Thank you to all the readers who took the time to leave feedback. I hope you'll enjoy the chapter, guys.

Please visit the links under chapter 42 on my profile page and be sure to listen to the tracks at the indicated points.

The recent manga chapter 685 totally inspired me and I've included a scene towards the end of the chapter as a nod to the amazing SasuSaku moment we were given in canon. Happy reading.

Chapter XLII

A sea-monster foul; a behemoth of fear,

Gives quiver to ground and terror to ear,

Tested shall be mettle and might,

And in the most dire hour of her plight,

He fades from view – beyond her sight,

And how her heart becomes a drum,

Cascades of fret, her thoughts do run,

Under crashing tide, all hell breaks loose,

And when courage seems beyond all use,

Endurance falters, and armour disbands,

Close he keeps her, in his arms,

As she reaches for him,

With trembling hands.

The roar was inhuman – a monstrous, utterly horrific sound, the sort that reduced legs to jelly and plagued the mind with irrational panic.

Yanking her sword hastily from the jewelled sheath at her waist, Sakura braced herself, pulse gaining pace as the ground quaked beneath her feet. Icy mist billowed ominously forth from the void beyond the open gate. It caused goose-pimples to sprout on the smooth surface of Sakura's exposed arms.

In front of her, she heard Sasuke mutter inaudibly underneath his breath – likely something unfavourable pertaining to her clumsiness – but her attention was immediately diverted from the death deity as a looming, colossal figure began to slither slowly out of the shadows.

A single, slippery, tentacle-like arm rolled out first, the scaly top of which was crowned with a row of large, tough spikes. Its skin was a sickly hue that rested somewhere on the colour spectrum between grey, green and muddy brown. The arm was as thick as the trunk of a mighty tree and looked as though it weighed several tonnes. Countless suction cups, arranged in rows of fours, lined the underside of the limb. Sakura noted with some revulsion that they were oozing a disgusting, inky-black liquid.

"What is it?" she asked aloud, appalled. Saline dampness mixed with pungent decay infiltrated the air around them as another identical limb slammed down onto the ground, causing it to rumble once again.

She did not see the way Sasuke's jaw set tensely as sickening realisation washed over him. He knew precisely what was lurching out of the abyss towards them – and could scarcely believe his ill luck.

Of all the random assortment of possible monsters that could have emerged… it had to be this one?

An uncharacteristic flash of trepidation shot through him as he considered Sakura's safety. Keeping her out of harm's way would be no easy task against a creature of such magnitude and raw strength; he'd been injured himself on numerous occasions in the past while battling against this legendary goliath.

It was not the full, mammoth size of the original – for all the creatures contained within the battle simulator were merely clones of their true selves and the largest amongst them did not comprise their original form's full scale or power. However, it was close enough to the real thing to warrant extreme danger for the girl standing behind him.

Sakura, meanwhile, could feel her eyes growing wider and wider as the monster slid out into full view at last. As her vision wandered up the massive expanse of the terrifying beast's ginormous body, she found herself shrinking closer behind the sanctuary of Sasuke's back.

It was the most horrendous, nightmarish thing she had ever seen. It had the humungous head of a mutated squid, complete with a pair of massive ear-like, breathing gills and yawning, clipper-like jowls that could swallow a grown elephant whole. Larger than a blue whale, its octopus-like body completely filled the enormous battle arena, making Sakura and Sasuke appear like puny little ants in comparison. Eight muscular arms writhed and throbbed menacingly around them. Sakura gulped as its bulky shadow fell over them, at the sight of the long pair of feeding tentacles on its dreadful face – and the rows of jagged, razor sharp teeth in its gargantuan mouth.

"That really doesn't look like it belongs on level sixteen," she remarked unhelpfully, stating the obvious.

Sasuke scowled. "It doesn't," he snapped back, not daring to take his eyes off their fearsome foe for even a split second.

"S-so what level does it belong to?" she questioned, failing to sound casually unaffected.

Sasuke clenched his teeth. "The last fifty," he ground out.

There was an awkward pause. Then Sakura nervously joked, "Oh. So this is one of the ones that sometimes appear randomly out of place? Wow. We got a really unlucky deal, right?"

Sasuke did not appreciate the humour. For the first time since he'd brought her to his Kingdom, he was overcome with the overwhelming urge to near-throttle the young woman behind him. How did she manage, with such remarkable consistency, to string him into situations that always felt so completely out of his control? On any other occasion, he wouldn't have even batted an eyelid when facing the grizzly creature that was looming perilously over them. He would have relished wearing it down in what would have normally been a long, exhausting, but exhilarating battle of speed versus brute strength.

But now, with Sakura's wellbeing to account for, he knew his steely focus would be distracted. There was a real possibility that both of them would get injured – if he did not act quickly.

She only made things worse for herself, when she added, "But you've beaten that thing before, so we'll be fine… right?"

His irritation amplified. She had no idea what she'd unwittingly unleashed when she had so stupidly activated the lever. Any combatants on the floor when the monsters were released could not simply warp out to safety. His ancestors had deliberately set up the simulator to replicate real-life battle scenarios as accurately as possible. Any attempts to whisk Sakura back up to the top floor of the training dome would be nullified.

Nor did the monsters listen to commands or reason. They were brainless destruction machines – which made the simulator a very dangerous place for the untrained. The only slight consolation, he supposed, was that she hadn't locked the lever in its final position to release all five monsters simultaneously.

He cursed inwardly to himself. Sakura had no chance. She would be flattened in the blink of an eye. Death was no concern – he could simply ensure her heart kept on beating. But he most certainly did not want to see her physically maimed or mortally wounded.

He had no other choice. The only way to make sure she was safe was to directly lend her some of his chakra.

He needed to exercise extreme caution, however; his chakra signature was strong, and too much of it would damage her fragile human body.

"Sakura," Sasuke uttered harshly, keeping his gaze trained closely on the oceanic behemoth. "Listen to me. The Kraken is a sea monster and can flood this arena in seconds. Stay out of the water and do what I tell you."

"The Kraken?" Sakura echoed. She had broken out into a cold sweat – and they hadn't even started moving yet. The horrible creature's beady eyes seemed to be peering down at them as if they belonged on its very own personal food menu. The unsettlingly guttural, wheezing sound of its breathing seemed to thunder around them.

"What is its weakness?" she asked, for her eyes could discern none.

"What would you do if I told you?" Sasuke demanded. There was a sharp edge to his voice which she recognised. He was angry at her – and she realised that it was because her actions had set free a monster that was clearly very dangerous and way out of her league.

"There's nothing you can do," he added scathingly.

Sakura was affronted. "I was just-" she began to defend. But Sasuke was swift to cut her off.

Switching Kusanagi briefly into his right hand, he suddenly held back his left to her, palm splayed open as his irises bled to crimson.

"Your hand," he commanded, when Sakura stared at it in bewilderment.

Instead of asking any further questions, Sakura followed his lead, swapping her own sword into her left hand. Extending her right, she touched his palm lightly with her fingertips. Sasuke's digits immediately closed firmly around hers, and then she felt an uncomfortable freezing sensation shoot from the point where their skin contacted, up along the nerves of her arm, before coursing jaggedly through her entire body.

Her arm muscles jerked on reflex, seeking to pull away from the source of discomfort – but Sasuke's hand held hers fast.

She gasped, the air temporarily suspending in her lungs as she was overcome with a strange, electrifying sensation. It was biting, numbing – near painful – yet oddly exhilarating all at once. Suddenly it felt like every part of her was thrumming with raw energy and a devastating, mystical power.

"What is this?" she managed breathlessly.

"I'm lending you my chakra," the death deity informed her.

She stared at the profile of his face in bafflement. His attention, however, was still fully focused on the Kraken.

So this was what immortal energy felt like? Sasuke's overwhelmingly potent and powerful chakra was suffocating – and so cold. It was as though her body could not contain its terrible intensity – like every cell in her body was screaming and on the verge of rupturing – even when she knew that Sasuke had to be giving her a very minute, precisely controlled amount of the massive reserves he possessed.

