Tarull, a short time later...
"This... Really doesn't feel right."
Shikamaru's team was walking down the main street of Tarull. None had taken any measures to disguise themselves, and still wore their Leaf insignias openly. As they walked down the street, most people turned to gawk at them, but no one made any move to intercept them. As soon as the ninjas passed, the citizens returned to what they had been doing.
"I mean, we didn't do anything, and its not making a difference," continued Ino. "It's like we took all those infiltration and cov-op classes for nothing!"
"The classes weren't for nothing," Shikamaru replied. "The mission just doesn't call for anything we learned from them."
"I know," said Ino. "But it still doesn't feel right."
"Yeah," Choji agreed. "You'd think the people would at least, well, care that we're ninjas."
Ino shrugged. "Oh well. So where are we headed, Shikamaru? We've made our appearance, so how are we going to get the information we're looking for?"
Shikamaru sighed and stopped walking. "Didn't they teach us this? They had to have taught us this..." The Chuunin shook his head. "We're in a rural town, looking to talk to the locals. Where do you think we're headed?"
The two Gennins stared at Shikamaru.
"A bar?" Ino suggested.
"Exactly," Shikamaru confirmed, pointing to a building midway down the street with an assortment of logos on the facade.
"But we're kids," noted Choji. "And it's not night. The people here don't look down enough to start drinking at noon..."
Shikamaru continued walking down the street. "Bars serve lunches as well."
"You sure?" Queried Ino as she and Choji followed Shikamaru.
"I'm sure. I've eaten many a meal in a bar because Dad forgot to pack us lunches when he took me to train." The boy exhaled in annoyance. "And we don't need to talk to the whole town. Just someone who knows the local scuttlebutt. What we're looking for isn't something only a few people would notice..."
"So then, fearless leader," Ino said, her voice suddenly coy. "Are you paying? A good leader always treats his subordinates."
Shikamaru looked back with an annoyed look on his face.
"Yeah!" Enthusiastically agreed Choji. "Asuma-sensei paid for us whenever we all went out. And I'll bet your dad paid for your lunches as well."
Shikamaru remained silent for a long moment. Ino and Choji both smiled triumphantly.
"One course," Shikamaru said, holding up his index finger. "I will pay for one course each. Anything more, and you pay for it yourself. I am not made of money..."
"Ah," said Ino, cheerfully slapping Shikamaru on the back. "But you will be, with those nice fat Chuunin commissions..."
Choji rubbed his hands together gleefully.
"Maaan," Shikamaru muttered. Idly shoving Ino away from him, he continued down the road.
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Moments later, just down the street...
With Shikamaru in the lead, the trio casually entered the bar. The building was obviously the preeminent bar of the town, being made of brick, and with the interior finished in polished wood, leather, and the occasional horns. Most seats were arranged in booths, with a few free standing tables as well as the traditional long counter. The lighting was dim, and only a few of the booths were occupied.
A bearded man behind the counter noticed the ninjas arrival. "G'd aft'noon, kids. What can I do for ya?"
Shikamaru tilted his head in acknowledgement. "We're looking for a meal, and some information," he said as he hopped up onto a barstool.
Ino followed suit a pace later, and Choji took a seat next to her.
The bartender nodded, continuing to look over the new arrivals. "Meals we sell," he confirmed. "Information comes on the side. What'll ya have?"
"Chicken stir-fry," said Shikamaru gesturing to himself. "Soup and a salad for Ino and..." Shikamaru trailed off as he glanced at Choji. "Whatever you have that has the best meat-to-money ratio."
"That'd be the house cut," the bartender informed. "It'll run ya same as the other two meals together."
"Can I get a half order?" Shikamaru asked, slightly taken aback.
"Sure thing. To drink?"
"Water," Shikamaru answered. "Cold."
"Fruit juice?" Hopefully suggested Ino.
"Whatever you've got," said Choji.
"Right." The bartender reached below the counter to pull out a small bowl, poured a few nuts into it and left it on the counter. "Be back in a mi'ute," he said as he walked into the back room.
Shikamaru leaned on the bar and discretely glanced around at the other occupants.
Choji began trying the nuts.
For a long moment, Ino stared at the door the bartender went through. "Okay, That was way too casual. He either doesn't believe we're ninjas, or he just didn't notice."
