Naruto Hiden / Naruto Hiden Vol 4 Chapter 8

The Final Mission, end

“Now then….it’s finally time to get started.”

“It’s Team Eight’s Last Mission! Let’s go, you guys!” Kiba loudly raised his voice like he was yelling out a battle cry.

After a long journey, Shino, Kiba, and Akamaru had finally arrived at the entrance of Soraku.

They passed under a stylish Japanese gate held up by thick, scarlet pillars, and walked into the town.

In the next moment, every single one of the party gulped at what they saw spread out in front of them. Even Kiba, who had been incredibly boisterous just a minute ago, looked meek all of a sudden. It was beyond what they had imagined.

Countless buildings were huddled together, walls that had broken apart and crumbled, slanted store signs with faded paint, and numerous shops with broken glass windows, lined up like they were trying to compete with each other.

Of course, there was no one inside the town. The uninhabited and abandoned ruins had obviously stayed that way for a very long time.

The centre of the city had a lot of tall buildings around, a telling sign of how a considerable number of people used to live here.

Neither Kiba nor Shino knew how Soraku had gotten into this state, or where its former residents had gone.

But before they realised what they were doing, they were imagining the long-past scenes of bustling activity that could no longer be scene.

Parents and children had been here. Siblings. Friends. Lovers.

There was no doubt that there used be happenings here that were no different from those of Konohagakure’s.

The entire neighbourhood was quiet. There wasn’t a single sound. But, occasionally, you could hear the sound of the wind. It was most likely the sound of wind currents blowing through the broken windows and inside the buildings.

It felt like the wind that blowed so vainly in the quiet stillness was the sound made by the abandoned town screaming.

The vicissitudes of life. That phrase came to Shino’s mind.

But then, was it really acceptable to sum up something like this with that one simple phrase? He hesitated, because the sight looked too sad for those words.

“It’s a desolate place.” Shino murmured. “Do any people really live here…?”

Kiba’s nose twitched, moving. “There’s no mistake…” He said. “There are definitely a few people here, somehow.”

Kiba walked into the building that stood at the front, saying, “This way,”

Shino and Akamaru followed.

The inside of the building was just as jumbled as the outside. The two men and animal carefully made their way down a long and dark corridor. It got more and more complicated as they headed in, like a maze. Pipes of some kind clung to the walls, though it was hard to tell whether they carried water or gas.

Judging from the appearance, it looked like the building hadn’t originally been structured like this, but rather that several additions had been made to it over the years, and that had resulted in such strange pathways forming.

It’s most likely a countermeasure against intruders… Shino thought, staring at the differently coloured walls.

“It stinks of mould in here,” Kiba commented from ahead of him, “This place sure is depressing.”

At that moment-

“Well -meow- I’m so sorry it’s depressing.”

A cat had sprung out from one of the broken air ventilator ducts.

“What the…?!” Kiba was discomposed by the sudden appearance of the cat. It was because he hadn’t been able to sense it with his nose.

Akamaru went on guard, letting out a low growl. In an instant, Shino was on the alert as well.

“Those hitai-ate… meow, Konoha shinobi?”

The cat was talking. It didn’t look like there were any other cats around. It was mostly grey-furred, with white fur at the tip of its nose, and mouth. It was glaring at them with sparking eyes.

“One sinks of dog. One stinks of bug. One is a dog.” After looking them all over, one by one, the cat muttered such abusive language. “Seriously, meow, you’re such a bunch of good for nothings.”

But Kiba didn’t mind that at all. He was looking at the cat and showering it with words of praise.

“This one’s a surprise.” Kiba said, “Completely without scent. This cat’s a big deal…!”

“Ninja cats completely remove our scent when we’re self-grooming our bodies, meow. We’re different from normal cats.”

“One of those rumoured ninja cats huh…?”

Shino fixed his eyes on the cat in front of him.

It looked like any other cat you’d find just about anywhere. Its movements were very cat-like as well.

The difference was the kimono it wore, and the human words it spoke.

Soraku had another side to it, as a paradise for cats. Many cats had come to live in the abandoned town. Most of them were normal cats who couldn’t speak the human language, but among them were these miraculous ninja cats who had learnt how to speak like human and use ninjutsu.

These ninja cats had served the black marketeer clan here for generations. Calling them a substantial authority in this town wouldn’t be exaggerating. Ninja cats cooperated with normal cats so that be it day or night, they were always keeping a watchful eye on the town. And, that included swiftly dealing with intruders.

It looked like the pipes that clung to the walls and ceilings were actually a secret pathway for the cats. The whole building was probably- no, the whole town was probably the same. They’d likely manufactured the whole area so that you wouldn’t be able to go anywhere that was out of the reach of the cats.

It was thanks to the ninja cats that this area remained secure.

However, Shino and the others had only come desperately looking for honey wine. It would be terrible if there was a misunderstanding that they’d come with bad intentions. And so, Shino began to speak as gently as he could:

“We aren’t people to be suspicious of.” Shino said, “We’re looking for someone. We’re just searching for information.”

“A man who wears sunglasses, a long coat, and a hood that covers his eyes…! You’re most certainly suspicious, meow.”

“Well, you have a point…” For some reason, Kiba agreed with the cat.

Shino felt a little irritated by that, and raised his voice. “You can’t call people suspicious just because they wear a hood and sunglasses. The reason being that I am not someone who’s suspicious. And furthermore, people you should truly be suspicious of are the types who try to hide their suspicious nature by not looking suspicious at all and…”

“Calm down, Shino.” Kiba said. “It’s not going to help if you raise your voice at the cat.”

“I really can’t bear how much you stink of dog, meow. It makes me want to throw up”

“EXCUSE ME!? HEY, YOU CAT BASTARD SITTING OVER THERE!!!”

“Calm down, Kiba. Remain calm. Follow my example.”

“It’d be better if you quickly left, meow. If you don’t, you’ll be ripped limb from limb.”

Faced with the repeating provocations from the ninja cat, Kiba finally sapped.

“Heeeh, that’s just fine with me. We can get our information just as well by tying you up, can’t we?” Kiba glared at the cat with sharp eyes. He cracked his knuckles, then rolled his neck around, lightly loosening his body. And then-

“Let’s go, Akamaru!” Kiba leapt up from the floor, and Akamaru rushed forwards at almost the exact same time.

