Waiting with Hope

Precious People

Chapter Twelve: Precious People

When she had told Kankuro that she would ask for another squad to be sent out to search for Gaara, Sakura had guessed it would be comprised of maybe three or four ninja. Five at the very most. She could hardly believe the huge numbers that had volunteered to be a part of the rescue mission – it seemed that every shinobi in the whole village, from the least experienced genin to the most battle hardened jonin, had pledged their support for their kidnapped Kazekage. Only Baki and a few 'skeleton staff' ninja had remained in Suna to keep things running smoothly and Gaara's former sensei had sent the mostly recovered Kankuro and the village elder Ebizou, who were joint leaders of the group, off on their mission with his blessing, wishing them luck.

In Sakura's opinion it was one of the most amazing sights she had even seen to witness literally hundreds of shinobi running tirelessly through deserts, forests and canyons, all to try and save their Kazekage. But what had made an even bigger impression on the pin haired medic nin was that as they had departed, passing through the village gates, a huge crowd of ordinary civilians had cheered them on their way. The total confidence the Suna residents were placing in them to recover Gaara was startling; they fully believed that soon they would have their Kazekage back with them.

Sakura smiled. Witnessing the whole of Suna united behind someone that only a few years ago had been hated and feared underlined the massive transformation that Gaara had made since his fight against Naruto. The younger generation of Suna ninja in particular seemed to be desperate to save him – the brown haired girl that Sakura had been travelling alongside, who had introduced herself as Matsuri, had described how Gaara's steady but kind leadership had bonded both ninja and civilians alike behind a common purpose, a goal to make Suna peaceful and prosperous.

"I hope that Gaara-sama is alright…" Matsuri whispered, almost to herself as the group sped through the treetops. "If anything happened to him, after all he did to protect us from the Akatsuki invasion…"

"I'm sure he'll be fine," smiled Sakura, trying to sound unconcerned despite her own worry. "Gaara-sama is very strong and my team will do all they can to protect him. We just have to have faith in them and help out however we can when we get there."

"But Gaara-sama needs us," said Matsuri sadly, her eyes downcast. "When the Akatsuki member attacked our village he put his life on the line to keep us safe whilst we all just watched on, helpless. Now he needs our help, and I feel like I can't do anything. I need… umm, I mean, we need him."

Sakura raised her eyebrows at the girl's slip of the tongue towards the end of her small speech, but chose not to comment on it. More importantly, she could relate to Matsuri's feeling of powerlessness quite easily – not knowing what was happening was arguably worse than hearing that their fears had come to pass – so she tried to cheer up the brown haired kunoichi. "But everyone is trying to help now that he needs people to support him," she reasoned to the younger girl. "Isn't that exactly what he would have wanted, seeing the whole village united behind him as Kazekage?"

Matsuri shifted uncomfortably. "Not everyone," she whispered, so quietly that Sakura had to crane her neck to hear her. "Some of the members of the Village Council… they just see Gaara-sama as a monster. I think that some of them… some of them didn't even want to organise a rescue mission. But he's changed so much from the old days and we shouldn't blame him for the past. It was the previous Kazekage that ordered the Shukaku to be sealed inside him. Inside his own son! That's the image of Suna that Gaara-sama wants to leave behind… He's… a very kind man and wants Suna to be recognised by others as having changed… just like him…"

"But even if there are some people that still can't see him as the person that he really is, just look at everyone that volunteered to save him," Sakura pointed out. "The village's opinion of him may have been negative in the past and I suppose that Gaara-sama may never win over the respect and love of some of the villagers, but the majority of the people care for him now. Do you think any of these ninja that are risking their lives for Gaara-sama see him as a monster?"

Matsuri looked around, taking in the expressions of worry and determination on the faces of the Suna ninja surrounding her. Mustering a small, thankful smile, she murmured her gratitude to Sakura and refocused her attention on travelling even faster, hoping her efforts would allow her to reach Gaara just a little bit sooner.

-o-o-

Gai watched on in awe as his team systematically beat his clone down. Seeing Neji, Tenten and Lee working together to bring down the Akatsuki copy when he himself had been unable to defeat it was truly a sight to behold and Gai felt proud of the progress that his young charges had made. It had been holding its own against just Lee and Tenten, although just barely, but when Neji had joined in the duplicate of the spandex clad jonin had been well and truly outmatched.

The copy was sent reeling backwards from a powerful fist to the stomach by Lee, who immediately went airbourne and launched a flurry of downward kicks. The duplicate managed to protect itself from the worst of the strikes by crossing its arms in front of its face, but as soon as Lee ended his onslaught and jumped backwards Neji quickly moved in and jabbed at the clone from behind, shouting, "Hakke Hasangeki!"

The fake Gai managed to avoid the full force of the blow by twisting sharply, but Neji still made the slightest contact, brushing the clone's shoulder and blasting it off its feet into the rock wall behind it with a wave of condensed chakra. Seeing an opportunity as the duplicate of Gai sluggishly picked itself up from Neji's attack, Tenten pulled out a scroll and flared her chakra, causing a large, spiked ball to fly from the summoning contract. The Akatsuki copy jumped to the side to dodge the barbed sphere, but as soon as the weapon hit the rock face behind the clone it detonated with a loud bang, bringing the rest of the wall down too and burying the duplicate in a mound of rocky debris.

Tenten grimaced. 'It's not over yet,' she thought grimly. 'No way would the real Gai-sensei be taken down by something like that, so we have to assume that this fake is still alive too.' Pulling a second scroll out from behind her back, Tenten hesitated for a split second before overcoming her indecision and making a signal to Gai, who snapped out of his dazed state of spectatorship and nodded at Lee and Neji, recognising Tenten's hand sign to be the signal for a team formation they had practiced. Following Tenten's lead Lee and Neji quickly moved into a V-shaped formation, with Tenten at the back of the group, Lee and Neji flanking her and the pile of fragmented rubble in the centre, an equal distance apart from all three shinobi. Gai stood closest to the collapsed rock wall in a defensive taijutsu stance, ready to carry out his own part of the plan.

The auburn haired Konoha kunoichi unfurled the scroll and with a burst of chakra and a puff of smoke a long section of chain was summoned, with explosive notes attached between the metal links. She threw one end to Neji and the other to Lee, just as the Akatsuki clone clawed its way out of the rubble. It was covered in dust and had a few noticeable scrapes and cuts where the skin around it was turning a festering green colour but still seemed to be in fighting condition. With a burst of power the rest of the duplicate's skin turned an angry red as it unlocked the Celestial Gates and there was a visible blue haze surrounding it as its chakra supply continued to rise.

However, before it could launch an attack Gai dived forwards and wrapped his arms around his doppelganger from behind in a powerful bear hug, preventing the copy from moving its arms. At the same moment, Neji and Lee dashed forward with each end of the chain in their hands. As Gai's duplicate struggled to break free from the original's grip, Lee and Neji circled them both, wrapping Tenten's chain around both of them tightly.

Gai winced as he felt the sharp metal links of the chain bite into his skin, but made sure to keep his grip around his copy as firm as possible. He knew from experience just how much power unlocking the Celestial Gates granted the user – if he let his clone get its arms free from his grip then the chain might as well have been made of paper for all the good it would do.

Lee and Neji continued to wrap the long chain around their former sensei and his clone, until neither one of them could move even an inch. Lee smiled widely as he passed his end of the chain back to Tenten, and Neji nodded wordlessly as he handed over his own section.

Tenten murmured a quick, "Thanks," to both of her teammates and glanced questioningly at the tied up Maito Gai. He couldn't move his hands to signal that he was ready, but he smiled a tooth gleaming smile and winked at her to signify that he was fully prepared.

Tenten couldn't help but wince at his choice of gesture – there had to be some law somewhere that prevented anyone wearing spandex from ever winking – but took a step forward and grasped both ends of the chain tightly in her hands. The clone was still struggling to break free and the chain was clinking and jerking about in Tenten's grip as the copy thrashed about, but the weapons expert gritted her teeth and slowly allowed her chakra to flow outwards into the chain. This needed to be very precise, otherwise Gai would be seriously hurt – her target was only the clone. The explosive tags around the duplicate began to fizzle as Tenten carefully moulded her chakra to activate the paper bombs around the copy. However, the explosive tags nearest to Gai remained inactive, just as Tenten had planned. Her former sensei would unfortunately still get a little singed by the blasts, but Gai's body would be shielded by his clone, meaning that so long as she measured her attack he wouldn't be blown to smithereens.

Taking a deep breath and hoping she wouldn't hurt her spandex clad teacher, the Konoha kunoichi flared her chakra into the explosive notes. The tags glowed for an instant, before exploding with a blinding flash of light. The controlled explosion kicked up a large cloud of dust, obscuring Gai and his copy from view, but using his Byakugan to see what had happened Neji called out, "Gai-sensei is unharmed. There is no need to panic, Tenten," before the weapons expert could get overly worried.

Tenten let out the breath she had been holding, her heart thumping against her ribcage. Silently she thanked Neji for being so alert to her anxiety. This formation had paid off in the past – both Lee and Neji had previously been in Gai's situation, putting their lives directly into her hands – but the risk of hurting her teammates was one that she could never push completely to one side. Even though she had confidence in her own abilities, knowing that even the slightest error could result in serious injuries – or worse – was a responsibility that she didn't want to have to face unless she could avoid it.

As the smoke cleared, Tenten could see that Neji was right; Gai was indeed perfectly fine for the most part, having been sheltered behind his duplicate and avoiding the worst of the attack. He was coughing from the resulting smoke cloud and Tenten noticed guiltily that he had a few minor burns – his hands in particular, as he had been holding the clone in place for the explosion – but his smile remained very much intact. Tenten smiled shakily. At least some things never changed.

