies had served me well. Given how I’d been acting over the last week, no one would have guessed that I was a deadly fighter when I wanted to be.

No one would have guessed that Teach was a murderer, either. Other than those who read the dictionary definition of his career choice.

And we’d both blown our respective covers, both with regard to each other and in general. I hoped his stab wound ached at least as much as my arm did, if he hadn’t just shrugged such a tiny projectile off.

“Devil Fruit or not, the important thing is that everyone is alive,” Whitebeard said, either no longer angry enough for it to show in his voice or pushing it aside for more productive emotions.

I closed my eyes, bowing again for lack of any better options. “I’m sorry I couldn’t stop him from getting away, and for any trouble I’ve caused you.”

My shoulders twitched as Whitebeard laughed. “There is nothing to forgive. As long as my sons are alive and well, what do I care that a guest of ours has strange powers? This is, after all, the New World.”

I still wasn’t all that sure what it meant, but I could understand the general sentiment. The Whitebeards were accepting my choices even if they didn’t agree.

Marco stepped back, and I watched his sandaled feet move across the floor toward me out of the corner of my eye. “Go ahead and stand up. You did well.”

Ace sighed aloud as I looked up. “Besides, it wouldn’t be fair to be angry at you for keeping secrets. Everyone here has a few.”

“I’m not so much keeping secrets as not mentioning things,” I muttered, but I relaxed anyway. Meeting each man’s eyes in turn, I finally said, “If that’s all, I’m going to go change and then maybe visit Thatch, if it’s allowed. Thank you.”

I left Whitebeard’s cabin silently, since I was no longer hiding at least some of my skill level.

“Wait up a second,” Ace’s voice said, just before I turned the corner toward the medical bay—which was where I was bunked anyway.

“What is it?” To be perfectly honest, I wanted to just not deal with the various Whitebeard commanders for a while. A vigil with a guy who was unconscious from blood loss felt about my speed.

His face was as placid as the thunderstorm that had raged outside barely an hour ago when he rounded the corner himself. But he managed to achieve something more akin to equilibrium by the time he was close enough to talk.

What he said next was a perfectly neutral, “I’m gonna visit Thatch, too. Maybe if he hears us, he’ll wake up faster.”

But I remembered what I’d seen.

I watched Ace’s face carefully for any further warning signs. Not of rage directed at me, but anger and loss twisted around on itself like a double-edged kunai. Even if I hadn’t been from Konoha—and therefore the home of the fucking Uchiha clan—I doubted I would have had a lot of respect for vengeance as a motive. Maybe I was too wishy-washy to commit, but my relationship with vengeance was pretty hit or miss. Either I got my payback sorted out immediately, or I let it lie.

Call it a hunch, but this was not over.

“Okay. Let’s go.”

I later kicked him out of the medical bay and adjoining areas so I could change, but hey, he really should have expected that.


I didn’t leave the Moby Dick the next day. Or the one after. Or the one after that.

The first couple of days were frantic. The various commanders scoured the sea and the nearby islands for any sign of Teach in shifts, while Isobu swore that he would control the capricious ocean of the New World if it was the last thing he ever did. Given his immortality, he had plenty of time to practice with his chakra control and make the sea obey him.

It didn’t make Teach any easier to find in the meantime.

As strange as it sounded, the thieving backstabber—because it turned out the Devil Fruit was gone, too—had successfully gone to ground. I would’ve thought that he wouldn’t be able to blend in when all fifteen active Whitebeard commanders were out and about with their divisions and chasing him where they could, but apparently the New World was wilder than I’d given it credit for. And it was already breaking the bank.

Somewhere in the back of my head, I’d expected to be thrown off the ship because I was the only one who’d seen Teach’s betrayal and could talk about it. The situation as it stood was effectively my word against that of a man the Whitebeards couldn’t find. But Whitebeard believed my account of events, as did his commanders.

I was still a bit wary.

“We don’t even have a brig, not really,” Vista said, when I hesitantly broached the idea anyway. “It’s more of a drunk tank. Sometimes crewmates get out of hand, so we stick them in there until they sober up.”

“I imagine the hangovers would make them easier to manage after that point,” I muttered, rubbing the back of my neck.

Vista grinned. “You’re not wrong.” Then he paused, looking down at me since I was more than four full feet shorter than he was. “Were you really worried we’d lock you up?”

“Ace said Teach was on the crew longer than he was, and no one expected anything like this,” I explained, still a bit uncomfortable. “I’ve been here for less than two weeks. It’d—it’d make sense if people were angry at me.”

“It’s a little difficult to be angry at someone who clearly saved a crewmate’s life,” Vista pointed out reasonably. “If it wasn’t for you, Thatch wouldn’t have lasted long enough for the nurses to get there.”

More like if not for Isobu. His roar had woken the entire ship and sent them scrambling for battle stations. My awareness had narrowed just to Thatch and his injuries, for all the good I would have done without Janey and the others.

“Anyone else would’ve done the same thing…”

“But no one else was in the right spot,” Vista said, and I had to nod in agreement. He reached down and patted my shoulder. “I’m on my way out. Did you want to come with?”

I blinked. “Uh, I haven’t really been off the ship...” Nor had I gotten a chance to replace the bolero Izo had given me, what with the ongoing manhunt. I hadn’t actually seen Izo since Teach’s betrayal.

“An excellent time to start, then.” Vista apparently viewed this as the end of the conversation, and walked off.

“...Okay then,” I mumbled, and went to go find a spare coat just in case.

The coat I ended up retrieving from the spare clothing bin was apparently designed for someone about a foot taller than me, so the rough red material went a fair bit past the ends of my fingers. It also had the Whitebeard Pirates emblem displayed proudly across the shoulders, which mostly ended up reminding me I was a bit of a fake for using it.

Still, Vista seemed to approve. “Now you look like one of us.”

“I suppose I do,” I admitted, as we headed toward the starboard side of the deck. “Is anyone else going to, uh—”

“Foodvalten,” Vista supplied.

“—Yeah, that place,” I finished, since it wasn’t like I knew where anything was out here.

“I think a couple of members of the Second Division are coming along,” Vista said, finally answering my question. “Supply runs need to be completed whether we have other problems to deal with or not.”

I thought that over. “And if you just so happen to run into Teach along the way…?”

“Then we’ll get to cut the manhunt short, won’t we?” said a new voice, and I turned to find Eastwood and Sinbad among the group milling around on the deck. I didn’t recognize most of the pirates around them, who seemed to be part of Vista’s Fifth Division instead.

Vista gave a noncommittal shrug, though his eyes hardened. “Let’s concentrate on our jobs for right now.”

“Where’s Commander Ace?” I asked, while the Fifth Division pirates got a couple of smaller scouting vessels ready to go. Landing vessels? Anyway, they were more rowboat than anything, despite the sails.

“He’s staying with Thatch,” Eastwood said, checking his pistols one last time. “So, any idea what you want to get on Foodvalten?”

“...If I had the slightest idea what was there, maybe,” I said somewhat sheepishly. “I just need something to do and Commander Vista invited me along.”

“Well, I hope you like being a manual laborer for the day,” Sinbad said, “because food runs always take elbow grease.”

“I think I can handle that,” I said, flapping a dismissive hand—and sleeve—at my skeptical pirate friends. “I might not seem that tough, but I’m not a stranger to hard work.”

It was very difficult to both be Gai’s friend and unaware of the concept, at least. Sinbad and Eastwood just exchanged shrugs and helped me into the boat despite my lack of need for it. I probably could have walked down the side of the Moby Dick to about the same effect, but still didn’t have any interest in exposing more of my tricks to anyone.

Foodvalten was a…really, I would have called it a rock formation more than anything. It looked like a free-standing chunk of stone that had been eroded away via rivers instead of an ocean, topped generously with bird-delivered plant life and also a small town somewhere in the middle of the bay. The people on the island wore feathers on their heads—which made me give Eastwood’s cowboy hat a sidelong look yet again.

While someone in Vista’s division oversaw the bulk purchases—flour, pickled everything, and so on—the rest of the Whitebeards fanned out to search for whatever they wanted.

“What are you getting?” Sinbad asked, having founded and purchased some kind of knife set from a local shop. There wasn’t a weapon shop on the island for what I needed, so I held off on that front.

I shrugged. “I don’t have any money, so probably not much.”

Eastwood snapped his fingers. “Right, you don’t get a share of the loot. I forgot about that.”

The Whitebeard Pirate emblem on my back was probably messing with him. It certainly messed with everyone else.

Sinbad frowned. “I could cover what you want. You don’t need to pay me back unless it’s really expensive.”

“Thank you, Sinbad,” I said, bowing just a bit. “I’ll try looking around.”

I ended up buying a number of small paintbrushes. Nothing like the ones that Fossa’s division used, which were more for the ship-suitable paint that went toward re-varnishing the Moby Dick, but instead my choices were delicate. The thinnest one was best-suited for particularly finicky watercolors, while the thickest of them would work for fūinjutsu as long as I carefully maintained it.

I immediately snatched the case up as soon as Sinbad bought them for me, tucking them carefully into my borrowed jacket’s inner pocket. I poked and prodded at the packet, almost giddy with excitement at having found something I could use for fūinjutsu even this far out into the middle of nowhere.

Of course, my traveling companions noticed. After the second time Sinbad caught me fidgeting and taking the brushes out to marvel at them, he said, “...Um, you seem kinda attached to those.”

I felt my cheekbones start to color a bit, and coughed. “It’s been ages since I’ve had my own brushes. I, um, I do calligraphy sometimes.”

“...Okay,” was all he said, even as he edged away from me.

“If I can find some paper, maybe I could write a poem or something for Thatch,” I mused aloud, “or maybe copy one down. Maybe a thank-you letter? For when he wakes up.”

“I don’t think Thatch is one for poetry, Kei,” said Eastwood.

...Crap. Maybe a painting? I wasn’t a particularly good artist after a lifetime of mostly not practicing, but I could probably come up with something. Oh, and I could even sign it with a tracking seal. I’d definitely find the Moby Dick again if I could get one of them to work.

“Ask Vista,” Eastwood suggested.

I didn’t actually get a chance to, because someone in the Fifth Division gave a shout and drew all of our attention back to the bay. As one, all of the Whitebeards rushed out of the town and toward the landing boats.

Marco, in full phoenix form, landed neatly just on the edge of the docks and perched on a post. In a burst of blue flame, he reverted his head, torso, and legs to human form and turned to Vista, saying something before taking off again.

The message, when Vista turned to all of us, turned out to be, “Thatch is awake.”


Before I knew it, two weeks passed.

I painted a grayscale landscape scene, of the Hokage Mountain and the four somewhat silly-looking heads carved into it. Instead of depicting any of the buildings resting in its shadow, I did my best to portray a placid lake that, really, looked more like something out of the Valley of the End before Rin and I battled Sasori in it. The lake certainly didn’t look like that now.

The Whitebeards mostly didn’t know what to make of it—Jozu mentioned that it didn’t quite look real—but they hung it up in the galley for Thatch to see when he finally returned to the kitchen. I wrote a little get-well note on the edge of the bastardized sumi-e painting, and hid a tracking seal underneath the canvas. Then it was just time to wait for Thatch to see it.

And man, were the Whitebeards eager to have him back.

While Thatch was effectively banned from the kitchen because of his injuries, I had been helping the Fourth Division volunteers in the kitchen for the most part. The results…well, they spoke for themselves. Even Ace balked at eating some of the things we’d come up with.

Sitting in the medical bay with Thatch—who was getting one last checkup for the sake of his spleen—and Ace let me know that quite clearly. Especially during lunch.

Ace set down a spoon still laden with food. It had an unappetizing pudding-like consistency and similar looks. I was mostly sure that part was not my fault. I’d been working on slicing meat, so tapioca had not featured anywhere on my workstation. If it had, I would have been very confused.

“If I didn’t have actual proof that someone wanted me dead…” Thatch trailed off in a warning tone, looking at the food like it would rear up and try to kill him.

“You’re not allowed to joke about that,” Ace said flatly.

“I’m the one who almost died. I can make all the jokes I want,” Thatch argued. He said to me, “Kei, are you sure the guys in the kitchen actually want me to live?”

“Everyone else does,” I deadpanned, picking up the spoon and twirling it in the…yeah, that was probably gravy. It was thankfully inert. “You should hear them complain.”

“Well, then. Let me out of here and I can fix that right up!” Though mollified by the thought, Thatch was still a bit faded-looking. While people on this ship seemed to heal much faster than normal, the medics around here were taking no chances. They kept yanking him out of normal duty rotation.

“Do it before your side heals and I’ll kill you myself!” yelled Janey from across the room, and Thatch wilted immediately.

Case in point.

Ace and I exchanged looks while Thatch moped on the cot with his poor pompadour drooping down over his face. He was the saddest seven-foot puppy I’d ever seen.

On the other hand, I’d long since learned to never argue with medics of any stripe.

“I look forward to eating your food again soon,” I said to Thatch, before slipping off the side of his bed.

Ace was well ahead of me, and the last thing I heard from Janey was, “Hey, didn’t you get smacked around by that—GET BACK HERE!”

Hell no.

Neither of us stopped running until we reached the deck, and immediately hid behind Jozu and Vista to avoid any scalpel-laden reprisal.

“Did you two do something?” Jozu asked, lifting his arm to get a look at Ace using him like a human shield.

“Not me,” Ace refuted cheerfully.

“It’s more about what I didn’t do. Which was visit them after Thatch got hurt. Janey just remembered,” I said from my vantage point behind Vista. After we sorted ourselves out and pretended that the last five seconds hadn’t happened, and I said, “By the way, where do you get your swords?”

“Hm? On the next island over, actually.” Vista scratched the base of his second-only-to-Whitebeard mustache. “We never did get those replacement swords. If we do, do you plan on sparring with us?”

I held up my hands. “Hey, no, I’m just trying to get all my ducks in a row. I need supplies if I’m gonna be able to complete my mission.”

“You’re still leaving?” Ace asked, and I got another punch in the heart.

Why were grown pirates so good at guilt-tripping me just by making sad faces at me? I was a total sucker, wasn’t I?

“You barely know anything about sailing, though,” Ace insisted. “You said it yourself. If you head out to sea unprepared, you’ll die!”

I scowled. “I can handle things myself, one way or another.” I still wouldn’t tell this secret, but it was rather an important one. Does my inexperience really matter when you’re navigating using all the world’s currents?

In a word: No.

“How about this, then?” Vista suggested, before Ace could spontaneously combust again. He drew one of his swords and said, “If we can find you a sword and you can prove you can make it out there on your own, then we might let you go.”

I stepped back to eye Vista’s slightly oversized…well, it was a sword, but the finish on it was more “cutlass” than “katana.” The blade part looked like the razor’s edge of a katana, but the hilt was too short to be of use, and I didn’t like the hand guard in the slightest.

“Only if I get something that is a bit less…gilded,” I said at last, still skeptical.

Vista was too dignified of a man to develop an eye tic. Or so he thought. “What’s wrong with my swords?”

“They’re not what I use,” I explained, but perhaps not very well. If I stayed on the Moby Dick any longer, I’d become the world champion of sticking my foot in my mouth. Hm. “My preferred sword is a katana with no ornamentation. I sometimes use the sheath too, but for the most part I fight two-handed with one blade.”

Vista twisted the ends of his mustache in thought. “I could find you one of those easily enough. But don’t they break in your hands?”

I’d have a lot fewer intact tendons if that was the case. “I’ve only gotten my blades broken by other people. Doesn’t really slow me down too much.” I paused as an idea struck me. Maybe I’d have a chance to get off the ship if I played this right… “Would it be possible for me to spar with someone, to prove I can take care of myself?”

“Oh, I could take you on. I’ve been getting bored around here,” Ace said, raising his hand, which got a raised eyebrow from me. Cocky firebug.

Perfect.

“Ace, I could drown you in four seconds,” I said flatly.

There was a collective “oooooooh” from the nearby pirates. Really, they wouldn’t be pirates if they weren’t easily amused by the silly things happening in their vicinity, and already money was changing hands.

Ace’s hackles rose right on cue. “I’d like to see you try!”

“Wait until Vista finds me a sword, and then I’ll show off.” I crossed my arms. “Not before then.”


Funny how when I was being mild-mannered and not confrontational, I couldn’t get anything done or find any supplies for what I really needed. When I challenged a Whitebeard commander, though, the game was quite different. The sword I wanted appeared within two days, and there was none of the “Oh, Haruta broke everything” runaround going on.

It was a conspiracy. And I was done being jerked around.

I attached my sword to my hip thanks to a fashionable belt, but already was making plans to include enough pockets for any incarnation of Batman I’d ever heard of. Once I managed to fill in the gaps in my arsenal—via reconstructing every storage seal I had ever needed—I would be the world’s most terrifying user of a really basic technique.

Then again, I was the only ninja around. That made me the most terrifying by default.

“You’re still sure you want to do this?” Haruta asked as our boat landed on the shore.

Haruta wasn’t a Devil Fruit user, so he and I and the rest of the pirates on this particular rowboat could have probably swam to shore. Apparently, though, everyone wanted to look their best for this particular mess. Even Captain Whitebeard was on the little deserted island where Ace and I would be beating each other silly, sitting next to Thatch so the nurses could fuss over both of them at the same time.

I hoped it would be a bit shorter than all that. Most fights didn’t last long enough to justify rowing half the crew out to spectate.

“Commander Haruta, I said I need to leave because I have things to do,” I reminded him in an even tone. “If this gets me off the ship without having to swan dive off a railing in the middle of the night, I’ll take it.”

“You wouldn’t actually do that, would you?” asked Sinbad, who had also been in the boat.

My eyes narrowed. “I might be tempted.”

But really, I wasn’t trying that hard. If I had been determined to escape, I would have taken off immediately after the medics said Thatch would live. Or else disappeared before then and…missed the moment when Teach betrayed them, and Thatch would’ve died.

I tried not to think about how close that had been.

“Liar,” said Haruta. “You know you love us.”

I shrugged and moved on past Haruta, stalking toward the fateful stretch of beach where Ace was already waiting. Well, time to play.

The new battlefield was, if I was being honest, actually perfect. A gray, sandy beach that Ace would probably turn into glass on one side, and beautiful blue ocean on the other with so few large waves that I’d be able to have the run of the place. Aside from errant seabirds that were going to have to learn how to get the hell out of Dodge before being roasted, it was free of any occupants other than Ace and—after I took a few more steps—me.

Once I arrived, the assembled pirates started chattering again. I heard a few more bets being thrown around, with the men of Ace’s division most totally behind their commander’s victory. There were a few people holding out to make a killing when or if I scraped a win, but they were in the clear minority.  

I had no intention whatsoever of making this a fair fight. Given that everyone around me was a pirate, I had to assume that Ace wouldn’t either—the question was merely if he believed he could win without fighting dirty due to sheer power.

We could make it even more imbalanced if I were to join in.

Don’t think I’ll need it, I thought, even as I placed my right hand on the hilt of my borrowed sword. But hey, if I lose you can say “I told you so.”

You say that as if I needed your permission for doing so.

I sighed internally. Point.

“We fight until one of us can’t anymore. Sound good?” Ace suggested though from about ten meters off. We were both fast enough that a starting gap didn’t make much of a difference, but there was such a thing as social niceties to observe.

“Sounds pretty normal to me,” I said neutrally, glancing toward Whitebeard. He wasn’t actually officiating our match, but Marco, who was, stood right next to him and would listen to his captain’s ruling. Unofficial or not.

Whitebeard looked…nostalgic? How many times had members of his crew fought weird upstarts, anyway?

“Begin when ready,” Marco said, sounding about as interested as he ever looked. Which was…not. Ever.

Then it was time to give Ace my full attention before he turned all the local wildlife into barbecue.

Fire crawled along Ace’s shoulders as I made the Ox hand sign and then raised my left arm skyward, fingers of both hands forming the Seal of Confrontation.

The nearby ocean hissed, and then I blanketed the entire area in mist thicker than pea soup. Hidden Mist technique, detection style.

I couldn’t navigate using my chakra sense when no one else had any, but I could swamp the entire area in mine and figure out where Ace was based on the dead zone he kept boiling away. So I crept around the battlefield unseen as my fog made the world very, very gray. Channeling chakra through my feet, I passed unseen toward the edge of the marked battlefield without even leaving any footprints.

“What the hell?” demanded what sounded like Janey’s voice. “We can’t see anything like this!”

Ace laughed aloud, his fire burning off another chunk of the mist. “You’re seriously hiding from me?”

Like I’d dignify that with a response.

Heat Haze!” And then Ace was blasting the mist apart in the direction he thought I was with a stream of fire. Which, thanks to the power of both weather anomalies and my shinobi sneaking skills, ended up actually being in the broad direction of the audience before the flames curved up and away.

…Had no one ever taught him not to call out what attack he was using? Sure, it didn’t matter since I didn’t know what he could really do, but that was a very bad habit.

I dropped a Water Clone in the midst of the mist even as I pumped still more of it into the air. Unless Ace managed to evaporate the ocean, I could maintain the mist with minimal chakra cost pretty much until I didn’t want to anymore. While I was not Zabuza and therefore specialized in silent killing, I had enough chakra in my coils to put him to shame by far.

Hm. Technically speaking, if Ace set the entire battlefield on fire, none of that would matter. He only wasn’t because there were so many flammable people around.

“Hiding isn’t gonna win this fight for you,” Ace said, while I sent my Water Clone ghosting past his shoulder as the mist swamped everything again.

“Isn’t it, though?” my clone asked cheerfully, ducking under the reflexive punch Ace sent its way. The clone wouldn’t touch him, not when he could boil it to death in a second, but it could distract the hell out of him pretty easily.

My clone wove around and sidestepped every unpowered strike, by a hair’s breadth at most because while Ace was a brawler he was good at it. He just didn’t use nearly as much technique as the fighters I’d been dealing with recently, including my own students.

…Well, I also happened to be the kind of person who preferred dodging by practically nothing. And my clone was going to move like me even if it was working off one-tenth of my strength at most.

“How,”—punch— “the”—and a miss! — “hell”—another miss—

My clone whirled on the spot and launched a roundhouse kick at Ace’s head, but Ace’s blocking arm and shoulder hissed away into fire. The retaliatory strike (“Cross Fire!”) boiled the clone’s top half away in an instant.

Oops.

“What the hell, seriously?” Ace shouted as the clone’s remaining volume splattered across the sand. “You’re not even fighting me yourself!”

I shot out of the deeper section of mist and sliced Ace’s arm from his body.

The total lack of chakra in the strike meant my sword mostly just made Ace’s bicep tattoo look somewhat uneven as the fire sorted it out. He looked over his shoulder, grin widening, and then he dissolved entirely into a man-shaped blaze.

I swapped places with the second Water Clone I had made and felt it pop into an inert puddle, and then immediately created two more from the mist right in front of Ace. They were close enough to jump him, and did so.

And as I got my feet under me again, I sent Water chakra streaming down the length of my katana to form a place for a supercavitation bubble to form. I spun the blade once in my hands, testing for air resistance and, thanks to the mist gathered all around us, picking up more water to use as I went.

I dropped the Hidden Mist technique for just a second, collapsing its mass into a single extended wall of water that led directly from me to Ace. He was already whirling around to face me, right fist aflame, when I got the attack off.

Water Release: Displacement Wave Sword.

More of a passing fancy than anything real, I’d wondered once upon a time what would happen if I used the Curve of the Moon kenjutsu technique underwater.

This wasn’t that. This was me basically forcing a shockwave through the water as hard as possible to see what would happen. Theory into practice, and frankly I didn’t expect much of the result.

What happened was Ace ducking as the still-sharp slash kept traveling even as it emerged from the other end of the water wall, tearing through a sand dune on the far side and then splitting three palm trees in half in sequence. The attack pattern made no sense to me—I hadn’t been using Wind chakra at all—but clearly the pirates knew what was happening.

“Oh, an air blade! Looks a bit like the Tempest Kick, but not as polished…” said someone. Probably Vista. “Hey, Ace, still feeling like this is gonna be easy?”

…Not what I meant to do. At all. I could have killed him if the hit connected because of the chakra behind it.

Ace just tipped his hat forward, then his hands started glowing green as he held them out in front of him. It almost looked like the opening stance of the Kamehameha. “Firefly!

Hidden Mist! The mist swirled in and around us, but this time it was punctuated by little green orbs of lights that flowed out of Ace’s hands. Frowning, I sent a Water Clone to investigate one and slowly retreated to the waves.

The clone ran right into one of the little glowing things, and then a three-meter fireball was where an innocent-looking green orb used to be. My clone exploded into water droplets, briefly disturbing the mist before it flowed back over the site and the scorched beach sand.

I couldn’t maneuver with those things around. But I was also pretty sure that out of the two of us, I was the only one who could tell where everyone was without having to blow the mist apart.

“Come out, come out, wherever you are,” I heard Ace taunt me.

How old did he think I was? Five?

Still, I needed his fireballs off the field.

One of them randomly exploded due to hitting one of its counterparts, which at least proved that they were not stable. It didn’t mean Ace couldn’t control them, but the slightest touch could set them off.

While I knelt offshore, using the mist like a sort of spider web, Ace apparently decided that patience was for other people and shouted, “Fiery Doll!

The green fireballs all started to burn their way through the mist, homing in on a clone I’d left standing around doing nothing other than being a convenient target. It wasn’t even a solid, but seeing its silhouette in the mist near him must’ve given him enough of a heading to work from.

I let him destroy the plain clone in front of him with a massive blast of fire reminiscent of Obito’s if Uchiha fire was brilliant, eye-searing green. It saved me the effort of launching explosive rocks all over the place to clear it out the hard way if he detonated everything on the battlefield himself. Circling slowly around the perimeter of the battlefield, I closed my eyes and left him to it.

Once again, my mist swallowed the fire the instant Ace stopped using the little fireballs as cluster bombs, effortlessly calling up more water from the ocean. Sure, the mist smelled like burned seaweed and old fish, but it was still obscuring Ace’s vision.

“Do you want me to take this seriously?” Ace demanded, while another clone once again darted into the mist. This one was solid, again, but I couldn’t keep wasting energy on that kind of thing and not attacking.

…Well, I could, but not if I wanted to win.

Almost there…

“Should I?” asked my clone, slightly to the left, and Ace immediately swung and blasted the entire immediate section of beach into glass. My clone boiled and flashed away into nothing but steam, but once again the mist flooded back in to fill the gap.

…Not heading over there, then.

I could assist you if—

I’m not trying to kill him, Isobu.

Still, Ace was in the near-center of the battlefield, and he still needed to be dealt with. I directed the last clone to expend its chakra a little differently, then tightened the mist into a thickening ring around myself even as more rushed in to hide the movement from Ace.

“Screw the mind games. Fire Fist!” Ace roared, and then the air itself was on fire and heading rapidly in my actual direction.

The first layer of my mist shield flashed away into uncontrolled water vapor, but the rest joined a rising wall of water that met and deflected the leading edge of Ace’s flame. Behind it, I had my fingers locked in the Tiger seal and continued to blast torrents of water outward from my mouth to maintain it. It probably sounded a little like a waterfall in miniature.

Water Release: Water Wall.

It met the expanding burst of flame in a steam explosion that caused people around the fight to start screaming. I didn’t know if they were hurt or if they were just freaking out, but I didn’t have time to wonder.

And then I Replaced myself with my remaining Water Clone.

I blinked back into reality under a foot of beach sand and water, with heat still seeping down from overhead. Holding my breath, I reestablished the mist the second Ace’s fire stopped being quite so prominent—perhaps as he stopped to pant or wonder where I was—and then I yanked all of the water within my range.

The mist froze in place, the waves stilled, and then I tore the water up out of the sand and snapped those metaphorical jaws shut around Ace.

There were a hundred voices screaming at once, audible even under the sand.

“Wh-what the hell? Is that water?” asked someone who sounded like Eastwood, though there was still some sand in my ears.

I popped out of the sand a second later, feeling like the world’s least fortunate groundhog, and surveyed my work once I gave myself an impromptu rinse via the remaining uncondensed mist. Of which there was maybe a handful left.

My arm was embedded up to the elbow in my Water Prison, and Ace…was completely failing to float in my watery fishbowl of a technique. While his eyes were still moving, he was unable to so much as lift a finger in my direction.

Just as planned.

Seawater stuck my hair to my head and dripped off the end of my nose as the remaining loose threads of the technique splashed the sand off of me. I probably looked like a total mess. But I had accomplished my goal.

“WHAT JUST HAPPENED?” demanded two hundred voices at once.

I flexed my hand and the Water Prison deformed slightly. Inside of the technique’s depths, Ace’s hat drifted off his head and a stream of bubbles escaped his mouth. He didn’t move one bit, though I had specifically relaxed the physical bindings of the technique. Devil Fruit users really couldn’t swim, could they?

“The match is over,” Whitebeard said, his voice carrying easily across the suddenly silent crowd.

I glanced up, surveying the mostly-stunned pirates, then jerked my hand out of the Water Prison.

The bubble collapsed instantly, leaving a stunned and coughing Ace lying on the sand with no idea what the hell had happened.

After a second’s consideration, I made the Tiger hand seal and the remaining water clinging to both of us streamed away into silvery ropes in midair. After a little longer, I sent all of it splashing back into the sea proper, shrugging to myself and sticking one hand out to Ace to help him up.

Ace coughed as he sat up, spitting up more water, then brushed the back of his hand across his mouth. While his eyes were a bit reddened, all he did was dry out his hat with a burst of flame before looking up at me again. “Four seconds, huh?”

“Five minutes with no banter, really. I was pissing you off on purpose,” I admitted, as he took my hand and I yanked him back to his feet. “I know how to fight angry fire-users, so once I knew I’d need to fight I was kinda hoping you’d volunteer.”

“And I fell for it completely,” Ace said wryly, shaking his head. He shifted his legs into fire and then back, after which he was entirely dry. “Not bad for someone who still doesn’t know anything about anything.”

“I guessed your abilities pretty well, I think,” I countered in a teasing tone. In a firmer voice, I said, “I can take care of myself.”

Or we can do so together, as usual.

Of course.


In the end, Whitebeard allowed me to go. A deal was a deal, even if I’d ninja’d my way into the easiest fight I could manage to find and then cheated like hell. After all, pirates were contractually obliged to be scoundrels on some level, and they didn’t tend to protest that same process going in reverse.

Much.

I took the little boat they gave me, some supplies, a transponder snail number (after refusing a snail for the animal’s sake), and a dozen tearful goodbyes even though I was really just getting back to work. Without the pirates running around all over the place, I could commune with Isobu and finally see what the other jinchūriki were up to—and hopefully they’d actually be in the mind-skype to answer. I would be able to get home.

I still cried a bit when I left.

I only flew the Whitebeard flag until I passed out of the Moby Dick’s (and Marco’s) sight around the curve of an island. Then I carefully retrieved it, folded it up, and stored it in the waterproof travel chest in the bottom of the boat. While I was grateful to the Whitebeards, I didn’t want to get them in trouble with anyone or anything if my path crossed into unfriendly territory.

And so, the second I was sure no one was watching, Isobu lurched up from underneath my little boat and swallowed that entire section of sea.

The inside of Isobu’s belly was…weird. Now, I’d heard that Tailed Beasts didn’t have organs and to be perfectly honest I had assumed it was mainly because chakra constructs—or personifications—didn’t have any need for them. Why bother, right?

But the thing was, the Gold and Silver Brothers got their weird cheek marks by messing with Kurama’s innards after he ate them. So there clearly was some kind of weird shit going on.

Isobu’s belly contained a terrifying range of spiked edges reminiscent of a chasm in Konoha that not even Gai would use for training, shell-like shapes so Isobu’s insides matched his outside, and an eerie red-orange light. And, where ordinarily I expected acid from biological beings, Isobu’s stomach was strangely dry aside from the water I’d brought in with me.

No, instead it was populated by miniature Isobu clones.

“Uh, hi everyone,” was about the only thing I could think to say when my little boat and its cushion of seawater finally arrived on the…shore. I called it a shore solely because I’d used up my seagoing vocabulary earlier, and now I was in metaphor land. It looked like a shore, okay?

The hundreds of little Isobu clones all cocked their spiky heads in the exact same way. Each one was about the size of a cat, with three perfectly formed tails and bulky shells and blunt-fingered hands. They were more grayish than their biggest counterpart, but in my opinion they were all rather cute. The bigger ones in the back, with sizes ranging from “bear” to “elephant” to “small whale,” cocked their heads in the opposite direction as my voice reached them.

Isobu, did you know you have a lot of little-yous in your belly? Was there something you wanted to tell me? I asked him nervously.

In exactly what universe would I have the slightest reason to understand the mechanics by which my stomach works?

In this one?

I let my mind wander a bit while all of the little Isobu clones looked at me. The main question that came to mind went thus: “Are they carnivorous?”

Then, all at once, the Isobu-clones bowed just before I dragged my boat onto the nearest bit of flat “ground” I could find.

“Um,” I said.

They are only there to kill unwanted intruders. They will not attack you or your possessions.

That’s nice to know. I dragged the boat up and, with some help from a few of the tiny Isobu clones and a rope, secured it. I was pretty sure the word was “mooring,” but it wasn’t like there was a convenient pirate around for me to ask. Do they mind if I spend some time meditating in here?

I do not mind, and therefore neither do they.

Reasonable point. I sat back down in the boat and crossed my legs one over the other. I held out my hands, clapped them together, and started my controlled breathing exercises.

Or I tried. When I felt a tug on my pants, I looked down and spotted one of the smaller Isobu clones sitting in the boat, trying to climb up my leg without using its tails for leverage.

“Aw, you’re so little,” I cooed, holding out a hand so it could climb up onto the bench with me.

It latched on with its little hands, encircling my entire wrist, then coiled its tails too so it got a good grip. I helped it balance with my other hand, then pulled it up and onto my lap. While its spiky chin was not comfortable against my leg, the little beastie made such a cute noise in response that I was okay with that.

You have strange tastes in companions. I know enough about humans to know that the typical response to my appearance, no matter how small, is not the one you are having now.

I rubbed my knuckle against the soft spot in the joint between the little Isobu’s head and neck. Societal expectations of cuteness can take a hike.

Isobu’s entire body trembled as he laughed. Inside of him, I had to glue myself to my seat with chakra to keep myself in place. The little Isobu just wrapped its tails more firmly around my arm and hung on to avoid being unseated.

Say, I thought once things settled down again, if I needed to throw someone down here, like for a quick escape, could you avoid tearing them to shreds?

Possibly. The little Isobu in my lap looked up at me and I got the oddest feeling it was mirroring Isobu’s body language. I do not know who you expect to need to rescue at this stage, however.

Maybe another jinchūriki? I thought that over, grimacing. Only, no, they probably would have one of your siblings with them. I hope they’re sticking together…

We could check to be certain. The mini-Isobu twitched all three tails at once. I will let you get back to trying to contact the others.

You don’t want to join in?

I will once I find a safe section of seabed. There are too many creatures here so far.

I nodded, then sat with the tiny Isobu in my lap and tried to reach down through my mind for the first hint of—

A voice saying, NOT THIS WAY.

PAIN, ow, ow! I shook my hand out as the phantom pain of getting it slammed in a door ripped through my brain.

Kei?

Pain radiated up my right arm, then shot across my head like a live wire being dragged through my brain. I clutched my hand and then pressed my temple into my knee, swearing furiously under my breath.

The little Isobu’s spikes dug into my stomach and chest, but none of them punched through. In fact, I used the discomfort to force down my reaction to the psychic feedback. As soon as I could manage it, I coughed to clear my throat and stopped crushing the Isobu clone.

So, that’s not gonna work, I concluded grimly. Without the range of the Tailed Beast mind-skype, I was back to using just my sensing range and hoping I hit pay dirt. In an entire ocean. This was going to be such a fun adventure. Looks like we’re doing this the old-fashioned way.

Isobu and his clone both stilled for a long moment. Then the walls around me rumbled as he growled. Then we had better get started.

Chapter Text

Searching for up to eighteen needles in a haystack the size of the entire ocean led to exactly no leads.

It wasn’t Isobu’s fault. He was a champ, constantly ferrying me and my little boat around the various island chains that made up the world. When we found a new set of islands that seemed safe, and I needed supplies, he’d spit my boat out somewhere no one could see, and then I would fumble my way through sailing skills I faked having (via subtle use of ninjutsu) until I got to shore. On a couple of occasions, I literally walked the miserable little rowboat to shore on a rope like I was pulling a recalcitrant donkey.

Once finally on solid ground again, I…admit that I cheated quite a lot to avoid causing any kind of ruckus. While I didn’t have any iconography from the Whitebeards on any of the clothes I’d brought with me, I still had less than no interest in accidentally getting into trouble that could be traced back to them. I barely had any interest in starting and dealing with my own trouble. To that end, every new island met a new version of me—or rather, the Transformation Jutsu cover version. If I had to wander around town in the form of a cat, a dog, or as a young man who looked a bit like Kabuto, then I would.

“Here you go,” said the bartender in the fifteenth roughneck island I’d run into, setting my drink order down in front of me.

“Thanks,” I said in a voice that wasn’t anywhere near mine. I sounded more like Mr. Pack-a-Day Yamaguchi-sensei than anyone.

Looking more like a mix of Jiraiya and Genma had given me enough distance from my usual appearance that I didn’t worry about being recognized even by Whitebeard’s crew. Even if I added in my personal twist—Isobu-gold eyes—I doubted my best friends would have picked me out of a crowd.

Sure, they would have picked the idiot using the Transformation technique out of a crowd easily enough, but they wouldn’t have instantly been able to tell it was me.

…And the frilly-as-fuck tropical drink might’ve been another hint, but I had never liked straight sake even if getting drunk was something I was willing to risk. As for the million other combinations of perfectly acceptable beverages and rotgut? Pass.

I believe alcohol counts as a kind of poison for the purposes of your resistance to it. Or have you been affected and I have simply not noticed?

That’s still a solid no. That was the other consideration, particularly in this world where the exact rules were so different. So why not get something that didn’t taste like gasoline?

I downed the bluish concoction in one shot, not even feeling the burn.

For all that I’d been hanging out in some pretty sketchy areas, whether visible as myself or not, I hadn’t heard any of the rumors I really cared about. Oh, I heard plenty about new bounties—and memorized the posters when the mail-birds brought news—and various excursions the Marines and World Government made against pirates. For example, whispers spoke of Admiral Akainu, the ultimate attack dog, taking on someone or other and melting everyone involved. I even saw a report of a few proper as opposed to summary executions, and learned that the World Government paid thirty percent less money for dead pirates than live ones.

But no one talked about giant monsters other than Sea Kings, which meant I had to move on and keep looking.

I’d been looking for two months. In an ocean, which Isobu could effortlessly traverse twenty-four hours a day, Sea Kings or not.

I did not have the patience of a saint at the best of times, but this was a new threshold of bullshit. My chakra sense’s range being only fifty kilometers had never bothered me before, but the free-roaming sea was so big that it rendered that hard-earned perception worthless. If there was more land—or more people with chakra—I might’ve been able to get some leads and stopped aimlessly wandering. But between that and the mind-skype being unavailable, I felt a lot like my boat must’ve felt being steered by a landlubber like me. If I’d cut the rudder off.

Two months and I wasn’t any closer to going home.

I slapped some beri notes—and man had I been confused when I found out what the currency was called—down on the counter before moving on. Still in my vague-aged-dude disguise, I shoved away and out the door before anyone could view me as anything other than a weird drunk. Really, most of these towns were so full of weird drunks that it didn’t make the slightest bit of difference.

I sauntered back to the docks, since this town was an apparent bust. After paying the harbormaster, I’d been allowed to moor my little boat for a few days, but it was really time to get going.

Though I sighed internally as I checked my wallet again. I’d need to start trawling the ocean for sunken treasure again soon enough.

While taking advantage of my newfound immunity to crushing water pressure made it easier for Isobu and I to ensure that wrecks were picked clean, it was still a pain in the ass. But since my other idea involved becoming a bounty hunter and inevitably smacking into the hypocrisy of hunting pirates when the ones responsible for my little startup venture were pirates, picking over wrecks it was. In hindsight, I probably should have asked for a list of people the Whitebeards would be okay with me attacking, but that was too little, too late.

As I strode down the docks, still looking like a remarkably buff old guy, I spotted something slightly amiss. Specifically, there were two ships flying Whitebeard’s flag at the end.

One of them was mine, and damned if I knew how the flag I’d been given was flying proudly now, since I’d locked it away. My little boat was tooth-marked thanks to the mini-Isobu clones and rather tiny, but it was mine as long as one of the Whitebeards didn’t want it back for some reason. No one should have been messing with it.

The other boat, though? Striker.

…This was going to go so well.

Thankfully, this confrontation got to happen at what was probably three in the morning, when even the local drunks had already long since stumbled home.

Anyway, I stepped closer and spotted a bowed head with the owner’s iconic hat solemnly removed, sitting in my boat and eating every single scrap of food I’d managed to acquire.

“So,” the figure said, with Whitebeard’s mark emblazoned across his back and his mouth sounding rather full, “are you the guy who owns this boat?”

“Kind of a stupid question,” I replied, two emotions warring within me. On one hand, Ace was probably going to set everything on fire in a second as he took his “revenge” on me. On the other…well, I was tempted to mess with him. Badly.

I hadn’t really laughed in quite a while, not after being met with frustration over and over again ever since I’d left the Whitebeards. The second urge won out.

There was a swallowing noise. “So you did take it.”

And Ace lunged, knocking me over and almost into the bay. While I caught his wrist on reflex, it didn’t change the fact that all the fingers of that hand were on fire, and that his other hand was gripping my collar. Or that he was sitting on my chest with clear murderous intent.

Must you do this?

In hindsight, this was not my best plan.

“What did you do to the woman who owned this boat?” Ace demanded, dragging my face up until we were nearly nose to nose. As cliché as it sounded, his eyes literally blazed with rage. “What happened to her?!”

“Seriously? I’m right here.” I canceled the Transformation technique in a massive puff of smoke, shedding my disguise. In no time at all I was back to…well, what passed as normal. As bizarrely endearing as Ace’s worry was, this had gone far enough. I liked my innards uncooked.

Dropping the disguise still left me pinned under the Whitebeards’ Second Division commander, but hey, it was my joke and I could pay for it. “Yo.”

“…Kei?” Ace stared, lowering his raised fist and letting his fingers be fingers again. He sat back a bit, putting his weight mostly off my lungs and stomach, and then decided to roll off me and help me back to my feet.

“In the flesh.” I didn’t quite smile, but I gave it my best shot. What exactly was I supposed to say to a guy who’d almost turned me into a charcoal briquette out of misplaced anger? Even if that bit was my fault.

...I was a terrible prankster. Why did I even bother anymore?

Ace took the opportunity to indulge in the by-now-common reaction people around here had to unexpected news.

“YOU’RE ALIVE?!”

To wit, screaming their heads off.

I clapped my hands over my ears slightly too late. “Ow, dammit!”

“Sorry, I just—how are you alive?” Ace asked, fighting down a grin that totally ruined whatever apology he was trying to communicate.

“Try screaming a little less and I’ll tell you,” I responded somewhat grumpily, digging my pinky finger into my left ear. Fucking ow.

“Oh, it’s definitely you,” Ace muttered under his breath. Still, he poked my shoulder like he didn’t really expect his finger to stop when he touched me. “But how?”

“I think I need to know why you’d think I was dead, first,” I said, “because the sea has a lot of ways of doing that.”

Ace considered it. “Not here,” he said after he’d thought it over. “Somewhere less exposed. I’ll tie your ship to mine and we can talk where it’s safer.”

“I was perfectly safe until you ruined my disguise,” I said flatly. By, for example, putting up the Whitebeard flag.

“In this town?” Ace scoffed.

I sighed. Okay, so maybe he probably knew more about the area than I did. The town was a shithole anyway. “Fine. I’ll get the dinghy out. But I’m putting the flag back where I had it.”

“It’s our flag, though,” Ace protested. “If you kept it, why aren’t you using it? Everyone knows Whitebeard protects anyone who flies our symbol for real.”

“That…is a question I will answer once we get going,” I said, tossing him the mooring line to my boat so he could tie it to Striker’s stern.

I mean, I couldn’t guarantee that my boat wouldn’t be completely swamped in seconds by Striker’s wake, but hey. A plan was a plan.

Ace thankfully remembered that burying me in Striker’s rooster-tail would have probably been bad form, so our two linked boats sailed peacefully across the bay and toward the totally deserted end of the island. I had a theory about that, involving Sea Kings and giant crabs, but Isobu had called my idea “foolhardy” and I hadn’t been able to protest at the time due to a haze of sheer fatigue.

That had been a bad night. This was looking to be a long one.

Once we got to the correct spot, I dragged my nameless boat’s nose up onto the sand directly, while Ace did the same for Striker. Afterward, I gathered wood for a campfire before he just lit the entire stock ablaze in one shot, since the sun was rising soon.

Then the two of us sat down on driftwood logs and didn’t talk for a while.

The crackling fire prevented a total silence from descending, but I wasn’t really sure what to say.

“I apologize for not being dead?” Isobu suggested.

Uh, no. “Hey, Ace?”

“Yeah?” He looked up from where he’d been staring into the fire, apparently about as tired at three in the morning as I was. Even if he had just eaten all of my food as a “midnight” snack.

Well, since there wasn’t really a way for me to be circumspect… “Why’d you think I was dead?”

Ace’s expression went blank for a worryingly long time. Then, “…You were eaten by a Sea King. Namur saw it happen.”

I winced inwardly. So much for keeping Isobu a secret.

“We didn’t believe it at first, but then we remembered that a big one was sitting on the ocean when those Marine ships attacked. Do you remember that?” he asked, looking back down at the fire again.

“Kinda hard not to,” I replied. That had been an eye-opening afternoon. I’d seen two other Logias in action since—including some jackass whose power involved creating sludge—but the first one stuck out.

“Near as we were able to tell, it was the same one.” Ace sighed. “But it’s been two months, and then we kept hearing about one of our boats showing up at random islands all over the New World. No flag, but we knew. We have people everywhere, and there are ways to tell those things apart.”

I dropped my face into my hands. Double crap.

“Only there was always a different description of the owner, so it must’ve changed hands a lot,” Ace continued. “And unless we were dealing with a ghost skiff, then someone must’ve recovered the thing and sold it on—but we didn’t know if you’d made it. And if your boat did, why wouldn’t you?”

“But I kept changing appearances and throwing you off,” I mumbled. So much for trying to keep a low profile. “Sorry about that.”

Ace at least appeared to hear my apology, but anything past that I couldn’t determine. Still, he changed the topic slightly with, “Why were you doing that, anyway? And how?”

“I was trying to keep a low profile so if I did need to do something underhanded, no one would come after the Whitebeards for it,” I explained, though my reasoning seemed a bit inadequate now. “Only I guess I should have actually sold the boat and gotten a new one to make that work…” I dismissed that line of thought with a wave of my hand. No point worrying about it now.

Ace snorted. “You—you were trying to protect us?” He choked down a laugh, but not very successfully. “Y-you wanted to protect one of the Four Emperors? From who?”

“It sounded better in my head,” I grumbled. Lots of things did. Like half of my jokes. “And I don’t know, maybe someone who doesn’t even exist. I was being cautious.”

Really, I wanted to keep them from being associated with me.  In general, jinchūriki tended not to attract positive attention.

I had no idea what my adventure would lead me to do, but there were some crimes I was still willing to commit that would sully even Whitebeard’s reputation. I wouldn’t be happy about it, but I was a shinobi and a designated weapon. The whole reason I existed the way I did was because one man wanted to utterly destroy millions of people for being happy when he wasn’t. Compared to the Whitebeard Pirates, I just…had a lot more depth to sink to, if I so chose.

