Chapter 1: Prologue
ONCE UPON A TIME, THERE WERE TWO YOUNG BOYS. They were as close as brothers, having been raised together from infancy. Yamanaka Inori was a compassionate boy with blond hair and kind eyes. Nara Shikarou was a cunning boy with dark hair and clever eyes. Their days filled with childish games soon gave way to days filled with taijutsu, ninjutsu, and genjutsu. When they came of age, they took their places as the heads of the Yamanaka and Nara clans.
Yamanaka Inori was a stunning young man. His clan held him in great respect not only for his arresting beauty, but also for his kindness and strength. Inori was romantic at heart; he wanted to marry for love not duty. Nara Shikarou saw marriage as a duty not a pleasure. His marriage was arranged with a woman from his clan who he regarded with polite disinterest.
One blustery afternoon in late autumn, Inori and Shikarou discovered a vixen caught in a trap. They only noticed it because of the bright copper color of the creature’s fur. Inori knelt by the vixen, but it nipped aggressively at his fingers. The creature’s blue eyes flashed in fear and pain. Inori spoke calming words to the creature and eventually the vixen calmed and allowed him to pet her head.
Shikarou watched his friend disinterestedly. “The trap was set up by the one of the farmers. Why comfort the beast if you’re going to put it out of its misery a moment later?”
Inori pitied the vixen. “I’m going to free her from this trap and nurse her back to health.”
Shikarou shrugged disinterestedly and returned home while Inori pried the vixen’s hind leg free of the trap. He had always thought Inori’s compassion to be a troublesome habit.
Inori tended to the creature’s broken leg and nursed her back to health through the winter. He sat with the vixen by the fire, petting her soft fur and telling her the secret dreams of his heart that he was afraid to reveal to anyone. On the first day of spring, Inori took the vixen back to the spot that he’d found her to set her free.
While on a mission to Kyoto that summer, Inori met a woman on the road. The bottom of her yukata was stained with a trail of mud. The silk looked expensive with its pattern of purple bush clovers embroidered expertly across the fabric. Her copper colored hair was in disarray as she tried in vain to fix the axle of her cart. The horse pulling the cart whinnied impatiently for his mistress. Inori was kind hearted, so he stopped to help the woman with her cart and accompanied her to Kyoto.
It was a two-day journey to Kyoto for an experienced ninja, but a five-day journey for a civilian even with the aid of a horse drawn cart. Inori worried that the journey would feel weeks long while traveling with a stranger; however, in no time at all, it felt like he was talking with an old friend. She had a delightfully quick wit and such an unusual and interesting way of looking at the world. He was utterly mesmerized by her.
“The Inari shrine in Kyoto is stunning,” Akane gushed. “Have you seen it, Inori?”
“I confess that I haven’t seen it,” Inori replied. “Perhaps during my trip to Kyoto we could visit it together?”
“That would be my dearest wish,” Akane beamed.
The five-day journey to Kyoto flew by too quickly. When they finally arrived at the gate of Kyoto, Inori found himself deeply disappointed. It felt like losing part of himself to say goodbye Akane. During their time on the road together, he had fallen deeply in love with her.
“Will I ever see you again?” he wondered as they stood in front of the gates of Kyoto.
Her eyes shone. “Fate has brought us together. We will see each other again.”
Fate brought them together again the following spring.
Inori was in Kyoto on a mission – protection for a wealthy noble during the Inari Matsuro Festival, the most important festival at the Fushimi Inari shrine in Kyoto. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a red haired woman in a yukata with purple bush clovers. His heart beat faster until his brain caught up with him. He’d been seeing Akane out of the corner of his eye for the last ten months. He thought time and distance would have cooled his love for her, but he couldn’t get her out of his mind. She’d bewitched him, body and soul.
This woman was holding hands with one of the priests of the shrine. The other man had silver hair, but his face was unlined.
The woman’s gaze caught his and he gasped in recognition. “Akane?”
She let go of the hands’ of the silver-haired priest. Grabbing the priest’s arm, she hurried over to Inori. She was as striking as he remembered.
Her eyes gleamed with joy. “I prayed to Mother Inari only yesterday to –“
“I thought I’d never see you again,” Inori whispered in awe.
The silver haired man smirked down at Akane, before holding out his hand to Inori. “It’s nice to finally meet the man my sister’s been pining over for –”
“Aniki!” Akane gasped, elbowing the priest in his side.
Inori grinned and shook the other man’s hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you. You must be Akiyo. Akane toId me all about her older brothers and older sister during our trip of Kyoto last year.”
Akiyo raised an eyebrow. “I’m impressed that you remembered my name.” Glancing over at his sister, he said, “I can see why you like him so much.”
Akane beamed. “Inori-kun has a pure and gentle heart.”
“I was going to say that he’s one of the most attractive—“
“Akiyo!” Akane gasped in horror. “Please stop talking!”
Akiyo turned to him. “What have you come to ask Mother Inari for, Inori-san?”
His eyes gleamed as he whispered fervently. “I was going to ask the goddess Inari to reunite me with the woman I love: the woman that I traveled to Kyoto with last year, the woman that I haven’t been able to get out of my mind for the last ten months, the woman that I’ve fallen deeply in love with.”
Akane’s cheeks burned crimson. “You love me?”
“Yes,” he breathed. “Would you make me the happiest man in the world? Marry me!”
Akane beamed at him. “Inori, it would be my dearest wish.”
Inori and Akane said their marriage vows at the Fushimi Inari shrine in Kyoto. Akane moved to Konoha to live with her husband. Akane struggled to fit into the strict traditions required for a clan leader’s wife, but she managed more or less. She loved her husband dearly and was willing to put up with the clan politics if it meant that she could be with him.
The clan didn’t have much to complain about Akane’s behavior because she bore Yamanaka Inori triplets within a year of their marriage, two sons and one daughter. All three were very talented shinobi, three of the most talented shinobi in the Yamanaka clan.
Trouble for Inori and Akane didn’t come from within the Yamanaka clan.
No, it came from the one person that Inori trusted before all others.
Nara Shikarou lusted after Inori’s wife. His jealousy twisted the love he held for his friend into something unspeakable. During a battle against the warlike Uchiha clan, Nara Shikarou left Inori’s body unguarded. As a result, the Yamanaka clan head was dealt a mortal blow. Ignorant of the betrayal even as he lay dying on the battlefield, Inori begged his oldest friend, Nara Shikarou, to care for and protect his family.
Akane mourned her husband, but had their children to brighten the darkness of her despair. Akane’s eldest son, who was fifteen years old, became clan head in his father’s place. Shikarou lingered in the shadows, seeking a way to coerce Akane into his bed.
One day Shikarou followed Akane to the river to watch her bathe. He was overcome with astonishment as she transformed into a vixen, the very same vixen that his friend Inori had nursed back to health those many winters ago.
Shikarou had discovered Akane’s secret.
Indeed, Shikarou was the first to discover it.
Both Akane’s late husband and children were unaware of her secret.
He watched as the vixen hid a pearl in her robes before she went to bathe. Akane, not realizing that her secret had been discovered, left her most valuable possession vulnerable, her hoshi no tama. A hoshi no tama is the physical manifestation of both a kitsune’s soul and power. Without it, Akane would be separated from her magic and would slowly waste away.
The cunning Shikarou placed Akane’s hoshi no tama inside a pendant protected with a powerful seal. When Akane returned to the river, Shikarou leapt from the bulrushes and called out, “I’ve discovered your secret, Akane. I have hidden your precious hoshi no tama. I will return it if you become my lover and bear me a son.”
Stunned by Shikarou’s betrayal, Akane didn’t know what to do. She could not assume her human form without the power of her hoshi no tama. Unwilling to betray her husband’s memory, Akane refused Shikarou even if it meant that she would no longer be able to see her children as a woman ever again.
Akane fled into the forest and sought out her oldest sister for help. Her sister, Aneko, comforted and cared for Akane. Akane stayed close to the Yamanaka clan to watch over her children and grandchildren. Akane’s sister vowed revenge on Nara Shikarou and did everything in her power to discover a way to retrieve her sister’s hoshi no tama from within the pendant guarded by an unconquerable fuinjutsu.
Chapter 2: Chapter One
THE TEMPERATURE DROPPED AFTER THE SUN SET BELOW THE MOUNTAINS. Shikamaru was glad of the heat from the campfire. Their mission was in the Land of Fire, so they could afford the risk. Even with the shinobi world at peace, it was dangerous to announce one’s presence with a campfire. They’d camped for the night in the mountains in the westernmost corner of the Land of Fire.
The Gokayama region was known for its harsh winters and heavy snowfalls. During the spring, Ainokura was a five-day journey through the steep mountain passes to the post town of Aizo, where one could take a highway east to Konoha or north to Kyoto, the capital of the Land of Fire. When winter set in, closed off by the mountains and the heavy snowfall, the journey was rarely attempted. The harsh cold and dense snow made the mountain passes near impassible.
The man who had hired them for the mission, Taira Masa, had sent his trained hawk to deliver the mission request to Konoha. Masa was very wealthy merchant. Only a man with his resources could afford to pay the price of an A rank mission for a team of Konoha jonin. Considering what this mission entailed, Shikamaru thought they were being overpaid for what seemed like a simple task.
Ino sat down next to him, handing him a bowl of stew. Steam rose off the bowl, mingling with the puffs of her breath in the cold air. She’d pulled the collar of her winter coat up to her jawline and wrapped a scarf around her nose and mouth. Her cheeks were bright from the cold and her eyes sparkled in the light of the campfire.
She was so beautiful it took his breath away.
"Thanks," Shikamaru muttered through his scarf.
The heat of the bowl warmed his cold fingers through his gloves and the steam from the broth warmed his face. He glanced over at Neji and Kiba as they dug into their bowls of stew. They were wrapped up in their winter coats, with the hoods pulled up over their knit caps. Instead of ninja sandals, they’d worn treated leather boots, better for trudging through the deep snow of the Gokayama region. The meat was mild tasting with a pleasant texture.
"Snow hare," Ino explained, “Akamaru killed them for us.”
“Mhm,” Shikamaru muttered around the stew.
"I don’t see why you had to ruin those perfectly good snow hares by turning them into a stew," Kiba groused. "You should have roasted them over the fire.”
Akamaru whined next to Kiba. Ino had fished out the bones that she had used to season the broth for Akamaru to chew on. They’d joined the pile of bones from the brace of hares that Akamaru had saved for himself.
Ino snorted. "Why don't you cook next time, smart ass?"
“You’ve been stuck behind a desk at the Division of Intelligence for too long, Ino-chan,” Kiba teased. “You’ve forgotten the basic-“
"We arrive at Ainokura tomorrow,” Neji cut in, to avoid the inevitable fight between the two hot heads on the team. “I trust that you will behave while we’re traveling with our clients.”
Kiba grinned, showing his fangs. “We’ll be the personification of good behavior, right, Akamaru!” The ninja hound barked in agreement.
Shikamaru heard Ino mutter under her breath, “I’d have to see it to believe it.”
WHEN SHE WOKE UP IN THE MORNING, she found herself wrapped around Shikamaru for warmth. Even under the blankets that they’d piled high last night, the chill penetrated the tent. Closing her eyes, she rubbed her cheek against his back and breathed in his familiar scent of pine trees and ink. She slipped her arms out from around his chest, hoping not to wake him.
As she extricated her right calf from between his legs, Shikamaru stirred. Slipping out from under the blankets, she straightened her thermal leggings and tugged her skirt back into place. It had ridden up during the night. Shikamaru groaned and sat up, rubbing his eyes. She ran her hands up and down the fabric of her sleeves to warm herself up. She picked up their flak jackets from the ground, throwing Shikamaru’s over to him. Even half asleep, his reflexes were sharp. He grabbed the jacket out of the air and flopped back against the sleeping mat.
