Half the homes in the Uchiha district now stood empty, their former occupants either executed or dead by their own hands when they realized what an utter catastrophe the coup had become. Of the original one-hundred and three adult members of the clan, forty-nine took and passed the rigorous Torture & Interrogation Force questioning to ensure their continued loyalty to Konoha. The leaders of the loyalist faction were hailed as heroes by the Hokage and his council (including, grudgingly, Shimura Danzō), and even those that had been put to death were buried with fitting memorials instead of unmarked graves. The Hokage praised their years of steadfast service, and made clear he believed they were as much victims of Madara's scheming as the dead the Kyūbi had left years before.
Not everyone believed him, but some did. Enough that the Uchiha were allowed to keep their status as one of the great clans...and allowed to elect a clan head.
Mikoto had finally been released from the hospital a few days before; her body, if not her spirit, almost fully healed, and both she and Itachi were standing patiently in line to cast their ballots. The remaining members of the clan hadn't been idle during Mikoto's convalescence. Seven candidates, so far, had put themselves forward for the position, and received the approval of the Hokage to run for office, three of which had received enough support to officially make the ballot. The race was unusually amicable for a contest between Uchiha, the mud-slinging that usually accompanied such an exercise kept to a minimum. Mikoto was sure Itachi had a hand in this. His reputation as a genius, already glowing from his early promotions, now shone so brightly for killing Madara that his clansmen...and the entire village...were practically blinded. Several individuals had proposed calling the election off entirely, and appointing him their leader. Itachi politely rebuffed their efforts on his behalf, repeatedly citing the village law requiring a clan head to be at least twenty-one years old. It was true the Hokage could overrule this restriction if he wished, but Itachi didn't want the clan falling back into an oligarchy any more than Mikoto did.
The election of the new clan head was being held in the Naka Shrine, the doors thrown open to accommodate the line snaking out the door. The event had an almost festival air to it. Konoha was in the full bloom of spring, warm and bursting with flowers from every garden plot and window box. A few enterprising kids had set up a refreshment stand in the shade of a maple outside the shrine, and were doing brisk business in snacks and lemonade.
Nevertheless, Mikoto couldn't help but wince slightly as she passed the threshold. With the shutters open, and filled with people, there ought to have been nothing threatening about it. But, beneath the smell of incense and cedar wood, she could still detect that charred reek that had filled her nose the last time she'd stood in this room. She had learned later it was Itachi's work, the unquenchable black fire of Amaterasu that had been mentioned in awestruck tones in the historical texts. Madara had made the mistake of teaching him its secrets in Kiri, and he had turned the kinjutsu on his teacher just as she had done with the Tsukuyomi. It was the perfect method of assassination; there was no defense against it. It would burn anything and keep burning as long as there was a will behind it—through flesh, wood, rock, steel. Even if Madara had somehow survived having his head severed by Itachi's katana, the Amaterasu was intended to finish the job, and the jutsu reduced him to nothing but a pile of greasy ash.
There was a new dark patch on the floor no one else seemed to have noticed. Mikoto swallowed thickly and stepped around it, suddenly lightheaded. If she closed her eyes she could almost see that blood-red sky.
"Are you not feeling well?" Itachi whispered over her shoulder.
"I'm fine," she answered out of the corner of her mouth, although she wanted nothing more than to leave. There was a photographer snapping pictures of the historic event, and he would need at least one of the former clan head's wife and heir casting their ballots. She could stand it long enough to smile for him and get out.
Every eye in the room followed Mikoto as she took her ballot from one of the chūnin the Hokage had sent to facilitate the event to one of the private alcoves. It listed the three candidates, plus a line for write-ins. She picked up the stub of pencil and ticked the box next to Uchiha Sayori's name with two brisk strokes. Pausing briefly to smile at the photographer, she then folded up the slip of paper, and placed it in the locked metal canister in the corner. The results would be tallied later that evening, and announced in the assembly at the small public park tucked against the great walls. Still smiling, she walked sedately from the ballot box and out of the tall doors.
