Content Warnings: Graphic violence, gore, child abuse, character death, underage sex, and cheating.


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CHAPTER ONE

"An unjust peace is better than a just war."

- Marcus Tullius Cicero -

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There's a place where two legends once fought, a valley that saw their lifeblood spilled. Years after both men are dead, statues stand in honor of the victor and his foe. Their effigies face one another in perpetuity, a testament to their rivalry and to the battle that shaped the future of the Leaf. And in Konoha there's another monument, a stone face shaped out of the golden bluff, which honors the champion: the Second Hokage, Uchiha Madara.

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Sasuke meets the child who will one day be his wife on a sunny March afternoon. Her name is Masami, and she has large, dark eyes that promise to awaken with the sharingan. The youngest of six daughters, she's the pride of her family. Beautiful in the way only an Uchiha girl can be, intelligent, already skilled at basic kata, she shows every sign of becoming a talented kunoichi.

When her father presents her, he bows before Father and says, "We are honored."

Masami looks more nervous than honored, but she gives Sasuke a gentle smile. He doesn't return it, because he thinks his father wouldn't like it very much if he did.

While their parents talk, Sasuke and Masami play children's shogi. She beats him at first, but he wins the second game. She steals shy glances at him over the board, but she never says anything to him.

Masami has glossy, blue-black hair that falls to the middle of her back, and it catches the sunlight as her father leads her away. Sasuke thinks it's very pretty in the same way that he thinks summer flowers and colorful paintings are nice to look at.

"In a dozen years, that girl will be your bride. Do you understand what that means?" Father asks.

"Yes," he says, even though Sasuke only has a vague idea that Masami will sleep in his room and be the mother of his children, however that works.

At night, he hears Itachi arguing with Father. Sasuke knows he shouldn't eavesdrop, but he hides outside the door to his father's study anyway, listening.

"He's five," Itachi says. "How can you do this?"

"He's the same age your mother was when she and I were matched," Father says. "Don't pretend to be so surprised. You know how these things work."

"Yes, I do," his brother says, voice so quiet that Sasuke has to lean closer to catch his next words. "And it's wrong to breed children like horses."

His father makes a sound that Sasuke might think was a laugh, if only he had ever heard him laugh before. "We are Uchiha," he says. "We have a bloodline to keep pure, the world's strongest kekkei genkai to protect. What would you have me do, Itachi?"

"Let him decide. It's his life to live."

"The future of our family rests on Sasuke's shoulders," says their father. "I'm not taking the chance that he chooses wrongly."

He hears footsteps—Itachi walking out on Father, no doubt—so he scrambles backward, hurries down the hallway, then up the stairs to his room on the third floor.

Sasuke slips into bed and pretends to be asleep, but when his brother opens the door he says, "I know you're awake, and I know you were listening in."

Sasuke sits up slowly and says, "Sorry," without meeting his brother's eyes.

Itachi puts a hand on his shoulder. "It's all right. Do you understand why Father and I were arguing?"

He nods. "Because you don't like Masami."

Itachi says, "I like Masami fine. She seems like a sweet girl. I just don't think anyone should be able to make decisions like that for you. Even our father. So I want you to promise me something, Sasuke. Promise you won't let him take away your choices."

Sasuke frowns. For the first time in his young life, someone is telling him that his father doesn't know best, and he isn't sure how to answer. But he can tell this is important to Itachi, even if he doesn't know why, so he says, "I promise."

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The Uchiha rule the village. That's a lesson Sakura's family learned when her father was sent to the front lines of the war. He was an ordinary ninja who never even became a chuunin, but the Yondaime placed him on an Earth Country battlefield anyway. Maybe because Haruno is a new name among shinobi, one without much history and no weight, the Hokage decided his life wasn't important. Her dad died before she was born, and his body was left behind (like so many others, according to Mama).