The Akatsuki copy, on the other hand, had taken the full brunt of the numerous blasts. It was now a barely recognisable pasty smear, spread out across the floor at Gai's feet and covering his sandals. Tenten noticed with distaste that rotting clumps of the Akatsuki jutsu's body had also been flung in various directions by the force of the blast – there was one particularly disgusting green stain on the trunk of a tree several feet away.

Gai made a face and wiped his soiled sandal on the ground, trying to remove the green gunk from his footwear. Managing to get the worst of the mess off, he turned to face his young charges. "YOSH!" he shouted, raising a hand in the air. "EXCELLENT WORK, MY YOUTHFUL PUPILS! NOW THAT WE HAVE DEFEATED OURSELVES, WE MUST HURRY TO THE AID OF HINATA-SAN AND CHIYO-BAASAMA!"

Noticing that all of his students had put their hands over their ears to block out his incredibly loud voice, Gai blinked confusedly, then chuckled. "Ah, my apologies," he said, speaking more quietly this time. "I did not realise that I was speaking so loudly. The explosion must have momentarily disrupted my hearing. But more importantly, we must now support our fellow shinobi in their fight against the Akatsuki members. There is no time to lose!"

-o-o-

Leaning on each other for support, Hinata and Gaara exited the cave together, with one final glance back at the unmoving forms of Sasori and Chiyo. Gaara's breathing was still slightly heavy, but he was no longer wheezing quite so badly and a little colour had returned to his face. Hinata too was feeling slightly better, though by no means in perfect condition – her throat still felt sore from Sasori's poison gas attack, her chakra supply was depleted, her muscles were tired after all of her exertions and her left ankle was very sore and bruised from where she had landed after the puppet had broken through her final unsuccessful Kaiten. The adrenaline of the fight was beginning to die down and she could feel the aches and pains through her body even more acutely than during the battle itself – her ankle in particular, which she had barely noticed during the fight, was now throbbing painfully. However, in terms of genuine injuries, other than her painful ankle she only had a few fairly minor cuts and scrapes. Quite honestly she was amazed that she had escaped the battle with so few wounds.

Hinata and Gaara stood outside the cave's entrance for a few moments in silence, the small amount of chakra needed to support themselves on the water's surface and the emotional end to the fight with Sasori leaving them both too tired to speak. Hinata wanted to try and catch up with Naruto and the rest of the team that had gone after the other Akatsuki member, but shifting her weight on the water reminded her of her ankle and she only just contained a whimper of pain. Walking unaided was out of the question in her current condition.

As her ankle twinged uncomfortably again, an image of Chiyo shielding her flashed across her mind. Hinata's tears had dried up, but she couldn't stop thinking of how the elderly woman had sacrificed herself without so much as a second thought. The Suna kunoichi had seemed so quiet and withdrawn at first, but right before she had died she had been just like an ordinary grandmother, smiling at her grandson with love in her eyes. Although Hinata had been a little intimidated by the mysterious, aged woman at first, wondering why she had been so distant and taciturn, after talking with her at the camp the Hyuuga girl had realised that despite her first impressions Chiyo truly was a loving, caring person. Hinata's initial curiosity as to why she had decided to go on the mission at all – at her age it was clear that she had retired from active duty as a ninja, so she didn't have to be a part of the rescue team – had also been cleared up by their conversation that night; hearing Chiyo talk about her grandson and seeing her interact with him in the heat of battle showed she still felt the bonds of family, no matter how hard Sasori had tried to sever them. She had wanted to kill Sasori only to save him from himself.

After a long silence Gaara spoke up. "Chiyo-baasama shall be given an honourable burial," he said turning his gaze towards the sky. "I give you my word. It is the very least that she deserves for her bravery and her dedication to Suna."

Hinata nodded, not trusting herself to speak. Taking a deep, shuddering breath, she murmured, "Thank you, K-Kazekage-sama…" in a quiet voice.

Gaara lapsed into silence once again after hearing her thanks and tentatively shifted his weight away from Hinata to support himself on his own feet. They trembled slightly beneath him but he was able to stand atop the water on his own. He took a few wobbly steps but managed to regain his balance and slowly began walking towards the shore of the lake. Hinata followed him as best as she could, trying to avoid putting unnecessary pressure on her left leg.

As he reached the shore Gaara slumped down onto the floor in a seated position, breathing deeply, though not panting for air as he had been earlier. Hinata sat herself down beside him as she stepped onto the land herself, stretching out her legs into a more comfortable position for her ankle. She looked down at it to see how bad it was. To her relief it didn't look like it was broken – the surrounding flesh was red and inflamed, but she was able to gently rotate the joint and wriggle her toes without too much pain.

Gaara looked down at the pebbles on the small, rocky beach. Slowly, fascinated, he picked up a handful of the damp, glistening stones. Cupping them in his hands he let them flow over each other, watching intently as the light flashed off them, before allowing them to fall through his fingers with a patter like raindrops as they hit the ground.

The red headed Jinchuuriki boy let out a sigh. "You have my gratitude… for saving me, I mean… Hinata-san, was it? I think I recognise you from the Chuunin Exams back in Konoha."

Hinata nodded, surprised at both being remembered by the Kazekage and by his words. "Ano… you d-don't need to thank me, Kazekage-sama. Your village is allied to mine, and you are the Kazekage – if our Hokage was in the same position I'm sure that you would wish to h-help too. And b-besides, you saved me as well, remember?"

"That is true," Gaara nodded tiredly, a hint of uncertainty in his usually stoic voice. "But… when I was unconscious and the Akatsuki were sucking out my chakra… I couldn't help but think that no-one would come to save me at all. That I was… alone again."

Hinata glanced at him, concerned. "Ano… I heard about the Ichibi sealed inside you –" Gaara tensed slightly at the name of the monster sealed away in his stomach but didn't interrupt "– And I know you must have had a very cruel childhood… The people shouldn't have t-treated you the way they did. But…" Hinata paused for a moment, looking across at Gaara before asking, confused, "I d-don't understand. With everyone that cares about you… why would you think that you're alone again?"

Gaara jerked his head up at her, surprise written across his face. He opened his mouth to protest the point but no words came out. Seeing his uncertainty, Hinata took a deep breath and continued as gently as she could, "You have m-many people that were willing to risk their lives to help you. Back in Suna, Baki-sama was willing to send out a whole army to search for you if that was what it took. Your brother, K-Kankuro-san, attacked two Akatsuki members on his own to try and save you and your sister is on this mission with me – she seems very w-worried about you. And…" Hinata paused again and blushed slightly, but continued, "I know that Naruto-kun would n-never abandon you, or any of his f-friends. He admires you v-very much."

Gaara's eyebrows shot up when he heard the name of his fellow demon container. "Uzumaki Naruto came on your mission as well?" Seeing Hinata nod, her cheeks still faintly pink, he let a small, contented smile grace his lips. "I see… Thank you for informing me of that, Hinata-san. I feel… happy… that now I have precious people too, just like him. I owe him a great deal." Gaara straightened his back and looked straight ahead, his smile spreading and becoming a small but undeniable grin. Despite his bloodshot eyes, matted hair and pale skin, there was a quiet aura of determination and inner peace radiating from him.

Then Hinata heard a shout of, "Hinata-sama!" from behind her. Turning her head at the familiar voice, she called out, "Neji-niisan!" delightedly in reply, gingerly rising to her feet as her cousin and the rest of Team Gai ran onto the rocky beach.

"Yosh! Where is your opponent, Hinata-san?" asked Lee eagerly, jumping to the front of the group and hopping from one foot to the other with excitement. "As a certified genius of hard work, I will show him the power of the Springtime of Youth!" Then Lee's eyes widened comically with total surprise as he noticed Gaara, still seated behind the Hyuuga girl. His eyebrows knitted together as he attempted to make sense of what was happening, his eyes shifting from Hinata, to Gaara, to the collapsed cave behind them. "Wait… if Gaara-sama is here… and Hinata-san is also here… and the cave has been destroyed… and there is no sign of the Akatsuki… that must mean…" Lee's face scrunched up as the cogs slowly turned in his head, before a flash of inspiration lit up his face and he shouted out, "That must mean… you were successful in your youthful endeavours?"

Seeing Hinata nod hesitantly, Lee and Gai both cheered, a warm smile crossed Neji's face and Tenten gasped. "You mean you actually beat him, Hinata? That's fantastic! You're amazing, I can't believe – wait, where's Chiyo-baasama? Shouldn't she be here too?"

Hinata flinched at the mention of the elderly Suna kunoichi – the memory of Chiyo's death, right in front of her own eyes, was something the Hyuuga girl couldn't get out of her head. Her eyes downcast and her voice shaky, she whispered, "Chiyo-baasama… is g-gone."

Team Gai all bowed their heads solemnly at her words, even the usually exuberant Gai and Lee. They all knew the risks of going on a mission as dangerous as this, but the death of a comrade was still nothing to take lightly.

Hearing the lost, desolate tone in the indigo haired girl's voice and realising her obvious distress, Tenten realised what must have happened and immediately felt bad about bringing up Chiyo's absence so directly. "Oh, Hinata, I'm so sorry, that was so insensitive of me! I didn't mean to say it like I was accusing you or anything like that!"

Raising her eyes to meet the gaze of her fellow Konoha kunoichi, Hinata gave a watery smile. "It's a-alright, Tenten-san, I d-don't mind."

