Shino, Kiba, and Hinata paused before entering the forest clearing. As they had crossed the border into the Land of Earth, they froze as they perched in the trees to avoid shaking the branches and alerting their quarry.
“One ninja, two clones” signalled Hinata with her Byakugan engaged, which meant that two of the ninja had already split off. Shino instructed some of his insects to start searching out the trail before it got too cold.
His team separated: Hinata leapt along the trees around to the far side of the clearing and Kiba and Shino prepared to engage the two figures on the near side. Akamaru yipped, signalling them to attack, and Shino jumped down behind the stone ninja. He felt a strong gust to his left, indicating that Kiba and Akamaru were attacking with a ferocious twin spin. From the corner of his eye, he saw Hinata settle into the traditional stance of her family style. Shino himself exchanged a flurry of taijutsu punches, until a strike to his opponent’s head caused his opponent to burst, spraying mud outward.
The mud started to coalesce, but before it could fully do so, it collapsed into an inert puddle on the ground. Shino turned his head to where Hinata was, and as expected, he saw a stone ninja lying next to her, likely with his chakra disabled.
“I’ll get the rope,” called out Kiba, and he headed back into the trees where they had left their bags. Moments later, two of Shino’s insects returned and started hovering near his ear.
Shino walked over to Hinata and relayed his insects’ message: “The stone ninjas have split up and are both heading north.”
Hinata nodded. “I’ll see if I can find them,” she replied. The insects flew out of the clearing, with Hinata close behind.
Shino examined their captive, who lay unconscious on the ground. His weapons holster contained a set of standard shuriken, and his hip pouch similarly contained an assortment of unremarkable tools. Shino started going through the pouches of his flak jacket, looking for the scrolls stolen from Konoha and hoped that the stone ninja hadn’t had the time to hide them within a set of nested storage scrolls.
Kiba tossed their own bags in the center of the clearing and rummaged through them until he drew out a length of rope.
“You done yet?” asked Kiba.
Shino finished pulling off all of their captive’s equipment off to the side and motioned that the captive was all Kiba’s. As Kiba restrained him, Shino started opening his scrolls, setting aside the storage and technique scrolls, and skimmed through the remaining ones, looking for information.
Engrossed in reading through a scroll filled with recipes and trying to determine if it was encoded, Shino missed the earth clone rising from the ground, an explosive tag attached to its head, until Kiba yelled. Shino asked his insects to put up a barrier, just in time for the remaining force of the explosion to throw him against a tree, knocking him out cold.
Shino felt someone shaking his shoulder gently.
“Shino? Wake up,” he heard Hinata say, while Kiba groaned in the background.
Shino sat up, wincing slightly as the movement made his head start to throb. Hinata furrowed her brow in worry, but Shino quickly reassured her that he was fine. She nodded and knelt next to Akamaru at Kiba’s side. Shino took a moment to check himself over. He touched the back of his head, and felt a bump that worsened his headache when prodded. The rest of him seemed fine, save from some cuts and bruises, but he didn’t want to stand up just yet.
“What happened?” asked Hinata, as she started splinting Kiba’s arm.
Shino explained how they were ambushed by an earth clone. As he explained, he watched her face fall in response.
“It was a trap then,” she summarized when he had finished, “I shouldn’t have left or I should have noticed the clone or...”
“Don’t worry about it, Hinata,” interrupted Kiba, likely seeking to stop her spiral of self-recrimination. “Who notices extra dirt in the ground?”
“What matters is deciding what to do now. What did you discover while scouting?" asked Shino, guiding the conversation towards more productive routes.
Hinata reported, “The two ninja were heading north at a moderate pace. When they reached the border of the forest, they split up. One headed northwest, possibly towards Iwa, while the other headed approximately west. I did not track them any farther.”
“So do we split up or pick one to follow? And what happened to the guy that escaped from us?” asked Kiba. He turned to Akamaru. “Got any ideas, buddy?”
Akamaru started sniffing the ground and wandered out of the clearing.
“I don’t want to split up again,” said Hinata.
“Dividing ourselves carries more danger perhaps, but it is difficult to decide which ninja would carry the stolen scrolls,” commented Shino.
