He was twenty six, and Madara entered his close friend’s bedroom for the first time.
It was late night in Konoha. Torches and lanterns that usually illuminated the streets had died out once the villagers were persuaded to lay on their beds. Silence reigned in the village.
Madara returned from his patrol with myriads of questions in his head. What kind of measure would the Hokage take about Shimura Hisao? Since when did the roads connecting villages and towns become infested by bandits? Konoha was too focused on clans’ resettlement process that they forgot the safety of their neighboring villages. Those bandits weren’t professionals; they were hungry peasants. Once they saw his patrol team, they fled. Does Hashirama know anything about this?
His intention to inform her disappeared once he saw her sleeping in a roofless large building. Curled on the floor without any mat or blanket. Using mokuton to fight is different than using it to build a house. Madara still remembered her explanation months ago, when he saw her building a house from scratch for the first time.
“During fighting, I only need to focus on fewer objectives,” she explained. “Creating strong wooden structures to protect, bind, or become footholds. Only that. Wooden structure to build a house is far more complicated; they can’t be too thick or too thin. Wooden scraps from battle can be thrown away, but a house will be used for decades. All sizes and spaces have to be calculated precisely.”
She really didn’t need to promise rows of instant houses in Konoha; but the other clans purposely taking advantage of it. Permanent alliance with two strongest clans in Hinokuni, and strong houses capable to stand for generations! Lately he knew from Izuna that the Senju also helped the other eight clans to move in using their own money.
While his best friend looked up to build the roof, Madara’s gaze was locked on her. Her stamina was known to be exceptional, but it was obvious she forced herself past her limit. Her face became thinner. Her chakra flowed out heavily. But once the roof was done, she still managed to walk.
His fingers kept brushing against her hand. Hashirama suddenly stopped midway, her gaze was empty. He was worried she would faint, so he called her softly, “Hashirama?”
She answered it by grabbing his hand. Trembling. She was pale, eaten up by fatigue and village affairs. Whatever she was about to say, it never came out of her mouth.
Madara tightened his grip.
Hashirama hugged him instead, hiding her face on his shoulder. His sense of smell immediately captured her scent of sunshine. His gloves-covered hands found her waist, tightening their embrace. Hashirama’s breath felt heavy on his chest, with her ribs expanding and shrinking slowly. Her body felt heavier in his embrace.
He was upset at himself and those opportunist scums who filled Konoha with their demands. If he was in Hashirama’s position, he would be most capable to reject their excessive demands. But they picked her on purpose.
Everything would be much easier if only Madara was to be the Hokage like Hashirama intended.
She released her embrace, smiling weakly. Madara still had his hands on her arms. “I’ll take you home,” he offered.
Hashirama frowned. “I’m alright…” Her body staggered.
“Hashi—!” Madara caught her before she fainted. He had to carry her with two hands because his gunbai still attached to his back. Her hair fell around his arm, with head facing upwards showing her neck. He really wasn’t accustomed seeing her like this, with armor and sword absent from sight. He took a shortcut through empty houses’ roofs towards Hokage’s residence, keeping his speed steady so her head wouldn’t shake too much.
Halfway, Hashirama opened her eyes, but not fully conscious. “Put me… down…” she groaned, trying to push away his shoulder.
Her protest was ignored until Madara entered her apartment from a wide opened window. Torches and lanterns around the unfinished building were already died out to reduce unnecessary usage. Darkness wasn’t a problem for him; he went through the furniture inside the apartment easily until he found the bed. Carefully he put Hashirama down. Suddenly her hand grabbed Madara’s kimono collar.
“Stay,” she whispered softly. Her eyelids were half opened, but quickly closing.
He did not answer, slowly taking off the gunbai from his back and tucked his best friend in a blanket. After a while her grip weakened, and her arm fell on the bedside. Her breathing became steadier..
In midnight’s twilight, the shinobi goddess seemed so mortal.
Madara looked around the small apartment. Not a suitable place for a shinobi with the highest position in Konoha. She also lived alone; she supposedly brought along one or two servants to take care of her. Sawdusts gathered behind the door, swept by the wind from the sawmill. How could Tobirama let his sister live in a place like this? Hashirama would not live this way if only the voting result came out differently.
When he pulled a chair to sit, he found something scattered on the table. A bundle of village regulations plan, which he put back immediately. The other ones were collection of marriage proposals from six different clans—all of them were meant for Hashirama.
Those papers were crumpled unreadable once Madara left the apartment.
The Great Ancestor would be disappointed seeing you now.
“No… we don’t have any clan meeting today, Sis. The last time was two days ago.”
“Oh.” Hashirama slapped her forehead. Five minutes ago she woke up in her apartment with the feeling that she was about to be late for an important meeting. In the dark she ran to Tobirama’s house, almost panicking remembering her uncles’ lectures a few days ago.
“Sorry for bothering you…” Hashirama turned around, spiritless. Now she had to go through the darkness in such cold temperature…
“Wait,” he called, stopping her, “come in. No need to go back.”
She sighed in relief. When she took off her footwear, she realized she wore a different pair of sandals. She showed them to Tobirama, chuckling. His half drowsy, crumpled face was decorated by a thin smile.
The houses of Senju clan members were scattered in all corners of Konoha, most of them were built by their own woodworkers immediately after the location was deforested at the beginning of village establishment. The dispersed placements unlike other clans made the Senju free to blend in with the others. Tobirama’s house was placed near the village border, surrounded by tall bamboo clumps with a footstep cutting across them. A small creek was flowing next to its side, so the house was never absent from the sound of splashing water. There was only one room inside with an irori fireplace. His straw futon was laid on the other side of the room, the surface still wrinkled from being slept on.
Tobirama gave his blanket to Hashirama, then turned on the fireplace to warm them up. They were silent for a while, watching fire grew from mounds of firewoods. Then Hashirama said, “You didn’t say anything about the proposals.”
