Author's Note – This chapter focuses on the characters a bit more, rather than the details of the mission itself. Hope you enjoy!
Author's note – Naruto and its related characters and places are the intellectual property of Masashi Kishimoto.
In my arms, I held the top half of Shino's body close to my chest, and I couldn't shake off the bittersweet memory of Asuma. Sensei's shoulders were slightly broader than Shino's, and at the time, he suffered more wounds than Shino. I could feel the rise and fall of Shino's chest, and the gentleness of it all assured me that at least he would survive.
As I caught my breath from the previous encounter with the other bug-nin, I reined my emotions back in. Just in time for the last of the surviving kikai to return as well. The vibrations were weak as they settled back in, almost as if they had regretted the fight.
Guys, I'm sorry. I wasn't skilled enough.
I was responded to with temporary silence, but a murmur of agreement amongst the kikai buzzed from within.
"It's okay, Ino-hime. You did well considering the circumstances."
Circumstance. I came to hate that very word as soon as it crossed my mind. What kind of crummy circumstance brought the two of us into this place? By accident, I had suddenly gone from medical ninja to scout-based tactical fighter with a novel yet volatile weapon at my disposal. By accident, I had gone from love fool to potential matriarch to the Aburame clan.
Such was the life of a shinobi. From birth, one would emerge from the womb a ninja, and be raised in the high-velocity lifestyle of a deadly assassin. I wondered how I managed to mature from childhood given the circumstances, if I had matured at all.
Shino groaned as he tossed and turned his body while I held him. Gently breaking out from my grasp, he rolled awkwardly onto the dirt, slowly getting back onto his knees, kneeling upright and staring back at me with his eyes, which had since lost its glimmer slightly.
"Shino, how are you feeling?"
"We should have died. This is unexpected."
"The Kamizuru are ruthless. What happened?"
Suddenly, I remembered the hermit who had appeared at the very last moment of battle to save us from peril. I turned my head as back and forth as I could with my remaining energy. He was now nowhere to be seen, which made the situation even more pressing and awkward.
"How-" Shino coughed hoarsely, "how did you know about the bug sage?"
I hesitated. I didn't want to tell him about the dream I had, but what choice did I have?
"I was told in a dream."
He pondered to himself for a moment, leaving an awkward lingering silence.
"I see," he said calmly, "so you went on your gut instinct."
"Even though you could have completely wrong about your dream."
"And you supported my reasoning to come here based on that dream."
I lowered my head in shame. He was clearly scolding me for my way of thinking. Shino grimaced in disapproval, and sighed.
"I suppose what counts is that we survived, and that we found him- wait, was it him who saved us?"
I nodded. And just as quickly, he appeared right behind me, emerging from the ground, as if he were a part of the dirt itself. He laughed as he revealed himself.
"Well, well, well!" He smirked, crouching down to match Shino's eye level.
Shino's eyes narrowed, almost disapprovingly. As he stared back at the hermit, the space between them brewed with unnerving tension. The two of them looked quite similar as a whole; the older was similarly built like the younger, but with a hunched back, and less defined arm musculature. His age clearly showed, but there was gruffness in his demeanour that belied the happy-go-lucky attitude he revealed to the two of us when he spoke.
"What the hell are you doing here?" Shino uncharacteristically said, breaking the silence between the two of them.
The old man guffawed. "I should be saying the same to you. What brings you, a leaf ninja, all the way out here?"
He had a point, but neither Shino nor me were in a position to openly share mission information with a stranger, even one that saved our lives. Shino sighed.
"We were looking for Kamizuru."
The old man's crooked smile straightened to more serious expression. "And somehow, having fought them here years before would lead you to that conclusion? Seriously, for an Aburame, you are terrible with logic."
I expected that jab to set Shino off, but like me, he was more confused than anything.
"How do you know who I am?" He asked, "And how do you know about the battle before?"
The old man sighed, "I am the eyes and ears of this valley. And frankly, you've done very little to win my support on your war against the Bee users."
"Eyes and ears?" I interjected. "Who exactly are you?"
The geezer turned his head and eyed me in a curious manner, his mouth turning upwards back into a smile.
"Ah, you're a cutie. Blonde too. I like blondes."
He stood straight up from his crouching position. He jumped backwards and struck a flourishing pose, flexing his right bicep and pointing his left index finger towards the sky.
"I am Takasu, the legendary bug sage!"
As silly as his pose was, the kikai's approving buzz under my skin suggested that he was the real deal, the very sage that Asuma told me to search for in my dream, which now felt like a prophecy.
Shino, however, was less than impressed. He crossed his arms in scepticism, making an intimidating pose of his own. Had he been wearing his signature shades, he would have been the classic stoic Shino that he became reputed for.
"I don't believe you. Why? Because you could simply be an outcast from a clan that I wouldn't know or care about."
Takasu relaxed his pose, dropping his arms back to his sides, and then slowly approached Shino with a menacing walk. He shot a sharp stare back at Shino with an equally imposing pose.
"You're right. I'm the last surviving member of the Kumiro clan."
The words that escaped Takasu's mouth struck Shino with a sudden wave of intimidation, making him flinch fearfully. He turned to me, and dragged me aside, away from the bug sage.
"This man is deluded. The Kumiro clan is extinct."
"Excuse me," I added, "but what exactly is the Kumiro clan?"
My dermal vibrations intensified as if my bugs were shocked by my ignorance.
"Ino, the Kumiro clan was once the greatest clan of bug-users in the history of these lands!"
I paused to think, sending my thoughts back to them. A silence formed between Shino and I, and he immediately knew I was talking back to the kikai. Realizing this, he turned back to the elderly Takasu to further interrogate him.
