Title: Deep River
Summary: Lady Uchiha – from child to wife to mother – and the constant flow of the Nakano River.
Disclaimer: Naruto is the property of Kishimoto Masashi.
Note: This story is actually archived on another of my accounts, Red Right Ankle, for which I've now lost the password. Therefore I'm just going to throw it up here. If you see the story elsewhere on this site, under the above pen name, it's still me! I'm not a plagiarist, I swear. And yes, this story also got Joss'd by canon. Joss'd hard :-|
Uchiha Mikoto. Ten years old and dancing on the bank of the Nakano River, sprigs of golden spring flowers woven into her dark, plaited hair, in a time before memory.
"The daughter of the river
Looks for her love on a lonely shore
Looks for her love
O where has the sweet water carried him?"
The Nakano burbles merrily in the background, a jingling accompaniment. The sky is blue and tall with sheerness, cotton-ball clouds drifting lazily overhead. Young meadowgrass tickles the naked pads of her feet when she removes her sandals and dangles them carelessly from one hand, dancing her way down to the creaky, moisture-eaten piers that she is forbidden to stand on. She likes this place because the current is mildest there, and it's possible to skip stones.
It is on that riverbank that she first meets the man who will one day be her husband.
Fugaku is five years her senior, and is at their first real meeting already a quiet, intense-eyed young man with a sort of awe-inspiring stillness that will forever fascinate Mikoto. He is wearing his Jounin uniform, standing at the edge of the dock and gazing into a summer-ripe tangerine of a setting sun with both his hands buried in the depths of his jacket pockets. Even at a ten-yard distance, Mikoto can see that a look of deep serenity has settled over his heavy-set face, mellowing out the sharp features. The sight of it fuels her with courage to start a conversation.
"Hello," she greets politely, made suddenly shy by the strangeness of the occasion, coming to stand abreast the quiet young man.
"Hello," he answers. Being so much taller, he has to dip his head to look at her. His eyes seem mild and unaffected, an impression which strikes in her mind a stark contrast against the other members of the clan, even her own family. Mikoto, who has always felt a storm raging in her head, is particularly susceptible to this sort of composure, and is intrigued by it. She thinks perhaps if she can just uncover the secret to this man's poise, her mother won't scold her for being so rambunctious all the time.
"Are you here to skip stones too?" she asks, showing him her collection of round white pebbles.
Fugaku smiles. "I'm afraid I don't have any."
"That's okay. You can use some of mine. Here, take these flat ones. They skip better."
She holds a handful of stones out to him, beaming winsomely. He accepts her offerings but instead of throwing, merely holds the pebbles delicately in the broad palm of his hand. She waits to see if he would say anything, and is disappointed when he doesn't. In the prolonged silence, a sense of heaviness begins prickling at the back of her neck.
"I know your face," Mikoto blurts out, saying the first thing that comes into her head, and immediately blushes at her imprudence. So much for learning to be more composed.
Fugaku, thankfully, does not seem to mind. "Yes," he replies in that same quiet, unhurried voice. "From the New Year banquet, right?"
"That's right! You were being praised by all the elders. For – well, I don't remember what it was."
Fugaku smiles again, this time a little more openly. The change it creates in his face is astonishing. "For passing my Jounin exam, perhaps?"
"Yes!" she exclaims triumphantly. "My mother said you are going to be our next Clan Head someday. Is that true?"
"It's true," he says, nodding.
"Wow. That's a huge responsibility. You must be an excellent shinobi. Are your parents happy about it?"
Maybe it's her imagination, but she thinks she sees a dark flicker pass through his eyes. In a moment, she learns why.
"My parents have recently passed away," Fugaku answers at last. "But yes, I'm quite sure they would have been very happy.."
Mikoto bites her tongue. She hasn't been paying attention again. She has heard of the attack on the late Lord and Lady Uchiha on their envoy to the Sand Village last winter. It is, like her father always says during his more passionate after-dinner moments, talking in his loud, blustery voice, just another atrocity against the Leaf in general and the Uchiha Clan in particular, another reason that the enemy must be crushed at all costs. She knows their village is at war – it feels like the village has always been engaged in one conflict or another for as long as she can remember – and she should have guessed that there might be another reason for Fugaku's quiet look other than natural mellowness.
"You must be very lonely," she wonders aloud, unthinking.
Fugaku looks away. His next words come out slightly muffled by a sudden cry of the wind over the water. "Yes, I believe I am."
"I'm sorry," she mumbles, slightly ashamed. "I wish I can do something. Is there something I can do?"
For the first time, Fugaku seems surprised. "I don't know," he says bemusedly. "Do you think there is?"
"Maybe... If I ever find out, I'll be sure to do it. I promise."
She says this with the utmost confidence, and for a long time, Fugaku simply looks at her. Mikoto is beginning to fidget under his steady gaze when, without warning, he bursts into soft laughter and says, "That's very nice of you, Mikoto-chan. I'll always remember it."
It doesn't occur to her to ask how he knows her name.
"Here," Fugaku says, holding up one of the white pebbles between his thick thumb and forefinger. He flicks out his hand in a swift movement of wrist, too quick to observe, and suddenly the stone is zipping across the vast surface of the river, touching water once, twice, three times, before sinking to the bottom. Mikoto claps her hands to her wide open mouth.
"You're really good!" she cries out excitedly. "Do it again"
He complies. So they stay on the river bank, skipping white polished stones until dusk falls and it's too dark to see their hands in front of their faces. By then, Mikoto is giddy and breathless with laughter, and has already nearly forgotten all about war and loneliness. She holds onto Fugaku's hand tightly as he walks her home.
Eight years have passed before Mikoto is finally able to fulfill her promise, courtesy of an omai. When she finally steps over the threshold of the Main Compound, arduously dressed in her weighty, multilayer bridal robe, the old war is ended and a new one is on the point of beginning. The storm in her head has long receded, taking with it the butterfly-wing flightiness of her childhood. She has almost no recollection of that first meeting by the river, and can only laugh, slightly doubtful, at her vague memory when Fugaku reminds her of it on their wedding night.
