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The Unthinkable

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Tobirama’s genin team comes home later than expected, heavy with cuts and exhaustion, and streaks of dried tears marring their faces. Tobirama is not with them.

An ambush by Kumo , they sob, and it’s all Madara hears as world and its vivid bustle dims around to punctuate the beats of his heart. Each rough, panicked pounding of his heartbeat feels like sandpaper on his chest.

No one stops Hashirama’s sharp stagger towards the door, throwing his formal hat and robe aside in favour for the red armour draped on a mannequin in the corner of his office. In fact, Madara’s right behind him.

In the back of his mind he can hear his brother shouting. He hears something about their best tracker team being available, something about the children getting patched up – and for Sage’s sake, someone alert Tōka to get herself to the gates – but it’s all white noise to him. The only frequency he’s attuned to is the dampened, desperate panic of Hashirama’s prayers.

They race through the forest before their back up squad is formed. No words are said between them, no attempt at reassurance or a try at comfort. Instead, a deep understanding binds them together, and they move like two unstoppable forces of nature.

Air resistance drags his cheek as he pushes chakra-enhanced muscles to their limits. Despite his endeavour, Hashirama is always one step in front of him. They run and run and run in the direction the children had spoken of, and Madara only stops when Hashirama halts in a middle of an empty clearing. His breath hitches, and his sharingan blooms into life.

Red splashes the ground and the trees around them. A metal faceplate, covered in blood and scratches, lies beaten on the ground. Tobirama is nowhere in sight.

One, two, three seconds of cold, hollow shock, before his knees feels like buckling. Madara ends up catching Hashirama as he collapses to his knees.

Hashirama’s sobs are uncontrollable.

 


 

They say that the Sharingan never forgets.

Madara is cursed with the minute details of Hashirama’s face as it twists with a sorrow so profound, it aches down to the marrow of his bones. He remembers grief crashing through him at different times throughout the day, engulfing him and drowning him, as acute and as fresh as the day they found Tobirama’s faceplate. Whenever he closes his eyes, he is bombarded with red.

But Madara also sees the clearing with a crystal kind of clarity in hindsight. He remembers Konoha’s humid weather, and the back of his neck slicking with sweat. He remembers scorch marks on the earth and on the trees, but there was no pile of ashes to signify a burnt body, and there was no wind to blow it astray even if there had been a pile of ashes.  

Tobirama could still be dead. Kumo could’ve taken the body with him. Or they could’ve dissolved his body in acid. Madara could be reaching desperately.

Madara refuses. It’s a physical reaction, his body wants to retch at the thought. Tobirama – or at least his body – is out there somewhere, and Madara is going to bring him home.

Or he’ll find the ones that did this and make them pay.

 


 

Madara’s already being groomed to be Hashirama’s successor. That gives him enough clearance to find the locations of their information networks, safe houses and allied merchant clans.

None of them dares to venture close to Kumo.

That doesn’t deter Madara. He withdraws a  year’s worth of annual leave, settles all his accounts in one go, and packs his bags.

“Here are the plant extracts you wanted.” Izuna hands him a pouch the size of his palms. “It dyes hair into a lighter brown colour and should last you for months. If you need any more, send one of your cats to me and I’ll send one of my crows over.”

Izuna sits, behind the desk he never thought he’d ever see his brother sit behind, and Madara feels a swell of adoration rush through him. There are bags under his eyes – it’s been days since any of them got any semblance of a restful sleep – and grief lines his mouth, yet his steady stare anchors Madara to the earth.

His flighty, flamboyant brother as interim Hokage. Three weeks ago, the thought would have sent his heart into palpitations. It’s still very funny; if he didn’t feel so hollow underneath his desperate focus he would have laughed at the thought.

Madara slants his mouth, hesitating. “I’m sorry,” he professes, not even bothering to hide his fatigue. “I should be staying here with Hashirama and Tōka, and taking over the seat, but I still think he’s out there. If there’s even a glimmer of a chance of him being out there–”

Izuna holds his hand up. “You don’t need to explain yourself to me, brother. Don’t worry about Hashirama and Tōka, Mito and I will take care of them. Do whatever you need to do. We’ll be here when you get back.”

Ten days gone is a long time for anyone, let alone a shinobi. The search party was officially disbanded a week ago. Tobirama is declared missing in action, only because Hashirama’s hand still shakes at declaring him otherwise. It’s a mercy the villagers indulges him in.

“When did you become such an adult?” Madara asks with a small smile, even though it feels like pulling on stretched skin.

Izuna grins. He put his arms behind his tri-cone hat, and it’s quite unfair that it looks so stylish on his little brother when it makes Madara and Hashirama look like goofy (and in Madara’s case, sour looking) mushrooms.

“About the same time I beat you to the hat,” Izuna boasts, tapping said trophy atop his head, “which I still cannot believe. When you bring Tobirama back, he’s going to laugh until he keels over from cramps.”

The emphasis isn’t lost on Madara, and it slides over his skin like a comfortable robe to know that he isn’t alone in believing that Tobirama is still alive. Or, at the very least that he isn’t alone in the depths of his denial. “Thank you,” he says, and finds every being in him sincere. “Never change, Izuna.”

Izuna laughs. “That’s a different tone from your usual statements.”

That’s because Madara’s usual statements are along the lines of, ‘ why are you like this? ’ and more than ever, Madara is grateful for Izuna’s ability to inject some brightness even in the darkest moments.

“Tobirama has already defied death once, if anyone could do it again then it’s him. If you think there’s a chance to bring to him home – alive , then I believe you,” Izuna decrees, so simple in his conviction and belief in the abilities of his older brother, something he never really grew out of. “We are Uchiha. Even the most minute detail can’t escape us.”

Of course, if anyone were to understand the ache that drives him, then it’s Izuna. He’s probably said it twenty times already, but he can’t stop himself from saying it again. “Thank you,” Madara says.

Tongue thick, he can’t begin to articulate what he’s feeling, but he doesn’t need to try. Izuna understands.

 


 

It’s not that he sees Tobirama every time he closes his eyes, it’s that he sees Tobirama everywhere . All the damn time.

It sticks out throughout the day, and ghosts around the edges of his vision. Tobirama smiling at his odd turn of phrase, a snarky remark (because of course the sassyness of the real thing isn't enough, nope, his mind needs to add to it), a figure sliding into a chair across from him with a book in his hand. A superposition of memories that’s destructive to his peace of mind.

He’s jumpy; turning his head at the smallest things, always expecting something that’s not there.

Sometimes, Madara hates that the sharingan never forgets.

It’s not like they were a thing before Tobirama left. They were only friends . Friends who fought a lot, pushed each other a lot. Friends that had a tendency to be around each other a lot.

Their friendship was born from an admiration of each other’s ruthlessness – of how their spine is weaved from strips of high grade steel – and how their minds accelerate faster than any sails could.  Tobirama’s every bit an explorer. He pushes ideas and concepts until it strains its limits, and always, without judgement, Madara’s fascinated.

He never realised how the pressure of living, of breathing and existing just builds and builds until he gravitated towards Tobirama. The Senju had a way to release the pressure. To cut into his strained nerves until hot air bursts out and relief comes crashing through. Their arguments followed a rhythm that’s both exciting and comfortable. It winds his heart up to a wild tempo, and he feels alive.

“I’ll list out all the ways you’re acting like a heathen when I come back,” he remembers Tobirama announcing at the gates while his genin team waits further towards the forest.

Madara remembers frowning. “What? About pickling cabbage?”

“No,” Tobirama corrects in a stern manner. “About pickled vegetables – yakisoba is better accompanied with beni shoga. There’s a whole world out there other than just gari. I fear for the refinement of your palate.”

Since Madara doesn’t consider himself a connoisseur of pickled vegetables, his face stays scrunched in confusion. Tobirama stares at him like he had committed a disgusting crime akin to killing one’s cat in cold blood.

Tobirama must’ve been thinking something along those lines. “You disgust me,” he announces.

“Leave,” Madara orders like he doesn’t want Tobirama there, as if he hadn’t forced himself to wake up at this ungodly hour to catch Tobirama at the gates.  

“I will,” he vows. After tilting his head and considering him for a second, Tobirama slips forward to squeeze his wrist. Madara forgets to breathe for a second.

Where Tobirama’s fingers touch him, he burns with intense, pricking heat and a pressure that makes him shiver and ache. Then his wrist is released, and the points of contact feels suddenly so cold. His skin doesn’t stop tingling.

“I’ll see you when I get back,” Tobirama says. Madara nods his agreement. He doesn’t leave the gates until Tobirama and his team are out of his sight, flicking his eyes red on behind their backs to etch the memory of Tobirama’s lopsided smile into his mind. In the privacy of his own thoughts, Madara admits how endearing it is to have a crooked smile sweetening a face that’s the visual definition of a tempestuous snow blizzard.

It’s not like they were a thing before Tobirama left - but they could have been.

Sometimes, Madara loves that the sharingan never forgets.

