A/N: I might not make money on this story, but I certainly am beginning to feel like I've a wealth of reviewers. While I don't take the time to reply to each individual review—I work a fifty-two hour week and occasionally like to things like read other people's stuff and sleep—I do read each and every one and feel gratified to know that you're enjoying the story as much as I'm enjoying writing it.

In other breaking news, I received my first fanart of Sakura's mask. Head on over to SoulCryophoenix on deviant to see it! (Title for better Google-fu: "Sakura Kill Your Heroes"). And my second one. (Going to have to write faster, I see.) While you're over on deviant, check out TeriyakiPrinces and "Kill Your Heroes Neko" …and now I know I'm writing too slow. Still at deviant, check out Knave1369 and "The First Flower of Spring Team 7 Fanart."

Kill Your Heroes

-Chapter Forty-Nine-

Philia (Part II)

Sakura felt sick to her stomach and it wasn't just the purely physiological reaction to replacing sleep with too much caffeine, though the burning, gritty sensation plaguing her eyes could be directly attributed to reading through the night. The first blazing orange streaks of dawn were cresting the horizon beyond her balcony, but this morning Sakura's attention was firmly rooted to her desk and the journal open before her.

She was no longer surprised so few ANBU survived until retirement; now she was only surprised that any of them had made it.

The inaugural Team Nine had been a saboteur squad, which she'd known. If she'd ever bothered to think about it, she'd have probably guessed that most of them were ninja from families too small to be considered clans given Gozen-san's attitude, though it would have been an unlikely coincidence if there hadn't been a clansman or two in the mix. No one was referred by anything but pseudonym in the early pages of the journal, but with patience and several sheets of notes, she'd managed to resolve them into distinct people. It helped that everyone was mentioned by their real name at least once in the latter part.

And all of them, without fail, had apparently been fearless, mad geniuses, which wasn't all that odd when one considered that the Second Hokage had assembled the best, brightest, and least morally conflicted members of his village into the Konohagakure ANBU.

She'd read the whole journal last night; at less than a hundred fifty pages, it wasn't exactly a weighty read.

Understanding it, however, was going to take more than a few hours. It didn't help that Araki Kenta's psychosis became more pronounced toward the end and the entries became very strange. That was the kindest word she could think of to describe them, though "disturbing" would have been more accurate. Sakura had thought she'd known fear, but she'd never experienced even a fraction of what this man must have felt. Erratic, frantic plans conceived to combat what he'd thought of as reality in the midst of his paranoid delusions, followed up by the terrible acceptance of a man aware that he was losing the battle against his own mind.

In between all that, which was awful enough stuff that she probably wouldn't have slept anyway if that had been all there was to the journal, was the record of Team Nine's attempts to shatter their own limits. Some of the things they'd done—well, if they'd been done to other people, they were the kind of things that had led to the falling out between Orochimaru and Sarutobi-sama.

The least offensive were meditation techniques, which had slowly and silently fallen out of favor within the last generation. Sakura thought it could probably be attributed to the Academy trying to standardize things and prioritizing performance competence over deep understanding; meditation was something too individual, too quiet, and too slow to try to drum into the minds of thirty plus children at a time. All the ones that had made it into the journal also required more than a little chakra control—it wasn't focus on the leaf in your hand so much as complex internal shifts that might first require the consultation of a detailed chart of the human body and all the chakra paths and points therein.

After that there was an escalating scale of kami, why would you even think to try that? Drugs competed for space with conditioning programs. Drugs featured heavily in conditioning programs. She tried to keep in mind that this was a different time and place, with ongoing wars and perpetual tensions with the other villages that were in real danger of escalating to open fighting, but she was still pretty certain that most of this was currently illegal. And if it wasn't yet, it was just because no one else had considered doing this to their body.

She'd held on to her self-righteous disapproval right up to the point when she realized that some of these drug compounds were coming increasingly close to the modern soldier pill, which was still a compound of addictive narcotics that would wreck hell on the body.

Context. Everything was about context.

Not just the successes had merited inclusion. The failures and conjectures upon just why they'd failed took up nearly half again as much space as their triumphs.

As far as Sakura was concerned, the drugs were a no-go. Anything that they did, she could probably replicate with careful medical chakra and time. She hadn't considered…well, body modification was probably the most accurate term for it, since she'd corrected her eyes. There was something—some fine line, some sort of taboo that hadn't needed to be set down in black and white for it to exist—that made her hesitate to consider what she might be capable of "improving" with enough study and imagination.

