Waiting with Hope

A New Clue and a New Colleague

Chapter Six: A New Clue and a New Colleague

Shikamaru and Temari exited the restaurant, stepping out into the cool evening air and waving goodbye to Choji, who was staying to have a second helping of his favourite barbeque pork. And a third. And probably a fourth, too. Temari was no longer as shocked by the Akimichi boy's appetite as she had been when Shikamaru had first introduced her to him, when he had eaten the 'House Special' and asked for a second helping, but the way that he never seemed to have a full stomach, even though he munched on endless bags of snack food in between meals, was still downright unnerving to her.

Despite the peasant breeze and the stars twinkling brightly above her, settled against the dusky sky, Temari couldn't help but feel a little irritated that the Hokage wanted to see her again. She was due to leave the next morning and as far as she was aware the report she and Shikamaru had written – well, mostly her – had covered everything the Hokage had wanted to know about the upcoming Chuunin Exams, so why did she need to go and see her? Temari shrugged, putting the matter to one side, and continued walking down the streets of Konoha towards the Godaime's office, bickering as per usual with her companion.

"You do know that Hokage-sama only called for me, don't you?" Temari asked shrewdly as the conversation hit a slight lull, surprised by Shikamaru's decision to follow her and not stay with Choji back in the restaurant. "If it's too 'troublesome' for you, you don't have to come."

"Yeah, it is troublesome," Shikamaru sighed, scratching the back of his neck. "But if she's pissed off at our report or something and wants to call us one by one I should probably get the punishment over and done with now."

Temari glanced at him out of the corner of her eye. He was hiding something, she was sure of it, but for the life of her she couldn't tell what. It was so frustrating. He was so frustrating! He was the only person she had ever met that she couldn't read. She knew for a fact that she was skilled in studying others psychologically, both in and out of battle, and took pride in her ability to predict their actions and emotional state. But Shikamaru was a total enigma to her. Try as she might, she couldn't get into his head and uncover his thought process. But, then again, she couldn't deny that his unfathomable mind just made him all the more intruiging.

She thought back to the time a week or so ago she had challenged him to a game of shogi, after listening to him lazily talk about how he had beaten his sensei yet again the previous night. He had merely raised a sardonic eyebrow to her challenge, but she had been confident of victory – only Baki ever defeated her in shogi back at home in Suna and Kankuro had actually given up playing against her because he was tired of always being beaten. But to her utter horror and mortification, Shikamaru had completely thrashed her, taking less than twenty minutes to win the game. The bored look of calculation on his face as he had comprehensively defeated her had been unbearably irritating to the Suna kunoichi, pierced only at the very end of the game when a brief flicker of triumph had flitted across his face. The fact that he had then had the gall to offer her lessons in some of the more advanced tactics had been even more humiliating and she had lost her temper, calling him an 'inconsiderate, lazy bastard' before haughtily leaving the room, with her nose held high.

However, after calming down, the next day she had grudgingly apologised and asked if the offer was still open. From that point on, all their lunch breaks had been spent playing games of shogi or discussing tactics, and Temari had to admit she enjoyed these 'lessons' a lot. The Nara boy was a surprisingly patient instructor when teaching her the most advanced strategies he knew and when she had beaten him for the first time a few days ago he had merely nodded approvingly before congratulating her on her victory, much to her astonishment.

Temari brought herself back to the present as they reached the door to the Hokage's office. She paused for a moment, checking to see if her uniform was respectable enough to see the leader of the Hidden Leaf Village before entering, but Shikamaru just stared at her oddly.

"Stop being troublesome and just come on already," he muttered, grabbing her wrist and walking languidly through the doorway, into the Hokage's office. Temari was about to throw a choice retort back at him – though she couldn't help but notice her skin under his hand was becoming very warm – before she saw the face of the Godaime. She looked very grim at seeing the Suna kunoichi – more grim than Temari could ever remember seeing her in any of their previous meetings, even when she had been shouting at Shikamaru to put in his fair share of the work and the desk she had been sitting at had collapsed under the legendary force of one of the Sannin's punches.

"Is there… something wrong, Hokage-sama?" Temari asked cautiously. The Hokage's face became even darker.

"Yes, Temari-san, there is something wrong. Last night in Suna…" Tsunade broke off in mid sentence, rubbing her eyelids tiredly. Looking closely, Temari could see the older woman's brown eyes were bloodshot and had heavy bags underneath them. Had she not slept last night?

Temari felt a dark sense of foreboding. Shikamaru's grip on her arm tightened.

"Last night in Suna… your brother, the Kazekage, was kidnapped by the Akatsuki."

Temari was dimly aware of the Hokage explaining the details of the kidnapping, but her mind had frozen at the Godaime's words. Gaara captured… her little brother captured… It couldn't be… Even in the past, when he had been a bloodthirsty killer, she had still loved him. He had been a symbol of strength in her life. She remembered the assurance she had felt in his abilities when they had competed in the Konoha Chuunin Exams and the pride she had felt at Gaara's formidable record of never being hurt on a mission before. This confidence in his abilities quickly changed to fear for him when it seemed as though the Ichibi was going to completely take over his body. Even thinking about the demon made her shudder. The revulsion she felt at the monster inside her sibling was intense. She hated it, hated it because of how it had made Gaara's life so miserable for so long, and the fact that it had been under her father's orders for the Ichibi spirit to be planted inside Gaara made her sick to the pit of her stomach.

But her brother had overcome all of these trials and setbacks and his transformation from a mentally unstable killing machine into the Kazekage of the village, protecting its people and putting the needs of the villagers above his own, had also been something Temari had treasured wholeheartedly. She remembered the day of Gaara's initiation as Kazekage, how she had watched on with Kankuro from the crowd with tears flowing down her face, revelling in his success like a proud mother.

Gaara… was gone. Shikamaru's grip on her arm was almost becoming painful now, and his face was a mask of concern.

