Chapter Eleven: Family Reunion
Tenten twirled a bo staff in her hands with practiced ease, launching it in a series of powerful swipes and jabs at her copy. Her opponent, using an exact replica of her weapon, blocked, parried and shimmied around the blows with unerring grace and precision. As the real Tenten tried to sweep at her doppelganger's feet, the fake summoned a heavy club from a scroll on its back and hammered it into the bo staff, smashing the wooden weapon into splinters. Tenten jumped backwards into the air, scowling, and unfurled a scroll of her own in each hand. She angrily yelled, "Kuchiyose: Tobidougu!" and the scrolls unleashed a hail of shuriken and kunai towards her duplicate. But the Akatsuki copy mimicked her summoning technique and the opposing weapons clashed in mid-air, diverting each other off course in random directions. Tenten let out a cry of pain as one of the deflected shuriken was knocked back in her direction and left a deep cut on her shoulder.
"Tenten, are you alright?" Neji's voice asked through the radio, his tone urgent even though it was muffled by the reception. "I heard a scream."
"I'm fine," Tenten gasped, reaching into the small medi-kit that she carried with her and wrapping a bandage around her shoulder to halt the flow of blood. She grimaced in pain but made no noise. She didn't want Neji to think that she couldn't handle things on her own, though a small part of her was pleasantly surprised at his worry for her well being. Watching her opponent, who had stopped attacking as soon as she had, like a mirror image, she spoke into the radio again. "How is everyone doing in their fights?"
Breathing heavily, Gai answered first. "Fighting against me – I mean him – I mean myself – I mean…" Tenten shook her head in exasperation and Neji let out a sigh that sounded more like a snort as Gai tried to get his words in order. "Fighting… my copy… is a true challenge. My opponent is highly skilled, but more than that, it is as though he knows everything about me."
"It feels… exactly the same… for me, Gai-sensei," announced Lee, his own reply broken up by dull thumping sounds and the occasional grunt. Tenten could only assume that Lee was still fighting hand to hand with his copy. She wondered if he'd even stopped at all to get his bearings or come up with a strategy.
"They also know the same techniques that we do, and have the same chakra," added Neji. "We are essentially fighting mirror images of ourselves in every detail."
Gai frowned, eying his opponent warily as he and his duplicate latched themselves to the side of the rock wall they were fighting on using chakra. "A long, drawn out battle seems to be the only possible route to victory and even then we would still have failed. The Akatsuki are preventing us from returning to the cave, and despite our youthful efforts we are unable to emerge victorious!"
There was a pause of a few seconds as everyone absorbed Gai's words. Then Neji spoke, his voice completely flat.
"We're all idiots."
"Huh? What do you mean, Neji?" asked Tenten, slightly hurt by his words, as Lee shouted incoherently about how 'hip' and 'cool' Neji was being with his 'unyouthful' accusations. Surely she wasn't as bad as Lee and her sensei, was she?
"I mean that we're going about this all wrong," Neji clarified. "Why are we attempting to wear down an opponent that knows all of our techniques and preferred fighting style when we can use our knowledge of our own weaknesses?"
Gai scrunched his eyebrows together. "I am afraid I do not follow, Neji. What is it that you are suggesting?"
Even with his Byakugan active Neji couldn't help but roll his eyes at his sensei's blindness. "Instead of fighting duplicates of ourselves, we should simply switch targets and face a different copy instead. We are in a much better position to exploit the weaknesses of our teammates than ourselves."
After thinking through Neji's idea for a second, a huge grin spread across Tenten's face. "Neji, has anyone ever told you that you're a genius?"
Neji smirked slightly. "Several people, actually."
"No!" Hinata cried, tears falling freely as Chiyo fell to the floor in a rapidly expanding pool of her own blood, chakra strings to her puppets severed. The wooden creations clattered to the ground with a series of hollow thuds, their master left almost as lifeless as them.
"Chiyo-baasama! Chiyo-baasama!" Hinata's screams petered out as she rushed to the elderly Suna kunoichi's side, dropping to her knees and clenching her fists tightly. "I w-was too weak to s-s-save her…" the Hyuuga girl sobbed, as Chiyo's blood stained the floor red. "Because of m-me, Chiyo-baasama is d-dying. It's all m-my fault!"
Sasori stared at his dying grandmother and the distraught girl, an unreadable expression on his face. "Oh," he said tonelessly. "I didn't mean to stab her." He couldn't describe exactly what he felt at seeing Chiyo slumped on the floor and bleeding to death… was it regret? Sorrow? Sasori didn't know. It had been so long since he had felt anything even remotely like this, not since he left Suna behind all those years ago and became as missing nin… but seeing his last remaining family member sprawled over the ground with a fatal wound… it felt wrong somehow.
Using her Byakugan, Hinata could see that Chiyo's breath was becoming more and more faint and her heart was beating erratically. Hinata may not have been a medic nin, but she could tell that the situation was hopeless. The old woman was flickering in and out of consciousness, eyes fluttering open and shut, and although it looked as though the blade had avoided any vital organs as it tore through her chest the blood loss was severe. Every drop of crimson that fell from the hole in Chiyo's chest brought her closer to death and Hinata knew there wasn't a thing she could do about it. If Sakura had been here then there may have been a tiny chance that she could have healed her, but as it was Chiyo would be dead in minutes.
Taking as calm a breath as she could manage, Hinata straightened herself up to face Sasori… alone this time. 'I'm so sorry, Chiyo-baasma,' she thought as she clenched her eyelids shut to prevent any more tears from falling. 'It was because of my stupid mistake, my weakness, that you had to protect me… But I promise I won't let your sacrifice be in vain. I can't! I have to keep fighting! I know I don't have a hope of winning against someone as strong as him all on my own, but I can't just give up. For Sakura-san, and Naruto-kun, and for Chiyo-baasama… I can't lose!'
