A/N: There were times when I hated this story and despaired of canon, but it was thanks to all of you that I made it through. While I never owned the characters or created the world, I enjoyed the experience as much as any real author might. The pleasure of knowing you've created something of this scale and people have actually read it is something that I really treasured. I considered doing a ten-years later kind of epilogue to follow this, but this is the real end.
Five Kingdoms for the Dead
Tsunade was awake and recovering with alacrity. Obito was dead, his plans thwarted, the Akatsuki all dead or scattered, their potential threat nullified with the aid and cooperation of the major shinobi nations. Konoha was righting itself again, ever so slowly, though it would be irrevocably changed by its near brush with another war.
Sakura carefully folded her robes of office, laying her hat on top of them atop the desk that had been hers but briefly, in the office she had spent more time in as a jounin than she had as Hokage. They would later be ceremonially burned. This afternoon she was scheduled to give a speech abdicating her position and reappointing Tsunade. Sakura had served the shortest term of any Hokage, but she had averted a major war, briefly united the Shinobi Nations, and earned her place in the history texts as well as the bingo books. She would be out of office even before her face could be engraved on the mountain, but the vote had gone in her favor and there it would be placed, beside Tsunade's.
Tsunade, more informal than her predecessors, had actually had chairs brought in for her guests. Naruto had shoved them together and was using them as a cot, one arm flung over his face, humming along to some tune only he could hear.
He sat up so suddenly she was surprised he didn't topple off the chairs. "So, once you make baa-chan Hokage again, Team Seven will be able to go on missions together again, right? Because Sasuke-teme looked totally sour about it, but he said he would do it."
Sakura paused, her hands suspended above the robes. "Sasuke said that?"
"Well, actually the bastard said something like working with me again was going to be enough of a punishment the council shouldn't bother doing anything else, but you know that's Sasuke's way of being warm and fuzzy."
"Well, that's...reassuring," Sakura said dryly. "I thought for a moment we might have to ask Tsunade-shishou to evaluate him."
Naruto laughed. "So, yeah?" he prompted.
Sakura sighed and for the last time sat in the Hokage's chair, the great wooden desk that was perpetually half-buried with files a barrier between them. "Naruto," she said softly. "There's something I need to tell you."
"If this is about me being a gennin, that'll last for about twelve seconds once baa-chan gets back," Naruto boasted. "Or, hey, y'know, before you resign you could give me a field promotion."
Sakura rolled her eyes. "That happens in the field, hence the name, baka. We aren't in a state of war anymore, so I'd have to answer to the council for promoting you out of hand."
Sky blue eyes narrowed and he studied her. "What you want to tell me-I'm not going to like it, am I?"
Sakura smiled painfully at him. "This was my last mission, Naruto." She tapped the desk, the wood solid and comforting underneath her fingers. "After today, I won't only resign as Hokage. I'll no longer be an active ninja."
He was at the desk before she could even blink, hands slamming down explosively, papers fluttering around them like frantically beating wings. "Sakura-!" he protested in a strangled voice.
"I'm not-I can't-," Sakura swallowed awkwardly, then composed herself, feeling the sour taste of treachery threaten to close her throat. "Naruto, I was never meant for this." She indicated the office with a gesture. "Being in this office, being Hokage, it wasn't something I dreamed of. Because it was a dream outside my reach, outside my capacity. And they say that people are happiest when they have dreams they can grasp. Mine was altogether smaller." A nervous little laugh. "Of course, I never really thought I'd end up in ANBU either. That smaller dream...I can't even remember what is was anymore."
She couldn't voice aloud the content of that dream, the one in which she had the power to protect everything precious to her. Because it wasn't small at all.
Naruto frowned ferociously at her. "You're an idiot sometimes too, Sakura, if you believe that. Or maybe you're still treating me like an idiot. I'm not blind and I'm not deaf. What's the real reason you're resigning? It's not just 'cause you don't want to be Hokage. And it's not about ANBU either. Kakashi was ANBU too, y'know, but he's sticking with us."
Sakura's hands tightened into fists. "Tsunade-shishou explained the risk of permanent nerve damage when you modified your Rasengan, didn't she?"
"That's an unintentional side effect. My poisons-some of them are designed to cause nerve damage," she said evenly. "My first encounter with Obito-," her throat closed off and it took her a moment to be able to speak again. "In the final battle against him, my heart stopped, Naruto. The muscle is permanently damaged, weakened. I have permanent nerve damage to my hands and feet from our first battle. I can't feel pressure, heat, or cold as acutely as I ought to." Anger built in her words, frustration at not being allowed to bow out with a polite excuse.
