Minato is sixteen, on the cusp of a long-deserved promotion to jōnin, when he is pulled off active duty pending the results of a psychological evaluation. Jiraiya, his once-sensei and superior officer, spends three days bullshitting and bootlicking his way through Konoha’s convoluted internal politics to ensure that he is the one Minato has to face in the whitewashed room they have been assigned.
The conversation starts off light.
It’s textbook psychology. Small talk designed to push him into a relaxed state of mind, a costless way to get overwrought shinobi to lower their guards just enough for the evaluation to go ahead.
Minato forces himself to go along with it.
In some ways, it is far too easy to fall into the familiar rhythm of smartass remarks and exasperated amusement with his sensei. It’s a throwback to a time long since passed: lazy summer afternoons spent arguing about fūinjutsu, evenings wasted hauling Jiraiya’s hopelessly drunk arse across Konoha, mornings when he woke up and felt for the first time like things would maybe be all right.
Nostalgia at its finest, deadly in its potency, until almost out of nowhere: “You don’t scare easily, do you, Minato?”
Minato blinks. “Maybe,” he allows, unwilling to do more than passively agree.
Jiraiya makes a note on the lined pad of paper in front of him. Strange – Minato was convinced it was just a prop.
“You don’t agree with me.”
No, he doesn’t. Fear is a constant component of life as a shinobi. It is part of what makes them human, part of what stopped Minato from losing himself to the bloodshed, part of what characterises this life as a whole.
But he doesn’t let it control him.
Jiraiya makes another mark on the pad of paper. A quick glance over the table confirms that it is in dot code, and not one Minato is inherently familiar with. Smart, but then again, Sensei has never been stupid.
“What would you say then,” Jiraiya says slowly, words weighted carefully, “has been your most terrifying experience to date?”
That is… a good question.
Peace in Konoha has always been nebulous at best. Minato was born in the midst of one war and is living in the beginnings of another. He is no stranger to battlefields, not stranger to slaughter, no stranger to loss.
How things change. But he doesn’t want to think about that. He doesn’t think about that.
And yet… “Waking up.” The words force themselves out of Minato, a dry, reluctant scrape from the back of his throat.
Jiraiya frowns. “Waking up?” he echoes.
Minato steadies his voice. “Waking up.”
Another note and another frown from Jiraiya. He looks up and meets his student’s eyes dead-on, face uncharacteristically grave. “Tell me about it.”
Minato opens his mouth. For a second all he wants to do is to tell Jiraiya the truth. I was four years old, he would say. The words would be bitter and unnerving, but he would say them. I thought I was going insane. I still don’t know if I wasn’t.
Jiraiya is Minato’s sensei, but beyond that he is a father figure where Minato’s own was significantly lacking, the one constant thread of support that he has been able to cling to through his genin and chūnin days. Jiraiya is a man who lives for the future, for whom prophecy and destiny and fate are more than just words.
He thinks Minato will save the world.
He is wrong, but that isn’t the point.
Jiraiya is a dreamer. He would believe Minato. That isn’t the issue.
“Waking up,” Minato repeats, taking in a deep breath. The words taste strange on his tongue. “It was dark and there was so much pain. I thought I was dead.”
I should have been dead.
“You weren’t though,” Jiraiya prompts.
Sensei has always trusted too easily.
So, Minato opens his mouth, swallows past that treacherous second of doubt, and he lies.
Wartime Konoha is vastly different from the village in times of peace. As the Second Great Shinobi War rages over 200 miles away in the Land of Rain, Konoha’s citizens prepare with grim wariness for the day when the fighting is finally brought home.
“No. No, you can’t do this. He’s a child. He’s my son. I didn’t—we didn’t—you can’t.”
Inamura sighs. “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry, Namikaze-san,” he says.
In the past five years since war has broken out, Academy recruitment has doubled, almost all of those extra students civilians. Not many people manage to link the cause to the effect before it is spelled out for them, like—like this.
“He’s four years old, Inamura-sensei,” the woman, Namikaze Masako, pleads. “He doesn’t even know what chakra is. He’s—my son. He’s not a soldier.”
No, Inamura thinks looking down at the young blond boy, not yet, but soon.
Namikaze Minato is a quiet child. He watches Inamura with a narrowed, discerning gaze, one which frankly unnerves the medic. It is far too similar to the way that his Hyūga genin teammate looked at him, right up until the supposed-genius lost it and opened her wrists before the finals of their Chūnin Exams.
Too clever by half , their sensei had always said about her.
Inamura takes a deep breath, chasing away memories that have long since been buried. “Namikaze-san, you and your son are both citizens of Konoha,” he explains in the same, tired tone he has employed to five other women today alone. “You both enjoy the benefits of that position. This is what is asked in return.”
“This is barbaric,” Namikaze hisses. “There isn’t a single ninja in our family. Minato-chan is—he’s normal. He’ll—”
Die before his twelfth birthday? Probably.
“—You can’t do this, please.”
That’s the thing, though. He can.
Once more, Inamura lets his gaze stray to Minato and, once more, he receives only a flat stare in return. The sad truth of it all is that Namikaze is right in her fears. For every genin with ninja parents that dies in the war, seven more first generation shinobi die alongside them. The odds are so heavily stacked against her son that is isn’t funny.
Inamura had thought he was done with sending people off to die when his injury took him out of ANBU.
But there is one consolation in all this, one pitiful piece of reasoning to back up this mass-recruitment of canon-fodder.