Sasori tore his gaze away from Chiyo's spread-eagled body and gazed squarely at Hinata. "You are still intent on facing me?" he asked, a hint of confusion in his normally impassive voice. "Why? Why do you not just accept defeat against a superior opponent? Why do you keep fighting?"
"B-Because…" Hinata's eyes flickered from Chiyo's blood stained form to Sasori's face and she locked gazes with him with as much determination as she could muster. "Because until I find out about Orochimaru from you, I can't give up and I won't let Chiyo-baasama die in vain. I can't let down the p-people that are relying on me. And I have to prove myself to the person m-most precious to me. Because his nindo… is the same nindo that I follow. And it's the same nindo that Chiyo-baasama followed too."
Sasori's eyebrows furrowed a fraction. "I'm not sure that I fully understand, but I must admit that I admire your resolve." Sasori flicked his fingers and his puppets, that had previously been floating immobile after he had stabbed Chiyo, moved into an attacking formation. "It truly is a shame that I now have to kill you."
Hinata scanned the hoard of puppets and felt her heart sink. Even after all of the efforts of both herself and Chiyo, there had to be at least sixty wooden figures left, and with fewer puppets to control than before Sasori would be able to manipulate them much easier. Things were looking very bad indeed.
Sasori tweaked his fingers and the puppets rained down from the sky.
Tenten grinned from her concealed position in the treetops as she looked down at the copy of Lee that she was now focusing on. After quickly discussing how their plan would work over the radio, they agreed that Tenten fighting Lee's clone, Lee fighting the fake Neji and the Hyuuga jonin facing off against the copy of Tenten would give the best chances of success and after all of the copies were defeated they would all gang up on Gai's clone, since it was likely to be the most powerful. To escape from their copies Tenten had dropped a cluster of smoke bombs to disguise her exit, Lee had released his leg weights and disappeared in the blink of an eye and Neji had left his own doppelganger behind with the use of explosive tags, forcing his opponent to use the Hakkeshou Kaiten technique to block the force of the blast and enabling the Hyuuga prodigy to slip away as his copy was preoccupied. Tenten was a little worried about the well-being of her two teammates against such powerful opponents, but tried to suppress her minor anxiety. Neji and Lee were strong, after all, and wouldn't want her treating them like they couldn't look after themselves.
The weapons expert slowly pulled out a handful of shuriken, keeping her eyes fixed on the back of Lee's clone, which was looking around dazedly, wondering where his opponent had gone, but unsure of which direction to follow. 'Looks like these copies are confused when they're not fighting the person that they're modelled on,' she thought to herself grimly, taking slow, deep breaths and mentally preparing herself. Lee was faster and more physically powerful than her by a long shot, but she excelled at keeping herself hidden in the shadows and was deadly accurate with her weapons. She wouldn't miss.
Tenten had to admit that she was a little apprehensive of killing something that looked exactly like her teammate, but the thought of it holding up the mission and hurting her friends was enough to spur her into action and she was confident in her assassination techniques, though she certainly didn't enjoy the idea of silent killing. But this wasn't Lee, she reminded herself; it was some cheap Akatsuki trick, just smoke and mirrors. And she would be quite happy to throw a wrench into whatever the criminal organisation were planning.
Taking careful aim, she hurled the shuriken from her hidden position in the branches of the trees. They landed all over the fake Lee's body before it even noticed her presence with a series of dull thumping sounds.
"Gotcha," Tenten whispered triumphantly, as the clone fell to the floor, perforated with the sharp throwing stars. However, as it hit the ground its body seemed to slump, losing its substance and becoming a slimy, oozing mess of green and brown which slowly spread across the loamy forest floor. Tenten felt a tiny hint of pride in her abilities, but couldn't help but grimace with disgust at both the mess and the stench of compost that was coming from the fake body. 'I feel sorry for whoever has to clean that up.'
Lee hadn't stopped smiling for the entirity of his fight against his own clone, despite the annoyance of not landing a single successful hit, and his smile didn't diminish at all as he engaged in combat with a new opponent. The chance to fight Neji, even if it was just a copy of him, was something he couldn't resist. Although the Hyuuga boy had warmed up slightly in the last few years and had grown to respect Lee's taijutsu abilities, he rarely if ever offered to spar. Lee frowned as he ducked past a Jyuuken strike from the copy of his teammate. 'I will prove to Neji that the fires of my youth shall not be dimmed by his attitude towards me. I will prove to him that I can be a truly great ninja, like Gai-sensei, using only taijutsu. For he is my rival!'
The copy of Neji settled into the stance Lee knew so well from the many missions he and the Hyuuga branch family member had been on. The spandex clad ninja knew what was coming next. He remembered it vividly from the very first time he and Neji had sparred. The Byakugan user had merely smirked at Lee's loud challenge and with a cry of, "Hakke Rokujuuyonshou!" he had locked all of Lee's tenketsu in one devastating attack, striking with chakra infused fingers faster than the eye could follow. It was after that fight, when he had been defeated with such ease by a far superior opponent, that Lee had come closest to giving up his goal of becoming a worthy shinobi without ninjutsu or genjutsu capabilities. Everyone thought he should just quit. Neji had coldly proclaimed that he was weak and unable to fight against his destiny. He couldn't mould chakra well enough to use ninjutsu or genjutsu. His taijutsu, his only weapon, was only just passable. How could he continue as a ninja when the odds were stacked so heavily against him?
