Author's Note: This is the very last chapter, guys, and really I hope you enjoy it. Thanks for coming along for the ride. It's been fun.


Shino was running.

All around him were the sounds of fighting—no, the sounds of invasion, because that was exactly what Sunagakure and Otogakure had conspired to do. Otogakure's part in it was more readily understood—they were an anomaly, a straggling country, and from the whispers he's overheard, commanded by the Legendary Sannin Orochimaru, Konoha's very own black stain.

Suna was an entirely different matter. Shino's blood simmered at the thought of their betrayal. The only silver lining in the ordeal was that after they'd been dealt with no other nation would trust them, as a consequence of their duplicity if not their humiliating defeat.

But that was a thought for another time.

Battle sounds carried over the wind; the screech of swords clashing, the thuds of bodily impact, the crackling of chakra and rumble of collapsing buildings, permeated by barked orders and pained screams and triumphant yells. In the distance was the panicked cries of the civilians and the heavy beating of their footsteps as they were evacuated; a luxury no able shinobi was given, and the noblest of them wouldn't accept even if they were.

Shino ran through the streets without stopping, the object of his mission within sight. He was quickly leaving the constraints of the village and breaching the edge of the forest. Relieved that a battle at their distance would not further endanger the village, he focused his chakra to his legs for additional speed. He caught up with his target within moments and leapt up a tree, the concentrated charka in his soles keeping him rooted to the jagged bark.

"Aburame!" Uchiha Sasuke glanced at him in surprise.

"Go," Shino said tightly, eyes leveled on his wayward opponent. He nodded grimly. "I'll handle this one. Go ahead and take care of the other."

Uchiha didn't need telling twice. "Don't get killed," he said, then bolted in the direction the two siblings had disappeared in, leaving Shino behind to deal with the third.

"You should worry more about yourself," Shino called after him. He was, after all, the one who would be engaging Sabaku no Gaara himself. Which was why Shino had to dispatch his target quickly and catch up to stand as support.

"Tch! I don't have time for this," Kankuro growled. Shino watched avidly as he grabbed a loose section of bandaging from what he knew to be the puppet, Crow, and released it from its binding. It twirled in a facsimile of a tornado then spread its four arms wide. Shino caught sight of Kankuro's fingers moving and the puppet swayed in response.

"Then I suggest you make some," Shino commented, channeling his chakra. His allies moved through his skin and climbed upward, then stretched all across. He concentrated them along his arms where they gathered in a swarm that gave the impression of black clouds. He saw Kankuro's face morph into something resembling fascination and disgust and Shino offered him a ghost of a smile.

"Not that you'll have a choice," he added mockingly, and charged.

Buzzing. That was the first thing Shino was aware of upon awakening. The sound of buzzing and the feeling of being bled dry. He tried to open his eyes but the effort was as painful as it was draining and he barely had time to catch a glimpse of a dim, verdant world before his vision blurred and his lids fell shut.

The next time he woke up the buzzing was still present, but he could at least hear other noises in the background—cawing birds, trilling cicadas, rustling leaves, and what sounded a rather lot like large-scale exploding tags being detonated in the distance. Ever so carefully he peeled his eyes open but his caution was pointless in face of the harsh sunlight streaming over him.

He wondered where his glasses were. And then proper mental functioning kicked in and he adjusted the question to something more immediately helpful. Where was he?

Awareness was slow to trickle in which was probably why it took him so long to notice the figure at the periphery of his vision, which he'd mistaken to be a shadow. Shino could not prevent his body from stiffening even as the movement sent agony pulsing through his veins. The figure stepped closer just as Shino forced his head to turn, and the unquestionable sight of his father standing over him made his body go lax with relief.

"F-father?" He croaked, voice sandpaper rough. "W-what…?" And then it came to him. "Ah. I was p-poisoned," he stated, perhaps with more indifference than the situation warranted. But Shino was an Aburame above all else and his stoicism, in the manner of all shields, served more than a single purpose.

"Yes," his father intoned with a touch of amusement. "You'll be fine, Shino. My kikaichuu have already syphoned the majority of the poison. Your own allies will remove the rest once they've replenished themselves. Extravagant movement will be impossible for up to thirteen hours judging by the amount of poison in your system and the length of time it went unattended, but you'll live."

His father had never been one to mince words, for which Shino was grateful. "And my opponent?"

"If you're referring to the puppet-master and his doll, then they're both out of commission. I doubt either of them will functioning properly any time soon. At any rate, they've been bound. It never does to underestimate one's opponent, after all."

Shino sighed in relief. "Yes," he agreed, eyes fluttering. "Thank you, father."

Black spots were beginning to dance over his narrowing vision and shadows were creeping in at the corners, ready to overwhelm. Shino didn't bother fighting it. His father was there and would keep him safe.

"I won't be conscious for long," he cautioned.

"Rest, Shino," his father's voice sounded from so very far away. "You did well."

The golden sun seemed to take up the whole sky. That was the last thing he saw before his eyes fell shut, and it brought to mind other things, other people, he'd forgotten in the chaos of fighting, and falling, and being forced towards the threshold of death before being delicately snatched back.

"W-what…a-about…N…N…Nar…" He never got the chance to ask. He was seized by unconsciousness before he could get the question out and the words died on his heavy tongue.

The third time Shino came to awareness he was in enough control of his mental facilities to hope that waking from unconsciousness wouldn't become a frequent occurrence. Three times within the span of a―he glanced out the nearest window―day, possibly two, was humiliating enough.

Shino turned his gaze away from panel of glass that held back the shadows of night and drowsily surveyed his current location. He was in a room designed for medical procedures, that much was obvious from the overwhelming spread of white, the presence of medical equipment, and the cloying scent of antiseptic and fresh herbs. It took him a moment longer to realize that he was in the infirmary within his compound, which was a promising indicator that he was recovering well. Had his physical condition been dire, he would have found himself in Konoha's shinobi hospital.

After making sure that his allies were recuperating well and that he still had feeling in all his extremities, he let his eyes fall shut and recounted everything he could remember. His spirit plummeted when he remembered the invasion, his battle with Kankuro, and though the memory was hazy, the sight of his father cleansing his bloodstream of the poison he had foolishly inhaled.

Only the suspicion that he would likely fall on his face if he tried to stand kept him rooted to the bed. Otherwise, he would have been on his feet and seeking out answers. Shino had half a mind to do something as undignified as to yell for someone before he caught the faint whisper of footsteps outside the infirmary.

