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Skittering Shadows

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It is dissatisfied.

The total breakdown in safeguards had been unlike anything It'd ever experienced; Symbiosis mutating into conscious co-operation. Real communication had occurred between entity and host. A synergy, then refined and optimised under extreme circumstances.

And then, once the battle had concluded – in victory. Inevitable, crushing victory – the connection had killed the host.

Unfortunate. They had been satisfactory.

Except.

The connection fades, but very explicitly doesn't vanish.

A welcome surprise; one which is sure to yield new and interesting data.

The signal is weak. Trans-dimensional in nature, almost certainly. This is of little matter. A few years of searching is a small price to pay.

Thirteen trillion seven billion nine-hundred thousand and seventy three universes later, it finds her.

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She looks up. Her eyes wet.

So many stars. The universe so vast.

We're so very small, in the end.

The first bullet hits Taylor from behind, where her mask offers no coverage, and she slowly topples. The second hits before she can fall, before there can be any pain.

Waking up from that is a surprise and not a good one.

Her mind reels constantly. Trying to process information that her brain just isn't equipped to handle.

She hears voices but cannot derive meaning.

Her eyes provide vision, blurred and faint, to the point of redundancy.

She has moments, these tiny little snippets of cohesion in which she realises – They kept me alive. Oh god, they kept me alive like this.

They hadn't.

Those moments grow longer.

Cohesion becomes more frequent.

Her vision improves.

Voices take form – Japanese, they're speaking Japanese.

And then:

Proposal

Agreement

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Shiho Aburame is abnormal, almost to the point of alarm.

If asked about her, the clan wouldn't say much.

They'd call her quiet, even by their own standards. Her guardian would say she was a polite, well-mannered child, who occasionally mixes up her suffixes. Her clan instructor would say she took to her kikaichū spectacularly well and that she is a prodigy in the making.

In the privacy of their own minds however, they think otherwise.

They think that she speaks as if every conversation were an interrogation. That her insects do not act like insects – almost as if they are extension of her, rather than separate beings operating in perfect symbiosis. That their own kikaichū act strangely in her presence. Those outside the clan do not understand these things, but the Aburame do and it terrifies them.

Logically, they should be worried when she asks to move into her mother's old apartment. They should refuse. Why? Because she is young and has no other family to look after her.

They do not.

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Her life at Academy is... quiet. Shiho doesn't speak to her classmates– she's not so broken as to take children for peers – and, when forced into conversation, quickly exfiltrates.

Soon enough, she is forgotten. Invisible in plain sight.

To some.

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Shikako is wary from the start. The girl is clever, in a way that's so easy to recognise – the way Shikako is pretending not to be.

Like she's remembering instead of learning.

And she can feel the insects. Not just her kikaichū, which blend and buzz within her, but also the houseflies. The wasps. The mosquitos. The way any insect within her vicinity might abruptly gain her chakra's tint – like the reverb of one voice as legion.

She isn't sure whether to be relieved or terrified when she finds out the girl will be graduating early–

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–Because her teachers are no fools. They've taken note. In isolation they see brilliance. Experience, they mistake for talent.

A misapprehension. But one that works to Shiho's benefit.

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Until one day, it does not.

She is on the cusp of an early graduation when an entire clan is murdered down to the last infant – with one exception.

Two, counting the killer.

Comparisons with the last 'early graduate' take on a more menacing air.

Quickly, said graduation is quashed. The praise her teachers heaped upon her vanishes and, in its place, she finds only fear and suspicion. Every correct answer is damning. Every bullseye, a recrimination.

Nobody thought it possible, but the quiet girl becomes quieter still.

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Months pass before he finally confronts her, quietly putting together his case.

The Nara girl annoys him, but at least she's quiet. That others seem to be taking after her is probably the best he can hope for.

It won't matter. He'll be gone soon.

The 'Last Uchiha' thunders into class and focuses on Shiho like a laser.

He'll have to prove himself, he knows. To demonstrate that he is far and away superior to his 'peers'.

The way forward, then, is obvious.

"Fight me."

Shiho turns to him, tilting her head in a singular, reptilian movement. She conveys a certain detached curiosity as she asks.

"Why?"

Because the Instructors need to see that I'm better than you, he doesn't say. Instead, for the first time in months, he smiles. It is an ugly thing.

"What? Are you scared?"

Shiho focuses upon him with blank, lifeless eyes that looks so much like His that Sasuke's breathe catches in his throat.

"Alright." She smiles back, indulgent as she saunters towards one of the training rings.

Sasuke follows, knuckles whitening and off-balance. He figured her for a recluse, but she seems almost leisurely now. Comfortable, even.

Something's wrong and it doesn't matter so long as he wins.

Iruka-sensei casts them both a worried looks as they form Seals of Confrontation. He doesn't stop them, but it's difficult to ignore the gentle suggestions that they both choose someone else to spar against.

"Taijutsu only. Begin!"

Shiho barely moves as Sasuke leaps forward, dropping the academy style for something more Uchiha; a kick slices towards her shoulder.

Only to trace her skin as it glides past her. Fine. He follows the momentum into a handstand as his other leg pistons into–

–the ground. He's on the ground; A knife-hand kissing his throat as Shiho eyes him with that same detached curiosity.

'Is that all?  She seems to ask.

Iruka-sensei barks out that the match is over and Sasuke's stomach drops out from under him.

No.

Everything else fades and in a single moment he's on his feet. Iruka-sensei doesn't matter. The rules don't matter. All that matters is– 

–the world spins and he hits the ground again.

"Stay down." Shiho rests a knee on his throat, poised to crush his windpipe at a moment's notice. There's no change to her tone, no hesitation or smug gloating in her next statement; delivered with all the assurance in the world.