“Hey, no, none of that,” Ace interrupted, before my thoughts could get too dark. It was probably a bad sign for my self-control if my mindset was so obvious to someone I had only known for a few weeks a month ago. “Tell me how you keep changing” —a sweep of his hand encompassing the entirety of me— “everything.”

“It’s just a surface-level disguise. It’s the same power that lets me control water,” I explained with some forced cheer, “but I learned when I was eight instead of thirteen. It’s really a basic skill where I come from.”

“Oh, is that all?” Pause. “Wait. That doesn’t explain anything!”

I said somewhat teasingly, “If I told you, I’d have to kill you.” I sat back, glancing up at the lightening sky and watching the stars start to slowly disappear.

“So the funny hand motions you make before that? That’s not sign language,” Ace pressed. I focused on him again, noting his serious expression—or at least what I could see of it from below the brim of his hat.

“It’s a hometown secret, Ace. Even if I was allowed to explain, you couldn’t do it,” I said, leaning forward to rest my head on my hands again. “Believe me, I’ve been checking every single person I meet. No one does these things the way I do.”

And wasn’t that a kick in the pants.

“So that’s what you’re looking for.” Ace frowned thoughtfully, then pointed offhandedly at me. “Other people like you are out here, aren’t they?”

My eyebrows did not rise. Ace had made the right logical leap, but he was clever when I wasn’t deliberately making him too impatient to make the best judgments. “Yeah. They’re out here somewhere, but I don’t know if I’m even in the right region. The world’s just” —I shrugged helplessly— “too big. But I have to find them before I can go home.”

Not for the first time, my chest ached as I thought about my goal. Two months of fruitless searching wouldn’t have done great things for my optimism even if the reservoir hadn’t already been low. Even with Isobu as my constant companion, homesickness dogged my heels every time we went to a new island and found nothing.

“…You’re not the only one who has something to do before going home,” Ace said, lifting the brim of his hat. His free hand burst into flames, just for a second, and the fire in front of us got a hell of a lot bigger for a little longer than that. If I’d been sitting much closer, I wouldn’t have bangs anymore.

I’d seen Ace that angry once. “You’re going after Teach.” And for all I knew, Teach had eaten the Devil Fruit and had some strange new powers that no one had ever seen. “Does Whitebeard know?”

“It’s better to ask forgiveness than permission,” Ace replied, defiant.

I narrowed my eyes. “I don’t even know how old you are, but you’re still too old to be using ‘running away from home’ as a solution to anything.”

“I’m twenty,” Ace said, clearly not willing to consider that argument. “And as an adult, I can make my own decisions.”

While essentially the second mate of his crew? No. He was supposed to be listening to his captain and reinforcing those orders unless things had gone to hell. “I get that he was one of your men—”

“You really don’t. Not if you finish that sentence,” Ace growled. Taken aback, I fell silent. “You don’t know what it means when—our crew is our family. Teach was more our brother than anyone we have by blood, and he spat on it because he wanted that Devil Fruit.”

I… I tried to imagine it, but my brain defaulted to Tobi and I didn’t want to think about that at all. It was a bad mental space.

Ace got to his feet, shoulders already aflame, and paced as he talked. He gestured rather emphatically, too. “He almost killed Thatch over something he could’ve just asked for, and no one hurts one of ours and gets away with it.”

I pressed my lips together and looked away.

“Even if he hadn’t attacked you and Thatch,” Ace said in a quieter voice, with the flames dying down, “he’s been tearing up towns in Paradise. He’s our mess—my mess—and needs to be stopped. Not killing him then makes him my responsibility now.”

There was no precise, direct equivalent to Ace’s situation. For most of the village’s history, there had only been two iconic traitors to whom all later candidates were compared. Everyone else we could find was hunted down and destroyed with extreme prejudice, but it created a sort of evolutionary pressure among scumbags. The only ones that lived long enough to be infamous were the ones too strong to kill.

I could cite Madara—who had fucked over negotiations with Iwa so badly that Konoha was still paying for it—but Ace wouldn’t know what I was talking about. Madara had specifically done his best to ruin my life and those of all my friends in one last-ditch attempt to ensure his legacy as an unmitigated monster, but he had never been my friend. In fact, I would go so far as to say that he was probably the longest-running single enemy I had ever faced. If he’d had his way, his plots would have continued long after he got me to kill my own family.

And there was Orochimaru who, like Madara, bore me no particular grudge at first but corrupted everything he touched. As far as I knew, the only people who even marginally cared about his continued existence were Tsunade, Jiraiya, and the Third Hokage. As for everyone else who didn’t share a childhood with him? My friends and I had enough grudges to keep the entire Uchiha clan in the black. Orochimaru had murdered the Chinatsugumi and made my students orphans, nearly killed me, had been the motive for Sasori ambushing my brother, Anko, and Jiraiya, and torn Yamato’s peers to genetically scrambled pieces just to recreate Wood Release.

And in both cases, no one loyal to Konoha would do less than kill them if given half the opportunity to do so. I’d personally ripped Orochimaru limb from limb more than once after what he did to Sorayama. Did it bring anyone back? No. But keeping him away from survivors, even if it killed me, mattered too much to me then for me to stop before I collapsed.

If I was being honest, could I blame Ace for wanting to exact justice?

I’d be one hell of a hypocrite if I did. “Okay.”

“Okay what?” Ace asked, having not been privy to the history lesson inside my head. Still, he seemed mollified that I’d stopped arguing with him.

“I’ll come with you to hunt Teach down,” I said, meeting Ace’s eyes patiently.

That brought him up short. Hands on his hips in a sort of defensive suspicion, he asked, “Didn’t you just say you had a different mission?”

“You say that like I was getting anywhere,” I muttered, though I hated to have to think about that. Still, I had a pirate to convince. “Ahem. I can still do that on our off hours. They say two heads are better than one. And I…” —specifically Isobu— “well, there’s someone you need to meet who wants his pound of flesh from Teach, too.”

“He can get in line,” Ace said in a flat voice. “Nothing’s gonna stop me from giving that traitorous son of a bitch exactly what he deserves.”

“…I think you’ll understand why I think it matters once you meet him,” I said after a bit of a pause. “Also, I can’t navigate worth crap and I need help.”

I can navigate perfectly well.

Yeah, but I think hitting islands randomly isn’t really working out for us, even if you can always find land.

…You could be right about that. Isobu sent me an image of the beach, bonfire, and both Ace and me, and said, So, you want me to introduce myself.

It would be nice. He’d find out sooner or later if we follow this plan, and there’s still enough darkness that the rest of the island shouldn’t spot you.

Isobu made a vague rumbling noise, but subsided with bad grace. People tended not to react well to Isobu, for all that he was probably one of the shyest of the Tailed Beasts and mostly just wanted to be left alone.

…I wasn’t sure if it said more about him, my influence on him, or what, that such a statement was probably not the case anymore.

“Hello? New World to Kei. I’m still here, you know,” Ace said, waving his hand in front of my face.

I tried slapping his hand aside irritably, and nearly set my sleeve on fire when he automatically transformed. Luck was on my side, though. I had a segue. “I was just talking to my travel buddy. He wants to meet you.”

That did not seem to make Ace any more assured of my good judgment. “…What?”

I did not say that.

Too frickin’ bad. I stood up, faced the sea, and waved my arms overhead. I knew where Isobu was, big mass of chakra and all, and looked right at him. “Isobu, it’s time to say hi!”

Ace tried putting his hand on my shoulder to stop me, but I shrugged him off. “Who the hell are—WHAT THE FUCK?!”

Seeing Isobu for the first time was never a sanguine experience for people not in the know. And sometimes even for people who were. This time, he chose to lever himself into our firelight with all the subtlety of a tectonic plate shifting, his golden eye glowing like a lamp as he slowly moved closer and closer to shore. His body dragged over the seabed because he was too big for it not to. All three of his tails hung in midair as water poured off him in a seemingly endless cascade, and it hadn’t finished by the time I kicked sand over the fire to make it a bit smaller.

“Get back,” Ace insisted, hand on my upper arm. He’d clearly been holding back when we fought, because his grip was like iron as he tried to pull me back and away from Isobu’s gigantic jaws. “That’s—”

“The thing that ate my boat?” And if I was grinning like an idiot, so what? “Only because I asked.”

“It—” Ace said, then paused for a second to try and get his thoughts in order. “That’s a Sea King. You can talk to Sea Kings?”

I was already shaking my head by the time he was halfway through that statement. There was some kind of cultural baggage there that sat heavy in his tone, but I would ask him about that later. “No. Isobu is a Tailed Beast.”

Isobu’s huge golden eye moved slowly from me to Ace, pupil narrowing on exposure to the remaining firelight.

“If he talks, he’ll probably hurt your ears and won’t really be able to hear you unless you yell back,” I said while Ace continued to stare. “Lucky you’re a Logia, right?”

“I—uh, I guess so?” Ace cleared his throat and removed his hat. So he bounced back to being polite when no better options presented themselves. Better than meek. “Portgas D. Ace, at your service!”

I covered my ears and preemptively winced. Through them, I still heard Isobu say in one of his quieter voices, “You nearly drowned in front of me two months ago.

“I…might’ve done that,” Ace said somewhat sheepishly, though he was clearly still uncomfortable addressing something that much bigger than he was (that wasn’t hostile). His ears flared orange for a second as the damage to his eardrums came and went.

You already know my name,” Isobu said, still in his softest tone, “and as far as I am concerned, there is no line. Whichever of us finds that traitor first will be the one to kill him.

Everything went silent for a second, including the waves, as the universe processed that statement. I smacked my hand into my face. Oh no.

“He is mine,” Ace argued instantly. With a giant turtle monster.

Oh, he was definitely one of a kind.

No one strikes my partner and lives,” Isobu growled, making all of the nearby water start to bounce.

How many responses were there to something like that?

Ace glanced at me. When I just shrugged, he said, “So…we’re good? I fought Kei the last time we met.”

Neither of you were fighting to the greatest extent of your power. Give me some credit for measuring hostile intent.” Isobu rolled his eye. Then, looking down at me, he asked, “Can we continue our search now? We have places to be.

I planted one foot against the bow of my boat and pushed it into the water, toward Isobu’s mouth. He scooped it up and swallowed the entire craft without any trouble, as usual, then returned to looking down at Ace and I as though we were errant children.

“Okay, no. If it’s all the same to you, I’m sticking with Striker.” Ace picked up his rucksack and tossed it into his raft, not interested in the Isobu Express. He’d learn, probably. “Isobu can follow me, right?”

I can answer for myself. And yes,” Isobu responded.

“Great,” Ace replied in a tone that said he wasn’t sure if he was being sarcastic or not.

“And where are you going?” I asked, crossing my arms.

“…To the next island?” Ace said blankly.

“Well, I’m not. You ate all my food, you jerk.”

“…Oops.” Ace rubbed the back of his neck. “Sorry?”

“‘Sorry’ doesn’t keep me from starving to death,” I reminded him. “I’m gonna head back to town and buy food and then we can leave.”

Isobu snorted and started lurching his way out to sea again, clearly done with the whole landlubber business. I had no idea how much of the seabed he was turning into piles of pulverized sand, but I probably didn’t want to know. Call on me when you are going to do anything important.

I waved as he left, and Ace seemed to copy me mostly because he didn’t know what else to do.

“So,” he said once Isobu had gone, “any other life-changing secrets you wanna tell me?”

“We can talk without needing to use our mouths or meet face-to-face,” I said instantly, since I was on a roll. “He’s half the reason I space out.”

“And the other half?”

I shrugged. “Genuinely not paying attention.”

“Well, this is the start of a beautiful friendship,” Ace muttered, and that was definitely sarcastic. In a louder tone actually meant to carry, he said, “Hop on Striker and I’ll get you back to town.”

This time, I rode sidesaddle while Ace stood up for the entire trip over. Definitely better than weighing the mast down.


I feel as though you should have seen this particular twist coming.

You’re not helping.

“Ace, you fucking cheapskate,” I growled under my breath.

The evidence of my traveling companion’s crime manifested in the form of stacks and stacks of plates that had been scraped utterly clean, their contents having been long since disappeared into Ace’s black hole of a gullet. There were easily enough plates there for ten men his size, or maybe one Akimichi, and Ace had nonetheless managed to run the hell away. That left the poor restaurant owners and workers with no money to show for all their efforts. The culprit was long gone.

I unslung my bag and from my shoulder, loosening the drawstring once I set it on the table. The sobbing waiter looked up, eyes bright red and puffy, as I said, “I’m not sure I have enough beri notes for this, but could you tell me how much that guy just cost you?”

The waiter quoted a number that sent my eyebrows shooting upward, but I could still pay it. It would just take a large chunk of my weapons fund.

“Okay, then this should cover it,” I said, dropping a large stack of moderate-denomination bills. “Have a good day, all right? Or at least a better one than this.”

Then I skedaddled before the waiter could ask why I was paying for a dine-and-dashing pirate.

About ten minutes later, I met up with Ace outside of the nearest weapons shop, having once again failed to locate anyone who could make kunai from the description alone. He sat casually on the fence that blocked the forge of the nearby smithy, totally unaffected by either the heat of the building or the swirling snow at the street. Even if he wore a trench coat against the cold.

“No luck?” Ace asked, since I once again had returned empty-handed.

“I can’t exactly commission twenty replacements when I don’t have a design or a sample.” I glanced up at the sun, then shook my head. The Drum Kingdom wasn’t exactly a place where weaponry of my favored type was popular. Since Teach had rolled through, flattened the army, and scared the king out of the country, chances had only dwindled.

Hearing that Teach had originally showed up because he needed medical help had been heartening, but ultimately it felt mostly like this particular venture had been a waste of time.

“Did you finish what you had to?” I asked Ace, after watching my breath fog in the cold.

Ace tipped his hat against the wind. “Yeah. With any luck, my brother will be at our next stop.”

“I wondered why you wanted to spend ten days in Alabasta,” I admitted, already thinking of how much money I would need to spend to compensate for Ace’s eating habits. “What’s Alabasta like, anyway?”

“It’s a desert country, but it’s a lot bigger than Drum. You might be able to find what you’re looking for here.”

Deserts. I hadn’t liked deserts since long before I’d visited the Land of Wind for their Chūnin Exam. The lack of water forced me to use larger amounts of chakra to be combat effective, I hated the extreme temperature swings, and the way sand got everywhere really chafed. Still, we didn’t have any more leads on Teach to chase down, so we didn’t have better options.

Going by the widening grin on Ace’s face, my lack of enthusiasm was showing on mine.

I schooled my expression into something more neutral, then tightened the strings on my thick winter coat and said, “I’m hoping I can at least find the right kind of paper there.”

“You never did tell me why you need that much, or why cartography paper wouldn’t work,” Ace remarked as he hopped off the fence. His boots crunched deeply into the snow, and if he hadn’t been a walking, talking, impending pyrotechnics display, I probably would have fussed at him for not wearing long pants in snow.

As it was, I ignored it. “Ace, I don’t tell you a lot of things,” I pointed out. Still, as we headed back toward the Drum Island harbor and to Striker, I thought that over again. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to relax my policy on secrets a bit. “Once I have the right paper and ink, I’ll be almost back to full strength. It’ll make the rest of this much easier.”

Sure, I could still turn everyday objects into grenades without ink or paper supplies, but some problems needed a bit more finesse. I might have been of the opinion that a sufficiently large explosion covered most combat situations—typically by obliterating them—but an explosion couldn’t store drinkable water or food in a 2D space. Nor could I shut down opposing jinchūriki from a cold start, because most of my counterparts were annoyingly durable. I definitely needed proper sealing supplies for flexibility’s sake.

Now, if only places other than World Government hubs stocked any.

“I still don’t get how it’s so important to you,” Ace said, “but Alabasta’s a trading hub. And if nothing else, ten days should be enough to make the weapons.”

“Maybe.” I shrugged and dismissed the entire issue as a problem for at least a little longer. Until we got there and got sunburned, any plans were conjecture at best.

Soon enough, the two of us were tearing across the waves on Striker once again, with Isobu silently coasting underneath the waves in our wake.

Just before we left Drum Island behind, I thought I felt a flicker of chakra on the edge of my sensing range.

Isobu? Did you have any luck contacting your siblings earlier?

No, why?

…No reason.


I wasn’t sure if it was the faint feeling of another chakra signature somewhere out in the vast sea that put me in a somewhat better mood that day or what, but I woke up on the fourth morning on Sandy Island with the feeling that things were going to go my way.

It ended up being a bit of a mixed bag.

“No, this isn’t going to work,” I said with a deep sigh, letting go of the paper sample I’d been given. “Thank you for letting me look through these, but I’m afraid none of the samples have been suitable.”

The shopkeeper woman made a face like she’d swallowed a lemon, and I didn’t blame her. In my search for the perfect paper for my fūinjutsu, I had poked, prodded, and felt a sample of every single paper made of every kind of tree that she stocked. And not one of them was suitable. Either the gauge was wrong, or the texture, or it wouldn’t hold the type of ink-and-blood mixture I needed to use in the right way, and that put me back at square one.

Dammit, was it too much to ask for one thing to go right without having to commit some kind of crime?

“We do have one last option,” said the shopkeeper’s assistant, who was carrying a massive roll of what had felt like butcher paper back toward the storeroom like it was nothing. “Remember that one shipment from Wano, from years ago?”

“No one will ever buy that,” said the shopkeeper. “It’s too fragile to last on a ship.”

But perhaps it would survive in a storage seal. “Can I see it?”

Both the shopkeeper and her assistant looked askance at me, then the former waved her hand, “As long as it gets you out of here.”

Several minutes later, the assistant returned carrying a small box with half a dozen postage marks on it. I recognized the old symbol of Wano from the books I’d read on the Moby Dick, and took the box reverently from the worker.

He cut the ropes binding it shut with a pocket knife, then popped the lid.

It took me a bit to recognize what was in front of me, but after that? I knew I’d found the fucking Holy Grail.

“Is this—it’s kozogami.” Of all the places to find the perfect paper, a desert country wasn’t one I’d expected at all. Especially not after Wano had been taken over by Kaido. And its isolationist policy before then meant that very few products ever left its shores, at least outside of pirate hands. “It’s the best for what I need, oh my goodness. How much?”

And as usual, the quoted price made me want to track Ace down and strangle him with his necklace for the food bills he kept racking up, but it was still affordable. Broadly. I’d just have to dig up another shipwreck and waste two more days selling off everything I could to a local pawn shop to get back up to par.

“Rip-off artists, I swear,” I muttered to myself, but paid the price-gouging pair what they asked. I needed the paper too much to blow the deal by haggling or screwing around.

Thankfully, I’d already found the high-quality ink elsewhere. It had taken ditching Ace for a few hours (via judicious use of genjutsu and a scarecrow) and sneaking into a Marine base to find anything near suitable. In the end, I stole the Vice Admiral’s inkwell—and all his spare ones, after leaving an anonymous apology note—but I got what I needed.

All I had to do was get back to Isobu without anything being destroyed, and I was set for at least a little while. As long as I made sure all of my non-explosive seals were literally handcrafted.

I thought about sealing the box into the storage seal that sat empty on the bottom of my foot, then belatedly remembered why I hadn’t done that with my original island survival gear—sheer inflexibility in reusable seals. It was only designed to accept that one particular kunai back, and that weapon could have been at the bottom of the sea for all I knew.

So I ended up lugging my precious cargo around town on my hip as I went in search of Ace. Stepping out into the bright sunshine, I thought to myself that it looked just like any other day. No trouble lay on the horizon.

In hindsight, I’d doomed myself about four times over within an hour. That statement was just the last straw.

“Okay, if I was a bottomless pit of a pirate, where would I go?” I wondered quietly, chin in my free hand and the other pinning the box of paper to my side. Then I replayed what I’d just said and sighed. “And I just answered my own question.”

Who are you talking to?

Myself, for once.

Sooner or later we’d be coming up on the end of Ace’s time limit for his brother. Just a little longer before the hunt for Teach was on again—or as he’d been calling himself lately, “Blackbeard.” Originally, I hadn’t been able to tell if he was trying to coast on the association with Whitebeard’s moniker or not, but then he’d gone and proven his asshole credentials by running roughshod over any towns or islands too isolated to get help from anyone in power.

I was of the opinion that he’d fit the role better after Ace set his hair on fire, but that was just me and my otherworldly knowledge talking. With that cheery thought in mind, I turned one corner or another and continued to follow the smell of roasting meat and spices wafting around town. Sooner or later, the largest concentrations of food would attract Ace like a moth to a…well.

Shaking my head at my own lame almost-joke, I walked along the city streets without any real fear. Mainly because I’d bought desert-gray robes and didn’t look a whole lot like myself—and without using the Transformation jutsu this time. While I wasn’t making a habit of wasting chakra on now-useless stealth procedures, some things stuck. With my face-splitting scar, I stood out too much as myself to feel entirely comfortable that way, and the extra layers provided a way of getting around that.

I took pride in small victories.

I didn’t really know much about Nanohana as a city, but it reminded me a bit of Sunagakure with far more colorful buildings. Many of the local roofs were domed, gilded, brightly painted, or all of the above, as opposed to Suna’s love of architecture that practically melted into the sandstone surrounding their village. There also weren’t any uniformed people around other than the local guards, but desert chic dominated where Suna’s fashion varied wildly between that and the same kinds of clothes favored by Konoha—mainly T-shirts, pants, and sandals. At least most people here still wore sandals.

There were also a lot of mustaches, but I honestly wasn’t sure if that was a thing in this world or just this particular Summer Island. I’d seen more mustaches in four months than I had in the twenty-whatever years before that.

My nose eventually led me to a new…well, I wouldn’t call it a plaza because that would have implied there was formal city planning involved. No, there was just a large blank dirt patch in the city that could easily be used for a market or a parade but currently wasn’t, and my destination happened to be cozily stationed on one side of it.

The Spice Bean smelled encouragingly of curry, garlic, and other fragrant things that I knew would draw Ace in like nothing else. Still, I wasn’t sure if I had nearly enough money to pay for his inevitable bottomless pit impression, and so I hesitated.

I hesitated long enough for someone in a Navy coat to stalk past me like the restaurant had done something to offend him. Whether I had to be on the lookout for a follow-up death squad or not I wasn’t sure.

God damn they grew people big here. The guy had to be at least seven feet tall like Thatch was, prematurely gray, built like a brick shithouse, and also allergic to shirts. Though seriously, smoking two cigars at once with two bandoliers of more cigars? Rin would have materialized out of nothing and slapped him in the mouth if he was one of her patients.

“Excuse me?” I asked someone who happened to be passing by.

“Oh, hello. Can I help you?” she responded reflexively. If not for the katana on her hip that had a white-and-gold Marine finish instead of my sword’s deliberately generic one, and the fact that she had “MARINE” literally emblazoned across the back of her shirt, I would have written her off as a tourist. There was something about her that was kinda spacey.

“Who was that?” I asked, pointing at the retreating back of the…the guy. The only other person who really stuck out like a sore thumb around here, besides this woman.

She adjusted her glasses, squinting, then said, “That would be Captain Smoker. I wonder where he’s going? Is he hungry?”

I did not have an honest answer for that question without involving Ace. Because there was no way a Marine looking like he was plotting murder would be heading for just any random restaurant in Alabasta. No way in hell was I that lucky—or anyone else that unlucky.

I was going to be well out of immediate range when the delicate balance of a peaceful afternoon ended in explosions.

“Maybe I’ll have to get lunch there sometime,” I said neutrally, deliberately missing the point. Assuming it’s still standing. “Well, thanks anyway.”

“No problem! I’m Officer Tashigi, by the way,” she said cheerfully. “If you see anyone suspicious, be sure to report them to the Marines right away!”

I smiled in a somewhat fixed way, already turning away. “Of course.” I’ll do it right after I send Teach a fruit basket.

Your new explosive notes would be a better gift. While activated. Or perhaps my teeth…

I walked away before Tashigi could notice me standing around arguing with thin air about excessive use of force. Not that I was sure she’d be paying attention to me at all. Especially after I slipped into an alleyway, checked for witnesses, and transformed into a rough mix between Anko and Rin’s appearances. Doing so cut a hand’s span of height off me and removed both my scar and visible pupils, but I considered it a basic precaution at this point.

Then I went to go poke my head into the Spice Bean and keep up with whatever chaos was going to happen next.

Looking in through the front window, I got a great view of a whole lot of stunned patrons staring as Smoker stood dead in the middle of the room, smoking (hah!) like a chimney even though he was indoors. Ace sat with his back to yet another massive pile of accumulated plates, one leg crossed casually over the other like he wasn’t obviously going to get in a fight in a few seconds.

And I didn’t have enough money to pay for that. Not now.

While the crowd behind me gathered—since we were all trying to get a look at the impending fight like a bunch of high school students—Smoker and Ace kept talking. While I wasn’t sure quite what they were saying through glass, I heard snippets that went basically “Justice” and “pirate” and “take you in,” which gave me enough of the gist to guess the rest. And the widening smirk on Ace’s face promised exactly one thing.

I stepped away from the glass just as Smoker’s entire left arm evaporated away into a thick cloud of grayish smoke. Not because I was afraid of them, but flying glass in my eyes didn’t appeal. At the back of the group, I was much less likely to be collateral damage.

“Gum-Gum…”

…Eh? Why did that sound kind of—

“ROCKET!”

And then that was the least of my worries as a red-and-blue blur shot right through the open restaurant door. I darted to the door a moment later, blinking at the sudden rubble dust, and then found myself struck dumb by the sight.

Ace and Smoker were both gone, with a hole smashed through the back of the Spice Bean—and several walls behind it—to show for their absence. In their approximate place, one seat to the left of where Ace had been (since there was a new gap in the counter) was a kid in a red vest, cut-off shorts, and a big straw hat with a red band. And he was eating away like he hadn’t just punted two grown men through several buildings.

What did they feed people around here?

…Why was I asking that question when the answer was literally right in front of me?

As I watched with a kind of morbid fascination, the kid continued eating even as Ace finally recovered from being knocked through entirely too many walls. I heard him grumbling to himself as he finally made it back through the first hole, saying things like, “What kind of idiot would do something this crazy?”

Then he spotted the kid. He opened his mouth, smiling entirely genuinely, saying, “Lu—Hey, Lu—”

And then Ace was face-planting into rubble for a second time, because Smoker was really about as patient as the last guy I’d met who didn’t have eyebrows. Zabuza being the way he was, I kinda expected the kid to be choking to death on smoke in a few more seconds.

“Straw Hat!” Smoker snarled.

Yes. Yes, the kid did have a straw hat. So did tons of other people. What was Smoker doing moonlighting as the fashion police?

Even so, the kid was still stuffing his face like a chipmunk, oblivious to the danger. Maybe it was time for me to get out of the doorway…

With that thought in mind, I scooted out of the way and decided instead to skitter around to the other side of the building. It was, overall, probably safer being behind Smoker than in front of him. I still needed to grab Ace and shake him awake to make any kind of clean getaway that counted. No man left behind and all that.

I reached Ace just as Smoker took off in pursuit of the straw hat kid, yelling “Halt!”

Coincidentally, that was when Ace recovered, shot to his feet, and took off while yelling, “Wait, Luffy, it’s me!” He was already out the door and running. “Hey, wait up! Luffy!”

I sat back on my heels there for a second, face in my hands and rubble under my feet, and said to myself, “I am an idiot.”

I thought his brother’s name was supposed to be “Lucy.”

Exactly. In my defense, I’d been named after my dad’s uncle and had a boy’s name. Everyone around here seemed to use a mélange of different cultures, so why couldn’t a boy have a girl’s name?

Straw Hat Luffy. Luffy—Monkey D. Luffy.

As though on cue, I heard a distinctly unmusical voice shouting through my head.

YO! ya-yo, ya-yo

Dreamin', don't give it up Luffy

Dreamin', don't give it up Zolo

Dreamin', don't give it up Nami

Dreamin', don't give it give it up give it up give it up give it up give it NO!

Hell and damnation. I wasn’t just in any random pirate universe where the local physics were a fucking mess. Oh no. That would have been far too kind for my brand of luck.

I was in One Piece.

“Fuck my life,” I groaned under my breath.

With that cheerful thought in mind, I ran the hell away while the restaurant owner and patrons were still gaping at all the damage. I would pay for most of Ace’s random bullshit, but at this point I had to throw my hands up in despair and just accept that “innocence by Act of Luffy” was now a phrase I might actually have to use.


I didn’t stop until I had a high vantage point, which was on a fourth-story rooftop overlooking the bay. I sat on my box and stayed out of the way, but could still tell where the tides of the action were moving.

As Luffy ran around town like a…like a man on the run, really, he gathered an impressive list of pursuers. In addition to Smoker and Ace—following in that order—Tashigi and the rest of the marines joined in. While I haunted a couple of nearby rooftops just to keep an eye on things, I didn’t want to get involved no matter whose face I wore at the moment. Especially after I saw Ace and Smoker’s respective powers mixing together to create an explosion hundreds of feet in the air.

Besides, I thought as I watched everyone still on the ground run around like they were in a Scooby Doo cartoon, Ace has this handled.

…Are we talking about the same human? Because I somewhat doubt that.

It’d be rude of me to interrupt the brothers’ reunion, I told Isobu, as though he hadn’t said anything. I patted the box of rare paper I had picked up like it was my newest pet. I have other things to worry about.

I hope you have a more effective plan with which to save that box, because I cannot surface.

Eh? Why not?

There are hundreds of ships in the nearest harbor. And outside of it, a small fleet is moving into position to attack stragglers. While I could destroy them, your policy on stealth…

I sighed. Not for the first time, my desire not to get involved in unnecessary fights or expose Isobu was getting in the way of the fastest solution. I get your point. Plan B, then. I’ll meet up with Ace and his brother and we’ll get out of populated zones so I can actually drop this off.

Isobu didn’t directly respond, but I felt his chakra move off and out of the mouth of Nanohana’s bay. We’d meet up later and hopefully he wouldn’t have eaten anyone by then.

As he did so, I froze in place as I detected a second flicker of chakra that wasn’t mine. It was maybe ten or fifteen kilometers away, in the desert proper, and probably in view of the city. I automatically oriented myself in its direction, noting its speed and course—toward Nanohana—before biting my lip in thought.

I had a hunch about that chakra signature—the sound of wind howling through stone—and carefully directed my own outward. Searching…

There, farther into the desert than I would have willingly walked, was Shukaku. I couldn’t see him, but I could feel his strength even this far away, and knew that the other chakra signature had to be Gaara. I didn’t know what he was doing here, but I wished fiercely that he was perceptive enough for me to send some kind of message without needing to dive into meditation.

I’d found one.

There we are. Isobu sighed in relief. Joy trickled into his mental voice as he said, I can hear him now.

Good.

Then I bit down on my excitement, recognizing that even if Gaara was there, I needed to check in. The mission’s parameters hadn’t changed that much.

Body Flicker. And I was gone, darting invisibly through the city rooftops on speed alone.

Several minutes later, I found them.

“But Ace, what are you doing in this country?” Luffy’s voice drifted up from an alleyway, so I slowed to a silent stop and looked down over the edge of the rooftop. Going by the footprint scorched into the slats, Ace had done the same not long ago.

Ace sounded rather confused as he said, “Huh? You mean you didn’t get the message I left in Drum?”

No, Ace. Of course he didn’t. That would have been too easy.

“Drum?” Bingo.

“Yeah. It’s no big deal or anything, though. I’m just in these waters on some minor business, so I thought I might look you up.” That had definitely not been the sales pitch Ace had given me. Guess he didn’t want his brother involved. I could certainly empathize.

While Ace downed half of his canteen in one go, Luffy repeated, “Minor business?”

Get this kid a piece of eight and call him Polly already, I grumbled silently.

While the brothers continued to talk—and Luffy instantly shut down Ace’s recruitment offer—I leaned on the edge of the roof and glanced around. While neither of the boys below seemed to notice, there were people peeking out of hidey-holes all over the place. As they walked off, a number of the onlookers crept out of their hiding places and over the rooftops, following them.

I Body Flickered to the nearest one and concussed him with my box of paper, leaving his body to droop down onto the roof in utter silence.

The one after that I choked unconscious using his own bow as a garrote. Then the next crook I clubbed into submission, whacking him with the butt of his rifle. And so on and so forth. My personal favorite method was the archer, because after that it got monotonous pretty quick. Even if Ace was probably the next best thing to bulletproof, I could take some basic precautions with regard to his brother’s safety.

Perhaps because I still wasn’t taking things seriously enough, there were still some left by the time the gang finally decided to confront the two pirates.

“Fire Fist Ace! Your head is mine!” said the biggest, most Teach-like of the thugs. Sure, he was about half as large as the guy Isobu wanted to rip limb from limb, but he was still the biggest member of the gang. “Prepare yourself!”

The rest of them were armed with single-shot flintlock pistols, flintlock rifles, and the occasional sword.

Overall, a gang of thirty random thugs versus Ace and his brother? Not even a contest.

I canceled my Transformation technique and slipped out of the alleyway where I’d been surreptitiously choking out another member of the group. Once I was sure Ace could see me past the ringleader, I leaned casually against the nearest wall and waved.

Ace gave a miniscule nod to show that he’d seen me.

The ringleader went on for a bit longer after one of his men recognized Luffy, but ultimately both brothers just strode past him as though he wasn’t there.

“We’re gonna go find Luffy’s ship,” Ace said to me, not once looking back. “Right, Luffy?”

“Yeah!” Luffy agreed brightly. Then he blinked. “Oh, Ace, is this one of your crewmates?”

I was about to answer, but at that point the gang leader shouted, “Get them!”

Cue fight scene!

I’d put my box down ahead of time in the alleyway, because of course everything ended in a fight, and did my best Kakashi impression once the gang realized I was there. Dodging without really noticing was a breeze, and whacking people in the face with their own weapons was probably one of the easier self-imposed challenges I’d ever set for myself. Gai would have been ashamed of me.

Ace and Luffy? Even if either of them had managed to get in a jam, the other would have leapt into the other’s part of the fight and staged a valiant rescue. Or else caught fire. It was really a toss-up. Either way, the gangsters didn’t stand a chance.

And then.

And fucking then.

One of the gang members picked up my box, innocently out of the way until then, and threw it at Ace. Of course Ace turned his head into flames as always, and of course my box caught fire.

I might’ve punched a gangster in the face hard enough to invert it.

“Excuse me,” I said in a voice full of forced calm. I stripped off my outer layer of robes, then methodically beat the flames out before the fire ate through it.

“Luffy, you might wanna get going,” I heard Ace tell his brother. “This is going to be messy.”

“Hey, don’t just ignore—”

I didn’t even look to see who I was attacking before I’d already kicked him fifteen meters back up the street. With my leg still extended, I addressed Ace without looking at him, “Go on ahead, Ace. I have business here.”

Ace gave my statement his due consideration. Then he tilted the brim of his hat downward, hiding his eyes, and grinned. “Sorry, that’s a no-can-do.”

Well, then. I lowered my leg and shifted to the Strong Fist stance. With Luffy and Ace preventing the other gang members from escaping even if they could move (via beating on them, mainly), while I was broadcasting the will to turn other people into corpses like a morbid radio station, it was not even a contest.

And my box got away with some char-marks on the outside, but it didn’t burn.


In the end, Luffy chose to rocket off to his ship directly via his ridiculous stretching powers. Ace and I went to find Striker before the gang—the Baroque Works Billions, apparently—could recover from the beating. Since the Straw Hats’ ship was the only one with a flag and a sail with the iconic hat on it, it didn’t take long to careen across the water and continue Ace’s family reunion.

“So, did you find what you needed?” Ace asked as we cut through the waves. “That’s what the box is, right?”

“Yep!” After having made sure that my paper was safe and given the Billions a beatdown, I was in a much better mood. “Once I can get a few free hours and a steady surface, I should be able to make all the seals I want.”

And you found one of my brothers.

I suppressed a sheepish grin. I’m not sure how to break that to Ace, yet…

But Gaara’s chakra was still heading our way, if somewhat stealthily. Shukaku’s shied away from the ocean for obvious reasons, but was still keeping pace. We’d meet them properly soon, and then blow the lid off this secret.

“The steadiest thing you’re going to find around here is either my brother’s ship or your turtle’s stomach,” Ace commented, before cutting the fire input to Striker’s engine. We were going to coast the rest of the way to the…whatever the Straw Hats’ ship was called. Hopefully it had something to do with sheep, given the figurehead. “And I still don’t get how paper equals power for you. Are you sure you haven’t eaten a Devil Fruit?”

“You saw me swimming yesterday,” I reminded him in a dry voice. “Also, it’d be a good idea not to tell the Straw Hats about Isobu. He’s following us, but it’d be great if he could keep hiding from pretty much the entire World Government.”

“Worried?” Ace asked as we were drawing about even with Luffy’s ship.

“Not about Isobu,” I muttered. But I was trying not to kill people, and from what I’d seen of the Marines and everything else to do with the World Government, they wouldn’t give Isobu any choice. “But it’s more attention than I want right now.”

Because Mr. Shirtless Scene had the Whitebeard Pirates’ symbol across his back and was about as subtle as a sledgehammer, he said, “And you’re still traveling with me.”

“I’m babysitting you,” I corrected primly. Then I put on my best ‘mom voice’ to be annoying. “By the way, did you check in with Captain Whitebeard while we were in Nanohana? I know you have his snail number.”

The fact that you can say “snail number” with a straight face worries me.

I talk to you and the other Tailed Beasts through a mindscape we call the mind-skype. We have no room whatsoever to talk.

Ace just laughed it off, then grabbed his vessel’s line and leapt up onto the other ship.

“Punk,” I griped to myself.

I checked the knots on Striker’s lead and then followed Ace onto the railing, landing in a handstand before flipping nearly in place until I was sitting neatly on the painted wood as casually as if I had always been there. I even had my desert robes in perfect shape, if I pretended the burns didn’t exist.

“And this is Kei,” Ace said without missing a beat.

I waved. “Hello, everyone.”

We didn’t quite get to the introductions part before the swordsman—Zolo or Zoro?—of Luffy’s crew noticed what I’d been able to see past him for entirely too long. The blue-haired woman in the belly-dancer outfit noticed second, and then it was on.

“Those are Baroque Works Billions ships!” cried the bluenette. I felt like I ought to ask, but it would be rude to interrupt.

The Billions might or might not have been yelling at us, but Isobu certainly said, Do you want me to take care of them? I thought the latter was more important.

“Those guys again?” Luffy wondered aloud, peering out across the waves. Maybe some of the guys we’d beaten up had lasted long enough to call reinforcements?

The ships were already out there. Again, I can handle this problem with a minimum of fuss.

“Luffy, let me deal with them,” Ace said, still perched on the railing next to me like a half-naked gargoyle. For the next half-second—he dropped his bag on the deck and immediately jumped ship toward Striker with a yell that might’ve been a war cry.

“What’s he going to do?” Nami wondered aloud, as the Straw Hats rushed over to watch Ace take off.

“Probably set them all on—” Ace was already unhooked from the big sheep-faced ship and shooting off toward the Billions’ ships by the time I shrieked, “My box—ACE, GET BACK HERE!”

But no. Striker was so damned loud there was no way he would be able to hear me. Not after holding conversations with Isobu.

“I’m going to choke him to death with his hat,” I said flatly.

With mounting sensations of mingled rage and horror, I watched with the Straw Hats as Ace did all the things. It probably looked like pure badass in action to the rookie crew, but all I could think of was my poor paper. Sparing a thought for the undisputed king of drowning didn’t really factor in.

Massive leap over the masts of all of the ships that knocked Striker below the waves from the recoil alone? Check.

Rocketing through the air like a fiery mermaid or something just to get on the opposite side of all the attacking ships and thus give us a better view of the impending carnage? Also check.

Fire-punching five ships to death in a row and leaving only loose timber and ashes behind? Of course.

He was holding a fucking pose when the Straw Hats’ ship went over to pick Striker up. Like he hadn’t just put the box of paper strapped to the raft’s mast in mortal danger and wasted four months of my life.

The Straw Hats were in awe by the time Ace hopped back onto the ship. I was…not. I was darting past him the second he was safely on the ship and wouldn’t risk plummeting into the sea.

I landed down on Striker’s nose and immediately retrieved my box.

My poor box was sodden, soaked in seawater, and perhaps a bit scorched all over again thanks to Ace’s powers. Rather than punting Ace off the ship like a small, angry part of me insisted, I clambered back up onto the ship and set my box on the railing. And mourned.

“Ah…oops,” I heard Ace mutter. “Sorry about that.”

I was caught up enough in that, to the general bafflement of the pirates around me (and sheepish laughter from Ace), to not notice the sand-surfing twelve-year-old until he landed practically on top of my head.

Fortunately, the kid knew manners better than that. To the background sound of sand scraping along wood, he sidled over and peered at me. “You’re…Keisuke?”

The penny dropped. I kept one hand on my box, but I knelt down and turned all off my attention to the raccoon-eyed kid in front of me. “Gaara!”

“Keisuke!” said Gaara, in about the most excited tone his raspy voice could manage without cracking. While I didn’t get a hug for being the first jinchūriki pen pal Gaara had picked up, he smiled at me. I couldn’t imagine how homesick or lonely Gaara must have felt to smile at me without reservations.

It was like winning the Big Sister Olympics.

“Gaara’s back!” shouted Luffy, looping two rubbery arms around the second redhead on his team and hugging him without having to actually get close.

Since Gaara didn’t immediately drop Luffy into a Sand Binding Coffin—not that I was sure how crushing force would interact with a kid made of rubber—I figured they had to be friends. Alternatively, this would be about karmic for Gaara given his propensity for violently crushing people.

Either way, it made me let go of my urge to kill my travel buddy, so things worked out.

And then it was question and answer time.

“How do you know Gaara?”

“Who is the man with the hat?”

“Your full name is Keisuke?”

But all at once was probably a bad place to start. In order to sort everything out, we needed time to do it. Therefore, Luffy’s cook—the swirly-brow blond guy named Sanji—rolled up his sleeves and got to work creating enough food to feed an army. Or two black holes like Ace and Luffy, really. While he did that, the rest of us rolled out the utensils and things and generally tried to avoid being in the way.

Well, except for the miniature reindeer Chopper, Usopp (the only other human on the ship who was Luffy’s age), and Luffy. Apparently they were jinxes in the kitchen.

“Is Gaara one of the people you were looking for?” Ace asked, sitting on a barrel with a mug of some alcohol or other in his hand.

“Yep,” I said, though admittedly I was only half paying attention.

After getting the box of paper back from Ace and plunking it down on a stray mass of Gaara’s sand, the redhead and I were slowly drying the contents of the box so I might be able to still use it. Kozogami was relatively water-resistant, but only for paper. Ace’s stay of execution lasted until I got a death certificate on my purchases. If the paper died, so did he.

Not that I told him that. After traveling together for three weeks, he could just tell.

“Keisuke first visited my village when I was…I want to say two years old. We’ve talked some since then, but not recently,” Gaara said, glancing at me for confirmation as his sand continued to work its way through the paper. “She introduced me to Shukaku, my partner.”

And the reason Gaara and I hadn’t been talking recently basically came down to “Chūnin Exams” and my residual twitchiness regarding his jōnin-sensei. I felt like a complete heel for that, now, but there wasn’t anything to do for it now.

“I didn’t really do much,” I said modestly. “Isobu did all the work.” And scared the shit out of every human nearby in the process, but Isobu and Shukaku were well past caring about humans for the most part.

Ace’s eyebrows climbed until they vanished under the brim of his hat. “So Shukaku is…?”

“Isobu’s brother, yes. They don’t look…anything alike, really.” How far down the evolutionary tree did you need to wander before “tanuki” and “everything in the ocean with a shell” shared a common ancestor, anyway? As I wobbled a hand in midair, I added, “It kinda-sorta makes Gaara and me family, in a way.”

Assuming that Gaara didn’t mind gaining a weird aunt.

“More or less.” It seemed that he did not.

“Gaara, how did you meet these pirates?” I asked, “subtly” indicating that neither of us were quite in that category. Or so I thought.

“Gaara’s our sentry!” Luffy said brightly, before Gaara could answer. “Did you know he never, ever falls asleep on watch? And that he can control sand like that Crocodile bastard? It’s so cool!”

“We met him in Loguetown,” Nami put in. “He helped us get away from Smoker.”

That Smoker?” Ace asked, jabbing a finger back over his shoulder and toward the port we’d just ditched.

“He’s persistent,” said Gaara. He picked up one of the loose sheets of sealing paper, resting it on top of his hand and a fine layer of sand. “Keisuke, I think this may be dry enough to use.”

“Can I see it?” I asked, and he obligingly sent it drifting over to me. I rubbed my fingers together with the paper sample caught between them, then nodded to myself. “Then Ace gets to live.”

“Oh come on,” Ace complained. “Were you really going to kill me over that?”

“No, but I can’t exactly go to Wano and buy it directly,” I replied, annoyed.

“…You actually can.” Ace frowned, clearly having no idea exactly how ignorant I was. “I went to Wano like a year ago and learned how to make hats. Oars Jr. was happy to get one that actually fit him.”

This fucking planet, I swear. To the sound of Luffy’s cackling laughter, I growled, “And how was I supposed to know that, exactly?”

“Ask?” Which would be hells of hypocritical given my policy on pretty much everything about myself. So, no. When I didn’t respond, Ace changed the subject. “So, your actual name is ‘Keisuke’?”

That topic was not any better.

Luckily, the rest of the topic died when Sanji finally arrived with food. Reminded that I hadn’t eaten since breakfast because of all the chaos recently, I joined in the food-swiping fray. Luffy was the main culprit, which unfortunately made total sense given what else I knew about him, but I didn’t expect to see how the others had adapted. While Nami and Vivi (the bluenette) avoided Luffy’s food-stealing rubbery hands, Gaara’s sand secured his claim at the “table,” on pain of broken fingers for anyone who tried to steal his sautéed chicken gizzards.

Actually, Gaara’s secondary role might as well have been “food guard.” His sand effectively gave him as much extra reach as he needed to stop Luffy dead.

Yet somehow, Luffy still had enough food to himself to make almost pitch-perfect “om-nom-nom” noises. While Ace engulfed food just as quickly—if less messily—that particular bonus was new.

“At least no one’s called me a tanuki since Gaara joined,” Chopper muttered, grabbing a bowl of what was probably pudding, but looked so much better than the Whitebeards’ non-Thatch attempts that I hesitated to put them in the same category. “But only if they see him first.”

“A tanuki,” I repeated, staring at Chopper. He had antlers. And a pink hat. And clothes. “Really?”

“I thought that’s what he was at first,” said basically everyone else. Including Ace, but not including Gaara, who knew better.

Gaara closed his eyes as though trying to forget the last ten seconds had happened.

“Say, Gaara, do you have one of these?” I asked, holding out my right wrist. When I pulled back the end of my sleeve, I turned my arm until he could easily see the kanji for “three” written in plain not-ink, and the surrounding black band.

Gaara frowned, having already automatically mirrored my gesture with his right hand. His wrist was blank.

“Not on top of your sand,” I corrected, because I knew when the kid was using chakra to hide something that made him uncomfortable.

Gaara’s skin seemed to crack, making a sound nearly identical to fracturing porcelain, before the sand finally returned to its normal light brown color and flaked away. Underneath it, a nearly identical black band circled Gaara’s wrist—the main difference was that the kanji for “one” was located almost directly in line with his thumb. Based on the sizes of the symbols, there was enough space for a full nine kanji to run around both of our wrists.

