A/N: I wanted to explore the similarities between Itachi and the Yondaime, seeing as they were both really self-sacrificing. For the sake of this story, let's pretend Itachi graduated the academy at five instead of seven, kays? Needless to say major AU and spoilers galore.
Also: Inabi is, in fact, a real character. He's that one police officer with the long, pointy looking hair who questions Itachi after he killed Shisui. And I'm really sorry I made Fugaku such a bad guy. It just sort of happened.
A/A/N/N This story was really friggen bothering me, so I fixed it so it won't suck as much. I was feeling really experimental when I first wrote it (yikes) so forgive meh.
the temple at the fork
-he was sky-blue loyalty and the sunshine in his blood: the lasting life lessons Itachi learned from his only encounter with Namikaze Minato, and the one he didn't-
Namikaze Minato only ever visited the Uchiha estate twice. Once, was to offer his condolences after the death of Uchiha Obito, but that's a different story.
It's the other time that's important. The time that he stood up against treason and taught a small boy an indelible lesson about sky-blue loyalty and wind in heaven and impossible questions.
But not how to answer them.
part I. how it started
It all began one day when a five year old Itachi stumbled into Inabi on his way back from the toilet. He noticed immediately, mainly because he had a face full of silk, that his elder clansmen wasn't dressed in his usual police regalia. Instead, he actually looked more presentable-and much more hassled-than usual.
Inabi's permanent scowl, which had always somewhat reminded Itachi of the angular, contorted faces of the carved demons that lurked in the shadowy corners of the Nakano Temple, deepened even more.
Inabi was all pomp and nonsense. "I can't deal with you right now, Itachi-chan" Inabi was one of those curious adults who never sugar-coated anything- even to a five year old.
But that isn't right, is it? Itachi thought to himself.
"Something is going on today." Statement-questions were a staple of Itachi's confidence, even at five.
"Yes, and it doesn't concern you. Go away."
And with that, the police officer was off, the angular line of his hair a knife through the palpable dank in the air, through Itachi's palatable boredom.
So, of course, Itachi counted backwards from ten and followed him.
Nothing could describe Itachi's surprise when, after he had followed Inabi to the front gates and crouched behind a bush, a shock of wild blonde hair emerged, and in a flash of gold, its owner crashed like a meteor into the Uchiha compound.
Even more surprising to Itachi, still starstruck and reeling, was the unmasked look of distaste that sliced itself into Inabi's angular features as he greeted him and led him inside the compound. In fact, causing Itachi's perplexity to deepen, all of his clan members looked at the young Hokage with similar unpleasant expressions ranging from disapproval to distaste, dislike to disgust.
Hadn't they heard? The Hokage was the hero that ended the war, that had singlehandedly defeated hundreds of thousands of enemies (but he couldn't save his student, wouldn't be able to save himself.) That's all anyone at the academy could talk about anyways, though father didn't seem too impressed. Somehow, seeing him here and seeing him distrusted, Itachi still felt something unpleasant freeze over in his stomach at the thought that the hero of the village was obviously unwelcome at the Uchiha Estate. Everyone should respect the Hokage because we all live in the village he protects. That's what they were taught in class, what they recited every day.
However, Itachi did have to admit that the Hokage was rather...odd.
Here's how he knew:
Itachi followed the two down the compound's main street, past the residential section, into the clan's meeting building, and through the doors to his father's personal study, safely taking refuge behind a boxy decorative table in the corner. From here he had a clear view of Inabi and Minato, framed against the wide window, the haunted waters of the Nakano a backdrop to their meeting. Once Inabi had the Hokage seated down and offered tea, which he had immediately sipped without even checking it for any sort of poison, a fact that stupefied Itachi, he actually attempted to make small talk.
"So. Izami, was it?"
"An. Right." The Fourth raised a hand to the back of his head in an astoundingly casual display of embarrassment.
Inabi's ever-present scowl deepened as his hair dipped in front of his face casting shadows into the carved crevices of his bones. The effect was otherwordly. Ten out of ten people stopped what they were doing when Inabi put on his demon face as Itachi liked to call it.
Namikaze Minato was not one of them.
"You all have such a lovely view of the river from here, " he supplied instead, gesturing amiably out the window.
Inabi was not having any of it. He didn't even bother to grunt.
