Waiting with Hope

Home is Where the Heart is

Chapter Thirteen: Home is Where the Heart is

Cursing and coughing, Deidara's head broke through the surface of the rubble caused by the Jibaku Bunshin's explosion. Kicking at the mound of earth with his feet he eventually managed to break free and rose to his feet, panting heavily.He was covered in dust and dirt, with his Akatsuki uniform now in barely recognisable tatters, but he couldn't restrain the smirk on his face as he saw that there was no sign of the ninja that had been pursuing him.

'Hah, fools! Looks like my artwork did the trick, yeah!' he thought triumphantly, shaking his head to get some of the dirt out of his hair. 'Those Konoha bastards might have escaped, but it still made a great diversion! Now to get back to the cave and find Sasori-danna.'

As he jumped from one tree root to another, Deidara tried to ignore the stumps where his arms used to be despite the agonising pain, made even worse by the dust and dirt that had settled on the wound. He hoped that Sasori would be done with his own fight – he wouldn't be much help to the Suna missing nin in his current state – but knowing the puppet master, Deidara wasn't overly worried about needing to fight. 'Sasori-danna is always so impatient… I bet he won ages ago and he'll probably moan at me again for taking too long.' The pony tailed ninja shook his head, frowning. 'He doesn't get it at all. My artwork is all about putting on a show, yeah! I can't do that in just a few minutes, the same way he does with his ancient finger puppets! My creations must be appreciated… before the moment of perfection captured by the explosion!'

As he came into sight to the cave, however, Deidara could see straight away that something was wrong. The roof seemed to have completely caved in and the walls were barely standing. In addition, if he squinted closely he could just about make out the bodies of what looked like multiple puppets strewn haphazardly across the floor of the cavern. The missing Iwa nin's eyes widened – the sheer amount of wooden creations surely meant that the puppet master had surely used Akahigi: Hyakki no Souen, his most powerful technique. Deidara furrowed his brows, puzzled. Had Sasori seriously been forced to use his last resort attack against a pitiful old lady and a weak looking teenage girl? Deidara would have scoffed at the mere thought just a few minutes ago, but now he wasn't so sure. After all, the state of the cavern suggested that an absolutely huge battle had taken place; maybe the two kunoichi had been tougher than they looked.

As he got closer, Deidara could see that Sasori's puppets were lying lifeless and he couldn't make out any sign of their master. The missing Iwa nin's frown deepened. Did that mean Sasori had actually lost? The idea of his Akatsuki partner being defeated seemed next to impossible, but Deidara couldn't help but wonder… Grimacing, he increased his pace.

Finally he reached the cave's entrance, now surrounded by rocky debris. Deidara paused warily for a moment, studying the walls to make sure that they wouldn't collapse on top of him if he tried to enter, but suddenly heard a high pitched voice cheering with what sounded like triumph from inside. The clay user quickly pressed himself against the wall and shrank into the shadows to conceal himself from view, waiting to hear whether it was a friend or foe that had shouted out.

"Zetsu-sama! Zetsu-sama! I got it! I got the ring! Does this mean I can be a part of the Akatsuki too?"

Listening closely, Deidara heard what sounded like an exasperated growl. "It's not that simple, you know that."

The first person that had spoken let out a disappointed whine, which sounded almost childish. Deidara had to hold back an irritated grunt. This guy's voice was really getting on his nerves. "Aww, but why not? There's an opening now, right?"

"Yes, but –" Zetsu stopped mid sentence, holding up a hand to signal the other man not to speak either, and listened closely. His plant like appendages cracked open, revealing his split face, and his golden eyes roamed the cave suspiciously. After a few seconds of searching he relaxed. "I know you're there, Deidara. You can come out now."

Grumbling, Deidara emerged from his hiding place. "I still don't get how you do that, Zetsu. It's damn creepy …" Seeing the other person in the cave, a tall, dark haired man dressed entirely in black, save for an orange mask with a spiral pattern covering his face, Deidara scowled and scrutinized him thoroughly. "Who's the joker?" he asked, quirking an eyebrow at Zetsu questioningly.

Before Zetsu could speak the masked man dashed forward to introduce himself. "Hi there, I'm Tobi! You must be Deidara-senpai, right? I'm really happy to meet you!" He held out a hand for Deidara to shake, not noticing the fluttering sleeves of Deidara's torn Akatsuki robes.

A vein bulged on the clay user's forehead. "Is your mask covering your eyes or something? I can't exactly shake your hand right now, yeah," answered Deidara through gritted teeth. Was this Tobi guy trying to annoy him, or was he really this dumb?

Tobi cocked his head to the side thoughtfully. "How about a high five instead?"

Seeing Deidara turn bright red and looking likely to burst a blood vessel, Zetsu quickly intervened. "Now that the introductions are out of the way, can we get back to more important business? Deidara, what happened in the cave to disrupt the sealing jutsu?"

Shooting one final dirty look at Tobi, who merely shrugged his shoulders innocently, Deidara snorted. "You saw it for yourself, yeah. Some blonde kid broke in and destroyed the statue."

Zetsu growled. "I meant what happened after that?"

Deidara sighed impatiently. "There were five other ninja backing the blonde kid up, yeah. I drew four of them away from the cave with a clay clone of the Jinchuuriki brat, but one of the ninja that followed me was Hatake Kakashi and he hit me with some long range doujutsu attack. In the end I had to blow up the clone and fake my own death to escape. I dunno what happened back here though. Where the Hell's Sasori-danna, yeah?"

Zetsu pointed to the corner of the cave. Deidara's gaze followed his gesture and he suddenly noticed a mop of red hair lying alongside two wooden puppets and an elderly, grey haired woman. Sasori's body was completely immobile and as Deidara stepped in for a closer look he could see that the puppet master's limbs and torso had been completely crushed.

"So… he's dead?" Deidara asked cautiously, turning back to face Zetsu. The inhuman Akatsuki member nodded wordlessly.

Deidara shook his head, snorting. "He must have been overconfident. Fat lot of good all his talk of 'eternal beauty' did for him, yeah. There's nothing left for the future when you're dead." The explosives expert took one last look at his Akatsuki partner's body, a small, slightly wistful smile on his face. "Still… at least he died in a way befitting an artist. You've gotta respect a guy who lives and dies with his art, yeah."

There was a brief moment of silence as both Deidara and Zetsu allowed Sasori's death to sink in, before Tobi broke the silence. "So, Zetsu-sama," the masked man spoke up conversationally, nudging Sasori's body with a foot, "Are you gonna eat him now?"

"He's made of wood," grunted Zetsu dismissively, as Deidara again scowled at Tobi's lack of subtlety. "And besides, we have more important matters to focus on. Firstly we must clear up this cave. Leave no trace that any Akatsuki business has ever taken place here. That can be your first new task for our organisation, Tobi."

"Really?" Tobi asked eagerly. "Ok! I promise I won't let you down, Zetsu-sama!" With that he jammed Sasori's Akatsuki ring on his finger enthusiastically and began scurrying around the cave, picking up each of Sasori's puppets and gathering them in a big pile alongside the collapsed sealing statue.

Deidara stared at Zetsu slack jawed. "What the Hell are you thinking letting a fool like him into the Akatsuki, Zetsu?" he asked incredulously, gesturing at Tobi, who had started humming a happy tune as he went about his task of piling all of Sasori's wooden creations together. "The guy's a complete idiot!"

Zetsu stared impassively back at the pony tailed man, who shifted uncomfortably under the missing Grass nin's cold gaze. "Leader-sama has agreed that he be accepted into our organisation," the plant-like man answered, his golden eyes fixed on Deidara's blue ones. "He has certain… skills… that are useful to us. And he will replace Sasori as your partner from now on. Is that understood?"

Deidara gawped open mouthed at Zetsu, then turned to look at Tobi, who had just tripped over one of the immobile puppets, causing him to drop all of the marionettes he had been carrying. "Me? Partnered with him? This has to be some sort of joke, yeah…" the explosives expert muttered as Tobi began scrambling to pick up all the wooden creations he had just dropped.

"Cheer up, Deidara-senpai!" said Tobi cheerfully, overhearing Deidara's grumbling. "I'm a really nice guy – I don't bite! In fact, most people say I'm pretty 'armless!"

Enraged, Deidara whirled around to face Zetsu. "Can I kill him? Can I please kill him?"

Zetsu smiled humourlessly and shrugged his shoulders. "Leader-sama wouldn't be too happy if you did. If you want to discuss it with him, feel free."

Despite his anger, Deidara couldn't quite suppress a nervous shiver. He had heard rumours about the Akatsuki leader's wrath; unspeakable rumours. People that messed with him ended up dead. Very, very dead. "Y'know what, on second thoughts I think I'll be fine working with Tobi."

