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the midnight hour

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1.

“I don’t see the difference,” Madara says. “They both just look like grass to me.”

“Here,” Hashirama says, taking Madara’s wrist. “Come on.” He drags him over. Madara sputters a little in protest, but he doesn’t seem to be actively pulling away. Hashirama carefully guides Madara’s fingers towards the stem of the orchid on the right.

“This one’s leaves curl in,” Hashirama says, and transfers Madara’s hand to the other orchid. “These ones are flat.”

Madara is quiet for a moment, frowning. “You’re right,” he says. “They are a little different.”

“This one has buds on it, too,” Hashirama says. “See?” And it does have buds on it, Hashirama realizes, and then hurriedly withdraws his hand as the buds start visibly widening. One of them bursts open into a tiny white flower with a delicate magenta center.

Madara’s eyes go wide. “It’s blooming.”

Hashirama laughs, a little nervously. “Is it?”

Madara looks at him. He frowns, takes a breath, lets it out. Hashirama’s cheeks are burning. Madara must have felt his chakra rise with the flowers. He must know—

“It looked like it was, anyway,” Madara mutters, scowling. He inspects a mound of sundews growing on a muddy tussock.

Hashirama chuckles. He sits down next to Madara, crosses his legs. The back of Madara’s neck is sunburned already, although it’s barely midmorning. “Are you sure you won’t forget which one is which?”

“I won’t forget,” Madara says, and there’s something uncharacteristically serious in his voice that makes Hashirama pause.

“What do you mean?” he says, leaning on Madara’s shoulder. His blue robe is hot from the sun; his dark hair, even more so. It’s soft, too, like feathers.

“I don’t know,” says Madara, pursing his lips. “Whenever I see things they just stick in my brain.”

Hashirama blinks. “Really?”

Madara nods. “The same with distances and weights and those sorts of things,” he says. “I don’t know how it happens. I just know them.”

“Huh.” Hashirama crosses his arms. “I’ll bet that comes in handy.”

“More than you would think,” Madara mutters darkly, and Hashirama remembers with a sudden unpleasant coldness that his friend is a shinobi—and a strong one, too, if their more heated sparring matches are anything to go by. He feels something thrilling curl up in his belly, followed by a flood of shame. Madara is dangerous. He’s very dangerous. Their friendship, even more so.

“Hey,” Hashirama says abruptly, as the thought occurs to him, “then how come you couldn’t remember my name the second time we met?”

“That was different!” Madara yelps, springing to his feet and leaping out of the way so that Hashirama lands on his back in the mud with a small thud. “You distracted me!” Then he slips off his patch of moss and sinks knee-deep into the swamp.

Muddy, Hashirama laughs until his face hurts. He’s been looking forward to meeting with Madara again all week, he thinks, and it was utterly, completely worth the wait. Finally he has the presence of mind to lean over and haul Madara out of the water by his forearms.


2.

He’s not exactly sure how it happens. There is no grand moment of dawning comprehension. One morning Hashirama wakes up and thinks how much he’d like to see Madara again, how happy he feels when Madara is there with him. He remembers Madara’s wide brilliant smile and all the easy laughter they’ve shared and the occasional serious moments of understanding that pass between them as they sit beside each other, not needing to say anything at all. Hashirama just feels so…so lucky. He’s a part of a secret society now. A two-man organization. An unspoken pact between two people who are at the same time very different and very, very similar.

Hashirama knows he is different. He knows he is strong—Butsuma will never let him forget that. He knows exactly how rare his… condition is, and how fortunate he is to have the ability to use it to his advantage. But thing that truly makes him different, Hashirama thinks, is this thing that he and Madara share, this desire to reshape the world into a more peaceful place.

They are meeting up again in two days, as they agreed upon last time. Hashirama kneels by the bed of ferns he’s been working on and gently runs his hand up the side of one of the taller fronds.

(Butsuma would be furious if he could see Hashirama putting the mokuton to use like this, coaxing ferns into life for no practical purpose. Hashirama, you are a weapon; you are the prize of the Senju clan. Act like it.) And the more he thinks of his father’s hard, worn face, and of Itama, slumped and bloody against the boulder, and of Kawarama’s half-empty coffin, the more he wants to just take all that power, all the fear and the uncertainty and the destruction and death, and channel it into a force for good. Hashirama wants to make changes.

Hashirama has always known that he will change the entire world someday. He knows he can do it. He knows it was no accident that he had happened upon Madara that day by the river, and he knows that Madara feels the same way.

Yes—Hashirama knows that he can change the world. Now, with Madara at his side, he has someone to change it with.


3.

Meet me by the old spot at midnight. Come alone.

Ten years have gone by. He’s never gotten a letter back before. Something must be very wrong. It’s not signed, but there is a long, tawny-black feather folded into the scroll.


4.

Hashirama finds him standing like a sentinel at the water’s edge, his toes nearly touching the ice. The center of the river churns fretfully, and the moon, hidden in silvery clouds, is nearly full. “I don’t want your pity,” Madara says, without turning around. He doesn’t sound angry. More than anything he sounds profoundly tired.

Hashirama pauses by the opening in the trees. The moon slowly slides into view. Bare gray branches turn bone-white. The pebbles at Madara’s feet sparkle, and the twin swords strapped to his back gleam like talons. Hashirama steadies himself, clenches his fists. Madara is wearing open-toed sandals—is that the only pair he has?—and his bandaged feet are mottled blue.

“What do you want?” Hashirama calls to him, as loud as he dares, and Madara turns around and all of the air leaves Hashirama’s lungs because—

—Madara’s eyes, his eyes, they’re—they’re different; they’re emitting a pulsing glow the way dying embers do, and with each pulse of red another line of tension appears between Madara’s eyebrows and around his jaw until it looks like his entire face is completely clenched. It looks wrong. Some part of Hashirama’s brain is screaming at him to turn away and run. He fights it. Madara is otherworldly in the moonlight like this, and his eyes are wide and scarlet and despairing and fearful and angry and the sharingan—is that the sharingan?—looks like nothing Hashirama has ever seen before. He feels his fists uncurl, feels his jaw goes slack, feels his own eyes widen. He wants—needs—to get a closer look. He takes one step, takes another. Madara stands his ground. He is not backing away.

“I killed my father,” Madara says, by way of explanation, and the instant he gets the words out it’s as if all the tension has completely drained from his body. He sinks down onto the riverbank, every drop of vivid red fading from his irises. “They hurt. These eyes.”

Hashirama’s throat is dry. “When?” he asks.

Madara is listless. “Yesterday. I’m clan leader now.”

Hashirama looks up at the moon.

“I’m so—so sorry, Hashirama,” Madara whimpers, his face crumpling. “Everything that happened after the river, I—” His shoulders shake as he draws his knees up to his chest. Unthinkingly, Hashirama kneels beside him, one steadying hand poised at the small of his back, ready to hold him upright if he needs—

“I wanted to say so many things to you that day,” Madara says, his face in his hands.  “Now I finally have the chance, and I’m—I’m not—”

Madara allows himself a single sob, and then takes a very deep, muffled breath. When he straightens up again, several seconds later, his face is completely blank. The transformation is disconcerting.

“There will be more chances,” Hashirama says. “This isn’t the last time, I promise.”

Madara shakes his head. “I shouldn’t stay here much longer,” he says. He gives a small sigh. “Nor should you.”

Hashirama reaches out and gently takes hold of his hands, clasps them between his own. Madara’s fingers are pale and cold. “When will I see you again?” he says.

Madara’s fingers tremble slightly as he curls them around Hashirama’s palm. He stares down at their folded hands, frowning. He doesn’t draw back.

“I don’t know,” he says, finally. “The clan is…well, there’s a lot of—I’ve got to—you probably won’t hear from me for a few months.”

Hashirama feels something dark and foreboding pulse in his chest. They have gone months without seeing each other before, he tells himself. But Hashirama knows Madara’s expressions; he watches the familiar way in which Madara’s face hardens with fear, the way his eyes pop as he stares at nothing and his hands tighten around Hashirama’s own.

Madara is not letting go of Hashirama’s hands. Hashirama sends a pulse of warm chakra through his fingertips and watches Madara’s face relax ever so slightly, watches the clusters of lines disappear from his forehead, between his eyebrows, around his lips.

“You know where to find me,” Hashirama says at last, “when you get back.”

“Right,” Madara says.

“May I…” Hashirama swallows, suddenly nervous. “May I see your eyes again?”

Madara blinks at him. Scarlet blossoms in his irises. Hashirama watches the black tomoe of his sharingan revolve and expand and shift into place and a shiver runs down the back of his neck. Madara—Madara and his matted black hair, longer than Hashirama has ever seen it, and his pale hands, and his thin face, and his eyes, more precious and rare than the brightest red flowers—

“They’re beautiful,” Hashirama says, and he means it. “You are beautiful.”

Hashirama’s heart is in his throat. He prays Madara will not turn away from him now, will not flinch at his boldness. This can’t possibly be a good time. But Madara’s hands are still tightly wrapped around his own.

“You’re not afraid of them,” he says quietly. “Everyone else was. You’re the first.”

They are still holding hands as Madara begins to lean in closer. He hesitates for a moment, but doesn’t pull back, and then a flash of determination flickers across his face and he dips his head and brushes his lips very gently against Hashirama’s cheekbone.

It’s over in a split second, but the sensation of Madara’s lips on his skin lasts somehow, echoing like fireworks over an empty field. Hashirama lets his eyes flutter shut, as if in a dream, nearly forgetting the cold hard pebbles underneath his folded legs, the harshness of the wind, the eerie patches of shifting moonlight in the trees.

Hashirama opens his eyes and Madara is still there, kneeling next to him, and their hands are still tangled resolutely together.

“Hashirama…” Madara starts, chewing on his bottom lip. “I—”

His hands dart out and take hold of Hashirama’s face properly. They are so close. Their lips are about to touch—

Hashirama has kissed people before—he’s kissed quite a few people, in fact—but something about kissing Madara is completely different. Madara’s lips are dusty and cracked and cold but his mouth is hot and he exhales slightly through his nose as he tilts his head, his fingers tightening in Hashirama’s hair. His breath tickles Hashirama’s cheek. Madara is real. Hashirama listens to the faint click of Madara’s dry lips coming apart as he leans in again, and he can’t believe any of it. It feels like stars exploding in space, or the jaw-clenched-stomach-giddy sensation of falling from a great height, or the deceptive stillness that settles over the ground before lightning strikes. Hashirama saw a bolt of lightning hit an old gnarled tree once, a long time ago now, and there was a tremendous sound like the earth had cracked open, and a flash of light so intense it looked like daylight for a split second, and then the tree had shattered into a thousand steaming splinters. It was almost enough to make him believe in the old gods.