"Are you happy now, Naruto?" she snarled, coming to her feet and stalking around the desk. "I crippled myself as a ninja, because I wasn't good enough to face an opponent on equal terms. And I won't become an object of pity ever again. So I will retire in a blaze of glory and become head of the Haruno clan and let people gossip about what if without ever revealing to them what my victories cost me."
Slamming the door quietly behind her as she left Naruto in the office, she took a deep breath, calm replacing anger. She'd come to terms with her path before she'd attended the Summit. It had been for Naruto's benefit, that fiery display, but she still felt lighter, a little of her bitterness voiced. Because Naruto wasn't the only one who had wished for Team Seven to become the reality it had never really achieved in the past. "A clean break," she whispered. "I'm sorry."
Having exiled herself from her own office, she made her way to Tsunade's hospital room, where the tetchy woman had set up a temporary base camp, reviewing all the reports of what had transpired while she was unconscious. A harried looking Shizune passed her in the hall, sparing her a tight smile before hurrying onward.
Tsunade glared at her as she opened the door, but when she recognized Sakura, she tempered the look. "Ah, Hokage-sama," she drawled.
Sakura rolled her eyes. "Hello to you too, shishou."
"I'd say sorry, but it was somehow satisfying to know someone else had to deal with the headache for awhile. And from what I hear, you did a very fine job of it. So, what brings you here instead of memorizing your parting remarks?"
"I broke the news to Naruto," she told the older woman.
"The actual news or the 'I'm quitting being a ninja' version," she inquired, honeyed brow arching.
"The latter, of course. The former is privileged information between me, my Kage, and my handler."
Tsunade snorted. "So, when Naruto discovers you've taken over Jiraiya's role as a spymaster, you think he won't be angry? When you're going to use the Haruno clan trade connections to enter places Jiraiya never would have dared? Not to mention the fact you're taking the entirety of Root with you."
Sakura regarded the woman who had been mentor, guardian, and stumbling block in turns. "I know that Konoha shouldn't surrender any more military strength, but there's no place here for Root anymore. I'm clearing the way for Naruto."
Amusement lit Tsunade's eyes. "And hiding the worst of your sins at the same time. Not that I don't appreciate not having to clean up that mess myself-mass executions are so tacky, Danzo made them useless as real people, let alone as functional members of society, and it would have been foolish to simply leave them be."
Sakura did not deny the teasing accusation. "As for the other, it's not as if it's a lie. I will be the head of the Haruno clan. I will guide it, protect it, make it prosper. I can do both. I will do both. This is simply...a permanent, long-term, deep cover mission."
A wry twist moved Tsunade's lips. "I'm glad you think so now, but reality might disillusion you. You've never divided your loyalties before, so it will be hard on you, Sakura. But I think you'll do well, at both of them."
"Thank you, Tsunade-shishou," Sakura whispered, grateful for the words.
"So," Tsunade pressed and she leaned forward, "Sai, of course, will accompany you when you leave for your clan compound-I understand that your parents will remain here?"
"Yes. My mother wanted to live away from the clan and we have several warehouses here. My father travels regularly. I'll be apprenticing under my grandfather."
Tsunade hummed thoughtfully. "I've heard he's a difficult man, but good at what he does. Business will be a new direction for you, but you've always learned quickly. I think you'll have an advantage with your kunoichi training."
"Itachi was in to see me," Tsunade mentioned casually.
"Oh?" Sakura was surprised, as she'd thought Itachi had always kept a polite distance from the older woman, as if he was aware of the political headache he represented, or perhaps he was simply wary of Kage, given his past experiences and knowing that while Tsunade was sympathetic to his situation, it wouldn't stop her from utilizing him every bit as ruthlessly as any of her predecessors.
"Here, sit," Tsunade invited, indicating the chair at her bedside. Hesitantly, Sakura approached and obeyed the directive. "Hyuga Neji will likely remain in ANBU. So Hiashi indicated when he came to visit me earlier. But Itachi has requested that he be released from his obligation to this village."
Only Tsunade's hand on her arm prevented her from rising from her chair. "What do you mean?" she demanded.
"Sit," Tsunade instructed. With marked reluctance, Sakura complied. "Don't be surprised if he comes to you and asks to accompany you. Perhaps even to be adopted into your family."
"But why?" Sakura asked plaintively. "Sasuke is safe. He's even in Konoha."
"Yes, he is. And, to an extent, the breach between brothers has healed. But the kind of betrayal Itachi committed, no matter the reason, isn't something so easily forgotten, even if Sasuke learns to forgive. He will never fully trust his elder brother again, just as he will likely never trust a Hokage who is not Naruto. Itachi said that Sasuke wanted to restore the clan, start a family."
