Title: These Are All Warnings That You Will Likely Forget (5 of ?)

Author: tsubaki-hana

Series: Naruto

Rating: M

Disclaimer: Naruto belongs to Kishimoto Masashi.

Summary: She could feel the blade of his katana more easily than the palm of his hand on her face. (Eight years after the Uchiha massacre, Mikoto wakes up. Itachi/Mikoto, Uchihacest.)

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Warnings: Still apply.

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She wore her hair long for many years, as long as she could grow it because what was more beautiful than a woman with a veil of charcoal black hair, as shifting and changing as the water in the river just down the lane? She tied ribbons and lace and bells, anything to make it brighter and more noticeable. She had something that was solely hers, something that made her stand out from the other girls (for that certainly wasn't your ninja skills, because those are just average, even for a jounin).

The day Mikoto cuts her hair, she does not pay attention to the act so much as the feeling of the weight coming off of her shoulders, the sudden coldness that she can feel on her back where there might have once been a long rope of hair. The scissors hiss their blades together, and despite her desire to cut her body free from her inky black hair, she recoils from the sound.

In her arms, Itachi, just under a year old, holds the long pieces of her hair in his fisted hand, unusually long, spider-leg eyelashes wet from a short cry he had earlier.

It is that sound, more than the scissors, that makes Mikoto crawl into some corner and hug her arms to her, filling something that is strangely vacant and noticeable in the vibrations of her son's crying. It is painful, and she finds herself cutting her hair more quickly, trying to cover up the sound.

It is evening when Fugaku gets back, and her husband looks at her curiously while she swings the remnant of her hair back and forth in her right hand, eyes trailing after it forlornly. She does not seem very aware of the baby in her arms, but she does tighten her grip every so often, as though afraid he were somehow going to slip away.

It is very quiet, and that is what she wants.

"Is there a reason you decided to cut your hair?" he asks stiffly, walking over to her side with quietly creaking feet, his weight pressing into her space.

"No," she says, feeling the salt that stings in the corner of her eyes. He frowns at her, but she only smiles shakily, adjusting her baby in her arms with ease.

"Why did you cut it if you were just going to regret it?" he asks her, taking a quiet infant Itachi from her arms, prying with warm fingers. She does not miss the quick worrisome look that passes over his eyes. Instead of saying something about it, she swallows around her thick dry tongue, trying to figure out why she feels like crying.

"I don't know."

"Are you sick?" He doesn't mean anything harsh by it, she knows, but it sounds so brutal all the same. Fugaku has never been very good at subtlety, and even two years into their marriage, Mikoto is still slightly upset by the bluntness of her husband.

"I didn't think so," she says miserably, "but I could be wrong."

(By which you mean to say that you are wrong, but are too stubborn to say it aloud. You don't want to be the sick one, the weak wife, the mentally disturbed woman that counts dresser drawers and kimono boxes that always add up one too many.)

Healthy people don't do things like this, she thinks to herself, and it seems worse since she doesn't know why she did it at all. She's not certain that she wants to know at all. What she doesn't know can't hurt her.

He doesn't say anything else, but hands Itachi off to his visiting mother with passing ease. Itachi protests only the smallest amount, holding onto the flak jacket with small but strong pale fingers. She watches him pass into the hallway, feeling the tug of something inside the cavity of her chest (empty, you add, because what ought to be there is passing down the corridor in the arms of your mother-in-law and away from you).

"You didn't tell me that your mother was coming," she says, trying to straighten herself out, brushing loose hair from her cream colored apron. The strands stick out like cracks in the white stone of the Nakano Temple, somewhere that she's been recently and secretly, because no one believes her well enough to wander where she pleases. There are no priests anymore, so it is considered 'dangerous' for her to go alone with her baby.

"I would have made dinner earlier had I known that," she adds, thinking that the comment is somehow important to her husband.