After three years of marriage, these are the things that Mikoto has learned:
There are things you must come to terms with as a kunoichi, and there are things you must come to terms with as the matriarch of a powerful ninja clan, and somehow these things are not always mutually inclusive. It is not as simple as wiping a slate blank and starting over, but rather more like taking all that she knows and adding to this store of knowledge with what she's learning, always something new everyday. The metamorphosis is not always entirely unconscious. She is twenty one years old, a Jounin, and the newly minted Lady Uchiha, and she must somehow attempt to reconcile these three seemingly incompatible qualities.
But that's alright, because Mikoto is a mature woman and a quick learner, and has always done what she's supposed to.
Her husband is very supportive. Fugaku, true to her first impression of him, is a man seldom moved to strong emotions. To his subordinates, he is stern and iron-willed, with a deep-lying but devastating temper that is unleashed only when their follies have worn down the last bastion of his patience. Uchiha Fugaku can be a terrible man when provoked, but Mikoto has never seen his sharp eyes turn on her with anything but kindness in them, the same sort of unflappable stolidity that she has never understood, but finds herself in deep admiration of.
As their marriage enters its third year, the elders have begun speaking impatiently of heirs, making unsubtle hints that pierce like blades of ice. Their words fade to a babble of white noise in Mikoto's ears, drawing from her bitter, bitter tears. But Fugaku never rushes her, never loses hold of that calm, steady manner which she has grown to depend on so much – as much as his rare and truly beautiful smiles – to slow her down, keep her grounded whenever her restless nature gets the better of her, turning the thoughts in her head to a mad, unbalanced whirlwind. His presence mutes the dull roar in her ears – he is her anchor, and she is grateful for that.
If there is one thing that might move her to action, however, it is the fact that the house in which they live – the Main Compound – is much too dark and dreary. It is an old house, built during a time when winters were fierce and the need for heat conservation superseded architectural aesthetics. The walls are thick, the ceilings low, the windows narrow and few and far between. On cloudy days, lamps have to be lit by noon. Mikoto has always been a creature of the outside, as her parents will attest with many weary shakes of heads, and she finds the constant gloominess grating and stifling.
It is, she supposes, bearable for the present. But what of the future? She will not stand to raise her children in a house of darkness.
(She is unconsciously thinking of the Hyuuga Compound, and her first memory of it, engraved in her mind from the age of six. It was a house full of light, large and wide open, the sprawling series of spacious and high-ceilinged rooms, streaming into one another unhindered. Few doors were ever shut, and the windows had no shutters, only screens serving no real purpose. At six, Mikoto was yet too young to understand enhanced sight and the consequences brought on by years of segregation. At twenty one, she knows better, but has mastered the art of selective memory.)
Fugaku listens to her elaborate suggestions with polite attention, evincing no visible signs of disapproval or approbation. The next day, he takes her to the Nakano Shrine.
It is perhaps his intention to show her what real darkness is.
Mikoto returns from the excursion quiet and ashen-faced, going to their bedroom and not emerging for the rest of the night. Afterwards, she makes no mention to Fugaku, or anyone else for that matter, of renovating the compound, and the full of light house scheme is for the most part laid to rest. In any case, there is no further opportunity to bring it up, because in the winter of that year, they learn that she is pregnant with their first baby.
It is, all things considered, a relatively stress-free first pregnancy, and Mikoto sometimes wonders if she shouldn't be experiencing more discomfort. As it is, she sails through the first trimester with minimum hassle – with no discernible change in her taste and appetite, and no significant hindrance to any of her daily routines. Her mother, when she comes for a visit in the fourth month, is similarly perplexed.
"Really, it's almost improper," she tells Mikoto, mystified and beetle-browed. "Young wives should have more trouble with their first child."
"Kaasan," Mikoto wheedles, light and playful. "It almost sounds like you're wishing me pain. Isn't it better this way, ne? Or are you afraid the elders will demand Fugaku-san to denounce me just because I'm having too much fun being the mother of his heir?"
Her mother shakes her head, tutting in disapproval. Mikoto bites the insides of her cheeks and goes on intently, "Even they're not that batty."
"Ah, you devil of a child," her mother scolds affectionately. "If I had my way, I should never have let you out of my house. You never know when to hold back that tongue in your head."
"Honestly, though," her mother says, now serious, an anxious note teetering on the edge of her voice. "Are you happy to be here? Are you content, Miko-chan?"
Mikoto opens her mouth, and is slightly alarmed when nothing comes out. She tries again, "Of course I am, kaasan. There is nothing to worry about."
In truth, she is afraid of letting her mother know how much her frank words have rankled her. In truth, she would quite welcome the pain, the sickness, the discomfort. She believes that if she were too busy being miserable all the time then the suffocating terror she has fallen under would abate and she would no longer wake in the middle of the night with tears streaming down her face with no idea how they got there. It is a sense of impending danger, a terror of time so inexorable that she is convinced some terrible future must await her and this unborn child. In truth, Mikoto would prefer pain to this current state of helpless, nameless fear.
But there is always so much occupying her attention these days that soon she has little time to obsess over – of all things – her lack of morning sickness. She doesn't mind either that Fugaku, in his quiet way, has become more attentive to her, content to be silently grateful for his considering glances and soft-spoken inquiries over the dinner table and little gestures in between official duties. These are the trials of being a woman, she thinks in her moments of solitude.
Almost unbeknownst to Mikoto, other hopes too are buoying within her, gaining strength with the docile growth of her baby. Already, she is dreaming of a quiet, mild-tempered child; perhaps a boy who would inherit her husband's strong sharp features, or a dark-eyed girl with her smile. She's thinking that if all goes well – as surely it will, as surely it must – she will give birth in mid-summer, when the Nakano's water is still sweet, its purity yet unspoiled by August rain and silt. True, it will not be perfect, for the water is sweetest in spring, but at least a woman can hope.
Mikoto has no doubt, none at all, that her first child will deliver her nothing but comfort.
It is a clear day the second week of June when Mikoto takes a stroll along the bank of the Nakano, accompanied by one of the serving women, having succumbed to her mother's insistence that she procures help now that she is in her eight month and too heavy to do things for herself. They're making their way toward the old shrine, laden down with incense sticks and offerings. Privately, Mikoto finds this new routine of hers disquieting – today is no day to spend buried in gilded altars and dusty prayers, the bright summer sun seems to say. But she is too mature a woman to concede. Life is difficult and if there is spiritual comfort to be found then she must seek it, if not for herself than for her family. For her child.