“I hadn’t expected it to be this cold,” she remarked as she hunched over by the entrance of the tent to pull on her knee-high leather boots. Straightening, she fiddled with the zipper of her winter coat before zipping it up over her flak jacket. “It’s so much colder here than in Konoha.”
“It’s always colder in the mountains,” Shikamaru reasoned, stretching his arms over his head with a yawn. He rubbed his eyes. “Is it morning already?”
Brushing her copper-blonde hair back from her forehead, she pulled on her knit cap. The bottom of the wool cap almost completely covered her chin-length bob. She took her gloves out from the pockets of her coat. With a grin, she strode over to where he lay on his back under the blankets.
Leaning down, she ruffled his hair fondly. “Rise and shine, sleepy head.”
A pair of peevish dark eyes greeted her sunny smile. She squeezed his shoulder before heading out of the tent. As the cold air blew in, she heard Shikamaru call out from inside,
“Kami, Ino, close the flap! It’s freezing out there.”
It had snowed again during the night. A layer of the powdered snow that she’d dislodged when moving the flap slid down the side of the tent. Neji looked up from where he crouched near the pile of wood that had been their campfire. He was trying to coax flames out of the damp wood. Putting her gloved hands into the pockets of her winter coat, she walked over.
The mission was billed and rated as an A rank mission, but the level of danger made it C rank at best. The client had requested a team of four jonin that included a kunoichi because his son and daughter would be traveling with them during the mission. That narrowed down the playing field substantially.
As a military psychologist at the Division of Intelligence, it was unusual to be picked for a mission that so clearly fell under the purview of the Division of Defense, a division that Shikamaru himself was head. He’d spun some bullshit about her being the best equipped to monitor the civilians’ emotional states while traveling with an elite jonin team.
Kakashi-sama was easily convinced.
It can’t have been easy for Shikamaru to fill a full team with jonin. More often that not, missions completed by Konoha these days were completed by chunin teams. There were simply not enough jonin to spare these days to take on any mission less than A or B rank.
The ranks of Konoha chunin and jonin had been decimated during the Fourth Shinobi World War. It took years for a genin to rise to the rank of chunin or jonin. Her class was a fine example of that. The Konoha Twelve were the most gifted group of genin to graduate from the Ninja Academy in generations. On average, it took a genin five to ten years to reach the rank of chunin. The Konoha Twelve had all achieved chunin rank within three years. She supposed Naruto and Sasuke were an exception, but the pair were an exception to everything – they had taken very different paths from the typical shinobi.
The promotion to jonin was much more difficult. Not only did you need to complete the required number of ranked missions, but you also needed to demonstrate leadership, strategic ability, and mastery of at least two elements. It usually took a ninja anywhere from an additional five to fifteen years from their chunin promotion to achieve that rank.
Now nearly ten years after The Konoha Twelve had taken their genin exam, little more than half of them were jonin. Neji had been the first to achieve that rank. Sakura and Shikamaru had both been promoted after the war. Shino had been the next followed by Naruto, Kiba, and herself. She’d only achieved the designation last year. The rest of her peers were still working towards that goal; though, Sasuke didn’t spend enough time in Konoha completing missions to be eligible.
Sitting back, Neji sighed, “It’s no good; they’re too damp.”
“I think I packed a camp stove with me,” she said, unzipping her winter jacket down to her waist to get at the scroll pockets of her flak jacket. “That should be quicker.”
“Hey, I’ll get it,” said Shikamaru as he stepped out of the tent behind her. Striding over, he zipped up her winter coat and pulled her collar up over her chin. He must have also been feeling the sting of the cold because his cheeks were also flushed. “No sense in going to the trouble of setting up a camp stove when a katon jutsu could do the trick,” he reasoned.
“Mastery of a secondary element does come in handy,” Neji observed. “My fire jutsu don’t seem to be doing the trick.”
Putting her gloved hands back into her pockets, she slouched over to the campfire with Shikamaru. “Shikamaru’s got a fire affinity so his might work better. I wonder if we have all the elements represented in the team?” Ino mused. “Shikamaru’s mastered earth and fire, I’ve mastered water and earth, Neji’s mastered water, earth, and fire. What elements has Kiba mastered?”
“Kiba’s mastered fire and earth.” Shikamaru completed her thought. “No lightening or wind. Those are pretty rare in the Land of Fire after all.”
“But lots of earth,” Ino mused.
“Not surprising as it’s the most common affinity of the five elements,” Neji reasoned.
Shikamaru breathed out a katon jutsu onto the wood that Neji had stacked up over the remnants of their fire from last night. The wood smoked and cracked before catching.
“I untied the traps around the campsite,” Neji continued. “Nothing for miles except those snow hares that Akamaru caught for dinner last night.”
Taking her hands out of her pockets to warm them by the fire, Ino snorted. “That’s ‘cause any sane creature would be hibernating through all this.”
“Thanks, Neji.” Shikamaru nodded rolling his eyes at Ino. “We should reach Ainokura in a couple hours.”
Neji had just put the kettle over the fire for tea when Kiba walked out of the other tent, stretching his arms over his head. Akamaru trotted out behind him, stretching his front limbs. Ino watched as the pair both scratched behind their right ear and then their left in perfect unison. They probably didn’t even realize it. When two ninja had been on the same team for so long, they started picking up each other’s habits.
AINOKURA WAS IN THE WESTERN MOUNTAINS OF THE LAND OF FIRE. They reached the viewpoint overlooking the village at noon. The remote farming village was set into to a ravine between two mountains. The untouched snow lay like a blanket over the steep roofs of the town. From this distance, Shikamaru could make out about forty homes tucked under the blanket of snow. Tiny pinpricks of movement throughout the village were people shoveling walkways into the snow.
It had started snowing again as they strolled into the village. The thatched roofs of the homes looked like two hands pressed together in prayer. The steeply slopping roofs had been cleverly constructed to withstand and shed the weight of the heavy snowfalls of the Gokayama region.
Even so, Shikamaru spied a young man standing on one of the roofs nearby shoveling snow off. Pulling down the scarf from across his face, the young man greeted them warmly. His breath puffed out in front of him as he called down to the group of ninja.
“Afternoon! You must be the ninja from Konoha! We didn’t expect you for days yet.”
Cupping his gloved hands over his mouth, Shikamaru called up, “We’re here to see Taira Masa.”
The villager indicated the largest home in the center of the village. “I’ll take you there.”
Climbing nimbly down the roof to reach the ladder on the other side, the young man scampered down. He placed his shovel by the ladder before walking over to them. The only thing visible over his scarf and hat was a pair of dark eyes. He was two or three inches shorter than Shikamaru, about the same height as Ino. The young man looked to be around sixteen or seventeen years old. Shaking the snow off his hands, he shook Shikamaru’s hand warmly. His voice was muffled through his scarf.
“My name’s Taira Masaichi. Taira Masa is my dad.”
“Nice to meet you, Masaichi,” said Shikamaru.
“I’ve never met a ninja before,” the boy said excitedly. “I bet you guys have some impressive ninjutsu!”
Kiba took a step forward and patted Masaichi on the back heartily. “We’ve got some ninjutsu that would knock your socks off, kid.”
Akamaru barked in agreement.
Shikamaru rolled his eyes over at Ino. Her blue eyes sparkled at him as she put a gloved hand over her mouth to cover her giggle. He smiled to himself as they continued to the largest house in the center of the village.
Masaichi slid open the door to the big house, bracing himself against the blast of wind. The snow spiraled into the house in a mad eddies. Shikamaru and his team hurried inside so that Masaichi could close the door.
Removing their shoes by the entrance and hanging up their winter coats, they stepped into the pairs of guest slippers lined up on the mat. His face ruddy from the cold, Masaichi waved them into the main room.
A wood fire crackled in the sunken fireplace in the middle of the main room. A cast iron pot rested on an iron base, suspended over the muted flames and a kettle hung from a hook next to it. The smoke billowed up through the beams of the ceiling and into the attic, where it fumigated the ropes, beams, and thatched roof.
A man knelt in front of the fire sipping tea, seated next to an elderly woman who must have been his mother. The man looked a great deal like his son, with the same dark eyes and hair, though his was streaked with gray. The old woman’s hair was as white as the snow falling outside. A young girl sat in the corner weaving at a loom. She stood as they entered, her deft fingers stilling the shuttle. She looked to be a year or two younger than her brother, Masaichi.
The man stood as they entered and bowed to them. “Welcome to my home, my name is Taira Masa. I see that you have already met my son Masaichi. This is my mother Chiyo and my daughter Masami.”
“Thank you for your hospitality, Taira-san. My name is Nara Shikamaru,” Shikamaru began. “These are my teammates Hyuga Neji, Inuzuka Kiba, Yamanaka Ino, and the ninja hound Akamaru.”
Masa nodded them, saying, “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Nara-san, Hyuga-san, Inuzuka-san, Yamanaka-san, Akamaru.” Turning to his daughter, he continued, “Masami, please go to the kitchen to help your mother prepare tea for our guests.”
The girl startled when addressed. She’d been staring at the shinobi intently and turned bright red when they turned their attention to her. Putting a hand to her flushed cheek, she stood up and said, “Yes, father.”
Masaichi nodded and knelt back down in front of the fire. His son sat next to him. The family resemblance was clear. They had the same dark eyes, distinctive nose, and straight brown hair.
Sitting cross-legged in front of the fire, Shikamaru began, “We received your mission request last week and traveled in haste to complete it.”
Masa nodded. “The Taira clan is renown throughout the Land of Fire for our washi paper. The daimyo himself prints his edicts on it. This skill has been passed down through my family for generations. This village is our base of operations, but it is a perilous journey to our shop in Kyoto during the winter.”
“Your washi paper is renown in Konoha,” agreed Neji as he sat on Shikamaru’s right. “The Hyuga clan’s most important documents are printed on the Taira clan’s washi paper.”
Masami walked in with the tea. Her mother, a petite woman with thick black hair and a gentle smile, set the tray onto the ground in front of her before kneeling down to join the others at the fire. Her daughter, Masami, poured the tea for everyone. Her cheeks flushed and her hands trembled imperceptivity, but she managed not to spill the tea.
Shikamaru thanked the girl and took a sip of the tea. It warmed his chest; the pleasant aroma of tealeaves and the hint of jasmine tickled his nose.
After a beat, Ino asked, “If the journey across the mountains is so perilous, how do you conduct business during the winter?”
“My younger brother Masaji manages the shop in Kyoto. We keep him well supplied to handle the orders made during the winter months. During the summer, we travel to Kyoto to deliver the daimyo’s annual order and visit with my brother. My family manage the production of the washi paper from Ainokura, but we charter transportation of the paper to Kyoto in the spring, summer, or autumn if Masaji’s stock is running low.”
“I see,” nodded Neji.
“I received a missive from Masaji that the daimyo requested a large order of very intricate washi paper that we cannot complete from our stock in Kyoto. It must be delivered from our home in Ainokura to the daimyo’s palace in Kyoto with haste.”
Masa’s elderly mother spoke up for the first time. “No one can travel from Ainokura during the winter. The mountain passes are much too dangerous. The only passable route takes people too close to the Yokai’s house for their safety.”
“Yokai’s house?” wondered Shikamaru.
“A legend of our village,” Masa explained with a frown at his mother. “There’s an abandoned house deep in the mountains. It’s said that a dark kitsune lives there, a nogitsune.”
“After the Fourth Shinobi World War, there have been many strange visitors to the nogitsune’s house,” The old woman added. “Many stay in Ainokura before venturing into the mountains.”
Shikamaru raised his eyebrows. “Anyone suspicious or threatening?”
Masa shook his head, trying to put an end to the conversation. “There hasn’t been any danger.”
Shikamaru had been hoping to learn a bit more about the rumors of this yokai in the Gokayama region. As the head of the Division of Defense, he’d been alarmed about the reports about the increased interest in kami and yokai after the end of the Fourth Shinobi World War. Before the war, he would have dismissed these as fantasies. After the combined might of the five great shinobi villages found themselves in a losing battle against Kaguya Otsutsuki, an usagi no kami, Shikamaru started to take more notice of these fantasies.
