There are times when the burdens of the title of Hokage seem like they will crush the aging Sandaime to dust under their weight.
The devastation of multiple wars, the shocking fall of Uzushio, the implosion of his own dear Genin team, the loss of his successor to the damned Kyuubi - and now this.
His three closest remaining comrades, his more-or-less trusted advisors, sit next to him at a table in a small, clandestine meeting room, quibbling over the worth of the lives of an entire clan as casually as they might over the choice of dining establishment for their next meal.
Even with all the decades of deaths that can be laid directly at his feet, it makes Hiruzen's stomach churn to so lightly consider disposing of innocent Konoha children, of the legacy of departed faithful.
"Have you all forgotten our old friend, Uchiha Kagami?" he interrupts, softly but with enough power behind it that Koharu and Homura's mouths slap shut in unison and their lined faces fall with shadows of grief and something like tired guilt.
"We should not be so hasty to rid ourselves of such valuable allies."
Koharu's lips purse as though she intends to argue further, but instead she simply sighs and rises to her feet.
"The hour is late, and our minds and tongues grow weary. We'll gather again tomorrow. We must resolve the Uchiha situation."
They exit the meeting room then, filing out into the narrow hallway.
Koharu and Homura's greying heads are already out of sight around the corner when Danzō comes to a slow stop, but does not turn around.
Hiruzen barely refrains from rolling his eyes.
His former teammate always has to have the last word.
"I have never forgotten," Danzō begins, tone soft and perfectly even - one of several the Sandaime has come to realize over the years that indicates the man is particularly aggravated.
"Kagami was an invaluable asset to the village, and died a loyal Konoha shinobi. We are all the poorer for his loss."
Danzō's bandaged head seems to bow slightly, but the man's posture is so quickly corrected that Hiruzen could not swear it had ever truly changed at all.
"The Nidaime trusted him above all other Uchiha, and had faith in Kagami's ability to quell dissension within their midst. You and I both know that his clan's blood stained his hands at least once."
Yes, Hiruzen remembers that, and also recalls how distant and lifeless his friend's dark eyes had been afterward, what a triumph they had all considered it weeks later when Torifu had finally managed to coax a brief, wan smile out of the Uchiha.
"He would have gone to any lengths necessary to protect Konoha from the threat of usurpers, even, perhaps especially, against those arising from his own clan," Danzō concludes.
"To ignore this truth - that would be forgetting our old comrade."
The councilman's steps fade away as he at last continues his departure, and the Sandaime finds himself wishing for the steadying contents of his pipe.
Once more safely ensconced within his office, unfailing pipe at hand and the portraits of the previous Hokage glaring down at him with familiar disappointment, Hiruzen finds his thoughts drifting again to the subject of his departed friend.
Kagami's young doppelganger recently approaching him with his concerns about the Uchiha clan had pulled old memories to the forefront of the Sandaime's mind, renewed the tenderness of never entirely healed wounds.
Like Tobirama before him, those responsible for Kagami's death had never faced the Leaf's justice, but unlike the Nidaime, a body had been recovered to be laid in its proper place among Konoha's honored dead.
Well, most of one, anyway.
Hiruzen sighs deeply, trickling thin streams of rich white smoke out into the room as he unsuccessfully attempts to focus on matters of the present.
The Sandaime is slowly approaching three times Kagami's far too short twenty five years, and never since his friend's untimely demise have tensions between the Uchiha and the village leadership been so perilously fraught as they are now.
Even during Senju Tobirama's rule, though there was no love lost between the Nidaime and themselves, the past Heads of the Uchiha had also striven to maintain harmony between their clan and the rest of Konoha, and had succeeded - barring a handful of isolated incidents.
To have young Fugaku now choosing to lead the growing number of Uchiha malcontents instead of working to stifle their dissension as he had done until several years after the Kyuubi attack, well -
The situation is dire indeed.
Hiruzen closes his eyes, rubbing his unoccupied fingers over the bridge of his nose.
It seems only yesterday that Fugaku and Mikoto, practically glowing with the anticipation of the arrival of their second child, had asked his permission to name their youngest son after Hiruzen's own father, a gesture the Sandaime knows was intended to convey respect and at least a suggestion of political unity - not simply, as Danzō had snorted when he'd learned of it, an obsequious attempt to curry further favor with the office of the Hokage.
Despite all the perceived injustices, legitimate or otherwise, that have rankled the Uchiha Clan in the past seven years, Hiruzen seriously doubts that Fugaku has any particular desire to kill him, much less chance plunging the village into a bloody civil war.
Perhaps that is the one unifying thing still staying both the Uchiha Head and the Hokage's hands - the desire to preserve the innocents who will undoubtedly be caught in the horrific morass.
Drawing again on his pipe, Hiruzen's eyes narrow as he recalls the night's earlier meeting. Danzō, and to a slightly lesser degree, Koharu and Homura, seem much in favor of handling the Uchiha unrest with swift action instead of meandering diplomacy.
When Danzō perceives a threat is imminent, he will always choose a scorched earth approach, even in those situations where the Sandaime's hardline predecessor may have hesitated.
And of late, his old comrade's growing boldness in taking unsanctioned action first and seeking approval long after the fact, if at all, has become rather... unsettling.
Hiruzen turns his eyes upon the portraits of his fellow Hokage, as though they might impart some desperately needed wisdom.
As expected, the room remains silent - none is forthcoming.
If only communications between his office and the Uchiha had not shriveled up as entirely as a coddled houseplant might in the barrens of Suna.
Shisui and Itachi are trusted less and less by their own clan with each passing day, the loyalty of the young shinobi called into question by both the Uchiha and their suspicious Jōnin colleagues.
Even the Hokage himself entertains quiet concerns about Danzō's influence on Fugaku's heir.
With a grunt of general disgust, Hiruzen runs a frustrated hand through his thinning hair.
What he needs now is an Uchiha he can trust, one reasonably well-respected by the clan, with whom he can speak openly, frankly about any issue, no matter how raw and sensitive.
What he needs - is Kagami.
A lifetime spent honing his reflexes is all that prevents the Hokage's pipe from spilling its contents down his robes as it falls from his mouth.
Readjusting himself in his high-backed chair, he casts a furtive glance to the unsmiling portrait of the Nidaime, as though his guilty thoughts might have been intercepted.
How dare he even consider such a thing?
The Sandaime, touted by the youth as the wise Professor who knows every jutsu created in the village, has long sworn to himself, and to various tenuous allies of the Leaf, that Senju Tobirama's monstrous technique, the forbidden secrets of which were sealed away by its own creator, will never again be used by Konoha.
However, with a violent uprising seemingly imminent, his word, as he's found so many times during his reign, may be something he no longer has the luxury of keeping.
But if he were to use the Edo Tensei, to offer up a human sacrifice and tear his old friend from the afterlife - to what end? Can he expect a single man to prevent a war?
An old pinprick of unrelated guilt stabs him unexpectedly at the thought.
A single man had certainly been blamed for an entire war under Hiruzen's watch. He cannot imagine that Kagami would take the news of Sakumo's tragic death well.
The Uchiha had been very fond of the persistent young Hatake who'd hounded him relentlessly for tips and training in the Lighting Style, though he'd hidden it under a light veneer of exasperation.
Hiruzen had secretly intended to make little Sakumo a part of Kagami's inaugural Genin team, until...
Another deep sighs resounds throughout the Hokage's office.
"You're dawdling," a familiar voice chides from somewhere within his soul. "You've just found a possible solution, no matter how unsavory, and yet here you are, moping about things from the past that cannot be changed."
Hiruzen can practically hear the mild irritation in the words of this fond memory of Biwako's rather ruthless impatience for procrastination.
Indeed, the situation with the Uchiha is almost certain to deteriorate further, Kagami's presence can only help, and Hiruzen can use every staunch ally he can get - this is no time for weak-willed hesitation.
"Yes," comes the fading, imagined, exasperated approval of his sorely missed spouse. "Now put down that disgusting pipe and go do something about it!"
Resolve restored, the Hokage allows himself a soft, bittersweet chuckle as he dutifully places the offending item aside and rises to his feet.
There is much cruelty and pain that Sarutobi Hiruzen knows he is to answer for, but he will be damned twice over before he faces one of his dearest friends at this life's end with his hands soaked in the blood of the Uchiha clan's innocent children.
Two of the room's shadows take solid form in front of him.
There are forbidden scrolls to fetch, a grave to rob, and a currently imprisoned involuntary sacrifice to be made for the good of the future of the village.
Hiruzen's lips twitch.
"We have a long night ahead of us."
Normally, Uchiha Shisui would not consider himself a particularly anxious individual.
In fact, his ability to maintain calm rationality even in the face of extreme stress, such as against his opponent in the Chūnin exams who had seemed to view victory as a secondary goal to causing Shisui as much pain as possible, or when things took a turn for worse, worst, and Really?! What god did I piss off?!, on an active battlefield had earned Shisui the hard-won praise of his superiors.
Right now though, with the fate of his clan and potentially the future of the entire village resting on his shoulders - or perhaps more accurately, in his eye sockets, Shisui's guts are churning like the base of a waterfall after an early spring thaw.
Being turned away from the Hokage's office due to the Sandaime being locked in a restricted emergency meeting because of the surprise arrival of some unknown person of great importance when the young shinobi so desperately needs to speak with him about the powder keg that is the Uchiha clan is not helping matters at all.
Because maybe, just maybe, Shisui has found a solution. A vile, manipulative, downright heretic solution that makes bile creep up the back of his throat whenever he thinks about it too deeply.
Shisui will use his Mangekyō Sharingan against his own clan to drag the Uchiha back from the brink of war.
It isn't as though Shisui is blind to the very real grievances his clan has with the highest ups of Konoha, but this is the best terrible solution he can think of to give them all more time to sort things out with diplomacy instead of having the kids of the village get a first hand look at how life was like back when the founding clans had been slaughtering each other.
