Many thanks to all who reviewed the last chapter. Please visit the link on my profile page and listen to the track under chapter 39, at the points indicated when Sasuke encounters the unexpected visitor.


Chapter XXXIX


The discord in the dark, I am.

The warning they ne'er hark, I am.

The dread and the horror they find,

The black curse that misleads the blind.

The screams in the abyss, I make,

The souls of the dead, I forsake,

Pain and affliction, I bestow.

Until down into sickness, they go.

All know of my venom and dismay,

Marionettes caught in a diabolical play.


'Do you see anything?'

Asuma shifted carefully in his position, concealed behind the sturdy boughs of a tall oak tree. Chewing absentmindedly on the slender wooden toothpick in his mouth, he raised the binoculars to his eyes again.

'Nothing out of the ordinary.'

It was true. The building was thoroughly unremarkable. To think that the junior doctor who inhabited it was conducting unnatural experiments in a secret basement sent a sense of unease crawling along his skin.

Just how much had Orochimaru told Kabuto? How far had his poisonous words corrupted the unfortunate mortal's feeble mind? He knew all about the slippery serpent's ability to mislead and damn those who were imprudent enough to listen to his insidious whispers – treacherous lies coated with sickly sweet syrup.

'The lights are not on, Asuma.' Kurenai's voice rippled through his mind, as light as air. 'My birds aren't sensing any activity inside, either.'

Asuma's eyes narrowed. 'He is expecting us to watch him, now. He certainly can't afford to be careless.'

'We must locate him,' she communicated urgently. 'Who knows what he has planned next? What he'll do now that we have taken one of his contaminated blood samples? If he isn't at the hospital, or here, he could be anywhere else.'

Asuma lowered his binoculars and frowned. 'And nothing yet from Jiraiya, either. I wonder if-' he abruptly broke off, tensing, as a sudden sound, barely susceptible, rustled from somewhere to his left. He glanced sharply in the source's direction – and relaxed when his eyes met the keen gaze of a majestic buzzard. The bird tilted its head quizzically at him.

'What's this?' Asuma lifted his eyebrows.

'Well, I've got to keep an eye on you too,' Kurenai's tone was mildly teasing.

The strength of their bond had been something time had not worn away. The flame he bore for her was as bright as it had been the moment he had first set eyes on the Goddess of the Hunt, so long ago. She had been a difficult deity to impress, back then – all feisty independence and wild spirit. But his hard work and persistence had eventually paid off. A faint smile played on his lips as he reminisced briefly. Then he shook his head and looked back to the house.

'Let's return at dawn,' he suggested. 'If he isn't here, we'll break in and hunt for clues.'

'Tsunade already checked at the hospital, earlier. Her staff told her that Kabuto hasn't been seen on sight since the incident.' Kurenai's telepathic voice was getting stronger, a sign that she was moving towards him.

'He's got to be hiding somewhere,' Asuma replied grimly as the buzzard, heeding its mistress's command, opened its wings and flew away. Carefully, he manoeuvred along the branches, making his way down to solid ground. Kurenai met him as he landed. Making sure that the coast was clear, they slipped as quietly as shadows, their footsteps light as they navigated through the lamp-illuminated streets back to Asuma's car – a chunky black four by four car with tinted windows.

As the engine roared to life and Asuma pulled away from the kerb, Kurenai stroked the smooth feathers of the smaller bird she had summoned to accompany them – a spotted, chestnut kestrel.

"An army," she began thoughtfully, able to speak openly in the privacy of the vehicle. "Do you really think that's what He's trying to assemble?"

"It would make sense," Asuma mused. Keeping one hand firmly on the steering wheel, he dug into his dark khaki green coat's front pocket with the other and swapped his toothpick for a cigarette.

Kurenai pulled a chastising face at him. He knew how much she despised the habit.

He cast an apologetic look at her as he flicked the lighter and lit up. "It helps me think," he justified half-heartedly.

Kurenai pursed her lips, but said nothing.

"He never took it well," Asuma went on, indicating right at a set of traffic lights. "After the other Titans were locked away in Tartarus and he was forced to agree to the pact, he felt cheated. He got the throne at Olympus – but it's meaningless, now. Our names have faded from history. Humanity has moved on. He has no real power or influence."

"But why would he act now?" Kurenai wondered, watching as a handful of people walked down the streets, whilst others queued neatly at a bus stop. She often envied humans. How simple their lives were in comparison to the burdens she - and those she considered her family - bore.

"We can only speculate what he's been up to, all this time," said Asuma, as the lights turned green. He turned into a wider road that led towards a dual carriageway, intending to return them to Kurenai's house, when his cell phone suddenly beeped, indicating a new message. He passed the phone to Kurenai, who checked it.

"It's from Iruka," she read. "They're meeting Jiraiya by the Naka River."

"Why?" Asuma asked.

"He hasn't specified."

Asuma exhaled a puff of smoke. Kurenai pointedly lowered her window – even though she was immune to the ill effects of passive smoking.

"We'll have to reroute," he announced. "It'll take us over a damned hour to get there from here."

He took the first exit at the freeway and redirected. They continued to drive, the night-cloaked city passing them by in a stream of colourful blurs, eventually reaching the main, fast-speed highway that connected Konoha with neighbouring cities. The motorway was mostly empty, stretching on for miles and miles with only a sparse number of vehicles travelling on the other side of the painted road markings.

"He didn't succeed before," Kurenai scratched the crooning kestrel beneath its beak. "Maybe, with what Kabuto's doing, he's finally found a way to try to replicate the DNA he needs to amass an army."

"It seems likely. With the recent advances in human medicine, it's highly plausible," Asuma agreed.

A brief silence ensued. Finally, Kurenai said softly, "Do you think it was right?"

"What was?" Asuma's eyes flicked to the rear-view mirror when a bright light suddenly caused a glare to reflect off it. A dark grey car was coming up behind them.

"Was it right for Tsunade to keep all this from Sakura?"

Asuma, having finished his cigarette, lowered his window and tossed it out. "That's not for us to judge. We can only do our job and make sure that history doesn't repeat itself."

"But it's already happening. It's been two and a half months since she was taken."

"They'll find nothing extraordinary in her." Asuma reassured her. "The most important thing is that she's still alive. The blood they're looking for is in our possession. Suigetsu – if he's really behind this – is likely using her for leverage. That's all."

"It still doesn't add up. Why would he be so quiet for this long?"

"That's why he can't be the only one involved. He's working with someone else. They're planning something and biding their time."

"Could they have taken her to Olympus?"

Asuma's eyes flicked back to the car behind them. It seemed to want to overtake.

"If they had, I'm sure they would have gloated about it, by now-" he glanced quickly over his shoulder. "What's this bastard trying to do?" he cursed, indicating that he intended to pull over. The car overtook. It was another large four by four with tinted windows. As it sped away, Asuma honked angrily after it.

"Son of a bitch. Driving like a damned punk-"

That was when a loud, ripping sound exploded in the air as the tyres on Asuma's side struck against something unseen. Before the scream could even leave Kurenai's throat, the car was lurching to the right, the steering wheel spinning violently out of control.

"Shit!" Asuma swore. "Kurenai, hang on-!"

