Disclaimer:

I don't own Naruto, they belong to Kishimoto. I wish I owned Naruto though, or at least had permission to write for the filler arcs. Then I could get this story animated.

Summary:

A joint mission between Sand and Leaf is organized to remove some run-of-the-mill bandits plaguing the borders of the two great nations. But why is Temari so anxious? And why has Kakashi been dispatched to help them? What don't they know? Takes place sometime during the Filler Arcs and before the Timeskip. Rated PG-13 for action violence and some light cursing.

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It was a hot day, and it only promised to get hotter.

And if the heat didn't kill you, the humidity would in short order.

Idly Shikamaru shifted in his spot, hoping that a breeze would come by soon and cool him. Alas, he was disappointed, for in addition to being such a very hot day, it was also a very still one. Not a breeze, not even a cloud in sight to shield him from the merciless rays of the sun. There were some leaves from an overhanging tree branch, but that was about it.

He could've moved to the other side of the tree, out of the sun, but that would've been too troublesome.

He said as much.

Well, actually he just kind of exhaled really loud and closed his eyes. Staring at the back of his eyelids was almost as good as watching clouds. Besides, wasting his breath was troublesome too.

The sounds of activity caused him to re-open his eyes a crack. Idly he glanced over at his teammate for this mission. Naruto was, typically, all energy, even in this heat, and hadn't stopped moving (though he had shucked his orange jacket and had it hanging over a nearby tree branch). He was practicing his tree-climbing technique, trying to walk up a nearby tree while carrying a heavy burden (in this case, a large rock) in his arms. So far he wasn't doing so well, but he kept at it, and the young Nara chuunin was glad, it kept the hyperactive blonde from bothering him.

It also gave him a chance to think about their mission.

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"It's a joint-village mission," Tsunade had explained, back in Konoha.

"Joint ... mission?" a puzzled Naruto had asked.

"They're when two villages have a similar goal," replied Shikamaru immediately. "Rare but not unheard of. It helps strengthen village relations by having them both send a small team to do a job and work together, rather than both send a big team and end up with casualties on both sides when they fight over who gets to do what."

"More or less," remarked Shizune, who stood behind her mentor, holding Tonton.

"It's the Hidden Village of Sand," clarified Tsunade. "For the past month we've had reports coming in of merchants being attacked by a small cabal of bandits in the region directly between the Fire and Wind Countries. No Man's Land. But both countries are affected by this problem, so both villages want to solve it. We've come to a compromise, and we'll both be sending a team in to wipe out the bandits. For Konoha, that team is you two," she said.

Nara Shikamaru and Uzumaki Naruto.

Shikamaru raised his hand, a habit he retained from his days at the Academy.

"Question," he stated, waiting for Tsunade to nod her head before continuing. "Why us?"

The blonde Sannin frowned slightly, mildly irritated by his tone. How could such a genius be such a whiner, she sometimes wondered. "Because you two are well known in Sand, and in particular are used to the team they're sending. You've worked together before. Teamwork will be critical on this mission, so soon after the troubles with Hidden Sound. This mission is as much diplomatic as it is practical."

"Makes sense," replied Shikamaru after a moment's thought. "What's the real reason?"

Tsunade smirked. He -was- perceptive.

She leaned back in her desk, interlacing her fingers before she replied to that one. "Because you and Naruto have proven you can beat the team they're sending if worse comes to worse," she said. "During the final matches of the Chuunin exam and afterwards during the battle. I'm not saying we don't trust Hidden Sand, but the truth is we don't truly trust anyone. That's why we've prepared for all eventualities. However, neither of you are to make the first move. Hidden Leaf honors its deals even if other villages don't. Understood?"

Naruto barely understood one word in twenty of what the Fifth Hokage had just said, and his face was scrunched up in that way it did when he was thinking deeply and trying to understand. But to Shikamaru, she'd pretty much just summed up -exactly- why they'd been chosen. And who their new teammates for this mission would be.

"Great," he muttered under his breath.

The infamous Sand siblings.

