Waiting with Hope

Kidnap and Response

Chapter Four: Kidnap and Response

Deidara gritted his teeth as yet another tendril of sand whistled dangerously past his ear. The clay bird he was riding banked sharply to the left to avoid it, causing the missing Iwa ninja's Akatsuki cloak to flutter in the wind. The Ichibi's host, Sabaku no Gaara, watched on impassively, standing above the village on a carpet of sand. Deidara was staring to wish that he had accepted Sasori's offer to double up on the Jinchuuriki brat – taking him down without killing him was proving to be tougher than he had expected and he was starting to run low on explosive clay.

Getting into the village had proven to be fairly simple, what with Sasori's spy in the Suna Village Council. Remaining undetected had also been a relatively straightforward task for someone of his abilities. For all their talk about looking 'underneath the underneath' most ninja weren't too bright. Not even considering an aerial attack had been unbelievably foolish and Deidara was only too happy to show them what would happen if they were negligent with their duty.

But that sand kid…

Another coil of sand lashed out towards Deidara's clay mount. The Akatsuki ninja quickly opened the pouch on his belt and chewed another batch of clay with the mouths on his hands, before a grunted, "Kai!" saw the sand explode in a shower of gritty smoke, causing each individual grain to retreat into the mass that Gaara was controlling. Deidara let out a sigh of relief, but he was thinking furiously about how he could penetrate the Jinchuuriki's impressive defences. He had already tried breaking through the barrier with large explosions, but the sand had absorbed the impact easily and the Ichibi's host hadn't even batted an eyelid. The fact that the fight was taking place in what was basically a desert was hardly helping Deidara either, as it meant that this Gaara boy had a limitless amount of firepower at his disposal whilst maintaining an almost insurmountable defence. Though the fact that he was using sand from the gourd on his back to defend himself and sand from the village beneath them to attack was interesting…

After another soaring dodge from his clay bird, Deidara had a plan. Not the greatest plan, admittedly, but Deidara was sure it would work. Well, fairly sure. Sasori was going to lecture him about how he should have been better prepared for this mission, though. Much as he hated to admit it, he'd underestimated the red-headed boy, but at least now he knew a way to win. The explosives expert grimaced. This was going to hurt.

-o-o-

Sasori waited at the Suna village gates in total silence, his patience beginning to wear thin. He could hear explosions at fairly regular intervals, but wasn't worried. Deidara had a knack for pulling a plan out of mid-air should he need to and the missing Iwa nin had some extremely powerful techniques up his sleeve. But what was taking him so long?

Suddenly, the largest explosion yet ripped through the air and the sky went dark. Looking up, Sasori saw that there was a colossal amount of sand levitating above the entire village, evidently under the control of the Fifth Kazekage. Deidara must have decided to use his C3 clay to attack the village. Sasori nodded approvingly. The explosives expert was using his opponent's weaknesses against him, just as they had planned. Another explosion, this one smaller than the last, was heard and a few minutes later Deidara's clay bird landed beside Sasori, with the unconscious Jinchuuriki boy wrapped safely in its tail feathers.

"What took you so long?" asked Sasori impatiently. "And what the Hell happened to you?" Deidara may have succeeded in capturing the Ichibi's host, but he looked absolutely terrible. His skin was pale and clammy, and one of the sleeves of his cloud-patterned Akatsuki robe was stained with a sizeable amount of blood.

"Little brat was tougher than I thought, yeah. I had to let him crush my arm so I could implant explosive clay into his sand. When he used that sand to try and defend himself, I blew it up." Deidara let out a ragged breath. The fight had taken a lot out of him. "I'll have to get Kakuzu to fix my arm up though. I bet he'll charge me a fortune before he does it, too. That guy is such a rip-off artist. That's the worst kind of artist there is, yeah."

Sasori looked around. Suna nin were running about like ants, in every direction. "We should leave," the puppet master said. "We need to begin the extraction process as soon as possible and the ninja of this village are sure to be on our tail before long."

The two Akatsuki members walked out of the village in silence, through the blood-stained passage of the gates.

-o-o-

Kankuro ran as hard and fast as he could through the village, pushing his way through the confused crowds of civilians whenever he needed to. He had heard that two Akatsuki members had been seen heading back towards the gates leading out of the village, with a giant bird alongside them, and the rage building up inside of him after seeing his younger brother protect the village with his last remaining strength had snapped. Part of him knew that taking on two Akatsuki members without any backup at all was close to suicide, but he could still picture Gaara falling from the sky as his ultimate defences had seemed to explode from the inside. Ignoring his common sense he gritted his teeth and tried to run even faster, his muscles straining with the effort.

Baki had shouted at him not to rush off on his own, of course, but Kankuro's rage at anyone trying to steal his younger brother away from him had blotted out any course of action but one: revenge.

The shadows of the night were bouncing eerily off the streets, which were in chaos. Civilians and ninja alike were running about in mindless panic. Without their Kazekage, these people had no-one to lead or direct them.