A moment later Aburame Shibi slid the door open and stepped into the room, and though his expression was as blank as ever, Shino could see the physical evidence of his relief in the way his steps quickened and the stiffness of his shoulders eased into something less severe.

"Shino," Shibi said with an exhale.

"Father," greeted Shino. Knowing that his father hadn't been harmed was no small comfort.

"I'm relieved to see that you are awake."

"For which I have you to thank, if I recall correctly."

Shibi inclined his head and continued to advance forward, stopping only when there was an inch of space between him and the bed. He placed his palm over Shino's forehead and nodded, satisfied, before stepping back. Shino observed his father and concluded that he must have been suffering from a fever which, if the dampness of his collar was any indication, had only recently broken.

"Can I assume by your presence that the opposition has been dealt with?"

"You assume correctly. The invasion officially ended nine hours ago. It is twenty-three o'clock."

"Fatalities?" he inquired with the barest hint of hesitancy.

A heartbeat's pause, and then, "Aburame Sasami and her son, Shigure," Shibi said somberly. Eyes that resembled Shino's so minutely were filled with palpable remorse.

Shino thought of the pair, jounin and chuunin respectively, and the hybridizing research they'd been conducting between kikaichuu and various arachnid breeds. He didn't know either of them well, but he remembered that Sasami had an inclination towards string instruments and a talent for genjutsu, and that Shigure had only been a chuunin for a little under a year.

Silence hung between the two as they lowered their heads and sent a brief prayer for their fallen clansmen.

"Several shinobi and civilians were killed during the invasion," Shibi continued gravely. "We've yet to be given a precise figure but I've estimated it to range as high as sixty or seventy shinobi. I cannot deduce the number of civilian losses, regrettably. "

Sixty or seventy dead, and that wasn't including those who'd been wounded with disabling injuries. The number of casualties was far less than Shino had feared it would be, but it was no cause for celebration, either. It would take a long time, possibly years, maybe even decades, for Konoha to re-stabilize itself after losing so much manpower. Not only would the village need funding to rebuild itself and replenish lost resources, but the mission intakes would surely suffer, as well, either as a consequence of fewer shinobi or by outlying countries turning to other hidden villages because the invasion had given them the impression that Konoha was weak, and thus incapable of fulfilling their needs.

Shino's worry for the future of his village increased substantially when his father uttered the worst possible thing he could have.

"…The Sandaime Hokage was among the casualties."

Shino's inhaled sharply and closed his eyes.

He thought of the precarious position Konoha was now in because on top of everything else, they had lost their leader, too. The thought was brief for it was soon swallowed whole by memories of not the Hokage, Konoha's fiercely protective leader who preached the merits of the Will of Fire and passed it along as if were a flaming baton, but the man who had smiled kindly at Shino when Naruto had dragged him to his office so they could meet, and who let Naruto sit on his lap when the villagers were being particularly savage, and who had told him "Congratulations," in that deep, gravelly voice of his the first time Shino and his team had visited the Mission's Desk, eyes fond and voice proud.

"I see," he forced himself to say even as his heart threatened to beat its way past the constraints of his chest. Speaking the next words felt like treason. "Has the council decided upon a replacement?"

"Yes, though whether the candidate accepts the position remains to be seen," Shibi murmured, sounding wearier than Shino could ever recall him being.

"I see," Shino repeated, thoughts churning.

The heavy silence was broken by the approach of another set of footsteps further down the hall. The person walked too heavily to be an Aburame, and certainly not an experienced shinobi, and the pause between steps hinted at a stride too long to belong to a child not yet skilled at walking soundlessly. Shino compiled a list of people who, on top of fitting that description, would be permitted entry into such a sensitive area of the compound at that time of night, and narrowed it to one.

"Naruto," said Shino, with a relieved sigh.

He had known that she hadn't been a casualty, or even severely injured, for that would have been the first thing his father had reported. Still, there was a difference between being aware of something, and having it validated with one's own senses and knowing it to be true.

"She's been here for six hours," Shibi stated with a fondness that belied the severity of the situation. As with Shino's mother, Shibi had grown to care for the girl even though she was the antithesis of several ideologies the Aburame stood behind. "We've made numerous attempts to get her to rest, but you of all people know how she can be."

Fiercely protective. Stubborn to a fault. Loyal to the point of absurdity, even at the risk of her personal wellbeing.

Yes, Shino was intimately familiar with how Naruto could be when one of her precious people was hurt.

"She wakes up every hour to check up on you then returns to her room to sleep. Now, perhaps, she can finally be reasoned with."

Shino made a noncommittal noise in response to the doubtfulness that lingered in his tone.

As the footsteps drew closer, Shibi placed a steady hand on his son's shoulder.

"I'll take my leave then," he said with an unreadable look. "It is unlikely that I will see you again before tomorrow night, but your mother will remain nearby and see to your needs. While you are recovering adequately it is imperative that you refrain from overexerting yourself. Your body needs to rest."

Shino was in the process of inclining his head when his father, after a moment of hesitation, leaned forward and pressed a brief kiss to his head.

Shino could only stare at him in awe. It had been…many years since his father had displayed such open affection towards him. His father must have more affected by Shino's…condition than he had realized.

"Good night, Shino," Shibi murmured, withdrawing.

"Good night, father," Shino touched a hand to his hair and watched him leave, feeling no small amount of reluctance.

He heard their inevitable encounter not a moment later.

"Shibi-san!" came the muffled, yet unmistakable, voice of Naruto. For someone who had apparently not been sleeping well, she sounded surprisingly upbeat. "How's Shino?"

"Awake," he heard his father intone. "Keep in mind that he needs his rest, Naruto, as do you."

There was silence. Shino made it to the count of six before the heavy pounding of footsteps met his ears, followed by the piercing sound of the infirmary door being torn open and the resounding crash as it slammed into the wall.

Naruto dashed into the room with purposeful strides, saw Shino sitting there, clearly awake, and shouted, perhaps loudly enough to wake the entire compound, "About time, Shino!"

"You're being unnecessarily loud," Shino said with a wince, even as a tension he hadn't realized he'd been carrying fell away.

"Sorry, sorry," Naruto muttered as she approached, eyes roaming over him, searching. She paused a few inches away from his bed and asked in a softer tone, "How are you feeling?"