Dammit.

“Do you know what this is?” Gaara asked, while the rest of the Straw Hats pretended (badly) to be focusing on food. Except for Luffy, anyway.

“I have a guess. Did Shukaku…wait, no, you don’t sleep and Isobu didn’t notice when I got mine…” I trailed off, then slowly pinched the bridge of my nose. “Can I see your hand? Maybe yours is different from…”

Gaara allowed me to take his hand in both of mine, but the second that our right hands touched, blinding purplish light erupted from both symbols. Behind everyone’s shouts of surprise, I heard both Isobu and Shukaku’s mingled roars, but I couldn’t tell if they were just in my head or real.

YOU HAVE FOUND THE FIRST.

ASSEMBLE THE NINE.

And when the hell-glow on my arm and not-voice in my head finally abated, Gaara’s band and mine matched. I had a “one” on my wrist and he had a “three” on his.

What happened? What changed? Isobu demanded, at the same time that Gaara put his other hand to the side of his head and seemed to be listening to Shukaku.

And I could feel Isobu’s chakra inside my body again, without the sensation of impending pain. While Gaara’s sand armor twisted off his body and started to form a rather familiar tanuki-like tail before dissipating, I summoned the first scrap of Isobu’s chakra I’d been able to channel in months and grinned as my eyes itched in that familiar way.

I…think I know what’s gonna happen every time we meet up with a jinchūriki, now. And it was an eyesore. If this didn’t kill my stealth rating, I would be amazed.

Oh, now that is interesting. This next stretch of our quest should far easier—for you.

Shut up.

“Any idea what that was?” Ace asked, but was immediately pushed to the side by his brother before he could get an answer or I could come up with one. “Wait, your eyes…”

I cut myself off, letting the power fade. Across from me, so did Gaara.

Where could we even begin with explaining what we were?

“Hey, what is it?” Luffy demanded, sticking his head into our conversation on a very extendable neck. He turned his face toward Gaara, and said, “Remember? I said one crewmate’s burden is all of ours. So spill it already!”

Gaara frowned deeper, considering the words that Luffy must have told him in the past. I didn’t know exactly how Gaara had come to join the Straw Hats, but unlike the Whitebeards and me, it seemed that he actually had. As opposed to using them as a ferry service while befriending the various members and then…whatever the hell I’d done.

I glanced at Ace, rather than trusting my own judgement as far as that went.

“Once we’re out of sight of Nanohana, it might be a good idea,” was what he said.

“Eh? You know what’s going on?” Usopp asked, gaping. “But no one ever gets anything out of Gaara!”

“Luffy did,” said Zoro.

“Luffy doesn’t know how to take ‘no’ for an answer,” griped Sanji, puffing away on the cigarette Ace had lit for him.

If Luffy was nearly as charismatic and frightfully stubborn as Naruto, I didn’t doubt it. I just didn’t know if he could keep a secret worth a shit.

Ace knew him better than I did. “It’ll be fine.”

“I trust him, Keisuke,” Gaara added, meeting my eyes squarely. “I trust all of them.”

What kinds of adventures must this kid have gone on with the Straw Hats to see those walls come down?

I was clearly outvoted. To the crew at large, I said, “Fine, then. As soon as we get where we’re going—”

“Erumalu,” said Vivi helpfully.

“—thank you, then we can discuss this properly,” I concluded.

And I hoped to high hell that it would work out.

Chapter Text

After lunch was over, the crew dispersed. I saw Nami and Vivi head into the cabins belowdecks, while Chopper lounged on the stairs and tried not to fry, given that he was a reindeer near a Summer Island. Luffy and Usopp had joined Sanji and Ace in the kitchen, while Gaara and I were still out on the deck and enjoying the sea breeze. Zoro, meanwhile, took up his training regimen—which apparently involved swinging a dumbbell the size of a small horse and likely four times as heavy.

I’d been slacking since arriving in this ocean. Gai would have been so disappointed.

“What is it?” Gaara asked, following my zoned-out stare to the Straw Hats’ resident swordsman. “Are you bored?”

I sighed. “Maybe a little. I was just thinking that I haven’t been keeping up with my training since meeting the Whitebeards.”

Zoro stopped mid-swing. As he carefully set the giant piece of exercise equipment down to rest against the deck, he said, “I noticed you had a sword. Do you know how to use it?”

A bit miffed, I replied, “Well, yes.” What kind of idiot carried around a weapon they couldn’t use? That kind of behavior amounted only to adding dead weight, unless they were helping a friend move or something.

“Then spar with me,” said Zoro, who appeared to have something of a one-track mind.

I looked at Gaara for permission first.

“What?” Gaara asked. He blinked as a thought occurred to him, then said, “Zoro is the one who wants to spar with you. He says his dream is to be the World’s Greatest Swordsman.”

Didn’t need the bio, kid, but that’ll do. I supposed it was probably allowed, as long as I mostly kept my chakra to myself. To Zoro, I said, “Is the deck big enough?”

Gaara looked down, then made the Snake hand sign. Sand cascaded out of the gourd on his back and coated the deck, leaving a protective layer between both of us and anything we could hurt. He’d even surrounded the mast and fenced Chopper off from the barely-large-enough deck.

Apparently, Gaara wanted to see us practice. “...Well, I suppose it doesn’t matter now.”

Even if we barely had enough space for a kendo match, it’d have to do.

Setting my katana down on the sand for a moment, I tested my desert over-robe for air resistance, winced, and then pulled the entire thing over my head. Dropping the cloth into Gaara’s waiting sand, I grabbed the katana again and stuck it into my belt loop.

Across from me, Zoro had a katana in each hand and…a third one held in his teeth. Well, if local physics allowed it, and he didn’t have cavities, I supposed to made about as much sense as Killer B’s seven-sword style. Actually, it probably made more sense. At least he used his hands.

“Let’s see how a Whitebeard Pirate does things without a Devil Fruit,” Zoro said...perfectly audibly. Despite the sword in his teeth.

I placed my right hand on the hilt of my sword. “I’m not a Whitebeard, Zoro.”

Though hell only knew if they’d ever acknowledge that little detail. I’d gotten more questions about my eating habits and health from the Whitebeards on snail calls than I had from anyone who wasn’t dead back home. They were like a massive network of snooping relatives. Ace’s refusal to talk to them about his (definitely self-appointed) mission just made them more determined to pull details out of me instead, especially Thatch and Marco.

“You’re not?” asked Chopper, sitting up behind a wall of sand. Gaara seemed to be using his sand like a child gate to keep other people out of the sparring arena, as tiny as it was. I could barely see Chopper’s face over the lip. “But you’re traveling with Ace, right?”

“Ace is hunting a guy who—besides trying to kill a crewmate—punched me off the Moby Dick,” I said, flexing my fingers and popping each knuckle in turn. “And I’m helping him with that.”

“You just don’t wanna admit you’re friends with us,” Ace piped up out of apparently nowhere. Wait, no, there he was right behind Chopper, who just looked up with an expression of open curiosity on his face.

“Are we going to spar or not?” Zoro wanted to know, so I finally turned my attention back to him after rolling my eyes at Ace.

“Sure thing,” I replied, sliding into a ready stance even on the sand. It probably wasn’t unfair to use chakra to keep my footing under control, so I tried it out experimentally. Noticing no anomalies, I settled into the low starting stance for Uesugi-Gekkō iaijutsu.

Head forward, right arm raised, katana angled on my left hip for a nasty upward swing. Deep breath to center myself.

“I won’t hold back,” Zoro said, still somehow perfectly understandable. He needed to give elocution lessons, but merely raised both arms so his swords draped nearly across the blade of the one in his mouth.

I had every intention of holding back as much as I could. Or just losing. Either way.

Oni Giri!” Three simultaneous sword slashes, lining up…

A bit too slow. Hunting Tiger Strike, no chakra edition.

I probably should have been more careful with my cheap-as-shit sword, but the idea of blocking three swords at once appealed to my sense of style. Insofar as I had one.

All four blades met with a resounding CLANG of metal, with my blade holding off Zoro’s three. My sword, which I suddenly recalled was far less well-crafted than even what I was used to, rattled ominously against the pins in its tang. The noise might not have been audible to anyone else, but I could feel the unsettling movement right down to my bones.

“Whoa, she stopped Zoro?” Chopper gaped openly, though I had to imagine that there were some people who could do that, right?

Both of us leapt back, though I gave my katana a few experimental swings. It rattled again, and I winced. “Sorry, Zoro. I think this thing won’t handle another clash.”

“I thought Vista had a better eye for swords than that,” Ace commented, clearly already thinking of a way to needle his fellow commander.

“Wado Ichimoji, Yubashiri, and Kitetsu III are all legendary swords,” Zoro said, as he started sheathing them. “Yours isn’t. It’s that simple.”

“Fair enough.” Though I did sort of wonder if my mother’s katana or my normal one would hold up in that kind of clash. Or… “Zoro, let’s try one more attack. I want to see if I can’t get anything out of it.”

This time, when I sheathed my sword in preparation for my next run at the Hunting Tiger Strike technique, I gathered chakra like I was supposed to.

“I get the weirdest feeling you were holding out on me, Kei,” Ace said, still on the opposite side of the sandy child-gate.

I smiled.

“...You’re terrible,” Ace informed me. He glanced down into the depths of the ship, then shouted, “Hey, Kei’s sparring with Zoro! Anyone gonna watch?”

“I already am,” said Chopper, to spur them onward.

I sighed to myself and then focused on Zoro again. Audiences bothered me to some degree, still, but if the pirates wanted a show I wouldn’t walk off in protest or anything. Last time I’d saved myself the trouble of dealing with any of the jeering or shouts by just making the fight fiendishly difficult to see, but here it’d be cheating.

Well, probably cheating. Zoro and I hadn’t actually agreed on any rules, and he did have three swords.

Still, the Straw Hats sort of ended up gathering on the deck. Gaara continued to protect the Merry from any possible damage, while also providing bleacher-like seating for the Straw Hats who wanted to view what would ultimately probably only be one more strike.

Sanji was the last one to make the trip.

And then two things happened very quickly.

One, Zoro blocked a kick aimed straight at his head with the flat of all three blades. The kick, of course, being launched by the ship’s blond cook, who was already shouting about a “idiot mosshead” who could only be Zoro. “That’s no way to treat a woman!”

Two, Sanji swooned over to me and said, “Don’t worry about a thing, Kei! I’ll be your white prince—”

Later, I would swear that the Replacement I used was just reflex and that I hadn’t meant to hurt Sanji’s feelings. Or to reveal one of my favorite basic techniques. But in that exact moment, I just reacted and only afterward realized that I’d just opted out of that particular interaction faster than any ordinary person would have.

Rather than taking my hand, Sanji was left holding my discarded desert robe as it and I switched places. From a somewhat safer distance and behind Gaara’s sand, I asked everyone, “Did you think I was a guy before?”

There was a collective “Uh…” from the Straw Hats who actually cared about that.

“Ah! You’re a girl!” said Luffy, pointing accusingly at my much smaller-than-average bust. Shopping for bras in this friggin’ ocean was difficult for more reasons than just an inability to find stores on the high seas—apparently I was the local equivalent of flat as a board. Even worse than at home. Which, y’know, fine, but I couldn’t help but curse my dad’s prophetic naming scheme all the same.

Ace, of course, was cackling. No help at all.

I just sighed. While Gaara dissolved the sand arena into just plain sand again, sweeping it up into his gourd, I walked over and poked Ace in the shoulder. “You have no room to talk.”

Ace stopped laughing as his memory caught up with the situation. “Oh, right.”

Zoro finally huffed and said, “We’ll continue this later, without this shitty cook interfering.”

“The hell you will!” Sanji snarled at him, just so happening to fling my desert gear in my direction. And then Zoro and Sanji were brawling in the middle of the deck, giving me enough time to grab my stuff and flee.

“Is, uh, is this normal?” I asked Nami and Vivi, since I figured they’d know best.

“Yeah, it is. Sanji’s hopeless around women,” Nami said, bringing a hand to her forehead. “He can’t fight women either, even if they’re trying to kill him.”

I scratched my head, automatically thinking of all the kunoichi I’d fought in my life who could make someone like Sanji pay for holding back. Certainly pirates would have no qualms taking advantage of that weakness, right? “That…sounds like a problem.”

“It is,” Nami grumbled. Then she perked up as a thought occurred to her. “You know, you’re the first woman I’ve met who ran away instead of just, say, punching him like I do.”

“Or taking advantage of it and making him carry all the baggage,” Vivi piped up, smiling.

“Nearly everyone I’ve ever met thinks I’m just a pretty guy at first,” I explained, still a little surprised that I needed to elaborate at all. I pointed at my face and added, “I think the scar’s part of it.”

“Could be,” Nami allowed. It was a rather large scar, so I assumed it acted as a distraction.

“Yeah, well, people tend to think I’m more intimidating than ‘cute’ for the most part,” I said, mentally adding that the Konoha uniform’s unisex design probably didn’t help. Nor did my reputation. “And Sanji’s…overbearing. I’m not used to that kind of attention.”

“It’s okay. I’ll distract Sanji, if you give me a second,” Nami volunteered instantly, getting to her feet. While I watched in a sort of horrified fascination, she purred, “Oh San-jiiiii~?”

I’d seen enough. I yanked the robe back over my head, I packed up my stabbing equipment, and left to contemplate something a little less likely to be interrupted by roaming Straw Hats, like free diving.

With one exception.

Gaara climbed up onto the crow’s with me, sitting down at my side. “They’re a bit excitable, aren’t they?”

“That’s putting it lightly,” I admitted, though really, I should have been used to the idea.

Everyone around here seemed to lack the affected coldness or polite façade that our home countries favored. No one here had ever been taught “a shinobi must never show their tears,” and it made many of them honest in a way that I hadn’t seen in a very long time. While I didn't doubt they had secrets of their own—given how either accepting or unaware they seemed of Gaara’s—it didn’t seem to matter.

Ace had told me months ago that it wasn’t like the Whitebeards could call me on keeping secrets when everyone had a few. How widespread was that attitude?

Would anyone I didn’t know back home have cried if I got eaten by a sea monster, like they did here?

“I was thinking of telling them,” Gaara said quietly, drawing my attention back to him and out of my thoughts.

My eyes widened slightly. “About what we are? Or about Shukaku?”

“Both. I want them to meet him,” Gaara said, crossing his arms and letting his head droop toward his chest. After a second or so to think, he sank into my side like he’d been aiming for turning me into a pillow all along. “Maybe you could help Usopp make it into a story to keep from scaring Chopper. Only I guess Usopp would be scared, too…”

“If they do get scared, I could tell them one of my stories instead,” I suggested, hesitating for just a second before looking my right arm around Gaara’s shoulders. He could get out of my grasp whenever he wanted, what with his sand, but he just sighed. “I’ve got old war stories and stuff from before you were born. It’d take their minds off anything you wanna tell them, though some of the details might scare them worse.”

“You didn’t tell Ace much, I know that. Even if I don’t know why.” Gaara looked up. “But you’d be willing to do that for me?”

“Without a second thought,” I said firmly. “If you need me to help when you talk to your crew, I’ll do whatever it takes.”


Usopp got the stuffing kicked out of him by small turtle-shelled creatures half his size within two minutes of us arriving back on land for real. Then Luffy waded into the fray, beat up all of the little dugongs, and then suddenly the Straw Hats had an army. Of Kung Fu Dugongs. He ordered them all to guard our ship while we wandered into the desert and probably got horribly lost, and that was that.

“Does this happen a lot?” I asked Gaara. I wasn’t sure which part of the situation I was referring to when I said that.

“You have no idea,” Gaara muttered. I wasn’t sure what part he was referring to, either.

I watched the Straw Hats unload onto the beachhead, my thoughts drifting back to Princess Vivi’s...giant duck. Really, I had no right to complain about oversized birds, given Tsuruya, but the thing was built with the proportions of a squeaky toy. While Tsuruya was basically a small airplane on stilts with perfectly over-scaled dimensions, Carue’s proportions were all off.

Nonetheless, the duck could move overland at a respectable clip. It took him only a few seconds to leave a massive dust trail that eventually disappeared two bluffs away.

“He just ran over Shukaku’s head,” Gaara had said, as Carue vanished.

“It didn’t bother him, did it?” I had asked, more out of reflex than anything.

Gaara had given me a flat stare that answered my question rather succinctly. This was Shukaku we were talking about. Hell, Isobu had repeatedly blasted his head off the first time I met him.

If you are finished staring into space, I would like to see my brother now.

Just a second. I wanna check in with Gaara.

I briefly checked the two Tailed Beasts’ respective positions. Isobu was as close to the shore as he could manage without exposing his topmost spikes to surface-going passersby (and scaring anything that was a bit more aquatic), while Shukaku basically was the dune over the next one. If someone had happened to be standing there, they might’ve been able to make out some of the swirled Curse Seals that covered his body even when he was pretending to be an innocent topographical feature.

Putting off the meeting probably wasn’t going to be productive. I looked to Gaara, who had his eyes closed as he nodded.

Time to get back to work, I supposed.

“Hey, what’s keeping you two?” Nami called up to us from the bank.

By way of answering, Gaara swept both of us onto a magic flying carpet made of sand, then deposited us on the beach like it was nothing. Given his Magnet Release capabilities, it really wasn’t.

“That works,” said Nami, before she went back to making sure everyone else was packed for the desert trek.

Still wasn’t looking forward to that.

I busied myself shaking sand out of my robes for a second, though it was pointless, because I didn’t really want to start another scene. I felt everyone’s eyes on us, though realistically speaking that probably didn’t happen. I mean, it wasn’t like completely inexplicable things, from the pirates’ perspective, happened nearly every time I turned around.

Isobu took the decision out of my hands, rising from the deep like a brand new island, and started muscling himself up onto the shore as soon as his belly slammed into the first patch of underwater sand. After that, there was nowhere to go but up.

“A SEA KING?!”

Cue everyone screaming their heads off—except for Gaara, Ace, and me. Zoro, Luffy, and Sanji weren’t so much afraid as surprised, but damn could the Straw Hats put their lungs to use.

And behind us, the sand dune that had been Shukaku collapsed, reformed, and emerged from the desert as the world record holder for “largest tanuki.”

“ANOTHER MONSTER?!”

Aaaaand there went part two. Was it even worth trying to save my hearing at this point?

“Damn, caught between two giant beasts,” Zoro growled, reaching for his swords.

There you are, Isobu!” Shukaku called, and everyone paused for a second to process that, yes, the giant sand-tanuki was definitely talking. He even had a bit of a drawl, and wasn’t actually shouting by his standards. “How long has it been, big brother?

Since when do you ever to call me by that title?” Isobu asked, totally ignoring the little squishy humans below.

“BROTHERS?” Usopp. Had to be. Then, “I-IT T-T-T-T-TALKS!”

“There really isn’t a family resemblance,” Ace said, with just a touch of awe. He lifted the brim of his hat so it sat back on his head. He took in the sight of a giant sand monster talking to a giant ocean monster, then said in a sage tone, “Also, that is a tanuki.”

“Told you,” I said.

“So cool!” Luffy piped up. He literally bounced over to us, landing in front of Gaara. “Gaara, Gaara, is that your friend? Is he your mama? Is your mama a tanuki?”

How much had Gaara told him?

“No,” Gaara said, his expression astonishingly even as he dealt with Luffy’s curiosity. Maybe he was hiding his real expression under the sand armor again.

Luffy deflated. “Aw, that’s not as fun.”

And these humans are…?” Isobu said as he turned to us. Seawater and debris still sloughed off him, and Shukaku sat back on his haunches to look across the sand dunes at us. “There you are. Hello, humans.

“AAAAA—What?” Usopp, seriously. Stop.

I held my hand up and waved, since there was no way in hell the Tailed Beasts would be able to hear us from here. You two should come over now.

Sounds like fun!” Shukaku said in reply to something I didn’t hear Gaara say. He started to walk over to us, and while his waddling steps looked rather hilarious for a creature his size, he was crossing dozens of meters with every stride. “Hey, humans!

“W-We’re not all humans,” Chopper said nervously, poking the tips of his hooves together.

“I really don’t think they’ll care, Chopper,” said Sanji, lighting another cigarette.

…Okay, no. Luffy and Zoro and Sanji did not need to gear up for fighting literal forces of nature. It would not end well.

“Fight them and you will die,” Gaara told the crew at large with a total lack of sympathy for their fear. And, well, he had grown up constantly exposed to Tailed Beast shenanigans of one form or another. His standards were twice as fucked up as mine were. Then he said, in a somewhat more patient tone, “They’re friends of ours.”

“FRIENDS OF OURS?” Usopp, Nami, Chopper, and Vivi all demanded.

“Friends,” Gaara confirmed solemnly.

Zoro blinked. “Oh, is that all?”

“I’m going to need to set out two extra places at the table, aren’t I?” Sanji asked.

“Thankfully, no,” I replied. Isobu, you might have to…uh, rein him in.

Asking me to control my siblings’ impulsive actions has never once worked.

And that was about when Shukaku finally arrived within shouting distance—for us, not him. He was even bigger up close, bent double with his chin practically on the ground and his disproportionately long arms bracing his massive bulk. But really, he didn’t even need that. He could have materialized out of the desert like the Cave of frickin’ Wonders and still held a perfectly understandable conversation as a giant head alone.

Somewhat behind him and to one side, Isobu was scaring the Kung Fu Dugongs silly and not taking any notice.

So, you’re the humans my little Gaara has become friends with,” Shukaku said, in a booming voice that spoke of no idea of what volume control even was. While everyone got laid out flat and the Going Merry bobbed dangerously in the wind, he went on, “You now meet my esteemed self, the great Shukaku!

Luffy’s hand shot up, though Gaara’s sand encircled his wrist almost instantly and tried to yank it back down. Luffy just put his other hand in the air like he was in class. “Hey, hey, Shumai! Do you poop?”

“SHUT UP, LUFFY!” screamed the rest of his crew except for Gaara, who just sighed instead. While burying Luffy up to his straw-hatted head in sand.

“Is this normal?” I asked Ace in an aside. He hadn’t shouted either.

“For Luffy? Oh, definitely.” Ace grinned. “If Gaara wasn’t doing that, I’d’ve probably punched him.”

It’s ‘the great Shukaku,’ you brat!” Shukaku bellowed. Given his Wind affinity, that was nearly literal, and us tiny humans smacked against the sand wall Gaara had hastily erected for our safety.

You say that like this one will remember that,” Isobu said, speaking up for the first time to a general audience.

“Shooting Star!” Luffy suggested cheerfully, not missing a beat though Gaara was pretty much strangling him.

The great Shukaku!

“Shyamalan!”

Oh, Luffy was definitely Ace’s brother. Both of them apparently considered shouting at an already-annoyed Tailed Beast an appropriate response to any argument.

Shut up, both of you,” Isobu interrupted, but this time he punctuated his statement by wrapping his left tail around Shukaku’s and physically hauling him out of arguing range. Then he dragged himself forward, cutting Shukaku off from a repeat performance with his considerable bulk. “Kei, try explaining the situation without us for just a moment. I need to speak to my brother.

Isobu, unlike Shukaku, did not have power over wind and also knew what eardrums were for. Thus, he took it a bit easier on us squishy little mortals. And he got into a tail-wrestling contest with his brother, which did not require words.

While the two titanic creatures argued in relative silence apart from the exploding sand dunes, the Straw Hats gathered their collective wits, and Gaara finally let Luffy out of his sandy prison.

“Shumai is our friend, right Gaara?” Luffy asked instantly, as though he hadn’t been briefly entombed. “Because he’s your friend and any friend of yours is our friend, too!”

I felt kinda bad for Gaara. Had he known what he was getting into by joining the Straw Hats?

“H-He’s too big to join our crew, Luffy,” Nami said, her eye developing a bit of a tic as she spoke. “We can’t fit him on the Merry.”

“Shukaku doesn’t need a ship to follow us. He was in Loguetown when we met, too,” Gaara said, bursting her bubble. “He’s been following us.”

Given Shukaku’s nature as a giant sand tanuki, I had to imagine his travel method made his sand manipulation incredibly difficult. Water increased the weight of his sand so much that if Shukaku hadn’t been, essentially, a god of the desert and fully capable of turning himself into individual grains and otherwise manipulating his form, there was no way that would fly.

But he was, and so it did.

Actually, Shukaku told me that he just leaves a large proportion of his chakra with Gaara’s sand gourd, Isobu said, while I was pondering the logistics of a sand monster moving around an oceanic world. Because he is always aware of the location of his components, he can simply reform himself out of loose sand the moment the Straw Hats find land again.

...That sounds a lot like an even more silly version of how your Isobu-clones work.

Possibly. He says he could not do it before arriving here, so perhaps it was an adaptation.

The Straw Hats did not seem to find these facts as fascinating as I did. “That’s not helping!

I thought it was helping rather a lot. Watching the tension leave Gaara’s shoulders made the Tailed Beast sideshow all worth it. He hadn’t even needed to grab my sleeve to reassure himself or anything. No, he was standing on his own two feet and making his case.

He’d be okay here.

“Shumai isn’t joining the crew,” Luffy protested, in the fact of his crew’s nearly collective disapproval. “He’s been on the crew with Gaara. So we just had a hidden friend we didn’t know about!”

Gaara nodded.

“Then that’s settled!” Luffy cheered, pumping both fists in the air. “We have a crewmate to celebrate! Sanji, Sanji—”

“We are not drinking the second we get into a desert.”

“Stingy!”

I cleared my throat. “Speaking of what we’re doing next…” How to put this…? “Luffy, Gaara and I have a mission to explain to you. I already told your brother some of it, but I think you should all hear this.”

“That sounds boring,” said Luffy.

“It’s…kind of like a goal?” I tried, spotting Gaara nodding encouragingly out of the corner of my eye. “Or a…dream?”

“Oh, then that’s okay then!” And just like that, Luffy was sitting with his legs crossed on top of one of the supply bags, hands on his ankles as he bobbed back and forth. “Gaara, I wanna hear your dream!”

“This is something Keisuke needs to explain,” Gaara said, throwing me under the bus with a serene expression on his face.

“This I wanna hear, too,” Ace said, and I bit back the urge to sigh. “What? It’s not like you’ve told me much about the totally-not-Sea-Kings who’re talking over there right now.”

“Then gather ‘round,” I suggested to the Straw Hats (and Ace). It wasn’t like we were heading for Yuba with Shukaku and Isobu still taking up the way there with their bodies.

Chopper and Luffy sat eagerly, with Luffy practically bouncing in place. Usopp was still busy eying the Tailed Beasts’ “hushed” discussion with trepidation, while Zoro and Sanji mostly pretended to not be listening at all. Vivi and Nami were probably paying attention, but Shukaku’s rumbling laughter drew their attention back to him every once in a while.

“It starts with a fairy tale,” I began, because it seemed like the simplest place to start. “A very long time ago, a princess ate the fruit of a sacred tree for power. She wanted to stop all war, and with her new strength she succeeded, but…”

“Going mad with power” was such a lame way to put it, but no one knew enough about Princess Kaguya to be sure what the hell had really happened.

“Well, it didn’t work out to say the least,” I said, before I could get caught up in that rabbit hole of a historical debate. “But her sons, who inherited her power, decided that it was too much for anyone to keep the powers of a god under control. So when the older one died, he split his power into nine parts. Two of them are over there, arguing.”

Everyone’s gazes were inexorably drawn to Isobu and Shukaku.

“Is that what Shukaku really is?” Gaara asked, his eyes a bit wider than usual. “Everyone at home seemed to think he was an old priest who was sealed into a teapot…”

“I think that was Shukaku’s last partner before you,” I said, while Gaara frowned thoughtfully. “But he lived for so long that everyone forgot that Shukaku wasn’t him, even after they crammed him into a teapot. You should try asking Shukaku about him sometime.”

It helped that I was pretty sure Gaara would get an answer. Shukaku seemed fond of the old man last I’d heard. And he’d had a hand in raising Gaara this time, so things ought to work out.

“I will,” Gaara vowed.

“Anyway, Gaara and I are the chosen partners of Shukaku and Isobu,” I said, before the pirates could recover and ask too many questions about what I was glossing over. “And when two of us human counterparts touch, we unlock these wrist...cuff things, I think.” I still didn’t quite know what they were. “And the more we unlock, the more of their powers we can use. We already have our own spiritual and physical energy, but obviously drawing on Shukaku or Isobu makes us a lot stronger.”

“Which one’s stronger?” Zoro asked, sizing the Tailed Beasts up at range.

“Out of Shukaku and Isobu, Isobu is. He has the highest number of tails here. But the real maximum is nine,” I answered, but like hell I was going to admit to what had happened with Kurama.

Gaara knew that both Naruto and Kushina were jinchūriki—hard not to, given the mind-skype view when it was working—but I couldn’t risk that information getting out before I was sure Naruto would be safe. Hell, Kushina wasn’t a public jinchūriki either. I’d let that information slip when I fucking died.

Zoro frowned for a second. “Is that a hard limit?”

“...Yes and no,” I said, thinking it over. Zoro was probably taking a training perspective on the whole thing. “While the Tailed Beasts generally get outmatched by the next tail ranking up, their partners don’t work on the same scale.”

I was stronger than Fū or Gaara or Naruto at the moment, but it wouldn’t always be that way. There was no way Naruto in particular wouldn’t outpace me eventually.

Old age and cunning trumped youth and vigor in the meantime.

“Anyway, if we find a way to get rid of all the black marks on this thing,” I said, holding up my wrist again, “I guess we might get to go home. That’s about the long and short of it.”

Though I did make a point not to exactly explain what a jinchūriki was generally created for, or that we were both snugly in that category. That we’d always been weapons. It just…it didn’t feel right.

“So,” Luffy said with the air of someone doing some pretty difficult thinking, “your dream is really to go home?”

“My dream is to meet all the others,” Gaara corrected, looking at me.

Ow, my heart.

“…That would be cool, but I’m pretty sure I’ve specifically pissed some of them off,” I admitted few seconds afterward.

“Including Naruto and his mother?” Gaara asked, whipping his head around.

So much for keeping that a secret.

I held up my hands, proclaiming my innocence. “Not them, but some others. I guess I just need to be careful.”

I was fairly certain that Rōshi and Han from Iwa would not be happy to see me. I didn’t know about Yugito, but Killer B probably wouldn’t take me seriously. As for Fū and Utakata? Fū was an unknown, kept under wraps by Takigakure, but I was sure Utakata would not greet me like a long-lost friend even if Isobu had spent a good chunk of time in his village.

But it’d been great to see Gaara again, and I missed Kushina and Naruto enough that my chest ached. Where had they gone?

“That’s kind of a sad dream,” Vivi remarked in a gentle tone. “It’s almost like what we’re doing right now, but we’ve already made it to Alabasta. I don’t know how long it would take you to find seven other people who might be anywhere across the world.”

Eight, I corrected mentally. And their partners, assuming that some of them even stuck together.

“I think finding the others should be more of a…” I twisted a hand in midair, searching for the right word. “A side goal? Gaara is a part of your crew, not the other way around.”

And Gaara was the second-youngest jinchūriki in existence. My protective instinct might’ve been misplaced, but I still didn’t want him to get into more trouble than he could handle.

…Which was why I was encouraging him to stick with a pirate crew that would definitely get into a fight with a Warlord. Specifically, the one who was a sand Logia and had the same power domain as Gaara and Shukaku. Logic at its finest.

“Hm,” said Luffy, crossing his arms and lowering his head as he thought.

“Here we go again,” muttered his crew.

“Hei, you should join my crew!” Luffy said, oblivious to his friends’ resignation. And the fact that he’d gotten my name wrong. “Even if you’re not a musician, we’re going to have a lot of fun adventures, and Gaara won’t be lonely anymore!”

“Luffy—” Gaara tried to interrupt.

“I can’t join your crew,” I said.

“You still let him ask,” Ace told me cheerfully. “And now he’s going to keep asking.”

“Luffy, I already said I wouldn’t join the Whitebeard Pirates,” I tried to explain. “I may be working with Ace now, but only because we’re hunting down the same person—while I look for other people like Gaara and me. When we take down Blackbeard—”

“After we take down Blackbeard, I’m still going to help you navigate around the Grand Line, because you’re hopeless at it,” Ace broke in, and grinned when I gave him a flat look. “Oh, come on, you didn’t really think we would give up entirely, did you?”

While I did sigh again, I had to suppress a smile. Clingy, weren’t they?

I believe that would be what you call “an understatement.”

“But if you joined—”

“No, Luffy,” I said more firmly.

Hey!” Shukaku hollered over to us, though he was still on the opposite side of Isobu from us. “Hey, humans! My brother says you need to cross the desert. Is that true?

Vivi’s eyes widened. “Yes, yes it is. Can you help us?”

What was that?” Shukaku asked, and I honestly wasn’t sure if he was squinting at her or not because his eyes had that signature black band right over them. He cocked his head to one side, lifting one of his triangular ears, and said, “Speak up so my magnificent self can hear you!

You could try using the wind to carry their voices to you,” was Isobu’s witheringly dry suggestion. Ironic, given who he was using it on.

Oh, right.” Shukaku opened his nearly circular maw and the wind around us picked up—but not as much as it had before, when he was just shouting at Luffy. “Speak up!

“Please help us cross the desert! We need to reach the next cities as soon as we can!” Vivi shouted, putting her entire voice into it with enough force that it cracked.

I’d heard only snippets of the Straw Hats’ mission to stop a civil war, with Princess Vivi’s peace efforts leading the way. If they were going to be able to stop both sides, they needed to put on some speed. Walking through the desert wouldn’t get them where they needed to go nearly fast enough, and they also didn’t have a squad of supersonic ducks to help.

…The fact that I just thought “supersonic duck” without any problems spoke volumes about how off the wall this place was.

Is that all? That’s nothing!” Shukaku puffed his somewhat concave chest outward, his massive tail curling in the air. “Traveling the desert is nothing for my illustrious self! I can carry all of you without even noticing!

Isobu muttered, in a voice perfectly audible to everyone, “Including not noticing if they fall off.” His golden eye focused on Gaara as he added, “Therefore, it will be your responsibility, child.

Gaara nodded.

I’m perfectly responsible!

No, you are not.

“I take it Isobu’s not coming with us?” Ace asked, eyeing the arguing Tailed Beasts as the Straw Hats watched them like a tennis match.

It would make more sense for me to scout waterways or guard an escape route. Though I am mobile on land, after a fashion, Shukaku is far more powerful here and will never run out of either stamina or ammunition.

I repeated Isobu’s words for Ace’s benefit, to which he nodded. “Should make it easier to get to Yuba and back. There was a rumor that Teach was spotted there.”

“He could easily be gone by now,” I warned him quietly. I prodded Ace’s shoulder, making him idly brush me off. “So, is this about Teach or you wanting to spend time with your brother?”

“Can you blame me?” Ace asked, rather than answering directly. So it wasn’t about Teach. Shukaku really was saving us days of desert travel if Ace was willing to ease off about the hunt. “Luffy’s independent and all, but I haven’t seen him in three years.”

I blinked. I couldn’t imagine willingly going that long without seeing Hayate. “Really?”

“Yeah. It’s a big brother’s job to worry about idiot younger brothers.” Ace raised one eyebrow and a smile pulled at his lips. “Besides, you’ve been homesick forever. You want to see Gaara, and Isobu missed his brother, too. We can take a couple more days.”

He wasn’t wrong.

ALL ABOARD, HUMANS!” Shukaku roared. “Let’s get this show on the road!


Erumalu was the first destination we found. It didn’t ultimately matter that much for the purposes of our travel itinerary, since Shukaku was being our moving magic carpet and could travel fast enough that Gaara needed to manufacture miniature windshields out of sand to keep us stable, but seeing a completely abandoned town remained depressing no matter how many times it happened. That had been true long before I’d been swept up in this pirate adventure, starting with a former fortress town I’d visited once to get the butterfly summon contract.

Erumalu was a dried-up wreck, losing its moniker of the “Green City” to Baroque Works, but given Shukaku’s impatience we didn’t stick around there long enough for it to sink in. Actually, Shukaku had wanted to tear all the excess sand out of the place until it looked less like a total ruin, but Vivi made him promise to do that on the return trip instead, since no humans could live in the barren city anyway. Yet.

First, the Straw Hats needed to utterly destroy Baroque Works and Crocodile. Then the rain would come back.

(Though I kind of hoped I’d be able to get my hands on some of the Dance Powder they’d used to frame King Cobra for water theft. Just to figure out how it worked, even if it was hells of illegal to actually use it to steal rain. Or produce it. Or get caught with it.)

But first, we got to camp out in the desert. Specifically, we camped out when the temperature plunged in a way that probably would have been perfectly tolerable for Rin’s scorpions, but mostly just made our traveling group miserable.

I still wasn’t a fan of it.

“What happened? It was so hot all day and now it’s freezing!” Nami whimpered from beside the fire, huddled up against Vivi.

“I know it sounds strange, but it’s all because of the lack of cloud cover,” Vivi explained, but knowing the details of planetary thermal regulation didn’t appear to make her feel any warmer.

Sure, with Shukaku blocking the wind it was a lot easier to keep our body heat where it needed to be, but it still sucked. Gaara could cheat by using his sand as insulation, Ace was basically made of fire, and I could circulate my chakra to maintain my body temperature, the rest of the crew needed to improvise. The desert air had such low humidity that whatever warmth the rest of our group had was down to body heat or huddling next to the bonfire.

Still, we made the best of it. While Zoro, Chopper, Usopp and Luffy huddled together, Sanji maintained the fire, and Vivi chatted with Ace about something, I got back to work on seals. Shukaku had even courteously created a sand table for me so I could try creating seals in the firelight, since our travel method made it way too unpleasant to try during the day.

“What kind of seal is that?” Gaara asked, sitting beside me.

With his sand armor and long desert robe that made him look like the tiniest Kazekage on record, he looked completely at home in this environment. Sunagakure and the desert around it, after all, were probably worse.

“I was thinking storage seals for extreme weather gear and blankets,” I replied, finishing off the latest design with a flourish. Sure, there wasn’t anything nearby in those categories to put in it, but I could certainly reduce the weight the others were carrying in the meantime. “Or backpacks.”

“They don’t look much like Elder Chiyo’s seals. How do I use them?” Gaara asked, accurately predicting that he’d be the only one able to activate the seals. They required chakra, after all.

“Just place your hand over it. My seals don’t need blood since it’s already in the ink,” I told him, “so all it needs is a bit of chakra.”

Given that Gaara still couldn’t wound himself on demand and probably wouldn’t ever figure out how, I didn’t have much of a choice. Still, since no one other than us and the Tailed Beasts had chakra to use, it probably made a pretty decent security precaution.

“You use blood to write with?!” Usopp shrieked, scrambling to his feet with Chopper following suit a second later.

I looked blankly at them. I’d lost my squeamishness related to blood in ink around the time I’d started lessons with Sensei. “It’s my blood. I can do what I want with it.”

“That’s not really what they’re talking about,” said Zoro. “You’re just practicing calligraphy, right? Or is it something more morbid?”

“Fūinjutsu looks like calligraphy, but it’s not the same thing,” I said, more confused by their reactions than anything. Hadn’t Luffy told us a story today about how Zoro had nearly been cut in half by a swordsman a while ago? Also, they were pirates. “It’s more functional.”

“Oh, oh, show us!” said Luffy, grinning widely. “Come on!”

Pah, I could show all of you real fūinjutsu without breaking a sweat!” Shukaku scoffed, but without blowing out our eardrums.

I looked up at him, though he was facing away from us with his tail forming our main buffer against the wind. “You are literally covered in Curse Seals and have no room to talk at all.”

Shukaku scoffed.

“Long story short: Fūinjutsu often takes the form of a bit of calligraphy, but can do a ton of different things,” I said, turning my attention back to the pirates. “Sometimes that means teleportation, preventing food from spoiling, storing supplies, or a hundred other things. I’m just making some storage ones so your baggage won’t be as heavy or bulky. You’ll just need Gaara to retrieve things for you after I leave.”

“It’s not like we’ve really been feeling the weight with Shukaku carrying us everywhere,” Nami said reasonably.

“I’m just trying to be considerate,” I muttered. “And Shukaku won’t be willing or able to carry all of you forever.”

“Ah, Kei-ki is being so thoughtful! Truly she’s generous and wonderful!” Sanji swooned, before snapping back to normal. He considered the storage option I was offering, looked askance at Luffy, and then said to Gaara, “You’re in charge of keeping him out of the pantry once these seal-thingies are done.”

I was never going to get used to the heart-eyed version of Sanji. Ever. Making my name sound like “cake” did not help.

“I can do that,” Gaara said.

“Jerk!” Luffy complained loudly.

“Just remember that only Gaara will be able to open them,” I reminded the Straw Hats, after suppressing my reflexive reaction to over-the-top flirting. Ergo, retreating. “If you’re all separated, you need food and water outside of seals to survive.” I finished three seals with a flourish, then handed them off to Gaara. “Anyway, did you want to see the cool stuff?”

“Does it mean using more of your ‘precious’ paper?” Ace asked pointedly.

“In fact, no.” I scooped up a chunk of sandstone with my right hand and held it up between my thumb and forefinger. “Hey, Gaara, get ready to throw.”

Gaara’s sand stretched out and gently looped around the rock, though not touching it.

I let a tendril of my chakra grasp the stone, then jet-black kanji streamed down from my fingers and around it. Really, the pattern was beautiful even if some people couldn’t read all of my phantom handwriting. “All right, Gaara. Aim for the next dune.”

Gaara nodded, then made the Bird hand seal and sent the little stone skipping across the desert.

“Was that all?” Usopp asked, peering out into the dark.

“That’s bor—” was about as far as Luffy got before the next dune exploded.

For the sake of spectacle, I’d created a seal that incorporated a bit more flash than normal. While there were true flashbangs and other fun goodies in my mental arsenal, my personal favorite explosions were really more like miniature nuclear bombs than anything. I liked combining concussive force, intense temperatures, and outright flame to get the correct effect to make everyone up to and including Orochimaru duck for cover.

I clapped one hand over my mouth to cover my snickering, but I didn’t need to bother.

“WHAAAAAAT?!”

These people had some kind of cultural bias toward collective reactions. Only Gaara didn’t react—he’d seen and probably weathered worse, if his mission record was anything to go by. Likewise, Shukaku only looked back in our direction with his expression pulled into a multi-story frown.

I have seen you do better, Isobu commented.

Then I just need to top myself another time.

“Explosives were the first thing I learned how to make,” I said, once everyone had stopped shouting. “And I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t need paper or ink to use them. Comes in handy.”

Technically, I’d first accomplished that a few weeks before I’d turned fourteen, but no one really needed to know that. Or how far I’d gotten along in paper seals since then.

“That’s like Mr. 5’s power!” Vivi said, hand over her mouth. “But he ate the Bomu Bomu no Mi, so there’s no way you could have...”

“Kei’s weird that way,” Ace suggested, shrugging.

It was like my attitude toward nearly everything in the Grand Line thus far, but in reverse.

I raised my hand—my left one, since when my right moved the more cowardly Straw Hats all seemed to twitch. “Also, who the hell is Mr. 5?”

Yeah, somehow I hadn’t managed to pick up on how the Baroque Works agents were either assigned numbers or days for code names. So sue me.

Anyway, the night passed pretty quietly after story time with the Straw Hat Pirates, Usopp leading the way. I’d never been quite so excited to hear about a predatory Apatosaurus in my life—the Grand Line truly was grand if a prehistoric island like Little Garden could exist.


In the morning, Shukaku stopped a sandstorm dead before it could bury all of us like an airborne avalanche. Later in the afternoon, Luffy managed to run headlong into each and every one of the desert’s dangers about a second before Vivi remembered they existed. Including the giant purple lizards that might as well have been the native terrestrial versions of Sea Kings, while saving a sexist camel in the process.

We got a pretty good barbecue out of them. (But not the camel. Because we didn’t cook the camel.)

Except for the fact that the camel was totally superfluous after certain idiots remembered Shukaku was around and helping, it was a fairly productive morning. If there was some kind of guide to desert hazards, we could have used it as an amusing and worrying checklist. I would have made brand new entries for scorpion species for Rin’s sake.

The next day or so basically consisted of more riding around on Shukaku’s back, because Luffy got outvoted by his crew regarding new adventures at least for a little while. We mostly ended up watching Shukaku run roughshod over desert hazards like a jerk.

In the meantime, I whipped up more and more multipurpose seals, leaving explosions out of the equation because there was such a thing as tempting fate. I wouldn’t hand most of my bigger explosive seals off to other shinobi, and any safety protocols I had went double for random pirates who didn’t have the chakra resistance to survive a direct blast if something went wrong. But tracking seals, more storage seals, a half-dozen flashbangs, and a physical reinforcement seal (object edition) were probably safe enough to entrust to Gaara’s keeping.

We stopped on a rock formation (which was approximately number quintillion in this blasted desert) for a late breakfast on one of those stupidly long desert days. I would have written off the day as just another random one, if not for what happened during it.

Which was basically “All hail the Transformation Jutsu.”

Sanji really was a great chef to even be able to make anything edible out of the food we’d brought with us, not to mention all the desert animals that practically lined up to be someone’s dinner (by virtue of attacking us). But his flirting mode never got any less annoying.

So after about the fifth flowery fawning incident in a row, I stepped back from him and the rest of the Straw Hats in general, grumbled under my breath, and used the Transformation technique.

When the smoke cleared, I’d turned into a perfect copy of my younger brother.

While Hayate was a little taller than me, he still wore the Konoha jōnin outfit like I did when I was at home. It was a major contributor to each of us being mistaken for the other on alternating weekdays or missions. Aside from his more prominent cheekbones, stronger jaw, lack of a scar, the usual build differences between men and women, and entirely different hair tone and texture, we looked more like than not. That, and he’d grown his hair out in his early teens where I hadn’t.

“Still gonna flirt with me when I look like this?” I asked in my brother’s lower, raspier voice. Okay, so maybe I was a bit mean-spirited, but when vanishing or telling him to stop didn’t work, I could be petty.

Sanji’s cigarette fell out of his open mouth. “B-b-bwuh?”

Ace, per usual, was already howling with laughter while the rest of the Straw Hats had a collective “WHAAAAAAT?” moment.

Gaara looked between me and Sanji and said, “…Is this really that surprising? It’s just a Transformation.”

“WHAT KIND OF TECHNIQUE TURNS A BEAUTIFUL WOMAN INTO A MAN?!” was Sanji’s entirely-too-loud response.

Gaara blinked. “I just told you. Here, let me show you.”

He made the Dog, Boar, and Ram hand seals in a row, and in a puff of smoke there was a second Sanji in the clearing, though without his desert gear. Gaara-as-Sanji took in his mirror image for a moment, then shoved his hands into his pockets, chewing on a totally-nonexistent cigarette. “Stupid mosshead!”

“SO COOL!” Luffy shouted, looping his arms around Gaara-as-Sanji thrice as he latched onto his waist. “Hey, hey, do me next!”

Gaara-as-Sanji looked down scornfully at Luffy, then poofed back into being just Gaara. Still trapped in Luffy’s rubbery arms, he just sighed and started trying to push his way free with his sand.

“Awwww,” Luffy complained, while a hand made of sand tried shoving his face away. “But I wanna see you do another one!”

“It takes chakra to use it,” Gaara said, staring into Luffy’s puppy-dog expression with no visible sympathy. “So, no.”

Luffy pulled a terrible frown of utter disappointment. He looked like his birthday had been canceled. “Lazy!”