Tsunade took a breath, and she caught the Suna kunoichi's eye. She felt very sympathetic to Temari's plight, but mixed in with it all was an overwhelming sense of powerlessness. As the Hokage, all she could do was analyse the information given to her and send others to do the work itself. She was confined to this office, unable to do anything herself. If it wasn't for the medic work that she still did at the hospital she thought she might have gone insane from the feeling of total helplessness that consumed her.

"I'm afraid that's not all, Temari-san," Tsunade continued quietly. Why did the role of 'bearer of bad news' always seem to fall on her? "Your brother, Kankuro, was also involved in the conflict. He has been subjected to a lethal poison, perhaps even fatal, and Suna's medics are at a loss in regards to finding an antidote. I'm very sorry…"

"They… They got Kankuro too?" Temari asked in a quavering voice. She sagged, aghast, and her legs gave way from underneath her. If not for Shikamaru's grip on her wrist she would have collapsed to the floor. The news had been so shocking to her that her body felt completely boneless.

Shikamaru grunted as he tried to pull her up. The cumbersome weight of the fan on her back was making it very difficult to lift her back to her feet and his grip on her wrist was starting to come loose. Not to mention the fact that this position was extremely awkward no matter which way you looked at it.

Luckily the Hokage intervened at that moment, calling out, "Shizune!" Her personal assistant entered the room instantly, gently taking hold of the Suna kunoichi and leading her to a chair, talking softly to her the whole time. Shikamaru smiled at her, both relieved and grateful for her assistance, before pulling up a chair of his own and taking a seat next to Temari. He was worried about her. The Suna girl's reaction showed just how much she cared about her family and it was clearly devastating news to her.

Shizune laid a hand on Temari's shoulder. "I'm sure it will all work out alright, Temari-san," she smiled encouragingly. "Tsunade-sama has already sent a four man squad out to Suna earlier today. One of the team members is Haruno Sakura, one of the top medic ninja in Konoha, and she will help treat your brother. If she can't save him, no-one can. And Uzumaki Naruto is part of the squadron too. He'll do everything he can to recover Gaara-sama and if I know him I'm sure he'll succeed. He seems to do the impossible on a daily basis!"

Shikamaru nodded in agreement. "Yeah, if Naruto's there he won't rest until he's got Gaara back. He may be a hyperactive dumbass but you can always count on him to come through for his friends, that much I'm certain of."

Temari took a deep, trembling breath, bolstered by Shikamaru's words, and smiled back at Shizune, albeit somewhat shakily. She got to her feet again unsteadily. "I… I think I need to get back to Suna," she said in a small voice. "My village needs me… and so does my family."

Tsunade nodded understandingly. "Of course, that's no problem at all. I'm sending a backup team out to Suna tomorrow morning, just in case a combat situation arises. Shall I inform them that you are joining them?"

Temari nodded, still looking very subdued. "Yes, I'd be very grateful for that. Thank you, Hokage-sama."

"If it's alright with you, Hokage-sama, I'll go as well." Shikamaru hadn't even realised he was speaking until after the words had come out of his mouth. Temari gazed at him, wide eyed. Quite honestly, Shikamaru was as shocked as she was at his words. Where had that come from? He never volunteered for extra work. In fact, he made it his number one priority to avoid extra work. What on Earth had prompted him to offer his help?

The Godaime squinted closely at the Nara boy's face. "Are you feeling alright, Shikamaru? I can't remember you ever enlisting yourself for anything but the bare minimum of jobs. What's gotten into you?"

Shikamaru was taking a long, reflective look at himself as well. He pondered for a second, then shrugged. "I guess it's to repay my debt to Temari. She saved my ass against that Sound Four girl all those years ago, so I suppose I'm just returning the favour."

Even as he was speaking Shikmaru was frowning. Was that really the reason? Yes, at least partially. But there was something else too, something he couldn't quite put his finger on… It was as though, rather than feeling obligated, he genuinely wanted to help Temari in her hour of need.

Tsunade smiled a superior smile, raising an eyebrow at him. "Oh, is that so? Well, if it's to repay your debt I suppose I really can't say no…"

Shikamaru's frown deepened. She was teasing him, he was sure of it! And the worst part was he didn't know why!

Temari's gaze was making him feel slightly uncomfortable. There was a mixture of confusion and surprise at his words, but there was also an undercurrent of gratitude in her emotive eyes. Shikamaru tried to relax and keep up his bored facade, thrusting his hands in his pockets.

"You offered to do this… for me?" asked Temari dubiously. She knew Shikamaru had his merits, but his work ethic wasn't one of them.

Shikamaru swallowed. Her eyes were penetrating into his own. He had never realised how bright her eyes were before. "Yeah. For you," he said gruffly.

He was almost knocked off his feet as Temari leapt up from her chair and enveloped him in a bone crushing hug. The wind had been forced out of his lungs and he couldn't speak. As he tried to get his breath back, he could feel the collar of his chuunin jacket becoming damp. Was she crying? The idea was almost impossible to comprehend for him. Temari was the strongest, toughest, most formidable woman he knew, other than maybe his mother. She never cried. A heaving sob shook the Suna kunoichi's body. Yes, there was no doubt about it, she really was crying. Shikamaru tentatively wrapped his arms around her and her weeping intensified.

Eventually Temari recovered enough to accept a handkerchief offered by Shizune and wiped her eyes. They still looked very red and watery. With a muttered, "Thank you," she released Shikamaru and sat down again, her face slightly flushed.

"Are you feeling better now, Temari-san?" inquired Shizune, her concern for the girl in front of her obvious. Hearing the news that both of her brothers were in mortal danger must have been dreadful for the Suna kunoichi to take. "Would you like a drink? Tea, maybe, or something stronger?"

"N-No, I'm alright, thank you. I think I just need to stay sat down, that's all." She turned towards Shikamaru. "About your offer to come with me to Suna… I… I really appreciate it… Will you allow him to escort me, Hokage-sama?"

