Um, hello! I hope you read and enjoy for the entire story (no telling how long that'll take)! Please review at the end of the chapter, so I know if it's acceptable.

Warnings: This story will be rated M in much later chapters, and I'll warn you and change the rating before anything major happens. There will be yaoi, so don't read this if you disagree with that.

Pairings: ShinoxOC ShinoxKiba NejixHinata NarutoxHinata SasukexOC NejixLee (This is insane, when I look at it. Gosh, and there might be more. It just got away from me, you know?)

EDIT: A lovely reviewer (Abhorsen, thank you) has informed me that the name I got from the books (I swear it's spelled Komo in there) was wrong, and it is Kumo. I'll correct it in this chapter, and have this edit in the next chapter for those who have already read this first.

The greeting room of the Aburame home was not decadent. There were no golden fans or rich tapestries. It did not display my family's wealth in a foolish attempt to impress our guests; they had to have respect for the Aburame clan or be prepared to wait outside until they developed it. There was a square table, capable of seating two people on a side comfortably. A long line of cushions sat along one wall, for the main visitor's party, and each one was silk of the most exquisite quality.

Just because we did not lavishly display our wealth did not mean that we were without it - or above subtle gestures.

On this day, the table had two cushions before it. I was kneeling on one, in a formal yukata made by Aburame-controlled silkweavers. It was stiff and crisp, having not been worn since a business meeting I had attended with Father a month past. The black silk had no pattern, but at the bottom the solid color became flecked with white, until dissolving altogether to reveal the remaining black marks were insects. The smell of mothballs was irritating me as the room held its breath.

Across from me was a girl, one year older than my seventeen, obviously set on display. Her complexion, though without major flaw, had been evened out with powders and encouraged to blush. Her lips were darkened and exaggerated, giving the appearance of a pout. Black hair was pulled tight into a knot on the top of her head, and heavily laden with silver dragonfly pins showing gossamer wings. A deep red kimono displayed the symbol of Kumogakure, Hidden in Cloud, and was tied with a silver obi to match the pins in her hair.

Her eyes were hidden by slim, dark sunglasses, as were mine.

Ten people were lined up on the wall, watching us in various states of anxiety. This was the girl's entourage, with her father and mother sitting next to Father on the other wall. Everyone except me seemed to be holding their breath, waiting to view this meeting.

Through a valiant effort, I did not yawn. Instead, I moved back from the table, bowed to the floor and said, "Aburame Shino welcomes this honored guest into his home."

She bowed as well, one pale hand over the other, and said in a pretty, high voice, "Aburame Mira is honored to beg hospitality."

Everyone else let out a relieved sigh, and I set myself on autopilot. Mira's body language and tone, as we went through the motions of the traditional meeting, was alarming. She seemed almost hungry. I had an unsettling premonition of disaster connected with her.

Which, considering the nature of the meeting, was irrelevant.

Three hours later, I was laying neatly folded clothes in an overnight bag, over the top of medical supplies, emergency rations, extra kunai and shuriken, and my legal documentation of my status as chuunin rank ninja of Konohagakure. I felt much more like me with my weapons pouch fastened around my upper right thigh, hitai-ate, and jacket.

"Shino-sama," an elderly maid said respectfully from the doorway, "he has arrived."

I nodded my understanding and zipped the bag closed as she disappeared once again. Servants have a knack for doing that, in my household. By the time I was three, I had trained my kikai insects to alert me of anyone's approach, and at four I had mastered the stealth skills themselves. The life of a shinobi is never a simple one. Learning stealth from the servants, even before entering the academy, had given me a leg up.

Minutes later, I was outside the hall again. I suppressed a sigh, set my bag down next to the other standard-issue one, and motioned for another magically present woman to slide open the screen door. Stepping inside, I ignored one Inuzuka Kiba as he sat with Father's hand on his shoulder to keep him still. I moved to kneel at the same receiving table, across from the same Mira. She hadn't yet changed out of her kimono, having expected this encounter.

I bowed again, saying, "This host humbly begs Mira-dono's pardon for his departure."

She bowed perfectly again, responding in the traditional way. "This guest wishes glory and peace for Shino-sama on his journey."

I rose once more, and every other person in the room did the same. I walked to the parent's side, giving a standing bow to Mira's parents and turning to Father. We both nodded to each other. To Kiba, I said, "I'm ready."

He grinned and we walked out of the hall. Kami-sama, but I loathe traditions.

