Kill Your Heroes

-Chapter Seventy-Four-

Kintsugi (Part II)

Despite Tsunade-sama's reassurance that Itachi had not played the noble martyr once again, she hadn't so much as sensed his chakra despite the fact that Naruto had talked until the sun set low in the sky.

They had ended up—after she and Hinata could no longer ignore the speaking looks of their server—in the training field where Team Seven had been born in shared failure and now she set upon the rail of the red bridge, watching the red sky in the water flowing below her feet.

She was not surprised when Kakashi-senpai settled behind her; a glance over her shoulder showed her the familiar dog-eared pages of a novel as he sat with his back to the rails.

"I'm surprised you're not chasing after your Uchiha," he said.

"Itachi isn't Sasuke. I don't have to chase him, because he isn't running away," was her tart reply.

"That sounds like that might get boring for you. Are you sure you don't want to change your mind?"

"When two genjutsu masters marry, 'boring' isn't something you have to worry about. Shouldn't your novels have taught you that already?" Sakura teased.

"…and I had enjoyed them until this moment. There are some things that senpai does not need to know."

Sakura rolled her eyes, then sobered as she considered what it was that she wanted to say to Kakashi-senpai—whether she should say anything at all. "Itachi—I don't know how he grieves," she admitted quietly. "When he'd not being a self-sacrificing idiot, I mean. I don't know if he needs space or company or, I dunno, cake. And Sasuke is the one thing we can't seem to agree on, so I don't know if he'll want to see me. Or if I can restrain myself from 'I told you so', which would be less than helpful."

Senpai hummed his agreement. "At least Naruto took it better, this time."

"He's persistent, which will make him a fantastic teacher, but he's not an idiot," Sakura admitted. "He just has a hard time letting things go. But I think that this time, he understood that holding onto this idea of Sasuke as someone he could save if he only tried hard enough was only hurting everyone. He told me that part of learning how to be an adult was learning when to give up and let go of things."

"Sounds like he grew up into a fine adult while we were away. At least one of you managed to."

"Don't you mean, 'at least one of us managed to'?"

[Kill Your Heroes]

"You do realize breaking and entering is a crime?" Yugao asked as she locked and trapped the door behind her.

Kakashi lazily waved away the accusation from where he was stretched out atop the bed that was tucked into corner of the tiny studio apartment. "I didn't break anything," he replied. "I even put all your traps and seals back up."

"You have your own bed somewhere else. And if there's a reason you can't return to it, there are other beds that aren't mine."

"Uchiha Itachi will be racking with us until Sakura marries him and they move out. I'm not up for the kind of drinking that Genma thinks can replace grieving, I don't want to talk about it, and I don't particularly want to deal with the look they're going to give me after sex. Like I'm some sort of kicked dog and they'd done it out of pity. And since only ANBU rates single apartments for the time being, here I am."

"And what if I'd had plans for that bed?"

Kakashi let his book drop to his stomach so that he could meet Yugao's dark gaze. "ANBU is pretty evenly divided between those who are always casual and those who are never casual. And you were never a casual kind of person. If you were dating someone, I'd have heard about it. I have a theory that because ANBU is required to conceal so many things, they're intensely interested in the gossip they can trade. Besides," he said as he tilted his book up so his gaze was on the pages, "if you had suddenly decided to bring a warm body home, I'd have been a better choice and you could have sent him away."

That drew a startled bark of laughter from Yugao, who then sighed. "You probably expect me to feed you as well."

"Like I said, I can pay with my body."

"Fine. Then get your body off my bed and into the kitchen. I'm going to take a shower and you should have something ready by the time I'm out if I'm putting you up for the night."

Kakashi dropped his book enough to peer over it. "Are you sure you wouldn't rather have help in the shower instead?"

A wadded up apron smacked him in the chest a moment before the bathroom door shut firmly behind Yugao.

[Kill Your Heroes]

She found Itachi among the ruins of the Uchiha quarter, as she'd thought she might. Much of the rubble had already been cleared away or incorporated into new privacy walls, leaving a large, flat expanse from which the bones of a new mansion were rising. Itachi was sitting atop the framing on one of the roofbeams, one leg drawn up, the other hanging down.

