A/N: Writer's block. Making you feel like a miserable failure at life every time, no matter how much you've previously published or how much positive reinforcement you've gotten that your writing is worth reading. Thank you for your patience!
Kill Your Heroes
Torschlusspanik (Part I)
Sakura had been honored in her inclusion in Tsunade-sama's shadow guard; now she wished that they'd have left her at home if this was where the path led anyway.
They had given her a ready room of her own, put a researcher at her disposal—this in addition to the files buttressing a number of blueprints and scrolls that had been waiting for her—and given her a travel timeline that would have killed a genin.
Because she was alone, she wasn't ashamed to face one of the walls and press her forehead against the cool surface, fingers digging against the flat surface like she was clinging to a sheer cliff-face. Her stomach roiled, clenched tight with anxiety, and she couldn't blame the sweat that prickled along her spine on the stifling room with its single sluggish fan.
Sakura had never had any ambition of eclipsing the reputation of the Foxwife, just a firm resolution to live as long as she could and lose as few people as she could manage. Some days, even that felt like too much.
Even if she'd had that kind of ambition, the Foxwife had reigned in the fields and the forests, fighting against enemy shinobi. Perhaps they weren't samurai with their honor-codes and their ethos of service or the valiant farmer-soldiers with which the daimyo fought their wars, but they too shared understandings that crossed cultures and borders. Shinobi didn't chase death—well, most of them didn't—and maybe all the writing of wills in the world didn't make it real until you were kissing-close to it in the field, but they were raised to it. Shaped by it.
Those people who'd died in the Foxwife's snare hadn't walked blindly into it. They weren't watching a variety show on television or doing someone's hair; they weren't serving someone unagi no kabayaki or trying to put a fretful child down for a nap. Not that she didn't anticipate their shinobi would be taken off-guard doing just these things—not that she didn't want to catch them unsuspecting in those moments, because that was the whole point, wasn't it?—and the whole village had be aware that reprisal of some kind was to be expected after what had been done to Konohagakure.
She had killed all-but-civilians before, people with more aggression than training. Her very first kills had been like that, though at the time Gatō's thugs had been terrifying.
She just hadn't killed people who'd done nothing worse than happen to live in the wrong village.
The former didn't bother her more than any other kind of death; once you took up a weapon, it didn't matter if you were any good with it. But for the other…
Each village had a "brand," as it were. A way that trained their shinobi to act and to think and to think of themselves. Konohagakure had more restrictions on services it would provide than any other village; they were the "good guys" of the shinobi world. Clean and polite and offering protection for merchant caravans and rescuing abducted women of good families and bringing home lost pets. Witch and Hound specialized in tracking criminals and missing-nin and assorted scum-of-the-earth types.
This was not that and Sakura wasn't certain how she was going to live with herself when this was done. Because she wasn't going to fail. She wasn't going to fail and it was going to shake the world and her world would tilt so far off its axis that no amount of reconstruction at home would ever return her to the seasons that, while not golden, had been made bearable by Kakashi-senpai and the ninken and Soudai and all her friends however little she saw them.
She would still have those things, but she would always carry the weight of what she was about to do with her and she did not have the confidence that she would not drown.
Like she would make the village of Amegakure drown.
It was possible that their civilians had wanted her village to fall; it might even be probable that they'd rejoiced when her village was crushed. She could probably bring herself to hate that faceless mob—could bring herself to bring them to destruction in a way she wouldn't be able to if she thought of them as mothers and daughters and fathers and sons. Maybe true Sages had control sufficient to let the rain fall on shinobi but not civilians in a village of thousands, but all her seal could give her was enough chakra to bring down a storm to swallow them all.
It hadn't been as hard as it ought to have been to decide on the illusion. It had to be a static illusion—that was to say, that once she'd "locked" it, the genjutsu wouldn't try to take in their own shinobi when it was time to execute the next phase of the operation. An inability to do this had been the critical weakness of Gozen-san's ultimate genjutsu when the ANBU teams had first been formed, but the field had evolved since the Foxwife's reign. Not so much on scale—Sakura had never even heard stories about other shinobi using genjutsu as Gozen-san had, but in terms of how willing they were to let their comrades attempt to either operate within the genjutsu or break it on their own.
Locking it also meant that once an enemy was free of the illusion, the jutsu could no longer sank fresh hooks and pull them back into the dreaming.
She had immediately dismissed a slumbering village gambit for that reason. It had been effective in the arena during Orochimaru's invasion because all of his targets were in a relatively contained space that allowed him to kill at will before enough shinobi woke to wake others who would wake others and unravel the illusion before he'd wanted it dissolved. Putting someone to sleep was one of the least chakra-intensive genjutsu, but also one of the most common and by extension, one of the easiest to break. Though shinobi rarely received much in the way of formal training to counter genjutsu in the post-Uchiha age, she wouldn't insult her opponent by underestimating them. Many of her opponents would have been trained while the clan was at the height of their power.
