Waiting with Hope

No Strings Attached

Chapter Ten: No Strings Attached

"Kankuro-san… what are you doing?"

Kankuro shivered at the voice that was almost dripping with forced sweetness. Gulping, he turned around from his exposed position, with one leg halfway outside the hospital window and the other still inside the room. Desperately he tried to come up with a plausible answer that wouldn't result in him experiencing first hand the frightening strength of the pink haired Leaf kunoichi that had been looking after him.

"Erm… just stretching, Sakura-san?"

Sakura glared at him, not buying his excuse for a second. "Bullshit. You're trying to get away from the village and go searching for Gaara-sama, aren't you?"

The lack of any sort of response from Kankuro other than a guilty glance out of the window was all the answer she needed. "You are supposed to be resting!" she hissed, eyes narrowing dangerously. "You still have a dose of medicine to take as well, so get back in bed right now!"

"But I'm totally fine now!" Kankuro protested, taking a shaky step back from her as she held a small cup of the vile tasting medicine towards him. "See, I'm standing up all by myself, and I was in bed for the whole of yesterday!" His knees almost gave way under him as he took another step back and he leant against the wall, panting. He knew he wasn't fully recovered and his body still felt very weak, but he couldn't just lie around in bed doing nothing! His village needed him and, more importantly, his brother needed him.

Sakura huffed, frustrated. "No, you are most certainly not ok! There are still traces of the poison that haven't been broken down yet and your body still needs time to recuperate after having the toxins in your bloodstream removed all at once. Now get back in bed and rest, doctor's orders!"

"But… I have to save Gaara," whispered Kankuro, clenching his fists tightly as he slumped down onto the bed, a forlorn expression across his face. "He needs me…"

Sakura sighed exasperatedly and shook her head. "Honestly, you sound so much like Naruto… Alright, get some sleep and I'll talk to Baki-sama about sending another squad to search for Gaara-sama. We haven't heard any word from Kakashi-sensei for a while now…" Sakura paused for a moment, trying to suppress her growing worry at the lack of news from her team. She had faith in their ability to succeed without her, but not knowing what was happening and being forced to stay back on the sidelines was torture. She felt like she'd scream if she didn't do something soon! Taking a deep, calming breath she continued, "If I judge your condition has improved by the time you wake up, I'll recommend you be part of this squad too. Does that sound fair?"

Kankuro nodded tiredly, and with a grunt swallowed the medicine she had offered him. Shuddering at the bitter taste, he tried to relax against the soft mattress and pillows and within less than a minute he was fast asleep, breathing slowly and easily in his slumber.

Sakura sighed again as she watched the Suna puppet ninja rest. She wished that she could get stronger and become more useful to the mission just by falling asleep too.

-o-o-

Before either Sasori or Deidara could do more than gape at the boy that had just broken into their lair, the two kunai thrown by Naruto embedded deeply into the hands of the stone statue. With a flash of light, the explosive notes attached flared and detonated. The explosion, magnified by the cave's surrounding walls, shook the cave violently and sent flakes of dirt trickling down from small cracks in the ceiling. The shadowy figures flickering on the stony fingers vanished in the blink of an eye like malevolent ghosts, as though they had never been there at all, and the statue collapsed with a mighty rumbling roar, crumbling into rubble with only the odd fragment still recognisable. The blast cloaked the cavern with a screen of blinding dust, causing Naruto to cough and jump back, waving his hand in front of his face to clear his vision.

With nothing supporting him now that the statue had been destroyed, Gaara fell from his levitating position, landing in a crumpled heap on the cold, hard ground. The red light that had been surrounding him vanished, leaving the cave in almost total darkness.

Deidara had leapt back from the statue as soon as had had realised the blonde haired boy's intentions – explosions may have been beautiful to him, but he had no desire to be blown to smithereens. Out of the corner of his eye, Deidara saw that Sasori had been a fraction slower than him in escaping from the blast radius – the puppet master had been clipped by a chunk of falling rock and the left part of the face of Hiruko, the puppet he contained his real body inside, had been shattered, leaving an empty, hollow, wooden cavity.

Sensing a brief opportunity, with the dust still hiding himself, Sasori and the Ichibi's Jinchuuriki from view, Deidara quickly seized it. The missing Iwa nin glanced questioningly at Sasori, jerking his head at the entrance to the cave where other ninja were beginning to enter from.

"Separate them," Sasori growled, his voice reverberating eerily through the shattered hole in his puppet's face.

Deidara quickly jumped onto his clay bird, its wings spread wide, and began manipulating a piece of clay in his hand. The Doton user gritted his teeth. With only one arm, the variation of this jutsu that he was performing was a little trickier than usual, but he was an artist, dammit!

"Nendo Bunshin no Jutsu," he grunted, forming his one hand into a seal. The clay inside the mouth on his palm was violently vomited out all at once onto the clay bird's beak into a human shape. As more and more clay was added, the clone began to increasingly resemble Gaara, right down to the skin and hair tones. Deidara judged his creation critically before smiling, pleased with his craftsmanship. 'Not bad at all, yeah,' he thought to himself. 'This ought to split those Konoha bastards up!'

Sasori watched as Deidara made a few last finishing touches to the clay clone and had to admit to being impressed. Usually a Bunshin would appear to be exactly the same as its creator, so it was testament to Deidara's skill that he had managed to craft it into an almost flawless likeness of the Jinchuuriki lying spread-eagled on the floor, right down the the chakra network. Now it was just up to the Konoha ninja to divide themselves up and be picked off one by one.

As the dust cloud settled, the puppet master gazed at the opposing ninja. His eyes widened as they settled on Chiyo's aged face. 'So…my grandmother was sent here…' he thought to himself, staring intently at her. A whole host of memories from his days in Suna, when he had lived with her, threatened to rise to the surface, but he relentlessly forced them down. He reminded himself that this was precisely the reason he had abandoned his old, human body. 'This could be very interesting… I wonder… will I have any new puppets to add to my collection after this?'

-o-o-

Itachi's blood red eyes opened, surveying the jagged landscape below him from his cross-legged position on top of a craggy mountain. Beside him his partner, Kisame, blinked his own small, fish-like eyes open too, wincing at the sudden difference between the light and the previous darkness of the cave and shielding his gaze from the burning sunlight high overhead.

"What the Hell happened, Itachi?" the grey skinned man asked, bewildered. "We were doing the sealing jutsu and then some kid just burst in through the entrance!"

"The statue was destroyed, therefore the sealing jutsu and our astral projection bodies were cancelled and we returned to our physical bodies. We shall have to wait for Zetsu to relay new orders from Leader-sama before we take any further action," replied Itachi in a monotone. "You should know that 'kid' though, Kisame. You have met him once before."

"Huh? You sure about that? Hmm… I dunno, now that you mention it he did look familiar…"

"You would be advised to remember his face. That boy was Uzumaki Naruto, the Jinchuuriki container of the Kyuubi."

Kisame's lips twisted into a feral smile. "Oh yeah, now I remember. That kid had some really tasty chakra. I wonder how long it'll take Deidara and Sasori to crush him?"

"It would be unwise to underestimate him," Itachi replied coolly, much to Kisame's surprise. "He was one of the team from Konoha that I stalled and has noticeably improved since our previous encounter."

"What, you're saying you think he actually has a chance of beating Deidara and Sasori?" Kisame laughed uproariously. "Get real, I know those two are weak, but they're not that weak."

