Kushina had heard that giving birth was a noisy, messy, and painful affair. So far, the pain wasn't much worse than what she encountered in her day-job, she was relatively clean, and the noise was coming from the father-to-be's alternately terrified and thrilled chatter to the long-suffering midwife doing arcane things under the sheet covering Kushina's knees. She heard the muffled phrase, "Hokage-sama, I have done this before," for the third time, and tried not to laugh. It would hurt too much, she suspected.

Poor Sarutobi Biwako didn't seem to know if she wanted to be amused or kick Minato out of the delivery room. Patient woman, all but a saint, really.

Kushina gritted her teeth and tried not to react at the faces Minato was making, giving her genin teammate Mikoto a surreptitious hand-sign. It didn't really mean anything- it was an adaption of Minato's personal call sign with extra emphasis. The joke was at his expense, even if neither of them could quite verbalize how he was being teased for his near-panic.

The Uchiha grinned, her reserved nature overcome by her good mood. Kushina's smile became a little wider, until an especially vigorous contraction made her flinch. Her husband's eyes jumped to her face like she was an Iwa-nin with a big stick, looking just about as worried.

"Kushina!" Minato fluttered his hands in that girlish way he swore he didn't do, all but literally hovering at the slightest sign of discomfort.

"I'm fine," she stressed, working to keep signs of tiredness and effort off her face. "Honestly, 'ttebane, you'd think you were the one doing the work here! Why don't you calm down, huh?"

Mikoto snorted, and then ventured a guilty look at the Sandaime Hokage's wife, who was technically the senior physician present. The older woman didn't pay her any attention, but her assistant Taji-san leveled the Uchiha lady with an expression of amused tolerance that did nothing to make Mikoto feel less like a child.

"Hokage-sama!" Biwako-san said sternly, pulling her head up enough to give him a dark-eyed stare. Her tone implied that she was actually talking to an excitable child and not her military leader. "Calm yourself. Please focus your attention on the seal. Your wife is doing her work admirably, and you must do yours."

He probably wasn't meant to hear the muttered, "I always forget how weak and frightened men are, until I see one panic while his wife does all the hard work."

Mikoto carefully pressed her lips into a thin line, forcing down visible amusement.

Mikoto wouldn't even have been present, had it not been for the fact that this birth was strenuous for so many reasons. Childbirth was enough of an ordeal on its own. When the mother was a jinchuuriki and having twins, it was terrifyingly complicated. Mikoto probably wouldn't be much help, but she was a certified medic nin and Kushina's best friend. At worst, she would be an extra set of hands to hold one infant while the more experienced medical ninja were occupied. She had to be there in case something went wrong.

She was probably doing a better job of helping keep Kushina calm than Minato, if truth were to be told.

An ugly smile had frozen on Kushina's face. Unbeknownst to her, it was considerably more worrisome than the screwed-up grimace she wanted to make. She swallowed, hard, and concentrated on pushing.

'I'd say I feel green, but my face is so hot I can only be red.'

Perfect. She really was the tomato woman.

"It's crowning."

Correction. She was the tomato woman half-way through giving birth to twins! Kushina crowed in victory, straining so hard that she was mildly concerned she had popped a vein. Surely it was all downhill from here.

Twins had been an unexpected surprise. As far as she knew, there wasn't an Uzumaki tendency towards multiple pregnancies. She'd blame this happy anomaly on Minato, but the first time she had tried, Mikoto had bored her to tears with a lecture about eggs.

'Eggs… I'm hungry. I could go for some victory ramen.' Kushina licked her dry lips, breathing through her nose. Minato misinterpreted the motion and hastily tipped a bit of ice-cold water into her mouth. She swallowed automatically and gave her twitchy husband a dry look.

Minato blinked down at her, painfully eager to do anything he could to alleviate her discomfort, even as his right hand remained firmly planted on the seal over her belly.

And suddenly she didn't have the heart to call him a dimwit pretty boy. It was too easy of a target, really. She could bully him later.

