Of Remnants
—five—
'An End to Strangers'

Mist shimmered like chrome blood rising beneath a wintry lake as Temari and Hinata leapt through its cascading veils. Sodden ground raced by underneath them as they navigated the rocky forest; boulders etched through soil with jagged disarrangement. The shore of the river now far behind them, they became surrounded by the sounds of the fog, eerie and formless calls from hidden creatures as if spectral bodies floated in the twisting silver. Temari kept a close pace by Hinata as to not lose sight of her, while Hinata's eyes hardened like cracked glass as her Byakugan sifted through the atmospheric impurities.

Temari's feet rested on the edge of a ridgewood for less than a second before rebounding. "Damn these trees are a pain," she muttered. Given their massive girth they could not be navigated like the forests of Fire Country: wooden pillars had to be traversed as if they were stone towers, making their pursuit a curving and elaborate affair. As the two of them touched down along the side of another tree they both broke into a run along its craggy surface before leaping once again. "Still have him?"

Hinata's nod was imperceptible. "He's still moving forward. . . he seems to be slowing." As they took to the air again, she frowned. "I'm. . ."

Temari's hands inched towards her fan. "What is it?"

"There's something. . . wrong with him," Hinata said quietly. Her hair tussled with every jump, flaying before her eyes but not blinding her. "He's leaking chakra."

Temari blinked, her eyes constantly roaming her surroundings in preparation for anything. "Leaking? What do you mean?"

"I don't. . . it's coming off him in waves. It's like a genjutsu but something else. Something stronger, or. . . I don't know."

"Okay. This is all kind of strange," Temari decided. She had training to track hostiles through mist so to some degree she wasn't totally alienated from her element; however she had never worked with someone like Hinata that could puncture the superficial layer of reality and see the unseen. It made her primitive tracking methods obsolete and cumbersome. Temari didn't like being forced to rely on someone else. She winced momentarily. "I wish I could see properly."

Hinata's hand came up abruptly. "He's coming back this way."

"Stop," Temari commanded. They halted along the side of a tree, standing in a horizontal contrast to the shifting ground that hid beneath the mist below. A cold wind blew through the crevices of the forest, a loud wailing from all directions as if screams from a warped abyss. Temari continued to push the limits of her sight. "Where?"

Hinata kneeled, bringing her hands together. She frowned in concentration. "About fifty meters ahead of us. He's. . . moving faster." A short gasp escaped her small body. "What. . ."

Temari looked down at her. "Hinata-chan?"

"He. . . he disappeared!"

Body fibers tightened. The hum of adrenaline began to warm the chords underneath Temari's skin. "A henge?"

Hinata shook her head. "No, he shouldn't be able to have--my eyes can't follow him!" Her head snapped back to stare above, a terrified mask enveloping her face as if submerged in a sudden undertow. "Above us!"

Wood shattered. Temari caught the sound before she was able to see anything, miniature vibrations crawling underneath her feet. Both Hinata and Temari dispersed in a random propulsion as the hostile ninja slid down the bark of the tree to assault the location where they had been standing. Scars shorn down the surface of the tree as the ninja slid, carving vertical lines with his kunai. Shards of metal and bark sprayed from the gouges, raining to the ground below like falling black stars.

Temari dropped thirty feet to the forest floor. She tucked in on herself, bending her knees to absorb the impact. Brittle branches lying underneath cracked with a wet snap as she crushed the debris upon her moment of impact. Adrenaline pounded through her veins in a throbbing crimson rush, eyes revolving in myriad directions as to drink the world. After hitting the ground she rolled along a smooth rock, twisting her body to face the direction of her descent. Her hand came down on the wet stone and she became statuesque in her crouch.

Above, at the edges of what was visible, the ninja stood. Face hidden by his straw hat, thin form lurking deviously like a shark maneuvering through dark waters. Temari moved to unfasten her fan, but as she did the ninja's hands began to dance through several seals. Without a sound he evaporated into the mist, swallowed like a reflection on the surface of a disturbed lake. Emptiness flourished.

Apprehension hammered at Temari. While she couldn't see to the degree Hinata could she was nevertheless capable of attuning her spiritual grid to receiving chakra signals. She had felt the ninja fall upon them, just as one feels the ghostly touch of silk curtains. Now that signal had extinguished, leaving her alone and trapped in the gathering storm.

"Dammit! Where the hell did you come from?" Temari's fingers tightened into fists, eyes frantic as they scoured her surroundings. "Shit, I lost him again!" Movement touched at the edges of her peripheral, her head twirling. "Hinata-chan!"

Hinata dropped down beside her quietly. "I'm okay. . . he vanished again. It's like he's teleporting everywhere. I can't follow him."

The incoming violence crashed into Temari's pendulous thoughts.

Behind!

Her body moved of its own accord; throttling the existence engine with primal mechanisms, the intrinsic desire to live taking control of her circuitry. A swell of killing intent crashed over her spiritual essence like a furious typhoon. Temari ducked as the ninja manifested in a coalescence of flesh directly behind her, his hand stabbing forward with fingers extended. The knife-blow intended for her neck grazed the tip of her hair, casting a dagger shaped shadow over her pale skin. In the same motion, Temari's hand fell to her weapons pouch and retrieved a kunai, fingers flipping the black iron into her palm, her wrist snapping upwards fluidly.

Skin split in a crimson torrent. The kunai met with the man's flattened hand, skewering through his palm until it caught on the spliced sinews. Metal entwined with bone. Temari continued to move. Her other hand lay flat across the stone as she corkscrewed, leg scything around to catch the attacking ninja's ankles. There was a wet crunch as her heal impacted his ankle, bone cracking inward as the joint exploded.

Hinata leapt above to cling to the side of a nearby boulder, legs bending, coiling to rebound and attack.

Delusive within his agony—or perhaps even in spite of it—the ninja continued his assault on Temari. Nearly falling from his shattered ankle, he attempted to barrage Temari's crouched form with a series of punches; hand quaking from the lodged metal that severed nerves, attacks coming in wide and predictable arcs. "You can't take me! I didn't want any part of this!" His good hand forked towards Temari's face, missing completely as she leapt to the side. Eyes wide and wild, words coming out faster and more frantic. "He lied to me! LIED! I never agreed to any of this! He. . . He can't take everything just like that!"

Temari frowned, ignoring the crazed ramblings. Hinata had gone out of her field of vision again, meaning that her counterattacks on the frenetic ninja had to be precise. Knowing that her fan was out of the question, she fell back on alternative methods of lethal violence. Her feet slid through a trail of moss along a boulder, smearing a filthy green across the dampened stone. Holding her ground she waited for the next attack. The ninja came at her again, throwing a hammer-blow with his impaled hand at her chest. Her forearm jerked upwards to brush the surging fist aside, striking his wrist with the flat of her palm. Skin shifted as the feeling similar to crushed leaves brushed her senses when the small bones cracked. Her other hand rifled forward, colliding with the ninja's solar plexus.

Blazing flames began to move.

In the split second that the ninja was thrown backwards Temari's hands came together. Chakra surged fiery tendrils through her pounding veins. Her hands moved through five seals in less than two seconds. She drew in a deep breath, oxygen funneling into a molten cyclone, preternatural energy forming an invisible furnace inches away from her mouth and nose. Air shifted. Mist spiraled then became still.

She exhaled.

A second sun bloomed as a geyser of flame blasted from Temari's Katon jutsu. Intense heat blanketed everything before her; glowing plumes spread like solar wings as the mist parted briefly from the sudden cataclysm. The flare struck the ninja as he attempted to evade, scorching across his calves, igniting skin and flesh. Heat washed over her in dry waves, fire and light haloing above. Temari drew back, truncating the flames. The forest darkened as thick charcoal smoke bled into the mist. Her interlocked fingers uncoiled as she prepared to deliver a finishing attack on the incinerated ninja.

Temari frowned. He was gone.

She spit angrily onto the ground where he had been. "You damn coward!" Her head turned to where she had last seen Hinata leap towards. "Hinata-chan? You there?"

A scraping noise birthed above her, Hinata leaping down beside Temari shortly thereafter. She looked at the older girl apologetically. "Y-Yes. I'm sorry, I got disoriented."

"It's fine," Temari assured her. Anger continued to uncoil and slide underneath her skin like glacier ice, a cold armor of malevolence pulling rapidly into togetherness. Her eyes darted about the burnt clearing. "Can you still trace him?"

Hinata concentrated. "Yes." Her pallid fingers tightened against each other. "He's moving north again. Much slower. . ."

Temari nodded. "I got him pretty good. There's no way he can outrun us anymore. Let's go and get this over with."

A terse moment elapsed as Hinata gestured in the direction the wounded ninja had fled, then both of them ascended once again to the trees in pursuit.

x x x x x

Although confident in his own tracking capabilities, Kankuro knew they were vastly inferior to Gaara's. The wretched beast sleeping within his younger brother saw to that: many of Gaara's senses were heightened to an almost bestial realm, making him capable of dissolving the world into a blueprint of reality. Kankuro was grateful for that blessing as they sped through the fog. It allowed him to follow instead of lead—Kankuro wasn't certain he'd do an adequate job of the latter because he felt too disconnected from the moment.

Baki's broken form churned in the maelstrom of his thoughts.

Kankuro kept stride with Gaara, anxious fervor driving his movements. "Up ahead. . . did you catch sight of him?"

Gaara's narrowed eyes did not waver. "Yes, just briefly. He faded too quickly for anything substantial but I can feel the wake of his chakra."

Kankuro frowned. "Wake?" He waited for a moment as they came down upon a formation of rocks. He held his hand up, and Gaara refrained from rebounding, dulled green meeting him from the edges of blackened slits. Kankuro's feet shifted on the stone. "Hold up then, he could be leading us into a trap. Maybe we should regroup?"

"Perhaps," Gaara agreed. The mist moved with the cool wind, layers of silver lurking like snake skin sliding along the surface of water. Gaara looked up to the trees, honing in on the avenue of the target's departure. "But this trail is all we have," he continued, then leaping again into the trees. Kankuro followed. He waited until his older brother fell into step beside him before speaking again. "We have to keep pressuring him otherwise we'll lose the advantage. So be alert."

Kankuro nodded, trying to suppress the pre-combat euphoria from clouding his judgement. He felt the malice shift into position; excavated from the ruins of his darker recesses, a terrible structure of wrath and vengeance that eclipsed the vital rules of emotional disembodiment that shinobi were trained to live by. All of the failings, all of the inexplicable facts, all of the damage and all of the loss created within the last week now had a tangible source. An effigy through which Kankuro could expel his misgivings and anger upon.

I'm going to kill them because I can.

The behemoth of death began to move.

The next few minutes elapsed in a void. Time seemed fractured and hung along a chronological string; everything orbited their chase as if waiting for its conclusion, each instant appearing to fold into the next until linear progression crashed to a halt. A universe of stopped time, Kankuro and Gaara the only motion within its suspended features. Kankuro's thumbs ran over the pads of his fingers with a shaking apprehension. He maintained course on Gaara's leaps through the gargantuan trees without another word.

He caught the movement a mere instant after Gaara. Dark iron penetrated the mist like metal slivers, several kunai soaring towards their leaping forms. Gaara's hands reached back and he expelled a subtle chakra through his palms, slowing his forward momentum as to fall into the line of fire. There was a sound similar to that of lightning striking a conductive rod as the projectile blades slammed into Gaara's shield of sand. A spherical wall flared into being like cascading water independent of Gaara's will, the various knives striking the forcefield and then falling to the ground below.

Kankuro hit the nearest tree, rebounding in a downward dive with the push of his legs. He plunged towards a collective of branches, grabbing the thick bark with a gloved hand and then swinging himself so as to face the way they'd came. He crouched while his fingers pressed into the wood, pressure forking stress through the cracked surface. Gaara came down beside him against the side of the tree, holding his position through a chakra grip. His arms uncrossed.

There was nothing.

Kankuro frowned. "Was that. . . a shadow clone?" He began searching the trees, trying to locate the source of the attack. His teeth ground together. "Shit, I can't see a damn thing. How about you? Anything?"

Gaara peered down at the ground like a stone gargoyle, perched atop a macabre civilization. "There. Below us."

Kankuro followed Gaara's gaze to the ninja on the ground. Instead of pursuing them into the trees to continue his attack, he was crouched atop a shattered tree stump, staring back at them like a frightening animal evading the maw of a bloodthirsty predator. His straw hat had fallen backwards, straps holding it in place around his neck. Kankuro had to squint to solidify the image, but there was obvious fear in the way the shinobi moved, breathed and looked up at them. A kunai was gripped in each of his hands, muscles crushing against wrapped steel.

After a moment of staring each other down, the ninja brought the knives up in front of him in a defensive stance. He shouted up to them, his voice tiny in the echoing and ghostly forest. "You can't take me! I won't--no! You can't see inside my head! I'll kill you even if I have to die! You can't stay inside!"

"Well now," Kankuro said.

Gaara frowned. "Peculiar."

"Just a little," Kankuro agreed. They watched then as the shinobi leapt to his feet and began to blindly throw kunai and shuriken in random directions. There was an obvious desperation to his paranoid actions, each toss brought with it a terrified whimper as the man below them tried to fend off an invisible assailant. After a few moments of watching the hysterical shinobi, Kankuro felt anger begin to rise within him. Rage tightened his hands into fists. "Is this some kind of joke?"

Gaara stepped slowly off of the trunk of the tree and onto the branch Kankuro perched atop of. As his feet set down he knelt, hands coming together in a concentration seal; molding chakra into surveillance gadgetry to analyze what kind of diseased particles were floating about the shinobi. Kankuro simply continued to watch, disdain and animosity growing with each passing moment.

Gaara's hands fell away and he stood. "He's suffering from some mental disturbance. A genjutsu, probably. His reality has been destroyed."

"Too bad for him," Kankuro said. He stood, his fingers snapping the buckled strap restraining Karasu. Bandages began to loosen in a frayed sliding of fabric. "He's mine. Stay here."

Gaara's eyes remained on the ninja below. "What do you intend to do?"

"What do you think? To see if he's really one of them."

A shriek tore up to them as the ninja's arms came up, blocking a nonexistent attack. Gaara's eyes met with Kankuro at their edges. "What will that prove?"

Kankuro shrugged, slinging Karasu off his back. The sheltered marionette crashed onto the branch with a thick clank, metallic components resonating from the impact. "It'll prove what it proves. I need to know if they were the ones who attacked Baki-sensei." He caught Gaara giving him an analyzing look, frowning at the implied condescendence. "Don't act like you expect me to file this away or stay distant. Don't patronize me like that. I can handle myself."

Gaara took another look down. ". . . Fine. Be careful. If things get hectic I'm stepping in, whether you like it or not."

Without another word or glance, Kankuro stepped off the branch and dropped down. Karasu remained in place next to Gaara, seals unraveling as Kankuro carried the cloth restraints in his descent. A sudden twitch in his fingers sent energy strings upwards until the puppet was under his control. By the time Kankuro braced himself and touched down on the soft ground, Karasu had already escaped its prison and had been guided into maneuvering around to the other side of the clearing. To maintain the illusion of solitude, Kankuro put his hands in his pockets—fingers still playing an invisible piano, controlling his benefactor with ease.

By then the shinobi was crouched atop the same stump just over a dozen meters away, looking in the direction away from Kankuro.

Kankuro walked up to him casually. "Hey asshole."

A gravelly noise came from under the ninja's feet as he twisted, brittle and dead wood disintegrating beneath him. His eyes met with Kankuro's, terrified and deranged. "You! You stay. . . stay out of. . . you can't take me inside! I'll never let you!"

Kankuro was ready for him. By then the crazed ninja had relinquished all of his weapons and was forced to rely on mediocre taijutsu. He leapt into the air and twisted to deliver a spinning kick on Kankuro's seemingly detached form, hands still in his pockets. Woodland creatures scattered as the man came towards Kankuro's head foot first. Instead of calling upon Karasu, Kankuro's hands flew out of his pockets and grabbed the man's leg, fingers sinking into his flesh through the cloth, using the inertia to throw the man over his shoulder.

A wet twirling stormed from the impact as the ninja crashed into fallen branches and leaves. He struggled to bring himself to his feet, his arms shaking as they pressed against the sodden ground.

Kankuro looked pitilessly at the man. "You lunatic," he snarled. Anger continued to grow at the shinobi's inept display. He took a step towards him. "Were you there?"

"I was. . . I. . ." There was a wilt in the man's voice, emotion smothering his mouth. He stood, fists clenched. "No." He spun around, the same fear still driving his movements but now carrying with it a stronger sense of resolve. "It's going to start again. . ."

He never had a chance to attack again. Kankuro leapt forward before the shinobi could dodge, hand shuddering closed around the back of his neck. A feral jaw widened, Kankuro's lips parting to bear teeth; his leg then shooting upwards as he slammed the edge of his knee into the man's chest, ribs shattering like wishbones. Blood spat from the ninja's parted lips, Kankuro then throwing him back onto the ground.