“What proposals—oh.” Tobirama wiped his face with both of his hands. “Uncle Joji already rejected them when I was told about it. He said no one is suitable enough to marry you.”
She pulled the blanket closer, her chin placed between her knees. “Then how about you?”
“Me what?” Tobirama put a small kettle on a hook that hung from the ceiling above the fireplace.
A vague smirk appeared on her face, half hidden by the dark brown sheet. “Still having fun living single?”
Tobirama made a mixed sound of coughing and choking. Hashirama patted his back, laughing.
“We’re not at war anymore. We can freely spend our time with family!”
Her brother only murmured about village stability and how many administration work he needed to do, prompting his sister’s chuckle.
Suddenly she remembered something. “Tobirama.” Her tone changed to be more serious. “What if I pass Senju clan leader position to you?”
It was silence for a while before Tobirama made a response, “But, Sis … you’re the one who was chosen, weren’t you?” His forehead furrowed.
“But I never for once attend clan meeting these days,” Hashirama groaned. Her head leaned atop her knees. “I don’t lead the war anymore; I’m much more occupied by village affairs lately. You know more about our clan’s circumstances, you’re more capable of negotiating with our uncles in the clan council.” She observed her brother’s face under the fiery shadow. “You’re the only one I trust.”
And her uncles only trust her brother.
Tobirama poked the fireplace once more, he pulled his black kimono sleeves so they wouldn’t fall. “Alright. Even if I refuse, you will still insist anyway.”
Hashirama smiled widely. “Well, what can I say? I know I can count on you.”
“Don’t forget to attend the next meeting so your decision can be made official.” He turned his sight towards the shoji door. Shadows of swaying bamboos reflected on its paper surface. “Actually, I intended to suggest the same thing. You’re already too busy taking care of our village.”
“I still can do it.”
“You fainted two days ago,” Tobirama almost raised his voice. “After you built the inn.”
Hashirama’s jaw dropped, her drowsiness suddenly gone. “I… I don’t remember…” Yesterday morning she woke up in her apartment, concluding that once the inn was done she walked home alone by herself. “There’s no way I could faint. Impossible.” She never fell ill.
The kettle whistled from boiling water. Tobirama poured its content into two different clay glasses. The smell of tea leaves filling the room. “You’re fatigued. How many times have you slept in the Hokage office? During a meeting? Even back then, you did. Just let the woodworkers finish the other houses. You’ve made too many of them.”
To see him like this sparked guilt within her.
“Madara took you home,” Tobirama continued, putting a cup of tea in front of her. “He asked me to take over more of your responsibilities.”
“Madara was…” Her sentence left unfinished. She remembered now. Madara met her late at night. Her chest began pounding as she remembered how she fell into his embrace…
She no longer listened to her brother’s words.
The sun had risen when Hashirama and the entire village council were ready in the eastern part of their village. She had done one last check of their preparations. Food supplies were ready, consisting of deers and freshly harvested vegetables. The inn she grew had been filled with furniture and sliding doors. The wisteria and kousa trees stood gracefully, with their purple and white flowers dangling above the pedestrians’ heads. Children peeked from behind walls and trees, their faces filled with curiosity.
“Brats,” Inoha groaned after he told three children to go away from behind a pine tree. “They keep coming back even when I have scolded them.”
“Let them be,” Shikana said. “It’s normal for them to be curious; peasants like us rarely visited by noblemen. We’re the ones who usually have to come to them, even if they’re the ones seeking for us.”
Everyone wore their best clothes. Hashirama was amused to see Inuzuka Tsubaki with her hair slickly combed, and a small comb attached on her hair bun. Her kimono was pale blue with a dim red obi. She glared at her. “Unfair!” She pointed her finger at the Hokage’s face. “Why is your kimono so casual? I thought you’d dress up too!”
Hashirama only wore her daily kimono with a warm white haori. The only accessory she wore was a necklace with green crystal liontin; Senju clan’s inheritance for generations. She let her hair fall down. The Hokage laughed listening to Tsubaki’s protest. “We will be with them all day. Would be better to wear a comfortable kimono.”
Hyuuga Mori patted Tsubaki’s shoulder sympathetically as the woman growled. The leader of Hyuuga clan wore a humble black kimono with his hair combed back. Tsubaki quickly found Shimura Keita on the edge of their line, she lifted a bit the bottom part of her skirt as she approached the young man. Keita quickly moved closer to Akimichi Chokichi—trying to hide, but failed.
The Hokage looked around her. Far from the clan leaders, Madara stood under pine branches. Its shadows hid his face profile. His arms crossed on his chest as he watched the crowds with bored expression.
“How long?” he asked once Hashirama approached him. Madara wore his daily dark kimono. His hair was loose and wild.
“They’re already close, according to the last returning patrol team.” She tilted her head. “Your hair is messy.”
He glanced at his own shoulder uninterestedly. “It’s always like this.”
“At least tie it up.”
“There will be no difference.”
Hashirama had opened her mouth to persuade him again, but she heard someone calling. She left him alone. One of her Senju cousins told her that Sarutobi and Aburame clans were close, estimated to arrive tonight. Quicker than anticipated.
“They departed earlier,” he reported. “There’s a strange weather going on in the west side of Hinokuni lately. Cloudless storm, something like that, Hokage-sama. Gotta avoid.”
“Then send a pick-up team and prioritize the elderly and the sickly … you understand the protocols, right?” Hashirama suddenly realized she should be coming to assist those two arriving clans and place them in available houses. But, she couldn’t miss the Emperor’s welcoming party as much as she wanted to welcome the new villagers of Konoha.
As if smelling trouble, Tobirama suddenly appeared next to her. “Let me go with them.” He nodded to bid farewell to Hashirama, grabbing their cousin’s arm. They went away talking about bringing along some healers from the hospital. The Hokage took a long time staring at their backs, until someone touched her hand.