Sakura hates the Uchiha, with their snobby smiles and their strange eyes. One of them examines her the spring she turns six. A tall, stern-faced shinobi asks her dozens of questions, sends her through an obstacle course, and tests her ability to control and use chakra. She knows that this moment will determine whether she gets to study the ninja arts, and so Sakura tries her very best. All the while, the examiner takes notes.

At the end of the seven-hour test, he says to her mother, "Your daughter is impressive, especially considering her lackluster lineage. We'll be enrolling her at the Academy as soon as the new term begins."

"But I don't want her to be a shinobi," Mom says. "I didn't even want this assessment."

The examiner scowls. "Whether you like it or not, it's your daughter's duty to serve Konoha if she's able. Besides, every child dreams of becoming a shinobi. Isn't that right, Sakura?"

She nods, because she wants to be a kunoichi more than anything, and she doesn't understand why her mother would try to stop her.

That evening, after dinner, Mom cries and holds her close and says, "I wanted to keep you safe, but I can't even do that. They won't let me."

"It's okay," Sakura says, and she hugs her mother as tightly as she can. "I'll protect me. I'll be the best ninja ever, the first girl Hokage! You'll see."

Her mother kisses her cheek, sniffs, and says, "I want you to dream, Sakura, but you need to understand that Uchiha become Hokage, Uchiha and no one else. There's only so high you can rise if you aren't from their clan."

Sakura starts at the Academy the next month, and there are two Uchiha children in her year: the Yondaime's second son, Sasuke, and Masami, the girl everyone says he's going to marry someday. Masami seems kind and friendly, but her husband-to-be is cocky and rude.

After her third day of school, Sakura tells her mother, "He acts like he's better than everyone else just 'cause his father's the Hokage."

"I'm sure he does," Mom says, "but I don't want you worrying about Sasuke. You just work hard and listen to Iruka-sensei. Okay?"

She nods, and really she tries to do as her mother says, but it's difficult. Sasuke is the star of her class, and as much as she wants to dislike him, Sakura can't help but admire how quickly he picks up new jutsu, how every shuriken he throws lands exactly where he means it to. She watches him, at first because she wants to unravel the mystery behind his perfect techniques. But then she finds herself taking note of things that have nothing to do with Sasuke's skills as a ninja, like the sound of his voice and the way he frowns with his eyebrows as much as his mouth.

She isn't blessed with a famous name or bloodline-limit, but Sakura is determined to prove herself, and over her years at the Academy she works hard to master every task Iruka sets. On theoretical tests she does better than all of her classmates, including Masami and Sasuke, but in practical exercises he still outshines her. He outshines everyone. She hears the words "prodigy" and "genius" attached to his name, and it's almost as if he's destined to be these things. Bred for it, even.

Everyone knows that the Uchiha never marry outside the clan, and that the children of the most prominent branches of the family are often paired before they become genin. Sometimes Sakura watches Sasuke with Masami and thinks that they'll make a beautiful husband and wife. They look alike, with the same black hair and pale skin and dark eyes (just waiting to turn sharingan red). Like a matched set, like they were made for each other.

Sakura might not get along with most of the Uchiha, but she can't help but love Masami. Gentle Masami who never lords her privileges over her peers. Who feeds stray cats, no matter how ragged or feral, and is nice to everyone, whether it's shy Hinata or lazy Shikamaru or wild Naruto. By her fourth year at the Academy Masami is her friend, and Sakura wishes they'd be grouped together on the same squad. Kunoichi are outnumbered by male ninja two-to-one, however, so she knows there's no chance that they'll be teammates.

Masami invites her to her home on a cool autumn evening, and so Sakura gets to enter the Uchiha compound for the first time. It's enclosed by a concrete wall, twenty feet high if it's an inch. Two shinobi guard the gate, and when Sakura approaches, the older one calls down to her.

"You, with the pink hair, what's your business here?"

"She's my friend," Masami says. "I invited her."

The guard waves Sakura through with the warning, "Be out before curfew."

