Over five thousand reviews! Guys, that's absolutely incredible; I'm amazed. I never imagined I'd ever reach such a colossal milestone on here. Thank you so much to everybody who has taken the time to leave feedback over the course of the story to date; your support and constructive criticism is appreciated so much.
I'd also really like to thank everyone for their continued patience and dedication in terms of sticking with the plotline, and to all the talented artists who continue to spoil me senseless by creating such beautiful masterpieces which help to capture the story visually. Each and every one of you keeps me so inspired.
I guess reaching this milestone makes me realise that I've never felt this passionate about a project ever before; I know it's easy to lose interest or for Writer's Block to rear its unwelcome head, but I haven't encountered that once in the course of writing Quietus. If time allowed, I'd be writing for it every single day, which is just insane.
Please check the link on my profile to listen to accompanying track for this chapter at the point indicated when the first orb rises to Sasuke's eye-level.
On another note, to the unregistered reviewer who asked for my thoughts on the recent Naruto manga chapters (I love the direction it's going in generally), please visit my tumblr where you'll find detailed commentary on there. You can find the link on my profile page.
Flying Susanoo has totally inspired me, by the way. Makes Sasuke so much more badass, I'll definitely be incorporating it into the story.
Enough rambling by me; happy reading, everyone.
Caught in a state of endless distress,
Her resolve falters, quaking with strain,
Torn by Fate's cruellest of tests,
She begins to question the game she plays,
Her mind scorches with thoughts that singe,
Burdened with guilt she wishes away,
Like seeping poison, the doubts infringe,
Until she forgets why she awaits,
Death draws her further into the deep,
While Ocean beckons with freedom's key,
Trapped between two titan Kings,
In her trembling hand, the Decider of things.
Her eyes were brilliant emeralds, reflecting the warmth of the illuminating candle-light around them. Sasuke could read her inner turmoil – her unmistakeable suffering – and wanted nothing more than to disperse it, once and for all. As he gazed down at her, it struck him once again just how much more intricate the mystery of Sakura had proven to be, how he had gotten so much more than he ever could have bargained for when he'd made the fateful decision to steal her from the surface.
Everything had become a mess since then, and Sasuke was oddly confident that he had still only scratched the surface of the puzzle. Who knew what other unforeseen twists lay in store, hidden more deeply and treacherously than he was able to perceive at that moment?
Sakura's heart, meanwhile, was thumping to an erratic beat. Sasuke's expression was as neutral and unfathomable as always – but something about his lengthy delay in responding to her was causing alarm bells to blare loudly in her head.
He had all the answers she sought. Of course he did. He was a deity, after all. But why was he so silent? Why was he just staring at her like that? The fingers at her cheek had long since lowered, and he simply stood, impassive to her proximity, to the way she was clutching so tightly onto him. Did he not realise that every passing second was propelling her anxiety to intolerable levels?
"Sasuke," she finally said, feeling as though she could cut the tension in the air between them with a knife. "What is it? Say something."
The wheels in Sasuke's sharp mind rotated at a rapid pace as he considered his options carefully, weighing the pros and cons of each.
On the one hand, he could divulge everything to her right then and there – about the essence, about her mother's true identity, about who her surface friends truly were. But he knew that would be one shock too many and realistically concluded that sharing every piece of knowledge in his possession would be imprudent, impulsive.
He had to speak to the idiotic moron, first. He needed to know the precise conditions that had facilitated the aura being locked away inside her – why Sakura had been specifically selected for it - and what the repercussions of removing it would be.
There was no question about it – Sakura would not like hearing the truth. That did not mean, however, that he could not shed any light at all for her and gauge her reaction beforehand, with some judiciously imparted fragments.
"Your episodes," he began slowly, cautiously, "are not a medical condition."
Sakura stared at him in confusion. What he was saying went entirely against what her mother had informed her on the surface. However, she told herself that Sasuke, being an all-knowing god, could see beyond her mother's years of medical expertise, and so she listened.
"But the attacks only happen in springtime. I've had blood tests; what else could they be?"
Sasuke's eyes narrowed. Of course Tsunade had been the one who had administered all the 'testing' and used it to weave a web of deceit around Sakura's naïve little head. Gently prying her fingers loose from their clasping point at his chest, Sasuke turned away and paced, thinking about the best way to break part of what he knew to her.
Sakura waited, her heart drumming with anticipation.
"These 'tests'," said Sasuke, "when did they begin?"
Sakura shrugged. "I don't know when, exactly. I've had them several times a year for as long as I can remember. But they were always inconclusive. I just assumed my attacks were some weird allergic reaction to something."
"…" Sasuke thought that the testing had surely begun in childhood. It only made him angrier.
"If they're not medical, then what could they be?" Sakura questioned again. "And what about the visions I'm having?"
"The dreams," replied Sasuke, "seem directly connected to the episodes."
Sakura's lips parted in shock. "What? But how is that possible?" she began in bewilderment. "I've never had these dreams before-"
He swivelled back to her, his eyes glinting charcoals. "How can you be so sure, Sakura," he demanded, "when you can never remember anything about them?"
Sakura took a moment to consider this possibility and was thoroughly troubled by it. She knew that she would have formerly very likely dismissed what he was saying entirely – before her eyes had been opened to all manner of things supernatural. Now everything seemed plausible – even if it logically made no sense.
"So you're saying I might have been having these dreams on the surface, too?" She shook her head. "I'm certain I've never…" she trailed off, scouring her brain for any memory at all of strange visions.
But Sasuke was right; it was as if her mind had turned to a sieve, scattering recollections to the wind, and she just couldn't remember anything out of the ordinary, no matter how hard she tried.
Then something did occur to her – memories of her younger self, waking up in a cold sweat following bad dreams. It was hazy, and she always recalled her mother being there and soothing her quickly back to sleep…
"I've had nightmares," she said suddenly. "But I thought everybody got those once in a while."
Sasuke eyed her, waiting for her to elaborate.
"I don't remember them all in detail but I'd have this same nightmare often when I was younger. I haven't had it in a while, but I'd always be alone in a dark place." She shook her head again. "That's stupid. It doesn't even mean anything. I've just always hated the dark."
"Why?" Sasuke asked.
Sakura blinked, surprised by the immediate question. Then she shrugged, feeling somewhat uncomfortable. She was confiding in Sasuke, talking about her deepest, most secretive fears – even when she knew that as a god, he probably already knew all about them. Once she started talking, though, the words seemed to roll of her tongue unstoppably.
"I guess I don't like being in places where I can't see what's going on around me." Hugging her arms around herself, she went on, "I remember this one time, when there was a power-cut at my best friend Ino's house; I freaked out so much, even she got scared." Laughing a little in memory, Sakura went on sheepishly, "It's silly, I know. But now that I think about it…" her smile waned and disappeared, as she finished with a soft frown, "…I guess it just always reminded me of death."
Sasuke said nothing. Finally, he moved, circling around her unhurriedly. "Why fear it?" he murmured.
An unexpected shudder shot down Sakura's spine – whether it was from the topic they were discussing or his nearness, she couldn't tell. She hesitated.
His voice was quiet behind her – yet unyielding in its persistence for an answer.
