I am writing a novel. Original work. It's a story that involves portals between worlds, magical peoples warring for power, demon creatures that may or may not be evil, and humans that definitely can be. The scope of this work has the potential to be enormous. I wonder if Kishimoto was daunted when he set out to write Naruto?

Anyway, I apologize that this chapter was grossly delayed. These action packed climax chapters are particularly challenging because I have to make up so many jutsus and choreograph fight scenes (note to purists: all rules in Kishi's world may not apply).

White Rain

Chapter 24

By Zapenstap

"Where the hell are we?" Sakura demanded.

The landscape had completely changed. Where before there had been endless miles of waving grass, all she saw now were piles of rock and parched earth spread out beneath a blue sky.

"We've been transported," Kakashi said. "If I had to guess, I'd say we're thirty miles northwest from where we were."

"Son of a bitch!"

They weren't alone.

Across from her and Kakashi stood two of Grass Jounin that had risen out of that hill. One was tall and lithe with pupils so large they obscured the whites of his eyes. The other was a woman, husky and blonde, with a strong jaw. She reminded Sakura of Temari of the Sand, though it wasn't the same woman. The fan she carried wasn't the same either.

I think it was that fan that moved us.

What a power! But worse than that was the realization of what it meant. The Genin—her Genin—were facing the other two Jounin alone!

"We don't have time for a fight," she said to Kakahsi. "How do we get back?"

"I can take us back," Kakashi said. He had pulled his headband up, exposing his Sharingan eye.

Sakura felt a flood of relief.

Good ole Kakashi. Anybody else and we'd be stuck.

"Great," she said. "Let's—"

"I think not," the Grass Jounin with the dark pupils interrupted. His hands were quicker.

Sakura reacted instantly, gathering her own chakra. She clenched her fist, nails digging into the leather glove covering her palm.

I can take anything he throws at me-

But the attack wasn't physical.

The Grass Jounin's shadow expanded under his feet. It didn't strike out like Shikamaru's jutsu. This shadow was like a pool of water. It was smooth, darkness spilling across the ground like oil. It flooded into her own shadow before she had time to blink. One moment she was watching it speeding for her feet. The next she couldn't see anything. Absolutely nothing. In every direction was nothing but black. She couldn't even see herself.

Is this a Ninjutsu? Or could it be…Genjutsu?

She concentrated her chakra, searching for disruption, but didn't sense anything. She was good at detecting and countering genjutsu; the more time she spent with Sasuke the better she got. This wasn't genjutsu.

Ninjutsu then.

I'm still really here. This is like the Hidden Mist jutsu.

She moved. The ground felt solid beneath her feet. She remembered the terrain. Shinobi were taught to memorize the battlefield. Situational awareness; it was one of the most important things you could learn as a ninja. There had been a rocky outcropping just to her right. She moved through the darkness, her footfalls as silent as leaves alighting on the ground. Her fingers touched stone.

Good. Nothing has changed but the absence of light.

Could the Grass Jounin responsible for this jutsu see her or was he just as blind? Was the darkness affecting all of them equally? His eyes had been like shadows…

"Sakura, watch out!"

Kakashi's voice.

She ducked and rolled, trusting that voice instinctively. A kunai sailed over her head, clattering on the rocks behind her. The fact that they attacked from a distance, and waited until she spoke, told her that the enemy couldn't see her much better than she could see them. Had Kakshi seen the kunai? Could the Sharingan penetrate this darkness?

No sense staying low. She rose and ran. Her memory served well, and she wasn't afraid of darkness. There was another rocky outcrop just ahead…

I need to get to Kakashi quickly. Or else find a way to lift this shadow!

With her eyes blinded, her other senses just had to work harder. She concentrated, feeling the area around her with her chakra.

She felt the heat coming before it hit.

Barely.

Is that fire?

There was no light, only the crackle and warmth and the smell of smoke. It was disorienting. She managed to avoid it by diving for the outcropping she hoped was just ahead. She got lucky, her hands scraping rock and telling her that her aim was true. She drew her knees in close to her body as heat consumed everything around her. The flames could not be seen. They did not roast her, but they were there, all around her. Fire unseen in darkness!

To get hit with that…well, she could survive it, but it would be painful.

How do I fight? I can sense the flame from the heat, but barely. It gives me only a moment's advantage.

A short distance away she heard the sound of steal pinging against steal. Kakashi was being attacked.

When the heat of the flame subsided, she knew she had only seconds to decide what to do. If she moved, she might be engulfed in another bout of flame. If she didn't, she would surely be attacked by something else. The enemy must know exactly where she had hidden.

Weighing the choices, she moved.

The flames came again. She felt the heat hit her back, but she was quicker. Again they just missed her, snapping at her heels where she had been.

Her assailant was no slouch. She sensed physical movement approaching just after the flames. A sneak attack? It was the woman, she was sure—charging at her like a cannon ball.

That would have been a good tactic on someone else, she thought.

This Kunoichi meant to hit her as she prepared to dodge the fire. After all, Sakura couldn't see, which meant she couldn't fight, right? Ha!

I don't need to see, not if the enemy is anywhere near me.

Sakura countered with her fist. She knelt and slammed her knuckles into the ground, destroying the terrain beneath the feet of her enemy. The implosion fanned out far and wide. She was rewarded when her assailant yelped and fell, tumbling loudly. Sakura smiled in satisfaction.

She didn't wait around to gloat. She turned and ran, stealing through the darkness. Where was that—

A hand wrapped around her wrist. She gasped, twisting and throwing her weight, her own kunai coming into her other hand. She gathered her chakra, preparing to crack the bones of…

"It's me," Kakashi whispered. "Don't give us away."

She was just able to make out the Mangekyou Sharingan as darkness dissolved around them.

#

Sasuke burst into a room full of terrified children and a pile of musical instruments.

He scanned their faces.

Rina was not among them. The realization stoked his fury. He had imagined her here, her cherub face framed with straight, glossy dark locks turning to look at him, the soulfulness that reminded him of his brother deep in her eyes. He had imagined looking at her—really looking at her for the first time—and telling her it was going to be okay.

