Opening Movement — "Of Remnants"

Naruto is property of Masashi Kishimoto and Shonen Jump. The author claims no part in ownership and makes no challenge against these copyrights, as this fiction is merely a recreational creation done without any intention of financial gain or compensation. The basic framework of this story is that it takes place just shortly after Naruto has left with Jiraiya on his three-year training mission following the failed Sasuke retrieval attempt. This is multi-part work spread across three 'movements', so stay tuned for more. The reader should be made aware of the presence of some coarse language and a few violent passages. Thanks to Heather for her support and assistance.

A note about the manga: this story was conceived and planned about the time the manga was at chapter 307. Although this story deviates from the chronology a lot earlier than that I thought it would be prudent to mention this in the event that something is done in installments after that chapter to contradict anything in this story. Given that this story will break away from the established canon and be unable to be tied back in at the conclusion, this isn't a huge issue. But all the same, if someone finds a contradiction to the canon thereafter, that's the explanation I'll give. Thanks, and hopefully, enjoy.

"You gain power by pretending to be weak.
By contrast, you make people feel so strong.
You save people by letting them save you."

-- Chuck Palahniuk, "Choke"

Of Remnants
'Astral Highways'

He supposed he should be dead. The twisted human wreckage of his body was smoldering in cratered, burning earth; dozens of kunai carving red tunnels through his flesh, splitting tissue and bone in a final brutal art. Blood fell from his broken mouth, an amorphous crimson flow bubbling over his chin onto blackened dirt resting against his face. The smell of conflagrated wood choked what remained of his shattered senses.

I can still see him. His abyss gazing deep into me. . .

Metal twisted in a demented symmetry. What remained of the carriage was strewn about the clearing in charred debris, oaken surfaces exhumed of color as fire tore it away with scalding teeth. Pitch black smoke funneled into the skies above. The overwhelming heat pulsing from the dancing flames stabbed at his eyes, tears streaming down his cracked and bruised face. Somewhere in the area were the scattered, eviscerated bodies of his Genin charges. He couldn't recall when their screams had stopped.

With. . . with eyes. . . th-the eyes. . .

A great terrible crashing. Flames crushing a tree at its roots with light-wave scissors, wood and leaves and sparks and power slamming into the scorched ground.

The EYES. . .

Time was lost as the surging darkness coiled to strike. In the frail organic frenzy that was all that remained of his life, he could feel or remember nothing other than what the man had said to him. Before agony became his sweet demoness. Before he became the wretched black within the eraser-red. Before the spindle-eyes cracked open, onyx river-stones, watching him in pairs and pairs and pairs.

And the man had said:

I will be with you long after this nightmare. You will never awake without me.

x x x x x

"Overall, you generally did fairly well. Most of you proved you are capable of keen observation and intelligence skills, so congratulations on that. It's good that I haven't been wasting my time on you. But that doesn't mean this was an enormous success for everyone either: there were a handful that managed to fail the test, and even more that missed some key questions. Particularly on the written portion of the chakra-suppression there was a. . . lacking." He paused as he filed quickly through the papers in his hands, fluttering the upper corners of the pages with his thumb. "Tch. A great big lacking. . . You can do better than this, kids. So everyone pull out your copies and let's go over the messier parts."

A room full of eight-year-olds groaned.

Shikamaru grimaced. Damn troublesome brats. . .

He turned to his chalkboard, picking up a well-used stick from the ledger with his free hand. "No complaining." He began to scratch words across the murky green surface. "Alright, first, there seems to be a lot of confusion over the relationship between chakra-exchange, stamina and basic taijutsu. The main thing to remember is that stamina and chakra are energy-wells, which are separate and can be drained or replenished individually. Taijutsu itself is a style of techniques that requires no chakra manipulation at all. None. A lot of people confused stamina with chakra here. The key is that stamina itself is the energy source that both taijutsu and chakra feed off of—this means that while they both depend on your stamina, they don't depend on each other. This means no stamina, no chakra or taijutsu, kids."

The sound of pencils scratching could be heard behind him.

Taking a brief glimpse at the tests in his left hand, he sighed inwardly. Tch, I'm putting myself to sleep, here. . . He brushed flakes of chalk-dust on his palm off on the side of his Chuunin vest before continuing to illustrate his point on the board. "Just remember that taijutsu is completely different from ninjutsu and genjutsu in that it is strictly martial arts. Close combat melee only. It will drain your overall stamina, because every physical action you ever take does to some degree, but unless you actively feed chakra into your grappling it is achieved independently. I noticed a few misconceptions on the test where a few of you answered that by replenishing your stamina, your chakra will rejuvenate as well. This is wrong. Chakra has its own source and flow; therefore it can only be refilled independently. I think a lot of the confusion on that question was that people mixed up the remedies themselves: a lot of the ways to regenerate stamina also do the same for chakra, so there's some overlap there. However they still remain separate energy sources."

His half-hearted lecture was interrupted as the door to his right slid open with a soft hiss. He turned slightly, a faint smile grazing his lips.

Chalk in hand he waved at the visitor. "Hey, Iruka-sensei."

His class was quick to mirror him in a childish choir. "Hello, Iruka-sensei!"

Hands crossed behind his back, Iruka smiled warmly.

For a moment Shikamaru was flooded with a wave of nostalgia, rushing across his cynical mind-fields in glittering streams. Looking upon him now, it was almost as if Iruka had remained static in his thoughts as well as reality: the same warm demeanor, the same lateral scar across his nose, the same gentle aura enveloping those he smiled for. There was something maturing in the realization that Shikamaru was standing where Iruka once did in both the literal and conceptual sense; also, a strange momentary sadness with the same knowledge came the growing, formless distance between Shikamaru and his shining carefree childhood.

Iruka waved to the children. "Good afternoon, all. How did the test go?"

Mayhem scattered across the class in a cacophony of: "Terrible! Awful! It's too hard!"

"They did okay," Shikamaru offered, rolling his eyes.

Iruka laughed softly. "Well, do your best, class."

Shikamaru gestured to the chalkboard. "We're just going over them right now. Did you want to help with some of the explanations, Iruka-sensei?"

With a sniffle, some of the ease of Iruka's atmosphere vanished. His eyes met Shikamaru's solemnly. "Actually, I'm here to see you regarding a mission, Shikamaru."

Shikamaru sighed. "Tch." A brief glance at the tests in his hand sent his vision then gliding to the window on the other side of the room. A light haze smothered the glass as sunlight fell upon the village, clouds drifting serenely through a sweltering-azure sky. It's going to rain in a few hours, he thought absently. With a half-smile, he turned to his young students. "You know, class, it's a nice day outside. This is the type of day where everyone should relax and enjoy the clouds. Since there's only twenty minutes left anyways, why don't you all take the rest of the day off?"

They didn't need to be asked twice. "Yay! Thank you, Shikamaru-sensei!"

As order melted into chaos amid the buzzing throng of children abandoning the room as expediently as they could, Shikamaru raised his voice to cut through the noise in a gesture he knew to be futile. "Take your tests home! Make sure to read over them for tomorrow!"

Lacking the subtlety of thoroughly educated ninja, the room emptied in a frenzied human swarm. Rushing in the wake of the children's exodus was a silence that was almost eerie: gliding across the expansive room with an invisible reach, making the room peculiar and alien. Shikamaru sighed. It was troublesome the way the children annoyed him so thoroughly when they were present and he still found he missed them when they were gone.

Iruka simply grinned. "Looks like you're getting better at this every day. I'm impressed."

Shikamaru shrugged, leaning against the chalkboard. Chalky vapor wafted into his nose, a scent similar to dusk, reminding him briefly of setting suns and violet-smudged skies. "Honestly, it's a real hassle. I have to talk a lot more than I'm accustomed to."

"Being charged with the future of young children is a great responsibility," Iruka replied. He regarded Shikamaru with a certain irony. "It takes practice and dedication. . . neither of which you've ever been too keen on, so I imagine it's a strain for you at times."

"Yeah. At times."

Iruka's eyes began to drift through the empty room. "Hard to believe that just less than two years ago it was me standing in here and you sitting over there. Life's funny like that."