The tyres hit something in the road again, rocking the car precariously. The kestrel in Kurenai's lap squawked in distress and attempted to flee through the open window. Another stomach-wrenching dip sent Kurenai jerking forward, the protective fastening of the seatbelt digging into her chest so hard that it almost knocked the air out of her lungs entirely. Then the oxygen did flee from her, when the vehicle smacked against something that sent it lurching upwards, flipping it over. Asuma's cry of alarm and his hand flying out in a vain attempt to protect her was the last thing Kurenai heard and saw before everything faded to black.


Sakura didn't know how long she had been sitting for in bed, staring unseeingly at her hands, clasped neatly together atop the silken duvet. The last time she had been awake, she'd been in the training arena. Sasuke had obviously carried her back to her room when she'd lost consciousness.

Sasuke.

The mere recollection of his name spurned an agitated flutter in her stomach, caused something to constrict tightly in her throat. Her chaotic thoughts were racing at the speed of light as she recalled, over and over, what she had seen. It was like a permanent imprint behind her vision. She could still picture everything so vividly.

Hades, standing with his father and brothers. Hades with his mother. The blood-curdling sight of motionless dead bodies. The decay and devastation Cronus had so heartlessly wrought.

And finally, the sight of a young Hades – Sasuke – being dragged into the bottomless chasm by the Shades of the Underworld, clawing ruthlessly for their new King.

A King who had clearly been thoroughly unprepared to ascend the throne.

She swallowed thickly. Was it any surprise that Sasuke was so mistrustful, so cold and hateful toward everyone and everything? She tried to imagine how it would feel, had the same thing happened to her.

She couldn't. She could not even begin to envisage what profound depths of horror he must have experienced.

However, she found herself comparing it to her own situation. She knew it was wrong - for they were completely different - yet she couldn't help herself, for she thought that they were similar, too. She had suffered a great deal, also. While Sasuke had certainly never hurt her physically and had ensured that she was sheltered, well fed and kept safe, his decision to abduct her had caused her emotional and mental strife. But at least her mother and friends were still very much alive.

His loss, in stark contrast, was decidedly permanent. At least she still had the hope of seeing her mother someday to cling onto and warm her in her loneliest of hours.

She drew her knees up to her chest, hugging them close.

What did Sasuke have…?

You. The whisper that responded to the question was foreign, almost as though it didn't belong to her, at all.

She froze, her eyes widening.

Me…? She repeated the alien thought back to herself in shock.

What had happened to the death deity was undeniably awful. Even an impartial onlooker unacquainted with Sasuke would have surely felt some ounce of pity had they witnessed the massacre of his family and the cruel delivery of his fate. She felt more than an ounce, but she felt bewilderment and frustration, too.

Yes, their situations were different, but… didn't Sasuke see how they were very much similar, too?

Why would he choose to take everything away from her, the way everything had been taken away from him? Surely he had to know how much it hurt. Surely he, of all people, could understand and empathise with what she was going through?

So where was his sense of pity? Where was his mercy?

He hasn't got any left, she thought, unexpected tears prickling at her eyes. He's unmerciful, because his heart was ripped straight out of his chest on that day.

What must he have felt after the ground had swallowed him up, when he had woken up in the darkness and eerie stillness of his realm? How deafening must the silence have been? How much had his regrets crippled him?

Had he cried? Had he wept and screamed until his throat and lungs were raw? A peculiar sensation began to prickle over Sakura. She couldn't imagine Sasuke ever shedding tears. He was always so effortlessly composed. So aloof and taciturn. So resilient and thoroughly unemotional.

But surely he must have mourned. All alone, he had grieved his family's passing.

Suddenly, the intensity of his reaction when she had accidentally almost burned down the shrine room – likely the last remaining remnants of his loved ones – was completely justified. He'd had every right to be furious with her. She simply hadn't known it, back then. And how long ago did that incident seem, now?

How much must he have rejected his role of monarch at first, abhorring it and cursing it?

It was strange, Sakura thought to herself, how she had always assumed that Sasuke liked his status as King of the Dead. It was a role that afforded absolute power, power of an unsurpassable kind. She knew now, however, from the unmistakeably shattered look she had seen in Hades's glazed, panic-stricken eyes, that this was not the case. Or certainly had not been, at the start.

Bound eternally to a world of shadow. A world that was as beautiful and enchanting as it was terrifying and dreadful. As the last living heir of his Clan, he could never truly leave the Underworld.

He was a King – but in many ways, also a prisoner.

Just like she was.

Maybe that's why, Sakura's eyes blurred as the understanding she had so desperately sought from the first time she had awoken in the very same bed which she now rested in, washed over her. It left her feeling oddly overcome.

Maybe that's why he took me. The loneliness I've been feeling since he kidnapped me… how long has he been enduring the same thing?

Because the truth was, nobody wanted to be alone. It was human – and now she realised, deity nature, too – to seek company. And after she had glimpsed how close Sasuke had been to his own family, was it so impossible to imagine that he must have yearned for warmth and contact again over the endless, desolate centuries of his existence?

Contact he had to have spent millennia longing and pining for, in the most secret, guarded and hidden compartments of a heart that had frozen over and turned to stone the moment his family had perished. But at the same time, from the clipped, curt manner in which he spoke, Sakura guessed that he had to loathe that need, too. The prouder part of him – the part that was King first before deity – outwardly rejected all guises of company and companionship.

He probably thought he was above and beyond such weak desires, and was not feeble enough to actively seek them. And yet… here she was, living proof that even the greatest of gods tired from solitude and isolation. With only the dead for company, it was a marvel and testament to the steely endurance of Sasuke's character that he had not lost his mind completely.

Sakura exhaled shakily and wiped at her eyes. Suigetsu, she thought, would beg to differ. She wondered what he would have to say about the revelations that had been imparted to her. Would he shed more light upon them? Or would he tell her once again that it was risky for him to provide her with extra information?

She shook her head. The water deity had told her that Sasuke had always been selfish, taking things as and when he wanted. What he had done to her - abducting her at his whim from the surface - was still unpardonable. It could not be justified, and what she had learnt did not excuse his behaviour or make it right – but she could at least now understand, to some extent, why he would want another living, breathing person in his world.

And the person he had selected for that precise purpose was her.

She pushed the duvet back. They had to talk. She needed to clear the air, once and for all. She needed to know what, exactly, his expectations of her were. And he needed to know what her wishes were, too.

Suigetsu had advised her to play the role of the compliant captive. But Sasuke had told her more than once that she was no prisoner. And the more she discovered about him, the harder it was becoming to stay focused on the original task the water deity had given to her.

Stealing Kusanagi and double-crossing Sasuke now - when she was finally starting to make tiny steps of progress with him – seemed, more than ever, like an extremely perilous and downright bad idea.

What are you thinking? She caught herself. Are you making excuses? Are you seriously considering backing down?

She rubbed at her forehead stressfully. No. She wasn't chickening out. Absolutely not. But if there was any other conceivable way to leave the Underworld – any other option that didn't involve betraying the God of Death – then surely it was better to take the safer option? She was only looking out for her own wellbeing – wasn't she?

So why did she feel so guilty when she tried to justify it?

Because Suigetsu's been waiting in that cell for you all this time, and if you don't deliver, who knows how he'll react?

