A/N: It's been a while, hasn't it? To all those who've asked, life has actually been pretty good, it's more that I'm not really in this fandom any longer (and I've been frustrated as to how my wordcount for fanfiction far outweighs my wordcount on original fiction), so I really only work on this when nostalgia strikes, though I did write down an outline so I'm not confused when I come back to it. But thank you for continuing to check in.

Also, and this was a while ago, but to the commenter who pointed out that Shikaku had let Jiraiya get away with his crimes for years and thus deserved little praise: Given how the canon handles his behavior, it is very likely that sexual harassment was not actually considered a crime under the Third, as it wasn't in our world until relatively recently. The term itself is only from the 1970s and the EEOC didn't define it in the workplace until 1980 in the US. In Japan, it wasn't addressed until 1997 and didn't have enforceable ramifications until April of 2000.

Rape has always been considered a crime because it damages male property (though notably Japan only raised its age of consent in 2023 and revised their rape laws—which previously did not actually mention consent at all—to recognize that rape can take place without physical violence such as under coercion or intoxication), but making a woman feel uncomfortable was unfortunate for the woman involved, but not actually a crime until recently. In the KYH-verse, Tsunade changed the law—Sakura and Shikaku give it teeth.

And as a warning, this is not edited, because it just kept growing.

Kill Your Heroes

-Chapter Seventy-Six-

Kintsugi (Part V)

It was strange, sometimes, to know that her former classmates from the Academy were her subordinates. Stranger than being in charge of strangers.

At no point had she guessed that Kiba and Shino would work for her in the search and rescue division, with an equal spread of their family there and in the retrieval units. Even Ino's husband, who led one of said search and rescue teams, was employed by the military police.

Kaoru Tsukigawa—and Gin, she supposed—had become a Yamanaka not long after Sakura had married Itachi, with Chouji and then Shikamaru marrying soon after.

It had been a deliberate decision on the former Team Ten's part, this dating with the intention to marry and have their heirs young, with the bulk of the childcare being done by a grandmother while they focused on their careers.

The current heads' generation had tailored their family styles to combat Iwa in the kind of large-scale widespread conflicts that were the core threat of that generation—but as the battlefield had changed, Shikamaru had decided that what the Ino-Shika-Cho combination stood to offer should also change.

Rather than specializing in battlefield interrogation, which was less relevant when there was not a single large-scale threat to combat, though the Yamanaka were unlikely to ever be unseated from being their most valuable asset in that field, he wanted to take one step further and take on a more aggressive role—Shikamaru wanted to transform his team into an extraction unit without peer.

With his shadows, he could paralyze the movement of multiple enemies, if he could use it more efficiently or make it more effective. With her technique, Ino could analyze the motive and identity of the attackers so that the threat could be conveniently discarded after, if only it were not so slow. The biggest ask would be of Choji, who had to either refine his family's body-strengthening technique until it could used cleanly in tight spaces without risk to those they were meant to save or develop his family's food arts until they were a sufficient stop-gap measure to stabilize a dying shinobi until they could be attended by a proper medic-nin.

And Sakura was privy to all of this not only because Ino grumbled constantly about not being about to consult with her on modifying her family's technique due to having become the Uchiha clan head, but because Shikaku seemed to think that some healthy sibling competition was the spice required to keep his son's newfound ambition on a slow boil.

Lacking any siblings, he made do with Sakura.

Sakura, who already felt like she had an obnoxious elder brother and an annoying younger brother—Sai was at this point just being deliberately weird more often than he was being socially clueless, she knew it—did not need any more troublesome siblings.

Shikamaru wasn't the only one among the Konoha 11 with ambitions.

When she had…was acquired the right word for when you took in a subordinate? Received Neji? Become obligated to house and feed an adult who was supposed to render services and protection to your clan? Whatever it was—Sakura had employed him in the military police and mostly tried not to think about it, because it was as stressful and strange as most of the clan politics were and was largely successfully except when she had to go to official meetings with Neji at her shoulder like he was one of her aides—she had expected that she would see his team occasionally.

She had been braced for Lee, but it was Tenten who had made the strongest impression.

The kunoichi had apparently introduced herself to her team on the ambition of becoming as famous as Tsunade-sama, and, lacking a current war to make herself enduringly famous in—though she had established a firm reputation for herself during the Rain campaign—she had decided that solo bounty-hunting was the most visible way to carve her name into history.

"Besides, it suits my style," she had said with a grin. "Weapons, wide open spaces, and no weirdos making bets on whether they can win the battle with their hands behind their back. Literally. So, be kind and throw the best ones my way, yeah?"

