"Sometimes you have to sacrifice a pawn. But only poor shogi players do it often." -- Shikamaru Nara, on sacrifice
"If you're skilled it shouldn't be necessary. If you're not skilled it should be you." – Temari of the Sand, on sacrifice
Shikamaru returned to the campsite at dawn, to find Temari waiting tensely with her fan drawn. The moment she heard his approach she sent a gust of wind his way, lifting him off his feet and knocking him flat.
"Who's there?" she challenged.
"It's me," said Shikamaru tiredly. He blinked blearily up at the colorless sky; after a night without sleep he could feel his eyelids drooping from exhaustion.
"Prove it." If Temari was also affected by tiredness, increased combativeness was the only sign. "Who did you tell me I ought to help, before you left the Sand last time?"
"Gaara," said Shikamaru promptly. "I told you he was still having trouble coping with the past, and that even a scary woman like you had the ability to help him. I might've been wrong about that part, though."
He sat up cautiously, to find her giving him a hard look. She closed her fan. "What did you find?"
"It's not good. There's a pair of ninja, and from the bits of conversation I overhead, they're on their way home after infiltrating the Leaf."
"A spying mission? Did they get anything of value?"
"Oh yeah. They've got a big bag they said was full of documents and samples from a high-security lab. It seems like they were after research conducted by a certain ex-Leaf-nin – Orochimaru."
Temari sucked in a breath, and her grip tightened on her weapon. She knew Orochimaru of course, as an erstwhile ally and her father's murderer. She wouldn't take anything connected to him lightly. "Any idea what their intentions are?"
"Not specifically. But they were wearing Sound forehead-protectors, which haven't been seen for years. My guess is they're former followers of Orochimaru, acting out of some kind of sick loyalty to his memory."
"And they thought it was safe to light a fire, this far away from the village." She smiled viciously. "But they didn't know we'd be here, did they? So what's the plan?"
Shikamaru's brow knit. "Plan?"
"The plan to bring them down, of course! We both know they can't be allowed to escape with that research."
He was shaking his head before she even finished. "I agree it's a problem to let that data go, but I've got no intention of pursuing them."
"What do you mean? They violated your village! It's your duty to stop them!"
He meant to answer her calmly, he really did, but his tiredness, combined with the past days' tension and her implied questioning of his devotion to the Leaf, somehow got to him, and he found himself raising his voice. "My duty is protect these kids who were entrusted to me! That comes first, before anything! If I run off to play hero, what's to stop the enemy from doubling back and killing them? How do we know they haven't got comrades somewhere else in these woods?" He took a deep breath, trying to regain his cool. No one got under his skin like she did. "We've been lucky not to be discovered yet. We need to take this chance to escape and inform the Hokage, so she can sent out tracker teams."
"But by that time the enemy could be long gone!"
"That's a risk we're just gonna have to take."
Temari's lip curled in disgust. "You may be too cowardly to defend your own village, but I'm not. I'm an ally of the Leaf, and if you won't act, then I will. Go ahead and play babysitter all the way back to the village – I'll meet you at the gates with your enemies' heads." She turned to leave.
In the next instant she found herself straining against her own muscles, frozen in place even as she tried to move forward.
"Sorry," said Shikamaru, whose shadow was now stretched between them, "I can't let you do that. You shouldn't just abandon Taro, and I can't just abandon you. Those guys have got to be pretty good to have done what they did, and if I lose the Kazekage's sister there'll be hell to pay."
She snarled with frustration and turned her head to glare at him; he was allowing her some minimal freedom of movement. "Let me go, dammit! I don't need protection from someone like you!"
"Right now, you sure do. You're a jounin, and you're smart, but you're acting like some kind of bloodthirsty foot soldier. That's not how we do things." He paused, weighing his next words. "You're obviously angry at me, and that's fine, but it's a bad reason to die."
Her eyes glinted dangerously. "If you think—"
"Sensei." She was cut off by a low voice, tremulous but piercing, coming from beside the campfire's ashes. There, next to three wide-eyed Academy students, stood Taro. "Sensei, if you're going to battle, I'm coming with you." He drew a kunai and thrust it out aggressively, bringing into full view the bandages they'd applied last night, stained red with blood.
