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The Fox And The Weasel

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“Look at her,” Mikoto can’t help but coo, one hand pressed against the observation glass.  “Oh that hair and those marks.”

Mikoto stops, takes a moment to breathe and bit down on the tears she can feel welling up in her eyes.

“She’s going to be gorgeous,” Mikoto whispers it like a secret.  “Just like her parents.”

In her arms Sasuke yawns and begins to fuss, a series of small mewling sounds that always tug at her heartstrings.

“Shh,” Mikoto soothes him gently.  “I know, I know.  You’re hungry and you want to go home, don’t you my little warrior?  Mama’s cruel to keep you out and about isn’t she?”

Sasuke blinks up at her, big dark eyes hazy with sleep in his chubby face.

“We’ll go soon, I promise.  But I want you to meet someone first.” Mikoto shifts him in her hold, moving his swaddled form so that his little face can peer through the glass as well even though she knows he’s far too young to understand or care.  “See that baby there?  She’s going to be coming home with us soon.  She doesn’t have any blood family left so we’re going to be her family from now on.  The Uchiha will see that she’s raised properly, with all the love and care she deserves.  And I’ll need you and your big brother to help me do it, okay?”

Sasuke just whines, face scrunching up and fists flexing.

“Okay, okay,” Mikoto just laughs, more than a bit in love with her son’s every move even as her heart aches from all that has been lost.  For all the dreams and plans and wishes that will never be fulfilled and shared.  “We’ll come back soon.  You’d better get your rest in now while you can anyways, my darling.  Because if she’s anything like her parents none of our lives will ever be peaceful again once she’s home.”

Mikoto tucks Sasuke closer to her chest but can’t stop herself from taking just a moment longer to stare through the glass.

“You should be here,” Mikoto murmurs, the echoes of loud brash laughter sighing across her ears, the sense memory of a hand on her shoulder and the scent of fire-lilies and sea salt teasing her senses.  “Oh Kushina, you should be here to see her grow.  Just like we planned.”

“I suppose I’ll just have to make enough memories for the both of us,” Mikoto muses as she finally turns on her heel and heads towards the door.  “And then I can tell you all about them when the time comes.”

Left behind in a bassinet tucked away in the corner of the room Naruto sleeps.

~~~

No.”

The word hits Mikoto like a blow to the chest, sharp like a kunai between her ribs, burning like the backdraft from a failed fire jutsu.

What.”

It’s less of a question and more of a statement, a flat pause in the middle of a conversation that hasn’t gone anywhere close to the way it was supposed to go.

“Uzumaki Naruto will stay where she is,” Sarutobi sighs from where he’s leant back in the chair behind his desk, pipe held firmly in one hand.

“Hokage-sama,” Fugaku’s bland and even voice speaks up then before the silence can carry, “I am afraid neither my wife nor I understand.  Uzumaki Naruto was to be turned over into our care.”

“And now she will not be,” the shrug that Sarutobi gives them isn’t so much dismissive as it is tired.

But the sight of it still sends fury roaring through Mikoto’s veins.

“It was Kushina and Minato’s wish.” Mikoto bites the words out harshly, hands fisted in the front of her yukata.  “Jiraiya is nowhere to be found inside the village and whispers are already spreading.  The girl belongs with me, with us.  With the family that was secured for her in her parent’s will, with the agreements written between the last Uzumaki and the Uchiha Clan.  You have no right to interfere in Clan matters such as these.”

“And Clans have no authority over the village or what it does with its weapons.” Shimura Danzō murmurs silkily from Sarutobi’s side.  “Careful Uchiha-dono, before you step further outside your rank.”

Mikoto hisses, Sharingan flaring to life and her one hard earned and grief won tomoe beginning to spin. At her side Fugaku’s hand darts out to clamp around her wrist, his grip hard enough to bruise in a silent but desperate warning to control herself.

“Forgive my wife’s rudeness,” Fugaku’s bow is more than his normal shallow nodding.  The barest hint of uncharacteristic deference offered up so as to not appear even more rude and insubordinate than they both likely already have.  A concession from her stern husband to cover her mistakes.  “The attack and Kushina’s loss have both taken a great toll on her.”

“Grief sharpens even the sweetest of tongues,” Sarutobi’s agreement and acceptance is as shallow as a saké dish and everyone in the room knows it, but his sincerity isn’t what matters here.  Not really.

Mikoto forces herself to breathe, to calm, to press down the woman, the sister, the mother, and to push forward the kunoichi, the jounin, the Uchiha.

“Forgive me, Hokage-sama,” Mikoto’s bow is far deeper than Fugaku’s was, her neck arching down and her hair spilling forward over her shoulder.  A humbling of self and a silent plea all in one gesture.  “But please, do not ask me to abandon the duty and the gift that Kushina gave me.  She was my dearest friend and I could not bear to dishonor her memory.  Allow me to care for Naruto, to raise her alongside my own children as we had once planned to do.”

Mikoto keeps her eyes on the floor, keeps her breathing and her chakra steady and even, concentrating on the grounding feel of Fugaku’s fingers clamped around her wrist.

“I am afraid,” Sarutobi’s voice is solemn but unwavering, “that any and all requests to take over Uzumaki Naruto’s care will be denied.  No matter the circumstances or the source.”

There’s a pause, a heavy and cutting sort of silence.

“She is jinchūriki now,” Sarutobi murmurs, one part explanation and one part decree.  Sorrowful but unyielding.  “The girl’s life is no longer what it once would have been.  There will be no adoptions, no fostering, no contact.  Uzumaki Naruto is just another orphan and she will live as such.  Now, dismissed.”

And that, much to Mikoto’s ire, seems to be that.