“You foolish human, meow.” The cat looked up at the ceiling, not looking particularly concerned at all. It moved its back legs one by one to stretch them out, and rolled the joint of its own eck as well.

“Gyan!” Akamaru let out a high-pitched yelp, and collapsed next to Kiba.

“What’s wrong, Akamaru?! Wai- this is-?!” Kiba suddenly collapsed next to the writhing Akamaru as well. “Ah- wait- ha- gah- hya- kaa- ku-”

Akamaru and Kiba rolled around on the floor, letting out strange noises. They seemed to have completely lost themselves, pulling at their hair and hitting their clothes.

Shino’s skin perceived the tiny little attackers that had jumped off the ninja cat’s body.

“Ohh, so they’re fleas…” He said. “You sent out fleas as an attack. As expected of one who carries the name of a ninja cat. This is really rare. I guess you could call somet like Ninpou: Flea Shuriken…”

“D-don’t just c-calmly analysEEEEEE.” Kiba yelled. “Quickly d-do something sHINOOOO!”

It couldn’t be helped that one would feel incredibly itchy when they’d been covered by such a large number of fleas. Kiba’s aggrieved yelling and Akamaru’s pained whines were echoing in the corridor.

In order to aid them, Shino kneeled down on one knee and made the signs for a hand seal.

“Insect Gathering Technique!” Shino yelled, and placed his hand down on the floor. As he did, a pattern of blue chakra shaped like a spider’s web emerged. It spread out from his fingertips like a fan.

As he did that, the fleas that had covered Kiba and Akamaru jumped towards the blue chakra webs, gathering inside them. The Insect Gathering Technique worked just as it name suggested, luring out bugs near the user and gathering them in one place. It was a fundamental technique for the Aburame Clan that every one of their members could do.

On that note, this had originally been a technique used for collecting insects of investigating ecology.

“W-we’re saveddd…” Kiba must’ve been in a lot of pain. He was trying to even out his disordered breathing as he got up.

Akamaru looked like he still felt disgusted by the ordeal, shaking his whole body like he would when he’d gotten wet.

“To think you couldn’t even win against fleas. There’s a limit to how pathetic can be, you mutts, meow.”

“You shitty cat, looking down on us…!” Kiba lunged towards the cat who had been calmly watching them.

“Gotcha!”

Kiba had firmly grabbed hold of the cat in his hands. However, the second he’d touched it, the cat’s body crumpled into pieces like stone.

“What the?!”

Pebbles? No, that wasn’t what they were. They were crunchy bits of cat food. The cat had definitely been there a moment ago. When in the world had it switched itself with a fake made of cat feed…?

“I see, so it’s a Cat Feed Bunshin…” Shino murmured.

“Is this really the time to be praising them?!” Kiba snapped.

“It’s really about time you get going, meow.” The cat spoke from an room inside the passage, its eyes shining in the dark, “Even a cat will only turn the other cheek three times. From now on, it’ll be time to bring out the claws, meow.”

It was like this that the ninja cats turned away intruders. For the sake of protecting the town and the Black Marketeer clan. However, it should be that if a merchant stops by, they don’t turn them all away. That’s what Shino thought.

However, he didn’t know what to do that would make the cats stop fending them off.

“Ugh, fuck this!” Kiba howled irritably, “We can’t catch the cat, we can’t get information from the cat, there’s nothing we can do!”

“If you want information, then you exchange it for matatabi*. But that’s impossible, since you lot don’t have any matatabi. You understand now? You really stink of dog, so we really want you to hurry up and leave.”

So that was it. Matatabi could be traded for a pass to get inside. They’d been thoughtless. Their opponent was  a cat after all.

“This is bad, Kiba…” Shino said. “At this rate, we’ll make no process. The reason is that we didn’t bring even a little bit of matatabi…”

Shino leaned in closer to Kiba, whispering so the ninja cat couldn’t hear. “Since the situations turned into this, I’ll use my bugs to-”

“Hold on, Shino. Leave this to me.”

Kiba took out a soldier pill from the pouch on his belt, and tossed it towards the ninja cat. “Alright, cat. I’ll give you this. Let’s make it a trade. That for information on the beekeeper’s location.”

“Are you making a fool out of me? No matter how you look at it, this isn’t matatabi, meow. Matatabi is…” The cat trailed off, stopping its curses about the soldier pill. It started to lick the soldier pill, its pink tongue flashing in and out. “What? What is this? Does this have matatabi in it?”

The cat slowly sunk down to lie down on the floor. It was the typical lounging behaviour shown in cats after they licked matatabi.

“So, how’s that?” Kiba grinned widely. “We can do business now, right?”

“What’s this about, Kiba?” Shino asked. “Do soldier pills have matatabi in them?”

“Nah, the soldier pill has inukekka** inside. It’s something similar to matatabi.”

The Inuzuka Clan’s special-made soldier pills were usually aimed at dogs. He’d never have thought that one of those soldier pills could have things that cats liked too. As expected, Kiba was a reliable man.

“Gnnn.”Tthe cat sounded vexed even in its soldier-pill induced daze. “To think that I’d curl down to the floor like this because of some dog-stinking jerk, meow. My pride can’t forgive this, meow.”

The cat said that, swallowed the soldier pillow in one gulp, and took off running.

“Wha- HEY! DON’T YOU GO STEALING FROM ME! YOU SHITTY CAT!”

The cat dashed off like a hare- or maybe he should say, like a cat? Either way, Kiba had run after the runaway cat at fullspeed.

“JUST YOUUU WAIT!” Kiba’s enraged shouts echoed furiously through the halls.

Shino and Akamaru looked at the sight of Kiba’s back as he chased the ninja cat, and started running too. As they chased the nimble ninja cat, they ran down countless twists and turns, corridors curving left and right like a maze.

Shino had just turned after another curve in the path when he saw Kiba up ahead of him. He had frozen in place, completely stock still. Shino panickedly came to a halt in his running so he wouldn’t run into him.

“What happened, Kiba…Did you lose sight of it?”

Kiba didn’t turn his head even at Shino’s question.