As if she has any choice. No one outside of the clan is permitted on compound grounds after nine o'clock unless they're on official village business. Violators spend the night in jail, no exceptions. The police might go easier on a ten-year-old, but Sakura doesn't plan to push her luck.

She's struck by the size of the houses, the beauty of the people, most with the dark good looks so common to the Uchiha. It's such a different world from the little apartment she shares with her mother, just the two of them.

"What's it like to have so much family?" Sakura asks.

Masami smiles. "My big sisters boss me around, and my aunts are always in my business, and you can bet my cousins will tell on me if I get in any trouble. It's crazy, but I still kind of love it anyway." She points to the largest, fanciest house Sakura has seen yet and says, "That's where Sasuke lives, by the way."

"I thought he only had one brother," Sakura says. "Why do they need a place that big?"

Masami shrugs. "Lord Fugaku is the Hokage. Don't you think the Hokage should live somewhere nice?"

Sakura thinks nice is too modest to describe Sasuke's home, but she keeps this to herself.

The Yondaime and his sons are at Masami's, and she has the ridiculous thought that talking about them made them appear.

Sasuke's older brother smiles at her and says, "Hello, Sakura."

She wonders how he knows her name. The Hokage frowns at her, but she isn't offended because Uchiha Fugaku is always frowning. Sakura lowers her head in a hasty bow.

Masami does the same, except her bow is deeper and more graceful. When she straightens, she says to her father, "I invited Sakura to dinner."

"Welcome," Masami's mother says, but there is a tightness at the edges of her mouth, a tension that tells Sakura this is a bad time to be a guest.

She ends up sitting next to Masami and across from Sasuke's older brother, whose name she learns is Itachi.

Between the su-zakana and naka-choko courses of the meal, he says, "My little brother tells me you beat him on every exam Iruka gives you. He seems to find it troublesome."

Sasuke scowls, and even though he looks just like his mother, for a moment his expression is so purely Lord Fugaku that Sakura giggles.

"I don't know why you're laughing," Sasuke says. "Test grades aren't going to matter much when we're in the field."

Sakura has thought the same thing many times, but it stings to hear it from her rival.

"You're just a sore loser," she says.

"Wait till the next time we spar, we'll see who's a loser then."

She doesn't care who's sitting at this table. Hokage or no Hokage, Sakura is on the verge of getting up and clocking Sasuke on his pompous head. She glares at him and he glares right back, and she vows to practice her kata all night if she has to, so that she can finally beat him during training tomorrow.

"Sasuke, you're being rude," Itachi says. There's clear disappointment in his voice. "Apologize to Sakura."

Sasuke sits with his arms crossed over his chest, stubbornly silent.

"I don't want your stupid apology anyway," Sakura says.

"Good, because you're not getting one."

Masami looks between them, clearly uncomfortable. "Sasuke, please stop."

When he speaks to her, he's cool and indifferent. "Stay out of this, Masami," he says. "It doesn't concern you."

Sakura's temper has always easily gotten the better of her, and when Sasuke speaks so dismissively to her friend she can't help it. She flings her bowl of soup across the table without thinking. It hits him in the chest and soaks his high-collared shirt. For a moment, Sasuke just sits there, wide-eyed, staring at her like he's never seen her before.

Then he hurls his own bowl, and Sakura nearly falls out of her chair dodging it. The porcelain hits the wall behind her and shatters.

"Stop!" Lord Fugaku shouts.

Sasuke freezes, his hand wrapped around a teacup, ready to fling it too. He lets go quickly and lowers his head.

Everyone is staring at them: Masami and her parents, grandparents, and sisters, Itachi and Fugaku. Sakura knows she should apologize for starting a food fight, for ruining dinner and chucking soup at the Hokage's son, but she just can't.

The Yondaime stands, walks to the children's end of the table, and says to Sakura, "It's time for you to go home, Haruno."

He looks down on her as if she's nothing but an annoyance, inconvenient and unwanted.

