Further north, the next morning...
"Now the weirdest thing that happens to me," lectured Kankurou, "is that I dream I'm someone else. Not that that's not too weird by itself... What's weird is that I'm still in those dreams. Me. I'm a character in my own dream. Sometimes, I even meet myself."
Showing only trace amusement, Gaara glanced at his brother.
A pace ahead, Ino rolled her eyes.
"Weak," dismissed Choji.
The four ninjas were idly leaping along the crest of a ridge. They had long since broken camp, and had covered nearly twenty-five klicks. Despite the slight mist, Choji and Ino had left their cloaks stowed in their travel packs. For their part, Gaara and Kankurou were traveling light. Beyond their respective gourd and marionette, they each carried a satchel, slung on a single strap across their shoulders. Kankurou wore an additional side holster with a bit of his own travel supplies. But that was it.
"Oh, stuff it, fat-ass," Kankurou threw back. "You didn't come up with any better."
"But it was weak," Choji persisted. "Besides, I never said my dream was really weird, just that it was weirdest one I've had."
"It's not weak," Kankurou argued. "Its freaky. Meeting yourself, and not realizing that you're not you, is weird. Seriously. I've had dreams where I never realized things were wrong. I've woken up expecting to find myself in that other person's home. I've had the sensation last for weeks! When the first thing you think is that 'hey, this isn't my place' before remembering, again, that it had only been a dream."
"I'm glad I'm not you," Gaara responded after a respectable pause.
"Yeah," agreed Kankurou, missing any traces of scorn in his brother's voice. "You've got nothing to complain about. Spending a dream playing soccer with Baki is tame."
"So what about you, Ino," suggested Choji. "You've got to have some stories, being a Yamanaka and all..."
"You'd think that," Ino replied. "But not really. Besides the occasional salamander nightmare, I don't remember my dreams. The few times I do, it's like listening to a bard. The dreams I remember are my own epic stories, complete with overblown threats, offbeat sidekicks and a soundtrack."
Kankurou laughed out loud.
"I don't remember what the soundtrack was like, but I remember one of the little animals singing." Ino chuckled. "And the thing about them is that I'll dream the same tale twice. I had one of these dreams when I was seven, and then I had the exact same dream four years later. Exact same dream, right down to the dragon and the purple comb."
"Purple comb?" Kankurou repeated.
"You remembered dreams when you were that young?" Asked Choji.
"Only dreams like that," Ino replied. "Though I don't think I actually remembered it until I dreamed it the second time. When I woke up, I just knew I had had that dream before. And eventually it came to me."
Kankurou laughed. "And I'll bet you, you remember you had those dreams when you're dreaming."
Choji balked. "What?"
"You can't tell me you've never had a dream reference another dream," Kankurou continued. "Not with dreams like that."
"Yeah," Ino conceded. "I think I've had that happen..."
Kankurou chuckled to himself. But his amusement abruptly ceased. "Hey, where's Gaara?"
The three ninjas immediately stopped. After a second, they spotted Gaara standing on the ridge fifty meters back.
"Hey!" Yelled Ino. "What's the hold up?"
"This is where we were supposed to meet them," came Gaara's distant voice.
"How come you're so sure?" Demanded Choji.
"He just is, fat-ass," said Kankurou. "And he's usually right." The Sand ninja rolled his shoulders to readjust the straps, then jumped away.
"Hey don't call me 'fat' you sonov--"
Choji's threat was cut off as Ino clamped her hand over his mouth. "This isn't the place," she advised. "And they aren'tthe people to do it against. Just remember what Shikamaru said this morning and don't antagonize them."
Ino let go of Choji, who sulked back a step and angrily crossed his arms.
Ino grinned. "...Much." With that, she shouldered her own pack and leapt away.
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A nearby peak, slightly earlier...
"You don't have to worry," Temari reassured. "Kankurou is naturally talkative. He likes being around people. Likes irritating them, but he likes them."
"Kankurou isn't the one I'm worried about," Shikamaru quietly retorted. "And you know why."
Temari exhaled audibly as she leapt up to the next rock outcropping.
On the way to Taruji Valley, Shikamaru had noted that the highlands dropped off significantly to the west. There was a broad peak at the edge of the fall off, which would afford a wide view of the land. Not a comprehensive view, but enough of an overview to help plot the best way to search the land. The peak also put them above the rolling foothills to the east.