Hashirama feels like that tree right now. He feels like shattering. Madara’s chakra is combining with his, and he can feel it pulsing through him like electricity, humming against his lips. Madara’s thumbs brush the sides of his cheeks and his lips purse softly against the corner of Hashirama’s mouth and Hashirama never knew something like this could feel so good.

Madara withdraws, paler than before. He removes his hands from Hashirama’s face, quickly, as if Hashirama’s skin has scalded him.

“I,” Madara swallows. He quickly gets to his feet. “I have to go.”

The clone dispels in a burst of smoke. Hashirama is left still tasting fire.


5.

Hashirama resolutely does not go looking for Madara. That’s not his goal, nor should it be; Madara will come to him when—if he’s ready.

Tongues wag that winter. There are stories around the Senju compound, passed on from the Sarutobi and the Yamanaka and the Shimura, of a lone shinobi with wild black hair and burning red eyes, coming down between the mountains and slaughtering hundreds of enemies at once in the waist-deep snow. Voices go shrill with fear around the Senju bonfire, and Hashirama watches several frightened listeners glance furtively over their shoulders, as if Madara himself might appear behind them at any moment. He has acquired some sort of colossal winged guardian, they say, which engulfs him completely in bright blue flames. Madara is untouchable. Perhaps he is not entirely human. Even the few scattered Uchiha that they encounter as January bleeds into February seem wary.

Hashirama wonders if Madara’s last brother is afraid of him too.


6.

The next time they meet it’s an accident; it is late February and Hashirama’s chakra is sluggish and cold and the inn is hot and rowdy and his drink burns his throat and reminds him of flowers made of fire. Every time he drinks nowadays it reminds him of what happened by the river. The man in the corner of the inn takes off his hood and Hashirama chokes on a mouthful of air because Madara’s hair is all the way down his back now, longer and wilder than ever, and his cheekbones are even sharper than before. Hashirama wants to run his thumb down one of them—they look almost sharp enough in the harsh light from the bar to slice his fingers open—

“Oh,” says Madara, emphatically.

Oh—oh. “Let me buy you a drink,” Hashirama says, before he knows what he’s saying. Madara is shaking his head.

“No,” he says. “No, I…I don’t.”

Hashirama almost smiles. “What are you doing in Shukuba Town, then?”

Madara ignores the question. “What’s going on back there?” he says instead, and Hashirama turns around and watches the back of the room, where someone has folded a large paper screen across a pair of low tables. There are quite a few people coming and going with piles of coins. Hashirama steels himself. Conversation is coming easier now. “Some sort of closed game,” he says, still feeling a bit as if he is treading on very thin ice. “I tried to join. They said it was private.”

“Oh,” says Madara again. He squints. “That one looks a little too young to be gambling.”

“I was about that young when I started,” Hashirama says, but he privately agrees. The boy—teenager, most likely—is hovering nervously around the head of one of the tables, reaching up every so often to tug on his left earlobe.

“What’s the empty seat for, do you think?” Hashirama says.

Madara barely moves his lips. “Don’t know.”

The door to the inn bursts open. Snow whirls in circles around the newcomer, who is stomping the ice from his bandaged and sandaled feet with the air of one crushing ants beneath his boots. The group of people at the back of the bar all stop what they’re doing, looking wary. The boy with the big ears sets his drink down, biting the inside of his cheek.

“Is Masahiko Mogi here?”

The bar goes completely silent. Hashirama gets the impression that the people in the back of the room recognize the man and are not particularly pleased to see him.

“No,” someone says at last.

“Bad luck,” says the newcomer, “as I am here to collect his debt. Where is he?”

There is an uncomfortable murmur at the back of the room. Hashirama watches the small gathering of people at the back counter whispering and shifting in their seats.

The young boy—well—only a few years younger than Hashirama himself—steps forward. He seems to be gathering the will to speak.

“Dead,” he finally pipes up, looking pale and frightened. “Not two weeks ago. The game’s in his honor tonight.”

“Ah,” says the man. He pretends to look thoughtful for a moment, then withdraws a knife from his hip pouch and inspects the tip, feigning nonchalance. “I suppose that the responsibility then passes on to his next of kin. You are his eldest, aren’t you?”

The color drains from the boy’s face. His mouth twists in fear. Still, he stands his ground. Hashirama bites his lip. There’s a kunai in his back pocket, and three senbon wrapped in cloth on the inner flap of his cloak. He shouldn’t interfere. Things could get messy, especially in such a small indoor space. But—

The boy clenches his fists. “I—I don’t have the money, Okamoto! Please just—”

“I think I’ll join the game, then,” says Okamoto, now running the knife thoughtfully over the metal plates on his sleeve.

“It’s a closed game!” the boy warbles. “You cannot join! How—how dare you try to join my father’s game when it was your dishonest tactics that killed him in the first place?”

“You’re just like him,” Okamoto says distastefully, reaching for his knife again. “Troublesome fools, both of you. In that case—”

Madara meets Hashirama’s eyes for a split second. He nods almost imperceptibly.

Hashirama lunges forward, knocking Okamoto’s knife out of his hands. He hears it slide across the floor, out of his reach, as he flings out his arm and shields the group of shocked onlookers at the back counter. “Get behind me,” he hisses to the boy, who darts out from the rest of the group and hovers by his side, clinging to his shoulder with trembling fingers. “I won’t let anything happen to you.”

The boy’s grip on his shoulder tightens. Hashirama turns around. Madara has Okamoto pinned to the bar by his collar, his long cloak fluttering around his ankles. All at once, Hashirama’s breath is coming shallow and fast. His nose, his fingertips, the back of his neck are all tingling. A strange sort of heat is rising in his chest, and the air around Madara is humming with something dark and hot and ominous and deadly. Hashirama’s hair billows around him, and his heart feels like someone is squeezing it. The boy’s fingernails dig into Hashirama’s shoulder, almost hard enough to draw blood.

“I think he’s made it quite clear that he doesn’t have the money,” Madara says quietly, with deceptive calmness. Hashirama bites back a very ill-timed laugh. He’s lucky enough by now to be used to Madara’s chakra, but it looks almost exactly as if Okamoto has swallowed his own tongue from sheer terror. His eyes dart from Hashirama, at the back of the room, to the cluster of patrons huddled behind him, to the unguarded door.

“Listen to me. You will leave the Land of Fire and never return,” Madara continues, in that slow, deep rumble of his, barely looking the man in the eye. Hashirama shivers. Madara leans in closer. His hair hisses faintly against the metal plates on Okamoto’s sleeves. “You will not bother this family again. Have I made myself clear?”

Okamoto moves so fast he knocks over three chairs on his way out the door. He glances behind him before it slams, his eyes wide and terrified. The boy slides down Hashirama’s arm until he’s on all fours on the ground, gasping for breath.

“Thank you,” he gasps, his shoulders shaking. “Thank you both so much.”

Madara steps back, his aura of menace gone. He looks deeply uncomfortable. Hashirama lays one hand on his shoulder and gives him an encouraging smile. “Thank you, Madara,” he murmurs.

Madara is looking anywhere but Hashirama and the boy—the window, the door, the bar, the paper screen in front of the two tables. The boy swallows. He looks up at both of them.

“I don’t suppose you would want to join the game, would you? For my father?”

Hashirama smiles gently. He isn’t sure if the boy meant both of them or not. It looks like he’s still too scared to meet Madara’s eyes. Madara is clenching his jaw so hard, he looks almost as grim as Tobirama.

“That’s quite all right,” Hashirama says, giving Madara’s shoulder an encouraging squeeze. “Thank you for the offer.” Madara winces. There are two spots of blood on his sleeve, on either side of his bicep. Hashirama takes his hand off him immediately.

“What’s this?”

“What?” Madara says, disarmed. He notices the blood and his jaw goes rigid. “It’s nothing. It’s fine. It’s—”

“Let me see,” Hashirama demands, and his fingers close around Madara’s wrist before Madara can move his arm away. He winces.

“Are you hurt anywhere else?” Hashirama says, tilting his head to peer behind Madara’s ears. “Your head? Neck?”

“No,” Madara mutters, glancing away as Hashirama attempts to inspect his eyes. “I mean—I’m not hurt. I don’t need—”

“Please let me do this,” says Hashirama, “it’s the least I can do,” and Madara returns his loaded look as he follows Hashirama upstairs.


7.

“It must have reopened in all the commotion,” Hashirama says. “When were you injured? Two days ago? Three?”

“Two,” Madara huffs. Smoke pours out his nose. He sets the pipe down beside the bed and blows out a long line of smoke, coaxing it into a thin little smoke dragon with wispy scales. It curls around Madara’s head like a wreath, flexing its miniscule claws. Hashirama gently bats it away from Madara’s shoulder as he works.

“It’s a fairly clean wound,” Hashirama says. “Looks like it went straight through your arm.”

Madara chews on his pipe. “It did,” he mutters, wincing as Hashirama applies a glowing hand to his skin. Hashirama frowns. Madara’s sleeve keeps getting in the way.

“Madara, just take your cloak off,” Hashirama says after about a minute. “I’ll be able to heal it faster.”

The smoke dragon is beginning to dissolve. “I’d rather leave it on,” Madara says through gritted teeth.

Hashirama gives him another encouraging smile. “Don’t be silly,” he says. “I’m not going to try to fight you. Heaven knows you’ve got enough going on right now.”

Madara takes a long drag from his pipe.

“I know. It’s not that. It’s just—you remember last time, when we—” He gives an almighty sigh. “It’s not that I don’t want to take off my—I mean—oh, forget it, Hashirama,” Madara finishes with venom. He tugs back his cloak to reveal the outfit underneath and Hashirama feels his jaw swing open without his permission because Madara—Madara. He’s clad in a shimmering leather fringe that trails down his forearms and torso, leaving countless tantalizing strips of bare skin; layers of beads and shining golden twine hang at his midriff. The silk sashes wound around his waist, as far as Hashirama can tell, serve absolutely no practical purpose. Hashirama stares at the tiny sliver of skin between Madara’s abdomen and hip and feels as if someone has turned his lungs inside out. Madara is—oh, hell. Madara and his hair and his cheekbones and his powerful arms and his—oh, his hips—

Hashirama convinces his voice to work. “What—what on earth are you wearing?”

Madara stares up at him, expressionless. “Work clothes.”

“What,” Hashirama is breathless again, “were you doing dressed like this?”

“Dancing,” Madara mumbles.

“You dance in this?” Hashirama wheezes. If that isn’t the most divine, alluring, entrancing thing he can think of—he can imagine it now—glistening sweat and legs spread and that leather fringe flying everywhere as those bangles glitter at his hips and his abdomen—does he dance like he fights? Does he know how beautiful he looks when he’s leaping from boulder to boulder, swinging his sword at Hashirama’s kinsmen?

