This is one of three chapters that I've been so anxious to write since starting on this project. I guess you'll soon find out why. Kukuku.
There are five tracks to listen to at different points in the chapter. Please visit my profile page and make absolutely sure you load the pieces at the indicated points. They'll really help heighten the atmosphere as you read, because this chapter is quite heavy on drama.
Many thanks to the kind readers who continue to review. To the thousands of silent ones; I hope the action of this (very) long chapter will encourage you to communicate your thoughts.
So revolves her world, in ignorant orbit,
Glass spun its walls - they fracture swift,
See how they tremble – brittle and thin!
Against the crash of tides that draw her in,
Death's hand will deliver its lethal blow,
That halcyon orbit – it quivers in the dark!
At the steering of the fissure that jaggedly grows,
And the coming of a Message – take heed! Hark!
Sakura rested her head back against the curved edge of the bath, releasing a tired sigh as her eyes followed the intricate patterns of the moon-painted ceiling above her. The steamy, fragrant water felt so good, soothing away any lingering tension left over from the adrenaline fuelled battle she'd survived earlier.
Thankfully, the remaining enemies they had encountered in the simulator following the Kraken had been insignificant. Sasuke had even stood back and allowed her to finish off two of them without his aid or interference. His unexpected faith in her abilities had given Sakura a fresh, temporary surge of adrenaline and warded off the exhaustion plaguing her limbs long enough for her to get the job done. After the final creature had disappeared in a puff of black smoke, she had felt great pride and a heightened sense of self-worth at her achievements.
Sasuke had then pulled the lever to return them back to the top floor of the training dome. The demolished spiralling staircase had been completely restored, much to Sakura's astonishment. It was part of the simulation, Sasuke had explained to her; everything was reset to its original state once a level was completed.
Heat bloomed into her cheeks, unrelated to the steam from the water around her, as Sakura recalled the way her legs had finally given up on her once they'd reached the top floor. Without a word, Sasuke had swung her up into his arms as though she weighed little more than a feather, paying absolutely no heed to her somewhat embarrassed, insistent protests that she could manage just fine on her own.
'Don't be annoying', he had clipped when she'd initially squirmed in his hold. Those three, short words had been enough to secure her (reluctant) compliance, and Sakura, too exhausted to fuss any further, had spent the rest of the journey back to the upper palace grounds with her head resting against his left shoulder.
The God of the Dead had carried her like the perfect, chivalrous gentleman – something so at war with all of Suigetsu's barbaric descriptions of him. He'd transported Sakura in his arms before, but somehow, this time had felt different. She'd leant into him, and their soaking clothes had made each of them extra conscious of the other's warmth. Sakura hadn't dared to say a word, or to look directly at him. She had kept her eyes dutifully lowered and distracted her overactive mind with thoughts of the terrible encounter they'd managed to overcome together.
Sasuke had deposited her in her chamber, and after giving her a carefully measured dose of ambrosia to combat the fatiguing effects of rapid chakra depletion on her body, had sat back to watch her closely for a while, as if to make sure she was really alright. Sakura's treacherous eyes had chosen that timely moment to roam over him, to take in the way his damp, sleeveless top had stuck to his defined chest and torso in all the right places. If Sasuke had noticed the attention, he hadn't made it apparent. Instead, he had told her to rest and that he would be waiting for her in the drawing room.
Sakura sighed heavily again, closing her eyes as her thoughts continued to branch out. Their fight against the Kraken had put a lot of things into perspective – some of which she had never even been aware of before.
Such as what a fraction of a deity's chakra reserves felt like; immense beyond measure and chilling to the bone – but thoroughly exhilarating.
She'd also valued the importance of quick reflexes and playing to her personal strengths, as well as believing in her capabilities. Chakra control seemed to be where her natural combat talent lay.
The battle had also made her harshly realise something that she'd been too frightened and diverted at the time to dwell upon; something she had never before even considered possible but was now futile to deny.
When Sasuke had disappeared under the water, her heart had been ready to leap out of her chest. It had pounded so hard, so fast. She had been afraid for him, for his wellbeing and safety.
That only meant one thing; that at some unidentifiable point over the duration of however long it had been that she'd spent in his Kingdom, Sakura had begun to care, to view Sasuke as more than simply her captor, a deity, and King of the Underworld.
She was starting to see Sasuke as a person, an individual. And Sakura knew how dangerous and foolish that reality was, how much harder it would make everything if she didn't do something to stem whatever it was that was happening between them. A thick lump formed in the base of her throat as she remembered the moment that had passed between them earlier, when she'd initially collapsed to the ground in his arms. The uncharacteristic hesitancy in his gaze. The way he had waited. The way his eyes had lured her closer, how she had felt herself flowing towards him.
What had she been thinking? That had been precisely the problem, of course; she hadn't been thinking at all. Her body had acted on auto-pilot. Of its own accord.
She opened her eyes and groaned, lifting her hands to grip fistfuls of her wet, freshly washed hair.
This is so messed up, she mentally reproached herself. I'm so messed up. What's happening to me…?
Her brain was struggling to compromise how she could go from absolutely despising, angrily resenting and being terrified of Sasuke at the start, to the tentative understanding and respect that were blossoming into being instead.
That's not all you're feeling, a small voice she didn't particularly wish to listen to whispered. Sakura bit her lower lip unhappily when it didn't shut up at her will. Or maybe it was just that she wasn't trying hard enough to reject it.
What about the way your heart pounds whenever he's near you? It was fear at first… and yes you were a nervous wreck… but he's done nothing to hurt you physically. You know he won't harm you – it's just like Suigetsu said.
What about the way your skin tingles when he touches you…? How much more tolerant you've become of letting him get close?
Stop, Sakura pleaded with the torturous thoughts. She didn't want to hear it – but of course, she knew deep in her heart that it was useless to keep avoiding the subject. At least in the privacy of her mind, she would be honest. She couldn't pretend anymore; as outrageous as the truth was, she was drawn to Sasuke. He was, awful pun intended, drop-dead gorgeous. She'd thought so from the start, had been struck by his brooding, smouldering good looks the instant her eyes had met his at the Carousel ride. And she didn't know what happened whenever he touched her, or how electricity seemed to crackle and flow between them, an unstoppable current that left her pulse racing and her head spinning.
It wasn't just the physical attraction, though. The death deity was so much more complex than the one dimensional character she had first believed him to be, so much deeper and more difficult to decipher and figure out. Now that she knew a tiny fragment of his past, she found herself desperately wanting to discover more. He was like a sophisticated puzzle, a baffling enigma – one that she was finding increasingly fascinating.
Sakura scrubbed at her skin, as if in an attempt to wash away the unwanted emotions that were clawing away at her insides. It was wrong. Everything was turning out so wrong. Not the way she had envisaged or planned at all. And she was starting to lose sight of her original goals, of Suigetsu's words, which had sounded so convincing at the beginning.
She still thought of her friends. Her heart still bled to see her mother. But more and more often, it was Sasuke's eyes she saw when she closed hers and drifted off to sleep. It was thoughts of him that were the last to enter her mind before she lost herself in slumber.
When had that begun to happen? At which point had he started to occupy her personal contemplations so frequently?
She had no answer. The troubling truth at that moment was that Sakura felt completely lost.
'That was quite the battle, Pinky.'
Sakura's eyes widened, her back straightening to a rod as she sat forward with a small yelp, sinking herself deeper into the bath's foamy water. She looked up to find a shiny, spherical bubble floating in front of her and gaped in mortification at the face she saw gleaming inside it.
'Wha- what are you doing up there?!' She telepathically stuttered whilst crossing her arms protectively over her chest and her legs under water to ensure her modesty remained intact.
Suigetsu grinned toothily at her. 'What? You mean this is no good for you? Would you rather I go lower?' He smiled without shame. ''Cause, ya know, I'm sure the view would be much more interesting if I went down under-'
The bubble began to drift ominously lower.
"No!" Sakura couldn't stop herself from exclaiming aloud, sloshing back in the tub. Biting on her tongue, she went on mentally, 'You creep! I'm in the middle of a bath!'
'I can see that,' Suigetsu's lavender gaze twinkled appreciatively at what little he could see of the bare, creamy skin of her shoulders. 'Me and my rotten timing, huh?'
A dismayed Sakura raged in disbelief. 'You can't just show up here like this!' She reached forward, intending to burst the bubble completely by jabbing it swiftly with an index finger. 'Go away, Suigetsu!'
'I really wouldn't do that,' he warned, 'because then I really might have to appear lower...'
Blushing furiously, Sakura ranted, 'You-! You pervert!'
The Ocean God pouted theatrically. 'Aww, come on. I'm pretty sure that if Sasuke had been the one to walk in here, you wouldn't have called him any those things.'
He was right. Sakura would have probably jumped out of the bath completely in a mindless state of panic instead – which would have been a hundred times worse than the awful and awkward situation she was at that moment experiencing.
'Calm down,' Suigetsu continued, rolling his eyes at her embarrassment. 'Seeing your bare shoulders can hardly count as perving out on you, Sakura. You wanna know what really is perverted? The way that bastard was checking your cute ass out when you turned your back on him earlier.'
Sakura frowned in confusion. 'Wait - what?'
'Y'know,' Suigetsu prompted, like a helpful classmate who was encouraging her to cram facts for an end of year exam. 'When you defeated a simulation of one of my ocean pets, the Kraken, and found His Royal Grouchiness in a grumbling heap?'