Ace, having sidled his way over to me, examined my transformation with a critical eye. “Is this someone you know?”

“My younger brother, Hayate,” I said, shrugging. “I’m not doing the cough, though the voice is mostly just a function of the technique.”

“You look a lot like him,” Vivi offered, since Gaara had already shut down the option of taking requests. She probably figured I wouldn’t either, and decided to be nice.

“Is he a swordsman?” asked Zoro, who seemed to have noticed the katana strapped across my form’s back.

I nodded. Then, before Zoro could press me for details, I poofed into a different shape.

“And who’s this one?” asked Nami. After the initial shock wore off, she was more curious than anything.

“My boyfriend,” I said, in Kakashi’s voice and form. I lifted a hand lazily, with the other occupied by a phantom book. “Yo.”

“This weirdo is your boyfriend?” was what Usopp asked, at the same time that Sanji burst out, “YOU HAVE A BOYFRIEND?!”

I made a show of looking up from my not-quite-existent romance novel, mimicking Kakashi’s mannerisms. “...Hm? Did you say something?”

“He’s so weird!” Luffy crowed, grinning. “Hey, Hei, can you turn into me next?”

I poofed back to normal. “No.”

“Stingy!”

Eventually, we did get around to finishing breakfast. Sanji looked kinda like he wanted to curl up in a ball and die for about ten seconds, at least until he snapped back into love mode, but this time aimed exclusively at Vivi and Nami. As was proper, since neither of them seemed to mind at all.

“So was that the boyfriend and brother you told Thatch about?” Ace asked, once we were digging into...what looked like paella. Not sure how Sanji managed to pull it off, but he had.

“Yep,” I replied, while Gaara picked around in his dish for any hint of chicken gizzards.

“Keisuke,” Gaara piped up, after having not found any buried treasure in his food, “your brother looks like someone who’s survived a puppeteer’s poison. Did something happen?”

Ah, right. That.

Er… “He did, but it was years ago,” I said, wondering how much Gaara knew. He was the Kazekage’s kid, so he’d have access to more information than most by default. “It’s why he coughs and why his voice sounds like that.”

And why you are never fully comfortable with Suna-nin.

It’s certainly a contributing factor…

Gaara leaned against me. “I’m sorry. It was my village, right?”

I shook my head. Sasori might’ve been born in Suna, but he’d been a deserter for years by the time my brother and his team smacked into him. “Nah, it was someone else. Don’t worry about it.”

Ace clearly spent a second or two debating how to break back into the conversation, but gave up instead of saying anything.

Gaara tugged my sleeve with his sand, so I looked down to find him staring up at me. “You’re leaving soon.”

“Yeah. Teach is still around, so we’ll hunt him down.” I closed my eyes briefly, then added, “You already have a mission to liberate Alabasta from ‘Sir’ Crocodile. Even if Striker could seat three people—and it can’t even really seat two—I can’t pull you off your mission and onto mine.”

“I don’t think you can give me orders at all.”

The kid did have a point. The only thing I had over him was Tailed Beast seniority. We weren’t even from the same village.

Gaara said, “Do you think I’ll find any of the others?”

Well, if Luffy had the main character ability to get into trouble the second the universe blinked… “Yeah. I think you might even have more luck than I will. They might even join your crew.”

“I hope so,” Gaara whispered.

Punch me in the heart why doncha? I rummaged around in my pockets until I found the correct paper seal, then handed it to him. “See this?”

“Yes,” he replied, stone-faced.

“This is a tracking seal.” I channeled my chakra into the last kanji-free spot on the paper—the back—and burned my name and my energy into it. Then I handed it to Gaara. “As long as you have this and channel chakra into it, you’ll be able to find me again, okay?”

His eyes widened minutely, then he tucked it away in his sand gourd with the other seals I’d given him. A second later, another one—this one unmarked—emerged from the sand and floated over to me. When it settled into my hand, Gaara’s chakra blazed its way into the seal and made it his.

“And now you can find me,” Gaara said seriously.

“Sounds good to me,” I said as I accepted the slip of paper and tucked it into my gear. “Sensor and all that. But until we get Tailed Beast Telepathy back, this is the best option.”

Gaara nodded solemnly. “We’ll see each other again. Maybe not soon, but we will.”

“So,” Ace broke in, having apparently found a better segue, “are you two going to hug or not?”

Gaara thought about it, while I didn’t move a muscle other than to breathe. Despite the sidelong hug we’d shared before, he was still the Kazekage’s son--

Gaara hugged me anyway. “I’ll miss you.”

“I’ll miss you, too,” I mumbled, resting my cheek against the top of his head. “I’ll save any wanted posters of yours I get, okay? That way I’ll know what you’re getting up to.”

“That goes against everything we learn as shinobi,” Gaara said, twisting in my hold so he could pin me with a stare.

“With this crew, I don’t think you’re going to have much choice,” I replied, smiling a bit. “Just stay safe.”


Ace and I took off around sunset or so, the same day. Not before final goodbyes, of course, but I’d already said mine. If I was being honest, we probably could have left earlier, but I wasn’t going to insist on it while someone else was taking care of Ace’s eating habits for me. There may not have been a restaurant within miles, but my paranoia insisted.

Oh, and I liked the Straw Hats. Leaving sucked.

“Hey, Luffy, take this,” Ace said, tossing his brother a folded piece of paper.

Luffy held it up and unfolded it, but apparently nothing was written on it. “Huh? What’s this for?”

“It’ll let us meet again. Don’t you want it?” Ace asked, his voice taking on a teasing tone.

“No, I do.” Luffy tucked it into the band of his hat for safekeeping. “I’ll keep it.”

Ace grinned. “Good. Hey, the next time we see each other, we’re both going to be great pirates.”

“Yeah, the best!”

I held up a hand. “Wait, hang on one second.” Both D brothers--since it was the only initial they had in common--turned their heads toward me. I jabbed a finger at the paper still barely visible in Luffy’s hat, then said, “What the hell was that?”

Ace’s expression was too blank to be genuine. “It’s a vivre card.”

“What’s a vivre card?” asked Luffy. His blank expression was probably real.

The name alone told me exactly nothing past my knowledge of Latin roots, to which the term “rusty” applied perfectly. I could feel another headache coming on. “And what can it be used for?”

“It’ll help Luffy and me meet up again in the future,” Ace replied, definitely screwing with me at that point. When I glared at him, he went on, “It’s a type of New World paper. Instead of a Log Pose, Luffy can just follow it when he wants to find me. Since I only have the one, it’ll always lead back to me.”

“So it’s like the seal I gave Gaara,” I said flatly. And I’d gone to so much trouble to make tracking seals—and seals in general. I pinched the bridge of my nose against the new headache. “Is this some kind of payback for the paper thing?”

“Yep!”

Jackass. Couldn’t say I hadn’t asked for it, though.

“I’ll be sure to keep it safe,” Luffy called out as we turned to leave.

Ace gave his brother a thumbs-up as we walked off into the sunset. For about four seconds—there was something to be said for how fast both of us could move if we actually wanted to. There may have been a bit of ricocheting off of the sandstone formations nearby, just to have fun with it.

As Ace and I left the Straw Hats behind, I thought, Isobu? We’re done here.

Good. Having you out of sight for so long is…agitating. Do you want me to summon you back? Gotta love space-time manipulation.

Just a second. “Just so you know, that little stunt means war.”

Ace laughed. “Bring it!”

Now, we probably could have kept arguing for a while after that, talking our way around what exact kind of weird tracking device we’d given our younger counterparts. Or challenging each other to do something ill-advised. I hadn’t been able to talk freely even with Gaara, because I wasn’t sure how much we were supposed to be hiding from them about Teach. Self-imposed missions sucked like that.

And then Isobu got impatient.

You two are taking too long.  I stopped smiling.

You’ve been hanging out with Shukaku too long, I said, but prepared for what was about to happen regardless of my particular sticking points. Given how the Reverse Summoning worked, I had to either be holding on to what I wanted to take with me, or it certainly wouldn’t come along. That included people. And as much as I was sure this was going to be a bit unpleasant, trekking the entire way back to the Straw Hats’ landing zone was a massive waste of time.

I grabbed Ace’s less-adorned wrist and said, “Hang on.”

The world inverted, spinning as we were hauled through space-time by Isobu’s chakra. I should have warned Ace to close his eyes because of how disorienting traveling like that could be, but I didn’t remember in time.

I landed approximately upright, one knee down on the rocks. Letting go of Ace’s arm, I shook myself practically down to my bones with a gentle chakra pulse to clear my senses. Presumably, the more often I got summoned the more used to it I would become, but I had even more respect for Tsuruya in that moment than I had before. Anyone willing to enter a summoning contract had to have a stomach of cast iron.

Speaking of strong stomachs, when I looked up Ace had gone slightly green. Sitting on the edge of the particular chunk of beach rock, just next to Isobu’s massive thumb, he had his hand over his mouth and his eyes squeezed shut.

Motion sickness or chakra-derived sickness? I couldn’t exactly use a diagnostic technique to check without potentially making things worse, so I dug through my pack and produced a jar of crystallized ginger I’d bought as a precaution. Pulling all of my chakra as far back into my skin as possible also seemed like a good idea.

“Ace, here,” I said as I nudged the container in his direction.

He snatched up the container without looking and upended it into his mouth. At least he remembered not to eat the lid, instead flinging it back into my hand.

Uh, okay then.

“Try not to choke?” It wasn’t like I got seasick, I supposed. Keeping my eyes open during general transit, even if I didn’t actually steer Striker or Isobu at all, generally helped.

Ace swallowed, and thankfully he didn’t react much to the late-start spicy component of the ginger. Rhizomes were tricky like that. Hand on his stomach, he looked up at me and grimaced. “Ugh. What just happened?”

I did,” Isobu whispered, so as not to kill our ears.

“Well, at least someone is responsi—wait, when did we get back here?” Ace changed direction mid-sentence, looking first up at Isobu and then at the cohort of Kung Fu Dugongs who were giving us a collective funny look. The Going Merry sat under guard behind them and next to Isobu, and I swore the ship was mimicking the dugongs.

A little more annoyed this time, Isobu said, “What did I just say?

Flame licked Ace’s ears as I clapped my hands over mine. Undeterred, my traveling buddy called up to Isobu, “That doesn’t explain the how.”

“It’s a thing Isobu and I can do.” I reached up and patted the lowest of Isobu’s chin spikes, though for all I knew he couldn’t feel it. “We call it summoning. This way, Isobu and I can never lose each other.”

“And you had to pull me along for the ride?” Ace asked, still looking a bit worse for wear.

He didn’t look so ill that he’d vomit, but I needed to limit the chakra usage around him. To avoid further contamination, maybe I needed to stick with Isobu for a while. My only sample of people directly affected by chakra attacks was Teach, and he’d run the fuck away before I could establish what the exact effects were. It wasn’t science until I had results to record.

“Well, it was that or leave you in the middle of Alabasta,” I said. “Sorry about the rough landing, though.”

“Pretty sure I’ve had worse,” Ace said, waving a hand. “Don’t worry that much about it.”

My eyebrows knit together. “...You’ve had worse than being bodily dragged through space-time by a giant turtle monster?”

Giant crab-turtle monster with three tails, thank you very much.

Ace side-eyed Isobu for making him shift his eardrums into fire for the third time in a single conversation, then shrugged. “Let me tell you about all the times I tried to kill Pops when I first joined up. That was a lot worse.”

Eh? “You tried to kill Captain Whitebeard?”

“Yep. A hundred days, a hundred attempts, and a hundred losses.” Why did Ace look so proud of that?

…I supposed he could get points for persistence.

So Captain Whitebeard really was as tough as he’d seemed, and Ace was stubborn enough to give a bull second thoughts. It also answered my lingering question about whether or not the Whitebeards made a habit of recruiting weird people like me. It was like they’d taken the other world’s Naruto’s friend-making strategy and scaled it up a notch or twelve.

Still, I said, “It might be best if I stick to riding with Isobu for now. I’m almost convinced that the energy I use to do things—that we both use—is poisonous to you.”

“I’m not exactly made of glass,” Ace argued, probably more out of reflex than anything. “Isobu doesn’t use haki or produce sea prism stone. I’ll be fine.”

Just because Isobu and I weren’t known weaknesses of Devil Fruit users didn’t mean that we couldn’t hurt them anyway. Being a Logia may have given Ace blanket immunity to blunt or piercing force that didn’t utilize either of the two factors he’d named, but chakra didn’t behave like either one. I had a budding hypothesis that chakra would, in the bodies of unmodified humans, act more like radiation. Far more insidious.

Ace might’ve been the person most exposed to our energy short of Teach, but frankly I cared a lot more about his health than I did about getting the sea breeze in my face. With that in mind, I hauled myself up Isobu’s chin and into the fork between two of his spikes and prepared to put myself in time out. “Isobu and I will check in with you in a while.”

Ace crossed his arms. “There really is no arguing with you…”

Not with someone else’s welfare in mind, no. “See you in a bit.”

And I disappeared into Isobu’s mouth as we set out for the next leg of our journey.

Chapter Text

It took maybe a day or two before I was satisfied with Ace’s claim that he was fine. I rode mostly on Isobu’s head during the long open-sea says when Ace zoomed up and down random waves on Striker, keeping a mostly superfluous lookout for (other) pirates and occasionally getting shouted history lessons from Ace when he came across yet another thing I didn’t know about.

He wasn’t any good at it, even after I was riding sidesaddle on Striker again and didn’t have waves whisking his voice away.

For one thing, he got distracted.

“Seriously, your family name is Gekkō? Man, if you’d seen the wanted posters for Moriah when they were around…”

“I think I’ll save myself the trauma,” I told him, shaking my head. “That kind of random coincidence is why I don’t use my whole name.”

“Gekkō Keisuke—okay, are you sure your old man didn’t look anything like—”

“Ace, I don’t want to know.” I also didn’t need to see his face to tell that he was grinning like a complete shithead about it.

“What about—”

No.

Even when he had information to share, enough of it was disturbing or horrifying or just plain worrying that I sometimes didn’t want to hear the rest.

Like, for example, learning that slavery had been illegal for three hundred years and then getting the clarification that those kinds of rules applied only to ordinary people. The Celestial Dragons—fishbowl-wearing bastards that they were—could do whatever they wanted and never face consequences. And that meant absolutely anything. The way Ace described it, they could kill whoever they wanted to and for any reason they cared to name, and the Marines would clap politely as they stood by.

The old anger in Ace’s tone and eyes kept me from asking for details. He didn’t have to say anything to communicate that he’d lost someone to that kind of utter injustice.

Instead, I decided to reciprocate with a little information of my own. It ended up probably being about as comprehensible to Ace as his anecdotes were to me.

But first, we got distracted again.

“Actually, there’s another reason why I don’t introduce myself by my whole name,” I said, more or less after the previous conversation had a chance to sink in. “But it’s kind of a…cultural holdover.”

Ace made a neutral noise, probably not listening all that much. “How so?”

“Keeping in mind that these are from my history lessons, mostly,” I cautioned. “And it’s been almost twenty years since my last cram session.”

“You actually learned history?” Ace asked. When I made a noise that amounted to a nonverbal “duh,” he explained, “Basically no one out here does, not with the way the World Government keeps rewriting things.”

“I…well, that’s a bit depressing,” I replied, hesitant.

“I guess.” Ace shrugged. “Also, twenty years?”

There was something in his tone that made me think he was avoiding asking a certain question. Not like I cared, though. “I’m twenty-six, Ace.” Then I calculated how many months I’d spent in this ocean of mysteries and horrible, horrible things, and corrected myself, “Or maybe twenty-seven. It’s been almost five months by now, right?”

There was a pause. Then, “…We missed your birthday?”

I blinked. “Probably? I don’t know what day it is now, but my birthday’s the tenth of July.”

Ace groaned aloud. “Thatch is going to be frantic. He has lists of birthdays, favorite foods…”

Did Thatch even know how to make mochi? Well, I could—no, I needed to stay on topic. “I can tell Thatch about it the next time we find a snail. But can we get back on topic?”

“Do you promise you’ll be the one to tell him?” Ace demanded.

“Uh, yes,” I said, surprised by his vehemence.

“Good.” Then Ace let it go. “Okay, what were you saying?”

It was…going to be messy. If anything, it was probably for the best that I knew so little, relatively speaking. “Like I was saying before, most of the people I know don’t use their family names in casual conversation because of the Clan Wars. Actually, a lot of people only have them in paperwork and don’t use them at all.”

Like Tsunade. She could use her grandfather’s clan name if she so chose, but had apparently decided against it. Maybe she thought the Senju clan legacy would be better left to the village, not to any designated heir. I’d never asked, and I was still worried I’d never get the chance to do so.

“I take it the name pretty much explains what happened.” Ace looked back over his shoulder, his expression shadowed. Still, he remembered he was supposed to be steering Striker and corrected his course before we wandered too far into strange currents.

“Yeah. I mean,” I corrected myself automatically, “I wouldn’t know—no one in my family participated from what I remember—but if you shared your clan name with the wrong other clan, it meant certain death.” The Uesugi clan may have had some members old enough to remember the conflict, but the Gekkō family hadn’t participated except probably as money-laden targets. “Decades later, and it’s still hard to break the habit.”

“So, if, say, the Portgas clan pissed off the Gekkō clan or something…” Ace trailed off, more uncertain than I’d heard from him in ages.

“Assuming we were in the bad old days, it wouldn’t end well.” I sighed as I dredged up the most infamous example I could think of. “The big clans, like the Uchiha and the Senju, had a blood feud so bad they were killing each other’s kids.” I leaned against the mast, frowning. “The thing is, they were all mercenaries who changed employers all the time. I guess someone killed someone else on a job once, and after generations it got personal.”

“You don’t say,” was all Ace said in response.

I shifted my gaze to Ace’s back, chewing the inside of my lip as I thought. While I knew he was one of Whitebeard’s commanders—effectively second mate on a crew that large—I didn’t know all that much about him as far as his personal history went. Of course, that did go both ways. Even when it came to the stories I told Thatch, I hadn’t elaborated on my personal history to anyone.

Looking out to sea, I’d just squandered a shot at a heart-to-heart moment without knowing it had even passed until too late.

I didn’t say I had more depths to sink to just because my self-esteem was low. Shinobi around my age and older were all weapons quenched in blood.

“What can you tell me about the next island?” I asked, changing the subject somewhat clumsily.

Ace was about to answer, but Isobu surfaced just to the left of us. In the roar of displaced air and waves brutally splattered by his immense mass, I doubt I could have heard any reply.

“Got something to say?!” Ace demanded of Isobu, nearly at the top of his lungs.

In fact, I do.” Isobu surged forward until his head was nearly even with Striker, then continued, “The next island is where we will find Matatabi and her host.

“That’s Nii Yugito,” I said, completing the thought. A gusty sigh ripped its way out of me. “Dammit.”

“Is this another clan thing?” Ace asked over his shoulder.

Oh, I wished. The only clan enemies I’d ever made were at least polite about disliking me. “No, this is a village thing. Yugito’s village and mine are really unfriendly.”

“Define ‘unfriendly’ for me real quick,” Ace suggested.

I grimaced. I could give two or three reasons, but the one that came to mind easiest was, “They tried to kidnap a three-year-old clan heiress with a diplomat acting as a spy. We’ve been glaring at each other’s borders ever since.”

And that didn’t even get into the “fun” parts of my history class, like when we’d covered how the Second Hokage got killed stalling out Kumo’s Kinkaku Force after they’d already murdered the Second Raikage in a coup. Or the fact that Sensei had fought both A and Killer B during the Third Shinobi World War, repeatedly. Or that my father had been killed when I was eight by a combined border raid by Kumo and Iwa forces.

In hindsight, I’d had a lot of reasons to dislike Kumogakure before ever bringing the Hyūga incident into consideration.

And if I remember correctly, you are one of the people responsible for that diplomat being summarily executed for espionage.

Kakashi is the one who got him. I’d been busy trying and failing to recover from my hellish year of constant missions. But I’d at least remembered to forewarn Sensei about that diplomatic shitstorm before it happened.

“Only kidnap?” Ace craned his neck a bit to look back at me. “Because the look on your face says it was a hell of a lot more than that.”

To say the least. My frown deepened.

“Clans can have…special abilities passed down through bloodlines,” I admitted, still sickened all these years later. Even if I hadn’t met someone who’d been the victim of bloodline theft, Kumogakure’s plots had a theme going. So did Orochimaru’s. “And it’s not the first time someone’s tried to target that clan because of theirs.”

Ace paled under his tan. “That―that’s sick. And this new whoever-the-hell is from that village? What kind of hellhole world do you come from?”

My answering smile was as bleak as they came. “Exactly.”

Not that it couldn’t be worse. Or that it hadn’t been. The Clan Wars were the Bad Old Days even compared to this kind of thing.

“Fucking hell…” Ace shook his head slowly. “Celestial Dragons all over again…”

I made the decision then and there not to tell him about my experiences in the Third Shinobi World War. He didn’t need to hear it. Or about how old I’d been when it all went down. Even if Ace was a pirate, and a successful one, he didn’t need that kind of knowledge sinking into his brain like a slow knife.

I changed the subject as abruptly as I could manage. “Ace, what do we know about the island itself?”

“Oh, I was gonna say it’s a Spring Island,” Ace replied, somewhat distracted, and I didn’t know what that meant. Spring where? What was the date anyway? “It’s basically like Jaya, but without a Mock Town stuck on it.”

“I understood about half of those words without context,” I told him.

“Oh, and with a big spiky mountain that looks like a lightning rod,” Ace went on, without apparently hearing me. “And tornadoes.”

I dragged my hand over my face. “Stop talking.”

“Fighting there will be fun,” Ace said, cracking his knuckles.

“Ace, no. If it comes to a fight, you shouldn’t take Yugito or Matatabi on,” I said somewhat frantically.

“Might wanna give me a reason,” Ace said, with a dangerous edge to his voice. “You don’t look much like Pops.”

And this entire venture proved just how willing he was to listen even to Whitebeard if his pride got a say. For fuck’s sake, even if he was bored there were better targets than a jinchūriki who’d been in the game for as long as Yugito had. There was an entire ocean full of better targets.

My sister is a massive two-tailed cat made of blue fire,” Isobu told him. “Your powers will be at the same disadvantage as those of any other human who has ever tried to use her greatest strength against her.

“And Yugito’s been training to fight other humans since she was about six years old.” So had I, in fact, but it didn’t seem like something that I needed to mention. Instead, I said, “If you jump in, Matatabi might feel like she should intervene. And so far, my plan is to have Isobu keep her out of it.”

Besides that, Matatabi was the only other genjutsu-type Tailed Beast I was aware of. If she was anything like Isobu, and Ace was still as vulnerable to genjutsu manipulation as the scarecrow incident proved, then this entire situation was a clusterfuck waiting to happen if I couldn’t control who went where. If I could, then I was hoping Yugito’s reliance on Fire Release would get me as much of an advantage as I needed to eke out a win.

And, well, I didn’t want Ace to get hurt in what was probably just a grudge match between Yugito and little ol’ me. I was still a softie at heart.

“I can handle myself just fine,” Ace replied, totally undeterred.

…I was gonna have to cuff him to his boat to keep him out of a fight, wasn’t I? And that probably wouldn’t even work because I knew Ace had the strength to physically lift Striker and the kind of firepower that made him a bit too used to being able to blast seagoing opponents to pieces.

“Ace, this is my fight. I’m the one who has history with her.” Sort of. Yugito and I had never actually met, and I hadn’t directly fought Kumo-nin in ages. But I was scrambling for any kind of excuse to keep everyone else out of Yugito’s firing line.

But maybe I’d used that argument one too many times. “Are you gonna stay out of my fight with Teach?”

“That’s different,” I protested. Because I didn’t care if I poisoned or burned Teach to death a dozen times over. He’d damn well earned his fate for attacking Thatch.

“Not from where I’m standing,” Ace replied. He craned his neck a bit to look back at me again, and if that wasn’t a shit-eating grin I’d eat my paintbrush. God damn Whitebeard Pirate loyalty. “Did you really think I was just letting you come along on this trip because I wanted to play navigator? It sounds to me like this Yugito needs to learn a few lessons the hard way.”

“Yugito may or may not be guilty of a lot of things,” I argued, “but I can’t blame her for what her village does.” I could hardly believe what I was saying. “Politics is a reason to keep my guard up, not to attack her.”

Though she’d probably attack me. While the thought had occurred only belatedly, I was still pretty sure that my “kill on sight” order was active in Kumogakure. “Flee on sight” only applied to Iwa.

Shit.

…I can accept your interference, for now,” Isobu told him, golden eye glowing against the waves. “But if Kei or I judge the situation as too dangerous, we will remove you.

Ace, if he had been slightly less mature, might’ve decided to shake his fist at Isobu. As it was, I was fairly certain he just rolled his eyes, because Isobu certainly did.

I subsided with a grumble, somewhat secure in the knowledge that Isobu could stop Ace from doing something reckless.

Hopefully.


It took us a couple of days to reach the weather disaster known as Corkscrew Island. According to Ace, it was pretty much uninhabited, and I didn’t have to observe for long to see why. While the island’s central volcano-like structure rose high enough to stab the clouds, a very fat funnel cloud launched a reciprocal strike downward, and sucked up sand, water, and trees on the opposite end of the island. While Isobu bobbed in the sheltered bay, Ace and I rode Striker into what might as well have been meteorological hell.

“Well, at least she has enough sense to avoid the tornado,” I said when we landed. In fact, I could sense Yugito barely fifty meters straight ahead, somewhere in the forest that wasn’t being smacked around by thunderheads or their children.

“Not seeing a giant killer pussycat,” Ace said, holding his hat down in the face of the wind whipping across the island.

“Not yet you’re not,” I told him. Matatabi was roaming the side of the island with the murderous clouds. I hadn’t expected to find them that far apart, but I didn’t know that much about how they operated. “She’ll make her way over here when Yugito sees us.”

Ace made a vague noise of acknowledgement. Then, “What’s the strategy?”

“If Yugito decides to hit me in melee? Don’t be there.” Aside from Matatabi’s flames and Yugito’s general cat tendencies, I didn’t have that much information about how she fought. I wouldn’t have been at all surprised to learn that she grew claws like Naruto and Kushina did in initial jinchūriki mode, gained night vision, or had terrifyingly quick reflexes.

“Helpful,” Ace commented dryly. “What am I supposed to do if it turns out all she wants is a giant yarn ball?”

“Don’t say that to her face,” I said sharply. Sure, I was making assumptions that Yugito would want to kill me, but as far as I knew the only non-Konoha jinchūriki who wasn’t hostile toward me was the one we’d already met. Argh. “Ace, I don’t want you getting caught in the crossfire.”

“Let me worry about that.”

Ace didn’t have a grasp on my personality if that was his response.

I sighed mentally and waved Ace away. When he’d backed up enough that I was sure I wouldn’t catch him in the backwash, I drew Isobu’s chakra up through my coils and directed a concentrated burst in Yugito’s direction. There wasn’t much actual intent behind it—it was just that non-sensors couldn’t always tell when another shinobi wanted their attention.

Yugito started heading in our direction, drawing her entirely human chakra as though it was a bow and she had a shot lined up at my head. I tensed, but didn’t move.

Matatabi is aware of our presence. I will go meet her.

Well, hopefully they wouldn’t flatten the island. Isobu had a better relationship with the other Tailed Beasts than I did with most of my fellow jinchūriki, at least.

The woman who emerged from the tree line, at least at first, did not look anything like the Bingo Book picture I remembered.

The Yugito I generally expected was a very composed, put-together kunoichi who knew her power and was confident in both her strength and that of her comrades. As much as I had a problem with her village’s interactions with mine, it was tempered by the knowledge that she was basically a model soldier and couldn’t have logically had anything to do with most of Kumo’s more notorious operations until relatively recently. Hidan and Kakuzu and Akatsuki might’ve killed her in one world, but the Yugito of my timeline was alive and well.

The Yugito in front of me was more like a feral cat. I had enough time to take in her ragged Kumo uniform, loose, tangled hair, and faintly wild eyes before she rushed me.

I caught her opening roundhouse kick on the back of one arm, using the other to brace against the impact. We still skidded backward along the sand, but neither of us was hurt.

“So you’re the first human I see in months in his hellhole,” Yugito hissed, bouncing off me and landing in a crouch. She crossed her arms so that her hands hovered by her shoulders, fingertips gathering chakra.

“Sorry to disappoint you,” I said, resting my hand against the hilt of my katana. My chakra collected mainly in my right hand, ready to channel into my weapon at a moment’s notice.

“So great to be noticed,” Ace grumbled.

Yugito’s slanted eyes slid slowly sideways, taking note of Ace’s presence but otherwise dismissing him as a concern. When they focused on me, I wasn’t quite sure what sensation permeated her chakra most—rage or despair.

“If there’s one thing I can still do, it’s fight,” Yugito said, apparently mostly to herself. Still, I didn’t let my guard down, and she obliged my worse suspicions by extending her fingernails out to the length of a wakizashi. Each.

I slid my katana very slightly out of its sheath. If I could just get her to attack first… “How much saltwater have you been drinking?”

“That’s enough out of you, Tidal Blade!” And Yugito whirled into motion, displaying the kind of flexibility I’d last seen in Raidō and Genma’s cats.

Crap. Here we go.

The next few seconds were a blur. Though my kenjutsu would be effective against Yugito’s claws despite her jutsu’s reinforcing effect, I relied on drawing my sword directly from the sheath to put an end to fights of this level quickly. And she did not want me to get an attack off.

I ducked and dodged at maximum speed as Yugito’s strikes ripped up huge chunks of the beach with every missed blow. With every movement, I led us farther and farther into the island proper and toward our Tailed Beast partners.

I drew my blade halfway out to block one of her slashes, catching her claws on chakra-reinforced steel, and drove my knee into her stomach hard enough to almost fold her in half. With no Tailed Beast chakra enhancing her stamina or recovery rate, Yugito doubled over coughing once she hit the ground.

“I’m starting to think I got lucky,” I muttered as I slid back into my starting stance, warily watching Yugito push herself back up onto her hands and knees as her claws retracted.

“How so?” Ace asked from his perch atop a nearby rock. When I glanced at him, he was, in fact, almost literally perched like a bird, and his hands were occupied by a fish on a stick. The fact that the fish was the size of an adult Bluefin tuna meant nothing, apparently.

Returning my gaze to Yugito, I said, “You Whitebeard Pirates picked me up after a day. Yugito’s been here for months, and I’d bet my bottom beri that Matatabi hates water too much to help her swim off this island.”

“So you think she’d be friendly if she didn’t get stuck here,” Ace said, gesturing with the fish—and how was half of it already gone?

“Maybe,” I muttered, returning my attention to Yugito. I didn’t know enough about Yugito’s actual personality to be sure. For all I knew, she’d just act on her village’s policy, and that’d be the end of that.

Are you besmirching my sister’s character?

I have no idea. Am I right?

Perhaps partly, Isobu allowed. Still, Matatabi is working on her partner.

I lifted my hands and cupped them around my mouth to imitate a megaphone. “Yugito, I just wanted to talk!”

“Oh that’s rich, coming from you,” Yugito wheezed, but she was up again and with her nails short, she could make hand seals. Crap. “Or am I talking to a different Gekkō Keisuke?”

This is why I say you make terrible first impressions.

“No, you’ve…you’ve got the right kunoichi,” I admitted, lowering my hands. “But I still don’t want to fight you.”

Yugito’s response was to exhale a fireball the size of a building right at me. Ace and I tore off across the beach in different directions, but my return shot would be a fair bit nastier as far as potential damage could go. Once I was sure Ace was behind me and well out of the way, I blurred through my hand seal sequence and let loose.

Water Release: Great Waterfall Technique. Drawing strength from both the nearby sea and the water in the clouds, a massive spiraling vortex—really more of a waterspout turned on its side—blasted across the beach and engulfed Yugito’s fireball with the power of elemental rock-paper-scissors.

I dropped my hands before the jutsu had fully worn itself out and threw myself into the current. Rocketing across the beach in a truly improvised chakra cloak, I slammed into Yugito at a force I could stand, but one her baseline self couldn’t.

Once again, Yugito hit the beach with a bone-shaking thud and rolled to recover. She finally came back to her feet when she hit the edge of the water, her chest heaving against the pain and the impact.

“Not so tough, is she?” Ace asked, from somewhere over my shoulder. I glanced at him, watching the flames lick over his forearms even as he continued to eat the giant fish.

“Not now, no,” I said quietly, as Yugito swayed on her feet. “She’s been out here alone for too long. She doesn’t have the chakra to keep this up.”

“…Is that anything like stamina? Because that’s what it sounds like.” Ace hoisted the giant fish over his shoulder, taking a brief break from eating.

“More or less.” And if Yugito kept this up, she could kill herself. Her chakra was so low that I was half-amazed she was still conscious.

“Do you think this is a joke?” Yugito snarled, once her eyes focused on me again. I squared my stance automatically at her tone, sword clear of my leg in case I needed to very quickly figure out how to break her nails with kenjutsu.

“No, of course I don’t—” And that was as far as I got.

"You are the Tidal Blade,” Yugito cut across me, heaving herself into an upright position. She was already starting to make hand signs. “The most monstrous sword-wielding freak to ever step foot out of that ridiculous village of yours. ‘Kill on sight’ in Kumo. ‘Flee on sight’ in Iwa! AND YOU SAY YOU WON'T FIGHT ME?!"

There was a brief pause, in which I could almost feel Ace edging away from me the more I failed to deny any of Yugito’s words.

“Are you sure you’re talking about this Kei?” Ace asked, though perhaps from a little farther away than before. “Because, well, she kinda reacted to a guy flirting with her by running away.”

Or not.

I smacked myself in the face with my free hand. “Not helping.”

At that point, Yugito had enough. She completed her hand seal sequence, taking a deep breath—

I only needed one seal, and I formed the jutsu right around me like a shell. Water Release: Water Dragon Bullet.

I hit Yugito before her fireball got all the way out, punching through the heat and the flame to tackle her full-force. The two of us bounced across the sand until we hit the water, skipping across the initial wave before they closed over our heads.

Both of us surfaced a second later, sputtering.

“Cool your head yet?” I asked Yugito, since I recovered from saltwater faster than any human ought to. I shook my head rapidly, like a dog, and it stuck to my face in an epic mess I’d regret later. I did own a comb, after all.

Yugito, with her unbound blonde hair pasted flat to her face by seawater, scowled in my general direction.

I hastily hopped out of the water, sword still drawn. Yugito would have taken a swipe at me if she’d remembered to grow her claws out. Or had enough chakra for it.

As I waited for Yugito to decide whether or not she still had enough chakra left in her to kill me, I looked around.

While we’d made a wreck of the beach and probably reshaped part of the forest, it wasn’t anything the local weather patterns hadn’t already done. The rock Ace had been sitting on earlier was upside-down, but since nothing was on fire, I was going to assume that I hadn’t managed to kill him by accident. As Yugito stood on wobbling legs and I made it back to the sand that was left, I debated shouting Ace’s name even though the island’s winds would carry my voice away.

Glancing at Yugito again, I stepped back as she approached the beach once more, eyes locked on me.

I didn’t want to kill her. But she didn’t seem to want to give me a choice.

Thankfully, I was saved by “divine” intervention.

Are you two finished already?” Isobu’s voice called out, and both of us automatically looked toward the water again as a rather interesting group rounded the curve in the bay, close to shore.

Isobu sat with all his tails submerged, seeming more amused than anything at the squabble between Yugito and me. On his head, Ace sat with yet another massive Bluefin-sized fish gnawed down to half its mass. And on his back with all four paws as far from the sea as physically possible, an arched back, and two tails nearly vertical, was Matatabi.

But not for long.

Yugito dear, did you get into trouble with Isobu’s friend?” Matatabi asked, while she hopped over to the beach from Isobu’s back. She carefully avoided the sea as she moved, reaching Yugito and I in two graceful leaps. Steam hissed off the sand where she stepped.

Yugito raised a shaking hand, pointing her index claw right at my heart. “It’s the Tidal Blade, Matatabi! She can’t be trusted!”

What do I care about your petty human squabbles?” Matatabi shot back, her paws coming to rest on either side of Yugito and knocking her partner back onto the sand. “My brother and I are not going to allow either of you to kill the other. You are both too important to waste your lives like this when there are no shinobi here.

Ace made the long leap to the beach next by transforming into fire at the apex of the jump, landing next to me as though nothing had happened. With the fish.

Or…perhaps not?” Matatabi tilted her huge head to one side. “Young human, was that a normal technique for your kind?

“The name’s Portgas D. Ace,” he replied, bowing to the giant cat made of his preferred element. “At your service!”

How polite! See, Yugito dear, you should be more like this young man,” Matatabi said in an approving tone.

That is a bad piece of advice,” Isobu put in, finally reaching us. He’d moved slowly out of deference to Matatabi’s water sensitivity, but I still relaxed even though he’d been close enough to help the entire time. “He is not nearly so polite when you know him.

Ace rolled his eyes, though I wasn’t sure the Tailed Beasts could see the gesture. “To answer your question, turning into fire is something only I can do. It’s not common at all.”

And Logias as a category were already rare for Devil Fruits.  

With Matatabi, Isobu, and Ace all involved in their conversation, I sidled over to Yugito. She appeared to be in shock, staring up at her partner’s total refusal to fight in disbelief.

“Cat got your tongue?” I teased, because there was never a time worse for puns that I couldn’t worsen.

Yugito swiped at me with her nails, but missed because she forgot to grow them out first. Upon realizing that she was out of chakra, she just growled, “Oh, shut up!”

“It’s okay, you know,” I said, as I finally relaxed enough to upend my katana’s sheath, shaking out the water trapped in it. “A lot of people try to kill me the second they recognize me.”

Yugito shook her hair fully out of her face, dislodging some of the salt and sand but not enough to appear graceful. With her gaze clearer than it had been before, she looked up at me with the perfect mix of exasperation and disbelief. “What the hell is going on?”

“It’s a whole new world out here. And the rules are a lot different than what we’re used to,” I admitted. I still offered Yugito a hand up as soon as I sheathed my katana. My right hand, specifically, with two fingers extended.

“You’re…still willing to help me,” Yugito said, still skeptical although she undoubtedly recognized the gesture. Her eyes narrowed. “Why?”

“There aren’t any Hidden Villages out here, so we’re on our own. And I don’t think we have to be enemies when we have so much in common,” I told her, powering down from using Isobu’s chakra. Not a subtle hint at all. “I’m Gekkō Keisuke, partner to Isobu and jōnin of Konohagakure.”

“Nii Yugito,” she replied, still regarding my hand a bit warily. “Jōnin of Kumogakure, and partner to Matatabi.”

“Well, it only says good things about you that she actually told you her name,” I commented. From what I knew of people, they tended not to ask about the giant monster’s name before trying to run or kill it. Even though Yugito had been a child at the time Matatabi had been sealed into her, I’d still worried.

“Oh?” And at that point Yugito took my hand to complete the Seal of Reconciliation, and our wrists lit up like I had come to expect. Going by Yugito’s surprised yelp, she had not.

YOU HAVE FOUND THE SECOND.

ASSEMBLE THE NINE.

When the light show was over, I added rather cheerily, “But if you’d tried to kill Ace, I probably would’ve kicked the hell out of you.”

“You mean the man who was with you. And who is currently occupying both of our partners.” Yugito blinked slowly, then scanned our battlefield. As she did so, her eyes turned from jet-black like mine to an odd-eyed look that matched Matatabi’s.

Speaking of Matatabi, I remembered her reaction to seawater well. It just looked hilarious coming from such a large creature. Even now, she was sitting above the high tide line as she chatted with Ace, where Yugito had already pre-scorched the landscape.

I hid my mouth from their view with my hand and whispered to Yugito, “By the way, did anyone ever teach Matatabi how to walk on water?”

“Do you really think it would help?” Yugito whispered back, deeply sardonic.

Given Matatabi’s size, elemental affinity, and age…no. But all the same, I said, “It couldn’t hurt to try.”

Yugito sighed. Then she flexed her fingers experimentally, blinking as her nails extended again despite her exhaustion. “Matatabi’s chakra…?”

“Oh, right, you should be able to access that now,” I remembered belatedly. When Yugito gave me a deeply suspicious look, I asked, “Did you get a horrible dream that kept telling you to ‘assemble the nine’ like I did? And maybe another flash a second ago?”

Yugito frowned. “I did, but I assumed it was merely an implanted genjutsu command. If a stubborn one.”

“…That probably isn’t wrong. But if you do meet up with another jinchūriki, you should get bits of your power and bond with Matatabi back at a time,” I said, holding up my right wrist so Yugito could inspect the Wristband of Doom.

“You have three kanji,” Yugito said, and then held her hand out so we could compare. “I only have mine and now yours.”

Dammit. “Well, that proves my theory wrong,” I muttered, annoyance alone trying to give me a pounding headache. Without waiting for a prompt from Yugito, I went on, “I was hoping I wouldn’t have to meet all the others in person to get power back, but I guess I do.”

“And that applies to all of us,” Yugito said flatly, pinching the bridge of her nose. “Damn.

And at that point, we went to rejoin the conversation with the other three. It was better than just standing around awkwardly.

“So is the catfight over?” Ace asked, still eating the giant fish. He shut up for a second when he swallowed, but then the next thing he said was, “I missed half of it, but at least I have a snack.”

Yugito bristled. Even her soaking-wet hair seemed to try to stand up. “You—”

The mental arithmetic sorted itself out depressingly quickly. “Ace, you’re eating her food.”

Ace burst into flames as Yugito lunged through him, dropping the fish into the sand. She shook herself a bit, but landing in water mitigated the immediate effects of leaping through flames in the form of a man, and Matatabi’s chakra took care of the rest. Thus recovered, she spun on the spot and chased the serial dine-and-dasher up the beach without even apparently acknowledging the weirdness of a guy turning into fire.

Then again, she grew up with Matatabi.

Speaking of the giant fire-cat, she sat down directly in the middle of the long-wrecked beach and wrapped both of her tails around her feet. “Yugito, do be careful.

She is perfectly fine. Ace is our human navigator.” Isobu didn’t say that Ace wouldn’t hurt her, but really, this reminded me of a scene set to “Yakety Sax” more than anything.

Oh? Then he sounds quite useful to keep around. Tell me, do you think we will able to find all of our brothers and sister if we travel the sea?” Matatabi shuddered, her fiery coat fluffing up. “Because while I am not…comfortable with water, I am starting to see that traveling across it may be necessary.

We already found Shukaku despite his problems with water,” Isobu replied, his voice as dry as dust. “You need to start thinking of ways around this discomfort if we are to travel together, because I cannot carry you all across this ocean and keep you dry.

I am sure we will muddle along somehow,” Matatabi suggested hopefully, while Isobu sighed.

I guess that means we’re taking Yugito with us. I continued to watch both Ace and Yugito set the beach on fire, with the only real difference being whether I could pick up chakra from a particular spot or not. A significant factor to be sure, but not one that really made a difference to what little wildlife could survive on this island. My only question is how we’re going to get Matatabi out of here willingly.

I also do not think that Yugito will fit on the small boat you have been using.

Striker was only designed for a single rider—Ace, specifically—so just keeping me within earshot was already pushing its weight limits. It looked like we’d have to break out the rowboat again, and that thing didn’t—

Speaking of that vessel, it is far too slow and small. Consider replacing it.

Sure, sure. But in the meantime, I needed to stop Corkscrew Island from being turned into a giant ashtray. Once again, I cupped my hands around my mouth and shouted, “Yugito, Ace, can you two stop trying to kill each other?”

Dear, I need you to come back over here so we can discuss what we will do next,” Matatabi added, lifting one of her paws in a beckoning gesture. “Come along, please.

The two of them paused: Ace holding off Yugito’s clawed hand with a firmly human hand while his other looked more like the opening to his nickname-earning attack, and her foot raised to stomp a hole in his stomach. After a second to check their relative positions, they sprang apart and pretended that they hadn’t just been caught being sillier than I was.

Isobu’s voice was as dry as dust. “It may be helpful if you two travel at arm’s length.

I’m fairly certain I’m worse at both people skills and at leadership than either of them, and somehow I’m still playing babysitter.

It is not as though you do not have experience wrangling unruly children. Relatively recently, too.

Thank you so much for the reminder.


We ended up not backtracking to Alabasta, because for all we knew the Straw Hat Pirates had turned the whole place upside-down when no one was looking. Instead, we ended up heading further out into the Grand Line in search of Teach, because semi-recruiting Yugito exhausted that (flimsy) lead. Isobu and I filled Matatabi and Yugito in on the grudge we had against him, and the other jinchūriki pair agreed to stick with us at least until they found something more productive to do.

Though Matatabi still had a problem—several problems—with traveling across the ocean, Yugito learned about the Summoning trick I’d forgotten to tell Gaara about. That knowledge assuaged the big cat’s fears about being separated from her partner by the sea for a little while, but failed to deal with the root problem. I just kinda wished Matatabi had been a bit more of a tiger than a housecat.

Isobu dealt with it in his own way. “I would be astonished if dipping your toe into the sea actually hurt you.

Matatabi had huffed indignantly. “Just because I am capable of surviving underwater does not mean I have to enjoy it.

Aside from feeling like someone needed to give the Two-Tailed Cat a pair of water wings, our supply run went smoothly.

Sure, someone recognized Ace and there may have been a street brawl, and I had to pay off an angry head chef who realized he’d been cheated out of the net worth of a week’s meals. And Yugito didn’t find anything in local fashion that went with her white Kumogakure headband and didn’t seem to be cut to her sternum, for some reason. And Matatabi being summoned in the Autumn Island’s mountain chain set off a minor snowpack disaster when she shook out her flaming fur coat. And the boat I ended up buying ran off of some kind of weird seashell thing in the engine that, if it broke, would probably explode. The sail was there more as a backup than anything.

But hey, no one died.

That we knew of.

Sailing along the sea in a partially shell-powered sailboat, following Ace’s raft, didn’t give us that much to do on a minute to minute basis. Getting the local newspaper in town only provided a few minutes’ worth of distraction since neither of us knew the context for what was being reported, and Ace didn’t seem the type to bother with much other than bounty postings. Or possibly the funny pages.

Thus, things devolved.

“I spy with my little eye…”

Really devolved.

“Uh, something orange,” I finished weakly, not wanting to go for the lazy route of picking blue in the open ocean.

“It’s Ace’s hat, isn’t it?” Yugito asked without looking up from her section of the newspaper. She tried to be the mature adult. It was as though to make up for the silliness from the first time I’d met her.

I sagged even as I steered the boat further out of Ace’s wake. “Yep.”

Yugito turned a page, sighed, and then stood up carefully as our boat rocked as it hit wave after wave. Sticking her feet to the ground and otherwise relying on her prodigious feline balance, she strode to the cabin in the bow, opened the door, and slunk inside for an apparent nap.

“Wake me when we get there.” Yep, a catnap.

I sighed. Maybe I shouldn’t have made so many cat puns earlier.

It cannot possibly be worse than the barrage of turtle puns.

Oh, I don’t know. Practice makes…purrfect.

…Stop talking.

I snickered to myself, slowing the boat a bit when I noticed Ace’s raft seeming to get a little larger to my craft’s left. While Striker was certainly faster and didn’t have a fuel limitation as long as Ace ate enough for breakfast, the Nautilus (because of the “powered by a seashell” thing) was no slowpoke. And it was big enough to lug Striker around if Ace wanted to join us for lunch.