She closed her eyes, allowing herself to feel the reasons. Taking a deep breath, she confessed, "That moment, when you know you're about to pass and the shadows close in… I've seen it so many times at the hospital. And each time I think to myself; how can people live with so much heart and then just… fizzle out?"
Sasuke remained silent and motionless behind her.
"And the grave; that black pit in the ground that waits for you, after you're buried and left alone in darkness and silence…" as Sakura continued, she realised with a start that her body had begun trembling. It was upsetting, that she didn't even understand why her muscles were reacting in such a way.
"The thought of it always scared me so much," she finished in a near-whisper. "Even after meeting you and knowing everything that I know now - I know all souls come here and bodies can't feel anything anymore once they're buried, but…" her voice wobbled. "The pain of separation and the loneliness of being abandoned in the ground- not knowing what happens next and what's coming, where you'll go or whether you'll even make it anywhere-"
Her eyes opened to find that he had slipped around her at some point and was now standing directly before her. When the fine tremors did not cease, he reached out, resting a hand lightly upon her right shoulder.
To Sakura's great surprise, the simple touch seemed to soothe her, for a minute later, the shaking had subsided. As he retracted his arm, she met his gaze, unable to quite read the emotion, but she was sure that there was something there, burning away behind his irises.
In the privacy of his mind, Sasuke was gravely recalling the words he had heard her subconsciously cry when he'd discovered her amongst the Oracle's orbs.
'I won't let you kill me again!'
Suddenly, it all made perfect sense. She was terrified of the darkness and death – not only because of the reasons she had specified, but because of the essence's influence, too. The essence's original body had likely perished before – and that made its new vessel fear demise greatly.
Sakura's breath stilled. There it was again – the fleeting look Sasuke had worn on his face when he had found her in the Oracle pool – when he had placed a palm against her chest and seemed so disturbed by something.
"Sasuke," she started, urgency bubbling inside her. "Why does it keep happening to me? If the dreams are linked or somehow triggered by the attacks like you're saying, then how and why am I the one seeing them?"
"…" Sasuke's eyes shifted away from her face. He seemed to be thinking deeply.
Running her fingers stressfully through her pale tresses, Sakura went on, utterly baffled, "Why would I be having visions of someone else I've never even met?"
"Not visions," Sasuke corrected. "Memories."
Someone else's memories were merging with hers…? Was that what he had meant when he'd said her recollections were being 'contaminated'?
Sakura was even more disturbed than ever.
"Whose memories?" she questioned. "This is completely crazy, but I've only ever heard of something like this happening when people are supposedly possessed."
As soon as the sentence left her mouth, Sakura paused. Feeling somewhat paranoid, she said, "That isn't possible, is it? I mean, I haven't somehow been possessed by a spooky, evil spirit or whatever since I came here – have I?"
She had no idea just how precariously close to the truth she was - but Sasuke shook his head slightly. After all, she wasn't exactly being controlled. The essence hadn't taken over her consciousness fully, and only seemed particularly damaging in the springtime. The other alternative she was referring to was something he would never permit to happen. No soul, regardless of how vengeful, escaped his iron will.
She sighed in relief. "That's good," she murmured. Then, in puzzlement, "So who do these visions belong to? And why is this happening to me?"
Sasuke's eyes locked with hers. It was the opportune moment to tell her – the moment he knew would change everything. The words were ready. All he had to do was say them.
Because either your mother or the other elders locked the remnant essence of a Spring Goddess inside you, beneath a seal so complex not even I can see it.
Because everyone who matters to you has been lying to you all along and the essence you hold is too strong for you.
Because without ambrosia to stabilise it, what you hold inside you will poison you to death.
But he chose to remain tight-lipped. He would speak to Naruto first. The moment passed.
Instead, in a voice heavy with the formidable weight of promise, he vowed to her, "We'll get answers."
The twisting sensation that churned from somewhere deep inside her stomach unsettled Karin greatly. Perhaps she was coming down with something she vehemently tried to assure herself, as she gingerly continued along a route she had only ever had the misfortune of traversing once before.
Or perhaps it was the not so inconceivable possibility of her sneaking being discovered that had her verging on something akin to a nervous breakdown.
Everything will be fine, she kept repeating to herself. He's not gonna find out. Everything'll be fine…
She was insane. Surely she had to be. For only someone with a questionable mind would listen to the mad ramblings of the oceans' resident idiot of a ruler, Suigetsu.
She was teaming up with her age-old nemesis, scheming something so deplorably wicked and terrible that she knew she'd likely be torn to shreds by the Erinyes themselves if she ever so much as dared set a single toe inside the Underworld ever again.
That was, of course, assuming that she made it out alive in the first place.
She halted, paralysed by a crippling wave of the jitters. What if Sasuke was by the river's bank, at that very moment? What if he had already noticed her absence? The thought, as terrifying as it was, also sent a strange thrill rippling through her. That her sexy, forceful master would wonder of her whereabouts…
Maybe… maybe he'd even worry. Karin sighed longingly, momentarily forgetting her nerves as she allowed herself to indulge in an episode of fantasy, leaning against the rocky wall as she zoned out.
Sasuke-kun… is he thinking about me right now? She thought gleefully to herself. Has he seen that I'm missing, and is he looking for me? Oooh! So shy with his emotions! Bet he'd love a game of hide and seek, that sexy, heartless piece of-
"Lingering in doorways is quite impolite – even if you happen to be preoccupied with thoughts of an unattainable Adonis," a voice suddenly croaked, snapping Karin violently out of her dreamy reverie.
She barely suppressed her screech of alarm in time, flushing a shade of crimson that rivalled her uneven locks as she leapt away from the wall, instantly straightening her spectacles.
"Wh-wha! I-I wasn't daydreaming!" she spluttered indignantly, composing herself as quickly as she could. "L-like I even dream at all! Damn it!"
"Indeed." The voice responded wryly. "Then enter, young nymph."
Karin gulped. Chiyo was much older than both Suigetsu and Sasuke combined, and she had a way of peering shrewdly at her in a manner that completely freaked Karin out. Chiyo's reputation of being unpredictable preceded her – there was no guaranteeing that Karin wouldn't be turned into a frog, or something else even more unsightly, the instant she said something wrong.
Which was why she knew that she had to be extremely careful.
Pushing aside the dry, tangled curtain, she entered the old crone's hut, finding it to be largely unchanged since the last time she had visited, shortly after she'd first arrived in the Underworld. The overwhelming smell of brewing herbs smacked into her face, making her eyes water and sting. She coughed in subtle protest – and then her eyes came to rest on the figure hunched before her.
The wise old goddess, clad in a dark grey shawl thrown over a black robe, was perched by the hearth, stirring the bubbling cauldron slowly with a large wooden spoon. Karin gaped at the sight of her; she had almost forgotten just how ancient the hag was.
Trying to feign nonchalance despite her inner nervousness, she decided to get straight down to business.
Clearing her throat, she began a little too loudly, "Goddess, I'm here to-"
"I know why you are here," Chiyo sniffed. "And it is not yet too late for you to return the way you came."