Fire was the obvious path to walk; Sakura knew fire like most people knew their lovers. She knew the feel of it against her skin, could conjure with a thought the acrid taste of it in her mouth, could live again at any moment the feel of her chakra boiling her blood in her veins.
Fire was the symbol of Konohagakure.
Overwhelming destructive power paired with indescribable warmth, ceaseless and deathless so long as that original flame was used to kindle others.
But her village had burned.
She'd remembered with a sick sort of fury how Akatsuki had turned their strengths against them during the Crush and felt it would only be polite to do the same. Aside from the more formal reports she'd been given on Amegakure, she had memories of them from her chūnin exam. They'd taken advantage of puddles and swampy areas with comfort and familiarity, like frogs emerging from the mud.
They associated water with safety. With security.
Sakura had once taken a walk with Gozen-san to a nearby river, where the older woman had set her to fetching interesting stones for her garden. It had been a little over waist-deep, the current languid and summer-slow and so clear that she could see the scales of fish glinting in the sunlight.
There had only been one illusion at work that day and it hadn't been the drowning.
Gozen-san had sabotaged her balance to such an extent she'd felt like she was falling while standing up and once Gozen-san's bony hand had settled on the back of her head and plunged her beneath the water, it had only gotten worse. The disorientation had fed the panic which had fed the disorientation until she wasn't certain which was up or down and could hardly fight back at all, let alone make an attempt to cancel the genjutsu.
She remembered it in vivid, stunning detail, even the slow fogginess of her fading consciousness, to the point that she had developed a severe and irrational dislike of people's hands being near her body where she couldn't see them when she was distracted by something else—even when not anywhere near water. It was why Zen's hands had spent most of the kissing portions of their relationship with their fingers tangled together and pinned behind him; it was why handing Itachi a comb for the first time had felt a little like handing him a knife. Only Kakashi-senpai and, bizarrely enough, Sai had proved exceptions to her aversion.
Except when Kakashi-senpai was doing the reading-over-her-shoulder thing, especially if he was actually leaning on her shoulder while doing it, but that was just normal annoyance.
It was the thought of something as utterly mundane as being annoyed at Kakashi-senpai that was finally enough for her to peel herself off the wall and return to the table. Which was for the best, because she had a meeting scheduled with Hyūga Neji in less than ten minutes and she didn't want his most recent impression of her to be a gibbering wreck clinging to the wall. Senpai made being a weirdo work for him, but Sakura didn't think she could be so blasé.
While it might have been more efficient to summon her team and brief them all at the same time, she'd wanted to give Neji-san an opportunity to reject the seal without an audience. If he said no, which she expected—just as she expected to insult and annoy Sai in the meeting scheduled afterward by attempting to not-bluntly ask if he needed a medical exemption from actively participating in the mission once it left the village—she'd present it to the rest of the team as being an intentional decision on her part. Not that she didn't expect professionalism from the other three, but—well. Kakashi-senpai and Sai were both themselves and nothing about her impression of Mitirashi-san had indicated she even knew the word "restraint."
Tsunade-sama had left her with instructions to compile a list of gear that her team needed repaired or replaced and have it sent yesterday, so Sakura spent the time before her appointment mentally reviewing her kit and carefully noting on the form that she'd require open-toed boots and fingerless gloves. She wasn't certain how she felt about showing the dragon to others, but she did know she'd ruin her equipment before the battle even began if she didn't make some concessions for it.
She'd finished her list and was dubiously sorting through her mountain of materials when the knock came at the door. "Haruno-san?" came Neji-san's muffled voice through the door.
"Come in," she said, closing her folder and unintentionally mirroring one of Tsunade-sama's favorite poses as she interlocked her fingers in front of her. Tsunade-sama did it to project casual confidence and because she found it comfortable; Sakura did it so that she wouldn't be constantly fidgeting with the things on the table.
"Please, have a seat," she invited him and once the long-haired shinobi had done so, Sakura took a calming breath and then summarized both the mission and the seal that would make the mission possible. Neji-san had looked very noncommittal and professional when he'd stepped inside the room, but by the time she'd finished, he was just blatantly staring.
Perhaps she should have been less up-front about the somewhat dubious source of the seal and the less-than-reassuring way it had become functional, but Sakura had thought it best to be honest about the risk of corruption by natural chakra and other interesting side-effects.
