Chapter 3: An S-Rank Mission?

The Mission to Rescue the Kazekage Begins!

Sunagakure

Suna was still reeling from Gaara's loss to the Akatsuki Bomber, Deidara. Yet despite this, Baki was already organizing a rescue plan. From the communications room in the Kazekage Tower, messages were being put onto fastest messenger falcons the village had. All at once, three of Suna's quickest birds were launched towards Konoha, Kumo, and Kiri.

"Baki-sama! Kankuro is no where to be found in the village!"

"That baka!" Baki grunted. "Send several scouts out on where he was last seen! He's probably gone to face Akatsuki alone!"

"Hai Baki-sama!"

Baki walked through the village as the people were relocated to emergency shelters. With Gaara captured, he was in charge of the village as Head Jonin. He had to get several teams out to pursue Akatsuki as well as secure the borders. Heading into the Kazekage Tower, he went to the Council Room to call an emergency meeting.

It took a few minutes, but almost all the Elders arrived. The only one who was missing was Yura, but since he was guarding one of the gates…he may have already been killed by the Akatsuki insurgents.

"I've already sent aid to the other countries in our alliance, now we need to form our next move," Baki said, looking at all the Elders. "Kankuro has already been informally dispatched to track Gaara-sama, what we need to do now is get an elite team ready to back him up. If we act quickly, Gaara-sama will be rescued before the night is out…"

"That is inconceivable, Baki. Right now, our key objective is to secure our borders. We don't want a repeat of the Third Shinobi World War after all…"

Baki scowled. True, when the Sandaime Kazekage disappeared, the other countries had taken advantage while searches were still out, but to abandon their leader at the greatest need? "Honored elder, it is imperative we rescue Kazekage-sama. He's the bridge we have to the other countries, and has increased our standing in the Shinobi World…"

"And what if Iwa decided to take advantage of Kazekage-sama's disappearance? They were more than ready to before, and they aren't part of the Alliance. We have to secure our borders first before any attempt to rescue the Kazekage is made…"

Baki scowled. "…very well. Then we'll depend on Konoha and the other countries to rescue Gaara-sama, unless Kankuro rescues him himself…"


Konoha, Naruto's apartment

Naruto had just returned from escorting Hinata back to the Hyuga Compound after they had finished their dinner. Walking back into the living room, he sat down, pulling out a scroll that Jiraiya had made for him. It was a scroll of Jiraiya's Jutsus, and there were about 10 jutsus crossed off, showing that Naruto had already mastered them.

First was the Hari Jizo (Needle Jizo), a B-rank defensive jutsu that would grow Naruto's hair out and wrap around him and form into steel like spines. The second was the Gamayudan (Toad Oil Bullet), a C-Rank jutsu that shot out a stream of oil that would soak the opponent. The third was the Doragonhea (Dragon of Hair), an A-Rank jutsu that would turn his hair into a dragon that would catch his opponent and then the 'teeth' would clamp down, impaling it. Fourth was a more powerful version of the Rasengan, the Oodama Rasengan, which was high A-Rank and he could create it with one hand now. Fifth was Kuchiyose: Gamaguchi Shibari (Summoning: Toad Mouth Bind), one of Jiraiya's signature ninjutsus that only Itachi had been able to escape from.

Sixth was Kekki: Hyoton Gama (Barrier: Toad Gourd Prison) an B-Rank Jutsu that would imprison, but not destroy a captured ninja, keeping him bound and unable to escape. Seventh was the Heabaindo (Hair Binding), a C-Rank jutsu that would lengthen the air and shoot up to wrap around the target, holding them in place. Eighth was the Harinezumi Jutsu (Hedgehog Technique), which would grow his hair out again, and he'd spin at high speed as his now steel hard hair ripped into it, and it was C-Rank. Ninth was the Kekki: Tengai Hojin (Barrier: Dome Method Formation). Finally, the tenth was Doton: Yomi Numa (Earth Release: Swamp of the Underworld), a B-Rank Earth Jutsu that would, depending on how much chakra was put into it, create a swamp that would sink the target and crush or drown them in a practical bottomless pit.

The Yomi Numa was especially difficult for Naruto to master, but Jiraiya had insisted on him learning it so he could have a way to trap Sasuke or any other opponent from a distance. His teacher had wondered why it took him so long to master the jutsu, almost all of the two and a half years they were away, and he probably thought it was because, being an Earth technique, it was the exact opposite of his chakra nature. Naruto had bugged his teacher to tell him what his element was, but Jiraiya told him that it'd be found out by Kakashi.

