A/N: To poisonivylullabies, as a nonsensical answer not rooted in research of any kind: My best guess is that, if the palm is left entirely exposed, provided it at least saddle leather thickness and is intended as armor, and it covers the back of the hand without covering the fingers, I'm probably going to call it a bracer. If it has finger articulation and it's still armor, I'm going to call it a gauntlet, even if it's leather. The thing that I've seen mostly in Korean manhwa where you have gloves that literally cover only half the hand and stop mid-palm probably has a name that is not merely 'glove', but if there is, I don't know it. And those weird evening gloves where you just have that loop that goes across the middle finger should probably have its own name too.

Anyhow, the important thing to note is that several permeations of handwear will probably fall under the category of 'glove' due to a gap in my vocabulary that I did not realize I had until I was trying to describe the changing fashions of the Konoha set.

Kill Your Heroes

-Chapter Seventy-Five-

Kintsugi (Part III)

Sakura had thought about getting Sasuke with the same sort of fervor with which Naruto had talked of becoming Hokage. As a singular, triumphal moment, with little consideration for the work that would be required to get there and with less for what would follow.

When she had thought about her wedding, it had been about who was watching and about what she was wearing and mostly had been about winning.

Getting married to Itachi was nothing like that.

She had no idea what most the kunoichi she'd once thought would be looking on with envy at her wedding party were doing now and did not care to know—and it wasn't because they weren't worth knowing, those girls who'd failed to find a jounin mentor during the same selection she had. If they'd been shallow and cruel and petty, so had she, as apt to form her relationships based on competition and comparison.

Probably some of them still were; others would have found their own way, just as she had—they'd hired two of them as clerks in the department and they'd gained depth and been tempered with age, living their own full lives somewhere she couldn't see.

It was more that she had so little free time as an adult that even meeting what friends she already had once or twice a month felt like a bustling social life and any more than that might encroach on things like sleep.

Which, if it had been restless before, she'd at least had the leisure to attempt it as she liked—now it was a rare and precious commodity.

And as for what she'd be wearing—there was no real place in this recovering village for either the lengthy and dignified traditional ceremony with its elaborate kimono or the flashier vow ceremonies that Kakashi-senpai had probably attended on the promise of free food and alcohol and the possibility of chaos. Both in their full scale would still feel awkward and irreverent, but though they could simply register their marriage and delay any ceremony until the village had recovered or forgo it entirely, Itachi seemed to be of the opinion that he would be cheating her out of something if they did so.

Sakura, who had recently had her fill of investitures, did not entirely feel this was the case, but she also got the sense that she would regret it later when she wasn't feeling so overwhelmed and also that she would be disappointing Itachi. As much as it was hers, it was also his, and Itachi liked ritual and ceremonies, used them to create peace and order and make sense of a world that was often filled with sudden violent action.

Of course, when she'd been thinking of marrying Sasuke, she'd thought that she'd be focused exclusively on that—that Sakura had been incredibly stupid, she decided bitterly, and just not for the object of her obsession.

She'd had three days after the ceremony that placed the village in Shikaku-sama's capable hands—just long enough for Itachi to mention that he wanted to be married in the gardens of the mansion, as wood element users could hasten the growth of plants and trees and make them fit to be seen—before Shikaku-sama had called her into his office and explained how they intended to train an entire department in three months, instead of the twenty-five weeks of training that the military police had originally received.

They were going to do it by essentially removing every other distraction from their lives as they would be bunking in the annex for the duration—and by utilizing shadow clones to double the amount of instruction they could receive in a day, doing their specialty classwork and PT simultaneously.

"It's not a method without risk," Shikaku-sama admitted readily. "The amount of mental and physical stress will be considerable. It's a method that was originally used by ANBU, but the village discarded it a generation ago because it has a high rate of burnout and—well, when they retired the program, there had been a noted upspike in the suicide rate. It was, in large part, why use of the shadow clone technique was added to record of forbidden techniques. Which is why we largely ignore it when high-rank shinobi make use of it on occasion—we're more worried about repetitive and long-term use, forcing the brain to assimilate more trauma than it's really designed to."

"And you have pressing reasons to ignore said risk? Or some method to mitigate it?" Sakura asked.

"No to the second," Shikaku-sama sighed. He looked tired, shadows under his eyes and his facial scarring more prominent against the unusual paleness of his wheat complexion. "And you know as well as I do that, without an outside threat to unite us and the other villages hesitant to make any big moves thanks to that scene your team and your former teammates put on in Ame, internal crime and corruption will be our biggest problem as we continue to ask for discipline and self-denial during our recovery. People had had enough of it after the fiasco with Orochimaru—we'd had a long enough period of peace that people had almost forgotten what it was like when Iwa was at our door—and to have another major incident within such a short span of time means that people were already tired of doing without. And as shinobi, they have the skills to make life really troublesome for those around them.

