Hi, everyone! Are you happy to hear from me today? I promise you will be in for a few surprises yet. Thanks for all the support I received from you. I'm still undecided about writing a sequel, but it warms my heart that you'd stick with me if I did decide to write one. And now, without further ado, here comes the next installment in this long adventure!
By the way, I will offer a gift to my 5000th reviewer whom I'll contact directly. This reviewer will get to choose between getting to ask about a possible spoiler or having me write a one-shot with whichever characters they choose.
Finally, to get you in the right mood, I suggest listening to any of the songs in these links, especially the last two (in that order):
www dot youtube dot com/watch?v=WY3cz7gLYGQ
www dot youtube dot com/watch?v=_rZutjH68Qc
www dot youtube dot com/watch?v=lx4BMPy5yAk
www dot youtube dot com /watch?v=Ce3BeSI8Wrk
www dot youtube dot com/watch?v=tgWYCIf0A18
Everything was dark, a darkness that expanded all around them, encompassing all and everything the further away they looked. The only source of light seemed to be the strange cubes they had crashed on, but even then, it was less light and more of a pale glow that seemed as feeble and precariously clinging to life as the medic appeared to be.
"Sensei!" cried Gai as Sakura crashed to the ground, slid a few meters, and then was still, lying partially on her flank, cheek resting against the cool surface of the cube as blood pooled steadily out of her.
He cradled her in his arms as Genma and Sai, disoriented, looked around for potential dangers.
"Is she alright?" asked Genma, crouching on a cube that stood a little higher and to the right. His eyes surveyed the strange setting—he didn't dare glance at the two.
"Do you have any medical supplies, my youthful fiend?" replied Gai, pressing against the rip in Sakura's flank.
"Not much. Our medic stayed behind in Myou, he's the one who had all the bandages and stuff."
"Then no, she's not alright," grimaced Gai, pulling out one of the senbon that made Sakura look like a pincushion.
"That bad?" asked Genma, finally daring to glance at them as Sai's ink birds flew between the cubes, on the lookout for more danger.
"Despite my propensity to get injured while training, I have never taken the time to study much of the medical arts except for herbs, and there aren't any around. I swear, if we get out of here alive, I will study medicine until I am deemed proficient or I will run a thousand laps around Konoha on my hands!"
Genma, deeming the area safe, jumped down from his cube and landed next to Gai, peering at the face of the unconscious female.
"Damn it," he cursed softly. "I don't know all that much about healing injuries either. We're so useless."
Sai approached them quietly. "If we hadn't gone on a walk in search of her, she would be dead."
Genma chuckled softly, somewhat sad. "I guess."
Sakura moved feebly, gasping as the movement jarred her injuries.
"Sensei?" asked Gai softly, with more gentleness than would seem possible from such a boisterous man.
She didn't react except for a brief twitching of her fingers.
"Well, that figures," groaned Genma, gently taking out a senbon from her torso. "Let's try to stop the bleeding, at least."
"Good idea, my friend!"
The senbon were the first to go, after which they unceremoniously ripped her clothes off to access her wounds directly. Gai kept his hands pressing on her abdomen, stained crimson and sticky with her blood.
Using his teeth, Genma swiftly tore his shirt into strips. Makeshift bandages were better than nothing—Sakura's wet clothes were quickly discarded in a bid to keep her wounds from getting infected from the water and the dirt.
Sai garroted Sakura's thigh then reached into his weapons pouch. He had nothing left in terms of medical supplies, and looking at Genma and Gai, they didn't seem to be any better off.
"I don't have any bandages," he said calmly, "but I may have an idea."
The two adults gazed at him curiously as he swiftly drew on his artist pad, giving life to a crane that flew at Sakura and landed on her skin, its wings spanning her side from front to back to keep the injury closed.
"You can remove your hands, Maito-san," he said, kneeling. "The crane is going to keep the pressure on and keep the wound's edges pressed together. This will make it easier to heal her. We may not be good at medical jutsu, but we all attended lectures at Myou. Let's do our best to put them into practice."
Genma ran a hand through his hair in agitation. "The best thing would still be to wake her up so she can heal herself. By the way, are you two alright? I myself have a few cuts and bruises, but I'm otherwise fine."
"Just the same, my youthful friend! Nothing that will keep me down for long."
"Okay. Then for now, let's just keep the bleeding to a minimum and do what we can before she wakes up and berates us for not having enough medical knowledge. Unfortunately, we can't do much about the burns for now."
