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The Piper's Price

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The western boarder of Steppe Country, dusk…


Kneeling in the grass, Ino looked triumphantly up at her teammates. They had found another set of stampede tracks, this time headed south. And more importantly, it was only five days old.

"That's one way to put it," said Choji, not nearly as enthusiastically.

Gaara nodded. "So it seems. Now how do we plan to use this?" Glancing at Ino, Gaara paused. "Your orders yesterday were given under the assumption that we would run into a scouting party. If this trail leads, as we suspect it does, to a Harandou line, then we would be wise to avoid being noticed by them. Under an onslaught of hundreds, even I may fall."

"And with that many insects around, there's bound to be lookouts," added Choji.

"With that many insects," Gaara continued, "even the regular workers would be threat to our secrecy."

Ino leaned back on her haunches and exhaled. "Good point," she observed. "But we can't walk away from this. We've got to make contact with the insects sooner or later if we want to beat them."

"But not the whole swarm," Choji insisted.

"It may be wise," suggested Gaara, "to avoid where the insects are swarming. To continue patrolling the prairie as we have been. We know that scouting parties are sent out to find the prey and drive it to the feeding ground. Those parties would be less formidable."

"But less useful," contradicted Ino. "I know I mentioned interrogating one of the insects, but the more I think about that, the more I doubt that it would work. Those drones looked as insect as they did human. I don't think they'd give up information even if we killed them."

"Because they are just drones?" Asked Choji. "You think they may be… Mindless copies of each other?"

"And therefore, willfully expendable."

Ino nodded. "It's just a hunch, but… Call it women's intuition."

Choji scowled. "So what do we do?"

Ino glanced at her team. "We're going to follow this trail," she said, pointing to the ground, "to wherever it leads us. We need a firsthand account of what these insects are doing. So far we've only had one actual encounter with them. Everything else we know or think we know is guesswork based on what we've seen them leave behind." Ino sighed. "That's just not good enough. If we intend to take the fight to the enemy, we need to actually see the enemy. Particularly, we need to see how many insects Regekion has, and what types she will bring to bear."

"We were told there were warriors," Gaara reminded.

"But we need to know what that means," said Choji. "And how many of them there are."

Gaara grunted.

"My thinking exactly," confirmed Ino.

"Even scouting the feeding ground will be extremely risky," Gaara repeated.

Ino held up her hand. "Oh, I'm well aware of that, Gaara. But it has to be done, and we have to do it while we have the chance."

Choji bit his lip, but nodded.

"We'll be going in slow," instructed Ino. "Regekion was using that last feeding ground for weeks, I'm betting she'll be at this one for just as long. So there's no need for us to take extra risks to get there in a hurry. We're not going to follow the trail at forced march pace. We'll take this at a slow scouting pace. Be careful where you leap, and keep a low profile at all costs. Even before we close on the on the main swarm, we'll be dealing with scouting parties coming and going overhead."

Gaara grunted in acknowledgement.

Choji grimly nodded.

"And we'll be moving at night."

Gaara glanced to the side.

Choji groaned.

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Dyokin's Hill, early evening…

"Has he woken up, yet?"

Glancing up from his kunai, Kankurou raised his eyebrows. "Does he look like he's woken up?"

Kankurou, Temari, and Shikamaru were camped at the edge of a meadow near where they had been ambushed. Following the fight, the bodies of the bandits had been quickly searched, and then dumped in a shallow creek downhill and downwind. Temari and Kankurou then moved their packs to a more suitable location and set up camp. Kankurou then set up several campfires to roast and smoke the snake he had killed, while Temari had left to scout the area.

Now back at the camp, Temari glanced to the side, where Shikamaru was slouched over his travel pack. The Chuunin had passed out halfway through being removed from Karai, and had not been roused since.

"Apparently the snake did more than just squeeze him," Kankurou muttered, glancing at the boy as well. "He sort of said as much. He'll be out for the night." The boy paused for a moment, then continued cleaning his blades. "It's probably for the best. I didn't feel anything broken, but he got some bruises, and more than a couple abrasions. His wrist is going to be raw for a few days."

Temari let out her breath. "But he'll live," she said.

"Oh yeah…"

"And how are you holding up, little brother?"

Kankurou looked up sharply. "Okay, you can drop the big sister routine, alright. I'm a ninja, I can handle a few cuts. I've already taped myself up."

Temari raised an eyebrow. "Did you at least clean the wound first?"

Kankurou scowled. "Knock it off."

"Still the stubborn one," mumbled Temari as she sat down next to her brother.

"Yeah, like you're not," the boy shot back, returning his attention to his cleaning. After a brief pause he continued in a different tone. "So did you find anything?"