“How many visitors have come through your town to find the nogitsune’s house?” Shikamaru wondered.
Masa turned to his wife. “What do you think? Half a dozen in the spring and a full dozen in the summer?”
Sayuri nodded, “That sounds about right. The Asida family rents out rooms and serves meals for the visitors. Some of the young men in the village have made money as guides to the nogitsune’s house.”
“Ah,” said Shikamaru. “Have you guided anyone to the nogitsune’s house, Masaichi?”
Masaichi looked sideways at his parents before saying with a sly smile, “No. My father has forbidden me from visiting the nogitsune’s house.”
“It’s for the best,” his grandmother agreed emphatically.
“Please hire a ninja team from Konoha if you ever feel that your town’s security is at risk.” Neji added.
Masa nodded, “Thank you.”
THEY LEFT THE NEXT MORNING AT FIRST LIGHT. The steep and winding mountain passes were too narrow for an ox cart to pass through, so Taira Masa had loaded one of his daihachiguruma carts with the washi paper for them to haul up the mountain. Shikamaru sealed it away into a scroll.
Ino smiled to herself. Shikamaru would often turn his laziness into an advantage. If she had been leading the mission, she would’ve had one of her teammates haul the cart up the mountain, probably Choji if he’d been on the mission with them.
It was a five-day journey through the mountain passes for a civilian, but a much shorter journey for a group of experienced jonin. Masaichi and Masami would have slowed them down if Shikamaru hadn’t thought to have them ride on Akamaru.
A snowstorm erupted as they reached the narrow pass cut into the mountain. Visibility was low as the wind whipped around them and snowflakes stuck to their eyelashes. They made slow progress. They had to walk in pairs as the path narrowed. Neji and Kiba were the front guard. Ino and Shikamaru served as the rear guard with Masaichi and Masami riding on Akamaru between the two pairs.
“This is too dangerous,” Masaichi called, his voice a faint echo over the howling wind.
“We’re almost clear,” Neji called over the howling wind to Shikamaru.
Ino rubbed her gloved hands over her upper arms to warm herself up. She was glad that Neji was leading the way.
“How much further?” Shikamaru hollered back.
“It’s not far,” Neji called back. “There’s an abandoned house in the woods up ahead. We could sleep in the house or in our tents outside.”
Masaichi blanched. “We can’t stay there. That’s the nogitsune’s house!”
It was hard to read the expression in Neji’s milky white eyes even without the veil of snow. “It’s abandoned. Let’s check it out. See if it might be a safe place to stay the night.”
The sun dropped behind the mountain as the last rays of light fled from the horizon. The full moon provided some light in the darkness. The frigid winds whipped through the branches, but the snowfall has stopped. The only sound besides Masaichi’s and Masami’s steady breaths and the crunch of their footfalls was the wind moving through the trees. The sound was eerie, like the moaning of the souls who had lost their lives to the witch.
A pair of eyes gleamed in the darkness. Ino stopped in her tracks like a deer in the headlights. The figure had cloaked its presence so thoroughly that Ino hadn’t sensed anything at all. When a shinobi cloaked their chakra they left a void in the chakra environment around them that a skilled sensor could detect. But it was like this creature didn’t existed at all.
It stepped into the moonlight, a beautiful vixen with gleaming golden fur and eyes the color of the forest. Ino blinked and it was gone, like the creature never existed at all.
“Ino,” said Shikamaru’s voice at her shoulder. She started when he nudged her arm. “Everything alright?”
“I-I saw something,” she whispered shakily. “I saw a fox right there, but it’s gone now. Disappeared.”
Akamaru whined, padding closer to her and Shikamaru. Masaichi and Masami clung onto the broad furry back of the ninja hound. Their eyes were wide with fear.
Kiba walked over to ruffle the ninja hound’s ears, “You must have just imagined it.”
“Yeah,” she breathed, grabbing onto Shikamaru’s arm. She was surprised to find that she was trembling.
The house was derelict. Snow had settled onto the roof, but the steeply sloped wooden roof helped shed most of the weight. A chimney poked out from out of the dense snow on the roof. The construction of this roof was very different from the thatched roofs of Ainokura. Ino was surprised that it hadn’t collapsed into the house. The shudders creaked and groaned against the wind, hanging from the boarded up windows on rusty nails. The ivy that had crawled across the side of the house hung dead in the chill of winter.
Ino didn’t doubt that superstitious villagers believed a nogitsune lived here. Ino felt a chill that wasn’t only from the cold. There was no other presence here, but a darkness hung over the place.
“Must be my mind playing tricks on me,” she repeated. “I haven’t sensed anything at all.”
“It’s strange,” Neji mused, joining the rest of the group. “I don’t see any animals nearby. Throughout the day I’ve been seeing snow hares in their warrens, red foxes in the lairs, and black bears in their dens. But this area is completely deserted, completely abandoned.”
Akamaru whined again. Kiba muttered to Neji, “You’re freaking me out a little.”
“I’m freaking myself out a little,” Neji whispered under his breath.
Next to her, Shikamaru took a deep breath. “I’m gonna go inside.”
“Have you lost your mind!” exclaimed Kiba.
“I never thought I’d say this,” Ino muttered to herself, “but, I’m with Kiba on this one. I don’t like the feel of this place. We should press on. Let’s find a place to camp for the night that’s not as … creepy.”
Shikamaru gripped her shoulder tightly. “I came on this mission to investigate rumors about yokai. So I’m going to go inside. I’m not asking anyone else to follow me.”
“Thank, kami,” muttered Kiba.
Ino bit her lip as she watched Shikamaru stride towards the house alone. His back was straight as he approached the rundown front stairs. “Wait,” she called after him. “I’m going with you.”
She caught up to him in a stumbling rush, catching his gloved hand before he walked up the stairs. He frowned down at her. “You don’t have to come in with me. I’ll be alright.”
Biting her lip, she said more bravely than she felt, “We’ve always been at our best working as a team, right?”
He gave her a half smile. “Right.”
“Well I am staying right here,” snorted Kiba.
Neji rolled his eyes. “I never thought I’d say this, but I’m with Kiba on this one.”
The floorboards creaked in protest as they walked up the front stairs. The front door swung open suddenly as a gust of wind blew through the house. Masami shrieked out in alarm.
Shikamaru grabbed the side of the door before it could slam shut. “It’s just the wind.”
Inside the house was a single room. A cot rested against one side of the room with a threadbare quilt tossed over the top. The giant stone slab of the hearth took up most of the back wall. Ash and pieces of charred wood were piled in the grate. Rusty pots hung suspended from the iron hooks nailed into the brick side of the fireplace.
Shikamaru strode over to the hearth as Ino moved to the chest of drawers near the cot. She ran her finger along the thick layer of dust that collected on her glove. She opened the drawers one by one to find them empty. She lingered on the top drawer. There wasn’t a sound or a speck of dust out of place, but she sensed something inside, something important.
Shikamaru put a hand above the ashes. “Cold as ice,” he said. He picked up a poker from the hearth and poked at the charred wood. “Strange. With the wind blowing through the house, it’s strange that the ashes haven’t been spread around.”
Ino glanced over at him. “Do you think someone’s been here recently?”
“Could be,” Shikamaru agreed.
When she put her hand down onto the bottom of the drawer, it shifted. There was a false bottom. Inside was a small box made from cherry wood. When Ino opened the box, she was astounded to see a myriad of uncut jewels. They were of various shapes and sizes, but all the color of blood. The left side of the box was set with a velvet insert. In the center of the insert was a silver pendant with delicate kanji that almost looked like a fuinjutsu script. The pendant seemed to call to her with an unearthly power. Running her fingers over the thing sent a pulse of pleasure through her body. Flanking the pendant were inserts that may have held cabochons rubies. They were all empty now.
The beauty of the jewels seemed a shallow veil for the wrongness that Ino felt deep in her bones. There was something unnatural about the uncut stones. It was almost as if the darkness over the house originated from these jewels. The pure glow of the pendant felt out of place in the company of these dark stones.
“Find anything interesting?” Shikamaru asked as he walked towards her.
“Look at this,” she said in reply, holding out the cherry wood box.
Shikamaru raised his eyebrows. He lifted out one of the uncut jewels out of the box and studied it closely. “Do you think they’re genuine? Why just leave them here?”
Ino took out the pendant on the right side of the insert from the box, running her finger along it. “This looks like fuinjutsu script, doesn’t it?”
He eyed it carefully. “Yes, it does.”
Biting the bottom of her lip, she asked, “Should we bring all this back to Konoha?”
Shikamaru nodded. “I’ll seal it away for transport. I would like to study it further.”
Chapter 3: Chapter Two
THE NARA CLAN FORESTS OCCUPIED THE EXPANSE OF LAND WEST OF KONOHA. A heavy snow had fallen during the first week of December and another just last week as the winter solstice approached. Glad of his treated leather boots and winter coat, Shikamaru trekked through the snow to collect the antlers the bucks had already shed.
Rikumaru, the stag, met him at the edge of the forest. The dark brown buck nuzzled Shikamaru’s side and led him towards one of the deeryards where the part of the herd sheltered. Like many of the other bucks in the herd, Rikumaru had already shed his antlers. They would regrow in the spring. Shikamaru ran his gloved hands through Rikumaru’s thick winter fur. The buck was healthy; the fat stores he’d built up during the autumn months had supplemented the meager grazing of the winter.
“Have all the bucks in the herd shed their antlers yet?” Shikamaru wondered.
The deer were sheltered under the wide boughs of an oak tree. The thick snows hung on the upper branches. It was warmer under the deeryard than out in the forest. The trees blocking the wind and the snow-laden boughs served almost as a blanket, keeping the heat inside. Five does and two young bucks sheltered under the tree, conserving their energy stores by resting or nibbling at the moss peaking through the shallow snow under the branches. They looked up as Rikumaru and Shikamaru entered.
The Nara clan head lowered his head to the deer and they bowed back.
Shikamaru walked around to the young bucks and the does in the deeryard, running his gloved hands through their fur and evaluating their health. With the heavy snows, he wanted to ensure that his clan’s deer were managing through the harsh winter. If they were starving, he would need to provide feed for them. Crouching in the snows, he sealed the shed antlers into the first of five sealing scrolls in his pocket – one per deeryard.
Shikamaru smiled up at Rikumaru, petting one of the hinds, “It looks like everyone here is finding enough to eat. Rikumaru, can you take me to the rest of the deeryards?”
Wrapping his scarf tighter around his nose and mouth, Shikamaru put his gloved hands in his pockets and followed the stately Rikumaru to the next deeryard. He shivered as the wind ripped through the branches, the wind chill really cut down the temperature out in the open.
After visiting the last deeryard to seal away the antlers and verifying the health of the herd, Rikumaru began to move towards the deepest, darkest corner of the forest where the immortal Hidan lay entombed.
Rikumaru titled his head at Shikamaru questioning. Brushing some snow off the deer’s head, Shikamaru asked, “Is something wrong with the burial site?”
Rikumaru shook his head.
Crossing his arms over his chest, Shikamaru replied, “Then I’ll leave him to his solitude.”
They walked in silence back to the edge of the forest. Shikamaru scratched behind Rikumaru’s ears and said, “Thank you, Rikumaru. I’ll see you again soon.”
Rikumaru’s ears perked up as he noticed someone walking towards them. Recognizing the man, Rikumaru bowed to Shikamaru and headed back into the forest. Putting his hand in his pockets, Shikamaru watched as his grandfather walked over to him, using his cane for balance in the deep snows.
His grandfather was a veteran of the Second and Third Shinobi World Wars. Even though he had only turned sixty this year, his health had begun to deteriorate. He wore a long winter coat with a scarf wrapped around his neck and a cap over his coarse grey hair.
Shikamaru rushed over and took Shikatsuro’s arm. “Grandfather, what are you doing out here? Let me take you back inside.”