Sakura might have nudged the mission office in the beginning, but Tenten did the rest—she was quick, efficient, and didn't scare or injure civilians while she did her work and was polite when she returned.

On the rare occasion when she was briefly in the village, she crashed in Neji's quarters, because "it's stupid to pay rent on an apartment I get to sleep in once a month and who's going to steal my things from right under the nose of the military police?"

It also allowed her to progress on her self-assigned mission, which was to see how long she could continue taking Neji out and living together before he realized they were dating. "He's sort of slow when it comes to things like this," she'd said cheerfully.

Considering how often Tenten described her "date nights" including a considerable amount of time fawning of the work of this or that weaponsmith, Sakura thought Tenten might also be kind of slow when it came to things like that as well. While anything might be a date when you knew you were dating, taking your former teammate to shop for shinobi tools didn't exactly scream courtship.

Though Neji accompanied Tenten unfailingly when he was invited and without complaint even though he specialized in unarmed combat, so maybe that road wasn't very long at all.

[Kill Your Heroes]

Sakura had been awake for over thirty hours with the aid of a soldier pill and was in her least favorite phase—that was trying to sleep after, so exhausted she felt like her entire personality might vibrate apart or collapse in on itself, her body aching as she lay in bed with her knees flexed because straightening them gave her cramps.

It was no longer chemicals keeping her awake—she had flushed them from her system herself, an advantage she had over most shinobi—but the raw exhaustion of her body and a mind that refused to let go of the case. It had been a pursuit, but it had involved a child, which she had discovered inevitably made everything uglier—after defecting to Konohagakure to escape an abusive husband four years ago, taking with her their infant daughter, Ichikawa Chika had been an exemplary kunoichi who had been spotted by a former friend during the last chunnin exam they had hosted.

Said "friend" had then informed Ichikawa-san's husband, who had been sent a threatening letter in an effort to force her to return. Embarrassed and perhaps distrusting of the system—her own village had ignored reports of abuse she'd attempted to file—Ichikawa-san had ignored the letter while making preparations to flee again, trusting that Konoha's reputation would be sufficient to keep her daughter safe, assuming that her husband would focus on confronting her when she was outside the protection of the village.

Impatient and enraged, her husband had abducted their daughter only two days later, intending to use her as a hostage to force Ichikawa-san's compliance. The genin who'd been babysitting the daughter hadn't regained consciousness for nine hours after the original attack, at which time the report was made.

Though it had been reported immediately after the genin regained consciousness, the husband had a bloodline skill that had made tracking difficult—they hadn't even had a physical description of the attacker to go by until a team was sent to inform Ichikawa-san, who'd been in a civilian town near the border renting an apartment under an assumed name—Ichikawa Chika also not being her original name, but rather an identity granted her in return for the information she'd supplied during her defection.

Once the husband left the border of Fire, pursuit would become difficult, but Sakura was not like her predecessors. She was not dependent on how fast a shinobi could run or a hawk could fly.

It wasn't even that she had anchors in every station along the border, though she did—and that had been a much more normal ask of her officers until someone (she had several suspects) had decided to decorate one of the daggers like it was a shime-kazari and had hung it above the main door, a decorating trend that had become something of a competition and they had become increasingly elaborate—but that there were also seals.

She hadn't perfected one for people yet, and she had some doubts she ever could—or should, at least publicly, as the ability to instantly transport troops would almost certainly start a war—but it could send through messages. One of her Yamanaka had produced a composite sketch from Ichikawa-san's memories and Sakura had it sent to all the stations along his suspected route of travel.

Within hours they'd had a sighting and Sakura had stepped through to deal with the capture personally, because their target had an ability to become as intangible as smoke and had forcefully awakened the bloodline in his child, so after they'd managed to kill the father there had been hours of comforting a panicking, crying child until she'd been able to regain a solid form and then she'd clung to Sakura and refused to be separated, so rather than sleeping, she'd made the run back to the village and hand-delivered Ichikawa-san's daughter back into her arms.

She stared blankly at Itachi sleeping across from her, the light of a waxing moon sufficient for her to see almost as clearly as day.

With his hair loose and at rest, the lie of him was at its most potent at this potent—so beautiful and so seemingly fragile, but so very, very dangerous in reality. The knowledge that he wasn't something she had to desire powerfully but never touch, but rather the he was someone within reach—that she could, at any moment she like, reach out to touch his hair or stroke his arm—was still something the young and vain Sakura that still was a part of her gloried about quietly whenever they went out—this feeling of 'look at this, this is mine.'