As the decrepit outline of the shrine begins to loom like a shadow against the blue canvas of the sky, Mikoto is suddenly struck by an intense shock of pain, shooting hotly up her pelvis and navel. The strength goes out from her legs and she falls to her knees. For a moment, her heart turns to ice when she recognizes the pain as the first of her contractions.
The servant woman is in hysterics, fluttering around and going on about the hospital. "No time," Mikoto instructs tersely, surprised by her own calmness. "Get the midwife, quickly. I'll be fine."
The woman nods frantically and rushes off, leaving Mikoto lying under the thick shadow of an ancient willow at the edge of the river. She doesn't need to peruse her maternity calendar to know that the baby isn't due for at least another three weeks. It is as if after all these months of indolent submission, her child is finally finding the strength to rebel.
"There is no need to come out just yet, my love," she whispers raggedly, sweat beading heavily on her forehead. "But I guess I'll have to indulge you, won't I?"
White clouds move in slow waves across the sky, neigh invisible through the swaying branches. The river pipes a gentle chorus in the background, a soft-spoken encouragement that braces Mikoto's heart. She clenches her clammy hands into fists, grabbing handfuls of dewy grass.
"What a forceful child you will grow up to be," Mikoto says with a shaky laugh, before another horrible contraction forces her to bite down on her bundled sleeve. "You'll always do whatever you want, with no regards to the expectations of others. You need to learn to change that, or you'll never fit it with these crowds we call family, love."
The baby answers her with another silent wave of pain.
By the time her servant returns with the midwife, she is nearly unconscious, covered from head to toe in a sheen of sour sweat. Her newborn child lies sedately on her stomach, clutched in her shaking arms, their bodies still connected. She has one of his tiny fists covered in her bony white hand, a perfect fit. All is quiet – even the breeze has stopped rustling the willow branches – and when she unshutters her eyes lazily to look at the newly arrived women, the looks on their faces inform her that they fear the worst.
"It's fine," she says weakly, struggling to smile. "We're quite alright. You may perform your duties now, oneesan."
It is the only thing she manages to utter before a terrible fatigue overtakes her. She has faced and soundly conquered the gory trials of birth, but far from that, the last thing she remembers before drifting into the dark chasm of unconsciousness is an ineffable sense of unease. Her eldest son leaves her womb without a single cry, mum and placid as the Lord Buddha in repose, but in his silence there is nothing to be found but a terrible disquiet, a far cry from the comforting peace she has expected.
She has hoped for a gentle child, as kind and sweet-tempered as the water of the Nakano in spring, but when she looks into Itachi's eyes for the first time, it is the flesh-colored rage of a monsoon river that she imagines seeing there.
Perhaps it is because he was born on a river bank and opened his eyes to a world all vast waters and open skies, or perhaps because water drawn from the Nakano was used for his first bath, but for one reason or another, Mikoto has always sensed in her eldest son a deep-seated unrest, like the secret channels at the murky, mud-dark bottom of the river, ever shifting and changing course like the weather of men's hearts. She takes notes of this, watching for its formation and manifestation with determined wariness, for which she can find no explanation.
Young shinobi grow up faster than normal children, hurried into maturation, and this is a shock that every mother must learn to familiarize herself with, regardless of her own upbringing. Mikoto gets a taste of the eternal conflict between nature and life choice the year Itachi turns four and his father announces that he will start training at the Academy in the fall.
"But why?" Mikoto finds herself asking, hands pausing in the middle of scooping Fugaku his second serving of rice at dinner. Itachi has already excused himself to go practice with some new shuriken he has been given that day. "He's still so young. Wouldn't it be better if we waited a year or two? Why can't you continue supervising his training like you've been doing so far?"
"Wartime regulations," Fugaku answers gruffly. "The village stands to be under attack at any moment, and even children need to learn to protect themselves as soon as possible."
"Learn to fight, you mean," she returns coldly, surprised into boldness by deep concern.
Her husband coughs and averts his eyes. "Think what you will. The bottom line is that it is a difficult time and sacrifices have to be made. As to the matter of my training him, I'm afraid it is quite out of the question. My military police duties do not allow me to take any more liberty than I already have, and who knows what these next few months will bring."
He trails off, his line of vision still fixed on some invisible object in the distant. In the silence that follows, Mikoto begins to feel a bit ashamed of her earlier outburst. She needs to try harder. She really shouldn't act so surly, not when Fugaku's eyes grow hard and dull and tired by the day, the disaffected silence she was once so fond of now growing to consume him, dimming his vitality and eating away at his legendary patience. He doesn't smile like he used to. The war is moving and they are losing and Fugaku's life is drawn out in schedules and margins and battle plans, and these things somehow find their ways into the walls of their home, carrying Fugaku the way he once carried his sorrow on a river bank, with a heavy, solemn grace.
Mikoto notices her fingers have grown knotted and white-knuckled around the spoon's wooden handle, and unclenches them with some effort. Her other hand has strayed to linger over her still-flat tummy, caressing the imaginary bulk in slow concentric circles. She has meant to announce her good news over dinner tonight, but it appears that would have to wait.
So she watches with swallowed grief as her son is taken away from her and given a weapon holster and placed in line beside all the other children to be honed into perfect, efficient killers even before they've lost their milk teeth. The perpetual arch of Fugaku's furrowed brows reinforces the brave front she puts up, preparing Itachi's lunch box with extra snacks and attached notes bidding him good luck and promising never-ending love waiting at home.
But it's difficult. Itachi's little hands still fit into hers, simple and thoughtless, but as she watches them curve around a rice bowl at dinner, shaking from pain and fatigue but gamely holding on, she is terrified by the sight of them, small and white and already-calloused from holding the handle of a kunai. The transformation makes her chest hurt, makes her turn and look twice before she sees her son again, young and solemn-eyed and always much too wise for his age.
"What are you looking for?" Itachi asks one day when he notices her gaze wandering.
Mikoto turns away to hide a silent tear when she realizes the answer is "You".
Her second son is born one sultry night in July, and later Mikoto will joke that theirs is a summer-born family through and through, all fiery tempers and violent mood-swings and a tendency to go to the extremes. Everyone will laugh heartily, but it's really not that funny.