Shino peered around him and saw that there was a woman standing in front of Kiba. The ninja cat from before was being held in her arms.

She was a young woman with beautiful, chestnut brown hair, and lovely wide eyes. Her age seemed to be around the same as theirs.

Kiba and the woman had locked gazes, staring almost as if they recognised each other from somewhere.

The woman then noticed Shino’s presence, and, looking him up and down, started to shrink away.

“Wait, I am definitely not a suspicious person…” Shino spoke before he could be told anything, beating assumptions to the bunch. “I’m the comrade of Kiba here.”

When he said that, the woman’s facial features relaxed.

“Oh, so that’s what it was. You suddenly ran in so suddenly that I was surprised.” She said, and smiled.

“Let me go, meow!” The cat was struggling to get out of the woman’s arms, but couldn’t get free.

Seeing that, Shino asked, “Could it be that you’re…this cat’s owner?”

The woman looked surprised as she answered. “Yes. Uhm, did our cat do something…? I heard a really loud voice.”

“We’re looking for someone.” Shino said, “We gave a soldier pill as payment, but the cat took it without saying anything.”

“Ahh, I see. Tsk, I always tell them to do business properly.”

“I’m sorry if I won’t do business with someone who stinks of dog, meow.” The cat hissed as it struggled.

“Stinks of dog…? This person?” The woman turned to look at Kiba.

Shino turned to examine his friend’s state as well. For some reason, Kiba had been standing stiff as a statue with his mouth open for a while now.

“Uhm, I’m so sorry. Our cat has been incredibly rude…” The woman said, “Ah, my name is Tamaki. We own a weapon’s store. And this little one is Momo. He’s always protecting me.”

So the woman was called Tamaki.

“So he’s called Momo.” Kiba suddenly said, “My- my, what a coincidence. Our dog is called Akamaru, ahaha.”

Kiba was saying things that made no sense.

What in the world had been a coincidence? Shino was troubled by not knowing which component in their conversation made it a coincidence.

Even Akamaru had an absolutely stunned look on his face. And of course he would, to see his owner acting like a completely different person right in front of his eyes.

“So you’re a ninja dog user?” Tamaki asked, her eyes shining, “That’s amazing.”

It was then that Kiba started acting incredibly strange. He would fidget. He would look left and right. Run his hand through his hair. Tug on his goatee.

“No, well, heh, I’m not that big a deal…” Kiba said, “Ah- you know, see, amazing is a different thing, right? Like how I’m at a level where I could be considered a candidate for the next Hokage, like that.”

“What is such an amazing person doing here?!” Tamaki was astonished.

Akamaru hung his head and let out an upsetsounding whine.

Shino didn’t say anything. Just a few moments ago, Kiba had been furiously yelling ‘SHITTY CAT!’. Shino wondered where in the world that Kiba had disappeared to.

 

 

“–Ah, I see,” Tamaki said, “You’re looking for the beekeeper.”

“Yeah, for a friend’s wedding present.” Kiba said, “We were thinking of giving honey wine.”

“Ahh, that’s a very good choice.”

Shino watched Kiba and Tamaki as they talked. Somehow, Kiba had finally managed to get to the point. Kiba and Tamaki were holding the conversation by themselves.

Shino was silently patting the head of Akamaru, who was also not participating in the conversation.

Akamaru had looked like he’d been upset by something, but when Shino petted him the dog seemed to feel better, looking up at Shino with his eyes crinkling. Shino would never have imagined that despite being a bug user he’d end up spending such a long time with a dog and learning to read its heart.

“–Then, I’ll guide you.”

“Ah, you know where it is? We’d be really grateful.”

It looked like Kiba and Tamaki’s conversation had ended. She was going to guide them.

“It’s easy to get lost in this town,” Tamaki said with a wry smile as she and Kiba walked side by side ahead. Shino and Akamaru silently followed.

 

 

They walked through a very complex route. Shino thought they were going to go outside, but they went inside a building again. Then he thought they’d be outside, but this time they headed down an alleyway that had more similar looking buildings.

“So, this beekeeper,” Kiba asked, “What kind of a guy is he?”

“Hmm,” Tamaki said, “Well I’ve never seen his face, so…”

“What do you mean…?”

“I’ve never met him, but I know where he is.”

“What’s with that?”

Shino kept walking as he observed the harmonious atmosphere between Kiba and Tamari who walked a little ahead.

He was very grateful for the guide. If they hadn’t asked a resident to show the how to navigate through these complex streets i the town, then even with Kiba’s nose and Shino’s bugs, they’d have had an incredibly hard time finding their target. And ever since a while ago, all they’d come across were cats, and not a single human being.

They were on top of crumbling walls, in the crevices of rubble, inside shops with broken windows. He could feel the cats’ eyes on them from every possible hiding place.

When you looked at the cats, they were either lying down or licking their paws, but they most certainly never let Shino or the others out of their sight.

While observing those surroundings, Shino had a sudden feeling.

This abandoned town, and the cats who lived there, basking in the sun…it almost felt like one day, all the other humans had suddenly disappeared off the face of the Earth.

Here, people were the outsiders.

If it wasn’t for Tamaki and the ninja cat Momo, they’d probably be surrounded by now.

Speaking of Momo, the cat was walking alongside Tamaki with a sour look on its face. It looked like it wasn’t pleased with how cheerfully Tamaki and Kiba were chatting to each other.

Kiba was making large and exaggerated motions with his hands and arms as he talked, and laughter was streaming from Tamaki.

Shino stayed quiet as he usually did.

Akamaru was ducking away from the unflinching stares of the cats as he walked.

In that manner, the three of them eventually came to the town’s outskirts.

As they came to that point, the number of crumbling buildings lined up side by side had steadily decreased until only not even one house remained. Instead of that, what they saw was– well, instead of that, a thick fog had descended. Their field of vision was impaired.

This wasn’t a trivial matter, Shino thought to himself, and gathered his concentration. He focused on carefully watching their surroundings.

Ahead of him, Kiba and Tamaki were continuing their trifling conversation. Even though they’d soon be arriving, something was different about Shino’s mood and the mood between the two in front of him.

Tamaki was continuing, unbothered by the fog.