'He's going to be on diaper duty,' Kushina decided seriously, grinning with far too much teeth. 'I did the hard work for ten months, so I think he can have that minor problem for twenty months.'

Hokage, ho-shmag-e. His job was important, sure, but not as important as their budding family. Twins was an awesome start, actually! It was so exciting, she was minutes away from being a parent. She was going to be the best mom ever. She'd take her babies everywhere and they'd fingerpaint together and she would teach them how to mess up their daddy's hair so that he squawked and flailed and- and- She was so happy.

"Uhhh," Kushina huffed, squeezing her eyes shut. She could do without this part, though.

There was a perfectly timed four-person gasp in the next moment, which Kushina barely heard over the ringing in her ears and the slick, struggling feeling of a decent amount of matter making an ungraceful exodus out of her uterus. Her gut roiled, and she couldn't breathe for a moment, as the second mass –now distinguishable from the first feisty infant—moved down to fill the void where the other had been.

"Girl," Biwako-san called briskly. After a moment, there was a shocked wail. Kushina heaved her head up through sheer force of will, straining for a glimpse. All she saw was Taji-san carefully cleaning what looked like a bundle of blankets, taking measurements and scans of some sort while Mikoto hurriedly copied them down on a clip board.

'A girl, a girl, a girl,' Kushina chanted over the sounds of Taji soothing the infant, tears welling up from both pain and relief. That was odd, they'd thought the pregnancy was two identical boys, not a set of fraternal twins. Ha. They were going to have to go back to their old list of names. They'd never decided on a girl's name.

Neither of them actually cared about the gender, of course, but it gave her something silly to think about and keep her mood light while Minato worked on ensuring that she didn't inadvertently kill them with her uterus (or something. She was a bit fuzzy on the details of fuinjutsu-uterus interaction).

'Maybe we'll let Mikoto-chan pick, since she's the godmother,' Kushina thought deliriously, heart so light with joy that it might rise out of her chest.

Her hand twitched on the bedsheet. Kushina gritted her teeth and avoided the urge to take her husband's hand. She wanted to touch him right now, but he needed his hands and attention. Not being able to hold his hand right now was a small sacrifice in exchange for safely bringing two little Uzumaki into the world.

'I want to see them so badly,' she thought wistfully, for what had to have been the hundredth time. It'd be the first time she'd seen another Uzumaki since Mito-sama had given her the Nine-Tailed fox.

An ugly groan tore her from her thoughts. It took a moment to recognize that the sound had come from her lips. Kushina blinked dazedly, registering in the back of her mind that Mikoto-chan and Taji-san were having a hushed conversation over her baby-

"Check my readings, would you-"


"-isproportional ratio of spiritu-"

Was something wrong? Distressed, Kushina tried to sit up on her cushions a bit more, eyes wide.

"Relax," Biwako-san cautioned. "Your girl is healthy. Do not fret. You shall see your children in a moment. You're doing very well, Kushina-chan."

With supreme effort, Kushina nodded. Biwako-san was right. She needed to keep working on her second daughter, and let the medics handle the first. Still, she noted that Mikoto-chan had finished filling out a chart and birth certificate, and was instead holding the bundle of green blankets that had to be her baby. Kushina could swear that she caught sight of a messy shock of wispy red hair—not a true, dark shade like hers, but something closer to the twists of orange in a sunset.

Then the spot of color was out of her line of sight as the Chuunin crooned, gently swaying with her burden. A beatific smile cracked across the small woman's face as she settled down in the back of the room, as far away from the commotion as possible.

'Mikoto-chan is going to be an amazing godmother. I know it.'

Better than Mina-kun's choice of his scruffy sensei for godfather, but Kushina didn't really mind. She liked Jiraiya. His books were actually pretty funny. She'd used them to tease her genin teammates so many times—Shiba-kun still stuttered everytime someone so much as mentioned the word 'sex', despite having an infant of his own now.

The transition between being pregnant and being a mother was a disorienting one that rocked her body. Not more painful, exactly, but birth and after-birth were definitely memorable sensations. As soon as her head stopped spinning, Kushina heard Biwako-san's voice.