Kankuro turned into the passage of the village gates and gasped in fury. Bodies littered the ground and blood covered the floor and the walls in gory patches – blood from his own, blood from Suna ninja. Kankuro inadvertently stepped in a dark puddle of red, staining his ninja sandals, and the puppet user's resolve was strengthened. 'I'll find and kill those bastards for what they've done to Gaara and my village!' he thought furiously as he sprinted through the passage, feet slipping slightly on the bloody floor, and out into the desert that surrounded Suna.

It was completely silent on the sandy plains, save for Kankuro's heavy breathing and the blood pumping through his ears, but that didn't matter a bit to him, because up ahead he could faintly see a white bird flapping its wings and the silhouettes of two people against the faint light of the moon. Forcing chakra into his feet he leapt the remaining distance, landing in a crouch behind the two Akatsuki members.

Without even turning around to face Kankuro, the bulky, blocky one spoke. "Deidara, take the Jinchuuriki boy back to the base. I'll take care of this."

Deidara nodded, hopping up onto the clay bird. Kankuro suddenly noticed its tail – Gaara was wrapped up in it, unconscious!

"I'm not gonna let you get away!" Kankuro snarled, reaching behind his back and drawing out three scrolls, which he unfurled over the sandy ground. With a puff of smoke, three puppets materialised, connected to Kankuro's fingers with blue chakra strings.

With a flick of his finger the puppet on the far right, Karasu, propelled itself forwards towards Deidara's mount before it could take off. Kankuro planned to cut through the bird's tail with a secret blade hidden in Karasu's mouth, but before it managed to even get close to the clay creation a blur of silver motion had halted the puppet's progress. Kankuro blinked. What looked like a segmented tail had sprouted from underneath the other Akatsuki member's robes and wrapped around Karasu like a snake, preventing it from moving. The tail was tipped with a brutal looking spike, but what made Kankuro most wary was the blinding speed it had moved at. Karasu was Kankuro's most offensive puppet, and as such had been designed to be as fast as possible, but this guy had blocked it without any effort at all.

The clay bird flapped its wings once and launched itself into the air, flying in the opposite direction of the Hidden Sand Village with Deidara and Gaara onboard. Cursing, Kankuro focused his attentions on the remaining Akatsuki member. Coming out here on his own had been foolish and now that Gaara was gone he had to focus on his own survival. Seeing his younger brother defenceless and unconscious had been unbelievably frustrating, but if he wasn't careful Kankuro knew he would end up the same way. These Akatsuki guys were dangerous.

"I don't like making people wait, so I'm going to end this quickly," the deep, grating voice of the hunched Akatsuki member announced. "But I think, judging by the puppets you're using, this battle is going to be fun for me…" The metallic tail crushed Karasu with the sound of splintering wood, before letting the broken puppet collapse to the desert floor. "Though not for you."

The metal appendage flexed, and then thrust forward at Kankuro. The speed was again surprising, but Kankuro was more prepared this time. He flicked his wrist, and Sanshouuo, his most defensive puppet, sprung into action, blocking the attack with a fringe-like iron barrier protruding from its neck joint. Kankuro grinned tightly. There was no way any direct physical attack was getting past the salamander puppet.

But something was wrong. A grinding, groaning noise was coming from the puppet's neck, where the tail had connected with Sanshouuo, and the puppet was jerking erratically without any prompting from its master. With a hideous shriek of tearing metal, Sanshouuo's iron defence crumpled and the puppet collapsed, its head severed from the rest of its body.

"A defence is only as strong as its weakest spot, boy," the Akatsuki member ground out, as he withdrew the metal tail from Sanshouuo's wrecked wooden frame. Kankuro grimaced, trying to hide his mounting worry. He was in a bad situation and he knew it. Two of his puppets had been taken down with no effort at all. The Akatsuki bastard hadn't even moved from his starting point yet.

Focusing on the tail's movements, Kankuro flicked the index finger of his left hand. Kuroari, his final puppet, launched itself towards the bulky hunchback, hidden chest cavity open and expanded to trap the man inside.

This time, instead of a constricting or stabbing movement, the long tail made a feint to lash downwards, then changed direction into a vicious side swipe. As Kankuro moved to avoid the first strike his eyes widened as he realised the ploy, but it was too late to dodge – the tail smashed Kuroari into nothing more than firewood and the follow through was heading straight towards him. Reacting quickly, Kankuro ducked backwards, but the tip of the tail grazed his shoulder. If he'd been half a second slower in dodging it, it would have taken his head off.

The scratch was a small one, but Kankuro felt a burning pain spread from the evidently not-so-minor wound. 'This guy must use poison, like me!' he thought sluggishly. His vision was already starting to go hazy, and he could feel sweat dripping down his face, smearing his war paint.

The large man walked up to him, his tail poised above his head like some horrific scorpion. "Not bad, boy. Against most people, those puppets you were using would have worked. But, then again," the Akatsuki member laughed humourlessly, "I'm not most people." The tail hovered above Kankuro's body, ready to thrust downwards and impale him. "That was fun, but it's time for you to die now."

Kankuro could feel the initial fire of the poison being replaced by a cold numbness, but he still had one last trick up his sleeve. "Take this, you Akatsuki freak!" he hissed, flexing the fingers on his right hand in a jerky upwards motion.