'You saw that?' Sakura was unable to hide her shock.
The sea deity snorted. 'Give me a little credit, Pinky. Water's my thing, remember?' He seemed to see the dread that scrawled itself on Sakura's face, for he added reassuringly, 'And because water's my thing, there's no way he would've known I was watching, so relax.'
His words did little to soothe her. Sakura shook her head and insisted that he allow her to make herself decent before they conversed.
'I've finished. I'm getting out of the tub.'
'Go ahead,' Suigetsu smirked cheekily. 'I'm sure I'll then completely understand why Sasuke wants you here so bad.'
'Suigetsu!' She blushed scarlet, appalled.
'I'm not going anywhere,' his razor sharp teeth protruded comically. 'Not unless you guarantee that you aren't going to leave the bathroom and avoid me again.'
'I won't. But we're not talking unless I cover up!'
He rolled his eyes and reluctantly conceded. 'Fine, fine, if it'll stop you freaking out. I'll give you a minute.'
'You promise you won't look?' Sakura wasn't sure she believed he wouldn't sneak a naughty peek. His perverted nature rivalled even Naruto's.
'Geez, what do you take me for? I said I wouldn't! Spoilsport,' Suigetsu lamented, before disappearing respectfully from sight.
Sakura cautiously inched to the steps and grabbed the fluffy white robe she'd set near to the bath's edge. Climbing out, she hastily slipped into it, securing its belt tightly around her waist before wrapping a towel around her wet hair.
'I'm done,' she thought out mentally.
Suigetsu's face was quick to reappear in another bubble.
'I preferred the view when you were in the bath,' he teased.
Sakura pointedly folded her arms firmly around her robed body and perched on the edge of the tub.
What he said next set her on edge. His tone was casual – but something about the way his eyes watched her so intently only served to heighten her sense of discomfort.
'So that was a good work out. You really held your own in the simulator, Sakura. I can see that Sasuke's been training you pretty well.'
Deciding it was useless to play games Sakura met his gaze and answered honestly, 'Yeah.'
'You two sure looked pretty cosy out there… a dream team, huh?'
His lips were smiling. His eyes, however, were not.
Sakura was on guard, unsure of the point he was trying to make.
'I don't think-' she started to dismiss, but he was going on.
'And that concern when he fell in the water?' he whistled. 'Wow Pinky. I've gotta hand it to ya. That seemed pretty genuine. You even almost had me convinced.'
Sakura's throat suddenly felt oddly parched. 'Look, Suigetsu-' she attempted to communicate again.
'No, you look.' Suigetsu pointed at her, surprising Sakura with his abrupt bluntness. 'You cut me off rather rudely before, so I'm just gonna go ahead and say what you stopped me from saying the last time. I've been waiting around in this dingy cell for about as long as I can take. You've got the potion, and I don't want any more beating around the bush. It's time to do this. You're gonna pull this off during the next training session you have with Sasuke, got it?'
He made it sound so casual. So simple. And Sakura told herself it ought tobe both those things. But her brain clearly needed examining, because all she felt at that second instead were apprehension and hesitancy.
'You make it sound so easy.' Her eyes burned with frustration and something else.
'And it is easy,' Suigetsu said with forced patience, as if he was talking to a very young and naïve child. 'You spike the ambrosia decanter, and then you wait.'
'You really think he's that stupid? That he won't even realise?' Sakura glared.
'He won't. You'll do it when he's out. He's bound to leave the palace at some point – I'll even tell you when! That's all there is to it. Really Sakura, not even you can mess this up.'
Not taking kindly to being patronised, Sakura averted her gaze, clenching her jaw tensely. Seeing that he had offended her, Suigetsu sighed.
'Okay, alright, look; I don't know what's happening here, or why there's all this unnecessary tension all of a sudden. We're on the same side, Pinky. Have you forgotten that?'
She glanced back at him. 'Are we?' The thought was fired by her mind immediately, weighty and loaded with suspicion. A part of Sakura disapproved that she was letting Suigetsu see her doubts at last. The other part, the more assertive part that she had been paying increasing more attention to recently, urged her to stand her ground.
The water deity looked just as surprised by the open confrontation.
'Are you serious? You're questioning me? When I've been waiting all this time for you to get yourself together?'
Sakura demanded, 'How do I know you aren't planning on kidnapping me, too?'
Suigetsu's eyebrows flew up. 'This again? Why would I get you out of here just to do that? That's just stupid. Not all of us are snatchers and stalkers, Sakura.'
'How do I know you won't lead me into worse trouble than what I'm in now?'
Suigetsu looked genuinely bemused. 'Give me a break; what could possibly be worse than being stuck in this depressing place?'
This time, Sakura was quick to check the fireback thought that had flown into her head. She couldn't tell him that the Underworld wasn't all that awful. It was a place of unparalleled beauty, too. She'd seen its paradise fields and enchanting coves with her own eyes. She looked away again, frustrated. Suigetsu wasn't making things any easier for her. She wished he would just tell her the honest truth about why he was so willing to help her get back to the surface. She knew from past experience, however, that any attempts to prise the information from him would prove hopeless.
'I don't get it,' the silver-haired god shook his head, his eyebrows furrowing together. 'You said you were willing to do anything to get out of this dump. What's changing, Sakura? I mean, is it just nerves, or should I be starting to worry, here?'
Her heart had started to pound. Sakura was profoundly furious at it.
When she stayed silent, he began slowly, 'Call me crazy for thinking this, but it feels like you're having second thoughts.' Waving a hand in the air, he surprised her by continuing with another sigh, 'Thing is, I can't really even blame you. Sasuke's the only person you've had sustained contact with on a consistent basis in this ugly place. He's obviously kept you well fed and clothed and rested. You're confused, I get it; but you shouldn't be. Don't let him manipulate you; it's what he's best at doing. I should know; bastard's done it to me before, too. Stay focused, Sakura!'
'I am focused.' Sakura retaliated, with decidedly more conviction than she actually felt.
'Bullshit. You're getting cold feet on me.'
'You are. It's almost like you're looking for any excuse not to go through with this.'
Suigetsu sneered at her. 'So what else is there? Let me guess. You're starting to grow a soft spot for that heartless ice cube.'
'No.' Sakura answered, but her throat seemed to close up. Suddenly she felt sick.
'No? Then what is it? Maybe you've been here too long and your head's starting to go all loopy. The longer we drag this out, the more you'll chicken out.' He made a comical gesture with his hands. 'You know there's a condition you poor little humans get, where captives start having some crazy, misplaced feelings of loyalty towards their kidnappers-'
'That isn't what this is!' Sakura's eyes flew back to the bubble again. 'You don't understand! Even if I was to leave with you, you honestly think that Sasuke will just let it go? Once I'm back on the surface, you think he won't come after me, that he won't want revenge for stabbing him in the back?'
'Even if you were to leave with me?' Suigetsu's eyebrows rose again. 'I must have lost the memo. Pinky, you are leaving with me. And if the chances of that asshole retaliating is the only reason why you're still worrying so much, then quit it. I've already told you Sasuke doesn't want you dead.'
'How do you know?' Sakura demanded. 'What guarantee do you have that Sasuke won't end my life the second I get back on the surface?'
To her surprise, Suigetsu chuckled – one of open relief. 'Is that what this is really all about?' He snickered. 'And here I was, actually starting to worry that you were starting to give half a damn about that ungrateful son-of-a-bitch.'
Sakura's heart wrenched inside her chest at his words. Luckily she managed to keep her expression composed, despite the pandemonium running rampant inside her.
Suigetsu went on with a grin, 'If he did that, he'd be breaking the rules.'
Sakura blinked. Gods had to follow rules, too? Sasuke certainly didn't strike her as the type to strictly abide by or care much for enforced immortal laws.
Suigetsu looked skyward, as if for patience, rubbing at the back of his neck in exasperation. 'Alright, look. I'll make this really clear for you. Sasuke is the God of Death, right? But he isn't, strictly speaking, Death itself. He doesn't personally collect souls, unless he particularly feels like harvesting a few and sending them on their way on a really boring day.'
'I already know that-' Sakura tried to interject, but Suigetsu held up a palm to silence her.
'Manners, Pinky! As the only one who's left running this place, Sasuke's inherited some… call them 'gifts'… that wouldn't usually be his alone. Stopping heartbeats at will and tearing souls out of bodies being one of them. But that doesn't mean he can just use them whenever he wants, because that really would upset the natural order of things.'
He was repeating parts of what Goddess Chiyo had already disclosed to her, but Sakura listened intently regardless to the clarification she was being provided about what Sasuke could and could not do.
'You already know that the Underworld ruler's purpose is to ensure all souls are judged accordingly and sent to the right resting places. Sure, Sasuke can terminate lives himself if he needs to, like when someone is running on borrowed time, but he definitely shouldn't be killing people out of personal vengeance, especially before it's their fated time. That's against the rules. Even he has to follow the grand scheme of things.'
He paused, before throwing his hands up into the air.
'I mean think about it; if we went around killing every single human who pissed us off, there wouldn't be many of you left, would there? Cursing someone's life with bad fortune is something else though; we have a lot of fun with that,' he grinned.
'So it's forbidden?' Sakura confirmed.
'Yeah,' Suigetsu nodded. 'Bastard's already broken rules by the bucket-load by keeping you in a world that's meant for dead people, and showing you Elysium and everything. But killing you? That'd be on another level, an even bigger infringement of the Underworld's and the entire Universe's laws. He wouldn't get away with that. With you, there'd be serious consequences.'
