Thank you to everyone who took the time to review. Please read the Author's note at the end of the chapter for important info about upcoming chapters.
A broken mind, a shattered heart,
Cast to pieces and torn apart,
Will enter paradise, forlorn and lost,
To learn the price of treason's cost,
Caught in an illusion that ne'er can die,
That strips the truth from every lie.
The pleasant sound of crackling fire and the alluring scent of spice-incense lured Sakura gently back to the shores of consciousness. Opening her eyes to the underside of a heavy, luxurious canopy, she blinked up at the elaborately stitched patterns in disorientated, groggy confusion.
Lethargic thoughts waded through the slush of her sleep-muddled mind, and for a frightening moment she struggled to immediately place where she was and how she had gotten there. Then, as her fingers found silken sheets beneath her, and her eyes took in the grand, opulently-carved bed-frame, she recognised that she was inside the royal quarters of the palace, in the king's bedchamber.
Panic detonated like an exploding bomb within Sakura's chest, causing her to bolt upright as the recollection of the trauma she had endured slammed into her with the ferocious force of a cataclysmic riptide, sending her heart lurching and hammering against her ribcage. The sudden movements sent the blood rushing from her head and caused the room to briefly spin.
She gripped the sheets tightly to anchor herself, wide-eyed and distraught. She remembered everything. Being dragged to Tartarus by their ruthless enemy. Hanging in terrifying suspension over that scorching, infernal pit. And Obito's unyielding grip on her neck as he had held her hostage, forcing Sasuke to retrieve the gourd containing the formidable, sealed Titans.
She recalled the stomach-churning sensation of watching in helpless horror as Sasuke's motionless form had been completely overwhelmed by the Curse Seal, of holding him in her arms as he had slipped away from her. The harrowing images burned vividly in her mind, tormenting her like the remnants of a dreadful nightmare that refused to dispel. Sakura clutched a hand to her chest, swallowing down the thick lump in her throat. Chiyo had arrived after Sasuke had fallen, and they had fought side by side to keep the enemy from claiming the Underworld's throne.
Sakura's body began to tremble. She remembered the agonising pain of being stabbed by Ares' black, chakra-draining rods, of choking on her own lifeblood, of being unable to move or breathe, of feeling her frantic heartbeat slowing to a faint, weak flutter as her vision had faded to black.
Gulping, she glanced down at herself, bewildered to find that her blood-stained crimson dress had been exchanged for a pearl-encrusted, plum-chiffon gown. She was clean and fully healed. No evidence of the terrible wounds Ares had inflicted upon her remained.
Sakura's confusion intensified. How was it possible that she was still alive? She had felt herself dying, and an incapacitated Sasuke had been unable to save her and use his dominion over death to keep her heart beating. Had Chiyo assisted her instead? Had she managed to defeat Ares and Obito alone, after all?
The fact that Sakura had awoken to find herself in the palace, safe and healed, instead of a cold, dark, damp prisoner cell, hinted at a more favourable outcome for them, but then what had become of their dangerous enemy? Where was Chiyo? Who had carried Sakura to Sasuke's chambers? Had Obito still managed to take Sasuke back to Cronus? Question after dizzying question rampaged through Sakura's mind, dispersing in all directions, fuelling her rising sense of panic.
She turned her head, chest heaving in an attempt to suppress the sob building within as she frantically scanned the room, finding herself to be alone. If Obito had succeeded in taking Sasuke back to Cronus, then it was surely over. It would mean they had lost him for good. With Orochimaru in possession of Sasuke's abilities, there would be no way to wrestle him back from-
Her catastrophic thoughts were abruptly thrown off course when the heavy, gilded double-doors of the chamber parted, only to close a moment later, drawing Sakura's agitated gaze to the tall, handsome figure that strode in and drew to a stop by the brightly burning fireplace.
The air hitched in her lungs, and she froze in astonishment, heart jumping wildly into her throat as she feared that she was staring at a cruel illusion beyond the haze of the gauzy drapes drawn around the perimeter of the bed.
"Sasuke… kun…?" she dared to whisper, wide-eyed and terrified that he would vanish before her if she so much as blinked.
Dark eyes locked onto her, eyes she had feared would be cold and empty the next time she looked into them. But she saw only a familiar, smouldering heat in his obsidian gaze, reassuring her without the need for words to be spoken that he was himself, her Sasuke-kun.
A strangled sound escaped Sakura's throat. She did not know how it was possible that he was alive and free of his stone prison, how he appeared to be purged of the serpent's possession. It defied all possibility. A thousand more questions hurtled through her mind as she scooted off the bed, pushed the drapes aside and wasted no further time running to him.
Launching herself forward, Sakura threw her arms around his neck, almost knocking him off balance entirely. When she felt his strong arms close securely around her, she immediately dissolved into tears against his chest.
"Sasuke-kun!" Squeezing her eyes shut, Sakura breathed him in, shaking from the crippling sense of relief that cascaded through her body, so overwhelming in its intensity that her legs were reduced to jelly beneath her. His arms around her were the only way she was able to remain upright.
He was really there. He was warm and safe and fully healed. By some miracle, absolute disaster had been averted.
"Sakura." The familiar murmur of her name had never sounded so beautiful to her ears, a healing balm that soothed her overwhelmed senses.
"Sasuke-kun!" she wept, voice breaking. "I thought I'd lost you! I thought you were dead!" She sobbed harder, as if the very thought was too unbearable to articulate.
She heard him release a quiet breath.
"I'm unhurt," he reassured her, pressing his nose against the curtain of her long, unbound hair.
When she drew back slightly to inspect him, her verdant eyes, ever crystal-clear mirrors of expressive emotion, reflected anxiety, concern, pain, relief, bewilderment - and through the myriad of conflicting emotions, an open, sincere love.
"You're alright," she choked out emotionally, cupping his face between her palms. "Oh, Sasuke-kun!"
Before he could say anything else, she pressed her lips to his in a desperate, senseless, tearful kiss. Holding her against him, Sasuke returned it with equal, ravenous fervour, his fingers fisting through her hair. By the time she reluctantly broke it, they were both a little breathless, gazing at one another as if they could not drink up the sight of each other fast enough.
He ran his hands up her arms, before resting them upon her shoulders. His gaze scanned her intently, as if he were seeking to reassure himself that she, too, was well.
"Sakura-" he began, only to pause in concern when her expression suddenly crumpled.
"I'm so sorry, Sasuke-kun!" She gripped onto the front of his tunic, visibly distressed. "I don't know how it happened- I found Jugo hurt by the palace gates, and I tried to help him by taking him inside here to rest, and I can't remember anything else after that except standing at the edge of Tartarus, and then seeing you hurt. Obito said- he told me I hurt you, that I'm the one who poisoned you. I'm so sorry!"
"You are not to blame, Sakura. Ares possessed you," Sasuke replied. "Obito used Kamui to enter the realm and Ares was able to influence Jugo. Once inside the palace, he controlled your mind and actions."
"I didn't feel anything," Sakura was disturbed by how easily Ares had been able to override her sense of autonomy. "I don't remember any of it."
"That is one of his abilities," Sasuke answered darkly.
Fresh tears pooled in her eyes. ""I tried to stop Obito. After you turned to stone, he broke the gourd and freed the Titans. Lady Chiyo - she found us. We fought Obito to keep him from the throne, but then Ares- he possessed one of your servants, and he- he told Chiyo he'd kill me if she didn't remove the barrier around the throne!"
She shook her head slightly, tears falling thicker as she recalled the horror she had endured. "He stabbed me with chakra-draining rods, and I couldn't move, I…" Sucking in a shuddering breath, she managed, "I was so afraid. I thought I was going to die, and that I'd never see you again, and I just couldn't-" she broke off, crying harder as she buried her face in the sanctuary of his chest once again.
Sasuke's arms tightened protectively around her, providing her with wordless comfort. He could not imagine the terror Sakura must have experienced, believing him to be lost forever to her, left alone to fend for herself against a cut-throat enemy until Hecate had arrived to assist her. And yet, she had still bravely taken up arms against Obito to defend the realm. While he was proud of her courage and strength, he was also furious at himself for having been unable to defend her when she had needed him to shield her the most.