“Ah,” Inamura breathes, mouth twisting into something akin to a wince, “you are not quite correct, Namikaze-san.”
Namikaze stops dead in the middle of her tirade, eyes flashing dangerously. “Excuse me?”
“Your son,” he elaborates, “is many, many things, but he is the furthest thing from normal.” He stands, careful not to jostle his injured leg too much, and hobbles over to withdraw a leaflet from a rack across the room. He holds it in his hands so that neither mother nor son can see the title, then sits back down. “This is for you, Namikaze-san,” Inamura says, handing over the leaflet.
Minato looks down at the shiny piece of paper that has been placed in his hands. His eyes track from right to left, before he suddenly drops the leaflet in favour of giving Inamura a highly disturbed look.
Namikaze picks up the leaflet her son has dropped. “You gave my son a leaflet on penile fractures?” she asks incredulously, holding the offending piece of literature as if it will burn her.
Inamura smiles without humour and takes the leaflet back. “I wanted to see if he could read kanji,” he says, silently adding, and uncommon kanji at that. “As I thought, Namikaze-kun here possesses a reading ability that is far above the level expected from his peers.”
Namikaze bristles. “What does that have to do with anything?”
But Inamura can tell – she is thinking, now. There is less panic hidden in her posture and, from the way she threw her gaze at her son, she likely was not aware of just how advanced he truly is. She works in a library, Inamura remembers now, and probably just leaves him alone in the stacks as she does her job.
“Namikaze-kun has a chakra condition that is called a Yin-Yang imbalance,” Inamura said. “The documentation for this condition is… patchy, at best. It’s usually only noticeable before a child reaches puberty and their energies start to balance out.”
There is a long stretch of silence.
“…Is it dangerous?” Namikaze finally asks.
“Not at all,” Inamura answers. “In Namikaze-kun’s case, his imbalance tips to favour the Yin half of his chakra – spiritual chakra, energies associated with mental development. It’s usually indicative of a child with higher than average intellect for their age.” He pauses. “The last recorded case was that of Orochimaru, the Sandaime’s student.”
She looks pale. “They’re not going to let him go, are they?” she whispers.
Inamura shakes his head.
Namikaze takes in a deep breath, steadying herself. “Okay,” she says. “Okay. He’s going to be a shinobi. Okay.” She wraps an arm around her son. “How long do we have?”
“Until he’s six.”
“What do I do?” The voice is so quiet that it takes Inamura a moment to figure out it came from Minato instead of his mother.
Inamura shifts in his seat, trying to find the most comfortable way to sit with his injured leg. “Read mostly,” he says. “The Academy texts are available in most civilian libraries and getting a head-start on those will free up a lot of time when you’re actually attending classes. You’re really too young to do any sort of physical conditioning, and you’re not from a clan so chakra training is out until you’re able to do it under supervision. Other than that…” he hums, “I’d advise picking up playing the flute, or knitting.”
Minato nods. “Finger dexterity,” he says. “For hand-seals.”
Inamura smiles. “Exactly.” He sighs. “Work hard, keep your skills sharp, trust your teammates, and you should be fine.”
The lying gets easier, Inamura-kun , Sensei once said. Soon enough it will come to you as naturally as the truth.
It was far from the last time Sensei was wrong about something.
Minato does not often like to think about the first few years of his second life. There isn’t much of it that he remembers, in all honesty, and it is probably best that he keeps it that way.
Those years do not matter so much anyway; he did not start to remember who he was until he turned four.
There really isn’t any way to accurately describe the paranoia-inducing experience of having flashes of a former life return to you. At first, the memories felt like distant dreams – fiction conjured up by his mind to soothe his subconscious. They were certainly mundane enough: he dreamed of a life in an orphanage, strange foods and stranger tongues, people and faces blurred by the distance of time.
And then suddenly, he was choking on his own blood, burning in impotent agony, cursing again and again because he had been too slow and now we are both dead—
He woke up screaming.
This is what it means to wake up. It means unrelenting terror, a mess of his bloody death and most poignant memories; it means a childhood of nightmares that grip his mind tight and refuse to let go.
For the longest time, Minato was convinced he was going insane.
It wasn’t actually outside of the realm of possibility – children with high IQs in Konoha were recorded as being almost twice as likely to develop some form of mental instability in the future. The trick, apparently, was in maintaining at least the façade of functionality.
So that is what Minato did.
He pretended and pretended and pretended until he just—couldn’t, anymore.
Minato sits on his bed, listening with half a mind to the sounds of his mother scurrying about the kitchen below.
My name is Namikaze Minato, he thinks, and he hates how it does not feel like a lie.
He is not Namikaze Minato, the man he read about so long ago. He is not the legendary Fourth Hokage, the man who unflinchingly carved a gory path through Iwa’s forces in the Third Shinobi War, dying with a body count more than 50 times his age in a world without technology more advanced than the fridge. He is not the Yellow Flash, who people were honestly unsurprised it took a 200ft tall being of pure chakra and malice to take down.
He is not a legend on a page of a book.
My name is Namikaze Minato, he thinks and wraps his thin arms around his waist. I do not want this.
He startles at the sound of his mother’s voice.
“Time for dinner!”
Minato swallows past the lump in his throat and dries off the tears he hadn’t realised he was crying. He pushes himself up off the bed.
Once upon a time, a girl died too young to be anything but a tragedy, chanting with her last thoughts that she should have been faster, that she would give anything to be fast enough—
Well. You know what they say.
Be careful what you wish for.