Fugaku sighs, looking more tired than he usually does. He has been working all day, yet he always seems to be more put together than Mikoto, and she envies that. She wonders why she can't be as perfect as he is with his even cut hair and starched (by you) clothes. It seems inherently unfair that he is doing so much better than she is.

Self-consciously, she reaches up and feels the rough edges of her hair.

"I didn't tell you because I wanted you to rest," he says, sitting down next to her and bringing the scissors into his own hand, checking their sharpness with the pad of his thumb. The blade leaves a thin white line, but does not break the skin, which Fugaku seems pleased with somehow. (Which is silly, you think to yourself, because you're in no hurry to hurt yourself. You're in a hurry to figure out what it is about yourself that displeases you so suddenly, as though the sudden absence of the child in your womb has transformed you into someone else.) "You've been running around a lot lately, and I know that you don't sleep, not when you know that Itachi is awake."

"I want to be there when he needs me," she says, and this ought to solve the problem but it doesn't. Fugaku just looks at her, his gaze long and hard. "I know that he's sleeping through the night by himself now, but he's been fussy the last couple of days and..."

"Itachi is never troublesome, not unless he is hungry," says Fugaku. "Try again."

She doesn't try again, because she knows that she has no answers, no realistic excuses that she could push off on her husband. (And what good is lying when you are so poor at it? He always sees through your stories, so why bother trying at all if ever?) Instead, she grabs the tips of her hair and says, "I didn't do a very good job, did I?"

"No," says Fugaku, a wry smile cracking the corner of his mouth. "You look terrible like that."

She smiles hesitantly, and even though she knows it is in jest that he says it, she still feels a hand of her own crawling around her neck, scratching and measuring the poorly done hack-job on her hair. The fingers shake just a little bit, but Fugaku grabs them with his own, settling her hands into her lap comfortably and measuring for himself with his own rough hands.

"Trying to saw your head off?" he asks, probably thinking he has made a clever joke. "I didn't know that things had been that unpleasant. Maybe if you just slept more..."

She doesn't listen, instead choosing to ramble on about what she has planned for dinner, and that she certainly hoped that his mother would like that, and really, how was his day at work? She goes on like this for a while, and Fugaku answers her meaningless questions patiently, grabbing up the scissors as his own. The snipping sound makes her stumble over her description of one of Itachi's walking ventures down the hall, the one that made him fall and knock his head against the low table of the kitchen (the one that set him to crying and her into a madness).

He pretends not to notice and goes on trimming Mikoto's hair to make a perfect line across the base of her neck, an itchy one that she isn't able to ignore whenever it brushes up against the collar of her shirt. She winces with each snip of the scissors, wondering if he will simply cut it all off and save her the trouble later on.

She knows that if it's not gone today, it will probably be gone tomorrow, and she's not sure if she'll be able to not-explain to her husband why there's a pile of dead hair on the floor.

Looking beneath her knees, it seems strangely fitting where the hair falls on her mopped floor, weaving into the whorls and knots of the woodgrain, like stretched little macabre fingers. (You should struggle harder before your pulled down.)

- - - - -

5

The doctor came in the morning,

she held my hand,

and asked "Was it worth it?"

"Could it be worse than this?"

-The Knife

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Mikoto's first day of physical therapy is spent doing little else other than squeezing a small rubber ball, an obnoxiously blue one, just like everything else around here. Her brittle fingers are white against the florescent plastic, and she watches as the knuckles of her right hand strain, and every fiber in her arm clenches. (Your tendons don't move as they should because you have crooked little fingers, and the band of white that you have cut apart in unnumerable men and women shifts awkwardly over the bones and muscle. It stretches, as it hasn't done in years.)

She feels silly, working so hard to move five fingers, forehead slick with sweat from her work. Not so long ago, she could have broken the rubber in her grip, but now it slowly bends and moves back into its shape, as though she weren't working at all.

