Yeah. It's been 6 months and I've probably lost most of my readers. I am sorry. I could offer a long explanation, but suffice to say that I've not abandoned the story, and that I will finish the story. I appreciate your readership. To those who reviewed, and encouraged me to continue, thank you. Hopefully, there aren't too many mistakes.
Sakura and Kakashi reemerged at the site where they had been initially attacked. Sakura breathed deeply. They had been gone ten, maybe fifteen minutes, but things had changed.
One of the Grass Shinobi—the huge man named Tadashi—was on his knees, clutching a heel that was streaming with blood. As a medical-nin, Sakura knew a cut to a Achilles heel was a serious injury. Although a small, easily-forgotten part of the body, the tendon that connected heel to the hamstring was hugely important. When injured, a man could not walk. And Tadashi's had been severed completely.
The other Grass Jounin—Juo—was kneeling near his companion. Despite Tadashi's blood soaking the grass and bleeding out from beneath his fingers, the two were in conversation. Just beyond them, the waving grass field looked as if had been blasted by a meteor.
The Genin were nowhere to be seen.
"Easy," Kakashi said to her as fury erupted inside Sakura like a volcano. She had already clenched her fist, chakra forming in the palm of her hand. Kakashi was staring at the blasted earth with his Sharingan, analyzing it. "I don't think they were killed."
Juo noticed them and rose, turning to face them. He was an eerie one, Sakura decided, as cold as Zabuza, perhaps colder. His eyes, matted with dark makeup, showed no emotion.
"Where are my Genin?" Sakura demanded. She cracked her knuckles.
"Buried," Juo said.
Sakura's heart beat furiously in her chest.
"They're in the Grass underground," Kakashi said, Sharingan eye roving to the piles of freshly overturned earth. He looked up at Juo and smiled—evidenced by the narrowing of his eyes. "It seems they gave you some trouble," he said to the Grass Jounin.
Tadadshi grimaced. Juo said nothing. In response, he rose. His hand began forming signs.
"I've got this guy, Kakashi," Sakura said. "Leave him to me."
Kakashi assented by not objecting.
She was fast when she wanted to be. The suddenness of her onslaught startled both her opponents. Tadashi barely managed to roll out of the way, but she hadn't been aiming for him. It was Juo that she wanted to drop. He avoided a devastating punch by leaping backward, high into the air, and landing fifty yards away. At the same time, a rain of shuriken came flying at her head. A distraction. Sakura evaded, leaving a substitution to take the barrage and distract her attacker. Her assailant had ducked down among the grass. She crouched as well.
Slender blades of green rose around her on all sides. She knelt, feeling the earth beneath her fingers for vibrations that would tell her where her enemy was moving. He was light on his feet, but her chakra sensory had become strong over the years. Yes, she thought she sensed something… there.
Just as she was about to move, a bolt of chakra lightning came wriggling through the grass toward her right side like a snake. It acted blind, but seemed to be able to sense her chakra. She darted, evading a bite to the heel, but in so doing, rustled the grass and exposed her location.
She retreated from the spot, and just in time.
Juo had more than one trick. He emerged where she had been, armed with a handful of needles. A shower of them hit the ground where she had been.
Those needles are poison most likely, Sakura thought as she turned and crouched, reading herself for attack, aware that she was more exposed now, as the grass was shorter here. She could probably take a hit from a few of those needles. She had become immune to most common poisons over the years, but she didn't want to risk it. The baby she carried might not be as resilient as she.
When the needles didn't strike, Juo did not waste time contemplating why. He caught onto her wuickly. He was moving again before she had time to rise. He came straight at her.
He doesn't know who he's dealing with, though, she thought, clenching her fist. Chakra surged into it. I have to end this quickly.
He was fast, covering ground nearly as quickly as Rock Lee, though not so impressively. He was slower than Sasuke, though. She made it look as if she was caught unprepared, as if she had barely escaped the needles. Inside, she smiled.
Juo, like most male Jounin, would assume he was stronger than she simply because he was heavier. In a direct confrontation, if he could get her to commit to taijutsu, he would have the upper hand. Typically, that was true. In almost any battle, size and strength made a difference. But Sakura had spent a lifetime honing her gifts into sharp blades. She had more chakra control than anyone in the village. She had greater chakra reserves for replenishing medical jutsu than anyone in the village. And her strength—aided by her impressive chakra power and control—was simply unmatched.
Juo came at her with the force of a boulder falling from a mountain. She caught his fist in one hand as it came flying at her head. It came with enough force to shatter bone, but her chakra enveloped her hand and subdued that power by spreading it out over a much greater, invisible surface. Meanwhile, her other hand, also chakra-enforced, dealt a vicious blow to her opponent's right shoulder.
Sakura stayed her ground. Juo flew back ten paces.
Got him, she thought, rising slowly to her full height.
Juo was on the ground, but he was not dead. He was struggling to get up. If she and Kakashi could—
Sakura looked around.
Tadashi was on his feet. His ankle, though wounded, appeared to have been at attended to with some kind of chakra force to hold it together. He moved on it lightly, but he moved on it. Kakashi was watching him warily.
That was when the other two arrived—the woman with the fan and the Jounin with the dark, overlarge pupils. They appeared on top of the hill, breathing hard. They took one look at the situation, and descended together.
We're in a bit of trouble, Sakura thought.
It was four on two, and they were caught in the middle. She and Kakashi might be stronger that these Grass Jounin, maybe, but anything could go wrong. More importantly, she was conscious of the fact that she was carrying a baby. Though only a few weeks pregnant, her ability to take injury was severely crippled. Not everything could be healed, not even with her vastly advanced medical jutsu.
I don't want to lose the baby.
It was a sobering thought, and in more ways than one.
Sasuke's baby. There was so much trouble to work out, and it was something she could not simply forget, or push away, or escape, not for the rest of her life, or her child's life, or Sasuke's life. She still hadn't definitively determined what she was going to do. She knew only that Sasuke wasn't ready and there was nothing she could do or say to make him ready. Her love for him, and even his love for her, withstanding all the uncertainty, all the anger, all the miscommunication, and everything else they felt and shared and suffered… those feelings and experiences, as beautiful as they were, simply weren't enough. In the end, Sasuke had not decided on her, and that was all there was to it.
It was impossible to deal with it now.
She knew only that she did not want to lose the baby.
Kakashi glanced at her. She was breathing heavily, sweat dripping from her brow. She knew he was thinking along similar lines, assessing her, assessing their opponents…all four of them.
The big one—Tadashi—moved first. Even with a bum foot, loosely stitched up by his teammate, he was a powerful force...and faster than he looked. He sprang into the air using only his good leg and a powerful burst of chakra, weapons glinting as they arced over his head.
Sakura formed hand signs for a substitution at the same time as Kakashi. They moved in opposite directions, leaving false targets behind. Sakura crouched in the tall grass, forming a second set of signs as Tadashi landed.