Karin's mouth hung open. Now that… that wasn't quite what she'd been anticipating to hear. Chiyo wasn't the kind of deity who gave warnings without them benefitting her in some way or another. She never imparted her limitless knowledge for free –certainly not to an inconsequential nymph like Karin was, anyway.
So why was she allowing her an opportunity to turn back?
Karin licked her lips. Damn it. They felt oddly chapped – a sure give away of her uneasiness. Then she furiously thought of the pink-haired monstrosity she'd seen riding on horseback by Sasuke's side, and gave herself a mental shake. She had a job to do, and by the pits of Tartarus she was going to see it through.
She would do whatever it took to get Suckura away from Sasuke, and make her leave – permanently.
"I see that Suigetsu has strung you along in his game," the old hag was continuing conversationally. Her dark eyes, reflecting firelight, rested on Karin, all-watching, all-knowing. "And a dangerous game it is, little nymph. You seek to part a treasure from its king. A king who does not relinquish his trinkets willingly…"
Karin balked, struggling to accept the words infiltrating her ears. His treasure? Did Sasuke truly value the horrid shrimp so dearly? Was Sakura really so precious to him? The water spirit was overcome with nausea and bitterness clawed away at her better sense of judgement, poisoning all thoughts of reason and smiting away any last feelings of remorse over what she was doing, leaving only ugly jealousy behind.
"Suigetsu says you have a potion," she said, ploughing on ahead, knowing that in the security of Chiyo's abode, there was no chance of her treacherous words being overheard. "One that can disable a deity."
To her astonishment, Chiyo cackled. "Eheh heh heh heh heh! Such level of magic is not without its cost, little nymph. No ordinary potion can incapacitate a god of Sasuke's great authority."
"But I don't have-" Karin began. Chiyo immediately held up a silencing palm. Her mirth rapidly waned, as she went on, with narrowed eyes, "Take heed. The price for treachery is high indeed, Karin." Karin swallowed at the utterance of her name, as the hag helpfully reminded her, "The Erinyes will gorge out your eyes and tear out your tongue – if Sasuke himself does not deal with you first."
Karin wondered whether it was at all peculiar, to find the concept of Sasuke 'dealing' with her, in any way at all, incredibly exciting.
The crone sighed, seeing that the foolish water spirit was clearly undeterred. "I have called Suigetsu a friend, and it displeases me to see what has befallen him."
"Then you'll give me what I came for, right?" Karin prompted hopefully.
"Hmph. Youth these days, ever hasty, no manners." Chiyo huffed. "Watch your tongue, nymph, else I find a better use for it before either the Erinyes or Sasuke can get their hands on you – in my cauldron."
Karin blanched and raised a hand over her mouth. "I-I meant no disrespect," she grudgingly stammered. "It's just that I need to get back to the river quickly-"
The goddess's eyebrows lifted, creasing the skin of her forehead even more deeply. "Your hatred for the girl blinds you, nymph. It is no fault of Sakura's that she came to be here."
"This is the moron's idea," Karin answered stiffly, unwilling to discuss the reasons behind her compliance with Suigetsu's plans. Folding her arms defensively, she added, "He wants to get her out. She's going along with it."
"Is she…?" Chiyo mused thoughtfully, raising the spoon to take a sip from her mysterious infusion. A slightly disconcerted Karin wondered why the liquid seemed to be so luminous a shade of turquoise.
Chiyo seemed to approve of the taste, for she took another sip. "Perhaps the Flower has begun to reconsider."
What? Karin was even more mortified by the prospect of Sakura not wanting to return home. The fact that Sasuke's prisoner could change her mind had never even occurred to the nymph. It seemed preposterous. She couldn't think of any reason why Sakura would pull out – unless- unless she had started to develop feelings for the King of the Dead.
In a way, Karin couldn't blame the foolish brat. After all, Sasuke was a complete catch – the ultimate package. Looks, status, power, and wealth – he had it all. There was nothing he could not give to a girl – only sunlight, which was highly overrated, anyway.
Still, the possibility of Sakura actually falling for Sasuke was out of the question. Karin was filled with a renewed sense of loathing - and urgency. She could not allow that to happen! She needed to speak to stupid Suigetsu; the longer they delayed setting the plan into motion, the dicier their situation became.
"Perhaps your actions will lead her to great danger," Chiyo's continued.
Good, Karin automatically and fervently thought. She knew from the sharp look Chiyo gave her that the crone had probably overheard it.
But instead of being apprehensive, Karin stared shamelessly back. She had already made up her mind and was fully aware of what she had agreed to partake in.
She wasn't about to allow centuries upon centuries of pining to go down the drain without a fight. She had her dignity and her pride. And hell truly did not hath no fury like a woman scorned.
The alternative was unthinkable, unbearable. Remaining as she had been for countless centuries, invisible to the eyes of the very one that she'd always wanted to acknowledge her the most… her heart could not take it. Neither did she want to face the humiliation of asking Sasuke to release her from service early and allow her to return to the surface.
If she did nothing, she would have to suffer watching Sakura play happy captive with the god Karin so terribly loved. And she could only assume what Sasuke had intended for the girl. He had already given her a horse.
What next? A crown…?
Bile rose up in her throat. No. She couldn't stand it.
Chiyo, who had read all the emotions in her eyes transparently, lowered her own.
"Hmph," she grumbled. "I shall provide you with the concoction you seek, at a price I shall claim from Suigetsu later. But be warned," she held up a crinkly index finger. "The actions you are on the precipice of taking shall reap consequences beyond your perception."
Karin's heart pounded. Chiyo was giving her another warning – a final chance to pull out. A tiny voice in her mind, unclouded by abhorrence for Sakura, whispered that perhaps she ought to listen.
It whispered to her that if Suigetsu's plan failed, Sasuke would surely slaughter them all. She had the feeling he would leave Sakura last, take his time with her, and do away with her, Karin, first. Then he'd fling all their souls into Tartarus. There they would dwell in eternal agony, reliving their treachery over and over within the infernal pits of inescapable damnation.
Karin felt coolness against her forehead. Perspiration? Suddenly she felt cold and clammy. Was she really going to go through with it? Could she really betray Sasuke Uchiha, the ruler of the Underworld? Of all the gods with whom to avoid making enemies, Sasuke ranked amongst the top. He was thoroughly unsympathetic. When grievously wronged, he did not forgive.
Then she once more recalled the intense way in which the object of her hopeless affections had regarded the freak, and drove the final nail into the coffin of indecision.
"I'll take my chances," Karin said with conviction.
The force with which the fist struck the table's surface was enough to make almost everybody in the spacious room flinch.
"That son of a bitch!" Tsunade hissed. Her ample bosom heaved as she struggled to digest the news Kurenai and the others had delivered to her. "He has something to do with Sakura's disappearance! I knew it."
Shizune shook her head. "It seems more likely," she murmured. "His breaking of the pact changes everything."
They had all regrouped at base to discuss the latest, hostile developments. When the initial shock had died down, fury and frustration had slipped into place, setting tempers flaring.
"So he really means to try and succeed where he failed before," Iruka shook his head in disbelief.
"After all this time!" Gai exclaimed. "What can he mean by it?"