It warmed him from the inside out that Naruto, who was normally so loud and coarse, could sound that way towards him.

"Recovered. Mostly," he added when her eyes narrowed suspiciously. "Some soreness remains, but that will pass with proper rest and adequate hydration. My system has been thoroughly cleansed of contamination, however, and I will suffer no side effects from being poisoned."

Naruto inhaled harshly and closed the distance between them in a single step. "I see," she said, and it worried Shino that there was something in her tone he couldn't place. "So…if I were to, say, hug you right now…you wouldn't collapse or start foaming from the mouth or anything, right?"

It was said jokingly, but Shino could see genuine worry shadowing her eyes.

"That is highly unlikely," Shino reassured her with a tiny quirk of lips.

"Okay," she nodded, then pounced.

Shino grunted as one-hundred and forty pounds of agitated girl landed on top of him, knocking the breath from his lungs and searing bruises into whatever patch of skin wasn't fortunate enough to evade her sharp elbows and knees.

He should have fabricated the truth somewhat, he realized belatedly. But then, he'd expected to be embraced, not tackled like a prison escapee.

"Shino," she gasped, interrupting his, perhaps unkind, train of thought. "Don't you ever, ever do that to me again, or so help me…" she made a keening noise, not unlike a wounded animal, and wrapped her arms around his neck so tightly he struggled to breathe. "You were unconscious for hours, and your dad said that if he hadn't found you when he did you would have died. Died, Shino. God."

"I…" Shino paused to think of something to say. Somehow an apology felt wholly inadequate. Doubtless because he knew what it was like to be on the other side; half-insane from worry and virtually paralyzed with fear.

The words and this is how I feel every time you rush headlong into danger dangled at the forefront of mind, but Shino wasn't quite petty or insensitive enough to speak them, true as they might have been.

In the end he settled for saying, "I'll strive to be more careful in the future," because that was the only thing within his power to promise, and the only thing he was brave enough to say.

"...That's…not good enough," Naruto admitted hoarsely.

"I know," Shino agreed. Because he did.

Naruto pulled away slowly and Shino clenched his hands into fists, which he kept firmly at his sides, to keep himself from reaching out and pulling her back where she belonged.

He was disturbed from his internal warring when something warm cupped his cheeks. When he realized that it was Naruto's hands, and that she was touching his face, cradling it, he felt himself go statue-still.

"Are you really okay, though?" Naruto pressed. Her face was so close Shino could see flecks of silver strewn around the blue ring of her eyes. "You look sort of pale. Well, paler than usual, I mean."

Shino found it difficult to speak when his breath felt to have become trapped in the void between his lungs. "I-I'm fine," he forced out, keeping his gaze trained on her eyes and not the delicate slope of her nose, or the indent above her lips, or the inviting arch of her shapely pink mouth.

Any other time, Shino would have elaborated, if only to further reassure her. But this wasn't any other time, and Shino's thoughts had turned to scattered motes from the moment Naruto's warm palms connected with his skin.

"You better not be lying," she huffed softly. When she shifted, Shino thought―

(hoped, lamented, repined)

―she'd been about to withdraw, but no, she only trailed her thumbs over the contours of his eyebrows and burrowed the tips of her fingers into the jagged edges of his hair.

"I was worried," she repeated, voice a low rumble.

Her eyes were impossibly blue. It was as if someone had forged a ring from a lapis lazuli gemstone and set it to surround the black sphere of her eyes. The sphere which, as Shino watched, was beginning to swell, overwhelming the ring until it was no more than an incision line that bled blue.

The connection was broken when her eyes narrowed half-mast, obscured by the delicate skin of her lids and the brush of golden lashes as they fluttered down.

It took Shino a too-long moment to realize that she was looking at his lips and suddenly he couldn't breathe properly, not when the temperature in the room had escalated to searing degrees and the focus of it, the source, was sitting a few meager inches away, so close that if Shino were to move, were to shift forward, were to close those scant inches between them and tilt his head and just…

And just…

But the moment was shattered when Naruto pulled away, cutting the connection, demolishing it, and somehow the action set the world to rights again. The room was no longer painfully warm, and all noise and color had returned, and Shino found that he could properly breathe once more, oxygen passing through his lungs the way it was supposed to.

The world was set to rights, but Shino couldn't help but feel that it was so much worse off. That perhaps a world that burned like magma, a world one couldn't properly breathe in, a world devoid of color and sound and shades of light, was the better option.

He had certainly never felt so alive than he did just then; energy thrumming beneath his skin and sparks of pleasure coiling down the length of his spine.

Shino closed his eyes against the sudden sensation of vertigo. He inhaled deeply, slowly, and carefully leaned back, feeling downtrodden and disoriented from the loss.

Loss. It was a curious thing to feel, as loss indicated that there had once been something to gain, but Shino knew that it had been so, knew it with the same certainty that he could say the earth orbited around the sun.

For a moment, no longer than the breath of space between ten heartbeats, they had been about to kiss. Shino had―no, Naruto had…

And then she had stopped.

She had pulled away from him.

Somewhere in the back of Shino's overwhelmed mind, he wondered if he'd been rejected. He allowed the thought to linger for a second or two before he pushed it so far back it became practically nonexistent. He couldn't allow himself to even consider such a possibility. Not right then, when Naruto was sitting so nearby, radiating waves of guilt and misery that Shino swore he could feel seeping into his own skin.

He stared at her, unblinking, and took in the averted eyes and slumped shoulders and the rigid line of her lips.

Shino tore his gaze away from the latter and forced himself to say, "Naruto."

It was a question, a plea, a sigh, a snarl, a promise, a stall, and an affirmation all rolled into one single word.

After long minutes of a silence that was anything but, Naruto seemed to snap out of it, though what it was, Shino didn't know.

Naruto exhaled slowly, straightened her spine, and lifted her head, and Shino thought she looked like a soldier getting ready to fight a battle she had no guarantee of winning. He tensed just as she opened her mouth and said, "There's something I have to tell you."

Shino, caught in the gravity of her gaze, could do nothing else but nod.

"Do you," she stopped, drew her bottom lip between her teeth, then barreled on. "Do you know what an jinchuriki is, Shino?"

Shino did not, but the way she said the word made him somehow reluctant to find out. Despite his reservations he forced his head to shake, because it was something Naruto wanted him to know. No, that wasn't right—not if her expression was anything to go by. She didn't want him to know, rather, she needed him to. Which was why Shino answered honestly,

"I'm not familiar with the term."