“Yo,” I said as the Nautilus drew up beside Striker. I called down to Ace, “Something change?”

“Just hungry.”

So, no. And I had a security seal in addition to the food storage seals so Ace didn’t have open access to the larder. Still, I mentally braced myself for yet another resupply run in the near future. If I understood the value of the beri and its purchasing power correctly, we had enough money for maybe two more grocery trips before I had to find a wreck and salvage it.

Ace tied Striker’s tow line to the Nautilus’s stern somewhere, letting the raft stay about fifty feet away from its new mama to avoid getting caught in her wake. Then he sat down on the deck, stomach growling like a Sea King as I popped half a dozen storage seals and set an Ace-sized lunch down in front of him.

“Just don’t wake Yugito,” I warned, before turning back to my steering.

Ace was kind enough to take his Log Pose off and let me use it to navigate, but admittedly I was only so great at following the little needle. I was still used to compasses, not this fickle thing. Worse, Ace had told me about a three-needle version that was supposedly standard issue in the New World. Since we were only in Paradise, his single-needle Log Pose would suffice for now.

New day, new Grand Line bullshit.

Speaking of, the bloody needle flipped around the second I took my eyes off it. I hastily corrected our course, then corrected again when the thing spun. The currents in this part of the world were just that evil. All the while, Ace continued devouring more food than Yugito or I did in an entire day in one sitting.

What the literal hell was his daily calorie requirement, anyway?

“So, Tidal Blade, I’m assuming Yugito calling you that wasn’t just for show,” Ace said once he was finished, wiping his mouth on his arm.

I shrugged as Ace slid into the…copilot’s seat? It was certainly toward the bow and the left and didn’t include a steering wheel. Did include a cracked Log Pose of its own, though. “It was nice not having to hear that kind of thing for a while.”

“I’m not hearing a ‘no,’” Ace mused aloud, probably mostly for effect.

“Wouldn’t be honest of me,” I said, like I didn’t lie by omission all the time.

Ace allowed me to navigate in my inept way for a little longer in silence. Sure, it forced me to stew in the awkward atmosphere too, but I refused to let it get to me.

“So, are you going to ask anything or just let me dig my own grave?” I asked blandly, following the Log Pose as it shifted yet again.

“I could hand you a shovel…” Ace said in a light tone, “but I think you’re fine on your own.” Still, he leaned back in his chair and decided to actually formulate an enquiry. “So, how’d you get your nickname?”

“I use a sword and control water,” I said. When Ace snorted, I added, “It’s not as though it’s that different from how you earned yours, I bet. Honestly, I was half-convinced that if I ever got one of those fancy nicknames, it’d be ‘Scarface’ because of this.” I gestured vaguely at the line bisecting my face, still visible even so long after the initial injury.

“Nice attempt at changing the topic, but not really what I meant,” Ace replied, and when I looked over he was staring at me with worrying levels of patience.

Drat. “Well, then what did you actually want to know?”

“I’m more asking about what your bounty poster would look like if you had one,” Ace told me, while I looked away. “Obviously, if you’d done anything here Pops would have heard of you, or someone would have, but what about back where Yugito and you are from?”

Oh. War stories. I dug one of my canines into the inside of my lip, trying to decide how much Ace ought to know.

“If it makes it any easier, I could say what parts I’ve guessed,” Ace suggested, though I could see perfectly well that it wasn’t a request. Maybe this kind of subtle command presence was partly why Whitebeard had made him a division commander.

“Give it your best shot,” I said anyway, because it wasn’t like Ace could guess much worse than what I’d actually done. Or what Yugito would be able to tell him if he asked.

“All right then.” Ace lowered his hat to cover his eyes. “Given how you talked about those clans the other day, your hometown’s probably still mercenary or at least has a big part of it that used to be. Only you probably saw a bunch of people bury the hatchet and settle down together, right?”

I favored him with my flattest expression. Strictly speaking, we were still mercenaries. We just had a large homeland and relatively new borders to build grudges over.

“Your brother and your boyfriend wear the same uniform, even if I don’t recognize it. And you’re used to giving orders and having them obeyed, even if you have to argue about it,” Ace went on. “And you wear your heart on your sleeve anyway, so you have a lot of people even in that organization who care about you and vice versa.”

“And you wonder why I’m homesick,” I muttered. Not a bad series of observations, really.

I hope that under normal circumstances that you would not give so much information away.

Yeah. Then again, I’m usually not trapped in a weird ocean for months on end with no missions aside from a self-appointed one, and no fellow Konoha-nin in sight.

“The next thing,” Ace said, counting down on his fingers, “is that you’ve done a lot of work in subtle stuff. Sneaking into places and getting out with what you want. And you’re trying to read people all the time. Could be a thief, right?”

I bobbed my left hand in midair, still steering with my right. “Some of the skills overlap.” I’d broken into a Marine base with no trouble not too long ago, after all. Sure, Ace had not been happy to learn he’d been left out, but I didn’t want to risk his safety.

Also, I wasn’t that subtle once I got going. Subtle people did not carry nearly as many explosives as I did. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had a pure stealth mission.

“You also fight mostly by tricking people into thinking you’re weaker than you are, until you can’t.” Ace grinned a bit sheepishly. “Which is why you opened with the mist when you fought me, and then didn’t bother at all with Yugito. You just hit her immediately after she decided to fight.”

“Well, you’re right and you’re wrong,” I said, once it seemed like he’d let his points rest for a bit to percolate in my brain. Nothing I hadn’t noticed before, really. “There’s one other reason I used mist first instead of just trying to kill you.”

“Is it because of my roguish charm?” Ace’s grin made the transition to “shit-eating” once again.

More like the fact that Yugito was a Kumo-nin and thus knew what a Kiri-nin could do. A little mist wouldn’t faze her. And past that, I liked the Whitebeard Pirates a lot more than I did Kumogakure. The former had never tried to kill me, except for Teach, and so Ace got the kid gloves while I tried to beat Yugito into the ground. The fact that Yugito was the first hostile chakra-using fighter I’d encountered here also accounted for part of the increased ferocity.

“You keep telling yourself that, Mr. Eye Candy,” I replied somewhat distractedly, eyes returning to the now-reversed Log Pose. I obligingly spun the wheel around to reorient us toward our destination. “Do you remember how I said Yugito had been trained since she was six to fight?”

Ace’s grin fell. “Same deal with you, huh? Can’t say I’m surprised.”

“Sort of. I didn’t start combat missions until I was eleven, at least,” I explained, while a rogue wave tried to push us off-course. “But back to the actual topic. You might’ve noticed the giant animals following us around.”

“No, I totally missed that detail,” Ace snarked.

“Hah.” I rolled my eyes. Still, this did need to be explained. “Shukaku, Matatabi, and Isobu aren’t just our partners. And the way we get attached to them isn’t simple or kind. And each one of them, if they got serious, could blast an island back down to sea level.”

Ace went still. His gaze shot out to sea, in what happened to be about the opposite direction of the submerged Isobu.

“People back home figured that having them run around loose was a bad idea, and instead decided to use them as weapons.” Because of course we did. I went on, my voice still terribly calm, “They figured out that if they bound Isobu and the others to children, they could raise loyal soldiers and have one-person armies whenever they wanted. What the Tailed Beasts wanted never came into consideration, and none of us humans were asked for our consent either.” I met Ace’s gaze, all humor gone from my expression. “The word we use for it is ‘jinchūriki.’ In a word, ‘the power of human sacrifice.’”

In your case, it was very nearly literal, Isobu said in a soft tone.

I try not to think about it much. Even years after the fact, I could still remember the ritual that had turned me into Isobu’s landlord. It wasn’t like I hadn’t been through worse since, but the helplessness I’d felt then never became nothing in my mind. Trying to slot “being turned into a human bomb” into some convenient mental category was an exercise in futility, even if I’d been defused quickly.

And even if I’d met Isobu then.

“So when Usopp said you could pull off some kind of evil ritual with blood…” Ace’s jaw worked. “People actually used them.”

“Mm-hm.” I elaborated in a slow, almost casual tone, “I know how Gaara and Yugito and most of the others ended up the way we are, but that’s their business, not mine. As for me, I was kidnapped when I was thirteen.”

Actually, Kushina had been kidnapped by Kumogakure when she was about that age, too. The difference between us was that I hadn’t had Isobu in my chakra coils to start with. Either way, Konoha could have lost big if not for the actions of the people around the two of us.

Ace almost looked like he regretted asking, but was continuing to listen out of sheer determination to see this through. “What happened next?”

“I nearly died, for one,” I replied, shrugging. The Log Pose directed us into a slow left turn, so I obliged. “I was being used in a plan to destroy my entire hometown. If I’d been anyone else or my friends were any less stubborn, everyone would’ve died. But they weren’t, so we didn’t.”

“That’s…worse than I thought it would be, actually.” Ace frowned, and once again I’d managed to drag up unpleasant memories for him. “A lot heavier. So, you’re saying you got that nickname because you’re stuck with Isobu?”

“Sort of. About four years after that, an enemy army hit a town in our territory because…well, a couple of reasons. Kidnapping children, killing me, hurting my hometown…” The scar on my chest started to ache again, but that was old news. I shook my head to clear it, then said grimly, “So I killed every single soldier I could get my hands, my sword, or Isobu’s teeth on. I’m pretty sure that’s what solidified it.”

Ace crossed his arms. “I guess I’m starting to see why you keep worrying about me. The only one I know who could destroy whole islands that fast is Pops, but he never would. World Government battleships, maybe…” His mouth formed a grim, narrow line. “Sorry for bringing it up.”

“You say that like I haven’t brought up sensitive points for you, too.” When Ace looked up, perhaps a bit surprised that I’d been able to read him at all, I just said, “It’s fine, Ace. It all happened years ago. Isobu and I get along fine now.”

Mostly.

Hush, you. “And you were right to say I was a soldier. But more specifically, I am a shinobi. Or a ninja,” I added belatedly, since in a pirate world it wasn’t like there would be a lot of exposure to my type of culture. Gaara had used the word before, but I didn’t know if Ace had understood it. “Yugito, too.”

“…Okay, I don’t think you get how silly that sounds,” Ace said after a pause.

Oh, it definitely sounded dumb to me before I had to grow up as one. “Enlighten me,” I suggested.

“I think I get what you mean, like spies and assassins, but the only people we have here who do that are the Cipher Pol units who do the World Government’s dirty work,” Ace said, and it seemed like he was fighting a grin. Sounded like ANBU to me, though. “‘Ninja’ is what I used to play with Luffy when we were kids and I needed him to stay quiet.”

Water off a duck’s back, really. “To be fair, I know I used to play at being a ninja when I was a kid, too.” I found myself smiling faintly. “Anyway, that’s pretty much it. Satisfied?”

Of course, that wasn’t everything. It didn’t cover how most humans viewed Tailed Beasts as nothing less than living natural disasters and nothing more than malicious monsters. How jinchūriki were shunned and feared for being more monster than human. How Gaara and one timeline’s Naruto had grown up. How people acted like jinchūriki didn’t deserve to exist when our entire lot in life was dictated by other humans and their ambitions.

Cynical of me, I supposed. I’d gotten lucky. For one thing, I actually had a therapist to talk to about this stuff.

“I got a good story out of it, so I think so,” Ace said, getting up. He picked up his Log Pose and strapped it to his wrist again, then waltzed to the Nautilus’s stern. “Okay, time for me to lead again. Slow her down a bit so Striker can catch up!”

“The Nautilus is definitely a guy,” I corrected Ace, but I still did as he asked and let the Nautilus relax a little.

Ace ignored me, of course, and took off as soon as he undid the tow line. Within a few seconds, his speedboat-raft was shooting along ahead in the water as though strapped to a rocket. All I had to do was get the Nautilus up to speed again.

“So, Yugito, did you have anything to add?” I asked the supposedly empty air.

Yugito obligingly dropped her camouflage genjutsu, then lowered herself into the seat Ace had recently vacated. “He’s not as observant as he thinks he is.”

“Yeah, I’ve noticed no one around here has genjutsu resistance.” Still, I glanced over at her and said in a warning tone, “But try to be careful who you use jutsu on. As far as I can tell, chakra might literally be poisonous to people here.”

Yugito frowned faintly, a small crease appearing between her eyes. “Have you had to test it?”

“Yeah, but I didn’t get a conclusive result.” Teach was still apparently alive, after all. And I’d have to check in with Ace later to see if he’d gotten motion sickness during this conversation, just to be sure. “I’ve mostly been treating the people here with kid gloves to avoid drawing unneeded attention.”

“Smart move,” Yugito commented.

Aaaand I was pretty sure I was being patronized. “Call me a soft-hearted idiot if you want. You won’t be the first.”

“Now who’s being catty?” Yugito muttered, then clapped a hand over her mouth in horror.

So I was contagious. Still, hearing Yugito make those kinds of comments helped calm my nerves a bit. “Yugito, I know we’re…kinda peers, of a sort.”

“We are,” Yugito admitted after a moment. After all, we were the same age, same rank, and had similarly-powerful Tailed Beasts shackled to our souls. “I don’t consider us friends by any means, just so we’re perfectly clear.”

Naruto and Luffy had both made fast friends out of people who said things like that. I didn’t have their knack, but I hadn’t exactly liked the Whitebeards at first either. Maybe I’d grow on her.

“Still, we have a similar mission. To get home.” It wasn’t like she could protect Kumogakure from the middle of the Grand Line, even if she knew where we sat relative to the Elemental Nations. “So I think a temporary alliance would be appropriate for the time being.”

Or longer. I have not spoken to Matatabi at length for centuries. She can likely convince her partner to be more amenable to a deal.

Yugito looked at my extended right hand, then slowly held out hers as well. We fist-bumped on it. “For now.”

“For now,” I agreed.

Chapter Text

“…You know, I expected him to be a lot scarier than this,” I said to no one in particular. Maybe the cow trying to eat a patch of clover nearby.

“You,” Yugito began, then sighed. She finished somewhat lamely with, “…are certainly not alone there.”

“He” was a seven-and-a-half-foot-tall Iwagakure shinobi who was placidly tending to an entire field of cows, with the assistance of a girl literally half his size. Or maybe it was the other way around.

Pause. Rewind. How did we get here?


Traveling by sea the way we did it, without a concrete destination aside from “next,” was a bit like leaping into a taxi and telling the driver “follow that car!” Only more tedious.

At least we didn’t end up in a seagoing seven-vehicle pile-up. We did attract at least one Marine vessel, but Ace set it on fire before Isobu drove a three-story spike through its hull and sank it. While the sailors piled into lifeboats, we made a speedy getaway in our absurdly fast watercrafts. Yugito and I were at least careful to change our appearances to hide exactly who was riding the vessel following Fire First Ace around, but sooner or later the Nautilus would lose anonymity.

At least I remembered to cloak the entire ship in a genjutsu to make it look like a Grand Line whale. It probably really raised more questions than answers, but as long as they were the wrong questions, I could live with that.

“Blackbeard’s been spotted on this next island,” Ace said, as we ate lunch. He, as always, ate the lion’s share. Even after face-planting into his plate. “I should be able to track him down pretty quick.”

“And we’ll all be home by Christmas,” I muttered, because it was never that easy.

“What’s Christmas?” Yugito asked, frowning.

“You don’t have Christmas?!” Ace burst out, spraying both of us with bits of food.

Yugito and I both had to clean our faces with napkins before we could reply to that. Yugito, perhaps of the opinion that the correction wouldn’t stick without a sharp reminder, reached over with one hand and slammed his jaw shut.

“Ow!” was what he said to that once Yugito let go, but at least he swallowed first. He shook himself, blinking at Yugito, then said, “I’m sorry, that was rude of me. But you don’t know about Christmas?”

“It’s a winter holiday where people exchange gifts, celebrate being alive, and generally party,” I told Yugito, ignoring Ace’s astonished expression. “It’s a little like New Year’s, but with more shouting and heavier food.”

“How do you know about it?” Yugito asked, her eyes narrow with suspicion.

“I overheard some of the Whitebeard Pirates talking about it back on the Moby Dick,” I said, shrugging. It was a lie, but I didn’t feel like explaining everything to Yugito. Unless I was dying and for some reason the secret cure involved confessing every little thing I’d ever hidden from people. Even then, I’d have to think it over. “Something or other about Thatch’s Christmas pudding?”

“…Dammit, now I’m homesick,” Ace griped. Then, “What were we talking about before this?”

“You had some kind of plan involving Blackbeard,” Yugito prompted. “Though if he is as dangerous as you say he is, it might not be so easy.”

Which was what I was really getting at with the Christmas comment. “I’d rather be there for backup, if possible.”

You may not be able to, Isobu interrupted. When I dutifully rendered that remark into real speech for Ace and Yugito’s benefits, I got some odd looks.

“Why not?” Ace asked, though he didn’t seem all that disappointed.

Because I believe the next island we will visit is also where Kokuō and her host are staying, was the forcibly calm reply. Isobu still wanted to get his shot in at Teach and didn’t seem likely to forget it, but a Tailed Beast battle would pull him away from presumably-populated areas to fight his horse-like sibling.

“Already?” Yugito’s frown deepened. “That would mean we’ll be facing Han of Iwagakure.”

There really wasn’t any love lost between the major shinobi villages. Iwa and Kumo may have been allies when I was a kid, but times changed. Suna was only Konoha’s ally because of special circumstances owing to the last war and Sensei’s skill with fūinjutsu. That, and Suna was probably the weakest of the five major villages anyway. It didn’t precisely need allies, but it wouldn’t drop them for no reason.

And that didn’t even get into the nitty-gritty of actually tackling the fight. Neither Yugito nor I had any access to higher-level nature transformations like the Lava Release kekkei genkai, but both of Iwa’s jinchūriki did. Han’s was Boil Release, which was probably the worst of the two given what precedent Terumī Mei had set. Nothing before or since could melt a Susanoo outright.

“On the positive side, I don’t think he’ll be able to take on both of us if we fight at full strength,” I said after a moment of pure dread. If Han hadn’t met any other jinchūriki, he would only be fighting with his own power.  Which was still significant, but not unbeatable.

“I think you both might be worrying over nothing,” Ace said with a shrug. “I mean, you two get along all right. And Gaara was a nice kid. Han should be decent, too.”

Yugito and I exchanged a glance that communicated one point with perfect clarity: “Is this guy serious?”

We sure as hell weren’t friends. Actually, I was sure the only reason Yugito hadn’t tried to murder me basically came down to “Isobu” and “I have more tails than you, nya-ha-ha-ha.” One possible secondary reason was…well, moments like this, where Ace did something that threw both of us equally for a loop.

Ace continued without apparently noticing our disbelief, “Anyway, I’ll see if I can figure out where Blackbeard is while you two find Han. The island isn’t too big, so it’s not like either one will be able to hide for long.”

Saying it like that jinxed us twice over.

Still, we did go with that as a sort of basic plan. Assuming that Teach couldn’t break the island in half or something equally extreme, Ace would…probably be okay. Yugito and I were less likely to be fine, but could probably double back in time for the inevitable literal firefight. Maybe.

In the end, Ace visited the actual city on the island. Yugito and I, however, looped around to the Spring Island’s abundant farming on the Nautilus and docked somewhere well out of the way. Without summoning either Matatabi or Isobu, we headed inland and observed for a good long time.

Yugito sat in a tree that looked about as large as some of the ones I remembered from the Forest of Death. I, meanwhile, went about bothering the townsfolk for rumors in a manner I was sure would remind them of Ace if they had seen him first. As it was, I remained a stranger bothering people for accounts of a giant white animal, because I didn’t have a clue what Han looked like if he took his armor off.

“Young man, are you talking about the four-horned unicorn?” asked one of the farmers as I sat on his fence.

Thanks to the Transformation technique, I looked like Lee back when he had a braid as opposed to his Gai-derived bowl cut. Not as small, of course, but anyone from home would have seen the resemblance my transformed state bore to him.

“There’s a four-horned unicorn?” I asked blankly. Didn’t that defeat the point of the term “unicorn?”

“Of course there is,” the farmer told me, beckoning me to lean down so I could listen to his whisper. “We try keeping it quiet because the World Nobles probably wanting to shoot it, but it’s a good beast.”

…Huh. “I promise I won’t tell anyone about it,” I lied. I had to at least tell Yugito.

“See that you don’t, kid. You look like a decent sort,” the farmer added.

Probably because Lee had the second most honest face I’d ever seen. And I was kinda borrowing it. “Thank you for telling me, sir.”

“In exchange, can you check on little Moda for me? Her parents work for the Marines, and they did hire a babysitter, but I’m not sure I trust him,” the farmer said, before I could hop off the fence and race to tell Yugito about Kokuō being sighted. “He’s just…shady, somehow.”

“Will do, sir!” I chirped, and disappeared the instant his back was turned.

Then I dragged Yugito out of her tree like she was an actual cat and I was a firefighter. Together, we set off down the lane looking quite unlike ourselves until we found a farm that looked a little different from the rest. Yugito playing at being C for a few minutes—or so she said—and I pretended to be Tenten. We dropped our disguises once we were out of sight of anyone not on the aforementioned farm, then got a chance to observe again.

The cows were tiny. Like, half the height of the already-small child who was tending them. She was probably somewhere between nine and eleven years old, with light brown hair held back by a bandanna. She moved around the animals with no visible hesitation, carrying a pail of milk in each hand.

Those same little cows were practically footstools to the huge guy carrying one cow under each arm. Now, I had never seen Han in person, and his habit of wearing lobster-red armor as well as a white shroud made picking out any of his features an utter pain. But I did remember his flat brown eyes from the Bingo Book description. Everything else about him was a surprise, whether the fact that he’d clearly had his nose broken at some point or that his hair was a close-cropped dirty blond. Or that he was probably around thirty or so.

Also, the fact that he was basically doing his farm work in pajamas, with a white-and-green striped hat. And wore geta. Between that and his height he stuck out like one hell of a sore thumb, even if he was suppressing his chakra down to practically nothing. Still, everyone on this little farm seemed happy.

“I don’t really want to interrupt them,” I admitted, leaning on the edge of the fence with my arms folded. “You?”

“You are utterly spineless,” Yugito informed me.

“That’s not the first time I’ve heard that. Not even the first time I’ve told myself that,” I told Yugito, tilting my head slowly. “But I’m not gonna scare the shit out of a ten-year-old civilian by attacking first.”

Yugito sighed deeply. “Then how do you want to approach him?”

“I was thinking of saying hello?” Then I thought that over and winced as I remembered the whole Iwa-Konoha relationship and how thoroughly Madara had burned that bridge. “Or you can do it.”

Yugito kicked me in the ankle by way of reply.

I took that as a sign to get moving, and pushed away from the fence to follow my non-plan. “You get to pull my unconscious body out of there if I screw up.”

“I make no promises,” said Yugito. She smirked, so I had to assume she got the joke if nothing else. Or was making a joke at my expense.

As I trotted down the lane toward probable doom, I prodded Isobu for an update. Isobu, have you had any luck with contacting Kokuō?

Only as much as she will allow. Kokuō was always the shyest among us, and will not leave the forest.

How is she even hiding in there? She’s almost entirely white.

Kokuō is using the same mist generation ability as you and I do—though without the genjutsu component. Though a few humans have seen her, she does not feel threatened here.

That quick conversation helped tide me over until I reached the front gate to the little farm of miniature cows. Unlike the section of fence where Yugito and I had been standing before, these walls were made of stones held together by mortar in varying states of repair. From the look of things, parts had been patched by Earth Release ninjutsu when nobody was looking, even if I couldn’t feel chakra in the wall anymore.

I could definitely feel it in the field, though, with Han’s personal aura tucked in tight against his core to avoid touching anyone else. Still, it felt like a tea kettle about to boil for me. Out in the woods beyond the farm, Kokuō’s pervasive chakra seemed to form an impenetrable barrier against other life that would dare do anyone harm.

Or maybe that was me projecting a bit.

“Hello there!” said the little milk-maid when she noticed me. “Can I help you?”

I waved back, though I pulled my chakra practically back into my Gates when I noticed Han looking over. “Mm, kind of. I was wondering if I could speak to your friend there for a moment?”

The girl whirled on the spot and said, “Mr. Han, there’s someone here to see you!”

I was starting to see why this girl’s neighbors were worried for her safety. But as Han made his slow, ominous way over to the fence, I found myself drawn back to her enthusiasm even as he approached.

“Miss Moda,” I said, prompting her to turn around again, “one of your neighbors asked me if I could check in on you. Are you and Mr. Han getting along all right?”

“Oh, Mr. Han is just fine. He’s helping me with the farm,” Moda said, just as Han finally got close enough to talk.

I had to angle my head back a bit to see his face, and the expression there wasn’t reassuring. He said, without taking his eyes off me, “Moda, could you go get some water from the river? I suspect our guest may enjoy some tea.”

“You got it, Mr. Han!” Moda said, bowing. To me, she added, “You haven’t had tea until you try it with milk from my farm, you know!”

We both waved as she took off. Han even managed a smile, but as soon as she was out of immediate earshot he scowled when he looked down at me. “If you even think of hurting that girl…”

“I would rather eat broken glass,” I told him, dead serious.

“Good,” Han said. “So, Konoha-nin, what do you want?”

Not for the first time, I wondered if my facial scar was the thing that gave me away. I certainly wasn’t wearing any village-based symbols.

“Is it so hard to believe that I just want to talk?” I asked, though I knew the answer.

Han did, too. “So, talk.”

“All nine of us are trapped in this weird world until we can all meet up and be friendly or something,” I explained briefly, though I didn’t doubt that Han knew exactly which “nine” I was talking about. There weren’t many available clubs that people from Iwa and Konoha could both join. “And if you make the Seal of Reconciliation with me, you should be able to use Kokuō’s chakra again.”

And like hell I’d reveal that Naruto could be around.

Han kept perfectly still for a long second. “And what do you get out of this?”

“I get more access to my partner’s powers, too, and I get one step closer to going home,” I said quietly.

“I have nothing at home to return to,” Han told me, closing his eyes. “I doubt my village is even looking for me except to retrieve Kokuō.”

Ah, dammit. I sighed deeply, my gaze dropping to one of the nearby cows. “Is that so?”

“It is. Here, no one knows who I am.” Han drummed his fingers along one bicep, then said, “It is…peaceful.”

“And yet you still look like you’ve been getting about as much sleep as I have,” I remarked, having noted the circles under his eyes. He was getting the same dreams I did. Yugito hadn’t mentioned anything since Corkscrew Island for the sake of her pride, but I was observant enough to notice that, too.

“The only reason I can see for agreeing to this bargain is to get Kokuō’s power to survive,” Han told me, still looming. “No dream can be as terrible as returning to that waking nightmare.”

I was saved from having to argue against that by a startled shriek from Moda, making both of us jump. “There’s a person in the water! Mr. Han, help!”

I vaulted the fence as Han took off with all the speed his ninja training gave him, reaching Moda’s little fishing pier over the river in a blink with me on his heels. I felt Yugito’s chakra flare as she also Body Flickered to the scene, perhaps thinking that Han and I had decided to kill each other after all.

Moda had retrieved a certain orange hat from the water on her own, but Han reached down and helped her haul the drowning victim out of the river with all the apparent effort of a man retrieving an errant kitten. It seemed that, once again, the commander of the Second Division of the Whitebeard Pirates had about as much luck with water as Ranma.

While Han dragged my pirate friend onto the little pier and Moda sprang into action like a tiny lifeguard, I slapped my hand across my face. “Dammit, Ace.”

“How often does this happen?” Yugito asked, while from the sound of things Ace spat up water like a human fountain.

“Way more often than you’d think,” I grumbled. Still, I thought as I finally felt ready to view this bizarrely commonplace scene, it could have definitely been worse. “Han, Miss Moda, thanks for saving this idiot.”

“I take it you know him, then.” Han picked up Ace’s hat and steam-cleaned it with barely a whisper of chakra, then pulled Moda back while Ace continued to work on the not-drowning thing. Coughing up that much water couldn’t be healthy.

“He’s been our navigator—of sorts,” Yugito hedged. When Han finally looked down at her and recognition showed in his eyes, she bowed and said, “It’s nice to finally meet you in person. Nii Yugito.”

“…Likewise, I suppose,” Han responded, a little off his game. “I’m Han.”

“Mr. Han, if this is their friend, we should help look after him while he recovers, right?” Moda piped up, since Ace had finally stopped coughing. He still didn’t move on his own, though, so perhaps this would take a bit longer to recover from than the last…three times?

For a guy whose power literally required him to sink like a stone, I would have figured Ace would be more careful around water.

Moda was the only one of us women who could pull off a puppy-dog look, so neither Yugito or I bothered. Still, Han folded like a damp paper towel. “All right, Moda.”

Han scooped Ace up like the pirate didn’t weigh anything at all, while I grabbed his hat and Yugito picked up Moda’s forgotten pails. The four of us (with one casualty) then trekked back to Moda’s house under her cheery command, only occasionally dodging miniature cow pies along the way.

In a way, it was kind of lucky that Ace wore more accessories than pieces of clothing. Han got him dried off and sorted out in record time, then bundled up in at least two layers of blankets and left him to sleep off the morning’s adventure in a spare cot that had to be Han’s. Given Ace’s weird physiology, I was going to assume that if he didn’t manage to die in the preceding few minutes, he’d be fine if we left him alone.

Even so, I needed to get him some kind of bell. Or get a vivre card from him if I could. I still didn’t know how they were made, but if they really were as accurate as reported, they sounded much more useful when direct chakra usage made him want to puke his guts up.

“Thank you for saving my friend,” I said as I bowed deeply to Moda, once everything was sorted out for the time being. “If you hadn’t spotted him, he would have drowned.”

Our friend,” Yugito corrected me. When I blinked at her, she just took a long sip of the milk Moda served her guests, clearly enjoying the experience and my confusion.

“I’m just glad I could help,” Moda replied, while Han continued serving tea. With milk.

Moda certainly kept her promises, though Yugito declined the tea half of the equation.

“Miss Moda, would you like us to do anything for you on the farm?” I asked. I hadn’t done a real D-rank since the last time my students had earned punishment duty and was feeling a bit restless while waiting for Ace to recover.

“Well, um…” Moda hemmed and hawed, clearly unwilling to let guests work. I already knew from her nosy neighbor that her parents were working for the Marines, but the militaries that I knew of generally tried not to ship out both adults in a household at once. Yet another consideration for the pile. “I do have one thing that Mr. Han can’t help me with…but it will take a long time. Maybe after your friend wakes up?”

I bowed my head again over my mug of tea. “That’s fine. But if you do think of anything in the meantime, don’t hesitate to let us know.”

“What is this ‘we’ business?” Yugito muttered. When I elbowed her, she subsided with a wordless grumble.

“You could do something for me,” Han suggested, likely more to make us shut up than anything. He certainly used that kind of impatient tone.

Anyway, that was how we ended up patrolling the farm and nearby areas for Han’s peace of mind, in separate directions. Kokuō didn’t put in an appearance, though Isobu and Matatabi separately assured us that she was aware of our presence and didn’t mind us being there. Once patrols were finished, though, there wasn’t much left to do but wait.


Ace woke up about an hour and a half later, stumbling out of the little thatch-roofed farmhouse with a yawn already escaping his mouth. As though he hadn’t almost been killed by sheer accident and forgetting his buoyancy problems, he stumbled up to the low wall where the rest of us were gathered.

Moda crouched by one of her cows, stroking her fluffy head and singing softly as the animal drank from a repurposed roasting pan. Han knelt next to one of the other cows, running his thumb over the sharp-looking tip of one of her horns and clearly trying to decide if he wanted to file it down. Yugito was drinking her third or fourth cup of whole-fat milk and was clearly in heaven. As for me, I was writing up a series of tracking seals to add to the pile of non-explosive fūinjutsu I finally had a chance to work on.

I clearly couldn’t rely on Ace to do much to ensure his own safety.

“Did I miss something?” Ace asked when he finally reached the rest of us. Dressed in a clearly borrowed shirt and sandals, he resembled a beach tourist getting one over too many fruity drinks.

“You had another near-drowning experience. For the third time in a few months, from what Kei tells me,” Yugito remarked rather cheerfully, since she was still riding the emotional high of finding her favorite food in perfect form. It didn’t mean she couldn’t get a shot in, of course.

“How did that happen, anyway?” I asked, as I completed a mostly-passive tracker for Ace. He was a walking trouble magnet, and I needed a way to keep tabs on him if he didn’t want to hand me a vivre card.

“Funny you should ask…” Ace scratched the back of his neck and the tips of his ears turned a tiny bit red as Yugito and I watched.

The story, as it turned out, made me regret that I hadn’t chased after him the second I noticed that he was searching for Teach in a town. Not because I would have fought a pitched battle in a population center, but because every pit stop on our trip with a restaurant got to suffer Ace’s eating habits and his lack-of-payment habits. I’d been dealing with that problem by paying for his dine-and-dashing without letting him know, but this time I’d been occupied spying on civilian farmers. By the time Ace got around to explaining how he’d kicked a guy in the head without checking that he was Teach—as opposed to a completely unrelated Dr. Blackbeard innocently practicing medicine—I sympathized with the townsfolk more than I really wanted to. Ace could be annoying as all hell.

“Try verifying targets next time,” Yugito suggested, like a shinobi would never make that kind of mistake.

I knew better. Nagato’s childhood wouldn’t have ended with his parents dead on the floor if we did. But there was no point to adding that little detail to this conversation when Ace wouldn’t understand who I was talking about and Yugito wouldn’t care.

“Hey, you don’t even know what Teach looks like. The resemblance was pretty close,” Ace said defensively, holding up his hands to forestall Yugito’s scolding.

“Your information was nonetheless wrong,” Yugito argued, undeterred. “And that exhausts our leads.”

“So, Ace, Miss Moda over there has a favor to ask now that you’re awake,” I said, mostly to distract Ace and Yugito before they could do or say something ill-advised. Again. “Since she saved your life and all.”

Ace blinked, turning his attention from the two kunoichi mocking his recent “accomplishment” and toward the little girl and giant guy tending the miniature herd of mini-cows. He caught his hat without looking when I tossed it at him, then sat it straight on his head. “Right, then. I better go apologize for the trouble I’ve caused.”

“And nothing about the trouble he’s caused us, I’m sure,” Yugito muttered, then continued drowning her sorrows in milk.

“He apologized for mistaking me for a man when we first met.” I shrugged, folding up my seals for easy storage. “But at this point I think we’ve been folded into the ‘family’ category. Experience tells me families tend to be more casual about this kind of thing,” I concluded with a sage nod.

“…Weird,” Yugito said, after giving me a long stare.

I wasn’t sure if that reaction said more about her history or about mine, really.

…Probably mine.

Anyway, at that point Ace had gotten through the usual niceties with Moda under Han’s careful supervision. That included two exchanged deep bows of gratitude, and a brief recap of what had happened while Ace was out. She even introduced Han.

“Oh, and here!” Moda said, thoughtfully providing a cup of fresh milk to Ace. She might have been a very small ninja, because that cup appeared out of basically nowhere.

“Thank you very much,” Ace said, for probably the fourth time in the same conversation. “Is there anything I can do to make up for all the trouble I’ve caused you?”

“There is, there is! Please deliver this letter for me!” Moda concluded, bowing her head and holding out the envelope like it was the most precious thing in the world. “It’s for Vice Admiral Comil.”

While I pressed my lips together to avoid frowning, Ace remained unfazed by the idea of wandering into a naval base despite having a bounty of over half a billion beris on his head. Yugito’s chakra twitched like a disturbed campfire, but otherwise she didn’t react.

Ace just grinned, accepting the letter. “Of course I’ll deliver it. It’s no problem.” He tipped his hat to Moda, making her giggle, and then strode back toward the house to retrieve his other things. All the way, Han glared a figurative hole in his back.

“He does know he’s a pirate, right?” Yugito wondered at the universe as he passed.

“Some days, I wonder,” I remarked dryly. In a somewhat louder voice, I added for Ace’s sake, “I hope you don’t think you’re taking that mission alone after what just happened.”

“I’ll be fine,” Ace scoffed. He was pretty confident for a guy who would’ve been dead more than an hour ago if not for a sharp-eyed ten-year-old. “It’s just a quick infiltration, and I might be able to find more info on Teach.”

I rolled my eyes, already standing up with all my equipment packed. “Sure thing, hotshot. It’s not like we haven’t been using that kind of argument on each other since day one.”

Ace waved off my commentary, disappearing into the house.

I then turned my attention to Han and Moda, instead. “Han, I don’t think we’ll be coming back to this island after the mission. We’d better get the light show over with.”

“Is it going to be something fun?” Moda asked, while Han slowly approached me as though walking to his execution platform.

Dramatic of him. I held out my fist.

He stared at it. “Is this a Konoha thing?”

“It’s certainly a childish thing,” Yugito muttered.

“Just bump your right fist against mine,” I said, sighing. I didn’t want to admit that I’d gotten the impression that the fist-bump was about the least offensive way I could think of to get hostile jinchūriki to have anything to do with me. Such as Yugito, who hadn’t wanted to make the Seal either. “The Seal of Reconciliation has too much baggage, right? So just do this, and you’ll still be able to protect Moda better than before.”

“I don’t really need Mr. Han to protect me,” Moda protested. She flexed her skinny biceps. “See? I’m strong!”

Han’s gaze softened as he looked at his tiny charge, and he completed the fist-bump. It was easier than putting up with my whining, I supposed. Before Han’s wrist and mine completely blinded all of us with that obnoxious purple light, Yugito settled her hand over both of ours and Han’s Wristband of Doom gained two more kanji.

YOU HAVE FOUND THE FIFTH.

ASSEMBLE THE NINE.

Then all of us separated to the sound of Moda clapping.

I blinked to clear my vision of spots, then flexed my right hand and called on Isobu’s chakra. The four revealed numerical kanji disappeared under a layer of blood-red chakra, as dark as a scab and rippling like something alive lurked under it. I turned my hand back and forth, then let the energy fade away.

I had the V2 cloak once again. Not that I’d ever be able to use the whole thing after what I’d done to my left arm in the past, but having the ability to reproduce the Coral Palm gave me yet another fun component for my combat style.

“Well, well, well,” I murmured. “Four unlocked seals for the V2 cloak.”

“I suppose I’ll have to remember that, since you don’t,” Yugito said, shrugging as she turned off her own V1 cloak test firing.

“That stuff was really cool, even if I don’t understand it at all. Mr. Han, does that mean you can do new things too?” Moda asked, automatically turning back to her giant bodyguard.

“I believe so, Moda,” he said in a gentle tone.

“Then this was worth it. Show me sometime, okay?”

“I will—” Han began, though I was already shaking my head. “What is it?”

“I don’t even use that much chakra near Ace,” I told him. I jerked a thumb over my shoulder to Moda’s house. “People here have about as much resistance to it as most people do to Kokuō’s.”

Han’s eyes widened just slightly. He wasn’t truly surprised, because it wasn’t much of a logical leap for a jinchūriki to make after a few unfortunate incidents, but confirmation of the problem’s existence nonetheless firmed his resolve. Then he turned his attention back to Moda and corrected himself with, “I will not, Moda. I am sorry.”

Moda frowned for maybe ten seconds. Then she smiled again. “It’s okay, Mr. Han.”

This kid was definitely one of a kind. Ish.

…Now I kinda wanted to know what her reaction to Kokuō would be. It’d be something between hilarious and sad if she was just as accepting of Tailed Beasts as Luffy and Ace and her nosy neighbor were, when so many people at home preferred to run away in terror.

Ignorance helps.

That it does.

And then Ace wandered back out, gear in hand, and the game was afoot.

We got all our shit and shipped out, with Ace apparently deciding it was time to go back to being a half-naked cowboy pirate and getting a giant lunch box as a going-away present. We made sure to wave goodbye to Han and Moda, though I didn’t doubt Han was secretly still trying to kill us with his mind. He might’ve been an ally, of sorts, but he wasn’t much of a friend just yet.

Maybe later. I still gave him a means to track me down later, via fūinjutsu.

Anyway, we had a few things to clarify once we got on our way.

“We don’t have a plan, do we?” Yugito sighed as soon as the thought became a sentence hanging in midair, weighing us down by existing. “We never have a plan.”

“The plan’s pretty simple. I go in, mug someone for a uniform, and then sneak around until I find what I’m looking for,” Ace explained cheerfully, in between tearing huge chunks out of a loaf of fresh-baked bread Moda had thoughtfully packed for him. “It’ll be a piece of cake.”

“We never have a plan,” I agreed with Yugito, as though Ace hadn’t said anything.

“That hurts, you two,” Ace said. He had his hand over his heart. “Right here.”

I reached over from my position at the Nautilus’s wheel and pulled his hat down over his eyes. “Shut up.”

“Pff, hey, can you even imagine doing this kind of thing back on the Moby Dick?” Ace asked, once he’d rescued his hat from my attentions. “You were a million times quieter.”

“Guess I came out of my shell,” I said breezily.

Ugh.

“Ugh,” said Yugito, unknowingly echoing Isobu perfectly. “Turtle puns.”

Ace snickered, then devoured the rest of his allotment of food in a few seconds flat.

“I also have fire puns and cat puns,” I informed them loftily, suppressing any grin threatening to creep onto my face. “Don’t tempt me to use them.”

Yugito kicked the back of my chair. “No.

Road trip shenanigans on a boat. We really were on our way to being friends, or else one or more of us would have killed the others weeks ago! …Or at least that’s what Naruto would’ve been able to say. I was still pretty sure one of us would be dead inside of another month. Yugito and I still treated each other like sea urchins. If she hadn’t been one seal behind me at all times, Yugito would use her V2 cloak and make me regret ever meeting her.

Once Ace polished off his ludicrously large chunk of our food supply, I eased off the Nautilus’s equivalent of a throttle and scrambled over the back of the seat so Yugito could take her turn and I could eat lunch. Yugito was probably a less-distractible helmswoman than I was, overall, but didn’t really enjoy water activities. She could sleep off some trips entirely, though I was never certain if it was due to motion sickness or not.

“What do we know about the internal structure of G-2?” I asked, while picking up a sandwich.

Ace shrugged. “Nothing.”

“The number of men?”

Another shrug. “Who knows? Big Marine bases can have a couple thousand, sometimes.”

I could almost feel a headache starting. “…Are you serious?”

“Yep.” Ace grinned. “I just make things up as I go along.”

Dammit, Ace. Still, Yugito beat me to the punch with, “If that is the extent of your thinking, Kei and I will be following along to observe your…method.”

…Close enough.

“Or are we testing the Marines’ security?” I wondered aloud.

“Who cares?” Ace said with a careless wave of his hand. “As long as the letter gets delivered, the Marines end up looking like the idiots they are, and we get out before they figure things out, we can do whatever we want.”


True to his word, Ace mugged a Marine for a uniform. Specifically, he stole the jacket. And rolled up the sleeves so that his spelling accident of a tattoo was on full display. He stashed Striker just out of sight while I slapped a fūinjutsu-derived genjutsu over both it and the Nautilus, then turned to Yugito and me with a clear expectation of not being laughed at.

And to be fair, we weren’t laughing.

“This…will be a disaster,” Yugito pronounced, shaking her head in disbelief. “A fiasco. We will be telling our non-existent future children about this as a warning for their children. We’re going to need to put this in a report.”

“You seriously have that little faith in me?” Ace asked, unjustifiably baffled (in my humble opinion). “Come on, the Marines are idiots.”

I made the appropriate hand seals and vanished under a thin veil of water-based invisibility genjutsu. Sensei had given it a name I couldn’t remember, so Water Release: Refraction was what I was going with. Underneath it, I had a Transformation going that would make me look like any rank-and-file Marine mook from a distance.

Yugito’s genjutsu felt a bit hotter, probably based on heat distortion, but I had no doubt she knew how to avoid any attention that might bring her.

“You two both suck,” Ace said to what, to him, would have seemed like empty air.

Regardless, all three of us still ventured into the Marine base and immediately split up to explore.

I would not be surprised if he is heading for food, Isobu said as I snuck past a pair of chattering officers. I needed to find higher-ranking prey.

You and me both, Isobu, I thought wryly. Following the sound of one pompous voice and half a dozen others muttering underneath, I made my way up through the corridors and toward an apparent conference room.

“This coffee is undrinkable,” griped someone as I passed.

Not exactly the intelligence I was looking for. Though I’ll skip raiding the coffee pots anyway.

What is coffee?

Think tea, but far stronger, and it basically tastes burned. So what if I was describing it in the worst way I could think of? I had a style to uphold even if I liked coffee.

…Humans eat the strangest things.

I shrugged to myself and headed on, since if all the officers were trapped in a meeting it would be harder for them to personally defend their paperwork. I’d heard enough about Marines to know that of all the people in G-2, only the vice admiral was a real threat. Keeping out of his way made my life a little bit easier.

I spent a few more minutes loitering in hallways as people passed by, trying to decide which office to truly ransack. I wanted a few specific things, like a few more backups for my ink supply and every ship schedule I could get my hands on, but would also stop for such goodies as an unclaimed snail or an operational black book. Thanks to invisibility and the ability to cast a genjutsu on everyone besides Yugito, I could take my sweet time for that.

It took me about ten minutes to find something worth the effort. I managed to find Vice Admiral Comil’s quarters, steal an entire wall safe by stuffing it in a storage seal, and start prepping the filing cabinets for the same treatment. I was making progress!

And then the intruder alert went off, making me freeze in place even though I was still invisible. Outside, men ran all over the place and filled the halls with the sounds of their boots pounding on the floor, but none of them stopped in the office. If I had to imagine, the intruder was probably my terminally unsubtle friend with the pyromaniac tendencies. Yugito wasn’t that careless.

I packed up my things and eased the door open as soon as I couldn’t detect anyone outside of it, then strode out of the officers’ hall with half a mind to knock the freckles right off Ace’s face.

I wonder what broke his cover.

Probably something stupid. I rounded a corner as the Marines continued to run around in a panic, shouting about an intruder. Really, if this was their idea of decent response time, they needed a good kick in the pants.

Ace seemed willing to provide an incentive.

“I take it this wasn’t our fault,” Yugito’s voice whispered out of a hollow in the wall. At first glance, the shadow of the columns nearby was entirely innocent, but I could tell exactly where Yugito was.

“Not remotely,” I replied, already moving on. Yugito would be fine, and I needed to assuage my curiosity as well as Isobu’s by investigating the cause of the disturbance.

Of course, it had to be Ace.

A few seconds later, I came across an officer, who had clearly been punched unconscious, lying in the middle of a hallway. Judging by the way the Marines were still running all over the place and the officer’s lack of either a jacket or indeed any clothes other than his underwear, it had happened quite recently. That boy needs to wear some kind of tracking device. This is ridiculous.

And you need to give him one, Isobu responded. He yawned, then said, Incidentally, a new ship has arrived in the harbor.

Oh?

…It is now aflame. The window approximately thirty meters from your location disgorged a fireball.

…I don’t suppose you have any idea why?

“This coffee is terrible!” is the only thing I heard. Aside from the shouting going on now.

Though no one could see me, I dragged my hand over my face. This was becoming far too common of an experience. Would it have killed Ace to just not do that?

“The secret intelligence ship is on fire!” screeched someone, and I looked up from my moment of comedic despair to figure out who the hell had spoken.

Given the coat, this was Vice Admiral Comil. In the time it took me to think that, the man rushed off while shouting about fire control, clutching at his face in utter panic.

I sighed, then opened the window and snuck out. While G-2 was nestled in a pretty sheltered spot, the ability to walk right up the fortress’s walls made their physical defenses pretty useless. While the flaming ship in the bay marked the spot where Ace would probably end up, for the sake of the show he’d just started, I hopped from rock to rock toward the Nautilus.

