A/N: Dedicated to Boredome_Made_Me_Do_It over on AO3, who left a monster review that encouraged me to finish up this (still unedited!) chapter.
Kill Your Heroes
Fallen Heroes (Part II)
Itachi had asked to observe Mitarashi-san's seal removal; it was a mark of how eager she was to be free of it that Mitarashi-san didn't even bother to make her permission sound salacious.
"Listen, if you need helping fucking around with gods, that's fine, send me a message, but I'm not doing it with this seal on my skin. It was bad enough before some moon-bitch started getting real vague about ominous shit," had been her response to Tsunade-sama's permission to dissolve Fearmonger.
Sakura had experienced considerable pain as she'd integrated the layers of the Seal of the False Sage when they'd initially experimented with it, but none of her temporary team had complained of anything more than the discomfort of transformation when their seals had been applied.
Judging by how pale Mitarashi-san had gone and the cold sweat that had broken out on her skin, it hurt considerably more to remove the seal.
"Shit, it feels like you're yanking out my veins," she hissed as her hands clenched on the chair she was straddling.
"Sorry," Sakura said tersely, hand spread wide across the seal, which had already had a bold red line slashed down it and characters of breaking and release inked alongside, but she hadn't yet activated them for fear that all the natural chakra that lay dormant within the False Sage Seal would flood uncontrolled through Mitarashi-san's meridians. "We didn't look into removing these. They'd either work or they wouldn't and if they worked and went really, really wrong the chance was so high that it'd instantaneously kill you that we were more interested in building in mechanisms to survive that part than anything else. After that, we were just going to bind them and leave them dormant rather than risk further damage to the chakra system. The source we got the idea from bore them until death."
"This is even more fucked up than I thought it was," Mitarashi-san groaned.
"Hag, I've been thinking," Sai commented levelly.
"Oh?" Sakura replied as she tried to twist all the metaphysical strands of chakra that had settled into Mitarashi-san's meridians into a single cord she could smoothly pull out.
"When we're channeling at the capacity that we did during the battle, do you think the natural chakra-induced cellular regeneration would make it possible to regrow my leg if we cut it off where they healed it?"
"Is it maybe possible we could talk about this another time?" Sakura asked tightly, almost losing her hold on the chakra in her surprise.
Mitarashi-san had resorted to muttering darkly under her breath, but Sakura took a deep breath and closed her eyes to the external "noise" and considered the issue as if it was just she and Sai first experimenting with the seal, with no deadline and no urgency.
How did I collect natural chakra in the beginning? The answer was so blatantly obvious she was embarrassed, her eyes opening fractionally as she stared at the seal and began to rotate her chakra. Once the trailing ends of Mitarashi-san's natural energy were caught up in the more powerful tidal shift of her own, it was a quick thing to see it all dissolve into the reservoir of her own power.
In that moment, she activated the breaking and Mitarashi-san made a sound that might have been a scream if it hadn't turned into the gurgling sound of someone being violently sick.
"Take a good look, Uchiha," she rasped when she'd finished heaving. "It's easy to jump in. It's much harder to jump out."
"We're not a gang," Sakura muttered. "And I doubt Itachi wants any part of this."
"And if I did?" Itachi asked from where he'd been watching next to senpai. Kakashi-senpai had been leaning against the way, frowning over the top of his novel with his Sharingan eye activated, but at Itachi's admission turned his furrowed brows toward the younger man.
Sakura might have gaped a little and even Neji-san looked surprised. Sai looked moderately interested, which probably meant that he was more surprised than any of them. "I knew he was a little bit insane when he decided he liked you, but I didn't know he was a masochist too," he commented.
Sakura shot him a sour look even as she tossed an extra towel over the mess that Mitarashi-san had made. "I'm not disputing that the seal is a useful tool. For me—for us—the access to the sheer volume of chakra isn't something we have naturally. It's different for clans like the Uchiha and the Uzumaki." Despite the fact that it was Itachi and not Sasuke, and she trusted that he stood outside the long history of the Uchiha clan's long campaign for more power, she could feel her expression cooling.
Itachi regarded her levelly, though she could see his hands tighten into fists. "In your eyes," he asked softly, "As a shinobi, am I strong or am I weak?"
"…you're uncontestably the strongest shinobi of our generation," Sakura replied cautiously.