Karasu's body may have been destroyed when the Akatsuki member's tail had crushed it, but the rest of the puppet was still intact and fully functioning. Kankuro had reattached his chakra strings to just Karasu's head and its one functioning arm in a last ditch attempt to catch the Akatsuki member off guard. As the head rammed into the tail, knocking it away from Kankuro as it was about to gut him like a fish, Karasu's arm, unfolding and revealing a secret switchblade, flew straight as an arrow towards the bulky Akatsuki ninja's neck, with Kankuro intent on slitting his ugly throat.

For such a thick-set man, the Akatsuki member showed superb reflexes in jerking his head backwards to avoid the attack. Kankuro managed to cut a ribbon of Akatsuki uniform off with Karasu's arm, before it thumped lifelessly into the ground, chakra strings severed.

"I can read your puppets like a book, boy," snorted the man, looming over the immobilized Suna jonin. "You never had a hope of defeating me from the beginning."

"H-How...?" Kankuro rasped, unable to move so much as a finger as the toxins began to take effect on his body. His mouth felt incredibly dry all of a sudden.

"You want to know 'how'? You mean, how did I know the weaknesses of each of your puppets? How could I predict their movements so easily?" The man's grating voice was mocking, swimming in and out of Kankuro's ears like the poison he had been infected with. "It's simple. I was the one who invented those playthings you used as weapons against me."

Kankuro's eyes widened. That must mean this man was Sasori, the genius creator of Suna's puppet armies! No wonder he had been defeated so easily. He had tried taking on the missing nin at his own game without even realising it.

"However, I must admit that I was somewhat impressed," Sasori continued in a gravelly voice. "You are clearly highly skilled in the art of my puppetry so, as a reward, I will spare your life."

Kankuro tried to get to his feet, but it was hopeless. He could barely even move with the poison pumping through his veins, let alone stand.

A cruel, derisive edge crept into Sasori's voice. "However, you only have three days left to live with my poison in your bloodstream and there is no antidote. Enjoy the rest of your life."

With that, Sasori turned away and began walking through the desert in the same direction that the clay bird had flown in, now just a distant speck in the night sky.

As he lay in the dirt and struggled to stay conscious, Kankuro's mind kept repeating a single thought over and over. 'Gaara… I failed… I failed…I failed…'

-o-o-

"We shall now call this emergency meeting of the Suna Village Council to order."

Baki's voice rang out across the room authoritatively, but the empty chair at the head of the table spoke volumes itself.

Baki cleared his throat. "The village is in crisis. Our Kazekage has been kidnapped by two members of the criminal organisation known as Akatsuki, one of our elite jonin, Kankuro, has not been heard from for several hours after recklessly running off to find Kazekage-sama's kidnappers, and the scouting teams we have sent after them have not reported back yet."

One of the councillors spoke up. "We must appoint a new Kazekage at once. Our village is helpless to any attacks without strong leadership."

There were several nods at this, but Baki felt the need to step in. "Need I remind you that our current Kazekage is still alive? Our efforts should be focused primarily on locating and saving him, not getting involved in a pointless power struggle for leadership!"

"Kazekage or not, Sabaku no Gaara was dangerous. Perhaps it would be best if we abandoned the search…"

Baki was infuriated to hear several murmurs of agreement with this statement, but before he could object there was a knock on the door and a Suna chuunin entered the room, bowing shortly.

"I am sorry to interrupt this meeting, Baki-sama, but the scouting team has returned with Kankuro-san and he's in very bad shape. The diagnosis shows that he's been subjected to some sort of poison, but none of the medics have seen a venom anything like this and the toxins are already slowly breaking down his body."

Baki swore viciously, before dismissing the messenger with a wave of his hand and slumping in his chair. He felt old, defeated and unbearably weary. Two of his former students had been put in critical condition or worse in a single night.

He shook his head tiredly, looking despondently across the room. "Kankuro was one of our elite jonin," he said in a hollow voice. "If he was unable to prevent Gaara being taken, we are in serious trouble."

As the whispering between the other Council members intensified, Baki made a snap decision. "We need reinforcements. We must send a messenger bird to Konoha at once!"

As soon as he had spoken, Baki silently braced himself for the reaction he knew was forthcoming. There was a moment of incredulous silence, before the Council went into a state of uproar. "That's madness!" protested one of the eldest members, shouting over the noise the other councillors were making. "If we alert that we are weakened to other villages they could start a war with us!"

"I hardly see any other course of action," replied Baki stiffly. "We need assistance, and under the terms of our alliance, Konoha is obliged to give it to us."

As the noise died down many of the faces in the Council still looked mutinous, but there were no more outward protests. Baki called the chuunin back into the meeting room, relayed the order, and massaged his temples. There was still the issue of leadership to be sorted out, and a full medical report would have to be given on Kankuro's position. The veiled jonin sighed. It was going to be a very long night.

-o-o-

Naruto yawned as he woke up, wondering where he was for a moment. As he realised he was in his bedroom, lying down on his old bed with the slightly threadbare sheets, a grin spread across his face. He was home! He wanted to shout, he wanted to cheer, he wanted to –

"Yo, Naruto."

"Argh! Kakashi-sensei?" Naruto jumped up as though he'd been electrocuted, and was aghast as he saw the copy ninja squatting on his window ledge outside, leaning through the open window to speak. He knew his old teacher had some perverted habits, not least that little orange book that he always seemed to be reading, but watching one of his students sleeping was not something Naruto had been expecting. "What the Hell are you doing? What if I'd been sleeping naked?"

