I honestly can't believe how long it took me to update, guys. Sorry about that! To answer the panicked questions of some reviewers: yes, I will finish this story. It's all written out, just takes me a while to edit and update:)

In case you're wondering, I wrote about 24 short stories for Story A Day, and finished NaNoWriMo with a 110, 600 word original novel:) So yeah, that's pretty much what I've been up to!

Sorry again for the long wait. But I think you'll find that this chapter was worth it.

Enjoy!


Chapter Thirty-Five: Darkness

In the third year of living the mountain

I gazed upon the sea, the rolling plain.

I saw the exiles climbing peak by peak

Escaping horrors of which they could not speak.

~The Third Book of Akash, Verse I

Saki and Hoshiko wandered the dark streets of Konoha in misery; each had been 'sexiled' by their respective parents. First Hoshiko's parents had started doing their thing, and the two genin had tried to escape to Saki's house—with no luck. It seemed Sakura and Sasuke were also engaged in acts that the two genin would rather not overhear.

"Damn it. What the hell is wrong with our parents?" Saki moaned, kicking a rock out of the street.

Hoshiko shrugged. "Meh. I'm used to it. My parents fuck all the time."

"Oh my god," Saki cried. "First of all, you just used the word 'fuck' in a sentence! And second of all, your parents do that all the time?"

Hoshiko rolled her eyes. "Yeah. I thought it was normal."

Saki shuddered. "No way. My parents...I don't usually hear them...yeah. Blech." Hoshiko laughed as Saki stuck out her tongue, but then the Uzumaki grew suddenly sombre.

"Saki-chan, doesn't the moonlight feel wrong tonight?"

"How can moonlight feel wrong?" Saki said, twirling the end of one pink braid around her fingers. "You worry too much."

They walked in silence for a while, until Saki sat on the curb and Hoshiko leaned against a telephone poll.

"You know what I mean Saki-chan. Something feels creepy tonight..." Hoshiko activated her byakugan and squinted in the shadows. Saki eyed her friend askance, but she, too, activated her doujutsu and surveyed the scene.

"I don't see anything, Hoshiko-chan."

"Me neither. But I still have the creeps..."

Saki sighed. "Well, we certainly can't go home. Who do we know whose parents aren't having sex?"

Hoshiko snorted. "Well, I don't know for sure, but we can try Cho-san's house? I mean, I don't know what her parents are like, but what is the likelihood that they're fucking too?"

"OH MY GOD!"

"What?" Hoshiko asked, covering her ears as Saki screamed.

"YOU SAID THE F WORD AGAIN!"

"Saki," Hoshiko said with a sigh, "get over it. Come on, let's go!"

Saki laughed as the two ran to their teammate's house. It was too late to knock on the front door, so they climbed up the side of the house and tapped on Cho's window instead.

"What...?" Cho mumbled as she opened the window. "What are you two doing here? It's late." She shot them a pained look.

"Can we sleep over?" Hoshiko ventured, her wide eyes round and pleading.

"Because we've both been sexiled," Saki finished.

Cho blinked. "Wait...your parents...?"

"Are having sex," Saki explained patiently.

"Hold on..." Cho blinked a few more times. "They're both having sex at the same time?"

"Hellooo? Open your ears," Saki muttered.

Cho scrunched up her face in confusion. "But not with each other...like, all together—"

"WHAT!" Saki yelped. "What kind of sick-o are you, Cho?"

"Dear Kami," Hoshiko moaned, "tell me she didn't just say what I think she said?"

"Shhh, you'll wake my parents! Just— get in here, you two!" Cho said, shaking her head.

"Cho, how could you even say anything like that?" Saki whispered as she climbed through the window.

"I feel like someone needs to take a steel wool pad to my mind..." Hoshiko added, covering her ears with her hands.

"Sorry guys, it's just...you know, your parents are all really good friends, and I thought—"

"CHO! Time to change the subject," Saki snapped.

Hoshiko hid her giggle behind her hand. "Anyway, thanks for having us, Cho-san. I hope we didn't wake you."

