A belated Merry Christmas to all those who celebrate, and a very Happy New Year. May 2014 bring all my readers and their loved ones health and happiness.

Please ensure you listen to all the tracks linked on my profile page at the following points:

The first one from this point: 'As they drew closer, the tunnel walls began to change in hue and structure', through to where the sleigh journey comes to an end.

Listen to the second from the point where the orbs begin to play: 'But it was too late. The orb seemed to grow in size – and it suddenly felt unnervingly like her mind was being drawn – no – hurtled - into it', up to the part just before she sees the army in the sphere. Please see my profile for precise timings.

The third begins from where Sakura looks into the blue sphere and sees the army up to the point where she is pulled from the visions.

This chapter is exclusively SasuSaku, so happy reading. Please be aware that there is a mini time skip, which is clearly indicated.


Chapter XXXVII


On fleeting fancy the heart takes flight,

Fluttered in frenzy, strewn alight,

So easily clipped, these glass wings shorn,

Scattered to dust, to ash and scorn,

He whispers to her that she will never learn,

And lo! See how her heart doth yearn.


The dark, damp passageway seemed to stretch on endlessly. Sakura was grateful for the dim illumination glowing from Chiyo's lantern ahead of her – without it she would have been unable to make out the outlines of her own feet shuffling cautiously forward. Every now and then, the walls caught the light from the flame and pigmented flecks inside the rock-faces glinted briefly before ebbing away into the shadows once again.

After she had accepted Chiyo's offer the goddess had turned to the roaring hearth and with a swift snap of her knobbly fingers, snuffed it completely out. To Sakura's amazement, the crone had then beckoned her through the fireplace – which had turned out to be the unexpected entry point to a secret tunnel.

"The only way to access the Oracle is through my den," Chiyo croaked as Sakura continued to follow after her. "None tread this path without my knowledge."

Sakura made sure she kept close. "Does Sasuke ever come here?" she asked, trying to ignore how the fluffy owl, perched on the crone's hunched shoulder, was staring so unblinkingly at her.

The old goddess cackled. "Sasuke? He has little use for the Oracle. His eyes see everything that befalls his realm, after all."

"Who made the Oracle?" Sakura questioned next, as they followed the path around a gentle curve to the right. Chiyo's branch-like wooden stick struck the stone ground steadily, producing a pronounced echo every time it fell.

"They are the servants of The Fates." Chiyo answered cryptically.

"Who are The Fates?"

"The Fates - three sisters who determine the destiny of all mortals. They weave the thread of life, spin it as they see fit – and clip it when it reaches its journey's end."

Sakura was intrigued – and somewhat confused. "But I thought Sasuke controlled death?"

"He rules the Dead and passes judgement upon them," Chiyo clarified. "He is responsible for ensuring each soul reaches its final place of rest. He does not reap souls from their bodies - though the power to do so is in his blood. No," she shook her head slowly. "That role belonged to another."

"The Angel of Death?" Sakura guessed.

Chiyo snorted. "Angel? Far from it." Seemingly as an afterthought, she added musingly, "Well. Perhaps in beauty, alone, yes. Such beauty."

Sakura side-stepped around a dip in the ground. She had the funny feeling that the entity the role had originally belonged to was somehow related to whatever had happened to Sasuke's family. Certain that she would be granted no response to queries pertaining to the death deity's past, she wisely chose to change the subject.

"So where are The Fates? Can I see them?"

Chiyo released a dry chortle. "Our handsome King would never permit that. They are not for your eyes to see in any case, little flower."

A disappointed Sakura was about to protest that she had already seen the heavens - which arguably had not been for her eyes to look upon, either - when a glimmer of white light in front of them diverted her attention to the changing scenery ahead.

As they drew closer, the tunnel walls began to change in hue and structure. The air temperature around them had been steadily decreasing, prompting Sakura to shiver.

"Is that… ice?" Sakura squinted, peering up at the walls in bewilderment. Sure enough, a glistening icy sheen was now covering the rock-faces on either side of them. Icicles hung from the low roof. Sakura gaped up at them in wonder. She supposed she would never fully get used to the Underworld's diverse landscape. The path ahead wound to the right, disappearing around the corner entirely. It seemed to be descending in a manner similar to a wacky helter-skelter slide and looked very, very slippery.

At the sight of it, Sakura had the nagging feeling that she was in for trouble.

"We cannot proceed on foot," Chiyo informed her. Sakura, her teeth chattering, rubbed briskly at her arms.

"Th-then how do w-we get down?" she stuttered.

In response, the goddess struck her staff to the ground. "It is a long way," she stated cheerfully. "Best hold on, child."

"Huh?" Sakura blinked. "Why-?"

The rest of her question was lost when the ground unexpectedly lurched and lifted beneath her feet with a strange groan. She looked down, staring stupidly at her cold feet, to find snow-dusted wood beneath her sandals.

Snow? Sakura thought to herself. How can there be snow here, too-?

She wasn't given the chance to contemplate this conundrum further, for in the next instant, she found herself speeding helplessly down the winding tunnel. Freezing air whipped her hair back behind her like a pale rose banner, biting into her skin until she was numb all over. Her terrified screams seemed to amuse Chiyo, who was controlling the nimble little wooden sleigh, which she had seemingly summoned out of nowhere, with surprising agility and competence – as well as worrying enthusiasm. Sakura hung onto the sides of the sleigh for dear life, her stomach leaping continuous somersaults, turns that sent wave after wave of motion sickness crashing through her.

"Ugh!" she groaned. "Please stop! I'm going to be sick!"

"Eheheheh!" The goddess chuckled. "Enjoy the ride, little flower! The cold is so refreshingly rejuvenating for the skin!"

Rejuvenating?! A petrified Sakura begged to differ.

"Aaaaahhhhh!" she shrieked, when the sleigh rocked precariously to the left, scraping deafeningly against the icy slope as it wound down the slippery route. Everything was whizzing past them in a frenzied flurry of white as gravity took over, careening them full-throttle down the unstoppable decline. Sakura could see her chilled breaths as she rapidly exhaled. The poor owl on Chiyo's shoulder was flapping fretfully – from fear surely, also – but the crone seemed to be oblivious to it - as well as Sakura's – evident distress.

Down and down they plummeted, at such heart-stopping, head spinning velocity that Sakura's eyes watered, blurring her vision. She was certain that her lips had turned as blue as her nails. It would take a miracle for her not to fall sick after this… what would Sasuke say when he found out what mischief she had gotten herself into this time?

She told herself that she would have preferred the death deity to be steering. Somehow she was certain that the ride would have been much less nausea-inducing, and a much smoother experience.

She ground her teeth as the sledge veered sharply to the right, sliding down toward a temporary widening in the glittering, icicle strewn tunnel. They raced over a wide, frozen lake, before entering once again into the narrow caverns through the opening in the opposite rock-face. Up and down they went, over bumps and gentle inclines, and if Sakura's stomach had housed anything substantial in it, she knew she would have already hurled out its contents.

The plunge was even steeper in the new route, and the way the sleigh creaked and rattled so perilously from side to side convinced Sakura that the ancient travelling device was surely on the verge of falling apart. She yelped when they dove down a particularly deep dip in the path, and made sure that Chiyo knew how she was feeling.

"I can't take much more of this!"

An exhilarated hoot was Chiyo's only response.

Sakura despaired. The goddess was utterly insane! Sakura didn't care that at that precise moment that the thought was likely a blasphemous one, and surely enough to warrant her being flung into hell – all she knew was that there had to have been a more pleasant way to reach the end of the route they were travelling through. Chiyo even put Naruto's road rage to shame with her extreme toboggan antics.

The sledge swung heartily from left to right and back again, occasionally bouncing off the walls and jittering Sakura's nerves further. It was the most dizzying and dreadful ride she had been on, ever. She supposed part of the problem was that the sleigh looked almost as prehistoric as Chiyo herself. And was it her imagination that the handles felt like they were about to snap and splinter into millions of tiny pieces?

To Sakura's great relief, however, the sleigh did not crumble. Eventually it rounded a corner and the path finally straightened and smoothed out before them. Then it drew to a halt so abrupt that Sakura very nearly lost her grip on the sides and almost went flying off the shabby looking toboggan.

