Uchiha Mikoto is a mother, and mothers know their children. It's instinctual. Something that twists around the heart and gut and tangles in the most intrinsic part of their being. She is no exception. She has two beautiful sons and she knows them better than anyone. She carried them, bore them; she has listened to their fears and their dreams and their questions; she has loved them since the day the doctor told her she was expecting. She still loves them, even though Itachi frightens her at times with his deathly silences and growing emotional distance.
She knows her children well, which is why she is surprised when the door to the kitchen slams open and she turns to see Itachi. His face is pale, his Sharingan is active, and he's staring at her as if she's a ghost. She can see his hand trembling on the door frame.
"Mother," he whispers, and his voice cracks under the weight of grief.
"Itachi? What's wrong?"
She watches him gain control of himself. She watches his back straighten and his expression shift into the very picture of calm. His Sharingan swirls once more and turns black. It's like watching a wall go up, and for a moment Mikoto finds herself hating Fugaku for the pressure he has placed on their eldest son. Itachi has always been quiet, but now there's an almost inhuman silence that hangs around him.
"A bad dream," he tells her. "Nothing more." Then he smiles at her. There's something wrong about the expression. She smiles back, and returns to her cooking. It's just a little smile. Just a softening of the eyes and an upward quirk of the lips. Nothing more. It takes her a while to realise what it is that's bothering her. Itachi's smile is so disconcerting, she thinks, because it's a smile that she hasn't seen in a long time.
She begins to notice little things after that. Itachi helps out at home more, even though his work with ANBU is forcing him to take funny hours. He spends time with her in the kitchen. He helps Sasuke with his homework. He stops letting Fugaku walk all over him and starts to stand up to his father. At first she thinks it's puberty finally beginning to set in and she's relieved, but then she begins to notice the other things.
Itachi is becoming more aggressive. He withdraws entirely from Shisui, ignoring the closest of his cousins. He's secretive and touchy and downright terrifying sometimes. Sometimes, when she looks at him, he seems so much older than he is. As though the shadow of his future self is hanging over him like a shroud.
It isn't puberty, she realises. At least, it isn't just that. Itachi is hiding something, and that makes her worry. She knows that he's always been more withdrawn than Sasuke, but she hates the thought of one of her boys hiding anything from her.
And she isn't sure that she likes the person Itachi is turning into.
The Kyuubi Festival has always been a family occasion for her family, ever since its inception. A chance for Mikoto to spend time with her children when they aren't pressured to be anything other than children, and a chance for Fugaku to show that the head of the Uchiha clan is a family man. Mikoto has always enjoyed the festival. She likes her children being children. She likes seeing them relax and smile and laugh. Not to mention, the presence of food vendors means that she can forego an afternoon's worth of cooking.
But that evening, Itachi comes downstairs in his ANBU uniform: the tight black body suit snug under polished bone armour. His stylised weasel mask leers up at her from where he has attached it to his belt.
"You're working tonight?" she asks.
He looks up at her with those eerily old eyes and smiles faintly. "Someone has to," he tells her.
Sasuke looks disappointed, but he pipes up with a promise to bring Itachi some dango home. Mikoto watches her oldest son as he crouches down to look her youngest in the eye. She watches him smile and poke Sasuke gently in the forehead with his index finger. He's become better with Sasuke recently. He spends more time with him, and Sasuke's case of hero worship has grown exponentially. She's proud of how well her sons get on.
"Thank you Sasuke," Itachi says. "Be good for mother. Keep her safe."
"Safe?" Sasuke asks.
"Of course. A lady as pretty as mother must always be protected by a strong shinobi."
He chuckles slightly as Sasuke puffs his chest out with pride over the compliment. Mikoto laughs as well. "I'm sure I'll be in the best care," she says.
Sasuke looks up at her with eyes wide in adoration. She ruffles his spiky hair gently. She looks at Itachi again. She can hear Fugaku's footsteps on the stairs. She knows that he won't be happy with this development. He does like to show off his heir at every possible opportunity.
"If you're working then you'd better get going," she says. "You don't want to be late."