Kankuro towered over the coughing man like a spire of death, resolute and ruthless in a sea of calamity. "Tell me you're just kidding around. Seriously. You have to be fooling with me. . . you can't let me think this is what I've been chasing, can you? You couldn't have been there. Baki-sensei would've never lost to someone so goddamn pathetic."

A trembling hand wiped blood from the man's mouth. ". . . No! NO! Th-The. . . the eyes!" His hands came up childishly to cover his ears as he drew in upon himself. "They're. . ."

Kankuro grabbed the man's garb by its collar, raising him up into the air. "Please. Tell me this isn't what you really are."

Fear-warped irises shrunk as the man's hands beat weakly against Kankuro's arm. His voice was a tortured whisper. "We burned everything to the ground. . . tore them apart. . . he made us. . ."

And that was the final moment. All restraints buckled against Kankuro's feelings snapped open as hate resurrected the stronghold of violence within him. He could feel himself standing in the hospital room again looking down upon the human ruins of his Sensei, trying to piece together some kind of rational explanation as to how it had happened. The entrapment of Gaara as he tried futilely to console him. The disinterested dismissal of Shikamaru, put in charge of the few things Kankuro cared about and acting as if they were nothing.

An exquisite mixture: his lonely and brutal past, a childhood slain before it was born, a ferocity sleeping as he hid inside himself in fear every single day from his own Father. From his own brother. Torrents of these stored sensations streamed through him in a dire and reptilian alchemy; gates of restraint thrown open as the channels of enmity rose and began to flood the banks of his control.

His quiet voice was thunderous. "You liar. You. . . liar." All sympathy then razed, his free hand curled into a fist. "You fucking liar."

His fingers uncoiled and he let the man drop. Before he could touch upon the ground Kankuro was already attacking. Fingers stabbed forward like knives of bone, perforating the man's chest; squeezing between the shattered ribs, bending them out of place and puncturing his lungs. His fingers wrapped around the ribcage as if it were steel bars, holding him in the air by his insides. Kankuro's head crashed forward, smashing into the shinobi's nose; bone and cartilage cratered, a stream of scarlet spurting from the destroyed joint. Kankuro could barely feel the muscles move against his hands.

"There's no way you could have been the ones. There's no way. . . You can't even stand on your own goddamned feet!" Fingernails scraped from skin to liquid, the hot and reeking sludge of exposed organs against his fingers nothing compared to the draconic firestorm of his thoughts. "Look at you. You make me sick, you weak little. . . God, this has to be a joke!"

Spasms contorted the shinobi's entire body, tears streaming down his reddened face. "I was there. . ." he whispered in a damaged gasp. Breath seizured, air of life truncated by Kankuro's infiltrating digits. "I saw it all. I saw everything. . ."

Kankuro stared him in the face for a long moment before saying, ". . . I don't believe you."

Fingers withdrew. Sliding free of their organic crevices, letting the man fall to his knees. Before entirely toppling over Kankuro's hands came down around the shinobi's head, gripping his hair and face. Adrenaline surged as the furious Sand-nin yanked with every ounce of strength he possessed, the man's head twisting further than his spine could pivot, neck snapping like a wood knot in a fire. He crumpled lifelessly to the ground. Kankuro stared at the corpse, blood running down his fingers, and felt nothing.

Absolutely nothing.

A faint stirring behind him rustled leaves. "Hey," Gaara spoke.

After a moment Kankuro turned.

Gaara stood there with his arms crossed, face empty. "Kill them without vengeance, you said?"

Kankuro didn't reply.

"Did you do this 'just because you could'?"

Bloody fingers tightened and relaxed a few times before Kankuro responded, his voice hoarse. ". . . You don't have the right to ask me that."

Gaara didn't falter. "I know. You're right. I don't. But I still asked. Did you?"

A cool wind shifted. Kankuro's heart raced, anger slowly subsiding. He stared Gaara in the eyes. "Yes. There was nothing else."

x x x x x

Methodology regarding torture and interrogation had been covered in the Academy, but had been grossly understated and brushed aside regarding the actual emotional severity involved. A fact Shikamaru rapidly became acquainted with as he stared down at the wheezing enemy nin, body scattered like a red human web. It took the teenager a few moments to gather the sadistic manifolds within him that he would require. His breathing was shallow although antithetical to relaxation.

He briefly thought of Ino and Chouji. He didn't know why.

When he knelt down in an effort to be cheerful for his own sake, every word came out wrong.

"Okay," he said, knees bending without a sound. He tried to make eye contact, although the dying man wouldn't look at him. "So. How are we feeling today? Any pains to speak of?"

"Agh. . . I. . . oh, you. . . hurts. . ."

Shikamaru scratched the side of his mouth. "Hey, that's great. Listen, I was wondering if you'd mind answering some questions for me." Although focused heavily on the task before him, he still engineered a sense of awareness; there was no safety to be found in complicity, and simply because he'd sent the others to track down the retreating shinobi in no way indicated he was safe from harm. He gave brief surreptitious glances along the shoreline. "I'm not really big on talking, you know, so. . . yeah, I was hoping maybe you'd be able to do most of that. So. . . let's start with why you attacked us."

A phlegm-laden cough cracked the silence. Deep crimson—nearly maroon—wept from the edges of the man's lips. "I. . . God, I can't feel my legs. . . I'm sorr--no, I can't feel. . ."

"Yo," Shikamaru said, trying to capture his attention. He frowned as he was met with a whimpered distance, the man seeming to teeter on the frontier of consciousness. "Hey, stay with me." Shaking will forced Shikamaru to bite down on his tongue, reminding himself of where he was and what he was supposed to be after. He slapped the ninja across the face, hating the action. "Come on, work with me here. I don't want to have to get rough, alright? I'm not the torturous type. Just answer my questions and I'll put you out of your misery. Can you understand what I'm saying?"

An aerated fluid trickled. Shikamaru sighed. The man had tried to spit in his face, only he lacked the energy and instead saliva was trailing down his own cheek.

"Hey," Shikamaru finally said, this time with more disdain. "Hey. Can you understand me?"

". . . Yes."

"Okay then." Intensity swam through Shikamaru's stomach like a nest of eels. He shifted his stance onto the balls of his feet. "Why did you attack us?"

"What do you--you did," the man answered, his voice strained. He breathed, staring into the sky. "You attacked us first. . ."

"Jeez, what's with this guy?" Shikamaru assessed the situation, realizing that he wasn't going to extract any kind of information without implementing a more poignant interrogation ethic. Ghastly actions floated up through his thoughts like corpses from a lakebed. Behind his eyes, where he could not be observed, he began to close the doors of his compassion. His voice lacked warmth when he spoke again. "Look, I'm serious now. Stop playing games. Let's make this quick for both our sakes. Why?"

A frivolous movement pushed the ninja further into the depression of crushed sand he lay in. He tried to turn himself, the gesture futile as his legs were damaged beyond repair. He gave up on the attempt, turning his head instead to look up at Shikamaru. "I. . . I told you! We were. . . ow, fuck. . . we're just. . . you attacked us! What were we supposed to do! We had to defend ourselves!"

". . . Fine. Be a pain. Next question then. What are you after?"

The nin swallowed to steady his voice. ". . . I won't tell you anything. You've already. . . you've taken everything from us."

Shikamaru grit his teeth behind his lips. Fiends of terrible wrath began to dangle the torturous instruments for him to touch. His eyes caught the glint of the kunai embedded in the man's shoulder. "I'm not detecting a lot of logic on your behalf here, guy. Enough with this. Answer me straight." He wrapped his hand around the weapon, fingers sliding over the bandaged metal and then tightening. His thumb jerked without moving the blade, indicating what he was about to do. "Otherwise I'll have to do something neither of us really wants. What are you after?"

"N-Nothing!" Frailty entered the shinobi's voice, his eyes resting on Shikamaru's fingers. "We just. . . following orders! Carrying the documents. . . you're the ones who took them away! You're the ones who attacked us!"

"So you did attack the carriage for the documents," Shikamaru stated. His eyebrow rose, hoping the deliberately casual gesture would throw the ninja off. "Forgive me if I find that a little hard to believe. You didn't exactly give a first-rate performance here. You expect me to believe that you're capable of defeating a Jonin? Yeah. As if."

A terrified look contorted the shinobi's pale face. "Why are you. . . we didn't want it to be like this. Please. Please believe me! We stole the documents, okay! It. . . Alexei put us up to it! You can have them! Just. . . oh God it hurts. . ."

Shikamaru frowned, his grip on the kunai inadvertently loosening. "Wait, you stole the documents?" Pieces of the amorphous sculpture began to take faint shape. As the information connected in his thoughts, Shikamaru's eyes widened in realization. "Oh for the love of. . . let me see your eyes." He lay his hand across the man's forehead, surprised momentarily at how cold his skin was, then leaned over. He forced the man to look him in the eyes. ". . . Residual dilation. The post effects of genjutsu. You really didn't attack the carriers, did you? You--wait, what are you. . ."

Lips bulged. Skin shifted upwards around the shinobi's jaw, and blood began to stream from the corners of his mouth as if pipelines had fractured and water was bursting free. A dead feeling razed across Shikamaru's stomach, collapsing down onto him with otherworldly weight. There was a horrible and muffled tearing noise, then the man's jaw snapped closed inside his mouth. Tears rolled down his face.

Shikamaru tried to breathe.

". . . You did not just do that."

A trembling moment elapsed. Shikamaru hesitated before a spasm wracked the man's throat and he coughed, hot fluid spurting from his mouth in red droplets. Shikamaru put his fingers against the ninja's swollen lips and pulled his mouth open, wincing at the damage within. Blood overflowed, rushing down over the surface of his chin and cheeks, as if his face was melting slick metal. A shredded mass of flesh was lodged at the back of his throat, Shikamaru then pushing down the wave of nausea that crashed through his stomach.

He'd chewed through his own tongue.

What was left of the ninja's halved tongue lashed about his mouth like a beached fish. Not only could he no longer speak to divulge information, but he was going to be dead within minutes—either from sheer blood loss or from choking to death on his own ichor. Shikamaru withdrew his fingers from the man's mouth, ignoring the warm liquid spilling onto them. He took a long breath, realizing the ramifications of what just happened.

He should have stopped him. But instead, he'd been paralyzed. He just sat there and watched, amid the wretched stink of ruptured organs and coppery blood. Aluminum floating in the heavy air, tasting of opened scabs and gluttonous disease and iron walls engulfing him on all sides. It had been as if he'd become ensnared by his own shadow technique.

This was their only means of information. Now it had been lost. He'd ordered the others to kill their respective targets and he had faith in their abilities; where he'd fallen short had been confidence in himself, as they were now handicapped due to his utter miscalculation. Something he knew that some of the others would be more than willing to point out when they learned of their prisoner's fate. And their cynicism would, this time, be entirely deserved. Shikamaru grimaced.

Shit.

Shikamaru rubbed at his eyes tiredly as the man began choking. "Oh, you. . . troublesome bastard."

After watching the pitiful throes of a dying shinobi for several seconds more, Shikamaru sighed. He reached over and withdrew the kunai embedded into the man's stomach, metal withdrawing with little resistance. He flipped the blade around, gave the man an ambiguous look that even he could not be certain of the meaning, and plunged the throwing knife into the man's forehead. His skull split easily as if waxed paper. The choking stopped.

It took a few moments for Shikamaru to realize he was shaking. He interlocked his fingers tightly, trying to pretend he wasn't. He'd really let the team down this time, something he had sworn to himself he'd never do again. Reality intervened upon his promise with deconstructive tools. He ignored the falling and broken machinery in the architecture of his mind, focusing instead on what few things he had managed to ascertain. The words came back to him in the rattling silence.

We stole the documents, okay!

That could only mean one of two things. And given the presence of an extreme genjutsu polluting the man's sanity, Shikamaru suspected he knew which one it was.

A shaking hand scratched the back of his head as he looked up into the dull sky, trying to forget he'd just killed someone. Trying to remember what he'd told himself countless times before. Vividly the fragility returned to him: he remembered Temari, Tsunade, his Father and Shizune encircling him. Their scathing warmth. He swallowed heavily, trying to recreate that feeling once again. It didn't come.

He looked down at the dead ninja, wondering what to do next.

"Man. . ."

x x x x x

Hinata deactivated her Byakugan, veins submerging beneath her skin like diving amphibians. After Temari had wounded their target his ability to retreat had been entirely compromised: he left physical evidence of where he had been through distilled foliage or trails of blood. To conserve chakra Hinata then fell back on her more natural tracking skills, eyes watching for abrupt alterations to the surrounding terrain.

There had also been a change in Temari after they had set off for a second time. Hinata quickly noticed how intense the older teenager became after the initial violence, her words transformed into cold and lifeless objects, terse exchanges as she throttled towards her prey. More than before Hinata was reminded at how different the Sand-nins were—although fading, the memory of their brutality and caustic demeanor stalked through the jungle of her thoughts, rekindling a feeling of invisible pressure. They were killers. No matter how friendly or nice they were to her, it was the irrevocable fact.

Temari leapt onto the side of a tree, running along its marred features before coming to a halt. Standing at a bisected angle towards the ground, she knelt to retrieve a kunai embedded in the toughened bark. She wriggled the steel before it slid free, and her frosty irises peered closely at its blade. Blood ran the length of its grooves, meaning that it had been the knife she'd stabbed the target's hand with. After pulling a small cloth from her pouch she wiped the blade clean then deposited the weapon back with her other projectile ordnance.

Hinata came down quietly beside her just as Temari was inspecting the hole. Her fingertips brushed against the lateral scar.

"From the looks of the entry depth, I'd say he stabbed it through the tree from this spot," Temari decided. She rubbed her thumb and forefinger together, analyzing the texture of the splice. "He must've been in this exact location just a few moments ago." Her head turned, peering down below where they could make out the faint silhouette of a rocky formation. She spoke without looking up at Hinata. "Meaning that he should be right in front of us. Try again."

After kneeling beside Temari, Hinata nodded. "Byakugan." With optical mastery Hinata plunged her sight into the smoky ruins, vision drinking the shape of stones, moss and decaying wood. A whirl of movement blew across the surface, leaves pirouetting before touching down softly upon the mud. The shinobi's body coalesced into view like a digital readout, leaning against a large stone while he reached agonizingly for his swollen and destroyed ankle. "Found him. About seventy yards directly in front of us, down by that rock formation. He's favoring his foot. . . I don't think he'll be moving again right away."

Temari nodded. "Didn't think so. Alright, so we have a moment to coordinate this, then. Lucky for us."

Hinata willed her Byakugan to recede, looking over to the older kunoichi. "Okay. . . what did you have in mind?"

"Hm. . ." Temari gave a brief glimpse to the halo of trees orbiting the small hill of boulders, pulsing darkly under the cover of mist. She formulated a plan immediately. "Alright. I'll sneak around behind him so we can trap him in a pincer. Wait for about a minute and then drop in on him and engage. Then once he's distracted with you, I'll come up from behind and finish him off. Sound okay?"

Hinata swallowed. "O-Okay." Her fists clenched together as she wove the frayed threads of uncertainty dangling inside of her into structured resolution. "I'm ready."

"Good," Temari stated simply. She stood, hands falling to her sides. "One minute."

And then Temari was gone and Hinata was alone. Crouching like a predatory spider, Hinata's fingers touched the surface of the tree, a cool and soaked wind stinging her pallid skin. She began to count, numerals spinning in a cerebral manifest, the time of violence drawing ever nearer. A river of adrenaline began to flow underneath her surfaces, energies of dread and intensity funneling towards an uncertain climax. There, on the precipice of the trees, counting down in the murky silence, Hinata felt her mind begin to slip beyond her reach.

She thought of her Mother. A pale yet beautiful woman who held nothing but kindness for the young Hyuuga, teaching her without speaking how to be forgiving of others. A warm and delicate soul claimed by the talons of death before Hinata could fully understand the meaning of those claws. Staring down into the rocks below, fortifying the resolve necessary to attack and kill a man she did not know, Hinata thought of her Mother's voice. There weren't any words she could recall specifically, but simply the sound, a glowing sea-wave tugging softly at the delicate ropes holding Hinata together.

After that came the Academy. All of her classmates learning how to arm themselves with mechanisms to defend and destroy other people. A respectful silence from her and her peers as the solemn voice of the Third explained to them that, sometimes, to protect what they stood for they would have to kill other people. That sometimes the only way to save someone was to hurt others. That it was okay if they didn't fully understand and it was painful. Hinata remembered perfectly how Hokage-sama had told them all that it should be painful. That killing others should never become an easy thing.

Ten seconds. The gaping abyss began to yawn open.

Hinata tried to steady her breathing. Naruto-kun. . . I'm scared. I don't want to feel this way. But they're counting on me, so. . .

But then the moment had arrived and the time for thought was over.

Pushing the swarming demons of uncertainty into the pit of her shadowy recesses, Hinata began to move. Like a switch snapping closed she disengaged the chakra along her feet holding her to the tree, gravity taking control and guiding her towards the ground. Her legs coiled, bending with fervent energy, using the inertia to propel herself like an organic rocket. Scissoring against the wood Hinata sprung into the air, looming over the rocky hill like a bird of prey, shadow swimming through the bottomless nebula.

. . . So I have no choice.

