Life Without Kurama @axleboost
Chapter 5

5 - A Savior's Burden

Minato stumbled through the front door in a haze that hadn't lifted ever since he found himself wandering down a random side street of The Leaf Village. A faint memory of searching for a threat while on patrol filled in the blank of why he'd taken this path to his house instead of just teleporting there. Still, something was off about all of this. He searched the depths of his recent memory, trying to piece things together, but to no avail. No one was out on the streets this late, and the usual calming stillness of the evening emphasized his rising sense of dread. Maybe once he made it home, he could finally figure something out.

"Minato!" cried Kushina as he entered. She came stumbling around the corner, her face bone-white with panic, hurried into the living room and clasped both hands onto his shoulders. "Are you alright? Where have you been? Are you hurt?"

She waited for him to catch his breath, her eyes full of fear and on the verge of tears.

"I...I was out late, wasn't I?" Minato asked, still in a daze.

Kushina ushered him over to one of their green dining chairs, slipped his Hokage coat off and sat him down. She held a palm against his forehead. "You don't have a fever. Let me get you some water though, just in case."

She hurried into the kitchen and fetched a glass for him. In all of the commotion, Minato realized Kushina had never uttered a single "ya know." Only a very worried Kushina would abandon her natural verbal tic.

A few gulps of cool, refreshing water later, he sat up and looked her in the eyes. She knelt in front of her husband, watching him like a hawk.

"Kushina, it's okay," he assured her. "You can calm down now. I'm fine."

"Then could you at least tell me where you were? You've been gone most of the night! Naruto and I were worried sick.."

"I've been...I've been patrolling the village." Minato scraped at his mind, desperate for any shred of information. The harder he willed himself to recall recent events, the more memories resurfaced. "Before that, I was on my way to support a team I'd sent on a top secret mission. But I got concerned, so I rushed back to the village."

"Concerned? You mean about the Uchiha? The coup was scheduled for today, wasn't it?"

"The coup! That's right. The coup I was supposed to stop..."

This triggered something in Minato. Or rather, he felt it should have. He remembered speaking with someone regarding the coup rumored to take place by the order of Fugaku Uchiha. He remembered being very cautious and wanting to make sure something didn't happen. He even remembered holding a meeting regarding that something. Everyone was there. Koharu, Homura, Danzo…

Danzo. What was it he couldn't remember about Danzo?

Then it came flooding back, piece by piece. Minato remembered detecting an unusual chakra signature that left him unsettled, then heading out to patrol and look for its source. Finding nothing to back up his suspicions, he dismissed the matter and decided to head home. There was no reason to make Kushina and Naruto worry about him. He had told himself that if the Jonin team did not report in by morning, he would go out and search for them again.

He relayed as much to his wife, who did not seem convinced.

"What do you mean? I spoke with Kakashi earlier. He said you'd been away from the village for the past three hours! He even summoned his ninja hounds and checked for me just to be sure. They couldn't find you anywhere, but your scent was all over the street near the Uchiha District."

Three hours? There was no way he'd been out that long, was there? On second thought, his recollection didn't make much sense. He didn't have perfect control of Sage Mode, but even so, he could have used it to find the source of the strange chakra. So why had he taken the more troublesome route of patrolling alone? A sinking feeling formed in the pit of his stomach. Was he under the influence of a genjutsu?

The inconsistencies in his memory frustrated Minato, and his wife seemed to notice this without him saying a word. She rose from the floor, taking his hands in hers.

"We're taking you to see Inoichi tomorrow. He should be able to deal with whatever's affecting your memories."

He wanted to reject the suggestion. He wanted to tell his wife she was overreacting, and that there was nothing to worry about. However, he knew deep in his bones that this wasn't the case. Nothing was adding up. Something had gone horribly wrong in his village.

"Alright, there's definitely something more going on." Inoichi removed his firm grip from Minato's forehead. Kushina gave his shoulder a quick squeeze, and he reached up to caress her hand.

"I was afraid you'd say that." Minato looked at the floor.

"I'm sorry, Lord Hokage," Inoichi said, a sober frown on his face. "And you're absolutely certain you don't recall anything more about last night?"

Minato nodded. "Yes. I haven't been able to remember much more besides patrolling for a while after I sensed an unfamiliar chakra."

"I understand. Please hold still. I'm going to try a deeper dive."

"Will it hurt him?" Kushina asked.