Naturally, Shikamaru felt it was worth it scale the mountain. Ino and Choji were less enthusiastic. Kankurou was downright hostile to the idea. Gaara remained quiet, while Temari agreed with Shikamaru. Ino then suggested that the two of them scout the mountain, while the other four continued as they were. Choji and Kankurou quickly agreed, and were gone before Shikamaru had even finished yelling his objections. Gaara stuck around just long enough to receive rendezvous instructions from Temari, but then he too was gone. With that, Shikamaru had been left with no choice but to scout the mountain with Temari.
"I know," Temari eventually conceded, as she looked out over the land. "But still, it'll only be few hours. They'll be fine."
Shikamaru glared at the Sand ninja. "I've seen Gaara kill. It only takes a few seconds."
Temari sighed and looked down. "He won't do anything like that. Kankurou is with him."
"So he's his brother. We're family. We'll keep him in line."
"Please," scoffed Shikamaru, his voice dripping with scorn. "You are, and I quote, 'pieces of meat, bound hatred.' You don't have any hold over him."
Temari looked at Shikamaru with an expression that was a mix of anxiety and disappointment. "He told you that?"
"Gaara had a nice heart to heart chat with Naruto and I," Shikamaru supplied. "Over Lee's almost dead body."
"He doesn't have a reason to kill your--"
"He does so!" Shikamaru interrupted. "But its not like he would need one. He told us all about that, too."
Temari looked Shikamaru in the eye. "Look, he hasn't killed Kankurou yet. He won't kill your friends."
"That's not reassuring."
Temari nodded slightly. "I know. But... But he's been different since our last mission. It's hard to describe, but there's..."
"I don't care," muttered Shikamaru. Turning his back, he continued his trek up the mountain. "He's a killer, and I left my team with him. I should have ordered him to stay with us. If I hadn't been so concerned about splitting us up..."
Temari cocked her head to the side, then darted forward until she caught up with the Chuunin. "You seem rather protective of them," she observed, far more casual than before. "I didn't expect you'd be like that."
"There was a lot you didn't expect from me," Shikamaru wryly replied.
Temari nodded. "Yeah, I suppose there was. Baki had me watch you some in the run up to the tournament, and I just didn't see any drive in you. I figured you'd be the type to give up."
Shikamaru glanced at Temari. "I did give up."
"After you had me beat," laughed the Sand ninja. "If you were the type to give up, you would have done so long before that..." Temari trailed off. "And you wouldn't have survived against the insects yesterday. Not when you were surprised and outnumbered." Temari glanced down at Shikamaru. "You fought them a lot different than you fought me. What changed?"
"It was life or death."
"So was the tournament," Temari reminded him. "Both rounds. I could have killed you. Same with that Sound chick."
Shikamaru shook his head. "That wasn't life or death. It wasn't win or die. At any point in that tournament, I could have given up. Even in the worst position, I could have fallen to the ground, forfeited the match, and screamed for mercy. If I did that, I could have walked away just fine."
"Except without any dignity," Temari added.
"Dignity isn't worth your life."
The Sand ninja smirked. "But it is worth some pain. Or else you wouldn't have fought me at all."
"It's not worth pain. But it is worth some effort," Shikamaru conceded.
"But your life is worth more," Temari concluded.
Shikamaru nodded silently and continued trudging up the hill.
"Is that why they promoted you?" Temari asked at length. "For only using the minimum necessary force? That's been bugging me since last night."
"They promoted me for getting in, messing with you, and getting out unscathed." Shikamaru replied. "When you can't win, getting out alive is the next best thing."
"You couldn't win?" Temari smiled. "They really think I'm that good?"
"That, or they figured I was that bad. I am not regarded as the village's top ninja..."
"I can't imagine why," Temari joked. "Still, take what you can get. And your sensei has to be proud." The kunoichi shrugged, remembering she didn't know the exact inner workings of the Leaf village. "Or you parents or mentor or whoever. What did they have to say about it?"
"I wouldn't know," answered the Leaf ninja. "I didn't get a chance to talk to any of them before I left. They didn't tell me where Asuma was, my dad was on a mission and my mom was busy on the family range. They wanted me gone that day, so all I had time to do was pack my things and leave a note."
Temari chuckled. "That must have been an interesting note."
Shikamaru rolled his eyes. "'Mom,'" he repeated. "'Got promoted. Going to Steppe Country. Didn't do the dishes. See you in two weeks.'"
Temari burst out laughing.