About ten minutes later, Yugito’s chakra finally started heading my way. The entire time, I’d mostly just been watching the ship burn and wishing that someone, somewhere, had invented marshmallows. With Yugito on her way, though, I dismissed the thought of confections and turned my attention to the mission again.

“I probably don’t need to tell you where our navigator ended up,” Yugito said, still not dropping her genjutsu.

“Nope,” I said. “If I were a betting person…”

“Don’t even finish that sentence. I don’t want to know,” Yugito groaned, sitting down on the seat that, in a car, would have been “shotgun.” On the Nautilus, I wasn’t sure what to call it. None of the locals seemed to use anything other than flintlocks of various types, so the terminology probably didn’t carry over.

Sometime after that, Ace finally showboated his way out of the Marine ship’s funeral pyre, even if he got shot at plenty of times. And probably ended up standing on a man’s head. It took him a bit longer to actually escape the base, but by the time he reached us Yugito and I were already ready to go.

In fact, we were nearly gone, being already ten meters off the rocks by the time Ace arrived.

“Screw you both,” he said, once his leap carried him onto the back of the Nautilus safely.

“You brought that on yourself,” said Yugito, who was wholly out of patience.

“So you were going to take Striker?” Ace demanded. Why was he more offended by the prospect of losing his boat than his life?

“Actually,” I said from the helm, “I was going to bring them around in case we needed to pick you up.”

“Oh. That’s cool, then,” Ace said. He glanced around, then added, “Kind of a crappy haul, though…”

Yugito pinched the bridge of her nose, but otherwise ignored Ace’s remark. Instead, she said to me, “Why do you keep spoiling him? There are genin with more discipline!”

“I know, and I’ve trained three of them,” I replied, “but I basically gave up on controlling what Ace does months ago.”

“…The hell’s a genin?” Ace asked, once again perching on the back row of chairs like a giant bird.

Oh, right. “It means ‘low ninja,’ which means…something like ‘rookies,’ or the idiot sailors we ran rings around today.” I shrugged. “They’re usually young, generally get the boring jobs, and get to learn from teachers or retire. And they’re prone to recklessness due to ignorance.”

On the other hand, genin are our precious children,” Yugito corrected me a bit aggressively. “Everyone above that rank had to start there.”

Spoken like a woman with no students. I loved my trio of dragon hatchlings, but their antics would be the death of me someday.

…Though Ace was forcing me to reevaluate that assessment pretty much every third day.

“Again, screw you both,” Ace concluded. He held up what looked like an armored briefcase—which still made me wonder how he hadn’t instantly burned everything when he was turned into Swiss cheese via bullets—and held it up. “I got the documents I need to find Teach. What did you get?”

“I stole Comil’s wall safe and secure filing cabinet,” I said. “Yugito?”

“Why do you assume I stole anything?” Yugito crossed her arms defensively.

“Because you’re a kunoichi hanging out with a pirate?” I guessed.

“I didn’t steal anything,” Yugito insisted.

“Then what’s that?” Ace asked, pointing to a lump that finally crawled up onto her back from the depths of her open rucksack.

The lump in question fully uncurled, revealing a disturbingly human-featured blue snail with a pink shell, easily the size of an entire backpack. It had the sigil for G-2 inscribed on both sides of its shell, complete with Marine flag. It bobbed its stalk-eyes and grinned rather nervously when it noticed Ace and I were both gaping at it.

“I heard you complain about using public snails on the island before last,” Yugito explained, shrugging. The snail crawling on her bobbed both eyestalks again, as though trying to imitate her movements and then remembering the limitations of being a mollusk. “So I asked this snail if it would like to join us.”

Ace recovered first, peering at the creature. “Wait, this is the big transponder snail for all of G-2.”

“If Komushi cared, it wouldn’t have agreed,” Yugito said coolly, while the snail attached itself more firmly to her shoulder and hunkered down for the long haul.

“No, I mean that Komushi probably has some serious range with that Marine transceiver rig,” Ace corrected, reaching over to gently poke at the dial on Komushi’s shell and make it spin. Though I hadn’t spent too much time around transponder snails due to traveling a lot in a very small boat or in a very large stomach, the metal contraption attached to Komushi was much more elaborate than the machines I’d seen before. The microphone even had an enamel-and-gold-filigree backing.

“So, does that mean you’ll finally call Captain Whitebeard yourself instead of making me give the updates?” I teased Ace. “Because if you skip out again, I’m going to start making things up.”

“Given your reaction to the stuff I actually do, I say you can do your worst,” Ace challenged me with a bright grin. “Besides, I can just top it next time.”

Punk. There were many reasons I occasionally wanted to throttle him.

“I’m missing a bit of context here,” Yugito said, watching Ace and me bicker. She took the time to feed the giant snail an entire head of lettuce, since Komushi had been patient so far.

“Everyone generally is,” I said distractedly, directing us out of the path of a rampaging Sea King before Isobu grabbed its fore-fins and dragged it underwater. The resultant swell flattened into something the Nautilus could manage when he flared his chakra, and we shot over the disturbance with Striker in tow without an issue.

Amazing how such things became mundane.

“Ace, give him a call,” I continued, like nothing had happened. “He’s probably going to hear about what happened at G-2 sooner or later.”

“Probably later, since we st—recruited their snail,” Ace corrected himself, as Komushi whipped both eyestalks around to stare him down. “You know if I call, I’ll probably get Thatch. And he’s just going to go on and on about food again.”

“I have that part handled,” I replied, so Ace had no further excuses.

While Ace picked up the microphone and punched in the numbers for the Whitebeards’ longest-ranged snail, Yugito frowned and leaned over to whisper, “Would that be about feeding him?”

“Thatch knows him pretty well,” I said. Ace ate like a black hole in a densely-organized star system, which would put a dent in most discretionary funds the world over. And unlike the Whitebeards, I didn’t generally have a steady income from knocking over Marine ships. “Or I guess he could be worried I still haven’t managed to do more on a ship than peel potatoes. He was pretty worked up about that last week.”

“That seems…arbitrary.” Yugito subsided, shaking her head.

“It’s kind of an inside joke,” I admitted, as the other end of Ace’s call finally picked up.

Who’s this supposed to be?” Thatch’s voice rang out, and Komushi took on his wide habitual grin even if the pompadour and goatee were a bit outside of its capabilities. “Kei, is that you? Did you get another snail again? What did I say last time about buying your own?

“Sorry, it sounds like I’ve got the wrong number,” Ace replied cheekily. “I’ll hang up.”

ACE!” Thatch boomed. “Don’t you dare, you complete asshole! We’ve been—Marco, Marco, get over here, Ace finally showed his stupid face—

And then the other end of the call devolved into a lot of voices shouting at once. Some of them were identifiable as greetings of various decibel counts and hostility levels, and I could pick Thatch out as one of the loudest and happiest of the lot.

“Yugito, do you want to steer?” I asked, leaning over the back of my chair. “I wanna talk to them a bit.”

“Should I introduce myself?” Yugito wondered aloud.

Izo’s voice broke in with, “Who’s there, Ace?

I supposed that answered her question, then.

“A cat,” I said, before Yugito could say anything.

“I can answer for myself,” Yugito said primly. “My name is Nii Yugito. I am…an associate of Kei’s.”

“Strong words, there,” I said immediately, drawing a glare from her. “But Yugito and I do know each other and are traveling with Ace and won’t let him die.”

“I already said that,” said Yugito peevishly.

…Is this the same Kei who couldn’t even hold a conversation with Namur?” asked Marco, because he didn’t stop being a snarker even if I was thousands of miles away.

“Hey, I got Ace to finally call you for real, so lay off,” I griped.

Ace rolled his eyes. “You can’t really call Marco out for nagging when that’s half of what you do.”

“…Why did I have to get stuck with you two?” Yugito wondered aloud.

Thatch’s voice piped up again, “Hey, Yugito, are you a cat that ate the Hito Hito no Mi, or a human that ate the Neko Neko no Mi?

Yugito paused, nonplussed. “Excuse me?”

Oh, right. Grand Line bullshit. Hastily, I cut in with, “It’s just a joke, Thatch. Yugito doesn’t know what Devil Fruits are.”

I got the impression that Thatch was scratching his head in confusion as he said, “So she’s a mink?

“No, Thatch. Yugito’s human,” Ace corrected, but while muffling a laugh. “Probably.”

“Again, how did I get stuck with the two of you?” Yugito complained, shaking her head.

If that didn’t set the tone for the rest of the conversation, I don’t know what would. Anyway, we stayed on that call for maybe two hours, while Yugito somewhat distractedly steered us this way and that according to the Log Pose. She wasn’t as confident in the spinning hell-magnet as the rest of us, but she did perfectly well.


The next major island was more of a pit stop than anything, about two weeks later. We hit a couple of smaller spots, to avoid starving to death or running out of water, but it was the first time in quite a while for new bounty postings. The News Coo had too much trouble finding us to really get consistent reports.

“Ah-ha!” Ace crowed in triumph, holding another large sheaf of paper he’d probably stolen from the post office.

Yugito and I were sitting outside of a nice little café that Ace hadn’t hit yet, with Yugito testing her snail friend’s call list and me checking in with Isobu about other Tailed Beasts (while apparently reading a comic page in a day-old newspaper). Apparently, Matatabi, Kokuō, and Shukaku were still doing fine, and Shukaku rambled on about a new destination for the Straw Hats. I didn’t quite get the idea of a Sky Island, but apparently it was a thing despite physics sobbing in the corner.

And then Ace rocketed back from wherever and slapped the paperwork down between us on the fancy table.

“Hi, nice to see you again?” Yugito said, looking up from the mechanism she was poking at with a tiny screwdriver. The dial of the transceiver rig was lying on the table, but since Komushi wasn’t panicking I decided not to care even if I didn’t know when she’d done that.

“Luffy’s crew has new bounties after Alabasta,” Ace announced, pulling up a chair at our table. “Wanna see?”

I folded my newspaper and set it aside, where Komushi considered eating it.  “Is Gaara in there?”

Ace flipped through the pile of paperwork, then pulled out a poster to hand to me. Glaring up from under a half-shield of sand, Gaara’s photo stirred something akin to pride at the same time as it made my stomach try to turn into a knot. Pirate or not, he was twelve years old. Sure, he could turn most grown men into bone-flecked meat paste or blood splatter, but…

“…I guess the Marines really don’t care that he’s a kid,” I muttered, frowning faintly. “‘Red Sand’ Gaara. A bounty of thirty-one million beris.”

“…Wasn’t that Sasori’s epithet?” Yugito asked, picking up what looked like Zoro’s bounty poster. Sixty million beris for the Pirate Hunter, apparently. I wasn’t sure why they kept calling him that when he obviously didn’t hunt pirates anymore.

“It beat Luffy’s first bounty,” Ace said, poking through the rest of the pile. “Huh, and so did his swordsman. Not bad.”

Who assigns a partner of Shukaku’s a name like that? Isobu grumbled, quite unhappy with the sudden reminder of Sasori’s existence. Even if the guy was thoroughly dead, Isobu had seen my account of one version of Gaara and his (temporary) demise and could be tetchy about it.

Marines who have no idea what cultural context is, I think.

We flipped through the pile a little more, then found a few new faces for the Marines’ office dartboards.

“Wait, Ace, you didn’t just grab the Straw Hats’ bounties, right?” I asked as I stared down at a very familiar face.

“Nah, I grabbed the whole pile. There’s usually a note saying which crew they belong to,” Ace said, still drinking in the sight of his brother’s bounty poster. A hundred million beris in less than a year was an impressive accomplishment, I supposed. “Why?”

I groaned aloud and turned the poster in my hands around. Yugito gaped openly, while Ace just looked confused.

“Shanks actually got another redhead to join his crew,” Ace said. “So what?”

“Th-that’s—” Yugito cut herself off, then glared at me. While I held up my hands in clearly sarcastic surrender, Yugito snarled, “She’s a jinchūriki?”

That cat was definitely out of the bag.

I set the poster down on the table, looking down at a picture of Kushina about to punch the photographer’s lights out. “Uzumaki Kushina, new-slash-old nickname ‘Blood-Red Habanero’ and worth two hundred and fifty million beris just for being on an Emperor’s crew.” I paused, rereading the poster upside-down. “And for assaulting a Marine officer in the line of duty, and for aiding and abetting piracy, theft of government property thanks to raiding a slaving ship single-handedly, and for half a dozen other things I know she would’ve done. Fuck.”

“Your Hokage’s wife must not believe in low profiles,” Yugito commented, sotto voce.

“Nope.” I smacked my hand into my face again. Then I thought of a better idea and slammed my forehead into the table. Twice. Muffled by the table, I groaned miserably.

“What’s a Hokage?” Ace asked, probably tilting his head to one side like a curious bird. Because of course he didn’t share my pain.

“Think if one of the Four Emperors decided to settle on land. And establish a country,” I muttered into the tabletop. While Komushi and Ace digested that, I could hear Ace stealing my food but couldn’t bring myself to care. And then a thought struck me and I sat bolt upright again. “Fucking shit.”

“What?” Ace asked, around a croissant.

“I know why Kushina’s raising hell.” And it was because of Naruto. As the other jinchūriki for Kurama, that kid could’ve been pulled through the same way the rest of us were. Kushina was a shinobi even if she was pretty bombastic, and she knew the value of keeping a low profile when in a new environment as well if not better than I did. But if Naruto landed separately from Kushina, then she’d be willing to tear the planet in half to find him the second she realized that her son was in trouble.

No wonder she’d gone full pirate. The Marines would’ve tried to stop her and suffered the consequences from both her and Yin Kurama.

Yang Kurama would only have the first shot at anyone who tried to hurt Naruto due to proximity.

“So…?” Yugito prompted.

So hell if I’d tell Yugito about Naruto before I had to. Even if Yugito seemed nice enough, if formal, I didn’t trust anyone from Kumogakure that far.

“So if she asks, I’m gonna help,” I growled instead, “even if I have to burn my anonymity in a funeral pyre shared by entire fleets.”

Yugito just looked away, all too familiar with the darkness associated with hanging onto humanity by the (extended) fingernails. Yugito would have figured it out before I had needed to, given how Kumogakure trained their jinchūriki, and she respected the abyss yawning inside some of our souls. It was hungry.

…I needed to never read Roku’s vent poetry ever again.

Moving on,” Ace said warily, scooting away from me the slightest bit. “Know this guy?”

For the universe’s next trick, Yugito got to experience my reaction from the inside. “Killer B?!”

And right in front of us, grinning and making two perfect sets of bull’s horns with his fingers, was the other jinchūriki from Yugito’s hometown. He had his shades, too, but had replaced his Kumo headband with a plain bandanna with the iconic cloud stitched into it. I didn’t know if he’d lost it or what, but the guy was certainly rocking the new career choice.

“Oh nooooo…” Yugito moaned, dropping her hand into her hands. “Lord Eight-Tails, why would you do this?”

“He’s even on the same crew,” Ace remarked. He smoothed the poster against the table, still trying to read it while Yugito succumbed to comedic despair. “It looks like he’s wanted for a lot of the same things, but add in…cattle-raiding? What the hell is that?”

“Stealing cows,” I said, without looking up from the poster. Killer B and Kushina as a part of the same crew…

I didn’t know when I’d be able to contact them, but it was clear they were doing okay. I just had to wonder where Rōshi, Utakata, Fū, and Naruto had gone. Han was fine, Gaara was with Luffy, and both Yugito and I were going to keep doing our thing. At least until we turned Teach into a historical footnote.

“Ace, do you have any idea how we’d be able to talk to the Red Hair Pirates?” I asked. “Because while Kushina and Killer B are our seniors, we still need to find them.”

“They’ve already been found,” Ace pointed out, while Yugito continued to mutter into the table. While I tried and failed to come up with a reason for why new members of an Emperor’s crew might be in more trouble than we generally were, Ace went on, “We can finish up the hunt for Teach and then backtrack all the way to the New World afterward, okay? And I don’t have Shanks’s snail number anyway. I don’t think Pops does either.”

I sighed, weighing my options. While I could probably get back into the New World with just Isobu’s help, and bring Yugito along for the ride, I wasn’t comfortable leaving Ace to take on the Whitebeards’ traitor on his own. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe in Ace’s luck after all the recent displays thereof, but we still didn’t know what had been so fucking special about the fruit that Teach would kill Thatch over it. Or try to kill Thatch, and fail by a hair’s breadth.

If Teach had picked up a crew to compensate for the apparent hitch in his step (going by the information Ace had uncovered about his movements, both personal and in general), anything could happen. The casualty tally would easily tick upward into triple or even quadruple digits depending on where it all went down, and I knew that while Ace would try to avoid hurting bystanders, Teach would not.

I couldn’t leave it to chance.

So I said, “Fine. Let’s roast that bastard on a spit and be done with it.”


Of course, events conspired against us.

While heading for some island or other, none of which I could recall by name afterward, Isobu broke through the general traveling haze of boredom by surfacing ahead of Striker’s nose, making Ace swerve like an adrenaline junkie to avoid hitting him and crunching his rocket-powered raft against my turtle friend’s face.

“What the hell was that about?!” I heard Ace yelling from Striker as Yugito and I pulled up alongside him. After a second’s thought, Yugito put the Nautilus directly between Isobu and Ace, preventing him from throwing a fireball.

Saiken is approaching us,” Isobu announced, with his golden gaze falling on all of us in turn. Yugito and I already had our hands over our ears, and I saw Ace’s catch fire for a second. “At speed.

Did he say why? I asked, already casting my chakra sense outward to see what—if anything—I could pick up about the Six-Tailed Beast before he arrived. He had the highest number of tails we’d encountered so far, beating out Kokuō by one. And I really didn’t want to fight him even if he was a slug slamming on the figurative gas.

I saw Ace pin his hat to his head with his hand, then hop over to the Nautilus from Striker’s bow. “Which number is he?” he asked once he arrived, cooling his heels on the stern.

“Six,” I said, frowning. “But…wait, Isobu—” What about his partner?

That is the problem. Isobu’s tails churned the water as he slowly turned to face our right. In the distance…yes, just entering my fifty-kilometer range, an absolute monster of a chakra signature was heading our way. Isobu was in that weight class, but the rest of us? Not even close.

“Brace for impact,” I said aloud in a grim tone. “Because this? This could hurt.”

Chapter Text

Our first impression of Saiken was…uh.

Mixed.

On one hand, he was a slug about the size of Katsuyu on one of her better days, but with legs and hands. Tiny hands on tiny arms. And he also had six tails, all of which were the collective reason why he wasn’t instantly sinking into the ocean. His eyestalks were about the only parts of him that weren’t flailing in a mad panic that looked entirely incongruous on a slug of all creatures. He moved far too fast. Saiken even towered over Isobu, who sat low in the water for the novelty of it even if he had to hold a conversation.

And then he spoke.

Bro, little bro!” Now, I didn’t doubt that he had a roar somewhere in him, but that voice was not the type of sound that made sense coming out of something that big. He sounded like a monster had inhaled twenty thousand helium balloons and made the effect permanent. It was like a man post-groin attack, where it jumped two octaves in pain and then didn’t come back down.

“…Is that seriously his voice?” Ace asked me in a whisper, while hiding his mouth from view. Saiken was still a Tailed Beast, after all, and we were at sea and oh right Ace could easily drown.

“I do believe it is,” Yugito responded ahead of me.

I was too busy beating my forehead against the wheel.

Eventually, Yugito took pity on me and slid her hand between my head and the wood. When I stopped upon nearly crushing her fingers and rethought my strategy enough to look up, she said, “If you could be more productive than this, it would be very helpful.”

Or not.

Still, I redirected my attention out to the Tailed Beast reunion we were barely avoiding being flattened by. Ace couldn’t tow the Nautilus with Striker, but he could evaporate a wave or two before they capsized us.

Bro, bro, it’s been so long since I’ve seen you!” Saiken wailed, making all of us slap our hands over our ears because ow.

You could at least try to use my name, Saiken,” Isobu said, and though I didn’t see his expression, his tone implied exasperation.

At a hundred decibels. Yeah, probably time for humans to not be around.

“Any ideas?” Ace called back over his shoulder, while Yugito joined him on wave-deflecting duty.

“Yeah. Not being right here.” I completed a quick sequence of hand seals, and the next incoming wave curled around us, conveying both vessels out of the inevitable splash zone.

Isobu’s right tail created a much gentler wave, pushing our boats to a safer distance the second my jutsu lost momentum. He didn’t really seem to be aware he was doing it—he’d gotten all too used to looking after our little human boats—but I picked up the thread well enough. To my not-so-experienced eye, it looked like Saiken was gearing up to jump.

“Yugito, the wheel’s yours,” I said as I stuck myself more firmly to the Nautilus with chakra. I’d probably need to be on guard for round two. “Ace, grab Striker and get ready to get a crash course in surfing.”

Ace eyed Saiken, then swore quietly to himself. “Got it.” In a flash of fire, he was gone and powering Striker back up to full speed. While Ace shot across the sea, Yugito accelerated the Nautilus a bit more slowly for our sakes. Not everyone was a Logia.

We made it before Saiken practically enveloped Isobu in his stretchy mass, looping around my friend’s shell twice over before anyone could catch onto what was happening. “I missed you s-s-s-so much, Isobu!

That is all very nice, but get off me!” Isobu shouted, unaffected by the constriction in terms of actual breathing, but sounding inconvenienced nonetheless. He thrashed on reflex alone, all three tails pumping, as Saiken latched on still more persistently.

For little squishy humans in the way, it was the next best thing to doomsday.

I made the appropriate hand signs, feeling my chakra converting to water almost as rapidly as I could stand. Just a little more, plus the environmental boost… Water Release: Water Wall.

As the titan-sized ripple—more of a tsunami to us—rose to engulf our boats, I blasted it head-on with a burst of water designed to shield buildings from massive Fire Release attacks. Alone, there was no way I could generate enough water to neutralize even one of those waves. But thanks to Isobu’s chakra and the ocean’s own mass, I could continually reinforce what chakra-produced water I could spit up, far faster and heavier than I would have been able to do on my own.

And it coincidentally made the Nautilus rocket away from the scene nearly as fast as Striker’s top speed, though in a more unstable manner.

“Next time, warn me before you do that,” Yugito said, as she steered the Nautilus’s bow to face the waves instead of whatever sideways skidding crap we were doing before.

I coughed, spitting a leftover mouthful of water off the side of the ship. Using saltwater as a shortcut made for a really nasty aftertaste. “N-No problem.” Hopefully I wouldn’t need to deal with that again for a bit.

I take it Saiken is upset. Even as I formed the thought, I balked at its inadequacy. “Frantic” would be a better word. “Inconsolable” was next on the list.

That may be an understatement, Isobu replied in a somewhat distracted mental voice. “Saiken, what happened to your partner?

Uta told m-m-me to l-leave,” Saiken sobbed, though I had half a dozen questions about the physical mechanics of such an act. The animal he most closely resembled didn’t have the correct anatomical structures for it.

“Did I hear that right?” Yugito asked me, her free hand pressed against her ear and her face contorted in a wince. I felt her use Matatabi’s chakra to speed her recovery before she spoke again. “Saiken abandoned his…host?”

“It sounded more like Utakata abandoned him,” I murmured, frowning.

It wasn’t the first time I’d heard of a complete breakdown in relations between Tailed Beast and human partner, but Utakata couldn’t be much better off than Yugito had been when I first met her. Sheer necessity should have kept them together while they found their feet. Saiken would have been his only ally by default in this mad world. Something must have happened.

Isobu and I had officially been partners instead of two beings allied by mutual survival for well over a decade. While I knew damned well that our friendship was unusual, I’d still never considered that another pair would split like this. Sure, Kurama—both of them—talked about this kind of thing when they were frustrated or deliberately provoking people, but I hadn’t recalled anything specific about Utakata and Saiken that would lead to a breakup. And if Saiken was this upset about it, the choice couldn’t have been mutual.

“We need more information,” was all I said aloud. Instead, I turned my attention to my partner. Isobu, what the hell happened with them?

Since Isobu was still being constricted by a babbling monster slug, I didn’t get an answer immediately. Of course I didn’t.

Tell me what happened, Saiken,” Isobu managed, once he wasn’t being squeezed until his shell creaked ominously. He’d recover, but what the fuck. “And let go.

I-It was awful!” Saiken uncurled from Isobu’s shell, shifting back into his default form with his disproportionately small hands clutching at empty air in anxiety. “Uta fought another human, and I couldn’t reach him, and he got hurt and—I know where Uta is, but he’s not talking to me and the sea is too hot there—

Hot?” Isobu repeated. “Saiken, was there some kind of flame? Or lava?

Why would there be lava in the open ocean? Son Gokū is nowhere near here!” Saiken asked, flailing his tiny arms. Kinda Tyrannosaurus-like really. “I-I’m not stupid!

I had an idea. When Ace reappeared from around the other side of the arguing Tailed Beasts, I stood up on the Nautilus’s stern and waved both arms to catch his attention despite the waves. Sure, I could have shot a Water Dragon Bullet at him, but that would probably count as “unnecessarily hostile” by any standard. Even if it was steerable.

Answer the question!” Isobu bellowed back in his stronger brother’s face as Ace skipped across the waves in our direction.

“Did you catch any of that?” I asked Ace without so much as a pause for a greeting. We had two titanic monsters arguing in the middle of the open ocean to contend with, after all.

“Hard to miss it,” Ace said, raising his voice slightly to be heard over the cacophony of background noise.

Yugito growled, while wrestling with the steering, “Does Lava Release exist here?”

I repeated the question for Ace’s benefit, and he responded with, “Lava—no, not by that name. But Admiral Akainu ate the Magu Magu no Mi, and he’s definitely someone to not tangle with.”

And if Utakata hadn’t met any other friendly jinchūriki and was instead limited to just his own power… Shit. Information, information… I asked the first question that came to mind. “Any idea what he looks like?”

Maybe Saiken would be able to identify him. Maybe not. But any information was more useful than the dearth we faced now.

“I don’t have a recruitment poster handy,” Ace said, his eyes briefly rolling skyward as he thought, “but off hand? Ten feet tall, probably around fifty, looks like a pinch-faced bastard uncle and has a Marine cap.”

“I take it you’ve seen him before?” I asked, sitting on the edge of the Nautilus and holding Striker at a distance with both feet. I didn’t want to see what would happen if the boats collided, even in some minor incident like being pushed together by random eddies.

“Only at a distance.” Ace sat on Striker’s sole actual seat, leaning back to observe Isobu and Saiken’s continued argument. “So, this ‘Uta’ smacked right into an Admiral right off the bat?” Ace made a “tch” noise, then spat over the side of the boat. “Talk about rotten luck. Akainu is the biggest bastard out of all three Admirals. He’s all ‘absolute justice’ all the time or whatever. Never lets a pirate live if he can kill them first.”

Well, that suited what I’d read of the man. Melting entire enemy ships with lava was…perhaps overkill, perhaps not. But certainly most people wouldn’t survive that.

And “Absolute Justice”? I’d heard that line before, too, in the form of the “Swift Death to Evil” mantra. It was definitely less poetic when it was pointed at us.

I was nodding along until a thought struck me. I felt my face freeze in place. “Wait a sec…”

I shoved Striker away for a second, then stood up with Isobu’s chakra overlaying mine as much to get his attention as it was to make myself heard. “Ace, Yugito, cover your ears.” Once they did, I shouted, “Saiken, do you know if Utakata is alive?!

Both Tailed Beasts’ heads swiveled toward me, though Isobu’s lack of a real neck meant he had to turn his entire body for the same effect.

I-I think he is!” Saiken’s six tails all lashed, one after the other. A little more firmly, he added, “Uta has to be!

Taking that as truth—Saiken would know if Utakata had managed to drop dead, right?—then something must have happened that could cut the connection between them down to almost nothing. And I still remembered the first time I’d been entirely cut off from Isobu after being sealed, thanks to the Five Elements Seal being installed as an emergency measure. But I was under no illusions about any kind of last-second, measured seal modification happening anywhere around here, least of all at the hands of an Admiral. Something he’d done must have screwed around with Utakata’s seal.

The last time that happened, I’d almost died even with Sensei and Kushina on hand. Utakata, at most, had me.

I ran a hand through my hair, decision already made. Isobu, we’re going to follow Saiken back to Utakata and see what we can do to help.

You are certain? Isobu’s question came out flat, like it wasn’t really a question at all. He already knew damn well that while I liked to waffle about things, I couldn’t say no to someone in trouble when I was the only one who could help.

Yeah, I am. And I still needed to check in with Yugito and Ace about the choice.

I let Isobu’s chakra drop back out of my system, waved for Ace to return since it was safe enough for his eardrums, and mentally steeled myself. Ace brought Striker close again so we could hold the conversation, and Yugito cut the power to the Nautilus’s engine. Behind and looming over us, both Isobu and Saiken leaned in to listen.

“Got something to say?” Ace asked at a completely normal volume, since the Tailed Beasts were being polite again.

“Yeah.” I crossed my arms, frowning. “I need to follow Saiken back to Utakata and see what I can do for him.”

Ace blinked, then the words caught up with his thoughts and finally interrupted them. “Wait, you’re leaving? When we’re this close to finally putting an end to Teach once and for all?” Under the disbelief, the anger, I could have sworn I heard a note of…hurt?

Well, I’d already known this conversation was going to be a flurry of punches to the gut, so what was one more?

“Utakata doesn’t have a chance otherwise,” I said reluctantly, because each word hurt to form. I didn’t want to leave, but ultimately a mission of revenge didn’t compare to a life-saving one. In a lower tone, I muttered, “And even if he’s probably going to want to kill me.”

Yugito pursed her lips ever so slightly, then said, “I doubt he’ll get far. You’ll simply have to reunite with us in a few days.” Yugito knew all too well how weak she’d been before the Wristband of Doom started loosening. She, at least, had confidence in my ability to handle myself.

Ace still didn’t seem convinced. Flame flickered along his forearms as he drummed his fingers against them in agitation. “Can’t the guy just go to a doctor?”

I tried to imagine it. Blood, death, and destruction came to mind immediately. The last time I’d lost myself in Isobu’s strength had been…bad. Utakata wouldn’t be using Saiken’s power, but injured jōnin never reacted well to strangers trying anything out of the ordinary. Add in the likelihood that his injury wasn’t one medicine could handle…

“No, that…would be pretty much impossible,” I said, my shoulders sagging. “I’m the only person on this side of the Red Line who might be able to stabilize him, since Kushina’s with Shanks in the New World.”

“Aaaand I just told you last week that we can’t spare the time to go back,” Ace muttered. “Damn.” He tilted his head to one side, frowning. “What exactly is wrong with this ‘Uta’ guy?”

“I won’t know for sure until I get there,” I admitted, “but all of the likely options are pretty dire.”

Isobu raised his left tail, like he was in class. He didn’t have enough range of motion on his shoulders to do the same with his arms, but the effect was similar. “Is there a reason that Saiken could not simply summon Utakata back here?

There was a very long pause. Then Yugito and I simultaneously smacked ourselves in our respective foreheads. I’d introduced her to the concept, and she hadn’t remembered either. Personally I thought I was more at fault for the brain fart since Yugito rarely summoned Matatabi, while I’d been through both ends of things before. Twice.

“Ace, what’s the next island called?” I asked, after I managed to calm myself down. Two birds with one stone, two birds with…okay, I still felt dumb, but there was a way to salvage the situation after all. Utakata would be fine.

“Banaro Island,” Ace said immediately, perking up now that there seemed to be a solution to the problem of our group breaking up.

And I made us sound like the Beatles or something.

“I don’t think bringing Utakata to the same island as where we expect to find Teach would be ideal, but…” But Utakata needed help now. Delaying wasn’t an option. “Isobu, show him how to do it. We’ll just adapt.”

I’ll summon him on your back, Isobu!” Saiken said, once he had the technique figured out. He leaned over Isobu, both stalk-eyes swinging around wildly as he tried to plan. “Parts are flat, right?

Well, some parts weren’t spiky. Close enough.

I was already leaping out of the boat and toward Isobu, accompanied by all of my fūinjutsu gear, by the time Saiken made the first hand seal. I heard Ace shout when I bounced off a wave (“She can walk on water?”), but quickly shot out of range and up the miniature mountain that was Isobu’s crab-like shell. By using Isobu’s spikes as launching points, I arrived just as Saiken summoned Utakata to the apex of Isobu’s shell.

My first look at Utakata told me that we would have been better off if Saiken had brought him over on Isobu’s hand, because at least then I’d be able to access cool water faster. Parts of his skin were various shades of unhealthily pink, reddish, blistered and weeping, or even black in some places, indicating as many varied types of burns as there were ways to be burned. While no finger or toe seemed to have been entirely converted into dead flesh or bone, but he did not look good.

While I’d never seen Utakata in anything other than the blue kimono he’d died in, in another lifetime, here he’d found a pirate getup very similar to Marco’s but in blue rather than purple. It looked quite pirate-like, complete with a Jolly Roger. I had to wonder if that was what had gotten him into this mess. Either way, in some places his flesh stuck to the cloth where bits had burned.

Utakata wheezed a breath, but it dissolved into coughing a moment later as the other fun effect of being exposed to that much flame and heat—smoke inhalation—made itself known. Even at my best I couldn’t fix all of this.

Whether it was jinchūriki vitality or something else, Utakata’s eyelashes fluttered. His orange irises were clearly visible for a moment—unfocused but responding to light—before his eyes slid shut again. I channeled a small portion of Isobu’s chakra into my right hand to see if I could change anything just on reflex, then stopped with my fingertips an inch above his singed skin.

I couldn’t heal him. I didn’t have the knowledge or the ability, and if I didn’t do something he would die.

Or at least I couldn’t heal him directly. Isobu, ask if Utakata can regenerate from these kinds of injuries. Show Saiken what I’m seeing if you have to.

But that kind of order was unnecessary. Saiken loomed over Isobu’s back, both stalk-eyes leaning down and examining his human partner without needing any prompting. “Uta, Uta… This isn’t fair! That human—he wasn’t from Iwa—

“A lot of things aren’t working the way we think they should,” I told Saiken, and his stalk-eyes focused on me. I reinforced myself with just a touch of Isobu’s chakra, to withstand this conversation. “Saiken, can Utakata heal overnight like the rest of us?” From most things, anyway.

He can’t use my chakra. If he could, yes, but…” Saiken’s tails writhed in distress and his arms flailed. “What if he dies?! He’s my friend!

Utakata’s eyes opened again, half-lidded, and I heard him whisper through cracked lips, “Fr…friends…?”

Uta! Uta, you can hear me?” Saiken cried, pushing his huge face closer to us. While I had never noticed before, Saiken’s single mouth had nine separate openings, each like a tunnel that could swallow a grown man, and all of them were pulsing as he wailed. “Uta, please! Speak to me!

Utakata’s eyes rolled up in his head. A split second later, he went completely limp.

UTA!” Saiken shrieked.

I would have so much hearing damage if not for jinchūriki healing rates. As it was, I still had my left hand clamped over my left ear when I waved to get Saiken’s attention. Once his eyes were on me again—not literally—I said, “Saiken, I’m going to see if Utakata’s seal is damaged. Please hold on, okay?”

I didn’t check to see if he was listening before I went through the hand seals for the Diagnostic Jutsu.

Unsurprisingly, there were plenty of surface-level and serious burns. Only the deepest damage had been done by direct flame, however—the rest was likely from radiant heat. If Admiral Akainu had confronted Utakata and this was just the damage from a bunch of near-misses or scaldings, then I did not want to see what that man could do if he got a direct hit.

Of course, my imagination was more than up to the task. I had a single horrifying image in mind, of a human boiling and burning to death in the same instant. Flesh bubbled and wisped away like smoke. The man in question—I didn’t need to see Shirozora’s death again. I didn’t.

Concentrate, please. Isobu’s mental voice was sharp, to draw me back to the present.

I shook myself to ignore those thoughts, then tried focusing on Utakata’s chakra network. A quick scan showed that his seal was on his back, between his shoulder blades. And so, with as much care as I could manage, I rolled Utakata over and cut his jacket apart with a chakra scalpel.

Like my seal had been at the start, his stood out in sharp black lines against his skin. And while Utakata’s seal-work was similar to mine due to the primary organizational number being four—hooray for Uzumaki sealing style motifs proliferating across the sea—one corner had been burned clean off. Going from a stable four-cornered seal matrix to this

Shit. No wonder his connection with Saiken was screwy. If he’d been able to pull on Saiken’s chakra after receiving this kind of damage to his seal, he would have probably experienced a total meltdown. In the nuclear sense.

Tearing my sealing kit from my belt, I unpacked all of my gear faster than I ever had in my life. I had scrolls, brushes, ink, references I’d built as memory aids with Isobu’s help, and a bottle of sake I’d gotten from somewhere. Not sure what the last one would be useful for, but if we were devolving back to Age of Sail levels of medicine, alcohol was something that ended up on hand whether I thought about it or not.

Any expertise either Yugito or Ace have on burns would be appreciated, I thought as I fished out the last inkwell I’d been able to steal months ago. The liquid inside was still good, so I uncorked the bottle and prepared for what really amounted to spiritual surgery.

Isobu’s voice asked the relevant question of the two resident fire-users, but there was no way I’d be able to hear any of their answers from so high up. Besides, I still needed to use my own blood as a catalyst for a seal like this, and carefully drew a line on my left hand with the point of a single chakra scalpel. There was no room for errors, no matter how small.

Yugito arrived next to me just as I finished dripping blood into the inkwell. I’d use the whole thing in one go.

“I can’t treat him for burns if you’re working on a sealing ritual,” Yugito told me flatly. When I looked at her, she was carrying the medical supply box we’d cobbled together when we first bought the Nautilus.

We did not have nearly enough bandages.

“I’m just prepping the ink. In a second, I’ll help you wash the burns out as best we can,” I said somewhat distantly, as I mixed the ink and blood together. Mostly, it meant capping the bottle again and swirling it around a few times. There were more precise methods for non-field surgery, but desperate times called for desperate measures. “But Yugito, if you touch his right hand and he gets Saiken’s chakra again, he might die from overload before he can recover.”

Yugito frowned, then glanced over my shoulder. “Ace, help me get his belt off. Anything tight needs to go.”

Ace bumped my back with his knee as he perched behind me, but did reach out to carefully remove anything that might constrict Utakata’s burns and reduce blood flow further when everything inevitably swelled up. “I’m not sure he’ll survive this. Akainu’s good at what he does.”

“That may be so,” Yugito said patiently, “but what I need is for you to manipulate his arms, because I can’t unless we want to see what happens when a jinchūriki explodes.” Yugito glanced at me for confirmation, and I nodded. “So we need to work fast so Kei can repair the seal.”

Every time one of them cleared a section of Utakata’s skin, I carefully ran jutsu-condensed fresh water over the site to clean and cool the burns. There would be no point to ointment just yet, and I couldn’t even risk cleaning the sites where it looked like Akainu had burned Utakata past even his nerve endings, but we were doing our best. None of us were truly medics, or doctors, or nurses, but we all knew fire in one form or another and we knew something of how to help.

Slowly, bandages appeared as though by magic. Whether by the power of desperation and spare clothes or something else entirely, we got Utakata cleaned up.

Honestly, by the end it seemed like his back was the least damaged part of him aside from his face. His arms had taken the worst of it, as expected from someone trying to block an unexpected attack, but the other sites I could see were already healing. It made sense given what little I knew about the revised physical rules that all of the jinchūriki were living with. Even at my lowest allotment of Isobu’s chaka—no conscious use of it—I had healed from mere cuts in seconds. The scalpel cut I’d made to add blood into the ink was already long closed.

Though Utakata was no Marco the Phoenix, he was recovering without prompting from Yugito or me. Some of the burns were visibly shrinking, leaving new-looking flesh in their wake. But it was going slowly enough, relative to the damage, that it might not matter.

He needed Saiken’s boost.

“What worries me is that he’s not awake,” Yugito murmured, while she and Ace carefully turned Utakata onto his side so I could see his seal again. “Ordinarily I’d expect at least some kind of defensive measure…”

“Utakata’s out of chakra,” I said, digging around in my sealing kit and pulling out the rougher horsehair brush I used to manipulate the ink before actually using it. “If I had to guess, it took everything he had to survive fighting Akainu.”

“I still don’t get why he even would,” Ace said, looking down at Utakata’s unconscious face. “I don’t recognize him from any posters, so it’s not like he’s a known pirate. He should have been able to get by just by avoiding the Marines, like both of you.”

“We’ll simply have to ask when he wakes up,” Yugito said.

I glanced up at her, seeing her grim expression, and wasn’t honestly sure if she was putting on a brave face or acknowledging just how many laws we were breaking to interfere with Utakata like this. It wasn’t like we knew him, but the penalties for tampering with a jinchūriki’s seal, especially if they were from another village…

Well. We’d burn that bridge when we came to it, I supposed.

“The good news is that I know how to repair this seal,” I said, after I’d properly prepared my ink and brushes. And put the junk brush away. “The bad news is that even after I do and he gets his chakra back, we don’t know how long it will take him to recover. And we also don’t know if he’ll be hostile.”

He shouldn’t be!” Saiken said, trying for something like being huffy and falling short by virtue of his worry. “Uta is a good person, you’ll see. He’s just…he’s had a hard time.

“We’ll leave that to you, then,” Yugito responded, and both of Saiken’s eyestalks bobbed in agreement.

“Do you mind telling me what—wait, no, you mentioned this. This is the same sealing ritual you talked about before.” Ace was chewing the inside of his lip when I looked up from my last preparations. He looked up at Saiken, then asked, “Hey, what happens to you if this thing breaks?”

I don’t know! I’ve never had it happen before,” Saiken said worriedly. “And I don’t want this to be the first time, either!

“If a jinchūriki’s seal breaks, ordinarily the host dies and the Tailed Beast goes on a rampage,” Yugito filled in, her voice solemn as she looked up at Saiken. “I don’t know what will happen if Utakata dies like this, but we will do our best to make sure it doesn’t happen.”

“…‘Host?’” Ace repeated.

I didn’t need to know what dots he was connecting. I didn’t have time to care about it. I didn’t have time for this.

Leaving that explanation to Yugito before it occurred to her that she needed to make one, I swirled my smallest, sharpest brush in the ink and started writing the first line of the isolation seal. Yugito, Isobu, and I were all interfering with the process, but I could write us out of it.

“Kei always said you were partners,” Ace was saying. “That she and Isobu are in this together.”

Clear skies and pure water unsullied… With a snap of the air that not even Yugito could detect, I cleared our leaking chakra from the area. To me, it felt like a shockwave, a cold snap of some sort, and then the air was empty. That left just Utakata and Saiken.

And my will binding them together where the original seal had cracked.

Ace shivered, perhaps feeling the energy ghost past him.

“She’s an optimist,” Yugito responded. “And got very, very lucky. There have been others—”

Ace interrupted her, “The one that exploded.”

“He was not the first,” Yugito said coldly. “Not remotely.”

…Bind…beast and…soul…

“We aren’t called ‘jinchūriki’ just because we like the way it sounds,” Yugito told him, her chakra twisting in on itself. “Entire nations—our nations—view us as monsters in human flesh. And if we can’t be controlled, we need to be disposed of before the death toll mounts.”

Like what the Kazekage tried to do to Gaara, one timeline over.

…Until death…vow…

Like what almost happened to me at Sorayama.

I completed the last line, right over the healing edge of the burn that had destroyed the original seal-line, and brought my hand up in the Seal of Confrontation. “Seal.”

The ink blazed for just a moment, then settled into its new place. Prodding at Utakata’s chakra network with my diagnostic technique revealed that the seal would hold, though there wasn’t much of anything flowing through it.

Time to fix that. “Yugito, take his hand.”

“Is there a reason you won’t?” Yugito asked, looking up from her discussion of pure cynicism with Ace. She didn’t look any happier for it.

“I’ll put him out again if he’s a problem,” I said in an even tone, even as I held up my right hand and the five purple flames alighting on the ends of my fingers. “After all, this is the Five Elements Seal.”

Yugito sucked in a breath, perhaps recognizing the technique as a way to shut her down as well, but she took Utakata’s right hand with hers anyway. Wasn’t like I knew where Yugito’s seal even was—if I didn’t figure it out in time, I’d just punch her in the face. Same effect, lower chakra expenditure. If I had to.

So much for being the optimist.

Utakata’s and Yugito’s wrists lit up, as was becoming annoyingly commonplace, and then Utakata’s seal finally had something to regulate and thus justify its existence. In my mind’s eye, his seal started cycling reddish-orange chakra through his coils in a subtle manner as soon as the wristband from hell stopped acting as a dam.

And he was still weak enough that if something did go wrong, he couldn’t be a threat. Chakra exhaustion hit everyone pretty hard, even if jinchūriki took longer to reach the point where we couldn’t just get back up and fight some more.

Except… “Ace, Utakata is a Water Release user like me. You may want to back up a bit, just in case.”

“Thanks, but no thanks,” Ace said, choosing instead just to sit there, well within range if Utakata got enough mental resources to attack.

We waited with bated breath, but there was no flicker of consciousness in his chakra or behind his eyelids. He was well and truly out.

“His burns are healing faster,” Yugito noted, allowing Utakata’s hand to drop back to his side as we moved him onto his back again. With the seal taken care of, we just needed to decide what to do with him while he recovered.

“We can put him in the Nautilus for now,” I suggested, prodding Utakata’s right wrist so he and I would get the light show over with as quickly as possible.

YOU HAVE FOUND THE SIXTH.

ASSEMBLE THE NINE.

From the brief power surge, he got the ability to access V1 back as expected, while I needed to experiment to find my new limits. It had to be something from beyond V2, in my case, though I wasn’t sure what it could be. I didn’t tend to use much past V1 these days.

Regardless, I said, “It’ll be easier on him if he’s inside a vessel if Isobu needs to eat the boats for a quick getaway. It’s not pleasant.”

“…I’m not sure what it says about my life experience as of now that your sentences make sense to me,” Yugito muttered. “I’ll carry him down.”

Without waiting for any input from Ace or me, she picked Utakata up as easily as if he was just any injured comrade and started down Isobu’s sloping shell.

It is over, Saiken,” Isobu said aloud. “You can look.

I know it’s over!” Saiken snapped. “I felt—I felt it when I could feel Uta again for real!” The giant slug finally pulled away from Isobu, dropping lower into the water so half his tails could finally be put to use in the water properly. Butting his bulbous head against Isobu’s shell, heedless of the spikes, he added, “I’m going to concentrate on helping him get better. Don’t try to distract me!

We will not,” Isobu promised, and Saiken let go of him.

As the giant slug sank deeper and deeper into the water until only his eyestalks showed like wiggly twin periscopes, it was clear that Ace and I were the only ones holding the awkward silence together. At that point, it was better to just let it die.

“We might as well head down now, too,” I muttered, packing up the rest of my stuff and, in some cases, sticking them back in storage seals. I got to my feet, starting the much slower descent. “Teach isn’t getting any more dead.”

“Wait,” Ace said, holding out a hand to block my path.

I stopped short of bumping into his arm. “Need something?” I asked mildly, like I hadn’t heard any of the conversation he and Yugito had been having while I worked.

“Why didn’t you tell me how bad it was?” Ace asked, his eyes hidden by his hat.

I just kinda blinked at him for a second or two. “How bad what was?” Wait. The jinchūriki thing. “Ace, it’s not a big deal. The people back home who’d give me crap because I’m a jinchūriki don’t matter. The ones who matter don’t mind.”

