Yamanaka Ino had heard many great things about the Kage of Suna, and she was not disappointed when she found out that everything they said about him was true. He was the silent, brooding type, and talked only when necessary. Which was a good thing because the last thing Ino wanted was to bother with small talk when she could feel her teeth chattering in the coldness of the cave.
The moment their clothes had finally dried, they had set off to the opposite direction of the snowed-in cave entrance. They were traveling for almost half an hour already, both of them equipped with a flare, when Ino started to feel uneasy. The mountain cave, they found out, was just an opening to a long, uneven tunnel. Sometimes the path would open up into a dome-shaped space, the ceiling several feet over their heads, and then suddenly would drop so low that they had to crouch down on all fours to get through.
It was strangely unnerving to see the Kazekage crawling on the floor like a common ninja with a flare roughly stuck between his teeth, since she had always had the image of him riding on a tuft of sand in all his Kazekage glory, floating from one place to another with his many, many sashes trailing behind him. But now, as she waited for him to wiggle out of the very narrow hole that was barely wide enough for his broad shoulders, bits of limestone and icicles peppering his blood-red hair, she didn't know if she should stare – because a kunoichi seldom got to see a groveling Kazekage – or look away – because she knew even a Kazekage had their pride.
It looked like the man was having a bit of trouble squeezing out of his predicament, and Ino took her time waving the flare around to see the next chamber-like space they had found themselves in. So far, the cave had been linear. Actually, she didn't even know what they would do if the path branched out in different directions. She only had six flares left to their disposal, and at the rate they were going, and the exit not promising to be close, she was starting to really worry.
This small chamber looked different than others they had passed, though. For some weird reason, it was relatively warmer, probably a good three-to-five degrees Celsius. Another conspicuous observation Ino had, was there were very many small, fist-sized holes along the walls, like someone had been training there. She tried to peek into one of said holes but was surprised to find plenty of brown objects that resembled dead grass stuffed inside them. She wondered what they were, but was interrupted when Gaara called out to her.
She was surprised when she looked over her shoulder, because Gaara was still on the floor, and it did not look like he had any progress of extracting himself from the hole he was in. She hurried over to him, kneeling down on the ground as she placed down the flare a safe distance away. "Are you all right, sir?"
Gaara's face, which was almost always as blank as a sheet, was… well… still as blank as a sheet. Which was actually kind of humorous, because the only thing visible to Ino was his head, shoulders and arms protruding from the hole, and the rest of his body was nowhere to be seen. He handed her his flare and she carefully placed it beside her.
Ino bit her lip, right now unsure of what to do. He was looking up at her with those glassy eyes of his. "Uhm… Kazekage-sama… you're not by any chance – "
"I'm stuck," Gaara said flatly, and he lowered his gaze onto the floor as he tried one more attempt at freeing himself from probably the single most embarrassing position he's ever been in his lifetime.
Ino blinked, scratched her forehead and decided that this was not a good time to laugh. "Maybe it would be better if you backed out again and we can hack away at the stone over here to widen the hole," she suggested as her fingers traced the part where Gaara's right shoulder was, then her hand flew to her ninjato, sliding it out of its sheath strapped to her back.
Gaara stared up at her, frowned, but did not look like he was moving.
Ino blinked again. "Go on, sir. Try to back out."
"I just did."
This was really not her lucky day.
She abandoned her weapon on the floor where it let out a dull 'clang' against the icy rocks. Gaara did not look like he was kidding. "Oh, dear… Wait, maybe – if I'm really careful – I can hack it away even with you there."
And that was probably the first time that she had gotten a facial reaction from Gaara. His eyes widened in disbelief as he looked at her, then at her weapon. After a while, he asked, "Are your depth and precision skills… above average?"
If it weren't Gaara, Ino might have taken the question as an insult. "I can hit a small moving target two hundred feet away, if that's what you're asking, sir."
"Ah," was the only word that came out of his mouth.
Ino waited for him to continue. When he didn't, she picked up her weapon and raised it over head. With one swift downward jab, she stuck at the rock, a centimeter above Gaara's shoulder.
"Ngh!" Gaara let out a strangled cry, and for a moment Ino thought she had stabbed him. Her hand dropped the weapon carelessly and groped at his shoulder to check for any injury inflicted by her blade.
There was none.
But she gasped when she looked at Gaara's face and found a chunk of rock engraved on his right cheek. It was her turn to stare wide-eyed, and she started to panic. She had just sent a piece of rock flying into the Kazekage's face!
"Oh! Dammit, I'm sorry, Kazekage-sama! Does it hurt? I was careless! I – "
"This is nothing," Gaara injected quietly, and Ino watched in awe as said piece of rock slowly eroded away from his cheek, and a hint of sand swirled around the spot where the offending thing used to be.