Zetsu smirked slightly at the subdued reaction of the proud clay user, just as Tobi unceremoniously threw Sasori's own body into the pile and shouted out, "Zetsu-sama! I'm done with the puppets! Should I grab the old lady too, or am I done?"

"Don't bother with her," Zetsu grunted, not even bothering to face the lifeless Suna kunoichi. "Just get rid of the puppets and the statue."

Deidara quirked an eyebrow. "What do you mean by 'get rid of them,' yeah?" the missing Iwa nin asked quizzically.

The barest hint of a smile twisted across the black half of Zetsu's lips for a brief second, making his face seem lopsided. "Watch and you'll see."

Puzzled, Deidara scrutinized the pile of discarded puppets and fragments of statue carefully. Then his eyes widened as some of the smaller pieces of rubble began to skitter across the cave floor, closer to the large mound. Soon larger pieces of stone began moving into the centre of the pile too, and Deidara could feel a slight breeze on his face, as if the air was being sucked into the heap of debris too.

Deidara was about to ask what the Hell was going on, but suddenly the entire mound of puppets and rock seemed to implode in on itself, being sucked inward by some unseen force. It was like watching the technique Kakashi had used to tear off Deidara's arm, but on a huge scale. Within seconds all the contents of the pile, which had easily been a few metres wide and taller than Tobi by at least a head, had flickered out of existence.

"There! All gone!" said Tobi proudly, hands on hips.

"See? Tobi's a good kid," said Zetsu's white half smugly. The plant-like man's black half remained silent, surveying the area that Tobi had cleared with approval. "Now, however, it would be best if we left the cave. There was a large force of Suna ninja approaching, and we have nothing to gain by engaging with them. You shall receive new instructions from Leader-sama at our next meeting – there is much to discuss."

With that, Zetsu closed the plant-like appendages on the sides of his head and vanished into the floor like a ghost, leaving no trace behind. Huffing with annoyance, though secretly hoping that Zetsu didn't mean that he was going to be blamed by Leader-sama for the failed extraction process, Deidara walked over to Tobi.

"You heard the plant guy, yeah," he said irritably. "Let's move it. We've got a long walk ahead of us."

Tobi chuckled. "You don't need to walk Deidara-senpai! Not when you've got me! I can get you anywhere in the blink of an eye!"

The air around Tobi's eyehole shimmered as he began to perform the same technique that he had used to transport the rubble. Deidara eyed the expanding vortex warily.

"Where exactly did you send that rubble, yeah?" he asked warily, stepping forward towards Tobi cautiously.

Tobi shrugged nonchalantly. "Somewhere."

Deidara was hardly reassured. "Is this teleportation thing of yours even safe?"

Tobi took hold of Deidara's shoulder and steered him to the edge of the vortex he had created. "Deidara-senpai, you know that I won't let anything bad happen to you," he said reproachfully, sounding like a kicked puppy. "You have to trust me. We're working together now, remember?"

Deidara scowled at the reminder, but gave in grudgingly. "Ok, fine. Let's go… partner."

"That's the way to think!" said Tobi encouragingly. "Partners. Pals. Comrades." He paused for a moment, seeing Deidara nod and seeming to warm up to the idea of working with the masked man before adding casually, "Brothers in arms!"

There was a moment of silence as Deidara tried to articulate his fury into words. Then, with a roar of rage, the missing Iwa nin leapt at his new partner, swearing angrily about how he was going to shove explosive clay down the masked man's eye socket. But before he could throttle the newest Akatsuki member with his feet, as he had intended, the vortex took hold of him and dragged him away. Leaving behind a string of foul curses the blonde haired Akatsuki ninja vanished into the rift.

Tobi tutted. "Artists! So highly strung!" Then he too disappeared into the vortex, leaving the sunlit cave behind him.

-o-o-

Naruto scowled, disgruntled, as a hoard of teenaged Suna kunoichi barged him out of the way to try and get closer to Gaara. Hearing them cooing about how 'cool' and 'strong' their Kazekage was reminded him forcibly of Uchiha Sasuke's many fangirls back at the Academy. However, he couldn't suppress a small snigger at seeing Temari, Kankuro and a brown haired girl attempting to force the squealing girls back, acting like the bodyguards of Suna's leader. Who knew that Gaara would be such a hit with the ladies?

The red haired Kazekage was barely visible in the sea of excited girls – in fact, looking around, Naruto realised that he had lost sight of the rest of his team in the huge crowd as well – but the orange clad shinobi was glad that he wasn't in Gaara's near vicinity. Suna's leader wasn't exactly keen on physical contact unless it was unavoidable and although Naruto couldn't see Gaara's glare, he could certainly feel it – the singed hairs on the back of his neck were standing on end, and he could have sworn the temperature had just dropped by a few degrees.

As Gaara grunted testily at the actions of one particularly zealous girl, who tried to grab his arm and pull him towards her before being forced back by an irate Temari's fan, Naruto wisely decided to make himself scarce. If Gaara didn't lose his temper, it seemed an absolute certainty that either his sister or the other girl that was helping her prevent Gaara from being swamped by his own subordinates would quite literally explode.

Then again, just before he slipped away to try and search for Sakura and Hinata to find out what they were supposed to be doing, Naruto noticed that at very least Kankuro seemed to be enjoying himself. He was smirking openly at his younger brother and wiggling his eyebrows at him in between blocking off the repeated advances of several of Gaara's female fans. He seemed to be enjoying his younger brother's sudden popularity with the women of Suna far more than Gaara himself, who was glowering darkly at the puppet user.

For her part, Hinata felt like she was in someone else's dream as she watched the countless jubilant Suna ninja milling around as though they were in a carnival, rather than outside of their own village in potentially hostile territory. It was rather disconcerting to be with her team at one moment, focused on an important mission, before being suddenly surrounded on every side by celebrating foreign shinobi in what seemed like the blink of an eye.

However, seeing everyone so happy and united and hearing the cheers, particularly Naruto's, which were amongst the loudest of all and had started the others off in a chain reaction, made her smile. It wasn't often that two villages saw eye to eye, even in alliances – Suna's betrayal in the Chuunin Exams back when she had been a genin showed that in the ninja world trust and friendship were rare commodities indeed. Seeing these values so openly on display right now was certainly surprising, but it was a welcome surprise nonetheless and it made her feel proud to be a Konoha kunoichi.

As weaved in and out of the ecstatic Suna shinobi, Hinata tried to find someone she knew, but at first she couldn't see anyone. She briefly considered using her Byakugan to try and relocate the rest of her squad, but then out of the corner of her eye she noticed Sakura's pink hair in the crowd and tried to simultaneously manoeuvre her way through the crowd of ninja to reach her and avoid putting any unnecessary pressure on her ankle.

Noticing the Hyuuga heiress, Sakura waved her over. "Hinata!" she shouted, trying to make herself heard over the loud cheers and pushing her way past a group of particularly enthusiastic Suna kunoichi who all seemed to be waxing lyrical about Gaara. "This is crazy, isn't it? And to think I thought Naruto was loud!"

Hinata nodded, slightly intimidated by the large crowd surrounding her. "Sakura-san, what's g-going on? Why are all these Suna shinobi here?"

Sakura laughed at Hinata's confusion, then scowled as she was almost knocked over by a burly Suna shinobi going around hugging what seemed to be every ninja in the whole crowd. "Watch where you're going, jerk!" she yelled angrily at his departing back, waving a furious fist at him. "You could hurt someone like that!" Rolling her eyes with frustration as the man continued on his way, clearly not hearing her annoyed shout, she muttered darkly under her breath before turning back to Hinata.

"Sorry about that, Hinata, where was I? Oh, yeah – everyone here volunteered! After I healed him up, Kankuro-san wanted to form a rescue squad for Gaara-sama, but I think even he was shocked by how many people requested to come on this mission. We've been going flat out for most of the time too – this is the first proper break we've had!"

Sakura wiped sweat from her forehead as she spoke, pulling Hinata by the arm to the edge of the group where the cheering was less noisy. "Anyway, you've heard what happened to me – now it's your turn! How did you get Gaara-sama back? Did you have to face any Akatsuki members?" Pausing momentarily, the pink haired medic nin smirked slightly before asking innocently, "Anything interesting happen between you and Naruto?"