When did you stop being human? Where was that line? Would she be able to see it until she was already something like Orochimaru and it didn't matter to her anymore because utility trumped morality?

Some awful part of her wondered what would happen if she went back to the Academy and took Iruka-sensei up on his offer for a consultation on her problems.

Sakura liked rules and she'd eagerly and diligently memorized the shinobi code in the Academy. She'd always thought they made things neat, tidy, uniform, but she'd discovered after becoming a real ninja that what they did was make it so that you didn't have to think. It wasn't necessarily a bad thing. They were drilled on basic forms until their muscles remembered even when their mind forgot; rules did the same thing, forming the way that a person thought until they reacted in specific, desirable ways.

Human beings were born neither good nor evil; everything that came after was only learned behavior.

At least according to Araki Kenta, in a very strange and disjointed entry that had coupled this idea with a tree metaphor, of all things. Sakura didn't know what business the metaphor had in all this, but her instinctual rejection of this idea had been followed with the uncomfortable realization that if she stopped for a moment to think about it, she half-believed it. That was an uncomfortable thing that made her consider the training at the Academy in ways she wasn't certain she wanted to accept, so she didn't.

And then there were the seals.

It was fūinjutsu of the kind that made sealing scrolls and trapped bijū in human vessels—Sakura could understand their purpose because of the descriptions, but the things that made them functional, the way they changed and shifted the world, that was as much a mystery to her as the sun rising and falling had been to primitive peoples.

Fourteen-layer seals, painstakingly transcribed on the flesh in array after array, each applied after a different interval, used to filter natural chakra and sidestep the meditative aspect of the Sage State. Seals that made it easier to lend and borrow chakra; seals that did something decidedly not nice to people who were donating it less willingly.

The seal array ANBU Team Nine had used to control whole battlegrounds and turn them into nightmare zones. With it in place, the chakra of many individuals could be slaved to the will of one individual, who wore a 'king' seal. At least two others were required for it function and seals designated 'horse' and 'ox' brought the artificial chakra structure into balance; others could and had been added to it until the field within their control could stretch for miles. And within these borders, the king reigns as an evil god, Araki had written, and the people pray for death. We would be glad to act as emissaries of mercy, but the seal structure limits our movement. Like the foundation of a house, if we shift too far out of place, it will collapse.

We had considered bringing outsiders in to do the work for us, but our tests have been unsuccessful. Once inside, even if the Foxwife is not actively feeding them fear, they are subject to an altered reality and are more likely to be cut down by the enemy in a panicked frenzy than they are to make themselves useful. Using temporary seals based on the 'pillar' seal only destabilizes the technique rather than protecting them as they do us. Which is just as well. No one is comfortable with outsiders present.

Sakura couldn't imagine the kind of trust it would take to even contemplate the creation of a sealing array like this, let alone go through with it knowing that this thing was something irreversible and permanent. But Gozen Reiji had commanded that kind of trust not just from one person or two people, but from an entire squad. In the journal it was never made clear whether she was their captain, but it was the Foxwife who bore the 'king' seal and reigned over the fear-drenched battlefield.

Is this why you sent that mask? Sakura asked silently, hands brushing over the pages spread in front of her. She almost expected the characters to writhe and wriggle beneath the pads of her fingers, like living things, or their sharp edges to draw blood. To make sure I'd read this in time? Just what are you expecting? The Akatsuki are collecting bijū and that makes them a threat, but you can't make a genjutsu strong enough to trap a bijū, can you? Or is that…is that how you do it? I'd never thought about it, until now. Surely if that were all it took, the Uchiha clan could have subdued the Kyūbi when it was rampaging. Unless…unless suspicion of withholding their talents to get some sort of concession from the village was one of the things that contributed to the Massacre. It's a chakra construct, it doesn't even have a nervous system to manipulate, so how would a genjutsu even work? And if not a genjutsu, then what?

Should I be focusing on ways to take the bijū out of the equation or preparing to stand on a battlefield? Do you really think it will come to that? That we won't be able to stop them this time? Her hands clenched atop the journal, knuckles turning white from the pressure, before she abruptly scrubbed her hands through her hair. Elbows propped on the desk, her fingers nearly touched as she clutched at her head and stared sightlessly down at the journal.