Shikatsuro looked out at the forest where Rikumaru’s tall form was disappearing amongst the trunks of the immense oak trees. “It’s good to see that you take your responsibilities towards our clan’s herd so seriously, Nara-sama.”
Shikamaru steered his grandfather back towards the Nara clan district. “I’ll never get used to you calling me Nara-sama after being Shikamaru-kun for so many years.”
Shikatsuro’s rattling cough shook his frail body. He rasped weakly, “You are the head of my clan. It’s only proper for the clan, myself included, to address you as such.”
“Will you be in Konoha for the next Three Clans’ Meeting?” wondered his grandfather. “I was told you’ll be leaving on a mission; though, you’ve only been home for three days.”
Shikamaru steered them around an icy patch of snow. “The mission shouldn’t be more than two weeks. I’ll be back in plenty of time for the Three Clans’ Meeting.”
“You take too many risks, Shikamaru,” his grandfather warned.
“You didn’t need to come all the way out here to tell me that.”
His grandfather sighed. “That’s not why I came out here to speak with you.”
Shikamaru raised an eyebrow. “I’m listening.”
Shikatsuro took a wheezing breath and said, “You need to marry and provide the clan with an heir. You and I are the only two members of the Nara head family. I don’t want to die without knowing that our clan’s future is secure.”
“Not this again,” Shikamaru sighed.
Shikatsuro stopped walking, standing tall in the deep snow. Shikamaru turned and took a step back so that he could still hold onto his grandfather’s arm to steady the clan. Shikatsuro studied Shikamaru closely. “You refuse to marry any of the women I’ve introduced you to. Is it because you’re in love with Yamanaka Ino?”
Shikamaru rolled his eyes. “You’ve got to be joking,” he sneered.
Shikatsuro raised his eyebrows. “You are, aren’t you?”
“I’m not in love with Yamanaka Ino,” Shikamaru groused. “That’s ridiculous.”
“You must look for a wife,” his grandfather continued. “This not up for debate.”
INO HURRIED OUT OF THE COLD AND INTO THE ATRIUM OF THE DIVISION. The Division of Intelligence was housed in a massive stone building only a stone’s throw from the Hokage tower. The atrium was lined with massive floor to ceiling windows, nearly five stories high. The other areas of the building had few windows for security’s sake, so it was nice to have a bit of natural light in the atrium.
Security was always tight at the Division of Intelligence because of the sensitivity and importance of their work. It tended to move quicker at seven than it did at eight when most people came to work. As she took her place at the back of the queue, Ino was dismayed to find that the person who stepped in line behind her turned out to be Yamanaka Inoko. His eyes swept up and down her figure slowly, no doubt undressing her in his mind.
He was a handsome man in his mid-twenties with the blond hair and green eyes common to the Yamanaka clan. Ino was the Yamanaka clan head and Inoko was her heir; however, there were many who felt she had usurped his position. He would have become the clan head if her father hadn’t implemented absolute primogeniture.
Inoko leered at her, saying, “Good to see you, Ino-chan.”
“Good morning, Inoko-nii-chan,” Ino replied, faking a smile. As his clan head, he should have addressed her as Yamanaka-sama. She countered his infuriating mixture of condescension and flirtation at using such an honorific by addressing him as she would a brother. With an older colleague that she respected, she would have normally used -san or -sempai. Inoko had earned no such respect from her.
Inoko stepped closed to her. Ino tried to shuffle backward a bit to give herself more personal space, but the person in front of her in the queue prevented it. Grinning down at her licentiously, Inoko said, “Are you looking forward to the Three Clans’ Meeting next month? I hear that the clan elders are planning to finally make our engagement official.”
Crossing her arms in front of her chest, she countered, “I hadn’t heard that.”
His grin turning into a smirk, Inoko leaned in closely to whisper in her ear. “Why don’t you stop by my place tonight, Ino-chan? I could show you what you have to look forward to.”
He lingered for a moment too long before leaning back to look her up and down again. Ino’s fake smile didn’t falter. “I doubt that there’s much to look forward to. Oh, it looks like I’m next in line. Bye, Inoko-nii-chan.”
A FIGURE SLUNK THROUGH THE STREETS OF KONOHA, pausing every so often to conceal herself in the shadows. Around her neck gleamed a necklace with four cabochons rubies. The jewels pulsed with the lives of the villagers from the Gokayama region. The jewels would enhance her nogitsune magic. She needed to prepare herself as the first phase or her plan was about to commence. Aneko never felt more alive than when employing her nogitsune magic. Akane, like the rest of her siblings, abstained from the nogitsune spells.
Aneko had taken the four cabochons rubies from the cherry wood box before Yamanaka Ino and Nara Shikamaru had invaded her lair and stolen her most precious possession – the pendant that held Akane’s hoshi no tama. She’d taken the pendant from Nara Shikarou at great cost, but had yet to break the powerful seal. Her blood boiled at the thought that the pendant had once again fallen into the hands of a Nara clan head.
Lingering in an alleyway across from the Division of Intelligence, she watched Yamanaka Ino return to work from her lunch break. Aneko knew that it was dangerous to linger so close to the shinobi buildings of the village, but the ninja were blind. Even their most powerful sensors wouldn’t be able to feel her presence if she stood in front of them.
She was something different, something older, something more powerful.
The question that had perplexed Aneko was how had Yamanaka Ino been able to take the pendant? How had the girl accomplished it? The hidden compartment was imbued with a powerful enchantment. Only she or one of her siblings should have been able to open it. If nothing else, it seemed to further highlight the uncanny resemblance that she’d always found between her sister, Akane, and Yamanaka Ino.
Before Yamanaka Ino, not a single one of Akane’s descendant’s had inherited any aspect of Akane’s appearance. Not only did Ino possess the strongest kitsune bloodline of Akane’s descendants, but she was also possessed her sister’s copper colored hair and blue eyes. Perhaps Ino’s ability to find the pendant wasn’t the problem. Perhaps it merely highlighted Aneko’s own lack of knowledge about kitsune-human hybrids.
They were exceptionally rare after all.
Of Inari’s four children -- Aneko and her three siblings – the youngest, Akane, was the only one to have mated with a human and bore offspring, kitsune-human hybrids. Perhaps it was fitting that Akane was the only of Inari’s children to have children of her own. As the kami of spring, Akane represented the season of new life and rebirth.
Aneko’s younger brother Akiyo lived the life of an ascetic at the Fushimi Inari shrine in Kyoto. Aneko saw her younger brother every year at the Fushimi Inari shrine for the Hatsu-ume Festival celebrating their mother Inari. Every decade or so, their older brother would also join them for the festival. Aneko’s older brother, Arashi, was an infamous seducer of women; though, because he was a male kitsune, it was impossible for him to impregnate a human. Arashi had assumed the identity of a nobleman in the southern Land of Fire. Arashi spent his days enjoying the riches of the nobleman’s territory – precious stones, delicious food, expensive wine, and beautiful women.
Aneko took a step back as Ino’s head suddenly twisted in her direction. She had underestimated the girl – Ino had noticed her in the mountains of Gokayama after all. Akane’s blood flowed in the girl’s veins. Ino would never be a match for a pureblooded kitsune like Aneko, but it was clear that the girl could sense things that a normal human could not.
SHINOBI MONTHLY WAS HEADQUARTERED IN KONOHA. The original office had been destroyed during the Akatsuki attack, but the magazine had rebuilt. Business was booming in the aftermath of the Fourth Shinobi World War. The gossip magazine had avid readers not only in Konoha but also in the other major shinobi villages. Its readership exploded after the end of the Fourth Shinobi World War saw an increase in trade between villages and camaraderie between ninjas. The magazine had changed its name from Konoha Monthly to Shinobi Monthly to recognize its new international readers. The magazine had satellite offices and reporters in the other four great shinobi villages, but its headquarters was in Konoha.
The office was in the Business District of Konoha. The neighborhoods of Konoha spanned out from the Hokage Tower like spokes on a great wheel. The Hokage Tower was the geographic circle and heart of Konoha. The southwest corner, which had housed the Uchiha Compound in the early days of Konoha, was now the business district. The Shinobi Monthly offices were housed in a building on Civilian Circle.
Dancing her fingers along the deep purple bush clover blossoms on the branch of her hanakotoba arrangement, Ino watched as editor of Shinobi Monthly argued with the photographer about her photo-shoot. The magazine’s editor, Yamamoto Chie, was a fashionable woman in her late thirties. Her red heels clicked against the studio floor, the only other spot of color over her grey sheath dress and black blazer. She held a coffee cup in one hand, the lid stained with her red lipstick.
Ino’d been writing a hanakotoba column in the magazine for the better part of five years. It was a hobby that she’d originally started to drum up business for Yamanaka Flowers. Her attempts had been so successful that she and her Aunt Ayano had opened up a Yamanaka Flowers shop in Kyoto last year. For Shinobi Monthly’s December issue, the magazine was including a story about Ino herself in addition to her hanakotoba column.
Shaking a finger at photographer, Chie cried out, “Surely we can get Yamanaka-sama in something sexier for her photo shoot! It’s a waste to see a woman with a body like hers in those drab navy and green fatigues!”
Ino put her hand to the Allied Shinobi hitai-ate across her forehead. She’d picked out her outfit very carefully so as to show herself as a respectable head of one of Konoha’s ninja clans. The Allied Shinobi hitai-ate marked her as a veteran of the Fourth Shinobi World War and her forest green flak jacket marked her allegiance to Konoha. She’d shown her own sense of style by wearing a long-sleeved navy blue sheath dress rather than the navy blue fatigues. It fell high on her thighs, showing off her legs to nice effect.
“I picked this outfit out myself,” Ino spoke up. “I’d like to wear it for the picture.”
Turning to Ino, Chie sighed, “If you insist.”
The photographer was a young woman around Ino’s age with dark brown hair. She’d buzzed one side of her hair and the remaining hair fell in a dramatic angle on the other side. Ino obeyed the woman’s shouted commands, trying to keep a natural smile on her face as the camera clicked and flashed in her face. As the woman got up into her face to take a close up, Ino saw with a pleased smile that there was a pattern shaved into the buzzed side – the Konoha leaf symbol.
After they’d finished with the photo shoot, Ino followed Chie upstairs into the Shinobi Monthly main office. Chie’s assistant rushed over with cups of coffee for them. Chie handed off her now cold coffee cup to her assistant, accepting the hot one with barely a glance at the girl. Walking through the office, Ino admired the view from the floor length windows down into Civilian Circle. Large prints decorated the walls showing off the magazine’s most famous cover stories. Chie’s corner office had a breathtaking view. Rather than facing down into Civilian Circle, the sightline was to the southwest down the main boulevard of the Business District towards Naka Lake and the training fields abutting the towering walls of the village.
“It’s a stunning view, isn’t it?” Chie bragged, fiddling with a tape recorder in her hands. Setting a new tape into it, she leaned back against the glass door to her office. “Do you mind if I tape our conversation?”
Ino nodded. “Go right ahead.”
After closing the glass door to her office so they wouldn’t be disturbed, Chie clicked the large red button on the recorder to start the taping. Chie sat down on top of her desk, kicking off her red stilettoes. She reached across the desk to pull out her notebook where she’d prepared questions for Ino. “Is it really five years that you’ve been the head of the Yamanaka clan? You must have become clan head at a very young age.”
Leaning back against the window, Ino shrugged. “By the time I became the head of the Yamanaka clan, I was already a veteran of the Fourth Shinobi World War.”
“But how old were you when you became clan head?” Chie persisted.
“I had just turned sixteen.”
“Sixteen!” said Chie in wonder. “Were you ready for it?”
Ino hadn’t felt ready for it. She’d been frightened and unprepared. She’d always assumed that she wouldn’t become clan head until her father retired. She hadn’t expected to become clan head without her father to guide and counsel her. But she couldn’t say that in an interview.