"I...I honestly don't know, Lady Kushina." The head of The Leaf's Analysis Team dropped his gaze. His ash blond ponytail spilled across one shoulder as he delivered the bitter truth.

"It's alright," Minato said. He gave his trusted subordinate a determined nod. "Do it."

This was for the village. Everything was for the village. After the recent tragedy, Minato couldn't afford to hesitate.

He had seen the bodies. The long, nigh-endless streets littered with the corpses of unsuspecting Uchiha victims: men, women, and children alike. Half-dried blood clung to their tattered garments like paint on a canvas, immortalizing them in a twisted mural of death left in the wake of what everyone was now calling The Uchiha Massacre.

They were all dead.

Well, almost all. Sasuke Uchiha, Fugaku Uchiha's youngest boy, had been found alive, but unconscious. Save for Sasuke, not a single soul survived. In the aftermath, everyone was looking to their leader, The Fourth Hokage, The Yellow Flash who'd hastened the end of the Third Ninja World War with his mere presence, demanding answers he didn't have. How had something so horrific happened on Minato's watch, with he and the rest of his forces none the wiser, and what was he going to do about it?

He didn't know.

Inoichi clamped a hand onto his forehead again.

He didn't know, but he could try to find out. This was the most reliable way. So he shut his eyes, relaxed his mind, and allowed Inoichi to pass chakra into him. Whether the senior member of the Yamanaka Clan unearthed answers or only more questions, Minato knew he would never shake the immense guilt he wore like a badge of dishonor.

No matter who was the true culprit, he was the one responsible for protecting the lives of his people. That meant the blood of the Uchiha was on his hands.

Inoichi flowed into the consciousness of The Fourth Hokage with little resistance, like a creek merging into a river. There was a faint sensation of his physical body slumping as it fell into the chair he'd positioned behind himself prior to using the Mind Transfer Jutsu. Then all physical stimuli faded and there was only the world inside of the Hokage's mind.

Having condensed his chakra into a smaller imitation of his real body, Inoichi willed his spirit forward amidst a sea of information, searching for its epicenter. He splayed his translucent arms and rode the wave of Minato's neural network, wading through it until he reached a large, cavernous space. Inoichi headed straight for the hub.

The size of Minato's brain dwarfed him several times over. Looking up at it in awe, Inoichi took a breath to calm himself. Of course, this was something he'd done to extract intel numerous times in the past, but this mental journey was the most daunting of them all. His subject wasn't a captured enemy or criminal. This time, it was the Hokage himself.

I've made it, Inoichi thought to himself, reaching out toward the large mass of tissue. Now…

The moment his hand connected with Minato's brain, he was transferred into his host's subconscious. Many layers deep, beneath all of The Fourth's surface thoughts, there was something else. Sure, there was a pocket of multiple repressed memories, with a hint of trauma, some doubt, and flat out denial of certain aspects of himself, as was typical with any mind. But that wasn't all.

What's this?

Recessed behind the bundles of nerves and tissue, where there should have been more of the same, was a cavity of some kind. Inoichi suspected the spot had been tampered with, confirming this with ease by calling upon a stream of chakra. He passed it through the gap in an attempt to read the memories there. While there were bits of memory, the majority of it was too fragmented to make much sense of at first.

Reassembling the sequence was a quick process. He'd done things like this before, after all, so he knew the most efficient method. Still, he needed to leave before he ran out of chakra. That meant he had no choice but to stop when the reconstruction was still incomplete, leaving him with many more questions than answers. Maybe in the real world, Lord Hokage could help elucidate some of it for him. Given time and a nudge in the right direction, the scattered bits of memory might repair the connections on their own. Inoichi had seen it before with victims of PTSD in the war. He committed as much of The Fourth's information to memory as he could, then used a hand sign to expel himself.

Kushina yelped beside Minato as he clasped his hands together to form a sign. He didn't blame her for the strong reaction. After a couple of minutes of not moving an inch, he'd sprung to life with no warning. Who wouldn't get startled in her position? This was Minato's first time being 'possessed' by a Yamanaka, and the surreal experience of having someone else in command of his body left him unsettled.

On the bright side, at least it was over.

"Release!" said the voice that should have been his.

Minato's body went slack at the same time that Inoichi's spasmed to life. The two men took a moment to adjust to having control of themselves again. Everything appeared blurry for a moment; the chairs where Minato and his wife sat, the table against the far wall, and even the light fixtures that cast a lukewarm glow over the center of the room. He watched it all swim into focus, concentrating on the comforting feeling of Kushina's hand on his back until the lightheadedness passed. Once it did, he got right to the point.