"It gets better, Mikoto-san," says Kirie, sitting next to her in the cold plastic of her chair. "It really does, just as soon as we start the chakra therapy. But until then, you need to repair your chakra paths yourself."

"Well, a whole lot of good its going to do me if I break my hand trying to get ready," she grumbles, angry at the way the sweat makes her forehead slick and itchy from unevenly cut hair. She doesn't bother to brush it away. She's already too tired to lift her arm to do something so simple.

"You try too hard," says Kirie, brushing the hair away for her, her hand cool and smooth. A link of her bracelet catches on Mikoto's hair, but she does not grimace, instead watching as the steel ring pulls through the black strands. The glint of it is bright and wicked in her eyes. "There's only so much you can do when you first start. By all accounts, you're doing very well!"says Kirie, smiling widely. But Mikoto's eyes are not caught on the bracelet anymore, nor on the cheap pink lip gloss that she can smell as wax and strawberry from where she lays. Instead, her focus rests on the ball in her hand, her mouth curled into a bitter smile.

"I could have popped this ball eight years ago. I could have snapped it clear in half," says Mikoto, frowning disconsolately at the blue rubber. "What is so different? Why doesn't it work as it should?"

Kirie moves to say something, one petite hand against the brittle bone of her wrist, and seeing this, Mikoto feels like a corpse.

She ought to have died, and this she knows by the iv in her arm and the scars across her neck. They are deadly wounds, one that would kill a stronger man, and she knows that Itachi was right to be shocked by her survival. She could almost read it in the twitch of his lips, the slow, methodical way that he moved at that time.

I killed you.

Oh, what it must have been like for him, to see the first failure in his entire career as a shinobi. She knows that her life being spared couldn't have been intentional. She had been meant to die, and he was going to smile over her body as she bled to death on a floor she had cleaned a thousand times, scattering salt every winter to strengthen traditional barriers. (They keep no monsters out, you add, because you always seemed to be fighting them from inside the house. Perhaps, you think, they were made to keep the monsters in.) Her very existence was contradictory to the way things ought to be and she wondered how long it would be before time corrected its mistake and she disappeared into the floorboards and the warp of the wood.

I killed you, his eyes said to her.

Looking at the rubber in her hand and the tendons straining in her fragile wrist, she thinks it sounds an awful lot like a promise.

- - - - -

"You haven't been writing me," says Tsunade, scowling over a mug of tea in her hand and a basket of sweet bread. Mikoto smiles lightly, squeezing the rubber ball in her hand, knowing full well that the leader of her country is hung over, and that this is the perfect moment to bask in this fact. She doesn't know what devils drive the older woman to drink so much, but she will have an advantage. "You have to write me so that I can decide when to let you out."

Mikoto smiles wider, and grabs for one of the sweet bread rolls. "But if I don't write, it means that you have to come and see me instead of reading what I have to say." She chews the bread, thinking of mornings spent cooking breakfast, of chestnut cookies that Fugaku liked, of the soft fruit rolls that her mother made for her every morning. "And I do get lonely without you here to nag me, Hokage-sama."

Tsunade says nothing to that, but looks stone-cold in the white glow of the florescent lights. Her eyes are hard, but not unfeeling, like someone who is too tightly guarded and afraid to break something. (But Tsunade breaks a lot of people. Perhaps she is just afraid to break you more.)

"Call me Tsunade, if you would please. I feel a little older every time someone calls me Hokage." She snorts, writing something with a flourish and grumbling about meddlesome genin. "Besides, best I can tell, it's just you and me and a pile of paperwork. Shizune isn't here to be offended at our lack of protocol."

"You do not like it then," Mikoto states, "being called the Hokage, that is."

Tsunade frowns. "My teacher is the Hokage. My grandfather and great uncle were Hokage. It makes me feel like a kid in my mother's shoes to call myself Hokage, if you understand."