He looked exhausted, pale and drawn, his hair tied lower along the length than he usually wore it. It was pulled forward over one shoulder, the length of braided rope in white and red a stark contrast to the dark of his hair. The gloaming turned the navy of his outer clothes to nearly black, making his face even more sallow by comparison, and the white of his inner shirt did him no favors either.

For all that the colors made him look sickly at the moment, she liked them better than what he'd worn under his Akatsuki robes. A white inner shirt with a mandarin collar that tucked into black pants that were paired with tall boots, a navy outer shirt with a tall collar and wide sleeves that came halfway down his forearm and exposed elbow length black gloves that stopped halfway across his palm, leaving his knuckles and his fingers bare.

"You'll make yourself sick again," she said softly as she came to sit beside him.

"I was going to return soon," he murmured.

They sat together silently after that for a long time, neither touching the other, but just quietly present.

"It's dark," Itachi said at last. "We should go home. You'll be busy tomorrow."

Sakura sighed, looking over to where the sliver of moon was trying to crest the trees. "I think it'll be a long time before I'm not busy again. Will we have gardens here, Itachi? I could see you in a garden. Maybe not actually gardening, but as a backdrop for tea. We'll make genin do the gardening. I'm told it builds character, though it never did much for Team Seven."

"We'll have gardens and ponds and rockeries and everything the dignity of the Uchiha name requires," Itachi promised. "I remember…when I was very, very young, before the clan started pursuing my training aggressively, I liked to sit by the water and let the fish nibble at my feet. It will be nice to—" he hesitated, clearly struggling against something.

"Your happiness isn't a betrayal of Sasuke. You don't have to atone for him any longer. He is his own person. He has made his own decisions. Now, you only have to enjoy the things that you enjoy and work for the things that you want."

Itachi glanced down at her, expression unreadable for a moment before he tangled their fingers together and gifted her a faint smile that was the first she had seen from him since she'd awoke. "It won't be as straightforward as that. There will be responsibilities and obligations—we'll have to renegotiate our place among the clans. There will be those who wish to be our allies and those that wish to suppress us and those that will try to make use of us. That is what it will mean to be Uchiha Sakura."

"I have one ally here," she said, squeezing his hand, "and as long as I don't have enemies inside the door, I can deal with the ones outside the walls."

[Kill Your Heroes]

Sakura had never met Nara Yoshino, though she'd certainly heard Shikamaru mutter often enough about his mother.

"My husband will be troubling you, Sakura-chan," she said as she ushered her through an expansive, ruthlessly well-kept manor. "I hope you don't mind, but formal etiquette between us would soon get tiresome, as much as we'll be seeing each other until this mess is all sorted. What with you and Shikaku acting as commander and Hokage and you and I dealing each other as the heads of the Nara and the Uchiha."

"I though Shikaku-sama was the Nara clan head?" Sakura ventured tentatively.

"The Hokage cannot be the head of a clan," Shikaku replied from his seat at the table in the fairly formal dining room that she'd been brought to. "First because then they can't even pretend neutrality when they have to mediate between the clans and second because the Hokage is also a human with the same number of hours in the day as everyone else. There is no realistic way to do both well—you're going to struggle," he told her flatly. "If your clan was bigger than the two of you, it would probably be impossible, and as it is, Itachi-san probably going to have to act on your behalf a great deal. In my case, Yoshino has been managing the clan in everything but name for basically the entire duration of our marriage, so no one is even going to blink at the change, though there might be a few who'll laugh at me. But they did that already, so it doesn't really matter."

"I told you I could take care of them," Yoshino-san murmured as she settled beside her husband.

"Why bother? It's more entertaining to see the looks on their faces whenever they get the idea into their heads that you're some sort of housewife and you're playing them seven moves ahead. Other clans rise and fall, but the Nara clan and our allies have set stably not because of me, but because my wife is one of the most brilliant tacticians this village has ever produced."

"Also, you're lazy," Yoshino-san said cuttingly, but the look on her face was fond.

"There is nothing wrong with doing things with the least amount of effort necessary."

"It's because you're like this that your son has no ambition."

"Why do you always talk like you didn't have anything to do with it?"