"I don't think it should be a problem," Tsunade answered. "Now that the preparation work for the Chuunin Exams has been completed Shikamaru doesn't have any upcoming missions. As long as he accompanies you along with the rest of the team I am sending to Suna I don't see why he shouldn't go with you."

"Who else will be travelling to Suna with me then, Hokage-sama?" Temari asked.

Before Tsunade could answer, the window to the Hokage's office burst open, startling everyone. With a joint cry of, "Dynamic Entry!" two ninja clad entirely in green spandex leapt into the room over the Hokage's desk, only narrowly avoiding knocking her off her chair. The taller of the two straightened from the crouch he had landed in and shouted, "Reporting for our new mission, Hokage-sama!" before snapping to attention.

The smaller of the two jumped to his feet. "Yosh! Gai-sensei, our Dynamic Entry technique was a success! We really are at one with the Springtime of Youth!"

"Ah, Lee! Truly you understand what it means to burn with the fiery passion of youthful abandon!"

"Gai-sensei!"

"Lee!"

"Gai-sensei!"

"L–"

Gai and Lee were interrupted from their high-spirited exultations by a knock at the Hokage's door, with two more ninja, one male, one female, entering the room quickly and out of breath, looking as though they had both just been running. The young man wore a white tunic, with long hair styled in a loose pony-tail, whereas the kunoichi had auburn hair held up in elaborate buns.

"Gai-sensei! Lee!" the girl shouted, outraged. "You can't just go barging into the Hokage's office like that, it's so rude! I'm so sorry, Hokage-sama," she added, bowing hastily before the Godaime, face flushed red with embarrassment. The boy standing next to her watched the actions of Gai and Lee with a look of tired resignation on his face, as if he had seen it all before.

Tsunade just sighed. "Well, this will be the team that will accompany you to Suna, Temari-san. Meet Maito Gai, Hyuuga Neji, Rock Lee and Tenten. Gai, your mission will be to escort Temari-san back to Suna and aid Kakashi and his team in any way possible."

Gai nodded, his teeth gleaming in a blinding smile. "Of course, Hokage-sama. We shall leave at dawn tomorrow." He gave a thumbs up sign to his team, which Neji pointedly ignored, Tenten rolled her eyes at and Lee returned with his own raised thumb. "Is this acceptable with you, Temari-san?" Gai added politely, not forgetting their guest.

Temari just blinked dazedly.

"Excellent! Then we shall aim to be in Suna in three days time!" proclaimed Gai, crossing his arms across his broad chest.

"Didn't Kakashi say that he wanted to get to Suna in two days?" Shizune asked innocently. Tsunade's frantic shushing gestures were too late, and Shizune clapped a hand over her mouth, horrified at what she had just said.

"YOSH!" thundered Gai, a manic glint appearing in his eye. "I cannot let my eternal rival outdo me! We shall make it to Suna in one day! No, half a day, or my team and I shall run five hundred laps around Konoha when we return!"

Lee practically cheered at this declaration. Tenten's protestations that such a feat was impossible were drowned out, and Shizune quickly stepped in, hastily leading Team Gai out of the room. She didn't want to have to see another crushed table, and Tsunade had just cracked her knuckles ominously.

Shikamaru exhaled heavily. He had to wonder how Neji and Tenten coped.

-o-o-

Baki opened the door to his office, a spacious, wood-panelled room. He directed Naruto, Hinata and Kakashi to a row of seats in front of his desk, before sitting down himself and pouring each of them a cup of water from a jug on the table. Hinata sipped gratefully, enjoying the sensation of the cool liquid trickling down her parched throat. The water she had gathered from the stream in the woods had been warm and almost all gone after spending the whole afternoon crossing the desert, so this was extremely refreshing.

After taking a sip of water, being careful not to let his mask slip or reveal any of his face, Kakashi leaned in closer to the desk.

"Tell me," he asked, drawing his chair in closer, "Have you any clues as to where the Akatsuki may be heading, or their identities?"

"We don't know the location to which they have taken Kazekage-sama, nor do we know for certain who they were," Baki replied dejectedly. "From what we can guess, the ninja that actually attacked Kazekage-sama was a missing nin from Iwa, known as Deidara. He used some sort of explosive clay that matches his Bingo Book description at very least."

Kakashi frowned. "I've heard of him. He's an S-rank missing nin and the Tsuchikage has placed a huge bounty on his head. I'm not surprised Gaara-sama had a hard time against him."

Baki nodded grimly. "As for the other one, we have no idea. We believe that it was him that fought Kankuro though, so he clearly uses some sort of poison. Aside from that…" Baki shrugged helplessly.

"Are there no leads at all?" Naruto asked, crestfallen. "We have to do something to find Gaara!"

Hinata watched on in sympathy for the spiky haired ninja. She could tell how much losing Gaara was hurting him, but not being able to do anything to save his friend was surely making things a thousand times worse for Naruto.

"I understand yor concerns," Baki answered in a low, gloomy voice. "Gaara-sama was once my student, and knowing there was nothing I could do when watching him fight to protect the village against the Akatsuki was excruiciating. But, until we have a lead on the Akatsuki's whereabouts, I fear there is nothing we can do…"

"Where did Kankuro actually fight this Akatsuki member?" Kakashi asked, a thought striking him. "It's possible there could be some clue as to their whereabouts from the battlefield."

"The scouting team recovered Kankuro at the top of the largest sand dune to the north of the village. I don't know what you're hoping to find though – the squad reported nothing but Kankuro's broken puppets remained."

"One of my team possesses the Byakugan," Kakashi answered. "If there's anything to discover, I'm sure she will find it." Hinata blushed at the jonin's compliment and Baki turned his gaze on her.

"How far can your Byakugan eyes see?" he asked curiously. "Could you conduct a thorough search of the whole area from inside this room?"