Leaning back, Temari nodded. "I found their base. Almost on the other side of the hill, but it wasn't hard if you knew what to look for. It wasn't much, though, just a cabin leading into an over-furnished cave. There was a fenced off gully right next to it with about twenty cattle in it. And they set up a few traps surrounding the place, but nothing more advanced than what we first saw."

"Pft." Kankurou shook his head. "Some lair. Sounds like they were living in a stable."

"That's not too far off," agreed Temari. "But they had good taste in décor."

Kankurou's face brightened. "Oh. So they were doing good business out here. What did you loot?"

Temari scowled at her brother.

"C'mon," the boy insisted, holding out his hand. "I killed three of them and worked over the fourth. Whatever we take, I deserve most of it."

Letting out a growl of annoyance, Temari pulled her travel satchel over her shoulder and dumped the contents on the ground. "Not as much as I would have liked," the kunoichi admitted. "They didn't have much money on them. They were bandits, after all. They probably drank most of what they took in. A lot of the rest went into furnishings. Chairs, rugs, chests… Big things that let them think they were living in a palace rather than a cave."

"Things too big to carry with us," finished Kankurou. "Lousy dustheads…" Rummaging through what Temari had brought, the boy continued thoughtfully. "Still, not too bad…"

"The girl liked her jewelry," Temari commented. "And the kid as well. This'll probably come out to—"

"Ooh," Kankurou abruptly cut in, grabbing a stubby corked vial. "This what I think it is?"

Temari smiled. "Yup. You mentioned you sere going to smoke the snake, so I made a quick stop in their kitchen."

Kankurou excitedly got to his feet, wincing slightly in the process. "Good," he said, not letting the pain show. "This meat will keep better salted. And I didn't exactly pack my bag with cooking in mind…"

"I brought some preserving paper as well," said Temari with a smile. "Their smokehouse was well equipped, at least." The kunoichi paused for a moment. "So, I guess that should pretty much cover your share…"

"Not a chance," the boy replied as he pulled a slab of meat away from a cooking fire. Though keeping up the conversation, Kankurou kept his eyes fixed on what he was doing. "Besides, you shouldn't be so greedy. It's pretty slim for a bandit's stash, but even split two ways it's more than double the pay for a C mission. Certainly nothing to complain about."

"Split three ways," Temari corrected. "But it's still a good haul."

"C'mon, sis, that punk doesn't have to know about it."

Temari crossed her arms.

Kankurou didn't look back, but he knew his sister well enough to guess the way she was looking at him. "Shikamaru is from Konoha, remember? He's one of those oh-so-moral Leaf ninjas. They've probably got some code against looting the bodies. It'd be better for his conscience if he didn't know about this."

"And when he wonders how the meat got salted?" Temari prompted.

"Pft. Like he'd notice." Kankurou replaced the slab of meat he had been salting and moved on to the next one. "You left the lair intact, right?"

"Yes," Temari replied, idly divvying up the trinkets she had brought back. "But I wouldn't get your heart set on spending the night there."

Kankurou scoffed. "Trust me, I'm not. Unless it starts hailing again…" Kankurou anxiously glanced at the sky, and shook his head. "Nah, I'm just thinking we could still loot the place after the mission. Y'know, haul the furniture off to Kyokoa or somewhere and sell it. After the mission's over, when we've got the time."

"Always thinking with your wallet," Temari said with a chuckle.

"There may have even been a bounty on those bandits. Or we could have negotiated one. They seemed pretty sure there was…" Kankurou sighed. "Too bad we don't have the time to find out."

Temari nodded to herself. "Yeah. We've got to get back on Regekion's trail. We'll have lost five days by the time this is over."

"And Shikamaru isn't going to let us forget it," Kankurou added. "He didn't want to come out this way at all, remember. He told us it would just be a waste of time. And the punk was right. He'd better not start gloating on us…"

"That would probably take too much effort," Temari lightheartedly replied. "Effort he'd rather put into marching." The kunoichi's expression soured. "He's going to run us pretty hard, you realize? Whether he's hurt bad or not, he's going to want to rush back to the western boarder as fast as we can go."

"Of course I realize that," Kankurou muttered. "Why do you think I'm smoking the snake? Having a bit of dried meat on hand will make meals a lot less of a hassle."

"And a lot quicker. Wonderful," observed Temari, without enthusiasm.

Kankurou chuckled as he continued his work. "Eh, he won't press us that hard. We can only go as fast as he can, after all. And seeing how the snake worked him over… He'll have to take it slow for a day or so."

"Mn," acknowledged Temari. "I hope your right. You'll have to find time somewhere to fix up Karasu." The kunoichi paused, looking across the camp to where the puppet was lying. "That's the worst I've ever seen Karasu after a fight. Is he even fixable out here?"