This plan would be a great deal more reassuring, Shisui thinks, absently leaping from branch to branch through one of the lesser used training areas as he heads back toward the Uchiha compound, if the Hokage was actually available to give his opinion on it.
Other than Itachi, so far no one else knows what Shisui intends to do at the meeting tonight - though he's certain once the Hokage is informed that the Sandaime's aging advisors will also be in very short order.
Shisui's eyes narrow as he lands lightly on a neglected dirt pathway, the trees giving way to a wide stretch of open field.
Apparently one need only think of a devil to have it appear before you today.
Standing directly in Shisui's path beside a large lichen-coated boulder that had probably rolled down the mountain before the Shodai was out of diapers is none other than the rather unwelcome form of Shimura Danzō.
Shisui does not allow his steps to falter even slightly as he approaches the councilman, though his instincts are screaming for him to be cautious.
For all they both profess to desire the good of Konoha, Shisui trusts the older man about as far as he could throw the Akimichi Head single-handed after Chōza had performed the Multi-Size technique.
"So," Danzō says as Shisui comes to a casual halt in front of him. "You were denied an audience with the Hokage this afternoon, eh? I know that you are not one to waste the time of your superiors, so the matter had to have been of great importance."
Danzō's lone visible eye widens enough to glare at the younger shinobi. "Tell me Shisui - have you found a solution to this tiresome issue with your clan?"
Refraining from gritting his teeth, and trying to ignore his brain's insistence that this would be the perfect place to set up an ambush, Shisui gives the elder the sparsest details of his plan.
Shisui expects Danzō's disdain, is rather unsurprised at the man's instant paranoid conclusion that Shisui might one day use Kotoamatsukami against the village's leadership, and sighs with no little disgust as Danzō grabs for his Sharingan, deflecting his hand and near-effortlessly placing the old bastard under a mild genjutsu.
Only three people know of his plan for peace and already there are saboteurs. He'll have to inform the Hokage of this as soon as possib-
What Shisui does not expect is fucking Izanagi.
Danzō's fist slams into his gut, leaving him breathless, open and unguarded.
Vicious blows rain down on his head and face in rapid succession, disorienting him.
Danzō's uncovered hand clenches painfully in his hair, and Shisui finds himself jerked off his feet, still reeling as Danzō's hand releases him mid-air and then snaps back, intent obvious.
Given how utterly bizarre it is to have what is undoubtedly a Sharingan wielded against him by Shimura Danzō, as the elder lunges again for Shisui's own it is perhaps understandable that the only thought that registers in the Uchiha's bruised and stunned-stupid skull is, "Huh. So that's what he's been hiding under those bandages."
Danzō's greedy fingers reach out with inevitable precision - just as another body moves into play, slamming into Shisui and hip checking him just enough to the left so that Danzō's hand only brushes against his dark hair, completely missing its target.
The remaining momentum has Shisui awkwardly tumbling sideways, landing ass to grass before jerking his head up at the unpleasantly familiar sound of cracking bone.
The pale right hand of the shinobi who had intervened is clenched vice-tight around the wrist of Danzō's offending one, holding the would-be thief close enough for him to bury a brutal left fist in the betrayer's unguarded solar plexus - immediate repayment for earlier transgression.
Danzō wheezes like a man desperate for one last precious breath and folds in on himself, hitting his knees beside his opponent, who dispassionately delivers a sharp strike to the councilman's carotid. The result is an unconscious, crumpled lump at the expressionless victor's feet.
He straightens, folding his arms tightly over his chest as though he's actively restraining himself against further ensuring that Danzō stays down.
At that second a dozen of the elder's personal guard appear, and Shisui leaps to his feet to prepare for the inevitable clash, but as the shinobi uniformly light on the ground just steps behind Danzō as one they jerk rigidly and fall over in the grass, still as their master.
Shisui blinks with some disbelief.
The man before him hasn't even woven any signs - only raised his left forefinger from its place against his right arm.
It is lowered again as several masked shinobi that Shisui recognizes as part of the Sandaime's ANBU land, unscathed, atop the boulder and around their subdued counterparts.
At the clipped address, two of them step forward and carefully approach the Hokage's fallen advisor.
"Secure this and deliver it into the custody of whichever Yamanaka is currently heading Torture and Interrogation," Shisui's savior commands with grim authority, as though he's used to ordering ANBU around. "Use S-ranked precautions."
There is a momentary blur of movement, and then Hound, Cat, the motionless form of Shimura Danzō, and the rest of both factions disappear into the ether, leaving the young shinobi alone with his rescuer.
Uchiha Kagami, bearer of the Mangekyō Sharingan, wielder of lightning so devastating it made Kumo take pause, trusted subordinate of the Nidaime, dear friend of the Sandaime, who chose the good of the village over the grace of his clan and whose broken body was carried home by his grieving comrades decades ago, looks at Shisui-
Trusting Hiruzen's subordinates to transport their burdens to the depths of the T and I building without incident, Kagami turns to face his kinsman, this unmet grandson of the half-sister Kagami had not exchanged a dozen direct words with in life.
Shisui, both of the young shinobi's wide dark eyes still thankfully residing in their proper places, stares at him in shocked-silent awe, as though Kagami's sudden appearance is the divinely bestowed answer to fervent prayer.
The weight of that gaze is far too heavy for comfort.
Falling back on old habit, Kagami allows his face to shift into an easy smile.
The expression is not entirely false - he is immensely relieved that his timely arrival has seen the Uchiha that Hiruzen had described as the inheritor of his ideals spared a perversely similar fate to his own.
And how very surprised indeed his dear friend Danzō had seemed to see the man he'd betrayed appear from nowhere to defend the boy.
Kagami's fingers bite harder into his arms as he attempts to quell the howling rage deep within that remains entirely unsated with merely breaking Danzō's wrist and rendering him unconscious.
What in hell had happened to the young shinobi whose selflessness had saved Kagami's life before his Uchiha teammate's Sharingan had matured enough for Kagami to return the favor with interest?
A child of Konoha.
A child of my own blood.
How dare you, Old Man...
And he'd brought backup.
A disciple of Senju Tobirama and a dozen underlings besides against a single Uchiha youth.
It had taken considerable effort to only stun Danzō's minions instead of killing them. Doubtless they had merely been following their master's instruction, but Kagami is far more accustomed to using Lightning techniques on squads of enemy nin where instantaneous death was the preferred outcome.
That he's now found it necessary to wield them against Konoha shinobi to protect Konoha shinobi...
This is not the time.
"Shisui?" A silent affirmative nod and the honest smile widens. "My name is Kagami. The Sandaime has told me of your service to the village - it is an honor to meet you."
There is a noise like a tread-upon waterfowl.
"You're honored to meet me?!" Shisui splutters in disbelief, taking a daring step closer to the reanimation.
"You're - you - how?"
Without waiting for a response to his first question, as if compelled, the younger Uchiha launches a verbal barrage.
"Is this the Nidaime's forbidden jutsu? Who summoned you? Do you know what's going on with the clan? How the hell did Danzō get his hands on a Sharingan? Is it true you once punched the Raikage through his office wall? Why are you here?"
Kagami hopes this babbling is the result of adrenaline producing a survivor's euphoria combined with the shock of seeing a long-dead relative engage in combat, and not evidence of a possible concussion. He calmly raises a hand.
"Peace, Shisui - we'll sort things through. Let's head back to that big oak there and catch our breath, eh? Get out of the open."
Shisui obligingly joins him in the tree, taking several deep breaths to soothe his nerves as Kagami politely studies a large snail making its unhurried way across their chosen branch, having no need to partake in respiration himself.
Kagami looks up at the unfamiliar address as confusion and worry bleed again across Shisui's face.
"What are you doing here?"
Kagami settles on the branch, out of old habit being sure to give himself a decent vantage point of their surroundings.
Nothing further of note thus far, save the sun continuing its steady descent behind the mountains.
"You are correct in guessing that this is the Nidaime's Edo Tensei," he begins softly. "And I have indeed been informed of the current perilous state of our clan, as well as many other unfortunate happenings that I have not been... present for. As for why I have returned to the world of the living-"
Kagami shrugs slightly, trying to convey the slightest fraction of bewilderment he feels about the actions of old friends.
"The Sandaime believes I could be of use."
At that, the younger Uchiha grunts something like agreement and shifts forward, Shisui wrapping a warm, careful arm around his shoulders in a supportive half-a-hug.
Kagami stills in surprise at the friendly embrace, and the teenager immediately pulls away again, apologies and vague blame on recent head trauma beginning to spill from his tongue when Kagami interrupts with his own.
"Ah, sorry! I'm just not used to family being so, er, enthusiastic about my presence."
Shisui's soft, forgiving smile seems a bit sad.
"Mom says that grandma experienced some considerable shifts in perspective after you... were gone."
That's... something to add to the growing mental file of things he absolutely had not expected to happen after his death.
Sincere grief can have a powerful transformative influence on the bereaved; none know that better than the Uchiha.
It does explain a bit as to why this boy seems to find some value in their blood relationship, anway.
Switching from the deeply uncomfortable topic to one even less pleasant, Kagami meets Shisui's eyes evenly and forges ahead.
"The Sharingan that Danzō just used against you is mine. He and I were not ambushed by enemy nin on our last mission together, as the official report has long stated. While Akimichi Torifu traveled ahead to scout our position, my comrade attacked me from behind, stole my eye, and watched as I died at his feet. The Hokage has recently been made aware of this, and allowed me to lead the squad to apprehend my murderer."
An intense flurry of emotions flicker across the younger Uchiha's face before he takes another deep, steadying breath.
"And the Raikage's wall?"
There is a heartbeat before a short burst of surprised laughter tears out of Kagami's throat - he is grateful and relieved that Shisui has accepted this truth without insisting on digging deeper into the wound.
Just as Hiruzen had said, a fine shinobi indeed.
Shisui had even used significant restraint when attempting to deter Danzō from stealing his precious Mangekyō, though the mercy was wasted.