Seeing his younger cousin on the verge of tears, Neji decided to step in and help her by diverting the conversation to a less emotional subject. It seemed clear to him that Chiyo's death was not something she felt she could talk about yet, not until she'd had time to process the emotions she was feeling. "We can discuss exactly what happened later, but right now we still have a mission to take care of," he announced tersely, taking a protective step closer to his cousin. "Kakashi's squad are still chasing after the other Akatsuki member, and we should back them up. Kazekage-sama, Hinata-sama, can the two of you travel with us?"

"It is unfortunate, but there is the possibility that I could slow you down," Gaara responded, a slight trace of irritation apparent in his voice at the weakness he felt after the Akatsuki's interference. "I may be in need of some assistance."

Hinata shook her head, biting her lip nervously. "Ano… I hurt my ankle in the f-fight. I d-don't think I could keep up either…" Hinata paused for a moment, ducking her head as her emotions getting the better of her for a moment, before whispering in a voice so quiet that only Neji could hear, "I'm sorry, I f-feel like such a b-burden again…"

Neji said nothing in reply, instead turning away so that his back was facing her and squatting down slightly. "Ano… Neji-niisan…what are y-you doing?" Hinata asked, confused by his strange change in posture.

Neji glanced back in her direction. "What does it look like I am doing, Hinata-sama?" he replied coolly, arching an eyebrow. "You are unable to walk, and as a member of the branch family it is my duty to assist you. Please allow me to carry you."

Although his words were serious and business-like there was a small smile on his face. Hinata smiled timidly back and hobbled over to him, settling herself onto his back as best as she could and murmuring a quiet, "Thank you, Neji-niisan."

Neji turned to face her, the smile on his face widening a fraction. "There is no need to thank me, Hinata-sama," he whispered back to her. "As I said, it is my duty to help you however I am able." He paused for a moment, shifting her weight so that she was less awkwardly positioned and allowing Hinata to reach her arms around his neck to prevent herself from slipping off his back. "But more importantly… you should take great pride in what you have achieved today. Surviving a fight against an Akatsuki ninja is no small feat. I am very proud of you and your accomplishment. And I am certain that Hiashi-sama will be very proud of you too."

Hinata's eyes went wide at his words and she blushed bright pink, but she couldn't stop her smile from growing. If she hadn't already had her arms wrapped around him she would have hugged her cousin. Instead she just whispered, "Thank you, Neji-niisan," again in an emotional, choked up voice and tightened her arms around his neck. Neji nodded silently in acknowledgement.

Listening to the two cousins talk, Tenten smiled at how Neji had managed to reconnect with the main branch of the Hyuuga clan, putting all his bitterness behind him, as Gai and Lee began celebrating 'the youthful bonds of family,' tears streaming down their faces as they hugged.

Recovering from his emotional outburst, Lee walked over to Gaara and mimicked Neji's posture, squatting slightly and offering his back. "Gaara-sama, you said that you needed assistance travelling?" the spandex clad chuunin enquired, flashing a gleaming smile at him. "I would be happy to offer my youthfu–"

Gaara's eye twitched. "On second thoughts," he interrupted stonily, rising to his feet, "I would prefer to walk."

-o-o-

There were times when Kakashi felt much older than he actually was. The day his father had died. The mission in which he had lost his eye and Obito had been crushed. The night of the Kyuubi's attack. Sasuke's defection from Konoha to join Orochimaru. Although he was only in his twenties, he had witnessed so much and lost so many people precious to him that occasionally he felt like a broken down, lonely old man.

That was why, when he saw the clay clone of Gaara begin to glow a blinding white, he knew he couldn't let Naruto and Temari die. His blonde haired student, who had put up with so much pain and torment without even the slightest complaint or frown, was very precious to Kakashi, despite being loud and obnoxious sometimes, and Temari was a comrade, an ally. He couldn't ever abandon the people that relied on him, the people that trusted him. Especially when he had so few of them left.

Kakashi felt the burning sensation return as his Sharingan eye began to spin once again, but he ignored it as much as he could and focused all his attention on the fake Gaara, which had swelled up rapidly and was glowing white. With a shudder, the clay clone detonated violently and Kakashi quickly forced chakra into his eye.

A small rift in the air appeared next to the source of the explosion and began sucking the force of the blast in, away from Naruto and Temari. Immediately Kakashi could tell that the vortex he had created wasn't quite close enough to the explosion's starting point – the intense heat and shockwave caused by the blast weren't fully contained by the Mangekyo Sharingan's spatial rend and Naruto's clones were forcibly dispelled by the impact. The masked copy nin gritted his teeth, feeling the intensity and heat of the blast even from the distance he was at, and strengthened the suction of the vortex he had created as best as he could. The stinging pain in his left eye became even more agonising and just keeping his eye open was torture, but Kakashi refused to yield to the pain whilst Naruto and Temari were still in danger.

'I won't let another ally die when I could have done something to prevent it,' the silver haired jonin thought grimly, digging his fingernails into the palm of his hand to try and distract himself from the condition of his eye. 'Not this time!'

To his relief, he could see that the now strengthened division in the air was drawing the explosion in. If not for the biting pain and his vision beginning to blur, Kakashi would have found the scene beautiful – the blast was sucked into the vortex like brightly coloured water down a plughole and the surrounding air shimmered in the light of the explosion like the reflections of thousands of mirrors all at once.

Kakashi grunted as the gap in the air that he had created finally blinked out of existence, having successfully absorbed the explosion, and the strain on his Sharingan eye ended. Groaning, he allowed his eyelid to shut and relished the cooling sensation. His entire body was shaking from the effort of using the doujutsu a second time, but the knowledge that everyone was safe was enough for him. Even so, he had to admit that he wasn't feeling all that great. Not only was his eye almost unbearably sore, he had used up almost all of his chakra. He felt almost totally helpless. He had just enough chakra for maybe one last Mangekyo Sharingan attack. If he tried any more than that it would probably kill him.

Up on the tree branch, Naruto blinked rapidly several times to clear his vision from the blinding flash of the explosion. His ears were ringing from the force of the blast and Temari seemed to be in the same condition as him, judging by the way that she was covering her ears with her hands. As the bright spots of light in front of his eyes gradually rescinded, Naruto looked around, confused by the explosion just suddenly vanishing and trying to find out just how he hadn't been burnt to a crisp. Then he noticed his silver haired sensei, who had one hand covering his left eye, and realised what must have happened.

"Kakashi-sensei, are you alright?" Naruto shouted, though with his distorted hearing it sounded like he was hearing someone else speaking from far away and it sent a bolt of pain straight into his skull. Groaning, Naruto inserted a finger into his ear and twisted it, trying to make the ringing sound stop so he could hear his sensei's reply.

"Yeah… I'll be fine…" came Kakashi's exhausted answer. "Just give me… a minute… or two…"

'Kakashi-sensei's using his new Sharingan thingy too much!' realised Naruto, watching as the masked copy nin breathed heavily and dragged himself into a standing position, leaning on one of the valley walls for support. 'It must be like in that fight against Zabuza back in Wave Country. That attack of his was amazing though! For a pervert who's always late, Kakashi-sensei sure is one powerful ninja!'

Naruto heard a shout, slightly muffled by his messed up hearing. "Naruto, Temari, are you ok?" It took Naruto a few moments to realise that it was Shikamaru's voice that he had just heard, sounding both panicked and relieved at the same time.

"Yeah, we're both fine!" Naruto yelled back at the Nara boy on the other side of the valley. "But where'd that Akatsuki bastard go?"

Shikamaru inwardly cursed as he realised that he had released the clay using ninja from his shadow in the panic to warn Naruto and Temari. 'That was sloppy,' he told himself critically, disappointed by his lack of composure. Eyes darting, he searched for the armless man as quickly as he could, hoping to make up for his previous error. He didn't have far to look – the Akatsuki member had dropped down beside the headless body of the giant bird he had been riding and was tearing chunks out of it with his mouth.

Naruto and Temari had noticed him too and along with Shikamaru started moving purposefully towards him, Temari raising her fan to finish him off and Naruto grunting, "Kage Bunshin no Jutsu!" to summon a dozen clones to surround the clay user, blocking off any escape route. Deidara saw the three ninja and the hoard of shadow clones approaching but merely continued ripping out pieces of clay between his teeth as fast as he could. He could only see one way out of his current situation and survival was a lot more important right now than trying to take on three ninja at once with no arms. He may have been arrogant, but he was no fool.

"There's nowhere left to run, you Akatsuki freak!" shouted the original Naruto, pointing angrily at Deidara. "You're finished!"

Deidara muttered, "Jibaku Bunshin," under his breath, before smirking at the assembled ninja. "Well, if I really am finished, how would all of you like to see my ultimate work of art, yeah? I know you'll be impressed… Because my art… truly is… a bang!"

"No way…" Shikamaru murmured, eyes widening as the blonde haired man tore off one final strip of clay from the grounded bird. "Surely even this guy wouldn't be crazy enough to…" Shikamaru trailed off as he saw the Akatsuki ninja begin to swell up, the seams of his cloud patterned robes straining, and realised what was about to happen. He groaned inwardly. 'Not again…' he thought to himself, leaping backwards to escape from the blast radius. 'Explosions are so troublesome…'

With a piercing, high pitched scream, Deidara detonated, vanishing in a flash of light. The shrill shriek seemed to last an age, echoing like an ungodly curse before finally petering out. A loud roaring noise, like a thousand thunderstorms all at once, announced the presence of the explosion, closing in on Naruto, Shikamaru and Temari rapidly. The three of them forced chakra into their legs, desperately trying to outrun it. Glancing over his shoulder, Shikamaru did some quick mental calculations in his head, trying to work out whether they would be safe or not. 'Shit!' he cursed inwardly, trying to run faster as the explosion began to gain on them, blossoming outward like a fiery, destructive flower. 'At this rate we're not gonna make it!' He could feel the air becoming hot and stifling, closing in around him and seeming to drag him back into the inferno, and there was sweat on his forehead. He didn't know whether it was from the all encompassing heat that was buzzing around him like a swarm of angry locusts or from the fear that clenched at his gut. 'Probably both,' he concluded, repressing the crazy urge to laugh. In a situation like this, it wasn't like there was anything else he could do.