Hinata pushed her two index fingers together nerously. "Ano… i-if it's not too far away… I'll t-try."

Naruto grinned encouragingly at her. "You can do it Hinata-chan!"

"Um…thank you, Naruto-kun," Hinata stammered, cheeks tinged pink but truly thankful for his support. "I'll d-do my b-best." Forming a seal with her hands and gathering her chakra, Hinata muttered, "Byakugan!" and the veins around her eye sockets bulged. Her sight faded into shades of grey and became hugely magnified, enabling her to see every knot and whorl in the wood panelling on the walls of Baki's office. Taking a deep breath, Hinata focused her vision, and her perspective of the room changed to an overhead view. Now she could see each individual hair on the heads of Naruto, Kakashi and Baki in striking detail. She expanded her view outwards, leaving the room behind, and now she could see the whole of Suna from a bird's-eye view, giving her a slight sense of vertigo. Supressing her dizziness, she spotted the dune that Baki had been talking about and homed in on it. It was almost at the limits of her Byakugan's range, and she began to sweat with the effort of seeing such a long distance away. She had already used her clan's kekkei genkai a lot that day on the trip to Suna, and was running a little low on chakra. She gritted her teeth from the strain, but pushed her Byakugan still further. Now she had a clear view of just above the sand dune, and could see the fragments of Kankuro's various puppets lying on the dusty ground, half buried by the accumulation of the windswept sand. Methodically she searched the surface, looking for anything unusual. Seeing nothing out of the ordinary, she strengthened her chakra flow to her eyes, allowing her to penetrate the top layer of sand and see anything buried. After a few minutes Hinata was about to abandon the search, but with the peripheral vision of her Byakugan she saw the arm of one of Kankuro's puppets, buried almost three feet down into the desert. And in its fist, it was holding a piece of fabric with a cloud pattern on it!

"Kakashi-sensei!" Hinata gasped. "I think I s-see something! Buried under the sand, one of Kankuro-san's puppets has piece of cloth in it!"

"Alright Hinata-chan!" Naruto cheered, thrusting an arm in the air and leaping out of his chair, beaming at her. "I knew you were the best person to ask to come on this mission with me!"

Kakashi was instantly alert. "Excellent work Hinata, I'll take it from here." He bit into the flesh of his thumb, drawing a small dribble of blood, and made a few quick hand signs. Slamming his hand down on the floor, he shouted, "Kuchiyose no Jutsu!" With a puff of smoke, a small, brown furred, pug-like dog appeared by Kakashi's side, a Konoha hitai-ite tied around its neck.

Hinata jumped back, startled, as she heard the small dog speak in a deep voice. "You summoned me, Kakashi?"

Kakashi nodded soberly. "We have a serious situation here, Pakkun. The Kazekage has been kidnapped by the Akatsuki, but we think we've got a lead. Buried in the largest sand dune to the north, directly outside the village, there is an arm of a puppet with a scrap of what we believe is a piece of Akatsuki robe. Can you find it and bring it back here as soon as possible?"

"Sure, no problem, with my nose I'll easily be able to sniff it out. I shouldn't be longer than an hour." With that, the canine jumped onto the desk and leapt out of the open window of Baki's office. As the pug dog left the room, Baki and Kakashi started whispering intently together. From what Hinata could hear, they were discussing how many Suna ninja would be sent out to track down the Kazekage with Kakashi's team, and which shinobi in particular would be a good fit into their squad.

Letting out a shaky breath, Hinata released her Byakugan, ending the strain on her chakra. Using her eyes so much in a single day had been very difficult, and she was breathing heavily with the effort of maintaining her kekkei genkai at such a distance.

"Ne, Hinata-chan, are you ok?" Naruto asked, noticing how she had slumped in her chair. "You look kinda pale and you've gone all sweaty."

If she hadn't felt so tired, Hinata would have laughed at Naruto's usual blunt but caring tactlessness. "I'm ok, Naruto-kun, r-really."

"Are you sure?" the blonde haired boy asked dubiously. "You don't look so good to me…"

Hinata shook her head. "I've just overused my Byakugan today, that's all. I only need to r-rest a l-little to restore my chakra reserves."

Naruto pouted, clearly unsatisfied, and pondered her answer for a moment. "Nope," he proclaimed, grinning mischievously. "I think we should get you checked out by Sakura-chan, just in case it's serious!"

"N-Naruto-kun!" Hinata's cheeks tinged a faint pink out of embarrassment. She was touched by his kindness, but was already feeling a little better now that her Byakugan was inactive. "We shouldn't disturb Sakura-chan with something this small, she's v-very busy! I'm fine, honestly!"

Naruto's grin just grew wider. "If you really are ok, then it'll only take a minute for Sakura-chan to make sure. And if you aren't, then you definitely need some medical help. I'm not taking no for an answer here, Hinata-chan, so let's go!" Turning to Kakashi, Naruto interrupted the silver haired jonin's discussion with Baki. "Hey, Kakashi-sensei, I'm just taking Hinata-chan down to the medical bay again, she's not feeling very well."

Kakashi waved a hand carelessly. "Sure, that's fine. Make sure you're both back here in an hour, for Pakkun's return."

"Sure thing Kakashi-sensei," Naruto agreed, and before Hinata could protest any further, Naruto dragged her by the hand out of Baki's office and towards the medical bay. He wondered if maybe she was feeling ill after all. Her face had gone very red all of a sudden…

-o-o-

Sakura browsed through the greenhouse, looking for the right ingredients for an antidote for Kankuro's poison. It had been tricky, but she'd managed to withdraw most of the toxins from his body. However, the puppet user was still in danger if she couldn't neutralize the remainder in his system, so she had commissioned the use of Suna's herbal stores.