Her downward drive hadn't gone undetected as the shinobi used whatever propulsion he still possessed and flew from his hiding place like a startled hare. As he glided along the ground, he slammed his hand into the soft earth, chakra pitching a massive stone into the air. A spinning axe-kick with his good foot sent the airborne rock hurtling towards Hinata, a misshapen planet crashing towards the orbit of her sun. All concern then extinguished as her training then superceded mental command. One of the various jutsu she had been learning in the past few months folded into her chakra stream.

Small hands came together in a sequence of elemental seals. Byakugan flared open like an iridescent dragon, the world taken under its prismatic wings. Arctic swells linked shimmer-fingers as frozen chakra extended down the length of her arms, coiling together and then expanding in a solid wall of ice. A faded blue flickered. Then water exploded into a frost shield, running a parallel pillar of ice to Hinata's body. The boulder impacted Hinata's shield and froze; ice and stone then shattering into millions of shards, earth mirrors scything through the distilled air.

Hinata's hands shot out, grabbing two of the ice splinters spinning around her and then hurled them in the same motion, frost missiles parting the mist as if it were water. A clumsy attempt to evade caused the first splinter to miss, but the second glacier blade impaled the ninja's left thigh causing him to shriek in sudden agony. As he stumbled forward, hand falling to the crystal lodged in his leg, Hinata hit the ground hands first. Her momentum kept her flying forward, she used her hands to flip around and land a solid kick with both of her feet onto the shinobi's collarbones. A wet crack shuddered under her feet as his broken skeleton sunk into his flesh.

Normally Hinata would have stopped. He was defeated: both legs now in severe disrepair, collarbones shattered, hand impaled. Whatever skills he did possess were useless given that he had no chance anymore. But Hinata couldn't. That wasn't what she was ordered to do. A painful sympathy tore across her heart as the shinobi stubbornly tried to keep fighting, staggering on his feet and trying to maintain a battle stance.

Please stop. . . Just stop fighting.

It was pitiful. Hinata could easily tell this man was no ninja as she dodged his attempted knife-blow by rolling back and away. He barely knew basic Academy level taijutsu. Fighting someone like this was anything but rewarding or self-gratifying. It was terrible. Blood running down his face he met her eyes with terrorized orbs, an unvoiced scream lurking in their petrified swirl. He tried to kick her, droplets of blood from his impaled leg spattering on her jacket when she blocked his shin with her forearm.

Please, stop! Please!

After falling back, unwounded hand resting on a moss-covered stone, the shinobi steadied himself. His hands then came together, shaking like broken leaves, and began to form a sequence of seals. Hinata knew that restraint was no longer an option. In spite of the voices pleading for his peaceful submission inside of her, and against every moral principle she had come to believe in, Hinata attuned herself to killing him.

Hands fell into her deactivation stance. Her eyes searched across his chakra map and located its pulsing holes. Before he was even on his third seal she began attacking him, smashing across his glowing portals and closing off his dimension of energy. He had no defense to offer. It felt as if she was attacking someone unarmed and incapable of protecting themselves, like a gentle elderly grandparent or a neighborhood dog or a hospital patient or a friend that trusted you enough to turn their back to you. She felt his life fade every time she touched him.

And then Temari crashed down on him.

Hinata leapt back and dropped the Byakugan, kneeling on a cluster of broken and sodden wood. There was a noise like torn cloth as blood sprayed into the air, the shinobi's hands then falling to his sides. Wide eyed, Hinata looked up and saw Temari standing behind him, kunai extended; a black metal blade burrowing through the back of his neck and puncturing the front of his throat, a third eye weeping streams of blood down his chest. His mouth opened and closed in hollow gasps before Temari's hand twisted, the blade smearing through the mush of his esophagus and then pushing to the side. The kunai sliced through the right side of his throat cleanly.

I'm so sorry. . .

He fell to the ground without a noise. Hinata looked up at Temari, for a moment terrified at the look she saw; nothing of the friendly and confident girl she had spent time with but instead a feral and remorseless beast. Eyes devoid of anything resembling compassion, lips curled back in a rictus grin, emboldened and accompanied by the momentous force of the killing and enjoying it.

As the body slumped to the ground the expression was gone.

Hinata stood, unsure what to feel, and then leaned back against a rock. She crossed her arms, hands wrapping around her biceps, eyes staring at the dead shinobi.

Temari let out a breath. "Well. There we go." She pulled the cloth she used earlier out of her pouch and wiped her kunai clean again. "Piece of cake."

Hinata was shaking.

After sheathing the blade and cloth again, Temari looked over at Hinata with a smile. "That was some good work, Hinata-chan. I probably didn't even need to step in. I didn't know you could do stuff like that. Guess that was my mistake for judging a book by its cover, huh?"

There was no response. Hinata felt tremendously cold.

Temari frowned. "Hinata-chan? Is everything--are you okay?"

Hinata swallowed, coiling inward. "I-I'm fine!"

"But you're shaking," Temari said. She took a step towards the younger teenager. "Did you get hit?"

Hinata turned away, unable to look at Temari. "It's nothing. Please don't be concerned about me."

A long moment of silence elongated across the rocks, punctuated by the cool and irregular push of the wind. Temari seemed to have realized what was plaguing Hinata and she let her hands fall to her sides. She looked down at the deceased man. ". . . You know, I suppose I should apologize to you. I've kind of led you to believe that I'm something I'm not. I thought maybe we'd started getting along so I left it where it was, but I guess that was a mistake. But shouldn't you have training for this sort of thing? I guess life in Konoha must be pretty simple and carefree."

Hinata turned to look at her. "What?"

"Scared of me, Hinata-chan?" Temari turned to meet Hinata's gaze, her expression somewhat sad and resigned. ". . . You probably should be. I'm not a very nice person. I've done a lot of really horrible things. And I'm not sorry for them. That's part of being a kunoichi. That's part of surviving. You're really nice and I like you and everything, but you need to toughen your skin. The sooner the better. For your own sake."

"I don't. . . think I could ever make that easy," Hinata said, her voice very quiet. "I don't think I want to."

". . . Well, fine. If that's how you choose to live, I'm not going to criticize. But don't start looking at me like I'm someone else every time I kill someone. Otherwise we're never going to be able to be friends. I don't live like you do. I'm sure it works for you just fine, but--well, that's life. I can't be strong if I let myself be weak."

Hinata forced her hands to fall away. She took a few breaths, trying to calm herself. "I understand. And--And I'm. . . I'm sorry. But I just can't. . . I know I've been trained for this, but. . ."

"Hey." When Hinata looked up again, Temari was looking at her intently. "I told you I wasn't going to hurt you, didn't I? I'll look out for you. You're a good kid. You probably shouldn't even be a ninja, but you are. There's probably going to be a lot of times in your life where you're going to have to kill someone you don't even know. Take consolation in the fact that you killed someone who was trying to kill you and the people you care about." Temari stopped, and for a moment she looked confused. After that passed she sighed, scratching the back of her head. "And now I'm holding your hand, and I hate doing that."

"I'm sorry! It's just that you seemed like an entirely different person than before, and. . ." Hinata shook her head, control slowly returning to her senses. "It won't happen again."

Temari shrugged. "You're my friend. This bastard wasn't. End of story."

Hinata's sandals shuffled in the dead twigs. She tried to smile but failed. "I wish I could be as strong as you are. You. . . really know everything, don't you?"

After a moment Temari snorted, a faint grin crossing her lips. "C'mon. Let's go check on the others."

x x x x x

"If this was all these people were capable of, I think it's safe to assume that Temari and Hinata are fine."

Gaara stood over the wrecked body, arms crossed as he waited for Kankuro to recall and re-bandage Karasu. In truth he had grown somewhat concerned while watching Kankuro's violent display that had nothing to do with ninja-esque precision and instead everything to do with primitive rage. But he was hardly one to lecture his own brother on how to control internal killing urges. Gaara could be called many things but a hypocrite was not one of them.

". . . Yeah," Kankuro agreed, his demeanor changed to reflect his much calmer state of mind. He was in the process of bandaging his hands, reconnecting the fibers to his marionette. He shook his head, serrated violet sizzling underneath the blanketed sun. "They're probably already making their way back to the boat by now. Damn, this sucks. When I signed up for this stupid mission, I wasn't expecting all this."

A shrill echo caught Gaara's attention. He frowned, turning to face where he perceived the origination. It was a very bizarre noise, like the internal crushing network of a steel refinery. Hardly something created within a sleepy forest. Metal contact resonated again, the delay and residual rebound indicating the noise was coming from a great distance away. Gaara focused intently as he strained to hone in on the sound again.

Kankuro looked at him. "Problems? What is it?"

A lingering feeling began to rise. Coils of dust reviving before the impact of a moon into frozen ground; an impossible cataclysm was looming, the premonition striking Gaara with great visceral force. Again the ethereal machinery hammered away at the sky. Gaara's joints tightened.

"I'm. . . not certain," he admitted. Ice-green eyes glanced across the clearing. "Something is off."

Kankuro gave Gaara an odd look. After which he kicked the dead shinobi for emphasis. "Well, can't be him. He's very dead. Maybe you're just imagining things? Let's just go."

Gaara wasn't quite convinced, but decided to comply without dropping his guard. ". . . Fine."

As he moved to turn, Gaara was ensnared.

Unlike most genjutsu it wasn't subtle. Instead of trickling into his thoughts, delicately rinsing over him until the world slowly changed to its whims, it exploded through his mind, melting his consciousness as if he'd been struck by a solar wave from a collapsing star. Body and mind blown back into the origin vortex, his entire existence uprooted and ground to ashes. Reality fell away under some divine waterfall, colors and textures swirling into nothing. Sound rushed into his ears with a bestial roar, crashing into his brain with hurricane force. Gaara's hands clamped over his ears in a futile gesture as all noise originated from within, bludgeoning the surface of every sensation.

Eyelids were torn away. Skin ripped off by invisible clamps, forcing his eyes to forever observe the shifting vacuum. All the while Gaara could feel Shukaku stirring inside, a terminal eidolon rattling the spiritual cage, carnal and wrathful claws digging at the human prison. The familiar agony began to bloom in his chest, torture flowers opening to spread flames across his lungs, the footprints left behind every time his tenant grew restless.

After a few moments, everything vanished.

Gaara fell to his knees, a hand to his chest, gulping air as if declined of oxygen since birth. His eyes began to blink as his eyelids reformed, tears streaming down his face as moisture overflowed in a bodily overcompensation. The sensation had been merciless if not terse; trapped in the clutches of mental devilry, existence stretched across dark and purging instruments and then released like a nightmare. Waking sensations leaving only the fear and despair, the exact memories fractured and incomplete.

What happened to me?

When Gaara looked up, he frowned. Instead of a misty forest he was surrounded by ancient temple walls—archaic stones etched with hieroglyphs hidden from meaning by the shield of time. Dust collected on his hands at they touched the floor. He stood, sandals scraping the decayed marble.

"What the--how is this possible? A genjutsu?"

Gaara wasn't particularly susceptible to genjutsu. His mental fortifications were so concrete that most people trying to attack him through that method would instead suffer a furious rebound counteraction, damaging themselves more than they had intended to hurt him. This was due to the symbiotic relationship he possessed with Shukaku. And even were he trapped within a mental illusion, few people were capable of drawing such poignant barriers as to eclipse an entirely new reality. They existed, but were extremely rare.

Water flowed. A bamboo shoot cradled at the edge of a stream fell as its girth filled, releasing the clear fluid into the channel. It rose again, repeating the process. At the edge of the walls Gaara could see a small village. Sunlight pouring onto the hovel sleeping at some abandoned fold of time. There was an undeniable familiarity to everything, as if the teenager had at some point lived in this very place. Without realizing it, Gaara began to scour through his memories in an effort to find the source of nostalgia, and then the faces came.

Pleasant and continuous, forging images over existence as if his eyes were wired directly to them through some incredible machine. People he knew and did not know. Feeling their expressions of warmth spill into him in an unwanted caress. A sensation that was not a sensation. Motherly feelings, Fatherly feelings—things he knew he had never experienced but felt so familiar and right that he must have; tumbling through his wiry and barbed mind, people smiling at his pale and unfriendly face, reaching to him with innocent hands that were not insistent but instead touched gently at his thoughts. . .

Gaara shook his head. Dust shifted under his feet. He looked at his hands. "What's going on?" His eyes circled his immediate surroundings, sunlit grass and homes and ancient walls, but no Kankuro. He frowned, putting his hands together, trying to arrange his mind into a continuous beacon of concentration. "Focus. I have to escape this."

("Don't be afraid. I'm simply destroying you.")

Terror razed across him like scythes through wheat. His hands fell away as he took an inadvertent step back.

Eyes wide, Gaara looked into the sun where the voice had cascaded onto him. "That voice. . ."

Shukaku.

He then realized what was happening: the feeling of his enslaved demon was not one of internal struggle, but external attack. Somehow through the genjutsu Shukaku had broken his restraints and fled his jail, taken control of Gaara's entire psychology and was now turning his mind against him. Burning the solace and comfort of self in an effort to take free reign over Gaara's body. Tangible fear and discord hummed through him as he recognized the warm yet awful feeling.

Gaara was being erased.

Breathing picked up as Gaara's hands came back together. It was still his mind—his—and he would not allow himself to be subverted again. All of the murderous things that he had done, all of the bloodletting he'd derived pleasure from, all of the lives he'd gluttonously engorged himself upon came surging back. A flood of dark and bloody water rising from the village as the sun began to fade behind black-red clouds, the valley slowly sliding into the onslaught of ruin.

("Here comes the water. . .")

Blood rivers crashed up to the walls of the temple. Water began to flow over his feet.

No!

He couldn't let himself dissolve like this. Had Naruto given him nothing?

Gaara shook his head, trying to control the fear and retake his own mind. "I have to get out of this. . ." Hands came together once again. "I need to focus. . ."

Floods continued to spill over. None of the houses could be seen anymore. White caps crashed into one another, burning skies smoldering above icy mountains. The glyphs on the temple walls resonated a rosy light as the sound of the metal refinery began to engage again. Through it all Gaara tried to still himself.

("Hey, come on, kid. Don't get so excited. Don't forget I'm here with you. What could possibly hurt US?")

Burning cold sliced across his ankles. The water continued to rise, every essence of Gaara's own self cracking and disintegrating. In a dismantled realization Gaara acknowledged that he was forgetting things with every moment; memories burned clean, bleached from his mind as the black sun poured poison-rays onto him, the laughter of Shukaku a nihilistic thunder. Violet lightning sizzled electric fingers across the clouds, reminding him of his brother's face.

Kankuro. . .

That began to fade as the water reached his waist.

Gaara's breath came in jagged bursts. "FocusfocusfocusFOCUS. . ."

What he had been before swelled up beneath the water. Those sensations, those cremated sympathies, those legions of misanthropy moved about him, brushing against his legs like sea serpents encircling its wounded prey. His heart began to seal. A cold stone rolled over the compassion and warmth he'd only so recently discovered, built into a cradle of wonderful memories and experiences, entombing them in the empty catacombs of nothingness. Temari, Kankuro and even Naruto, radiating the final visages of light across the swollen mess that was his life.

Everything stilled.

The maelstrom in Gaara's mind lessoned, ebbing away into a continuous and numb wave. Now entirely submerged, Gaara's hands fell away, floating in the murky water. Whatever remained of the light vanished as everything fell dark, Gaara sealed within his frozen underwater tomb. Only the meager light from the glyphs provided any illumination, and Gaara refused to look at them because he knew what they said. He floated as if in a dream.

I can't. . . let him. . .

Architect of disaster. Artisan of oblivion.

("This is all you are. Soon there will be nothing left.")

Gaara lost control.

x x x x x

Kankuro grew immediately wary once Gaara's head drooped. The younger teenager's body seemed to wilt as if a sigh had blown through his skin, fleeing with all traces of life and leaving simply a carved husk. A series of warning surges began to fire off in Kankuro's stomach, fraternal senses thrashing awake with bony and edged limbs. Kankuro's hands drifted open allowing for slack on Karasu before he took a step towards Gaara.

"Hey, Gaara?' Kankuro tilted his head with a frown, looking down at the shorter teenager. "You alright? What is it?"

There was no response. Gaara simply wavered on his feet, eyes closed and a heavy and unnatural breathing pattern bulging in his chest.

Kankuro bit his lip, eyes beginning to roam across the clearing for hostiles. "Dammit, man. What's the matter with you?"

Within seconds he felt the invading chakra. Foreign and cruel tendrils of spiritual energy began to snake into his mind, spike-laden chains slithering over his thoughts with an eerie rattle. Before his world began to warp to its designs, however, Kankuro blasted his own essence back against the infiltrating chakra. After a sudden and brief contact Kankuro expelled the attempted attack from his mind. His dying adrenaline flared up again into a soaring cascade of flame, his arm flinging Karasu to the side as it unraveled, disappearing into the mist.

"Shit! Where's that coming from--trees!" Kankuro located the source of the poorly generated genjutsu, the suspected fourth shinobi having finally given himself away. Machinations of violence powered the salvo of his artillery. Chakra coils ran back to the trees on the opposite side, an invisible tracery leaving astral blueprints. "I knew it! Nice try, asshole! Now come down here and die like the pathetic dog you are!"