What he saw instead were three Grass Shinobi. All three were under a Gejutsu, staring sightlessly at something only they could see.

And he knew, somehow, that he had just missed her.

Suddenly, the Shinobi snapped to attention, blinking and staring at him. Panic flooded their faces as they registered his Sharingan…as they realized who he was. He stood perfectly still, Sharingan blazing and with Susanoo around him, his sword drawn.

"Sasu—!"

He felled all three in the same move. The one with lanky hair refused to look into his eyes. He died on Sasuke's sword. The other two did look, and he clobbered them with a Genjutsu so strong, a Genjutsu where they saw their own brutal deaths, that it rendered them both unconscious in seconds.

The children were crying. One was screaming.

Sasuke realized that blood was running freely from his blade.

At that moment, Hinata came in behind him, Shino's arm around her shoulder. She took one look around and her face drained of color.

"Rina was here," Sasuke said.

"Did she escape? Or was she—" She looked at the blood on Sasuke's blade, horror in her eyes.

One of the children, the oldest by the look of him—Itachi's age maybe—stammered out a response. "A…b…boy took her." He pointed. "That way."

"Stay here," Sasuke said to Hinata.

"I should come with you."

"Shino can't fight. Wall up this room. Wait for Naruto. I will get Rina."

Hinata didn't object, though maybe she wanted to. It was hard to tell with her. All he saw was her lips form a thin, worried line. Shino clearly needed medical aid, though. Perhaps he had a concussion. Or maybe he was poisoned.

Sasuke didn't wait to find out. He couldn't afford to keep waiting. He dashed out of the room, heading the direction the boy had pointed.

A boy took her.

It was that Genin he had spared. Not again.

#

Lucia's heart was beating. She focused on it. It was the only thing that made sense to her.

Gray didn't move. He faced her woodenly, like a statue.

"Itachi is fine, Lucia," Ino said to her. "There's no way the Grass could have assassinated him."

Lucia didn't need her to say more. There was always a way. Itachi had come to the battlefield.

What do I do? What can I do?

"There's a lot of Shinobi out there," Tenten murmured. She had her ear pressed to the door, her eyes closed. "Dozens and dozens."

"They're congregating their strongest here," Shikamaru said. "You would think we had something very valuable, and I don't think it's Gray." He cast a sidelong look at Lucia.

"Don't count on a peaceful resolution," Neji said. "We must prepare for a pitched battle, and hold somehow until Naruto comes."

Peace

The word slipped through Lucia's thoughts like a satin ribbon from her fingers.

The Grass Jounin Gray was watching her beneath hooded eyes. He hadn't said a word to her since announcing that her children were targeted—both of them slotted to die today. She didn't have any further questions. She couldn't summon any meaningful arguments.

Even the thought that Marnix would win if she didn't do something fell out of her mind like a dead weight. Winning seemed irrelevant. Marnix seemed irrelevant. Being surrounded by Grass Shinobi seemed irrelevant.

She closed her eyes, feeling dizzy.

Peace.

She couldn't find it.

When she opened them, Gray was still staring at her.

A tough man, she thought. A man who has made tough choices and now faces a tough fate.

A familiar feeling. She saw Itachi Uchiha in Gray. She saw herself. She saw her father, and her mother, and now her son and daughter.

Tough.

"LUCIA."

The sound of her name boomed throughout the room. She tensed up immediately. It was Marnix's voice, echoing hollowly. Some kind of jutsu? The Leaf Shinobi looked around, so it couldn't just be in her mind, though the sound pounded in her skull as if it were.

"Lucia," Marnix repeated, this time in a quieter voice. His tone was mild, almost silky. "Lucia, Lucia, this is futile. You must know it. You are a prisoner. All of your guards are hostages. You have no choice but to surrender."

She bit her lip.

Shikamaru was shaking his head at her. Buy time, he mouthed.

She nodded.

"Rina," she said. "Bring her to me. I want to see her."

"You know I don't have to do that," Marnix told her. "Unless seeing her corpse will make her cooperate faster?"

The words hit her in the chest like a rock. She covered her hand with her mouth, swallowing the urge to heave. Rina… He really meant what he said. They might be dispatching her daughter now. Her emotions railed against it, clawing at the inside of her chest like living things that were suffocating from the logic she forced upon them. Why shouldn't Marnix kill Rina? He had Lucia in his grasp and it was her and her knowledge that he wanted. Rina was meant to be a lure and had served her purpose. Now she was nothing to him but a potential heir who might one day cause him problems, as was Itachi.

She couldn't talk about it without weeping. It was effort to speak without screaming. She changed topics. "Where is Lady Romjin?"

"That addled old bag?" Marnix laughed. "They thought sending her would keep me in line. She's old, though, confused. She sits in a room alone these days, staring at shadows on the wall."

Lucia knew Lady Romjin. She was a mean spirited old woman, hard and brittle at the same time, like an old bone. She hated everyone and everything, but she was not confused. "She's not addled."

"She is now," Marnix said pleasantly.

Lucia wondered exactly what he had done to the old woman. Had his loyal Grass Shinobi hounds put her under Genjutsu, those that made up the leadership in this village now? Mixed up Romjin's mind until she couldn't tell up from down? As her age was considerable, it wasn't implausible for him to return her to the Romjin family with regrets that she her brains had gone soft during their travels. He might even just dump her body and claim she died of heart failure.

And no wonder. If Lady Romjin was here to keep Marnix in check, she was a burr in Marnix's side. Lucia could imagine their conversations. The old lady would be focused on the goal: to discover the whereabouts of Lucia's inheritance and get it back, while Marnix would be seduced by all the possibilities for power in this land. For all her cantankerousness, Lady Romjin did not harbor foolishness and would have created considerable trouble for Marnix if she soured on his methods with the Grass.

"What about Gehard?" she asked. "I was under the impression that the negotiation would be with my husband. Did you kill him?"

"You would like that, wouldn't you?"

"I don't know what you mean."