“Well,” Madara says, rather breathless himself, “now you know what I was doing in Shukuba Town.”


8.

“Have you done this before?” Madara mutters.

“Y—yes,” Hashirama gasps as Madara slowly pushes into him. It’s really happening. He’s really lying beneath Madara and Madara’s warm weight is on his thighs and Hashirama bites his lip, squirming—this is real—

“Well?” Madara says. “Are you all right? Talk to me so I know what’s going on.”

Hashirama realizes he’s half holding his breath. “Cold,” is what he comes up with at last, and then “more lube.”

Madara is caught off guard at that. “Right,” he mumbles, turning red, “here.”

The second attempt is more successful than the first. They pause, collecting themselves, and then Madara leans down to kiss Hashirama’s neck and his hair trails over Hashirama’s chest and Hashirama arches and moans at the unexpected contact.

“Hashirama,” Madara mumbles, turning red again, “you are so loud.”

Hashirama moans again in response, even louder this time. Madara bites his lip, looking away. He’s gone still. Hashirama runs his hands down Madara’s arms, his fingers soft on the bandages around Madara’s shoulder. “Your arms,” he gasps. “Madara, your chest…you…”

They get a regular rhythm going and then it’s infinitely easier—just focus on the next breath, the next pounding heartbeat—their thighs are rubbing together and Madara’s lips are on his jaw, his neck, his collar, hot and wet—his teeth nip at Hashirama’s ear and Hashirama actually shouts, shoving his hips forward. Madara’s fingers move down his abdomen and his fist closes around Hashirama’s dick.

“Madara!” Hashirama cries out. “Madara, Madara, Madara—”

Hashirama notes wryly and with some satisfaction that, after a while, Madara is no longer biting his lip to keep his volume under control. And oh yes, he thinks, as Madara throws back his head and moans, he is very much in love with Madara Uchiha.


9.

“Maybe we were kidding ourselves back then,” Madara says. It is two months later and they are lying curled up together, half under the covers. “But still.” He blinks once, twice, three times. “You made me feel…different. Like I could do anything.”

Hashirama smiles, remembering.

“I was so happy.”

Hashirama sighs a long sigh against Madara’s bare back, his arms wrapped securely around Madara’s waist. Was.

I want to make you feel that way again, I want you to love to love me the way I love you—

“Madara?” he says timidly.

Madara props himself up on one elbow. “Huh?”

“Are you,” Hashirama chews his lip, “are you happy right now?”

Madara doesn’t answer for a long time.


10.

Madara lies there, his ribcage crushed, throat torn apart from grief. “You and I are no longer the same,” he says, each word ground out through a bloody throat and punctured lungs, and then he proposes his ultimatum.


11.

You and I are no longer the same.

Hashirama is too nervous to eat that morning, though he knows he should. Fear squirms in him. He can remember waking up early before battles as a young child, and slipping out of bed barefoot just to walk around and have a few minutes of precious solitude before coming back to the compound and strapping on his armor. There are big fat bumblebees visiting the chives across from the newly-built hospital, and birds are calling brightly from the cliff up where he and Madara had talked all those years ago. The sky is brightening gradually, turning from deep blue to a pale sort of lilac at the horizon. It’s almost time.

Hashirama finds Madara exactly where he had left him the night before, still crouched on a boulder between two hydrangeas, watching a brown snail slide down a leaf. Madara’s neck cracks as he turns his head. “Morning already?” he says.

Hashirama frowns. He opens his mouth. About a thousand questions surface in his brain, but he forces them back down. “Yes,” he says. “Nearly time.”

“Hm,” Madara says. He stretches, looking like a big cat. His spine pops. Hashirama bites his lip. He nearly smiles.

“I hope the rain holds off,” Hashirama says.

“Hm,” Madara says again, and they walk in silence to the ceremony.


12.

The rain holds off.

“Um,” Madara says, shaking Hashirama’s hand, “congratulations.”

“I, yes,” Hashirama stammers out. “You too.” A camera flashes somewhere behind them, billowing smoke. There—they’ve just made history. It doesn’t feel real. Peace doesn’t feel real. The village isn’t even built yet. All they have is this platform and the amphitheater and the Senju and Uchiha compounds, still standing on opposite sides of the forest. The village has to go somewhere in the middle. Right now it’s a collection of street vendors and a large field hospital and a pile of blueprints, all marked with Madara's neat handwriting.

“Do you want to,” Hashirama swallows, “get lunch?”

“All right,” Madara says carefully. “I was heading that way anyway.”

Hashirama doesn’t ask anything else throughout all of lunch. He doesn’t dare ask. He doesn’t know what he would do if Madara refused his advances, now that they aren't speaking about—what they used to do. Madara reaches for his chopsticks and his sleeve falls back to his wrist and all Hashirama can think about is fumbling hands and breathless affirmations and Madara gasping as Hashirama’s tongue leaves a wet trail down his abdomen—


13.

Madara, Hashirama says, I love you more deeply than I can possibly say and I want to be with you always. Please, please tell me you love me too.

Madara’s face hardens in disgust and fear and he shuts the door with a resounding snap and Hashirama jerks awake at the noise.

He’s lying in bed, tangled in the sheets, beads of sweat rolling down his forehead. The back of his neck prickles. Hashirama groans. He’s had the dream again. He knows Madara appreciates his company; he knows Madara still considers him a friend, after everything; he knows Madara would tell him if he didn’t want to see Hashirama anymore.

But—some days he caves. He remembers the closeness of their bodies, remembers wandering hands and careful fingers and bare legs and thighs sliding together, and Madara’s low voice saying his name.

He just wants to be sure.

Chapter Text

14.

Tobirama is at the door. “Work on the field starts in ten minutes,” he says. “Madara is on his way with some help.”

Hashirama sits up in bed. “Right,” he says. “The blueprints?”

“Big folder to the right of the desk,” Tobirama says, and swallows the rest of his coffee as he exits. Hashirama drapes his robes over himself and slides out of bed, that familiar blend of anticipation and fear squirming in him. Madara is coming. He opens the folder of blueprints, runs his fingers over Madara’s neat handwriting. They’ve been running back and forth between the compounds for weeks now, compiling plans and contacting farmers and vendors for food. They’ve even gotten an offer from the head of the Yamanaka clan, who is looking to open a flower shop in the new village, of all things. “Let’s get the hospital built first,” Hashirama had said to her, “not that flowers are not vital.”


15.

The walk to the field hospital is blessedly short, and the tall grass is wet underfoot; as Tobirama departs with Toka to work on the newly-built labs, an enormous heron silently lifts off from the pond behind them and soars overhead in the direction of the river. Madara smiles a bit at that.

“Here,” Hashirama says, walking over to the first of four markers they’ve placed the night before, “to here.” He reties the soggy flagging tape. “All this grass needs to come out. We should move some of these larger trees, too.”

Madara removes the wooden sickle from his sash and gets right to work, hacking away at the tangled branches at the edge of the field. Hashirama watches him work for a while, his mouth open slightly, before he remembers what he’s supposed to be doing. Madara is just so distracting—he attacks the brush as if he’s still at war, each stroke of his sickle cutting back more and more greenery. He drags the grass and branches into a pile in the center of the field, then sets down the sickle, pausing to catch his breath. Hashirama quickly turns back to his blueprints.

The sun rises higher, and Madara shrugs his mantle off and folds it over the gate next to the pile of brush. He’s wearing a sleeveless top underneath, and Hashirama can’t help but stare at his arms, his shoulders, the triangle of pale skin between his neck and his chest—he rolls his shoulders and cracks his neck and keeps swinging his scythe at the tall grass, cutting back one long swath after another. Hashirama stares at the sweat glistening on the back of his neck, at the way the muscles in his arms ripple, and feels like Madara has put him under some sort of hypnosis without even using his sharingan.

“Don’t just stand there,” Madara barks, and Hashirama jumps a mile at the impatience in his voice. Then he notices the group of hesitant Uchihas hovering at the makeshift gate. “Hikaku, get a fire going. Yumi, keep collecting this brush into a pile. We need this whole area cleared by noon.”

His voice is deep and clear and self-assured, and Hashirama feels a surge of pride towards his friend as the new arrivals begin doing exactly as he says. He gets back to work coaxing some of the deeper roots back towards the direction of the forest, both hands flat on the ground. The earth trembles slightly as he works. They’ll need to excavate this whole area for the future academy, and he’d rather not cut through hundreds of years of growth in order to do it. Better to gently guide it out of the way.

As noon approaches it’s swelteringly hot by the ever-growing fire. Madara just can’t seem to leave it alone, and he keeps poking at it with the end of his scythe. He breathes little clusters of flaming flowers out of his puffed cheeks, much to the delight of Hikaku and Yumi, who are resting against the gate with their canteens.

“Do the one that looks like a hydrangea!” Yumi calls, and a bright blossom of smoke and fire and sparks unfurls from Madara’s mouth as he smirks across the bonfire at them both. All three spectators burst into applause.

The rest of the clans arrive about an hour later, and it’s a beautiful thing, Hashirama thinks, Uchiha and Senju clearing brush together in the afternoon heat. They break for lunch much later than they mean to, when the sun is starting to sink behind the trees, and although each clan seems to have chosen their designated side of the field to eat on, no one’s face shows any outright animosity. Hashirama smiles and smiles and can’t stop.

“Come on,” he says to Madara as the sun is setting, “let’s see how it all looks from up there.”

Madara retrieves his mantle from the gate and deftly slides back into it, brushing dust and stray grass from the shoulders. It billows around him as they walk to the path up the mountain. The wind is stronger up on the cliff overlooking the forest, and Hashirama retrieves the blueprints from his pocket and crouches down, his haori whipping around him, so they don’t blow away.

“The academy will go right down there,” he says, pointing to the area they just cleared, “and it’ll connect directly to the office, which we’re going to have to add a couple more floors to—there’ll be a yard for the students, of course—not a training ground, although there will be plenty of those—but just a yard for them to play in between classes. Won’t that be nice? And then I was thinking we could arrange the street vendors we have now in a semicircle around the academy, to save space, but later on we’ll expand into—”

“Hashirama,” Madara says quietly, cutting him off mid-sentence. “Put the plans away. I can imagine it well enough. Let’s just…let’s just watch.”

Hashirama silently rolls up his blueprints, feeling foolish. They look out over the forest in silence. The wind blows, and the entire forest ripples, countless leaves flashing silver and gold and green in the light from the setting sun. Chittering swallows chase a golden kestrel across the mountain, and Hashirama watches the smaller birds dive and turn in midair. The kestrel screeches, lifting its wings to hover in the wind. Somewhere behind them, its partner responds.

“Well,” Madara says, “I have the clan meeting to get to,” and he retreats slowly from the cliffside as the hazy light fades from burning gold to a soft, dusty gray.


16.