Cho shook her head. "Actually, I wasn't really sleeping well. Do you guys have the feeling that something bad is about to happen? I have this awful feeling in the pit of my stomach..."

"See, Saki!" Hoshiko cried. "It's not just me. I swear, it's absolutely creepy out tonight! Even the moonlight is a sickly yellow color."

"Listen, things have been so gloomy in my house after Yuki..." Saki trailed off and shook her head. "Well, let's just say that maybe, if there was a giant cloud of doom hanging over the village, I wouldn't even see it—things are already that dreadful at my house."

Hoshiko nodded sympathetically and rubbed Saki's shoulder. "I'm sure Yuki will be all right, Saki-chan."

Saki offered her a wan smile in return. "I know. I have faith in her." Saki drew her jacket tighter around her; it was Yuki's black jacket, the one she had left with Saki when she had run away from home. Saki lifted the collar up and smelled the leather, which still smelled like her sister.

"I don't know what Yuki's doing out there," Saki said after a long pause, "but she was damn sure that it was important. Yuki left me in a genjutsu when she left. It wasn't a bad one!" Saki added quickly when Cho gave her a worried look, "No—it was like a dream, where she told me everything was going to be okay, and that I had to just trust her..."

Saki closed her eyes and remembered Yuki's words: "I'm sorry Saki-chan. Just please, trust me. Have faith that I'm leaving for the right reason. And when I come back—I promise—I'll be a better sister..."

Saki smiled bittersweetly at the memory. "I know she'll come back when the time is right," she said at last, her eyes flashing with determination.

Her teammates smiled at that.

"Listen," Cho said after a gentle silence, "Tsunade-sama is going to be grilling us tomorrow in medical ninjutsu. We'd better get to sleep." Her younger companions murmured in agreement, and Cho supplied them with sleeping mats.

Saki lay on her pallet and stared up at the sky through the window. The cold stars were gleaming. The sallow moon was sinking in the west. She thought that this same sky was sheltering her sister, however far away she might be. Doesn't otousan always say that when our friends and family pass on, they become stars in the sky? So then, maybe Ryuu-kun is watching over my sister, Saki thought sleepily. This thought gave her peace of mind, and as she drifted off to sleep, she wondered which star might be his...

#

"Ryuu..." Yuki's voice broke when she said his name.

"Hey, Yuki-chan!" he replied, cheerful as ever, a wide grin splitting his face. "How's it going?"

Yuki quickly forgot her surprise at seeing her long dead teammate and punched Ryuu in the arm. "What! I haven't seen you since you died, and that's all you have to say for yourself?"

"Aw, come on Yuki-chan, that hurt!" Despite his protest, he was still grinning broadly.

Yuki smiled, and in contrast to her angry outburst a moment before, she flung her arms around her teammate. She buried her face in the crook of his neck, marveling over how solid he felt.

"I always thought you couldn't touch ghosts..." Yuki mumbled into his shoulder, trying and failing to stifle her tears.

Ryuu laughed and hugged her back. "Pffft. I'm not a ghost—I'm a spirit now. Sheesh! Ghosts are the unhappy spirits who roam the earth, trapped, not knowing that they're actually dead. I'm in the next world. If anyone should be see-through, it's you."

Yuki pulled away and eyed him askance. "Why should I be intangible? I'm alive. You're the one who's dead, idiot." Ryuu started laughing hysterically at that. Yuki placed her hands on her hips. "What's so fucking funny, Ryuu?" she bellowed, going red in the face.

Ryuu wiped away a tear. "I'm sorry—it's just—you're exactly how I remember you!" he replied. "Let me explain: sometimes living humans visit the realm of the departed, but usually it's while they are dreaming—they don't know they're actually here. And when they come, it's like they're see-through. I can't usually hold or touch them. But you! You're not dreaming, are you?"

Yuki shook her head no. "I'm learning this spirit walking stuff. It's pretty weird, I guess..."

Just then, a bright light pulsed in the empty white room. The light grew faded, and slowly, Aya emerged. "Hey kids," Aya called in her sing-song voice, "How's it going?"