His eyes flickered to Temari, running alongside him as fast as she could, her teeth gritted and a mixture of grim determination and panic flashing across her eyes as she came to the same conclusion that he had made. The contrast of light and shadows caused by the explosion, combined with the way that her speed was making her bunched up hair flow out behind her, made her look startlingly beautiful, like a fearsome warrior queen. Shikamaru almost burst out into hysterical laughter again. 'Oh God, what's wrong with me?' he asked himself, bemused by the path his thoughts were taking him down. 'Here I am, about to die, and all I can think about is that troublesome woman? I must be going senile…'

Naruto, meanwhile, was desperately running through the list of every jutsu, strategy and technique that he ever learned, trying to find something – Hell, anything – that might help him escape. But as the roar of the blast increased, so much so that it was all consuming, everywhere at once, vibrating Naruto from the inside out and making his teeth rattle, the orange clad ninja couldn't think of anything useful. 'I don't know how to Shunshin… Kawarimi doesn't work at long distances… summoning a toad to block the explosion would just hurt it… Dammit, Ero-Sennin, why didn't you teach me anything for a situation like this?' he screamed inside his head, glancing desperately over his shoulder at the incoming fireball. The white hot heat was even worse than the noise – the temperatures he had experienced in the desert, on the way to Suna, weren't even comparable. This was like floating inside the core of the sun. He grimaced and sucked in a quick, sharp breath, before shutting his mouth as quickly as possible – inhaling the biting hot air was hurting his throat.

Then, as the searing heat began to burn the skin on the back of his neck and became almost unbearable, Naruto felt the temperature and sound of the giant explosion suddenly die down, leaving a cooler, delicious silence behind. Naruto gulped in a grateful breath of air – it was still warm from the blast but to his parched throat it was like a fresh sea breeze. Turning around and wincing as he rubbed the back of his scorched neck, Naruto looked for any trace of the explosion, guessing that he and the others had managed to outrun it, but to his surprise there was nothing but a group of scorched, toppled trees and a slight acrid smell wafting in the air. There wasn't even any smoke. The pony tailed man had totally disappeared too; Naruto could only assume that he had been consumed by the blast. The blonde haired boy shuddered; even if the clay using guy had been a part of the Akatsuki and had kidnapped Gaara, going to the extreme of blowing himself up rather than being captured or defeated seemed like a serious overreaction.

Naruto heard a groan from the valley, followed by a light thumping sound. His eyes widened as he remembered Kakashi's condition and he raced over to his fallen jonin instructor. The silver haired man had collapsed onto his front and was tightly covering his left eye with one hand. He didn't look in particularly good shape at all.

"Kakashi-sensei, are you ok?" Naruto asked worriedly, dropping to his knees to talk to the immobile copy nin.

Kakashi made a noise that sounded halfway between a groan and a chuckle. "You really do ask the most obvious questions, don't you Naruto?" he answered tiredly, smiling slightly underneath his mask. Naruto relaxed slightly. If his sensei was well enough to joke around then he obviously wasn't in any immediate danger. "In the long run I think I should be alright," the silver haired jonin continued, grunting as he tried unsuccessfully to sit up. "But right now I can barely even move. Using the Mangekyo Sharingan three times in a row is pretty damn tiring."

Naruto cocked his head to the side. "Huh? Three times? I only count two… Wait, just now, was that you that stopped that explosion from catching us?"

Kakashi smiled weakly. "Bingo. I transported Deidara and the blast to another dimension. We won't be seeing him again any time soon. But…" he made a feeble gesture with one hand, "It took its toll on my body. I'm not going anywhere without some help."

Naruto nodded and grabbed hold of Kakashi's arm. He wrapped the arm tightly around his neck and pulled himself back to his feet, drapping his jonin sensei into an upright position. Naruto grunted as he took a couple of experimental steps – Kakashi was heavier than he had expected and the fact that he was both taller than Naruto and basically a deadweight meant that his feet were dragging along the floor.

As Kakashi's slack body began to slide away from Naruto's grip, the orange clad shinobi called out irritably, "Oi, Shikamaru! I could use a hand here!"

On the edge of the blast radius, Shikamaru didn't immediately respond to Naruto's annoyed shout. He was surveying the landscape in the aftermath of the explosion, gazing critically at the blackened, flattened trees and the scorched earth. He was relieved at managing to survive the blast, of course, but something was bothering him. He didn't know what it was exactly that was troubling him, but the Akatsuki ninja's decision to recklessly self-destruct had seemed a little… off. After listening to him speak and studying his fighting style, Shikamaru supposed that maybe a last ditch suicide attack didn't seem all that out of place on the surface, particularly when considering his whole fixation on the 'beauty of art.' And yet something still didn't quite add up… The pony tailed man had kept them at a long distance for as long as possible during the chase – not the actions of a man unhinged, with no regard for his own safety. Was the clay user trying to fool them? Distract them all with a pretty light show in order to make his escape?

The Nara boy was pulled from his thoughts by Temari tugging on his sleeve. "Shikamaru, what's wrong? Come on, we have to go," she whispered urgently. "We should help Naruto with Kakashi-san, and then we've still got to find my brother, remember? The Gaara that we were chasing was just a clone, so the real Gaara must be back in the cave. We haven't got time to waste – the others could still be fighting against the second Akatsuki member!"

Shikamaru mentally shook himself and nodded at the Suna kunoichi. She was right; the mission was to find Gaara, not hunt down the Akatsuki, no matter how tempting it may be. Judging by the way her hands were clenched into fists she had wanted to catch the man that had stolen her brother from his home even more than he did, but she was focusing on the task at hand, and he should too. The shadow using chuunin shrugged minutely. Hell, maybe he was just analysing things in too much detail. When backed into a corner even rational people could do crazy things and what with his ego and the pride he placed in his 'art' this guy wasn't exactly the most reasonable and level-headed.

"Yeah, you're right," he answered, smiling slightly at her. "I'm just being paranoid, that's all."

Temari smiled back at him, a very faint tint of pink in her cheeks as they took one last look at the now barren wasteland of the Akatsuki ninja's final explosion. The desolate landscape contrasted strikingly with the setting sun, casting an orange glow over the forest as it slowly descended. The Suna kunoichi searched one last time for any trace of her brother's kidnapper before wrinkling her nose with disappointment. She had seen Kakashi's Sharingan spinning out of the corner of her eye when running from the explosion and knew that he must have used his dimensional rift attack again to disperse the suicidal blast, but a small part of her couldn't help but wish that she had been able to take the Akatsuki bastard down herself. Anyone that messed with her family had her to answer to.

Shikamaru sighed and turned away from the scene of destruction, rubbing the back of his neck. After watching the sunset for a moment with Temari he felt uncharacteristically embarrassed for some reason. He coughed, feeling slightly flustered, and there was a short awkward pause.

"Temari?" the Nara boy asked, his voice slightly hesitant as he broke the silence.

"Yeah?" she responded quietly, a note of curiosity to her voice as she waited to hear what Shikamaru wanted to say.

The shadow using chuunin coughed restlessly again. "… Don't worry. I… We're going to get your brother back for you. No matter what it takes."

Temari's cheeks flushed slightly again and Shikamaru was once again struck by how feminine she seemed in the light of the setting sun. He took a step closer before he even realised what he was doing, so that his face was just inches away from her own. He licked his dry lips nervously and, slowly but surely, he began to lean in.

"Dammit Shikamaru, give me some help over here!"

Shikamaru rolled his eyes as the moment was shattered. "Yeah, I know, I'm coming!" he shouted back to the spiky haired shinobi, who was only just managing to hold the limp Kakashi upright. Temari blinked and averted her eyes from his, her face still dusted with a light blush, before leaping over to help Naruto and Kakashi.

Shikamaru watched as she hoisted Kakashi up so that Naruto could carry him more securely. He realised that he was staring at her and shook his head, irritated by the fact that he couldn't seem to tear his eyes away – and, even more annoyingly, he didn't want to tear his eyes away. 'Why do I always get myself into these situations?' he groaned inwardly. 'She has to be the most difficult woman on the face of the Earth. Out of all of the girls I could have liked, why did it have to be her?' Finally managing to look away from her, with a bigger effort than he wanted to admit even to himself, he gazed up at the few wispy clouds in the sky. Under his breath he muttered, "How troublesome…"

-o-o-

With the new additions of Hinata and Gaara slowing them down, Team Gai kept at a fairly sedate pace as they followed the trail of footprints left behind by Kakashi's squad. Of course, 'sedate' by Maito Gai's standards was still pretty damn speedy in the eyes of almost any other ninja.

From her position on Neji's back at the front of the group, watching as the team entered a valley of criss-crossing tree roots, Hinata began to worry about how Kakashi's squad was coping. She had been so preoccupied with her own fight and Chiyo's death that she had barely any chance to feel anxious about the team tracking down the other Akatsuki member, but now that she had an opportunity to think she couldn't help but feel deeply concerned, especially for Naruto. From her battles against Sasori and the pseudo-Itachi, she knew one thing for certain – the Akatsuki were very, very dangerous.

