A/N: I've realized that on occasion that I treat this area like an extras featurette on a DVD. Developing the afterlife of KYH was an interesting journey, because canon provided a universe in which reincarnation (and therefore the existence of the soul) is something important to the plot, but the further implications of that are never explored. What glimpses are given of the afterlife are of the meeting-with-dead-relatives-for-enlightenment variety. There were lots of unanswered questions, like whether or not this afterlife was a punitive one of the Abrahamic variety or a death-is-equally-miserable-for-mostly-everyone of the ancient Greeks. I freely mixed the idea of a Shinto spirit world with some Buddhist layering, which meshes fairly well (and isn't surprising, since the faiths have intermingled in Japan since Buddhism was imported).
Shinto—or the very limited English language texts available on it—is less than explicit on the consequences of a profession like being a shinobi, even though death and being touched by it creates ritual impurity. Buddhism, however, suggests karmic retribution for violence whether you're interpreting it as ahisma or alpadroha. Hence a kind of reincarnation into a "lower" being, following the idea that the most powerful gods and yōkai always are depicted as being capable of assuming human shapes. It's less of an eternal damnation sort of thing and more of a try, try, and try again until you get it right, no matter how many lifetimes it takes.
This is a little later than I'd wanted because this was a pretty grim interlude and honestly, it's not much fun to write. I've been very tempted to try my hand at something Reylo, but honestly every time I think about how I'd start it, it's more SpiritualJourney!Rey, which is probably par the course because outright romance isn't something I do, but the downtime between chapters for this fic is already appalling.
Kill Your Heroes
Hiraeth (Part I)
His skin was sweat-slicked and clammy and it twisted something inside Konan to see him like this.
"You should have left them dead," she told him harshly, her voice tight with worry and anger. "It would have been enough."
Nagato laughed and it was a broken thing. "You can only fear a man so much. Think of Hanzō, whom we feared and feared and killed anyway. But to have not even death held sacred. How much more would you fear and obey someone who could snatch even that last escape from you? You can't be one man and end a war. It would take something far more to end all war. That would take a god and all of ours are indifferent."
That was why they hunted the jinchuriki, because it took power to play god and Nagato was only one man, wasted and hurting and desperate. Konan had been as devoted to their cause as he when this all began all those years ago, but it wore at one, this long, long battle with no one to win it for. Her friends and her family were so long dead only their bones were left. There were more things she'd forgotten about them than she remembered; she knew the faint halcyon quality that shrouded them for what it was.
She remembered anger—real anger, deep and unthinking, not the little thing that masqueraded as it in her worry—but anger was a burning thing and hers had scorched the parts of her soul that fueled it. Konan wasn't angry anymore. She was tired and caught in a sense of inevitability, like this war wasn't a path they walked, but rather some cliff they'd stepped off the edge of that day when they decided that their battle wasn't finished with the Salamander dead and his city in their grasp.
Konan was not much given to whimsy, but she wondered what her world would have been like if she and Nagato had been selfish in their strength. If they'd torn that tyrant down and just left, been each other's solace and left the world to find itself a way forward.
She wondered if she would have been happy; Konan hadn't been happy in longer than she had been angry.
But she could not abandon Nagato. He was all she had left.
[Kill Your Heroes]
The radios still worked, though almost everything else was down, and after a few minutes of confused transmissions with everyone trampling over each other, radio discipline had been re-established—on her channel, at least—by a stern-voiced man she didn't recognize but who projected calm authority.
Sakura, who'd feared being marooned with a gaggle of anxious civilians and wasn't ready to think too deeply on her death and what had been waiting on the other side of it, was soon ordered to leave her group in the care of the chūnin. They were scrambling teams for search-and-rescue and every jounin had enough skill with earth manipulation to be useful, though not all of them had the sensitivity to pick up a civilian's signature under eight feet or more of rubble and they were assigned to teams headed by those who could.
"The graves" was no longer ironic; the catacombs that were both escape route and place of refuge had collapsed, entire sections of the village subsiding into the resultant channels and pits. Sakura was in the strange position of being relieved that her team and many others hadn't managed to get their civilians down into the catacombs before the invaders had killed them. They'd been slaughtered on the street and were the better for it, because the houses hadn't come down on them when the penultimate attack that had collapsed the catacombs had also leveled most of the buildings.