"What did you find?" Minato locked eyes with Inoichi.

"I found a second layer of memories beneath the first set. The two were partially merged at some points, as if the original was being overwritten. I did my best to parse out the fresh memories from the old, and I was able to recover almost everything. From what I could tell, you left the village yesterday evening. You were heading off to support the team that just returned this morning from a recon mission."

"Right. I remember that."

"You received a message by bird as you were making your way through the forest on the outskirts of The Leaf, the contents of which were redacted when I tried to examine them in your mind."

Minato scrunched his nose up in confusion, feeling Kushina's eyes on him. He didn't remember that.

"What occurred past that point is difficult to decipher. I saw bits and pieces, but nothing of much value. At any rate, it seems you changed course after getting the message and hurried back to The Leaf for some reason. Your memories seemed almost...corrupted."

"Corrupted?" Kushina said.

"Uh, yes. Think of it like a damaged tape recording. The data is mostly there, but some parts are lost."

"Lost as in permanently?" she asked with a shaky voice.

"That's hard to say right now. I'd like to think there is a chance to reverse this, but without knowing the cause, I can't make a final determination. I've at least managed to use some of my chakra to isolate your true memories in a place the new ones can't get to them and do any further damage."

Minato sighed, resting his hands on his knees. Kushina exchanged a worried look with Inoichi. She clenched her fists and stepped in front of her husband, still shaking with emotion. He stared up at her in silence. Without ceremony, she crouched and threw her arms around him.

"We're going to figure this out," she said through choked sobs, "so don't give up, ya know!"

"Thank you, Kushina."

Minato returned her hug, then stood and faced Inoichi with a steely-eyed gaze. "Thank you, too, Inoichi. Were you able to see anything else? Tell me everything. I've got to learn whatever I can so that I can protect the village."

Inochi swallowed hard. He didn't know much more than when he took the mental plunge, but he knew what little he had gleaned would only make Minato feel worse. The Yamanaka loathed that he had the unfortunate job of being the bearer of unpleasant news.

"Well," Inoichi huffed, "here goes."

Kushina swung wildly in a random direction as she entered her home, sending a framed portrait unfortunate enough to be hanging near the front door flying across the room. It clattered against the wall, smashing into three pieces. Minato hurried in behind her, fidgeting with nervous energy as he secured the latch on the door. First came news of her friend's death along with the rest of her clan, and now this? It was a wonder Kushina had made it this far before blowing a fuse.

"Kushina!" he begged. "Please, calm down!"

"I knew that good for nothing Danzo was up to something! I just knew it, ya know!" She growled, stomping over to the curtains and forcing them shut. Kushina muttered to herself, continuing to angry-clean as she spouted word after venomous word about the apparent shady goings-on in the village.

Minato shook his head. This was going to be a long day.

Inoichi's news, while incomplete, pointed to Danzo having something to do with whatever led to the memory loss. If current reports from The Third and Danzo's ANBU Root operatives were to be trusted, then on the same night Minato was having difficulty recounting, a lone man laid waste to the entirety of the Uchiha compound. Inoichi's recollection of Minato's fragmented memories placed Danzo at the scene of his last waking moment before stumbling home to Kushina. Danzo had discussed an unknown issue with Minato related to the Uchiha Clan, who opposed him in some way. Past that point, everything was a blur. In a flimsy effort to lighten the mood, The Fourth joked with himself that apart from his interaction with Danzo happening in an open square, their encounter was no different from a typical council meeting.

Itachi Uchiha, the oldest of Fugaku's two boys, was branded a traitor and blamed for the atrocity committed against his clan. Minato remembered speaking to him a short time before the incident, but he could not recall the main points of that conversation. All he knew was that for whatever reason, he had planned to meet with Itachi at a later date, and he had let the child down in some way. A hollow echo of something like guilt intensified the more he strained himself to find the missing pieces of the puzzle.

The work Inoichi did to restore his memory was a huge help, but Minato wasn't certain what action to take now. Judging by all that he had in front of him, it wasn't too farfetched to assume that he had tried to set up a countermeasure against the planned coup, and that the strategy he employed involved Itachi. Still, even if he was right, it didn't change the fact that things had gone far worse than expected, or that he had a major mess to clean up as the Hokage.

First and foremost, he needed to quell the wrath of his beloved.