The laugh that escaped her was anything but humored. "I didn't think you would be," she said with a smile so false it physically hurt to look at. "Hey, Shino? Don't hate me, alright?"

Shino didn't get a chance to form a response—to react, to question, to deny—before Naruto interrupted him with, "Thirteen years ago, on the tenth of October, Konohagakure no Sato was attacked by the Kyuubi no Kitsune and hundreds of shinobi were killed."

Shino's open mouth fell shut with an audible click and he stared at her, confused by the turn their conversation had taken.

Smile firmly in place, Naruto continued blithely, "No one could stop it, let alone harm it, until the Yondaime Hokage came and killed it, ending his own life in the process. Or, that's what the Sandaime wanted everyone to believe, anyway."

Shino's eyes widened at that revelation.

"See, the thing is, the Kyuubi couldn't be killed. It's impossible. Bijuu like the Kyuubi are beings of chakra and even if someone manages to damage them enough they just disperse for a while and then come back. The Yondaime knew that so he…he made some kind of pact with the Shinigami and sealed the Kyuubi inside the body of a baby at the cost of his own life. And that baby was…"

You, Shino finished, as everything finally, finally fell into place.

The way the villagers treated her, and why no one was allowed to offer an explanation. The reason behind Naruto's vast chakra reserves, healing abilities, keen senses, and stamina. Why the Sandaime Hokage had been so close to her, despite her being an orphan of no relation.

Meanwhile, other uncomfortable things were starting to make more sense—cut off sentences, wary glances, agitated gestures, plastic smiles; misdirection, distractions, half-truths, and outright lies.

And Shino had fallen for it. And when he hadn't, he'd never bothered to pursue the truth.

Because he'd trusted her.

Shino proceeded to listen as Naruto continued her story, too numb to act on the hundreds of impulses that were scrabbling for control in his head.

All the while, Naruto never lost her smile.

The Hidden Village of the Leaf. It looked like a smattering of multicolored and multishaped children's blocks from on top of the Hokage mountain, strewn about in various formations of design. The people looked even smaller, like thumbtacks on a map. The early morning sky was a vibrant fusion of silver, magenta, and mauve, and the village shimmered like gemstones beneath it, breathtaking and bright.

Shino drank in the sight of his village—battered from the the failed invasion but not bent, and never broken—and breathed in its unique scent, carried on the unpredictable patterns of the wind. He felt like he could have sat there for hours given the opportunity; hidden in plain sight with the world stretched out around him like an offering.

"You aren't going to say anything?" Naruto's voice cut through his musings.

Shino glanced at her, then away. Stone residue clung to his skin as he slid one hand up a pinnacle of the Yondaime's hair. "What would you have me say?" he asked after several minutes of taut silence.

"Anything!" came the furious whisper. "Tell me you're angry that I lied to you, that I'll never regain your trust, that you regret being my friend now that you know! Just say something!" What started as a low hiss grew steadily into a shout that left a piercing echo in its wake.

Shino pressed his lips into a thin, hard line and refused to look at her. He supposed it was cowardice, of a sort, born from his desire to suppress his temper rather than any fear of confrontation one might expect. But his anger was a sparking ember at the base of his throat and Shino would not abandon her to the heat of his tongue.

For all Naruto had lied to him, for all she had distrusted him, she did not deserve to be used as a training dummy propped up for the sake of venting frustration. Shino would not disrespect her that way, nor would he reduce himself to likening a wild animal that lashes out when hurt.

And that was the core of it, Shino knew; the foundation beneath the anger and frustration, the point where everything converged, the focus. Shino was hurt—by her lies, by her mistrust, and perhaps most painful of all, by her lack of faith in him.

The moment it was fully acknowledged, all the excess—the ire, the vexation, the resentment—faded away. It was still there, simmering beneath the surface in a half-dead state, but it was quieter now, swallowed whole by emotions he hadn't wanted to feel. Where fire had once resided, ice now took its place, and the warmth of the sun beating over him did little to abate the chill.

Yesterday had been the start of it all; the dawning of the chasm that now laid between them. After seven months of secrecy, of half-truths, of outright lies, Naruto had finally told him the truth: she was what was known throughout the Elemental Nations as a jinchuriki. It held a different meaning for many—to some it meant sacrifice and savior, to others abomination and weapon. The only consensus seemed to be that they were jailors, and that was what it all came down to: Uzumaki Naruto, the girl who'd made herself of a home in the valves and arteries of Shino's heart, was the human host of the Kyuubi no Kitsune that had once ravaged their village.

Shino could have laughed at how little a difference it made to him.

There'd been a time when Shino had thought he'd known Naruto better than anyone. A time when he could have said the same in reverse. Now Shino had to wonder how much of it was true and how much had been a projection of his desires. The irony of it all was that in the end, in the grand scheme of things, Naruto hosting a demon was…inconsequential. It simply didn't matter. She was the same brazen girl who saw nothing wrong with wearing orange, or eating ramen at all times of the day, or tackling people in the middle of the street. She was the same ridiculous girl who sang off-key, and always shouted, and kept on smiling even when she was hurt.

And that was the crux of the problem.

She had hurt him, for reasons he understood and others he could not comprehend, but…she was still Naruto. Still the girl he had chased after when he was a child, still the girl he'd held firmly onto once he'd caught up to her. Still the same person who had integrated herself so deeply into his system that Shino could barely consider himself whole. Still Naruto, who, despite everything that had happened, was more precious to him than the oxygen he breathed.

So when Naruto muttered "Whatever," and stood up, hair gleaming orange beneath the iridescent sun, Shino could not restrain himself from calling her name, or pulling her down, or drawing her into his arms where she belonged as surely as if she were a piece of him that had long ago broken off. Her cry of surprise was muffled by his jacket, as were the next stream of words which he pointedly ignored.

It was his turn to speak. His turn to be heard.

"You…are an idiot," Shino said fiercely. He tightened his grip when she made to pull away. "Perhaps even on a level only Inuzuka could claim. Of course I'm angry. How could I not be?"

Naruto stiffened against him, but remained silent.

"I'm angry that you never told me. I'm angry that you lied to me. I'm angry that you kept that part of yourself hidden. But most of all…I'm disappointed, Naruto," he admitted.