With her? Sakura caught on immediately, and wondering what he meant, leant forward, arms still wrapped tightly around her front. 'What do you mean? What kind of serious consequences?'
'Lesson's over,' Suigetsu shut off any further questions, much to Sakura's frustration. 'So you see, Pinky, even though he'll be seriously pissed off, he won't kill you. I'll even personally make sure he won't get to you. How's that sound? Once you're back on the surface, you'll be safe. What else is there for you to be so afraid about?'
The sudden twisting, painful knot in her stomach reminded Sakura that Sasuke's anger wasn't the only reason why she was trying to stall so much. But she couldn't confess the other reasons to Suigetsu. He would think her out of her mind. And she was. She had to be positively insane, for a part of her to actually want to learn and see a little more of the Kingdom and ruler hidden from mortal eyes, before she departed the Underworld for good. Because surely the next time she arrived in it, it would be as a dead soul, lining up before the black boat, bound unforgivably to the infernal pits of Tartarus for betraying the mighty King of the Dead.
She fleetingly wondered whether Sasuke would even blink or acknowledge her when her time came. Or whether he'd personally transport her soul to Hell himself. The thought of her inescapable, wretched end if she went ahead with Suigetsu's plan caused her throat to burn and her eyes to sting. She was thankful for the steam that helped to disguise the wetness pooling into her lower eyelids.
No, she told herself. Sasuke wouldn't give her the honour of a personal escort to the flames of agony. Neither would he hear her pathetic pleas for mercy or ever consent to listen to her petitions in his throne room.
He would cast her ruthlessly aside, like any other damned soul – just as she was intending to do to the high favour in which he so clearly held her.
Sakura again remembered the flash of uncertainty in his eyes. The way he'd held her so gently against him. Something inside her wavered.
Inside the transparent, soapy sphere, Suigetsu had grown quiet. He was too disturbed by the unexpected look of sadness he could detect in Sakura's features. What in the world's oceans was she so upset about? He didn't know what to feel more – annoyance, pity, or disbelief.
'Sakura, do you-?' he finally started.
She looked up, alarmed, as if he had snapped her rudely from her thoughts, and was about to respond, when a light knock on the door alerted her to the arrival of her maids.
"Mistress?" Chizu's voice called.
'I have to go,' Sakura communicate hastily, internally relieved for the disruption.
Suigetsu's eyes narrowed in irritation at the bad timing. 'Fine.' He accepted. 'But now that we've clarified everything, you better be ready next time. No more excuses, Pinky. We'll talk properly, without any interruptions. Get ready to deliver on your end when I give you the signal.'
With that, the bubble containing his projected image popped.
After helping her to dry her hair and get dressed, Chizu and Ume departed her room. Sakura stood before the mirror, staring at her reflection. In her distracted state, she'd given a chirpy Ume permission to curl her tresses. Her silky, unbound locks tumbled around her shoulders in soft waves, the heightened bounce and volume flattering her face nicely. Ume had decorated the look with an attractive headband consisting of three gold and pearl pleats which matched the gold leaf earrings adorning Sakura's ears perfectly.
The full-length gown Chizu had selected for her was also rich, gold-spun loveliness, boasting a scoop neckline encrusted with glistening pearls. The straps of the dress were held together by leaves that complemented her earrings, and a similar pleated belt was wound three times above her waist. Her feet were strapped into comfortable, flat gold sandals.
She twisted, examining the way the fabric of her gown swished gently outwards with her movements, then fussed with her hair a little – before abruptly catching herself with a frown. The more she scrutinised the image in front of her, the more uncomfortable she became. It was funny, how she had never even bothered with dresses or her appearance on the surface. Yet there she stood, looking like… well… like a pretty, pampered princess. If only Ino could see her now, could witness the sensational transformation she'd undergone in Sasuke's Kingdom. Her jaw would surely slacken and drop to the floor – before demanding a fancy dress for herself.
Sakura smiled fondly at the thought of her best friend. It was a known fact that girls enjoyed dressing up and looking good for the sake of themselves. But Sakura had never really found being made-up and looking overtly feminine fun. That had always been Ino's department. She'd always preferred losing her nose in a good book instead.
Now, as she gazed at herself, Sakura found herself sadly acknowledging that she looked better than she ever had on the surface. Her complexion, though a little paler than she could remember, nevertheless glowed. She didn't look like someone who was suffering intense emotional pain at the hands of a cruel and stone-hearted kidnapper.
Dressing up had all started off as part of the act; part of appearing compliant in front of Sasuke. But lately she had found herself sifting meticulously in her wardrobe for beautiful gowns to wear, really thinking about what to put on – even to sparring sessions. She was inspecting herself more closely, paid attention to how her hair fell more, made sure everything fit just right.
She had actually started to care about how she looked.
Was it still part of the charade? Or did she want to look good for other reasons? But that wasn't like her. Was it?
What's happening to me? Since when did I become okay with all of this? She worried internally. Suigetsu's right. I've gotten so used to the routine here and adapted so much that everything's becoming cloudy in my head. Her eyes stopped on her mother's necklace, which she still wore faithfully around her neck. I'm… she thought to herself in distress, I'm losing it.
She needed to get a grip; she'd spent long enough in her room; Sasuke was expecting her. Sakura tried to shake off feelings of guilt as she exited her bedchamber and made her way slowly through the candle-lit hallways. She needed to clear her head, to regain her sense of direction. And most importantly, she needed to make absolutely sure she didn't think about any of the things that were weighing on her mind in Sasuke's presence.
The faint sound of tinkering piano keys drifted to her ears as she descended the royal staircase. It was coming from the drawing room. Curious, Sakura hurried the remainder of the steps down. As she entered the room, she found Sasuke seated at the sleek black piano. He had freshened up too and changed into a deep navy blue tunic with alternating gold square patterns stitched into the neckline and the edges of the loose, elbow length sleeves. A long black cloak was wrapped around his shoulders, the expensive fabric trailing to the floor, and slender black strips of material decorated his forearms.
The death deity was playing just as proficiently as she had heard him do so on the previous occasion, his posture composed and elegant. He did not look up at her as she approached the impressive instrument, but Sakura knew he had already noted her arrival. He seemed fully engrossed in the composition he was performing instead. Sakura stood awkwardly for a moment, debating whether to remain in place, sit on one of the arm chairs opposite him, or join him on the plush-cushioned piano stool. There was certainly room enough for two on the spacious bench.
The last thought won out. In a bold move that she never would have even considered before, Sakura took a seat next to him, desiring to get the best view of the way his skilled fingers glided so effortlessly over the gleaming ivory keys. Sasuke gave no visible sign that he minded the infringement on his personal space, his expression as indecipherable as ever. Encouraged by this, Sakura leant forward slightly, her hands folded neatly together in her lap as she watched him play in fascination. He turned his head marginally to the left as if in acknowledgement, but his eyes and attention remained fixed on the clear notes his hands were playing.
Sakura listened in appreciative silence to the beautiful melody as it unfolded, finding herself profoundly moved again by it as she had been the last time. The tune he was playing was just as poignant and sentimental. She wondered what the story behind it was and closed her eyes for a short while, losing herself to the soothing sound, envisaging the tale the emotive notes wove together in her mind.
Two old friends, sitting on a bench together in winter, with hot drinks in hands, nostalgically recalling times long gone. Or lovers separated and after much heart-ache and strife, finding each other again in a most unexpected place.
A child chasing a far-away dream beyond his reach, or a parent who was gone before he could reach them. An old lady freeing a bird from its cage and watching wistfully as it flapped free into the sky.
A grieving widow holding her deceased husband's wedding ring preciously in her trembling hands. A young ballerina, trying to remember the correct steps to her first dance routine.
A baby, walking for the first time, stumbling only to try to get to its feet again and again. The cycle of life from birth to death, starting with light, ending in darkness.
The last one struck a chord within her. Sakura opened her eyes, feeling them well up with tears which she quickly blinked back. It was ridiculous, to be so affected by what he was playing. But she couldn't help herself. The music gave her goose-pimples; it was too enchanting for her not to be moved.
As the piece reached its bittersweet crescendo, her gaze shifted up to rest on the handsome profile of Sasuke's face. Before she knew it, before she could stop herself, Sakura was staring openly at him, and everything else around her faded out of focus. There was only Sasuke and the heart-tugging melody. Her gaze ran along the straight planes of his nose and chiselled jawline. Raven strands of hair partly concealed his lowered eyes from her view. Once again she was taken aback by how someone who appeared so taciturn and distant on the exterior was able to produce a melody so emotionally stirring.
How a being so deadly could also be so tragically beautiful. She was even more deeply troubled by the way she felt something thud deeply inside her chest as she watched him.
This time, however, she couldn't be so sure that it was the music that was solely responsible.
Sasuke had evidently become aware of her sustained staring, for his smoky irises flicked onto her at last as his fingers went on caressing the correct keys from memory. Sakura wasn't quick enough to avert her gaze. Their eyes connected, and she felt her heart jump a little in response, as if it were physically skewered by the weight of his glance. Thankfully, his eyes were swift to slip back onto the keys. The melody reached its closing notes, before Sasuke smoothly ended the composition.
Silence briefly followed. Sakura was the one to break it.
"That was beautiful."
Ever unaccustomed to accepting compliments, Sasuke uttered a dismissive, "Hn."
