Chapter 1:

She told herself, everyday, that it would get easier. That over time, she would find keeping her distance more and more natural. Bearable.

A lie.

She hadn't known it was a lie when she started it of course. Or, maybe she had, and she just couldn't think of any other way to bear this pain.

It was, after all, a pretty lie. Comforting even. Saying that something so heartwrenching, so painful will soon be easier. Optimistic and hopeful.

But still... a lie will always remain a lie.

As such, it never got any easier staying away, and watching him from afar was equal parts painful and soothing that soothed the deep pain in her soul as she watched.

The Orphanage caretakers weren't abusive, but neither were they kind. Brusque, always busy with some other duty or child that needed to be seen to and always exhausted from long hours in a place flooded with dozens of new charges.

He cried. And she couldn't, for the life of her, ever fathom why the sound had driven her to literal madness all those months ago. She could listen to it for hours, forever if that was the only thing of his voice she could hear.

Sometimes when he cried, they either didn't notice, or couldn't pick themselves up from their exhaustion, or were simply taking care of other kids. He cried for hours and it was an almost physical struggle to force herself to keep still and not go to him, a torture of her emotions that she never walked away from because she could never leave without making sure someone came, and always, someone did come.

Either a caretaker or a nurse, but more often than not she noticed a boy, older now, possibly an orphaned Genin passing through the system with the death of his parents. Thin, frail, sickly. She overheard his name as Gekko.

He would carry him, change him, and feed him when he was given the bottle and formula. He smiled and made silly faces when he thought no one was looking that made Naruto smile with a mouthful of gums before he pressed his drooling mouth to his shoulder.

Then, one day, he was processed through the system and gone.

And her boy was alone again.

(X)(X)(X)

The first year came.

Then the second.

More and more Hiruzen would send her out on missions away from the village, on assignments that took more and more time. The man wasn't stupid and he wasn't blind. He knew what she was doing and he was giving her an out and a warning all at once. Before she knew it, the third year came and went.

By the time she took proverbial stock, the Orphanage had returned to a semblance of normalcy, no longer full to bursting with children whose parents were killed by the Fox or enemy ninja.

Her boy had grown.

The caretakers never neglected him, never abused him, but few treated him kindly. Only one, an old man that could barely walk even with a cane ever did more than simply feed and ignore him, and his attentions consisted of tossing a ball with her little Naruto a handful of times a week making exaggerated motions and faces.

He played with the other children, chewed on toys too big to be swallowed. He spoke his name and a few other words. The first time she'd heard it her heart crumbled a bit more with the pain of it.

She didn't know when he'd started talking.

It must have happened when she was on mission certainly.

But which mission? What month? What day? What was his first word? Had anyone besides her cared?

She didn't know. And she had to repeat it to herself that she had to stay away, that she'd tried to kill him, that she lost the right to these things… these privileges that mothers enjoyed when they weren't dangerous, like her.

At her best nights, she could sleep without feeling completely wretched.

(X)(X)(X)

Far as anyone knew, her son died at childbirth.

Its what Hiruzen told them, and the subject was too painful, and they too polite to ever really pry.

After all. Konoha's Red Hot kunoichi, known for her temper and the mouth on her would never, ever let someone take her son away. It just wouldn't happen.

Heh.

It would be years before anyone discovered her secret. Years before her mask cracked and her spirit was finally worn down to the bone.

People noticed the difference in her, of course. Her new silence, her reservedness, her avoidance of them. They worried, asked if there was anything they could do. Offered to help in "any way they could," said they were "there for her."

She smiled… offered thanks… and kept her silence.

What could she say?

Even if she could tell them, even if she wanted to tell them, what would she say? That she kept her pregnancy a secret? Lied to all of them for years? Watched with jealous resentment as they moved on? Rebuilt their lives while hers crumbled around her?

Maybe she should have. At least say something. Give voice to something even if it was just to scream and let it out.

But she never did.

And so of all the people, of all her friends… it had to be her that found out.

She'd forgotten, about their training; that day.

So she'd thought she'd had the day clear. Nothing planned. No meetings, missions or pending events.

No one to come by. No one to bother her. To interfere.

She hadn't even had the mind to lock her door. No need to give the police force trouble when they were called.

So when Mikoto opened it, and found her staring at a pill bottle on her living room table…

They were rivals. Always had been, since they were girls.

They hated each other.

That's what they each told the other all the time.

What they told all of their mutual friends.

But she'd never seen the woman move that fast in her life.

Mikoto grabbed the bottle before she could even think to hide it, and looked at her with a face that was too pale, eyes too wide and frightened before she emptied the damn thing right down her sink.

She heard the clicks and clacks of pills, rattling in plastic, the running faucet washing them all down the pipes.

She heard Mikoto slam the bottle over the countertop and shut off the faucet.

They didn't look at eachother. Hell, neither of them even spoke a single word for a long, long time.

When Mikoto moved again, she knelt in front of Kushina, dark hair casting a shadow across her face with the angle of the light from the window, red eyes shining like blood drenched rubies, three tomoe spinning in the iris.