"Always such an invigorating ride," Chiyo grinned toothily, and hit her staff against the ground again. Sakura watched, trying to calm her chaotic pulse, as the sledge sunk back into the floor and vanished, leaving nothing behind but a thin plume of mist.

Invigorating? Sakura smoothed back her hair, frowning. Thankfully, the area they had descended to was warm again.

"Was that the only way down? Where did you get that sleigh from?" she demanded.

"My, my, so many questions, questions," Chiyo waved her staff. "You had better keep quiet before I turn you into something unsightly."

Sakura paled and gulped as she followed after the old goddess. The walk to the tunnel's end was thankfully a short one. When they reached it, she exhaled at the sight before them.

Now this place was much more to her liking.

A sparkling cluster of graceful silver-white trees grew in a circular grove of ash-grey grass. Little butterflies, their wings aglow with dazzling colours, flittered delicately – but there were no other signs of animal life. On all sides of the contained space were black rocky walls, climbing up to a sky that was pitch black and littered with stars. Sakura gasped, delighted. The trunks and boughs of the trees twinkled like lustrous diamonds, beckoning her closer. Their leaves rustled radiant silver.

"They're just like the trees in the palace," Sakura observed, touching the slender trunk of the nearest masterpiece to her left.

Chiyo, who had been standing stationary and observing her interaction with the trees, gestured with her head.

"The archway ahead will lead you to the Oracle. I shall wait for you here."

Sakura was taken aback. "You aren't coming with me?"

The goddess flashed another wobbly smile. "You shan't be devoured, child." The grin waned, as the crone added warningly, "But remember; you enter at your own risk."

Sakura glanced toward the opening in the rock-face. A silver archway heralded the plunge into unknown darkness. Apprehension caused goose-pimples to prickle along the skin of her arms. Did she really want to do this, after all?

Don't be such a wet blanket, Sakura scolded herself. With a resolute nod, she headed forward, pausing only to cast one final look back at the old crone, who had perched herself onto a flat rock and was ruffling her pet owl's feathers affectionately – probably in an attempt to soothe over the plump bird's earlier trauma.

Sakura swallowed and turned her attention ahead again. She stepped through the archway and into another dark passage. Keeping her fingers against the rough walls, she walked blindly in the blackness, straining to hear anything beyond the crunching of gravel beneath her sandals. She gasped when she almost stumbled down the unexpected steps that eventually met her. They led straight down, a long, descending route into mysterious territory.

The glimmer of gold light at the bottom, however, was reassuring. Sakura followed them down, counting exactly seventy four to the bottom. She stepped through another archway – to find herself standing in a circular, enclosed room. The floor was paved in smooth stone and led to a beautiful, shallow fountain, constructed from white marble. Two angels with gold wings held large mirrors in their elegant hands and were stationed as if on sentry on glorious either side. The fountain was enclosed by six pillars. Its rippling water was crystal clear, untainted.

As impressive as the fountain's architecture was, however, Sakura's focus was entirely consumed by what was floating inside it – the source of illumination in the room.

The Oracle was not a single sphere, as she had anticipated – nor did it look anything like the mystical crystal ball she had so fancifully imagined in her head. Instead, it was a cluster of perfectly transparent spheres, spun as if from the finest, most delicate of glass, each glowing with near-fluorescent gold, silver and pale blue light. She watched, entranced and delighted, as the magical globes hovered silently ahead of her, lighting up the otherwise pitch-black space. They rotated at regularly timed intervals in the air, tinkling gently, as if propelled into motion by an invisible cogwheel.

Step into the pool, child, Chiyo's voice echoed in her head.

Sakura quickly untied her sandals and hurried up the three smooth steps that led to the fountain's shallow basin. She dipped a foot inside, delighting at the water's pleasant coolness against her skin. But she did not have long to dwell on it. Her gaze fell to the silver orb closest to her. Within it, she glimpsed incredible clarity; like a mirror reflecting a bewitching spectrum of colours. The harder she gazed, however, the more the shimmering array of colours swirled and merged until they began to form a discernible image.

Her heart began to pound as the sphere floated quietly toward her. The image mirrored within shifted, like a changing still from a slide-show. Sakura tensed in trepidation. Was she really prepared and willing to take such an unknown risk?

What if I'm making a big mistake? Her rational voice worried once again. Sasuke warned me before about seeking too much knowledge- if Goddess Chiyo herself can't even predict what I'll see, then maybe I shouldn't look. It's not too late to turn back- if I look away now then Sasuke will never have to know-

But it was too late. The orb seemed to grow in size – and it suddenly felt unnervingly like her mind was being drawn – no – hurtled - intoit. Her cascading thoughts whirred to a screeching halt as the image inside the globe shifted again – but this time, it began to move – like a streaming movie. Sakura, caught somewhere between rapt fascination and disabling uncertainty, watched with baited breath as a scene slowly unfolded before her, like a flower uncurling its petals for the first time.

A field of wheat, golden and ripe for the harvest. It rolled on and on, and beyond it was the most beautiful sunset she had ever seen. She could almost feel the breeze tickling against her face, could smell the richness of the grain. It caused something to ache oddly and longingly inside her. Enchanted, Sakura reached out, gripped by a sudden, irrational desire to touch the sphere. It dispelled at contact, dispersing into tiny, tinkling sparkles that suspended in the air – which drew back together before reforming once again.

Sakura snatched her hand back, clasping it close to her chest. The orbs rotating around her seemed to be multiplying. Another floated by her head, and she glimpsed a different image. Following it with her eyes, she saw a blue sky. Distant laughter echoed in her ears. And a whispered name.

'Apollo!'

The orb passed her, and another spun up in its place. Sakura stepped back, the water at her ankles swishing gently in response to her movements. This one was a pale blue, and at first, Sakura couldn't see anything inside it – save for her own reflection. She saw large, startled green eyes, her irises rendered unnaturally vivid by the glowing lights around her. Then the image fractured, like a mirror cracking and she found herself staring at a huddle of people dressed in black.

A cemetery? Sakura squinted, leaning forward for a better view. Then she gaped as recognition collided into her. Sarutobi's funeral! He had been a well-respected and much loved member of the community; a wise old man who had always struck her as an old soul who knew so much about the world – but had grown weary with the knowledge he'd carried.

She had been fifteen, going onto sixteen. She remembered it so well- like it had been only yesterday-

A figure in black stood by a lone tree. One that did not belong to the huddle of people that had gathered to pay their respects. It seemed to be waiting.

Something twisted unpleasantly deep inside her gut as recognition once again tore its way inside her skull.

Sasuke.

Sasuke was standing there. But why was she seeing that? Chiyo had told her that she could see anything from the past – not necessarily just her own – but this was a part of her past. So why was the death deity there?

A sudden possibility presented itself to her. A possibility that seemed more and more like a certainty, the more she gazed at the scene.

Is that… when he first saw me…? Sakura wondered dizzily. The phantom-Sasuke was turning, as if to leave – but stopped abruptly. She released a quivering breath as she realised where his gaze was now directed. She wanted to look away. Her body felt cold, and she faintly registered that her hands were shaking. But she couldn't avert her gaze from the hypnotic sphere. The orb drifted off and was once again replaced by another.

The new stream's colours branched out and merged until they formed an ocean. The waves were lapping at the golden shores of a sandy beach. She heard faint laughter again. The sphere floated away. Sakura's eyes darted to the next. She saw entwined hands. One tanned, another pale. An endlessly starry night sky.

'Follow me. I want to show you something.'

The image was swallowed up by a rainbow of colours. She looked to another sphere. This one showed a forest. It shifted from the lush green undergrowth, to what looked to be an imposing stone temple of some kind.

'Quickly, before your mother returns!' Another ghostly voice spoke.

Sakura frowned. The streams were getting quicker. She was starting to struggle to keep up with them. She turned to get out from the circle of the rotating spheres, but more kept rising to eye level, assaulting her with seemingly random images.