But the female Jounin had no patience for trickery. Her fan swung about her head. Sakura recognized the motion. Fire would follow, blowing out her cover.
And there was Juo, getting up, wincing in pain from her punch, but alive. He was forming the signs for his chakra snakes. And that other Jounin, the one with the dark eyes…he was preparing something too. That darkness jutsu?
Can we even hold them off? she wondered, feeling the first pangs of uncertainty.
It wasn't just that all opponents were formidable. It was that they were coordinated. They fought as a unit, as a group who had fought often together, well enough to anticipate one another's moves in advance.
She couldn't see Kakashi. But she didn't worry about him. She had no time to.
Flames were consuming the air between her and the enemy, chomping toward her from the kunoichi's fan, burning the grass to ashes as they went. Sakura was able to avoid being burned, leaping away and back again, but by the time she landed to safety, the tall grass on their battlefield—the only decent hiding place—was obliterated. Kakashi, likewise, emerged into the open, narrowly avoiding the last wave of flame. There was no break or pause to recover. Immediately following the flame came a dozen chakra snakes, striking from both sides and straight ahead. Sakura crouched, preparing to evade, and a counter attack of her own, when everything was swallowed by darkness.
Not this again!
She couldn't see the chakra snakes. Or the enemy. Or Kakashi. She couldn't see her own feet.
She moved anyway, having mentally charted the trajectory of the snakes. Her safest option was up.
A blow caught her against the shoulder. A second blow came as the ground hit her, or she hit it, with excruciating collision.
Tadashi, she thought through an explosion of pain that radiated through her arm and fanned across her entire body. His mace had glanced off her arm and knocked her to the ground. She couldn't think or move. She rolled up to her knees in the dirt, fingers digging into the ground as pain racked her. Vaguely, she heard Kakashi yell her name.
Tadashi would find her in seconds. Next, it would be her head. She had to move. From the sound of Kakashi's voice, he was too far to intervene.
Tadashi's voice. Right in her ear. Too slow.
But a blow never fell.
She stared around her in amazement.
There was someone between her and Tadashi. Someone with a hand around Tadashi's wrist, glowing like the sun.
The darkness of the field was dissipating, growing patchy. Here she saw a bit of grass, then a bit of sky. It was like a film of dirt being rinsed away. The world reemerged, stainless and beautiful.
A thousand Narutos were streaming across the field. She turned on her knees, holding her injured shoulder, staring in wide-eyed amazement as a host of Senjuu-empowered clones spilled from the hills and into the valley, covering every patch of ground and moving with single-minded precision. There were other Leaf Shinobi amidst the throngs of Narutos. She recognized faces and the headbands of her friends, of the people of her village, but they were pockets of distinct Shinobi in a sea of Narutos. The Narutos weren't stopping for her, or the Grass Shinobi even—who stood stock still like deer caught in an avalanche—but poured continuously forth and disappeared into the horizon beyond.
They're attacking the Grass Village, she thought. They were going right into the heart of the village.
Rock Lee appeared at the top of the hill, spotted her on the ground, and ran toward her with a long legged sprint that ate up the ground beneath him. Kakashi reached her first. He knelt beside her, inspecting her shoulder with concern.
"It's okay," she said. "It's fractured, but I can heal it."
"Fine," she whispered. Kakashi smiled at her. He would be like a doting uncle, she thought. One reason right there not to leave the village. But Kakashi wasn't why she was considering leaving in the first place.
She turned her attention back to the field. The Grass Jounin were being rounded up by Naruto clones. They were all four together, back to back, and—it seemed—surrendering.
What else can they do? She wondered, staring in amazement. What could anyone do against Naruto?
The onslaught of Narutos had not ceased. More and more were pouring forth from the mountain pass—like a river of molten light. It had been a long time since Sakura had seen Naruto really extend himself. She had forgotten how many clones he could make. She had forgotten how powerful they were. Naruto was his own army.
Was he going to destroy the whole Grass?
Sakura carefully got to her feet. Her shoulder protested with a stab of pain, but she didn't show it. Kakashi offered her a hand for support anyway.
"Sakura!" Lee said, arriving just as she was starting the process of self-healing her injury. A little chakra directed in a precise way….
"I'm okay," she said, working her shoulder carefully as the jutsu took effect. It would be a stiff for a bit, but she could feel that the bone was healing rapidly. It would be good as new in a few minutes. "What about them?" She pointed to the Jounin.
"We are to relieve them of their weapons and bring them with us," Rock Lee said. "And anyone else we encounter."
"Is Naruto going to raze the village to the ground?" Kakashi asked. "He was very against that option."
"No," Rock Lee said. "We have intelligence that the Grass is a hair's breadth from open mutiny. Naruto means to stop them before they start killing each other. We are to force surrender."
Sakura shared a worried glance with Kakashi. "The Genin," she said. "They'll be caught in the middle."
"I know," Kakashi said. "Come on. We might be in time."
Itachi and the other Leaf Genin had burst right into the hornet's nest.
The room they emerged into trying to find a way around the ravine was spacious, with corridors leading out every which way. It was packed with Grass ninja. And not just any Grass ninja. Seasoned warriors, Jounin mostly, with hard, cold eyes. And in their midst…
The name just slipped out of his mouth. Itachi would have recognized that face anywhere. Marnix. The man had shoulders broad enough for a child to sit comfortably on either side of his head. He had come to dinner parties before, in Itachi's childhood. He had trouble remembering such occasions now—it seemed like someone else's life—but he recalled it in a series of flashes.
He hadn't been at the parties much. They were for adults and he and Rina were not invited to the table, but he had seen the guests and been seen by them. He remembered Marnix. He remembered this man's eyes—full of pride, full of distain, and full of distrust and contempt when he looked at his mother.
He felt Amaya clutch his arm from behind. "Itachi," she whispered. The fright in her voice made his name come out of her lips in a quavering ripple.
"I know," he said. "We should not have come this way."
He had no doubt this was the right pathway to Rina. But he would never reach her through this. Something on the far side of the room seemed to be drawing the attention of most of the people in the cavern—A battle? A skirmish?—but their arrival had not gone unnoticed.
They were quickly surrounded. Amaya gasped, her body crushed against Itachi's a circle of Jounin penned them in together, back to back. Michiko's eyes were darting. Jumei shrunk toward the center of the circle. Haro glared defiantly, but there was nothing he or any of them could do.
They had gone and got themselves caught.
"Lord Marnix," one of the Grass ninja surrounding them called in a droll, almost lazy voice.
Marnix turned. He caught sight of Itachi and his whole face changed. He smiled, his lips twitching, stretching his cheeks. There was no joy in it. The emotion Itachi saw etched there was triumph. "Fortune does favor me," he murmured. "Lucia!" he bellowed. "Who do you suppose has just shown up?"
Lucia, Itachi thought. My mother is here?