"A boy, Kushina-chan," the satisfied midwife declared, giving the medical check herself. That was odd, but Kushina didn't think about it. "And he's in perfect health!"

'A boy? Aw, well, they can't both be super-surprising right at the start,' Kushina decided with a wild sort of joy. Naruto it was, then. Uzumaki Naruto had such a nice ring to it. She craned, trying to catch the first glimpse of her baby boy before Mikoto him away to snuggle too.

"He's gorgeous," Taji-san added with a smile, beginning to gently towel him clean.

Minato took a deep, shuddering breath. For the first time Kushina saw that his eyes were swimming with unshed tears of happiness. The warm hands on her abdomen gently rose, and for a moment, he looked at her. The adoration in his gaze stunned her silent.

"Biwako-sama," he breathed, turning his head toward the tiny woman with the long brown ponytail. "May I-"

"No," Biwako-san said bluntly. Kushina let out a surprised peal of laughter at the pure shock on her husband's face. "The mother should see her children first. Mikoto-san, are you planning on stealing that baby, or may Kushina-chan see her daughter?"

Mikoto-chan stood with a rustle of clothing as quickly as she could, face burning bright red at the scolding.

Normally, Kushina would have drank in that sight gleefully. But Biwako-san had just nestled her baby boy in Kushina's waiting arms, and was peeling down a soft blanket to reveal-

A blade, sticking out of the front of Biwako-san's chest. Kushina's grip on her son nearly slipped out of pure shock.

Biwako-san gave a surprised gurgle, even as Taji-san shrieked and then fell, hot blood flying over Kushina's bare feet and the wet slap of meat falling against tile was a shocked counterpoint to the sudden coldness in Kushina's arms where a warm baby had been only an instant before. She didn't even register Biwako-san's knees buckling or the sound of Mikoto's sandaled feet skittering backwards.

She was too busy frozen, staring up at the masked man who was holding her baby boy with the business end of a kunai far, far too close to the delicate bundle. Minato was frozen—not in shock, but paralyzed by the underhanded threat. Even by shinobi standards, that was low.

"Oh kami," Mikoto whispered, shockingly loud in the silence.

"Fourth Hokage," slipped out from behind the sleek, abstract mask in a sinfully smooth rumble. Kushina felt like a rabbit, frozen in fear as she hadn't been before or since the day that she was kidnapped by Kumo-nin after her bloodline. "I wouldn't move if I were you."

"Please," Kushina begged, not even knowing what she was asking for. If it was possible, the pain on Minato's face became even harder to bear.

She couldn't tell, but the glance the masked man leveled on her might have been pity or condescension.

"How badly do you want this, I wonder?"

This? This? Not a person, not a sweet baby boy, but an object?

"Come and take him from me."

And then both men were gone. Kushina wailed, in the instant before her mind caught up with her. Mikoto-chan rushed over, red eyes wide and fearful in her pale face. Kushina was already forcing herself to stand.

"What do we do? Wai- Kushina, you can't be up right now! You just gave birth."

"Don't care," Kushina gasped, forcing feeling into her numb legs and ignoring the feeling of wetness against her thighs. She stepped over Biwako-san and Taji-san with a one-minded determination despite the scream of grief in her mind, moving to the streets. "It shouldn't be hard to find the fight. I-"

She cut herself off, shocked despite reason at the sight of four mangled, bloody corpses just outside the door to her delivery room. Had she given it thought she would have known that the ANBU guard must have been defeated, but-

"What about your daughter?" Mikoto asked in a hushed tone, clearly scanning for enemies or traps. "What if he wants her too?"

Kushina whirled on her long-time friend and grabbed her shoulders. "Miko-chan, can I ask you a favor?" she asked with a choked laugh.

Mikoto-chan blinked away tears. "Anything."