The north wall of the hospital collapses just before midnight. Tobirama emerges ashen-faced from the rubble, calling Hashirama’s name. There are many injured. Many, many injured. Hashirama comes running. His windpipe feels like the Susanoo is squeezing it. He’s in a daze. The night doesn’t feel real. Nothing feels real right now. Toka is carrying limp bodies out of the wreckage and lining them up on makeshift cots, which are really nothing more than tarps and spare blankets and scraps of cloth. Hashirama directs the troops—clan members, he tells himself, just clan members now—too many things have to be done—supplies must be salvaged; the area must be cleared; so many people need healing. The hours blur together as he works on body after weakly-stirring body—first blood spilt in the new village—but there are no casualties, not yet. Not yet. Hashirama wipes beads of sweat from his forehead. His hands shake as he lowers them, glowing and green, onto the next torso. This one is discolored with red and purple bruises from the neck to pelvis. The man moans. There’s a long bloody gash across his forehead, and Hashirama smooths back his hair and runs his fingers across the cut, knitting it closed.

“Make sure everything keeps running smoothly here,” he says to Tobirama once the situation is stable and the sun is coming up, “I need to get some air.”

Air—ha! Hashirama needs a drink. He needs several drinks. The field hospital, the rows of restless bodies, the desperation and the sweat and the feeling of funneling healing chakra into so many people at once—it feels like the war. Madara is not here. He has no idea where Madara is, he realizes; he hasn’t seen him since the evening before, and it’s been twelve hours since then, at least. He doesn’t know. He’s lost track of time. The sun is nearly completely up. Hashirama blinks rapidly. He’s been healing since midnight, he thinks, with his attention divided and his chakra fractured. He can’t even bear to send a clone back to the field hospital right now. He just—he needs to get away.

Once the thought enters his head he can’t shake it. Away—how far is too far? He takes the winding path up the hill towards the cliff where he and Madara had stood the day before, and he clenches and unclenches his hands at his sides, trying to steady his breathing before it goes out of control. He sits down, maybe a little harder than he intended, but he’s not seeing spots and he doesn’t feel faint, exactly, just…overwhelmed. He’s going to have to watch over this village forever. Every single day. Even on his bad days. Even on those days when he feels like his chest weighs like a thousand boulders and just sitting up in bed is an impossible task. The thought of forever frightens him—will I be able to do it? That’s so many days, so many days I haven’t lived through yet—and before he knows it his breathing is out of control and he’s gasping into his folded arms as he curls into a ball on the cliff, feeling his hands and wrists buzz from the agitated chakra vibrating through them. Get it under control, he tells himself, and he closes his eyes and leans back and puts his feet up and tries to just—breathe. Just be.

He doesn’t know how long he spends lying down up on the cliff. The sun is coming up, and the forest behind him is alive with birdsong. Madara would know all the exact species. When he sits up again, he isn’t so dizzy with terror anymore, and as a bit of wind rises up from the forest beneath him, Hashirama finds that breathing is easier than it has been all night. He watches the village for a while. He wonders which one of those little dots is Madara, or if he’s even down there at all. A trio of vultures circle overhead, wobbling in the air. He watches their progress in silence. His heavy chest feels a little lighter. The future does come one moment at a time, after all.

A pair of brown mating butterflies flutter across his field of vision, struggling to remain attached. He has always felt like he was chasing Madara—all those letters he sent without receiving a response, all the time he spent feeling like Madara was slipping away from him during the war—it hurts his chest to think about. He feels a surge of affection for Tobirama and Toka and the rest of the clan, and for Madara too—it’s painful to think about him. But, in a way, it feels good. It feels right, to think about Madara as he sits up here, in this spot. Their spot.

The sun is fully up by the time he gathers his wits and goes to stand up and head back down the mountain. And, Hashirama thinks, he could go and get that much-needed drink now, if he wanted. But something about the cool air and the view of the forest and the birds singing and the wind in the trees makes him hesitate, at least for the time being. Somehow he feels he should hold off, and he’s grateful for his sudden misgivings. The morning feels too pristine, too sacred to waste.


17.

“Listen,” Uzumaki Mito tells him over coffee the first time they meet, “I have just as little interest in marrying you as you have in marrying me, so let’s just leave it at that for now. We are still allies, are we not?”

Hashirama nods. “Yes, of course,” he says, relief flooding him. He isn’t interested in divulging the whole story to a relative stranger. Still, he feels that she’s going to drag it out of him anyway.

“Besides,” she says, and Hashirama has a vague sense of foreboding, “you’re already spoken for, no?”

Hashirama sets his coffee down so hard that the mug nearly shatters. A piece of ice jumps out of the glass and lands between them on the table, looking like a small translucent slug.

She smiles wryly, unperturbed by his reaction. “Uchiha Madara?”

Hashirama swallows. “Um,” he says, “not—not currently. It’s complicated.” And then he realizes his eyes are wet.

Mito bites her lip, ducking her head slightly. “My apologies,” she says. “I shouldn’t have assumed—”

“No, I’m sorry,” Hashirama whimpers, dragging his sleeve over his damp eyes. “I know exactly how we…how we appear.”

She lays her thin hand on top of his broad one. Her lilac fingernails are short and glossy and shaped like perfect ovals. Their eyes meet, and she silently switches topics. He’s very grateful.

“Your cousin,” she says instead, “Toka. She’s contributed some research on genjutsu for your brother’s most recent series of experiments, hasn’t she?”

“Yes,” Hashirama says again. “She’s brilliant. We couldn’t have repaired the hospital without her.”

Mito nods sagely. “Then what? The academy?”

Hashirama sighs. “We still need permission from the Daimyō to build on that land,” he says. “Feudal politics are awful.”

Mito’s mouth makes a grim line. “I see,” she says. She laughs lightly. “You just leave the Daimyō to me,” she says, flexing her perfect nails, and Hashirama feels a twinge of what he thinks might be terror.


18.

“I know about you and Madara,” Tobirama says that night at the lab. “Pass me the eyedropper?”

Hashirama's body goes completely numb. He doesn’t move. Tobirama’s outstretched hand flexes impatiently.

“Sorry,” Hashirama says automatically. “What?”

“The eyedropper,” Tobirama says again, and Hashirama knows without turning around that his brother is rolling his eyes. “It’s all right, Anija. I think everyone knew. His chakra was all over you whenever you came back from all those recon missions, or whatever you were calling them. I’m not stupid, Anija.”

Hashirama mouths wordlessly. “I know,” he says, at last, stupidly. He hands over the eyedropper.

“You helped me,” Tobirama says matter-of-factly, squeezing a drop of blood onto the center of his intricately-inked sealing scroll. “I want to help you.”

The scroll emits a puff of yellow smoke. Sparks leap from the paper. Tobirama winces. “Blue bowl,” he says. Hashirama passes it to him, his mind still reeling. They work in silence.

“You barely needed help then,” Hashirama says presently. He smiles weakly. “You knew exactly what you wanted. We all knew. You knew just how to make it all happen.”

Tobirama fiddles with the bowl. He bites his lip. “I couldn’t have done it alone,” he says. “Nobody knows medical ninjutsu like you do. There’s no one better in the world. I want you to know how—how lucky I am, to have you here, and so willing to help me. But more than that, Anija, you were—you were—”

Tobirama rarely stutters, but here he pauses to take a pointed breath, as if preparing himself for what he has to say next. “It was nice, having somebody on my side, when I felt like—not quite myself yet.”

Hashirama nods.

“I really,” Tobirama says, “appreciate what you did for me. For this body. And I want you to be happy too. I want to make sure he…makes you happy.”

“Oh,” Hashirama says quickly, “we’re not—we’re not, uh—”

“I don’t want you to feel like you have to chase him,” Tobirama amends, dipping his brush in the ink and starting on a new scroll.

Hashirama pouts. “I’m not chasing,” he begins, but Tobirama huffs at him.

“Oh, come on, Anija, you’re not exactly subtle about it,” he says, beginning to copy the markings from the first scroll onto the second. “I know you still care for him.” He sets down his brush, peels off his gloves.

“You keep everything together, Anija,” he says, laying his hand on Hashirama’s shoulder. “Just—just remember to keep yourself together too.”


19.

Hashirama is coming apart at the seams.

The months go by. He frowns more. He drinks more. He cries more. He feels that swooping despair more often now; whenever his mind wanders it just—comes back to sadness. And it keeps coming back, with greater and greater vengeance, until it’s all he can do to heave himself out of bed, put on his clothes, focus long enough to brush out his hair. Madara is maddening, maddening because their polite distance is not unbearable—often it’s even pleasant—but the thought of the way they are now, compared to the way they used to be, wears on him the way the ocean wears away at crumbling limestone cliffs.

One morning, long after the sun is up, he shuffles down the hall and hears Mito and Tobirama talking at the breakfast table. The aroma of nail polish wafts towards him. Mito is painting Tobirama’s fingernails a deep, poisonous red, a few shades darker than her hair. Hashirama pauses and watches.

“Sometimes he’s fine,” Tobirama is saying to Mito, “and he’s smiling and laughing and getting things done as if everything is normal. And then sometimes he just…he gets stuck. I’m worried about him.”

“Good morning!” Hashirama calls out, strolling into the kitchen as Mito and Tobirama draw back from one another, Tobirama blowing on his newly-painted fingernails. He ignores how unnatural it feels to give his usually effortless beaming smile. Tobirama is watching him as if he might shatter into pieces at any moment.

At the office that morning, things are not much better. Madara looks as if he has just reluctantly rolled out of bed. His bangs are standing up on one side, and he’s staring at the pile of injury reports before him on the desk as if they have personally wronged him. He slowly lifts his hands and massages his temples. After about ten minutes of this agony, he gingerly stands from his chair, wincing at the scraping noise it makes as he pushes it away from the desk, and shuffles out the door. Hashirama watches him go, pursing his lips. “Madara?” he calls.

For a while there is no answer. Presently, Madara croaks from the breakroom, “Can you make tea?”

Hashirama pauses in his survey of the plans for the future 44th training ground and rejoins Madara in the breakroom. Hashirama’s eyebrows rise towards his hairline. “Are you feeling all right?” he says. Madara is pale and clammy-looking, splayed across the sofa on his back with one arm draped limply across his forehead.

“Uh,” Madara says, “headache.”

“Here,” says Hashirama, and goes to move Madara’s arm in order to alleviate some of the pain. His fingers begin to glow.

Madara shakes his head, wincing again from the effort. “Just tea,” he says. “Ginger. Lemon.” Hashirama stands up and reaches into the cabinet for the tin of teabags. The burner positively refuses to turn on. “Here,” Madara says, listening to Hashirama’s increasingly frustrated efforts, and with difficulty he sits up and flicks a spark off his fingertip at the troublesome burner. Violet flames leap up at once.