Sakura let out a small hum of satisfaction as she found the final ingredient she had been looking for, a white flower with closed petals, growing in a small pot. She had to admit that she was very impressed with the quality and stock of herbal medicine ingredients here in Suna – they were almost as good as back home in Konoha. Careful not to damage the frail buds she snipped off three of the blossoming flowers with a small set of pruning shears and added them to the bag containing all the other components needed for the antidote. Pleased that she had everything she needed, she stepped out of the swelteringly hot greenhouse, closing the door behind her, and headed back towards Kankuro's hospital room.

It was barely less warm outside the greenhouse than inside, despite the sun now having almost completely set. Suna's climate was very warm and sunny for the entire day, all year round, and temperatues only really dropped late at night. Sakura walked quickly through the warm evening air, wanting to return to her patient as soon as possible, when she heard a voice from further ahead cut through the quietness of the street.

"Look, there she is! Hey, Sakura-chan, over here!"

Sakura looked up to see Naruto running towards her, waving with his left hand and with Hinata's palm clasped tightly in his right. Even at a distance and in the darkened twilight streets Sakura could see that the Hyuuga girl was blushing a shade of red that would put a cherry to shame.

"Naruto? What are you doing here?" questioned Sakura. "Does Kakashi-sensei want to see me?"

Naruto laughed. "Nah, it's nothing like that. I just want you to check that Hinata-chan's ok, that's all. She was feeling a bit tired after using the Byakugan a lot today, so I thought it'd be best if I took her to see the expert!"

"Oh? Are you not feeling well, Hinata?" Sakura asked, studying her professionally. "Hmm… you don't seem to be showing any outward signs of chakra depletion… your face seems a little red though… maybe I should run a few quick tests, just to be certain."

Naruto quickly stepped out of the way to let Sakura do what she needed to do, letting go of Hinata's hand as he did so. Hinata missed the contact immediately and had to supress the urge to let out a disappointed sigh. Her hand felt so cold and small now that his own was no longer enclosing it.

Sakura ran a few quick diagnostic jutsus and came to the conclusion that for the most part she was perfectly fine. "Just don't activate your Byakugan for at least a few hours and you'll be perfectly alright," she told Hinata. She placed a few pills in the palm of the Hyuuga heiress. "Swallowing these should help replenish any chakra you've lost a lot quicker too."

"Thank you, Sakura-san," Hinata answered thankfully. "I hope we didn't d-disturb you."

"Nonsense, it's no problem," Sakura smiled cheerily. "But you –" she turned to Naruto, a threatening look on her face. "If you were so worried about Hinata, what were you doing running about and dragging her around?"

Naruto raised his hands in a feeble attempt to ward her off. Laughing nervously he backed away as Sakura began to stalk towards him. "Sakura-chan, c'mon. We went to the hospital first, but you weren't there. One of the Suna medics told me where you were, and I didn't want to miss you – I just wanted to find you as soon as possible so you could see to Hinata-chan, that's all, I swear!"

Sakura remained silent, but her raised fist was all the answer Naruto needed. He gulped. He remembered her brute strength from the past, and had felt the tremor that Sakura's punch had triggered in the forest yesterday. He had no desire to experience first hand how much stronger she had become in the years she had been apprenticed under the Hokage.

Luckily for him, Hinata timidly spoke up at that moment. "Ano, it's alright, Sakura-san. N-Naruto-kun just w-wanted to find you quickly, that's all. I know he d-didn't mean any harm."

Sakura considered the shy Hyuuga girl's words, then huffed, lowering her fist. Naruto let out a sigh of relief.

"Ok, fine," the pink haired medic relented. "But if I hear you've been doing something stupid like that again, you're history. Got it?"

"Geez, you're scary when you're mad, Sakura-chan," Naruto whined.

"I said, 'Got it?'"

"Ok, ok, I got it!"

Shooting an exasperated look at her blonde haired teammate, Sakura shook her head and headed back towards the hospital, darkly muttering something about 'Naruto-baka' and 'punch through a wall.'

Naruto gave an exaggerated shiver, drawing a small smile from Hinata. "And I thought Sakura-chan was scary before! She's more frightening when she's angry than Tsunade-baachan now!"

Hinata giggled softly at his brashness, but Naruto's face went pensive. "I probably would have deserved it if she had hit me though. Sorry, Hinata-chan, I guess I really wasn't thinking. It was really stupid of me to drag you around like that. Sakura-chan was right – you could have been hurt and it would've been my fault if I'd made it worse."

The saddened look on Naruto's face made Hinata want to stand up for him. "Naruto-kun, I don't m-mind. You were doing your b-best, like you always do. I feel… I feel happy that you w-wanted to help me."

At first Naruto was slightly taken aback by her statement, but then a pleased smile spread across his face. "Oh, thanks Hinata-chan. Most peope would have shouted at me for doing something stupid like that, but I guess you're too kind to do that. And you stood up for me in front of Sakura-chan too – you really are awesome!"

Hinata blushed at his enthusiasm but felt very light all of a sudden, almost as though she were floating. Naruto had always had the ability to increase her confidence with just a few words; she couldn't help but smile at his praise of her.

"Well, I guess we should follow Sakura-chan back to the hospital now," said Naruto after a moment of comfortable silence. "I hope Kankuro's doing better now."

Hinata nodded her agreement and Naruto grinned at her, drawing a small tinge of red to the Hyuuga heiress' cheeks. Naruto reached for her hand, before remembering Sakura's warning and withdrawing it hastily.

"Ah, sorry, I forgot," he said sheepishly, slightly red faced, as was Hinata. The Hyuuga girl nodded in understanding, pushing her index fingers together in the way that she always did when nervous, but watching Hinata's face, Naruto thought he saw a flicker of emotion in her pale eyes, like ripples on a pond. Was it… disappointment?

Hesitantly, Naruto held out his hand again, offering it to the quiet Hyuuga girl. Her hand looked so small and dainty in comparison to his own, like it would shatter and break into a thousand pieces if he wasn't gentle with it. He wasn't certain he was doing the right thing by any means, and his palm had suddenly gone all sweaty for some reason, but he wanted to see that smile of hers again. He really liked the way that it had seemed to light up her face with a radiant glow and now he found that he wanted to see it again.