This time around, the progress of her pregnancy is carefully monitored by a mob of well-intentioned relatives led by her mother, and everything is conducted in a thoroughly proper manner. There is the hospital, there is the maternity ward full of screaming women and frightful men in sterilized white – a sight which disturbs Mikoto's frazzled state of mind so much that she almost asks to be taken to the river again. There is, naturally, pain, and several hours later Mikoto finds herself the proud mother of a healthy baby boy, who unlike his somber sibling, greets the world by howling up a storm.
Sasuke is an attractive and positively inquisitive baby, inheriting to a remarkable degree Mikoto's soft and elegant features, with the sole exception of his hair, which shows promise of outstripping his father's for unruliness. Not three weeks old and he already smiles a good deal more than his brother, rash and bright-eyed and affectionately slobbering, treating screaming tantrums like a recreational sport and taking wicked delight in the amount of fuss the doting adults pile on him. He is not a difficult child to love, and Mikoto sets out to do just that, but two months later, the world starts to end, and other plans have to be made.
There has never been enough time, that's the problem. She had barely had time to get used to her role as wife and matriarch before she was given a new one, that of a mother to Itachi. Then there was barely time to learn to love her son properly before he was taken from her to be made into a weapon for the village. And now here is Sasuke, and there will barely be time to learn to love him properly before the world ends. It's a vicious circle that makes her head spin.
Of course, her head might just be spinning due to the ceaseless rumbling of the earth. The sky is blood-stained and crumbling in flakes, spiraling to the faintly crackling ground in acrid black ashes. Poisonous chakra has turned the outer regions of the village to a sea of flame, and Mikoto slams the door of her house against the heat, dropping her head in prayer as the ground gives another roiling shake. The words taste like ash in her mouth. She wonders not for the first time if this might be the terrible future which sent her tears running in her sleep all those years ago.
On a rumpled futon, Sasuke lies screaming in the sweaty folds of his blankets. He is running a high fever, parched and miserable, but she is just as miserable, maternal affection warring against exhausted frustration and losing fast, as fast as the village's shinobi in their wretched battle against the demon fox. The fever herbs ran out yesterday, and there won't be any more coming, at least not until this siege ends, which at this points seems ever less likely.
"Lady Uchiha!" a voice screams frantically from beyond the closed door. "Lady Uchiha, please come quick! The northern warehouse has caught fire!"
Mikoto jerks up her head from where she has been cradling it with her hands. Throughout this war, her chief responsibility has been to oversee the constant distribution of rations to the front lines. The Uchiha Clan, before anything else, is an efficient war machine in times of conflict, and it has been assigned to her the task of keeping it well-oiled and functioning. Courage and skills may or may not win them this war, but troops still have to eat. She pulls herself shakily to her feet and makes for the door with haste.
From behind her, Sasuke lets out another fretful wail.
"Lady Uchiha!" pleads the desperate voice.
Mikoto feels the vicious circle closing in on her, weighing her down, making her choke on her own shallow breaths. She is trapped between her ailing son and the door, beyond which comes the panicked summon, and she feels deranged, heartsick and helpless. There is no time – there is never enough time – though all she's asking for is a moment to think or cry or commit seppuku.
She jumps at the sound of that quiet voice, and turns around to see Itachi stepping into the room, emerging from the shadowed hallway.
"Itachi-kun! I didn't know you were home. I didn't – " It occurs to her that she has no idea where he has been, and hasn't spared this a single thought for the last twenty-four hours. She thinks she must be a terrible mother, but she is far too wretched already for this thought to hold much weight.
"You are needed," Itachi says calmly, eyes flickering to the still-closed door. "Please go. I can watch Sasuke."
For a moment, everything hangs still in the air. Mikoto stares bewilderedly at her son, uncomprehending, her mind a blinding stretch of emptiness that blocks out even the raging sounds of destruction all around. Then the ground gives a sickening rumble, and she is jostled out of her stupor, falling to her knees before Itachi.
"Itachi-kun, are you sure you'll be up to it?" she asks frantically, searching his blank face for a sign, any sign of uncertainty. There is none. "Are you quite, quite sure?"
Her son nods sharply. Another chorus of pleading cries filters in from the outside, which Mikoto ignores. She takes hold of Itachi's face, palming his cheeks and pressing the pads of her index fingers against his pulse points in the manner she has been taught to detect strong aberrations in emotion, and finds that he is completely composed. His dark eyes meet hers unflinchingly, unreadable and impassive.
Mikoto has never found it easy to be physically affectionate with her eldest son – something about his cold air and constant aloofness seems to warn others against unwanted approach – but she flings her arms around him now and kisses his forehead eagerly, dampening his cheeks with her grateful tears. Itachi endures her motherly display with forbearance, patting her back halfheartedly until she disentangles herself. The ground rumbles faintly beneath their feet.
"Promise me," she says, wiping her face, "that if the flame reaches here – the northern warehouse is downwind, but one never knows – that if the flame reaches here, you'll take your brother and run to the river. You will be safe there. Promise me, Itachi."
"I promise," he answers promptly, squeezing her shoulder briefly. "Go."
Mikoto doesn't need telling twice. She presses a hasty kiss to Sasuke's forehead, promising a quick return, and dashes out of the house towards the commotion. As she is closing the door behind her, her eyes fix momentarily upon the sight of her two sons – the crown future of the Uchiha Clan – huddling beside each other, one tiny and whimpering in illness, the other quiet and somber-eyed and brazen against the darkness swooping down upon them like birds of prey.
It is hours until Mikoto struggles back to the main house, hair singed and face sooty from the strenuous effort to put out the fire, which did not go with grace. Dusk might have fallen, though it's difficult to tell since the sky is frozen in an eternal twilight these days. She notes with relief that the ground has stopped shaking, at least for the time being.
She is reeling and coughing from the smoke still caught in her chest, exhaustion sweeping her body with every difficult step and sending her bones creaking like springs on a screen door. The sickening smell of her hair catching on fire lingers in her nostrils, and she can still feel the scorching heat batting against her face in waves as the fiery snakes writhed and leaped.
One look at the house turns the blood in her veins to ice.
The roof has collapsed. There are fallen debris everywhere, and the entrance is obstructed by a huge wooden beam. Everything is dark and quiet – Mikoto cannot hear even the sound of her own heartbeats, as though her heart has stopped working. The stifling silence sends a black wave of panic rising up the back of her throat, laced with the bitterness of bile. She opens her mouth to scream, but no sound comes forth. She is a deaf-mute, and what she sees makes her wish she were blind.
