Thanks for all the feedback for the last chapter. Hope you enjoy the character development in this one.

Chapter LXXVII

So journey on those Chosen by The Fates,
To the Land of Earth with its mountainous gates,
Tension rising, bridges burned,
Give way to important lessons learned,
In the ancient catacombs of the deep,
Lurks an evil in the mountain steep,
A stand to take, to end all ends,
To his sworn enemy, his hand extends.

Sitting in the passenger seat behind Sasuke, Sakura quickly came to realise, was nothing like sharing a bike with Naruto. It was anything but casual and relaxed. Where she had grabbed the sides of Naruto's clothing firmly without a second thought, she barely dared to grip onto Sasuke's leather jacket, overtly self-conscious of holding onto him too tightly or in a manner that might come across as inappropriate.

She wondered if he felt the same way about carrying her on his vehicle, for any time her hands happened to rest instinctively onto his shoulders to retain balance whenever he took sudden sharp turns or veered in a certain direction, she felt him tense, as if equally as sensitive of her proximity, as if he did not wish to be touched. Sakura's heart never ceased its steady canter within her chest, and she hated the way butterflies seemed to flitter so agitatedly within the depths of her stomach in response to being so close to him.

He didn't speak to her, of course, not like Naruto had exchanged easy conversation when they'd travelled together. The memory of their fight in the cavern still haunted Sakura, filling her with unease and a sense of helplessness. Had Sasuke truly intended to seriously maim Naruto? How had he not even acknowledged her words and attempts at stopping the scuffle between them? What else could she possibly do to try to bridge the gaping chasm of a gap between them all? Ever since the fight, Sasuke and Naruto had been even frostier to one another, and the sun deity had finally stopped making jibes at him altogether. The newfound silence was unsettling, but Sakura desperately hoped it meant that Naruto had finally taken the hint and decided to be more tactful, to allow Sasuke the time and space he needed to come to terms with things at his own pace.

They continued to travel onwards, passing through increasingly mountainous ranges. The gargantuan, natural structures loomed like stone titans ahead of them, brown with caps of white in the distance. The ground was similarly rocky in terrain, with grass and rolling hills nestling the narrow roads that afforded travel into and out of Earth Country. The noticeable drop in air temperature confirmed that they'd transitioned into a new geographical location and climate.

It rained a great deal, the skies mostly a monochromatic, dull grey that split often and released what Sakura initially thought were hailstones - only to be informed by Kakashi in one of their brief stops at a service station, was actually a naturally-occurring phenomenon in the region known as Rock Rain. The consistent wind that blew through Earth Country's mountain ranges collected tiny deposits of rock that ended up falling from the sky as small stone particles. Sometimes the unusual weather would affect neighbouring countries, too.

They drove on, covering steady ground, eventually reaching an ascending road that passed over a raised hill of land. Sakura was forced to wrap her arms around Sasuke's midriff to prevent herself from falling backwards. She bit her lower lip, heat blooming, unbidden, into her cheeks when her linked hands brushed against the hard, toned muscles of his abdomen. She tried to busy her mind, thinking of anything else but how it felt to be pressed up so closely at his back, wondering how it was that she still felt such an intense physical attraction to him after so many months apart. As soon as they reached the top of the slope, she was quick to draw her hands back to his sides, clutching onto the fabric of his clothing once more.

No other creatures attacked them on their way, something Sakura was grateful for, though the continuous threat that hovered over them filled them with anticipation of the possibility of another unpleasant ambush at any given moment. Still they kept their eyes open around them, having no clue what horrors their enemy would conjure up for them next.

On the morning of the eighth day of their trip, Sakura awoke early before dawn to find the small, warming fire they'd lit was still burning strongly. They had taken refuge for the night in a cave beneath a rocky hill which contained a natural tunnel that led into smaller, off-shooting caverns. As she sat up and glanced around, she found that Naruto and Kakashi had still not woken up. She tried to roll over and fall back asleep but restlessness soon got the better of her, leaving her feeling irritable and uncomfortable. Finally accepting that she would rest no more, she rose quietly to her feet, grabbed her sword and reasoned it was a good time to practice sparring alone. Perhaps it would help to calm her anxious thoughts. Stepping carefully around Naruto and Kakashi's slumbering forms, she entered the long tunnel that would lead her into another enclosed space, following its curve until she came to the exit - only to press herself against the wall, her heart leaping into her throat when she found that it was already occupied.

Sasuke stood with his back to her, flinging kunai into circular targets he'd illuminated with lightning-infused rings of shadow against the walls. She watched, in fascination, as the steel weapons indented with remarkable accuracy into the rock, thrown with such force that they stabbed deeply into the walls. He then leapt fluidly into the air, performing an aerial somersault, and threw four kunai outwards, before using a further four whizzing shuriken to change the projection routes of the first set of weapons he'd tossed, causing all eight to flawlessly hit the centre of each target.

"Wow," Sakura breathed to herself in awe, momentarily forgetting that she was hiding from view, so transfixed was she by the speed and grace with which he seemed to dance in the air. No sooner had the word left her parted lips, she flinched, as the loud clang of whistling metal embedded into the wall inches away from her face, flung there by Sasuke who had landed back onto his feet and hadn't even so much as turned to look at her. She gulped, exposed, and had no choice but to slink out into the cavern, her pulse immediately quickening at the realisation that she'd caught his attention.

"Why are you here?" he questioned.

"I couldn't sleep." Clasping her hands nervously behind her back, she watched him retrieve the kunai and shuriken he'd thrown for a moment, before blurting out unthinkingly, "Could you show me how to throw them like that?"

Sasuke paused, fingers on the handle of the weapon he'd been about to yank out of the wall. He then pulled it out, causing the shadowy target to dissipate.

After a weighty pause, he quipped shortly, still not turning around to acknowledge her presence, "No."

Sakura blinked, surprised at the swiftness and bluntness of his rejection.

"What? Why not?" she demanded, perplexed. He'd never objected to sparring with her when they'd been in the Underworld together. She knew a lot had changed since then, but what reasons could he possibly have for refusing a short training session while they both waited for the other members of their team to wake up?

"Not interested," he dismissed, tossing one of the retrieved kunai in his hand up into the air before catching it again effortlessly.

Sakura stared at him, stunned. Then she scowled, glanced back at the kunai he'd yet to retrieve behind her, and yanked it out of the wall.

"How about this?" she challenged him. "Put that target up again. If I manage to throw this kunai anywhere onto it, you'll agree to teach me."

Sasuke paused once more, and then did turn to angle an unreadable glance back at her over his left shoulder. Sakura's heart skipped a beat when his dark eyes settled briefly onto her. Then, without a word, he lifted his left hand, and Sakura felt a tugging sensation - a second before the kunai went flying from her grasp and returned to his.

She gulped, realising with a sinking sense of disappointment that he had no intention of indulging her request. Frustrated by his continued frostiness toward her, she wrapped her fingers around the hilt of her blade and before she could even second-guess what she was doing, yanked her sword out of its scabbard and advanced toward him. Perhaps it was the lack of sleep that made her feel reckless enough to approach him so directly. Or perhaps she had simply lost patience. Maybe training, she told herself, would allow her the opportunity to communicate with him better.

"One sparring round, then. If I get a hit on you, you'll teach me."

Sasuke exhaled scornfully at that, scoffing at her, as if he found her request ludicrous, and turned away from her once again. Sakura clenched her teeth. Why was he not taking her seriously? Refusing to back down, she followed after him, hurrying forward until she managed to slip in front of him, forcing him to halt once more.