Naruto looked at him with wide eyes. She opened her mouth to speak but Shino cut her off with a shake of his head. He needed to tell her this, needed to get it off his chest, before it festered into something neither of them could tame. If there was any hope of mending the current rift between them, then they had to start now, and it could only be achieved by Shino putting his turbulent thoughts into words and Naruto actually listening for once.

His hands curled into fists as he said, "You didn't trust me. I thought you knew me better than anyone, but you didn't trust me. Not with such an important secret, not to form my own opinion, and not to make the right choice. You…you just decided that I was going to react adversely and leave you behind, as if I were no different from the mindless sycophants that make up the village, and I do not understand why."

Shino could not comprehend it. He was not blind to Naruto's insecurities, nor her fear of abandonment, but when had he ever given her the impression that he would toss her aside as if she meant nothing to him? As if she weren't his entire world?

While Shino hadn't been forthcoming with his feelings he had always made it a point to show her how special she was. How valuable.

But perhaps he hadn't. Perhaps, in his desperation to conceal the depths of his feelings, he'd hidden the other things, as well, such as his admiration, his fascination, and his respect for her. Perhaps they'd been miscommunicating all those years—sending and receiving letters to each other that were written in languages that only resembled the other's.

The thought troubled him so greatly that when Naruto finally pulled away, Shino let her.

"I…I'm sorry," she said, gaze wavering and unfocused. "I'm sorry. I do trust you, Shino, more than anyone, but…I was afraid. I know," she closed her eyes and wrapped her arms around herself as if to fend off a chill. Shino had to wonder if they were sharing the cold the way people could share body heat. "I know you wouldn't have rejected me, I know that, but there was always this little voice in my head that whispered what if."

Voice trembling with agitation, she continued, "And you! You'd just be there, smiling at me and encouraging me and always looking at me like I'm something precious, something valuable, and don't you see, Shino?" She asked desperately. "I couldn't lose that. I couldn't risk it."

She looked away and Shino was selfishly glad. He didn't know how much longer he would have been able to bear being caught under her distressed, miserable stare without coming apart at the seams and falling to pieces.

"You…you're more important to me than anyone," she continued thickly. "But you're not alone like I am. If you take me out of the picture you still have a whole clan behind you, Shino, you'll still have a hundred other people willing to take my place. But I don't have anyone else. Not anyone like you."

When she turned to him again her eyes were glistening with tears. "I'm sorry for lying to you and for not trusting you. I am. I just couldn't take the risk. It's not an excuse, I know that, but…I, it's…"

Shino saw her battle, and he saw when it was lost.

Tears spilled over as a heart-wrenching sob escaped and Shino moved without thinking, without realizing. He just gathered her in like the instinct he knew it was and held her as she trembled against him.

He couldn't remember the last time he'd seen her cry, seen her really cry, with tears and coughs and the deep, rasping gasps that came from being unable to breathe. Shino couldn't stand it and he hated himself, in that moment, for being the one to cause it.

"Alright, it's alright," Shino rasped, eyes staring forward, unseeing. They were blurry with tears but he could do nothing but try, and fail, to reign them in. "I apologize. I should have understood better. I shouldn't have pushed so hard. I'm sorry, Naruto," he bit his lip as his voice fractured over the words.

"I-I'm the one who's sorry," she whispered, shivering.

Or perhaps it was Shino who was shivering and Naruto was just reacting to it. He couldn't quite tell.

"No. It is I who owes you an apology," Shino said, throat tight with shame.

He forgot, sometimes, that their relationship was not that of equals. Not yet. Though she'd never asked for such a responsibility, Naruto owned Shino completely. There was very little of him he wouldn't willingly give to her, or that she couldn't forcefully take. As a result of that, it sometimes slipped his mind that the same could not be said in reverse.

Shino did not own Naruto. He could not demand of her the same things he so readily offered. He was not entitled to the privacy of her thoughts. Her secrets were not his to claim. As painful as it was to admit, Naruto was not his, and his behavior towards her, his self-centered inconsideration, was...deplorable.

Naruto made a small noise of confusion. "For what?"

Shino removed his glasses with one hand and tucked them into the breast pocket of his coat. "What am I not sorry for?" he asked with a note of derision. "For reacting poorly. For making you cry. For not using the intelligence I pride myself on." Among other things.

Naruto let out a snort of a laugh, from which Shino found some semblance of forgiveness, and proceeded to sniffle. A massive shudder wracked through her, which Shino caught and echoed, and she sighed. Shino was unimaginably relieved to note that she had stopped crying.

"Are you alright?" he asked with some hesitance.

"Maybe," she hedged. "If…if we're alright."

Shino didn't need to contemplate a response. "Then you're alright," he said decisively, lowering his arms. "Come on, Naruto. Sit up."

"No," was her rapid reply.

Shino's eyebrows drew up in confusion. "No?"


"Why not?" A beat, and then, "I can't understand you when you speak into my coat like that, Naruto."

Naruto shifted against him. "I…got snot all over you," she forced out, sounding highly embarrassed.

It never failed to amaze Shino how effortlessly she could lighten his mood. "Of course you did," he sighed, though his lips were turned up at the corners.

He undid some of the bandaging on his arm, tore if off, and pressed the material into Naruto's hand. Naruto remained hunched over as she brought the bandages to her face and wiped it clean. The soiled cloth was discarded to the side as she sat up and pulled away.

With more calm than Shino would have expected to feel, he took everything in—her swollen eyes, the messy tear tracks, her watery smile—and leaned forward without thinking, eyes drawn to the fragile curve of her mouth.

Now, something inside of him whispered.

There was no room for doubts in his mind. No time for uncertainty or second-guessing. Within the span of two heartbeats he had already closed the distance between them, filling the unwelcome space with his form.

Shino had a moment to register the widening of her eyes before their noses brushed and their lips connected. Try as he might, he could not keep his eyes from falling shut.

Wet, was his first impression.

Soft, was his second.

Perfect, was his third.

The kiss tasted like salt and skin and perhaps the faintest residue of ramen, and even though it was nothing more than a simple touch―a chaste pressing of lips―Shino didn't think he had ever been a part of anything so perfect in his life.

Shino shivered when Naruto sighed against him, overwhelmed by the whisper of air that ghosted over his hypersensitive lips. He pressed closer when she made no discernible move to pull away, and tried to brand the memory of the moment into his mind. It was, perhaps, unnecessary, for he fervently doubted he would ever be able to forget the feel, the taste, the smell; the way their lips molded together with the pliability of clay and the rightness of rain after a period of drought.