Her mother nursing her during a bout of flu, stroking her hair lovingly and humming a familiar lullaby. Patients at the hospital she had met in the past. A strange, twilight celebration, with lots of singing, dancing and wine. An image of her, staring into a mirror in the Fun House at the previous year's Spring Festival – and catching the glimpse of a dark silhouette she had thought she'd imagined at the time - a shadow she now knew had undoubtedly been Sasuke watching her from the shadows.

Hinata's fifteenth birthday. Her mother locking away a container.

"Stop," she whispered. Her discomfort was beginning to turn to prickling panic. She didn't know why she suddenly felt the dreadful, urgent need to cease looking.

Yet another globe had caught her in its spell. Sakura felt her lips parting in shock. A burning field. She heard screams, saw people fleeing – women with children, stumbling to the ground. They didn't get up again.

Another orb. A crying child. A mother pleading to the heavens for mercy, her hands raised to a blackened sky. A man mortally wounded, trying in vain to comfort his sobbing young son.

Scores of dead bodies littered on charred earth. Bloodied hands. More screaming. More echoing words.

'You cannot stop it. Her blood has been poisoned. She is dying, and with her, the earth.'

'No. No! You can save her!'

'I bring Death. I cannot reverse it.'

Gibberish words – chanting in a language she couldn't understand.

The spheres kept coming faster and faster. Sakura couldn't block out the terrible images and sounds that were overcoming her senses.

A little girl, her arm ripped from its shoulder, the wound gushing blood. An old lady, on her knees before a crumbling temple. Praying, Sakura realised, exhaling. Her entire body was now shaking uncontrollably.

'Why have you abandoned us?! Oh Goddess of the Harvest! Have mercy! Our fields are sullied! No more crops will grow! Death will claim us all!'

A sword. A cawing raven. Lightning. Thunder clouds. Luminous blue eyes, the rippling train of crimson hair, wrapped around a slender index finger. A colossal white mountain. She heard singing and a musical instrument that sounded like a harp. Laughter again, and acres of flower fields.

She glimpsed herself with Sasuke at the Carousel. The point at which their eyes had first met. The ride's haunting melody flooded into her ears. She covered them, tore her gaze away, only to find another orb suspended before her.

What she saw in it made something wrench violently inside her chest. Like a dagger twisting cruelly, opening up a gaping wound she had not even known she'd carried.

Moonlight. Tightly entwined fingers. Pale, long tresses. Limbs entangled beneath the concealing cover of grass. Lips trailing ravenously over heat-flushed, sweat glistened skin.

Panting breaths. Taut muscles. A soft, pleading moan. The flash of a haughty smirk, so tantalisingly familiar-

And then, another name, sighed yearningly, as if whispered by the wind itself.

'Hades...'

Every muscle in her body froze as Sakura watched, her lips parted in wordless horror. It was wrong. Wrong to spy on a moment so intimate between past lovers – but she could not look elsewhere. Her numbed mind struggled to process the vision playing out before her. She was trapped by the sight of slender fingers raking slowly, tantalisingly through dark hair. Prisoner to the sight of little toes curling with pleasure as shadowy, silhouetted bodies rocked to a passionate rhythm that propelled the sweethearts into the greatest heights of ecstasy.

The flash of a silver chain. A pendant with a familiar emblem. The Uchiha family crest. Plump pink lips, parting with open invitation, claimed ravenously by another pair.

She scarcely realised that her breaths were now escaping her lips in shallow, panicked bursts. Her body was tingling with dread and her skin had turned cold and clammy. No. She didn't want to see any more. No more!

But she was seeing more. Two figures meeting in the darkness of a forest. Embracing. Fleeing together through the dark cloak of night. Two masked figures, concealed to them, watching from the shadows. Smiling gold-green eyes. A racing, dark chariot. Scattered flower petals.

Sakura whirled away – only to find another pale blue sphere that seemed to rush up to meet her.

She saw a massive army, clad in black with gleaming silver armour. Slender, elegantly fashioned helmets, crowned with elaborate, raven plume crests protected pale, regal faces, out of which peered scores upon scores of intense crimson eyes. In their hands were slender spears, sturdy shields and slicing blades, and around their shoulders were fastened black cloaks, secured by silver brooches bearing the Uchiha insignia. Long black banners with the emblem printed upon them flowed in the wind, held high by the warriors at the flanks.

Sakura released another quivering breath and reached up with trembling hands, as if to touch the orb. Was this what she had been waiting to discover?

The colossal army was standing upon the edge of a slanting hilltop, overlooking a stretching, grassy plain. The sphere panned out and rotated – then something very peculiar happened – something against which Sakura could not have prepared herself.

The orb seemed to throb and glow brighter and brighter, until its blue light became positively blinding. It grew bigger and bigger, swelling to the size of Sakura's head.

Without warning, it pulsated - then exploded.

Sakura opened her mouth to scream but any attempt to make a sound lodged feebly in her throat. She covered her eyes as an icy blast of wind assaulted her, flinging her tresses across her face. The air howled in her ears, merging with the rushing of blood being circulated by her thundering heart.

When she finally dared to crack her eyes open again, the sight that met her was enough to send her heart plummeting to her feet.

No, she thought dazedly to herself. This is impossible. This isn't happening. This isn't happening.

But to her utter dismay, it was. Something had clearly gone terribly wrong – for the world inside the Oracle sphere had somehow expanded to life around her and she was now somehow enclosed and contained within it. She was standing directly between the lines of tall, graceful Uchiha warriors – so close she could see their angled jawlines and aristocratic noses in perfect clarity.

She made the fleeting, inappropriate acknowledgement that beauty clearly ran in their genes.

As she whirled she stumbled over her own feet and squeaked when she fell right through one of the soldiers. The air continued to howl in her ears, mixing with a sound that was like rushing, overflowing water. Then she realised that she could still see the borders of the orb. Blue, rippling light pulsed around her, but when she tried to move toward it, the walls kept rotating and shifting, blurring away all perceptions of reality.

What was happening? She pushed forward through the army's ranks. Each soldier stood at disciplined attention, faultlessly composed and prepared for battle. None of the men – and women – Sakura noted in astonishment – showed any signs of noticing her presence – because she was not really there at all. She was a foreign body from the future, trapped in a phantom reel from the past – and she did not know how to escape from it.

Was this what Chiyo had meant when she'd warned that she could not predict what would happen if Sakura gazed into the Oracle? Sakura's heart was beating so hard that it was like an unstoppable force quaking through her entire body.

Then, over the din in her ears, she heard a voice speak – a voice that made her freeze in place. It was deep and powerful – a voice of pure, ruthless authority. The sort that made people stop in their tracks and impelled them to listen.

"Gaze upon our enemy, my children! They, who would have us cast to the shades for all of eternity, while they revel in the glory they have stolen from us!"

Sakura weaved onwards through the throng, until she came to a stop at the first row. Standing at the forefront of the army was a tall, broad-shouldered man. Long raven hair fell wildly down his back, a silky mass of spiky disarray.

There was something about the sight of him that sent alarm whispering through Sakura's veins. She did not need to see his face to know, instinctively, that here before her was the apparition of a man who had once been majestic and formidable, pitiless and cunning, who had ruled with an iron fist. He exuded power – and unbridled menace.

An aura similar to Sasuke's, a startled Sakura realised with a near-painful jolt.

Unlike the scores of soldiers he commanded, the man was dressed in crimson red armour plates. Beneath it he wore the same black battle garb as the rest of his Clan.

Sakura's gaze lowered to the slender blade in the man's right hand. He was obviously so confident in his strength and abilities that he deemed it entirely unnecessary to wear a helmet or wield a shield of any kind. When he spoke again, Sakura found herself rooted to the spot, drawn in by the dark, hypnotic baritones that seeped into her ears.

"They keep us from Olympus, because they fear Death! Death, which is superior to all life! Today, we will claim our victory at last. Dismantle their ranks! Show them no mercy! Their blood will saturate the soil of this wretched earth, and from it, a new era shall rise!" He lifted his blade to the early morning sky, before directing its stabbing edge forward. "Tonight, children of Night, Zeus's empire shall fall, and the crown of Olympus will be ours!"

A deafening, defiant roar followed his declaration, one that rattled Sakura's bones. She could practically hear the thirst for bloodshed, the buzz of anticipation that formed a suffocating, murderous cloud of malice around her.