"Angel lady!" Ryuu shouted, hopping from foot to foot.

Aya just chuckled and ruffled his hair. "How are you, Yuki-chan?"

"How can you people be so damn casual?" Yuki fumed. "Geez. I'm talking to my dead friend, and it's just—everyone is so nonchalant!"

Ryuu rolled his eyes. "Don't mind her, she's always been too serious."

"I AM NOT TOO SERIOUS!" Yuki lunged at Ryuu.

"Hey, come on!" Ryuu cried. "I'm the spirit here, don't hurt me! You should be crying with joy to see me again and all that good stuff, not trying to kill me again!" Ryuu yelped as he ran away from enraged friend.

Aya held her sides in from laughing too hard. She finally caught her Yuki and held her away from her dearly departed friend. "Oi, Yuki," Aya shouted, "Ryuu has something important to tell you."

"I do?" Ryuu asked, confused. "Oh, yeah...probably about that past life stuff, right?"

Yuki blinked. "You know about that?"

Now it was Ryuu's turn to roll his eyes. "Well duh. I was there."

Yuki pointed accusingly at Ryuu. "Hey, Aya said these past life regression thingies were private. Were you peeking?"

"Gah! Yuki. Hello? I was in your past life."

"Huh?" Yuki asked with a blank expression.

Ryuu slapped himself in the face and Aya chuckled. "Ryuu-kun," Aya said, "why don't you go ahead and show her. I'm going back to the peanut gallery..." Aya murmured, amused, as she faded back out of the white room.

Yuki turned towards Ryuu. "What in the world...?"

Ryuu shrugged. His figure shimmered in a flash of bright light, then morphed: his blond hair became red, and his blue eyes became bottle green.

"Kaito?" Yuki called weakly. But she could say no more—she felt her body shifting too. Her short black hair grew long, her frame was shorter and more delicate.

"Mukudori..." Kaito smiled warmly as he said her name.

The white room lurched. It seemed to Yuki that they were floating freely in space, that the directions up and down no longer had any meaning. Yuki and Ryuu's bodies continued to change, over and over again, into different patterns: the lines of their faces varied, morphed, and blurred. They were hundreds of different people, shifting in myriad colorations and lifetimes until finally, they coalesced back to the familiar forms of Yuki and Ryuu.

"See?" Ryuu said with a grin, "I've always been with you."

Yuki steadied herself, felt the familiar contours of her body, and then looked into Ryuu's face. She began to cry. Without a word, Ryuu strode forward and simply held her.

"Why did you have to die, Ryuu-kun?" Yuki sobbed into his shoulder. "Why did you leave me?"

Ryuu shook his head. "I've never left you, Yuki-chan." He nudged her face with his chin and looked into her watery eyes. "And I never will." He kissed her on the mouth, softly, and the world around them dissolved into white light.

#

Sasuke woke with Sakura in his arms, savoring the embrace like a condemned man feasting on his last meal. He removed the blindfold around his eyes without waking his wife and activated his doujutsu. He memorized the lines of Sakura's face. The colors of her skin. Her lips parted in gentle sleep. The rise and fall of her breath. Morning light filtered in, suffusing Sakura in pale gold and ochre. Her hair gleamed orange, falling around her face like coppery halo.

Still in the hazy space between dreaming and waking, Sasuke remembered the story of Psyche and Cupid—how Psyche removed her blindfold and lost her lover. Sasuke brushed his lips against Sakura's hair. He did not want to remove her blindfold. Let it take as long as possible for Sakura's final disillusionment to fall, like hot wax, from eyes to cheek, heart to hand.

He edged away from his wife's warm skin without waking her, then left the bedroom in a whisper. He strode past Takeo's room, refusing to open the door to say goodbye. It would weaken his resolve. Quickly, he exited the house , speeding away through the empty streets like a shaking leaf driven by howling winds, until he stood in front of the Hokage tower.

