Thanks to the delightful 'Rona virus forcing me into isolation, I was able to finish proof-reading this after all, so here is what will be the last chapter before the story is placed on pause.
True Death's eye, in a King awakened,
Returns to Spring that which was taken,
And joined once again, are they in heart,
Healed of what tore them apart.
Following the blood ritual that the Titan Momos had performed to link them, Kabuto had found himself unexpectedly drawn back from the brink of extinction. Provided with a continuous stream of regenerative chakra from his host, his body was capable of healing. But Kabuto knew the effects would only last for as long as Hidan continued to lend him chakra. As soon as that flow was stemmed, his body would begin to break down and rot once again.
It was a damned and miserable existence, and yet, it was preferable to not existing at all. Given an unexpected second lease on life, Kabuto knew he needed to act quickly to locate Orochimaru, and complete the important work that had been entrusted into his hands.
"The fuck's taking you so long, Mummy-Face?" Hidan sneered behind him.
Kabuto pressed his lips together to keep from responding in a manner that would provoke the foul-mouthed Momos further. He knew he was a sight, his face and body still wrapped in freshly changed bandages. Thankfully, however, the skin beneath had almost finished regenerating and was no longer melting away.
"I'm not lending you chakra so that you can sit around on your ass all day being a worthless piece of crap. You even sure you know what you're doing? You already failed to summon Poseidon's soul back."
"That is because he likely still lives," Kisame stated behind him, grinning with delight over the fact he might still yet have a chance to dismember Suigetsu himself.
Hidan turned to him. "How'd you know that, Shark-Breath?" he demanded. "We were told he was a goner."
"Samehada has not responded to my calls," Kisame answered. "It has never refused me before. I know all my old blade's tricks. If Kabuto was unable to return Suigetsu's soul, it is likely because Samehada intervened and saved him."
Hidan arched dubious eyebrows. "That reeks of bullshit. How can a sword save him?"
"Samehada is no ordinary weapon. It has the power to absorb not only chakra, but anything that takes a liquid form. I have used it to conceal myself in the past. We'll find out soon enough what happened, when I make a trip to the oceans myself."
"Whatever. Madara will still be pissed at this loser." Hidan poked Kabuto in the back with the blunt end of his scythe. "If you fail at this too, asshole, I'll gut you, got it? Hurry it up."
"I apologise," Kabuto answered, forcing his tone to remain polite. "Edo-Tensei is complex and requires great focus to perform correctly."
He winced as he spoke. His throat still felt sore, raw, his voice hoarser than it had once been due to the damage that had been inflicted by the black flames of Amaterasu. Flames that had been set upon him with no mercy. The memory of burning alive, of being unable to escape the torment, of enduring a scalding heat that had been even more excruciating than that of a thousand suns, haunted Kabuto's memories. The blistering, inextinguishable fire was all he saw whenever he closed his eyes. The stench of incinerating flesh was all he could smell. And all he could hear were his own agonising screams of horror and pain.
"You're distracting him, Hidan," Kisame remarked. "Let him work."
Hidan scowled, folding his arms across his chest as he leaned back against one of the throne room's engraved pillars.
"He's tried four times already. I've given this freak more than enough chakra to pull it off. Shouldn't they be awake by now?"
Kabuto felt Kisame's beady gaze boring into the back of his skull.
"Well?" The tall Titan prompted. "Shall I report back to our leader that you are unable to execute the technique?"
Kabuto stared up at the lifeless faces trapped within the crystals before him, the first whispers of alarm and unease fluttering through his veins. Something felt wrong. He had performed Edo-Tensei perfectly. Precisely the way Lord Orochimaru had taught him. Why were the souls he called not returning to their vessels?
"You know, I hope he doesn't pull this off," Hidan smirked. "Then I'll have no further reason to keep this freak alive."
Kabuto's heart pounded, even as his mind sprinted to find an explanation amidst a surge of rising confusion and panic. The physical bodies of his targets were perfectly preserved. Kisame had acquired him two living sacrifices to use in the ritual, lying prone on the ground before him. Scrawled on the long, open scroll beside them were the correct summoning seals. There was no reason why Edo-tensei would fail. Unless-
The breath in his lungs stilled as he recalled his Master's teachings - that the only way Edo-tensei would not work as intended was if the souls of the deceased were lost in a place beyond the reach of the technique's summoning seals. If those souls had somehow been sealed away elsewhere.
His thoughts raced. No matter the reason, if he failed to resurrect his targets, he knew that Cronus would have his head. The Titan did not tolerate incompetence of any sort - and being unable to fulfil the tasks required of him would render Kabuto useless. Dispensable. That meant that in order to ensure his continued survival, he had to revive the pair. At any cost.
Even if the method involved an element of deceit.
He told himself he had no choice. The alternative was to face certain execution. And he was nothing if not resourceful and crafty. Just as his teacher had been.
"It will be done," he murmured, eyes lowering to the unconscious sacrifices who were still very much alive, as he lifted his hands to begin weaving seals once again.
As promised, Yugakure had been drained of all remaining flood water soon after Suigetsu's arrival. Before she had departed the village, Karin had caught sight of the ocean ruler speaking with a group of local residents, keeping true to his word to assist with the beginnings of the rebuilding process. Curiosity had compelled her to stop behind the partly-damaged wall of a public building some safe distance away from where he'd stood, and she had been unable to keep herself from gaping in astonishment at the unexpected - and thoroughly foreign sight - of Poseidon willingly helping others, with no ulterior motive or expectation of reward.
It was apparent that he was sincerely remorseful over the part he had played in destroying the village, and clearly held himself responsible for the disaster that had unfolded. To witness the cocky, brash King of the Oceans - who had never once considered himself accountable to anything or anyone other than his own Crown - humbled in such a manner, had been disconcerting. Karin was not accustomed to seeing him in such a light, and had remained in place for perhaps too long, watching in confused fascination as he'd chatted away with local residents and hoisted up heavy wooden beams for the humans with little trouble, subtly using the powerful force of water to help them shift debris.
Karin could not dislodge him from her thoughts even as she headed to the nearest neighbouring town in search of Koko, still reeling from the discovery that Suigetsu had not died saving her life. She found herself vexed over the scare he had given her, and even more troubled by the immense relief she felt that he was safe and well. She told herself it was because his return guaranteed that all would be well in the oceans. She didn't need to worry about what would happen to them when he was around.
But even as the thoughts passed through her mind, she knew them to be lies, that they were miserable attempts at fooling herself. Since when had she even cared about or ever worried over the state of the seas in the past? Had she not turned her back on that life centuries ago? She had left for the surface, then departed to the Underworld, and then returned to the surface once again. It wasn't her concern what happened to the oceans, and yet she could not deny the satisfaction she felt knowing that they were back in Suigetsu's custody.
He had promised to ensure that Koko would be cared for financially, before informing Karin that their deals were settled, that he would no longer trouble her. Finally, she was free of him.
Instead of being elated over that fact, however, Karin could not help but feel uneasy. Suigetsu intended to rain vengeance down upon Cronus, to join the Olympians in their fight to topple the deadly Titan. But how would such a dangerous venture end? What would it mean for the unassuming mortals who inhabited the world?
What would it mean for her?
Those troubling thoughts kept her company throughout her journey to the next village. It took almost half a day of travelling using various methods of transportation, and when Karin at last arrived, she was tired, hungry and irritable. But she ignored her own discomfort, desperate to find the child she had lost. Without a photo to show the locals, she was forced to resort to enquiring after Koko using only descriptions and the little girl's name, claiming that she was a distant aunt in the hopes that someone could help her locate the child.
For a few hours, however, nobody could tell Karin where Koko was. All public authority offices were closed over the weekend, which meant that she could not check official records of recent evacuees. Growing increasingly frustrated, the river nymph was about to relinquish all hope, and even began to question the reliability of Suigetsu's information, when she finally stumbled across a resident who informed her that he knew of a family who had recently taken in a little girl matching Koko's description, and provided Karin with a street name and house number. Gritting her teeth with renewed determination, she marched toward it.