Sakura nodded slowly. "Yes, but why-? He doesn't really think Itachi would murder his children, does he?" she asked incredulously.
"We are not always entirely rational when it comes to those we love," Tsunade told her, "and Itachi's actions tormented him in nightmares for years. Sasuke isn't afraid of his brother, but he is reasonably wary of what he is capable of. No matter how hard he pushes himself or how hard he trains, he will never advance beyond Itachi. And that, to Sasuke, is unacceptable."
"But that's not Itachi's fault."
"No. He was simply born with a gift and had the fortune to be part of a clan who honed and perfected that inborn talent. But whatever you might think, he was also the one who accepted the mission to massacre his family. You look at it from an outsider's perspective, assessing risk and reward, but imagine it from Sasuke's point of view."
Sakura took into account Sasuke's obsessive personality, his deep-rooted childhood trauma, even the gaping emptiness that living within the Uchiha compound would bring to the surface. And yet she could not forget Itachi's warmth, his kindness, or his absolute dedication. "I still don't understand," she murmured.
"Well, you've never resonated particularly well with Sasuke," Tsunade replied prosaically. "Even if you cannot fully understand it, respect that it is his point of voice."
"His own point of view or his point of view filtered through the lens of Itachi's own guilt?"
"In this case, that doesn't matter. Whether or not Sasuke actually believes this isn't something I'm in a position to know. The little brat certainly hasn't visited, even to apologize for the trouble that he caused. What matters is what Itachi wants to do. He first lived his life under the thumb of his family, then under the orders of his superiors."
"But for a shinobi, that isn't unusual," Sakura pointed out. "It's not even particularly unusual outside our profession either."
"No. But I believe that people should be free to take their own future into their hands, if they so choose. I left this village for a very long time," she continued, her eyes focusing on a distant point. "They said they didn't send a team after me because I was worthless as a ninja because of my paralyzing fear of blood, but really that should have made me even more vulnerable to capture. And I was valuable, not only for my knowledge, but for my lineage. In all fairness, my team leaving the village ought to have been considered an act of treason. Do you know why it wasn't?"
"In consideration of your past services?" she hazarded. "Because fear of blood or not, you're entirely capable of beating someone to a pulp?"
"That too," Tsunade said dryly, "but more because Kage are also first of all human. That's the most vital element to successfully managing a hidden village, where every aspect of human nature is pushed to extremes by training and missions. It's considered politically acceptable to use a tool until it breaks. So long as your personal morals don't get in the way," she qualified with a wry expression. "Unfortunately, it seems I've gone a little soft in my old age. I'm willing to hand Itachi over to you, even though the elders will kick up a fuss."
Sakura raised a pink brow. "If Itachi really wants to retire, why not hand him over to himself? After all, I'm resigning from active duty and I already hold the physical well-being of one Uchiha in my hands. I'd become a liability if I took custody of another. And," she told Tsunade earnestly, "I really don't think I could survive the irony of taking guardianship of Uchiha Itachi, who might be able to kill me in his sleep. Also, on a technicality, I'm not even of age yet."
Tsunade snorted. "We send you on assassinations when you've barely hit puberty. If I declare you an adult, then you are."
"That aside, if you really want to free Itachi, then shouldn't you do it without conditions?"
"I am doing it without conditions," Tsunade told her. "These are Itachi's."
Sakura was dumbfounded. To be offered exit from the village without conditions was something almost unheard of. She had mentioned it more to make a point than with any conviction that it was even a possibility.
"He isn't asking for exile, Sakura. He's looking for a new home," Tsunade told her softly. "You gave him this one back, so perhaps thinks with you is a best place to find a new one."
"He's not a puppy," Sakura protested mulishly.
"Well, he did say he was worried about some terrible habits of yours. He didn't want you to work yourself to death before you turned thirty."
Sakura frowned at that. "So says the man who persisted with a terminal illness."
Tsunade smiled at her and clasped her hand, lacing her fingers between Sakura's. "Just remember there is no such thing as a clean break, Sakura. While you managed to resolve your own situation, remember that the ties that bind you to others tug at them when you move." She tugged at their conjoined hands to demonstrate. "Neji, Sai, Itachi-no matter how short a time you commanded them, you became a family. And you don't abandon family."
Itachi looked up from his place on the veranda of his childhood home as he saw Sakura enter the empty district the Uchiha had been relegated to. When he'd spoken earlier to Tsunade, he'd suggested reintegrating it into Konoha proper, but she'd replied that the opening of the district would be up to Sasuke's discretion, as he would be head of the Uchiha clan.
