A/N: You'll have noticed that I left the invisible father of canon out of the family tree entirely and bumped all the men up a generation—I did this because I am not Disney or ATLA. I don't believe being a strong female character disqualifies you for a relationship (no matter how troubled it eventually may become, in this case) with a strong male character. This is also not an episode of Ancient Aliens that started playing without warning (though there is a certain Jenova sort of element in the cells of the First, so maybe there was some warning?), so you'll have to settle for elements derived from the Kojiki, the Nihongi, and stolen liberally from Axial Age philosophies.

Kill Your Heroes

-Chapter Seventy-Two-

Gaman (Part V)

She used Sai, who'd unintentionally become her closest anchor as the battlefield had shifted around his scaled fortress, to flash closer before she actually had to flicker toward Hagoromo. Sai had been strangely stationary this entire battle, even considering the thundering clash of titanic forces above their heads, but she hadn't given it a lot of thought.

The moment that she landed next to him and he blinked up at her with the distinctly 'not guilty' look of a cat caught doing something it knew better than to try, she knew that it had been intentional. It only took a glance to understand what he had done.

"They say there's a type of salamander that lives in this country that can regrow its limbs," she said with no little exasperation. "Since you decided to try this on a battlefield, you have no right to complain if I call you Salamander for the rest of your natural life."

"All the books say that nicknames are signs of familiarity and affection, hag," he said, grimacing as she thumped him gently upside the head with the hilt of a sword. She hadn't hit him hard—it was less the impact of that and more so the jolt of chakra she sent surging through him, the inky black blood that had been seeping from the open veins and arteries of his partially regrown leg quickening its solidification into living flesh. He'd been sitting on several enormous scrolls and had been using his own blood, fraught with chakra, to summon the great waves of creatures he'd been summoning throughout the battle.

In Sai's strange little worldview, this had probably counted as killing two birds with one stone.

She didn't stay to watch his toes form—she had an ancient sage to overwhelm.

Despite her brief delay, she didn't arrive too long after Hamura—Gaara had made the way impassible with a construct more complicated than his usual techniques. It was some sort of beast that looked like no animal that had ever lived but resembled many of them in part, scorpion and ant and lizard, that had Hagoromo trapped in its many barbed mandibles, which were like some awful marriage of swords and fishhooks. She wondered briefly if it was something born out of the stories passed down from the time the people of Suna were wanderers of the desert.

Gaara hadn't chosen to make his beast gargantuan, like those clashing above them, and so she could still see Hagoromo impaled and dripping the liquid that wasn't blood.

Sakura wouldn't have chosen to fight like the Uchiha did even if it was within her power—the more obscured one's vision was, such as when fighting within monstrous constructs, the easier it was for the enemy to carry out subterfuge—she liked her enemies in her sight and within her reach. So she silently admired his technique even as she distrusted Hagoromo's apparent defeat.

She was not disappointed in that sense.

Even as she darted forward, intending to tear through that knot of chakra at his core with her own fangs, it unspooled until it was like looking into the sun. When she could see again, there was a tree and it blossomed as it devoured the chakra in Gaara's construct, the buds falling away as the limbs began to be weighed down by fruit.

They were a stonefruit, like peaches—she only knew this because they burst when they fell from the tree, oozing juice from the pale flesh around the pitch-black core. The trunk split with a sound like the crack of lightning striking a tree and Hagoromo walked out, whole and hale, and this whole process took only heartbeats.

"Hello, brother," Hamura greeted, hands relaxed at his side, like he hadn't just seen someone regenerate themselves from a tree. But then again, he was an ancestral spirit riding a living body of his line, so perhaps he had seen stranger things in his time.

By contrast, Hagoromo wasn't relaxed at all. His face instantly creased with lines of fury, more raw and honest than that mask he'd worn as Zetsu or even the controlled zealotry that had shadowed his real face. "You," he said, turning the word into a pejorative. "You're dead."

"Yes," Hamura acknowledged calmly. "That's the usual cycle for mortals. Even ones who don't have brothers who send them on their way," he said with gentle mockery.