It's not just about traitors and defectors. People need to feel safe in their own homes or else we're all going to die of exhaustion before we're done. Given your staffing, you might come to feel like that anyway, but while we need the stability of a robust police force, the village isn't in any place financially to allot you more funding without the public perception shifting to your force being meant to suppress rather than protect. If you made the mistake of being grateful to being appointed to your position, throw that out the window now, before a few years of being confronted with the worst in people makes you start to doubt everything you thought you knew about the character of your village."

Domestic violence. Murder. Theft. Gang violence. Riots and other civil unrest. All crimes that flourished in just such conditions as their village now possessed and once were problems that had belonged solely to someone else, some other village or a contractor with a problem to be solved by Konohagakure personnel. And ANBU, who had been acting in the stead of or in cooperation with the military police until now, could be better used to infiltrate and monitor the reaction of the other villages after Ame or whatever missions Shikaku-sama had on the docket for his elite forces, rather than holding their hands.

She understood it as a rational decision. But—"Everyone will be briefed on the risks and will have to agree to it, and we'll make arrangements to accommodate those who can't or won't agree, as they were recruited into the department before this became a condition. And during the training, former Root operatives will be monitored by their instructor and if they present undue signs of stress, they'll be quietly moved to the other program with no stigma. If they have any sense of self-preservation, it's not recorded in the files they sent over," Sakura said flatly. "Also, since we're taking risks, and I have the chakra for it, during these thirteen weeks, I want you to find someone to systematically teach me fuinjutsu."

"Sounds like they're not the only ones without a sense of self-preservation. When I tell you that twice the mental stress was driving people to suicide, you aren't supposed to say, 'Sounds good, let's make this exponentially more likely to lead to mental fatigue?'" Shikaku-sama said dryly, leaning back in his chair.

Sakura pressed her lips together, dropping her gaze to her hands. The gloves only went to the knuckle, leaving her fingertips exposed, though she'd also been issued a set that fully covered the hand. She couldn't see the silvery trace of old scars there—hands were too important to a shinobi and too noticeable in disguise to let them remain—but her memory could place the ones that had hurt the most. The flash of bone beneath the flow of blood, the pain that followed that first white silence of blade parting flesh.

"Most of my career, I've spent it feeling unprepared. Which was…not great, but I was also only in charge of myself, which meant the stakes were lower. I…desperately didn't want to die, but if I had—well, it wouldn't have changed much of anything. The mission would still have been completed. My teammates would have—well. But now, I'm responsible for the lives of others. My decisions can become their life or death. I did it once in Ame. But the seal that made that possible is—well, it's a very pretty tattoo and a promise and nothing more now.

"So I need the power to make everyone safe. And I have some ideas on how to achieve that with what I already know of seals, but I'm not originally from a clan. I had no one I could ask then; now it's that I have a narrow window to solve my ignorance before it becomes the head of the Uchiha bowing her head, so of course I'm going to take advantage of your guilt and shore up my shortcomings in the dark. You're not going to tell me no, are you?"

Shikaku-sama sighed. "I can see my life has very peaceful this far because I have a lazy son instead of a clever daughter."

That made Sakura laugh despite herself. "Maybe you'll have a granddaughter who'll more than makes up for it."

"I can only hope so."

"I take it you're not opposed to the idea then?"

"As a person, I'm opposed to it on the grounds that I'm worried you'll take on too much trying to prove yourself. As Hokage, however, I don't make it a habit of doubting the people that I appoint when they're only just getting started," Shikaku-sama said, meeting her gaze with a steady regard that made her feel warm and buoyed by his good opinion. "Ask for what you need, Sakura-chan, and I'll try my best to make arrangements. We're working toward the same goals and I don't need you feeling like you need to form your own underground cabal to get there."

"Ask for what I need…," Sakura murmured quietly. "Then—"

[Kill Your Heroes]

"How do you feel about being part of a beautification project?" Sakura asked Sai seriously as he slurped up his noodles.

He cast a disparaging glance from the crown of her head to where her body disappeared beneath the table. "There are some things beyond my skills, taichou," he said. "Luckily you're marrying into a family whose eyesight tends to deteriorate. Though since you fixed that and not your violent personality, he might think twice."

"It's like you sit somewhere in a dark corner, thinking of things to say that will make me angry," she sighed.

"Light is important for art. It's usually a well-lit area. Only occasionally a corner," Sai corrected.

"If I had a brother, I can only imagine I would feel this similar intense desire to break his face."

"But you won't, because you want something from me."

"But I won't, because you and I will have many opportunities to meet on the training field in the future and I can do it then. Also I do want something from you, but I'm asking nicely and buying you soba, so take that into account."

"You just threatened to break my face."

"Also said you were like my brother."

He blinked at her. "In this village, 'like my brother' usually prefaces some sort of story of catastrophic destruction. Though I suppose they're usually screaming it at end other as they create the Valley of the End and hurl lightning at each other and kill their teachers. Or…," and his tone dipped for a moment, "they're ordered to kill each other to test their training and their obedience."

"Hey," Sakura said as she reached across to tap sharply at the table. "Not that type of sibling. The normal, sane kind. No. Stop doing that with your face. I don't care how long you had to practice in the mirror or what kind of scenario you imagined it would be useful in, but stop."