He regarded her with cool detachment, but she could tell from the slight knot in his brow that he was losing patience. Sakura stood her ground, staring defiantly back at him. He'd not said a word to anyone since his fight with Naruto, and she'd all but had enough of his bad attitude. All she was asking for was one short training session. Why was he being so stubborn and difficult about it? He'd had no qualms about engaging in dangerous combat with Naruto. Why couldn't he spare a few minutes to train with her?

"One round," she insisted. "I came to train too, but isn't it better to train with a sparring partner?"

"..." Obsidian eyes narrowed at her, and one corner of his mouth curled upwards to form a faint sneer. "Yours is Naruto."

She stared at him in confusion. "What...?"

"Go bother him," came the icy reply.

She folded her arms, frowning. What did Naruto have to do with her request? Why was he bringing him into it? "He's still asleep," she retorted.

"Hn. Too bad." Sasuke didn't just sound disinterested. He sounded downright bored.

She bristled. Just what was his problem? Why was he being so rude all the time, even to her? "I don't want to ask Naruto," she replied indignantly. "I'm asking you. You were my first teacher and I want to spar with you. What will it hurt, one fair fight? If I drop my sword, you win."

He glanced at her aloofly for a moment. A second later, she felt an icy, liquid coldness wrap around her arms and calves and before she could register what was happening, she'd been dragged down to her hands and knees onto the ground, instantly incapacitated, her sword sent flying from her grasp. Her heart raced, and she blinked in stunned surprise, glancing at her wrists to find shifting coils of rippling shadows snaking around her arms. A glance back at her lower legs revealed that he'd summoned pulsing dark tendrils there, too.

"You dropped your sword," he intoned.

"That's... that's not fair!" Sakura protested, unable to wrench her hands from the ground as the dark wisps held her immovably in place. "I wasn't ready!"

Sasuke unsheathed Kusanagi and stabbed it inches in front of her face as he crouched down before her.

"A real fight is never fair," he informed her flatly. "It took me a second to disarm you."

He tilted his head, observing with interest as Sakura gulped, suddenly all too aware of the way the shadows seemed to glide like cold silk over the bare skin of her calves, promising herself that she would change out of her shorts and back into her jeans as soon as she returned to her backpack. Heat pooled into her cheeks, as she recalled the dream she'd had of being in the nightclub with him, the one she was certain he'd somehow overseen. Was he doing this on purpose to make her uncomfortable, because he enjoyed watching her squirm? Or was he just trying to make the point that they were both already aware of; that he was so much stronger and faster and more powerful than she was, no matter how hard she trained?

"What's wrong, Sakura?" he taunted. "Too weak to break free?"

She bit her tongue. His words stung, and she bowed her head for a moment, swallowing back the sudden lump in her throat. No, she told herself fiercely. She would not let him mock her.

"If I'm so weak," she answered softly, "then why are you so opposed to one sword fight?" Lifting her eyes to direct a determined glare at him, she added, "One sword fight, on level ground. You don't use your speed, Sharingan or your elemental abilities. Just one round of regular sparring."

He raised a dark brow. Level ground? She wanted him to go easy on her? Silently he wondered why she was insisting so much on training. A part of him was reluctantly curious to see what she thought she could achieve. Even if he sparred with one hand tied behind his back, or blindfolded, Sakura still stood no chance of winning.

"Give me a fair chance," she pressed. "If I lose, I won't ask you again. I promise."

He seemed to consider this for a moment. Then he rose nonchalantly to his feet, and the shadows holding her down dissipated into mist. Sakura exhaled in relief, and stood up. He wordlessly lifted his sword and adopted a ready stance, signalling his agreement to her request.

Great idea, her inner voice congratulated her sarcastically, sending a torrent of nerves jangling through her. Way to rope the God of the Dead into a sparring session that'll end up with you being destroyed.

No, she reassured herself. I can do this. She'd improved enough over the many surface months she'd spent training in swordplay to be confident that she could at least manage one hit, provided Sasuke didn't flicker away to avoid her. A fair and level fight. She could hold her ground and use it as an opportunity to show Sasuke how much she had grown. She didn't expect to win. He was far more experienced in battle and the art of wielding the sword than she was, after all. But it would prove to be good practice for her, nonetheless.

They circled one another slowly. Sakura watched his feet carefully, trying to remember what his fighting style was like. Fast and aggressive. Like a striking snake. Anytime she had seen him move in battle, he'd done so with the aim of taking down any threat as quickly as possible, hitting them like a devastating lightning bolt before they had time to react. She knew she couldn't afford to take her eyes off his feet.

When it became apparent that he was holding back and waiting for her to attack first, Sakura made her move. She jabbed forward with her sword, aiming straight for his side. He parried easily, twirling his sword elegantly with his wrist, continuing to prowl in an unhurried circle around her. Sakura resisted the overwhelming urge to look up into his face, even as she felt the weight of his stare upon her. Gripping her sword with both hands, she stepped forward again, directing a swipe at his midriff. Sasuke brought his blade down to block her, steel scraping against steel, and Sakura felt the vibrations run along her arms as her sword absorbed the force of impact. Abruptly, he pushed her sword away.

Again they circled one another. Sakura's eyes never rose above shoulder level as she sought an opening. Could she get behind him, somehow? Naruto and Kakashi had taught her some tricks to achieve back attacks. With adrenaline coursing through her veins, she advanced, swinging her sword steadily, eyes furrowed with concentration as she angled different attacks at him. Sasuke deflected blow after blow, letting her come at him.

Why was he just defending, she wondered? She'd asked for a fair fight - not an easy one where he wasn't even trying.

Then, all of a sudden, he caught her blade against his own, and Sakura was met with impossible resistance. She lifted her eyes to his, surprised. It was almost as if he had read her thoughts and suddenly decided to put some effort in, had momentarily stopped playing games with her.

"Who taught you how to break out of genjutsu?" he demanded.

She blinked at him. The abruptness of the question caught her off guard. "It was mostly Kurenai and Kakashi-sensei," she answered.

His eyes narrowed at that. Whatever thoughts he had, he did not share.

Sakura then aimed a kick at his shins. He evaded, twirling swiftly around her, before bringing Kusanagi down toward her head. Sakura spun quickly and lifted her arms to block the attack, parrying his sword away, then aimed another stab at his side. Once again he dodged her attempt, bringing his blade down close to the hilt of her own.

Sakura snatched her hand back and jumped aside to evade it before lunging at him, throwing as much power behind her next attack as she could. Sasuke deflected, striking her blade at an angle that sent Sakura's arm awkwardly to the side. She had anticipated this, however, and when he directed a follow-up lunge toward her ribcage, she pivoted to avoid it and grabbed hold of his wrist, stabbing upwards with the point of her blade toward his shoulder.

Sasuke fluidly ducked and caught her ankles, sweeping her legs out from beneath her. Sakura lost her grip on his arm and tumbled, rolling quickly aside to avoid being caught in a vulnerable position on the ground. Scrambling back up to her feet, she advanced on him again, and they exchanged a steady sequence of blows. Her heart pounded in her chest, and a sense of exhilaration filled her. She was managing to keep up with him, to defend correctly, to choose attacks that forced him on the defensive.