Bug-users? You mean, those fire ants from before-
"Yes. The Kumiro knew how to control them, but-"
Their explanation was cut short by a sudden outburst from Shino.
"WHAT? My ancestors?"
Shino's eyes were wider than I had ever seen them. They were filled with fright, and I couldn't help but feel the same.
"Yes. The Kumiro are the ancestors to both the Aburame and Kamizuru clans. In fact, we gave rise to almost all of the bug-using clans in existence today."
I was now the one who was genuinely shocked. I gaped at both individuals in front of me. One was the sole survivor of the first clan of bug users in history, and the other was the heir to perhaps the last great bug-using clan. I could see the resemblance between the two of them, and was convinced of the possibility that Shino could be loosely related to the bug sage.
Takasu chortled. "I can see that revealing myself is quite a shock to the both of you, so please, perhaps we can discuss this further in a more formal setting?"
I had no idea what he meant by this, but as he said, the sudden outburst of information was indeed overwhelming. I nodded in acceptance of his offer, and I prodded Shino with a sharp glance to ensure he would do the same.
"Good. Let's move away from this place, to somewhere more…suitable for discussion."
Shino and I nodded in agreement, and we quickly made our way out of the valley, back onto a dirt road that meandered through a wide plain. We headed in the direction of the Stone Village, but were several days walk away from there.
The sky was clear, tinged with a weak orange from the imminent sunset. Takasu spoke hardly anything, insisting that we wait until we reach his desired destination for him to provide any further details regarding his identity, and his potential involvement with the mission.
I realized to myself that there was a possibility that the sage would train me in the arts of bug-based ninjutsu; after all, it was the visage of Asuma in my dream that correctly predicted that I would run into Takasu in the first place.
Also, Asuma stated that I would also learn to win Shino's heart. While my personal romantic conquest was already underway, I was troubled by the fact that I would need help at all with regards to winning Shino's affection. After all, due to my appearance and personality, I was a prime candidate for covert missions where one would have to use her feminine wiles to complete the objective, whether it is assassination, interrogation, or retrieval of important items.
But Shino, he was different from any "target." He was not the obstacle in the way of my objective; from the viewpoint of the kikai that had taken over my body, he was the objective, and somewhere along the way, I accepted the challenge of becoming worthy of gaining the title of matriarch of the Aburame clan sometime in the future.
This was a complicated game; I wanted to prove myself as a shinobi (and more importantly, as a woman), but at the same time, I didn't want to fully commit myself into this unique Aburame tradition of marriage. It was a delicate balance that I had to make; one wrong move, and not only would I be viewed as a whore, but I would ruin whatever relationship I currently had with Shino, whether it be platonic or otherwise.
As for the status of that relationship, not even the kikai were sure.
"Ino-sama. How are you doing?"
I've been better, guys.
"Please don't take today's defeat personally. It has little effect on your 'standing' with the clan."
You mean, the Aburame clan?
I looked to my side at Shino, who was also in deep in his self-reflection. He hardly noticed me staring at him intently, if at all.
I'm still unsure of whether or not I want to commit myself to this tradition.
"The circumstances are strange, we understand. We don't want to rush you."
But you still want me to be his wife, yet at the same time, you see me as not yet worthy of his partnership.
"If you put it that way,"
What an unfair situation! I'm even surprised that I've been considering your offer at all!
"And you know damn well why."
This was voiced in my head in a much harsher tone than usual. It was a harsh scolding, and I cringed internally, thinking I would have been eaten alive at that moment. I thought that I was like a queen to them, but even royalty can be the victim of revolt.
Much like Iwagakure, the Hidden Stone.
Either way, in truth, they were right. If I wasn't admitting to myself that I had already fallen for him, I knew that at least I was beginning to.
"We're sorry for being cold, Ino-sama, but you will need our help if you want to earn his affection. He's not like other people."
Where do I begin?
A hand came down onto my shoulder. I jerked awkwardly from the sudden shock of it. It was old man Takasu.
"Ino, we're here."
I had been lost in my own thoughts and with the kikai's as well, I didn't notice that we had stopped over at a quaint building of sorts on the outskirts of a small town barely visible on the horizon.
I looked up at the sign hanging over the main entrance.
Flirty Paradise Hostess Bar
My jaw dropped at Takasu, whose cheeky grin for a moment reminded me of Jiraiya-sensei.
"You can't be serious."
"I need to relax!" He said. "It's clear that you want information from me, so in essence you have two options: deal with it, or go along with it!"
His grin immediately grew wider, spreading to his ears, and just as quickly, he was already inside.
I turned to Shino, whose cheeks were already flushed red.
"Shino. It's for the mission."
"I know," he said silently, "it's…just been a while."
"Since you've last been to a hostess bar?"
Shino shook his head. From his uncomfortable look, it was clear he had forgotten about his defeat earlier today, at least for the moment. Instead, he had other things to worry about. I was glad.
"No. I mean, Kurenai-sensei, she would…and…never mind."
He cleared his throat, and followed Takasu into the bar. I stood alone outside in the twilight overlooking the bar and the not-too-distant town. Kurenai-sensei? What did he mean by that? I couldn't help but let out a girlish giggle at his reaction to strong-willed women like Kurenai.
Perhaps I ought to try a different approach.
"Yes," the kikai replied, "and after tonight, you'll know how."
Author's Note – the next chapter will continue to provide information about Takasu, as well as further develop Ino and Shino's relationship outside of the mission. So far, the action and emotion seems to be mostly centered around Ino, so expect to see more of Shino's side to balance things out! Comments would be greatly appreciated!