A weird sensation coursed through Shikamaru, his eyebrows furrowing. "Please, don't remind me. Soon these brats'll be up here and I'll have to see what I terrible job I did at teaching them as they makes fools of themselves."

"Hah hah, have a little faith, Shikamaru. You're not doing as bad as you think."

Mandatory small-talk aside, Shikamaru redirected the conversation. "You said Hokage-sama needs to talk to me? Or something to that effect?"

"Indeed," Iruka nodded. He absently scratched the bridge of his nose, calloused finger nudging scar tissue. "Seems there's a diplomat in town and you've been hand-picked. Congratulations."

"Great," Shikamaru sighed. "Politics. That's what I need." He stopped leaning against the board, and briefly rubbed his eyes with the flat of his palms. He felt very tired suddenly. After blinking for a brief moment, he handed Iruka the papers he still held in his hands. "Here, take their test-sheets since I guess I won't be in tomorrow. You'll have your work cut out for you." With a soft groan he stretched his arms above his head, muscle-coils stretched taut. He sighed, placing his hands in his pockets. "Well, guess I better go—I'm not big on keeping her waiting."

Flipping briefly through the tests, Iruka laughed. "See? Wisdom beyond your years."

Shikamaru smiled, walking past Iruka with no hurry in his step in spite of his admission. As he stepped out of the room, he half-turned with a wave. "Later, Iruka-sensei."

Enthusiasm did not walk with him.

x x x x x

"I still can't believe they took out Baki-sensei."

To punctuate his sentence, Kankuro kicked a loose stone, only half-watching as it cracked against a larger rock several feet away and then pirouetted into the glittering stream he was walking alongside. The afternoon sunlight cast fractal shadows across the forest canopy; scattering with each huge sigh of wind lingering through the trees. Kankuro's attention was not on the plush scenery around him, but rather on the seething ache nestled behind his ribs: portraits of his Sensei fluttering through a visceral chasm, darkly burning with a feeling not unlike vengeance. He rubbed his eyes with his thumb and forefinger, careful not to smudge the intricate design painted across his face.

Beside him, Temari sighed softly. As they trudged on through the Fire Country's winding forest nearing the gates to Konoha, she laced her fingers behind her head, looking up at the myriad patterns of light attempting to puncture the emerald ceiling. "Yeah, that's kinda sobering. Although I hear his condition isn't really all that critical, so that's good news."

Kankuro looked over his shoulder at his other companion. "So how are we going to go about this? Do we just stroll on up and yank Sensei out of their care and bring him home? Maybe I wasn't paying the greatest of attention, but I barely remember any of his mission details."

With his arms crossed and a face indicating deep thought, Gaara shrugged. "We will continue with his assignment."

"I dunno. . ." Temari said, "seems kind of sketchy now. I still think it's a bit preposterous that the attack happened right outside Konoha." Her expression adopted a sudden distaste, her nose wrinkling and eyes squinting. "It's like whoever got the jump on Baki-sensei is either monumentally retarded and didn't take the area into consideration or they actually wanted Leaf to get involved."

Kankuro made an effort to crunch a stray twig under his sandals. "Probably the second one, since someone as dumb as option one. . . there's no way they could've overpowered Sensei. Unless they have some mysterious third objective which would turn an already annoying situation into a real headache."

"Hypothetical guessing now is worthless," Gaara stated. "We don't have enough information to draw any reasonable conclusion."

Temari's head tilted as she caught sight of a tiny bird arcing through the light green haze above, gliding in twisting crescents between elevated branches. "You're probably right. It's a bit strange. . ." Her voice trailed off and a calm smile swept across her face, her eyes casually lingering over a twisting of trees and grass to her left. She took in a deep breath, shivering as clean, scented particles rushed into her lungs. "I do love the scenery in Fire Country. The local floral isn't such a deadweight on my skin. Who knows? I could maybe even get away with walking ten feet without having to rub sand out of my eyes if we hung around for a while." She gave a quiet smirk. "I'm horribly jealous."

Kankuro scoffed, kicking another rock into the curving stream. "You guys do realize that we'll have to end up working with the Leafies if we pick up where Sensei left off, right? I dunno, but I'm not really keen on partnering up with a bunch of kids who'll just slow us down. No pun intended, but you saw how green they all were at the preliminaries."

Temari considered that. "Hmm. Depends who they saddle us with." She gave an extroverted shrug with her hands, before linking them together behind her back. "Time's gone by since then, so who knows? And even still, if we have to, that doesn't mean they'll be running the show necessarily."

Gaara shook his head. "They'll be in charge."

Kankuro sighed. "Oh God. Why? Now there's no way I want to do this."

"It's their territory," Gaara explained. His voice was casual, perfectly balanced; gliding along the same confident frequency as his gaze, existing in a space where only fools would challenge his stability. It had been a once terrifying countenance, but it was now strangely comforting to his older siblings. An immovable spire in a towering sea of calamity. "The mission's been changed and the prime objectives have been lost. Since the hiring party should be including them they'll have final say if there is an allegiance."

Gaze directed skywards, Kankuro shook his head. "Son of a bitch. Well this is going to be spectacular. Last thing I want is to wind up dying because some Leafie is supposed to have my back."

Temari rolled her eyes. "I'm sure they think highly of you too."

"Oh, as if your worldview of these clowns is just full of muscular titans dancing about golden killing fields. Please."

Arcing an eyebrow, Temari turned her head to look at Kankuro. "What the hell sort of analogy was that?"

"Dammit, I had this great insult but I just couldn't word it properly. Shut up."

Temari nodded skeptically. "Uh huh. Oh, and while we're at it. . ." A devious grin began to form across her feathery lips. "I remember you fighting one of the Leafies a while ago. Shino or something? The kid with bugs inside his skin?"

Kankuro's expression darkened. "Stop talking right now."

With a mocking pat, Temari stepped closer to her brother. "You remember what happened?"

Kankuro shrugged her hand off his shoulder. "Yes, and there's no need for you tell me since we both remember exactly what happened."

"You lost."

"What did I just say?" Kankuro was gripped with the sudden urge to inflict violence upon inanimate objects. "And that was a one-time thing! I was having an off day!"

"You'd probably be best not to underestimate them," Gaara added. He shrugged, his concern over the subject considerably less than that of his brother's. "We all lost to them."

Temari laughed. "Game, set, match."

As they exited a final patch of towering oaks, the grandeur of Konoha sprawled before them. The stream weaving off to the side like a pulsing blue vein, dropping down to reveal an eclectic labyrinth of buildings intertwined underneath the watchful eye of chiseled stone faces looking down upon the valley from the mountain above. A smooth wall entombing the village like arms of the mountain holding it snug, the gates being its hands, fingers uncoiled to allow passage. In some ways it was similar to their hometown, Suna, and in others it was completely different: much less symmetrical, almost random, and seething with a myriad of different colors.

Being in a sour mood, Kankuro found it an easy target. "Kind of a weird village, too—and how narcissistic is it to have your head sculpted into the damn mountain?"

Temari's sigh was exaggerated. "Is there anything on this planet that doesn't cause you to complain?"

"Of course there is. All I'm saying is that the ninjas from Fire are pretty backwards. I mean just look at their town: full of bright yellow buildings, surrounded by green forests. That's great camouflage. Way to blend into the surroundings, team."

With unconcealed frustration, Temari punched Kankuro's shoulder. "Kankuro, shut up. Maybe you don't like this village, but I do."

Gaara's pale green eyes absorbed the vision before him. "So do I."

Kankuro sighed, adjusting the sling holding Karasu on his back. "Fine. Forget I said anything."

Their approach to the gates themselves was much more subdued than their previous visit to Konoha. Then they had barreled through the forest along the rims of the trees, escorting their wounded makeshift allies back to their homeland to receive immediate treatment for terminal injuries. Before that had been a tense entry: a surreptitious infiltration of the Leaf village in order to lay in wait to ambush its unsuspecting populace. As the soft dirt crunched beneath their feet, weapons and backpacks slung over their shoulders, the sand trio entered Konoha for a third time—a peaceful meeting that was strange but not entirely unwelcome.