“Eh? Come to think of it, have we not met before this in Konoha? I recently moved there. Though I still come back here pretty often to visit my family. But yeah, that’s it, before this, my grandmother was completely naked when a group of cats- ah, here we are.”

Tamaki suddenly came to a stop.

While wondering what on earth her grandmother had done, Shino came to a halt too.

You could vaguely see a bamboo grove in the fog ahead of them.

“This bamboo grove…should be the right place.” Tamaki said.

Those were some ambiguous words from someone who said they’d guide them.

“What do you mean should be?” Kiba asked.

“Well, in a nutshell, nobody’s ever met him.”

“Then how do you know this is where he lives?”

“Please take a look at this,” Tamaki indicated a pair of stone monuments that were erected ahead of the bamboo grove.

Seeing the rotted rope that was wrapped around the stone monuments, Shino murmured: “Traveller’s Guardian Deities.”

“That’s correct.” Temaki said, “People come here and place an offering, things like vegetables and the like, near the statue. When they come back the next day, the offerings will be gone, and a small container of honey or honey wine will be in its place. And so, we call the person who leaves honey, whoever they are, the ‘beekeeper’.”

“Why hasn’t anyone tried to go see him…?” Kiba asked, looking incredibly surprised. “Normally, wouldn’t you be curious about what kind of a guy he is?”

Well, that certainly was what you would think. ‘Normally’.

But, this was Soraku.

The possibility that whoever lived here wasn’t someone upright was 200% percent. As long as that person did their business properly under the watch of the cats, then nobody would care whether they were a traveller or a fugitive.

“As you can tell by the Traveller’s Guardian Deities, these are sacred grounds. But the people who live in Soraku don’t bother looking around. We have no business here after all.” Tamaki said with a laugh.

The fact that the beekeeper was living on sacred grounds didn’t seem to be something upsetting.

As expected, the people of Soraku have a unique way of thinking that’s a little bit different than others.

“But we do have business here, you know…” Kiba said, “We can’t just sit around in a daze for who knows how many days while waiting for our offerings to be exchanged with honeywine.”

“Either way, you jerks won’t be able to find it, meow. Even cats get lost in that bamboo grove, meow.” Momo gave a sadistic laugh.

He’d thought the cat had finally decided to say something worthwhile only for something like that to come out of its mouth.

But Kiba wasn’t perturbed.

“We’re shinobi. We won’t get lost.” He directed the words at Momo, and then turned to walk towards the bamboo groves shrouded in mist.

 

 

After parting with Tamaki and Momo, the party had started walking through the foggy bamboo grove.

Shino turned his head and looked back. The rest of the town was already out of sight in the fog. So, that’s what Momo meant by getting lost. If this was the state of the food, no wonder Tamaki and Momo and the other people of Soraku had never gone in here.

Either way, since they were looking for someone whose face was unknown, it would be an impossible task to accomplish if you didn’t have shinobi with high senses of perception like Kiba and Shino. This wasn’t somewhere for non-shinobi like Tamaki to be.

But, that being said, it was possible that this wasn’t somewhere for shinobi to be either.

Those statues of Traveller Guardian Deities were placed as a marker to separate the world that humans lived in and the world that gods lived in. In other words, they were now walking on territory that didn’t belong to humans, but gods.

They already hadn’t been able to see well in this fog, but Shino felt like it had gotten even thicker.

“Alright…this should be a good spot for the first one.” Kiba said, and threw a kunai into a nearby bamboo pole.

He was doing it for the sake of placing a marker near the entrance of the bamboo grove. He’d do it again after they covered a bit more distance. They’d repeat that for a while as they continued. This way, they’d be able to find their way out when they left without puzzling over it too much.

“First we’ll find him with my nose, then when we do, you’ll call your bugs and…achoo!” Kiba sneezed suddenly. He sniffled, and then said, “Heh, maybe that girl’s talking about me…”

“…Have you fallen for her?” Shino bluntly asked.

“HUH?! No, you idiot! There’s absolutely nothing like that!”

Kiba was incredibly flustered. He was yelling his denials using a much louder voice than usual.

“Was I…interrupting your romance…?”

“I’m telling you you’re wrong!”

“Hinata’s getting married soon…Kiba, when you get married I’ll end up finally being alone. When you do get married, leave Akamaru to me. The reason is that he is the only one who understands me without words…”

“Excuse me? I’ve got no clue what you’re saying! What do you mean you’ll be alone?!”

As Kiba was barking in a fluster, Akamaru looked up at his owner and barked too.

“Woof!”

“What the- Akamaru?! Why’re you saying stuff like that, too?! And leave my goatee out of this!”

Even though Akamaru had only given one bark, it appeared he’d conveyed a long string of words. Kiba was ranting back, his face going crimson all the way to his ears.

Was his face red because of anger or embarrassment? Shino silently thouhght. Most likely both.

Kiba suddenly gave an exasperated shout. “Arggh, that’s enough! Let’s just keep going without getting into stupid conversations like this!”

He turned his back on them both, stomping ahead.

“Seriously…the strong smell of bamboo makes finding things hard, ugh!”

It looked like he was much more irritated now that he’d been a while ago.

But, Shino was pleased to see it, because Kiba was far easier to understand when he was like this. Of course, while he might’ve been pleased now, that was only ‘now’.

When he’d first met Kiba, there had been many times when he’d gotten irritated at his personality that was the complete opposite of Shino’s.

During break time at the Academy, Shino would let his bugs take walks on the top of his desk, while Kiba would run around the corridors and playgrounds with other classmates, yelling loudly. In class, Shino would silently listen to the teacher, while Kiba would either be asleep or making a racket.

To sum it up, Kiba was second to Naruto when it came to…forget second, after all, the boy in question had never been the type to be content if he wasn’t first place…Kiba was at Naruto’s level when it came to causing a ruckus. He had been a complete problem child.

Back then, Shino had wanted to be assigned to a team with anyone but him.

But now, Shino went on missions with that same problem child.

When had being alongside Kiba become something completely natural?

Life was really impossible to understand.

For some reason, Shino kept thinking of the old days as he walked.

His field of vision was still hindered by the fog. The scenery never seemed to change, always the same. Clusters of bamboo with thick fog hanging between them. Shino thought his surroundings right now looked like a painting.