Frantically, she climbs over the fallen beam and worms her way into the gravelike shadows, crawling on her hands and knees, the sharp edge of broken bricks cutting into her bare skin. She is moving blindly through the thick darkness, with absolutely no knowledge of where she's going or what she might be looking for, hoping against hope with all palpitating strength of her failing heart.
A small whimper from her left sends a tremor up the length of her spine. She fumbles and gropes towards it, squeezing her body through holes and cracks, and lets out a half-broken sob when her eyes light upon the sight of Sasuke, lying in a small clearing amidst assorted brick and plaster. A narrow beam of milky red light streams in through a tiny opening above his head, where two fallen beams have inadvertently crossed. Mikoto scrambles towards her son and scoops him up into her arms, her hands desperately searching for injuries. He seems to be unharmed, though exhausted. His face is dirtied and scrunched up in an effort to cry, but his illness coupled with this latest trauma seems to have sapped all the strength from his tiny body.
Her hand catches onto something soft and rubbery in the darkness. In a moment, she unearths Itachi's limp form, half-buried beneath a pile of rubbles.
As though in a nightmare, Mikoto pulls her eldest son into the clearing, still carrying Sasuke precariously with one arm. Her tired limbs refuse to cooperate, moving slowly as though trapped in a soapy bubble. Her heart is caught like a painful lump in her throat. Under the weak light, Itachi's face is pale and ashen, his skin cold and utterly lifeless. A thin trickle of blood crawls steadily down his temple. Mikoto puts her face down next to his chest, and feels something immensely heavy blossom within her when she realizes she can discern no heartbeat.
No. No. NoNoNoNoNoNoNo… NO.
The pain is tremendous. It hollows her, stripping all the flesh from her body, the marrow from her bones, and it's as though the sky has fallen. The whole world has crashed down around her, a dark film settling over her eyes and leaving her sitting in total, overwhelming darkness.
Then she hears a weak cough, and before her disbelieving eyes, Itachi shudders and creaks to life.
In a second, she has him in her lap, pressed against her chest, the small, frail length of his body frightfully weightless in her grasp. She's smiling through rolling tears and kissing him frantically, laughing out loud with no trace of hysteria in her mirth. The world could end for all she's concerned, because she has both her sons in her arms, alive and whole, and she loves them so much there's no room in her heart to store all of it, without ever needing to learn how.
Later, Fugaku finds her in one of the compound's undamaged rooms, bone-exhausted and propped up against a wall with Sasuke cradled in her arms. He is sleeping and blissfully still, but Mikoto is awake, unable to close her eyes. She looks up despondently when her husband steps into the room, finding it beyond her power to muster the strength to speak.
"Are you alright?" he asks. His voice sounds as tired as she feels, but she is touched by the concern laden in it. "You look white as a sheet. And you've been bleeding."
She wipes absently at a long-dried swipe of blood on her cheek. "It's not mine. It's…"
A weary nod of head towards the laid-out futon in the middle of the room, where Itachi lies sleeping, swaddled in blankets and stark white bandages. His chest heaves up and down irregularly to a laborious rhythm that suggests pain.
Fugaku pads softly across the room to kneel beside their son, brushing his hair and checking his pulse with surprisingly tender fingers. When he turns to her again, his eyes are dark and serious.
"What is it?" she asks, for once fearful of his solemn expression. "Has – has something bad happened on the front lines?"
He shakes his head slowly. "No. We have won."
"Won?" she echoes, uncomprehending.
"Yes. The demon fox is sealed. We have won the war."
It takes a moment for these words to register, and then Mikoto feels it, the jagged angles and edges of her face uncurling from their long-accustomed folds. She opens her mouth, words of joy that haven't been uttered for ages raring to leap off her tongue, but a closer look at Fugaku's strained face and the jubilation dies on her lips.
"What are you not telling me?"
Her husband sighs deeply, and turns from her searching gaze. "The Hokage has fallen in battle."
With all the emotional turmoil she has undergone today, this announcement seems lackluster in comparison. In the least, she would have expected it to strike and resound through her like a terrible knell, ominous and devastating. Mostly, however, it just makes her tired, a numbing seiza.
The Hokage has fallen in battle. Mikoto remembers as though it were yesterday that the bright young man had played tag with her and her brothers in a sun-filled schoolyard. They were in the same class at the Academy, were the same age, and long ago, she fancies they might have been friends.
But actually, that's not entirely correct. Because in her mind, Mikoto knows she has long stopped thinking of the Yondaime as an old classmate, as if the mantle of leadership has marked him out as something quite apart, not to be related to in any common sense. And it is the moment that she thinks this that it hits her, the terrible grief that reverberates through the entire village. It is not a grief of one person, for at this very moment, it is being echoed in the heart of every man, woman and child in Konoha, even those with loved ones of their own to mourn, a palpable ache that will remain present as a gaping hole for years to come. It is the stuff that legends are made of.
Fugaku turns to face her again, and for a long moment, their eyes meet quietly across the room. Then she pulls herself slowly to her feet and goes to him, letting him wrap his awkward arms around her thin shoulders and lay his chin on top of her head. His rough fingers run zigzags through her knotted, matted hair, familiar and soothing.
October 10th. A day of many events, all of momentous proportions. The Hokage has fallen in battle. Somewhere else in the rubbles of the shattered village, a boy is born with a great and unrealized destiny. It is a day of mourning for every leaf who calls this great tree home.
And yet, many years down the long vista of life, when facing her own blade of destiny, Uchiha Mikoto will look back on this moment and think that, if she could relive just one day of her life, it would be this one – to be drained but content in a sparse room, surrounded by all the pieces of her little family, tarnished but intact.
Sasuke, crushed between his parents, startles and begins bawling lustily.
The war ends but the world does not, and eventually Mikoto goes back to her old life and its perennial concerns, which center chiefly around her busy husband and growing sons. She has nearly forgotten how utterly consuming that could be.
On Itachi's tenth birthday, he receives his first kill.