Never again, he vowed to himself. Never would he allow anything to keep him from reaching Sakura's side. With Orochimaru's Curse fully removed, Madara held no further influence over him, and Sasuke promised himself he would have his vengeance. Starting with Obito. His jaw clenched. Whatever manner of torture Shisui and Itachi intended for their prisoner, Sasuke had granted them the freedom to act at their leisure, to do whatever they deemed necessary to extract intelligence from him - and then it would be Sasuke's turn to punish the filthy traitor. He deserved to suffer greatly for what he had done, for all the horrors and pain he had inflicted in the name of carrying out Madara's twisted orders.
He deserved no mercy for terrorising and hurting Sakura, and for taking Kakashi's life. And Sasuke would show him none.
Sasuke continued to hold her until her sobs turned to subdued sniffles. At length she pulled back, looking up at him with tearful eyes. Cupping his face again, she shook her head in bewilderment.
"Sasuke-kun, how…?" she got out, gaze tracing anxiously over his features. Stroking his cheeks tenderly with the pads of her thumbs, she noted with astonishment that the eye Obito had gouged out had seemingly been restored, and could not fathom how it appeared as if no ill had befallen her sweetheart at all.
"You turned to stone, Obito took your eye, I saw you fade. How are you alright? What happened?"
Something flickered across Sasuke's irises, volatile emotions brewing behind a heavy veil of restraint. She realised then that he was staring at her in a peculiar manner, one she could not quite decode, and that made her feel oddly nervous. The feeling only intensified with his continued silence, and when Sasuke lifted his hands to encircle her wrists and slowly lowered her hands from his face.
Sakura's relief turned to apprehension when he silently led her to the gold-framed chaise longue before the fireplace, and tugged her down to sit beside him on it.
"Sasuke-kun?" she gripped his right hand tightly. His expression was guarded, but she had come to know him intimately enough to discern when shadows haunted his eyes. It meant something was troubling him, and weighing heavily upon his mind. Her heart skipped a beat as dread began to crawl over her. He appeared physically well, but something else had to have happened. Something terrible.
"What is it?" she bit her lower lip, her agitation increasing with every second the heavy silence continued.
She saw him visibly hesitate. The uncharacteristic action prompted Sakura to entwine her slender, small fingers with his.
"Tell me," she urged gently.
Sasuke was silent for another long moment. Then, slowly, he started, "Chiyo prevented Obito from ascending the throne… at a cost."
Sakura's eyes widened, and she grew still. Inside her chest, her heart was galloping wildly.
"What cost, Sasuke-kun…?" she whispered.
His eyes lowered to their joined hands again. "She has passed on," he confirmed quietly.
The words struck Sakura like a sledgehammer blow to the gut, leaving her winded. A gasp flew from her lips and she pressed a palm against her mouth in open dismay. The witty and wise Chiyo - dead? Chiyo, who had shown her such kindness, who had been a friend to her when she had felt so alone and helpless. It could not be. Sakura didn't want to believe it. She had grown very fond of Hecate, and the thought of never seeing or talking to her again, of her mystical hut remaining vacant forevermore, filled Sakura with a deep, profound sadness.
Her eyes blurred with fresh tears, and a terrible ache settled in the centre of her chest.
"No…" she whispered in horror. What had happened, after she had lost consciousness? A strong wave of grief and guilt swept over her. Had she been stronger, had she been faster, then Chiyo would not have been left to fight alone. Maybe she might have survived.
"It's my fault," Sakura began shakily, feeling herself starting to tremble again. "I left her alone, if I'd only been more careful, then-"
"No," Sasuke interrupted, voice sharp, almost angry. She felt the warm weight of his hand on her right shoulder, firm and anchoring in its hold. "There was nothing you could have done to prevent it. It was the only way to deny Obito the throne."
Sakura sucked in an unsteady breath, taking a moment to process his words, her mind flung into the spiralling descent of chaos. Emotionally, she choked out, "But… how? What happened?"
Had Obito murdered Chiyo? Sakura could not believe that the enemy would do such a reckless thing. Chiyo had been a powerful servant of The Fates, not a lesser immortal who could be disposed of lightly. Surely it would have made more sense for Cronus to try to capture her first, to use her as leverage against the Olympians and The Fates themselves?
"She forfeited her own life," Sasuke explained, lowering his hand from Sakura's shoulder. "The forbidden seals she wove expelled Ares from the realm and trapped Obito in a state of paralysis long enough to keep him from claiming the throne."
"But why would she do that?" she cried tearfully. "I don't understand, Sasuke-kun! Why did she have to give up her life? She serves The Fates- there must've been another way!"
Sasuke's expression was grim as he met her eyes. "No. She could not both save us from being taken to Madara and keep the enemy from the throne. Her sacrifice was the only way to restore us and stop Obito from ascending."
Sakura shook her head, struggling to accept Chiyo's sacrifice. "I don't understand," she repeated. "How could she save you? You turned to stone before my eyes. What happened to the Curse Seal?"
Not releasing her hand, Sasuke wordlessly pushed up the sleeve of his tunic, baring the underside of his right arm where Orochimaru's seal had once been. Sakura stared down at it in confusion. Her eyebrows furrowed as she ran her fingers over the smooth, unblemished skin, stunned to find the mark gone.
"How…?" she whispered. She had spent hours scouring countless books, desperately trying to find a way to rid Sasuke of the Curse Seal, and had only come across two possibilities - both of which had seemed equally as impossible and beyond reach.
"Totsuka," he answered.
Sakura blinked, baffled. "Totsuka? The gourd? But- what? It shattered when the Titans were unsealed. I saw it break, Sasuke-kun!"
"It was reformed when Chiyo wove the seals."
"But how? That sword was tied to your brother's soul, wasn't it? Even if she restored it, how could she have used it?"
"She did not," Sasuke held her gaze. At her perplexed look, he went on, "Itachi did."
Sakura gaped at him. For a horrible minute, she thought she must have misheard him. For there was no conceivable way, she told herself, that Sasuke had just told her that his brother had wielded Totsuka.
Taken aback, she cast him an incredulous look, her galloping heart's rhythm turning riotous in her chest when she realised that she had not misunderstood. And so she listened, her astonishment and disbelief mounting by the second, as Sasuke detailed Chiyo's sacrifice further, explaining how she had woven ancient seals that had resulted in the defiance of her own function, seals that had forfeited and exchanged her own life-force in order to compel lost souls to return to their perfectly preserved physical bodies again, resurrecting to life the ones who had sealed the gourd shut.
She listened, stunned, as Sasuke told her about the seals Zeus had taught to his kin, and how their crystal-entombed bodies had been released by Lethe once their souls had been restored following Chiyo's sacrifice. He explained how he and Sakura had been found in the wreckage of the royal throne room, how they had both been healed and how he had been saved from the Curse Seal. How he had then woken up to the melodious notes of a familiar, haunting composition that had drawn him to the ballroom, where he had encountered a shocking and most impossible sight: the fully revived Hypnos and Thanatos, their original functions restored to them while Sasuke had been encased in stone.
Finally, Sakura learned that Orochimaru had been sealed inside Totsuka by Itachi, and that Obito was being held in the palace dungeons, his chakra sealed off, unable to escape back to the surface.
A long pause followed his recount. Sakura stared at him, eyes as wide as saucers, so overcome and astounded by the revelation of his kin being restored, that for an awful minute, her tongue failed to form words at all, struck speechless by the magnitude of what it meant to have the formidable Hypnos and Thanatos back.
At last she managed in a whisper, "Sasuke-kun… they're here? Both of them?"
When Sasuke nodded, she released another shaky breath, and drew her hand out of his, gripping the edge of the chaise tightly, as if to anchor herself in place. Staring at the fireplace, she wrestled to calm and collect herself, her staggered mind scrambling to process everything, to make sense of what had happened. The entire world was spinning violently out of orbit, leaving her reeling, struggling to make sense of their newfound, altered reality. A reality in which Hecate was sadly gone - but Hypnos and Thanatos existed again.
What complex manner of seal had allowed their resurrection? It was both awe-inspiring and frightening to think that such power existed in the universe, the power to reverse even an immortal's demise. Perhaps it was not ordinarily possible, Sakura thought to herself, yet Chiyo had been anything but ordinary. After all, she had shared a direct link to The Fates themselves and the Crossroads that encompassed the past, present and future. Somehow, her function had made such a feat - the manipulation of timelines and the souls attached to them - possible.