Sasuke didn't bother with the front gate. Without breaking his stride, he channeled chakra to his feet, running up the wall and into Naruto's window. The room was empty. Dark. Sasuke settled on the window ledge and faced east, watching the rising sun dye the horizon copper and coral, painting thin wisps of clouds in broad, pink strokes across the sky. The clouds stretched like the edges of angel wings, covering the sky with their magenta feathers. It was beautiful, but Sasuke's eyes felt dull. His heart was empty.

"Oi, bastard, what's your ass doing on my windowsill?"

Wordlessly, Sasuke turned to face Naruto, glaring.

"Sasuke, please don't ruin my good mood. The day has barely begun," Naruto moaned, running a hand through his disheveled hair. Sasuke didn't say anything as he shoved himself into the nearest chair.

This is it, Sasuke thought. This is the end. Sasuke looked up at Naruto and his mouth parted in surprise. Behind Naruto, Madara waved, a cruel grin curving his bloodless lips. Naruto raised and eyebrow at Sasuke's stare and turned around to look behind him.

"Sasuke, what are you looking at? You look like you've just seen a ghost," Naruto said, his jocular tone fading when he met Sasuke's panicked gaze.

"You—you don't see anything?"

"Teme. I see a wall..."

Before Sasuke could respond, Madara conjured up a blue film. An image of Takeo wavered across its surface. Madara grinned wider as the life force drained out of Takeo and into Madara, just as it had before.

Sasuke closed his eyes. If he didn't reveal Madara's plan to Naruto, hundreds—no, thousands!— of people in Konoha were going to die. It was a sacrifice he had to make. Just like Itachi, Sasuke thought, his insides clenching. Just like Itachi…

"Sasuke?" Naruto muttered, breaking into Sasuke's thoughts. "You were going to tell me something important?"

Sasuke nodded, his eyes still closed. "It's about Madara..."

Suddenly, Sasuke heard his son screaming, a shrill shriek that made Sasuke tremble. His eyes snapped open to see the waxen image of his only son writhing in pain.

"No!" Sasuke cried. "Stop! Please stop!"

Madara glared at Sasuke. The chakra still flowed out of Takeo and into Madara's translucent body.

"I'll do whatever you want!" he wailed. "Just stop!"

Madara let the jutsu fade, Takeo's image disappearing. "Then you'll leave," Madara murmured, his velvety tone doing nothing to hide his malice. "Right now, Sasuke-kun. Come to me."

"Um...Sasuke?" Naruto ventured, coming forward and placing a hand on Sasuke's shoulder. "Who are you talking to?"

"Forgive me, Naruto." Sasuke rose and bowed. "I need to go."

"Sasuke! What the hell—"

Before Naruto could stop him, Sasuke was gone through the open window, running down the side of the hokage tower and out into the pale dawn. He sped on until the village became a silent blur. In a suspended, surreal state of consciousness, Sasuke realized how similar he was to Itachi—they both had one person whom they could not kill, not even to save the whole village. Not even to save themselves.

Sasuke left the village gates and ran into the forest, tears streaking down his face.

Forgive me, Itachi...

#

"It's time for you to meet Itachi," Ryuu murmured in Yuki's ear.

Yuki shook her head. "I don't want to leave you..."

Ryuu chuckled, though Yuki didn't know what was so funny. "You'll see me again," Ryuu promised. "Come on, Yuki-love..."

Yuki looked up into his eyes which flickered between sky blue and green. She nodded. Too choked up to speak, she placed her hand in his.

Suddenly they were flying through a strange, etheric world. There were no definite shapes here, only colors, light, and diffuse cloud-like landscapes.

"Where are we, Ryuu?" Yuki asked, feeling like she was lost in a running watercolor painting.

"In the aether," Ryuu said, his long blond hair fanning out around his face. "The aether holds the universe together—it's the air that exists beyond the world, the place where the spirits return after their lives end on earth."

"Oh," Yuki said, though she wasn't really sure she understood.

Ryuu laughed, and it sounded like the chiming bells. "Guess you have to be dead for it to really make sense," he said, his eyes crinkling with mirth.