 


 

When a figure as high profile as Tobirama is killed or – as Madara fervently believes – captured, the news propagates across the shinobi information networks either by whispers or trickles of rumours, especially when the perpetrators are far away from their home land. No system of operations is a hundred percent perfect, even the tightest village still has its security breaches. Some systems just hide it better than others.

His plan is to head towards Kumo. He might be able to pick up rumours about Tobirama during his journey. And for that, he’ll require a new identity since Uchiha Madara is a legend that travels further than just the Land of Fire.

A travelling shinobi warrants suspicion of being a spy, a travelling civilian warrants suspicion of being a shinobi that is a spy, but a down on his luck civilian from the outskirts of the next nation seeking work in a more affluent village… Well, that still warrants a natural amount of suspicion, but it’s also more palatable. His developed chakra coils can be easily hidden by chakra suppressants.

Location matters with these things. None of their information networks stretches to the Land of Lightning in detail, and Madara doesn’t have the right colouring to imitate a Land of Lightning local anyway, but it reaches the Land of Frost, the nation between the Land of Hot Springs and Land of Lightning – all north-east of Konoha.

Watching his reflection as he kneels on the riverbank, Madara runs fingers through his fringe - his bangs are so long they tickle the bottom of his chin.

Long hair is a sign of skill in the shinobi world, a sign of arrogance, a statement wrapped in a challenge boasted to their opponents – that their opponents are so inferior, they can’t come even close enough to use their hair as an advantage.

His mother had always taken great joy in combing it. It’s one of the reasons he grew it long – to keep clutch to whatever small memory he has of his mother.

He doesn’t think twice about cutting it.

With a kunai in one hand, he starts hacking at the strands stretched by his hand. Again, and again, until his hair resembles something like his youth. His long, spiky hair is almost as recognisable as he is, and that urges him to keep going. The more nondescript he looks the better. There’s no need to start rumours that Uchiha Madara has been sighted on the border between Hot Springs and Fire.

Once he’s satisfied with his hair, he opens the pouch of hair dye and follows the instructions Izuna stuffed in the pouch. His hair is slicked back with extract when he pricks his thumb and slams his palms against the ground.

Two cats appear, one completely white, with medium length fur, and one a gray short haired in the middle of grooming himself.  Both of their tails flick leisurely in greeting.

“Izumi, Shishi,” Madara greets, letting a small amount of pleasure leek into his voice.

Izumi and Shishi are two out of six cats in their litter. They were the only two of the litter that chose to tie themselves to Madara as kittens, and Madara raised them with a loyalty and affection reserved for his siblings. Something about his cats soothes the sharp edges that bristle inside of him, and the sight of them helps immensely.

The white one comes prancing, then stretches to rub her length against his side. “Madara-sama,” Izumi greets. “I like your new hairdo.”

“Looks greasy, though,” comes the observant reply of Shishi. “I liked your long hair better.”

Madara rolls his eyes, even as his hand – his dry hand, since he would never subject Izumi to anything less – comes to stroke Izumi’s head. “Slow down, Shishi. It’s not finished yet, and you’re already judging. Any news from the Leopard Domain?”

Izumi and Shishi share a look, an almost hesitant look. Tobirama was – is – signed to the Snow Leopards, and news travel between the domains of summoning animals in a way that excludes the shinobi community.

“The Leopard Chief has finally woken from her healing sleep,” Izumi answers him. “She is…she is uncontrollable with rage. We heard her howls all the way to our domain.”

It feels like somebody took a kunai and gutted him, leaving his torso hollow and his heart vulnerable. His next statement comes from a hoarse voice. “So he is…?”

Sniffing the sombre in Madara, Shishi comes to rest in the pocket of Madara’s folded legs, offering him warmth and consolation. “We’re not sure,” he purrs. “Rumour is that she denies her summoner’s death but, at the same time, she cannot feel her connection to him.”

A connection between a summoner and their summoning is a private, personal thing, forged from spiritual energy and chakra derived from the blood used to sign the contract. Even now, he can feel the thread tied at his heart connecting him to Nekomata humming like the engines found in Iron Country. For a summoning to feel bleak absence where a vivid thrumming should be, especially by a figure lauded for her sensor skills, would mean–

Madara refuses to go down that thought. Instead, he focuses on the sweet, warm blanket of denial.

“Kaida thinks that Tobirama survived?” hounds Madara.

Shishi gives him a side glance, like he absolutely knows what Madara’s doing but is willing to indulge him because he loves his summoner anyway. Well, Madara hopes they do. “Vehemently so,” he purrs. “The details are not clear, but everyone knows where the Chief Leopard stands.”

And Madara reflects that it’s nice to bring the number of people who believe that Tobirama still lives up to three.

“Will you reach out to her, Madara-sama?” Izumi implores. “She’ll want to know what you’re doing. The Cat Clan has a good standing with the Leopard Clan. We can speak to her on your behalf.”

It’s irrevocable; he’s touched. The only way he can express how tight his chest is becoming is to scoop up his cats and let them rub against his chin.

Izumi melts into him, Shishi, however, tries to slither away in distaste, his body curving out of his hold.

“You’re still wet,” he sniffs, like the stereotypical feline. “Rinse your hair first. You can thank me when you’re dry.”

 


 

Once he’s dunked his head in the river and dried his head, he rummages through his pack for the last pieces of his disguise. He slides them on to his nose, feeling the thick, black painted steel frames engulf his eyes, and turns to his cats for final deliberation.

“Woah,” Shishi awes. “They’re so ugly .”

Ever the diplomatic cat Shishi is. But he’s not offended, because he knows the frames make his eyes look bug-like, since they are literally two big squares of glass bridged on his nose.

Thankfully, Izumi is a little more sympathetic with her disgust. “Is it supposed to be so…” she twitches her nose, “…unflattering?”

“Yup,” Madara answers. “They’re supposed to transform my whole image.”

Izumi blinks at him. “Well, they definitely transformed you–”

Hideously transformed you,” Shishi butts in with glee.

“–but hopefully, they’ll look better with the face paint.” Izumi jumps into his rucksack and rolls out a rounded container full of face paint. “Land of Frost locals usually paint down their cheeks and their chins, right? Maybe they’ll soften up your glasses.”

The tradition of face painting is one of the reasons Madara chose the Land of Frost. The white markings helped camouflage with the snow, and the Land of Frost, as the name implies, is always folded with snow. Taking a generous dollop of white paint, he draws and colours in blocks of rectangles across his cheekbones, two on each side, and one long rectangle going down his chin.

A reflection of Tobirama’s markings.

Madara pokes his head over the slowly-flowing water of the river. His glasses do not look better with the face paint, but the reflection that stares back is so strange, so unfamiliar that Madara watches his reflection curve his lips into a pleased smile.

 


 

It takes two days of sprinting to cross the borders of the Land of Fire and into the Land of Hot Springs. It takes another to reach the borders of Land of Frost. He does so knowing that he’s travelling twice as fast as any normal shinobi – after all, dread can’t catch him when he’s out from exhaustion – and without encountering any other shinobi, thanks to the files he poured over back in Konoha.

Land of Frost is where the quality and quantity of their information starts to become shoddy. To keep consistent with his disguise, even though each ticking second claws at his insides, he slaps on chakra suppressants seals on his hips. His insides lurches, and the seals pulse as they suck his chakra down into a miniscule level – into civilian level.

The dimming intensity of his chakra leaves him nothing but his dread to focus on. And the thought of each second passing is a second that Tobirama cannot afford. Luckily, there are no border patrols since, as far Madara knows (and the information appears to be consistent) Land of Frost hasn’t formed a shinobi village yet.

It’s predictably frosty – the tip of his nose threatens to crack and fall off his face from the constant blasts of wind. Madara burrows deeper into the hood of his jacket to shield himself.

(It’s actually Tobirama’s jacket that Madara is wearing, one that’s specifically for colder conditions. It’s the colour of his blue armour, but with long sleeves and a hood trimmed with white scruff. Madara figures that Tobirama will want some new clothes when Madara finds him, for the sake of familiarity (since he doubts any of his clothes survived the fight and capture), so he grabbed one from Tobirama’s closet before he left Konoha.)

Madara checks himself into the nearest inn, since the day grows dark already. The innkeeper can’t quite stop staring at Madara’s glasses, and he doesn’t look away when Madara lifts one eyebrow up in question.

Throughout the whole trip, Madara tries to speak in short, clipped sentences. He’s a born and bred Land of Fire local, and it shows when he speaks. Submerging himself in the busy thrumming of the inn’s pub, Madara takes a table in a dimly lit corner, and nurses sake in his hand, waiting for his meal.

He closes his eyes. Underneath his eyelids, his pupils spin red. Splitting the white noises into distinct voices, he focuses on the ones with the heavy accents, the twang of a Land of Frost local, and rehearses the inflections as he copies it in his head.

The frame of his glasses rests heavy on his nose, and his memory deigns it an appropriate time enough to torture him. Tobirama is the reason he stopped wearing them, after all.

Like a colour photo, he sees Tobirama sitting on the edge of his office desk, poking around, and judging the illegibility of Madara’s scrawlings.