Mikoto understands perfectly well. At the age of seventeen, she had become the wife of the clan leader, the lady of the house. Barely done growing out of her childhood, Mikoto had become something of a figure head, and she hadn't (hasn't) known what to do since then, didn't (doesn't) know at all.

"So then let us speak of other things, since it is so uncomfortable to address stations such as ours," she says with a swaying grace, and she thinks of willows, something that she knows she is not. I fool you, she thinks, I fool you all and I will continue to do so. "What state is Konoha in? Who are the upcoming ninja that I should know about?" she asks with a smile.

Tsunade's face softens a bit, as if recalling something precious, something solely hers. Mikoto recognizes the motherly glance for what it is, and finds herself envying Tsunade her happiness again. (What right does she have when she is so much older and you are so very miserable?)

"Most of the genin children you would recognize are chuunin now, though there are a few exceptions," Tsunade begins, biting her bottom lip. "You were friends with Nara Shikato growing up, yes? Well his son, Nara Shikamaru, is a jounin now, even acts as an envoy to the Sand Country."

"How proud his parents must be!" she says, putting on her best face (which is also the fake one, but you don't let people know that.) She is happy, somewhere beneath, for Shikato and his son, but her opinion of how old and how young children on the battlefield ought to be, especially after all that has happened. She is proud of the quiet boy that she knew, but she does not feel that it is right, that it is humane. "I am sure that he does the village much good."

Tsunade smiles. "Certainly. He is both intelligent and compassionate, which makes him a capable leader. But he isn't the only one that I am proud of. Yamanaka Ino and Haruno Sakura have both begun apprenticeships under me to learn the medical arts."

"Then you are not only acting in office but teaching as well?" she asks.

Tsunade nods, and takes a long drought of her tea. "So I have."

She frowns. "But do you not fear that they will die? That they will go on a mission and will not come back? I mean, it isn't the same as sending your own children away, so maybe it is easier to do. How does that feel, to send someone away to somewhere they could probably die?"

For a moment, Mikoto is certain that she has offended Tsunade at last. The glass of tea sloshes messily across one of her papers, and Tsunade quickly mops it up with her haori, frowning and cold once again. Watching the stain spread across the green fabric, Mikoto feels strangely regretful, like she has ripped the covering brocade from over a mirror only to discover it's broken.

But at the same time, she is delighted to see a pain so similar to hers reappear on Tsunade's face, something that she has sorely needed to see for the past week.

"You are a very bitter woman, and I don't grudge you that," she hears, but does not see with her eyes rooted to the dark spot on Tsunade's clothes. "Maybe you blame the philosophy of the shinobi nations for what has happened in your own family. I cannot deny this is possible. But no matter what you might have decided is the fault of the state, it will never be easy for me to send people out, never as long as I can remember my loved ones. You, who have lost everything and have had no time to adjust to the idea, don't have the experience to understand that yet."

Mikoto winces, but nods. Tsunade softens at the edges, though she is not sure if that is because her eyes are squinted together or because Tsunade has left her stone-hard anger behind her.

"It wasn't easy to send a twelve-year old chuunin on his first mission as a leader because help was short. It wasn't easy to let a group of four genin to fight off experienced ninja from an opposing village because no one else would volunteer to help. It -especially- wasn't easy to let a kind boy leave because he feels that he failed as a friend and a shinobi to save your youngest son." And this Tsunade says in a strained voice, trembling bands of sound wanting to speak someone's name. Her hands reach to her neck, as if looking for something lying in the cradle of her breastbone.

"Do not speak of not loving every ninja that passes through my office," says Tsunade, and Mikoto notices with each passing moment, she regains her strength, flourishing in her conviction. The woman that had looked so mournful just a moment before suddenly breaks the shell before Mikoto's very eyes. "Ninja are people, but they are also warriors, no matter how young, and it is a choice that they all make. I respect that decision, and cope by believing that they are capable."