"And the compound is so much bigger than I thought it would be. This is my first time in a clan house," he remarked off handedly, poking curiously at an urn all relaxation and irritating geniality. "It's different than I imagined. I'm a beginner, so please forgive me if I offend you." The Hokage sipped at his tea, wrinkled his nose in apparent distaste, and punctuated the whole thing with a smile.
Inabi raised an eyebrow, curious in spite of himself.
"I knew you were- foreign- " the word hurriedly slid itself off his tongue like vinegar, "but we all assumed you were from a clan."
Minato's head snapped back in a bark of unrefined laughter. "My parents were fishermen in a village in the east. I grew up in a small house on the side of a river, not unlike this one. The Nankayu, was it?"
"Nakano," Inabi corrected automatically, his lips tightening impossibly, mouth caving in on itself so rapidly that Itachi thought his whole face might implode. Just as Inabi looked as though he might 'shit a brick' as that one Inuzuka boy in his class would put it, Itachi's father walked in and the situation froze twice over.
"Inabi, you are relieved." Fugaku's voice had a way of permeating every corner of a room, a specter slipping in raising the same chill as the presence of the dead. Itachi, as a child, hated the way he could feel it reverberating in his chest, as if a part of his father lived like a beast inside the cage of his ribs.
With a whisper of relieved thanks, Inabi rose and swept out of the room. Fugaku did not mince words.
"MInato. You wished to speak with me."
The young Hokage's eyebrows dropped slightly at the deliberate lack of any honorific, yet he let it slide.
Itachi was suddenly gripped with the the feeling he let things slide quite often. Maybe too often. "Yes. it's about Itachi."
The little sneak in question stiffened. "Doesn't concern you" indeed. Inabi, along with being a poop face, was apparently also a shameless liar. Itachi made a mental note to slip something slimy and alive into his shoe the next time the opportunity presented itself. All thoughts of revenge left his head however, as Fugaku made to reply. The situation tensed further, the two men in the room eyeing the void between them, sizing each other up, practically circling each other in a manner that made wild notions of yin and yang dance around in Itachi's mind.
After a moment, his father spoke.
"Go on." If there was was one thing Uchiha Fugaku did not tolerate, it was people who blew hot air.
Minato, to his credit, did not break eye contact with the clan head as he said, "He graduated from the academy."
Itachi, as did his father, failed to see why this was any matter of concern. He had met his goal. What more was there but the next hurdle? Which Fugaku immediately brought up.
"Itachi is the heir to this clan. We are incredibly proud of his abilities and we expect him to serve and honor the clan in his future."
Storm clouds briefly gathered in the sky of the Hokage's eyes.
"Regardless of clan affiliation, a genin's first responsibility is to the village."
Itachi immediately picked up on the problem here. Never once had he heard the phrase 'responsibility to the village' emerge from between his father's teeth. Something, it seemed, was amiss.
Fugaku, for his part, looked like he wanted to say something, but then bit his tongue back and slammed his teeth together like the door to a cage. Carefully now, seeing the chill in the Hokage's easy manner, he tread on.
"Regardless, I fail to see the cause of your concern. Is my son's accomplishment unsatisfactory?"
Minato laid both hands palm down on the table. "Let me be frank with you then. I'm not about to send a five year old on missions."
Itachi's mouth actually dropped open a bit before he caught and contained the movement. He had never heard anyone speak to his father that way. Not even the Third. Didn't the Fourth know he needed to suck up to clan heads? At least, that's what his father always said was the most important part of being Hokage. And as far as this mission business was concerned...hadn't the third lowered the academy entrance age to promote the growth of the shinobi force and by extension the livelihood of the village? That's what his teachers told him anyways.
Slumping a bit against the wall behind him, Itachi decided then and there that Namikaze Minato had absolutely no idea what he was doing, and therefore, by the transitive property or something, was completely unfit to be Hokage.
Father, it seemed, had come to the same conclusion, and was now incredulous in his anger.
"What did you just say to me?"
Apparently, Itachi thought, his father was playing some sort of rhetorical mind game with the Hokage as he cut him off.
"Are you really telling me that you're refusing to be honored by the service of the most promising member of the most powerful clan in your village?"