“Come on,” Madara whispered in her ear. “The Emperor is here.” He held her hand as they approached the crowds.
She couldn’t take her eyes off his rough knuckles. She didn’t have the chance to ask him about the night when she fainted…
The sound of organized footsteps caught her attention. The first thing she saw on the end of the road was two lines of samurai in dark grey uniform marching towards them. Their armors were similar to one another, each of them wearing simple helmet without ornaments. Even their postures were similar. Masks covered all of their faces. There should be around twenty men. One samurai in red armor and horned helmet stood out amongst them. Seemed to be their leader.
Those samurai led a luxurious palanquin carried by four muscular men in pale green clothes. Gold ornaments decorated its red roof, all four of them sparkling under morning sunshine. Its front was covered with partition made of water grass, hiding the passenger from the view. Once they approached closer, another three lines of people dressed in splendor marching behind the palanquin. From their looks, they seemed to be important figures or entertainers of the entourage. Of the rearmost were groups of servants carrying heavy chests with a few horses.
The samurai stopped in front of the shinobi, turned around to face each other, and kneeled. The four palanquin carriers then slowly kneeled in unison. Once the passenger moved, a man hurriedly ran from behind the entourage. He brought a pennant with Hinokuni symbol on it.
“His Imperial Majesty, Emperor Madoka Nobutada has arrived!” he declared loudly, and slammed the tip of his pennant to the ground.
Hashirama immediately kneeled and expressed her greetings. “I am Senju Hashirama, The Hokage, welcoming His Imperial Majesty into Konohagakure.” All clan leaders behind her simultaneously followed her move. She heard a swish of kimono fabric, then saw a pair of feet covered in blue sky shoes stopped in front of her.
“Heeeyyy, Matsudaira didn’t tell me that the Hokage is a woman this beautiful!”
The samurai did not follow them into the inn except five, including the one in red armor. They still wore their masks. The others stood on guard around the building, with their grips on their swords’ hilts. They only allowed eight clan leaders and servants who brought food inside.
The center hall had been decorated and turned into a private banquet room. The mokuton floor was shiny. Cotton pillow mats were placed in front of small tables with tea and sweet potato treats on top.
The Emperor ordered every entertainer in his entourage to get ready. Leaving only three musicians, the samurai in red armor, and a short bald man in red cloak decorated with golden threads. His dangling moustache moving comically as he chewed on his treats.
Four other samurai in the room kneeled stiffly with their treats untouched. Their masks stayed on their faces, even with their helmets removed. Only the red samurai put down his mask. He observed Chokichi who was devouring his treats enthusiastically before eating them carefully.
Emperor Nobutada himself laid on his side, savouring the food with his lips loudly in every bite. He supported his head with one arm. His purple silk robe spread on the floor. “This is so delicious! Oi, you have to try it,” he addressed one of the samurai in the room.
His offer was denied by the samurai, but it didn’t bother him.
“I really didn’t expect a village to be able to make treats this complex. Or strong wooden houses everywhere.” He sat straight; his smirk wide. “Or even knowing that the village ruler is a woman!”
Ever since Hashirama introduced herself along with other seven clan leaders at the gate, the Emperor’s attention had always been on her. He caused the samurai become resentful. His expression was stiff, but his eyeball movements indicating that this habit wasn’t something new for him.
“I thought Senju Hashirama was a man, you know,” Nobutada continued, with one leg upright supporting his hand with a glass in it. “I already heard many things from Daimyo Matsudaira about your achievements. Leading a war, flattening a hill in a blink of an eye. Even you can’t die! It was said you can also grow an entire forest in one breath. In addition to that; a woman!”
Hashirama smiled, and expressing her gratitude politely. “Those are such exaggerated rumors.”
“That being said,” the moustached man chirped. “It won’t be a fact once it’s mixed with gossips.”
“Ah, you’re too pessimistic, Ukyo!” Nobutada waved his arm. “I didn’t even believe that until Matsudaira told me himself. That’s why he keep paying for Senju clan to protect his borders. Stingy old geezer like him!” He stopped to drink his tea. “But, you really deserve to hold the title of shinobi goddess. Not just strong, but also exceptionally beautiful!”
“Yes, but still a woman,” Ukyo chirped once more. “Those were some exaggerated gossips. We all know that since long ago that ninja only use farming tools to fight…” he stopped to burp. “What can you do? Female ninja are just—”
Madara slammed his glass on his table. The samurai frowned upon hearing it. Behind Madara, the clan leader trio ino-shika-cho exchanged stares uncomfortably.
“Oh, and you,” Nobutada turned towards the Uchiha clan leader, completely ignoring Ukyo’s remark. “Matsudaira is really afraid of you and your clan. The demon, he said. One stare is enough to kill.” He chuckled. A servant approached him to replace his tea with a bottle of sake.
“Daimyo Matsudaira isn’t wrong.” Madara replied coldly.
Nara Shikana moved next to Ukyo and start talking, “What do you think about our village?”
“A slum,” he snorted.
Shikana laughed politely, yet continued their conversation. One entertainer in comedic costume came down from the upper floor, entertaining half of the clan leaders with jokes from the capital. Tsubaki and Chokichi’s laugh echoed louder than everything else.
“This is very shocking, you know.” Nobutada gestured the servants to pour sake for everyone. Only Hashirama and Madara stayed to listen. “All of my council members’ jaws dropped once they realized many ninja clans are united. Then the daimyo urged me to lend the samurai to get rid of bandits. Of course I won’t!” He drank his sake, then calling for another servant. “Bring down the chests. Now, where were we?”
“Daimyo and samurai,” the samurai answered. His tea was still on the table. He was silent most of the time, almost making Hashirama forgot that he was around. “It will be better if we go straight to the point.”
