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a crown of shadows and scorched leaves

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Tobirama was five, and he was playing with the grave's red soil.

His brothers and sister had long gone from the new graves. The whole area was empty. There were only birds flying to their nests on the trees after soaring for the entire day, flocking under the canopy to hold off the cold air. The tombstone near the place he was squatting on now carved with their mother’s name. He spread the soil on his own palms, stretching and clenching his fingers repeatedly, then patting his own cheeks. Cold.

Everyone else had left, returned to their daily activities. Tobirama was the only one staying under the humidity of summer air. He was reluctant to go home. The soil caught his attention. Solid, sticky, and cold.

It was not a suitable resting place for their mother and female relatives. The soil he clumped in his hands wasn’t much, yet they turned cold once separated from his skin. Tonight would be colder, the higher the risk of catching a cold. Their mother would freeze from the temperature. She always hated coldness. She always told him to bring extra clothes, just in case their father would suddenly send him to practice. She taught him what kind of herbs he can chew to warm him up. Some days ago, she promised to teach him how to sew animal fur into warm clothes...

His shadows disappeared, merged into the darkness when his nape hair bristled. An adult man approached, his steps were as quiet as a ghost. He sensed his presence inched closer, clearer. The boy sprung to stand up, wiping off soil on his hands to his pants—an obvious mistake because it smeared the white pants dirty.

Ouch.

“Tobirama.”

“Otou-sama,” he greeted with his eyes staring at the ground. His chest moved up and down at a quick pace. “Tobirama apologizes.”

The dust-covered legs stood still in front of him. Tobirama tried to quiet the ruckus in his heart. What is his father’s order now? Visiting five guard posts in the dark without any light? Catching fish with empty hands in the middle of heavy stream? Infiltrating a farmer’s village without any supply? His heart shouldn’t pound so erratic—

The pair of legs turned away silently. Tobirama rushed after him. The road towards the village was engulfed in darkness, yet he managed to evade all obstacles on his way easily. He no longer needed his eyes to sense. The village had turned quiet and empty, exactly how he liked it. There were no children running around, only five adult men in their guard shift circling around the fire in the middle of the field. They sprang once his father approached them, yet Butsuma only raised his hand to them before dragging his son home.

The boy stopped outside for a while, trying to clean off the dried mud on his pants, but immediately stopped once Butsuma spoke.

“You will not sleep inside.”

“Understood, Otou-sama.” Tobirama returned a handful of hay he picked up. In the next second, he was hanging upside down in the air. His ankles were tightly grabbed. He blinked, adjusting himself to the world with its changed orientation.

A rough and thick rope was holding his weight from a wooden block under the terrace’s ceiling. His untied foot was waving in the air. His bloodstream pounding in his ears.

“Do you realize your mistake?”

The rope creaked once his body swung around slowly. “I didn’t go home immediately after the funeral. I was outside our village…” he stopped to gather his breath. His ribs began to feel sore. “I was outside for too long…”

“Past the curfew.” Butsuma’s arms crossed tightly on his chest. His eyebrows frowned sharply.

“Past… the curfew,” he repeated breathlessly. “Now… mother must be freezing—”

“Your mother died when you were born,” his father cut him off coldly. “The woman who died today wasn’t your mother.”

“...She wasn’t?” His heart jumped. But the mother was his mother, it’s impossible. She gave birth to his brothers, why—

“Which shinobi rule you just violated?”

Tobirama bit his lips. “Rule… the rule…” He tried to think as hard as he could, but it was difficult to think in such position. Before he could answer, his father turned to go inside.      

He was alone outside.

His fingers clawed to reach for the knot on his ankle, but it was clear he couldn’t touch it. He hadn’t been hanging for too long, yet his head felt dizzy nonetheless. His chakra scattered in disarray around him like a puddle dripping from a leaked pail.

How could it be possible that his mother wasn’t his mother? Which rule did he violate?

His senses caught a movement on the roof. Quiet, careful wobbly steps. He stopped moving, focusing all his attention towards the creature on the roof. It wasn’t a cat; it was too heavy for a small animal. Dried straws atop the roof rustled heavily. The sound then approached closer, followed by a voice he was familiar with.

“Tobiii.”

He struggled to look at the source of the voice. His sister’s face showed up from the roof barrier. Before he managed to say something, Hashirama descended carefully, before landing her feet on the wall until she could stand with her head upside down. Her steps were firm as she approached.

Tobirama’s jaw dropped. “You can…?”

“I’m only imitating what Uncle Joji did when he returned the fallen bird nest yesterday. Turns out I can do it.” Her forehead furrowed once her fingers touched the knot, trying to take it off. Sometimes she squeaked in pain when her fingers got scratched.

“You should go to sleep. I’m being punished now.” Tobirama tried to make her go away. What good would it bring her to go out in the dark like this if she could sleep comfortably on her warm tatami?

“You will get sick, you know.”

“You will be punished if you do this!”

“I don’t care!”

Hashirama cut the rope using an old shuriken. She hugged Tobirama’s body tightly as she landed on the floor. The boy staggered and swayed, quickly he leaned against the closest pillar to regain his balance. His sister bowed closer, wiping soil off his cheeks. She kept watching his face as if Tobirama would throw up anytime soon. Long he avoided her gaze by staring at the rope on the floor. Even if he wished to tie himself again, the rope couldn’t be used anymore.

“Father will be angry tomorrow.”

She ignored his remark. “Still dizzy?”