'But Kakashi-sensei is one of the most powerful and experienced jonin in Konoha,' she thought, trying to reason with herself and calm her nerves, 'And Temari-san is a jonin too. Shikamaru-san is an excellent strategist… and Naruto-kun is the strongest person I know. I have to believe in him… believe in them all.'

The rest of the group were in silence as they travelled, even the loud and exuberant Gai and Lee, preparing themselves mentally for the possibility of a battle ahead. Hinata caught Tenten's eye, worried that the weapons expert may have thought she was holding a grudge and still be upset, but the older girl smiled back at her, much to Hinata's relief. Her cousin's female teammate was one of the few girls of a similar age to herself that she really spent any time around, and she enjoyed the auburn haired kunoichi's company. She smiled inwardly as she spotted Neji crane his neck slightly and glance at the weapons expert. 'Not as much as Neji-niisan does, though…'

As if prompted into action by her thoughts, Neji, who had quickly turned away from Tenten before she spotted him, made a routine scan with his Byakugan and held up a hand. "Everyone, stop," he announced, landing lightly on one of the tree roots as Gai glanced at him questioningly. "There is no need to continue. Kakashi-san and his squad are heading this way, straight towards us."

"Are they all ok? No-one's hurt, are they?" asked Hinata, unable to keep the edge of worry out of her voice and feeling her heartbeat speed up. She tried to stay calm in situations like this, she really did, but she was just a natural worrier at heart. Being in the dark, not knowing if her friends and allies were safe and only being able to wait for their return was the worst part – if she could have done something to help, to lessen her anxieties and help Naruto or the others in any way whatsoever, she would have done it without hesitating.

Neji shook his head. "Kakashi-san seems to be unable to walk and is being carried, but he is conscious at the very least and the others appear to be unharmed."

Hinata sighed with relief, taking deep breaths to still her fluttering heart. Gaara, who had been listening quietly but intently to the news of his sister's team's impending return, also appeared pleased to hear that his sibling was safe.

"Neji, what of the second Akatsuki member?" Gai asked, his eyebrows furrowed thoughtfully. "Have Kakashi and his team successfully apprehended or eliminated him, or was he able to escape?"

Neji refocused his eyes, expanding the range of his vision and briefly giving the surrounding area a sweeping study. After a few moments he sighed. "I cannot be certain," he admitted, deactivating his Byakugan and frowning slightly at what he had seen. "There doesn't appear to be any trace of him that I can find in the surrounding area, but there is a large crater further ahead that looks as though it has been caused by an explosion of some sort. It could well be that he perished in the blast. We can only be certain when Kakashi-san and his team return." The Hyuuga boy's frown became a smile. "Speaking of which…"

Hinata's eyes widened with hopeful anticipation as she absorbed the meaning of her cousin's last sentence and she peered over Neji's shoulder, looking for any sign of Naruto. Sure enough, in the distance but getting closer by the second, she could see four ninja approaching. Kakashi was being propped up by a combination of Naruto and Shikamaru, with an arm around each of their necks, but managed to half-wave as he saw Gai's team waiting for them all.

Temari's eyes flickered from one member of the waiting group to another as she searched for any sign of her brother. When she spotted Gaara's distinctive red hair she gasped out loud and jumped the remaining gap between them in a single leap, with Naruto, who had also spotted his long-time friend, only a second behind her, leaving a grumbling Shikamaru to support Kakashi on his own. Before the young Kazekage could do more than blink with surprise his older sister was showering him with hugs and kisses, moaning his name over and over as tears trickled down her cheeks and into his hair. Gaara was initially frozen with shock at his sister's heartfelt reaction to seeing him again, but after a few seconds hesitantly returned her hug, his own eyes slightly moist.

Eventually Temari released him from her hug, the tears still flowing from her eyes. "Oh, Gaara, I thought I'd lost you," she cried, wiping her eyes with her hand. "When I heard you'd been kidnapped and that you were all alone, I just… just…" Temari took a deep, shaky breath to compose herself and smiled at Gaara, giving him another hug. "Thank goodness you're safe," she whispered into his ear, holding him tightly, as if her embrace would protect him from any further harm. "I don't know what I would have done if you weren't."

"You're crying… because of me?" Gaara asked falteringly, raising his eyes to meet hers, his confusion evident at the sight of her tears winding their way down her face.

Temari sobbed and laughed at the same time. "Of course I am, silly! You may be Kazekage now, but you'll always be my little brother to me!"

From behind his sister Gaara heard a second voice speak up. "Oi, Gaara, nice to see again! I'm glad you're ok!"

Temari let Gaara step past her to stand face to face with the one that had spoken. The red haired Kazekage wetted his mouth, which suddenly felt very dry, before muttering, "It's good to see you again too, Naruto."

Naruto scratched the back of his neck sheepishly. "I heard you're the Kazekage now, congratulations! I'm still a measly genin… I guess I've got a lot of work to do to catch up."

Gaara stared at his fellow demon container in silence for a moment, weighing up the blonde boy's dirt streaked appearance and carefully measuring his words. "The road to becoming the leader of one's village is long and arduous, requiring both perseverance and sacrifice. It takes a great deal of political nous and patience as well as strength and confidence to be a worthy ruler. Are you certain that you possess the necessary attributes to become Hokage in the future?"

Naruto opened his mouth to answer with the loudest, 'Hell yes!' he could muster, but before he could say anything a soft but insistent voice spoke up for him. "Ano… Naruto-kun will be an excellent Hokage, Gaara-sama. At least… umm… I believe he w-will."

Turning his head at the sound of the voice, Naruto grinned when he saw it was Hinata that had spoken, but his smile quickly faded when he realised that she was being supported by Neji, who was gently letting her off his back. As she quietly thanked her cousin for his help, Naruto noticed that her ankle looked swollen and red, and her eyes… had she been crying?

"Are you… ok?" he asked her hesitantly, as she walked towards him slowly, limping slightly due to her painful ankle. "You look kinda beaten up."

Hinata nodded, gazing up at him shyly. "My ankle hurts a little, but I should b-be ok, I think. Neji-niisan had to carry me though…"

Naruto glanced down at her ankle again and winced at seeing the sore, red skin in closer detail. "But if you got Gaara back, that must mean that you won your fight, right?" he questioned, thinking quickly as he tried to cheer her up. She looked rather forlorn with her injured ankle and she had plenty of cuts and bruises on the rest of her body too by the looks of things. Seeing Neji giving her a piggy back made her seem almost like a little girl to Naruto – if he hadn't already known her to be a strong and capable kunoichi he would have thought her to be frail and vulnerable, something he knew from seeing her fight in the past was definitely not true.

"Ano… if it hadn't b-been for Gaara-sama and Chiyo-baasama, I wouldn't have made it," Hinata answered quietly, her head lowered. It was still painful even talking about what had happened back in the cave – the memories felt like they were burned into the back of her eyeballs and she was certain she would never forget the expression on Chiyo's face as she had died next to her grandson. "Both of them saved me… Gaara-sama was the one that killed Sasori, not m-me… and Chiyo-baasama sacrificed herself to protect me…"

Naruto's breath caught in his throat as he realised that Chiyo wasn't in the group that had met his team. He swallowed. "You mean…?" He trailed off, not wanting to ask the question in its entirety.

Hinata's miserable nod confirmed what he already knew. Naruto knew that death was a part of the ninja's world that couldn't be avoided, and at least Chiyo had lived a long and full life, but still… This was the first time that one of his own allies had ever died on a mission with him. He wished that he'd been able to help in some way. Maybe if he'd stayed behind and let Kakashi, Shikamaru and Temari handle the clay user on their own…

Naruto scowled. No, he couldn't think that way. He'd done what he could for the mission – he couldn't have done more without going against Kakashi's commands and he trusted his sensei's judgement. And besides, he'd barely known Chiyo, whereas Hinata had been a lot more familiar with the aged Suna kunoichi. If he was finding it hard to come to terms with it must have been much worse for the indigo haired girl. He shouldn't be thinking only about how this was affecting him – that would be plain selfish.

Racking his brain, Naruto tried to think of something helpful to say to comfort Hinata. It was obvious that she was still upset about what had happened and Naruto wanted to see her smile again.

Her gaze still turned downward, Hinata was surprised when Naruto placed a hand on her shoulder, in the exact same spot as where he had left the dirty handprint just before he had left the cavern with Kakashi. Hinata raised her eyes with shock at the close physical contact and she locked her pale silvery eyes with Naruto's ocean blue ones.

"Hinata-chan," Naruto spoke quietly but seriously, staring intently at her. "Please don't blame yourself. It wasn't your fault that Chiyo was killed."

Hinata found herself lost in the depths of his warm blue eyes. "But I… I… I f-failed…" she whispered, though less certain than she had been before. Naruto's kindness was both a blessing and a curse to her – it was so overwhelming it caused her chest to constrict whenever he tried to encourage her, but at the same time it made her feel like she was floating, like, for just a short moment in time, she was invincible so long as he believed in her.

Naruto raised a hand to quiet her timid objections. "Hinata-chan, you got Gaara back!" he exclaimed incredulously. "You helped defeat an S ranked missing nin! The mission's been a success! So tell me, how exactly have you failed? I know you're not a failure and so should you – you're a tough, kick ass kunoichi who always tries her best and never gives up or goes back on her word! Because that's her nindo, right?"