Itachi slowly rose and turned to face his partner, a look of disinterested indifference on his face. "Naruto-kun is not alone and his allies seem moderately capable too. A team from Konoha was able to manoeuvre their way past you, correct?"

Kisame gritted his pointed teeth. "They just got lucky," he hissed, gripping the hilt of his sword. "Next time, when I'm not holding back, I'll rip them all to shreds! Samehada will tear them apart like…"

Itachi remained silent, letting the ninja swordsman continue his furious tirade without interruption. 'Naruto-kun,' he pondered thoughtfully, 'I wonder, are you a match for my brother now?'

-o-o-

Hearing an explosion, Kakashi slowly counted to three inside his head to make certain that Naruto would be out of the way of the cave's entrance and any falling debris would no longer be a threat, then jumped into the cavern himself, the other ninja just behind him. Scanning the cave quickly, he saw a huge dust cloud, from which Naruto emerged, streaked with dirt and coughing.

"Kakashi-sensei!" Naruto shouted, pointing towards the cloud of dirt with one hand and wiping the grime off of his face with another. "Gaara's in there!"

Before Kakashi could respond, Temari jumped forwards and violently swung her fan, blowing the obscuring haze away with a gust of air. As the dust settled, Kakashi could see the figures of two men wearing Akatsuki robes, alongside a mound of rubble. One of them was bulky and hunched over, and seemed to have something wrong with his face – where his left eye should have been there was merely a gaping hole. The other was tall, with blonde hair pulled back into a long ponytail, and despite the fact that one of the sleeves of his cloud patterned robes was smeared with blood and hung limp he was standing proudly on top of a giant white bird. They matched the descriptions that Baki had given him to perfection, but that wasn't what had really caught Kakashi's attention – inside the bird's mouth was the Kazekage, but there appeared to be a second figure, perfectly alike, lying prone across the floor. Even with his Sharingan he couldn't differentiate between the two of them and, judging by the Hyuuga girl's gasp, Hinata's Byakugan was also unable to tell which was the real Gaara.

"What the Hell?" Shikamaru muttered, flicking his gaze from one Gaara to the other. "Is one of them a clone of some sort?"

"Must be," replied Kakashi, frowning heavily. "But I can't tell which one is the original… They must be trying to confuse and separate us."

Deidara gazed down at the assembled Konoha and Suna shinobi from his clay mount with a huge smile across his face. "Ah, look how awed they are by my artwork, yeah. They're all stunned into silence by the beauty of my creations!"

Sasori snorted. "You have no appreciation for the beauty of true art. If they're stunned, it's because of how ugly that monstrosity of yours is."

The grin on Deidara's face twisted. "Well, if they think my creations are ugly, then I'll just have to convince them that my art… is a BANG!" With that, the explosives expert made a one handed seal in front of his face and the roof of the cave exploded, blasting upwards in a shower of grit and debris. At the same moment, Deidara's mount flapped its wings, launching itself up into the air and through the newly created hole in the cave's ceiling.

"Catch me if you can, yeah!" Deidara shouted down to the assembled Konoha and Suna ninja, as the bird wheeled about and soared through the sky, becoming more and more distant as it flew away from the cave.

"Show off," muttered Sasori, as he stepped forward in front of the body of fallen Kazekage and allowed his metallic tail to flex outwards from under his robes, poised above his head and swaying gently from side to side. Still, he had to admit that the clay user certainly had talent, despite his flamboyance. Just a pity that he had no artistic perception…

Without even thinking, Temari ran back out the cave's exit, keeping her eyes firmly fixed on the retreating form of the clay bird. Cursing, Shikamaru followed her, shouting, "Temari! Hold on a second!"

Analysing the situation quickly, Kakashi called out, "Naruto, we're going too! Hinata, Chiyo-baasama, you stay here and fight the other one. Gai's team will back you up as soon as they return!"

"Right!" Chiyo barked, stepping towards the bulky hunchback. "Hinata-san, get ready!"

Hinata nodded, not trusting her voice. Despite knowing that Chiyo was going to be fighting alongside her she felt very small and alone under the pitiless gaze of the Akatsuki member, and she could barely keep her fear under control. 'He… he looks so strong… and he has so much more battle experience than I do, it almost radiates from him. He must have killed so many people to be this powerful… I feel like I'm insignificant in front of him…'

But before her panic completely overcame her, Hinata felt a large, warm hand rest gently on her shoulder. Looking up, she saw Naruto's dirt-smeared face ablaze with an encouraging smile that made him look more handsome than she had ever seen him before. He leaned in close to her ear, and whispered, "Kick his ass, Hinata-chan!" Then, with a squeeze of his hand he was gone, running purposefully out of the cave with Kakashi and leaving behind only his encouraging words, a grimy handprint on the shoulder of her jacket and a feeling of warmth and confidence coursing through the Hyuuga girl's body.

'Naruto-kun... thank you,' thought Hinata, taking a deep, calming breath and positioning herself into a Jyuuken stance, Byakugan eyes fixed on her target. 'Because of you… I don't feel small anymore. You always make me feel like I'm important. I wish that I'd been able to tell you how I feel… but I promise, after this fight is over, some day I will!'

-o-o-

Neji had fought against all manner of Jyuuken users in his training sessions at the Hyuuga compound and prided himself for having one of the most intricate and flawless Gentle Fist styles of recent generations. He could spot all the subtle variations between one Hyuuga's style and another even without his Byakugan and took his training extremely seriously. But despite all his practice against his clan's preferred combat style he found himself completely unprepared to fight what was essentially his own mirror image that had just popped up out of the ground.

Standing opposite him in a wide field was a copy of himself, perfect in every single detail, right down to the Byakugan eyes focused on him. From what Neji could tell, it could even mimic the jutsus he used – both he and his doppelganger had bored several small craters into the ground with the Hakkeshou Kaiten technique and the copy had seemed to know all of his attack patterns without even trying, countering them almost before Neji had moved. It was starting to get frustrating, but Neji made certain to stay calm and watchful, on his guard for any counterattacks and prepared for an opening in which he could strike.

Judging by the heavy breathing, grunts and frustrated shouts coming through his radio, his teammates didn't seem to be quite so collected as they faced their own duplicates.

The fake Neji leapt forward, right arm leading into a scything Jyuuken strike that the real Hyuuga prodigy ducked under, pivoting on one foot and launching a series of devastating chakra strikes of his own with a shout of, "Hakke Rokujuuyonshou!" Jabbing with his index and middle fingers, Neji aimed for his opponent's tenketsu, attempting to damage the inner chakra coils, but to his dismay, not a single one of his blows connected with a chakra point on his copy's body as the fake Neji yelled out, "Kaiten!"

Neji was forced backwards as his copy span forcefully, becoming a whirring vortex of blue as he expelled chakra from all over his body all at once to block against Neji's attack.

The original landed lightly on his feet, noting with disgust that his opponent wasn't even out of breath yet. 'The appearance…the same techniques that I use… the same power behind them…it's exactly like fighting myself,' he thought, watching as his opponent mirrored his stance to perfection. 'This jutsu… just how far are the Akatsuki prepared to go in order to keep outsiders away from their base?'

Neji was interrupted from his thoughts by the radio around his neck buzzing with a burst of static and Kakashi's terse voice sounding through the speaker. "Everyone, this is Kakashi speaking. Get back to the cave now, we have engaged the Akatsuki members in combat. I repeat, we have engaged the Akatsuki members in combat! Hinata and Chiyo-baasama are fighting one member in the cave itself, and the rest of us are pursuing the other. We need you to back the two of them up as soon as possible!"