“Hold on, Shigenobu, relax for a little bit, would you?” Nobutada complained.
Madara sipped his tea carefully, exchanging stares with Hashirama. He left his sake untouched. The Hokage felt her temples pulsed.
“Yeah! By the way.” The Emperor brushed his clean shaved chin. “Why do you have to be the Hokage? Why not you instead?” His second question aimed at Madara. “Lady Senju is still young and beautiful… you should come with me to the palace—”
Shigenobu cleared his throat loudly, which responded by Nobutada’s laugh. Hashirama felt Madara’s chakra flowed towards the Emperor. She quickly touched his hand.
“Hokage is chosen by all clan leaders and their advisors,” Hashirama explained. “We use voting system.”
“Oh! Very democratic.” Nobutada stared at Madara. “All this time I only thought of you ninja as barbaric killmongers, witches, and all sort of those things…”
Nobutada took a deep breath. ”Please pardon Shigenobu, it’s well-known that samurai usually dislike ninja.”
“It’s alright.” Hashirama nodded towards the samurai.
Shigenobu seemed to be young, probably as young as the Emperor himself. His stiff face profile and stern sitting posture caused him to look older than he was. He didn’t bother chit chatting nor arguing against Nobutada. It’s already a public knowledge that the samurai deemed ninja way of fighting as dishonorable and justifying all means.
“Oh. My intent of visit.” Nobutada put down his sake cup. “Both of you know anything about Tsuchinokuni? A hilly country on the north of Hinokuni?” Without waiting for the two shinobi to respond, he continued, “Their emperor is busy expanding his empire southwards. Using ninja.”
“You want us to fight for Hinokuni,” Madara said. “Don’t you have an army of samurai? Or are they not enough to fight off Tsuchinokuni?”
Shigenobu’s fingers were ready on his thigh armor, staring at Madara suspiciously.
“Yeah, you need a ninja to understand another ninja, don’t you?” Nobutada shrugged.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, young lady, Tsuchinokuni also has a ninja village. Iwagakure, as rumor said. Established with sponsorship of their own emperor around less than a month ago.”
Hashirama blinked. Another ninja village? In a country she only heard from vague rumors told by travelers? It’s been two years since their alliance treaty was signed, but most of their time and resources had been used to deforest, resettle the villagers, and building infrastructures. What kind of clans existed out there? Would it be—
Madara’s voice broke her musings. Hashirama turned her head towards her best friend, confused.
Nobutada tilted his head. “No?”
“Konoha will not fight anyone for you.”
“Careful now,” Shinobu growled. “Remember your position and who you are.”
Madara quickly responded, “If so, then should I need to remind you of where you are now?”
The four samurai at the corners moved. Shigenobu stood up. “You—!”
“Sit down,” Nobutada ordered flatly. “You too,” he added towards Shigenobu’s subordinates. “I don’t demand your answer right now, Lady Hokage. But, think about it.” He looked around the room. The sound of people laughing and music had stopped, everyone stared at them. Nobutada yawned widely. “I also want to sleep before dinner.”
“We will think about it.” Hashirama glanced at Madara, gesturing him not to leave the place without her.
The Emperor smiled, the bottom part of his robe trailed on the floor as two servants showed him to his chamber.
“So… that’s what happened.”
All eight clan leaders gathered in an empty house not far from the inn. Outside, some of the musicians held a street show to entertain a crowd of children and adults. A servant distributed sweets and knick-knacks from a large wooden chest. The children’s happy cheers filled the streets.
“What are you waiting for? We should accept the offer,” Inoha said, his words were met by approving nods from Chokichi and Tsubaki. “Many have questioned when will we go to war again.”
“Konoha isn’t built to facilitate war, Inoha-san,” Hyuuga Mori responded, the only one sitting on a chair. His breath was rapid. “We’re tired of waging war against each other, isn’t that so?” He stared at Madara and Hashirama, seeking support.
“Konoha isn’t stable enough to go to a large scale war. Some time ago, we fought against each other. Today we wage war against Tsuchinokuni, how about tomorrow? Isn’t it enough already for us to kill one another?”
“The truth is we still need money, Uchiha-san…” Shikana held his yawn. “I had a talk with Ukyo. He is the one dealing with regional tax. Konoha stands on the neglected part on the edge of Daimyo Matsudaira’s region, but we’re not under his rule, if you understand what I mean.” He glanced around. “Hokage will receive a status equal to a daimyo.”
“That’s really good!” Tsubaki exclaimed from near the window.
Shikana shook his head. “Not everything. We don’t need to bow down to any daimyo, that’s true. But the status means we have to pay the same amount of tax as the daimyo does to Emperor Nobutada. Daimyo Matsudaira pays a chest full of money, a chest full of gold from his gold mine, and ten wagons full of natural resources twice a year.”
Hashirama massaged her forehead. Their harvest was calculated to only suffice for their own consumption. The clans with professions other than selling their services to the daimyo didn’t get enough income to subsidize each other. Once again she’s reminded of Tobirama’s words several days ago.
I know you made a deal to fund their resettlement, but we can’t afford to fund everything.
However, consenting to Emperor’s request meant they have to wage war once again. But this time, fighting against foreign ninja they never knew. Once again, they would be used as tools to quench the rulers’ thirst for war. But, how would they earn money if not by stealing enemy’s informations or killing someone?
“We are shinobi,” she heard Shimura Keita talking softly. “Shinobi are born to fight.” Then he hid behind Chokichi’s body again, like he was embarrassed for speaking without being asked.
“I agree,” the big and tall man added, “the samurai don’t know what they’re facing against. They’re ninja, and us as well. They are our opponent. Besides, so many young people are agitated. They keep asking when will we fight a war again.”