When Sasuke aimed toward her legs she read it, parrying his blade aside. When he directed a swipe at her head she dropped low, answering with a jab toward his abdomen. He then caught her sword-arm in a vice like grip and she blinked, stunned to see the smug smirk that played upon his lips. He pulled her forward before she could react, pressing a hand to her shoulder which he used as leverage to leap gracefully over her. Sakura hissed in pain when she felt the base of his boot connect with the middle of her back, throwing her forward.

She shook off the pain, recovering her balance, and whirled, charging at him again, striking at his feet. He defended against each one of her attempts and caught the end of her sword with his foot when she stabbed at his ankles, stunning her for a few brief seconds, leaving her vulnerable above the waist. Then, without warning, he reached out and jerked her forward, hauling her around before pinning her free arm behind her back as he bent her over, his sword arm pressed ruthlessly down against the back of her neck.

Sakura gasped, breathing heavily, shocked to find herself caught in such a compromising and awkward position. He had a firm grip on her free arm and had bent her over forwards in a way that made any movement of her upper body challenging.

"Yield," he ordered.

Sakura grit her teeth. No. She wouldn't panic! She knew how to get out of an attack like this one. She had to drop low and use the power in her lower body to force him to release her. She abruptly dropped to her knees, the momentum of her weight falling pulling Sasuke forward, and then kicked viciously back at his legs. He was forced to relinquish his hold on her arm to evade and she followed up with an angry lunge, aiming straight toward his neck. He batted her sword away and they exchanged another flurry of blows, before clashing metal rang in her ears as Sasuke's sword lifted, locking against her own, bringing her attack to a sudden stop.

She stared up at him, wide-eyed and breathless. His onyx gaze narrowed at her.

"Your footwork is improved," he surprised her by acknowledging. "But you're still too slow. Sakura."

"Wha-?" she started in confusion, but wasn't given the chance to absorb his words, for Sasuke had released her sword and was now advancing toward her, his attacks growing progressively faster blow after blow. Sakura's eyes darted wildly, up, down, left, right, trying to keep track of his movements. But his strikes became faster and harder, and it became all too apparent to her just how much he had been holding back - until the movements were almost a blur. Her arms trembled with the effort to parry away such powerful, aggressive blows. She saw the warning flash of crimson in his eyes right before her back hit against cold, jagged rock and a second later her sword had been sent flying out of her grasp.

She gasped when a second later, the sharp end of Kusanagi was pressed under her chin, forcing her head to tilt back. Sakura gulped, lifting her eyes to meet Sasuke's. She raised her hands, signalling surrender, her pulse racing. He had switched from barely trying to savage and dangerous in a heart-beat, and hadn't even needed his speed or elements to assist him in turning the tide so easily.

His eyes narrowed, and he stepped in closer, angling her chin up further with the tip of his blade.

"I told you." She watched, riveted, unable to drag her eyes away from his, as his Sharingan receded back into bottomless pools of steel-flecked onyx, those enticing dark eyes trailing unhurriedly, almost contemplatively, over her features, as if searching for something within them. "Ask Naruto."

He practically spat the name out. There was almost a challenging glint in his eyes - one that Sakura didn't comprehend.

She released a shaky breath. "Why are you so horrible to him?" she whispered. "Do you really think any of this is his fault?" Shaking her head as much as she dared, she added, "Were you really trying to kill him, Sasuke?"

Something incredibly harsh flickered across his coal gaze - before his expression walled off completely. He stepped back, drawing his sword away. Sakura watched, willing her thundering heart to settle, as he retrieved any weapons he'd left behind and left the cavern a minute later without saying another word to her.

If the tension between them had been bad before, it was even worse following the sparring incident. Sasuke still refused to talk to any of them, and Sakura fumed to herself, trying to think of how she could possibly open communication between them when everything about his body language screamed that he wanted to be left alone.

On the fifth day of their drive to Earth Country, they took refuge in another forest and went out in search of the river indicated on the map nearby. Parking their bikes and hiding them behind some branches of leaves, they walked through the undergrowth, and found that it soon opened out into a large, grassy field. Sakura gasped in delight as she lifted her eyes to the dark night sky. It twinkled enchantingly with stars, flawlessly clear, without a single obstructing cloud in sight. The full moon shone bright like a glorious milky halo. It seemed the drizzling gloom of the previous day's weather had finally cleared.

As they walked through the field, Kakashi indicated a stream up ahead and moved with Naruto toward it to catch them some late supper. Sakura splayed her palms open by her sides, enjoying the tickling sensation of the long blades of grass against her skin. She glanced across at Sasuke, walking a measured distance to her left, to find that his face was also angled up to the sky.

The death deity's eyes rested upon the constellations set against a midnight canvas, and for a brief moment, he recalled his mother, the fair Goddess Nyx, who had commanded the very element of night itself. Pearls had always adorned the silky straight locks of her rippling, glossy ebony hair, and she had worn crowns that had shone with starlight. He recalled the days of his childhood, when his mother had taken both him and Itachi up to the surface to gaze at the heavenly bodies blazing distantly in the night sky. She had patiently taught them both the names of each of the constellations, and delighted them by creating new ones in their honour before their very eyes, a celebration of the great, eternal love she bore for her children.

Sasuke swallowed back the bitter taste in his throat, tried not to dwell on the constricting tightness and longing ache in his chest. He had not thought of Mikoto in a long time. Was it any wonder that her memory haunted him right then, with everything that he had come to discover on the course of his journey with Team Seven so far?

He dragged his gaze away from the sky, crushing any wistfulness that lingered, and did not raise his eyes to the stars again.

Later that night they sat around a campfire, where Kakashi slow-cooked the fish they'd caught. Sakura stared into the flames, watching pensively as the sparks danced hypnotically above the burning embers of wood. They were almost on the tenth day of their journey and she could feel travel fatigue starting to creep into her bones. She missed her warm bed, her mother, Ino, Shizune and Hinata. She missed the comforts of home. Sakura supposed they were all feeling the same way - even Sasuke surely had to be missing the Underworld.

She directed a discreet glance at where he sat on a log, away from the centre of their camp, leaning back against the trunk of a tree, his arms folded, eyes closed. It almost looked like he was sleeping, but Sakura knew better. Soon, he would rise and leave the camp to patrol around the area alone.

Would this finally be the night where she summoned the courage to follow after him? The sparring incident weighed heavily on her mind. He had closed off the moment she had asked him about Naruto, and Sakura was growing increasingly desperate to try to get through to him another way.

She ate her supper of dried bread and fish, finishing with an energy bar as a simple sweet treat and made small talk with Naruto. Lifting her phone to her eyes, she sighed when she saw that she still had no reception. She hadn't been able to message her mother and friends for several hours, though Kakashi had called them from the last service station they'd stopped at to reassure them that everyone was well.

After supper, she sparred with Naruto a little, focusing once more on her foot-work. When they'd finished their round of training, she spied Sasuke getting up from the corner of her eye, leaving camp as she had anticipated he would.

Naruto, who would ordinarily have made a disparaging remark, remained uncharacteristically subdued and silent. It seemed that something had shifted since their last confrontation. Whether it was for the better or worse, Sakura couldn't yet quite tell. They'd not spoken a word to one another since.

She stared after him a moment, hesitating once again, just as she had all the previous times when she'd debated whether to tail him. Then, slotting her sword back into its jewelled scabbard, she took a deep breath, steeled herself, and moved determinedly to follow.