"There's nothing you can do."

NothinghecandobutwatchastheydiediediediediediediediedieDIEDIEDIEDIE

Sasuke can't breathe. Even as his world sharpens into perfect clarity Even as Shiho allows herself to be pulled from him – he can't.

His whole body retches.

Breath.

The world blackens and the last thing he sees before passing out is the look of horror upon his opponent's face.

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From then on, the girl is only permitted to spar with her teachers.

She's ten, the first time she wins.

In a display of supernatural speed, Mizuki-sensei is behind her in a moment, ready to shunt her outside of the ring–

–Only for Shiho's elbow to slam into his face upon arrival.

Mizuki-sensei laughs it off as he holds a bloodied nose.

"Proper little brawler, aren't you?" He smiles a smile that doesn't quite reaches his eyes.

Most of the others laugh along. Just a lucky shot. Right?

Wrong, Sasuke thinks. 

He'd watched with blood red eyes that saw exactly why Iruka-sensei's jaw dropped for just a fraction of a second.

Mizuki-sensei moved with speed that Sasuke could only just track and Shiho had struck him. Without line of sight and without hesitation.

Without blinking.

That night, Sasuke burns his application forms.

After all, if they won't let her graduate...

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It is well known that Naruto Uzumaki is a prankster and that he pranks everyone.

This is untrue.

Some people, if they really look, will notice exceptions.

Like Shiho Aburame.

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So, look, all he'd thought was that the creepy bug-girl needed to lighten up. So, he'd caught, like, seventy butterflies and hidden them in her desk at lunch.

The look on her face? The whole class screaming? Amazing.

Except it all went very, very wrong.

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Shiho stalks into class and makes a beeline towards Uzumaki, not even pretending to scan the room for him.

Most days she'd at least act like she needed the eyes in her skull.

Not today.

Her would-be tormentor is sitting with a perfect view of her desk and trying – failing – not to look like the cat that ate the canary. She knows why he's smiling. She'd felt him corralling those fucking butterflies for the better part of an hour, just so she can be the butt of his next big 'prank'.

She doesn't mind being ignored – you get used to that, after a time – but she's not going back to the days of defaced desks, random humiliations and lockers filled with

No. Not in this lifetime.

–The Cheshire grin slips from his face as she lifts him from his seat and slams him against the ground.

Chairs scatter as classmates react, but she knows they won't intervene. Not for him and certainly not against her.

She pushes her swarm back, preventing them from adding to her voice. Just.

"Bugs for the Aburame, how original."

People are shouting and the housefly resting on Iruka-sensei's vest is fifteen seconds out. At most.

She doesn't break eye contact. She needs to see – to see that he sees.

"You get one warning. This was it. Do we understand each other?"

Uzumaki stares back at her and, just for a moment, the idiot vanishes, replaced by something else entirely. His eyes flicker with … something as he offers a short, terse nod.

Good enough.

She rises, allowing him to do the same as she walks back to her desk. Her gait is casual, as if she hadn't just - fuck. She'd just threatened a child, hadn't she?

"And WHAT." Iruka-sensei asks, storming into the room. "Is everybody screaming about?"

Shiho flips her desk open and pandamoniom resumes.

"DETENTION!!!"

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Naruto Uzumaki never pranks Shiho Aburame again.

He does talk to her though.

He talks to her a lot.

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Chapter Text

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Shiho is five when they explain it to her.

There’d been complications during her birth. Complications exacerbated during the Endbringer Nine-Tails Attack. For a time, there’d even been concerns as to whether or not she’d survive.

But now, they tell her, these are no longer concerns. She is, as far as can be told, a picture of perfect health.

They explain that this means she is ready and that the procedure will take place tomorrow.  

She understands. It makes sense. The Clan has a way of doing things. Some combination of tradition and pragmatism that makes it all seem perfectly rational.

Shiho can’t speak the language yet. Not well, at least. Winslow gave most of its students a crash course in Japanese, but the lexicon was limited, and generally tended to include more utilitarian phrases such as; ‘Please, just take my wallet’, ‘I swear I’m not Empire’ and, the old favorite, ‘I didn’t see anything, I swear.’

Still, she knows one word well enough.

“No.”

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“Art and you, huh. You want to know what I’m gonna do when we’re done with my investigation?”

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The Clan ignore her refusal.

The best analogy she can think of is that it’s like getting your vaccinations as a toddler. Children dislike needles. Why wouldn’t they? They’re long, sharp bits of metal and some stranger wants to stick one in their arm. Of course some of them are going to refuse. Some will even scream. Or Cry. Or Beg. But, in the end, they still have to have them because their parents would rather that they didn’t die from things like smallpox or polio.

Eventually, Shiho will tell herself all of this. That it’s perfectly understandable. That the Clan did nothing out of malice. That they truly believed they’d been acting in her best interests.

She will tell herself all of this.

Eventually.

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I’m going to go all out.  Way I figure it, I set your Gemma lobe to attract bugs around you, then remove it, so you’ve got no conscious control over it.  But there’s a point to it! I make some physical modifications to you, see.  Implant some of Mannequin’s equipment so you’ve got enough sustenance to keep you going, and sustenance to keep the bugs you bring to you alive.”

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They give her something which doubles as a numbing agent and a paralytic. She is told that she must remain awake and unmoving for the duration of the procedure.

That she will be aware.

Of everything.

“The danger is negligible”, they assure her as she’s placed upon an operating table. “So long as you do not lose consciousness.” Which is not a phrase any girl wants to hear.

They begin.