Something tugged deep inside her chest, as if in response to the steady influx of divine spiritual flow, thoroughly startling her – and the sensation only intensified at Sasuke's spoken word.

"Susano'o," the Death God murmured, and purple-blue energy flared around her limbs, accompanied by a mighty gust of wind. The light was blinding, and it took her eyes a few seconds to adjust. When they finally did, she found herself encased within a luminous rib-cage, comprised of four solid pairs of bone-like protrusions which reached just above her head in height and shielded both her left and right sides. A quick glance at Sasuke revealed him to be enclosed in a similar structure.

Sasuke knew he would conserve chakra better by utilising the most basic form of his Susano'o defence. Besides, Sakura couldn't handle the fully formed version. He needed to divide his reserves between them carefully.

Finally he released her hand. Her body was still buzzing from the strange current flowing through it, but the iciness had numbed away. Sakura stared down at her palms in awe. The same deep blue-purple light was radiating from them.

"With this borrowed chakra," Sasuke's voice drew her concentration back to him, "you'll be quicker and stronger. It'll be heavy at first, because the chakra is not yours. Stay out of range until you can harness it, and only move when I tell you."

"Right," Sakura nodded.

"Susano'o armour cannot be penetrated," Sasuke was going on. "It's an extension of your body; direct its shield with your hands."

Sakura lifted her arms and crossed them over herself experimentally. To her amazement, the pair of skeletal ribs closed more snugly around her, cocooning her front from harm.

"Wow!" she exclaimed, impressed. "That's so cool!"

"Focus," Sasuke scolded. "The more you make use of it, the quicker you'll lose chakra. Keep an eye on the colour. Once it fades and becomes transparent, you'll need an extra chakra boost."

"Got it," Sakura nodded.

"The only way to defeat the Kraken," Sasuke continued, overruling his previous snub of her earlier question regarding the creature's weakness, "is to blind it and stab its heart. To do that, we need to incapacitate it first by severing all its limbs."

"The black ink on those suction discs…?" Sakura asked.

"Poison," Sasuke confirmed. "If you get caught by an arm, it will try to suffocate you and inject poison into your body."

Sakura's heart pounded. The gravity of what they were fighting was finally hitting her full force. But she steeled herself, even though she was afraid.

"The ink sac is located above its gut," Sasuke told her.

"Then shouldn't we disable that first?" Sakura suggested. "That way, it can't use any poison against us!"

She was trying to form a sensible battle strategy. Smart girl, thought Sasuke to himself. But his eyes narrowed as the ferocious monster suddenly reared its great, ugly head back, a sure sign that it was preparing to strike.

"It's moving," the death deity warned, switching his katana back to his more dominant hand. "Get ready, Sakura!"

Sure enough, the Kraken released another blood curdling roar, whilst simultaneously lifting two pairs of humungous arms. They hovered menacingly in the air for a fraction of an instant – and in that moment, Sasuke's voice called to her again.


Sakura compliantly threw herself aside – only to catch her breath when the motion resulted in her manoeuvring at a blinding speed that would have otherwise been humanly impossible for her body to achieve before. Her legs, thoroughly unprepared to steady her at such accelerated pace, buckled as the soles of her feet impacted with a resounding thud on the floor, sending dust flying and vibrations rattling up her calf muscles upon impact.

Whoa! She stared down in dizzy astonishment at her hands, splayed open on the ground to balance her – at the depressions in the sandy floor she glimpsed between them. Had she created them by simply landing with force?

But she wasn't allowed a moment to recuperate or gawk over her newfound, god-like reflexes and strength, for the Kraken's weighty arms were continuing in their insistent attempts to pulverise both her and Sasuke like a pair of inconvenient insects.

She could see Sasuke running anticlockwise around the perimeter of the arena and proceeded to manoeuvre clockwise towards him. Each time an arm slammed down behind her, the ground quivered and trembled ominously, nearly knocking her off balance.

As she moved, Sakura immediately understood what the death deity had meant about the borrowed chakra feeling heavy. It seemed to weigh her limbs down, and the Susano'o armour felt like it was crushing on her shoulders. The more she moved, however, and the more adrenaline surged through her veins, the quicker her body began to acclimatise to the borrowed chakra.

The bright blue-white flare of lightning alerted her to an attack Sasuke was directing straight at the creature's ink sac. It blocked the electrical surge with a writhing arm, before another shot out, seeking to catch the elusive god assailing it. Sakura's mind raced; she had to distract it for just long enough for Sasuke to score a direct hit and disable the deadly venom in its suction discs.

She continued to run, when a limb suddenly smacked down just in front of her, with enough force to send her toppling backwards. She scrambled away, only for another arm to pound into the ground directly behind her, missing her head by mere inches. Acting on instinct, she stabbed at it – and was once again stunned when she felt her hand deal unnatural force in its blow. The blade drove straight into the monster's flesh – all the way to the hilt.

She blinked. For a horrifying few seconds, the weapon remained deeply embedded in the arm's tough, thick hide. Sakura wriggled her wrist, frantically trying to dislodge her sword, to wrestle it free.

"Come on, come on!" she urged in frustration - but the blade held fast.

A shadow fell upon her. She looked up to see another limb hurtling down towards her. Her eyes widened and her heart jumped into her throat.

A deadly accurate stream of electricity speared through the limb, diverting it grossly off target. Sakura's eyes found Sasuke, who was glaring daggers at her, clearly furious that he was being forced to buy her time, when she was the one who was supposed to be playing the role of distraction.

She ground her teeth. She had insisted on participating; she would not be useless – not this time! With an angry yell of effort, she finally succeeded in tearing her weapon free. The violent momentum of the action made her shoulder momentarily feel like it was on fire – a sensation that was quickly remedied by Sasuke's rushing chakra. As she yanked her sword back, she glimpsed the nasty gash she'd made. It wept black liquid and spewed dark smoke.

'The Kraken's blood is venomous, too. Don't inhale it, Sakura!' the Death God's voice echoed warningly in her head.

'The ink sac-' she began to respond telepathically back, holding her breath as she curved around the pain-curled limb.

'I'll handle it. Keep moving!'

Inhaling deeply once she was free of the danger presented by the toxic fumes, Sakura continued to run at a speed that was exhilarating. To her amazement, her legs did not seem to tire, and whenever it seemed as though they might begin to, a fresh coolness poured into her muscles, refreshing and renewing them.

Sasuke's chakra again, she knew. It was no longer a burden. Now it almost felt like a true extension of her body – though the strange electrical buzz was still there.

She threw a wild glance up at the chilling monster, just in time to see it spit out a multitude of needle-like projectiles from its mouth, straight at her. She flinched instinctively, causing her glowing armour to close more protectively around her body. The poisonous missiles bounced harmlessly off Susano'o's ribs. Drawing her arm back, she hacked at another slithering limb, succeeding in wounding it enough to force it to curl away. She slashed at another. It evaded and pounded down after her, shadowing her steps, scattering dust into the air.

Sasuke, meanwhile, was attempting to find an opening. However, the Kraken was intelligent; it had figured out precisely what he was trying to do and was positioning its arms defensively between Sasuke's line of fire and its poison sac. He knew from his previous encounters with the fearsome leviathan that taking out the ink pouch was one of the hardest stages of battling the Kraken. Agilely avoiding another arm's attempt to bury him into the ground, he upped his speed, flash-stepping in succession until he had drawn closer to the monstrosity. His efforts were stifled when the sea-fiend abruptly spewed an inky gush of venomous liquid directly at him from the suction cups beneath its bulky arms.