The Hokage's eyes flashed steel blue. "Fugaku-sama, you speak as though the village and the Uchiha are separate entities-"
Cut short again.
"And if I'm not mistaken, your student was the same age as Itachi when he became a genin. And consider the Mist, or even Iwa for that matter. All the other villages are starting early with the creation of their armies. Konoha should do the same-"
"Konoha," said Minato, finally rising to his full five feet and eleven inches and seeming to suck all the light out of the room and into his being, practically glowing with righteous indignation, "does what I command."
Afterwards, it could have been how he seemed to deflate, like the big yellow balloon of the sun letting out its air and sinking at twilight, but Itachi got the feeling somehow that this new Hokage hated reminding people of his position.
Then, wearily, "Do you know the main duty of the child soldiers of Iwa?"
Fugaku merely stared, the cage of his teeth under lock and key.
"They are sent into the fields first to test for genjutsu and land mines and to spring any traps. I've seen hoards of children younger than your son get ripped into a thousand tiny pieces."
Well, those were children of Iwa. Konoha wouldn't demand such things- even if there was a war. (Itachi, at five, was no stranger to carnage.)
"As for my student, Kakashi is like..." he paused, his eyes unfocused on a point behind Fugaku's head, searching for an example, and finally settling on the right one. "Like an animal at the zoo. Completely bred in captivity. He is calm and tame, better than the wild ones at least, and he serves his purpose perfectly. But he's untouchable. He will never know the world outside his cage. He will never see the sky. He is so unnatural that it makes him, in a way, unstable. Do you understand what I'm saying to you, Fugaku-sama? There comes a point in time when a shinobi is too perfect, and vulnerable in that perfection. That's what happens when we start them too early."
But there is no such thing as too perfect, is there, Father? And you can never start too early. The more emotionless the better, life is not for living, that's what he'd always been told. Maybe that was why the Fourth seemed to have it all wrong. Following Minato's metaphor, Itachi had never seen the sky, and that was the way to be a perfect shinobi. But to him it looked like the sky stretched on to eternity, infinitely blue in the fourth's eyes.
"I do not assume to understand the subtle complexities of your position as a clan head, but I do ask that you understand my position as leader of our village. Children should have a chance to be children. Our military will compensate, it is essential for the good of the village."
Fugagku's wrath was swift and scathing.
"Leave it to a child to confuse the good of the village with this own personal agenda. All I have heard from you today, Hokage, is naivety and misguided morals. This is a time of war."
"The war is over," Minato said, too fast, his words slipping on the ice of his tone.
"The war is never over," Fugaku countered, the lines, bags, and wrinkles in his face sucking the light straight out of the young Hokage. "There are always enemies. Sometimes where you least expect them."
Minatos' gaze drew distant, he looked out at Fugaku from across the void, from sixteen years away. Then. Finally.
"This is your five year old son, Fugaku."
Itachi blinked as he remembered that this was in any way related to him. Inexplicably, a violent chill ran down his spine, rattling his bones. He didn't know who was right. He was suddenly very aware that everything his father had ever told him was completely at odds with what the Hokage represented. But the Hokage was a fool, or was he a hero? Could he be both?
"My son," Fugaku's voice was voice heavy, his eyes darkening, "Is a tool of the Uchiha; first and foremost, is his service to the clan. If you and your village refuse to use him to meet his potential, it is only your loss."
Here, the Hokage gave a valiant final stand,
"I don't doubt his abilities or his potential, I'm simply asking you to wait until he's older-"
"The Uchiha can no longer afford to wait."
This was said with such an air of finality that Minato did not even bother to ask why. Instead, he did something rather odd (with regards to the situation, that is. Itachi, at this time, had decided the Hokage was crazy.)
Here is what Minato did: he began laughing- that kind of borderline hysterical this is funny in the worst possible way I'm really kind of sobbing kind of laugh.
His voice dripped down like tears, like all the ice in his eyes had melted and was spilling over, uncontrolled.
"Well. I was originally coming here to forbid Itachi's becoming a genin, but In light of what's been revealed during our little chat, I would beg you to allow me to put the boy on a genin team and make him a Konoha shinobi."
Itachi actually felt his mouth drop open. The Hokage's whim was like a paper bag in the wind, and it was giving him wiplash. Apparently, he wasn't the only one.