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A heavy sigh escaped his lips.

"How troublesome."

He glanced up at the sky, noting the position of the sun. It was still early, Gaara's team wasn't due to arrive for another hour, which was fine as far as he was concerned. It was hot enough in the Fire country during this unseasonably warm summer. He had no real desire to know just how it was going to be out in the Wind Country. Hopefully by the time they arrived and set off it'd be darker out, and thus less unpleasant.

So Shikamaru drifted off back to sleep and hoped he could wake up and find out the whole mission had just been a bad dream.

No such luck.

The sun had set a bit by the time Naruto gave his cry, jolting Shikamaru out of his sleep. Fortunately, he'd been sleeping lightly, so he was back to full consciousness in a matter of minutes. It was a ninja lesson most Genin got the hang of pretty quick. If you sleep too deep you tended to get killed. That's why the Nara matron usually had to resort to explosive tags to get him out of bed at home... it was the one place he allowed himself to indulge in really deep sleep.

"Shikamaru! They're coming! I can see 'em!"

"Hmmm, wonderful," muttered Shikamaru, slipping to his feet and rubbing his forehead, feeling a headache coming on. Being around Naruto tended to do that to him. The blonde idiot had entirely too much energy for his own good. But he shoved those thoughts aside and did his best to make himself presentable. For the mission if nothing else, diplomatic as it was.

As Uzumaki had stated, they were coming.

They were a fair distance off still, but fairly visible past the treeline. A man and a woman. Or, more precise, a girl and a boy, not much older than Shikamaru and Naruto themselves. The boy was clad in dark crimson, a gigantic gourd slung over his back, his hair a distinct shade of red both of them recognized instantly. And the girl was a dirty blonde, her hair done up in an odd four-ponytail structure, with a fan strapped to her back.

Gaara and Temari.

"I'd expected three of you," remarked Shikamaru, though this was something of a lie, since Tsunade had said both villages had ultimately settled on two. But he was curious to know the fate of the third Sand sibling.

Temari smirked. "Yeah well, Kankarou got injured on our last mission ... broken ribs take a while to heal properly, you know."

"Mmm. Just us then?"

"Yes," stated Gaara in no uncertain terms.

Shikamaru sighed. Normally he'd prefer a larger squad, and preferably one with loyalties he could count on, not a reluctant ally in Temari and a completely unpredictable unknown in Gaara. Still, if worse came to worse, he could Kagemane the little Sand monster and run for it.

"So're we going?" asked Naruto, wondering why both sides were more or less just staring at one another.

Gaara nodded. "This way," he said, and he and Temari turned to lead the way, letting the Konoha ninja follow behind them.

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They set a light pace, for their destination wasn't too far. And so they crossed the borders from the Fire Country and into the Wind Country, where few trees grew and the ground was hard and barren of life. It was quite a change for some of them, so used to the foliage prevalent in the Fire country. To say nothing of the cool found in the shadows. Here, the sun blazed high overhead and there was no shadow to cover them. A welcome breeze did pick up, after a bit, and Shikamaru was grateful the Wind country was aptly named.

"So, fill us in on the latest?" remarked Shikamaru, following alongside Temari. Gaara, somewhat slower than his sister on foot, was lagging behind, and Naruto was with him.

"What, the bandits?" she asked.

"No I was interested in the weather here in Wind Country," he replied sarcastically.

She scowled, but decided against returning the jibe. "We've received word of another caravan about to reach the canyon where the bandits usually attack. Our orders were to reach you then intercept the caravan before they hit it."

"What're they carrying?"

"Mining equipment mostly," she replied. "A lot of the caravans are bringing that from your country into ours."

"What for?"

"Mining, of course," she replied with a saucy smirk, determined to get him back for his earlier sarcasm. "The Wind Countries economy thrives on it, we've got veins of iron and silver sitting underneath us. A lot of them have been used up but there's still plenty left untapped, and a new one was found three months ago."

Shikamaru processed this for a moment before asking his next question. "What about the ore? Why wouldn't the bandits go after it?"

