Chapter 3:

.

.

.

as always, a big warm thank you to drippingmoonwax for being a wonderful beta!

.

.

.

She pressed a hand curiously onto the tree trunk. Chakra humming around her skin, she pulled her arm with a heave - and smiled when her hand remained where it was.

Her reserves were much larger than she remembered at this age, but she imagined this was due to a number of reasons.

It didn't take long for her to climb the tree with just her hands. After a good hour or so, she was walking comfortably up and down with her feet as well.

(That much was expected, at least. Her control - over chakra and otherwise - had been one of the few things she could hold over Itachi.)

Right, Miho thought, grabbing her backpack and heading over to the river. Water walking's next.

Before, she would've had to take a break before starting again, but these larger reserves were working in her favor here.

By the end of day, lying down on top of the Naka River, she raised a hand up towards the sky.

Very slowly, the faintest of green chakra sputtered to life.

"Nice," she said aloud, allowing the jutsu to fade away. It was a good sign she could run through a stricter training regime, now that there wasn't a need to rush to the hospital for a proper diagnosis after every training accident.

She sat up and dragged a finger across the water below.

There really wasn't a need for physical training anymore. With her chakra finally settling down, she could probably live the rest of her eight years almost idly.

But that would mean staying in the house for longer periods of time and hearing Fugaku's nagging even more often - so staying outside it was. At least it staved off the boredom.

Pulling herself away from the riverbank, Miho packed up her unused set of clothes and headed back home.

.

.

.

.

.

Kushina beamed. "He's absolutely adorable!"

"He is," Mikoto said, cradling Sasuke in her arms. "But he's very fussy at night."

Miho silently snatched a piece of mochi from the table. Kushina's visits often meant a surplus in tea and snacks. If she couldn't leave, she might as well take advantage of her situation.

"Aren't all babies?" Kushina waved a hand. She leaned forward and eyed Sasuke hesitantly. "Did it - " she gulped. "Did it hurt?"

Mikoto laughed. "It did, yes. But it's definitely worth it."

She sent Miho a warm look.

"I don't doubt it," Kushina said, shifting to the side to ruffle Miho's hair. Standing at the bottom of the food chain, Miho endured the action with great reluctance. "You've got a cute one here already!"

"That I do," Mikoto said, eyes creasing.

Kushina grinned. "I can't wait until - "

She abruptly paused, one hand already wrapped around her own stomach. Miho assumed this was because Kushina's pregnancy was an open secret.

"I feel the same way," Mikoto said lightly, shifting Sasuke around. "Would you like to hold him?"

A masterful change in topics, Miho thought, already reaching for her third mochi. Across the table, Kushina took Sasuke into her arms, a pinched look on her face.

"It's so weird," Kushina whispered, staring at Sasuke's sleeping face. "What if it's still weird after I - ?"

"You'll know what to do right away," Mikoto promised, smoothly taking Sasuke back. "Trust me."

Not very subtle, Miho thought, sipping quietly at her tea. Her eyes strayed to the door. Has it been long enough for me to leave?

"Oh!" Like usual, Kushina pulled out a new scroll. This time, the circles around the edge marked a type of barrier seal. "What do you think about this one?"

Mikoto hummed in interest. "I see."

Then, without any warning, she passed Sasuke over to Miho.

So that's what this is, Miho thought, glancing down at Sasuke's traitorous face. I'm just a glorified babysitter.

As if privy to her thoughts, Sasuke let out a wide yawn that mocked her very existence.

.

.

.

.

.

The smell of burning incense floated through the air. With great care, Miho placed the freshly made cup of tea in front of her guest.

Why are you here, she thought dully, returning her hands to her lap.

Itachi studied the cup curiously before taking a slow sip.

"It's very good," he said politely.

"Thank you," Miho said, following the rituals of the ceremony. If Itachi hurried, they would be able to end this entire thing in ten minutes.

Itachi kept a firm grip on his cup and took another drink, appearing as if he had no intentions of hurrying at all.

They continued to sit in utter silence. Her fingers curled tighter into fists.

With the presence of a newborn like Sasuke, Mikoto had given instructions for Miho to practice running through the motions with guests on her own.

("It'll be a good experience for you," Mikoto had said, eyes creasing. "And Itachi was nice enough to agree!")

A few more minutes passed by, and she imagined it was a comical sight - two five-year-olds, sitting together in deathly silence and drinking tea.

Itachi's chakra bubbled, even as his face remained pleasantly still.

Please don't, Miho thought, already recognizing this pattern from before.

He set his cup down onto the table. Quietly, he asked, "What can I change right now?"

It didn't take much to realize that Itachi was continuing the conversation they had had over a year ago, in the marketplace.

Are you serious, Miho thought, staring at his relaxed fingers. Do you think a normal five-year-old would remember that?

It was unfortunate she didn't quite fall under that category. It was doubly unfortunate Itachi didn't either.

She exhaled slowly.

Why are you asking me this?

(They used to lie down on the grass and stare at the skies together.

The world is full of harsh things, Itachi-nii-san, she had said to him, heart pounding in her ears because what could she say? What would be enough?

