Disclaimer: I do not own any of the Naruto characters, unless otherwise stated. In this case, I only own Kimi and her village. Oh, and Juusanbi now too. The old firebird's mine. haha

Author's Note: Sorry it's taken me so long to get this up. Work's taken a lot of time, so I'm spending most of my off days spending quality time with my family. Not much time to just sit and write, y'know? To my dear Kiri, I've fixed a couple of the problems in the last chapter, especially that "killing intent" point. I hope the new statement flows a little better. Thanks again for your input! I hope you all enjoy this new chapter! I'll do my best to get the next out sooner.

XXXIII

Itachi's feet touched dirt and stone. He lifted an arm to shield his face from the glare of the sun as it rose above a distant line of mountains. "Well, that was different," the young man muttered faintly.

Slowly, his eyes adjusted to the light and he peered down into the valley below. Sunlight glittered green off of the blanket of trees that stretched out before him. One tree stood out from all the others, towering high above the common canopy – its branches stretching up and out as if to embrace the sky. Alone, the massive tree cast perhaps a third of the valley in cool shade, its leaves shining purely green in the high sun.

The tree seemed to capture and hold Itachi's attention, his heart speeding up without any heed to his wishes. He knew this tree, and in a sudden epiphany, he realized why. It stood in the heart of his dreams. It was at that tree that he always encountered Kimi. It was beneath its branches that he knew in his heart he would find her.

Itachi lowered his arm and turned his attention to the cliff at his feet. Even he as a shinobi would not take that distance – that incredible drop – in one leap. His eyes found the thin, winding path – barely wide enough for a single person to walk – that led down the near-sheer rock face. As much as he wanted to rush, it would be suicide to attempt any daredevil feats.

Especially considering the fact that he could not feel his chakra.

Itachi closed his eyes, one hand sliding into a half-Tiger as he sought the missing warmth of his chakra coils. A frown touched his lips as he found nothing – not even the smallest spark. He opened his eyes again and inspected the world around him, noticing for the first time that though the colors were bright and vibrant around him, they lacked the intricate detail he had become accustomed to. This could only mean one thing; his Sharingan was no longer active.

Indeed, the pool of ice behind his eyes was gone, leaving behind an odd sort of emptiness that greatly unsettled the Uchiha. His kekkei genkai had become such an integral part of his daily life, that even a moment without it made him feel like a fish out of water. The very fact that it – and his chakra – were inexplicably gone disturbed him even more.

The sun was now fully risen above the mountain line, its glare slightly lessened due to its new angle. Dropping his hand back to his side, Itachi moved carefully toward the path he had located in the cliff side. It was tedious work, descending the thin path, loose rocks sliding beneath his feet every now and then. He kept a hand on the flat edge, catching himself the handful of times he nearly lost his footing.

By the time Itachi's feet touched solid ground, his heart was pounding in his chest and the palms of his hands were sweating. He lifted those hands and stared at them, watching them shake with small tremors. His eyebrows furrowed at the open display of emotion. This was not like him. What happened to his strict control? Had it been lost with his chakra?

Pushing those thoughts aside, Itachi focused on the task at hand. He glanced up at the sky – at the angle of the sun. Apparently, he had lost at least an hour in his descent, probably more. His frown deepened as his eyes shifted to scan the forest stretching out before him. He still had three days. Surely, it would not take that long to locate Kimi, even if he had to comb the entire valley. It was not too big of place, after all.

Face set to a mask of determination, the Uchiha moved into the darkness of the thick forest. He kept to the ground, not trusting himself to be able to manage tree-hopping without his chakra to catch and balance him. That is not to say that his physical fitness without chakra enhancement would not be adequate for the most common mode of ninja travel. He would rather play it safe than sorry. Injuries would only slow him down.

A flash of brilliant blue through the trees caught Itachi's attention, and he slowed in his trek through the thick foliage. "Kimi?" he called, peering in the direction of the out-of-place color. Nothing.