“I was ready to be the clan head, but I wasn’t ready to lose my father,” Ino said instead. “He died during the Fourth Shinobi World War. Luckily, I’ve been able to depend on the wisdom of my Aunt Ayano.”
“I’m glad that you mentioned your Aunt Ayano. She’s the Yamanaka clan elder?”
“Yes,” Ino nodded.
“Of the ninja clans in Konoha, the Yamanaka is the only clan that has women as the clan head and clan elder. Not counting you and your great aunt, there are only two women in Konoha clan leadership as clan heads or clan elders.” Chie looked down at her notebook. “Sorry, this is such a long question. I’m almost done. As it’s the Congress of Clans that enact many of the laws of Konoha, has your gender been a strength or a weakness when it comes to policies you wish to enact?”
Ino raised an eyebrow. “You said that there were only two other woman in Konoha clan leadership? I suppose that you’re thinking of Hyuga Hinata and Tsume Inuzuka. The Aburame clan elder, Aburame Hotaru, is also a woman. She advises the clan head, Aburame Shibi.”
“Hm,” Chie said tilting her head to the side. The sharp line of her bob swung against her chin. She reached across the desk to grab a red pen from the penholder. She crossed off something in her notebook and jotted something quickly down. Looking back up at Ino, she said, “I was under the impression that Hotaru wasn’t involved in Aburame clan leadership.”
“Hotaru-sama is very involved. She has a quiet and unassuming presence, so she often doesn’t get the recognition that she deserves. She was actually one of the co-sponsors of the Ninja Training Act.”
“Hm,” Chie pursed her lips. “So let’s talk about the Ninja Training Act. It’s not your most famous piece of legislation, but it’s revolutionized the way Konoha ninja receive training during their years as genin. Can you tell me a little about it and why you decided to put that particular policy forward?”
“Sure,” Ino nodded. “I co-sponsored that bill three years ago with several other clan heads and elders: Aburame Hotaru, Aburame Shibi, Akimichi Choza, and Nara Shikamaru. That particular bill was inspired by a number of personal stories from friends and acquaintances.”
“Can you tell me one of these stories?”
Ino nodded. “One of the inspirations was a young girl of my clan, Yamanaka Naoko. The last member of her immediate family to be trained as a ninja was her grandfather, who passed away during the Third Shinobi World War. Neither of her parents had the chakra reserves or chakra control to train as ninja, but she was born with the potential. She was one of the top students of her academy class, but struggled when placed in a genin cell. It’s one thing to learn the fundamentals in a classroom, but it’s something entirely when you’re in the field. Because neither of her parents were trained as ninja, she sought out her clan head to receive the training in the special ninjutsu techniques of the Yamanaka clan.”
“I suppose that would have been you,” Chie nodded.
“Yep,” Ino said with a grin. “That would be me. I was already working with another genin from our clan who had a similar story. So I worked with the both of them. More often than not, it’s the genin with civilian parents that don’t get as much training. Because the genin with parents from ninja clans also receive training from their clan.”
“And the Ninja Training Act seeks to correct that?” Chie wondered.
Ino nodded. “Yes, the Ninja Training Act provides additional resources for genin sensei to help teach their students. The Act also provides each genin a chunin mentor to help supplement their training. It’s also a good experience for the chunin to refine their ninjustu by teaching C and D ranked jutsu to a genin. Konoha’s genin have been more successful in the chunin exams since the act was implemented.”
“What I’m most curious to learn about is the Kunoichi Rights Act that you, Hyuga Hinata, and Nara Shikamaru co-sponsored last year. That’s your most famous and most controversial piece of legislation.”
Ino chuckled. “Yes, that policy was not easy to get through the Congress of Clans.”
Chapter 4: Chapter Three
THE MAIN SQUARE OF THE YAMANAKA DISTRICT WAS A HIVE OF ACTIVITY. It was chilly that last weekend of December, but the district was still bustling on that Saturday morning. While the Akimichi district’s main square held the best restaurants in Konoha and the Nara district’s main square held The Konoha Bank and the best apothecaries in Konoha, the Yamanaka district’s main square was known for its artist studios. Charcoal sketches, oil paintings, and watercolors were on display in every store front, showing customers the talent and specialty of the artist inside. There were several small cafes and coffee shops in the square, which offered lighter fare to the visitors to the Yamanaka district. It was at one such cafe that elders of the Yamanaka, Nara, and Akimichi clans met for tea that morning.
Yamanaka Ayano was the oldest of the Three Clan elders, but she had used a jutsu to preserve her youthful appearance. She looked no older than thirty-five with her golden hair and intense green eyes. She was always calm and controlled, which contrasted with the vivacity of her great-great-niece, Yamanaka Ino. Ayano had become the clan elder and regent after the death of her nephew Yamanaka Inohiko. Inohiko had died in the siege of Kyoto, the last battle of the Second Shinobi World War. His death had left his clan without a leader and his infant son Inoichi without a father. Inohiko’s two surviving teammates were the clan elders of the Nara and Akimichi clans.
Nara Shikatsuro looked decades older than his sixty years. His health had deteriorated sharply over the last six months. His coarse dark hair had turned snow white and his normally swarthy complexion had faded into a sickly pallor. Nonetheless, his mind was still sharp. He possessed the uncanny intellect for which his son and grandson had become renown across the shinobi world.
Akimichi Chohiro carried his sixty years with the strength and vigor of a much younger man. He was a proud man with a broad barrel chest. He was infamous for his immense appetite – both with food and with women. He didn’t have the intelligence of a Nara or the charm of a Yamanaka, but he had the strength of an Akimichi in spades. He took great pride in his position as the elder of one of the four noble ninja clans of Konoha.
“How was your visit to Kyoto, Ayano-san?” asked Shikatsuro.
“It was lovely,” replied Ayano. “The autumn leaves in Kyoto are a sight to behold.”
“You must have gotten your fill of them,” Shikatsuro chuckled. “It seems like you always leave for Kyoto on the first day of autumn and don’t return to us until the first day of winter.”
Ayano’s eyes twinkled. “Autumn is my favorite season after all.”
She followed the men’s gaze out the window to where her great-grandniece, Yamanaka Ino, stood across the circle near the door to YAMANAKA FLOWERS. She watched as Ino accepted the flower delivery from a flower merchant from the Land of Rivers with a smile. Ino shook the man’s hand, accepting a scroll that she slipped into the inside breast pocket of her winter coat. The merchant winked secretly at her. Shaking the merchant’s hand, Ino thanked him and then carried the remaining flowers inside.
The copper furred vixen in Ayano’s lap nuzzled her palm. A single pearl glittered in the vixen’s collar as Ayano moved her hand through the soft fur absentmindedly. It had been an uphill battle for Ino to gain the respect of their clan as the first female clan head, but Ino had persevered. Together with the Akimichi and Nara clan heads, she’d developed plans and broken ground on the Akimichi, Nara, and Yamanaka districts. The fruits of her labor had paid off. Ayano was enjoying tea in one of the shops that had opened in the Yamanaka clan district.
The Yamanaka, Nara, and Akimichi clan elders thanked the waitress as she placed their tea on the table in front of them.
“So are we in agreement?” Ayano interrupted with a frown at the Akimichi elder.
“About damn time,” Chohiro snapped. “Five years too long if you ask me. Appointing her as the Yamanaka clan head was a mistake.”
Letting out a rattling cough, Shikatsuro rasped, “Your grand-niece has grown into a beautiful woman in both body and spirit, Ayano-san.”
“Her husband will be a lucky man,” Chohiro continued.
“She is a very beautiful girl,” Ayano agreed.
“Youth is wasted on the wrong people,” Chohiro groused, looking back at Ino through the window. “I still think she would be better suited as my fourth wife.”
Shikatsuro snorted. “Why don’t we focus on getting my grandson a first wife before we think about your fourth wife?”
Ayano wrinkled her nose at the Akimichi elder. “You’re much too old for her.”
Chohiro laughed out loud, squaring his broad shoulders. “I’m healthy as an ox!”
Shikatsuro raised his cup to his lips and stared down Ayano over it. After taking a long sip, he put it back down onto the saucer. “Your grand-niece has done an admirable job as the Yamanaka clan head. I don’t see why this is necessary.”
“But now it’s time to look to the future,” Ayano remarked with a raised eyebrow.
Shikatsuro his arms over his chest. “Ino’s mother had trouble carrying a child to term. She miscarried twice before Ino was conceived and then died during childbirth. I’m concerned about Ino’s fertility.”
Ayano waved her hand. “I understand your concern, Shikatsuro-san. As Ino-chan’s physician, I can say with upmost confidence that there are no problems with Ino’s reproductive health. I assure you that Ino will have no trouble carrying a child to term.”
Chohiro slammed his fist down on the table. The cups and saucers clattered on the table around him. “We can hardly proceed without your agreement, Shikatsuro. What’s your decision?”
HE’D JUST STEPPED OUT OF THE SHOWER AS HIS DOORBELL RANG. Stepping into boxers and sweatpants, he walked towards the door. He blinked against the cold as he opened the door suddenly wishing that he’d put on a shirt when the cold air hit his bare chest. The streetlights reflected off Ino’s copper-blonde hair.
“How did you know I was back? I just returned to Konoha this evening,” he asked her.
“Six days late. Shikatsuro was very concerned.”
Shikamaru chuckled and ran a hand through his wet hair. He stepped back for her to enter his townhouse. The corner of his lips tilted up. “Were you worried about me?”
She pressed her pointer finger into his bare chest “If you knew there was potential for delay, you should have told your grandfather. Aunt Ayano said he was beside himself with worry. I just figured you’d understated the length of the mission so you could skip the Three Clans’ Meeting tomorrow.”
Shikamaru raised an eyebrow. “Skip the Three Clans’ Meeting? The thought never crossed my mind.”
Ino rolled her eyes. “You did it twice last year and we only met once a quarter.”
He followed her into his living room with a wry chuckle. She took off her winter coat and tossed it on the back of one of his kitchen stools revealing a knee length purple woolen dress that she wore underneath.
Ino continued, “Well my suspicions were proved correct at kunoichi night yesterday. Hinata said Neji was returning home today. He always gives her an accurate ETA because she worries. Knowing you were on the same mission, I was able to put two and two together.”
Shikamaru scratched his chin in bewilderment. “Isn’t Hinata pregnant? What’s she doing going clubbing with you and Sakura?”
Ino rolled her eyes. “We had dinner. We don’t always go clubbing.”
Shikamaru’s living room was decorated in a similar style to Ino and Sakura’s– Ino’d done most of the design work for his place after all. During the construction of the Akimichi, Nara, and Yamanaka districts, he’d bought the place. He had trouble deciding how to decorate and furnish it, so Ino swept in and did it for him. She enjoyed spending the time poring over which backsplash best complemented which countertop. His mind would whirl through a thousand variations and he’d just end up exhausted and overwhelmed. She’d done a great job and it ended up being a lot less expensive than he’d expected.
“Do you want anything to drink?” he offered. “I could make tea or coffee. I have some beers in the fridge.”
“A beer would be great,” she said.
He took out the beers and popped the caps off against his palm. Carrying them to the couch, he handed one to her and sat down. She snuggled back against his bare chest, resting her head against his shoulder.
“Kami, was it a long week!”
He wrapped his arm around her shoulders, his elbow resting against her collarbone. She curled back against him, moving his arm across her chest and interlacing their fingers. His forearm brushed against her right breast. He’d more or less resigned himself to the fact he’d never get over her.
It didn’t help that as Choji often teased him ‘the sexual tension between you two is so thick I could cut it with a knife.’
“Cheers,” she said, clinking her bottle against his.
“Want to talk about it?” he asked her.
He spent many of his early teens trying to find ways to purge himself of his love for her. His first attempt was a short-lived relationship with Temari; it ended after he called out Ino’s name while being intimate with the Suna kunoichi for the first time. They broke off the relationship, but remained friends. Since then, he’d never slept with the same woman twice. His relationships were fleeting and only physical, just flings to take his mind off Ino.