"Fine," Sai conceded, wiping away the expression of disgust and returning to his usual expression. "So, what does aneki want from me that requires asking it in the corner of a soba shop?"

"How do you feel about doing murals on the exterior of every public bath house in Konoha?"

[Kill Your Heroes]

Sakura was guiltily glad to rank highly enough that she would rate a single room, however small—she loved everyone in their apartment, but it had been cramped even before they'd needed to find the space to lay out an additional futon at night for Itachi.

Soudai, who was never one to suffer in silence, had complained at volume about it, until he had finally resorted to spending his time sulkily supervising the contractors at the manor after Kakashi-senpai had scruffed him and dropped him out the window.

Peace had been temporarily restored, though Sakura would not put it past Soudai to be stalking the halls in favor of studying the battlefield to gain advantage over the ninken once they moved in.

"Sorry to leave everything to you like this, Itachi," Sakura said, squeezing his fingers gently where their hands were interlocked between them on the edge of the rooftop. Below them, the village was beginning to become lively as people finished the day's work and made the most of the restaurants and night markets that were opening up, the curfews that had been imposed to help with public order finally being relaxed in the wake of their victory over Akatsuki.

Sakura felt impossibly fond of it all at the moment, relaxed and hopeful, almost childlike again as she swung her legs where they hung down the side of the building. Maybe she could talk Itachi into going to get something sweet from one of the stalls later.

"It might actually be the case that the work might go quicker if Soudai stops melting out of the walls to criticize people when they least expect it."

"…I can see how that might be less than ideal."

Itachi bumped his shoulder into hers as he hummed with amusement. "Thirteen weeks will give me enough time to make arrangements. Think of it as incentive to survive the training—you'll have a wedding waiting for you. And a husband. And a house without a critical cat, noisy dogs, and Hatake-senpai. For one night, at least. They'll probably all turn up at daybreak for breakfast the next morning, though."

"Should we plan to run away?" Sakura asked in a conspiratorial tone. "If we use our first night to get a head start, we could dodge them for days."

"That would only make it worse when they found us," Itachi's eyes were dark, but they were warm and alight with amusement.

"I want you to be happy like this all the time, Itachi," she murmured as she turned her gaze back out over the lights winking on in the streets below. She kept her tone soft as she continued, "I know you won't be—but I want you to tell me when you're struggling and what I can do to help. That way I don't feel so helpless—you already know that I react to that with anger and that's not what I want between us. The period of your life where you suffer alone in silence is over. So just…let me help."

"Being told that the period of my life where I suffer alone is over makes it sound like I'm being kept in some old-fashioned novel, which I suppose—" he broke off when Sakura jolted him indignantly with her shoulder. "I know," he said softly. "So I will try. To be happy. And to let you help me, when it's something that can be helped, but there's also such a thing as privacy between two people. So I reserve the right to keep some things to myself, just as there are thing that you will inevitably also wish to struggle with on your own."

"I know—I know. But sometimes you make me feel guilty, like I receive more than I give."

"That's only an illusion created by how much more time I have to spare compared to you nowadays and because you seem to have no comprehension of how extraordinary what you've accomplished is. It doesn't matter that you built upon the ideas of others, only that you took that one step that they were unable to take. I—we, the Uchiha, we've already received so much—I'm only paying it back. But that isn't a hardship for me. Acts of service make me feel happy and fulfilled. And if they also make you happy, then that's everything you wanted, isn't it?"

If he kept smiling at her like that, she would hunt Sasuke down, drag him back by his hair, and bind him in a genjutsu so subtle and insidious that he'd never break it for the rest of his life.

She nestled her cheek against his shoulder with a sigh. Maybe in another life she would have risked everything she'd so painstakingly gained, but in this life, she wasn't that desperate or that reckless. She had things to lose and enough discipline to know that this might give her the momentary satisfaction and nothing more when the Sharingan inevitably did something—mutated again or was unstable in just such a way as to miraculously overcome it or whatever—and the illusion shattered and she'd only managed to alienate everyone for nothing gained.

Not that she wouldn't at least hit him, if she saw him again.

Her base nature was violent, bossy, and a little bit petty, after all, and if she couldn't occasionally be true to herself, that would be a shame.

[Kill Your Heroes]

Sakura had thought she'd pushed herself to the edges of her endurance before, but what she could do to herself really couldn't compare to being systematically shoved just that little bit beyond that day after day by top-level instructors who were invested in her success but not her distress.

She hated them.

She was grateful to them, sort of, in broken moments when she wasn't completely focused on the absolute awfulness of it all, but she hated them when she hurt too much too sleep, when she threw up everything she'd had for whatever meal proceeded the humiliation, when they expected her to retain every rule or symbol they showed her the first time and then immediately make use of it in a more complicated concept.

She had been assigned to two active-but-on-leave ANBU and one retiree who would not become her subordinates after her training was finished—this was a wise decision, because she was certain she would remember all of them forever and not in a way that was conductive to a healthy long-term work relationships.

