Minato wasn't sure why his son had chosen the flute.
He didn't know anyone in Konoha that played it, and Naruto spent so little time in the village that it wouldn't have mattered if he did. Jiraiya, for all his talents, knew next to nothing about wind instruments. Indeed, he'd fought tooth and nail to get his son interested in the violin, insisting that it was far superior when it came to serenading classy women. It had almost swayed the young boy, but in the end he'd stood firm.
Perhaps he'd seen a traveling performer working their magic while Jiraiya was otherwise indisposed and been inspired. Or perhaps he'd seen the delicate metal rod at a merchant's stall and decided he simply liked the look of it. Minato wouldn't be surprised one way or another.
However it came to him, Naruto certainly hadn't squandered the lessons his godfather procured for him. If his sensei was to be believed, his son practiced day in and day out, teasing notes from the wind in every free moment. All in the name of wooing the moon. All in the name of love.
He'd certainly come a long way.
His son's soft, haunting melody twisted and whirled through the window behind his desk, soothing the aching fingers and throbbing temples a long day's work had inflicted upon him. Minato scrawled his name on another document, sliding the important proposal off his desk to join the rest on the floor. Out of sight, out of mind.
He sighed, kneading the exhaustion from his eyes as best he could. When he opened them again, he found the pile of proposals stacked neatly at the edge of his desk, just outside easy reach.
"Think that'll stop me, hm?" he asked, amused. An empty room and his son's muted notes were his only answer. "Maybe you're right." Maybe he needed a break.
Leaning back in his chair, Minato allowed himself a moment to bask in the night's cool breeze and the gentle sleeping sounds of his village. Then he reached out to the tag atop the Hokage Tower and vanished in a flash of flying thunder.
He appeared perched on one of the arching spires that ringed the tower's roof. Beside him, his son continued to play, unconcerned with the sudden addition to his audience.
And an audience it was. Minato smiled, nodding to the shinobi gathered on the rooftops surrounding the Hokage Tower. He wasn't entirely sure when it had started, or how, but his son's midnight serenades had gathered something of a following. Only the stray one or two at first, but as time passed and Naruto's skill grew, so too did his following.
It was mostly those who needed the distraction. Veterans and troubled sleepers, shinobi who appreciated the relaxing melodies and the sight of their Hokage's son alive and well. Minato enjoyed it for much the same reason.
Then, of course, there were the admirers. Minato's smile turned sly as he spotted more than a few kunoichi looking longingly up at his son, of varying rank and age. Quite a long way, indeed.
Naruto leaned into the last note of his melody, brow furrowing in concentration as he drew the low, mournful note out into the air. He didn't draw back from the flute until the sound of it had mingled and faded entirely with the breeze, and when he did it was with a disappointed sigh.
"You've improved," Minato noted, leaning back against the slope of the spire. His son shrugged, running a hand through his hair.
It was long, an inch or two longer than his own, and perpetually windswept. His admirers were quite smitten with it, and while Kushina scolded the young man often enough for becoming a flaky pretty boy like his father, Minato was sure she loved it most of all. She had yet to suggest he cut it, at any rate.
"Sensei says I'm still an amateur, and I think she agrees," Naruto said. "Ten years, and she hasn't listened to a single note." He frowned, looking thoughtfully up to the sky. "Maybe she doesn't like the flute?"
"Maybe you should try looking down," he suggested, because that's what he always suggested.
"My heart's up there, dad. With her."
"So you say."
They went through this song and dance almost every day, it felt like. If it wasn't his mother ordering him to get a girlfriend or the Hyuuga subtly tempting him towards one of their girls, it was Minato sitting up here, listening to him play and wishing he'd just notice one of the kunoichi who were already there. Already listening.
His son's infatuation with the moon had been humorous in the beginning, even a bit cute, but that had been a decade ago. He was sixteen now, halfway to becoming a man, and he hadn't wavered once since then. If anything, his affections had grown stronger.
And it worried Minato. Because he knew his son. The rest of the world might think the whole thing a joke, might pass it off as some ploy for attention, but Minato knew. The emotion in his eyes when he looked to the sky was all too real.
Minato didn't want that for his son. He wanted the world. Not a love that could never be returned.
"Something's wrong," Naruto finally said.
"Relationship troubles?" Minato asked, the picture perfect father concerned for his son's problems. Not at all a leader with ulterior motives. Not at all.