"I'm afraid we can't do that, Kakashi," answered Gai, his voice tense. "All of us have fallen into an Akatsuki jutsu placed on the tags as we removed them. I apologise, my eternal rival, but I fear that it may take us some time."

"Shit!" swore Kakashi, his voice muffled by the radio's reception. "Then it looks like we don't have a choice – Chiyo-baasama and Hinata will have to fight on their own until you can get back to the cave and help them."

"But the two of them can't really fight an Akatsuki member head on, can they?" asked Tenten, worry apparent in her voice even over the crackly radio reception. "I mean, I know Hinata and Chiyo-baasama must be strong, but these guys are seriously good. I can't even imagine how powerful a real Akatsuki member is if the man we fought on the way here was just a fake."

Lee voiced his own agreement of the situation as well. "Though both Hinata-san and Chiyo-baasama surely burn with youthful energy, I too am worried for their safety against such a dangerous opponent."

"Yeah, I know, but we don't really have any other options here," grunted Kakashi. "Until you guys can give them some support, Chiyo-baasama and Hinata will just have to hold him off for as long as they can."

"Excuse me," interrupted Neji, a tone of faint disapproval in his voice, "But I think you are underestimating Hinata-sama here. I have been monitoring her progress in my sparring sessions with her, and I have noticed a marked improvement in her ability over the last two-and-a-half years. I have every confidence that she will be able to hold her own against the Akatsuki member… and who knows? Perhaps she will even surprise some of you…"

'And maybe even myself,' he added in his head.

There was a pause after his short speech as the others absorbed his words. "Then Lee shouted, "YOSH!" so loud that everyone winced, clutching their ears at the volume of the spandex clad ninja's voice through their earpieces. "Neji-san is right! We must believe in our comrades above all else! I would be proud to show my faith in the abilities of both Hinata-san and Chiyo-baasama!"

"Neji, it seems that underneath your icy exterior you are also at one with the spirit of youth," Gai announced grandly, chuckling. "Very well! Until we are able to overcome the obstacles in our path, we shall put our trust in their durability and vigorous energy. I have every confidence that they will not let us down!"

-o-o-

Deidara could hardly believe his luck. Not only had he managed to divide the Konoha and Suna ninja up without any hassle at all, but he had also left Sasori, along with the real Ichibi container, with just two ninja to face – an old woman that looked like she should be in a retirement home and a meek looking teenage girl.

He had managed to lead the four ninja currently on his tail into a steep-sided valley with thick tree roots criss-crossing in mid-air. The squad chasing him were using the roots as stepping stones, leaping from one to another in order to pursue him, but it was clear that although they were able to keep up, none of them could actually land an attack on him at such a long range. For now, Deidara was just happy to let them keep chasing him, as it meant that they were being drawn further and further away from the base and the Jinchuuriki brat.

Far below the giant clay bird, Kakashi, Naruto, Shikamaru and Temari were moving as fast as they could, trying to catch up to the Akatsuki member. Temari had attempted to knock the bird out of the sky with a few mighty swings of her fan, but it was so high that it was out of range – her attacks petered out before they could reach it and the clay creation continued gliding without any hindrance.

Kakashi groaned as the reception of his radio went fuzzy, before dying completely. Evidently the distance between himself and Gai's team meant that they were outside the broadcasting range and Shikamaru picked up on it immediately.

"So, we're on our own now, right?" the shadow using chuunin asked, ducking under a particularly large root and keeping his eyes fixed on the distant outline of the clay bird.

"Looks that way," confirmed Kakashi. "Do you think you can snare that bird's shadow?"

Shikamaru shook his head, scowling. "It's moving too fast," he grunted sourly. "If it keeps flying at that speed there's no way I'll be able to catch it."

"I could use my fan as a glider and take him on in aerial combat," suggested Temari, glaring at the far off figure of the Akatsuki man and gripping the base of her fan tightly.

"You'd be too exposed to his clay bombs if you tried to face him in the open air, without cover," Kakashi countered. "These tree roots are the only thing protecting us from the explosive attacks he uses – without them we'd be sitting ducks."

"Well what can we do then, Kakashi-sensei?" asked Naruto agitatedly. "If we don't have any long range attacks to hit him, how are we supposed to get Gaara back?"

"Oh I didn't say we didn't have any long range attacks, Naruto," Kakashi replied easily. "I didn't want to have to use it as anything other than a last resort, but we don't have any other choice."

"Huh?" Naruto frowned, scrunching up his face in surprise. "Sensei, do you have a jutsu that can hit him? I didn't know you could attack from this sort of distance…hey, wait, how come you're only using it now?"

Kakashi smiled slightly at both the praise and the blonde boy's indignation, before jumping to the front of the group. "Simple, Naruto," he answered, gathering his chakra and slowly allowing it to build in his Sharingan eye. "Firstly, this technique takes a lot of chakra, which means it takes a little bit of time to prepare for. But more importantly, the direction of the attack is very difficult to control – if I get it wrong I could end up crushing all of us to atoms."

Naruto winced at the mental image, but it was Temari who responded to the copy nin's explanation. "How soon can you launch this attack of yours?" she asked urgently.

"A couple of minutes should be enough," said Kakashi, his back to the rest of the team. Then he turned around to face them, his Sharingan eye gleaming red and the tomoe inside it spinning rapidly. Smiling at the shocked expressions on the faces of each of the young ninja, he light-heartedly added, "Hopefully I won't miss."

-o-o-

"Hinata-san, stay behind me," ordered Chiyo in a low voice. "I know this man's techniques well; he uses puppet jutsus."

The Akatsuki member chuckled, his voice reverberating throughout the cave from the hole in the side of his face. "It's nice to know that you haven't forgotten about me, dearest grandmother."

"Ano… G-Grandmother?" Hinata repeated, eyes flicking to Chiyo's face in shock. "Chiyo-baasama, is this the grandson that you were speaking of earlier?"

The elderly Suna kunoichi nodded, eyes hard. "Yes. His name is Akasuna no Sasori, master puppeteer and former Suna ninja. He left the village many years ago, without any warning, and is considered a traitor for his crimes. He's long past redemption, but even now…" She paused momentarily and let out a sigh. "I can't help but think of him and see the face of the young, lonely orphan boy that I raised myself…"

Chiyo reached up and removed the small hat on her head, throwing it aside and letting her grey hair fall from the knot it had been tied in. Raising her gaze, she continued tiredly, "However, this is no time for sentimentality. The only reason I chose to accept this mission was to kill Sasori and if I get the chance I will take it without hesitating." She turned to face Hinata, a smile creasing her lined face. "After all, I must fight for the people precious to me."

"Yes," Hinata breathed out, smiling with gratitude at the Suna village elder before shifting her focus back to the bulky Akatsuki ninja.

"Are you two going to talk all day?" Sasori growled, metallic tail behind him twitching slightly as he stepped forward, nudging Gaara's unconscious body aside with his foot. "I don't like to be kept waiting…" With a grunt the former Suna nin ripped his cloak off and squatted down onto all fours, revealing a large metallic canister on his left arm and a bulky mask positioned on his back, from which the segmented tail was sprouting like a metallic plant. The puppet user chuckled darkly. "When I kill the two of you, I'm going to skin you, gut you and add you both to my puppet hoard. That will make exactly three-hundred bodies in my collection."