Mount Fugaku swayed slightly, blown away and caught off guard.
Looking him dead in the eyes, the Hokage continued, "I fear for his future. I'd rather risk known dangers than unknown. I do want him to meet his potential, and if I have to start too early in order to protect him from corruption, then so be it."
"And if I refuse?"
The Fourth Hokage put himself together, drop by drop, until he stood before Fugaku, a vast ocean beating at the base of a mountain.
"I am Hokage. I am the village. The Third warned me about the, shall we put in delicately, state of the Uchiha clan. Let me teach the child. You're either with me or against me here, Uchiha."
Fugaku's cheeks were slightly flushed the color of molten lava. Itachi had never seen his father so angry, and it genuinely frightened him. "You- You're practically a child yourself. The blind leading the blind has brought this village to its knees," then, dangerously, the beast released from its cage at last, Fugaku went on, "all that remains is deciding who will deal the death blow." His voice dropped to a deadly whisper, the dark side of Itachi's vision of yin and yang seeming to take over.
"We, however, have a vision for this village that could change that."
They sky opened, heaven revealed, as Minato extended one hand.
"Then work with me."
The clan leader's face was finite, doom laden, stone cold carved granite. It was a century of hatred embodied.
"Until I can take the leader of this village seriously, and see eye to eye with him, I will not. Our visions are too different, Minato,"
Then, the future shattered, a glass vase against unrelenting stone, completely irreparable.
Ice tears crystalized in Minato's eyes, and for a moment, Itachi felt such a staggering sense of loss, that he wanted to cry with the young Hokage. To weep for his future.
"Then you're against me."
Menacingly then, it was the ancient vengeance of Madara that spoke through Fugaku's lips.
"Are you afraid?"
And that that moment, Itachi saw something he would never forget. He saw a young man of twenty six stand up to his father, to this ancient hatred, look it dead in the eye, proclaim, "only tyrants fear treason," then turn and sweep away, like wind through heaven.
And so, of course, Itachi counted backwards from ten and followed him.
A tool, an object, a kite drifting on his breeze.
part II. how everything changed
Itachi followed him to the gate, secretly and silently, until Shisui (the damned fool) spotted him and called out a greeting before merrily loping away. Itachi briefly closed his eyes in irritation, and when he reopened them, his vision was dominated by gold.
And in that instant, Itachi was just a five year old child, a little scared, very confused, and drowning out of his depth. And then suddenly, The Hokage, the completely crazy young man who seemed, to Itachi at least, just as confused as he himself, was asking his name.
Itachi pulled himself up ramrod straight to his full stature before replying. "Uchiha Itachi, Hokage-sama."
It could have been the way Minato's love-worn lips pulled up just at the corners but Itachi had the sinking suspicion that the Hokage had already known that.
"Oh, I see. Well, I just had a nice little chat with your dad."
For all his brilliance, even as a five year old, Itachi hadn't mastered sarcasm.
"But that didn't seem very nice at all. I think he kind of hates you."
It wasn't until approximately two seconds later that he realized he had, in an astounding display of uncoolness, given himself away.
Minato broke into peals of honest laugher at this, hand fisting in the blonde hair at the base of his skull.
But his expression turned worried, "I see someone was eavesdropping. But, I wouldn't say that. He thinks I'm not good enough."
In an attempt to redeem himself, Itachi dredged up a vocabulary word. "Incompetent."
Minato was always teaching, even when about his own short comings. "Very good, Itachi-chan."
Itachi continued slowly, still not sure if he'd got it right, but feeling the need to talk things over. To rid himself of this horrible feeling of desperation that had come over him.
"Then...does that mean that we're not a part of the village?"
Minato's eyes crinkled up in a smile. The effect: the sky peeking out over the crest of an insurmountable mountian.
"Your dad, well, he wants something different for the village than I do. It's like, " his eyes unfocused again, finally settling on the river, "its like the Nankayu."
"Nakano," itachi corrected automatically, suppressing the inane urge to giggle.
"Whatever. See right there how the river all of a sudden stops being one body and splits in two? Most of the water goes one way, but a little bit branches off." He gestured to a fork in the river, where the water split off into two parts. The Nakano shrine sat, horribly out of place, in the space between. "The big body of water is like the village, and the little estuary is like the Uchiha clan."