Sakura looked troubled, which likely meant she had either broken the news to her teammates of her intentions or she had spoken to Tsunade and been informed of his.
When she would have spoken, he held up a hand to forestall her. "Whatever you have to say, we might as well speak in comfort." He took a subtle and calming breath as he ducked inside the shadowed house to retrieve extra cushions and the tea things. "It's not imported or expensive, but my mother liked this brand best. She only served it when we didn't have guests. I suppose she thought it was beneath the matriarch of the Uchiha clan," he confided conversationally. "My mother was kinder than my father, but they were an excellent couple. Their priorities and their goals were so similar as to be inseparable. And my father loved her very deeply."
Brows drawing together, she sat with her legs to one side, informally, and he relaxed. Even if she was perturbed, she wasn't angry. "It's unusual for you to talk about your family," she said as she watched him add the tea leaves.
While they steeped, he replied, "It feels disrespectful, somehow. As if I have no right to speak about them. Sasuke certainly thinks so."
"Did he say something?"
"He didn't need to. He is my little brother, after all."
She shifted on her cushion and her gaze grew more direct. "Itachi-," she hesitated, then admitted, "I visited Tsunade today."
"And she told you that I wanted to accompany you?"
"Why go so far as to even mention adoption?" Sakura asked bluntly.
"Is it so difficult to imagine wanting to leave these eyes of misery behind?" Itachi asked her with equal directness.
"They're a source of considerable power," Sakura replied cagily as she accepted a cup from him.
"But power alone cannot bring happiness," Itachi retorted. "It certainly never brought happiness to the Uchiha. I returned for Sasuke and his happiness, but now that he's returned, I only stand in the way of that."
He watched as she grew affronted on his behalf, the thoughts almost visible as she tried to wrestle with the idea of giving way, something he suspected she thought of as a tactical move to advance, not something she practiced outside of battle. Sakura had a single-minded determination to make things go her own way that broke down all obstacles in her path, but he could see it was breaking her down too, the tiredness that couldn't be banished by physical rest alone lurking in her eyes.
"Sakura," he said and the name without suffixes was enough to draw her attention. "Your battle with Obito-it was fought primarily on a plane none of us could see. He was not Madara, but he was powerful. You haven't spoken to anyone about it, which leads me to believe your mental injuries were...extensive," he said carefully, watching the expression on her face. "To the point where they caused your heart to stop."
She tried to smile, but it was at odds with her body language, her shoulders coming forward as she hunched into herself ever so slightly. "It's foolishness, isn't it? Orochimaru, Madara-," she hesitated, then said, "and the others, they were all evidence that something was wrong. It's like," and she struggled visibly to find a metaphor, "you go in to the doctor's for a regular exam and they discover tumors in your brain, operate immediately, and save your life because they manage to remove them entirely without any damage to surrounding tissue. You're not supposed to miss the disease," she whispered brokenly.
"And they weren't good men, Itachi," she admitted. "But they were excellent shinobi. They never faltered, not even once, not even against Obito. And I miss them, dammit." Tears began leaking from the corners of her eyes and she wiped them away angrily. "They're gone. All of them."
Startled and a bit worried, as he had never seen Sakura cry when not fevered and near hallucinating, Itachi hesitantly crossed to her side, waiting for his captain to impatiently shoo him back to his cushion, frustrated and embarrassed by her show of emotion. But it appeared to be worse than he thought, for Sakura allowed him to settle next to her, her lips twisted into a firm line of barely suppressed grief. "I lived with them," she told Itachi. "I dreamed of them. For over three years, I have never been alone. Everything I was able to accomplish, every mission beyond what was expected of me, every necessary ruthless step, they showed me the way. Almost everything I am as a shinobi, I owe to them."
Itachi frowned at her, then, carefully, caught her chin between his thumb and forefinger, gently forcing her to meet his eyes. "That," he said, "is a lie."
Her brows rose, unconvinced of his argument.
"You built yourself, Sakura. Perhaps more than anyone else I know. My clan shaped me, as Neji's clan did, as Danzo broke Sai down and rebuilt him. But you-you created yourself. Orochimaru, Madara-they were a part of you. They both were and were not Haruno Sakura, but they were born from your mind, sustained by your body. Obito, did he...?"
"He killed them, except for Madara and Danzo, but they perished as well, when everything disintegrated," she murmured, so low that he almost had to read her lips. A single teardrop finally gained enough weight to escape her eye, trickling down her cheek. "They aren't there anymore, Itachi. I can't even return to where they were anymore. No one's kingdom still stands. Death-that's the cost of the contract with Byakko-sama. That's why that tiger scroll was locked in a vault and forgotten."