"I suppose all those months I carried him might have made him lazy too—but he shouldn't expect to be carried forever. You shouldn't worry though, Sakura-chan. My Shikaku might be actually lazy and make a show of it, but in his case, he's also quite responsible once he's agreed to do something, so you can rely on him. I might be a better tactician, but he has more patience and insight with people, so it makes him a better direct commander."

"…the two of you actually have a really good relationship," Sakura managed at last.

Shikaku-sama laughed. "Shikamaru made it sound like we didn't? Well, the boy is stupid in strange ways, probably to make up for his other advantages. The Nara clan has always been less concerned with internal hierarchy than other clans and that applies to that nonsense about a man always having to be in charge of his own house to the point where he has to make the woman in it miserable. I'm not certain where he picked the idea up. It must have been somewhere outside—it shouldn't have been from the Yamanaka or the Akimichi. The latter think men and women should be like a pair of chopsticks, one supporting the other, and let's be honest, sometimes you can't tell the men and the women of the Yamanaka apart."

He yelped as Yoshino-san did something—probably stomped on his foot under the table, just by the way they shifted.

"He probably learned it at the Academy," Sakura volunteered to attempt to redirect the topic.

"They always did have opinions on kunoichi," Yoshino-san said. "But that's neither here nor there. Eat up, we've got a lot to get through today. Not the least of which is that bastard Shimura has received orders to dissolve his little shadow cabal and told Tsunade-sama he wants to hand Root over to you on the excuse that you'll need well-trained and obedient subordinates immediately."

Sakura's chopsticks dropped to her plate and she was too busy being glad it hadn't been a glass that she didn't have any room to be embarrassed. It was embarrassing how high-pitched her voice went when she said, "He wants to what?!"

"Root has to go somewhere," Yoshino-sama replied. "And assimilating them into the military police isn't as poor an idea as it first sounds. Shimura-san is going to spend the rest of his life in forced retirement. ANBU doesn't want them and no one is really prepared to rehabilitate them, but they are a powerful and well-trained force, something which Konohanagakure can't afford to just discard at the moment. They will enforce the letter of the law, which will be easy for them to understand, even if the spirit of it might escape them for the moment and they will be pathologically loyal and immune to bribery in the short-term. In the long-term, this will probably be the easiest way to assimilate them into society at large, with the least amount of investment from the village."

"Finding enough bodies to staff the military police was always going to be a problem," Shikaku-sama took up the narrative, "since we're dealing with a major shortage of personnel, but we couldn't afford to understaff it either. This will considerably cut down on the number of officers we'll need to recruit. There are older ANBU that we've kept in for longer than we probably should have that we'll retire into the military police as your senior officers—we'll recruit the remainder from your generation so that we'll have a stable force in a year or two with long careers ahead of them."

They discussed other tangibles over the rest of dinner, things like where the department would be located and how many officers would constitute a fully staffed military police, the kind of personality that made a good enforcer, and the pushback she might expect.

After they'd finished eating, Yoshino-san took her into an adjourning room and helped her change into what would become the new uniform of the military police. "Most of it is adapted from uniform pieces the village already produces for ANBU," Yoshino-san explained. "As another cost-cutting measure. In a few years, they might change it."

For now it made use of a closely-fitted black turtleneck on the upper body, over which went a black version of the ANBU tactical vest. This was paired with elbow-length gloves that acted as a carrier for integrated forearm guards, and a black capelet lined with red that fell to her elbows with a tall collar. Her uniform pants tucked into tall boots, again with integrated plates.

The insignia of the newly reformed military police was, of all things, a sakura blossom—as the commander, she wore the enamel pins as a badge on both sides, from which three chains of rank swept around each shoulder. As vice-commander, Kakashi-senpai would wear two—all the senior officers would have one, while the rank-and-file would only wear one badge. Trainees would wear one with only three petals in a different color to immediately identify them.

"This feels so weird," Sakura remarked as she looked at herself in a mirror. The color was harsh on her, made her look older and more severe, but that perhaps wasn't a bad thing. She still hadn't cut her hair from where it had grown impractically long, white at her roots and pink by the tips, caught up in a braid at her midback and loosed again past her hips. Two sections of it were pulled forward to break up the broad expanse of her forehead, though beads at her shoulders weighted it and helped to prevent it from swinging into her eyes.