"That's not his r-real body…" Hinata noted in a whisper, her Byakugan scanning Sasori's wooden armour thoroughly. "It's a puppet… Chiyo-baasama… you said you knew him before he left Suna… does that m-mean you know his techniques?"

Chiyo frowned at Sasori's body. "Some of them. I know that this puppet is called Hiruko, though it looks different from when I last saw it. Sasori must have modified it. However, what is certain is that Sasori himself is lodged inside it, controlling it from the inside using chakra strings. One of the usual weaknesses of using puppets in combat is that the puppeteer leaves themselves open to attack. By using this Hiruko as armour Sasori has solved that problem, which means that if we are to defeat him we must break through the puppet's defences first. But we will need to be very careful – all of Sasori's creations use hidden weapons, tipped with the same poison used against Kankuro-san, and we have no antidote."

"But if you have seen this puppet before, doesn't that m-mean that you would know about the secret weapons?" Hinata asked hesitantly.

Chiyo shook her head. "In his adaptations to Hiruko, Sasori is sure to have updated his traps. That shell on his back is also new to me, as is his left arm. We must not take anything for granted."

Hinata thought for a second. "How will we be able to damage the body of Hiruko, Chiyo-baasama? Those defences… they look v-very powerful…"

Chiyo hummed thoughtfully. "I don't think either of us possess the raw strength needed to shatter Hiruko, but do you see that hole in the side of its face? A powerful connection there should be enough to destroy the puppet and force Sasori to reveal himself. With your Byakugan eyes, you should be able to avoid all his traps and get in close enough to land a hit."

"You… you r-really think that I'll be able to?" Hinata asked worriedly. "I don't know if I'm strong or fast enough…"

"You should be more confident in your own abilities, Hinata-san," Chiyo laughed, shaking her head slightly at the Hyuuga girl's customary meekness, even in the face of battle. "You may not have the experience, but that is what I am here for."

Seeing Hinata still seemed a little uncertain, the elderly Suna kunoichi smirked slyly, the wrinkles in her face becoming less pronounced for a second. "Trust me; I'm not some helpless, crotchety old hag, you know!" she added playfully. "Now, let's go!"

Without any further warning Chiyo ran towards Sasori in a crouch, keeping her centre of gravity low to the ground and reducing the target for Sasori to aim at. Overcoming her initial surprise at the direct method Chiyo had chosen to begin the attack, Hinata followed right behind her, hands glowing a faint blue as she prepared for a Jyuuken palm strike.

Sasori's puppet stood completely motionless, other than the tail which moved to block the hole on the side of its face. With a practiced sliding sound Hiruko's mouth opened and out of it a barrage of poison-tipped senbon were fired, glinting menacingly in the sunlight piercing through the hole in the roof of the cave. Spinning on her front foot and acting completely on instinct, Hinata shouted, "Kaiten!" as she forced chakra out of all her tenketsu at once, silently thanking Neji for teaching her the Hyuuga clan's ultimate defensive technique. It had taken her a huge amount of time and effort to master it, but without it those needles would have turned her into a pincushion.

The chakra sphere deflected all of the poisoned senbon before they could connect with her, and seizing the opportunity Chiyo leapt over the whirling Hyuuga heiress, reaching inside her robes and withdrawing a string of kunai in each hand. With a flick of each wrist and a crack like a whip Chiyo sent the weapons flying towards Sasori's puppet, but they were quickly blocked by the puppet's tail, acting as a shield.

'Gotcha!' thought Chiyo triumphantly as she tweaked her fingers and formed a chakra string, which she lashed around the long metallic tail, halting its movement and pulling it slightly to the side, away from his face. Sasori's eyes widened in surprise as he lost control of the metal appendage and in the brief second that the gap in the wooden puppet's face was unprotected Hinata sprinted inside his guard, spinning under his stationary tail. Aiming for the hole in his head, she cried out, "Juuho Soushiken!" Two spectral lion heads formed from the ends of both her fists, which she rammed as hard as she could in tandem into the gap in Hiruko's face.

The wooden puppet shattered into fragments, unable to withstand the force of the Hyuuga girl's blows, but just before the attack connected Hinata's Byakugan eyes picked up a red headed figure that must have been Sasori jumping out of Hiruko's back, like a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis, into the corner of the cavern, where the light coming from the caved in roof was dimmest. The Hyuuga heiress was surprised at the speed he had moved at – after being crammed inside the puppet for so long she would have thought that his muscles would have been cramped and sore, but the man had moved totally naturally.

"Hmm…" said Sasori thoughtfully, straightening from the crouched position that he landed in and taking a step closer to the kunoichi. Hinata gave him a quick scan with her Byakugan – he was of average height, with a mop of red hair and an Akatsuki robe drawn around him. But there was something strange about him too – his youthful face seemed almost too tender and unlined – it looked as though it belonged to a young child. And his chakra flow was unusual as well; rather than flowing through his entire body's chakra network, it seemed just to be fixed in one specific spot in his chest…

Hinata was distracted from her musings as Sasori began to speak once again. "I must admit that I'm quite impressed," he continued in a melancholy voice. "My grandmother's puppetry skills have not decreased in my absence, I see. And you, girl… your attacks are both powerful and accurate… and those eyes of yours… Yes, you will make a fine addition to my collection."

Hinata repressed a shiver at his macabre words, but Chiyo gasped out loud, disbelief in her eyes. "Sasori…" she whispered, unable to break eye contact with her long lost grandson. "You haven't aged a day!"

Sasori smiled thinly. "You certainly have though, grandmother. Liver spots… wrinkles…the plague of old age is an ugly one indeed."

"I may be old, but I'm not quite ready to die just yet!" Chiyo retorted. "I have too many regrets to take with me to the grave!"

Sasori merely smiled and reached behind his back, pulling out a scroll which he quickly unfurled. With a puff of smoke another puppet materialised, connected to the missing Suna nin's fingers with chakra strings and poised over him like an ugly spider. "Is that so? Well, now I will show you both the true beauty of my art, with my favourite creation."

Just from her first glance Hinata could immediately tell that there was something different about this puppet compared with Hiruko. It had a hole in its chest where its heart should have been and seemed oddly human with its wide, staring eyes and long black hair, despite quite obviously being made out of wooden joints. And there was something else too… Hinata blinked. It had its own chakra source! Surely that was impossible! Only living creatures could have a chakra network! But her Byakugan eyes never lied, so what did it mean?

Chiyo's eyes widened as she saw the puppet Sasori was now controlling, and she clenched her hands into fists. "How?" she whispered, horrified. "How could you do something like this? That puppet of yours is the Sandaime Kazekage! He vanished from our village over ten years ago!"

Sasori's smile grew slightly. "Yes, this is my most prized puppet. Very difficult to obtain, but certainly worth the effort. After all, he was the most powerful ninja in Suna's history… other than myself."

Chiyo hissed angrily. "You betrayed our village just by leaving, but attacking our Kazekage is unforgivable! And you have the audacity to do this not just once, but three times?" Chiyo spat on the cave floor in disgust. "You are the worst kind of traitor!"

"Oh? I was under the impression that I had only attacked the Third and Fifth Kazekages," Sasori answered pleasantly, gesturing to the prone body of Gaara and the puppet connected to his fingers. "Unless you were referring to the Fourth Kazekage that Orochimaru killed, back when he was my partner in the Akatsuki."

Hinata jerked her head up at the puppet user's words, barely suppressing a shout. "Y-You know about Orochimaru?" she asked urgently, remembering her promise to Sakura before she had left Suna.