Hinata's bright red blush was all the answer Sakura needed, but she waited patiently for the shy Hyuuga girl to speak up first. "Ano… the Akatsuki w-were trying to extract the chakra of a Bijuu from inside of him, but we got there on time to disrupt the process – if they had succeeded, Gaara-sama would have died. We had to f-fight to get Gaara-sama back, but Neji-niisan's team were seperated from us and the Akatsuki members divided the rest of us up too. They used some sort of clone of Gaara-sama to lure Naruto-kun, Shikamaru-san, Temari-san and Kakashi-sensei away. Even with my Byakugan I c-couldn't tell the difference between the real Gaara-sama and the copy, so we were forced to split up. I w-was together with Chiyo-baasama to face the second Akatsuki member, who was guarding the real Gaara-sama."

Hinata hesitated slightly as she mentioned Chiyo's name, but although she felt a pang of sadness on her heartstrings she didn't feel the same burning guilt and self-accusation that she had before. Naruto's words had soothed her enough so that she no longer felt personally at fault for the aged Suna ninja's sacrifice. She still deeply wished that she hadn't need saving, but rather than cry at her weakness she could hear Naruto's voice resonating inside her, encouraging her to make an effort to become even stronger and try even harder next time.

"And?" Sakura prompted, waiting impatiently for Hinata to continue. "C'mon, I'm dying to hear more! The guy you were facing was the one who used the poison on Kankuro-san, right?"

"Y-Yes, that's right," Hinata nodded, subconsciously rubbing her neck as she remembered the toxic gas that she had so nearly inhaled. "It was a very difficult fight. Gaara-sama woke up and was able to defeat him, but Chiyo-baasama… Chiyo-baasama was killed."

Hinata felt the faintest tinge of pride at managing to tell Sakura about Chiyo's death without her usual stutter. Saying it out loud to Sakura was almost like an admission to herself at the same time and the small, guilty knot of tension at the pit of her stomach, which had lessened since Naruto had given her his encouragement and support, finally released itself entirely. It felt like a huge weight had been taken from her shoulders.

The pink haired medic nin's eyes went wide at Hinata's revelation. "You mean… you saw it?" she whispered, shocked. "You saw her… die? How did it happen?"

"She was stabbed," Hinata murmured sadly, remembering the vivid details of the cave; Chiyo's blood, the puppets collapsing alongside her, as if their master's own strings had been severed too and, most of all, the calm, accepting expression on Chiyo's face as she had gracefully fallen, as though she was ending her life on her own terms. Even though she must have been in terrible pain before she died, in the end her love for Sasori and her resolved regrets had made her final moments peaceful.

Hinata snapped out of her reverie as Sakura slowly shook her head. "I can't believe she's gone… I mean, when I saw her leaving Suna with the rest of you I never thought that this would happen. She seemed so real back then, and so worldly… as if she had lived forever… but now…" She lapsed into silence, biting her lip.

Hinata nodded forlornly, reflecting on the feeling of loss that she felt without Chiyo. Even though she had only known the village elder for a few days it was like a big hole had suddenly appeared in her heart where the kind, elderly Suna kunoichi had once been. She was about to reply, but then, all of a sudden, she remembered what Sasori had told her just before his death.

"Oh! Ano, Sakura-san… I just remembered… there's m-more…" she said softly, breaking Sakura's own chain of thought. "After Gaara-sama managed to crush his body, Sasori told me something important before he died."

"Huh?" Sakura frowned quizzically. "Important in what way?"

"It… it w-was about Orochimaru."

Sakura's jaw dropped, but before she could say anything Hinata heard a voice right behind her exclaim loudly, "Finally, there you guys are! I've been looking everywhere for you, Sakura-chan, Hinata-chan. This crowd is huge!"

Hinata jumped at how close the voice was, but she recognised it immediately. "Oh, Naruto-kun," she squeaked, turning quickly to face the blonde haired boy and blushing heavily when she saw that he was only inches away from her face. Their noses were almost brushing against each other they were so close, but Naruto didn't seem phased at all, as usual. "S-Sorry, I… I didn't know you were there…"

"Nah, it's no problem," Naruto laughed, as Hinata shuffled back slightly to put some space between them, face flushed. "Must be my amazing ninja stealth skills!"

Seeing Hinata's cheeks redden further as she hesitantly nodded her agreement, Naruto idly wondered about her blush – he couldn't figure it out at all, no matter how long he stared. Studying her face in closer detail, he noticed that her flushed skin seemed to contrast with her silvery eyes and dark blue hair, making her stand out against the slowly setting sun behind her, but before his thoughts could progress any further a fist came down hard on top of his head and Sakura's voice yelled, "Naruto, shut up! Hinata was just about to say something about Orochimaru before you butted in!"

"Oww, Sakura-chan, that really hurt," whined Naruto, his face scrunched up. "You could have at least said 'hi' before hitting m– wait, what was that about Orochimaru?"

Seeing both Naruto and Sakura turn their attention back to her made Hinata feel a little uncomfortable – she had to force herself not to push her index fingers together in her usual nervous habit – but she fought back her nerves and managed to stutter, "Ano… before Sasori d-died, he said… he said that he had a spy in Orochimaru's network. He was planning on meeting his s-source in the Hidden Grass Village in… umm… eleven… days… time…"

Hinata's voice trailed off anxiously towards the end, seeing the shocked expressions on the faces of both Naruto and Sakura. Had she said something wrong? Did they think she was lying?

"That means… that means that we have a chance…" Sakura whispered faintly. "We have a chance to find him… to find Sasuke-kun!" Taking a step closer, the pink haired girl clasped hold of Hinata's hands with her own and smiled dazzlingly. "Hinata, I can't thank you enough," she whispered, her jade green eyes bright. "Thank you so much!"

Hinata released one of her hands from Sakura's grip and hesitantly patted the emotional girl on the shoulder. The medic nin whispered another, "Thank you," before smiling tremulously and giving Hinata's other hand a quick squeeze.

But Hinata barely heard the second part of Sakura's grateful response, as she was looking over the pink haired girl's shoulder and had her eyes fixed on Naruto, who hadn't moved a muscle since she had revealed what Sasori had told her. His face was still frozen in the same stunned expression as before and his eyes were swimming with a mixture of emotions.

"N-Naruto-kun?" Hinata asked, worried that he was struggling to take it all in. "Are you… ok?"

Naruto blinked, coming back to his senses, and shook his head to clear his thought. His mind was whirling uncontrollably at what Hinata had just revealed. As he saw the confused expression on her face at his lack of reaction, Naruto grinned and let the happiness of the news she had revealed just wash over him. He began to chuckle joyfully and as he saw Hinata smile with relief he broke into fully fledged laughter. Right now, he felt like everything couldn't possibly be any better. He was surrounded by friends, Gaara was ok, the Akatsuki had taken a serious beating and he was a step closer to finding Sasuke. It felt like the whole world was smiling with him.

His laughter subsiding for a moment, Naruto looked over at Hinata, who had been released by Sakura and was gazing at him confused but evidently happy to see him in such high spirits. He grinned as widely as he could and exclaimed, "Alright! Hinata-chan, you really are incredible! Thanks to you, I'm gonna get Sasuke back! There's no way I'm gonna let him get away this time!"

Grinning like an idiot, Naruto threw his hands into the air, laughing and cheering in equal measure. Sakura smiled and shook her head in mock exasperation at her blond teammates antics, in too good a mood to chastise him, and Hinata giggled at his wild exuberance.

It was at that moment Gaara growled, "Enough!" in a tone that left no room for argument. His voice hadn't been particularly loud, but Naruto let out a frightened, "Eep!" and quickly closed his mouth, not wanting to further irritate the Kazekage, and the noise of the clamouring crowd quickly died down.

Surveying the suddenly subdued group of ninja, Gaara let out an annoyed sigh. "Though I am touched by your reaction to my return, we have more important matters to which we must attend. In the rescue attempt the Suna village elder Chiyo-baasama died today and we must recognise her sacrifice."

Many of the ninja in the crowd had been fidgeting and murmuring despite Gaara's call for order, but at hearing one of their comrades had perished they bowed their heads as a sign of respect. Apart from the light breeze rustling the grass it was almost silent, as if even nature had muted itself out of courtesy.

"Kazekage-sama," a reedy voice spoke up, breaking the silence. As Gaara raised an eyebrow inquisitively, an elderly man with a thick, white beard stepped forward, his squinted eyes downcast. "I realise that your safety is of primary concern right now, but may I request that we retrieve my sister's body? You may go on ahead if you wish – I just wish to see her again, for one last time…"

Gaara thought for a moment, weighing up the risk of remaining in enemy territory, before voicing his opinion of the situation. "You need not fear that Chiyo-baasama will be left behind – her body contains many secrets of our village's puppetry techniques that must be protected, as does the body of Sasori which must also be disposed of, and of greater importance is that she deserves a fitting burial back in Suna for her long years of service. However, I believe it would be best if we sent a group back to retrieve her body – a lone ninja could easily be picked off by any Akatsuki members still in the area."