His son was unimpressed. "Something's wrong and you're not telling me," he amended.
He was catching on. Best throw him off the trail now. "I disagree."
"It's date night. You never make me stay over on date night. That means you brought me back because sensei had something he needed to do without me tagging along." Naruto glanced at him sidelong, eyes sharp and knowing. Like looking in a mirror.
"I haven't been left behind in a long time. It's something big."
Oh, he was good. Minato would have to consider his next few words carefully.
"I strongly disagree."
Naruto rolled his eyes. "Hypothetically, then, if something was wrong. When would you be planning to tell me about it?"
"If something was wrong," Minato echoed thoughtfully. "It's difficult to imagine, since everything's fine-"
"But if I had to answer," he said, continuing on over his son. "I'd say that there's going to be a mission briefing in my office at dawn. If something was wrong I'd be assembling a team of talented shinobi to deal with the issue, and you'd be one of them. At that briefing, that's when you'd get your answers."
Now to drive it home.
"Dawn, got it." Naruto brought the flute back up to his lips, fingers dancing across the keys as he drifted through a simple scale. Then he changed his grip on the instrument, fingers poised for another sonata. He threw Minato a curious look. "What are you doing here, anyway?"
"Taking a break from work," he said, stifling a yawn and throwing an arm around his son's shoulders.
"You're working? On date night?"
"Thought I'd catch up on some busywork. Your mother fell asleep a while ago," he explained. "People call me the Yellow Flash, you know, but she's always the first to crash at the end of a vigorous night."
His son grimaced. "Dad, please."
"Hm? Oh! Sorry, sorry, I didn't mean it like that." He winked. "Though that's true, too."
"Too much for the great romantic?"
"You're my parents!" Naruto protested. "I'm not trying to woo mom."
"You better not be," Minato said, mussing up his hair. "You might look just like me, but you've got a long way to go before you can out-woo Namikaze Minato!"
Naruto shoved him off, fighting a smile. "I don't look just like you. I've got the whisker marks, a tan, youthful good looks-"
"Oho! Sounds like someone wants to spend the rest of the night playing in Snow Country."
"I wouldn't mind," Naruto admitted. "There are hardly any lights in Snow. You can see the whole sky at night, all the stars and..." His son stole a glance at the moon, as if it would catch him in the act were he too bold.
Minato's own smile dimmed. He tilted his head back. Not for the first time, he tried to look upon the heavens with the same gravity that a little boy had so many years ago, every time his father tucked him into bed at night. The same gravity of a young man, now, with a flute in his hands and his heart in his throat.
It was difficult. It always was. But if he didn't try, no one else would.
"It's saddening," Minato said, not sure if he was disagreeing, or merely enforcing his son's statement. Difficult to say. "Trapped up there, surrounded by so much light. So many memories. So much loss."
Were those thoughts and feelings real? Was that cold, crushing depression he felt every time he tried to look to the moon as a woman a real impression, or just his own desperate attempts to empathize with his son? Was he being played, all these years later? The only one not in on the joke, the fool encouraging a child's delusion because he wanted to be a good father. The best father.
Difficult to say.
"She is," Naruto murmured, lowering his flute. After a long, somber moment, he asked, "Dad?"
"What would your Hell Viewing look like?"
The Demonic Hell Viewing. An illusion that showed the target a vision of their worst fear. The one thing they'd never want to see. Their ultimate nightmare.
Minato didn't even have to think about it.
"Quite a question to spring on date night," he said. Naruto's lips quirked, but nothing more. "Why do you ask?"
"I don't think I can be with her until I understand," his son admitted. "I can feel what she's going through, but I don't get it. It's just... I can't understand pain like hers. I haven't lived enough. I can't even imagine it.
Could he? Minato considered the moon's pain, its living nightmare, and compared it to his own.
Compared it to Kushina looking wistfully at their son's old nursery, dashing angry tears from the medical report she'd been handed after her first birth, asking him in the quietest of moments if he resented her for being broken. Scarred. Barren. Compared it to his son on the roof, reaching out to a being that would never reach back, casting his heart out to the one woman in the world that could never accept it.
"It would look like you and your mother," Minato said quietly. "Hurt, dead, gone. Out of my reach. Forever."
The moon's silver rays grew harsh. Jagged. Maybe a trick of the light, maybe his own exhaustion. Difficult to say.
"And it would be all my fault."