Every second of it was something to hold onto, something to remember, something to cherish.

It was with immense reluctance that Shino finally pulled away, but his need to see, his need to observe, was as equally important as his desire to prolong the kiss for however long Naruto would permit it.

The vision he saw was enough to send his heartbeat into a frantic gallop.

Glazed eyes. Flushed cheeks. A hint of a smile twisting at the corners of her lips. Hands that were fisting the material of his coat—not to push him away, as he would have thought, but to keep him still, and pull him close, and anchor them both.

"So," Naruto said breathlessly. Her cheeks were tinted red. "So."

"So," Shino agreed, just as affected, and reeled her in for another kiss.

It was Naruto who deepened it, that time. Naruto who parted her lips and invited him in. And then everything started to move so fast that it became too much of an effort to keep track of who initiated what, and later, much later, after they had both gotten into the motion of things, where she started and he began.

Shino was lost in sensation, surrounded by it on all sides, while fire roared beneath his skin and threatened to burn him alive. Nothing else existed but the two of them, the world around them thrust to the background, and further, until it ceased to exist. What had been hesitant before, a tentative exploration in unchartered lands, was unfaltering now; intrepid.

To Shino's wonder, Naruto kissed like she did everything else―vibrantly, passionately, and without restraint. She was discontent to allow Shino control over their pace and apparently had no qualms about seizing dominance―either through unrelenting force, or underhanded nips and licks that she had early on discovered Shino had a weakness for.

Her hands, too, were avid participants. Unlike Shino, who kept his hands contained to harmless places like her waist, Naruto's were everywhere. They were in his hair, and on his face, and at his throat; they were trailing up the mounds of his chest and down the knobs of his spine; they were exploring the depths between his fingers, and the circumference of his wrist, and the scattering of hairs along his arms.

She was all over him, and inside of him, and absolutely everywhere, and Shino didn't think he would ever get enough of being encompassed so entirely. It was like being taken over from the inside out, and Shino knew that his willing capitulation was the most intelligent thing he had ever done.

Naruto broke the kiss to breathe and Shino just barely kept himself from chasing after her and retrieving what she had cruelly stolen. He panted and watched, mesmerized, as she licked the wetness from her mouth. There was no way to tell who it belonged to, or if it even belonged to any one of them, and the thought made him dizzy.

"So," she gasped after a moment. When she grinned the whole world seemed to brighten, though it was a poor emulation at best.

"So," Shino repeated. His face ached, and it took him a while to realize that it was because he was smiling.

"That was―" she interrupted herself to laugh.

"It was," Shino agreed, far too thrilled by what had occurred between them to worry about trivialities like redundancy.

"Are we…?" Naruto trailed off.

"If you are amenable to the idea," Shino said simply, even as his gaze sharpened, intent on catching each expression and nuance that passed over her face.

"Then we are." She met his gaze squarely.

Shino acknowledged what she was conveying and finally allowed himself to relax.

Naruto leaned forward and pressed a feather-light kiss to his cheek, and Shino marveled that such an innocent thing―at least, when compared to what they had just done―could still feel as devastating as a firebrand against his skin. His heartbeat decelerated from a rapid cadence to a steady hum as Naruto settled against him and rested her head on his shoulder.

Shino closed his eyes and leaned his branded cheek against her hair, then gazed out towards the village. Somehow, without him noticing, the village had woken from the widespread lethargy of daybreak and had come to life. The streets were bustling with people who were either going about their daily business or were setting whatever broken architecture there was to rights. Shinobi of various ranks leapt across jagged rooftops and swaying trees, sometimes drawing attention, sometimes not, but always in constant movement. As awareness continued to trickle in, Shino became mindful of the noise―the chattering of civilians, the sounds of woodwork and construction, the calls of peddling merchants, and the faint laughter of children coming from the Academy below.

"The view is awesome from up here," Naruto murmured, no doubt seeing what he saw and cherishing it as he did.

That she still could, despite all the villagers had done to her, and continue to do to her, never failed to astound him. Shino knew himself well enough to know that he wouldn't have handled the situation half as well had he been in her place. Even as an outside party, Shino could not temper the bitterness he felt towards those who had treated her like she hadn't the right to exist.

Shino loved his village, would protect it with his last breath, and would almost certainly end up laying down his life for it, and yet, he felt that there would always be a part of him that resented it for letting him down by not living up to his, perhaps puerile, expectations.

Naruto's hand found his and she laced their fingers together, and Shino responded by squeezing tightly. "It is," he agreed, distractedly.

Then, "How long will you be gone?"

Neither of them required an elaboration.

Naruto's sigh was soft, almost inaudible, but he heard it anyway. "I don't know. Ero-sennin said a few weeks, but that doesn't actually tell me anything," she told him, running her blunt nails over his palm. "He said it was an important retrieval mission though he didn't tell me what, or who, we were going to find. Stupid old useless pervert," she muttered under her breath.

Shino smiled wryly.

"I'm sure it won't take too long," she continued, trying to sound convincing. "And if it does, I'll just annoy him until he has no choice but to speed things along. That should do it."

Had Shino been in a more forgiving mood, he might have pitied Jiraiya. If there was one thing he had the utmost faith in, it was Naruto's ability to nag people into acquiescence. As it was, he only felt vindictive spite towards the man who would be stealing Naruto away for the unforeseeable future.

"When are you leaving?" he inquired.

She glanced up at the position of the sun. "Uh…probably in another hour or two? He said early but who knows with that pervert? I'll probably end up having to hunt him down and drag him out of whatever women's bath is open. Seriously Shino, he's so troublesome."

They shared a grin, though it didn't last long. Naruto's expression twisted into something wary and she said, "About earlier…are you sure things are fine as they stand? I don't…I don't want to leave for however long and come back to find everything still…unresolved."

Shino nodded determinedly. "We're fine. More than," he added, thoughts circulating towards the new, thrilling step their relationship had taken. "We'll have things to discuss when you return, particularly in regards to your...prisoner, but as for the two us, we're…" He trailed off, not quite liking all the sappy declarations that were springing to mind.

Naruto snorted at him, appearing to have understood his dilemma.

"Alright―," she started, but Shino cut her off, determined to get the words out before they slunk back down his throat in metaphorical cowardice.