This served only to enrage Hagoromo further and he rushed toward his brother, whip-like roots groaning and reaching as they burst from the ground around the tree, but the difference between Hamura's skill and Neji's was obvious. Not quite a chasm, but certainly a clearly observable gap, especially with her third eye open. His hands didn't merely close tenketsu, like Neji's, but left behind a 'hook' of his own chakra so that the point couldn't be forced open by raw strength. He also had the advantage of who knows how many years of experience compounded by a body at its peak—it was a thing of cruel beauty to watch him move and counter the enemy that had thus far been fighting with them like a jounin sparring with genin.

Against any other enemy, he would have had them as helpless as a civilian in seconds, but Sakura could see that Hagoromo's chakra was already beginning to eat at the remnants of Hamura's.

She had overcome an enemy far more powerful than her by leaving him between, once, and she considered bitterly if that would work on Hagoromo or if he'd just sprout anew like a coppiced tree. If Hamura failed to subdue his brother, that would be her next strategy. She just doubted it could be accomplished as neatly as she'd managed last time.

Maybe—maybe she would have to stay between with him. Bind him somehow—she knew there were seals for it, but she didn't know them—no one had ever taught her anything broadly and systematically since the Academy, and she sharply felt the regret of it now. She absolutely did not want to die, did not want even more to stay in that void world until…

Until something in that black world devoured them both or she went mad or her soul scattered and returned entirely to the universe, she supposed.

But if she knew a way, she would do it.

She would.

She tasted blood and realized she'd bitten through her lip entirely in frustration, because she couldn't. She had no way to guarantee she could trap Hagoromo between worlds and if she couldn't do that, she would have sacrificed herself for nothing and she'd drown in the bitterness before anything could destroy what was left of her.

While these thoughts roiled silently through her, the brothers confronted each other.

"You dare to mock me, when you were the one who betrayed me!" Hagoromo snarled. "I pretended to be blind when you first developed those eyes, even though the whole clan was guessing at what you had done to earn such favor, especially when you had already refused to remarry when your wife died in childbirth, but then you began to defer to her public and even sided with her against me. We were full blood brothers, Hamura!"

"The water of the covenant is thicker than the blood of the womb," Hamura replied, his long hair swaying as he ducked the long spears that would have driven themselves through his eyes. "I might have been your brother, but I believed in Kaguya-sama's vision—and, once, you did too. I swore to serve Kaguya-sama as my liege-lord and you were trying to kill her. You were the one who made me choose between you."

"It would not have come to that, if only she had submitted to me and surrendered the power she was never supposed to have. Order in the world begins in the family. If a woman speaks first, disaster follows! Anyone who suffered under that demon she left behind could testify to that."

"Kaguya-sama was not in a clear state of mind when she left the Ten-Tails to guard my body and my legacy when she left this world—and anyone who can calmly accept that their spouse in a marriage of more than respect and obligation is trying to kill them is not human—but it was you drove it mad in your attempts to either kill or assimilate it. It was you who tore it into nine separate beasts who had forgotten their purpose. Those things are not her fault."

"How would you know, you were—"

"Dead by your hand?" Hamura said coldly. "If you think the dead are unaware of the doings of the living, why would anyone ask them for guidance and protection? It took you more than the days it took for me to cross the river to the spirit realm to destroy her legacy."

This drew a bitter laugh from Hagoromo. "I see you still have an answer for everything. And are still blindly devoted to her, after all this time."

"If you had spent a fraction of the time you spent developing your ninshū at your wife's side, you would understand. I never envied you anything but her, but we also never betrayed you in the way that you seem to think. She was devoted to all of her causes—and you were one of them.

"Kaguya-sama was someone with whom I shared laughter, and tears, and more—we lived together, learned together, fought together. While you were in seclusion, I was at her side, on battlefields waged both with weapons and with words. She helped me raise my children even as you made it so that her own sons were almost strangers to her. I saw her mistakes—and I saw how hard she worked to make them right again. I was with her until the end—and I am with her still.

