4 - Light in the Darkness
The house was quiet. Naruto had gone out for lunch with Hinata and her mother. Minato was busying himself with the oh-so-minor task of being the political face of the entire village. That left the devoted mother of the household all alone. Kushina wasn't surprised in the least that her little Naruto orchestrated a plan with Hinata. They'd harnessed the combined power of their cuteness and innocence to beg Hinata's mother to take them out for ramen. The poor woman didn't know how to say no, even to children. She'd caved under the pressure and taken them to Ichiraku with the promise that they would return before noon at the latest. Kushina felt for the woman. However, at least this was a nice end of the weekend treat for Naruto before going back to the academy.
Kushina flung a tablecloth through the air, and it billowed in a graceful wave before descending onto the polished dining table. She spread the cloth out in a neat and even fashion, stopping to appreciate her handiwork with her hands on her hips. Now that she'd completed the morning's household duties, she could take a break and-
Someone knocked on the front door, snapping Kushina out of her trail of thoughts.
She shuffled toward the door in forest green slippers. A couple of paces from the entrance, she paused to form hand signs, reactivating the lattice of seals she'd placed in the event of an intruder. Of course she'd forgotten a task this morning! And for it to have been something this important…
Okay, she may have been more distracted by the news Minato brought home than she first admitted.
The seals weren't reacting to whoever was at the door, so Kushina grabbed the handle and pulled, a broad smile on her face. "Good morning, ya know!" She gasped when she registered the look on Mikoto Uchiha's face.
All color had drained from Mikoto's skin and her lower facial muscles drooped, giving her an almost zombie-like affect. The signs of fatigue flickered out of existence before Kushina could say anything. She wondered if she imagined them; that is, until her friend spoke.
"Kushina," Mikoto said, her voice tired, but with a touch of warmth. "It's good to see you."
"M-Mikoto!" Kushina stammered, laughing nervously as she stepped aside to invite her in. "I didn't expect it to be you!"
"Sorry about dropping by unannounced like this," Mikoto said, slipping her shoes off and leaving them by the wall. She swept the house with a curious glance as she walked to the center of the room. The house had gone through several organizational changes since her last visit.
"Oh, don't mention it! Please sit."
Mikoto was the first to sit at the newly adorned dinner table. She lowered herself into one of the seats with all of the grace and poise of a princess. A habit beaten into her by the culture of the Uchiha. A habit Kushina did not share.
"Do you want some water? Maybe tea?"
"No," Mikoto said, raising a hand, "I'm fine, thank you." She placed a colorful bag on the table. Kushina had been so caught off guard by having company, she hadn't noticed the bag until now. "I was in the area, so I thought I'd stop by since we're both so busy that we rarely see each other anymore."
"Ah, you brought a gift! You really didn't have to do that, ya know."
"It's no problem. I still owe you from your childbirth, don't I?"
Kushina plopped into the seat across from her guest and waved her hands in a frantic motion. "Really, it was nothing! We kept it a secret, after all. No one had time to prepare."
Mikoto nodded. Her long, jet-black hair covered her like a black veil over the face of a mourning widow. She swept it aside. "True. That day was the most frightened I've ever seen you."
Kushina shuddered. The merciless pain she went through delivering her beloved child was a memory best left in the recesses of her mind. Not to mention all that came afterward.
"Actually, speaking of Naruto, where is he? There's a gift for each of the three of you in here. I would love to show him his in person. I haven't seen him since he was still a baby."
"That's sweet of you. Sorry, he's out enjoying some Ichiraku Ramen with a friend."
"I see," Mikoto said in a solemn tone. She sounded more disappointed than was appropriate; she could always visit another time. "Give him my best, will you?" Mikoto put on a smile.
"Sure. Hey, is anything wrong?" Kushina probed. "You seem distant today."
Way to be subtle, Kushina, she chided herself.
"What do you mean?" Mikoto said, her voice rising an octave.