She wasn't going to back down this time, she resolved. Not until they spoke. Not until she got some kind of response from him. The stifling silence had dragged on for long enough and she couldn't stand the smothering tension any more, the feeling that she was constantly walking on eggshells around Sasuke, not knowing exactly where she stood with him, and where he stood with them. If the sparring incident had taught her anything, it was that she needed to stand her ground. He was her assigned guard. It wasn't like he could hurt her. What was the worst that would happen if she kept on pushing? He could send her to sleep. That was a kindness in comparison to what he did to others who crossed his boundaries. The murderous look in his eyes when he'd been about to impale Naruto was proof of that.

"Sakura-chan...?" Naruto called uncertainly after her, standing automatically to follow. Kakashi's hand caught him by the shoulder, and the sun deity turned his head, blinking at their mentor in confusion. Kakashi shook his head slightly, indicating that he give them both space. Naruto swallowed thickly and slowly sat back down.

Sakura kept her eyes fixed firmly on Sasuke's back, her heart drumming in her chest as she wove through the trees, following him into the night and deep into the heart of the forest. There was no doubt in her mind that he was aware that she was behind him. Glancing over her shoulder, she saw the distant flickering of the campfire glimmering through the thicket behind her. It was too late to turn back.

When she directed her eyes back ahead, she blinked. Sasuke had vanished. She continued onward, only to draw to a frustrated stop. She'd only looked away for a matter of seconds! Where had he disappeared to?

"Sasuke?" Her gaze darted between the trees, trying to locate him. But he was nowhere to be found, and her shoulders slumped in disappointment, as she cursed herself for taking her eyes off him. She ought to have known better. He needed only a heartbeat to blur out of sight, and was capable of melting away into the shadows themselves if he didn't wish to speak with her.

"Sasuke!" she called out in dismay.

Nothing but the rustling of leaves and the quiet chirping of crickets reached her ears. She took a deep breath, and attempted to open communication telepathically with him.

'Sasuke,' she tried again, willing herself to be patient. 'I know you can hear me. Please come out. I just want to talk.'

A humming silence met her mind. Sakura raked her fingers through her hair, stressed at his stubborn refusal to answer. Why…? Why did he have to be so damned difficult and infuriating and impossible to deal with?

Reining in her irritation, she tried another approach. 'I know about the Curse seal. I know that Orochimaru can spy on you through it. Is that why you've been avoiding me, why you won't even talk to me? You're acting like we barely know each other. That isn't fair, Sasuke. You can't ignore me forever. I only have four more months left on the surface. We'll have to talk eventually.'

She waited. As she expected, there came no reply. Determined to say what she had in mind, Sakura continued on, undeterred. If he didn't want to respond, then she could do nothing about that. The only thing she could control was what she said to him. There was no way he couldn't hear her. They'd been able to communicate so easily back in the hotel, and she knew the seeds had to be responsible for allowing them to do so seamlessly.

'Or are you still angry because of the way I left? I know you don't trust me after what I did. I know what I did hurt you. But you did so many things that hurt me, too. Things that have permanent consequences.' She turned, searching in the dark. 'We've both made mistakes.' Her hands closed into fists. 'But Sasuke, this needs to stop. We need to move past all that and work together. Because this isn't just about us anymore. This is about so much more than us. This is about stopping Cronus, and saving humans and ourselves from extinction. You heard what Zeus said. Cronus is our real enemy. He's the reason I was kidnapped in my first life, he's the reason why the war happened and why your clan all died.'

Her mind and ears strained, hoping to pick up on any slight sign that he was listening to her.

'Please,' she implored. 'We can't let him win and enslave everyone in an eternal illusion. What kind of world would that be for any of us? I know you don't like Naruto. I'm not asking you to like him, or Kakashi-sensei. And if you want to hate me now, too, then... I can accept that! I'm just asking you, please, to work with us to stop that monster. You want to avenge your clan, don't you? Now that we know the truth... we can stop him together. We can avenge them, together! I know you don't believe it... but Naruto cares about your well-being. Kakashi cares about you. And I...' she telepathically faltered, her heart skipping within her chest as she acknowledged, 'I care about you, too. And I know the other surface gods don't know you that well, but I know that you're nothing like Cronus.'

High above ground, dark eyes widened marginally at her words, watching her intently from his concealed position perched upon the leafy bough of a tree. Why had Sakura left camp to follow him? It was already enough that he was forced to share a motorcycle with her. He didn't want any close proximity beyond that. His gaze narrowed, tracking her movements, as she drifted around some more trees, trying to seek him out. She wasn't like Naruto, easy to ignore. He could silence her verbally, but they shared a unique connection, courtesy of the seeds he had so foolishly offered to her in ignorance. They share a mental link that he could choose not to answer - but could not entirely sever. Her voice filled his head, and every word rang crystal clearly, permeating, unstoppable.

She cared...? Did she truly expect him to believe she meant that? He rose to his feet, ready to swoop back down to the forest floor like a hawk.

Sakura walked around another tree, before coming to a stop again. She released a tired sigh.

'Aren't I, Sakura…?' Came the echoing answer in her mind at last.

Her heart jumped into her throat. He had heard her. He had listened! She dared to hope against hope that somehow, her words had resonated with him. She felt the telling ripple of changing air pressure behind her, followed by radiating warmth and swallowed. Inhaling deeply, she turned, to find him standing there, his dark eyes glinting in the moonlight like burning hot black coals. They seemed to blaze through her, searing in their intensity.

She lifted her chin. 'No,' she telepathically answered. 'You aren't. I know it.'

He tilted his head almost mockingly. There was a coldness in his gaze, a frostiness that set Sakura on edge.

'You forget,' he mentally responded. 'The same blood flows through my veins.'

Sakura shook her head. Neither one of them moved any step closer to each another, but they did not step back, either. 'You're not the same. He's a monster who doesn't care about anyone but himself.'

Sasuke blinked at the irony of her words. Had he not been the same, when he'd chosen to take her from the surface? Disregarding all wants except his own? When he'd fed her the pomegranate seeds from his hands, knowing full well they would damn her - because he had desired to bind her to him, irrespective of her wishes? Or had she forgotten all about that?

'When I took you,' he reminded her coldly. 'I did not care.'

Sakura regarded him for a moment in silence. Then, carefully, she stepped toward him. He immediately took a step back, a clear indication that he wished to maintain the physical distance between them.

'You were alone for so long,' Sakura replied. 'You weren't the same as you are now. So much has happened since then. You've gone out of your way to help me so many times, when you didn't have to. You gave me Ino back. I know you're nothing like him. And now I think- I think that Cronus must have done something to you, too. And if he did, then Sasuke…' she shook her head again. 'That would mean you're a victim in this as much as your clan were. So please. Work with us.'

When he tensed and turned his face away, she rushed on, 'I… I know it sounds crazy, but I can't help but think now that maybe we were meant to meet again. I know the circumstances haven't been right, but maybe we were meant to help each other get our memories back. Zeus said that you can help me unlock mine. Maybe, somehow, we can help you get yours back, too?'

Sasuke blinked, refusing to meet her hopeful gaze. She was asking him to do the unthinkable and work with them? To trust them? The very surface gods who despised him as much as he loathed them?

He didn't want their help. He didn't want anybody's help. He didn't want to listen to her but was powerless to stop her words from seeping into his mind. Instead he stood, simmering inside. She pretended to understand him, now? Why? What had changed her outlook? Why would he believe any of her words, when she had already stabbed him in the back before?

