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Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto, nor any of it characters or likenesses, and would not claim to do anything official with them. This is merely a fanfic, and is intended for the private enjoyment of the Naruto fandom. (That would be you.) I've rated this story PG-13 for violence, occasional swearing, more violence, and, well look, its Naruto. What would you expect?

Authors Notes: As should be immediately obvious, this story begins shortly after the final phase of the Chuunin Exam, and diverges from the manga from there. Also, the bulk of the story takes place outside of Fire Country. This becomes rather critical as the story progresses. I will be explaining things as I go, but if you'd like a visual, the Naruto-kun website has a useful map under its 'village information guide.' On the map is an unnamed grey country between Fire Country and Wind Country. That, for the purposes of this story, is Steppe Country.

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EVERDREAM

Go West, Young Man!

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Village of the Hidden Leaf, Administrative Offices…

"Maaaaan…" Muttered Nara Shikamaru, as he slouched against armrest of a well-worn bench. "I can't believe we're reporting for missions already."

"Already?" Replied Yamanaka Ino, from beside her teammate. "I can't believe they waited this long to call us back."

"I can't believe they reopened this place without fixing the vending machines."

Leaning forward, Shikamaru and Ino silently glared at the ninja sitting at the far end of the bench. But as usual, Akimichi Choji ignored them, instead rummaging through his near-empty bag of potato chips. After a moment, Shikamaru sighed and leaned back, while Ino just shook her head. Neither bothered actually responding.

It had been little more than a week since the end of the Chuunin Exam, and the battle that had erupted from it. Though quick evacuations had prevented many civilian casualties, street by street fighting between the Sand, Sound, and Leaf ninjas had left large swaths of wreckage throughout Konoha. Following the funeral service for the Third Hokage, most of the younger ninjas had been ordered to help with the relief efforts, and then left to their own devices. Ino, Shikamaru, and Choji been doing just that until the previous night, when they all received a summons to appear at the main office the next morning.

"Ahem." All three ninjas looked up as Iruka stood up at the dispatch desk. "Oiry Rakon, Hiyalla Niroshyia, and Kata Moniyori," addressed the Chuunin. "Please come forward. The officers are ready to see you now."

At the sound of their names, three young ninjas quietly got up and walked across the room.

As he watched the trio, Choji scratched his chin. "Moniyori? I thought he was a year behind us."

"He is," lazily responded Shikamaru.

"Didn't you hear?" Asked Ino as she folded her arms. "They graduated six new Gennin three days ago! A couple kids that got sent back from our year and then a bunch of even younger ones. Two new rookie teams, assigned to Jounins. That," Ino tilted her head to point to the dispatch desk, "was one of them."

"Early graduation?" Choji repeated as he tossed aside his empty chip bag. "That's not fair. Why couldn't we have gotten that?"

"'Cause we still had a Hokage when we were graduating," Ino quickly answered. "Let me tell you, Konoha is desperate. We're short on ninjas, short allies, and—"

"We know, Ino," Shikamaru interrupted. "We live here too…"

Choji leaned forward and smirked. "Yeah, but she figures you've spent too much time looking at the sky to notice." Knowing Shikamaru well enough to know he wouldn't respond to taunting, Choji leaned back immediately. "But how do you know its that bad, Ino?"

Ino raised her eyebrows in a knowing way. "'Cause my dad is leading one of the new teams."

Choji paused, thinking. "Are the new kids any good?"

"One of them is a Cuhyisis. Tarmar, I think. He's supposed to be a bit of a genius. But…" Ino shook her head. "Not to the level of Sasuke. Or Neji. Or Lee. The rest…" Ino sighed. "I'd be surprised if any of them were even as good as us."

"Oh." Choji leaned back and went silent for a moment. At length, he spoke up again. "So they promoted rookies worse than us… Which means they'll be kept on the easy missions. Which'll free up more experienced ninjas for the important missions." Choji nervously glanced around the room, noting the absence of any uninjured veteran ninjas.

"Which, sadly, would be us," finished Ino. "I told you Konoha was desperate."

Choji looked around again, and then quietly gulped.

"Maaaaan…"

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The same, later…

"Your mission," began one of the council officers, whom neither Ino, Shikamaru, nor Choji had met before. Nor did they recognize the two Jounins that flanked the administrator. The only staffer the trio actually recognized was Iruka, who seemed unusually concerned. "…Is at the behest of Lord Jiiya, who rules a fiefdom in the northern provinces of Steppe Country. You will, therefore be working outside the physical boundaries of Fire Country. I trust none of you have a problem with that."

Shikamaru lamely raised a hand. "If we did, would we still have to go?"

One of the Jounin, a grizzled old soldier with one arm and a drooping face, chuckled to himself. Iruka scowled.

"Uh, we don't have a problem with going abroad," interjected Ino, seeking to diffuse the situation. "But… Why send us to Steppe Country? I thought we were hard pressed to fulfill missions here in Fire Country. Isn't taking on even more missions just…" Ino trailed off for a moment to avoid fumbling over her words. "Isn't that just stretching our forces even thinner, and making the whole situation worse?"

The second Jounin, a younger unkempt fellow, smirked. "Perceptive girl," He muttered to himself.

The council officer spoke up again. "Yes, Leaf forces are stretched thin at the moment. But that is why it is imperative that we continue to take foreign missions."

Choji furrowed his brow. "Hm?"

"New recruits generally don't grasp the concept," the officer continued, "but foreign missions are central to the well being of Fire Country, as well as many nearby countries. Foreign missions are more than just missions. They are exercises in military power. That military power is what keeps the region secure. All too often, the overt threat of overwhelming military force is all that keeps feudal lords from developing their own forces. A lack of forces loyal only to them insures they settle their differences peaceably, or at least with only limited violence. The Leaf is largest of all ninja villages. It is our forces that keep this land at peace."