Sakura had never had someone believe in her potential like this.

She had not thought it would hurt so much.

As Tanaka-sensei slammed his boot down on her dragon marrow sword, trapping her hand painfully against the floor, she cut short her cry of pain and let the sword return to its seal. "You're not used to that weapon," he said in a tone sharp enough to cut.

"I lost the knives that made me," she snarled as she rolled to her feet, fighting against the instinct to pull her aching hand to her side even as the shorter man advanced on her with lightning swiftness, his bare-handed style so overwhelming she'd tried to surprise him with one of her swords to counter it.

"Don't take risks with bladed weapons," he said as he caught up her wrist and elbow in some sort of complicated pressure lock that felt as if he'd broken her arm. She gasped with relief when he released it, only to lose that breath as he stepped entirely too close, one of his feet slamming into the inside of her far foot. He took advantage of the way she lurched forward to send her flying to the mat. "If you can't accurately judge the length of your blade in two heartbeats, you're too slow, and you'd better give up on grabbing whatever comes to hand or attempting to surprise your opponent with a blade. A centimeter can make the difference between bringing a body back and returning with a live prisoner.

"You aren't part of an ANBU unit. You won't have the anonymity of a mask or a reputation that can't be shaken by minor scandals. The public will always be watching. At best you will be invisible. At worst, they will try to drag you down without regard to the consequences of a city that cannot enforce its own order. They won't care that you're also human. That you can be tired or desperate or afraid. That you can make mistakes in judgement that you would have never made in any set of circumstances other than the one you were in. They will resent you and, if you falter, they will eat you alive," he continued as she got herself upright, "because they will say that criminals also make these excuses. So in combat, on duty, and even outside of it, you must allow your officers no mistakes, nor any morality that might bring their conduct into question."

She hadn't been allowed the use of her usual tactics—there was no ambush, none of her usual genjutsu tricks, which Tanaka-sensei said had been compensating for taijutsu and kenjutsu skills below ANBU standard, which had been adopted as the military police standard as well for the time being.

The military police under the Uchiha had not been held to such stringent standards, but they had made full use of the hypnotic aspect of the Sharingan and their other inherited bloodline traits, which the current department lacked.

This was not to say that ambush and genjutsu would have no place in the repertoire of the military police under Uchiha Sakuka, not hardly—but not today, not in Takashi-sensei's brutal demonstration of what was possible with nothing more than empty hands.

"The skill gap must be always in your favor and if it isn't, your teamwork must be so flawless you can work as if you were one person to subdue your opponent. And if mistakes are made as you are growing and learning, you must be prepared, because you will likely find little forgiveness. You must prepare yourself either to cut loose the officer who made the error or bury the error itself so deeply that even if a god arrived, they couldn't find it. It will be up to you, Haruno Sakura, which sort of department you wish to run."

[Kill Your Heroes]

She had not realized that there was a particular category of crime each of the subsets of their shinobi were know for. Genin were involved largely in petty theft, career-frustrated chunin in domestic violence, jounin in murder, and ANBU in psychotic breaks ending in mass violence and murder-suicides.

The civilians, her instructor remarked dryly, were mostly famous for the sheer volume of petty complaints.

[Kill Your Heroes]

Itachi was not certain that anything would ever match the physical feeling of relief that the first full breath he'd taken after the first real night of sleep he'd had in years had given him. But now, without the necessary evil of grinding himself to the edge he'd needed to put things to an end in Ame, or even the pressure he'd felt as a child to please his parents, he was rediscovering the sheer pleasure that could be found in a strong body that he could trust to perform what he asked of it.

As he swept his right foot up into an acrobatic sweeping kick whose momentum carried him entirely aloft so that he could also strike out with his off foot, the muscles in the leg that briefly supported his full weight didn't threaten to quiver and he gained more height than he'd been able to achieve without chakra for a long time.

"You look like you're working hard for someone who's officially retired," Nara-sama observed from where he'd strolled out from beneath the trees.

"I'm getting married in twelve weeks," Itachi replied.

Nara-sama eyed him speculatively. If it had been Hatake-senpai, he would probably have earned himself a comment that "they called it 'bed sport,' but that didn't make it a cage match", but their new Hokage only waited for him to elaborate.

"Sakura will be in the best physical condition of her life for the wedding. As a man, I'd find it embarrassing if I couldn't match her at least a little," he explained as he brushed down his flyaways. His hair—which had gotten very thin throughout the course of his illness—was recovering its former thickness with remarkable speed, but that left him with a great deal of hair that was short enough amongst the rest to create strange tufts. "What can I do for you, Hokage-sama?"

[Kill Your Heroes]

Just as jounin did, the military police paired their officers for safety and efficiency (and in the case of the former Root shinobi, so that someone with better-developed social skills would be present). Sakura remained partnered with Kakashi-senpai for purposes of investigation and combat, but for the daily operations of the military police, she would be assisted by two aides that would work a five on-two off duty schedule.