Tobirama shook his head briefly. “I’m still being punished…”

“I can’t bring you inside. But you can sleep in the old shed,” Hashirama offered as she led her brother to the place. He had no choice but following her. Sometimes Hashirama turned to look at him, as if she was worried Tobirama would be left behind. A half way through, she finally held her brother’s smaller hand.

It was silent, but once in a while they heard a cry coming from one of the houses. Some of the children were still mourning. A pride rose in Tobirama’s heart, realizing that his eyes were dry for the whole day.

Your mother died when you were born.

Tobirama had no energy to think about that now. The mother he buried was always gentle and patient when dealing with four—three of her children including him. Or maybe he was raised because they were shinobi; there is always a room for an extra kid. When he thought about it, the number of adults and teenagers buried were many. More of the faces he used to see strolling around the field disappeared without a trace—at least, for a five year old boy. Did it happen to his real mother too?

“What’s wrong?”

Their destination was a small hut separated from the other houses. The wood had been weathered here and there, consumed by the merciless heat of summer. The door was wide open. The moonlight shone upon the mess inside. Hashirama had pulled a table, leaning it on a box of rusty weapons so it wouldn’t topple.

Tobirama remained by the doorstep. His heart was in conflict. Faced by his sister’s question, his small mouth could only spout, “do we have different mothers…?”

“What are you talking about…?”

“Father said so.”

His sister’s lips formed a round shape. “I don’t know…” Hashirama’s fists clenched on an old pillow. “Even if we do, you’re still my little brother.”

Tobirama took a step forward. “...Really?”

“Of course.” His sister turned at him, and the moonlight shone the tired smile on her swollen face. “Come, sleep on the table. It’s cleaner than the floor—”

He leaped past the doorstep to embrace his sister’s waists. He no longer cared about which rule he violated. For a moment, the girl was stunned in her place, before she caressed his white hair gently.

In his heart, Tobirama swore he would not let the horrible fate of his mother fell upon Hashirama.


 

 

The first rule in a ninja life is not to include any personal feelings in their missions. That is why every shinobi’s first killing isn’t towards a human.

But their own hearts.

This kind of killing sometimes had to be done repeatedly for the rest of the shinobi’s life. His father praised Tobirama for his exceptional capability of killing his own feelings. He followed all instructions given to him without arguing, completed all his missions perfectly, and increased his fighting capability until he grew stronger than all other children. He did not shed a single tear when they buried his mother, Kawarama, Itama, and finally their father.

But why does it hurt to hear his sister crying behind the door?

He took quite a long time standing in the dark hall, dazed and split between wanting to enter to explain everything or to leave her alone. This shouldn’t be a problem; every shinobi married to produce strong offspring. All shinobi marriages were arranged strictly, especially the strongest shinobi. His sister should have realized that she would go through the same thing for the good of their clan.

He and Hashirama were never similar. They were on the same page when it came to their clan problems, but so different in many other things. Hashirama was never prepared to be a shinobi. Hashirama was never taught how to kill her own heart.

During the times they grew up together, Tobirama realized how often she created a border between them. As if there was a line he could not cross, clearly separating their differences. One wave of her hand and a single command, she created a space forbidden for him to enter.

But Madara never obeyed the unwritten rule she made. He was the only one who could come and go as he wished. Without his permission. Even dared to bring Hashirama to his own room. It wasn't only about that one night. That time too, when Hashirama recklessly went to heal Izuna's injuries he caused.

Speaking of Izuna…

Tobirama's morning routine was disrupted. She hadn’t been seen anywhere even when he had waited for a long time in the hidden field. She never once absent from their morning practice since her clan moved to Konoha. It was strange, Izuna had been enthusiastic with her susano'o training. She couldn't disappear without any notice.

His concern grewd. Did Madara tell her about what happened last night? It made no sense; even if he did, they had agreed to leave their siblings’ issues during practice. No longer becoming the second person in their father's eyes in their own respective memories.

No longer prioritizing their older sibling's issues, even just for sixty minutes.

Tobirama stood up, gesturing a code using his fingers. The ANBU kept watch over her. If anything should happen, they would report immediately.

“Senju-sama.” A masked ANBU appeared behind him, kneeling in respect.

“Where is Uchiha Izuna?”

“Approaching the eastern gate with her brother. Uchiha Madara will lead an additional troops to Tsuchinokuni border.”

In front of the gate, more than a hundred shinobi had gathered. They wore newly forged armor and head protectors. The metal plates gleamed under the sunshine. Some of them were still chatting with their own family. The children were admiring their parents’ new head protectors. The Konoha leaf symbol was carved on the surface.

Hashirama was present, wearing her all-white Hokage robe and a wide red hat. She was discussing about war tactics with Yamanaka Inoha. As if she had detected his presence, they stopped their discussion. Hashirama turned at him, and every word Tobirama had on his tongue disappeared. Her eyes still looked red and swollen.

A strange feeling quickly caught him, trapped him. He stopped three meters away from his sister. They exchanged stares, for a moment an interaction seemed about to happen, until Hashirama’s gaze aimed towards a figure behind him.

“Uchiha-san.”

Madara walked past him as if he didn't see him standing there. He nodded briefly towards Hashirama. “Hokage-sama. You don't look well.”

“I had no time to sleep, busy dealing with reports.” Hashirama smiled. A smile that didn't reach her eyes. “Here.” She handed him a head protector.