"No."

The word was dry, spoken from a throaty and primal urge. Gaara had suddenly reanimated, his hand then shooting out to shove Kankuro aside with a surprising amount of force. His head slowly rose to face the tree where the other ninja was concealed, his lips parting to vocalize a guttural rasp.

"Don't touch him. He's mine. . ."

Kankuro's eyes widened as he caught Gaara's face. Eyes opened to impossible limits, demon spheres resting in yawning cathedrals; mouth pulled back to reveal carnivorous teeth, salivating as if a hound possessed, clawing at closed steel gates to raze across a land of flesh. A cemetery of human emotion, all essence of compassion slain and perverted into a sadistic gateway to a dead universe.

As he regained his balance, Kankuro felt his limbs go numb. "Oh, fuck."

Gaara took a few steps towards the tree, an evil wraith wearing his face. "Well?" He spoke louder to the hiding ninja. His fingers began to twitch. "Come down, won't you? I won't be satisfied until I feel your skin tearing off between my fingers. I want to feel your blood on my hands. . . Are you listening? Can you fulfill this? Are you worthy enough to be this sacrifice?"

A voice as deranged as the previous shinobi punctured the heavy air. "You can't get away with what you've done! I won't let you leave here alive!"

"Your talk is worthless," Gaara replied, taking slow and steady steps towards the trees. His gentle footfalls were in contrast to the words he spoke. "I don't feast on words. I feast on you. Your soul. . ." His arms uncoiled and he spread them wide. "Come. Satiate my curiosity as I explore your ruined existence."

Horrible memories rampaged through Kankuro, fueling almost paranoid actions. He grabbed Gaara's shoulder and spun him around. He nearly balked at Gaara's glare. "Gaara--Damn, get a hold of yourself!"

Gaara smiled. "I know what I'm doing. Perhaps you'd like to see for yourself?" His grin widened as Kankuro took a step back, countering that with a step forward of his own. "Maybe if I just devour you first, then you might understand. In death you might finally realize what your worth is."

It wasn't the first time in his life that Gaara had threatened Kankuro. But it was different now. Before the threats had been genuine but somehow disconnected—Kankuro knew that if provoked enough his brother would kill him. But before it had never hurt like this time. Gaara had changed, slowly becoming an actual brother. Slowly transforming into something Kankuro had always hoped for, taking an irreplaceable part of Kankuro's life. Kankuro's hands began to shake as he refused to look away from Gaara's eyes.

"Gaara--Gaara, listen to me. Okay. Listen. This isn't you. I don't know--fuck, I don't know what happened, but you've got to get a hold of yourself. This isn't you! You're not like that anymore. Remember?"

There was a pause and a deliberate shift in the murderous look Gaara was giving him. Irises softened and Gaara's smile fell. "Kankuro. . . I. . ." His hands flew to his head, covering his ears as if to close off some deranged noise that only he could hear. When he spoke his voice was almost vulnerable. "What's happening. . ."

Paranoia became concern. Kankuro swallowed heavily. "Oh man. Hang on."

Kankuro didn't waste any time. His hands dropped to his weapons pouch and retrieved several shuriken before leaping into the air and whipping them at the hidden shinobi. The spinning metal stars tore through leaves and small branches, scattering woodland components, before hammering into the thick bark. Driven from his location the shinobi took flight into the clearing, a fluttering of blue cloth emerging from the trees. He reached for his sheathed sword in an offensive dive towards Gaara, but Kankuro had been prepared for that.

Strong hands flexed, animating un-life. Spinning from the edges of the wood Karasu cut across the clearing, ragged cape billowing from self-created wind, joints swiveling as weaponry shifted into place. Articulates bent as steel became extended and exposed, a large and treacherous blade driven free underneath the marionette's arm joint. Kankuro made a brief motion with his index finger causing Karasu to twist in midair before making contact with the shinobi—hidden sword extended in a lateral slice, incision made in a vermilion-soaked haze.

A brief scream was heard as Karasu's weapon tore into the shinobi's waist, bisecting across his abdomen, before emerging in a wet spray that cut the man in two. Blood showered into the ruby mist as the man's halves spun midair, torso porpoising from the inertia before crashing into the rocks below, everything once again becoming very still. When Kankuro landed his attention was once again immediately on his brother who was now standing with his face in his hands.

Gaara looked at his hands, now bloody from the ninja killed above him. "Did I. . . lose control? Everything seemed to change. . . Was I asleep again?"

Kankuro took a few cautious steps towards the unsteady boy, making himself ready for anything. "Hey. You okay?" When Gaara looked up at him, the familiar green eyes that were aloof but still captured in a sleepy kind of emotion, Kankuro let out a sigh of relief. He rubbed his eyes, feeling suddenly very tired. "You. . . Shit, Gaara. You scared the living hell out of me."

"I didn't mean to."

Kankuro shook his head, perturbed by the surreal folds of the situation. "Man. That guy was throwing genjutsu around. Maybe he got you on the inside? I felt it but I managed to dispel it."

Gaara looked rather shaken up. "That could be. But it felt. . . too strange to just have been that. It was something deeper."

The injured feelings from before remained in Kankuro's chest, so when he spoke again it was with difficulty. ". . . When you were. . . Damn. Did you mean any of—"

"No," Gaara said, with such force and sincerity that Kankuro almost felt overwhelmed.

After a few more breaths Kankuro gave a quietly concerned look at Gaara. "Well. As long as you're okay. Don't do that, okay?"

Gaara nodded. ". . . I won't. I didn't mean for that to happen. I've never lost control like that before."

"This isn't. . ." Kankuro scratched his temple. "Man. This isn't something I can just brush aside, you know. This is kind of a major slip-up. Is this going to happen again?"

"No," Gaara repeated, sounding more certain of this than anything Kankuro had ever heard him before. "I won't let it. I'll be more alert next time." Gaara paused, carefully looking up at Kankuro. "Can--Will you not tell Temari?"

Kankuro didn't reply immediately. "I. . . might have to. You threatened me, Gaara."

"I wouldn't let him hurt either of you. I'd never let that happen."

Kankuro knew that he should tell his sister. But Gaara was so sincere in his trust that Kankuro couldn't. He tried to convince himself of the logic, knowing that keeping the occurrence to himself could become a mistake in hindsight, but he couldn't make that matter. The confidence Gaara placed in him and the legitimacy of his promise made Kankuro overlook his transgression. It was strange, Kankuro felt, that he could make the most ruthless murderer he had ever known into something trustworthy. He wondered if that was what love did to people.

Looking away at the torso of the last shinobi, Kankuro sighed. ". . . I really should. But the stupid thing is I believe you. I don't know if it's because I want to, or what. But. . . fine. I won't tell her."

"Thank you," Gaara said. "And. . . Sorry."

Kankuro nodded, following Gaara as he walked over to check to make certain both shinobi were deceased. As the two of them leapt back into the trees to make their way back to the others, Kankuro kept a close eye on his brother; shifting emotive landscapes unwilling to forget how it had hurt when Gaara threatened him, or how good it had been when Gaara had confided in him for what was probably the first time. Kankuro tried to convince himself that he was surprised when he realized he was less concerned for his own safety and more for Gaara's.

x x x x x

By the time Temari and Hinata arrived back at the dispersal point, Kankuro and Gaara had already returned. Shikamaru and Kankuro stood off to the side as Gaara had activated a sand jutsu, standing with his feet spread in the damp mud, hands clutched in front of his chest. Quicksand mingled with the stones and perturbed soil, awash with various foliage from the river, churning underneath the deceased shinobi. Everyone watched quietly as Gaara's technique slowly pulled the body under the surface of the ground, effectively burying him and the bloody traces that he'd been there.

It would do nothing to stop pursuers from ascertaining his whereabouts if they were determined enough, but it was enough to prevent him being detected by average people that happened to pass by on boat. Leaving him out for the flies and wildlife to decompose or devour wasn't prudent given that he was clearly visible from the water, unlike the other three ninja that had been killed further into the forest.

As the swirling vortex of mud began to still, Hinata looked up at the others. "Is everyone okay?"

Kankuro was watching Gaara closely. "Yeah, we did okay. No problems. How about you guys?"

"Went pretty smooth," Temari said. She stood with her hands on her hips, looking downstream to where Shikamaru had beached their boat. "A few bumps but nothing too big. Our guy kind of went nuts on us for a little while."

Earth silenced, Gaara stepped out of his martial stance. He turned to face the others. "Ours too. I deduced they were all under the influence of some kind of genjutsu permanence. Perhaps their minds had been linked after being destroyed which is why they managed to travel together without killing each other."

Hinata recalled the way their target had attacked them hysterically, connecting the information sadly. ". . . That's awful. Even if they were our enemies, that's a terrible way to. . ." She trailed off, shaking her head. Water lapped at the edges of her sandals. "At least it's over for them now."

"Yeah," Kankuro replied. His fingers twitched along the edges of the bandage restraining Karasu. "We ran into the fourth."

Temari looked at him. "About that. You might want to double-check your source next time."

"Why?"

"Don't you think it's a bit of a coincidence that these two—" she said, pointing to Gaara and Shikamaru, "—found no information whatsoever after talking to almost everyone in that town, and then the small little information you manage to turn up winds up verifying an attack on us mere hours later?" Temari shrugged, fingers wiping a trail of sweat from the back of her neck. "Kinda fishy, don't you think? Whoever you got your info from was probably in on this. I bet he was planted to lead you towards this."

Kankuro frowned, his attention now fully captured. "Hey, don't badmouth that old codger, alright? There's no way he was in on this. I mean. . . what would he have to gain?"

Gaara gave Kankuro a careful look. "Are you sure of that? Can you guarantee his innocence?"

Kankuro held back a few choice words before saying, "No."

Hinata looked back and forth between the three siblings. She knew that there was no place for her in their disputes, so she was shrewd enough to refrain from intervening in their routine arguments. However she felt compelled to do so this time given what they were discussing. ". . . Maybe. . ." she began slowly, the three of them turning to face her. "Maybe Kankuro-san is right." There was an obvious surprise to all present, even from Kankuro. Hinata flustered at the attention. "W-Well, you see. . . he has a point. If he did offer information, why would he give specifics about who we were looking for? Wouldn't that make it easier for us to anticipate their attack? That is. . . given that he described their basic appearance, right?"

Kankuro gave Hinata an appreciative look but didn't comment.

Temari nodded slowly. ". . . Point taken." She turned then to look across at Shikamaru, who was staring blankly at the dirt covering the slain ninja. "Hey, leader-boy. You've been pretty quiet. What did you manage to get out of this guy?"

Shikamaru shook his head, seemingly in a daze. He looked up at her. ". . . Sorry, what?"

Kankuro snorted. "Hey, wake up. Nap-time comes later."

Temari took a step over to the shifted mud, kicking idly at a loose stone. "It looked like you had to get a bit rough with him. Did you get anything out of him before killing him?"

A moment passed as Shikamaru put his hands in his pockets. "I didn't. . ."

After he trailed off, the attention of the group foisted onto him. Wind shifted across the waves, inky water lapping at their footholds.

Shikamaru sighed, forcing himself to look at them. "I just finished him off. He killed himself, really. He suicided. He chewed through his own tongue."

Kankuro just gaped incredulously. "And you just sat there watching him. Did you give him pointers?"

Temari crossed her arms, giving Shikamaru a look that bordered on disappointment. "Yeah, I don't know. . . you didn't do anything?"

". . . No."

"Well that's just fantastic," Kankuro voiced, fingers roughly brushing against his forehead in an attempt to lesson his irritation. He threw a glare at their leader. "Do you even want us to succeed? Hey, for the next enemy-nin we capture, are you just going to save them the trouble of using their teeth and hand them a cyanide pill?" His foot shot out, kicking a spray of mud and sand into the water. Miniature ripples ebbed across the moving surface. "Jeez. We handed this guy to you on a silver platter."

Energy slowly began to revive in Shikamaru's features, his passive face growing disgruntled. "It was. . . dammit, cut me some slack, alright? It happened really fast. I was trying to get what I could out of him and the next thing I know his jaw snapped shut. There wasn't anything I could do. So lay off. You weren't even here."

Kankuro took a challenging step towards the younger Leaf-nin. "You're right, we weren't. We shouldn't have to babysit our damn captain, sport. You're supposed to be able to do all this garbage without us holding your hand."

There was a poignant silence in the aftermath of Kankuro's accusation in that Temari didn't scold or reprimand him. She said nothing at all—an unvoiced indication that she agreed with Kankuro's assessment, enough so to belay bickering with him. Shikamaru had been expecting their disapproval and he knew he deserved it. Kankuro was right: he should have done something, and they shouldn't have to babysit him when he was supposedly in command. They all accomplished their tasks while he was the only one who had failed.

His fingers clenched into fists in his pockets. "Alright, fine. I screwed up. Maybe I should've acted faster. Maybe I was asking the wrong questions. But it's over now, so drop it. It won't happen again."

"You're damn right it won't happen again," Kankuro snorted. He looked over at Temari. "How can you trust this guy? Is he even capable of doing anything right?"

Temari sighed tiredly. "You running with a flawless record, Kankuro?"

Kankuro shrugged. "I'm not the one in charge."

"People make mistakes," she told him in a voice lacking scorn. She tilted her head back to look at the dulled sun. "Accept it and move on."

"Yeah, sure. But how many mistakes are acceptable?"

Both Hinata and Gaara stood off to the side, observing silently. Shikamaru smoldered; a minion of his memory marching through his cerebral plains, the feeling of a knife in his hand as he plunged it through a living man's skull running demented halos over his nerves. What was he supposed to do? What could he have done? He was fairly confident he had made the right decision, but all the same the horrible skin of failure began to slide over him, a putrid caress reminiscent of a time when he'd nearly lost many of his closest friends.

The anger gave him sudden strength. "Do you want to stop talking as if I wasn't standing right here, maybe? Listen. There were extenuating circumstances. I wasn't counting on the presence of genjutsu warping their perceptions." Logic spun across his mind as he once again took control of himself. He took a step towards everyone. "And if it counts for anything, I'm not walking away from the experience empty handed. I did manage to get some information."

After Shikamaru's reprimand, Kankuro seemed to drop the grudge. He nodded. "Yeah, some. I got some too. There's no way that these guys are the people who attacked the carriers. It's just not possible."

"Going to have to agree with that," Temari said. She brushed a few stray twigs from the skirt of her garb. "These guys were way too amateurish. They were barely even Genin level ninjas. Even factoring in that the lot of us are probably at least Chuunin level ourselves, we shouldn't have been able to dispatch them so easily. I barely broke a sweat."

"Exactly," Kankuro agreed.

"You're right," Shikamaru confirmed. They all looked at him expectantly. "They weren't the attacking party."

"Who were they, then?" Gaara asked.

Shikamaru shrugged. "Isn't it obvious?" When no one countered that with an answer, Shikamaru spelled it out for them. "These guys didn't attack the convey: they were the convoy."

Hinata's eyes widened. "Wh-What?"

Kankuro frowned. "How's that?"

"These guys," Shikamaru said, chucking a thumb to the makeshift grave poured overtop of the human remnants. He commanded their attention with a detached skill, not bending or contouring to their interest or attention. If nothing, he would at least try to maintain their respect. "They're the political renegades from Mountain Country that stole the documents. They were the ones that hired your people to protect them. They weren't kidnapped, they were mentally brainwashed and reprogrammed. And driven insane by some freakish genjutsu."

As Temari moved to speak, Shikamaru held his hand up to silence her. "But enough of that for now. Right now let's get a move on. I want to get away from here as soon as we can. Odds are we've got someone shadowing us, and it's not the intel-unit. So discussing this out in the open would be idiocy."

As one they all nodded in understanding. Slowly they dispersed and began to make their way over to the boat as it rested against the edge of the shore. There was a distinctly alternate atmosphere than before: a morbid cloak draped over them with invisible and cadaverous fabric, transforming what had been an average journey into a tense flight. Each of them seemed to carry an additional burden after the forest encounter, although they kept their psychological satchels concealed from one another.

Temari picked up the oar inside the boat and tossed it to Gaara. She smiled. "Your turn to drive."

x x x x x

Hours after the forest encounter the group arrived at the roadside Inn. By then afternoon had dwindled into evening, mist vanishing as they traveled to the north, a sinking orange glow from the bloated sun raining across the gathering twilight. Temari stood in the room she was sharing with Hinata, pulling on a taut cord at the edge of the blinds to raise them over the window. Sunset collapsed into the room like molten rock draining through grooves of obsidian, winking a bright sheen across the hardwood floor. With a brief sigh the eldest of the group put her hands on the windowsill and looked out through the glass, vision crawling across the drowsy woods.

She was alone, were it not for Kankuro moving about on the other side of the room. He paid her no mind as he distractedly analyzed the articles given complimentary of the Inn staff: several bars of scented soap in a brittle but elegant paper wrapping, tiny bottles of shampoo, soft towels as well as a free edition of the local newspaper. He unscrewed the top of one of the shampoo bottles and gave a brief whiff over its rim, pretending he cared what it smelled of. After Temari had pulled him aside saying We need to talk, he decided it would be best for her to begin when she was ready to.