When would they send children to die pointlessly in the battlefield? When would they bury another children who died pointlessly from being slaughtered by the adults? When would she have to tell the parents that their children had—
Madara put a hand on Hashirama’s back. “It will be better if we postpone the decision until Sarutobi and Aburame clan leaders arrive,” he said. “Hokage-sama, let’s go.” He led her out of that house.
Hashirama didn’t even have the chance to bid farewell with her council members. She bowed her head down during the walk. Her steps were fast and lengthy, slowing down only when she had to go through crowds of excited children. Madara walked next to her, with his black hair and kimono made a silhouette similar to a sign of grave danger.
Like a demon.
Once they reached closer towards the hospital, Madara touched her wrist, looking concerned. Hashirama walked through rows of pine trees, avoiding gaze from people who might came across. The streets around them were empty and quiet. Her eyes focused on the ground. Weeds under her feet had turned brown. Summer was passing.
She buried her brothers during summertime like this, a long time ago.
Kawarama came home in a coffin.
Hashirama did exactly like her father asked once she came back from the riverside. She joined the other women left in the village, cooking dinner and eavesdropping for newest gossips. Everyone acted so calm, as if they knew nothing about half of their families were gambling their lives in the battlefield.
This shouldn’t be normal. This should be strange. The young girl was anxious, worried, and weary. What kind of person dared to put a sword in a child’s hands and ordering them to fight in a war?
When everyone fell asleep Hashirama stayed outside, challenging the cold night under layers of haori. She sharpened her hearing, observing sounds around the village. Only the buzzing insects and rustling leaves echoed for hours. She watched the bonfire lit by the night guards in drowsiness. All were women.
The figure of a strange kid she met by the riverside that noon filled her thoughts. He couldn’t be a Senju kid. He had a rather unfamiliar face compared to kids in this village. But what kind of other ninja village existed around there? She hadn’t remembered all of them…
Tree branches cracked. Men descended from the trees in quick movements. One by one landed on their feet, with some of them carrying wooden coffins on their backs.
Hashirama’s heart was pounding unabatedly.
The carriers put the coffins down on the center of the field, then disappeared into the darkness of their houses. She saw Itama landed on the ground, staggering from exhaustion. She quickly approached and hugged him.
“Sis, let me go,” Itama complained, his chubby hands upsetly patting her back.
“Where is father?” she asked impatiently. There was a dried smear of blood sticking on Itama’s cheek. “Tobirama? Kawarama?”
Itama looked away. He almost couldn’t keep his eyes open, so she released him to stagger into their house. Hashirama tried to see through the silhouettes of her recently arrived relatives, looking for familiar figures of her father and brothers.
“Why aren’t you asleep—” Tobirama did not finish his words because she pulled him into a tight embrace. Her brother groaned in pain, complaining about his fractured arm. Hashirama released him, intending to find their father, but her brother grabbed her arm.
“You should go inside,” Tobirama said. “Come on.”
Their father arrived. He composedly walked past the bonfire, before putting down a wooden coffin from his back, placing it next to the other coffins. The coffin he brought was comparably smaller than the others.
Senju Butsuma dragged her into their house. Hashirama wriggled voicelessly, but the pain on her upper arm hindering her from getting free.
Hashirama’s eyes were swollen because she cried the whole night. She did not dare to cry aloud. Next to her room, she could hear Itama’s restrained sobs. After dawn, they buried everyone, including Kawarama. Itama’s cry bursted out loud, but their father ignored him until the coffins were dropped into the graves.
“Shinobi should not cry!” he scolded. “Shinobi are born to die fighting! We are lucky because we still can bring parts of his body home. The Uchiha clan attacked suddenly in the middle of battle. Kawarama died in honor.”
She couldn’t take it anymore. “Kawarama was seven! Until when this war will go on?”
“Until all of our enemies destroyed. Creating a world without war is not easy.”
“So you would sacrifice children too for that purpose?”
Butsuma slapped her hard, enough to make Itama stopped crying. Hashirama’s right cheek was struck by a hot and painful sting. Her body wobbled, she would have dropped to the ground had Tobirama didn’t catch her quickly.
“Don’t you dare insulting Kawarama’s sacrifice! He was a true shinobi. Not a child at all!”
Her two brothers bowed above her. Hashirama touched her bruised cheek carefully, tasting something salty flowing in her mouth.
“Are you alright, Sis?” Itama asked her softly as he helped her stand.
Hashirama only managed to give him a weak nod. She observed their faces. Tobirama was only ten, and Itama was half his age. If she was regarded as a child, then what about them?
She swore she would never let her two brothers become victims of this damned war.
“How could you say Senju clan is full of compassion?” she shouted loudly to Butsuma’s back. Her cheek pulsed painfully, yet she tried not to mind the pain. Her father should listen to her opinion! “What the hell is ‘true shinobi’? Everything about this is only about adult men beating up little children! We also slaughter the Uchiha children, don’t we?”
The sounds of shovels digging into the ground had gone. The gravediggers stopped their work to eavesdrop.
“You know nothing, Hashirama.” Butsuma had stopped walking. “First of all, you are not a shinobi. The shinobi respect the strength of their opponents. Even if they are babies with weapons in their hands; they are shinobi.” He turned towards her, with his fists clenched. “Making my sons into shinobi is a proof of my love and compassion towards them!”
“Do we have to die to be true shinobi?” the girl growled. “Killing and be killed without knowing the reason why… even telling your own name can be dangerous!” She took a deep breath before shouting again. “This kind of shinobi world is a mistake!”
“Mind your words, Hashirama!” Butsuma approached forward, about to hit her.
Hashirama’s left cheek would be swollen and bruised too had Tobirama did not put himself between his sister and his father. “Otou-sama, don’t!” he begged with arms stretched. “Please forgive her. She’s only sad because Kawarama…”
“Tch.” Butsuma clutched his own wrists. “Go away from my sight and calm yourselves down! Shinobi must be able to kill their own feelings, keep that in mind!”