"Hmm? What about it? That is no concern of yours," Sasori replied coolly. "Besides… you have more important things to worry about!"

With a jerk of his fingers, the Kazekage puppet flew forwards through the air like a nightmarish bat, robes flapping behind it like leathery wings. From one of its arms a brutal array of hooked blades appeared, each one dripping with a deadly poison. Hinata was caught off guard, but as she raised her hands to try and block the incoming attack she was jerked off her feet as she felt something dragging her from behind. With the extended range of her Byakugan, she realised that Chiyo was pulling her out of the way with chakra strings, attached to her back from the elderly woman's fingertips. The puppet's slicing attack whistled through the air where Hinata had been just a second ago and the Hyuuga girl breathed a sigh of relief. However, in spite of her reprieve she chastised herself for not being ready – it was Chiyo's quick thinking and impressive reaction times that had just saved her. Against an opponent as powerful as Sasori clearly was, she knew she would have to maintain her focus at all times. Even a single mistake could be fatal.

As the puppet's hooked scythes missed their target, Sasori flexed the middle finger on his right hand and the left arm of the puppet split apart, the sections of arm expanding outwards. As they clicked into place Sasori grunted and out of the extended sections a barrage of wooden, pipe-like arms exploded, thick as a tree trunk and aiming to squash Hinata flat.

The Hyuuga heiress tried to move her body to dodge, but Chiyo shouted, "Hinata-san, let me control you! These chakra strings allow me to manipulate your body! Trust me!"

Despite all of her instincts screaming at her to get out of the way of the oncoming storm of wooden arms, Hinata tried to let her body relax as much as she could, hoping to make it easier for Chiyo to move her. Still, it felt extremely odd to have her limbs moving without her guidance – it was like she was watching herself move, with her mind and body separate, and the physical sensations were even stranger; her body felt almost weightless.

Sasori watched on, the faintest hint of a frown marring his perfectly smooth face as the arms arced upwards and hammered down, trapping Hinata beneath them in a forest of hands. But the girl had managed to flex her body with the help of Chiyo's chakra strings to avoid the extending limbs without even a scratch. 'As long as my grandmother is controlling this girl, there is no way for me to land a hit,' he thought to himself logically. 'Therefore I must separate them to connect with a decisive blow…'

Spread out across the floor with extending arms surrounding her in every direction, Hinata was surprised at how precise the puppet strings were. There was no room to manoeuvre at all between the wooden limbs, but Chiyo had not only managed to find a gap but also shown superb finger dexterity in order to bend Hinata's body so that it would avoid the crushing hands.

But as Hinata got back to her feet, still under Chiyo's control, all of a sudden the pipe attached to one of the hands split open, releasing a cloud of poisonous gas into the air. At the same time, a kunai shot out of a second wooden pipe, trailing a cord behind it. The rope wrapped around the startled Hinata's waist before she could move, and the noxious cloud of gas enveloped her before she could do more than suck in a quick, deep breath.

"Hinata-san!" shouted Chiyo, panicking as she realised that with the rope wrapped around the Hyuuga girl there was no way to pull her out of the smoke. "Hold on, I'm coming!"

Sasori narrowed his eyes. "No, you aren't," he warned, flexing his fingers slightly. Immediately a huge section of pipe all split open at once and a volley of kunai flew directly at the Suna village elder. With a grunt she pulled two scrolls from her sleeves and flared her chakra. Two puffs of smoke announced the success of her summoning, and two puppets appeared out of mid-air, blocking all the weapons.

Sasori's eyes widened a fraction and, just for the briefest instant, flashed with recognition and longing. "So… you decided to bring my parents with you…"

Chiyo ignored his voice, desperately looking for any way past him so that she could reach Hinata in the poisonous haze. The cloud was so thick that she couldn't see what was happening inside it, but if Hinata had been tied up then she feared the worst. If the shy Hyuuga girl breathed in any fumes at all then she was all but certain to be dead.

Then, without any warning, Hinata flew backwards through the deadly smog, landing awkwardly in a heap on the floor and taking the deepest, most satisfying, desperate breath of her life, before doubling over, coughing heavily due to the lack of oxygen.

"Hinata-san!" shouted Chiyo anxiously. "Are you alright? Have you breathed in any of the fumes?"

Coughing fit subsiding, Hinata weakly shook her head. "N-No," she whispered, breathing hoarsely. "I couldn't r-reach my kunai pouch to cut myself free, but n-next to me on the ground w-were the remains of Sasori's original puppet, Hiruko. I m-managed to cut through the cord using Hiruko's tail as a s-s-saw blade, and then I –"

Hinata's explanation was interrupted by another bout of coughing, but Chiyo's eyes widened at the brief description of her escape. 'Hinata-san… even when in a position of such danger, she still kept her head and looked for an escape without panicking. Such ingenuity and quick thinking is rare even in experienced shinobi, and yet this girl is just a teenager!' Chiyo shook her head slightly, a small smile on her lips. 'I was wrong about Suna only being able to rely on itself… with allies like this girl, our village will prosper.'

Trembling from the after effects of the coughing fit and the effort to stand up again, Hinata managed to get back to her feet, with help from the chakra strings still attached to her. Her throat still felt like it was on fire, and she was still breathing heavily, but she couldn't give up. Not now. Not when she was so close to finding out about Orochimaru and helping Naruto and Sakura find Sasuke.

Sasori studied the Hyuuga heiress with mild curiosity as she staggered to her feet, before regaining her balance. After scrutinizing her thoroughly for a few seconds he turned his gaze back to the puppets of his parents. "What exactly do you plan on achieving by summoning my parents here, grandmother?" he asked, sounding completely disinterested. "I was the one that built those puppets – trying to trap me with my own traps is futile."

Chiyo didn't answer, instead just disconnecting the chakra strings from Hinata and clasping her hands together. Both puppets raised an arm, and Sasori's mother and father pressed hands briefly, mimicking Chiyo's actions. As the elderly Suna kunoichi spread her arms out wide, the marionettes followed her movement, separating, and Hinata could see that the two puppets were holding strands of thin, razor sharp wire between them, almost invisible but for the reflecting sunlight.

With a grunt, Chiyo flicked her wrists and both puppets launched forwards, straight towards the pipes that had been created by the Sandaime Kazekage. With the wire thread trailing between them, the two puppets passed either side of the forest of arms and the taut wire cut through the wooden structure, severing it from the original arm of the Kazekage's puppet. The puppets continued flying through the air and withdrew a heavy array of hidden weapons of their own. With a clash of metal against metal, Chiyo's puppets engaged Sasori's wooden pawn in mid-air, slicing and hacking away with all manner of whirling blades. Even with her Byakugan active Hinata was only just able to keep up with the parries, thrusts and dodges – both Chiyo and Sasori were moving almost as quickly as their marionettes and there was no pause in their movements whatsoever.

Eventually the three puppets broke apart from the aerial combat, with Sasori drawing the Third Kazekage back to his side. With a flex of his hand the puppet's mouth dropped open and Hinata could hear a very faint hissing coming from inside it.

"I think that I have wasted enough time here," announced Sasori, as the hissing noise became a trickle, which in turn became a rushing, cascading sound as something black and gritty poured out of the mouth of the Akatsuki member's puppet. "It is time to show the two of you why the Sandaime Kazekage was seen as the strongest Kazekage of them all." Sasori smiled serenely. "I hope that both of you are prepared to die."