"Hokage-sama?" Sparrow called, voice naught but a whisper. Minato sighed, a slow, deliberate motion, relishing his last few moments of absolute calm. Then he opened his eyes.
The world shifted and blurred around him, the vast energies that made up nature and all its wonders draining from him in one sharp pull. Left a regular man once more, Minato dismissed the last foggy vestiges of meditation from his mind and addressed the elite operative in charge of the door to his office. A recently promoted chunin from the Sarutobi clan, if he recalled correctly.
He smiled, inclining his head. "Good morning, Sparrow. How's your shift going?"
"I'm not much for company while I'm meditating," he confessed, rubbing at his throat and reaching out for an empty space on his desk.
A flicker of movement, white cloth fluttering past his head, and Minato's fingers closed around a glass of water. The rookie on guard went rigid, but Minato waved him off before he could leap into action.
"Thank you, Commander," he murmured, taking a sip. Silence was his answer, as it always was. "Now, was there something you wanted to tell me?"
"Sir. Your six o'clock is here."
Minato blinked. "Already? I told you to wake me an hour ago." Silence.
The rookie ANBU immediately bowed his head, allowing nothing but apology past the ceramic plating of his mask. "Forgive me. I misheard-"
"Oh, no, not you," Minato said, rubbing his neck sheepishly. "You're doing just fine, Sparrow. Thank you for informing me. Send them in."
The young shinobi hesitated for only a moment before nodding and withdrawing from the room, and Minato cast an exasperated look at the empty space to his right. Then the door swung open, heavyset oak groaning against hinges that were kept in just the right amount of disrepair to warn you when they moved, and one of Minato's favorite students came gliding in. The young man bowed low as soon as he crossed the office's threshold, coal black bangs falling across his face with the motion.
"Itachi," Minato said warmly, gesturing for Konoha's youngest elite jonin to stand. "It's been so long, I'd almost forgotten what you looked like."
"Three days, I believe," Itachi replied, smiling faintly. "My mission was a success. I've compiled the specifics, if you'd like to read while I debrief."
Mikoto's eldest procured a scroll from the folds of his jonin flak jacket, tops and bottoms bordered in red and emblazoned with the Hokage's symbol. He made to place the mission report on Minato's desk, but a flicker of white cloth and the slightest kiss of wind against his ponytail left him with one less scroll, and Minato with one more. His smile withered and died on his lips.
Minato shook his head, cracking open the report. It was always something with those two. His students could be so territorial.
"Seems things went well," he said, heading off Itachi's oral debrief while he scanned the scroll. His written reports were always so extensive that the oral portion of his debrief was little more than a vocalization of their contents, Minato had found.
Itachi nodded, silent. He'd stopped complaining about the breach in protocol long ago.
"Alright!" Minato snapped the scroll shut with a flick of his wrist, holding it up to the empty air, into which it disappeared in another flicker of white cloth. "Everything looks to be in order, here. Congratulations on a job well done, check's in the mail, and so on and so forth."
"Something's wrong," Itachi observed.
"Tell me, Itachi," Minato said, leaning forward and clasping his hands on his desk. "What do you think of children?"
Itachi's lips pursed.
"They are our future," he said, after a contemplative moment's silence. "They are the first priority in a dangerous situation, and the last resource to turn to in times of war and strife. They are generally smaller than the average adult, possess a set of impermanent teeth that are lost somewhere between the ages of-"
"Very good," Minato cut in. It was risky at times, giving the somber jonin an open ended question like that. "More specifically, what do you think of older children? Say, ages sixteen to seventeen?"
"I think those aren't children at all."
"Alright, we'll come back to the children. What do you think of being a jonin sensei?" Minato gave his second quietest student his most winning smile.
"It's an honorable position, and I respect those who choose to assume it," Itachi said slowly. "But I must confess, it isn't something I've ever considered for myself. At the risk of sounding arrogant, I believe my skills are better suited to serving Konoha directly, completing high risk missions that others will not. I don't know that I have what it takes to be a serviceable sensei, let alone one of your caliber."
"Ah, but what if you could have both?" Minato asked, plucking a folder out of the empty air, courtesy of his quietest student. He slid the folder across his desk, and at his encouraging nod Itachi picked it up and began leafing through its contents. "All the excitement of a suicide mission with a team of cute little students to match?"
"These... do not seem like shinobi in need of a sensei," Itachi finally said, flipping through the folder. "One of them is already a jonin."