“And Yugito?”

“Yugito grew up in a town where one of the previous jinchūriki couldn’t handle the power, so his seal broke. People died,” I explained quietly as we walked down the slope of Isobu’s shell. It was the same incident where Gyūki had gotten one horn broken in half by the Third Raikage, but Ace didn’t need to know that part. “She got more pressure on her, and it’s clearly still a problem that people don’t let her forget.”

Ace was still frowning. “And you?”

“Like she said, I got lucky.” I shrugged. “I was already an established shinobi by the time Isobu and I met, and I helped stop another attack on my village. There were procedures in place by the time I needed to go public with it.”

Sort of. At the very least, I’d gotten the benefit of the doubt.

“I…guess I can kinda see your point,” Ace said, though he hesitated noticeably. “But you could’ve told me a while ago. I would’ve understood.”

“There wasn’t any point.” I turned to him, letting him see my entire face for what honesty it would convey. Almost unconsciously, my fingertips drifted to my scar before I realized what I was doing and stopped. “I could tell you why I have this scar on my face, or how my mother died, or a million other things if you wanted a personal horror story.  But while those experiences helped shape me, they’re not everything I am. Then or now.” I patted his shoulder. “So I don’t let them define me.”

Ace went quiet for a while after that, though we continued to treat Isobu like a hiking trail. Yugito could control the Nautilus and with Striker tied to it, it wasn’t like we’d be in danger of losing the boats.

“You’re a really frustrating person to talk to, you know,” Ace said. When I glanced at him, he was rubbing a hand over his face with a wordless groan. There was clearly something eating at him. “Just really, really frustrating.”

“I’ve been told that before, and by you,” I replied. Peering at his expression, or at least what I could see of it, I came to a decision. I extended my olive branch of sorts. “What did you want to talk about?”

Ace let it go for a couple of seconds as we continued down Isobu’s back. “...Nothing.”

Uh-huh. So much for that. “If you change your mind later, I’m all ears,” I said, then hopped once, twice down the massive dip in Isobu’s shell that led to the edge. Ace followed in a burst of flame a little while after.


Yugito got Utakata situated in the Nautilus’s cabin while Ace and I dawdled, so when I got back to the boat there wasn’t much for me to do other than to take over the wheel while she cat-napped. At least, at first.

After another hour (and Ace passing out at Striker’s helm for ten minutes), we finally decided it was time to discuss what the strategy for taking on Teach would be. Isobu listened in with half an ear though my mind, while Saiken fussed in the other about Utakata in a low voice that sounded almost like water burbling from above the waves. A bit distracting, overall, but the session went sideways without their help.

At some point, I’d noticed that Ace was...reckless. He tended to charge into situations without properly assessing the risks, confident or at least impatient enough to assume that things would work out for the best. Irritatingly enough, it was only his own life he treated so casually—all it took to see that was to look at his record of near-death experiences just in the months I’d known him. Yugito and I had only managed to rack up one of those between us, which was more the fault of Grand Line weather than anything we actually did.

To be clear, neither Yugito nor I were afraid of taking risks. I’d almost died plenty of times back home, and Yugito was a career kunoichi who had undoubtedly seen major action if her life was anything like mine. But we avoided unnecessary incidents because we generally weren’t stupid. Not knowing Teach’s powers meant Yugito agreed when I suggested caution.

Kinda.

“One of the first things my elders ever taught me was that simply blasting enemies into submission was a good way to get myself killed,” Yugito said, when asked for her opinion. “I had several object lessons to that effect.”

And yet she’d still tried overwhelming Hidan and Kakuzu point-blank in that other timeline. I couldn’t call it hypocrisy if this Yugito had never done it, but I made note of the irony anyway.

“Not to mention that we still don’t know what powers he might have,” I added, frowning. Even with all the bloodlines, back home was way more predictable. In the Grand Line, every random asshole seemed to have entirely new rules to run with. Devil Fruits were bullshit. “I tried asking Thatch last time, but he didn’t know, and I guess Teach must’ve taken the Devil Fruit encyclopedia with him when he jumped ship.”

If I’d known that book had existed prior to Teach’s betrayal, I probably would have “borrowed” it during my short-lived obsessive research phase aboard the Moby Dick. And if I had, maybe we wouldn’t be in this mess at all.

Ace sat with his arms crossed on the deck of the Nautilus, listening to Yugito and me exactly enough to not actually take the advice. No matter how badly-delivered. “You think I haven’t been out here long enough to pick up a few more tricks than ‘burn everything?’”

“I certainly haven’t seen much else,” Yugito said acidly.

I pinched the bridge of my nose. This was going swimmingly.

I still want to see who can get first blood, Isobu put in. Speaking of swimming… But because your strategy does not seem to allow me to flood the island, I will consider “killing all of his allies” an acceptable substitute.

Thanks, I thought back dryly.

“You don’t get to a bounty of five hundred and fifty million beris by being an idiot,” Ace argued, oblivious to Isobu’s murder plot.

Bad argument. Yugito growled out, “And Teach is a no-bounty nobody who’s been avoiding you for months. The money only measures how much the World Government wants your head.”

“Strictly speaking, you can get a massive bounty by being an idiot,” I said, having actually read most of the bounty posters. While Ace shot a half-hearted glare in my direction for that contribution, I said, “Just punch a Celestial Dragon.” Then I thought of something that had been bothering me for a while now. “Say, Ace, how long have you been a pirate anyway?”

“Three years,” was Ace’s somewhat proud reply.

Yugito and I exchanged a silent look of something akin to horror. No wonder he was as subtle as a sledgehammer. Three years of actual activity on the high seas? Compared to our approximately twenty years of combat experience apiece?

...Well, it wasn’t like pirates were subtle. Ever. Hell of a culture clash, there.

Ace caught our judgment, because we weren’t being subtle either. “Seriously? Screw you both.”

“It’s...partly a shinobi thing,” I said after a second wherein Yugito and Ace were the main ones fuming at each other. “Pirates may show off, but we’re usually taught not to. Though neither of us are all that stealthy by our standards—”

“Speak for yourself,” Yugito said in a dark tone. Like she had any room to talk.

“—Killing powerful opponents quickly is just common sense,” I concluded. “If I escalate, it’s because the quieter approach didn’t work.”

Though, of course, that only applied to my operating procedure in the Grand Line. Back home, calling on my particular skillset in the field meant that it was time to get loud.

“Um, anyway,” I said, digging around in my pockets for a few seconds. Once I found what I was looking for, I held out the prize to Yugito. “Here. A tracker seal in case we get separated somehow.”

“You think I could be blown off an island by one idiot?” Yugito demanded.

“We don’t know what his powers are,” I pointed out, though I hesitated to think of what kind of ability would enable Teach to knock Yugito or me fully out of the running like that. Then again, that was what summoning was for.

“You’re only tracking Yugito?” Ace asked, since Yugito looked torn between arguing or just accepting that I slapped a GPS device to all of my friends. Just in case.

I was becoming terribly paranoid of losing people.

“It’s more that my old style of tracking tag only works if you can channel the type of energy we do,” I said, scratching my head with my free hand. “But if…hm. Ace, can I have your thigh holster for a second?”

By the time Ace got it unbuckled, I had unsealed my set of paintbrushes and the very last dregs of ink. “Maybe...if I just pair the tags? No, that wouldn’t work…”

“Why not just make something that’s always on?” Ace asked.

“I’m afraid I’d hurt you,” I admitted, still not putting my brush to the leather. Even with my blood, the result would be more like an airplane distress beacon than anything. On a very limited battery life. Add in my concerns about chakra poisoning…

“I can take it,” Ace said, clearly unbothered by the idea. When I frowned at him, given that we both remembered the extreme motion sickness he’d gotten last time, he said, “I mean, it’s only gonna go active if we’re separated. That won’t be a problem for long.”

If only I could share his confidence on that front. What was the saying? Expect the best, plan for the worst?

“...Fine. Let me see what I can do.” I uncorked my bottle of ink and tried my best.

The resulting seal had probably one of the weakest pings I’d ever designed, and would only turn itself on as long as we were at least a few hundred yards or meters or something apart. I’d deactivate it permanently once Teach was dealt with, I promised myself. This was just a tiny risk, taken in case somehow things went to hell in a handbasket.

Then we got to planning.

The first thing I needed to do upon reaching Banaro Island was to isolate the battle from civilians. Given Yugito’s total lack of straight defensive powers that could be used without burning people with Matatabi’s chakra, I came up with two broad possibilities that would function about the same. They’d achieve the same result, at least, but I didn’t know how comfortable Yugito would be with them.

“I’ve basically got two barrier seal designs,” I said, holding out a single barrier seal in one hand and a set of four in the other.

“What’s the difference?” Ace asked, while Yugito examined both seals with a completely blank expression.

“This one is called the Uchiha Flame Formation,” I said, lifting the single tag a bit higher. “It’s a barrier made of flames that incinerates everything that tries to cross it. It only requires one seal, but it needs to be maintained with a constant flow of chakra.”

“Doing so would anchor one of us in the same place for the entire fight,” Yugito noted. “And anyone who touched it would die.”

Not great for avoiding civilian panic, either. It was a technique designed for basically pinning enemy formations in place for Uchiha fireball artillery, even if Obito never used it that way.

But it would certainly keep Teach away from noncombatants, one way or another.

“You get a choice, though.” I held up the set of four. “This is something a friend came up with. He called it…something involving compasses. I forget.”

“Why are there four of them?” Ace asked cautiously, which was perfectly justified given the previous seal’s description.

I grimaced, fanning them out like playing cards. “That’s the downside. This barrier needs either four seals or four people in a perfect square, but once it’s up it’s just a really tough wall. We won’t risk killing anyone on the inside until they start to run out of air.”

Ace looked from me to a clearly irritated Yugito, who would be the one dealing with the barriers’ fickle preferences if I didn’t. Then he said, “Let’s assume we do get one of these up. What about the actual fight with Teach?”

“You draw his attention while one of us takes the time to pick off his crewmates?” Yugito suggested, in no way interested in a fair fight. “And if things don’t go well, we leave via Reverse Summoning and Matatabi or Isobu bombards the island.”

I dropped my face into my hands. It was practical, but jumping straight to Matatabi was a hell of a leap. “Did I not just say we were going to protect the civilians? A barrier will take an indirect hit, but your idea of targeting might level the place.”

Ace’s jaw worked, but no sound came out. He’d gone alarmingly pale and was looking between the two of us in shock. Like he couldn’t believe what he was hearing.

My “Ace, what’s wrong?” was drowned out by Ace’s roared, “WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU?!”

Since he was louder, Yugito turned her gaze on him. I was fairly sure her hackles were rising defensively, insofar as she had any.

“Do either of you have any idea what’s wrong with your reaction?” Ace snarled, flames blazing along his back and shoulders.

Yugito remained stone-faced, but I decided to give it a hesitant guess. “Um, we did discuss the fact that destroying an island and killing innocents is bad…”

“No, you did,” Ace corrected me harshly, and the flames crawled down his arms. “No, I mean that right there. You’re both not getting it.”

I fell silent, while Yugito scowled at him.

“Explain,” she said in a cold tone. “You’re overwrought.”

“The attitude,” Ace bit out, as the fire receded a bit. Just a tad, and he was still going to leave scorch marks on the Nautilus’s deck. “Does the idea of killing hundreds of people really not bother you? Either of you?”

My eyes immediately focused on the tops of my knees. Guilt and shame reached up through my heart and stopped my throat, and still Ace kept talking.

“When you talk about using Isobu and Matatabi,” Ace continued, in a calmer voice that still managed to quiver with a mix of outrage and horror, “it sounds like you’re trying to use them for a Buster Call.”

“What is a Buster Call?” Yugito asked, sounding vaguely concerned at most. But her chakra flickered uncomfortably, like a flame in the wind.

My stomach was already filling with lead before Ace spoke again. “It’s the World Government’s last, worst option.”

I looked up cautiously through my eyelashes.

He wasn’t exactly fidgeting, but his eyes blazed. “Ten battleships, five vice admirals, and whoever else they can throw in. The island dies in fire, until there’s nothing left of it or of anyone on it. The World Government doesn’t say that, but the goal is to destroy every trace that it ever existed.”

It probably said something…worrisome about Yugito and me that neither of us did have the instant denial reaction to the idea of killing an entire island dead. Part of the problem was that both of us had been involved in the kinds of operations that required a Tailed Beast Bomb or two to sort out. Another aspect was our respective roles as heavy artillery to our respective nations, where the target was usually hardened or at least resisting all other attack types. While Konoha avoided civilian casualties where possible and Kumo…sorta did, we probably had more in common with the Marines in a moral sense than not. Ace had “being a decent person” and Whitebeard’s moral code to work from. Yugito and I generally didn’t.

We weren’t good people.

“I could summon Matatabi to us, instead,” Yugito offered somewhat weakly, while I continued to feel like the scum of the earth. “But she would land on something, and it could be worse than a precision blast focused on me.”

She had to be aware that it wasn’t what Ace wanted to hear, but Yugito’s pride wouldn’t let her back down entirely.

“No,” Ace said flatly. “We’re not the Marines. We’re not that volcanic son of a bitch Akainu. And we’re not going to start heading that way, either.”

I averted my eyes and bit down on the rough edge of my thumbnail as I thought, wincing at the comparison to the Marines’ most brutal admiral. The one who’d burned Utakata like that, and the one who’d probably turn all three of us into charcoal the second he spotted Whitebeard’s emblem on Striker’s sail. Or Ace’s back.

Extreme options flipped between “No” and “All too easy” for jinchūriki. All too often.

And why should you allow your enemy a chance to strike you again?

And lo, the reason why.

Maybe I was just fooling myself.

We sat in silence—Ace and Yugito caught in a battle of wills—for a long enough span that it transcended mere discomfort and wandered into being downright tense.

Yugito looked away first, chakra twisting in shame and defeat.

“Let’s not get Matatabi or Isobu involved at all,” Ace said finally, when it became clear that Yugito had nothing to say. “That…that kind of thing isn’t something people should be able to just…use. They’re not weapons. You’re not, either.”

...I am not something to be used. Isobu made a pleased rumbling noise, sounding almost surprised that he was reversing his prior statement. In a good way. Amazing. Someone here understands what other humans have not grasped in centuries.

And it was a fact I’d needed to be reminded of. This place is amazing and horrifying by turns.

“We’ll take care of Teach ourselves, and that’ll be the end of it.” Ace nodded to himself, then cracked his knuckles. “Okay. Let’s do this.”

Chapter Text

Fū sighed. "Chōmei? Chōmei, you can stop laughing any time now."

"You're upside-down in a tree, Fū! This is about the unluckiest I've ever seen you," Chōmei squeaked in response, his voice much higher than it had ever been in Fū's life. He sounded like a child, not a mighty Tailed Beast. He didn't sound like the beetle she'd spent her whole life befriending.

Then again, Fū thought as she reached up to undo the vines tangled around her legs, he's never been this small before. "Well, you're not wrong. I guess it's a change for both of us."

Chōmei made a sad little humming noise, angling his head upward toward her as she dropped from the canopy. Her best friend had either shrunk or gotten way younger, because he didn't even have his signature orange wings or blue armor anymore. Instead, he was a red-eyed beetle larva the length of her forearm and about four times as wide. While he had tiny nubs for legs, and seven longer ones to represent the spots where his wings and tail would someday grow in, Chōmei was almost helpless now.

Fū knelt next to him, and he climbed into her lap. He didn't feel slimy, just cool and a bit squishy. Fū ran her hands over his head, then let him grip her fingers in his mandibles. "I don't know where we are, Chōmei. None of the trees look the same."

"They look almost the same from my viewpoint." Chōmei clambered up her arm and across her shoulders, to where her empty scroll-holster sat strapped to her back. "It's lucky you have this, Fū. You can carry me without hands."

"I'm just worried you're gonna be stuck like this, Chōmei," Fū replied, helping her beleaguered companion into his new carrier. "Don't you wanna just fly?"

"I do, but maybe you should check if you still can? That would be a lucky break, wouldn't it?" Chōmei sounded cheerful, his tinny voice accented by the thumps of his tail-stubs against his fabric seat.

Fū grinned at her friend's attitude, then put her hands together. "Let's try it, then!"

While Chōmei was small, his chakra flowed through her body the same as it always did. Orange wings, identical to the ones that Chōmei should've had, sprouted from her back just below the edge of her shirt. She flapped her rings rapidly, making them go almost invisible to the naked eye through sheer speed, and then hopped experimentally.

In no time at all, she was flying as though Chōmei hadn't lost size and mobility.

"This is so different from when I'm flying!" Chōmei said, sticking his head out of the carrier as they flew through the lower sections of the trees. "You know, once I get back to normal, we should try this again. It's nice relying on you instead."

"I'm glad you think so," Fū said, as they skittered through the air a few more times to get their bearings, "but help me look out for trees!"

Really, it wasn't all that different from flying with any old weight on her back. Fū already knew how to compensate for training devices, her bedroll, and a million other things. Chōmei being alive and occasionally moving was a little weird, but he was so happy about the situation that Fū didn't feel the slightest bit discouraged. He was her little pep-talk in a bag.

Practicing, though, was necessary. Fū remembered how tough it'd been to learn how to fly in the first place, and she needed to be careful in case Chōmei wasn't as tough as he used to be.

"Fū, I have a suggestion," Chōmei said, after they'd been flying level for a few minutes. "Can we go that way? I feel like it's a lucky direction."

"North?" Fū asked, coming to stop on a high tree branch. "What makes north so lucky?"

"I think I can feel other Tailed Beasts over there! Meeting with two of my siblings would be really lucky." Chōmei wriggled his tails. "I haven't seen them in a really long time."

Fū paused for a second. She'd never met Chōmei's family, but she had heard that they were stuck with other hosts. Would the other jinchūriki be friendly or not? Regardless of the answer, she owed it to Chōmei to make sure he could see his family again. She didn't really know what else to do.

"Okay, we can do that." Fū flitted into the air again. "Oh, can you tell me stories about them as we go?"

"Of course, Fū!"

Fū and Chōmei didn't go nearly at their highest speeds, because the warm forest was way too dense. Flying too fast would lead straight into a crash, and Fū didn't need to have another one of those under her belt. That flying slowly meant Chōmei's voice could soothe her during the trip was a great benefit, too. His voice was different now, but he could talk for hours and hours without needing to breathe or to drink water for a break. Even with the noise in the jungle, it helped to have one consistent, friendly face along for the ride.

"Aaaaaaah! Somebody help meeeee!"

Fū jerked to a stop in midair, wings buzzing anxiously. "Someone's in trouble."

"Go," said Chōmei, and Fū flew in the direction of the screams.

Fū zipped through the warm forest air, weaving around and over trees and underbrush as she made her way toward the sounds of both screams and wolves howling in the afternoon light.

She hit the ground and rolled when she reached the edge of a ravine, then dove down toward the screams without hesitation, feet-first.

She landed on a wolf the size of a cow, shoving its whole head straight into the dirt below under the weight of her flapping wings and her chakra-charged stomp. Its jaw slammed shut mere centimeters from a screaming kid half Fū's size, sending bits of teeth and blood everywhere. Before jumping off to face the rest of the pack, Fū gave it one more stomp for good measure.

"Six on one's not a fair fight, you jerks!" Fū shouted, as the wolves near the back of the pack started to reconsider their choices. "Let's make it three!"

"A fairy?!" screeched the kid behind her.

Not the best reaction to a heroic entrance Fū had ever heard, but she'd take it. Dropping into a taijutsu pose, even with Chōmei on her back and her wings still buzzing, Fū said, "Chōmei, ready?"

Chōmei spat a glob of silk directly at the face of a wolf coming up behind Fū, hitting it perfectly. "You know it! Let's show them it's not their lucky day!"

"D-don't forget about me!" said the kid with the straw hat, and the three of them fought the wolves together.

Sure, most of the fight came down to Fū's punishing kicks and her wings battering the wolves when her legs didn't, but the kid did what he could even if wild flailing punches was the extent of it. Chōmei kept both eyes on him, for the sake of making sure their rescue went all the way through. And shot more silk at the wolves.

In the end, Fū left a pile of broken wolf bodies lying all over the rocks. Some of them had silk on them, of course, but she didn't have time for getting rid of that kind of inconsequential evidence. All she did was blow on her knuckles to make sure they hadn't split, then went to check on the little rescue-ee.

Fū's new friend was a little older than she had thought. While was tiny and round-faced and skinny-limbed, he had a curved scar under one eye and a set to his jaw that she didn't usually see in the younger village kids. At least, not before their parents pulled them away from her. Sure, the straw hat he wore was way too big for him, and he was covered in scrapes and debris, but he wasn't panicky or crying (that much).

Fū liked him instantly. Without hesitation, she crouched down to his eye level and held out a hand. "Hi! Are you all right?"

"I-I'm fine!" The kid put on a brave face. Though his lower lip wobbled for a second or two, he took a deep breath and grabbed her hands in his. With his eyes and nose running like faucets, he stammered, "Y-you were really cool!"

"I was, wasn't I?" Fū said, smiling at the compliment. "Thank you!"

"What about me?" Chōmei wanted to know, sneaking out from his carrier. "Am I cool?"

"Uwaa!" The kid looked like he was over the moon, despite his injuries. "Your bug talks? Bug, you're the coolest thing ever!"

"His name is Chōmei, and I'm Fū." She said in a fake-serious voice, "Chōmei and me were gonna meet up with his brothers, and then we heard you! So before we go, Chōmei wants to know if you're okay. For real."

"I'm fine, really!" the kid insisted, more confidently this time. With one hand on his hat, he said firmly, "I'm—I'm gonna be the Pirate King someday, so this is nothing!"

"What's the name of the future Pirate King, then?" Chōmei asked.

"Monkey D. Luffy," said the kid. A thought struck him. "Hey, can you join my crew?"

"You got a ship?" Fū countered playfully.

"Uh… Not yet," Luffy admitted, a little shamefaced. Then he puffed himself right back up and added, "But I will someday! Once I do, then you can join and we can have adventures, Fu! And Coconut, are you going to join too?"

"After you're a little bigger," Chōmei promised. "But first, I need to see my brothers and tell them what is happening."

"That makes—wait, bugs have brothers?" Luffy blinked, his eyes huge as he thought it through. He covered his mouth with both hands. "Bugs have brothers waiting for them?"

"This bug does," Chōmei said, his tails waving in the air. "I'm a rhinoceros beetle! Just small."

Mostly, anyway.

"So cool!" Luffy squealed, in awe.

"Hey, Luffy? Can I see your arms?" Fū asked, drawing the boy's attention back to her. She folded her wings back so they barely brushed the ground, keeping them out of the way. "You look like you've had a tough day."

Luffy fidgeted before he complied, then said, "Only a little bit." He was a lousy liar, pursing his lips and refusing to meet her eyes. He even innocently whistled a note or two. "I definitely haven't been out here for three days!"

Fū's eyebrows rose. Three days in a jungle like this was no small thing, especially for a boy this young. With his arms all scratched up like this, though, she believed him. Though there was something weird about his skin and his arms. Neither one really felt normal, not like Shibuki or any of Fū's old teammates.

Still, Luffy appeared to either not want her to worry, or be trying to preserve his pride. She let his arms go and said, "Why are you out here all alone, though?"

"I'm not alone, not really!" Luffy insisted. "Uh, I definitely wasn't following Ace around. And I'm not lost!"

"Well," Fū began slowly, choosing her words with care, "even if you're not lost, I am."

"Eh?! But you have wings! Can't you just…?" Luffy flapped his arms, totally confused.

"It's not that easy," Fū said, eying his movements. Did… Did his elbow just bend…? "Ah!"

"Hm?" Luffy stopped flapping, his arms coming to a halt at his sides. Even so, his limbs bounced like rubber, not like normal arms! Not even like Fū's.

"How are you doing that, Luffy?" Fū asked, taking his hand. Before she realized it, she stretched his hand a lot farther away from the rest of him than made any sense. "Whoa…"

"I ate the Gomu Gomu no Mi!" Luffy explained cheerfully, hooking his other hand around his mouth and pulling. His face stretched like it was made of— "I'm a rubber man!"

"This is so cool," Fū breathed, her eyes shining. "This is the coolest thing I've ever seen!"

"How far can you stretch?" Chōmei asked, crawling out onto Fū's shoulder.

"I can stretch really far!" Luffy let his cheek snap back to its normal dimensions, then grinned widely. "And my punch is like a pistol!"

"What's a pistol?" Fū asked.

"It's, uh, it's a gun!" Luffy said. Clearly, this was supposed to make sense.

But it didn't. "What's a 'gun'?"

Luffy made a face, then frowned as he thought. It was quite a frown, with his face pulled into an awful exaggerated grimace. Then, "Um, Dadan has one? I can show you!"

"Okay," Fū replied, since she could still make it to Chōmei's brothers before sundown. This was okay.

Luffy held out his hand until she took it and started to tug Fū along, then froze mid-step before his arm could stretch out when she didn't immediately follow. Twisting his head all the way around without moving the rest of his body, he screeched, "I'm not lost!" He fidgeted in place again, hopping from foot to foot. "I, uh. I just don't know how to get back to the bandits…"

Fū got fully to her feet, sending her wings buzzing rapidly. She put her free hand to her chin in an exaggerated thinking pose, then said, "Hey, Luffy? Maybe we should fly around until we find it! You can ride with Chōmei, and he can tell you all about how I do it."

"Really?!" Luffy squeaked, looking up at her with an even more awestruck expression. "Can—can we go really fast? Really, really fast?!"

"You got it!" Fū said, giving him a thumbs-up.

"Yay!"

"Just be sure to hang on tight," Chōmei warned him.

With that, Luffy bounced over to give Fū the biggest hug he could. His whole body wasn't that much bigger than Fū's torso, so when he wrapped his legs and arms around her a couple of times to be secure, her wings still had plenty of room to maneuver. Chōmei was forced to move up toward her shoulder blades, but he and Luffy could still talk to each other.

They ended up flying together for about twenty minutes, though Luffy didn't know how to find "the bandits." While Fū hoped silently that he only meant his family and was calling them a funny name, she flew around the forest until she could hear shouting in the distance. Unlike when she met Luffy, the voices were nearly all deep enough to belong to adults instead of lost kids, and most of them were just rowdy. If Luffy wanted to head toward all that noise, though, Fū wouldn't tell him she couldn't take him there. After all, she could fly.

Fū twisted her wings around so they could hover, just at the edge of where the forest turned into a little clearing. Amid the short-grass and on a little hill, there was a building that looked a bit like a village longhouse. There were three sections, and the door had a pair of crossed swords on top like a pair of beetle horns.

Luffy unwound himself from Fū's stomach with a snap, turning back into just a little kid with a straw hat and not a walking rubber band. He stumbled a little bit, but dashed toward the hut without a backwards glance. "Hey, I'm back!"

Fū rocketed up into the trees, leaping instead of flying so she didn't make any noise.

"Luffy came back alive!"

"He's still alive?!"

"Where the hell were you?!"

"Where have you been?"

Luffy responded to all of this with a loud, "I was running from wolves and got chased off a cliff and a fairy and a bug saved me!"

Fū saw Luffy turn in the doorway, then look around in confusion.

"Eh?! She disappeared!" A pause. "Oh, right! She's gotta find Coconut's brothers and go back to the fairy kingdom."

"...Did you hit your head on something?"

"Nope! I bounce."

"Sorry, Luffy, but a heroine must be mysterious and cool!" Fū whispered, so only Chōmei could hear her. Crossing her arms dramatically, she added at the same volume, "I'll see you again someday, but for now I have a mission for Chōmei. Until then, goodbye!"


Sabo didn't quite know how to break the news to Ace, but it was bad. He waited at the usual spot, pipe leaning against his shoulder and tapping it occasionally as he thought. There had to be a way to explain what was happening, but Sabo still wasn't sure what they'd do next.

For the last couple of days, all the easy targets around Gray Terminal seemed to have dried up. It wasn't like the people weren't around or anything, but nobody Sabo tracked down seemed to have anything worth the effort. Even the swankier-looking people, the ones who stuck around High Town instead of anything closer to the trash heap, seemed to be running out of treasure and didn't seem to be getting any more even though the trash still came, right on time.

It was like… It was like someone was grabbing all the best targets before Sabo could find them.

And he had some idea who.

"Sabo!" Ace called, making him jump. "There you are."

Crud. "Hi, Ace."

"I've been looking all over for you," Ace commented as he hauled himself onto Sabo's vantage point. It wasn't all that high, but he could see people without being seen as easily, and thus it became their spot. "Get anything good today?"

Sabo shook his head. "Absolutely nothing."

"Again?!" Ace kept his voice down to a dull roar, but his hand tightened around his pipe hard enough that Sabo almost worried he'd bend it. "What is it with this freaking town this week?"

So Ace hadn't been having any luck either? Good to know, but worrying. At least there was some news, though. It was just still bad. "Ace, I think I know what the problem is."

"Yeah?" Ace asked, frowning. Still he was listening. "Who do we gotta beat up?"

"There's more thieves here than just us, now," Sabo said. "Two other kids like us, but they're taking all the good targets before either of us can get there. At least, I think it has to be them."

"Then what're we waiting for?" Ace smacked his pipe into his other palm. "Let's go take out the trash."

Sabo reached over and cuffed him on the shoulder. "No, Ace. We need to know what these kids are like. It's too dangerous in case they're like us, and we don't even know where they hide out when they're not stealing."

"Gah, fine," Ace grumbled, crossing his arms. "We'll do it the boring way."

"You asked what we were waiting on, and I answered," Sabo told him. "Let's go."

Sabo and Ace scoured Gray Terminal for the rest of the afternoon, chasing down rumors of other thieves and other kids. Most of the residents they interrogated seemed to think that they were recruiting, but Ace's death glare discouraged any further questioning from the general crowd of beggars and lowlifes that haunted the place. Sure, these people were mostly ignored by both Ace and Sabo when considering who to rob—since no one ever had anything—but there were a lot of them and everyone got spotted sooner or later. Even some new phantom thieves.

"Brats looking for more brats," muttered their most recent informant, with Ace's pipe directly in front of his nose. His eyes were almost hidden under shaggy gray eyebrows, and he was probably pushing something like eighty years old. "Why am I not surprised?"

"Who're you calling a brat, you bastard?" Ace snapped. "Talk and I won't make you eat this!"

"Fine, fine!" replied the man, holding his hands up in surrender. "Ask Menma over there! He's seen your friends!"

"They're not our friends," Sabo said, but he dragged Ace off the guy and toward the next one.

"The next one" turned out to be a teenager with creepy red eyes and nasty scars on both sides of his face. He was twice Ace or Sabo's size, lanky as heck, and looked at both of them like they were scum.

"Whaddya want?" he asked, in a raspy voice not much deeper than theirs.

Sabo took the lead, since Ace would probably just give the guy a concussion. "What do you know about some kids who've been stealing stuff all over town?"

"Ain't I looking at 'em?" Menma countered, irritated. He fell back into a pile of junk, huddling under a tarp. "Go away, kid. I ain't got nothin' to steal."

Ace slammed his pipe into the ground an inch from the guy's toes, making him flinch. "I'm not asking. I'm telling you you're gonna cough up all you know about those kids before I crack your head open."

Menma stared up at the two of them for a long moment, his eyebrows moving as he considered his options. With Ace there, he didn't have a lot of them. Menma licked his lips. "What'll I get if I tell ya?"

"An unbroken skull," Ace snapped, glaring for all he was worth.

"And we'll leave you alone," Sabo said, playing good guard to Ace's bad one. "We won't even tell them you told us about them."

Menma's eyes darted between them. "Yeah?"

"Unless your info's shit," Ace said, just to make his stance clear. "Then I'll come back and fulfill my promise."

Menma paled. "Uh, then…" As Ace raised the pipe pointedly, Menma burst out, "Fine! Fine, I'll tell you. We're all friends here, right?"

"Sure, buddy," Ace said, his tone implying the exact opposite.

Menma spilled his guts worse than a sea cucumber. With one last series of threats regarding his head and the breakage thereof from Ace, he and Sabo set off from Gray Terminal and headed into the forests of Mt. Colubo. While Sabo was the expert in the trash heap, the mountains were Ace's playground more than anyone else's. If the other thieves were setting up shop in the wilderness and hadn't been eaten by any of the bigger animals, there were only so many places they could go, and Ace knew all of them.

Afterward, Sabo wondered if thinking like that counted as tempting fate.

"Where did all these traps come from?!" Ace screamed as they barreled down a hill, chased by a falling log the size of a small ship. Freaking tripwires in a forest?

"Just an idea," Sabo panted, as he dragged Ace to the side to avoid the trap, "but I think we should've asked where that guy got his info!"

"You mean that bastard set us up? I'll go back there and—!"

But whatever Ace would have said was cut off by the sound of another wire snapping. Together, they ducked under a swinging log that crashed through the trees above their heads. Sabo wasn't sure, but it looked like this trap was designed for hitting taller people. Maybe adults?

"We've gotta get out of here first," Sabo reminded him, sitting up.

But there wasn't a way out. Every time they tried to escape, a wasp nest would fly out of nowhere and almost hit Ace in the face. Or a pitfall lined with spikes would just appear where Sabo was going to place his foot. Or a quicksand trap would almost swallow them both whole. Or maybe they'd be chased around the forest by giant animals with steaks in front of their faces to keep them running, while surrounded by poison ivy. And even when that stopped, the paths were lined with brambles and thorns and burrs that stuck to their clothes and hair.

By the end of the gauntlet, both Ace and Sabo were covered in scrapes and sores, their voices were hoarse, and their entire bodies ached with exhaustion. The sun had long since dropped below the horizon, and now it was too dark to see. They couldn't get off the mountain without possibly running into more traps, but without their eyesight to spot them in time.

"God, this was such a bad idea," Ace muttered as they clambered down into a hollow underneath a tree.

The air smelled like rain, so Sabo knew it was time to find shelter in any form available. He trusted Ace's judgment in the forest more than his own, and followed.

"My idea wasn't much better," Sabo said after a while, in between picking burrs out of his pants and coat. He winced when they caught his fingers, but he knew he couldn't sleep with things digging into his skin. "I was the one who said we should gather info."

"And I was the one who kept threatening the guy," Ace muttered, pausing for just a second to suck on a cut on one of his fingers. "Should've figured he'd try to get us killed."

"Still planning to head back there?" Sabo asked.

"If we get outta here? Yeah." Ace scowled. "Now I owe him a fight."

Sabo sighed. "That's a bad habit you're getting there…"

"Tch." Ace spat toward the corner of their little hideout just as the rain started to fall. "I'll be fine, Sabo. Same as always."

"Sand Drizzle."

Both of them whirled on the spot, or tried to, but they were already up to their ankles in sand and the roots weren't high enough to let either of them stand up or swing their pipes. The sand dragged them out of shelter, moving on its own like it was a snake or a monster of some kind, hoisting both boys up into the air by their feet and swirling around them in a gritty, blinding storm.

Ace spat and swore, his voice muffled by sand getting into his mouth.

Sabo tried to free his feet, but couldn't bend far enough upward before his arms were pinned to his sides. By the time he could open his eyes without pain, he and Ace were suspended upside-down in cocoons of yellow sand big enough to hide their whole bodies from view, except their faces. When Sabo tried to struggle, he couldn't move an inch.

"What the hell is this?" Ace shouted, but there was a tremble in his voice that didn't match anything Sabo had ever heard from him. He wasn't being loud because he thought it would help, but because he didn't know what else to do.

A different voice, sounding lower and raspier than Menma's by a lot, spoke from behind them. "Naruto, what should we do with them?"

"Dunno, gimme a second," said a voice that was, unfortunately, more familiar.

As Sabo watched and his stomach tried to plummet right out of his body, Menma stepped out from behind a nearby tree and leaned casually against the trunk. "So, having fun with our little obstacle course?"

"Of course we're not, you backstabbing son of a bitch!" Ace snapped, before Sabo could shout across him.

Menma's red eyes narrowed and he stalked forward, cloak billowing around him in a way that was suddenly a lot less like a Gray Terminal resident and a lot more like a trained fighter. He stopped when he was within about four feet of Ace, then said, "You leave my mother out of this."

...What.

Menma leaned back, before Ace could spit in his face. "Anyway, this isn't even my fault. You're the ones who got all pissed off over something and started threatening everyone in the trash heap."

"Did you plan to set us up from the start?" Sabo asked, before Ace could get a word in edgewise.

"Well, sure. Why'd you think I talked to you like this?" Menma asked, gesturing at his entire body.

Sabo blinked. "...What the hell are you talking about?"

"The thieves you were looking for? They're right here." With that, Menma disappeared in a huge plume of smoke. In the middle of it, a higher voice cackled, "Gotcha!"

When the smoke cleared, Sabo felt his jaw drop before he realized it. Where Menma had been standing, there was a blond kid a little older than Sabo and Ace were, with spiky hair instead of curls and three dark lines on each cheek, like whiskers. Sabo could still see the resemblance between the kid and Menma, in build but not in height, but mostly his brain was stuck on the fact that there'd been a person standing there and now there was a different one, and the first one had just disappeared.

"I didn't know what you guys were looking for, but if you were stubborn enough to chase us all over the trash heap, you'd probably take on the death course," said… this person. The one raspy-voice had called him "Naruto," right? "And boom. Here we are."

"I want to know why you were following us," said the other voice, much closer than before.

As Sabo watched in a kind of horrified fascination, his and Ace's sand cocoons slowly drifted apart and a creepy-looking kid walked between them to Naruto's side. When he turned, Sabo saw blood-red hair and flat, blank green eyes surrounded by dark circles. The guy had a completely neutral stance, other than his crossed arms, and he didn't look like the kind of person who'd blink twice at killing someone.

"Hey, Gaara asked you a question," Naruto said, putting his hands on his hips. "So 'fess up."

"We wouldn't even be here if you jackasses weren't stealing everything in Gray Terminal that wasn't nailed down or on fire!" Ace exploded. "Not everyone can just turn into someone else to do whatever they want! Me and Sabo are getting starved out because you can't stick to your own freaking beat!"

"...What's a 'beat'?" Naruto asked, making a face.

"Turf, territory, whatever the hell you wanna call it," Ace replied, as the blood ran to his head.

"We can return what we stole from you, just out of pity," suggested the redhead, still entirely expressionless. "But otherwise? No."

"They didn't say they were thieves, Gaara," Naruto said.

"It was implied," Gaara replied. His eyes narrowed for a second, then Sabo and Ace's cocoons started to turn back right-side-up.

"Well, stealing stuff's a 'first come, first served' kinda business." Naruto shrugged. "And right here and now, we're stronger than you are."

Ace audibly ground his teeth.

"So get off our 'turf,' kid," Naruto said. He grinned in a way that was totally not a good thing, showing off a pair of long canines. "Wanna give 'em a push, Gaara?"

"I have a better idea," Gaara replied. He clapped his hands together, and the sand exploded off Ace and Sabo and dropped them roughly on their feet.

It didn't last.

All around them, the ground shook, and then a whole flood of nothing but sand rose out from between individual clumps of earth and blades of grass. Before either of them could react, the sand tripped and swept them along the forest floor. Out past the trees, straight through all the bushes—

And right off the mountain.


Luffy pulled off the bandages that had been stuck to his arms, pulling at the new skin and watching it stretch. Yep, he was back to normal! It might've taken a bit longer than the other times he'd chased after Ace, but a week after Porchemy and he was back to full strength.

"Luffy, let me see that," Sabo said quietly.

Luffy didn't know if Sabo was having as much fun living with them now as he did before, but Luffy liked having him around. No one else tried looking after Luffy's injuries.

"I can do this!" Luffy insisted, but he still held out his other arm and let Sabo unwind the bandages and pile them up on the floor.

"Just because you can do this by yourself doesn't mean you have to," Sabo replied. Then, "There. You heal pretty fast."

"You're spoiling him, Sabo," Ace complained from the doorway. "Just get the crybaby up and out here."

"I'm not a crybaby!" Luffy argued instantly. While he didn't pull out of Sabo's hold, it was only because Sabo wouldn't let go. "You'll see!"

"Whatever. Let's just get going," Ace said, disappearing out the door. "Don't slow us down!"

This time, when Ace set off through the jungle, he didn't run away so fast that Luffy couldn't follow. Or lead them into any traps, or the jaws of the big animals that had to taste good if they were so hard to hunt. Instead, Ace, Sabo, and Luffy all trekked through the jungle together in a line. Though Luffy didn't really care to know where they were going, he hummed as they went.

Being together with other people was so much better than just running through the jungle all alone.

"Ace, this is a bad idea," Sabo said as they crossed a river by hopping from stone to stone. "Especially after we just fought Porchemy."

"We beat Porchemy," Ace corrected, refusing to look back. "We've gotten stronger."

"I dunno about you, but I'm not strong enough to fight a guy who controls sand like that," Sabo said, but quieter so Ace couldn't hear him.

Luffy blinked. "What're you guys talking about?"

"There's this…" Sabo paused for a second, and Luffy saw Ace go tense. But when nothing else happened, Sabo continued, "Another gang of kids moved in, about two months ago. We fought them and lost, but Ace wants to go deal with them now."

"Ace is strong, though," Luffy said, picking his nose with his pinky. "You and Ace are the strongest together, and with my punches, we're unbeatable!"

"Even strong people lose sometimes," Sabo said, squeezing Luffy's shoulder. "Still…"

"We're not getting led into a trap this time, Sabo," Ace said, turning back around to face them. "I found a way around them."

"And that just makes things so much easier," Sabo mumbled.

"You know, Sabo, you don't have to come if you don't want to," Ace said, jerking his head to look away from them. While Luffy wasn't great at reading people—and he was a bad liar, too—he could tell that Ace was really upset to have to say that.

So Luffy ran forward and latched onto Ace's waist with his rubbery arms. "I'll go with you, Ace! We'll beat up everyone who makes you cry!"

"I didn't cry, you idiot!" Ace snapped defensively, but the awful dead look in his eyes went away. "Get off me!"

Luffy giggled when Ace tried to get his fingers under Luffy's arms. It tickled! Luffy had to stick his face into Ace's shirt to keep from laughing too loud.

"Ace, I didn't say I wouldn't go," he heard Sabo say. "I'm just worried."

"Well," Ace began, and planted his hand on Luffy's head in another attempt to get free. "Whatever. Follow if you're gonna."

"I'm gonna!" Luffy said, grinning up at Ace.

Ace scowled back before looking away. "Idiot." But he didn't push Luffy away again.

After a while, Sabo offered his hand so Luffy latched on, and both of them followed Ace into the mountains. They didn't see any of the traps Ace had talked about, even though Sabo talked about them and Luffy wanted to go on an adventure! Adventures weren't as fun without some danger to make things interesting. Otherwise it was just walking.

But walking was okay if Luffy was with Ace and Sabo.

"Aw, crap," said a voice that sounded a lot like Sabo's, but it was too far away.

Luffy twisted his head around, looking past Sabo's shoulder to see another blond-haired kid with goggles on his forehead. He was taller than any of them, and looked surprised to see them this far in the forest. On a second look, while the other kid stared at them, let Luffy realize that while Sabo and the kid were both blond, they were too different to be mistaken for each other.

Still… "How come you sound just like Sabo?" Luffy wanted to know, while Sabo and Ace unslung their pipes.

"Who the hell's Sabo?" the kid asked, looking totally relaxed. He even put his hands in his pockets. With the plain black t-shirt and orange pants and sandals, this kid didn't look that tough.

"Luffy, hang on," Sabo said quietly, while Ace stepped forward. "He's sneakier than he looks."

"You haven't been showing either of your faces around Gray Terminal recently," Ace began in a nasty growl. "Too scared to try competing with us again?"

Luffy gaped at the stranger. "He has two faces?! Where's the other one?" An idea struck him. "Are you hiding it? Is it on your butt?"

The stranger blinked. Ace and Sabo were both frozen.

Come on, answer me! "How do you poop?!"

"HAHAHAHAHA!" The weird stranger had to hang onto his belly to keep from laughing too hard, but it didn't work. He laughed really loud, too, and even if it didn't answer his question—

"Shishishishishi!" Luffy giggled, too.

"WHAT THE HELL?!" Ace and Sabo shouted at once, but laughter almost drowned them out. Their faces were just so funny!

"Ahaha—oh, I needed that," said the other blond kid. He got back to his feet, breathing harder, and said, "It's been kind of a shitty day."

"We're not here to talk about your problems, you jerk!" Ace interrupted, once again stepping forward with his pipe in hand. "We're here to settle the score from two months ago."

"That? Look, Freckles, me an' Gaara haven't done anything since then," the blond guy complained, looking away with a scowl on his face. "We got yelled at after that fight and we're not heading back to the trash heap. So as far as I'm concerned, it's over."

"It's not over until I say it is!" Ace snapped. With a shout, he charged the other kid with his pipe raised.

Luffy didn't hear what the other kid said, but he stepped out of the way just as Ace brought the pipe crashing down. Sabo let go of his hand to join in, leaving Luffy alone to watch.

That sucked! "Hey, wait for me!"


Naruto's day had started out terrible and didn't look like it was getting any better. Sure, there'd been a brief reprieve from the onslaught of headaches recently when the kid with the straw hat made him laugh, but the rest was awful. First, he woke up in the same weird world where his sister and his parents weren't anywhere around—not even close—and the food was weird and his only friends were in the same boat as him. Though he liked them anyway. Second, some crazy old guy barged through all the traps and destroyed like half of them completely, then Naruto had to send clones along with Fū to lure the guy away after he gave Gaara even worse tanuki eyes. And now the same weird thief kids from before were showing up to ruin his concentration while he tried to make security seals.

"Hold still, you bastard!" shouted Freckles, swinging again and again.

"You hold grudges worse than an Uchiha!" Naruto replied, in between ducking under a nasty swing and skittering away from the kid. He found a safe spot—ish—in a tree about ten meters straight up the trunk, clinging to it with chakra. "...Well, okay, maybe not worse…"

Another hit cracked the bark along a tree, and then the whole freaking thing started cracking too!

"I take back my take-backs!" Naruto shouted down at Freckles as the tree toppled. "Are you really trying to kill me?!"

"Take me seriously, dammit!" Okay, Freckles was definitely way too much like Sasuke.

Naruto bit the edge of his thumb, making hand seals faster than he'd ever done recently. By the time the tree hit the ground and Freckles and Top Hat could get a clear shot at him, Naruto slapped his hand into the other and summoned his backup.

And threw it in Freckles' face.

"I am not a kunai, dammit!" Yang Kurama screeched in his little-kid voice, but he still bit onto black hair and hung on, scratching with all his tiny fox claws.

Freckles screamed, dropping his pipe staff thing and trying vainly to get Yang Kurama to let go. "OW! OW, SABO, GET IT OFF!"

Naruto took advantage of the other blond's distraction and threw himself at the new opponent, who was probably named Sabo. It answered a few questions. Though Sabo blocked Naruto's first kick with his own pipe, Naruto just readjusted his next kick on the way in and basically stomped on the kid's fingers instead.

Before Naruto could decide which one to go after this time, a tiny fist shot past his face on—oh wow, Straw Hat could stretch!

…Wait.

"EH?! You're the kid Fū was talking about!" Naruto said, catching the flying fist as it started to retract.

Instead of the kid reeling his arm back in, Naruto's greater mass ended up pulling Straw Hat toward him. He hit and bounced off, and Naruto didn't budge since he had his feet anchored to the ground with chakra. Still, once Naruto let go of his hand, he didn't seem hurt. He actually glared up from the ground and from under the brim of his hat and yelled, "I won't forgive anyone who hurts my friends, even if you know Fairy and Coconut!"