Itachi nodded his understanding, choosing not to tell the Hokage that the creek never rejoined the river, feeling that perhaps, he had suffered enough disappointment. Itachi didn't want to see his sky eyes darken again.
"You're like the water in the river, Itachi-chan. Someday, you'll have to decide which side to choose."
Something wasn't right with that.
"But you're the Hokage. You can't choose a side, that would be wrong. What about you then?"
"Well, I don't know much about the Uchiha clan, or the problems it faces. But as Hokage, if there's ever a conflict within the village, you're right, I can't choose a side."
"What are you, then?"
"Me? I'm the temple at the fork. I have to be there for both sides, no matter what."
Itachi smiled now.
"Then I'm the temple at the fork too."
Minato's smile held, but stopped reaching his eyes. Itachi's unease returned, like some trembling animal in the pit of his stomach, and for the next sixteen years, never went away. But at that moment, the Hokage, who maybe wasn't as crazy as he seemed, Itachi finally decided, laid a hand on the boy's shoulder and earnestly looked him dead in the eyes.
"That's a hard path to choose, Itachi-chan" Tears gathered in Minato's storm clouded eyes like rain. "Remember, the river will always last longer than the temple. It will still be there when the temple is just a ruin.
part III. how it played out
One week later, the Kyuubi attacked. The temple at the fork of the Nakano was razed, and the Yondaime faded into the blue.
He had been the temple at the fork in a different way: always putting himself between what he wanted and needed, what was best for him and best for the village
In the end, Minato lost, but for the victory of his people.
Itachi, crouched in that same corner as his father screamed and raged and threw things at the other clan officials, none of whom could seem to balance him in the way that the young Hokage had, was starting to wonder if it had really been a victory at all.
Maybe it would be better to have him back.
As the years went by, Itachi spent hours surrounded by water, always out of his depth, staring at the half-destroyed statues of gods and demons.
Despite Shisui's confusion at his apparently "delusional" habit of always lighting incense at what remained of the shrine, Itachi always did so anyways, without fail, for eight years. (And one last time another seven after that.)
The tension mounted, he was a jounin now, about to join ANBU, and he was at last realizing what Minato had meant.
He was being ripped apart, split, spliced and bloody across the void that had existed between the light and the darkness that dwelt in his father's office that day. It wasn't his fault that Shisui (Inabi, his father, Sasuke) didn't understand.
No one understood.
The Nakano flowed on.
One day, through the windows of the Hokage's office, the sky was perfectly clear and blue.
Just like the Yondaime's eyes had been when they had bored into him, earnestly telling him this day would come. He himself had beheld its conception, in that moment when the future shattered, a glass vase against unrelenting stone, completely irreparable, spawning The Day He Would Have to Choose.
So of course, Itachi counted backwards from ten and followed Minato anyways, despite his warnings, despite anyone else's.
He clung to the ruins, to what would surely be his own ruin, just as it was his, instead.
Minato was sky-blue loyalty, the sunshine spilling onto, into, and between the floorboards, the wind in heaven, and the warm blood in his cold heart.
Eight years further into the deep end and Itachi could feel his hold slipping. The temple was crumbling, water filling the gaps, washing over the stones.
But Itachi was never stupid.
At the fork in the river, there where three things he knew:
1. He knew that being the temple at the fork was useless. As soon as he died Madara would get to Sasuke and everything he had worked for would be washed away, pulled under the crushing black water he had fought against his whole life.
2. He knew that Naruto was Minato's son. He was sky-blue loyalty, the sunshine spilling onto, into, and between the mountain sides, a storm in heaven, the warm blood in his foolish little brother's cold heart, his only real hope for the future.
3. And, most importantly, he knew that Naruto would change the future. He had bravery greater than the Third, or Fugaku, or Sasuke, who merely followed the path of the water one way or another and tried, senselessly, to eradicate the other side. He had more wisdom than Itachi or Minato, who thought they could sacrifice themselves and live rent in two. Who thought they could fix that void by transcending it.
part IV. how it will end
Here's what Minato's son knew:
The only way to change anything was to have the strength to move the foundations of the earth and to just pull the damn river back together.
Naruto knew that self sacrificing only cost you great leaders and greater followers, fathers and big brothers needed by two little boys.
That transcending the question will never be an answer.