There was a breathtaking sort of cruelty to it, yanking someone back from that first peace of death, wherever they ended up, just so they could suffocate in some black closed space.
She had a moment's blank, blinding fear as her blood dripped onto the ground—what if Soudai didn't respond?—but she should have known that of all of them, a cat wouldn't let a little thing like death get in the way of being condescending.
Sakura had very carefully honed sensory skills; Soudai had been born to them. Together they made a ferociously impressive search-and-rescue team, which was a work that got grimmer as the hours passed and fatigue made every corpse retrieved that much more of a blow. Sakura coped by more not-thinking, taking refuge behind single-minded focus on reaching each survivor before they became more corpses to burn.
She kept at it until her eyes stung with exhaustion, her every move made with the kind of careful deliberation of someone either drunk or at the tail-end of their endurance. Even through the filters of her mask, her mouth tasted like dust—bitter and acrid and pervasive—and it mixed with her sweat on her skin to become a layer of grime that would take days of scouring to see her clean of.
Except there weren't any hot showers waiting; she was lucky to have hot food, even if it was out of a bag that she balanced in one hand while perched on the rubble of a street she no longer recognized.
Potable water, food, and other supplies were going to be a problem—the catacombs were also where most of their emergency supplies had been stockpiled. It wasn't just the matter of the tunnels being collapsed; broken water and sewage pipes had saturated or outright flooded many of the areas where the supplies had been cached.
Sakura had feared sleep for years, treating it like an enemy to be overcome. Now she welcomed the escape of it, because if nothing else no one would speak to her for five hours barring another invasion. For all the grateful mothers and the civilians eager to help in any way they could, there were always the demanding voices—find my child, why haven't you saved him, where is he, how could you let this happen, why aren't you doing more—even when the shinobi were pushing themselves to the brink of collapse. It wasn't only women, the accusers, but men didn't always confine themselves to words and Sakura had had to stamp down on the urge to break the fingers of the people who touched her like they thought they could shake their world back into order.
She at least had the consolation of her field kit intact, sealed in her scrolls, though she was so filthy she didn't make use of it. They were packed tight into too few tents—there were harried personnel signing them in, trying to keep a log of their comings and goings because the batteries in the radios were already dying depending on the diligence of their owners and not everyone had one anyway—and everyone smelled like death, but there a silent void where good-natured complaints and ribbing would have been voiced. There wasn't even any boisterous review of the day, riding high on adrenaline, if not victory.
Everyone had withdrawn into their own small worlds; she'd seen it during the day as well, when they'd abruptly lapse into silence, sometimes for hours. Sometimes they'd falter, their chakra lashing out wildly, and no one did more than take them aside and let them sit for a while, their head hung between their knees.
Soudai had slunk off and she thought briefly about trying to find Kakashi-senpai, but she was shattered and her home was a labyrinth of unfamiliar wreckage for all that her night vision was proving unnervingly acute.
She'd expected to die again in her dreams, to feel the burn of natural chakra as it reshaped her, too large and too wild to flow smoothly in human channels. Having lost her fear of dying, of the suspicion of annihilation of self—because for all the wonder of their world of manipulated elements and summoned spirits and all the evidence of something that existed beyond the tangible flesh she hadn't had the certainty of a true believer, hadn't actually spared much thought for it beyond her need not to die and her desperate desire to believe that somewhere Tatsuo continued whole and at peace—she still hadn't lost the echo of pain of a magnitude she hoped never to experience again.
Instead the Foxwife was waiting. She was the young woman again, beautiful and dangerous, dressed in a white kimono with the lapels crossed right over left like a corpse's. There was a crane tucked, quiescent, on her lap and the hands that stroked it were gentle and nearly reverent.
"My husband," Gozen-san said, her voice soft and fond, which was strange on this woman who had been all sharp, bitter edges in her memories. "It exhausted him, anchoring me here. I won't be coming back, Sakura. I had a good death. I could live another hundred years and never find another battle like that. I had never found anyone good enough to kill me; I had never found a way to die without compromising my own strength, so I could only wait for time to do what human hands could not. I wasn't about to let anyone steal that from me, so I could one day die old and weak and sick in my bed."