Quickly the death deity blinked out of sight, restoring a safe distance once again. He could tell just by looking at the agitated body-language of the beast that it was preparing to flood the entire arena at any moment – something that would furnish it with a massive advantage. The Kraken would then proceed to pollute the water with its potent, skin-eating venom. And if Sakura's Susano'o armour were to fade before he could replenish it, and were she to somehow plummet into the sullied water…

He clenched his jaw. No. It was just too dangerous to allow her to participate. He needed to get her out of the way as soon as possible, completely out of range so that he didn't have to spend every second accounting for her wellbeing. How could he possibly fight at full capability when she was there, ready to get hurt at any instant, even with the measures of protection he had provided to her?

The Kraken's limbs were smashing thunderously against the walls in fury, sending enormous clefts of shattered rock raining down upon them. Sakura's eyes darted up, and she raised her hands above her head. Around her, the chakra armour mirrored her movements, the rib-cages altering in angle and position to deflect the incoming hail of stone. Her gaze locked onto a giant slab of rock as it fell to the ground, crumbling to pieces after impacting against her impenetrable shield.

Her mind raced. She couldn't get close enough to the creature to deal notable damage, but was there a way she could make use of the battle environment?

That's when it struck her. The perfect diversion. But did she have enough power and discipline to pull it off?

Sasuke's divine chakra flowing through her was imbuing her with extra speed and strength. So her augmented power surely meant she could lift heavier things than normal – didn't it?

Sakura remembered the training lesson he had given her on focusing and directing her chakra. It seemed so long ago, now. She had unexpectedly succeeded back then – surely she could manage it again?

There was only one way to find out. Biting her lower lip in determination, she concentrated, trying to guide the energy current to her right arm. She expected to feel some form of resistance; instead her attempt was met with a startling jolt within her chest. Sakura came to an abrupt stop and caught her breath, thoroughly surprised when something deep inside her began to ache. But as swiftly as she felt the pain, it was replaced with sudden, pleasant warmth that spread through her chest and seemed to seep out to the rest of her, merging tentatively with Sasuke's icy chakra.

What is this feeling…? She thought to herself, alarmed by the abnormality of it. She heard a high pitched whine ring in her ears for a few seconds – and then something seemed to explode into life inside her. For a head-spinning moment, Sakura saw stars. When she blinked through the haze and her vision finally cleared, she then became conscious of a very peculiar sensation.

It was as though every muscle in her body could suddenly feel the chakra running rampant through her, was so painstakingly aware of it that she could practically visualise its tangible aura in her mind's eye, fuelling her cells. It was predominantly blue-white, which she recognised as belonging to Sasuke.

But that wasn't the only colour she could perceive. There was another, much more mellow and hesitant. It seemed to come out almost shyly, ebbing faintly before pulsating once more.

A pale green.

Is that… she thought to herself in wonder, my natural chakra…?

She immediately willed it to go to her arm – and with a fluid ease that shocked her, felt the chakra eagerly stir and respond, flowing like liquid water along her nerve endings, helping to guide Sasuke's into position. She caught her breath, delighted as a sense of pride swelled inside her.

I can do it!

"Sakura!" A harsh voice rang out sharply, snapping her out of her amazed thoughts.

On instinct, Sakura lunged forward, just in time to avoid a pair of thrashing limbs. Her right hand was now burning, a sure sign that she had succeeded in concentrating the energy to its desired place.

Here goes nothing! She told herself fiercely. Ducking low, she grabbed a large slab of rock, and confirmed her theory when she found that it weighed little more than a large stone in her hand. Flexing her arm experimentally, she looked up. Then with a yell of effort, she hurtled it directly at the Kraken. The rock flew with deadly force up into an arc, striking the ocean goliath against the side of its gargantuan head.

Sasuke, who had been readying himself to admonish her for standing still against an opponent which she couldn't afford to lower her guard around for even a heartbeat, double-took, eyebrows furrowing marginally in confusion at the unexpected display of raw strength he had just witnessed. At first he thought that he had somehow imagined it – there was no way Sakura could have managed such a throw without extensive chakra manipulation training. But when she grabbed another massive slab of rock and flung it right at the monster as though it were nothing more than a lowly pebble, he realised with a start that she had not only fully acclimatised to his chakra, but was now actively and accurately controlling it, channelling it effectively to enhance her strength.

He exhaled in quiet astonishment, slicing at an arm and dodging another, only for his eyes to fly back to her.

The Underworld's ruler's chakra had always been tempestuous in nature, volatile and difficult to manage. That Sakura, with minimal training, was able to utilise and mould it to her limbs, to take such advantage of it…

Her success suggested extraordinary skill and a high degree of natural, precise chakra control. He had already suspected this when he had witnessed her channel her chakra reserves before. But controlling a deity's energy stream – specifically, one as dangerous and unstable as his – was an entirely different feat.

Had she been born with such a remarkable talent? It was not a known human capability. Did the essence inside her somehow allow her to influence chakra more accurately? Sasuke could not tell for certain, but it was at that moment that he began to realise, in the privacy of his thoughts, just how much he had been underestimating her.

Sakura picked up another larger piece of rock.

"Take this!" She tossed it directly at the Kraken's face, followed by another jagged lump.

It worked. The infuriated Kraken's gaze focused entirely onto the girl for a moment as it ejected poison to dissolve the rocks and lifted two of its limbs to protect its precious vision, whilst extending another in an attempt to deter her from launching further gravelly projectiles its way.

The death deity spied his opening and did not waste a second.

The tomoes in his Sharingan spun into a pinwheel, forming a six-pointed star. A burning ball of jet-black fire surged into being in his right palm, which he rapidly fashioned into the form of a flexible sword.

Lunging forward, he swiped outwards with the deadly flame-sword, aiming at the two arms that had risen to block the giant rocks which Sakura was still tossing into the air.

"Enton: Kagutsuchi!"

Black balls of flame flew from the sword, striking the limbs. The Kraken's roar of agony was terrible as the inextinguishable, shape-manipulated flames corroded its skin, eating through the flesh in seconds.

Sakura's breath snagged in her lungs; black fire? Awe-struck, she pulled back as the Kraken began to pound its unaffected arms against the walls more wildly, a reflection of the great pain it had to be suffering as its pair of blazing limbs writhed in a hopeless attempt to put out the black flames. It was no use. Within seconds, the limbs had been reduced to unsightly stumps.

But Sasuke wasn't done. She saw him slice forward again with the black fire blade he now wielded in his left hand. Another flaming projectile shot out, striking the beast straight in its belly. Dark liquid and fumes exploded on contact, and as the black fire extinguished at Sasuke's command to leave a gaping hole in the monster's gut, Sakura's heart leapt.

The ink sac! He had scored a direct hit. Her diversion had worked!

Grinning, she lifted her chin and cast her gaze defiantly at the death deity.

Across the distance, Sasuke's eyes met hers in brief acknowledgement.

The Kraken howled deeply in rage and torment. The monster's jaws yawned open – and then it was heaving out gallons and gallons of water, at a speed and flow that was frightening.

Sakura gasped, her sense of accomplishment waning as her attention snapped back to the ocean mammoth. Just where was all that water comingfrom?!

So diverted was she by the sight of the arena flooding rapidly that she failed to immediately notice the telling paling and flickering of her Susano'o armour around her, as Sasuke's borrowed chakra stash began to diminish.

A gigantic limb descended towards her. Sakura raised her arms – only to finally realise in horror that her shield was blinking dangerously. It managed to repel the brunt of the blow – before abruptly dispelling, leaving her unguarded.

Her stomach lurched as she scrambled to get clear of the arm, her movements all at once sluggish and heavy. However, her attempts were impeded by the rising water, and her heart lodged in her throat when she felt something cold and slimy catch at her ankles. She looked down, just in time to see the massive limb curl around her lower legs, the suction discs sticking fast onto her skin.

Sakura screeched as she was toppled off balance and her feet were swept mercilessly out from underneath her. The arena became a blur as she was hoisted weightlessly off her feet and thrashed around in the air like a rag doll before being flung with unstoppable speed and momentum towards the wall.