Itachi thought to his dreams. Would he have to chase her down? Would he have to catch her? A sinking feeling took hold in his stomach. Were there things here that would hurt her – kill her – as they did in his dreams?

He took one step toward the vision – then another. Soon, he was rushing through the brush, driven by some instinctive need to save – to protect. He could not let Kimi fall to the fate he had brought upon her. He had to save her somehow.

"Kimi!"

Bright sunlight washed over him as he burst into a break in the trees. The sight that met his eyes, however, was not what he expected. A gold-haired child – no older than Sasuke had been at the time of the clan massacre, if not younger – lowered her face from basking it in the sun to blink wide, dark blue eyes at him.

She was barefoot, dressed in tan shorts and a blue t-shirt that seemed two sizes too large for her slender frame. Her hair fell loose to just below her shoulders. A small breeze brushed between them, shifting an errant lock of hair in front of the child's eyes, wide with surprise and alarm.

"I-I'm sorry?" the child asked shakily. "Do – do I know you, s-sir?"

Itachi stared at her, not quite comprehending what his eyes were telling him. "Kimi?" he inquired faintly. The young girl nodded shyly. "But how? You're a child! You should be . . ."

Comprehension flickered through the child's eyes. "Y-you're new here," she stated. It was Itachi's turn to nod. The girl smiled sadly. "I-if you g-go around yelling like that, y-you won't last v-very long out here in th-the open. N-none of us d-do." She turned and moved toward the opposite line of trees.

Stepping toward her, Itachi called, "Wait! What do you mean by that?"

The young Kimi turned back to him, her face grim. "Th-this is no-man's land," she stated. "The O-Other's sometimes hunt here." With that, she vanished into the darkness.

"Others? What others? Hey!" There was no answer. The child was gone.

Itachi pulled his outstretched hand to his mouth, eyebrows furrowing. What had compelled him to shout? Such a slip in decorum was unlike him. He stared after the girl, considering following her but ultimately deciding against it. If these "Others" were on the prowl, then he would have to find some sort of safe base of operations – in case his hunt took longer than expected.

After glancing up at the sky to discern his position in relation to the tree – his destination – Itachi continued his trek through the dense foliage. Time passed, as he moved deeper into the eerily silent forest. Itachi kept his focus forward, not allowing his mind or feet to stray from his current path. Still, though, no matter how long he walked, he never seemed to get any closer to the giant tree in the center of the valley.

As the sky began to turn the colors of fire, Itachi slowed to a halt and turned his eyes back to the canopy. His eyebrows furrowed, lips turning downward in a faint scowl of frustration. Why? Why had he not arrived yet? The valley was not that big. He should have arrived at the base of the tree hours ago.

Sighing softly, Itachi moved to continue on. He had not taken two steps before something blue and gold came barreling out of the brush and into his chest. Startled – for he had not heard the figure approaching – Itachi took a step back and grasped the shoulders of the person that had run into him. He was not very surprised, though, when the golden-haired child lifted her head to reveal herself to be Kimi. He was not expecting the recognition followed by fear that shone plainly in her eyes.

This Kimi, though older than the last, was far younger than the one he was looking for. She appeared to be around the age that he had first met her – no older than ten years. Itachi fought back a flood of memories as he released her, forcing himself to speak. "Are you alright?"

"What do you think?" she countered quickly – almost sharply – before biting her lower lip and casting a nervous look over her shoulder.

Narrowing his eyes at her choice of response, Itachi followed the girl's gaze into the darkness of the forest. "What is it?"

Kimi pushed past him. "One of the Others," she grunted before vanishing back into the woods.

This time, Itachi chose to follow her. He was not getting any closer to the tree, so maybe there was a trick to navigating this place. If he was to find his Kimi – as he had come to refer to her, considering how many there possibly were here – he would need to know that trick. Where better to learn it than from one of the inhabitants?

"What others?" he demanded as he caught up to the fleeing girl.

She hesitated briefly before answering. "A dark path – one that Might Have Been – one that Failed To Be. Some of them are strong enough to manifest here. They're dangerous." She cast a sideways glance at him. "If you see one, run. Do your best not to call attention to yourself."