Kiba and Akamaru were by my side as we all made our way to the North gate. "So tell me something," he started conversationally. "Why, exactly, did your dad pull me aside when I walked in and explain, very graphically, my own death, should I interrupt anything?"

I glanced at him from the corner of my eye and said, "You saw Mira."

"She's a pretty girl, and hard to miss," he said, in the voice reserved for children and fools.

"She is." I paused, trying to word the next sentence in a way that would not upset my teammate unduly. "She is also my fiancée."

"Oh, is that- What?" he yelled, as he actually listened for once in his life. "You didn't tell me you were getting married!"

We were in sight of the gate by then, and I saw Hinata already there, talking with Hyuuga Neji and Uzumaki Naruto. I indicated the three, and asked, "Are you aware of the arranged marriage of our little sister and Neji?"

"Well, yeah, but that's just because of the Byakugan in their blood, right?" Kiba shrugged, lacing his fingers behind his head and sliding his hood down to rest on his shoulders. He really did look better with the fur lining out from around his face, I noted for the hundredth time since being put on his team for genin training four years before. "It's the same as that Uchiha super kill guy needing to carry on his clan. Only, he'll be able to choose any girl, since they're all throwing themselves at his feet and he doesn't have any relatives to keep the blood pure."

"The kikai bugs become unable to recognize Aburame blood as it gets weaker." He looked at me as though I was babbling about advanced string theory. My eyebrows lifted at his idiocy, and I said, somewhat slower, "Her full name is Aburame Mira."

"Oooooh, I get it," he said, pointing to himself with his thumb. "You've got to marry this girl, you don't want to."

I didn't respond, as we were nearly beside Hinata by then. "Hello, Onii-san," the more respectful form was me, "Nii-chan," was Kiba. After a dangerous assassination mission, during which both of us had saved Hinata repeatedly, we had begun jokingly referring to her as our 'little sister', and it had stuck. That sort of thing happened when Kiba decided to give us all nicknames.

Naruto took our arrival as a sign that he should finish his goodbyes, and ran a nervous hand through his coarse blond hair, frowning with nerves. "Um, Hinata-chan," he said eventually. He and the shy Hyuuga girl had been pretty serious for a year, but had broken up shortly before her betrothal to Neji was announced. He still used the '-chan' suffix, and, until Hinata told him to stop, he always would. "Be careful-tebayo. This is A-rank, isn't it?"

Hinata smiled, keeping her pale eyes fixed on him. It had been a huge problem for them at first, the way she always let them slide away, and Kiba and I had finally forced her to break the habit. "I will, Naru-chan. It would be a B-rank if we weren't going into an unallied country." She took out a slim disc of opaque crystal, a token given her by the head of the Hyuuga clan upon mastering the inherent Byakugan. "Still, keep this safe for me."

He nodded, and took it. They always did this, whenever either of them went away. I wanted to just tell Naruto to keep it all the time, and call it a present to remember her by, but I couldn't. After all, Hinata was betrothed to Neji; she certainly couldn't give an ex-boyfriend such a personal gift. Naruto, as part of his usual goodbye, brought his finger up to the hitai-ate tie around her neck. "And you've still got that, right?"

She nodded and, to prove it, lifted the gold chain necklace above the ninja's mark and the blue stone caught the sunlight. This had been a gift from Naruto, before they'd ended things. Hinata never took it off, saying that it would be disrespectful of the blond. We all knew that it was the same clear blue as his eyes. Of course she wouldn't take it off.

As Naruto gave her a big hug, I kept my eyes on Neji's face. His pale eyes, matching Hinata's, didn't look away, but I didn't see any jealousy. It was more a sort of understanding, or indulgence. When the two pulled apart, Neji took his cousin's hand and said a few quiet words before leaning in to kiss her forehead and smile just a very little bit.

Kiba, having long ago lost interest, was shifting back and forth on his feet and eyeing a sashimi vendor. Raw meat was his favorite food. Digesting makes one tired, especially at the amount of food that Kiba typically ate. Kurenai's standing orders were to keep Kiba from eating before a mission and for good reason.

I put a hand on his shoulder, distracting him. "Where is Akamaru?" He looked at me, but his brown eyes kept straying back to the sashimi. I pinched the red clan marking on his right cheek. "Kiba, you know you can't. Where is Akamaru?"

He pouted at me for a moment, looking incredibly childish, and whistled through his teeth. A loud bark came from twenty feet down the crowded street, and the dog barreled into his master's legs a moment later. "There, are you happy?"