She braced herself, squeezing her eyes shut for the shockwave of collision, knowing it would likely fracture bones. But instead of crashing into the wall, something hard and warm caught her. Her eyes flew open, to find Sasuke's arms around her. He cushioned the impact, pushing against the wall with his feet before landing back on the ground with a loud splash.

There was something oddly reassuring about the physical contact – about being cocooned in his personal Susano'o armour. She sagged back against him for a minute, her body suffering a slump in energy from rapid chakra depletion.

"Sasuke…" she was openly relieved that he was back with her. The mysterious black sword had vanished from his left hand.

"I said watch your shield," he censured.

"Sorry," she apologised, taking her weight again and wincing down at the alarmingly large, red-purple bruises on her sore legs, inflicted by the suction circles, her heart still hammering against her rib cage. "I got distracted by the water and-"

Sasuke cut in, "Distractions can kill, Sakura."

She told herself she would be more careful as he infused a fresh supply of chakra into her body. Her armour returned, glowing with renewed strength, and the bruises on her legs faded.

Sasuke silently noted that although she clearly had an excellent knack for chakra control, she still had a long way to go in terms of preserving her supplies accurately. She used too much, too soon, which put undue strain upon the body and exhausted it; something to be expected given her inexperience in harnessing it.

"The arena is flooding," he stated, his voice perfectly neutral and calm, a stark contrast to how disturbedSakura was feeling by the fact that the water was now just above her knees in level – and rising. "We need to get to higher ground."

"But where?" she gestured to the crumbling, spiralling staircase above them. "The stairs are falling apart!"

"Hn," Sasuke uttered, winding his right arm around her side, jerking her closer to him. "Hold on."

Without hesitation, Sakura clutched onto his shoulders and blinked. No sooner had she done so, the world around her fell away in a rush of movement and wind. When she regained her bearings, she found that Sasuke had transported them onto the wall high above the Kraken. Sakura yelped, her arms looping automatically around his neck when he retracted the right arm that had been holding her to him, leaving her dangling precariously at his side. However, the death deity seemed unconcerned, paying her uncomfortable placement little heed.

Blue-white chakra was brightly focused in his left palm and the soles of his sandals, pressed against the wall. Sakura stared curiously – was he using chakra to keep them suspended in position?

An icy stream of water was blasted up at them. Sasuke jumped away from the wall, landing in another position. But the Kraken was furious and relentlessly followed up by whipping out the pair of tentacles on its face to alarming lengths, like giant elastic strips, seeking to snap them in its hold.

Again Sasuke dodged, this time directing a crackling bolt of lightning energy down in an attempt to ward off the creature and buy them space as well as time. It worked. The Kraken howled in fury and submerged its body fully into the water. Noticing that her position at his side was somewhat obstructing his movements, Sakura quickly manoeuvred until she was at his back, one arm winding around his neck, the other hooking under his left shoulder. Peering over him, she saw that the water level had already risen up to several metres and seemed to show no signs of slowing down.

Breathlessly she questioned, "What now?"

Lingering in position against the wall, Sasuke answered, his crimson eyes never wavering from the makeshift sea below them, "We disable the remaining arms."

Sakura anticipated some terrible attack as the surface of the water began to bubble threateningly.

"What is it doing down there?"

Sasuke confirmed her fears, when he said a little too casually, "…Preparing a typhoon."

Her jaw dropped. "A what?"

Sure enough, the water's surface was swirling ominously, becoming an incredibly deep vortex that was swiftly gaining in motion. It sounded like a terrifying storm was brewing, the sudden tides formed below crashing and raging with terrible vengeance.

Sakura realised that it was imperative that they remained out of the water at all costs. But Sasuke wouldn't be able to fight fluidly with her weighing him down.

I can't just keep hanging onto him, she told herself anxiously. There has to be something I can do-

Her thought broke off when a spine-rattling groan filled the air. The vortex began to gain height and speed – before abruptly shooting up into the air, forming a massive, viciously rotating column of water. A second joined it, giving way to utter pandemonium. The twisters danced around one another, revolving destructively in the air.

Damn! Sasuke's gut twisted into knots despite his exterior composure as the funnels of howling water and wind rushed up towards them; the second water-tornado had formed so quickly! This was dangerous!

"Hold on!"

"Kyaaaah!" Sakura screamed, locking her arms more tightly around him as the wind blasted against them full force. Even with Susano'o's protection, she could feel its deadly force, threatening to drag them into the eye of the storm.

The whistling cyclones thrashed against the circular wall, leaving trails of ruin everywhere they impacted, smashing bricks and tossing debris wildly into the air. The glowing rib-cages around them deflected the matter, and Sasuke was quick to flash-step away from the tilt of the closest gale-force funnel, but resisting the suction of both was no easy feat. The twisters shadowed him, forcing him to keep moving.

But he knew he could not sustain avoidance indefinitely. He needed to take out the vortexes – and fast.

The Kraken revealed its head above water level, its massive jaws yawning open, piercing teeth blood-thirsty and eager to taste fresh flesh. It was a vision of nightmares, the most dreadful thing Sakura had witnessed in the Underworld.

Angry droplets of water hailed against their armour. The jagged tentacles once again lashed out toward them, followed by another unwinding limb.

The death deity jumped, meaning to flicker out of sight once more – when the monster's arm rammed into his intended alighting place, throwing him uncharacteristically off balance. Sakura's breath caught in her throat as the abrupt change in motion threw her legs to the left and caused her grip on him to loosen. Sasuke lashed out with Kusanagi, meaning to cleave the infringing tentacle, but thrown of equilibrium and falling at an awkward angle, the death deity failed to draw them out of the path of both the twin water-twisters and another limb that had rushed up to take advantage of their descent.

It swiped directly between them, with the clear intention of knocking them apart, wrenching Sakura's arms from around Sasuke's shoulders. Sparks flew off Susano'o as it repelled the blow, but the force of the collision threw her sideways. As the limb shot out at Sasuke, the wind's suction drew her towards the middle of one of the funnels and she began to plummet down, head first, her eyes finding the gaping hole of the Kraken's eager mouth far below.

"Sasuke!" she screamed for his aid, as biting air and water viciously assaulted her, sending her spiralling uncontrollably and causing the blade at her waist to fly from its sheath.

Sasuke clenched his jaw, charging Kusanagi with black flames once more. Quickly forming an additional seal, he stabbed into the creature's arm, dragging his blade down as he fell, his eyes locking onto Sakura's free-falling form.

She felt something thin and strong wind tightly around her ankles, abruptly stopping her plunge at a force that caused her head to snap violently backwards. Chakra strings, she dizzily realised. She was swung rapidly to the right, propelled by the direction of the wind, straight towards the solid face of the wall. She braced herself as she collided into it and reached out blindly, wildly, trying to find any foothold to stop her body falling any further. Rock scraped with violent friction against her nails, tearing them, leaving trails of blood on her fingertips.

Recalling the glowing chakra she had seen Sasuke use to hang onto the wall, Sakura desperately pumped energy into her hands and feet, trying to break her rapid descent.

Stop! STOP! She willed herself, panicking when nothing initially happened – only to near sob with relief when she finally felt the chakra fuse into the wall, halting her suddenly.

She panted, her chest heaving as she looked up – only for droplets of water from the revolving funnels to obscure her vision. Her hair was loose and plastered against her forehead – at some point it had fallen out of its messy bun. Pulse drumming, she realised that she had no idea where Sasuke was.

A hand then closed tightly around her right wrist. She squinted up again, to find Sasuke above her. His hair was even more unruly than usual, tossed and tousled by the wind. There were shallow grazes and dirt stains on his high cheekbones. Sakura wagered that she looked a similar state – but much less attractive, of course.

"Sasuke!" she yelled up to him. "I've lost my sword-!"

"Leave it!" The death deity called back, internally relieved to see that his risky gamble had paid off. Sakura had managed to manipulate chakra to stop her plummet and keep her body attached to the wall – as he had known she could. He sent another fresh wave of energy through her, healing the cuts at her hands and palms.