He laughed. "Gehard is rethinking his loyalties."

So not dead then, but in no position to help himself, much less do any good for her or her children, if such a thing were even to occur to him.

Shikamaru was watching her and nodding slow, silent encouragement. She could feel the seconds dragging out. She knew they were on borrowed time. The Shinobi on the other wall were not standing around idly. What else could she say to stall the inevitable?

"What is this all for?" she asked. "Money?"

"Money is just a tool, Lucia. You know that."

She did. She looked again at Gray, thinking about what she had said to him to make him speak, and then started thinking about the other Grass Shinobi on the other side of the door. Could they hear this conversation? Were they all of the same mind about this? She had never met a group of people who were.

"For Gehard," she answered. "It is about money. I know him well. For you, I think it is about power."

"And for you," Marnix said, his voice surprisingly pleasant.

"And for me," she agreed. "But what will you do with your power, I wonder?" She projected her voice, hoping she was heard through the walls. "More of what you've already done, I suspect."

She didn't have to guess how awful that was. She had seen it. The Grass—some of them, at least—must have some idea.

Do you want more of it? All of you?

"And you would do more of what you have done, I suppose?" Marnix asked. "Tell me, Lucia. Tell me now. What will you do with your father's legacy?"

"I will build an empire," Lucia said.

There was an eerie silence. And then the wall exploded. The sound was so loud that pain shot through her skull from her ear.

Grass Shinobi came pouring in. Dust was everywhere, but through the swirls she could see the glint of steel.

We're going to die, she thought.

But her guards—the Leaf Shinobi—moved like lightning. They formed a wall in front of her, blocking the assault. She saw Ino's ponytail, swaying behind her back, and Shikamaru, kneeling on the ground, Neji with the white eyes held his hands out, and Tenten, brandishing a scroll from behind her back.

Behind them, through the dust and behind the Grass Shinobi, she saw Marnix. His face was red, livid with rage.

No, she thought with heart-wrenching pain. These Leaf will die for me.

And I will live to die like my mother.

#

The world was different. It was the same, but it looked different to Itachi.

He stared at it with two working Sharingan eyes. He stared right into the face of the Grass Jounin named Juo, whose eyes were so heavily made up that they looked like the empty sockets of a skull. He was pretty sure that this man was here to kill him.

He stared at Yukio, wrapped in Juo's chakra, screaming.

He didn't have to think about what to do or how to do it. He knew. He knew Juo's jutsu as well as any of his own.

Just like that. Just by looking at it. That's amazing.

No wonder the Uchiha were feared.

Juo's Snake in the Grass jutsu was made of lightning chakra, just like his techniques, but it was formed differently and released differently. Itachi copied all of it. His hands moved through the signs, which he had memorized without trying to. The jutsu shot out from his feet, perfectly formed. It was a live current, slithering through the grass. It wrapped around Juo's feet, and it bit at his jutsu.

The snake around Yukio vanished.

Itachi darted in. He formed hand signs as he moved and released the lighting paralysis jutsu that Sakura had taught him just as Juo cancelled out his attack with another snake of his own. Itachi's lightning jutsu caught the Grass Jounin just as he looked up. His opponent froze.

That won't hold him long.

Yukio was lurching to his feet, stumbling unsteadily, but he was up. Itachi grabbed his arm and pulled.

"Where?" Yukio mumbled. His breathing sounded wheezy.

Back.

Itachi tugged and Yukio followed. They scrambled back the way they had come, away from the gaping maw in the earth that led to the Grass underground.

Tadashi, the other Grass Jounin, was just where Itachi had left him—surrounded by the Leaf Genin and seeming to take his sweet time "getting rid" of them. All four of the Genin were together. Haro had raised an earth wall and Amaya was throwing shuriken at Tadashi from behind it, each one exploding with a blinding flash that seemed to infuriate the Jounin if not injure him. Michiko, he was relieved to see, had regained consciousness. One of Haro's slugs was attached to her neck and seemed to be doing some kind of reverse leeching judging by the color that had returned to her cheeks. All of them looked exhausted.

"Itachi!" Amaya shouted, seeing him and Yukio crest the hill. She saw his Sharingan and gasped. "Your eye!"

Tadashi turned his head, eyes widening as he and Yukio ran down the little knoll of grass toward the others. The Grass Jounin roared, formed hand signs, and pounded his fist into the earth. Itachi's Sharingan automatically copied the jutsu, but doing so didn't prepare him to handle the result.

The earth split.

Itachi felt the shudder through the soles of his feet and all the way up his spine. It was like Sakura's attack, but…deeper. The earth between Tadashi and the four Genin ruptured. It was the same sound he had heard before—a boom like an explosion. Michiko screamed, scrambling back with Jumei from a fissure that opened beside the pair of them. Haro fell forward on his face, his rock wall crumbling to nothing. Amaya lost her balance and collapsed.

Itachi gathered lightning chakra. Beside him, Yukio pulled the shadow cloak over his body. As Tadashi rose, Itachi unleashed the paralysis jutsu.

For such an enormous man, Tadashi was quick. He dodged, grinning as he sprang. He brandished a chain sickle as he sailed through the air and right over Haro's wall. Itachi knew that if that thing touched any of them, it would be split their bodies into pieces. But Tadashi didn't touch them. The man landed into the midst of the Genin. His chain cracked against the ground.

Where he landed, the earth exploded.

Itachi couldn't believe what he saw. The earth beneath the feet of his friends was draining away into some kind of massive sink hole. Tadashi leapt free of it, still grinning. Feeling sick with horror, Itachi watched as Haro sank out of sight, buried in rock and sand. Amaya followed him, screaming and scrambling uselessly for purchase. Seconds later her words were cut off as her chin, and then her nose, and then the top of her head vanished under the sand. Michiko and Jumei were just ahead of the worse of it, both of them grabbing at rocks and tufts of grass, but Itachi could see that they were not going to make it. The sink hole was expanding faster than they could run. Before Tadashi landed, the rocks were slipping out from Michiko's feet and she was falling…

Yukio darted ahead and leapt into the air, right over the sink hole, right at Tadashi, who—incredibly—was still airborne.