~~~

Panting fills the air of the dojo, her knees tremble and the salty twang of blood fills Mikoto’s mouth before she spits it out.  Her body aches, her eyes burn, but she keeps her feet.

Across from her, chest heaving, yukata in tatters from a thousand tiny cuts, Fugaku does the same.

“Is it enough?” Fugaku asks, voice soft but eyes softer.

The kunai in Mikoto’s trembling hand falls to the dojo floor with a clatter.  She hits her knees seconds later and Fugaku is at her side by her next breath.

“No,” Mikoto whispers as her body falls forward, hands braced on the floor as tears abruptly flood her eyes and then spill over unchecked to dot the golden wood below her.  “It’s not enough, Fugaku.”

Fugaku’s palm is wide and warm on her back but he doesn’t try to stop her when she tips forward even further.  Instead he follows her down, kneeling beside her as her forehead presses against the floor and her arms come up to wrap around herself, her fingers biting into the fabric of the destroyed yukata that’s barely clinging to her.

“It will never be enough,” Mikoto sobs.  “Not until she’s here.  Not until she’s safe and I’m holding her.  Like I promised Kushina I would.  Fugaku, I promised.

“I know,” Fugaku murmurs, hand rubbing soothingly down the line of her spine.  “I know.”

“I’m not going to give up,” Mikoto vows, fists clenching around the fabric in her grip.  “I’m not going to stop asking, stop trying.  Kushina deserves better than that from me.  Naruto deserves better.”

“The Uchiha honor their debts,” Fugaku tells her, as close to outright agreement as he’s ever likely to come.

~~~

That night Mikoto cooks dinner, rice and cabbage for Itachi if only because the small, barely there pleased hum he gives off brings her much needed joy.

“You’ve been crying,” Itachi announces once the meal is finished and Fugaku has retreated to his study to deal with the never ending streams of paperwork generated by the police force.

Ah,” Mikoto hums, mouth ticking up in a small smile as she cuts a glance towards where he’s sitting by Sasuke’s swaddling basket, one of his little brother’s hands clamped down around his index finger.  “Don’t worry about it dear.”

Itachi just hums softly in reply, eyes trained on Sasuke with something a lot like fascination hidden in his expression before he carefully pries Sasuke’s grip loose and then stands.

He ghosts to Mikoto’s side, footsteps whisper silent as he moves to stand at her hip, head tilted back to stare up at her with those solemn eyes of his.

“You shouldn’t cry,” Itachi tells her softly.  “You’ll upset Sasuke.”

Mikoto stares down at him, her oldest son, her first born boy, and despite the heartache of the day she can’t help but smile.  Can’t help but reach out and press her thumb against his forehead, right against that furrow in his brow, and drag it teasingly down the length of his nose.

“You’re right, of course,” Mikoto agrees with him.  “I’ll try to smile more.  For Sasuke.”

Itachi nods, turns, and ghosts his way out of the room with a liquid sort of silence that makes her heart ache.

He’s still so young.  And yet, at the same time, he’s so much older than he should be at his age.  Even in the world they live in, even in this village of shinobi, even as a member of this Clan, he is more than he should be at his age.

Her solemn little man, so old before he ever had a chance to be young.

Her mother’s heart says it’s cruel, how fast he’s grown, how skilled he already is and how much promise he already shows.

But as a Konoha shinobi, as an Uchiha, she has never been prouder.