Mikoto is not supposed to know, so she pretends not to, even though the elders' elation is so glaringly obvious it makes her want to scream. Her son has long graduated from the Academy and has passed the Chuunin exam, a confirmed tensai with his Sharingan activated. There are talks of the ANBU and the possibility of an early Jounin initiation, and whatever Mikoto's opinions are on the matter, she has long learned to keep them to herself.
Itachi is changing, transforming still. His knife-edge is showing a little more clearly every day, slick and smooth and deadly, and it's harder and harder for Mikoto to see her son, though she has no question he is still there, tied up in knots of flesh that she thinks only she can unravel.
She is growing, too, to be somewhat concerned about Sasuke. At six years old, the boy idolizes his older brother, a phase she supposes is natural and doesn't expect him to grow out of any time soon. The downside of this state of things is that apparently admiring someone like Itachi can be rather like staring into the sun – it must be done with care, or you will burn your eyes. Sasuke is much too young to realize this, and it worries her. The last thing they need is for an inferiority complex to break the brothers apart.
When Sasuke turns seven and starts school, Fugaku takes to teaching him the Goukakyuu no Jutsu out on the dock. It is the basic fire element jutsu with which every Uchiha earns his surname, and in the spring following the sealing of the Kyuubi, her husband taught it to six-years-old Itachi, who mastered it in a week. He's waited a year longer with Sasuke, wisely accommodating for the tensai distinction.
"Sasuke has a lot of potentials," Fugaku tells her every night in the moment before sleep.
"Why won't you tell him this yourself?" she lightly rebukes, punching his shoulder. "He thinks you don't think highly of his ability."
"Because I know perfectly well you will," he says, laughing softly. Then, more seriously, ""He's had a later start, but that may turn out for the best. He will be a great shinobi someday."
She carefully notes that Fugaku used to say the same of Itachi, and how he doesn't anymore, not in her presence.
When her younger son returns from his training everyday, his skin is red and chapped from his effort and the blustery wind, and when Mikoto buries her nose in his hair, she can smell the river, there, beneath the smoke.
"You are growing up so fast now, Sasuke-kun, that I hardly recognize you," she moans playfully, applying soothing balm onto his blisters. "Soon, I reckon you're going to be too mature to care for my stories anymore."
"No way," breathes Sasuke in unmitigated horror, mouth forming a dismayed 'o'. Mikoto can't help smiling at the sight of it, drinking in his sweet, bright-eyed innocence. Knowing their clan, it shall be all too short-lived. She has gone far from the days when her maternal concerns drove her to borderline hysteria, thinking for every single minute that the world was out to steal her son away from her. Perhaps it is a mark of wisdom.
"And what story do you want to hear tonight? The one about the Ya-Mamba or the Crane Wife?"
Sasuke wrinkles his nose in distaste. "How about the one about the Lone Samurai?"
Mikoto smiles again, patting his cheek. "The Lone Samurai it is."
The year Itachi turns thirteen, he is initiated into the ranks of the ANBU, where he continues to excel as he does with everything else in life. With this newfound responsibility, he grows distant, coming home later and spending less time there, hurdling down the passage into adulthood through the gateway of his genius.
Mikoto isn't sure if he means to set himself apart from the rest of them like this, but is disturbed to find that she has fallen back into the habit of watching him closely, holding her breath for any manifestation of deviation, fearful that somewhere along the line she has missed a possibly important beat, let something slip irrevocably out of her control. She has reverted into the state of helpless fear preceding Itachi's birth, except now her night terror is also haunted with the image of drowning in the Nakano, the cold water moving in tendrils around her leaden limbs.
She is inordinately pleased to learn that, in the ANBU, Itachi has made a friend.
Uchiha Shisui is two years her son's senior, a mature young man with mild dark eyes holding a sea of stillness that, coupled with his thick-set jaws, reminds Mikoto of nothing so much as her husband when she first met him, heavy and strangely graceful with the shadows of too many ghosts. Like Fugaku, he is well-liked by other clan members, which says something about his temperament, for Shisui is yet another a hailed prodigy and it is not often that talent-envy gives way to genuine admiration. In Shisui, Mikoto thinks she has found a way to permeate the wintry fog hiding her son from view, rebuffing all the warmth of her affection and shielding him like a death veil.
She invites him to tea.
Of course, before the first pot of Kukichi is drained, she learns that Shisui for all his superficial resemblance to her husband is not so calm and stolid after all. It is quite obvious that he has something of a terrible crush on her – jumping to take her used teacup and capture her attention with his useless attempt at grace that she can't help but smile at. She's not a particularly vain person, but if she were to be honest with herself, his admiration has struck some chord within her, as though somewhere inside her heart that little girl from long ago is still alive, picking flowers and singing a song about love on a river bank in a time before memory.
"It's so good of you to accept my invitation, Shisui-kun," she says pleasantly, pouring him more fragrant tea. In a moment of inspired boldness, she allows the tips of her fingers to brush his as she hands him his cup. The way his blush stains his ears almost sends her into a fit of girlish giggles. She muffles them into a polite cough. There is such a thing as feeling young again, then.
"I know you must be very busy," she goes on, schooling her expression into something more demure and age-appropriate. "My own Itachi never comes home before dark these days, and he hardly says more than two words at a time to his mother. Really, I'm at the end of my wits."
The look on Shisui's face is… deliberating. "He is a skilled shinobi, Lady Uchiha," he says at least, his voice thoughtful. "Even the Hokage trusts him with the high-stake missions. There are… unfortunate consequences that come with outstanding excellence, I suppose."
"Ah, but he is still so young," she sighs, echoing a worried mother of old. "He is not like you – he doesn't have your age and experience. I hope that, as his friend, you will give him guidance."
"Itachi doesn't need my guidance," Shisui says seriously, shaking his head. "He is tensai."
That, Mikoto reflects, is part of the problem, considering the way most people look at her son like he can answer all of their questions, like he can do anything that he sets his mind to. This may be true, but it's no easy truth to swallow for a mother.
Shisui casts her a considering look, which falters into faint concern when he notices her hands shaking, spilling droplets of tea onto her wrists. His hand moves slowly across the table and curves tentatively over one of hers, stilling the tremor. She doesn't pull away.