"Makes sense," muttered Shikamaru. Under the officer's withering gaze, he only shrugged. "What? It does."

"Not really," Choji contradicted. "We've been outside Fire Country," Choji paused a second, "well, only once before, but nobody was thinking about war…"

"Precisely, my boy," answered the elder Jounin. "With Leaf and our…" The Jounin coughed. "Allies at call, a conventional war is unthinkable. Whomever agitates for one will be utterly crushed. There is no way to avoid it. No conventional force can handle a ninja onslaught. Thus, open conflicts only arise between ninja villages."

The unkempt Jounin picked up the thread. "Foreign missions, even benign ones, remind the minor lords of this. It gives them a look of what we are capable of. And it proves that we are interested in what happens beyond our boarders, and will act there if there is need for us to. As long as the feudal leaders know open violence is futile, they will avoid it at all costs."

"Which is why we must continue to fulfill foreign obligations. Even to the expense of domestic ones," finished the officer. "The moment we begin shirking our duties, that we decline to use force when we are expected to, we send a message to all potential agitators. We tell them that we won't always get involved. And that means that the use of force, their use of force, just might be a viable means of attaining their goals." The officer looked at each of the trio, his face deadly serious. "In short, it would signal that war is not unthinkable. And that would make the world a much scarier place."

Choji seemed to shrink back. "So… We have to go stop a war?"

The injured Jounin gave a hearty laugh. "No, boy. Nothing so dramatic as that."

"Good," muttered Shikamaru.

"So what is our mission?" Asked Ino, with a slight twinkle in her eye. "Now that the civics lesson is over…"

The officer glanced at Ino, unamused. "As I said, you will go to the aid of Lord Jiiya, in Steppe Country. Several weeks ago, a number of people went missing from the countryside near his manor. Rather, a number of weeks ago it was noticed that the people were missing. Due to the nature of rural life, it is impossible to determine an exact date for the event."

"What," half-heartedly prompted Shikamaru. "They couldn't bother talking to the farmers who lived next door?"

The unkempt Jounin cleared his throat and replied. "There were no neighbors to speak of. Outside of a few key valleys, the province is virtually uninhabited. The missing people all vanished from the same habitation; a small gold-panning outpost on a mountainside. No more than 25 people, mostly rogues, squatters, or other vagrants. None of them had anything more than sporadic contact with the local Lord. The settlement was found ravaged and abandoned by some traders who passed through."

"Bandits are not unknown in that area," continued the injured Jounin. "They mostly prey on travelers and villagers on the fringes of settlements. This, however, represents a major strike."

The council officer nodded and continued the thread. "Lord Jiiya is concerned that any attempts to use his own security forces to seek out the perpetrators would leave his citizenry open to direct attack. And given the audacity of the bandits, his concerns are not unfounded."

"Bandits?" Said Choji with a trace of unease. "I thought you said it wouldn't be so dramatic."

The injured Jounin chuckled. "That isn't dramatic. Highwaymen are standard fare for foreign missions. Sometimes even in domestic ones."

Choji scowled, unhappy at being corrected yet again.

The officer sighed, tiring of the multiple tangents the briefing had taken. "Lord Jiiya has sent a request and a deposit for a B level mission, and we are sending you three to fulfill this obligation. I want to emphasize that this is a punitive mission." The officer picked the mission scroll off the table and pointed it at the trio for emphasis. "You will seek out the individuals responsible and either bring them to justice, or inflict justice upon them. You will not be asked to justify any casualties you leave behind."

Their mouths falling slightly open, Shikamaru and Choji's eyes widened in surprise.

"Oh," said Ino, being the only one able to articulate herself. "A B level mission. So I guess our Sensei will joining us after the briefing…"

"No," replied the unkempt Jounin, looking to the side. "Asuma is currently engaged in… A different matter."

Ino blinked. "Then… You're trusting a B mission to Gennin?"

"That's… Not quite true."

Ino, Shikamaru, and Choji all looked at Iruka, who had spoken for the first time since calling them forward.

Leaning slightly to the side, and seemingly trying to avoid eye contact, the ninja academy instructor continued. "In spite of recent events, the senior Jounin have found the time to discuss various performances in the Chuunin selection exam. And coming from those deliberations was the decision to…" Iruka closed his eyes in resignation. "Promote Nara Shikamaru to Chuunin."

With eyes even wider, Shikamaru and Choji openly gaped.

"But!" Stuttered Ino as she looked frantically from Jounin to Jounin. "But Shikamaru lost! He gave up!"

"As well he should have," said the wounded Jounin. Leaning back and stroking his disfigured cheek with his remaining hand, the Jounin wistfully continued. "Without any Chakra left, a tactical withdrawal was Nara's wisest course of action. It allowed him to escape unscathed from a very cunning adversary. But up to that point, he had thoroughly outfought Temari. Quite a feat, as she outclasses Nara in every aspect. Further, to have done so without any surprise maneuver or overwhelming Bloodtype Limit…" The Jounin smiled, as much as he was able to. "Pure talent," he said, addressing Shikamaru directly. "That's what you've got, boy. May it take you far."

At the officer's bidding, Iruka stood up and handed Shikamaru the mission scroll and a neatly folded flack jacket. "The mission is yours, Shikamaru," Iruka informed. "Ino and Choji are currently yours to command. The mission as we received it from Lord Jiiya is in the scroll. We expect the three of you to be on your way by nightfall. And…" Iruka trailed off, trying to find the right words. "…Good luck." With that, Iruka sat back down in resignation.

"Whoa…" Muttered Choji.

"Wow," added Ino.

Shikamaru stared blankly at his new uniform. "Maaaaaaan…"

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