Shikamaru smirked. "So I guess if there's any consolation out of this," he said as he idly picked at the collar of his flack jacket. "It's that my mom will give the council an earful for sending me on a mission so quickly."
"That, and of course, being a Chuunin," remarked Temari as her laughter trailed off.
Shikamaru glanced down at himself. "No," he said, slowly coming to a stop. "That's the most troublesome part of this."
Temari stopped and looked back. "You didn't want to be a Chuunin?"
"Before I left, I was told that Ino and Choji were mine to command. Their lives are my responsibility." Shikamaru met Temari's gaze. "That wasn't what I wanted. And I don't like what its dong to me."
"So that's where last night's outbursts came from," Temari surmised.
"The outbursts," Shikamaru agreed. "And the way I handled you. Rival ninjas or not, if it had just been my life on the line, I wouldn't have been quite so quick to threaten your brother's life. Let alone yours." Shikamaru offhandedly gestured toward Temari. Shaking his head, the boy resumed his trek up the slope. "But it wasn't just my life, so I didn't feel a thing. Even about threatening a woman. I'm starting to wonder if there's anything I wouldn't do right now..."
Temari paused for a moment longer. "You're a ninja," she reminded him. "There isn't supposed to be anything you wouldn't do."
Shikamaru ignored the comment and silently continued up the hill.
o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o
Noon, just above Taruji Valley...
"Shouldn't you have done that last night?" Gaara dryly asked.
"No way," Kankurou answered, without looking up. "Karasu is a very intricate marionette. He's got spikes and booby traps and all sorts of internal equipment. Any of those could have been knocked out of alignment when..." Kankurou paused to pry a chitin splinter out of Karasu's casing. "Damn. Anyway, there was no way I would try to do this by firelight. I might mistake an out-of-alignment spring-trap for a shadow, and end up poisoning myself. And with everyone else around, it wasn't too urgent." Kankurou pulled a tool out of his side holster and started cutting away some splintered wood.
The two Sand ninjas were waiting in a break in the ridge. Kankurou was sitting on a rock outcropping, while Gaara stood slightly above him looking out over the land. Ino and Choji were resting in the shade of a windswept juniper tree on the other side of the break.
Gaara nodded to himself. "The battle went poorly then, for Karasu to have been that damaged."
"Eh, we all lived through it," Kankurou casually replied. "And now we know what drones can do. It was basically just surprise that let them catch Karasu at all. Stupid spine patches..."
"But we will face worse, before the end."
"Yeah, but when we do, you won't be sleeping through the battle."
Gaara grunted in acknowledgement.
"So what do you think about these Leafies?" Kankurou asked a moment later. "Think they'll actually stick around for the duration?"
Gaara glanced across the break in the ridge to where Ino and Choji were resting. Once they stopped moving, both had collapsed. Choji was sleeping, while Ino looked on the verge of drifting off. "I don't know."
"Yeah," Kankurou agreed. "These guys were kind of the weaklings of the Leaf teams. The fat-ass especially."
"The leader will be of use, for as long as he is with us. He can face danger."
"Sure about that? Even he hasn't always seemed like the stand-up type..."
"We met," Gaara responded. "He did not run."
"Oh." Kankurou shrugged while he worked. "Well, that'll help some. And the guy's got a brain. It'll be interesting to see what he comes up with against Regekion."
Gaara nodded and remained quiet.
"Still," Kankurou continued a moment later. "He's not a powerhouse. Neither is the fat-ass. The flirt can fight, but she's just a Leaf Gennin. She won't hold up well against what Regekion will throw at us."
"No," Gaara agreed.
"Now that bowl-head kid, he would have been useful," Kankurou continued, thinking out loud.
Gaara blanched at the memory of his fight with Rock Lee.
Noticing his brother's reaction, Kankurou nervously glanced up. "Uh, sorry about that. Didn't mean to..."
"He would have been most useful," Gaara agreed. "Because we are doing what he did. Knowingly throwing ourselves into a danger we cannot comprehend."
"We know what we're getting into," Kankurou responded, turning back to Karasu.
"Only so much as he did," continued Gaara. "We know the nature of the danger, but not its extent."
Not knowing quite how to respond, Kankurou nodded and continued working.
"Have you ever done that, Kankurou?" Gaara asked in a quiet voice. "Have you ever known how it feels... To fight with such abandon? To see no hope, but to still fight to win?"
Kankurou paused. Gaara had just done two things he almost never did. He referred to Kankurou by name, and was waxing philosophical. "No..." The boy anxiously replied. "I've never had a fight like that."