“Hold on a minute. This is strange…” Kiba suddenly muttered in a low voice. “This isn’t the smell of bamboo…What is this, this faint, sweet scent…?”

Kiba looked around, his nose twitching.

Of course, Shino had no way of smelling whatever Kiba could. It was that faint of a scent.

However, Shino did immediately notice the very strange thing right in front of his eyes.

“Kiba…Look at this…”

Ahead of where Shino was pointing, there was a pole of bamboo…with a kunai sticking out of it.

It was the kunai that Kiba had thrown in as a marker near the town outskirts from where they’d entered.

A long time had passed since they’d placed that marker, and they’d continued walking forwards only. They shouldn’t be seeing the marker.

“Is it a genjutsu…?”

While feeling uneasy, Shino shifted the chakra flow inside his body, making the insects inside him uncomfortable. He’d shifted his chakra for the sake of breaking the genjutsu.

However, absolutely nothing changed.

By all rights, the kunai that should be a long distance behind them. But it was still in front of them.

“Shit, we can’t break out of it…What is this?” Kiba lowered his voice, his eyes glancing sharply around their surroundings,  “Is it the Sly Mind Affect Technique?”

“It feels similar to the Demon Illusion Double False Surroundings Technique too, but…it’s not either of them…”

They were a pair who’d been raised under Kurenai, the leading genjutsu user in Konoha. To be honest, they were confident that their knowledge in genjutsu was higher than other ninjas. Of course, that included breaking out of them too.

But, they’d never heard of a genjutsu like this. To begin with, if it was a genjutsu, then it would’ve been cancelled by now. Which mean it was something different than but similar to a genjutsu which would be…which would be what?

“We have no choice, huh.” Kiba said, “For now, how about we continue with me and Akamaru using the Fang Rotating Fang technique?”

Kiba had found a very simple solution. Rather than following a set course while avoiding bamboo, they’d just disregard that and cut through in a straight line.

Shino silently nodded.

“Alright, then let’s go Akamaru!” Kiba looked around.  “…Akamaru?”

Kiba began restlessly turning his head left and right. Shino searched around his surroundings too, straining his eyes to see past the fog that surrounded them.

But no matter how much they searched, despite being right next to them only a moment ago, Akamaru was nowhere to be found. Akamaru had disappeared without a sound or trace.

“This can’t be right…Akamaru! Hey, Akamaru! Wh-What is this?! Akamaru’s smell is gone!”

Kiba completely lost his head. He leapt through the fog, still yelling.

“WHERE ARE YOU, AKAMARU?! ANSWER ME! AKAMARU!”

“Wait, Kiba! Calm down!”

Shino ran after the panicked Kiba. As Kiba ran, calling for Akamaru, the fog grew denser around his figure. He should’ve been very close by, but Shino couldn’t tell thanks to the fog.

Shino ran, and ran, but he couldn’t catch up to Kiba. And soon, Kiba disappeared from his sight, too.

“Shino…this smell is really strong.” Kiba’s voice floated towards him from the middle of the fog. “You should get what this is now too. It’s the smell of honey…this sweet smell…it’s unmistakably…!”

At that moment, all traces of Kiba disappeared completely.

“Kiba…!”

In that moment, countless numbers of Kikaichuu appeared around Shino.

He swung up both his arms, countless Kikaichuu streaming out of his inner body in all directions. Some went above to the sky, others flooded his surroundings, and his Kikaichuu looked almost as thick as the fog.

But all the Kikaichuu who had been released didn’t behave the way Shino expected.

They immediately came back to him, reporting that they could find nothing.

“Can’t be…”

He tried a second time, and a third, but no matter how many times he released them, the same result happened.

The Kikaichuu went through the crevices between the bamboo that grew around him, but always came right back without finding anything.

Watching the insects fly idly about him covered Shino in a cold sweat.

His Kikaichuu responded to chakra. For them to not be finding anything despite that meant that Kiba, who had been here just a moment ago, had truly and totally disappeared. It wasn’t that he just couldn’t see him in the thick fog.

This is impossible…

Shino frantically tried to think. He recalled the last things Kiba had said. He’d talked about a sweet smell getting stronger, and said that it was the smell of honey. He’d said that Shino should be able to know what it was too, which meant it had been very strong.

But, no matter how much Shino strained his senses, he couldn’t smell even the faintest scent of sweet honey.

However, as he sharpened his senses and concentrated, his efforts bore fruit in another way. Surrounded by the buzzing of his returned insects, Shino became aware of another, different buzzing in the background.

He suddenly looked up, and saw several figures flying out of the fog. They were enormous compared to his Kikaichuu.

Black and yellow in colour.

Hornets. And they were flying towards him in a straight line, aiming right at Shino.

He immediately used his insects to defend himself and mow down the hornets. His swarm of Kikaichuu took on the shape of black sword, flying freely through the air.

When they did, the hornets’ bodies suddenly started melting into a strange viscous liquid. And that liquid started enshrouding the attacking Kikaichuu.

“What is this?! This technique…!”

As the liquid wrapped around his Kikaichuu, great drops of the thick liquid fell around Shino as well.

Honey…?

The sweet smell of it mixed in with the fog, just like Kiba had said. For the first time since they’d entered,Shino could finally smell it too. In fact, the smell was steadily growing stronger.

The hornets made to assault Shino once more. He used his bugs to defend himself again.

The bamboo is in the way…

If he just had some time, he could smash down the bamboo in a few seconds.

The hornets attacked, skillfully flying in and out of the bamboo and using it as a shield at the same time.

It was at the moment Shino gave his attention to them that it happened.

Right near Shino’s feet, the honey that had fallen to the ground began to take on the shape of hornets again.

I’ve done it now…! Shino thought as the re-formed hornet flew straight towards him on ground level.

The hornet’s stinger mercilessly stabbed at the back of Shino’s neck.

His body swayed terribly.

This wasn’t a normal hornet sting. The hornet’s poison had been specially prepared to be strong enough to take out two shinobi at once.

The hornet’s manipulation of him, and their specialised toxic stings, they all pointed to a very skilled insect user. A user of hornets and wasps and bees. The people of Soraku had named that person well as the beekeeper.