"Maybe its nothing special," idly speculated Shikamaru. "We know Jiiya hires ninjas on a fairly regular basis."
Ino was cut off as the bartender came back out of the back room with a glass of water and a pitcher. "Right," he stated, placing the water in front of Shikamaru. Without looking, he grabbed a pair of mugs from the wall behind him and poured some juice into them. He gave the mugs to Ino and Choji and set the pitcher on the counter. "So, what's Lor' Jiiya havin' you do out Tarull way? The way I hear, the excitement been happenin' a bit south o' here."
"So much for those theories," Ino muttered to herself.
Shikamaru raised an eyebrow, but did not miss a beat. "Yeah. There's been some excitement down there. It's being worked on. But," Shikamaru continued, leaning forward slightly, "Jiiya's been hearing some rumors. Rumors he would like to be only rumors."
The bartender nodded in understanding. "Missin' livestock. Yeah, we been hearin' 'bout those rumors. Terrible pity if they be true."
Choji slowly chewed on a nut, while Ino kept her face deliberately blank.
"Terrible," agreed Shikamaru. "So... How have those rumors been getting here? Stories around the fire, or..."
The bartender took Shikamaru's meaning. "Nobodies been drownin' that kind of sorrow in this bar. But we've heard stories."
"Where from?" Asked Shikamaru.
"Nowhere in the Taruji Basin, I can tell ya. If it were anywhere along the river, we would'a heard about it right quick." The bartender leaned in close. "But out Kyokoa way, they've been tellin' stories for weeks now. Small herds, lost in the brush. There was a shifty ranch-hand, may have run off, may have... Disappeared."
"Kyokoa," Shikamaru muttered, recalling the maps he had studied. "That's northeast of here."
The bartender nodded. "By the Rain boarder. 'Bout two hundred klicks. A'most a week's cart trip on the north road... Probably less for you. Moreso if ya try cuttin' cross country." The bartender paused for a minute. "A'so been hearin' stories from out west. Near the disputed area. Folks been sayin' herds ain't movin' right. That they may 'ave been spooked. But I ain't heard of no people disappearing."
"But nothing specific," Shikamaru prompted.
"'Fraid not," the bartender confirmed.
"An'thin' else?" Asked the bartender.
"Not yet. But we'll be around for a bit..."
The bartender nodded to himself, then went back to the kitchen.
"Two hundred clicks?" Whispered Ino. "That's a bit out of the way."
"But the swarms can fly," reminded Choji. "So she could be able to jump over territory. Only hit where people won't notice, and not leave a trail anywhere in between."
"Yeah," muttered Shikamaru, gazing at the back of the bar.
Realizing their leader was drifting off into his own thoughts, Ino and Choji remained quiet.
A short time later, the bartender returned from the back room with a couple plates on a platter. "Hard to believe," he started as he gave Ino her soup bowl. "Two 'a you came all the way of Tarull, and nei'er of ya order beef..."
"A girl has to watch her figure," replied Ino with a wink.
"I'm actually more of a venison guy, myself," supplied Shikamaru as he accepted his stir-fry.
Noticing that the bartender had only brought out two meals, Choji spoke up indignantly. "Hey, what about mine? I ordered beef..." Choji paused. "I hope..."
"'Course ya did," replied the bartender. "That's why it takes a li'l longer."
Choji smiled, more than satisfied with the answer. Picking two chopsticks out of the counter's dispenser, he eagerly twirled them between his fingers.
The bartender watched the boy with obvious amusement. Stifling a chuckle, he turned back to the back room. "Hey 'Ert," he called as he walked through the door. "This here ninja thinks he'll eat a 'ouser with chopsticks..."
With the bartender gone, all three ninjas paused.
Shikamaru glanced at Choji.
Ino raised an eyebrow.
Choji just smiled. "This is going to be gooood..."
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A half hour later, on the main street of Tarull...
"So now that the cook can't hear, what did you really think of it?"
"Not the best," Choji reluctantly answered. "They barely even tried spicing it up. But..." The ninja patted his stomach appreciably. "It was filling. I can't complain."
The three ninjas stood just to the side of the bar's entrance, under a canvas overhang. The rest of the town was just as they left it, with locals meandering around going about their daily business. Most people glanced at the ninjas, and a few children pointed, but all soon continued on their way.