I'll change it then, Itachi had said, eyes determined and hands outreached towards the clouds. They had been six and young, and she didn't have the heart to tell him that his future - their future - was written to end tragically.

She didn't have the heart to tell him that she wasn't sure if she could do anything about it.)

"You can't," she finally said, releasing the tight grip she held on her clothes. "You're too young."

Itachi's eyebrows pinched together. "But what about the future?"

Nothing, was the response that lingered on her tongue. Itachi might have been the weapon but the ones who had directed him couldn't be overthrown in less than a decade.

Not for the first time, she wondered if Itachi had ever felt that same sort of suffocation - if he was feeling it at this very moment. The sensation of rope tightening around his neck, his fingers clawing at skin, feet dangling in the air -

At her silence, Itachi pressed onward. "You said one person can't do much. Then what can they do?"

Her eyes strayed to the side, where the sliding doors were firmly closed shut. She could leave right now - consequences be damned - and Itachi wouldn't be able to stop her.

Itachi's fingers tightened around his cup, as if he was completely aware of her thoughts.

I don't owe you anything, she realized. Answers or otherwise.

But her legs remained tied to the floor. Like chains rising from the grave and wrapping around her ankles, it seemed she couldn't free herself completely from Itachi just yet.

By this point, the water in her teapot had long since cooled. She lifted the pot from the table and placed it gingerly on the floor.

"You know what your problem is?" she asked. The words eagerly fell from her lips, desperate to escape her thoughts from years ago. "I said so many things, but you focused on that one thing. On what one person can do."

Her eyes travelled across the room and distantly, dully, she asked, "Do you know why?"

(Her fingers curling around his cloak, barely grasping fabric, as if he had already long since vanished like mist -

I'm sorry, he had said, carefully removing her hand from his arm. But this is something I need to do.)

"No," Itachi said, after a long moment of silence.

Her lips nearly twisted. "It's because you only rely on yourself."

"At the top of a mountain, even villages will appear small," she then told him, placing her tools back into a supply box and slowly closing the lid shut.

"You'll stand there, someday," she said, staring into Itachi's bottomless, dark eyes. This time, the corners of her mouth lifted sardonically. "At a tall place no one can reach."

And there, Itachi would never think to look for help. He had always struggled to make allies and that's where she had stepped in, a long time ago.

(But even with tempered smiles and a bright laugh, Miho hadn't been enough. Perhaps it would've been different, if it was someone else. If it was someone who could smile without reserve.

Shisui had been better at the job, but - well. That was another thread of fate that couldn't be cut.)

"You'll decide that's your burden to carry," she rose to her feet and moved the supply box into a closet. Like a prophecy, she told him, "And that's where you'll fall."

There was an ocean full of what she wanted to say. A thousand accusations and a thousand grievances. She imagined it would've been enough to fill up her remaining eight years here.

(Those words had clung to her throat before. Staring after Itachi's ever-moving back - she had once wanted to grab a kunai and dig it into his heart.

In hindsight, perhaps it would have been better if she had said something, done something, instead of holding onto this bottomless pit of poisoned words.)

But those thoughts were useless in this lifetime - the Itachi who had struck her with his sword wasn't here.

And yet, still, in memory of that cold metal sinking into her skin… her lips burned to speak.

"I see," Itachi finally said, eyes fixated on the cold tea in his hands.

"Do you?" she asked, remembering those days when she had hoped to live past her thirteenth birthday. Exhaustion crept over her shoulders.

What did it say about this world, when the fate of dozens rested in the hands of a child?

We were doomed from the start, she thought.

And despite the scolding she'd probably receive later on, Miho walked out of the room, closing the door shut on a silent room.

.

.

.

.

.

She grit her teeth even as her feet slid across the ground. Her arms ached at the strain, but she gripped the practice sword even tighter and kept it raised.

"Hmm," Mikoto hummed, standing further away. She creased her eyes and lowered her own sword.

Miho relaxed her stance before exhaling slowly. Sweat clung to the back of her neck as she rolled her shoulders.

"I think we'll stop here for today," her mother said, giving the wooden sword another swing. Her lips curved upward into a gentle smile.

She looks like she just took a walk around the garden, Miho thought dully, staring down at her lightly trembling hands. Instead of spending the better part of the hour smacking her daughter around.

It wasn't a bad trade-off, she conceded, after a moment of thought. Avoiding Itachi in this lifetime meant she had a significant drop in viable sparring partners.

She moved to join Mikoto by the garden side, kneeling on the wooden floors under the roof awnings.

"Good job today," Mikoto said, a warm smile on her lips. "Now tell me what went wrong."

"I blocked when I should have ducked," Miho answered, already familiar with this routine. "I had the disadvantage in strength and height. I should be using the sword to redirect blows, instead of blocking entirely."

"That's correct," Mikoto said. "Tackling the problem head on - it's not like you."

Miho kept silent. Two years of prior kenjutsu experience still wasn't enough for her to have all the right answers.

"Well, progress is still progress," her mother continued. "We can move on to the next set soon. That's faster than what Hansei-san usually says about you, you know."