"Shikamaru-sensei, are there really enemies nearby?" asked Chinatsu. "Are we in danger?"
So apparently they'd heard everything, probably after being awakened by Shikamaru and Temari's argument. Without a doubt their training on this mission had been compromised by their chaperones.
"You're not in danger," Shikamaru reassured her. "We won't let anything happen to you. There are a couple of enemies nearby, but if we move fast we can get out of range before they're aware of us."
"Then what are we waiting for?" Ishi hoisted his pack. "Let's get out of here!"
Shikamaru looked at Temari again. She was staring at her student. "You know he can't go into battle," he said softly. "He's injured, and if you leave him behind he'll fight me tooth and nail to join you. Either way he could end up more seriously hurt. And I'm not about to just let you go. Do you think you can take me and those Sound-nin, and also protect the four of them?"
She clenched her jaw. "Even Gaara would have trouble doing all that."
"Exactly. The students have to come first, regardless of the consequences. This is the way it's got to be."
Her shoulders sagged slightly. "Fine. You win. Let me go and I promise I won't run after them."
He released his jutsu, and she spun around and holstered her fan. To the students, who were watching but unable to hear this last low-voiced exchange, she barked, "Don't just stand there, start packing up! We're leaving in five minutes!" They hurried to comply.
Once they got moving, this time at a substantially faster pace, Shikamaru took his place beside her and said, "There'll be some in the village who agree with you, when we get back. They'll call me a coward for this decision. But I'll make sure none of the blame falls on you, since you didn't agree with me anyway."
Temari made a derisive sound. "I told you, I don't need your protection. It's not as if I gave up the chase because you made me, I just decided you were right. You can keep your chivalry to yourself."
She shot him a glare. "I'm serious, Nara. I take responsibility for my own actions, good and bad. I don't expect anyone else to take care of me. Especially not you."
Especially not him. Even if he was inclined to volunteer for the job.
* * *
The relaxed feeling of an easy, risk-free mission was now completely gone. The students were quiet and frightened, and blood loss combined with fear had left Taro white as a sheet. He was breathing heavily, struggling to keep up.
Even the animals seemed to have caught a new sense of urgency. A little gray squirrel ran alongside them, leaping from tree to tree and chittering incessantly. Shikamaru frowned at it.
"What?" asked Temari.
"The animals," he said shortly. "They've been acting weird this whole time."
"You mean the bear?"
"No, the bear was the only one that wasn't acting strange. Trying to eat us after emerging from hibernation makes sense. But following us around, like this squirrel and that fox yesterday, doesn't."
"And the crows," Temari added. "They were everywhere the first day, but I haven't seen one since."
"You've got a point." Shikamaru glanced at the squirrel again. It had frozen in place on a nearby branch. "And look at that – I think it's actually listening to us."
"Paranoia," said Temari, but she didn't sound convinced. "You don't think this is some jutsu of the enemy, do you? A way to spy on us?"
"If it is, and they've known our location since we left Konoha, then why haven't they attacked? What are they waiting for?"
They exchanged worried looks, and then Temari grabbed a fallen branch and swung it like a club at the squirrel. The creature leaped away in time to avoid the blow, racing off through the underbrush. "The next time we stop," she said, "I'm going to reconnoiter the area, to make sure they aren't following us."
"I don't want anyone going off alone."
"I'll stay nearby, Shikamaru, but we can't leave ourselves open to ambush."
She was totally correct, and he didn't like it one bit. He sighed. "This is a mess," he said quietly.
She sighed too. "It sure is."
"We've just got to focus on getting the kids home safely. That's the only thing that matters right now."
Immediately the air seemed to clear a little, and Shikamaru felt inexplicably lighter. Even in the face of mortal danger, he was more comfortable when he and Temari were on the same side.
When they next stopped to catch their breaths and drink water, Temari vanished into the forest. She'd instructed Shikamaru not to wait for her, but he did anyway, unwilling to risk leaving her behind. He and the students sat tensely, jumping at small noises and peering over their shoulders.
"I should have gone with her," said Taro after a while. He'd been visibly unhappy when she set off without him.
"I already told you, she'll move faster alone," said Shikamaru. "She's coming right back."
"But what if she meets the enemy?"
"You honestly think you'd be any help?"
Taro said nothing, just scowled and folded his arms.