There was a time that Mikoto had felt the same, newly graduated from the academy and ready to be remembered by history (and how long ago that now feels!). She remembers putting the bracers on Itachi's arm for the first time, feeling the tenderness of his arm (a child's arm) and wondering what made her son so brave and strong, and worrying if he would ever need her again, like he had needed her when he was sick or when he woke in the night, unable to sleep.

Well, she laughs to herself in a rasping voice, we all know how that turned out.

She sent her own children out, knowing fully well how important it was to them, and ashamed, Mikoto knows that she has no right to try and destroy what comfort Tsunade has found in knowing this.

"I've still not fully come to terms with the idea of sending people's children, people's parents and sister sand brothers out to a place where I know they can die, but they have, and that's all that really matters. What happened in the past, whatever decisions you've made or that the Hokage made, is still in the past. It won't change, but you can." Tsunade smiles, the kind of smile that Mikoto can only remember the Lady Hokage giving to a very select few people in her life. "Or at least so a little blonde haired brat tells me, whenever I get down on my luck."

Mikoto smiles to match Tsunade's, but this time it is not very bitter, but very hopeful.

"I know the hospital isn't the most thrilling place to be, much less in a ward filled with coma patients, but it will get better. You have to believe that," Tsunade says, and takes a sip of her tea which is now cold, unpleasant, and half empty. "Besides, you haven't told me whether or not you wish to go on active duty again or not. Maybe we can set you up with your own set of genin and get you back into the thick of things."

Tsunade lists off all the things that Mikoto could do with her present rank and strength, and Mikoto nods, listening appreciatively. The feeling that none of this will ever come true sneaks up on her and makes her feel like a liar with each answer, despite what lingering happiness she has.

- - - - -

Her grandfather, a man of some seventy odd years when she was just a child as Mikoto recalls, used to call all the granddaughters in the family "hime-sama", his little princess. In her youth, she had found this to be wonderful, a beautiful contrast to the calluses and scars on her paper-thin skin had been building up since she threw her first shuriken. She felt lovely in the arms of her grandfather, even with her gap-toothed smiles and uncombed hair saying otherwise.

"None are as lovely as my Mikoto-hime-sama, not a one from the western sands of the Wind Country to the eastern shores of the Water Country," he'd say, and tap her nose with his spindly Buddha fingers, his smile a crescent in his round face.

Reflected in the steel and aluminum of the hospital appliances, Mikoto has a hard time reconciling herself to be the same girl that her grandfather had thought to be so beautiful, even if the memory does bring a smile to her face. Quite simply, she is not beautiful, not the way that she was in the golden carriage uchikake and hair pins of her wedding night. They (and anyone other than her or Tsunade is -always- they) have chopped off her hair, bruised her arms, paled her skin to blue, and dulled her eyes with narcotics. When she looks at her forearms, she sees angry welts and spider veins that pulse with each passing second.

No one is here to lie and call her beautiful anymore, not in the way she felt that it might be true.

"Uchiha-san, " says Kirie, smacking her blueberry gum between her teeth and pulling her blouse down, "wouldn't you like for me to trim your hair?" She them ruffles her own hair, as though comparing length and color. (Kirie's, you note, always looks fake: bleached blonde and red and angrily sheared.) The scissors, even when coated in a cheerful pink plastic, wink wickedly from the side table. (Not so wicked as to frighten, but you are unsettled all the same by the knicked blades, as though each pit in the metal were wounds.)

"No."

Mikoto is surprised with her own answer, like she has betrayed herself with words, with noise in the middle of her great silence. She ought to want her hair cut, to be restored to some sort of proper order, but strangely, she find that she doesn't want that at all. Reassuring herself, Mikoto nods. "I am fine with my hair the way it is now." Which is really a lie, because her hair is itching against her neck, rasping against her ears. The autumn has come inside to her with rice stalk locks that rattle in the artificial wind of the air conditioner.