"Get my baby to the Hokage tower. There'll be plenty of backup there. I'll meet you as soon as I can, alright? If I get back my son, then that man won't be able to use him against Minato." She leaned over and pushed down a bit of fabric with trembling fingers before placing a kiss to the sweet little forehead she hadn't yet had chance to examine. "Mikoto-oba-san will keep you safe, okay," she promised waveringly, trying not to cry.

"Yes, I will," Mikoto-chan agreed, leaning her forehead against Kushina in the closest approximation to a hug she could manage while holding an infant. "I'll take the underground. Through ANBU."

"Good idea."

With that, Uchiha Mikoto watched her best friend disappear into the twilight with a heavy heart. After a moment, she moved to re-cover the infant and held the girl closely to her chest. "Don't worry, sweetheart," she whispered. "Mama's gonna save the day."

Only then did she realize that the infant was oddly silent—as if she had been shocked into fearful quiet by the rapid events. But she couldn't possibly comprehend what was going on, she was less than an hour old. Ridiculous. It felt like an omen, that even the baby acknowledged the seriousness of the situation. But Mikoto forced those thoughts away and instead took advantage of the silence as a blessing, moving rapidly towards what she hoped was safety.

Of course, when an explosion of red-hot chakra seeped in unholy fury washed across her not ten minutes later, Mikoto wept out loud.

'Kushina, be safe,' she prayed, despite suspecting that her best friend was already dead.

A very confused and unhappy girl in the hospital got her own name two days after the blur of pressure and noise and the swish of pretty dark hair that had defined her first day in the world of chakra and shinobi.

It was lucky that she was even awake long enough to register the incident. The sound of childish wails in the hospital nursery was constant enough that she had learned to sleep through it, and infants seemed to do nothing but sleep. She opened her eyes despite not being able to interpret the human-shaped blurs that moved around her. Her sight was poor, but her keen hearing did her no good because the sounds she recognized as language certainly weren't in her language.

When she was picked up by warm hands and bundled against a bony male chest while the woman who had lifted her hovered nearby, she awoke enough to squint up at the pointy blur that she assumed was a face.

To be fair to her confusion, it didn't really fit the pattern for a face. The top half of the shape was right—there was a shock of light colored hair, a pointy nose, and a dark grey eye. But only one eye. And try as she might, she couldn't pick out a mouth.

The boy holding her had to have one, however, because the slight rumble of his chest coincided with the sounds that bubbled up around her. When an over large hand appeared in her field of vision she grabbed at it instinctively, and followed it back to a much more conventional face. It had two eyes and everything, as well as pretty red lips.

Without a conscious decision, she gurgled and tightened her grip around the finger offered. Red lips split into a tired smile.

The only word she caught out of what the woman said next was 'Aiko', and that was only because it had been in the short phrase spoken a moment earlier by the boy holding her. She fell asleep almost immediately. It took a few more days for her to realize that Aiko was her name.

October fourteenth

"You did not recognize the man who attacked?" Sarutobi Hiruzen repeated, his dry tone implying that he didn't find the statement particularly persuasive.

Uchiha Mikoto bristled a little bit, before Fugaku's calming presence at her side brought her back to earth. He wouldn't want to see her lose her temper. "No," she said, as calmly as she could manage. "I did not recognize him. As I said, he was wearing a mask."

"Just one man killed four ANBU operatives, my wife" –his voice shook- "a Chuunin medic-nin, and led to the deaths of the Yondaime Hokage and his wife not two hours later. You were the only person that he spared who might tell of what had been done. That seems like the kind of man you might remember."

Mikoto exchanged a disturbed look with her husband.

"Are you attempting to imply that my wife has lied about what she witnessed?" Fugaku asked, disapproval and shock warring for prominence in his tone.

There was a moment of silence, and then the Hokage painted on a smile that did not seem particularly genuine. "No, of course not."

That meant yes.

"You must understand, however," he continued, "that the situation is unusual."

"Keeping orphans away from their legal guardian?" Fugaku butted in. "I would say so, yes."

His mouth shut so suddenly that his teeth clacked when the Sandaime gave him a hard-eyed look with the full brunt of his displeasure. The power couple were unpleasantly reminded that no matter how old, no matter how diminished, the man in front of them was their superior in every meaning of the word.