Naruto released her, smiling encouragingly at her and waiting for her reaction, though he couldn't help but wonder what had prompted that minor outburst. He wasn't exactly the type to launch into dramatic speeches. He thought about it for a moment. He supposed it was just that… seeing Hinata so downbeat after doing something so amazing felt completely wrong to him. She deserved take pride in her achievements and see herself as the great person and ninja that she was. If it took a couple of ad lib speeches and some unorthadox praise to raise her confidence then that was fine by him.

Plus it was kinda… nice, seeing her blush whenever he complimented her.

Hinata stood stock still, her eyes wide with surprise and focused on Naruto's for five seconds… ten… fifteen… Naruto's smile flickered slightly. Had he just made it worse by being so blunt and straightforward? Should he not have interfered? He was about to apologise to her and try and make things right again, but then he felt all the air forced out of his lungs as Hinata threw her arms around him in a tight embrace and buried her face in his chest with a sniffling sound.

"Hin-Hinata-chan," gasped Naruto, struggling for air as she squeezed him as tightly as she could, her thin frame at odds with the strength she was displaying. Her sniffling noises increased ever so slightly in volume as Naruto felt the front of his jacket become slightly damp, and she buried her face in deeper. "Er, would you mind… umm… letting me breathe?"

"Oh!" Hinata jumped back from him, blushing pink with her pale eyes moist. "I'm sorry, I d-didn't mean to hurt you. I just…" Hinata's blush increased in hue so that her cheeks were almost burning, but she managed to whisper, "I think I n-needed that. Thank you, Naruto-kun. You… you always know how to m-make me feel better."

"Nah, it's no problem," Naruto laughed, brushing her apologies aside. "I don't like it when people put themselves down when they haven't done anything wrong, that's all. Same way that I don't like it when people are all arrogant and think they're better than everyone else, like Sasuke and how Neji used to be."

Neji chose that moment to cough into a closed fist, startling both Naruto and Hinata. "What were saying about me just now, Naruto? I didn't quite catch that…"

Naruto laughed nervously, raising his hands pleadingly. "Aww, c'mon Neji, I didn't mean it like that. I mean, you're much cooler than you used to be now that you've taken your head out of your ass…" Naruto winced as he saw Neji's eyebrow arch upwards and hastily tried to correct himself before he got into an even deeper hole. "Er, not that you had your head in your ass before or anything, you were just a bit… uptight?"

Neji shook his head as Naruto continued to ramble on, shooting a knowing look at his younger cousin. Hinata blushed scarlet as she realised how boldly she had acted – she had just hugged Naruto, in front of everyone! She was so embarrassed that she half wished the ground would just open up and swallow her – she was aware that Neji already knew about her affection for the blonde haired, ramen loving shinobi, but she could hardly have made it any more obvious to the others if she had blurted it out loud.

Thankfully, it appeared as though everyone other than Neji were to be distracted in some way and not focusing in on the conversation she and Naruto had been having. Temari had moved over to help the grumbling Shikamaru prop Kakashi up, with Gaara following after his older sister, and Gai was vigorously quizzing the silver haired jonin, wanting to hear Kakashi's side of the story and discover what 'youthful exploits' he had missed. Lee was hovering over his sensei's shoulder, paying rapt attention as Kakashi briefly described the clay user that his team had faced off against, and Tenten was also listening in on Gai's interrogation of Kakashi as she leant tiredly against the valley wall, no longer worrying about hiding her fatigue. Hinata breathed out a quiet sigh of relief. It seemed that her 'secret' was safe from the others for a little while longer at least, though it was still embarrassing knowing that Sakura, Neji and Kurenai-sensei knew about her hidden feelings for the blonde boy. Not to mention the Godaime, Shizune, Shikamaru, Temari, Teuchi, Ayame, Kiba and Shino all probably at least suspecting how she felt for him.

And yet… Naruto's reaction suggested that he hadn't figured out the motive behind her embrace either. Hinata wasn't sure whether to feel relieved or disappointed by his legendary density. If he somehow discovered the depths of her feelings for him, not only would she be embarrassed beyond belief, what if he was scared off? Or what if he didn't want to talk about it and just ignored her? Just having his companionship was wonderful for her – if she selfishly prioritised her own feelings for him and then lost his friendship she would never forgive herself.

But on the other hand, if he accepted her feelings Hinata would have been the happiest girl in the whole world. And if by some miracle he actually reciprocated her affection… Hinata's heartbeat sped up just by thinking about it. If he ever told her he loved her in the same way that she cared for him she would probably explode with joy. Well, either that or faint. And she had promised herself, back in the cave, that she would confess her feelings to him. Even though it scared her – in a different way to fighting for her life against Sasori, but equally frightening nonetheless – and even though she hadn't said it out loud, she had told herself she would do it. Maybe not for a long time, maybe not until she found the right moment, but she had made a promise to herself.

Naruto was right. She wouldn't go back on her word.

At that moment Gai's team and the other ninja rejoined the small group of Hinata, Neji and Naruto. Kakashi was being held aloft by Gai rather than Shikamaru now and neither the spandex clad jonin nor the masked copy nin looked particularly thrilled by this new arrangement. Shikamaru, however, was smiling languidly as he stretched his arms out, evidently pleased that no longer had to hold Kakashi up.

Gai cleared his throat to attract everyone's attention. "Thanks to all of your youthful exploits, we have regained the Kazekage from the nefarious clutches of the Akatsuki. You should all be very proud of yourselves!" Naruto and Lee both cheered enthusiastically at his praise and even the usually stoic Neji allowed a small smile to surface. Hinata had to force back a blush as she noticed Naruto grin at her after he gave Lee a high five, but couldn't hold back a thankful smile of her own. "However," Gai warned, continuing on from where he had left off after the minor commotion of Naruto and Lee celebrating had died down, "This mission has not yet been completed. Although both Akatsuki members we encountered have been defeated, we are still very much in the enemy's territory. Booby traps similar to the ones that my team fell into could still be a threat and we cannot be certain that there are not other rogue ninja lying in wait for us. Until Kazekage-sama –" Gai nodded respectfully to Gaara, who returned his bow "– Is safely returned Suna once more, we must stay on guard!"

In answer, Lee snapped to attention and saluted, Shikamaru mumbled, "Troublesome…" under his breath and Temari took a step closer to her younger brother, as if she were silently warning any of Gaara's would be assassins that they would have to go through her first. Tenten rolled her eyes at her sensei's overly theatrical warning, but nodded her own acceptance too, though not before sharing a tired, resigned smile with Neji.

Pleased to see that all of the younger ninja were still focused on their task of returning Gaara, Gai nodded, satisfied. "Excellent! In that case, we would be honoured to escort you back to Suna, Kazekage-sama, should you so wish it!"

Gaara again calmly nodded his agreement to Gai's offer and everyone started to prepare themselves before the group began moving again. Naruto tightened his hitai-ite around his forehead, oblivious to Hinata staring at him before she caught herself and blushed.

Neji, who was watching the blonde shinobi and his cousin, was suddenly struck with an idea. Hiding his smirk from view, he called out, "Naruto, can you spare a moment please?"

Naruto glanced inquisitively at the older Hyuuga boy. "Sure, what's up?"

Neji feigned an expression of discomfort. "My back is extremely painful – I think I must have strained a muscle, and regretfully I can no longer support my cousin. Would you mind carrying her in my place?"

Hinata's face paled and she suddenly felt very lightheaded at her cousin's seemingly innocent request. 'Naruto-kun… carrying me?' she thought, trying to quell her rising panic. 'That means that we would be… touching! For the whole way to Suna! What if I faint? What if he thinks I'm too heavy? Oh, I would die of embarrassment!'

Unaware of Hinata's increasing anxiety, Naruto shrugged his shoulders at Neji's request. "Sure, no problem, I can do that," he agreed, finishing tying the knot of his forehead protector. "So long as Hinata-chan's ok with it." He turned questioningly to ask her permission and upon seeing the Hyuuga girl standing completely frozen with her eyes wide Naruto decided that the lack of any protest was good enough for him. "When we get back to Suna maybe you should go see Sakura-chan about your back though, I'm sure she'd know how to fix it."

"I will make sure to do that," Neji lied fluently. "I appreciate your assistance, Naruto." With a nod of thanks Neji moved to the front of the group alongside Tenten, who had watched the exchange between the two Hyuuga clan members and Naruto with interest.

"Why'd you do that, Neji?" she asked curiously, smirking slightly at witnessing his ploy. "I know that back excuse you made was bullshit and so does Hinata, so spill it."

Neji smiled knowingly. "I think it will be good for Hinata-sama's confidence to have some close contact with Naruto. I'm sure she will thank me for it later… once her shyness fades, of course."

Tenten smiled sweetly. "So it wasn't so you could carry me instead?" she asked innocently. Her smile grew as she saw Neji hastily look away and mutter, "Don't be absurd, Tenten," and her smile became a small smirk as she noticed that the tips of his ears had gone very red. 'Looks like even Neji's got a dirty mind!' she giggled inwardly. 'And he looks kinda cute when he blushes…'

-o-o-

When he had accepted Neji's request to carry Hinata, Naruto hadn't really considered the implications that it might have. He saw it as a way to help out two of his friends at once, and he was never one to turn down an opportunity to assist an ally whenever he could. However, with Hinata pressed up against him – or more specifically Hinata's chest; Hinata's warm, soft, surprisingly ample chest – Naruto was finding it difficult to reign in his hormones. 'Just my luck to be taught by the two biggest perverts in the village,' he thought sourly. 'They're a bad influence on me!'