Itachi had liked it.

She would just have become a good enough kunoichi that she was too swift for it to be used against her this time.

And if it was, this time she wouldn't hesitate. It was only hair. She could grow it out again.

"You'll adjust," Yoshino-san assured her as she settled her hands on her shoulders, meeting her eyes squarely in the mirror. "You have my word that Shikaku is the best man in the world to have supporting you from behind. You just have to get used to leading from the front, instead of from behind, like the world tries to tell you. Besides, you have an advantage," she said with a smile that transformed her stern face, "your man at home clearly doesn't mind."

[Kill Your Heroes]

It was the day of the official transfer of power between the Fifth and the Sixth and also the day that the military police would be reinvested with all their former power and would be responsible for the safety and order of the village going forward.

"I think I'm going to be sick."

"Maybe you should have done less celebratory drinking before giving a speech," Shikaku-sama said with a sigh. "Maybe you should use chakra?"

"Are you kidding? The goal was to be mostly drunk for this," Tsunade-sama retorted. "I'm not going to undo all my effort. Otherwise these things take forever. I'll cut down on my drinking when I'm no longer Hokage and not before."

Sakura was busy pretending to be invisible during all of this, grimly considering the amount of work that would still be required to make the military police fully functional. Root had already been reassigned to her command and while it was difficult to judge what they thought of the change, had followed any of her orders with neat competence. The senior officers that they had transferred over from ANBU were—well, they were extremely competent, to the point that it was intimidating, and Sakura felt very timid when it came to giving them orders, but she felt confident telling Kakashi-senpai and making him tell them, so that hadn't been a problem yet.

The recruitment of the newest officers was going well—some of her former classmates had even accepted offers.

Inuzuka Kiba and Aburame Shino both would join the department, as well as some of their other clan members, as both were extremely well-suited to the tracking and pursuit of criminals, and she had heard via Hinata-san that Neji was intent on joining as well, but they hadn't been allowed to meet since she'd regained consciousness—according to Hinata-san, Neji still hadn't been allowed to leave the compound.

She had an official meeting with the head of the Hyūga tomorrow, so she would have to see how that developed.

Of the others that she was familiar with in their generation, Hinata-san and Naruto were intent on becoming teachers, as was Rock Lee, while Shikamaru had eventually reemerged with a dark look in his eyes at a family dinner with a recommitment to keeping the Ino-Shika-Cho Trio a relevant power in the village now that their enemies and the method of warfare had changed from so many generations ago. The other major news from the former Team Ten was that Ino was formally engaged to Tsukigawa Kaoru.

"I can't let you beat me at getting married," Ino had laughed before sobering, when Sakura had finally found a moment to reply to the invitation of her oldest friend. "Shikamaru thinks that we haven't pushed the clan jutsu as far as they can go—that we've been content with the same old tricks, which is rich, coming from him. But he's right. We have the same abilities our fathers had—but our enemies have new and stronger ones.

"So that means we have to push ourselves beyond our limits. But we, all three of us, also have an obligation to our clans. None of us have siblings, so we've always had to balance risk with the reminder that we are also the heirs of our clans. Which means, if we want to remain active jounin in the way he wants to do it, we need to marry early and leave our own heirs behind. Chouji's strategy seems more like an excuse to go out to eat every night of the week, but he's focusing on restaurants with daughters in the family business. He says that she ought to look like she enjoys food and be good with a knife and be able to pick out what spices went into a mix from a taste and that would be good enough for him. So I don't know if he's looking for a wife or a chef, but he seems to be having fun. Shikamaru is just being creepy around the analyst offices. I don't know if he's hoping the right girl just trips over him or what."

As for Tenten-san, the girl had approached Sakura after receiving a letter from Neji telling her that he intended to join the military police. "I'm here to ask you to take care of him for me, not to join. If you're doing your job right, you don't get internationally famous that way, and my goal was always to be more famous than Tsunade-sama. But if you see some high profile bounties that manage to cross the border, send them my way!"

This ceremony felt like the end of an era, an acknowledgement of the end of the childhood that had really ended long ago, on a bridge in a misty country, punctuated by pain and blood and the smell that she could recall to this day.