Sakura blinked, dazed, feeling as though she were trapped in a dream that was equal parts nightmare and fantastical.
After a long silence, she finally said, "You said Ares was expelled. Then does Cronus know they're back? Does he know Obito's trapped here?"
Sasuke shook his head slightly. He derived great satisfaction from the fury he anticipated would manifest itself on his ancestor's face once he came to learn that restoring the Titans had come with two very unwelcome surprises. Once Madara realised, he would choose to hunt down Itachi and Shisui before any Olympian - of that Sasuke was certain - seeking vengeance over the part they had played in crossing him. But if he believed that he would harm even a single hair on their noble heads, he would soon discover that he was sorely mistaken. Sasuke had already made his own plans to ensure that this time, both his cousin and brother would survive the war. Plans he intended to put in place right after he returned Sakura to immortality.
"No," he said. "There was no-one else in the throne room when they arrived."
"That means Ares was expelled before that." Sakura placed a hand to her forehead, rocked by everything she had learned. It meant that Cronus was oblivious - which gave them the element of surprise. An unexpected advantage.
"I raised a barrier around the realm," Sasuke nodded. "Only deceased mortal souls may enter now. Madara has no way of finding out."
Sakura released another slow, quiet breath. Chiyo had bravely sacrificed herself. She had laid down her own life to defend the Crown for the greater good, judging that her death would serve far more purpose and influence than allowing herself to be captured by the enemy instead. In doing so, she had resurrected Sasuke's brother and cousin. That meant she had not only selflessly prevented the Underworld from falling into Cronus's hands, and saved both Sasuke and Sakura's lives, but she had also given Sasuke the greatest of gifts. The very two same individuals and geniuses who had outsmarted and trapped Cronus on the summit, and ensured that she could be reunited with Sasuke again.
Hecate had restored hope to them in their darkest hour, when all hope had appeared lost, when they had been on the brink of utter despair. It was the only small consolation to be found in the catastrophe that was her passing. Chiyo had given them hope, so that they would continue to fight on.
Fresh tears blurred Sakura's vision as she mourned Chiyo's great loss, while coming to terms with the unexpected return of Sasuke's elder brother and cousin, news that was conflictingly wonderful and joyous, a miracle to be celebrated. To think that she had the opportunity to meet with the very individuals responsible for weaving the seal that had locked away her memories and hidden the power she held to trigger spring within her. Sakura didn't know what to feel. Her emotions were at war as she came to terms with the fact that courtesy of Chiyo's actions, Sasuke had half of his family back, living, breathing, by his side once again. It boggled her mind to think of it, and she could not even begin to imagine how Sasuke must have felt seeing them restored.
"They're really back," she murmured. "Oh, Sasuke-kun!" She threw her arms around him again, embracing him tightly.
Sasuke blinked, caught thoroughly off-guard by the intensity of her reaction. He pressed a palm against the small of her back as she sobbed quietly against him.
"I'm sorry," Sakura wept against his shoulder. "I'm just- I'm so happy for you! But poor Lady Chiyo…" She squeezed her eyes shut, clinging onto him, once again seeking comfort in his arms. "She saved us, Sasuke-kun. She saved this kingdom. She gave you your family back. I can't believe it. I can't believe she's gone!"
Sasuke remained silent, sharing her grief. They had not been given the chance to thank the old crone, to say any goodbyes. How very like the infuriating Hecate it was, to deny them the opportunity. To silently bow out without warning. She had saved his Kingdom, and valiantly prevented both him and Sakura from falling into the enemy's hands. More than that, her quick-thinking decision to resurrect Shisui and Itachi had restored two extremely powerful allies to their side in the war against Cronus, had allowed Totsuka to be reformed and resulted in the Curse Seal being removed at last from Sasuke - as well as Orochimaru's demise.
And thanks to Chiyo's sacrifice, they now had the final piece that Madara needed to unlock the Ten-Tails in their possession. Obito was trapped in the Underworld, and Shisui and Itachi were already working on a way to use their prisoner to their advantage to further sway events in their favour. Madara had been stripped of two of his most important pawns, whilst Sasuke had regained his ace of spades - at the cost of losing Hecate herself.
While he was immensely glad for his kin's return, he deeply regretted that he had doubted Chiyo at all, that he had taken her for granted. The guilt he felt at realising far too late how much affection the goddess had harboured for him weighed heavily upon his chest. She'd cared deeply enough for him to not only give up her own life in order to save him, Sakura, and his realm, but to restore to him what she had known he had yearned to have back more than anything else in the world. Her absence would be felt, but the only way left to thank her for everything she had done for him was to honour her sacrifice and memory, and save the world she had died to protect.
When Sakura finally pulled back, and slipped her hand into his again, Sasuke found himself hesitating to tell her the next piece of gut-wrenching news. She had spilled so many tears already, and he had not even relayed Kakashi's fate, something she had yet to ask about in the wake of the other surprising developments he had shared. Chiyo's death had upset her, but knowledge of Kakashi's demise - whom she had known for far longer, and who had doubtlessly helped raise her over many lifetimes - was bound to hit her so much harder.
But it was then or never, Sasuke knew. She had to know, before he spoke to her about the memories he had retrieved, no matter how uncomfortable the conversation would be.
A long silence ensued, as Sakura absorbed the events that had unfolded, wiping again at her tears with the handkerchief she had picked up from the glass table beside her. Something twisted violently in Sasuke's gut as he watched her quietly, allowing her the time to compose herself and arrange her thoughts. Her tears were not spent, he knew. She would shortly shed even more. But before he could form the words to tell her, she sniffled and looked up at him.
"Where are they?" Her voice was clogged with emotion. "Your family? Can I meet them?"
"Soon. They are interrogating Obito in the dungeons."
Sakura nodded, gazing up at him with tear-rimmed eyes in quiet awe, as if she still could not fathom the miracle of how he was sitting there before her. Reaching up with her free hand, she pushed dark, unruly strands of hair tenderly out of his face.
"Sasuke-kun, your left eye," she breathed.
"My brother's." Sasuke clarified.
As she processed the words, a sudden realisation jolted through Sakura, sending her heart leaping.
"Wait- you have his Sharingan?" Clutching onto the front of his tunic, she pressed, "Then Sasuke-kun… that means we can remove my seal!"
He held her gaze in silent confirmation, and the colossal magnitude of what she had been told, as well as its implications, swept over her. Sakura exhaled, excitement joining the turbulent storm of conflicting emotions rushing through her. But that gladness faltered when Sasuke remained silent, when his lips pressed into a thin line as he stared back at her, a peculiar, almost haunted look in his eyes that gave Sakura pause. Fresh alarm fluttered through her when his gaze dropped from hers a moment later, almost as though he could not stand to meet her eyes, as if he were guilty and ashamed to do so.
Dread filled her stomach once again, sinking like a boulder. Why didn't he look too happy about it? It was what they had been waiting for - the eye that would free her from her cycle of torment. An eye they had struggled to obtain, almost died before they could. Why, then, did Sasuke seem so troubled, as if something else was sitting heavily upon him, after he had been freed of the Curse mark and had his family restored, when Obito had been incapacitated and all else otherwise seemed to be well?
"There's something else, isn't there? What is it, Sasuke-kun?"
Once again, the dragging silence made her nervous. Squeezing his hand reassuringly, she pressed, "Sasuke-kun…?"
Still not meeting her eyes, he finally supplied, forming the name with some difficulty, "Kakashi."
Sakura grew still. Ice crept through her veins and her heart lodged itself in her throat, its pounding force sending quakes through her body.
No. She told herself. No. Please. No, no, no, no, nonononono.
The single word ricocheted against her skull, reverberating thunderously, deafeningly. She recalled Obito possessing two eyes, and the nagging suspicion that had built in her mind even back then that Kakashi had been hurt or worse - a suspicion that she'd been unable to pay heed to given the direness of their situation. That dread returned in full force, slamming into her, robbing the oxygen from her lungs.