Something strange struck him, and whether he wanted it or not Tobirama forced himself to be alert. Their short exchange sounded like a greeting happened between two different war commanders. Madara’s glove-covered hands reached the head protector, a second too long on Hashirama’s palm, before bringing the band on to his forehead. Tied it tightly around his head. Their sights never left each other’s eyes. There was a slight vibration in the air his senses could not dodge.

A thick layer of chakra struck him from behind. Tobirama staggered. He turned his body, and he saw nothing but Izuna’s back running away until she almost hit a cart full of cabbage on her way. Her ponytail waved wildly.

What happened to her?

Tobirama had no chance to think about the cause. He found Ukyo standing far from the troops, accompanied by the one and only Shimura Hisao himself. They had a small talk, sometimes pointing at the troops. They didn’t seem to be dangerous, but they still looked suspicious regardless.

The families stepped back until they reached the gate border, dragging Tobirama into the crowds. Vaguely he heard Hashirama’s voice beginning her brief speech, mentioning the trust of Emperor Nobutada and the threat of Iwagakure towards Hinokuni territory. Suspicion crept into Tobirama’s mind. Hashirama didn’t sound like Hashirama; her manner of speech was too formal and her expression was stiff. Boring speech is never her style.

“What’s wrong with them?” Tobirama overheard a woman whispered not far behind him. “Are they fighting?”

“Should be,” the other woman chirped. “My in-law said Hokage-sama has been engaged for a long time—”

“WHAAT?”

He heard a hit and a painful groan. “But Uncle Mori sent an engagement proposal just a few weeks ago,” the first woman whispered a protest.

“How am I supposed to know? Kunoichi engagement for the Hokage level must be planned secretly. How unfortunate, I heard Lady Senju had spent a night in Uchiha residence…”

“They’re already that serious? What a pity! So this is the reason why Uchiha-san immediately decide to lead his own troops. So he can go away.”

Tobirama couldn’t stand it anymore. He turned his head around, just a little bit until he found the gossiping ladies. The two of them quickly turned their sights away, and stepping further behind. The troops began to deploy, one by one dashed into the trees. The crowds waved their hands at them, bidding their farewells. But Madara lingered behind.

“Prioritize information gathering,” Hashirama spoke in a low voice, walking side by side with the Uchiha clan leader. Both of them were almost the same height, his sister was taller than the average woman. “Especially the kekkei genkai jutsu. Our spies will find you in the disputed territory.”

“Understood.”

“You have to return before three weeks. We will leave together at once from our village to Nobutada’s castle.”   

Tobirama could see a disagreement drawn in Madara’s expression, but the man only nodded briefly. In less than a second, those eyes turned red and aimed towards him. Vengeful.

Then he disappeared.

For a long time Hashirama’s back was facing him, staring at the wide road outside the village gate when everyone had left. Tobirama’s feet were weighed by all his training memory. His joints felt as if they were locked by the twisting jutsu of Nara clan. His throat, his tongue, every organ in his mouth felt as dry as Kazenokuni’s desert.

“Oh, Tobirama.” His sister turned around, wobbling towards him. “Have you received new reports from the frontline?”

“I have—”

“I want the analysis and tactics from the researchers immediately. Make the copies too, and send them to Academy headmaster.” Hashirama sighed deeply and massaged her temples.

“Hokage-sama!” A thin girl in healer’s white garb approached her hurriedly. “There you are… your breakfast and medicines are ready in your office.” She held Hashirama’s arm, and the girl’s white eyes blinked once she saw Tobirama. “Senju-sama, good morning.”

He was ready to escort them back, until he saw the Emperor’s representative smirked widely and approaching them with his long strides.

“Lady Hokage doesn’t seem very well,” Ukyo commented as he observed Hashirama’s back moved with the help of the Hyuuga girl. His face was radiant. “Nobutada will be happy to hear additional troops are on the frontlines. Our territory will expand.”

Tobirama ignored him, opting to observe his surroundings. “You were with Shimura-san?”

“Oh yeah, he invited me to his clan residence. Harvest festival, similar to the Emperor’s feasts. I usually attend, you know. I have work to do here so why can’t I party here all at once?” Ukyo inhaled the air deeply, satisfied. “Ah, you are the clan leader now, right? Just come along. All clan representatives are invited.”

He raised his eyebrows. “All of them?”

“Except the leader guy of that clan with red eyes, uh, Uchiha? His sister will come—”   

“I will spare some time to attend,” he cut him off suddenly, surprising himself.

“Good. Very good.” Ukyo’s thin cheeks wrinkled as he smirked. “The more the merrier.”


 

 

Tobirama was twelve, and he had no time to rest.

That morning he asked all his relatives tasked of gathering firewood to find certain kinds of woods in the forest. Apple wood, cherry wood, pine, and oak. All of them were cut evenly and tied so they would be easier to carry. He had been tasked to help his sister train her mokuton ability. Identifying each tree’s characteristics is an important step to learn and imitate their sturdiness.

They went home at dawn after Hashirama’s first battle. Their opponent was a group of mountain bandits led by an old shinobi, a deserter from an unknown clan who taught them ninjutsu. During the battle Hashirama kept sticking around him, worried if he would be gravely injured, until Tobirama had to remind her that he had more battle experience than she thought.

The battle then went smoothly. Hashirama could take down the adult bandits using her mokuton; none of them was ready to face the kekkei genkai. The woods grew wildly all over the place, striking the clueless bandits. Senju clan managed to move forward swiftly, until she found a bandit as old as her, and her body froze. Her mokuton unraveled as a knife stabbed into his belly.