Minato waved a hand, dismissing the detail. "He was only promoted a few months ago. He's got a long way to go before he can call himself a veteran, let alone an elite. He needs just as much guidance as the other two."
"What guidance, Hokage-sama?" Itachi asked, honestly curious. "From what I can see, there isn't much for me to teach them outside my own personal techniques. They're all exceptional for their ages, and well-rounded for their ranks."
Minato raised an eyebrow. The elite jonin's lips pursed again, a sure sign that he was considering Minato's suggestion carefully. He flipped back through the folder, eyes flitting from report to report at a blistering pace as he worked through the problem he'd been presented with. Minato, meanwhile, finished the last of his water and leaned back in his cushy chair, content to let the young man puzzle it out.
Being Itachi, it only took him a minute.
"They are too exceptional," he murmured.
Minato nodded, pleased. "Exactly. All three excelled in their various specializations, and spent far less time in their genin cells than their peers as a result. They're better shinobi for it, overall, but there are more than a few holes in their education that their sensei didn't have the time to fill. They need someone to fill those gaps for them, and unfortunately, they're all too stubborn to accept a sensei who isn't powerful enough to treat them like the unruly children they are if push comes to shove."
He chuckled, gesturing to the folder. "And as you can see, there aren't many shinobi who could handle all three of them at once."
"I see." Itachi gave the biographies one last look through, then snapped the folder shut.
He made to place the forest green file back on Minato's desk, only to pull it back sharply, just outside the reach of the fluttering white cloth. His lips twitched up into a faint shadow of his clan's infamous smirk, and then the cloth flickered back around and snatched the folder into thin air, sending the elite jonin stumbling forward a step in the process. Smirk turned to scowl.
"Hokage-sama." Sparrow appeared once more, kneeling beside Itachi with one hand on his knee and the other pressed flat against the floor. Perfect form. Minato would have to put in a good word for him the next time he saw the boy's captain.
"Yes, sir. Tokubetsu jonin Uchiha Sasuke."
"Wonderful. Send him in, please."
Sparrow nodded, and with another creaking groan of wood and aching hinges, the operative disappeared and an Uchiha entered in his place.
Sasuke took one step into the room and froze, locking eyes with his brother. A heavy, syrupy sort of silence fell upon Minato's office, coating every surface and slowing everything down to a crawl. Mikoto and Fugaku's children, the once heir and current exile, and the once spare and current heir. They were of a height, finally, with Sasuke actually outpacing his older brother by a fraction of an inch, and that made their stare down all the more intense.
He coughed politely, and the moment was broken.
Sasuke entered the room fully, ignoring his brother, and bowed at the waist. His bangs obscured his features with the motion, much like his brother, though his hair was much shorter overall. He straightened, headband catching the light of the rising sun, and its metal gleamed over the bandages that all of the Uchiha wore on their foreheads these days. His flak jacket, faded green and covered in pockets, looked well worn for the short time he'd had it.
Minato smiled. He probably hadn't stopped wearing it since his promotion. "Good morning, Sasuke. How was yesterday's patrol?"
"Irritating," the tokubetsu jonin replied, relaxing into a more casual stance. "Tanosuke and Yutaka thought that since I was younger than both of them, they'd ignore my orders and rough up a couple civilians who were insulting our mothers."
"And?" Minato asked, reigning in a chuckle at the mental image.
Sasuke scowled. "I dealt with them."
"Not too harshly, I hope?"
"They'll make it to their next shift."
"Charisma motivates more than force, Sasuke," he chided. When the young man simply stared at him in response, he amended, "Though they're best when put together, yes. Just don't be too strict with your family." He leaned forward, giving him a meaningful look. "We're all citizens of Konoha, at the end of the day. We're all emotional."
"When we can afford to be," Sasuke said, pointedly ignoring his older brother's disapproving frown.
Minato's eyes crinkled. "Then be kind to them when you can afford it, alright?"
The face of the Uchiha clan, the young man that had taken their burdens and the village's prejudices upon his shoulders and thrived in spite of them, exhaled and bowed his head. His lips twitched up.
"Thank you." Minato clapped his hands. "Now, I hear you've been putting in requests for jonin-level missions since your promotion?"
Sasuke nodded. "They're always gone by the time I get to the missions office, though," he said wryly. "Must be my luck."