Leaning against the wooden gate, Hagane stood chatting with a fellow guardsman. Catching them from the corner of his eye he turned, greeting them with a lazy wave and a smile. "Hello and good afternoon. Welcome to Konoha."

The three of them stopped just underneath the giant stone archway, peering within from the threshold. A soft breeze joined with them, rippling waves through their hair and clothing, bringing with it the smells of the village within: ramen stands, fish, perfumes, sharpened metals, sawdust, grassy fields, beaten earth, running water, humanity. It was simple. It was soothing.

Temari raised her hand in greeting. "Heyas."

Hagane glanced briefly at the dark-clad trio, recognizing them from previous encounters. "Nice to see you three again. I'm assuming you're the three Suna's sent to retrieve your Sensei?"

Temari grinned. "That's us!"

Hagane nodded, gesturing to the Chuunin sentry behind him with a tilt of his head. "Alrighty—standard procedure then, please step aside to be scanned for imitation genjutsus and to register any and all weapons you will be bringing into Konoha. My partner here will help with your registry."

Kankuro hesitated for a moment, his brow furrowing in thought, before swinging a bandaged Karasu around. The ragged cotton bandages made contact with the rusty soil, and he took a long moment to analyze his mummified puppet. An interior conflict frothing across his razor-nerves as he ran his fingertips along the dry and frayed threads. Eventually he looked up at Hagane, a defeated sigh passing through him. "I don't suppose you would've heard anything on Baki-sensei's condition out here?"

Both Gaara and Temari stopped in their movements to remove their respective weaponry, eyeing Kankuro. Although shielded by the nebulous stratum of his cynical and anti-social demeanor, his concern for the few close companions he kept wasn't lessened simply because he was awkward in its expression. Their thoughts not too far from his, they then glanced over at Hagane expectantly, interested in his answer.

Hagane shrugged. "Last I heard they managed to stabilize the bleeding from his lower back. Hokage-sama apparently tended to his injuries herself and managed to mend most of the internal wounds, so from what I understand he's going to be okay. It'll just be a slow recovery process." His face softened in sympathy. "He was hit with a pretty potent genjutsu. . . there's traces of some psychological damage, but they haven't ascertained how much yet."

"That's heavy. Damn. . ." Temari muttered, bringing her battle-fan down onto the ground with a solid crunch. "Thanks."

Hagane nodded. "Once you three are all set here I'm told to instruct you to head on over to the main offices at the far end of the village."

Gaara looked at him blandly. "For?"

"The man that hired Baki, his name was Kurama Nagare, wasn't it?"

Temari shrugged her small backpack off her shoulders. She began to lightly massage her taut neck muscles with one hand, wincing slightly. "Sounds about right. He in town?"

"Yes, he's expecting you along with Hokage-sama. Apparently there've been some modifications made to the original mission and you three are being hired to carry them out with a few others from Konoha."

An irritated snort escaped Kankuro, his sandal-toe twisting in the dirt. "I knew it. I freaking knew it."

Temari grinned, punching her brother in the shoulder. "Suck it up, punk."

Rubbing his sore shoulder, Kankuro began muttering a variety of curses as he handed Karasu to the Chuunin sentry for the mandatory inspection. He glared at Temari; loathing every inch of the smug and superior look she was giving him. Dejected and out of options, he turned to Gaara for support, silently pleading for aid against their sister's dominating assertions.

Gaara said nothing.

x x x x x

An ephemeral mist began to roll in alongside darkening clouds, making Konoha beneath Tsunade appear to be caught in the hazy iris of a blemished lens. Even through the window she could sense the pressure system transfiguring, swelling into a gray cloud as rainfall became imminent. Dew laden wolf-pelt draping the skies. A cool breeze whispered through the screen under the windowsill, filling her senses with an acute aroma: grass, freshly churned soil, liquefying skies. She took a long breath through her nose and the entire village rushed into her.

From the edge of her gaze, she eyed Shizune beside her desk who appeared pensive—her fingers fidgeting with the dossier in her hands, eyes skittering back and forth between Tsunade and the man standing in front of her desk. Tsunade sighed, her attention returning again to the village beneath her view.

Without turning from the window she spoke. "I have to say, I think it's quite a fascinating coincidence that the interception took place only a few clicks from Konoha's borders. In fact I can't help but feel that your interlopers somehow strove to get us involved, given all the previous chances they must've had to attack the convoy."

Kurama Nagare, secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs for Mountain Country, stood solemnly a few paces back from Tsunade's lacquered and sprawling desk. His light-brown slacks were trim and matched his polished shoes, complimenting the white dress-shirt and blue vest he wore above them. Although of a position of considerable political rank, his face was youthful, a municipal anomaly accentuated by his rather messy brown hair. He cut a mostly professional but docile physique.

White-gloved hands linked behind his back, he nodded at Tsunade. "As you say. It also may have well been taken as an advantageous location to engage since the convoy probably would not have suspected an attack so close to another hidden village."

Scanning his face, Shizune spoke with a detached scrutiny. "Have you any idea who might've been behind the raid?"

"Technically? No. Odds are it was a group of hired ninjas. Whether or not they were freelance or of a separate hidden village remains to be seen, but initial investigations would suggest a small crew of shinobi." Kurama shrugged, returning his gaze to Tsunade's back. "As to whomever hired them, well, there are quite a few potential suspects. Nothing concrete yet."

Tsunade saw her faint reflection in the glass scowl. "Given that Baki was nearly killed in the attack the question of whether or not ninjas were involved is invalidated for obvious reasons. What I want to know is why they decided to attack the carrier right on our doorstep, and why the bodies of the couriers are missing. Only the three ninjas from Sand were left behind. I'd have assumed they'd be after the cargo and would have left the others for dead."

"Yes. Well, regarding that. . ." Kurama seemed to pause, carefully choosing his next few words. "The couriers have most likely been taken prisoner. You see, the cargo itself was stolen. The attacking ninjas were most likely on a retrieval mission."

Shizune's eyebrows rose. "What?"

Kurama nodded. "It was part of the mission parameters assigned to Baki. The individuals I represent who have been abducted are political renegades. About fifteen days ago they infiltrated an assembly hearing and made off with several documents of governmental financial data." He shrugged. "Tax audits, social expenditures like law officials' pension spreadsheets, transaction receipts for construction equipment. . . things like that. From what I understand it was an attempt to slight the National Treasury by altering and then leaking the documents so they'd come under fire from the public."

"I see," Tsunade commented dryly. "And I suppose your 'association' with these men would be. . . unofficial, then."

"Yes. In any event of discovery I disavow all knowledge of their existence to my countrymen."

Tsunade snorted. Although often regarded as simple instruments of warfare, her view of soldiers and ninja was considerably more benevolent: she believed in camaraderie and loyalty. She loathed the self-perpetuating agendas of most politicians because they lacked both. "Tch. . . Have to love government black-ops and the paper-thin allegiances that go with them. The state of Mountain Country must really be a mess."

Kurama said nothing for a moment. Then, "There are a lot of people who want change. Myself included."

Tsunade's thoughts retracted to the immediately tangible—her gaze over the town poured through eyes seeing but not watching. She took particular offense to being strong-armed into accepting a mission due to extenuating circumstances. It left her with a dwindling measure of control, caught in a flow she could not resist or completely analyze. With a sigh, she turned to face Kurama. She crossed her arms. "I'd like to just point out I feel you're twisting my arm, here."

Kurama nodded. "I'm sorry," he apologized. It sounded genuine. Tsunade doubted it was. "I don't like making entrapment requests, but myself and my superiors are at an impasse."

"Of course. After all, we're simply tools to be used at the world's convenience."

Shizune blinked, head twirling to face the Hokage. "Tsunade-sama!"

Kurama's passive demeanor remained statuesque. "Please. . . I can understand your irritation, but try to see things from my point of view. I only want what's best for my country. I'm not here to achieve that at the expense of yours, either. Drastic times call for drastic measures and all that." A quiet emotion bathed within his voice. "The fact is we need your help. Without this mission there almost certainly will be a civil conflict that our country can't afford to endure right now."