Itachi says they're based in Amegakure. Aside from the Akatsuki, Ame doesn't have the shinobi to confront us directly and their economy can't support a war. Do you think that they'd use the bijū to threaten other villages into allying with them? Or threaten us directly with them?

She was so intent on trying to divine Gozen-san's motivations that she yelped when someone called her name, slamming the journal shut in a way that clearly screamed, Guilty!

After a moment of disorientation, she came to a fuller awareness of her present circumstances and the awkwardness that would be caused by her instinctive reaction. Sakura allowed her forehead to thump against the cover of the journal, far past caring what stained it.

"You know, senpai," she muttered without raising her head, "now that I'm a teenager, you might want to consider knocking or something before you just show up in my room."

She didn't even have to look to know that Kakashi-senpai was doing that thing with his eyebrows. "You know, I'm not really certain I want to know what you're reading that's bad enough to see a resurgence of the shame phase. And if it's not what you're reading, you should know that senpai disapproves of having boys over. You should follow your senpai's example and make them take you home."

"You're a real gentleman, Kakashi-senpai," Sakura huffed, amused despite herself.

"Well, I don't think most women would appreciate the, ah, live studio audience if I brought her home. The ninken can do any number of things except master the art of respecting "alone" time. I wonder what Soudai's reaction will be if you start bringing boys 'round," he teased.

There were several responses that came to mind and she was exhausted enough to actually mentally run through them. She could call out senpai on the ninken excuse, but she knew that would be taking the joke too far. Not only would discussing "alone" time with Kakashi-senpai be weird and embarrassing, there was always the chance that she'd forget the invisible boundaries that existed in his personal life and ask if he was really the type who measured his other interpersonal relationships in hours. He didn't seem the type, but she couldn't imagine that he'd always lived a life of disciplined celibacy either.

Though Sakura was really considering it.

When it had been the ninken, she hadn't really thought about it much, but living with an animal with human-like intelligence and the ability to speak was really much like living with a furry person. Which would make adding others to the mix even more daunting than new relationships were anyway. Her furry person—or maybe more accurately, she was Soudai's human—was a judgmental, possessive creature that occasionally snuck up behind her as she was reading and read passages from her smut novels aloud (which was mortifying) or perched somewhere and just watched her in that way only cats could (which was unnerving).

It would be her luck to have the only tomcat in the city who thought that tomcatting was a waste of time and energy that would be better spent, as far as she could tell, by slinking around invisibly and causing chaos. If she brought a boyfriend home, she'd have to live in constant fear of Soudai opening his mouth and sending him scurrying home.

With a gusty sigh Sakura raised her head, crossing her arms unobtrusively over the journal as she turned to look at Kakashi, whose brows crept even higher. "Did you sleep at all?"

Sakura scrubbed her hands through her hair again and grimaced when her fingers snagged on a knot. Now that her hair was long enough to hit her collarbones again, it was also long enough to tangle, especially when she'd been playing with it nervously as she read. "I'm living wildly, staying up all night—rather than returning to my shame phase, can't you see I'm in a rebellious phase?"

"Children in a rebellious phase need discipline and responsibility, so you can go file our travel plans at the Hokage's office. After a shower."

"Isn't that what you showed up to make me do anyway, regardless of rebellion?"

"Preemptive action," was Kakashi-senpai's prompt response.

She eyed him narrowly. "What have you failed to file or show up for that I'll be chewed out about?"

"Well, look at the time," Kakashi-senpai said, glancing down at his wrist and neatly sidestepping the question. Sakura's reflexes might have been slightly dulled by her sleepless night, but they were more than sufficient to catch the packet that senpai tossed at her. "I have some things to take care of before we leave tomorrow, so I'll leave everything else to you. Remember to file those before noon!"

And with that, Kakashi-senpai was gone again and Sakura dragged herself upright, sealing the journal before she trudged off to shower. The nearly scalding water did help to root her even more solidly in the present world instead of thinking on the things the journal had contained, but even it couldn't completely wash away the exhaustion clinging tenaciously to her skin. Still, it was better to get the paperwork out of the way before she slept. Especially if someone was going to nag at her for something senpai was trying to avoid; she was tired enough now that she could probably take whatever they had to say in perfect, exhausted complacency.