"Yukio!" Itachi shouted. "Wait!"

But Yukio was not one to wait.

He saw the flash of steel as Yukio whipped a kunai out from his sleeve. Tadashi was watching his handiwork, still grinning, when that sliver of a blade struck him just above the heel.

Itachi didn't know what to do. His friends were buried. They couldn't have much air, their mouths full of dirt, screaming as they went under.

It was instinct more than thought. He jumped into the sink hole, right in the middle, and expelled Tadashi's jutsu that he had copied.

I might kill them, he thought as he fell. I might save them.

His Sharingan knew, even if he didn't. The jutsu wasn't an explosion, not really. The jutsu moved earth, pushing it down, breaking it apart. Itachi didn't have much ability with earth element, but this jutsu didn't actually require it. It used the tectonic energy already inherent in the earth's crust. He had seen it, though he only really understood it as he performed it.

I can move the earth, he thought as his hand connected.

And the earth moved.

He felt Yukio land somewhere beside him just before the ground gave way, shifting under him, dropping everything…and everyone…deeper. Dirt came piling down on top of his head, blocking out the light of the sun. And below his feet were falling…falling.

Let me be right, he thought. Or I'm dead. There are tunnels under us. If we can get that far down…

He stopped falling. But he wasn't in a tunnel. He wasn't anywhere. He couldn't see. He was buried. Buried alive. Automatically, frantically, he started digging. His hands scooped at the soil around him. He grabbed at roots. He pushed rocks and mulch and dirt anywhere he could, fighting down panic. His clothes were filthy. There was dirt in his eyes. There was no light. There was air, but that would run out soon enough. He kept his mouth closed and kept digging.

"Itachi!"

A voice. His heart leapt. It sounded far away, but he heard it. Not impossibly far.

"Itachi!"

He recognized it. Amaya's voice! Was she nearby? He dug toward it, worming with his shoulders now, grateful that the soil around him was loose enough to move.

He was vaguely aware that he was hurting. Falling had hurt him. But the desperation he felt was too strong to focus on it.

"Itachi!"

The voice was closer, louder. How far? It was getting more difficult to move, more difficult to breathe.

Abruptly, hands came through the soil from somewhere beside him. He felt them grasp him by the leg and arm. Suddenly, he was being pulled sideways. The earth was getting looser. He could see light. He could smell fresh air.

He tumbled out the side of wall, coughing and choking.

Someone smacked his back. Haro, he saw, covered in grime but alive. And Amaya was looking him over, her face covered in dirt, her hair a ruin. Michiko was behind her with Jumei, and Yukio…Yukio was leaning against another wall, still wheezing, though his eyes were on Itachi.

" 'Eat dirt' just took on new meaning for me," Haro coughed. "Did we win or lose that?"

"We're alive," Amaya breathed. "So I say we won."

"Where's the Jounin?" Itachi gasped. "Did he follow us down?"

"I cut his Achilles tendon," Yukio said. His breathing seemed a little better. "To go with the toe I stabbed before. He's not going to follow us down. Not right away."

"Juo will," Itachi said, and tried to get up. His knees wobbled. His ankle complained. He had twisted it when he fell. He limped uncertainly. "And this is…"

He looked around.

They were in the Grass underground.

The ceiling above them and the wall beside him was a mess, but the rest of the tunnel seemed to be in perfect order. There were sconces on the wall with torches burning brightly along wide paths that four people could walk down abreast.

"We should find a way out," Amaya said. "Or at least move. Those Jounin will find us if we stay here."

Itachi couldn't argue with that, though his first couple of steps confirmed that he would be walking with a limp.

This is bad, he thought, though he didn't say it out loud. They were in the enemy stronghold. They were untried Genin, injured, with no leadership. And they had no idea where they were or which way to go.

They made a pathetic, dirty bunch as they hobbled down the tunnel, nursing injuries as they walked, moving as quickly as his ankle would allow. He felt guilty about that. He seemed to be the only one with a foot injury and it wasn't safe to walk this slowly. Fortunately, they didn't run into anybody and the Jounin assassins did not appear. He wondered what was keeping them.

Eventually they came to a fork. He wasn't sure which way to go, but the right fork seemed less well lit, which might mean it was less populated. For them, that was a good thing, so they went right.

They walked for ten, maybe fifteen minutes, in complete silence. That was why he heard it.

A scream.

He stopped dead.

It was a girl's voice. He'd recognize that voice anywhere.

"Rina?" he said aloud. He turned fully in a circle. He couldn't tell where the scream had come from.

Was this a trick?

"It was that way," Michiko said, pointing to another fork ahead of them. This one led down.

"Are you sure?" Haro asked her.

"Positive."

Itachi knew it was stupid to follow the voice. Rina wouldn't be alone. She would be surrounded by Grass probably. It might be a trap. Some kind of Genjutsu…. But…

He hobbled toward the tunnel, and picked up his pace as he went, ignoring the screaming pain in his ankle. It was dark and drafty. He could feel a wind on his face, even though that didn't seem to make sense as he was definitely descending. He could hear the others following him.

He heard the scream again, and then a sob.

"Rina!" he screamed.

His voice reverberated alarmingly off the walls.

I will draw them all right to us!

There was a moment of silence. And then…

"Itachi! ITACHI!"

He broke into a run, loping a little as his ankle pained him with every footfall, but running just the same. The others followed.

The tunnel wound down down down, twisting and turning so that he had to watch himself in spite of his panic. It got narrower too, so narrow in places that his hands were touching the walls on either side of him and they all had to move single file. The walls were no longer soft dirt. They were hard rock and the rock was sweating with moisture. How far underground were they? It would have been more nerve wracking if he wasn't somewhat comforted by the thought that someone as big as Tadashi wouldn't fit.

This is not a regularly used tunnel, he thought. We are going somewhere strange.

Eventually, he found the end of it. He broke out of the tunnel into an open cavern and discovered that he had barely been in a tunnel at all. It looked more like a crack in the wall. He backed away, making room for the others, and almost stumbled right over a cliff.