~~~

Mikoto waits two days before she returns to the Hokage Tower to petition for custody of young Naruto.

This time she goes alone, Fugaku busy at work with the police and Sasuke left with a cousin.

She waits outside his office for hours that day, waits for him to have time for her.

In the end it doesn’t matter.

He tells her no.

~~~

Mikoto returns the next day.

And then the next.

And then the next.

For two weeks straight she sits outside his office, the same words hovering on the tip of her tongue.

“Please, Hokage-sama, give me Kushina’s daughter.  Give me Uzumaki Naruto.”

And everyday for two weeks straight he denies her.

But still she goes.

~~~

“You can’t keep doing this,” Fugaku tells her quietly one cold December night.  “This isn’t what she would have wanted.”

Mikoto doesn’t answer him.  Instead she pulls the comb through her hair another ten, twenty, one hundred times.

~~~

They both know he’s right.

Kushina would have wanted her to try, would have wanted her to fight.

She wouldn’t have wanted her to neglect Sasuke in the process.

~~~

The next day Mikoto doesn’t hand Sasuke off to a cousin to spend yet another day waiting patiently outside the Hokage’s office.

Instead she slips her son into a sling, gathers his few necessities, and takes him with her.

~~~

“Please, Hokage-sama, give me Kushina’s daughter.  Give me Uzumaki Naruto.”

~~~

Another month passes.

The answer never changes.

~~~

“Enough,” Fugaku tells her sharply, one hand wrapped loosely around her bicep.  “Mikoto, enough.”

Mikoto just stares up at him, the words she’d spoken those months ago in the dojo ringing in the silent air between them.

Unspoken but still heard.

Fugaku’s face softens, his hand drops, he sighs and walks away.

Permission, agreement, resignation.

Mikoto needs none of those things from him but she’ll take them when offered.

~~~

Sasuke grows older, no longer content to stay settled against her breasts for hours and hours on end.  Her daily visits to the Tower shorten but they don’t stop, half days spent encamped outside the office instead of full days.

Time passes, Sarutobi remains firm, and even Mikoto knows that Fugaku’s words from that day now ring true.

This cannot continue.

Mikoto’s resolve has not wavered but her husband and her Clan need her.  Her children need her.  Both Sasuke who grows bigger by the day and Itachi who wanders the halls of their house like a little black eyed ghost when he’s not training or away.

Daily visits become weekly and then Sasuke learns to crawl, learns to walk, and weekly becomes monthly.

Mikoto shoulders the guilt, presses down the sorrow, and can’t stop the way she wonders how Naruto is doing now, months after Mikoto was last allowed to see her.

No one who she has spoken to in whispers or in back alleys or quiet shop corners has seen the girl.