A beat later, the image comes alive.

 


 

“A small question for you, then I want to share you my opinion,” Tobirama taps the finger on his folded arm, not with impatience, but in a way that’s reminiscent of his cats flicking their tail. “But first, remind me why it’s tradition to have at least two sons within the main family.”

Madara doesn’t look up from his paper. “The usual; an heir and a spare, but it’s also expected for the second son to give up their eyes for the eldest when their sharingan starts to deteriorate.” Which Madara has no plans to do, no matter how much Izuna insists, thus the pair of glasses lounging on his nose.

The same one that caused Hashirama to snicker for ten minutes straight the first time he put it on.

“All for the elusive Eternal Mangekyō Sharingan,” Tobirama confirms. “And this can only happen between siblings?”

“The transplant can happen between any blood relatives, but the chances are more successful when done between blood siblings.” Madara pushes up glasses – they seem to have a bad habit of sliding off his nose without supervision – and regards Tobirama with suspicion. As curt and concise Tobirama likes to be, Tobirama has moods where he likes to trail people to his conclusion with bite-sized information. “But you already know all this, I’ve already given you free reign of our archives.”

“I noticed that all of the recounts never address what happens with the younger sibling,” Tobirama points out with eyes that glint suspiciously. “It all finishes with the success of the surgery in regards of the elder brother.”

“Historically, they don’t consider the transplant until the Head of Clan is on the verge of blindness or the younger sibling is on the verge of death. Even foul play is involved when a person becomes desperate, at times. Are you feeling offended on behalf of all younger siblings in the world?” Madara asks, amused. “You should line up behind Izuna.”

That draws a twitch out of Tobirama’s lips. “Uchihas – always so dramatic,” moans Tobirama. “Do you what to know how I see this whole thing?”

“Nope,” answers Madara, an automatic reaction. Tobirama’s observations tend to turn things topsy-turvy, and Madara’s already got enough on his plate for the moment. “Come back when I have a day off.”

He hoists the paper he’s half-reading higher up his face to shoo Tobirama away like an errant cat.

“My mistake. I made it sound as if you had a choice.” Tobirama fiddles with the inkpot, in a silent threat to tip it over if Madara doesn’t give him his attention. The glare he sends him makes Tobirama snigger.

“The way I see it,” Tobirama continues, “We’re in a unique position in that we have a pair of healthy Uchiha brothers, two pairs of eyes that are deteriorating at a similar rate. We have multiple historical records that show high success rates in a time of inferior medical practices, and we’re in peace times. We have time for healing. Every account I’ve read details how the younger sibling’s eyes are planted into the eldest, but they never specify what happens to the pair belonging to the eldest. That leads us to have one pair of eyes, and one blind Uchiha unaccounted for. I wonder what we will find if we add them together…”

Disbelief builds and builds, until it rolls his over like a snow avalanche. His mouth drops wide enough to catch flies. Madara is speechless. Decades of moral conflict…and how is the answer so simple?

“You can’t just–” Madara stutters, then stops. Because Tobirama can, and Tobirama did, and nothing is sacred to this unbelievable man.

“I can’t just what?” Tobirama eggs him on, almost giddy. “I can’t just debunk the subject of decades’ worth of Uchiha tragedy by suggesting a game of medical swapsies? Because I just did.”

Madara struggles for words, opening and closing his mouth repeatedly, because somehow he feels like he should be offended, but he’s still so flabbergasted. Inside, disbelief is warring with hope, warring with pride at Tobirama’s sharp mind, warring with hot embarrassment – embarrassment that Madara didn’t notice the solution himself, and it’s a confusing, volatile mix.

He settles for a scowl.

Tobirama breaks into self-satisfied snickers that causes him to crease his eyes, and leans forward to push Madara’s glasses up his nose. Madara jolts at the unexpected contact.

“I’ll inform Izuna and you can discuss it together,” Tobirama tells him, his tone smug and the curl of his lips self-indulgent. “Going by Izuna’s particularly loud opinions of your glasses, he’ll be ecstatic with the alternative.” Then his eyes roam over Madara’s still gaping face, and the crease in his eyes deepens while the blood rushing in Madara’s ears roars. “I have to agree with him, though, these frames make you resemble a–”

 


 

“–bug eyed freak,” someone whispers off to his left over the buzzing of the inn’s bar, ripping him out of his memory - and ripping a little chord in his chest in the process, too. Not Tobirama’s timbre, not in his quiet office, and not Tobirama . “What on earth could drive him to pick such a thing?”

Madara scowls with eyes still closed. That was the closest to some semblance of peace he’s indulged in a while. He glowers even harder when he realises he’s been distracted from absorbing the locals’ accent. When he hears footsteps headed towards him, he shuts off his sharingan and opens his eyes to a young, pretty waitress holding a steaming bowl.

Madara thanks her with an accent that’s a hybrid of the Land of Frost twang and the Land of Fire curt sharpness. He cringes at the hybrid result - he swears everyone within fifty metres cringed too at his hybrid result. The girl backs away after giving him an odd look.

But hey, at least it’s not because of his glasses this time.

 


 

Madara made the executive decision to travel the four days needed to cross the Land of Frost without Shishi and Izumi hanging in his pack.

Without his cats, it’s nothing but the cold weather, and Madara’s absolute irritation of it to accompany him. The tip of his nose, his ears, his everything , feels like falling off, and Madara is painfully aware of where his skin has dried until it cracked.

And it’s a bit lonely. Even if their meows are nothing but whines about being hungry, or complaints about his bad life choices, it’s nice to have his cats there. But his cats don’t handle the cold well, and in the event of bandits, Madara plans to unseal just enough chakra to hide himself underneath an advanced camouflage jutsu - something he can't do to his summons.

He follows the roads framed by tall, barren trees, rehearsing his lines, reviewing the information he overheard (which is sadly little) and uses the frustration to beat down the reminiscing thoughts threatening to drown him.

This is his second day of travelling alone. His second day of looking at the snow and seeing Tobirama’s hair, of slumping into his jacket and remembering how Tobirama likes to burrow under layers and still be outside when it’s cold. The second day of looking at the trees and remembering how Tobirama loves unleashing snowballs at his genin as a form of evasion training.

Seems like hell has frozen over for Madara.

Then, suddenly, every hair on the back of his hooded necks stand in a blaring warning, and he’s glad he sent his cats away. His heart bumps harder for a second, before he controls it to a manageable level, and even with his chakra suppressed, he can tell that he’s being watched.

Madara unsheathes his kunai - it’s not uncommon for civilians to own a kunai since they are one of the cheaper ninja tools - and his boots pound against the ground with gathered momentum.

He’s unwilling to give up his guise as a travelling civilian yet, so he tamps down the urge to draw his chakra, instead concentrating on his heart beating in his ears - two breathes in, two breathes out, repeat.

In the corner of his vision, he sees a dark figure wading through the trees. His breathing grows shallower, each quick puff punctuated by a white cloud.

He pushes himself into a harder sprint.

The figure looms closer, an impending shadow of black and doom. When it looks like their speed might overtake him, Madara digs his heels into the ground and stands his guard. He brings his kunai up, looking expert but not too skilled, as a dark figure vaults from the trees. Madara braces himself for a fight–

–and finds himself meeting the unblinking eyes of a snow leopard.

“Uchiha,” Kaida greets, despite his short brown hair, his white face markings and his god-ugly glasses. She tilts her head. “Madara,” she corrects, voice as silken and commanding as her posture. “Follow me. I’d like to have a word with you.”

 


 

They lope deeper into the trees, away from the road that Madara travelled on. Madara stomps through the snow, the sound of ice crushing under his feet giving him a small kind of petty glee. Beside him Kaida prowls through the snow, the muscles of her back undulating with an ease he envies.

Madara follows Kaida as she leads him to small clearing with a tree fallen over. She blends in perfectly with her lush pelt, the colour of her spots matching the trees and shadows. Madara feels like he’s intruding on a painting.

“Sit,” Kaida orders.

His eyebrows fly up. He’s not in habit of following orders blindly, but, at the same time, he’s not in a habit of disobeying a figure as venerate and ancient as a Chief Summon, so he flops down on the log.

Madara watches as the snow leopard stalks behind him, his heart fluttering as she leaves his sight. “Can I ask what’s this all for?”

“You go to Kumo, you’re going to need reinforcements. Bare your arm to me.”

A grimace goes through Madara. In this freezing wind, he’ll catch a cold without his layers of clothing, but he keeps the protest to himself as he starts unzipping his jacket, and slipping off his packs and undershirts. The breeze punches the back of his neck like a sledgehammer.

“To gather information first,” Madara tells her. “I can’t give them any definitive proof that I’m tied to Konoha.”

“To bring Tobirama back ,” she rights. “Do not insult me by assuming that I’ll be any less than stealthy.”

Chastised, Madara inclines his head in a small apology, but there is also a small hope burning inside him. A breath he’s been holding in for far too long, a breath he can only expel at the thought of Tobirama living.