"Does that mean that you will permit me to lead a small squad to fetch her body, Kazekage-sama?" asked Ebizou hopefully.

The barest hint of a smirk flitted across Gaara's face. "My apologies, Ebizou-jiisama, but at your age I believe it would be for the best if you remained with the group. In your place I will assign the task of recovering her body and all destroying her puppets and Sasori's corpse to these three."

The red haired Kazekage gestured towards a trio of the loudest Suna kunoichi that had been harassing him earlier. The three of them had been whispering and giggling amongst themselves just moments earlier, as soon as the silence in respect for Chiyo's death had ended, but Gaara's words quickly caught their attention.

"W-Wait, what?" one of the girls asked, a panicked edge to her voice. "We can't go into Akatsuki territory on our own!"

Gaara's dark rimmed eyes narrowed a fraction. "We are still danger from an Akatsuki attack even as we speak," he said in a low monotone. "Consider this a mission assigned by your Kazekage."

The three kunoichi opened their mouths to argue further, but upon seeing Gaara's unfaltering gaze they thought better of it, instead bowing low to their leader and running the short distance back to the cave. All of them seemed very twitchy, jumping at even the slightest noises and looking around nervously as if an Akatsuki member was lying in wait for them behind every tree or bush. Matsuri stuck her tongue out at the girls as they left the rest of the group, not caring if she was acting immaturely, and judging by the expression on her face Temari looked as though she was struggling not to break out into the same response.

Realising that they would have to wait until the girls came back before they could leave, most of the Suna shinobi took the chance to take a seat and relax, drinking from their canteens and talking to each other light-heartedly – though not so loud as to risk disturbing their Kazekage again. Seeing some of the other ninja sitting down, Hinata settled down on the grass herself, rubbing her sore ankle. She hadn't wanted to appear weak in front everyone else, but seeing plenty of other people resting gave her an excuse to relieve the pressure on her foot.

Noticing the Hyuuga girl's discomfort, Sakura frowned and squatted down alongside her. "Hinata, what happened to your ankle? It looks very swollen, maybe even sprained."

"Oh, I got this in the battle against Sasori, but it isn't too bad, really. I'll be fine," Hinata answered, not wanting to exaggerate either her role in the fight or her relatively minor injury and a little surprised that Sakura had even noticed – both the swelling and the pain had lessened slightly after Naruto had carried her. She didn't want to make a big fuss such a minor injury; after all that everyone had been through to get Gaara back it seemed so insignificant to have anyone else worry about it.

Sakura ran a critical eye over the bruising and Naruto peered over his teammate's shoulder, concern apparent in his cerulean eyes. "Hmm," the pink haired medic nin muttered thoughtfully, lightly touching Hinata's ankle and noticing the Hyuuga heiress wince slightly at her touch. "I don't think it's sprained, but you definitely shouldn't be walking on it. It's not a bad thing to admit you're in pain, Hinata. I can fix that up in no time at all."

Hinata was about to protest that her injury wasn't important enough for Sakura to waste her energy on, but before she had any say in the matter Sakura shrouded her hands with chakra and positioned them over the Hyuuga girl's ankle. Hinata felt a warm, tingly sensation on her ankle joint, a little like getting pins-and-needles, before the mild itching subsided to be replaced by a dull numbness. The soreness that had been present only moments ago had completely vanished.

After a few more seconds Sakura withdrew her hands, satisfied. "Is that ok now, Hinata?"

Getting back to her feet a little uncertainly, Hinata shifted her weight experimentally to her left side. Taking a few tentative steps and feeling no adverse reaction, she smiled gratefully. "Oh, yes, this is much better, my ankle doesn't ache at all now. Thank you for healing me, Sakura-san. I know you d-didn't have to, but I appreciate it very m-much."

Sakura smiled at the praise of her medical skills. "It's no problem at all Hinata. Healing people is what I've been trained for, and knowing that I'm doing something for the mission at last is a lot better than sitting back at the hospital twiddling my thumbs. I was going crazy doing nothing in there! But you should have said something earlier – like I said, it's not a problem for me. You know that, right?"

Hinata nodded meekly at Sakura's mild scolding. The pink haired medic nin was right; she didn't need to hide her weaknesses when she was with friends. But Sakura's talk about her feeling of helplessness had struck a chord with the Hyuuga girl too. Back when she had first become a genin she had made many mistakes on her earlier missions, which often caused her to lose her confidence and make even more errors, and whenever she had failed to measure up to the standards set by Neji or her younger sister in Jyuuken training at the Hyuuga complex she had felt every bit as weak as her family believed her to be. But worst of all had been when Kiba, Neji and Naruto had gone off on the mission to bring back Sasuke – she had almost worried herself to death when they had been gone and when she had heard that they had all returned with various injuries she had felt awful about how little she could do to help.

Hinata's memories were disrupted by a high pitched voice shouting out, "Kazekage-sama! Kazekage-sama!" Hinata looked up to see that the three girls sent back to the cave were running towards them, with one of them holding Chiyo's body, but they all seemed panic-stricken for some reason, their faces white with fear.

Gaara raised an eyebrow at their obvious fear as they ran up to him, flustered and short of breath. "What has happened?" the Kazekage asked bluntly, not wasting any time.

One of the girls bowed and took a shaky breath before speaking as calmly as she could manage. "We entered the cave and retrieved Chiyo-baasama's body as you asked, Kazekage-sama, but… all of the puppets and Sasori's body had completely vanished. We searched the cavern thoroughly, but there was nothing there at all. The cave was totally empty."

Gaara frowned, unnerved by this new development. One of the other girls spoke up, her voice quivering. "If Sasori's body w-wasn't there, then could that mean… he's s-still alive?"

There were several shouts of alarm from the Suna ninja in the crowd, but Gaara waved away their agitation with an immediate shake of his head. "Impossible, I witnessed his death. I am certain that he could not have survived." Noticing some of his audience relaxing, Gaara raised a hand to keep their attention. "However, the alternative is no less dangerous. Sasori and the puppets have been removed within the short amount of time that the cave has been unoccupied. In all likelihood, this means that they must have been cleared by other Akatsuki members in the area."

Suddenly the mood of the assembled ninja became nervous and restless, the previous carnival atmosphere completely forgotten. A low, anxious muttering started up and several of the assembled ninja began to peer over their shoulders uneasily. Noticing the shift in the atmosphere of the group, Gaara decided to impose his authority in order to keep everyone calm.

"You four!" he barked, pointing at a group of Suna chuunin authoritatively. "Scout our route ahead for any sign of traps or possible Akatsuki interference. If you find anything suspicious, report back straight away and do not engage. Is that understood?"

The four ninja he had picked out blinked with surprise at the unexpected commands, but quickly snapped to attention, bowing and vanishing in a swirl of dust. Satisfied, Gaara turned his attention back to the three returned kunoichi. "The three of you will be given the task of transporting Chiyo-baasama's body back to Suna. Be sure to guard it well."

Seeing the girls nod, albeit a little hesitantly, Gaara shifted to face the rest of the assembled shinobi. "Everyone else, stay cautious but do not panic unnecessarily. In a group this size a single person losing their head could result in mass confusion and disunity. To keep order, you shall be arranged into four squads. Kankuro, please take command of the ninja on my right flank. Temari, you take control of the ninja to my left. Ebizou-jiisama, you shall be assigned the task of overseeing the shinobi at the head of the group. And finally, Maito Gai, would you be so kind as to take charge of the Konoha ninja at the rear?"

"Of course, Kazekage-sama!" the spandex clad jonin boomed, straightening his posture and smiling his customary tooth gleaming smile. "Until you are safely returned to your village, we shall not rest for even a moment! It is our duty to protect you and we shall do so no matter what!"

"Very well," Gaara nodded shortly. "Everyone stay in formation and proceed carefully. Now, let us return to Suna. I have a village to run."

There were a few muted cheers at Gaara's words, although no scenes of mass celebration this time. Naruto quickly moved into position alongside the rest of the Konoha shinobi assigned with the task of blocking off any possibility of an attack from the rear and Hinata stepped into place alongside him, activating her Byakugan and determined to play an active part in protecting the Kazekage now that her ankle was fully healed. The rest of the Leaf ninja, who had all been wandering aimlessly in the large crowd with varying degrees of interest, quickly rejoined Gai as well, who was standing in his patented 'nice guy pose.' With a grunt he wrapped Kakashi's arm around his neck to prop the silver haired jonin up as the other squad sorted themselves into groups in preparation for departure.