But it wasn't a thing that came without obligations. Amidst the strength, there were parts of Itachi that were actually fragile—fractures that would never fully heal. Things he would always struggle with, the same way that she still wrestled with the lessons of her own weakness that she had been confronted so abruptly with in Wave, the inevitable sense of guilt that came from the thought that if she had been somehow wiser, better, stronger before then, perhaps things would not have followed the path that they had.

Perhaps feeling the weight of her stare, Itachi opened his eyes. "Still not asleep?" he said in a sleep roughened voice. "Would a genjutsu help?"

"'tachi," Sakura said seriously, reached out to lace the fingers of her hand with his, and he hummed his attention and waited for her to speak again.

While her thoughts weren't weighed down by the exhaustion of her body, the effort actually required to speak almost made her reconsider, but she pressed on, because while it was very easy to know her own feelings, and to give them priority because someone was always killing or stealing or hanging a cheating boyfriend out a window in her world—she'd had to get her officers to stop laughing and get him down—but she did not fully trust Itachi to voice the needs of his quieter world, which meant she paid extra attention to the ones he did share.

"There will never be a time when I have enough of having you to myself," she started. "But it's also…" she trailed off, too tired to reach for the words that would explain how, when she entered this house, she wanted to put all her responsibilities down and be the Sakura who didn't have anything more onerous to do than help Itachi finish up any odd chores—and no one had ever died or suffered a childhood trauma if the sink wasn't absolutely clear of dishes—until someone sent a message and the responsibilities went on again along with her weapons.

She also, deeply, did not want to go to an orphanage and know that of all the children there, each with their own sad story, their own hopes and dreams, that they would only welcome home one.

And she was afraid—afraid of failure—what if she was not loved or could not overcome whatever dark past had sent the child to the orphanage or in the end was not able to provide the kind of love that child needed.

But she was willing to try.

"I don't want to be pregnant. I don't have the time and I'm not willing to make the time. Which you know. But…most people don't get to meet their children before they have them and love them anyway. So why don't you give me a child, Itachi?"

The corner of Itachi's mouth twitched, like he was trying not to smile, and Sakura peered at him suspiciously, because there was no reason for him not to.

He reached out and brushed the pad of his thumb across the crest of her cheek. "Wife. Of the many ways you could have phrased that, you chose possibly the most awkward. I am willing to carry many burdens for you, but I cannot carry children."

Sakura stared at him as her sleep-starved brain took a long moment to process what he'd said. As soon as she understood, however, she immediately struck out, the back of her hand thumping against his chest, which made him wheeze even as he chuckled and gathered her into his arms.

This put his mouth very close to her ear and she shivered as he whispered, "Thank you, Sakura."

Fully aware that she was already wildly overstimulated, she wondered how badly she would regret pursuing his warmth—perhaps it would help her spend the restlessness that was keeping her from sleep.

When his arms loosed from their tight embrace and his hands slipped further down her back she thought for a moment that might be the direction her night was taking, but no, his hands simply came to rest with one lightly on her lower back, the other tucked up under the pillow.

It took some time, longer than if she'd used sex or a genjutsu, but his warmth seeped into her at last and Sakura drifted off to sleep.

[Kill Your Heroes]

As the head of the Akimichi put it, the only secrets their family had were secret recipes.

Sakura, who by this point had investigated murder for much stupider reasons, would not have been surprised if it had been a singular event, but this was the third disappearance.

She had not realized how exhausting it could be to interview warm and gregarious people who felt the need to associate dates with special dinners—and who insisted on providing cooking tips for the event in question—and who kept persistently trying to serve her food.

Sakura had a headache and she reeked like a bakery—stress baking was apparently a thing on the industrial scale among the Akimichi—as she made her way back home.

Does it count as bribery if they literally wouldn't let any of the investigating officers leave without enough snacks to feed a family of seven? Sakura thought wryly, glancing down at the brown bakery boxes that had been tied in a neat stack.

Though, if she thought about it, she supposed that she belonged to a family of five now, six if Tenten had her way. And little Yori-kun liked sweets as much as most children, so maybe she actually had seven people to feed at home now.

She paused briefly, looking over the direction of the house where she'd spent the days of her childhood alone and dreaming of the family she would one day have—it had certainly been a smaller one in her imagination, with less pet hair on the furniture, and her place in it had been very different. Supporting from behind, just as she had on the battlefield.