"His eyes," Gaara continued, almost oblivious to his brother's response. "Were different than mine. Different than any in our village. I saw something in them that I had never seen before."
"Abject stupidity?" Kankurou half-heartedly suggested.
"I can't say what it was. Only that..." The Sand ninja trailed off. "There was no hate in his eyes. No anger. No rage. And no fear... Only pride. Like me, he was fighting for himself. Depending only on himself. And yet, in during that fight, he was more alive than I have ever been."
"You're thinking about that too much," Kankurou said dismissively. "The poor kid got in over his head, still thought he could win, and damn near killed himself trying. I don't think that's really living."
"It is what we are doing."
Kankurou put down Karasu and stared out over the horizon. "So why don't we leave?" He quietly suggested. "Just quit this hunt and get the hell out of here. We've got no reason to continue this."
"We have a mission," Gaara reminded.
"Our mission is to die. The Wind Lords don't actually expect us to kill Regekion. And we're not even part of some first-wave assault..." Kankurou sighed. "Dad's dead, the village has turned on us.... We're not dying for a cause, we're just dying. So why not leave?" Kankurou looked up. "I've got nothing I want to go back to. You've never cared about our country. If we talk to Temari..."
"Running is no way to live," Gaara answered succinctly.
Kankurou exhaled loudly. "Yeah. But dying isn't a great way to live either. And if we're doing the same thing bowl-head did... Well, bowl-head lost. Baki isn't here to jump in and save us like his sensei did."
Gaara did not respond, continuing to look out over the landscape. Kankurou absently went back to fixing up Karasu, and the two brothers lapsed into silence.
The silence dragged on for the next half hour, until Shikamaru and Temari caught up with them.
"Welcome back," greeted Kankurou without looking up. "See anything interesting?"
"Just the lay of the land," Temari replied. "No kill sites in either direction."
Shikamaru walked past the Sand ninjas, paying them little heed. "Ino, Choji," he called. "Wake up. We're moving out."
Choji yawned, and grumbled a bit. Ino was quicker to her feet, but still had to stretch.
"Those two are ninjas?" Temari asked in jest.
Shikamaru shot the Sand ninja a harsh look. "We're in our first year out of the academy. We're on our own, and have been on the road in a foreign country for over a week. We've already had one fight, and we've been pulling double watches for the last four nights. They're tired, and I don't care if they show it."
Temari stepped back and held up her hands. "Sorry," she said defensively.
Kankurou chuckled and started packing up Karasu for travel. "Well, I guess I shouldn't ask how the trip went," he whispered to his sister.
"Shut up," she said, picking up on his insinuation. Turning her gaze back to Shikamaru, she continued. "But actually, he was pretty pleasant through most of it."
"So, fearless leader," Ino prompted as Shikamaru reached his teammates. The kunoichi continued stretching as she talked. "What'ja see?"
"Nothing incriminating," the Chuunin answered. "But I did get more information out of Temari."
"Anything worth sharing?" Choji asked.
"Not really. Just some things for me to think about. Local legends and conventional wisdom about Regekion."
"And that's not worth sharing?" Asked Ino.
Shikamaru shrugged. "If you want to hear it. The troublesome thing is that what we're seeing now doesn't fit with most of her past habits."
"She almost died last time," Choji observed. "She got scared, so she's doing everything different now."
"Something like that."
"So what now?" Asked Temari, stepping in on the conversation.
"Yeah," added Kankurou, with Karasu all wrapped up. "Now that your detour is over, what do you think we aught to do?"
Shikamaru glanced at the assorted Sand ninjas. "We," he emphasized, gesturing only to himself and his teammates. "Are going to Tarull. You..." He gestured to the Sand ninjas. "Can go do whatever you want." Upon saying that, Shikamaru leapt down the ridge into Taruji Valley.
Choji shouldered his travel pack and leapt after his commander.
Ino paused just long enough to mockingly wave at the Sand ninjas before doing the same.
Gaara, having seen the exchange, closed his eyes and remained still.
Kankurou sneered. "Jerks."
Temari exhaled slowly and shook her head.
"So," Kankurou prompted, looking at his sister. "What do we do?"
"Shikamaru said he was planning doing some reconnaissance of the cities. He didn't exactly say why..." The elder Sand ninja shrugged. "We'll wait for him. He might find out something useful, and we could use a rest ourselves."
Kankurou rolled his eyes, realizing he had packed up Karasu for nothing. "Great..."
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