I've done something to deserve this, she thinks, frowning with chapped lips (they stretch, p u l l, crack). This is some kind of joke at my expense. Closing her eyes, she believes it must be so, because she is not anyone's lady princess, but a barren dowager empress in exile. (Board the train and fly away, because the castle burns tonight and all your kings and queens with it, you sing-song to yourself, in that hollow that you keep what remains of the old you in.)

"None are as lovely as my Mikoto-hime-sama," said her grandfather with the spindly Buddha fingers, and without a doubt, Mikoto knows that it was true then, but is false now.

- - - - -

She wakes to the feeling of her hair being pulled and trimmed, and for one moment, she is positive that she will never speak to Kirie again for cutting her hair without her consent. She had been ready to keep her shorn hair as a reminder of what had happened, and what would need to be done. However, it seemed she had been cut off at the end.

But Mikoto, always a ninja when (now that) she is not a mother, recognizes that the strokes of the blade against her hair are much to precise and quiet for the hands of her nurse, who always seems to gleam gold and silver with jewelry. There is too steady a hand for it to be the doctor, and it is much too still for the impatient Tsunade or her assistant.

She steels her heart against this person, and opens her eyes.

At first she sees nothing, but knows that she is sitting up, held in place by one leg that is care fully propped up against her back, and another that stretches out next to her. She watches this leg, with its well formed foot with carefully painted toe nails and bleached white leggings. It is warm against her own cool side, and unwittingly, she leans towards it.

"Please stop moving," says a hot voice against her neck, moist enough to make her shiver. The chill scissor blades make her jump in shock when they press against the same place.

She doesn't have to look to know who it is, even when the voice has aged since what she remembers and what she recalls from the nightmare of the weeks before. She knows, in the way that all mothers do, where her children are, and knows that Itachi is sitting behind her.

He moves soundlessly behind her, so quiet next to the frantic beat of her heart in her ears, sounding as the swell of the sea. The scissors press against her neck and skull multiple times, and she feels the layers of hair gently sliding down the slope of her shoulders. It itches, but she is well-disciplined enough to not flinch.

It doesn't stop the nausea, but not wanting to be jerked over the bed rail again, she swallows the bile in her throat.

"Why?" she asks, when she finally finds her voice, a weak trembling thing that hides behind a deceptive calm. "Why are you here?"

He moves to face her, all sleek lines, not wasting a single movement. He clips her hair even around her ears, and blinks a her, evaluating the length of her bangs with rough fingers.

"Haha-ue's hair is disorderly. You would not want your hair to grow back uneven, would you?" he asks coyly, the shadow of a smile lifting the corner of his mouth. He pulls her face forward to him, fingers hooked into her forelocks with a vice's grip, and breathing hotly against her face and ear, he says, "Good mothers like for their sons to help them, yes?"

She nods, feeling the sibilant hiss of his words tickle her and a lip catch against her ear.

"Then you should not tell anyone that I have been here, or else I might not come back," he says blandly, and Mikoto knows that he is quite serious.

And against all logic, Mikoto doesn't want him to go (there's no place like home, there's no place like home, there's no place...), because without him, what is there for her? Nothing, nothing, nothing, and now she nods yes, while he slips out of the room. It is as if he were never there to begin with. She clutches the cut hair between her fingers, sensing her lost resolve scattered amongst it, and weeps as quietly as possible.

- - - - -

To Be Continued

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A/N: I thought I would never get this written, but sure as hell, here it is. Thank you so much to my reviewers! I've tried my best to respond to all of the reviews for the last chapter, but some of you escaped my radar when ff net was having technical difficulties. I shall try to answer questions and respond as best as I can to all of you on this chapter.

I've had a lot of health issues for the last couple of months, and as it were, my medication make sit incredibly hard for me to write anything that requires me to emote. As it were, I am presently in a mania, and quite capable of emoting. I'll try to be more prompt next chapter.

Reviews and constructive criticism are always welcome!