"Then that should give you some perspective when I say that every time that I have encountered the man who calls himself Uchiha Madara, I have been entirely outmatched. I killed my entire clan, save Sasuke, not only for fear of their own ambitions, but also due to his machinations. I am not my brother. I will not blindly accept power without thought to the consequences. But neither am I willing to lose—to possibly lose those few left to me—through stubborn pride."
"Better you than me," Mitarashi-san rasped. "But you might need help beating that Madara's ass, so there's no reason not to, not when he's offering."
"I say take him in," Neji-san said. "The Uchiha have always focused on overwhelming force and their specialized jutsu in their battle strategy. It would be useful if we could counter with equal force on our side."
"I've always been curious what sort of animal he'd turn out to be," Sai commented. "Also, the crazy lady already made a mess and this is a dead person's apartment, so we won't have to clean anything up if things go badly."
"It's literally a seal that will allow you to track your boyfriend. If you could just isolate that aspect, you could market it," Kakashi-senpai added cheerfully. "There are no downsides. Except maybe a goddess looking in, now and then, but they're probably doing that anyway."
"Way to make that sound weird instead of ominous," Neji-san muttered.
"I'm going to shower, eat something, and not get to hunt down possibly the most infamous shinobi our village has ever tried unsuccessfully to kill several times before," Mitarashi-san said as she rose shakily from the chair. "You kids have fun."
[Kill Your Heroes]
You shouldn't treat it like a tool, to be handed out and taken back when a hunt is finished. The goddess's voice echoed as if from the walls of the shadowed hallway Sakura had been walking down.
The seal is a divine gift and as such, binds their fate to yours. They will be your tribe, when you reach this side and take up your watch. Aside from these that you bound in ignorance, this one will make no more exceptions. If you wish to set them free, it is within your power, but if they die with the seal upon their body, they will follow you in two lives, not one.
"My tribe. A ghost tribe," a short, bitter laugh escaped her. "Ghost Tribe. If nothing else, at least the name is something. If you're talking to me again, do you have anything to say about 'the one gnawing at the roots'?"
Sons often resemble their fathers. Idealistic dreamers and jealous schemers can both branch from a single root.
Sakura scowled, vaguely realizing she probably looked ridiculous, talking to herself in an empty hallway and making faces at something no one else could see.
"If you want me to be wary of something—if you want me to guard against something, to hunt something, it would be helpful if you were specific."
This one will not open my eyes to see what he has become, was the unhelpful response.
In the silence, she remembered Tsunade-sama's response to her description of their encounter. "A shrine on what looks like the face of the moon?" she'd said thoughtfully. "Not that there aren't other possibilities, but…when I was little, my grandfather used to tell me stories about an evil goddess that the Sage of Six Paths sealed away and then banished to the moon. Just be careful. Whatever that might look like, when you're dealing with that kind of power. Goddess or demoness, they can both wear a beautiful face, and either of them can kill you as easily as breathing."
Sakura had never heard any such story, about an evil goddess sealed in the moon, but none of the stories handed down from her grandmother had said anything much about the Sage of Six Paths either. She'd had to ask senpai afterward to even learn Otsutsuki Hagoromo's name.
Not that he'd known it.
"No one told me fables when I was little," he'd told her blandly over the edge of his book. "But the Hyūga clan claims descent from some sage and they've been fighting about it with the Uchiha since they became two clans, and there's probably only so many of sages going around founding major shinobi clans, so you could try asking the Hyūga you've possibly bound to an evil overlord."
Neji-san had indeed heard of the Sage of Six Paths and even vaguely knew of the story about the sealing of an evil goddess—something about the unwillingness to share the gift of chakra with the world—which was only one of any number of heroic deeds that he'd carried out during a remarkable lifetime that was now largely forgotten. Aside from that, he knew his proper name, that he had been married to a princess of some kind, and that the Hyūga clan's propensity for bearing twin sons could be traced back to the Sage, who'd essentially been the first god of shinobi. "Sorry that I can't remember more," he'd apologized gruffly, not making eye contact. "The people who told me the stories have been gone for a long time."
So which was she, this spirit who'd used the breach in the barrier between the spirit and mortal realms to advance her own agenda? Goddess? Demoness?
Maybe, Sakura thought as she considered how unlikely it was that they could simply be free of the seal, not when they needed its power and the spirit needed mortal hands to carry out her will, she can be both.
And what did it mean, when she shared the Sage of Six Path's name?
When Sakura, in describing the goddess or sharing her words, had been unable to say Ōtsutsuki Kaguya's own.