“Bringing Tobirama back?” he repeats, daring to touch the hope the leopard offers. It helps him ignore the fact that his skin is pinched and he’s shivering without his clothes. “Is he really in Kumo? He’s not…” Madara doesn’t want to say the word, like saying it is as good as confirming.

“He’s not dead,” she hisses, spits the last word like it’s something foul - which it is , to Madara and equally so for the leopard it seems. “He was abducted under my nose. Cowards – ambushing my Tobirama with eight warriors! They were cautious about attacking him when was separated from me. They slapped something on him, and I felt his chakra dimming and the connection fading before I got heavily injured, and was ripped back into the Domain. But he’s not dead.”

A lump in his throat chokes him. He swallows. It tastes like relief.

During her heated statement, Madara’s aware of the snow leopard coming closer until the warm puffs of her breaths tickles his naked bicep. He doesn’t need to turn around to see her baring her teeth.

Madara tilts his neck to the side, offering no protest except, “Won’t Nekomata be miffed that you’re marking me?”

Kaida huffs, amused. “A bite is not a contract. Nekomata can bring it up with me himself if he has a problem.”

And they both know that he won’t. It’s amusing, and a tad adorable, how ten feet of Nekomata seem to have a reluctant and healthy amount of respect for the Leopard Chief. Must be a feline hierarchy thing.

Suspense, as well as the breeze, urges him to clam up his muscles, but Madara forces himself to breathe and keep lax.  A flash of pain at the first pricking and his skin giving way. Then he’s hit with a turbulent mix of pressure and trembling bones and screaming nerves as Kaida’s jaw clamps down. Something hot – hot like blue magma – flows though his chakra coils, heating his blood vessels by proximity.

It only lasts for two seconds, during which Madara very carefully doesn’t twitch. Once she pries her jaw off, Kaida laps at the blood trailing down his arm. Her tongue is rougher than cloth, but her long, soothing strokes feel like an apology.

Madara looks at his arm, and finds two black dots under her tongue instead of the wound he expected to see.

“These seals anchors you to me and no other leopard. You can call for me as I can call for you.” Kaida smacks her tongue against her teeth, before tilting her head in a way that tells him where Tobirama got the habit from. “You do not have your normal level of chakra. Why is that?”

“Suppressants.” Madara shows her the black letters inked on his hip, before he slips his shirt on. “I’m infiltrating as a civilian originating from Land of Frost.” He slips into his new accent, bowing. “I'm Takahashi Yuki, travelling accountant looking for a change. Pleased to meet you.”

Kaida’s tail flicks in amusement. “A man named ‘snow’ from the Land of Frost? How bland.”

Madara grins. “Exactly.”

“Your accent is good, but it could be better. Speak slower, and make wider mouth sounds. Round your consonants more. Also, your haircut is a bit wonky at the back.” Kaida comes around to sit on her haunches in front of him. “The glasses are a good call. Absolutely dreadful. Cub is right, it’s the only thing about your face that I can focus on.”

Um ,” he draws out. Madara’s feeling very attacked right now, more so than when she was actually biting him. “Thank you. I’ll work on it.”

And since he’s seen no other leopard cubs, the alluded ‘cub’ must be Tobirama. Which bears the question; what exactly was Tobirama right about – were they dissing about Madara behind his back? But it’s Tobirama, so he probably was.

Plus, everybody and their uncle seems to have an opinion about his glasses.

He’s about to slip his jacket on again when he notices that Kaida’s staring. Her gaze is glued onto the jacket but her eyes are glazed over, as if stuck in a memory, and Madara knows what that particular experience is like.

All of a sudden Madara is very much aware of who exactly sits in front of him. The leopard who took one look at Tobirama’s broken, lonely childhood, and filled in all the cracks and chips to form something valuable. Her name inspires devotion in Tobirama’s eyes, and her mention softens his voice.

It’s easy to tell that the feeling is mutual. The solemnity of her look reminds him of the moments he’d catch his mother staring into the hills after his little brothers’ passing.

Making sure to keep his movements slow and noticeable, Madara bundles the jacket in one hand, and holds it out to her.

“Here,” offers Madara. Nothing of it smells like Tobirama to him, only snow and sun, but it’s probably still rolled in Tobirama’s scent for someone with better senses. “I have another jacket in my pack. You should keep it until we find him.”

Comforting someone is nerve wracking – Madara sucks with words, and people on the receiving end often end up more offended than reassured. Luckily, Kaida falls into the latter category, even huffing with amusement at his awkward attempt.

Her eyes slit into thin lines, but Madara recognises her smile for what it is. Tobirama’s looks just like that.

“I’m fine without it.” She plods around the branch until she’s behind him, putting one paw on his shoulder, and unsheathing a claw on the other. “You, however, are not fine without someone fixing your hair. Stay still, less I accidentally scalp you.”

“Okay,” he squeaks, and he’s proud that he only sounds half as terrified as he’s feeling.

 


 

A routine is set until he reaches the borders of Land of Lightning. During the day, Madara would meet Kaida away from the common roads, and they would travel together through the forest. When the sun starts setting, Madara would check himself into the nearest inn and continue to listen to any rumours.

“Walk me through your plans of once you reach Kumo,” Kaida says one morning as they are trudging through the snow. “How are you planning to find and extract him?”

Madara frowns. “I haven’t actually thought of any solid ones. I had no idea where Tobirama was until you found me which, reminds me – why not go to Konoha with the information?”

A second pause before a reply. “Tobirama was my tie to Konoha,” she grumbles. “Without him there, I have nothing to use as an anchor. Your kittens told me where you were so I tracked you down from the borders by scent.”

Once again, they are reminded of the lack of connection Kaida could feel, and what it ultimately meant. Madara looks away, almost apologises for the hurt the reminder must’ve caused, but decides against it. Bringing Tobirama home will be his apology.

“I’ve been thinking through your recount of the fight,” Madara transitions, “and there are seals strong enough to suppress chakra until they interfere with the connection between a summoning animal and their summoner. Konoha has developed some, it’s not a stretch to think that Kumo has as well, and distance becomes a huge factor. Would a compromised sense of smell, and layers of concrete, hinder your ability to sense Tobirama?”

Kaida tilts her head, but doesn’t stop walking. “Compromised sense of smell?”

“I was thinking of sneaking through the sewers. Every city’s got one.”

“Unpleasant,” she acknowledges. “But clever. The answer is no for both questions. Concrete hasn’t dampened the bond between Tobirama and me before. I have summoned myself into Konoha without any problems many times.”

Madara preens a bit at her compliment, because something about her stern mannerism makes him feel that her approval is worth more than a mountain of gold. “So that’s how we’ll find Tobirama. The rest of the plan will have to wait until we’re inside Kumo.”

The unspoken whispers between them, the thought horrendous and ugly, leaving his throat raw. Maybe it’s because he’s with someone who feels the same overwhelming, pulsing screeching of something that threatens to spill over and consume him if he finds Tobirama as anything less than alive, that he’s willing to put a voice to his thoughts.

“Kumo abducted Tobirama because they wanted, possibly needed, him to fulfil a purpose. What if – what if they don’t need him anymore? What if we go there and–”

Madara stops. He takes a slow breath in, and a slow breath out. Every time he tries to say something, his chest tightens until his heart stutters at the restraints.

They walk together in a thick silence that’s eventually broken by a growl.

“We pay our debts twicefold,” Kaida vows in a soft, grim voice. “If Tobirama is anything less than whole, then we go for the captors, the captain, the one who signed for his capture – every last one of them, and leave no one unpunished. I expect you to join me.”

An order wrapped in a tone that sends chills down Madara’s spine. Madara is irrevocably charmed. He, too, is a firm believer of revenge being a good step towards closure.

Feeling his dreary mood lift, Madara squares his shoulders whilst he attempts to to do his best reproachful-Hashirama impression. “Revenge plants more hate than it culls,” Madara recites, austere and proper. “Bloodshed solves nothing.”

The look Kaida throws him is withering, like she knows exactly what Madara is doing. Madara bursts into snickers, because his self-preservation instincts are lacking like that. Chances are they stopped developing the moment his little brother started learning the art of persuasive babbles.

Evidently, Kaida must have decided that Madara’s having too much fun, because she throws him the verbal equivalent of a below-the-belt hit.

“I expect many cubs from you and Tobirama,” announces Kaida, confidence and authority in a majestic, dotted, furry package. “At least one named after myself.”

Madara halts from his snickers to make gaping fish impressions. “At least one named–”

“At least one,” she reiterates. “Preferably three. But I am a gracious leopard and willing to compromise.”

He sputters, and the red in his face is highlighted by his white face paint and the white trimmings of his hood. “Tobirama and I are not…we’re not like that.”

She gives him some serious side-eye. “I see.” She sounds dubious. “I suppose dropping all your responsibilities to infiltrate hostile territory two nations over in the possibility of finding information of Tobirama’s whereabouts – and not a certainty of finding information, on a mere possibility, mind you is something done between friends .”

Madara is feeling absolutely attacked again. “I admit, it’s a very friendly thing to do.”