“Larval Kikaichū will be introduced through pores in the patent’s skin, starting with the arms.” One man says, walking his colleagues through the process with sub-Panacea levels of bedside manner.  

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“You become a living hive, see?  We could even make it so they crawl inside you and build nests there.”

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They burrow underneath her skin and feast as she lies on an operating table, unable to scream.  

She cannot control them.

She cannot control herself.

She is powerless.

She is alone.

She is Trapped.

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There is a–

Proposal.

Followed by an–

Agreement.

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Shiho wakes up and immediately vomits into a waiting bedpan.

Now she understands why this is done in the early stages of infancy. It has less to do with the medical risks and so much more to do with psychology. A host that cannot remember a time before they were a host tends not to scream at the insects nesting underneath their skin.

An image of Bonesaw before she was Riley dances across Shiho’s mind and she throws up again. There isn’t really much left for her to throw up, but her body seems intent on being thorough. A nurse gently rubs circles on her back as spittle drips into a fresh bedpan.

The Clan enters in short order.

They tell her that she did very well, even though she gave them a bit of a scare near the end there.

They tell her that they’ve never seen kikaichū submit themselves to a host this quickly and does she have any idea as to why this is?

Shiho closes her eyes and smiles.

Hello again.

As one, every Aburame within a three block radius flinches.

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Afterwards, everything becomes just a little bit more difficult.

Before, one the great things about insects had been that almost nobody cared about them. Oh, people might’ve been made to care. Termite infestations. Hornet nests. Hundreds of insects crawling down your throat as you slowly asphyxiate. That kind of thing. But otherwise, most people would happily ignore them so long as they didn’t interfere in their day-to-day. 

Except, for the Aburame Clan, insects are the day-to-day. Their entire survival depends upon it. Everything about their relationship is symbiotic. They share chakra. They’re the basis for almost all of their techniques. Hell, even the body is shared.

Shiho, on the other hand, lacks that… reverence the rest of them share. Of their ‘partners’ because, to them, it really is a matter of partnership. A relationship – a sort of marriage, really – that needs to be negotiated with a certain level of give and take. 

She’ll never be able to think like that. Kikaichū are fascinating and useful and kind of badass. But she doesn’t owe them. They’re bugs. Tools. She supplies them with enough chakra to maintain functionality and selects the most chakra effective kikaichū to mate with the queen because those are things that are useful to her.

It’s not, and will never be, a negotiation.  

But, she does have to learn, and learn fast, that not all insects are hers to control anymore. And that, if she fails to register this fact, then a lot of people are going to get very upset.  

In theory at least, this should be easy. All she has to do is categorise the Kikaichū not nesting inside her body as ‘unusable’ and then not control them.  

In practice, she’s not sure if she actually can. And not just because every bug is hers when it comes down to it, but because half the time she can’t tell if she’s actually not controlling their Kikaichū or just forcing them to act like they aren’t being controlled, which isn’t the same as just not controlling them when every Aburame can feel even the slightest disturbance in the balance of their hive and don’t even get her started on what happens when she falls asleep.  

It’s exhausting, but a least partially successful.

The Aburame only seem mildly uncomfortable when stepping into her field of control, which is large enough that even they can’t even be sure it’s her that makes them feel like something is ever-so-slightly wrong.

And then, one night, she dreams of IT.  

She’d been just under a year old. All other memories of that time fade, but this one burns its way into her like a scar. A thing that poisons the air just by being there. That kills indiscriminately. A nightmare that follows you into the waking world.

She wakes up to screaming that isn’t hers.  

The next day, when she asks to move into her mother’s old apartment, the clan practically falls over itself getting her out the door.

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It wouldn’t quite be accurate to say that she ‘figured it out’. Not exactly. It would be more precise to say that, at some point, everything had slowly slotted into place and suddenly the answer was staring right at her. Like one of those puzzle pictures where you have to slide the pieces around.  

She thinks ‘Endbringers.’ They think, ‘Tailed beasts.’

She thinks ‘Capes.’ They think, ‘Shinobi.’

She thinks ‘Scion’ They think, ‘Sage.’

On the upside, the Endbringers here might be less impressive – either that or the power ceiling here is much, much higher – because apparently somebody killed one. One man. Killing an Endbringer.

The concept seems… unreal.

Powers here are different too. More genetic. Or maybe… ambient? It’s difficult to say. But then, who can really say anything about how each entity distributes powers? Maybe her old passenger finding her means something? Or, maybe not. At this point it’s just guesswork.

Still. It paints a picture. A familiar one.  

Shiho has regrets. A lot of them. More than most people, probably.  She regrets being arrogant and ignorant and everything those things cost. The betrayal. The compromises that corroded what might have at some point resembled a moral compass. Aster.

But everything? The blood that was hers to give? Standing up to Leviathan with nothing more than a nano-blade and an overlarge helping of fuck it? The brilliant, brilliant people who put their trust in her despite everything?

No, she can’t say she regrets all of it.

And besides, another part of her thinks. If I hadn’t sprawled into that first catastrophe, I’d probably have been killed along with all the others. Staring up at the sky and wandering why the world was ending.

Perhaps that’ll happen here too. A god, descending from on high, ready to kill the world.

Looks that way.

The thought irritates her. She’d only killed the one god.

It’s not like it’s a habit or anything.   

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Chapter Text

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Sometimes translation is about more than just language. It’s about ideas too. About slotting your understanding of something into a completely different system of values:

Taijutsu (lit. Body Techniques) – Refers to any technique involving martial arts or the optimisation of natural human abilities. Executed by directly accessing the user's physical and mental energies (sub-categories of chakra) and relying on stamina and strength gained through training. Does not require chakra, though chakra may be used to enhance techniques. Almost never requires hand seals. Consequentially, much quicker to use than ninjutsu or genjutsu. Brute.  Mover. Striker.