A Sakura without any place to vent her temper, still confused by how to deal with her innate aggression except through suppression and outbursts, but without the strength or the confidence to turn it on enemies rather than on those safe and near. Maybe it would have even been amplified by the loneliness—now that she was older, she could see that Sasuke wasn't one of those quiet but at your side when you needed him most boys, or the kind that breathed sarcasm at everyone, including their partners, but brought them treats like a grumpy cat—and the bitter disappointment of building such an elaborate dream only to see it shattered by the very one it was built around.

Would she have become the kind of person that lost her temper over little things? The kind that threw things, put her fist through the wall, slammed doors right off the hinges?

Just because she was a woman didn't make that behavior any less reprehensible than if she'd been a man.

She turned away from her old home and from that future and returned to home that no longer felt so strange to think of as hers.


Itachi was in the kitchen as she came in, but he wasn't alone. Which wasn't strange in itself, but what was strange was that it was someone she had never seen before—a very small someone, currently watching Itachi cook from underneath the table. Nervous red eyes, almost hidden behind overlong black bangs, darted to her as soon as she entered the room. She would guess the boy was probably four or so, thin and made visually smaller than he already was by an overlarge long-sleeved shirt. He was also, strangely enough, wearing gloves.

"Taidaima," Sakura called over to Itachi, who was already drying his hands and turning toward her.

"Okaeri," he replied.

She asked with her eyes about the child and he gave her a soft smile. He walked closer to the table while Sakura waited in the doorframe. Coming to where the child was sheltering, he crouched down beside him. "Sakura, this is Shuji. Shuji, this is my wife, Sakura. Once she puts you on the family register, she'll be your mother."

Sakura approached the clearly nervous child slowly, noting how he tucked his glove-covered hands into his sleeves. "Hello," she said, then waited, giving space for the child to respond.

She hoped that, if he was too nervous to respond, he'd at least look to Itachi for reassurance, but he only tucked his head down further.

"Do you like sweets?" she asked when he didn't look up. "Usually Itachi would scold us for spoiling our dinner, but I think he'd make an exception just this once." No response to that either.

Sakura wasn't the most empathetic or expert of her officers, but she had discovered the unfortunate reality that working in law enforcement meant encountering children in crisis. Luckily, unlike adults who needed to be talked off ledges or coaxed to release hostages or put down the knife, children tended to be more forgiving. In the worst cases they merely cried or screamed themselves to sleep, but the others seemed to respond to persistent effort and a calm voice.

And food. Children were a little like feral animals in that—trust could be built with treats. Sakura untied and unstacked her whole tower of bakery goods, opening them to reveal a whole array of cakes and pastries and parfaits. After she proffered them, she retreated, like as if she really was baiting a feral cat, giving him space.

She still had on her uniform cap, since the Akimichi sweets had occupied one hand and she'd needed the other free for the door, and she took it off now. "I'm going to go change into house clothes," she said, "be back in a minute."

She had almost finished changing, pulling her long hair—usually bound midback—into a relaxed ponytail when Itachi came into their room. She queried him with her eyebrows in the mirror. "You left Shuji by himself?"

"He's still choosing something from the boxes. He's been timid enough that giving him that many choices was probably stressful for him."

"Oh." Sakura dropped her hands from where they'd been arranging her hair and turned to face Itachi. "I didn't think about that."

"It's not the worst thing in the world," Itachi reassured her. "There are certainly worse first memories to make. And it gives us a moment, so I can explain in case something goes wrong at dinner."

"Goes wrong?"

"Shuji comes from a bloodline whose ability involves absorbing chakra. It never manifests in small children—according to what records could be recovered, seven seems the youngest, and that was regarded as rare and especially precocious. But it was a very small family. During the Crush, their homes—they lived in a shared apartment building deeded under the head of the family—were destroyed when a nearby power substation exploded. We're fairly certain that Shuji saw at least one member of his family die, but we suspect that he was injured to the point where his bloodline awakened as a defense mechanism and he…fed off another family member.

"He has poor control of his ability even when he's calm, but loses control of it entirely when he has panic attacks. He's not strong enough yet to really hurt an adult—and the medic-nin say that right now he can't draw chakra from them at all, because they can change the chakra frequency he's traying to draw on—though it can exhaust someone with little chakra to begin with who also doesn't have fine control. But he has the potential to kill another child, which is why he's wearing gloves. There have been…accidents in the past. They've made his anxiety worse, to the point where he'd started hiding in closets and cupboards.