He silently requested an explanation and it was a measure of how experienced Sakura was in interpreting nonverbal cues that she complied even through her tears. "I didn't tell you everything," she confessed. "Just admitted what Sasuke had already discovered."
Itachi searched the premises with his chakra and found no one close enough to overhear. Sasuke was attending a hearing regarding the fate of the rest of his team, who had finally been interrogated thoroughly enough to satisfy the elders. He wouldn't be back until very late and there was no one else who would call on Itachi. Not here, at least, without the neutral ground that an office supplied, the imaginary barrier of a desk between himself and his guest. Not here, where he'd already spilled so much blood.
"Sakura," he said quietly. He was prepared to extend the silence, wait for her to make her decision to trust him or struggle onward, but again he was surprised.
"It started when I first met you," she said, pulling away from his grasp, retreating both physically and mentally. Her eyes fixed themselves on the house across the street, long empty, the colorful lanterns taken down. "Or, rather, when I first met your Sharingan."
She frowned. "When I first graduated from the Academy, I was slotted as a genjutsu type. However," her lips turned down more deeply, "I never received any training in genjutsu beyond a simple release technique. But when I destroyed your technique, I turned it inward, mutating it, I suppose. That's when Orochimaru was born. There were others. Ones Sasuke never met. And each of them dwelt within a different landscape. They represented an enormous advantage to me in terms of being able to access subconscious memories and impressions. And they were advisors, mentors. But they were also a significant threat. You're fairly familiar with disassociative personality disorder? Mine was peculiar, perhaps because of the genjutsu incident that sparked it. But not that unusual. There was always the possibility that I could become the latent personality, that they could walk around in my body, doing as they pleased. And that," she whispered, "was frightening. I always had to be strong. Always. Because I refused to be subsumed. But now that I don't have to be so strong, I'm afraid of crumbling."
"Because a hero without a villain is no hero at all," Itachi replied.
Itachi hummed thoughtfully. "What you experienced was a loss. And though they did not exist by conventional standards, to you they were still important people. If you need to grieve them, do so," he ordered. "There's no one here to see you, Sakura."
"Only you, Itachi," she replied.
He smiled faintly back at her. "I'm here to catch you in case you fall," he told her.
She peered at him and for a moment he felt the old fear, because it still seemed as if she could see too much. "No," she said at last, wiping away the remnants of her tears.
Itachi found himself slightly dumbfounded, because she had given every indication, only moments ago, of being a single step from transitioning to earnest tears. "Why?" he asked.
"Because you would never allow me to catch you," she answered. "This is where your relationship with Sasuke failed, Itachi. You're a stranger to reciprocity. I won't show you my tears until you're prepared to cry on my shoulder."
"Cry? Well, perhaps not externally. But you certainly feel sadness. And you never share it, do you?"
Itachi smiled more genuinely at her. "You returned me to Konoha. You did it in a way that kept my personal honor and the dignity of my clan intact. And you gave me back my brother. There have been far fewer things to be sorry about after meeting you Sakura, than have been in my life for many years.
"If you're happy, why do you want to leave?" Sakura asked, bringing the conversation again to the point that had brought her to the district, not even her own emotional distress enough to distract her from her goal.
"Because it's not a selfish kind of happiness. Besides, isn't it a little rude of you to dismiss me when I try to pay back your kindness?" he chided.
A pink brow soared. "By dedicating your immediate future to me?"
"By entering enemy territory by my captain's side," he retorted. "Neji cannot follow you. And this is a battlefield Sai is unsuited for. You intend to pretend that the Haruno are welcoming you with open arms, but you spent most of your youth preparing to be a career kunoichi rather than assuming the mantle and responsibilities of the heir. It had even gone so far as your parents considering adoption to hand off the headship within the family. But you then decide to assume that position, which puts all the other candidates and their parents in an unenviable position. Though they have been groomed since they were very small to take over control of the Haruno clan, it will be a relative stranger who on strength of kinship alone acquires what they had to maneuver and fight so hard to draw close to. They will not welcome you, Sakura."
By the expression in her shadowed green eyes, he was telling her nothing she had not already taken into consideration and dismissed. "I will be taking the remainder of Root with me," she told him, tone just slightly defensive.
"Because entering into a situation fraught with such tension with the equivalent of your own personal army will no doubt diffuse the situation," Itachi remarked sardonically. "Or perhaps you think that ten ANBU-class operatives will put your relatives at ease."
"No. But it will stop them from striking carelessly."