They did the best they could, keeping an eye out at all times for the male who had got them in this strange place. As soon as Sakura was stabilized, Genma asked Sai to create a few of his ink birds to scout the environs.
"We don't know this place. See if those strange cubes are all that's around or not. Depending on how long we'll be stuck in here, we may have to ration our food and supplies."
The other two nodded in understanding. They put on the ground their meager supplies—each of them had a scroll or two containing rations and a canteen of water, as well as a few bandages, but no chakra pill. Not much, by any means, but it was better than nothing. If they rationed properly all of it, they could last for a few days, but the more pressing matter was the water. The human body wouldn't last three days without a drop of water, that was basic shinobi training.
By the time Kisame and Jiraiya made it to Myou, the village was no more than ruins. Buildings had been smashed down or burned, but the acrid smell that clung to the devastated area wasn't due to burned wood or rice paper—fat crows stirred up at their arrival, disturbed from their meal. Scattered on the ground, some stuck in the debris, corpses of the population of Myou were feasted on by scavengers, some of them already reduced to the state of white bleached bones. Others were little better, barely more than husks with some rotting meat stuck to the bones. Open chest cavities were home to bugs that ate the brownish meat or laid eggs into it, rats that ate all they could while crows pecked at the sightless eyes and flapped around, taking what they could when bigger scavengers had eaten the biggest parts.
"Hell...whoever did this had a lot of anger to work out. Did anybody survive at all?" murmured Jiraiya, appalled and aghast.
"Doesn't seem like it. Look at that. They were butchered. Most of them didn't stand a chance at all. The ninja just weren't up to par with his skills," replied Kisame, crouching and peering intently at a medic he vaguely recognized—what was left of her, anyway.
"That Obito person. Do you think he could have done this alone?"
The certainty with which he said this made Jiraiya turn to look at him rather than the devastated landscape.
"You seem to know this person."
Kisame stood up slowly, taking a fortifying breath. He gazed at the surroundings, not really seeing them as he remembered his time in the Akatsuki. Back then, he had known the leader wasn't a good person—he wasn't, either, and he was honest enough to admit it—but his ideas had merit, he thought then. Seeing such carnage, however...how gratuitous it was. It served no purpose other than to let the Uchiha spend his anger on some living beings. He balked a bit at the idea.
"I do. Did. I knew what he was capable of, how strong he was...tried to lie to myself for a while that he wouldn't retaliate against Chibi-sensei about me leaving the organization. Seems he was just bidding his time."
His nails dug into his palms, fists shaking at his sides. He wanted to punch something, scream in outrage at the sky, rip something with his fingers and feel life crunch under his palms—anything to satisfy the rage that bubbled up in his chest.
Jiraiya himself felt disgusted at the carnage, but there were more pressing matters in his mind.
"Let's look for survivors. Maybe someone managed to hide."
Kisame shook his head calmly. "Nobody can hide from him. Can't you see? Chibi-sensei's clones have disappeared. She's dead. They're all dead!"
"You don't know that. Maybe her clones simply were dispelled. I'll take a look around. Tell me if you find anything."
He entered what was left of Sakura's house, rummaging through the debris to unearth the passage leading to her cave. If anything had managed to survive, it was surely down there.
The passage was dark, but darker still was the cave that lay beyond it. Utter silence greeted him, jars had been fractured, their contents spilled all over the floor, but sadder still, two bodies were decomposing. Satoshi hadn't managed to protect the now destroyed sealed off cupboard; Toranosuke had tried to protect him. And failed. This hadn't been a safe haven.
Sakura stirred slightly, frowning as it jarred her injuries. As consciousness returned to her, she hissed in pain, attracting instantly the attention of the three ninja around.
"She's waking up!"
They crowded around her, anxiously gazing at her as she groaned in pain. She shuddered, trying to sit up. This strained at her wound, threatening to open it again, but the crane held strong. Her hand clasped her side gingerly as Gai gently provided a supporting arm for her to lean on.
"I hurt too much to be dead. What happened?" she asked, surprised, as the crane crooned happily at the caressing movements her thumb made without thinking across her ribs—and thus on its body. "And what is this?"
"That's one of my ink creations. A crane. It's keeping your wound closed. Don't try to rub it off."
Sai's tone was bland, but his words reflected that he truly cared. She smiled slightly. "Got it."
She took notice of her surroundings, frowning. "Where are we?"
"Dunno. There's nothing but cubes around. And weapons, for whichever reason," replied Genma.