But just when he was feeling at his lowest, Gai-sensei had taken him aside and told him something that had stuck with Lee forever. Although Neji was without doubt a truly gifted shinobi, there was more than one kind of genius in the ninja world. Lee may not have been naturally talented, Gai admitted, but with a little hard work there was no reason that Lee couldn't become a shinobi he would be proud of.
Proud. A shinobi to be proud of. To Lee, that was all the motivation he needed.
As Lee ducked around a palm strike aimed at his ribs, he pulled at the bandages surrounding his arms to loosen them. There would be no holding back against an opponent as dangerous as a Hyuuga clan member – he was ready to use his finishing attack.
As the clone of Neji aimed for one of the tenketsu in Lee's left arm, the spandex clad shinobi saw the opening he needed. With a shout of aggression, Lee opened the Initial Gate and immediately felt the released power flowing through his muscles as his skin turned a raw, red colour. In a blur of green that even the fake Neji's Byakugan could not pick out, he got inside the copy's guard and sent it skywards with an upward kick to the jaw. With blinding speed Lee followed him up into the air and wrapped the loosened bandages around his opponent, locking the two of them together and preventing the clone from escaping. As the copy struggled to break free from Lee's grip, the taijutsu specialist began to spin, slowly at first but quickly gaining momentum, as he angled the phoney Neji's head towards the ground.
The two of them, locked together, fell faster and faster towards the grassy floor. At the very last second, just before impact, Lee disengaged, jumping clear and landing in a crouch with a shout of, "Omote Renge!"
The fake Neji wasn't quite so fortunate. Its skull hammered into the ground with a brutal crunch, leaving a sizable crater from the force of the collision, and its head was snapped back, its neck completely crushed. After a few seconds the body began to slowly lose its shape, turning a slimy green colour that smelt heavily of rotting vegetation.
Lee ended the enhanced chakra flow granted by the Initial Gate and felt the strain on his muscles straight away, but did his best to ignore the soreness. Now that he looked down at the rancid mess in the crater that he had created, he felt slightly stunned by what he had done. 'I did it!' he realised, his face splitting into a huge grin. 'I defeated Hyuuga Neji! It may only have been a copy, but it was just as powerful as him… and I still won! Gai-sensei, I have defeated my great rival and it is all because of your youthful encouragement and enthusiasm! I truly am at one with the Springtime of Youth!'
Though his face was impassive as he blocked a flurry of shuriken with a kunai held in his right hand, Neji was having a serious internal struggle as he faced the copy of Tenten. Of course he had trained against her many times since they had been assigned to the same team – when it was a choice between sparring with her or the spandex clad duo of Gai and Lee, Neji didn't even need to consider his answer.
But practicing with her in training was one thing. Facing something that looked like her in every detail in a fight to the death was something else entirely. Remembering how she acted around him, treating him as his own person rather than as the genius of the Hyuuga clan, was something he wasn't sure he could just put to one side.
Even back when he had first became a member of Team Gai, when he had been quiet, emotionless and bitter, Tenten had still attempted to penetrate through his icy façade. And to Neji's total surprise, she had actually succeeded. As much as he had tried to withdraw himself, Tenten's cheerful optimism and kindness had actually made an impression on him, no matter how hard he tried to hide it. Not only did he respect her as a formidable kunoichi, he also found that he respected her as a friend.
After the fight against Naruto in the Chuunin Exams, Neji had resolved himself to be more open around the auburn haired girl. He sometimes smiled around her and in a few rare moments even laughed. And the more time he spent with her, the more happy and at ease he felt. He found himself actually looking forward to seeing her and even made an effort to meet up with her on the occasions in which he didn't have a mission. And as he slowly continued to open up as he spent more time with her, she barely seemed to change at all. She still got irritated by the exuberance of Gai and Lee. She still had the same determination to be the best kunoichi she could be. She still got exasperated at him when she felt that he was being too 'boring' or 'proper.' And most importantly of all, she still smiled at him in that way that made him want to smile too. The fight with Naruto had changed him, but without a doubt Tenten had helped change him too.
Neji cursed under his breath as the clone of his teammate summoned a hoard of kunai, all with explosive notes attached, and sent them flying towards him. Spinning on his feet he shouted, "Kaiten!" and the weapons were deflected away by a whirl of chakra.
The Hyuuga jonin ceased his rotation as the Akatsuki creation pulled out another scroll and summoned a pair of hooked swords and leapt towards him. Neji realised that this was his best opportunity – his techniques worked best at close range, something that this copy was clearly unaware of if it was challenging him head on. Tenten was by no means weak in melee combat, but he knew that with his Jyuuken he would have the advantage. But could he really bring himself to kill what looked like the person he was closest to in the whole world?
The radio around his collar buzzed into life. "Neji, what's taking you so long?" Tenten's voice asked, sounding irritated but concerned. "Both Lee and I are already done with our fights. You aren't in trouble, are you? Surely you aren't finding it tough to beat little old me?"
Neji knocked the clone back with a chakra enforced block and smiled at the sound of Tenten's teasing but caring voice. She was right, he shouldn't be dawdling. There was the mission to think of after all, not to mention the safety of his younger cousin. "No Tenten, it's fine," he said, speaking quietly into the radio's microphone. "In fact, I should be done here very soon."
"Ok, that's good," Tenten answered. "Lee and I are gonna join up with Gai-sensei and help him against his duplicate. If you don't hurry up we'll be done before you get there, so get a move on!"
"I'll be as fast as I can, but don't wait for me. I'll meet up with you in a few minutes." Neji ended the conversation and slowly exhaled. After hearing his teammate's voice he felt like a great weight had been taken off his mind. She always seemed to know what to say to get him to focus and perform to the best of his abilities.