She had no idea. And yet what made him angriest was knowing that she was right, about so many things. He had gone out of his way for her sake, more times than he cared to count. He had done things his past self never would have even contemplated, taken great risks - all with the intention of doing whatever was necessary in order to rid Sakura of the seal placed upon her. He had been alone before he met her - starved on any company other than his subjects and the dead who feared him. And the same thoughts had crossed his mind - that it was perhaps no coincidence that they had met at all.

He had changed from the time when he'd abducted her callously, without a care for how his actions would devastate her. He was all too aware of that, and how displacing the feeling was. How out of his element and how out of control he felt around her. And despite telling himself that he would maintain his distance from her over the duration of the quest, he had not been able to stop the panic that had seized him when she'd had another attack. His body had reacted of its own volition, sending his heart pounding and a sick, nauseating dread knotting in his stomach. These were emotions he had never experienced before Sakura. The pressure of knowing that her very survival rested in his hands was at times overwhelming. It would take just one moment for something to go wrong - and what would happen to her then? What would become of Sakura if he failed?

She seemed to be thinking along similar lines, for her long lashes lowered and she swallowed thickly. 'I don't know how much time I have left, Sasuke. Even with your protection, and with all your best efforts, I might die anyway.' His head was quick to turn back around at that, and she felt his eyes fix onto her again. 'And if you forcibly keep me alive or bring me back from death, I might not be the same.' She continued. 'I've accepted that. I've accepted who and what I am. I don't want to waste what time I do have left, fighting. I don't have any time to waste. If we're going to find a way to break my seal using what we now know, then every second matters. So please...'

Sakura took a shaky breath and walked toward him once more. She didn't know why she felt so nervous. Perhaps it was the awareness of just what she was asking of him, the magnitude of it, dawning upon her. She was asking him to place his faith in her. A faith she had willingly tossed aside when she'd chosen to betray him. Could he see past the hurt they'd caused each other? Could he find it in himself to let it go?

When he did not step back, hope crested within her as he allowed her to draw close enough to reach out to him. Placing a hand lightly onto his left arm, she entreated, 'You may not trust me, but trust that we do want to work with you, and we want the same thing you do - to take Cronus out so he doesn't hurt anyone else. You know he has to be stopped, because if he manages to pull his plan off, that'll affect even the Underworld, won't it? I've seen you rule, Sasuke. You're fair. You look after your Kingdom. You wouldn't let harm come to it, I know you wouldn't. I've seen your world. I want peace for it, and for you, too.'

He released a barely audible, quiet breath. His eyes held hers, scarcely believing what he was hearing. She claimed to care? Wanted him to be at peace, too? She was willing to put what had happened between them and move forward for the sake of the greater good? How very noble and righteous and how very like Sakura, being so selfless, thinking of everyone but herself.

She failed to understand - that even if she could find it in the goodness of her heart to put aside all the hurt he had caused her, how could he ever find it in him to forgive himself for what he had done? How could he forgive himself if the repercussions of his selfish actions were what led to her permanent passing?

Sakura blinked, catching the startled, almost incredulous look that danced across his eyes. Within her chest, her heart was frantic. It struck her that Sasuke had made many exceptions for her. Would he make one more, if she reassured him that she did care for him? If she could somehow convince him that she meant every word in earnest? Less than two weeks into their mission and in his presence, she knew she could no longer fool herself. Even despite everything he had done to her, even despite how cold he was and how infuriating he was, she did care. She cared about his opinion. She cared about his well-being. It pained her, to know how conflicted he had to be with everything he had discovered. Knowing how much Madara had manipulated his family and caused him such suffering. Beyond all reason and logic, despite everything that had happened between them, she did care. And she believed, wholeheartedly, that he had goodness in him. She had seen it with her own eyes. He had intended to take her back to the surface himself. In the end, he had chosen to do the right thing - even if it had been far too late.

She blinked up at him, open and sincere in her expression, her eyes glazed with unshed tears. 'I told you, Sasuke. I didn't lie about wanting to know about you and your Kingdom. I don't want anything bad to happen to it, or to you. Cronus doesn't care about you or the Underworld. If he escapes Olympus, don't you think he'll come to your Kingdom first? Take everything from you? I don't know how you got the Curse seal, but… I'm afraid of what it means. I don't want it to be used to control you, somehow. Isn't that the kind of thing Cronus would do?'

He searched her eyes, the expression on his face a blend of confusion and disbelief. 'After what I did to you?' he expressed dubiously. He suddenly looked almost angry. As if he could not fathom how she could wish him any kind of well, when he had committed such terrible acts against her freedom. His hands closed into fists, and he stepped away, pulling out of her reach, turning his back abruptly to her, everything about his body-language expressing that he could not accept her words.

Sakura bit her lower lip. Her eyes lowered sadly. 'We can talk about the seeds after the mission. I know it's not the right time or place now. But I... I mean it. I want to move on from what happened when I left the Underworld. You've answered for your crimes and are serving out your punishment. Those seeds have already saved my life. It's done. Neither of us can change it. We have to move on and focus on the bigger picture now.' She clasped her hands together tightly. 'I know... that wasn't the real you who attacked Naruto. You're angry. You've had a lot to take in. But you're better than that. You're better than just hatred. I know it. I've seen it.'

Her eyes lifted, detecting the tension lining his broad shoulders. She didn't know whether her words were the right ones. But they were all she had left.

'Maybe you feel all alone... but Sasuke... you don't have to be. Let us help you. We're all going to have to work together to remove my seal, so… please. Let's move forward and not waste anymore time fighting. We can't take on Cronus without you, and you can't avenge your clan without our help, too. Please. Let's just set aside all our differences for now. So much is at stake. So much more than just my life. If there's any way I can help stop him in time, then I-'

She broke off, tears stinging her eyes, unable to finish the sentence.

A long, heavy silence hung in the air between them.

"Go back to camp," he finally said aloud, his tone quiet, but ringing empty in her ears. Before she could say anything else, he had flickered out of her sight.

Sakura's shoulders slumped. Somehow she was certain that he was no longer in range, and really had left her this time. Her eyes blurred with miserable tears. She had tried her best. She had tried her utmost to reach him. To reason with him. She didn't know what else she could possibly do. Feeling dejected and defeated, she turned away and trudged slowly back to camp.

Sasuke rested his head back against the trunk of the tree, watching the night sky. Thoughts cycloned in his mind, clashing together, at odds with one another. He wished, as his eyes came to rest on the moon, that he could be rid of them all. It would have been kinder for him to have faded from all existence, to have died on the day his clan had perished.

But Itachi had clearly intended for him to live, to have asked others to look out for him. His mother had pleaded with him to survive and to endure. To build his Kingdom, to gain strength and wisdom and power… to avenge their clan.

He had always believed that the target for his retribution had been the surface deities. Now he saw that it was Uchiha Madara himself who was the main perpetrator.

Sakura had asked him to put aside their differences to work together to find a way to undo the seals placed upon her, and to defeat Madara. She was depending on him. When was the last time he'd had anyone rely on him that way?

He closed his eyes tiredly. Her words haunted him, stirred emotions within him he wished he could rip out of his bloodstream. She claimed to care about him. The ache in his chest was unbearable. He didn't deserve such words, or her goodwill. It would be so much easier if she hated him - and yet even if she did, nobody loathed his actions as much as Sasuke did himself.

No matter how much he tried to push her away, she was determined to bridge the distance between them, still attempted to reach out to him. Why? After everything he had done to her? After everything she had said before she had left him? Why would she concern herself with his Kingdom, his welfare, his well-being, why would she wish for vengeance for his clan, too?