"Actually, that's my fault," Minato admitted. At the tokubetsu jonin's shocked, almost betrayed look, he quickly said, "I've been waiting for the right team to ease you into your new responsibilities, and of course the right mission to start you off. It took me some time, which is why you've been on patrol so much these last few weeks. But today's the day!"
"The right team," Sasuke repeated, looking at his brother for the first time since entering the room. "You're putting me on a team with him?"
Minato smiled winningly. "Itachi and two others, yes."
Sasuke eyed his elite sibling, and his elite sibling eyed him right back. Then, right before that syrupy silence could return in full force, he snorted.
"Nothing is wrong," Minato insisted. Why did everyone think something was wrong?
"Then why-" The Uchiha heir began.
"Sasuke, look at my face," he demanded. Sasuke looked at his face. "Does this look like the face of someone who doesn't know what he's talking about?"
"What does it look like?"
"Your face, sir."
"Thank you. Sparrow! Send Neji in," he called. There was a short, startled pause, and then the door to the Hokage's office swung open for the third time. Hyuuga Neji entered with all the poise and thinly veiled arrogance of a newly promoted jonin, stepping up to his desk between Sasuke and Itachi and inclining his head respectfully.
As he did, he glanced sidelong at Sasuke, eyes moving meaningfully down to the Uchiha's flak jacket. It was slightly different than the Hyuuga's own, by virtue of the fact that Neji had earned the full promotion to jonin, while Sasuke had fallen just short, settling for tokubetsu specializations in ninjutsu and kenjutsu. The gesture was not lost on his rival, and tension returned to the room thinker than before as the two prodigious shinobi glared one another down.
Minato rolled his eyes. So many petty rivalries in the room. He was almost afraid to throw his son into the mix.
He coughed again, a bit less politely this time, and the rookies in the room straightened up. "My apologies," Neji murmured. "You called for me, Hokage-sama?"
"Indeed. I have a mission I'd like you to be a part of, if you think you're up for it," Minato said. The up and coming prodigy of the Hyuuga clan considered this, a small shift in his stance giving away his surprise. It wasn't every day a boy his age was specially requested for a mission by the Hokage, Minato supposed.
"I assume Uchiha-san and Uchiha-san will be accompanying me?" Neji asked.
"Them and one other, yes. He should be getting here any minute."
"This is quite a team," Neji mused. "Hokage-sama, is something-"
The Hyuuga prodigy blinked, startled. "But I didn't-"
"You didn't have to. The answer is no. Nothing." Why were all his students so paranoid? Maybe they needed a break. "At any rate, once the last member of your team arrives we'll get into the specifics of just what it is you'll be doing in the days to come."
"Who's the fourth man?" Sasuke asked.
And then came the flute.
Right on cue, as always. Timing had always been sensei's strong suit.
The wind instrument's first two notes rang sharp and clear through Minato's office, and the rookies in the room whipped around to its source, kunai falling into their hands and chakra surging into their eyes. They weren't used to being snuck up on, it seemed. Minato shared an amused glance with Itachi. Ah, youth.
"Who-" Sasuke snapped, only to jerk back when he caught sight of the young man sitting in the open window behind Minato's desk. Neji froze likewise, gaze flitting from the new arrival, to Minato, and back again.
Naruto's fingers danced up and down the keys of his flute, and from them sprung a melody Minato had never heard before. It was different from the usual serenades, less mournful and more upbeat. Not quite as emotional, but just as attention-grabbing. Impressive, and somehow nostalgic.
His son brushed off the last few notes with enviable ease, the pure white cloak his godfather had given him for their recent trek to Snow Country fluttering elegantly around him in a breeze that hadn't been there a moment ago. When the last note died he pulled the instrument from his lips and spun it once, sealing it in a flash of smoke and chakra.
He inclined his head to the room's inhabitants, flashing them all a charming grin. "Namikaze Naruto. Pleased to meet you."
"Sasuke, Neji, meet my son, Naruto," Minato said, taking far more amusement in their incredulity than a good leader probably should. "He'll be rounding out your team for this mission, joining you under Itachi's command. And now that he's here, we can begin with the briefing."
With that said, Minato snapped his fingers, and a flicker of white cloth later caught a scroll as long as his forearm and twice as thick around. It was ringed top to bottom in Konoha's rich crimson, just as Itachi's report had been, but instead of sporting the symbol for Minato's own village, it was embossed with an entirely different country's kanji.
"Gentlemen," Minato said gravely, unraveling the SOS. "Something is wrong."