Relaxing his tense muscles, the Hyuuga jonin turned his attention back to Tenten's copy. Rather than his previous uncertainty, now all he could feel was determination and a faint flickering of anger. Even without his Byakugan, when he looked closely he could see that this clone wasn't quite perfect in its imitation of Tenten. Its eyes were dull and glazed, nothing like the bright, deep, creamy brown that he knew, and the way that the copy acted seemed a tiny bit off. The little details that could only be picked up by close observation, such as how Tenten wrinkled her nose when annoyed and smoothed her hair when nervous, just weren't there.
Neji smirked. That made it a lot easier for him to bring himself to do this. Visualising the eight palms trigram across the ground, he drew chakra to his fingertips and rushed forwards. Tenten's clone slashed at him with one of her swords but he ducked inside her guard and with a yell of, "Hakke Hyakunijuuhachishou!" he jabbed at her wrist, shouting, "Two Palms!"
The fake Tenten dropped one of the hooked blades as Neji closed the tenketsu in her hand and followed up with a cry of, "Four Palms!" He struck with deadly accuracy at the chakra points in her opposite shoulder, locking the entire arm's muscles up, and in a pattern that would look completely random to anyone without the Byakugan he began striking at other parts of her body.
"Eight Palms! Sixteen Palms! Thirty-Two Palms! Sixty-Four Palms! One-Hundred-and-Twenty-Eight Palms!"
His final blow, a chakra infused palm strike to the forehead, sent the clone to the floor, its body faintly smoking from the speed and intensity of Neji's attack. The Hyuuga boy lowered his raised hands and looked down at the corpse, which was slowly turning a gloopy green colour with a vile stench. Neji stared at the rapidly decomposing body for a few seconds, a sad smile on his face, before shutting his eyes for a moment to regain his composure, turning away and hurrying to catch up with his teammates.
As the four of them continued to pursue Deidara, with Kakashi continuing to ready himself for his attack, Naruto felt himself becoming more and more impatient. His frustration at being unable to catch up with that damned clay bird was growing, fuelled by his helplessness at not being able to do anything that would help them catch up to the blonde haired ninja onboard. What made it even worse was the memory of seeing Gaara held aloft between those two stone hands, unconscious and helpless – it was enough to make his blood boil. 'The Akatsuki are gonna pay for attacking Gaara,' thought the spiky haired ninja, leaping through the air as fast as he could from tree root to tree root. 'I'll make sure of it!'
He couldn't help but worry about how Hinata and Chiyo were doing as well, which wasn't helping him keep his composure. If Kakashi-sensei was happy to add the elderly Suna kunoichi to the team then he was willing to trust his teacher's judgement, and he could tell that Hinata had definitely improved in the time that he'd been away from the bell test they had taken on the way from Suna, but even so… Naruto shook his head vigorously, trying not to think about what might happen. 'Hinata-chan and the old lady are really strong – I'm sure they'll be alright,' he tried to convince himself. 'But this is the guy that beat Kankuro so easily… and Gai's team won't be there to back them up for a while from the sounds of things… I hope they're ok... If Hinata-chan got hurt when I wasn't there to fight with her…'
Naruto suddenly realised that he was clenching his fists so hard that his fingernails were digging into the palm of his hand and forced himself to take a deep breath in an effort to calm himself down. Trying to suppress the anger bubbling away inside of him, he looked around, wanting to find something other than his frustration to focus on.
In the sky, soaring tantalisingly close but just out of reach, was the white bird, with a flash of red hair visible in its beak. Naruto growled. No, that wasn't helping. He turned his head to the right instead, where Temari was flanking him. She seemed to be even more anxious and frustrated than he was, if that was possible. Her eyes were burning with righteous fury and she was glaring daggers at the Akatsuki member. She had already asked Kakashi more than once if his special technique was fully charged yet, her voice fraught with worry for her younger brother and hatred for his kidnappers, but each time Kakashi's only reply had been, "Just a little longer." Judging by the way that the Suna kunoichi's fingers had twitched around her fan, she wasn't exactly thrilled by the masked copy nin's noncommittal answer.
"We're in a troublesome situation here…" murmured Shikamaru to Naruto's left, interrupting the orange clad ninja's observations. "This clay using guy has drawn us a long way away from the others, leaving all of us a lot more exposed than if we'd stayed together as one whole group. We should have been more prepared."
"Well, what could we have done to avoid it?" scowled Naruto. "It's not like we knew that they were gonna try and split us up and even if we did we couldn't just let either of the Akatsuki bastards escape!"
"True," admitted Shikamaru, "But we should've predicted their plan to divide us all up and devised a counter-strategy of out own. Or at very least I should've."
Naruto's scowl deepened. "We were in a bit of a rush in case you hadn't realised, Shikamaru," he growled, annoyed by the lazy chuunin's tone of voice. "It's not like we could have asked the Akatsuki for a time out. And what do you mean by you should have? Are you saying you're the only one smart enough to come up with a plan?"
"Relax, Naruto," said Shikamaru, raising his hands defensively. "I'm just saying we should have been thinking ahead more, and that's one of my strengths, that's all. And I know for a fact that you're really tough and you use your instincts really well, so don't take this the wrong way, but… you're a dumbass." Seeing Naruto turn red and about to yell at him, Shikamaru quickly clarified. "What I mean is that you don't think out what you're gonna do before you fight. That can be your biggest weakness. A little planning can go a long way, especially against opponents as skilled as the Akatsuki."
Naruto considered the Nara boy's words and his shoulders slumped. "Yeah, I guess you're right. Even I can't argue with good advice when I hear it. But when did you become type to plan ahead and dish out lectures? The old you would have found that way too 'troublesome' to deal with!"