And then came the chanting. One name, which struck an unknown, trembling terror in the most enclosed chambers of Sakura's heart.

"Cronus! Cronus! Cronus! Cronus!"

Over and over they called the name, like a demonic mantra. In the horizon, Sakura saw the rising sun and released another unsteady breath. A massive army of warriors, clad in white and gold armour, was marching steadily toward the fighters in black, their forms illuminated by golden, fiery light. In contrast to the shadowy auras of the army behind her, the approaching military force glowed with hallowed light. The golden plumes in their slender helmet crests were long and flowed behind them. At their front lines, a man rode on a glorious, winged white steed. By his side was a woman on a similar mount. Even from the great distance at which she stood, Sakura could make out the flame colour of the woman's braided hair.

A deep laugh rumbled from Cronus before her.

"Come to me, Zeus," he hissed. "I will show you true strength."

Sakura blinked. In that split-second, she had switched places, crossing miles over the battlefield in a single heartbeat. Looking around in astonishment, she found herself standing between the stationary, winged white horses. Behind her were countless rows of disciplined soldiers in white and gold. Their armour was more elaborate, etched with decorative, whirlpool-like swirls and their swords and shields gleamed, polished silver and burnt gold. Many of the warriors had white wings – angels, Sakura realised. She turned back to regard the figures on the horses. They sat tall, elegant and proud. Other than the woman's remarkable red hair, she could make little else of their physical appearance.

Then the man reached out and took the woman's hand. And when he spoke, it was not a voice of nightmares and sinister black velvet, as Cronus's had been. It was cool and quiet strength – laced with deadly poise.

"Stay close to me."

Sakura saw the woman's slim fingers in their graceful gauntlets squeeze back firmly. Her voice was like liquid honey, and somehow Sakura knew that she had to be very beautiful.

"You can't get rid of me so easily. Someone must keep an eye on you, after all."

And just like that, they began to vanish. The vision was rushing around her. Darkness was rapidly closing in, infringing like thick, inky poison. The man on the horse was saying something else – but she could no longer hear it. Panicking, Sakura turned, to find the army blurring out of her sight, blowing over like a sandstorm, turning to grey and then to ominous shadows. The shades seemed to shift and morph around her – until with a start she realised that she was not alone but was now standing behind somebody else - someone tall, clad in a long dark cloak, with black feathers adorning the regal, high-necked collar.

Straight, glossy raven hair flowed from a high ponytail. A slicing, intimidating blade gleamed in the figure's right hand – held with a grandeur and composure that indicated superior fighting prowess.

Sakura's heart was racing into overdrive. She felt physically sick. Her mind was humming and she had broken into a cold sweat.

This person's aura was dreadful. So unbelievably smothering that simply drawing a breath felt like an awful struggle, a tug of war that left her lungs depleted. The air was frosty and charged with strange static electricity - so much more potent than anything she had ever experienced in Sasuke's presence.

Then, without warning, the figure shifted. She glimpsed an ornate, burnt golden mask, concealing the stranger's face up to the flawless tip of a noble, straight nose.

"Thanatos!" A voice echoed urgently around her, but Sakura's seeking eyes could not locate its source in the pitch-blackness. "It has begun! We must hurry!"

There was a brief pause, in which Sakura frantically wondered why she could no longer distinguish the edges of the sphere. Suddenly it felt so frightfully real – like she was actually there, trapped in a freezing void, lost in the tumultuous rage of time. She was so cold, her knees kept knocking together.

But nothing could have prepared her for the intensity of her body's reaction when the elegant stranger finally turned to direct a piercing, crimson stare directly at her.

Those eyes! Sakura was immediately and brutally dragged back to the Uchiha shrine room, to the portrait of Sasuke's family and the striking young man standing unsmilingly by Sasuke's side. The man with eyes that had stabbed straight through her soul.

This stranger's eyes were precisely the same; looking into them was like being skewered into place by a thousand needles. It was like a bodily blow that left her stricken and incapacitated.

Suddenly, she couldn't breathe. His beautiful eyes were all she could see, and the name, Thanatos, was all she could hear, reverberating deafeningly in her throbbing skull, over and over and over again. And when the figure swivelled fluidly around and seemed to take a step toward her, she was once again overcome by the same irrational, deep-rooted fear. Her heart hammered against her rib-cage with such might, it was as though the organ were seeking to burst from her chest.

"No!" she choked. "No! Stay away! Get away from me!"

In the distance, somebody was screaming. It took Sakura a stunned second to realise that it was her own throat making those horrible noises. She felt wetness all around her, like she was sinking into water and squeezed her eyes shut, thrashing and screeching, trying to fight off the oppressive liquid. Her brain felt like it was on fire, and throbbed with searing pain. The figure of the masked man was waning, but it did nothing to reassure her. If anything, being left alone in the shadows only served to intensify her anxiety.

When something physically grabbed her, she scratched and clawed and tried to kick herself free.

He had gotten her! The masked man had reached her!

"Sakura!"

At first, her near-delirious mind could not recognise the owner of the urgent voice. She continued to struggle with the force of a rabid animal, trying to flail and bite at the restricting grip that had locked around her.

"Tch." A purely irritated exclamation was followed by a disapproving hiss. "Stop it."

"I won't let you!" she sobbed senselessly, her voice broken and hoarse. "I won't let you kill me again!"

A sharp intake of breath. Then her name was spoken again, and this time it sounded much closer.

"Sakura. It's me. Wake up."

The voice seemed to drive the blackness away and the darkness began fading. The world turned in on itself and she felt like she was falling very fast from a great height. Then the orb's blue-white light returned and with a gasp her eyes flew open – just in time to see the sphere floating harmlessly away.

Steely arms around her midriff were keeping her own firmly at bay. The tension seeped from Sakura's body in one swift rush, leaving her panting and drained. She slumped back against a solid chest and became aware that she was now sitting in the pool. Her fine dress was completely soaked.

Sasuke, who was kneeling directly behind her and supporting her weight, did not seem to care that his feet and legs were wet too. He stared down at the top of her pink head of hair with wide eyes, wearing an expression she could not see. One that was openly perturbed, as his mind torturously replayed the words she had spoken.

'I won't let you! I won't let you kill me again!'

For a long minute, they remained in silence, Sakura catching her breath and willing her limbs to cease their incessant quivering, while Sasuke simply held her. She found that she did not mind the proximity at that moment – without his warmth, she supposed she would have been shaking even more violently from the cold.

Finally she broke the dragging quiet, lifting her right hand to grip onto his forearm, signalling that it was safe for him to release her.

"Sasuke," she exhaled. Her scattered thoughts were spiralling from all the things she had seen. She wanted to tell him – but part of her was fearful, anticipated his wrath over the fact that she had pried and meddled once more, when she had given her word to him before that she would not do so again without his explicit permission.

He did not let go. The Oracle spheres continued to drift innocently around them, tinkling softly, their colours clear once again. Sakura wondered why she couldn't see anything else in them – but was grateful for it.

"I told you to stay put," he stated. To Sakura's incredulity, his smooth voice was level. He did not sound furious, as she had expected.

She swallowed thickly. Somehow, not gazing into his eyes made it easier to speak. Her body had stopped trembling – but she still felt displaced and disorientated. Perhaps Sasuke could sense it, and that was why his arms were still wrapped so snugly around her.

"I did," she explained. Her throat felt sore – probably from screaming so much – and she could feel dampness against her cheeks. How strange - she couldn't even remember crying. "Goddess Chiyo transported me to her hut. Then she led me here."

Sasuke scowled but stayed silent, thoroughly troubled by the disclosure. Chiyo never interfered, and it was not like her to grant anybody – mortal or otherwise – access to the Oracle. That she had chosen to accompany Sakura to the spheres personally…

What was the annoying old hag planning? The death deity loathed not knowing – but what he did know for certain was that Chiyo had all the answers he sought relating to what Sakura harboured inside her. And she was certainly up to something, allowing Sakura to look upon forbidden things.

"Are you hurt?" he questioned next, catching Sakura quite off-guard with the quietness of his voice.