"Did you compose that one yourself?"
There was a long pause, in which he finally turned his head to give her his full and undivided attention.
"Who did?" she enquired softly.
"…" Sasuke looked away from her, back to his right hand, still resting atop the keys. After another pause, he disclosed, "My mother."
"Oh," Sakura murmured. Sensing the need to change the sensitive topic, she sighed wistfully, "I wish I could play it."
"…" Sasuke blinked. A preposterous idea presented itself in his head. He could teach her… but the words required to communicate the idea stubbornly did not wish to leave his lips. Instead, his hands glided to the first keys in the composition. He tapped them with his index fingers pointedly.
Sakura, who had been watching his hands again, glanced up at him. "Huh?"
She blinked at him, her eyebrows lifting in pleasant surprise. "Really? You'll show me?"
The way happiness bloomed on her features, brightening them at his acquiescence, made something inside Sasuke ache. Her genuine smiles were like precious jewels, great rarities – in the remoteness of his kingdom, they were akin to warm beams of sunshine infiltrating the darkness of the land. He wanted her to smile more; but he did not know how to elicit them. His Uchiha pride scoffed at the notion, at war with the part of him that positively hungered for her approval.
He wondered at what point he had sought it, when her emotional wellbeing had started to become so important to him.
Sakura inched eagerly closer to him, her right arm brushing lightly against his left as he began to teach her the opening notes to his mother's melody.
Sai pulled the dark grey hoody more securely over his head. Even clothed in a thick jumper, black jacket and jeans, he felt chilled to the bone. It wasn't only because the night was a cold one, or because a thin sheen of frost was starting to form on the empty roads.
He knew the real reason his teeth wouldn't stop chattering. Why the feeling of nausea assaulting his stomach stubbornly refused to shift.
He was walking towards what would surely be his demise. He just could not bring himself to believe Kakashi and Naruto's guarantees that he would be perfectly safe from harm. Naruto had a habit of being rather short-sighted and impulsive in the worst situations. Sai still could not comprehend how the knucklehead had been the one to work out Sakura's precise whereabouts.
Shikamaru, he would have expected. Kakashi, or even Jiraiya, yes. But Naruto?
However, Naruto had always been alarmingly accurate when it came to reading Sasuke. That was a talent which Sai himself had always lacked; the emotional capacity to accurately analyse, identify and appropriately respond to feelings.
He was marching towards the unknown; armed with nothing but the message he had been given and the scrolls at his waist. He was fulfilling his purpose of being a messenger.
A purpose that would likely end with his death before the night was through.
The beauty of Elysium was somehow rendered even more captivating under nightfall. Even when cloaked in the blanket of a midnight blue sky, it brimmed with joyous life. Luminous butterflies flittered delicately in the air, accompanied by dancing gold and blue fireflies that shed magical dust. Graceful deer and stags wandered about and exotically feathered birds continued to chirp and sing sweetly from the trees. Those fortunate enough to be favoured by the gods ran through the endlessly verdant, flower-strewn sacred fields, their movements light and free from the woes of their previous lives.
Long, gold tinged blades of grass tickled Sakura's trailing fingertips as she strolled unhurriedly forward, her heart swelling with the happiness that she had once again been permitted to walk in paradise.
Happiness – and a twinge of secret inner guilt that kept gnawing away at her, no matter how hard she tried to suppress it in Sasuke's presence.
The Death God had been remarkably patient with her back at the palace, and after numerous attempts, she'd finally managed to successfully learn the first few notes of his mother's song on the piano. He had then thoroughly surprised Sakura, taking her hand and whisking her to the Blessed Isles of Heaven again to allow her to properly roam its fields long after the cheerful blue skies waned. A full moon shone high in a sky littered with countless, distant, glittering diamonds. The stars were out aplenty, and Sakura was utterly thrilled.
A pleasant breeze stirred her hair and clothing, sending the fragrant aroma of flowers drifting to her nose. Sakura's eyes moved to her right, where she saw a group of four little girls, dressed in purples, greens and blues, skipping with flower garlands in their hands and on their heads, their exuberant faces illuminated with the grace and blessings of the gods. She smiled as they chased after each other, calling and singing in infantile voices.
Sasuke trailed a short distance behind her, his hand resting casually on the sheathed Kusanagi's hilt, nodding absently in acknowledgement at the cheerful inhabitants who bowed and curtsied reverently as they passed him. But mostly his gaze was drawn to Sakura. He could not help it; she was a stunning vision in gold, a beauty so radiant and spellbinding that he did not really blame the dwellers of Elysium for looking at her as she walked in their midst, collecting flowers, bright, multi-coloured blooms laced in her lovely hair.
He didn't know what had caused him to bring her here on impulse. He always planned things so carefully. Their nocturnal visit to Paradise had not been something he'd intended beforehand. And Sasuke obstinately refused to listen to the whisper in his head which suggested that his uncharacteristically sudden course of action was related to the selfish desire to see her smile again.
He positively scoffed at it. He had just supposed that she would like to see Elysium again under the stars. That was all.
Or so he kept telling himself.
The time in Elysium seemed to pass in a joyful rush. Beautiful nymphs approached Sakura, gifting her with even more spectacular flower arrangements. Pure spirited young children took her by her hands and danced with her in a circle. At one point, a little blond-haired girl whispered to Sakura that she wanted to give Sasuke flowers, which made Sakura smile.
"Go on," she encouraged the half-shy, half-frightened child who hid peeking at the tall god from behind the shelter of Sakura's waist. Guiding the girl gently towards a silent Sasuke, Sakura nodded eagerly. "It's okay."
The tiny infant with muddled brown eyes inched closer and closer to the King of the Underworld, who stood with his arms folded, staring impassively down at her. At last she reached him and held up her humble offering; a small cluster of bluebell flowers.
"Thethe are for you, Highneth." She spoke with a lisp, her large eyes anxiously lifting up to look at Sasuke, before her face broke out into a tentative and uncertain smile.
Sakura's heart melted at the girl's cute voice. It was the most adorable sight; a frail infant standing in the shadow of the mightiest of deities. She glanced hopefully at Sasuke, who continued to gaze silently at the child. Surely even he couldn't reject such sweetness?
The inhabitants of Elysium and the Elysian Fields usually steered well clear of Sasuke whenever he patrolled in their midst. They knew he did not accept offerings of flowers, or any other form of grovelling flattery.
Yet it seemed to him that in Sakura's presence, they grew braver. The child's hand was now quivering, and he saw that the longer he did not act, the more the little girl seemed to shrink back towards Sakura.
"Hn," he grumbled, when Sakura's eyebrows drew together in concern for the child. This was utterly meaningless, sentimental nonsense. Yet something inside him twisted; his mother had often walked these fields during her reign and done exactly the same with the children who dwelled in them. He reached down, accepting the clump of blossoms from the girl, who beamed widely and giggled with delight, before turning to hug Sakura in happy thanks. Then, just like that, she was off, running away to catch up to her laughing friends.
Sakura couldn't keep the pleased smile from curving her lips. "See?" she said with a teasing edge to her voice. "It's not that hard to be nice."
Sasuke glowered at her. Just because he had taken the flowers, it didn't mean he was being nice, and he definitely wasn't under any obligation to keep the silly blooms now that the girl had skipped out of sight. He tossed them immediately at Sakura, striking her straight in the head.
"Sasuke!" she exclaimed, shaking them out of her hair. He began to move away with a smug half-smirk – but Sakura wasn't about to let him get away with it. Without hesitation, she aimed one of the many wreaths she'd been gifted at him. He froze when it succeeded in looping over his head, settling around his neck.
Sakura bit down a giggle as his face slowly turned to direct a withering glare at her. She decided it was better not to stick around to suffer the consequences and turned, bolting away from him. In her mind, she knew it was useless. He could catch her in a heart-beat if he felt like it; but that didn't stop her from running. She threw a quick glance back to find that Sasuke had just wrenched the garland off his shoulders and was flinging it aside in utter disgust. She couldn't help the laugh that flew from her throat at the look of abject contempt on his face.
Then his eyes lifted and locked straight onto her, and Sakura read the intent in them even from the distance she had managed to travel away from him.
There was no mistaking it; he was going to pursue her.
As she gripped the skirt of her dress and pushed her legs to speed up, a strange, soaring feeling surged through her veins, leaving her feeling oddly light.
It suddenly struck her that she was actually having fun.
Sasuke didn't need to expend his chakra and flash-step behind her to close the distance between them. Even with a considerable head-start, simply running was sufficient enough to catch her. He was swift to close in, and when he did, she had just reached the summit of another slope.
"Too slow, Sakura," he taunted, reaching out to capture her right arm. Half-laughing, half-breathless, she spun at the final moment to face him as his fingers closed above her elbow, but doing so caused her feet to slip on the grass and lose their footing. With a squeal she fell back and the momentum of her movement succeeded in yanking a wide-eyed Sasuke forward with her too, sending them both rolling into descent down the hill.
Sakura could barely catch her breath; her ribs were aching from laughing so hard. She didn't know what was funnier; how angry Sasuke was likely to be at that moment over engaging in something so immature as tumbling down a hill – or the sight of him rolling unwillingly along with her. The world spun in a blur of grass and whirling stars above them, until at last they reached the bottom, where they lurched to a sudden stop.
