Notes: I'm back. It's been way too long and maybe nobody is interested in Naruto or this fic anymore, but hey, I need to get back into writing and I've always wanted to finish this story. So here we are. It's short, and might have a mistake or two, but with any luck it isn't totally confusing and at least gets the story moving again.
Goals: To introduce and advance the plot, and to write the characters in a believable (and consistent) manner. Side Note: my overall goal for this story is to post a chapter every weekend, or at least, every other week. So the next one should be mid-April.
Warnings: Violence. Some cursing.
Designation of Property
"Of course Neji said it was ridiculously large," Tenten sighed in exasperation. "But both Gai-sensei and Lee said it looked just fine to them." She paused, then admitted, "which, okay, maybe sort of backs up Neji's point." She snorted and waved a hand irritably. "But Neji thinks anything bigger than a kunai is oversized, so what does he know?"
Beside her, Shino walked quietly, listening to her talk about the enormous spiked ball she had gotten years ago from the old weapon smith Io before the man had retired. Shino had only seen her use it once, and he had to admit the thing was unwieldy, ludicrous, oversized to the point of being comical, and in Tenten's hands, utterly terrifying. She could decimate whole towns with only a few swings of the explosive wrecking ball, which she affectionately called 'Jidanda.'
Shino watched his wife (his wife, it still startled him a little when he thought the words), gesture earnestly with her hands, emphasizing a point she was making about the need for weaponry with hidden explosives. Through his link to the kikkai, he saw her blue and green chakra signature spike and flicker around her, dancing with her enthusiasm. Through the link, he caught her personal scent that reminded him of fresh grass and sharp steel, today with an undercurrent of something sweet and clean that reminded him a little of honey. While she told him an amusing story of a genin mission involving her team, Uzumaki Naruto, a Lightening nin, and some truly vile curry, Shino studied her face and voice, trying to pin down the emotion that corresponded with that scent.
They were walking the open road between Konoha Forest and the Fire Country Capital, headed home after two weeks in the city. They both carried travel packs, and Tenten had her heavy scroll slung along her side. She tapped it idly with her fingers from time to time, probably still pleased about the new weapons she had found in the city and sealed in with her cache. Her shoulders were loose, her voice light, and her eyes occasionally scanned the empty road around them but mostly turned towards Shino. Her guard was relaxed; she knew he had multiple kikkai scattered around them as they moved, and the well-maintained road had just turned into the edges of Konoha Forest. Soon they would leave it entirely and enter the familiar fields around Konoha. Tenten was calm, in familiar territory, and with someone she trusted. Perhaps that was the emotion he was sensing. But no, he decided, he had seen her calm before, and while this particular sweet smell was not overpowering, it was distinctive. He would have noticed it. Contentment, then? Hm.
"So then I grew six foot tall blue wings and flew home," Tenten concluded casually.
"Impressive wingspan," Shino replied, and she laughed.
"So you were listening. Just checking." She leaned around to peer up at him. "But you did seem a bit distracted there. Something up?" She tapped a finger against her weapon scroll again, a little more meaningfully this time, but Shino shook his head.
"I was merely...contemplating," he reassured her.
"Mysteries of the universe?"
"Something like that."
"Well, I'm wondering how the hell we're going to get in the front door when we get home," Tenten confided, grinning at him. "I bet our piles of crap have probably multiplied and buried the place while we were gone."
"A possibility," he agreed, "though replication is not our most likely problem. What is more probable? Given that most of our possessions are weapons of some kind -"
"And that we left Lee and Kiba with emergency keys - "
"-we will be lucky to have a house at all."
"We'll have to sort out where all that stuff is going to go," Tenten mused. "At least we have plenty of space."
"The back room would make a good workshop for your weapons," Shino offered, and she grinned in delight.
"Really? That would be amazing! Do you mean that one with the southward windows? Because I bet I could fit a little hand forge in there. That would be way better than having to run to the repair-shop every time I chip a blade." She set a hand on his arm briefly for balance as she leaned up to kiss his cheek. Shino tilted his head to let her and tried not to flush like a teenager. In the close privacy of an enclosed room, he was pretty good at letting go of his natural standoffish nature, but anywhere else and he felt exposed and a little uncertain. Even here, alone in the middle of nowhere, he still had to fight the urge to pull his collar up and his hood down.
"So, er, you have any thoughts about how to set up the fort?" Tenten asked, her voice suddenly a little hesitant. Shino turned his attention back to her face through the hive link, and noted that her chakra had shifted to a slightly darker series of greens and was spiking a little more than before. That tended to happen when she was nervous or uncertain; so she'd picked up on his mood shift and was wondering if she'd done something wrong.