He didn't see her. He saw only a swarm of Grass ninja, and Marnix. But through the gaps, beyond the Grass closest to him, there was a rock wall, and a door that appeared to have been blasted open, judging by the debris piled to either side of the archway. Beyond that there was commotion—a flurry of activity, though only so many of the Grass ninja seemed able or willing to get close. Someone was fighting—fighting for their lives…fighting a losing battle.
"It's your boy!" Marnix shouted over the noise. "I have both your children now, Lucia! Surrender immediately, call off your guard dogs, or I will slit his throat and rip out his tongue." Marnix turned to a grizzled Jounin who was one of their guards and nodded toward Itachi. "Bring him down."
The next few seconds were a blur. Itachi gathered his chakra, preparing to…he didn't know. There wasn't much he could do. In the time it took him to take one breath, a chain wrapped around his legs, tightening at the knees. He had just enough time to look into the face of the grizzled veteran who held the other end before the chain was yanked and he toppled, the back of his head bouncing against the stone floor. Pain lanced through him and he cried out. Colors swam and light flashed before his eyes.
He heard screams from the others around him as they were each felled, one by one, in what he hoped was a similar manner. He felt the Grass moving past him as he fell. He couldn't see what had happened.
Don't kill them please. They're my friends.
Eventually, his vision cleared, though his head throbbed horribly. He struggled to move, but the chain around his legs seemed to have a mind of its own. It gripped him tighter, slithering up his legs, around his waist, and pinning his arms to his sides all the way up to his shoulders until he was only able to inch through the dirt like a worm. He had to twist his torso and maneuver his hips in a ridiculous fashion just enough to see what had happened to his friends. He did it anyway. He didn't care what he looked like to Marnix or the Grass.
Haro was on his knees. Amaya was lying prone with her face in the dirt. Jumei and Michiko had knives held to their throats. But they were all, thankfully, still alive.
Marnix was standing over him, watching him roll helplessly from side to side, a smirk on his face. "Last chance, Lucia!" he shouted, and reached down, seizing Itachi by the hair.
Itachi's body trembled. That was his mother's voice. No, he wanted to say. Stay where you are. But he couldn't speak. He could only stare up at Marnix's cold eyes. He saw light come into them as his mother's voice drifted through the air like a whisper.
The Grass ninja shuffled back and to the sides of the room, parting to make a passage for Itachi's mother.
Marnix shoved him forward. He fell on his face at Marnix's feet, grunting from the impact, and struggled, wriggling until he could see his mother approach.
His mother passed between the Grass ninja like a ghost. Dressed all in white, she moved like some kind of ethereal creature, her pale face framed by her dark hair like a shadow, her feet moving slowly but deliberately, one in front of the other. Her dark eyes were glued to him, paying no attention whatsoever to the Grass ninja on either side of her, however malevolently they glowered as she passed.
A few Leaf ninja could be seen behind her, through the parted crowds—her guards. Itachi recognized Ino, Rina's teacher Tenten, Neji, and Shikamaru. They looked tired, beaten and lashed, but not out of the fight. Still, they hung back, though poised to strike or defend. But against all these ninja… Would they all die?
His mother approached him. There was no sign of sadness, or regret, or any of the emotion he was used to seeing in her expression. Instead, he saw something new. Anger. There was a light in her face. Her eyes burned with fury.
She stopped a foot away from Marnix, looking right into his face. She lifted her chin. She opened her mouth.
He slapped her.
The blow was so hard, the sound of it rebounded off the walls. His mother collapsed from the force, falling hard to the ground. No one spoke, but there was a collective intake of breath in the room. Even some of the Grass ninja seemed…surprised. Beside Marnix, Itachi's mother looked so slight, just a slender waif, unarmed and surrounded by enemies. Seconds passed while Itachi's mother remained on her knees in complete silence. Slowly, she got up, her cheek flaming red, and lifted her eyes.
"I will strike you again," Marnix said. "Unless you tell me, without your usual bullshit, where you hid the inheritance."
She replied quietly, without even a tremor. "You will have to do better than that."
"Very well." Marnix drew a blade from a holster at his hip. His mother didn't bat an eye.
Itachi struggled in the chains that held him. His Sharingan spun futilely. He wrenched his neck trying to break loose.
Marnix held the knife before her face, right over the bruise from his hand that was just beginning to form. He touched the blade to her cheek. "Where is the inheritance?"
His mother didn't speak. Marnix didn't repeat the question again. The blade cut into her face. Red blossomed under her eye, following the knife in a curved line down to her chin, a cut deep enough to forever mar the statuesque beauty that had always been hers.
Blood spilled down one side of her face, painting the whole lower left side red. She looked Marnix dead straight in the eyes and said nothing.
Marnix laughed, as if cutting her flesh somehow relieved him. Maybe he was only doing it for fun. It would be faster, Itachi realized, to threaten him. But he seemed to enjoy hurting Lucia. He chuckled at the sight of her. "What is it with this act you put on?" he asked her. "I've never understood it. You were always like this, so proud, pretending to be so above it all, pretending to be something decent, when everyone knows you're just a greedy little whore. You have used every asset you have—h" he looked up and down her body approvingly, a undisguised leer on his face—"to achieve your own ends. You are no different from the rest of us."
His mother said nothing.
Marnix snorted. "Please don't think I blame you. If I were a woman, I would do the same. But the act confuses me. No one believes it. Your husband married you knowing you had slept with half a dozen men before you were yet sixteen. Even that Shinobi lover of yours knew it, I'm sure. You must realize what you are."
Itachi had to bite his tongue to keep from screaming. Marnix was wrong. Itachi didn't know the whole story, but he knew that Marnix was wrong. His mother was noble. In her own way. She wasn't clean, perhaps, but she was good. Her intentions, her feelings, her dedication to her children, her sacrifice for their future...she was the furthest thing from greed and selfishness and everything else that the Higher Houses stood for.
And that's why he'll cut her face to ribbons, Itachi thought. He'll laugh at every line of blood.
"Just a whore," Marnix murmured, and rested the blade of the knife against the opposite cheek.
A Grass ninja shoved her way to the front. "Stop it, Marnix. If you want to threaten a woman, threaten me."
The room went quiet.
Itachi could see the speaker but didn't know her. She looked young, but it was hard to tell. She was athletically built, with muscles in her arms and shoulders, strong legs and a curvaceous, developed figure. Her face was very pretty, but her hair was wild, and there was wildness in her eyes too.
No one said anything.
Marnix turned, frowning at her. "Go back to your room, Kaia." The way he spoke to her was almost lazy.
"I am not a child," she said, emotion thick in her voice. "As you well know." She turned to face the rest of the observers in the room. "Is this the Grass?" she shouted. The words rolled off her tongue short and clipped. Her gloved hands were clenched into fists. She threw a defiant, fiery gaze at her peers. "Is this our leader? Is he our Kage now? This…monster?"