"You don't feel any guilt at commanding Sai to follow you. And you would barely protest if the Hyuuga decided to do the same. Do you feel that I am somehow less than them? Less free to make my choices?" He gazed narrowly at her. "I can see that you do. You think sacrifice has become a habit I cannot break. But I have no desire to fall in line with the elders' plans for an Uchiha revival. And I have no ties beyond this village anymore. So use me, Sakura, as I use you to escape. I was trained to assume control of a clan and your civilian family cannot compare to the infighting among the Uchiha."
She stared at him hard for a long moment and he thought she would refuse, but then her expression cleared. "What a bold declaration," she said dryly, "when you haven't met them yet."
Relief permeated his body. "Thank you, Sakura."
"Thank after you've endured Grandfather's criticisms for a decade," she retorted.
He smiled at her, then allowed his expression to turn gently teasing as he closed the distance between them. "But I'm grateful now," he murmured, pressing his lips briefly against hers. She looked as if she would have been less surprised had he stabbed her with a kunai as he drew back. "And I'll always be grateful, Sakura. Just as, after this, I'll always be by your side."
Sakura's path crossed with Sasuke's as she walked the streets of Konoha, idling away hours as her feet led her through tiny alleys and down crowded roads lined with shops. It was a near deserted residential area, so she knew that it was no coincidence. Sasuke wanted to speak, but from his even expression, Sakura gathered that he did not want to be the one to speak first.
"I don't want our conversations to be nothing more than accusations," Sakura said softly. "But why are you allowing Itachi to believe you don't trust him?"
Sasuke's serious mien didn't falter. "Would you rather he stayed and was consumed by his guilt?" he asked her. "He'd never be selfish enough to leave, so I'm setting him free."
The Root archives and offices were gutted shells of their former selves, only Danzo's desk and calligraphy the last reminder of the man who'd shaped the underbelly of Konoha politics for decades. The remaining ten members of Root were ranged before that desk, where she sat for the last time, though she felt less of a stranger her than she had in the office of the Hokage.
No longer did they wear the dark hoods of Root or the uniforms of ANBU. And for the very first time, they stood before her unmasked. No longer soldiers of the village, they were now her soldiers. Her household. Her family. Her responsibility.
Sakura sighed softly, pushing away the odd dream she'd had in which Neji had confessed to her and the even more peculiar reality of Itachi's kiss. "You must be aware that the political climate of Konoha is changing. There's no need for mindless automatons. No place for living weapons. All of you have been discharged from the ranks of Konohagakure no Sato. Once, the faction of a defeated leader might have been asked to commit suicide." The ten shinobi in front of her did not react to that, except perhaps Sai, whose brow quirked.
"Instead, you'll be reconditioned," Sakura announced. "The village has crafted programs designed to desensitize in the past. At its most basic, it's present in the Academy curriculum. It is unprecedented, however, to need to resensitize shinobi, so I expect there will be times when we stumble. However, this is a mission with an open-ended time frame, so there's no need for haste. You'll have the rest of your lives to discover what it was you lost."
A handsome young shinobi with shining blue-black hair pulled up into a tail raised his hand, as if he was an Academy student, brow furrowed faintly. Sakura nodded and he spoke. "Don't we present a significant security risk?" The voice was familiar, as was the face, and it took her only a moment to recognize the ninja she knew as Nezumi, her aide.
"Well, yes. Implied in this agreement is limited freedom of movement. I have also resigned my position and will be taking up residence in the Haruno clan compound, which you know to be located outside Konoha. Consider yourself on probation."
The ninja before her mulled that over.
"What's your angle, hag?" Sai asked. "There are alternative arrangements that could have been made. It would have been easier to leave all of us to Tsunade-sama."
Sakura smiled, caught between bitterness and affection. "We stopped a war," she said softly. "And there are just over a dozen people who will ever know. The people in this room, myself, and Tsunade-shishou comprise the bulk of that number. If you and your comrades had not eliminated the dormant Zetsu army before it could properly awaken, it would have made this 'war' we experienced look like a brawl between Academy students. Your sacrifice should not be overlooked. This is not a punishment," she explained. "What I have told you is the truth. There is no place for Root in Konoha anymore." Then, leaning into the palm of her hand, she gave her subordinates a coy, Cheshire grin. "It's time for the great tree to spread its root, to feel the vibrations deep in the earth. Officially, you will become my retainers. Unofficially, we will replace the vast and much-missed intelligence network formerly managed by Jiraiya-sama."
Normally so stoic, it was actually possible to see the relief in the Root shinobi. Upon consideration, she supposed depriving them of their primary purpose-their existence as a weapon-had been asking them to commit a kind of suicide. But now, supplied with a new objective, she could not sense hesitance from any of them. "I leave three days from now," she announced. "Please be ready to depart then."