He didn't understand her. At least with Naruto and Kakashi, his anger was clean-cut. With Sakura… any anger he tried to hold onto with her ended up being directed at himself. It was unsettling, her effect on him. Unnerving how he could not shut her out. The way her words reached him, compelling him to lend her his ear. The way she looked at him with eyes that were so clear and earnest, even if he dared not believe her words. How could someone so inherently good care for a being who had done such damning things to her? How could she still see good in him?

His eyes opened, following the pretty scatter of constellations. Once more, the memory of his mother filled his mind.

'Do not forget us. Do not let our Home fall to ruin. Please: this is your family's final wish. Protect our honour. Live. In living, one day, you will avenge us.'

His mother's penned words, ingrained forever in his memory, aligned with Sakura's plea not to allow his world to be affected by Madara's plans.

Madara, who had prioritised Olympus over the very realm he had fashioned and breathed life into from the depths of chaos and darkness. Because the Underworld served humans, allowing them to reach their final resting places - whereas Olympus was the seat of power from which to rule over humanity. Sasuke had no doubts that Madara cared little for the Kingdom he had once ruled over. With the Uchiha clan gone, he had to regard it even less. After all, the only reason he had fashioned it was with an ulterior motive in mind. To win favour that would lead to him ruling Olympus - only things had not worked out as he had intended.

Sakura had said she no longer wished for them to fight. Could he really put his dispute with the surface deities to one side long enough to break the cycle on her, and to defeat Madara once and for all? If he was to truly avenge his clan, then Sasuke knew it wasn't something he could achieve alone, especially if Madara happened to awaken his own Rinnegan. The death deity did not trust the surface gods. He did not wish to be used by either side against the other. But he could not ignore the threat of Madara. His actions would disturb the Underworld, the surface, the oceans. No place would be safe from his twisted schemes.

Could he work with them? As his brother and cousin had? Was that the right thing to do? He ran tormented fingers through the raven strands of his hair. How was he meant to know what the correct course of action was? In his mind, the surface gods were the enemy. And yet everything he had discovered contradicted them being the main culprits who had initiated the war. Nothing was as he had believed it to be. He had been misled about so many things. How many more hidden secrets lay in store for him? How many more could he take?

He was no hero. He never had been. He concerned himself only with his Kingdom and its subjects, and yet, since he had abducted Sakura to his world, so many more burdens had been placed upon him. He couldn't turn his back on Sakura. Above all else, he was responsible for her now that he had bound her to his realm.

Was forming an alliance with the surface gods what his mother would have wanted him to do? Would his father have approved? Had they known of Madara's true intentions, too? If Sasuke sided against his last remaining ancestor, would he be able to avenge his kin, and lay all the ghosts of the past to rest once and for all? Would it finally bring him peace? The peace he had been unable to find for over two thousand years?

Could he really rely on others in battle? He, who had been solitary for so long, who was used to carrying all his burdens alone? Could he accept support and aid from the very deities who had marched against his family, and offer them the same in return? Could he put his hatred for them aside and prioritise the greater threat - when the scales of life and death and Sakura's very existence hung in the balance?

The hooting of owls in the night and the rustling of leaves in the breeze were the only responses his anguished, troubled mind received.

On the tenth day of their journey, they finally reached the third relic site just after noon. They came to a stop by a large cluster of mountains. It was once again raining small stones, and Sakura stared glumly at them as they scattered onto the ground. She was so done with Earth Country's bad weather.

Their travels had been undisturbed, but that only filled her with greater trepidition. The enemy was surely plotting a bigger, more devastating attack. There could be no other reason why they had been allowed to reach their third destination without any further obstructions. Sakura had the disturbing mental image of monsters being cooked up somewhere in a grotesque lab, as the enemy prepared to unleash hell upon them. She hoped they could obtain the remaining relics before that happened.

"We'll have to continue up the mountain trail on foot," Kakashi informed them, leading them to an area where they dismounted from their vehicles. Sakura got off the bike, her eyes darting briefly onto Sasuke as he left it leaning against the base of the mountain. They hadn't spoken after their exchange in the forest. It didn't seem anything had changed, or that her words had had any effect on him at all. The death deity still kept to himself, shutting them all out, and Naruto and Kakashi let him be, though Sakura could tell how much discipline it was taking Naruto to keep quiet. She wondered whether Kakashi had spoken to him at some point, which explained why the Sun God had chosen to give Sasuke space and dropped antagonizing him altogether.

"Sasuke," Kakashi turned his gaze to the death deity. "Can you hide our vehicles and belongings here so that they can't be found until we return?"

The death deity's dark eyes flicked onto him, and he gave a brief nod of acquiescence.

"We should travel lightly up the mountain." Kakashi instructed. "Everyone, take only your ambrosia with you. Sakura, your water, too."

Sakura nodded, making sure that her arm-braces were fully equipped and that she'd taken enough spares in her supplies pouch. Once they'd collected their canisters and water, Sasuke wordlessly lifted a hand. Sakura watched in silent amazement as shadows rippled from his outsplayed palm, covering the bikes and the backpacks they left behind. She saw them vanish before her very eyes, cloaked from sight.

"How do we know which one it is?" Naruto squinted up at the behemoth structure towering ahead of them. Its peak was concealed behind a thick cloud of mist.

"We don't," Kakashi mused blithely, closing the map he'd been inspecting and tucking it safely into his pocket. "It could be any one of these mountains."

"You're kidding me," Sakura complained. She hated walking uphill, and the path looked steep, narrow and perilous.

"Maybe the wall will open up like the ground did in the desert," Naruto suggested hopefully as they slowly began to ascend up the trail.

"Keep Sage Mode on. Maybe we can pick up on something," their mentor said.

"Got it, Sensei," Naruto nodded.

Sakura gripped onto the rock face as they walked in single file, adopting the same team formation of Kakashi leading the way and Sasuke keeping watch from the back. The rock-rain kept falling, pelting against their skin. The debris was only small, and it didn't hurt as much as irritate Sakura.

"Does this rain ever end?" she huffed.

"Tourists come from all parts of the world to see this natural phenomenon," Kakashi remarked, a twinge of amusement in his voice at her displeasure.

"I've seen enough of it," she responded in a mutter, and kept her head bowed to avoid any pieces falling into her eyes.

They continued along, trekking steadily around the face of the mountain. It was a harsh terrain and the path grew progressively narrower, until they were shuffling sideways along it. Sakura gulped as they climbed higher and higher, eying the dangerous descent of the cliff's edge. The temperature plunged and the wind speed picked up, sending loose strands of her hair whipping across her face. The stone debris began to mix with liquid rain, merging to become a strange combination of rocky-sleet. Soon the wind began to howl, lashing rain angrily at them.

"Kakashi-sensei!" Sakura cried over the tempestuous onslaught of wind and rain. "We can't go on! It's too dangerous!" Stones crumbled from the thin path, plummeting over the edge. Her heart lodged in her throat, seeing just how high up they'd climbed. A fall from this height would surely spell death under ordinary circumstances.

"Naruto!" Kakashi glanced back at Naruto. "Can you sense anything?!"

"Nothing!" Naruto yelled.

"We can't turn back!" Kakashi shouted.

Sakura turned her eyes to the sky, gasping when she saw that lightning was now rumbling above them. The weather had become increasingly hostile the higher up they had ventured. Was that only a coincidence, or did it suggest that this was indeed the correct mountain?