"No," Itachi says softly. He smiles at her. "I don't."
He presses a kiss to her cheek and with a flicker of chakra he is gone and the window is open. Fugaku enters. He looks her and Sasuke over and frowns. "Where is Itachi?"
"He had to work, Fugaku," she tells him. "Now let's go. We don't want to miss the start of the Festival. It wouldn't do to be late as well as short one number."
It's the way that she's learned to speak to her husband over the years. Disarming but commanding at the same time. She must be the perfect Uchiha wife. Sasuke's small hand reaches up for her own and she takes it gently, and she lets Fugaku lead them out of the house, and bites her tongue at his complaints.
They get back to the house late as usual after the Festival. Fugaku's cheeks are flushed from sake and his earlier mood has been replaced with good humour. His footsteps weave only slightly and she knows that he will sleep soundly until noon. The day after the Kyuubi Festival is a quiet one for everyone.
Sasuke is asleep in her arms, his head resting on her shoulder and his soft breaths deep and even. She can feel his heart beating against her own, and she feels peaceful. Content. There's a bag of dango swinging from her wrist, and when they get back to the house she heads straight to the kitchen to place it in the fridge while her husband climbs the stairs and heads for their bed.
He's already snoring by the time she gets Sasuke settled in his room. She gently strips her sleeping son and changes him into his pyjamas. She strokes his hair back off his forehead and tucks him in next to his plush dinosaur. He doesn't stir. One day, she knows, she won't be able to do this. He'll grow up and become a man and he won't need it. But until then, she'll keep tucking him in.
She closes his door softly behind her and pads quietly down the corridor to her room. She hesitates outside of Itachi's door. She doesn't know if he's back yet, and she knows that he wouldn't like it if he found out she'd been checking on him, but she can't help it. Seeing Sasuke sleep so peacefully makes her want to see Itachi the same way. She opens his door.
She glimpses empty ramen cartons, disposable chopsticks, dango sticks and clothing on the floor – the kind of mess that she's not used to Itachi leaving around. The window is open and the curtains flutter slightly in a light breeze. But the fresh air isn't enough to cover the heady scent of sweat and lust and come. She raises a hand to her mouth and turns her gaze to the bed, and for a second she swears that her heart stops beating.
There's a soft gasp followed by a whimper, as if someone were in pain. Mikoto can feel her heart racing as she stares at the scene in front of her. Her son is on his bed, kneeling. She can see his head moving between a slender pair of thighs; see small fingers tangled in his long hair. One of his hands is resting on a smooth, flat stomach. For a moment, Mikoto doesn't recognise the girl her son is pleasuring. All she can focus on are the obscene, wet noises and the musky stench of arousal. Then she sees the short, wild hair and the markings on her cheeks and she realises that it's the Uzumaki girl. The Kyuubi's vessel.
She watches, unable to look away as the girl's back arches and she comes silently against her son's mouth. She watches Itachi pull his mouth away and look up at the girl. She watches him kiss a path up the girl's body; watches him press his mouth to hers and kiss her deeply. There's a soft groan. She watches as her son reaches between their bodies and guides himself into the girl and thrusts home with practised ease. The muscles in his back and arse flex as he starts to move. He's done this before, she thinks. She hears the Uzumaki girl whimper. The slick sounds of their coupling resound in her ears, and Mikoto presses a hand to her stomach, feeling sick.
It feels like hours before she manages to tear herself away from the sight and slip back out of the doorway, closing the door silently behind her. She stands in the corridor for a moment, listening through the door as Uzumaki's makes another whimpering noise. Then she leaves. She walks down the stairs and into the kitchen and she makes herself a cup of tea. It takes two sips of the hot, bitter liquid before the numbness in her chest dissipates. It is replaced by a mixture of shame and anger and confusion and pure, bone shattering grief. Her son. Her Itachi.
She knows his secret now. She's been curious, but she wishes now that she hadn't been. She can't unsee. The sight of her son with that girl in his arms and that stench in the air is burned into her brain as surely as if she'd been using the Sharingan.