The Grass Jounin just stared at her. They did not regard her all the same. Some dismissed her with a glance. Some seemed irritated that she had spoken. Others looked at her with troubled eyes. More than a few watched her intently, almost holding their breath, as if waiting for something.
"Am I the standard?" the girl exclaimed. "Is this what we do now? Do you know what this man intends? What he thinks of us? Means for us? Don't you know what he did to me?"
The cave was silent.
She screamed. "Don't pretend you don't hear me! Everyone knows!"
"Get her out of here," Marnix barked. "She has lost her mind."
A tall, imposing Jounin approached the girl, but she drew a kunai and leveled it at him, eyes blazing, the torchlight reflected in the dark depths of her eyes. "Don't you touch me. I know you. How many must be ruined for your greed? How many must die?" She screamed again at the room. "I did not choose this! Is that what you think? I was deceived! We are all deceived!"
"Get that whore woman out of here!" Marnix bellowed. The hand he had around Itachi's mother's throat tightened. "If she can't mind her tongue, cut it out!"
The Jounin approaching the girl actually drew a blade.
It was like a match thrown into a haystack.
Grass Jounin turned on Grass Jounin. Blades were drawn. Hands signs flickered. Itachi's own captor leapt forward, arriving just in time to stop one Grass Jounin from stabbing another in the throat. The bonds holding him loosened. He rose painfully to his knees.
Fighting erupted everywhere.
Marnix was cursing.
It's a mutiny, Itachi thought. They'll all kill each other.
Michiko was free, dirty strands of flame red hair flying around her face. Immediately she brandished a parasol from the inside of her sleeve, just a wooden stick that snapped open, revealing a wheel of color. It spun in her slender hands. She turned in a circle. The whole world went mad.
Colors seemed to be flying off the parasol like fresh paint. Everything they touched turned instantly the color that touched it. Grass Shinobi who had been standing around them, closest to them, started with amazement as they were suddenly doused in red, orange, green, purple, yellow, blue. And then burned through their flesh like acid. And the colors continued to churn, creating a dizzying, sickening, kaleidoscope.
It's just a genjutsu, Itachi thought.
His Sharingan saw right through it, but the Grass Shinobi around them were screaming, swooning or shutting their eyes and retreating. Not all of them were taken in, but it was enough to get out of the middle of the fray.
Except that Haro and Amaya had also fallen under Michiko's spell. He could see Haro frantically brushing at his clothes and staring in horror at his hands, as if they were covered in paint—paint that seemed to itch and burn judging by the expression on his face. Itachi struggled free of the chains that had fallen loose around them. He stumbled to his feet and dashed forward to release his teammates, hitting both of them with a slap of concentrated chakra. Haro started out of it, yelling at phantoms, while Amaya blinked herself slowly alert. Jumei needed no assistance. He was familiar with Michiko's technique, it seemed, and had not been caught. He stood by her side, easy to ignore beside her in his nondescript clothes and unimpressive height and build, but his sharp brown eyes watched everything, guarding his teammate against anyone who might attempt to get close to her.
"Let's go back!" Amaya gasped. "Into the tunnels."
But it was impossible.
Fighting had erupted all around them.
Across the room, the Leaf Shinobi, previously in captivity, were fighting the Grass, trying to get to Lucia from the other side. They would not be in time. They had to fight for every step. He could see Neji and Tenten tag teaming to take down a pair of Grass Jounin. And there was Shikamaru, with his Shadow Possession jutsu morphing into the Shadow Strangling jutsu. He went right for a Grass Jounin with a pale face and eyes like a zombie, rendering him unconscious—or perhaps killing him; Itachi was not entirely sure.
Michiko's genjutsu hadn't worked on everyone surrounding them either. They had moved four steps before they were drawn into battle. Amaya had her shuriken stars out. Light bombs hurled from her fists flashed, obscuring the battlefield in an attempt to buffer their escape to the passage they had come through. Haro moved in after the light from the bombs wore off, throwing up the earth under the feet of the enemy so that they stumbled and fell.
It was chaos. Even with the Sharingan, Itachi couldn't keep track of everything. But he wasn't trying to. What he absorbed of the battle was secondary. He was searching frantically through the fight for what had happened to her mother.
There she was. Held against the wall. Marnix had her by the neck, choking her, it looked like. He was ignoring the battle around them. Grass ninja loyal to him were protecting him from the rest, locked in pitched battle with their brethren. Marnix seemed intent only on ripping secrets from his mother's throat. Or just throttling her.
He'll kill her.
Itachi was moving before his thought fully formed, though he know he wouldn't get there fast enough. He didn't know what he would do even if he could get there in time.
That was when Kaia broke through Marnix's circle of protectors—or maybe she was let through—a grim look on her face.
Marnix was not a Shinobi. He had no Shinobi training. But he was strong and he could brawl. He saw the girl coming and stepped to the side as she lunged past. He caught the girl's wrist and twisted. The kunai she held dropped from her hand. His other fist came at her head from the side with enough power to cave in her skull.
Kaia vanished. Grass exploded out of the air where she had been, spinning down to the cave floor. Marnix was left clutching air and punching a bundle of weeds.
Substitution, Itachi thought.
"I'll show you…" Kaia shouted. She reappeared behind Marnix, fingers flickering through a series of hand signs. "What it really means to be Kunoichi!"
Chakra snakes, Itachi realized. His Sharingan remembered, having memorized this particular jutsu less than an hour ago. She must have been a student of Juo's.
Kaia crouched, hands on the ground, and lines of chakra emanated from her fingers. They slithered toward Marnix, faster than a man could move, and caught him about the ankle. Swifter than thought, they coiled about his legs, and then his torso, growing longer and thicker as they wrapped him higher and tighter. The bottom ends burrowed deep into the ground, resembling vines more than snakes now.
"This is my own variation," Kaia announced. "I've been working on it for some time. I call it the Flower Trap."
The shape of a snakes' heads dissolved. Blossoms bloomed from the top of the coils. Vines took root at Marnix's feet, burrowing deeply into the ground and wrapping around his body. The flowers were magenta, saturated in color, and emitted a cloying, but strangely intoxicating scent. Marnix could barely be seen beneath the vines. They grew and thickened, wrapping him in a cocoon of green until only his eyes showed, glaring balefully at the girl before him. Kaia brandished a knife.
But his Grass Jounin guards were not idle. Someone wearing a Grass headband came upon Kaia from behind. She didn't see him at all. He struck her against the back of her head with the handle of a katana. She went down in a heap.
The flowers wilted. The vines dissipated into nothing, chakra scattering like a sigh released from the lips.
"Lord Marnix," the unknown Grass Shinobi guard said in a cold voice. "I warned you not to push the Kunoichi too far."
Marnix looked paler than he had been before Kaia appeared, but he nodded curtly and straightened. "You will be rewarded," he said. "Not least for that advice. I have a bad habit of not taking women seriously. Time to remedy that."