Kagami can think of no other Uchiha - or even a Hyuuga, for that matter, who would give such consideration to anyone attempting a theft of their bloodline.
He silently vows again that Danzō will pay dearly for the harm he has caused before Kagami returns to the afterlife.
Seemingly pleased by his reaction, Shisui smiles again, but Kagami can see the heavy weariness in his eyes.
"If it means anything, I am very glad both to and that I still can see you, Uncle. Konoha could really use your help right now."
The weight on his shoulders seems somewhat eased by the new warmth in his chest as Kagami nods tightly at his descendant.
"I will do all I can. Now, I've heard the Sandaime's reports - please tell me, from your perspective, of what has transpired to create such a rift between our clan and the village."
And Shisui does.
Night has fallen once again, and though he's had very little sleep since the previous evening, Hiruzen finds the tension curling in his chest more than enough to rebuff the siren call of his comfortable bed.
For all he's practically grown accustomed to dispassionately defending himself and his office from the occasional would-be assassin who succeeds in making it past the guard, the Sandaime twitches ever so slightly at the sound of two pairs of shinobi sandals hitting the ledge outside his window.
Across the desk from him, Shikaku's eyebrow raises almost imperceptibly.
Kagami and Shisui make their entrance, the dead man's unnatural eyes sweeping over the Nara, then grimly meeting Hiruzen's for only a second before turning back to the younger Uchiha.
It's Shisui's turn to glance at the Hokage, as if asking permission to obey the command of committing such impropriety.
The boy's face is smattered with fresh, multicolored bruises.
Throat tightening with something close to dread, Hiruzen jerks his head slightly in acquiescence.
Shisui sinks to the floor with a soft sigh, propping himself against a wall as Kagami gazes down at him, concern obvious.
"You're certain you don't need a medic?"
"What happened?" Hiruzen demands as Shisui shakes his head, obviously not the first time he's responded to his relative's worry for his wellbeing.
"Danzō," Kagami snarls and the Hokage nearly flinches at the raw viciousness of it.
"It seems that my Sharingan is no longer enough to suit his needs."
Shikaku's eyes widen and Hiruzen slumps in his chair, ignoring the urge to reach for his pipe as his old teammate continues.
"Danzō attacked Shisui without provocation, using the stolen eye to give himself the advantage of surprise," Kagami says, the wavering flicker of emotion in his tone betraying just how disturbed he is by the incident. "Of course, if that hadn't worked, he had backup enough to take on a small army standing by to assist him with his revolting plan. Coward."
Hiruzen winces, remembering days of foolish youth when the man before him would defend his comrade's honor against any slight.
Kagami turns haunted eyes on him, and it takes effort not to look away.
"It was almost like... watching my own assassination repeat itself," he says dully. "Though I'm grateful I could change the outcome this time."
"You were amazing! I've never been so happy to see a dead man," Shisui adds helpfully from his seat on the floor.
"No offense, Uncle."
The boy's interjection seems to break Kagami out of his dark remembrance, and he briefly smiles with honest fondness down at the younger Uchiha as Hiruzen contemplates the recently polished grain of the heavy desk that Lord Hashirama had personally furnished the Hokage's office with, wondering whether to slam Danzō's or his own head into it first.
"So," Shikaku slowly breaks his silence at last, "you came upon your own murderer attacking another member of your clan in the pursuit of acquiring their sacred Dōjutsu - and he's still alive?"
It's clear to the Sandaime that the man is thinking of his own young son, and of his potential reaction to encountering anyone within the village, much less a fellow Konoha shinobi, seeking to harm little Shikamaru.
The current batch of fresh Genin would probably be repairing the area for weeks.
Kagami's lips twitch without the slightest indication of good humor. "He had an unmissable appointment scheduled with T and I. If we were not in such desperate need of the secrets locked in his slippery mind, I would hardly have been as... conservative in my efforts to apprehend him."
Danzō, Hiruzen mourns silently, how far you've fallen to have so completely lost the love of our loyal friend.
He sighs aloud.
"Uchiha Kagami, may I introduce my reluctant and very recently nominated successor, Nara Shikaku?"
There is a hint of dark mirth in the Uchiha's eyes as he inclines his head politely at the potential Godaime.
"Nothing like the joys of a battlefield promotion when everything's teetering on the brink of disaster, eh?"
Shikaku snorts, posture relaxing somewhat as he offers his own grim smile in return.
"Damn troublesome is what it is. But if I can play my part to help keep the village safe and unified until someone more suitable comes along..."
He shrugs with a careless sort of determination. "I don't want my kid to have to endure the same struggles as his ancestors. That's not a burden his generation should bear."
Something like hesitant approval flickers over Kagami's face, and when his head tilts to convey agreement, his eyes find the Hokage's for a sharp instant.
Why didn't you appoint this one years ago?
Before Hiruzen can respond to the unspoken and admittedly valid criticism, the form of ANBU Hound appears in a respectful crouch on an unoccupied bit of floor in front of the Hokage's desk, a sealed scroll marked as an urgent, classified communication clutched in one dark-gloved hand.
Hiruzen takes it from him without a word and carelessly breaks Inoichi's seal, eyes narrowing as he quickly skims the missive.
Stomach sinking, he reluctantly looks up into the expectant eyes of his old teammate.
"It would seem," Hiruzen grits out, "that there is reason to suspect that Koharu and Homura know more about Danzō's unsanctioned activities than I have been led to believe."
In an instant, Kagami loses all expression, his face as shuttered and empty as an abandoned house. Shisui peers up at his grand-uncle, silent sympathy and concern clear on his battered features.
"The Head of Torture and Interrogation strongly recommends they immediately be brought in for questioning."
Disregarding the petty impulse to burn the offending scroll to cinders, the Sandaime nods tightly at the waiting ANBU.
"Hound, I am entrusting this task to you. Use whatever resources you deem necessary, as well as a good deal of caution. My contemporaries' bodies may be aged, but I highly doubt Utatane Koharu has allowed the years to diminish her skill with poisons."
"Nor Homura with his chakra scalpels," Kagami adds hollowly, face still carefully blank. "Vivisection would best be avoided."
Paying no obvious attention to the Uchiha's interruption, Hound bows swiftly again before the Hokage and is gone.
Kagami's eyes linger where the masked shinobi had been as heavy silence fills the office for a moment before he turns to address the Hokage.
"Since there is certainty that his Sharingan in particular are desired for acquisition, I ask that Shisui be placed under guard in whom you have proven faith, as the breadth of Danzō's influence is currently unknown," he says low. "Nor the true number of his servants or allies."
"Of course," Hiruzen replies shortly, running through a mental roster of unquestionably loyal active Jōnin without assignment that are currently in the village.
As though this situation with the Uchiha wasn't complicated enough without the weighty accusations of outright murder and multiple bloodline thefts by one of the Hokage's chief advisors.
Damn it all.
He reaches for his pipe.
"Shikaku," he demands as he methodically packs the bowl, "do you have any idea the current whereabouts of Shiranui Genma?"
Something almost sly crosses the Nara's face before the solemnity of the office chases it away.
"On a night off? I have a decent guess," Shikaku drawls, eyes turning slightly to the darkened window that faces several brightly lit housing complexes.
"If you have no further need of me at the moment, Hokage-sama, I'll send Shiranui this way before I head over to T and I. Probably better that I be there to receive forthcoming information as soon as Inoichi extracts it instead of making him strain his wrists sending messages every time he comes across something juicy."
Hiruzen grunts his approval and, with a short bow, Shikaku makes his exit, leaving the Hokage with only the two Uchiha and his hidden guards.
Kagami is, even by shinobi standards, unnaturally still - never yet appearing more like the dead man he is than at this moment, his strange eyes distant and unseeing.
Hiruzen's mouth tightens, remembering those first few moments after the Edo Tensei's completion.
The Sandaime had nearly wept with relief and selfish joy when the reanimation had first stirred to life and blinked at him, Sharingan taking in all the ravages of age, then tilted its dark head and said with pure incredulity, "Hiruzen? You're still the Hokage?"
Undeniable proof, as far as the Sandaime was concerned, that he'd conjured the correct soul.
But then Kagami's face had shifted to much the same as it is now, and in a voice cold with suspicion had demanded, "What do you want of me?"
He'd felt Kagami subtly testing the boundaries of his control over his own body, control which the Hokage had freely relinquished, the perverse idea of using his old teammate as a puppet not for a moment entertained.
"My apologies," Hiruzen had said, the mild words not nearly enough to convey his remorse for all the ways he'd failed the Uchiha. "But Konoha has need of your service, my friend."
Kagami blinked at him again.
"Your friend," the dead man had repeated slowly as the Mangekyō Sharingan whirled in his skull.
"Is that truly what you see here? Not the potential second coming of Uchiha Madara?"
The bitter truth had emerged shortly after, and Hiruzen had fervently cursed himself for his willing blindness, for always finding an excuse for Danzō's paranoia and flagrant insubordination, for offering chance after chance for reform instead of punishment - even after the damned attempted assassination, so long as his former comrade was seemingly working for the good of the village.
The Hokage takes another long draw on his pipe, eyes narrowing at the man beside his desk.
Kagami's hands are trembling.
"There is no proof yet that they knew-"
"Danzō couldn't have transplanted the eye himself," Kagami almost snaps, folding his arms tight across his chest, eyes focused on the floor in front of him. "He'd need a medic. A good medic, or the Sharingan would've drained him dry."
A sharp, jagged laugh of despairing disbelief follows.
"Did they all betray-" Kagami silences himself and stills again, clearly ashamed of the public weakness of his grief.
"Torifu was ever your friend," Hiruzen assures very softly, with all the desperate little faith he has remaining in the bonds of the former Team Tobirama.
He will not speak now of how greatly Akimichi Torifu had privately mourned his fallen Uchiha comrade, even until his own death years ago. This is not the time to further burden Kagami with undeserved guilt.
"He brought you home."