Tsunade sat down in her chair, plush leather stretching in ragged protest. She shrugged, leaning back. "Yes, I understand. Although I'm still not entirely convinced. There are too many peculiar elements to this incident and you're being, no offense, really annoyingly secretive about everything. So I have to take into consideration the element of potential sabotage." Her eyes narrowed. "Even if you are holding a proximity and location clause over my head."

Quietly, Kurama spoke. "So you aren't going to help."

"Didn't say that," she countered, her head tilting. "I've already sent for someone. Although because of the parameters, even if this is an A-Class request, I'm going to keep the personnel involved down to a minimum. Him and another of his choice, tops. Along with the three from Suna that should be plenty."

Kurama seemed to brighten slightly. "Jonin class?"

A sudden mortar blast of scorn ruptured Tsunade's thoughts, irate reaction to his eagerness to be given jurisdiction over her elite ninja. She met his heightened interest with a hard glare. "Not a chance. I told you—I'm not risking my best available people on what looks like on all fronts to be an ambush. In case you hadn't noticed, we're still recuperating here ourselves."

Kurama sighed, shaking his head. "I'm not setting you up, Hokage-sama. And I'm sorry I was forced to use proximity as a leverage board."

"'Leverage board'?" Tsunade inquired, tone afloat on the sewage of anger. Her eyes widened as her fingers interlocked in her lap. "More like coercion." She closed her eyes for a moment, running silky emotional hands over her trembling discomfort and apprehension, easing herself back onto a stable ground. She looked at him again, her ire lessened. "No, like I said, I understand. And I'm hardly sending someone incompetent. I trust his judgment and skill." Her hands lay flat on the armrests of her chair as she elected against cushioning her next words. "Just appreciate that I don't like you and you can only twist my political arm so much. The image of this village is very important to me, but it's not as important as the village itself. Remember that."

Before either of them could continue, a trio of knocks at the door interrupted them. Shizune quickly moved from her position beside Tsunade to the other side of the room, opening the door with a soft click. Standing before them with his hands in his pockets was Shikamaru, a disinterested look masking his face. Tsunade felt oddly grateful to see him. As he stepped beyond the threshold, she noticed a brief eye contact made between Shikamaru and Kurama—she wondered what kind of analysis Shikamaru would draw. He was incredibly perceptive, almost staggeringly so. His intuition and intelligence superceded almost everyone in the village, and she became curious what kind of thoughts he would have on the situation as a whole.

Shikamaru stepped into the office, Shizune closing the door behind him. His lazy eyes met Tsunade's. "You called for me, Hokage-sama?"

Tsunade found herself smiling as she addressed the Chuunin. "Yes, I did. Thanks for responding so quickly." She cheerfully pivoted away from the previous subject. "How's your class doing?"

He shrugged. "They're alright. . . rowdy as hell. But they're trying. Mostly."

"At least you seem to be enjoying yourself," Tsunade observed with a grin.

An ironic half-smile caught his features, and he spoke in a sarcastic monotone. "I am overflowing with joy because every day is a treasure made just for me."

Tsunade laughed. "Welcome to my world, kiddo." She could tell Kurama was becoming slightly irritated at being removed from the discussion and ignored. It gave her an evil thrill, buzzing through her mind like a child constructing a prank and then waiting in the shadows to watch it unfold on a hapless victim. Still smiling, she leaned back in her chair. "Anyways, to business."

Shikamaru's lethargic demeanor evaporated, and he stood at attention, hands at his sides.

Tsunade gestured blandly to Kurama. "Shikamaru, this is Kurama Nagare. A diplomatic emissary of Mountain Country, with the Foreign Affairs bureau. He has a mission for you."

x x x x x

He knew from everything she had told him that she had told him nothing.

Stepping out of Tsunade's office, Shikamaru made a brief glance at the two sentries standing beside the door. Hands returning to his pockets he took a casual step forward, watching the gathering silver clouds through the window across the hall with a furrowed brow. Distantly he could hear light conversation from the other end of the curving corridor, but it came to his thoughts as a muffled code he chose not to interpret. He found himself turning and walking slowly towards the exit, his previous discussion carving fractured and incomplete symbols into his imagination, logic trying to decipher and extrapolate their iconology.

Information was being withheld. Of that he was certain. Tsunade's orders were very terse and nondescript; a duality that the Hokage never once had implemented when issuing him a mission before. She was very analytical and precise. In all the times he had reported to her or been briefed, she would take time to painstakingly scour every granule of information so he would not be left with any mysterious empty folds that he had to ascertain himself in the field. But this mission was enveloped in such holes: a contract forged in perforated ink.

His teeth came down soft at the edge of her lower lip. She was lying to him. Withholding information was the equivalent of a falsehood, Shikamaru figured—but then, there was the possibility that she was dispossessed of such information herself. He shook his head. That was an impossibility. The exoskeletal patchwork the mission was framed upon was dislocated and cracked—if what she had told him was truly all she knew, she would not have accepted the mission in the first place. And even if she had, she would not have assigned a simple Chuunin to spearhead the deployment.

Shikamaru blinked. Of course, he realized. She's playing dog and pony. She expects me to fill in the blanks. . . . Great. She's tossing me to starving wolves with nothing other than my wits to escape. Thanks for this, Hokage-sama.

His sandals clapped quietly across the marble floor. It all began with that Kurama individual. There was unquestionable animosity pouring from Tsunade that was easy to detect: the way she spoke of him, the way she spoke to him, the offhand undermining of his political authority, and the darkened glare she thrust upon him every few moments. Perhaps he was an old acquaintance of hers that she owed money. Hokage-sama owed a lot of people money. But that made no distance in discerning why she was keeping information from Shikamaru.

Shikamaru blinked, coming to a full stop. He stood at the top of the stairs leading into the lobby as realization illuminated portions of the obscured details in his thoughts. He's forcing her into this, he discovered. I don't know how yet, but he has something on her. Or perhaps on Konoha. That would go a long way to explain why I'm being sent to lead this group instead of a Jonin. . . she doesn't trust the mission itself enough to waste elites. So she sends cannon fodder like me to do the dirty work instead. Only two Konoha ninja? Yeah. . . suicide mission alright.

He scowled. Thanks again for that, too. Tyrannical bitch. . .

But he also suspected it was more than that. He knew Tsunade had faith in his abilities. Perhaps he wasn't the most technically proficient shinobi in the village, or one who possessed the most stamina, or the most experience. In all those ways he was a fairly mediocre soldier upon reflection. But he could think. Even when thrown amid high-ranking ninja like Jonin or ANBU he could operate on a level of intelligence most of them couldn't keep up with. Analysis, estimation and strategic implementation were the areas Shikamaru excelled at, well beyond mediocre and even good. He was fantastic.

So that's it. I'm not being sent off to die, I'm being sent off to figure out why I'm being sent off. Because she doesn't know herself. And the team is being kept to a minimum for the sake of appearance because she knows I'll pick the most adequate person after evaluating the skills of the Sand-nins. His fingertips touched gently upon the lacquered handrail on the stone staircase. So that means this is really two missions in one: the frontal assignment, but also the ostensible. . . to do what we were hired to do, and to investigate those who hired us to do it.

That complicated things.

Nearing the bottom of the stairs, Shikamaru sighed. "How. . . very troublesome."

Fading sunlight smeared across the granite floor within the lobby. The shifting clouds outside caused murky, shapeless shadows to undulate in inimitable sky-patterns along the shiny surface, like the eddying of a still water surface after a hand glided through. As the door opened a warm rush of air infiltrated, carrying the scent of imminent rainfall. The scent brought Shikamaru out of his thoughts for a moment, and in doing so made the conversation he had tuned out earlier audible.

He blinked, recognizing Sakura's voice from across the lobby.

". . . Training's going okay," she said, her voice sounding tired. "It's a lot different than combat training, though. I get tired pretty quickly using the medical jutsu so I end up sleeping a lot. It's not really all that fun, but it's rewarding in its own fashion. At least. . . you know, I'll be of use this way. For the next time. I'll be ready."