She only just made it around the corner before the feeling of metal chains sliding around her ankles fouled her balance and she pitched into the dirt, shaking. She could barely close her eyes, even to blink, or she would see it again, live it again. She was alone and it...
Itachi slipped behind the shrubs ringing the building and knelt beside her. "You're all right," he said, placing one hand on her shoulder and bracing the other against her forehead. He stayed close as he let her ride out the storm of unwelcome memories; there wasn't anything else he could do. "You won. You're all right."
His hands were always cold, and eventually the cool touch cut through the fever dream that was creeping across her eyelids. When the phantoms finally disappeared, she sagged against him, drained and dizzy. The aftershocks struck less frequently now, at least, and not without warning.
Mikoto sat curled in the grass until the shuddering in her limbs lessened, and her breathing evened. She flexed her fingers and rubbed at her wrists, reassuring herself they were unbound. The sky was a beautiful blue. Her clan was alive, laughing and drinking lemonade in the courtyard of the shrine at her back. "I'm sorry," she said finally. "Did anyone see?"
"So what if they did?" he replied. "There isn't any shame to being injured protecting another. You're still healing, and more of the clan understands that than you might think." He rose to a crouch, and gently pulled her up with him. "You should get some rest before the Hokage announces the results. Let me take you home."
"I raised such a polite son," she said, with half a grin. "Don't you mean 'take your own damn advice and let someone else help you for a change'?"
He returned the smile. "I was being tactful, but essentially…yes."
After a long nap, she awoke and dressed to find Naruto already downstairs, whining stridently about having to wear something besides a t-shirt and dirty shorts. He didn't own anything even remotely appropriate for the ceremony, but Itachi had found a box of Sasuke' just-too-small old clothes somewhere she'd been putting off donating to the orphanage. They were overflowing out of the tub and on to the floor. Naruto was half-dressed in the hakama and kimono but was staunchly ignoring the haori tucked over Itachi's arm, as well as his displeased gaze, a feat of bravery unequaled by many grown men. Itachi was already in his black dress uniform, which had become slightly less than perfectly pressed since he put it on.
She wasn't planning to crush that dauntless spirit, but if the boy was going to be living under her roof there was going to be some discipline. He didn't seem to get any from anyone else, and in the perverse way of small boys was probably craving it.
"Naruto," she said sharply. "We can't be late. Either you put that on right now, and come with us to the ceremony, or you go back to your apartment and sit there alone all night."
"But it's itchy!"
"If you can't deal with itchy, you're welcome to leave. There are some leftovers in the refrigerator you can take for dinner. We were going to pick up some takeout afterward. Teuchi-san will probably be wondering what happened to you."
His eyes went wide. "You wouldn't," he said, horrified. Going out to Ichiraku without him was the worst punishment she could possibly devise—it was a dirty trick, but it worked every time. She didn't really want any, but the cost of a few bowls of ramen was a small price to pay to get him properly dressed in the next five minutes. When he realized she was serious, he locked his face into a pout, and stuck out his arms to let Itachi pull the jacket on him.
"I'll have to remember that one," Itachi whispered to her, before moving to put on his shoes. "I could probably pin him with killing intent all day, and he wouldn't even notice."
Mikoto knelt in front of Naruto, evening out the hem so the Uchiha fan hung straight. "Thank you. It's really not that bad. Sasuke doesn't seem to mind his, you know."
The boy in question looked up, from where he was lounging against the wall near the front door, and stuck out his tongue. Naruto growled, stomped up to him, and immediately went for his throat. Sasuke ducked the lunge easily. Naruto slammed his wrist into the wall, cursed, and then fell on his rear when Sasuke kicked him in the back of the knee.
"ENOUGH!" Mikoto bellowed, loud enough to make even Itachi wince. She lifted Naruto to his feet and placed him behind her, then took Sasuke by both shoulders and shoved him in front of his older brother. "You can beat each other bloody on the training field for all I care, but while we are at the assembly you will behave yourselves. If one of you lays even a finger on the other, both of you are going to get it."
