Kiba could hear them as they stood over him, their shadows brushing over his face. Why couldn’t he just have another morning of lazing in the grass here? The tree was holding him in its roots, cradling him in its arms.Their voices rose and fell gently, approaching, like a breeze skirting by, ruffling his hair. Kiba’s eyes cracked open. They stood there. One, two, three, four. Silhouettes. It was like a dream. He almost expected to be roused by soft morning light. But that wasn’t to be. It was quiet but not serene. The wind’s hackles were raised, but it wasn’t snarling yet.
The first was Naruto, and his note was heartbroken.
“He’s gone…. he’s gone! We have to get him back.”
His voice was breaking, a rough whisper. It was a shock feeling that come from him, and a huge departure from his usual deafening noise. The note of desperation reached deeper in the gut than any cry from the exams. Those shots of adrenaline boiled the blood then but now this was a plunge into a lake of ice, tumbling into a vacuum. Instead of inciting to motion, it locks all your limbs. Not that Naruto didn’t skillfully conceal it. He wore the smile again. He patched the crack in his voice. But Kiba always noticed things like that. He didn’t even have to open his eyes. He could smell it.
It seemed to come to him from a distant place, almost a mumbling, tranquil, though the content of the message seemed to call for a more urgent tone. Not that Kiba was really a bleeding heart. He’d told Shikamaru to think twice about Naruto. He was an irreplaceable asset. But the grief struck him the most. Keep that in mind. Just because Kiba could feel the truth through his senses didn’t mean he absorbed it. Sasuke. He’d always been so much trouble. And he liked Naruto, but he hadn’t yet been convinced at his core of the value that guy placed in him. But one thing the dogs always trusted was those deep, instinctual feelings. And he knew Naruto never analyzed his feelings for Sasuke. It was deep, clotted blood from his gut, and there was nothing truer. So he respected it.
One thing the dogs would never forgive, though, is turning your back on a comrade, regardless of your personal feelings for him. Such disloyalty was shameful. No matter the trauma, they always knew the life of a rogue could not support someone like life in a pack would.
The second was Neji.
“How long ago?” His voice revealed nothing. Not despair, nor fear, nor surprise. Just an affirmative. Maybe Kiba’s eyes weren’t as good as his, but he could envision them now— flat and emotionless, gazing at the others. But what he really felt wasn’t in his voice or in his eyes.
There were times when it came out of Neji though, in a tremendous wave. And maybe it was hard to discern. Neji might be the one who’d been the most similar to Sasuke. The same slight frown, the light scent of one burning ember. A harsh hold around the neck, but only the ghost of it, like you’d just been released. The tragedy complete and devastating, but all the outsiders had already forgotten and gone on with their lives. A gritting of teeth, with a distant song.
But that loyalty was so strong, almost overwhelming Kiba with its scent. The fear was always tamped down, shrouded in an anger but silenced with an encompassing quiet. What he thought of Sasuke was not only irrelevant, but it almost didn’t exist. Only Kiba could smell the traces of it. Neji didn’t share the apathy he did. He always stood there, spine straight and gazing, ready. He was a good pack member, on the balls of his feet, not someone who was ready to default. Like Sasuke.
The third was Choji.
“Last night.” Even his voice revealed it. He was different from the others, maybe the rarest kind. Always underestimated, but he was the only one who had such a heart. Loyalty did not always equal compassion. But that’s what he had, even for someone like Sasuke, someone he barely knew. A gift he gave without having been asked. And even though he was never that close to him, Kiba knew well Sasuke didn’t want it. But it spilled forth anyway, quietly, a pill made to be easy to swallow, though it was still so hard for many to take.
But this mission. They had to use force. Sasuke would probably not come back of his own accord. But that’s the thing. Choji and Naruto’s hearts bled this way, but there was no doubt they would not hesitate. Even if they had to bind him, or knock him out cold.
The four of them shifted closer. The time was growing close. Kiba closed his eyes, remaining still. Maybe they would forget he was there. Or that he existed at all. Maybe he could just dissolve into the tree bark. But he was not so lucky.
The fourth was Shikamaru.