"You…," he trailed off a bit helplessly, then made a visible effort to collect himself, though his voice was still somewhat strained. "So, without supervision of any kind, from the journal of a man who you knew to be having hallucinations and paranoid delusions so severe that he murdered someone—"
"To be fair, it was exposure a chemical weapon incurred in the line of duty that caused it," Sakura interjected, but Neji-san continued on undaunted.
"You recreated a seal that was used to create massive jutsu arrays by ANBU Team Nine, but was apparently nonfunctional until you channeled so much natural chakra that the rapid cellular mutation killed you. But now it appears to work fine and the mission that will launch our entire campaign against Amegakure depends upon it."
"…yes? Though Sai helped." Sakura said in the long silence that followed. "But you don't need to take the seal if you aren't comfortable with it," she rushed to reassure him. "Given your history with seals—well, I primarily asked for a Hyūga to be assigned to my squad to monitor conditions within the city, not necessarily to include you as one of the seal-bearers."
"This isn't about the Kago no Tori no Juin," Neji-san said flatly. "This is about—you—," he trailed off with an inarticulate noise of frustration, pinching the bridge of his nose. "Is this how you'll be proposing this to the other members of your squad?"
"And you expect them to agree?"
"Well, one of them is Kakashi-senpai and the other is Mitarashi Anko-san, so, yes?"
"Mitarashi Anko," Neji-san muttered. "This keeps getting better."
He took a moment to compose himself and then asked, "What are the known risks of the seal?"
"Of the seal itself? None that we know of, unless you count invasion of privacy. I can sense Sai's location within the village at this distance, but I couldn't tell you what he's doing or what he's thinking. However, using natural chakra is unavoidable in creating a genjutsu of this magnitude, and it does bring on a transformation for me. We haven't tried it to be certain, but it's likely that it would also cause one in the seal-bearers. Like Orochimaru's juinjutsu."
Sakura was not particularly fond of the comparison, but it was apt and also the easiest way to explain the effects to someone who had seen one of the cursed seals in use.
Neji-san frowned at the table between them for a long time, his eyes focused on nothing in particular. "There's no coercive element to the seal?"
"Because I have the king-seal, I'd have open access to your chakra to direct the jutsu, which Sai says feels very strange. He had some success preventing me from accessing his chakra; I'm told that it feels not unlike breaking a genjutsu, so I'd assume with some practice it would be possible to limit my access to sensing only. Maybe not even that. You don't have the same access to my chakra, though I can share it through the bond. I suppose I could theoretically shove an extremely high volume of chakra through the seal as an inducement to do what I want," she said rather dubiously. "It didn't occur to us to attempt to block unwanted sharing, just unwanted taking."
By the look on his face, Neji-san had come to some resolution he was unhappy about as he finally looked up to meet her gaze. "I'd like to see it," he said.
"The seal?" Sakura asked, unlacing her hands in surprise.
He shook his head. "Not just that. The transformation as well. I want to see what the chakra flow looks like."
"Oh. Well, that's…reasonable," she conceded.
Sakura shed her boots and padded around to stand on the side of the table where Neji-san had been sitting and turned her back to him, though it really made no difference once he activated his Byakugan. With a desperate hope that the transformation would subside as easily as it had done when she'd tried this with Sai, Sakura coaxed the pearl of natural chakra in her tanden into blossoming, the strength of it washing through her chakra channels. No more—and no less—uncomfortable than the growing pains of a child, with almost glacial slowness antlers emerged, toes lengthened, nails thickened, and scales spread across her skin.
"The transformation occurs faster in correlation to the use of chakra?"
Neji-san allowed the transformation to progress to the point where she was glad she'd removed her shoes before he said, "You said the changes reverse themselves?"
Sakura gratefully spooled the natural chakra back into its rotation and was quietly relieved when the physical changes reverted back to what she'd come to acknowledge as their new default state. "I was…much further gone than that when I died," she told Neji-san, rubbing at one of her scaled wrists. "So some of the changes appear to be permanent after the resurrection. Sai's seal mutated to read komainu, so I don't know whether he'll take those traits or if he'll inherit my source-traits. Or what the other seals will read, now that it doesn't use the King Yama, Horse-head, Ox-face configuration. So, I'll understand that you won't want to—."
Neji-san held up a hand to forestall her. "You're right to say that I don't want to. That doesn't mean that I'm not going to. Tsunade-sama assigned me to your team, which means that your mission is my mission. And if that mission entails use of experimental seal-systems, so be it. It isn't that I don't appreciate the consideration, but—this place is my home. Whatever problems I have with the main family, there are more people in my clan than that family and more forces at work than obligation. I died for it—for them—once. I'd do it again. The chance of scales seems a small price to pay."