Kakashi thought for a second. "Then I'd have some interesting things to tell the other jonin next time I see them."

Naruto blanched. It was a good thing that he slept in a t-shirt and underwear. Especially if Kakashi had started doing this as a habit.

Kakashi's one visible eye suddenly went serious. "Much as I'd like to catch up with you Naruto, I'm afraid there isn't time. I've been told to bring you to the Hokage's office. I don't know what it's about, but it sounds important."

Naruto straightened his back and puffed his chest out proudly. "If it's important, of course I'll be needed! I'm even stronger now than before I left the village!"

Kakashi made a big show of being disinterested, pulling out his ever-present Icha Icha book from a pouch on his leg where most ninja kept their kunai and shuriken. "For all I know, maybe Hokage-sama wants a team of ninja to clear out the sewer system," he said in a light voice.

Seeing the horrified look on Naruto's face, Kakashi smiled behind his mask. "Cheer up, Naruto. They'd need someone really strong to withstand the smell down there. Make sure you're at the Hokage's office in half an hour. And –" Kakashi sniffed distastefully "– Would it kill you to take a shower?"

A puff of smoke announced the jonin's departure. Grumbling about perverted teachers under his breath, Naruto stuck his head out of the window, looking left and right to make sure Kakashi really had gone. Satisfied there was no sign of his silver haired sensei, he withdrew his head, surreptitiously raised his right arm and sniffed.

Naruto practically ran towards the shower in his bathroom.

-o-o-

Thankfully washed and fully clothed, Naruto ran across the rooftops towards the Godaime's office. In the cool morning air, the village had a feeling of tranquillity about it that made Naruto glad he was home. Even though the majority of the villagers still hated him and wanted him gone from Konoha for good, Naruto felt that this was the place he belonged. As long as his precious people still wanted him here, that was all he needed.

The way that Hinata had gone out of her way to see him yesterday had reminded him of why he cared so much about protecting the village. It had been touching for him. With people like her in Konoha, he was happy – proud, even – to defend every last one of them with his life.

He smiled as he thought back to the previous day's events. He had really enjoyed being with her yesterday. For someone that came from Konoha's richest and snobbiest family, she had been surprisingly… fun. She had told great stories, listened to his ramblings and laughed at his jokes. And she had done it all because she had wanted to. This was the part that Naruto was struggling to get his head around most. Her, the Hyuuga heiress, practically the royalty of the village, had wanted to see him? The idea seemed absurd, but he truly appreciated it nonetheless. He hadn't had much kindness in his life, so any that he did receive from others he treasured.

Leaping over a gap in the buildings, he remembered his words to her the previous night: 'You really have changed a lot since I left.' In many ways she was the same Hinata that he remembered from when they were both twelve. Her Byakugan eyes were certainly the same. She pushed her fingers together in the same way that he remembered. Her reddened face was the same too. It was hard to pinpoint exactly what about her had really changed, but he was certain that there was something, he just couldn't quite put his finger on it. She looked different, Naruto supposed, though he wasn't one to judge appearances. Not when he had seen what Tsunade looked like underneath that Henge that she always used. Her hair was longer, reaching down almost to the small of her back now, and she was taller by a few inches. Her… figure had certainly become more womanly too, with more curves…

Naruto shook his head to get rid of those thoughts before they were fully formed, a slight red tinge to his face. He didn't want to end up a pervert, like Kakashi-sensei or Ero-Sennin, and Hinata was a nice girl, much too nice for him to think those sort of thoughts about her.

He focused back on how she had changed. Her clothing was different now. Gone was her baggy beige parka, replaced with a white and lavender jacket. It was very simple and modest, but Naruto thought that it looked quite good on the Hyuuga girl. A million times better than the endless stream of scantily clothed women Naruto had seen Ero-Sennin with on their travels.

Maybe what had changed most about her was that she didn't seem quite so timid anymore? She was still shy and quiet, but she had made an effort to make eye contact and talk to him yesterday, albeit with a stutter. She had blushed a lot, the reasons for which Naruto still couldn't figure out, but she seemed happier around him and more… comfortable. Yes, that word described Hyuuga Hinata to perfection. She radiated this air of serenity and grace that Naruto found hard to describe, but it made him feel very relaxed around her, like he could really be himself.

The one downside about yesterday for him had been the reactions of the villagers to his return. The angry ferocity of their glares had made him feel very small and lonely for a second, and it had taken a great effort to keep his face impassive and ignore their looks. He hoped Hinata hadn't noticed that the residents of Konoha were less than pleased about his reappearance. No one his age knew why the villagers shunned him and viewed him as an outcast. He placed a hand on his stomach, over the seal that had made so much of his life miserable.

Being honest with himself, Naruto fully understood the hatred of the villagers. The Kyuubi's attack had left deep scars even on those that had survived that fateful night. There was so much emotion and loss that there had to be some sort of an outlet… and the outlet for most of the villagers was him. But that didn't make the years of hardship and loneliness he had been forced to bear any easier.