"Gai, don't you think that it would be better for you to move more freely?" Kakashi asked, not even trying to disguise the hope in his voice as his arm was tightened around Gai's neck. "Since you're in command of this squadron, I wouldn't want to slow you down. It would be for the best if someone else were to carry me from now on, don't you think?"

Gai stroked his chin thoughtfully with his free hand. "Hmm… though I would easily be able to carry you from here to Suna, this method of transport could leave me vulnerable if attacked. And it may delay our progress as well, which would be most unyouthful…"

Kakashi nodded quickly, relieved. "Yes, yes, very unyouthful. Let someone else carry me, like Naruto."

Gai pondered Kakashi's proposal for a brief moment, but then his eyebrows jumped upwards and he smiled his customary gleaming smile. "Ah, do not be so hasty, my eternal rival! I have a much better idea!" Ducking slightly, the spandex clad jonin lifted Kakashi up as if he were a small child and hoisted him onto his back in a piggy back position.

Kakashi's one visible eye widened with horror, but his protests were shot down even before he could voice them as Gai shouted enthusiastically, "Yosh! This is much better, I will be able to travel far more swiftly now! There will be no stopping our combined youth!"

As Lee gazed reverently at his sensei, Naruto backed away slightly. 'I can't believe I used to think wearing spandex would be cool…' he thought to himself, shuddering slightly as Gai began to practice some kicks and punches to test his greater freedom of movement, almost throwing Kakashi off his back in doing so. Naruto couldn't help but notice that what little of Kakashi's face that wasn't covered by his mask was looking decidedly green.

Lee raised a fist into the air, giving his sensei a thumbs up sign, and began mimicking his Gai's movements, spinning, ducking and punching the air excitedly. "I see, Gai-sensei is training!" he thought aloud, watching closely as his sensei changed tack and began doing some basic warm-up stretches, with Kakashi still clinging on for dear life. "I must follow his example!"

Naruto chuckled as he saw Lee copying Gai's motions with rapt attention, looking exactly like a smaller version of the sensei he idolised so much. His friends could sometimes be annoying, but Naruto would freely admit that he had missed them all

whilst he had been away. Despite their individual quirks there was no doubt in his mind that he enjoyed hanging out with them. He smiled when he realised that there were still plenty of people back in Konoha he still wanted to see and meet up with too – the rest of Team Ten and Team Eight for starters, not to mention Iruka-sensei and the Konohamaru Corps. It made him feel good that he had so many people that were important to him – his friends made him feel accepted and acknowledged, the two things he had strived for most throughout his life.

Thinking of his friends, Naruto glanced across to see the reactions of his other companions. Tenten was shaking her head in despair at her sensei's antics, Sakura had an expression that was a cross between disbelief and disgust, Shikamaru was idly gazing up at the sky and only half paying attention, Hinata was avoiding eye contact with either of them and blushing slightly, clearly embarrassed for the both of them, and Neji was trying to ignore his fellow Konoha jonin as best as he could, pointedly looking in the other direction.

Neji's mood didn't exactly improve when Lee moved alongside him, still mirroring his sensei's motions. "What do you want, Lee?" he asked tiredly, trying not to look at his former teacher.

Lee's response was to end the warm up exercises he had been involved in and duck down slightly, offering his back to the Hyuuga jonin. "Neji, would you like to help me train in the same youthful manner as Gai-sensei?"

Neji's eye twitched. "Please tell me you're joking."

Tenten stifled her laughter at Neji's obvious horror at the idea, but Naruto's ears pricked up and he walked over to the Hyuuga Branch Family member, confused. "Wait, Neji, if your back's so bad, why don't you let Lee carry you? You don't want to make it any worse, right?"

Seeing Lee's eyes light up with the possibility of getting in some 'training,' Neji hastily tried to halt the situation before it led somewhere he didn't particularly want – if Naruto found out he was feigning his injury then his attempt to get his cousin to spend more time with the ramen loving shinobi would have been for nothing. "That won't be necessary, Naruto. My back isn't so severe a hindrance that I am unable t–"

"Oh, well if that's the case then you should have Sakura heal you quickly, before we set off," smiled Tenten sweetly, enjoying the brief flash of panic across Neji's face. "If your back really isn't too bad then it should only take a few seconds, right?"

"Tenten, you're not helping," hissed Neji out of the corner of his mouth as Naruto cocked his head to one side, confused by the Hyuuga jonin's sudden discomfort.

"Serves you right for calling me 'youthful' in front of everyone on the way!" she whispered back, trying to appear serious. However, the broad, mischievous grin spreading across her face and fun-loving glint in her eyes made Neji far more nervous than he would have been had she been genuinely angry. A teasing Tenten was a dangerous Tenten.

Oblivious to this short interplay, Naruto scratched his head, feeling as though he had missed something in the conversation. "Er, yeah, I could get Sakura-chan to help if you want. She way she healed Hinata-chan so quickly was awesome, so I'm sure she'd be able to fix you up without too much trouble."

Neji groaned. Tenten had backed him into a corner. His only options were to either let Naruto bring Sakura over, which would result in his 'injury' being revealed as fake, or… He grimaced. 'I can't believe I'm actually doing this,' he thought gloomily to himself. 'But it's the lesser of two evils…'

Swallowing his pride, Neji spoke. "Wait, Naruto. I do not wish to bother Sakura when we are about to leave. My back can wait until we have returned to Suna. I…" He almost lost his nerve as he saw Lee blinking owlishly at him, but steeled himself and forced himself to mutter, "I will permit Lee to carry me instead."

Lee flashed a tooth gleaming grin in Neji's direction. "I sincerely thank you for your assistance in my training, Neji. With your help, soon I will truly become a genius of hard work!"

Neji groaned in response.

Tenten had to bite down on her tongue to prevent herself from laughing as Neji, with as much dignity as he could muster, climbed onto Lee's back. She felt a tiny bit guilty, admittedly, but seeing Neji all flustered like this was too good an opportunity to pass up, and after he had embarrassed her on the way to Suna it seemed like fair compensation. 'Revenge is sweet,' she thought, grinning inwardly as Gaara made a hand signal and the group began to head back to Suna.

-o-o-

Naruto thumped his pillow a few times in irritation before allowing his head to flop back down and squeezing his eyes shut. After just a few seconds his eyelids snapped open once more, though it didn't make much difference to him due to the darkness of the room, and he growled with frustration. Despite the late hour and the long, tiring journey back to Suna he just couldn't get to sleep! The room was too damn hot! The t-shirt he was sleeping in was sticking to his body with the heat and the bed covers had been thrown aside in a futile effort to cool down.

On the bed next to his he was just about able to make out Shikamaru shifting slightly beneath the sheets, fast asleep, and Naruto could see that Lee was also slumbering peacefully over on the other side of the room, faintly snoring. Naruto snorted. The Nara boy had fallen asleep almost as soon as his head had hit the pillow and Lee had managed to drop off without any problems too. 'Shikamaru and Fuzzy Brows are so lucky, getting to sleep so easily,' he thought sourly. 'I'm not even tired yet.'

Scowling, Naruto looked around the gloom of the room, trying to find something else to focus on that might make him feel drowsy. Of course there was nothing – the hotel room that Gaara had kindly offered them to stay the night in before they headed back to Konoha the following day was spacious and luxurious certainly, with plush carpets and tasteful decorations, but certainly didn't contain anything that would help him get to sleep any faster.

In the other rooms there didn't seem to be anyone up either. Kakashi, Gai and Neji were all sharing a room of their own next door, and Sakura, Tenten and Hinata were in the room opposite. When it had come to room selection there had been some disagreements at first – Lee and Gai had wanted to share a room together, but Kakashi had flat out refused to sleep in the same room as both of 'Konoha's Green Beasts' at the same time, so to solve the issue Neji had volunteered to room with Kakashi and Gai, with Lee then agreeing to join Naruto and Shikamaru instead. From what Naruto could tell Hinata had looked a little apprehensive at sharing a room at first, but after Sakura and Tenten had began their 'girl talk' Hinata had quickly settled in. If the giggles that he had heard earlier from across the corridor were anything to go by, she and the other kunoichi had been enjoying themselves.

Shikamaru had merely mumbled, "Troublesome women…" under his breath and Lee had began to ramble about how wonderful it was that the girls had discovered 'their free, youthful spirits.' Naruto had just shaken his head, bewildered. He may have learned a lot on his training mission with Jiraiya, but girls were still a total mystery to him.

But now, other than his own breathing, Lee's muffled snoring and the faint shifting of the mattress whenever he tried to find a more comfortable position in which to try and get to sleep, the hotel was completely silent. After tossing and turning for another couple of minutes, Naruto huffed with frustration and rose to his feet, giving sleep up for the time being.