Ninjutsu (lit. Ninja Techniques) – Umbrella term referring to almost any technique that is not genjutsu or taijutsu. Most ninjutsu require chakra and hand seals, but this is not always the case since the mere usage of weaponry qualifies as ninjutsu. Range of ninjutsu illustrated by several sub-classifications (e.g. Medical, Barrier and Sealing all fall under the category of ninjutsu). Shaker. Breaker. Blaster. Changer. Striker (again).

Genjutsu (lit. Illusionary Techniques) – Techniques that are employed in the same fashion as ninjutsu. Primary difference is that effects of genjutsu are illusory. Techniques manipulate the flow of chakra in victim's brain, disrupting/manipulating their senses. Stranger. Master.  

Footnotes:

Tinker – Falls imperfectly into Sealing Jutsu (p.15), a form of Ninjutsu what isn’t?. Great Ninja weapons are almost universally the result of Sealing. However, materials must be considered (p.19). Most history surrounding these weapons is vague. Information on Sealing is similarly opaque.

Trump – See: Bloodlines (p.30) and Nature Transformation (p.22).

Thinker – Largely inapplicable. There is no information available to academy students on any kind of ‘super thinking’ jutsu. Base increases to physical capabilities afforded by chakra may increase some cognitive abilities (e.g. Reaction times), but there is currently no data to suggest that a subject with large amounts of chakra would be more–    

“Hey. Wattya doin?”

–Intelligent. Shiho finishes. Her notebook does not snap shut. She does not break the pencil-lead. In fact, she barely reacts at all. Smoothly, she transitions from the motion of writing, to addressing Naruto. He has a mosquito in his left pocket. It’s missing a leg.  

She tilts the book in his direction, inviting him to look.

“Sensei said we should practice our encryption.” Which is true, and therefore the best kind of lie.

The child – because that’s what he is. What they all are, really – does exactly as Shiho expects. He takes one look at her notebook, mentally files it under ‘boring’, and then proceeds to ignore it.  

“Bleh.” Naruto shudders. To him, ‘extracurricular’ is something that happens to other people. He shakes his head, as if trying to physically dislodge the thought. Then, after apparently succeeding, he makes an announcement.

“We’re playing ninja. You should come too!” And he says it with such enthusiasm and such volume, that you’d almost miss the implication.

Playing Ninja.

There’s something just so impressive about that; A society that’s normalised superpowered mercenary work so comprehensively, so systemically, that children play at it. Horrifying, but impressive.

Shiho glances past Naruto, more for the look of it than anything else.  

Naruto’s ‘We’ certainly don’t lack for variety.

The boy with the never-ending supply of potato chips. The twins. The girl with the pink hair. The boy with the puppy who reminds her too much of Rachel. And the blonde social butterfly who reminds her too much of Lisa.

They all stand off to one side, watching the two of them. From the look of it, the idea to include her probably hadn’t been met with universal approval. Not that it matters in any case.

“No, thank you. I’d like to continue with my book.” She tries to sound pleasant about it. Polite, even. Just so long as she’s clear on the ‘No’ part.

Naruto sags and, for a moment, Shiho feels like she’s just kicked a puppy. Not that she’d ever actually done that – Rachel would’ve torn her throat out – but this is probably how it feels.

Then, just as quickly, he bounces back with a toothy grin that looks just a little bit feral.

“Okay! We’ll play later then!” He shouts, which Shiho is beginning to suspect is his default volume.   

What? No. That wasn’t what she’d meant – but Naruto is already rushing back to his own little circle, having apparently secured some kind of rain check from her.

His friends move with him towards an open space in the playground. Hashing out teams and rules.

Except one.

One of the twins. ‘Kako’, or something. She gives Shiho a look that comes across as inquiring. Mostly. Why does feel like there’s more to it than that?

She turns to join the others.

That is certainly a… thing which just happened.

Shiho tuns back to her notebook.

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This village is full of fucking ableists.

Shiho isn’t sure why this comes as a shock. It makes sense, after all.  Villages – the ones with a capital ‘V’ – are so geared towards conflict that their economies are probably incapable of sustaining themselves on anything more than a decade or two of peace. Nobody admits it, not outright, but they need war. That gives you a certain kind of mindset. Either you’re useful in the battles to come, or you’re irrelevant. The deaf and the crippled and the blind fall neatly into the latter category.

Braille doesn’t exist here. Either it hasn’t been invented yet, or it has and Konoha doesn’t care enough to import it. Same difference, either way.  

Shiho wants to punch something. Badly.

Her bugs can’t read.

Even with the new and improved monsters that this world calls insects, none of them can make out the written word with any kind of fidelity. Before, she’d found a work around for that. Braille was easy. Braille was touch and texture; an insect's stock and trade. She could leave a book open blocks away and finish it by the end of a stakeout. 

And there are so many books to read here. History. Fiction. A whole world of classics that she’s never even heard of and she wants to read all of them.

She just doesn’t have the time.

Shiho passes through the market district at a time roughly equating to ‘rush hour’. There are no cars, of course, but there are a few horse-drawn carts scattered about the streets, taking on or offloading goods amidst a sea of foot traffic.

Shiho ghosts through the crowd, bugs marking out paths of open space where she can slip through.

Idly, she notes the matrix of tunnels beneath her feet.  

At first, she’d thought it was some kind of intricate sewer system. There was indoor plumbing here, after all. But that explanation evaporated under basic scrutiny. It’s too large. Too clean. People moved through them.