Probably too lazy to do it yourself… Naruto thought with a groan, and he leaned back on his couch. Least I'm home now…Chunin to boot! Wonder what cool new missions Team Kakashi will receive now…

He looked over to the place where Hinata had sat. Like me, Sakura, Shikamaru, and Temari, she grew up…she…looks real good in long hair…

He groaned at that. Damn it…Ero-sennin's pervertedness is invading my thoughts! Naruto shook his head rapidly. Though I do wonder why she was put on our team…sure, she's probably grown pretty strong…but what about Team Kurenai?


Hyuga Residence

Hinata walked into her father's study and knelt down in front of Hiashi. Her father turned around and smiled warmly at his eldest daughter. Hinata bowed her head to the tatami mat in respect and Hiashi got up and walked over.

"Hello Hinata, how was your first day on Team Kakashi?"

"It…was nice father. Naruto-kun came up with a plan to get the bells from Kakashi-sensei, a-and he was shown using a new weapon…"

"Hm…I see…how well did you work together with your two new teammates?"

"V-Very well, father. N-Naruto-kun integrated me well into the team and we worked…real well."

"Good…then I was right to recommend you to it," Hiashi sand and Hinata blinked.

"Y-You recommended me, father?"

"Yes…on your old team, you weren't getting nearly enough combat experience as I would have liked. You are going to be Clan Head, and will need more training in combat than in recon, hence why I recommended you," Hiashi told her. That's the official reason, at least…

Hinata nodded. "I-I see. Then I won't disappoint you, father."

"I know you won't. I'm proud of you, Hinata," Hiashi said and his daughter bowed low. "You may go now."

Hinata nodded, and she got up and walked out of the room. Hiashi turned and walked back to his desk. He closed his eyes, lifting up a seemingly blank piece of paper and activated his Byakugan. Writing appeared-it was Neji's latest report…on the assassination attempts on Hinata's life.

It had come to his attention three months ago, when on a C-Rank mission, Hinata had experienced an 'accident' that nearly killed her. At first, he thought nothing of it, but several things were off. Then several more 'accidents' happened over the course of a dozen D-Rank missions around Konoha. At that, Hiashi ordered Neji to start investigating. What he found shocked him as well as his nephew.

There was a faction in the Hyuga Elder Leadership that were trying to get his daughter killed off so the person they saw as most worthy would automatically be made Heiress-Hanabi. Hiashi didn't know what his youngest daughter would want, but he doubts she'd want to see Hinata dead. And because of this, Hiashi began doubting Kurenai's ability to keep his daughter safe, as well get her strong enough to face these attempts on her own.

Thus, he recommended Hinata join Team Kakashi upon Naruto's return. The cover story he gave to Tsunade was that he wanted his daughter to experience more battle missions than recon so she'd be more suited to become Clan Head. But the real reasons were due to the capabilities of the members on Team Kakashi. Hatake Kakashi himself was the strongest Jonin in Konoha, as well as had the best tracking skills and his high intelligence would allow Hinata to gain strength as well as be well protected. Not only that, there was Uzumaki Naruto, Konoha's own Jinchuuriki on the team who was very strong in his own right. Finally, Tsunade's very own apprentice, Haruno Sakura was also on the team, her medical abilities would be able to heal Hinata if she ever got injured in one of these assassination attempts.

Hiashi hoped this would be enough. He wanted his daughter to keep getting stronger, and see the world. Not be cloistered up at the compound and guarded nearly twenty four hours a day and seven days a week. She'd hate it, after all, even if it would have been for her own good.

He leaned back, closing his eyes. He was hoping he did the right thing, and then he turned back to his paperwork on the table.


Hokage Tower

Tsunade and Shizune were going over the incoming missions for a suitable mission to start of the new Team Kakashi with. The Hokage was going through piles of B and A ranked missions, while her assistant was going over D and C, thinking they needed to start off easy.

"Hm, I think I have one," Tsunade said, lifting up a mission.

It was a B-Rank assassination mission. The target was a member of a crime syndicate that was terrorizing the Land of Grass. To Tsunade, it sounded perfect for a team with one Jonin and three Chunin but Shizune blinked.

"Tsunade-sama…I don't think we should start off with a mission that high just yet…" Shizune looked into the books, and then pointed one out. "This one seems much better."

"…dog walking? That's a D-rank mission! That's too low, remember Shizune, Naruto, Sakura, and Hinata are Chunin now, and we can remove the training wheels."