She nods, her face hot. It takes every bit of her self-control to walk out of Masami's house, but as soon as she's through the front door Sakura hurries down the street to the compound gate, then beyond. She runs all the way home.

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Namikaze Naruto will be Hokage someday. He doesn't have the right name or the right eyes, but what he lacks in heritage and dojutsu, he plans to make up for with sheer determination.

So when the class laughs at him for messing up his bunshin, Naruto says, "When I'm the Hokage you guys'll respect me!"

Ino rolls her eyes. "How do you expect to become Hokage when you can't even make a stupid clone?"

"Besides, you're not an Uchiha," Shikamaru says.

"So what? Just 'cause all the Hokages since the First have been Uchiha doesn't mean they have to be forever."

"Enough!" Iruka shouts. "Get back to work practicing your clones. Especially you, Naruto. Worry less about becoming Hokage and more about your jutsu."

No matter how hard he works, his papers come back with low marks, and when it's time to perform his techniques, Naruto finds that he can't do anything right. That doesn't stop him from trying, though, again and again and again.

"Everyone expected me to be like Dad or you," Naruto tells his mother. It's the night before his twelfth birthday, and he can't help but doubt himself when the chance of becoming a genin is just a few months away. "I'm not a great ninja like you guys. There's nothing special about me, and Iruka-sensei says I'll be lucky to graduate"

She ruffles his hair and says, "I wasn't always such a skilled shinobi, Naruto. When I was your age I was getting into fights and failing tests. I passed my final exam at the Academy by the skin of my teeth, and look at me now. After Tsunade, I'm maybe the best kunoichi in Konoha."

Naruto smiles, wide and bright. "I'm like you, then!"

His mother smiles back and pulls him into a hug. He tries to dodge, but she catches him in her arms and peppers kisses across his cheeks and forehead.

"C'mon, stop, I'm too old for this," Naruto whines, and he wriggles out of her embrace.

She just laughs and says, "I'm proud of you, no matter what kind of ninja you turn out to be. Okay?"

"Okay," he says, and even if he is too old to be kissed and coddled like a little baby, Naruto feels a bit better for the attention.

The next morning, he wakes to the smell of miso soup and rice porridge, broiled salmon and tamagoyaki. He finds his mother at the stove, cooking, but his father isn't there.

"Where's Dad?" Naruto asks.

His mother gives him a sad smile. "He was called away for a last minute mission. I'm sorry, Naruto, but he won't be back for a week or so."

"Oh."

He isn't exactly surprised. The Hokage often sends his father on missions that take him away from Konoha for days or weeks. Once, when he was supposed to be sleeping, he heard Mom say that the Yondaime was afraid of him, of his influence in the village, and that's why he always gives Dad the longest, most dangerous assignments. To keep him out of Konoha—and maybe to keep him from ever coming back.

That should be frightening, but Naruto has too much faith in his father to be scared for him. Namikaze Minato is one of the strongest shinobi in any hidden village, renowned across the great nations for his deadly speed. He's too skilled a ninja to be defeated; he'll come home, same as he always does.

Naruto eats his favorite breakfast with his mother, and before he leaves the house for school, she hugs him and says, "Happy birthday."

Nobody at the Academy knows that he turns twelve today, so he doesn't get any more well wishes. Nobody even talks to him, except to laugh when he makes a mistake. He hoped that Sakura might notice him, might say "hello" at the very least, but she doesn't. She just completes her math test before everyone else and practices taijutsu with Ino and Masami. It doesn't matter, he thinks. Someday I'll be a great shinobi. Then things will be different.

After he finishes his own math test (last, as usual), he stands next to Sasuke, watches how he throws his shuriken, and tries to copy him.

"Get out of my way," Sasuke says.

Naruto shoves him when he goes to throw his next shuriken, and it misses the target entirely. Sasuke steadies himself and shoves Naruto back. Pushes turn to punches, and then they're on the ground, fighting each other. Part of him can't stand the Hokage's son, but more than that Naruto wants Sasuke to recognize him as a rival, and even as the Uchiha blacks his eye, he's grinning.