Deliberately, Shino pulled a hand from his pocket and smoothed a few wayward strands of her hair back behind her ear. "I would like to use the largest of the spare bedrooms as a place for my breeding experiments." Tenten raised an eyebrow at him, lips twitching, and he flicked her ear lightly in reproof. "I refer, of course, to my insect experiments."
"Oh, of course," she agreed, now openly grinning at him. "Sounds fine with me." He dropped his hand but discreetly scanned her again, relieved to note that her chakra patterns had smoothed out and lightened again, and the subtle honey-scent was as distinct as ever. What was that scent? Anticipation, perhaps? But he had noted it long before the conversation turned towards the setting up and establishing of their new home. It was...puzzling.
"Well, at any rate, our first task is going to be clearing out somewhere to sleep," Tenten began, then cut off abruptly as Shino froze.
Shino allowed a brief moment of...satisfaction that Tenten knew him well enough not to ask questions. She simply froze alongside of him, hand hovering at her scroll latch, waiting for him to explain.
Just ahead of them, right where the trees began to thicken and the brush grew dense, a few of his kikkai registered a faint but very unique chakra signature. Shino frowned; there was an Aburame just off the road, but something was wrong. The scent of kikkai was...off, almost sickly, and the soft yellow chakra smelled a little like wilted flowers that had been left out in the harsh sun. Not bad, necessarily, but...wrong. And if it were another Aburame, why was the signature so weak?
He called more kikkai into the area, and reached with his senses for some more native creatures. There was a beehive nearby - excellent, bees would be ideal for following a flowery scent. Careful not to severe them from their own queen, Shino networked a handful of the worker bees into his own hive link and sent them searching through the brush for the trail. Beside him, Tenten shifted her weight marginally so that she could spring directly up into the trees at his signal. Good, if there was a threat, she could cover the high ground and he could move below through the lower branches -
The worker bees buzzed hungrily over something a hundred meters to the northwest. Shino directed several of his kikkai to converge in that area, jerking his head so Tenten would know where to go. She was gone in a heartbeat, and Shino checked his link with the female kikkai he'd settled on her collar as he slid silently into the undergrowth. Tenten had drawn a kunai but nothing else, which meant she didn't know what they were facing either.
They were approximately three hours' worth of hard running outside of Konoha, Shino calculated as he moved. And no other Aburame had been scheduled to go this direction when he'd left. Perhaps something had changed. Who was out here, and why did their hive smell so wrong?
His own kikkai buzzed excitedly in his consciousness, and he frowned as he tried to comprehend the data they were sending him. There was something wrong with the area where the Aburame wilted-flower smell emanated. Something rippled in the air, like heat on the desert sand, disturbing his hive and distorting his own physical senses.
Genjutsu, he thought, and ordered his kikkai to form a clone, sending it after Tenten to warn her.
He arrived at the scene a moment later, crouching down in the bushes and sending a wave of kikkai around the perimeter to encircle the area. Through the hive-link, he saw Tenten kneeling in the branches above and to his left, his bug-clone kneeling beside her and gesturing sharply with the hand-signal for genjutsu. She nodded, and he allowed the bug clone to dissolve, calling those kikkai to infiltrate the trees around her and watch for attack. It was difficult for the kikkai to protect her from getting caught in the jutsu, mostly because the kikkai had trouble even seeing it. They only sensed chakra movement, and this whole area was drowning in strange energies that swirled around the tree trunks. But under the invisible but choking cloud of...whatever this was, he could still catch little wisps of the Aburame smell.
For several long moments, Shino crouched in the brush, waiting. The kikkai crawled busily through the leaves around him, trying to see through the swirling chakra and make sense of the many smells and sensations. It was a little like trying to peer through thick fog that only he could see. He wondered what Tenten saw, since she couldn't visually perceive the chakra flowing through the place. Did she just see an empty forest? Or was there some illusion that he was missing?
Nothing moved but a few leaves rustling in the wind. Shino waited.
The kikkai buzzed a warning, and Shino threw himself backwards as a dark shape materialized near him. A rain of silver erupted from the trees above, slamming into the man who careened out of the bushes, and clattering to the ground as the man vanished in a puff of smoke.
Shadow clone, Shino thought, leaping to join Tenten in the tree branches. Behind him, the multitude of kunai that she had sent sailing down went flying back up as she flexed her fingers and yanked on the wires attached to them. "Left!" She yelled at him, vaulting up higher and slapping her scroll open.