As the tornadoes whirled towards them again, Sasuke pushed away from the wall, slinging Sakura onto his back again as he hurriedly transported them to a higher position. Coming to rest briefly, he addressed her, head tilting slightly to the left to acknowledge her over his shoulder.


"I'm okay," she panted, adjusting her grip on him more firmly. But a fine tremor was running through her body, one which Sasuke immediately detected. She was still rattled by her close call.

She exhaled, "That's three arms taken out now, right?"

Sasuke nodded and then pressed his fingers to his wrists, summoning more glowing chakra strings. The Kraken had gone for a change in strategy, clearly determined not to allow his black flames to take out any more of its limbs by remaining fully submerged. Since the monster was in full control of the current, it could ensure that any further black fire that struck the water remained safely on the surface.

He called to her over the calamitous din. "I'm going to use these strings to bind its remaining limbs underwater."

"What?" Sakura exclaimed incredulously, her heart pounding fearfully. Apprehension exploded inside her, the unexpected force of her concern for him rattling her to her core. Had he lost his senses? He couldn't possibly venture into the water, where the creature had full dominion!

"No, Sasuke! You can't go down there-!"

"Be quiet and listen!" he snapped back, brushing off her alarm. "I'll tie one end to you. Don't let it sever under any circumstance."

Sakura caught her breath, as the magnitude of what he was expecting her to do hit her. "But what if I run out of chakra?"

"The string will keep us connected," he explained, overriding her uncertainty as he flickered out of the tilt of a crippling twister once more and took brief refuge in a small alcove formed beneath the crumbled staircase in the wall, allowing her to set her feet down on solid ground again behind him. Sealing the opening to the alcove with Susano'o, he instructed, "I'll keep chakra flowing to you. Use it to keep moving."

Shakily, Sakura nodded her head. "Right."

She told herself that he surely wouldn't be leaving her if he didn't have faith in the fact she could handle herself. She could do it. She had to do it. The only chance they had of felling the oceanic demon was by splitting up – as nervous as that fact made her.

"The Kraken will try to cut the string," Sasuke added, winding it around her waist. "It'll try to drag you down. Focus as much chakra into the string as you can to resist it."


"The stronger the chakra flowing through the string, the harder it will be for it to break. When I tell you to, pull as hard as you can." With that, he secured the thread firmly around her, and used the ends wound around his right hand to reel her closer to him.

Lowering his head so that their faces in the dimness were inches apart, Sasuke's eyes locked onto hers, gleaming crimson. Sakura felt her pulse quicken – and this time it wasn't from fear alone.

Quietly, he murmured, "Do you understand, Sakura?"

"Yes," she answered. Something about the way he was looking at her made steely warmth bloom inside her. Determination, she realised; he trusted her to get the job done. She couldn't let him down.

Sasuke began to step away.

Her right hand flew forward before she could stop it, before she could even think about it. The death deity paused, glancing down at her curled fingertips before turning questioning eyes onto her.

"Be careful," she whispered earnestly.

"…" Sasuke blinked, his eyes lingering on her face. For once, she didn't squirm under the weight of his stare. She looked back at him, her irises shining in the darkness.

She was worried. For him. He heard it in her plea, read it clearly in her anxious features.

She cared.

One corner of his lips twitched, as if he was about to say something to her in response – but he seemed to reconsider at the last moment. He shifted again, and Sakura's fingers loosened.

"Hide here until you're forced to move," the death deity ordered – and then he was gone. Just like that, he snuffed out of her sight, the only clue he had been there to begin with taking the form of the pale chakra string extending silently after him.

Sakura immediately sealed the opening with her own Susano'o. Gripping onto the strings around her midriff, she edged forward to see what was happening at sea level.

The Kraken was still submerged, its deafening groans reduced to a dull rumble from the great height at which she was positioned. The cyclones continued to whirl, skimming riotously against the walls. She could see Sasuke, blinking in and out of sight at epic speed, making his way progressively lower towards their gruesome foe. She waited, her breath withheld.

The characteristic flash of blue light alerted her to the screaming stream of Chidori Sasuke was harnessing into his palm. She watched as he aimed the crackling lightning energy straight at the spiralling tornadoes, sending electricity shooting into the immense pool of water below. The action had one purpose – to stun the creature and force it back out.

The water erupted into a mesmerising display of jagged current, which danced along the surface. The Kraken roared – and almost immediately, its remaining limbs surfaced, smoking and curling in agony. Sakura's lips parted as the Susano'o armour around Sasuke began to strengthen and transform, the ribs extending, forming muscles and limbs, taking on a fuller form until it resembled a samurai warrior, clad in glowing purple-blue armour, wielding two twin swords – with a ginormous pair of wings at its back. It hovered in the air, awaiting its master's command.

"W-wow…" she breathed.

Sasuke stood at the top of its head, Kusanagi screeching with light. She could tell from the poise of his stance that he was going in for the kill – quite literally.

One of the typhoons began to lose momentum, wobbling precariously then dissolving in a gush of rain. Sasuke's Susano'o reared back – before diving headfirst towards the water at a speed so swift, Sakura's eyes registered nothing but a blur.

Fresh electricity exploded in the water, spiking upwards, jumping to every drop of water nearby. The Kraken's terrible howl bounced off the walls and its limbs convulsed, before disappearing beneath the surface once more. For an awful few minutes, Sakura lost sight of Sasuke.

The second cyclone suddenly dissipated, dispersing into scattered liquid blobs, causing hope to crest in Sakura's chest.

That was when she felt it - a violent tug at her waist, so strong that it yanked her straight forward, sending her flying out of the alcove. Her Susano'o shield immediately rejoined her, wrapping protectively around her form. Adrenaline and instinct kicked in as Sakura impacted against the wall. Chakra surged into her palms and her fingers gripped onto stone, locking her in position. The pressure at her midriff did not relent as the Kraken retaliated in rage, seeking to send her plunging into the high voltage water.

Concentrating hard, she kept her left hand and feet attached to the wall, while her right moved to channel chakra along the string. Just like Sasuke had said it would, the thread strengthened, glowing brighter blue as it resisted against the tug. But a mightier heave began to drag her down along the wall face.

"Guh!" Sakura ground her teeth with effort, beads of sweat trickling down her face. Digging deep, she summoned a larger surge of chakra to anchor her into position. It worked. Her feet held fast, trembling from the overwhelming strain, even as the thread around her waist began to cut into her clothing. She felt a stinging sensation along her stomach – a sure sign that the string was starting to rub into her skin. Bolstering her resolve, she continued to dutifully pump wave after wave of energy along the string, until at last she felt the pressure begin to blessedly recede, just enough to allow her to start crawling higher up the wall again.

A charred limb suddenly unfurled out of the water again, crashing furiously right beside her, sending rocks everywhere. Sakura jumped, landing at another section of the wall. The arm followed menacingly after her, aiming at the chakra string. Sakura wheezed, moving continuously to avoid getting the string tangled. Then the limb suddenly stiffened, clearly incapacitated by Sasuke, before collapsing back into the water with a thunderous splash.

All the arms had now vanished below her. The water began bubbling uncontrollably, seemingly on the verge of erupting entirely.

'Sakura!' Sasuke's voice echoed distantly in her head. 'Now!'

Her heart skipped a beat. This was it! A test to see just how precisely she could control her chakra. Leaping forward, she grabbed onto the remains of the nearby staircase above her, dragging herself up onto it. Then, with both hands, she clutched tightly onto the string, and bit hard on her lip, hard enough to draw blood as she directed every ounce of chakra raging through her cells, into her hands.

"SHANAROOO!" she yelled, and heaved with every last fibre of power she possessed.

The thread connecting her to Sasuke burned brightly and tautened. She felt the telling shift in momentum as her efforts succeeded in reeling the death deity safely out of the water. He landed on the wall opposite her, his full Susano'o armour dispelling as his chakra reserves, overstrained from being divided between the two of them for an extensive period, finally began to dwindle.