He let the firewood on his shoulder clattering on the ground. Hashirama wasn’t seen in the usual place they came to practice. Only her painful voice echoed from behind the bushes. He tiptoed to approach her, who still had her full armor on, currently bowing to throw up on a pine tree stump. The smell of acid quickly seeped into his senses.     

His eyebrows furrowed. Hashirama never fell ill, even before her mokuton was awakened.

Voicelessly, he held up Hashirama’s long hair until she stopped throwing up the remaining content of her stomach. He helped her to sit down before he asked, “what is happening to you?”

Hashirama shook her head weakly as she bowed down. Her breath was heavy. “The smell of blood… their blood… I can’t forget it…”

Tobirama knew whom she meant. Dried blood smeared her headband, splattered when Tobirama struck the child bandits who ambushed her. Their bodies pulsed as they died in front of him. He was forced to drag the stunned Hashirama away as he yelled at her: get your sword, Sis! Don’t freeze; we still have to fight!

“They are just bandits, Sis. Everyone’s blood smells the same.” Tobirama looked down, searching among the armor plates. His sister’s body armor looked almost spotless.

“They are children, Tobirama, younger than you…”

He quickly added, “aren’t girls more familiar with the smell of blood?”

Hashirama stared at him with exhaustion drawn noticeably on her face. “Dead people’s blood smells different from the blood that comes from a life that never was.”

Tobirama turned silent, he decided to untie his sister’s armor, one by one. After that, he picked up the logs he dropped. But Hashirama was still thinking about the dried blood.

“I kept seeing Kawarama and Itama’s faces,” the girl said softly.

“They had died for a long time,” he argued as he untied the firewood.

“I saw their faces in those child bandits’ faces.”

The logs clattered as they fell. “You can fight from mid to far distance with your mokuton. No need to face them closely.”

She carelessly dropped her armor on the grass. Hashirama sank her face into her palms and sighed deeply. Tobirama ignored her, but he always knew his sister would recover quickly from the worst mood.

As he had predicted, Hashirama finally approached him. “These are firewood.”

“Some burn faster than the others.” Tobirama picked the cherry wood, relieved that they had changed the topic. “The key is the amount of water inside the wood structure. This will only produce smoke when it’s burned. Especially if it’s thicker. You can imitate its structure…”

Hashirama parted her lips slightly. “It will be useful to blind the enemies. I understand.” Then she insisted to study the logs alone, allowing Tobirama to go home by himself.

He easily found his father, and without being asked, he told him all the things he heard and experienced. Starting from the battle yesterday until what recently happened.

“Sister is sick,” he ended his report. “She threw up in the bushes.”

“Tell the healers to watch over her tonight.” Butsuma listened as he cleaned his weapons. “Uzumaki Ashina has sent the name of Hashirama’s betrothed. He is Nobuo, the one who visited us some time ago.”

Tobirama blinked, “does she know about this?”

“We will not tell her.” Butsuma sheathed his sword, his eyes gleamed. “Your sister is a reckless person. She could propose to be married to Uchiha clan so we would stop fighting the war. Our ancestors would be wrathful of us if she’s dare enough to do so.” He scoffed loudly.

The boy focused his gaze towards his father's sword hilt. Just moments ago it was covered in blood splatters.

“Good that you were by her side. She is still as meek as a regular girl.” Butsuma scoffed once more. “Egoistic and stupid.”  

Tobirama was unmoved. He still remembered her voice and expression very clearly the moment she opened Kawarama’s coffin—to be exact, the coffin that carried only half of his body home. The corpse division found his body torn to dozen pieces. They had no enough time to gather the other remaining parts of him. He also remembered how Hashirama recklessly infiltrated the battlefield to fight against the Uchiha clan, just to find the lifeless body of Itama who had been slaughtered by three adult men.

How reckless.

Their father continued to talk in a monotonous tone, “Uchiha Tajima has known that she possesses the power of mokuton. I don't have a choice but preparing her for the war.” He set his sharpening tools aside. “This is why I disallow her to become a kunoichi. Her blood is too valuable, while a kunoichi work is too dirty for her.”

As far as he knew, kunoichi's job is to gather information and spy on targets. Tobirama didn't understand which part of the job is considered ‘dirty’.

Noticing his confusion, Butsuma continued, “a kunoichi sleeps with strangers for their missions. Would be very insulting if I present a daughter who is no longer virgin to Ashina’s grandson. Do you understand?”

He shook his head.

“Her children—my grandchildren have to possess blood as pure and as strong as possible. Mokuton is a rare gift. Her betrothed has to be chosen carefully so her prowess may be passed down to her offspring. The strongest shinobi are born from the strongest parents too.”

There was something still stuck in his throat. “Otou-sama, may I speak?” His father did not refuse, so he continued, “we still need my sister’s mokuton to fight the war. But if she goes to Uzushio, won’t it weaken our battle strength?”

“As long as you assist her, we can rule over other clans within two or three years. Your sister will be mature enough to bear children. We can strengthen our relationship with the Uzumaki clan to produce more mokuton users.” Butsuma straightened his posture. “You will be a clan leader someday. Start to think the way I think. The clan must always be above all.”

“The clan must always be above all,” Tobirama repeated his words fluently as he asked permission to leave.

The afternoon sky rolled the blue shade into orange as Tobirama went to find the sister who hadn’t arrived home. He had a pocket of medicinal concoction made by the apothecary. He found her still in the same spot, with her strangely twisted mokuton woods scattered around her. But he had no courage to approach her. Their father was there, with his hands on his waist.