Something warm had cushioned her fall. As Sakura slowly lifted her head, she found Sasuke lying beneath her. He was breathing deeply, and flowers had flown from the garlands she wore and tangled into his windswept hair. She couldn't help herself at the ridiculous sight – a petulant, glowering Sasuke with pretty blooms in his raven locks. It only made her laugh harder.
"Sa-!" Her lungs wheezed to inhale air. "Sasuke! Your hair-!" Sakura dissolved in a fresh fit of giggles.
The Death God was annoyed. He really was annoyed. But the sight of her - cheeks flushed from exertion and mirth - thoroughly side-tracked him from his irritation. At that moment, she glowed so brightly, it hurt.
By Elysium; he had never desired to kiss her so damn much. He wanted to reach up, press a hand to the back of her neck, tug her head down and silence her completely.
But Sakura had already pushed herself off him. He sat up in turn, his heart racing despite his furious commands for it to settle. The exasperation finally kicked in as he shook out the remnants of flowers from his hair.
How stupid the whole thing had been- the grumpy thought derailed as he blinked in surprise, feeling fingers that were not his own brush through his dark locks.
Sakura innocently plucked out a flower stem that still remained caught in raven strands. Her hand lingered for a moment, diverted by the realisation that his hair was just as fine and silky in texture as it appeared. Sasuke turned his head, his eyes finding hers. They both froze for an instant at the connection – before Sakura held the offending purple bloom out to him.
"You missed one."
When he only stared, Sakura shrugged, placing it in her hair instead and collecting the scattered flowers she'd picked earlier. Then she rose to her feet, brushing off the remains of fallen petals from her dress. Sasuke followed her as she settled down beneath a golden-leafed tree that provided a perfect view of the star-jewelled sky. He sat beside her, within arm's distance, watching as she began to weave her flowers into her own garland. Fragile butterflies drifted towards them. Sakura felt a wry smile tug at the corner of her mouth when Sasuke waved them away from him with a scowl.
"They like you," she protested, and chuckled when a particularly bold one briefly landed atop the elbow Sasuke was resting against his left knee-cap. The death deity promptly but lightly blew it away, and the group of flying creatures finally flittered off.
Silence fell between them again, but this time, Sakura didn't find it to be an uncomfortable one. Every so often, Sasuke saw her glance up from of the corner of his vision, at the round, silvery moon and the glimmering stars. The smile was still there on her lips. It pleased him to see it remain.
Suddenly she released a deep sigh.
"The sky is so beautiful," she admired. She didn't know whether it was the magic of their environment, or the ambrosia he had given to her earlier working or something else, but she felt relaxed. Suddenly she wanted to talk to him; to tell him more about herself. She hoped it would encourage him to do the same; although there were no guarantees with Sasuke.
"I used to watch the stars all the time when I was younger," she admitted. "I'd make these silly wishes on them." Laughing a little in memory, she finished, "Like I'd want my hair to grow long until it reached my feet."
Sasuke thought it was an awfully strange thing to wish for, and snorted at that.
Sakura went on, slightly embarrassed, "I thought that was the way to become a princess and live in my own castle, like every little girl wants."
"…" Sasuke, she could feel, was now looking intently her way. She trailed off as something suddenly struck her. She was now dwelling in a palace, dressed in the finery of royalty… and sitting beside her was a handsome companion who certainly looked like the prince of any girl's dreams. In many ways, she was living out her younger self's fantasies; except it hadn't quite turned out as peachy and rosy as her child version had anticipated.
She thought that Sasuke must have been thinking along similar lines too, for he was still staring at her.
Awkwardly, she dismissed, "I guess people wish for stupid things when they're young."
He finally looked away. "Hn." It was a mumble of agreement.
As she laced another flower into the growing circular arrangement, Sakura said, "I bet wishes must seem silly to gods. You can make anything you want happen, can't you?"
One corner of his mouth twisted a little. It was a common mortal misconception that deities could give life to anything and everything. "Yes and no," he replied.
She looked at him in confusion. "What do you mean?"
"Different deities have different roles," Sasuke clarified, as he waved another invading butterfly away. "They create things that match their function and purpose. Those that don't are only temporary and eventually fade."
Sakura considered this. "So a sun deity can only bring sunshine – if they try to create rain, it won't last?"
"And if you tried to give life to things, they wouldn't last either?"
His dark eyes slipped back onto her. "Sustaining life is not my purpose."
"But you could bring dead things back to life if you really wanted to do it, couldn't you?"
Sasuke could delay and temporarily prevent death if necessity required and he had the power to send back souls that were to be reincarnated, allowing them to be reborn on the surface. Returning the deceased to their original bodies for no valid reason, however, was an extremely ugly affair. He thought briefly of the unfortunate, zombie-like mortal Cronus had made an example of before his eyes using a technique that was forbidden even to members of his Clan. The dead were not supposed to be sent back to the world of the living. It upset the balance of nature. The gift of life, however, was not his to command.
"Once souls enter the Underworld, they cannot leave," he reminded her. "I do not reverse death."
"But you could send a human back in theory," she prompted, "even if that shouldn't be done?"
"Yes," he conceded.
Satisfied, she looked thoughtfully up at the stars again. "So I guess you never wished for anything at all when you were younger?"
Wishes? They were whimsical and useless; mortal follies. There were some things even gods could not bring to pass. Sasuke thought of his family for a painful moment, of how desperately he had wanted them to be restored to him when he'd initially been overcome with crippling grief at their loss. He had detested and cursed the cruel irony of his powers then; able to direct the spirits of mortals who he cared nothing for, but helpless when it came to reaching the void where immortal souls ventured.
However, Sasuke had had a wish, in an age long past. He'd always wanted to overtake his brother, to be first in line for the throne. He'd wanted his father's and Cronus's acknowledgement, to be stronger, faster and better than everyone else.
It was ironic, that his desire had been granted – but at a significant cost.
He'd been a foolish, naïve young deity. Back then, he hadn't really understood what being King of the Underworld had truly entailed. What kinds of demands and sacrifices it required. His elder brother, in stark contrast, had known it all too well. He understood, now, all too clearly, why his calmer-tempered sibling had been chosen as the heir to follow after his father.
The word tumbled almost bitterly from his lips. "Power."
Startled by his answer, Sakura turned her eyes to him. Of all the things a god could desire, Sasuke had wished for power? It didn't make any sense to her; didn't all deities possess immeasurable abilities by default?
"Power?" she echoed curiously, recalling what she had been told earlier about Sasuke having abilities beyond what would have normally been his to command. "But you already have it."
He did. But the road he'd had to tread to claim it had been a harsh, bloody one. There was so much Sakura didn't know. He wondered what she would think if he told her.
"On that day-" the words felt foreign leaving his lips, were difficult to get out. He stopped shortly. Sakura had grown still, breath withheld at the realisation that Sasuke was starting to willingly talk to her, too. "That day, I gained it."
Although his features remained composed, Sakura saw his hands clench into tight fists, betraying the tension afflicting him inside. She knew which day he was referring to; the image of his past self being dragged into the chasms of the earth was singed into her mind.
Sakura didn't want to push him to say more before he was ready to talk. She waited; when he said nothing else, she sensed the need to change the subject. Finishing off her garland, she slipped it around her neck. Sasuke continued to stare ahead in front of him.
Suddenly, she gasped in delight. "A shooting star!" she pointed up at the sky. "There are even some of those here!" Looking more carefully at the way the stars were arranged, she said, "They're constellations, aren't they?" Her eyes rested on a particular arrangement. "That one looks kind of like a deer."
Sasuke, whose gaze had risen to star-watch with her, blinked. "It is," he replied.
"Really?" Sakura was just as surprised to get it right. "In honour of a great hunter, or something?" she guessed.
Sasuke gave her a look. "Yes." Then, inwardly curious, he pointed at another one. "What do you see there?"
She followed the line of his finger, and squinted. The cluster looked like a box.
"A… cage?" She then noticed there were smaller dots connecting each side. "No. Wait. It's some kind of square…"
"A net," Sasuke told her.
"Oh yeah. I see it," Sakura nodded and gestured, getting a little too eager for her own good. "And that one looks like a horse."
Sasuke blinked questioningly at it, before glancing at her. The cluster looked nothing like the animal…
Sakura muffled a giggle – she had been completely off with that one. "On a horse?"
"There," Sasuke's hand changed direction.
"Uh… it's a fish?"
"Sakura," he lightly censured, unimpressed.
"But it looks like one!" she protested. "See, there's its little tail and-"
"It's a boat."
"Well… they're both related to water," she defended.
Sasuke let out another derisive snort. "That one," he quizzed next, pointing to their far right.
They went on, identifying different constellations, with Sakura guessing – some guesses wilder than others - and Sasuke affirming or correcting her. She asked him questions about individual clusters, what their stories were. Sasuke's answers were concise and to the point – but Sakura was just happy that she was getting responses. She was so engrossed in star-gazing that she didn't even realise that they'd somehow ended up sitting closer together, their arms brushing against one another.
When she began yawning, Sakura thought nothing of it. Her questions gradually grew further and further apart, until a heavy sleepiness began to weigh her eyelids down, causing her to hum nonsensically to the current explanation Sasuke was giving about some mighty warrior.
"That's nice," she mumbled, smiling slightly as blissful slumber crept in, holding out a secure blanket of pleasant warmth which began to fall cosily over her.
Sasuke's eyebrows drew together. He'd just told her the cause of the warrior's death – being torn to pieces by a ferocious tiger. Clearly she wasn't paying attention.