“Heh.” The voice came from directly above him. Kiba finally opened his eyes. He was hovering, a smirk plastered on, eyes narrowed and arms crossed. “Don’t make me regret suggesting you. It’d make me look bad.”
Shikamaru was eager and hungry, somehow still full of energy. He was almost visibly vibrating. The excitement was almost a joy. Kiba wondered how he was already pacing, stir crazy, so soon after the exams. He was tired just from being near him.
So this was the guy they made into a chûnin, huh. Kiba, for the most part, was glad he didn’t have to be that. He would have to get awakened early on a beautiful day like today and have the hokage tell him to assemble and lead such a group. No thanks. Kiba just groaned inwardly. He wished he’d passed the exam just so he didn’t have to take it again. The thought itself made him exhausted.
Rising from his nap was quite a drag, though. The others were giving him time. Sharp jabs historically never really worked to impel Kiba into motion. He always moved of his own accord, on his own time. He never did anything he didn’t want to unless he felt a nearly impossible terror.
What if he just turned over and went back to sleep? Whatever happened to the rule of threes or fours? Did they really need him? What a stupid question. They were tracking somebody. And Kiba knew he’d never turn his back on a comrade.
So he'd make it five. Kiba could feel Akamaru’s nose against his scalp, then a gentle lick on his ear.
“Nnn….” He tilted his head upwards, blinking.
Kiba shaded his eyes with his arm. The sunshine was so bright even at the base of the tree, obscured only by the leaves that hovered above. Everything seemed to reflect the light. He groaned and turned over on his side, feeling the cool soil against his shoulder beneath his shirt.
Shikamaru nudged Kiba with his foot. “Geddup. The half hour’s up.”
The woods stood looming, centuries tall and deep. The edge of it had a surface like that of still water, full of mossy reflections. But they stood staring back. The gates framed them, and there was a pause, almost out of respect for the plunge they were about to take. They were realizing that their village was a tiny island in a vast world that was ready to swallow it up and take everything friendly with it.
There were five. Maybe there was a poison in the air, hidden in the green, that seeped in through your nose and infected your mind. To make you defect. To turn your back on your village. It wasn’t something Kiba could smell. Usually if he couldn’t smell it, he’d swear it didn’t exist. For someone so confident, his eyelids were so heavy. But today he wasn’t so sure. Maybe there was something here even he couldn’t smell. Each of them were reminded that even the most safely cached away can whisk away in the wind. Regardless, he must retrieve the lost pack member, no matter if he grimaced at hearing his voice again, or if the effort was a drag.
It wasn’t Sasuke himself. It was his absence. It was how with the loss of even one stake, the whole village could crumble. Kiba could smell the cracks in the foundation. Naruto’s face smiled the same, but the glow dimmed and flickered. There was a lack of balance. No moon to whom the dog can howl. And without that chorus how could he know where the others were?
A necessary sound. But in this moment, his eardrum seemed to shatter. Kiba had made the mistake of standing too close to Naruto. “Okay, everyone! Let’s find Sasuke!” The blond took a step forward and faced them, straining just to keep the tremble from his hands. Kiba held his hand up to his now-ringing ear and sighed.
“Hey, hey, hey, hold your horses Naruto. Yanno he most likely didn’t go alone,” Shikamaru warned. “We probably havta account for that.” He crouched down, all their eyes following him. Naruto stopped, blinking, and stepped back. He had seemed to forget. And Kiba could smell his emotions as they spun: the bewilderment, the moment of freefall, then the strength returning, a seamless conviction.
Shikamaru grinned wryly. “Kiba, you lead. I mean we already knew that. You can pick up their scent. And smell if any of them left any traps.”
Naruto regained his composure and grinned, bouncing. “Then me?” Kiba guessed this energy was better than if he was moping about Sasuke. Nothing was more annoying than lovesick harping. He knew whatever Naruto was feeling, the whole village would hear about it.
Shikamaru waved his hand at him. “Come on, man, just wait a sec. We gotta think this through.” He paused, twisting his face in thought. “I should be next. So I know right away what Kiba senses. Then I can let you know what I want you to do.”