"Then welcome to Operation Cloudburst. Properly, this time."
[Kill Your Heroes]
Her meeting with Sai went more or less as she'd anticipated, in that she attempted to be diplomatic about the fact that he'd lost part of a limb only weeks ago and in reply had received that particularly blank Sai-smile as he thumped a scroll down on the table. That was her only warning before she was bombarded by cats, mewling and pushing and clawing their way up her shoulders.
"What is this?" Sakura spluttered as she pinched a dangling tail to keep it from going up her nose.
"A joke," Sai said blandly. "Like the one you just told. Very funny, isn't it?"
One of the cats that had been competing for space atop her head took a magnificent leap back toward the table, toppling at least two stacks of documents in the process. "Not. At. All," she said in a very tightly controlled voice as she watched the now-loose papers drift into an untidy pile.
"And now you know exactly how I feel, hag."
"I know that I am suddenly feeling much less sensitive and sympathetic."
"Good. Be reassured that if the order does come to close, I intend to follow the example of our friend with the explosive temper and keep to the skies."
"That's fantastic, but you do realize that you're going to be the one to pick all those up."
[Kill Your Heroes]
By the time that Mitarashi-san sauntered into the room, Sakura was feeling—confident would be overstating it, as there were still some unanswered questions about the new forms of the seals that neither she nor Sai had resolved in the space between their meeting and this one, but she no longer felt like she was in danger of dissolving into a shameful emotional mess in the corner.
Sai glanced up at Mitarashi-san briefly from where he was practicing the talismanic script that Sakura still found very difficult to read even in proper lighting. Neji-san had been studying one of the maps of Amegakure, but awarded the new arrival a solemn nod before returning to it.
"Well, doesn't this look like a party," she drawled, one hand coming to rest on a hip, her body set in lines of aggressive lines.
Sakura took a moment to study the tokubetsu jōnin, whose dossier had explained that look that Tsunade-sama and Danzo had exchanged before assigning her to the team. Her experience with Orochimaru would likely prove useful, though Sakura was ashamed to admit when she'd seen how long the other kunoichi been working as an instructor at the Academy, she'd had that instinctive-flinch moment when a field shinobi doubted the field competence of a ninja who specialized in teaching. She'd been immediately ashamed of herself, because it wasn't like Mitarashi-san had been completely absent from the field since Orochimaru's defection.
The other kunoichi looked much as she had when Sakura had seen her last. Her outfit was a study in contrasts, with a fitted mesh bodysuit that left little to the imagination—and her mini-skirt did more to create dramatic shadows than provide real coverage—beneath an enveloping overcoat.
It was not something Sakura would have worn short of being given direct orders, but the fashion choices of others were not her business.
"Good afternoon, Mitarashi-san," Sakura said diplomatically.
Mitarashi-san gave her a casual two-fingered salute, dropping herself into a chair and spreading one arm across the back of it. "Haruno Sakura. The last time I saw you was your chūnin exam. For the first part of it you were making calf-eyes at the Uchiha brat and doing your level-best to slaughter the Kazekage's sister for the second. Still hanging around with Hatake?"
Sakura grimaced at the reminder that Mitarashi-san's first impression of her had been during what was in hindsight an embarrassing stage in her adolescence. As well as the fact that Neji-san was the closest thing they had to a traditionally restrained personality on this team; everyone else would be quick to say exactly what they were thinking, flattering or not, irrespective of her current position. "Senpai will actually be joining us for this briefing."
That drew a laugh from Mitarashi-san. "That sounds like Hatake. Though if I'd known we'd be waiting on him, I'd have stopped at one of the street stalls on the way here. Actually, unless you have a serious objection to it, I'll bring something back while we're waiting for him. My treat."
Sakura smiled wryly. "We actually shouldn't have to wait too long. I might have lied to senpai about when he was supposed to be here." She raised her voice slightly, "And I can sense you lurking outside the door, Kakahi-senpai, so if you're thinking about slinking off, it's too late."
"That's not a very nice thing to do to your senpai, Sakura," Kakashi-senpai said as he entered.
"If you didn't do things in your own good time, senpai, I wouldn't do it," Sakura responded dryly.
"You wouldn't know what to do with yourself if I was punctual."
Sakura raised her brows. "Have fewer white hairs?"
"Well, it's only fair to repay the favor," Kakashi-senpai said glibly as he chose a seat at the table. "So, taichou, what's the mission?"
Sakura sobered then and with an ease that came from covering it twice already explained their orders and the seal that would make it possible. Kakashi-senpai, who knew of the seal and her time with Gozen-san, looked half-asleep, lids low over his eyes, while Mitarashi-san wore an expression of incredulous disgust.