[Kill Your Heroes]
If there was a way to go entirely without sleeping during their hunt for Tobi or Uchiha Madara or whomever he happened to really be—or at least one without catastrophic health consequences—Sakura would have taken it.
As it was, the stress of keeping up pretenses in front an endlessly optimistic Naruto, Gaara—who might have counted among her fellow shinobi but who was also a foreign dignitary—and Sasuke—who was still himself—made her silent and irritable.
The steady warmth of senpai's back pressed against hers made it bearable; she grew accustomed to waking to Sai being almost cat-close to her face.
It was actually weird to have Itachi there as well, like two separate parts of her life were bleeding over into each other. The time they'd spent pretending to be other people as Tsunade-sama's shadow guard had been strange enough on its own that it hadn't seemed odd then, but having him at her side during a hunt—that was Witch and Hound's domain and it felt a little like he was intruding on it in a way that wasn't entirely welcome.
She didn't like the dissonance, even if she was simultaneously glad to have him there.
It helped that Uchiha Itachi was, above everything else, a consummate shinobi. If he was experiencing similar mixed feelings, he kept them flawlessly concealed, his expression settling into the same cold lines as the first time she'd met him on the battlefield in an Akatsuki cloak.
She wondered just how much that expression masked. Sakura had lived with Kakashi-senpai long enough to know that not everyone dealt with things by talking them over with others, but he had done that by choice, surrounded by shinobi that remained as much friends as he'd let them be. Itachi had willingly given his up and lived in a silence he'd intended to carry down into his grave. Was she supposed to ask? Or was she supposed to respect the emotional space she'd have wanted in his place?
Like most hunts, it was both fraught and boring. Given their target's abilities, it was possible, perhaps even probably, that he could be hunting them in turn, but so far Sakura had been given a lot of time to turn over rocks in her relationship with Itachi.
He was not Tatsuo.
Zen had not been Tatsuo, either, but then Zen had not been Uchiha Itachi.
Having once had the kind of trust and understanding that came from building each other up from nothing and disaster and—very importantly—standing very close to equal in power, she had been holding herself back from giving Itachi the power to hurt her in ways that had nothing to do with knives.
She thought she had been very lucky to have had Tatsuo at all.
But, perhaps, it had also been a kind of curse, because he had died before there were anything but halcyon days. It had been sweet and sure and certain in ways that the person she was now—would she have been able to hold on to that? Or was that a feeling that had only belonged to that Sakura, who was so far away from the woman she was today?
Could she make herself stop clinging to that? Could she make a leap of faith?
Was it that the person waiting to catch her was Itachi? Or was it something in her own heart and mind that kept her from reaching out? Would she end up like Kakashi-senpai?
She wanted to cross the chasm. Itachi was all sorts of good things tangled together. He was calm in the face of her flashfire anger and solid in his own opinion against the seething force of carried grievances. Kind and polite, he would never, ever embarrass her in public and that wasn't just a mask that he took off in private. Once committed to something, he was dedicated beyond all reason and there would be something powerful in taking all his firsts.
More shallowly, he was even more beautiful than the brother she'd sacrificed so much to pursue and marrying him would make her the matriarch of one of the most storied, infamous clans in Konohagakure. These weren't the things that she carried at the forefront of her mind when thinking about her commitment to him, but they did temper the way she considered the relationship and thus deserved to be acknowledged.
This was not to say that he wasn't flawed, even in his strengths. There was a kind of kind and polite that was so much of both that it was difficult to tell how many parts of those were being used to whitewash his real feelings, but she felt that was something she'd learn in time.
It reached a point that the only thing that kept her from discussing her feelings with the man in question was fear of being thought the girl, someone who couldn't keep her feelings to herself during a mission, but one evening, watching Sasuke and Naruto nearly come to blows in the recurring crisis that had been Team Seven, she realized that was an awful double-standard.
If she'd been clingy and slow to act, she'd also been the one to follow the protocols they'd taught them at the Academy. She'd been judged—judged herself—for it, but then it had been the boys who were always bleeding rage and competition and unwarranted courage all over even straightforward missions.
And she had been weak then. She'd needed that moment of self-realization. But they weren't people they had been. Now it was Naruto who calmed himself and talked Sasuke down, before a single punch could be thrown or someone had to step in.
Talking to Itachi, during what might be their last chance to have this conversation, wasn't going to compromise anything.