"How will I know."

Kimi snorted. "Trust me. You'll know. They're pretty easy to spot."

Itachi frowned thoughtfully. Could this have been what Juusanbi had been warning him about when she told him to be careful? Faintly, he wondered what would happen to him if he was somehow killed in this place by one of these Others. Would he die for real? This prospect might not have worried him otherwise – he would have been able to deal with it – but in the absence of his chakra, he could not be taking any chances.

"How do I get to the tree?" he finally asked the girl. There was no reason to dance around the subject. If she knew, surely she would answer him, subconsciously following an instinct to survive.

Kimi faltered, and Itachi had to grab her arm to steady her. She stepped away from him, eyeing him carefully. "Why do you want to know?" she asked cautiously.

"I'm looking for – well – you. I need the you from the present, though. You'll die if I don't get you out of here in three days." There was no reason, also, to hide the truth from her. When she said nothing, he prompted. "You do know who I am, right?"

The girl scoffed. "Of course I do. You're Itachi. I know you."

"Then you'll help me, right?"

Kimi kept her gaze steady, studying him closely. As she opened her mouth to reply, she froze and shifted her eyes to one side, staring in the direction they had just come. Tensing, Itachi mimicked the motion. The bushes and ferns they had just pushed their way through appeared to be rapidly withering, as if the life was being drained from the plants as the pair watched.

"Wha-?" Itachi started to ask, but Kimi interrupted him.

"Run," she breathed. Before Itachi could react, she snatched his hand and tugged him through the trees, crying, "Run!"

They plunged through the steadily-darkening forest, Itachi following Kimi's lead. Behind them, an unearthly shriek rose into the dusk air, sending a chill down Itachi's spine. "We're not going to make it," Kimi whimpered between breaths. "She's gaining on us."

Itachi did not dare look back to see who this "she" was or what she looked like. Instead, he lengthened his stride and snatched Kimi up, swinging her small form easily onto his back. "Direct me," he commanded, continuing to run.

Kimi clung to him with one arm, using the other to point through the trees. "There," she said. "The trees twist into an arch. Run through them."

The raven-haired young man spotted the place she was indicating and altered his course to head toward it. Trees cracked around him, wood splintering as the life was sucked out of them. The Other was close. Too close.

As Itachi neared the archway, he nearly blanched. "There's nothing on the other side but the valley wall!"

Kimi shook her head. "Trust me. You won't run into it. Just keep going."

Another shriek sounded behind them, this one all to close and ear-splitting. "She's here!" Kimi cried, barely audible beneath the inhuman cry.

With a final burst of speed – all Itachi could manage without chakra to back it – the Uchiha lunged forward through the archway. Instantly, the forest dissolved into white and the scream cut off abruptly. The light then shattered and Itachi skidded to a halt on a dirt road, panting heavily.

Kimi slid wordlessly from his back, casting her dark gaze about the village that now stood around them. Her expression darkened. "Not my first choice," she muttered, "but it'll have to do for now. We'll have to stay the night here."

Catching his breath, Itachi straightened. "I can't stay here. I need to find the Present Kimi." He could not bring himself to call her his Kimi out loud.

The child gave a harsh laugh. "If you want to go back and face that Other, then be my guest. You'll be dead before you can say, 'Hello. My name's Itachi Uchiha.' They don't stop for anything, so they won't stop for you no matter who you might be." She glanced at him. "You'll be safer here. When the sun rises, she'll have to return to her territory."

With that, Kimi moved away from Itachi, walking down the barren street. Itachi glanced around him. From the look of things, they were no longer in the valley. The trees were different here, as well as the single line of mountains that stood on one side of the village. In fact, the village appeared to be built on the side of one of the mountains, level spaces cut into the slope for houses and the like. Reluctantly, he trailed behind the child Kimi. "So, where are we now?"

The girl's voice was dark, anger boiling just beneath the surface as she answered, "The Village Hidden in the Mountains."