"The orphanage isn't set up to provide private rooms, for fear the children might hurt themselves or others in them, but he wasn't doing well there. And he's…he reminds me of Sasuke," he admitted softly. "Back when he was sweet and timid."

He stepped forward, gathering Sakura's hands in his. "And I have a wife, who has chakra control that most medic-nin can only envy."

Sakura hummed at the compliment and darted a quick kiss to his jaw. "I understand," she reassured him. "Now, let's get back to the kitchen, where I can make more mistakes on the very first day with my son."

Itachi chuckled. "We'll make them together. I don't exactly have a long history of childcare experience either."

While this was reassuring on some level, on another she was wondering how quickly she could introduce Shuji to Tatsuo's parents without seeming desperate.

And now she felt a level of anxiety about whether Shuji would like Yuri-kun or not.

She also felt that it was something of a reprieve that Shoudai had last been seen "testing" one of her on-duty officers after they'd returned from the Akimichi interviews—he kept moving things around his desk every time he went out to fetch something and, when Sakura had eyed him as she was leaving, blamed the officer for not being able to sense him.

Sakura hadn't been able to decide whether he really thought the officer showed promise in chakra sensitivity or if he was being clingy because the officer happened to dislike cats. Or if he'd just been frustrated as too much time had elapsed since the last missing person was last seen for his chakra tracking to be useful.

One crisis at a time, she reminded herself. One crisis at a time.

[Kill Your Heroes]

She'd had a premonition she'd regret this from almost the moment she'd made the decision, but Yugao had done it anyway in the faint hope that it really would make things…bearable. Better seemed a little much to ask for.

ANBU could create deep, lasting, and lifelong friendships.

If you could find them within it. Due to confidentiality requirements, it was difficult to have deep friendships outside it, but it was also a brutal, highly competitive workplace, filled with people whose weaknesses by definition could not be tortured out of them.

Men far outnumbered women within it and they had two general approaches to their female counterparts—because there was a single standard that had to be met to qualify for ANBU, with the exception of special duty inductees brought in by the Hokage him or herself, they treated them exactly like their male colleagues, often appending -kun to their codename like they'd been awarded honorary manhood along with their mask. The other approach was to treat all women in the organization with suspicion edged with disdain, like they were permanently part of a psyop whose purpose was hazy, but whose threat was ever-present, and who couldn't resist the occasion snide remark about missions carried out on your back.

(For all the fuss they made about them, those kinds of missions were very, very rare and carried out only by women willing to do them—it was much easier and less likely to incur suspicion to recruit a woman or a man already in a man's trusted circles rather than plant someone new and wait for wariness to fade. And as most of the men who merited such observation usually treated the women in their bed as disposable objects, the actionable intelligence gained by pillowtalk was suspect at best, and not something to risk some of your best female operatives for.)

Both types thought "supportive" was a word that applied only to undergarments and giving semi-insulting encouragement during combat exercises. It was acceptable to complain about the mission, the weather, and the one who'd given you that mission, and it was also fine to grumble about how much this was taking off the lifespan of your knees, what badly designed straps were pinching, and that inconvenient gaping hole in your side.

It was not alright to talk about the gaping hole in your soul, or the loneliness that came with part and parcel with the empty apartment awaiting you after yet another grueling mission that would shortly be followed by another due to personnel shortages, or the crushing anxiety that came from being told that in the next recruitment cycle she would be promoted and assigned a team. Your teammates were there to have your back, not hold your hand, and to a certain extent Yugao was glad of that, because as far as emotional intelligence went, she'd hadn't been issued the near-preternatural female version of it.

Yugao was not particularly close to her own squad, even if her trust in their combat capabilities was absolute. They treated her fairly and trusted both her sensory and kenjutsu skills in a way that she was fiercely proud to have earned (and had earned in part due to a number of "coincidences" that had their team crossing paths with missing-nin that had some fame in dual-wielding swords when she was perfecting her own style), but…

Well, it was also safe to say they were not the kind of team that invited each other to family dinners.

This was not a particular prejudice against Yugao—two of them were close friends when the masks were off, but she was fairly certain one of them didn't leave his room when off-mission if he could help it, the other was one half of an exhausting couple who never seemed to grow out of the puppy love phase despite the eight years they'd been married, and their captain was a weirdo who had wifed his biggest rival—the only other successful inductee from his testing group, because at the last minute they'd allied and taken out all the other examinees during the survival portion—and they spent their free time together volunteering to "train" jounin hopefuls in the Forest of Death.

They spent their free time apart devising increasingly intricate traps around their house, to better test the reflexes of their spouse.