But today Itachi had helped her do up her hair and Kakashi-senpai had made certain the ninken didn't shed on her uniform and even the weather was cool and overcast—perfect for an outdoor event she was obliged to wear black to. And Yoshino-san hadn't lied—Shikaku might have seemed passive on the surface, but he was reliable and easy to speak to, with excellent foresight and a good sense of how many people and how much time was actually required to carry out a given task.

Sakura might have had more responsibility than she had ever had, but she also had more allies.

Today, she was nervous, but she was not afraid.

[Kill Your Heroes]

Sakura did not know precisely how traditional Itachi's decorating tastes ran, but she hoped they were less austere than those of the Hyūga main house.

Though perhaps that had more to do with the people that lived in it than the furniture.

She had seen Hyūga Hiashi before, of course, but never had occasion to have a private audience with him. Sakura had been uncertain as to whether she ought to wear her jounin uniform, as this could theoretically have to do with actions she had taken as Neji's commanding officer, or if she should dress as if she was meeting him as Haruno Sakura.

In the end, she had dressed as Haruno Sakura, because she wanted to introduce as few clan and village politics to this conversation as was possible, considering their relative positions.

Given the stony silence with which she was received, it didn't seem to have helped much.

"Given that it concerned my clan, Tsunade-sama released to me the records of the encounter that you claim to have had with Hamura."

Sakura stiffened at his wording, which seemed to cast doubt on the veracity of her encounter. "Is that so," she managed flatly.

"Yes. You may be unaware, Haruno-san, of the importance of tradition in a clan such as mine. We pay more respect to it than our own parents—we teach our children that it is what makes and shapes the clan and that without it, we are no longer Hyūga."

Sakura kept her silence, but she thought she heard her molars creak with the effort of maintaining it. She didn't think he was right—not in the way they managed their branch clan, not when there were surely other seals that could have kept their doujutsu safe without making all but a handful of the clan live with killswitch seals embedded in their forehead—but she also needed to not make an enemy of one of the most powerful clans in the village just days before she assumed the mantle of a clan already in disgrace for producing nearly all the traitors who had threatened to overthrow the Kage and bring in their own red reign.

Hyūga Hiashi was probably never going to be her friend, but if she could at least bring him to a position of neutrality, that would be ideal.

She would never apologize for her part in the rewriting of Neji's seal, though, not for anything.

"I am saying this, not to disparage your lack of knowledge, but so that you understand how difficult it is for us to accept change and to overcome the fear that any kind of change will fundamentally alter the Hyūga until we no longer recognize ourselves. The seal is intrinsic to how order is kept in our clan. Without it, the thought is that the head of the clan cannot govern his family in a way that will protect us from defectors or outside exploitation."

"The new seal will continue to protect from exploitation. The Byakugan cannot be removed from the body in a functional state."

"But it builds in no safeguards against those who would turn against their clan."

"No, sir," she admitted softly, then could not resist any longer, though she kept her tone as gentle as she could make it. "That would be up to the clan. To treat other clanmembers in a way that meant that they would not want to leave; to care enough for others to notice if someone was being ordered or blackmailed."

"You say that as if it's an easy thing, but if you had only raised birds in cages and suddenly opened all the doors, would you have any guarantee that they would not choose to fly free? Perhaps they would even turn on you. It seems much easier to keep walking on the path that we have always walked."

Sakura looked up at him from where she'd been studying her teacup to avoid eye contact, studying the expression of his pale, pupilless eyes. "I wouldn't know anything about easy paths, Hyūga-san."

"No, you wouldn't," he murmured. "Ideally, my elders wished for you to marry into the clan and so suppress your knowledge of the seal. I pointed out that if you did so, without killing you there would be no way to guarantee that you wouldn't silently subvert the branch family and take over the clan and make everything they were afraid of a reality. After all, we do not fully understand your method of transforming the seal, and if you had enough chakra for shadow clones to lay hands on every branch member of this clan, you could free them all in an instant."

Sakura was dumbstruck. She had been underestimated before, certainly, but she had never been attributed such ridiculous abilities as the idea of mass-transforming a seal tied to people's lives.

"And what was your less ideal solution?"