Ino on the other hand had a number of serious relationships, but they’d all ended for one of two reasons – the fact her great aunt found the boyfriend unacceptable to become the clan head’s husband, or the fact the boyfriend didn’t like the idea of giving up his clan to join Ino’s clan. That seemed to be the expectation for a woman in a relationship, but unthinkable for a man.
Ino leaned her head back against his shoulder to raise an eyebrow at him. “Guess who I kept bumping into at the security line at the Division of Intelligence this week?”
“How did you know?”
Shikamaru frowned; he wasn’t Inoko’s biggest fan. The other man was probably the most talented ninja in the Yamanaka clan after Ino herself, but he was also the most unrepentant asshole in the Yamanaka clan. Shikamaru shrugged. “Context clues.”
Ino grinned. “I’m always amazed how you can jump from point A to point E without going through B, C, or D first.”
Shikamaru leaned his head back against the couch. “Inoko’s such an asshole.”
“He’s the absolute worst,” Ino agreed. “He’s always giving me a hard time about going on team missions. He thinks I’m too weak to handle a solo mission by myself. Does preferring to work with a team really show weakness?”
“Kakashi-sama doesn’t assign Inoko to team missions because Inoko always puts himself before anything else. Under Inoko’s leadership three four man squads were destroyed. Only one man survived each time - Inoko. He completed the A ranked missions so Tsunade-sama didn’t see fit to discipline him. He could have saved his team and completed the mission if only he was willing to put himself in a little danger.”
She shifted next to him, switching her beer to her other hand and straddling him. Shikamaru looked down uneasily as the skirt of her purple dress rode high on her thighs. She put her beer onto the side table next to them. He licked his lips and looked up at her as she took out his ponytail and ran her fingers through his wet hair.
“Your hair’s a complete mess,” she explained. “It’s driving me crazy. I’ve gotta fix it.”
It was torturous how carefree and comfortable she was with him. She didn’t realize the effect she still had on him, would always have on him. He desperately tried to control his body’s reaction to her as she sat in his lap, more or less over his crotch. She shifted as she played with his hair, her breasts brushing against his bare chest even through her woolen dress.
“Your hair’s getting really long,” she mused. “It’s much longer than mine now. Want me to trim it for you sometime?”
“Sure,” he hissed through his teeth, biting back a moan. Putting his beer on the table next to hers, he gripped her hips tightly and moved them a safe distance away.
She continued chatting away as she worked the tangles out of his hair with her fingers and put it up into a ponytail. He let his mind wander, paying more attention to the gentle sway of her body than her words. “… special announcements during the meeting?” She sat back on his knees having fixed his hair to her satisfaction. “Shikamaru?”
He blinked up at her. “Huh?”
She pursed her lips. “Have you heard anything about the Three Clans’ Meeting from Chohiro-san, Shikatsuro-san, or Ayano-san? When I spoke with Inoko he implied that the elders were going to announce my engagement to him tomorrow.”
He furrowed his brow, trying to remember his last conversation with Chohiro. “No, I haven’t heard anything. Do you think he was just bluffing?”
Ino bit her lip. “What if he wasn't? It’d be a sure way to end the conflict about the rightful leader of the Yamanaka.”
Looking up into her worried face, he asked quietly. “Would you really marry a guy you hated just because the clans arranged your marriage to him?”
Gritting her teeth, she replied, “I can’t achieve all my dreams unless I’m clan head. We’ve made great strides already with the Districts and the Congress of Clans, but there are still many injustices that I want to right. If I have to marry someone I hate to retain my ability to influence change, then I guess I’ll have to marry someone I hate.”
Shikamaru accepted the fact that he and Ino would have to one day marry other people. They were both the heads of their clans. It was inevitable. Shikamaru would have been able to bear it if he knew that Ino was happy and in love with her husband. But the love of his life forced to marry someone she despised? Shikamaru didn’t think he could bear it either.
“You’d have to have a child with him to be the Yamanaka heir,” Shikamaru mused.
Ino paled. “I’m trying not to think about that.”
Running his hands up and down her thighs, Shikamaru pondered, “What if the elders arranged the marriage, but Inoko becomes clan head instead?”
With a sigh, she tilted her head backwards to look up at the ceiling. With her attention off him, his hungry eyes memorized every curve of her body: her muscular thighs, the curve of her hips, her flat belly, her thin waist, the swell of her breasts, her strong shoulders, the sharp line of her jaw and cheekbones.
“I don’t know what I would do,” she whispered at last.
Moving his hands to span her waist, he mused, “It worst comes to worst, I’ll represent your policies in the Congress of Clans.”
She beamed at him. “Thanks, Shikamaru. I always feel better after talking to you.”
“No problem,” he smiled back.
She smoothed her hand over the top of his hair to his ponytail before running her hands across his shoulders appraisingly. “You’ve got some new muscle definition in your shoulders. Have you been switching up your katas?”
He licked his lips. “Just carrying the weight of the Nara clan on my shoulders. Yeah, Choji’s been trying to learn some new Akimichi katas and I’ve been helping him out with them. Lots of focus on building the muscles in the arms and shoulders to prepare for different applications of the body expansion jutsu.”
She ran her finger from his shoulder down to his bicep. Her touch sent a spark of pleasure down his spine. His chest rose a fell a little faster in anticipation of something that would never happen.
“Have you had a chance to look at the jewels and pendent that we took from the nogitsune house near Ainokura?” she wondered.
Shikamaru shook his head. “No, I’ve been too busy. They’ve just been sitting on a shelf in my office. The only progress I’ve made is asking Naruto to dig up some of Jiraiya-sama’s old fuinjutsu manuscripts. He’s going to get them for me as soon as he can.”
INO WATCHED AS HINATA TIED THE OBI IN A BOW IN THE BACK OF HER KIMONO. She turned her head around to look at it in the mirror. The wings of the bow arched delicately in the back. The lines of the green yukata were straight and clean.
“Wow, you’re great at dressing kimonos, Hinata,” Sakura complimented. “I would have never made it look this good.”
Hinata folded her hands over her pregnant belly. She’d started to really show now in her fifth month of her pregnancy. Ino was very happy for Hinata. She tried to ignore the pang of jealousy at seeing the Hyuga clan head just glowing with joy through her pregnancy. Ino wasn’t sure if she would ever be able to have children. Her mother had miscarried twice and then died during Ino’s childbirth, so the thought of pregnancy terrified Ino.
“I’ve had a lot of practice. After all I have to dress formally for every clan event.”
Ino turned to look at herself in the mirror again. “Thank you for letting me borrow one of your kimonos. I couldn’t afford something this beautiful.”
“I’m happy to. You only need to ask.”
Ino smoothed her hand down the obi tied around her waist. “I don’t usually have to dress so nice. But there’s been some tension with the Akimichi clan elder. Wearing such a beautiful kimono makes me feel like I’m wearing armor. It means a lot, Hinata.”
Hinata raised an eyebrow. “Are the Akimichi and Yamanaka clans at odds? Is this something that my clan needs to worry about?”
Ino shook her head, cursing herself for her slip of the tongue. She wasn’t usually so careless about discussing clan matters in front of other people, but Sakura and Hinata put her so at ease. Hinata was such a calm, emphatic, dependable friend. Ino forgot sometimes that her friend was the head of the Hyuga clan.
Ino explained, “The clans aren’t at odds, just me and Akimichi Chohiro.”
Hinata raised an eyebrow, smoothing a hand over her belly. “Akimichi Chohiro was tough on you during the last Congress of the Clans. It was strange to see the Three Clans at odds like that.”
“Power does strange things to people,” Sakura said with a sigh.
“You’re probably right,” Hinata agreed.
Turning to Hinata, Sakura asked, “Are you sleeping any better?”
Hinata brushed her inky black hair away from her face. “A little,” she nodded. “It’s better now that Neji’s home from his mission. I know that I’m probably worrying unnecessarily, but I can’t sleep unless he’s in bed next to me. He promised that he would take fewer missions outside the village at least until the baby is born.”
Sakura grinned. “It must be nice to have a husband who dotes on you so.”
Ino smiled sadly, turning away from her friends to grab her coat and tote bag. She felt a sharp stab of jealousy at the thought of how happy Hinata and Neji were in their arranged marriage. Her heart clenched at the thought that the elders could be arranging her marriage to that asshole Yamanaka Inoko at the Three Clans’ Meeting in the next hour or two.
Ino knew that the arranged marriage had been tough on Hinata at first, but her friend’s attitude toward it had completely changed over the years. The marriage had been arranged when Hinata turned eighteen. Hinata had always carried a torch for Naruto, so she’d been heartbroken to be promised to another. But it had all turned out for the best. Hinata had flourished as a clan head partly through Neji’s unwavering support. Having one’s husband worship the ground that you walk on did wonders for a girl’s self esteem. Hinata and Neji’s marriage had also been the first step in healing the divide between the Main and Branch Houses of the Hyuga.
Ino pulled on her coat and slung her tote bag over her shoulder. She found Sakura and Hinata in the kitchen starting a pot of tea.
Peeking her head into the kitchen, she said, “Well I’m heading out now. See you later.”
“Bye, Ino-chan!” they called.
The land that Konoha was built on had originally belonged to the Akimichi, Yamanaka, and Nara clans. The extensive forests to the west were home to the herds of Nara clan’s domesticated deer. The Yamanaka clan had originally lived farther north in the mountain ranges outside the city, but they’d deserted their lands two hundred years ago when they allied with the Nara and Akimichi clans.
The Three Clans’ Meeting was in the beautiful Fujiwara Palace inside Akimichi Castle. Akimichi Castle had been built three hundred years ago as the fortification to protect the Akimichi clan against the raids from the hostile clans that lived on their doorstep. The Fujiwara Palace within had been the residence of the head family – Choji’s ancestors. The Clan had resided in the Castle through the end of the Warring States Period. It was only twenty years after they allied with the Senju, Hyuga, Aburame, and Uchiha to create Konoha that they moved out of the castle and into Konoha proper. It was Choji’s great-grandfather who had initiated the move about fifty years ago.
Ino loved Akimichi Castle. The two concentric rings of fortifications took her back to a different era of castles and princes and princesses. The gardens were extensive and exquisitely manicured. There was a veritable army of landscapers who tended the grounds. The gardens themselves were located between the two main rings of fortifications. Indeed, the moat guarding the inner rings of fortifications made way to a large pond. On the south side of the pond grew groves of cherry and plum trees. On the north side of the pond was an ornate Japanese garden. In the center of the pond were three manmade islands with stacked stones and pine trees.
The Fujiwara Palace itself was spectacular. It was contained within the innermost ring of the fortifications. The immense complex housed a number of different reception chambers, offices, and living quarters. For fifty years, they had all been uninhabited. Today the unused living quarters and reception chambers were decorated only with white sheets thrown over the furniture for preservation. On the ground floor was an immense ballroom room. When all three clans gathered, it was the only place that could fit everyone comfortably.
The Three Clans’ Meeting was in the ballroom on the ground floor of the Fujiwara Palace. Members of the Akimichi, Nara, and Yamanaka clan always looked forward to the Three Clans’ Meetings because it was one of the few chances for them to enter The Akimichi Castle. The Akimichi Castle was more of a museum than a true fortification these days. The only other time that it was open to the public was during one week in March – the week of March 3rd, Three Clans’ Day.
The most striking aspect of the palace; however, were the nightingale floors used in the hallways between the inner rooms of the Fujiwara Palace. When the nails rubbed against the metal clamps under the boards, they made a distinctive chirping noise. The story behind the nightingale floors was a famous legend in the three clans. According to legend, it was those very floors that created the original alliance between the Akimichi, Nara, and Yamanaka clans.
The Akimichi clan head, Akimichi Chomaru, had commissioned the Nara clan head, Nara Shikato, to help protect his young son against assassination from a rival clan. Shikato enlisted the help of his friend, Yamanaka Inojin, the Yamanaka clan head to construct his newest invention - nightingale floors. The floors would alert the Akimichi guards to the presence of an intruder. During the night the final floorboards were being put in place by Shikato and Inojin, the assassin struck. Alerted by the distinctive chirping of the floors, Chomaru, Shikato, and Inojin together defeated the assassin.