“I’ll have to have a word with Toka about the stove,” Hashirama says, as the kettle starts to boil. “She can fix it after the meeting tomorrow. Which mug?”

Madara picks the sunflower mug. Hashirama carefully pours him his tea and hands it to him as delicately as he can manage. “I can bring you your reports in a bit, if you want to read them in here,” he says. “But just—just rest for a while, all right?”

Madara makes a muffled noise and puts his arm back over his forehead, obscuring his eyes. “Thanks for the tea,” he mumbles.

“Take care of yourself,” Hashirama says. “I’ll be next door, if you need anything else. Just yell.”

Madara bites back a smile. “That I can do,” he says, and Hashirama’s mind goes elsewhere, to a different time, a different place, a different night—he draws himself back into the present with difficulty and nearly walks into the door as he attempts to leave the room. He thinks he hears a snort of laughter as he goes.


20.

He checks on Madara again after half an hour. He’s finished the tea, and some of the color has returned to his face; he’s sitting up on the sofa, doodling little triangles and diamonds and spirals on a scrap of old scroll. “What are those?” Hashirama says, peering over Madara’s shoulder at the drawings.

Madara grimaces and holds the scroll to his chest, hiding its contents. “Nothing,” he says quickly. “Just—just some leaves.”

“Oh?” Hashirama says. “May I see? I’m rather partial to leaves, myself.”

Madara sighs. “Here,” he says, and holds up the scroll for Hashirama to look at. Hashirama tilts his head, intrigued. They’re simple little designs, but each one is unmistakably a pointed leaf, with tiny curled veins and short little stems. “Nothing fancy,” he mutters, but Hashirama holds up the scroll, gazing fondly at the collection of scribbles. Each one is unmistakably Madara-esque: stark and simple and matter-of-fact, but at the same time elegant and, in their own way, rather beautiful.

“I like them,” Hashirama says truthfully, and Madara turns the color of a roasted beet. “This one is the best,” he says, pointing to the spiral-shaped leaf in the center.

“Yeah,” Madara says, “it is. You remember that time, when we were up on the cliff, and the wind—”

Hashirama smiles. “I remember. You’re still dead-set on calling it the Village Hidden in the Leaves, are you?”

“There’s nothing wrong with that name,” Madara mumbles. “Besides, you’re the one with no imagination. Look at that vest. I think my headache is coming back.”

“Maroon is a perfectly acceptable color!” Hashirama says weakly, but he knows he’s fighting a losing battle.


21.

“Congratulations,” Mito tells him when he wins the Hokage vote, and Madara is slipping, slipping, slipping farther away than ever before.


22.

The instant Hashirama cuts the tape to the newly-built play yard, dozens of children come sprinting in, shouting at the top of their lungs. Hashirama steps back, beaming. Mito and Toka, arm in arm, have come to watch too, and Madara emerges from the office and crosses the street and approaches the scene cautiously.

“I thought it was an emergency,” he admits, “all the screaming.”

“Oh, no,” Hashirama says. “Just…” He takes a deep breath in through his nose, listening to the children shriek and whistle as they bound around the yard. “Excitement.” He puts his hand on Madara’s shoulder. “Come on.”

They sit on the bench across from the one Mito and Toka have claimed and settle in to watch the children at play. Uchiha, Senju, Yamanaka, Shimura, Sarutobi—everyone is here. Crows are calling in the woods behind them, as if they’re all amused too. The youngest Yamanaka child has her fingers in her mouth, working furiously on a loose tooth.

“This way!” cries the tiniest Uchiha—Kagami, Hashirama remembers—and he hops up onto a fallen log and walks across it with his arms spread, wobbling slightly as he goes. Four other children follow suit.

“Kagami seems to have no problem making new friends,” Hashirama says, watching his progress across the log.

Madara smiles faintly. “Unlike some of the parents,” he says, drumming his fingers on the bench.

Biwako unearths a long muddy salamander from beneath a fallen log, and, shrieking, beckons Koharu over to inspect it. Within seconds the entire group is gathered around, passing the creature from one muddy pair of hands to the next.

“Put it on Kagami’s head!” somebody says shrilly, and immediately Kagami is on the ground with mud in his hair and the large salamander lying, unharmed but rather wide-eyed, in his lap. The entire group collapses from laughter. The Akimichi boy is pounding his fists into the mud with incredible persistence. Mito, now perched securely in Toka’s lap, leans over to whisper something in Toka’s ear. They both come away giggling.

Hashirama puts his chin in his hand. “How has the clan been lately?” he says. “Speaking of parents.”

Madara doesn’t take his eyes off the children. “They’re starting to come around,” he says. “They were just as ready to be done with the war as your lot was.” He snorts. “I think they’ve warmed up more to you in the last five months than they’ve ever warmed up to me.”

The tiny Yamanaka child yanks out her tooth. Everyone around her screams with delight as she thrusts it into the air like a trophy, blood dribbling down her chin. Toka disentangles herself from Mito and runs over with a gauze pad, stepping carefully over piles of cackling children.

“Were we like this as kids?” Hashirama says faintly, watching Toka mop up the blood. Mito is laughing just as hard as some of the children, her perfectly manicured hands on her knees.

Madara says nothing.

“We were, weren’t we?” Hashirama says despairingly, his head drooping towards his lap. He brightens up almost immediately. “Remember when we both fell in the river that time?”

Madara bristles. “You fell in the river,” he says primly. “I courageously jumped in after you to make sure you were all right.”

Hashirama laughs. “Sure you did. Remember when you almost sat on a pigeon?”

Madara is nodding, biting his lip. He closes his eyes, and makes a sound that is nearly a laugh.

“Remember that time, by the edge of the woods—” Hashirama stops. Madara’s jaw is clenched. He knows exactly what Madara is remembering: a different time, a later date, different woods, different sensations. A hot arrow of fear shoots through him. He feels like he’s treading on broken glass, sifting through his memories like this. He never knows what he’ll stir up, whether or not he’ll go too far. Remember—after weeks of battling in the mountains—we kissed and kissed against the tree and you tore the front panel off my armor with your bare hands in your haste to undress me? Remember the morning we woke up tangled together on the forest floor and I was too hungover to move and you built a fire and made me tea and wrapped your arms around my back? Remember when you tried to teach me how to dance that night at the inn, and we fell against the bed laughing and you kissed my forehead and told me I was hopeless? Remember our breaths and our bodies and our two hearts, beating together? Remember, remember, remember?


23.

Come here, Madara purrs, beckoning him closer with one curled finger, and then it’s—Ah—hands all over his chest and his thighs and his ass—Madara’s hair is so long and it trails over his chest like silk, grazing his skin as hot fingers dance across his abdomen. Oh, god, he loves when Madara makes his fingertips hot like that. He stares at Madara’s cheekbones, his dark eyes, his strong shoulders, his long pale legs. You are so beautiful, Hashirama gasps, his throat heavy with something indefinable and overwhelming, and Madara just smiles knowingly and circles those hot fingers around Hashirama’s left nipple, sinking into Hashirama’s lap and rolling their hips together in the most deliciously obscene way. His teeth graze Hashirama’s neck and Hashirama whines and tosses his head and the sudden movement wakes him up.

It takes a moment for Hashirama to regain his bearings. Rain pounds against the roof. The sky is black. Hashirama’s erection throbs and he bites his lip and slides his hand down his chest and into his lap. Disappointment surges through him; his blood thrums darkly in his ears. There is a roll of distant thunder as he continues doggedly on. Oh but how he wishes these were Madara’s hands stroking his dick like this, making him quiver and pant and arch his back off the bed—he comes with a quiet sigh and climbs out of bed to clean up. He tiredly observes the damage. The surge of chakra from his orgasm has knocked all his papers off his desk. Later. He’ll pick them up later.

Hashirama climbs back into bed and turns over and tells himself that he will be fine in the morning.


24.

“Sorry I’m late!” Hashirama calls, kicking the office door open and setting his large box on the front desk. “What a downpour, eh? There were so many worms in the road that needed rescuing.” He mops his wet face with his sleeve.

Madara’s lips twitch. He sets down his report. “You couldn’t just send a clone to deal with them?”

Hashirama laughs, drying his hair with the inside of his haori. “One’s out right now, collecting the rest,” he says. “Look what I’ve got. I thought you might want yours in a brighter red than mine. It’ll suit you. I had it repainted, but we can always adjust the shoulders if it’s still too wide.”

Madara leans across the desk and peers into the box, frowning. “Is this—?”

Hashirama beams. “My old armor!” he says, lifting the breastplate out of the box to inspect it for dents. “I wore this when I was sixteen, I think.”

Madara’s left eyebrow climbs steadily up his forehead. “Oh,” he says.

“But don’t worry, I haven’t actually grown much since then!” Hashirama laughs. “Hold out your arms?”

“That doesn’t actually make me feel any better, Hashirama,” Madara mutters, but he does as Hashirama says. He looks ridiculously dashing in it, Hashirama thinks, biting his lower lip. It gleams around his shoulders and torso and hips like the shell of a glistening scarlet beetle. Madara pulls a stray strand of hair out from underneath his left shoulder plate and tucks it behind his ear with careful fingers.

“Turn around,” Hashirama says, “let me see how it fits from behind.”

Madara obliges. Hashirama swallows, mesmerized. Madara, in his armor, with his long hair and his powerful calves and his dark mantle—Hashirama wants to run his hands down those armor-clad hips and worship the twin indents above his tailbone. He stands with his feet apart, strong and poised and effortlessly confident, as if he’s about to whirl around in a dance. Hashirama shakes himself. He remembers the other objects.

“Wait—wait, wait, wait, look at this, Madara, let me show you the best part,” he gushes, and removes a long piece of dark cloth from the bottom of the box and holds it out for Madara to see.

Madara squints at it. “Is this—?”

Hashirama beams at him. “Yeah!” he says, taking a second headband out of the box and tying it around his forehead. “Now we can match!”

Madara inspects the metal plate. He appears to be holding his breath.

“I’m having Tobirama’s made separately,” Hashirama says. “He wants to keep his happuri. Well? Do you like them?”

Madara scoffs. “I can’t believe you used that terrible little scribble to represent our village,” he says, but he puts the headband on anyway.

“It goes with the terrible name you picked,” Hashirama says, grinning. “Besides, it doesn’t matter. We can do whatever we want now. We are famous, after all.”

Madara bites his lip. “Oh, no,” he says. “You are famous. I, on the other hand, am infamous.”

Hashirama laughs. Madara looks at him, considering. “Come for dinner tonight,” he says with a rare smile. “I’ll cook.”


25.

They eat, as Hashirama had expected, in a not-quite-uncomfortable silence. Madara’s cooking is as delicious as ever, although Hashirama winces from the amount of tiny wrinkled red peppers he adds to the rice. Madara’s house is barren and clean; the door to his bedroom is shut, and the only remotely decorative objects adorning the kitchen are a carved wooden box sitting on top of the fridge and a painted mask hanging over the mantle.