No one but, perhaps, Hatake Kakashi who refuses to speak of Naruto to anyone and carries his grief curled around him like a living thing.

~~~

Sometimes Mikoto entertains absent thoughts of treason, of kidnapping, of breaking every vow and promise she’s ever made except those she’d bled for in sisterhood and in the birthing bed.

Sometimes she daydreams of handing Sasuke to Itachi while she wraps her arms around a little girl with sunshine hair and slips the four of them out of the village together with no one the wiser.

She always ends up curled beneath her blankets, tears in her eyes and her knuckles shoved between her teeth to muffle the noise.

The guilt is inescapable.

Because she’s almost sure that, if their positions had been reversed, if she and Fugaku had died and left their children with no Clan to support them, Kushina would have already stolen Itachi and Sasuke away to live with her and Naruto.  That the four of them would have been on some faraway beach by now, learning to fish and laugh and live with the knowledge that Minato, so desperately in love with his wife, would not be far behind.

Sometimes Mikoto wishes she was as strong as her once vibrant and vivacious friend had been.

But she’s not.  She is an Uchiha, not an Uzumaki.

Nothing but a blazing bonfire to Kushina’s once raging sea.

And so it goes.

~~~

Time passes.

Sasuke grows bigger, taller, more in awe of everything that revolves around his brother.

Itachi grows taller too but, worst of all to Mikoto’s mind, he grows quieter still.  Her phantom child, black clad and red eyed, as silent as a kunai and twice as deadly.

And now, everywhere she goes, Mikoto hears the whispers.

‘Demon.’

‘Monster.’

‘Abomination.’

‘Kill it.  Kill her.  Kill the fox.’

Rage twists its way through Mikoto’s heart, a seething sort of hatred that’s lodged itself firmly in the core of the love she’s always held for Kushina.  The love she carries still.

And yet, no matter the whispers and the sneers of ignorant villagers, Mikoto catches no glimpse of Naruto herself.

Of the child that should have been hers to raise.  Who should have lived and laughed and grown right beside Sasuke, nestled firmly at Itachi’s side, kept safe in their home.

Her daughter in all but name.

~~~

Until, of course, the very moment that she does.

~~~

It’s the flash of gold out the corner of her eye that catches Mikoto’s attention first.

She’s already turning by the time the screaming starts, voices lifted high in anger drawing attention from the rest of the market.

The basket of shopping falls from Mikoto’s suddenly limp hand, tomatoes and cabbage hitting the ground and going rolling.

She doesn’t care.  Can’t care.

Not when all of her attention is focused elsewhere.

Because there, just across the street, so close and yet so far for the first time in years, is someone Mikoto recognizes instantly despite everything.

Naruto.

And just the sight of her is enough to break Mikoto’s heart all over again.

‘Small,’ is the first thought that leaps to life in Mikoto’s mind.

She’s so small.

Naruto is tiny, so much smaller than Sasuke for all that they’re only a few months apart.  Even with the distance between them Mikoto’s eyes are sharp enough to pick up the details.

The bird-bone thin length of her limbs, her spidery fingers, the dirt smeared across her legs beneath threadbare shorts and the arms left bare by the shirt that bags on her slender shoulders.

When she turns, wild golden hair caught back in two messy pigtails, Mikoto can’t help but suck in a sharp breath at the sight of those vibrant blue eyes.

For a split second their gazes meet from across the way and something in Mikoto’s heart twists at the lack of recognition she finds there.

She takes a step forward, and then another and another, shopping forgotten on the ground behind her.

All of her is focused on the girl, on Naruto.

“Uchiha-dono,” the ANBU that appears in her path sounds almost apologetic but the angle of his body and the unforgiving snarl of his mask give nothing else away.  “It’s forbidden.”

For a long, tense moment, Mikoto stares up at the ANBU, eyes burning with the anger that is such a deep and abiding part of her bloodline, Sharingan itching to activate.

But then the moment passes, fading away like fog beneath the morning sun.

From around the ANBU’s body Mikoto can see that Naruto is already gone, having obviously fled from the screams and shouts of the market.

For a brief moment Mikoto debates on her next course of action.  She could hunt the girl down.  Could find her wherever she might have gone in the village now that she’s finally been allowed to roam outside.

But …

Mikoto is also smart enough to know that if she’s been stopped once already she could be stopped again.  There could be more precautions placed by Sarutobi’s hand to keep Naruto separated from any who might defy his decree and obviously warned against her.

No she needs to be cleverer than that.

So instead of lashing out or taking off to hunt the girl down, Mikoto just turns, gathers the bag from the stall vendor who’d been kind enough to pick up her items for her, and leaves.