"Even when you had betrayed everything between the two of you, and she turned her back on the world, she did not forget to protect the nephews to whom she was the only mother they had ever known. The Hyūga clan exists today because of the decisions she made in the last seconds of her mortal life. What I owe her can't be expressed in words—but it's about more than owing. She was my friend, Hagoromo. I wonder if you can even understand what that means."

Hagoromo snarled wordlessly at his brother before he seemed to recover himself, expression closing off as he forcefully recovered from his surprise, but in that moment where he was focused on his internal turmoil rather than exclusively on the battle environment, Sakura struck.

Maybe she couldn't bind him there, but Hagoromo was fearless in the way he fought—he was fast, but not impossibly so, and he had the arrogance of the endlessly regenerating.

It wasn't impossible to lay hands on the Sage of the Six Paths—his skin felt cool and dry and somehow unreal beneath palms sweaty with the exertion of battle and her fingers dug into his flesh like she was Soudai refusing to be dislodged from her lap.

Chakra warped space and dissolved the barriers between the world and the void—or maybe it was a dark world crushed between them, like when you crumpled layers of fabric—and it was her will and her body that shoved them both into a space that was narrower than the instinctive blink that usually concealed it from sight.

She left him there in the dark, and returned to the world where she was assaulted by howling winds so strong as to almost be a negative pressure wave and a scene like something out of a nightmare. An enormous tornado of black fire swallowed the horizon like the goddess of destruction dancing, and Sakura thought for a moment that this was how she would end, not at her enemy's hands, but as collateral damage to the overwhelming might of Naruto and Sasuke's combined strength. Then she noticed that everywhere the earth was saturated with Hagoromo's chakra, the fire slid off like water from a waterfowl's feathers, and there was nothing that could burn except the air itself and that was where that roaring wind was born.

It yanked at her hair and now that death wasn't quite as imminent, she briefly turned her attention to the white flickering in her peripheral vision. The heavy swing of her hair behind her had made her aware that her regeneration had done more than simply repair her skin. She had been braiding it loosely back and was grateful for it now—the tie binding it had been about two-thirds of the way down its length, somewhere just at the base of her neck. That tie now brushed against her upper thighs, the loose ends of her hair at her knees, and now she realized she shouldn't have been so anxious about those streaks. All of her hair had gone white at her scalp and it was only further down her back that it began to regain its vibrant candyfloss pink.

Sakura sighed almost inaudibly, a little exhale through her teeth that made her bitten-through lip throb, and then let it go in favor of acknowledging Hamura.

"We're not going to win, are we?" Sakura asked. It seemed something that one should say softly, shamefully, but she had to shout it to be heard above the wind. She already feeling the strange fluctuations that probably heralded Hagoroma clawing his way back from the dark world.

Well, either that or that marriage of wind and fire was about to escape from her teammate's control and raze half this country to the ground and send the ash along the rivers to ruin the rest.

"My brother was born a genius," Hamura replied. "And then he became someone who overshadowed even his own legends—it is not empty flattery when they call him the god of shinobi. If I thought that I could overcome him by sheer force, if I was willing to ignore the laws of heaven and earth, I would not have had to wait this long. I have spent these many years in the study of sealing for this moment—but I can't do it alone. Not without doing things that would only replace one sin with another. The amount of power it will require is beyond me as I am, even if I were to come fully to this side and expel this child of my line to make room for my own soul. It will require the kind of power only a sage can touch."

Sakura's eyes flicked up at the black sky, where Naruto was burning like a golden star.

"Not him," Hamura said softly, or as softly as he could and still be heard, which meant it was stil said with some force. "You. Sealing is a subtle art. That is a powerful child, but he is young, impulsive, and looking at his jutsu, little-practiced in paying attention to minute divergences in a technique. There will only be one good chance—after that, everything will be blood and sacrifice. If this seal is successful, it will destroy that seal of yours and all those seals that it supports. It would kill him. For the sake of the world, please."