It was challenging to force her tongue to speak the next words. To invite the verbal confirmation she did not need to guess what the outcome of his fate was. Sasuke's inability to maintain eye-contact spoke volumes and Sakura felt like she was being sucked into the eye of a cyclone, tossed uncontrollably by perilous tides, like she was being dragged underwater and was incapable of drawing a single breath.
Swallowing down a near-debilitating surge of rising, smothering nausea, she forced herself to utter them anyway, and the question fell from her lips in a hushed, dread-laced whisper.
"What happened to Kakashi-sensei…?"
"Well," Shisui remarked, as he appeared from a swirling vortex and allowed his accompanying passenger to slump roughly onto the grass. "I daresay that Sasuke will be most displeased once he discovers we transported this filthy traitor here."
Itachi regarded Obito's prone form with cold detachment, the calculating look of a master puppeteer who knew precisely which strings to pull in order to orchestrate a performance to his will. A performance he and Shisui were about to execute with clinical ruthlessness.
Sasuke would be vexed, of that fact Itachi was certain. He would disapprove of Obito setting foot within the Elysian Fields, and be more furious still when he learned why. Yet given that Obito was also an Uchiha and native shadow-dweller, Itachi was well aware that they were breaking no rules in transporting him anywhere within the realm itself. Rather, it was the issue of disturbing a deceased human soul's rest in its sacred afterlife, and using it to manipulate Obito, which defied the strict rules of the Underworld. Rules which the Crown enforced, which if disobeyed, resulted in treason.
Obito did not deserve to enjoy the delightful surroundings of paradise - and yet Itachi had deemed it the most effective place to break his spirit, and to bring him to heel. To ensure the stage for the encounter that was about to unravel was as authentic as it could be. Itachi harboured no doubts that his younger sibling would be angered by the liberties he and Shisui were taking - but that he would also understand that those very same actions were the most effective way to achieve their intended outcome, and were merely an extension of their interrogation.
A way to torment Obito that he would not see coming, which made it all the more cunning and devastating.
"Then again," Shisui mused. "He did grant us leave to act as we see fit to punish this half-wit. Even if we are disobeying the laws of the kingdom."
"Leave Sasuke to me," Itachi replied, for he knew well enough how to deflect the storm of his brother's fiery temper. Then, lifting his eyes to his loyal companion, Thanatos observed mildly, "You tarried, Shisui."
Shisui's eyebrows arched in surprise, before he released a short, indignant snort.
"Upon my word cousin, you are most unforgiving. When have I ever given you cause to question my time-keeping?"
When Itachi opened his mouth to respond to that, Shisui hastily defended, "You are aware of the damage that can be caused, when too much chakra is directed to a newly implanted Sharingan before the optical nerves have adequately fused and healed. This eye is not so close to a perfect blood match as mine is to yours. I had to exercise a degree of caution before I could even attempt to make use of Kamui. If anything, you ought to commend me for mastering it so soon."
"I did not doubt you would," Itachi answered quietly.
"First he censures me, and now bestows upon me his rare praise," Shisui chuckled in amusement. "Ever the enigma, Itachi." He then tilted his head, directing his gaze over his cousin's left shoulder. "Is this her?"
At Itachi's nod, Shisui eyed the slip of a mortal with short brown hair and large, glazed eyes who stood swaying slightly unsteadily on her feet.
Shaking his head as he gave the woman a quick, cursory once-over glance, he commented incredulously, "This is the reason behind his madness? For her, he would see the world burn?"
"..." Itachi stared at him, raising an eyebrow imperceptibly at the unmistakable judgement he heard in his cousin's words. It was not like the well-mannered and cultivated Shisui to comment on a lady's appearance, and he certainly was not known to do so in such a critical manner, but given the significance of the woman in question, and the great damage that had been caused as a result of her death, Itachi supposed he was not at all surprised that his cousin had chosen to voice his opinion for once.
"Do not give me that look. You must have thought the same when you first set eyes upon her. Surely you, too, were expecting a siren, a sensual Helen of Troy that might justify the launching of a thousand ships. Or in this simpleton's case, the spilling of so much blood."
"There is no justification," Itachi dismissed, failing to see the relevance one's countenance had in such matters. Even if the girl had been the fairest creature humanity had to offer, Obito's actions would have remained inexcusable.
"Of course not, but regardless, I expected some great mortal beauty. Not a woman so… well." He gestured vaguely at Rin, perplexed. "Diminutive and unremarkable."
"Obito's sentiments are governed not by sense," Itachi reminded him matter-of-factly.
"Evidently not," Shisui shook his head. "I suppose it is true what they say, that beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder. Regardless of how she captured his heart, we can agree that he is thoroughly undeserving of hers." Blinking, he then peered at the girl more closely, raising his eyebrows at the vacant look he noticed was plastered upon her face.
"By Elysium. Itachi, what have you done to the poor soul? Whyever is she trapped in an illusion?"
"You were delayed." Itachi skewered him with a pointed look.
Shisui turned his eyes skyward. "Stars above. Did you not think to make pleasant conversation with her, instead?"
Itachi stared blankly back, unamused and unimpressed. He had been unwilling to cause the woman any further distress and confusion. She had obediently followed after him like a sacrificial lamb, equal parts awed and terrified. He had taken pity on her conflicted state, and cast a gentle illusion upon her to ward away the endless barrage of questions that would have otherwise been directed at him, had he allowed Rin to wait with him while sentient, for Shisui to return. He'd possessed no desire to explain anything. That, he had determined, would be entirely Obito's responsibility.
Shisui flashed him a brief, teasing grin. "Ah. How foolish of me to forget. Nothing brings you greater mortification than making pleasant conversation with impressionable young women." He nodded at Rin. "That is not a fawning Daphne, Izumi, Nyrea, or indeed any of the other lovestruck immortal ladies whose hearts you broke, by never once troubling yourself to acknowledge."
When Itachi's expression remained aloof, Shisui grimly recalled that his stoic cousin had never even bothered to attach names to any of the many admiring faces that had pined for him from afar. Perhaps to him, the groups of giggling, whispering, blushing women, whom he had always sought to avoid at court and when passing through the realm, had all been one and the same.
Shisui sighed. He could not place any blame on Itachi back then. His cousin had not spurned anyone out of innate cruelty, but because he had been a Servant of The Fates with far more pressing matters to occupy his attention than flustered ladies clinging onto misguided hopes of attaining royalty. Hopes that Itachi had been unable and unwilling to indulge.
"The matter I am trying to stress is, it would have been quite safe for you to speak with her and inform her of the reason for the disturbance to her afterlife. Do we not owe that much to her, at least? Why did you not?"
"Had I informed her of Obito's transgressions," Itachi returned, "she would have been prepared to receive him."
"Ah." Shisui's mirth was replaced by understanding. "Of course. You are thinking ahead to the authenticity of her reactions. I would not put it past this half-wit to twist his version of events and construct his own narrative in an attempt to justify his actions to the girl."
"That will be of no consequence to you," Itachi remarked, referring to his cousin's ability to influence thoughts and actions.
A faint smirk graced Shisui's lips. But it soon waned, as he cast a regretful glance back at Rin.
"It is cruel to the girl to endure this. It gives me no pleasure to disturb a soul at rest, and I imagine it must feel even more wretched for you."
"It is the only way, Shisui," Itachi stated. "Her memories of the encounter shall be erased once we have broken him."
"I suppose so," Shisui relented.
Itachi nodded, and stepped forward, nudging the unconscious Obito's side with the toe of his boot.
"Wake him," he murmured.
"Hold a moment." Shisui placed a hand on Itachi's left shoulder, his expression full of underlying concern. "Tell me truthfully, cousin. Are you certain that allowing this meeting will not present any undesired repercussions for you besides Sasuke's anger?"
Itachi's eyes lifted to meet his kin's. "We can afford no risk with this, Shisui. If Obito suspects any aspect of her character is false, he will not cooperate. We have not the time to attempt this twice."
Shisui hesitated, before conceding, "This direct method is more effective. And you are sound in your assessment as always; we do not know the girl well enough to mimic within an illusion what she might choose to say, and how she might respond to him. But your well-being is more important to me than securing Obito's cooperation. If manipulating a deceased soul is in any way a defiance of your function-"
"The Fates have already lost a servant in the Lady Hecate," Itachi murmured. "I do not believe they would discard so freely of another."