When she arrived at the house's pastel yellow painted front gate, she found a pleasant detached property with a small, neatly-kept front lawn not too dissimilar to the quaint cottage Koko's grandmother had lived in. It appeared clean, calm and well-maintained. An ideal replacement for the house Koko had lost.
Karin pushed open the gate, and approached the front door, only to hesitate despite herself. What if it was the wrong address? What if it was the wrong human child? Perhaps that would be a blessing in disguise. Perhaps it was best to stay out of Koko's life entirely. After all, getting involved in it to begin with had ended in disaster on both sides. The guilt she harboured over the deaths of the little girl's family members would haunt her for the rest of her days, and only proved to Karin that forming attachments with mortals - who were delicate beings prone to accidents, illnesses and death - was foolish.
She backed away from the door, shaking her head as further doubts began to creep over her. What had she been thinking, following Suigetsu's suggestion to find Koko? It had been a bad idea. She had only wanted to see the child, to check with her own eyes that the girl was safe. She had not thought about what would happen after that.
But it was too late to make a hasty retreat, for beyond the door, a dog was barking loudly, as if alerting those within to her presence. Seconds later, the door swung open, revealing a slender, brown-haired, middle-aged woman. And peeking out from behind her, was none other than the very child Karin had come to the village to find.
"Can I help you?" The woman asked politely.
"It's her, Aunt!" Koko shrieked, her face lighting up with recognition and joy. "It's the lady who worked for grandma!"
With that, the child launched herself forward, throwing her small arms around Karin's waist in a fierce hug. Karin, taken aback by the open show of affection, stiffened in surprise, and glanced down at the little girl, before nervously turning her gaze to the woman whom the child had addressed as 'Aunt'. She had a pleasant, kind, heart-shaped face, and Karin felt somewhat reassured and relieved that Koko still had living relatives who were able to care for her.
"You're okay!" Koko's voice was small and tearful, and Karin felt something constrict inside her chest at the sound. The little girl was shaking. In an attempt to soothe her, Karin placed a hand upon the child's left shoulder, returning the embrace, albeit somewhat awkwardly.
"I'm fine," Karin reassured her.
Koko looked up, still clinging to her waist. Her eyes were large and tearful.
"Daddy…" she swallowed, her grief still raw. "Daddy didn't make it. He put me on a rescue boat, and then went back to try to save Grandma himself. I waited and waited for him, but he never came back. They told me… they said that he and grandma must've got swept away by the floods."
"I'm so sorry," Karin's stomach twisted when she spied the tears rolling down the little girl's sweet face.
"When I didn't hear from you too, I got so worried! I thought you'd forgotten about me," Koko cried.
A lump formed in Karin's throat, and she was overcome with an unexpected surge of emotion and compassion at the sadness she glimpsed in the child's expressive gaze. An innocence that had been shattered, an innocence that ought not to have been stolen from her so soon. How many relatives had Koko lost to death? This was the same little girl who had helped Karin to start over and regain her independence, who had assisted Karin with settling into the village and allowed Karin to entertain living a life of her own. She had done so much for Karin, and was entirely oblivious to that fact.
But Karin would never forget her kindness. Ignoring the woman watching them, she dropped to her knees before the child, and drew her into a firm hug.
"I would never forget about you," she said quietly. "I'm sorry that I worried you. And I'm so sorry for what happened to your father and grandmother, and the village. They're resting in a good, safe place now, and one day, you'll see them again."
Koko hugged her back, sniffling. "Do you really think that's true?"
Karin thought of the Underworld, of the kingdom over which Hades ruled with a will of iron. She had never had the distinct honour of seeing the Elysian Fields herself, but she had known Koko's relatives for a short while, and was certain that they had been a good, honest sort of people. She could not imagine them ending up anywhere else in their afterlives.
"I know it is," she answered firmly.
"It's Miss Karin, isn't it?" The brown-haired woman who had been observing them stepped over the door's threshold. "I'm Ayana, Koko's maternal Aunt. I heard you were out of town when the tsunami hit?"
Karin swallowed, pulling away from Koko, who wiped at her eyes.
"Yes. I came back as soon as I heard the news."
"It's fortunate that you weren't around. It was awful. I'm sure you saw it all over the news. That tsunami came out of nowhere. Scientists don't have any explanation for it. There wasn't any seismic activity in the area, nothing at all unusual that could've warned the authorities. I've never seen anything like it."
Karin remained silent, the grim memory of the devastating tidal wave looming over the village permanently ingrained into her memory. Of course nobody had seen it coming. Poseidon had the power to flood a town with no prior warning at all.
Glancing at her niece, Ayana added, "As soon as my husband and I heard, we drove down to find Koko. Thank God she was safe. Please don't worry about her. We've applied for custody so she can stay with us and her three cousins."
"I'm glad." Karin rose to her feet, draping an arm around Koko's shoulders when the little girl hugged her waist again.
"Thank you for helping take care of Mrs Shinba." Ayana added, giving her a sad smile. "Koko has told me a lot about you, and how much you helped her grandma. She was a lovely woman."
Karin nodded, too overcome with sadness to voice anything else. She had not expected to come to care for the old lady and her family as much as she did, and yet, they had shown her a kindness she had not known for centuries. She found herself hoping, with all sincerity, that Koko and what remained of her relatives would be safe.
"Would you like to come in?" Ayana offered, kneeling down to pet the family dog that was wagging its tail beside her as it stared at Karin curiously. "We're just about to have dinner. I'm sure Koko would love it if you joined us?"
Karin glanced down at Koko's hopeful face, and was about to relent - when Suigetsu's previous warning that the Zetsu would never stop hunting her drifted through her mind. As long as she remained close to this family, there was a chance that they would all be dragged back into danger.
Her heart skipped a beat. She could not risk harm to them again, would not risk it again. Not when Koko had been placed into safety and a loving home again following her traumatic ordeal.
Suigetsu was right. As long as Orochimaru and his brainwashed underlings remained, she would never stop being pursued. And the only way to really stop the hunt, was to stop running, and face the one tailing her. To turn from prey to predator.
Something burned inside Karin's chest. A blazing resolve, a fierce desire to protect the little girl and her family, to keep the town from facing the same tragic fate that had consumed Yugakure. She couldn't simply stand idly by. A newfound purpose roared to life within her, the desire to fight against the injustice that had robbed Koko of her father and grandmother, the same sinister forces that would continue to haunt Karin's footsteps if she chose to do nothing. And in that moment, she finally understood that the only way she could live a life free of fear, a life in which she was truly free, was to battle against the evil that threatened not only her peace, but the peace of everything else that lived on the surface.
"I can't stay today," she said apologetically, quickly adding when Koko's face fell, "but I'll come back to visit soon. I promise."
"You're welcome back to visit anytime," Ayana smiled warmly.
"Thank you." Karin then fished a hand into her jean's pocket, and took out a small item attached to a keychain. She handed it to Koko, whose eyes widened.
"It's a gift. For you," Karin shifted on her feet, unaccustomed to such customs. Parting with the rarest of underwater treasures was the only way she could think of to show Koko her gratitude, and how very sorry she was. "It's a very unique and special shell."
"Whoa…" Koko gazed at it in awe, entranced by the natural gold shimmer that gradually blended to ivory. "Where'd you find it? It's so pretty."
"It's… something I've had a while. But now I want you to have it. Keep it safe for me, okay?" Karin touched the little girl's head lightly in a fleeting moment of affection, and the emotions that danced in Koko's eyes reassured her that she was making the right choice.
She could only hope that she made it to her next intended destination in time.
"How long do you want me to look after it?" Koko glanced back up at Karin with wide eyes.
A small smile touched Karin's lips. "Until the next time I visit."
"Well? How goes it? Tell me he is suffering," Shisui said, walking side by side with his cousin as they strode toward their intended destination.
Itachi was silent for a moment, communing with the crow summons he had left behind in the Elysian Fields, before quietly confirming, "Yes."