"I'm fine," she said. Suddenly she wanted to see him – and at the precise moment she had thought it, his arms drew away from her. She turned instantly, sloshing in the shallow water and getting herself even wetter - but that wasn't important – and peered up at him.

He stared back at her, resting an elbow casually on his right knee cap, his expression as indecipherable as always.

Hesitating for just an instant, she blurted, "Aren't you mad at me?"

Dark eyes searched hers for a lengthy moment. He seemed to be considering his answer carefully. At last, he blinked.

"No," he replied simply, coolly.

He wasn't? Sakura was thoroughly startled. His answer caused the last of the lingering tension and apprehension, which she had not even consciously realised she'd still been shouldering, to melt away as she exhaled in relief.

"Please don't be mad at Goddess Chiyo, either," she went on. "I asked her about how I could know your old name- she told me she'd answer a question of mine if I gave her a lock of my hair, and after I did she said-"

"Your hair?" Sasuke interrupted, his eyebrows knotting together in a light frown. Why in the name of Elysium would the ancient crone make such a bizarre request?

Sakura nodded "After I gave it to her, she told me she couldn't answer my question but the Oracles might help-"

Something flickered in the death deity's smoky irises – and suddenly he was angry. How uncharacteristically reckless of the goddess! She had lived for far longer than Sasuke had, and understood the Oracle's mysterious powers better than any other deity. And yet she had exposed Sakura, so brazenly and unconcernedly, to great danger!

"That hag," he muttered in exasperation, directing an appalled glare at the hovering spheres surrounding them. "The Oracle is treacherous. Look deeply enough, and it can break your mind."

Sakura remembered the immense mental strain and terrible emotions she had experienced, and shuddered. She would not be prying into them again in a hurry.

"I didn't know," she whispered. "Goddess Chiyo never said it was so dangerous…"

This information only seemed to irk Sasuke further. There was another prominent pause, in which he watched the spheres and Sakura watched the way the lights danced so entrancingly over his features. Then the God of Death glanced back at her and regarded her with an intensity she had never seen before. Sasuke had always looked at her in a certain manner that had made her heart quicken. This look, however, was entirely different. She could not quite identify it.

"What did you see?" he demanded.

Her heart leapt. Suddenly her lips felt oddly parched. How would he react? What if she had seen too much? What if he really did lose his temper? Was she prepared for it?

I had no control over what the Oracle showed me, Sakura reassured herself firmly. Steeling herself for his disapproval, she disclosed everything she could remember – including the scenes of her past and the random, unfamiliar streams that did not belong to her memory. She faltered at the recollection of the silhouettes of the lovers in the forest, flushing embarrassedly. Did Sasuke really need to hear it? But she had heard Hades, his old name, so of course it did concern him. She had to tell him.

And deep down, she was still dumbfounded by the staggering revelation that he had actually been with somebody in the past. Sasuke did not strike her as the romantic, affectionate sort – but surely he had to have been different all those eons ago – before he had lost his family.

She wondered what the goddess had been like, what kind of appearance and personality she'd had, and looked at the death deity. He was staring at her so absorbedly, as though he were weighing every single word that was leaving her lips. He wore an expectant expression, clearly waiting for her to reveal more.

Oh, how to word it! She knew what Ino would say; oh yeah, by the way, I also saw you making out with some chick in the woods.

But she was not Ino, and could not speak of such intimate affairs so casually.

"I… umm… ah…" Sakura felt the blush in her cheeks deepen. Damn it! It wasn't any of her business! Surely there was no need to say it- even when she really, really wanted to know who the girl had been- in fact, it was surprising, even to her, just how badly she wanted to know…

Sasuke tilted his face slightly, mirroring her head's agitated movements. "Well?" he prompted, and she could sense that his impatience levels were hurriedly escalating.

"W-well," Sakura cleared her throat. "I saw two people. Together. They were together. Yes. Ah… and… hmm. It was dark. Uh… yeah. Really dark. And they were-" she bit her lower lip anxiously.

There had been no question of what the pair had been doing. It was faint, but she swore that she could still see their silhouettes writhing in the shadows in her mind's eye.

The death deity was now looking at her like she had sprouted donkey ears. She wished the fountain would just swallow her up and save her the mortification she was feeling.

Sakura crossly told herself to just get it the hell over with, and blurted, "I'm so sorry! I saw you with a woman. At least, I'm sure it was you. She said Hades, and you were together in some forest- uh…" her skin, she was positive, had surely turned tomato red. "I only saw shadowy outlines- but you were both-"

Sasuke, who had noted her discomfort, blessedly caught onto what she was trying to articulate. His gaze widened, as if he could not quite believe what he was hearing - then his palm shot up hastily to silence her.

"What are you babbling about?" he demanded harshly.

"I saw you with this woman-" she tried again, and gulped when he snapped at her.

His eyes blazed bright with indignation, as he bit out, "No such thing happened."

"I'm sorry," Sakura apologised again, making a lost, awkward gesture with her hands. "I don't know why the Oracle would show me such a thing- but I heard her sigh Hades and I thought-"

"That's enough." The death deity rose swiftly to his feet, riled and angered by her admission, his hands closed to form furious fists by his sides. What utter madness was she sprouting? A woman? He had not been with any woman back then. He would have remembered! Sasuke had always silently appreciated beauty – not that any onlookers would have ever been able to decipher this from his stony demeanour – but before Sakura, no girl had genuinely caught his interest. Countless females had chased after him, of course, before he'd ascended the Underworld's throne; fussing for his attention and throwing themselves his way – however, their desires had been limited to physical lust, only. Their intellects and personalities had always been severely wanting.

Now, here Sakura was, proclaiming that she had seen Hades with a mystery lady. The very notion was ludicrous. He had heard of the Oracle playing tricks on the eyes of those with weak minds. Sakura had clearly been deceived by a false vision that belonged neither to her past nor his own. A meaningless illusion that held no merit or value.

It disturbed him all the same – though he could not fathom precisely why.

Sakura clasped her fingers together, not certain what to think. Had she been mistaken? But she had seen raven hair – she was sure she had! And the Uchiha pendant on the necklace the man had worn… Yet if it was true, why would Sasuke deny it? He was openly rejecting the occurrence – had there not been a special girl, after all?

She stood up and pushed the vision to the back of her head. There was more he needed to know.

"Cronus," she recalled the name, and knew from the way Sasuke's spine stiffened that she had remembered correctly. "That was the man who led your Clan, wasn't it?"

Sasuke pivoted around to stare at her with a degree of incredulity that he did not even bother to keep in check. He stepped closer, and as she went on, the disbelief on his features gradually heightened.

"I saw him leading the Uchiha army. He said something about defeating a Zeus, and taking over an Olmpa or something-"

"Olympus," Sasuke corrected automatically.

"Yes," Sakura blinked at him. "What is that?"

The God of Death seemed to deliberate whether or not to answer for a long moment, before reluctantly conceding, "The seat of power."

Sakura considered this, before going on, "I saw another army, and a woman with red hair- then everything went black and-" she shivered. She couldn't remember what had happened next. Just thinking about it made her mind ache.

A hand on her right shoulder drew her attention back to Sasuke who was scrutinising her closely. "What did you see?" he pressed.

Lifting a palm to her forehead, she shook her head. "I can't remember."

"You said something," the death deity prompted. "You said you wouldn't let someone kill you again."

Sakura's mouth parted. She gaped at him, at a loss for an explanation. "I don't-" she fumbled. "I did? I don't remember." Shaking her head perplexedly, she exclaimed, "Why would I say something stupid like that? That doesn't even make any sense."

Sasuke's jaw clenched. Because it wasn't you, he thought to himself, looking into her confused green eyes. It was the voice of what you carry inside you.

He knew it with certainty. The essence had been responsible for the things she had seen – an essence that had evidently lived back in the time when his Clan had still been alive. But something had obviously happened to its physical body – something he still needed to figure out – and the essence had somehow been contained by Tsunade and the surface gods – who had then proceeded to lock it away in a mortal shell.

Why Sakura, though? Why burden her with something that, if not kept carefully controlled, could ultimately destroy her?