He felt the give beneath his heel and stopped, turning.

There were torches here too, but only a few, barely enough to see by. He was standing on a ledge that ran lengthwise beside an enormous naturally-formed underground fissure that seemed to stretch forever. The fissure was ten, maybe twelve feet across at the narrowest point he could see. And the depth… He didn't know how far it went down. There seemed to be no end to it.

"Itachi!"

He looked up.

On the other side of the fissure, so close, was Rina. Her face was pale in the torchlight, her cheeks streaming with dirt and tears.

She wasn't alone. She was being held by a boy, a boy about his age, maybe a year older, wearing a Grass headband. He had his arm locked around her throat, but Itachi couldn't stop thinking that he looked like he was about to push her off the cliff.

Did he bring her here to kill her? he wondered. It seemed obvious, but he couldn't wrap his mind around it. Why? Maybe pushing a little girl into an abyss was easier than stabbing her? The boy looked to be about his own age. Not a child.

Strange how my thoughts have changed.

The other Leaf Genin piled out the tunnel behind him.

The Grass Genin took one look at them—at all six of them—and turned, hauling Rina with him, his arm wrapped around her neck. He pulled her kicking and screaming through an opening in the wall on the other side of the fissure, returning the way he must have come.

Itachi sprinted to the precipice, ignoring the agony in his foot. The gap was ten feet across. Maybe eleven. Twelve? The closer he got, the wider it seemed and the more his ankle hurt.

He couldn't make that even if his ankle was fine.

I have to.

The gap yawned before him, dropping into an abyss below. He calculated the distance, factoring in the incline, the rate at which it was widening, and the fact that his legs were shaking, his lungs burning, and Rina was screaming…

No one can make that.

"Itachi," Amaya said, her voice breathless but urgent. She grabbed his arm. "Don't! We'll find a way around!"

Hot, frustrated tears welled up in his eyes. "They'll kill her! He'll slit her throat."

A blur of motion shot passed him.

"Yukio!" Haro bellowed. "Don't be crazy!"

Itachi watched it happen and still could scarcely believe it. Yukio shot toward the fissure like a bullet. He didn't even seem to look at it. He didn't think about it at all. He just leapt.

Itachi's breath caught in his throat. Darkness yawned beneath Yukio, deep and wide, but his legs moved like the arms of a windmill in mid-air, reaching for the opposite side like hands. He sailed effortlessly over the chasm. He landed on the opposite lip with a thud that echoed through the chamber, knees bent to absorb the impact, and rolled forward from the force of his trajectory. He came out of it in a crouch, his hands touching the ground beside him, his clothes covered with fresh dirt.

"Holy shit," Haro said. "He made it. I can't believe he made that."

Itachi stared across the chasm, right into Yukio's eyes.

Yukio got up.

"Yukio, don't go alone!" Michiko shouted.

"I have to!" Yukio shouted back. "Find another way around!"

Itachi could feel Michiko's fright as Yukio turned, his figure blurring as he donned the shadow cloak, sprinting after Rina and the boy.

Amaya wastugging on his arm. "Come on, Itachi. We can't do anything from here. We have to find a way around. Come on!"

Itachi nodded unsteadily.

As a group, they ran along the ledge, looking for a way across the chasm. Eventually they hit a wall. At no point was the jump any narrower. But on the left of the dead end there was a staircase going up the opposite way. They took it. It wound round and round and eventually led to another tunnel that then forked into two tunnels.

"Which way?" he asked Amaya.

"I don't know," Haro muttered. "I'm lost."

"The right tunnel?" Amaya said. "Oh, Itachi, I don't really know."

Michiko was leaning in toward Jumei, listening to something the boy was saying under his breath.

"He thinks it's the left," she said. "Something about the structure of the tunnels and the architecture and how they must be carved to avoid collapse…" Jumei whispered something else, urgently, or perhaps objectionably. "Oh, I don't think he cares about how they carve it," Michiko interrupted him. "If you think it's the way around, I'm all for it!"

"Let's go," Itachi decided. "The left tunnel."

Michiko scouted ahead, darting down the tunnel Jumei had indicated, red hair flowing behind her like flame. Itachi followed. The others followed him.

Itachi's heart was pounding so hard it was difficult to make sense of anything, but gradually he became aware of sounds echoing through the tunnels.

"It sounds like a battle," Amaya whispered.

They never saw anything. The sounds seemed to be coming through the ceiling from tunnels above them that they couldn't see.

"Go right," Jumei said when they came to the next fork.

Michiko took it and Itachi's team followed, with Jumei bringing up the rear.

The tunnels became cooler. The torches along the walls thinned out. They went through one patch in complete darkness, only to appear at another fork. The right-most tunnel led down a staircase.

We'll never find a way out, Itachi realized. Even if we find Rina…

Nevertheless, they took the staircase going down. At the bottom, Itachi had to slow to a walk to catch his breath, but only for a moment, and then they were running again.

Rina, he thought. I'm coming, I swear!

Michiko screamed, giving him a second of warning before he emerged into the next room.

They had run right into a swarm of Grass Shinobi.

#

Rina's head was pounding. Her heart was racing.

She pulled away from the Grass Genin boy with all her might, weeping, but he was stronger. He kicked her feet out from under her and grabbed her by the hair.

"Itachi! Itachi!" she screamed whenever she got the chance, wrenching away the hand wrapped around her mouth and shrieking at the top of her lungs.

The boy tried to pull her up, but she fought him, staying on her knees no matter how hard he yanked on her hair.

She knew it was stupid. She knew it was only a matter of time before the boy just killed her.

But he hadn't yet. He hadn't.

The boy hauled her onward, kicking and screaming.

Why was she so useless?

Back in Konoha, she had been starting to feel…almost arrogant.

She remembered when she discovered it, and the feeling of power and superiority it gave her.