Sakura shook her head. At least she knew the nature of Sasuke's interest in her. His actions toward her had certainly spoken for themselves. What did she really know about Suigetsu's motives, in comparison? What if he was just leading her into more trouble – and another trap? In her desperation to escape the death deity's Kingdom, she had consented to doing whateverit took. But a lot had happened since then. She had seen and learnt many things – and not just about the Underworld.

Sasuke wasn't simply the deranged psychopath she had first considered him to be and the Underworld wasn't all darkness and death. It sustained a rich variety of life, too.

What's happening to me…? Sakura worried. It's like I'm constantly questioning things around me and my own thoughts…

A stark, unsettling acknowledgement then struck her.

I'm… changing.

She gazed at her palms, at a loss – as if they somehow held a rational explanation to this admission. The thought was a frightening one – but undeniable in its truth. The way she viewed things had altered. How could being given the chance to experience another secret world, hidden away from the eyes of mortals, not change her outlook in some way?

It wasn't only that, she knew. What Sasuke had shown her had changed the way she viewed him, too. He wasn't just a cold-hearted, arrogant and unforgiving god. He had real emotions – just as she did. They were hidden behind an icy exterior – but she knew they had to be in there still, somewhere.

She had proof, too. She'd felt his heart pounding when he'd kissed her again. With the way he had crushed her against him, it had been impossible to not feel the organ thundering against her.

Sakura groaned to herself. The mess she had been flung into was just getting stickier and stickier. The very thought of seeing Sasuke again caused an odd anxiety to befall her. What would he say? How would he react? What would she say to him? She knew he would scorn any displays of pity. It wasn't what he wanted from her, or the reason why he had shown her the vision. She shouldn't act as if things had changed between them.

But who was she fooling? Things had changed. This wasn't the test she had thought it was, before. Sasuke wanted her in his world – and he had lied when he'd first implied to her that she'd been stolen on a mere whim. The memory of his lips moving ravenously against hers flashed through her mind again, and immediately her pulse began to accelerate. She felt heat creep into her face as she recalled how it had felt to be pressed so tightly against him, his arms ensnaring her against the solid wall of his bare chest.

Then she remembered how she had slapped him afterwards – and clamped a hand over her mouth in disbelief. It was a marvel that Sasuke had simply stood there and taken it, and that she was still alive. Had it been anyone else, Sakura knew they'd be dead.

So maybe Sasuke did have the capacity to feel mercy in small doses, after all. Hadn't he honoured his word and shed more light on the history surrounding the war?

But she had so many other questions! What had happened to Cronus in the end? Why had he chosen to lead his Clan to their deaths? What was the frightening, demonic fox creature she had seen? What had happened to Sasuke's parents? And what of Hypnos and Thanatos? Where were Zeus and his Queen, now?

Her head swimming from the confounding swirl of unsolved mysteries, Sakura slipped out of the bed – then caught sight of her reflection in the ornate, full-length, angel framed mirror.

She placed her hands on her hips, and huffed unhappily. Before she did anything else, she needed to freshen up first.


They had teamed up in pairs to look for any clues pertaining to Kabuto's whereabouts. As soon as Shikamaru had indicated that he was leaving base, Ino – naturally - had jumped up to follow after him. The only perceptible reaction she had received from the object of her affections had been a tired sigh.

She found it remarkably ironic that she was the one doing the following. It had never been in her nature – men had always desperately pursued her. Yet here was one who was seemingly immune to her feminine charms – or certainly very good at hiding his interest.

Ino told herself that it was utterly confounding and downright outrageous, how she still hadn't lost interest in the handsome genius slinking so lethargically before her, given her infamous reputation for switching between suitors almost as quickly as Zeus had switched lightning bolts in ages long past.

Zipping up her cropped light blue jacket to keep warm, she increased her pace until she reached Shikamaru's side. Asuma and Kurenai had taken watch between the hospital and Kabuto's house. Shikamaru had suggested Konoha's Central Library as a starting point, but they'd had no luck there.

"Where to now?" she asked, rueing the fact that she had chosen to wear her brand new, indigo ballerina pumps for the outing. The fake leather was digging into her feet and the discomfort was starting to cross over into the pain threshold.

The things she did to look good.

"The University's Medical Faculty."

"Eh? Isn't that closed at this hour?"

Shikamaru shrugged. "He must have another lab somewhere, and it's better to rule out the most obvious places, first."

"So we see if any lights are on at the Medical School."

"Yeah."

"And then where?"

"We wait and see what the others find out."

Ino exhaled a puff of air, rubbing at her arms. She didn't like to dwell too much on the cold. It only made her think achingly of Sakura, of how much her best friend had always hated the cold – cold and darkness - and how much chillier it was than it ought to be considering the time of year. The unseasonable weather and lack of flora blooming was making news headlines – but scientists were at a loss to explain a phenomenon that they had never before encountered in recorded history.

If only they knew…

She pushed the depressing thought away and turned her attention back to Shikamaru. "You mean you don't have some secret master plan in mind?" she questioned, genuinely surprised.

"If I said it, it wouldn't be a secret," Shikamaru pointed out dryly.

Ino felt a swell of pride. Of course he had something else planned. Linking her left arm through his right as he studied the map on his phone with his free hand, she huddled close to him.

"My feet are killing me," she declared.

"Women." Shikamaru sounded positively exasperated. "How troublesome. I didn't ask you to come along."

"But you're so glad I did," she grinned. "Admit it."

"Whatever you say, Ino."

"Oh, come on," Ino giggled, allowing herself a few seconds to indulge in a spot of one of her greatest skills - flirting. "You know when this is all over, you still owe me that date," she murmured teasingly.

He didn't look away from the screen. Finally, he responded evasively, "I don't remember agreeing to anything."

"Sure you did. Before the war. Remember?" she prompted. "When you lost our bet?"

Shikamaru shifted uncomfortably in recollection. "Ah. That troublesome thing."

She merely clung on tighter. "You're running out of places to run," she whispered to him sweetly.

To her astonishment, he directed a lazy glance down at her.

"Who said anything about running?"

Ino's heart skipped a beat as he looked away – at the precise moment Shikamaru suddenly froze in place.

"Huh?" she peered up at him, still holding onto his arm. "Shikamaru? What's the matter-?"

His eyes were wide. He seemed stunned – as if he had suddenly heard – or sensed – something dreadful.

"Shikamaru…" Ino reached out with her other hand to him.

But he scarcely acknowledged her. All he could think about was the voice he had just heard in his head.

'Shikamaru. We're on the road to the Naka River! Someone's-'

Asuma's telepathic message had been cut abruptly short. Which only meant one possible thing.

Something serious had happened.


The hardest part, he had decided, had always been the waiting. For one as accustomed to immediate results as he was - one who had never placed much value upon patience - waiting had always seemed more akin to a punishment than a testimony of a greater mind.

He'd grown quite adept at it, counting the seconds, watching them trickle into minutes, the dreary minutes into hours, the hours into days and the days into years. Years had blurred into decades and centuries, centuries into millennia… and still he remained, confined to a throne that had lost all purpose and influence.

A throne that made a mockery of him.

With the passing of time, so too had his bitterness and hatred grown, splintering and tearing and gnawing away at his insides, leaving behind nothing but burning rage and the obsessive yearning for one thing, and one thing alone.

Revenge.

It was a constant hunger, an incurable itch. It consumed his every waking thought, and in the solace of his ancient prison, he had calculated the demise of all those who had wronged him.