Shikamaru rolled his eyes. "You weren't the only one to grow up a bit over the last couple of years, Naruto," he said sarcastically. "I'd definitely much rather slack off, like I did in the old days, but I s'pose that I have a duty to everyone that I can't just shy away from, no matter how much easier it would be. My promotion to chuunin showed me that I can't just do things half-assed anymore."
Naruto grinned at his friend's attitude towards his new responsibilities. "Y'know, you sound like you wish that you hadn't been promoted. Aren't you glad that now you can lead missions you can use your big brain to protect everyone?"
Shikamaru snorted. "Glad? Being intelligent is a curse, not a blessing! The more potential I show, the more the higher ups notice me and the more they expect from me – it's much less troublesome to be average." Seeing Naruto's confused expression, the shadow using chuunin sighed. "I don't expect you to understand, Naruto, what with your fixation on being Hokage and all. But I'd rather just be a plain old regular shinobi than 'Master Field Tactician' or any fancy title like that. I guess I'd do it for the sake of the village, but I sure as Hell wouldn't enjoy it." Craning his neck he looked past Naruto and saw that Temari was listening to them speak, a surprised expression written across her face. "Hey, Temari, you ok?"
"Huh? Oh, yeah, I'm fine," the Suna kunoichi mumbled, face slightly red at being caught listening in on the boys. She had been absorbed in the conversation, so much so that she had stopped asking Kakashi when he would be ready, and the knot of panic and fear she was feeling at Gaara's situation had loosened a fraction. To her, it was worth being caught eavesdropping – she had gained a rare insight into Shikamaru's psyche and was struck by the sincerity and frank honesty in his voice. It was clear that despite his lax outlook on life in general, when push came to shove he truly was committed to serving his village and protecting his friends. 'He may not show it very often, but he really is dedicated if he's willing to put aside his own wants for what's best for Konoha,' she thought to herself, smiling slightly. 'Shikamaru is really something else… and people should start taking him more seriously, including me.'
Temari was interrupted from her thoughts by a subtle cough ahead of her. From his position at the head of the group, Kakashi turned his head to look back at the younger ninja following him. "Ok, I'm all set," he announced cheerfully, his normal eye crinkling shut as he smiled. "My eye's new Sharingan is ready for action."
"Wait, new Sharingan? When did you get that?" Naruto asked, puzzled.
"What can I say?" Kakashi shrugged nonchalantly. "I guess you aren't the only person that did a little training in the past two-and-a-half years."
"It doesn't matter how you got it," Temari interrupted impatiently. "Just make sure hit the Akatsuki bastard and don't hurt Gaara!"
"Yeah, knock this asshole out of the sky, Kakashi-sensei!" agreed Naruto. "And if you miss, don't worry – we'll finish him off!"
Kakashi nodded and turned his gaze back on the white bird, soaring far above his head. His left eye was gleaming red and a strange, black spiralling pattern appeared around the iris, the air around it shimmering like a heat haze. Focusing on his target, the black spiral in his eye began to rotate faster and faster, until the masked copy nin barked, "Mangekyo Sharingan!"
As the puppets launched themselves towards her from every direction, Hinata did her best to convince herself it wasn't over yet. As long as she was still able to fight she had to believe there was still a small sliver of hope. She raised her palms into a Jyuuken stance, planning to use one last Hakkeshou Kaiten as the puppets streaked towards her, even though she was almost out of chakra. Out of chakra and out of luck. Chiyo-baasama wasn't here to save her this time.
Twenty metres away… fifteen metres… ten metres. Silently, she prayed that it wouldn't be too painful.
A sad smile crossed Sasori's face as he watched the puppets closing in on the Hyuuga girl. "I hate long waits, so I will make this quick for you. I hope that when you die you will see my grandmother in the afterlife. And also…" Sasori hesitated for a moment, his unmarked face lined with just the vaguest hint of uncertainty, before he continued, "I would like her to know that I didn't mean to stab her."
Desperate, Hinata pushed chakra out of her tenketsu and began to spin, keeping her Byakugan active and focused on Sasori's wooden creations and trying to ignore the fear that was threatening to consume her. Her shout of, "Kaiten!" was almost drowned out by the sound of the puppets colliding forcefully with the chakra sphere she had created. But to her horror the sheer mass of puppets pushing against the whirling dome was enough to drive her backwards, even as she destroyed the first hoard of marionettes that came into contact. Almost as soon as the first wave was shattered a second barrage of wooden creations smashed against the spinning blue vortex, almost causing her to lose her balance. Hinata gritted her teeth as she tried to gather more chakra, but the force of the puppets was too great to withstand with just the meagre reserves she had remaining. She didn't have anything else to give.
The Hakkeshou Kaiten lost its spherical shape as Hinata's chakra flow from her tenketsu became irregular and one of the puppets broke through, barrelling into the Hyuuga heiress. Hinata was knocked her off her feet and sent sprawling painfully across the cave floor, all the air forced out of her lungs. She released her Byakugan inadvertently, unable to maintain it without the necessary chakra, and the veins around her eyes rescinded. She sucked in a sharp breath, wincing as she did so, and could taste blood in her mouth – she must have bitten her tongue as she was propelled backwards. Her muscles screamed with effort as she tried unsuccessfully to stand back on her feet. She managed to get to her knees, the exertion making her tremble, but anything beyond that was impossible. Her body felt totally limp, a combination of chakra depletion, fear and tiredness leaving her with the sensation of feeling more drained than she could ever remember being.
As the puppets regrouped and surrounded the tired indigo haired girl, Hinata felt her heart sink as the full hopelessness of the circumstances hit her. She couldn't see any way out of this situation. In a few moments, she would be joining Chiyo, cold and dead on the hard, unforgiving ground.