Well aware of the predator casually circling around its prey, Miho focused on the blisters on her hands.

In the first place, Hansei's lessons were now almost entirely focused on the monetary funding of the clan. The times he would teach anything shinobi related were now few and far between.

He's definitely planning something, she thought, keeping her mouth firmly closed shut. Why else would he teach a five-year-old how to budget?

Was he bored? Had an elder of the Uchiha clan finally cracked?

At her silence, Mikoto's smile widened. "As I expected. You're not one for trouble, are you, Miho?"

There were many ways to answer this non-question. And, having over ten years of experience as Mikoto's daughter, Miho continued to not say a word.

(Considering the amount of trouble she had been in before, it was probably best to not give anything away.)

"Keep up your routine for now," Mikoto finally said, perfectly unperturbed by this one-sided conversation. "We'll do this again tomorrow, okay?"

"Yes," Miho said, bowing her head shortly.

You just gave birth last month, she thought silently, watching the unmoving image of her mother. Shouldn't you be taking a break?

In response to Miho's unspoken thoughts, Mikoto poured herself a cup of tea and serenely took a long, drawn-out sip.

.

.

.

.

.

Like in the previous timeline, Sasuke was an incorrigible crybaby.

Standing by his crib, Miho sighed and picked him up into her arms.

He was fed an hour ago, she thought, going down the list with the usual experience of a babysitter. I just changed his diapers too.

She covered her eardrums with chakra to block out his piercing wails.

No one's in the house right now, she considered, staring contemplatively at the blanket in Sasuke's crib. Her hand patted his back absentmindedly.

Eventually, Sasuke's cries died away, leaving him to sniffle over her shoulders. She would've found it endearing, years ago.

(Mi! Sasuke used to cry out, back when he was three years old and still figuring out how to speak. Mi, come play!

Her chest had tightened at the sight of his soft cheeks and messy hair. It had been an adorable sight, a reminder of his simple innocence, and it brought her fingers to curl around his neck, brushing against skin and -

What if, she had thought, for a terrifying moment, eyes boring into the back of Sasuke's tiny head, Itachi chooses you?

Am I going to die… for you? What makes you better? What makes you more special? What if you just -

Disappeared?)

She stared at the setting sun, clouded through the windows, nearly blocked by the walls of the compound. Off in the distance, a familiar, warm chakra flickered through the main gates.

"It's about time," she said aloud. Her feet padded silently across the floor. Shifting her arms, she slowly placed Sasuke back into his crib.

He mumbled slightly, a breath gurgling from his tiny lips, his eyes tightly closed. Her fingers lightly grazed his cheeks, brushing up against soft skin.

Do it now, a voice hissed in her head, and the kunai within her sleeves burned through her bandages. End it quickly! Before he gets you again!

The front door opened with a tiny creak. Within moments, Itachi's chakra approached the stairs.

Her hand pulled back and curled into a fist.

She left the room soon after, entering the hallway and quietly closing the door shut. Behind her, Itachi paused at the top of the stairs.

It only lasted for a moment. By the time she returned to her room, Itachi had long since vanished from the hallway, leaving behind an empty space that would only continue to grow over the years.

.

.

.

.

.

The problem with rebuilding muscle memory was the inevitable mistakes that would come with it.

She frowned at her bleeding fingertips. Further ahead, a set of shuriken were embedded deep into a practice target.

You'd think living through this body once would make it easier the second time, she thought, pulling out a clean towel from her pouch and wiping away the blood.

There were still flashes that overtook her sight - memories and instincts bred for a body much taller than this one. It just proved she would need to spend more time readjusting to these tiny hands.

She eyed the cuts along her skin curiously. They would heal naturally in a few days but -

Chakra bubbled up to her fingers and, very slowly, a faint green covered the open wound. In a minute or so, the light died away to reveal unblemished skin.

Not bad, she thought, taking stock of the sudden dip in her reserves. Those hours spent in the hospital seemed worth it now.

(Shikaku had once dumped her into the rudimentary medic courses, years ago, when she was still a genin. She imagined it was because he had gotten tired of seeing her collapse from overexertion.

It had caused an uproar through the clan.

Your time is better spent elsewhere, Fugaku had harshly said. It's a disgrace to your skills and the clan.)

She studied the rough pads of her fingertips, the callouses from training already beginning to form.

It felt good then, she remembered, stretching out her fingers and feeling the pull of skin. It felt good to hear him say that I was worth something, at least.

But that was a lifetime ago, and Fugaku's approval meant something else here. Something much less of worth.

She shook her head and resumed her training. The rest of the day followed her usual routine: running through katas, building up stamina, refining her chakra control, practicing with a wooden sword -

Even through it all, the memories wouldn't leave her alone.

Under the darkening sky, Miho left the forest, mind blank and chest heavy. Her walk back home led her past the training grounds and, unwittingly, she froze in her steps.

It was almost impossible to drag herself away. Resignedly, she stepped around the foliage and approached a familiar, cracked stone.