Shikamaru looked across the large room to see Sakura and Ino standing beside the registration desk, talking amongst themselves.

Ino had an awkward expression on her face. "I guess. . . you must get kinda bored without that guy around."

Sakura looked as if she hadn't slept in days. "Hmm? Naruto, you mean?"

"Yeah. That twit." Ino fidgeted slightly, a gesture Shikamaru recognized that indicated she was uncomfortable with what she was discussing. "I hate to admit it, but things are definitely a little bit more. . . dull here without him to do something weird or interesting."

Sakura shrugged. "True enough. That's he's a twit, I mean." Ino moved to interrupt and force Sakura to elaborate, but Sakura forged ahead before she could. "And that I miss him, I guess." She sighed, shaking her head. "What am I saying? Of course I miss him. He's my friend."

Ino laughed softly. "Who would have thought? After everything."

"Well not me. Not back then." Sakura smiled. "But here I am."

Shikamaru knew he was to choose a second ninja to join his mission of his own discretion. In a routine situation his first choice would have been Chouji, and failing that, Ino. They were his cell—his team, his comrades, the feet to his arms and the actions to his commands. With them he was most comfortable since they had spent so much time training together and their abilities complemented each other; combat transformed from carnal and shapeless chaos to a tranquil pulsing of manifold rhythm. But this was not a routine circumstance. He already had an idea of who the three Sand-nin were going to be given Tsunade's vague references, and while Ino would have been his preferred choice, he doubted whether or not it would be the right one.

In that moment he decided who the final team member was to be.

Better slip out before she sees me, he figured. Don't really feel like explaining why I'm not going to take her. . . especially if she figures out who I will be taking. That'll be way too troublesome.

His plans were thwarted the moment he stepped away from the stairs into the swimming light by the doors and Ino caught sight of him.

She blinked, then waved cheerfully. "Hey, Shikamaru-kun! How goes it?"

He suppressed a sigh. Dammit. . . He forced himself to turn and face the two girls. "Oh. Ino. Hey."

The two of them walked over to him, both with pleasant expressions on their face. The antithesis of his own.

"How's class going for you?" Sakura asked.

He shrugged. "Troubling. They keep making these annoying talky noises."

"Kids tend to do that," Ino said. She poked him with her index finger. "So where you off to? Get a mission?"

He realized there was no way to avoid telling her truth without coming off as being openly secretive. He tried anyways. "Hmm. . . maybe."

Ino blinked at his evasiveness, noticing his frown was a bit more intense than usual. "You okay? You seem kinda. . . off. Even for you."


She rolled her eyes. "I'm serious."

"Want me to take a look at you?" Sakura inquired lightly. "I know I'm hardly Tsunade-sama, but I'm getting better."

He took a moment to look at Sakura. With the sky clouding the smeared light poisoned the fragile glow of her pink hair, fragments of strange shadows moving across her pallid face. Although she was smiling her entire demeanor was an echo; a hollowed and smashed vessel of the happiness and cheer she used to embody. He felt sorry for her. Her cell had splintered—her two closest friends shorn by a terrible rift, leaving their bonds that took so long to meticulously construct in a torn and aching ruin. But he could do nothing for her, and it almost hurt to look at her.

"No thanks," he said, glancing at his watch, finding meeting her eyes difficult. "I'm feeling alright. Just have some stuff to think about."

Ino half-grinned. "Heh, it is a mission, isn't it?"

He sighed. "Yeah. A-Rank."

Ino's eyes widened. She took a moment to digest that before asking, "Who with?"

"Some Sand goons."

Ino's nose wrinkled. "Ew."

"I bet I can guess who they are," Sakura joked.

"I bet you can," he replied. He felt immediately regretful for how callous his words were, but he wasn't the type to retract something he said. Even if he she did appear less than she once was, he suspected from what he did know of her that she'd resent him more if he coddled her by treating her differently. An awkward silence elongated between the three, and Shikamaru took that as his cue. "Look, I've got to start getting into gear since they put me in charge of this death-march, so I've got to go."

Ino sighed. "Sure. . ." She looked at him, an unreadable inquisition hiding in her eyes. She crossed her arms. "You know, we haven't trained together in forever. I miss hanging out with you. How long are you gonna be gone?"

He missed her, too. But then he missed a lot of things he had taken for granted. He supposed that was less a part of being a ninja and more a part of being a human being. The acknowledgement of affection made his next words more difficult. "Indefinitely. No ETA on when we'll be back home. . . hopefully soon but probably not." He looked at her apologetically. "It's—well, complicated."

"Oh." She didn't appear crushed, but he knew she was still somewhat sad. He felt the same: after everyone had observed what happened to Team Seven all the other teams seemed to grow closer intrinsically by some unconscious gravity. Observing the collapse of others was motivation to preserve one's own solidarity. Ino smiled anyways. "Well, take care, okay?"

So did Sakura. "Yeah, good luck!"

"Thanks," he said. The little children ran within his thoughts; absence chewing at his sharply honed emotional pillars, their faces and voices twirling in his chasm with fading echoes. He could very well die on this mission. He could very well never see Ino or Sakura again. It wasn't the first time he'd had those thoughts, but before the concept of death and separation were alien artifacts he never had to unearth. Now. . .

The feeling was much like the children, only amplified. Radiating across the rugged terrain of his intuitive topography, crushing the visceral convolutions with an imploding horizon. He would call it fear, but it wasn't quite that. He decided it was purpose. A reason to avoid death and maintain the structure of togetherness.

An expression too small to be called a smile and too honest to be called anything else pulled at his face. "See you guys."

x x x x x

Warmth shed from the sun-baked stones lining the walkway to Hokage's tower, ethereal waves swaying like plants along an ocean floor. Trimmed grass combed backwards as a stiff breeze whisked across the tower entrance, a lingering sound reflecting a rolling sea-wave. Gaara stood with his arms crossed, narrowed eyes gazing upwards at the sculpted faces in the mountain above. His seemingly diverted attention was still intensely focused; his indifference allowed him a position of detachment and mystery, granting him a personal and disconnected scrutiny that would otherwise be lost.

Kurama Nagare stood before the three Sand-nins, arms crossed behind his back. A low rumble of distant thunder crawled across the dim and billowing sky. People began to hasten their retreat to their homes, the street behind them beginning to empty with increased magnitude.

With a breath, Kurama continued speaking. "Unfortunately, due to the existence of minor differentiations between separate countries in their methodology regarding contract drafting and implementation, I was left with few options aside from signing the mission over to Hokage-sama of Konoha. I hope you understand. It was for the best interests of all parties involved. Otherwise an entirely new set of papers would have to be drawn up and then shipped between the countries involved that could take weeks to sort through, which is time we simply don't possess."

"Pff," Kankuro scoffed.

Temari shrugged. "I suppose it can't be avoided. . . when they blindsided Baki-sensei and the others in Konoha's own backyard it would reflect poorly on their own international image to simply stand aside. Still. . ." she paused, face contorting as she chose her words. "Well. . . even with all that, it does kind of seem. . ."

"Stupid," Kankuro finished for her.

"To put it simply," Temari agreed.

"I apologize," Kurama relented, his calm gaze shifting between the three of them. Wind ruffled his messy hair. "Given my position I had no choice but to include Konoha, and I couldn't simply sublet the contract without having to step through some irritating and time consuming red tape that would hinder the investigation and pursuit. I didn't do this to subjugate your assistance or authority, so please don't think that. My superiors are a long way out of reach."

There was a lengthy and uncomfortable silence as Temari fixated a spiteful, ragged stare on the politician. Eventually she said, "So. . . basically. . ."


". . . This whole scenario you've unfolded is all some play at bringing the international presence of your country into public consciousness at the expense of our diplomatic stability? And then interfering with our pre-existing judiciary process by wrenching in bizarre and nebulous technicalities just so we're forced to meet your definition of expedience?" A treacherous grin mangled Temari's internal emotive landscape as she took sinister indulgence in the surprised expression draping Kurama's face. He hadn't been expecting her to reveal such articulation and insight, and she knew it. More than anything, Temari hated being underestimated.