"Okay…okay…how about this one?" Shizune asked, lifting up a C-Rank.

"…a C-Rank gold convoy escort mission? Shizune…Naruto is going to complain even if its an important type of mission like this. I still think they are ready for a B-Rank or higher…"

"Just give it a try, Tsunade-sama…"

"…fine, but Naruto won't like it," Tsunade said with a sigh and Shizune looked at her gratefully.

But still, Tsunade knew that Naruto wouldn't like it. She had planned to start of the newly minted Chunin with an A-Rank so she wouldn't have to deal with Naruto's whining and complaining. It was notorious now that anything lower than a B-Rank would get the young Jinchuuriki angry.

In another part of Konoha, Nii Yugito was reading up on how many teams were going to take part of this year's Chunin Exams. For some reason, Nibi had been acting antsy, prowling inside her mind. The massive two tailed monster cat's tails were twitching, and she looked around and seemed to sniff the air.

"I can sense that Lord Shinigami is going to visit another host this year…" the monster cat said with a growling sigh. "Those bastards are at it again…"

Yugito breathed out. You mean Akatsuki? Jiraiya-sama already warned us about them…

The monster cat gave a nod, its blue flames picking up. "We'll have to work together to survive this, Yugito-chan."

I know Nibi, shouldn't be a problem, we always make a great team.

The monster cat nodded, its two tails flicking in the air. "The winds of change are coming…"

The next morning, Naruto yawned, sitting up and stretching. He made his bed, went out into the kitchen and ate some ramen for breakfast, before going back into his room. Hanging up on a hangar…was his new Chunin Vest. He grinned, pulling on his orange and black jacket first before pulling on the new green Chunin Vest.

"Wow…this really fits me," Naruto said with a grin, looking at himself in the mirror. He reached for his headband, and tied it firmly onto his head. "I'm ready for any mission Oba-chan has for me!"

He grabbed his backpack and walked for the door with a smile. Then once we find a lead…I'm going to bring Sasuke back. That's a promise! The last thing he did was slide his new Chunin Knife into the sheath on his back.

In another part of Konoha, Hinata had also finished getting ready. She had slipped on her mesh shirt, put on her white and purple coat as well as her black pants. Slipping on her sandals, she looked at herself in the mirror.

She noticed she had changed a lot over the past three years; she had filled out a lot over the past three years. Hinata had grown into her womanly curves, and her face was still framed beautifully by her black bangs. She smiled at herself, grabbed her kunais and shurikens, and put them into the boxes on her thigh and the pouches on her waist.

I'm ready…to do my best today! Hinata thought, trying to be confident. I just…hope I don't embarrass Naruto-kun…Sakura-chan…or Kakashi-sensei…no…can't think like that. I will do good today, I know it!

Finally Sakura was getting ready, tying her red headband into her hair, pulling on her belt, and sliding the Chunin knife into the sheath on her back. She grinned, and put her hand on her hip.

"Yep, I'm ready for the day now," Sakura said to herself, looking in the mirror. She was wearing her red vest, as well as her black shorts and medical pouches. "Time to start the new missions of Team Kakashi…just hope sensei won't be late…"

Sakura turned and exited her room, closing the door gently and running down the stairs, passed her mother who was carrying the clothes down to the washing machine. She nearly fell over when her daughter grabbed the other end of the hamper and steadied her.

"Sorry mom, I'm in a hurry but…do you need help taking that down? It pretty heavy…"

"No, I'm fine Sakura-chan…" her mother said with a smile.

"Okay, see you later mom!" Sakura said, running out of the door.

In another part of Konoha, Temari was exiting the apartment she was staying at. She secured her fan tightly on her back and closed the door, walking out. She had to get some documents from Suna before the start of Chunin Exams. She looked up to see Shikamaru in front of her.

"Surprised to see you up this early, Lazy Boy," Temari said with a grin.

"Well as your escort, I've become adept at predicting your habits, Troublesome Woman," Shikamaru said with a grin and the two began walking towards the South Gate.

Temari grinned as they walked, the sound of chirping birds greeting them as they went down the street. Shikamaru looked up at the rising sun, thinking on how he could be in bed right now.

With her leaving for a few days, I'll at least get some decent nights rest…

Konoha…real nice place to visit, but I prefer Suna…

The two walked to the South Gate as a few birds flew overhead. Stopping at the gate, Temari turned to Shikamaru, who put his hands in his pockets.