Even if he felt that waiting for her was tantamount to boredom.

After drumming her fingernails on the painted wood of the sill, Temari finally spoke. "What the hell happened out there?"

Kankuro put the shampoo back on the dresser. "What do you mean?"

She gave him a look through her reflection in the glass. "What do you think I mean? That was a pretty easy encounter, you know. Those guys were pansies. They had no idea what they were doing. But everyone's all. . . weird. Haven't you noticed?"

"Everyone is always weird," Kankuro replied.

Temari rolled her eyes. "And here I say that as if you're not affected. You've been acting kind of strange all afternoon yourself. Did everyone get religion while we were out there? Because I feel like I've missed something here."

Kankuro didn't respond right away as he began opening the drawers of the clothing cabinet in a gesture to accentuate his aloof demeanor. ". . . Maybe you're the one who's going crazy. Wouldn't be a huge stretch of the imagination."

"Shut up. I'm serious. Even Shikamaru-kun is acting different." A few moments passed as Temari reflected on Hinata. The way she'd responded after being party to a man-slaying didn't speak of a seasoned or experienced killer. Shikamaru's atmosphere after the incident was also rather introverted; not that he was an outwardly person, but there was a definite internal darkness smoldering inside of him. Temari watched a trio of birds dive down and walk along the stone courtyard below her window. "You know. . . I think that our training diverged somewhere down the line. They were brought up really. . . different. Than we were."

Kankuro began stealing some of the towels, looping them under his arm. As he did he said, "Wow, that's some great detective work, Sis. You just noticing this now?"

"Jerk," she snorted. Her voice lacked malice as she gazed blankly outside. "That's not what I--okay, that is what I meant. But really. I think this was the first time they actually had to kill anyone. The way they've been acting would go a long way to explaining that."

"Great. They're sensitive wimps. I could have told you that."

Her eyes shifted to watch the reflection of him move behind her. "But that doesn't explain you. Both you and Gaara have been. . . off. All day. I don't know what happened, but it's annoying being kept out of the loop. So tell me."

Kankuro's voice was quiet as his motions slowed, stumbling over some internal mechanisms. "What makes you think anything happened?"

Temari turned, her hands falling back to hold the edge of the window as she faced him. "Please, don't insult me. Or yourself by wasting your time pretending. Gaara. . . alright. Fine, I can accept that. He's still--changing and all. I won't begrudge him that. But you. Even now, you're acting weird."

"I'm stealing your towels," Kankuro stated, folding more of the soft fabric over his forearm. He still wouldn't look at her. "How is that weird?"

A low growl escaped her throat. "You ass, pay attention to me!"

"What are we, six years old?" Kankuro remarked, his tone full of condescending surprise. After emptying Temari's dresser of towels he looked down at the pile in his arms, then across the room at the second set of drawers. "Hey, you think Hinata will mind if I take some of hers? These Travel-Inn places always have this really nice smell that's good to have when we're on the road."

Temari folded her arms. "Oh, right. My mistake. I forgot how urgently you need every toiletry and clean piece of cloth you can get your hands on."

"I don't--Hey! Hag."

The distance between them was purged as Temari took several quick strides across the room, pushing him with a small force into the wall. Kankuro's elbow banged against the corner of Temari's dresser, a pained wince pressuring his eyes. He contacted the wall with a heavy thud.

"Wh—Ow!" Kankuro managed to switch his grip on the towels so he could rub his elbow, glaring back at his sister. "You stupid bitch, what the hell!"

"Stop playing, Kankuro," Temari commanded. Orange rays traced the outskirts of her silhouette, shadows moving around her blank face. "Answer me."

Kankuro straightened, his hand still nursing soft movement against his elbow. He looked away. "Nothing happened. And even if it did, I wouldn't tell you. Okay? Now piss off."

"Why won't you tell me?"

A bizarre look crossed him, something akin to warmth but too blunted by sorrow to be affection. He let out a short, quiet breath. ". . . I promised him I wouldn't." Kankuro looked straight at Temari then, his eyes almost pleading. "He confided in me, Sis. Do you--when was the last time he did that? Ever? I'm not a rat. I don't want to lose his trust, just like I wouldn't want to lose yours."

"That's a lot to assume. That you have my trust."

Kankuro swatted the air between them. "Oh, screw you. You know what I mean."

"Yeah," she admitted. She swallowed. "I--Yeah."

Both of Kankuro's arms wrapped around the towels, protecting them as if within a cradle. "Shit happens, you know? I'm not going to bail on him. So no, I won't tell you, because it's none of your business."

Temari frowned. "He's my brother too. How is it not my business?"

Kankuro took a deliberate step forward, forcing Temari to step aside and allow him leeway to move again. "You always act like everything is your business. News flash. Everything isn't. If he really wants you to know, he'll tell you himself. Until that happens, I won't say anything. So stop bothering me about it because you'll just end up pissing us both off by pestering me."

He pushed his way around her then, his movement quick and agitated. Without looking at her he began to slide the drawers he left open on her dresser shut. Temari got the impression that Kankuro had said more than he'd intended, or admitted something he never wanted to. She knew him well enough to know that whenever Kankuro felt exposed he'd protect himself with an emotional armor forged in hostility.

She sighed. "You're such a tool sometimes."

He shrugged, pushing the lowest drawer closed with his foot. "Maybe. There are a few choice words I could use to describe you too, y'know. Don't act like you're all sunshine and springtime rain yourself. I feel sorry for Hinata, being shacked up with you for the whole mission. You're going to warp her impressionable mind with your wild and crazy ideas."

Temari let him change the subject. She crossed her arms again, giving him an arrogant look. "I see. So we should just let her hang onto you instead? That's a laugh. She already has enough self-esteem issues to deal with. Putting her in the same room as you would be like putting a wounded and bleeding dog in a tank of sharks."

"I'm a shark, huh." Kankuro paused, thoughts ruminating as a slight grin passed over his lips. "I kind of like the sound of that."

Temari snorted. "Leave it to you to miss the point of everything."

As she finished her sentence, Temari detected the now familiar feel of Shikamaru's chakra approach: a faint but persistent ebb across her spiritual attunements, soft pulses of sleepy irritation but also a knife-point sharp percipience resting underneath. She stepped away from the door as he came closer, plopping herself down at the edge of her bed as Kankuro continued to scavenge the room.

Seconds later Shikamaru stepped into the open doorframe. His knuckles knocked twice against the wood. "Hey, we're all done registering downstairs. You all settled?"

Temari nodded. "Yeah, pretty much."

Kankuro turned from Hinata's side of the room and faced him. "Hey, their room is nicer than ours. What gives with that?"

Shikamaru took a step into the room to get a better look. His eyes widened as he took in its features, following the grooves in the floor and the soft red carpet in the center. ". . . You know, you have a point. We get saddled with the shabby armpit of the whole place and you guys--is that a walk-in bath?" A second glance to the far side of the room confirmed his suspicion as he caught the hollow echo of dripping water against polished tiles. He put his hands in his pockets and began to turn. "I'm going to change our rooms around right now."

Temari stood quickly, unpleased surprise stretching her eyes. "Don't! I already went and unpacked everything for both Hinata-chan and myself. I don't want to have to repack everything up and then unpack again. I'm too tired for that."

"Don't listen to her, man," Kankuro said. He gave Shikamaru a serious look. "Just get the rooms switched."

"Come on," Temari pleaded, in an almost subservient gesture. Both of the boys looked over at her as if she was someone else at the strange ache in her voice. "Please?"

Being someone that easily succumbed to guilt trips, Shikamaru caved with a sigh. ". . . Fine, fine. I'll leave it."

Kankuro shook his head disapprovingly. "Wuss. We had it made!"

Shikamaru shrugged, then settling down to business. "At any rate, Gaara and Hinata are waiting outside. There's a nice little clearing at the edge of the stone garden where we should meet up. It's at the crest of the hill overlooking the stream so it's easy to watch what goes around. I'm going to hold the meeting there. Be down by there in five minutes."

He didn't spare either of them a second glance as he left. Temari sat back down on her bed, mattress shifting with a quiet creak.

She grinned faintly. "Heh. No backbone at all."

"You snake," Kankuro said. By then he'd already taken all of Temari's towels and was making his way to leave himself. "That was pretty low."

Temari shrugged. "Well, I don't have to move, do I?"

"Feh."

Temari laughed. "Come on, let's go down there already. Oh, and Kankuro," she interceded as he was making his way beyond her to the door. She caught him by his arm, forcing him to turn and look at her. Blue eyes cut through the twilight. "Put my damn towels back."

Kankuro didn't move. "One of those choice words I mentioned earlier is 'stingy', y'know."

"That's great. Towels. Back. Now." Her posture didn't shift as he took a step back and ceremoniously opened his arms, dumping all of the now unfolded towels onto the ground at their feet. She arced an eyebrow. "Now which one of us is six years old?"

"Whine, whine," Kankuro replied, turning to leave. "Let's go."

Temari growled at his back as he left, muttering a variety of different curses as she bent down to clean up the mess. After she had gotten everything in order and both Shikamaru and Kankuro's chakras had moved some distance away as she had to strain to touch them, she sat back down on her bed again. In the solitude she stared at her shadow as the dying light shifted though its inky frame, an invisible black smeared across the floor. She rested her hands on her knees. Across the room she heard the water drip against the tiles.

". . . Trust, huh."

x x x x x

A soft breeze curled through the screen door at the entrance to the Inn, bringing with it the smell of freshly trimmed grass and cooked meat from the restaurant just down the road. Fractured glows slipped between the wiry frame along the door, drawing geometric dots of heavy light along the carpet. As Shikamaru moved to walk through the door to meet with the others, the middle-aged clerk that had taken the team's registry waved to him.

"Um. . . Excuse me, Nara-san?"

Shikamaru pocketed his hands. "Uh huh?"

"I have a package for you," he informed the young Chuunin. The casually dressed man bent his knees and began to rummage about a small storage area underneath the horizontal desk as Shikamaru walked over. He spoke while he shifted various documents and packages about. "It actually arrived yesterday in the evening. There's no return address on the envelope, so I can't say whom it's from."

"That's fine."

After a moment, the clerk made a cheerful noise and lifted a peculiarly shaped object up onto the wooden counter. Jagged features spiked out underneath a white plastic bag, much like an oversized pineapple. With a swift motion the clerk flipped a utility knife open and delicately sliced the plastic concealing the object until it unraveled in a white and crinkly mass at the base of—now that Shikamaru could see—a green pot.

A tropical plant sat there before them.

Shikamaru blinked. ". . . Okay."

x x x x x

Behind the Inn was a public garden, made from stone carvings and fashioned into a simplistic labyrinth. Hedges aligned the stones into an amalgam of both natural growth and unnatural placement, several streams of fresh water bisecting pathways through the twisting rocks and shrubs. At the edge of the garden was a steep incline leading down into the woods, the hillock crested by a stone dais constructed to overlook the Inn and the forest from a slight elevation. Both Hinata and Gaara waited on the dais of cobblestones, Hinata standing and overlooking the forest while Gaara sat on a bench carved meticulously from a granite slab.

Soft and cool breeze brushed Hinata's face. "It's very pretty here," she said quietly. "I've never been this far into Earth Country before. . . I had always been under the impression that everything was rocky and barren." Glass eyes observed the sway of the trees; dreamy green canopies tinted a sinking glow from the setting sun. Everything colored the same shade. "I'm glad I was wrong."

Gaara looked over at her. "It's very rocky and barren in Wind Country. Are you implying that it is inferior because of that?"

Hinata blinked. "Um. . . No!" She turned around, her very posture apologetic. "No, of course not. I didn't--I mean. . . I'm sorry."

"Don't be," he told her. He met her eyes impassively. "I was kidding."

Being the product of a stern environment herself, Hinata wasn't very adept at recognizing sarcasm. She didn't have a very developed sense of humor, though she was capable of appreciating others' jokes, such as her teammate Kiba. But Gaara wasn't anything like the spirited boy she had trained with. Hinata was utterly incapable of discerning any kind of emotional leniency from Gaara, so it certainly didn't sound as if he'd been joking. He didn't seem the kind of person who would ever indulge himself in levity.

An old anxiety crept up her nerve ladders. "Oh. Even still. . . I shouldn't have—"

Gaara shrugged. "Why not? I don't care what your preference is."

Hinata swallowed, giving a brief nod. "R-Right." In the last few days she had slowly grown accustomed to Gaara's presence, but when she was alone with him her earlier paranoia would begin to revive. It took great effort to smother the fear, and she wasn't entirely successful. A cool wind met with the back of her neck, brushing the strands of her hair. "I'm sure your country is very beautiful too. I haven't been there, so I can't say myself."

Gaara said nothing. He shifted slightly on the bench before giving an almost inaudible smirk. ". . . I really make you uncomfortable, don't I?"

Hinata bit her lip. "No."

He looked off at the horizon as light collapsed. "I understand. You're not the first."

"It's not. . ." Hinata paused, not really sure how to articulate what she felt in a way that wouldn't leave her exposed. "You don't. It's not you."

"You're lying."

"I'm not," she insisted, her voice neither insolent nor assertive. Her hands came together, eyes falling to the ground and tracing the smooth edges of the dais. "It really isn't you. . ."

". . . I did some terrible things to your country. It's in your every right to hate me."

Hinata shook her head. "I don't! I never did. I never felt that way about you. Even if you don't believe me. You're just so. . . different than me." She flinched as she tried to reconcile the words she had spoken with what she'd intended, realizing they were entirely separate things. Even if he was apathetic to how she felt, she still wanted him to understand that she really didn't hate him. "That's. . . not a bad thing. I didn't mean I think you're. . . that it's wrong you're not like. . ."

Gaara's voice was accusingly soft. "You don't have to be nice."

Her shallow breathing drifted in the twilight between them. ". . . I want to."

"Why?"

"Because," she said. A memory returned to her from months ago; a frivolous encounter with Kurenai-sensei that held no emotional meaning or definitive poignancy. But that was what made it significant: Kurenai-sensei's very presence was something reassuring and admirable to Hinata, a personality and posture that she wanted to emulate. Kurenai was one of the very few people Hinata felt she could talk freely to, moreso than her teammates or family or Naruto. She tried to envision Kurenai standing beside her as she spoke. "I. . . I don't know. . . Because you--I was afraid. Scared of you for so long. I feel that I have to, otherwise. . ."

"You should never stop being afraid of me." Gaara's eyes were utterly vacant. Devoid of malice or trickery, purged of hostility and apprehension. They indicated a certain exposure, a kind of honesty that Hinata wasn't sure she could comfortably interpret. He meant her no harm when he said, "That fear will make you alert and ready in case you need to react immediately."

"Are you--I don't understand. Why?"

"It doesn't matter why. Just don't lose that fear. Cherish it. Don't let it take you over, but stop feeling obligated. You don't have to pretend."

Hinata couldn't understand. Did he want her to hate him? Was that what festered in the distance between them? Her voice felt heavy on her throat when she spoke. "How can you. . . you just say that? Why do you want me to be that way around you?" She took a few shaky steps to one of the granite walls along the dais and leaned against it. Legs bent and fabric shifted as she slowly slid to the ground, tucking her knees to her chest. "I know we barely know each other, but. . . I hope you don't think it's presumptuous of me to talk this way with you." She looked over at him. "But you've changed. . . you aren't the same person as before."

Gaara blinked once, slowly. "Is that what Temari said?"

Non-physical shivers scattered under her skin. ". . . Yes. But that's what I've seen, too. You. . . haven't you?"

"I don't know."

That was not the answer Hinata had been expecting. But then she realized it was reasonable: there were many questions he could ask her in return about her own life that she would not have an answer for. Dry lungs gave a heavy expansion with each breath, her chest tightening like a vice of bone and sinew. Merely speaking to Gaara was a physically taxing endeavor. That fear made her lonely.

She attempted to be positive, mostly for her own sake. "You have. I. . . I can see it. Maybe it's not how--I think--Um. . ." Hinata cut herself off, knowing that she was stumbling. "I want to be friends. . ." she admitted, knowing that even though she was afraid of him it was still a truth. She thought over the last few days, thinking of him and his actions, finding nothing at all that was cruel or manipulative. She looked down at her calloused fingers. "You're a good person."

Gaara didn't respond immediately, though if he had been surprised he didn't show it. Hinata thought that she could hear the shifting of his sands in the silence that arrived, muscles coiling into frigid batteries that ached with anticipation. But then she listened and heard nothing. She thought of Kurenai. She thought of Naruto. She thought of Temari. She thought of all the people she considered to be strong, trying to hold on to something precious from each of them but not knowing what that something was.

Eventually Gaara spoke. "You say that even though you're scared of me right now."

Her knees curled in tighter. ". . . Yes."

"During the exam, when you were hiding," Gaara said, Hinata's eyes widening as she realized that he had known from the moment they met days ago outside of Naruto's apartment that she had been there. That every moment that had gone by since then, he had known she was the one that had seen him kill. His voice continued through her maelstrom. "If it hadn't been for Kankuro. . . I would have—"

"But you didn't," Hinata interrupted, the words coming out too fast and wrong.