She remained a good distance from the Memorial Stone. Even still, it was easy to see the names engraved into granite. Her eyes trailed down the empty space where a good number were missing.

(Miho, he had whispered, fingers trembling around her hands. His eyes shone like dull glass. Please.

She had been eleven. Eleven and old and still not ready for what this world demanded of her and yet, even still, she had raised the kunai above her head, eyes flashing red, blood dripping down her face and - )

This time, she thought, in the quiet of the night, Shikaku can have someone else on his genin team.

The wind blew past her hair and through the leaves above. It was a faint reminder that summer was ending and that, as always, time would never wait for someone like her.

And that's fine, she told herself, giving a short bow before leaving the grounds altogether, because it doesn't matter anymore.

(She wondered how long it would take until she no longer needed the reminder.)

.

.

.

.

.

Kushina inhaled deeply, taking in the scent of freshly brewed tea. After a long moment of silence, she gave a warm smile.

"It's good!" she said, cradling the cup in her hands. "Maybe you're a genius, Miho-chan!"

"Thank you," Miho said, choosing not to mention the hours spent under Mikoto's careful eyes.

"She's better than you were at that age," Kushina said slyly, nudging Mikoto's side. "Isn't that right, Mikoto-chan?"

Miho drank silently from her own cup. It was best to let Kushina dig her own grave.

"You just might be right," Mikoto said, eyes creasing. In her arms, Sasuke quietly slept under a swath of blankets.

"I'm a little sad though," Kushina said morosely, bringing a hand to her cheek. "I can't visit that often for the next few months. You'll have to endure without me, Miho-chan."

"I understand," Miho said, pointedly not looking at Kushina's growing stomach.

Kushina squinted her eyes. "Do you?"

Are you asking me to say it or not?

"Yes," Miho simply said, because she was no fool.

There was a short pause. Then, with a hum, Kushina pulled out the usual scroll.

"You should take a look at this," she said, rolling it across the table towards Mikoto. "I don't know what I'm doing wrong."

Already used to this routine, Miho resignedly accepted the bundle from her mother and held Sasuke in her arms.

"Still?" Mikoto asked, peering over the thick paper. From the corner of her eyes, Miho caught a glimpse of the sealing array.

It looked like some sort of lock. A barrier to keep something in - or out.

The rest of the afternoon was spent in quiet discussion with little result, much to Kushina's disappointment. It was hardly surprising - there wasn't anyone in Konoha, barring the Fourth Hokage, who understood seals as well as Kushina did.

Mikoto was often used as a sounding board, but when it proved too large of a task, the seal was usually pocketed away for a later time.

Except, this time, Kushina began to visit far more often in the following weeks.

It was a poor decision for someone who was now heavily pregnant. Miho imagined Namikaze Minato was probably pulling his hair out at this point.

"I just need to get this right," Kushina loudly complained, resting her hands on the floor and leaning backwards.

"I think you should wait until after everything is over," Mikoto said, voicing the opinions of everyone in the near vicinity. There were two sparks of chakra above their heads - probably ANBU guards assigned to Kushina.

"But it's relaxing here," Kushina protested, shifting her weight further onto her arms. "Back home, it's always 'oh, let me get that for you,' or 'oh, Kushina, don't hurt yourself.' I'm close to punching him in the face."

"I'm sure the Hokage has your safety in mind," Mikoto said demurely, ever the middle-man.

"He should start minding his own safety," Kushina growled.

Across the table, Miho carefully grabbed another piece of mochi.

"Perhaps it's time for a change of pace," Mikoto said, very clearly alluding to the unborn child in Kushina's stomach. "Maybe you'll have a fresh perspective after… everything."

Miho stared at the amber liquid in her cup. Who exactly were they still trying to pretend for?

"A fresh perspective," Kushina repeated. Her bright eyes slowly slid over to Miho.

Please, Miho thought, keeping her face utterly still, no.

Almost abruptly, a familiar scroll was pushed up to her face.

"Kushina," Mikoto said wearily.

"Why not?" Kushina countered, a smile growing on her face. "Maybe Miho-chan absorbed something from our talks!"

"That's not how it works," Mikoto sighed, echoing Miho's own thoughts.

"If you need me to go over what it means, just tell me," Kushina said, completely ignoring the protests sent her way. "Sometimes, children see better than us adults."

Kushina's lips curved into a wider smile. "And something tells me Miho-chan has the clearest eyes of them all."

Miho froze, her cup paused between her lips.

"Well," Mikoto said, her chakra humming pleasantly. "You're not wrong. Our Miho is definitely quicker than she looks."

Warm jasmine tea filled her mouth as her heart beat steadily inside her chest.

A coincidence, Miho thought, drinking slowly before gently placing down her cup. It wouldn't do to react to every little thing that poked at her past.

Her chakra twinged under the expectant eyes.

I'll just take a look, she thought, quietly picking up the scroll - it was almost too big for her hands. And then I'll give it back.

It wasn't a seal she was familiar with. The outer layer seemed straightforward enough - a lock attuned to the sealer's will.