She knows that she's given birth to a monster.
Mikoto sits at the kitchen table, staring blankly at her tea cup, until just before dawn. She hears movement upstairs. A low murmur of voices. Mikoto had been a jounin once, before she had married, and she hasn't lost the control needed to channel chakra to her ears and listen.
"Wake up, Naru-hime."
It's Itachi. Mikoto cancels the chakra flow. She doesn't want to hear. But it still doesn't stop her from feeling the flicker of chakra moments later. Unfamiliar chakra – it has to be the girl; Itachi's is as familiar to her as her own, and she's never even been close enough to the Kyuubi girl to sense hers before. She knows that Uzumaki is in Sasuke's class at the academy. He mentioned her a few times when he first started, but stopped when Fugaku made it clear that she wasn't to be spoken about in their house.
She feels sick again. Itachi is sleeping with a girl the same age as Sasuke. A child.
She hears his footsteps on the stairs, and before she can compose herself he's in the kitchen. He's neatly dressed, as always, but there's a faint red mark on the side of his neck – teeth marks – and the way he does his hair displays it to the world. He looks down at her, and Mikoto feels suddenly aware of how strange to her Itachi has become. He's not her son anymore.
He looks at her like she's an enemy shinobi – and she's never seen her son look quite so empty before – and she knows that he knows she's caught him.
"How could you do it?" she asks. "She's just… She's just a child, Itachi." She can't seem to get that part out of her mind. It's not the demon sealed away in the girl that bothers her. It's her age. It's that she has to go to school and sit in a class with the brother of the man who molests her.
Itachi smiles at her. There's something warm in his eyes, and she realises that – bizarrely – he approves of her objections. Something cold lodges in her chest, and she doesn't realise that she's angry until she's on her feet with her hand raised and…
…she's never hit one of her children before. She watches as a red handprint blooms on Itachi's pale cheek, and blood collects in the corner of his mouth. Her wedding ring tore his lip open. She watches his tongue dart out to lick the wound, and he straightens again, looking at her as if she's Sasuke's age rather than a grown woman – his mother. I amuse him, she thinks, and she knows that it's true.
"Naruto-hime is different," he says. He moves past her to the fridge, and begins to gather ingredients for breakfast while she watches. "If you bothered to talk to her, you'd know that. So would the rest of the village." His shoulders twitch slightly. "She would be flattered by your protectiveness."
He's laughing at her, and for a split second, Mikoto hates him.
"I should tell the Hokage," she says. "He's the one who assigned you to her, after all. He should know that you're abusing your position."
Itachi looks at her over his shoulder. His eyes gleam red with the Sharingan, and he's got a knife in his hand, and she can't take her eyes off it. Her mouth goes dry.
"Tell him, if you wish," he says quietly. "But he won't believe you. You're the wife of a would-be traitor, after all." He lowers the knife. "Father isn't good at keeping secrets."
He knows about the coup. Or, at least, the idea of it. Fugaku had promised her that it wouldn't happen – that he wouldn't go through with such a stupid idea and risk everything over the pride of his dead ancestors. Their children were more important than that – at least, that's what she'd believed. Looking at Itachi now, she wasn't so sure.
She tries again. "If you slipped up with me, then you will again and someone else will find out," she tells him. "You can't hide something like this in a village of shinobi. Someone will notice. Someone you can't blackmail." She takes a deep breath. "And that's if she doesn't kill you herself. Do you really think you can molest the Kyuubi's vessel without some sort of consequence?"
He laughs at that. "No, I don't." He goes back to his cooking. "But those consequences won't come from Naru-hime. Ask her yourself – she won't be at the academy today."
The Kyuubi girl lives in a rundown apartment in a rough area of town. It was bad enough before, Mikoto remembers, but it's got a lot worse since she was placed there. It's also the last place Mikoto had ever thought she would visit, but Itachi's attitude – how relaxed he was when she confronted him – has been bothering her. This girl, as awful as it may seem, has some sort of answers.