Yugao had traumatic memories of the welcome parties that had been thrown in that house. Survival exercises could in fact make a team grow closer, but she really, really hoped that in their daily lives none of the drinks were poisoned.

She was friendly with a few of the other female operatives, though it might be a stretch to call them real friends—and that was on her, not them, Yugao being the kind who only had the energy to maintain one deep relationship at a time, which had usually been her lover, and being satisfied so long as there existed people who she could do casual social activities with on the rare occasion she wanted company. So she was not soul-baring close to any of the other female ANBU squad members, but they were the resource that she had.

Between the missions, the anxiety, and the loneliness, what she wanted was simple—a warm, solid embrace, and a trusted voice telling her that everything would be alright. To tell her that she had worked hard. That she had done well. To feel close to another person.

Asking for and receiving it was a lot more fraught.

Because she was an adult, an ANBU operative, and someone with a great deal of pride.

So, because she'd ended up asking about dealing with the nerves of being assigned her own team during a girls-only training session—the ANBU equivalent of a girl's night, where the focus was on misdirection and nasty tricks and the ability to carry on a whole conversation while avoiding blows that in full combat were meant to disable joints—she'd been given advice to 'take the edge off'.

It had involved sex, on the assumption that the therapeutic violence wasn't working.

Between the five other girls—it had been an unusually large gathering—men were discussed and discarded in the same tone that they might decide on a restaurant. And on many of the same terms as one might consider a place to eat—service, cleanliness, and appearance. Three of them contributed the most to the discussion, the others chiming in with the opinion of outsiders who were familiar with the men in question, and Yugao merely tried not to wilt in embarrassment.

"Hatake's the best fit for her," Morishige-san said decisively as she milked the venom glands under her nails—not everyone suited their designation, but Spider had been aptly assigned to her—as part of her post-fight ritual. "Uzuki, as far as I know, hasn't ever had a bed partner that she wasn't dating. Hatake's the least emotionally intimate sex you'll ever have. It's the kind of thing you're looking for when you don't want to do for yourself, but you're also afraid of making it into something it isn't. He's not going to let you make that kind of mistake, because not only is he not going to kiss you on the mouth, he's not going to kiss you anywhere—he'd going to wear one of his sleeveless shirts with the attached mask the whole damned time, because apparently, 'A man has to have some secrets.' Luckily he's good with his fingers, so…."

Iha-san—designation Shrike, whose earth jutsu mimicked the way the bird she was named after hunted, and who looked equally innocuous, small and fine-boned—nodded. "Usually when we say a man doesn't do oral, it just means he thinks he's too good to go down for you, but for Hatake being masked isn't negotiable. Honestly, he's not up for any extremes, if that's your thing, but he's easy-going and easy to approach for it, though you won't always get a yes."

"But he's going to give you such a bizarre excuse for turning you down that you're not even going to be able to be offended. I once was told he couldn't tonight because he was babysitting a goldfish," Kojima-san added wryly.

"Watering a cactus," Iha-san agreed.

"The newspaper said that the color purple was unlucky for Scorpios," Morishige-san offered. "My sheets are purple, but he's a Virgo."

"…what part of this is supposed to be talking me into sleeping with him?" Yugao asked.

"We're just giving you accurate expectations for the experience," Kojima-san replied as she pulled her hair-tie from her thick fall of semi-curly red hair, grimacing as she carded her hands through sweat-soaked knots. Designated Hornet, she was tall, muscular for a woman, and used specialized senbon that slipped into equally specialized gloves to become a kind of tekko-kagi that left envenomed senbon in her unfortunate opponent's flesh. "But damn I hate my hair texture when the humidity is like this," she muttered. "I knew I should have braided it. But anyway, we all know what you're like, Wolf. Or, rather, not like. Big on the pair-bonding, not so much on the casual stress relief. So it sort of feels like we're loaning you something and we want to point out its flaws."

"If you're feeling too conflicted about it, just go out and buy yourself a box of baked goods instead and eat the whole thing. That's my method when I can't be bothered with boys," Iha-san advised.

Yugao went home to her apartment deeply conflicted, both over whether she ought to take the advice and whether she should have asked to begin with, knowing that she had opened herself up to scrutiny and teasing that had heretofore been off-limits.

The only redeeming factor was that the kunoichi would keep it between themselves—there was none of the goading and frank oversharing where men could hear.

Yugao sighed, unbuckling her katana and placing them with due respect on the rack above her pillow. She ran a hand gently along the lower one, bare fingertips just making contact with the cool surface—Hayate's sword. It would always be his, no matter how long it had accompanied her or how much more blood it had shed at her side rather than his.