"Is he pleading his innocence? Has the fool told a lie yet?"
"Only the truth. As you commanded."
Shisui snorted. "A pity. It would have been far more amusing if he squandered his chance. There is no way he will be met with forgiveness."
Itachi's lips thinned, forming a grim line. "The suffering of a mortal soul is no cause for amusement, Shisui."
Shisui shot him a glance as they rounded a line of impeccably trimmed, flowering hedges.
"No. But there is great satisfaction to be found in his," he defended. "All will be well. She will remember naught of the bargain we will propose to Obito."
When his steadfast companion did not respond, Shisui peered more closely at him.
"What troubles you? Are you having second-thoughts about this plan?"
Thanatos was silent. Logically, he knew it was the only way to bend Obito to their will - and yet, what if it emotionally backfired? What if, after hearing Obito's confessions and crimes, the mortal woman Rin despised and rejected him, and instead of assisting them, the arranged reunion drove Obito to breaking beyond repair? To the point of self-destruction? He would be of no use to them, then - a disastrous outcome, given they had need of him to infiltrate Olympus. With Madara in possession of his own Rinnegan, they required the element of distraction in order to catch the Titan off guard and retrieve both the Helm of Darkness and the crystal confinement that held Zeus and Hera entrapped.
The other possibility and risk they had calculated - that Sasuke would also outright refuse to cooperate with their plan, shadowed Itachi's thoughts also.
"Its success depends upon Sasuke," he answered at length.
"You always were able to talk him around," Shisui reminded him. "I would not fret over that."
Itachi shook his head slightly. Sasuke was no longer the naive youth he had once been. He had grown into a wise and magnificent king, a monarch who was better acquainted with the laws of ruling than his cousin and brother were, because he had sat at the Underworld's seat of power for centuries. He knew every decree, including what was strictly forbidden.
"He may agree to manipulate Obito. However, the manipulation of a mortal soul in a bargain between gods is prohibited, even to the King."
"I am certain, given the circumstances, that an exception can be made in this instance?" Shisui mused. "If we are cautious in the wording of our terms, and how we choose to present the bargain to him, then we can all of us ensure the laws of the realm are honoured and upheld. Besides," he added, shaking an unruly lock of wavy black hair out of cat-like, sharp eyes. "It is as you have already said. The Fates have lost a most powerful servant in the Lady Hecate. We are the last ones they should seek to concern themselves with. Especially if we consider that their list of allies has already grown quite thin."
"Indeed," Itachi agreed.
Shisui blinked, then grinned. "If all else fails, and we really cannot alter Sasuke's mind, then we shall set little Kore upon him. Surely he cannot refuse her requests."
A dark brow rose imperceptibly at that comment, but Itachi nothing to that, his gaze fixed onto the royal stables that were drawing ever closer before them.
"How much longer should we allow him?" Hypnos then questioned, referring to Sasuke being occupied with Sakura. "There is much to be done."
"Leave them be," Itachi murmured, sensitive to the fact that the two needed time to reconcile and come to terms with their restored memories. His brother had suffered a most harrowing ordeal, and Itachi was determined to allow Sasuke a brief respite - for soon, Itachi knew, there would be none to be found.
"Sasuke will seek us out when he is ready."
"Very well," Shisui shrugged. "But we will have to act swiftly to restore her immortality once her memories have returned. Perhaps, while Obito is presently engaged, we ought to make arrangements for this now to hasten things along. Since Lady Hecate is no longer with us, we will need to seek out Demeter."
"We must exercise caution in our return to the surface," Itachi warned.
"Yes. Wouldn't want Madara's spies relaying back the news of our resurrection so soon," Shisui muttered. "We can send a summon out to her, to inform her that she must arrange the necessary preparations."
Itachi inclined his head in agreement. The conversation then ended when his dark gaze fixed onto the red-haired stable-hand who had been resting on a pile of hay next to the front of the stables. The boy tensed and clumsily leapt up at the sight of them, gaping at them in open-mouthed disbelief.
"M-my Lords!" he stammered nervously, cheeks flushing with shame at being caught idling in his duties. Bowing low, he ducked his head in embarrassment.
"F-forgive me, I was not told to expect you."
"Ours is an impromptu visit," Shisui waved. "Well met. What is your name?"
"It's Sora, m'lord."
"Sora," Shisui offered him a kind, reassuring smile. "We have come for our steeds, Orphnaeus and Nyctaeus."
"Yes, m'lords," Sora immediately began to move toward the stable doors. "At once, m'lords!"
Shisui held up a hand. "Stay, Sora. Do not trouble yourself. We shall retrieve them."
Sora stood awkwardly in place, uncertain of what to do, until Itachi murmured, "Return to the palace."
The stable boy's eyes widened at the quietly spoken command, and he bowed low, before turning to scurry obediently away.
Excited whinnies drifted out from within the stables, and Shisui and Itachi exchanged knowing glances.
"Looks like they've already sensed us," Shisui chuckled.
"Indeed," Itachi agreed, a small smile curving upon his lips.
The pair entered the stable, and sure enough, their Underworld steeds were turning agitatedly within their stalls, thick plumes of smoke billowing from their nostrils.
Shisui released a delighted laugh as he approached Orphnaeus, spreading his arms out wide in greeting. The whinnying horse's head shot immediately out over the stall's gate, bumping against Shisui's face, eagerly receiving his long-lost master.
"Orphnaeus! You handsome rascal! I wager you thought you'd seen the last of me!" Hypnos beamed as his horse licked at him. "It's so good to see you, boy." He chuckled again, momentarily unable to see a thing as his excited steed completely invaded his personal space.
"Whoa, there, whoa!" he scratched gently at the dark horse's mane. "Easy, now! Easy."
Orphnaeus exhaled smoke, continuing to nudge at his master incessantly.
"Now that is a welcome quite worth living again for," Shisui grinned, patting the stallion's neck.
Throwing a glance back over his shoulder, he found that the more even-tempered Nyctaeus was nuzzling his head affectionately against Itachi's forehead. Thanatos gently stroked the side of his horse's face, a soft, contented smile on his lips.
Alastor and Aethon had also jutted their necks out of their stalls, eager to be reunited with the two princes.
"Alastor," Shisui stepped away from his own steed, to greet Sasuke's horse, then turned to the majestic Aethon. Casting Erebus' mount a regretful look, he said, "I'm afraid it is just us who have returned, old boy. We are glad to see that Sasuke took such good care of you, as expected."
Aethon snorted, stomping his hooves, but turned his head to accept the carrots Itachi offered to him, taken from a nearby bucket that had been filled with snacks. Thanatos fed some to his brother's horse in turn, before giving a few apples to his own.
"And who is this little beauty?" Shisui noticed the white horse in the corner of the stables, removed from where the brother stallions were grouped. As he approached it, the horse lowered its head, clearly gentle in its temperament.
Itachi eyed the mount. Female, he recognised, from her noticeably smaller size. He assumed it belonged to the young woman who kept company with his brother. Perhaps a gift from Sasuke to the girl, to allow them to take turns about the realm together.
Shisui appeared to be drawing the same conclusions, for he released an amused laugh. "Who would've ever imagined obstinate little Hades to play so well at romance?"
Unlatching the gates, they then saddled up their horses and, taking hold of their reins, led them outside the stables.
"A glorious thing," Shisui smiled, as he smoothly got onto his horse and settled into the familiar saddle. "To ride them again. I am glad we chose to take others to the battlefield. We would not have had them to return to now, had we not."
Itachi gracefully mounted his steed, petting the side of Nyctaeus' neck.
Shisui tossed him a lopsided, lazy grin. "Well, cousin?" he said. "Since we find ourselves with the luxury of time, what say you to a turn about the realm? If we ride to the entrance, we can then send your summon out to Demeter."
Thanatos nodded his quiet agreement.
Shisui steered his horse down the path. "Have you kept score? Which of us won our last race?"
A small smirk tugged at one corner of Itachi's lips. A clear answer to his cousin's question.