Sarutobi will just have to accept her monthly visit a week or so early this time.

~~~

It’s only when the cutting board cracks beneath her knife that Mikoto realizes she needs to stop and take a moment to calm down.

Sarutobi had refused her yet again, immovable even when Mikoto had brought up how thin and dirty Naruto so obviously was.  Mikoto had offered money, had offered to buy food, to make meals, to provide anything, everything, even if she wasn’t allowed to see the girl.

And yet still Sarutobi had turned her away.

Mikoto’s hand tightens around the hilt of the kitchen knife before that rising frustration inside of her pulses and she spins it through her fingers and then drives it down deep into one half of the broken cutting board.

She’s so angry, her eyes are burning and her chest is heaving like she could spit fire without bothering to gather any chakra at all.

Kushina was her friend, her sister in all but blood, and Naruto was supposed to b-

“Mother.”

It’s only years of training and countless hours of combat that keeps Mikoto from screaming and lashing out at the unexpected sound of Itachi’s voice.

Smoothing her expression out in the moment between breaths Mikoto turns to face her son only to freeze.

Itachi, her normally calm and peaceful child, looks … wild.

His hair’s a mess, his head band is missing, and there’s fresh blood spattered across his face in a pattern that looks a great deal like arterial spray.  There’s a smudged thumb print resting just off the corner of his mouth.

It’s enough to send alarm bells ringing in Mikoto’s mind.  Itachi normally cleans himself after every mission before returning home, meticulously reluctant as ever to let Sasuke see him with blood on his skin or clothes.  Always attempting to shield his precious little brother from the realities that Itachi himself was forced to face at far too young an age.

“Itachi,” Mikoto takes a quick step forward in his direction.  “Are you alright?”

Itachi opens his mouth as if he’s going to answer her before he abruptly pauses, his head cocking to the side in an oddly animalistic way she’s never seen him do before.  For a split second one corner of his mouth twitches up revealing the sharp white of his teeth.

But then, just as quickly as it had come, it all seems to vanish, his expression and body language smoothing itself back out into his more familiar placidity.

“I’m well,” Itachi’s tone is as soft and easy as it always is.  “But I have to go out again.”

Ah,” Mikoto makes a low humming noise of admittedly displeased understanding.  “Sasuke will be disappointed he missed you.  How long will you be gone?”

“A day,” Itachi tells her even as he turns to leave the kitchen, “perhaps two.”

“I’ll prepare you a bento,” Mikoto calls after him.  “Some onigiri at least.  Much better than field rations and you can eat quickly before you leave the village.”

Itachi pauses again right at the mouth of the hallway that leads towards the bedrooms, undoubtedly planning to resupply from the essentials he keeps in his room.

“A large one?”  Itachi looks back at her over his shoulder.  “Cabbage and plum?”

“Of course dear,” Mikot can’t help but smile even as she moves to pull out what she’ll need.  It’s so rare that Itachi makes actual requests with his food these days, always happy to cater to Sasuke’s every whim when he’s home.

There is not much Mikoto feels she can do for her island of a child these days but she can do this.

Quick hands and precision have a practically towering bento prepared for Itachi by the time he comes back down the hall, face clean and clipping a storage scroll to his belt.

“Be safe dear,” Mikoto tells him softly as he takes the wrapped stack from her.  “Bring honor to the Clan and the village.”

Itachi just smiles, that more familiar barely there upturn of lips, and goes.

~~~

Later, a laundry basket balanced on her hip, Mikoto peeks into his room and can’t help but blink in surprise.

The door to his wardrobe is open and a good number of his clothes are gone.  And, even more noticeably, so is his bedding.

Mikoto hesitates for a moment, brow furrowed as she bites at her lip, before she shrugs and pulls his door shut.

Itachi is a shinobi yes but he’s also a young boy.  There are some things boys, no matter their skill and rank, just don’t want their mothers to see.  And sometimes that might involve laundry even if Itachi is still young yet.

Besides it’ll be a nice excuse to get new linens and bedding for the entire house.

