Prologue

Countdown

Hatake Kakashi sighed dejectedly behind an animal-like white and blue mask, reading over and over the names engraved on a conical-like stone of those who were solid pillars in his life. Common knowledge said that time healed all wounds, but for Hatake Kakashi it seemed cruel mockery to see those names slowly fade into unrecognisable markings, wilt steadily against the oblivion of time, when to him time had been almost stagnant for many, many years.

"Back again, Kakashi?" a kind, grave voice asked behind him.

Kakashi didn't bother to turn around for he knew very well who that voice belonged to. "Minato-sensei," he acknowledged, without taking his eyes away from the memorial stone, as his mind unconsciously took in the sound of the soft steps reaching towards him.

The November early morning skies began to shroud a cloak of impenetrable mist around the village, and comfortable silence fell between the two men, as it had always been. Neither of them were the talkative or rambunctious type, both of them gravitating towards the comfort of quietness and peace.

Thunder cackled over the darkened horizon as dim rain began to fall, but neither man moved an inch, barely noticing their hair getting plastered around their faces and their clothes getting steadily soaked. It was a common occurrence for them, after all, as both had a penchant for going to the memorial stone almost every morning.

Kakashi removed his wet silver hair away from his eyes and turned to look at the man next to him. His sensei had his eyes closed and his mouth set in deep contemplation, as if he were trying to discover some existential truth. The rain had tamed his golden hair to an extent, but there still many strands sticking out in rebelliousness at every direction. Kakashi was faintly amused to see that not even the rain could make it behave. His sensei's hair liked to defy gravity.

Minato had his arms crossed over his chest, a habit he had acquired after spending too much time among the clan heads of Konoha. That posture along with his infamous Hokage cloak seemed to infuse respect at a subconscious level at any occasion. It suited Yondaime Hokage just fine, as it, along with his almost shrouded-in-myth reputation, made him out to be a no-nonsense man with no time or patience to deal with petty affairs.

Sensing his gaze, the Hokage opened his slightly slanted eyes. He cocked his head to the left and stared at him inquiringly.

Kakashi shook his head. "Have you ever thought what life would be like if they were still around?"

The Hokage sighed wearily, aging ten years in the span of one second. He stared again at the memorial, his blue eyes hard. "It's unhealthy to have such thoughts and it serves no purpose other than causing us further pain and mental instability. We cannot dwell upon impossible dreams and fantasies and forget about the right here and now; no matter how gritty and unkind reality may be."

And once again, no matter how skilled and widely acknowledged a Jounin he was, in the presence of his sensei, Kakashi felt like was a small Genin again. Abashedly, he opened his mouth to apologise when the sound died in his lips at the look his sensei was giving him. It was no longer hard, determined or wise. It was kind, understanding and brimming with ocean-deep sadness.

"I think about it every day."

Kakashi smiled. Things would have been much, much worse for both him and Konoha if they had lost his sensei; as they nearly had on that fateful October night more than sixteen years ago. Sandaime's sacrifice would never be either diminished or forgotten in Kakashi's mind.

Yondaime Hokage loosened his arms as he bent down to stand on his right knee in front of the memorial stone. A sombre look took over his eyes, and his breathing became ragged for a moment as he painstakingly lifted his right arm and extended his index finger, delicately tracing an inscription with the tip of his finger over and over, as if by that simple action he could get somewhat closer to the person that name had belonged to. "Kushina, what would you have done?"

Kakashi sighed again. "Under such extenuating circumstances, there were not many options available. In fact, I'd go as far as to say that it is because of your foresight and careful scheming that he's been kept out of danger and under the radar for such a long time."

Yondaime pressed the heel of his palm against his forehead in such a way Kakashi was almost sure could've cracked any other skull. Kushina-san used to say her husband had an exceptionally thick head. Perhaps there was more truth to that statement than he had originally thought.

The Hokage let out a strangled, frustrated guttural noise, bringing Kakashi back from his musings. "And yet, I cannot help but to feel that I have failed miserably," he said angrily, his fingers clawing into his damp hair. "I have sacrificed happiness and love for the sake of survival. I forfeited his childhood to shape him into a fearsome warrior," he muttered in self-loathing, eyes fixed on the memorial stone. He sighed, and in an instant all of his bravado was gone, replaced by utter tiredness. In a small voice, he added, "After all these years, I wouldn't blame him if he despised me."

It was not often that his old sensei confessed his inner torments, as he had always been a very private man and even more so since his wife had died on that fateful night. In fact, it had always been his sensei the one who listened to Kakashi's inner turmoil. It was therefore bizarre for Kakashi to see the roles reversed, but he didn't, however, hesitate to place a comforting hand on his sensei's shoulder. "Whatever your flaws and tough decisions, there is no way he could ever hate you when he knows you have his best interests at heart. Of that I have no doubt," he said truthfully.

Namikaze Minato gave him a sad smile. "Perhaps there was no better choice. Yet doubt will always linger in my soul." He rose to his feet slowly, shaking off the damp grass attached to his knees. Tiredly, he turned to his old student, "In any case, I will always be in your debt for those six years."

Kakashi shook his head. "Think nothing of it. In fact, I'm grateful for those years." He looked up at the grey skies pensively, trying to put his thoughts into a coherent sentence. "I gained back something I thought I had lost."

The jōnin scratched his masked face, a glint of amusement flickering in his eyes. "Huh, speaking of which, I wonder whether he still takes after my clothing style…"

And then, there it was. The dazzling, almost what-the-heck-is-this-genjutsu smile that Namikaze Minato hardly ever flashed. The kind of smile that had been reserved only to very few special people and special occasions. The kind of smile that once you saw, you would know that everything would be just fine.

"You'll know soon enough. Jiraiya-sensei has sent word. He's coming home."

-OoOoOoOoO-

The black clouds crackled in foreboding glee, as if they were counting down the seconds until they could lash at the pitiful earth below with whips of lightning.

Almost invisible, shrouded in the robe of darkness the cold winter night provided, on top of the head of the majestic statue of one of Konoha's forefathers, a lone figure dressed in a black cloak with red clouds imprinted on it gazed at the full moon with longing reflected on its only visible red eye.

"Soon - it will start soon. And all shall be as it once was – mine. Everything that meddlesome fool did will be undone: the nine Tailed Beasts shall be no more. This cursed, wraith-like existence of mine will finally come to an end, and at last I will once again be what I have always been: the God of this world."

The masked silhouette vanished in a whorl of black, thunder resonating in its wake.

-OoOoOoOoO-

A/N: Well, I hope you enjoyed the prologue, which did not want to be written. Do not worry, my chapters tend to be quite lengthy, this is just a prologue. Oh, and my spelling is British, so there might be some differences in spelling many of you might not be used to.

Special thanks to Falcon777, whose insight, encyclopaedia-like knowledge, and opinions are beyond invaluable.

Until next time,

Vermouth