"Rather than throwing open the doors of every cage in this house, we begin by doing so first for the oldest members of the clan, birds too accustomed to the cage to desire to freely leave it. You would also teach me the seal itself, so that all the children due this year to receive the seal would instead be administered Hamura's. Then, when the first ripples from that settle in a few weeks, we will begin to transform the others in groups, so that by the time the restless and the unruly are no longer bound to obedience, I will have enough eyes to assure they cannot hurt the clan in any substantial way. By the time Hanabi is ready to sit in my seat, the cursed seal will be used only on criminals. This will be my legacy to the clan. It is…still less than I owe my brother.

"Of course, this will require your cooperation, especially if I cannot learn your method of seal transformation. In return, the Hyūga clan will cooperate with you as both the head of the Uchiha and as the commander of the military police. And…" he sat aside his tea cup and folded his hands as he regarded her seriously, "there is something else I have to ask of you."

"…yes?" Sakura replied cautiously, her mind still caught on the idea that within a few years, the cursed seal would fall out of common use in the Hyūga clan.

"My nephew's relationship with this clan is…complicated," he admitted. "He is an extraordinary example of what the clan can produce in terms of ability and talent, but he is unhappy here. Even without the seal, he will probably never really feel free within these walls. So, as he has asked to join the military police, I will allow him to do so, but I would also ask that you take him in. The tradition of retainers has largely fallen out of style since the days when the clans were first forming themselves into factions, but he has indicated that he wants to continue working with you and living within the Uchiha compound will give him nearly as much safety as living here. After all, I have seen what Uchiha Itachi will do to protect those he considers 'family'."

"Wait," Sakura spluttered, "you want me to—you want to send Neji to come live with us?"

Hiashi-san raised an interrogative brow. "A manor the size of the Uchiha ancestral home and you were expecting to live in it alone? Taking in retainers has fallen out of favor, but only because the rest of us already have those families who are loyal to us and otherwise adopt or marry in talented outsiders to add their strength to ours. You'll need to surround yourself with what talent you can collect that will be loyal to you to be taken seriously as a clan, especially if you aren't in a hurry to have children."

"Can I—is it alright if I talk to Neji? I'd like to ask him what he thinks of all this. Privately."

Hiashi-san inclined his head and rose from his seat. He was almost to the door when he glanced back over his shoulder. "Thank you," he said simply, before he walked out without looking back.

Some minutes later, as Sakura was finishing her second cup of tea, Neji walked in.

"You look well," she ventured, which wasn't a lie, but it was also a conversational gambit because she had little idea how to open this conversation.

"I feel well," he replied. "I have some idea of what my uncle wanted to say to you. I hope he didn't make you feel uncomfortable."

If she said not at all, she suspected Neji would know she was lying, so she only hummed noncommittally.

"He did," Neji said flatly.

"…well, yes," Sakura admitted. "I'm not from a clan. Which you know. So this is all—well, I'd heard that you wanted to join the military police. And we'll be grateful to have you. But your uncle proposed—" she wanted to take that word back as soon as it escaped her, "that you would also leave the clan and live as a retainer of the Uchiha clan?"

"I doubt he said the Uchiha clan, though doubtless he hopes that I would be under Uchiha Itachi's protection by extension. It is very difficult to obtain permission to live outside the compound. And it's not only about control by the main family, though it is also about that. It may be difficult to steal the Byakugan directly, but if you drug and kidnap a member of the clan, the eyes usually breed true. Hence the reason that you will never find members of the Hyūga living in civilian housing and why, even as jounin, you will never see them work alone. That means the only way to leave is to come under the protection of some other family."

"And I and Itach and Kakashi-senpai would be such a family."

Neji nodded.

"You were willing to risk the seal for me, despite every reason not to. So if it's want you want—if it's the only way you have to leave—you'll have the protection of the Uchiha clan."

[Kill Your Heroes]

"Did it go that badly? You look like you've seen a ghost," Kakashi-senpai remarked from where he lay on the couch, which attracted Itachi's attention from the kitchen.

The ninken gathered at her knees, giving her encouraging remarks and offering to make her feel better through the opportunity to pet them, which she squatted down numbly and did, tugging softly on velvet-soft ears.

"No, it went—after the manor is built, Neji is going to come live with us."