Vengeance. Yes, he would attain it. The pieces were already falling into place. The agonising wait was finally giving way to the stepping stones that would pave his pathway back to glory. And this time, he would ensure that nothing would stop him.

He could still taste it – the acrimonious humiliation of defeat. Searing sky-blue eyes and sunshine gold hair flashed tauntingly across his memory. The crackling sizzle of lightning bolts as their wielder had surpassed even his speed. And he felt his hatred stir again, a malicious, festering force that could not be suppressed.

Zeus. The former King of the Gods was no longer an issue. That was the single victory the pathetic Ares had achieved, prior to his eternal banishment to the fiery pits of Tartarus, along with the seven other Titans who had plotted with him to remove Zeus from his seat of power. Arrogant Ares had boasted of his absolute mastery over the demonic Kyuubi – a powerful, untameable creature born of Chaos, as ancient as the gods themselves – only to have his control of the beast wrestled from him unexpectedly by the brilliance of Zeus and his spirited wife Hera – aided by the cunning of one other deity.

A deity whose actions had spun the strings of Fate in Zeus's comrades' favour.

His fingers curled, nails digging furiously into the arm-rests of his throne, as a name he despised as much as he loathed Zeus's, floated into his mind.

Thanatos.

The surface-bound deities did not know anything of their secret saviour, of course. But he had known. He had suspected Thanatos – and his shrewdly observant cousin, Hypnos – of treachery from the beginning. Always, Sleep and Death had watched him from the shadows. Hypnos's eyes had vigilantly guarded Thanatos – and vice versa. And while he had eventually been able to disable Hypnos, Erebus and Nyx's ingenious son had been decidedly more difficult to outwit.

Damn you, he cursed, enraged by the fact that he could never extract the vengeance he so desperately sought directly upon Thanatos, who had betrayed the Clan and sacrificed himself for Zeus's cause, weaving a deadly, forbidden seal which had ensured that the Titans and Ares were locked away in Tartarus – forever.

Thanatos's own brother had no idea of the extent of sacrifice his older sibling had gone through. Foolish young Hades had been on the battlefield. Clever Thanatos had ensured his safety from a distance. Zeus and his forces had not targeted Hades the same way they'd targeted others in the Clan.

But Thanatos was no more. And Hades hated the surface gods as much as he did. There was no voice of wisdom to dissuade the volatile deity of the dead from acting against what remained of Zeus's legacy.

Thanatos's great powers might have evaded him, but he intended to make full use of the devastating abilities Sasuke had inherited.

That, he vowed,was how he would achieve his ultimate revenge on Death. He'd take what he needed from his precious little brother – and then he would send Sasuke to the same place the rest of the Clan resided. Oblivion.

But first, he needed the Underworld's King on side. While part of his own power had been stripped, he still had a trick or two under his sleeve. Holding up his hands, he summoned a purple-black ball of energy and reached out with his mind, giving form to his intentions. Smiling darkly, he wondered how easy it would be to manipulate a distrustful Sasuke.

It would be like taking candy from an infant. He merely needed a little push. A little persuasion.

And he was a very persuasive god.


He had left Sakura slumbering in the safety of his palace, to take his regular turn about his realm on Nyctaeus and had arrived on the other side of Acheron's banks when he heard it. A cry more compelling than all the countless others, it snagged Sasuke's notice immediately.

The lament came from a spirit who could not pass over on Charon's vessel – a middle-aged, stocky, bearded man who was weeping pitifully into his semi-transparent hands.

"Oh, what will become of my family?" he exclaimed. "The crops will not grow, and they too shall die of hunger…!"

With a start, Sasuke halted his horse and stared down at the deceased man for a long moment. Then he heard another soul wail – a woman who he knew, just by looking at her, had died aged fifty two of hunger, also.

"Why didn't our crops grow? What will become of my children? Without their father and I…"

Then, as he tuned his ears to listen more carefully, he realised that others were saying similar things. Frail people who had lived in poor countries and had nothing but their own produce to rely on for food were regretting their premature demises.

"The weather… it was just too cold…"

"Two and a half months! The earth should have started to produce something!"

"Please let my family live!"

"What can I do for them, now?"

"Where are we?"

He tuned out abruptly at the last question and frowning, turned his snorting horse away. Was Sakura's absence from the surface finally starting to have significant effects?

Were the results of his actions causing the deaths of mortals?

He shoved the thought out of his head viciously. People died from starvation every day, everywhere.

Still, the grief of the dead nagged at him. The King of the Underworld did not take lives. He merely managed the influx of souls and the safe passage to their final destinations. That had been one of the first lessons his mother had taught him and his brother when they had been children.

No, he told himself vehemently. This was not his concern.

He rode onwards, beyond the riverbank and the long, silver bridge that led to the Underworld's imposing entrance gates. They glowed with mysterious power and he slipped off his horse, petting the steed's head briefly as he instructed Nyctaeus to remain in place. Passing through the gates, he continued forwards, until he reached the jagged, rocky mouth of the Underworld.

Cerberus growled in greeting, lowering his mighty heads, eyes glowing like red hot embers. Sasuke noted that the beast's humungous left paw bore a tear. He knew that the hellhound enjoyed scraping rocks with his claws and had obviously scratched at a piece a little too enthusiastically.

Reaching out, he held his hand over the split wound, immediately healing it. In response, Cerberus's massive heads lowered, as if to slobber gratefully over his master – but Sasuke quelled the effort with a sharp, warning look.

One that communicated: Don't even think about it.

Cerberus whimpered unhappily and drew back. He was a terrifying, ferocious beast who had the ability to rip anything to shreds – but in the presence of his owner, he was a dog all the same.

"Hn," Sasuke relented and placed a hand lightly on the side of the left head. Cerberus had served his family loyally for generations, after all. The central and right ones tried to clamour for a fleeting rare touch, too.

However, his master's attention had shifted away, locking onto the thick blanket of coiling mist ahead of them. He had sensed a sudden presence – one that was unfamiliar – and it did not belong to incoming souls. The spirits that were steadily passing through the Underworld's entrance were intangible. They only took physical form once they passed through the sacred gates.

No, this one was different. He couldn't quite place it. It did not seem to belong to a mortal, either.

The figure was moving almost noiselessly. Cerberus detected it too – and immediately straightened on alert, rumbling ominously. Sasuke stared hard, his left hand sliding to rest automatically upon Kusanagi's hilt as he waited for the stranger to identify themselves. The silhouette he could glimpse ahead was getting steadily closer and finally drew near enough for him to discern a feminine form.

The slender woman stepped through the mist – and Sasuke's eyebrows lifted.

She was naked, save for the long cascading brown tresses that covered her swollen breasts. Her skin was sickly in hue and wet and her eyes were a pale blue. She stopped before him. Sasuke could hear that her breaths were coming out in laboured rasps.

She was not dead. Neither was she human, or any other species he had ever encountered. There seemed to be something very wrong with her – her soul was erratic and dark. Impure.

Cautious and mistrustful, he spoke to her.

"Who are you? State your purpose."

She tilted her head and offered him a smile so unnaturally wide that it almost bordered on unsettling. Her teeth were stained yellow and chipped.

"I am what you denied," she said, her voice hoarse. "I am the proof you seek."