Yuki bit her bottom lip, saddened by Ryuu's comment. But there was no time for more questions—they fell towards a swath of purple clouds, the roar of the wind drowning out all other sound. As they neared, the light shone brighter. There was a brilliant burst of light—

Suddenly, Yuki stood in a grassy clearing illuminated on all sides, though there was no sun or moon. There were only cold stars winking in the farthest reaches of the sky. She was alone.

"Ryuu?" she called, turning in a full circle and not finding him anywhere. A flock of crows cawed and coalesced in front of her, their mournful cries filling the strange world with palpable darkness. Yuki took a step back as a lone, dark figure emerged from the shadows.

"Itachi," Yuki breathed. She recognized him instantly from her past life. Unbidden, her body shifted in the swirling shadows, until she became Mukudori once more.

Itachi nodded at her, as if in greeting—then, without warning, he leapt back threw a handful of kunai straight at her.

Without thinking, Yuki activated her sharingan and snarled, avoiding his onslaught and attacking with kunai of her own.

We dance the dance of death, called a voice from all directions at once. Yuki, unfazed, crouched low to the ground and waited, in the darkness, for Itachi to reveal himself.

#

When Sakura awoke, she was alone and shivering in the breeze coming in through the open window. She was still wearing her blindfold.

"Sasuke?" she called. No answer. She removed the blindfold and was blinded by the sunlight streaming in through the window.

Suddenly, she heard Takeo crying from the other room. She threw on a robe and ran to his crib.

"Takeo-chan, you look so pale..." she murmured, holding him in her arms. Though Sakura rocked him, he continued to cry and shriek. She felt his forehead with her palm. He was freezing cold. She checked his vitals, but everything seemed to be fine. Shrugging, she channeled chakra into his body—it seemed to help. Takeo stopped crying, and instead snuggled closer to her.

"Sasuke, are you home?" Sakura called, the sound of her own voice sounding hollow to her. There was still no answer. She bowed her head, her pink hair framing her face. Sasuke must have let her sleep late, which was nice, but she wished he would have left her a note—something, anything, about what he was feeling, or where he had gone to.

She took Takeo back to her room, got dressed, and left the house. It wasn't like Sasuke to leave without letting her know where he was going. She resolved to visit Naruto. Sometimes, Naruto knew her husband better than she did herself, Sakura thought with a grimace

But when she reached the Hokage's tower, Naruto had no idea where Sasuke had gone. Yes, he had seen him that morning, but Sasuke had been acting weirdly. Naruto thought the stress of losing Yuki was getting to Sasuke, but he told Sakura not to worry. Sasuke just needed space right now. He'd be fine.

She believed him. Naruto was usually right about things that involved Sasuke. She went to work her shift at the hospital, Takeo in tow. He had behaved himself beautifully, and the patients enjoyed seeing his cherubic face, though Sakura noted that Takeo smiled less than he usually did. Perhaps he was coming down with something...

When Sasuke didn't return home that night, Sakura called on Naruto again, this time via her hiraishin tattoo.

"Naruto-kun," she said, her face pinched with worry as Naruto materialized in her living room, "find Sasuke."

Naruto, seeing her anxious expression, nodded wordlessly and began searching. His face went deathly pale.

"I can't find him… Sakura...I can't find him anywhere!"

Sakura lost all feeling in her extremities. Her knees buckled and she fell to the floor, her mouth parted in a silent cry.

#

Yuki's body continually flickered between her own and the form of Uchiha Mukudori as she fought Itachi. The ground shuddered under their footsteps. The air shimmered and the wind howled along with their movements. It was less like a traditional spar and more like an airborne dance; in this world, gravity had no meaning. They were weightless like birds, like fish, as they hurled weapons and jutsu at each other.

Itachi's face as expressionless as a statue, but with each blow, with each throw of kunai, the air would shimmer and Yuki could read it almost as clearly as if the winds were whispering words. When his fist met her blocking hand, she knew his sorrow. Their eyes locked. He seemed to see the echo of his own thoughts in her eyes.

"Can you forgive me, Mukudori?" he said suddenly, his arms falling to his sides.