“How about guarding his labs religiously for his return? And using your personal coffers to fund this infiltration? Because this costly mission is definitely not sanctioned by the village – Sage forbid your pacifist Shodaime from risking war when you cause havoc breaking my cub out.” She makes a humming noise. “The definition of friends has really changed since my youth.”

Madara trips over his own feet, and it causes the great matriarch to snort . He scampers to catch up, his pack shuffling awkwardly around him. “How did you find about that – of course. Shishi, ” he hisses at the betrayal. This is why Izumi, and her non tattle tale butt, is his favourite out of the two.

“Your kittens are a delight.”

“My cats are menace,” Madara mutters under his breath. “Izumi would’ve behaved when visiting your Domain. In fact, she’d be over the moon. She had a leopard phase during her later kitten stages. Shishi’s the naughty one. No matter how much you nip him, he keeps trying to drink human milk, and he very well knows that it makes him sick.”

“Absolutely adorable.” On this, Kaida does not budge. “As yours and Tobirama’s cubs will be.”

Merciless ,” Madara hisses as heat flushes through him again. He presses one mitten hand to one burning cheek, more in an effort to hide than to warm his palm. “You are one merciless leopard.”

 


 

It’s with both exhilaration and a small hint of regret that they near the borders of Kumo. Exhilaration that he’s one step closer to finding Tobirama, and a small bit of regret for Kaida leaving his company, since after a bit of fussing ( Identification papers? Declaration of visitation acceptance? ) Kaida leaves his side to traverse the rest of the borders alone.

Kumo, situated atop of several mountains blanketed by clouds, is layered with snow. Madara is dismayed.

Despite the distance from the border to Kumo being larger than the whole Land of Frost, Madara arrives on the fourth afternoon after hitching a ride with a group of travelling merchants ( Us foreigners gotta stick together, y’know) and their handful of carts.

An abundance of gratitude for his luck overflows him when the merry band of merchants introduce themselves as Lightning locals, instead of Frost locals. The sharingan can copy a lot of things, but it can’t copy the minute, instinctual habits and knowledge borne from real locals. The less people finding Madara suspicious, the better.

Travelling with the merchants becomes an even greater idea when they arrive during the end of a shift, if the sloppy, tired glance the gatekeeper throws at Madara’s papers is any indication.

He refrains from acknowledging his criticisms with their security since it’s not his village, and therefore, not his problem.

As soon as he steps into the room of the inn he’s checked in, he dumps his bags and searches through the furniture. A single bed, a wardrobe and a desk with a wooden chair, all a bit rickety and rough around the edges. Madara deems the room clear and slaps a privacy seal around them. When he rolls the shade of the window down, he turns and stumbles back in surprise.

Holy–” Madara stops himself from swearing, then remembers her statement about being stealthy, and slides onto chair before his legs betray him. Suppressed chakra sucks – he never realised how much he relied on his chakra to heighten his awareness. There’s also a sprinkle of irritation aimed towards himself, because he shouldn’t be this careless even without chakra.

Already lounging on his bed, tail flicking in a way that’s too jerky for it to be relaxed, Kaida says, “You’re right. Distance does dampen the connection. He’s here, in this village – I can feel it, finally. It’s budding but there’s no mistaking for what it is.”

The hope and smothering relief that undertones her silky voice makes the grimy, the somehow dusty and soggy, travel dirt he’s caked in all worth it.

“We can inspect the sewers during the night. I’ll summon Izumi and Shishi to scout area for a point of entry. Meanwhile, we can start hashing out details of breaking Tobirama out of Kumo. Tobirama’s restrained, that much is obvious, but my fūinjutsu is not the best, and this seal is advanced enough to hold someone of Tobirama’s calibre, so he won’t be able to hiraishin himself out. How much chakra would Tobirama need to have for you to be able to reverse summon him into the Leopard Domain?” asks Madara.

Kaida doesn’t miss a beat from the outpour of his thoughts. “Normally, an eighth of his reserve, and not because it’s used in the process, but because it cushions and protects the summoner as they’re pulled through the space-time dimension. An eighth of his reserve would also be sufficient enough for me to sense him through our connection from the Leopard Domain.”

“Does it have to be necessarily his chakra?”

“No, but it does need to be in his system during the summoning.”

Madara folds his hands together in thought. “Does the jutsu responds instantly? No matter how far we are from the Leopard Domain?”

Kaida does the feline equivalent of pursing her lips. “Drawing from my own experiences from jumping to Konoha, yes. It responds very quickly, or a second of delay at the most.”

Shuffling the information in his mind, he lays it out as if they were cards fanned on a table. Slowly, an invisible thread begins to connect one to the other. Madara’s grateful for all the times he’s paid attention to Mito and Tobirama’s academic discussions.

“From my knowledge of chakra suppressants - and from your recount of the fight - there is a small period of time where chakra is drained until it reaches the desired threshold level, and the draining rate increases as the current volume of chakra decreases. That’s a time frame we can shamelessly abuse,” Madara works out aloud. “If I supply a constant huge amount of chakra in his system for a brief time, that leaves us a window where you’ll be able to summon Tobirama through the jutsu. Since his coils are already well developed, we won’t have to worry about the initial burst of chakra damaging him.”

Her tail stops flicking. “And what about your own reserves? Will they be enough for me to pull you too after this?”

“Yup.” Here Madara lets his chest puff slightly. “Got enough to rival Hashirama.”

“Good,” approves Kaida. There is a pause before her tail starts flicking again in a slower, steadier rhythm.

If Madara’s learnt anything from his cats, it’s that sleep is a viable way to avoid awkward situations - plus, he can feel the heavy drag of exhaustion blurring his eyesight. He doesn’t think to reclaim the bed, only yawns a heads up to Kaida, curls up in the chair, and cushion his head before falling into a light nap.

 


 

They fall into another routine for the days where they search for Tobirama.

During the day, Takahashi Yuki explores the village. He applies for jobs in civilian accounting firms, merges into the market crowd, makes nice with the shopkeepers, and admires the quirky buildings and even quirkier fashion statements that are trending around Kumogakure. He becomes a regular at a local teahouse, and people find that, underneath those gigantic frames, Yuki holds a disarming smile, with teeth as white as his face paint.

Night is when he slides back into his identity of Madara. Izumi and Shishi scout only long enough to pinpoint the times any water drain close to his inn is left unmonitored by patrols. Despite their protests, Madara is reluctant to let them operate outside in the snow without warmer gear, and cats wearing warm boots and windproof jackets are – no matter how adorable – the blaring definition of suspicious activities.

This whole mission serves to highlight what a security risks stray animals could be. Ever since adopting his cats, he’s been a big benefactor to animal shelters. He wonders if he could lump more money on that under security concerns when he’s Hokage.

Once he sneaks down the water drain, he calls for Kaida by charging chakra into his bitemark. Using Kaida’s superior sensing abilities, they steer through the sewerage system trying to locate Tobirama. The tunnels of the sewerage systems are taller than expected, and darkness looms into multiple directions. Unsealing enough of his chakra to activate and maintain his sharingan, Madara memorises every step they take, mapping the layout for a more efficient navigation.

He’ll probably never become fully desensitised to the stench – Madara sometimes wakes up from his far and few in between naps gagging from it. Bile constantly threatens to rise up his throat. Showers become Madara’s favourite past time.

Yuki’s favourite pastimes, however, are visiting street markets in between searching for work, and drawing when he’s settled into his seat at his teahouse. He always picks a corner seat, where the wall is to his back and his eyes are free to roam the room. If anyone were to look into his notebook and see what he drew, they’ll see black lines that squares off and branches at random. They’ll see nothing particularly awe inspiring.

Madara looks into his notebook, and sees a map for the sewer systems.

Slowly, the pages start filling up.

 


 

On the fifth night of trudging through the sewers, Kaida pauses after a sharp turn, and sprints without warning.

Madara follows suit. Her sprinting can have only one meaning, one that makes his heart pound in chest in desperation.

She stops and presses her side against the wall.

“He’s here ,” Kaida growls. “He’s deep in that direction – his chakra is so weak . He is hurting! Oh, I will snap every one of their necks when–”

“Slow down,” Madara reassures, even though everything inside of him is doing the opposite. Tobirama is so close, and Madara can’t believe that his head is clear and his thoughts are calm. “They will – we’ll make sure they will, but we can’t rush in without a plan. How further deep is he in? How many people are guarding him?” Because it would be foolish not to have people posted around Tobirama.

Kaida stills, shifting her body as close to the wall as she can. “About one hundred metres deeper underground, and four hundred metres behind this wall. At least sixty others clustered within a hundred metre radius - although I cannot approximate how many are prisoners and how many are guards from their lack of movement.”

That kind of precision and range is incredible, and Madara is humbled to have witnessed such a feat. He lets his admiration waft, and it seems to soothe her ruffled fur, the idea that progress is being made and that their breakout of Tobirama is inevitable. Madara lets his fingertips linger on the cement walls of the sewer tunnels, careful not to touch lest he gets the unsavoury goo on him.