"You came to say good-bye?" Sakura asked. There was something humbling in that, of being worthy of this woman, who'd shaped the shinobi she would become. It was Gozen-san who had shown her what she was capable of making of herself. It was strange, to be grateful to someone because they hadn't been kind, but it had been a very long and strange set of days and she'd made her peace with all sorts of things.
"Yes. Pulling so many souls out of the Spirit World has left the barrier very thin; you should expect some mischief from yōkai usually too weak to cross the divide. I imagine a lot of dreams are full of spirits tonight. Your fox-friend is waiting, but he can spare us a little time."
The dream undulated, like water rippling, and it was a pale young man stretched out at the feet of a white fox, his head pillowed by her tail. Sakura's body was different too, one long powerful length, her fore- and hind-limbs truncated by comparison. She had instinctive knowledge that they aren't truly necessary, that air was like water for her in this body, and she could wend her way though it like a watersnake swimming downstream.
This future was not one she feared, not in the waking-in-the-night-can't-breathe-can-hardly-think-cold-clamminess-ringing-ears way she'd once feared her own death. It was waking to the devastation of her village that she dreaded now.
[Kill Your Heroes]
Something woke her and she blinked the world into grey-shaded focus as someone lowered themselves into the nearly nonexistent space between her and the person on the next collection of what passed for bedding.
"Your eyes are reflecting light," Kakashi-senpai observed as he somehow wedged his long body beside hers, smelling like sweat and dog and death. There wasn't much space between them, then there wasn't any at all as he astonished her by threading his arms around her, almost tangling their legs as he held her tight to his chest. They were almost of a height nowadays, she and Kakashi-senpai, and she had to squirm further down his body to tuck herself beneath his chin, feeling weight and warmth pile themselves at her back and at her feet as the ninken joined them. It had already been too-warm in the tent and the additional body heat made it all but suffocating, but Sakura didn't care.
"I was almost a dragon," she murmured against the fabric of his vest, feeling the first sting of tears. She cried then, very quietly, with strange little hitching breaths, and though she couldn't see it, she could feel Kakashi-senpai's own even quieter tears, his breathe ghosting against her hair.
Trust and affection bridged them, made everything bearable, but the weight of what they were bearing deserved acknowledgement. Some small part of her was glad to feel the faint quivering of his body, feel the wet warmth of tears on her hair, because Kakashi-senpai—he didn't get over pain, because he didn't know how to acknowledge it, confront it, and let it go.
When Sakura had first learned to despise her own shortcomings, she'd thought all tears were weakness. It was only because of Kakashi-senpai that she understood that sometimes they were a catharsis, like a spring flood, a temporary devastation that would give way for something greener.
They were in a room full of people, but the anonymity granted by darkness and being surrounded by strangers concerned with their own misery allowed it to be a private moment. Otherwise, no matter how much Kakashi-senpai trusted her, he would have never allowed himself to be weak. But it is and he does and the Sakura in this moment didn't need the untouchable sensei of her childhood, she needed him as someone very human, sharing their grief and their hurt and their loss.
It wasn't something they would talk about by daylight; Kakashi-senpai was neither a woman nor a genjutsu-adept. He was neither trained nor inclined to pick apart feelings like they were the workings of a machine. It made it more powerful when he did try, made her feel loved as he stumbled through proving he cared..
At twelve, she'd thought she'd known what love was. It had been deep and obsessive and wildly unhealthy.
At eighteen, she knew with certainty what love was. It was quieter and more gentle than she'd thought it would be, but strong and resilient as spider silk, something that could be beautiful even in this village turned to dust.
[Kill Your Heroes]
"If we don't attend, the talks will collapse," Danzō said, fingers rapping against the battered surface of the salvaged table. The prerogative of the Hokage was reduced to the shelter of real walls and sharing space with the records they'd been able to recover. Privacy was her only real luxury, when her shinobi were living in battlefield conditions in their own village. "They're probably already balking, waiting to see what you'll do."
Tsunade, who'd leveraged the weight and prestige of her own village to force some of the other kage into giving her face and holding the talks at all, knew he was right. She also knew that it would appear incredibly callous to leave her village in the midst of its crisis and they were already seeing civilians leaving. She knew that her shinobi were exhausted and at risk for defection and she didn't know that she had the heart to take measures against them if they did.