"Ah." Hypnos raised his eyebrows in recollection, then scoffed. "I must have taken pity on you, and indulged you with a victory."
"Is that so?" Itachi retorted, knowing all too well that he had won fairly and squarely.
"But of course. You should know, however, that I am in no mood to be so generous, now. Hyah!"
With those words, he tugged on Orphnaeus' reins and galloped swiftly down the path.
Itachi watched him go a moment, before murmuring to his steed, "Fly, Nyctaeus."
With a triumphant neigh, the stallion obediently shot forward to give chase.
Sasuke had feared that sharing the news of Kakashi's demise before an emotionally strained Sakura had even had the opportunity to fully come to terms with Chiyo's death, would push her to a breaking point. He had expected a vocal eruption of anger and hurt, floods of inconsolable, hysterical tears. But instead, Sakura wept quietly into her hands, which made her reaction all the more devastating and difficult to witness.
Plagued by guilt, he watched her clutch at her chest, as if the news of her dear teacher's passing was a physical pain she could not bear, news that stole the strength from her body and prevented her from grieving any louder. His hands balled into fists at his sides as she sobbed, hating how powerless he felt to take her sorrow away, hating that he had failed to protect someone who had been important to them both. The anger he harboured toward himself intensified when Sakura turned to him and tearfully cried that she had not even had the chance to say goodbye to Kakashi.
She clung to him, seeking comfort, a comfort Sasuke did not feel worthy of providing. Not when he considered himself directly accountable. But he held her despite that fact, because it was the very least he could do, the only thing he could do. As she trembled against him, caught in the clutches of a profound, crippling grief, Sasuke found he could not find the right words to articulate his deep regret, to let her know that he blamed himself, that it ought to have been him that had been dragged into Obito's portal.
And so he held her in silence, until at long last, her heart-wrenching sobs began to subside, replaced by shuddering breaths, as she remained motionlessly in place, leaning heavily against him, her head nestled against his chest. Emotionally spent, distraught and exhausted.
Sasuke told himself that restoring her memories could wait. Sakura was clearly already so overwhelmed, that it felt wrong to breach the subject then. It was wiser, kinder, to allow her time and space to come to terms with everything else he had revealed to her, to process her feelings. Perhaps he could instead take her to pay her respects to Chiyo before they laid her to rest in the River Lethe. Or maybe Sakura wanted to see Obito first and give him a piece of her mind. That was provided Shisui and Itachi hadn't already broken him for daring to lay hands on them.
He glanced down at her rose-hued head, uncertain whether to leave her be or rouse her from the storm of her thoughts. Sakura's continued silence was unnerving because it was so rare, and Sasuke grew increasingly concerned when she did not say anything or move for a long while. He hesitated, not daring to draw away first lest his movements trigger a fresh flood of tears. His jaw clenched. Every single one was a reminder of his failings. How could a single person shed so many?
"I knew it," she finally whispered, voice thick with grief as she slowly pulled away from his tear-stained tunic, eyes puffy from crying. "When I saw Obito's eyes, I knew something had happened. After you first told me that he'd been taken…"
"Sakura," Sasuke began. "I-"
"It wasn't your fault, Sasuke-kun," she interrupted. "It's him." Her hands closed into fists on her lap. "It's always been Cronus. He won't stop until he destroys everything that's good in this world!"
That she had anticipated that he held himself accountable, and sought to offer him comfort instead, tore Sasuke apart.
"How are we going to stop him?" she continued tearfully, eyes brimming with a depth of pain that cut Sasuke to the quick. "Do we even stand a chance, now…? We've lost so many, and now he has the Titans, and the Rinnegan. He only needs to get his hands on two more tailed-beast and-"
"Sakura." Sasuke gripped her shoulders, calming her before she could give into what he could see was the simmering threat of brewing hysteria.
"Obito is trapped," he reminded her. "Madara cannot awaken the Ten-Tails without him. Orochimaru and Kabuto are gone. We have Shisui and Itachi."
Sakura bit her lower lip. Cronus might have lost Obito, Orochimaru and Kabuto, but had regained the other Titans - ancient, powerful foes that could not be underestimated.
"He'll still go after Naruto. We've lost so many of our elders, and now Lady Chiyo, and Kakashi-sensei-" she broke off, scarcely able to speak the names in grief.
Sucking in a deep breath, she took a minute to compose herself again, before continuing shakily, "What's going to happen if that monster gets off Olympus? How are we meant to protect everyone? He'll use human life against us, you know he will. He doesn't care about keeping the balance. Chaos is what he is! How are we going to stop him?"
"The Fates plan to have him sealed within their realm," Sasuke informed her. It was as close to the full truth as he was permitted to share.
"Then why can't they just summon him there themselves right now, like they did with you? Why are they letting him carry out these plans at all?!" Sakura demanded, her voice growing steadier as her anguish morphed to frustration and anger.
"Why aren't they putting an end to this? Why would they stop our enemy from getting to you in battle before, tell you all about Cronus' plans and what we have to do to defeat him, then do nothing and let you lose the Rinnegan? Why didn't they help us when Obito was here? It doesn't make any sense!"
"When it comes to the affairs of immortals, they are limited in how much they can intervene."
"Limited? What do you mean?" Sakura's eyebrows furrowed. Her head was throbbing from crying so much, her mind and emotions completely overrun.
"They do not know all, Sakura," Sasuke clarified. "There are Obscurum, shrouds in the Crossroads of Fate."
"Shrouds?" Sakura repeated, nonplussed.
"Shadows that conceal potential divergences in the paths of destiny, ones that have yet to form. Even the eyes of The Fates cannot see through them. It is forbidden for them to interfere directly, to attempt to influence those events in any way themselves."
"So you're saying they didn't know you'd lose the Rinnegan?"
"I was warned to guard my throne," Sasuke recalled their chilling words. "They spoke of a veil of blood and stone, but could not see beyond that." Shaking his head, he finished, "I did not know what the warning meant."
Until it was too late, he silently added. He could only speculate that the sisters had indeed been ignorant of the fact that he would lose the very Rinnegan they had assisted him in awakening - and that once the Crossroads had at last revealed that fact to them, they had been unable to take action to assist him further.
Sakura stared at him, alarmed. "Then they really can't tell you what'll happen in the future? Even if it helps us fight Cronus?"
Sasuke shook his head.
"But Sasuke-kun," Sakura's frown deepened. "You told me they summoned you in battle to stop Cronus from getting the Rinnegan."
"And to awaken it," he added.
"Right. But if they really can't intervene directly, why were they able to interfere then? And why couldn't they do it again, when Obito was here, to save your Rinnegan?"
She was too sharp, too bright, Sasuke thought to himself. There was no way to halt her line of questioning without lying to her - unless he thought of something else, and fast.
"They offer no reasons for their actions," he stated, at a loss to understand them himself. "Why they chose to take me from that battle, and not when my Kingdom was at risk, is something only they know."
Sakura stared unhappily at him. The only reason she could think of, was that doing so would have yielded even worse consequences than allowing the horrible events they'd experienced to unfold. Had they known that Chiyo would return in time to save them? Had they correctly assumed that Hecate would be capable of averting disaster? Had they known she would sacrifice her own life to protect the throne and resurrect Sasuke's kin? There was no way of knowing without confronting The Fates directly.
"And that's all that happened?" she pressed.
Sasuke nodded, hating how easy it was to lie, how easy it was to keep his expression perfectly blank. How prepared he was to do whatever it took to protect Sakura, even if that meant being deceitful to her face.
Perhaps The Fates had genuinely not known he would lose his first Rinnegan so soon. Or perhaps they had known, and the only reason they had truly summoned Sasuke at all, had been to bestow the Mark and entrust the Adamantine blade to him, aware that war was once again looming near. Perhaps they had merely chosen that moment to simply delay what they had known to be inevitable.
Sakura's eyes searched his. "Why would they help you awaken the Rinnegan at all? They could have done it a lot sooner."
"The Rinnegan is capable of opening a portal to their realm."