She had seen something similar in the hospital, when a team of medics needed to operate on an unconscious ninja. It was better to lock the body in place rather than risk the shinobi waking up in the middle of the surgery, delirious and unaware of their surroundings.

Miho squinted her eyes. The center was a little too complex for her to read. It outlined a perimeter of a certain distance, to catch every - organic life? No, the writing was too specific for that. It was almost as if it was targeting a certain form of organism -

She blinked slowly.

Was Kushina trying to replicate the Nara Shadow Possession jutsu?

If the seal covered a certain amount of ground and targeted chakra signatures, Kushina could, theoretically, halt all movement in the area.

She stared at the swirling symbols. Am I qualified to look at this?

Qualifications or not, this was way above her pay grade. And as a five-year-old, she didn't even have a pay grade.

Kushina loomed closer. "Well? What do you think?"

"I," Miho began, glancing to the side where her mother sat. Mikoto smiled warmly - which was enough of a warning sign for her to switch tactics. "You said that the seal wouldn't activate."

"That's right," Kushina said with a smile.

New seals followed a three-part process, as Kushina had often mentioned years ago. Creation, activation, revision - it was a continuous loop of risky adjustment.

A seal that won't activate, she thought, remembering those lessons from a lifetime past. Either there's a missing link or Kushina hasn't fully written out the controls for it.

Miho stared at the scribbles of ink on the scroll. Neither was a likely possibility when it came to someone as good as Uzumaki Kushina.

Her knowledge wasn't enough to completely decipher the seal. What she did know was Kushina's overzealous tendencies, where she would often layer seals to the point of convolution.

She scanned the seal's outer layer another time, picking out the parts she could better understand. There was a rudimentary lock that caught her attention, since it was sketched out in three separate places on the seal.

Three locks to set a perimeter? Miho let the idea run through her mind.

Would that overload the seal or create a new type of barrier? It was hard to tell.

"This looks very complicated, Kushina-san," Miho slowly said. There really wasn't much that could be said that Kushina didn't already know. "Would you say that everything on this scroll is essential?"

Kushina blinked. "Essential?"

"Mother says that the key to success is efficiency," Miho said, reciting the same words Mikoto would say during sword training. "I hope each part of this seal achieves exactly what you need and nothing more."

There was a pause.

"It's like Aunt Mito all over again," Kushina breathed out, before resting her head in her hands. "I can almost hear her voice scolding me from the grave."

Miho remained silent and took another sip of tea, if only from the sheer fact of not knowing what to say.

"I always thought Miho had the soul of an old woman," Mikoto said lightly, eyes glimmering in bright humor. "I suppose the scolding was well-deserved."

Her hands completely still, Miho did not change the timing of her breaths - doing anything else would be an admission of something no one in their right mind would look for.

Kushina let out a bark of laughter. Her chakra flared through the room, an undeniable heat that pressed against Miho's skin.

"Don't worry, Miho-chan," she said, wiping a finger under her eye, lips curved into a broad grin. "You just reminded me of someone I used to know. I'll probably need to start from the ground up and do some more revision."

"I see," Miho said, deciding it was unwise to mention that she knew exactly who Kushina was talking about. Uzumaki Mito was a legend who had been overshadowed by Konoha's awe for the First Hokage.

(She was like a grandmother to me, Kushina had once said, in another lifetime, eyes distant and a soft smile on her face. I think she would've liked you a lot.)

"Well, it's about time I head out," Kushina said, rising steadily to her feet. She glanced down and gave a bright grin. "When everything's all over, you should come over, Miho-chan! It'll be fun, I promise!"

Warm, she thought, Kushina's chakra dancing around the air. As always, it's unbelievably warm.

"Thank you," Miho said, a second too late. She stared into her stained, empty cup. "I'll look forward to it then."

.

.

.

.

.

That was the last time Kushina ever visited the compound. It was likely the Fourth Hokage was no longer willing to take any chances, since Kushina was now dangerously pregnant.

The night before October 10th, Miho sat by her windowsill, studying the glimmering stars and full moon above.

It was strange, she thought distantly, wrapping her arms around her knees. She had assumed she'd feel the same, the second time around. The same gut-wrenching guilt, the sting of fear, the heavy weight of her decisions, but instead -

She pressed her cheek onto the cold glass.

"I'm tired," she said quietly, her breath fogging up the window.

Her room stayed silent. If she closed her eyes, the memory would creep into her line of sight, of her last few moments, standing in front of Itachi, waiting in line, waiting for the scent of blood to come closer - waiting and waiting and -

.

.

.

.

.

She opened her eyes, the heavy sunlight brushing past her lashes. With a slight wince, she lifted her head, the skin on her cheek nearly sticking to the glass window.

Tiny goosebumps crawled across her neck as she walked over the cold, wooden floor. Like clockwork, she ran through her usual morning stretches, mind blank and a flood rising above her ears.

Her arms weighed against her as she changed into her usual clothes. She tightened the bandages around her ankles and, for a brief moment, looked into the mirror in her room.

Dark, sunken eyes stared back at her - it was a familiar sight.