He turned again on Itachi's mother. She was slumped against the wall, her eyes glassy. She stared at nothing, expression frozen and brow sweaty, as if she was not even awake, as if she were already dead, though her chest rose and fell with even breaths. Had she gone catatonic? Did she even know what was about to happen to her?
"Marnix!" Itachi shouted. "Stop! Don't touch her!"
His hands formed the signs without thought. Chidori, bright and blazing with streaks of blue and white, came alive in his hands. With his Sharingan, he sought a path through the crowd, around the fighting, and straight at the man who didn't even seem to register his voice.
He charged. Amaya's frightened voice followed him, but the sounds of the battle thumped in his ears and absorbed her words. Everything turned to black and white. Nothing mattered except for the enemy before him, the Chidori in his fist, and his mother's oddly stiff body being lifted from the ground by her throat.
His mother seemed to come partially alive as Marnix dropped her on her heels. She gasped at least, and tore at the fingers around her neck.
"I will take your tongue" Marnix told her, "since you will not use it, and then I will cut the flesh from your face, strip by strip, until you wish you had told me everything I want to know. I will hear you scream."
He had a knife in his hand. Itachi could see it. It was a small paring knife, a simple tool. He held it to his mother's face, squeezing her cheeks until he forced her jaw open.
"Marnix!" Itachi bellowed.
Marnix hesitated. He lifted his head, as if registering his name, but Itachi's scream had been swallowed by the cries of others. It was not that that caused Marnix to hesitate.
A rise swell of sound was filling the room.
Are they screaming at me? he wondered. My Sharingan?
No one was looking at him, not that he could see, but they parted before him like a curtain, fleeing away from him…from his Sharingan…No. They fled from something coming behind him.
Itachi threw himself to the side, Chidori flickering out, and pressed himself against the wall to let his uncle through. There was nothing else he could do.
Sasuke descended upon the Grass like a storm. Suzanoo blazed around him, armor and bone and ethereal spirit, its outer layers wreathed in the black flame of Amaterasu. Whatever he touched caught fire and burned. Whatever attempted to touch him met an impenetrable wall. Susanoo wielded a sword of black fire that consumed light as it arced through the air. Within that vortex of power, Sasuke's face burned with a cold, focused fury. The Grass scattered like leaves. Trained Jounin parted and fled before the red and black wheel of the Sharingan as if he could scorch them through by glance alone.
Maybe he could.
It's my uncle, he told himself, it's my uncle, but could hardly keep hold of the thought. This terror was nobody's anyone.
He'll kill everyone here.
Sasuke passed right by him. His eyes drifted over him. They hesitated a moment, registering his presence, asking "what are you doing here?" but Sasuke didn't speak. He also didn't slow down.
He cut through the Grass that did not get out of his way. Those that fled he ignored. He made a beeline right for Lucia. Marnix, looking suddenly small, was staring at Sasuke as if unable to process if what he saw was real. His hand was still around Itachi's mother's face. He seemed to have forgotten the blade in his other hand.
"Release her," Sasuke said, "immediately, or I will force you to it. I warn you: I am not feeling patient."
Marnix didn't move. "Who-?"
The arc of Sasuke's own katana was graceful, like the leap of a silver fish. It flashed beautifully, catching the torchlight as it cut the air. It severed Marnix's arm at the shoulder. It cut all the way through flesh and bone without a pause. The appendage dropped to the cave floor.
Itachi's mother, dark eyes wide, fell back against the wall. Sasuke stepped between her and Marnix.
Marnix was clutching a bleeding stump. His face was white. "You can't do this," he said. "I'm—"
His shoulder caught fire. Black fire. Amaterasu licked at the edges of Sasuke's blade. When the metal sliced through his arm, the flame caught the flesh and held. Marnix started screaming.
"I don't know or care who you are," Sasuke said.
The flames did not touch Itachi's mother. Sasuke seemed to be able to control them, directing them away from her, but Marnix fell to the ground, writhing in black fire.
A roar of anger and dismay went up from the Grass Shinobi watching—those that had followed Marnix closest anyway, those that had not already fled.
Sasuke turned to face them.
This is bad, Itachi thought. His stomach tightened. As much as Sasuke might not care about Marnix, the others in the room did. All around him he saw Grass Jounin, an army of them, with only spots of battered, bruised, and exhausted Leaf ninja, most of them Genin.
He wasn't worried about Sasuke. He was worried about the body count.
This is really really bad.
What leadership the Grass had had was now gone. Marnix wasn't screaming anymore. It took ten seconds, maybe less, before his body was a smoldering ruin of charred flesh and blistered bone.
Everyone in the room was enraged, or afraid, or grief-stricken, all armed to the teeth. Hot blood… sharp blades…
This is a death pit. Sasuke will kill them all…if they don't all kill each other first.
Susanoo broadened around Sasuke, enveloping Itachi's mother too. She looked about, surprised but conscious, almost as if just waking from a deep sleep. Itachi shrunk further against the wall, but Sasuke's Sharingan found him. His uncle moved toward him, his mother in tow. Susanoo grew larger. Itachi stared at it in terror, though he knew Sasuke meant him no harm. Still, his heart fluttered as spiritual bony fingers came toward him, wrapping protectively around him.
It had been a minute, maybe less, since Sasuke first emerged in this broad stone chamber. It had all happened quickly.
And then the fighting resumed.
Blades were flung at Itachi's face, but rebounded off the shield of Susanoo. Sasuke had timed it perfectly. He was safe. He and his mother alone.
My friends, Itachi thought, scanning the room for them.
He was relieved to see that the Leaf Jounin had fought their way through the Grass to unite with the Grass Genin. He could see Tenten defending Haro and Amaya and Ino with Michiko and Jumei. Neji was out in front of them all, palm out, milky eyes watching everything. Shikamaru hung toward the back, clutching a wounded shoulder.
But the Grass weren't concentrated on attacking the Leaf. Most were attacking each other.
They banded in groups, aligning themselves to one another politically and personally in a manner beyond Itachi's understanding. He could not comprehend how much strife and discontent had been brewing, and for how long, to produce the monstrosity he was now witnessing.
Grass Shinobi turned sharpened blades on other Grass Shinobi. Jutsus were levelled against people who lived together, had grown up together, struggled together...
It was the worst thing Itachi had ever seen. He didn't know these people. He had no association to their village or its factions, and he knew they were responsible for Rina's kidnapping—maybe even her death, if he was too late—but even so, the sight of them turning on one another with blades churned his stomach. It wouldn't be long before the floor was slick with blood, the bodies piled high. Even if the Leaf managed to get out with all the Genin, what they would leave behind…
Sasuke's Susanoo swelled in size. Amaterasu flared within it.
"No," Itachi whispered. "No. Uncle, no!"
It was clear that Sasuke meant to burn them all.