"Uh, what's 'it'?" Naruto asked with trepidation.
"You are speaking to one of the foremost genjutsu masters of Konohagakure," Itachi commented over his shoulder. "I would guess you don't want to find out."
Sasuke and Naruto exchanged glances.
"Have I made myself clear?" Mikoto asked sternly.
"Yes, ma'am," Sasuke murmured.
"Yeah. Really, perfectly clear," Naruto said, and cleared his throat. "Ma'am."
"Good," she said cheerfully, picking up her purse. "Let get going, then."
Sasuke smoothed down his clothes and stepped over the door frame.
"Your mom is scary when she'd mad," Naruto mouthed at him, none too subtly.
"No kidding," he mouthed back.
They arrived at their destination without further incident. The genin teams had been hard at work. The grass was freshly mown, and the trees hung with red and white ribbon, and lanterns painted with the Uchiha fan. Most of the clan had already arrived, and were sitting on mats and blankets thrown over the grass and conversing in low, excited voices.
Naruto and Sasuke settled themselves next to Yuji and his wife in the first row, before the low stage that had been erected for the Hokage's announcement. She and Itachi had positions of honor on the platform itself. Naruto fidgeted incessantly, but she needed him seated there beside Sasuke so the whole clan could see his blond hair…and the fan crest beneath it. He would legally become an Uchiha very soon, and they, as well as the rest of the village, needed that point driven home. He was no longer an outsider. He was family. People would still hate him, both within the clan and without. But at least they'd have keep that hatred behind their teeth, or be forced to deal with herself or Itachi. She didn't think anyone in the village had the guts to openly challenge either of them, after all that had happened.
She could make them outwardly behave themselves, but truly changing the villagers' hearts was outside the realm of her influence. Naruto would have to tackle that on his own, as he grew older. He'd managed to win her over, and more than a few of the other Uchiha. After that challenge the rest of the village should be a piece of cake.
The three candidates for Clan Head ascended the opposite side of the platform and knelt in their places, the Hokage waiting in the grass. A handful of ANBU followed him at a discreet distance, and arranged themselves around the stage. The one in the dog mask positioned himself nearest her. He gave no easily discernable indication that they were acquainted, but she could have sworn she saw him wink at her through the eye holes of his mask when she glanced in his direction. The tiger took up a place slightly behind him. He didn't acknowledge her either, but made a show of linking his hands at the small of his back with only a bit of lingering stiffness in his arm.
Once the security sweep had been completed, the Hokage ascended the steps, his hands clasped behind him. He had a small, ornate envelope tucked between his fingers. A hush fell over the crowd.
"I would like to thank every one of you for assembling here tonight, and express my condolences for the events that made this assembly necessary. Uchiha Madara's thirst for vengeance has done great harm to Konoha, and none have suffered more at his hands than his clansmen. And yet..." he paused, flashing a bittersweet smile.
"And yet you have displayed the bravery and wisdom needed to bridge the chasm of hatred between the Uchiha and the Senju, as your ancestors did before you. Madara's own kinjutsu were turned on him, because he underestimated the strength of your love for Konoha. It will take time to heal from the injuries he has done you, and the grief that he has caused, but I have no doubt you will do it."
"Now, without further delay, we shall see who you have chosen to lead you forward." He slipped his finger under the flap of the envelope and drew out the card within. "The new Head will be," he said, and stopped, blinking at whatever was written on the small card. The crowd began to murmur at the delay. "The new Head will be Uchiha Mikoto-san. My congratulations. Do you accept the position?"
Everyone ceased speaking and turned to stare at her. She felt suddenly dizzy. How was this possible? She'd been in bed while the others were campaigning. Itachi didn't look surprised, but that wasn't saying much. Her brother was beaming like a moron, and gave her an enthusiastic thumbs-up. They'd probably been planning this from the day she woke up. It wasn't that she didn't appreciate the effort. She would be up to it eventually, but she didn't have the energy to take all of this on herself!