Sakura considered this, her mind working on overdrive to connect the dots. "So that's why Cronus wanted it, besides using it to control the Ten Tails? Because he wants to force his way into their realm and rewrite history." After a brief pause, she went on, "Wait. Does that mean we're going to have to help them fight him inside their realm?"
At Sasuke's wordless nod, she shook her head incredulously. She had assumed The Fates were all-powerful, more powerful than Cronus himself. But evidently, even they required assistance to take the formidable Titan down, which was to be expected, given his plans to fuse with the Ten-Tails.
"But…" she continued, confused. "You don't have the Rinnegan anymore, Sasuke-kun. How are we meant to get inside their realm, now?"
They were skirting around dangerous territory. Sasuke did not want to lie to her any further, not where he could help it. Which meant he had no choice but to distract her, by speaking of the very matter he had intended to postpone for the sake of her well-being.
"I awoke another."
Sakura blinked at him, startled by the news.
"What…?" she got out at length. "How?"
Sasuke's heart skipped a beat. It could not be helped, he told himself. It was the only way to change the subject and divert her from dwelling on the matter of The Fates and their plans any further. His heart pounded, its beat sickening. The same dread he had felt earlier returned, taking firm root within his gut. He could not control how she reacted once her memories returned. He could not protect her from that pain, a pain she would have to endure just as he had when Shisui had restored his own memories. But he could explain himself in advance, and ensure that she accepted and understood his version of events first.
Setting his jaw in determination, he met her gaze and revealed, "Shisui restored my memories."
Sakura released a quiet breath of astonishment. A long, heavy silence followed, before she whispered, "You mean… all the ones he sealed away? Of me?"
His eyes held hers in silent confirmation, and the air caught in Sakura's throat. The magnitude of Sasuke recalling their past relationship struck her with the force of a displacing hurricane, drowning out all coherent thoughts in her mind, leaving her adrift, emotions, once again, caught in whiplash.
Her heart thundered. What did that mean? What did it change? What did he see now, looking at her? What did he feel?
"Then…" she whispered in awe, any further thoughts of The Fates far removed from her mind. "You remember us…?"
There it was again. The haunted look in those bottomless midnight vortexes, now swirling with what Sakura could clearly discern was open regret and pain. Apprehension fluttered inside her chest as a dizzying onslaught of immediate questions rebounded around inside her head.
"How did it happen…?" she began anxiously. "Did your memories come back all at once? Did it-" she hesitated. "Did it hurt?"
Sasuke hesitated, unwilling to frighten her. How could he tell her that the process had been agonising, horrifying? That it had set his mind on fire? Endless images had flooded into his head, one after another, and he had been powerless to control their order and flow. He had wanted them to stop, and yet there had been no relief from the punishing waves of torment, until the last seal working had been removed.
Sakura's seal was far more complex. Designed to not only suppress her memories and powers, but her very immortality. Sasuke knew that he would only be removing the seal on her memories first, for she could not be restored to true immortality without first being reunited with her deity blood. That did not mean the process of remembering a whole forgotten lifetime would pain her any less.
"Oh…" Sakura blanched, deducing the answer from the way his gaze dropped. Of course it would hurt. How could she have expected otherwise? The trauma to her own mind when her memories were restored would surely be even more overwhelming. It could not be helped or avoided, she accepted. There was no other way to return to immortality than to burn in the flames of rebirth, and to suffer all the pain that accompanied the ritual.
But another tremor of trepidation shot down her spine. If his memories had been distressing enough to activate a second Rinnegan, what did that mean for her? She was human. What if it was too much for her body to take? She gulped nervously, and did her best to silence the whispers of uncertainty that plagued her.
Instead, she asked softly, "Were we really happy, Sasuke-kun? Before…" her words trailed off, but she did not need to elaborate. He knew what she meant. Before Cronus had ripped them apart.
A heavy silence followed her weighted question. Then, in response, he lifted his fingers to her right cheek in a ghost of a caress. His eyes trailed over her features, and Sakura read such a profound sadness in their depths, that she felt her own well with fresh tears.
He did not need to answer. For she saw it, scrawled all over his features, as clear as glass in transparency. She saw it in the way the corners of his lips turned downward, in the conflicted storm of emotions that clashed within those breath-taking charcoal irises. He had loved her. He had loved her to the point of pain. To the point of breaking. And that was precisely why Shisui had sealed his memories away.
Inside her chest, Sakura's heart constricted. To think that such sentimental recollections and emotions had been stolen from him, to keep him from succumbing to his own destruction. He had suffered as much as she had. Perhaps, in ways, even more so.
"Tell me what happened," she whispered, slipping her hands into his.
He looked down at their joined hands, and was silent for another long moment. As if trying to find the best way to begin what was clearly a difficult conversation for him to have. She waited patiently, rubbing her thumbs in comforting, reassuring circles over his skin.
Quietly, he started, "Madara did not learn of your identity from me."
Sakura did not dare to breathe. She had known it in her heart all along. But to hear it confirmed aloud that Sasuke had not betrayed her in the past lifted an invisible weight from her shoulders that she had not even realised she'd been carrying.
Sasuke's eyes rose to meet hers again. "A ball was held. Here, before the war. Madara forced us to dance before the court." Anger simmered in his irises, a testament to the truth he was telling. "That was when I first came to learn you were in the Underworld. You were held captive here without my knowledge."
Sakura exhaled, drinking up every word he spoke.
His jaw clenched tightly. "Before that, Madara had already learned of your abilities, and had started to ask questions about you. I could not let him discover what we were. What you were. He ordered me to sever my bonds with Naruto and Kakashi. I knew that meant I had to sever them with you, too. I had no choice but to pledge loyalty to him."
He paused, before finishing with difficulty, "What we- what we were… I discarded it to protect you. I thought it would stop you from being dragged into the war." Bitterly, he added, "But it was already too late."
Sakura swallowed, heart racing inside her chest.
"Madara had the venom administered to you, and locked you in a cell." Sasuke fell silent then, his gaze dropping again, as if speaking of this memory was particularly painful for him. "I freed you without his knowledge, and took you to the surface. I-"
"You didn't know," Sakura breathed in realisation, her heart breaking at the wave of anguish that passed across his face as his eyebrows furrowed in recollection. "You didn't know what releasing me back onto the surface would do. You were trying to save me."
Her words rang true, but the guilt he felt still lingered. It would have been a small mercy, had he not been the one to send her back to the surface to die - to him, at least. But had he not, she would have doubtlessly been made to suffer even more. Torn by that knowledge, Sasuke struggled to rein in the turbulence of his emotions. He needed to be strong for Sakura. He could not waver, could not wallow in his own remorse and regrets.
"I was caught. After I released you," he said tightly. "That was when Madara turned me against the Olympians. When I awoke, everyone had already left for the battlefield. I meant to follow, but…" He swallowed, before forcing himself to finish, "...I found you. With Aphrodite. You were-"
He broke abruptly off, the turmoil in his features palpable. He did not need to say anything else, for Sakura could assume the rest. He had found her dying, and that was when his memories had to have been locked away by Shisui.
"Sasuke-kun…" Sakura whispered, leaning forward to embrace him again. "I knew it. I knew Cronus was lying when he tried to trick you into believing it was your fault! He did this. All of it!"
Pulling away, she cupped Sasuke's face, caressing his cheeks gently, her eyes shining with fresh tears, with raw, open love. Everything he had said made sense. It was clear to her, more than ever, that he had been as much a victim as she had, powerless to change his fate in a past that had been wretched for them both.
Anger, white-hot and blinding, burned like molten lava through her veins. She vowed that neither of them would ever be powerless again. That they would obtain their vengeance on Cronus, seize retribution for every horror the callous Titan had subjected them to in their shared past and present lives.
Sakura saw the resentment in Sasuke's eyes, the hatred he held toward his ancestor. It mirrored her own sentiments toward the Titan. He needed to be stopped, she thought, once and for all, before he consumed the entire world and destroyed it.
"He tried to break us," she said. "But we found each other again. He'll never understand that love will always be stronger than hatred."