Kushina's red hair stood on end, swaying in random arcs like waving tendrils of death. She stormed down the hall to their bedroom, making it clear why no one in The Leaf Village had dared to cross the Red Hot Habanero ever since her academy days.

"Kushina, wait!" Minato chased after her, wracking his brain for the right words to ease her explosive emotions. "We don't know anything for sure. Not yet, at least."

"We don't, huh?!" she said. "Well, I could go knock the truth out of him myself. I bet that would do the trick!" She stomped out of the bedroom, fists balled.

"Kushina, please." Minato let off a nervous laugh. "You know I'd have to step in as Hokage if you attacked a Leaf Elder." Thinking fast, he added, "Oh, and didn't you say you wanted to pick up some ingredients for Naruto's favorite soup this morning?" He glanced at the clock.

Kushina followed his gaze and all of her anger melted away like snow, replaced by the softness of a mother's love.

"What? It's really almost time for the market to open?! Why didn't you say so, ya know?" Kushina scrambled around the house, finding her purse and a few personal items. "I can't miss the half-off sales."

She sped past, stopping to give him a quick kiss before she disappeared through the doorway with a quick goodbye. Her facial expression held a multitude of suppressed emotions. Others may not have noticed, but none of it got past her husband - a deep sense of purpose, worry, and of course, grief. Minato feared her mask might crack by the time she made it to the marketplace. He, too, felt a painful tug in his heart as he remembered the thoughtful gifts Mikoto brought them yesterday. He would never have the chance to thank her. If it was hitting him this hard, he couldn't imagine the impact her loss was having on Kushina right now.

Sighing, he walked over to the destroyed picture frame and lifted it piece by piece. Cleaning up after her was the least he could do given all she was feeling today. He needed to prepare a public statement about the massacre too, in order to de-escalate any panic sparked by the news. Minato didn't feel ready to set foot in his office again without answers for why he had failed to prevent so many deaths, but he had a job to do. He'd finish up here and then find Genma and the others.

Then he would decide what to do about Danzo.

Later that evening, Minato returned home and kicked off his shoes before embracing Kushina, who was still trying to conceal her heavy heart behind smiles he saw through. He decided not to push her. It was better to let her tell him in her own time. Only after Naruto had gone to bed did she finally open up. Minato was sitting on their shared sleeping mat poring over jutsu formula records when she creased her lips, bunching the cover up against her knees.

"Kushina?" he said, setting his reading material aside.

"Minato," she forced out, waiting until her voice was level to speak again. "I had a bad feeling that morning. The one know."

Minato tilted his head, waiting for her to finish.

"It was Mikoto. She was different yesterday, like she couldn't get something off of her mind. I think...I think she knew. I think she knew she was going to die." Tears pooled in Kushina's eyes. She sniffled a few times, but could not hold them back. The dam broke and she fell against Minato, sobbing into his shoulder.

He let her lay there offloading all of her pain onto him, being her rock, and wishing in his heart that he could take the pain away. But it was pointless. Mikoto was dead. Fugaku was dead. They were all dead, and no supportive words were going to bring them back. The Uchiha Clan had been wiped out, and whether direct or indirect, it was all his fault.

Danzo left his ANBU detail standing in front of snake symbol-engraved double doors and entered the passage beyond them alone. Poor lighting showed him the way down a narrow path to an inner chamber. He descended a set of stairs, turned a corner, and entered a far more open space lined with shelves stocked with jars of unknown substances. Some of the jars held liquids of a variety of colors. Others contained what looked to be preserved tissue.

A pale, inconspicuous figure stood between Danzo and a table at the center of the room. They worked in silence, using tools to tinker with whatever - or whoever - was underneath the bloodied sheet draped across the table. Coughing to announce himself, Danzo stepped further into the room. The man he came to visit cast him a sidelong glance.

"Hello, Danzo," Orochimaru cooed, a sly smirk peeking out from behind his long black hair. "I see you haven't forgotten your way here."

"Orochimaru." Danzo walked to a corner of the room and did his best to ignore a row of what he thought were human remains pinned to boards on the wall. "I assume you've made progress with your latest subject?"

Rather than answer, Orochimaru stepped away from the table and turned to his visitor. "I think we both know why you're here, don't we? Shall we get on with your request?"