The next afternoon, she is walking along the road that runs parallel to the river on her way to the shrine when she chances upon the sight of Itachi and Shisui, spread out side by side on the grass down by the Nakano. The sun is just beginning to settle over the still water, casting the world in purple dusk. She pauses and raises a hand to wave at them, and when they see her, Shisui sits up and waves back, calling out a polite greeting. But Itachi only stares at her silently, and though the distance is too great to make out the expression on his face, something about his determined stillness makes the pleasant smile drop from her lips. She turns and walks quickly away, following the call of the steeple bells.
The day the police come to interrogate Itachi, it is a Thursday.
Mikoto remembers this because she is in the kitchen preparing the dinner spread with shrimp tempura – which she only ever makes on Thursdays – when they arrive. Quietly, she goes into one of the front rooms, where she can listen to the conversation going on in the courtyard through a screen door. She has nicked her finger with the edge of a cutting knife, and is still sucking on the bleeding tip when the police announce that they have pulled Shisui's body from the Nakano.
She clamps a hand over her lips to stifle a strangled cry. She can't bring herself to believe that the peaceful river whose flow has run parallel to the thread of her life has done this, has taken the life of a young man who not so long ago lay contently on its bank. Drowning. What a slow, painful, horrible way to die. The crushing weight, reeds tangled in black hair, water bloating skin pale and swollen, ripping it to shreds, the moonlike face washed out and featureless. She can only hope that the police had found him before the river's cat-fish started nibbling at his flesh.
Men are born from earth, and women from water, and in death we return, her mother once told her. She has never imagined that a young man might have cause to fear death by water.
It gets worse.
She would scream and jump from her hiding place when Itachi attacks the policemen, if Sasuke didn't beat her to it. Instead, she watches with silent tears as her proud son is brought to his knees. A chain of events has been set into motion – here is the catalyst – and she isn't sure what to do, or whether there's still enough time for anything to be done.
That night, for the first time in her seventeen years of marriage, Mikoto fights with her husband.
"You will do nothing?" she screams, furious. She's sitting on the floor and her fingernails rake into the tatami like she wants to dig through it, ripping it out in long, narrow strips. "You will stand by and let them take him? How long will it be? Two weeks? A month? You will let them arrest our son! My son!"
Something in Fugaku's eyes flares, like the only times he comes alive these days are when they're talking about their children. "And what will you have me do? I've done all that is within my power! I've tried to postpone the issuance of the warrant! I – "
"Do you believe what they said?" she asks suddenly, eyes narrowed and cold.
One look at his face tells her he has no answer to give. The thought makes the pain in the center of Mikoto's chest explode into a million splintered, razor-sharp pieces. She drops her head into her hands and cries, infuriated, in a way that she hasn't done since her father's funeral. She keeps at it when she feels Fugaku's heavy frame sliding down next to her, his arms coming around her shoulders. It's not awkward anymore, as if they've worn at each other's edges until everything fits, even if they had to throw away all the pieces of their perpetually breaking hearts to do it.
"I'll talk to him," she manages to say between wracking sobs. "Please, I'll talk to him. I'll do anything."
Fugaku sighs deeply and presses her forehead to his, adding the weight of her grief to all the silent sorrows he already bears in his chest.
Despite recent developments, Itachi still spends too much time away from home. He continues to take on heavy mission loads, and leaves Konoha for days at a time in spite of the police's stern watch. So this is how Mikoto finds herself with a son who is tight-lipped and indifferent to her concern and various attempts at amnesty, whose relationship with his father deteriorates by the day. In her more quietly desperate – and thus, less lucid – moments, she thinks that she is quickly running out of time.
She catches him one evening restocking his kunai holsters in his bedroom, and thanks the gods for allowing her this one window of opportunity.
"Itachi-kun," she says pleasantly, leaning against the parted door, "do you have a moment?"
He pauses but doesn't look up. "What is it?"
"I'm feeling a bit under the weather, and wish to get some fresh air. Would you like to accompany me on a stroll down to the river bank?"
"If you are ill," Itachi says tersely, "I could pick up some herbs for you at the apothecary tomorrow on my way to the Hokage's office."
"No, no, it's nothing serious," she laughs, trying to sound casual and failing just a little. "Will you walk with me anyway?"
There is a pleading note in that request that almost unravels her resolve, but she is secretly pleased all the same when he lays aside his weapons and pulls himself to his feet without a word.
And then they are walking down a well-beaten path through the meadowgrass to the old willow tree, the moon hanging high above their heads, pregnant with silver light and big against the dark blue sky. The faint chime of bells from the shrine rings in the distance, undercut by the rustling hollow stalks of water reeds in the wind. A cold mist is moving in waves across the surface of the river, and its chilled silk sends goose-bumps leaping up Mikoto's arms. She shivers.
Beside her, Itachi stands unmoving, still as a statue, observing her from under heavily-hooded eyes. Though he is only thirteen, they are already the same height.
"Do you remember this place, Itachi-kun?" Mikoto asks, spreading out her arms in a sweeping gesture. A cool breeze flutters her hair, blowing it back in a billowing sheet. "You were born here, on this river bank."
"So I've been told," murmurs Itachi.
Mikoto feels a nostalgic smile tug at the corners of her lips. "I first told you the story when you were three years old. I said that you opened your eyes for the first time and there was all the world already laid out at your feet, all this vast expanse of waters and skies and blowing wind. And I knew it then."
Itachi says nothing. His eyes are fixed on the faraway horizon, as calm and empty as a frozen river, opaque enough to reflect like still water.
"I knew then you were marked for greatness," Mikoto continues, her eyes suddenly salty and blurred. "And I knew that you would leave me, one day. But do you know what you said to me when I told you that?"
"You said that it was ridiculous, and that you would never, ever leave me, for as long as you live. Do you still remember that, Itachi-kun?"
She turns and fixes her gaze onto her son fully, willing the layers of his mysterious burden to crumble away with the shadow of her pleading eyes, which bear darker circles beneath and deeper lines above them than her thirty five years would warrant, the shoe-mark of an unfulfilled life stamped on her forehead. She holds her breath, and hopes, with all the strength of her quietly palpitating heart like she did years ago in the gloomy grave of a collapsed house, for a miracle, for her son to shudder out of his terrible sleep and creak to life.
Presently, Itachi shrugs and makes a dismissive noise. "It's too long ago. I do not remember it. If you're feeling better, I should like to be excused. I still have a lot of work to do."