"Have a safe trip, Temari," Shikamaru said, leaning back. "Going to have an extra hour of sleep…no missions until the Chunin Exams are up."

Temari grinned. "Don't get too laid back, Shikamaru."

He sighed, shaking his head. "Yeah, yeah. Well, get going and get the stuff you need. Can't handle these Chunin Exams alone, Ambassador-san."

Temari giggled, and she kissed him on the cheek, completely surprising him and she began walking away. Shikamaru rubbed his cheek, slight blush on his face as he watched the Suna Kunoichi walk off.

…troublesome woman… Shikamaru thought, a small smirk appearing on his face.


Land of Wind

Kankuro was starting to catch up to Sasori and Deidara. He was following the two Akatsuki's trail, and even though he had been tracking them all night, he still wasn't exhausted or out of breath due to taking a soldier pill before he went out. He had all three of his puppets now, and was prepared to use them to take down the two men who had taken Gaara.

"…if you weren't so late getting the Jinchuuriki we'd be at the hideout by now," the smaller one said roughly, talking to the blond haired one with now one arm flying on top of the clay bird that was carrying Gaara.

"I tell you, he was tougher than we thought, Sasori-danna," the blond haired man said, stretching his arm. "Anyway, when the Shukaku is sealed, you have the Three Tail to go after, right?"

"Stop right there!" Kankuro interjected, and the two Akatsuki turned to face him.

"It seems Suna has sent someone to pursue us…come to think of it, doesn't this Jinchuuriki have a brother?" the blond one said, glancing at Gaara's unconscious form in the clay bird's feathers.

Kankuro snarled, reaching onto his pack and pulling out three scrolls. He summoned his three puppets, Karasu, Kuroari, and his newest and largest puppet, Sanshouuo. His chakra wires attached to all three from his fingers, and they rattled to life.

"Oh ho ho…this little ninja is a puppet master, Sasori-danna…" the blond said with a chuckle.

"I will deal with this, Deidara," Sasori said, shuffling over to face Kankuro. "I have a desire to play with my old toys…"

"Heh…alright Sasori-danna, try not to be late," Deidara said with a chuckle, and began to fly away.

"I don't think so!" Kankuro roared, flicking his wrist and launching Karasu at Deidara's bird to try to get Gaara.

With a ruffle of cloth, something shot out of Sasori's back. Long, brown scorpion-like tail wrapped around Karasu, and slammed it into the sand, and Kankuro's eyes widened in disbelief, widening his stance instinctively.

How could he predict Karasu's movements? Even the Sharingan would have trouble keeping up with a puppet's movements and predicting them… Kankuro thought as he heard…clicking from Sasori.

"This is going to be more fun than I thought," Sasori said and Kankuro shifted his stance.

…he's…using a puppet? Is he inside of it? I don't even recognize the design if it is… Kankuro thought and he began the next attack strategy. If it is a puppet, I need to find out its weaknesses!

Lifting Karasu out of the ground, he pulled it back along with Kuroari. He leapt behind Sanshouuo, which extended a shield off its back as well as opened its mouth. Kankuro had added a new…addition to Sanshouuo, to make it an equally powerful defensive and offensive puppet. He was going to save it for when he had an opening, however.

"Shall we begin, already?" Sasori asked in a deadpanned manner.

In response, both Karasu and Kuroari shot out from behind Sanshouuo's back. Karasu's mouth opened, firing several senbon with notes attached to them out as Sasori leapt back, with several explosions following. Kuroari limbs opened, firing several smoke bombs to conceal everything. Kankuro's fingers moved masterfully, trying to force Sasori back and reveal his puppet's secrets.

Karasu zipped low, opening its mouth again and it began to fire kunais rapidly out of its mouth. In almost a bored like defense, Sasori's tail, even in the smoke screen, blocked the fire by spinning around its body before it shot out, impaling Karasu through the chest and the tail twisted, making the puppet burst into many pieces. It couldn't even be put back together because its torso had been shattered.

"I'm in a hurry, can we stop with the playing?" Sasori asked in his deadpan manner.

Damn it… Kankuro thought as he drew Kuroari back for a second. I need to try a new strategy…

Thinking quickly, Kankuro made his horse-like puppet with the built in iron maiden system sink into the ground. Sasori waited, and under his cloak he had crossed his arms, his tail twitching. At that moment, he leapt out of the way of several explosions from underground and…right into Kuroari's maw.