Any other shinobi, and sixty would be overwhelming. Sixty would be a suicide mission.

Fear does not touch him. He is not any other shinobi; he is Uchiha Madara with the skills and stamina to match the God of Shinobi. And while the Kumo shinobi will certainly not make it easy for him, he has the element of surprise and fire on his side. His eyes are bounded only by his imagination and will, of which he has plenty. It would be easy to let his Susanoo coat him, let his flames burn him a path that leads straight to Tobirama.

It’s the quickest way to get him out, but it’s too indicative to Madara’s identity. Any blood spilled by him will be equally paid by those in Konoha. He needs stealth, he needs to plan. He doesn’t want a war.

“We need to regroup and replan,” Madara mutters, feeling the soft brush of Kaida’s tail flicking his fingertips. “We need a distraction.”

 


 

Madara can only think of one instance where Uzumaki Mito was truly, explicitly enraged.

The Raikage had once approached Hashirama with a treaty negotiation. In his detailed scroll, he requested a private meeting where he outlined the services Kumogakure was willing to provide if Konoha had lent them their finest fuinjutsu users.

A breakthrough, the Raikage had emphasised, if we band together, no other village could stand against them.

The Raikage’s proposal – to seal the tailed beast into human containers.

Their finest fuinjutsu user, probably the prime innovator in that field, had been horrified.

It’s reckless, she hissed. It’s not fair to the human or the tailed beast. The Kyūbi has been roaming the Land of Fire for years, and they have not instigated a single malicious incidence against Konoha. They do not deserved to be stripped of their autonomy and objectified into weapons of mass destruction. I refuse to contribute to your greedy power plays.

Mito is an admirable woman. She’s mild-tempered, quick witted, world-hardened in a way he wishes Hashirama would be at times, and above all, honourable. Even though Madara struggles to say what he means without having her glaring at him because of his utter lack of tact, he likes her. He respects her. He trusts her judgement.

And soon it becomes clear why Tobirama was abducted. The reason comes into the teahouse whilst Yuki scribbles in his notebook.

Instantly, the chatter of the crowd dies down. It’s so quick, so sudden, that it pulls Madara away from his notes to find out what caused such drastic change.

It’s a young boy in his late teens, blonde haired, tall and gangly, hanging his coat to reveal a wealth of rich, dark skin half hidden by his crop top. Amusement, and a bit if bafflement, flashes through him – he really can’t understand some people’s choice to hold their fashion integrity over functionality. Why would one wear a crop top under a thick snow jacket? Wouldn’t that negate the purpose of the jacket anyway?

The crowd starts talking again, but the words that trickle into Madara’s notice make his eyebrows almost twitch into a frown.

He draws his eyes to the kid’s abdomen. Black ink tattooed in a complex spirals and reinforcements for, at its core, a storage seal - so that's why the top crop: it’s a statement, a warning, a boast.

Crazy. Unstable. Insane, he picks out from the crowd. That thing is bad enough, and Madara almost flinches at their unwillingness to acknowledge them as anything more than a weapon, Yet the Raikage wants another.

Finally, it makes sense. Abducting Tobirama makes full sense. Mito’s a shinobi focused more on research and development, as well as being Uzushio’s ambassador. Tobirama has a team of genin that regularly takes C-Ranks out of the village. Out of the two fuinjutsu experts, it becomes excessively clear which one is more accessible.

His finger grips the notebook harder.

The kid wields his arrogance as an armour. He tips his chin up, he strides with confidence and demands fair service with a tone that promises retribution. Judging from the whispers around them, Madara can’t blame him. In fact, he approves.

It takes courage to keep going forward, to turn scars into badges when the past carves into your back like a canvas. The kind of courage that deserves to be admired and lauded, and if he were a member of Konoha, Madara wouldn’t hesitate in doing so.

But he’s not. Madara’s not here to be honourable, or to take his age into account. Madara’s not here to be kind. He’s here to bring Tobirama back, and for the briefest fraction of a second, Madara lets his eyes flicker red.

 


 

Attached is a counterseal that will override the seal you sent me. The interference will be long enough for whatever it’s containing to overwhelm and fracture the seal.

Stay safe, Uchiha.

Uzumaki M.

 


 

“The mark likes to hide out in cavern eight hundred metres east of the bank,” informs Izumi. “It functions as sort of a training facility, judging from the reinforcement seals written on the walls.”

“He’s always alone too, unmonitored,” Shishi adds. “There’s little to basically zero security around him throughout the day. Quite lazy delegation, if you ask me.”

Either Kumo thinks its own jinchuriki is capable of taking care of himself, or personal bias has compromised security. His cats report that the kid’s daily habits change, but he always gravitates towards the cavern in the afternoon. Predictability kills. Any good shinobi knows that, but it’s hard for the message to sink in the place associated to safety and home.

The cavern seems to be the kid’s personal safe space. Madara tries not to think too hard about that.

When breakout day comes, Madara dons a moulded mask with whitened eyes. The cool slide of the mask over his face works like a switch, and his drumming heart becomes muted. Gradually, he unseals his suppressants to half of his reserves, enough to surprise the jinchuriki, but not enough to cause any nearby sensors concerns.

(Sensors are the worst. They are the absolute bane of his existence. Case in point: Tobirama.)

Outside the cavern, he layers a genjutsu to draw the jinchūriki out. He draws something sweet from his bank of memories like dripping honey into a trap.

When he and Izuna escorted a theatrical group across the border, he remembers the wonderful stick instruments and drums they carry. Their laughing, their stories, their joy mesmerised him. There was a lullaby, sang by a man whose voice was silky and warm like fire, and it lulled Izuna until he flopped his head on Madara’s shoulder.

It’s one of the first times he felt peace. Now, he laces the quiet happiness, and warmth of Izuna’s head on his shoulder into the genjutsu. The sweet lullaby sings out, promising acceptance, promising peace. A slice of acknowledgement, and the promise of being cherished.

Of course it draws the jinchūriki out.

Madara sends a shadow clone to attack him from behind, another to circle around the jinchuriki. The kid is fast, Madara gives him that: he snaps out of his reverie as soon as his clone materialises behind him. Claws rip out through his gloved hands, and he aims for his clone’s throat. His clone dodges only barely.

No matter how good he is, the kid is outnumbered. And he is Uchiha Madara . Suppressed chakra or not, nothing beats the clawing fear he felt when facing Hashirama. It only takes a second for Madara to wade between his two clones like water. His arm strikes out so fast, it blurs.

A tribute to the man that haunts his waking moments.

His palm connects with the kid’s abdomen. Time freezes, and sounds mute down. Awareness flicks into the kid’s eyes – the kid has brown eyes like him – before it widens in horror.

I’m sorry, Madara wants to say. Instead, chakra charges in his palm.

Mito’s seal activates.

 


 

Kumo has signalled for evacuation.

There’s too many things saturating the air. Fear, so much fear, from the people running away, the people redirecting the crowd, and those running to the cavern. Underneath it all is the thick, pungent taste of hatred and anger and hunger. Hunger for freedom, for vindication.

A roar tears through the air. Someone screams with raw, blood-curling grief.

He thinks of the merchants who brought him here, and thinks of the teashop owner. Madara doesn’t let himself clench his eyelids shut for a second. He turns from them. I’m sorry, he wants to say. He doesn’t. He keeps running to the building where Tobirama is kept.

Then the sounds around him is drowned out by a desperate litany of Tobirama, Tobirama, Tobirama

Even under city wide evacuation, he knows there will still be people posted to guard Tobirama. He breaks away from the crowd into an alley beside the building where Tobirama is kept. He charges chakra into his shoulder while undoing his suppressants. Smoke, then Kaida appears. Madara signals her to stay behind him as he ties explosive tags onto his kunai.

They blow their way in. A chilling roar follows him, and he ducks and slashes and twists. It’s automatic; his grace, his whizzing mind, his snappy movements. Chakra and blood rushes in him, every sense feels amplified to the point of stinging, but he feels alive.

He aims to disarm, but the sound of snapping bones tells him that Kaida is not that merciful. They work their way down the corridors, her powerful legs bolting forward. He’s more backup in this situation, making sure to cause enough destruction to distract those behind him.

The stairs they descend feel endless, and the brick walls mesh in his mind, until they reach a metal door. Reality ramps up his nerves. A metal door. That’s all that stands between him and Tobirama.

Kaida slams her body and the seals that light up sends her skidding backwards. She growls her frustration, and chakra starts to cloak her body from her anger.

Madara turns his sharingan on. A spider web of chakra lights up, colours shifting signifying movement. The door is rooted to the brick wall. Four points of concentrated chakra on the four corner of the door, then multiple tendrils that branches out into the wall connected to the door. It mixes with the chakra netting the ceiling and floors, and connects to the other cells.

If Madara was an ounce more patient, his solution would have contained finesse, been more refined.

Brute force is good enough for him.

His Mangekyo whirls and he feels himself being cloaked in purple chakra. Two chakra-made arms shoot out, digging fingers into the wall. Muscles tensing, eyes spinning, teeth gritting, he pulls and tries to rio the brick wall from where his fingers gripped the wall.