Kagami's head bows, ever-messy hair falling to obscure his face.
"Um," Shisui squeaks, rising to his feet with more timidity than Hiruzen has ever seen in him. "Maybe Danzō told them that you had bequeathed him the eye, and insisted they keep it secret from our clan?"
The boy gulps as Kagami's focus falls on him.
"I had a cousin that was lost during the war. His last request was that his injured teammate accept his Sharingan. The squad's medic successfully completed the transplant while they were still in the field. It was easily the most contentious topic of debate amongst the clan for months."
"Hmm." Kagami allows, clearly not yet willing to give Koharu and Homura the benefit of the doubt.
"The recipient of that eye - that would be Sakumo's son?"
Of course Kagami had asked about the bright little Hatake he'd never had the chance to truly teach. And Hiruzen had had no choice but to answer honestly.
Shisui nods. "Yes, sir. Kakashi-senpai was allowed to keep his friend's Sharingan, and has been using it for the good of Konoha ever since."
Something softens slightly in Kagami's expression, though his eyes are still heavy with grief.
As he opens his mouth to doubtless inquire further after his lost student's child, there is a sharp rap on the closed door of the office.
"Yes?" Hiruzen demands, silently praying to any merciful entities that might be listening that it not be yet more ill news.
The way this day is going, it would be someone coming to inform him that the actual ghost of Uchiha Madara had been spotted terrorizing students on the Academy's playground.
Shiranui Genma steps into room, ever-present senbon between his teeth and hitai-ate slightly askew. As he approaches the desk, Hiruzen can just make out a hint of a fresh purple bruise blossoming from underneath his shirt collar.
It would seem the Tokubetsu is the latest Konoha shinobi to have his night's plans ruined.
Genma inclines his head respectfully at the Hokage, then glances at the two Uchiha.
"Someone call for a babysitter?" He asks dryly, and Shisui makes an indignant noise of righteous offense - which was almost certainly the intended result, as Genma breaks into a wide grin at the squawk.
Not for the first time does Hiruzen spare an instant to ponder what his life might have been like if as a youth he'd followed his aged grandmother's advise and become a sequestered monk.
"I'm afraid it's a bit more serious than that," he says, and spends the next few moments outlining the situation.
To his credit, Genma seems mostly unfazed by the revelations of betrayal, bloodline theft and necromancy, though his gaze does flicker at least once to where Kagami stands, unbreathing, by the window.
"Then my duty now is to protect Uchiha Shisui from... anyone?"
"Until we are certain that Danzō and his Root are no longer a threat," Hiruzen sighs and rubs the bridge of his nose. "I don't know what Danzō has planned for Shisui's Sharingan, but I severely doubt it's in the village's best interest."
"About that," Shisui says, stepping closer to the desk. "Hokage-sama, I believe I may have found a solution, though imperfect, to steer my clan away from revolution."
How simple, how terrible, an answer.
Ignoring how Genma's eyebrows almost disappear under his bandana as Shisui finishes his explanation, Hiruzen turns to Kagami.
"I am un-living proof that the truth will out - eventually," Kagami says blandly. "And when it does, the consequences will be devastating. Were the current situation not so desperate..."
"Shisui," the Hokage asks when his old comrade falls silent, "have you told anyone else about this plan?"
"Only Danzō and Itachi sir," the boy replies.
Hiruzen sighs tiredly.
"I have just sent official notice to every Head of Clan, including Fugaku, of my intent to once again pass on the title of Hokage," he says.
"Hopefully this news will relieve the pressure of the situation somewhat, and allow Kagami a chance to prepare for diplomatic intervention - but if the Uchiha are still set on revolution at the conclusion of their meeting tonight, Kotoamatsukami may be our best option."
"I am prepared to do what is necessary for the sake of the village," Shisui says quietly.
"And I know that Itachi is as well - only..."
"What?" Kagami demands, wariness creeping across his face.
"I haven't made contact with him today; I hope he hasn't gotten too anxious about things."
When Kagami blinks at him, the boy rushes to clarify.
"Please don't misunderstand me, Uncle - Itachi is an excellent shinobi! It's just that sometimes..."
Shisui runs a hand through his thick hair, wincing when he encounters a particularly sensitive spot on his scalp.
"He's not the best when it comes to dealing with people."
Kagami's head shakes slightly at that and Hiruzen raises an eyebrow at his friend.
"It feels like someone just walked across my grave."
His dark head shakes once more and he takes a deep breath.
"I'll go ahead to the Uchiha district for reconnaissance. Perhaps I'm being paranoid, but..."
His strange eyes again meet Hiruzen's evenly as he brandishes an absolute falsehood of a smile.
"The last time I ignored that particular feeling, one of my closest friends buried his kunai in my spine."
The Hokage's skin crawls, and his molars grind - but he nods his approval.
Kagami clearly needs a moment to collect himself. Hiruzen can spare that, at least.
"Fine. We have a little while until midnight; when you return we will decide for certain whether or not to go through with Shisui's plan."
Without another word, Kagami's Mangekyō whirl, and the man swirls rapidly out of existence, leaving not so much as a trace of a chakra signature behind.
Hiruzen blinks at the now-empty space where Kagami had been standing.
There is a click of senbon against teeth.
"Huh," declares Genma, echoing the Hokage's thoughts.
He knows full well that his old comrade's Sharingan had advanced to its supposedly ultimate form at the end of that terrible mission when they'd failed to bring the Nidaime home alive, but-
Since when could Kagami do that?
To his left, Shisui lets out a deep, airy sigh, clearly smitten beyond recovery.
Kagami lands lightly on calm water, the impact sending a series of small ripples out across the visible expanse of his Kamui, the seemingly endless personal dimension he'd only entered a cautious handful of times in life.
Not that there is any risk now of slow, inevitable blindness by indulging its use - this property of the Mangekyō Sharingan which had appeared a perverse, terrible irony following the situation with the Kumo nin when his team had so desperately needed something of its exact nature to return safely home.
Tobirama, always intrigued by time-space jutsus, would have found it fascinating.
Sighing deep from useless lungs, Kagami tilts his head back to gaze up at the sky, its dark clouds erratically backlit by flashes of lightning.
There is no thunder. No gusting wind. No rain.
Things are at peace here, a sharp contrast to the Uchiha who intrudes upon it.
How he hopes that Danzō has never set foot in this place, that his stolen eye has not whispered all its secrets to the traitor.
His hands are shaking again.
Disgusted, Kagami runs them roughly through his wild hair.
Hiruzen had dismissed him to gather intel - fortunate that, as Kagami had been about to tear himself out of the Hokage's office by desperate will alone.
It's too much.
What Hiruzen does not seem to understand, what Kagami can tell no one, is that in his mind, he has only just had to helplessly listen to Danzō's pious farewell admonition on the corrosive nature of great power as Kagami lay broken and half-blind at his feet, desperate for a breath that will never come.
He has no memory of the afterlife, though he supposes he must have been somewhere for the decades that had passed until Hiruzen saw fit to call him back to Konoha.
And now to find the remnants of the odd family he'd made, his treacherous friends that he'd fought for, bled for, killed for - they and his blood kin are poised to destroy each other.
He has been re-awakened into hell.
Even the tensest days of Tobirama's reign could not compare to this.
And to add to it the fact that his wizened contemporaries have placed the fate of the entire village on the shoulders of two overwhelmed Uchiha teenagers?
Kagami groans aloud, breaking the still silence as he covers his face with his hands.
Shisui, his own half grand-nephew, has the Mangekyō, which means he has already suffered deeply in this life, and truly Kagami cannot blame the boy for what he saw when he first looked into those troubled dark eyes - the guilty relief of realizing a heavy burden is suddenly to be shared, or even lifted away entirely and dropped onto another's back.
Kagami knows the low, trembling shame of it; how often had those he used to call comrades done the same for him?
His hands fall to fist at his sides.
There must be a way to resolve things without bloodshed.
Kotoamatsukami is a poor option, in Kagami's opinion.
Burying the truth only results in poisoning the earth, and if the Uchiha ever realize that their own Dōjutsu has been used against them, the great-grandchildren of any that might survive the clan's wrath will speak of the ensuing cataclysm in hushed whispers.
Kagami slowly opens his eyes, watching for a stolen, soothing moment as lightning dances behind the clouds.
Hiruzen had desperately called him back to service because communication had broken down between the office of the Hokage and the Uchiha clan, and hoped to use him as a sort of mediator - only to discover Danzō's murderous betrayal and deep-rooted treachery, and then seemingly shift his ultimate hope for peace instead to the waiting answer whirling in Shisui's skull.
Still... wouldn't arbitration be worth a try? How much worse could things become if a dead man were to show up at Fugaku's doorstep and attempt to honestly address his grievances before manipulating his mind?
What exactly could the Clan Head do if he found Kagami's answers, or promises to find them, unsatisfactory - spearhead a bloody revolution?
A bitter smile pulls at the reanimation's lips, and he shakes himself a bit.
Well... he can't be of any use to anyone so long as he's hiding himself away like this.
There will be time to mourn his losses when he's back in his grave.
Hoping the path he's chosen does not lead to disaster, Kagami steps forward, sending a flurry of small waves out over the still water - and finds himself on a tree branch overlooking the rebuilt Uchiha district.
The layout is different than Kagami remembers from his time, though the change is somewhat less disorienting thanks to Hiruzen briefly showing him schematics of the current village configuration.
His mouth twitches slightly as he takes in the familiar Uchiha fan adorning everything from walls, shop signs and shutters to the embroidered drapes hanging over a kitchen sink.
Some things have yet to change, only -
The atmosphere of the compound seems... off.
He lands lightly in a side street, careful to avoid detection as a small, entirely silent group of Uchiha pass by, every face among them tight and grim.
They must be heading to the shrine.
Midnight is approaching, but perhaps the Clan Head has yet to leave his home.
If Kagami can give Fugaku any reason to veer from his current path, tonight's meeting just might end in greater hope for the continued unity of the village - without the use of fucking Kotoamatsukami .