"Orochimaru made it plain that they want revenge," Kurenai answered, from her position at the table, next to an Asuma who looked a little disgruntled at having missed out on the majority of the action.
"Bastard," he growled, curling his fingers to form hateful fists. "I'll rip that snake's disgusting tongue out with my own hands next time."
"Now that they're breaking the conditions of the truce, we can do the same, right?" Ino asked the question on everybody's minds. Looking around at the others when they remained silent, she prompted, "Right?"
Neji, who was leaning against a marble pillar, surprised her by supplying, "It's not quite that simple," he explained. "We can tap into our chakra reserves, but it was our Leader who placed them on us."
Unbidden, an unpleasant memory flashed across Kakashi's mind, as the remainder of the conversation faded from attention. He could still visualise it, as though it had happened only moments before.
Luminous, sky-blue eyes, filled with a desperation that was utterly uncharacteristic of their regal owner - one who had always been so poised and unruffled, so confident and composed.
'Hera. Cronus has her. You take my son and the others and you go.'
Even though the struggle for Olympus had resulted in him losing sight in his left eye, he'd remained by his leader's side until the very last moment he had physically could.
'Let me assist you, Zeus-'
'No!' The incontestable word was followed by a forceful shove that still pierced Kakashi's heart with pain, millennia later. 'That's an order from your King, Hephaestus.'
He had looked up at Olympus's ruler, then, at the way the early morning sun had been shining so gloriously behind him, bathing his entire silhouette in a halo of blazing gold.
And he had felt awe and pride, at how steadfast a king Zeus had always been to them. He had been their pinnacle of courage and strength, their wisdom and security, one who had united them and blessed the world with laughter, stability and prosperity.
They had believed him to be undefeatable. But even the mightiest of gods possessed weaknesses. And Cronus had cruelly aimed directly at Zeus's greatest flaw.
'You take them to safety, now! I've entrusted a fragment of my power to you – and within my son. When the time comes, you'll know how to wield it."
The words melted back into the haunted catacombs of his mind as the discussion that had been going on around him tuned into focus again.
"There's got to be another seal to undo it," Ino was saying. "A way to restore all of our powers, fully."
"We'll certainly need them," Jiraiya remarked, from his position with his feet propped atop the table, much to Tsunade's vexation. "We can only speculate what exactly Cronus intends to do next. At the moment, he has the advantage."
"That bastard Orochimaru had a point when he said that the time we've spent amongst mortals has weakened us," Shikamaru added.
"Wait a minute," began Kurenai. "He said something about other forces being at play."
"Other forces?" Iruka echoed.
"Of course!" Gai cried. "He has another accomplice!"
Asuma folded his arms. "Hmm; it certainly seems like he has more than just Orochimaru and his human puppet Kabuto involved."
"…" Kakashi could feel Jiraiya's eyes as they slid onto him. He made a point of avoiding them.
Hinata twiddled anxiously with her fingers as she watched Naruto's reaction from the corner of her eye. The blond was uncharacteristically subdued – and she wasn't the only one who had noted his silence.
Shikamaru eyed him. "Naruto? What is it?"
On closer inspection, Hinata realised that Naruto was shaking. When he finally lifted his head to address them, she saw the extent of his rage – and her heart ached for him.
"That bastard…" Naruto seethed. "It wasn't enough for him, to murder my parents. It wasn't enough for him to poison Ares's mind against us, just so he could possess Kurama! It wasn't enough for him to murder his own Clan, to get the seat at Olympus and take everything that was ours away from us!"
"Calm down, Naruto," Kurenai said softly but firmly. "Ares chose to act against us."
Kakashi's sole eye lowered. That particular memory was too painful – and he could not revisit it.
"Did he?" Naruto demanded. "Cronus had the power to manipulate people! His wife, his children, his descendants – he got rid of anybody and everybody who got in his way!"
"Even so, Ares was mature enough at the time to know what he was getting himself into," Tsunade stated. "Enough of him, Naruto. We focus on now." Directing a stern glance at the rest of them, she continued, "There's no doubt that Suigetsu is in league with them. Cronus must be the one responsible for keeping him so well hidden."
"But there's a seal on Cronus's powers, too, remember?" Iruka said. "Shouldn't his abilities be compromised as well?"
"Yes," Jiraiya affirmed, scratching thoughtfully at his chin. "Although whether it's precisely the same as the one Minato placed on us, we cannot be certain."
"We need to know," said Neji frostily. "We need to know exactly what we're dealing with."
"But how?" Gai mused, his mouth a grim line.
Sai, who had been sitting sullenly beside Naruto, suddenly spoke up. "Perhaps there is someone who can assist us."
They all looked at him, surprised that he had even spoken. Sai had always been the odd one in the group – the one who did not quite fit.
"Well?" Ino leaned forward in her seat, peering past Shikamaru beside her, blinking at him with wide eyes. "Who, Sai?"
Sai's empty black eyes regarded them, as he simply responded, "Danzo."
There was a stunned silence. Then the entire room erupted at the name.
'Listen, stupid.' Her words were like sweet music to his ears, and Suigetsu found himself grinning right away. 'I got the potion from that old hag. I'm dropping it by you, you better not screw up!'
'Heh. You actually pulled it off? Not bad, Karin – for a useless whore.' He taunted telepathically back.
There was a pointed pause. Despite the distance at which they were communicating, he could sense her spiking irritation – which only increased his amusement further.
'How about I take this straight to Sasuke and blow this thing in your disgusting face?' She snarled back savagely.
'Bitch,' Suigetsu found himself glaring at the lightning charged bars of his cell. 'I told you, you stab me in the back, you're dead.'
'Whatever,' Karin snapped. 'Oh, and by the way, you might want to have a word with that little tramp. Chiyo told me she's getting cold feet on you.'
'What?' Suigetsu was too surprised by the admission to deploy the next insult he had prepared to fire at the nymph he absolutely loathed.
Sakura? Chickening out? He had started to suspect it, of course, but to have it confirmed was another matter entirely.
'Are you deaf, stupid?' Karin's voice grated. 'I said she's having second thoughts. Maybe she's enjoying her stay with Sasuke a little too much,' she added acidly.
'No, she isn't,' Suigetsu sneered back. 'She's just scared shitless. Don't fuck around with me.'
'As if. Who's the useless whore, now?' said Karin snidely – before abruptly severing the connection between them.
Suigetsu blinked – before grinding his teeth together. He needed to make absolutely sure that silly little Sakura was going to deliver on her end – and he'd use any ruse necessary to secure her compliance.
Willing or otherwise.
To the ordinary onlooker, the gently floating motion of the glass-like orbs was mesmerising, lulling the gazer into a false sense of tranquil security. But Sasuke knew of the sinister extent of the Oracle's powers all too well, and so approached the shallow pool over which they drifted with extreme caution.
Here he was, standing before the unpredictable Mirrors of the Fates – mirrors whose behaviour even he, with his great power, could not foretell. They reflected what the Fates had seen in the past, what they saw in the present – and what they knew to be the absolute future – whilst occasionally throwing in a cluster of imaginary images, intended to toy with mortal and godly minds. There was no anticipating what the globes would reveal to his eyes – but Sasuke had braced himself for a painful reminder of the cursed days that had haunted him for so long.