Before Sasuke could comprehend what this mystifying sentence could mean, she attacked. Just like that. He tensed, recovering rapidly from his surprise to unsheathe Kusanagi. With a gruesome shriek, her slender arms extended, flying out like rubber ropes, grabbing at him. Sasuke's lips curled back in revulsion as he told himself that she was no woman. And so there was no cause for him to hold back and to not engage in battle.

He evaded her attempt to capture him and flickered behind her, seeking to disable her quickly. Cerberus's heads barked wildly, but he stayed back at his master's telepathic command. The woman whirled – and threw up a foul, acidic liquid directly at him. Sasuke cursed and managed to side-step out of the nasty projectile attack's path at the final moment, then placed space between them, his mind racing to identify just what he was dealing with.

The woman - creature - thing - laughed and it was a sound akin to glass shattering.

"You underestimate my powers," she grated. As she spoke on, her voice began to change, became a demonic mixture of a woman's blending into a man's, until it began to sound vaguely familiar. "Still so unwise…"

At first, Sasuke could not place it. Then, with a sudden, shocked jolt, he recognised it. Kusanagi, which he'd lifted to ready another assault, lowered again fractionally as his lips parted in an uncharacteristic moment of open disbelief.

It could not be. But he knew without a doubt that it was.

The voice belonged to someone he had not seen since the calamitous day of his family's passing.

A cruelly smirking face flashed across his vision. Long, raven hair. Spinning Eternal Mangekyō irises. With a violent lurch, Sasuke's mind was flung back thousands and thousands of years, to the seconds before the ground had opened up beneath his feet and the Shades of the Dead had claimed him.

Cronus.

The death deity blinked and released a shuddering breath, his heart thundering from the force of the rage that rose up like a roaring rip-tide within his chest.

He dared! He dared to possess a body and communicate to Sasuke through it – at the doorstep to his own Kingdom!

"You believe that I have no influence from Olympus." The woman continued to speak echoingly in Cronus's deep, arrogant voice. "Mark my words, young Sasuke. My powers still exist. Consider this a complimentary demonstration."

With a malevolent laugh, the woman attacked again. Enraged, Sasuke flash stepped forward, drawing his blade back. He ducked when her hands extended for him a second time and closed the gap between them fluidly. Without hesitation, he stabbed the phantom body straight through the heart and yanked his blade back out, before grabbing onto the woman's slick left shoulder. Jerking her roughly around, he lifted the sword to her throat and swiftly slit it, before releasing her. The body crumpled lifelessly to the floor, spewing dark blood upon rock.

Sasuke warily nudged the body with his foot. It did not move. He waited for it to disintegrate – it did not. The black essence he had detected in it had vanished. The skin seemed to turn a deeper hue of grey but otherwise, the figure remained motionless.

After a few uneventful minutes, Sasuke finally allowed himself to relax.

"Finish off the body," he ordered Cerberus, and turned his back disgustedly on the vile sight. He began to walk back to the mouth of the Underworld – when his hound's heads barked loudly in sudden warning.

Sasuke froze. Stiffly, he turned – to find that the body was rising again. Like a grotesque, disfigured mannequin operated by an invisible puppeteer, it got up, bending its limbs abnormally until it reached full height, when its head snapped forward gruesomely and its eyes reopened. The pupils and irises had vanished. All that remained was white.

The black erratic soul had returned. Immediately, Sasuke held out his palm, intending to wrench it out of the body.

To his shock, the soul resisted. Another three attempts yielded the same fruitless response.

Sasuke's eyes widened, as he gazed on in barely-concealed horror. He couldn't even grasp the spirit inside the human shell. In any ordinary forbidden resurrection technique, his powers would have been able to override those of the summoner.

But he quickly realised that this was no ordinary technique.

"You cannot kill what is immortal," Cronus's voice taunted. "Behold, the perfected Edo Tensei."

That was when Sasuke became aware of another figure walking through the mist. A young, mortal man who looked dazed and disorientated. Sasuke stared at him in initial blank confusion – then instantly caught on to what was about to happen.

"W-where am I?" the youth stammered, drawing to a stop by the figure. His eyes widened as the sickly-skinned woman turned to him. "Huh? What the hell are you- aghhhh!" he cried out, as without warning, the resurrected body stabbed him straight through the heart – just as Sasuke had done to it.

The young man coughed up blood, convulsed – then slumped to the ground, dead. Sasuke watched, sickened and appalled, as the soul of the man left his body and drifted obediently towards him at first – as it normally would – then, with a distressed lurch, changed direction and shot straight back into the mortally wounded body.

The youth gasped – and his eyes opened. He sat up, looking bewildered.

"Wh-wha-wha-?" he was hyperventilating, trembling, looking down at himself, his hands clutched over his bleeding chest.

Sasuke exhaled. What manner of unholy technique was this? It was just as the snake Orochimaru had said. An Edo Tensei that united an original soul with its body once again.

"You see," Cronus's voice reverberated sinisterly. "There are no limits to my power. Imagine, what you want the most, returned to you…"

That snapped Sasuke out of his alarmed thoughts.

"You took away everything," he said savagely. "And you expect me to listen to you?"

"His soul did not pass to the pure world," Cronus's voice spoke on, as if Sasuke had not addressed him at all. What he said next made Sasuke freeze again. "Your brother. Itachi. I can return him to you."

Sasuke's pulse was hurtling. He felt physically sick, thoroughly disturbed by what he had seen and what he was hearing. His grip on Kusanagi was hard enough to almost snap the hilt.

Just hearing Cronus mention Itachi's name made Sasuke see red. His chest heaved with blazing fury.

"Shut up!"His words trembled from the intensity of his anger.

The human youth, who was babbling nonsensically, staggered to his feet. He began to stumble away – when abruptly he fell to the ground. Again his soul tried to reach Sasuke – and again it was forced back into its shell.

The boy sat up for a second time. This time he looked down at his wound and screamed. Before he could do anything else, he blacked out once more and his soul tried in vain to depart for a third time.

For the third time, it was dragged back into a vessel that could not sustain it.

The chilling sight was absolutely nauseating.

"This technique overrides even your power," Cronus mocked. "Using this, I can restore any soul that has not yet entered your world."

"You can't sustain it," Sasuke snapped back. He could practically taste his bitter hatred for the elder deity in the back of his throat.

"Perhaps not right now. But it is only a matter of time before this technique will be perfected. And when it is, imagine the possibilities…"

"No," Sasuke bit back acidly, desperately ruing the fact that Cronus wasn't standing before him in the flesh. He would have liked to stab him through the heart, too.

"Still as obstinate as always. As expected. You are my descendent, after all."

"No," Sasuke hissed again. "You're not of the Uchiha."

Cronus's possessed body threw back its ugly head and laughed. "I am the dark. I am of Chaos. And so, too, are you."

The death deity had heard enough. With a rejecting snarl, he lunged forward and with one, lightning fast strike, decapitated the ghastly zombie's head.

To his sheer repulsion, the head continued to talk.

"Find what was taken from my subjects, and we can begin."

"I said shut up!" Sasuke snarled, impaling the head with his sword and channelling a stream of screaming Chidori along the length of Kusanagi for good measure. When he yanked his sword back, all was still and silent for a heart-pounding minute.

Then Cronus's voice spoke again. This time, it seemed to echo all around him.