He turns swiftly and makes his way back up the dirt path, his shoulders squared and steady. Mikoto feels her breath catch painfully in her chest, and it is some minutes before she finds her voice again. She doesn't bother trying to keep it even.
He halts in his steps, but does not turn around.
"If there is something that your father and I have done," she says, her soft words carried on the breath of the wind. "If there is anything at all which we might have done to wrong you… I hope that you can find it in your heart to forgive us."
Itachi turns his head then, and regards her over his shoulder. His eyes are clear and serene, but there is a sudden depth to them, an ocean of thoughts and stillness, a look of careful, faltering consideration that sends hope fluttering within her breast.
Then the moment passes, and Itachi walks away.
Left alone to the river and her unfolding sorrow, Mikoto makes her slow, laborious way to the edge of the dock. The dark water moves quietly beneath her, slapping against the rotted wood beams, and she thinks this is perhaps what it feels like to drown.
When Mikoto finally returns to the compound, it is to Sasuke's room that she goes first. She slides open the shogi door soundlessly and tiptoes across the tatami mats to kneel beside his futon. In the blue light of the moon pouring in generously through the parted door, her younger son lies carelessly sprawled on his stomach, sound asleep.
She shakes her head in exasperation at the sight of his blanket, fitfully kicked away to tangle around his feet as usual, and reaches out to tuck it around his body again. Then, on a sudden whim, she parts the blanket and crawls under it, still fully clothed, wrapping her arm around Sasuke's waist and burying her face into his coarse mop of hair.
Minutes pass. When the first warm drop of her tears touches his scalp, Sasuke groans and shudders awake.
"Kaasan?" he mumbles groggily. "What are you doing?" Then, ever the perceptive child, he pushes himself suddenly to a sitting position and stares at her worriedly. "What's wrong?"
Mikoto half-raises herself up and forces a smile onto her lips. She brushes the locks of disheveled hair from Sasuke's forehead, and, barely succeeding in keeping her voice from breaking, whispers, "It's nothing, Sasuke-kun. Kaasan just isn't feeling very well tonight. Would you mind terribly if I slept here with you? Just like old times?"
Sasuke's brows are still knitted in puzzlement, but lazily so. He is precocious, but thankfully still young enough for the maw of sleep to quickly win over. Before long, his eyes begin to droop, and he yawns tiredly. "Of course it's alright."
He lies down carefully, and arranges himself against her, taking care not to jostle her supposedly unwell body. "But only for tonight," he adds purposely. "I'm a big boy now, you know."
"I know, darling," Mikoto murmurs, closing her eyes against his soft, downy cheek. "I know. Go back to sleep."
Eventually, Sasuke's form grows still again, and his breathing evens out. His fingers remain tightly pressed in her hand as he drifts off to the foggy island of sleep.
Mikoto, however, can find no rest. As she lies in thickening darkness, clinging to her sleeping son, she cannot help the tears from starting again. The future – the unnamed terror – is all too clear now, and she, like a tree standing before the coming flood, is helpless to stilt its assault, her branches breaking noisily under the torrential force of the angry water, her roots being ripped clean from tired soil. In the waning light of the setting moon, she can feel its dark grip closing in on her, and lies quietly suffocating under the crushing weight.
A storm is gathering at the horizon, quietly collecting heat and rolling up dark clouds that turn the sky the shade of untempered steel. There is shadow all around, and she is angry at it for defacing her full of light house, turning it into something ugly and ominous. Then she remembers that the house has always been this way, that she has never gotten around to remedying its unseemliness. Now it is too late. Like everything else, she has simply chosen to put the thought out of her mind, keeping it there until she can keep no more.
She is on her back, trying to forget through the pain in her chest where the terrible gash has been placed that she is lying in a pool of spreading blood. Fugaku's weight lying across her torso keeps her grounded to the formerly well-scrubbed floor – he is her anchor even to the end – and she thinks for maybe the last time that she is grateful, ever so grateful to him for his consistency.
Out of the corner of one eye, she can vaguely make out in the dim light the hazy outline of Itachi's body. He takes a few steps forward to stand directly above her, and she tries not to flinch when the madly spinning pinwheels of the Sharingan meet her eyes. If she could, she would avert her head, but it hurts too much to move.
There is that long, considering stillness in Itachi's face again, like an ocean of thoughts, of longing, and maybe – it's quite possible, even now – a trace of carefully held regret.
If I could spare you then I would.
Or perhaps – that's only what she wants to believe.
She tries to blink to clear her vision, and is somewhat puzzled to find her eyes heavy with the bitter weight of unshed tears.
The pain has faded, and it's a little easier to make sense of the thoughts in her head. With one last ditch effort at clarity, she tries to take mental stock of the situation. Everyone else is dead – they must be, or else Itachi would never have started on her and Fugaku. The elders. The police. Her mother. Her worst fear has been confirmed. The clan has been plundered, and this time, it will never get back on its feet.
What terrible irony, she thinks – the Lady Uchiha, ever cool and level-headed, checking the inventory even as she lies bleeding to her death. Mikoto carefully bites back the dry bark of laughter, for fear of wetting it with the raw crimson of her blood. No point in quickening the inevitable, after all.
Another wave of pain comes spiraling upward. She closes her eyes and Sasuke's stricken face suddenly appears on the back of her shuttered eyelids like a negative image. Where is he, she wonders. Has he been spared – would it be too much to hope?
More dizziness. The world is swimming in and out of focus. Forcefully, Mikoto bites down on her bottom lip, finding the pain and reaching for it. She has to stay conscious, at least for a little while longer. She must think of Sasuke. She would like, more than anything, for the last thought in her mind to be of her younger son.
Itachi raises his sword.
Mikoto is a woman who has always known the future, and has tried with all her might to change its course, and failed. But what lies on the other side of that katana blade is uncertain to her, and even as she waits for it, she thinks she can feel the cold, dark water already, the river spreading her arms to accept back her poor lost daughter. It is late spring, and the water of the Nakano is deep and soothing, full of soft, curving silences. Sweet water, they call it.
Men are born from earth, and women from water, and in death we return, we return.
With one last desperate gulp of sour air, she begins to sing:
"The daughter of the river…"
The kitten that padded and purred on my lap
Now swipes at my face with the paw of a bear
I turn the other cheek and you lay into that
O where do we go now but nowhere?
(Nick Cave, "Where Do We Go Now But Nowhere")