Hinata took a deep breath and tried to resolve herself to face her end like a true Konoha kunoichi, without screaming, without showing how alone and scared she felt. Sadly, she thought back to her most cherished memories and wished that she could have added to them. The times her mother had read her a bedtime story and kissed her goodnight, back when she had still been alive. The times she had shyly played with Neji when she had been a little girl, laughing and chasing after him in her oversized kimono. The times she had trained with Kiba, Shino and Kurenai-sensei, tired and dirty, but happy that she was getting stronger, even if it was just a little bit, to protect the people she cared about.
And memories of Naruto as well, far too many to count. Watching him slacking off at the Academy and secretly laughing at his loud jokes. Seeing him train himself to his very limits, all alone, as she silently cheered him on. Passing the Genin Exam and forlornly thinking that he had failed and wouldn't qualify to be a ninja with her, despite all his hard work and practice, only to discover the following day that he had graduated after all, much to her relief and quiet delight. Offering her answers to him in the written section of the Chuunin Exam, taking her first step to try and help him. Giving him the medicinal cream after his fight with Kiba and seeing his sunny smile directed at her. Talking to him before his fight with Neji, calling him a 'proud failure' and managing to cheer him up and perhaps inspire him in just a fraction of the way that he had inspired her. And so many others, all blurred into one, with the blonde haired boy's resolute determination and bright blue eyes constant in all of them.
It was no good – Hinata couldn't help the tears, of sadness, nostalgia, happiness, love, fear and a whole host of other emotions, from pouring down her face. As the puppets approached, closing ranks like a well drilled army, Hinata sniffled, teary eyed and whispered, "Goodbye, Naruto-kun…"
And then Hinata heard a hissing sound, before a cold, dry voice that resonated with barely suppressed anger growled, "Sabaku Kyuu!"
Hinata jerked her head up in shock at hearing the voice and Sasori whipped his head around, stunned to see that there was a layer of sand rapidly climbing up his legs and over his stomach, encasing him right the way up to his neck before he even had a chance to move. Turning his head around in surprise, Sasori saw a heavily sweating, deeply breathing and stony faced Kazekage glaring at him, on all fours in a crawling position with one arm raised and a trail of sand flowing from the gourd on his back.
"I will not let you harm my village or its allies," Gaara said in a low, menacing voice, beads of perspiration dripping off his face. With his hair a matted mess and his eyes gaunt and bloodshot he looked genuinely frightening. "And as long as I have breath in my body, I will not let Suna's enemies threaten my home. For that is my duty as Kazekage." Gaara made a clenching movement with his raised fist and the sand surrounding Sasori crushed inwards as the red haired sand user shouted, "Sabaku Sousou!"
There was a horrible crunching noise as the sand constricted around Sasori's wooden body, shattering it into broken pieces. The missing Suna nin collapsed to the ground, eyes still wide with the same expression of quizzical surprise, and his puppets fell alongside him, chakra strings disconnected. Gaara grunted with exertion as his attack ended, falling to the ground himself as his arms gave way beneath him. His breath was coming in short, panting wheezes and he had gone very pale, but there was a smile of tired satisfaction on his lips nonetheless.
And that was it. In just a few seconds Hinata had gone from staring death in the face to seeing her enemy's shattered body lying across the floor. 'I'm alive,' she thought dumbly, listening to the trickling of Gaara's sand and the Kazekage's rasping breaths. 'I'm still alive!' The amazement she felt at not being dead was only matched by the joy she felt at feeling her heart still pumping. She shakily placed a hand on her chest. 'I'm still alive!' The rhythm of her heartbeat, still fast and scared, was delicious to her. As Hinata revelled in the blissful feeling of just surviving, against all odds, she broke down and sobbed into her hands, with regret at being unable to save Chiyo, thankfulness for still existing and hope for the future that now extended limitlessly before her once again but had seemed impossible mere moments ago.
Eventually Hinata slowly rose to her feet, her eyes still watery but no longer overflowing. Her muscles were still sore and tired, but just letting her emotions out through her tears had been a massive relief. Stumbling slightly due to her fatiuge and the broken ground she walked over to Gaara.
"Kazekage-sama, are you alright?" she asked worriedly, as he tried to get his breath back.
Gaara nodded weakly. "The Akatsuki absorbed… much of my… chakra. Using my sand has… left me… very tired."
Hinata was about to ask him whether he was able to stand, but a faint murmur of, "Girl… come here…" made her eyes widen and a bolt of fear strike at her chest. Surely… surely Sasori couldn't be alive still, after what Gaara had done to him, could he?
Turning around slowly, fully expecting to see the puppet master ready to strike her down, she instead saw Sasori's head turned towards her, with his body still lying mangled on top of the ground. There was a dark, murky liquid surrounding him, leaking from the pulsating thing in his chest. "You need not… fear, girl. I have no wish … to fight anymore, even if I… could. Your name was… Hinata, correct?"
Despite her fear of the Akatsuki puppet master, Hinata cautiously walked towards him. It was clear that he couldn't move towards her even if he wanted to, but something about his voice was different to before. It sounded weaker, and slightly faded, but also more… human. There was a tone of honest sadness and genuine emotion that had been absent previously and Hinata was sure it wasn't faked.
"Hinata…" he whispered, eyes focused on hers. "You wanted… to know about… Orochimaru…"
The Hyuuga heiress gasped, her breath catching in her chest. "You know s-something?" she asked desperately, squatting down beside him as his voice became fainter. "You know where Orochimaru is?"
Sasori smiled faintly. "Not quite. But I will tell you… if you do something… for me…"
"Something for y-you?" Hinata asked, confused. "What do you mean?"