It was forbidden, of course, for a deity to consult the Oracle for personal gain. Sasuke knew it was likely that he would eventually be made to pay the price for what he was about to do. He'd been told horror stories in his younger days of blindness and insanity befalling those who had dared to snoop too far into the future for their own good. But he insisted to himself that he was stronger than the others, of a sounder, more sensible mind, and besides, his choices otherwise were extremely limited.
Naruto, at that moment, was engaged on the surface. Sasuke had sensed the presence of the others with the fool when he'd left Sakura with the intention of seeking him out. He needed to get the loud-mouthed blond alone – and so he had to wait a little longer.
The pressing need for answers, in the meantime, had spurned him to take an alternative course of action. He'd required no permission from Chiyo, and had bypassed her hut entirely, transporting himself directly to the Oracle.
In his Kingdom, he was free to roam where he pleased – even here.
Standing atop the three steps that granted access to the crystal-pure waters, Sasuke cemented his decision, and stepped purposefully into the pool.
Immediately the orbs hovered towards him, as if metals drawn to an overpowering magnet. Knowing that he could not control what was shown to him, the death deity regardless chose to speak what he wished to see. Perhaps the Fates would listen. Perhaps they would be kind – though he expected nothing but mischief from them.
He spoke the name that had been weighing on his mind the instant Sakura had disclosed it to him. He wanted to prove a point to her – and he realised darkly, to himself – that whoever the individual she had seen had been, they had nothing to do with his past self.
It troubled him, however, why he would feel such an urgent need to check, when he had already convinced himself so thoroughly that Sakura's words were nothing but memory-scrambled nonsense.
"Kore," he murmured. "Did she exist?"
With a softly tinkering sound, the first of the spheres rose to meet him at eye-level. Sasuke's pulse-rate began to increase against his wishes as the globe reflected a myriad of colours, initially revealing nothing. Then it cleared and he found himself staring at a golden wheat field, overlooking a majestic stone temple. The setting sun's light bathed everything in a heavenly, golden glow.
Before he could identify the temple, the sphere floated away. Another revolved up in its place. Inside its depths Sasuke saw a contrasting landscape – one of ruin and devastation. Fires raged and smoke billowed in the wind. Distantly, he heard screams and wails of anguish.
The image shifted. He saw Cronus, standing before Zeus's army, a menacing smirk on his arrogant lips. Sasuke's hands balled into hateful fists. He recalled that day all too well.
Thankfully, the stream did not linger, and was gone within moments. Another pale blue globe tinkered gently toward him. He stiffened, something tugging agonisingly inside his chest as he glimpsed a familiar masked individual, bantering affectionately with another.
He'd recognise those regal, elegant figures anywhere, anytime.
Stricken with memory, Sasuke could only stare, rooted to the spot, as his eyes were ensnared by the phantom image of the two. Hypnos was clearly teasing the second individual, who remained aloof and silent.
He had not expected to encounter his own past so soon – yet he could not wrench his eyes away. A tumultuous storm of emotions, which had been buried so deeply inside him, were instantly resurrected by the ghostly sight – and Sasuke rapidly realised that perhaps it had been a bad idea to utilise the power of the Oracle, after all.
The figures quickly passed from sight. Another hovered into its place, revealing a beautiful woman with alabaster skin. She wore a headpiece of luminous pearls and twinkling stars. Her silvery gown shone like starlight and she was running, her dark hair cascading behind her like a luxurious river of night. He heard her musical laughter – and his heart ached with longing.
His mother. Her lovely face angled to throw a glance back over her slender shoulder.
'You've almost caught up to me, my love!' she smiled joyously, the memory of her voice stirring such yearning within him. 'How swift you have become, my little one!'
He remembered it, like it had been only the previous day. As an infant, he had delighted in playing hide-and-seek and chasing after his mother, who had always allowed him to catch her, showering praise upon him whenever he had finally hunted her down. He still recalled the warmth of her soft arms closing around him as she'd scooped him up, the fragrant scent of lilies as she'd held him close.
Sasuke swallowed, grinding his teeth. It was nothing but an illusion of what had been. Even as he told himself it fiercely, he could not keep the feelings and pain from manifesting again.
He could not keep himself from missing her, still.
The orb rotated, taking the torturous vision away with it. Another swirled up before his eyes, and what he saw made the sadness morph into enraged fury.
Apollo. He was running, laughing, and his hand was gripping a slender young woman's whose braided, flower adorned hair, a shade he could not discern, reached her waist in length. The cloak of night made it difficult to decipher exactly who she was. They were racing through a field, into a dense, leafy forest.
He then froze, when the echoing words reached his ears, near-tauntingly.
'Quickly, Kore! Before your mother returns!'
The death deity's eyes widened, his heart now thundering terribly.
Apollo - Naruto – had personally known this 'Kore'? Stunned, he continued to watch the streaming image, his mind scarcely registering what he was seeing.
Apollo dancing with the girl under the moonlight. The girl laughing sweetly, then swatting his arm and shoving him away while he howled comically.
The vision panned out, as Apollo stood intimately before her and deposited a warm, golden, mini-sphere of sunlight into her palms. The globe's angle suddenly shifted, before panning back in again.
And that was when Sasuke finally caught a glimpse of her face.
His body's reaction was immediate – like an unstable catalyst facilitating a lethal explosion. It collided into him, leaving him breathless.
She was beautiful, so beautiful – with wide, lash-tangled eyes, a small nose, and rosy, full lips. She was smiling delightedly at the ball of burning light in her palms, and he saw in her face hallowed light.
He stared, aghast. Something about her purity reminded him unmistakeably of Sakura – but at the same time, he did not recognise her, because she was so different.
'Oh Apollo, it's so beautiful,' her voice was breathy and soft, like a flute. Again, it made him think fleetingly of Sakura – but when she spoke again, it sounded nothing like the girl.
'I wish I could keep it.'
'Maybe we can find a way to trap it inside a necklace,' Apollo's irritating voice suggested excitedly – and Sasuke was at a loss to explain just why his words seemed to grate so much on his nerves. 'Would you like that?'
'You'd do that for me?'
'I'd do anything for you! Believe it!'
Her gaze suddenly lifted – and Sasuke physically stepped back, his feet displacing the water briefly – as her soulful eyes seemed to pierce directly into him.
No, he told himself furiously. He did not know her. Even if she had existed, she was still unfamiliar to him.
But she had been dearly important to Apollo. That much was evident.
The ghostly stream dimmed as the orb drifted away – and Sasuke wanted to see no more. As he started to turn away, feeling disgusted and disturbed, a different, silver sphere seemed to rush up before him.
He saw his past self, standing with his father and brothers. The bitter moment when he had been ordered to stay behind in the war.
Another orb showed him alone with Thanatos, beckoning him close – only to poke his forehead dismissively with an index and middle finger.
And he heard his older brother's soothing, quiet voice – and it shredded him to pieces inside.
'Maybe next time, Hades.'
He saw himself racing Apollo in another ball – and murderously shunned it.
Another sphere rose eagerly to him – but he'd had enough.