She continued her routine, walking down the stairs and eating breakfast on her own. Like every other morning, she packed a simple lunch before leaving the compound.

(Last time, she had cowered in her room for nearly the entire day. The premonition of what was to come had haunted her thoughts and dragged her to the ground.)

It wasn't a good day to train. Still, she found her usual spot in the local forests and, after a good hour of shuriken training, laid down on top of the riverbank.

It's so bright, she thought, lifting a hand to block the sun's rays. Little waves rippled beside her and the wind whistled through the trees.

It was as if the world itself was mocking what was to come.

Another hour passed by as she remained motionless. Distantly, she thought, I should train.

But a heavy weight pressed onto her body, a little reminder of her lingering desperation, the phantoms that still whispered in her chest.

Her lips curled inward at the timer that tried to return.

Quietly, Miho snarled, "Don't you dare."

"You've dug your own grave," she hissed, fingers digging into the water below, a cutting cold that stung her skin. "Now lie in it."

The sun rose higher and higher, leaving her to listen to the soft chirps of birds and the rustle of leaves. Eventually, when it fell onto the horizon, she rose to her feet, head spinning at the sudden movement.

When she returned home, Mikoto had long since started making dinner.

"Welcome home," her mother said, eyes creasing. By the kitchen table, Sasuke gurgled happily in his crib.

"I'm home," Miho answered, sliding the door shut behind her. Sliding off her sandals, she walked straight to the bathroom to follow Mikoto's usual ritual.

She shrugged off her backpack and moved to take off her clothes - only to pause. Her eyes remained trained on the cabinet under the sink.

Before another thought could cross her mind - before she could even consider what would be the best response - Miho opened the cabinet and, in one swift motion, stuffed the remaining bandages and medicine into her bag.

It would've gone to waste, she reasoned with herself, turning on the water. In roughly three hours, Uzumaki Naruto would enter this world and, with it, this part of her house would be destroyed anyways.

Today, those hours were idly spent. Before, she had jumped at every sound, fingers clenched around her clothes, barely able to keep down her dinner.

This time, she sat at the kitchen table, staring at her rice and listening to Sasuke's babbles.

(The food, however, still tasted like ash.)

"My final appointment at the hospital is tomorrow," Mikoto said, repeating the same words as before. Like in the previous timeline, Fugaku was working late and wouldn't meet up with them until everything was over. "Can one of you stay behind and watch over Sasuke?"

There was a short pause.

Odd, Miho thought, glancing at Itachi, who continued to eat his dinner as his chakra fidgeted slightly. Didn't you jump at the chance last time?

After an even longer silence, Miho finally said, "I'll do it."

It wouldn't matter in the end. Konoha would be upturned in an hour's time and the next few months would be spent relocating to the old Uchiha compound in the village outskirts.

Itachi set his chopsticks down and said quietly, "I'll join too. It's more fun when there's more people, right?"

"Right you are, Itachi," Mikoto said, a smile on her lips. Miho dragged her eyes away from Itachi to keep from staring. "The both of you are being very responsible."

What are you planning? Miho thought, eyes focused on her fried fish. They hadn't spoken since the practice tea ceremony. Another ambush?

It didn't matter, she then reminded herself, forcing down another bite of rice. There was no chance Itachi would be able to pull off his plans when Kyuubi would wreck them all tonight.

The rest of the meal finished quietly, leaving Miho and Itachi to wash the dishes. Since they were still too short to reach the sink, they stood on a pair of stools instead.

It was quiet, save for the sound of running water. In that solemn silence, Miho took a washed plate from Itachi and began to dry it with a towel.

Anytime now, she thought, studying the painted blue flowers decorating the ceramic plate. A quarter of their house would be destroyed and, in the midst of the chaos, Mikoto would lead them out to the mountains for shelter.

Like last time, the anticipation was even worse than the actual event. Kyuubi's rampage would only take an hour before the Fourth Hokage transported it somewhere else, but the effects of its rage would last even up till Miho's inevitable death.

It would've been better, she thought, if she could live through these moments without knowing what would come next.

Even with these thoughts, Kyuubi's arrival was just as abrupt, just as visceral, and just as terrifying as it had been before.

There was a loud crash and she blinked. Her vision blurred and suddenly, she was on her knees with pieces of ceramic scattered across the floor. Heavy, burning chakra crushed her lungs and she let out a gasp, her breath clogged in her throat.

Bright, white sparks danced around her vision and, even worse, the memories began to return.

(But this time, instead of visions of her possible death, Miho was once again running around the compound, the sun just beginning to set along the horizon. Her fingers skirted around the edges, against invisible walls as her senses stretched out further and further, searching desperately because she was trapped -

And, for the very first time, she could only think about how much she wanted to live, oh god, please, please just let me live - )

Warm, small hands wrapped around her arms.

"Miho?" Itachi's voice seemed so far away. "Miho? What's going on?"

There was no time to answer. An ear-shattering, guttural roar shook the house, sending a tremor through the ground and Itachi stumbling to the side.

Lava rising above her head, Miho nearly gagged as she desperately tried to take another breath. Shaking off the past was, as always, harder than expected.