Hashirama left first, followed by her brothers. She didn’t stop until she reached a giant tree stump far from the burial site.
“If we want to stop the war, we have to make a treaty with the enemy,” Tobirama said. He stood on the edge of the stump, staring into the dark wilderness. “All of those adults are idiots.”
“Ninja doesn’t make any treaty,” Hashirama said abruptly. Her cheek was still painful, but the swell had eased. “Every side will assume their opponents are going to betray them first.”
“How about ninja’s family?” Itama asked slowly. “How about… wanting for revenge? I’m angry, I want to kill the bad guy who killed Kawarama-niisan…” He snorted his snot back loudly.
Hashirama stared at her youngest brother in disbelief. He was only five, yet already speaking of revenge….
“You will also die if you think that way,” Tobirama said in dismay.
“Maybe…” said the oldest slowly, “maybe we can try making peaceful treaty with our opponents…”
Her brothers stared at her in confusion. No one responded to her idea, so Hashirama let it blown by the wind; forgotten.
Tobirama’s words were proven to be true in the next two weeks.
“You look pale.” Leaves rustled under Madara’s sandals.
Hashirama swallowed her saliva. Her throat tasted bitter. “I don’t want to say this, but…” She looked up to stare at him. “Inoha and Chokichi are correct.” Remorse crawled in her heart at once; annoyance surfaced on her best friend’s expression.
“How could you agree with them?” he scolded, “Konoha isn’t founded to gather military strength. Did you forget?”
“I didn’t forget, Madara, I really didn’t.” Hashirama lifted her palm, gesturing him to calm down. “But we also need money. Our main income since long ago comes from, well… from stealing informations and espionage. From killing.”
“Then what is the difference with our past?” Madara scoffed in annoyance. “Making children kill each other… all of those bullshits about shinobi pride…”
“You are your clan leader, aren’t you? You should know about your financial situation.”
Madara stared at her in silence under the shadows of pine trees.
“Without missions from the daimyo, our income has reduced drastically. Resettlement to Konoha also costs a lot.”
“If that is the reason why you sympathized with their opinion, Hashirama, then you shouldn’t be funding their resettlement.”
“I’m only helping them!” Hashirama stood straight. “Our clan has quite a lot of money—”
“Has it ever crossed your mind that your decision wasn’t fully agreed by your clan council members?”
It was her turn to be silenced. Had Tobirama did not tell her, she wouldn’t know what had been discussed in Senju internal meetings. Financial problem was surely discussed, otherwise Tobirama would not urge her to ask for debt repayments from the clans they helped.
She leaned again on a pine trunk. “We could send only adult ninja to fight against Iwa…”
“So pathetic,” he said cynically. “After all our efforts to stop inter-clan wars in Hinokuni…”
The Hokage did not argue him. Completely silent. Her eyes wet.
Hashirama felt a gentle touch on her cheek, then her chin was lifted. Slowly Madara hugged her. She took a deep breath, resting her head on his shoulder. Madara’s fingers slipped among her hair strands.
The burden on her shoulders became lighter in a heartbeat. She didn’t want to leave. She wanted to rest on his shoulder for a longer time. She didn’t want Madara to leave her, to be far from her, unreachable by anything but her mind. She wanted to spend more time with him, amongst her bustling schedule of handling village affairs…
“I asked Tobirama to take over clan leader position,” she said suddenly. “It will be official in the next meeting.”
“...I see.” His hand movements stopped, then pushing her gently until her back touched the pine tree. Madara stared at her deeply. He didn’t seem to be angry or annoyed. “Feeling better now?”
Hashirama nodded and smiled weakly. Her hands were still on his waist. “Don’t leave just yet,” she asked.
“I still want to hug you.” She sank her face into his chest. Not long after, she felt her shoulders being pushed away again, and her best friend’s face lowered closer to her.
Something rough and wet touched her lips. Her heart felt like it stopped pounding once she sensed another tongue touched her lower lip, then pounding harder once she opened her mouth for it.
Under the pine shades and in the whirlwind remains of summer, Madara kissed her lips. His kiss started as something gentle before it became intense, asserting in and capturing her in every touch. His breath was as heated as fire, like the remains of his katon jutsu, yet it made Hashirama clutching the back of the Uchiha’s clothes even tighter, feeling his muscles moved as they made out. He bit her lips gently as his hands trailing down her curves, causing her to softly moan in reflex.
Hashirama brought herself closer to him. She just realized that she was missing him so badly. All of her exhaustion and work were set aside from her mind. She wanted him now; her desire burning and brimming ready to break free—
Their lips were finally apart. Hashirama quickly pulled him back, but he stopped her. “Not now,” he whispered in the Senju’s ear.
Red met dark brown.
Her face felt incredibly hot, and her eyes were wet. “Madara, I…” She was speechless all of a sudden. She couldn’t express her wish properly.
“It’s already dark.” Madara’s thumb brushed the corner of her lips. “The Hokage cannot be late for her dinner, no?”
She groaned in frustration. She really wanted to skip the dinner with Emperor Nobutada. Hashirama only needed Madara; alone with him, touching him, kissing him…
As if he could read her mind, Madara pulled her closer once more, kissing her deeply. She circled her arms around Madara’s shoulders, then rested her forehead on his chest again to adjust her breath. His skin was warm in the dropping air temperature.
“The longer we are here, the bigger the possibility we are creating a scandal,” Madara reminded. However, his lips trailed down her jaw and neck, landing warm and gentle kisses, making her tremble for trying to hold her own moan.
“I don’t care about that,” she whispered, in restrained breath. “Use your genjutsu, or something else…”
“I’m not the only genjutsu expert in Konoha, Hashi.” Madara ended a trail of kiss with a blow of steamed breath below her collar bone, between the necklace and her cleavage. “We will continue this later.”