"Get away," he snarled at it, lashing out dismissively with a hand. It dispersed on contact, scattering into tiny lights – before reforming stubbornly once again, determined to show him what it contained. He smacked it away, turning his back on it – when all the spheres around him rotated, changing altitude and position.
One of them succeeded in aligning itself directly with his field of vision. And before he could stop it, an image began to form inside its glistening, transparent hollow, one that made him freeze all over.
One that caused his racing heart to lurch and plummet straight to his feet.
Sakura. She was standing before a mirror, holding a glistening, diamond-encrusted crown between her finely trembling hands.
The crown of a Queen.
As Sakura popped a syrup-coated fig absentmindedly into her mouth, she found herself thinking of her earlier conversation with Sasuke.
Conversation. At what point had they started engaging in real dialogue? Since when had their arguments and awkward, tension-plagued encounters turned into sessions that actually resembled normal human interaction?
Her mind was spinning. She had no concept of time, but it seemed to her that she had been with Sasuke for a very long duration of it. So much had happened between them since that fateful moment when she'd blearily opened her eyes and stared up at the canopy of her bed for the first time.
His voice echoed in her mind. "We'll get answers," he had told her. The proud deity had used the pronoun 'we' – not 'I'; as if they were a team of detectives, hunting together to solve a confounding mystery.
And with him on the case, Sakura was certain it would not take long to crack the code at all.
Sasuke was willingly helping her to obtain answers to a puzzle she had wondered about for her entire life. Something fluttered oddly in her stomach as she acknowledged the weight of that. Sakura shifted in her ornate seat, trying to ignore the feeling. Yet it hung heavily on her conscience, and she couldn't help but dwell on it.
She knew what she was experiencing. Guilt. Suigetsu could contact her at any moment, expecting her to go ahead with their plan, as agreed.
She had initially told him that she would do anything to return to the surface. It left her at a loss for words, tormented and angry with herself, that the first seeds of regret were starting to germinate inside her head.
What was she going to do? She was caught between two mammoth titans; Sasuke, whose dreadful power she had witnessed on numerous occasions, and Suigetsu – whom she knew next to nothing about.
In whom was she meant to place her trust? How was she meant to know? What was the right thing to do?
It disturbed and shamed Sakura that her mind already seemed to be swaying toward an answer she never before would have ever imagined she'd come to even contemplate.
Sighing in frustration, she grabbed a handful of grapes before rising to her feet. Sasuke had left her again after vaguely informing her that he had business to attend to. Sakura, seeking space and time to think about what her next steps would be, had ventured to the banqueting hall, feeling the nagging urge to eat something – a habit she'd always had whenever she was stressed.
Her eyes suddenly came to rest on the large crystal decanter holding shimmering ambrosia. Here was the very same 'medicine' her mother gave her whenever she suffered an attack on the surface. She recalled that Sasuke had previously danced around the question she had directed to him about how her mother had acquired the wine of the gods. Why hadn't she asked him about that again?
I wonder, she thought to herself, as she stared at the pretty container, if I drank a lot of it again, would I see more of the visions? Ambrosia cures my episodes, but what if it has other effects, too?
She knew she had passed out from drinking too much before. A part of her wanted to take the plunge – but the other part was hesitant. She didn't know what constituted a 'sensible' amount. And she certainly didn't want to risk poisoning herself like she had before.
Shaking her head, Sakura turned away – at the precise second a familiar voice suddenly echoed in her mind.
The intensity of the twist of dread that immediately knotted inside her gut startled Sakura. She caught her breath, horrified to find herself considering the option of actually brushing aside the call. Perhaps, if she told him that she was unable to talk right then, she could buy herself more time-
'Sakura! I can see you're alone in there. Turn around, will ya?'
So much for her avoidance strategy. Sakura swallowed, and moved back to the table. Sure enough, she spotted Suigetsu's face, floating on the surface of the glass jug of water close to the chair she had occupied, moments earlier.
'Sasuke could be back at any moment-' she began.
'This'll be quick,' Suigetsu dismissed. And then, just like that, he spoke the words that Sakura had not wanted to hear. 'We're all set, Pinky.'
Sakura fought to keep her expression neutral – even as panic exploded within her. All set? No. It was too soon. She wanted to get answers from Sasuke first. There was so much she still had to ask him, to learn- so much she still hadn't seen-
Suigetsu, who had been watching her closely, probed casually, 'Something wrong, Sakura?'
'No, nothing.' Sakura answered automatically. The Ocean Deity's eyes narrowed. He said nothing more. Shaking her head, Sakura went on as nonchalantly as she could, 'So what happens now?'
'Everything's in place. As soon as you get the potion, we decide on the right time to put our plan into action.'
'And how am I going to get it without Sasuke realising?' Sakura lifted her eyebrows. Inside, however, she was starting to feel sick. It only made her angrier.
Suigetsu's teeth aligned to form a jagged, pearly grin. Sakura found it rather unsettling.
'Leave it to me,' the lavender-eyed deity cooed. 'You just focus on keeping it together so that bastard won't suspect a thing.' After a purposeful pause, he added, 'Seems like we have little to worry about. From what I hear, you and Mr. Ice-Cube have been getting on like a house on fire, lately.'
Her heart skipped a beat in her chest. 'That's not true,' she denied.
'Really,' the sea deity yawned, not looking entirely convinced – if at all. Sakura's horror multiplied ten-fold. Miraculously however, she managed to maintain a straight face – or what she hoped was something that resembled one.
'Anyway, you won't have to play pretend with that manipulative son-of-a-bitch for much longer,' the mischievous deity grinned. Lifting an index finger, he added seriously, 'Now listen carefully, Pinky. The potion's gonna be with you pretty soon. You need to make absolutely sure you keep it out of Sasuke's sight, got it?'
'What do you mean?' she demanded. 'How am I going to get the potion?'
'I'll use my powers to transport it to you. Go back to your room and wait for me there.'
Before Sakura could do or think anything else, his face rippled abruptly out of sight. Apprehension caused her pulse-rate to speed up. How was she meant to keep such a massive burden a secret from Sasuke? Where was she meant to hide the potion? Plagued with worry, she rushed out of the banqueting hall, her head down, her thoughts a cyclone of turmoil. Hurrying back to her room, she made her way immediately to the toilet, where she locked herself in and hastily filled the basin.
It agitatedly felt like a life-time before Suigetsu's voice finally drifted into her mind again. She watched, with her heart practically in her throat, as his face appeared on the water's surface once more.
'Ready for a little magic?' he winked at her. 'That bastard might have me cooped up in here, but I still control water.'
'What are you going to do? What's happening?'
Suigetsu rolled his eyes. 'Just wait, will you? Quit asking so many questions. Geez. I kinda liked the old Sakura better.'
She assumed he meant the Sakura who had just blindly gone along with everything he had suggested before. But she didn't like the sound of that anymore. If anything, her reservations were growing by the second – and that troubled her more than anything.
'Alright… we're about to lose contact for a bit so get ready to grab it. I don't wanna have to do this more than once.'
Suigetsu's voice vanished – and so did his face. Sakura's eyes widened when the sink of water began to bubble. Suddenly she couldn't see the base at the bottom or the plug. It had strangely clouded over.