Perhaps she’ll even pick up a few yukata and other comfortable clothes to slip into Itachi’s wardrobe while she’s at it.

~~~

“Where’s Itachi?” Fugaku asks later that evening when the three of them have settled down to eat.

“Oh,” Mikoto pauses, chopsticks in hand, as she blinks at her husband and pouting son. “He had to go out again.  Shouldn’t last more than a day or so.”

“Hm,” Fugaku hums even as Sasuke slumps and pouts even harder.

The meal resumes and, while it’s a bit strange that Fugaku wasn’t aware of Itachi taking a new mission, Mikoto brushes it aside easily enough.

~~~

Itachi comes home two days later sans sealing scroll but looking satisfied and unharmed, a small smile tugging at the corner of his mouth as he greets a practically vibrating Sasuke.

In the face of having both of her sons together in her house again it’s easy enough for Mikoto to brush aside any oddities that might have been twisting around in the back of her head for the past few days.

~~~

Or at least it would be if they didn’t keep happening.

If that day Itachi showed up in the kitchen looking rumpled and bloody wasn’t some sort of starting point instead of a single occurrence.

~~~

“How odd,” Mikoto murmurs as she riffles through the kitchen.

There are things missing.  Nothing expensive or important really, just odds and ends of things she could have sworn she’d just recently bought.

Well that and two of the extra place settings from the set Fugaku had commissioned for the family.  The dishes were shinobi sturdy and embossed with uchiwa and a beautiful scrolling tomoe pattern, so obviously Uchiha in design that no one else would ever want them.

Still, overall nothing of real value is missing, certainly nothing that would point towards a burglary of any sort even with how ridiculous the very idea sounds.  And yet she has to admit that it’s a bit … strange all the same.

But, either way, in the end all it really means is that Mikoto will have to go to the market today instead of tomorrow.

~~~

She spots Itachi in the market from a distance, arms loaded down with shopping bags.

He flits away over the rooftops before she has a chance to call out to him but Mikoto just sighs and resigns herself to talking to him later.

Though she does admit that she’s more than a bit curious about what he’d bought.

~~~

Only, when Itachi returns home that evening it’s without bags, not even a sealing scroll on his hip.

But that relaxed tilt is back in his shoulders, that glint of something she can’t quite place is back in his eyes.

Mikoto goes to say something, goes to ask, but something makes her pause, makes her hold her tongue.

Never one to dismiss instincts honed over a lifetime, Mikoto keeps her silence.

~~~

Mikoto might not speak out but that doesn’t mean she’s blind to the increasing number of odd things Itachi has taken to doing.

Fugaku seems clueless, content with Itachi’s rising reputation and his exemplary record.  His heir is already showing himself to be an Uchiha shinobi the likes of which comes once in a rare generation.

Sasuke pouts more now that Itachi is away more often and clings tighter when he’s home, but his world is still so small that he doesn’t pick up on the finer points.

But Mikoto does.

She’s Itachi’s mother.

Of course she does.

So she watches and she waits.

~~~

It’s not until she’s ghosting her way through the house in the middle of the night, intent on checking on her children and getting a cup of tea and perhaps sneaking a few daifuku, that she reaches her breaking point.

She slides the door to Sasuke’s room open without a whisper of sound as she looks in on her youngest son.  She has to bite back a giggle at the way he’s starfished across his bed, mouth open in small snores, and one hand wrapped tightly around the nin-neko plush Itachi had bought him.

Adorable.

She watches Sasuke for a moment, unconsciously counting his breaths and basking in the love that wells up inside of her so fast and fierce it threatens to bring a tear to her eyes, before she slides the door closed silently and then ghosts across the hall to Itachi’s room.

She knows that, even as quiet as she is, just opening Itachi’s door is liable to wake him but he’s always indulged her with these midnight checks on the rare occasions she’s felt the need.

And yet when she slides the door to his room open just enough to glance inside, Mikoto feels her stomach drop.

She pushes the door open and then steps all the way inside, eyes darting around the room that’s only illuminated by the light spilling inside through the open window.

But no matter where she looks the facts remain the same.