She needed - she needed to move. Staying still would leave her heart vulnerable to the corrosive chakra and that would be a painful end to her pitiful five years.

Her chakra sputtered under her skin. It crackled through her veins and the sudden rush left her head spinning.

It was enough to send her keeling over again and upending her dinner onto the floor. Acid stung her throat, but it helped to clear her head and, in moments, she hobbled to her feet.

Meters away, Itachi clung to a nearby cupboard to keep his footing as another tremor shook the earth.

Chakra shot through her feet and stuck to the floor. Wiping her mouth with the back of her hand, Miho dared to loosen her grip on her chakra to get a better sense of her surroundings.

Outside, dozens of chakra signatures flickered around the compound, disappearing and reappearing, like a cascade of fleeing butterflies. The roof above her head groaned, an ominous sound that she had long since expected.

Like magnets on polar ends, Miho's eyes dragged to the side, and she met Itachi's gaze with her own.

It only lasted for a moment. But perhaps blood shared a connection because in the very next second, Miho dashed out of the kitchen, with Itachi hot on her heels.

Another earthquake nearly sent her sliding to her knees, but she shifted her weight into a crouch before running up the stairs.

Sharp cracks rang through the air as the sound of splintering wood caught up with them. Without another thought, Miho flung open the door to her room, Itachi running past her to find Mikoto, likely.

Her fingers wrapped around the straps of her backpack and -

The house shook again and she flung herself into the hallway, right as the floor in her room collapsed inward. Clouds of dust filled the air and, bringing her shirt to cover her nose, Miho took several careful steps back.

The floorboards under her feet groaned, a sign that she needed to get off the second floor right away. Glancing down at the jagged, broken stairs, she covered her bare feet with chakra and quietly jumped onto the ground.

Three, agitated chakra signatures flickered nearby and, to the sound of Sasuke's cries, Miho fished her outside shoes from the remains of the front door.

Last time, she had been too slow - when the house began to collapse, Itachi had been the one to shove them both to the side. By the time she had regained a semblance of control, they were forced to leave the compounds with only slippers and blisters to show for the journey.

Miho tugged on her sandals and pulled her backpack over her shoulders. The crunch of broken wood and a familiar, burning fireplace approached from behind.

Without turning around, Miho pulled out two more pairs of sandals from the dust. She tossed one pair over her shoulders, a soft thump letting her know that Itachi had definitely kept up with his weapons training.

She turned and walked past him, ignoring his furrowed eyebrows, his eyes trained on the sandals in his hands.

Close by, Mikoto spoke rapidly with another clan member, a bundle of cloth in her arms. Her hair was in disarray and the scent of blood was in the air.

Miho let her feet step over the scattered, broken wood, an audible crack under the alarms screeching through the village.

"Thank you, Miho," Mikoto said, as the clan member - a distant relative, Miho recognized - bowed and disappeared with a swirl of leaves.

Dirt smeared her face and clothes, but Mikoto still had an incredibly calm expression on her face. She readjusted her hold on Sasuke, who was still bawling his eyes out. "Help me put them on?"

Miho crouched down, unsurprised to see Mikoto's yukata torn at the ends and blood trickling down her leg. It seemed even in this timeline, the walls had caved into Sasuke's room and caught Mikoto at the last minute.

(Itachi hadn't needed her help pulling their mother out from the rubble last time, and she had expected that would be the case now.)

She examined the wound, already aware that Mikoto was well enough to run, at least. It was deeper than what she remembered and though the bleeding had slowed down, it would pick up again once they got moving.

There wasn't any time to do anything for it right now. Slipping the sandals over her mother's feet, Miho tightened the straps and stood up, fingers curling around her backpack.

"Thank you," Mikoto said again, before her lips twisted into a grim line. "We'll need to head for the mountains for shelter. Itachi, Miho, stay close and do not leave my side."

Harsh winds blew past Miho's hair, sending dust and rubble flying towards the sky. She walked through the remains of her house, as screams, some distant, some far too close, rang through the air.

Farther ahead, a group of clan members, all children or the elderly, huddled around the demolished front gates. Miho already knew that all other members of the clan, shinobi or otherwise, were searching the area for any survivors caught in the debris.

Together, they began swiftly moving down the streets, following the flow of the other fleeing civilians.

Still, it was impossible to ignore the beast that towered over the village. The image of Kyuubi, roaring in the distance, swiping at buildings as if they were mere toys - was a sight she could never (would never) forget.

The heat of its chakra flared against her back. It was a powerful thing, Miho acknowledged dully, the memories of her past crawling down her back. No wonder Konoha had hoarded its jinchuriki till the very end.

The Kyuubi's shrieks ringing ceaselessly through the air, Mikoto's pace quickened into a near run, her hands clutching Sasuke close to her chest. There were crowds of people rushing ahead, all scrambling for shelter under the hoarse yells of shinobi on higher ground.

"Please!" a man desperately cried out, clinging onto a young genin. The boy swallowed deftly, panic rising in his eyes. "My daughter - she's still in there! She can't get out, I need to get her out, please, please, please - "

Miho turned away from the sight, keeping her eyes forward and avoiding the stampede of feet around her. This, at least, was easier the second time around.