Stepping carefully across the floor, being careful not to wake either of his roommates, he headed towards the bathroom to get dressed, planning to take a short walk around Suna to clear his head a little. Groping for the bathroom door in the darkness, Naruto stumbled and nearly tripped over a pair of ninja sandals lying strewn across the floor. Regaining his balance and swearing under his breath at the pain of his stubbed toe, Naruto continued to fumble for the door handle, finally locating it and turning the light on as he entered.

Grabbing the pile of clothes that he had left strewn haphazardly over the bathroom floor, Naruto dressed himself quickly. As he simultaneously zipped up his jacket over his t-shirt and tried to pull on his sandals, hopping on one foot as he did so, the spiky haired ninja couldn't help but admire the hotel's bathroom – after the arduous journey back, with the huge group forced to camp out in the open for one night due to the long distance back to the Hidden Sand Village, Gaara really had been generous in allowing them a free night's stay in the most expensive hotel in Suna. Naruto chuckled inwardly as he remembered the manager's less than enthusiastic welcome to the group of dirty, sweaty Konoha ninja, but once Gaara had walked to the front of the group and stated that they were honoured guests of the village he had suddenly been all smiles, promising them the best rooms in the building and any service they asked for.

The terrified expression on the manager's face as Gaara had stared straight into his eyes and said in a low, warning voice, "See that you do," had been priceless.

Still, Naruto had to admit that the manager had been true to his word. The bathroom was absolutely stunning – the bath tub must have been big enough to fit in half of the population of Suna, there were countless taps that Naruto had fiddled about with like a child when it had been his turn to get washed and the sink was made out of solid marble. It was a kind of luxury Naruto wasn't used to at all back home in Konoha, what with his small, cosy apartment, but it was certainly nice for a change.

Now fully dressed, Naruto turned off the bathroom light and walked over to the hotel room's balcony. Sliding the door open, he breathed in the night air – still fairly warm, but with a light, swirling breeze and much cooler than it had been earlier in the day when the massive squad of Suna and Konoha ninja had crossed the desert. Naruto grimaced at the memory of the gritty sand, someone managing to get everywhere from the soles of his feet to inside of his parched mouth, but his scowl quickly became a smile as he remembered the reception they had got once they had came into sight of Suna. The residents had been waiting for them and their cheers had been enough to make the whole village shake on its foundations. Someone had even set off a cluster of fireworks to mark their return, lighting up the evening sky with streaks of red and gold. Gaara had looked a little overwhelmed by the welcome he had received, but gave a short, heartfelt speech, praising the residents of the village for their 'resilience in the face of adversity' and 'strength in unity.' After ending his speech by publically thanking the Konoha ninja for their efforts, he had directed them to their hotel, thanked them once more and disappeared back to his office with Kankuro and Temari, acting as though it was just another ordinary day of work.

Leaning against the balcony railings, Naruto gazed down at the village far below him. In most of the buildings he could see there were no lights on, with the only sources of brightness being the dimmed streetlights, the near full moon above his head and the twinkling stars dotted across the night sky. However, there was still a festival atmosphere to the village even at this late hour. Across some of the streets he could see a few hastily constructed banners proclaiming Gaara's return, fluttering cheerfully in the night breeze, and in the distance he could just about hear the faint sounds of laughter and music as the celebrations continued late into the night.

Naruto sighed pessimistically as he wondered whether anyone in Konoha would ever cheer in this sort of way for him. The reaction when he had returned from his training mission showed that he was still considered an outcast by many of the villagers. Would they ever accept him in the way that his precious people did? In the way that the residents of Suna had finally come to see Gaara?

Shrugging his thoughts off, Naruto vaulted over the balcony railing, allowing the wind to whistle through his hair as he rapidly dropped towards the ground. 'So what if they don't like me?' the orange clad shinobi thought fiercely, forcing chakra into his legs and landing in a crouch, not even winded from the multi-storey fall. 'I'll just have to prove them wrong! If Gaara can change peoples' minds and become the leader of his village, then so can I!'

Straightening up, Naruto looked around, searching for any sign of inhabitants awake at this hour, but upon finding the area completely deserted he shrugged. Stretching his arms out and putting his hands in the pockets of his jacket he began to walk, wanting to burn off some of his extra energy so that he could finally get some sleep.

Letting his feet guide him, Naruto wandered aimlessly through the streets of Suna, passing a few late night celebrations in bars and similar establishments that seemed to be finally dying down. He found himself curious and impressed by the various features of Suna. It was very different to Konoha, with the streets much narrower and twisting, but enjoyable to explore all the same and soon he became immersed in the mazy, winding roads and alleyways. He felt almost like a tourist, discovering a new, striking feature behind every corner; anything from a wide, paved courtyard with a beautifully sculpted fountain which Naruto had dipped his feet in for a minute, enjoying the cool, refreshing feeling of the water between his toes, to a huge building that looked as if it were a museum or a library of some sort which towered above even the multi-storey hotel that he and the rest of the Konoha ninja were staying in.

However, as Naruto walked past the hospital that he and the rest of his team had entered when they had first reached Suna to allow Sakura to heal Kankuro he realised that he was getting a little lost and didn't know how to get back to his hotel room. The streets were completely unfamiliar to him and the darkness made things even more disorientating, messing with his sense of direction. Thinking for a moment, Naruto decided to try and retrace his steps, but after a few minutes he realised that he was more lost than ever, much to his irritation. The temperature had dropped quite suddenly in the last few minutes too, causing him to shiver and wrap his jacket more tightly around his body as a particularly cold gust of wind whistled through the street.

"Great," he muttered sarcastically to himself as he looked around in a vain attempt to get his bearings back. "How am I supposed to get back to my room now?" Another swirling rush of cold air was the only answer he received.

'Why is it so damn cold?' he thought to himself with annoyance, wriggling his toes and rubbing his arms under his jacket in an attempt to warm himself up. 'It was boiling earlier!' He remembered Kakashi telling them about the general desert climate when they had been travelling from Konoha to Suna, back when the mission had begun – he could vaguely recall something about how Suna cooled down quickly in the night due to the lack of cloud cover to trap the heat of the day, or something along those lines – but pushed those thoughts out of his mind as a brainwave struck him.

"Hey, wait, I know!" the ramen loving ninja exclaimed, smiling proudly at his new idea. "I should be able to see where the hotel is if I go up on the rooftops to get a better view! I'm a genius!"

Gathering chakra in the soles of his feet, Naruto walked up along the wall of the largest building in the near vicinity. As he reached the top he grinned at the view below, forgetting for a moment why he had climbed the building in the first place, and sat down on the rooftop. The village, spread out below him like a patchwork quilt, looked imposing, with it's tall structures and sombre tones of deep reds, yellows and browns, yet at the same time, surrounded by the desert, it seemed like the only source of life in a barren, arid wasteland. And with Gaara in charge now then it must have really become a haven of sorts; the way that the Kazekage had received all the Konoha ninja with such good grace since they had entered the village showed clearly how Suna had changed under his leadership. The treatment had made Naruto feel almost like a hero, like he was really impor–

"You are up late, Naruto."

"Gah! Gaara?" Naruto yelped, whipping his head around upon hearing the voice of the person he had been thinking about coming from right behind him. "Don't sneak up on me like that! You almost gave me a heart attack!"

Gaara inclined his head slightly. "My apologies. If you wish to be alone, I shall take my leave."

Surprised by his friend's words, Naruto shook his head hastily. "Wait, wait, you don't have to go. I'd like a chance to catch up with you; we haven't had a real chance to talk for ages."

The red haired Kazekage smiled ever so slightly and sat down alongside the orange clad ninja. "I would… enjoy that, Naruto."

The pair lapsed into a comfortable silence for a few moments before Naruto spoke, scratching his chin thoughtfully as he tried to think of what to say. "So, uh, Gaara, what're you doing up so late? I thought you would've wanted to get some sleep… y'know, after all you've been through."

Gaara fixed his dark rimmed eyes on Naruto. "My… prisoner… makes sleep a very rare luxury for me," he said quietly. "Though, as we both know, a lack of rest is the least of a Jinchuuriki's problems."

Naruto nodded, becoming serious. "Yeah, we've both had to put up with a lot to get this far, huh?" he asked, not really expecting an answer.

Surprisingly, however, Gaara did reply to his rhetorical question. "True as that may be, I suspect our troubles are by no means over. This Akatsuki group worries me a great deal."

"We kicked their sorry asses!" Naruto snorted dismissively. "If they try anything stupid like that again, we'll just have to teach them that you don't mess with Konoha or Suna!"