Perhaps it was the physical exertion of the Kraken battle finally catching up to her. Sakura told herself that she would just close her eyes for a few seconds and rest for a bit… just for a little while, and then she'd be as fresh as a daisy…
A soft bump on his left shoulder alerted the death deity to the fact that she had fallen fast asleep. He blinked, looking down at where her head rested snugly against him. She was breathing steadily, a contented little smile on her face.
But even as he thought it, the frown that had been lingering on his features softened at the sight of her, sleeping so soundly by his side.
Clearly she'd had a little too much excitement for one day.
"…" Sasuke's eyes then lowered to where her right hand rested in position on the grass, splayed open between them.
So small. Her wrist was so slender and fine-boned. So fragile. Yet he had seen her toss rocks as if they'd weighed nothing when utilising his chakra against the Kraken.
His fingers brushed gently over her palm. Silently he placed his left hand over hers.
After returning to the palace and leaving Sakura sleeping cosily in her bed, Sasuke departed to the surface, the Helm of Darkness rendering him invisible to the eyes of mortals and deities alike. He had a very specific purpose and individual in mind, and it didn't take his soul-tracking abilities long to locate the person he wanted.
When he materialised, he found himself inside a large, dark, damp cave. South-east of Konoha, he noted, hidden deep beneath an unremarkable mountain. He walked noiselessly forward in the shadows, following the curve of the rocky tunnel into which he'd teleported. A strange smell filled the musty air; Sasuke was unable to immediately place it. Eventually he spied an opening ahead, from which glowed a dim light. The sound of machinery and bubbling water reached his ears as he ventured curiously closer. Stepping through the opening in the cavern wall, he froze at the alien sight that met his eyes.
The area was illuminated by eerie, blue and green light and filled with rows and rows of large, water-filled cylinders, holding all manner of animals inside. Some of them were in worse shape than others. Some Sasuke could not even identify, for they were altered too much beyond their natural states. As he walked through another aisle, he saw, much to his shock, that unconscious humans were being held in the containers, too.
What is this…? His eyes followed the lines of slender tubes attached to the bodies of the scantily clad, sickly looking people, connected to smaller containers outside which churned neon blue and green liquid through their veins. There were incision marks and bruises on their limbs and torsos. Oxygen masks sustained their breathing, connected to canisters next to each glass chamber.
The people ranged from the young to the elderly, men and women and children whose hearts he could see beating – but who were in a comatose state.
It was like a freakish science experimentation lab. But where were the mad scientists?
Sasuke's eyes then caught sight of a naked being completely unlike the others, contained within a larger chamber stored some distance away from the rest. A tall, skinny man – or at least, the death deity assumed it was a man – the reality was that it appeared androgynous in form. The entire thing's body was pitch-black. It was more like a shadow than a person.
Sasuke stared at it in refined disgust. He could only make out holes where the eyes were, and couldn't discern ears, a nose or a mouth. What in the world was it? The plastic tubes sticking out of its limbs were pumping a blackish-red substance. It wasn't blood, the God of Death was startled to realise. The consistency was entirely wrong. It was something else-
"Yesss… you are ready."
His eyes widened as a voice echoed in the space, coming from his far left. He knew that voice. He could recognise it anywhere, anytime, at any place. As he slunk away from the shadowy test subject, the individual he had been seeking rasped on.
"You've disciplined your mind well, Kabuto. Your body is ready to accept the sample."
As Sasuke rounded the aisle he'd been traversing, he found a large work station, complete with computers, monitors and an impressive range of magnifying equipment. All manner of medical equipment and sterilising autoclaves rested tidily on two desks. There were also three large, cuboid blocks of stone, upon which were placed dead bodies. It reminded Sasuke of a human morgue. Suddenly he understood what the unpleasant smell was; decay mixed with strong disinfectant and other more unnatural chemicals.
Sitting on a chair beside one of the stone tables was Kabuto. His shirt was removed, and Sasuke saw strange marks on his torso. Beside him stood the snake Orochimaru, dressed in a black robe and holding a syringe in his hand with green liquid, his serpentine smile widening when the human doctor extended his right arm willingly.
Remaining safely out of sight – not that he needed to – behind the last aisle of test cylinders, Sasuke activated his Sharingan, wanting to identify the nature of the liquid Orochimaru was clearly about to inject into Kabuto.
A poisonous drug. Orochimaru's signature venom – mixed with something else even more sinister. Kabuto was about to accept poison into his bloodstream – and the fool seemed fully aware of that fact, too. Sickened, Sasuke could only listen on, his mind racing frantically to understand just what in the world was happening.
"I know I can tolerate it, Orochimaru-sama." Kabuto nodded. "And if my body accepts it, and we can utilise the DNA from my cells, then we'll be one step closer to merging Black Zetsu with its white counterpart."
Black Zetsu? Sasuke inadvertently glanced back in the direction of the shadowy figure in the glass chamber behind him. He'd seen the white ones that had attacked Tsunade and Shizune before. Did Orochimaru and Kabuto mean to unite the two different coloured species?
To what effect? What were they – and Cronus - planning?
"That is correct," Orochimaru released a rattling laugh. "Just think, Kabuto. You are taking not only the first steps to a breakthrough in the human world, but the first steps to immortality!"
Kabuto began to laugh. It didn't sound quite sane. Sasuke watched, appalled, as Orochimaru lifted the syringe and injected it into the brainwashed doctor's arm. Kabuto laughed the entire way through, and Orochimaru's smile only became even more gleeful. Repulsed, Sasuke looked away – only to spot another opening to their far left.
With Kabuto's manic laughter echoing behind him, Sasuke made his way to the opening. As he slipped inside, he saw humungous shelves lining the back wall of the space. There were eight of them, extending the entire length of the small room. On each shelf were fifteen jars containing colourless liquid.
Kabuto''s laughter had now turned to pain-filled groans. Sasuke blocked the unsettling sound out and moved closer to inspect the jars more carefully. Even as his mind immediately recognised what he was looking at, even as horror kicked in, it still took a few stunned seconds to really register what he was seeing.
In each jar were single or pairs of eyeballs.
Sasuke's heart did something it hadn't done since the day his clan had been massacred. It plummeted straight to his feet.
Sakura stifled a yawn and stretched lazily in bed, staring up at the canopy, her body relaxed. She remembered closing her eyes in Elysium. The next time she'd opened them, she'd found herself back in her room.
I fell asleep when Sasuke was talking to me, she recalled. How had what she'd intended to be just a few seconds of shut-eye turned into a full-blown sleep-fest?
It was the Kraken battle, she knew. The effects of channelling foreign chakra. She sighed as she sat up and got out of bed. Somehow her dress hadn't crinkled in sleep. She distractedly mused whether this had something to do with the handiwork of the skilled nymphs that had woven her gowns.
Smoothing back her hair, Sakura found her thoughts immediately turning to Sasuke. Obviously he had carried her back; where was he now, she wondered?
She mulled over their time in Elysium. She had enjoyed herself there; but why did she feel so guilty about it? Why was it such a bad thing, that she had found their conversation beneath the stars pleasant?
If she remained in her room, Sakura knew she would just guilt-trip herself until she felt sick. She didn't want to think about how she was losing her senses. As she exited her chamber, she met Ume in the hallway, who informed her that Sasuke had left while she'd been asleep to take care of business outside.
Apprehension filled her. Would Suigetsu choose this moment to tell her to execute their plan? After all, he said they'd do so when Sasuke left the palace. She had to avoid anything with water. She didn't want him catching her again so soon.
She went first to the drawing room, where she had a go at re-playing the starting notes of Sasuke's mother's tune. She managed the first six – then pathetically gave up and started making up her own tune instead. It was anything but impressive. Then she wandered through the art gallery, spending a while looking at paintings she hadn't examined before. She returned to the entrance hall, where Chizu told her that the Master had still yet to return.
Sakura huffed, thinking of what to do. Then it hit her with a smile. She'd go and pay her lovely horse a visit. There was a shortcut to the stables from the front of the palace. She'd go that way.
"I'm going to see Eos," Sakura let Chizu know, who offered to accompany her. Seeing the chores the maid had to do, Sakura told her not to worry, and left through the palace's front doors.
As she walked down the black marble steps, she found herself contemplating how familiar everything in Sasuke's palace had become to her. She knew where most of everything was, with the exception of a few doors on the second floor she had yet to investigate and most of the sweeping towers and walkways between them. But she didn't want to go stumbling into such far up places without Sasuke's consent. She certainly didn't want a repeat of what had happened in the shrine room.
Finishing the stairs, she glanced automatically up at the long, tree lined path leading to the palace gates - only to freeze dead on the spot, her heart plunging to her feet in stunned astonishment as her gaze settled on a thoroughly unexpected sight.
Slightly widened, inky black eyes blinked back at her in equal surprise. But they didn't belong to Sasuke; they were set in a face she had never imagined she would ever encounter in the Underworld. A face that belonged to the life she had been stolen away from on the surface.
I'm seeing things, was the first absurd thought to drift through Sakura's head, even when she knew categorically that she wasn't. The individual standing in front of her was no illusion. For a long minute she simply gawked in open-mouthed shock at the alabaster-skinned youth.
Feeling the odd need to dispel the awkward silence, the young man decided to pay her a sincere compliment, offering a mechanical smile that lacked genuine humour.
Whilst she might have been affronted at the impolite term of address under normal circumstances, on this instance the insult sailed completely over Sakura's head.