Kurenai, wearing the jounin uniform of a dark green flak jacket over a black sweat suit for once in her life, had arrived. I smirked and nodded to her. When Kiba looked, his face fell, and I murmured, "Mission accomplished."

The faintest of goosebumps rose on his slim, pale neck. He whipped back around, the area just above his red markings flushed pink. "Wh-what?" He pulled his hood up quickly, as though chilled, despite the dry summer heat.

"Mission accomplished," I repeated with confusion. What had gotten into him all of a sudden?

"Right." He visibly relaxed and moved farther toward our teacher, ignoring me as I continued to watch him.

After Kurenai checked with us again about the supplies we had brought, we began our journey to Kumo no Kuni.

When we arrived in Kumogakure, it was almost midnight. Kurenai checked us into a hotel and simply dragged Hinata away to their shared room, telling us that we were to be ready by seven o'clock the next morning. She was not the most sociable of people when she needed her beauty sleep, and I hoped that Hinata would be able to handle her.

Kiba and I went to our own, and I was given to wonder at the quality of the girls' room. Ours was moderately clean, but the wallpaper was threatening to peel and the window had no blinds. Worse, it faced east; the sun would undoubtedly wake me around five in the morning, though I couldn't speak for Kiba. The bedding was thin and worn, and now, as I looked at it, I realized the mistake the hotel had made. There was only one bed.

We both dropped our bags by the door and I took my loose pajama pants out. I didn't mention the bed, because I knew that Kiba would. However, as I unzipped my jacket and toed off my shoes, he wearily did the same. Had the journey tired him out? We had been using chakra steadily for hours, jumping from branch to branch in the forest. I was fine, but I had more reserves than he did. After all, he would usually be ranting and raging about the double-sized bed.

I stripped until my upper torso was bare, thinking about it. I looked across the room, where he was pulling off his tank top. Finally, I said, "What's wrong?"

He froze, took a deep breath, and turned to face me. "I'm still pissed about you not telling me you were engaged." His eyes traveled from mine, to the floor, and back again before he looked away. "Seriously, when did you find out?"

My eyes narrowed behind the glasses. I knew he was lying; he had never been able to hide it from me. "There have been negotiations since I was three. However, the last time I saw Mira, I was ten." She had been a spoiled brat then, and, though I hadn't really spoken to her since her arrival, I was sure it was the same way.

He bent down to retrieve his shorts and I stood there silently, waiting for his next complaint. I found myself following his slim silhouette, and comparing it to when we had been thirteen. He had certainly grown taller, and his shoulders broader, though his waist was almost as thin as a woman's. I would have teased him about it, if Kurenai didn't do it so often.

I didn't flinch when he stood up, staring right back. "Shino, we're friends, right?" About a year before, he had stopped using any suffix. I hadn't called him on it. I had assumed that that had shown him that I considered him a friend close enough to do so, and made no reply. He sighed and looked at the window, running a hand through his hair. "Right, we're best friends. Why didn't you tell me?"

"I didn't know you were interested in the subject of my marriage." He glared at me, and a low growl filled the room. Akamaru was responding to his master's body language. I turned to face the wall and slipped out of my pants, pulling on my pajamas all the way before I quietly said, "We weren't friends when we met." I turned toward him full on and continued, "With chuunin exams to prepare for, there wasn't any room in my life to consider it. When it was brought up a few months ago, I realized that you didn't know. By then, you would have been angry either way."

His eyes softened, and he padded across the room with bare feet to stand next to the bed. He seemed to consider its singularity for a moment, and then turned back. "Switch the light off before you come over."

I hit the switch and found my way in the dark, no challenge for either of us. If he had no problem sharing a bed, neither did I. I slid beneath the covers on one side, careful not to touch him, in case he was still annoyed. I was saved the trouble by Akamaru jumping in between us and snuggling down. I focused on falling asleep, trying hard not to start thinking about anything.

I wouldn't get any sleep if I thought about how I was going to marry Mira.

"Shino," Kiba whispered after ten minutes, "are you awake?" I turned my head toward him, allowing the pillow to rustle under my head. "About Mira." The very thing I was trying to avoid. "Do you love her?"

I didn't know how to respond. I settled on, "I'm going to marry her."

He turned on his side, careful not to disturb his dog. He sounded more childish than ever before as he prodded, "But you would tell me if you really loved her."

"I would," I promised quietly.

I could see his wide smile before he fell asleep. I ended up not sleeping much anyway.

At sunrise, I opened my eyes to the inside of my sunglasses and blinked at not having taken them off. Sitting up, I pulled out of the blanket and stretched my back until it cracked. Glancing down, I paused at seeing how Kiba was curled around Akamaru, hands fisted in his white fur. I walked around the bed and stood looking down at him for a moment.