There was battle fatigue rampant among them on a scale that hadn't been seen since the last war and there were already reports that some of her soldiers had decided that what was waiting after death was preferable to the things that they were facing on this side.
"Will any of them even act against Akatsuki now?" was what she asked aloud.
"If Akatsuki was only trying to force them into an alliance, no. They'd show their belly and keep their life. But most of their cultures are even bloodier than ours," Danzō replied. "Suna would go back to being desert nomads before they'd bow their heads to Akatsuki."
Their fierce and arid pride might make them try, but it had been their women who'd known the sandways of wells and dunes and oases. And when they'd settled and become a culture of war rather than cooperation and negotiation, Suna's women had lost more than just status, though they'd preserved the memory of shubat—fermented camel milk—just fine.
"Should we anticipate another attack?" she asked Jiraiya, who had been withdrawn and pensive since he'd reached her after her resurrection. "This would be an opportunity to crush all of us at once."
She remembered the feel of Dan's hands locked around her own and his steady promise as she'd loosed her own grip. I'll be waiting. Take your time and when you're finished, come back to me. Her little brother, impatient as always, was already reborn in the world. But there'd been an…echo of him. I'm going ahead, sis, don't wait up. Which was both infuriating and very much Nawaki.
"I doubt it," Jiraiya said at last. "He wants you to choose peace, which means he has to give you the opportunity to make up your mind. Not that he won't crush you afterward if he doesn't like the way you're thinking. I'd also like to think that crushing the village wasn't like wringing a rooster's neck," he said with a rueful kind of humor. "Because if our friends don't need time to recover after that, we've got bigger problems than whether or not Ōnoki will refuse to cooperate just to be contrary."
"If they agree to cooperate, the combined might of the villages should be enough to keep them occupied until your apprentice is finished with his training," Danzō said. "Akatsuki has already subdued most of the jinchuriki. Kumogakure won't risk the Eight-Tails unless Akatsuki attacks the village directly, which leaves all ours hopes resting on the shoulders of Uzumaki Naruto."
His mouth twisted on the name, his tone making it clear how much he regretted the necessity of it.
She'd been glad to have Naruto safely tucked away on Mount Myōboku during the siege, because as much as he'd matured these last few years she doubted he'd have been able to keep himself from tipping into a killing rage as the village fell. Whether their invaders eventually managed to subdue the unleashed Kyūbi or not, it would have been his allies who'd have taken the brunt of his attack. Sage training was closed door—Naruto wouldn't have contact with the outside world again until he'd either passed or the toads brought word that he'd failed.
"Though," Danzō remarked, "if the battle took place in Amegakure instead, there might have been a different outcome. Our jounin wouldn't need to hold back. The Kyūbi could be used to full advantage, as well as Uchiha Itachi."
A thoughtful expression creased his face and one of his hands ghosted over the knots of flesh along his forearm that had once housed Sharingan eyes. They'd withered, but the one that had replaced his own eye remained, red and inflamed.
Tsunade didn't have words for the kind of anger that had swept through her at that nasty little revelation, but her temper had cooled by the time she'd come back from the other side. Shimura Danzō was all the ugliest parts of their profession soldered together and given power, but while she thought of him as nearly amoral in the ways he chose to serve his village—and it was only in the dimmest reaches of her memory that she could recall him as merely ambitious, before his wife and granddaughter had died and she remembered seeing the change before his son had been gutted in the swamps of Amegakure—she thought that he wouldn't risk sabotaging the village's strength by somehow encouraging the attempted coup.
Oh, she had no doubt that he hadn't spent nights wracked with guilt over the massacre and had taken full advantage of the…scavenged pieces, but he and his faction were powerful and loyal in their own way and she couldn't afford to alienate now.
Tsunade had gone to a lot of dark places in her efforts to escape herself. Met the kind of people she'd have had nothing but disdain for before she'd left the village. She'd owed money—the kind of money that could buy and sell the deaths of important men—to bōryokudan and paid them back in favors or with greater violence than they could counter. The only thing she didn't trade was sex; everything else was negotiable in her pursuit of some nebulous peace that she never found. If it hadn't been for Shizune, she probably would have destroyed herself.
That time had taught her about men like Danzō. If she was strong enough, she could force him to respect the limits she set, but only if she was explicit about them. If their end goals ever diverged, she could expect him to betray her. But for now, they were bound in a relationship of mutual self-interest and political expediency.