"Talk to me."

There was a suggestion there, a command. She could feel the foreign presence, feel the tug on her will and thoughts.

She could have resisted. She'd done it before. Second nature by now. Couldn't let the Uchiha princess beat her, after all.

But she didn't. Maybe she didn't want to. Maybe she just didn't have the will. Or maybe the suggestion was never necessary at all.

Her voice broke into a choked sob, and before she realized what she was doing she was lurching forward, all but collapsing onto Mikoto, who's hands rose up and caught her, clutched her close as she sobbed into her neck and shoulder.

The words came out, broken and nearly incoherent with grief, pain and a sheer desire to be given voice after so very very long having been kept in the cage of silence.

She felt her long time rival rubbing circles along her back, long fingers tracing tense muscles as she listened quietly and let the years of grief crash over her.

She wasn't sure how long she spoke, or how long she cried. She wasn't even sure what she was saying or if Mikoto even understood half of it.

When it was over, Mikoto vowed to come back the next day, and forced Kushina to swear, to never try this again. Never even think it. The heiress knew she was fierce at the notion of keeping her promises.

She did come back the next day.

And the next day.

And the day after that.

After that day, she would never again refer to Uchiha Mikoto as anything less than her friend.

(X)(X)(X)

When he was given an apartment at eight, She wasn't sure if it was better or worse.

The Orphanage was no home, but neither should an eight year old be worried about paying rent, water and light, or cooking for himself…

Others were watching him, others were always watching, it was the only thing that brought her some semblance of comfort that he wouldn't spill boiling water onto himself in an accident and die before someone got him to the hospital. They would keep him alive; especially Kakashi.

She could feel his gaze pass over her whenever she drew near, like a burning hot floodlight, illuminating and searing over her flesh.

He hadn't forgiven her. Good.

He shouldn't.

She hadn't.

He had no one to teach him, and so he learned things slowly, and he learned them on his own. As such, he learned to read late, and not well. Books, diagrams. He stuck to it because it was needed, not because he enjoyed it. Math was a different matter, he needed it, used it every day, he picked it up fast by pure necessity when most of his peers were still playing in the playgrounds.

He dreamed about being a ninja, even his dislike of reading didn't stop him from collecting book after book after book of ninja, and the Hokage especially.

His monthly stipend was from Minato's trust, and various village programs, what money she tried to send his way was funneled into the accounts. She knew Hiruzen pretended not to notice, and she was grateful for it.

It let Naruto afford better gear when he went and shopped for it. Weapons, bandages, explosive tags. Even if he didn't inherit Minato's natural talent he seemed to have at least gotten his penchant for preparedness. If he knew what he needed for something he wouldn't try to cut corners or do without unless he absolutely had to.

He wasted absolutely nothing. When he called or hired someone to repair an appliance he watched them like a hawk. Not because he didn't trust them, but because he never wanted to call them again. He would watch to learn to fix it himself. One of them, a middle aged gentleman walked her boy through the step by step disassembly of a toaster, explaining how everything worked.

That Toaster, since then had broken two other times, and Naruto had repaired it on both occasions.

And she watched it all. Like she'd done in every spare moment she'd had for years. She watched as he took his tests, watched as he trained, learned, tried to keep up with the others of his class. How he forced himself day in and day out to train that little bit harder, try for that one extra push up or sit up more than he'd managed the last time.

She watched him succeed… and fail sometimes.

Worst of all… she watched him leave every day.

She watched those blue eyes look at the other kids, look at their smiling parents, drink in the feeling of pride displayed on their faces, the happiness and joy of family.

And she would see that light in his eyes dim. That hope replaced by forlorn sadness; a deep longing for what he'd never known.

Jealous embers simmered behind his eyes before guilt smothered even that for having ever been felt at all.

But others didn't see that in him. They saw the joker, the prangster, the obnoxious nuisance. Some even saw danger.

But no. Her boy was good right down to his very core. All he needed was for someone to look at him not past him.

Her gut churned, and before she realized what she'd been doing she stood up from where she'd been watching from a nearby rooftop, a step away from falling and taking him into her arms and never letting go again.

And then the world spun, vertigo hit her before she could bring up her defenses, and she was somewhere else, looking at the baleful glare of Hatake Kakashi, mismatched eyes finding her own, his Anbu mask hanging from his belt.

"Go home."

The words were blunt, curt, without the slightest hint of the kind affection he once looked at her with.

She shook her head, more to get her bearings than deny his demand, but that desire was present too. "He is my son."

"Not anymore." He said, voice low.

She caught movement from the corner of her eye, Naruto was getting up, walking away and leaving again.

She moved to follow.

And Kakashi was in front of her again and it was a physical urge she had to fight down to not clock him across the face.

The sound of a crying baby reached her ears, all around her, bouncing off the walls of her mind.

Kakashi's voice was harsh, and the flat tone he'd been using now bled at the edges of anger. "Go. Home."

She opened her mouth, ready to argue, ready to tell him to go down there himself or get the fuck out of her way.