I crouched down and set my palm on his stomach, somewhat interested in his well-defined abs. He turned over with a sharp intake of breath and stared with his eyes wide. "Kiba, it would be better to wake up now and take a bath."

He moved the blanket away and grabbed my hand to pull him up. "Okay," he agreed, not looking at me. "Um, where's the bathhouse in this place?"

I moved away to get my things out of my bag and said, "There was a sign for it being out back." He followed my lead and we left minutes later, Akamaru standing guard in the room. Down three flights of stairs and through a maze of hallways, we finally found the baths and changed.

"So, what are we doing today?" Kiba asked, grinning, just before hopping into the heated water. "I know that Kurenai's going to be talking about the Kumogakure ninjas protecting trade both ways inside Kumo no Kuni, but we're all just chuunins. Where will we be?"

I slid into the sunken pool up to my shoulders, noting his snort at the sunglasses I had opted to keep on. It was a sort of game between the two of us; he always tried to remove them, and I had promised that he would see my eyes when he was my equal. "We will be on the lookout for assassins, naturally. This is an A-ranked mission."

"That's the thing. Why would someone pay money to have some trade talk ended?" As he dunked his entire head under, I quickly removed my glasses and did the same, coming up before he did. "It doesn't make sense."

I got back out and made my way to the cold water faucets, filling a provided bucket and dumping it over my head. "Kumo no Kuni is on neutral terms with us, which still isn't friendly. Any of the other countries could be trying to incite a war between us."

He leaned his crossed arms on the brick lip, and tilted his head to the side. "Oi, but what if it's Kumo no Kuni doing it? What if they want to get us to attack, so at they can fight back and take us over?"

"Don't be a fool, we have the stronger village. A war would be disastrous for them. It's more likely Suna; they hate us."

"Right," he agreed, looking thoughtful. "Hey, why do you sound like you've written a thesis on every subject?"

I gave him an are-you-an-idiot look. "Because I think."

He scowled, and got out as well. "You think, therefore you are? The saying's something like that."

"I take it further. 'I think, therefore I am; I am, therefore I act; I act, therefore I survive.' It's something that Father taught me, when I was very young."

He made a face and dumped the bucket of cold water over his head, shivering slightly. "Whatever. We need to get back upstairs."

I shrugged and dried off, pulling on my clothes and seeing Kiba do the same. We went back upstairs to retrieve our weapons, and, in the hallway, I sent a kikai into the girl's room to check on them. Hinata was trying to wake up Kurenai, but our sensei seemed disinclined to keep her own stated rendezvous. Not my fault.

The mission was boring as all hell. Basically, the Kumo ninjas had agreed to protect all traders from bandits, and it had taken six hours to agree on that. Meanwhile, Kiba and Hinata had waltzed around the village, looking for motive to attack us. Our information had stated clearly that there was suspicion of an assassination attempt. Oh, well; nothing had come up. Mission completed. We spent one more night there, and then set out for Konoha.
We were heading home, taking a break after using chakra for two hours. Slowly trudging through the underbrush, it wasn't exactly easy going. Kurenai wasn't complaining, but the petulant pout on her face gave me chills. I hoped that she wasn't going to take her irritation out on us when we got back. Things got ugly when she was unbalanced.

We had tried to be quiet for the first fifteen minutes, but it wasted an incredible amount of time and energy to make sure a passing bird wouldn't hear us. Now, we all simply waded through the leaves and vines, keeping sight of each other as best we could.

Just as we were getting ready to take to the branches again, there was a very, very soft chink of metal on metal. From the sound, it had been from about chest height, to me. There had been a small area in contact, so one of the two objects was pointed, and the vibrations were carried farther and clearer on a wide plane. So, one piece was flat, and the other was pointed, sharp. Like a senbon needle against –

Even as all of this flashed through my mind, I grabbed Hinata and pulled her down. "Are you injured?" I breathed, scanning the forest. Both of the others in our party had disappeared in the four-foot foliage. "That was your hitai-ate, wasn't it?"

Very, very carefully, she touched the chipped surface and shook her head. As we knelt there, her hands went around her feet, and came back with a silvery senbon needle. "They weren't aiming to kill."

"They might not have known that you wear your headband around your neck. That would have been a killing blow, otherwise."

She carefully kept her voice low, leaning close to my ear. "They wouldn't have made such a mistake! This is an A-rank for a reason – we're up against jounin, not our own level. And the metal would have stood out more than anything else."