The doors on Kuroari opened and Sasori fell in, almost…unconcerned. The doors slammed shut as Kankuro activated his modification-three blades raked through Sasori without the blades of Karasu even needed. Kankuro smirked…and then Kuroari burst open from the inside.

"Interesting, I believe I didn't know about that ability of Kuroari," Sasori said with genuine praise. "However, this fight is getting tiresome…"

His tail slammed into Sanshouuo's shield once, twice, and three times, not getting through. Kankuro smirked.

"Sanshouuo's shield is impregnable, built of the strongest metals! No attack can get through," Kankuro said. Now time to activate the trump…

Sanshouuo's shield was battered more and then…its joints were attacked. The shield went flying into the sky as Kankuro was stabbed directly by Sasori's tail. He spat out blood as he went flying back.

"Not…done yet!" he yelled, landing, and he waved his hands open. Sanshouuo's mouth opened all the way, exposing a…cannon of some sort. Channeling my chakra into the cannon…which focuses it…and then fires for explosive results… "Sanshouuo Bakuhakantsusen (Exploding Piercing Beam)!"

Sasori's eyes widened and a massive blue blast of energy shot out of Sanshouuo's mouth. Kankuro watched in anticipation as his body began to grow weaker as an explosion rocked the surrounding area. When the smoke cleared, there was Sasori…standing with half his body destroyed.

"YES!" Kankuro yelled triumphantly, and then…Sasori's body began to fall apart…turning into…sand. What? He…he used a Suna Bushin as a replacement? How could he react so quickly…?

From the ground, Sanshouuo was impaled through the stomach by Sasori's tail, and it was shaken into pieces as Sasori himself surfaced.

"A very, very interesting modification," Sasori said. "If I didn't react in time, I'd have been dead by now. However…the fight was already a foregone conclusion."

"W-What…?" Kankuro asked, his body starting to feel weak and he fell to his knees. On the tip of Sasori's tail…was a purple liquid…and Kankuro's eyes widened.

"This poison of mine…you'll be paralyzed and in unbearable agony for three days…and then you die," Sasori said in his rough voice. "There is no cure, and your final days will be painful…" his tail flicked towards Kankuro. "In respect for a fellow puppet user, I will end you now."

Quickly, Kankuro flicked Karasu's head into the tail to deflect the attack, and then pulled his finger down, sending one of the arms his puppets had out. Sasori, not expecting any resistance at this point, watched in shock as the blade came out of the puppet arm and cut through his mask, getting some fabric which was then grasped into the puppet's hand.

"…I've wasted too much time here," Sasori said gruffly, walking away.

Kankuro's arms shook…and he collapsed. Gaara


Fire Country, roadside restaurant

Temari was enjoying her breakfast of dumplings and she reached for her tea cup. A crack appeared on the glass, and her eyes widened. She carefully lifted it up and checked it to see if it wasn't her imagination.

…I'm not superstitious…but something bad has happened… she thought, setting the glass down and she looked towards the sky. "Check please!"

She waited, breathing out and feeling anxious. She wondered what happened in Suna to give her such a bad feeling. Part of Temari thought she was just overreacting. But the other part of her knew that something bad had happened, real, real bad. She stole herself as the waitress brought her the check.


Konoha

On the street near the Hokage Tower, Hinata, Naruto, and Sakura waited for their sensei to show up. The pink haired kunoichi tapped her foot impatiently, looking as the sun started to rise over the wall. Naruto leaned back against the wall, eyes closed and hands folded behind his head. Hinata was trying to keep down her blush, poking her fingers together. The blond jinchuuriki's eyes opened and he looked to see Kakashi beginning to walk over.

"Its about time, Kakashi-sensei," Naruto said, making Sakura and Hinata look up as Kakashi came walking over.

"Heh…about that, I was getting the squad dossier ready and well…"

"Save your excuses sensei!" Sakura yelled, and a bead of nervous sweat appeared on Kakashi's face.

Hinata blinked, and looked at Naruto. "I-Is he always late, Naruto-kun?"

"Yeah, you kind of get used to it," Naruto replied and they heard a hawk's cry, and the four of them looked up as two hawks flew above them. One dove towards the Hokage Tower, while the other continued north.

Kakashi looked up. That's Takamaru…has something happened in Suna? The other one…it looks like it's flying towards Kumo…

"I wonder what that's about…" Naruto said, looking as the bird landed at the Tower.

"I'm not sure…but we have a mission to get assigned," Kakashi said and he began walking off towards the tower, and Naruto, Sakura, and Hinata began following.