She exhaled shakily in disbelief. It took her a few attempts to find her voice. Finally she managed to choke out, "Sai?"
She looked remarkably well, Sai thought to himself. An intense feeling flooded through him – was it called relief? Naruto had been right; Sasuke had evidently not hurt her.
"It's a risk," he said solemnly. "But I had to see for myself that you were unharmed."
Sakura's heart thundered. Her head was spinning, thoughts cycling in a dizzying whirl of confusion and turmoil. How was he even there? How had he found her? The incredible relief, comfort and indescribable joy of seeing someone from the surface again – even if it was the strange Sai - was significantly dampened by the terrifying anticipation of Sasuke's imminent return to the palace. She had a feeling he wouldn't be so happy to find her conversing with Sai. Sakura cast a nervous glance down the empty path behind him.
"Sai," she gaped, shaking her head at him in bewilderment. "What are you doing here?" Snapping out of her frozen state, she rushed forward to him. He didn't look like the souls that arrived at the palace for an audience with Sasuke – but she needed to make absolutely sure her eyes weren't playing cruel tricks on her.
Reaching out after just a second's hesitation, she grasped him beneath his shoulders, her fingers closing around the fabric of his jacket. He was solid. "You really are alive," she breathed – which only made the mystery of his appearance even more baffling. "Then how are you here?"
Sai was silent for a moment, before replying softly, "I see. He has not told you."
Her eyebrows drew together. Did he mean Sasuke? But that was impossible. Why would Sai speak of him? How would he even know about the death deity? The Underworld and its king were only visible to the deceased – and Sai was most certainly still alive.
"What? What hasn't he told me?" she echoed, letting go of him at last. "Sai, what's going on? How did you get here?"
"Through the gates," he replied simply.
"But how?" she pressed. "You're not dead."
"No," he agreed. Mentally, he assured himself that he soon would be.
"You mean Sasuke knows you're here?"
The same emotionless smile graced his lips. "Actually, I snuck in." He closed his eyes, his smile spreading.
Sakura was dismayed. He had done what? How in the world had he managed such a thing? Her gaze flicked behind him, even more anxious of Sasuke's arrival.
"Sai," she began, appalled. "How could you do that? Do you realise where you are? Do you even know what this place is?"
"Yes," his eyes opened again. "Being a Messenger, I'm able to enter the Underworld to carry out my purpose."
A messenger? Her puzzlement was growing by the second.
"What are you talking about?"
When Sai just stared blankly down at her, Sakura's frustration at his lack of answers rocketed, and her temper flared. "Sasuke could come back at any second! If he finds out you've snuck in here-!" She broke off. The thought was too terrible to continue.
Sai, however, looked awfully calm and remarkably unconcerned given the real peril he was in.
"How do you know about the Underworld?" Sakura followed, like a journalist grilling a speaker at a press conference. "Who sent you here?"
Then a possibility suddenly struck her, causing her to inhale sharply.
Sai had always been an odd misfit on the surface. She remembered the flower field he had shown her shortly before she had been abducted in one. He'd said something to her about having dreams, drawing the visions he saw.
Did he have some form of divine power, too? As weird as Sai had always been, Sakura never could have anticipated that her classmate might harbour a dark secret of his own.
"Sai," she exhaled, dreading to hear the answer her heart already seemed convinced it knew. Because if her suspicions were correct, then there surely had to others like him living above. "Are you… even human?"
His eyes lowered. "I am sorry, Sakura," he apologised. "It was wrong for me to come this far. I went against my orders."
She wasn't about to let him weasel his way out of it.
"Answer me!" she grabbed hold of his shoulders again, shaking him slightly, her eyes shining with tears. She could feel her fragile composure slipping rapidly. All she could think about at that moment was the people she had left behind; Naruto, Shikamaru, Hinata, Ino, her mother.
Her mother, who had always given her an ambrosia-tasting medicine to suppress the attacks Sasuke had informed her were no medical occurrences.
She hadn't wanted to dwell on how her ever-youthful mother might have gotten hold of the wine of the gods before. Now the only likely conclusion was impossible to ignore. Sakura felt sick to her stomach. If Sai gave her the response she was expecting to hear, then how many more? How many more people on the surface were there, with undisclosed secrets just like him?
"Sai," her voice trembled, her thoughts fragmenting. "You came because you knew that I was here. You knew. You've known the second you showed me your drawing of the field, haven't you?" She was too angry to think straight anymore. "Haven't you!"
"Sakura-" he held up his hands, unable to provide her with the information she so desperately needed. "I-"
"And Sasuke!" she cut him off. "You couldn't possibly know about him or this place if you were human!" Her voice was rising. She didn't care. Everything seemed to be spiralling out of control.
Sai's silence only confirmed her theory, leaving her distraught. She ran a hand stressfully through her tresses, shaking her head in disbelief.
"What's the date?" she suddenly demanded, one of the most burning questions she had been yearning to know taking precedence over everything else for a moment. At his silence, she reached out to shake him again. "Damn it, Sai, what day is it?!"
For a terrible moment, Sai looked like he had lost his voice. Finally he managed hesitantly, as if he didn't understand why she would ask such a seemingly obvious question, "Today is Wednesday. June 25th."
Sakura's heart dropped as her brain rapidly did the maths. She had been kidnapped in early March. It was approaching four months.
She was no longer eighteen.
Her hands slipped from Sai and fell limply by her sides. Sasuke had not even informed her. She found herself wondering about that time, when he had gifted a bracelet to her… had it been a random present, or had he given it to her for her birthday?
Nausea churned her gut. "Oh, God," she said faintly, feeling smothered. Her brain was struggling to process everything; how long she had been in Sasuke's Kingdom for, Sai showing up out of the blue, knowing about the Underworld which made him even more abnormal than she'd initially suspected. Was it possible that she had really been with Sasuke for that long? Should she have really been surprised, when it felt to her like she'd been underground for so much longer…?
"I've been here for nearly four months," she whispered. Her eyes burned from the shocked tears that she refused to allow to fall. Crying would do no good. Sasuke had succeeded in nailing that truth through her skull at the start. But for all the growth she had undergone under his watchful tutelage, Sakura felt at that moment like she was vulnerable and on the verge of falling apart all over again.
"I'm sorry," Sai apologised once more. He seemed genuinely apologetic, which came as another surprise to Sakura. She had always imagined him to be so devoid of feelings. But she had obviously been wrong about him. She had been wrong about a lot of things.
She raised her left palm to her forehead, trying to restore some semblance of order to the chaos ricocheting around in her throbbing head. Freaking out did no good. She needed to calm down and regroup - fast. Sucking in a deep breath, she tried to do just that, composing herself to ask who had sent Sai with a message again.
Sai's heart had started to pound. She had said Sasuke wasn't in; the fact that he'd managed to get so far in the Underworld was testament to that truth. He'd bypassed the boat, instead making his own way across the river using ink-summons from the twin scrolls he'd packed at his waist.
A hazardous idea formed in his mind. If he were to summon a bird before Sasuke returned, then maybe, just maybe, he could take Sakura back to the surface himself. He could be a hero, and finally repay the debt he owed to Tsunade.
He reached out, taking hold of Sakura's right arm. "Sakura. Come with me."
Her eyes widened in alarm as he tugged at her. "What?"
"If we move quickly, we can reach-"
The rest of his words were never spoken. A sudden dark blur intercepted, tearing Sai's grip ruthlessly from Sakura's forearm. Before Sakura's mind could catch up to what was happening, she had been shoved bodily away from her pale classmate and behind the barrier of a broad back.
"Trespassing," Sasuke's voice was hard ice, chilling Sakura to the bone. "Your final mistake, Messenger."
Sakura's breath hitched in her throat. The fury coiling around his body was clearly palpable from the tense lines of his shoulders. His potent, deadly chakra signature pulsated around him, crackling with suffocating ill intent. Sakura's heart had never pounded so hard.
But she wasn't afraid for herself. She was frightened for Sai.
The death deity was livid. He had been caught completely off-guard after seeing the contents of Orochimaru's freak testing laboratory on the surface. And the shocking discovery of the eyeball-filled jars had made him tune out everything else as his enraged and preoccupied thoughts had turned to just how the serpentine daemon filth had acquired copies of his Clan's prestigious blood-limit organs. Each jar had been labelled with the names of different relatives, those of which Sasuke had recognised as having possessed notable Sharingan abilities.
It had been the sight of five empty jars that had caused pandemonium to explode inside him. In that sickening moment, Sasuke had forgotten about Sakura, about everything else.
Sasuke had been so distracted by his dreadful findings, that he had only realised something was amiss in his Kingdom once he had returned to it.
It had been a thoroughly uncharacteristic error on his part. Perhaps he'd grown a little too sure of Sakura's status in his realm. But he had to hand it to the fool standing before him; Sai had chosen the opportune moment to infiltrate his Kingdom; something he could only do because of his role as a news-carrier between the gods.
He wondered just how much the idiot had revealed to Sakura. Sasuke then told himself it didn't matter; in a matter of minutes, Sai would no longer even exist.
Sakura saw the way his murderous gaze caused Sai to flinch back.
"G-Great God," Sai spoke unevenly, confirming to Sakura that he not only knew about Sasuke, but seemed to be on quite familiar terms with him. "I came with a message…"
Sasuke sneered at him. At the gut-twisting moment he'd returned to the Underworld and immediately sensed the Messenger, he'd teleported straight back to Sakura's position, just in time to hear Sai propose leaving his realm with her in tow.