Her friend's blunder made Kushina more confident that her suspicions were well founded, so she dug a little deeper. "I just meant that you seem a little off today."
The moment the words left her mouth, something clicked for Kushina. Could Mikoto have snuck out to see her? It would explain why she was so on edge. Besides, it made sense. Fugaku wasn't the type to neglect warning his wife about the changing climate in the village, so chances were high that her being here right now was a secret.
Mikoto was no fool. She had to know the danger of being caught chatting with Kushina at a time like this. After all, rumors of an Uchiha Coup had spread like wildfire ever since Minato's last meeting with The Council. Various twisted versions of the truth leaked out, such as "The Leaf Police Force is going on strike," "Fugaku Uchiha is closing the borders of the Uchiha District," or "The Uchiha are pulling out of the Leaf military forces." It boggled Kushina's mind that stories like these were cooked up in the first place. How had the message conveyed in the council meeting been twisted so much in such a short time?
If she'd learned nothing else from this ordeal, it was that the power of gossip was not to be underestimated. People she bumped into on daily errands often tried to get information out of her. Of course, as the Hokage's wife, she was duty-bound to "neither confirm nor deny" until it all blew over.
"I'm just feeling a little stir-crazy lately," Mikoto lied. "If I'm being honest, that's also part of the reason why I went out of the house in the first place. I needed a change of scenery."
Mikoto delivered a hollow chuckle. The stark contrast between her friend's outward smile and her masked pain tore her apart. Yet there Kushina sat, playing along, unable to resolve the situation. At least, not without doing things that would put one of the opposing military forces at a disadvantage. Whichever side was victorious, the outcome would hurt people she cared about.
After retrieving a tiny box from the bag and presenting Kushina with it, Mikoto stood and turned toward the door. "Well, I've got to get back. You know how Fugaku can be. I'd best hurry before he starts making Sasuke and Itachi train through lunchtime again."
Kushina clenched her fists. What should she say? This might be her last opportunity before...before who knew what?
Mikoto strode toward the door, her dress trailing behind her, catching a glint of sun that made it dazzling to behold. Kushina's eyes fell on the intricate embroidery at the center of her friend's back. It was the Uchiha crest, a red and white shape that resembled a handheld fan. Mikoto's dress, along with the crest, shone as if sunlight itself were woven into the fabric. She looked like an angel.
"Hey," Kushina said. She grabbed Mikoto's delicate hand as she finished slipping on her shoes, causing her to turn back. "If something's bothering you, you can talk to me, ya know?"
Her friend looked at her from beneath the lids of expressionless eyes, then hung her head. Whatever decision she had come to did not seem to be a good one.
"I need to get going, Kushina." Mikoto smiled again. This time, and for the first time since she set foot in the house, the joy reached her eyes.
The usual aura of positivity and openness absent from Kushina's friend until now broke through in earnest. Warmed by Mikoto's smile, Kushina remembered why they became friends in the first place. The sheer overwhelming acceptance the Uchiha girl had extended to her was unmatched by her more judgmental peers. Where most people saw a rowdy and unladylike embarrassment of a child shouting nonsense about becoming Hokage, Mikoto saw a girl with value and potential. She'd even helped Kushina with her shuriken training when they were young.
They grew up discussing their dreams and what kinds of lives they expected to have ten years down the road. They hadn't spent every moment together, but each one was special in its own way. Kushina was the strong woman she was today in no small part because of her lifelong friend. Now a wedge was being driven between them, and there was nothing either of them could do to stop it.
"It really has been good to see you." Mikoto leaned in and gave Kushina's hand a light squeeze. She left before the former Jinchuuriki could reply.
It was just past the crack of dawn when Minato skidded to a halt at the rendezvous point for his meeting with Itachi. He knelt, absorbing the shock of how fast he'd traveled here, then stood to search for the young Uchiha. The meeting place was a small clearing just beyond the treeline separating The Leaf's training grounds from the wilderness. The faint chirping of crickets and a babbling brook gave the place a calming atmosphere. Minato ruined this for himself by remembering his reason for being here.