So, it was an ANBU base then. Networked below the Village for covert access. That had fit. Made sense in a way that clicked with her understanding of this place. Her academy instructors always had preached about looking ‘underneath’ the surface of a given situation. The idea that their advice could be taken literally is almost funny. Besides, it wasn’t as if anybody ever saw Black Ops teams just… walking out the front gate.  

And, for a long time, that had been that. Two more years inside the academy and Shiho had more or less come to terms with the idea of a secret labyrinth of tunnels beneath the Village. Just another part of her cognitive scenery.

Until.

Shiho halts in front of a door.

Crap.

The store where she buys her groceries is closed. Shut down without warning. There’s already a poster on the entrance declaring, ‘YOUR BUISNESS HERE’, in all caps. Strange. She thought they’d been doing well.  

Looking for another store that sells ‘foreign food’ is going to be a nightmare.

Shiho turns on her heel, picks a direction, and walks. Screw it. She’d been good with her stipend. She can afford to eat out for once. Grab something from one of the food stalls. Something fried and salty. Live a little.

And that’s all it takes. A diversion. Something to take her outside of her usual pattern.

The odd figure dashing through a tunnel is just background noise, but ten? Thirty? Fifty? More? More activity. More infrastructure. More bodies. It draws Shiho’s attention from the surface, away from a stall she’d been eying.

This is a hub. A base of operations containing–   

Children.

Lined up, staring straight ahead. Posture, rigid. Military.

Adults, wearing blank porcelain masks, inspect them. Circling around like farmers examining livestock.

There’s a nod. Words are exchanged.

Carefully, Shiho adds more bugs, sharpening sight and sound.

The rest of the children stand off to one side.

Two of them, no older than nine, square up against one another. Neither of them offers the seal.

The Academy had been big on that. The Seals of ‘Confrontation’ and ‘Reconciliation’, to be offered before and after a sparring match. The instructors had been downright flowery about it, using words like ‘love’, ‘trust’ and ‘comrades’. Shiho had found it a little silly, if she was being honest.

Now? Without them?  The whole situation puts her teeth on edge.

“Begin.”

The fight is brutal. No punches pulled. No holds barred. One chains a replacement jutsu three times, swapping himself with discarded weaponry, only to arrive at the pointed end of a blade.

He collapses to the floor and screams; the first noise she’s heard from any of the children.

None of the instructors intervene and, quite suddenly, Shiho understands.

This isn’t sparring.  

Slowly, the victor walks towards his opponent. He raises his sword.

This isn’t battle.

“Please, don’t.” The words are barely a whisper.

It’s an initiation.

One stab. Straight through the chest.

Most gangs, Before, had something like this. Empire, Merchants, The Teeth. They all made you do something. Murder. Drugs. Rape. Something to prove that you’re committed.

Something you can’t come back from.   

One body goes slack and now there is intervention. A figure wearing a mask, indistinct from the rest, clasps the victor by his shoulder and leads him away to sit with the other children. The boy drops to the ground like dead weight. His whole body is shaking, taking in shallow, desperate breaths. It’s his first kill.  

What’s inside Shiho isn’t really anger. She’s past anger. Anger is a distant image in her rear-view mirror. She is forensic.

A figure appears in the centre of what is now clearly an arena.

“Again.”

Two more children stand and march into the centre of the ring.

No.

What can she do to stop this?

Attack with bugs? Anonymous, yes and no. Bugs are Aburame. Narrows it down. No. Wait. Young. Still in the academy. Outside suspicion? “Are you okay honey?” Possi–What?

Shiho’s head snaps up. Woman. Early thirties. Clearly concerned. Why? Small children standing alone on busy streets are concerning. Understandable. A distraction. Get rid of her.

“I’m fine.”

No witnesses? No. Could potentially delay what’s happening, but for how long? What can I do with that time? I know how many adults are currently within my radius underground – fifty-two, but how many will it be in thirty seconds? Or a minute? Or five?  

The woman’s face creases. A picture of worry.

“Are you sure?”  

What? Shiho dabs her cheeks. Wet. Shit.  

“Yes, I’m sure. Thank you.”

This time it’s a boy and a girl. Neither of them can be older then eleven. They square off.

Focus. Who else knows about this? Everyone? Almost no one? When I graduate, will they give me my headband and say, “By the by, there’s a secret underground layer where we hold the underground death matches. You know, for kids.”

“Are your parents around? Your mummy and daddy?”

Does the Hokage know? Almost certainly, yes. He’s a military dictator. He’d either know about it or he’d be dead. What about the rank and file? Do they know? How can I find out?

“Hello? Can you hear me?”

The boy drops to his knees, clutching at his throat as blood pours between his fingers. The girl screams. She turns on her instructor with a kunai.

He kills her, then finishes off the boy.

“Again.”

Pretty easily, actually.

Shiho starts walking.

“I’m going home.”

“O-okay. Do you need me to–”

No. Thank you.” She turns a corner and begins to run.

Two girls rise. Their expressions are black. One of them has pissed herself.

Got to be fast. Got to be clever.

Shiho arrives at a drainage channel and pours kikaichū into it.

One massive swarm breaks into many smaller ones, dotting a journey from the arena to a section of tunnel beneath a street. They form up into bug clones. Not silhouettes of insects, like before, but actual copies of her. In her image.

Except, not for long. Almost immediately, the illusion shimmers. The swarm shifts and every clone becomes someone else. Some look like non-descript Chūnin she’s seen in the street. Others are a blast from the past. Coil, leaning up against a wall with fingers steepled. Lung, towering so high that his head nearly skims the ceiling.  

One figure, sans their usual gasmask, is holding a roll of explosive tags. On a whim, Shiho gives her some of the swagger she’d had, back before she’d dropped off Taylor’s Richter scale of terror.