Sasuke caught his breath, staring down at her with something akin to quiet wonder as she continued, "Forget what happened in the past. Forget the hurt, the lies. None of this was your fault. You were only trying to protect us. Once I'm reborn, nothing will break us. I promise you, Sasuke-kun. He'll never win or turn us against each other again! We won't let him."
Something wrenched inside Sasuke's chest. Her words were inspiring, heartfelt, but they were also cruel. She had no idea that they would be broken, in time. That it was his destiny to become the new vessel of Chaos, and that they would be parted forever because of it.
In the end, Madara would triumph in keeping them apart, though he would not be alive to see it. The awful irony of that fact was not lost on Sasuke. His throat burned. He could not think of it at that moment. They still had time, and a war to win.
"Thank you for telling me," Sakura murmured, drawing his focus back to her.
Lowering her hands from his face, she wiped at her tears, sniffling. A long silence followed, in which she weighed everything she had learned against the enemy's plans, knowing that time was of the essence, that it was not running on their side. Bitter regret consumed her. Had she not been such a liability, had she been immortal like the others, had she been able to fight on the battlefield alongside her loved ones and friends, then perhaps she might have been able to do more to help. Perhaps Kakashi might not have been lost, and Chiyo might not have fallen. Perhaps Shizune and all the others Cronus had taken from them would still be with them.
Frustration and hatred roared like a raging inferno within her. She'd had enough of being forced to sit out on the sidelines while everyone else threw themselves into danger. Sakura was sick of Cronus taking the people she cared about from her. If he had sought to push his adversaries to despair, to intimidate them into giving up and losing all hope, his actions had quite the opposite effect on Sakura. She thought of everyone she had lost, of Obito's attack on the Underworld, and the very real peril they and all life on the earth faced as long as Cronus continued to exist.
The rage Sakura felt at the injustice of it all gave her strength. It coursed through her veins like lightning, a heated, charged, crackling force that stirred fury into being in her blood, warding away all feelings of helplessness. It urged her to take up arms, to keep fighting. Harder than ever before.
It urged her to take action, to waste no further time drowning in grief and hiding away. Tears and sadness would not restore Chiyo, Kakashi, Tenten, Shizune, or any of the other precious friends that had been ripped from them by a most ruthless enemy. Sakura's time in the Underworld had been a blissful bubble of peace and pleasure - up until Obito's unexpected infiltration of the realm. A cold reality check, a harsh wake-up call that had snapped her back to the grim reality of their circumstances, making her realise that she had let down her guard, had allowed herself to be distracted by love and lulled into a false sense of security.
They could not afford to be caught out again. The enemy was moving - and they had to move, too. They needed to be prepared.
She looked down at her hands, at the fingers curled into fists. Small. Fragile. Human. So long as she remained mortal, she would be physically weak. Limited. She would not stand a chance in battle against any Titan. Formidable foes older and more powerful than any enemy they had faced up until then.
Taking a deep breath, she lifted her eyes to meet Sasuke's dark gaze.
"Sasuke-kun, I can't just sit here and hide away any longer, missing battles because everyone's too afraid I might have another attack. I want to fight. I want to remember you, too. I want the seal removed."
Sasuke blinked. Staring intently at her, he began carefully, "Having your memories restored will place a great burden on your mind."
She did not break eye-contact, her resolve steel, unshakeable. "I've waited long enough. We've lost so much time already, and now the Titans are free, we can't afford to waste anymore. I won't lose anyone else." She swallowed again, lowering her head as she added in a whisper, "I can't."
He was silent as she took a moment to compose herself. Exhaling slowly, she continued, "He'll be after Naruto next. Or maybe he'll target Ino. Or my mother. We can't wait. We can't let that monster exploit any more weaknesses!"
Pressing a hand to her chest, she confessed in earnest, "When I stood facing Obito in the throne-room, I was terrified. Not for my own life… but for what it would mean if Obito seized the throne, what would become of this world, and all the souls in it, how it would upset the balance of life on the surface. Cronus doesn't care about this realm. He doesn't care about anything except revenge and power. We can't wait until I'm ready, until I'm done grieving. I've never stopped grieving any of the people we've lost, and no amount of time that passes will ever make it hurt less that Kakashi-sensei and Chiyo are-" her voice broke.
He waited as she sucked in another deep breath, bravely weathering the storm of her emotions before venturing on, "It hurts. It'll never stop hurting. But I have to fight, for everything they stood for, for everyone Cronus has taken away from us, for this realm and the surface and for all life on this earth. We can't give up! Even if it feels like a hopeless fight, we have to try. Or their deaths will have all been for nothing!"
Sasuke watched her, in quiet agreement. Amazed by how strong she was, how well she was adjusting to everything, instead of giving into despair.
"He doesn't know your cousin and brother are alive," Sakura went on. "We have Obito trapped here. Which means we have at least two advantages. We have to do this now. I have to be ready now. So please." She gripped both his hands in hers, and looked up at him pleadingly. "Help me. I want to be able to fight with you. To stand beside you and everyone else. Life was my gift. I have to protect it! I want my immortality and my powers back."
Sasuke searched her eyes for a long moment. They were fierce, brave, earnest. Upon finding no remnant of hesitation or doubt in her vivid irises, he finally relented.
"Your immortality can only be restored through your deity blood."
"Right. My mother has that. I was told I have to be restored in the sacred waters from my old temple's pool." At Sasuke's questioning look, Sakura explained, "My mother can take us there. They've kept it hidden so it stays safe. Am I able to go to the surface for a while?"
"I can suppress the seeds' effects for a limited time," Sasuke replied. "But for now, I am able to reverse the seal placed on your memories - if you wish it."
"But aren't my memories locked inside the same seal that's kept The Essence hidden?" Sakura frowned. "How can you release my memories without releasing everything else? I've always had more attacks the more I've remembered things in the past. Will doing it now put me in danger? Or should we be removing all the seals at once?"
"Your seal is made up of multiple workings and layers," Sasuke explained, recalling the in-depth explanation his brother had given to him of the nature of the seal, before Sasuke had left his and Shisui's sides to return to Sakura's.
"Each layer must be unlocked separately. I will reverse only the workings that sealed away your memories. The ones that contain your soul and abilities within you must be removed only when you are reunited with your deity blood. Removing them before then will poison you."
Sakura was silent. Then she said quietly, "You have to let me die, Sasuke-kun. It's the only way I can be reborn. It's going to happen anyway. There's no way my human body can contain my powers for long."
He shook his head. "Your death will not be without supervision."
"Supervision?" she echoed, holding her breath.
"My brother will slow your heartbeat long enough for your deity blood to begin altering you. He will temporarily suspend its rhythm to allow the transition to complete. When the last of your mortal blood is changed, your heart will begin circulating immortal blood of its own will. You will reawaken a goddess."
Sakura quietly exhaled. He made it sound so simple, when it was surely anything but.
"You will not suffer," Sasuke added, placing his hands reassuringly upon her shoulders. "Shisui will ensure you remain asleep throughout. Their abilities will remove any risks normally involved in the turning ritual."
Sakura nodded. It was reassuring to know that at least she would not be conscious throughout her rebirth.
Sasuke regarded her intently. After a pause, he said, "Are you certain you wish to do this now?"
Despite herself, Sakura felt fear slither through her veins. Once Sasuke removed the seal, there was no going back. The return of her memories would be accompanied by the full realisation of who she truly was, who she had always been. Then, for her immortality to be fully restored, she needed to have her deity blood transfused back into her body in order to reunite with the unsealed Essence of Spring within her.
She was relieved to know that the unsealing would occur in stages, not all at once, as she had once dreaded. Had it been otherwise, with nothing containing it any longer, the potent Essence would surely wreak havoc upon her mortal coil, and contaminate her blood with a vengeance.
Quietus, a fortune teller had once warned her, was the only way to achieve true release. Sakura had long since accepted that in order to be reborn and reunited with her rightful gifts, she would have to first die. But following Sasuke's explanation, she realised that it meant she would have to die as a mortal - in order to survive the transition to immortality. It was only through the suppression of her mortal life, that her divine existence could be restored.