Gaara furrowed his eyebrows a fraction. "You should not underestimate a group comprised of S-rank missing nins," he warned. "This was but one small victory, and the price we paid for it was great. Chiyo-baasama sacrificed her life and the Akatsuki still managed to steal almost all of the Ichibi's chakra for an unknown purpose. The threat of this organisation is too great to ignore."

Seeing Naruto about to argue, Gaara silenced him with a blunt question. "Naruto, do you know how I was captured?"

Naruto frowned. "I know one of those Akatsuki bastards defeated and kidnapped you, but I don't really know all the details. Why do you ask?"

"My intelligence sources have stated that the Akatsuki are intent on capturing all Bijuu, and that includes you," said Gaara slowly. Naruto's face scrunched up as he thought about Gaara's words, not really understanding where his friend was going with this. The young Kazekage watched him think for a few seconds, before sighing at the blonde boy's density and continuing, "In order to get to me, the Akatsuki targeted the residents of Suna. I was forced to choose between defeating my enemy or protecting the village. What would you do if your own precious people were also threatened?"

Naruto's eyes widened as he realised the point that Gaara was trying to make. After a moment of silence, the blonde boy hesitantly answered, "I… I guess I don't know. I don't want anyone to get hurt because of me…" Naruto trailed off pensively, before flashing a determined smile. "But I know that I'd keep them safe somehow, no matter what!"

A small smile flitted across Gaara's face. "That may not be enough, but it is at least a start. With that mindset, you may become Hokage after all in the future."

Naruto grinned widely at his red haired friend. "Heh, thanks Gaara. I know it's gonna be tough, but it's my dream and I'm not gonna give it up! That's a promise! Some day I will be Hokage!"

Gaara shifted position, offering Naruto his hand in a silent gesture of respect. Smiling, Naruto took it and shook firmly, pleased that Gaara was acknowledging him as an equal despite their difference in rank.

As Naruto released his grip he ran his hand through his spiky hair sheepishly. "Hey, Gaara, do you have any… tips for me? Y'know, for being a good Kage?"

Gaara pondered Naruto's question for a few seconds. "The best advice I can give you is to be willing to accept that, even as a leader, there will be times that you make mistakes. If you accept and learn from your errors and listen to those that wish to guide you then you are on the right path."

Naruto gazed at Gaara thoughtfully, then grinned impishly. "So… you're saying that you've made mistakes too?"

"Of course," answered Gaara drily. "I would not have been captured by the Akatsuki if I were infallible. There is no doubt that I am both young and inexperienced for a leader, but this only means that I must make up for my lack of worldly knowledge by putting more effort into being a good Kage."

Naruto laughed. "You sounded a bit like Fuzzy Brows for a second there with all your talk about hard work."

Gaara shuddered, but couldn't prevent a small smile from reaching his lips. "I hope not. There is much to admire about Lee, but if I ever wear… that… then you have permission to knock some sense into me once again."

Naruto grinned innocently. "I dunno Gaara… I bet those girls you were fighting off would have loved to see you wearing spandex!"

Gaara scowled slightly. "I enjoy my role as Suna's Kazekage, and protecting my home is very important to me, but those girls did not come as part of the job description. They are almost as bad as the endless forms I am tasked with filling out."

Naruto chuckled. "Is the paperwork really that bad?"

Gaara grunted and raised himself to his feet. "Why do you think I am out here talking to you, rather than inside my office? After my absence from the village, my in tray is overflowing."

Naruto blinked. "Did you… did you just make a joke?"

Gaara smiled again, a hint of mischief present in his gaze. "Perhaps you have had a more profound influence on me than you expected. For now, however, I think it would be best if we turned in for the night. After all, both of us must be up early for Chiyo-baasama's funeral and your departure back to Konoha."

Naruto nodded. "Yeah, see you then Gaara. Good luck with running the village and everything. Oh, and see if you can get yourself a girlfriend too!"

Gaara snorted. "You should take your own advice, Naruto. If you opened your eyes, you may find someone suitable for you already."

"Huh? What's that supposed to mean?" asked Naruto, bewildered. Gaara, however, merely smiled secretively, stepped to the edge of the rooftop and began to disintegrate, his body slowly turning into sand with his peaceful smile the last feature to disappear.

Shrugging his shoulders at Gaara's final enigmatic comment, Naruto watched the sand drift away in the night breeze, glimmering faintly in the moonlight for a brief second before dispersing completely. Grinning lopsidedly, Naruto turned to jump of the roof before a thought struck him like a hammer blow.

"Crap! I should've asked Gaara for directions back to my room!"

-o-o-

The journey back to Konoha took longer than the trek to Suna at the very beginning of the mission, due to both the lack of the same urgency that had been present on their original trip, whilst Gaara had been in the Akatsuki's clutches and the fact that Gai was still carrying the chakra depleted Kakashi on his back. Sakura had examined him thoroughly, but concluded that, other than recommending the silver haired jonin should rest as much as possible, there wasn't really anything she could do to help him. However, despite the more laid back attitude of the group there was a rising sense of anticipation as they leapt through the forest just outside the village, getting closer and closer to the gates of Konoha. Home, and all its comforts – a ninja equipment supplier to replace all lost weapons for Tenten, a bookshop to check whether or not the much anticipated new novel in the Icha Icha series was out yet for Kakashi and all-you-can-eat ramen at Ichiraku's for Naruto – were just a short distance away.

Then again, although Hinata was looking forward to having a warm, relaxing shower as soon as she got home she didn't mind the more leisurely pace they were setting this time around – it was nice to watch the now familiar scenery pass her by as they approached Konoha. One of the things she enjoyed most about being a ninja was that it allowed her to travel and see the world.

She cast her eyes to her left, where Sakura and Tenten were travelling alongside her, chatting unconcernedly with each other, and thought back to the conversation they'd had back at the hotel in Suna. Hinata had felt a little nervous and tentative about speaking to her fellow kunoichi at first, feeling like she didn't know them well enough to strike up a conversation, but after her initial self-consciousness had faded she had quickly realised, much to her surprise, how easy it was to just relax and talk to the girls. They had quite happily included her in their conversation and had even seemed to enjoy her company, offering to meet up at the hot springs or invite her over for a sleepover once they were back in Konoha.

Hinata had found that she had more in common than she had expected with Sakura and Tenten. They had shared all sorts of information; anything from anecdotes about teammates and missions to the best skincare products to prevent blisters and scarring after a hard day's training and Hinata had really enjoyed the feeling of fitting in with girls her own age. Her sister Hanabi was the only other person that Hinata really had any opportunity to talk to about these kind of topics – she had to force back a giggle as she thought of the reactions of Kiba and Shino if she started talking to them about hair conditioners and shampoo.

However, almost inevitably, after a while the subject had of course turned to boys and this of course meant that, after a short, slightly awkward pause when Sasuke's name was brought up and a rather salacious discussion about the limits of Neji's Byakugan's X-ray capabilities that had left Tenten grinning suggestively and Hinata pressing her index fingers together, face flushed, the topic settled on her feelings for Naruto. Hinata blushed scarlet at just the memory. Some of the questions Sakura and Tenten had asked her had been so embarrassing! And the advice…!

Sakura's suggestion of being more assertive – her exact words were, "Go all out to impress him! Love is war, so don't hold back and hit him with everything you got, cha!" – had reduced Hinata to a stuttering wreck for at least a minute and Tenten's follow up advice to 'take control' of the relationship, complete with a vivid and detailed description of how exactly to go about doing that, had left even Sakura with a slight blush.

However, before the conversation had managed to progress beyond this point and cause Hinata any further embarrassment, there had been a knock on the door. Answering it, the pink haired medic nin had found herself face to face with Neji, who arched an eyebrow as both she and Tenten forced back giggles and Hinata blushed bright pink. Noticing with mild interest that Tenten was staring openly at his Byakugan eyes as she bit her lip to repress laughter, he entered, feeling slightly uncomfortable.

"My apologies for disturbing you all, but Kakashi has advised that we should all get some sleep before Chiyo's funeral early tomorrow morning. We will be leaving immediately after the ceremony is over."

The girls quickly became rather more subdued upon hearing the news of the Suna kunoichi's impending burial. "Thanks Neji, we'll be sure to do that," Sakura answered.

Neji nodded, but didn't leave straight away. "Ano… was there anything else Kakashi-sensei w-wanted you to tell us, Neji-niisan?" Hinata asked curiously.

Neji had rubbed the back of his neck in an uncharacteristically awkward gesture. "I… would like to thank Sakura-san for healing my back earlier," he said slowly, putting emphasis on 'healing.'

Sakura's forehead scrunched up with puzzlement. "What are you talking about? I didn't heal you earlier."

"Yes," said Neji, even more slowly this time, "You did."