Ishi snickered. "The way you act around her is lame. Like a lost puppy."
"It's obvious you've got a crush on her," Chinatsu agreed.
Taro looked up in surprise. "It is?"
"To anyone with eyes, yes."
"You wouldn't even need eyes," said Ishi. "Just ears. Then you could hear him talking – 'I love your booby traps, Temari-sensei!' and 'I'll kill that bear for you, Temari-sensei!' and 'I worship the ground you walk on, Temari-sensei!'" Ishi imitated Taro in a thin reedy voice that was eerily accurate.
Taro had turned beet-red and looked ready to fight. "Lay off him," said Shikamaru. "Being devoted to your teacher isn't so bad. It's better than not appreciating them enough."
"It's not like he's got a chance with her anyway," muttered Aki.
"What's that?" asked Taro.
Aki shrugged. "Well, she's too old for you, isn't she? And it's pretty obvious she's taken."
"By Shikamaru-sensei," said Chinatsu knowingly. "Isn't that right, sensei? That's why you two are always fighting. My sister acts just like that with her fiancé."
Shikamaru gaped at her. "That's, uh …"
"If she is your girlfriend, she's sure got you whipped," said Ishi. "No real man would stand for all that stuff she did to you. I used to think you were cool!"
"She is not my girlfriend!" Shikamaru could hardly believe he was having this conversation with a bunch of ten-year-olds, or that those same ten-year-olds were now looking at him with pity.
"So you haven't won her over yet, sensei? Why not?" Chinatsu seemed genuinely puzzled. "It's obvious she likes you."
Shikamaru ran a hand over his hair. "I'm not going to discuss this with you guys. The ambassador and I are colleagues, and that's all. Now stop with the troublesome questions –we don't want to attract attention. For all we know the enemy could be watching us right now, waiting until we get distracted."
That shut them up nicely. They fell silent and resumed darting looks all around, searching for any sign of movement. Except Taro, of course – he sat very still, brooding, probably turning the other students' words over and over in his mind. Now his had another reason to hate Shikamaru.
What a pain this mission had turned into.
Temari took longer than expected to return. Forty-five minutes after her departure she finally materialized out of the shadows, with a spectacular purple bruise covering the left side of her face.
"Sensei!" cried Taro, leaping to his feet. "You're hurt!"
Moving stiffly, she reached for her canteen and took a few swallows of water. She lowered the canteen and looked at Shikamaru. "Why are you still here? I expected to find you closer to the village!"
The suppressed panic in her tone did not escape him. "I didn't want us to split up for longer than necessary. What happened to you?"
"Booby trap. They may not have known about us this morning, but they do now, and they're cutting off our avenues of escape. The signs I found indicate that they're moving back toward Konoha."
Chinatsu clapped a hand to her mouth. "Do you mean they're trying to cut us off before we get home?"
"That's what I mean."
"Then we've got to run! We can't wait here for them to find us!"
"I agree," said Shikamaru. "It'll be a sprint back to the village, at the quickest pace we can manage. No sleeping and no meals until we're home." He surveyed his young charges, all of whom looked absolutely terrified. "Just do what I say, and I swear I won't let you die."
That didn't seem to comfort them much, probably because they hadn't exactly seen Shikamaru at his best during this mission. But he meant what he said, and would die to save any of them.
They set off, on the closest thing to a dead run they could manage. It wasn't nearly fast enough; the Academy students weren't yet able to use chakra to aid their travel, and Taro was weakened by blood loss. Soon even Ishi, who was overweight, was easily outpacing the older boy.
"We'll never escape at this rate," Temari hissed, watching her flagging student through narrowed eyes. "That trap that got me was ridiculously advanced. These people are good, Shikamaru – these kids won't stand a chance if we meet them."
"Maybe one of us should carry him." Shikamaru glanced sideways at Temari, who was still moving as if in pain. "I'll take the first turn. That should speed us up."
"No." In one fluid movement she drew her fan and opened it. "If anyone's going to carry Taro, it's me." She swung the fan once, from left to right, grunting slightly with effort. Taro was lifting his leg for another laborious stride forward, teeth gritted and chest heaving, when the gust of wind sent by his teacher found him, lifted him up, and set him down five meters ahead of his last position. In shock he looked back over his shoulder.