"You know that was dumb as shit, right?" she growled. "Especially attempting to harness natural chakra without Sage training. If it was that easy, everybody would do it."
Sakura gave a one-shouldered shrug, though nothing about that seal and integrating it had been easy at all. She had provided considerably less detail about it; there were certain things about both that she would only pass on to an inheriting disciple or to Sai, who was bound to her secrets just as much as he was to Danzō's. "Well, at this point, they work, so…"
"And it only killed you that once," Sai added mock-helpfully.
"Ha. Ha. Ha," she said with sarcastic emphasis. "Are you prepared to be useful?"
"I have some ideas for the seal-forms, so if you're prepared to bleed for the ink, then yes."
"Hold up, buttercup. I want to see one of these first," Mitarashi-san objected. "Shirts off."
Sakura side-eyed Sai, who shrugged and obediently stood from the table, unzipping the sleeveless vest he was wearing as he made his way over to where Anko was sitting. His torso was crowded with inked animals, but they obligingly shifted to make the seal more distinct. Not that it was truly necessary; they were all inked in unrelieved black and his seal had gone forebodingly crimson.
"Yeah, that looks like fantastic fun," Mitarashi-san murmured sarcastically. "Not like something out of a fucking horror movie at all. Or the ugly bastard child of onmyōdō and juinjutsu. It just magically read "komainu" all of a sudden when Haruno came back up? What kind of—," her voce dropped lower until it was nigh unintelligible, but the expletive high-notes came through clearly.
In the end, though, whatever Mitarashi-san thought about the seal, they were going to have to make the attempt.
The base ink was the same mixture that Sai used for his animals, but the blood and the chakra that laced it were Sakura's, with three drops of Kakashi-senpai's blood to help it bind to him. Senpai elected to have it set on his back between the blades of his shoulders.
He did not assume a meditative pose, but rather shucked his shirt, straddled his chair, and settled in with a novel gone positively ragged from reading. The other three watched Sai's progress with nervous eyes. Sakura recognized characters and design elements from their seals as he worked his way inward, but when it came to the central character Sakura couldn't make out what he was trying to write at all.
Mitarashi-san said as much.
"I'm not trying to write anything," Sai replied blandly. "Just making certain there's enough ink for this. While we could try to guess what the anchor-character should be, I think that activating it will decide it for itself. Give it a minute to dry enough not to smear, but not enough to flake and it should be ready."
Given that her ryū-ō seal seemed to have no dormant phase, there was no need to activate it before she settled her the fingers of her right hand at the prescribed points on the seal, while her left was folded into the familiar pose of a focusing technique. Kakashi-senpai's skin was very warm beneath her clammy fingers, pale and intermittently freckled with tiny scars.
Sakura still wasn't as comfortable with her inner landscape as she should have been. She didn't want to risk the seal failing or hurting Kakashi-senpai, so she took extra care in preparing to activate it. Senpai, for once, held his tongue and allowed her to take as much time as she needed.
At last, she was ready. Bridge the chasm, bind the bridge, serve the cause. She fed her chakra into the seal, which grew warm beneath her fingers, the ink turning back to liquid and the black beginning to burn red as her chakra sank beneath Kakashi-senpai's skin. His breath hitched and she knew that he could feel her now. With the exception of genjutsu and medical-ninjutsu most chakra intrusion was uncomfortable, if not outright painful; she and Kakashi-senpai didn't have sufficient similarity in their chakra to be otherwise.
This was as far as she and Sai had gone; the juinjutsu had briefly caught and, like a small child learning to ride a bike without training wheels, had toppled over.
Not this time. When she drew her hand away, she brought a little of Kakashi-senpai with her and as she closed that hand, she knew that sense of him would stay until the bond was intentionally shattered. She hadn't realized that she'd closed her eyes, but it from beneath lowered lids that she read the character that now anchored his part of the seal. Inugami.
That made her laugh and pat his head, as he'd done so often to her. "Good boy, good boy," she praised him.
"You're going to owe me a backrub for this," he groaned. He hadn't dropped his book, but it was slack in his hands.
"Poor thing," Sakura crooned not at all sympathetically, but she was gentle as she experimented with her control of his chakra. Neji-san and Mitarashi-san could worry about coercion all they liked, but Sakura wasn't trained as a puppeteer. Using them—all of them—in a single jutsu would be sufficiently difficult. With the Hokage's permission, she would sever the seal-links with the members of her squad she wasn't personally close to as soon the mission was complete—senpai's as well, if he wished.
Kakashi-senpai made an uncomfortable noise as she explored the point where his native chakra overlapped with the ugly, fierce burn of the Sharingan. "Remember that I'm a virgin and be gentle, Sakura," he groaned.