Hashirama eats slowly, forcing himself himself to finish all the food he’s given, and is intensely, needlessly aware of every awkward scrape of his chopsticks against the bottom of his bowl, every too-loud swallow as he drinks his tea, every quiet noise his gut makes as he finishes. After dinner Madara sits up on the sofa with his falconer’s glove in one hand and a bottle of deep burgundy polish in the other. Hashirama realizes he needs to pee, but for some reason he’s reluctant to do it in Madara’s house. At what point did he become too uncomfortable to take a piss around Madara? He steels his nerves and steps into the bathroom and closes the door and undoes his hakama. The noise is unbearably loud; the toilet flushing sounds like a small hurricane.

Hashirama comes back into the kitchen. Madara is patching the shoulder of his spare mantle, making tiny, fine stitches and glaring intensely at the fabric as he goes. Nobody glares quite like Madara, Hashirama thinks, and a laugh threatens to burst from his throat and break the silence.

“You want incense?” Madara says after a while.

“Sure,” Hashirama says, feeling like he’s too startled by the sudden vocalizations to be completely sure what he’s agreeing to. Madara reaches into the cabinet and retrieves a jar of incense sticks and a dusty wooden tray. He lights the first stick. It smells a bit like the peppers that Madara put in the rice. Hashirama’s eyes begin to water. There’s a soft, honey-like scent underneath the overpowering heat, though, and a hint of a spice that Hashirama can’t name. The overall effect is actually rather pleasant, Hashirama thinks, once he’s gotten acclimated.

“I like your mask,” Hashirama says finally, gesturing to the wall. The sun is going down.

Madara, thankfully, ignores his voice cracking. He smiles softly. “Izuna painted it,” he says. “He made it for me, right after I became clan head.” He yawns. “Bedtime for me, I think,” he says. “You can stay, if you’d like.” He stands up, stretches, cracks his back, and walks over to the bedroom door—Hashirama feels an absurd flash of hot anticipation—but he opens the door just wide enough to admit a glossy black cat, which bounds across the kitchen and leaps up on top of the fridge. “Yosuzume,” he says, exasperatedly. “Afraid of strangers. “Had to put her in the bedroom. Silly girl. Come on out, Zume, meet Hashirama.” Madara disappears into the bedroom for a few moments, and comes back out with an armful of blankets. “Make yourself comfortable,” he says, and tosses them over.

Hashirama catches the blankets. He looks down at the sofa. “Oh,” he says. Yosuzume lets out a pitiful whine from atop the fridge. 


26.

Hashirama rolls over. His head is inches from Madara’s bare feet. Madara is perched on the chair across from him with his feet propped up against the sofa, cradling a large cup of tea. “Sleep well?” he says, pale and bathrobe-clad.

“Fine,” Hashirama says. He suddenly feels exhausted. “You?”

Madara makes a noncommittal noise. “Nightmares,” he mutters. “Nothing new. You can eat, if you’d like. I can make you something.”

Hashirama sits up, gathering his wayward hair into a loose bun. “Sure,” he says. “What do you prefer?”

Madara gingerly sips his tea. “Not hungry,” he says, “too early.”

“Oh.” Hashirama adjusts his necklace. “I’m fine, then.” A fan is running somewhere behind them, and he feels comforted by its regular metallic hum. Madara has no east-facing windows—he must get nice sunsets on clear nights, Hashirama thinks—but the day looks bright and warm anyway, from what he can see of the tiny square of blue sky from the window over the sink. Madara taps his fingernails against his teacup. The sound brings Hashirama back into the moment.

Madara snaps his fingers. “I should show you the swallows,” he says suddenly, practically leaping off the sofa. “You’ll like them.”


27.

The adult birds are circling back and forth under the bridge, changing directions in midair so quickly that Hashirama feels dizzy. Madara leaps down onto the water with a tiny splash. “Here,” he says, his face brightening into that familiar old grin, “I put a box up a few weeks ago.”

He lifts the lid. Hashirama kneels by the edge of the bridge, tilting his head to get a better look. The nest inside the box looks like a perfect white cup of feathers, with layers of twigs laid carefully underneath. There are four tiny blue eggs inside.

“Oh,” Hashirama gasps. He can feel tears prickling the corners of his eyes, and his heart feels like it’s swelling out of his chest. One of the adult swallows dives at his hair and he quickly withdraws his head from beneath the bridge. Madara laughs.

“I want to put up more boxes,” he says, “next year. We could put a few up on the cliff. Imagine the havoc they’d cause in the village. No straw hat would be safe again.”

Hashirama hurriedly claps one hand over his necklace to prevent a passing swallow from swooping down and carrying it off. “They’re feisty,” he says. “They remind me of someone.” He wants to stick his head into the river and scream as soon as he says it—what the hell are you thinking, Hashirama? Feisty?—but Madara is still grinning.

“Oh? he says. “I was going to say they remind me of you. Always chatting away…big mouths…” His face splits into the largest smirk Hashirama has ever seen. “Swallowing bugs.”

“That was one time!” Hashirama cries out. “It was by accident! I was so upset!”

“You choked on a grasshopper,” Madara laughs. “You’re like a baby kestrel.”

Hashirama opens his mouth to protest, but then he remembers when Madara had shown him his baby kestrels several weeks ago, and decides that there are worse things in the world to be.


28.

That afternoon, on his way from the office to the bar, he spots Madara up on the cliff with the sun setting behind him and an enormous dappled hawk perched on his arm. It flexes its wings proudly, each feather catching the sunlight in the most exquisite way, and Hashirama wants nothing more than to go to him, to clasp Madara’s hands in his own and be with him, be comfortable in his presence, say everything he has wanted to say for months. He turns away and walks on.


29.

“And so I said,” Mito half-shouts, pouring a great deal of her martini down her sleeve, “I won’t be marrying the Hokage, but thank you for your oh-so-endearing persistence, Daimyō-sama.”

Toka puts her arm around Mito, chuckling. “You’ve done it now,” she says. “A storm is brewing, darling.”

“It’s too late to turn back,” Mito says. “We already ordered the food for the ceremony tomorrow. Have you ever tried to cancel catering the night before an event?" She points at each of them in turn. “Don’t ever try.”

Hashirama orders another round. It’s too late to turn back. He wonders where Madara is, if he’s just gone home and gone to bed already. He wishes he could invite Madara out with them, but Madara doesn’t drink. He probably would feel left out. Not that Tobirama is drinking much tonight, either. “Done already?” Hashirama asks him, grinning, but Tobirama is sitting with his arms crossed over his chest and an intense scowl twisting his mouth.

“Save it for tomorrow night,” Tobirama mutters. “Anija, this had better be the last round. You don’t want to—”

“Tobirama,” Hashirama says very seriously, taking hold of his brother’s shoulders, “I only drink when I’m in a good mood.” A hollow feeling settles into his chest even as he says it. He reaches for his glass again. Better. Warm. Bubbly. Flowers made of fire. He loses track of things a few drinks later.

Mito claps him on the shoulder as they’re getting up to leave. She leans in towards his ear. “I think you should talk to Madara,” she murmurs.

Hashirama flails. Just the mention of Madara’s name makes his chest feel unbelievably hot. “I don’t know what to say to him,” he admits, stumbling over his words.

“Just talk to him,” Mito insists. Her liquor-warm breath grazes his cheek. “Ask him how he’s feeling. Tell him how you’re feeling. He’ll want to listen. I talked to him the other day.”

Hashirama’s lower lip trembles. “I don’t even know how I’m feeling,” he gets out with difficulty. He feels like his throat is closing up. His eyes are stinging. The street goes blurry and he reaches out for the nearest wall for support, then misses it by several yards. Mito hauls him to his feet and heaves his arm over her shoulders with ease.

“Up you get, Hokage-sama,” she giggles. Then a frown crosses her face. “Are you crying?”

“No,” Hashirama cries. “Yes. I don’t know. I miss him so much. I wrote to him so many times back then, and he never—he never—”

Mito rubs soothing circles into Hashirama’s back. “All right,” she murmurs, “you’re all right. Come on. Come on, Hashirama, to bed. You need to not be a useless lump tomorrow, remember.”

Hashirama cries harder. “I’m a useless lump already,” he sobs, “just put me down, just leave me here. Just leave me…I’ll sleep here…”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Mito snaps, and in one swift motion she sweeps Hashirama off his feet, puts him over her shoulder, and carries him bodily home.


30.

Very luckily, Hashirama is no longer hungover by the start of the opening ceremony for the newly-built academy. It’s hot in the function room with his new Hokage robes over his regular outfit, but he’ll endure. Drinks are free. It’s a beautiful, starry night. The banquet table is overladen with food—just how thoroughly did Mito threaten the Daimyō?—and Uchiha and Senju and Yamanaka and Shimura and Akimichi and Sarutobi children are ducking and weaving through the crowd, laughing and stealing almond cookies from the dessert table.

“Dance?” Madara murmurs from behind him. Hashirama immediately feels like nightcrawlers are wrestling in his stomach.

“All right,” he stutters, and Madara takes his hand and guides it up to rest on his shoulder. Hashirama runs his thumb over the warm silk of Madara’s kimono, feeling the beads and sequins beneath his fingers.

The music is quiet at first. A few older couples have started to come together at the center of the dance floor, moving slowly together. He and Madara are by far the youngest people out—and, Hashirama notes, the only couple comprised of two men. Hashirama straightens his back and puffs out his chest and decides he is the Hokage and he doesn’t care.

They move in a gentle circle at first, and Hashirama can’t quite figure out where to put his feet, but he knows Madara doesn’t mind. Hopeless, he remembers, from that night at the inn, and he’s grinning into Madara’s kimono. Hashirama knows his chakra is swelling with the music and it feels so good, it feels like it used to, when they were this close and this happy and he twirls Madara around the floor and he’s glittering like a magnificent dragonfly in his indigo kimono, his smile wider than Hashirama has seen it in months—they come back together and Madara’s hand is tight against his and Hashirama’s hand is stroking Madara’s back and—and it feels so good, they still fit together just as well as they used to, and Madara leads him across the hall and presses their foreheads together and wraps his arms around Hashirama’s shoulders, leaning in to hold him even closer than before. They dance together like that for a while, wrapped around each other, as if no one else is even there—

—He’s all that I ever wanted—

He smells like incense and cat hair and spice and smoke and sweat; his chest, his back are both so warm—so warm—

—he’s right beside me, we’ve come so far since those hopeful days by the river—it’s not just a dream—

Madara’s hair is so long and so soft and Hashirama is running his hands through it, swaying gently with Madara in his arms—

—god what I wouldn’t give to have him back, to be his again—

They circle once around the floor just like that, entwined together, breathing deeply, just existing, just being, and they don’t need to kiss to feel intimate—and, Hashirama realizes in a flash of inspiration, they never did, they had something intensely special right from the beginning, and he’s always loved Madara—as a friend, as an enemy, as a lover, as a partner, as an acquaintance—as a coworker, a coconspirator, the other half of Hashirama’s secret society, an equal—and Hashirama feels happier than he’s felt all month—

—I’m so proud of him.