Sakura pulled her still-damp hair back, twisting it into a careless knot and securing it without trying to tuck in any unruly tufts. She usually wore it pulled back into a ponytail in the field, but the important thing was to keep it out of her face. While she fully intended to grow her hair out until it was long as it had been when she'd graduated the Academy, she'd spoiled herself on the convenience of short hair. Whereas wearing it loose had never bothered her before, nowadays she almost always wore it up or else she'd have it sheared short again out of frustration.

When at home in the village, she generally left her flak jacket hanging in her closet, but she'd gotten into the habit of wearing the black pants and fitted black shirt that she paired with it in the field. Only at Ino's insistence or when she had specific plans that required civvies did she wear anything else. Sakura knew it was paranoid—she never left the house without weapons even in civilian clothes—but she'd convinced herself that so long as she could still leave the flak jacket in the closet, she wasn't to the point of being hopeless like senpai.

Though that might just be an example of indifference and laziness; she couldn't imagine senpai actually shopping for clothes. Well, she could, but it was a scene out of some kind of comedy and she pitied the poor sales clerk who was contractually obliged to be nice to Kakashi-senpai, whose great pleasure in life was to be contrary.

The thought entertained her enough—or maybe the sleep deprivation was just making everything funnier—that her mood shifted toward buoyant and stayed there as she filed the itinerary and discovered exactly what it was that senpai had expected to be scolded for. Itineraries existed in case a shinobi had to be contacted quickly or to give guidance to search teams should he or she go missing; Kakashi-senpai had done the ink-and-paper equivalent of waving his hand vaguely and muttering something about eventually coming back.

"Wander at random" wasn't a response that would have been accepted from anyone less infamous than Hatake Kakashi and they weren't happy about it even from him, but at last she was free to slink away with every intention of collapsing face-first into her bed as soon as she returned home.

She should have known that wishing so whole-heartedly for something would only set it further away; she almost whimpered when she met the bandaged man she'd encountered before and he slowed down as he approached, like he wanted to talk.

"Good morning, Danzō-san."

"Haruno-san," he acknowledged. "Walk with me?"

Sakura nodded and accompanied him as he led the way through the halls out into the expansive park that lay in the shadow of the Hokage Tower and was hedged in on all sides by other administrative buildings. It was a legacy of the First, who'd been no administrative genius like his brother—the Second was the one who'd overseen the city planning—but who had declared decidedly that it was unhealthy to live in a place without trees or greenery and made certain that allowances had been made for greenspaces. This one had received his personal attention whenever he grew frustrated with village affairs.

Judging by the scenery, he'd spent a lot of time here. It was a landscape in miniature, with hills and lakes and great swathes of flowers cutting through it like rivers. None of the trees stood taller than twenty feet, but they all looked like they'd spent the last two hundred years clinging tenaciously to a cliff braving wind and snow rather than growing peacefully in the sheltered enclosure.

It was a favorite haunt of the desk-bound shinobi who worked in the nearby offices, but some trick of the landscaping kept conversations from carrying far and this made it also a preferred venue for conversations where the involved parties didn't mind being seen—or rather wanted to be seen—but didn't want to be overheard. As Sakura stood behind Danzō-san while he seemed to admire one particularly twisted tree that resembled a dancer with her sleeves flung into the wind, she thought this would probably be one of those situations.

Still, she took a moment to admire the tree. During the season that passed for winter in the Land of Fire, those sleeves gained a slightly purple tint and, in the spring, would bear masses of white star-shaped flowers. It did not bear fruit and the flowers, leaves, and bark had no useful properties. It was only pretty and because of this, Sakura realized that she didn't even recall what the First had named it.

Kunoichi classes had often been held here on fair weather days, as girls were expected to have a well-honed sense of aesthetics alongside everything else.

Sakura was asking herself whether he'd meant to put her more at ease by bringing her here—manipulating her into feeling more secure by having the conversation occur in a palace familiar and comfortable to her; there were other places to be seen if he wanted to be seen in public together—long before it occurred to her that there was no law that said he couldn't just enjoy the scenery and the privacy as much as anyone else.

"I read your mission report," he said at last. "I found your stance on the Uchiha matter very interesting. I can appreciate that such a situation must have been emotionally taxing, but you were able to clearly separate your private feelings from the matter and recommend actions that would be in the village's best interest, namely that the next attempt be made by ANBU and that the Hokage should not clip their wings."