"Just relax—I'll be finished soon enough."
"Yeah, that's what he said," Mitarashi-san snickered.
"Are the sexual innuendos really necessary?" Neji-san muttered. "It feels unprofessional. And uncomfortable."
Sakura grimaced. "Sorry. Just—yes, we can do it without the innuendo."
"Put your big girl panties on, Hyūga. A little innuendo never hurt anyone. Feel free while you do me," Mitarashi-san said with a grin.
"Mah, mah—we can play nicely with others," senpai said.
Which Sakura thought was just as well. She was much less comfortable with Mitarashi-san and they applied her seal next. Uwabami. Sakura worried at the inside of her lip as she stared at it.
"Something wrong, Haruno?" Mitarashi-san asked.
"I was expecting these to be part of a set," Sakura admitted. "With ryū-ō at the center, I was thinking more along the lines of the five celestial beasts or maybe the animals of the zodiac, but…."
It wasn't that the central character of each seal didn't suit the person that had received it, with the exception of her own ryū-ō, but seals—the normal, stable sort—shouldn't be able to select anything. This had the same dangerous taste as the wildly divergent Sharingan or Orochimaru's juinjutsu.
"Self-righteous, uptight, and fantastic eyesight—I'd bet money that Hyūga is going to end up with some kind of bird yokai," Mitarashi-san said as she clasped a hand nonchalantly over her Cursed Seal of Heaven, which was trying to spread tendrils past the suppression technique being used to contain it. Sasuke had always acted as if the activation of the seal was physically painful, which given the massive influx of chakra and rapid cellular mutation that accompanied it, was probably the case. That had certainly been the case with the Seal of the False Sage, before it had become whatever it was, but Anko's grin never faltered.
If anything, it only grew fiercer.
There had been enough of a break between the application of Kakshi-senpai's seal and Mitarashi-san's that Sakura had recovered enough chakra to supply the latter without adding in yet another unpredictable element by supplementing her chakra by use of the seal, but she needed more time between Mitarashi-san and Neji-san's.
While she was meditating, the others filled out their own parts of the requisitions form or experimented with the new bond between them. Mitarashi-san was especially distracting, like someone yanking on her hair. Eventually, though, she was equal to applying Neji-san's seal.
Mitarashi-san would have won, had it been a bet. His central character was konjichō. The golden-winged birds who breathed fire and ate dragons and served as the mounts of gods.
[Kill Your Heroes]
They dismissed for a meal, which Sakura picked at with relentless anxiety. To keep to Tsunade-sama's punishing schedule, they'd be conducting their first tests with her Kanashibari tonight.
"You shouldn't play with your food," Pakkun scolded her.
"If you don't want it, Sakura-chan, I'll eat it!" Bisuke volunteered, which immediately sparked an argument with the rest of the ninken.
"So," senpai drawled, "have you given any thought as to how you're going to say goodbye to your boyfriend? Should I be expecting to sleep somewhere else tonight? Or are you eating out?"
"Senpai!" Sakura protested.
"Yes?" Kakashi-senpai responded with contrived innocence. "You're going to war. It's perfectly natural to want to take care of certain matters before you go. Though I would like to have him properly over to dinner first. The ninken want to meet him."
"Meet who, bossman?" Akino asked, distracted from the rough-and-tumble argument about leftovers by mention of the pack.
"Uchiha Itachi. Though if you're dating, I suppose I could be calling him Itachi-kun, ne?"
Pakkun climbed up onto Sakura's lap and addressed her with solemn eyes, "Sakura-chan, even if his coat is silky and he smells good, you shouldn't be reckless with your affections."
This is my life, Sakura thought wryly. Getting dating advice from a dog.
Sakura left off playing with her food to worry Pakkun's velvet-soft ears. "Don't worry. I'm pretty certain that he's holding out for marriage and I don't know if I like him that well yet. Also, we've been dating for like a week. I can't believe that you'd think I'd jump him before we've even gone on our first date," she grumbled, pulling hard enough on Pakkun's ears for it to be a reprimand that he grumbled at.
"Really?" Kakashi-senpai said incredulously.
"Senpai, you were there," Sakura said exasperatedly. "Also, you've known me since I was twelve."
"Oh, I wasn't surprised by that. It's the dating-with-the-intention-of-marriage thing. And the have-already-discussed-sex-and-it-won't-be-happening-until-it's-on-the-family-register thing. Just what sort of negotiations were involved in this?"
"Let's just say that Itachi is about two hundred percent more committed and less conflicted about this relationship."