"Hello, Lord Fourth."
Itachi stepped out from within the shadow of a cluster of trees, fully clad in his ANBU gear, and took a knee.
Minato turned on his heel, shocked that he hadn't noticed the young man right away. "Itachi, you're already here! Good. Please, stand up. No need for any formalities."
Hesitant at first, the boy obeyed.
"I'm sorry to call this meeting so suddenly, but it's important. I'm sure Danzo filled you in."
Itachi nodded. "I was told you wished to discuss the clan's issues with the village."
"Yes, but not only that. If the news of an impending coup really is true, then as the Hokage, my goal is to avoid any bloodshed."
The boy said nothing, regarding Minato with intense scrutiny. Even without his Sharingan active, Itachi had the presence of a man three times his age.
"So," Minato asked tentatively, "did Danzo pass on the rest of my message?"
"Yes. I've come alone as requested, Lord Hokage."
Although he had no reason to believe Itachi would lie, Minato owed it to himself and the well-being of the village to check anyway. He closed his eyes, tapping into a place in himself not often visited. He still didn't have perfect mastery of this ability, but it would suit his needs even at his current level.
Itachi, and all of Minato's surroundings, faded into obscurity. The sounds of the surrounding wildlife and flowing water quieted to a dull whisper. Energy streamed around and through The Fourth Hokage in the form of lustrous waves of color, connecting him to the world around him in a way that nothing else could. Sage chakra integrated itself into his body from all directions, opening him up to details about the environment that he had not noticed prior to the transformation. He felt the life forces of every being nearby, including Itachi, from the crickets in the grass and rabbits among the underbrush to the two ninja practicing their shuriken throwing some ways away. If there was a creature with a heartbeat anywhere in his vicinity, his Sage Mode picked it up. Yet sure enough, as Itachi had said, no one was around to eavesdrop. No Danzo in sight.
"Are you satisfied now?" Itachi asked. "From what I've heard, your sensory powers are much greater in this form."
Minato froze, caught off guard. Itachi was much sharper than he'd given him credit for at first. The boy had picked up on his plan to use Sage Mode to check for spies right away, even without the Sharingan. Kakashi hadn't been joking about his skills.
Fugaku, you sure know how to raise splendid ninja.
An instant later, the relieved Hokage opened his eyes. They'd already lost the heightened perception that sage chakra afforded.
"We can begin," Minato said. "I used Sage Mode just to be on the safe side. I'm sure you understand."
"Now, as for why I'm here...I spoke with Danzo and the rest of the elders, and it would seem there are rumors that an Uchiha Coup is on the rise. Is this true?"
Itachi gave no visible emotional reaction as he confirmed the claim. "Yes. Led by my father."
Minato rested both hands on his hips, kicking the dirt in a futile gesture of frustration. "I'd hoped this wasn't the case, but I would be lying if I said I was surprised." He looked up at Itachi, deciding it was best not to sugarcoat or pretend the boy didn't understand the situation. "And how do you feel about this?"
Itachi paused to formulate a response. "I worry that this could have a disastrous impact on both the clan and the village."
Flinching for a moment, Itachi appeared to weigh the outcome of his next reply. Then he spoke without reservation. "He agrees. Danzo has plans to stage a massacre of the Uchiha Clan before the clan can trigger a war we may never recover from." He looked away. "I would rather find a compromise."
The horror of Itachi's words hit Minato like a sucker punch to the gut. He'd expected Danzo to have plotted something unethical in secret, but this? The potential atrocity needed to be stopped. Minato was not going to sit by and let this happen.
"I see," he replied, failing to keep his voice level. "I feel the same way you do. I'm a firm believer that anyone who lives among us in the Hidden Leaf is a part of the village. Itachi, I regret that you're in this position, but I'm not going to beat around the bush here. You have a choice to make. I know you serve ANBU Root, but as a ninja under the banner of The Leaf, you have another responsibility. That's to the safety and security of the village."