"Have they settled on how many guards they'll allow you?" Jiraiya asked.
"Still two," she grimaced. "After they received news of the invasion, they wanted to push back the summit and reassess the security measures we were allowed, but we managed to convince them that if I felt safe attending with only two guards, it would be a mark of cowardice for them to do anything less. I'll be taking Danzō and Nara Kameyo from T&I as my retinue, but I want you to get a team into Iron, in case things go badly. Take Itachi. Haruno Sakura has worked with him before and Hatake Kakashi will probably limit himself to being scathingly sardonic. Even they're really more than we can spare," she said, bitterness seeping through the spaces in her words. "The cost of rebuilding the village—we're going to need a war to be able to afford it."
[Kill Your Heroes]
He looked well, Sakura thought rather than being surprised at the sight of Itachi—Jiraiya-sama had been rather too cagey about the identity of the agent they were going upstairs to meet for her to be caught off-guard again.
There had been something terribly compelling about skin so pale and translucent that she could see the blue rivers of his veins, stretched tight over the bird-fragile bones of his face, but Itachi didn't need frailty. He'd been much recovered at their last meeting, but she'd either forgotten or been sheltered by the force of her irritation and her anger.
Sakura had no such defenses now, wrung-out and weary, so what struck her first was how clean he looked. Every night by the time she'd finished out her duty shift, her skin was red and abraded, her knuckles split, and her fingernails torn and bleeding. Her lips were chapped, her skin dry, and she was developing thick bone-white streaks in her hair at her temples. If she hadn't eked out just that little bit more every night and healed her skin to ruin it again in the morning, between the MREs, the filth, and the mask she wore so that the dust settled on that instead of in her lungs, she'd have had several nasty pimples in the works as well.
Itachi's skin was pale honey, unblemished and nearly glowing with good health, his black hair lustrous. He still wore it long and it was loose and slightly damp across his shoulders, like he'd showered before they came. Perhaps he'd done it to look less intimidating, whatever he was wearing now as combat gear set aside in favor of civvies.
Although, knowing Itachi, he'd probably showered earlier as a courtesy so that she and Kakashi-senpai could take full advantage of access to hot running water that wasn't closely monitored.
"Hello, Sakura," he murmured in that perfectly polite voice that ignored the awkwardness of the fact that the last time they'd seen each other they'd hollowed out a man and stuffed Itachi's consciousness inside. "Hatake-senpai."
Kakashi-senpai noted his use of her name and his gaze slid between them, weighing and assessing, before he hummed thoughtfully. "You've always had terrible taste in men," he pronounced solemnly.
Sakura hesitated, somehow reluctant to be teased like this in front of Itachi, but she knew that this humor was really a front—a way for Kakashi-senpai to take the time he needed to process this without looking like he'd been startled by the revelation. "Really, senpai? That's where you're going to take this?"
"Mah, mah, Sakura—we've read all the same books, we both know how this goes."
Sakura lifted her brows into an incredulous line.
"Well," Kakashi-senpai relented a moment later, "to be fair, your books tend to think that the redemption of a man isn't in the love of good woman, but in the skillful interrogation of a good kunoichi."
"…do you even need to redeem double-agents?"
"Conflicted ones," was Kakashi-senpai's prompt answer.
His eyes settled expectantly on Itachi, who replied soberly, "I was not—" he hesitated, considered, and then, "—once it was no longer possible that my clan would rethink their course, I was not conflicted. Akatsuki's vision is inherently flawed, because there will never be a threat great enough to enforce lasting peace. Only someone built of violence would have such a mad dream. Peace isn't something you find outside yourself."
Kakashi-senpai was watching Itachi with the same kind of intensity as he usually reserved for the first read-through of a novel, for a moment undisguised by a mask of lackadaisical humor. Kakashi-senpai thought like he fought. He was agile, adapted quickly, saw patterns, and made decisions all faster than most people would ever manage.
"And how does my cute little kouhai fit into all of this?" Kakashi-senpai demanded flatly.
"I was dying and all but blind, the last time we met. Sakura was ordered to correct that, so that I might be useful a little while longer," Itachi said, volunteering nothing else. It was a very different tact from the one he'd used to convince her that he was, if not harmless, then not a threat to her. Something more than an ally and less than a friend, she supposed, though that was something that had come with time.