His single greatest fear in the world was that his friends would some day discover his secret and reject him for it. If they hated and feared him like the rest of the villagers, he didn't know what he would do. Just the thought of his friends abandoning him made him feel physically ill.

He knew that he wasn't the Kyuubi – Iruka and the Sandaime had both told him that he wasn't the monster, he was just its jailer and he fully believed the both of them – but there were some moments that his certainty and resolve wavered. Some days it all felt too much for him to bear. The burden of being tainted by the Kyuubi's presence inside of him felt like a physical weight that dragged him down sometimes.

But whenever he felt at his lowest ebb, he just thought to himself that he was Uzumaki Naruto, future Hokage, and the people that really knew him, like the other rookies, Kakashi-sensei, Ero-Sennin and Tsunade-baachan, appreciated him for who he really was. That always banished the dark thoughts from his mind. 'I'll prove to everyone that I'm not some stupid demon fox, I'm whatever I want to be, and that should be enough for everyone that matters!'

Noddinga and satisfied with this resolution to his thoughts, he increased his pace, jumping over a startled cat that had been disturbed from sunning itself in the morning light. His stomach let out a low rumble.

'I wish I'd had time for breakfast before I left…'

-o-o-

Tsunade felt unbelievably cranky that morning. She had been woken up at some ungodly hour by one of Izumo or Kotetsu – she hadn't been awake enough to tell which one of them – because an urgent message had come from Suna. The fact that they had sent their fastest messenger hawk to deliver the news meant that the information must have been vitally important. After downing three strong cups of coffee in quick succession (with a little bit of sake mixed into each one), Tsunade had read the message. Her eyes had nearly popped out of their sockets. The Kazekage had apparently been kidnapped by two members of the Akatsuki, who had escaped the village, and one of their elite jonin, Kankuro, had been perhaps fatally wounded with some sort of unrecognised poison.

The first thing she did after reading the message was call for Jiraiya. She had seen him the previous night to talk about Naruto's progress and what information about the Akatsuki he had managed to gather from various 'sources.' Who some of these 'sources' were, and how Jiraiya knew them exactly was something Tsunade really didn't want to think about.

Jiraiya had been very impressed with his only student and described his training methods and new techniques in detail. In a rare moment of seriousness, he had admitted to her, "He's becoming more and more like the Yondaime with every passing day. He's like the son I never had…"

His information about the Akatsuki had been much more worrying. According to the reports he had received and the snooping he had done himself they were becoming more and more active in numerous countries. From what Jiraiya could gather there were ten members of the organisation, but there had been some alarming rumours going around. If Jiraiya's sources could be relied upon, and he assured her they could, the Akatsuki were on the lookout for Bijuu. This meant that they were not only after Naruto, but that other Jinchuuriki were in danger from the Akatsuki too.

When she had shown Jiraiya the message from Suna, he had looked very old for a moment, the lines on his face reminding Tsunade of their old sensei, Sarutobi Hiruzen. He let the scrap of paper the message was written on flutter to the floor and pinched the bridge of his nose.

"I miscalculated…" his hollow, empty voice spoke. "I didn't think the Akatsuki were strong enough to attack a Hidden Village head on. What a mess…"

"W-What are we going to do?" asked Tsunade hesistantly. She'd never seen Jiraiya look so regretful and broken-down before.

"We have to send a team to Suna, that much is obvious," said the toad sage in a heavy voice. "But we barely have enough ninja to keep Konoha going as it is."

Tsunade tried to get a grip on her emotions. She was the Hokage; she shouldn't be showing weakness at a time like this. "How many ninja should we send?" she asked in the most authoritative voice she could muster.

Jiraiya thought for a second, forehead supported by his clenched fist. "No more than two teams. If we send more than that, we won't have enough ninja back in Konoha to keep accepting missions."

"Is there anyone you would recommend to be a part of this mission?"

For the first time that morning, a grin appeared on Jiraiya's face. "Who do you think?"

Tsunade arched an eyebrow. "You really think we should send Naruto out on a mission after spending one night back in Konoha? A mission with the Akatsuki involved?"

"Naruto has a connection with Suna's Kazekage, Sabaku no Gaara. If anyone would be the right choice for this mission, it would be him. And…" a hint of pride entered Jiraiya's voice. "He's ready for it."

Tsunade nodded, a smile playing on her lips also. "Does that mean you're going on this mission too?"

Jiraiya shook his head. "I can't, I'm going to head out of Konoha myself tomorrow. The best way I can serve the village is by acting as its eyes and ears out in the wilderness." He smirked for a second. "I'd like to say you're the brains, but you're more like the…" He made a cupping gesture in front of his chest with both hands, but stopped short of completing that sentence, noticing Tsunade's eyes suddenly held a murderous rage and her hands were clenched into trembling fists. The toad sage laughed nervously. "Er… would this be the right time to say that you look beautiful?"

"JIRAIYAAAAAA!"