Iruka breaks it up and tells them to run fifty laps around the Academy.

"Just so you know, you're not being punished for fighting. You're being punished for brawling instead of using taijutsu like you've been taught," Iruka says.

They race for the first twenty laps, but then both of them are too tired of sprinting to keep it up any longer. By the time they make their final lap, sweat runs down Naruto's face, into his eyes, and between his shoulder blades, making his shirt stick to his back. His lungs and his legs are burning, but he pushes harder, runs faster. It doesn't matter though, because Sasuke rounds the east corner of the building—their unspoken finish line—a full five feet ahead of him.

What did he expect, really? Sasuke is the fastest student in their class and no one ever beats him at anything, except for Sakura.

"Way to go getting us in trouble," Sasuke says.

"Screw you. You hit me first."

"You pushed me first, so you started it," Sasuke says.

Then he walks off before Naruto can make up a comeback, leaving him alone in the yard outside the Academy. Everyone else has gone home, dismissed for the day. He sits on the lone swing and kicks the ground with his foot. Maybe he'll make some friends once he graduates. If he graduates.

"N-Naruto?"

He looks up and sees Hinata. Somehow he walked right past her without noticing she was there. Her wide, pale eyes are impossible to read, but the rest of her radiates nervousness.

She fidgets and bites her bottom lip. "I just wanted to say I hope you had a nice birthday."

Naruto smiles, then says, "Thanks, Hinata!"

She blushes a furious red, stammers something about needing to get home, and hurries away.

She's a little odd, the Hyuuga heiress, but she never laughs at him like his other classmates. He doesn't know if it's because she's too shy or too kind, but he appreciates it all the same.

As he swings, alone again, Naruto wonders how Hinata knew that today was his birthday.

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Sasuke doesn't speak much to Sakura after the incident at Masami's house, and she seems content not to talk to him either.

The one he can't shake is Naruto. The Yellow Flash's son always challenges him to fights and tries to upstage him in class, but he's so hopeless at every kind of jutsu that he never succeeds. It's almost funny; Namikaze Minato is one of the most talented shinobi in the village (there are even those who whisper that he should have become Hokage instead of Father), but Naruto is dead last in their year, barely proficient enough to earn his hitai-ate.

Sasuke graduates at the top of his class with the highest practical scores since his brother left the Academy. Perhaps he should be proud of that, but all he can think is that he's been overshadowed by Itachi once again. Sasuke might be talented, but he's not a once-in-a-generation wonder like his brother.

There's a part of him that hates Itachi. A small, sad, selfish part, forever jealous of the attention Father gives him, of his exceptional gifts. Sasuke tries to ignore this poisonous envy that breeds resentment toward his brother, but sometimes it's hard.

Itachi wakes him in the middle of the night, just hours after his graduation, with a two-fingered tap on the forehead. Sasuke sits up, frowning, and asks, "What?"

He doesn't speak for a long moment, but then he smiles and says, "You're the best thing in my life, Sasuke. The very best, and I love you."

Sasuke is still half asleep and a little surprised by Itachi's honesty. He knows his family loves him, but it's not something that's often spoken aloud in their household.

"That's not the only thing I want to tell you, though," Itachi says. He's no longer smiling. "Do you remember the promise you made me the day you met Masami?"

"Yes," he says. "I remember."

Itachi's eyes appear luminous in the dark, like mirrors reflecting something back at Sasuke, but he can't figure out what.

"You're going to be mad at me soon, but you have to keep that promise anyway. You understand?"

"Mad at you? Why?"

Itachi stares out the window, and Sasuke wonders what he's looking for. "Don't worry about that right now," he says.

"How am I going to keep my promise anyway? If I don't do what I'm supposed to, Father will be disappointed in me."

Itachi sighs. "There's so much wrong in this village because our father isn't the man he should be. There are worse things than suffering his disappointment. Someday you'll see that."