That was when Naruto flooded the cavern.
Itachi perceived it that way—a flood of Narutos, hundreds of them, spilling into the cave, packed tightly together like a school of fish, moving as a single unit. Some of them were attacked and vanished into nothingness. But more took their place. Fighting stopped suddenly as battling ninja were forced apart and crowded into single units surrounded by Narutos.
Sasuke pulled Susanoo back, watching impassively. Itachi wiped sweat from his brow.
Narutos stampeded into the cavern until there was no room for anyone to move, or breathe, or do anything much at all except stare as one Naruto rose above the others, walking on the hands of his clones.
"I'm taking ownership of the Grass village!" the elevated Naruto shouted. "Does anyone have a problem with that?"
The cavern glowed from the light that emanated from the host of Narutos. No one spoke. There were neither objections nor cheers. Itachi's mother, still wrapped in the protection of Susanoo, was staring at all the Narutos stuffing the cavern in bewilderment.
"Rina," Itachi gasped to Sasuke. "We have to find Rina!"
"I thought she would be here," Sasuke said, looking around. "But I don't see her."
"She's close," Itachi said. "I saw her! She was in this cavern back through the tunnels. I saw her with a Grass Genin. Yukio chased after them. We were trying to find around, but we ran into this."
"Which way?" Sasuke said darkly.
His mother's face was pale. She mouthed something, but Itachi couldn't make it out.
Itachi tried to reorient himself. "I think that way," he said, pointing the only direction that made sense. There was a stair against the far wall on his right, leading down into darkness.
Sasuke was moving before he finished extending his arm. Itachi spared a glance for his mother. She looked shaken. "It's okay, mom," he told her. "Stay with Naruto. We'll bring Rina to you."
Her face was pale. Blood still trickled from her cheek. She was shaking.
She's running on adrenaline, Itachi thought. There's not much else holding her up.
"I'll be safe," he promised her.
"We'll go too!"
It was Amaya, appearing on Itachi's side. The Grass, it seemed, had unilaterally surrendered following Naruto's announcement. At least, the fighting had completely stopped, and there were more Leaf Jounin in the cavern now. Jounin in Leaf headbands were systematically relieving the Grass of their weapons and organizing them into groups.
Ino approached Lucia. "Let me look at your cheek," she said. "Don't worry. The Grass has fallen. Any pockets of resistance will soon surrender. They'll be perfectly safe."
His mother did not say anything. It seemed as if she could not.
She is really shaken.
"Come on now," Ino said. "Let's have a seat over here—"
Itachi didn't wait for more. Sasuke had already left the chamber. Itachi took off after him, the other Leaf Genin close behind him. He was not the only worried one, of course. Yukio's teammates were concerned about Yukio as well as Rina. Who knew what had happened after Yukio leapt the cavern and chased after that Grass Genin alone?
Itachi's heart pumped hard as he followed Sasuke down the dark stair, spidery tendrils of anxiety snaking through his body with every step. The stairs went down and down and down but eventually leveled out into a corridor with only one torch burning. By the light of the flame, he could see that there were no doors, but there was one adjoining tunnel.
That must be where Rina and that Grass Genin came through from the room with the chasm, he thought hopefully. And if they didn't go up the stairs then they must have gone this way!
His feet picked up speed. Sasuke was still somewhere ahead. Much faster, and deadlier, he would reach Rina first and see…whatever there was to see. Behind him, the other Genin followed in a single file line. Once he heard Haro curse as he tripped over something hidden on the ground, but no one slowed.
The tunnel eventually opened into a room. Itachi saw Sasuke before anything else. His uncle's back blocked the view of the room. Susanoo was gone. His uncle had drawn no weapons. He just stood in the doorway, still as a statue, staring at whatever lay beyond.
No, Itachi thought. No. That can't be good.
Itachi burst into the room behind Sasuke, ducking under his uncle's arm. His uncle didn't catch or try to inhibit him. There was nothing in the room to fight. There were no enemies there.
There was nothing but bodies.
A boy—the Grass Genin—lay dead on the stone floor, his throat opened, blood pooling in a sticky mess around his body, eyes staring open in shock. He was just a child, despite his weapons and armored headband, no older than Itachi. The sight of his broken body set Itachi's skin crawling and stomach heaving, but he had no moment to spare for his shriven emotions.
Slumped against the far wall was Yukio. His skin looked pallid. He was not moving, not breathing, not speaking, or boasting, or grinning. He didn't stir when they entered, not even when Michiko started screaming.
Cuddled up beside Yukio, practically half in his lap, face pressed against Yukio's shoulder, was Rina. She didn't move either. She was perfectly still, curled in a miserable ball like a half-dead kitten.
Sasuke hadn't moved, regarding her tiny, inert body with paralyzing fear. Itachi dashed past him.
At the sound of his voice, a squeak emitted from her throat.
She was alive!
He tumbled to the ground beside her. He pulled her from Yukio's arm, turning her face toward him. Her face was weirdly still, dead, like a doll's, staring at nothing.
Driven by desire to see her show signs of life, he slapped her across the face.
Tears gushed from her eyes. Big, fat, wet tears spilled down her cheeks. Her face broke into quivering lines. Her chest started to heave with trembling, aching breaths. Her arms wrapped around his neck, her legs around his waist, clinging to him so tightly he almost couldn't breathe.
"Itachi," she wept into his shoulder. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry," and descended into incoherent mumbles and sobs.
"It's okay," he whispered, though he wasn't sure it was really. "I'm sorry too."
Haro and Jumei were kneeling beside Yukio. Jumei's hands were shaking as they felt Yukio's pale, greyish skin for a pulse and checked his mouth for breath. Michiko stood a few paces back, dancing from foot to foot.
"He's alive," Haro gasped. "At least, I think he's alive. His heart is beating so slowly, I'm not sure I heard it. If he is alive, it won't be for much longer. Jumei, do you have any adrenaline?"
Jumei's head jerked, but his hands were shaking too hard to unbuckle the pouch from around his waist. Haro had to do it for him. There was some liquid in a tiny glass bottle and a syringe. Haro drew the liquid into the syringe with the needle.
"You bastard," Haro growled at Yukio under his breath as the liquid filled to the line. "You can't just die in cave, leaving everyone so mad at you…." He trailed off in a mumble. Ignoring everyone, even Amaya's startled cry, Haro cut open Yukio's shirt with his kunai and jabbed the syringe straight into Yukio's chest-right through the heart.
Rina screamed into Itachi's ear. "No! No! No! He saved me. He saved me!"
"It's okay," Itachi whispered into her ear, holding her tightly. "He's….Haro's trying to help him."
Rina trembled, but she relaxed marginally, loosening her grip around Itachi's neck. Then she wriggled, trying to free herself from him. He allowed her to stand on her own feet. She remained hovering close to him, hands clenched into fists, watching Haro and Jumei fuss over Yukio with an intense expression on her face.
