Chapter 4: Ashes, ashes…

The town had once again gathered, the sick supported by their family members and loved ones. Temari had come, too, supported by her friends and Shikamaru. The little girl sat on the steps. Shikamaru left Temari to Sasuke and Naruto, each holding one of her arms over his shoulder. Temari looked up with tears in her eyes as Shikamaru kissed her.

"Temari-san, what exactly is the…ultimate sacrifice?" Sakura asked, horrified. Temari looked at her feet, and a few drops of water splashed the pavement beneath her.

"The ultimate sacrifice…to give up one's life for a friend," Temari whispered. Everyone was shocked.

"No…" Naruto whispered, turning back to the steps.

Shikamaru had reached the little girl. The little girl touched the top of his head and made him kneel before her; he flinched noticeably.

"I am Death herself. You cannot escape me without my permission. But…who is it you give yourself for?" the little girl asked him. She then turned to Temari, who was standing in the back. "I see…"

Death lifted Shikamaru's chin and leaned forward. Their lips connected as Temari screamed. Shikamaru dropped to the dead, ashen-faced and cold. Dead. Temari sobbed uncontrollably, lunging at Shikamaru and kneeling over his body. Crystal tears splattered his pale fingers.

"I will go now," Death announced. "I will never ever come back, just as I promised." And she faded into the dark afternoon. As soon as she was gone, the fog cleared and sun shone upon the city.

Everyone cheered.

The sick were healed.

Everyone cried.

The dead were mourned.

But Temari still lay on Shikamaru's body, sobbing. She was surrounded by her friends, but she didn't care. They tried to tear her away from him; she wouldn't let them.

"Temari, we have to go." Sakura explained, gently touching her friend's shoulder.

"I…" Temari rasped. She sat up, but then leaned back down. She kissed her love one last time. One last time…

Temari fell limp.

"Temari!" Sakura screamed. Naruto and Sasuke held her back as she cried out for her dead friend.

"Sakura…she's gone," Sasuke whispered. "But isn't it for the better?" he asked. Sakura turned to him and he wiped away her tears, taking her into his arms to calm her down.

(&)

The couple was cremated and their ashes were let go into the wind, mingling together and spreading over the ends of the earth. Anyone who was there would have sworn they heard Death singing sadly,

Ashes, ashes…ashes…

Like a whisper through the trees.

(&)

Miles away…

"Who are you?" Orochimaru asked coldly.

"I…am Death herself."

"Yeah, sure…what do you want?"

"I want to play…a game."

"Huh?"

"I want to play…ring around the rosies."

"Oh yeah?"

"Prove to me…does love exist?"

"No. Only hate and power exist."

"Really?" Death appeared right in front of Orochimaru in a flash of light. She tilted his chin up, and leaned forward…