Shisui frowned unhappily, hand moving from his cousin's shoulder, to just beneath it, hovering at his upper arm.
"Still the blasted thing lingers?"
"Those who are Marked," Itachi reminded him solemnly, "remain so."
They both knew that only The Fates possessed the power to remove or transfer a Mark. Shisui lowered his hand, staring at the place where he knew the Mark to be. Anger glittered in his eyes.
'Have they called to you?' He questioned telepathically. 'Have you heard any whispers from them?'
'Only silence,' Itachi's voice responded in his mind.
Shisui's eyebrows furrowed. 'That is a concern. Why would they not summon you, when the threat Madara poses to us all is greater than ever? That they have not chosen to even acknowledge our return as of yet is… unexpected.'
Thanatos' dark eyes narrowed marginally. 'Indeed.'
The cousins were silent as they shared a knowing look. Then Shisui glanced back at Obito.
'Let us deal first with this fool. Then we will turn our attention to them.'
Itachi inclined his head in agreement, as Hypnos reached down to haul Obito upright, depositing him against the trunk of a nearby tree with little gentleness or care.
"A cruel twist, is it not, that our burdens would return to us?" The God of Sleep remarked grimly. "We sought to leave matters in the hands of those who remained after us, only to find ourselves thrown back into the fray. A fine mess has been made of affairs, indeed."
Itachi was silent, lips pressing together to form a displeased line. He was no more thrilled than his cousin to be forced back into the wreckage of a fight they had believed they would no longer partake in. They had both made their peace with dying, and to find themselves restored unexpectedly to life carried with it conflicting and complicated emotions. Zeus and Hera had sought to give them a second chance, but with that second chance came the return of all their troubles and responsibilities. All the worries that Itachi could not help but harbour for Sasuke's safety - and for the future.
"It is a comfort, I suppose," Shisui added as an afterthought. "That we were revived together. I would have been quite vexed had you returned without me, you know. Can you imagine? Had that been so, and it was required of you to clean up this mess alone, with only your brooding self for company?"
"It is Sasuke who broods," Itachi corrected.
"As do you," Shisui retorted. "Only with far more grace, and less scowling temperament."
A small, faint smile ghosted the corners of Itachi's lips.
Shisui caught it, and grinned back at him, before crouching down beside Obito.
"Let us get this done, then," he muttered, all amusement replaced by serious focus. "Prepare the barrier."
He was dragged from the depths of his unforgiving nightmares by the irresistible command, a single spoken word that roused him and flung him mercilessly back into a state of awareness. Heavy eyelids lifted, and he blinked in confusion, failing to recognise where he was as he absorbed the unexpected tranquillity of his new surroundings.
Lush fields rolled in all directions around him, illuminated beneath the milky glow of a bright, full moon. A pleasant, rippling breeze carried to him the sweet scent of blooms that littered the verdant valley. In the horizon, peaking between the gaps in stately trees, he spotted gazebos and other magnificently built marble structures that afforded shade and shelter.
Distant recollection stirred in his memory. He knew this place, though he had never expected to set foot in it ever again. The last time he had strolled through the Elysian Fields had been long before the war. He had thought of Rin back then, and had wondered what her reaction might be if he offered to show her the wonders of the realm that he called home.
Obito stared at the serene sight in confusion. Where was the cold, dark, damp cell wall he had been shackled to before? It then occurred to him with a start that he was seeing clearly with both eyes. He inhaled sharply, blinking in astonishment. Cautiously, he tested the clarity of his vision, keeping his expression carefully blank in order to mask his inner bewilderment. What had happened while he had been unconscious? How was it that his sight was fully restored?
He was not foolish enough to hope for even a moment that what he was seeing was any form of mercy, that his sight being returned was a good omen. If anything, it made him feel even more unsettled. He was still a prisoner, as evidenced by the chakra-negating strings wound tightly around his body, rendering his arms and legs useless. And given who his captors were, he deduced that the chances of being trapped in a deadly illusion of Thanatos' making were sky high.
Was he allowing Obito to believe, to hope that his vision had truly been healed? Obito swallowed, blood pulsing in his ears as he strained to hear anything beyond the gentle rustling of grass and the distant chirping of fluttering birds. Had he been lulled into a false sense of safety? Was he being given a brief reprieve before unspeakable horrors pillaged his mind once again, in an attempt to break him?
But he could not be broken. For he was not whole, to lose any more pieces of himself that had shattered irreparably the moment he had learned of his sweetheart's demise.
Glancing down, he saw that he was slumped at an awkward, uncomfortable angle against the trunk of a tree, the hard bark digging into his back with a vengeance. Clenching his teeth, he attempted to manoeuvre himself into a more stable position.
"One cannot help but envy mortals, really." A smooth voice remarked. "They are most fortunate in their afterlives."
Obito stiffened, turning his head to the left, where he caught sight of Hypnos, now leaning casually against the tree beside him. Any hopes that the wretchedness of his situation might have improved while unconscious were immediately dashed.
"That is, of course," Shisui went on conversationally, "provided they enter these fields. Woe befall those who are bound to the infernal pit."
"Why have you brought me here?" Obito demanded, keeping his tone terse while his mind sprinted to find a way out of his predicament. If only there was a way to shed his cursed binds.
Shisui clucked his tongue admonishingly, continuing to stare ahead into the distance. Obito could not fathom what he was looking at, and was all too aware that Thanatos appeared absent from his cousin's side. An ominous omen, and one that surely could not bode well for him.
"Such incivility. A pity. And here I imagined you would express gratitude for the pleasant change in scenery." Blinking, he finally glanced down at the older Uchiha. "You appear surprised. Did you expect that you would awaken in Tartarus? Come, now. That would have been far too easy, wouldn't it?"
When Obito did not respond, Shisui angled his head, regarding his captive with keen interest. "Although, word has reached me that you cast a living mortal into the chasm. I wonder. What would your own human beloved think of such an abominable action?"
The air stilled in Obito's lungs. His pulse quickened. They knew of Rin.
The interrogation in the cell surged back to the forefront of his thoughts, chasing away the last of the grogginess and fog in his mind that he had not even realised had lingered. An unpleasant consequence of Shisui invading his most private thoughts.
He had forgotten. He had forgotten just how much information he had shared with his enemies. Shisui's mind-manipulation abilities were so stealthy in nature, that one never recalled exactly what they had disclosed while trapped in Hypnos' vice-like hold. Evidently the God of Sleep had discovered enough to discern Obito's one and only weakness.
Shisui pushed languidly away from the tree, with a careless, effortless sort of lazy graze, and drew a sharp dagger from the belt secured around his waist.
"Perhaps we should ask her," he suggested, tone nonchalant. "But first…"
He crouched down, lifting the dagger in his hand. The feel of the chakra-binding restraints loosening around Obito had him blinking in surprise. His heart pounded, mind thrown by the unpredictable nature of Hypnos' thoroughly unexpected actions. It was either stupidity that was responsible for the shackles upon Obito being severed - that they were making the mistake of underestimating him - or an alarming degree of self-assured confidence on their part, an arrogance that suggested they had their captive precisely where they wanted him, to the extent that setting him free did not concern them at all.
It did not matter which it was. Obito knew Sleep and Death were far from careless, that everything they did was meticulously planned, and executed with a very particular outcome in mind. He knew that his chances of escape were minimal. But he had to at least try. As soon as the strings fell away from him, as soon as he felt the first vestiges of chakra stirring within his pathways, he began to prepare Kamui and flash-warped as far away as he could - only to slam into an invisible barrier with such force that he was sent sprawling back onto the grass, winded.
"Tsk," a voice chided lightly, and Obito looked up to find Shisui standing over him, arms folded across his chest. Arching his eyebrows, he censured, "Come now, Obito. You did not truly believe it would be so simple to escape us? Believe you that we did not anticipate such a mindless attempt at freedom?"
When Obito merely glared with cold defiance back at him, Shisui scoffed. "Rest assured, you have been released from your binds because we wish it. Because we have a most important task for you. How discourteous, to attempt to run before you have even learned what that task is. When I have improved the surroundings of your captivity considerably, and so civilly cut you loose from your restraints."