Twelve notes in the chromatic scale. Twelve hand signs. Could one substitute the other? That was the thought she had stumbled across while wandering around Konoho hour after hour, thinking about music, missing music, and studying jutsu. It was a staggering revelation. Could she match notes to hand signs? If she could create a proper working code, it would mean that any jutsu could be played. Any jutsu. As an experiment, she had written lots of jutsus down, all she had managed to observe in secret, coding them into strings of notes and writing them down in her journal.

The result was that she remembered them all—every jutsu she had seen in the Leaf while spying on the Shinobi sparring. Songs were easy to remember, much easier than random sequences. But it still wasn't as good as having a Sharingan. It wasn't as fast, and knowing the sequence of hand signs was not enough to produce the jutsu. She needed to be able to see and understand how the chakra was worked into the handsigns to do that. But learning to read handsigns like reading music enabled her to guess what was coming. She could usually tell if it a jutsu would be completed correctly too, the same way she knew if a song was being played correctly. Watching Shinobi train, she found herself able to predict the fight and accurately guess, most of the time, who would win. She had known that Itachi botched the Chidori in his fight with Yukio before Itachi did. Watching that had been like a knife to her heart. Her fault. She taught him wrong. But that didn't matter now.

I didn't mean to. I just wanted to belong. No, I wanted to be different.

Which?

She wasn't physically strong. Maybe she would never be much good at Taijutsu, but she would be fast at Ninjutsu. She could play a string of notes much, much faster than she could form signs with her hands. She could play faster than anyone could form signs with their hands. And her jutsu could be much, much more complicated. Why, she might even be able to link jutsu, to create a pattern-verse, chorus, bridge-sustained in an unbroken flow for as long as her chakra held out. She needed to work it out, of course. She needed to practice, but if she could get it right, what couldn't she do? What couldn't she create?

Foolish girl. She had thought she could conquer the world. She didn't even know how to hold a kunai the right way.

She may never get the chance now to learn.

The Grass boy set her down. They were in a deserted cave-like room, somewhere deep in the catacombs. There was only one opening, the one they had come through. It was silent all around. The boy had a knife out. She knew what that meant. One of his gloved hands held the knife to her throat.

"It just takes a cut, but I'll go deep. I'll make it clean. You'll barely feel it. I promise."

It was the first thing he had said to her.

She looked at him through tears. She could barely make out his face. All of her muscles were shaking. She could barely move. But she didn't cry. She just looked at him, tears running down her cheeks.

The Grass Genin boy hesitated. He didn't want to kill her. She could see it in his face. He brought her here to kill her, because it was expected. He would do it. He was bracing himself to do it. But he didn't want to.

The longer he hesitated, though, the more his hands started to tremble. The hand clenching the kunai was ghostly pale. He kept checking his grip, peeling his fingers away from the hilt one by one as if each was sticky or clammy. Rina said nothing. Her heart was beating like the wings of a hummingbird. She could scarcely think. All of her muscles were clenched tight. She knew only one thing:

I don't want to die.

She didn't say a word.

The Genin's eyes hardened. His grip on the kunai tightened. He moved his arm.

She shut her eyes instinctively, as if not watching her own death would somehow soften it. Tears gushed from her eyes.

The blow never came.

The distinct "ping" sound of one kunai hitting another rang in her ears. An instant later, she felt the looming presence of the boy vanish.

Her eyes flew open. Warmth spread through her heart, the warmth of hope, of love, of gratitude for second chances. Tears streamed from her eyes. She dashed them away.

She was rescued.

"Ita-!"

But it wasn't.

Her call fell short. She knew this boy, her rescuer, but it wasn't Itachi.

She rose up on her knees, but could not do more. Where before every muscle in her body had been clenched tightly, now she felt like jelly from head to toe. She couldn't get up. Her legs felt drained of blood and energy. And she felt sick to her stomach. But she had a voice. She had one. So she shouted. She shouted encouragement with everything she had left.

"Yukio!"

Yukio didn't acknowledge her, but he must have heard. He faced off against the other boy. They were both taijutsu fighters, and sized each other up instantly. Yukio shifted back and forth on the balls of his feet, testing his opponent's agility. Then he went in for a hit, jumping high, his kick perfectly extended, his center of gravity not an inch out of balance. The other boy matched him, though, and dodged. Both of their blades were out. The Grass Genin darted in. Yukio evaded, side stepping him, turning about.

They were equally matched, neither one was giving the other reprieve for a ninjutsu. Rina kept both eyes open. She knew she had to watch. Anything she could do…to shout or throw something….

She had no trouble following the battle.

He's going to undercut you, she thought, just before the Grass Genin ducked Yukio's punch and twisted under his defenses to aim a quick jab at Yukio's center. A warning wasn't needed, though. The Shadow Cloak shifted and Yukio evaded, dancing backward. The Grass Genin followed, all kicks now, his feet landing blows that Yukio blocked with both forearms or rolled and twisted to avoid.

She wished she still had her piccolo. She wished she had anything. A rock. A pebble. Without taking her eyes off the fight, she scrounged in the dirt for something, anything, until her hands were a stinging, dirty mess. Everything she found was too small. She knew none of it would fly true, and she feared to take her eyes off the fight for even a second to find something better.

Both boys were sweating. Both boys were watching the other, chest heaving, eyes focused.

But then the Grass Genin made a mistake.

She saw it as it happened. The kunai came awkwardly into the boy's hands, slipping in his grip.

It was almost imperceptible, barely a mistake at all. But that was all it took.

Yukio didn't hesitate. That was the difference between them, she saw. Yukio didn't reflect. He didn't pause with concern. He didn't hesitate as the Grass Genin had hesitated when he failed to kill her just minutes ago. He didn't hesitate the way he didn't hesitate when he took out Itachi's eye at the match. His motions were smooth, like oiled clockwork. He saw his opponent make a mistake. And his reaction was instant. He knocked the kunai out of the other boy's wrist, locked his hand in place with his free hand, and dragged his own blade across the Genin's neck from ear to ear.

Blood blossomed from the Grass Genin's throat. It took only the amount of time it would take to draw one breath. There was no sound. Red spilled down the Genin's chest, soaked his mesh shirt, covered the hands that reactively grabbed for the wound. Life went out of him just as fast. The body toppled. Seconds went by, though it seemed much longer.