Kakashi-senpai's eyelids dipped dangerously low. "You don't want to be dating him?"
"It's not that. Well, not exactly that," Sakura shrugged. "He—well, you know he's very, very pretty, but he's…overwhelmingly polite. Attentive. Observative. Which sounds like something out of a novel, but with a history of being a double-agent for longer than I've been a shinobi, there's always a small part of me that feels like…what if this isn't the real Itachi? How sincere is he? Is this another long game he's beginning to play? Even if he is really that person, there's also the not-so-insignificant matter of Sasuke. Most of my childhood was spent playing a minor role in his melodrama. I don't want to spent my adult life doing the so same. And, well, it's not that I'm not attracted to him—are you alright, senpai?"
"This is my resigning-myself-to-a-talk-about-real-feelings face, when we're already over the monthly quota," Kakashi-senpai replied. "Go on. It's senpai-and-Sakura time, which means uncomfortable topics are allowed."
Sakura eyed him warily, but continued. "So, Itachi. More attractive than Zen, but it's…," she searched for the words to describe her feelings. "Less comfortable," she settled on. "I was never as much myself with Zen as I was with Tatsuo or I am with you, because I saw him so rarely. But Itachi—it's not that I don't feel physically safe with him, but he doesn't…feel like home, either. Not that it wouldn't be strange if he did, because we don't know each other that well and we haven't spent that kind of time together, but…I want it. That's what I want from a relationship. I am flattered that he likes me and I do like him, but if we can't get to point where I'm as happy to be with him as I am with you, I'd be better off pursuing you, senpai." She nudged him with her foot. "If I do have to switch targets, promise you'll let me catch you?" she asked sweetly.
Kakashi-senpai scoffed. "You've known me since you were twelve. You know senpai would make you work for it."
Sakura laughed, feeling lighter though the situation hadn't changed. "So it's safe to say that liking Uchiha Itachi is veeerry complicated. There won't be any eleventh-hour sleepovers. I'll just have to settle for my usual snuggle-buddies instead."
This prompted an instant dog-pile as the ninken reassured her that they loved her very much and had no agenda in mind besides plenty of pets. Bull even went to far as to go to the closet and pull out the futons, dragging them with stubborn determination so that they mostly laid side-by-side, stubby tail waggling so hard that his whole body shook.
"You know, Kakashi-senpai, if I was chasing you, that doesn't look like much of a gap I'd need to cover. That's like, glomping distance."
[Kill Your Heroes]
Sakura hesitated for a long moment before Kakashi-senpai dipped his head. She hooked a finger behind the fabric of his mask and pulled it down. Senpai grimaced as she did so, revealing thick canines and other less-than-omnivorous teeth.
"If this was five years ago, the others would be so jealous," Sakura said as she gently touched his face with hands wreathed in medical chakra. "This is the second time I've seen your face, senpai."
Because she couldn't resist, one of her hands rose from where she'd laid them against his jaw and traced the furry edge of one large, triangular ear. It flicked away from her attentions and senpai scowled at her. "Do we need to have a conversation about bad touching, Sakura?"
"People who use my antlers to tilt my head don't get to object to having their ears handled."
"You don't even have nerves in your antlers. What're you going to do if you make my tail wag and I lose this towel?"
"You're sitting down, senpai," Sakura retorted dryly. "Whether it comes untied or not, so long as you don't stand up, I'm not going to see anything I haven't seen before. I'm going to stop sending natural chakra along the link—if you follow the pattern, the changes should reverse themselves completely, though I can't promise there isn't damage to your DNA that we'll see emerge as cancer ten years from now."
"Did Sai let you touch his tail?" Kakashi-senpai asked as Sakura tracked the rate of his regression.
"Yes, senpai. Sai let me touch his tail. I did not, however, touch Mitarashi-san's chest-scales, if that's where you're going with this conversation."
The was a long stretch of silence as his jaw shifted for to accommodate human teeth, then, "So, did the Hyūga let you touch—"
[Kill Your Heroes]
Sakura had sent a note to the Hokage to inform her that they would be conducting tests; the note that had given her the go-ahead had come with a tiny supervisory slug that was presently adhered to her shoulder. They had conducted several experiments without people in the net to establish that Sakura's now eerily-expanded Kanashibari could cover the required distance without shattering, but covering forested area occupied by chipmunks and deer was a different beast than keeping human minds caught within the net.
Along with her approval and her proxy slug, Tsunade-sama had sent notice to the sentries to expect visitors on the wall and to allow them to work unhindered. Sakura had sent Neji-san to inform the watch captain that they were beginning the test—her nerves were well past the point of making explanations to strangers. At least Tsunade-sama had also informed the village to expect a genjutsu; she'd weighed the risk of some spy reporting to Amegakure against panicking her already stressed population. Sakura regretted the necessity, but better this than going against an enemy village with a technique that only worked in theory.