There was a long stretch of silence, until the natural animal noises returned. I turned my head just barely. "Are they still here?"

She took a deep breath, held her hand in the simple sign for focusing chakra, and I saw the veins around her eyes stand out as she strained to use the Byakugan. "No. There's nothing but animals. We're clear."

I stood up, alert to any more attacks. "Sensei, it's clear. They're gone, and both of us are uninjured."

She straightened from a crouch near the gnarled root system of a tree. "I take it this is Byakugan-guaranteed?"

I nodded solemnly. "Kiba?" Why hadn't he spoken yet?

He answered, sounding as though he was in pain. "Shino, I'm by the purple flower thing. The bastards got me in the thighs – I don't think I can stand." I was already climbing toward him, following his voice. "They're kunai. I'm not going to move, okay? They seem like they're pretty close to the tendons. I really don't need those to be cut."

By then I was kneeling down, inspecting the wounds. They were deep, but they had both missed the bone. I touched the top lightly, and he hissed. "You didn't cry out. I didn't even know that you were hit."

"Well, duh," he chuckled, gritting his teeth. "I'm a shinobi, damn it. I'm not about to let them know they got their mark, or give away our position more than it was already."

Of course. "I'm going to pull these out. They're gone, by the way. Feel free to scream." As he glared at me, I grabbed the hilt of the right one and tugged it straight out, cleanly. He grunted just once, and his hand found my left wrist. "Okay, now the other one. It won't hurt as much."

"Bullshi – nng!" His hand tightened around my wrist, and I could see his teeth on his bottom lip, threatening to break the skin. I tapped his jaw, and he self-consciously stopped, taking a deep breath. "Why the hell do kunai have to be diamond-shaped? That hurts!"

"Because they want you to hurt, idiot." I looked at the two kunai for a moment – they were still dripping, spreading blood onto the wide leaves - before wrapping them up and putting them in my thigh holster. "Do you feel any better? Is the blood clotting?" I pulled out bandages and, using a clean kunai, sawed his pant legs off to get to the wounds.

"What do you think? Damn it, I won't be able to walk for a day or so. This sucks."

"At least the village is going to pay for the hospital stay," I pointed out. I lifted his leg and fed the gauze under the wound, then back over and under again. After ten times around, I made sure it was as tight as it could go and secured it with a metal clasp. I turned to the next one.

"I don't like the hospitals. They smell yellowish-orange."

"Try to imagine that I don't see through my nose, Kiba." I finished, checked both dressings, and hauled him up with my arms around his ribcage. "Can you put any weight on them at all?"

"Ow ow ow," he gasped, leaning all the way onto me. That was a no. I sat him down on a tree root. "No, they smell fake, I guess. All that antiseptic is covering up rot and death." He put his hand on Akamaru's head, as I turned. The women were standing there, and Hinata was holding something.

"Little sister, is that the needle?" I held out my hand for it. Deciding to inspect it later, I put it into the same holder as the kunai from Kiba's legs. "Neither of you are injured, for sure?"

"We're fine. I told you, they weren't trying to kill me," Hinata reassured me, going to stand next to our teammate. "Nii-chan, do you want pain medication?"

"Nah, I'm fine. Just some throbbing. Shino's gotten the bleeding to stop. I'll just have to limp home." He moved to stand, and fell back again.

"The hell you are," Kurenai said. "We're going to move as fast as possible. Boys, have Akamaru hold your things. Shino, you'll carry him. I want to be out of here in one minute."

I grabbed our overnight bags, tied them across the huge canine's back, and, after a thought, added Kiba's bulky jacket. He didn't comment as I took it from him. Finally, Hinata helped me negotiate Kiba onto my back, legs and arms around my waist and shoulders.

We took to the branches again. We all knew that there wouldn't be any more rest stops. We had to report to the Godaime; the assassination attempt had happened, as forecast.

After an hour of silence, Kiba murmured in my ear, "Sorry for messing up."

"They hit you with two kunai and you didn't even make a sound. You didn't mess up."

"But, if they had attacked in Kumo no Kuni, before we were in the forest, I could have smelled them beforehand. Everything is so thick in here that I'm no good. Our sister could have been killed."

"No," I said simply. "She was right. They weren't trying to kill either of you. It was a warning."

"What? You have to tell the Hokage!"

"Of course," I conceded, as though talking to a child. "This isn't over yet."

"Nope!" he chirped. "Things are just getting started!"

Thus ends the first chapter of many! Please review!