He ought to have felt angry that Sakura had seen things of his past that he had never intended for her to witness. What had happened on that day all those millennia ago had been so unspeakably horrific, even his divine memory had tried to suppress the most bloody of it. Instead Sasuke was outraged on her behalf. She had no control over what was inside her. She didn't even know. The essence had no right to occupy her body – or torture her mind with visions she could not understand.

Before he was consciously aware of what he was doing, he reached out and placed a palm against her chest, just over her heart, and stared at it. He could feel the organ thumping quickly. Where was it – the spirit she carried inside? If he stopped her heart, temporarily, could he extract the foreign aura inside of her? But what would happen if he did? Would it flee? Would it vanish into nothingness? What would become of Sakura's body if he tried?

He swallowed. He could not risk it. He did not know the precise nature of the seal that held it in place. It would surely hurt her dreadfully-

Sakura's breath had stilled. Sasuke was looking at his hand with a most peculiar expression on his face – one that was beleaguered with such heavy unease.

For a god who never allowed his emotions to break to the surface, the sight was bewildering – and very, very distressing.

Why is he looking at me like that? Sakura worried. He looks like there's something awfully wrong with me. What is he thinking?

"Sasuke?" she lifted her hand to brush over his. "What is it?"

He blinked at her touch, and the expression walled off completely. His features were a blank canvas once again.

"Nothing," he replied dismissively.

He's lying. The thought deposited itself into Sakura's mind with resolute conviction, but his hand had already lowered. He snaked an arm around her waist and Sakura blinked – only to yelp when she found that he had transported them in that split second back to the grove with the silvery trees.

"Ah. I have been expecting you," Chiyo, who was sitting in the exact same place Sakura had left her, smiled at their arrival.

Sasuke's arm slipped away from Sakura, and he stepped forward, keeping himself stationed purposefully between her and the old crone.

"What is the meaning of this?" he demanded icily.

The goddess stroked the owl's fluffy neck. "I promised the child a favour. I am certain she has already spoken to you of all the details."

Sakura looked from one deity to the other apprehensively. She didn't want to be the cause of a divine dispute – but anger was pulsing from Sasuke's fine form in menacing, steadily waves. He was decidedly peeved.

What disturbed her was that Chiyo looked extraordinarily untroubled by the fact.

"You should not have brought her here," he hissed.

The bird hooted, ruffling its wings as if offended.

"Do not be so impertinent as to tell me what I should and should not do, little King," Chiyo's mirth instantaneously vanished and she peered at him with narrowed, sharp eyes. "She would not have looked upon that which you would forbid her from seeing had you not carried her to the Shades of the Underworld."

"You test my patience," Sasuke snapped. "What game are you playing?"

"I could ask you the same," Chiyo's eyes twinkled. "Be careful, young Sasuke. There are many things I know, and many she does not. You would not wish to cause her undue sorrow, now, would you?"

Sakura scowled, her own temper flaring. They were speaking as if she were invisible – like she wasn't there at all! She moved to step around Sasuke – but he held up a halting, warning hand, without even looking back at her.

Sasuke's glowered hostilely at the old goddess, and chose to continue telepathically – cutting straight to the chase.

'Why has Tsunade sealed the essence of a deity inside her? And why can't I see it?'

Chiyo's irises gleamed. 'Prying into affairs that are not your own, little King? You tempt Fate, indeed.'

Sasuke ignored this. 'Answer me,' he retorted cuttingly.

'Ever so obstinate. You propose that the child houses something within her, yet your eyes perceive nothing of the kind.'

'Enough of your riddles. What would happen if I attempted to remove it?'

Chiyo chuckled dryly. 'The flower has told you what she has seen, has she not? Perhaps you ought to listen to her more carefully.'

"What's going on?" Sakura demanded, knowing that they were speaking in their minds and frustrated that she could not hear it. "Sasuke?"

'She said she would not let herself be killed again.' Sasuke's heart started to quicken as his brain began to weave the tentative strings of a plausible conclusion. Had this happened before? Had the essence been extracted in the past – and that was what had led to its original vessel dying? Was that why it had to be protected? He met the hag's knowing gaze – and something in the way she was looking at him told him that he was right.

His lungs stilled and he stepped forward. 'Who?'It was scarcely a thought whisper, severe in its insistence. 'Who killed the original vessel?'

The crone lowered her keen gaze, grinning toothily. 'Your lady seems quite upset, little King. So discourteous of you to indulge her ignorance. Whatever would your mother have said…?' And with that, Chiyo's form winked entirely out of sight.

Sasuke glared murderously after her. But his thoughts were all over the place, a chaotic mess firing off different possibilities – some wilder than others – as to the origins of the spirit contained inside Sakura.

A touch at his left arm made him tense and wrenched his focus back to Sakura, who was gazing up at him unhappily, her hands planted sulkily on her hips.

"What just happened?" she demanded. "Why did Goddess Chiyo leave?"

Sasuke did not deign to inform her that it was a thoroughly vexing habit the hag had always practised – vanishing – or getting rid of others - when faced with too many questions.

"We're leaving," he muttered, reaching out to pull her close again.

But Sakura stepped away. "No," she refused, surprising him – and herself – with her sudden display of boldness. "I'm sick of being left in the dark all the time. I want to know what she meant. She said there are many things she knows and many I don't, and that you wouldn't want to upset me anymore-" She evaded Sasuke's seeking hand again. "Wait!" she continued, retreating as the glowering death god began to prowl unhurriedly toward her. "Are you going to tell me what happened in the war?"

Sasuke's eyes narrowed and he continued to advance, slinking forward with the feline grace of a black panther. "Why do you want to know?" he challenged, his voice hard-edged.

"Because-" Sakura was unprepared for the bluntness of the question, and her lips floundered as she searched for the reason. "Because now that I've seen a part of it, you can't just expect me to forget about something as big as a war between gods-"

"No," Sasuke rebuffed. She was only deluding herself. Did she not realise that he could read the real reason why she wanted to find out so much? It was a reason she would not admit to herself – and that vexed him all the more.

She gawked. "What? But why?"

"This isn't about the war between gods," the death deity accused, glaring such daggers at her that Sakura was amazed that her legs were still keeping her upright.

"It is-" she protested. "I just want to know how-"

"You want to know my past," he deadpanned, the frankness of his words causing Sakura to freeze in place – at the exact instant her back hit against the solid bark of one of the milky trees.

"I…" she began breathlessly, stunned by the realisation that he was perfectly right – the root of her need to know was that she was just being shamelessly nosey. In a heartbeat he had closed the gap between them and was now leaning down, his face just inches from hers. His eyes glittered like onyx diamonds – daring her to deny what they both knew was the truth.

She did not bother. Tired of hiding behind false pretences, she lifted her chin and met his gaze squarely. "Yes," she admitted. "I want to know what happened to you."

One corner of his lips twitched – not quite forming a smug smirk. The irony! She wanted to find out more – just as he was hunting for answers about her. He decided to see just how much he could push her. Intrigued, he reached up, curling a lock of her unique-hued tresses around a slender index finger.

"Why, Sakura?" he murmured.

She knew what he was really asking. Why would you even care to know?

Her pulse hurtling, Sakura bravely stood her ground. She made no move to place distance between them and willed herself to maintain eye contact as her brain cycled almost desperately for an acceptable answer.

But it only came up with all the things she could not and did notwant to say – all the things that sounded completely improper and heralded the way to treading on hazardous thin ice.

I want to know what made you like this – so distant and distrusting. I don't know why I would care. What were you like before? What was your mother like? What must it have felt like, being alone for so many generations? Because maybe if I understood what happened to you, what you went through, then maybe we could finally understand each other.

And because you're so different to how I ever imagined a god would be – and this world - wouldn't that fascinate anyone? Wouldn't anybody else be curious, too?

She had never ever held anybody's gaze for such a lengthy period of time. Whether a minute had passed, or an hour – there was no way for Sakura to tell. His eyes were like sparks that made her feel like she was kindling on slow burn. Still she had no response for him.

She did not know that Sasuke had already read her reasons from the expression on her features. The unyielding line of his mouth softened slightly – but the barely discernible shift was lost entirely to her.

Inside the cyclone of his tumultuous, private thoughts, the Underworld's ruler was trying to grasp the dawning realisation that Sakura was truly and genuinely interestedin what had happened to him – because she wished to understand his character.