She would have to bid goodbye, forever, to a part of her that had been integral to her identity. She would have to come to terms with the fact that she would no longer be human, as she had been for centuries - that she would never be reborn again, or grow up in innocence again, or ever grow old. She would never again experience the beautiful, humbling fragility and uncertainty of life, nor would she ever know the bliss of a peaceful afterlife as mortals did.
Never again would she be the human Sakura.
It was comforting to know that Shisui would ensure she slept throughout what would otherwise surely be a debilitatingly painful physical metamorphosis. She would be spared the deadly delirium and feverishness that accompanied an unassisted mortal turning, where the chances of survival and success were not guaranteed. Sakura had every faith that she would make it through with Sasuke by her side. He would not let anything happen to her, and although they no longer had Chiyo to guide them through the ritual, they did still have Sakura's mother and Ino, both of whom had been present at the time of her first rebirth - as well as the two individuals who had placed the seals on her. Between them all, they would surely know how to minimise the risks of anything going wrong.
Heart pounding, she whispered, "I'm ready."
Sasuke's gaze lowered to their joined hands, his own heart galloping riotously inside his chest. At last the time had arrived. The moment that had once seemed so distant, so impossible, was upon them. A part of him was terrified. Neither of them had any idea of how she would respond once she regained consciousness. Whether it would be her past self he initially encountered, or her present one, or some combination of both.
Not even his kin had been able to tell him for certain, for Sakura's memories had not simply been suppressed as his own had - her entire past existence, her soul and identity had been locked away in the Essence he was about to begin unsealing. What exactly happened once the first layer was removed, Shisui had told him, would depend entirely on the strength of Sakura's mind and will. On how quickly she was able to regain control of her unravelling thoughts, filter through and compartmentalise them, and reconcile the past with the present.
Releasing her hands, Sasuke lifted his own to her face, holding it reverently between his palms. Sakura's heart hurtled as she gripped onto his forearms, her throat suddenly dry as adrenaline crashed through her veins.
"Hold me," she whispered, her voice wavering slightly, as the full magnitude of what they were about to do finally caught up with her. "Promise me you won't let go, Sasuke-kun. No matter what happens. No matter what I say or do, don't let me go."
Sasuke's eyes trailed slowly over her beloved features, his own expression softening. Brushing his thumbs over her cheeks in a featherlight caress, he silently vowed to hold her. Even if it broke him.
Then his eyes met hers, and steeling himself before he could think to hesitate again, he directed chakra to his ocular pathways, calling forth his Sharingan and Rinnegan. Sakura watched, wide-eyed and enthralled, as his left eye bled to luminous crimson, the three black tomoe fusing together to form a stunning, mesmerising kaleidoscope. Within it she spied Sasuke's familiar, six-pointed pattern - combined with another three-pointed black pinwheel that extended outwards directly from the pupil. The pattern of his brother's Sharingan, the two somehow fused together in an elaborate geometric design within one piercing iris.
The Sharingan spun hypnotically. Arresting, captivating, devastating in its beauty, the moment it manifested and captured her gaze, Sakura felt a strange, shifting pressure inside her head, accompanied by a near-audible click - like that of a key being turned in a lock - before a jagged, agonising pain exploded through her mind, turning her vision to white. It zig-zagged through her skull like a lightning bolt, enveloping every fibre of her being, and ripped the air from her lungs, stealing away her ability to scream, to form words, to tell Sasuke that she could not breathe.
Every muscle in her body tensed, the nerve-endings in her head channelling burning flame as vivid, flashing visions began to flood through her mind's eye, cascading with great speed like a chaotic, fast forwarding movie reel, returning long lost memories to her in crashing waves of agony that cast her out into a treacherous sea of suffering.
He held her. Even as she violently trembled, even as piercing screams of pain and ragged gasps of anguish tore from her throat, even as she mindlessly, blindly clutched at her head and writhed and clawed and heaved against his embrace as if she could not stand to be within the confines of her own skin - through the storm of it all, Sasuke held her.
He held her, sick to his stomach with fear, ignoring the tremors that afflicted his own body as he was forced to watch her endure such acute distress. It seemed that an entire eternity passed before Sakura at last stiffened and collapsed against him, rendered unconscious by the sheer force of her body's physical response to the recollections and accompanying emotions that had assaulted her mind and senses.
Sasuke's heart thundered as he stared down at her with wide eyes. What had she seen? What had she thought? What had she felt? He could not even begin to anticipate any of it, and had never felt so out of control of a situation as he did right then, waiting for her to open her eyes again. And that reality was terrifying.
Gripping her tightly by her upper arms, Sasuke remained frozen in place, seized by an uncharacteristic moment of blind panic. What if she had been too overwhelmed? What if the return of her memories triggered a final, fatal attack while she was asleep? Shisui had reassured him beforehand that enough of his chakra remained as a protective buffer - and yet Sasuke was nevertheless filled with a rising sense of dread.
The Essence of Spring bound to a mortal coil remained unpredictable. Unstable. And he did not have the power to regulate Sakura's heartbeat anymore. What if something had gone wrong, and-
He swallowed, angrily pushing back the anxious, encroaching thoughts. No. Shisui and Itachi would not have left him to restore her memories alone had they believed there to be any risk to her safety and survival. The integrity of the seal that contained her powers would not be affected by the return of her memories. That was what they had told him before he had left them.
With his brother's implanted eye, a transfixed Sasuke could at last perfectly see the complex seals that had been placed upon her, and could finally look upon what had been concealed from his gaze for so long. What was responsible for keeping the Essence of Spring hidden away from the enemy's notice for thousands of years, confined within a girl who appeared to be little more than an unassuming mortal.
The key to removing the seal on Sakura's memories had been to simply allow her to look into True Death's Sharingan, but Sasuke knew that the other parts - the parts that involved actually reawakening her as a goddess - would require a reversing combination of workings. The golden Essence that contained her divine powers glimmered clearly within her, entangled behind her chakra pathways, a hallowed light that pulsed steadily in time to her heartbeat, suppressed in place within the centre of her chest. Still capable of stopping her human heart at any moment without immortal intervention.
His thoughts were derailed entirely when she suddenly stirred in his arms, releasing a pained groan. Still gripping onto her shoulders, he gently assisted her in sitting upright, peering anxiously into her face as she slowly came back around.
Her eyes opened, her gaze unfocused and groggy, as if she had not yet registered where she was, as if she had not yet regained her bearings. She lifted a hand to her head, clearly still plagued by the aftershocks of pain. Sasuke knew the feeling. He had awoken with a splitting headache following the return of his memories, too.
"...Sakura." His voice was barely above a whisper as he slipped a hand behind the nape of her neck, his gaze darting with concern over her features, trying to discern whether she was experiencing any additional physical discomfort, trying to anticipate her state of mind, her reaction. All the while, his gaze kept flicking back onto The Essence sealed inside her, half-dreading that the glimmering light might suddenly snuff out or do something else utterly unexpected.
The call of her name appeared to chase the cobwebs that lingered over her mind, for she suddenly stiffened in his hold. He watched, pulse galloping, as recognition washed over her face.
Time itself seemed to hover in suspension when her cypress eyes then slowly lifted to meet his probing, concerned gaze.
They widened, a myriad of emotions dancing across them. Confusion flashed there, followed by anguish, shock, horror and- was that hatred? The expressions shifted too swiftly for him to decode, and her chest began to heave. His lips parted, to ask her whether she was alright - when Sakura sucked in a sharp breath, and without warning, slammed her left elbow straight into the centre of his sternum.
"Ghh!" Sasuke released a surprised grunt of pain, winded and taken completely off-guard when she abruptly tore herself out of his grasp, shoving him backwards as she bolted away from the chaise-longue.
For an awful moment, he stared after her in horrified bewilderment, his stunned mind struggling to comprehend her actions - when his eyes widened in realisation.
She was racing toward the doors. She was running - from him.