Then she blinked and gasped. A shadowy shape was materialising inside the watery depths, slowly drifting higher and higher. A few seconds later, something small and pear shaped, with a gold stopper floated up to the surface. As Sakura scooped it out of the water, she found herself staring at a delicate glass ampoule. Inside it was a colourless liquid.
She caught her breath.
It didn't look like poison, but the gravity of what she was truly doing really hit her then – smacking into her with breath-taking force – and it took a great deal of willpower to not fling the tiny container straight back into the basin.
In her hand, she was holding a liquid that was actually capable of immobilising and harming Sasuke. She was so stunned, that she forgot all about asking Suigetsu how he had transported the bottle to her in the first place.
Suigetsu's face reappeared. 'Neat, huh? I can transport anything I want in water. Now you better take good care of that, because I've practically already had to bargain a fraction of my soul for this and we…' Noticing that Sakura had frozen and was still staring at the tiny bottle in her hand, he called, 'Uh... Pinky?'
Sakura barely heard him. She was imagining the damage the liquid would do to Sasuke. She was envisaging the proud, invincible King of the Dead, on his knees, doubled over in pain-
Her vision blurred. A fine tremble assailed her fingertips.
She blinked, startled out of the catastrophic scenario that had followed, of not even making it so far, of Sasuke finding the potion and disregarding all his previous promises that she would not be harmed, and killing her in the most painful way conceivable-
After swallowing thickly, she answered, 'Yeah.'
'Everything okay?' Suigetsu raised his silver eyebrows.
'Uh huh. You're sure.'
'Yeah,' she echoed senselessly.
'Because you know you look kind of, well, a little freaked out.'
'Yeah.' She blinked, before catching what she had said. 'I mean no. NO. I'm fine.'
Suigetsu frowned. He could see what she definitely wasn't. 'Listen, Sakura-'
'I'm fine,' she repeated angrily, cutting him swiftly off. 'Look, I've got to go, now.'
The ocean deity blinked, caught somewhat off guard by the fact that she was the one terminating the conversation.
'Huh? Whoa, hold up a minute, you need to know how to-'
'I'll talk to you later,' Sakura added evasively, not giving him a chance to stop her or elaborate on their – his – she insisted to herself – plan.
In a blink she had yanked the plug and exited the bathroom, her heart pounding, suffocated by the concrete manifestation of the guilt she harboured inside, taking the form of the ampoule clutched tightly in her right hand. Simply holding it felt like treason. Her fingers around the container burned.
She had to hide it in a place that neither Sasuke nor her maids would find it. Frantically, her eyes scanned the bedchamber.
"Sai! Why couldn't you have just kept your mouth shut, damn it?' Naruto raged, throwing his hands wildly up in the air. It might have been a comical sight – had the subject of the conversation not been so serious.
They had returned to Kakashi's place, following the meeting with the others, which had ended after a heated argument and a grudging, collective consent to meet with the individual Sai had (not so helpfully) suggested.
"Sit down, Naruto," Kakashi scolded. "Sai might have helped to buy us more time."
"Are you serious?" Naruto blinked wide azure blue eyes at his elder. "Danzou's a complete slime-ball! A scumbag! We can't seriously trust him-"
"You're choosing to trust Sasuke," Kakashi sighed pointedly.
Naruto spluttered indignantly. "Sasuke's different-"
"That's enough," Kakashi's visible eye flicked to where Sai was seated on the floor by the coffee table. "Danzou could help us shed light on the exact type of seal placed on Cronus. After all, he can communicate directly with him."
Naruto sat down. But he was restless and agitated, and soon got up again. "So what now, before we do that?" he asked Kakashi anxiously. "We're still sticking to our original plan, right?"
Kakashi scratched his silver-head. "We need to find the phial Tsunade and Shizune lost. There's a high possibility, if the enemy doesn't have it, that somebody else does."
Naruto stared at him, his nerves visibly frayed. "Huh? Who? Who?"
"Sasuke," Kakashi answered simply.
"Eh?" Naruto squinted. "You mean you think Sasuke has it? But how could he have it? He'd have to have been there at the same time…" his voice trailed and shock registered on his features. "Wait a minute…" he finally managed to go on. "Wait a minute, you think Sasuke was there?"
In truth, Kakashi wasn't entirely certain what to think. But based on the facts they had, he considered the odds fairly likely; the blood sample had seemingly vanished into thin air, and the enemy clearly wanted it back, fast.
He could only think of one individual who had the power to make things disappear without being seen.
"But why would he be there?" Naruto was shaking his head. "Why would he want to take it?!"
Kakashi sighed again. "If it's missing, it could be anywhere. It may be a long shot, but Sasuke does have the power to make things disappear." Then, directing another wary look at Naruto, he added, "Be patient. Remember, we need to keep this low-key. If anyone so much as suspects a thing, we'll risk exile. Jiraiya has already started to suspect something."
Naruto glumly and guiltily averted his gaze.
"We still can't confront him directly, so we'll go ahead with what we agreed," Kakashi continued with clear finality. "Sai, are you ready?"
Sai knew he wasn't. He knew he never really would be. He had no way of anticipating how the God of the Dead would react to his uninvited trespassing. But it had to be done, and so he softly replied, with much more conviction than he felt, "I'm ready."
As Sakura secured the black leather wrist-guards more firmly, she vowed vehemently to herself that as soon as she got down to the training dome, she was going to find something to demolish – even if it was a humble wooden box.
The location she had eventually chosen to hide the phial away in her room stuck out in her mind like a glaring, sore thumb. She couldn't stop thinking about it. She felt like a guilty criminal, stashing away a vital piece of evidence, trying desperately to keep it from the hands of the law.
In many ways, she supposed she was a criminal; a sinner who was on the verge of committing sacrilege of the most grievous kind. What degree of insanity did a person have to possess to attempt to stab the lord of death himself in the back?
Gripping her sword restlessly in her right hand, she waited for the circular platform to descend to the training dome. She needed to divert her thoughts, and training had seemed like the best way to vent her inner discontent and frustration. So after swapping her demure dress for a thigh-length, pleated black-leather skirt, a deep crimson, sleeveless top and black, knee-length sandals, she'd grabbed her blade hastily, tied her hair in a messy bun and gone to do just that.
As the revolving platform finally reached its destination, Sakura trudged unhappily to the central sparring ring, lost in the chaos of her warring conscience – only to discover, to her astonishment, that the sandy area enclosed by the circle of steps had complete vanished. Gone, too, were the wooden posts she had so gleefully looked forward to hacking into pieces.
"Huh?" she frowned aloud, drawing to a confused stop by the lever, which she noted was cranked fully to the right. In place of the sandy area was dark dimness. The ground had completely opened, she realised with a start – before her eyes fell on a set of concrete steps, spiralling around the perimeter of the endless chasm, leading down into the unknown.
What's down there? She wondered curiously. Seeing that she had little else left to occupy herself with, she carefully stepped down onto the narrow stairs – which were blessedly enclosed on the outer right hand side by a concrete wall that reached her hips - and began to descend, keeping her left hand against the wall, ready to scurry back upwards if she needed to at any moment.