'You came to take her.' He communicated mentally, loading each thought word with venomous hatred.
Sai winced. 'No. I came to tell you that Naruto wishes to meet with you right away. Summoning the courage he needed to complete the rest of the message, Sai braced himself and went on: He and Kakashi know that Sakura is here-'
Sasuke's eyes widened in unadulterated rage. 'You spoke.'
'No! No, I didn't, I swear. Naruto somehow figured it out on his own- he insists that you meet him; he's waiting for me to return. He told me to tell you that if you refuse to speak with him, Kakashi will inform the others of Sakura's whereabouts, and-
The telepathic connection was abruptly and painfully severed. Sasuke wanted to hear no more as his irises bled to crimson, the circle of his wrath complete.
"Sakura," Sasuke intoned, the sudden emptiness echoing in his voice alarming her. "Leave us."
She tensed at the instruction, her eyes darting worriedly to Sai, who, impossibly, seemed even paler than usual. Her hands balled into fists. No! She couldn't possibly leave Sai alone, not after Sasuke had uttered such threatening words. Not when she still needed to understand what the hell was going on, and just how the two knew each other.
Heart thundering, she dared to defy the death deity.
"No. I won't move until I get some answers!"
She saw Sai's eyes widen at her in astonished disbelief, a split-second before a displeased Sasuke rumbled darkly, menacingly, "Then watch him die."
Sakura's heart lurched. Just like that, Sai suddenly tensed, his hands flying to his throat as he began to choke on nothing but air. Sakura gasped fearfully, appalled, as she watched him struggle for breath, his face growing paler and paler, until his lips began to turn an alarmingly bruised shade of blue.
Sasuke hadn't even lifted a single finger. It was a frightening reminder of the fatal power he commanded.
No! Sakura's lips parted in wordless horror. She couldn't believe what she was witnessing. Suigetsu had assured her that gods didn't end lives on a whim, just because they held a grudge.
Evidently, however, Sasuke did not play by any rules but his own.
"Sasuke!" she exclaimed. "Stop!"
But Sasuke did not. His eyes narrowed, a cruel, sadistic smirk twisting one corner of his lips as he toyed with the helpless Messenger's pathetic life. Sai tried desperately to grab at the scrolls at his waist, but failed without the oxygen required to function correctly. He staggered unsteadily on his feet, before buckling to his knees, crippled in position on the ground.
When blood began to pour from his mouth and drip from his nose, pure terror crashed into Sakura.
"Sasuke!" she cried aghast, her hands rising to her cheeks in mindless panic. "Stop it! Please! You're killing him!"
Sasuke's sinister smirk deepened. That was precisely the point.
"I'll end you," he hissed, stalking forward towards where Sai was doubled over on the ground in agony, wheezing, his burning lungs feeling as though they were on the verge of bursting. Lightning energy screeched hostilely to life in the death deity's right hand as he closed in on his powerless victim.
Sai was dying before her very eyes and it was horrendous to watch. Sasuke didn't seem to hear her pleas, or even acknowledge her open distress.
What do I do?! Sakura's heart was beating so fast that her entire body quivered from its pounding force. What could she do?! She was unarmed, and rooted to the spot by panic and a paralysing mixture of sickened horror, shock and fear.
This Sasuke was virtually unrecognisable to her. Never before had she seen this side to him. Even when she had first met him, even back when he had saved her from the harmful harpies in their nest, he hadn't radiated this sheer depth of malicious and murderous intent. Sasuke had always been deadly – but never outright evil. The lethal, malevolent, nightmarish aura surrounding him was black and menacing, aggressive and volatile beyond containment. It was nothing short of petrifying. He was in the mood for destruction, dismemberment. Injuring alone wouldn't satisfy him; he was blood thirsty, out to terminate life.
He was out to kill.
Sai was coughing now, his lungs rattling as he spluttered, drooling blood and saliva on the path.
Sakura's eyes darted frantically from the ominous death deity to Sai's struggling form. Her entire body was quaking. Sudden thoughts of Sasuke, holding her close after the Kraken battle, his touch gentle and quietly concerned, drifted through the anarchy in her mind. It wouldn't match the image of the dangerous Sasuke she was looking at right then.
She thought of Sasuke, pointing out constellations for her to identify, scowling when she guessed outrageously wrong. Her eyes began to well with tears.
She remembered Sasuke's smug, arrogant smirks during their sparring sessions. The way he was by her side the second she felt any pain. The uncertainty in his eyes, the way he'd held her when they'd danced together.
This isn't the Sasuke I know! The realisation exploded in her head and it finally jolted her violently out of her frozen state. This wasn't the Sasuke who had shown her how to play the piano, or the Sasuke who had gifted her with Eos, his dark eyes waiting for her approval. It wasn't the same Sasuke who had played the harp to her and kissed her, who'd horse-raced with her and shown her diamond caverns, or the one for whom she had started to harbour such conflicting feelings.
This out of control monster in his place was wholly unfamiliar to her. And that scared her beyond anything.
He had lifted his right hand, the electricity in it flaring blindingly. Time seemed to move in slow motion as he drew his arm back, preparing to impale Sai straight through the heart.
"NO!" Sakura's scream was blood-curdling. She bolted forward using the only weapon she could to physically halt him – her own body. Her arms opened as she ran towards him, sobbing, tears streaming down her cheeks. "SASUKE, STOP!"
She flung herself at him, throwing her arms around his sides, locking her hands firmly above his midsection as she pressed her face into his back. With her heart, with every fibre of her being, she willed him to snap out of his wild state of blood-lust. She succeeded in trapping his arms by his sides, feeling the freezing, electrifying static of the jags of lightning in his right hand snaking precariously close to her skin.
The tug of resistance caused something to shift in Sasuke's mind. He blinked in surprise, caught off guard, slowly becoming aware of soft warmth behind him. The Chidori stream in his palm flickered, diminishing in intensity as he turned his head left to glance back over his shoulder.
Sakura's left eye stared up at him, red-rimmed from the well of tears she was still shedding. He watched as they rolled down her damp, pale cheeks. She was clutching onto him tightly with all her strength, her body trembling violently against his.
"Please…" she whimpered. Her attempt at speaking was briefly broken by a heavy, sobbing breath that escaped her lips, before she continued in a pleading whisper, "Sasuke. Please… stop…"
He'd been so intent on terminating his prey, so hell-bent on tearing Sai's heart out, that he had almost completely forgotten that Sakura was still there. The sight of her stricken features, the way her terrified body was shaking against him… he exhaled, feeling something inside him wrench.
She was frightened. Of him. Sasuke could see the fear clearly in her weeping, distressed gaze.
Then he became conscious of how precariously close the skin of her bare arm was to the Chidori crackling in his palm. The ebb of lightning in his palm blinked before snuffing abruptly out. Slowly, the red haze that had pulled over his vision began to clear. He only became aware of how far gone he had been when he suddenly came to terms with how hard his chest was heaving.
Sakura's legs almost collapsed in relief when Sai at last managed to take a full breath, gasping and clawing at the ground beneath his fingertips. His entire body was shaking from strain as Sasuke finally relinquished his merciless grip on Sai's respiratory system.
A dreadful, weighty silence hung in the air, mingled with the sound of Sai's laboured attempts at inhaling oxygen and Sakura's lingering sniffles.
When Sasuke finally spoke, his voice was callously cold - and tight with restraint.
"Get out of my sight," he hissed at Sai, who immediately moved to obey, struggling to his feet with great difficulty, too dazed from air deprivation to initially comprehend the astounding fact that Sakura had actually succeeded in changing Sasuke's decision to slaughter him – at least temporarily.
Fresh tears blurred Sakura's vision as she watched Sai stumble unseeingly and unsteadily away. She knew she could do no more; she had to trust that Sasuke would allow him to leave the Underworld unharmed.
The further Sai limped away, the more he felt the function and strength return to his body. He didn't dare to look back, to push his luck any further. His thoughts were consumed with the shocking realisation that Sakura had saved his life.
You live on my whim, Sasuke's voice then stabbed into his mind, sending icy pain searing through him. Set foot inside my Kingdom again and nothing will stop me.
The threat and promise in the words was unmistakeable. Sasuke would crush him if he ever entered the Underworld in future and Sai had the nagging feeling that not even Sakura would succeed in helping him a second time.
Sai nodded, wheezing, too numb to form a coherent response. But Sasuke wasn't quite done yet.
And Naruto… the name was snarled with such intense loathing, that Sai dry-heaved, tripping over his feet before dragging himself up again as Sasuke finished dangerously, I'll be waiting.
Wow. I think this is my longest chapter yet. Worth the one month waiting time, I hope?
Lots of drama to be had in this one. I've been itching to include the Forest of Death hug in the context of this story. Did we like it?
I felt slimy writing that Kabuto and Orochimaru scene. Yuck. And poor Sai. I felt sorry for him as I wrote Sasuke completely butchering his oxygen supply. And poor Sakura! I wanted to capture her fear – but the courage she had to call on to stand against Sasuke's undiscriminating wrath. Because this blood-thirsty, unstable side to Sasuke is very real – as evidenced in the manga!
The next one will feature a long overdue argument between Sasuke and Sakura. Their relationship is really on the up from this point onwards, as well as the long awaited reunion between Naruto and Sasuke, where you'll finally learn more about the deal with the Essence sealed inside Sakura - and why she's been sheltered so much. Stay tuned!