Just as Shino became convinced he knew the true colour of the enemy they couldn’t see, his body collapsed on the spot.

 

 

After some time passed, the beekeeper appeared out of the fog without a sound.

Step by step, they slowly approached Shino.

It was a very strange sight.

You couldn’t see their face, because it was covered by an anbu mask in the shape of a bee. And it wasn’t just their face you couldn’t see. Every part of the beekeeper but their masked face was covered in a swarm of honey bees.

No, rather, it would be easier for you to picture if it was said that it was almost like the beekeeper’s entire body was made of honey bees.

This was the beekeeper of Soraku, whose face no one had seen.

They slowly stepped forward.

“Konoha’s Aburame Clan…” They murmured, while looking down at the fallen Shino. Their voice was quiet, but clear. It sounded like a young boy’s, but at the same time, like a frail-nerved young man. It also sounded like a calm woman’s. It was a mysterious, androgynous voice.

“Exactly.” Shino answered from behind the beekeeper.

The Shino that had collapsed onto the floor broke apart and scattered. It had been an insect kage bunshin made of thousands of bugs.

“To think that you’d trick me…” the beekeeper said, “You’re a rare one…”

The beekeeper didn’t have any particular emotions in their voice as they looked around.

The insects that had been pretending to be Shino joined the rest of his Kikaichuu, and in no time at all, the beekeeper was enshrouded in Shino’s insects.

The honey bees on the beekeeper’s boy buzzed and jostled in agitation, sensing their owner was in danger.

“But, why…” the beekeeper wondered, “The poison…”

The beekeeper was talking about how Shino should’ve been stung by the hornets and allen to their poison.

The truth was that Shino had indeed been stung. He had let himself be stung, because he knew that his opponent would never come out into the open if he wasn’t down.

And that’s why Shino willingly let himself take the poison sting. He had enough confidence and faith in himself to do it.

“I was poisoned.” Shino confirmed. “But it wasn’t a problem. The reason is that this amount of poison won’t kill me.”

Thanks to the insects inside his body, poisons up to a certain level could be neutralised.

Shino in particular had studied the small, venomous Rinkaichuu bugs used by his now-deceased clansman, Aburame Torune, and then raised his own insects to resist poison thanks to that research.

That was why it was possible for Shino to neutralise strong poison in mere moments. You could say it was something he’d inherited from Torune, who had been raised alongisde him when he was young, and been like a sibling to him.

“Well, I’m well and truly beat…This is my loss.” The beekeeper said, realising they couldn’t retaliate. They didn’t struggle, “You’re after my life, I suppose. Well, I’m content to be killed by an insect user of such skill…”

“No, I’m after…honeywine…” Shino spoke into the tense silence. “I’d like…about two bottles…”

Maybe it was because Kiba wasn’t around, but the silence suddenly felt too silent.

“Would you come to my home…?” The beekeper asked, turning their masked head.

 

 

It turned out the beekeeper was originally a shinobi from Iwagakure, who had settled down to live here peacefully while simultaneously fearing their pursuers would come to find them.

In short, Shino had been mistaken for one of the beekeeper’s pursuers, and that’s why the beekeeper had attacked him.

“Kiba and Akamaru…” Shino said, “A dog-loving human and his adored dog, they were here, but, what happened to them…?”

“Don’t worry, they’re safe. They’re just wandering around in the fog.” The beekeeper answered. They were talking as they headed towards the beekeeper’s home.

“Earlier, why did you target me…?”

“Because if you don’t strike first against an insect user, you’ll be in trouble later.”

“I see…”

They continued quietly conversing in that manner. Shino thought they were having a rather lively conversation.

Shino had known of the insect-user clan of Iwagakure. It had been a clan of mainly bee-users, that was now destroyed. The beekeeper was a descendant of that clan.

“Here it is…”

The beekeeper came to a stop, and Shino could see a small house appear in the thick fog ahead of them. It was a simple house with a thatched roof. The garden was most likely the breeding area for the bees. There was a basket made of bamboo next to it.

The thatched house inconspicuously existed within the bamboo thicket enshrouded with fog.

The atmosphere felt like one of those ninja refuges you heard about in stories. Actually, a runaway-nin was in fact secretly living here, so a ninja refuge was exactly what it was.

While Shino had been looking at the house, the beekeeper had brought honeywine. As he passed it to Shino, the shining, beautiful amber liquid swayed gently inside its container.

“Thank you. How much…?”

“I don’t need money.” The beekeeper calmly answered, “It wouldn’t be of any use to me even if I had it, so…”

It looked like they’d always been living in this place alone. They seemed to be leading a lifestyle that was completely self-sufficient, without any eed for money.

Shino let out another short “I see…” and put the honey wine in the sack the bee keeper gave, “Which reminds me, I’ve be very grateful if you could teach me the way out. The fog is really thick…”

“There isn’t one.”

The beekeeper unhesitatingly gave that sort of reply.

“What do you mean?”

“There isn’t a path back…that’s what I mean.” the beekeeper sat atop a nearby boulder, looking intently at Shino with the eyes behind their mask. “This bamboo grove is a bit like a kekkai barrier. Once you step in, you can never get out. You’ll keep getting lost in the endless fog. That’s the kind of jutsu this is…”

“You can’t undo the jutsu?” Shino asked.

“I’m sorry, but it can’t be undone. It’s a jutsu I tied to myself…” the beekeeper didn’t sound very sorry about it. Their voice was as emotionless as it had always been. You could say they were calm, but it was more like their voice was completely flat.

“For example, even if you killed me, the jutsu wouldn’t come undone…” the beekeeper continued, looking up at the sky. “This fog was originally made with unique ingredients that cause humans to become confused and lose their paths. I used just a little bit of that fog’s essence to create the jutsu…”

Shino looked again towards the misty fog. To think there was that sort of ingredient within it…Was that really possible? Well, he couldn’t say it was impossible.

He couldn’t feel any hostility from the beekeeper, nor from the honey bees that swarmed them.

It didn’t look like the beekeeper was lying.

And Shino remembered the mysterious story he’d heard from his father, Shibi.