The connotations of this – that she was starting to look beyond the fact that he was simply a deity alone – and his consequent, conflicting feelings over such a significant development - were thoroughly unsettling.

They automatically spurned his defence mechanisms into action, mechanisms that sought to test her – even as a part of him - a part that left his proud persona utterly aghast and speechless at the preposterousness of it - was tempted to share a portion of his history with Sakura – before he had fully unravelled the mystery of her!

"You wish to leave," he said nonchalantly when she remained silent, regarding the silky strand in his grasp with a sort of clinical interest - but the abruptness of his statement caused the air to whoosh out of her chest. Lifting his eyes pointedly to hers, he added, "Don't you?"

It shocked Sakura just how quickly her answer seemed to spring from the depths of her throat and swell to the tip of her tongue, an awful weight she had been carrying for so very long, obscured behind the guise of compliance. She distantly registered that she was near-trembling again. Perhaps it was the gravity of the words she had been waiting to say, words she had swallowed down each and every time – but she could not stay them then. Or maybe it was his closeness, the way he was looking at her, that was responsible.

The voice of reason inside her head was screaming at her to deny it. She thought fleetingly of how hard she had worked to get him to trust her up to that point. But it was no use. Her heart's wishes would not be quelled. Still she exercised caution, disciplining her tongue to answer prudently. She responded to his question with one of her own – something he had frequently done to her whenever she'd queried him.

"If you could," she whispered, "wouldn't you want to see your family again, too?"

He seemed to have been anticipating this answer – or a very similar one - for something like triumph flickered across his opaque gaze.

"You wish it," he confirmed, just as quietly, and there was a hint of something in his voice which caught Sakura completely off guard. Leaning in close enough for her to discern the arresting intricacy of the lighter grey flecks in his irises, he finished emphatically, his palms moving to cup her face upwards toward his, "So why should I tell you?"

So diverted was she by the warmth and unusual tenderness of his touch, that it took her a stupefied moment to process that he was referring to his past – that she had no right to know it if she intended to leave and stay away forever – but any attempt by Sakura to protest against the unfairness of this was swallowed up by the blinding funnel of light that rushed up to whisk them out of the grove.

When she next opened her eyes, she was sprawled on her bed in her chamber, staring dazedly up at the rich canopy high above her. As she pushed herself into a sitting position, she saw that Sasuke had gone and was nowhere in sight.

Nice one, her inner voice mocked sardonically. You've just screwed yourself over and probably undone everything you were working so hard to build up.

"Shut up," she told herself angrily, feeling oddly tearful – which only made her even more livid at herself. She wasn't the problem here – she had every right to demand to see her mother and the surface again. It was Sasuke who was the issue. Sasuke, who spun everything with such marked proficiency that he left her head and senses reeling.

So shrewd. So sly. How instantly he had turned the tables to leave her, rather than himself, on the defensive!

But I was honest! She tried to reassure herself. If I had lied, he would have seen right through it. I never said I wanted to leave. I just implied I wanted to see my mother again-

She smacked a fuming fist onto the nearest silk pillow beside her. Sasuke had deliberately sought to catch her out – and like the idiot she was, she had been caught unaware and let him trap her with his words. So easily.

Damn it, she inwardly cursed. She hated the games he played with her on every level – mental, physical and emotional. He had accused Chiyo of doing so in kind – but it paled in comparison to the rings he continuously spun around her.

Is that it…? A smaller voice whispered from a corner of her mind to which she did not often listen. Are you just going to leave it at that, and do nothing else about it? Are you just going to let him win, all the time?

Her breath caught in her throat. She knew what she hadto do. But before she could do it, she needed to clean herself up and change out of her damp clothes, first.


(Three surface days later)


Sakura huffed distractedly as she flipped the thick, leather bound book shut with a dull thud. She had to use both hands to slot it back into its place on the shelf. Not even reading, it seemed, could divert her from her troubled ponderings anymore. Rising to her feet, she exited the library and made her way back to the grand entrance hall. It was empty – as she had expected.

The same inexplicable sense of paranoia crept over her – one she had been fighting for a while to subdue. She could not help but give into it, then. For the longer she went without seeing Sasuke, the more she became certain that he was deliberately avoiding her.

Any attempts to ask Ume and Chizu - or any of the other servants - to disclose where their Master had vanished to had been futile. Nobody had spotted him. Sakura had looked everywhere, roaming the palace grounds with feigned casualness. She didn't want it to look too obvious that she was searching for him, after all.

She'd trawled the expanses of the royal ballroom, the art gallery, the banqueting hall, the lounge and study, the gardens and the throne room; she'd even visited the kitchens, which she'd discovered had been stone-walled and ginormous with roaring hearths, and brimming with every kind of food under the sun – and she'd realised when she'd spoken to the red-faced chief chef - underground, too.

Her quest to find Sasuke had sent her peeping into the unexplored rooms on the first floor also. She had opened endless arched doors that led to even more ornately furnished bedrooms and various guest lounges.

Another set of imperial double-doors she had come across at the end of a previously unchartered corridor had opened up to an awe-inspiring, sprawling hall, littered with rows upon rows of gilded, black marble columns. Its vaulted ceiling had boasted twinkling crystal chandeliers but other than those and the goliath pillars, there had been little else in the enormous space. A long central strip of cobalt blue, gold trimmed carpet had stretched down the middle of the room. At its end had been another pair of exquisite golden doors. When she'd pushed them open, she had been delighted to spot a second ballroom, equally as majestic as the first she had seen. It led to a spacious balcony which overlooked the palace's enchanting gardens.

Sakura had stayed there alone for a long while, content to simply stare admiringly out at the twilight beauty. Everything had been so silent. She had duly given up her hunt and returned to her bedchamber to rest soon after. When she had woken up, she had searched all over the palace again, once more without luck. She had even knocked on his quarters – but a tentative peek inside the death deity's room had revealed it to be empty.

Her frustration had crested, and she had gone to the armoury, forge and then to the stables, seeking comfort from her horse, Eos, who had been only too happy to oblige her and nuzzled her affectionately. But Sakura's confusion had grown when she had noticed that all of Sasuke's dark steeds were accounted for; they'd glared at her with their fiery eyes – and Alastor most vehemently of all.

Afterwards, she'd returned impatiently to the library. She could not think why he would be evading her. He had never left her alone for such an extended period of time – not even when they had argued. Sure, he had a habit of disappearing every now and then – he had many responsibilities, after all – but this was different. She could feel it.

She had even spoken to Suigetsu about it – but the Ocean God had seemed unconcerned by the news.

'He's probably throwing the mother of all strops over something,' Suigetsu had yawned in boredom. 'Don't worry. I'm sure his grouchiness will be back soon. No need to send out a search party just yet.'

Sakura had no way of knowing how much time had gone by. She only knew that a lot of it had passed, and Sasuke was still nowhere to be found.

She felt restless, like she needed to do something, something productive. Something physical, that would keep her hands and mind busy. She was far too tense to arrange flowers or engage in any similar calming activity.

Then she had it. She would spar. It would provide her with a good outlet to vent her inner infuriation. She headed to her room, where she swapped her cream dress for deep red and grey-leather training gear. Pulling her hair into an untidy ponytail, Sakura tied her silver sandals and yanked on her arm gauntlets. Securing her sword to her belt, she marched back out of her chamber – only to collide into Ume, who squeaked and very nearly dropped her laundry basket in surprise.

"Sorry!" Sakura apologised.

"No, forgive me, Mistress," the little maid entreated. "I fear I was not watching where I was treading."

"There's nothing to forgive," Sakura reassured her. Then she ventured, "Is Sasuke still not back?"

Ume shook her head. "I have not seen the Master."

Sakura scowled and rested her hands on her hips. "Does he normally disappear for this long?"

Ume looked oddly uneasy. "We would never be so bold as to dare to track his Lordship's movements-"

Sakura sighed. "Alright," she shrugged, saving her attendant any further trouble as she waved in parting. "Well, I'll be in the training dome for a while."