A chorus of affirmative replies met her and the majority took their leave, only Sai and the ninja she knew only as Nezumi remaining.
While in a state of approaching war, the latter fact had never bothered her, but she turned her attention to the boy and admitted, "Nezumi-kun, I can't recall your birth name."
He didn't seem bothered by her lapse in memory and shrugged, a miniscule movement. "I see nothing wrong with being addressed as Nezumi."
"Aa," Sakura borrowed an Uchiha-ism rather than wasting her energy explaining that being satisfied with being addressed by a code name that wasn't even terribly personalized was yet another of the things that would need correction in the future.
She turned her attention to Sai as Nezumi seemed content to observe her from his position, which was at least an improvement from lurking behind her shoulder. For someone so ready to produce poetry at a moment's notice in the middle of the night after delivering the news of the demise of most of his comrades, there was another of those peculiar contradictions created by Danzo's training, much like Sai's immense creative drive as compared to his cute but crippling lack of social graces.
But Nezumi claimed her attention once again when he spoke. "I would like to continue in my position as your aide, Haruno-sama."
Sakura blinked. "Yes, I don't see any problems with that."
Nezumi nodded sharply. "Thank you, Haruno-sama. Will you be staying in your office? Should I fetch tea?"
"Ah, no. I was planning on leaving soon. Thank you for the offer, Nezumi-kun."
Bowing, the shinobi took his leave and left Sakura staring after him.
"It seems imprinting is possible in humans after all," Sai said thoughtfully.
Sakura blinked, startled. "Beg your pardon?"
Sai met her gaze with an expression clear of irony. "It's a process most famously observed in birds, especially waterfowl, in that the first-."
Sakura held up a hand to forestall his explanation. "As it relates to Nezumi, Sai."
"Ah. In that case, you are exposing them to their first emotional experience and forcing them into roles outside their existence as weapons. Isn't it obvious that they will latch on to you?"
"Is that what you're doing, Sai-chan?" Sakura asked teasingly.
Sai smiled. "I'm not that desperate, hag."
Sakura mock-frowned at him. "Are you going to call me that forever?"
"Do you prefer Sakura-nyan?" he asked, deadpan.
Sakura flung her shoe at him, which he caught adroitly. "Please don't say things like that with a straight face," she grumbled. "And never in public."
He returned her formal-wear shoes to her, ninja sandals discarded to lend credence to the impression that she was leaving military life to enjoy a splendid retirement in the private sector. Slipping it back on her foot, she worried her lip and checked the copy of her speech she'd tucked inside her sleeve. The content hadn't changed, but she was still nervous, her swearing-in having been so rushed there had been no time to gather the sort of crowd her abdication would bring.
There had been some opposition, a small section flatteringly severe, to her stepping down and returning the mantle to Tsunade, with the express intention of never accepting it back. Continuing peace was something both shinobi and civilian treasured, so though they would never know of Root's sacrifice, the combined citizenry of her village was grateful to their Kage. And impressed by her, if the people were half so eager to praise her as the newspapers, who'd started making uncomfortable comparisons between her and her predecessors.
She was warmed by their affection, unnerved by their praise, but she didn't really regret leaving the office of Kage. Where the legends ended, paperwork began, and she was more than happy to leave that burden to someone more eager for the duty. She regretted that she would no longer be an official shinobi of Konohagakure, a title she'd prided herself on more than anything else for years, but it wasn't all sacrifice on her part.
Besides the obvious fiscal benefits of being an Haruno, she would now have time to travel, something Naruto had already done with Jiraiya but she'd never had the opportunity to do outside of missions. She could also contact various masters of the five styles of her taijutsu repertoire and finally advance beyond the basics of each, her flexibility rather than her total mastery having seen her through all her battles thus far. She could read things that weren't dossiers and jutsu scrolls. She could...she faltered then.
It isn't terribly convincing when you have to talk yourself into it, she thought with a tinge of despair, but then she shook off the gloom and firmed up her spine. "Sai-chan," she said, standing and tucking her speech away, "it's time for our last public appearance." She offered him her hand. "Won't you accompany me, one last time?"
Sai stared at it askance. "This is hyperbole, correct? Because I will be accompanying you several places after this, not least of all to get groceries." He reached into his pouch and produced a sheet of paper. "Your mother gave me a list. And instructed me to invite Itachi and Neji as well."
Sakura's jaw almost dropped. "I haven't even resigned properly yet and she's already making me run errands on the day of my resignation?"