"Say 'yes', girl," Sayori muttered out of the corner of her mouth as the expectant silence drew out too long. "The Council will fill in the gaps until you're healed up. We decided. Go on now, I voted for you."
Mikoto cleared her throat, and rose to her feet. She bowed to the Hokage, hands crossed over her thighs. "I—I accept," she said, in a voice that carried to the ring of trees.
Applause, and a few cheers, from the younger and more excitable members of the clan erupted from the clearing—the cool Uchiha reserve seemed to have taken a holiday. She looked out into the crowd. They were waiting for something. Obviously, she hadn't prepared a speech, but she was nothing if not skilled at improvising. She turned to face them, and bowed again, long and low. The duty of the Clan Head was to serve the interests of their family, not the reverse.
After the pause to collect her thoughts, she straightened and began to speak. "Thank you, for placing your future in my hands. I don't have the strength to hold it by myself, not yet, but I am healing, and soon I think I will. I know we have hard times ahead of us, and hard times behind. There are so many faces we'll never see again. We've lost the trust of many of the other clans. But the Uchiha are nothing if not strong. Our fire isn't so easily extinguished. What we have gained has been worth that price. The Uchiha are now free, freer than we have ever been."
"Madara told me something, the night…" she swallowed hard, "the night I went to face him. He said the Uchiha and the Senju are descended from the two sons of the Rikudō Sennin—the Uchiha from the elder, and the Senju from the younger. The first son received his father's might, and believed that strength was the key to peace. The second son received his father's benevolent will, and believed love was the key to peace. Before the great sage died, he chose his younger son as his successor. Overcome by jealously and bitterness, the older son attacked his brother. It was Madara's belief that these two brothers, and their children, and their children's children, were destined to fight each other for all time, until the older son reclaimed the legacy he believed to be his. I don't know if this is anything more than a myth, but if it is true, I took something very different away from this knowledge. The Uchiha and the Senju are family. No one has a greater capacity for forgiveness than family. And although brothers may quarrel," she paused to glance from Itachi to Sasuke, which won a few chuckles from the crowd, "that does not mean they no longer love each other."
"As Head of the Uchiha clan I will do my best guide and protect you as if you were my own children, and win back the trust of Konoha that has been so harshly tested. This is not something I can do alone. It is up to every one of you to earn that forgiveness, by serving the ideals of the Rikudō Sennin as faithfully as I will."
"I will tell you now...I don't believe in destiny. I believe people can change. People can choose. And I have faith you'll choose well."
The applause began slowly, scattered across the clearing. One by one her clansmen rose to their feet. Like a deep ocean wave it quickly picked up intensity until the acclaim was thundering in her ears. She bowed again, taking it in, and when she rose the Hokage gestured for her to descend the stairs.
He caught her lightly by the arm as she walked by. "There are are some papers Itachi will have to sign to formally relinquish his position as heir. Why don't both of you come by my office tomorrow morning, and we'll get it out of the way in time to get you sworn in before the assembled Jōnin Council."
"Of course, Hokage-sama," she answered.
"Nice speech, by the way," he added with a grin.
He relinquished her to the swarm of congratulations, and quietly withdrew with his ANBU guard. Yuji pushed Sasuke and Naruto to the front, and she swept Sasuke off his feet in a triumphant hug as the flashbulbs snapped around them. "You're going to do a great job," he said in her ear. "I know it." He was too big for her to hold for long, so she set him down to start shaking hands. Someone produced a bottle of imported champagne, and opened it with a triumphant pop. Anzu used the excuse of the celebratory air to elbow her way to the front of the clump and hug Itachi, who looked more bemused than offended at the brazen violation of his personal space. Well now.
The next morning, once Sasuke and Naruto were safely on their way to school, she made her way to the Hokage's tower to deal with the inevitable mound of paperwork involved in a transition of power. She'd donned her old gear and flak jacket to face the Jōnin Council. Clan heads didn't generally take combat missions except in times of conflict, but none of her other outfits communicated the right...tone. Even with the boost her confrontation with Madara had given her, she would have to fight for every scrap of recognition she got—it would be like winning her promotion to jōnin all over again. The village let women have their power in the school and the hospital, but the council chamber was another question entirely.