"Fairy and...and—AHAHAHAHA!" Naruto cackled, unable to stop himself. He heard Yang Kurama sputter, kinda, before he had to catch the mini-fox. "Old Man Yang, did ya hear that?"

"Get any ideas and I will bite you," grumbled Yang Kurama, though he sounded a bit amused. Just a bit. At the back of his voice. "Pah, I'll be spitting out hairballs for a week."

Naruto rubbed at his eyes, trying to clear the tears of laughter that had popped up. When he could see again, all three of the kids were glaring at him. Freckles had a bunch of red scratch-marks on his face and neck, which were just barely not bleeding in some cases, Sabo's left hand was swelling up from the kick, and Straw—no, Luffy—was so angry he was practically red.

Aw, crap. Naruto shoved his hands into his pockets, scowling. "Look, I didn't want to fight any of you. But you attacked first!" He took a step back, already turning to go. "So quit freaking following me!"

"NARUTO, WHAT THE HELL?!"

Ohshit.

Naruto got his arms up in time to block, just barely, and then Fū's foot hit him right where his arms crossed over one another. "It's not my fault, dammit! They attacked first!"

Fū leapt off from the point of impact, landing in a crouch, and then stood up to point an accusing finger in his face. "I told you to avoid fighting kids! You're strong enough that it's not fair!"

"What did you want me to do, chuck them off the mountain with Shadow Clones?" Naruto shoved Fū's hand aside. Gah, Fū was way too protective of kids who obviously knew how to fight. How in the world did she expect to pass the Chūnin Exams back home? "Freckle-face over here tried to crack my head open like four different times!"

"That's not—LUFFY?!" Fū began, before doing a double-take. She didn't sprout wings, at least, but she ran right over to the littlest kid and knelt in front of him, basically at eye height. Chōmei even popped out of her backpack like it was no big deal, which probably meant the repairs at base were done. "Luffy, what happened?"

"I'm not talking to you!" Luffy declared, crossing his arms and turning his face away like he didn't have a spine attached. "I don't like people who hurt my friends!"

Naruto was already backpedaling before Fū could so much as twitch, ready to dodge her fury with a Replacement jutsu and run back to Gaara if he had to.

"I-I-I'm not your friend anymore?" Fū's voice sounded all choked up, and Naruto slowly let his stance go back to normal. Cautious, but normal. She sniffled, then said, "You're—y-you're not my friend?"

"F-Fairy—I," Luffy stammered, his eyes welling up as he turned his face back toward her. His nose was running like crazy, too. "Y-you can't c-cry! You're gonna m-m-make me cry!"

"What the hell is this?" Yang Kurama muttered, before Naruto picked him up and set him on his shoulder.

And—how was Chōmei crying?! He was a bug! He didn't have tear ducts! "We c-can't be friends either?"

Naruto stared for a while, then looked over the crying trio to the other two boys. They shot looks at each other, but they looked about as confused as he felt. When they looked at him to see if he had any more ideas about what to do, he held up his hands in surrender. There were some things not even ninja training had prepared him for, and this weird crying contest-slash-self-perpetuating loop was on the list.

Then Yang Kurama's ears perked up, brushing Naruto's ear. "That man's coming back this way."

"Oh, we were supposed to tell you that," Chōmei said, still sniffling.

"Aw, crap." Naruto darted forward and crouched next to Fū. "Fū, Fū, that freaky guy's coming back. We need to go."

"No!" Fū scrubbed at her eyes with her sleeve, then glared up at him with her face still awfully red. "We're not—"

Naruto tensed, his hand gripping her shoulder. Fū cut herself off with barely a sound, her head whipping around to let her glare into the woods. And on each of their shoulders, their Tailed Beast partners were sitting at attention.

And the screaming maniac emerged from the woods. "WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN, YOU UNGRATEFUL BRATS?!"

The guy was huge, which was really unfair now that Naruto thought about it. He was about the Third Hokage's age, if not older, but really fit and fast. And weirdly stealthy for a guy the size of a bear on stilts and wearing a bright yellow flower shirt, but Naruto didn't have a lot of room to talk there.

Naruto squared his jaw as he and Fū automatically took defensive taijutsu stances. If they weren't gonna run, it'd be a fight. And Fū'd never run if she wanted to protect someone. Hell, the only reason she'd run all around the mountain before was to lead this guy away after he broke Gaara's nose. Gaara'd be fine, but apparently so was this guy.

"There you are!" the bear guy said in a more menacing tone as he loomed over them.

"Oh shit!" Freckles squeaked, even as he shoved into Sabo to get him to move. "Gramps!"

Luffy made just a terrible wordless screeching noise, immediately running.

"Eh?!" Fū was blindsided, and Naruto didn't feel all that much better himself.

This freaky bear man was their grandpa?! Then why were they reacting like that?

Naruto's eyes narrowed and the battlefield looked different. On his shoulder, Yang Kurama's hackles rose and all his tails stood up as he donated his chakra. When the transfer was complete, Naruto's fingernails were like claws and his eyes were red and slit-pupiled and his birthmarks stood out more than ever.

Fū, next to him, had pulled her first pair of wings out and her eyes were glowing too.

"Hey, you old goat!" Naruto snarled, his voice dropping an entire octave as he and Fū blocked the guy's way. "Leave the kids alone!"

"What the hell are you doing?" Freckles' voice rang out. "Are you crazy? You can't beat him!"

"So what?" Fū asked rhetorically, her wings buzzing. "Get going, all of you. We'll keep him busy."

Naruto slammed his hands together, then readied his favorite mass-use technique. "Better the devils you know than the devil you don't. See ya!"


This is stupid.

Ace watched, his limbs locked in place.

The two weird kids just dove straight at Gramps even though he was so much bigger and stronger and faster than anyone else Ace had ever met. One of them had wings and the other had claws and fangs and both of them had weird pets, but they'd never win.

This is stupid.

Ace's hands clenched on his pipe.

Whenever one of the strangers would get knocked away or through a tree or into the air, the other would cover the hole they'd left. Naruto would make copies of himself like it was nothing, trying to pin Gramps down so Fairy—, her name was Fū— could break his nose or something. Either way, she just got punched and bowled ass over teakettle and it didn't make a difference.

Sabo was tugging on his arm. Luffy had a death grip on his shirt.

And Ace couldn't move away.

This is so fucking stupid!

One foot landed in front of the other, and the next thing Ace knew, he was running right for Gramps. Luffy and Sabo were right behind him, because they always were and took cues from him even when it was a bad idea. This was a bad idea. This entire day had been a bad idea and he had the scratches to show for it.

"DAMN IIIIIIT!" Ace heard himself scream, even as he dashed in and planted his pipe squarely in the hollow of Gramps's knee.

The old man grunted and flinched, but not for long. The next thing Ace knew, he was flying backward and rolling across the forest floor. He got to his feet almost instantly, half-surprised that he still could. Normally, Gramps hit way harder.

And just for a second, he stared at his pipe.

Ace had never landed a solid hit before! Sure, the fox monster was chewing on Gramps's leg and keeping him from responding to everything, but that was a clean hit!

"YAAAAAA!" Luffy hollered, landing on Gramps's back to no effect whatsoever. If the little bug worm hadn't been spitting silk in his ear, Luffy wouldn't have landed on Gramps at all. He was just too fast.

"Eat dirt, you shitty old man!" screeched a new monster, small and yellow-brown with dark spots. It tackled Gramps's other leg and wrapped its little arms around it, still making a ton of noise. "HOW DARE YOU HIT GAARA! I'LL KILL YOU! I'LL EAT YOU FROM THE TOES UP!"

Right above the little caterwauling thing, Sabo jammed his pipe into Gramps's elbow to throw off a punch and almost made Gramps fall.

"I told you three to run!" Naruto shouted, in between more of his copies being punched out of existence over and over. He grabbed Ace's shirt collar and tried to shove him away from the fight. "Get out of here!"

"This isn't even your fight!" Ace yelled back in his face, "You should've run, too!"

"I'm really bad at running!"

"SO AM I!"

At that point, the tone of the fight shifted. Sure, Ace found some common ground with the guy who threw an animal in his face—which was kinda weird, but that wasn't the bit that was important. Instead, tons and tons of sand ripped its way out of the ground and changed the whole clearing into something straight out of the big beaches on the edges of Dawn Island, where Ace usually didn't go. None of their feet sank into the sand, but Gramps was trapped almost up to his knees before he threw Luffy and the little animals off.

Then a shape showed up, forming right out of the sand into the shape of a person who stalked right toward the fight.

"Stop. Attacking. My. Friends," hissed the creepy redhead kid from last time—Gaara. His nose was a mess, worse than Ace remembered from his own fight with Porchemy, but he was still up after what might've been one of Garp's punches. Freaky as hell.

"QUIT TRYING TO KIDNAP MY GRANDSONS!" the old man replied a voice that shook leaves from trees.

For a very long second, no one said anything. Everyone was frozen mid-punch or mid-flinch, or maybe mid-bite as far as the little animals went. Naruto's jaw hung open, as did Sabo's.

Then the orange fox said in the flattest tone imaginable, "…What."

"That might be more convincing if you hadn't hit that one," said the green grub, waving its little nubs in Ace's direction. "You're pulling our tails, aren't you?"

"Practically the first rule of heroism is that you don't hit kids!" Fū said, with those orange wings buzzing like a dragonfly's. "How can you claim to be anyone's grandpa when you're doing that?!"

And to Ace's shock, Gramps let Luffy climb down. And didn't instantly punch anyone. Instead, he faced down this girl less than half his size, her hands on her hips, and he crouched until he could speak directly to her face.

"I," Gramps said, slow at first, "AM TRAINING THEM TO BE STRONG MARINES!"

"BULLSHIT!" Naruto bellowed, standing shoulder to shoulder with Fū, between Gramps and Sabo and Ace.

Luffy shot around the sand ring, propelled by Gaara's weird power, until Sabo could grab onto him. He took a deep breath and his rubbery chest swelled up before he shouted, "I DON'T WANNA BE A MARINE! I'M GONNA BE A PIRATE!"

Ace almost pinched Luffy's ear and pulled on it, for all the good it'd do. Even if he was serious, he didn't have to say that to their demon grandpa's face! He was half-tempted to cuff him over the head if he thought it'd work. But it was already out and in the air and oh boy.

They were dead.

The next few minutes were pure hell. Gramps shook off the sand and the silk and everything else keeping him stuck in place, throwing punches like there was a quota and he was behind. Ace ended up face-down in the dirt with a knot on his head in the first thirty seconds of the new fight, with Sabo sprawled across his legs. Luffy might've hit the ground a little later, but Ace was too dizzy to notice anything afterward.

When Ace could move again, it was afternoon instead of midmorning and his stomach was growling like a tiger was lost in it. He sat up despite the awful headache, pressing a hand gingerly to his swollen forehead. With a hiss, he pulled his hand away and tried looking around.

The forest was a lot flatter than he remembered. The nearest trees were smashed from about Luffy's height on up, turning the place into a stump-littered hazard zone.

"We have a live one!" said a voice that was way too close, and Ace flinched before he realized it was coming from the same green grub from before. It sat next to Sabo's groaning face, then said, "Or two."

Within four seconds, the fairy-girl flew out of the remaining trees and landed lightly next to him. Aside from her hair being a little messed up and her clothes being ripped in places, she didn't look any different than before. Before Ace could ask her how, she was poking and prodding at his injuries and his face.

"Hey, hands off!" Ace managed, though his voice was a little weaker than before. He was still exhausted and bruised and she wasn't helping.

"It's okay, Ace," Fū said, finally settling for bracing his shoulder with her hand. "I'm not gonna hurt you."

Ace still leaned away from her. Somewhat sullen, because he couldn't give up, he stammered, "D-don't go thinking this—that stuff—makes up for what your friends did." Wait— "Where's Luffy?!"

"He's with Naruto and Gaara," Fū said, which really wasn't as reassuring as she thought it was. Probably. "Can you walk?"

"'Course I can!" Ace said and shoved himself to his feet even though he swayed when he got there and his vision turned black for a bit.

"Then I'll carry Sabo," Fū said, and she picked up Ace's best friend like he didn't weigh anything so she could carry him on her back. The worm that traveled with her was already climbing up her leg by the time Ace could think of what to say next.

"What're you gonna do with him?" Ace demanded, though she wasn't flying away. If she walked, he could keep up.

"You, and me, and him, are all gonna find a place to sleep this off," Fū replied, letting Ace walk ahead of her. "And then your asshole grandpa invited us for dinner."

"The hell?"

"That's what Naruto said," Fū said in a darker voice. She sighed. "But if he's hunting, he's not beating anyone up. So, it'll have to do for now."

"Why do you care?" Ace asked finally, frustrated. What did this crazy girl want? "If you'd just run, we'd be fine. He's never trying to kill us for real."

No one ever acted nice without wanting something.

Ace knew where he stood with the bandits, because they didn't care if he fell down a ravine and died and the feeling was mutual most of the time. He put their lives in danger just by existing, so he got it, even if he hated it.

Sabo was different, because they'd needed each other and Ace needed someone to share his dream with. Sabo was the first person Ace had ever tried trusting, and it had paid off enough that he could try again. Over years. At the beginning, though...

Luffy—Luffy was easy to read. He was so fucking lonely he'd grab onto anyone—but he'd chosen Ace. Had chased Ace off cliffs and over rivers and all the way to Gray Terminal, where he'd nearly died even worse than ever. Ace had almost left him even knowing what Porchemy was like.

Fū asked, "Is it really that hard to believe that I just want to do something nice?"

"Everyone wants something," Ace replied coldly.

"And I want to do something nice," Fū said, smiling like there was nothing wrong in the world.

Ace looked away, grumbling, and they walked on.


"Let me see that, brat," said the old man who had introduced himself as Monkey D. Garp.

Eventually. After running the gauntlet every trap Naruto, Fū, and Gaara could construct, after punching Gaara through a tree so hard that his own sand broke his nose, and after chasing Fū and Naruto's clones all over the mountain like a bear on an IV drip of Elder Chiyo's most dangerous combat steroids. The old man had finally settled down. Worst of all, he barely looked scuffed-up by some of the strongest attacks any of them could use without destroying the forest.

Gaara stared flatly back at the old man, though he couldn't breathe through his nose and needing to keep his mouth open was sort of ruining the mystique.

"Gaara, have you ever had a broken nose before?" Naruto asked, after turning his head and spitting something that was at least partly blood into the fire.

Gaara shook his head slightly. Before today, he'd only been injured—only seen his own blood as opposed to someone else's—twice in his entire life. And those were both after leaving Sunagakure and the Land of Wind for the first time.

"Yeah, me neither. But I hang out with Aunt Rin, so I think I know how to fix it." Naruto slapped the old man's hand away as he sat right in front of Gaara, leaning forward. "Just hang on a sec."

Gaara blinked slowly as Naruto's hand gingerly—ow!

Gaara jerked back as his sand shield flared, nearly bowling Naruto over. He blinked tears away as he stared at Naruto in shock.

"Sorry, Gaara. Had to straighten it out," Naruto said with a grimace, before turning to Garp. "Hey, old guy, got any bandages?"

"Call me 'Grandpa,' brat," Garp said, but he handed over a roll of linen first.

"Like hell," Naruto replied under his breath, before carefully treating Gaara's wounds. "You don't even know my name, so why should I?"

Garp almost immediately seized Naruto's ear and pulled on it, eliciting a yelp of pain. "Quit mumbling!"

Naruto snarled, his eyes turning red for a split second as he fought out of the old man's grip. "I already have a grandpa, you old coot! You're just some power-tripping asshole who hits kids and calls it 'training!'"

"You do?" Gaara asked, though his voice still sounded off to his own ears. Luckily, the statement seemed to have given Garp pause, which let Naruto finish patching his face back together.

"Yeah. Dad and Mom's birth parents are dead, but I've got kinda like…" Naruto trailed off, his hands stilling for a second. "You'd know him as Toad Sage Jiraiya, and then there's Granny Tsunade and Aunt Mikoto and…" Naruto sighed as he got back to work. "I miss 'em, is all."

With a sidelong glance at Garp, who had turned away and started poking the campfire again, Gaara said, "I don't quite feel the same way, but… I'm sorry you're stuck here with us instead of at home. It sounds nice."

"It's not all bad," Naruto said, clearly putting on a brave face. "This way I got to meet you and become friends. That's good, right?"

"It is," Gaara admitted, and Naruto clapped a hand onto his shoulder with a wide, not-completely-fake grin. If they hadn't vanished from home and ended up in this strange, unpredictable world, Naruto would have been a fellow jinchūriki, yes. A pen pal, in some ways. But their first meeting would have been in the Chūnin Exams instead of waking up on the same beach, with a common need to survive.

"Hey, we're back!" Fū's voice called out, and both Naruto and Gaara turned toward her.

She had all three of the younger boys with her. In the hours since the disastrous morning fight, she'd managed to get everyone in her group covered in bandages and to change their clothes. With Chōmei in their group, too, Gaara wondered if any of those bandages were silk instead of linen, then decided it didn't matter. Somehow, their two gangs of three children each seemed to have turned into a single gang of six.

Huh. Common enemies did make uncommon alliances, Gaara thought. He was nearly certain he was getting the exact phrasing wrong, but that had been somewhere in his studies, once upon a time.

And they were now sitting down to dinner with the common enemy.

Fū and the three boys sat around the fire alongside everyone else, though only the two dark-haired boys trusted Garp anywhere near them. The blond one trusted his friends, sort of, but Gaara personally didn't want anyone near the old man if he had a choice. But so far, forcing the issue hadn't worked.

"Good, you're all here now," said the old man, crossing his arms and looming over them even while sitting.

Gaara blew his nose and sprayed bloody snot onto his sand. Naruto wordlessly handed him a handkerchief, which he accepted. Fū looked slightly ill, but the three boys didn't even look surprised.

"Quit ruining the moment, brat!" Garp shouted.

Gaara ignored him and took the handkerchief.

"Just get it over with," Fū said in about the most serious tone Gaara had ever heard from her. While she wasn't above yelling to get her way—as much as that didn't work when Naruto was around and willing to shout right back—Fū was generally an upbeat person. The only things that really made her mad were evil and indifference to it.

Gaara waited.

"You three should become my grandchildren!"

"No," Gaara said immediately, and Naruto and Fū's voices joined his in perfect unison.

"I didn't ask for your opinions!"

"I told you before—I have a grandpa, and I don't need a punch-happy replacement!" Naruto snapped.

"I don't need a parent at all," Fū said, crossing her arms to match the old man.

Gaara thought about it. Then, "…What worries me is that this is still less dangerous than spending time around my father." Sure, these were some of the first injuries he'd ever experienced, but the Fourth Kazekage was much more upfront about occasional murder attempts.

Fū whipped her head around. "What?"

Gaara shrugged.

"That's horrible," Fū said, almost teleporting to Gaara's side. "Your dad's horrible."

"I know," said Gaara, because it was hard not to know by now.

Then Naruto and Fū squished Gaara between them in a pair of bear hugs. They pinned Gaara's arms to his sides, so all he could do was sigh and rest his cheek against the top of Naruto's blond head.

The old man, thankfully, didn't say anything else to make Gaara hate him more. He produced a giant boar from basically nowhere and cooked it for the sake of both the old and new child acquaintances he had, of which Gaara only considered himself vaguely involved. Garp's two already-grandsons fell on the food with about as much restraint as a pack of hyenas, quickly joined by the blond whose name Gaara still didn't know.

Naruto and Fū joined in more slowly, with Gaara taking what he wanted last of all.

But it wasn't until the old man left, meal completed and check-in with borderline-feral grandchildren accomplished, that any of them spoke to each other.

"Hey," Naruto said, once the entire experience was over, "I don't think we've introduced ourselves to you, not really."

"I'm Monkey D. Luffy! You're Naru, right?" said the smallest of the other kids. "You sound like Sabo, but act like Ace!"

"Should I be insulted or not...?" Naruto wondered aloud, nonplussed. He shrugged to himself. "Anyway, no, my name's Naruto. Think of a whirlpool." Naruto paused. "Or a fishcake."

"Like on ramen?!" Luffy chirped.

"Like on ramen," Naruto said, though his smile was a bit strained. Gaara wondered briefly if he was taking the time to remind himself that Luffy was a tiny kid, but he supposed it didn't matter.

"And I already know Fairy—"

"Fū," the kunoichi corrected.

"—from before." Luffy grinned. "I'm really happy we're friends now."

"Are we?" asked the blond. He managed a half-hearted wave. "I'm Sabo, by the way."

"And he's Gaara," Naruto concluded, patting Gaara's shoulder.

All eyes turned to the holdout.

"Portgas D. Ace," growled the last kid, full of resentment. "None of you had to go interfering like that. We've had worse from the shitty old man."

Fū's fists clenched. "That's the whole problem."

"Whatever," Ace grunted, looking away from them. "…But I guess… I guess you're not totally hopeless."

"The hell's that supposed to mean, Freckles?" Naruto demanded.

"I meant exactly what I said! And quit calling me Freckles!"

"Take it back!"

"Hell no!"

Gaara shook his head slowly. While Ace and Naruto wrestled with each other and probably ended up throwing a few unfair elbows or bites, everyone else at this campfire seemed content enough just to get to know one another. Fū and Luffy seemed to get along all too well already.

To that end, Gaara said to Sabo, "I'm sorry for scaring you before."

"Oh, that? Well, the sand part was scary, but I've lived in Gray Terminal all my life. I've fought tough guys before," Sabo said, rubbing the back of his neck. "If you're not gonna do it again, it's okay!"

Gaara could tell instantly that at least part of the first thing he'd said was a lie, but didn't call him on it. "I won't," Gaara promised.

"Yay, we're all friends now!" Fū and Luffy said together.

That seemed to be the end of it.

"OW! He bit me!" Naruto yelped.

For a few seconds, anyway.


Fū ran.

It wasn't the way she liked to travel. It wasn't even her third favorite way of getting around, not really, but she'd figured out fast that flying where normal people could see her was a bad idea. It was an even worse idea in Gray Terminal, where every fifth person was either one of Naruto's informants or desperate enough to take a shot at her.

And one of Naruto's clones had sent out the call.

"The others are in trouble!"

Fū didn't get any more details than that. She knew Naruto had been spending more time with the ASL group—brothers, now—and trying to train them up for the next appearance of the evil old grandpa, and Gaara had too. Heck, she'd been planning on hunting down a bear and presenting it for dinner once everyone got back from stealing things.

Only something was wrong, and her boys needed backup.

A series of Naruto's clones led her deeper and deeper into the dump, ducking past passive piles of trash that were probably older than she was. Every thirty meters, a puff of smoke or a pointing finger would let her know where she had to go. With Chōmei bouncing in the sling on her back, a knife in each hand, and a burning anger in her gut, Fū was ready for a fight.

A Naruto clone appeared out of nowhere, looking like a beggar. But no beggar had his whisker birthmarks stretched across each cheek. "Hang on, Fū."

"What's going on?" she hissed, even as she let him pull her through a more complicated route among the trash heaps.

"There's like a million city guards there, not to mention a pirate crew," Naruto's clone whispered back, "and enough of 'em have guns that we're waiting on Gaara."

Fū frowned. Naruto's clones weren't bulletproof. At times like this, a little detail like that was a lot more important than it should've been. Still, as she felt the slight roll of the dirt underneath them, she knew it couldn't be that long before Gaara acted. He'd gotten a lot better at making "trained" fighters cry since they'd started really training together, because he didn't want to ever end up being beaten up by Garp again.

Heck, that was why Fū had knives now.

"The original me is with them over there," the clone went on. "So, we're gonna do this hard and fast, and on cue."

Fū gave this some thought, then peeked out at the crowd surrounding their friends. With Ace and Luffy on the ground, and Sabo held in the air by one of the scruffy-looking pirate guys, Naruto didn't have enough leeway just yet. Not with a gun pointed at his head.

"All right," Fū said quietly, "but can I call dibs on the big guy with the busted teeth?"

"Bluejam?" The clone crouched under a piece of what looked like canvas. "We don't care. Just don't touch the big top hat guy. That's Sabo's dad, and we need to give him a piece of our minds."

Fū nodded, stalking around the base of the trash heap. Wait, if she could get a good vantage point… Frowning in determination, she turned and started to slowly climb up the side of the heap like it was a fortified hill. There was enough junk here and there to count as enemy traps, but she still clambered right up to the top.

Naruto's clone popped below her, but everything else was so loud that no one else would've noticed.

And though Fū hated it, she stayed still while Sabo's jerk of a dad said all kinds of terrible things about Ace, Luffy, and Naruto. She tried her best to keep her eyes on the back of his head as he talked, even when one of the pirates hit Ace hard enough to splat blood almost a meter away. Even when Bluejam threatened to kill everyone.

"Sand Drizzle," said Gaara's voice, as his favorite jutsu material ripped its way out of the ground and grabbed everyone's legs to keep them from moving.

While the sand flowed and the adults in the area wasted time asking questions or yelling, Gaara stepped forward from behind another mountain of trash with his hands making the Bird seal. The sand near a few people's legs exploded in a shower of blood and bits, and Naruto, Ace, and Luffy could finally get to their feet as their captors were a lot busier screaming.

"Nice timing, Gaara," Naruto said amid the noise, before reaching up and idly swiping a spot of blood from his cheek. When he saw the mess, he flinched. "Shit, was that really necessary?"

"If people try to kill my friends, they die," Gaara responded in a low voice. "I like to make things simple."

Fū stood up on top of the heap, barely holding back from recreating Chōmei's wings. With one quick leap, she landed just next to Sabo's shoulder as sand snaked up to encase all the Bluejam Pirates and the city guards. He'd grown a little bit in the last few months, but only just barely reached her shoulder if she ignored his hat. But his shoulders were unbowed.

"Sabo, make them cease this at once!" Sabo's father shouted, looking down at his son like he'd never seen him before.

"Gaara," Sabo said, while Fū rested her hand on his shoulder. "Do you want to let them go?"

Gaara blinked slowly, his green eyes focusing in their direction. "Do I look like a merciful person?"

"No," Sabo admitted, "but that doesn't mean you shouldn't try to be."

Ace, after concussing the pirates who'd been holding him and Luffy hostage, strode up to where Fū, Sabo, and Gaara were thinking. Naruto and Luffy followed in his wake, but Ace spoke first, "Sabo, you were gonna sacrifice yourself, weren't you? When he threatened us just a second ago?"

"…If—If I could make sure you were all safe and free, I'd give up everything," Sabo replied, looking up at what he could see of his father's face. The man was almost entirely buried in Gaara's sand by now, with his ears blocked and only his eyes and nose still showing. "I-I'd even go back to…him."

"But you don't have to!" Luffy latched onto Sabo's waist, resting his chin against Sabo's stomach. "Right?"

"No. Not 'cuz of him, and not this guy either." Naruto scowled. Naruto said in a low voice, glancing over at the captive pirate. "Bluejam's the toughest pirate around here. So… Fū?"

Fū clenched her fists, walked right up to the big, smug jerk who'd been threatening to make Naruto and Ace and Luffy disappear, and kicked him square in the chin even through Gaara's sand. Her second kick was a roundhouse that made Bluejam's head whip around to the side, spitting more teeth he couldn't really afford to lose.

It didn't make her feel any better.

But she'd called the first attack. And no one hurt her friends.

"Don't think he's gonna be a problem anymore," Ace said, scowling. He hefted his pipe. "But I can make sure they don't follow us just as well as Gaara can."

"Thorough of you," said a totally new voice, which made all of them freeze. "But not necessary."

All of them looked up slowly, to where a strange woman sat on an overturned mattress. She was dressed in a jacket and loose pants that didn't look like they'd come from anywhere near Gray Terminal, with a sword hilt poking over each shoulder. Her hair was jet-black and shoulder-length, unruly enough to almost cover the diagonal scar running across her face. Her expression was ice-cold, eyes glowing amber in the midday light, and the spiky-shelled creature on her lap had a glare that matched it. And three separate tails.

"Isobu!" squeaked three separate Tailed Beast voices.

"Kei-sensei?" Fū heard Naruto say, but as though from a long way off.

Fū trembled.

Gekkō Keisuke. The Tidal Blade. Butcher and war machine, and a living nightmare Shibuki had always told her to run from rather than fight. And she was already well within striking distance.


In the months since he met her, Sabo had never seen Fū look so afraid. She didn't shake like that even when confronting the Lord of the Forest or brainstorming with them on how to take on Gramps for the next round. She smiled like Luffy did, all bright sunshine and blue seas on a cloudless day. She didn't even seem afraid of Bluejam, or of his father, and Sabo had found himself expecting her to stay solid even when the situation changed over and over again.

It was like trying to stand his ground on sand.

Then Sabo looked sidelong at Gaara, silently revising his thinking. No, sand was about as steady as rock at this point. It was just that Fū was looking at the woman on top of the trash heap like she was the worst kind of pirate or maybe a monster in human form.

"Keisuke?" Gaara asked, and the woman nodded just like she had after Naruto addressed her. "When did you get here? How?"

"And what took you so long?" Naruto wanted to know.

Keisuke or Kei-sensei or whoever she was held up one hand and, instead of answering their questions, just asked, "Naruto, which one of them tried to kill you?"

"We've got it handled," Naruto said, though Sabo saw him immediately looked to Bluejam and Outlook. Naruto wasn't a great liar, but he was usually better than that.

The woman made a neutral noise. Then, "Gaara?"

Gaara glanced between Kei and the captive pirates and guards, then crossed his arms over his chest. The sand that he'd been holding everyone with started to wisp away, but he didn't stop blocking his captives' eyes and ears.

"Very well," she said, to the general lack of response. With deceptive ease, she stood and made her slow, disinterested way down the trash heap. She never stumbled or paused, simply taking step after step down to the real ground. "Naruto, Gaara, please take your friends and leave. I'll deal with this situation."

Sabo froze. The way she said it, this woman was as cold a killer as Bluejam's pirates were. As detached as Outlook. It was just pointed at people who'd kill his brothers and his friends instead. And now the people who had been trying to hurt his family were the ones in danger, and yet…

"Kei-sensei…" Sabo blinked as Naruto gripped his shoulder. "Don't kill them."

She paused in the act of drawing one of her swords, even as her pet turtle rolled to meet and greet the other monsters. "Why?"

Sabo stepped back, out of Naruto's grip, and Luffy latched onto him with both arms. Across from him, Ace grabbed Fū's wrist and dragged her along as they started to retreat. Sabo couldn't quite tear his eyes away from Naruto and his…bodyguard, as the two of them stood in front of the people who'd once held all the power. People who were now at the mercy of a woman's whim, just the same as they'd held their lives before.

Sabo swallowed.

"I'll tell you later," Naruto said to the woman, "but it's important."

After a painfully long pause, the woman finally nodded. "Go, Naruto."

Naruto set his jaw, just like Ace would, but he listened. Gaara abandoned his attempts to restrain anybody once they had all gotten out of sight, or at least Sabo thought so. Before long, they were running right out of Gray Terminal, with nobody following them at all. Even the usual crowd of beggars and poor people who stuck to this area had long since abandoned it, sensing trouble. It wasn't hard to tell that they probably had better survival instincts than anyone who would spend time near that woman.

They were in the forest by the time it happened.

The only warning any of them got was a muffled "Oh shi—" from Naruto, and then Sabo's world collapsed.

It felt—it felt like being underwater and cold and insignificant, choking on nothing while his lungs froze in a half-taken breath. Sabo hit the ground, Luffy landing on him, but he hardly felt it. He had to get away, get away—

And then Naruto grabbed his wrist and pinched. "Ow!"

"Hey!" barked Ace, as Gaara pulled on his ear. He flailed with his pipe, but only struck Gaara's sand shield. "Hands off!"

"Sorry," Naruto said, letting go of Sabo's wrist, "but usually this kinda stuff needs pain so you can block it out."

Fū was stretching Luffy's face, to limited effect. "Wake up, Luffy! It's just a—um…"

"Wh-what was it?" Sabo stammered, unable to stop himself from clinging to Luffy even so. "That—that didn't feel like…"

"It's killing intent," Gaara explained, which wasn't much of an explanation at all. He'd let Ace go, at least, but his sand was still distinctly not on the ground like it was supposed to be. Or in the gourd on his back. He looked spooked. "I didn't know she could do that."

"Kei-sensei was really pissed off." Naruto frowned. "Usually she aims better than that."

Sabo shuddered. He didn't want to know what it would be like if someone that scary was on the verge of losing control, and yet heard himself asking, "What's she gonna do? Naruto, you're the one who knows her…"

Naruto grimaced. "Um…"

"She said she'd leave them alive," Ace recalled, still looking unnerved under his usual mask of bravado.

"You'd be amazed what you can live through," Fū mumbled, shivering. Her hands shook as she reached back over her head and pried Chōmei out of his resting place on her back. Then, mid-motion, she froze in place.

Chōmei's voice said, in a slightly peevish tone, "Fū, it's safe to lift me out. Isobu just wants to be able to see."

Fū shrieked like she'd been set on fire, scrambling out of her backpack straps and tossing it to the ground in a blind panic. She brushed frantically at her back and hair, but Chōmei just wriggled slowly out of the backpack before turning to allow the next passenger out.

When it unrolled from its armadillo-like ball, Sabo recognized its green-gray shape. It was the same shelled creature that had been on the woman's lap earlier.

"Hey, Isobu," Naruto said, greeting the little monster without a hint of fear.

"Naruto," it said, nodding. "Where did Yang Kurama and Shukaku go?"

"We're right here, Three-Tails," said a voice from Gaara's direction.

After a few seconds, Naruto's orange fox monster companion surfaced from the mass of Gaara's sand, followed shortly by the weird raccoon. The fox shook out the sand, then stalked over to the misplaced rock turtle and said, "What took you so long to get here?"

"Don't yell at Isobu for things he can't help," Chōmei said, bristling all the way down to his tail stubs. "Not everyone is lucky enough to end up in the same spot."

"He can swim," Shukaku grumbled, his tail lashing.

"And did you honestly expect him to leave his partner behind? Really, now," Chōmei huffed.

"I can speak for myself," Isobu complained.

"That's great and all, but seriously what the fuck was that?!" Ace demanded, breaking into their little war council. Of animals the size of bread boxes. Ace made a flailing gesture in the general direction of Gray Terminal. "Who the hell was that woman? What are you all doing here? And why is Fū so freaked out?!"

"I'm not freaked out!" Fū protested, though she was still shaking.

"Fū is brave…" Luffy trailed off. Then he shook his head. "Fū isn't afraid of anything!"

Fū latched onto that thought for dear life. "That's right!"

Ace rolled his eyes. "Naruto."

"Kei-sensei has a really bad reputation," Naruto admitted, sitting back on his heels right next to the monster huddle. "But she aims it at people who're trying to kill me and people around me. She's not as scary as she acted back there."

"Normal people," Fū muttered fervently, "don't get 'flee on sight' orders."

"So did my dad," Naruto said, unbothered. "And he was Kei-sensei's teacher, so… It's kinda expected."

Fū looked away, her knuckles white as she crossed her arms.

"Your dad?" Luffy piped up. "Who's he? Is he like the Pirate King?"

Ace tensed, though Sabo wasn't sure anyone but him noticed.

Naruto shrugged. "Doubt it." As Yang Kurama climbed up onto Naruto's shoulder, he added, "Let's just get out of here. Even if there's nobody out here, this place doesn't feel right."

"But we didn't get the stuff to repair our place," Sabo mumbled. No, once Outlook had showed up, they'd forgotten everything. While the treehouse wasn't unstable or anything, they couldn't keep the wind out…

"Then we can take you to ours," Gaara rasped, before the sand reared up and they were already on their way.

It was the worst ride ever. Though Sabo had seen Fū fly and knew she could do it pretty fast, even she seemed unhappy with the weaving path Gaara chose for them as they shot through the forest. Gaara didn't care, obviously, and Naruto and Luffy and Ace all looked like they were enjoying themselves (if reluctantly), Sabo felt his stomach roll and leaned back against Fū in the hopes that her lack of sensitivity would wear off on him.


Luffy's stomach growled.

"I knew we forgot to do something," Fū mumbled, before she headed deeper into the hall.

Or was it a hole? Everything in here was a hole since they were all under a hill, right? Luffy hadn't understood how Gaara made this big squirrel den on his own, just deciding it was a mystery after thinking on it. Maybe Shukaku was kind of like a squirrel or a badger or something so he could dig, too, but the stuff around them didn't feel like sand. Sand got between his toes and moved really easy, but this was like just plain dirt. Farther back it turned into stone, but that was weird and slippery.

And then Fū was holding a bowl of candy in front of his face and he forgot what he was thinking about.

"This is the ugliest sea turtle I've ever seen," Ace's voice said, as he picked up the newest monster by its shell.

"Sea turtles have flippers at the back," Sabo said, though he was still sitting next to Luffy. "And they don't… have hands. That's still freaking me out…"

"I'm the only person here who doesn't," Chōmei said, still hanging out on Fū's shoulder. "You're lucky you all have opposable thumbs!"

"He looks like a crab to me, though," Luffy said as clearly as he could, cheeks bulging with candy. If he held his hands out, he could touch both sides of his face, but just barely if he didn't stretch. "Hey, crabby thing, what was your name again?"

The turtle crab thing reached up with its outside tails to grip Ace's wrists, then spat water right in his face. Ace sputtered and swore, trying to get it to let go and instead was being chased around by a waddling water-shooter.

"Okay, so maybe 'Crabby' works." Though Sabo's smile wasn't as bright as his real one, Luffy hugged him anyway. Sabo did good.

Then it spat in Sabo's face, too.

"Quit doing that!" Ace snapped, glaring at it as he dried his face off with his shirt. His head kinda disappeared, like was a turtle too!

"Shishishishi!" Luffy snickered.

And then the turtle sprayed Ace again.

"How mature of you," said Yang, resting one hand-paw over the other as he watched them. "Isobu, stop this at once."

"Spoilsport," said, uh...Wasabi? He was sort of green and he was making Ace sputter just as much. So it had to be that! "It is one of the few attacks I can use while this small."

"Can you two take it outside or something?" Chōmei asked, sounding a bit pissed off. "This isn't helping anyone."

Shukaku raised a sandy paw. "Oh, oh, let me!"

There was a whoomph, and suddenly all the animals were outside. Because they went through a wall.

Gaara raised a hand and sealed it up after them. It sounded like they were having fun out there, going by all the yelling and squeaky growling and sounds like things hitting other things, but Luffy didn't join in. Fū had another bowl of candy and he wanted that first, so he swallowed instead and held out his hands.

"Naruto?" said a voice, and everyone turned to look at the door of the cave-hole thing. "Though I doubt the Tailed Beasts would be fighting outside any other cave…"

Luffy turned a little later. It sounded like the person who'd appeared at the dump, but how would they know… Oh! He swallowed the next mouthful of candy, then shouted, "What's the password?!"

Everyone was kinda quiet for a little bit, though in Naruto's case it was probably because Fū was sitting on him.

"Um… I brought food?"

Luffy shot out of the cave before Ace or Sabo could grab him. In the bright sunlight, he dove at the sword-person's legs and wrapped his arms and legs around the left one. Setting his chin against what felt like a knee, he wailed, "I'm hungry!"

This person had a basket of some good-smelling stuff, and was dragging a huge dead boar with the other hand. Luffy drooled just thinking about being able to eat that much meat, especially after Fū gave him candy and he was so hungry...

"Dammit, Luffy!" Ace and Sabo yelled after him.

"Luffy, no!" Fū yelped, diving out of the cave with Gaara and Naruto on her heels. Fū stopped before she got to close, but the other two didn't.

The person lifted their leg really slowly, trying to shake him off without being too rough. When that didn't work, the person sat down and let Luffy's feet touch ground again. "Kiddo, I kinda need my leg." A pause, since Luffy didn't let go, and then, "Naruto, what's going on?"

"Luffy hasn't eaten in two hours," Naruto replied, and Luffy whipped his head all the way around to whine at him. "Or more."

"Naruto!" Fū tried to scold him, but neither Naruto or Luffy were really listening.

"Well, if he can let go long enough for me to cook it, I'll take care of that," said the weird new person.

"Food! Food!" Luffy unraveled his arms, leaning back and dangling by his legs. Everyone was upside-down now! "Fū, this funny person is nice! So you can stop being all weird now."

"I still don't trust her," Fū said, not coming any closer.

Luffy flopped backward onto the ground, then stretched until he could grab Fū's leg. Unwrapping his legs, he shot toward Fū and hugged her on impact. "But Fū, we get food!"

"I could get us food just fine," Fū replied, huffy.

"But food is here now," Luffy argued. "Please, Fū? Meat in my hand is worth meat in the bush." Or at least that's what Gramps always said. Wait a sec. "Why is meat in a bush? Are there meat bushes somewhere? We need to find them!"

"Luffy-logic in action," Sabo muttered, while everyone else did the owl-blinky thing.

Fū just patted Luffy's head, really confused. But at least there was no more arguing!

"I'm hungry, too," Ace admitted after a while. "But first… What'd you do to those assholes back there?"

"Nothing you need to worry about," was the flat reply. "They aren't in any condition to threaten anyone now."

"Did you kill them?" Sabo asked, and his voice was a little weak so Luffy looked at him, wondering if he needed a hug next.

A shrug. "Only one of them. The guy Fū kicked was the strongest, so I used him as an example. The rest didn't feel so much like fighting after that."

Luffy looked around at everyone's unsmiling faces, then reached out to poke the stranger. "Can we eat now? Mr. Mystery Person?"

"The name's Keisuke, kiddo," the person said, but moved to stand anyway. "And just so you know, no, that doesn't mean I'm a man."

"Biscuit lady!" Luffy repeated.

"Could we have something shorter?" Sabo asked.

Did he get it wrong?

"I also respond to 'Kei,'" said the weird person, drawing a sword and turning toward the dead boar.

Luffy cocked his head to one side, then chirped, "Hei!"

"Oops," said Sabo and Ace together. "Well, we tried."

"Quit copying me," Ace demanded.

"I'm not copying you. You're copying me!"

"Synchronized, aren't you?" Gaara commented.

Both of Luffy's brothers glared at Gaara, who stared back. But they weren't arguing anymore!

They ended up eating two whole boars because the little monsters brought back another one, dragging it with one beast for each foot. Whoever this Hei person was, Naruto liked her and so did Gaara, and Luffy always felt better once he and his brothers had food. Fū was the only one who was still kinda upset, but she wouldn't leave any of the others alone, so things worked out and Luffy had all his precious people in one spot.

Eventually, Luffy and his brothers did end up going back to their treehouse once they had the stuff to repair it. It took a week of scavenging really carefully around Gray Terminal and they stayed with Fū's friends for a bit there, but it did get done.

And as soon as the ASL Pirates moved out, Hei stopped being an everyday sight. Luffy learned later that she'd moved up the mountain, because Fū still didn't like her, but that was okay. If he brought Sabo or Ace with him, or both, he could find Hei's house and get her to cook more. Sometimes she even had sweet cake things that stuck to his fingers, even though he was made of rubber. She also didn't yell if he ate them all. Neither did the little turtle, who sometimes followed them all the way back home. He couldn't climb the tree, but sometimes Luffy would stretch and pull him up anyway.

The FNG group—which was totally copying the ASL Pirates!—visited a lot, or got visited, and sooner or later life was super loud and Luffy loved it to bits.

And then Gramps showed up again.


Once again, the punch-happy grandpa appeared out of nowhere on sleepy little Dawn Island. Naruto hadn't worked out where he landed, though he knew the guy was a Marine and had to dock his ship somewhere since he sure as hell didn't live on the island. Instead, Naruto kept patrols of clones running through the forest in the shape of bugs and other stuff, trying to be sure no one got caught off guard by the guy ever again. Thus, Naruto was the first one to know when Garp was headed their way.

While Kei-sensei lived farther up the mountain to give Fū some space, she came down almost every day to help with training and making them non-wild food and whatever else the FNG trio needed (though she made a funny face whenever she heard the name). Naruto had told her about Luffy and Ace and Sabo and their shitty grandpa, and he didn't need to be a sensor to know she wasn't happy about the situation.

And she hadn't come down the mountain today. Not yet.

Naruto cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted, "Time out!"

Gaara let Sabo yank his pipe out of a fist made of sand, while Luffy had Fū in a rubbery headlock, and Ace got dog-piled by Yang Kurama, Shukaku, and Chōmei the instant his and Naruto's sparring match ground to a screeching halt. Okay, sure, Naruto had been a bit distracted by impending doom, but he could handle himself without their help.

"Why'd you stop?" Usually, Ace would have thrown in in a curse or a taunt, but Naruto guessed he could sense the sudden tension. Even Yang Kurama, who was sitting on Ace's leg, didn't look happy.

"Your evil grandpa just reached the forest," Naruto said in a grim voice.

Everyone with visible skin went pale with fear. The Tailed Beasts bristled instead.

Except for one. "Who is this 'evil grandpa'?" asked Isobu.

"Remember when we told Keisuke about how we became friends in the face of a greater foe?" Gaara asked, thought it sounded a bit like he didn't really want an answer. "It's him."

"Oh," said Isobu, more thoughtfully this time.

After that, everyone else was so busy fleeing toward the FNG base—so named because it sounded cool and because "base" was what they were using it for—and toward the "safety" of the trapped zones that only Naruto saw Isobu curl into a ball and roll away. Since the bear on stilts mostly didn't notice the Tailed Beasts unless they were biting him, Naruto figured he'd be fine, and probably fast enough to reach Kei-sensei if he kept rolling.

Several minutes of controlled-panic running later, the shouting started. "You can run, but you can't hide, brats!"

Naruto signaled Fū with his left hand, and she and Chōmei did a spin on their next step that ended in a blizzard of sparky powder shooting toward the direction Garp might've been. It probably didn't do much other than make him look like the world's scariest victim of a glitter prank, but it got everywhere and it itched pretty bad. The attack bought them a few precious seconds—long enough for Chōmei to spit thirty meters of sticky silk across the shortest path between Garp and their group.

Up ahead, Luffy whooped with surprised laughter as Gaara threw him over the mouth of an open pit trap and into the bushes beyond it. Sabo and Ace made the jump on their own, with Gaara sweeping after them on a carpet of sand that hid the trap's exact dimensions from the enemy. Gaara also made sure that the ASL bros kept going, hanging back only to make sure Naruto and Fū were going to make it.

They almost made it.

But the bear crashed through a tree, landing just where Naruto had been running a split second before. Naruto yelped as the ground buckled and rolled, throwing him off balance and nearly sending him stumbling into Fū's outstretched wings.

"You're not the ones I've had the longest," the old bear began, "but you've earned this, too. Fist of Love!"

Ohshit.

Naruto shoved Fū, preparing to take the hit because it'd take him less time to heal—

"Reverse Summoning Jutsu!" squeaked Isobu's voice from nowhere.

—And then there was Kei-sensei, wrapped up in Tailed Beast chakra and blocking the punch with one glowing hand. The energy that made a V1 chakra cloak dangerous rippled and dispersed the force of the punch, sending shockwaves through the air but nobody else.

Why hadn't any of them thought of that? What the hell?

"Who the hell are you supposed to be?" Garp demanded, though he pulled back and shook out his fist, like he'd finally hit something too tough or weird to break.

Kei-sensei stood up to her full height—still way smaller than Garp—and said, "Kids, run. I can handle this."

"Kei-sensei, you didn't fight him before," Naruto protested, even though he could feel Fū pulling on his arm and the others needed him. He'd designed most of the traps a