"When you are ready to listen, you know how to find me, Hades…"

And then, in a sudden whirl of smoke, both resurrected bodies vanished entirely from sight, leaving Sasuke breathing heavily in the thick mist, his stunned mind reeling.


'Say, Pinky,' Suigetsu communicated casually. 'Is it me, or are our fun little chats becoming fewer and farther in between?'

Sakura had bathed and put on a fresh set of clothes – she'd settled for a pretty, pale green, knee-length dress and gold sandals – and had decided to check in with the water deity afterwards.

Now that she considered it, it had been a while since their last conversation. Trying to make it seem like it was nothing, she shrugged apologetically.

'Sorry. I guess I've been really busy.'

'Uh huh.' Suigetsu waggled his eyebrows suggestively. 'Busy making out with Sasuke?'

Sasuke's earlier, bruising kiss danced across her memory for the nth time and Sakura fought to retain dignified composure. She was pleased when she managed to not even flinch under Suigetsu's scrutinising gaze.

'No,' she answered, adding a clear edge to her tone.

'Huh.' Suigetsu blinked up at her from the water's surface. 'I'm only teasing you, yeah? No need to be a grouch about it.'

'I'm not grouching.'

'You look like you are.'

'I'm not.'

'Are too. Maybe that bastard's personality is starting to rub off on you.'

'It's not! I'm not- oh forget it!' Sakura huffed.

The Ocean God flashed a toothy smile at her. 'Hey, don't get mad. I'm just so fucking bored in this cell, and without you to talk to as well, I'm going kinda crazy.'

Spying her opening, Sakura dove right in. 'You're an immortal and you can't even break out of a cell?'

'Ouch.' Suigetsu feigned hurt. 'Where's this coming from, all of a sudden?'

'You never really explained it to me, before,' said Sakura.

'Heh. Sure, I can get out of here if I want.' Suigetsu mused, scratching his chin absent-mindedly. 'It'd hurt like hell, though. Water and lightning don't exactly mix, y'know.'

'So that's why you need the sword…?' Sakura pressed.

'It'll nullify the lightning energy in these bars, yeah. But that's not all. We need it to get us out of this depressing place,' he answered.

She stared, nonplussed. 'How?'

'Well, we need the sword to unlock the Underworld's entrance gates. I can exit just fine but mortals can't leave the Underworld without the King's explicit permission – or his key.'

'The sword is the key,' Sakura stated in understanding.

'Smart girl. So really, it's you who needs the sword to get out. Got it?'

Sakura did. Then she said suspiciously, 'So what's in it for you?'

Suigetsu raised his eyebrows. 'Wow, Sakura. What's with the interrogation, all of a sudden?'

'Actually, I've always had these questions,' Sakura pointed out. 'I just haven't asked them.'

'Right…' Suigetsu gave her a peculiar look and then shrugged. 'What can I say? I'm a sucker for damsels in distress. And you're a mighty pretty damsel.'

He was lying. Sakura knew it. She couldn't imagine a deity consenting to being locked up and waiting for so long in confinement, if they didn't have some kind of ulterior motive - if they didn't gain somehow, in some way.

Seeing that she clearly didn't buy his answer, he rolled his eyes. 'What does it matter? You get to go home; I get to be a hero, everybody's happy.'

'But what it's in for you?' she repeated.

'I get to marry one hundred virgins.' Suigetsu grinned. 'Maybe I'll let you be one of them – that's if Sasuke hasn't screwed you himself by then.'

Sakura wished he wouldn't speak so vulgarly. Shaking her head at him, she said, 'What's your real reward?'

Now his expression was bordering on irritated. 'You know, Pinky, there's a human saying about curiosity and cats. Now, how did it go, again…?'

It was a clear signal for Sakura to cease her questioning. Suspicion flared in her mind. Why couldn't Suigetsu just tell her what he was getting out of assisting her?

Gods don't like being asked about why they do things, she reminded herself unhappily.

Suigetsu, however, had guessed her line of thinking and pointed at her. 'I know what this is about. You're worried I'll dump you once we reach the surface. But I've already told you that I'm taking you back to that mother of yours.'

Sakura silently wondered what would happen if Suigetsu didn't get whatever it was he'd been promised by whoever it was that had sent him to find her. She decided not to communicate this. Messing things up with the water deity would be an imprudent move.

She decided to cover herself, and answered, 'I'm just scared we'll mess this up.'

'The only way we'll mess this up is if you mess up on your end,' Suigetsu responded. His eyes had narrowed pointedly, and Sakura, her heart skipping a beat, thought for an instant that his words sounded more like a threat than a warning – or perhaps it was just her imagination, for a second later his expression had reverted to a friendly grin. 'So. How's it going with you and Mr Sunshine? Karin's ready to get what we need. You ready from your end?'

Sakura blinked. 'Sasuke's been showing me around a lot.' After another pause, she added, 'I know what happened to his family.'

Suigetu's eyebrows shot up and his jaw slackened. 'Huh? For real? He's actually let you in on that?' When Sakura nodded, his shocked look then morphed into one of open admiration. 'Hey. Not bad, Pinky. Sounds like you're worming your way pretty far through Frosty's iron defences.'

'It's true, isn't it? A god named Cronus was responsible for Sasuke's Clan's demise?'

'Yeah,' Suigetsu affirmed. 'Cronus was a real nut-case. You know he supposedly ate some of his own kids?'

Now it was Sakura's turn to gape down at him. 'What?'

Suigetsu slapped a hand over his mouth comically. 'Whoops. I've said too much. My bad, Pinky.'

'What do you mean, he ate his own children?' Sakura was appalled.

'You know what eating is, right?' The Ocean God quipped sarcastically, acting the action out. 'You sit down, get a knife and a fork, and a napkin if you're posh then chop up the food. Cronus found a fancy restaurant and asked them so serve up his sons as the main course-' Catching the wide-eyed look of abject horror on Sakura's face, he chuckled. 'Pinky, you're so gullible.'

Sakura frowned. 'So he didn't eat his kids?'

'He did. Just not at a fancy restaurant.'

'So what happened to Cronus after the war?' Sakura hoped that in mid-flow, Suigetsu would get carried away with the conversation and provide her with more information.

To her disappointment, he did not.

'Sorry, Sakura. Like I told you before, I can't tell you anything he hasn't. We can't risk blowing our cover.'

Sakura swallowed down a frustrated remark. 'Fine,' she said.

'I promise you once we're out, I'll answer any questions you have. How does that sound?' Suigetsu offered with a wink.

Sakura grudgingly shrugged. 'If we make it out,' she communicated.

'Come on, Pinky. Have a little faith in me!'

Sakura nodded and mustered a watery smile. In the secrecy of her heart, however, she felt more uncertain than ever. She barely heard the Ocean God's parting words, so distracted was she by thoughts of Sasuke.

'I'll contact you again when Karin's ready. You just keep doing what you're doing. Just keep reminding yourself, he planned all this. This is the asshole that kidnapped you without giving a shit about your feelings. You're doing the right thing. Later, Pinky.'

But Sakura wondered to herself, as his face rippled out of sight, whether it really was right at all. As she pulled the plug and allowed the water to swirl down the drain, she considered Suigetsu's words more carefully.