In the tower, the messenger hawk keepers were tending to Konoha's flock of birds which ranged from messenger pigeons which were useful for around the village if there was a power outage to the long ranged hawks, falcons, and eagles which were used to bring messages to other villages when the phone lines were done, or when encrypted messages needed to be sent. Takamaru landed on the perch, and one of the keepers went walking over after feeding another hawk.

"Oh, what's this…this is Sunagakure's fastest Messenger Hawk, Takamaru!" the keeper said, offering his wrist for Takamaru to hop onto his shoulder. He took off the scroll from the bird's leg, and put Takamaru into a cage. "Get the decoders up here, now!"

A few minutes later, Naruto, Hinata, Sakura, and Kakashi were walking through the halls of the Tower, heading towards the Hokage's Office to get their mission. A woman with short brown hair came running by them, nearly hitting Naruto.

"Hey, watch it!" Naruto said as he regained his balance.

A code breaker…this is big… Kakashi thought as he watched the code breaker run towards the falconry post of the tower.

The code breaker entered the falcon post, and the message from Suna was brought over to her. Opening the scroll, she immediately began to decode it as Kakashi, Naruto, Sakura, and Hinata entered the Hokage's office.

For the next hour, Team Kakashi were getting several missions that they'd have to do during that day, all D-rank. However, Shizune hoped that the C-rank mission she suggested would placate Naruto, who was looking annoyed after hearing all the boring missions. He was a Chunin now, so were Sakura and Hinata, why should they still have to do Genin work?

"The highest level of mission I've got for you today, Naruto, is Escorting of a Gold Convoy. Its C-rank…you'd be able to do it after you finish the others," Tsunade began, waiting for the snide remark that Naruto was bound to give her. "The route has many bandits on it, it needs the protection of skilled shinobi…"

"…not that I don't like the compliment, oba-chan, but don't you have any higher missions for us?" Naruto asked. "I mean, we're not genin anymore…"

Tsunade's eye twitched at Shizune who smiled nervously. You were right Tsunade-sama…I'm never going to hear the end of this…

"Naruto…you just returned from a three year training journey. Not only that, you have a new teammate, Hinata, on your squad," Tsunade began, nearly breaking her pencil. "This is a mission to test the waters…got it…?"

Before Naruto could retort, the female code breaker slammed the door open. "Tsunade-sama, there is an emergency in Suna!"

"An emergency?" Tsunade asked, and Team Kakashi looked back at the code breaker.

"Kazekage-sama has been taken by Akatsuki!"

At that, Naruto's eyes widened and his pupil shrank. He clenched his hand into a fist. Those bastards are now after Gaara too?! Picturing Kisame and Itachi in his mind, and he began to shake.

Acting quickly, Tsunade stood up. "Team Kakashi, you are to be dispatched to Suna immediately! Follow their orders to the letter!"

Kakashi, Naruto, Sakura, and Hinata stood at attention and at the same time yelled. "Hai, Tsunade-sama!"

"You leave in one hour, take everything you need and head to the Southern Gate," Tsunade ordered and Team Kakashi gave a 'Hai' before rushing out of the room.


River Country, Akatsuki Hideout

Sasori had caught up with Deidara shortly after dealing with Kankuro, and the two had made their way to the Akatsuki hideout in River Country. Jumping down into the cavern, the boulder was moved in front of the entrance to stop any pursuit teams from Suna from entering.

Deidara rotated his arm as the Akatsuki Leader appeared in a holographic form of the Gentoushan no Jutsu (Magic Lantern Body Technique) in front of them. His eyes looked at the two members of Akatsuki, and Sasori noted the circles surrounding the light violet colored eyes, going all the way to the pupil.

"You're late," the Leader said in an gruff, but cultured voice.

"The Jinchuuriki was stronger than we expected, Leader," Deidara said and he cracked his neck. "And we had to deal with a pursuer. You know how much Sasori hates to keep people waiting…"

"My opponent was stronger than I anticipated, Deidara," Sasori growled at the bomber, his tail ready to strike.

"Enough," the Leader said. "We have work to do."

Inside Gaara's mind, the Shukaku stirred. You shouldn't have drifted into unconsciousness, human!

A burst of golden chakra caught the Leader's, Deidara's, and Sasori's attention. "I thought you subdued him, Deidara," the Leader said, sounding annoyed.

"I did! He should be out of it right now and ready for the sealing!"