He was watching her, as if waiting for her to hesitate for the sake of her own power, for fear of her own safety, and she was watching him in turn. For her, the sacrifice of the seal was nothing—the only question was whether she could trust this brother who had come out of nowhere.

A thousand years was a long time to learn how to lie, especially when you were only a spirit borrowing a body.

But there weren't a lot of choices and there was no time to ask.

She keyed her wireless headset and gave the order for Kakashi-senpai and Itachi to disengage and land somewhere safe—there would be an interruption in the seal. She didn't mention Sai by name, but she felt the shift in his presence in the seal network that she took as acknowledgement.

"You didn't have to look at me like that. Konohagakure raises shinobi, not sycophants in some daimyo's court. If a soldier can save even some small part of the world by dying, do you think we wouldn't do it? Asking me to give up a little bit of power that I haven't even gotten used to yet isn't even a real sacrifice," Sakura said sharply, baring her teeth in a smile even as her insides fluttered with the panic of committing to such a decision without time or research.

It felt like that first day when she'd learned to water-walk, launching herself into the hazy sky with no real certainty she'd land well.

Sakura felt so sharply alive when juxtaposed with the almost certain loss of this battle if things went awry that she thought that perhaps she would die of the adrenaline that washed through her and tried to make her fingers tremble.

Hamura nodded solemnly at her, reaching out to brush the blood from her chin with his thumb, using it to sketch characters in the air between them. There was a resonance that pulsed between them and she had a seal appear in her mind—but it wasn't like any seal she'd known. The ones she had access to were few and far between, but there were certain commonalities.

They were originally things of paper and ink, given life and force by chakra and blood.

This was—this was something more than that.

Sakura crouched, bringing out blank scrolls from her storage and filling them with the characters that were limned with white light in her mind, making them real, positioning them to align to the eight directions as she went to one knee over the point where they intersected.

Spreading her taloned hand wide, the white scales glimmering with the shadow of black fire and red. The earth beneath her fingers was soft and loamy, grains of sand finding their way up beneath her nailbeds as she closed her hand, her eyelids falling nearly closed as her gaze turned inward.

Earth endures.

There was a deep rumble, something she felt in her teeth, as the earth began to shift first in the deep places, then it was something that a person could hear with their earths as spires of rock ruptured the placid surface. This was not a land of mountains, but she ripped up the bones of the land and raised the eight-peaked rim of a caldera around them.

Sakura could not see and had no way of knowing that there were standing stones that looked almost like people in gloaming light at each of these peaks.

Metal is remade without being destroyed.

The earth birthed swords for her at the end of each of her scrolls, the dull, untempered ore rich with potential energy. They hummed and sang, each resonating with the others until the whole became greater than the sum of its parts.

Water flows without ceasing.

Her array had swallowed the nearby river. Water could bring happiness and prosperity flowing in; when it flowed badly it brought disease and rot. It was an element of purification and transition; it was also a yin element to help offset Hagoroma's unbalanced yang constitution. Seen rushing above the ground or flowing hidden below, it changed the energy flows of the spiritual landscape.

As attuned to the world as she was in this moment, with her third eye open, she could feel them as clearly as her own chakra channels.

Wood begins again after death.

Where the fire of Amaterasu had passed over, seeds began to sprout, tendrils spreading out from protective shells and greenery bursting forth on new mountainsides, anchoring the earth, filtering the water.

Wind has no beginning and no end.

Wind, driven by the heat of the fire, began to howl through these new peaks. There were places like this that, due to the uncanny geography, the wind blew in and could not easily escape again. It would create a fell, unhealthy place, from which souls could not easily escape, but creating such an undiscriminating trap deliberately would create the kind of negative karma that would take lifetimes to overcome.

Trapping his brother's soul wasn't Hamura's intention.

Instead, the wind blew continually sweet and fresh, a place where evil could not root and souls with ill intentions could not linger.

Fire cannot be sated.