"Too heavily guarded," she replied. "Hidden Sand's ANBU are watching over that, they'd need an army to get to it."

"Then what're they after ... any idea who their leader is?"

At this, Temari's movements shifted slightly, and her eyes darted to the side briefly before returning to meet his. "No," she replied. "We know where they're going to attack, that's enough. Quit asking questions that don't concern us," she stated, her voice as cold as the Snow Country breeze.

Eyes narrow, deep in thought, Shikamaru decided not to press the matter. Not now, at least.

But sooner or later he'd find out the truth of the matter.

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The four ninjas arrived on the edge of the canyon not much later, just as the sun was beginning to set. Naruto, Temari and Shikamaru had to hold up their hands to avoid the glare so they could see properly, but Gaara remained unblinking and unchanged, largely disregarding the firey orb to peer down below.

The canyon was very wide, and very long, and very, very deep, nearly a hundred meters or more. The bottom was a river one of the few that still snaked throughout the Wind Country and fed water to the few plants in the region. The far side of the canyon was marked by a "stepped" number of levels, some wide enough for heavy caravans to travel through. The side they were on was sheer and smooth and a straight drop all the way down.

They'd arrived just in time, they could already spot the caravan moving in the distance.

"Bandits usually don't attack until their prey is closer to the middle," remarked Temari, reaching behind her back to grab up her fan and swinging it open with a practiced movement. With a wave of her fan, she created an updraft, and then she swung her body up lightly onto the fan, using it as a glider on the same current she'd created, drifting down lightly as a feather to the far side of the canyon, on the same level as the caravan.

"Hey! How're -we- supposed to get across?!" yelled Naruto over at her, shaking his fist.

Gaara rolled his eyes, even as the cork in his gourd popped free. Instantly Shikamaru and Naruto's eyes widened, half-expecting a wave of sand to wash over them both and crush them. Seeing Gaara was still calm and collected, both of them managed to relax, but not a great deal. It was always unnerving being around the red-haired demon host. You never knew when or why he might turn on you.

However, the sand poured from his gourd in a slow, steady fashion, falling to the ground to form a thickish cloud of sand at the very edge of the cliff. This finished, Gaara stepped forward onto the sand cloud, proving it was as solid as the hard rock had been. He glanced back over at them, stepping to the edge of the cloud to give them room.

"Coming?"

Shikamaru and Naruto reluctantly climbed aboard, and Gaara commanded the sand to let them drift down to rejoin Temari, who stood hand on her hip, waiting impatiently. Shikamaru gazed skywards, and silently questioned how on earth he'd allowed the Fifth Hokage to talk him into this. Beside him, Naruto did the same thing aloud, and with far less respect.

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It had seemed like just any other boring old mission Naruto had gone on. He'd fought bandits before. He'd protected caravans before. This one was even nicer than usual, since the old lady who led the caravan and her youngest granddaughter, a sweet, plump little girl, had let him ride in the front with their wagon. It was almost too easy.

Shikamaru and the Sand Siblings were on guard, however, knowing they'd been sent here for a reason. Shikamaru and Temari were positioned in the middle, on either side of one of the larger wagons, walking alongside it. Gaara was in the rear, mainly because any attack trying to catch him off-guard would be deflected by his suna no tate. Shikamaru had been the one to draw up the plan, though he'd been surprised when Gaara had volunteered to watch the rear. So he'd quickly altered it to place Naruto in the front, so he could quickly provide support to any section that needed it.

So the first few hours had passed uneventfully. Naruto had been on the verge of falling asleep in the wagon from sheer boredom, Temari and Shikamaru had been trading insults (sometimes very loudly) and Gaara, well, he couldn't see him from here, he presumed that Gaara would be Gaara, never sleeping, never relaxing, never interacting with the merchants.

During the early evening, the bandits struck.

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Author's Notes:

I would like to credit Crash and their story 'Everdream' for inspiring a number of elements in this story, particularly the Temari-Shikamaru relationship.