The ground began shaking slightly and cracks began appearing underneath Gaara as sand floated up, levitating him. He landed on his feet, and the sand shaped the Sand Armor into a grotesque, monstrous face and a single golden eye appeared. Gaara's arm was then engulfed by sand, forming a single, hideous clawed arm, and finally the sand formed a tail behind him. His normal eye remained closed, and his mouth panted.

"I've got to hand it to you two knuckleheads, I never thought I'd be able to come out again," the Shukaku's voice said through Gaara's mouth. "The Shukaku is ready to play, then party!"

"…the Ichibi must awaken when the Jinchuuriki is unconscious or asleep…troublesome," the Leader said, looking at Gaara as the half of his face which was Shukaku's visage gave an animalistic growl. "Take care of it."

Immediately, Sasori turned, ripping the ruined bandana off his puppet's mouth, and began firing a barrage of senbon. The Shukaku acted just as quickly, raising its armored hand and blocked the barrage. He chuckled and his tail shot out at Deidara who leapt over it, heading to his clay bird mount.

"Oh don't be like that, I want to play!" Shukaku laughed as the other half of Gaara's body was covered in sand, getting armored, until he looked like a mini-version of the Shukaku itself.

"Sasori, I suggest we lead him out of the cave," Deidara said as he dodged several Suna Shuriken. "At the rate the Jinchuuriki is going, he'll transform into a full Bijuu at this rate.

"Agreed," Sasori said as he opened the 'mouth' on the back of his puppet, dropping out. "I'd rather not damage Hiruko in this fight."

"Heh, haven't seen the real you in a long time, Sasori-danna," Deidara chuckled, reaching his one arm into his pack. Should have brought more exploding clay…might not have enough if this battle is dragged out long enough.

Deidara and Sasori leapt out of the cave, Shukaku pursuing, laughing like a maniac as the Akatsuki Leader watched. He shook his head, and his image faded from the cave.


Konoha, Southern Gate

Team Kakashi was all set and ready to head to Suna, walking down the street towards the Southern Gate. Sakura had brought extra medical supplies just in case, Hinata was bringing along some goggles so she'd be able to use her Byakugan unencumbered in the deserts of Wind Country, and Naruto had packed a few weapon summoning scrolls, his kusarigama however was at his hip. He was looking determined; he would save Gaara at all costs.

Just wait for us, Gaara, we're coming! Naruto thought as he looked up to see Tsunade and Jiraiya waiting for them at the Gate. "Ero-sennin?"

"Don't call me that!" Jiraiya grumbled as Team Kakashi reached the Gate.

"What are you doing here?" Naruto asked, blinking.

"Just coming to wish you luck," Jiraiya said with a grin, putting his hand on his student's shoulder. "And remember Naruto, do not use that jutsu. And keep your temper under control."

"…I'm not a kid anymore, Ero-sennin," Naruto whispered, breathing out and closing his eyes. "I'll keep my emotions in check…and I won't use that jutsu. I can't even control that one yet so there isn't any point."

Jiraiya nodded, and he smirked. "Good luck, kid. Show them what the next Toad Sage can do."

Naruto grinned. "Thanks Ero-sennin. I won't disappoint you."

Jiraiya grinned and looked at Kakashi, giving a subtle nod which Naruto's sensei returned. Hinata pulled up her backpack, getting ready as Sakura rotated her arm.

"Alright guys, lets go. Full speed towards Suna," Kakashi ordered, taking the point.

"Hai, Kakashi-sensei!" Naruto, Hinata, and Sakura yelled at the same time, and the four of them followed Kakashi out of the gate.

"One more thing, Temari headed out towards Suna this morning! Rendezvous with her and travel to Sunagakure with her!" Tsunade ordered and Kakashi gave a nod as he lead his squad out. "…so how do you think they'll do?"

"I'm confident in Naruto, they'll do fine," Jiraiya said with a grin. "They're not genin anymore…they're full fledged ninja. The next generation is stepping up."

Tsunade nodded, and a smile appeared on her face as she watched Team Kakashi leave. She then turned on her heel, and started walking back to the Tower. Glancing at Jiraiya, she lifted her arm.

"Before you leave, Jiraiya, share a drink with me," Tsunade said with a grin.

Jiraiya smirked. "Sure."

To be continued…


Author's Notes:

Whew, this was a long chapter. I really put a lot of effort into it. I hope you like the expanded reasons on why I had Hinata put on Team Kakashi, as well as the jutsus Naruto knows now, and my version of Kankuro vs. Sasori.