"Naruto…there are very few things that you could do, or say, or be, that would turn me against you. You could singlehandedly start a war with Iwa or defect and start gallivanting after Orochimaru and I still wouldn't abandon you." He turned his head to the side, self-conscious about the heat that was rising to his face at his admission. "It's…illogical, perhaps, but nevertheless true. I came to terms with the fact that I'm not always the most…rational person around you a long time ago."

"And you wonder," he heard Naruto whisper shakily, "why I'm so frightened to lose you."

Shino didn't expect to be tackled to the ground, but he didn't resist it, either. He let himself fall, ignoring the pain of the impact on both fronts, and stared up at the beautiful, wonderful, impossibly perfect creature above him.

"I love you, you know," he intoned.

It amazed him how those words, which he'd secreted within him for so long they had become almost a burden, could be said so easily.

And yet…it made perfect sense. He might not have said them where anyone could hear, but he'd spoken them nonetheless―from his heart, and with his gaze, and through his touch, and by his actions. That they were inaudible did not negate the fact that they'd been conveyed with the subtlety of a floating lantern festival, or in the manner of a secret being whispered in a gossip's ear.

The best thing of all, however, was the way Naruto was looking at him, as if she'd known all along and had just been waiting for him to say the words. Waiting, and prepared, to capture them with open palms so she could tuck them away someplace safe.

And god, how Shino loved her in that moment.

Naruto was…she was his sun, lighting the world around him; and his moon, a beacon of light in the darkness; and his lighthouse, a place to return to when he was lost. She was his strength, and his weakness, his armor, and his sword, his best friend, his family, and so much more.

She was his everything, as much a part of him as the insects he carried and just as essential as the air he breathed, and Shino didn't understand how anyone could love another person so dangerously much. It shouldn't have been possible.

Naruto laughed with the force of someone unable to contain their delight. Her eyes were shining, and the gleam made them take on the appearance of a wind-corrupted sea. Shino could see waves in them, and so much depth, more so than the average person could ever hope to explore.

It was without a doubt a mission that would take a lifetime, perhaps longer, and Shino found himself more than willing to accept the task.

"Yeah," Naruto smiled, drawing him in for another earth-shattering kiss. "Yeah, I love you, too."


"God," Naruto panted, flopping onto her back. "God."

Shino would have expressed a similar sentiment if he'd been in any position to speak. As it was, he settled for tucking the sweaty woman firmly into his equally drenched side while he struggled to breathe.

"That was insane," she murmured, and Shino couldn't help but envy her stamina. He could barely move and yet there she was, waving her bare arms about and holding a one-sided conversation. Had he not been so used to it, used to her, he would have likely felt affronted by the diversity of their physical states. Still, he consoled himself with the reminder that he did not contain a demon in his gut to give him inhuman vitality.

"Oh, stop sulking," Naruto said with a snort. "You gave as good as you got. I certainly have no complaints." She waggled her eyebrows suggestively and Shino's smile came forth without his permission.

That was another thing he had long since gotten used to.

"I'm sore everywhere," she sighed, throwing an arm over his chest. "I mean, places I never knew existed hurt. Who knew you had it in you, Shino-chan?"

Shino shot her a flat look and she chuckled, amused, before falling silent.

Grateful for the reprieve, he concentrated on pinpointing which areas of his body would need to be seen to when they got home. He bore no injuries that required immediate medical attention—they wouldn't have been lazing about in the grass if there had been—but his tailbone felt bruised, he had scratch marks on his back that he could tell were sluggishly bleeding, and he had pulled a muscle where right thigh met groin.

Not for the first time Shino wondered if the benefits of sparring so often were worth the physical trauma to his person.

With a sigh of exhaustion Shino looked up at the sky, where silver-tipped clouds drifted over a waning moon that was surrounded by abstract patterns of bright starlight. Leaves rustled on skyscraping trees as a burst of wind suddenly swept through the clearing of Training Ground 37, causing gooseflesh to rise over his skin.

Shino lifted his arm to wipe the sweat from his eyes, and grunted as his muscles protested the movement. Honestly, he felt like he had been slammed into concrete from a hundred-foot drop, and if the tenderness of his skin was anything to go by, probably looked like it, too.

Shino swore it would be the last time he allowed Naruto to practice her taijutsu moves on him.

(It was also a lie, but Shino refused to acknowledge it.)

When Shino ascertained that yes, he could still move, though it would be agonizing to do so, he turned his head to peer at his partner. He wasn't in the least surprised to see that color had returned to her skin, and that what little proof there was that he'd managed to get several hits in was already fading—bruises a sickly yellow instead of the shocking purple it had once been.

A recurring thought that Shino needed to find people who weren't jinchuriki to spar with—for the wellbeing of his ego, if nothing else—arose.

(Though that, too, was a lie, as there was no one else Shino would rather spar with, and definitely no one else he'd ever stand to lose against.)

"What are you thinking about?" He suddenly asked, observing the way her golden eyebrows were drawing together.

"Sasuke," Naruto said simply.

Of course, Shino thought.

"Should I be jealous?" he inquired. He wasn't, but he supposed a man should always ask such things when their fiancée admitted to thinking about other men.

Naruto looked so affronted by his question that Shino had to reign in the urge to laugh. "Hardly. I love the bastard, I do, but I'm more likely to throttle him in his bed than willingly share it."

Shino accepted that as truth (often being the soundboard for similar threats and murder plans, it wasn't difficult) and probed, "You're dwelling on his hearing, then, I presume."

It wasn't a question.

Naruto bobbed her head and sighed. Her breath smelled of ramen, and mint leaves, and blood. It wasn't an entirely pleasant combination but it was one Shino was well accustomed to.

"Yeah. It's tomorrow. I know Tsunade-baachan said things would be fine…I mean, aside from the whole 'abandoning the village, kissing Orochimaru's ass, and just generally being a huge freaking nuisance' thing he didn't actually do anything against Konoha. It wasn't like he killed any of our shinobi—unless you count Itachi, which I personally don't—or, uh, blew up the village or anything. Right? And he did come back willingly—"

"If by 'willingly' you mean 'half-unconscious and slung over your shoulder', then I suppose you could say that."

"—so that's gotta count for something," she didn't miss a beat, "and Tsunade-baachan says the same, but the stupid elders are definitely going to kick up a fuss, I just know it. Hey, Shino, it's not treason to wish really hard that they just drop dead, right?"