-o-o-

Naruto was about to burst through the entrance to the Hokage's office, but restrained himself, just. Instead he just knocked on the thick oak door. After waiting half a second, he entered the room, pleased that he had made it on time for once. He didn't want any of Kakashi-sensei's weird mannerisms rubbing off on him. He realised the Naruto of two-and-a-half years ago probably would have blasted his way into the room without even considering knocking, but Jiraiya, as well as training him and teaching him new jutsus, had also forced him to learn the horrors of etiquette. Naruto shuddered at the memory. He couldn't think of anything worse than a lecture on manners and decorum… well, other than maybe cold ramen. Jiraiya had practically had to beat the idea of being polite into his skull, much to the exasperation of both of student and teacher, and it had only had limited success. Naruto was much too boisterous and flamboyant to stick to the fixed rules of etiquette for long… not to mention his short attention span wasn't exactly ideal for learning what he saw as a load of fussy rules – it wasn't like he cared about the differences between a soup spoon and a dessert spoon.

As he entered and closed the door behind him, he was surprised to see that Kakashi was in the room too, sitting down on a chair in front of the desk, head in his book as per usual. Naruto had thought that the copy nin was just passing on a message for him, but it appeared that whatever task Naruto was about to be set, Kakashi would be assigned too. Naruto sniggered as he thought back to what Kakashi had said about the sewers. His sensei wouldn't find it so funny if he was the one crawling around tunnels covered in knee-high waste.

Behind the desk in the room sat Tsunade, shuffling some papers with a mildly surprised expression on her face at the manner of his entry. Naruto beamed when he saw her – she was the closest thing he had to a mother… even if she was old enough to be his grandmother.

"Hi there, Baachan! Did you miss me?"

Tsunade smiled affectionately, putting the papers down. "Of course I did, brat. But after more than two years away from the village of growing up, you still call me that disrespectful name?"

Naruto grinned impishly. "It's better than 'Ero-Sennin,' right?"

Tsunade laughed. "I suppose so. Anyway, take a seat. When the last person I called for arrives, I can brief you on your mission."

Naruto's ears perked up. "A mission? Already? Alright!" He pumped a fist into the air, only just missing knocking Kakashi off his chair. "Wait, if Kakashi-sensei is on this mission with me, who else is coming?"

Before Tsunade could answer his question, there was another knock at the door. A girl about Naruto's age entered the room, wearing a red dress, blue skin-tight ninja shorts and unisex sandals, bowing to Tsunade and nodding at Kakashi. She hadn't noticed Naruto yet, but Naruto recognised her pink hair instantly.

"Sakura-chan!"

He had thought about the pink haired girl a lot whilst he had been out of the village. She had been the whole reason he had left Konoha in the first place, to become strong enough to bring back Sasuke, to see her happy again and fulfil his promise to her. Now that he was seeing her again, a whole host of emotions were released all at once in a jumbled mess. He was happy to see her again, but this happiness was tinged with a deep-rooted guilt that burrowed away at his conscience. He hadn't brought Sasuke home yet, and they were running out of time. He only had six months left to follow through on his promise.

Sakura turned towards him and her jaw dropped in shock. "N-Naruto? Is that you?" Sakura stood by the doorframe, her facial expression one of stunned confusion. She reached out a hand, clad in a fingerless glove, as if she wanted to touch him, even though she was on the opposite side of the room to him. "When did you get back?" she asked faintly, walking towards him slowly and unsteadily.

Naruto swallowed. "Yesterday," he answered in a dry voice, gazing into his teammate's face. Echoes of the past – echoes of Sasuke – resurfaced as he looked into her emerald green eyes. They were filled with a look of remorse, and looked a little watery. "Sakura-chan, are you crying?"

Sakura looked away and brushed the back of her hand across the eyes. The glove was slightly damp as she drew it away. "Of course not Naruto, you idiot. It's just… I'm sorry."

Naruto looked up at her, surprise written all over his face. In all the time he had known Sakura, he couldn't ever remember her apologising to him even once. Where had this sudden change in heart come from?

"What are you apologising for Sakura-chan? You don't need to be sorry about anything… except maybe for all those times you used to hit me!" he grinned, trying to lighten the mood.

"Idiot," said Sakura softly, but with a watery smile. "I'm sorry because… before… I couldn't help you try to save Sasuke-kun."

Naruto felt as though an iron fist was crushing all the air out of his lungs. The way she had brought up Sasuke's name made it all feel so real, that he was no longer with them and had committed himself to a path of darkness and revenge.

She continued in a quiet voice. "Back then, when he left the village, I couldn't do anything to change his mind or stop him. I wasn't strong enough…" Sakura's voice hardened and her tears were replaced by a determined glint in her eyes. "But from now on that's gonna be different. I've been training myself into the ground since you've left, so this time you won't have to do it by yourself!"

Naruto grinned at her. "Yeah, that's the spirit, Sakura-chan!" he said enthusiastically, giving her a thumbs up sign that she rolled her eyes to, but which made her smile in spite of herself. "We'll bring back Sasuke together, as a team!"

Tsunade couldn't help but smile at the two young ninja before her. They had both grown up so much over the last few years. But her face darkened as she realised what she had to say to them that would shatter this mood of camaraderie and friendship.

Seeing the Hokage's expression, Kakashi quickly intervened. "Naruto, Sakura, I know it's been quite a while since you saw each other last and there's a lot to catch up on, but we have a mission to be briefed on."

