A/N: I've decided to answer your curiosity in regards to the person who recommended Sakura's promotion. It's the second unnamed jounin she meets in the stands, the one who okays her plans and sends her off to wake the chūnin. He won't be back to mentor her or teach her a secret jutsu or share a summoning contract—you probably won't ever even know his name. Just think of him as a faceless proctor in the exam of life, a stranger who noticed talent and took just enough time to push the paperwork through to change Sakura's entire life even though they probably won't ever meet again.

Jiraiya was mostly impressed she hadn't succumbed to shock and hearing Orochimaru's opinion of her certainly wouldn't have swayed him; Asuma was only there to give Kakashi what-for in regards to sending genin to hunt jinchūriki. He was surprised, because he had a passing familiarity with Sakura's dossier and a more than passing familiarity with Kakashi, but he wouldn't recommend her based on hearsay.

(And yes, the inn's name is taken from a real place, but the building itself is not based on its real-life counterpart. It's because no one has thoughtfully put together an article on appropriate names for your ryokan in English and several of you speak better Japanese than I do.)

Kill Your Heroes

-Chapter Thirty-

Chronophobia (Part II)

As Sakura walked beneath the great gates that led out from the village, she experienced a pang of anxiety and had to master the sudden need to look back at Konoha for reassurance. Wave was an anomaly, like one of the great trees falling while you happened to be standing under it. Tragic for you, but if it happened to everyone no one would go walking in the forest.

She fretted with her new, freshly laundered shemaugh—grey with olive drab—and tried to convince herself that she'd met her quota of missions gone bad. She didn't really believe it, which was why she'd tried to anticipate what might go wrong. She had enough kevlar cord stashed in her vest pockets to rappel down the village's walls, she'd packed extra rations and a spare canteen in her backpack, two canisters of a tear gas mixture were a reassuring weight in another set of vest pockets, with one of a sleeping gas solution on the other side—these with internal pressurization and she'd thought to pack a mask and spare herself the sore throat—and she'd brought along her blunted practice kunai from the Academy in an effort to comply with the subdue order without resorting entirely to hand-to-hand.

Her chakra-enhanced strength could make the advantages of greater height and weight nil, but while she could punch hard, her control wasn't to the point where she could trust it would be just hard enough. For now it was a matter of all in or all out, which was fine if her aim was to irreversibly rupture something. Though even her 'all in' didn't even begin to compare to what real chakra-enhanced strength could be like. Tsunade-sama's first temper tantrum in the practice fields had evoked a strangled kind of awe, because it looked more like the work of a natural disaster than a person. She'd handily won the concession she'd wanted from the Council, at least according to the rumors that had whipped through the village.

She glanced to one side as Ino gave a pleased sigh, her arms stretched high above her head, sunlight making her blonde hair shine. The girl noticed her look and grinned. "Oh, come on," she inveigled. "There are literally days before we arrive. That gives us plenty of time to be somber and serious later. Today the sun is shining, it's my first C-rank mission without the two doofuses I've been paired with since forever, and we are being useful to our village in a way that doesn't make me feel like I'm still an Academy student."

"She makes good points," Tenten said with a laugh. "Now, if you can keep that attitude up after a day in the trees, I'll be impressed. We are taking the treeroad? Not running, right?"

Shino turned toward her, his high collar and glasses making his expression difficult to read. "For what purpose would we run? In terms of weighing energy efficiency against speed of travel, the treeroad represents a stamina forgiving mode of travel without significant loss of speed."

"Just asking," Tenten responded. "Guy-sensei is a fiend. He makes us run everywhere—I swear, some days I think someone told him he's training a team of courier-nin."

"That sounds awful," Hinata ventured timidly.

"Well, some days it is. But in the interest of fairness, I am a fantastic long-distance runner by this point. And I never have to count carbs."

"Lucky," Ino said in good-humored envy. "But no thanks. So, to the trees, oh fearless leaders?"

Sakura scoffed, but Shino ignored the sarcasm. "Yes. There is no reason to delay and every reason to press forward."

Being in the trees didn't hinder the steady ebb and fall of conversation, though Shino contributed only rarely. Not because he didn't want to intrude or felt unwelcome, Sakura thought or at least hoped, but because he didn't have anything of note to contribute and Shino didn't do idle conversation. It was an easy three-day trip by the treeroad to their destination, which was located on the peninsula, almost on the border between Fire and Tea. On the evening of the second day, when they were approaching the area they'd tentatively identified as the thieves' territory, their squad split. Tenten, Ino, and Hinata would spent the night as civilians at a waystation and continue by themselves on foot, while Sakura and Shino kept to the trees and pressed ahead.