The wall groans and the seal on the wall lights up, pushing out something that threatens to burn him. Madara laughs at their attempt. At trying to hurt him with heat, when fire is his specialty. He keeps pulling. The thin tendrils running through the wall stretches and stretches, until they strain and Madara can feel that they are on the brink of breaking.

At the edge of his vision, he can see a lightning gunning for him. It screeches, and shrieks, but Kaida growls and stomps her paw, and the lightning crashes into a wall of ice that rises from the floor.

“Hurry,” she warns. “There are more coming.”

With a heave, Madara feels the tendrils of chakra on the wall snapping like rubber bands. He grunts and drags the wall around them, to block the other end of the hallway.

The silence that greets them is disconcerting. The voice that breaks his haze is one that’s haunted him for weeks.

“Kaida? Madara?”

The sound is weak. It’s coming from a huddled form in the corner, but it’s Tobirama’s smooth baritone. Relief fights to make his knees buckle, but the fight’s not over yet.

Tobirama scampers up to meet Kaida right as she pounces at him. He meets her fervid nuzzles and licks with a heaving relief. Sage, no wonder Kaida could barely feel him. There is black ink curling and weaving on every inch of skin. Not even a thumb width of skin is left unmarked. Tobirama’s cage is thoroughly tailored into his skin.

“The children,” he croaks, and affection swells in him. Of course Tobirama’s ducklings come first. “Did they – are they okay?”

“They’re safe at home,” answers Madara. “It’s your turn now.”

Madara kneels and slides Tobirama’s arm around his shoulder. Kaida acquiesces her hold on him to step back. She nods at him, before poofing away.

Madara handles Tobirama gingerly, because his eyes seems dazed. He slides his other arm around his waist. “Your hair,” he points out, voice feeble and shaky.

“I’m about to blast you with chakra,” Madara informs him, tightening his hold on Tobirama’s waist. “Then Kaida’s summoning us. Hold on.”

Madara shoves chakra into Tobirama, feeling the tsunami coming from his crashing into a dam that, after a couple of seconds, starts to push back. His shoulder twinges as he calls for Kaida, and his coils strains as it keeps shovelling greater volumes of chakra into Tobirama.

His body lurches to the side. Nausea slams into him, making him dizzy. It spins him like a yarn, and he almost vomits. He closes his eyes and concentrates on breathing.

Suddenly, the hurling motions stop. Madara blinks away his nausea and he sees multiple sets of yellow eyes blinking at him.

Throughout it all, the arm around Tobirama’s waist doesn’t loosen. Madara refuses to let Tobirama go. He hasn’t in the past. He’s not about to start now.

 


 

Snow leopard cubs are precious and valued, since their birth rates are lower than normal snow leopards. Tobirama is regarded still as a cub to the other leopards in the clan, and a proactive member of their community.

Tobirama has integrated himself into the clan as if he were born there. It’s easy to see where Tobirama helped expand the den: the seals, protective and medical, the infrastructure, the structure of their veterinary care, resembles that in Konoha.

His disappearance had caused a stifling despair to fall upon the Den.

The moment the leopards realize that it is Tobirama that Kaida had summoned, they piled on top of him. There are cries of rejoice, a lot of purrs, and a lot of wheezing from Madara’s end as he is squashed under the pile.

The Leopard Den is snowy, situated atop a mountain, and Madara stays for as long as Tobirama needs to recuperate. After weeks of feeling like time is crawling up his back as he chases after Tobirama, he feels untethered. Confused. Purposeless. It’s hard to recognise himself – what is he usually when he’s not restless?

Well, that’s not true, Madara amends. He’s very much tied to Tobirama, rarely leaving his side as Tobirama slowly gains more weight, and muscle mass.

Seeing Tobirama with the leopards makes him feel like an intruder. The affection in his voice, the nudges, nuzzling, and stroking with other leopards - leopards are tactile creatures, so it makes sense that Tobirama would be tactile too. And Madara is uncomfortable seeing him this way when Tobirama’s hasn’t explicitly given him permission to see him this way.

Caring touches are still a foreign concept to him. Growing up, outwards shows of love and devotion were considered to be a weakness. He was raised to reject any kind of weakness. The most affectionate gesture he remembers his father giving him was an approving nod, accompanied by a declaration of how Madara was not disappointing him. Hugging isn’t something he knows how to do well. It wasn’t until Izuna met Hashirama that Izuna himself started to stick to Madara like a leech.

But then Tobirama would bump his shoulder. He would say something snarky to pull Madara out of his awkwardness, and it pushes Madara to reply with something equally snide. They would both smirk, and it’d feel like they’re back in Konoha.

The seal on Tobirama takes days to unravel. It probably would go faster if Tobirama didn't use it as an interesting chance to study himself, being the huge nerd that he is.

For the ten days that Kaida refuses to let them leave – um, insists that they stay - she puts Madara to work around the den, since opposable thumbs are something to be taken advantage of. Most of Madara’s duties involve construction, maintenance, babysitting and grunt work, basically.

The leopards make the work less dull. They’re as colourful and varied as the people in Konoha. They take to Izumi and Shishi as if they were their own snow leopard cubs, and in his opinions, his cats are getting a little spoiled by the attention.

It hits him one day, while he’s helping Tobirama fix a leaky roof, what he is when he’s not restless. What he is right now. This thing that’s whizzing up and down his body.

Happiness. This is - Madara’s happy .

For the weeks that Tobirama was gone, Madara didn’t realise that he forgot what happiness feels like.

 


 

“Izumi was carrying her tail in her mouth today,” Madara says. He sighs. “I guess she never outgrew her leopard phase. But I'm glad they’re behaving with the leopards.”

Although yesterday, he found Izumi and Shishi perched on Kaida’s back as she visits Tobirama, curled up and purring, probably having the time of their life.

He promptly had a heart attack.

Words like proper etiquette, decorum, and scary clan matriarchs flash in his head and Madara acknowledges that he might have missed those lessons with his cats.

Nekomata will not be pleased.

Tobirama laughs, and bumps his shoulder against his. He does that more often now, Madara notices, laughing and shoving him. They’re exploring the den, trudging through the snow, and admiring the cliff sides and the forest. Something pretty to view for some time-off.

“There hasn’t been any cubs born since six mating cycles ago,” Tobirama explains. “I think Kaida wants a couple of cubs to spoil. She’s started hinting that it’s time for me to get my own.”

“Oh. Really?” Madara asks carefully.

Tobirama hums. “She kept on mentioning how cute a baby with red eyes would be – how cute three babies with red eyes would be. Then again, I could just be reading too much into her actions, although I’m not sure why she keeps emphasising the number three.”

“Yeah, very odd. A strange thing to do,” Madara replies convincingly, trying not to look too nervous.

Tobirama got hints while he got straight out orders. The world is not fair.

A nudge on his shoulder catches his attention. Tobirama doesn’t pull back, and chooses to lean into him. The solid weight, cushioned by the thick jacket he wears, lulls Madara into a false sense of security. Together they listen to the wind whistling a peaceful tune.

“I didn’t think anyone would come for me.”

Madara feels like he just slipped on melted snow and tumbled off a cliff.

“Well, that’s not completely true,” Tobirama retracts. “I knew that Kaida would try – she basically raised me – but I didn’t know to what extent, and how successfully it would be. Their existing jinchuriki seals had problems that they wanted me to fix and optimise. It was made very clear that they’d rather kill me, and thereby eliminating a valuable asset to Konoha, than release me. Even if my freedom meant that Mito would negotiate.”

His tone is even, accepting. Not many people can speak of their mortality like a mission report. Tobirama does, because that’s how Tobirama copes. Madara knows that Tobirama’s not any less shaken.

“I agreed, but I prolonged the process. I bluffed. I said the seal needed to be tailored and personalised to the jinchuriki, since I knew they haven’t chosen one yet. And so there was a delay because they struggled to find one after a previous incident, occurring two months before my capture.” Tobirama huffs, amused. “That’s something to be grateful for, I guess.”

Madara doesn’t huff along with him. He doesn’t really know what to say.

“Everyone thought you were dead,” Madara offers up, as if that’s any consolation. Once again, Madara’s not very good with his words. “None of our tracker teams could find any trace of you. Hashirama, he – he’s so hollow, so despondent. If Hashirama knew you were at Kumo, I have no doubt he would have stopped at nothing to get you back.”

“I miss him. I hope he is okay.” Tobirama tilts his head. “I miss everyone. I want to breathe in their chakra again. I’m–I’m lucky that you refused to accept my death.”

“Not just me. Me, and Izuna.” Madara chuckles. “Something about the sharingan stops people from moving on to the second stage of grief.”

Madara’s adept at skimming over a thought, at stomping it down when he doesn’t want to deal with its implications. Thinking of a lifetime where he grows old, but Tobirama stays young in his memories, brings up such desperate panic that Madara doesn’t know what to do with it.

Tobirama shifts, and shows exactly how much Kaida is in him when he bowls Madara over with the verbal equivalent of a boulder.