Yukio stood perfectly still. The Shadow Cloak fell off of him. His strength seemed to go with it. And his expression…

He dropped the bloody kunai. But then he knelt immediately, picking it back up. He didn't seem to know what to do with it now. He turned in a slow circle, his eyes darting to the door, bounded to the body of the boy he had killed, then to Rina, and then back to the door. He wandered first one way, then another, all in complete silence.

"Yukio," Rina croaked. She tried to get up, but her legs would not support her. She felt tears coming, overwhelming her words. "Itachi?"

"He's okay," Yukio said, as if her call had anchored him. He moved toward her.

As he approached, he seemed to realize that he was carrying a knife covered in blood. He stared at it, then at her, and flushed. He scrubbed the blade on his shirt and then put it back in its holster. When he looked up, there were tears in his eyes, though he didn't seem aware of them.

"Yukio?" she said. "You're crying."

"I am?" Yukio blinked at her and the motion caused a tear rolled down his cheek. It startled him. He dashed it away, looking surprised. He glanced away from her. He scrubbed his eyes to clear them, but it seemed to have the opposite effect. More tears followed. His shoulders started shaking. "Don't…"

It was several moments before he was able to speak.

When the tears stopped, he raised his head. His expression was haunting. He stared at her, right into her soul. "You can't…You won't tell anybody this."

She shook her head, and just kept shaking it. "I won't. I won't tell."

She wouldn't. She really wouldn't.

Yukio swallowed. Then he swallowed again, grimacing, as if his throat were dry.

It was then that she noticed that there was a cut on his cheek.

When did that happen?

It must have been a lucky hit when Yukio was under the Shadow Cloak.

Rina felt her stomach heave. "You're cut."

And suddenly she knew.

He said it would take just a cut. No… No no no.

Yukio looked up and saw it on her face. He scrubbed the cut awkwardly. "It's okay," he said hastily, shaking his hands at her. "Don't worry. It's just a little nick. I'm strong. It will be okay."

But it's poison. You must feel it.

She could see redness around the cut, and his face was pale. His cheeks were trembling. He shrugged his shoulders as if they were stiff.

Nevertheless, he came toward her, walking normally, almost a stroll. At least until he got to the wall. He leaned against it and slumped slowly down.

Rina didn't say anything. For several moments, Yukio didn't either. Neither of them moved.

Yukio's gaze slowly swiveled toward the body on the ground. He looked immediately away again, tilting his head up to stare at the ceiling, his legs stretched out in front of his. He closed his eyes. His body become still. There were no tears this time.

So Rina started crying. The tears just wouldn't stop.

Yukio's eyes open again. "Hey," he said again. "They're not far behind. You're going to be rescued."

She only cried harder.

"Hey hey," he said, and turned his head slightly. "Stop it. I'm serious."

He said it the way Itachi would say it, like she was being annoying. She stopped.

His expression sobered a little. "Listen," he said. "I want to tell you something."

She listened. She was always listening.

"I heard you ran away because you thought you had something to do with Itachi losing his eye at the match." He looked at her, forehead sweaty, blue eyes shining. He licked his lips. "That pisses me off."

She didn't speak. But she felt… relieved.

Please. Please yell at me. I hate what I did.

"I mean, I know you're sensitive and all, but that's just stupid. Don't think things like that. Don't do things like that. People don't like it. They don't want to worry about you. And no Shinobi wants some little girl to shoulder blame for their actions. I chose to hate Itachi when he showed up here. That's just…well it's what I did and it has nothing to do with you. I saw your brother as the enemy from the day I laid eyes on him, and that's all me. It's got nothing to do with you. Do you understand?"

She nodded.

"I'd change it if I could," he added, leaning his head back against the wall. "Not that that matters really now, but just so you know. I'd fix it if I got the chance."

I would…if I got the chance…

She started to tremble. Yukio was definitely sweating now, and it wasn't from exertion any longer. His skin seemed pallid, and she noticed that the muscles in his face were tense, as if they were locking up. The fingers on his hands were twitching.

He opened one eye and saw her looking.

"Do you want to hold my hand?"

She didn't, but it occurred to her that he might want her to, so she took it, even though there was blood on it and it was covered in dirt.

He smiled at her again. "There." He squeezed her hand. "Feel that?"

She nodded. It hurt. He squeezed hard.

"That's how strong I am," he told her. "I'm amazing, right? You know it. Everyone knows it. So just… you hold my hand, okay? You hold it and don't let go until Itachi gets here."

So she held his hand, squeezing his fingers, watching his face. Periodically, he squeezed back. She waited, eyes on the door. Itachi didn't come. Sasuke didn't come. She squeezed Yukio's hand again. He didn't squeeze back.

"Yukio?" she whispered. He didn't answer. "Yukio? YUKIO!"

#

Naruto hated waiting. It was agonizing.

Come on, Sasuke. Give me a sign.

He sat cross-legged on a boulder in the middle of a glen. He sat unmoving, like a toad, his hands on his knees. Trees blocked his view of the Grass Village in the valley, though the smoke rising into the sky above told him it was still burning.

He was surrounded by Leaf Shinobi. They milled around him, weapons at the ready, looking restless, acting nervous, though only another Shinobi would pick up on it.

In Sage Mode, his senses picked up on subtleties he might otherwise not notice. One of the Chuunin, a boy named Gado, whispered to one of the Jounin, "Isn't the Lord Hokage going to order the attack?"

The same question was asked by someone every few minutes. The Grass Village—the part that was visible in the valley anyway—would be a pile of cinders before much longer. Sasuke would have found a way to their underground by now. He'd be rampaging through the real village.

If he kills too many of them, we'll never get out of a war.

What were his choices? He could order the attack. Maybe he could do it without killing too many of the Grass. Maybe he wouldn't lose many of his own people in the Grass's defense and retaliation. Maybe. That was unrealistic, though. He didn't know where his people were and the Grass would be ready for them, trying to block them at every step.