The air was cool and damp and smelt of mist. The only source of light came from the blue torches stationed at regular intervals around the winding steps. It seemed to Sakura a long time before her eyes and ears were finally able to make out anything below her.
She heard the sound first – metal scraping and clinking, followed by an inhuman screech. Sakura froze in position, blinking. Then she hurried down, and finally she saw it, catching her breath at the sight that met her.
A humungous, sandy circular area that she presumed was another, even more colossal than the original training dome, sprawled out before her, illuminated by the same blue flames attached to holders moulded to the walls. And built directly into the dark grey walls, spaced evenly apart, were five massive, arched, raised iron gates.
Cages, Sakura recognised; sturdy cells that obviously kept something enclosed in the darkness beyond.
In the middle of the sparring space was Sasuke. He was clad entirely in flattering black again and wore a sleeveless top which showcased his lean, smoothly-muscled arms. The upturned collar at his neck reminded Sakura of the rebel bad boys she had spotted smoking behind buildings in college several times – but Sasuke pulled the look off so much more effortlessly and sexily, of course. White bandages were wound around his lower forearms from wrists to elbows, and the legs of his baggy trousers were secured by the straps of his calf-length sandals. Kusanagi glinted ominously in his left hand.
She ducked as he disposed of a half-human, grotesque snake-like creature she had never seen before. Peering over the edge of the staircase's wall, she watched, wide-eyed, as another handful of twisted monstrosities lunged towards him. He barely even spared a glance their way, felling each one with a clinical grace and efficiency that Sakura found enthralling to watch.
It seemed more like he was dancing to a deadly rhythm than engaging in a laborious, skill-honing scuffle. He side-stepped and back-flipped and closed the distance between spaces in breath-taking blurs - and looked nonchalant the whole damned time.
He can't be any cooler- Sakura stemmed the thought, appalled that she was gawking over him like some senseless fan-girl. He's a show off, she corrected indignantly.
But by the heavens, was he one seriously sexy show off.
After slaughtering one final creature that exploded in a puff of black smoke as soon as it struck the ground, Sasuke lowered Kusanagi, his back turned to her. He didn't even appear to be even a little out of breath.
"Are you coming down," his voice rang out, sending a jolt down her spine, "or shall I make you?"
Sakura bit her lower lip. It was fine, she assured herself. She would just act normal. Completely and utterly normal.
When she said nothing, Sasuke shifted, tossing a positively smouldering glance up at her.
"Well, Sakura?" he intoned.
Sakura stood up. His gaze was heavy enough to make her feel like she was about to plummet, less than ceremoniously, the remainder of the way down the steps.
She briefly considered asking him about whether he had found out anything else in the time since they'd last spoken – but then reasoned it was too soon, and that Sasuke was the sort who would tell her what he wanted her to know, when he wanted her to know it.
"That was pretty cool," she blurted instead – only to pause. Wait a minute – hadn't she just told herself that he wasn't really cool at all?
Why couldn't her big mouth just shut up around him?
"Hn," he turned dismissively away again. He knew he was good; but he still secretly liked to hear that she acknowledged it, too.
Sakura skipped down the stairs and joined him in the arena. "So what is this?" she questioned, looking around them in awe. "And what are those gates for?"
"A combat simulator," answered the death deity, turning to regard her. "Five hundred levels; each one contains five different monsters. Defeat each one, and you can progress to the next level down after unlocking the lever."
"Does the lever make the platform rotate lower?" she glanced at the handle set in its crank next to her, which she had overlooked initially.
The God of the Dead nodded.
Sakura, who was sure she couldn't even get past level one, went on, "So it gets more difficult each time? You fight progressively more horrible monsters?" When Sasuke nodded again, she asked, "What level is this?"
"Wow," Sakura said appreciatively. "That's really cool. And these monsters are all real? Or can you lock them back away at any time?"
"Once you engage them, you must defeat them," Sasuke replied. "The injuries you sustain here are real, Sakura."
It certainly sounded very dangerous. "What level have you gotten up to?"
Sasuke looked bored. "Five hundred."
Of course Mr. Perfect had.
"You must know all the monsters by heart?"
"They change each time." After a pause, he added, "Sometimes a monster appears at the wrong level."
"That's scary," said Sakura, somewhat disturbed by this news.
"Only if you're scared," he mocked condescendingly.
Sakura blinked at him, surprised by the casualness of his statement. It sounded more like something a teenage boy would say, than a statement a mighty god of the Underworld would utter. A silence fell between them then – in which Sasuke internally cursed the fact that she had arrived.
He'd come to the combat simulator to get his mind off the lingering visions he'd seen in the Oracle. And there she was standing, reminding him of the very thing he'd wanted to pulverise out of his system.
It didn't help that she looked even more enticing than she normally did. The shorter-length shorts she had chosen to don were hidden away under her skirt, allowing him a more generous view of her shapely, bare legs, and her arms, save for the lower forearm guards she was wearing, were also exposed, too. Clenching his jaw, he turned away from her.
The cranking sound of a lever being yanked halted him for a split-second – and then he had spun to glower at her.
"What are you doing?" he demanded.
"I want to try."
He blinked incredulously at her. She wanted to attempt level sixteen? At her current abilities, he calculated that she would be able to complete seven or eight levels at most, and under his supervision. Her bravery was admirable – but foolish. He had absolutely no intention of allowing her to put herself in harm's way.
"No," he deadpanned.
She placed a hand on her hip, as the platform revolved along its track, moving down a level. She noticed from the corner of her eye that the spiralling staircase was growing with it.
"Why not?" She asked unhappily.
"This level is too difficult," said Sasuke matter-of-factly.
"What if it isn't? What better way for me to get better? You're here with me, aren't you?"
He shot her a withering look. "I came to train, not to babysit."
Her jaw dropped, her hand still resting on the lever's handle. What had he just said to her?!
Oh hell no!
"I'm doing the next level with you," she announced with finality, as the platform clicked into place. Five new, lowered cages billowed mist around them.
Sasuke, who had just been contemplating teleporting her annoying self directly back to her room – even if he was somewhat impressed by her persistence - suddenly noticed what she was unwittingly about to do.
"How hard can it be?" She leant her weight against the handle.
Sasuke's eyes widened and he began in warning, "Wait. Don't push that-"
But it was too late. Sakura's weight had wedged the lever forward and locked it into position, prompting the first gate to lift open.
Sasuke tensed, automatically slipping in front of her, as ice-blue eyes glowed threateningly in the shadowy mist. A second later, bone-rattling roar shook the entire arena.
The next chapter will kick off with a monster tag-team battle scene and will be REALLY high in drama and emotional tension overall. I have no clue how soon I'll be able to update next though, as I'm going through a heavy workload/increase in responsibilities in terms of my job right now. The next update might not be for another two months, but I absolutely promise it will be worth it if I do take longer than usual. I don't want to spoil too much, but you will be learning about Kore's birth, and Sakura will be learning about lots of new things, too.
I will try my best to update as fast as possible, but I wanted to give you guys notice in case you wonder why it's taking me so long.
If you would like to leave your opinions on this, that would be totally great! I apologise again for the slow instalments recently. Thanks for being patient, lovely people.