They scouted the road as they went, not willing to chance the others facing an ambush, but the roads were clear and Sakura caught her first sight of Miyakowasure, which was a large, gracious-looking inn that abutted the ocean. It wasn't a straight drop down into the waves, but rather a stepped series of rocky shelves that someone had thoughtfully carved steps into. Unwise to visit in unpleasant weather, but with today's waves only lapping contently against the lowest shelf, it was no surprise to see a yukata-clad guest staring out over the water.

The height of the trees dropped sharply and changed composition as they came nearer to the ocean, but the forest never disappeared entirely, the manmade elements blending almost seamlessly into their surroundings. The titular tea flowers were blooming in profusion around the landward side of the inn where there was protection from the salt spray—all in all, it shot a bolt of envy through Sakura, who would be camping out for the duration.

But then again, she reminded herself, she'd much rather be a guest than part of the staff. She'd never had any natural grace at most of the kunoichi classes, ikebana memorably included, though through hard work and Ino's assistance—and that of Ino's mother—she'd mustered sufficient skill to see them through. She shoved away the thought that serving guests didn't normally include being involved in a fight weighted against her in terms of numbers, concentrating instead on how terrified she'd always been when she'd had to mind her sleeves and stride length aside from whatever task she'd been asked to do.

Though they didn't have any reason to believe that the inn was under active surveillance—Gion-san might have paid for their services, but the attacks had focused on the roads—Shino swept the grounds with his beetles. Sakura tried to avoid staring or averting her eyes as the insects crawled up the backs of Shino's hands to disappear inside his sleeves, but her mind was attempting mathematics of the unnerving kind as it tried to calculate how many beetles could reasonably be concealed by Shino's heavy clothing.

A lot, came the answer, but she stopped that line of thought when she started imagining she could hear the rustle of their movement and the clatter of tiny mandibles. Genjutsu came in two forms, invocative and evocative—to be truly good at the first, Gozen-san insisted, you need an imagination with an eye for detail. Which was well and good,Sakura reflected darkly, until you found that you were scaring yourself silly.

She came out of her thoughts to find Shino staring at her and she flushed. "There appear to be no hidden watchers," he reported. "We should make contact with Gion-san."

"Yeah," Sakura replied awkwardly, letting him take the lead as they made for Gion-san's office. The interview with the client that followed was brisk and professional, the lady just as elegant as her house, and she had kunoichi-class composure.

She'd given them fuller details on the attacks, and when Shino had left to suss out the best locations for their daytime post she worked with Sakura in identifying the precise location of the attacks on their topography map. When Sakura left with just as much care as she'd taken coming in, she had a moment's anxiety before Shino dropped down from a nearby tree.

"The males can follow the pheromone trails of a female," he explained at her unspoken question, adjusting his sunglasses on the bridge of his nose. "I planted one on you earlier. I did not ask your permission. Why? Because I thought you might be irrationally upset. My observations in the past revealed an unfounded fear of insects common among females, though perhaps preferable to the male response which uses violence to cover a similar unease."

Sakura frowned at him. "I'm more upset at not being asked than the beetle. I'm not in any danger of squishing her by accident, am I?"

"She perceives and processes visual information three times faster than the human brain, so that significantly reduces your chances of crushing her," Shino reassured her. "Judging by the behavior of the males, she's in the folds of your scarf, just behind your right ear."

"Just so long as little insect feet are far from bare skin," Sakura said, ignoring the instinctive ew factor, noticing only now the pinkie-nail sized beetles tracing patterns in the air near her head. "I haven't completely mastered my involuntary swat reflex."

Shino nodded gravely. "Understood."

He led her to the sites he'd scouted and they settled in after they briefly visited the site of the most recent attack. They discovered it wasn't incompetence on the part of the local police, who'd tried to use dogs—a recent rain in the area combined with basic track concealment skills meant there wasn't much to go on as their targets had sufficient ninja skill to travel by the treeroad.

Shino directed swarms of a dozen beetles each to settle in the footpaths, road, and among the branches of some of the likely trees. They'd return immediately if they were disturbed—or that was his explanation of what he was doing when he caught Sakura staring. As he'd been completely silent, doing nothing more than staring intently at his hands, which had been covered in beetles, she was more than a little unnerved. Carrying out instructions that complex was more credit than she'd given to Shino's swarm.

Living proximity traps that would escape the notice off all but the most observant—she could see how that might be very useful skill to have on a team like his.

For her part, she studied their newly embellished map and spent the afternoon establishing a search area. Ideally there would be another incident and they would have a fresh trail—otherwise they were going to attempt to follow that thoroughly sketchy trail and would need all the assistance they could get.

She was tucked close to the trunk of a tree, her shemaugh tied over her distinctive hair, when the other three girls made their appearance. All three had changed into casual civvies and took the time to really admire Miyakowasure, Ino's voice drifting up to her perch. Another strike of envy, this one harder to shove away. But she did, eventually, one hand coming up to sweep her fingers along the slick raised ridge of her latest scar. Next week she saw the specialist again.