He stared hard at Itachi, who winced, but did not look away.
"Yes, Lord Hokage."
"Itachi, I'm going to request to meet with your father. I want to try to make things right with the Uchiha through peaceful discussion rather than force. Please...will you help me try to fix this?"
The boy wasted no time confirming that he was on board. He went on to inform Minato that the date of the coup had moved up to three days from now, which was a much shorter timetable than the one first discussed in meetings with The Council. Minato had a lot to do, and not much time left to do it in. He decided to leave Itachi with a little something, given that they saw eye to eye and the poor kid was clearly feeling cornered. Who wouldn't, in his position?
"Keep this on you at all times. It will allow me to jump to you using my-"
"Your Flying Thunder God jutsu, correct?" Itachi reached out and took the custom kunai that Minato dangled in front of him, stowing it in a compartment on his outfit. "I understand. Also, there's something else you should know."
Great. There was something more on top of everything he already learned?
"What's that?" Minato asked.
"You've probably heard from Lord Hiruzen that I have been investigating the independent organization called the Akatsuki."
"Yeah, I know a little about that. He mentioned it to me once, in confidence. Actually, I'd prefer if you reported details about the Akatsuki to both of us from now on. I know The Third will give his all to protect this village, but he and Danzo have a history. One that I fear could compromise his judgment."
Itachi swallowed, his eyes flashing with internal conflict. "I have one last question, if I may."
Minato gestured with his wrist. "Go ahead."
"How will you deal with Danzo?"
"I'm going to shut his whole operation down myself. Leave it to me. Danzo may order you to go behind my back. If he does, make sure you come to me. I know it may not seem like it now, but there's a way out for you, Itachi."
Minato couldn't tell if his words got through or not, but he decided to dismiss the young informant for now and let him reflect on their conversation in private.
"Thank you, Lord Fourth." Itachi sounded hopeful for the first time since they met. Saying nothing further, he vanished into the night as if becoming one with the shadows.
Minato decided to walk home tonight rather than teleport. He had a great deal of information to mull over, and that just wouldn't be possible with his irresistible, loving wife and the never-ending fountain of energy known as his son around. He needed space and time to think.
Earlier in the day, he'd expressed to Danzo and the other council members in no uncertain terms that the Uchiha Clan was not to be aggressed in any way. At long last, he'd also spoken with Fugaku, who remained tight-lipped and frigid despite his best efforts. However, Fukagu did agree to attend the next Leaf Jonin Council session. He had boycotted them ever since Minato was named Hokage. The Uchiha leader's input had counted for nothing against overwhelmingly favorable votes. The Uchiha Clan moved out of the village's main housing sections and into a separate compound soon afterward. Considering the many ways his discussion with the Uchiha patriarch could have gone, Minato was grateful that Fugaku met with him at all.
His evening was spent relaxing with his family. Rather, trying to with limited success.
Kushina settled into bed beside him, laying on his shoulder and telling him about Naruto's latest adventures. He tried, really tried, to listen, but he couldn't. Thankfully, his wife was far too enrapt in her storytelling to notice. All he could think about the whole time was the ANBU, the Uchiha, and how he needed to do something to de-escalate things before another war erupted. He couldn't let it happen again. Not after the way the last war ripped families and friends, and even his own team, apart. He would be the Hokage his village needed now, even if it killed him.
A couple of days after his proclamation to Danzo, Minato was on his way to assist with a high priority mission. The assigned team had not returned by nightfall, as expected, or the night after that. He was deep within the forest beyond the main Leaf Village gate when he got the first inkling that something was amiss back in the village. The evening sky darkened overhead while he tried to calm the tightening knot in his stomach.
Maybe I'm just being superstitious, he told himself, but something's off. The air feels...different.