She had taken the highest point in the village so she could look out over the skeleton of the great beast trying to resurrect itself, the iron ribs of half-finished construction projects jutting up into the gloaming.
She was tired—they were all tired—and they'd made heavy enough use of natural chakra that she still had the nubs of her antlers. But they were also running out of time. There was no particular reason that their experiment this evening should fail, but neither was there much time for them to correct anything if this fell through. They were scheduled to leave by midday tomorrow so that they could rendezvous with the Suna puppet corps team, all of whom needed to be placed before Operation Cloudbreak began.
Kakashi-senpai had unilaterally decided they were having breakfast with what had once been Team Seven and Itachi before they left; Sakura was still tempted to pull a Kakashi-senpai and simply not show up, except she was fairly certain the embarrassment of being tracked and delivered by ninken would be worse than voluntarily appearing.
"Is everyone in place?" she asked as she stretched some of the tension from her shoulders. Unfamiliar kit shifted with her as she did so; their new gear had been delivered earlier today and she wasn't looking forward to breaking in new boots on a run as unforgiving as this one would be. There hadn't been any time for requests to modify the design, though each of the uniforms was custom-tailored for the body-shifts that each member of her team underwent when under the influence of natural chakra.
Her black boots left her toes exposed, but the integrated shin guards went to well above the knee; her knife rig fit comfortably over black pants slightly more snugly fitted than jounin-standard, but the fabric left plenty of play so as not to compromise her flexibility. The slim-fitting vest she wore over an equally black shirt was a combination of ceramic plates and mail between layers of Kevlar fabric, with a high reinforced collar. The chainmail was permanently fixed in place, but the plates were the type that were inserted into pockets and could be replaced. It didn't have the plethora of pockets like standard flak jackets, but she was recompensed by several small-capacity sealing scrolls that slotted onto the back of her belt.
She had new gauntlets and well-fitted fingerless gloves, as requested, but the hood was new. All of them—they'd been issued similar uniforms—had long slits in the top to accommodate antlers or ears, but it had a reinforced brim that held it out stiffly from where it latched onto her new mask. She'd been worried that it would compromise her peripheral vision, but there were deep notches cut in the hood at eye-level.
It was all too very sleek and stylized to have been some last-minute creation; Sakura suspected that they were wearing refitted prototypes that had survived the Crush. From the masks, she suspected Root.
Sakura was as deeply uneasy about this mask as she had been about the last one she'd possessed. This one was a featureless black expanse, using some trick of materials so that even the section where she could see through was undistinguishable from the rest when viewed from the outside.
It was a uniform designed to make her a faceless weapon—an avatar of death. And she could only see that as a mercy of Tsunade-sama, who would immortalize the name of the squad and spare the individuals within it from the notoriety.
"Hyūga, in position," Neji-san's voice came across her earpiece.
"Ready," came Sai's answer.
"Good to go," was Mitarashi-san's reply.
"Anytime you're ready, taichou," senpai said laconically.
Sakura was good at—was trained for, had lived through—fear. That wasn't what she wanted to give to this village, though. So she reached deep in her memories, not so far back as Team Seven, but before the Crush, before Itachi, before Deidara, before Sasori, before so many other painful things. Like a still, sun-warmed stretch of river before it turned into rocks and wild eddies, she remembered movie nights with senpai and Tatsuo and the ninken and Soudai. She remembered it desperately, fiercely, let herself long for it in the way that her much-younger self had longed for Sasuke.
The slowly revolving pearl of natural chakra at her core unfurled petals of strength through her meridians and she was generous as she poured it into the bonds that tied her with her squad. There were muffled noises of discomfort as they accepted it; despite the fact that she was "filtering" it through her seal and her own chakra channels, she was not a true Sage.
But they would bear it. Different as they all were, each of them was dedicated to this place, to these people, to the idea of Konohagakure.
"Then let's give them a pleasant dream," she said and unleashed herself, giving the masses that same sense of belonging, of joy, of peace that she had found in those days. The ghost was all glimmering lights, like a hundred thousand fireflies, and they blanketed the too-black village.
What was that saying? The only easy day was yesterday?
Sakura was already bone-tired, soul-tired, and today wasn't even yesterday yet and it only got worse from here. Tomorrow she would push herself and then push herself again to arrive in time to do terrible things. Things she did not want to do and would do anyway, because the lives of these people meant more to her than the fear of living with the things she'd do.
The Hokage had released the callsign designation of the squad with the arrival of their gear: Fearmonger.