Ino smiled and greeted various clan members as she passed. She could see Choji and his wife, Sumire, in the crowd easily enough. Their marriage had been arranged on Choji’s twentieth birthday and the wedding had been just last month in early November. As she headed towards Choji, she was stopped by a hand on her shoulder.
It was Nara Shikatsuro. The Nara clan elder was tall, grey haired, and sullen. His health had declined over the last six months and his eyes were glassy from the medicines keeping him alive. Yamanaka Ayano, the Yamanaka clan elder and her great-grandaunt, stood beside him. While Shikatsuro seemed to have one foot in the grave, Aunt Ayano was the image of vitality.
Aunt Ayano was her paternal great-grandaunt, the younger sister of Ino’s great-grandfather. She had turned seventy-eight that year, but didn’t look a day older than thirty; her golden hair must have been dyed, but her face was unlined except for some crow’s feet around her forest green eyes. She hadn’t aged a day as long as Ino had known her. Ino wasn’t sure if it was genjutsu, medical ninjustu, or good genes. Ino hoped she looked as good as Aunt Ayano did when she reached that age. Aunt Ayano had a summoning contract with the fox clan, one of the copper-furred creatures slept across her shoulders like a living scarf.
Ino was made uneasy by the stern expressions on the two elder’s faces.
“Ino-chan, we would like talk with you before the meeting starts,” her great aunt said.
They led her upstairs into one of the reception chambers on the third floor. It was the room where the clan elders and clan heads would typically meet when they had something to discuss. She trailed behind them warily. The chirping of the nightingale floors under her feet was the only sound in the hallway. When she walked into the reception chamber, she found four men already waiting. Shikamaru sat in his usual seat at the round table in the center of the room. His arms were crossed over his chest. His narrowed eyes shifted to the man on his right.
Ino followed his gaze to where Yamanaka Inoko leaned back against the wall with his hands in his pockets. His eyes slid up and down Ino’s figure before he met her eyes with a smirk. She felt her heart plummet into her belly at the sight of him. The other two men in the room were Akimichi Chohiro and Akimichi Choza, the Akimichi clan elder and clan head – Choji’s grandfather and father.
From behind her, Aunt Ayano said, “Sit down, child.”
“I’ll stand,” Ino said firmly as she crossed her arms over her chest.
Aunt Ayano wasted no time getting down to business. “The clan elders have overruled Yamanaka Inoichi’s implementation of absolute primogeniture. Absolute primogeniture goes against the customs of the Yamanaka, Nara, and Akimichi clans. The Yamanaka clan succession will henceforth be determined by male-preference primogeniture. Yamanaka Inoko is the rightful head of the Yamanaka clan.”
Ino saw red. “By what right do you have to disregard the ruling of my father? Why would you dishonor his memory like this? Haven’t I shown over the past five years that I’m a capable head of the Yamanaka clan?”
Chohiro took a step forward with a smug smile, “The three clan elders together can overrule any motion made by the Yamanaka or Nara clan head. So too can the three clan heads together overrule any motion made by the Yamanaka or Nara clan elders. As it was the former Yamanaka clan head who implemented absolute primogeniture, the three clan elders can repeal it.”
Shikamaru crossed his arms over his chest. “That particular law has never been exercised in the history of the Three Clans.”
Chohiro raised an eyebrow. “A clan head never overstepped his power quite like Yamanaka Inoichi did. As Ayano said, his implementation of absolute primogeniture goes against the customs of all Three Clans. Therefore, it must be overturned.”
Ino crossed her arms over her chest and tried to meet her great aunt’s eyes, but Aunt Ayano wouldn’t look at her. She was floored. She held out her hands, utterly at a loss. “There’s not going to be any debate about this? Do you just except me to accept this?”
Shikatsuro nodded. “You promised to uphold the laws and customs of the Three Clans when you became clan head.”
“Even when they’re unfair, misogynistic and backwards?” Shikamaru asked.
“The law is the law,” Shikatsuro said simply.
Ino was unconvinced. “This law was put into place to provide a check of power against the Nara or Yamanaka clans, but no such check of power exists for the Akimichi clan. If you are going to enforce this arcane law, I demand that it be amended to include the Akimichi clan head and elder as well.”
Shikatsuro raised an eyebrow, “Ino-chan raises a fair point.”
Chohiro raised an eyebrow. “Not only is the Akimichi is one of the four noble clans of Konoha, but the Akimichi clan has always been primary in the alliance of the Three Clans. Are we not standing in the Akimichi Castle? Was it not the Akimichi who protected the Nara and Yamanaka clans within these walls for generations?”
Ino crossed her arms under her breasts. “All Three Clans are now protected within Konoha’s walls. Chohiro-sama, haven’t you always said that the Three Clan’s strength comes from our unity? This law spits in the face of that by putting the wishes of the Akimichi over that of the Yamanaka and Nara.”
Shikatsuro said to Ayano, “Your great-grandniece is a something else, Ayano-san. Even as she’s stepping down as clan head, she still fights for the rights of the Yamanaka clan. The Nara clan will be fortunate to have her sons as our heirs.”
Ino turned to him in surprise. She must have misheard him. “What did you say?”
Chohiro continued, “That’s a nice segue into the second reason we have brought you here today. The clan elders have agreed to an arranged marriage between Ino and Shikamaru. They will be married in two months on Three Clans’ Day, the third day of the third month. Ino will forsake the Yamanaka clan and join the Nara clan. Any children that she bears Shikamaru will be member of the Nara clan.”
Yamanaka Inoko bristled with rage. “What? You’re engaging Ino to him? She was supposed to be mine, not Shikamaru’s!”
Ino turned to Shikamaru. His eyes, which normally seemed to be concocting twenty different schemes, were startlingly blank.
SHIKAMARU WAS NOT A MORNING PERSON. Mornings were his least favorite time of the day. He much preferred sleeping through them. It was rough enough waking up to get to work a little before nine. The security at the Division of Defense was tight, though not as tight as at the Division of Intelligence where Ino worked. Ino bypassed the long queue at the Division of Intelligence by getting to work at seven. So he’d decided to do the same thing this morning to try to catch Ino before she went to work.
Shikamaru hadn’t gotten a chance to talk to Ino yesterday evening at the Three Clans’ Meeting. His grandfather had grabbed his arm on the way downstairs to the ballroom where Chohiro made the announcement to the rest of the clans. Shikatsuro had warned him, “Don’t make me regret this.”
The streets of Konoha were quieter at a quarter to seven then they were at a quarter to nine when he usually headed to work. The sun was lower in the sky, lighting up the quiet streets at a different angle. Shopkeepers raised the metal doors up from over their shops and arranged the displays in the windows.
The light streamed in through the immense windows of the Division Intelligence; the place was cold and sterile with its concrete walls and concrete floors. But a familiar copper-blonde hair gleamed in the patches of light flowing through the windows. He was in luck; there were four people ahead of her in line, but no one behind.
She whirled around in shock as he walked towards her. As his teammate and a gifted sensor she was very attuned to his chakra signature. “What are you doing here?”
“Reconnaissance,” he drawled, slouching over with his hands in his pockets.
Crossing her arms over her chest, she scoffed. “Security’s going to give you a hard time. You do realize that?”
He rocked back on his heels and pulled his shoulders up to his ears in an exaggerated shrug. “Maybe I wanted to see you.”
Crossing her arms over her chest, she muttered, “Troublesome.”
Putting a hand on her shoulder, he pitched his voice low so as not be overheard. “Come to my place tonight so we can talk privately.”
She stared at him askance, laughter dancing in her eyes as she teased, “Are you propositioning me?”
Shikamaru blushed, looking back at the two shinobi who had just walked in to stand behind them in line. “No, I just want to talk about…um…you know.”
“The arranged marriage?” she completed his thought with a raised eyebrow. “I’ve got plans today with Aunt Ayano, but maybe tomorrow?”
“Alright,” he nodded. “Want to meet at my place?”
Ino shrugged. “Sure, whatever works.”
Shikamaru put his hands in his pockets and slouched his shoulders forward. He looked around the bare vaulted atrium of the Division of Intelligence around them. “Want to get a coffee? I don’t have to be at work until nine.”
“You’re unbelievable, you know that?” she deadpanned.
She worried her bottom lip as she considered his offer. “I do like coffee.”
She tried to hide the grin on her face. “I can tolerate you better when I’m caffeinated.”
“Back at you,” he quipped.
Chapter 5: Chapter Four
HER GREAT GRANDAUNT SAT PRIMLY AT THE COUNTER OF YAMANAKA FLOWERS. Aunt Ayano preferred the rikka style of arranging flowers and had passed along her talents to Ino. The rikka style was the most traditional of the three styles of the ikebana flower arranging. It employed tall narrow vases to create standing ikebana arrangements. Ino watched spellbound as the Yamanaka clan elder arranged the flowers and plants vertically to create a beautiful shape. The glitter of Aunt Ayano’s pearl necklace was almost hypnotic as her hands twisted and twirled around the flowers like she was conducting an orchestra. It was almost as if the living plants bent to her will.
“I was thinking something like that for the Hyuga order,” said Aunt Ayano.
The red Japanese winterberries dangling from their delicate branches symbolized the end of autumn, the tall pine branches were for winter, and a white narcissus represented the promise of spring.
“It’s beautiful,” Ino said, putting down her finished lunch and leaning forward on her stool to touch one of the winterberries. “Simply stunning.”
“Good,” Aunt Ayano nodded.
“Aunt Ayano,” Ino interrupted, twirling the bento box around in front of her with her chopsticks, “Why would you support Inoko over me as clan head? Even if Chohiro and Shikatsuro wanted to overthrow me, they needed your support too.”
Leaning forward, Aunt Ayano brushed back a strand of Ino’s copper-blonde hair from her face. “My little bush clover, I had no choice.”
The copper-furred vixen climbed off Aunt Ayano’s shoulders and slunk across the table to sit in Ino’s lap. Ino put down her chopsticks to run her hands through the vixen’s soft fur as it nuzzled its head against her hand. The vixen made a rough purring noise, nuzzling Ino’s hand. Ino looked down at the creature’s copper fur. It was similar in color to her hair.
“Why do you mean?” Ino wondered. “Is Chohiro blackmailing you?”
Aunt Ayano chuckled. “I’m not being blackmailed.”
Ino leaned forward. “Aunt Ayano, why didn’t you have a choice?”
Aunt Ayano sat back in the chair. “I had to think of the future of the Three Clans. I conceded to Chohiro and Shikatsuro because they convinced me the future of the three clans was at risk.”
Aunt Ayano lifted a box onto the table in front of them. Opening the box, she took out several pieces of card stock. After moving Ino’s finished bento box out of the way, she arranged four different invitations in a rectangle in front of Ino. Ino looked down at them. White, cream, grey and lavender washi-paper. Her eyes darted to the invitation in the top right corner. It was on cream-colored washi paper in dark purple ink. The calligraphy was elegant, but simple. A delicate trellis of hand painted bush clovers decorated the top right and bottom left corners.
requests the pleasure of your company
at the wedding of her grandniece
Tuesday, the Third of March
at six o’clock in the evening
The Akimichi Castle
Aunt Ayano spoke again. “Shikatsuro believes that the future of the Three Clans is at risk because Nara Shikamaru has refused to marry or have children with anyone but you.”
Ino gaped at her great grandaunt, trying to process that particular revelation.
Aunt Ayano continued, “Shikamaru’s the only branch on the Nara head family tree. The Yamanaka has two branches: you and Inoko. We decided this was the best course of action.”
Ino felt lightheaded. “Why would Shikamaru do that to me?”
Aunt Ayano put her hands over Ino’s. “I’m sorry that Shikamaru’s lust has taken away your future as the Yamanaka clan head.”