The string between them quivered, before dissolving. Sakura could feel her own chakra beginning to waver in consistency and flow. Every muscle in her body was screaming from overexertion.

Sasuke's eyes rested briefly onto her. She was leaning over the edge of the damaged staircase, peering down at him, features worn with fatigue and relief. He gave her a perfunctory nod. The worst was over. The creature's remaining arms were bound below water and he had succeeded in damaging the monster's vision. All he needed to do was aim one final, finishing strike of lightning into the water and impale the behemoth right in the heart-

Unexpectedly, the one remaining feeding tentacle on the Kraken's face burst out from the water's depths – but not towards Sasuke. It lunged directly at Sakura, smacking into the remains of the staircase, with a lethal force that caused her footing place to disintegrate into rubble. Sakura yelped, plummeting freefall once again. Her hands tried to grab at the wall, flaring frantically with chakra that pulsated disjointedly, a clear indication to Sasuke that she was pushing herself beyond her physical limits. Susano'o's ribs began to pale and flicker warningly around her form.

To her horror, Sakura's fingers found nothing but debris and stone. She couldn't anchor herself, no matter how hard she tried.

Sasuke's pulse quickened, knowing he had no further chakra to spare. The last of his stock had to be used to defeat the beast once and for all. Acting on instinct, he flung Kusanagi with great power at the wall opposite him. It whistled loudly, slicing through the air with deadly accuracy, spearing through the leather scabbard holder attached to the belt at her waist and skewering it in place against the wall. Sakura gulped at the fact she was being held uncomfortably in position by only the strong leather straps at her waist, her face directed at the bubbling water below as she dizzily registered that Sasuke's katana had saved her.

They weren't given a moment of respite, however, as the livid Kraken roared and made one final attempt at vengeance. The tentacle abruptly changed course, whipping around with a sudden surge of speed that was startling, only to wind around Sasuke, whose attention was still very much focused on her. Sakura cried out as the death deity was snatched with unstoppable force and hurtled into the depths of the water – without his Susano'o armour engaged to protect him from the lightning current still zigzagging perilously below.

"Sasuke!" she screamed, her hands reaching out unthinkingly as she remained pinned helplessly in place. The water ignited into a sea of electricity and smoke, as the Kraken's dreadful moans of anger and anguish filled the air.

"SASUKE!" Terror exploded in her thundering heart as her eyes frantically searched for him in the commotion, crippled by the unexpected and devastating intensity of her feelings. They tore through her mercilessly, like a rip-tide. She hadn't even realised, up until that moment, just how much she had grown to genuinely care.

Any moment, she tried to reassure herself even as dread remained lodged bitterly in her throat, any moment he would jump right out and glare at her for overreacting. He was an immortal. He could handle the hit. Any second now, he would appear.

But he didn't. He didn't. The seconds trickled by, and there was still no sign of him. The Kraken's head had resurfaced and it was writhing about madly, like a monster possessed, the water around its bulky body swirling in a tumultuous rush.

"Sasuke!" Sakura's voice was hoarse from crying out for him. Where was he?!

With a final, ground-quaking roar, the Kraken's head submerged once more, and a massive plume of foul-smelling black smoke puffed into the air. The liquid continued to whirl, and Sakura noticed with a start that its level was finally starting to lower. The lightning energy hissed out of sight and other than the swishing sound of water, all fell quiet and still.

Everything except Sakura's heart, ramming with dangerous force inside her.

Thud, thud, thud, thud, thud. Blood rushed into her ears as adrenaline compelled her to act. She didn't care about the fall; the only coherent thought in her mind was that she needed to get down there, to Sasuke; she needed to find him.

Sakura reached down to her belt, wrestling agitatedly to undo it, her hands trembling. Get off, you stupid thing! She willed it. Finally it came free, remaining in position against the wall, impaled by Sasuke's blade. Sakura's breath caught in her lungs and she braced herself as she plunged down from a stomach-churning height, straight into the water. Icy cold it hit her skin, and she held her breath as she was fully and deeply submerged. When her body finally stopped tumbling in the water enough for her to swim she rose to the surface, gasping for oxygen, flailing to grip onto a nearby floating piece of debris. Coughing and spluttering, she waited for the water to lower further, until she felt her feet touch the ground, whereupon the level stabilised to just above her ankles.

Pushing her dripping hair out of her face, she spun around, seeking out the death deity. Finally she spotted him – half sitting, half sprawled amongst a pile of rock rubble, one knee drawn up into his body, the other long leg extended.

"Sasuke!" she gasped, relief flooding through her at the sight of him still conscious.

Ignoring the aches in her own limbs, she sloshed and stumbled towards him, almost tripping up in her eagerness to reach his side, passing her floored sword as she did so.

The death deity slowly sat up, looking somewhat disorientated and extremely disgruntled. Something inside her constricted painfully on closer inspection of him. He was as drenched as she was; his clothes plastered to him like second skin. His cheeks were grazed with wounds and smudged with dirt. A deep, nasty, diagonal gash between his eyebrows was seeping blood down the bridge of his nose. Another open cut marred the smooth skin above his left cheekbone and there were further scrapes and cuts on his bare arms.

He was wounded –Sasuke, who always appeared so untouchable, so invincible. The sight of him bleeding was alarming. A whisper of concern fluttered through Sakura as she wondered why he hadn't healed himself yet. Then she answered her own question, realising that he had to have exhausted his immediate chakra reserves.

Guilt flashed through her. It was her fault.

The water on the ground splashed as her knees buckled and she dropped before him. Leaning forward, she questioned worriedly, "Sasuke! Are you alright? Are you hurt?"

Irises that had returned to their usual midnight hue flicked onto her.

"It's nothing," he uttered shortly. She could tell from the way his chest was heaving, and the way his elbows were propped on the piles of rocks around him, that he was trying to catch his breath.

"Are you sure? You're wounded-" she reached out automatically with her right hand, ghosting her fingertips over the injury at his left cheek.

Sasuke averted his face, scowling indignantly at her, "Stop fussing, Sakura."

She drew her hand back, sheepishly apologetic. "Sorry. I guess it's my inner medic." She sat awkwardly for a moment, gazing at him. Then, unable to contain herself, her hand lifted again anxiously, hovering by his cheek again. "But you're bleeding…"

Sasuke blinked, as if her words were directing his attention to the fact for the first time. He lifted his left hand to his injured forehead, and withdrew it, staring blankly down at the crimson stains on his fingertips.

"Tch," he muttered dismissively, disapprovingly. He told himself the only reason the Kraken had managed a solid hit on him was because he'd been watching out for Sakura. Lowering his hand, he dismissed his injuries as minor inconveniences. They would heal as soon as his chakra levels recuperated – which would not take long.

Sakura, who had been watching him with wide eyes, was finally convinced he was fine and relaxed, releasing a sigh of relief.

"That was..." She shook her head, allowing herself to absorb everything at last. And while it had been heart-pounding and dangerous and horrible and absolutely petrifying, the adrenaline rush she'd experienced fighting alongside Sasuke had been incredible. Her body was still buzzing – even as fatigue began to creep in.

Her thoughts and emotions swirled to the tip of her tongue, and she found herself blurting, "That was awesome."

Sasuke stared at her, as if she had grown her own set of Kraken tentacles on her face. Awesome? That wasn't quite what he'd expected to hear. He wondered if she'd hit her head hard at some point when he hadn't been keeping an eye on her.

Sakura seemed in high spirits, however.

"I mean, it was crazy and terrifying, yes," she continued. "But wow. We did it!"

When Sasuke simply continued to stare at her like she'd lost her marbles, she said, "You're not still mad at me for pulling the lever, are you?"

"Hn," he scoffed, folding his arms dismissively – the easiest way to not give her an answer. He didn't want to admit at that moment that Sakura was more than ready for battle simulation training.

"Because it could have been much worse; two Krakens could have come out together," she pointed out.