They all sat quietly for a moment, until they heard Akamaru bark. Kiba stood up and extended his good arm to Shino, who took it gratefully. “Akamaru got his trail. Let’s follow him for now. Ten to one, he joins back up with one of the ninjas we’re tracking,” he said.
As they followed Akamaru’s trot along the ground, Shino eyed Kiba. Aside from the arm Hinata had splinted and which sat in a sling she had fashioned from some cloth, he looked undamaged. The insects had shielded them from the flames and most of the force of the blast. Shino guessed that Kiba had fallen on that arm, much in the same way he had hit the tree.
After a couple kilometers, they reached the northern edge of the forest. The land in front of them was rocky and flat, which meant that the Stone ninjas they were tracking would be able to move faster and Shino’s team would lose the comparative advantage of the trees. Shino called for a momentary halt.
Akamaru yipped a couple times. “Akamaru says that the guy is headed northwest,” translated Kiba.
“The other two ninjas exited the forest not too far from here,” said Hinata.
“So we should follow him. I bet the guy going west is trying to throw us off the trail. Anyway, northwest is their village right?” said Kiba.
“That seems too straightforward,” argued Shino. He turned back to face Hinata. “Given the trap they set before, I do not want to risk losing the scrolls to a decoy. Could you show us the trail of the other two ninjas?”
Shino and Kiba followed her a half kilometer until she stopped pointed out the subtle signs of the ninjas’ passing. As she was doing so, one of Shino’s insects arrived, and he held out his palm upturned for the insect to land.
Kiba and Hinata turned to Shino expectantly. “It is possible that one of the ninjas we are tracking is of the Kamizuru Clan. My insects noted a fresh bee carcass along the probable trail of the westward ninja. Although I agree with Kiba that the northwest trail is the most promising, I do not want to ignore the trail going west,” said Shino.
“Alright then. Me and Akamaru can take one trail, and you and Hinata the other,” suggested Kiba, using their usual configuration. “You want the annoying bee people?” he asked Shino.
Hinata began to protest. “But your arm!” Hinata began to protest. “I could, I mean if you didn’t mind, you and Shino could pair up.”
Shino and Kiba exchanged a glance. “Kiba and you should go after the more probable target to the northwest. However, I would like to take the western trail,” said Shino.
As he disliked leaving Hinata alone, Kiba immediately piped up in agreement. “Shino and his bugs will be fine. Besides, what if I get injured again? I really don’t want to deal with ‘nurse Shino,’” he joked.
“If you’re sure,” said Hinata.
Akamaru ran off to the northwest, with Kiba and Hinata following. Shino headed off to where his insects had discovered the bee.
Two hours later, Shino had caught up with his target, who indeed was a ninja from the Kamizuru Clan. He cautiously parried his opponent’s blows, taking the time to analyze him. From his attacks, Shino judged him as chuunin-level and not a particularly effective solo fighter. Perhaps Kiba was right when he thought him a simple decoy. His opponent was adept at creating openings, but not following through with them, as if he expected a teammate to jump in. Shino sympathised. Although he himself was capable of fighting alone, he preferred fighting as a team. Over the years, Hinata and Shino had made a good duo, almost as smoothly integrated as Kiba and Akamaru. She would hold off countless enemies, and Shino would pick them off one by one. It was a more careful style than Kiba and Akamaru’s reckless diving into the fray, but no less effective. When all four of them were together, they were truly stronger than they were apart.
Suddenly, Shino felt a tug at his feet. He realized that he had made a crucial mistake. Although his insects had assured him that the immediate area was devoid of any other people, he had been too used to Hinata scanning the area in a three dimensional sphere and missed the danger underground. The dirt liquified, and Shino shot down underground until all but his head was encased in the ground.
Another Stone ninja emerged from the ground. He took out a vial and a cloth from a side pouch, emptied out the vial onto the cloth, and held it against Shino’s mouth and nose. As he held his breath, he saw his original opponent walk behind him. He abruptly kicked Shino in the back of his head, and he gasped in pain and surprise. A sweet smell filled his senses, and with his dimming vision, he saw a few black specks that hovered in front of his eyes and then flew up and away to the north, leaving him feeling oddly bereft.