She whined, “Madara…”
The hospital had been quiet once they left the rows of pine trees. Hashirama tightened her arms onto her body to hold off the cold air and her soaring frustration. Madara didn’t seem to be bothered by her attitude, even seemed to enjoy the situation. Hashirama was trapped between wanting to lash out or dragging him to her residence immediately.
The heat in her cheeks won’t go away as her mind wandered into the possibility. Not now, she said to herself. It’s not the time yet.
Everyone gathered in the street next to the Emperor’s inn. The musicians and artists brought by the Emperor already resided in every corner, there were more of them than the number of artists entertaining clan leaders this afternoon. People had lit up the extra torches and lanterns, making the flowering trees glow like it was high summer. Many of them had the initiative to make barbeque and roasted food outside, filling the air with delicious smell of various street foods. Many of the Emperor’s servants were distributing more sweets and treats. The place no longer looked like a village at all.
Madara put his arm around her waist as they walked through the crowds, making her nervous and tensed. They were currently outside, out in public—what if someone noticed them?
But what was the matter if they were seen together? Nothing would happen, no?
Not far from the inn, Tobirama stood with his back facing them, currently talking with Izuna and an Uchiha man with a ponytail she recognized as Hikaku. Madara’s arm left her waist once Tobirama turned. He left to approach his relative as Tobirama gestured his sister to come closer.
“Aburame Mamoru and Sarutobi Sasuke were already there,” he tilted his head towards the second story of an inn, “their two clans arrived safely, but there are more of them than we anticipated.”
“More of them what?”
“Their numbers. Villagers who lived around their settlements are moving here as well. Most are farmers. Two weeks ago their village was struck by a strange storm, destroying their crops.” Tobirama slipped his hands into his kimono sleeves, avoiding two young Akimichi men who walked past them while whispering to each other. “All of their crops withered and died. Many of them fell ill after drinking the water contaminated by the storm rain.”
Hashirama’s eyebrows furrowed. “That’s really strange,” she commented. “There is no jutsu with a scale that huge. How bad was its impact?”
“It didn’t cause deaths, except for the elderly and children. But it was enough to make everyone weak and limp on their beds for an entire week—”
“Hey, hey, here is our Hokage!” Suddenly Inuzuka Tsubaki grasped her arm from behind. The woman smirked widely towards her brother. “Come on, stop talking about work for a while. Chokichi is going to be disappointed if you don’t come inside to eat.”
Beside the ten clan leaders, the other clan representatives were present in the dining hall. Shimura Keita approached Hashirama, bowing as low as he could to apologize for his inability to stop Hisao from attending.
“He really insisted, Hokage-sama, I didn’t know what to do…”
“Take a table as far as possible from Uchiha clan,” Hashirama suggested in a whisper. Next to her, Tobirama squinted his eyes.
Her suggestion was obeyed properly. Keita took a place in the corner of the room, the furthest from Emperor Nobutada. Madara sat on Hashirama’s right side, while her uncle on her left.
“I haven’t seen you in a while, I even forgot how your face looked like!” he exclaimed as the meal was served.
“Uncle Joji, don’t say something like that,” Hashirama sheepishly smiled. “I’m really occupied by village affairs.”
“You are the Senju clan leader as well, Niece,” he added. Uncle Joji was her father’s cousin, who didn’t go to war since he was young because he had a weak body. However, he had a strong willpower and determination, the reason why he was trusted to be one of the clan council members for the last few decades. His personality was hidden behind his skinny posture oftenly shaken by his chronic coughs.
“I know,” Hashirama bowed her head, weary, “but… I will hand over my position to Tobirama.” She glanced at her brother, who was busy observing everyone in their seats. “He is more capable.”
“Oh? It’s a good news!”
The dinner was a blast, with conversations here and there. Chefs of Akimichi and Senju clans worked hard to serve their best dishes. The menu were mostly boiled vegetables with spices from the forest, with addition of smoked venison they hunted recently. The sake was supplied by Hyuuga clan who owned a distillery.
The Emperor had more conversation with his samurai Shigenobu, who fortunately did not wear his armor tonight. The other four samurai were still inside the hall and armed to the teeth, standing in the shadows behind the Emperor. After dinner, small tables were removed, and everybody formed smaller groups to chat. Tobirama disappeared quickly from her side, undoubtedly rushing back to work on handling new settlers of Konoha.
“Lady Hokage?” Emperor Nobutada called for her. He had two dice and a wooden cup in his hand. Without a word it was clear what he was about to offer; the Emperor invited her to gamble.
Hashirama accepted it, and shortly after the two wooden dice clacking inside the cup. Nobutada placed the cup upside down on the table.
“Odd or even?” he asked.
“Even,” Hashirama guessed.
The dice were shaken three times, and three times she failed to guess correctly. So far she had lost three chests of money as heavy as a fawn. Their empty sake bottles were filled again immediately.
“Don’t you drink?” Nobutada asked suddenly. Hashirama followed his gaze, seeing Madara who sat behind her. He just refused the sake offered by a servant.
“I’m on duty,” he answered shortly, moving closer to the Hokage. “Just like samurai-san.” Shigenobu only drank tea since the beginning, just like this afternoon. His body gesture showing his complete alertness.
Madara glanced at Hashirama. “Guarding the Hokage.”
“Ah, just like Shigenobu then!”
The desire Hashirama felt under the pine shades surged once more. She breathe in and smiled towards her best friend.
Not now, not here. Later.
Two dice clacking, and the cup slammed upside down on the table.
“By the way,” Nobutada said again. “Tell me how Konoha was founded.”
So Hashirama told a story.
It felt like she returned to the day where their mother was found dead. She and several other women were ambushed in a water spring far away. Their wells were dried out that day, they had to find and bring water from somewhere far, somewhere unpolluted by human waste. Hashirama remembered she was hiding with the other children on the trees, with Itama inside her carrying cloth and Kawarama holding her hand tightly.