"Your mother is similar to you in many ways," Sai informed her smugly.
As her large traveling party gathered at the gate, the cheers of the crowds still rung in her ears. Well-wishers had stopped her constantly this morning as she ran some last minute errands, making this parting even more difficult.
Neji eyed the group waiting on her by the gates, dressed as civilians though their aura and rigid stance marked them as shinobi. "Your grandfather might have to build a wing to house your entourage," he commented.
Sakura laughed, picturing in her mind the extensive complex that could house both the Hyuuga and the Uchiha at the height of their power with comfort. While their own compounds were limited by the space available within Konoha, which was limited due to the dense urban population, the Haruno compound had been built on extensive land they owned, then warehouses and what had eventually developed into a small town composed of employees and their families had naturally developed around the structure. So its size had been limited only by capital, which had not been in short supply.
The first time she had visited, it had been a shocking contrast to the small, modest house her family occupied in Konoha. Of course, her impression of the house had been powerfully colored by her first meeting with her grandfather, who managed to make Hiashi-sama look child-friendly.
"An entourage is important," she replied light-heartedly. "It's the civilian equivalent of coming heavily armed to a battle."
"Yes, well," he said skeptically, "perhaps if you had people in your entourage capable of functioning well in a civilian environment, let alone in trade, I might feel more confident."
"There's Itachi," Sakura pointed out, tilting her head toward the man who least looked like he'd been asked to march to an execution ground. In contrast to the tense Root members, Itachi looked more relaxed than she'd ever seen him, speaking to his brother. Sasuke was wearing a sour look, so Sakura assumed Itachi was enjoying himself.
Their eyes met by accident and his lips quirked. Sakura flushed, which Neji noticed. He frowned, but then the unhappy twist of his lips smoothed out. "Sakura?"
"You would agree that a good partnership is like a good marriage?"
Glancing at Neji, who provided a severe contrast to the others in ANBU uniform, she formed her answer cautiously, not quite certain where he was leading with his conversational gambit. She told herself sternly it had nothing to do with that peculiar dream, but she still felt the blood rushing to her cheeks. "By definition, a good marriage is a good partnership," she agreed. "Mutual respect, shared goals, interest in the well-being of your partner."
Neji nodded thoughtfully at each of her points. "And you'd agree that we've had a very good partnership for many years? After all, most of your career as an active ninja was spent in a two person squad with me, if you had a partner at all. And then you recruited me for your ANBU squad, when Tsunade-sama would have given you almost any shinobi that you asked for. I take that to mean you weren't disappointed with our partnership."
"Of course not!" Sakura protested. "That partnership meant-you showed me that I was capable of being someone's partner. Team Seven never taught me that."
Neji smiled at her. "I'm glad. Because that partnership meant a great deal to me as well. I don't know if Tsunade-sama told you yet, but I'll be your liaison. Our point of contact will be the onsen where we had our first mission. I think it would be in our best interest to keep any cover believable, so perhaps an illicit relationship with a shinobi would be suitable. The Haruno clan would certainly disapprove, especially if you regarded that shinobi as a candidate for marriage. And this charade could go on for years. So prepare to be lavished with attention, my dear Sakura," he warned her, tone gentle, warm, and somehow close. Sakura flushed as pink as her hair when his lips brushed against the scar on her face, his fingers tracing it when he pulled away.
"I never thought I would be grateful to an enemy," he confessed, "but with this, you'll always remember the days when we were the Shishin, every time you look in a mirror. And, perhaps, it will also allow you to divine how earnest your new suitors are. Without this, you'd certainly be a target too tempting for the spoiled heirs of merchant clans."
Sakura wasn't certain if one should experience anxiety from being paid too much attention, but she was certainly beginning to feel as if her heart was in danger of stopping again. Neji reached into his kunai pouch, retrieving a dagger whose sheathe and hilt were decorated with polished abalone. He pressed it into her hands. "Stay safe," he murmured, "and come back to me."
"Are you really leaving?" Naruto murmured, eyes not meeting her own.
She smiled one last time for him, infusing it with all the youthful brightness and fondness she could conjure. "I'll come back for your swearing in ceremony," she promised him. "So this isn't a forever kind of parting. This is just goodbye for a little while. This is the cost of a meteoric rise to power, so take your time, Naruto. Enjoy every precious moment."
"But you will come back?" he pressed.
"I love Konohagakure too much to stay away forever," she explained with a laugh. "And so long as the people I love are here, I won't ever be able to abandon it."
A/N: Abalone shell (naga-noshi) is the first of nine gifts exchanged in traditional Japanese engagement ceremonies. Google yui-no if you're curious.