She found Itachi in the staff lounge, deep in a conversation with Kakashi that her appearance had interrupted. Two entirely full, and entirely cold, cups of tea were sitting on the table in front of them.
Kakashi rose from the battered couch. "I'd better be getting to the mission office, but…um…you know where to find me, if you ever need…you know. I'll make the time."
"Thank you," Itachi said, still looking with blank eyes towards a stain on the carpeting.
Kakashi placed his hand briefly on Itachi's shoulder, giving it an awkward and self-conscious squeeze, before dumping out their untouched tea and slouching out the door. Mikoto felt her lip curl in half a smile. If any of his peers could understand the sorrow that her son now carried, it might just be the last of the Hatake.
"The Hokage's last appointment is running over. I think we have a few minutes," she said, once Kakashi had gone.
He shook his head, shedding the aching guilt and grief like drops of water from a leaf. "I'm all right. We shouldn't keep him waiting."
When they arrived at the double doors, the Hokage beckoned them towards his desk. "I didn't mention yesterday how good it is to see you up and about, Mikoto-san—the reports we had in the archives concerning recovery from the Tsukuyomi were not encouraging. The other three candidates for Clan Head have made it clear they are more than willing to cooperate with you as your new Council of Elders. Delegate where you feel it's appropriate until you're fully recuperated, whoever however long it takes."
"They've told me as much, and I'm sure I will, given time," she said with a slight bow. "I sleep a little better every day."
"Ah, the resiliency of youth."
"Begging your pardon, but I'm not exactly..."
"Don't argue with your kage," he said, with mock sharpness and a grandfatherly twinkle in his eye. She knew he probably did that to everyone under the age of forty, but it still felt nice.
One of his chūnin aides, a young woman with square glasses and a rumpled look to her dark outfit, slipped into the room and shrugged forward the pile of papers clutched in her arms. "I found the forms, Hokage-sama," she said in a mousy voice. "The top ones are abdication, the bottom ones are clan adoption."
"I don't remember them being so long," the Hokage said, pursing his brows slightly and eyeing the substantial collection of documents she was holding to her chest.
She juggled the papers around a little. "Oh, no, most of the bottom is mine. Um...just a second." Unsuccessfully, she tried to hold up the stack with one hand while flipping through the leaves with the other, nearly dumping them all on Itachi's sandals. Very tactfully, he guided the pile to the desktop with his hand before anything bureaucratically disastrous occurred. The girl turned brilliant red and stammered out a 'thank you', then thrust the appropriate document at him like she was presenting a love poem. "Sign and date wherever I've marked a red 'X', please," she squeaked. "The other two lines are for your witnesses, leave those." She clicked the nib out on her pen and presented that to him too. "You can fill them out at my desk if you like; it's just around the corner." As an afterthought, she sorted out the adoption papers and placed them in front of Mikoto. "You can return those when you're done, no rush."
"...thank you," Itachi said politely, and with nowhere else to read through it save them save the floor, followed her out with a resigned sigh. That pen was probably going to be enshrined somewhere in the secretarial pool.
"That poor young man is going to have to beat them off with a stick," the Hokage commented wistfully, after the door shut behind them. "Never a problem I had, unfortunately."
She knew how to play this game, although this was the first time her opponent was a kage. "I've seen pictures of your swearing-in as the Sandaime," she replied, smiling coquettishly. "I thought you were quite dashing. It hasn't been that long since those days, has it?"
The Hokage looked at her for a moment, and then burst out laughing. "Oh, you are good. I'm more than old enough to be your father, and I almost believed you meant it. The Jōnin Council won't know what hit them."
"Speaking of..." Mikoto began archly. "You didn't seem terribly surprised at the outcome of the election. I'm starting to think the only one on that stage who was was me. You were talking to Itachi, weren't ? From the day I woke up."