"Before I die… please take… my body… and lay it beside… my grandmother… and my parents. Will you… do that?"
Hinata nodded, afraid that even speaking might cause him to change his mind. After seeing his incredibly powerful jutsus… surviving everything he had thrown at her… she felt unworthy at being given what she saw as a reward. In her eyes, she had failed. She may have still been alive, but it was Gaara that had finished the Akatsuki member off, and it was her fault that Chiyo-baasama was… Hinata shook her head slightly, tears threatening to fall again as she thought about the Suna kunoichi's sacrifice.
Sasori's smile became peaceful. "That is… good. You have… my gratitude. Now… as for Orochimaru… You should go to… the Tenshi Bridge in… the Hidden Grass Village… in eleven days time. I arranged to meet… with a spy… in Orochimaru's organisation."
"A spy?" Hinata repeated, a shiver of excitement running down her spine. "Who is it? What do they know? How l-long have they been working with Orochimaru?"
Sasori shook his head. "I have told you… what you wished… to know. Now please… take me to… my family."
Hinata wanted to keep interrogating the puppet user, but she swallowed her questions. Out of respect for his final wishes, even though they were the wishes of a traitor and a villain, Hinata chose to remain silent and lifted Sasori's crushed body into her arms. She was surprised at how light he was – even though he was made of wood he weighed only about as much as a small child and was easy to carry.
Picking her way carefully through the rubble and the broken marionettes, Hinata gently laid Sasori alongside Chiyo and the puppets of his parents. Sasori gazed at them, drinking in their features, eyes flicking from one family member to another in quick succession.
After taking in the faces of his parents and grandmother, Sasori sighed. "After I left Suna… my goal was to become… the perfect puppet. That is why… I modified… my body. But in the end… I am incomplete. I am… a man… that could not become… a puppet. My body may be… wooden… but on the inside… I am still… human." The puppet master paused for a moment, taking in the face of his grandmother with rapt attention. "I tried to convince myself that… I wanted my grandmother… dead… that she was just another body… to add… to my collection. But when I stabbed her… without meaning to… a part of me… wished I hadn't. In some way… beyond my understanding… she was still… precious to me."
Sasori slowly, painstakingly reached out with his broken, mangled arm and rested his hand on Chiyo's. His smile became serene. "It has been so long… since I felt love. But I think… I remember it now… grandmother."
Hinata gasped as she saw Chiyo's own hand twitch ever so slightly. The elderly Suna kunoichi, eyes cracked half open, turned her head slightly to face Sasori. Smiling tenderly, she breathed out from between her blood stained lips, "And I love you too… Sasori."
The effort it had taken Chiyo to speak must have been agonising, but she showed no hint of pain, merely continuing to smile at the puppet master. Then, finally, the last remaining spark of life inside her was extinguished, leaving her eyes lifeless and glassy. Just a moment later Sasori went limp too, grandmother and grandson dying in each other's arms.
And maybe it was just a trick of the light, but Hinata could have sworn, right before he died, that there was a tear dripping down Sasori's face.
Flying high above the ninja pursuing him, Deidara was starting to wonder if they were planning to turn back. None of them seemed to have an attack with which to hit him and he had started to consider dropping a couple of clay bombs, even though his supply was almost all used up, just to keep them all interested and remind them that he still had what they thought might be the Jinchuuriki brat in his possession.
Then he felt the air around him warp and an incredibly powerful pull just to the right of his body. 'What the Hell is this, yeah?' the clay user thought frantically, as he tried to out run the spatial rift by commanding his bird to fly faster. It didn't make any difference though – the pressure on him was increasing and seemed to be drawing him in, like a whirpool. Looking down through the whirling air, the missing Iwa nin saw one of the ninja chasing him had a glowing red eye and quickly realised what was happening. 'This is a doujutsu, almost on Itachi's level! And it's affecting all the air around me too! Gotta try and escape before I get sucked in, yeah!'
Deidara's clay mount banked sharply to the left, and the pull on his body lessened slightly, much to his relief. However, it now seemed to be focused completely on his one remaining arm, and he realised what was about to happen next. 'Oh shit!'
With a ripping sound the Akatsuki member's arm was torn away from his body and vanished in the blink of an eye into the vortex, which flickered out of existence, leaving behind only a few specks of blood on Deidara's Akatsuki robes. The explosives expert grunted and nearly blacked out from the pain, but gritted his teeth and fought through it, trying to get out of range of any repeat of the technique. Then he noticed a flash of orange to his left.
Timing his leap to perfection, Naruto roared, "Rasengan!" and hammered the whirling sphere of chakra in his hand down at the clay bird. Deidara quickly jumped back to avoid the attack as his clay creation was decapitated and, still in mid air, Naruto shouted, "Kage Bunshin no Jutsu!" A puff of smoke announced the creation of three clones, which helped him grab hold of the bird's head and landed safely on one of the branches of a tall, sturdy tree growing atop the valley wall. Immediately Naruto and his Kage Bunshin were joined by Temari, who desperately began clawing away at the white clay to reach her brother.
Deidara landed on a tree bough on the other side of the valley, and looked across warily, taking in his enemies. There was the blonde haired brat that had destroyed his bird, helping his clones and the girl scrabble away at the thin layer of clay. The kunoichi with the fan was crying out her brother's name as she scraped away at the clay with her bare hands. Still inside the valley was the one that had hit him with the doujutsu, Hatake Kakashi, who had dropped to his knees and was keeping one hand over his left eye as he grimaced in pain. He was breathing heavily and visibly shaking. Deidara relaxed slightly. The infamous copy nin, that Zetsu had warned about and even Itachi respected, was definitely the biggest threat – with him currently out of commission and the other two focused on cracking open his clay bird's head, now was his chance to escape.