One was a young man from Root who had been selected because he possessed an invaluable skill that let him read documents literally at a glance; the other was an older kunoichi with excellent interpersonal skills who had a lot of experience managing personnel in the mission office.

If she had thought Sai pale, he at least had the darkness of his hair and eyes to present contrast. Yuki was obviously a name assigned on account of his coloring, his skin pale in a way that was almost translucent, his long hair white as snow, and his eyes a reddish-pink. He was softly elegant, with an economical way of moving, but he made Sakura slightly uncomfortable with the solemn way he watched her, like a dog waiting for word from its master.

By contrast, Fukunaga Honoka was a woman whose round face lent her a feeling of perpetual youth that was furthered by an unflustered, easy-going attitude. She wore her hair short, often with cute accessories, and completed all their exercises with flushed, glowing aplomb. She preferred to be called by her given name, and chatted about her two children while the rest of the were gasping for breath, the youngest of which who'd just made chunin, and complained fondly about her husband, who'd been one of her genin teammates.

Sakura thought that if she could be this cheerful in this sort of environment, short of another Crush, Honoka-san would be lively anywhere.

[Kill Your Heroes]

Sakura was very grateful to have a single room, because then there was no one to see when she was curled up tightly in the corner, cold wet cloth pressed against her eyes as she tried to breath through a racing heart and her mind still trying to do three things at once, only now it was all occurring in a single body and she felt like at any moment she would fly free of that body, like her mind was something unmoored and unsteady and apt to take her down into the dark at any moment.

She could never decide whether she preferred when she actually lost consciousness at this stage or not—the mental confusion might make her feel vulnerable and ashamed once she'd returned to herself, and her physical body with its flush of heat in her core and the clammy cold of her extremities always compounded her physical exhaustion, but the strange dreams she had when she lost consciousness were awful and could haunt her with its uncanny sensations for days.

Sakura knew she had made a mistake. She wasn't handling the assimilation well and she started every day exhausted and sometimes felt weirdly disconnected to her own body with no warning.

But she couldn't admit that.

So she used one hand to keep pressure on the cloth over her throbbing eyes and the other to stifle her sobs.

Five weeks. Only five more weeks. She could lean in for that long, press against the yoke and drag her burden forward, put her head down and press on.

And then—then the village would still be recovering and life would be tiring, but there would be Itachi and Kakashi-senpai and everyone and she wouldn't always feel like this.

She startled when a cool nose pressed at her elbow, proceeding a slim body forcing itself between her knees and her chest. "If you get snot on me, I'm leaving," Soudai said stiffly, but he soon began purring, the vibration reverberating through her body and making it just a little easier to breathe. "Take a deep breath and pet me," he encouraged her, flicking up his tail so that it flicked her in the face. "It will make you feel better. Humans haven't been able to resist my kind for thousands of years. Think of the horror you'd have to endure if you'd taken in a dog instead. They'd insist on licking your face and wagging their tails and making an undignified ruckus. But you're the human that I chose, so you're superior to all of the other humans. Everything is almost under your paw," he said, flexing his own so that she felt all off his claws brush against her skin. "So just chase after it for a little longer."

"I know," she breathed into his fur. "I know."

[Kill Your Heroes]

Perhaps they should stop putting people in prison and just send them to ANBU conditioning instead, Sakura thought darkly, though she had her own ideas on penance and reflection that had occurred to her when she couldn't make her body sleep and had no choice but to lay there miserably and let her mind chase itself in circles that sometimes spiraled out into strange directions.

She finished getting dressed, tugging her capelet so that it hung straight and making certain her rank pins were aligned and there weren't any loose hairs on the dark material.

It would take genjutsu to conceal the dark bruising beneath her eyes, but everyone except the annoying few like Honoka-san looked the same right now, all lean muscle and drawn faces, so she didn't bother.

She gave a closing speech that she was absolutely certain that no one paid attention to except Root, and then her entire force vanished—not with the crack of smoke and whirl of leaves that was considered polite inside the village and was essentially brand advertisement outside of it, but in perfect silence, with a silent fluttering of sakura blossoms.

"When they all run off at once like that, it looks like hanami in here," Kakashi-senpai remarked at her side. "Shall we go and see if your Uchiha is still waiting for you at home?"

[Kill Your Heroes]

He was.

Itachi was there.

Sakura trusted him—she wouldn't have agreed to marry him if she didn't—but having something tangible like this to validate that trust was—her temper and her cat and her senpai hadn't driven him away and she felt like she was overflowing with warmth, like a vise squeezing her chest had released and she could relax again.

"Tadaima," she breathed, her lips pulling upwards into a smile.

"Okaeri," he replied, expression soft and warm as a summer's day.

She suddenly realized that she had been missed too and there would always be someone waiting for her and that was—that was everything.

[Kill Your Heroes]

Ino's mother did her hair, easily twisting up the thick length and styling it smoothly, the dangling blossoms of her kanzashi held not by plain gold pins, but by white jade dragons carrying rosy pink pearls in their taloned grip.

