Kill Your Heroes

-Chapter Seventy-Three-

Kintsugi (Part I)

"You're still here?" Tsunade asked the Uchiha who had his head bowed so deeply, forehead pressed against the back of hands, that he was nearly bent double.

When he looked up and blinked hazily at her, she could see that his eyes weren't merely red-rimmed, there was a whole river network writ in red in his sclera, and the bruises beneath his eyes were emphasized by the exhausted grooves that aged him a decade. "I didn't want Sakura to wake up alone," he replied hoarsely.

"I meant in Konoha," she replied.

Itachi dropped his gaze to where Haruno Sakura was resting with all the serenity of medically induced sleep—whatever she had been doing on that battlefield, it had scoured her channels and reserves until she had a capacity that could rival a Senju, but the assimilation and the shock had nearly killed her. If Tsunade had to guess, her body had been in so much pain it probably had lost the ability to process it as anything other than euphoria as her own chakra burned through her like it was acid.

And, of course, she'd been with a squad with a piss-poor level of medical training beyond gaping wounds, but even the special vision afforded by the Byakugan hadn't been able to detect her own chakra killing her.

Tsunade didn't blame the Hyūga boy for that—whatever her chakra had been doing before it became bent on mass cellular destruction, it probably hadn't looked much like any sort of baseline with which to compare the wavelength that had wrecked such silent devastation in her body before it had twisted back into a regenerative force.

By the time Tsunade had seen her, it had been too late to do much more than see to it that she had a proper rest and treat the dehydration that was a common side-effect of prolonged loss of consciousness in the field.

She'd said as much to the hovering members of her team and had ordered them to disperse, though she'd allowed the Uchiha to remain at her side on the assumption that this might be one last guilty lingering before he took off after his brother.

"I made promises to Sakura," he replied softly. "I don't belong only to myself any longer. That kind of decision—I'm free to make it, but I know that it wouldn't be one that was forgiven."

And he looked absolutely miserable with that knowledge.

"Ah. Well," Tsunade replied coldly, glancing back to where Shikaku was leaning lazily against the door, "about that. On the matter of being forgiven—you realize that leaving without the prior authorization of his commanding officer—Hatake Kakashi in this case—means that your brother has become a missing-nin. Again."

Uchiha Itachi's shoulders fell at her harsh reminder. "I know."

Tsunade stated at him for a long moment, still weighing in her mind the offer that she and Shikaku had negotiated between them. She didn't disagree with the idea that Otsutsuki Hagoromo remained a real threat to the village, but he'd vanished without a trail any of Hatake's squad had been able to trace. Other tracking specialists—and she had never heard any report of Uchiha Sasuke even pretending to be one—had already been dispatched within hours of Hatake's report arriving via carrier crow.

Hatake had declared the mission finished.

Uchiha Sasuke did not have the authority to countermand his field commander's decisions. It established a very poor precedent and stood to erode the military discipline that allowed the village to function if he was allowed to do as he wished without reprimand, but Tsunade was under no illusion about the casualties that would result from a mission to retrieve him.

She was also under no illusions about the kind of Hokage she was.

Tsunade, like all Hokage before her and all those that would follow, would make compromises she didn't necessarily like to save face and to save lives.

"Konohagakure could issue a mission for your brother—an open-ended one, filed as if it was issued on the day that you returned to the village and I'd simply forgotten to send it down to the mission office in all the fuss, what with my commander of the military police returning slightly mangled," she said coolly, crossing her arms beneath her breasts. "In return, when you marry, Haruno Sakura will become the head of the Uchiha clan. All of its assets will be transferred to her and will remain under her sole control for the rest of your lives, though she will be allowed to grant you the minor privileges usually accorded to the wife of the head.

"As an outsider, I don't have the authority to interfere with clan affairs, so I can't order you to do anything and there will be no official record and both Shikaku and I will deny any such meddling, regardless of what you decide."

She watched his body language to gauge his reply—it was not a kind compromise and was just fractionally better than stealing his clan outright and handing it to someone she could trust. Tsunade would have been furious if anyone had even suggested such a thing, despite having earned the shame and disappointment of her own clan with her choices, but there weren't very many options for survival left for a clan that had burned so many bridges.

If he left his brother a criminal and made himself one in Sasuke's defense—and she couldn't imagine him standing idly aside if she issued the order to have his brother brought in—there was absolutely nothing stopping her from stripping the name from the clan and handing over its land and assets as reward to one of her own trusted subordinates to strengthen the village.

It was a course of action that had doubtless been suggested many times to the Third, even before Uchiha Sasuke betrayed the village.

She had certainly had to hear about it often enough.