She snorted. "Hmph. . . don't look at me like that. I might only be sixteen, but don't forget we are the children of the highest Suna hierarchy. I've spent my life around politicians and bureaucrats. I've grown up surrounded by shallow and partisan pencil-pushers just like you." Her lips twisted in a perverse sneer. "I'm not even going to pretend to try lying to you. You make me sick. We're not game pieces."

Kurama sighed. He was familiar with being unpopular, but that didn't make it any easier. "I'm sorry. And this 'scenario' you describe wasn't my concoction; I am simply trying to adapt to the changing situation as quickly as possible. If I fall behind, the lives of the people I'm trying to protect are undoubtedly forfeit. I can't let that happen."

Temari wasn't entirely convinced. "Yeah. I'm sure that's the case."

"Please," Kurama said tiredly, his voice allowing the fact he'd slept for only a handful of hours over the last few weeks to enter his tone. "This must happen. I don't expect you like me for it. I don't even ask that you do. But this is what needs to be done. I just want what is best for my country. Surely you can understand that?"

Kankuro snorted. "We don't need your charity mission. There are other missions we can do right now from people who really need legitimate help. If your so-called 'best intentions' are your only selling point, shove your stupid contract up your ass and get lost."

Temari blinked at his caustic demand, frowning at her brother. "Kankuro!"

"No, I'm serious," he affirmed. His arms were crossed, and his cynical gaze was directed at Temari rather than Kurama. "I refuse to be tossed like a fucking sandbag to hold back some political flood for a country that doesn't have the decency to even come out and say to our face when they're screwing us over. Forget it. . . I've got better things to waste my time on."

Gaara spoke. "It's not that simple."

Having been silent for the entirety of the conversation, the others started slightly at Gaara's entrance—Kurama obviously, Temari and Kankuro less so. His voice was calm and devoid of feeling, instinctively evacuated from the immediate moment. The cold machinery of his words churned its frosty cogs against his older siblings, reminding them adroitly to maintain an emotionless template. His ice-green stare continued to distantly scan the faces along the mountainside with eyes not made for watching.

Kankuro sighed, rubbing the bridge of his nose. "Why not?"

Temari's previous ire slain, she nodded solemnly at the annoyed puppeteer. "He's right. . . it isn't. Maybe you weren't paying attention when Baki-sensei received the summons, but I was. They pulled the same garbage on Suna that they're doing to Konoha now. They used a proximity incident to force involvement."

Kankuro, still annoyed despite Gaara's subtle reminder, gaped at her. "This shit flies? That's. . . blackmail, or—jeez, something!"

"It's not—" Kurama started.

"I wasn't talking to you," Kankuro spat. "So shut your damn mouth."

"Kankuro," Temari sighed.

With an exasperated groan, Kankuro rolled his eyes. "What?"

Thunder ebbed across the wind with the resonance of falling rocks. Gaara's voice was a muffled echo in its wake. "It's procedure. If an independent act of violence happens within a certain distance of a hidden village between foreign groups the village is required to intervene in some capacity." His gaze finally turned towards those surrounding him, an empty glance ensnared on his older brother. He looked at Kankuro directly and said, "It's not that difficult to understand."

Temari's face softened as she watched Kankuro. It wasn't as if she disagreed with any of his protests or sentiments. "And our alliance with Leaf is still new and fragile. It's to be expected they'd go to as much length as possible to assist us—which in this case means unifying the mission. It's dumb, but that's the world for you."

Kankuro paused for a long moment, feeling caught between Temari and Gaara. Finally he shook his head, staring up at the shifting heavens. ". . . This is ridiculous. You know that? Completely insane." He scoffed, an irritated and powerless sound. "Goddamn bureaucracies. . . you know, this is the kind of shit that makes gray spaces. This shouldn't be about saving face, it should be about Sensei and the people he practically died trying to protect."

"And it still is," Kurama supplied. He maintained diplomacy in spite of their intense dislike of him and his methods. He had seen worse. "They must be found. Their safe return is my sole intent."

Kankuro rolled his eyes. "Not your people. . . the two Genins not even a year out of the academy who were on what was probably their first C-Rank mission who were goddamn butchered." He stared hard at Kurama. "Yeah. I heard what happened to them. They couldn't even piece them back together if they wanted to. And I'm just supposed to forget about that? You have stupid priorities."

Temari's hand fell on Kankuro's shoulder softly. "Hey now. We'll get on top of things. Stop being a baby."

He glared at her but did not reply. Of the three of them, Kankuro had been closest to Baki—it was easy for Temari and Gaara to understand his raw and serrated reactions to the increasingly complicated situation. Kankuro had a fairly rough and cynical personality to begin with, but he was also openly hostile when provoked and uncertain of himself or his situation. It didn't help that Temari refused to coddle him and that Gaara wasn't exactly a reservoir of empathy. But the three of them had become accustomed to their own antisocial vices, and if nothing else were used to such behavior.

In the ensuing silence, Kurama glanced briefly at his watch. "Well. . . I'm certain the Chuunin Hokage-sama delegated to group with you will be here shortly. I spoke with him briefly. . . a shrewd kind of person. Kind of young, but I suppose he has his wits about him. Hokage-sama seems to hold his abilities in high esteem, so he should be up to the task."

Temari's hand fell from Kankuro's shoulder. "Yeah, well. . . we'll see about that."

Kurama nodded. "Very well then. . . he has all the information about the mission and he'll brief you on the specifics, I'm sure." He bowed to them slightly. "So then. Good day, and good luck."

"Yeah," Temari replied simply. Kankuro and Gaara said nothing.

Without elongating the moment further, Kurama stepped aside onto the cobblestone path leading into the village and briskly strode away from the three of them. Their guarded and analytical stares followed his retreating form as he plunged into the waning crowd that scurried across the rust-soil streets. After a moment he was gone, faded into the city.

Kankuro broke the silence in his absence. "Prick."

Temari had stepped back from Kankuro, her eyes then tracing the scattered lines of the village rooftops. Her voice was quietly detached when she spoke. "He's just doing his job. I'm sure he doesn't like it any more than we do."

Kankuro looked at her. "Spare me. You were ready to tear him a new one there for a second, too."

She smiled awkwardly. "A slip."

"Whatever," Kankuro replied, unconvinced. His arms folded and he took in a sharp breath. "If he were such a great guy, he wouldn't be going out of his way to force us into solving his country's problems for them. That whole 'proximity' thing reeks of whining."

Temari rolled her eyes. "Hey. Here's an idea: try thinking for a second before you open your damn mouth."

Kankuro glared at her. "The hell? Say that again!"

"What about Baki-sensei? Don't you want to investigate what happened?"

Kankuro kicked the dirt at his feet. "Do you have to ask?"

She looked at him, her expression probing and merciless. "Do you have any better ideas how to go about doing that?"

Kankuro was silent for a long moment as his siblings gauged his reaction. The cooling breeze twisted through their bodies, and Kankuro's frown deepened: his face reflecting a maroon labyrinth as the markings across his skin wrinkled and misaligned. ". . . No. Well. . . no. But it's still crap. I just. . . don't. Dammit." He sighed, annoyed with himself. He looked up at Temari briefly. "I don't like being forced into it, alright?"

"Fair enough," she conceded. She smiled at him condescendingly. "Just pay attention while we're out there and maybe you won't make a fool of yourself again."

Kankuro snorted, but didn't reply. The circumstances surrounding any mission were generally irrelevant to a ninja, so both Temari and Gaara understood that Kankuro's frustration was less the result of being manipulated into action rather than the cause of their involvement in the first place. It didn't help matters that the mission command had been handed over to Konoha, obliterating any control the three of them could have possessed over the situation. Powerlessness bred antipathy. Kankuro shoved his hands in his pockets, stifling another growl.

Casually observing his brother, Gaara's eyes twitched slightly at the presence of a silhouette in his peripheral. His eyes darted to the side, expression unchanging, to monitor someone approaching the three of them after exiting the tower. Even within the dim shade overhanging the patch of grass he walked across, familiarity awoke in Gaara's mind as he put a name to the person's face. He turned slightly, sandals scraping against the loose gravel at his feet.