Sakura promptly sat down on the one remaining chair, on the opposite side of Kakashi to Naruto, with a hastily mumbled apology. Naruto muttered a quick, "Oh right, sorry," of his own and fidgeted in his chair, waiting for the details of his new mission.

Tsunade sighed. She felt awful about being the one to break this news to Naruto, but she consoled herself with the fact that at least she was giving Naruto the power to remedy the situation himself, something she knew he would want.

"We received word from Suna in the early hours of the morning concerning the criminal organisation known as the Akatsuki." Naruto tensed at these words. "According to the reports, a team of two Akatsuki members infiltrated Suna, killing numerous ninja guarding the gate, and managed to successfully kidnap the village's Kazekage."

She watched as Kakashi's one visible eye widened and Sakura gasped. However, the majority of her attention was focused on Naruto, wondering how he would take the next bit of news.

"In an attempt to rescue the Kazekage one of Suna's elite jonin, Kankuro, engaged a member of the Akatsuki in combat. He was defeated and poisoned by an unknown toxin that the Suna medics seem unable to find an anti-venom for. Their best estimates give him at most three days to live."

Naruto gripped the arms of his chair tightly. He remembered the puppet user from the Chuunin Exams and knew that he was a very clever and shrewd fighter. If he had been taken down, these Akatsuki guys must have been incredibly strong.

Tsunade steeled herself. This was going to be the hardest thing to reveal to the blonde ninja. "Naruto, do you know who the Kazekage is?"

Naruto shook his head slowly. A small part of him was dreading the answer, though he didn't know why.

Kakashi spoke in a low tone into Naruto's ear. "The Fifth Kazekage is Sabaku no Gaara."

Naruto let out a strangled gasp. "They… they got Gaara?" he whispered, appalled at the idea of one of his precious people in the hands of Akatsuki.

Tsunade nodded sombrely. "We think that they were after Gaara for what resides inside of him. We suspect that Akatsuki are attempting to collect Bijuu, though for what purpose we don't know. What we do know, however, is that Gaara was alive when the Akatsuki captured him."

Naruto jumped out of his chair, wild hope displayed on his face. "Then there's still a chance! We can still save him!"

"Exactly," said Tsunade, clasping her hands together on the desktop. "That is why I am sending you, Sakura and Kakashi to Suna, to find out what exactly happened and assist with their attempts to find and rescue Gaara, with another team on standby if a combat situation arises. I expect regular updates, and you should move out in the next two hou–"

"Hold on a minute!" Naruto exclaimed, jumping from one foot to the other as if the floor were on fire. "You can't just send three ninja for something this important! At very least we should have a four man cell go to Suna!"

Tsunade frowned. "I wish we could, believe me Naruto," she tried to placate him, "But there are barely enough ninja in the village as it is."

"C'mon Baachan," Naruto pleaded. "We have to save Gaara! If there's anything we can do to give us a bigger chance of getting him back then we have to do it!"

Naruto was slightly surprised when Kakashi stepped in to help him out. "I don't mean to speak out of turn, Hokage-sama, but Naruto may have a point," he said, readjusting the mask that covered his face and closing his book with a snap. "A three person team may not be enough when considering our enemies. And a backup team would take well over a day to reach Suna from here, even going flat out. If there was anyone available, I would certainly be happy to accept them onto the team."

Tsunade growled exasperatedly. "Even if we could spare another ninja, who would agree to a mission like this on such short notice? You still have to leave in no more than two hours."

Naruto looked stumped for a minute, and furrowed his eyebrows in thought. Suddenly, a broad grin lit up his face. "If I can find someone that wants to go on this mission with us, will you let them?"

Tsunade looked puzzled for a moment, then huffed in annoyance. "Ugh, yes, fine, if you can find someone. But who do you have in mind?"

Naruto's grin grew even wider.

-o-o-

'Left! Right! Block! Right!'

Hinata desperately attempted to evade all of her opponent's attacks, ducking and weaving around his forceful blows as best as she could. Her Byakugan was activated, allowing her to see her assailant's movements in striking detail, and after blocking her opponent's attempt to hit her with a roundhouse kick she jumped back, attempting to put some space between the two of them. She was breathing heavily and her jacket was a little dusty from where she had fallen earlier in the fight, but she did not take her eyes off her foe for even a second.

"Very good, Hinata-sama," Neji said, slowly pivoting on his foot into an attacking Jyuuken stance. The two of them had been sparring in the Hyuuga compound's courtyard for over an hour now and were both feeling tired. It had been at Hinata's request that Neji was fighting with her. After missing training the whole of the previous day for reasons that she refused to give, blushing crimson when Neji had asked her, she had resolved to train extra hard today to make up for it. Hinata thought she was doing fairly well – even though Neji was clearly the superior fighter he only managed to connect with a meaningful attack at infrequent intervals and she defended her chakra points carefully from his mild Jyuuken strikes. They were both only using enough chakra to numb any joint they connected with, but this made defending more and more difficult as the fight progressed – if a muscle locked it made moving the limb precisely very difficult. After over an hour of this Hinata felt like one big bruise, but she couldn't give up yet. She remembered watching Naruto train to his very limits and she wanted to match the standards he set himself. She would do her very best and keep trying until she had nothing left to give.