"He's an ANBU captain now," he said mildly. "I talk to him frequently. And that's the lovely thing about democratic elections. They're exciting. Now and then the dark horse candidate sweeps the race."
"My name wasn't even on the ballot!" she said. "Is that even legal?"
"Write-ins are perfectly legal. That's why the line is there. And if you had been given the opportunity, would you have offered yourself as a candidate?" he asked. "You seem to be eminently qualified."
"Well...the Uchiha have never had a female clan head," she explained. "In fact, I can't think of any clan besides the Inuzuka that ever have, and that's only because none of Tsume's brothers survived the Kyūbi's attack. The other Inuzuka are too terrified of her to suggest she quit."
"That is true," the Hokage conceded. "But I personally have never been opposed to the idea of a female clan head, or a female Hokage for that matter, and at the end of the day that is what counts."
There was a knock on the open door, and through the gap Mikoto could see Itachi and his sheaf of papers, the aide hovering at his shoulder. "Ah, thank you," the Hokage said. "Bring those to me, if you would." He flipped to the last page, and stamped his signature next to Itachi's. The aide placed it in a folder to squirrel away and left with an enormous grin on her face. Mikoto thought she saw her kiss the pen on the way out.
"Will that be all, sir?" Itachi asked, once the woman trotted away.
"No, actually. There is one more matter I'd like to discuss with you, Itachi," the Hokage said. He pushed his chair back, looking contemplative. "He is far too deceased to appreciate the irony, but I believe Madara will soon have succeeded in his original goal."
"Sandaime-sama?" Itachi asked, puzzled.
"After Minato's death, I never formally chose a successor. One of my remaining loyal students would be the obvious choice, but although they are powerful neither of them has the temperament of a kage. Jiraiya still does his part for Konoha, but he loves wandering too much, and Tsunade..." he sighed. "Kato Dan's death hit her hard, and twenty years later she still hasn't put it behind her. She hasn't set foot inside the village in a decade. If I were a less charitable sort I would have had her declared a rogue ninja years ago."
"I admit I haven't been nearly as proactive in this as some have wished, sentimental old fool that I am. No one I found could possibly have filled the Yondaime's shoes, so here I sit, twiddling my thumbs and hoping the right shinobi for the job will simply appear in front of my desk, and save me the trouble of looking for him." The Hokage steepled his fingers under his chin and fixed Itachi with a penetrating stare.
Itachi's eyebrows had been inching steadily upward as the Hokage spoke. "You want me...to become the Godaime?" he said, slowly.
"You are a powerful, intelligent, driven, politically savvy...and deeply compassionate young man. I can think of no one better. And that was the reason Madara challenged Senju Hashirama, you know. He believed a sharingan should be looking out from under this hat. As disgusting as I find it to agree with him on anything, at this point in time, he's correct."
Mikoto put a hand on her hip and glanced at her son. "In my first semi-official act as Head of the Uchiha clan, I'd like to heartily endorse that nomination."
"Traditionally only the student or student's student of a kage will take up the position, but, considering how thoroughly the Uchiha seem to be thrashing tradition today, I don't think this will be much of an issue. If you need some time to think, do take it. This is not a decision to be made lightly."
Itachi was quiet for a few moments, and then let out a long, slow breath. "Thank you. Thank you, but I can't. I've made so many mistakes, I wouldn't—"
"We all make mistakes. Terrible mistakes. I know I have," the Hokage answered, sobering. "Lives have ended because of the decisions you've made, both of bitter enemies…and of dear friends. If you accept this duty, this will not stop until the day you die. I have asked you to take it up because I believe, out of everyone in Konoha, that you have the strength to accept the consequences of these mistakes. You have the wisdom and the humility to learn from them."
He said nothing for a long time, his eyes on the Hokage. "Then I accept," he said finally.
"Excellent. And don't look so twitchy. I think I have a good decade left in me to show you the ropes."