Kakashi-senpai tilted his head thoughtfully, then shrugged, striding across the room to sink bonelessly into a seat across from Itachi. "And here I thought I was being terrifically brave by letting you prod at my eye," he said to Sakura, who was much slower to follow.
They were in a nondescript motel room, somewhat shabby but cleaner than anything she'd seen for days. Kakashi-senpai had just commandeered the chair which had been crammed beneath the desk, leaving her with the option of one of the two beds or sharing the couch with Itachi.
"You were still very brave," she assured him, reflecting on those harrowing moments when she'd tried to interface the Sharingan—whose taint turned chakra corrosive to cells—with a brain not born to it. She decided she was brave too, padding across the worn carpet to join Itachi on the couch.
An awkward silence ensued. Well, awkward for Sakura—Itachi was outwardly serene and Kakashi-senpai opaque.
Then Kakashi-senpai said, "Well, as interesting as this has been, I'm going to shower and go out. I'm going to assume that you two are capable of playing nice for a few hours on your own?"
Sakura nodded, understanding his need to distance himself and reassess. Or perhaps he was only desperate for a little privacy and a little space after so many days packed like sardines in a tent with other people. It was probably some combination of the two and she did not begrudge him it.
Kakashi-senpai vanished into the bathroom after that announcement, leaving Sakura nominally alone with Itachi. She considered commandeering Kakashi-senpai's vacated chair, but that would feel very like a retreat.
"Have you eaten?" Itachi asked at last. "I can go fetch something—it would still be warm when you get out of the shower."
"I—no, I haven't," Sakura said, struggling for a moment before deciding that, yes, it would be nice to eat something that wasn't designed to be chemically heated and good for five years. "That would be nice."
When Kakashi-senpai came out of the shower, he noted Itachi's absence immediately. "He went to get food," Sakura volunteered. "Underneath all the martyring and massacring, Itachi's really a middle-aged housewife. Most of our meetings featured him being very sickly and still insisting on being the perfect host. Hostess, really," she clarified. "He did a lot of cooking."
Kakashi-senpai's lips quirked up into a half-smile. "Well, everyone needs a hobby," he allowed. "Even Uchiha Itachi. Maybe especially someone like him. I knew him from before. He was almost eerily self-contained, which was odd for an Uchiha. I don't know how much of them you remember, but there was something about them. Not unstable, necessarily, but…temperamental, especially the ones that manifested the Sharingan."
He tilted his head a little as he examined her face. "You're not surprised by this."
"You haven't seen how a Sharingan interfaces with the brain," was Sakura's soft reply. "I wasn't being facetious when I said you were very brave, Kakashi-senpai. It's not a very nice doujutsu. It's powerful, erratic, and it really is unstable. The stimuli that trigger further mutation—it's not very nice."
"No," he agreed softly. "Anyway, we—ANBU—used to joke about who or what would die when Itachi finally cracked and lost his temper. No one was laughing when the massacre happened, but—I can't say that we were surprised, either. It was only a matter of time," he said, echoing long-ago voices. "We were a terrifically cynical bunch."
"To be fair, that was what you were meant to think. I hate to be the one to tell you this, Kakashi-senpai, but you are occasionally wrong, just like the rest of us."
"But you love me anyway, right?"
"Yes. But Itachi cooks for me, so you have competition."
"Just because you've broken it off with your boyfriend doesn't mean you can hold the Uchiha over my head."
Sakura mock-scowled at him, though the reminder of Zen was a little bite of melancholy. It had been entirely amiable and he was understanding after she'd sent little Yoko to him to explain that she didn't feel it would be fair to him, when all of her attention and time would be owed to her village for an indefinite length of time. Zen was too prickly for pretense; if she'd lost his friendship she'd have known it and she was glad to have kept it.
While theirs hadn't exactly been a story of passion overcoming the barriers of distance and village, she thought they'd been good for each other and she'd been glad to have him while he was hers.
"Go on, Kakashi-senpai. Go think or read a book or get a girl or whatever it is you need to do. I'll be fine. Itachi will probably even have my laundry done by the time you get back."
"If he does laundry, get him to do mine."