"Chiyo-baasama… w-what is that?" Hinata asked quietly, as the blackness shifted, rising above the puppet's head like a swarm of insects.

"That is what made the Kazekage so strong," Chiyo replied in a whisper, keeping her eyes fully focused on the floating cloud of dark dust. "The iron sand technique. The Sandaime had the ability to convert his chakra into magnetism and using that he could turn this sand into any shape he wished."

Hinata frowned slightly, confused. "But this puppet, even if it has a chakra s-source of some kind, shouldn't be able to perform its own jutsus, should it?"

Chiyo shook her head. "Normally, that would be the case, but this is no ordinary puppet. It was originally a human, which means that the chakra it possessed when it was alive has been preserved, and it has the same chakra and the same techniques as it did when it was alive. Only Sasori is able to create these 'human puppets'…" Chiyo trailed off and chewed her bottom lip anxiously. "Hinata-san, I think it would be best if you left now."

"W-What?" asked Hinata, shocked and slightly hurt by Chiyo's sudden decision. "But why? I won't be a burden, I swear!"

"Hinata-san, Sasori is stronger than I could have possibly expected. If you got hurt because of me…" Chiyo closed her eyes tiredly, looking very old for a second. "Go and help Kakashi-san and the rest of his team track down the other Akatsuki member. I will be fine here, don't worry about me."

Hinata felt torn. She couldn't disobey an order from a superior, but the thought of abandoning Chiyo, alone in this dark cavern against her maniacal grandson made her feel cold inside. "Ano… Chiyo-baasama, I can't just leave you here," she murmured quietly. "I can't turn my b-back on my comrades… because that is my nindo."

Chiyo gazed open mouthed at the Hyuuga heiress, struggling to comprehend her words. "Hinata-san… do you not understand? You should get out of here whilst you still have a chance!"

"Whoever said anyone was allowed to leave?" Sasori interrupted, the iron sand above his head suddenly splitting into dozens of tiny round balls. "Satetsu Shigure!"

With a whizzing sound the small balls of iron sand fell through the air towards Hinata and Chiyo like shadowy rainfall. Quickly, and with a hint of desperation, Chiyo made some hand movements and the mother puppet pushed Hinata away to safety. Meanwhile, the father puppet moved in front of Chiyo, its arms outstretched and separated into sections which fanned from its hands in a sphere. As the iron sand bullets connected with the puppet's arms they dissipated, deflected by some sort of invisible force.

"A chakra shield?" Sasori asked inquisitively. "You've upgraded my old puppets, it seems."

Chiyo barely heard his voice as she thought back to the times in the past when Sasori would control the puppets of his mother and father, trying to fool himself into thinking he had his real parents back. The elderly Suna puppet user couldn't quell the faintest flicker of sadness and pity for her grandson, but when she heard a faint hissing noise and the father puppet's joints seemed to lock up she pushed aside all her memories of her grandson's childhood. She couldn't afford to feel even the slightest amount of weakness against an opponent as lethal as Sasori, she reminded herself, despite the last vestiges of affection and care that still resided in her heart for him.

As Chiyo focused on the suddenly frozen puppet protecting her, she saw the iron sand spreading from its joints and worked out what had happened. The iron sand had somehow managed to worm its way into the marionette to completely immobilize it; defending against the magnetised sand clearly wasn't an option. And as the sand gathered above the puppet of the Kazekage again, Chiyo realised that a second attack was coming and she only had one puppet left with which to block the sand.

"One of you is about to die," said Sasori in a toneless voice. "Satetsu Shigure!"

The small clumps of iron sand, fully accumulated, flashed through the air towards both Chiyo and Hinata with a high pitched whine. They connected with the ground, cracking the rock floor of the cave and sending a small dust cloud into the air around both women, obscuring them from Sasori's sight.

With her Byakugan, Hinata saw everything happening in slow motion, with the colours faded and blurred like blotted ink. She could see Chiyo, desperately manipulating the second of her two puppets to aid Hinata, but it was too late – the sand was already falling and the puppet wouldn't make it in time. Hinata moved like she was in a trance, visualising the Hyuuga eight palms trigram on the floor of the cave. Slowly, she raised her arms and began to move them from side to side, then up and down, then diagonally, and repeated the movements, increasing in speed. 'I can do this!' she thought determinedly, allowing a thin, concentrated stream of chakra to spread from her fingertips in a straight line. 'I can do this! I won't be a burden this time!'

The magnetised bullets impacted against the lines of chakra Hinata was drawing through the air and with a cry of, "Shugo Hakke Rokujuuyonshou!" the iron sand was repulsed by the lattice barrier, falling to the ground lifelessly. Her defensive jutsu completed, Hinata stumbled slightly, resting her hands on her knees and breathing heavily. This technique always took a lot out of her, but she didn't think that an ordinary Hakkeshou Kaiten would have been enough to knock the magnetic sand away.

With her family's kekkei genkai she looked up to see whether Chiyo had been able to defend herself from the iron sand, and was relieved to see that the Suna kunoichi was still standing. Chiyo had been able to block the attack safely, it seemed… with her own arm?

The Hidden Sand Village elder allowed the chakra shield on her right arm to fade away as the iron sand trickled limply to the ground, openly staring at Hinata. Her own method had been effective enough to block the attack, but she was hugely impressed by the Hyuuga girl's own defensive measures. For a few horrifying moments, when she had realised that her puppet wouldn't make it in time, the elderly kunoichi had thought that Hinata was about to die. That thought had scared her. In fact, it had made her feel more afraid than she had felt in a very long time. The idea of helplessly watching the shy young girl, with so many hopes and dreams for the future, have her life snuffed out in this tomb-like cave was almost unbearable. But then Hinata had performed a wondrous display of chakra control and flexibility and Chiyo had been left watching in wonder.

"Oh…" Sasori smiled, watching both of the kunoichi opposing him with a slightly increased respect. "You both managed to block my attack. Grandmother… you've rigged your arm to become a puppet limb… and the Konoha kunoichi used a barrier technique of some kind… I don't think I know any Hyuuga techniques like that one."

"That's because… that w-was my own jutsu," Hinata gasped out. The amount of chakra she had used in that technique was starting to catch up with her, and she was already feeling tired. She wasn't certain how much longer she would be able to fight, but she knew she wouldn't give up. 'This is a fight that I can't afford to lose!' she reminded herself fiercely. 'Naruto-kun and Sakura-san are relying on me to find out about Orochimaru for them! I can't let them down!'

"Is that so?" Sasori answered pleasantly. "It was certainly unique… but judging by how tired you seem to be, it looks like you can only use it a limited number of times… and the same goes for you, grandmother."

Sure enough, Chiyo looked down at her right arm and saw that the iron sand had infiltrated into the joints, preventing the limb from moving. At the same time, the mother puppet keeled over stiffly, metal filings spreading from the gaps in it like a disease.

"You have no more puppets," noted Sasori, flexing the fingers of his left hand. Immediately, the metallic sand controlled by the Kazekage began forming into shapes, much larger this time. The structures forming in mid-air slowly grew larger and larger in size until they finally stopped growing, with two blocks several metres long, one a cone and one a cube, fully formed.

Chiyo's eyes flickered from her grandson to the Kazekage's puppet to the iron blocks, desperately hoping to find some sort of weakness. It didn't look good at all. But her thoughts were interrupted by a small but insistent voice.

"Ano… Chiyo-baasama, please use me as a puppet."