“Stop?” he burst in wrath. “What kind of devilish idea is it, Hashirama? Killing children is the easiest part to do before they reach adulthood and becoming more skilled in battle.”

“Otou-sama, I can’t do it…”

Something in Hashirama’s voice made her brother baffled. Hoarse. Desperate.   

Smearing a shinobi’s dignity.

Butsuma walked around impatiently. “That is something you will face on the frontline! Don’t embarrass the Senju name like this.”

Hashirama struggled to push herself to stand up, gritting her teeth in pain. “But the children don’t have to die, Otou-sama—!”  

“Do you want your whole clan to die?” he roared. “Do you want to waste your rare talent? Just die already if that’s what you want!”

Tobirama waited until his father walked away from his senses’ reach before he descended from the tree branch. Hashirama stared at the horizon blankly. She didn’t even turn at him when she whispered, “Father didn’t want to listen to me…”

Her brother held her hand. “Let’s go home, Sis.”

“How can you stand this...?”

“I am a shinobi,” he answered. “You too, now.”

Hashirama sighed. “I’m a useless shinobi.”

“Not at all,” Tobirama replied impatiently. “You only need practice.”

“I don’t have the heart to watch children die like father does.”

“Our clan needs you. Come on.”

“But…”

“I will help you. Trust me.” Tobirama slipped the medicine pocket in his sister’s hand. Her fingertips felt cold.

There was no answer. Hashirama followed him home in silence.


 

 

“Will the bodies of our relatives be alright in there?” said the elderly Akimichi woman. Her sagging cheeks swayed. “The seal is safe, right?”

“It slows down the decaying process, Ma’am,” Tobirama explained. The members of corpse division were opening a scroll in front of the families and parsed the seal.

One week after the Hokage officiated the departure of the newest shinobi troops, courrier from the frontlines began to send dead bodies back. Today, even Tobirama watched over the Akimichi youths taking their relatives back from the scrolls. The seal scrolls used to bring home the dead bodies of fallen shinobi weren’t familiar to the other clans, the reason why he had to explain it repeatedly to answer their questions. The woman who asked him observed the process strictly, her eyebrows frowned in suspicion.

“You are still related to the seal workers’ clan, aren’t you?” she asked again, her voice turned loud above the grieving wails in her clan residence’s yard.

“Uzumaki clan, yes,” he answered patiently, ignoring the phrase ‘seal workers’. Tobirama stood away a little from the people, avoiding the shinobi who walked around carrying scrolls. He didn’t want their conversation eavesdropped by someone else, especially this woman’s relatives. “They have given us a lot of help in building Konoha. The knowledge about this seal is one of them.”

The woman nodded repeatedly. “Very kind of them. But why don’t they live with us here?”

“Uzushiogakure cannot be left easily.”

“Huh…” the woman’s nostrils expanded. “Suspicious.”

“What is it, Akimichi-san?” Tobirama asked in return. He arranged his tone so he wouldn’t offend the elderly woman.

“They give your clan a lot of seal jutsu, even with many people knowing they are very secretive.” Her bracelets clanging noisily. “We know they are hardworking and skilled merchants. Very independent.”

Tobirama decided to steer their conversation. “They supply a lot of seafood to Hinokuni inlands, that's true.”

Her eyes widened immediately. “Using the seal?”

“Using the seal.”

Tobirama left the place once he had ceded his command to a courier who seemed satisfied with the trust Tobirama had for him. He wasn't bothered by the recent conversation. Or at least, that was something he told himself…

So you intend to barter me as a debt payment, is that it?

He stopped walking, concealed in a road turn that separated the hospital and the Academy. He closed his eyes, repelling the image of Hashirama's shocked face that kept haunting his mind for the past week. He would take care of this problem soon. His sister would understand their father's intention.

“Tobirama-san!”

Tobirama suppressed his growing annoyance once he heard someone calling his name. Nara Shikana came out from the Academy's back door. He pointed a folder towards him, his face pale and upset. “Are you serious about this?”

“About what?” Tobirama stood still.

“The children of those new settlers. They registered for the Academy.” He opened the folder. “Look. A lot of names without clans here.”

He glanced a little. “This isn't a problem.”

“Of course this is a problem. They are not from any shinobi family!” he exclaimed. “They only know how to plough the field and feed the chickens. They don't know anything about using their chakra!”

“You applied for a teacher position in the Academy, Nara-san,” Tobirama replied coldly. The corners of his eyes began to twitch. “Your job is to teach all students without exception.”

“Students from shinobi families, yes.”

“Without exception, Nara-san,” Tobirama repeated as he closed the folder. “We all know anyone can be taught how to use their chakra.”

Shikana's jaw hardened. “I don't know what is your intention of putting those children in the Academy. They are going to die in their first mission.”

“Konoha needs every one of them. The Hokage doesn't see their worth from their background, but from what they can do for the village.”

“Oh, so this is Hokage's order?”

“It is,” Tobirama lied.

“I'm not the only one who thinks this way. You should discuss this matter with the Hokage. I don't want to take any responsibility if they can't graduate from the Academy.” Shortly after, Shikana walked away.

In the last few days, he heard rumors amongst the adult shinobi who had a problem with the Academy’s policy of accepting all children, including the farmers’ children. Their protest was done passively, only deciding to teach their own children. However, many people were still interested with the Academy for its curriculum that gathered every battle knowledge from all clans. So, Tobirama hadn’t thought about it further. The village unity wasn’t threatened by his decision.