She shook her head. Her body wavered like a heat mirage,then rematerialized into her more familiar form. "My name is Yuki, Uchiha-san. I am your niece."

The exchanged more blows, each with the fluid grace of fish in water, before Itachi spoke again. "You are my niece, and you are Yuki, but you are also Mukudori..."

"And as Mukudori, and as Yuki, I forgive you." With that, she broke through his defenses and stabbed him in the heart with a kunai. His body disintegrated in a flock of crows. The sky was stained red.

Yuki spun around. A cold wind roared as Itachi's body emerged from a cloud of wheeling crows. He spoke, the words reverberated throughout the world: "Yuki-san, I would like to teach you the jutsu to defeat Uchiha Madara. Are you willing to learn?"

Yuki nodded, slowly. "Yes, please, Itachi-san."

"Good. Then my soul will finally be at rest." He stepped towards her and procured a kunai from his robes. "Hold out your hands."

Yuki obliged, and he sliced her palms with the blade, letting her blood drip down onto the grass. She shivered, but she felt no pain.

"Follow the hand-signs I make..." Itachi intoned. She followed with ease, her sharingan already activate from their previous battle.

#

Sasuke felt like he was suspended in air, suspended inside of himself, as he slipped through the village gates and into the dark forest. The trees blurred on the edges of his vision into formless shadows, and he ran until he could run no more. He stood, panting, in the depths of the forest, the sound of screeching birds punctuating the silence.

Sasuke lifted his gaze. There, shimmering before him, was Madara.

"Ordinarily," Madara drawled, "I would have let you run all the way to our rendezvous point. It's only another day's journey after this point. And it would have been so satisfying to continue watching your inner turmoil. But," Madara said, shaking his head, "your idiot departure is sure to bring attention to us all too soon. We're going to teleport."

"Swear to me, Madara," Sasuke snarled, "swear to me that you won't hurt my son."

Madara chuckled, the dark sound reverberating like thunder. He held up his hands in mock surrender and called, "I am, after all, a man of my word. I swear. Even if I end up slaughtering every single person in Konoha, I will spare your son if you simply come with me. Satisfied?"

Sasuke nodded.

Madara formed a series of hand-signs: all at once, Sasuke felt his hiraishin tattoo dissolve from its habitual place on his arm. "Any other tracking seals, Sasuke-kun?"

Sasuke nodded and pointed to the ANBU tracking seal, which Madara destroyed next.

"Any other tracking seals, Sasuke-kun?"

Sasuke lifted his head, his steely gaze meeting Madara's eyes. "No," he replied. It was the truth. The only other seal on his body was the death seal, but that was not a tracking seal. That seal, above all others, had to stay intact and undetected by Madara. It would be his final mistake, Sasuke thought grimly.

Without saying a word, Sasuke held out his hand. Madara's grasp was surprisingly firm as the familiar, disquieting sensation of Madara's teleporting jutsu activated. The world swirled around them, faded into darkness, and reformed in a spacious clearing. Sasuke could see pale mountains in the distance, their peaks painted gold by the dawn.

"This way, Sasuke-kun," Madara murmured, leading his captive by the wrist into a cave. Spider webs stuck to the sides of Sasuke's face as he entered, but he made no move to wipe them away.

"The jutsu will take about two days to complete. It's a bit reminiscent of the jinchuriki extraction, if you remember that at all. But instead of taking something out of you, we'll be putting what's left of my essence into you."

Madara took Sasuke by the shoulders and placed him under a contorted statue with three grotesque heads.

"Okay! Chit chat time is over. Let's go, Sasuke-kun!" Madara barked. He clapped his hands, formed a string of complicated hand-signs, and the air crackled with chakra. The mouths of the statues opened. A stream of blue light opened up between Madara and Sasuke and Sasuke was hit by a wave of excruciating pain. He felt like he was being ripped apart by wild beasts. He opened his lips to scream, but no sound came out.

He had one last thought before he was completely subsumed by the jutsu.

Sakura, Naruto...there's still time...please find me...

Forgive me...

The world went black. Sasuke knew no more.


Hope you enjoyed! Thanks for reading and please review:)