Naruto nodded. “Then me?” Kiba hoped it would be him just so he’d stop yakking his ear off. He was defensive of Naruto’s energy, but nothing was so exhausting.
Shikamaru leaned his head back and crossed his arms. “Goddamn it, Naruto.” But he was laughing. “Then you. I want you to—“
“Where’s Shino?” Kiba asked, examining his nails. He wanted Naruto to cool it but apparently not enough to keep from interrupting.
“I—“ Shikamaru’s eyebrows knitted together, offput by the interruption to his reasoning. “I dunno. Wish I knew.” He shook his head. “Anyways, Naruto, I think you and Choji should be in the middle because you’ll see my signals and be ready to attack.”
Choji nodded an affirmative, his face serious, though he was elbowing Naruto lightly in solidarity. Naruto’s smile had waned, pensive and staring into space, but the nudge led him back. His lips turned upward and he glanced at Choji. “Oh we will.”
Shikamaru turned to Neji. “And you know what to do. Take the back lookout.” Neji dipped his head solemnly. Kiba knew Shikamaru didn’t have to worry at all about Neji’s focus or judgment. Who knows what he thought of Sasuke, but that mattered very little to his reliability when it came to a mission. Kiba sighed. You’d never see a goddamn Hyuuga run off like this, though they have a doujutsu just like the Uchiha did.
Shikamaru stood up, languidly reaching down towards his knees, then stretching his arms behind his back. “Got it?” He surveyed his makeshift team. Kiba guessed it could be worse, but they really were just kids, and there was so little intel regarding what they were up against.
“Wait!” A voice came to them, quiet, but with great strain. Kiba glanced behind them and sighed. He’d already had enough of the heartache and he hadn’t even seen a woman yet today. At least he knew she wouldn’t be addressing him. She dipped her head at the group, but walked right to Naruto.
Sakura’s voice, a bell ringing usually, but now in a hushed hysteria. Kiba lifted his eyebrows. It wasn’t hard to overhear. Akamaru looked up at him and whined, unhappy to see her tears. Kiba scratched his head absentmindedly. Naruto opened up his body language again. Although his heart was torn, he still smiled for Sakura.
That was the peculiar thing about him. Naruto embraced these agonies without a second thought. Kiba did not delude himself: he knew he always took them, hot coals in his hands, and had to inhale, exhale as the searing burned away at his skin. Kiba was loyal. He never fled or hid away, but he’d never been able to just look it in the eye and accept so readily. His heart held both a fear of what he knew of love and a fear of the unknown.
So he watched Naruto, made tender from his agony. So peculiar. Showing the soft patch of fur on his stomach. Not made steely or cached in walls and labyrinths. Sakura’s anguish could not be nullified, but it could be muted, and Kiba saw as Naruto locked the shackles she offered him around his own wrists. And Sakura’s sobbing stopped. Naruto. What was he? He almost seemed to enjoy it. His wrists weighed down, his shoulders sinking just discernibly lower. And he smiled, brighter than ever. And this wasn’t the animal in him. Kiba couldn’t smell it. Was it possible it was just the person?
Usually Kiba could discern every answer from the scent. But here he was, a mystery. And yet, maybe he didn’t need to question it.
But was this task even possible? Had anyone stopped to consider that? Sasuke maybe was impulsive, but he’d never before wavered in his efforts to gain strength, as far as Kiba knew. He’d always had his own stubbornness and arrogance at the academy and the exams. What would happen when they found him? He tried to imagine that severe expression pausing, biting his lip in hesitation, and turning around. It didn’t come to him.
And what of his return? There would be little celebration or even expression of relief. This makeshift team of odds and ends would grimace, exhausted, and the Hokage’s demeanor would be hard but placated. His house would still be cavernous and deserted. If anything, the village would gaze down from above, at best with pity, and at worst with scorn. To some he was a traitor either way. His reward would be an empty promise of safety and support. And one grinning blond boy, who never wavered in his faith. Kiba looked down at Akamaru. It’s what was expected when your hope lies in a greater purpose. The only thing was, which greater purpose did you serve? They were all pawns in a game of shôgi. How exhausting.