Shino was different from both of her teammates—he hardly even shifted for hours at a time, but whereas Sasuke probably wouldn't have initiated conversation if they'd waited a week, on their second day she found him in "her" tree. His attempt at conversation was...awkward. And Sakura finally understood after knowing him for the better part of a decade that his speech habit of asking questions and answering himself was at least partially a nervous tell.

He wasn't like Naruto, who could natter on forever, or Ino, who could conjure conversational topics—he was instead bluntly interested in how much she'd changed from the Academy and the experiences and training that had caused it. The way he phrased it made it seem less like a personal interest than a kind of scientific curiosity, as if he'd identified a kind of caterpillar only to be surprised at what emerged from the cocoon.

No matter why he wanted to know, Sakura wasn't about to share. She tried to be polite, but she was afraid all her words had slightly jagged edges.

So she was therefore very surprised when he tried to use a very basic tactic—reciprocity—to draw it out of her. They were three days in without so much as news of the bandits, though they were going to give it one more day. According to the pattern, they were almost overdue for another attack. By this point, Sakura was immensely tired of waiting in trees for something to happen and was on the verge of thinking that perhaps Kakashi-sensei's bring-a-book mentality wasn't far off the mark.

Not porn, though. She was nowhere near that desperate for entertainment.

"The speculation that all my beetles dwell inside my body is erroneous," Shino commented, which tore her out of contemplating how uncomfortable tree branches were as prolonged seating."Only the females nest inside my body, which causes the males to swarm. If you were to attempt to host an entire colony, even a small one, your muscle structure would be so compromised as to be nonfunctional. As it is, space inside the abdominal cavity is limited, which creates a limit on how many beetles I can host. Much of my physical training is devoted to improving my core strength, so that my abdominal wall provides sufficient protection."

Sakura half-turned to glance at him, but as he was on the opposite side of the trunk, she could only see the edge of one sleeve.

"...like bees?" she ventured.

"No. You're thinking of worker bees, which are non-reproductive females except in exceptional circumstances when a hive becomes queenless. The females are more intelligent and they do coordinate the males, so it not an unreasonable comparison, but it has significant shortcomings in understanding the social structure of a kikaichū swarm."

Sakura made a thoughtful noise in the back of her throat. "...wouldn't this be considered an Aburame clan secret?"

"No. This would be clear upon close observation to anyone with reasonable deductive skills. Making the symbiosis functional and breeding the kikaichū to possess desired traits would be considered secret—something has disturbed several of the treeroad swarms," he said, shifting instantly back into a professional mien.

Sakura tensed but didn't move to look immediately—the human eye fixed on movement quicker than it did shape. She saw the flight of beetles returning and very slowly shifted so that she could catch glimpses of bodies moving through the trees. She could hear them too, which was reassuring as a measure of their skill level. When they were well past, Shino and she slunk closer to Miyakowasure. Laid out along the length of a branch, Shino somewhere below her, Sakura got her first decent glimpse of their targets through her field glasses.

Judging by their silhouettes, they were all male, and slighter of build than she'd expected. Young? her mind posited. That might make sense—dissatisfied young men who didn't have the skill to be promoted but had plenty of skill to terrorize civilians. Even Konohagakure lost track of a few genin and would-be genin each year, a number that had spiked exponentially in the wake of the invasion.

She couldn't confirm her guess as to their age, because they all wore grinning oni masks that only exposed their faces below the nose. Her grip tightened as she saw Gion-san exit the inn to greet her "guests," trailed by three familiar fellow genin. They trust you to do your job, Sakura reminded herself, now trust them to do theirs.

Hinata put on the most convincing show of being cowed, but she did it almost too well. One of the bandits strutted up to her, tugging at her bangs hard enough to make the blue-haired girl wince. Ino's nature wouldn't let that pass without comment, which earned her a hard backhand, but one of the men—the leader?—snapped something at the man who'd struck her. He stepped away, though the one who was speaking to Hinata stepped closer to her and said something that made the girl blush ferociously.

And then they were inside and Sakura could only wait and hope that nothing went wrong inside, because her mission was very clear. She felt the branch she was on shift and turned her gaze away from the view provided by her field glasses to find Shino crouched just behind her feet.

"Here," he murmured, pulled something from his one of the cavernous pockets of his jacket. With another glance toward the inn, Sakura let her feet drop to either side of the branch and shoved herself upright. Tucking her field glasses pack into her pouch, she reached out to accept what he offered.

"Zip ties?" she whispered back.

"With a flexible metal core," Shino confirmed. "Why? Because it requires metal snips to remove, making escape unlikely. My mother specializes in live retrieval."

"Thanks," Sakura said, surprised by the gesture, but Shino had already dropped back to his branch. Sakura tucked away the handful of zip ties, which fit awkwardly into her own pockets.