With all the stealth he possesses, Kagami makes his way to the grand main house.
He doubts there are more than a handful of Uchiha yet alive that could recognize him by sight alone, and with the strange otherness of his current appearance there is no question in his mind that his kin would perceive him as a potential menace.
Kagami will present himself to Fugaku with all the non-threatening respect he can muster. Hell, he'll even allow Hikaku's coup-minded grandson to bind and blindfold him, so long as it earns him the Clan Head's ear.
The oppressive stillness is worse yet as he enters an immaculately maintained courtyard.
There is no light, no sound coming from inside the home - which could possibly be explained by the lateness of the hour, but...
Kagami's teeth clench as something cold prickles up his spine.
It feels as though an entire squad of Multi-Sized Akimichi is dancing on his grave now.
Senses screaming, he slowly, carefully makes his way toward the inner rooms.
Before Kagami can quite process how bizarre it is that he has yet to encounter any traps, wards, or even posted guards, the sudden low rumble of a man's voice from beyond a nearby shōji freezes him where he stands.
"Even if our philosophies differ, I am proud of you."
The resignation, the sorrow, the utter defeat lacing the words; this is someone entirely prepared to die.
The voice continues, the speaker seemingly unwavering in the acceptance of his fate.
"You are truly a kind child."
Had he not been listening so closely, had the night not been so utterly still, Kagami might have missed the soft sounds that followed: the slightest hitch of breath, a tightly suppressed sob - and the sharp displacement of air from a sword being drawn back.
Every nerve howling for immediate response, Kagami's Mangekyō whirl with desperate intent.
One step into Kamui and he's out again in the span of a lightning flash, landing just in front of two figures kneeling resolutely on the tatami floor as their executioner's blade begins to fall behind them.
Kagami does not pause.
His left hand reaches for the speaker, pulling the man roughly forward and then releasing as the side of his right foot connects with the woman, sending her tumbling out of the swordsman's range just as the blade connects with papery flesh, nearly bisecting Kagami before his right hand halts the motion by wrapping around the thin, pale wrist of the would-be assassin.
Sharingan-red eyes still sending tears tracing down his cheeks, the boy stares up at him in clear shock, lips trembling as terribly as the hands that still grip the hilt of the blade buried in the intruder's gut.
Knowing without a doubt who this must be, but not dwelling on how the young shinobi could possibly so easily identify him, Kagami twists his face into something much closer to a grimace than a smile.
"Let's not be so hasty with that thing, eh Itachi?"
A heartbeat, a blink, and then-
"I... there isn't time, sir!" The boy insists, but since there is no further action accompanying the words, Kagami refrains from using their connection to shock him unconscious.
What could have driven Shisui's ally, this supposed peace-loving prodigy, to act so rashly - against his own parents, no less?
Dread coils in Kagami's chest.
"What do you mean - the Hokage has commanded no forceful action tonight, and your father clearly is not prepared to immediately lead a strike against the Sandaime."
He ignores the woman - Mikoto, Hiruzen had said - gazing up at them in mute horror from her place by the wall, as well as the sound of Fugaku behind him doubtless righting himself after being slung further into the room.
Itachi shakes his head in distress, as if grasping about for the certainty of a guiding light.
"I'm sorry," the boy says, and it's almost a whisper. "But in order for the village to survive, our clan must be eliminated."
Never entirely buried and now mortally offended pride flares in Kagami's chest.
Konoha would not exist without the Uchiha, would have fallen a dozen times over without their protection.
"By whose order?" Kagami demands, certain he already knows the answer.
Itachi's teeth clench.
"Wait," Fugaku insists unevenly, clearly trying to steady himself in the wake of his anti-climactic non-death.
"The entire clan - all - not just the instigators, all the Uchiha? Down to the last innocent child?! Itachi, what were you-"
It's nearly a howl, the name reverberating throughout the room as the truth struggles out of Itachi like a death-agony.
"Utatane Koharu and Mitokado Homura approached me this evening, saying they had proof that Shisui and an unidentified Uchiha had attacked and abducted Councilman Danzō; the locations of all three are currently unknown."
The slender fingers beneath Kagami's increase their trembling.
"Shisui's betrayal forced the council's hand. If I refused their order, if I did nothing, they would actuate their plan and Danzō's soldiers would eradicate every Uchiha, but if I-" Itachi chokes.
"They agreed to spare Sasuke. My little brother would be allowed to live."
Kagami's mind bypasses the obvious horror of the boy's statement to what is hidden just underneath.
Including at least one skilled enough to avoid detection and report back to Koharu and Homura, and all trained to respond like vicious insects mindlessly protecting their queen. Exactly what kind of secret force is Danzō amassing? It sounds almost as though he is the one plotting a coup, using the Uchiha situation as something of a distraction as he schemes from the shadows.
"Itachi," Mikoto breathes like a faithless prayer, and the boy inhales sharply.
He looks again up at Kagami, and implores with the surety of a zealot, "Please, you of all Uchiha should understand - I must do this to preserve those loyal to the village."
Though he doubts it is Itachi's intent, his words make Kagami's lip curl slightly in disgust.
There is no comparing this night and the long-ago conflict with the murderous traitor Setsuna. The boy's attempt at equivalence rings revoltingly false.
Kagami had been nineteen when Tobirama had tasked him with using his best judgement in dealing with Setsuna and his collaborators, and he had never once considered destroying the whole clan out of some perverse abundance of caution.
Beside them, Mikoto's face twists with torment.
"We were loyal," she says quietly, as though the words have been buried so long it is painful to unearth them.
"Other than perhaps the Senju, no clan has shed more blood to preserve this village than the Uchiha, so it has been since Konoha's inception. But after the Kyuubi - after we lost them..."
Thin, disarmingly delicate looking fingers clench tight in the fabric pooled over her knees before Mikoto's eyes meet Kagami's and her voice strains to remain unwavering.
"The Yondaime and Uzumaki Kushina. After we allowed ourselves to be subjugated by paranoid fools and failed them -"
In the corner of his range of sight, Kagami can just make out Fugaku bowing his head in shame and gods it strikes close to Kagami's soul as one who has also loved and been too late, too weak, too cowardly to save his damnably self-sacrificing Hokage.
"- in the ensuing grief and desperation to lay blame and seek justice for that night's horrors, suspicion soon turned to us. After all, who other than the dreaded Uchiha Madara possessed the ability to command the Nine-Tails, to wield the beast against Konoha and its Hokage?"
"Only Senju Tobirama himself knows what became of Madara's corpse after his brother's victory at the Final Valley, and we know where all the bodies of our revered dead rest. It could not have been an Uchiha that tried to destroy our home, that caused such terrible pain."
"And now, obviously considering it more acceptable than expending further effort searching for the truth of that night, or honestly addressing our grievances, the Sandaime, that benevolent old professor, has sent one of our own children to dispose of us."
Itachi's mouth opens, but Kagami beats him to the refute.
"No. I swear upon my honor as an Uchiha that Sarutobi Hiruzen did not order this."
He knows his misstep as soon as the oath leaves his tongue.
Certainly enough, Mikoto's eyes narrow.
"Since when have you had any use for Uchiha honor, Nidaime's Fool?" she hisses. "You lived so proudly as one of his - and died a beloved intimate of the enfeebled successor, like the ones who now eagerly plot our destruction."
"Shimura Danzō has been charged with murder," Kagami divulges with calm he does not feel. "My own, in fact. The evidence against him is the stolen eye found hidden in his skull, and testimony from the long-dead tongue of a friend formerly closer than a brother."
"Stolen-" Fugaku begins with an incredulous growl, lighting on a newly revealed source of outrage, but Kagami forges ahead.
"And indeed it was the Sandaime who, in his desperation to avoid potential tragedy, pulled me from the afterlife using a grotesque forbidden technique he'd sworn to keep forever sealed, in hopes that I could aid in de-escalating the tensions between my village, my blood clan, and those who hold high office. As for Utatane and Mitokoda..."
Kagami feels if he had the luxury he would weep, hurl himself into the depths of Kamui, scream until he lost his voice over the betrayal - but here he agrees with Itachi.
There is no time.
"They have also been taken into custody. It is clear from their actions that, barring Sarutobi Hiruzen, my old friends have long forgotten me. "
His focus again falls to their son, who has yet to relinquish the blade even as Kagami's stolen body reforms around it.
He has no desire to kill this child, but he will if he must, if Itachi will not turn from this path. Though by the tears and trembling, it would seem the boy's resolve is perilously close to shattering.
Perhaps a little more weight...
"Itachi," Kagami says calmly, speaking low and as reassuring as one would to soothe a disturbed animal, and the young shinobi's shining eyes meet his yet again.
"You have been misled. Shisui was almost martyred today in his pursuit of a path to peace - it was Danzō who attacked him. Itachi, whoever's orders you believe you're following, this is not the will of the Hokage, and your friend remains loyal. Shisui has not betrayed you."
There is silent stillness in the room for a long moment, before Itachi's hands at last fall nervelessly from his sword and he sinks slowly to his knees.
Kagami deftly pulls the blade from his body - painless, but not particularly pleasant, and keeps a firm hand on the hilt, lest anyone be tempted to act on any further foolish notions.
Now that the jolting intensity of his last-second intervention is wearing off, anger is rushing in to fill the space, each itemized offense and betrayal slamming into his mind again and again in roiling waves.
"How is it," he begins quietly, standing over the young shinobi whose tears still spill on the tatami floor, "that when you received the order to slaughter our entire clan, you did not seek any further council or aid before you chose to act?"
It is remarkable, Kagami notices distantly, that his voice, though steadily rising, does not shake with the rage and disbelief flooding him.