"Just keep going!" she called to him. "I'll give you a boost from time to time!"
Even in profile, Taro's expression was clearly unhappy. He opened his mouth to answer, and Temari unleashed another gust that pushed him still farther away. "No time to argue!" she yelled. "If you stand still it makes more work for me!"
Taro shut his mouth and sprinted away, now with a head start on all the others. He was working hard to maintain his lead, so that Temari wouldn't have to help him again.
"You can't keep that up indefinitely," Shikamaru pointed out. "Even your chakra won't last forever."
"I've got enough for this," she said grimly.
He decided to let it go for now. But there was no way she could keep spending chakra like that after a night with no sleep, very little food, and a serious blow to the head. Eventually her reserves would run out.
That happened after several more grueling hours passed by in a haze of agony. Taro did his best to spare his teacher but lacked the strength; soon she was having to give him a wind-boost every other stride, and slowing down herself as a result. Sweat stood out on her pale brow and her breath came in ragged gasps.
Temari took a step and didn't lift her foot high enough, and tripped on an exposed tree root. She lurched forward and just kept falling, all the way to the ground with her fan beside her. She lay still in the dim afternoon light.
"Stop!" called Shikamaru, before halting to kneel beside her. He couldn't tell whether she was breathing or not. Heart pounding painfully, he reached out to touch her shoulder.
"Nnnngh." With a moan she rolled over and slowly sat up, brushing his hand away. Up close she looked terrible, her left eye now swollen completely shut. "I hate to admit this, Nara, but you were right. I've got nothing left." She winced. "I want you to carry Taro back to the village with your students. I'll stay behind and catch up when I can."
"No!" All four students had doubled back to join them, and tears were leaking from Taro's eyes. "I won't leave you, sensei! This is all my fault for getting hurt!"
"It doesn't matter whose fault it is." And anyway, thought Shikamaru, it's actually mine. "I'm not leaving you here, Temari. I'll carry you, and Aki and Ishi will carry Taro until he's ready to walk again. Chinatsu will take your fan."
"No problem!" said Chinatsu brightly, bending down to pick up the huge weapon. She staggered a bit under its weight, but continued smiling as she regained her footing.
"At least it's not Ishi," said Aki dryly, tightening the straps on his pack. "Taro won't be so heavy."
"Ha ha." Ishi didn't look happy at the prospect of carrying another person, but chose to keep his displeasure to himself.
Shikamaru felt a stab of pride in all of them, the way they didn't hesitate to risk themselves for their comrades. Had he really taught them that, or was it something native to Konoha, something about the will of fire?
"You're being dumb," said Temari. "It doesn't make sense for five to die for the sake of one. I don't want your blood on my hands."
"Then stop arguing so we can leave." Shikamaru slid an arm across her back, and another under her knees, and stood up before she had a chance to fight him. She was heavier than an average woman, because of all her muscle, but not terribly difficult to lift with the assistance of chakra. More problematic was the way close contact with her made him blush, and how she stiffened in his arms and also turned red.
"Can't you two let up even when we're about to die?" muttered Ishi, before pointedly turning away.
"Yeah, you should really just admit you like each other already," said Chinatsu. "This tension us bad for all of us."
Shikamaru's wasn't entirely surprised by these comments, given their earlier conversation, but Temari's mouth dropped open.
"What—" she began, before Aki cut her off.
"Taro?" she echoed.
"Yeah, where is he? Ishi and I can't pick him up if he's not here."
Shikamaru, Temari, and the Academy students scanned the woods all around them, turning in place and even looking up into the tree branches.
Taro was gone.
* * *
More precious minutes wasted, as Shikmaru conducted a fruitless search of the surrounding area.
"I don't get it," he said on returning to his comrades. "How could someone who's not even genin level just disappear like that?"
Temari shook her head. "You're forgetting where he comes from. His clan were thieves. Sneaking around is about the only thing they did well, and they taught him to do it too. And his mimicry, even though it's most useful to imitate other people, also helps him blend in with his surroundings."
"But what's he after?" asked Ishi. "Why'd he run off like that?"
"You heard him," said Shikamaru. "He's been blaming himself for all this. My guess is that he's gone to fight the enemy and buy us more time."