Above ground, a swarm of wasps takes to the street. A very specific part of the street. People run, screaming in that way people do when they aren’t in any actual danger. Like they need to make a whole production out of it. Honestly, she doesn’t even sting anyone.

Clear.

Shiho smiles with Bakuda’s face and throws her hands in the air.

“Boom!”

Boom.

Chapter Text

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Boom.

A bus sized section of street caves in. Earth, rubble and other detritus sheets the tunnel underneath as every shinobi within a half a mile bears down on it like a hawk.

Shiho’s heart sinks at the first to arrive. They’re wearing masks.

Except… no?

No. Not quite the same. Animal shaped. Different from the blank, uniform slates she’d seen underground. One looks like a dog. The other might be a… cat? It’s difficult to tell. A lot of the design seems painted on and Shiho can’t quite make it out.

They look down, peering into the dark. Shiho decides to nudge them along a little. A gamble calculated risk.   

“HELP!” Bakuda-clone screams, running further into the tunnel. “HELP!”

That does it.

Cat and Dog enter the tunnel as Bakuda-clone dissolves into kikaichū, seeping into every grate and crevice available.

They’re on the hook.

All of Shiho’s clones explode with noise. Screaming. Shouting. Leading. Keeping them on the right path, dissolving whenever they get close. 

Now reel them in.

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Something’s wrong.

Cat knows it’s a stupid thing to think. Of course something’s wrong. An explosion’s gone off in the middle of a crowded street – No bodies. Luck? Unlikely – and somebody’s baiting them into what is almost certainly a trap.  

But no. Despite everything, it all pales in comparison to the way Wolf sniffs the air and doubles his speed.

Cat catches up and signs.

[Concern?]

Wolf doesn’t slow down as he responds.

[Hostiles ahead.] [Hostages ahead.] [Ignore Bugs unless attacked.]

Cat nods, slightly exaggerating the motion so she knows he’ll see it.  

Bug clones. Aburame. But… not important? Not hostile. So far, at the very least.  Can Wolf track individual colonies by scent?  Something for later, apparently, because whatever they’re being led to has just taken precedence.  

They come to a pair of large metal doors with three figures in front of it. Two of them are lying on the ground, unconscious, while the third is almost certainly another bug-clone. Like so many of the others, it’s dressed outlandishly, to the point that the creator might as well hang a sign that reads: ‘Not real. Don’t bother’.

Still, Cat takes in every detail, just in case.

This one is female and grinning like a loon. Youngish; On the ‘adult’ side of ‘young-adult’. She wears a skin-tight outfit, coloured alternately in black and lavender. There’s a mask too, but it’s... strange. Useless; only covering a small portion of her face. There’s a scar running from the corner of her mouth to the corner of her jaw. It’s slightly faded, suggesting a significant amount of time between the wound that dealt it and the present day.

Way too much detail. Either a longstanding, pre-planned persona, or someone the caster’s pulled from memory.  

The bug-clone flourishes her arms in the direction of the doors. There’s a grandiose, ‘Come one! come all!’ inflection to the gesture.

“Door’s locked and barred.” Says the bug-clone. “That going to be a problem?”

“No.” Wolf’s tone of voice is dead, totally void of inflection. Cat suppresses a shiver. She hasn’t heard him like that in a long, long time.

The clone nods, then collapses into a pile of insects.

Eight dead. Twenty- two remaining.

Cat veers around, looking for another clone, but no. It’s the bugs themselves. Chirping and buzzing in a warped approximation of human language. She’s never heard of an Aburame doing that before.

Eight dead. Twenty-two left. Twenty-two what? Hostages? Hostiles? Are they fighting in there?

“Prepare for breach.” Wolf runs through hand seals.

Cat launches her katana from its sheath.

‘Take the city patrol’, they said. ‘It’s basically paid leave’, they said.

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Thick metal doors fly from their hinges. Shiho has a bug-clone drag one of the children out of the way as one frisbees past. None of the blank masks seem to notice an extra child or two among the crowd.

The matches have been halted. Were halted the moment the street caved in. Now children are pressed into a corner as the underground erupts into motion like an ant’s nest kicked over.

Cat and Dog burst into the room but pause to access the situation in front of them.  

Moment of truth.

One of the blank masks steps forward.

“Wolf. Cat. Stand down. This is –”

“I know exactly what this is.” Dog Wolf interrupts. His tone of voice is similar to Blank Mask’s, but also different. While Blank’s voice is dull and lifeless, Wolf seems to have surgically removed the emotion from his. A similar effect achieved from the opposite ends of a spectrum.     

“You will stand down and await further instruction.”

“No.”

“No?”

“No.”

There is a pause. A moment that seems to stretch far beyond the second or two it actually covers.

Everything happens at once.

Wolf is across the room with his hand buried in a man’s chest. Two blank masks try to capitalise on the opening, only for Cat to behead them with a single swing. Three people dead in less than as many seconds.

Shiho’s real body walks up to a food stall and buys something sugary on a stick.

Cat and Wolf are badly outnumbered, but the Blank Masks are horrifically outclassed. Two more die, while a third loses his hand, taking him out of the fight as he tries to staunch the bleeding.

The stall owner glances past her shoulder, towards a dust cloud settling in the distance.

“You know what all that’s about?” He asks, mildly curious in a way that speaks volumes about Konoha’s inhabitants and the amount of shit they’ve learnt to put up with.

“Probably ninja stuff.” Shiho answers with a shrug.

“Ninja stuff.” The man strokes the scruff on his chin. Then, he shrugs too. “Probably.”