Even after travelling with Jiraiya for so long, Naruto had never experienced this sort of situation though – he had tried to keep well away from the women that the toad sage surrounded himself with. However, this meant that he found himself totally unprepared for the feelings that the contact with Hinata was giving him. Whenever she shifted position he could feel her breasts press snugly against his back and her long, silky hair was brushing up against the back of his scorched neck, sending a tingly but very much enjoyable sensation down his spine. He could feel her faint breathing too, quiet and ever so slightly uneven, as though she were worried or anxious about something, but it was relaxing too, in a calming sort of way.

In short, for the first time in his life Naruto was noticing Hinata as an attractive young woman rather than simply as a friend and this sudden change in his perception of the Hyuuga heiress had caught him completely off guard. Yes, he knew that she was a girl previously, of course, but he'd never really thought about it until now, and seeing her – not to mention feeling her – in this light was a real eye opener. The only girl he had ever really had feelings for in the past was Sakura and although he had asked her out on dates before he'd left the village for his training mission he'd never seriously expected her to accept any of his offers. He knew how hung up on Sasuke she was, and didn't think anything would ever change her opinion of the dark haired, brooding Uchiha, despite what he had hoped. And even though he still liked Sakura a lot, he was willing to admit that there was absolutely zero chance of her ever allowing herself to get into a position as… close as this, not without her fist coming into contact with his face.

Actually, thinking about Sakura reminded Naruto that whilst he had been away one of the first things he wanted to do when he got back to Konoha was find the pink haired medic nin and ask her out on a date with him, just to see if anything had changed now that they had grown up a little. But after meeting Hinata at the gates of the village the whole idea of asking Sakura out had completely slipped his mind, he'd been having so much fun. Even when he had seen his teammate the following day he still hadn't had any thoughts of a date. He wondered if it was just because everything was in such a rush – after all, he'd only been back in Konoha for a single night before he had been assigned the mission of rescuing Gaara – but although that must have at least been a part of it he still didn't feel like it fully answered his question. Was it that he had been enjoying himself so much with Hinata that he had placed talking to her as more important than requesting a date from Sakura in his 'Things To Do List'?

Naruto shook his head like a wet dog, annoyed by his inconclusive musings. Thankfully at least he and Hinata were travelling at the back of the group that was speeding through the valley back in the direction of Suna, which meant that he didn't have to deal with the stares of any of the other ninja – he was almost certain he had seen Shikamaru smirking at him just before they had set off when Hinata had been settling herself on his back, her face as red as a tomato. He couldn't help but feel a tiny bit thankful that Hinata seemed to be finding this equally as uncomfortable – knowing she was just as embarrassed as he was, if not more so, made things a bit easier for him. Someone who could empathise with how he was feeling was something that Naruto wasn't used to, but it was comforting all the same, as it meant that he wasn't struggling alone. To Naruto, that made a big difference.

For her part, Hinata could barely imagine a situation that was so perfect and yet so embarrassing at the same time. Why had Neji forced the two of them together like this? She wasn't ready! Not for something like this! She was so close to him that she could feel his heartbeat through his jacket and the tantalising heat radiating from his strong, solid back was enough to make her feel lightheaded… but lightheaded in a good way.

Then again, although the situation she was in had taken her completely by surprise and she couldn't stop her body from faintly quivering whenever Naruto's muscular back moved against her, she tried to relax and absorb some of the warmth of his body. 'This could be the only chance to get close to Naruto-kun that I'll ever get,' she reminded herself. 'I can't just let this moment pass me by – I'd never forgive myself!' Taking a shaky breath, she tightened her arms slightly around him and pulled herself in closer, breathing in the earthy scent of his jacket.

The silence stretched out, becoming more and more awkward, as both of the embarrassed teenagers didn't really know what to say in a situation like this. Eventually, summoning her courage, Hinata felt the need to speak up. "Ano… Naruto-kun, are you alright?" she asked in a small, hesitant voice. "You seem a little… umm… quiet…"

"Nah, it's nothing," Naruto laughed, relieved that the girl on his back was trying to break the ice and lessen some of the tension that was surrounding the two of them. "Just doing a little thinking. Are you ok back there?"

Hinata blushed but nodded. "Y-Yes, I'm alright. I… umm… appreciate you helping me, Naruto-kun. Thank you."

"No problem," Naruto answered, trying to hide his awkwardness behind his trademark grin. "I'm happy to help. I know you'd rather have Neji carry you, but I –"

"N-No!" Hinata interrupted, her voice high pitched. Suddenly realising what she had said she continued, flustered, "Ano… I m-mean… I… I d-don't mind you carrying me. It's… umm…" She mumbled something that Naruto didn't quite hear, but sounded like it could have been 'nice' before she squeaked and blushed, burying her face into the back of his jacket.

Naruto tensed slightly as she accidentally knocked her hand against his tender, burnt neck as she hid her face from sight – not that he could see her anyway with his back to her – and he couldn't contain the small grunt of pain that forced its way through his lips. Hinata immediately picked up on his discomfort and her eyes widened when she noticed the raw, blackened flesh.

"Naruto-kun, you're hurt!" she gasped, gazing at the blistered skin with a mixture of anxiety and sympathy. Slowly, with infinite care, she traced a single finger around the edges of the burn.

Naruto shivered at her feather-soft touch but tried to make light of his charred skin and focused on jumping from one tree root to another as the shinobi in front of him reached the end of the valley, coming out into the more open surroundings. "It's not that bad, I can handle it," he answered, turning his head to look at her as best as he could. "I bet your ankle probably hurts a lot worse than this."

"But… it still looks v-very painful," Hinata whispered, the worry in her voice evident to Naruto even though she had spoken very softly. She paused, indecision gnawing away at her insides as she wondered whether or not she should say anything else, before blurting out, "I have some m-medicinal cream with me that might help it heal. Would you l-like to try it?"

"Medicinal cream?" Naruto repeated, confused. "Oh, you mean like what you gave me after fighting Kiba? That stuff was awesome! Sure, if you've got some that'd be great!"

Hinata shifted position slightly – the spiky haired ninja nearly tripped over his own feet as Hinata's chest pressed more firmly into his back – and reached into her kunai pouch. After a few seconds of rooting around to find what she was looking for, during which time Naruto tried to keep his thoughts clean, she finally produced a small wooden pot, which she handed over, blushing as her hand brushed against his. Naruto unscrewed the cap, smeared a small amount of the salve on his fingers and handed the container back to her, smiling his thanks. But as he tried to reach up to his neck he found that his arm didn't quite extend that far – both of his hands were holding Hinata up, and if he released her then she would slip off his back.

Naruto could only see three possible solutions. One: forget about the cream until they stopped for a break and try and put up with his sore neck until then. Two: ask Hinata to get off his back and fall behind the others as he applied the ointment. Or three… Naruto gulped, then shrugged slightly. What the Hell, always go with your impulses, right? "Umm… Hinata-chan? I can't reach my neck. Would you mind… err… y'know… rubbing it in for me?"

Hinata was one-hundred percent certain that if she had been standing on her own two feet, even if her ankle had been fine, her legs would have collapsed under her at that moment. Her mind, which totally froze for an instant, repeated, 'I won't faint, I won't faint, I won't faint,' over and over again in an effort to stay conscious. She fought the darkness hovering on the edges of her vision desperately – she couldn't pass out now, this was the sort of opportunity she dreamt about!

Hearing Hinata suck in a shocked breath and tense up against him, Naruto decided that maybe option one was better than option three after all. "Ah, sorry, I shouldn't have asked you to do that," he laughed nervously. "I'll just hold on 'til we take a break and do it then, I can wait, it's no big de–"

Naruto's apologies died in his throat as he felt something chilly and moist on his neck and the heat of the burn vanished almost instantly, replaced with a feeling of cool relief that gradually spread through his body. The muscles of his neck, which had been so tense just a moment ago, relaxed, becoming looser to the touch. Twisting his head around in surprise, Naruto saw Hinata dabbing at the scorched skin with the ointment, her face ablaze with a cherry red blush but her eyes full of kindness, compassion, pity, worry and… something else, something that Naruto didn't understand. He'd never seen anyone look at him that way before, but it made him feel like there was a big, happy balloon inflating in his chest.

As soon as she had started to tend to Naruto's burns Hinata had expected him to immediately change his mind, saying that he didn't want her to touch him after all, but Naruto let her proceed without even a murmur of protest so she continued her ministrations as tenderly as she could. The urge to let her hands roam as she rubbed the salve over Naruto's skin was extremely tempting, fuelled by her closeness to him, but she maintained her focus on the burn mark, delicately spreading the medicinal cream with the tips of her fingers and rubbing in small circles. She kept her movements as minimal as possible to avoid causing Naruto any discomfort, but although she would never have been able to admit it out loud she was also going as slowly as she could to prolong the contact, even if it was only by a mere second or two. The jolts caused by touching Naruto in such an open way were sending wonderful shivers down her body and even though the blonde boy's skin was blackened and burnt it still felt pleasantly soft and warm. She didn't want the feeling to end.

Eventually, although regrettably far too soon for Hinata's liking, she finished rubbing in the balm. As she put the small pot containing the salve back in her kunai pouch, she was surprised to see that the burn had noticably decreased in size, from covering most of the back of his neck to just a small spot above the collar of his orange and black jacket. Hinata frowned slightly, puzzled. How had the burn healed so fast? Even with the ointment it should have taken at least a few days to die down quite so much. Thinking back, she remembered that Naruto's wounds from the fight against Kiba had healed unnaturally rapidly when she had mustered the courage to give him some medicinal salve back then too.