Sasuke snorted. "Or three."

Her jaw dropped and she leaned forward. "No way!" she exclaimed in dismay. "You've fought three at once?"

If one was so difficult to topple, she couldn't even begin to imagine the chaos and peril of facing two, or three simultaneously.

"…" Sasuke had. A very, very long time ago. His brother and cousin had been with him, though. It had been quite the explosive battle.

It almost brought back a sense of nostalgia, fighting the fearsome creature with another individual. Not that anything on Sasuke's face revealed this.

"That's insane," Sakura was going on, saving him the trouble of elaborating. Then she looked at him, and said hopefully, "Can we train like this again?"

Sasuke was inwardly surprised – but not unpleasantly so. He would have thought that Sakura would have despised the entire experience. But her eyes were bright, despite her clear weariness, and she seemed eager for him to agree.

"Hn," he scoffed.

Sakura took it to mean yes, and beamed at him. He blinked, caught somewhat off-guard by her smile – and averted his eyes.

Water splattered as she rose tiredly to her feet, turning her back to him. Sasuke's gaze slipped onto her again, noting the tight way her wet clothes were now sticking to her body, emphasising her soft curves in all the right places.

He swallowed, clenching his jaw. It was no time to be thinking of such things – but as hard as he tried, he just couldn't help admiring her slender figure.

"Your sword is still up there," Sakura informed him. "And the staircase is completely ruined."

"…" His eyes lingered on her hips.

"What about the other four cages?" She was going on. "Are they still going to open?" Raising a hand to her cheek, she worried aloud, "What if another Kraken comes out?"

"…" His gaze trailed unhurriedly down her legs.

"Sasuke?" she glanced over her shoulder upon receiving no reply, just in time to see his eyes snap back up to the more socially acceptable position of her head. "Are we going to fight some more-?" she broke off, overcome with a sudden and intense bout of nausea and dizziness. "Whoa…" she breathed, and before she could fight against it, her body was rocking unsteadily backwards.

Sasuke's eyes widened and he was on his feet in an instant, leaping forward to break her fall. Stopping directly behind her, he extended his right arm, catching her against him. Sakura fell into him, and he drew her closer against his chest, nestling her snugly into the crook of his arm. Her head fell back to rest against his shoulder, and her eyes turned tiredly up to him.

Their gazes locked.

"What was that?" she asked.

"Chakra depletion," he answered. "You need rest."

"No," she argued, even as her limbs seemed to turn to dead weights. "I'm fine."

Sasuke's eyebrows drew together marginally. The annoying girl was being stubborn, sprouting verbal nonsense when the way she was leaning so heavily against him openly betrayed her exhaustion. As if on cue, her treacherous legs gave way, causing her to sink to the flooded ground. Sasuke lowered himself with her, keeping her cradled in the curve of his arm.

Every single muscle in her body was on fire, felt like it was being twisted between beds of thorns. Sakura panted, frustrated at her weakness. She wanted to recover immediately like Sasuke could.

"I'll be alright," she assured him, her head cushioned on his shoulder. "Just give me a minute."

Sasuke planned to give her more than a minute. As far as he was concerned, her sparring session was over. She had done more than enough, making up for her lack of physical attacking prowess with precise chakra control. She had shown him, quite glaringly, that she possessed great battle potential.

Sakura fought against the heaviness in her eyelids, as she became increasingly conscious of the feel of Sasuke's hard arm around her, of the steady rise and fall of his chest. They were both soaking, but oddly, she didn't feel cold. She reasoned it had to be the way he was keeping her huddled close to him.

"So gods can run out of chakra, too?" Sakura questioned.

"Hn. Only temporarily," came the reply.

"How long until your reserves can start recharging?"

"They've already started."

"Oh." A lock of hair fell irritatingly into her face as she shifted her head. Sasuke's left hand itched with the need to remove it, and he acted before he cared to reconsider. Pushing it nonchalantly aside, his fingers lingered by her right cheek, just shy of touching.

Don't look up, Sakura told herself fiercely. Somehow it happened anyway, and their gazes connected. His eyes were like inescapable, undeniable magnets, drawing her attention to him with an irresistible allure. They were both silent, as if equally reluctant to break whatever was rapidly settling over them with the harshness of words.

That was when something stirred inside her, trembling into being. Like a flower tentatively blooming, Sakura could all at once feel the warmth and connection between them as they continued to stare at one another. She was thrown by the strange sensation, suddenly lightheaded. Time seemed to suspend between them, then, in which all Sakura could see were his charcoal irises, and all Sasuke could focus on were her parted lips.

Somehow, their hands had shifted positions. Her right was gripping onto his left shoulder, and his left hand was grazing her elbow. Sakura felt her pulse quicken, as she registered where his gaze – so raptly - was directed.

He's going to kiss me again, she thought to herself, not certain why she found the idea even more frightening than ever before. Perhaps it was the hush that had fallen over them. The hyperawareness of their drenched bodies, at such intimate proximity to one another. The tenderness in the way he was holding her. The way his eyes had captured hers, the minimal distance between their faces, the mystical spark she had felt inside.

Or maybe it was the fear of not being absolutely certain that her body had the strength left to resist this time.

"Sasuke…" His name tumbled thoughtlessly in a thick, confused whisper from her throat. His eyes dragged themselves back up to hers again, and just when Sakura was certain that he would lean in and press his lips to hers, she saw something flicker across his irises. A flash of fleeting hesitancy that made the air still in her lungs.

Suddenly it struck her, as surely as a bolt of crippling lightning. That was when she saw it. The restraint in his gaze that was keeping the hunger inside chained behind iron bars.

He wasn't going to take another kiss from her, she realised in astonishment. This time… this time, he seemed to be waiting. Almost as if he was reluctant, or uncertain.

Or as if he wanted her to permit it and accept.

Sakura stared at him in muted, numbed shock. It was impossible, she dazedly told herself – impossible that Sasuke had somehow listened to her the last time he'd stolen a kiss. That he would consciously and purposefully choose to alter his actions to override his own desires… for her sake… because he had seen how much the previous incident had flustered and upset her.

Surely she was reading too far into it. The battle had fogged her brain. That just wasn't Sasuke – was it? He didn't care about anybody else's needs and opinions. He always took what he wanted, precisely when he wanted it.

But if that was true, then why was he still holding back now…?

Sakura exhaled, taking the time to really look at him, at every feature in his face, as if she sought to memorise each minute detail. It was as though a veil had suddenly lifted from her vision, and she was seeing with incredible clarity.

She already knew the answer, she told herself, as her gaze returned to those bottomless, heavy-lashed pools of darkness. His eyes had already spoken it to her – everything she needed to know – and they continued to do so, luring her in, enticing her closer with the promise of unravelling their endless secrets. Her heart drummed to a chaotic beat. She was certain he could both feel and hear it, and swallowed thickly, her head spinning, her fatigue all but forgotten as something much more instinctive kicked in. The fear of his closeness evaporated, and all that remained was a humming stillness inside her.

Sasuke's pulse was starting to pick up pace, too. She was wearing an expression he had never seen her direct at him before – a look of incredible sadness, understanding – and something else. The pupils in her eyes were wide, dilated and fully open to him. She seemed fully conscious of what was happening – and for the first time, made no movement or verbal attempt to remove herself from his hold or pull away. He did not dare to alter his position, to make a sound. He was too transfixed by her to do either.

Sakura was barely aware that her back had straightened, that her head had lifted and her right hand was sliding slowly up along his shoulder; that she was starting to inch forward, could feel herself leaning and flowing towards him…

The loud clang of a gate opening was like a rude awakening, causing her to jerk back violently with a stifled gasp as the simulator automatically released the next monster, the inbuilt timer set to override the lever at certain intervals. They both looked up, snapped out of a world that had revolved around only the two of them - to see a much smaller monster lurching out from the shadows. It was green and unsightly, dressed almost comically in armour.