The smooth texture of his voice was in stark contrast to the vile smell and gloomy appearance of the laboratory. If Danzo didn't know the man any better, he might have fallen for the thin veneer of sincerity. Orochimaru's slit-like pupils that held an animalistic gaze also did him no favors. Any time Danzo was around Orochimaru, there was the sense that something sinister lay just beneath the surface.

"You have many eyes on you, you know." Danzo lifted a jar from the shelf nearest him and examined it with a repugnant frown. Losing interest, he set it down again, then moved on to another. "The Fourth will likely find out about this place soon. He may be under the effects of my genjutsu, but we can't count on that keeping him busy forever."

"Don't think so low of me. I have a contingency plan for that, of course."

"Will you be able to finish our arrangement? If Minato tracks you down-"

"I have a plan for dealing with The Fourth's jutsu. Don't worry. Besides, this should be the last time you'll need to visit me." Orochimaru lifted a pre-filled syringe from the table where he'd been working and examined its tip.

This was taking much longer than necessary, but Danzo couldn't rush things. Still, watching the scientist revel in his position of power made him tremble with anger. Orochimaru used to be under his thumb, vying for a shot at being nominated Hokage, for crying out loud! The shift in their dynamic was a bitter pill to swallow. But it didn't matter. Anything was worth it if it meant reaching his goals.

"Are they here?" Danzo asked, working the wrapping around his bound arm loose as he spoke.

"Who are you referring to?"

"Don't play coy. The children, Orochimaru. Not to mention your other test subjects."

"No, no," Orochimaru denied with a chuckle, "I'd never keep all of my cards in one hand. You know me better than that." He walked over to one of the shelves and pulled a sealed container from it, taking a peek inside. "I've kept them in a separate location."

If Danzo were being honest, the idea of recruiting yet another of Orochimaru's successes into the ranks of Root appealed to him more with each passing day. His situation wasn't looking all that favorable, despite Orochimaru's lack of concern. First the denial of Danzo's nomination of Orochimaru for the new Hokage seat, and now one of Root's most reliable agents' possible betrayal? Just how much more would go wrong?

A searing pain snapped Danzo out of his thoughts. He grunted and looked down at his partially uncovered arm. The enhanced vision of Shisui's sharingan looked past the fabric of his sleeve and perceived the surgical wound underneath. The skin there was dimpled around the edges, and raw to the touch. No matter how much it hurt to admit, he simply wasn't up to par right now. He needed more cards to play while he healed.

Orochimaru beckoned him, teeth bared in a foreboding smile. "Come with me. We'll get that arm of yours taken care of."

Danzo twitched, fighting to endure the dull sensations of itching and pain. "Good. This thing's been troublesome to deal with, even with the medicine you gave me."

They made their way to a back room, where they were presented with another examination table, this one empty. Danzo said nothing and climbed onto the table. He laid flat and allowed Orochimaru to fasten him down.

"Unlike last time," Orochimaru said with a snicker, "this won't hurt."

Danzo didn't need to be able to perform the Mind Transfer Jutsu to know that was a lie. A needle pricked his good arm. In seconds, the edges of his vision blurred to nothing.

The funeral service Minato organized for the surviving Uchiha boy was well attended. Decorations were plentiful, and a quiet, respectful atmosphere set the tone for several passionate speeches and brief performances. Wreaths of lotuses were strung up. Lanterns were cast, lighting up the cloudy sky. Not a single detail was out of place. The Hokage had declared this moment of paramount importance, going as far as to order all non-essential missions postponed and mandate full attendance by all in the village. He'd even beefed up security to ensure nothing went wrong. Sasuke deserved that much.

Minato didn't care about the bill he knew these expenses would incur down the line. He would find a way for The Leaf's budget to absorb the cost.

There were far too many deceased to procure all of the shrine space necessary, so he found a workaround and instructed the funeral organizers to set up a large platform at the forefront of the plot he selected for a mass burial. That way, everyone could pay respects as if they were doing so for the whole Uchiha Clan.

The cemetery grounds were a sea of black, with an occasional sprinkle of muted grays and greens. Muddy footprints in the soil, still damp from a recent downpour, trailed on as far as Minato could see. The sky opened up to blanket the area in rain, as if mourning along with The Leaf for its fallen citizens.

Hundreds of attendees flowed by in a steady stream - some with solemn expressions, some crying their eyes out. No matter their emotional stability, they all seemed to feel the overwhelming weight of the tragedy. Hiruzen reached the front of the procession and left a flower on the ceremonial dais among countless others, then stepped aside so his successor could have a turn. Minato approached next, Kushina clinging to him in silence.