After Naruto had withdrawn his hand in the first instance, Hinata was internally berating herself. She had been longing for any sort of connection with Naruto, emotional or physical, and she had passed an opportunity up. 'I should have just grabbed his hand, grabbed it and never let go,' she thought to herself angrily. 'That was my chance to show him how I felt, and I was too afraid to act…'

But Hinata's disappointment quickly changed to shock as she saw Naruto extend his hand towards her again, a bashful expression on his face but questioning her with his deep, sapphire blue eyes. Hinata wasn't going to pass up a second opportunity, and shyly wrapped her fingers around his, feeling the small scars and calluses on his knuckles and palm. She blushed a fiery red as she did so, but she couldn't help but notice that Naruto's face was faintly pink too, an embarrassed grin on his face directed at her that shone as brightly as a sunbeam. Hinata timidly smiled back and his grip around her hand tightened ever so slightly.

-o-o-

Baki and Kakashi walked through the hospital corridors back towards Kankuro's room. The Suna jonin had put forth a large number of ninja to be at Kakashi's command if he so wished, but the copy nin had rejected this proposal.

"We need to be as stealthy as possible on this mission, so extra bodies will probably get in the way," he had said languidly. "We want to avoid a full scale battle with the Akatsuki if at all possible and if worst comes to worst we have a backup team from Konoha on its way as we speak. Bringing an army might also send out the wrong message – Konoha doesn't want to start a war over this incident."

Baki had nodded his agreement to this. It was too dangerous to start any form of heavily armed conflict with the Akatsuki at this early stage, not when they had so little knowledge about the group. Still, Suna's acting leader had offered any additional support to regain the Kazekage that Suna could give and Kakashi had thanked him.

"In truth," the silver haired jonin had admitted in a low voice, "I think we'll need any help you can give us. If we're taking on the Akatsuki head on, even if it is only two members, we'll need every ounce of cunning and firepower at our disposal, without translating into an entire army."

Baki and Kakashi re-entered the hospital room to see Sakura hard at work, grinding a mixture of herbs with a mortar and pestle, before tipping the stringy juice she had extracted into a small cup, evidently wishing for the unconscious puppet user to drink it.

Kakashi cleared his throat, drawing Sakura's attention. "I hope we aren't interrupting you Sakura, but Baki-sama wanted to see if Kankuro's condition had improved. Is there anything you can tell us?"

Sakura finished pouring and wiped her hands on a cloth. "Kankuro-san's condition has improved dramatically. His temperature has dropped to almost regular levels since I extracted the poison and any immediate threat is over. I think he may even regain conciousness soon, and swallowing this medicine that I'm preparing should flush out the rest of the toxins in his system. He will still be very weak though, so he should stay in bed for at least a few days to allow himself to make a full recovery and he'll need to keep taking this medicine for a day or two at least."

Baki let out an audible sigh of relief, a huge show of emotion for someone as skilled at remaining calm and collected under pressure as himself. "Thank God for that. Thank you, Sakura-san, I am truly grateful to you."

Sakura smiled at the praise, but before she could answer Naruto and Hinata walked through the door, though somewhat awkwardly, talking happily and not paying attention to their surroundings. Kakashi noticed that the two of them were holding hands, but the doorway was too narrow to let two people standing abreast of each other pass through. Neither of them seemed to be willing to relinquish their grip, and so they had to enter the room by walking sideways, like a crab.

Looking up, Hinata suddenly blushed bright red as she realised that the entire room was looking at the two of them and let out a squeak, dropping Naruto's hand as though an electric current had just passed through it. Naruto just stood in the doorframe, looking bemused by the fact that he was suddenly the centre of attention.

However, this didn't last long as there was a tapping sound at the closed window of the room. Pakkun was standing on the window ledge, scraping at the glass with a paw, and there was a spindly looking wooden arm enclosed carefully in his jaws. Sakura quickly rushed over to the window and released the latch, allowing Pakkun to squeeze through the frame and into the room.

"I gok wha oo arked, Kakaffi," he announced in a muffled voice, the puppet arm in his mouth preventing him from speaking clearly. He laid the wooden appendage on the floor carefully, flexing his jaw to work the stiffness out of it. "Ah, that's much better. My tongue is covered in splinters now."

"Excellent work, Pakkun," said Kakashi, stooping to analyse the puppet limb and looking closely at the scrap of red and black cloth snagged on it. "Have you been able to track where the scent leads?"

"Of course," Pakkun answered, holding his head up proudly. "Your target is located in Kawa, between Konoha and Suna, on a large river. I can't be more specific than that as of yet, but I can draw out a quick map for you if you like."

Naruto scrunched his face up. "You can draw?" he asked sceptically. "But you've only got stubby little paws."

The ninja hound let out a small, displeased growl. "Yes I can draw. In fact, amoungst my canine brethren I'm considered quite the draftsman."

Naruto struggled to keep a straight face at the idea of the little pug dog as an expert artist. "How do you reckon he holds his paintbrush? In his mouth or in his paw?" he whispered to Hinata, who suppressed a giggle in response.

Pakkun shook his head. "I get no respect around here," he complained to no-one in particular, shooting a sour look in the direction of Naruto.

Kakashi just smiled. "You've done very well Pakkun, you don't need to worry about that. Once you've finished drawing out the map, can you take this information to the backup team headed our way from Konoha?"

Pakkun nodded. "Sure, anything to get away from that blonde headed clown over there. See you later, Kakashi." With a flick of his tail and a skittering of paws on the hospital floor, the diminutive dog dashed out of the open door past Naruto and Hinata…though not before giving the orange clad ninja a small nip on the ankle as a goodbye. The spiky haired boy's curses followed him out through the door as the ninja hound chuckled to himself, searching for a piece of paper.

-o-o-

'W-Where am I…?'