Letting out a relieved sigh, Ino sagged against the wall of the cave. "You scared me."
"You underestimate me."
Ino raised her eyebrow at him, not very pleased. Gaara stared back at her, but she stood her ground. "Well, since it's just the two of us, sir, and you are the Kazekage, I deem myself responsible of your safety. Don't you agree?"
"I do not need protection," he said.
And that was coming from a man stuck in a hole.
Gaara braced his elbows in an angle to get better leverage, then tried to pull himself free. He budged an inch, but that was about it.
"Can't your sand be helpful at a time like this?" Ino asked, sitting back and resting her chin on a hand, forgetting about helping him any more to avoid wounding his male ego.
Who ever thought Gaara would have an ego?
"I have a limited supply at the moment, and I don't want to waste any more than necessary."
"Hm," Ino mused as she watched Gaara change the positioning of his arms and attempted to free himself, to no avail. Whatever sand left with Gaara was now sitting inside his two satchels. They had been forced to abandon his gourd at one of the narrower passages they had passed earlier. "So… shall I give the hole another try? It would probably send more pieces of cave wall into your face, but since it doesn't hurt… "
Gaara looked like he was having an internal struggle. After a while, he nodded.
Ino raised her ninjato over her shoulder again and was about to strike down once more when another strange occurrence happened.
Ino paused. The floor was not actually warm to begin with. She could feel the cold radiating from beneath her. With Gaara's whole body pressed flat against the ground, she could bet he was not very comfortable. "Are you all right, sir?"
Gaara's face was unreadable as he sniffed several times before nodding. "I am not used to this."
"I doubt anyone is, sir. I'll get you free in a minute." She had to fight the laughter bubbling from her gut as she hacked away, pausing only when Gaara sneezed.
Ten meticulous minutes, plenty of flicked stones on the face and several sneezes later, Gaara was free.
This was probably the silliest thing that has ever happened to Ino in her life. She stood over Gaara and offered her hand. "That should do it, sir. Let me help you up."
By this time, Gaara was looking absolutely miserable. And very cold. Ino didn't blame him; the man did live in a desert. He reached out to take her hand and she pulled him free. He was heavier than she had expected, but managed to tug him out of his little prison. He scrambled to a sitting position and his arms were around his body instantly, desperately rubbing his shoulders for warmth. He sneezed again.
"We should get you warm, sir. Shall I start a fire?" Ino said as she kneeled down beside him worriedly.
"Do you have materials to light one?" Gaara asked, his voice thick and his eyes watering.
Ino nodded. "I'm not really sure why, but there are strange holes in this chamber, and in it are things that I think we can burn. Wait here." She grabbed one of the flares she had left on the floor and hurried over to the far wall. She raised the flare closer to one of the holes. She could see a collection of dead grass, some sort of paper-like objects, and several others that looked useful. It did not take more than a few minutes before she had gathered a hefty amount of burnable things, which she neatly piled a few feet away from Gaara. And with her ninjato, a rock and a flick of a wrist, the chamber burst into a warm, flickering light of a bonfire.
"Warmth," was what Gaara said as he stretched his palms out to warm them on the fire.
Ino slipped back her weapon into its sheath. "It won't last long, since we don't have timber." She huddled over the fire facing the Kazekage. "But it should get your blood circulation going."
The silence that followed was not uncomfortable, interrupted only by Gaara's sniffling. Ino didn't really mind, but she had started to wonder how long the tunnel was, because there were no signs of it ending anytime soon. She hoped Naruto was all right. Chances were she and Gaara were the only ones who got separated from the group.
Gaara, who was wiping his nose with the back of his hand, looked up suddenly. "Did you hear that?"
Ino blinked, also looking up. She didn't hear anything. "What is it?"
Gaara was instantly alert, and he was already on his haunches. "I'm not sure."
Ino mimicked him, unconsciously slipping her weapon out of its sheath again and warily looking over her shoulder.
And that was when she heard it. Well, actually, she felt it before she heard it. The ground was shaking ever so slightly, and then came the rumbling noise.
Gaara moved swiftly, taking his flare from the floor and stomping the fire out. "It's coming from all around us."
"Are there… things living in this cave?" Ino bit her lower lip as she found herself back to back with the Kazekage, anticipating the worst. She could feel them getting closer, whatever they were. She looked around and found the way they have to go through to keep on moving. Unfortunately it was, once again a narrow hole. "Shall we make a run for it, sir?"
Gaara grunted from behind her. "Whatever is coming, is coming fast. Dealing with it head on is wiser than getting caught half-stuck in a hole."
She supposed he was right. Bracing herself for a fight in such an enclosed space, expecting maybe hibernating gigantic bears or tigers, she blanched violently at what came to assault them.
They fell from the fist-sized holes in the walls, one after the other, making squishy sounds as they hit the cave floor. Ino instantly tensed and had to hold down a scream that threatened to escape from her throat.