Itachi turned to look over his shoulder.
Sasuke remained in the doorway. He just stood there, katana sheathed, fear in his face. He couldn't do anything here. He was too late to help.
A collective gasp from all the hovering Genin made Itachi turned back.
Yukio's eyes were open. He was alive, but it was almost worse than before. His muscles jerked out of his control as if his blood was moving like sludge in his veins. He clutched at his chest, his expression gruesome with pain. He screamed silently.
Jumei and Haro were working together to put slugs on him, pulling them out of Haro's pouches and putting them everywhere Yukio's skin was exposed—on his chest, on his arms, on his neck, on his face. It was difficult to tell whether or not it was helping. Amaya was watching from a few steps to the left of Haro's shoulder, biting her lower lip. Michiko stood on the other side, parasol clutched in her hands, tears in her eyes.
Footsteps could be heard in the corridor, pounding the stone floors toward them.
Sakura burst into the room, blue-green eyes alight, Kakashi right on her heels.
"You're okay!" she gasped when she saw them.
Sasuke seemed to jerk out of his stupor. "Sakura," he gasped. He grabbed her by the shoulders as she passed and looked deeply and imploringly into her face. "Sakura, you're here. Sakura, the child…"
It was unclear what he meant, and Sakura didn't pause to unravel the meaning. She saw Yukio immediately and broke free of Sasuke's grip to join Haro where Yukio was failing.
"He's been poisoned," Haro was saying as Sakura knelt beside the boy. There were tears in his eyes. "He's dying. I gave him a shot of adrenaline. I think I just made it worse."
"No," Sakura said. "You saved his life. Here. Mix this for me." She pulled some powders and bottle of water from one of her pouches. "Be quick. I'm going to leech the poison."
Itachi didn't understand much of what Sakura was doing, except that whatever it was required extremely fine-tuned control of chakra. Her hands hovered over Yukio's chest. She started with the heart, an expression of concentration knotting her face, and then moved over Yukio's body vein by vein, drawing poison out of his skin with her own charka pulses, then covering the same ground again. And again. When Yukio's eyes opened a second time, he seemed conscious enough to take stock of the people around him. Pain still twisted his features.
"You're not going to die," Sakura told him. "But you must stay as still as you can for me."
They all waited in silence, watching for what seemed like an hour before Yukio's body finally stopped twitching and his chest began to rise and fall more normally. Sakura took the potion from Haro and forced Yukio to drink all of it. After a few minutes, color came back into his face.
"I feel terrible," he croaked.
"Oh, be grateful," Amaya said, her tone sharp. But there were relieved tears in her eyes. "For once in your life."
"I am," Yukio said. He closed his eyes again, as if speaking with them open exhausted him. "I thought I was gonna die on her after all, even though I promised..."
Tears gushed from Rina's eyes. She wiped them away, but more followed. She bowed her head to hide them, unable to speak.
Sakura rose and gave Jumei and Michiko a significant look. "You'll have to help him," she said to them. "He's not going to have much strength for walking. He's lucky to have survived."
"Will he recover?" Michiko whispered.
"Yes," Sakura said, and then added with a measure of warning, "for the most part."
She then turned to Itachi. "Is Rina okay?"
"I think so," Itachi said. "She seems to be. She's just upset."
Sakura nodded. Then she did a double take on him. "Your eye!" she exclaimed. "It's—"
Itachi blinked. He had forgotten all about it. His eye had been useless before the Sharingan came on him so suddenly. He got used to the fix and ignored the meaning. Had it really healed? He tried to deactivate the Sharingan.
"Something's wrong," he said, panic creeping into his voice. "I can't—"
Sakura rushed over to him. Sasuke was there too, in near lock-step with her. They were both looking at his face, touching his cheeks, evaluating his eyes.
"His chakra is locked up," Sakura muttered to Sasuke. Then she spoke to Itachi. "Can you deactivate the good eye by itself?"
He tried it. "No." It was…stuck.
Sakura and Sasuke exchanged glances. "Have you heard anything like this?" she asked him.
"No," Sasuke said. "But there was a lot of lore I never learned."
"We probably shouldn't force it," Sakura said thoughtfully. "The eye appears to be working. Forcing it might damage it."
"Am I going to be stuck with the Sharingan activated all the time?" Itachi demanded.
"I don't know," Sakura said. "It might heal. It might not. Does it hurt?"
It didn't really, or not more than usual. It was just odd. If his eyes never deactivated, he would never be able to look at anyone without seeing their chakra. "It's got to drain me. What if it kills me?"
"For a true Uchiha, the Sharingan alone doesn't use much chakra," Sasuke said. "Not much more than your normal body functions use anyway. It will be a little like wearing weights, but for your chakra, not your muscles. My brother used to walk around with them activated all the time. It might tire you out a little until you get used to it. It won't kill you."
Itachi wished he had a mirror. He wanted to know what his face looked like. Red eyes, wounds stitched up with black thread, dirt all over his body, packed into every pore and crevice. He must look frightening. But he felt fine.
I saved her, he thought. That's what counts. It was all worth it.
Rina was still crying. Though her head was lowered, he could see the tears dripping off her chin and down to the rock floor beneath her feet.
"Rina," he whispered, crouching in front of her. "Rina, it's okay. Everything's fine. Really. I'm not mad at you."
She heaved a little breath. "I'm so sorry."
"It's okay," he repeated. "You're safe. It's okay."
"Mom?" She bleated. Her body was trembling.
And then he understood. She was okay. But she thought that… She worried that—
"She's fine," he said quickly. Maybe too quickly, because Rina's knees trembled, her small hands clenching into fists. "Sasuke saved her," Itachi clarified. "Marnix was going to kill her, but Sasuke saved her. She's okay."
Rina lifted her tear-streaked face. She took one look at him, absorbing truth from his expression, and then turned and threw herself at Sasuke.
It was an odd thing to behold. Sasuke had always dismissed Rina. Since they had first set foot in Konoha, he had held himself aloof, not quite acknowledging her existence, even as he begrudgingly acknowledged Itachi. Even now, since entering the cave, he had held his distance. But when Rina threw herself at him with complete abandon, all that hardness—the impenetrable wall of coldness that Itachi had always sensed was meant to protect Sasuke more than it was to keep them out—melted instantly.
He was quick to react. He caught Rina up as if she were his own child, lifting her full off the ground and drawing her squarely and completely into the envelopment of his arms and body. His Sharingan had been dismissed. His sword was sheathed. He held Rina close, arms wrapped securely around her small body as she sobbed incoherent cries of gratitude and apology into his shoulder.
Sasuke rested his chin on Rina's head and closed his eyes with relief. We opened them, he looked over his niece and straight into Sakura's face. Something seemed to pass between them, though Itachi could not say exactly what. Sakura did not smile, but she didn't seem upset either. They stared at each other for several long moments. Tight when Sasuke's lips parted, Sakura turned abruptly away.