"But I would have. I wanted to." He gave her a significant look. "Can you live with that?"

Hinata folded her hands together, looking at them, tiny swans intermingling like feathery plumes. She looked as fragile as she felt. "Would you. . . kill me now? As we sit here?"

He didn't answer.

After he didn't, Hinata forced herself to continue. ". . . That's why I think you've changed," she murmured. "It's my fault for--not being able to. . ."

She didn't finish. Silence fell again, broken only by the irregular sigh of the wind as sunken violet began to stretch across the east as twilight slowly eclipsed the sky. Earlier terrors came to her as old memories: the way her hands had felt as she touched the shinobi's body, his life fading with every contact; the way his eyes had pleaded without words for some kind of help, her aid coming in the form of death; the frenzied and malevolent grin Temari had become swept within as she tore his life away; the knowledge that those kinds of acts and those kinds of faces were supposed to be acceptable and no matter how often she thought of that, nothing could reconcile morality with reality.

Skin touched cold rock.

"I need to be stronger," she said. When Gaara didn't respond, Hinata realized she was grateful for his silence.

x x x x x

Fifteen minutes thereafter, both Kankuro and Temari had arrived. Kankuro came meandering along just after Hinata and Gaara came to realize they had nothing else they could communicate, Temari following a few minutes after that. Quiet moments were impregnated with an awkward atmosphere, all four of them confined to the prison of their own thoughts. Kankuro sat across from Gaara atop a stone ledge, his heels tapping an irregular rhythm against the rock as he stared blankly at the billowing darkness. Temari stood next to where Hinata was sitting on the ground, leaning against the ledge with her arms crossed.

Seconds became minutes. It was Kankuro who broke the silence.

"This seems awfully familiar," he spoke, angular face barren of the annoyance he felt. "Is this guy even aware of the concept of punctuality?"

"Yeah," Temari agreed, her eyes downcast as she ruminated on subjects she felt were private. "Who knows what happened. He might've gotten into some kind of trouble." Her foot scraped against the rock and she frowned. "Give it another minute then we should probably look for him."

Kankuro sighed. "That's strike two. Two in one day."

There was a distinct lack of passion in both siblings interchange, a mutual lethargy draped over each of them for separate reasons. Kankuro wasn't particularly angry as he might have been under different circumstances, his disconnection representing an almost boredom with the very concept of emoting. Temari, being a slightly more internal person, was more difficult for the others to read, but both of their behaviors were noted by Gaara and Hinata.

Hinata ran the pad of her thumb over her index fingernail, unaware that she was even doing it. Of the group she was especially removed; a figurine fashioned from ethereal jewelry, existing only due to a ghostly silhouette to represent physical form. When her head twitched suddenly, Temari caught the movement from the corner of her eye, noting the anxiety in Hinata's monochrome eyes.

". . . He's coming," Hinata said.

Kankuro frowned, looking out over the garden towards the Inn. "I can't see him. How can you tell?"

They had to strain to hear her voice, a suppressed and almost hoarse whisper. "Shikamaru-kun asked me to set up barrier wards around the perimeter of this location so we wouldn't be disturbed. They're attuned to my chakra, so. . ."

Temari nodded, catching the shadow moving through the falling dark. "Yep. Here he is."

Shikamaru touched down in the center of the group, his feet lightly contacting stone almost without sound. He held his hand up.

"Yo."

None of them were particularly happy to see him. Temari gave him a blank look. "Late again. That's twice in a row, now. Maybe you should start carrying an alarm clock around with you. Or some stick-it notes."

Shikamaru shrugged, taking a seat on the bench beside Gaara. "I was waylaid." As he sat down, his hands flipped open a pocket on his Chuunin vest, withdrawing a small scroll from within. He spun the rolled pages atop his index finger. "Our intel-unit made contact just now."

Kankuro blinked. "No shit," he said, turning to look around them for another person. "Where are they at?"

"They didn't contact me personally," Shikamaru replied. He had thought the scroll was an obvious enough explanation, but then he figured he'd actually have to open it for them to see to understand what kind of scroll it was. Instead he simply dropped the object back into his vest pocket. "I received something from them. But before we get into that--Hinata?"

Hinata didn't look up at him when she spoke. "I put up four wards at each of the polar points. I used a prism labyrinth genjutsu as part of their structure, but my training in wards is still very basic. The effect can be easily dispelled as long as someone recognizes the chakra. . . but it's the best I can do. I'll know if someone comes within the perimeter at least."

Shikamaru nodded. "Then it's good enough."

Now that they had fully gathered, Temari sat down next to Hinata. She crossed her legs. "So what's up for discussion? The guys that attacked us earlier? You said they were the couriers?"

"Yeah," he confirmed. He gave a brief look around the party, realizing that he had their attention. He leaned forward, interlinking his fingers in his lap. "First, let's talk about what we know so far. A little over two weeks ago the National Treasury Bureau in Mountain Country was broken into during a public conference. What was stolen was a small collection of sensitive documents by people being believed to be rebels and renegades. Not sure how they managed to escape the country, but they did, along with the missing files. That much is certain."

Kankuro rubbed at his sore elbow. "Right. We knew this part already. They made contact with Suna after that."

Shikamaru shook his head. "Not necessarily. There is a five or six day lapse in their timeframe where they fell off the radar. Secretary Kurama has admitted he doesn't know where they were in those few days, and no one is capable of collaborating information. It's also worth noting that the three assassinations took place around the same time. . . those public figureheads were all found dead after pursuing units lost track of the renegades but before they showed up again in Wind Country. No one knows what happened to them at the moment."

"Is that still a loose issue?" Gaara asked, pupils capturing the younger leader from the perimeter of his sockets. "If they were on the move, they couldn't have played a hand in those killings."

"Right," Shikamaru agreed. "It's unlikely, but it's a notable coincidence anyways."

Temari had been connecting various strings in her thoughts, making an effort to piece together what limited information she already knew. "And then they made some phony contract with our superiors after that. I'm still a little bit reserved on that point. What was the need to counterfeit? They could have taken out a legitimate contract for an escort. Even if they were fugitives from a separate country they would be granted immunity because of our involvement. And we'd still fall under the neutrality blanket until the contract was complete so there wouldn't be any reprisals from Mountain against Wind." She shrugged as soft wind brushed her hair across the stones behind her. "Seems pretty stupid they'd go out of their way to screw with us when they really didn't need to."

"But they did. Otherwise you wouldn't be here."

Kankuro shifted on his perch. "How's that work, exactly? You told us we had prerogative to assist."

Shikamaru nodded, looking up at the seated Sand-nin. "You did. But would you have turned the request down? Think about it. The Suna/Konoha alliance is still fresh and potentially unstable given such recent violence between the two. By making a faulty claim that could be dismissed you were presented with a position of powerlessness. If the contract would have been real, you wouldn't need to have come along because it would have fallen outside of your jurisdiction. But since it was fake that was Sand's blunder for not recognizing it and because of that placing some of the responsibility on your own shoulders."

He took a moment to gauge both Gaara and Temari's reaction before continuing. "They forced your hand. You didn't have to participate, but they knew you would because of social obligation."

There was a loose scrape as Kankuro's heel kicked against the wall. He snorted. "Those kind of tactics piss me off."

Shikamaru swatted at a bug that was buzzing around his hand. "Yeah. Worked though, didn't it? You're out here working for them via an actual and legitimate contract now."

Kankuro shrugged, not entirely convinced. "Maybe. But why can't we just disregard the request since the contract was proven fake? Seems kind of stupid to me."

"I just told you," Shikamaru sighed. He was coming to learn that it was oftentimes very troublesome being in a position of leadership because it required thorough interludes of explanation and discussion with his charges. He didn't like having to explain a situation, let alone having to do it multiple times for people who didn't immediately grasp the concept. "Your international image required you to smooth over your mistake at failing to discover the fake by assisting Konoha. And since they were threatening Konoha with exposing diplomatic indifference at a time when the relationships between the hidden villages are already really sore, Hokage-sama felt that she had to take the contract. Otherwise Kurama would start up with the propaganda and all. That would be bad for business."

"That's fine and good and all," Temari interjected, her intelligent voice bathed in subtle disbelief. "But how do you figure those guys who attacked us earlier were the dweebs from Mountain? Yeah, they might have been poor excuses for ninjas. But they were still ninjas. Maybe they sucked, but they still had enough skill to be above an ordinary civilian from a country that has no hidden village within hundreds of kilometers. The guy we fought had some mist jutsu thing. Didn't help him much in the end, but that kind of thing takes training."

"Missing-nins," Shikamaru said.

Kankuro make an incredulous noise. "Bullshit."

"Nope. Secretary Kurama is one, too."

Gaara frowned, arms crossing over his chest. "How do you figure that?"

"I don't figure," Shikamaru told them. He started flipping open the pocket on his vest again. "I know. I had my suspicions earlier, but. . ." He withdrew the light scribe of cloth and plastic, resting it neutrally on his knee. "Our benefactor has been tailing Kurama Nagare for the last three days. When we link up with him tomorrow night he'll be able to explain everything better, but his summon dog just gave me a bit of information that he's collected."

For the first time, Hinata looked up. She blinked slowly, her face pale and tremulous. Sweat beaded her forehead. "Summon dog? You mean. . ."

Shikamaru nodded, his index finger then running over the white gauze bandage wrapped over his thumb. "Yeah. Pretty clever by him. He sent us a pseudo-summon scroll henge'd as this really ugly plant." The others then noticed his recently wrapped finger, understanding then the significance of his absence. "So looks like our unofficial team member is Kakashi."

Gaara sat up. "That man."

Kankuro blinked, looking down at his brother. "Wait, you know that guy? When did this happen?"

". . . Not well, but I have spoken to him on a few occasions," Gaara answered slowly, almost reluctantly. "Once when. . ."

A moment of realization passed through Kankuro. "Ah, one of your 'visits' to that other brat, huh."

Gaara nodded. "He is. . . respectable."

Temari pivoted her look from Gaara to Shikamaru. "Is he?"

She knew the moment the words had left her mouth that it was a foolish question. The very scroll that Shikamaru held in his hands was proof of that. Drawing a pseudo-summon scroll took incredible chakra control and understanding. In addition to that, it also required very high favor with ones summon creatures in order to scribe a one-shot instant-summon for someone who did not hold a contract of blood with the beasts. In fact, there weren't a lot of people in the world capable of that kind of reverence within their respective summon clans.

Shikamaru answered anyway. "Can't say I know him very well, but. . ." He shrugged, scratching his temple as wind rustled briefly through his hair. "Yeah. If we're going to be saddled with anyone watching our backs, we could have done worse. A lot worse. At any rate. . . Kakashi has ascertained that Kurama is a missing-nin. From what village is still up in the air, but it's a fact."

Temari saw the ambiguity of that answer. "That creates a whole lot of other factors, then."

Kankuro nodded, coming to the same conclusion. "Yeah, I see what you mean. That eliminates Suna and Konoha from his list of possible origins, right? He'd have to have totally lost it to step back into his native village after being declared a missing-nin."

"Exactly," Shikamaru said, putting the scroll away once again then taking effort not to rub at his sliced thumb. "And that also means he can't be in the Bingo Book either, since he would have been arrested the moment he set foot in either of our own villages. All this really adds up to is that he has sources outside of his own country. Dunno who they are, but that's the way it looks."

Hinata coughed gently, wincing from a sudden pain in her throat. Ignoring that, she spoke again, her voice a frail leather of sound. "So. . . why did they attack us, then? If I understand all this correctly, they want us to help them, right? If that's true, why would they try to kill us?"

"Aside from the fact they were completely insane," Kankuro remarked. He looked over at Gaara. "Genjutsu, wasn't it?"

Gaara nodded. "That's what I detected. But for one so potent as to last for multiple days, as well as guide them along a path that had some semblance of uniformity. . ."

"Yeah," Shikamaru agreed. He sat back, hands resting against his legs. "That's just crazy. We're talking about illusions on levels I don't even want to think about."

Kankuro looked off at the nearly disintegrated horizon. ". . . It makes sense."

"What does?" Temari asked.

He shrugged, gaze still far off in the violet-black. Stars began to writhe within retreating tide of sunlight. "This. You know. That they were hit with some freakish mind attack. That's what happened to Baki-sensei, remember? It didn't drive him insane, but it really wiped his mind. Whoever or whatever hit those guys with that attack thing hit Baki-sensei, too."

"Meaning that the assault was indiscriminate," Gaara said.

Hinata rubbed her throat gently under her forehead protector. "Why would Kurama-san do that to his own people?"

"He didn't," Shikamaru told her. "The attack on the carrier was expected, but not planned. Kurama and his people knew that they were going to be attacked, but that was the end of their involvement. My guess is that they totally underestimated the strength of the attackers."

Skywaves shimmered in an incorporeal flicker. The makeshift barrier Hinata had constructed gave off soft pulses that were imperceptible unless one was looking for them specifically; rainbow blades turned to catch the sinking sun, myriad colors scattering once perceived as if they'd never existed. Almost electric, time seemed to halt in the distilled quiet—wind dying, bodies undisturbed, nothing moved. It was very surreal. Like a water painting bruised as if the canvas was skin.

Kankuro caught the chakra, a sudden spiral of aurora fire, and then emptiness. He looked into the stopped time as if resigned to an unstated fate. "So where does that leave us exactly? I don't want to just sit around and twiddle my thumbs waiting for us to get hit."

"That's a good point," Temari said, slowly bringing herself back onto her feet. Her movement was a cacophony of noise in comparison to the statuesque calm. Her fan made a metal scrape against the stone as she leaned back. "If those Mountain guys were attacked by someone who really wanted them dead or whatever, it's pretty safe to assume that we're going to be walking targets too."

Shikamaru knew that was what he would have thought if he were in their position. But he possessed information they didn't so he was certain that wasn't the case. However, since he couldn't actually physically confirm the information until he spoke directly to Kakashi, he couldn't base a solid argument against her observation. "That's . . . unlikely," he said, hesitation obvious in his tone. "The attack was carried out in an effort to retrieve the documents. We don't have them."

Gaara shook his head. "But we were still attacked all the same. Even if we weren't the intended enemies of our attackers, they still must have possessed some kind of structure to their thoughts to seek us out. If the genjutsu really brainwashed them into attacking us, I think it'd be prudent to expect other hostilities."

Deciding that discretion would be the more valid half of valor, Shikamaru relented to their concern. "Yeah. . . Alright. That is a good point. If anything that would just go to show what a troublesome guy Kurama is."

Temari nodded. "Yeah. Sounds like he's the devil everyone knows. Not even his own country wants him." She paused, thinking over what had been shared a few moments before. "But then I guess that's not even his real country. So that kind of makes sense."

Hinata lay her hands flat against her knees. "So. . . what should we do?"

"Nothing," Shikamaru said. "Keep moving forward. Just keep a good lookout at all times so we don't get any unwanted surprises." Memory returned to him with a frown, and he cursed himself for his atypical lack of insight. His encounter earlier in the afternoon had jarred his mental processes and he was still trying to salvage the emotional wreckage. "Damn. Now I'm kicking myself for using our names in the registry."

Being perceptive, Temari was both understanding and forgiving of that slip. "There's not a lot of housing going on out here. If someone is really determined to find us, they're going to, fake names or not. We'll just have to keep watch even when we're indoors."

Shikamaru looked tiredly into the dusk. "Yeah. That's--Yeah. Best thing we can do right now." He yawned, eyes closing as his body ached with exhaustion. He let out a sigh, forcing himself to refrain from slumping while in the company of his team. "Okay, I guess that about covers what needed to be said. If anyone else has anything they'd like to add?"

"Yeah," Kankuro spoke, body straightening with sudden energy. "You're going to meet with Kurama now, aren't you?"

"Uh huh."

Kankuro hopped off the ledge, placing his hands in his pockets. "I'm coming with you."

Shikamaru's brow rose. "Why?"

"Got a problem with that?"

"Yeah, I'd rather do this without violence and you'll just aggravate the situation."

Kankuro just shrugged, deciding not to take offense at what was probably a fair statement. "Tough. I'm going."

After everything, Shikamaru was hardly in the mood to initiate an argument with the surly Sand-nin and thus relented with a sigh. ". . . Fine, do whatever. Just try not to kill him if he says something annoying, alright?" He stood then, wincing briefly at how stiff his joints felt even though he'd only been seated for a short time. He addressed the others. "Guess we'll be going now then. See you guys later."

The magenta dusk shuddered against the rainbow-fire for a fragmentary second. Shikamaru and Kankuro both stepped off the dais and began heading back through the stony garden, neither of them speaking to the other. Inky shadows came with the birthing night, wind cooling as it resumed its invisible flow. Gaara stood after Shikamaru and Kankuro had left. He looked to be in deep thought, and then instead of saying anything he simply allowed the cyclonic sand to envelop him, stepping into the temporary dimension of teleportation. Hinata and Temari were then alone.

Fireflies winked midnight embers. A few minutes elapsed as neither said anything.