The silk of the kimono was heavy in the way that only expensive silk was heavy, and there were layers of them, and the manner in which the obi was tied complicated—this was, she reflected wryly, something that would require meticulous undressing.

"That's a really gorgeous kimono," Ino observed from where she had been relegated to holding and fetching things for her mother. "I bet Itachi picked it out. It's expensive-looking in that subtle, old money sort of way. Not that I'm disparaging your taste or anything, Sakura, but most of the things I see you in nowadays fall into two categories: you're training to kill somebody or you're going to kill somebody."

Sakura hummed thoughtfully. "But I picked Itachi out, so that also sort of counts as having expensive taste?"

"No, that's called—guh—" Chiasa elbowed Mariko hard enough that the other girl complained, "Chi-chan, you made me bite my tongue!"

"That was the effect I was going for," the composed beauty murmured and Sakura heard Rie cough a dog sort laugh from where she was obediently laying on the floor at the feet of the kunoichi who'd come mostly to run commentary and very much less occasionally help as Sakura got dressed.

"Rude!" Mariko accused.

"Yes, you are," Chiasa agreed. "If you want to badmouth the groom on her wedding day, you have to wait until everyone is drinking and they're doing wedding speeches."

"In the Inuzuka clan, we don't wait for the wedding party. Harassment starts at engagement, but someone had to, y'know, go show off in Ame and then subjected us to thirteen weeks of hell."

"Which you applied for," Sakura commented wryly.

She glanced over at her mother, who had been quiet for most of the morning. Yuino in the full sense would always have been impossible, but she had used her parents' return for the new Hokage's investiture and her own appointment ceremony to introduce them to Itachi.

In her own defense, she'd lacked the luxury of time, and she did not really believe that there was a truly diplomatic way to introduce one's parents to one's S-class mass-murdering fiancé.

It was enough to say that she had inherited her temper naturally from her mother, but they had both chosen charming counterparts, so they hadn't parted as enemies or anything that dramatic. She did think she'd hurt her parents, but…

There had been more things she hadn't told her parents since she'd become a shinobi than things she had—not the real things, the important ones, and then had come the Crush and she'd fallen out of the habit of even telling them the little things.

So she was surprised when her mother laid a hand on her shoulder. "He's a good child," she said. "He's certainly much better about visiting and writing letters than you are. Such a polite boy, and a good cook as well!"

Sakura peered up at her mother suspiciously. He did, she thought, he did take advantage of the thirteen weeks I was in training to win my parents to his side. That weasel!

[Kill Your Heroes]

She knew that in tepid romance novels, it was largely the part of the groom to be astonished at how beautiful clothes and lighting and happiness could make another person, but if she thought back to the gaunt and resigned shinobi that she had first met and compared him to man she extended her hand to today, she could almost be convinced that Itachi and Sasuke had another brother rather than believing them the same person.

His deep nasojugal grooves had filled in until he no longer looked exhausted by default, though she could still see the tracks where they would become prominent again as he aged, and his skin tone had improved until the descriptor attached to it would rightly be 'bright' instead of 'sickly pale'. His hair had been silky even when he was sick, but it was visibly thicker now, lustrous and as true black as a crow's wing. It was pulled forward over one shoulder again, the cord binding it as red as a string of fate—probably an intentional reference, knowing Itachi—and his outermost kimono was white except for the small embroidered fans that marked it as a formal garment. The white of the fans' base blended into the white field and left only the red crescents like petals fallen against snow.

Not black, nor navy, but white.

Some of her underlayers were red and some of his were black, but it was a clear deviation from tradition—a way to set them as equals.

He probably also knew that it would appeal to the possessive component of how she experienced attraction—the look he canted at her beneath his lashes was a little sly, but she was certain all of her pleasure was written on her face.

Since his whole clan was famous—or infamous, depending on how it fell out—for that kind of obsessive devotion that included a desire to monopolize—even if they were equally known for often being as verbally expressive as rocks—and Itachi admitted to the same, she didn't bother feeling conflicted or guilty over what was also usually another masculine prerogative.

Gozen-san had told her long ago that happiness was harder to hold onto than fear and it was true. The details threatened to recede beneath the haze of so many emotions without sharp edges to lodge them in the folds of her brain. It was the reason that most women were willing to undergo childbirth more than once and many were willing to forgive their lovers so many things, because the highest and brightest moments were addictive and the chemicals involved were ones that smoothed out all the rough and painful edges and made them easy to dismiss. But Sakura did not want to recall today as merely the emotions she had experienced during it.

She wanted to remember without relying photographs on how sheepish Kakashi-senpai had looked, showing up sharply dressed in his military police uniform and with product in his hair.

Naruto was either growing his hair out deliberately or hadn't bothered to cut it while he was locked in combat with his oldest enemy—bookwork—and it had been tidied by pulling the top half back. If she had to guess, Hinata-san had probably picked out what he was wearing, because it looked less loud than the kind of thing that he usually picked up on discount. She would make it a point to ask the other kunoichi later, because she had accompanied her former teammate.