Damn him, and Damn Sarutobi!

The crying abruptly stopped, choked off, the sound of a blow bouncing around her brain and she froze with renewed horror.

She heard her own voice now speaking over the shrieking wails.

Just shut up. Just shut up shut up SHUT UP!"

She heard the blow again, the rustling of clothes and she could see her, see him, lying there in the cradle, blue eyes glassy, a horrid bruise rapidly forming over his cheek, her hands reaching for his pale throat, brandished like claws.

Then Kakashi was there, his fists grasping at her Jounin vest, lifting her off her feet and slamming her back into the rooftop access door behind her, her body clanging against the metal barrier, feeling it buckle and the back of her head ringing from where it smacked against it.

"Not gonna ask next time." He snarled. "Stay. Away from him!"

He let her go, and her own legs barely caught her, holding her up.

By the time she had the strength, the will to move again the moon was high in the sky.

That night, with no sleep and barely any supplies she took the highest risk mission the village had available and left.

(X)(X)(X)

He didn't have to 'ask' her again.

With the memory fresh in her mind, as vivid as though it had happened mere hours ago…

She stayed away.

She stayed away as long as she could. She received her missions from chuunin border outposts and dead drops, took on assignments in foreign, hostile territory, looked for the most dangerous of enemies, criminals and murderers.

They couldn't kill her. They tried of course. They all failed.

Maybe someday, someone would succeed.

Maybe someday she would be too slow, or just a little bit too tired from the nightmares that kept her awake at night. Or too weak from the stale ration bars she barely forced herself to choke down every day.

The money came as expected every time, flowing into her account, then out of hers and into his. Sometimes an Anbu tracked her down, delivered messages from the others. Some few friends asking after her, worried. Mikoto's in particular were angry seething things that demanded she come back or at the very least write.

She never did.

She had to stay away.

If she couldn't control herself, if she couldn't stop herself from going to him, the woman that had nearly killed him in his crib, she had to stay away.

Then, one day she got a message, one that brooked no argument.

It wasn't from Mikoto, or Chouza, or any of the others that kept writing her.

It said one word.

Return

Hiruzen's seal was firmly at the bottom, bright red like blood.

She followed the Anbu messenger without a word.

She realized as they crossed the border back into fire territory… that she had to ask him how long she'd been gone.

Fourteen months.

Another year had gone by.

He was nine now. Nine and five months.

He only ever celebrated his birthdays with Hiruzen. He would take him out to eat, tell him stories about the Kage and battles long past.

Did he do so again this year?

She hoped so. It was one of the few times she could remember her boy was genuinely happy, not just pretending to be.

The journey was silent. Not tense, but not comfortable either.

Her escort didn't seem to wish for conversation and she was too unused to it by now to strike it up herself.

She remembered days when she could talk easily, make friends easily. They seemed like they were the images and memories of a wholly different woman now looking back.

She had been different then hadn't she? Better. Happier. With Minato acting like a warm sun through her day, shining bright.

She didn't bother asking why Hiruzen wished for her to return. The worst case scenarios passed through her mind sometimes, and they made her heart race, beating hard beneath her ribs in fear but she didn't ask.

Stay away. Kakashi's words in her voice bounced around her skull.

They returned to a village draped in the white colors of mourning.

She wondered, for a fleeting moment if Hiruzen had died. But no, the Hokage monument was clear, all Kage had their vissages shrouded in mourning colors for a month after their passing. Something else was wrong.

The Chuunin at the gate were young, she didn't recognize them. They didn't recognize her. They seemed like they worked together a while though, possibly the same genin team judging by how they bickered and argued.

She was led to the tower and before long she was in front of Hiruzen's desk, the old man's pale white robes even more stark on this day.

He turned his head, looking at her with tired eyes

"Who died?"

She barely recognized her voice. It'd been a while since she'd used it. Since she'd had need of it.

.The old monkey took off his hat, passing a hand over thinning hair. "The Uchiha clan."

She didn't understand what was said. Her mind simply refused to register and comprehend the words.

Her thoughts flashed to Mikoto, the image of her friend sending a sharp knife through her chest.

"Wha-"

"Only a handful of survivors." He spoke over her question, smoke wafting out from the cage of his teeth. "I called you back on the Matriarch's request."

Her heart, which had been stuttering in her chest gave another relieved lurch and she felt she could breathe again! "Mikoto's alive?"

He nodded, eyes fixed ahead, haunted. "Aye. She demanded I order your return. I did not have the heart to refuse."

Her world spun, she felt dizzy, worry, relief and anxiousness warring in her mind all at once, she barely even noticed when Hiruzen stood, his words of "Wait Here" sounded muffled and distant to her ears as she held onto the back of the chair to keep herself upright.

Minutes, perhaps hours later, the door opened again, and before She could fully turn Mikoto was there, her arms coiled around her and hugging her tight, so tight it hurt, and their positions from years ago were reversed, and now she was the one holding and comforting the openly sobbing woman as she cried and told her... everything…

She found herself making another promise this day.

She would never take another mission for so long outside the village again.