She made her way to the room with the platform that descended to the arena below and pulled the lever, sending the platform grinding along the spiralling tracks. As she waited for the long journey down to come to an end, Sakura found herself looking forward to a good workout. Maybe she could find something to smash. She was certainly in the mood to cause a ruckus.

Maybe, she thought mischievously, as she finally reached the bottom and stepped into the cool sparring dome, she could even pretend that something was Sasuke's arrogant head and keep hacking at it until-

She bit back a startled choke, her feet freezing in place as her disbelieving eyes fell upon the spacious, lowered area enclosed by the familiar ring of five steps.

Sasuke was standing there, his back turned to her.

A distinctly shirtless Sasuke.

A black strip of cloth was tied around his head, blindfolding his eyes. He was surrounded by seven wooden, circular boards. The bulls-eye of each target was marked by a small red dot. She watched as he flung seven kunai into the air, aiming at the handles of three with the pointed edges of the others in order to deflect them to their intended targets. Each and every one hit the central mark. Of course.

It surely had to get tiresome, Sakura thought dubiously to herself, being so perfect at every single thing one did.

Then she swallowed, her throat feeling peculiarly parched. She didn't want to spar with Sasuke. Certainly not when he was only half dressed! Just her luck that she had been searching for him all this time, only to happen upon him here when she'd been hoping to train innocently and in peace!

Both innocence and peace were words that decidedly did not go hand in hand with the death deity standing before her.

She knew he had heard the platform descend – but that did not mean she had to remain. She spun around with the intention of leaving instantly, and passed by one of the pillars – only for a kunai to whistle within inches of her right ear. She blinked as it stabbed into the column and remained there, vibrating from the sheer force with which it had been thrown.

Spine rigid, she turned – at precisely the same instant Sasuke did. He lifted his blindfold and tossed a sardonic glance her way, one eyebrow slanted upwards in that outrageously haughty manner of his.

"Sakura," he drawled, elongating the first vowel so very intolerably, and as if on cue, her traitor pulse began to skip to a much livelier pace.

She stared at him – then ordered herself to be casual by folding her arms pointedly across her chest.

"So this is where you've been hiding all this time?"

He removed the blindfold completely, tying the fabric around his right wrist. His forearms, she noted, were bound with strips of white, bandage-like material. It made him look even wilder and more rebellious than usual, somehow.

"You were looking." His voice was condescending. Sakura's inner-self wished, for the millionth time since she had met him, that she could plant a fist smack in the middle of that sinfully beautiful face.

"I wasn't." The lie had rolled off the tip of her tongue before she could stop it. Sasuke's eyes narrowed at her briefly – then he turned away with an indifferent snort.

It was the opening she needed to make her hasty retreat – but the second she turned to move away again, his voice rang out after her.

"Spar with me."

She had seen the directive coming the moment she had seen him standing there. Sakura chewed down on her lower lip. When was he going to realise that she wasn't some kind of puppet that he could just control on a whim?

When you start showing him, the same little voice she had listened to before whispered. She remembered the resolve she had felt after he had deposited her, less than graciously, onto her bed and left her for what could have been days or weeks, for all she knew.

"No, thank you," she declined politely, pleased to hear her voice was clear and steady. She wasn't about to let him pull her into another of his games – especially not looking like he was right then. Without turning around, she marched away, almost allowing herself a grim smile of victory as she neared the platform.

But of course, with Sasuke, things were never quite so straightforward. Before she could even comprehend what was happening she felt a strange pressure around her arms, like something thin had wrapped tightly around them – then a sudden tug jerked her forcibly backwards, sweeping her feet cleanly out from underneath her.

She gasped. The next thing she knew, she was staring up into Sasuke's face. He was supporting her tilted weight with his left arm. Wound around his right hand were lengths of glowing, pale-blue string. It took Sakura a shocked second to register that he had wrapped the thin thread around her torso and used it to physically haul her back to him – and into the lowered circular arena.

"You-!" she began furiously, her cheeks ablaze with anger. Any attempt to wriggle free was obstructed by the painful sensation of string digging almost cuttingly into her skin.

"Don't," the death deity warned. "With a little more pressure, these chakra strings could sever your arms."

Sakura grew still. Her eyes inadvertently dipped to the bare skin of his chest for a split second, before rising back to meet his.

"I said I don't want to spar, Sasuke!"

"Then why are you here?" With a deft flick of his right wrist, the chakra string unwound before vanishing into thin air. Sakura immediately took back her own weight and stepped away from him.

"I came here to spar alone," she stressed the final word, hoping he would get the hint.

"And how would that help you improve?" he enquired indifferently.

"I could concentrate better-"

She instantly regretted the words, for Sasuke pounced, like a big cat snagging its prey. "Concentrate?" he echoed, and the smirk that danced upon his lips was so unapologetically sexy that it made her knuckles itch with the need to act. "Is something distracting you, Sakura?"

Oh, she didn't just want to punch that face. She wanted to positively pulverise it!

"No," she retorted – perhaps a little too loudly.

"Hn," he scoffed. Keeping an eye on her, he reached into the black pouch attached to his silver corded belt and pulled out something small and metal, attached to the ends of red string. It jingled softly in his hold.

Twin bells, Sakura stared at them – then directed questioning eyes back to the God of Death.

"An agility exercise," he stated. "Retrieve these bells."

She frowned, her eyes widening as she watched him clip the bells back onto his belt. He wanted her to get them off him? But that would risk touching him- skin to skin contact and she definitely didn't want that, she thought, as her gaze trailed fleetingly over the tantalisingly defined planes and ridges of his flawlessly sculpted torso.

"Draw your blade."

His voice made her flinch and flush. She hadn't even realised that she'd been staring at him…

Thankfully, Sasuke had already turned away.

"Wait," she gave herself a mental shake, telling herself to pull it together. If she was going to spar like he wanted, he had to compromise, too. "Wait. If I win, what will I get?"

He threw a glance back at her over his left shoulder. Kusanagi glinted in his hand, cold, cutting, ruthless steel. He seemed to deliberate her request for a lengthy moment, mulling over whether he wished to indulge her or not – before consenting, much to Sakura's inner relief.

"Well?" he prompted.

Now it was Sakura's turn to pounce. She knew that she had no chance of beating him by swordplay alone. Her win would have to come through another means - cunning and wit. Her chances of victory were slim, given the stakes she was about to place on the table; she knew Sasuke would have no intention of slipping up once he heard them. But she drew hope from the fact that she had managed to intellectually outsmart him before – though the game of human chess had been significantly less intimidating.

"You'll tell me what happened," she said firmly. "If I get the bells, you'll tell me about the war."

She saw the tension coil in his shoulders – and for an instant he seemed caught somewhere in between irritation and genuine incredulity that she was being so persistent over the matter. Then he turned to face her fully, his dark eyes glittering dangerously.

"Those are high stakes, Sakura," he remarked.

He didn't need to tell her that she would have to let him match them with a high demand of his own. But Sakura didn't want to think about losing – and what he would claim from her, if she did. She didn't even want to hear it. Just the manner in which he was regarding cautioned her of the terrible mess she'd be in if she failed to retrieve the bells.

Which was why she wouldn't. She'd use any ruse necessary to win and get what she wanted – just as Sasuke had done so many times before.

"I'm ready," she said, steeling her nerves and drawing her sword, indicating that she had no intention of reconsidering. The more she dragged it out, the more likely she knew it would be that she'd back-pedal on her request and choose a much safer prize.

Sasuke's eyes narrowed – but on the inside, he was begrudgingly impressed. She was foolish, believing that she had any chance of winning at all – but a brave and beautiful fool, all the same.

He raised Kusanagi, signalling his unspoken consent to her terms, and pointed its menacing tip directly at her.

"Then begin," he instructed.


Author's note

Shirtless Sasuke is a Christmas bonus. Expect lots of sizzling tension next update as the training exercise plays out. I wonder who will be victorious! Any thoughts on what Sasuke's stakes might be? I wonder what went through his mind! Well, I know, but I'd like to read your ideas all the same!

Hope you all enjoyed reading! I am regretful that I can't update more frequently – I do so as fast as I can physically manage in between all my offline commitments. I'd like to thank everyone again for being so patient.

Happy New Year again, people! Please consider leaving your thoughts, if you'd like. Thanks!