Tsunade expected anger, but found only relief—his shoulders were still slumped with exhaustion, but they weren't hunched defensively, and the line of tension in his brows smoothed out as he gave her a smile that was so defeated that it might have made her feel guilty if she wasn't clear that the Uchiha had brought this end upon themselves.

"Is that all?" he sighed. "The money means nothing and our name is worth less than nothing if it becomes known that Sasuke defected for a second time. At least in Sakura's hands, it might be associated with something other than madness and greed. I do have something to ask of the Senju clan, though—it was your grandfather who built the original compound that burned when Madara rebelled. Do you know if the plans are still extant?"

"Do I look like I've had time to be looking for old plans in the Senju basement? But it's not an impossible request. You want to restore it as your last act as head of the Uchiha clan?"

Itachi nodded, glancing over at Sakura again. "When Madara burnt the first manor to conceal the secrets he could not carry away and to punish the clansmen who refused to betray the village, the next head had the clan rebuild with ordinary houses as a signal of humility and sincerity—it was supposed to be much harder to plot rebellion if you had to skulk from house to house to do it. At the time, there were still many clansmen, so they didn't need an estate to give them status. But what the Uchiha clan has left now is a façade that will need maintained. Besides," he said dryly, "Hatake-san has a lot of dogs."

At this, Tsunade grinned. "What, you don't want a running commentary on your sex life from the ninken in the next room over?"

She outright laughed as Itachi's ears and neck burned, but he didn't deny it.

[Kill Your Heroes]

Sakura woke to joints that ached like they had when she'd been meddling with her height and her teeth felt all scummy, her mouth sour and her scalp itchy. Overall, it was the kind of everyday misery that indicated that she'd probably survived sealing the Sage of Six Paths.

Surreal. That was the only word she had to describe that awful mess—like discovering a figure out of the stories of your childhood was real and not only was he real, he wasn't a hero after all.

Thinking of the title only heightened her strange sense of dissociation with the battle. Most of her encounters with death clung tight to her consciousness, as if she was in danger of falling back into that moment if she didn't grip tight to the present with both hands. But this…this was as if some stranger had worn her skin and fought that battle, making alliances with ancient ancestral spirits and flown without wings as a fully manifested dragon.

But some stranger strong enough to yank mountains up out of the earth and overwhelm a whirlwind of fire and reshape rivers would also have been strong enough to win.

She had lost, so Sakura knew that it had really been her beneath those scales.

It was not the first time she'd lost to an opponent's overwhelming force—though she knew it wasn't true, it sometimes seemed her career was one long lesson in defeat. But that meant her heart was steady against the disappointment and she only quietly clenched her teeth and forced her protesting body upright.

"If you'd stayed down for another ten minutes, I could have talked Shikaku into a real drink to pass the time," Tsunade-sama's voice came from her bedside. "On the other hand, that would have been another ten minutes listening to him try to talk me into some sort of strategy game that he's going to win and is going to put me to sleep, so good job saving me from that."

Sakura was still blinking away the surprise of finding the Hokage herself at her bedside as Tsunade-sama unceremoniously took the entire tea service that was on the table between her and Shikamaru's father and placed it closer to Sakura.

"Here. Have some tea. It comes highly recommended by some people," she said, rolling her eyes, but her hands were gentle and steady as she made certain that Sakura had a stable grip before releasing the cup.

Shikamaru's father was smiling faintly into his own teacup.

"Now, let's have a chat about what happened after I sent you off in Amegakure."

Sakura glanced over at Shikamaru's father. As a child in the Academy, she'd found his appearance very imposing, which had made her even more timid than usual. Ino hadn't been spending much time with her future teammates in those days, and then it had ceased to matter, but now his scars didn't obscure the wry kindness of his expression.

"Don't worry about Shikaku. This will all become his headache in four days, so I've briefed him on everything. You and Hatake are out of the village so often I don't know if you've met him in his capacity as jounin commander, and I know that he's seen your service record, but I don't know if he's met you when you were conscious, so take this as your formal introduction if you haven't met each other properly."

"She was close with Inoichi's daughter in the Academy, but we only saw each other in passing. I remember you always called me Nara-san, but you can go ahead and just call me Shikaku, Sakura-chan. We'll be working together for a while," he said, then sighed. "It makes me feel old, having a girl the same age as my boy serving as my Commander of Military Police. Though that might just be because our esteemed Godaime went and persuaded my wife before she ever brought up becoming the Sixth to me." The pointed look he directed at Tsunade-sama only made her smile.

"It's not entrapment when it's strategy, Shikaku. Now, let's hear what happened during the incident that we're calling Operation Firestorm for convenience—and when you're done, I'll have Shikaku brief you on what you missed."