Tenten sighed impatiently. "I'll explain it to her Neji, don't worry. We'll be getting ready for bed now, good night."

The Hyuuga jonin had nodded wordlessly and left, closing the door quietly behind him. "Er… can anyone fill me in on what he was talking about?" asked Sakura, still confused.

Tenten sighed again. "It's a long story…" she said tiredly, as the three of them prepared to settle in for the night.

The funeral had been at almost the crack of dawn the following day, but no-one complained about the early hour. Hinata felt a little bad that she had nothing appropriate to wear for such a sombre occasion, but none of the other Konoha ninja were wearing anything other than their usual mission clothes either, so she didn't feel too uncomfortable. It had also helped that there had been a huge send-off for the Suna village elder, with hundreds of mourners lined up on the edge of the village in the early morning to see her burial. To Hinata's surprise the Kazekage himself had been the one to conduct the service and he had been genuinely heartfelt as he had addressed the onlookers, describing Chiyo's many past accomplishments and her worth both as a ninja and as a person.

Many of the crowd, Hinata and Sakura included, had shed tears when the coffin had been lowered into the ground. It made things completely final in the Hyuuga girl's mind. Chiyo was now gone, gone forever and confined only to memories.

'I promise I won't ever forget what you did for me, Chiyo-baasama,' Hinata had thought sadly as she stared at the simple tombstone marking her grave, the crowd beginning to disperse now that the service was over. 'Because of your sacrifice, I'm still alive today. I… I want to live in a way that you would be proud of. I want to be the best person I can be… for you and for all the important people that I want to protect.'

After the burial, as Maito Gai called everyone over to make their last preparations before leaving with an unwilling Kakashi perched precariously on his back once again, Hinata had taken one final, sorrowful glance at the freshly turned earth marking the elderly Suna kunoichi's grave, before faintly whispering, "Thank you, Chiyo-baasama," and hurrying to catch up with everyone else, making sure not to look back.

With the funeral over, Gaara, flanked by Temari and Kankuro, had led the Konoha shinobi to the village gates to wish them a safe journey home. Hinata smiled at the recollection of Gaara formally extending a hand for Naruto to shake as everyone else had been saying their goodbyes, only to be caught off guard by Naruto throwing an arm around the red haired Kazekage's shoulder and being pulled into a one armed hug. The blonde haired ninja had loudly proclaimed, "See ya later then, Gaara! Next time the two of us meet, I'm gonna be Hokage for sure!"

The red headed Kazekage had looked caught in two minds at first as to whether to hug Naruto back or remind the ramen loving shinobi about 'personal space.' However, after a moment's hesitation and seeing Kankuro nod encouragingly at him he had awkwardly patted Naruto on the back, wishing his first ever friend goodbye and a safe journey.

Gaara's surprise by the physical contact from Naruto was completely overshadowed by what happened next, though. Just as the orange clad shinobi released him and the group was about to leave, Temari walked straight up to Shikamaru, grabbed the collar of his chuunin vest and boldly pulled him in for a heated kiss. Shikamaru's eyes had widened with shock and he had totally frozen for a second, but before he could react Temari had pulled away, fiercely whispered, "You'd better remember to write to me, you lazy ass, or else!" and moved back to Gaara's side, her slightly flushed face the only sign that anything out of the ordinary had happened.

For a few long seconds everyone was silent, far too surprised at Temari's brazenness to do anything other than gawp open mouthed at her. Caught off guard though she was, Hinata couldn't help but feel the tiniest hint of admiration for the Suna kunoichi. Even with everyone watching her, she hadn't been afraid of engaging in such an open display in front of so many people in the slightest – Hinata was almost certain that, even assuming she could have done something that bold to Naruto with everyone watching her, she would have fainted on the spot straight afterwards. She was blushing just from watching the passionate kiss!

As Shikamaru blinked dazedly, Kankuro began to shake from the effort of suppressing sniggers. Collecting himself, the Nara clan member coughed awkwardly, muttered, "Yeah, I will," under his breath to Temari, and began walking extremely quickly towards the gates of Suna, trying and failing to appear casual.

The back of his neck was very noticeably red for at least half an hour after the other Konoha shinobi had caught up to him and started on their journey home.

Naruto had been the first to reach Shikamaru and had grinned devilishly at his friend for almost a minute before Shikamaru finally spoke up.

"What?" the lazy chuunin had asked sourly, glancing at Naruto out of the corner of his eye.

"Nothing, nothing," Naruto answered cheerfully, his grin widening. "Just that you seemed to be enjoying yourself back there with Temari."

Shikamaru groaned. "You're not gonna let up on this for the whole way home, are you?"

Naruto smirked. "Nope!"

Shikamaru sighed, shaking his head. "How troublesome. Look, there's nothing going on between us, ok? It was just a kiss – that's all."

Naruto smiled smugly. "I may be an idiot, but even I'm not that stupid. Temari's tongue was practically down your throat!"

Shikamaru rolled his eyes but couldn't prevent his cheeks from reddening slightly. "Ok, fine, if you're gonna tease me about it then I don't care. Just promise me one thing."

Naruto cocked his head to the side. "What?"

Despite the slowly rising temperature of the desert as the sun rose higher into the sky, Shikamaru shivered. "Please don't tell Ino when we get back. If she finds out, I'll never live it down."

Naruto blinked with surprise, then began to chuckle. Shikamaru glared at him. "Ok, ok, I promise," Naruto relented, still laughing.

Despite himself, Shikamaru had cracked a wry smile of his own and the two of them quickly settled into a pattern of good natured ribbing. Lee had joined in as well once he had caught up, predictably far more enthusiastic about the situation than Shikamaru, and the three of them had soon been laughing and joking.

Thinking back to the kiss as she ducked under a large tree branch, Hinata wondered where Temari's forwardness had come from. She had noticed that Shikamaru had gotten on well with her, and had wondered whether there was any more to their relationship than either of them had previously admitted, but she still hadn't expected anything like that to happen. Still, if she could ever learn to kiss Naruto like that… or if Naruto could kiss her in that way…

Hinata was brought out of her dreamy reverie as she almost slipped on a moss covered tree branch. Regaining her balance quickly she blushed, chastising herself for her lack of focus – she shouldn't be thinking about Naruto in that way whilst they were still technically on a mission, after all – and hoped that no-one had noticed her small mishap. Luckily for her, everyone seemed to be focusing straight ahead, and as she peered through the trees herself she quickly saw why. Up ahead, she could see the gates of Konoha, out of focus in the distance but getting closer with every passing second.

"Alright!" Naruto cheered, raising both arms into the air. "We're finally home! Ichiraku's, here I come!"

Hinata smiled at the blonde boy's exuberance as they left the treetops and landed on the dirt road leading into Konoha, closing in on the village rapidly. She had enjoyed the mission immensely and a small part of her didn't want it to end – despite everything that had happened, seeing Chiyo's death right before her eyes and almost dying herself in the fight against Sasori, she felt like she had managed to become closer to Naruto and maybe, just maybe, improve herself and become a little stronger than before, even if it was only by a tiny amount. However, as the group of Konoha shinobi eagerly walked through the gates, tired and bedraggled but above all else proud, Hinata reflected that Naruto was right; there really was no place like home.

Author's Notes: Well, here's the next chapter for you all, and that's the conclusion of the 'Rescue Gaara' arc. Not exactly an action filled chapter, sorry about that, but next up will be the preparations for the new mission to find the spy in Orochimaru's organisation, so there's plenty of fight scenes and character development still to come. Looking at it now, I've realised just what a massive task I've set myself by writing this story, but it's really fun planning out both the romance and action scenes and there's still plenty more to come. To anyone worried about me quitting half way through, like the reviewer Thelonelydreamer, I'm not gonna do that unless I have literally no other choice – I've started this, and I sure as Hell want to finish, even if it kills me! For this chapter, I tried to make Tobi as silly as possible – he was a really fun character before he got all serious. Probably because he started hanging around Sasuke too much – that can't be good for a person! I also added a bit of 'male bonding time' between Naruto and Gaara, which was quite enjoyable to write – the Suna siblings won't be back in the story for a while now, unfortunately, so this was the last chance for quite a long time to get some character development in and I thought it'd be good to show that Gaara and Naruto have a real understanding of each other now, even more so than before. The 'girl bonding' content was interesting for me as well, not to mention a little strange to write out if I'm honest, but a lot of fun too – heh, who says girls can't be just as perverted as guys at times? No new jutsu in this chapter to translate, so that's me done for now. See you next chapter for your next recommended dosage of Sour Grapes, bye!

Joke Corner: I was once asked if I would prefer to have a long memory or a long penis. I forget my answer.

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