This was, in its own way, courage.
Besides, with the seal binding so many of them, and Team Seven tying in the others, it wasn't like these people were strangers.
This was her family. In this life and, for some of them, the next.
So she took Itachi as far aside as she dared, which wasn't far, drawing him down so that their knees were touching, bringing her fingers to interlock with his, but not interlace. He followed her lead willingly enough, but his expression showed faint bemusement, which was fair. She'd been all but ignoring that they weren't dating lately, but he didn't seem angry about that.
"Sorry for doing this," Sakura murmured. "But there's a question I want to ask you. What do you want my love for you to look like? What do you see as our future together?"
He regarded her steadily for so long that she thought he might need clarification, but before she could arrange her own thoughts to rephrase the question, he answered. "I want you to take me for granted," he said simply.
It was Sakura's turn to stare at him in confusion. "…what?"
That made a faint smile tug at the corners of his lips. "I don't mean that I don't want you to never thank me again or acknowledge the things I do for you. What I mean is that I want you to expect me to be there for you. To allow yourself to be angry when I'm not. To expect things of me, like we've been married for as long as anyone can remember and don't know any other way. I don't need or want the heights and lows of the kind of passion that burns and scars. There is sufficient danger and excitement in my life already. I'd rather have a steady, unwavering intimacy, one that can weather even you insisting that my brother is a catastrophe waiting to happen."
"Well," Sakura warbled, voice slightly unsteady, "that's good, because that opinion isn't going away anytime soon."
His smile was soft. "I know. I know that, when the manor house is rebuilt, Hatake-senpai will probably live with us. And that you'll tolerate my brother living with us like sharing space with an unfriendly cat. You'll probably spend more time with Hatake-senpai than with me, especially for the next several years as the village rebuilds itself once again. I hope that you'll be more famous than me, because I don't want to become an obstacle to career. In turn, I hope that you won't mind if, once this mission is finished, if I find ways to build things up instead of destroy them.
"I've been thinking…perhaps, the orphans from the Crush, if you don't mind, we might take some in? I know that you wanted to think about children, and I'm not so traditional as to think that you haven't build a family if you don't have any, but…I think it will feel like atonement. There isn't a lot to go around just now. It will be hard for families to take them in."
Despite the anxiety and the weight of that particular idea, Sakura could squelch the flutter of amusement she felt. "When you say, 'not so traditional,' I think you're underestimating yourself. After all, your immediate dream for the future is to retire as a househusband."
"I have killed enough people for ten lifetimes," was Itachi's soft reply. "I have been very tired, for a very long time. The chance to make a comfortable home and solve small crises were no one's life is at stake sounds like a dream that I'm not ashamed of having."
"…if I marry the head of the family, Sasuke has to defer to me as the matriarch, yes?"
Itachi eyed her narrowly, but his eyes were laughing. "Yes."
"This might be strangely like coming full circle for him, then. You, raising the small disaster with patience and tolerance, and I'll be the sternly disapproving Commander of the Military Police."
Itachi's eyes widened slightly at that revelation. "Godaime-sama intents to reinstate the force? She's already offered you the position, I take it?"
"She's already officially appointed me," Sakura replied wryly.
"Congratulations," Itachi told her warmly. "I think it suits you."
"You think so?"
He hummed an affirmation. "Though that means you'll be both nearer and busier than I thought you'd be."
Sakura drew in a breath, feeling her pulse fluttering like she was getting ready for a fight, and asked, "Itachi, won't you entrust the rest of your life to me?" And, remembering what he'd asked, "From here on in, please always be by my side."
He leaned forward, briefly pressing his forehead against hers, before he drew back enough to kiss the edge of eyebrow at her temple and then the other, locking their fingers together properly as he did so. "I thought about asking you to place me in your family register, if it came to this," he said. "It would be a fitting for a new beginning. Spring, after a very long winter. Konohagakure law only stipulates that we share a last name, not that you need to take mine. It would leave the legacy of the Uchiha name for Sasuke to restore."
"Don't you dare," Sakura replied, the relief of having it all said making her giddy. "I've wanted to be an Uchiha since I was still in the Academy. I didn't have any idea what it meant then, but now, while we're taking on everything else, I think it's a name worth redeeming. And it isn't any more impossible than any of the things we've already done."
"I know," Itachi said, his smile making him look the youngest she'd ever seen him, creasing his eyes. "I believe in you."