Chinatsu's eyes widened. "Even while we ran, he kept cursing himself," she said. "I heard him, saying he was weak and a problem for Temari-sensei. He sounded really angry."
"Yeah, and seeing her collapse was the final straw."
"But, since he can't really fight, if he meets the enemy..."
"He'll die." Shikamaru rolled his head back, feeling his body's aches and pains, its exhaustion and lack of chakra. "Guess that leaves me with no other choice, then. I didn't want to engage these people, but I'll just have to go after him. You four will keep moving toward Konoha."
"No." Temari's voice was harsh. "Taro's made his choice, Shikamaru. You're the only functional shinobi we've got, and if you leave these kids behind there won't be anyone left to protect them. We should use whatever time Taro wins for us to get home."
For a moment nobody said anything, and Shikamaru looked down at the top of Temari's bowed head, where leaves and sticks were caught in her blonde hair. "You don't mean that," he said finally.
She looked up then, and though her eyes were full of anguish they were perfectly dry. "It's the right decision. It's good strategy, like shogi – a pawn dies to save the other pieces."
He crouched down to face her. "You're the one who told me that life isn't exactly like shogi. And Taro's no pawn. We don't know what he is, or what he'll be, because he's just a kid. That's why a village's children are its most important resource."
"But that applies to these kids too. I haven't got any chakra left, Shikamaru – I can't protect them if you leave. Taro will just have to fend for himself." She spoke the words as if they hurt her.
"Um…" Chinatsu said hesitantly, raising her hand like she was in a classroom, "If … if chakra is the problem, couldn't we use some of the things you taught us during our lessons, sensei? You said that there's a fungus that gives humans chakra when eaten."
It took him a moment to register what she was saying, and then it hit him. The fungus was called ikikoke, and it grew at the base of oak trees from very early spring until late fall. There was probably some to be found even in this season.
He stood up, feeling a wild sense of hope. "It's rust-colored," he said urgently. "It grows on oak trees, near the ground. You three find as much as you can, now! And stay together, and in my sight!"
They scurried to obey him, while he tore over to the nearest oak and began frantically scanning its roots. His mind, oddly sluggish and preoccupied lately, had abruptly started working again. Something danced on the rim of his consciousness, an understanding he couldn't yet grasp. But he'd get it sooner or later, and he was dimly beginning to see a way forward. There, just above the muddy ground, was a little reddish stain. With the edge of a kunai he scraped it up and wiped it in a bit of cloth; it was indeed ikikoke.
He moved on to the next oak. "I've found some," he said over his shoulder to Temari. "We'll have you back on your feet in no time."
"So I can protect your students while you go off to die? That's a terrible idea, Shikamaru."
He grinned down at the new patch of fungus he'd just found. "I have no intention of dying," he replied. "I meant for you to watch the students while you were out of commission, but if we can get you back in fighting form, then the whole plan changes." He deposited some more ikikoke in the cloth. "By myself against two powerful Sound-nin, I'd probably die. But together we'll be more than a match for them. We'll kill them, rescue Taro, get the research back, and meet the kids back at the gates of Konoha."
He turned to find her wide-eyed with surprise. "But … if the students don't come with us to battle … how are they supposed to get back to the village?"
"Good question." He rose, strode over to her, and handed her the cloth with its little cargo of fungus. "Eat that. It tastes nasty, and we'll have to find a lot more, but it's a start. Meanwhile, I'm going to call a guide for the kids." He put his fingers to his mouth and whistled peculiarly, with a long sibilant note that sounded more animal than human.
Temari was gagging over ikikoke's putrid taste when Shikamaru's whistle made her jump. "What—?"
"You'll see. There ought to be some of them around here, this close to the village."
He resumed his search for the fungus, keeping one eye on the foraging Academy students. After ten minutes he signaled them to return, which they did with small quantities of ikikoke cupped in their hands. "Give that to Temari," he told them. "It ought to be just enough."
They did so, and Temari gathered it all together in one lump and chewed and swallowed it rapidly. "I already feel different," she reported after taking a drink to wash it down. "My chakra is beginning to return."
"I think it takes a few minutes for the full effect," said Shikamaru. "And you won't get back to full strength. And one more thing – ikikoke is poisonous."
Temari gave a cough and began sputtering. "Wh-what? Poison?"