He blinked once, slowly. "Nara Shikamaru."

Temari's head perked up, and she turned around. "Heh. Well I'll be damned. . ."

Kankuro sighed. "That tool? He's the 'shrewd kind of person'? For the love of. . ."

"Quit bitchin'," Temari said.

With his attention clearly elsewhere, Shikamaru casually walked over to the three Sand-nins. His hands were in his pockets, arms craned with a soft bend at the elbows. His eyes were watching the edges of his toes as they swung out in front of him with each step, his brow furrowed in obvious contemplation. The edge of his right incisor overlapped his lip as he bit down gently, and Temari almost laughed at the irritation resonating from him that was practically tangible. His shuffling feet stopped carrying him when he reached them near the street.

He looked up at them, his expression weakening to a lazy stare. "I had a hunch, but. . . well, I guess seeing you is proof enough." He shrugged. "Things are looking up, even if they aren't."

Temari grinned, giving him the once-over with her eyes. "You're in good hands now, I can assure you. Looking sharp, crybaby."

He scoffed. "Yeah." He met Kankuro and then Gaara's gaze, then immediately began the briefing without preamble. "I'm not really one for pleasantries, so let's get right to it. Your Sensei's mission's been hijacked by a stuffy shirt who's backing some fugitives and has now tinkered with the situation enough to get both our villages involved. I'm thinking that he set the route up so the carriage would cross right by both our villages and planned an attack both times to force our hand."

"Old news," Kankuro stated.

Temari nodded. "Yeah, get with the program crybaby." She crossed her arms, her eyes closing sagely. "Maybe here in Leaf ninjas are left out of the loop, but we're all up to date on every shred of the latest info. Our information network is elite and top-cell. Might be time for an intelligence upgrade."

Shikamaru was quiet, blinking awkwardly. "You already know? How?"

"Kurama Nagare just discussed the situation briefly with us," Gaara answered.

Shikamaru frowned. "What. . .?"

Kankuro made a clearly annoyed sound at the back of his throat. "See? Shrewd my ass. Glad to see we're being left in capable hands. Should I just bend over now and save us the ceremony?"

Temari glared at Kankuro before turning back to Shikamaru. "Reserves running low? Need a nap? Or are you just having an off day?"

". . . That's impossible," Shikamaru finally said. His face was uncharacteristically pale, a dull white skin-sheet draping a hyper-analyzing nexus that churned with cerebral machinery to decode the circumstances. His voice was quiet, as if he was talking to himself. "I left before he did. He's no ninja. . . how could he have. . ." He stopped himself, shaking his head. He pressed the flat of his palm between his closed eyes. "Tired. . . alright." His arm fell and he looked at the three of them blandly. "Basic facts then. We're all in this together, I'm in charge, and I've been told to pick another ninja from Konoha. If you have a problem with that, get in line. Yes, the arrangement is troublesome, and yes, I don't like it either. But for right now it's all we can do, so bear with me. There's still a lot of things to go over, so I'd rather meet up after I talk to the potential fifth member so I don't have explain things twice. I hate having to repeat myself."

Shikamaru trailed off as he began to scan the streets around them. After a moment he began to pad the pouches along his Chuunin vest with his hands, searching them for something specific. Although the three Suna-nins had encountered him only a handful of times, they were familiar enough with him to recognize his behavior as being abnormally secretive. Kankuro took some relief in his distracted behavior because it indicated he was as confounded by their situation as they were.

Temari watched Shikamaru's self-probe, eyes glinting with a strange humor. "You're a little young to be hitting the cigs, Shikamaru-kun. . ."

Shikamaru ignored her joke and finally looked back at them. "Anyone have a pen?"

There was the sound of an aerated swirling, softly scraping the empty air. Pale sand fibers reached out around Gaara, drawing the attention of Shikamaru. There was an obvious stiffening in his posture at the noise, and for a moment actual fear ripped across the Chuunin's eyes in the form of a glossy wraith. However, instead of attacking, Gaara coalesced the particle-tendrils into a miniature form: a pencil forged from simulated graphite and stone. The object hovered for a moment in between the four.

Shikamaru swallowed, pausing before reaching to grab the levitating pencil. "Thanks. . ." His eyes never left Gaara's as his fingers coiled around the object.

Gaara contacted the interrogating view as if it were a physical thing; Shikamaru's obvious discomfort transcribed a meticulous scrutiny to his surroundings, senses and perceptions heightened with the paranoia stimulus. Gaara wasn't unfamiliar with such a look from other people, having been such an embodiment of dread before. He suspected Shikamaru was coming to terms with relating the Gaara he remembered from previous encounters—a bloodthirsty human rampage bred on the smell and lust of harboring death—and the Gaara that stood before him right then. Something new, foreign: mysterious and deadly, but. . . something further, something different.

Gaara finally spoke. "Is something wrong?"

Shikamaru frowned slightly at the sound of his voice, his eyes then moving away. ". . . No." He then withdrew a small pad of paper from one of the pockets of his vest, quickly scribbling a note across its blank surface. When he moved to return Gaara's pencil, he blinked in open surprise when it simply dissolved into sand within his hand. He shook his head, folding the paper and handing it to Gaara. He appraised the three of them again, his aloof features once again smothering his face. "Meet me at that address in exactly—" he glimpsed at his watch, "—two hours from now. I'd rather discuss things out of public earshot. It's a small apartment in the south end of the village."

Temari briefly observed Gaara tuck the note away underneath his burgundy vest, before looking back at Shikamaru. "Your pad?"

He shrugged. "It's good enough. After I pick up the last of our team I'm going to head back here and talk to Hokage-sama, there's a few details I want to go over with her before briefing you guys. So. . . two hours. You fine with that?"

"Yeah," Kankuro said, previously inflamed aggravation cooled. "Why not."

Shikamaru nodded. "Good. See you then."

Without waiting for their replies, he stepped to the side and jogged quickly towards the village streets. Blustering thunder dragged across the universe from a short distance away, black clouds seemingly rushing across the dissolved blue. Temari's soft goodbye was swallowed by the cacophony, and then he was gone.

x x x x x

The words running through Tsunade's thoughts were, I won't let this be what it seems.

She sat in the heavy quiet of her office, face drawn in an intuitive emptiness. Faux-Manicured fingernails tapped an off-melody against the arms of her chair with muffled clicks. Behind her eyes were millions of needle-screens, information stored within her memory being scoured with a paradoxical ravenous finesse. Looking out over Konoha in her soft chair, she was watching and not watching. A dark vision turned within, powered by thousand watt obsidian bulbs.

He'll be back, she knew. He'll understand there's more to this. I picked you for a reason, Shikamaru. Don't let me down.

Absently Tsunade noted Shizune standing beside her desk, glancing at the Hokage with a restrained expectance. In spite of the logical arguments that could have been made against accepting the mission, Shizune never made them because she understood Tsunade was specifically shielding crucial information from Kurama. Tsunade realized that even though Shizune trusted her implicitly, she would still be worried about Shikamaru's team if all she could assess was the limited information she had.

Tsunade alleviated Shizune's worries. "He's not doing this alone."

"That's good," Shizune said, a cool professionalism suppressing the genuine relief in her voice. "I was beginning to suspect you were abandoning him."

"I wouldn't do that, would I?" Tsunade shook her head, smiling faintly. ". . . Don't answer that." Her expression dissolved. "In fact it's probably good that Secretary Kurama suspects I'm abandoning my ninjas. I'd much rather he believe I was just trying to unload a political obligation with the least amount of sacrifice. Given that our alliance with Suna is still fresh he'll probably suspect that, giving us a little bit more legroom to work in the shadows."

"So you intend to call the mission off, or. . ."

Tsunade shook her head. "No, the mission is on. Sand has been trapped in this whole mess whether they want to or not, and I'd rather maintain our alliance with them. Pulling out now would only damage that. I simply have designs to assist his team, that's all."