As Kankuo slowly drifted back into conciousness, the first thing he noticed was that he felt unbearably stiff, as though all his joints had locked up. The next thing he realised was that he was lying down on something soft – a mattress, with sheets. His touch seemed to be functioning well enough. How about his vision?

With an effort, Kankuro cracked opened his sleep crusted eyes a fraction and immediately wished he hadn't. Bright spots danced in front of his eyes and it felt as though someone had just rammed a burning hot pin into each eyeball. If he had been able to he would have groaned as his head throbbed with an intense pain. Still, the fact that he could even feel the pain at all was a miracle – he thought he'd been a goner after being poisoned by that Akatsuki man.

Sight was very much out of the question for now, so he decided to remain lying still and see if he could move his body. He attempted to flex his fingers. It hurt like Hell, but he was able to twitch them very slightly. He wriggled his toes. Same reaction. Kankuro was really confused now. How on Earth was he conscious? He shouldn't even have been alive after the effects of the poison had begun to take hold, let alone awake.

As his body began to feel less sluggish, he slowly became more aware of his surroundings. He could hear a loud, irritated voice coming from a person fairly close to him – in the same room, in fact. Unable to do anything else, Kankuro lay back and listened.

"… kill that freaking dog! I'll shove a Rasengan up its ass! I'll –"

"Calm down, Naruto," interrupted the relaxed voice of another person. "It's not like you're seriously hurt." Kankuro suddenly felt very alert. Uzumaki Naruto was here?

"Are you kidding, Kakashi-sensei? He could have bitten my leg off! My whole life flashed before my eyes!"

Kankuro heard an exasperated sigh. This time a female voice spoke up. "Stop over exaggerating, Naruto. The worst you could get from a dog bite would be rabies, and I'm sure Pakkun has been innocula –"

"Rabies? You're telling me I've got rabies? Oh man, what am I gonna do?" wailed Naruto.

"Naruto, shut up!" yelled the female voice authoritatively. You haven't got rab – oh, I think Kankuro-san is awake!"

Kankuro risked opening his eyes again at this. His vision was still blurry, but at least the light wasn't sending bolts of agonizing pain into his skull anymore. A pair of arms held his shoulders and positioned him in a seated position. Kankuro focused and the face of a pink haired girl swam into view.

"Kankuro-san," the girl said firmly. "Can you hear me?"

Kankuro nodded. Too much effort to speak.

"Good. I've extracted the majority of the poison from your body and prepared a medicine for you to purge the remainder. Here, drink this." She passed Kankuro a small cup with a foul smelling green liquid contained in it.

Kankuro threw the medicine down his throat in one gulp, grimacing at the disgustingly bitter taste. "Thanks," he rasped, voice gravelly from going so long without speaking.

Before Kankuro could react, a pair of strong arms wrapped around Kankuro in a powerful bear hug. Kankuro looked down in shock. "Baki-sama?"

His former jonin-sensei released him and stepped back, smiling. The veiled man poured a glass of water out from a jug on Kankuro's bedside table and handed it to the puppet nin, who gratefully accepted it. "Kankuro, you're awake! How are you feeling?"

Kankuro tried to cleanse his mouth of the foul tasting medicine by swilling the water around his mouth. "Lousy," he answered after swallowing. "But I know I could be feeling a lot worse right now. That Akatsuki guy was out of my league…"

"What sort of techniques did he use?" asked the silver haired man standing just behind Baki. "We don't know his identity, so any clues you could give us would be a big help."

'Identity…' Kankuro thought. 'Oh, that's right!'

"I already know who he is," he answered, straightening his seating position against the headrest of the hospital bed. "He told me just as he left. He said he was Akasuna no Sasori."

Baki's face drained of all colour. "You're certain it was him, Kankuro?" he whispered piercingly, with an undertone of fear. "Absolutely positive?"

Kankuro nodded, understanding his former sensei's worry perfectly. He had heard the rumours about how Sasori had crafted an entire marionette army for Suna, all of his own design, before he had left the village. He was said to have been a genius in the art of puppetry even from an early age and his skills could only have increased since he had joined the Akatsuki.

Baki sighed heavily. "This changes everything. Sasori is quite possibly the strongest ninja to ever come out of Suna. We can only guess at how strong he must be now…" The acting head of Suna made a snap decision. "I'm going down to the well to talk to Chiyo-baasama. If anyone is suited to taking on Sasori, it would be her. Kakashi-san, would you be willing to accept her onto your team?"

Kakashi stroked his chin thoughtfully. "Her reputation certainly precedes her, though she must be rather old by now. Do you really think she would be able to keep up?"

Naruto, listening on in confusion, butted into the conversation. "I don't understand," he said, forehead creased in a frown. "Who is this Chiyo lady? And why is she being chosen for this mission?"

"Chiyo-baasama is one of the elders of our village," Baki answered. "She may be old now, but she was the one that taught Sasori the art of puppetry in the first place. She would definitely be the person I would recommend be put forth on the behalf of Suna for this mission."

Kakashi nodded. "If you think she would be the best fit for this mssion, then I have no qualms about adding her."

"Kakashi-sensei… what about me?" Sakura asked hesitantly. "I still need to look after Kankuro-san. The medicine I prepared was highly complicated – even one small error and the anti-venom would have failed, and I'm the only one able to make it in the village. Kankuro-san still needs at least two more doses of antidote to completely break down the poison, and I will have to prepare them from scratch again. If I'd had more time maybe I could have made a whole batch at once, but…"

Kakashi frowned underneath his mask. "I see… well, it seems as if we have no choice but to push on as quickly as possible, so we can't afford to wait around. As soon as Pakkun has drawn up his map and we've met up with Chiyo-baasama we'll have to get moving, there's no time to waste. If you really can't leave Kankuro, we'll just have to go on without you…"

Sakura was clearly disappointed, but answered with a resigned, "Ok, fine."