He halted his steps by the side of the field. Wooden fences as tall as his chest separated the field from the road. He sensed at least ten teenagers were scattered and hiding in every corner of the field and the forest across the road. They heavily suppressed their chakra, although he still managed to sense them. Shrieks and laughter were heard from the forest. One by one, students who seemed to be around fifteen year old, walked out limply before they sat in the middle of the field. Each of them had one of their cheeks marked with a big red cross. From the talks of those students, Tobirama concluded they were playing hide-and-seek. Playing probably wasn’t the correct term—they had an ounce of fear in their expressions.  

A single laughter that split the air nailed him stiff in place even more. The voice was as melodious as uguisu birds in the beginning of spring. A woman with a slim figure stepped out of the forest border, holding the hand of a sullen, brown-haired boy. His cheek was marked as well. He sulked as he joined his friends.

“Twenty people!” she exclaimed, melodious, “Twenty people failed! All of you will die from being spotted by the enemies!”

Tobirama understood that the woman was scolding the Academy students, but her voice didn’t sound annoyed at all. More melodious than a shamisen, or the splash of water in a creek where he used to catch fish.

“Imagine all the chakra threads all over your body are shrinking empty, and your chakra are centered in your belly! Just that!”   

There was something wrong.

There was something wrong with the way he processed this situation.

His heart beat erratically, as if he was still young and facing his first bloodbath. This time, he couldn’t ignore it.  

In the last two years, Senju Tobirama met Uchiha Izuna everyday, sometimes even more than once a day. Hours of discussion and reading books. But, never for once—he dared to swear he never once heard Izuna’s voice so melodious, freezing him in place like he was struck by raiton.

Tobirama didn’t want to leave, fear biting the edge of his heart. If he should leave now, he would never feel happiness again.

But Izuna’s chakra flushed him like ice water, jolted him awake from his freezing.

His face turned away before anyone spotted him standing there. He walked as fast as he could, burying what just happened deep in his mind. He slowed down once he entered the Hokage office building and stepped on the stairs.

Books. Books would sink the strange feeling down. He still had more Uzumaki literature to analyze. Enough to keep him busy until the night—

“Aaa!”

His ribs were bumped by a thin, blunt thing. Bowls clattered on the wooden floor, their contents scattered on all corners. A ball of cold rice slid down from Tobirama’s haori, and dropped with a plop. A thin girl exclaimed in distress as she tried to clean up the mess. She stacked the eating utensils back on the wooden tray, while she took the scattered food with her hands, putting them nervously in the closest bowl. Tobirama hurriedly knelt to help her, cursing his own unusual carelessness.

“Forgive me, Senju-sama, I was running…”

Tobirama ignored her apology. It’s the girl who was with Hashirama. She even came from the private office direction on the third floor. “Whose food is this?”

“For Hokage-sama…” Her forehead furrowed in sadness, staring at her tray. “But she didn’t eat. Your sister hasn’t eaten anything since morning.”

He stared at the stairs leading to the upper floor. “What is she doing now? Still working?”

“Resting in her chamber.” The Hyuuga girl stood, the weight of her body shifted from one feet to another. “Senju-sama… is the rumor true?”

“Hm?” Tobirama turned at her, and the girl averted her gaze.

“That… that... Hokage-sama is already engaged…” She didn’t finish her sentence, shocked by her curiosity. “Ah—I’m sorry! Please forgive me!” she said before running downstairs.

As he continued to the third floor, Tobirama wondered how many people had known about her sister’s secret engagement. It shouldn’t be like this. He shouldn’t have spilled it.

But finding Madara once more freely entering his sister’s room made him furious.

He couldn’t, he could never—what kind of shinobi couldn’t control his own emotions? The training he had for years turned to a mess.

Exactly like the girl said, the Hokage private office was empty. The desk was tidy and clean, very strange in Tobirama’s eyes. The afternoon sunshine entered from a row of wide windows, flooding the room with golden lights. The door that led towards the Hokage’s private apartment was ajar. He smelled a boiled herb from the inside. His hand hadn’t reached for the knob when he heard an unusual sound. A long, restrained sound of someone throwing up.

Without bothering to knock, he rushed inside. Hashirama sat on a long padded couch. Her hands gripped a wooden trash bin. She hurriedly placed it on the floor as she collected herself.

Tobirama stood still, staring at the only thing on the low table. An empty glass smelled of fresh herbs.

“What’s wrong?”

Hashirama’s expression was flat, but she was clearly pale. Exactly like when she officiated the troops this morning, there was no life sparkling in her eyes.

“I just want to report about a few things, Hokage-sama.” Tobirama answered briefly. “I went to Akimichi residence.”

The Hokage clapped her hands once. The ANBU who guarded her moved away from the office. She leaned her body on the couch. “Speak.”

Tobirama sat in front of her, explaining monotonously about the burial of Akimichi shinobi who died on the frontlines, and Nara Shikana who protested him. “I told him that the decision of accepting the farmers’ children in the Academy is Hokage’s order.”

She blinked. “I never said anything about it.”

“I understand. Those who are still against it reluctant to share their knowledge to the non-shinobi. I think it will be better for everyone who lives in Konoha to understand the secrecy and the safety of shinobi protocols. This is important for Hinokuni.”

At the last sentence, Hashirama turned her gaze away. “I agree,” she said softly, but Tobirama knew there was a hitch in her words. “I will visit the Academy tomorrow or the day after. Any other reports?”

He shook his head. “That’s all. Good afternoon.”