Sakura immediately felt sorry for its fate.

Sasuke sent a hateful glower at the ugly little goblin, cursing its ill timing. The moment that had passed between them was lost. With great reluctance, his arms fell from around her. Sakura released an unsteady breath, willing her pounding heart to settle, as the death deity wordlessly rose to his feet and stepped in front of her. Raising his left hand, he sent a telepathic, gravitational call to Kusanagi, which vibrated in the wall high above – before breaking free, swooping back down into its master's waiting palm.

Sakura blinked. She wasn't just going to sit it out. Not when she felt so on edge, thanks to whatever craziness it had been that had transpired just seconds earlier. It wasn't the time to dwell on it. She had a job to finish.

The sound of water splashing shifted Sasuke's attention to his left, to find Sakura standing beside him. Keeping her gaze on the enemy, she breathed, "I can't let you fight this little guy alone. You might get hurt."

As if. Upon hearing her ridiculous words, he could not keep the contemptuous half-smirk from manifesting itself on one corner of his lips.

Not a single day had gone by when she hadn't thought about it. What had happened all those eons ago still haunted Tsunade's mind. She had made a promise, a vow, to protect her child, to never allow the horrors of the past to repeat again.

Sakura's smiling face drifted through her tortured mind as she sat alone in the secure base. It was soon nearing the end of June, fast approaching four months since her daughter had been snatched from her side. Summer was the time of year when flowers were meant to be in joyous bloom, the skies blue and nature at its most abundant. Instead crops were failing to grow, and those that did, quickly withered. The air was cool at best, and the mortal world was starting to feel the effects.

For how could there be summer, without Spring?

It had happened before, of course. Her thoughts unravelled, winding back to a time that history had long forgotten – but one that was forever imprinted on her heart.

She sensed his coming, heard his sigh before he made himself verbally known to her.

"Here once again?"

His voice behind her was like smooth, liquid sunshine, laced with an undertone of undeniable authority. The voice of a King, all light and justice and strength. It remained perfectly composed, even though the sight of the once proud, unshakeable goddess standing before him birthed great distress in his heart.

She remained silent, standing within the enclosure of the ornamental stone gazebo of her temple, overlooking her fields; fields which were barren and devoid of wheat, given the time of year.

Zeus came to a halt at the stairs to the open-windowed structure.

"The mortals are hungry, Demeter. Many are perishing. You cannot continue to delay the harvest. You know this."

Still he received no response.

There was a pause behind her, as the King of the Gods carefully went on, "I know you still mourn Mekon's passing-"

"You know nothing, Zeus." She finally spoke, her voice dull. Lacking the warmth and vitality and pride he was so accustomed to hearing. "You lounge on your throne, utterly content, possessing everything your heart desires, watching the woes of others without care."

He burst into laughter, much to her surprise. She frowned sourly out at the empty fields.

"Your wounding criticism of me paints a terrible leader, indeed." Smiling, he added, "Hera often accuses me of the same. Maybe it is true."

Despite herself, Demeter felt something twist deep in her bosom. Zeus was anything but an irresponsible and awful ruler.

"We all have faults," Zeus reflected. "Some more grievous than others, but… our purpose must remain constant. We cannot neglect our responsibilities."

"I cannot find it in me," Demeter muttered. "I cannot find it in me to make life. I cannot sustain it alone. The means left me when he departed."

Sandals fell upon stone as Zeus climbed the steps and stood by the entrance to the structure.

"He has been immortalised," his voice was softer. Kinder. "A flower he has become, ever honoured. Cherish his memory."

To her anger, she felt unshed tears burn at her eyes. Of all the gods, Zeus was the only one who consistently saw past her defences. It had been a maddening knack of his ever since they were children – to look at her quietly with those sky blue eyes of his, reading her without fault. Dionysus had taken to looking at her the same way as of late – just the thought of the fool caused a disdainful sneer to curl her lips.

"You think that is enough?" she quietly raged. "You think this consoles me? That he was snatched by Death, before his time?"

"He was mortal. You knew his end would come."

"I want him back," she whispered, the tears blurring her vision. She fought against them, cursing herself for her weaknesses. She had always prided herself to be high above the love of gods and men. The memory of her kind-natured, soft-spoken sweetheart floated through her mind, all silver hair and smiling cerulean eyes. In her golden fields they had sat, delighting in one another, and she had watched him write sonnets and odes, singing serenades in her name. And when night had fallen, they had lain together, beneath the stars, their hearts complete, their bodies and souls entwined.

"I cannot restore the dead," Zeus answered gently. "The realm of the Shades is out of my reach, beyond my power."

Demeter's tears overflowed, rolling down her smooth cheeks. Her chest quivered with the effort to keep her sobs contained.

"Nor can I take the pain away," Zeus continued, walking slowly, carefully, toward her.

She closed her eyes, feeling the loss with every fibre of her being. How could she summon life again? How could she live on, when her heart was so broken?

"But perhaps I can help ease it."

"Nothing can ease it," said Demeter thickly. "There is no life left for me. Love is a fool's game. I will never love again."

"A fool's game it is. But perhaps you will."

She blinked, confused by the enigma of his words and how certain he seemed. Wiping hastily at her tears, she turned to him at last, meting his bright gaze. It was full of wisdom and understanding. There was no sympathy – nothing to ignite her rage and rejection.

He smiled at her, extending his palms. "Give me your hands. You'll see that you still have life in you, yet."

She hesitated, unsure of the point he was trying to make. Nevertheless, she gave him her hands. His fingers closed around her palms, and he smiled a smile so radiant, Demeter felt her heart constrict, as she recalled the joyous laughter of her demised lover.

That remnant of feeling was all Zeus needed to spark the first threads of their shared creation. Golden light glowed between them, growing in intensity and size. A breeze rustled the air, and Demeter's eyes darted to his.


"Think of the most beautiful flower on a summer's day," the King of Olympus urged her. "Close your eyes and envisage its hue. Call it into being."

"I cannot-" she began.

Warmth surged into her hands. Zeus was channelling his energy directly into her, encouraging her to reciprocate with her own chakra signature. "There. I'll help you remember how."

Demeter closed her eyes. Almost immediately, it drifted into her mind – not a flower, but a tree. A fleeting beauty of spring that shed pale pink blossoms. It had been under that same tree, that she had shared her first kiss with Mekon.

She exhaled, her breath trembling as her heart swelled, aching with love. Zeus grinned, as he felt her power surge forth, flowing willingly between them.

That was all he needed. His eyes lowered and concentrated. The light between them flared even brighter, before exploding in a gust of wind and illumination.

When it died down, Demeter felt a strange weight in her hands. She looked down – and gasped in open astonishment.

In a blanket of white silk, the infant stirred. The hair upon the child's head curled softly, was a perfect shade of pale rose, the precise hue of the petals belonging to the tree she had envisaged in her mind.

When the baby opened large, long-lashed emerald eyes to gaze up at her for the first time, Demeter felt her heart melt on sight.

"You-" she began, dumbfounded, gaping at an impishly smiling Zeus. "You created this-?"

"No," he winked at her, turning away to take his leave, knowing that the famine would end at last. Demeter's love had worked its own miracle; he had merely helped her fashion the child, infusing it with the light and grace of the gods.

The lightning bolt earring in his left ear glinted in the late afternoon's sunshine, as he corrected lightly, "You did."

Author's note

A very touchy-feely battle. Since the scene ended up being MUCH longer than I anticipated, I had to split this chapter here. The next one will be a direct continuation and full of the juicy bits I promised would be in this chapter. I know this hasn't moved the plot along other than you finding out about Kore's birth, but I hope it helped show that Sasuke and Sakura are growing closer. The next chapter will have more development between them and also move the plot along considerably.

I'm very aware of the lack of updates and how long it's taking me to chug out chapters. I'm incredibly frustrated and saddened by this, and I hope this isn't causing readers to lose interest. Hopefully the next one won't take as long. Thanks for sticking with this.