"You are of course aware that the person who released the Nine-Tailed fox had to have been an Uchiha," the Sandaime said quietly.

The world tilted.

"What?" Mikoto let the word fall from her lips without thought for how undignified it was. "That is-"

"Absurd, a children's story!" Fugaku continued, his voice like thunder. "It is utterly baseless, an accusation without merit."

Now that his pride had been offended he went on furiously, and Mikoto squeezed her eyes shut just for a moment. She wished that her husband would keep his temper. He had wanted to come to provide her support in making her arguments, but if he became aggressive, her chances of leaving with her two youngest babies were harmed.

"Please, Hokage-sama," she broke in, her quiet voice forcing her husband to flicker his eyes to her and stop talking. "I do not understand. Kushina-chan made me the guardian of her children. Let me take my babies and go home. They are all I have left of her. Surely you do not claim that I would do less than my best to care for the twins, or that I am incapable. I have the time, the love, and the resources to give them a better life than their parents had."

That was a low blow, and it made the Sandaime cringe, just a little. Kushina and Minato had both been orphaned at young ages. Neither of them would have wanted that for their children. And Mikoto was an excellent mother.

"We can provide everything they will ever need," Fugaku broke in, perhaps sensing that the Sandaime was weakening. "The Yondaime's children will want for nothing."

His statement had the opposite effect it was intended to. The Sandaime's face creased in disapproval. "Uchiha-dono, no one but the clan heads now know that those children belonged to the Yondaime," Hiruzen said stiffly. "We must take that name out of the discussion completely when we place the children. While it was impossible to keep Kushina-chan's pregnancy a secret and many will be looking for her child, any considerations related to their father are counterproductive."

In other words, the Sandaime thought that Fugaku wanted the twins because of the prestige they could bring the clan. He wasn't wrong, exactly. Fugaku would have supported Mikoto's bid for Kushina's children if they were not politically important. But since they were, his interest was piqued.

Her husband's face soured momentarily, but he wasn't fazed. "Then we shall absorb them into the clan without giving hint as to their parentage."

"A blonde boy and a redheaded girl," Sarutobi remarked dryly. "They will not blend in well with your clan."

"We can color their hair," Fugaku dismissed. "I assume that you planned to deny them their name, in order to keep them secret. We can offer them a surname and the protection that comes with it."

"They will become officially known as Uzumaki to honor their mother when the time comes to fill out their Academy paperwork," Hiruzen said mildly, picking up his pipe and tapping at it. "Until then, nameless they shall remain."

Fugaku clearly didn't understand why the Hokage would choose to treat the children as peasant orphans when they could have the prestige of a clan name, but forged ahead regardless. "They would be as my own children," he continued stiffly.

"And then in twenty years Naruto would be Hokage and Aiko-chan would be married to Itachi," Hiruzen said dryly.

Mikoto tried not to wince. That had probably been Fugaku's plan, yes, with the exception that Fugaku probably wouldn't have cared which of his sons Aiko ended up marrying.

The village was nowhere near ready to accept an Uchiha kage. But the child of the Yondaime, raised by the Uchiha—that would be a different matter, one that inextricably tied the clan to the highest echelons of the village for generations to come. It would be the political coup of the century.

But that wasn't what she cared about (though she wouldn't protest too loudly either if it happened naturally). Mikoto did not want to use Kushina's babies as devices for political positioning. She wanted to love them and raise them well in honor of her dead friend.

She realized with a sinking heart that it was too late. Now that Fugaku and the Sandaime were thinking of the twins in terms of their political value, the legal protection of her supposed guardianship and the emotional arguments she could muster would do no good.

'He mentioned that the clan heads all knew of the twins' parentage,' Mikoto suddenly realized, connecting an unpleasant thought. She voiced her suspicion, already knowing the answer.

"Other clans have already petitioned for guardianship," she said flatly.

Hiruzen looked mildly surprised at her leap in logic, but nodded in acknowledgment after a moment. "Yes," he agreed. "They have."