With a casual gait to her step, Shiho strolls towards an area above the base, putting more and more of it inside the range of her power.

Five Blank Masks get the bright idea to move the children, corralling them towards a side exit leading further into the base. They still haven’t noticed the bug clones among their charges.

Wolf and Cat try to intervene but fall back just as quickly. The remaining Blank Masks seem to be the strongest and smartest among them. They’ve fallen into group tactics and have achieved a sort of stalemate. Stalling for reinforcements.

That may not work out as well as they hope. At the edge of her power’s range, Shiho can see more ninja entering the hole in the street.

Shiho seats herself on a park bench and bites into her treat; There’s a chocolaty centre. This would go nicely with some tea.

She takes stock.

A fifth of her kikaichū are still inside her. Enough that she can kill every insect outside her body and still have enough to perform basic tasks and jutsu. Give her a few days, maybe a week, and she’ll be back at full capacity. The rest are either in use or in the process of discreetly eradicating themselves. A waste, perhaps, but she won’t risk leading anyone back to her. That does mean she’s running low though. She’ll fall back on conventional bugs if she has to, but if there’s even one witness then things are going to get… intense.

A few of the children are shooting glances at her bug clones. Nobody's called them out yet, but Shiho refuses to guess why. She has no idea how far along these children are in their programming. Can’t rely on them.

They round a corner and stop.

A bug-clone pretends to notice them, letting his eyes drift over each individual Blank Mask.

He smiles.

“This is not an exit.”

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Chapter Text

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“This is not an exit.”

The bug-clone is tall and slender, wearing jeans and a partially unbuttoned shirt. There’s a beard too, trimmed neatly into a goatee with sharp, sawtooth-like edges pointing inwards

Jack.

The blade he toys with is an illusion, just like everything else. His weapons, his hair, his clothes. All fake. Nothing more than kikaichū, overlaid with chakra.

And yet, it’s disturbing how real it feels. How easy it is, even from so far away, to dip into those memories. Into the lessons she’d drawn from him. Into two years of obsession and then… there he is. The posture. The smile. The presence. All of it, alive in her.

It makes her skin crawl, more than the bugs underneath it ever could.

The blank masks don’t know it, but they’re only a few steps away from victory – the edge of her power’s range. She could move, yes. Follow them above ground to keep them inside her awareness. But, for how long? How many times can she move before the wrong person spots the Aburame and it clicks?

They could destroy this apparition without a second thought. A fireball. A lighting-bolt. Myriad ways to obliterate what is, in the end, a trumped-up pile of insects.

Except they don’t know it’s a bug clone. Don’t even know there are any bug clones. All they see is Jack.

Like so many others, they hesitate.

The Jack-clone smiles a little wider. Shiho barely even feels like she’s doing it.

“So sorry about this, but your base is very, very compromised.” The image of a knife flickers from one hand to another. “And not just structurally either.” His voice drops to a faux whisper, like he’s sharing a juicy piece of gossip at the watercooler. “You see, more than any wall, you were protected by ignorance. Ignorance of you. Ignorance towards your operation. But. Alas. The secret’s out. Others are already on their way.” Which is true. Others have already entered. Just… not nearly as many people as the clone is implying. “So, what I’m saying, in a roundabout manner is...” He gestures to the door in front of them. Then, back the way they came.

“There is no exit.”

“Enough. Identify yourself.” One of the blank masks hisses, gritting his teeth as he speaks. He lacks the dull, monotone tempo of his cohorts. An exception? No. Exceptional circumstances. He’s off balance. Confused. Panicking. There’s a crack in his conditioning and it’s showing.

“Hmm.” The Jack-clone seems to mull the question over for a moment, buying Shiho an extra few seconds. Just a few more seconds.

“Call me…” The clone pauses, bleeding the moment for drama and time. The blank masks tense. Some lean forward, just a fraction.

There.

“…an agent of change.”

Five men topple to the ground. Chakra exhaustion.

One more problem dealt with.

Shiho commands kikaichū away from them, leaving only a select few to monitor and observe.

Only, they struggle.

Some manage, but others fall out of the air. Dying. Overfed. She'd forced them to consume chakra at a rate far exceeding their ability to metabolise. It’d shaved minutes off the amount of time it'd taken her to render someone chakra exhausted, yes, but now comes the backlash. She can feel the sheer amount of chakra building up inside them. Their rudimentary chakra coils stretching at the seams before they finally… burst.   

Bugs begin to pop, spewing ichor and body parts before Shiho directs her swarm to the task of killing and removing the bursting bugs.

The children stare on in horror, unmoving. So much for first impressions. Not her worst attempt, but that probably says more about how awful her other first impressions have been, rather than anything charitable about the here and now.

Focus.

These kids are scared and panicked. Rightly so. Even if you put the bugs to one side, they’ve just seen five men drop like stones. Maybe they like these men. Formed attachments as a sort of Stockholm Syndrome. Or, maybe they do hate them, but have even less confidence in the kindness of a stranger they’ve only just met. What’s the old adage? ‘The Devil you know?’

They eye the Jack-clone. Wary. Some are smarter still, putting distance between themselves and the children they don’t recognise. The other bug-clones.

A few are reaching for weapons.

Shit. Shit shit shit. Too much violence, too early on. Until it’s the only way they know how to solve problems. How far gone are they? Some of them are already killers. Fuck. This is how you end up with people like Regent. People so stunted by their upbringing that murder barely even registers.

And they don’t trust her.

What I wouldn’t give to talk to Imp right now. Maybe ask her how she dealt with Heartbreaker’s kids.

The thought sucker-punches her.