Each of them had taken one quick bathroom break by the time the bandits emerged, which left them immediately prepared to follow. Shino's females had positioned themselves near the inn's exits, which made it an easy task for them to drop unnoticed onto the bandit's clothing. They waited until there was a sufficient distance for stealth and then Shino led the way. It was a longer journey than Sakura had anticipated, almost on the edge of the search grid she'd established.

There were no recorded cave systems in the area and no houses, so they were surprised to see that the entire group slipped inside an almost invisible crevice that looked like nothing so much as an elongated natural sinkhole. Once inside, they were equally astonished to find a vast, linked serious of rooms the size of a warehouse. "What is this place?" Sakura asked so softly that she doubted Shino would hear.

But he did. "They say that during the Third War," he murmured, "they had Doton users create a series of hidden fortifications all throughout the land of Fire. The location is odd, but perhaps this is one of them. When the war ended, no record of their locations were ever made public. And likely they didn't find it necessary to maintain the ones in noncritical positions."

And then there was no more conversation as they traversed the ceilings, hearing the conversation of the bandits from the third chamber of the complex. Sakura retrieved one of her canisters from her vest, but Shino's hand descended on her wrist. There was just enough light to make out him shaking his head and she realized that in chambers like these, with unknown and likely limited ventilation, her partner wouldn't be able to provide support.

But that wasn't what he had in mind, she discovered as he inched closer. "Let me secure the room with the swarm first," he murmured. "They can prevent escape and hasten the collapse of our targets."

Sakura nodded and couldn't help a shiver as her closeness allowed her to feel when Shino's swarm poured from sleeves and pockets, a huge mass of softly rustling elytron that swept like an ominous cloud into the next room. She waited patiently for Shino's signal, securing her gas mask and combat glasses, sealing the second. Her "sleeping gas" mixture was isoflurane-based, the cheapest and most generally available inhalational anesthetic except for the flammable ethers that were still fairly popular for situations that carried less of a risk of sparks. Though that might have seen a quick end to the bandit problem, even if it made her stomach twinge at the thought. She didn't expect it to actually put anyone to sleep—If she increased the concentration or if the room was significantly smaller than this one she was running the risk of outright death on the part of the bandits because the invention of a 'safe' sleeping solution was something that would make someone's fortune—but she did expect it to significantly relax muscles and reduce reaction time.

When Shino's signal came, her reaction was instant, pitching in the canister and herself only seconds later. One hand swept to a blunted kunai while she kept the other one free and the following minutes were a blur of limbs and weapons and action.

They weren't good enough to sell their skill as mercenaries, for all their having learned to hide their trail. That was Sakura's first irreverent thought as her opponents tried to combat both gas and a winged enemy that was feasting on their chakra, leaving them with only sluggish weapon and hand-to-hand skills. It was the first mission in which Sakura felt that the Academy's training was more than adequate, though it was tricky to navigate through the sheer number of opponents.

The blunted kunai disappeared from use as she used both hands to fix zip ties on a downed opponent, shifting to avoid the clumsy strikes of another bandit, whose hand she caught and secured in the instant after the first was secured. It was a pattern that continued until all of the bandits were captured, though the shallow, erratic breathing of a few of them were enough to make her nervous.

All that remained was for them to do after that was to send for the police, Shino sprinting off while Sakura used her chakra-enhanced strength to get the men up out of the bunker, their spoils following them up by the time the local authorities had arrived to take custody of them. At least two required immediately medical attention, but Sakura's guilt was tempered by the knowledge that part of the responsibility lay with Shino's chakra-hungry beetles and the irrefutable fact that it had been the easiest, quickest, cleanest way to deal with the problem.

She wouldn't even have any new facial scars to show for it, though one lucky bandit had opened up a long gash on her arm.

They reported their success to Gion-san, who rewarded them with a fantastic dinner and a night at Miyakowasure. Sakura had a chance to tease Ino, who was obviously eyeing a handsome blue-haired apprentice chef, and enjoy a long, relaxing bath. By the time she woke the next morning, in a clean, fluffy futon which smelt like fresh herbs, she was almost giddy with the success of the whole thing. All the bandits had survived the night, no one had gotten badly hurt, even if Ino had bruised, and she had a commemorative photo that featured the four girls in yukata around a table spread with a course of their kaiseki dinner, two on either side of the coat-clad Aburame.

That feeling of triumph buoyed her all the way back to Konoha, where they delivered their report directly to a grim-faced Tsunade-sama. When she'd dismissed the others, asking Sakura to stay behind, the frisson of unease that had prickled the back of Sakura's neck when they'd been directed to the office of the Hokage transmuted to a full-body chill.

"Yesterday, Uchiha Sasuke defected to Otogakure."