Sakura nodded and then did as she was bid, recounting everything that she could remember without holding anything back. Tsunade-sama and Na—Shikaku-sama listened with thoughtful eyes, Shikaku-sama asking questions to clarify as he saw fit, Tsunade-sama looking rather smug every time he did so.

When her report had finished, Shikaku-sama relayed what had occurred outside the scope of her personal battle: sometime after she had given the order for senpai and Itachi to withdraw, but before she'd stolen the black fire, Naruto and Sasuke had been left to face an opponent whose real danger wasn't in the number of tailed beasts sealed within him.

Rather, it was in the fact that he himself had been deceived into fighting Hagoromo's war after being left for dead by his village, which made him desperate in a way that sang to Naruto's soul, but he had also been there on the night that had ruined Sasuke's life and knew how to use words to twist that knife. Sasuke's temper had never been precisely stable and whatever Orochimaru's seal had done to him physiologically, compounded by his time under a master more interested in how he'd break than in his long-term well-being—well, without Kakashi-senpai or his brother there to temper him, Sasuke hadn't been interested in hearing Obito's life story to the point he was ready to remove Naruto from the field of combat entirely to keep him out of the way.

Not by killing him—Sasuke was still convinced he was on their side, apparently, though how he interpreted that was somewhat different from how Sakura saw things, but perhaps she was just overly conventional—but by using his eyes to temporarily seal the Nine-Tail's chakra. This forced Naruto to rely entirely on his sage energy, forcing him to the ground just long enough for Sasuke to make what would probably have been a suicide run toward his opponent if Kakashi-senpai hadn't intervened.

It hadn't mattered that he'd only seen the jutsu performed once at a distance, through fire and smoke and chakra constructs, with no hand signs to speak of—Kakashi-senpai had lived up to his name.

The Copy-cat Nin had stolen the technique used to bind the Nine-Tails and used it to suppress his old teammate and all the tailed beasts that Akatsuki had managed to steal.

That had been when Sakura had come bringing the fire and riding the lightning and mostly being a gargantuan scaled distraction and it hadn't mattered whether Kakashi-senpai had intended to bring Obito back to the village to face the justice of a Kage and bring the tailed beasts under Konohagakure's control once more or if he'd meant to meet his old companion in battle.

Sasuke had found his own sort of justice, written with the edge of a blade, leaving the safety of his chakra construct so that he could move hidden in Sakura's shadow.

And then, what was done was done.

Until Sasuke had decided that they weren't done and the mission wasn't finished until he decided it was.

"That idiot," she breathed without her usual sharpness, still strangely disconnected from her own reality, but she felt her stomach dip with more than anger.

It was probably that they had wanted to debrief her alone, but neither senpai nor Itachi were at her side. She wasn't worried about senpai in quite the same way she was worried about Itachi—it was an old wound that had been opened, but maybe that would finally give it an opportunity to heal. He had likely coerced some poor soul into buying him a meal and was presently buried under a heap of ninken, reading a smut novel and deliberately not thinking about it.

If he was feeling especially self-destructive, he would be doing some sort of grueling physical training somewhere no one could see and realize that the infamous Hatake Kakashi also had to train to keep his skills sharp.

He was no longer the same lost child who'd given himself over to ANBU looking for death or absolution.

She was only afraid that Itachi was still the same self-sacrificing son of the Uchiha clan that he had always been.

"Godaime-sama, Itachi, he…"

"Is probably just as silly as you're giving him credit for, but there's something to be said for Uchiha men, whatever their shortcomings. Take it as a gift of advice for your upcoming nuptials. They're loyal partners—and when I say that, I mean obsessively. When I was your age, all the kunoichi knew two things about the boys from the Uchiha clan—they never produced bastards and they could be right bastards once they became fixated on someone. While they won't stray even if they once see you twice in ten years, they expect the same kind of loyalty. It's linked to their doujutsu, or at least that's the excuse they've been using when they use clan law to punish cheating spouses. So be absolutely certain he's what you want," Tsunade-sama cautioned.

Sakura considered that and her expression must have given her away.

"So you're the type that's pleased by that. Well, that's good. Considering that I sent your swain to get some sleep and go make arrangements to build you a manor. The two of you will have to wait to marry, though, since your whole squad seems intent on causing me headaches."

"What do you mean, Tsunade-sama?"

"I mean that what you did to Hyūga Neji's seal has already caused enough of a fuss with the Hyūga clan without complicating it as," and she raised her hands to mockingly make air quotes, "an action undertaken by the Uchiha clan to undermine the traditions of said clan and the authority of their patriarch. Now, mind you, this was from a passel of their elders, not their patriarch himself."