Madara’s breath catches in his throat as they reach the banquet table. His shoulders are shaking.

“Madara?” Hashirama says, but Madara is ducking his head, turning away, tears running down his face— “Madara!” Hashirama says again, more urgently, but Madara pulls away from him, clenching his fists, his jaw, and he holds his hand over his trembling mouth and shakes his head and runs from the hall, and Hashirama is drowning.


31.

Tobirama is waiting by the door when Hashirama gets home, drunk and crying and too dizzy to see straight. Tobirama is livid, and shouting, and Hashirama can’t understand anything he’s saying. It sounds like he’s underwater. He shoves past Tobirama and staggers to the floor and lies there, snot and tears streaming down his face, feeling as if he’s going to throw up, hands clenched on the doorknob as if it's the only thing keeping him from physically sinking through the floor.

“I won’t sit back and let my brother destroy himself,” Tobirama shouts at him. “Anija, oh, hell, please tell me what’s going on. I want you to be all right. That’s—that’s all I want right now.”

“Just—just leave me alone,” Hashirama says with difficulty. “Just stop it, already, I don’t care. I love him. I don’t care if it destroys me.”

“Anija!” Tobirama shouts, more alarm in his voice than Hashirama has ever heard before. It sounds like he’s about to cry too.

“No,” Hashirama moans, “don’t cry about me, you deserve to not have to cry about me—come on, Tobirama, just go—just—”

“Anija,” Tobirama says again, heaving Hashirama into a semi-sitting position. “Please.”

“That’s all I’ve ever done,” Hashirama weeps, wiping his nose on his fancy sleeve, “I’ve just made everyone miserable. That’s all I can do. Just go. Just leave me alone.”

Tobirama lurches back as if he’s been stung. He stands up. He walks slowly to the door. Hashirama muffles a single sob.

“I only have one brother, Hashirama,” Tobirama says quietly, and he steps out into the night.

Chapter Text

32.

He’s still sprawled on the floor in his Hokage robes when he wakes up. He feels less like he’s been asleep and more like he was forcefully knocked unconscious at some point the night before. For a while it’s all he can do to stare blearily at the wall, feeling like his skull is full of molten gravel. The magnitude of his headache is making his eyes lose focus. The room flickers slightly. His whole body feels like one large bruise. At first all he can remember from the night before is crying on the floor and listening to Tobirama shout at him. Then he remembers the opening ceremony, and holding Madara close, and then Madara crying and leaving, and as he sits up in a panic the room gives a tremendous lurch and he slumps against the wall again, defeated by his hangover. The impact of his forehead against the wall sends a wave of pain and nausea through him.

He stays still like that for a few minutes, trying to gather the will to summon a bit of healing chakra for his head. The bright sunlight from the window fades slightly. He—he’s got to check on Madara, make sure he’s all right, he thinks, and his chest goes cold as the thought passes over him. Madara crying— he didn’t imagine it. He’s sure it happened.

It takes him a while to gingerly extricate himself from the Hokage robes. He leaves them in a pile in the foyer. At some point last night he must have lost a sandal. He hopes it didn’t happen at the ceremony. Hashirama pours himself a glass of water and drinks it in tiny sips, trying to calm his racing heart. He must look a fright. He catches a glimpse of himself in the mirror on his way out the door, haggard and disheveled, with half of his hair knotted around his necklace. He winces as the door slams.


33.

“Madara?” he croaks when he reaches his friend’s door. There is no answer at first. Then he hears scratching noises from the other side of the door, at about ankle height. It’s Madara’s cat, Hashirama realizes. She bats at the wood, meowing mournfully. There’s still no answer from Madara. After about a full minute of this tense semi-silence, Hashirama lets himself in. The floor creaks as he steps into the kitchen. Hot fear rises in his throat, and some panicked part of his hungover brain wonders if he’s going to find Madara dead inside. He shakes himself of the thought. Madara’s chakra is strewn everywhere. It seems he’s made no attempt to mask it; even Hashirama, with his limited sensory skill, can feel it quivering and pulsing as he advances through the house.

There’s no sign of life in the kitchen, which looks as clean and unadorned as ever. Yosuzume meows again, padding across the floor to the entrance to Madara’s bedroom. She rubs her forehead against the door, blinking up at him with her big yellow eyes.

Hashirama takes a deep breath, pushes the door open, and follows Yosuzume inside. He gasps aloud. It looks as if a hurricane has torn through Madara’s bedroom. A large wooden box, which Hashirama recognizes as the one that had been sitting on Madara’s fridge the last time he visited, is upended next to a large pile of gray blankets. Countless scraps of yellowed paper litter the floor, spilling from the box in every direction. Hashirama kneels next to the pile of blankets, reaching out, and as Madara stirs faintly from beneath the gray wool Hashirama makes his next, disturbing observation. There are months worth of old bottles strewn across the floor, bottles and caps mixed in with the letters—yes, Hashirama thinks, letters, his letters—and as he reads fragments from the nearest pile of paper a burning lump rises in his throat.

Dear Madara—I hope you are well—I’ve attached medicine, remember to take care of yourself—I want to see you again—Dear, dear Madara—I miss you so—I have complete faith in you—all my love—

The room is turning blurry. Hashirama blinks away hot tears. There’s—he almost laughs at how absurd this observation is—there is no bed in Madara’s bedroom. Has he just been sleeping on the floor all this time? There isn’t even a pillow. Surely he’d have enough sense to at least use the sofa in the other room. But Hashirama thinks back to the pristine spotless kitchen, compared to this unkempt nest of a bedroom, and a cold feeling of despair sinks through his chest. His head pounds. His breath is coming shallow and fast; his heart gives a great twitch of dread. Bottles. Letters. His letters. The thought burns in him like a pulse. I remember. I remember. I remember.

The blankets shift slightly. A pale hand snakes out from beneath the gray folds. Hashirama leans in, hardly daring to breathe. “Madara?”

Something clinks in Madara’s lap as he moves, and as he sits up two more bottles roll in opposite directions across the floor. There are so many, Hashirama thinks, so many that he just hasn’t bothered to clean—hasn’t let anyone see—

“Hashirama?” Madara mumbles faintly, swaying as he attempts to steady himself, and Hashirama winces from the cheap alcohol on his breath. There’s a bottle in his hand, and he slowly lets it roll out onto the ground. His other hand is closed securely around one of Hashirama’s letters. He bows his head so that all Hashirama can see is his furrowed brow and his tangled black bangs. He shakes his head, ever so slightly. His voice is rough and cracked. “I wish you hadn’t come.”

Hashirama mouths wordlessly at him for several seconds.  The gravity of this morning’s discoveries is slowly sinking in, and he feels like he’s stumbled into a very bad dream. “I’m here,” he says at last. “I had to see you. I had to come.”

“You shouldn’t have come,” Madara says. He laughs darkly. “I hoped you would.”

Yosuzume leaps into Madara’s lap. He scratches under her chin absentmindedly. “I knew you would,” he continues in a low mumble. “You just can’t leave something alone, can you, once the idea gets in your head. You’re too stubborn to let things go. You know as well as I do that’s the only reason we have this village in the first place. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry about everything.” He gestures to the room, the piles of letters, the multitudes of bottles. He ducks his head. “And I still had the nerve to—to hope you’d show up, to hope you’d come see me—come find me like this. You shouldn’t have come,” he says again. Yosuzume purrs. A teardrop lands between them on the floor.

“Madara,” Hashirama says. His mouth is dry. Madara, who has always been so collected, so pristine and efficient and clever—Madara, divine, dreamlike, always just out of his reach, too good for him, laid bare like this—his hungover brain feels like it’s liquefying in his skull. “What’s going on?”

Madara looks up and doesn’t answer. His eyes are swollen and puffy. Hashirama stares at the dark hollows Madara’s eyes and the looseness of his bathrobe and wants to close his own eyes and open them again and surface from whatever nightmare he’s unwittingly descended into this morning. Madara presses his palm to his eye socket. His fingernails are painted black, Hashirama notices, frowning.

“Did Mito do those?”

Madara looks down at his hand. “Yeah,” he says. “We’ve been doing lunch. She makes sure I eat.”

They sit in uncomfortable silence. A fan is going in the kitchen, humming blandly.

“You kept the letters,” Hashirama says at last.

“Of course I kept them,” Madara snaps, scratching Yosuzume’s ears. “I kept every last one. All the poems. All the pressed flowers and the acorn caps. All the bandages. All the medicine. Every declaration of love. I know them all by heart.”

Hashirama’s heart gives a great leap in his chest at that. Within moments the sinking feeling returns. “Then why—?”

“I didn’t want you to feel—obligated. I was afraid you would think you had to—” Madara stops, chewing on his lip. “You were always so eager to go along with things. Too eager.”

Hashirama feels like the wind’s been knocked out of him. His mind is reeling. He catches Madara’s shaking hands, holds them between his own. “Madara,” he starts. “I—”

Madara shoves his hands away. Tears are running down his face. “Don’t you see,” he says, “it doesn’t matter. I shouldn’t—I can’t just allow myself to have this now. It’s not fair to Izuna that I have this after I couldn’t even save his l—”

He cuts himself off, looking alarmed. He curls his fists into the floor, biting his tongue. “Everything that happened,” he says, finally, “it was all because of my own foolishness.”

Hashirama is a cyclone. He can barely keep up with his own racing mind. It’s so easy to recognize unwarranted self-hatred in other people, he thinks—especially in Madara—but so difficult to look inside himself and recognize he’s also worthy of respect, admiration, love even. Fear seizes him—how long has he been doing this to himself?—and anger—how could he do this to himself?—before he’s overcome with the desire to help Madara, somehow, in any way he can, while still feeling as helpless and pathetic as ever. And then it hits him—this is how Tobirama feels about me.

“Is that how long this has been going on?” Hashirama says quietly. “Since Izuna?”

Madara nods. Hashirama feels hollow.

“I wanted to belong with you so badly,” Madara says. “This whole time, I wanted…I wanted…but I still—”

He shakes his head, falling silent again. Yosuzume yawns.

“The whole time we were together,” Hashirama begins slowly, carefully. Madara looks up at him. He appears to be holding his breath.

“Did you ever,” Hashirama continues, his heart hammering against his ribs, “did you ever love me back?”