"Have the Uchiha fallen so far that we no longer have any allies at all within the village? The Hokage's advisors clearly overstepped their bounds calling for such rash action - could you not find a single Akimichi, Nara or Yamanaka to turn to in this crisis? The Inuzuka matriarchs I'm certain would step in, if only to try and spare the Uchiha children. Even the damned Hyuuga might think, if there's any wisdom among them, that if today the Uchiha are targeted for elimination partly due to speculated misuse of their Dōjutsu, tomorrow it could well be them!"
Watery eyes again blink up at him. It is abundantly clear that such considerations never entered Itachi's mind.
"I... I was the only one who could prevent civil war," he reiterates numbly, and Kagami's teeth grind at the bizarrely pious arrogance of the words. It too closely reminds him of Danzō's self-martyred certainty in striking his Uchiha teammate down.
"There was no time to go to anyone else for assistance."
Kagami is not sure if the boy means in stopping the massacre or more efficiently carrying it out.
As he struggles to push yet another not-urgently-relevant source of horror aside, Kagami can almost hear faithful Torifu laughing about how the more unscrupulous merchants in the marketplace would be delighted to see someone like Itachi headed their way.
Can't the boy see he's been offered a terrible deal?
Kagami takes a steadying, if unneeded, breath.
"Fine," he growls, resisting the urge to drag his fingers through his hair in frustration. "Let's say I remained in my grave, Shisui was murdered, and, without further hindrance, you went through with it; you've cut down every last Uchiha save your little brother, from the elders in their soft beds to the children as they cried out for the protection of their slain parents. Now what are you going to do?"
"Flee the village, so that blame will fall on me and not the administration," Itachi says without hesitation, clearly having a plan laid out. "Konoha must retain faith in its leaders."
Kagami has to hand it to his old friends - they seem to have been feeding this kid whole mountains of shit and he's obviously been eating it right up.
"I have heard that you are a prodigy, Itachi - one of our village's most skilled shinobi," the elder Uchiha says carefully. "But slaughtering one's entire clan alone is a daunting task; at the end of it, even you would be weary in body, mind and soul, yes?"
Itachi nods very slowly, and replies in a whisper.
"It would be the most opportune moment for Danzō and his army to strike you down, thus eliminating the possibility of the night's truth to ever be revealed and cause him trouble," Kagami nearly snarls.
"Even Kage have met their ends against weaker opponents when so exhausted. Oh, but you've left behind a survivor! What do you suppose will become of young Sasuke, now that there are no Uchiha left on this earth to protect him?"
Mikoto chokes down a sob and behind him Fugaku takes in a shuddering breath, but Kagami's focus is on Itachi, watching as the boy's eyes begin to widen with horrified comprehension.
"Yes," Kagami grimly agrees, confirming whatever monstrous scenario Itachi is envisioning.
Itachi's stricken gaze falls away from him to the floor, and Kagami sighs tiredly.
"Not to mention what the greedy bastard would do with the treasure trove of Sharingan you'd just provided him."
The deceitful, treasonous murderer who had held Kagami, tightly and without remark, as his Uchiha teammate had wept after the reality of Tobirama's sacrifice had become clear.
His fingers tighten on the sword hilt.
Kagami would like nothing more in this moment than to crawl back into the relative peace of his grave, instead of standing here somewhat hypocritically lecturing his misguided kin.
His own hands are hardly clean.
Among the stains is even the blood of an Uchiha child - the son of Setsuna, heartbroken and enraged over the deaths of his traitorous parents, struck down in his futile attempt to avenge them.
But this... the slaughter of the entire clan...
"Itachi," Fugaku's rasp breaks the silence, and by the anger and incredulousness lacing the word, Kagami can infer the man's thoughts on the potential loss are much the same as his own.
"I would never have expected you to act so foolishly."
Turning his head to face the still-kneeling Fugaku as Itachi's own bows even further, Kagami abandons long-ingrained propriety to address his current Head of Clan using what Koharu had described a literal lifetime ago as his "talking to idiots" voice.
"For someone so determined to topple the Hokage from power, you certainly seem to have inordinate faith in his mercy."
Fugaku's eyes widen and he mouths words at that, though no sound escapes his lips.
Kagami has squawks to spare.
"Indeed, the Sandaime would have to be an even greater fool than you believe to allow the children of dissidents to live, in relative health and safety, among the same village that took their parents from them, whatever the reason. Though I'm not denying Sarutobi may indeed be such a fool, that's simply begging for future complications."
He bares his teeth.
"Just imagine - your youngest son growing up consumed by grief and hate. Anyone with any foresight could envision such a child turning into an avenger. Why, in a few short years the boy might become instrumental in the revolution you seem to so desire!"
Kagami takes another breath.
This is probably not the type of mediation with the Clan Head that Hiruzen had in mind when he'd performed the Edo Tensei.
Dropping the false smile and the sarcasm, Kagami's tone turns solemn.
"Lord Fugaku, I ask again, are you truly without allies? Has the entire village indeed turned against us, or..."
His unoccupied hand runs through his messy hair.
"If I speak falsely then please correct me, but have you ever directly addressed your grievances - the unwarranted suspicion, the isolation, the spying - if not with Sarutobi Hiruzen, then with other Heads of Clan? Or has the pride of the Uchiha once again been deemed more important than the lives of its children?"
Shame, Kagami thinks, more than anger, though that's there as well, burns across Fugaku's face just as soft, sleep-addled footfalls come to a halt outside the door.
With obvious effort, it slowly slides open and a dark, pillow-rumpled little head pokes into the room, mouth stretching in a wide yawn.
"Nii-san? Did you call me, or was I just dream-"
With a gasp, the boy's eyes widen and he charges into the room, planting himself between the kneeling Itachi and the strange man wielding a sword, arms spread out defiantly against the perceived threat with all the self-sacrificial bravery of a foolhardy Hokage.
"Get away from my brother!"
Behind him, fresh tears pour down Itachi's cheeks as he gazes at his little brother with something close to reverence.
"It's all right, Sasuke," Itachi croaks, closing his eyes as though near total exhaustion. "Kagami-san is not here to do any harm."
A disbelieving frown plays over the younger boy's features, and he turns his head, possibly to argue the point, but -
"Nii-san! Why're you crying? Are you injured?"
Itachi's eyes fly open again, and the young shinobi stills completely as his little brother, disregarding Kagami entirely, gently pats at him, desperate to find the source of his sibling's discomfort.
"No," Itachi whispers at last. "I am unharmed. These are not tears of pain, Sasuke."
The little boy pulls back, confusion clear on his face.
"They're not? Well... that's good - I'm glad you aren't hurt!"
Sasuke enthusiastically embraces him, since there is no worry of aggravating an injury, wrapping his arms tight around his elder brother, who continues to silently weep as the little boy gradually resumes his now consolatory petting.
Kagami does not go so far as to hope, but perhaps, just perhaps, Itachi is realizing how flawed his plan for this night was, and how much he personally stood to lose, had he gone through with it.
He turns away from the brothers to once again face his clan's Head.
"The Sandaime plans to soon step down once more, and the traitorous and criminal actions of his advisors are being investigated as we speak. These offenses against the village, our clan included, will be brought to light if I must drag them into it myself."
Still clutching Itachi's sword he asks, "Their paths are changing, Lord Fugaku. Will yours?"
A deep breath, a long exhale, and the man nods tightly.
"Konoha is ours. If it is altering in attempt to maintain peace, then so will the Uchiha."
Kagami can practically feel the tension leaving the room by slow degrees.
"And those within the clan that might reject these changes and still desire a more... immediate solution?"
Fugaku scowls, and for the first time Kagami can detect some air of authority projecting from the man.
"I try to learn from my mistakes," he says dryly. "Anyone who acts rashly and endangers our future will be dealt with."
He is looking past Kagami to his sons as he says it, and, for everyone's sake, Kagami hopes the Clan Head has the will to enforce his words.
"Kagami-san," Mikoto asks, also focused on her children, but as though she cannot decide whether to embrace them both or snatch Sasuke out of Itachi's reach. "Do you know the name of the Sandaime's nominated Hokage candidate?"
Kagami nods shortly. "Nara Shikaku."
"That bum?" Fugaku almost yelps in disbelief, but Mikoto looks thoughtful.
"He was one of the Yondaime's chief advisors - a brilliant strategist," she says. "And I am certain he would do all he could to maintain this time of peace for the village, if only to preserve little Shikamaru."
Fugaku grunts lightly in reluctant, begrudging agreement, and Sasuke's head jerks up from where it had been resting on Itachi's shoulder, tiny nose wrinkling.
"Shika's dad's gonna be the Hokage?"
Before anyone can respond, there is a rapid clatter of multiple pairs of shinobi sandals in the hallway before the door is again opened, with greater, desperate force this time, and Fugaku, Mikoto, and Itachi are all on their feet as Shisui lunges through the doorway, Mangekyō blazing.
Just behind him comes Shiranui Genma, who is all but elbowed out of the way by the Sandaime Hokage, ridiculous hat askew and face as ashen as Kagami has ever seen it.
Bringing up the rear is Nara Shikaku, who takes in the room at a glance, and when his eyes find Itachi, the man's shadow starts to slowly bleed toward the boy, whose focus is darting between Shisui and Sasuke.
At the barely perceptible shake of Kagami's head, Shikaku halts its progress, but he crosses his arms over his chest and remains standing where the shadows are strongest in the limited light.
The Sandaime, seeing Kagami's firm possession of the boy's ANBU issue blade, sighs softly with something like relief just as Shisui groans, "Itachi - you didn't."
The younger shinobi seems to shrink in on himself, eyes falling again to the floor.
Genma favors Kagami with a grim smile.
"Guess what Inoichi just pulled out of Utatane's head?"
Hiruzen clears his throat, eyes landing briefly on little Sasuke, and says with obvious sincerity, "Fugaku, Mikoto - I am glad to see this night still finds you... well."
The Clan Head appears startled by the warm address, but Mikoto gracefully steps in with, "And in truth, the same to you Hokage-sama."
Glancing around the now rather crowded room, she gestures toward the open door and suggests, "Why don't we adjourn to the courtyard?"