"Please don't worry, sensei! We won't let this get the better of us!" promised Gai.
"If we're to die, I wish I could have at least had a last night with a beautiful woman," sighed Genma wistfully.
She punched his arm feebly. "Pervert."
He chuckled without remorse. "Not to say you're not pretty, of course," he added bashfully.
She smiled at him in amusement. "Thank you, but I know I don't look really pretty at the moment. Too many scars and all. At least my hair is growing back," she murmured with a brush of her fingers against the pink fuzz atop her head. "Besides, I'm already spoken for."
"Indeed, indeed. What kind of jutsu did you use to grow up so quickly? Or was it simply their affection?" teased Genma.
"Ah, the youthful power of love!" exclaimed Gai.
"I don't understand it," muttered Sai, and she wondered why she had been stuck in such a place with these three, possibly the worst trio one could think of. A charmer, an overenthusiastic health fanatic, and an unemotional teen with no social skills whatsoever. This would be a trying experience, she thought as she drifted off once more. Unconsciousness was black and comforting.
Itachi was reading ancient scrolls about obscure jutsu in his family's library, deep into the recesses of the building in a bid for privacy. He wanted to be alone and this was the best way to achieve this: training, even at the clan's training grounds, was no such guarantee, as either Gaara or Sasuke could come and train too, or even Shisui or any other clan member. No. Here, in this building mostly forgotten or given a wide berth, he was 99% sure to be left alone, especially if he made sure to stay in a dark and secluded corner.
The door of the building opened and closed, and soft footsteps echoed in the building. Itachi didn't move, not wanting to alert the newcomer as to his presence.
Unfortunately for him, the newcomer walked closer and closer, pausing occasionally at an aisle, until they were separated by no more than a few feet.
Sighing internally at the inevitable conversation that would ensue, Itachi lifted red orbs upon his visitor.
"Otou-sama." Nothing in his tone betrayed his surprise, and his father in turn nodded slightly, eyes roving across the rows of scrolls.
"Knowledge is a thing to pursue," said Fugaku lightly but not meanly, "but it cannot always change things. I've heard about Myou. There was nothing you could do."
"There could have been. There should have been."
Itachi's eyes stayed riveted on his scrolls, but his hands clenched it so tightly Fugaku gently laid a hand on his and slowly pried the scroll from his tense fingers.
"She was a wise person. Somehow, she knew what was coming and strove to protect you from it. Be not angry at her for taking your choice away."
Itachi looked away. "I'm angry at myself for not seeing her distress, however concealed it was. I failed her, otou-sama. I failed her. Of all the times to fail...!"
She took a deep breath, hanging his head. His hair fell to hide his tortured face, eyes closed and brows furrowed in emotional pain. Fugaku shifted slightly so he wasn't looking at him, discreetly giving him some privacy.
"All men fail. No matter how strong you are, someone is always stronger. This was inevitable. Nothing could have prevented it, her letter revealed as much. She was always living on borrowed time. Take it as a token of her love, my son, and mourn properly."
Itachi clenched his jaw, nodding with a jerk. He knew he should. He should, but his soul rebelled against it. Surely she was still alive. Or if she wasn't, there must be a jutsu in this library that would allow him to change things or grow to accept them. He would get stronger. Such things would not happen again.
The second time Sakura woke up, she had a mild fever, but nothing that she couldn't endure. The pain in her side was still present, but her head at least felt much clearer—or maybe that was just the fever speaking.
"Was I out for long?" she asked with a dry mouth.
"A couple of hours," answered Genma. "Nothing happened."
"Nothing needs to happen. We'll die here anyway," replied Sakura, struggling to sit up; once more, Gai helped her with gentle movements.
"What do you mean? Surely we can escape," said Sai slowly.
"Improbable. This is a separate dimension. He won't come back because he doesn't have to. We'll die here without him having to lift a finger."
"Don't talk like that! The Will of Fire cannot be so easily extinguished!" exclaimed Gai. "We will certainly outsmart our opponent!"
Sakura shook her head. "The only person I know who'd be able to access this dimension is your greatest rival, but I don't think he knows how to yet." And then she got to thinking..."Wait, I may have an idea...Kuchiyose no jutsu!" she exclaimed, drawing her bloody thumb on the ground next to her.
It took all the chakra she had, but she managed to summon a little bat that fluttered up to her and perched on her knee.
"You summoned me, sensei?"
"Hai. Can you get us out of here?" she asked hopefully. "You guys have taken me to your dimension before. It should be no problem, right?"