“I like you too, you know,” he tells Madara. Then he clamps an arm around Madara’s own, and rests his chin on Madara’s shoulder, thereby effectively locking him from running away. Because Tobirama’s very much aware that Madara would rather beat up his emotions in a dark alley than face them head on. “I have for a while,” he continues on, red eyes refusing to let him go. “Sometimes, it’s a lot more than that. I’d describe it to you, but I don’t want you to slip and fall off this cliff.”

Madara stiffens, because his natural reaction would prove Tobirama right. “What do you mean – I am the epitome of grace !” he defends, feeling indignant. And warm. His cheeks feels so, so warm.

“You always flail.

“I do not,” he denies, lying his pants off. “I’m very tempted to throw you over the ledge.”

“You crossed two nations, off books, without chakra enhancements, to infiltrate Kumo and find me.” Tobirama looks smug. His bow shaped lips are tipped up in a way that’s way too smug. “No, not to find me – to find rumours about me. That’s such a friendly thing to do. I have no idea how other people could have misinterpreted it.”

This time Madara does splutter. “How much did Kaida tell you?”

“Everything.” Tobirama sounds absolutely gleeful. “You brought my jacket with you, on this unsanctioned trip. You went to the literal sewers of Kumo to find me. You demolished a village to get to me. I’m fortunate that you are such a good friend , Madara. Even willing to put on those lord awful glasses once again.”

Madara’s face is sour. “Are you done?”

Never.”

Madara kicks one leg out to trip Tobirama, because he is a mature adult. Tobirama jumps over it without even unlinking his arms from Madara. Instead, he takes the advantage to wrestle his arms around Madara’s shoulders in a dubiously consented hug. He clamps down his arms so that Madara can’t retaliate with any elbowing.

“Die,” Madara hisses. He does not melt into the hug, he does not!

“If you say so, very platonic friend of mine.”

An unholy screech rips out of Madara, and he tries to throw Tobirama off of him. Tobirama just latches on and laughs quietly at his attempts. And it feels like they’re back in Konoha.

 


 

Every time Madara tries to explain what happened in Kumo, he chokes up. The lump grows and grows, to the point that his throat feels like it might collapse, and the words just won’t come out.

Tobirama never rushes him. There’s always been a ruthless quality that resonates in them both. And it comes out the most when it’s with someone they care about. He gets it.

Madara has so much blood on his hands – he feels like he’s ten again with the acrid tang of blood splattered on him. He’s grimy, filthy. He feels like a cheat because he didn’t stay long enough to for the consequences of the destruction he unleashed to slam him over. He doesn’t see the parents who’ve lost their kids. He doesn’t see the siblings crying for each other. He doesn’t see the innocent people caught in his destruction.

Forever. The guilt threatens to implode him, and he will remember it forever.

Then he remembers the fingers around his wrist, moving to weave with his own fingers. He remembers the way Tobirama’s eyes hold him in a conversation that Madara’s too afraid to hold with himself. When his nerves feel jarred and tentative, he doesn’t find absolution in Tobirama’s gaze. He finds understanding. He finds gratitude.

He will remember the press of Tobirama’s cracked lips against the back of his hand. The breathes he take as he closes his eyes, and leans into Madara’s skin.

“Thank you,” Tobirama mumbles.

This, too, he will remember forever.

Madara finds that he doesn’t regret it.

 


 

Tobirama means to hiraishin both him and Madara straight into the Hokage office. Remembering the days of travelling without chakra to help him, this feels like compensation.

Kaida sees them before they can hiraishin back. She rubs her length along Tobirama and him to get their attention.

“At least one, Madara,” she reminds him. Her tail flicks back and forth like a metronome.

“Uh.” Madara’s eyes flicker to Tobirama, who raises one eyebrow in question. “I’m working on it.”

She stares him down, as if to say, you better be, and Madara almost sweats. Then it changes into amusement and something briefly fond. She chuckles, and he gets a side bump. “Don’t be a stranger around here.”

It’s nice to finally have a parental figure of Tobirama’s that doesn’t want him dead. “You just want me for my opposable thumbs,” he says, but there's no heat to his accusations.

She nips his hip, but doesn’t deny his statement.

 


 

He doesn’t send one of his cats to notify Izuna, since his instincts tells him that this is something that needed to be done in person.

So Madara doesn’t know which one of them is more shocked; Izuna at seeing Tobirama and Madara pop into the middle of his office, or Tobirama at seeing Izuna as Hokage.

Tobirama pinches Madara on the arm.

Ow,” he hisses. “You’re supposed to pinch yourself on the arm, bastard,” Madara mutters.

And maybe it’s an universal absolute that Madara will always be grouchy and argumentative, because Tobirama turns around to stare at Izuna again.

“I can’t believe he beat you to the hat,” Tobirama says, incredulous.

Then an Izuna-shaped lump tackles them, complete with blubbering tears and slightly indecipherable walings ( I knew it! ), and rightfully doesn’t let go for twenty minutes.

 


 

Madara tries to slither away for Tobirama’s reunion with Tōka, Mito and Hashirama, but Tobirama, curse him, takes his arm, and becomes an anchor chained to him. Either to keep him centred, or to stop him from running away. Most likely both.

Part of why he tries to slip away is because he’s not sure if Mito and Toka would be comfortable to have Madara there. If Tobirama wants him there, however, then that’s all that matters, isn’t it.

(Tobirama told him of his prison. Of how, without chakra, he could feel nothing. Nothing but time slipping from his fingers. He’s ravenous for warmth and sensation. He needs to be grounded by skin. After the break out, Tobirama drowned himself with the touch of his leopards, and now, Madara.

Madara’s always happy to oblige him.)

Tōka cries. Big, ugly, heaving sobs that leaves everyone a bit panicky. Tōka looms large as life, the eldest of their inner circle. To see her like this is heartbreaking. She buries herself in Tobirama’s chest, clutching to him like he would disappear the moment she lets go. Tobirama does the same.

Then she starts threatening to flay him if he ever tries to do that to her again. In vivid, graphic detail.

Sage, this woman is scary.

As if she read his mind, she turns to Madara and stomps her way to him. Madara gulps.

Hands grab his shoulders, something solid collides into him. A wet patch starts to appear on his chest. It takes a second to realise that Toka is hugging him. With slow, stiff movements, Madara wraps his arms around her and pats her on the back.

He flips Tobirama the bird when it looks like Tobirama is about to whip a camera out.

 


 

They find Mito at home, sitting on a rocking chair. Which she ditches when she catches sight of Tobirama, scrambling up and almost tripping over her robe.

Dignified, poised Uzumaki, doing something as graceless as scrambling . Like Madara does. Today is just the day where all his expectations are blown.

She goes straight for Tobirama, tackling him into a hug, smearing her tears and her make-up all over his blue robe. Mito hiccups, telling them that Hashirama is by the koi pond, before proceeding to bury herself in Tobirama for ten solid minutes. Tobirama moulds himself into the hug with a purr.

After she lets him go, she snakes her fingers into Madara’s short hair, pulls him down and litters his cheek with kisses and thank yous. Madara almost taps out his surrender.

When she releases them from her barrage of affection, Madara whispers to Tobirama, “I don’t know what to do with all this gratitude.” His voice sounds so lost, and his face is as red as the robe he’s wearing, littered by lipstick marks.

Tobirama is having the time of his life. There’s nothing he loves more than watching Madara flounder. “Save it for the future,” he replies, planting a kiss of his own on Madara’s cheek. “Or take advantage of it. Before they remember how charmingly abrasive you can be.”

The side-eye Madara throws him at being called abrasive makes Tobirama snicker uncontrollably.

 


 

Before Tobirama was abducted, Hashirama didn’t spare a glance at the koi pond. Always too busy with the next meeting to ever stop and sit down.

Now, Madara knows that most of his day is spent kneeling there. It’s the spot that Tobirama likes to sit when he’s pondering on his thoughts.

Bright, bubbly and boisterous. That’s how Madara would describe Hashirama before. Hashirama has always been able to stand still, but there’s always an underlying buzzing in him. Now he’s just still.

He tends to the plants by hand, even though it could be done with a wave of his hand. He fishes the dead foliage from the pond, cleans the filters when he needs to and feeds the fish carefully. Sometimes, he brings out Tobirama’s faceplate, and he watches the fish twirl and their whiskers swirl in the water as he polishes the metal.

That’s how they find Hashirama. All sharp edges of Tobirama’s face gentles at the sight.

Madara allows his eyes to flicker red as he overwrites the memory of their time in the forest with something a bit more hopeful. Like the slow widening of Hashirama’s eyes, straining with shock and disbelief, before his face scrunches up with tears. He is up and running towards Tobirama before the first tear slides down on his cheek.

The faceplate lies on the ground, like before. This time, there are no blood splatters.

Tobirama crashes into him halfway, burying his face into his brother’s shoulder, and breathing Hashirama in like his life depends on it.

This time, when Hashirama collapses to his knees, Tobirama is the one to catch him.