"I will do nothing you ask," Obito snarled, but faster than he could lift his hands to form attacking seals, Shisui had snatched the sword out of its scabbard at his waist, and held the sharp tip of the blade directly above Obito's throat.
Obito stilled, trying to think of a way to distract him long enough to amass enough chakra to summon the vortex he needed to exit the Underworld. A barrier had been placed around him, which meant warping out was not an option, and that only then left-
His thoughts were diverted when Shisui flashed him a deceptively amiable smile, before humming, "Hmm. Is that so?"
The next moment, Obito found himself seized by the throat and had been hauled back onto his feet. Shisui stood behind him, pressing the edge of his sword firmly against his neck.
Obito stiffened when Hypnos murmured into his ear, "Are you quite certain you wish to raise arms against me? Not only are you outmatched in speed and resources, but perhaps I can persuade you to reconsider." He pointed with an index finger, the silver rings upon it glinting in the moonlight. "Look yonder. There."
Gritting his teeth, Obito looked ahead, just in time to see Thanatos melt out of plumes of darkness, materialising amongst the swaying flowers that littered the fertile fields of paradise. The God of Death gestured with elegant, ring-adorned fingers, summoning to him shimmering particles of light that coalesced together to give birth to a feminine silhouette.
The light glinted out of existence, revealing a young woman clothed in a knee-length, white chiton. She stood staring ahead with unseeing eyes, Thanatos' tall form looming like an ominous shadow just behind her. Her chin-length chestnut-hair was braided and adorned with a crown of flowers, the expression on her face serene, yet vacant.
Something wrenched violently inside Obito's chest. A stabbing, vicious pain speared through his heart, and he froze at the sight of her, so stunned that he did not notice Shisui lower his blade, did not even register him take a step back, as if confident that Obito would no longer attempt to defy him.
Obito's lungs forgot how to breathe. He stared at the apparition, haunted, devastated.
"No…" he breathed, scarcely aware that the word had slipped from his mouth as a storm of suppressed emotions ran riot within him, wreaking havoc in their wake.
She was everything he remembered. The very image of purity and loveliness and light that he'd clung onto in his darkest, most desperate of moments, where memories of Rin had been the only thing that had kept him holding on, fighting on.
He shook his head in a daze, willing himself to wake up, to snap out of the cruelty of the vision. It was not real. It was not her. It could not be her. They were toying with him, spinning an illusion designed to pick him apart, to trick him into lowering his guard. He would not be caught in their deadly spell, in the damning trap they had laid so enticingly for him.
There was no conceivable way that they would have transported him there to see Rin. There was no way they would so freely offer him the very thing he had always yearned to find - not without attaching a terrible price, one he was certain he could not pay. There was no way they would ever do him any manner of kindness, not after everything he had done to offend the surface gods, to harm innocents, and to torture Sasuke in Cronus' name. Obito knew more than anyone else that he was beyond all hopes of redemption.
It was impossible, he repeated to himself, mind racing to assess the situation, even as he struggled to come to terms with the distressing sight of the woman he loved standing within reaching distance before him. With every fibre of being and chakra control he possessed, he desperately willed the illusion to disperse, anger roaring within him. He knew what the pair were attempting to do. They were trying to distract him, trying to use his weakness to bend him to their will.
He needed to escape, before the illusion strengthened its hold on his mind and senses. The game Hypnos and Thanatos were playing was dangerous, and he needed to focus on getting out, on returning to Cronus to warn him that the two had been restored. He could not be swayed. His continued survival depended upon it.
"Are you quite alright?" Shisui asked behind him, feigning innocence. "You have gone deathly pale. Is something the matter?"
"Your illusions will not work on me," Obito said, the words little more than an exhale, as if the vision before him rendered him incapable of drawing enough air into his lungs to speak any louder. Why was the illusion not breaking? Why still did Rin remain?
Shisui chuckled at that. "You really are an insufferable half-wit, aren't you?" The pity in his voice sent a fresh wave of indignant rage radiating through Obito. "There is no deity alive that can rival my cousin's prowess in the art of casting illusions. His eyes do not miss their mark, Obito. Depend upon it, that if he wanted you to be snared, there would be no conceivable way for you to break free."
"Spare me your mind games," Obito ground out, pooling another surge of chakra into his eyes. Why was it taking so long to prepare Kamui?
"Mind games, say you…?" Thanatos purred darkly, the rich timbre of his voice carrying clearly across the space between them.
Obito's gaze flicked hatefully onto him, only to catch onto crimson glinting beneath moonlight. In the next moment, Obito felt himself surging forward, black flames snaking along his right arm. In a heartbeat, Rin was before him, her wide eyes all he could see.
Blood spattered into the air. Her lips parted, and she gargled for breath, for oxygen that would not come. Shocked, Obito looked down to find that his hand had skewered straight through her chest. Leaving a gaping, fatal hole that oozed warm red liquid.
He stared at the nightmarish sight in horror. Paralysed to the spot, he found he could not move. Could not breathe.
"O…bito…" she gasped, before slumping to the ground before him, to die before his very eyes. The sound of her heartbeat slowing echoed deafeningly in his ears.
"No!" he yelled, finally succeeding in wrenching his arm away, gripping onto his head in disbelief, in abject dismay. It wasn't real. It wasn't real!
Blinking, he found himself standing back where he had been. Relief flooded through him. There Rin stood, in front of Thanatos, in a trance and unharmed. But when he blinked again, he was kneeling beside her, her heart in his right hand, still beating, torn freshly from her chest. Her blood, once again, was all over him. He was knee-deep into it, could feel it saturating through the fabric of his clothing.
"S…stop!" He clenched his teeth, the fire consuming his mind increasing the more he tried to deny the vision, until it became unbearable, until the only way to find reprieve was to accept it as real and true. "No…!"
Over and over, he witnessed himself murdering her. Slitting her throat. Stabbing her with multiple blades. Beheading her, slicing her limbs apart. Maiming her precious, delicate body with his own hands. The nightmare would not stop, and most terrifying of all, was how real it felt. How Obito could see, smell, taste, touch and hear everything within them. The thundering chaos of his own heartbeat. Her screams. His own. Her tearful words, begging for him to come back to her, to let her live. His heartless, deranged laughs as he claimed her life, again and again, even as it shattered him to pieces inside, consuming him with unbearable grief. The hurt and unbearable look of a broken heart in her pained eyes, a look that fractured him apart. Over and over, he killed her, spilling her blood, unable to stop himself each time.
She is the cause of all your suffering. Treacherous thoughts whispered sinisterly to him. She is the reason you were enslaved. You want to kill her. You despise her. She deserves to die.
No, he thought to himself. No, no, no, no, no!
The torture seemed to stretch on for eternity, a brutal, unabating cycle of murder and blood-letting. A massacre of the very life he had always wanted to save.
You enjoy shedding blood. The words echoed in his mind, and he could no longer distinguish them apart from himself. What is one more mortal life to you? Take hers.
His hands were around her slender throat. Squeezing. Choking the life out of her, continuing to do so long after her eyes had turned glassy and dull. Snapping her neck and allowing her to fall lifelessly to the ground, he howled in agony, clawing frantically at his own eyes, wishing to tear them out to remove the sickening sight of what he had witnessed - and then, all at once, he was on his knees on the grass at Shisui's feet again, chest heaving, warm liquid rolling down his cheeks, his entire body trembling violently.
A cold sweat had broken over him, and his heart was slamming against his ribcage with such force, it physically shook him. The whiplash of being flung from slaughter to eerie silence had him panting rapidly. He looked down at his hands wildly, finding blood on them. Shocked, it took him several moments to realise that it was his own. That it was his own eye-sockets that were bleeding from the very real attempt he had made to gouge them out of his own skull.
Shisui looked on with refined distaste as Obito dry-heaved upon the grass, gasping to fill his lungs with oxygen. With great effort, he then glanced up, dreading what he might find - only to discover Rin standing as she had been before the ever-composed Thanatos. Unharmed.
Obito blinked repeatedly, terrified that he was about to launch himself at her again, every muscle in his body painfully locked as he prepared himself for the continuation of his greatest nightmare. When nothing else happened after a minute, relief flooded through him, catching within his chest in a soundless sob. He briefly met Itachi's magnetic gaze, finding it to be impassive as the luminous crimson in his irises swirled back to onyx, his Sharingan receding. As if it had been the easiest thing in the world for him to create an illusion wrought of such horror.