"That's easy for you to say. You're not the one who always disappoints him."

His brother laughs, but it doesn't sound like he finds anything funny. "You might be surprised." Itachi stands, and says, "Goodnight."

He lies awake long after Itachi leaves, thinking over his words about Konoha and their father. Sasuke touches the middle of his forehead and realizes that this is the first time his brother has poked him there without saying, "Another time."

The next morning dawns as bright as any other in the Leaf, but as soon as he goes downstairs, Sasuke knows something is wrong. The house is quiet, too quiet, except for the sound of his mother crying. He finds her sitting in the middle of the floor in the hallway, rocking back and forth, clutching a piece of paper.

"What happened?" he asks.

She wipes her cheeks and looks up at him with eyes just like his own. "Oh, Sasuke," she says. "Come here."

He sits on the floor next to her and lets her pull him into a fierce hug. Sasuke hugs her back, breathes in the sweet jasmine scent of her perfume, and feels dread settle into the pit of his stomach.

"Your brother is gone," she whispers. "He's left Konoha."

But no one leaves the village, Sasuke thinks. Rogue nin are hunted, dragged back to Konoha, and executed. Itachi knows this, knows that leaving means he might never be able to come back.

He takes the paper from his mother and reads Itachi's note. The words wash over him, a farewell wrapped in an apology, addressed to their parents. His brother wrote nothing to him, and he understands that this is because Itachi delivered his goodbye to Sasuke last night, while the rest of their family was sleeping.

"Where's Father?" Sasuke asks.

"He's putting together a search party to go after Itachi," his mother says.

She pulls on her fingers, a nervous habit he's only ever seen before when his father or brother were on dangerous missions. It's something she only does when she's worried that someone she loves won't make it home.

"They'll find him," Sasuke says. They have to.

Surely Father would make an exception for his own son, would allow Itachi back without punishment. He's an Uchiha after all; the laws that rule the rest of the village don't apply to their clan.

His mother shakes her head. "No, they won't. There isn't a soul alive who could capture your brother if he doesn't want them to. Not even Fugaku."

She's right, of course. Konoha's best trackers search for Itachi, but he's a one-of-a-kind ninja, his skills unparalleled, and the trail turns cold before they can locate him. Which may be for the best, because there are only a few shinobi who would stand a chance against Itachi if he refused to come quietly: Father, the Yellow Flash, the Sannin, old Sarutobi Hiruzen.

His mother cries for the first three days of the search, but by the fourth she's quiet, withdrawn, and resigned. A week passes, and Sasuke can tell from the blankness in her eyes, the emptiness of her smile when she tries to comfort him, that the mother he knew is gone forever. Father is no better, always silent and cold with his wife, and Sasuke doesn't fail to notice that his parents no longer sleep in the same room. He can't stand the way his father looks at him, like he's an inadequate remainder. As if, given the choice of which son to keep, he wouldn't have picked his youngest.

Itachi ruined this family, tore it apart and left the pieces for Sasuke to pick up, and he doesn't think he can ever forgive his brother for that.

Father invites him to his study, tells him to sit down, and says, "From now on, you're the only son I recognize. Are you ready to shoulder that responsibility, Sasuke? Can I trust you to serve our clan before yourself, before anything else?"

Itachi always swore he would protect him, but how could his brother do that if he's not even in the village?

Why should I keep my promise if you can't keep yours?

So Sasuke nods and says, "You can count on me."

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Author's Notes: Many thanks to all the folks who have pre-read, beta'd, and encouraged TVOTE over the years. Most especially uchihasass, tall-girl-in-a-small-world, DeepPoeticGirl, birkastan2018, and heatinfreezing.

Feedback is very welcome! Reviews, favorites, and follows are life. :)

EDIT 1/13/2021: This fic is the primary story in my At the End of All Things series. You don't need to read the other fics in that series to keep up with The Valley of the End, but those oneshots and short multi-chaps will expand upon and enrich this story if you do choose to read them.