He'd said Karin was ready. But Sakura didn't feel like she was, at all. Worse still, she hadn't voiced her true reservations to Suigetsu. She didn't feel comfortablewith the idea of effectively drugging Sasuke. She never had been – but now she knew things she hadn't before. The Underworld's King was offering her progressively greater degrees of trust, allowing her to see forbidden places, granting her a horse, and giving her glimpses into his past… and here she was. Plotting to betray him.

I shouldn't feel like a criminal, she told herself angrily, feeling a strange discomfort, which she assigned to the stress of her conscience contradicting itself, twinge deep inside her chest. Why am I letting him confuse me so much? He's had this planned from the very start, like Suigetsu said. I shouldn't be letting what he showed me make me feel sorry for him. It doesn't change what he's done to me.

Abducting her had been wrong, but… did that qualify Sasuke as completely evil? She was no longer viewing things from a black or white perspective. Suddenly everything seemed a murky grey, neither one nor the other. Suigetsu had painted to her a picture of an indefensible fiend; one who deserved every bad thing that came his way. The Sasuke who interacted with her had many, many faults, but he wasn't an absolute monster.

A true monster would have treated her a lot worse. A monster wouldn't have waited for so long to steal only kisses from her. Sakura swallowed, her head throbbing. It was too much to think about. She felt like she was at war with herself.

'You must choose your own path, Sakura.'

The words Chiyo had spoken to her the first time they'd met echoed in her head.

Then she heard another voice. One that was faint and fleeting, like the distant notes of a flute. It seemed vaguely familiar to her, as if she ought to know it – but she couldn't quite place it. The harder she listened, the more it seemed to grow fainter. It was only when she stopped concentrating so much that she finally managed to decipher what it was saying.

'We can't. We can't make the same mistake…'

Sakura rubbed absently at the uneasiness in her chest. The voice didn't sound like hers. Who, then, was speaking to her?

Who is this…?

Silence met her ears. The discomfort in her chest was growing worse. She glanced at her reflection in the mirror above the sink. Her skin was red from the rubbing. Sakura stared at herself in bewilderment for a moment - then winced when something suddenly constricted inside her. Her eyes widened as a familiar, rapidly escalating sense of panic began to creep over her senses.

Oh, no, she thought to herself, pushing away from the basin, fumbling for the lock at the door. No!

It was happening again!

A wave of dizziness assaulted her as she stumbled into the bathroom. The ache now felt like a furnace, burning away at her wind pipe. She couldn't breathe right. Her heart was thundering fitfully.

What's happening?! Sakura thought wildly, wrestling to keep herself from hyperventilating beyond control.

Again the strange voice whispered to her.

'Don't trust him again. Don't let him in again…'

Sakura couldn't comprehend the meaning behind the words. Panting, she fought against the nausea and vertigo and ran into her room. Every step she took caused the pain to escalate. It was like something was being torn from deep within her chest. She could feel something shifting – as if it were about to burst out of her.

"N-No," she stammered, as her heart began to palpitate dangerously. She was having another attack episode and knew that she needed ambrosia – and fast. But the nearest crystal decanter was downstairs in the banqueting hall. How could she ever make it there, in time?

The last instance she had experienced the terrifying ordeal, her maids had been on hand to summon Sasuke to save her. Now she was completely alone. A sense of impending doom rushed over her. She could feel consciousness starting to slip away from her and battled to retain it.

Then something happened that had never happened before. Light flashed before her eyes. She thought she saw a face within it.

What's… happening… to me…?

The blood rushing in her ears was all she could hear at first – coupled with a high pitched, incessant ringing.

'We gave into the darkness once. We gave him our heart, once. We can't do it, again,' the airy voice spoke up once more. It sounded louder than before.

What do you mean? Sakura hauled open her bedchamber's doors. Why did they feel so damned heavier than usual? She barely registered that it was because her entire body was shaking violently.

Who are you…?

Her question reverberated deafeningly, mockingly in her mind.

Who are you…?

Who are you…?

Who are you…?

Then the voice seemed to laugh. A giggle that sounded like tinkling bells.

'But you know me. I am you. I've always been you. You want to remember.'

With the words came a fresh wave of excruciating pain.

"Stop," Sakura choked on a sob, her lungs heaving to suck in the oxygen they needed. She stumbled down the corridor, half-dragging her legs to move beneath her. It was sheer will-power alone that got her to the top of the majestic staircase that led down to the entrance hall. Miraculously, she managed to make her way down, leaning heavily on the banisters and half sliding, half slipping down the steps. By the time she got to the bottom, she was on her knees. Her skin had broken into a cold sweat, and her head felt like it was on the verge of exploding from internal pressure.

Keep breathing, she willed herself. Keep breathing. In. Out. In. Out-!

The corners of her vision were turning to grey. She began to see stars. Sakura tried to open her mouth to call for help, but could only muster a pathetic croak. She crawled to the banqueting room's door and after numerous clumsy attempts, was somehow able to open it.

Almost there-! Each breath in and out felt like a terrible burden. The temptation to give in, to lay her head down and stop fighting the pain, was overwhelming. Sakura struggled once more, inching slowly to the table. Her vision was blurry and her heart felt like it was on the verge of halting entirely.

She clutched at the table cloth and hauled herself up. The clatter of plates and the crashing of glass informed her that she was causing a mess around her – but she couldn't worry about that. Blinking against the haze, her frantic eyes searched for the glint of gold that was her salvation. At last, she found it. With a final, desperate surge of effort, she grabbed at the decanter and fell to the ground on her back amidst broken crockery. It took every last fragment of power to lift her heavy arms and place the decanter to her lips.

Sweet liquid coursed down her throat. She knew, medically, that the angle at which she was gulping was wrong and risked her choking to death, but she didn't care. She just wanted the unbearable pain to go away. Squeezing her eyes shut, she drank and drank, like she had never done before, pausing only to suck in a gasp of air before continuing. Even when the pain finally, blessedly, began to ebb away and was replaced by pleasant warmth and relief, Sakura found that she could not stop.

Gradually her foggy mind cleared, her oxygen levels restored – and then the alarmed command came.

Stop! You'll intoxicate yourself like last time! That's enough!

With great reluctance, she discarded the decanter. It fell with a thud to the ground, and Sakura lay wheezing, staring dizzily at the beautiful chandeliers high above her, waiting for the room to stop spinning. At last, it did. She tried to listen to the voice again, but everything had fallen to a hush in her mind. She stayed there for a long time, catching her breath, feeling the last of the tension leave her body – when the sound of the door opening and steady, sandal-clad footsteps entering the room caused her to stir in position.

Sasuke's eyes immediately locked onto her sprawled form, overlooking the fallen dishes entirely. Something wrenched unpleasantly inside him and he was by her side in an instant.

"Sakura." He leaned over her, placing a hand lightly to her left cheek. "What happened?"

She blinked up at him. "I had another attack," she explained, feeling the same familiar, instantaneous exhaustion that followed her episodes fall over her.

His dark eyes darted to the ambrosia decanter. He noted with some concern that she had drunk almost half of it.

"It happened in my room," she went on, and Sasuke could detect the fatigue in her voice. "I was so scared," she added in a whisper, her eyes stinging with unshed tears. "I thought I… wouldn't make it down in time."

Sasuke was silent. He told himself that he ought to have returned to her right away. Instead he had lingered at the Underworld's entrance – and Sakura had suffered unnecessarily in his absence.