Hinata then struggled to stand, body resisting like faulty and spastic machinery. Her hand slid across the stone surface of the ledge, scraping a thin layer of skin from her palm. Blood wasn't drawn, but a soft rosy blemish scarred her otherwise pallid skin. She winced, understanding that it wasn't simply exhaustion or mental conflict that was weaving a sudden sickness within her. Her body felt cold and barren, skin wintry palaces while her head burned a painful glow within her skull. For a long moment she stood with her hand against the ledge, not moving.

Temari frowned. "Hey. . . You don't look so good."

"I'm fine," Hinata replied.

Inwardly Temari sighed at the obvious fabrication. Outwardly, she said, ". . . Alright. You look kind of pale, though."

Hinata's hand then fell to her side as she gave a weak smile. "I'm. . . always pale."

Temari didn't laugh. "True enough."

Timid fingers reached up and captured the strings for her hood, holding them in an absent gesture. Hinata looked away from Temari then, over to the Inn. ". . . I should go and turn off the wards now. I. . . think I'm going to go to bed then." She gave Temari a friendly look, though it was blunted by weakness. "I'll see you tomorrow?" She blinked, then remembering what had been mentioned by the others a few minutes ago. "Oh. I forgot we had to switch off watches. Um. . ."

"I'll take the first watch," Temari offered, giving Hinata a very indiscriminating but neutral glance. "Go get some sleep then."

Hinata nodded and then left. Temari stayed for a short while after that by herself, sitting on the ledge watching as the final visages of light disappeared behind the forested horizon. Once darkness and stars consumed the sky, she stood and returned to the Inn.

x x x x x

Lights from within the restaurant filtered into the night with a rinsed golden flicker, lanterns projecting miniature suns through the murky glass. Both Shikamaru and Kankuro had made their way down the beaten road without a word to each other, simply guiding themselves towards the flame beacon as it slept within the forest. Darkness had fallen completely; wood-smoke lit a dim brown as it rose from the firepit at the rear of the establishment. Silhouettes could be seen moving through the windows, a rowdy life within contrasting the stoic tranquility of the surrounding countryside.

Ten feet from the door, Shikamaru stopped. Kankuro copied him, turning to face the younger team captain.

"Look," Shikamaru started. His sandals shimmied through the loose dirt. "Before we go in, I just want—"

Kankuro snorted. "You're not going to make me swear to be on my best behavior, are you? Aren't you a little young to be my Mother?"

Shikamaru crossed his arms. "Yeah. That's exactly what I was going to have you do. Maybe you think it's patronizing. Well, too bad. I don't care. We both know you're just waiting for an excuse to slit this guy's throat, and--why am I taking you again?" A moonlit frown painted his face. "You should just go back to the Inn and wait."

"Don't even bother trying that," Kankuro replied. He stood his ground. "I'm going with you."

A brittle crash crinkled through the starlight as someone from the restaurant staff threw more wood onto the pit fire at the rear. Shikamaru's face appeared for brief moments in the orange pulse. ". . . No. I changed my mind. Go back, Kankuro. I'll pull rank if you don't."

Kankuro glared, his disgust at the sudden resistance obvious. "Hey, bright-boy. I'm not going in for him. You're right, I think this guy is a snake and I'd gladly kill him and dump the body somewhere if the opportunity presented itself. But that has nothing to do with me being here."

"Then why?"

"I thought you were smart? Figure it out."

Shikamaru didn't have to ruminate long. ". . . If you think you're going to supervise, I really will pull rank on you."

"Tell you what," Kankuro commented offhandedly, placing his hands in his pockets. The mixture of ruby and chrome waves against the violet patterns on his face made him seem a bio-totem: a physical spirit of cynicism and doubt, a quasi-guise of a higher being making ire-driven equations regarding the world around him. "You start doing things right and maybe--maybe--I'll start giving a shit about your opinion. So far you have done absolutely nothing that gives me reason to believe you're going to handle our lives properly. Even Hinata performed better than you did today. I was wrong about her, but I was spot-on about you, champ. So I'm coming in with you whether you want me to or not."

Shikamaru wanted to ask him what he should have done. What a seasoned killer such as Kankuro—or, at least, what Kankuro claimed to be—would have reacted to. But he would never allow himself that kind of vulnerability to someone who distrusted his every action.

"That was--you just. . ." He sighed, realizing that there was probably no way he could logically convince Kankuro to simply leave. "Fine. I'm putting this in my report."

Kankuro shrugged, clearly apathetic to Shikamaru's threat. "You do that. I'm sure that when our superiors read how much of a fuck-up you've been, they won't be stepping over themselves to reprimand me over being concerned about the safety of our unit." Without waiting for a response he turned and walked towards the door. "Now let's get this over with."

Filing the encounter into his cerebral cabinets, Shikamaru let the issue drop. There were many things he wanted to say, or he could have said, but all of his responses seemed inadequate in the face of critical dismissal. It would do no good for him to try and lead the group with Kankuro hovering around his shoulders, an ubiquitous phantasm reaching with cold and bony hands to grasp at all his ideas and actions until they shattered from its ghastly scrutiny.

The only way to rid himself of Kankuro was to play along. So he did.

As the two teenagers stepped inside, they were met with a warm and boisterous atmosphere. To their left was a bar where large companies of travelers had convened, speaking to each other in friendly shouts and riotous laughter. They both removed their sandals at the landing, placing them symmetrically parallel to the other footwear. Scanning the slightly more subdued right side—an architecture of tables, chairs and booths—they both made perfunctory glances in search of their contact. Kankuro spotted the politician sitting with his back to them at a booth on the other side of the restaurant.

He pointed and Shikamaru nodded. A waitress approached them with a set of menus but Kankuro waved her off with his hand, indicating they didn't need to wait to be seated. She gave the Sand-nin a somewhat irritated glance at his dismissal, but they were already weaving through the throng of chairs and tables. Without ceremony they slid into the booth across from Kurama.

Kurama looked up from his soup with a friendly expression. "Ah, good evening Nara-san. Kankuro-san."

"Yeah," Shikamaru replied. "Hey."

Kankuro said nothing.

Kurama wiped at the edges of his mouth with his napkin. "Would you like me to flag a waitress for a menu?"

Shikamaru shook his head. "No," he said. He crossed his arms on the table. "Let's just get down to business."

"Very well." Kurama rested his hands flat beside his bowl, eyes shimmering from the lantern at the edge of the table. "What do you have to report so far? Any leads?"

"We still have no information about who exactly was behind the attack, but we did manage to run into your renegades this afternoon."

Kurama frowned. "You found them but not the attackers?"

"That's right," Shikamaru confirmed, noticing how Kankuro had seemed to seal closed the moment they had sat down. An anticipatory feeling of dread began to swell as he hoped Kankuro wasn't just going to bide his time before doing something reckless. "They weren't kidnapped as you suspected. We're still putting together an explanation as to how it happened, but it looks as if someone used some kind of mind re-writing genjutsu on them. They were wandering around the countryside."

Processing that information, Kurama nodded slightly. ". . . I see. That would make sense, given what happened to Baki-san. Where are they now? Did you manage to get them to a hospital safely?"

Shikamaru took a breath. ". . . They're dead."

A strange emotion colored the lines of Kurama's face. "That is unfortunate. Very unfortunate. Pardon me for the confusion, but I have to admit I'm a bit perplexed. How is it you managed to ascertain their mental ailments if they were already deceased?"

Truthfully, Shikamaru had not been looking forward to this part. "We didn't find their bodies. We found them."

". . . I'm sorry, but. . ." Kurama's hands withdrew from the table, resting on top of his legs. Fingers slowly curled. "Are you telling me that you were the ones that killed them?"

Shikamaru didn't answer.

All previous trace of emotion evacuated Kurama, eyes hardening as his cheeks and skin fell still. There was an unmistakable frost to his words when he spoke. "Part of our contract specifically requested that you find the whereabouts of the missing renegades and if possible bring about their safe return. How is it that you deemed it within permissible boundaries of our agreement that you kill them? That is unacceptable. Had they been dead when you found them, I would have understood, but. . ." Brow contorted downwards in an undisguised frown. "Is this how Konoha operates? Unless you give me a reasonable explanation, I'm going to hold you personally responsible."

Part of being a team captain was taking absolute responsibility. This included successes as well as failures. Shikamaru wasn't afraid of that ultimatum, but the enactment of reality was much less sympathetic; he thought he had prepared himself for the consequences to his orders and actions, but sitting there in that restaurant he realized perfectly that he wasn't. An ugly and deformed feeling rose in the blooming caverns of self-loathing, crawling and licking at him with the persistence of memory.

More than anything, in that very moment, he could recall the way his arms had felt as he stabbed the shinobi in the head. The way he had shook there, alone on the river-shore as death bled openly before him. The way Kankuro had chewed him out for his mistake, and the unmistakably horrible feeling that knowing Kankuro was right.

Shikamaru's voice was slow. "Well. . . there's. . ."

"Hey."

Both Kurama and Shikamaru turned to Kankuro then. The Sand-nin stared down hard at Kurama, and Shikamaru became worried at what might happen.

"Don't start," Shikamaru muttered.

Kankuro ignored him. ". . . You can't just sit there like some eel, sipping at your soup, telling us how to conduct our field operations." A distinct animation of disgust warped across Kankuro, channeled by the hatred he held towards what he knew he had to say. "You can't just hold this guy responsible because things didn't turn out the way you wanted. Maybe that's how you do things as a politician, but it doesn't work that way here. He gave the order for their death because we had no choice. Your boys had gone insane and were trying to kill us."

Kurama took the criticism easily. ". . . I understand that they were under mental distress, but doesn't the objectives of a mission come before your own personal safety?"

"No, you don't understand," Kankuro replied, his stare slowly lapsing into a burning glare. "They came out of left field and were taking every effort to make sure we weren't going to walk away. Our safety as a team unit comes before any of your pisshole objectives because you're a manipulating bastard."

Shikamaru sighed. "Kankuro. . ."

"What you think of me is irrelevant. You have been assigned a contract, and it is expected of you to hold to it."

Kankuro snorted. "Our ultimate objective is to kill some Priest woman, isn't it? How the hell could we do that if we'd've been killed?"

Silence. Firelight danced.

Even Kurama was denied a reply as the cold logic of Kankuro's words fell into place, illuminating a thorny facet of shinobi law. Shikamaru had to begrudgingly admit he was surprised that Kankuro would choose to ensnare Kurama in a logic trap as opposed to resorting to insults and violence. Kankuro was right.

Shikamaru took the momentum of resistance of moved with it. He looked back over at Kurama. ". . . There's also the matter that you haven't been completely honest with us. How were we to know that your countrymen were going to be trained in some ninjutsu arts? I gave the order after we came under fire because I never for even a moment suspected they could have been the people we had been looking to save. It wasn't until later I learned of their identities."

Kurama reconnected to the moment, condescendence vanished. "I understand. I just want you to realize that I severely wish there could have been some alternative. Their deaths are a great loss."

"Must be bad for business," Kankuro observed.

". . . A great loss because they were people who were working under my orders," Kurama corrected. If Kankuro was trying his patience, he did an exemplary job at concealing it. "Simply because I am forced to make difficult decisions and cultivate a certain public image doesn't mean I'm without pity or concern for other people."

Shikamaru scratched his brow with a thumbnail. "Well. . . at any rate. That's most of what we've got so far. We've had no leads or success in finding information regarding the guilty party yet. Now is there anything new you can tell us?"

Kurama folded his napkin back over his lap, then taking a sip from his glass of red wine. "More of the same, mostly. Neighboring countries are starting to grow restless about the civil unrest and my country has started to reinforce the borders a little more severely. Since our contract is meant to be kept hidden from Mountain's public consciousness, that'll make your entry a bit more difficult. But I suspect for ones trained such as you are, the task should be a relatively simple endeavor." He shrugged, picking his spoon back up and returning to his soup. "High Chamberlain Ulema has continued to make a variety of public appearances in the last few days, but given that her very role is socially open that's not unexpected."

Fingers drummed the tablecloth. Shikamaru leaned back. "Is that all?"

"Mostly," Kurama replied. He turned his head to look across the restaurant. "Would you like me to order some tea perhaps?"

"No," Shikamaru said, beginning to slide out of the booth. He wanted to keep the meeting as brief as possible. "We're leaving."

Kankuro followed the motion and soon both of them were standing. As they were beginning to turn to leave, Kurama spoke again.

"Very well. One last thing, Nara-san."

Shikamaru put his hands in his pockets. "Uh huh?"

Kurama didn't look up at them as he ate his soup. ". . . As an observer, I think you would do well to work on your stealth. I am not an expert, but I have to say I find it rather poor."

Brow furrowed, Shikamaru's hands clenched between the sewed cloth. ". . . I'll keep that in mind."

Without bidding goodbye or goodnight, Shikamaru began to leave. Kankuro watched him take a few steps towards the exit in a contemplative storm, waiting until there were a few more meters of distance between them. As Shikamaru neared the exit, Kankuro looked down at Kurama who was still focused more on his dinner than paying attention to either of them. As Kankuro began to walk towards the exit, his hand shot out. He slid his fingers underneath the warm porcelain bowl, flipping it over and spilling its hot and frothing contents into Kurama's lap.

"Whoops."

Kurama said nothing, still refusing to look up at the teenager. Kankuro snorted and then left.

x x x x x

As soon as they were both outside, Shikamaru spoke.

". . . That troublesome slime."

Kankuro nodded. "'Work on your stealth?' What the hell did he mean by that?"

They allowed their individual aggravated inertias carry them further away from the building. Scorched drywood and eddying firelight shrunk in the rapidly growing distance as Shikamaru, instead of answering immediately, leapt into the trees to put as much distance between them and the restaurant as they could. Kankuro grunted and then followed, both of them rushing through the darkened trees, leaves caressing them like hundreds of emerald fingers. After several leaps as the light had been smothered by the darkness, Shikamaru stopped.

He turned on his branch, looking over at Kankuro. "Well, what do you think he meant? It means he knows about the intel-unit. Which means he's fully aware of all the information we have on him."

Kankuro's knuckles brushed against the side of the tree. "Isn't that just terrific. Sounds like this Kakashi guy is overrated."

Shikamaru considered that, then shook his head. ". . . No. All this means is that Kurama has some pretty powerful friends."

"Yeah," Kankuro agreed. "Looks that way."

There was a strange and awkward silence after that as Shikamaru didn't continue along or make any movement to speak. He stood there in the elevated shadows with Kankuro only a few feet away, aware that the older teenager was watching him carefully. It was then that Shikamaru realized that Kankuro wasn't a fool: brash, spoiled and arrogant, yes, but not incompetent. What brought him to this conclusion was that—in a moment of loathing where he understood what Temari had meant when she told him days before—Kankuro was acting almost exactly how Shikamaru would have.

Had the situation been reversed, Shikamaru would have distrusted Kankuro. He would have devoted his energy to watching the Sand-nin and meticulously analyzing every move and action he took to discern for himself whether or not the he was trustworthy. Or competent enough to control the myriad whims and forces of a team of shinobi. This knowledge brought Shikamaru no comfort. If anything it only served to fan the already billowing flames of dislike he had for Kankuro.

Shikamaru knelt on the branch. "What was that in there? Why did you—"

"Don't ever mention that again."

Shikamaru looked up.

Kankuro stared back at him with an unmistakable intensity. "I'm serious. Don't bring that up again. I said it before. If I'm commanded to work with Leafies, I will. And I'm willing to put my life and my word on the line for them if I have to. But don't think I did that because I wanted to."

"I don't. I didn't want you to, either."

"I'm going to give you one more chance," Kankuro told him. He straightened to pronounce the difference in their statures, relegating all the power between them squarely on his shoulders. "I really shouldn't, but I'm going to. Don't waste it."

Shikamaru rolled his eyes. "I'm flattered."

"Bastard. I'm being abnormally forgiving." Kankuro didn't look at him then when he said, "That was the first time you've killed someone, wasn't it?"

That gave Shikamaru pause. Irritated, he just dismissed the question. "Well, apologies for not being a crazed murderer with skulls on my belt."

The perpetual enmity between the two resonated in the quiet. Starwinds rolled over the forest, a subdued roar as everything but the distrust and dislike between them shifted around. For a long moment Kankuro tapped his fingers against the trunk of the tree he stood perched within, face irate and jagged. Shikamaru just watched him without speaking.

Kankuro's fingers stopped moving. "When you see his mouth bulge."

Shikamaru blinked.

"Force his mouth open and shove the handle of a kunai between his teeth. After that cut the front row of teeth at the top of his mouth out of his gums with shuriken. He can't chew effectively after that. Molars are useless for shredding flesh."

An odd twitch pulled at Shikamaru's lips. ". . . I don't know if I should be grateful for that information, or just disgusted."

"You should feel like an idiot," Kankuro told him. "You're the Chuunin here. You shouldn't be getting torture lessons from someone beneath your rank." Kankuro knelt so they were eye-level and looked across at him. "Last chance. If you make such an amateurish error again, I'll make it so Temari is in charge or something. By force, if necessary. Remember that."

"Whatever. Don't get so confident."