"Perhaps the actual mission objective itself is somewhat perilous, but from where I stand this seems like a fairly straightforward assignment." Shizune paused, thinking back on how thoroughly Kurama had angered Tsunade without even breaking a sweat. "Well. . . I suppose maybe a more irritating client than we usually get, but still."

"No. The Mountain's Foreign Minister has put something in motion here and intends to ensnare us along with it."

"Okay. . ." Shizune relented, beginning to revolve into her role as devil's advocate. "Perhaps Secretary Kurama did meddle with the carrier route and then hire an attack squad to destroy it. You heard what he said: they were political renegades."

Tsunade shrugged, her eyes still glazed with an infinite distance. "He also admitted he was backing them. You can't just rule that out. Even if that was a lie it's still a possibility."

"He's a politician. Maybe he's just trying to avoid a scandal? Or maybe he's just trying to side with the rising power in the country?" Shizune felt rather conflicted, although she knew perfectly well her 'feelings' were utterly irrelevant to the final verdict. She also knew that sending ninjas on missions that could end in tragedy was the typifying definition of what a ninja was; on the other hand, in spite of Kurama's rather cutthroat tactics, she understood his motives well enough. "Aren't they going through the throes of a pretty violent recession? Their government is falling apart. It's not a big surprise to see people scrambling to find new allies. And they have no ninja village even within a few days travel of their country. Capturing fugitives can be extremely difficult with standard army attack platoons in comparison to hiring shinobi trained specifically in such pursuits."

Tsunade turned her chair and looked up at Shizune with a rather bland expression. "Even from these brief reports and basic facts given by the Suna Council, there's already overwhelming substantiation in proving Secretary Kurama is sabotaging our political infrastructure to tailor to his country's needs. But that's just the problem. It's not clever. It's transparent. I don't doubt he's played a hand in orchestrating these scenarios, but I think he's simply a patsy. . . there's just too much on top of him. Kurama is so smothered in guilt that he practically defines innocent." Tsunade shrugged lazily, fully turning her chair to face her sprawling desk. She began to shuffle through a variety of documents in front of her. "A scapegoat, maybe, but a mastermind? Unlikely. But then again, this could all be a ploy simply to get us to think in that direction."

Shizune's left eyebrow arced. "Sounds like you might be grasping at straws."

"Maybe," Tsunade sighed. "But maybe not." Setting aside several dossiers and unlabeled papers, she lifted a light green scroll and began gently unrolling it across the surface of her desk. "I want to show you something. This scroll was delivered by a summoned hawk that arrived a few hours before the attack on the carriage outside of the village."

Shizune watched Tsunade's fingers smoothly caress the paper flat. "And. . .?"

"It's from Suna. It's information regarding Secretary Kurama and some basic intelligence on the current state of Mountain Country from their spies. This arrived before the attack was made. In other words, they were anticipating sabotage, and they were right." Tsunade looked up at Shizune from the corner of her eyes. "Had this scroll gotten here maybe even a bit sooner, we could have thwarted the attack altogether."

Shizune winced. "That still doesn't prove they have malicious intent involving us. I'm sure he was just scared that we might refuse his mission otherwise. I mean, what would he do if we said no? I can understand why he did what he did. I'm not saying I agree with it—because I don't—but he doesn't seem to have any intent outside of bettering his country. He said people wanted change."

Yes, but what kind? Tsunade retorted in the silent cathedral of her thoughts. Bad can be made into worse, you know. Her youthfully old fingertips brushed delicately across the edges of the writing on the scroll like the ghostly brush of a butterfly wings. Scanning across the parchment, further internalizing the information she had already committed to memory. Finding the correct kanji on the tempered scroll, she lifted the paper off of the light cloth it rested upon to find the small pocket stitched underneath. She withdrew three photographs from the tightly bound pocket, and noticed that Shizune's eyes widened slightly as she did.

Tsunade tossed the photos face up onto the desk. "Look at those pictures."

Shizune glanced at them briefly. "So?"

Tsunade's fingers locked together and she rested her chin on them. "On your left, there, that's President of Mountain Country's Treasury Directorate. The middle. . . the Ambassador of International Communications, and the last picture is of Mountain Country's Army 2nd Class General. Those pictures came with this intelligence report from our allies in Suna."

After studying the photos briefly, Shizune met Tsunade's eyes. "I'm. . . guessing they have some sort of involvement in our situation?"

"Yes, in an indirect sense. Less with the attack that happened here and more with why it happened." Tsunade held up three fingers. "They have three things in common. The first and foremost is that they were all advocates for the Impartial Peace and Business Sustenance treaty drafted by a small circle of diplomats that was to bring immense change to the Mountain Country's economy and way of life." Tsunade knew all of the specifics of the treaty as it was contained in Suna's very detailed intelligence report, but decided to leave that unmentioned for the time being. "I won't get into all of it because it's mostly irrelevant to our situation, but the sum of it is that it was a draft that was meant to bring prosperity and commerce into their country as well as crack down on urban violence."

"I see," Shizune nodded. She absently looked at the pictures again. "Obviously this was the 'change' Kurama said the people wanted?"

"I'm getting to that. The second thing they had in common is that they all supercede not only Secretary Kurama's political hierarchy, but also his own superior's rank: the Minster of Foreign Affairs who apparently answers to High Chamberlain Ulema. . . a religious icon with much influence among the people, I'm told. All three of these people here are above her reach of social influence."

Shizune looked up quickly, and Tsunade identified the solidifying comprehension in her eyes. "I think I can see where this is going. Meaning that the third thing is. . ."

Tsunade nodded. "Yes. The last thing they all share in common is they're all dead."

"And recently, I guess."

"Less than a week ago on all three counts. Meaning they all died after these renegades broke into the Treasury and fled their country. By the time they were discovered—all within a thirteen hour time frame—our targets had already been on the move for ten whole days."

Gathering her thoughts, Shizune delayed responding for a few moments. A slight frown brushed her pretty features as she stared down the picture-gaze of the three now-deceased people. Eventually, she said, "And you're suggesting that. . . Kurama, or his superiors, or whateverthat they assassinated these three? That makes even less sense. I thought these people would've been Kurama's and his superiors' heroes? They were pushing for this new peaceful draft and everything?"

Tsunade had to stop herself from scoffing. "Heroes? Taking into consideration what Shikamaru's final objective is, don't you think that's highly unlikely? The deciding factor for me, ultimately, rests in the fact that these people were revered by some of Kurama's superiors. At the very least, High Chamberlain Ulema supports them wholeheartedly."

Shizune's head tilted back slightly with realization. "Ah, now I see. Meaning that the Foreign Minister doesn't."

With a curt nod, Tsunade leaned back into her chair thoughtfully. "That's why I'm very cautious about this mission. There are a lot of volatile elements lurking out there in the shadows. Most of it is just disloyalties being finally revealed as the probability of a civil conflict strengthens, but I really don't like how they've dragged both Konoha and Suna into their mess. That's why I'm going to send in back-up for Shikamaru's team, but in secret. If they aren't going to show me all of their cards, then I'm not going to show them all of mine."

"Anyone in mind?"

"My first reaction would probably be someone on ANBU, given the mission parameters. Although I want to create a communication network between the espionage unit and the already established team, so it would be best to choose a Jonin at least somewhat familiar with the kids." Tsunade leaned back over her desk, shuffling through a stack of personal files. After a moment of somewhat frustrated rummaging, she selected her chosen document and tossed it beside the three pictures. "He'll do. He has no cell to train since two thirds of it aren't even in the country anymore and Sakura-chan is now my pupil. And from what I understand he's had at least some contact with the Suna-nins, even if on a transient level. As soon as he returns from his current mission I want him to speak to me immediately regarding this."

"Yes, Tsunade-sama," Shizune assured, bowing in respect. She gathered up her own documents, sliding the disheveled papers back into proper order before bowing once again, and walking quietly to the door. As she stepped out into the hallway the room brightened slightly from the lanterns flowing an enveloped saffron across the wooden walls; rainclouds finally eclipsing sunlight and pouring shadows over the day. The door closed. Gold and black intermingled.

In the silence, rain began to fall in a submissive contact against the window. Tsunade sat alone, lost in thought.