Neji propelled himself towards her for another attack, launching a barrage of Jyuuken strikes at his younger cousin with blinding speed and unerring precision, forcing her into a series of elaborate blocks to avoid the effects of having her tenketsu closed. She ducked under his last strike and tried a leg sweep, hoping to catch him off guard, but Neji was prepared and jumped over her outstretched leg, grabbing hold of the collar of her jacket, yanking her upwards and descending onto his back in one continuous motion. Hinata was flipped over the now grounded Neji and landed in a heap on the ground in a cloud of dust. Neji picked himself up, arching his back and wincing as a few of the vertebrae popped back into place.

"I think it would be best to take a short break now, Hinata-sama," said Neji, wiping the sweat from his brow with one hand and offering the other to Hinata to help her up. The Hyuuga girl accepted his hand with a tired smile, getting to her feet and brushing herself down. She and Neji made their way over to the steps at the front of the Hyuuga main house and both sat down, working the kinks and numbness caused by the Jyuuken strikes out of their joints.

A maid entered the courtyard carrying a tray, with a small teapot and two cups balanced on it. Hinata accepted the proffered tray with a thankful bow, which the maid returned, before leaving quietly, in the fashion of all branch family servants. Hinata poured out a measure of tea for both herself and her cousin, and they both sipped at the beverage in silence.

As she took swallow of her tea, she saw a different Hyuuga walking towards her. She recognised him as another branch family member, and a regular sentry of the Hyuuga compound gates. She was a little surprised to see him away from his station – there were always two gatekeepers, and the only reason a gatekeeper left the gates whilst on duty was if they had to deliver a message to someone about a guest waiting to be admitted inside the Hyuuga complex.

He stopped and bowed to her. "Excuse me if I am interrupting your training, Hinata-sama, but you have a visitor waiting outside the gates. He is… ahem… most insistent that he sees you."

"S-Someone wants to see me?" asked Hinata, perplexed. She had arranged to meet Kiba and Shino for training that afternoon, after her morning sparring session with Neji, so she doubted it was either of them. A small, hopeful voice in the back of her mind wondered if perhaps Naruto wanted to see her again after spending the day together yesterday, but she dismissed it regretfully. After all, why would Naruto go out of his way to see her?

But as she walked towards the gates to present herself to this mysterious visitor, she couldn't quell the fluttering of her heart; it was taking a good deal of self control not to break out into a run. Just the thought that it might be him was enough to make her feel lightheaded.

As she got closer to the gates of the Hyuuga compound she could hear a voice arguing with the one remaining gatekeeper on duty and she stopped dead in her tracks, heart thumping hard in her chest. 'No,' she thought, blood rushing to her cheeks. 'My mind must be playing tricks on me. It couldn't be his voice I'm hearing, could it?'

She walked almost dreamlike up to the Hyuuga complex's gates, her feet feeling like they weren't even touching the ground. She raised her eyes, hardly daring to hope for a sign of the one she admired so much.

The gates were open, as they always were in the day time. In the small, cramped gate house sat the one remaining gatekeeper, who was getting berated by a spiky haired, orange clad ninja.

Hinata gasped as she saw him, and Naruto looked up, spotting her. His previous irritation melted away to be replaced by an expression of happiness.

"Hey, Hinata-chan, you are here!" grinned Naruto, waving at her. "This jerk –" he pointed at the gatekeeper, who looked quite dazed from Naruto's tirade "– Wouldn't let me in to find you!"

Hinata breathed shallowly as she walked slowly up to him. This whole situation felt faintly surreal to her, with the gatekeeper sneaking off, presumably to recover from Naruto's verbal assault. "N-Naruto-kun, was there s-something y-you wanted with m-me?"

Hinata blushed as she realised the connotations her words had possessed, but Naruto just continued grinning at her.

"Yep, there sure is, Hinata-chan," he said, his blue eyes shimmering with amusement and excitement. "D'you wanna come on a mission with me?"

Author's Notes: Well, this chapter was certainly the hardest to write so far. Most difficult to write was the dialogue for Sakura, mostly because I don't particularly like her character. I don't particularly mind fans of NaruSaku or anything underhand like that and yes, I know Sakura does have her good points, but the way she treats Naruto sometimes can be a bit grating; I can't see how any sort of romantic relationship can build up when one character consistently uses violence against the other. Yeah, I know it's done for comedic purposes, but I'm pretty sure that if Naruto and Sakura were ever to get in a relationship and she hit him hard enough to smash him into a wall it would be considered domestic violence and if Naruto was the one hitting Sakura instead I don't think there'd be quite so many NaruSaku fans out there. Gender stereotypes, eh… Anyway, I spent a lot of time trying to get the fight scenes to work out alright in this chapter – in my first draft they were kinda jerky and stop-start, so I hope I've ironed out those kinks. I admit that there wasn't all that much NaruHina in this chapter, but I hope I've made up for it with action scenes, plot building and character development. Plus, I've left the chapter ending on a freaking volcano, ready to erupt in a fiery ash cloud of NaruHina lava. Yes, I agree that sounded very corny. Anyway, if you've got anything you'd like to say about this chapter or the story in general feel free to drop me a review, and thanks to everyone that has read or reviewed so far, you're all great! I'll try to update again soon, byesies!

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