Almost, her discomfort was funny. Had the situation not been so dire Shikamaru might have let it go on a bit longer. "It won't kill you," he explained. "It'll just make you sick in a few hours. If Ino was here she'd be able to combine it with other plants to negate the effects, but I don't know how to do that. We'll just have to finish our work before you start throwing up."
She glared, stood up, and snatched up her fan. No question about it, she was feeling better. "Then let's get started," she spat. "If we finish off the Sound-nin quickly enough, I might even have enough time to give you a black eye to match mine."
Shikamaru grinned wryly back at her. "Taro will appreciate that."
"Wait, she's going with you?" asked Ishi. "I thought the point of his fungus stuff was to make her strong enough to protect us."
"No, you'll head back to the village on your own. With me and Temari engaging the enemy, you shouldn't have to worry about encountering any hostile ninja. The only obstacles will be natural ones, which I think you can handle."
"What if we get lost?" asked Aki.
"You won't. I've arranged for you to have a guide." Shikamaru pointed past them, into the forest where a pair of tall shadowy figures could be seen. They drew closer, moving with the assured silence of clouds, until everyone could see them clearly: A pair of deer, an antlered buck and a soft-eyed doe, whose heads stood taller than Shikamaru and whose brown hides looked like velvet.
"Whoa," breathed Aki. "Are these yours, Shikamaru-sensei?"
"Not exactly. But we have a good working relationship." He addressed the deer: "Take these kids back to the village. If anything happens, try to come find me."
The buck's ear twitched, and the doe moved to stand beside Chinatsu. Carefully the little girl reached up to stroke her powerful neck.
Shikamaru took the deer's movements as a sign they understood. "That's good enough for now. You three take off. Move fast, but don't take any risks, and don't stop until you see the gates of Konoha. Once you're there I want you to go straight to the Hokage and report what's happened, so she can send out a relief squad. I'm counting on you!"
"Right!" they chorused in unison, and jogged away, flanked by the buck and doe.
"Shikamaru," said Temari thoughtfully. "I never got that before – you're some kind of deer-man."
He shrugged. "I guess you could put it that way. But now we've got to find Taro and the Sound-nin. Any ideas?"
"They'll be close by, since they were aiming to cut us off. As for the direction…" She trailed off, staring vacantly at a spot on the ground. Her hand shot out to grasp Shikamaru's arm painfully. "Look there, Shikamaru! It's back!"
He followed her eyes and saw a gray squirrel, standing on its hind legs and gesturing in a most unnatural way. "Is it pointing?"
"It seems to be pointing southeast." Temari shook her head. "But that's crazy! It's just an animal!"
The squirrel responded to her comment by jumping in place and gesturing even more forcefully.
"It's not acting like any animal I ever saw," said Shikamaru. "We haven't got anything else to go on. Let's go southeast."
The squirrel dropped down to all fours and twitched its tail happily.
Temari frowned. "Are you sure that's wise? We can't afford to waste time."
Shikamaru thought hard. "We already said the animals might by spies for the enemy. If that's the case, and the Sound-nin are trying to engage us before we reach the village, then they have every reason to point us to their location. If it's not the case, then …"
"I don't know. Something else is driving the animals, or it's all just coincidence. There's no guarantee this will work, but I think we've got to try. It … feels right, somehow."
Hearing his own words, he could hardly believe what he'd just said. He wasn't the kind to operate on instinct, especially when instinct seemed objectively crazy.
Temari eyed him thoughtfully. After a moment she nodded. "All right, then. Like you said, there's nothing else to go on anyway. If your gut tells you to follow the squirrel, then that's what we'll do."
Come to think of it, mused Shikamaru as they sprinted southeast, this whole operation was uncharacteristic for him. Here he was, disregarding the cold-blooded rules of the shinobi world to save a little boy who hated him, running into battle against an unknown foe with a depleted comrade, and following the advice of possibly rabid forest animals. And he was doing it all because it felt right.
It was insane.
Temari was the only possible explanation. She'd driven Taro to extremes, and now she was having the same effect on him. Whether that was a good or bad thing, only time would tell. Time, and the outcome of this mission, because it would all be moot if Taro died, the last casualty of an old war.
A/N: Apologies for the long delay in posting this chapter. Real life is an impediment to fan fiction ...