Shino turned to the left, already calling a wall of kikkai between himself and the shuriken hissing through the air at his head. He caught them neatly, but immediately the kikkai latching on to the metal buzzed an alarm across his mind and dropped the weapons. Shino grimaced against the sudden sour, acidic taste that spread across the back of his tongue as several of the kikkai who had touched the shuriken suddenly dropped to the ground below, twitching and jerking crazily. He did not recognize the exact taste with any he had encountered before, but that vomit-sharp tang could only mean one thing.
"Poison," he growled.
"Thought your kikkai were immune to that," Tenten murmured from above him, flinging a handful of kunai towards the murky shape of their attacker among the leaves, which immediately vanished back into the shadows.
"A unique kind," he managed, but then a dozen more shuriken came flying at him from another angle, and Shino opted to dodge rather than potentially sacrifice more kikkai. "Possibly developed with kikkai specifically in mind," he told Tenten as she darted across his path at an angle and vanished into the tree foliage next to him.
"How do you know?" she asked from somewhere above, her kunai dancing down and knocking aside the next wave of shuriken aimed at his chest. He caught a flash of white leaping across the branches above him and heard her drawing what sounded like a chain from the scroll. Her voice took on a dangerous edge as well as she whirled the spiked chain down and blocked a third round of shuriken away from Shino's face. "Because they all seem to be targeting you?"
"There's another Aburame here," he told her shortly, turning his attention back to his hive and focusing on that faint unfamiliar Aburame-hive smell. "I am attempting to find them."
"Got your back," Tenten answered immediately, and a dozen blades whipped out into the trees almost too fast for him to see. A moment later, they exploded, shredding the foliage and branches in the direction the attack had originated. Good, he thought approvingly, that would buy them a brief moment while the enemy repositioned.
Shino landed on another branch and crouched against the trunk, reaching out once again for local insects to recruit for the battle. The beehive was easy enough, and he was slightly less gentle in commandeering the entire hive this time. "Bees," he warned Tenten, a moment before they came swarming through the trees. The bees surrounded Shino and Tenten, taking up guard duty and leaving his kikkai free to roam further down into the forest, following the faint wisps of butter-yellow and wilted flowers.
The enemy was starting to have difficulty covering the place with the distracting chakra-fog. The strong blanket of unknown energy was breaking up in places, and Tenten's next wave of exploding tags tore even more holes in it. The kikkai wove down through the gaps until one of the scout bugs caught the yellow chakra trail. Shino focused on it, sending more to back up the first. "Send the bees that way," Tenten called, sending a chakra-charged kunai whistling into the shadows. Shino ordered the bee swarm to follow it and attack it's target. Distantly he heard the thunk of metal in flesh, and then a prolonged screech of terror as the swarm located a man hunched in the branches nursing a bloody hand. The man bolted southward, away from the fight, and the bee swarm followed.
Shino drew his fractured attention back to his kikkai as the bees drew farther away, saving his energy for his own hunt. The yellow chakra trail flickered tauntingly again in the slowly dissipating genjutsu, but then the chakra fog rolled over and obscured it. Ignoring a flash of irritation, Shino sent a handful of kikkai to pull at Tenten's wrist, and a moment later she obligingly unleashed another string of explosions right through a particularly dense portion of the chakra fog. Two dim shapes appeared suddenly below the gap, visible to the kikkai's senses, and he immediately swarmed them. One of the chakra-signatures was a male, adult, wearing a shinobi forehead protector and smelling like the shadow-clone that had tried to jump Shino earlier. The kikkai mobbed him, choking off his cry of astonishment and fear as they knocked him down and cocooned him firmly on the forest floor.
The second chakra signature was a female, very small, unconscious, and smelled like an Aburame hive.
Shino felt his jaw clench as his kikkai crawling all over the little form registered the wilted-flower smell mixed liberally with the acid taste of the unknown poison. He leaped from the tree, only faintly registering Tenten's startled curse as she scrambled to follow him down toward the child. He couldn't send in his kikkai to check on the little girl's queen kikkai from a distance; it was too delicate and risky a procedure. But he had to check - if that poison had reached the queen, he might not have much time to find an antidote or a means of drawing it out without killing them both.
"Shino, there's probably another enemy," Tenten warned, jumping down to run alongside him.
"She dying," he replied sharply.
"Who - oh, no," Tenten gasped as they came in sight of his kikkai swarm. "Is that a - oh, gods, Shino, she's just a baby."