Kumogakure was apparently the owner of a mysterious waterfall. It was huge, his father had said, falling down fiercely and giving off huge waves of spray. Apparently, if you faced the falls, your inner self, your true self would be reflected.

At the time it’d been hard to believe, but there indeed was such a place in the world. In that case, it wasn’t too strange if a fog that made humans lose their way existed. It wasn’t a genjutsu, but the fog that had been to blame for everything.

Shino walked towards the outskirts of the beekeeper’s house.

A never-ending fog. And never-ending bamboo, bamboo, bamboo…

The unchanging scenery continued without end.

As an experiment, Shino walked in a straight line, his insects flying around him. He soon found himself arriving at the beekeeper’s house once more.

He tried again, walking more carefully, only to come back to see the beekeeper still sitting calmly on his boulder.

Thanks to the composition of the fog, even my bugs get lost, is that it?

His bugs couldn’t help him. There was no exit. He couldn’t find Kiba and Akamaru. He was in a really tight corner.

But Shino still kept investigating his surroundings.

“I got lost my way in life and found myself here…” The beekeeper said, “But, that doesn’t mean that this is a bad way of life. Rather, I’d wanted to live like this. Here, there is nothing but the present. There’s no past, no future. Just now. I’m living in the present. Don’t you think that’s more than enough…?”

The beekeeper’s words were calm, slow, and even as he continued sharing his thoughts. “I’ve always been running. Running from fights, and from the path of a shinobi. From the start, I never thought the shinobi life agreed with me. But I was born and raised into a clan of insect users. I didn’t have any other choice but to live as a shinobi…That’s why I threw everything away, and ran away to this place. If I have no other path to live but that of a shinobi, then all I have to do is keep getting lost and never go down it…”

The beekeeper’s slowly flowing words disappeared into the pure white fog.

Shino silently listened to it all.

“All people are lost.” The beekeeper said, “Not just me. Be it shinobi or merchants, man or woman, everyone. And that includes you. You’re lost as well. That’s why you’re wandering, confused, through the fog like this.” He pointed out.

“You’re saying I’m…lost…?”

When had Shino’s mouth gotten so dry? Shino swallowed, and held his breath.

And, for some reason, memories of Hinata and Kurenai rose into his mind.

He remembered the time he’d spent training with Hinata.

He remembered the days of missions he’d done under Kurenai’s supervision.

He had finally made a friend in Hinata. Kurenai had understood him even though he was quiet.

But…

Hinata was getting married soon. Even now, she was busy preparing for the wedding ceremony.

Kurenai was busy raising her child. Now, she was behind a certain line.

The two of them had already started down their own paths. And Shino silently watched the sight of their two backs.

They’d never be able to go back to how Team Eight used to be. Forever.

Shino tried to stay calm, but his breathing was getting harsh and laboured. The fog was filling up his lungs.

Is this what he meant by my being lost…?

Hinata and Kurenai, and everyone, they were heading down their own paths, but Shino was the only one left behind where he began. That was the feeling he’d fallen into.

He wasn’t heading towards anyplace, and he wasn’t settling down anywhere. He felt like he was like the wavering fog, always being the only thing that was left behind.

Were those feelings a deception created by a fog…? No, that wasn’t it.

He’d always, always felt like this.

After they came to this place, and before as well. He had always kept feeling lost…

And, the thought had occurred to him. From some tiny corner of his heart. He hadn’t even noticed it himself, but he’d thought…

I want to go back to those days.

He wanted to go back, just one more time, back to those days when everyone had stuck together as Team Eight.

“You hadn’t even noticed…that you felt lost, had you…?” The beekeeper said, looking at Shino.

Shino was standing stock still in place. He couldn’t move a single step forwards. No matter how much he tried to move forward, he wouldn’t be able to reach the exit anyway, so why bother? He couldn’t even see anything in front of him anyway, thanks to the fog.

“You don’t have to keep pushing yourself forwards.” The beekeeper said. “You can just leave everything, and live here, and it’ll be fine…”

The fog, along with the beekeeper’s kind words pierced through Shino.

That might just be best. Shino thought.

If he couldn’t move forwards, and if nothing was waiting for him even if he did move forwards, then he wanted to just stay here and live his days without changing anything. That could very well become his happiness.

The beekeeper held out a hand. The honeybees that surrounded their arm drew away to reveal a milky-white hand.

“If you want,” the beekeeper said, “Then you could stay here with me.”

Shino looked at the offered hand.

And then, suddenly…

“It’s Team Eight’s Last Mission! Let’s go, you guys!”

He suddenly remembered Kiba’s words. That battle cry of his resounded inside Shino’s mind.

That’s right, this is…Team Eight’s last mission!

In that instant, it felt like the darkness around Shino’s field of vision disappeared completely. His dazed mind became crisp and clear.

For some reason or another, the fog around his surroundings had drawn back.

“I can’t just stop in a place like this. I have to hurry and go back to the village. The reason is that I absolutely have to attend a precious friend’s wedding ceremony…!”

Beneath his sunglasses, Shino’s eyes were resolute as he looked firmly ahead.

That moment, he suddenly noticed a nearby bamboo pole with a kunai embedded in it.

It was unmistakably the kunai that Kiba had thrown into a bamboo pole near the town. He hadn’t noticed it at all until now. And the fact that it was here meant that…

Shino turned his head, and sure enough, he could see the entrance to the bamboo grove ahead of him. His eyes could even make out the states of the Traveller’s Guardian Deities. It was definitely the place that Shino and the rest had entered.

“The entrance…no, the exit is there…” He said to the beekeeper, pointing.

“…? I don’t see anything…there’s nothing but fog…” the beekeeper tilted their head to one side.

The tone of their voice sounded like they genuinely couldn’t see the exit.

And Shino finally understood the situation. It was a pretty simple thing.

The fog made humans lose their way. The jutsu used the fog. People lost the paths of their lives inside the fog. Here, there wasn’t any present or future. That’s why there was nothing but an eternal ‘present’ inside the fog. That’s what it was.

But, that was only the case if you were running away from your past and had thrown away your future.

Just like the beekeeper had said, no matter how much someone trained as a shinobi, no matter how many years they’d lived, anyone who lived life had times when they felt lost. But for those who didn’t give up and kept moving forward and believing in the future, this fog didn’t have any power at all.