The first real meeting of Konoha's clan heads was fully as obnoxious as Mikoto expected it to be. Half of them didn't fully trust her, and the other half assumed she would never be able to fill a man's shoes. The first one she'd have to work on herself, but Inuzuka Tsume swooped in to rescue her from the second. The phrase 'bigger balls than any man in ANBU' was tossed around several times, much to the annoyance of several former members, and the chagrin of Mikoto herself. Although Tsume's language was coarse, her point was still valid. She could say with complete certainty none of the men in that room had undertaken any mission as critical or as dangerous as the one she had completed. They could insult her 'lack of experience' all they liked, but if they attacked her courage they only made themselves look like fools.
Mikoto hefted her briefcase, and turned down the alley that led to the back of the Clan Head's mansion. There was a handcart and a small stack of cardboard boxes blocking the path to the back door, as well as a garden's worth of potted plants in old plastic ramen containers. There was also a great deal of banging and scraping coming from the open window of the guest bedroom.
"Oh, Mikoto-sensei," Uzuki Yūgao called, from behind her. "You're just in time. It looks like they're down to the last of it." She was carrying a large paper bag in the crook of each arm, from which emanated an aroma that made Mikoto's mouth water.
"This is all Naruto's?" Mikoto asked, as she fell into step with her student.
"Mm. Itachi-sempai needed another few pairs of hands, so he called in some favors," she said. She shifted the parcels around while Mikoto fished out her keys. "By the way," she whispered. "He requested me for the new precision strike team he's heading, now that he's officially a captain. It's a little...strange, considering I've change his diapers."
Even after the long and trying day, Mikoto had to laugh as she pushed open the door. "I don't doubt it. When he's Hokage he gets to order me around, and I gave birth to him."
"So I heard," she said. "The Sandaime's not getting any younger. It's about time."
"Will you be staying for dinner?" Mikoto asked politely, hoping the young woman would say no. She was extremely fond of Yūgao but still hadn't completely recovered from the chakra exhaustion, and wanted nothing more than to eat something and collapse.
"No, this is all for you," she said, as she deposited the containers of takeout on the kitchen counter. "I'm going out with Hayate-san later."
"You're going out with Hayate-san?" Mikoto mimicked, teasing. He was her teammate Haruka's older brother and the only boy in Konoha—well, man now—who could make the pragmatic, ruthless Yūgao blush.
Right on cue, her cheeks reddened. "No...I mean...Haruka and I promised him a lot of beer. For helping move all of this. We're just friends, and it's not a date," she added forcefully.
"We are? It's not?" a man said from the stairwell. He sounded confused, and rather hurt. Yūgao clapped her fingers to her lips and made a strangled gasping sound as Gekkō Hayate descended the stairs with his younger sister a few steps behind. Ninja senses could, at times, be...inconvenient.
"That didn't come out right," she murmured. "If I'd known you wanted it to be, that's...fine. Actually—better than fine."
"I would," he said, a bit stiffly considering he had an audience. "Very much."
Haruka cleared her throat. She looked like a slightly smaller and more buxom version of her brother, dressed in dark gray fatigues instead of his navy blue ones. They even had more or less the same haircut. "It's about time somebody spat that out, but can you makes puppydog eyes at him later?" she said. "Some of us are hard at work here. And I think Mikoto-sensei is deeply grateful we spent our afternoon moving furniture, but would like us all to get the hell out of her house."
"That...about sums it up," Mikoto said, wincing at Haruka's bluntness. "Thank you very much for helping out with the move, and for picking up dinner, but I've had entirely too long a day to be a decent hostess tonight."
"We got it, sensei," Haruka said with a grin, and chased the new couple out of the front door while Mikoto went to find Itachi. He was sitting on Naruto's bed, methodically folding cardboard boxes and slotting them behind the headboard. Naruto had already made some headway in claiming the room as his own; there was an enormous ramen noodle advertisement tacked to the wall, as well as a very crude drawing of a pink-haired girl surrounded with hearts.
"Thank you, for taking care of all this," she said. "I thought you had a mission to prep for."