"Fixable?" Asked Kankurou, momentarily glancing at his sister. "No. But usable? Yes. This is the second beating he's taken, and it's more than I can repair in the field, even if I did get another free afternoon to do it in. But I can patch him, and I can still use him. Karasu just won't have as many tricks as he usually does. I can definitely have the casing fixed up by the time we get back to where the action is." Kankurou paused a moment. "It was all the Oregi, you realize. She's the one that tore up Karasu, she's the one that took out Shikamaru, and she's the one who hypnotized you."

"Not bad for a runaway slave," Temari commented.

"Makes you wonder what a girl like her was doing with the rest of those wannabes."

Temari shrugged. "Oh probably just enjoying herself," the kunoichi speculated. "She met a bunch of guys who thought they were the best there was, and decided to tag along with them. Whenever something thing big happened, she'd quietly do her part and take her share of the spoils. Plus, she'd get to watch as the guys made fools of themselves fawning over her and acting like they were better than they actually were."

"Yeah," scoffed Kankurou. "And I'll bet those fools never even realized what she really thought about them."

Smiling to herself, Temari quietly crossed her arms and watched Kankurou.

The silence held for a moment.


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The same, predawn…

Groaning slightly, Shikamaru pushed himself off of his travel pack. Glancing about, he quickly took in his surroundings. "Temari?" He asked, not making out many details from the dying light of the multiple campfires. "Kankurou?"

"Oh," a voice replied, as a nearby shadow seemed to perk up. "What are you doing awake?"

"What was I doing asleep?" Shikamaru shot back. The Leaf ninja tried to stand up, but let out a sharp gasp as his body let him know how sore it was. "Nm…" Forcing himself to move nonetheless, Shikamaru lurched his way closer to the fire. "It looks like it's almost light," he observed, plopping back down. "Why didn't you wake me?"

Leaning back and fidgeting with some of his tools, Kankruou arched an eyebrow. "Is that a complaint?"

"Yeah," Shikamaru continued, still wincing. "My team, my responsibility. I shouldn't be skipping my part on the watch rotation."

"Kid," Kankurou said with a condescending chuckle. "We've been through this. Temari and I are better than you. And we are perfectly capable of handling a half-night watch. Even after a fight." Kankruou abruptly held up a shaped chisel for emphasis. "Which, I want you to know, we both survived in much better condition than you did."

Meeting Kankurou's gaze, Shikamaru nodded imperceptibly. "So Temari's okay?"

Kankurou laughed at the boy's obvious concern. "Oh, yeah. She's fine. Just a little angry she let herself get hypnotized."

Shikamaru let out a quiet grunt of acknowledgement.

"And while we're on the topic," Kankurou continued with a mocking note to his voice. "Nice going yourself, letting that snake wrap you up like that. What were you thinking? That it just wanted a hug?"

"They never covered that scenario in the hand to hand training sessions back at the academy," Shikamaru humorlessly responded.

"And you couldn't figure out how to handle it on your own? Some genius you are." Smiling despite Shikamaru's lack of amusement, Kankurou continued in a slightly more serious tone. "Though that was a clever stunt you pulled at the end, there."

"Desperate, you mean," Shikamaru corrected.

"So I guess it didn't work out quite as well as you planned."

Shikamaru sighed. "Actually, it worked out exactly as I planned. I just hadn't planned for anything past my immediate survival. I was caught completely off guard, and that was all I could come up with," the boy finished. "Some genius I am," he agreed.

Not used to people taking his criticisms seriously, Kankurou cocked his head to his side. "Yeah, well…" The Sand ninja dragged out the words, trying to figure out what to say next. "Your little diversion sucked as well. How did you come up with that gem?"

Shikamaru glanced up and raised his eyebrow. "You mean you can't guess?"

"Ino shoved the fat-ass out of the way during a mission?"

"Actually she shoved me into Choji and then got the kid while he was laughing at us."

Kankurou stared at the Chuunin. "I can't believe you would actually admit to that," he finally said.

Shikamaru shrugged. "The truth is easier than making up a lie. And I'm not trying to impress anyone here."

"Anyone awake," Kankurou muttered as Shikamaru turned his gaze into the smoldering fire. After a moment of silence, he turned to his side and rummaged through his newly cleaned blades. "By the way," he prompted. "You missing a kunai? I came out with one extra."

"Probably," Shikamaru muttered. "I was trying to cut the snake with one, but I lost track of it somewhere along the way."

"Yeah, this'd be yours, then," concluded Kankurou as he tossed the blade to Shikamaru.

The Chuunin absently caught the kunai, but continued to hold it in his hand rather than immediately holster it. Pulling his gaze away from the campfires, he glanced back at Kankurou. "We're cooking the snake?"

"No point in letting it go to waste."

"And you're not concerned that the fires will draw more attention to us?"