"Hinata, Naruto, I recommend you get some sleep for a few hours," Kakashi continued. "We will be leaving before dawn, so make sure that you're both well rested. There were some chairs in the hospital reception. I'll collect you both in about two or three hours, and then we'll be set to go."

Sakura watched on as Naruto and Hinata nodded their assent and left the room, single file this time, and sighed. Collecting her thoughts, she followed them back out of the room, heading for the greenhouse again to create another dose of medicine for Kankuro. She may not have liked it, but she knew her duty.

-o-o-

"Y-You! You're the White Fang of Konoha!"

Kakashi would have denied this accusation if he could, but he was a little preoccupied dodging the elderly woman's onslaught of punches and kicks that had a surprising amount of force behind them considering her age and size. 'Appearances aren't everything when considering an opponent, after all,' reflected the silver haired jonin as he ducked under a vicious cross-armed chop.

Reacting quickly, Kakashi managed to catch the woman's fist as she attempted to hit him with a solid left hook. Baki, overcoming his initial surprise after bringing the Suna village elder back to his office, grabbed hold of her other arm.

"What is the meaning of this, Chiyo-baasama?" he asked angrily. "Kakashi-san is an honoured guest of our village!"

The elderly kunoichi tried to squirm her way out of the Suna nin's grip and get another shot at Kakashi. "This man killed my son!" she shouted, her voice cracking with emotion.

"I think you must be mistaken, Chiyo-baasama," Kakashi responded helpfully. "You called me Konoha's White Fang, but that isn't who I am."

"Liar!" Chiyo screamed, fighting against the grip of the two men. "You look exactly like him, I know it!"

"Peace!" Baki roared, startling both Kakashi and Chiyo. "Chiyo-baasama," he continued in a quieter voice, "I realise that Kakashi-san does bear a passing resemblance to that man, but you are mistaken. The White Fang of Konoha died years ago."

Kakashi kept his face impassive as he heard his father mentioned, but the great man's death still saddened him. He had idolised the White Fang when he had been alive and it was his example that he now followed, after going through a period where he had rejected his father's nindo. Thinking back to the mission that had brought back his faith in the path that his father had followed brought up other painful memories… Obito… Rin… Minato-sensei…

Chiyo blinked confusedly at Baki's words and squinted hard at Kakashi, scrutinizing him thoroughly. Suddenly, she let loose a peal of laughter. "I see, I see! I'm not really old and senile at all, I was just pretending!"

Kakashi and Baki just stared at her, nonplussed.

Recovering from his bewilderment, Baki coughed into a closed fist. "Chiyo-baasama, do you remember why I called you here? I wish to admit you into Kakashi-san's team to locate and recapture our Kazekage."

Chiyo snorted contemptuously. "Yes, I remember why you called me, but I'm not interested. In my old age, I've lost interest in Suna affairs. If we depend on other villages to handle our own business then it is no surprise that our own village has become weak. We must rely on ourselves before we rely on others. In my old age, all I wish is to see my grandson again, one last time… and that's all!"

Baki merely smiled, much to Chiyo's surprise. "Well, that works out well for all of us then. One of Kazekage-sama's kidnappers was Akasuna no Sasori."

Chiyo's eyes widened and her wrinkles seemed to become less pronounced as she let a wistful smile pass over her face. "My little grandson… it's been so long…" Then her eyes hardened. "If I get the chance, I'll make sure to kill him."

-o-o-

The lights were out in the hospital's reception, and the receptionist had left for the night, leaving the room in darkness. Only the ninja medics were still active at this late hour.

Hinata was curled up on a chair, sleeping soundly under a woolly blanket that Naruto had found in one of the supply cupboards. There had only been one sheet in the cupboard and Hinata had felt bad taking it when he was the one that had found it in the first place, but Naruto's joking offer of 'sharing' it with her had made her timid protests die down, replaced by a vivid scarlet blush that covered her whole face.

Naruto was leaning back in his own chair, snoring slightly with an open mouth. The pool of drool overflowing from the corner of his mouth and the occasional mutterings of, "Mmm… ramen…" made it fairly clear that he was immersed in a dream.

Suddenly the lights fickered back on, jerking the two sleeping ninja out of their slumber. Hinata blinked rapidly to adjust to the unexpected bright light, whilst Naruto toppled off his chair with a shriek, tumbling to the floor. Looking up groggily at the doorway, he saw Kakashi and an elderly woman that must have been that Chiyo lady Baki had been talking about.

"Rise and shine, sleepyheads," said Kakashi in a cheery voice. "It's time to leave."

Author's Notes: Damn, this chapter was difficult but fun to write! Gai and Lee are just twenty-four carat comedy gold, and the interaction between some of the other characters was very entertaining to me. I'd like to say thanks to the reviewers of Chapter Five, particularly Perpetual159 and beargeek15, because their reviews made me laugh. I also got my first question, from Shikamaru Uchiha, asking about how closely I'll be following the canon. I'm not absolutely certain, to be honest. I've got a vague plan of future events, but it's by no means set in stone, though there will certainly be at very least some changes from canon. However, I'm trying to keep it at least along the original lines of the plot – think of this story being like a reinterpretation of events if just one thing had changed. I hope that answers your question for you. Finally, if anyone has any more things they want to ask me, or suggestions to give, feel free, I'm more than happy to listen. If there is such a thing as more than happy, that is. Would it be called super-happy? Anyway, before I go off on a rambling monologue I'd better leave it here. Thanks for reading and I'll try to update soon. Take care, bye!

List of Jutsu:

'Rasengan' 'Spiral Sphere'

P.S. One last thing, just for the Hell of it, at the end of each chapter from now on I'm going to put a joke that I found funny the first time I heard. Maybe it's kinda lame, but hey, the whole reason anyone's reading this is to be entertained, right? Hope you guys enjoy it!

Joke Corner: The most common owl in Great Britain is the teet – as in the teet-owl.

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