Jutsus:

Bakuhakantsusen (Exploding Piercing Beam): Kankuro's strongest technique. A beam of pure, explosive chakra is shot out of Sanshouuo's mouth, and can annihilate a medium sized plateau with a direct hit. Original Technique S-Rank

Gentoushan no Jutsu (Magic Lantern Body Technique): With this technique, Pain could convene the members of Akatsuki, even while the various members were in completely different parts of the world. The individual members sat down and turned their thought waves into chakra. These thought waves were then received by Pain, amplified, and broadcast as virtual images of the respective members. This allowed them to have conversations and to perform the Illusionary Dragon Nine Consuming Seals. These virtual images looked like the member they represented, the only difference being that they are standing up with their hands in a seal. The images were also transparent, save for the eyes. In the anime, the images were depicted refracting an array of spectral colors, much like a rainbow. Also in the anime, their bodies would also distort and flicker, as if receiving electronic interference. Canon technique, No Rank

Stats (Note, these aren't power levels):

Naruto

Nin: 4.5

Tai: 4

Gen: 3

Int: 3.5

Str: 4

Spe: 4

Sta: 5

Sea: 2.5

Total: 30.5 (canon stat total 26 from the Third Databook)

Sakura

Nin: 3

Tai: 4

Gen: 4.5

Int: 4

Str: 5

Spe: 3

Sta: 3

Sea: 4

Total: 30.5 (canon stat total 26, like Naruto, Third Databook)

Hinata

Nin: 3

Tai: 4.5

Gen: 3.5

Int: 4

Str: 2.5

Spe: 3

Sta: 3

Sea: 3

Total: 26.5 (canon stat total 21.5, Third Databook.)

Gaara

Nin: 5

Tai: 3

Gen: 4

Int: 4.5

Str: 4

Spe: 4.5

Sta: 5

Sea: 4

Total: 34 (canon stat total 29, Third Databook)

Temari

Nin: 4.5

Tai: 3

Gen: 3

Int: 5

Str: 4

Spe: 4

Sta: 3

Sea: 3

Total: 29.5 (canon stat total of 24.5, Third Databook)

Kankuro

Nin: 4.5

Tai: 3

Gen: 2.5

Int: 3.5

Str: 4

Spe: 3.5

Sta: 4

Sea: 4

Total: 29 (Canon Stat Total of 26.5, Third Databook)

Yugito

Nin: 5

Tai: 4

Gen: 3

Int: 4.5

Str: 3.5

Spe: 4.5

Sta: 5

Sea: 4

Total: 33.5

Shino

Nin: 4.5

Tai: 2.5

Gen: 3.5

Int: 5

Str: 2

Spe: 3.5

Sta: 4

Sea: 4

Total: 29 (canon stat total of 21, Third Databook)

Kiba

Nin: 4

Tai: 4

Gen: 3

Int: 3

Str: 4.5

Spe: 4.5

Sta: 3

Sea: 2

Total: 25 (Canon stat total of 22, Third Databook)

Shikamaru

Nin: 3.5

Tai: 3

Gen: 3.5

Int: 5

Str: 3

Spe: 3.5

Sta: 3

Sea: 4

Total: 28.5 (Canon stat total of 24, Third Databook)

Choji:

Nin: 4

Tai: 4

Gen: 2

Int: 2.5

Str: 5

Spe: 3

Sta: 4

Sea: 2

Total: 26.5 (Canon stat total of 20.5, Third Databook)

Ino

Nin: 4

Tai: 3

Gen: 3

Int: 3

Str: 4

Spe: 3

Sta: 3

Sea: 3

Total: 26 (Canon Stat Total of 21, Third Databook)

Neji

Nin: 4.5

Tai: 5

Gen: 3.5

Int: 4.5

Str: 3

Spe: 4.5

Sta: 3.5

Sea: 3

Total: 31.5 (Canon Stat Total of 27, Third Databook)

Tenten

Nin: 4

Tai: 4

Gen: 2

Int: 3.5

Str: 3

Spe: 3.5

Sta: 3

Sea: 3

Total: 26 (Canon Stat Total of 20.5, Third Databook)

Rock Lee

Nin: 0.5

Tai: 5

Gen: 1

Int: 3

Str: 4.5

Spe: 5

Sta: 4

Sea: 1

Total: 24 (note, would be higher if he can really do Ninjutsu and Taijutsu. Canon Stat of 22, Third Databook)