What was his other choice? He could wait. What if the Grass panicked and killed Rina? That seemed fairly likely. What if they killed Lucia and the Shinobi with her? Tenten, Ino, Neji, Shikamaru… No, he couldn't allow that. But to kill the Grass first…was that really the only option? There had to be a third choice. There had to be. There always was. He could delay a little, trying to find it. But not for too much longer.

Give me a sign.

A commotion caught his attention.

There was some excitement in the ranks. Someone was pushing through.

News?

He raised his head. The Shinobi stepped aside.

A Jounin emerged from behind the lines. It was Sachio Satou—Amaya's father. Naruto felt surprise. The man was a captain. He had been sent to keep watch on the Grass Shinobi that had surfaced when Sasuke infiltrated the village. They were not to engage unless forced. Sachio was one who always followed orders to the letter.

But Sachio had a captive with him. It was a girl, skinny like a fawn, with dirt on her face and a Grass forehead protector around her neck. She was a year or two younger than his own daughter.

Naruto sat up as the Leaf parted to let them through.

"A Grass Genin?" someone muttered.

Is this a retaliation? Naruto wondered. A child for a child?

"She came to us," Sachio announced, as if guessing his thoughts. "Emerged out the bracken like a rabbit. There are tunnels everywhere."

Naruto noticed that the girl was not restrained. She lifted her head and he found himself staring into a pair of green eyes framed by long strands of dirty blonde hair. Her eyes were yellow-green, like twin peridots, the color of sunlight on the leaves at dawn.

"She is unarmed," Sachio said. "Threw down her weapons the moment she laid eyes on me."

Sachio tossed a sack at Naruto's feet. It contained shuriken, twine, and an array of explosive powders. A Genin's tools. The girl did not look at them. She stood perfectly still.

"She said she wanted to speak to the Hokage," Sachio said.

The Grass Genin looked him in the eye. She was not afraid. There was fire in that gaze.

This isn't a surrender, Naruto thought. She didn't come here to be a captive.

"Why are you here?" Naruto asked her. "Do you bring a message from the Grass leaders?"

"My name is Saiya," Saiya said. "I have no messages. I am here of my own will. I have a request of Naruto Uzumaki, the Hokage."

"I am Naruto Uzumaki," Naruto said softly, "I am the Hokage."

"Lord Hokage, why have you not invaded? You must invade. You must take the village. Subdue everyone. Kill our leaders."

Naruto stared at her, aghast. He wasn't the only one.

The Leaf around him began to mutter darkly. Saiya was not immune to the mutterings. She knew she must sound like a traitor, asking for her own people to be put down. She kept her eyes on him, though.

"Lord Hokage, this…this is not the Grass. This is not the Grass I know."

There was silence in the glen.

"My village has fallen under a curse. We have always been poor. We scrape by on the scraps left by the larger villages. Now gold flows like water, but it has poisoned us. Lord Hokage, there is a sickness in my village, a madness. My sister, once regarded as a fine Chuunin, has been given to this outsider who doles out gold for favors as a toy. And he…" She swallowed, and didn't finish.

She didn't need to. Naruto felt instant rage.

"Lord Hokage, we are ruled by our strongest and our greediest, not our wisest. But it will not last. There is talk of rebellion. It will not be long before blood is shed and the clans turn against each other. Grass Shinobi will soon kill Grass Shinobi. Please, Lord Hokage, I have none of your strength, but I have heard of it. It is said that you can level mountains, but also that you can turn killers into brothers. I beg of you-"

She dropped to her knees and lifted her head. Her cheeks were stained with tears.

"Save the Grass."


TBC.

Two or three chapters left. It is now that special time….to leave a review! Do you need help? I love any and all comments, but here are some prompts if it helps you:

1. Sakura and Kakashi – well now you know what happened to them. What do you think?

2. Lucia and the fate of the Leaf Shinobi with her—it might get ugly. Thoughts?

3. Itachi and team, fighting above and now trapped below.

4. Dear, sweet Rina, her music, her fate…and a dying Yukio. Love all thoughts about Yukio.

5. Naruto and Saiya's appeal…what do you think he will do?

6. How did you find this story and why did you decide to read it?

THANK YOU

Thank you to everyone who reviewed the last chapter…way back when I posted it. If you forgot, here's who you are: Alowl, Charisasori, PastaSentient, Three-Steps-Behind, shkh4ever, korraphilia, FriedIce, ghiblifan4life, Darkness9825, Inara Seraph, Nitramy, MarveHero1610, Teirce, The Real Iggy, DamionKenley117, Nokito-chan, reality deviant, SASSfrasEND, greyisblack, Servant of Agape, ambergur-pyon96, ScreenSurfer, oxsilvermoonxo, Thisisirrelevant, Ylan, 00-night-eyes-00, 01Trycia-chan01, XxaoshixX, BukkakeNoJutsu, Nahmen, minniemousemon, Anautumnlady, BiblioMatsuri, aspct, Noura, xyz, TheWizardMighty, dongaro, zackubernerdcondon, Soul of Sasuke, tordirycgoyust, exotic lady, Vbabeofhearts, 12-SmileyRose, Saika, T0FU, BloodyGoddess, Delbi18, Shaya10, kitsune2477, La Nuit Noire, AnonFan, shintsuki, hymnia, Jesse, Lorain, Sarah, ShadowKat14, Wed, .261, Squeaky Pickles, fall-into-life, Fiendfluyd, betweenwaters, Resisting the Borg, , Bee, cooldood101, XenotheWise135, Eri, Ekun-Asha, Gray's Wolves, Surugasasa, indelibility, Daisy0138, Layla, xxcandylover23xxx, Beautiful, Reyra, Coppervos, MelissaKS, Renata, Lucii, Kesshichan, CeliaSingsSongs

I've had a few reviews recently from new people. I imagine someone posted a recommendation of this story somewhere for that to have happened. Thank you to that person! The recent reviews helped me finish the story, and of course, I always enjoy getting feedback from new readers.

Thank you to everyone again for reading my story!