Sakura screamed and Naruto yelled in alarm when a bolt of lightning suddenly struck the mountain-face directly in front of them, sending a great clump of rock flying off.

"Whoa!" Naruto exclaimed. "Did you see that?!"

"Yes! This must be it! This is part of the barrier to keep unwanted visitors out!" Kakashi called over the howling zephyrs.

Slowly they inched along. A mighty gust of wind almost sent Sakura toppling sideways. Sasuke's hand immediately shot out, steadying her. She threw him a grateful look before continuing onwards.

"Wait!" Naruto focused. "Wait! I can sense something now! Where that lightning hit the mountain, -ttebayo!"

"Here," Kakashi summoned chakra strings, extending them back down the line. "Wrap these around yourselves. If one of us falls, I'll anchor these strings to a point that'll hold."

They wrapped them around their waists and hiked on, battling against the elements with great difficulty. Once Naruto almost slipped on wet rock and fell. Both Kakashi and Sakura reached out to grab him. By the time they had circled up to the point where the bolt of lightning had struck, Sakura was chilled to her bone, her teeth chattering from cold. There was a large opening in the wall, irregular and jagged, and through it they could see nothing but darkness.

"What now?" Sakura yelled.

"We go inside," Kakashi said.

"Jump through there? It's pitch-black, dattebayo!" Naruto squawked in alarm.

Sasuke peered into the shadows. Even his eyes couldn't discern anything inside, which indicated a steep fall into an unknown abyss.

"No way in but this," Kakashi shrugged.

"Wait, wait, Kakashi-senseiiiiiiii!" Naruto howled, as their elder leapt fearlessly through without hesitation. The chakra-string connection became taut and pulled them all in after him, and they plummeted through the freezing dark, falling through what felt like threads that tore around them, until they finally came to land in a bounce on something soft and sticky.

"Gahh!" Naruto panicked, pulling his hands away from the strange substance. "What is that? What is that?! Gross!"

A rustling, scurrying sound met their ears, causing them all to freeze in place.

Kakashi summoned a small spark of lightning, which illuminated their surroundings, and sucked in a sharp breath.

'Everyone, quiet!' he ordered telepathically.

Sakura's jaw dropped at the horrific sight that met them. A nest of gigantic spiders was hibernating around them in thickly spun webs. Their bodies were a shiny, purple-black, their hairy black legs thin and grotesquely long. Each spider possessed a set of eight, round, shiny black eyes. Their mouths were horrific, unnatural, sprouting a pair of sharp chelicerae.

Sakura's entire body crawled as she realised, with a mounting horror, that they had landed straight onto layers upon layers of silk-spun cobwebs. She inhaled, about to release an instinctive shriek of disgust - only for a gloved palm to slap over her mouth, muffling the sound. She blinked, and turned startled, wide eyes to a glaring Sasuke, who lifted a finger to his lips, signalling for her to stay calm and silent. She gulped down her scream and nodded, prompting him to slowly remove his hand.

The hanging webs around them merged together to form an ominous looking, sticky tunnel ahead. Sakura tried her best not to hyperventilate at the horrendous sight. She could handle all manner of creatures. But humongous, hideous spiders were another level of monstrosity entirely. Everytime she looked up at their huge, fat abdomens and beady eight eyes, she felt sick to her stomach.

'Gross!' Naruto's internal voice echoed. 'What the hell is with these things?! Why are they so big?'

'Rhox spiders,' Kakashi communicated to them telepathically. 'Flesh-eating. Their bites are poisonous but their eyesight is terrible.'

Sakura swallowed, feeling no more reassured by the information. Terrible eyesight? Why did she feel like those eyes were staring straight into her soul?

'We're going to have to make our way through their web. Fire is their weakness.' Kakashi notified them, tugging the chakra-strings from around their waists. They vanished at his will.

'C-can't we just set fire to this whole thing?' Naruto questioned. 'Wouldn't that be quicker? These spiders are freaking me out!'

'These webs are flammable and the only thing keeping us suspended. That tunnel's the only opening around here and must lead the way toward the third relic. We need to go through it and only kill whatever attacks us. This way.'

'Oh man, dad…' Naruto whinged to himself. His father really knew how to pick out and place monsters.

Keeping their eyes on the spiders, they slowly and carefully moved toward the mouth of the webby tunnel, and stepped into it. It was thick enough to hold their weight. Kakashi carefully hacked and slashed at dense threads of web to remove any obstructions in their path. Their eyes soon adjusted to the darkness, as the threads of the webs glowed with an eerie, pale purple light. Sakura gripped her sword nervously, sticking close to Naruto in front of her and grateful that Sasuke was only a step behind her.

'What if there are spiders inside this tunnel?' Naruto posed the horrifying question that sent a shiver coursing down Sakura's spine.

'Keep moving,' Kakashi instructed.

The webs seemed to be getting thicker and thicker, more intricately tangled. They soon came to an intersection where the single path broke off into three separate openings.

Two huge spiders were scurrying toward them from two of the openings.

"Incoming!" Naruto exclaimed out loud, forgetting all about communicating telepathically. The spiders emitted a high-pitched, echoing screeching sound and quickened in their movements. Sakura gaped at them in horror, watching their legs move in a manner that looked distorted and unnatural.

"Run!" Kakashi urged, reverting back to open communication now that their cover had been blown. They raced as fast as they could down the unoccupied tunnel, slicing the threads of silk away, but the webs beneath their feet were sticky and difficult to maneuver through. Sakura tossed a wild glance back over her shoulder to find that the spiders were chasing them, pincers clicking menacingly, able to move much more swiftly over the cobwebs on eight legs than their two legs could. Her eyes widened in terror. They had almost caught up to Sasuke.

"Sasuke-!" she gasped in warning.

"Keep moving!" Sasuke commanded her, pushing her forward. Naruto reached back to grab her wrist, hauling her along behind him. She saw a blast of flame as Sasuke summoned a ball of Katon. It slammed into the spiders which released a piercing shriek of pain, and immediately the cobwebs were set alight. Thick smoke billowed around him and Sakura's heart dropped to her stomach when her eyes lost all sight of him.

"Sasuke!" she called, panic spiking within her. Icy dread shot down her spine when another spider broke through the burning webs behind them, its pincers clicking together loudly. Still there was no sight of Sasuke.

"Naruto!" Sakura cried. "I can't see Sasuke!"

"He'll be fine!" Naruto reassured her, yanking her to the right, into another tunnel as Kakashi slammed Chidori into the underbelly of another scurrying spider ahead of them before slicing its abdomen open with his sword. Thick, poisonous black liquid spurted everywhere, burning away the webs, filling the air with a rancid stench.

Another two spiders scuttled after them. One of them shot out a web that stuck to Sakura's ankle, sending her stumbling. She screamed when her hand was violently wrenched out of Naruto's, and she was dragged back toward the spider's gaping mouth. It opened, revealing a row of fangs within, dripping black venom. Sakura lifted a hand in desperation and channeled the fire orb from her arm brace, slamming a burst of flame right into its face. It shrieked and she used the distraction to cut away the web at her feet. Naruto threw a spinning Rasengan at the arachnids, sending them flying onto their backs and dragged a panting Sakura back up to her feet, and they dashed on together through the tunnel.