They all had gone.
Clear river stream flowed smoothly in front of her, to its end somewhere. She remembered seeing the dead body of a Hagoromo shinobi floating there about two weeks ago, polluting the water with his blood and chakra. If only she could express all her feelings and worries into the river stream, letting it flow endlessly to nowhere...
“You are… Hashirama, right?”
Someone stood behind her, cracking gravels in each of his steps. Hashirama ignored him. She didn’t feel like talking at all.
“It’s been a long time not seeing you around here.” A stone was thrown into the water. Twice it jumped, then drowned. “Where were you?”
“...My little brother died.” She was quiet for awhile, trying to remember anything about this kid, “...Madara.”
“Ah. My condolences.”
Hashirama wiped her face with her sleeve. “Do you have any siblings?”
Madara picked another stone. “I have four siblings.” He tossed the stone repeatedly on his palm. “Well, I used to.”
The girl turned towards him, stunned.
“We are shinobi,” Madara continued, stopping next to her. “We can die anytime because of the damned war. The only way we can do to avoid dying... is to show our real intention to our enemies. As honest as possible, without concealing anything, and become their ally.”
Hashirama was still quiet, watching Madara bowed to take a stance and throw the stone into the river. His words kept repeating inside her head.
“But it’s impossible of course. Because no one can really tell what’s inside the other person’s mind. What do they think, what do they feel inside their heart… we can’t even tell if they are angry in silence.”
The stone he threw jumped on the water. One, two, three, four, five—
Hashirama’s lips dried. She licked it off before speaking, “Is it true it’s impossible to understand each other’s hearts and minds?”
“I don’t know. But I always come here, hoping to find a way to do that.”
—six, seven, eight.
The stone clattered across the river.
“This time… seems like I have found it.”
Her father didn't understand. Tobirama believed all of this was normal. However, here, far from her own village, she met someone who understood her wishes. Someone who knew that the war had to be stopped, someone who had lost his siblings because of war…
It seemed almost impossible to find someone who shared the same thoughts as she did in this wilderness.
Madara turned his head at her, smiling widely. “I can understand you without knowing what’s inside your heart.”
She dusted her pants. “What do you mean?”
“According to your hairstyle and clothes, you are an ugly loser!”
Hashirama suddenly felt like she’d rather float in the river.
Her routine changed. She continued her lesson with Tobirama, even the ones recognized by her father or not. She kept peeking into kunoichi classes in secret with Touka’s help, learning as many knowledge as possible from her relatives. In the next weeks, Hashirama always made time to come to the riverside, seeing Madara to show off their fighting strength and abilities. His fighting style wasn’t as smooth as Tobirama who tend to be more flowing, and she was helped a lot because of it.
“We will not be heard while we are still weak,” the boy said when they were taking a break after a kumite. “Keep your idealism as you train to be stronger and stronger.”
The girl agreed. One of many requirements of becoming Senju clan leader was individual fighting strength and abilities. The strong would be heard and obeyed by all clan members. “That means we have to master the other types of jutsu.”
“Yes. Strengthen and conceal your weakness.”
Hashirama assumed Madara’s abilities were above average for children of his age. She had been observing Senju shinobi fighting. Even his techniques were beyond them. However, their fighting abilities were equal. Although Hashirama wasn’t trained as strict and as often as her brothers.
Winter came and left. When the next spring came, they expanded their exploring area. Towards the upstream where a giant cliff stood facing the wilderness. They used the cliff to train on their chakra controlling ability. Hashirama did it better than him, so she could run next to him easily.
The view from the cliff was amazing. The forest across was surrounded by hills that stood apart from each other, creating a protected circle in the center. One of the creeks crossing the forest, the water was fresh and clear streaming towards estuary. Hashirama did not see any villages nearby in the view, be it a shinobi village or not. When Madara arrived atop the cliff with panting breath, the girl turned at him and stretched her arms open.
“What if we create a ninja village here?” she asked cheerfully.
Madara’s eyes widened.
Hashirama tried her best to keep her eyes open as the Emperor’s entourage was preparing to leave. Nobutada gambled and exchanged stories with her all night. When she finally surrendered to exhaustion, she still had to deal with Aburame and Sarutobi clan members stranded at the village border because almost everyone gathered around the inn. Aburame Mamoru ignored her when she helped organizing the families into empty houses, while Sarutobi Sasuke acted awkwardly.
After that she still had to deal with Uncle Joji scolding her for having lost in a gamble against the Emperor. “You have lost more than fifteen million ryo!” he exclaimed in frustration when their servants were taking out small chests full of coins to be paid to the Emperor. Hashirama could only grimace nervously until he was weary. Fortunately the scolding session didn’t last long.
Emperor Nobutada rewarded her a chest full of silk and precious stones. “Personal gift for the Hokage,” he said. A young Senju man took the chest for safekeeping. “You should really try coffee—uh, that pack of black powder from Kaminarinokuni. Brew it in hot water. Good for staying up all night,” he added while giving a thumb up.
“Your Majesty really knows what I need,” Hashirama said. Finally, something that could make her stay up and keep working.
“Sadly we have to import the goods, it’s extremely expensive… oh, Shigenobu, what is that?”
The samurai was back in his armor, this time carrying a wooden chest with gold plates and complex carvings in the size of an adult cat. “A personal gift for the Hokage-sama, Your Majesty.”
The chest felt so heavy in her arms. “From who…?”
“From my apprentice.” Shigenobu smiled widely, looking strange because of a scar across his lips. “Uzumaki Nobuo.”
“Please tell him that I have received his gift,” Hashirama said diplomatically, gesturing at her relative to bring the gifts to her residence.
There were two things crossing her mind during that moment. First, she hadn’t replied Mito’s last letter in months. Second, who was Nobuo?