Madara’s face crumples. He puts his head in his hands. “Hashirama,” he says, shaking his head again. He finally meets Hashirama’s eyes. “I have never stopped loving you.”


34.

“You don’t have to say anything,” Hashirama mumbles as he closes the front door behind him. Tobirama is sitting at the breakfast table, staring at the morning paper without reading any of it.

Tobirama closes his mouth and opens it again. “I was just going to say,” he says quietly, “go get some rest, Anija. You need it.”

Hashirama’s eyes well up with tears again. A sob escapes from his mouth. “Tobirama,” he gets out, wrapping his arms around his brother, “I’m really, really sorry about last night…”

Tobirama sighs. He runs his hands through Hashirama’s hair. “It’s all right,” he says, and he leads Hashirama down the hall. “Come on. Sleep.”

Hashirama tumbles gracelessly into bed. Tobirama reaches down and pulls the covers up to his chin. He goes to close the blinds—it’s still midmorning—but Hashirama catches his sleeve between two fingers and pulls him closer.

“He said he needed time,” Hashirama mumbles. “He’s going away for a bit.”

Tobirama nods. “I see,” he says, and Hashirama doesn’t blame him; what else can he say? “Sleep well, Anija.”


35.

Dear Hashirama—

This letter is long overdue, so long that I don’t even want to count the years. I’ve been finding gray hairs recently, if you can believe that. I’m sure Yosuzume has everything to do with those. She keeps leaving whole sparrows on the welcome mat. Thankfully not many people visit me, and those who do fully expect to find blood and feathers everywhere when they step inside.

I sat down to write this letter thinking I knew exactly what I wanted to say, but even from a distance you leave me speechless. I don’t say it enough, I know, but I love that about you. I always have. I know it must have been agony for you, if you were indeed going through what I think you were going through these last few months. I’m sorry, again. I barely gave a thought to your emotional well-being, holding you at a distance for so long after we spent all that time so close together. Or maybe I did think about it, and I put it out of mind to focus on my own self-pity instead. I think I was afraid, you know, that at any moment you would turn around and say it was all for nothing, that you didn’t feel the same way as I did. And I know it’s ridiculous, because I was the one who left you hanging, not the other way around. I thought the less you saw of me, the better. We were both drowning then, weren’t we. I just didn’t want you to hate me the way I hated myself.

But I’ve been thinking about this a lot these past few days. If we can get into bad habits then we can get out of them too. We’ve already changed the world once before. I suppose it isn’t too far-fetched that we can change ourselves. But—just don’t change too much, if you know what I mean. You’re something special, and we both know it. And, dare I say it, I am something special too.

I’m glad we talked. I think it took that conversation to really set things into motion, do you know what I mean? Something has changed. I like to think it’s changed for the better. I want to feel like I deserve happiness—like I deserve you. And I want you to feel the same. I miss you, Hashirama. Someday, when we’re both better, let’s go out for drinks properly. Maybe not for a while. I’m trying not to drink right now. Some days I can do it.

I love you. So, so much. It looks silly, writing it down like this, but the more I think about you the more little moments I remember, and the more I’m convinced of my feelings. I want to shout it from the roof of the Academy. You make me so happy. You always have. Even back when we were kids, I can’t begin to tell you how good it felt, having someone irrevocably on the same side as me. I know you felt the same way. It was us against the world then. But then we made the world slow down and listen to us. We forced everyone to stop and pay attention. I’m so in awe of you. I love your quiet behemoth strength, the wonderful warmth of your chakra, the way your eyes light up when you’re with your brother or with Mito and Toka, or when you’re watching the kids down at the Academy. I want to make your eyes light up like that again. God, Hashirama, I wish you every possible happiness. Right now neither of us are ready. We both deserve to take time to focus on ourselves, to put ourselves first for a little while longer. I’m sure you feel the same way.

In the meantime—I love you. Oh, it felt good to write that.

I love you, I love you, I love you. More than I can ever say, and more than you can ever know. Remind me to tell you in person, properly, when we see each other again. You’ll know when the time is right. I have every faith in you.

Madara


36.

Madara’s right, of course. They both need time to focus on themselves. Over the next week and a half Hashirama turns the long striped feather enclosed in Madara’s letter over and over in his fingers. He goes out to eat with Mito and Toka, spends long quiet nights at the lab with Tobirama, puts off his paperwork and cancels his meetings to take walks outside, see the children at play, see the village in motion. Mito paints his toenails turquoise one night, and he wiggles in his chair and flexes his toes and feels so giddy with happiness that he wants to bound up and down the stairs.

The nights certainly are lonely, and despair creeps back up on him every so often, but he feels content. He’s keeping busy, working hard on himself, no longer coming home every other night drunk or sobbing. The moon goes from a tiny crescent to half an oval, and he finds a simple sort of joy in watching the progress of the universe, and his progress within it.

On the tenth morning Hashirama’s toenails are still mostly turquoise and there are two orchids sitting on his doorstep when he wakes up—one with curled leaves and long yellow flowers, the other with flat leaves and tiny white flowers with magenta centers.

He feels his breath catch in his throat when he sees the flowerpots, hardly daring to believe his eyes. It can’t possibly mean what he thinks it means. He remembers. Of course he remembers. Hashirama wipes his eyes. Meet me up on the cliff, reads the note folded under the flowerpots. There is a tiny leaf drawn in ink under the words. Hashirama sets the orchids on his windowsill and watches them fondly for a few moments before he gets dressed. Then he races up the mountain to join his friend.


 37.

“I went to Suna,” Madara says, showing off the dark glossy hawk sitting proudly on his arm. “His name is Yatagarasu. I’ve been trying to coordinate some sort of postal system between the villages. The local falconers were very enthusiastic about it.”

Hashirama watches Yatagarasu turn his head to the side in order to preen one long, dark wing. He notes that the hawk’s feathers are almost exactly the same shade of brown as his own hair. “He’s pretty,” Hashirama says.

Madara smiles slightly. “He is. He was a gift. International cooperation isn’t all feudal politics, I suppose. Sometimes you get to keep a bird.”

Hashirama brightens. “Speaking of gifts,” he says.

Madara’s smile widens. “I thought you might like those,” he says. “Off you go,” he says to Yatagarasu, who leaps off his arm at once as if he’s understood Madara’s words perfectly. They watch him fly off towards the aviary in silence.

“I was thinking,” Madara begins.

“That’s probably good,” Hashirama says, before he can stop himself.

Madara snorts. “I was thinking, ” he continues, “that starting over doesn’t have to be some grand, enormous thing. We can start over at any time. There’s nothing stopping us from beginning anew right here. Right now.”

Hashirama feels a sort of soaring feeling in his chest. He nods. “That sounds…nice.”

“Do you…” Madara hesitates, staring at the ground before meeting Hashirama’s eyes again, “do you want to start over?”

Hashirama bows deeply. “Honored to make your acquaintance,” he says from behind his curtain of hair. “I am Senju Hashirama.”

“Not that far back!” Madara laughs, and his laugh is so beautiful, so sorely missed, that Hashirama’s face splits into an effortless smile. “Come here. Ridiculous man.”

Hashirama steps forward, tentatively at first, but the warm hug that Madara envelops him is anything but tentative— in fact it nearly knocks the air out of Hashirama’s lungs—and Hashirama wheezes and hugs him back, running his hands through that long hair, feeling those strong shoulders, smiling broadly as Madara rests his chin on Hashirama’s shoulder and strokes his back with unbelievable gentleness.

“I missed you,” Hashirama mumbles, breathing in Madara’s smoke-incense-leather scent as if he’ll never get another chance to do it. But he—he will, won’t he, Hashirama realizes, and the wonderful soaring feeling from before intensifies until he’s crying into Madara’s warm mantle, pressing tiny damp kisses onto Madara’s forehead, his cheeks, his jaw, his lips—

They draw back from each other. Madara is crying too, but still smiling, and Hashirama’s necklace is tangled in his hair this time. “Here,” he says, reaching down to disentangle it. Hashirama gently moves Madara’s hands out of the way.

“Let me,” he says, lifting the necklace off of his neck and placing it carefully around Madara’s own. “There. It looks better on you.” He kisses Madara’s forehead again for good measure.

Madara has turned tomato-red, stammering helplessly at the blue crystal. Abruptly he frowns, squinting at Hashirama’s feet. “Did Mito do those?” he says, gesturing to Hashirama’s turquoise toes.

Hashirama laughs. “Yes,” he says. Madara smirks, apparently satisfied. “I kept busy, without you here.”

“Well,” Madara says, stepping forward and cupping Hashirama’s face in his hands, “now I am here. How will you keep busy now, eh, Hashirama?”

“I’m sure,” Hashirama breathes, leaning in closer, “I can think of…” Madara’s lips are so close, “a few things to do…”

Madara wraps his arms around Hashirama’s back as they kiss; Hashirama can feel Madara smiling uncontrollably against his lips as they tilt their heads towards each other for the first time in what feels like years. They still fit together just as well as they did back then, Hashirama thinks, and sheer joy blooms in him, rising with his chakra. Madara presses his tongue towards Hashirama’s lips and Hashirama loves—god—how he makes his mouth go all hot like that. He lets his own mouth slide open, and then they’re both breathless and Madara makes a low sound in his throat as he runs his fingers all over Hashirama’s neck and jaw and cheeks and nose.

“Yes,” he gasps, and every kiss, every touch, every soft breath on Hashirama’s skin is a reaffirmation of all the letters, all the little moments in the office, all the dances and the spars and the warm nights spent together, all the quiet conversations by the river, back when it all began. “I love you—Madara—”

“I love you too,” Madara says.

Hashirama groans. Madara’s lips attach to his neck and he sinks down onto the cliff with Madara half-falling on top of him. “I didn’t want to say it,” Madara gasps, his breath hot on Hashirama’s collar. “I thought you—I didn’t want you to hate me.”

Hashirama gives a breathless laugh. His chakra swells again. Madara’s hair floats around his face in lovely black clouds. His face is flushed, his eyes alight with happiness. “I could never hate you.”  

“Hashirama,” Madara rasps, surfacing from Hashirama’s neck. “I don’t know if I can do this.”

Hashirama pauses, attempting to catch his breath. “We’re not that old,” he says, chuckling. “Not yet.”

“No,” Madara persists, turning very red, “I don’t—don’t know if I can do this.”

Hashirama blushes. “Oh,” he says. “Do you…do you want to still try?”

Madara lets out a long breath, tucking his wayward hair behind his ears. He kisses Hashirama’s forehead again. “Yes,” he says, “but not right now. I think I have to stop.”

“All right,” Hashirama says, not the least bit disappointed, and he sits up and pulls Madara into his lap. Madara holds onto him like that, his head resting on Hashirama’s shoulder, and they sit together, breathing in tandem, listening to the distant birdsong, watching the sun slowly come up over their village.