Kankuro grinned, a creepy and malevolent expression. "Well then. . . Sweet dreams."

With that he dropped down a few branches before leaping off into the forest, leaving Shikamaru alone.

x x x x x

Gaara looked up into the glittering obsidian of midnight, thoughts retracted to what had happened earlier. He stood at the edge of the second floor outdoor balcony of the Inn just outside of the boys' room, hands crossed over the wooden railing. Trees, stone and water yawned across the wilderness before him. There was an identity to be found in the stars above: he felt just like they appeared, fragile tiny lights to blink as if gasping through the swallowed sky, holding a frenzied and disintegrating blaze within their celestial hearts.

He felt that he should have been stronger.

In the past he never had these thoughts. There had never been a need to restrain Shukaku before, because all beings and all things were just sustenance walking about because he allowed them. When the sweltering mire of doom within him decided they were to be sacrificed to his whims, that was all that could be done. They would die. But things were different now, so different. There was a new terror that spilt through his soft and newly opened eyes every day. A fear of loss.

He had nearly tried to kill Kankuro, and that terrified him. That kind of action would never be acceptable again. Gaara tried hard, but could not think of why he had suddenly fallen into the grasp of the demon. His only explanation was that he had been weak.

Never again.

The familiar lurch of Kankuro's chakra approached. Gaara turned his head to see his brother crest the stairs a few feet away from him.

"Hey, what are you doing up?" Kankuro asked, walking over to Gaara. He blinked as he realized exactly what he'd just inquired. "Never mind. Stupid question."

Gaara turned to face the taller Sand-nin. "How was the meeting with Kurama?"

Kankuro shrugged. "Oh, you know."

". . . No, I don't. That's why I asked."

Leaning against the railing, Kankuro scratched his right temple. ". . . Not much to say. Boring. Short. We just covered what we already know. It was kind of revealed that he knows we're on to him. At least, he hinted at knowing about us having someone tailing him. Not sure what we're gonna do about that, but. . . well. Whatever. We'll come up with something."

"Right."

A few moments passed as the brothers shared the view of the stars and the darkness. Monochrome lights captured the woods in a soft bath, a bodiless sigh from their limbs as wind caressed the rolling features. Below, in the stone courtyard, fireflies lingered; glow-flames breathing lungs of light, electric eyes shifting over grass and rock like ethereal and winged treasure.

Kankuro pushed himself from the rail. "Well, I'm going to head off—"

"About earlier," Gaara said, stumbling over the words. He didn't continue.

A moment of soft breathing filled Kankuro with awkward reflection. ". . . It's okay."

Gaara shook his head. ". . . No. It wasn't."

"What--Well, what can you do about it now? It's been done."

Against his will, Gaara felt muscles throughout his body tighten in an internal rebellion. He couldn't look Kankuro in the eyes. "I'm sorry. I wasn't strong enough."

Kankuro kept a short distance between them, eventually sighing. "Can I even say anything to that? What do you want me to do?" He trailed off, voice sounding atypically subdued and almost vulnerable. ". . . Temari suspects something."

". . . I know."

"I didn't tell her anything," Kankuro said. His feet shifted beneath him. Stray fireflies blinked above them in a broken halo. "I know I--you said not to, so I didn't. But she's--Temari's smart, you know? She's pretty sharp about this stuff. You. . . I don't like keeping shit from her. I think you should tell her."

Gaara swallowed. "Perhaps you're right."

Kankuro took a few steps towards the door, stopping when he stood beside Gaara. He hesitated, then rested his hand on the younger teenager's shoulder. Both of them were surprised to find that Gaara was lightly shaking. Kankuro spoke quietly. ". . . We don't hate you. I hope you know that."

Fingers tightened for a moment and then released. Gaara nodded. Kankuro looked down, eyes probing the faded grooves of the wooden floor as Gaara turned again to look out over the forest. Then Kankuro walked over to the door of their room and stepped within, closing it softly behind him. Gaara stood alone again, watching the night sky, feeling both stronger and weaker than he ever had before. A pocket-sized sun spreading delicately shining waves into his weary soul.

x x x x x

Shikamaru wandered back into the Inn just shortly after eleven o'clock. The lodging was a quiet and natural ambience, wood colors blending easily into the forested surroundings. The foyer was dim and empty sans a soft light glowing from a staff room behind the registration desk. A flight of stairs across the lobby led to the second floor rooms where the group was staying. Shikamaru began to make his way towards them but then hesitated: he wasn't particularly enthusiastic about running into Kankuro again right away, and since they were sharing a room with Gaara it was an unfortunate inevitability.

Light lounge-room jazz music met his ears.

The hell? Shikamaru frowned and tried to locate the source of the sound. A faint light from beside the registry desk flickered, awareness dawning. Oh yeah, they have a lounge. Forgot about that. Roadside Inns are kind of strange. I guess the lines blur the further north you go.

It was tenuous at best, but at the moment he could think of no superior alternative. Shikamaru made his way towards the lounge. The doors were held open by wooden pegs shoved underneath them, and the faint familiar scent of nicotine spun around him as he entered. He looked about the nearly empty room, not particularly moved. Not that he was a lounge connoisseur or anything of the sort, but it wasn't especially impressive. A bar, a few couches, tables and chairs, a few booths. . . nothing grabbing or immediate. But then he supposed that was probably the point.

Aside from a few stray patrons at the bar and at the tables it was entirely empty. Except for—

Temari?

Sitting alone at the bar nursing a bronze liquid of some sort was the older kunoichi. Shikamaru was taken aback at how familiar and right she seemed in such a place. In spite of her young age she did not seem remotely out of place or abstracted from her surroundings. He wondered why that was.

He walked up to her. "Hey, aren't you a bit young to look like a regular?"

She blinked, turning to face him. "Oh, hey. When did you get back?"

"Just now," he told her. He slid onto the stool next to her, waving the bartender away when he approached. "There were a few complications so we got held up somewhat. And I kind of took my time on the way. Where is everybody?"

Temari shrugged. "Dunno. Gaara kinda meandered off on his own just after you two left, and I haven't seen Kankuro. Who knows what he's up to." She took a sip of her drink, her foot lazily tapping against the bar to the slow music playing from old and scratchy speakers. "Hinata-chan was pretty tired. I think she's sleeping already."

"Hmm."

Temari looked at him seriously. "Something's up with her. She's trying to hide it, so I haven't said anything yet. But I thought you should know."

He nodded. "Right. I'll keep that in mind." After that he found he had nothing else to say, and if Kankuro wasn't even back yet he was eager to take advantage of that and pass out. He hopped off the stool, his hands finding his pockets. "Well, I guess if everyone is off doing their own thing it'd be pointless for me to even try holding some kind of recap briefing. Guess I'll fade, too. I'm pretty beat."

"Okay," she said simply. She yawned, turning as he was beginning to leave. "Wait, um. . . hey, why not hang out here for a while? It's kind of boring with no one around."

Shikamaru shook his head, clearly not interested. "I'm not really the drinking type. I'm still only thirteen anyways. I'll pass."

"You sure? We can get some tea if you want. I'm sure that wouldn't be a problem." She checked her watch. "And it's early still."

A flustered sigh escaped him. "Fine, fine."

A deep frown marred her pretty features. "Well, not if you're going to be an ass about it. Don't force yourself. I'm not that desperate."

His eyebrow arced. "Is this your whole 'joking' thing again?"

"I don't know," she said. She gestured to him with her drink. "What do you think?"

Shikamaru shrugged. "I think talking to you is really kind of annoying."

Temari stared hard at him then, genuine displeasure coloring her eyes. ". . . I don't know how I stand the sight of you, crybaby. I really don't."

"Same," he agreed. He didn't bother meeting the scrutiny of her glare with his own. Instead, he said, "Well?"

"Well what?"

His lethargic vision encountered cushioned seats hiding at the other side of the lounge in the darkness. He gestured to them with a tilt of his head. "Want to sit over there? That way I can fall asleep if you get too boring."

Temari snorted. "Asshole." She turned away from him, draining the contents of her drink in a quick tilt. She then seemed to disconnect from his presence as she refrained from turning back, crossing her arms on the bar. She ignored him then for half a minute, tapping her fingernails against the hard surface. Then she sighed, sliding off her stool. "Guess we could do that."

Shikamaru nodded and made his way casually through the lounge as Temari ordered a pot of tea for them to share. After passing by a small group of travelers smoking heavily at their table while talking quietly amongst themselves, Shikamaru slid into a semi-circle bench in the corner of the large room. He suppressed a comfortable sigh as he leaned heavily into the soft leather, arms draping over the back of the seat. Temari joined him a moment later, sitting across the circular table from him.

Instead of saying anything, however, Temari looked across the room with an obviously bored expression. Shikamaru could tell that she was annoyed with him. It was inevitable with women, he figured. But then he supposed that he had been kind of blunt and tactless—not that he was about to apologize. And it wasn't as if she was all that much better. She treated most people like they were lesser beings herself, so Shikamaru thought her disdain towards him was rather hypocritical.

He sighed.

Temari watched him from the corner of her eyes. "I heard that."

". . . What did you drag me here for? I thought you told me I was boring."

That hadn't been the right thing to say, Shikamaru realized instantly as her voice cooled to an icy and almost callous tone. "You are. But I don't know. To hang out. We don't have to have some deep conversation about the meaning of the universe or anything. I know how much communicating with other people bothers you anyways. You're always free to walk at any time."

He scratched his forehead. "It's nothing personal."

"Yeah, yeah. It's just the way you are," she concluded for him. "I told you that you and Kankuro were similar."

"This is dumb," Shikamaru decided. He began to slide out of his seat. "I'm going to bed."

Temari nodded. "You do that. Sorry for troubling you with the idea that we could be friends."

Shikamaru had no response for that. He hesitated, caught in the threshold of inaction. After a moment he sat back down. He didn't look at her.

". . . Sorry," he said. And meant it.

"People have been apologizing to me too much lately," Temari decided. She turned and looked at him square on. "So stop doing it."

Stop doing things to apologize for, you mean.

Conversation tapered off after that, and when Shikamaru spoke it nearly startled Temari. "I'm going to screw up."

Temari blinked, confused momentarily until what he meant dawned on her. She then made an indifferent noise, looking away from him again. "Well, yeah. That's a given. Most interesting people do. No one's going to have some perfect life where everything works out."

"I'm serious. I'm not a really fun person to be around." Shikamaru looked down at his hands, his fingers tapping restlessly against his legs. "You can't. . . you know. You can't get angry every time I--never mind. This really is dumb."

Leaning back into her seat, Temari gave a half-hearted shrug. "You don't make me angry."

A few minutes later the bartender called over to them and Temari went to the bar to retrieve the prepared tea. She brought it back, handing him a homemade clay pottery cup, placing her own replica down in front of her. As she sat down she quietly poured them each a serving, scents of chamomile lingering in the faint steam. After resting the plastic pot in the center of their table she sat back, closing her eyes. They said nothing to each other after that. Half an hour later he told her goodnight, paid the bartender for the shared pot, and headed back to his room.

His tea sat untouched.

x x x x x

Moonlight sifted into the room through the slats of the wooden blinds, drawing slanted lines across the floor. The solitude was disturbed briefly as Temari opened the door, gently pushing it along its hinges before closing it silently behind her. Curled up underneath the down quilts on the far side of the room, Hinata's soft breathing permeated, the bed cushioning her pale sleep. Temari's movements were calculated and precise, using her training in stealth to keep her noise to a minimum. She unlatched her battle-fan, resting it on top of her pack at the foot of the bed. With the whisper of sliding fabric she undressed, easing herself onto the bed.

Adorned in a simple T-shirt and underwear she sat atop the blankets, leaning back against the wall. She crossed her legs, lithe and contoured and shining in the fractal moonlight, her hands falling onto her ankles. Her eyes then slid between the blinds, gazing out into the tranquility of midnight. Stars moved across the gossamer canopy, foaming deep-blue nebulas puncturing the endless black.

"Temari-san?"

Temari blinked, looking across the room. Hinata's eyes were opened, staring blandly at the ceiling. Temari scratched her elbow. "Oh. Sorry. Did I wake you?"

Sunken blue shifted atop her pillow as Hinata shook her head. "It's okay. . . I've been slipping in and out of sleep. What time is it?"

"Late," Temari replied. Hinata's poorly concealed ailment returned to her memory. "Go to bed."

At first it seemed as if the younger teenager had complied. Temari had returned to staring out the shuttered window, her various thoughts slowly peeling across the murky morass of her brain. A few minutes later, however, a soft voice once again washed across the silent gloom.

". . . Can I ask you something?"

"Mm."

Hinata didn't continue immediately. Temari heard the sheets shift slightly, a lump in the covers indicating Hinata's hands had come together. "When you were. . . your academy days, when you were younger. . . did they teach you how to. . . adapt?"

"Yes," Temari replied.

"Did that training help you at all?" Hinata asked, her probing question gently fragile. "The first time, when you. . ."

". . . No."

Hinata didn't respond. Sheets shifted under the scattered chrome.

Temari's thumbs rubbed against her ankles, absently recalling her earlier years. She had always been stronger at dealing with the sordid past they had been given than both Kankuro and Gaara, so recalling the bleaker times wasn't a painful experience. "I had Ga--well, there were some extenuating circumstances in my case. It was different for us when we were younger. The first time I killed someone I was only five years old." She bit her lip softly, idly trying to remember exactly what she had felt in that exact moment. "I. . . don't remember what it was like. I don't really care. It's part of our world. I just adapted. In my world, you have to separate the strong from the weak. Otherwise there'll be this huge gulf separating everything, and you'll always have to second guess whether or not you're really on one side or the other. I couldn't stand the thought of living that way."

There was a slight intake of breath as Hinata began to speak, then a quiet sigh as she stopped herself. Instinctually Hinata rolled on to her side so her back was facing Temari, the only measure of privacy and solidarity available to her. Temari knew from the few days spent with Hinata that her first instinct was to shut herself off as often as possible. Particularly when discussing something about herself she became very guarded and almost frightened at how others would react.

Hinata spoke in a murmur. "Every time I was. . . alone, or scared, I'd. . . there was this person. He's been there and he's helped me grow every day. Whenever I saw him I'd think about how different I could be if I was strong the way he was. He watched me, and. . . then, little by little, I thought I was growing. I used to. . . really hate myself."

Temari caught the emphasis Hinata had placed on the used to. She wondered briefly how exactly Hinata's self-esteem could have been so thoroughly pulverized. But then she suspected she knew perfectly: her own life used as a similar template, forced onto Hinata's existence. Her Father's house was filled with many mansions. A palace of solitude and neglect. That was Temari's life. But instead of collapsing under the disconnection and ire, Temari seethed and smoldered; for every failing others perceived of her she simply severed more of the sensitive layers collected around her. Every failing was a foundation for perseverance. Nothing anybody could say would diminish Temari because, with the sole exception of two people, nobody ever meant anything to her. That was her strength.

She realized the opposite was true with Hinata.

Hinata's shoulders curled as she closed in on herself further. "I really don't want to. . . I mean, I hope every day that I'm not a burden. I want to help so much. But when everything happens so fast, and I look at you and Kankuro-san and. . . I try to envision it, but every time I remember him I have no idea what he could say to make things easier. He would always find a way. I'm not good at that."

Temari rubbed at her eyes. Bloodstained skin now a soft white touched gently again on her ankles as she stared down at her blankets. ". . . Hey, did you know that out in the middle of Wind Country there's a plateau called Onyjiouji Flats? There's an oasis nestled just off the west side of the Flats that shoots up a lot of really hot water since there's a small dormant volcano underneath. There's also an underground stream that runs overtop of the volcano that forks all the way to the ocean. So since salt water makes its way there when the water geysers up and evaporates, the Flats get covered in salt."

It was a stupid story and a dumb analogy. Temari continued anyway.

"Anyways, long story short, there's this cactus that grows on the Flats. It gains sustenance from the salt from the underwater springs and blooms these really gorgeous flowers once a year for only a few days. It's a pretty perilous trek to get to them, though." Icy azure peered again out of the rectangular slats. Comets and fire burned needlepoint eyes across the sky. "All that melted salt shooting up everywhere, when it rains down it looks like ash and snow, although it's a liquid so hot that it'd burn your skin right off if it touched you. Lots of people have gone out and died trying to harvest those flowers."

". . . Enijiou Petals," Hinata said.

Temari looked across the room at Hinata's blanketed form. "Yeah. That's right. They're similar to Azaleas, only with thicker stems and multiple manifolds. They're layered. The funny thing is that they bloom fullest at night. Strange that."

Soft breathing filled the silence. Temari realized by the miniature shudders that Hinata was crying.

Her voice hid her tears well. "Why are you telling me this?"

Temari shrugged even though Hinata wouldn't see it. "Because I was one of the stupid people who went and picked some of them. And I thought you liked flowers."

"I. . ." Hinata sniffled, the sound so quiet that it was almost imperceptible—but allowed a certain frailty that illustrated the trust Hinata had of Temari. Underneath her blankets, eyes closing, Hinata said, "You. . . really do know everything, don't you?"

Temari smiled. "Yeah. I do."