Deidara grinned and was just about to jump off the branch when he felt his body freeze and a great pressure around his neck. With a great effort he twisted his head to look behind him and he noticed the boy in the chuunin vest that he'd almost forgotten about standing on the same tree bough, his hands clasped together and a long, thin shadow extending from his feet.
"Kage Kubi Shibari no Jutsu," Shikamaru muttered and the compression around Deidara's neck increased, making it difficult for the Akatsuki ninja to breathe. As Deidara tried to break free from the jutsu he quickly realised that it wasn't going to work – the grip on him was too tight and his entire body felt completely paralyzed.
"There's no point struggling," said the Nara boy, taking a step closer to Deidara and unclasping his hands. "You're not going to break out of this any time soon, and with no arms you can't work any jutsu."
Shikamaru was surprised to see that despite the lack of air the Akatsuki ninja smirked. "I may not… be able to... break free," he grunted, trying to shift his neck away from the shadowy hand that was gripped tightly around it. "But who said… I haven't… already… performed… a jutsu?"
"What?" Shikamaru exclaimed. "You're bluffing, there's no way that you…" The gears in his head turning, Shikamaru quickly analysed the situation. 'This guy uses clay at long distances,' he thought quickly, his gaze flickering from the smirking pony tailed man in front of him to the worn out Kakashi and across to Naruto and Temari, who had managed to scrape away the top of the bird's head and were pulling an unconscious Gaara through the hole they had made. 'With no arms and locked into my jutsu he can't make any more clay creations. So that means that he must have something already set up… but all that I can see is the bird head that Naruto caught and Gaara inside it…' Suddenly the Nara boy's eyes widened and he released the Akatsuki member from his shadow bind, running to the edge of the tree branch and shouting across, "Temari, Naruto, get away from Gaara! It's a clay clone!"
Naruto and Temari, hearing Shikamaru's shout, jerked their heads up at the sound of his voice, then looked back down at Gaara… or rather, the clay clone of Gaara, which was starting to swell up rapidly.
"Too… late…" coughed Deidara, rubbing his neck against his shoulder as he was released from the jutsu but smiling truimphantly. "Nendo Bunshin Daibakuha!"
The copy of Gaaara continued to inflate like a balloon as it started to glow a bright white. Deidara laughed hysterically. "Now you're gonna witness the true beauty of my art with your own eyes, yeah!" he called across to the two shocked ninja. "It'll be the last thing you see before it blows you to bits!"
Naruto or Temari scrambled to their feet desperately, but before they could jump back to avoid the blast radius the clay clone shuddered, paused for the briefest of moments, and detonated in a flash of blinding white light, obscuring the two ninja from sight as Shikamaru yelled their names and Deidara laughed manically.
Author's Notes: Okay, hands up who saw the whole 'Gaara wakes up' thing coming? Anyone? If you did then well done you! Heh, I've had that little gem planned out right from the moment I started writing this fanfic, so it feels absolutely awesome to have it written out. I've got a few more twists and turns planned out for later on too, just to keep people in anticipation… Something that I wanted to talk about in the Author's Notes section for this chapter is the way that I contain multiple 'scene shifts' in a single chapter – for instance Chapter Ten contained seven shifts of narration, with perspectives from many different characters, including Sakura, Deidara and Itachi, as well as others too. I brought this up because a few reviewers have commented on how they didn't like some of the 'less important' sections, and I suppose if I shift scenes too much there is the potential to lose focus on the main plot. However, I've got to say that this is one thing that I quite like when reading the fanfiction of others – in my opinion the subplots are important to stop the main plot becoming 'stale', so is it just me that likes this part of my writing style or is there do others enjoy my scene shifts too? If a majority don't like it I'll try to lessen them in future, despite my preferences; after all, it's you guys I'm trying to entertain here! Also, I'd like to thank Rose Tiger, not just for reviewing almost every chapter of the story so far (though definitely that too!), but also for reviewing so quickly, generally on the day that I publish any new material, which is really nice to see. People being so eager to see my work makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside, so thanks for the continuing support, it's not ignored and very much appreciated! Oh, and to answer the review from narutobelieveit9001, I've interpreted Hinata's Juuho Soushiken to be like a powered up, twin fisted chakra attack – think of it as being a Jyuuken strike with the surface area and destructive capabilities of a hammer rather than a pin, as an ordinary Jyuuken strike would have. And as for chapter updates, even if I'm busy or not really in the mood for writing (which does happen occasionally – I can be kinda lazy at times!) I force myself to sit down at the computer and write at least a couple of sentences every single day. It gets me through chapters fairly swiftly – I update as quickly as I can – and it makes me feel like I'm doing something productive for my precious readers! Ok, hope you all enjoyed the chapter, and I hope to update again fairly soon. Sorry for kinda leaving it on another cliffhanger, but hey, it keeps people interested, right? Anyway, until next time, bye!
List of Jutsu:
'Kuchiyose: Tobidougu' = 'Summoning: Projectile Weapons'
'Omote Renge' = 'Front Lotus'
'Hakke Hyakunijuuhachishou' = 'Eight Divination Signs, One-Hundred-and-Twent-Eight Palms of the Hand'
'Sabaku Kyuu' ='Desert Coffin'
'Sabaku Sousou' = 'Desert Funeral'
'Kage Kubi Shibari no Jutsu' = 'Shadow Neck Bind Technique'
'Nendo Bunshin Daibakuha' = 'Clay Clone Explosion'
Joke Corner: Biology is the lesbian sister of Chemistry.