His fears were confirmed as a black crow, different from the messenger birds he was used to seeing in any of the hidden villages, alighted on a branch with something stuck in its beak. He approached, cautious but curious, and wrestled the rolled up note from its grip. Inside was a single, unmistakable message.
The Uchiha crest was sketched with a minimalist art style, and there was a splintering crack at its center. Without a doubt, this was Itachi's work. Time was running out.
What? he thought to himself as he leapt at insane speeds through the trees toward the village. Danzo's still not calling it off? I have to stop this!
He flung a couple of his custom kunai toward two spots near the front gate. Then he called upon his chakra to jump to the marked ninja tool he'd left with Itachi. He could use the kunai near the village entrance as an exit strategy if needed.
Minato whirled around, getting his bearings. He was on the outskirts of the Uchiha District. The kunai he'd given Itachi was embedded in the stone tile at his feet, but the boy himself was nowhere to be seen.
"I knew I was right to suspect that child would betray me."
Glaring in the direction of the familiar voice, Minato saw Danzo emerge from around the corner of a building.
"Danzo, what have you done?" he said.
"Nothing yet. Only trusted a hunch, Minato." Danzo frowned, eyeing the kunai on the ground. "I see you've worked out a plan with Itachi in secret. Good thing I managed to switch out that little gift of yours with a replica while he was at ANBU headquarters. I knew it would deliver you straight to me."
Minato slid a custom kunai from its holster and held it out at his side, making sure it was visible. Through sleight of hand, he hid another in the opposite sleeve. "I'm not the one in the wrong here. Danzo, you're conspiring against the village!"
"I don't see it that way, Minato," Danzo said. "You misunderstand. I'm conspiring against you. You may be the Hokage, but you don't have The Leaf's best interest at heart. Your weak-willed attempts at putting a bandage over the gaping wounds that threaten the village's survival will be the death of us."
"So what, then? The solution is killing the Uchiha, innocents and usurpers alike?!" Anger boiled in Minato. He tempered his emotions; he needed a clear head to handle this.
"Someone has to do something. You refuse to act. Hiruzen refuses to back my claims when he knows I am right. So if neither of you will step up, that someone has to be me." Danzo marched forward a few more steps, making a hand sign. "Itachi has his orders, and after you fail to intervene, he'll finish the job as instructed."
"I'm not going to let you kill these people," Minato said.
He raised his kunai-wielding arm and flung the projectile within a hair of Danzo's face, then threw the second one as the elder turned to anticipate Minato's teleportation. Danzo harmlessly struck the air with a concealed standard kunai. Minato jumped to the second custom kunai and used it to slice through Danzo's neck at an angle, drawing a spray of blood. Both Danzo and the crimson fluid vanished in a cloud of smoke, leaving behind a harmless log.
"A substitution!" Minato said, dodging as a flurry of dense wind blasts cut through the air, missing him by inches.
Judging Danzo's location by sound and the direction of his ranged attack, Minato pushed off from the side of a building with a burst of chakra, speeding toward his target faster than any normal eye could track. The moment he reached Danzo, who was hiding at the end of an alley, he moved in for a killing blow and came face to face with something he would never have expected.
"You aren't the only one who came prepared, Minato." Danzo condescended, a smug grin creeping across his leathery skin as he made eye contact with the Hokage. His right eye fixated on Minato, rooting him to the spot. The kunai in Minato's hand came to an abrupt stop an inch from Danzo's face.
No! Minato cried in his mind, but it was already too late. He knew that eye pattern. It was Shisui Uchiha's Sharingan! Danzo was using that genjutsu, so there was nothing he could do now.
A new truth rang out loud and clear in his mind, all without Danzo making a sound. The fabric of Minato's reality dissolved and was replaced by something new.
Thanks to everyone who has been supportive of this fic so far! Just so you are aware, I intend to upload new chapters once a month.
There is no specific day when I will upload. I can't promise constant feedback like this, but for now just know that I see and appreciate your comments!