Slugs as long as her forearm. Dozens after dozens started leaking out of the holes on the walls, dropping over each other and oozing a generous amount of slime as they squirmed. In the green light of their flares, she couldn't tell if they were yellow or white, almost – but not quite – different from Tsunade-sama's summoning familiar, Katsuyu.
"I think we just stumbled in their living habitat," Gaara said calmly as he relaxed his stance, the bit of sand he had hovering over his shoulders once again slipping into one of his satchels. He was now watching interestedly as more slugs poured out of their respective holes.
Ino could hardly move. She had never liked slimy things. There had been many opportunities that she had to work with Katsuyu-sama, and even though the summons was probably one of the most respected familiars of all time, Ino had always had a hard time concealing her surprise and slight disgust when Katsuyu-sama had to perch on her shoulder.
And that was just one slug.
And here there were hundreds of them!
"K-k-k – !" Ino sputtered, as she backed up against Gaara, who was now rubbing his hands together briskly. "Kazekage-sama!"
Gaara looked over his shoulder to her. "Yes?"
No, she shouldn't be exposing her weakness to this man. Her honor – Konoha's honor – was after all, on the line here. "W-we should head out. As in, now." Her eyes searched for the hole they had to squeeze through to trudge on, and nearly fainted when she saw a clump of those slugs were blocking her salvation.
She swallowed. "I'm doomed."
Gaara was now standing beside her, studying her face. "You… dislike slugs?"
There was no use lying. She nodded. "I don't really fancy them, sir."
Gaara looked genuinely surprised. "How strange. You kunoichi can stand your ground in war, and win, but you can't stand wriggly things. I heard Naruto say Sakura-san hates cockroaches. And my sister screams when she sees spiders."
Ino was not comforted in the least. "They're gross. We should just eliminate them and get going." She held her ninjato in front of her with her shaking hands.
Gaara stopped her. "I don't think we should be messing with the ecosystem of a foreign land, Yamanaka-san." He eyed one of the slugs that had managed to make its way to them. "They are most likely harmless, anyway." The slug started to crawl up Gaara's leg, leaving a wet trail of slime on his pants. He shook it off gently. It fell with a splattering sound on the ground.
Ino grimaced. Great. Just great.
Something wet and cold slithered up her ankle. She screamed, lunged at a random direction and found herself desperately clambering up Gaara's shoulders.
"It's eating my leg! Get it off! Get it off!" She shamelessly climbed the respectable and honorable Kazekage-sama's frame like a little girl as she shook her leg out where a disgusting slug was now sucking on her flesh.
Gaara was as calm as ever. A bit of sand swirled out of his satchel, flicking at the gastropod off of her ankle. "They're harmless. They're slugs."
Ino whimpered as she watched the sand rub up against her leg to wipe off the slime trail on her skin. She took this opportunity to wrap both her legs around Gaara's torso.
Gaara cleared his throat loudly, sounding very much embarrassed. "Yamanaka-san?"
Ino tried to control her breathing. The floor around them was no sooner covered in a carpet of slug, and she fought not to start hyperventilating. "Y-yeah. Just… just give me a second… "
Gaara did not say anything, but instead he forced his flare into one of Ino's fisted hands, reached out behind him to support her legs, hooking the back of her knees with his elbows in a common piggyback. "Take your time. Though I don't think they would be disappearing anytime soon."
She gulped for air as she watched the carpet around them move and squirm and slither, and she instantly felt sick. She buried her face into Gaara's neck. "It'll just be a few seconds. I can just use my jutsu to order them to go back into their nests. I just need to relax. Just a moment… "
"All right," Gaara said, and Ino could feel his voice rumble against his back.
"Just… just keep talking. It relaxes me better when someone talks to me…" she said, then added, "Sir."
Gaara paused a bit, as if he was thinking about what to say to make her relax better, then he started talking, "At least they are just slugs living in this cave. It could be worse. In the desert, we have these spiders that grow as large as a watermelon. They live in rock formations all over the land of Wind. They run as fast as thirty kilometers per hour and are common pests because they can kill a hoard of camels in a matter of minutes. There was news of them ambushing travelers while they sleep, and one time, a traveling merchant was brought into Suna because he was attacked by a spider at night. He had lost a leg – "
"All right!" Ino snapped, wriggling down the Kazekage's back in a hurry, feeling suddenly sick to her stomach. Her foot landed on one of the slugs, squishing it under her weight. She winced. "That got me so very much relaxed, thank you!"
"You're welcome," Gaara said stoically as he collected his flare from her.
Sheesh! No wonder Temari hated spiders.
Ino took a deep breath, fighting the bile that was rising up her throat, and made the stance of her mind-body disturbance jutsu, all the while thinking that this was going to be a very, very long day.
She was just that unlucky.