Kankurou dismissively shook his head. "We killed all the bandits. They don't have more friends hiding out waiting to avenge them." The Sand ninja paused for a moment. "Any of that bother you, mister not-a-heartless ninja?"

"The only part that bothers me," muttered Shikamaru, looking up at the stars, "is that it doesn't bother me."

"Meh?" Asked Kankurou, not quite getting it. Then his face lit up in amusement. "You've got to be kidding me. Mamma's Boy actually misses his conscience!"

"Life was simpler when I had it."

Kankurou again stared at Shikamaru. "You're not even going to argue it?"

"I am my parents' son," Shikamaru admitted. "Why argue it?"

"Because it's an insult," said Kankurou, rolling his eyes. "Whether it's true or not, you only call someone a 'momma's boy' as an insult."

Shikamaru glanced at Kankurou out of the corner of his eyes. "It may be an insult, but it is also," he said slowly, "a subject I'd rather not discuss."

"Why? You've got issues with your mom?"

Shikamaru ignored the comment and continued staring up at the sky.

After another moment, it dawned on Kankurou. "Oooh," he said with exaggerated emphasis. "Right, you've got some sort of scoop on Gaara, and think talking about parents will upset me because of what happened to his mom. Gotcha." The Sand ninja paused for second. "Trust me, that won't get to me."

Though not looking at Kankurou, Shikamaru raised his eyebrows nonetheless. "That only confirms that it is not a topic I should be bringing up."

"Confirms?" Prompted Kankurou. "You have the scoop on me as well?"

Shikamaru sighed. "The story of my town is a generational one. Everyone is just a variation of their parents. Although I've never seen your father up close, you and your siblings all share a few common traits." The Chuunin paused for moment. "But hair color isn't one of them. And red, brown, and strawberry blond, is a strange mix to come by."

Chuckling to himself, Kankurou crossed his arms. "Not bad," he congratulated. "And yeah, we all take after our parents. Gaara took after Dad, while Temari and I took after our moms."

"Your mother should lay off the make-up," Shikamaru suggested with a hint of humor.

"The sad thing is, I could see my mom doing this," said Kankurou, laughing. "She's a little messed up."

"Still alive, then?"

"As far as I know," the Sand ninja answered. "Though maybe not. We don't keep in touch, and she lives the kind of life that will burn you out. She's doped herself into a stupor more than once, and I doubt she's learned her lesson."

Shikamaru looked at Kankurou. "I can't believe you would admit to something like that," he bluntly stated. "Wouldn't that, of all things, be something worth lying about? Or at least not mentioning?"

Kankurou chuckled. "Of course not. When I tell people that, they always make some smart-ass remark, and that gives me the perfect excuse to beat some respect into them." Kankurou pointed to Shikamaru. "You're just not cooperating."

Shikamaru shook his head and looked back up at the sky.

With exaggerated effort, Kankurou pushed himself to his feet. "Besides," he continued as he repositioned some meat over the closest fire, "my parents deserve all the ridicule they get. They met in an opium den while Dad was still fighting with Temari's mom. Dad only got away from the dens when he got selected as the Sixth Kazekage, and Mom never even tried to get out." The Sand ninja shook his head absently. "After that, Temari's mom died on a mission, and Dad got the brilliant idea to save the village by sticking a Sand Demon in his next kid. And so we all lived happily ever after…"

"How did a guy like that get to the leader of your village?" Asked Shikamaru.

Kankurou shrugged, pausing before he went off to the next campfire. "He was a politician. He was a horrible father and had the stupidest ideas, but he was a fighter, he had a vision for our village, and had a way of connecting with the old-line ninjas. If you didn't know about the rest, he probably seemed like a reasonable choice."

Shikamaru shook his head. "Whatever."

"Besides," Kankurou continued, turning his back and slowly walking away. "All important figures have their bad spots. Dad liked the seedy side of life. The Tsuchiage actually dismissed an adviser for not liking her hairstyle. Your last Hokage was a lecher…" Kankurou trailed off for a moment. "And you've got a kinky thing for grabbing girls with your shadow." Kankurou couldn't keep the amusement out of his voice. "You'd better watch out, kid. Temari may not have been herself when you grabbed her today, but if you try that again and she catches you, she's going to let you have it." Laughing to himself, Kankurou busied himself at the next cooking fire.

Refusing to dignify Kankurou's comment with a response, Shikamaru closed his eyes and slouched forward against his knees. He remained there for a moment, savoring the silence. Then the silence faded, being slowly replaced by the growing sound rustling trees. Shikamaru eventually opened his eyes as a drop of water found its way down the back of his neck. Glancing at the nearest campfire, he saw it surrounded by the telltale halo of a light rain.

"Awww! Come on!" Yelled Kankurou as he came to the same realization.


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