If you firmly, steadily, built up hope and belief in yourself in your heart while walking forwards, then even if you did get caught in the middle of a thick fog, you would eventually find your way out.

Shino gave a wry smile. He couldn’t help but think that in a way, the fog was very similar to life.

“I see…So you saw the road ahead with the Traveller’s Guardian Deity…” the beekeeper hung their head. They quietly murmured, “It’s best that you go quickly then. Before you lose the path again…”

As usual, the beekeeper’s tone was even and without emotion.

But, something about them seemed lonely as they sat on that large boulder. Or maybe Shino was overthinking things.

No, that wasn’t it.

The fog wrapped around them, the neverending bamboo thickets, the small house without people, the honey bees that surrounded the beekeeper, the anbu mask they worse and hid their face with, every single one of those things was like another barrier to the beekeeper. Shino understood that very well.

The reason he understood was that Shino hid himself too, in his long coat and hood.

This is a shield to protect myself. Not physically, but emotionally.

Shino understood those sorts of feelings so much it hurt.

That’s why he wavered over whether he should step over the boundaries of a person’s barrier.

People got lost over even things like this. But…

If he just left the beekeeper behind in this thick fog, he wouldn’t be a shinobi. The beekeeper was a fellow shinobi who’d also been born into an insect user clan. If Shino held himself back by thinking he was overstepping his boundaries or meddling in someone else’s business, and just turned his back on them and left, then he knew he was definitely going to regret it.

At times like this, rather than regretting what you didn’t try, it was better to try your luck and see. The reason for that is…

“You said you’re living in the present.” Shino said, “But I can’t help but wonder if that isn’t the wrong choice.”

…the reason that is that it’s what Naruto would do.

“Can a person really live in the present when they’re running away from everything?” Shino asked. “Someone who’s constantly dragged down by their past and unable to see their future, are they really living in the present? Today will one day be in the past, and someone who lives eternally in that present will never be able to see their future, will they? At least, that’s what I think…”

Shino shifted the sack on his back full of honey wine that the beekeeper had given. Until now, he’d never resented himself for being bad at words.

When he was lost in the fog, he really had thought that he’d be able idly living day by day.

“You’re really a gem…” the beekeeper finally spoke after the listening to Shino’s lecture. “Really unexpected. I thought you were a really quiet man, but it turns out that while you may not show it in your words or your facial expressions, you’re quite passionate on the inside…I feel like I just got lectured by an eager teacher.”

The beekeeper was calmly speaking. Their tone was as even as it always was, and thanks to their mask, Shino couldn’t see the look on their face.

However, he felt like the beekeeper was definitely giving a wry smile.

“A teacher, huh..I’ve never really thought about that, but my partner is a problem child after all…” Shino replied, the faces of his comrades coming to mind,  “Lots of my classmates were problem children. A constant complainer, a huge glutton, a young prankster…The one who behaved properly was always me. But still, every one of those classmates have now become splendid adults. They lived eagerly in the present without running away, and that’s why they could arrive at this future…”

Shino paused, and gestured towards the sack of honey wine he carried. “Thank you for this. I’ll be going now.”

“What are you doing to do about that dog-loving child…?” the beekeeper asked from behind him, “What if, unlike you, he doesn’t make his way out…?”

Shino didn’t even have to think about his reply to that question.

“That one’s far more honest than I am.” Shino said, “He won’t lose his way.”

Full of conviction, Shino turned towards the exit and started walking.

 

 

When Shino came out of the fog, the wide, blue sky greeted him. He put his hands in the pockets of his coat, and waited in front of the Traveller’s Guardian Deity.

A line of ants were marching near his foot, and he watched them to pass the time.

After a while, he heard a voice from the midst of the bamboo thicket.

“Yahoo! We finally found the exit, Akamaru!”

The voice was immediately followed by a very familiar sounding bark.

Kiba leapt out of the bamboo grove, covered in mud.

“You’re late…” Shino called out, when a mud-covered Kiba leapt out. “Kiba.”

“WHA-” Kiba jumped back in surprise when he saw Shino suddenly standing beside him, “I know it’s you by the smell, but you could at least give some warning before you suddenly make an appearance!”

Kiba pulled out a hand towel to wipe off the mud on his face, grumbling about how Shino’s abrupt appearance had almost given him a heart attack.

“You look like you went through some hardships…” Shino noted.

“I did not! Everything was fine!”

Kiba was someone who liked to act tough. He was easy to understand.

He must’ve gotten lost too, in his own way. Just like Shino, Kiba had probably faced his worries and anxieties for the future, too, in that genjutsu-like bamboo grove. But, Kiba had still made it here.

What in the world had Kiba been worried about? What kind of a future was he going towards…?

Shino felt a little curious, so he wanted to prod for answers.

“Are you going to confess to that woman…?”

Kiba’s face had turned scarlet at the sudden question. “Wha-? What is this?! Why is it that even you’re bothering me about Tamaki?!”

“Hmmm…‘even me’, huh…”

Kiba really was an incredibly easy to understand man. But, that was one of his good points.

“Listen, you’re totally wrong! You know, Shino, you really don’t get it…It’s probably because you’re not super popular. Listen, a man can’t be too greedy.”

Kiba was trying to play it cool as much as possible, but his face was still red.

“Then, what should a man do…?”

“Well…the first step is obviously…uhh…you know…that thing.” Kiba was flustered, cold sweat dripping down his forehead, “Uhm- yeah, letters! Exchanging letters seems like the best place to start, right?”

“‘Seems like’…?”

“No, it definitely is! Popular guys start out things like that by exchanging letters! Right Akamaru?”

Kiba must’ve been very flustered, appealing to Akamaru for help. Akamaru averted his eyes.

“Anyway, more importantly, we’ve gotta go and find that honey wine.” Kiba changed the subject. “The sun’s gonna set soon!”

“I’ve already gotten some.” Shino said, “So let’s go home…”

“You’re kidding, right?! I didn’t even do get to do anything!”

Shino gave the astonished Kiba one backwards glance before starting the walk back. Akamaru looked up at Kiba, who’d frozen stiff in shock, gave one bark, and briskly followe

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