Chiyo looked down at Hinata with astonishment. "Hinata-san, do you understand what you're saying? With only one arm I can't totally control you like I was before, and with the magnetism of the Sandaime's puppet active you can't use weapons like kunai or shuriken. You should take this opportunity to leave, now!"

Hinata shook her head stubbornly. "N-No, I have to help, and this is the best that I can do. I know that I d-don't have any hidden traps like your other puppets, but my Jyuuken is designed for unarmed combat and I won't give up!"

Left speechless at the passionate response, Chiyo wordlessly attached chakra strings from her left hand to Hinata. The Hyuuga girl's obstinancy was surprising, but then again, reflected Chiyo, this girl was just surprising in general. Her first impression of the Konoha kunoichi had been a shy, timid girl that had been blessed with a legendary kekkei genkai from birth but was still only average in skill. That view had changed entirely now.

"You're going to try controlling the girl again?" Sasori asked his grandmother. "I'm disappointed… I expected you to be more resourceful than this."

Hinata tensed her leg muscles and leapt forward, just as Sasori clenched the fingers of his right hand. Instantly the cone shape launched forward, smashing into the ground and sending rubble flying as it broke up the floor of the cave into shattered pieces. As Hinata landed, the massive metallic cube positioned itself right above her and hammered down, aiming to crush her flat.

However, Chiyo jerked her back slightly just in time, and Hinata saw an opportunity as the cube slowly began to rise back into the air. Drawing chakra into her fingertips, she jabbed at the metal block with a Jyuuken strike and for a few seconds the sand lost its shape, beginning to return to its original individual grains. But within a few seconds the iron sand regained its cohesion, becoming solid again, and Hinata was thankful that she had Chiyo's help to dodge the huge blocks and counterattack with her Jyuuken strikes whenever she saw any openings.

As she was dodging and weaving to avoid the iron sand, Hinata made certain to keep her Byakugan concentrated on Sasori's hands. The attack patterns he was using seemed to be repeated by his finger movements. First the cone would stab sideways, with Sasori clenching the fingers of his right hand. Then it would rise, which Hinata could predict by the way he slowly flexed his middle and index fingers. Then the cube would position itself above her, whenever he twitched the index finger of his left hand. And then it would fall downwards, shown by the way that the puppet master would cross the fingers of his right and left hands at the same time. The pattern rarely seemed to alter, though Sasori added a few minor variations on a couple of occasions, for which Hinata had to improvise. She managed to run alongside the edge of the cube when it had come in from a sideways direction rather than falling from above her head and she had been forced to use another Hakkeshou Kaiten when the cone had tried to trap her against the wall of the cave, but with Chiyo's help these incidents were becoming more and more infrequent.

Sasori was starting to feel slightly irritated as Hinata slapped her chakra infused palm against the cone for the umpteenth time as he manoeuvred the iron sand into position for yet another attack. The Hyuuga girl was breathing heavily, but it had only taken her one or two dodges before she could see the entirety of the attack pattern. 'This is beginning to become problematic,' he thought to himself, as Hinata jumped back from the falling iron cube without even needing Chiyo's prompt. 'She's constantly watching me, analysing my hand movements and predicting my attacks… I should finish this now.'

Suddenly the hole in the Kazekage's chest began to glow and Sasori shouted, "Satetsu Kaihou!" The cone and the cube, rather than continuing their attacks against Hinata, changed direction and collided in mid air, forming one huge block of iron sand that took up most of the remaining ceiling. And then, like watching a speeded up vision of a tree growing, the sand extended outwards in a lattice pattern, each point tipped with a sharp spike and a deadly poison.

Chiyo gasped at the monumental scale of the attack and Hinata stood frozen with fear as the network of vicious barbs slowly extended towards her, taking up all of the space in the cave. She was too far from the exit to get there before the spikes impaled her and even if she could have made it in time, what good would it do? The puppet would just follow her outside and she would still be killed either way. Hinata shook her head, willing herself to find some way of countering this attack, but her mind had gone blank. The only thing she could think of was, 'Naruto-kun… I never got the chance to tell you how much I love you…'

As the extending lattice came closer and closer, Hinata could picture Naruto in her head, always brave and defiant in the face of any opponent. As the foremost spike came within mere inches of her body a new found resolve burned through her veins like molten steel, Naruto's determined face imprinted in her mind's eye, and she desperately screamed out, "Kaiten!" at the top of her voice. She began spinning, burning blue chakra pouring out from her body, and the spikes connected.

There was a horrible screeching noise as the metal was torn apart by the power of the whirling vortex and just for a fraction of a second a pathway to the puppet formed. Still spinning, Hinata pulled out a kunai with an explosive note attached and hurled it straight into the hole in the iron sand wielding puppet's chest.

The resulting explosion was spectacular, lighting up the inside of the cave and bringing the remains of the roof down with an earth shattering boom. The Kazekage puppet fell through the air, a burning mass of broken wood, and collapsed to the fragmented, rocky floor along with the iron sand it was controlling.

The sand in the joints of Chiyo's arm also crumbled away, leaving the elderly Suna kunoichi able to move it freely once again. She stared at Hinata in amazement as the Hyuuga girl slowly stopped spinning, the arm that threw the kunai still raised. Her breathing was labored and her hair was sticking to her forehead with sweat, but her eyes were filled with a blazing determination, focused entirely on the Akatsuki's puppet master.

Sasori furrowed his brow slightly, staring back at the Hyuuga girl. 'Not only did she manage to defend against that attack, she was even able to launch a counter strike… More human puppets won't work, seeing as the Sandaime Kazekage was the strongest in my possession. Looks like I have no other choice.' Slowly he began to unbutton his Akatsuki robe.

Chiyo stared at her grandson with increasing horror as he revealed more and more of his body, before finally letting the cloud patterned uniform flutter to the floor. Sprouting out of his back were what looked like two extra arms, but instead of fingers they ended with five gleaming metal blades, and from his stomach cavity extended a long, winding cord, covered in grease and tipped with a sharp spike. But most disgusting of all, on the left side of his chest there was a pulsating cylinder with his own name written on it, beating faintly like the mockery of a heart that it was. "Sasori… you turned yourself into a human puppet…" whispered Chiyo, averting her gaze away from the monstrosity that her grandson had become. "What have you done to yourself?"

"It has been a very long time since I have used myself in battle," murmured Sasori, flexing his arms forward. With a faint click, a nozzle appeared in the palm of each hand. Then, with a roar, a jet of fire blasted out of the spouts in his hands, heading straight for Chiyo and Hinata. Both women quickly dived to the side and dropped to the floor, shielded from the biting flames by large chunks of rubble.

Hinata tried to breathe as shallowly as possible, but the air was so hot that it was painful and there was a sickening smell in the air. With a shudder she realised that it was the tips of her hair sizzling from the heat and tried to press her body even closer to the ground to avoid the inferno.

After several seconds, Sasori's fire eventually died out as a canister attached to his back disintegrated. Hinata and Chiyo emerged from their hiding places, gulping in the fresh air, but before they could do any more than stand up Sasori's chest cord fired out like a harpoon straight towards Hinata. The Hyuuga heiress settled into a defensive Jyuuken stance as the spike flashed through the air towards her, but instead of hitting her it passed right over her head, burying itself in the rock behind her. As it dug into the rock face, the cord began to retract, sending Sasori's body whistling through the air past Hinata and directly towards Chiyo, with the spines sticking out of his back extended and spinning viciously to slice her in half.