Jokes; the good, bad and the tasteless. The casual swagger, partially manufactured to hide vulnerability, partially because that’s just who she was. The strangely classical vocabulary she’d adopted near the end.

Grief. Now, of all times. More powerful for how unexpected it is.

She’d been ready for Lisa. Brian. Rachel. Her Dad. Had braced herself against those pangs of loss that could stop her in her tracks at some critical juncture.

Imp though? Aisha?

She’d snuck up on her.

A dry laugh escapes Shiho’s throat.

She’d enjoy that. See the joke in it.   

Above ground, she takes a breath. Slow and deliberate. Falling back on some of the old techniques Mrs. Yamada taught her.

What the hell am I doing?

Trying not to repeat past mistakes.  Saving the kids. Not pledging herself to some evil mastermind in the hopes that she could eventually pull something. Hitting the situation from an oblique angle. Pulling in people so that it’s impossible to ignore.

My best, I guess.

Shiho dismisses the Jack-clone, letting it dissolve into a swirling mass of kikaichū, forming into something else. Good riddance.

Some of the children flinch. Others pull weapons, but none make any noise. There is no screaming. No crying. A part of their conditioning, perhaps. A beating for every sound out of turn.

Another wave of that cold, surgical feeling washes over Shiho. Focusing her. Sharpening her. She’s going to stop this. She’s going to find everyone directly involved and stop them. Then, just for good measure, she’s going to stop everyone who knew about it and did nothing. She hasn’t decided what ‘stop’ means in this particular context yet, but she suspects it will be… graphic.

The bug-clone settles on a new image.

A memory steps forward, conjured from a time just before the fight with Behemoth; the last fight with Behemoth. The middle-schoolers, butterflies and… what did they end up calling it? The game she’d played with the outliers; the ones she’d tagged as the most likely to get powers.

Above ground, Shiho shakes her head. Doesn’t matter.

"You're an Aburame," one child says. He’s the same age as Shiho, making him one of the oldest in the group. Grey hair trails just above his shoulders. Strange, with all the uniformity, that they’d allow him to grow it out.

The clone shrugs, a non-answer, and it surprises Shiho how natural the movement feels. Right in a way Shiho hasn’t felt in a long time. A lifetime.

The boy frowns, then changes tacks.

“Who are you? What are you doing here?” Other children begin to gravitate in his direction, forming up around him. Consciously or otherwise, they’ve just made him their de-facto leader.

Good.

Shiho smiles.

“My name is Weaver, and I’m here to–

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Imagine you’re walking up a set of stairs.

It’s dark, and you get it into your head that there’s one more stair than there actually is.  Your foot hits the point where you’re sure a stair should be, only to pass through empty air.

That moment? That feeling of dread where your stomach drops out from under you while you try to reconcile what was supposed to happen with what’s actually happening?

That is Shikako’s life right now. Has been her life for years.  

Expectation and subversion.

Sasuke gets his Sharingan fighting Haku? Nope. Panic attack during a sparring match.

Naruto pulling pranks on a near constant basis, as a means of gaining attention? They grind to a near halt.

Sakura slated for Kunoichi of the Year? Blown out of the water.

Nothing is happening like it should.

She’d been so careful. So deliberate in what was and wasn’t said. In what she did and didn’t do. Helping when she could. Approaching Naruto. Making sure Sasuke had people nearby, even if they weren’t actually interacting. But, never changing anything too juristically. Never invalidating what she knew would happen next. Marshalling resources so that when she did act, she could do it with maximum efficiency.

All for nothing.

She’s barely been home ten minutes before an alarm goes off.

Her dad, the picture of leisure, bolts to his feet.

There is a moment, a shared look between parents, and then he’s gone.

“Mum?” Shikako looks to her. Scared. Blind.

“It’s okay sweetie. You’re going to stay here with me until we know what’s going on. Okay?”

“Okay.” Shikako nods and for a moment she almost believes that she’s overreacting. That everything’s going to be–

“Shikamaru, away from the door–” Yoshino stops, sanding the edge off her voice before she continues. “Come sit here with me please.”

Her brother ambles over, a little faster that his gait would suggest.

Shikako closes her eyes and thinks.

What the hell did she do now?

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“KAKASHI! I HEARD NEWS THAT THERE WERE RUFFIANS AFOOT. NATURALLY, I RUSHED TO HELP.” A figure, dressed from head to toe in green spandex, glances around and seems to notice the Root agents for the first time. He levels a finger, accusing. “WOULD YOU BE ‘THEY?’. COULD YOU BE THE VERY SAME SCOUNDRELS?”

Everyone stops what they’re doing. Just… staring.

Gai often has this effect on people.

Wolf clears his throat, the first to speak. Immunised with years of exposure.

“It’s ‘Wolf’.” He corrects, absentmindedly. He doesn’t care about the ‘mask/no mask’ thing. Not at this point. Not right now.  But, it is fun to needle the people that do.   

Gai is an excellent Shinobi. Really, he is. In fact, he’s probably one of the more powerful people alive. It’s just that. Well. Espionage isn’t so much outside his usual skillset as it is that espionage has cleared the atmosphere is currently only viewable via telescope.

Gai’s face contorts into an image of pure, distilled panic.

A big telescope. Wolf amends. The kind you see pointing out of buildings.

“MY APOLOGIES ANBU-SAN! IT’S JUST THAT… THAT…  YOU BEAR A STRIKING RESEMBLANCE TO SOMEONE I KNOW. THAT’S IT. A COINCIDENCE, I’M SURE –

 “Gai.” Kurenai interrupts, mercy killing the conversation. “Stop. Please.

A Root agent attacks, trying to capitalise upon the distraction. Not smart.

Gai backhands him through a wall.

The fight resumes.

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