True to Mikoto's demands, she remained close by her mother's side, with Itachi a mere step ahead. The smell of sulphur and ashes was overwhelming at this point.

Eventually, they took shelter in one of the caves hidden within the mountains, joining the rapidly growing crowds inside. Several of her clan members huddled into the cave, while many others separated to fill up the space somewhere else.

The screams never seemed to stop. Even sequestered away from the village, the wails of children, the sobs of the injured, the broken, the terrified - only grew stronger with time.

By her side, Itachi was deathly quiet. He brought up his knees and wrapped his arms around them, eyes focused sharply on the stray rocks on the floor. Mikoto, on the other hand, rocked Sasuke gently side to side, trying to calm his wails.

It was tempting to turn away from the cave's entrance. Tempting to pretend as if she knew nothing about the destruction outside, about the sea of lights flickering silent at Kyuubi's every move.

Miho squeezed past another woman and crouched before her mother, shrugging off her backpack onto the cold floor.

"My," Mikoto said, as Miho pulled out her previously stored bandages and medicine. Her mother's voice remained light despite the harsh lines drawn on her face. "When did you have time to take these?"

"I didn't," Miho answered, the lie slipping off her tongue with ease. She had lied for so long that it was doubtful even the Sharingan could catch her now. "They were packed for training in the morning."

It was a fairly deep cut, but it didn't take long to wipe Mikoto's torn leg down and wrap bandages around the wound. Her hands moved carefully, well aware of the eyes trained on her, as she tightened the final knot.

"Not bad," Mikoto said, twisting her leg to get a better look. There was a hint of something else coloring her tone. "Where did you learn to do this?"

"I had practice," Miho said, because sometimes, saying less was more. Beside them, Itachi let out an imperceptible flinch.

Imperceptible to those who weren't looking.

"I see," Mikoto said, eyes now trained on Itachi's huddled form. The distraction was nice, but unneeded - Miho had learnt the first time around that no one really considered the idea of past lives as an answer.

With a hum, Mikoto shifted before smoothly rising to her feet.

"Here," her mother said. She passed Sasuke (who was still bawling his eyes out) into Itachi's arms. "Stay here and watch your brother carefully. I'll have Miwa-san watch over you two."

Miho paused, even as Itachi blinked, glass eyes moving sharply into focus.

Strange, she thought, watching Mikoto eventually disappear from sight, slipping through the crowds and towards the jounin at the cave's entrance.

(Here, her mother had said last time, long after the Kyuubi was sealed shut. She had torn off parts of her clothes to stave off the heavy bleeding from her wound. Watch over your brother, please. I'll be back soon.

It was a sobering moment, feeling the soft cotton through her trembling hands. Her fingers had clenched the fabric tightly as Sasuke slept restlessly on.)

Still, the timing of Mikoto's departure held little importance in the end.

Miho dusted off her clothes, grabbed her backpack and settled into the tiny space by Itachi's side.

With a silent exhale, she leaned against the cave walls, the sharp rocks digging into her back. Slowly, unwittingly, her head turned to the side, out towards the cave's opening, outside where the Kyuubi continued its rampage.

It was too far away for her to sense the shinobi attacking it. Still, she kept her eyes trained on its corrosive, bright red chakra.

Even when she was jostled to the side, even when the Kyuubi's chakra burned her eyes, even when the screams of the dying were all she could hear -

Miho remained still. And she did so, unblinking, unmoving, until at last, as the full moon rested high above the stars - the Kyuubi vanished.

There was a murmur of confusion, of shifting bodies and dead silence.

But Miho knew exactly what that single moment entailed.

And, already aware of the written ending, she slowly turned her head away - and closed her eyes.

.

.

.

.

.

-o-o-o-o-o-

notes!
- canonically speaking, Mikoto (in all forms of media) fled to the mountain shelters during the Kyuubi attack, despite having been a retired jounin. there's many different ways you can interpret this action, so i've picked my own (for several reasons) and ran with it!

- (a quick shout out to Intellectual909 who wrote the most comprehensive analysis of Miho's character in their review - you're so tantalizing close and yet far at the same time, i just needed to commend you for it!)

anyways, i've been holding onto this chapter for a while now, for a number of reasons. if i'm going to be totally honest, it's been getting harder to write anything substantial for the past year or so - writing has always been exhausting for me, but these days, i struggle with even opening a word document. i think some of my older readers who have been with me for a while are well aware that i write very slowly and so updates come even slower - even so, i still want to try to continue writing as much as i can.

because of this, i can't express how thankful i am to the people who have been so kind with me. not to say that i owe anything to anyone, but patient and kind words help with my mental fatigue so much, so i'm always grateful for how i'm treated in this space.

i wanted to say a lot about this chapter and how much i've tried to pack into here haha, but i know i have a terrible tendency to write a lot in these author notes. long story short, thank you to everyone who's stopped by and i hope this chapter has brought a bit of the joy you all have brought me!