"So what now, fearless leader?" Ino prompted. "We've still got most of the day in front of us. And the weather is good."
"For now..." Choji muttered.
Ino rolled her eyes. "We did get some information. Is it worth sticking around to try to get more?"
"I've got a feeling there won't be more to give," said Shikamaru, glancing down the street. "But we need to stick around a bit longer. We've picked up a tail that we need to spin."
Choji's eyes abruptly widened.
Ino's eyes narrowed. "You mean that isn't one of our Sand friends?"
"We don't have 'Sand friends,' Ino," Shikamaru quietly corrected. "But I don't think its one of them. Operation Tailspin. Ino, you'll spin."
"Right," said Choji, starting down the street. "I'll take the market," he called back. "I should be able to chat up some more info..."
"I'll check the stables," said Shikamaru, continuing the ruse.
Ino shrugged. "And I guess that leaves the law enforcement for me. Wonder where the sheriff's office is? If they've got a sheriff's office..."
With that, the trio split up. Choji was already on his way into the heart of the city, Shikamaru headed back to the edge of town, and Ino disappeared down a cross street.
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The same, moments later...
"Nara Shikamaru?" Hailed a voice from the side of the street.
Still on the main street, the Chuunin paused and glanced to the side. A young girl in farmer's clothes and a straw hat was looking intently at him. Shikamaru let his right hand stray towards his holster.
"You are Shikamaru, right?" The girl cautiously lifted her hat, revealing a forehead protector bearing the Hidden Leaf insignia. "I've got a message for you."
Shikamaru sighed, silently berating himself for his paranoia. "Yeah, I'm Shikamaru," he wearily replied. Glancing up at the building beside him, he absently pulled his arm back and rubbed the back of his neck. It was the subtle 'all-clear' sign the team had for covert missions.
"Good," replied the girl, missing any meaning behind the gesture. "Can we, uh..." The girl trailed off, gesturing to off to the side.
Shikamaru nodded, and casually walked to the side of the street. He and the girl took positions on opposite sides of a water barrel set beneath a roof downspout.
"Why are you walking around in the open like that?" The girl immediately questioned.
"Because," Shikamaru responded in a quiet tone, "part of this mission was to make an appearance. Now what's so important you had to tail me?"
The girl's calm slipped. "You knew I was there?"
"Of course I did," chided Shikamaru. "That's why we split up."
"But how'd you know I would follow you?"
The Chuunin rolled his eyes. "I didn't. But I knew the tail wouldn't follow Ino, because she mentioned going to the sheriff, and nobody intent on doing something bad would do it in front of officers of the law. So with the tail following either me or Choji, Ino could slip away, figure out who the tail was tailing, and then ambush him." Shikamaru absently looked out into the street. "You're new to this, aren't you?"
"Yeah," replied the kunoichi, dropping the last pretenses of her showy persona. "Abenaki Heren. They put me in a team a year early. This is actually only my second mission..."
"Fair enough," Shikamaru replied. "But a solo mission, out of the country?"
"They didn't want to spend a whole team on a delivery, and it's just a D mission, and I make good time on roads, so..." Heren trailed off with a shrug. "I'm not too good at tracking though, so I guess I'm just lucky Tarull is the first town out of the pass."
"You came through Kyko Pass then?" After a momentary pause, Shikamaru gazed at Heren out of the corner of his eye. "Your right, lucky. And I suppose tracking me through a peaceful nation would sound easy."
Heren looked up uneasily. "Would?"
"What's the message?" Asked Shikamaru, changing the subject. "They couldn't have gotten the letter I wrote from Jiyaa's yet..."
"Huh? No, it's..." Heren pulled a scroll out from her back pouch. "It's a message from your parents, congratulating you on your promotion."
Shikamaru returned his gaze to Heren. He glanced at the scroll, and slowly accepted it. "This has been opened," he observed.
Shikamaru kept his gaze on the Genin.
"Inoshi-Sensei read it. ...To us..."
Shikamaru closed his eyes and sighed. "Ino's dad. Of course."
"You do know him, then?"
"He's a friend of my dad's..." Opening his eyes again, Shikamaru unrolled the scroll, pulled out a pen and began writing on the back of the scroll.
Heren glanced at him apprehensibly. "Uh, aren't you even going to read it?"