Itachi looked up at her, smiling faintly. "As it turns out...this was the mission. The Hokage can assign personnel however he likes. Even an ANBU captain to a D-Rank, if he wishes. The mission office got a good laugh out of it, at least." He collected the box cutter and scraps of packing tape and put them aside. "I didn't mind," he assured her.
The front door opened and shut, and a few moments later an enormous potted palm with a crown of blond hair appeared in the doorway. Naruto peeked around the fronds, set it down carefully next to the bed, and then collapsed face-first next to Itachi's knees with his hands pressed to his stomach. He seemed to be waiting for something.
"Are you all right?" Itachi asked finally.
"So...hungry. Can't move...another box," he panted into the blankets. "Need...everyone...to come...eat noodles with me." He raised his head up and grinned. "They taste better that way," he said, before going limp again.
"Agreed," Mikoto said, moving to the door. "But you're going to have to walk. Neither of us are going to carrying you."
"Okay!" he said, springing up again and dashing past her. "Dinner, here I come!"
There was no way she was tackling the dishes tonight, so the paper containers of takeout and disposable chopsticks were dully handed out to be fought over as necessary. "Why don't we eat outside?" she said. "It's just getting warm enough."
There were murmurs of agreement all round. Mikoto brought her food outside, and lit the citronella candles she found in the tool shed to keep the insects away. While Naruto noisily inhaled his share, his adoptive brother was staring into nothing. Sasuke had curled up against one of the smooth stones with his untouched container of food at his feet, the chopsticks clenched in his fist. Mikoto realized, with a spasm of grief, that his eyes were fixed on the spot where his father could often have been found watching the sun set.
Shinobi children came to understand death young, but he did not yet need to know the truth about how his father died. Mikoto wasn't sure she would ever have the courage to tell him. She and Itachi agreed it was best to let him assume it was some anonymous ANBU agent that had come to arrest him along with the rest of the Council, and that he had died bravely, struggling for what he thought was right. Sasuke had enough to grapple with, without knowing whose hand it was that drove the blade into his neck.
"You should eat something," she said gently. "I'm sure you've been working hard all day."
Sasuke grunted noncommittally, and didn't pick up the small box of noodles.
Naruto scooted closer to him, eyeing his food greedily. "If you're not going to eat that, I'll take it off your hands."
Sasuke glared at him and snatched it away. "Who said I wasn't?"
"Well you're not," Naruto replied. "So give 'em to me already!"
Sasuke's answer was to very deliberately place a huge tangle of noodles to his mouth. "Amb too," he said, his mouth full. "Thee, pig?"
"Don't call me a pig!"
Sasuke chewed and swallowed with an unseemly amount of effort. "You eat enough to be one."
Itachi glanced at her from his seat against one of the posts holding up the roof. "Are they always going to be like this?" he asked in a hushed voice.
Mikoto smiled down at the two boys. Sasuke was lifting bites to his mouth with obvious pleasure, while fending off his attacker with strategic applications of his foot to Naruto's face. The ink was barely dry on the adoption papers, and they already had the push-and-pull of brothers down as flawlessly as if they'd been born to it. "Oh, I would certainly hope so."
Just to clarify: Madara is dead. Toast. Deceased. Departed. No more. No one is going to Impure World Resurrect his creepy ass, either. I personally cannot STAND stories that have the same damn villain popping up again and again like some deranged whack-a-mole game. However, the sequel will not be 150,000 words of Naruto and Sasuke lovingly punching each other and eating popsicles. Sure, the future looks rosy now, but I can assure you that in, oh, six years time, things in Konoha will have gone completely to hell. Madara's death kicks off a huge amount of political instability in Kirigakure (and by 'political instability' I mean brutal civil war), of which A Certain Individual is going to take full advantage...
And because somebody asked who has their private messaging disabled: no, I am not a published author, unless you count the articles I wrote in my high school newspaper ten years ago. I am, however, absolutely tickled pink that it occurred to you to ask.