"Sasuke…" she whispered to him, closing her eyes tiredly.

"Yes." He found his fingers stroking her cheek with a careful tenderness that felt alien to him. He watched his digits' actions with troubled puzzlement - as if he could not understand them – as if they did not belong to him.

"What's wrong with me…?" her voice trailed sleepily off, and her breathing slowed down to a steady, tranquil rhythm. He could see that she had fallen asleep.

Sasuke swallowed and shook his head. At length, he murmured, knowing she could not hear him, "Nothing, Sakura."

The fingers caressing her cheek withdrew, curling to form angry fists. She was perfect. It was those who considered themselves her family and friends, who were in the wrong. They were the ones responsible for allowing Sakura to believe that something inside her was faulty and broken.

"Nothing," he hissed again, his rage absolute.


When she finally came to, Kurenai found herself in a very peculiar situation. Her head felt heavy and she could taste something coppery and metallic in her mouth. For the first few seconds, her disorientated mind struggled to recall what had happened.

Then it hit her like a devastating tsunami.

She realised that the strange sensation of weightlessness she was experiencing was due to the fact that the car had been flipped upside down. Only the safety belt had kept her from plunging straight through the cracked glass.

"Asuma," she croaked, turning her throbbing head to find that her companion was out cold. Distress fluttered within her. She could smell smoke and oil and knew that they had to get out.

Coughing, she fumbled for the belt's clasp, depressing the button and bracing herself for the fall. She managed to manoeuvre enough to twist around, ignoring the stinging pain in her left leg and shoulder. With her window still thankfully open, she was able to slowly crawl out of the car. It was only when she sat back, that she saw the true extent of the damage.

Lifting a hand to her mouth in wordless horror, Kurenai shook herself out of her shock and scrambled around to Asuma's side. It had taken the brunt of the impact and the tough metal was heavily indented. To her relief, the safety belt had kept him rooted to his seat, too – but when she spied the deep gash on his head, it was difficult not to fear the worst.

She pulled at his door – but it would not budge. She tried again, to no avail. Cursing, she threw all rules to the wind in her desperation and tapped into her seal, summoning a small stream of chakra to her right fist. Covering her hand with the sleeve of her red sweater, she smashed the glass window in and reached inside to free Asuma of his seatbelt. He slumped down and into her arms. She heaved him out, adrenaline giving her the strength she needed to bear his greater weight. Finally, both free of the vehicle, she dragged them back, to the side of the road, panting.

She looked down at the man in her arms. The man she loved. He was unconscious – but thankfully breathing steadily.

Stroking his temple, Kurenai called to him. "Asuma. Asuma, can you hear me?"

The response she received was not the one she wanted, or expected. It made her blood freeze over.

"Truly a sentimental scene…" the slippery voice rasped. "It will perhaps be a great comfort for you to know, that your final moments will be spent together."

Her head whipped around. She fought back the sickening nausea and bout of vertigo and ground her teeth as her eyes, burning from the billowing smoke behind them, locked onto the very figure she had hoped to never encounter again.

Orochimaru stood before her, a cruel, malicious smile on his thin lips. He was as sickly pale as she recalled – but his golden, strange eyes seemed disconcertingly brighter.

"Hello, Kurenai," he greeted. "It has been a while, indeed."

"You," she ensured her voice was even, giving nothing away. Her priority was to protect Asuma for long enough to summon help. "You did this."

"You must understand," Orochimaru said, in that slick, reasonable tone she despised. "Your meddling interferes with our designs."

"So it's true. You really are working in league with Madara." She shook her head at him. "Knowing him to be the traitor he is… birds of a feather, flock together, after all."

"Of course, you would know all about such things," the serpent smugly licked his lips with an alarmingly long, forked tongue, prompting Kurenai to recall just how disturbing and repulsive he was. "The bird you have summoned for aid has already been incapacitated."

Kurenai made sure not to let her surprise about this register on her face.

"You follow Kabuto," Orochimaru continued. "But no place you search will yield you the results you seek. He is under my protection."

"You mean, under your spell," Kurenai shot back.

The daemon of Terror merely smiled. "Mortals are free to listen to what they please. You of all the gods and goddesses know this," he supplied, his gaze moving pointedly to the prone form of Asuma.

Kurenai's heart leapt. She needed to keep his attention on her!

"So what do you intend to do now?" she demanded, laying Asuma down gently on the road and shifting carefully in front of him. "Discard the oath and be rid of us both?"

"That," Orochimaru hissed, as she watched a pair of slender white snakes slide out from beneath the arms of his black robe, "is precissssely my intention."

The snakes reared their heads, drew back – and Kurenai finally moved. In a heartbeat she had directed chakra to her hands and fashioned a great, silver bow from the air. The feel of her trusty weapon was reassuring.

It had been a while since she had gone hunting.

Without hesitation, she pulled back on the string, and the motion called to place an arrow, shining with holy light. She aimed at the snakes and let loose, striking both through their heads. But two more shot out in their place, baring their poisonous fangs at her.

She grabbed the twin daggers hidden beneath her coat at her waist and flung it at them.

"You are wounded," Orochimaru sneered. "What hope do you have to overpower me?"

"I'll take my chances!" Kurenai cried. She raised her hands, and a rain of kestrels hailed down from the sky with shrill shrieks, assaulting the snakes and their master.

Orochimaru immediately shed his physical form and melted into the ground. Pulse thundering, Kurenai braced herself, trying to anticipate where he would reappear. Her birds circled her as she called to other great beasts to protect her lover.

In a flash of light and with a fierce growl, a pair of black panthers materialised before Asuma. They prowled around him, snarling menacingly.

"Kukukuku…" Orochimaru's voice echoed in the air around her. "You have not losssst your touch, Kurenai…"

She whirled – a split second before Orochimaru rematerialised. His serpents shot out at her, hissing. She ducked and fired again with her bow. The arrows whistled through the air and struck a pair of snakes that had been slithering towards her feet. Her birds dutifully attacked others, seeking to keep her from harm.

Kurenai's eyes flew to the panthers. They were biting and attacking an onslaught of serpents that had attempted to target Asuma.

"Where issss it?" the daemon demanded, materialising in place behind her. "The phial you sssstole from ussss…"

She turned and lunged at him with another dagger. "I'll never tell!" she slashed at him, but he summoned another snake at the final moment. Kurenai's dagger embedded into its thick skin – and she watched, with wide eyes, as Orochimaru called out another six snakes. They slithered out from his arms, and opened their mouths, extending glinting blades.

Kurenai stiffened, her movements compromised because of injuries she'd had no time to heal. She had never fought the daemon before, had heard of him only through Jiraiya and Tsunade's accounts. What manner of attack was this?!

"Your luck has run out, Kurenai," Orochimaru chuckled darkly.

"Really?" enquired another voice lazily. "Because from where I'm standing, I'd say it's you who's running on borrowed time."

Kurenai's heart leapt with relief as Shikamaru nodded briefly in greeting at her.

"Sorry we're late!" Ino exclaimed, rushing to Asuma's side.

From the shadow of a nearby tree, Sasuke silently watched, the phial gripped tightly in his left hand.


Author's note

So a lot of surface event focus here. Next chapter will have more Sasuke and Sakura. Please leave your thoughts, I'd love to hear them as the plot-line develops. Thanks for reading.