The bat moved from one foot to the other uncomfortably. "That's impossible. Summons can only go from their own dimension to that of their summoner. I assume I was able to come here because this is where you are, but the only way for me to go back would be to dispel myself. How should I explain this...Say your dimension is A and mine B, and this is C. There is a link between A and B because that's our dimensions, but there is none between C and A or C and B. Except that you're here, and that's not enough. I can't travel directly to either your or my dimension. Dispelling myself is the only way for me to get out of here. And since you're not a summon, you can't dispel yourself."
The medic sighed in disappointment. "It was worth a try. Say, if you dispel yourself, can you then go to my dimension with a message for someone?"
The bat stopped moving and cocked its head to the side. "Hm...I suppose I could."
"Be expedient about it, please. We won't last long here. Contact Hatake Kakashi-san. Tall guy, silver messy hair, one eye... Tell him his borrowed eye can open a different dimension and we're trapped in it. Maybe some Uchiha could do it too, but I don't know of any of them who could..."
The bat nodded and disappeared with a salute.
Left behind, Sakura sagged into Gai's arms, feeling terribly feeble. She sighed, tiredness creeping up on her as sweat pearled on her brow. Her whole body felt hot, there was a throbbing pain in her side and she felt like her short conversation had taken her as much energy as a marathon.
"Change the bandages," she wheezed, "I think I may otherwise develop septicemia." She breathed fast, taking shallow breaths, and gestured in Sai's direction for him to approach. The black-haired ninja came closer, and she showed him her forearm. "How bad does it look? I felt that Katon jutsu graze me; Is my tattoo still intact? I don't dare try to use it without knowing for sure."
Sai scrutinized the partially burnt flesh with narrowed eyes. "Some of the lines have disappeared. We should bandage that part too, but we have no salve to put under the bandages."
"Forget about bandaging anything. I know you've had some training in fuinjutsu. Could you copy that seal and make a few changes to it?"
"I would have to make a few guesses, but it is feasible, I think. What modifications do you want me to make?"
"This allows me to teleport to my cave, but I don't think that would be a good idea at present. There's no telling whether my cave still exists or not. I know it took jiji some time to work it out, but it seems the scribbles around the edge are the ones that are responsible for geographical directions. Switch them to Konoha's. Dunno how much time it'll take you, but just in case Kakashi-san can't come to us in time, we'll take the leap together..."
Her voice faded as she lost her strength and fell limply against Gai. And she knew no more.
Kakashi, on his way to the Hokage to make his report after his last mission, had taken a detour and had been talking to the Memorial Stone for two hours when Uchiha Itachi stepped out of the trees silently, looking drained and dragging his feet as much as an Uchiha would allow himself to. For a long time, Itachi just stood in front of the Memorial Stone, staring blankly at it while Kakashi stared at him.
"Who are you here for?" he asked at length.
"My heart and soul's physical manifestation."
Kakashi blinked slowly. Itachi's brain had finally fried: too much pressure.
Itachi closed his eyes tiredly. "I have no place to properly mourn her, no body to confirm my loss, no funeral to attend...This is the only place I can come to for some sort of closure."
"Wait...Who's dead?" asked Kakashi. Having been on a mission for a few weeks, he had apparently missed something important. Maybe he should have stop to listen to the rumors circulating around the village on his way to the Cenotaph.
"Sakura-sensei. Her village was destroyed. Everyone's dead," replied Itachi in a flat voice.
"Say what?!" blurted out the silver-haired man, losing his aloof countenance.
He wanted to ask how, or why, or when even, but though a million questions jumbled in his mind, none of them came out of his constricted throat.
Such a vibrant young girl, dead? Just like that? Impossible. Utterly impossible. No one would dare attack her village.
He looked at the Uchiha with wide eyes, completely baffled.
He opened his mouth, closed it, then repeated the motions a few more times; no sound came out. Meanwhile, Itachi continued to stare silently at the Memorial Stone, eyes dead in his harried face, stress lines deeper than ever and shadows so dark under his eyes they looked like bruises. There was silence for an eternity as the sun started to set. In the distance, a shadow approached rapidly, wings beating steadily. Closer and closer it came, until, unbidden, a harried bat fluttered up to them, wheezing, "She's not dead, but she may not be alive for much longer if you don't act soon, Hatake-san!"
Woe, this was getting long. I can't say I'm completely satisfied with it, but it's pretty much what I wanted to write. I'm actually happy with the general tone, however.