Shikaku took up the thread of the conversation. "After the death of his brother, Hiashi became a much more reserved man, but he's being suspiciously quiet about the whole thing. I suspect he's looking for a way to save the clan face, acquire the seal you used, and seal an alliance all in one fell swoop. Marriage is the obvious answer for the elders, especially since it would also spite the Uchiha clan, but we'll see what sort of offer we end up with. Now, there are other matters we'll have to be prepared for, before we officially take office, but we'll do that somewhere other than your hospital room and after you've had a chance to check on your team. If you come over to the Nara estate for lunch tomorrow, we'll talk then. And if you happen to see Shikamaru, tell him his mother is still looking for him and the longer he hides, the worse it's going to be."

Sakura blinked at him. "Did Shikamaru do something wrong?"

"Only being born brilliant but absolutely without motivation. I've mostly resigned myself to it, but when his mother heard that you'd been appointed to lead the military police, she thought it was a good time to start comparing him to other people's children. Which is probably good for him, because that child needs to do more than just drift through life, but he has the ability to sleep anywhere, so it makes finding him difficult. But he's been acting strangely since the Crush. See you tomorrow, Sakura-chan."

It was strange to think that though they were the same age, Shikamaru was still hiding from his parents and responsibility beyond what someone could force on him, while she was meeting his father tomorrow for a discussion between a kage and the keeper of his law.

Life was like a river—some people were caught in the current and swept ahead of others who were carried more gently in the eddies, but they would all in the end arrive at the sea.

[Kill Your Heroes]

After Sakura had been discharged, she opened the door to the hall to find two people sitting against the wall next to her door.

"Naruto? And…Hinata-san?" she queried. "Hello, Hinata-san. Naruto, you know there are waiting rooms. With things like chairs." She eyed the papers scattered around his knees. "And tables."

Naruto grinned up at her and it was only slightly forced, but his voice was hoarse when he answered. "Yeah, but I didn't want to miss seeing you before you left. The medics said they'd probably discharge you when Tsunade-sama was finished talking to you. Did you…hear about Sasuke?"

"I heard," was Sakura's blunt reply, but then she relented. "Come on. We'll talk about somewhere more comfortable—and less in people's way—than a hospital hallway. Hinata-san, we'll have to bother you to choose somewhere to eat."

The other girl looked surprised to be invited. "No, I—it's fine if the two of you need to talk alone. I was just helping Naruto-san fill out some forms. I don't want to be in the way."

"If he's making you help him with paperwork, he should at least treat you. What do you like?"

"Um," Hinata-san prevaricated, tucking a lock of hair behind her hair, flushing faintly across her cheekbones, "sweet things. Like zenzai or…cinnamon rolls."

"Cinnamon rolls, hm?" Sakura replied, smirking slightly at her, which made the heiress blink innocently back at her and Naruto look up at her with confusion from where he was collecting his papers. Sakura just shook her head slightly. "I like sweet things too. So, why don't you introduce us to your favorite shop?"

"Alright," Hinata-san said shyly, but her expression said she was pleased to be asked as she led the way as they exited the hospital.

"So what sort of forms are you working on?" Sakura asked as they walked, taking in the remarkable amount of repair that had already been carried out so far as the buildings themselves were concerned.

"Oh, these?" Naruto looked down at the sheaf of paper he had in his grip. "These are the application forms for the teaching program at the Academy. Aside from continuing fieldwork, there's like three years of classes you have to take. And I can't let you get too far ahead, so I'm starting as soon as I can get these filed. Hinata is already in the program, so she's helping me!"

"I didn't know you wanted to be a teacher," Sakura said cautiously.

For once, there was nothing shy about Hinata-san's expression as she turned to smile at her. That was the look of someone finally free of some shackle that they had always expected to wear.

"I didn't know that I would be able to choose to do something I wanted to do when we were in the Academy, but my younger sister was formally recognized as the heiress of the Hyūga clan. That means that I don't have to try to live up to expectations and responsibilities that would have made me into someone I never wanted to be. This way I can still be me, without feeling that there's anything wrong with that.

"And I'll be good at it. I'm good at watching people. At seeing what they're good at even when they don't see it for themselves," she said this without raising her voice or changing to a more strident tone, but even though her voice remained gentle, every word was full of confidence. "I want to work with older children as a combat instructor."

Sakura considered the advantages of having the Byakugan when managing a practice field full of children and suddenly found it more understandable that even those children without a strong doujutsu in their family were usually remarkably talented in hand-to-hand. It would also be extremely useful in seeing what exactly a student was doing wrong with their chakra when practicing jutsu.

She did wonder if she'd had to leverage some guilt at having been divested of the heiress position to get her family to allow her to put that desire to teach to use outside of their clan.

"That's actually really brilliant," she told the other girl. "I'm sure you'll do well."

Hinata might have been pleased by that, but it was Naruto's cheerful affirmation that she would be fantastic that made her turn almost as red as Itachi's eyes.