Sai was there, and Neji, who had brought Tenten-san as his guest. Though she wasn't especially close to the other kunoichi, she had tried inviting Anko-san in respect for what they had accomplished together, but Anko-san had said she was allergic to weddings, but not wedding parties, and she would come drink her alcohol even if she didn't watch her exchange nuptial sake.

Ino and her family were here, including her intended family, and Gin was wearing a huge, loopy bow around his fluffy silver ruff in acknowledgement of the festivities. The ninken had also shown up in adorable coordinating bows that looked like Kakashi-senpai had let them pick out of some sort of manual on how to tie fancy bows—Soudai had stared at Itachi balefully when he had offered to do something similar, though she'd already spotted a dozen crows sporting red cords from where they were watching from the trees.

Mariko, Chiasa, and Sakuya. Shikaku-sama and Tsunade-sama. Tatsuo's parents. Fū and Zen had sent gifts—she had carefully isolated Fū's gifts from the rest of the presents, because she had a suspicion that whatever he had sent would be expensive but not benign, because he couldn't simply send money like everyone else—and strangely enough, Gaara-sama had as well. That concluded the rather short list of those who had been invited to the ceremony itself, though there would of course be a longer guest list for the wedding party.

Sakura knew that Gozen-san was probably having some extraordinary adventure on the other side of the veil, but she hadn't been able to resist hiding a fox mask in the garden, where she would have had a good view.

Later, she would almost swear she had glimpsed in the space between heartbeats a tail disappearing into the green.

[Kill Your Heroes]

(What follows is their wedding night. You may proceed to the next chapter without losing the thread of the plot if you so desire.)

Ino's mother had folded away the kimono and a small army of genin had folded away the party, and everyone had left them to their own devices once the sunset had made the sky blaze like it was aflame.

Sakura had lived her entire life in a modest two-story home or a barrack-like apartment—it was strange to think that this sprawling complex of gardens and interconnected buildings was her home now. Their bedroom was situated to catch the morning sun rather than the evening, so it was already quite dim inside as the panels were slid shut.

Though there were tatami rooms, most of them were done in a more modern style. Sakura was glad of this, since this was what she was accustomed to since childhood, and she didn't want the stiff feeling of being a guest in her own home.

She was feeling somewhat nervous and giddily anticipatory all at once, and, because she could, she swept Itachi up into her arms and tossed him gently onto the bed. She was on him in an instant, knees on either side of his chest, pushing his hands up above his head as she playfully nipped at his bottom lip.

Sakura beamed down at him and he smiled up at her. "Lift your knee for just a moment, you've caught my hair under it," he whispered as she shifted to kiss him again.

"Sorry," she murmured back, moving as requested, taking advantage of her retreat down his body to feather another kiss beneath his jaw.

They neither of them were in special clothing, not even in robes like they'd just been to the onsen—just t-shirts worn silk soft by time and the comfortable drawstring pants that protected ones' legs from ninken nails and slobber. Sakura had briefly considered lingerie—it was her wedding, after all, and she had expectations formed by suspect novels—but when she imagined wearing it, she could also see how it would shape how she moved and how aware she would be of her body.

She had decided that for tonight she wanted to be just Sakura—to lower the stakes, as it were, because she was nervous enough as it was.

Itachi let her press kisses into the palms of his hands before he tugged them free, reaching up to pull the band out of her own hair, which fell around them like a curtain.

"Now I'm going to end up kneeling on my own hair," she complained teasingly at him as his core tightened between her thighs and he leaned up to press his own kisses against her lips.

"We can put it up again later—but I like the look of you like this," he told her.

They teased each other with light kisses for a while longer until Sakura slipped her hands beneath the hem of his shirt. The skin she found there was smooth and warm and the ridges more defined than she had expected. Curiosity had her peeling his shirts upwards, Itachi cooperating with her as she divested him of it. His look at her from beneath his lashes as he lay supine was both sly and a little smug.

He would never be broad-chested, he wasn't built for it, and he was still rangy rather than bulky, but he had definition that he hadn't before—which was probably ninety percent hard work and good health and ten percent strategic dehydration and only picking at his food at the wedding party. She was guilty of the same.

"You're so beautiful, Itachi," she murmured, trailing her fingers lightly along the flow of his muscles, sweeping down along his sides until she encountered the fabric of her own sleep pants. She continued the momentum of her hands, tugging her own shirt up and discarding it.

Sakura knew what she looked like, had seen herself in mirrors.

When she'd been manipulating her body for height, maybe it would have possible to change the way her bones set beneath her flesh and the way fat amassed on her body. But she hadn't, so she still had the same frame that her body had always been meant for. A modest chest, even without the mission-mandated compression garments, and a ribcage that didn't dip in deeply at her waist despite having little body fat. A gentle swell of her hips, compounded by powerful muscles.

She didn't look like Ino or Hinata-san or Anko-san or any of the other women whose bodies she had been conditioned to think of as closer to a feminine ideal, but by the light in Itachi's eyes and the flush cresting across his ears, he did not mind.