Yugao had only been with two men in her life and she would have been willing to marry either of them if it wouldn't have drastically lowered her chances of being accepted into ANBU.

The first had been the one who had made her believe that ANBU was a possibility despite all the obstacles before her—it had been a path he had been eager to walk together, and even now, when he had been in the grave for half again as long as they'd been together she could still remember the shape of his smile, the look of the light across his tanned skin, the way he had tilted his head back to enjoy the breeze as it ruffled his chestnut hair. He had told her that it was alright to be vicious—that if he took joy in plunging his tekko-kagi deep into an enemy chest, she also looked beautiful wearing the blood of the enemies laying at her feet. He had liked her aggressive in bed as well—liked to be bitten, had liked her nails in his back, had been the one who talked her into the deep, powerful red shades that he liked to see smeared across his skin.

Hayate had been nothing like him at all. Had been dying when their paths crossed, when she was still grimly determined to make the cut despite now walking alone. He had taught her gentleness. Restraint. Honed what had been forged in the fire until it was a shining blade fit for service. Helped her make herself into something that didn't compare too poorly to the raw genius and deliberately engineered power that had been Team Ro—and of that team, only two of them were left, and one would never be able to leave.

Yugao sat on her bed and buried her face in her hands as she grimaced, imagining how badly this could all go, but she was so very tired. Just for a moment, she wanted to put all that anxiety down, to ride high on the sensation of her body, and then…then probably be able to tell herself that whatever mistakes she made with her team, they couldn't possibly compare to the mess this would probably shape up to be.

Luckily she didn't even have so much as a plant in her apartment to judge her choices.

"I should just look into taking up a hobby," she muttered. But a hobby was an investment in time, which was limited, and energy, which she lacked, and she hadn't had the heart to replace any of the things she'd lost when her home burned, because the things that had been really important could never be replaced.

That sword was the last proof she had of Hayate's existence in her life. And of the one who had gone before…nothing more than a blackened tin of photos and a blood-stained insignia that now also reeked like smoke.

If you grind the edge until it is too sharp, the sword will shatter. And so will you, Yugao.

If there had been one thing she hated about Hayate, it had been the moments when he offered advice from a place where he had made peace with having gone so far and knowing he could go no further, and she had been made to feel like a hungry wolf stalking through the tall grass.

But if she did not hunt, then she would starve.

In famine, no one fed daughters.

Though the implication that she was perhaps also starved for affection as well as acknowledgement was enough to annoy her into deciding that just this once, she would enjoy what a man could offer without any substance or certainty behind it.

If she was very lucky, Hatake Kakashi would have a goose to escort across the road or something.

He didn't.

Hours later, in the harsh shadows of a moon she'd been watching in glimpses as she tried to untangle her feelings from the sensations of the first sex she'd had in many years—to get outside her head and live in her body—and it worked until it didn't. To Hatake's credit, he was almost as good in bed as he was in battle, responding readily to nonverbal cues, and as promised he was largely content to follow where she led, though he gently redirected things he disliked—had pulled her hands from beneath his shirt when she dug her nails more deeply than she realized. "If you trim your talons, we can try that some other time," had been his murmured comment.

And it did work. Until it didn't.

After, as her sweat cooled and she was confronted by the fact that now she had to somehow send him on his way and look him in the face in the light of day, Yugao realized she really should have just bought a pudding cup and a smut novel and wedged herself behind cover on her narrow balcony and called it a day.

She could feel Hatake watching as she got dressed. She glanced over her shoulder at him and offered him a wry, self-depreciating smile. "Sorry about this. I…should have really just asked to borrow your ninken instead. It turns out that I'm not cut out for this kind of commodity exchange after all. Asking for sex just seemed less embarrassing than asking for a hug. Anyway, there's a good takeout place just down the street that delivers. The menu's over on the counter and there's ryo in the cookie jar. I'm going to go out for a bit."

And with that, she slid open the door the led to the balcony and threw herself over the edge.

[Kill Your Heroes]

Noodles eaten before they could go soft and broth enjoyed while it was still warm, Naruto was now apparently ready to broach a serious subject with her. Or so she surmised from the way he was sitting, elbows on the table, mouth hidden behind his clasped hands, brows drown together. "Sakura…what sort of advice would you have for teaching girls?"

"…advice for teaching girls?" she repeated slowly.