Ino brushed away her hair from her face. “Aunt Ayano, are you sure it’s even possible for me to have children? My mother--”
Ayano waved a hand. “What happened to your mother isn’t hereditary. You should be able to carry a child to term. I’ve examined you myself after all.”
Ino put a hand to her hip. “What about my weird birth control seal? You applied it when I turned twelve, but I still don’t understand what it’s supposed to do. It’s different from the ones I learned about during my medical ninjustu studies.”
Ayano raised an eyebrow. “Ino-chan, your medical ninjustu studies were very brief, but I’m surprised that you never encountered a similar seal. It merely regulates your irregular menstrual cycles. And it doesn’t allow for conception because you’re sexually active. When you and Shikamaru are ready to have children, I will revise the seal for you.”
Ino pursed her lips looking down at the invitation. She wasn’t particularly active sexually – she hadn’t taken a lover in months. Standing up from her stool, Ino gently placed the vixen back in Ayano’s arms. Picking up her bento box from the table, she said softly, “Well, I need to get back to work. I like this invitation. Thanks for your help, Aunt Ayano.”
WHEN HE OPENED HIS DOOR AT HER KNOCK, he found her looking down the street lost in thought, so he was allowed a minute to study her profile. Her copper-blonde hair brushed against her chin and her nose was red from the cold. Her gloved hands gripped her tote bag tightly. It must have begun to snow because snowflakes had settled onto the shoulders of her winter coat. She turned towards him, the cold air whipping her hair around her face. She scrutinized him for an uncomfortable moment. It felt as if she was able to read every one of his thoughts and feelings with her blue eyes.
“Would you like to come in?” he said to break the silence.
After a long moment, she stepped inside and closed the door behind her. He shivered against the cold air in the front room. After a pause, Ino finally spoke. “Aunt Ayano said that the arranged marriage was your doing.”
Shikamaru blinked in surprise – trust Ino to go straight for the jugular. “My doing?”
Leaning back against the door, Ino crossed her arms across her chest. She titled her chin to meet him eye to eye. “Aunt Ayano told me that Shikatsuro was the one who arranged the marriage. Apparently you’ve refused to marry or have children with anyone but me.”
Shikamaru kept his face carefully blank, not wanting to reveal how he felt about her. From her tone of voice, it was clear that she would find any potential romantic entanglements with him abhorant. Shikamaru mirrored her posture by crossing his arms over his chest and leaning against the opposite wall. “Shikatsuro had another explanation. Chohiro’s been looking for years for an excuse to remove you as clan head. Grandfather said Ayano finally agreed on the condition that we marry. Chohiro and Ayano convinced grandfather to go along with it.”
Ino pursed her lips in a grim line. “Aunt Ayano wouldn’t betray me like that.”
Unhitching himself from the wall, he walked over to stand in front of her. This close, he could see the dusting of freckles across her nose. She titled her head back to look up at him. As always, her eyes were incredibly blue.
“So you trust her word and not mine?” he asked simply.
Ino searched her eyes. “I want to trust you.”
“We’ve always been at our best working together as a team, right?” he asked a bit more huskily than he’d intended. “I trust you with my life.”
Ino gripped his upper arms tightly. “Then promise that this wasn’t your doing.”
“I promise that I never have and never will try to remove you from your rightful position as the head of the Yamanaka clan.”
Searching his eyes, she stood on her tiptoes and pressed her lips to his. He let a noise of surprise at the suddenness of her actions, but he put one hand to her waist and welcomed the kiss. It was light and sweet and full of promise. Wrapping her arms around his shoulders, she traced the seam of his lips with her tongue. He lost himself in the feeling of her sweet mouth moving over his. He devoured her, pressing her up against the door.
His blood sang in his veins, as her passion finally seemed to rival his own.
CLOSING HER EYES, INO LET OUT A HITCHING BREATH. A spark of pleasure ran down her spine. His long fingers caressed the hair at the nape of her neck as he angled her head to the side to lay kisses down her neck. As she tightened her grip on Shikamaru’s strong shoulders, she heard someone moan. The sound of her own voice moaning out Shikamaru’s name brought her back to herself.
She hadn’t come to his apartment with the intention of kissing him, but the way he’d looked at her had put the thought into her mind. He might have denied his involvement in their arranged marriage with his words, but he might reveal something to her with his actions.
She saw now that she’d acted rashly.
Then again, she hadn’t expected to enjoy kissing Shikamaru so much.
She tilted her head to the side, so his lips met her cheek instead of her lips. “You said you have nothing to do with the arranged marriage. Your lips say otherwise.”
She found his eyes a curious mixture of lust and anticipation. The warmth of his breath mingled with hers.
He raised an eyebrow at her. “Was a test?”
She had trouble getting the words out between her lips, so she nodded instead.
He raised his eyebrows at her. “Did I pass?”
She felt behind her for the doorknob. She didn’t know what that meant anymore. She needed to get out of here before she did something stupid.
“It wasn’t what I expected,” she stuttered, opening the door behind her.
He raised an eyebrow.
“Good night, Shikamaru,” she whispered.
He tried to grab her arm, but she twisted out of his grip. She flash stepped home, her ears ringing with Shikamaru’s pleas for her to stay. Her hands shook as she opened the door to her apartment.
She put a hand to her lips that still tingled from Shikamaru’s kisses.
After talking with Aunt Ayano and Shikamaru, she’d received answers but these answers seemed to only invite more questions. One of them was lying to her. What was she supposed to think? Who was she supposed to trust? What was she supposed to do?
At present she believed her Aunt Ayano’s side of the story.
But Shikamaru’s lips against her had been mesmerizing. She never expected that--
No, she shouldn’t let herself get taken in by his deception.
The evidence was stacked against him. His story had obvious flaws. Why would her Aunt Ayano’s condition be a marriage between them? Did Shikamaru think that by using such a feeble excuse that she would believe him? His agile mind could have easily dreamed up a more plausible excuse. Or was that the strategy? Did he assume that she would believe his feeble excuse as the truth because if he lied he would have lied better?
THE FULL MOON LIT THE ROOFS IN A WHITE GLOW THAT NIGHT. A shadow shifted on the roof to ensure that her view of the Nara clan head was not obstructed as Shikamaru passed under the covered awning of one of the restaurants in the neighborhood. About an hour after the Yamanaka girl had left his townhouse, the Nara clan head stepped out into the cold night air for a walk. The shadow watched him with a savage smile. For nearly seventy years, she had schemed and planned. Over the years her other attempts had failed.
These failures were in part due to her ignorance of human nature. When she tried brute force, the pawns rebelled and slipped through her fingers. When she used more subtle persuasion, the pawns didn’t move as hoped. Now that she had learned the complexities of human nature, her latest attempt showed promise. With her third attempt, she gave her pawns the appearance of control, but manipulated the strings. In blissful ignorance the pawns moved exactly as planned.
The first phase of her plan was in motion, Aneko could soon implement the second.
The Nara clan head moved soundlessly around the metal barriers cordoning off the outside patio from the rest of the street. It was empty in the winter, but would be decorated with tables and chairs and paper lanterns in the spring and summer. A civilian man returning from the bars on Akimichi circle staggered behind him, bumping up against one of the metal barriers. The horrible screeching of the metal feet against the concrete muffled the civilian man’s yelp of surprise.
A second shadow next to the first shifted back into the shadows of the building, rasping, “Nara Shikamaru doesn’t deserve…”
“Any descendent of Nara Shikarou deserves what’s coming to him,” spat the first figure.
The second figure took a wheezing breath before beginning again. “Aneko, you are merely projecting … your hatred for Shikarou onto that poor boy.”
“He’s the spitting image of that evil man.”
“And Ino looks remarkably similar to me … in my human form,” breathed the second figure with a weary sigh. “However, the boy is not Shikarou … and the girl is not your little sister. I’m tired and weak and broken, Aneko. Nothing you do to them boy will save me.”
“Your hoshi no tama is within our grasp, Akane. The power of my hoshi-no-tama that you wear only lasts one hundred years. Its power will burn out in another thirty. The Nara clan has already robbed you of your second tail, but I will make you well again. I will make you yourself again, I swear it.”
Chapter 6: Interlude
AKANE FLED INTO THE FOREST, SEEKING OUT THE HELP OF HER OLDER SISTER. Out of her siblings, Aneko had the strongest kitsune magic. Akane and her brothers were unaware, but their sister Aneko had done the unthinkable. In her insatiable thirst for knowledge and power, Aneko had learned the forbidden nogitsune magic. Aneko had excelled in dark nogitsune magic and grew to prefer it to light kitsune magic.
While Akane was the goddess of spring, Aneko was the goddess of autumn. Akane’s eyes were a bright sky blue; Aneko’s eyes were a dark forest green. Akane’s bright eyes reflected her optimistic personality. Aneko’s dark eyes reflected her cynical and harsh personality. Akane’s fur was the color of copper; Aneko’s fur was the color of gold.
Aneko used nogitsune magic to prolong Akane’s life, creating precious jewels from the life forces of the villagers who lived in the mountains of Gokayama near Aneko’s lair . Akane was weak when separated from her hoshi no tama – the physical manifestation of her power and her soul. If not for Aneko’s timely intervention, Akane would have died.
While Akane remained close to the Yamanaka clan to watch over her children, Aneko remained close to the Nara clan to gather information about the fuinjutsu that guarded Akane’s hoshi no tama. One night, Aneko stole into the Nara camp and stole the pendant. She could feel her sister’s soul beating inside the pendant like a living heart. However, despite Aneko’s power, she was unable to break open the pendant to retrieve her sister’s hoshi no tama.
Akane watched from afar as her daughter Ayano grew in age and beauty. However, she worried when she noticed Shikarou’s lecherous gaze on her daughter. Terrified that her fifteen-year-old daughter would be a victim of Nara Shikarou’s lust, Akane asked Aneko to protect Yamanaka Ayano during a mission the girl had undertaken with Shikarou.
Aneko haunted their steps with a secondary mission in mind.
When Shikarou was alone, Aneko revealed herself to him in her human form. The Nara clan head originally mistook Aneko for her sister. He realized quickly that this was not Inori’s wife Akane. As the nogitsune threatened Shikarou for information about how to break the fuinjutsu, he merely laughed.
“There is nothing that you with all your considerable power can do to break the seal. I spoke the truth to your sister all those years ago. The seal can only be broken by a son born from her bloodline and my own.”
Aneko narrowed her eyes at the Shikarou. Knowing that her sister could not bear a child because of her weakened state, she asked for clarification. He explained that a son born from a daughter of Akane’s bloodline and a son of his bloodline would break the seal.
This put Aneko in a difficult position. Akane would never risk her daughter’s happiness for her own sake. However, Aneko was more pragmatic. Akane was her sister and a kitsune. Yamanaka Ayano was her niece and a human. She weighed their lives and happiness against one another and decided it was worth destroying her niece’s happiness if it meant restoring her sister’s power and soul. Aneko bid Shikarou to mate with Akane’s daughter so that the girl would bear his son. Shikarou was shocked by her complicity with his evil scheme.
Alone and vulnerable, Ayano found herself a victim of Shikarou’s lust.
During the mission, Shikarou grew tired of Ayano’s tears as he forced himself upon her.
The cunning Shikarou convinced Aneko that a son couldn’t be conceived if Ayano rebelled against them. So Aneko wove a powerful spell that forced Ayano to comply with their demands. It was necessary to keep the affair a secret, so Ayano would keep it a secret. It was necessary for Shikarou and Ayano to be intimate to conceive a son, so Ayano would give herself to Shikarou whenever he desired her.
Aneko kept the truth of Shikarou’s continued rape of Ayano secret from Akane. Instead, Aneko waited with anticipation for a child to be born from their unhappy union. She justified the young girl’s suffering by the simple fact that the fruit of the girl’s suffering would heal Akane. Aneko felt no guilt at performing heinous acts in Akane’s name as long as the ends justified the means.