Her grip was firm. Full of raw emotion she somehow managed to hold in. He let her follow him to the dais, even though that wasn't customary, and they placed their flowers down next to one another. When it was done, Minato started to lead his wife back to their place in the crowd, but paused.

He spotted the dark-haired boy at the front of the crowd whose hardened gaze hadn't strayed from the wet grass beneath him. Against his inner objections, Minato strided forward, crouching to Sasuke's eye level, and gave him a slight smile. Kushina said nothing and hung back.

"Hello, Sasuke," he said with as much cheer as he thought appropriate, given the circumstances.

The boy looked up, his expression vacant. "Hello, Lord Fourth."

"I wanted to personally speak with you about what's happened. You've been through a lot, and I want you to know I am here for you. Alright?"

Sasuke didn't answer, and returned to staring at the ground.

"I'm sorry. I know this is a lot to handle all at once. There are so many people." Minato looked around at the rows of attendees and struggled to find words for this crucial moment. He felt Kushina's eyes on him, and begged for even an ounce of her strength as he did his best…

In all honesty, he wasn't sure what he was trying to do here.

Taking a chance anyway, Minato continued. "Sasuke, I'm very sorry that all of this happened. I truly am."

Emotionless and monotone, Sasuke asked, "Where will I live now?"

Minato's heart broke, but he tried to sound upbeat for the boy's sake.

"You'll be getting a new apartment of your own here in the village. Don't worry about paying for it, because that's all taken care of already! If you need someone to talk to, or need anything else, just come straight to my office, ask for me, and I'll drop everything."

There was no response.

"Sasuke," Minato said with a sigh, "this is all my fault. I'm the Hokage, and I should have been there to save everyone."

Something changed. The boy straightened up and looked into Minato's eyes with an expression that he knew well. He saw it in the faces of the many children he encountered from war-torn villages. He hated seeing it, too, because he knew what it meant better than anyone. It was a look often seen in people two or three dozen years older than Sasuke as well. One that spoke of dark intentions. One that screamed of its bearer having nothing to lose. A dangerous thing to see in a child.

"You're wrong. It isn't your fault," Sasuke seethed, the familiar cold stare on his face. His eyes were soulless and unfocused. In that moment, it was as if, even without a Sharingan, he saw through Minato like a pane of glass.

Ignoring the chill running down his spine, Minato decided not to press the matter and returned with Kushina to their designated spot among the mourners. He would dedicate time to help deal with the boy's trauma, but right now, as head of his village, he needed to lay the slain to rest.

The funeral was over, and Minato called for a day of rest prior to the service. Odds were that no one would be in the best of moods anyway, so he figured getting ahead of it made sense. Apart from the essentials, such as urgent missions, care for the wounded, and high priority deliveries, most business functions were shut down.

One such urgent mission involved Minato ordering Genma, Iwashi, and Raido to escort Danzo to a meeting with the Interrogation Unit, where he would be questioned - using whatever methods necessary - by a squad comprised of Inoichi, Ibiki, and one trusted subordinate each. It was a relief to know that very soon, the mysteries surrounding that night would come to light.

Silence reigned for several blocks around Minato and Kushina's home. Even where that wasn't the case, sounds were few and far between. In his bedroom, Minato pounded a fist against the floor and fought back tears as he reflected on his greatest shame. The sight of all of those dead bodies, everyone he should have been there to save, butchered in a senseless act of violence. Political unrest or not, the Uchiha victims were Leaf citizens. They were a part of his home. He'd lost family every bit as much as Sasuke had, and worst of all, he had no answer for why he did nothing to stop this.

Kushina was in another room speaking with Naruto about what happened, and stressing the importance of being respectful and kind toward Sasuke at school because he'd suffered a terrible loss. Her soothing voice was a dull echo drowned out by a combination of the walls and Minato's overwhelming whirlwind of regret and negative thoughts. He took a moment to concentrate on controlling his breathing, but at the sudden detection of a certain chakra signature, he froze.

"Lord Fourth," Itachi Uchiha said from the other end of the room.

Minato's eyes widened in shock. He spun to face Itachi, but the room around him was gone. In the next instant, he found himself suspended in midair. Everywhere he looked, an expanse of red oblivion greeted him. He called out into the nothingness and received no response. Black feathers floated into view, obscuring his sight. Then he heard the unmistakable caw of a crow.

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