"Chiyo-baasama!" Hinata shouted fearfully, as Sasori's whirring blades closed in on her, ready to cut her to pieces. But just before he connected, Chiyo pulled a scroll out from a small pouch around her waist and barked out, "Shirahigi: Jikki Chikamatsu no Shuu!" The summoning contract emitted a puff of smoke and the elderly woman was lost from sight. Sasori withdrew from the cloud of smoke, a quizzical expression on his face.

Chiyo stepped out of the smoke a few seconds later, completely calm despite how close she had just come to being slashed by Sasori's built-in weapons. Surrounding the Suna village elder were ten white cloaked puppets, each connected to one of Chiyo's fingers by chakra strings.

Chiyo sighed as she flexed her fingers, making sure that all of the puppets were functioning correctly. "I promised myself I would never use this technique again, but desperate times call for desperate measures."

"Ah yes, I've heard of this," smiled Sasori, closely studying each of the wooden creations Chiyo was controlling. "The strength of a puppet master is measured by the amount of puppets that they can control at the same time, after all. I heard you can successfully storm a castle using this technique alone… but with my technique, I can destroy an entire country…" Sasori reached behind his neck and pulled out a scroll of his own, which he quickly unfurled. A section of the right side of the puppet master's chest opened up and chakra strings burst out from it, connecting to so many puppets that they blotted out the clear sky shining through the now non-existent roof.

"It's almost embarrassing," Sasori continued, enjoying the expressions of shock and fear on the faces of both the Hyuuga girl and his grandmother. "Needing to use my most powerful technique of all, Akahigi: Hyakki no Souen, against an old woman and a little girl will make me a laughing stock. Luckily for me…" Sasori paused and flicked his fingers as, one by one, all of his puppets revealed a weapon of some sort, ranging from slashing claws to heavy axes, "Neither of you will be alive to tell anyone about it."

With no further words, Sasori's red cloaked puppets flickered forwards in a blur of movement. There was no time to think of a plan – Chiyo's puppets and Hinata were isolated from each other, forced to fight their own individual battles.

Chiyo quickly twitched the index fingers of both hands, and two of her puppets withdrew a large, spiked ball-and-chain mace which they whipped around through the air. With so many puppets in the cave there was no room to dodge and several of Sasori's figurines were smashed to pieces, unable to block against the brute force of the attack. Another of Chiyo's puppets, holding twin scimitar blades, was slicing through Sasori's manikins with lightning speed and another three, stacked together in a pyramid formation, blew a group of red cloaked wooden creations away with a vacuum attack. But Chiyo could see it was hopeless. The sheer numbers were making things impossible for her – whenever one of Sasori's puppets was destroyed he simply severed his chakra string and focused on his other marionettes instead.

Blocked off from Chiyo, all Hinata could see was wave after wave of endless wooden figures. Lashing out with desperate Jyuuken strikes, she destroyed puppet after puppet, but the wooden creations were constant, never once letting up as she destroyed them. Hinata was forced to keep backing away just to get enough time and room to move her arms about freely and still the puppets kept coming.

One puppet down, dispatched with an elbow strike to its head. Two down, destroyed by a roundhouse kick through its chest. Three, left broken as Hinata flared chakra into her hand and jabbed at its shoulder joints. And still they kept coming, a never ending swarm of them.

Frantically Hinata dispatched another puppet with a knee through its face. She followed up with a barrage of panicked Jyuuken strikes. 'Five, six, seven, eight, ni–'

As she took another step back, Hinata's eyes widened in fear as her foot slipped on some loose rubble and she fell to the ground. Instantly a puppet appeared above her, its lifeless face and painted smile perfectly poised as it raised a short sword to finish her. There was no time to scream. No time for regrets. All she could do was lie sprawled out over the floor in anticipation for the killing blow.

Hinata shut her eyes tightly and waited for the end. And waited. And waited.

And then she felt a drop of something wet hit her face.

Opening her eyes, she saw Chiyo bending over her, acting as a human shield with her arms stretched wide and her back to the puppet's attack. There was a kind, serene smile on her face… and a brutal short sword sticking through her chest, dripping with blood.

Chiyo drew a painful, rattling breath. "Hinata-san, are you… alright?" she gurgled, blood frothing between her lips.

"Chiyo-b-b-baasama…" Hinata whispered, tears sliding down her face uncontrollably.

Chiyo turned her cloudy eyes away from Hinata and onto her grandson, who had an unreadable expression on his face at her sacrifice. Chiyo drew another agonised breath, which sounded to Hinata like a death rattle, and slowly but clearly spoke to the Akatsuki member.

"Sasori… you are… very precious to me. You are… what I fight for. And I… love you."

Then she slumped to the floor, oblivious to Hinata's screams.

Author's Notes: Woo! Massive chapter! Big fight scene! This chapter was a strange one to write out, mainly because I couldn't make up my mind what I wanted to happen in it at first. Initially I had Shikamaru involved in the fight against Sasori, but I decided against it in the end because it was taking the focus away from Hinata and Chiyo, which was something I really wanted to bring to the forefront. Then I decided to have Chiyo do her self sacrifice technique to bring Hinata back to life… but I thought that would have been really cliché and contrived for such a serious fight. Eventually, after talking with my 'semi-beta' brother, I decided to scrap those ideas and came up with this. It's the longest individual, drawn out fight scene so far, but I'm pretty pleased with the end result. Making Hinata seem strong and badass (but not overpowered), meek (but not completely shy and stuttering) and determined (but not overly aggressive) was a tough balance to strike, but I feel happy with what I've got here. I got a review from someone called Piplup99 in the last chapter that I wanted to quickly address here too – the claim was that, so far in this story, 'Naruto is sort of out of character.' I was kinda hoping I was doing an ok job at this, to be honest – it's something I'll admit that I've found difficult, but I've really attempted to keep his personality as constant as possible. I've still tried to keep him goofy, show his insecurities about the Kyuubi, his self-imposed obligations to others and all that sorta thing. He's more accepting and helpful towards Hinata than he is in canon, admittedly, but the reason for this is his meeting with her at the gates of Konoha. Her kindness and friendship made him open his eyes to her a little, seeing her as a 'close friend' rather than just a 'friend,' and occasionally Naruto can actually be quite perceptive… though he is still completely clueless with romance! Ah well, maybe I'm overestimating my writing abilities – like I said, I've found this quite tough. If anyone else thinks I'm not doing a good enough job of portraying Naruto, or any of the other characters, feel free to say so. Ok, that's all for now, so until the next chapter, bye!

List of Jutsu:

'Nendo Bunshin no Jutsu' = 'Clay Clone Technique'

'Hakkeshou Kaiten' = 'Eight Divination Palms of the Hand Heavenly Spin'

'Hakke Rokujuuyonshou' = 'Eight Divination Signs, Sixty-Four Palms of the Hand'

'Juuho Soushiken' = 'Gentle Step Twin Lion Fist'

'Satetsu Shigure' = 'Iron Sand Autumnal Showers'

'Shugo Hakke Rokujuuyonshou' = 'Eight Guardian Divination Signs: Sixty-four Palms of the Hand'

'Satetsu Kaihou' = 'Iron Sand World Method'

'Shirahigi: Jikki Chikamatsu no Shuu' = 'White Secret Technique: Ten Puppet Collection of Chikamatsu'

'Akahigi: Hyakki no Souen' = 'Red Secret Technique: Performance of the Hundred Puppets'

Joke Corner: China is so polluted that in the 2008 Olympic Games the javelin got stuck in the sky.

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