There's rubbish strewn all over the stairwell. The door to the girl's apartment is hanging off its hinges, and the sickly smell of rotting meat and copper spills into the corridor. She taps her knuckles nervously against the door and peers into the room. The word 'monster' stares back at her, written in kanji three feet high across the living room wall. Mikoto hasn't been retired long enough to have forgotten what blood looks like when it's used as ink.
"Can I help you?"
The Kyuubi girl is tiny, she thinks. Her blonde hair is hidden under a rag, and she's dressed for cleaning. She's smaller than Sasuke. She's thinner too, and the bones in her wrists and elbows jut out as she folds her arms across her flat chest. Then Mikoto looks into her eyes, and she gets the same feeling of vertigo that Itachi's been giving her recently. There's that same kind of ancient presence about her.
Mikoto's first thought is that the Kyuubi has corrupted her son somehow. She shoves it away. She's here for the truth, and ingrained prejudice will get her nowhere.
"I was wondering if I could have a word with you, Uzumaki-chan," she says.
The girl shrugs and waves a hand in a vague gesture of welcome. "I'd offer tea, but I don't have mugs anymore," she says. "So you'll have to excuse my manners."
Her teeth are oddly sharp, Mikoto notices. They remind her of the Inuzuka clan and their canine smiles. She forces herself to smile at the girl, but she may as well not have bothered. Uzumaki has turned her attention back to the graffiti on her wall, and is looking at it speculatively.
"I saw you last night," Mikoto tells her. "In Itachi's room." Uzumaki looks at her from the corner of her eye. Silence stretches between them, and Mikoto can feel the weight of it bearing down onto her soul. "I'm sorry," she says. It seems inadequate. This girl is her son's victim, and nothing she says can change that. "I can't apologise enough for what he's done to you."
Uzumaki tilts her head to the side so that she can look at Mikoto properly, albeit at a funny angle. "What do you think he did?" she asks. Mikoto balks at the thought of answering that, but Uzumaki continues before she can even try. "He's a good person, you know. Despite everything. Because of it, maybe." Uzumaki exhales sharply and shakes her head. "Itachi's not doing anything I don't want him to do."
Mikoto can't quite wrap her mind around that. "But you're so young," she says. It's her best argument.
"Am I?" Uzumaki asks. The expression on her face belongs to a much older woman. "It's not like anyone treats me like a kid. Not really." The word on the wall seems to overwhelm them both for a moment. Then Uzumaki smiles. It looks pitying. "You shouldn't worry yourself too much, Uchiha-san."
Mikoto wonders what kind of world she lives in where someone like Uzumaki Naruto can pity her. She decides she doesn't want to know.
"What he's doing to you is wrong, Uzumaki-chan," she says.
Uzumaki laughs. It's sudden, and Mikoto flinches at the sound of it. Uzumaki doesn't laugh like a little girl; she laughs like someone who's lived through hell. She laughs like an experienced jounin.
She turns so that she's facing Mikoto head on and fixes her with a look that burns right down to the core of Mikoto's being. When she speaks, her voice is utterly calm. "I wouldn't try and make him choose, if I were you."
Mikoto remembers Itachi at the kitchen bench that morning: his Sharingan active and a knife in his hand. She takes her leave.
Uchiha Mikoto had been a talented jounin – one of the few kunoichi in the Uchiha family history. She'd loved her job, and she'd been good at it, and not all of her skills were lost. It has been the only way that she can keep ahead of her children and her husband at times. Now that training is what makes her hold her tongue. She watches in silence as Itachi goes about his business, knowing his secret but never saying. She catches glimpses of Uzumaki Naruto at the academy gates when she goes to collect Sasuke, and she watches her grow into a pretty young thing – scrawny still, but with a promise of beauty that even malnutrition can't quite hide. She walks as if she were the Hokage rather than Sarutobi.
Sometimes, in the mornings, she feels a flicker of Uzumaki's chakra. She stops checking in on Itachi altogether – she doesn't want to risk seeing them together again. She doesn't know if she could handle it. But sometimes she listens. She slips closer to her son's door and presses her ear to the thin wood. She hears soft whispers and whimpers and she hates them both.