Shino awoke gradually, to the rumble of wheels against the ground and a murmured soft conversation between two voices. Shino was blindfolded, with his hands and legs tied together, and sat on some kind of cart. Though still groggy, he was nevertheless acutely disquieted by the lack of the customary drone of his insects. They were sluggish under his skin, and Shino wondered if the gas was primarily intended to neutralize his insects and not himself. It was probably developed by the Kamizuru clan, but it was hard to determine if it was coincidental that they had it on hand to subdue him or if they had predicted that a member of the Aburame clan might be sent to track the missing scrolls. Fortunately, his insects were still alive, and Shino hoped that this indicated that Stone intended to ransom him back to Konoha and not that they hoped for a living specimen to experiment on.
The murmurs stopped, and Shino assumed his captors had noticed him stirring. Given his lack of hunger and thirst, he assumed he had not been unconscious long, though he was not sure whether the gas that he breathed in might have affected his bodily drives. Shino twisted his hands to try to loosen the ropes around them and felt at a cut on his palm that he had acquired when the explosive tag had detonated that morning. From the extent of the healing process, it had been hours, not days, so it was the mid afternoon sun that hit his left cheek, and they were travelling north, towards Iwa.
He lay still, pressed against the side of the cart. From the movement of the cart, they were not moving quickly. Likely, his captors hoped that the difficulty of tracking a cart, along presumably a moderately used road, would throw his teammates off the trail. He thought back to the map of the Land of Earth that he had studied as an Academy student, and especially the broad, swift Mitsuishi River that flowed from east to west along the southern half of the Land of Earth and began to formulate a plan.
Shino tried to calculate a more precise location, using an approximate diameter for the average cart wheel and the slight imperfection in the back wheel that caused a regular jostle to his ride, but he did not have Shikamaru’s mind for calculations and heard the sound of the river long before he was finished. He felt the slight bump as the cart rolled up the bridge, and as they neared the center of the river, he arced his body over the edge of the cart and rolled off into the water.
With his legs tied, there had been no chance that he could escape by foot. In the middle of the river, being swept away by the rapid current, the ground was more even between him and his captors, provided he did not drown. With effort, he loosened his bonds as quickly as he could.
A kunai whizzed over his head, and he saw that the two Stone ninjas had caught up. He swam to the far bank and started to run, though he was soon cornered by the two ninjas and a swarm of angry bees.
At that moment, he felt a familiar tickle on his leg, as if a small insect had decided to crawl up his pants leg.
Shino tried to rile up his opponents and buy time. “Who are you to disrupt my mission?” he asked the bee user.
His opponent sputtered and started to protest that it was the Aburame Clan’s fault that the Kamizuru clan was few in numbers and now so poorly known, but his teammate interrupted him. “Just attack him,” he ordered.
Behind the two Stone ninjas, a small swarm of his own insects had gathered. He told them to take the Kamizuru ninja out, hoping to stop the source, and braced himself for the bees’ attack should they fail. However, moments before the bees reached him, a blur zipped in front of him, destroyed the bees in a whirl of wind and flailing arms, and finally resolved into Hinata.
He looked over to where the two Stone ninjas had stood, only to see them lying on the floor, one drained of chakra and the other with Akamaru seated upon him.
“We totally saved your butt!” Kiba crowed. He started pawing at the fallen opponents with his good arm.
“Good to see you again,” greeted Hinata. “How are you feeling?”
“Physically, I am fine. However, I believe my insects will require time to recover before we are combat ready,” answered Shino. A small swarm of his insects landed on him, the scouts that he had sent out before being captured and who had alerted Kiba and Hinata to Shino’s predicament.
“Aww, don’t tell me they don’t have the scrolls either. We’re going to be stuck in the Land of Earth forever at this rate,” whined Kiba with the Stones ninjas’ belongings scattered around him.
“If we head upstream, they had a cart which may contain more of their belongings,” suggested Shino.
After tying up the Stone ninjas, they walked upstream and reached the bridge, where the cart still stood abandoned. In the opposite corner from where Shino had sat was a sack, which indeed carried the scrolls stolen from Konoha.
“Finally! Let’s go home. Another win for Team Eight!” celebrated Kiba.
“Do you want to go back for the bee user?” asked Hinata.
Shino thought about it. Although the Aburame clan might find it useful to interrogate the Kamizuru ninja, there was enough bad blood between rival ninja clans and villages as it was, and they had already completed their mission. Home did indeed sound good. He echoed Kiba’s words, “No. Let’s go home.”