If he was every inch of him her type and then himself beyond that, she herself was his only type, so if she thought her body powerful and useful, he found that power beautiful, and they were in a delightful harmony with each other.

They explored these freshly exposed landscapes for a while longer—she only accidently got her hair caught pinned once—and then came the moment when his body was fully exposed to her for the first time and hers to him.

It was not like in the novels.

Or at least not like the aggressively descriptive ones she'd suffered through when she was still seeking out favorite authors, with their alpha males and all-the-same-dialogue-in-bed female leads.

Itachi's build could be described by words like "elegant" and "graceful" and maybe "delicate" at a stretch, and his genitalia were formed in proportion to his body, so it was nothing so intimidating or unpleasant-looking as those novels by Jiraiya-sama had described. Maybe they were written to make men feel bad about themselves—though according to Mariko, encountering men endowed like those in bad smut novels almost guaranteed that the encounter was going to be unpleasant if it was hasty or rough—but Sakura thought that as far as aesthetic proportions went, he was just as he ought to be, though male genitalia at first glance was a little weird looking. Impractical, certainly, and vulnerable compared to having it all neatly internal.

Judging by the flush spreading across his body and other obvious signs of interest, which had already been apparent through his loose pants and hadn't flagged at her disrobing, he found her appealing in turn.

"I find myself in unfamiliar territory. Permission to conduct reconnaissance, ma'am?" he asked softly as he leaned forward to capture another kiss—convenience and logistics in removing pants meant that she was no longer kneeling over him at the moment, but sitting facing each other on the bed.

"Permission granted," she breathed as he pulled away.

Her experience with another person had never gone beyond kissing. Her experience with herself had been severely curtailed by living with the ninken and senpai and Soudai since she was in her early teens. So Itachi's fingers were an unfamiliar pressure that had her shifting uncomfortably until pleasure seeped through and her breath hitched.

She let him explore until her breathing was ragged and when she reached out with a shaking hand to conduct some exploration of her own, he brushed her hand aside.

"If you touch me now, this will probably be over very quickly," he admitted.

"Stamina training in the future, then," she said as she redirected her hand to his chest to shove him back down, shifting to cover his body with hers. What followed was about as awkward as when she'd been learning to sheathe her knives without looking, the angle making it immediately feel more intrusive than his fingers had been, the discomfort overwhelming the pleasure of the pressure against sensitive nerves.

But Itachi's expression—she could be a little uncomfortable for that.

She leaned forward, brushing quick kisses across his eyelids to give herself a moment to adjust—and she underestimated how much that would feel like a seismic shift, her body jolting and Itachi grunting softly beneath her—and then she was trying to find a rhythm, but just as she was settling into the sensation and before she could chase it further, Itachi made a noise deep in his throat that she'd never heard before and his arms came up to embrace her, his breathing hot in her ear.

He didn't give her time to be disappointed it was over so quickly, because once he'd caught his breath his clever hands sought to keep her chasing after something she couldn't quite catch until his refractory period passed and she could tip him over into the bliss again.

She still couldn't quite find the catch that would unlock her own pleasure, though Itachi tried and she tried to, back arching and seeking something—something she just couldn't touch as over-sensitized nerves began to protest the unusual friction and soreness began to seep through the haze.

"Enough," she gasped at last, sweat-slicked and overheated, her forehead resting against his and her eyes shut tight.

"Sorry," Itachi murmured, which made her draw back enough to peer blearily down at him. His eyes shaded crimson as his Sharingan formed in his eyes, which made her tense and warily draw herself back, but he didn't follow her up, just tangled one of his hands with hers. "I could give you back what you gave to me," he offered.

Sakura used her free hand to cover up those eyes. "You will," she promised. "But today I married a wonderful man and even if he didn't manage to tip me over the cliff, we spent a long time walking along the edge. Right now I just want to clean up, change the sheets, and go to sleep. Life is a journey we're taking together now, so we might as well enjoy learning each other at our leisure. This isn't, of course, taking genjutsu off the table for the future," she assured him as she removed her hand to expose the kind black eyes that she liked best.

"That would have been a shame," he agreed.

Itachi offered to strip the bed while she showered and Sakura agreed, because her sweat was turning clammy and there was slick and sticky in places where once the act was over, slick and sticky was not wanted.

At first, she was only slightly raw feeling as she walked, but as she plucked clothes out of their shared closet, she had a cramp so searing that she had to slam her hand against the wall to stay upright.

Yes, she thought as she hissed out a breath between her teeth, it wasn't like in the novels. But thinking of the activities that had led up to this moment still made her smile—if there was a little pain now, it was worth it for the sweetness, and it wouldn't always hurt. And, for someone who dealt in illusion, it was this that made it real.

A/N: Much like children, my real-life experience with sex is nil, since I am practicing religious abstinence peacefully into my thirties now, and will continue to do so until I discover a lithesome, long-haired virgin boy of my very own (unlikely in my small, rural town in Appalachia, but strange things happen every day.) So if it was weird, I apologize, but I feel like I've been teasing you with this for probably thirty-some chapters and several years now, so I should at least make the attempt.