"No, Naruto, that isn't treason," he said with amusement. It was a good thing, too, otherwise Konoha would be considerably smaller than it was now.

"Ugh, I know there's no use driving myself crazy about something that hasn't even happened, but I can't let it go. Stupid bastard, always making people worry about him."

"If by 'people' you mean 'Sakura-san and yourself—'" Shino grunted as she rolled on top of him with enough force to drive the air from his lungs.

"You're not helping," she growled. Then her expression shifted to something that sent his blood flowing south.

"But I'm sure you could think of other ways to help," she added coyly, leaning forward so her hair, which had come undone sometime during their spar, fell over him in a wavy veil. It looked almost silver under the moonlight, brightness dimmed by the surrounding night. Her eyes, too, were darker, as if they were stealing the color straight from the sky.

Naruto was beautiful. It was a basic fact of life; as surely as the sun would rise at dawn and fall at dusk, Naruto was the most beautiful person he knew. It wasn't something that Shino could forget—there was as much a chance of that happening as there was of him developing entomophobia—rather, it was something he'd simply grown accustomed to.

But there were times where Shino, despite knowing it, would be taken completely off guard by how stunning she actually was, and he'd find himself as breathless and enthralled as he'd been the day they first met.

Shino thought that Naruto must have caught some of the wonder reflected on his face because her smirk gave way to a smile that was soft, and loving, and knowing, and her eyes shone with emotions Shino was never willing to consider existed outside of the depths of his own heart.

He knew she loved him with everything she was. That too was a fact of life, though one Shino had taken a long time to fully believe. Yet, that she could love him in the same way he loved her—blindly, illogically, desperately, obsessively, shatteringly—was something he still could not accept.

That level of reciprocation was as much his deepest desire as it was his greatest fear.

Shino's brand of love was the kind one read about in fairytales and tragedies. It was the kind that didn't belong in the hands of humans, or anywhere near the vicinity of their realm.

The love Shino felt for Naruto bordered on being painful, sometimes, and he would not wish that on anyone, let alone the woman he loved. No matter how desperately he might have wanted it.

"Here I am, willing to show you a good time at the risk of being arrested for public indecency, and you can't even stop brain-angsting for a minute to appreciate it. I'm hurt, Shino, truly I am," Naruto said with a theatric sniff that was completely at odds with her renewed smirk.

How I love you, Shino thought as he felt an unbidden smile tug at the corners of his mouth.

"My apologies, Hokage-sama," Shino jested, delighting in the way her cheeks warmed at being addressed so. It wasn't exactly appropriate considering the Godaime had yet to step down, but it was only a matter of time. Tsunade-sama had been preparing Naruto to replace her for years, so Shino supposed it was good practice for when he'd have to use it as something other than an embarrassment tactic.

"I did not intend to…brain-angst, as you say," he continued, rolling his eyes at the term, "and I shan't endeavor to do it again."

Most people tended to think that members of the Aburame clan were emotionless automatons. In his nineteen years of life Shino had overheard innumerable people comment on how eerie they were for being so expressionless.

He thought most of them would die of heart failure if they were to see him now, joking playfully while a woman straddled him outside the privacy of their home.

Not that they ever would. That side of him was reserved for the only one person who was capable of eliciting it, but it was nice to imagine nonetheless. The term dropping like flies suddenly came to mind.

"You'd better not." Naruto's grin was all teeth as she pushed her hair to one side, grabbed the hem of her shirt, and drew it over her head, arms crossed in the way she knew Shino liked.

Shino watched, spellbound, as her body undulated with the movement; breasts heaving and stomach muscles sinking to the dip of her navel. She still wore a bra—orange-colored with ridiculous frog print—but it left very little to the imagination, which made up for its aesthetic lack.

Naruto brought her hands to the arch of Shino's throat and trailed her fingers down his chest, and her molten eyes blazed when she breached the edge of his sweater and came into contact with warm skin.

"Shino," she said throatily, licking her lips in a decidedly improper manner.

"Naru—," Shino paused with a blink and turned his head to the side. His brows furrowed in concentration when he heard a discernible pattern of buzzing.

Shino glanced at her from the corner of his eye and said, "One moment, please. My allies are returning."

Naruto made a small noise of incredulity as Shino recalled the remaining kikaichuu that had either been scouting the area or lying in wait in the trees. They came to him in a black swarm shaped like a coiling tendril and he immediately gathered them to himself. Several climbed over Naruto in the process—conceivably on purpose since Naruto always smelled good, like forest winds and the earth after heavy rain—and she didn't even blink.

Naruto could never begin to understand how much Shino loved her just for that.

"I'm starting to think that I should be asking the 'should I be jealous' questions here," she said dryly, just as the last insect sunk into his skin.

Shino smirked and kissed the pout right off her face, and she retaliated by biting his lower lip hard enough to sting. Shino didn't mind, though, because she soothed the bruised flesh with her tongue soon after and made it up to him with a searing kiss that left them both breathless.

Long ago, when Shino had been a lonely child incapable of making friends, his parents had told him that he'd one day find someone who'd accept him for who, and what, he was. After countless rejections by those he had tried to befriend, Shino lost faith in his parent's encouragement and made a tactical decision to never need anyone else.

And then a lively little girl with eyes bluer than the sky and hair brighter than the sun offered her hand in friendship, and all of Shino's careful plans and intricate walls came crumbling down at his feet.

Shino had never minded, though, because his parents had been right.

He'd found that someone after all.

"Once upon a time there was a boy who loved a girl,

and her laughter was a question he wanted to spend his whole life answering."

― Nicole Krauss, A History of Love


Author's Note: And that is a wrap. Phew! I owe so much thanks to everyone who has left comments/con-crit or has added the story to their favorites. Posting a new story is always so nerve-wrecking (looks pointedly at my nonexistent fingernails) but you guys made the whole ordeal worth it. Please take a moment to let me know your thoughts about the story, alright? I'd appreciate it, lovelies.

I'll definitely be editing this story in the near future for the countless typos and inconsistencies that got past me when I wasn't paying attention. Sorry 'bout that.

As for a sequel, I might write a short series of omake set in the future. Honestly, I'm not sure yet. I want to focus on my other fics before I revisit this universe. At this point it's still up in the air.

Once again, thanks so much for the awesome feedback. Don't forget to drop a comment on your way out!