"Ah. You see, that was my cousin toying with your mind," Shisui supplied blithely. "You have not known Tsukuyomi before this, have you? There is no escape from it. While trapped within its confines, he can make you claw out your own eyes in the real world, as you bear witness to almost doing yourself. He can make you rip out your own heart and tongue, if it so pleases him."
Obito tried to suppress the trembles that assaulted his body. But the vivid memory of Rin's lifeless eyes still burned at the forefront of his mind. Horrific images he could not shake.
"He can break your mind beyond repair," Shisui went on. "The power of inflicting madness, delirium or desire - there is no limit to what he can compel you to do and feel in a world of his making, no limit to what he is capable of making you believe is real. Within that realm, he controls all time and space. A second in the real world can become centuries within his illusion. How long do you believe you endured that unpleasant episode? A day? A month? Or eternity? The reality is, you were subjected to the illusion for only a minute. Had he not released you, you would have gouged out your own eyes."
"I could have willed you," Itachi confirmed, his voice chillingly soft, "to do far worse than this."
"Are you convinced now that what you see here is no illusion? Did you truly believe that we would bestow such a merciful vision upon you in the form of these fields, and that woman?" Shisui added, his tone hard-edged. "Our kindness will never extend to you. The only reason we have yet to tear you apart for what you did to Hades, is because we seek to use you against your Master. You would do well not to underestimate us again."
"Make no mistake," Itachi added in warning. "It would take but a whim to turn your nightmares into reality. It is well within our power to persuade the King to return this woman to the mortal world - and well within Shisui's power to capture your mind, and command you to slaughter her."
The sinister words filled Obito with unspeakable horror. He had always imagined the pair to be honourable to a fault, to possess a strong moral compass, but it was clear to him that they possessed a vicious streak, and had no qualms over doing whatever needed to be done in order to achieve their ambitions. They were savage and uncompromising in the torture they chose to inflict. Would they force him to hurt Rin, if he refused them his aid? It was a fate far worse for him than death. And he hated that they now knew it, that he had given them such power over him. More power than Cronus had ever held.
His eyes watered, and he swallowed down the sickly taste of bile that lingered in the back of his mouth. His throat had turned to dry parchment, no doubt from all the blood-curdling screams that had torn themselves loose from his chest. Had he made those dreadful sounds within the illusion, or had that been the sound of reality? Suddenly he found that he could not distinguish between the two.
And that, he realised, was where the deadly duo's greatest strengths lay - in blurring the lines between fantasy and reality, causing enough sensory disorientation and psychological damage between them to render all physical weapons useless. The rumours that they were both capable of disarming their opponents with a single glance had not been exaggerated. Both shared a depth of ruthlessness that rivalled even Cronus's methods.
Obito remained silent. His fingers dug into the earth as he wrestled to restore his composure, the crippling nausea left behind from his hellish experience within Tsukuyomi lingering. Something was wrong with his eyes, he realised, stomach sinking like lead as he slowly pushed himself back up to his feet. He couldn't call upon Kamui, no matter how much chakra he directed into his optical nerves, and it had never before taken him so long to manifest it.
"Ah. Lest I forget, I ought perhaps to make it known," Shisui began casually, "that you no longer possess your own Sharingan. So discard any hopes you have of harnessing Kamui."
The words rained upon Obito like the shock of ice water. Despite himself, he tensed, a reaction that did not go unnoticed by Shisui.
"But you would not even dream of using it now, would you?" He mocked, tilting his head slightly. "Now that you know this to be real?"
Hatred and fury swirled like a maelstrom within Obito's chest. They had him by the jugular, and they knew it. His hands closed into tight fists, finally conceding that he was well and truly trapped, as he stared helplessly at Rin, struggling to maintain his composure, equal parts horrified, stricken and outraged. Hypnos and Thanatos had violated him in every way, twisting his thoughts, his perception, his emotions, even stealing his physical organs, with a clinical efficiency that was terrifying.
Obito had never felt so disturbed and uncertain of anything around him. Not even in Cronus's presence, had he ever been filled with such unease. While not outwardly hostile and violent in nature as Cronus was, the damage the cousins so calmly inflicted was decidedly more insidious in its nature, because unlike physical violence, which could be anticipated and defended against, psychological trauma was far more debilitating.
They were pure-blooded Uchiha, through and through. And since he'd had very little interaction with them before, he had been ill-prepared for what it meant to cross them. The worst he had supposed they would do was to fling him into Tartarus. Or seal him away using Totsuka, in punishment for his transgressions against Sasuke. He had not expected them to be capable of inflicting such mental and emotional torment, a pain more harrowing than any physical wound Obito had ever endured.
And he realised, as he finally paid closer attention to the chakra flowing back into his optical pathways, that Hypnos was not bluffing. Obito could indeed see, but he also sensed that his eyes felt different. Foreign. As if they truly were not his own. They were weaker, somehow, suggesting that a more basic form of Sharingan had been given to him. He had been so diverted, however, that he had failed to realise it up until that very moment.
"After I instilled slumber upon you, I implanted another Uchiha's eyes and took your second Sharingan. A necessary precaution, I am sure you can understand." Shisui said. "We cannot well have you bleating news of our return to Madara and ruining our fun, now, can we? And as you have already learned, a barrier has been placed around a perimeter we have set here for you. You cannot outrun us, for our speed surpasses yours, and fighting against us will only bring you to further misery. There is no escape for you, until we permit it."
Obito's jaw clenched.
"The eyes given to you have no remarkable awakened ability, beyond what simple chakra perception a basic Sharingan affords." Shisui continued. He pushed Obito forward, toward Itachi and Rin. "Those were a pair harvested from amongst our lower ranks. I do not believe you to be worthy of even them, but you will require sight in order to fulfil the tasks we have planned for you."
Jagged thorns were winding tighter and tighter within Obito's chest. He stared at Rin, overcome, finally accepting that she was no illusion. His breaths quickened, the denial he had held close like a protective shield shattering like glass around him, flinging him into a reality that sent turmoil and devastation coursing through him.
They did not know Rin as he had. There was no way even Shisui, with his gifts of mind manipulation, could replicate her with such accuracy, and capture her likeness so perfectly. Which meant that Itachi had used his dominion over mortal souls to summon her to him within the fields. An incapacitating course of action that Obito could not have possibly predicted.
"Leave her out of this," he rasped, voice hoarse. "Your quarrel is with me."
"Oh? Did you hear that, cousin?" Shisui shoved Obito roughly forward again. "He is asking us to spare his sweetheart. What say you to that?"
Itachi's long-lashed eyes narrowed, glinting beneath the moonlight like hard black diamonds. Pitiless and unforgiving.
"Perhaps we might have considered such a request," he remarked. "Had he chosen to spare the bleeding mortal we discovered in the throne room."
Obito swallowed thickly, recalling the terrible state Sakura had been in, the karma and consequences of his barbaric actions returning to haunt him.
"Ah. Yes. A pity, then. It is just as I have told you." Shisui declared. "An eye for an eye. You chose to harm our family. You have no right to plead mercy for those precious to you. And since this woman is the root of your destructive behaviour, it stands to assume she is also the remedy, and the only way we can ensure your cooperation. So, no. We will not leave her out of this." He pushed Obito again. "Walk."
Obito's heart galloped as he drew closer to Rin. "How is it you command her…?" he demanded.
It was strictly forbidden to engage with a deceased human soul. How was it that Rin's afterlife was being meddled with, without consequence? The pain of seeing her caught in such a state mingled with grief and anguish and guilt and sorrow, crushing him inside. His chest constricted. It was his fault. It was his fault that her peace was being disturbed.
"No mortal soul can deny my call," Itachi informed him. "In life, or beyond it."
The attestation of the undeniable power Thanatos continued to have over Rin's soul, of the sway he clearly held to influence it to respond to him even within the Elysian Fields, sent fresh knots of dread coiling within Obito's gut. Unlike Sasuke, Itachi had been born to fulfil his specific function, had been born to become Death, and had awakened his abilities from a very young age. Which made the power he had to compel mortal souls even more absolute, stronger even than Sasuke's had been. And only Sasuke could order his brother to stop - something Obito knew he would never do. After all, Obito had flung Sasuke's own beloved into Tartarus itself, and endangered her life without remorse.