"No," Shikamaru replied. "The mission I was sent on is not what the Council thought it was. I'm way out of my league on it." Shikamaru leveled a serious gaze at Heren. "I need you to get this back to the Council. It is of critical importance that they see this as soon as possible."
"Why? What's going on?"
"You know how a Youma killed the Fourth Hokage? Well, we've got another Youma nesting somewhere out here."
Heren caught her breath.
Shikamaru returned his attention to his writing. "I've already sent one message, which should be arriving in a day or so. But a lot of things have changed since then. I'm putting down everything I've learned in this one. With luck, Konoha will be able so spare a brigade or so to come deal with this."
"But that'll be... It'll take eight days for reinforcements arrive, even if they leave as soon as I get back."
"I know," deadpanned Shikamaru as he continued writing. "That's why I need to deliver this as fast as possible. And I need it to get to the council members and senior Jounin. Get it to them personally. And if you can't do it, get Inoshi to do it for you."
Taken aback by Shikamaru's seriousness, Heren nodded mutely.
"And lay off the perfume," Shikamaru finished after a pause. "I can smell it from here."
Heren winced and looked at the ground. "Heh. Sorry..."
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Elsewhere in Tarull, slightly later...
"So it was just a letter from home?"
"So he got us all worked up for nothing..."
Ino and Choji, having met up after Operation Tailspin was called off, were wandering aimlessly around the town market. Since the talk about finding more information had been part of the ruse, neither made any attempt to talk to the locals.
"...Yup," Ino repeated.
Choji sighed. "Well, I guess it was good practice. And it's good that he's hearing from his parents. Seeing as how we may not..."
"Don't talk like that, Choji," Ino reassured. "We're going to live through this. There isn't anything that can break up the Shika-Ino-Chou connection!"
Choij grunted, unconvinced.
"Besides," Ino continued. "We've got those Sand kids with us now. All three of them are major powerhouses. And they've got skill to back it up. You heard how fast they beat the second stage in the exams..."
"Yeah. And we've both got our trump cards to play. If it comes to that..." Choji's forced confidence quickly faded. "But the way Shikamaru has been since we met the Sand team... He doesn't trust them."
"Oh, that's just a little romantic tension between him and Temari," laughed Ino. "Leftover flirting from their match in the exam."
"I'm serious!" Choji angrily countered. "And it's not between him and Temari. It's Gaara. Shikamaru knows something about him. Something he's not telling us..."
Ino sighed reluctantly. "Well, here's what we know about Gaara," continued Ino in a serious tone. "He's a freak. He's got a demon in his head. He's something of sadist, when he shows any emotion at all. And he's the most powerful of all six of us. What else can there be?"
"He's not just a sadist," Choji insisted. "He's a killer. Shikamaru said it, and the Sand ninjas didn't contradict him."
"We're ninjas, Choji. We're all supposed to be killers." Ino trailed off for a moment as the duo kept walking. "Even I had to kill that one time..."
Choji nodded. "But it's different. The way Shikamaru said it, it has to be something different. And I'm afraid..." Choji broke off. "I think Shikamaru is going to send the Sand team away. I think he trusts them less than he fears Regekion."
Ino didn't immediately respond.
"The three of us can't do this alone. Even if we go all out..."
Ino slowly nodded. "Yeah..."
The duo walked in silence for a moment.
"Look Choji, Shikamaru is a smart one. He knows we our limitations. Even if he doesn't trust the Sand ninjas, he's mature enough to put that to the side for the sake of the mission. For our safety, he'll work with them."
Choji looked at his teammate, slightly reassured. "I guess," he said, more cheerfully. "So do you trust them?"
Ino gave an exaggerated shrug. "As much as I can, seeing as how they were part of the attack a few weeks ago. But they still seem reasonable. I don't think they're hiding anything from us. And personally, those three have more reason to help us than to hurt us." Ino shrugged again. "So yeah, I think I trust them."
"They are on the same mission as we are," Choji agreed.
"Ooh," Ino abruptly squealed, grabbing Choji's arm. "A flower shop. C'mon, I want to see what they've got out here..." Ino began dragging Choji down the street, but was cut short halfway when Choji came to a dead stop. "Hey, what--"
Noting that Choji was completely entranced by something, Ino followed his gaze to the nearest market stall. "Does that say... Candied Beef?" She asked, incredulously.
"I have to try this," muttered Choji.
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