Naruto let out a contented sigh, ending Hinata's confused chain of thought as he announced, "Wow, that feels much better, my neck was itching like crazy before! That cream of yours really is amazing! Where did you get it from?"

"Oh, I…umm… I m-made it myself," Hinata stammered, red faced. However, she couldn't help but feel just the tiniest spark of pride as Naruto grinned inquisitively at her.

"Really? You mean you made this without any help?" Seeing Hinata nod shyly, Naruto's grin became one of admiration. "I never knew you could do that! You'd make a great medic nin, Hinata-chan!"

Hinata ducked her head self-consciously, but couldn't hold back a smile at Naruto's praise. It had taken a lot of effort to find the herbal ingredients needed and perfect the formula, but her hearing his praise made it all worthwhile. She enjoyed helping others and took a small amount of satisfaction in the feeling of being useful in some way for her friends, especially Naruto.

"I'm not in the same league as Hokage-sama or Sakura-san, but I d-do know a few basic medical ninjutsu techniques," Hinata admitted, cheeks tinted red once again – her face was so flushed she felt like she hadn't stopped blushing once since Naruto had picked her up. "Hokage-sama w-wanted every squad to have at least basic healing abilities, and Kurenai-sensei said Kiba-kun or Shino-kun would be less suited to medical ninjutsu than myself."

Naruto was about to respond, but he almost tripped over a long tuft of grass. The ramen loving shinobi scowled – he hadn't been looking where he was going, having had his head turned around to talk to Hinata – and turned to face ahead. His previous irritation at nearly falling was quickly replaced by surprise at realising that the others were now quite a long way in front of him. When had that happened? He had been so involved in talking to Hinata that not only had he now almost forgotten his previous awkwardness, he hadn't even realised that he was being left behind. He grunted a little as he pushed himself harder to catch up, sprinting as fast as he could without jolting Hinata too badly and He fell into step just behind Shikamaru before reducing his speed.

Satisfied that he had now caught up to the others he craned his neck back to face Hinata once more. "Only Shizune-neechan is on the same level as Sakura-chan or Tsunade-baachan when it comes to healing, but I'm sure that with enough practice you could catch up. Everyone starts off inexperienced at first. And if Kurenai-sensei said that you were the best fit then you must have a tonne of potential and really good chakra control, right?" Seeing Hinata nod hesitantly, with her eyes filled with doubt, Naruto smiled sheepishly. "Heh, chakra control's my big weakness… you'd definitely make a better medic nin than me at very least." Hinata giggled slightly at the pouting expression on Naruto's face at admitting he had a weakness at all and hearing her amusement Naruto scowled jokingly. "Hey, you may be the better medic nin, but I'm gonna be Hokage, you got that?"

Hinata tried to stifle her laughter. "Of course, Hokage-sama," she replied as seriously as she could manage through her giggles, pretending to bow down low in deference.

Naruto cocked his head to the side thoughtfully. "Hokage-sama, huh…? Yeah, I could definitely get used to people calling me that!" The blonde haired boy puffed out his chest self-importantly, drawing further amused laughter from the girl on his back.

Suddenly Hinata's eyes widened and she went quiet abruptly, tugging urgently on Naruto's sleeve and pointing ahead. The orange clad boy was about to ask her what was wrong, but then he saw something in the distance and came to a sharp halt, skidding slightly as he dug his sandals into the ground to arrest his progress. He couldn't tell for certain at such a long way away but it looked like an entire army, probably ninja based on the speed they were moving at, were running towards them, easily outnumbering their small group of ten. Maito Gai spotted them approaching less than a second later and came to a standstill himself, signalling everyone else to do the same. Without even needing to be asked Neji immediately activated his Byakugan, scanning the oncoming mass of ninja to judge whether they were friends or foes. Everyone was silent as they waited for the Hyuuga jonin's verdict, tension gripping the group as they gazed at his impassive face, trying to gain a clue as to whether or not they were facing another fight by his expression. Naruto gritted his teeth, silently letting Hinata down from his back to stand as steadily as she could beside him and pulling out a kunai in case he needed to fight. Just in front of him he saw Temari take a step closer to Gaara and snap open her fan halfway, ready to defend her younger brother if necessary.

After a few seconds that felt like hours to Naruto, the Hyuuga jonin finally released his kekkei genkai and smiled at the group. "There is no need to be alarmed," he announced. "The hitai-ite show that the ninja approaching are Suna shinobi, not Akatsuki. We can relax now."

Naruto let out a sigh of relief. With Kakashi currently unable to fight and the rest of the squad tired and weary, another battle was hardly in their best interests. Then again, if he had a free shot on one of the Akatsuki, after what they had done to Gaara he would hardly pass up such an opportunity. It didn't matter how worn out he was; he wouldn't let anyone hurt his friends and get away with it.

As the approaching ninja came into view, Naruto could see that Neji was correct with his observations – the approaching ninja, staying in a solid formation despite their vast numbers, were now close enough to see their hitai-ite, and like the Hyuuga branch family member had said all of them had Suna symbols engraved onto them. Wait, no, not quite all of them… there was a pink haired girl near the front of the group…

Surprising everyone, Naruto yelled at the top of his voice, "HEY, SAKURA-CHAN! OVER HERE!" As if that wasn't enough to attract her attention he began waving his hands in the air and jumping up and down on the spot, not stopping until Sakura started heading towards him.

The ninja that had been running alongside Sakura, a brown haired girl with dark eyes, suddenly squealed loudly as she spotted Gaara in amongst the crowd. Almost as one, the rest of the crowd of Suna ninja gasped, before rushing forward all at once, all thoughts of remaining in formation and staying organised vanishing at the sight of their missing Kazekage. First to reach the stunned Gaara was Kankuro, who wrapped him in a big bear hug and shouted his name hoarsely, pulling Temari in to join them in a family embrace. As the two of them released the bemused Gaara, laughing delightedly together, the Kazekage was nearly knocked off his feet by the brown haired girl throwing her arms around him and just a second or two later he was swamped by Suna ninja wanting to pat him on the back or congratulate him or even to see if they weren't dreaming and that he was really there.

Naruto grinned as the Suna ninja milled around Gaara, cheering and chanting his name ecstatically. There was no doubt about it; Gaara finally had his own precious people that cared about him. Looking around him at the scenes of jubilation taking place Naruto laughed delightedly at the reception his friend was receiving and began cheering and clapping himself. After everything that Gaara had been through, a little applause was the least that he deserved.

Author's Notes: Hello everyone, here's the next juicy, juicy segment of the story! Another long one, and probably the most character interaction I've ever fitted into a single chapter, but I kinda liked the way that it flowed, especially the hints of romance – fluff is just fun to write! Don't be expecting massive confessions or anything like that in the near future though – yes, I've certainly progressed the romance in this chapter, but I'll still be taking it slow. Also, sorry if I pissed anyone off by leaving the last two chapters on such big cliffhangers, but at least this one is more conclusive… heh, am I forgiven now? In answer to the review from Anzer'ke I realise that there is a lot of speaking in the fight scenes I write, but honestly there's a lot of talking in the canon fights too. I agree it's not exactly true to real life 'fights to the death,' but I would argue that it does fit into the way that Naruto fights are written in canon, which is what I'm trying to base my own writing style on. Plus it's a good way of slotting in extra character development, which is important to me – otherwise the fights are just gonna be endless action and there are plenty more fight scenes planned out for the future that I want to fit some vital interaction into. Yeah, I agree that they aren't the greatest reasons, sorry, but to me, and hopefully the rest of you, it adds more 'drama' to the fights – Sasori's death in the last chapter wouldn't have been quite so emotionally charged if he had been completely silent throughout the entirety of the fight with Chiyo and Hinata, right? Something I also wanted to clear up, because I forgot to in the Author's Notes of the last chapter, were the differences in the fight against Sasori in canon and in this fanfic. In canon, of course, both Chiyo and Sakura survived the fight, so does that mean Sakura is noticeably stronger than Hinata in this story? My answer is no, because it's important to remember that in canon Sakura had the antidote to Sasori's poison, meaning that even if she got hit by one of Sasori's attacks she was still able to fight. The events in my story mean that Hinata and Chiyo don't have this luxury – if one of them gets even a scratch then that's it, they're dead. Without the antidote Sakura would have definitely died, just like Hinata would have died without Chiyo's intervention. Perhaps Sakura is slightly stronger when you consider that she had one of the Sannin as her personal tutor, but then again Hinata has a legendary kekkei genkai and a unique family fighting style – either way, the difference in power between the two of them is meant to be minimal. It's only really Hinata's confidence issues that hold her back, after all, and I'm slowly but surely trying to address them in this story; her recovery from Chiyo's death and her conversation with Gaara, for instance, were meant to show some of her newfound confidence. Oh, and the small mention of Matsuri was encouraged along by the reviewer Fairo Neko – like I said in the Author's Notes section of Chapter Two, I'm happy to at least consider any ideas from readers, providing it adds something to the story, doesn't clash with my own personal beliefs (e.g. I'm not gonna start turning this into a NaruSaku fanfiction just because a reviewer wants me to!) and doesn't get in the way of events I've already planned out for the future. A little moment like this fits in fine for me. Ok, that's everything, so I hope you enjoyed this chapter, and please stand by your computers for the next instalment! Bye!

List of Jutsu:

'Hakke Hasangeki' = 'Eight Divination Signs Destructive Mountain Fist'

'Jibaku Bunshin' = 'Self-Destructing Clone Technique'

Joke Corner: I used to work in a helium balloon factory, but I decided to quit after an argument with my boss – I refuse to be spoken to in that tone.

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