It was the very reaction that he had feared - that she would wake up in confusion, her mind and sense of self displaced, all logic scrambled and overwhelmed by her past recollections, by the haunting memories of an entire life she'd experienced before her present existence.
Dread wrenched like a twisting dagger inside his abdomen. The brain fog had yet to clear. She wasn't processing. She was acting on instinct. On the strongest emotions tied to her past memories. He had to catch her. To calm her.
"Sakura!" Frantic, he stumbled up after her, the agitated desperation in his face and voice palpable as he launched himself forward. Flickering into being just behind her, he caught her by her slender waist, only to lose his footing when she suddenly twisted in his hold and without warning, slammed a chakra-charged palm up against the underside of his jaw.
Sasuke hissed, biting his tongue hard enough to draw blood as pain jolted through his head, the momentum of her erratic movements sending them tumbling together to the ground.
"Sakura-" he began again, barely capable of drawing a breath at the fury and hurt and sheer terror he glimpsed in her eyes. "No- don't!"
She pushed and clawed rabidly at him, writhing and wriggling violently in his hold.
"You killed me!" she screamed, and the hysterical words punctured straight through Sasuke's heart like jagged spears. "You killed me! You killed me!"
"Stop," he grabbed at her wrists, trying to calm her down, trying to soothe her, even as his own heart hurtled against his ribcage, his throat clogging with horror. "Sakura, stop. Look at me-"
"No!" She gasped tearfully, tearing a wrist out his hold. Stinging pain flared at his cheek as she scratched aimlessly at his face, struggling even harder, inconsolable in her grief. "Let go, let me go! I hate you!"
The devastating words struck at him like pelting hailstones, splitting the air from his lungs. She was not herself, Sasuke willed himself to remember, to remain calm, though it hurt no less to witness, at last, the true extent of deeply-rooted pain and hurt that her involvement with him in the past had caused her.
No matter what I say or do, don't let me go.
She had told him to hold onto her. He had made a promise.
A low, frustrated growl escaped Sasuke's throat, as he finally succeeded in trapping both her wrists in one hand, and used his weight to pin her down against the rug beneath them.
"Stop!" He then gripped her chin forcefully, angling her face back toward him as she struggled in vain to turn away. Lowering his own face to within inches of hers, he whispered harshly, "Look at me."
The air snagged in Sakura's throat and she froze as Sasuke's eyes finally captured hers. Using the boosted ocular abilities of the Rinnegan, he cast a desperate illusion upon her, and within it, projected his own recollections, the truth of what had happened in the past, layering one memory after the other and filling in all the blanks to assist Sakura's overwhelmed mind in structuring her own.
He showed her their shared past, the moment Cronus had ordered him to cut off all ties with the surface deities, the awful moment he had come to know she was in the Underworld. He allowed her to see, to feel all that he had, the desperation he had felt to get her out safely. The way Madara had almost completely stolen any good memories he'd had. The horror of discovering her dying in Ino's arms, just before his own recollections had been sealed away.
Then he showed her how they had met in this lifetime. The carousel, when their eyes had first met, to remind her that she had lived once again. That she was human. He manifested selected memories from the journey they had shared together, to anchor her to the present. He showed her memories from the relic quests, their ordeal on Olympus when they had been at Madara's mercy. Their subsequent reconciliation. The peace they had finally made with one another, the kisses they had shared, the new leaf of forgiveness they had turned together. Turning to stone in her arms as she had tearfully told him that she loved him. And finally the words she had spoken to him just before he had returned her memories to her. Praying that it was enough to settle her own mind, to remind her who she was, where she was, what they were to one another. What they had.
Emotions flickered through her eyes, swarming behind a surge of hot tears that welled and spilled down her tear-stained cheeks. Sasuke's heart leapt with hope when he saw the fear ebb, replaced with pain, with a fracturing, with recognition and at last, blessed lucidity. Sakura released a deep, shuddering sob, the tension seeping from her body, and at that moment, Sasuke knew.
The illusion had worked. Immediately he dispelled it, releasing her from it, his own chest heaving with ragged breaths, with suppressed emotion.
"Hades…" The old epithet by which she had first come to know him fell from her lips in a choked whisper, and Sasuke finally released the breath he had not even realised he'd been withholding. Relief discharged through him, making him feel weak. Unsteady. Suddenly he could barely catch his breath.
She remembered. Just as he did.
A storm of feeling flickered across his irises as they slowly bled back to obsidian black.
"I-" he began with difficulty, but the ability to form any words had seemingly abandoned him. His tongue felt heavy, tied inside his mouth, incapable of articulating anything coherent.
Sakura pressed gentle fingertips against his lips to quieten him. No further words were needed. She understood. She had seen the truth he had shown to her. The delirium and disorientation she had awoken with had passed and settled. He didn't need to say anything else.
They stared at each other in silence for what might have been several minutes, yet felt like a lifetime, everything fading away around them as they lost themselves in each other's eyes. Stricken, in awe of one another, overwhelmed with the magnitude of remembering everything they had shared in a lifetime that had been stolen from them. A steadfast, enduring love that would blaze on eternally, undying, no matter the horrors that came to pass.
Sakura then lifted a trembling hand to his cheek. She gazed up at him, anguish and love and happiness and grief dancing across her emotion-darkened irises. Sasuke swallowed thickly, opening his mouth in another attempt to convey what he could not possibly say. Feeling the need to say something regardless. But his tongue once again betrayed him, as her slender arms slipped around his shoulders, and she drew him down in a fierce embrace that had him burying his face against her neck, his hands sliding down to rest on her hips.
Inhaling deeply, Sasuke closed his eyes in relief, melting against her, a lightness blooming in his chest born of the gladness that they had finally, truly found one another, that they had reconciled their past demons and at last laid all the ghosts that had once haunted them to rest. All barriers between them were removed, as the past reconciled with the present.
Overcome with feeling, and unable to keep himself from touching her, Sasuke began to trail soft, hesitant kisses along her throat, hungering for the taste of her. Her hands moved to cup his face a moment later, guiding it back to hers, and when their lips met, pure electricity crackled between them, a devastating chemical reaction that yielded to molten, blistering heat, to a burning, roaring, all-encompassing fire that consumed them both. Eagerly they succumbed to the giddy, head-spinning rush of their reconciliation, falling into the descent of sweet madness, of suffocating, inebriating lust, giving into one another, their bodies afflicted by the fever of mindless desperation and ravenous hunger. A fever that urged them to touch, to kiss, to feel. To make up for all the time that had been stolen from them.
Sasuke deepened the kiss, pillaging from her lips as Sakura's parted, allowing him entry, her tongue swirling around his own, wrestling for dominance. When she moaned huskily against his mouth, the erotic sound fuelled his desire and had him slipping an arm underneath her. Hoisting her easily off the ground as he sat upright, Sasuke pulled her onto his lap, kissing and sucking at her neck, teeth sinking into and marking her tender flesh.
A purr of approval met his ears, and Sakura's hands cupped his face again, as she kissed him back with equal fervour, with a passion that robbed him of his breath and his sanity.
"Sasuke-kun," she whispered against his lips between ardent kisses. "Sasuke-kun."
His hands travelled down her sides, every delicious dip and curve of her body committed to his memory as he drank her in, drunk on the taste of her. She was his heaven, his Elysium. Sweeter and more intoxicating than ambrosia itself, and at that moment, he wanted nothing more than to lose himself to the drug that was Sakura.
Her hands tugged demandingly at his attire as he bunched up her skirts and rose to his feet, lifting her up with him, heading blindly toward the bed. By the time Sasuke had stumbled his way to it, they were both half undressed, their clothing hastily discarded, their hands eagerly, feverishly seeking the heat of flesh, the need to be joined as one.
And when he finally slipped inside her and united them, the world around them fell away, leaving only breathless desire, intense pleasure, the racing of their heartbeats, and her needy moans and his pained groans, as they lost themselves to one another and all that they had been and were.
Reviews are always welcome and thank you for your continued support and patience. See you when I get back from hiatus.