At length it opened up in multiple directions. There were now spiders rushing toward them from all directions, as if the entire nest had been alerted to their presence. Sakura looked around them, sick with fear. Which way were they supposed to go? They dove into one tunnel - only to be forced to retrace their steps when four more venemous spiders burst through the cobwebs. Running back to the intersection, they lunged through another opening.

"We're gonna have to burn it!" Naruto shouted. "Kakashi-sensei!"

"No! We need to find the exit first!" Kakashi yelled back. "Take them out with long-distance atta-" The end of his sentence was cut off when a huge spider leapt at him, shooting webs that stuck to their mentor like glue. Another spider scuttled in from the other direction, and they began to wrap Kakashi up in cobwebs, spinning him rapidly as they wound their lethal threads around him.

"Sensei!" Both Naruto and Sakura cried out in alarm. Naruto rushed forward, leaping toward the nearest spider, hacking and slashing at it with his twin blades. Sakura lifted her palm, heart pounding, and set the threads that had almost enveloped Kakashi's entire body on fire. To her immense relief, Kakashi was able to cut himself out, and retaliated immediately, stabbing another of the huge arachnids in its vulnerable abdomen with a devastating stream of Chidori.

Sakura cut at the webs ahead of them, trying to clear a path as Naruto and Kakashi took down more of the creatures. Thick threads of silk were shooting out everywhere, and Naruto was yanked off his feet, toward the crushing pincers of another spider. He lifted his arm back to summon a Rasengan but another sticky thread wound around his wrist, preventing him from doing so.

"Shit!" he cursed.

Kakashi glanced up, seeing that Naruto was in trouble - but there was no way he could get to him, surrounded as he was by three more vicious spiders. His gaze darted to Sakura, who had hacked her way through another tunnel - only to screech when she suddenly fell through it, failing to see the opening in the cobwebs in her blind state of panic.

"Sakura!" Kakashi lunged forward, diving past one of the spiders, and snapped a chakra string around her waist, catching her just in time. Hauling her back up to safety, he barely managed to avoid being crushed by one of the spiders that jumped at him, the force of its weight sending the tunnel shaking violently around them.

Sakura dragged herself back up and continued to run ahead. Her eyes darted left and right, up and down, trying to discern which direction to move in. She dove into another tunnel just as another spider appeared. Then her gaze came to rest on darkness ahead. Was that a dead-end, she worried, terrified that she had sprinted into one - only for her to discern mist beyond it.

"I think I see an opening!" she cried, over the din of shrieking, scurrying spiders. "It's up ahead!" she gasped when another arachnid broke through the glowing cobwebs above her and narrowly avoided being flattened by its underbelly.

She slashed at it with her sword and immediately set it aflame, but it knocked her aside with one of its gigantic, hairy legs. Sakura fell back into a tangle of cobwebs, causing her sword to get stuck in a small opening in the threads. She pulled desperately on her trapped arm, wide eyes moving back up to find that the burning spider was closing in on her and had lifted one of its front legs, ready to stab her with it.

It released a pained shriek as it was suddenly sent slamming into the ground. Sasuke had alighted atop it, crushing it with Susano'o. The skeletal hand tore through the cobwebs around them, creating a hole in the ground, and tossed the spider into the abyss below. The shield then dissipated and he flickered to Sakura's side, sliced her swiftly free of the cobwebs and grabbed her hand, tugging her along behind him. Relief at seeing him again and adrenaline pumped through her veins. Her heart was pounding so hard in her chest that she could hear the roar of blood rushing through her ears. They raced through the burning tunnel, the cobwebs falling away around them, when abruptly they ended entirely. There was nothing beyond them except a misty black chasm.

Without slowing down, Sasuke pulled Sakura to him and she felt her feet leave the ground, the world blurring away around her in a flash of wind and rippling shadows. When she touched down again, she found that Sasuke had transported them to the edge of an overhang of rock. The burning nest of cobwebs was below them, and Sakura spotted Kakashi dashing toward the end of it, taking down another spider as he neared the opening of the arachnid-infested tunnel.

"Kakashi-sensei!" Sakura cried, waving frantically to catch his attention, even as her eyes desperately sought Naruto in the fray. Spiders were falling through the holes the flames had burned in the webs, and she could see them suspended from silk strings, already working to repair the damage to the structure. It was a horrific scene pulled straight from a book of nightmares.

Kakashi leapt off the edge and flickered out of sight, touching down beside them, coughing, clutching his right forearm tightly. He'd been bitten by one of the spiders, and pushed his sleeve up to reveal angry purple marks crawling up from the puncture-wound.

"Sensei!" Sakura gasped, dropping to her knees beside him. She immediately drew upon the healing orb to assist him in mending the venom-afflicted skin.

Meanwhile, Naruto, who had finally managed to break free from a cluster of spiders, raced through the blazing remains of the tunnel, ducking to avoid the spits of venom and shooting threads that tried to ensnare him. He came to the end of the tunnel and faltered, grabbing onto the webs behind him to stop himself from plunging straight into the endless deep below. Heart racing, his eyes darted wildly around, finally catching sight of where Sasuke stood high above him.

Their eyes locked briefly.

The scurrying of legs alerted the sun deity to another influx of spiders that was heading his way. Naruto backed up and then raced forward, lunging off the edge of the damaged nest, lifting his hands to warp to the overhang. He landed at the edge of it - but a snapping thread had shot out after him suddenly and wound around his ankle, dragging him backward toward the endless abyss.

"Wh-whoa!" Naruto yelled.

"Naruto!" Sakura screamed in terror, scrambling to get to him in time.

With a shout he fell back - when a hand firmly caught his wrist and blinding blue light flashed behind him, severing the spider's string from his leg.

Stunned, Naruto looked up into the face of the person who had saved him from certain doom.

His eyes widened. Sasuke gazed aloofly down at him, his dark eyes burning through his, as he held him suspended over the bottomless chasm.

Naruto gulped. A moment later, he was hauled up onto the rock-face to safety. Sakura stared at Sasuke, lips parted in shock. He had saved Naruto. He had helped Naruto. He had chosen to work with them. The magnitude of that hit her full force, made her chest swell with a warmth she couldn't place.

They stood for a moment, watching as the remains of the webs shrivelled away, before the mist thickened, hiding the spiders from view entirely.

Kakashi slowly rose to his feet, pulling his sleeve down, fully healed.

"There's an opening here," he gestured behind them. "Let's go."

"Uh..." Naruto rubbed at the back of his neck awkwardly. "Thanks, Sasuke," he mumbled, his gaze darting uncertainly to the stoic death god, clearly bewildered that he had decided to lend him aid.

Sasuke's eyes narrowed. "I didn't do it for you," he said curtly.

Naruto swallowed thickly, opening his mouth as if to fire back something - only to seemingly decide against it. Instead he replied tightly, "Yeah. Sure. Didn't think so."

With that, he followed after Kakashi.

Sakura stared at Sasuke, shaking her head slightly in bewilderment. Had he listened to her after all? Could she dare to hope that somehow, her words had reached him?

"..." His dark eyes shifted to her and held for a brief moment. She read clearly within their piercing depths what remained unspoken - before he abruptly broke eye contact.

He had not done it for Naruto, she realised, her heart racing inside her chest as clarity dawned upon her, and suddenly she was looking at him as if a shrouding veil had been lifted from before her eyes, lending her clear vision for the first time.

He had not done it for Naruto. He had done it for her.

Author's Note

Reviews would be wonderful. Hope you enjoyed Sasuke's character development in this one! See you next update, for the final part of the third relic site!