Tobirama left the apartment, but stayed in the office area. Three pages of mission reports were scattered on the Hokage’s desk. They had been stamped. He read them slowly, ignoring the sound of Hashirama throwing up from her apartment. As he guessed, an echo of hurried steps were heard from below the stairs. He turned his back in time when the girl he bumped into earlier had returned with a glass full of herbal concoction. The smell was similar to the empty glass he found in the apartment.

The girl froze at the end of the stairs. Her white pale eyes glanced at the apartment door before shifting to Tobirama.

“Is it for the Hokage?” he asked as he approached. The content of the glass was golden green in color. “Since when she has been sick?”

The Hyuuga girl nodded in fear. “This early morning… when Hokage-sama helped us in the hospital...”

“Hashirama never falls sick.” Tobirama took the glass. The scent was refreshing. “So what is this for?”

The fear in her eyes turned into confusion. “Senju-sama doesn’t know yet?”


 

 

When Tobirama returned to the Hokage apartment a few seconds later, Hashirama lifted her face from the trash bin. She whispered, “so you knew.”

He placed the glass on the dining table until the concoction splashed out. Many times she endangered the relation between Senju and Uzumaki, and many times Tobirama managed to prevent her just like their father’s mandate. Except this time.

“Hand me the glass, Tobirama. Please.”

“What were you thinking?” he asked, ignoring her request.

Hashirama crossed the room towards the dining table. Her fingers circled around the glass’ upper half, yet Tobirama stayed still. His grip remained on the hot glass, ignoring the pain spreading on his palm.

Dark red met dark brown. The skin around his sister’s eyes looked darker. Her black hair wasn’t as tidy as usual.

“Tobirama, let it go.”

Her brother tightened his grip. “Answer me.” He couldn’t deny that he was ready to face an incoming wave of Hashirama’s chakra, just like the other day in the room next door.

But what he expected didn’t happen.

“I trust you, Tobirama.” Hashirama took a heavy breath. “I did.”

The unexpected respond weakened his grip on the glass. His sister took advantage of the situation to lift the glass from the table. Tobirama’s empty hand clenched and opened. A familiar pain returned to his chest.

Hashirama used to act foolish and reckless. Tobirama often felt that he was the one who had to act rationally even though she was the eldest. Correction—his sister was the first to be born, but he was the first son of Senju Butsuma. The responsibilities his father held in his life were bestowed upon him.

For the first time in his life, Tobirama felt he had failed his duty as a shinobi and as a son.

Once she finished drinking half of the concoction, Hashirama stared at the glass in silence. Her left hand was still massaging her temple. Tobirama realized her face had turned pale.

“What was I thinking…” Her sister lifted her face, taking two steps away from the table. “I think you know the answer.”

A face took form inside his mind, followed by his memory of chasing Hashirama to the edge of their burned village years ago. Asking her to come home, but she insisted on leaving.

No, Tobirama wasn’t mad about that anymore.

“We have achieved the peace you longed for.” In a slight, Tobirama glanced at the window. “You don’t have to cater to him anymore.”

“You know he is my closest friend.”

“I know he is much more than that.”

“So why do you still hate him?”

“I don’t hate him.”

“I can tell that you dislike him,” Hashirama insisted. “You’re always cold near him.”

Tobirama couldn’t take it anymore. “Alright, I admit. I don’t like Madara. There you go.” However, the annoyance that grew inside him since morning was clogged in his throat once he saw his sister’s reaction.

“...Forgive me.” Hashirama bowed her head down and deep. “I was really angry at that time,” she continued softly. Without further explanation, her brother understood the intention of her apology.

“Me too,” he said, louder than intended. “You two had gone too far. What if someone else came in? Until now I haven’t said to anyone that you stayed overnight in the Uchiha residence. You can’t do things as you please. I’ve said it many times since a long time ago, you’re not an ordinary person—”

“Stop it, Tobirama.” Hashirama’s head still bowed down in front of him. “You sounded like Father.”

“What’s wrong with that?”

She lifted her face, burdened by an unseen predicament. “All this time I thought you would support me.”

“I do support you!” Tobirama snapped, upset. “Since Father died, since you wanted to stop warring against the Uchiha. Even since you studied ninjutsu in secret.”

The veins on Hashirama’s neck tensed. “You’re the one who spied on me by the riverside and reported me to father.”

“That was different. We were at war.”

“How about now?”

Tobirama was silent. Hashirama took a heavy breath. All the bustling sound of the village felt so far away from their ears. As if they were isolated from the outside world inside the apartment, surrounded by lavish furniture gifted from the ruler of the land.

“Our family will not accept Madara because you’re already betrothed to someone else. That’s why all of those proposals were rejected.”

“I am no longer the leader of the Senju clan.” Hashirama put down her glass. “I am the Hokage now. I am responsible for everyone’s life in this village. I can’t possibly go away to be married to someone I don’t know. I don’t want it.”

Tobirama hissed, “Konoha is still very young compared to our relationship with Uzumaki clan, Sis. The village is already stable, independent now. We will be fine here.”

“What Madara and I seek for Konoha hasn’t achieved yet. Why do you want me to leave?”

“I agree with Father about this,” Tobirama stopped for awhile, making sure that his sister’s attention focused at him, “You really are unfit as a shinobi.”

The air crackled. Hashirama’s expression darkened.