Sakura stood from where she'd knelt, knee creaking with her weight, and then she was weightless—her whole body like a scarf tossed into the sky. And then she was a battle pennant snapping in the wind, her white scales gleaming as she rode the winds of the enormous fire tornado toward the roiling clouds above. Lightning snapped and snarled there and she gathered it around her like weaving a crown of flowers to wear in her hair, the pearl that glowed in place of her third eye in this form casting light as if it were the moon come down, and all the fires of Amaterasu followed her like a cloak of shadows as she rushed back toward the earth.

Hagoromo was standing where she'd been kneeling, none the worse for his time in the dark world, and raised his hand against her.

The void is invoked.

The sound of their impact was a tsunami wave crashing down against a cliff-face—and like that tsunami wave, when she met that immovable power, her consciousness broke.

[Kill Your Heroes]

There was a handsome man bending over her, her head pillowed on his knees. She couldn't remember his name, but he had familiar eyes. Sakura wondered what he was doing in the—no, that was open sky behind him. What—the hunt—Obito and Hagaromo and then…

Her eyes were stinging and she blamed it on the sun. "I didn't win, did I?" she asked softly.

Hamura's smile was kind. "No," he said. "But look."

She twisted her head, to see he was tugging gently on the leaves of a little tree to bring into her field of view.

There was a single pink blossom drooping on its branches.

"Perhaps you didn't manage to kill him and send him safely back into the cycle of life and death, but you did seal away a great deal of his power. The spirit world and this one are no longer in immediate danger of war. Kaguya-sama's rest can continue undisturbed. You will have a little time to bloom beautifully before you face him again—this time he will be just a man, no more or less dangerous than a jinchuriki, but not a monster well beyond your reach." He paused for a moment, as if his attention turned elsewhere, but his eyes never left hers. "Your companions are coming. I only have time to beg one last favor."

His hand gently grasped her wrist, sliding up to cup the palm of her hand as he bent his head and guided her first two fingers to where the manji of Neji's seal was currently exposed. Sakura gave a ragged gasp as another jutsu burned itself into her brain, chakra moving through seared and aching channels. The arms of the manji bent and bloomed, becoming a blossom that faded into his skin.

She knew a version of the seal still remained, protecting his eyes from being used by any opportunist who knew a little medical ninjutsu, but she had cut the strings that bound him to the head of the Hyūga clan and erased the brand that marked him as part of a branch family.

Sakura blinked and it wasn't only Neji's appearance rather than Hamura's—it was him behind the eyes too, staring down at her with a complicated expression.

She managed to gather enough energy to smile wanly up at him, feeling her ears ringing and her extremities going cold as she faded into the silence once more.

[Kill Your Heroes]

Itachi was weary and nearly numb as they finally drew within sight of Konohagakure's walls. Sakura was clasped close to his chest, still unconscious, but at least it was a peaceful sleep. She had seized twice on the journey and her heart had stopped once—he thought his heart had almost stopped with it, the memory making him grip her tighter before he forced himself to relax his fingers before he left bruises.

He still felt very unsettled about…everything, from Obito to the strange encounter that Hyūga-san had only been able to describe in part. He had been silently mulling over everything they had learned, undisturbed by his very subdued teammates—even Naruto-san had been quiet—and had not decided how it changed how he felt about the long miserable stretch of his life that had begun with the first rumors of rebellion in the Uchiha clan.

Itachi was not so intent on Sakura's continued well-being, his own mental turmoil, and the approaching gauntlet of walking through Konohagakure's gates as a shinobi of the Leaf again that he failed to notice how Sasuke had abruptly stopped walking.

"Sasuke?" he asked.

Sasuke was staring at the gates, his face set in hard, unyielding lines. "It's not finished."

When his eyes blazed Sharingan red, all the hairs on Itachi's body pricked in foreboding. "I won't cross through that gate until that man is dead and our family is safe."

And, ignoring the half-formed protests of Itachi and Naruto-san, Uchiha Sasuke summoned a hawk and abandoned the Leaf once again.

A/N: After this chapter, we enter the last arc of Kill Your Heroes. Thank you for accompanying me on this journey. Though I say last arc, it won't be a particularly short one—expect a time skip similar to the Toward Better Days chapters.