Sakura did think that would be the easiest and neatest solution, but she knew that Tsunade-sama wouldn't, not with Itachi as the hidden player in all this.

Danzō-san turned to face her. "I'd also like to thank you for getting along well with Sai. He can be a difficult child to like, even if there are no problems with his martial skills."

"Sai was yours?" Sakura asked, sorting through the implications of both his access to the mission reports and his having enough sway to assign someone to the mission itself. That he felt the need to made her almost certain that this meant he was someone who wasn't falling neatly in line with Tsunade-sama and her feeling on the political maneuvering associated with the Hokage's office was that she wanted none of it.

It looked interesting enough in movies and books, but when it was her career and peace of mind on the line, it abruptly became something with higher stakes and real and unpleasant consequences if you weren't as good at the game as you thought you were.

After all, they weren't samurai or nobles or even merchants; there was no need to hire shinobi when your opponents were shinobi and hadn't conveniently forgotten that fact simply because they were also supposed to be advisors or council members or what-have-you. They were all professionally devious, under-handed, and backstabbing.

Though, to be fair to Danzo-san, there'd been no indication thus far that his fierce exterior hid anything but an equally fierce and direct interior. She even felt a slight guilt when it came to the older man, because she was almost certain that her instinctive unease had to do with his extensive injuries rather than anything more substantial. There was nothing particularly suspicious or wrong about a Council member showing interest in the career of a young shinobi, especially when the kunoichi in question was so deeply linked to the unaffiliated Hatake Kakashi, who could have been deeply influential if he'd bothered.

"Yes," Danzō answered her. "I hope that you might spend some time with Sai, since he responded so well to you. He's an awkward child and that makes a person worry." These words spoken by someone else might have been warm, but as it was they were merely paternal. The rigid, rule-setting, king-of-the-house kind.

"I don't mind," Sakura answered readily enough, which was the truth. She was interested in Sai's collaborative techniques, which while exciting on their own, might also offer some insight into the more mundane aspects of fuinjutsu like preparing ink and applying it to skin. It wasn't just ANBU Team Nine's techniques that she needed to understand; there was also the matter of the puppet technique that would be required for Itachi's scheme to succeed. It wasn't exactly the kind of jutsu she wanted to practice; the best she could hope for was to do it perfectly the first time and stuff the memory into a box and then stuff that box into another box and hope that she was stricken was selective amnesia about the contents.

"Excellent," Danzō replied. "I know that he will benefit from learning some social skills from you. However, I wonder if it might be an uneven trade on your part. Friendship is all well and good, if one manages to develop, but since I am the one asking favors, it falls to me to make certain you are duly recompensed for your effort. I have a solution for this, if you'd hear it."

No. "Sir?"

"Even with your mentor being Hatake Kakashi, there are certain disadvantages that come from being part of a small family. Lack of access to resources, training, support. Even the most promising tree cannot flourish for long if it has insufficient roots. I think it's a shame when young people's talents are overlooked simply on the basis of what family they're sprung from. This, alongside actually fulfilling my duties to as an advisor to the Hokage rather than being his or her yes-man, has made me an unpopular man in this village. But it also means that I have collected diverse talent under me; the only method by which you'd garner a similar variety of battle experience would be if you took up hunting bounties. Which, if you are entertaining the notion, sounds far more glamorous than the reality. But I don't think you're that kind of child."

He glanced over his shoulder to look at her with his good eye and she somehow felt like she was being pinned in place. It was strange—he wasn't using genjutsu, like Gozen-san might or blazing with intensity like Sasuke would. He certainly wasn't simply that striking, like Itachi was, nor was his force of character as demanding as Naruto's. "Shinobi like you and I leave the grandstanding for the gloryhounds," he said, "while we go about doing the real business of the village. Think about it," he invited, making to stride away and stopping when he drew even with her shoulder. "Sai isn't good at social cues, so when may I say meeting with him is convenient for you?"

"Senpai and I will be out of town for a while," Sakura hedged.

"Ah. Then I will send a note with his address to you. I leave him in your care."

And just like that he was gone and Sakura had the feeling she'd just been walking through a field full of traps. The only difficulty was these were traps filled with a poison she'd never before encountered; she might not know she'd tripped one until it was far, far too late.