He hummed an affirmation. "They say you don't usually have to worry about girls when it comes to things like classroom discipline, but they lag behind when it comes to practical exercises, especially when it comes to sparring. So I'm asking all the girls who were part of the Rookie Eleven with us for advice when it comes to getting girls engaged in sparring. Since you're girls and I'm the kid who was screaming 'Fight me!' at the top of my lungs and then getting my butt handed to me by the kids who actually paid attention in the exercises."

"You've become oddly self-aware in your old age," Sakura commented as she took a sip of tea and gathered her thoughts.

"Well, when they're trying to teach you the basic training exercises to teach the kids and you realize you don't remember any of them except for a little bit of the physical conditioning stuff, it doesn't take a lot of self-awareness to think that maaaaybe I was part of my own problem. Just a tiny bit."

"Fractional," Sakura agreed with mock somberness. "But as far as advice for teachings girls goes—there is one psychological trick that I wish Kakashi-senpai would have used on me. And I'm sort of surprised he didn't, because it seems exactly like something he would do."

"And what's that?" Naruto asked, his stance relaxing so that he had his jaw resting on his cupped hand.

Sakura leaned closer to him and maintained steady eye contact. "Convince your girls that being a really good shinobi, the kind of good that wins fights, will make them popular with the boy they like. It'll even make your boys better students, because it will make them angry losing to girls. Let the girls take advantage of their only time in their lives for most of them when the height difference is in their favor and by the time it isn't, you've already taught them the skills and confidence they need to make certain that fights never boil down to raw strength against raw strength."

"…that doesn't sound like being popular with boys…?"

"Girls are good at long-term strategy. Explain to them that boys and girls mature at different rates and even if he doesn't want to date you today, when he gets around to being interested in girls, his eyes will already be on you if you're the strongest or fastest or most cunning girl in class."

"And this will really make them more willing to focus on sparring?"

Sakura nodded her head. "If," she emphasized, "you can make them believe it. Which is going to be a challenge, because a lot of people around them will be telling them otherwise. Girls are basically preconditioned to expect at least a little suffering in making themselves look good to others. We learn to regulate our diets while you guys are still taking advantage of your stupid metabolisms to eat trash. Same for our grooming habits. So it's not really that much of a stretch that they'd be willing to hurt a little to look good on a sparring field as well. As long as you dispel that stupid idea that working out a lot makes you look mannish. Most girls can't even build that kind of muscle mass even if they wanted to," Sakura muttered.

"And if they're not convinced, tell them to take a look at elite kunoichi. Maybe they have less of a bust than they otherwise might have, but you can dress around that. You can't dress around that—whatever Tsunade-sama had going on," Sakura gestured vaguely with her hands.

"Ah. And you can tell them it's also alright to be a shinobi and not like sparring, though they should still make an effort at it. That they don't have to quit if that's not right the same draw for them it is for the boys. That they can still serve Konohagakure with the skills and interests they have. Planning a big party is just logistics and supply painted pink. If they're into gossip and social engineering, that's all diplomacy really is."

"You've thought a lot about this," Naruto said, looking somewhat wary—though to be fair, Sakura had started talking with her hands as she got into her subject.

"It's only something that has impacted my entire life from about five onward."

"Fair," Naruto conceded. "Speaking of life impacts, would you take a look at something for me?"

Sakura quirked a brow and motioned for him to continue. Fishing inside his pocket, he produced a neatly folded origami box, and he tugged it delicately apart to reveal a ring braided from white clover. He sheepishly scraped his hand through the back of his hair—apparently forgetting that he'd had it tied back and then having to fix it, a blush creeping up his neck and the tips of his ears. "I know it's not…well, it's better than when I started learning how to do it," he muttered. "Some of the girls I'm student-teaching at the Academy showed me how. And I thought…what kind of gift did Itachi get you when he proposed?"

"Himself," Sakura quipped, picking up the ring—and really, it was very neatly done, no matter what Naruto said about it. It was also terribly sweet, which wasn't a gesture she would have associated with the loud, brash youth of her childhood.

Naruto groaned at her joke. "The weather is supposed to be really nice next week. So I thought we'd go out on a picnic and I'd weave her a flower crown and then a ring and then ask."

"To be perfectly frank, I'm fairly certain Hinata would say yes even if you spelled it out in ramen noodles, but this is a much better idea."

A/N: I know that Yugao's mask is not a wolf in canon, but it is a deliberate choice on my part. I don't feel particularly guilty about this, because the animal theme of the ANBU masks isn't really explored very much in the parts of the anime that I watched and several don't particularly look like animals at all.