The snub caused Fugaku to freeze in shock for a moment. Their legal petition for guardianship was being blocked by clan politics. All the other clans should have been able to recognize that the Uchiha claim was the strongest and backed down. That they didn't meant that their clan's position was far more tenuous than they had realized.

The Uchiha power couple seemed to take a deep breath as one. "This childish accusation," Fugaku said stiffly, "has poisoned the Uchiha clan's good name." When that garnered nothing but a steady stare, he prompted; "What would you have me do to prove our innocence?"

Sarutobi Hiruzen gave a thin, tired smile that implied there was little that the Uchiha could do, or that they would not like the options. "Find the masked man," he said delicately, skirting around his obvious skepticism of Mikoto's un-collaborated story. "Convince the other clans that the Uchiha were not at fault." His eyes moved to Mikoto alone. "Persuade Jiraiya to give up his legal claim to guardianship."

She pressed her lips shut to keep from gaping at the unfairness there. Jiraiya was long gone from the village, and didn't look to be returning any time soon. It seemed that the Hokage had appointed himself Jiraiya's spokesperson, and he was clearly immune to her persuasion. Becoming the twins' sole guardian seemed all but impossible. Nor would she want to wrest Jiraiya's honorary parenthood away, even if she thought she could cow him or his mentor. However ill-suited he was to childcare, the twins were all he had left of Minato-san. She couldn't do that to him.

"Very well," Fugaku said stiffly, acknowledging the demands without agreeing. "Please excuse my wife and I, Hokage-sama." He gave a faultlessly proper bow that Mikoto echoed dully, though the move was not as deep and deferential as it would have been on another occasion.

Etiquette demanded that she echo the farewell, but Mikoto kept her lips together and merely gave the Hokage a baleful stare before she turned to follow her husband away.

A chill raised the tiny hairs at the back of Mikoto's neck as she truly considered, for the first time, what the Sandaime's stress and suspicions might lead him to suspect of her in particular. As she was the only surviving witness…

It didn't look good for her argument that the Uchiha had been uninvolved.

The fact that she had been spared was puzzling even to Mikoto, however. That unfortunately meant that she couldn't explain it. Kushina had made it out of that room because the masked man had needed to trick her into the open where the Nine-Tailed fox could be released. Perhaps Mikoto had been spared as a smokescreen against his true intentions? Or… had her salvation been in the fact that she was holding the other infant?

Mikoto tried not to let her doubt and confusion show on her face. She wouldn't have killed a woman holding in infant unless there was no other choice, but she had seen that masked man hold a kunai to an infant. Surely he didn't possess such sentimentality and reserve.

'He called Naruto-kun 'it',' Mikoto remembered. 'He had already rationalized that Naruto-kun was a tool for him to use. If he had really intended to kill Naruto-kun, he would be dead.' She shuddered. She hadn't considered it before, but the masked man must have been gentle and conscientious of the burden in his arms in order to avoid harming a newborn while engaged in a fight against the babe's father.

The theory that a soft spot for babies had saved her life was looking a little more likely. That didn't change the fact that the most obvious explanation, to the Sandaime at least, was that the masked man had spared her because she was the clan head's wife.

Being the Uchiha clan head's wife apparently carried much less currency than it had a week prior, however. It was positively unheard of for a custody dispute like this. When Mikoto managed to calm her breathing, she almost couldn't believe what had just happened.

This wasn't the Hokage unfairly refusing her good claim. This was the Hokage illegally retracting the guardianship that she had possessed the moment that Minato and Kushina had passed on. She knew her husband wasn't going to take this well. The Uchiha had fallen far indeed when they didn't receive the legal protection offered to other citizens.

Her heart sunk low even as she arrived home and took solace in cuddling Sasuke and breathing in his sweet baby scent. The situation seemed grim, but she wasn't giving up. This wasn't over. It didn't matter if the Hokage disagreed: she wouldn't leave those children alone, even if she couldn't take them in. There had to be something else she could do.