Itachi is nowhere to be found.

~~~

Mikoto cradles her teacup in both hands and stares absently at the kitchen wall, an empty daifuku box discarded on the counter beside her.

Everything over the past few weeks and months has slowly begun to come together into a picture she’s not sure she likes.

Itachi, her tiny old man of a son, her nine year old adult who hasn’t been the same since that dreadful day Fugaku took him to that battlefield when he was four, is hiding something.

And it’s not the normal level of hiding things that all shinobi tend to take to.

No, Mikoto knows this is different somehow she just has no idea what it could possibly be.

But what she’s fairly sure she does know is when it started.

That afternoon when he’d come home blood spattered and wild.

It had started there, she knows it did.  The beginning of whatever this is could be traced back to whatever had happened to him before he’d walked through the door.

The slight changes in attitude he’s been quick to smooth over.  The shopping that never makes it home.   The “missions” Fugaku knows nothing about and the way Itachi’s been hoarding his regular pay like never before.  The way his time at home overall has dwindled at a steady clip.

Even the things Mikoto’s been absently discovering are missing from around the house could possibly be related to whatever it is that’s happening.

And now there’s this fresh clue of Itachi being gone from his bed in the middle of the night with no forewarning, his mission gear clearly left behind on the stand in his room.

Mikoto sips at her cold tea.

Her mind whirls and clicks.

She doesn’t go back to sleep.

~~~

The next morning Itachi emerges from his room for breakfast as if he’s been there for the entire night.

Mikoto watches out of her peripheral as he teases Sasuke softly, face creased in a small smile.

She thinks that, perhaps, whatever it is he’s hiding might not be anything truly harmful.  Maybe, just maybe, it might even be good for him.

Maybe.  Hopefully.

Either way she keeps her silence yet again.

Instead she begins to plan.

~~~

It takes an embarrassingly long time for Mikoto to feel comfortable trailing Itachi outside of the house.

She’d been an active duty jounin once, and even now that she’s centered her life around her family instead of missions and training she’s made sure to keep her skills from atrophying too much.

It is, after all, better to be a beast with dull fangs than one with none at all when danger comes to call, as her sensei always used to say.

But Itachi, for all that he’s not yet been allowed to take the chūnin exams, is a different breed of shinobi than Mikoto is or had ever been.  She will only get one chance at this so she has to do it right the first time.

So Mikoto bides her time.  She watches and she waits.

She checks beds every night for two weeks and yet every night Itachi is gone despite having no overnight missions and the majority of his mission gear being left behind in his room.

Finally Mikoto finds that, for her own peace of mind, she can delay no longer.

So one evening she slips a drop or two of something slow acting and harmlessly relaxing in Fugaku and Sasuke’s tea and goes about her normal routine.

But later, once the house has settled, she slips into a dark blue yukata and slinks her way outside into the garden.  Settled into the shadows with a clear view of Itachi’s bedroom window but out of direct line of sight, chakra and presence ruthlessly suppressed, she waits.

Itachi slips his way outside some hour or so later, his black and red sleeping yukata tied tightly and his sandals on.  He barely pauses to scan the area before he’s bounding out into the night.

She follows him at a distance, careful of every footstep and breath, unwilling to risk him sensing her and ending this before she gets answers.

The last thing she’s expecting is for him to hook sharply left and towards the less prosperous district of the village.

Unease rising, Mikoto keeps trailing him, a distant shadow flitting from rooftop to rooftop, all the way to a run down apartment building far too close to the Lotus District for her comfort.

Itachi might be a blooded shinobi but he’s still nine years old.

Far, far too young for the comforts and distractions the Lotus District has to offer.

But then he bypasses the doors of the apartment complex and flickers directly up onto the highest balcony.  He pauses there, a hand coming up to knock out what’s obviously some kind of rhythmic code on the widow that’s still glowing with a faint light despite the late hour.

Mikoto has to slap a hand across her mouth to keep from crying out when the tattered curtain is abruptly ripped back and the window is flung open.

Because standing there, beaming up at Itachi with a familiar black shirt bagging on her delicate shoulders, is Naruto.

Itachi slips inside the apartment and the angle is just good enough that Mikoto can see the way Naruto throws her skinny arms around Itachi’s waist.

She watches, heart in her throat, as Itachi lifts Naruto up and spins her around before he clutches her close, her legs wrapped around his waist and a grin on his normally calm face before he pulls the curtain shut behind him and cuts off her view.

For a long moment Mikoto stares at Naruto’s apartment and feels as if she can’t breathe.

She’s not sure what, exactly, she’d been expecting to catch Itachi doing but it certainly hadn’t been this.

Unable to help herself, Mikoto flits closer, landing on the balcony with barely a whisper of sound as she slinks forward to peer through the hole ridden curtains and into the apartment again.

She stands there, barely breathing, and watches as Itachi puts together a small meal on familiar plates, as he settles down beside a Naruto swathed in familiar blankets.

Mikoto watches as Naruto eats onigiri with one hand and practices her kanji with the other, switching hands when Itachi tells her and beaming every time he pats her head or allows her to move forward in the lesson.

Mikoto isn’t sure how long has passed before Itachi and Naruto stop, moving on from kanji to senbon throwing against a makeshift target on the far wall.

All she knows is that Itachi is attentive to Naruto in a way she’s never seen him be to anything or anyone before, not even Sasuke who he so obviously adores.

Mikoto watches the two of them for a very long time before she finally moves, unable to shake the feeling that she’s intruding on something precious.

She slips off of the balcony like a shadow and makes her way back to the Compound in a daze, mind full and heavy with everything she’s seen.

She’d set out looking for answers and now she thinks she might have seen more than Itachi would have ever wanted her to.