"We should head back," she said, her voice thick with emotion. "Naruto will be sorting things out. And Lucia will be anxious to see her children."
"Are you all right?" Sasuke asked her. "You look like you've been in a fight."
"I'm fine," Sakura said, not meeting his gaze. She seemed intent to look anywhere else. "Kakashi was with me."
Sasuke spared a grateful glance for Kakashi, who had been watching all the proceedings with lazy interest. He raised a hand in acknowledgment when Sasuke caught his eye.
Sasuke turned back to Sakura. She was taking her vials and powders back from Haro and adjusting her pouches. Michiko and Jumei were helping Yukio to stand, looping his arms over their shoulders and rising slowly from a crouch on either side of him. Yukio was cursing a lot under his breath, but managed to get up, hobbled awkwardly between his teammates.
Sakura led the way back up the tunnel. Sasuke, still carrying Rina, fell in beside her. "Not just you," he said, chancing conversation with her again, despite that she did not seem to want to talk. "I mean—"
"Everything is all right," Sakura said. "We… We'll talk later. I can't do it right now."
Sasuke subsided into silence.
Itachi followed behind both of his mentors, with Amaya and Haro catching up on either side of him. Yukio's team followed more slowly, with Kakashi bringing up the rear.
There wasn't much conversation as they headed back up the tunnel. Itachi began to realize how tired he was. His muscles felt watery and his body was starting to shake, with chills coming and going, as his system fought for the reserves of energy to keep all his parts moving. He wanted a bath. And then to sleep for a week.
By the time they reached the main chamber, it was clear that the Grass had fully surrendered to the Leaf. There were fewer Naruto clones than before, either because most had been dismissed or had been sent elsewhere on other tasks. One of the Naruto clones was deep in conversation with Shikamaru, whose shoulder had been badaged. His mother was standing near them, Ino hovering close beside her, looking ready to catch her if she fell. His mother's face had been cleaned and her cheek bandaged. Itachi wondered if the deep cut would leave a scar. There was no sign of Marnix's body.
His mother's head jerked to attention as they came trudging up the corridor. Her eyes swung first to Sasuke, with Rina bundled in his arms, safe and unharmed, Itachi following behind. She took a deep, shuddering breath. It seemed to release a siege that had been holding the rest of her body and emotions in panicked rigidity. The faint sheen of tears lent sparkle to her eyes.
Sasuke didn't set Rina down. He walked her to her mother. With a soft sound like that of a lamb, Rina unraveled her arms from around Sasuke's neck and transferred them to her mother. They clung to each other tightly.
"Thank you," Itachi's mother whispered to Sasuke as Rina came to rest her head on her shoulder, the way she had done when she was five.
"She's fine," Sasuke said. "They're both okay. It's over."
Itachi looked around the room.
It was hardly over. Pockets of the Grass were still being presided over by Leaf Ninja. There was the burning village above them, not to mention the reason for all of this—his mother's money, and what she had done with it.
Shikamaru strolled toward them. "Glad to see that she wasn't hurt," he said, nodding to Rina. "Lucia, our scouts have found the body of an old woman. We'll need you to identify her. It's probably Lady Romjin."
His mother nodded silently.
Shikamaru grunted. "I know you just want to be with your family, but we'll also need to have some discussions when we get back to the Leaf," he said. "We need answers to make some decisions. Will you cooperate?"
Lucia laid her cheek against Rina's head. "Of course," she said, kissing Rina's hair tenderly. "Whatever you need."
What is Naruto going to do with the Grass? Itachi wondered. And the Feudal Lords? And what about the Higher Houses?
"Where's Gehard?" he said out loud. "Is he…?"
He couldn't quite ask if his step father was dead. He had no affection for Gerhard, and he was sure that lack of feeling was mutual, but somehow it seemed wrong to wish him an ill fate.
Looking around the room, he did not see the man anywhere. Gehard should stick out. But all he saw were Leaf Jounin and Grass prisoners. He did notice that the Grass girl—Kaia—has survived. She was sitting up on the ground, her back to the wall. In her arms was another Grass ninja several years younger, a Genin with dirty blonde hair and green eyes. They were talking softly to each other, through tears that did not seem sad, as Leaf guards stood nearby and looked on.
"Ask him," Sakura said, pointing.
Her finger was directed at Juo. The veteran Grass Jounin was one of the captives in the room, surrounded by several Leaf guards, including Rock Lee. His companions were with him. All were injured, but none mortally.
One of the Naruto clones approached him.
Juo spoke before the Hokage could open his mouth. "I regret nothing," he said. There was no emotion in his voice. "If you must kill someone in the Grass for transgressions against the Leaf, I volunteer. I was the one who kidnapped the girl."
Naruto frowned. His clone glowed gold. "That's interesting," was all he said.
Kaia struggled up to knees. "No," she said, her voice floating to the center of the room from the wall, drawing attention with its desperation. "Juo, no. It's because of you that I-"
"Silence, Kaia," the Jounin said quietly, without looking at her. He kept the gaze of the Hokage. "Someone must pay for the Grass."
"Hmm," Naruto said. "I'm not going to answer on that right now. I've got other things to do. But a guard will be left here—a strong one, with a few of me—while we sort through everything that's happened since the Grass got involved with the Higher Houses. Right now, I'm going to take Lucia and her family back to the Leaf. Is there anything you want to say to them before we leave?"
Juo looked at Lucia, still holding Rina, and briefly glanced at Itachi. "No," he said.
"Well, I have something," Lucia said. She set Rina down. Itachi's sister no longer had tears to shed, though her face was streaked with dirt and residue of salt. She stood on two feet, watching her mother approach her kidnapper in silence.
Lucia withdrew folded note from a pocket hidden in her dress, and handed it to Juo.
He took it with some confusion. "What is this?"
"Your earnings," she said. "For betting against my son. Let it be known in the Grass. I always pay my debts."
Juo held the note with a slack hand. He seemed confused. He met Lucia's eyes. He looked deeply into them. "You'll find your husband locked in a room beside the barracks," he said. "A small closet, appropriate, I thought, for a small man."
"Thank you," his mother said gravely.
TBC Next (final?) Chapter: Many resolutions…perhaps some surprises
THANK YOU VERY MUCH for reading! I know it took me a long time to continue this story…especially at the climax when it is so exciting. I hope you will still review. It really means a lot to me. Like really…you have no idea how much. It's the only compensation I get, so please consider leaving a thoughtful note. Even though it is Super Bowl Sunday.
Particular things that interest me (if you have an opinion):
How the crisis ended—Did you enjoy it? What/why/why not?
Comments on Characters: Yukio, Sasu/Saku, Naruto and the Grass, Juo, Lucia, Itachi, small-part characters like Kaia…. Whatever you might have thought or felt or reacted to.
What you still want to see resolved (there's quite a lot actually)