"…Sakura, I know you've been reading novels that probably weren't good for you, and that's senpai's fault, but you should know that there are things that happen in novels that aren't good to do in real life. In real life, when you collect people, people get hurt and if you're bothering to get married, you should take your vows seriously. Serious relationships really work best with two people—everything after that is messy, because people only have so much time and ability to emotionally invest in others, and if you don't have enough respect for the other person or if you're not fulfilled enough with that person, you shouldn't commit to them at all."

Sakura peered at him narrowly, whereas he was sitting up on the couch, book facedown on one leg, looking back at her earnestly. "…I don't even know what part of that to respond to first, especially when I'm almost absolutely certain you're making fun of me."

"If you're worried about me, Hatake-senpai, you shouldn't be. If it comes to a harem, I have confidence in emerging as only survivor."

"Don't cooperate with him, Itachi!"

"Sorry," he said, not sounding it at all as he came to crouch in front of her, sulky dogs giving way only reluctantly, "I was weak. But I expected they would at least attempt marriage, though with the heir being a daughter, they would know they wouldn't be able offer you a position equal to the one you will have in the Uchiha clan. Failing that, they would need to bind you in some other way more significant than merely a verbal agreement as allies, because you are an emerging power with no ties to any clan and that would make them nervous. The Hyūga are sending him over as a retainer of some kind, I suppose.

"They know that he risked his life under your orders and that he would be feeling the kind of gratitude that you rarely feel in life—they would have moved quickly to take advantage of your positive feelings toward each other so that they could tie both of you to the clan. His gratitude at being set free will bleed into his resentment and dilute it, while you, who have gained a valuable piece from their board, will be compelled to act on their behalf because he will want to protect the clan for his mother's sake, if for no other reason, and you will want to protect him. All of which you probably understood when they made the offer."

"…it seems very tiring, to be the head of a clan," she said, letting her forehead fall against his.

"It won't always be this bad," he promised. "Once we have established where we stand in relation to each of the clans, the maneuvering will at least become more subtle. At least until we have children old enough to marry and the tangled negotiations of alliance will rear their head for long enough to test if we're going to let them marry freely or guide their choices."

Sakura pulled back far enough to frown at him. "Senpai never seemed to have to deal with any of this."

"There are clans such as the Ino-Shika-Cho Trio, which are still like families, and then there are clans, like the Uchiha and the Hyūga and the Senju before they all died out," Kakashi-senpai said sagely. "The Hatake were down to a single surviving branch by the time I was born. Also, I had a nasty habit of the people around me dying, so…"

"I suddenly understand why Shikaku-sama seemed so cheerful about handing over the family to Yoshino-san," Sakura muttered, then brightened as she smiled at Itachi. "The chances are very high that I will be genuinely busy for the next several years with the military police. Which means that you will be responsible for most of the socializing."

"Yes, that's usually the role of the wife of the head. Or the husband, in our case."

Sakura was deeply glad, in that moment, that none of her childhood daydreams of reviving the Uchiha clan as Sasuke's wife had come to fruition. Bad enough to have to deal with such things in the workplace—for it to have followed her home as well and with no more support than Sasuke probably would have given her, she could only imagine that bliss would have soon turned into long-suffering misery.

She let both her knees hit the floor with a thump so that she could draw Itachi into an embrace, burying her face against his shoulder.

He made a soft inquiring noise.

"Just thinking that I made the right choice," she mumbled.

"I'll make sure you always feel that way."

"Me too," Kakashi-senpai stage-whispered from where he was squatting next to them and Sakura turned her head just enough to glare at him.

He only smiled broadly beneath his mask. "Sakura-chan needs a hug~" he said cheerfully, which was the cue for an avalanche of eager dogs to pile in, squirming themselves between and on top of their humans.

A/N: Sorry for the very, veeerry long delay between the last chapter and this one. Life has been draining and I've been basically out of this fandom for a long time, as it seems like no amount of time or a change in writers will be enough for Naruto to contain empowered heroines or healthy family relationships that bear out the original goals of our protagonists. I was also afraid of this arc, because this will advance us into the with-kids phase and in real life I have no experience with children and no desire to subject myself to them even for the sake of writing accuracy. Though manga children don't usually resemble real children of an equivalent age very deeply, so…