The child was three, maybe four years old, lying curled up on her side in a miserable little bundle in the dirt. Around her, hundreds of dead kikkai lay spread like a dark puddle of grainy blood. Her breathing was shallow and faint. Shino dropped to his knees and put a hand on her throat, searching for both a pulse and the strongest spot on her body to force his own kikkai in towards her heart, and her hive-queen.
"I'll need you to guard us, and restrain that one," he gestured towards the cocooned enemy. "Why? Because I will need all of my attention on my task if I must extract her hive-queen."
"Wait, won't that kill her? What good does ripping out the queen do?"
Shino turned his head to look at her, face tense. He wanted to explain, knew that she hated not knowing what was happening, but there just wasn't time. Worse, if she thought he was risking the girl's life, she might try to stop him, and that would be disastrous.
But before he could say anything, an odd look flashed across Tenten's face, and then her professional mask slid into place. "Okay," she said briskly. She pulled free a chained mace again and stepped toward the captured enemy. "I've got him. Do what you have to do."
Shino nodded sharply and turned his attention to the child, calling his kikkai in and setting his hand against the rapid but disturbingly weak pulse point on the little girl's neck. Carefully, he called the smallest and most delicate of his own kikkai to land on her skin, and directed them to the circular scar on her chest, just over her heart. Every Aburame who joined with a hive-queen possessed such a scar, marking the place where the carefully bred queen had burrowed into the flesh of the infant Aburame and infused her particular chakra with the child's.
The little girl didn't even flinch as Shino ordered his kikkai to force their way into the child's skin. It was less painful for another Aburame than it would have been for someone else; the child's skin was adapted to her bugs crawling in and out, and there were certain chemicals the kikkai secreted to dull the pain and reseal the skin behind them. His kikkai burrowed through the hive paths in her body relatively easily, but as they neared her heart, the sour acid taste on his tongue became almost unbearable. His stomach revolted and the smell of wilted flowers changed to one of decaying plants. He grit his teeth against the bile that rose in response to the sensory input and forced his kikkai closer to the queen, sending in a few more to clear out some of the dead kikkai in the child's system. He wasn't particularly skilled at this, but his Aunt Masuyo specialized in it and had insisted on all her immediate family learning the basics.
His kikkai were at the heart now, and even though he had sent the smallest of his hive, his kikkai were still having to squeeze through the little girl's tiny veins and chakra streams. She wasn't even old enough for the Academy, Shino thought with a detached sort of anger. And she was delicately built even for her young age, which meant that her captors had given her a ridiculously large overdose of the poison.
His kikkai crawled into the little cavern the queen had long ago built into the child's body, nestled against the heart, and Shino took a deep, studied breath as he maneuvered the little insect towards the flickering energy of the queen. She was there, and still pulsing softly with a mixture of the hive-chakra and the girl's life energy. The poison taste faded a little, thankfully, and Shino breathed carefully out. He trickled the barest amount of his own chakra down through his kikkai, offering the gentle stream of energy to the little queen through his kikkai. After a tense moment, he felt her draining it away. The wild flickering energy of her fear and pain settled, and the little girl's breathing deepened as his chakra revitalized her struggling hive. Shino directed his own kikkai back out, and held out his hands so that the girl's tattered little hive could settle on his skin and draw from him for a few minutes.
"She looks better already," Tenten remarked softly from a few feet away.
He glanced over at where she stood over the groaning enemy, whom she had hogtied with a few chains, gagged, blindfolded, and trapped with an exploding tag on his forehead.
"She'll make it," he rasped, surprised at how tired and hoarse he sounded. "The poison is still in her system, but her hive will keep her alive until it runs it's course. And I can keep her kikkai alive until we get her to the medic-nin."
"No sign of a third attacker," Tenten said, jerking the chained man to his knees and nodding to her explosive tag. "And I warned this one not to try anything, not unless he wants his head splattered across the forest."
Shino carefully picked up the Aburame child and turned back toward Konoha. Tenten fell silently into step beside him, hauling her stumbling prisoner. They walked in silence for a moment before Shino cleared his throat. "Thank you," he said quietly.
Tenten threw him a sharp look, but her voice stayed neutral. "You'll explain it to me later, right?"
"I figured," she murmured, and this time the look she sent him was warm. "Come on, let's get home."
"Why am I sorry? That once again my business seems to have interfered with our honeymoon."
"On the contrary, I got a two week vacation, picked up some nifty new weapons, and then had the chance to try half of them out on the way home. See? Everything a girl could want."