Shisui steps forward, and, clearly expecting a blow, Itachi flinches as his friend groans again and pulls him into a tight, one-armed embrace.
"He isn't dumb!" Sasuke defends loyally as they all spill out into the dark courtyard, holding Itachi's hand and seemingly ignorant of his brother being less than subtly surrounded by wary guards.
Kagami is last to exit, Mangekyō steady in his skull, mind still running through scenarios for how to incapacitate Itachi without harming the little boy should need arise.
Something dark flashes across Shisui's face, but it's buried with a smile for Sasuke's benefit.
His arm has not relinquished its firm hold around Itachi.
"Not usually, but tonight he is; he didn't go for help when he really needed it, and that's not very smart at all."
Itachi flinches again, and Sasuke blinks quizzically up at the two older boys.
"Help? Nii-san, are you sick? Is that why you're crying so much? Do you need to see a medic?"
"I think... that would be appropriate," Itachi answers weakly, daring at last to glance toward the Sandaime as the Hokage nods in stern approval.
Mandatory emergency leave and an enforced stay at the hospital for evaluation it is then.
Genma steps closer to the boys and exchanges a look with Shisui, who immediately turns and points behind Sasuke's back to a far corner of the courtyard.
"Hey Sasuke, do those tomatoes look ripe to you?"
The little boy's eyes widen and he whirls around, releasing his brother as he runs to check on the plants.
In an almost choreographed motion, Itachi removes his gauntlets, unresistingly baring his wrists as Genma carefully places chakra suppressing seals on both.
The younger shinobi sways slightly, but has both wrists covered again by the time Sasuke turns with a frown to yell, "You're the dumb one, Shisui! They're all still green!"
Shisui chuckles lightly, and waves his free hand in apology.
"Sorry! My mistake."
Sasuke returns, pouting, to his elder brother's side, as the gathered assembly as a whole seems to relax ever so slightly.
Fugaku sighs, then addresses Shikaku with obvious reluctance.
"I suppose I should offer my congratulations to the probable Godaime."
"Nah," the Nara returns with a bracing grin. "Nothing that extreme. Just so long as you plan on helping me keep the village together and functioning smoothly instead of being another troublesome pain in my ass."
Kagami does not miss Hiruzen's eyes rolling heavenward as the Uchiha Head's narrow.
"The amount of trouble I plan to cause is correlative to the treatment of my clan by your administration, which I have been assured-" Fugaku's gimlet eyes spear his reanimated kinsman, "will strive to correct the missteps of the previous one."
Shikaku's smile pulls even tighter.
"Does that include addressing the grievances you didn't bother coming to anyone else about? I consider myself pretty damn well informed about village matters, and yet somehow I didn't know that the Uchiha Clan has been under surveillance for years!"
The Nara Head snorts.
"Lot of good it's done, obviously. Really, that whole 'Uchiha-controlled Kyuubi' theory never held water, in my opinion. Why would any sane person try to level the village that their entire clan currently resided in? And it's not like there weren't Uchiha losses that night."
"Still stinks to me like some sort of false flag operation."
"Ah," Fugaku grunts weakly, gaping at the Nara as though Shikaku had suddenly sprouted a majestic rack of antlers.
Kagami's molars grind.
To come so close to disaster and not reach out for aid and allies?
Only a lifetime of adhering to decorum prevents him from bestowing a well-deserved thump upon his pride-addled Head of Clan.
"Yes!" Mikoto steps forward, eagerly latching on to the subject. "We have no record of any recent rogue Uchiha, nor of any unaccounted for Sharingan."
She pauses, expression turning grim. "Though it would seem our archives are flawed, given what we now know befell Kagami-san. It sounds absurd, but given that he did manage to steal at least one eye, could it be that Danzō..."
Shikaku sighs as though the weight of the hat is already upon him, running one hand back over his hair until it reaches the band of his ponytail.
"That is definitely up there on Inoichi's growing list of things to dig around for."
He mutters something about kids in candy stores before addressing the couple again.
"But when he discovered this," Shikaku gestures vaguely, seeming to indicate the Uchiha compound in general. "It obviously became the top priority."
There is a slight shift amongst all gathered, save little Sasuke; it has become obvious to anyone with senses attuned enough that this encounter is no longer relatively private.
Though still out of sight, a growing number of Uchiha are surrounding the courtyard, attempting to clandestinely discern the goings-on within.
Almost certainly they have come to discover what has delayed their Head of Clan's appearance at the shrine.
Fugaku's shoulders tighten, the man seemingly engaged in some terrible internal conflict, before facing the Sandaime, who had been merely observing the conversations as well as a nearby collection of colorful succulents until this point, and, to the shock of everyone, folding into a deep bow.
"My deepest gratitude, Hokage-sama, for your intervention in this matter - for the lives of my children."
He straightens again and continues gruffly, as though the words are bits of broken glass in his mouth.
"Doubtless given the animus of recent years, it would have been far easier as well as less damaging to your own reputation to simply let this night play out as your advisors had intended and see Konoha rid of any future threat posed by our clan."
Hiruzen's head falls slightly, hat obscuring his eyes.
"No Uchiha owes me any thanks. It is to my own disgrace that our bonds have deteriorated to such a terrible extent. I can only hope that fresh blood restores the honor of the position of Hokage."
Every heavy mark of age is apparent in his face as he looks up at his subordinates.
"Though I must say that, frankly, I have my doubts that Danzō was directly involved with the Kyuubi's release."
His eyes cut to Kagami for an instant.
"It is painfully obvious now that my old comrade is entirely consumed with desires of position and power; it makes little sense that he would risk destroying the village and all the resources he wished to command."
Hiruzen sighs in frustration, and pushes forward before anyone can voice protest against Danzō's possible innocence.
"But I also believe that there is no conclusively damning indication that that terrible night was the handiwork of some vengeful Uchiha."
The Hokage lets out an irritated grunt.
"It remains a most troubling mystery - who the villain was that set the fox against us."
Before he can stop himself, or second-guess the absurdity of the question, Kagami's fool mouth flaps open.
"Has anyone asked the Kyuubi?"
Save for Sasuke, who's busy poking at a fuzzy caterpillar that's crawling across the gravel and paying no attention to boring adult matters, they're all staring at his uncle as though he's completely lost his mind.
Shisui thinks it's brilliant.
Difficult, dangerous, and questionably sane - but brilliant none the less.
Ask the Kyuubi who let it out.
If the Sharingan can compel a tailed beast to rampage, it can surely prompt the fox to answer a single burning question.
Plus, if Kagami is volunteering for the task, what harm could a pissed off chakra construct really do to a dead man?
It's probable the Sandaime is following Shisui's line of thought, because he suddenly smiles at the reanimated Uchiha with a very familiar mix of fond amusement and total exasperation.
It seems the two really were friends.
"Is interfering with the Yondaime's seal really the wisest idea?" Aunt Mikoto asks with a frown. "That poor child has been through enough without potentially compromising his safety and by extent that of the entire village."
"With loads of preparation and the aid of a skilled Fūinjutsu master, it's possible it could be done without ending in disaster," Shikaku muses.
"Though I'd recommend attempting it somewhere well away from any densely populated areas."
As Fugaku starts to add his input, Genma subtly maneuvers around Sasuke to take his place opposite Shisui on Itachi's free side.
"They'll be stuck on this 'til breakfast, at least."
He smiles down at Itachi, ever-present senbon clicking against his teeth, and there's no little threat in it.
"C'mon kid," the Tokujō says, not entirely unkindly. "Let's give that big overheated brain of yours some time to cool down."
And like that, it all slams into Shisui again.
How the hell could Itachi - genius, slow to wrath, level-headed Itachi- have decided that fucking genocide was the correct path to choose, regardless of how desperate the situation seemed?
His friend had just accepted what the elders were spewing as the truth: that Shisui was disloyal, that not just the instigators, but every last Uchiha, no matter if they supported or opposed the idea of a coup, had to die by his blade.
Betrayal cries Shisui's heart and his mind reluctantly must agree.
From the corner of his eye, he can see Kagami glancing at him, and, for once, he wishes he didn't seem to have so much in common with the man.
Strong sense of loyalty to Konoha?
Untameable hair and generally striking good looks?
A burden he'll just have to bear.
Close friends that completely lose sight of the importance of everything you've ever devoted yourself to?
Shisui could happily live without that.
There is a terrible sympathy in his uncle's weary face.
"Just a second, bodyguard."
Ignoring how Genma's lips twist irritably around his senbon, Shisui releases Itachi and steps over to the reanimation, though he isn't quite sure what to say.
Thank you for saving me - and everyone else is nowhere near enough, but You're not leaving soon, are you? is both childish and terribly selfish.
His lips flap before his brain catches up and, "Was the Nidaime as handsome as the portrait in the Hokage's office makes him out to be?" is what falls out.
Before Shisui can attempt to shunshin himself to the moon, Kagami shines his widest smile yet upon him, and something almost impish sparks in those strange eyes.
"It does not do him the slightest justice," Kagami divulges with pseudo-solemnity. "But I'm afraid an in-depth comparison will have to wait until some other time."
His uncle looks pointedly past Shisui to where Genma is doubtless waiting with shrinking patience.
"I'm sure mom would love to hear it," Shisui squeaks as his cheeks burn. "Maybe when you get a break from rescuing people you could come by our house for a visit?"
Kagami could not look more shocked if he'd accidentally struck himself with his own lightning, but he recovers quickly.
"I - yes, I would like that very much. Thank you, Shisui," he says tightly, then clears his throat.
"I don't consider my duty done just yet; if possible, I'd like to be certain that positive changes are actually carried out before I return to the afterlife."
Kagami's eyes cut to where the Hokage, Mikoto and the two Heads of Clan are exchanging low mutters, punctuated by occasional gesticulation.
"It... might take a while."
Something in Shisui's chest flutters as he returns Kagami's smile, then makes his way back to his place at Itachi's side.
Genma inclines his head, silently insisting they depart.