"That is indeed Nohara Rin," Shisui confirmed. "Blissfully ignorant of all pain and suffering, as is fit for her afterlife. And thus she would have remained - if not for you."
"What do you want?" Obito growled out, taking another step, hands balling into angry fists at his sides.
"We have a number of tasks in mind for you," Shisui answered. "But first, you will speak with her."
Obito's head jerked sharply to his left, as Shisui stepped around him. Incredulous and alarmed, he tried to anticipate what direction the pair were planning for the encounter to take. He had spent so long pining over seeing Rin again, that being faced with the actual possibility of talking to her again, flooded Obito with terror. Confusion and anger danced across his gaze, and this time he did not bother to mask it.
He knew that Hypnos had looked into his mind. He knew that they were now both well aware of what Obito's true motives had been in following Cronus's orders. But why would they give him the very thing he had been seeking all along? Baffled and thrown, he struggled to process the unexpected turn his confinement within the Underworld was taking.
"Why allow me to see her? Why would you do this for me?" he demanded.
Shisui's lips curved into a smile that was sharper than the blade he had restored in the scabbard at his waist. It affirmed that beneath his pleasant, courteous disposition, Hypnos was utterly dangerous.
"For you?" he repeated, closing his eyes briefly. "You are mistaken about the nature of this touching reunion, and the purpose it will serve. None of this is for you."
Before Obito could comprehend what that meant, Shisui's eyes flicked onto him, capturing his own. Obito's body grew rigid, and he frantically drew from his tailed-beast's chakra, trying to form a barrier between his mind and the hypnotic spinning of Shisui's Sharingan.
But it was too late. Just like Thanatos' assault on his senses, the effects were immediate.
"Hear my words. You are going to tell this woman everything you have done," Hypnos ordered, his voice soft, wrapping around Obito's mind like unyielding steel disguised beneath the caress of liquid silk.
Horror exploded within Obito. And finally, he understood. Far too late, he read the manipulative game they were playing. A game in which they set the rules to trap him, a game in which he could not emerge a winner, no matter what he tried to say or do. No matter how hard he struggled.
"You will confess to everything. You will tell her of the madness that befell you after you lost her, the monster it turned you into, of Madara's plans and the part you have played in assisting him. You will tell her that your loyalty is to him, that you have been nothing but a mindless puppet without honour, who uses her name to justify every despicable action you take. That you are the reason why her afterlife has been disturbed."
Obito's chest heaved, a cold-sweat breaking upon his brow as he watched Thanatos fluidly step around Rin, lifting his hand to call into being a small glass ampoule from a plume of shadow that quickly disintegrated in the pleasant night breeze.
Obito watched, heart careening inside his chest, as Thanatos met his gaze, not breaking eye contact as he brushed the tip of an index finger in a brief, featherlight touch against the underside of Rin's chin, wordlessly enticing her to tilt her head back. Her lips parted on instinct, fully obedient to his will.
Something snapped inside Obito at the sight of his beloved being manipulated in such a way. The last remnants of his self-control splintered, tearing a primal, possessive snarl of rage from his throat. He flash-warped forward, intending to intercept, infuriated that Thanatos had dared to touch her, however fleeting and impersonal the touch had been - only to slam into another invisible barrier.
"Do not lay a hand on her!" he growled, pounding chakra-charged fists against the immovable barrier.
"We have him. He is ours now," Shisui's voice was a lethal purr behind him, but Obito was so distressed by the sight before him, he did not register what the words meant, nor the smugness of Hypnos' tone.
"Leave her be-!" He broke abruptly off, sucking in a sharp breath as Itachi tipped the contents of the ampoule straight into Rin's open mouth.
Panic seized Obito in a choke-like hold. His eyes widened, wild thoughts running rampant, turning frantic. What had Thanatos given to her?!
Itachi then stepped away from Rin, and her lips closed. Obito saw her swallow the contents of whatever liquid she had ingested. His eyes followed Thanatos as he walked unhurriedly toward Shisui, rejoining his cousin's side.
"What did you give to her?!" he demanded, wanting to tear them both apart. But he somehow knew, instinctively, that he would no longer be permitted to get close to them. That any attempt to do so would only yield catastrophic consequences for himself.
Sure enough, shadows began to form around them, bleeding outwards from their forms, dark portals ready to whisk them away, which Obito realised meant that he would be completely alone with Rin. All other souls in the vicinity had been sent away. There was nobody else in sight to disturb them.
"The water of Mnemosyne," Itachi replied simply.
Obito's heart lurched. It lodged itself in his throat, hammering with such force that it seemed to want to break out of him. Mnemosyne. The counterpart to the memory stealing Lethe.
She would remember him. She would know him. The way he had always hoped she would when they met again - and yet the words he had been commanded to say to her, were the last he ever would have wanted to share.
He felt sick to his stomach, true fear turning his blood to ice. Turning his head back around to Rin, he saw in horror that the glazed look in her eyes was thawing. She blinked, lifting a small hand to her head as she swayed unsteadily on her feet. He stepped instinctively forward to catch her - only to find the barrier remained between them.
Pain ravaged his heart. They would not permit him to hold her, to touch her.
"You will tell her," Shisui finished, "of all the mortals you have harmed, the villages you have incinerated, and the balance of life and death you are so intent on disregarding and destroying. You will leave no detail out. Every transgression you have committed, you will share with her."
"Speak a lie, and she will begin to fade," Itachi warned. "Speak three, and she will be taken from you. You will not meet with her again."
Obito's mind reeled. The palms of his hands felt cold and clammy as Rin blinked dazedly at him, finally growing aware of her surroundings, of her own self again. She looked down at herself, at her clothing, the memories of her mortal life slowly pooling back to her.
"Do not try anything untoward," Shisui called. "My cousin's summons watch over you."
The ruffling of feathers alerted Obito to a pair of black crows that settled on the bough of a nearby tree. Their black eyes were fixed intently on him. A chilling reminder that their Master was only a heartbeat away from returning at any given moment.
"Squander not this time. Pass it wisely," Itachi's voice echoed, before the shadows swallowed him and Shisui whole, spiriting them out of Obito's sight.
A deafening silence filled the air, punctuated only by the thundering of his chaotic heartbeat, and the ragged sound of his own shallow breaths.
His heart then seemed to stop entirely, when a soft voice whispered tentatively, "Obito…?"
Hi. If you follow me on Tumblr, you might be aware of the recent announcement I made that the story is going on a formal hiatus.
This chapter has been split due to its length, which means there might be one more upload at some point before I go on a long break. The next chapter (which covers the restoration of Sakura's memories and would actually be a good place to hit pause) will be posted ONLY IF I find the time I need to finish the last scene and proof-read it all. There will be no further updates for the foreseeable otherwise, as I have no time to write regularly anymore and need to focus on my real life.
If the next part isn't uploaded over the next few weeks or months, then please just assume that it will be whenever I return from hiatus.
Please refer to my Tumblr post for further explanations. My username there is scribe-of-elysium, and I can still be found and messaged on there during this break period. To be clear, I am not discontinuing the story. But I can't force myself to write under pressure anymore, and will work on the story whenever I feel motivated again and can find the time to do so in future.
I'm sorry if this news disappoints readers, and if it causes people to stop reading, I understand that. But I hope that people won't give up on it, especially given how much content has been uploaded so fast over the past two years. We are still close to completion - I just need to find the time and energy to be able to focus on writing it to the standard everyone deserves.
Thank you to everyone who has continued to read, review and support my story. Particularly to those who review on a regular basis, it's lovely to hear from you. I do read every comment and appreciate it.
DISCORD: If anyone is still interested in joining the Discord group, where you can find Story discussions, a huge Artwork gallery, memes, location/fashion inspiration posts, as well as many channels offering general chat under a wide variety of subjects, please don't contact me to request an add as I am no longer facilitating this myself. Please contact vettyart on Tumblr or on Twitter at (at symbol) VettyRemmy. Vetty is the talented artist who has created a lot of artwork for the story and she will be managing the server while I'm away. She will provide you with details of how to join and her Discord ID once you message her on Tumblr/Twitter directly.