~~~

Mikoto slips back into the house through Itachi’s open window, leaving his bedroom door open behind her when she makes her way to the kitchen.

The first cup of tea she makes is more saké than anything but by the second cup she’s steady enough to enjoy a calming chamomile.

It’s a steadiness that gets her through the rest of the night as she sits and waits for dawn to approach.

For Itachi to return.

~~~

Mikoto thinks she’s ready to confront her son when he returns home.

She’s wrong.

Itachi slips into the kitchen without a whisper of sound.

There’s a kunai held loosely in one of his hands and his mouth is pulled up in a slight snarl, teeth bared animalistically.

“Uzumaki Naruto is mine,” Itachi hisses, something vicious and predatory peeking out at her from behind the blazing fire of his Sharingan.  “I’m going to marry her when we’re old enough.  I won’t let you take her away from me.”

Mikoto feels a shiver of icy dread slice down her spine.

She’s not sure how, exactly, he knows she followed him but for the first time in her life Mikoto is more than a bit afraid of her own son.

Of the threat, the promise, underlying his every word.

But, fear or not, there’s only one thing Mikoto can do in the face of his declaration.

She smiles.

“Good,” Mikoto tells him as she puts her cup down and refills it before filling a second and then sliding it in his direction in silent invitation.

She can tell from the slight widening of his eyes and the way he cocks his head that she’s surprised him.

“Uzumaki Naruto is my goddaughter,” Mikoto tells him softly.  “Her mother was my best friend, my sister in all but blood, and her care was supposed to fall to me.  It’s a duty and an honor I was denied.  But you?  You’ll take good care of her, won’t you?  No matter who might try to stop you?”

“Yes,” Itachi agrees, kunai still in hand but Sharingan fading away as he slips closer to the table, his interest plan on his face.  “I’ll kill for her.”

And that, coming from the son who she knows has always valued peace deep in his heart, is the truest declaration she’s ever heard.  It seems that anything to do with Naruto is an easy way to draw a reaction from him.

It’s ... sweet.

“Good,” Mikoto repeats.  “Now if you want her as a bride then you need to sit down so we can talk about everything we’re going to have to do in order to make sure that happens.  Let’s start with how the two of you met.”

Itachi sits, picks up his tea with his free hand, and watches her from over the rim of the cup.

Then he begins to speak.

Mikoto listens with a rapt ear and a heart that’s already beginning to feel lighter after years of heavy guilt and grief.

After all, it had always been her and Kushina’s fondest dream that their children would marry one day.  That their Clans would one day be connected even deeper, that they might one day have shared grandchildren to fawn over and spoil.

Mikoto’s just going to have to make sure that Itachi never finds out it was supposed to be Sasuke Naruto married and not him.