Mikoto and Fugaku pause their discussion to look on with grim silence, but Shisui can tell that it's not for lack of concern for their oldest son.
He doesn't know exactly what Kagami stumbled upon, and is pretty damn certain that he doesn't want to, but it's fairly obvious that the couple fully expected to die by Itachi's hand tonight.
Add to that the knowledge that the entire clan was to be exterminated like vermin by that same hand, and, well...
How are you supposed to reconcile something like that?
Sasuke abandons his caterpillar and surges forward, wrapping his arms tight around Itachi's waist before pulling back and demanding, "Get better soon! You promised you'd train with me, remember?"
Slowly, seemingly involuntarily, a thin smile spreads across Itachi's face.
As weak as it is, it's the first entirely honest one that Shisui can remember seeing from the younger boy for months.
Itachi nods, which seems to be all the confirmation that Sasuke requires as he then runs over to grab his mother's hand and wave goodbye with the other as Genma ushers Shisui and Itachi out of the courtyard and away from prying eyes.
"Well," the Tokujō sighs as the trio make their way toward the medical complex, "forgive the trite bullshit, but after tonight you've really got nowhere to go but up, kid."
"Mm," Itachi offers.
"And you could still eventually come out of this an elite Jōnin," Genma adds helpfully.
"Seriously, look at some of the best shinobi Konoha's produced - a whole lot of totally fucked up people. Ever hear of the Sannin?"
Itachi's eyes shift tiredly to Shisui's, and the older boy recognizes the familiar expression of "Is this person really our commanding officer?".
There is a very slight lessening of the terrible knot in Shisui's gut.
The path ahead is a complete unknown, and things between himself and Itachi may never return to what they once were, but, thanks largely to Shisui's completely awesome zombie half grand-uncle -
They still have the chance to walk it.
Though it's only been a handful of hours since he finally departed from the Uchiha district, Hiruzen finds himself following old habit and rising with the sun.
It's the most restful sleep the Hokage has had in weeks, and he knows who is to thank for it.
He finds Kagami greeting the day standing sentinel on the highest point of the Nidaime's stone memorial, overlooking the waking village - it being none the wiser for what horrors were narrowly avoided the night before.
Also Kagami's doing.
Hiruzen sighs aloud.
"I know that sound," his old friend says without turning to face him. "After all these years, that's still your 'Why the hell didn't Tobirama curse him with this damn hat instead of me?' sigh."
"And it's still a fair question," Hiruzen huffs, taking his place by Kagami's side and looking out over Konoha.
"All this fractiousness with your clan might well have been avoided had you become Sandaime."
"Perhaps. Though if Danzō had still fallen prey to his paranoia, my assassination might well have sparked civil war long ago."
He offers Hiruzen a thin smile.
"Probably best not to dwell on such things."
The Hokage grunts in response, and the two stand for a moment in silence.
"There is no possibility he escapes from this with his life," Hiruzen dares very quietly. "All of Danzō's years of scheming and subterfuge have led to this dark end."
Kagami's eyes fall closed, the mountain's steady breeze driving dark strands of his hair against his face.
"He wept while I was dying, you know?"
Hiruzen had not known.
So very many things of terrible importance.
"His hands were covered in my blood, and he kept trying to explain his reasons - but I was half-blind and mostly gone by the time I hit the ground, so I understood very little."
Kagami swallows hard and his arms cross over his chest.
"I still understand very little. If he truly thought that with my Mangekyō Sharingan I was such a terrible potential threat to the village, why did he say nothing to anyone else? Why did he just take it upon himself to... We could have talked, we could have..."
Hiruzen has no answer as his friend trails off.
"I am sorry, for your sake," Kagami murmurs, mournful eyes opening to meet the Sandaime's. "They were your friends for far longer than they were mine."
Rather wishing he hadn't broached the topic at all, the Hokage unsubtly switches to another.
"I've sent a message to Jiraiya. If he follows my instructions to return immediately, he should arrive in Konoha within the month."
A smirk pulls at Kagami's lips.
"You're actually going to let me have that little chat with the Kyuubi no Kitsune, eh?"
"Don't be so flippant," Hiruzen growls. "If something goes wrong we could be looking at a repeat of seven years ago at worst, and the death of an innocent child at best."
Kagami grimaces, abashed.
"Of course you're right. I will do all I can to ensure that no harm befalls little Naruto, or Konoha."
Silence again, before Hiruzen offers low, "It does not have to be you that interrogates the beast. You have gone far beyond what I or this village could ever reasonably ask of you, my friend. Speak the word, and I will return you to your rest."
Kagami snorts softly.
"And who would act in my stead?" he asks, head tilting a bit with slight bemusement.
"Fugaku has a clan to reign in, a broken child to help mend, and, given his recent planned actions, even I would hesitate before allowing him any control over the Kyuubi."
"Shisui could manage it, possibly."
Kagami shakes his head.
"Possibly," he repeats, "but as I am already here and cannot truly be harmed by the fox, I see no reason to risk any other Uchiha's life."
Especially not Shisui's goes unsaid, but Hiruzen can hear it quite plainly anyway.
He nods, accepting Kagami's decision, looking out in the direction of the Administration building.
"A very promising young shinobi, that one - quick and bright and utterly devoted to the well-being of the entirety of the village."
"I wonder, in a few years time, how this old hat might fit him?"
Kagami barks out a startled laugh.
"Don't wish such things on the poor kid, Hiruzen," he chides, but there's obviously some contemplation of the idea.
An Uchiha Hokage, eh? It's long overdue.
"I doubt I'll be around for that," Kagami says, soft smile still on his face, "but I'll try to stay long enough to help make the path easier for him."
"The Nidaime never intended for the Edo Tensei to be used for such an extended time," Hiruzen reminds him, a slight warning for unknown potential consequences in the tone.
Kagami simply shrugs.
"There are many things that our predecessors never intended that have now become reality. We will just have to deal with the repercussions as they come."
Hiruzen blinks at the reanimation.
After so many decades of pain and loss, the Sandaime fervently hopes that when he is finally laid to rest no one should ever think to summon him back to his duty.
Kagami, who fell by the hand of a trusted friend and was returned to this life with no assurance of the fidelity of any others, has accepted the call with laudable grace.
"I am nowhere near his caliber," Shisui had said.
That makes two of them.
"Tell me," Kagami murmurs, mind clearly back on the business at hand, "is Naruto even aware of the fact that he is a jinchūriki?"
The Hokage shakes his head. "I was hoping to wait to explain that until the boy is old enough to comprehend the seriousness of the matter - to let him remain unburdened by the knowledge just a little longer."
A huff from the Uchiha.
"I honestly am not sure if that makes things more or less difficult for what we plan."
Kagami sighs, running a hand through his wind-battered hair.
"The poor child. Not only the vessel of a monstrous Bijuu, but the son of a fallen Kage and the lone survivor of a lost clan as well. Regardless of what happened that terrible night, I hope that his adoptive family has found the strength and capability to supply him with all the support he needs."
Forget a needleprick - the contents of an entire weapons shop rend the Sandaime's guilt open to bleed freely once more.
Hiruzen clears his throat.
"Ah, about that - after Namikaze Minato and Uzumaki Kushina's deaths, it was decided that their son would not be raised by any clan families. Such a thing would cause an imbalance of political power, which could easily lead to unrest."
Kagami's mouth tightens in disapproval, but he nods with reluctant acceptance.
"You placed the boy in a civilian home? It's certainly better than nothing, but for non-shinobi to take on the challenge of raising a child born with a target on his back-"
"Naruto is not being raised by civilians," Hiruzen mumbles, with growing anticipatory dread of the conversation's inevitable conclusion.
Kagami's eyebrows fly up.
"An orphanage then? That's... Are his caregivers providing a nurturing environment, at least?"
"Uzumaki Naruto, seven years of age, is currently being housed in a small apartment paid for by the village's orphan fund," Hiruzen reveals in a rush, as though confessing some terrible sin to a holy man.
"He lives alone, save for the constant presence of the hidden ANBU watch, and, due the village's general atmosphere of hostility toward the Kyuubi's young host, rarely ventures outside - save to attend the Academy and visit the market. I try to check on him when I can, and personally deliver his monthly stipend."
The word "monthly" is silently mouthed by his obviously incredulous friend, before Kagami's face relaxes into an eerily neutral expression.
Sweat that cannot be blamed on the early heat of the morning trickles down the back of Hiruzen's neck as he finally places the Uchiha's mien.
The last time he'd seen it, the Raikage had ended up needing a new office wall.
Not that Kagami has ever once raised a wrathful hand to his Hokage, but the weight of recent events would be enough to test the resolve of even the most avowed pacifist.
Best not to tax the man's temper further.
"I, er, have matters to attend to back at the office," Hiruzen weakly makes his exit, turning from his silent companion to begin again back down the path he has tread innumerable times in his many years.
He has barely passed the tree line when -
"Hiruzen!" Kagami's snarl cracks like a righteous thunderbolt behind him.
Too close behind him.
The Hokage casually increases his pace toward the village.
In truth, he does have a great deal of work ahead of him.
There are old comrades whom he must ensure face long-delayed justice - Inoichi's report on the most recently uncovered scandal certainly already waits on Hiruzen's desk, a reluctant successor to pass on his wisdom to and hopefully steer away from making the same mistakes in his rule, Root indoctrinates to deprogram, more mediation with the Uchiha and an interrogation of a Bijuu to be arranged for starters, but -
"Hiruzen!" Kagami roars again, even closer this time. "Get back here, you unbelievable bumbler!"
"We're going to fix this mistake as well, Sandaime-sama, or you'll not have one damn moment's rest until you send me back to mine!"
As he flees - rather, strategically retreats down the mountainside with a youthful urgency he has not felt in years, the aging Hokage can't help but smile a bit as he clutches his hat more securely to his head.
A true friend is now helping to share its burden, and, like Hiruzen's heart, it feels strangely lighter indeed.