“Listen to my reasons,” Tobirama quickly added, his two palms facing forward, asking her to stay calm. “Back then in the middle of a battle, you often froze suddenly when facing against child shinobi. In the middle of any discussion, everytime the clan council addressed the child shinobi, you turned pale like you were about to faint. I know you never fall sick—you are impossible to fall sick, even. Remember that time you ate an expired food, or when you accidentally ate my poison stock?”

How relieved he was when the air turned calmer, and Hashirama nodded slightly.

“Children will always be victims. You will not be ready to witness all of this.” Tobirama inched forward, pulling a chair for her. “Iwagakure isn’t any different. They send children to war. You… you better don’t know about it.”

Hashirama’s left hand rested on her abdomen. She was motionless. Seemingly trying to understand his explanation, and Tobirama was glad to realize that.

“Nobuo was… annoying. But it was a long time ago. I heard he has reached a promising position at the palace court.” He lowered his voice. Hashirama began to listen to him again. Tobirama knew he always reminded her of her responsibilities as a clan leader back first, then as the Hokage. He had promised himself to always help her leading the Senju clan.

As long as Hashirama is on top, nothing can hurt her.

If she stayed outside the system, she would never fall sick again.

“You don’t have to live this way anymore. You can stop being a shinobi, and nurse your children until they grow up—”

The air crackled once more, alerting his senses up to maximum scale. A voiceless scream by his sister exploded unexpectedly. Tobirama tried to withstand it, forming a stance with his legs. His chakra gripped the wooden floor. His high collared shirt suddenly felt damp and tight, like the air in the middle of a hot summer afternoon. The furniture rattled, pushed back from their spots. He had chosen the wrong words.

“Sis—!”

The wave of pure chakra dissipated as fast as it appeared. The air calmed down, but clear enough to tell that Hashirama had her overflowing emotion scattered around. His sister leaned against the wall across him, her five fingers dug into her abdomen. Her glass was shattered in front of her feet.

Tobirama hurriedly approached her, concerned, until she lifted her right arm firmly. Stopping him from approaching closer.

“I don’t want to marry Nobuo.”

His heart still raced restlessly. A reply crawled on his throat, taking a form on his tongue, “your mokuton has to be passed down to your children!”

“I don’t want my children to possess mokuton!”

Tobirama wiped his forehead, sweat streaming down his scalp. Her shout hit him harder than the sudden chakra burst. Unbelievable. It had been years since Hashirama’s mokuton was awakened, yet his sister was still as stubborn.

“Father will be terribly embarrassed,” he said softly. “I don’t know what to say to Ashina-san later.”

“Uzumaki clan didn’t give us support to build Konoha,” Hashirama argued. “You know that all the aid they gave us were paid with information.” She stopped for a while, panting.

His subsided annoyance resurfaced once more. “This conversation leads us to nothing. What’s so difficult about it? It’s just a marriage, not leading a war.”

Hashirama stepped over the shattered glass on the floor and circled the table towards him. “If marriage is so easy for you, why don’t you marry the Uzumaki instead?”

Tobirama stared at her intensely. His sister’s face looked dull, and there were dark circles under her eyes. But her eyes were still gleaming with determination.

The gap between them wasn’t only about personality differences. One was the determination—her determination that was as strong as the mountains. Impossible to topple once she formed an intention. Crushing everything that stood in her way. Back then, Tobirama thought how reckless she was for thinking to end the war, and afterwards he admired her crazy idea when their village was burned to the ground.

At that time, he understood why their father always talked about her in every training session. He understood why their father always reminded him to be by Hashirama’s side until she is married.

He lifted his chin, then spoke clearly and firmly, “I will marry an Uzumaki woman if it should be my duty as a Senju and Konoha shinobi.”

Hashirama blinked, shocked. She took a step back.

“Isn’t that what a true shinobi does?” he added. “Putting the interest of our clan and village above our personal whims? You are incredibly strong, but you’re still consumed by your own desire. A shinobi like that will threaten the safety of everyone in their community.”

“Just for this matter… can’t you stop being a shinobi?”

How? He had been living for more than two decades as a shinobi. The rules and customs of a shinobi had taken him to his current position.

“I can’t.”

Slowly Hashirama sat on the chair he had pulled. Her palms were on her face as she sighed in exhaustion. “We switch positions, then. Annul my engagement.”

Tobirama shook his head. “Ashina-san wants the mokuton. I don’t have it.”

Hashirama watched him through her fingers. “I still can’t believe you kept it secret for so long.”

He sat next to her. “I find it difficult to believe that you are so… careless with Madara. He didn’t even send a proposal to our elders. Everyone knows there is a protocol which—”

A chill ran down his spine. It was strange. Both of them were adults. Both of them should knew the consequences of a careless sex. Izuna said that her brother never glanced at any wife candidates offered by his family. Even if there was any, intimacy outside marriage rarely happened in other clans beside Senju. Hashirama’s former status as a clan leader forced any suitor to contact her family first before proposing to her.

Tobirama remembered a stack of proposals rejected by his uncles. He left all of them in this apartment weeks ago. There was no proposal from the Uchiha clan for Hashirama, even though he dared to swear that everytime Madara was around, they were attracted to one another like magnets.

Hashirama who insisted to discuss peace with Madara even when their clans were slaughtering each other. Madara who carried her home when she fainted after she built an inn for Nobutada.

How could he have been so blind?

Tobirama dug his memories. When his cousins who weren’t kunoichi married in their teenage years, Hashirama never once asked when her turn would be. Her focus was always aimed towards the training and the battles—

Towards Uchiha Madara.

“Tobirama?”

He lifted his face, finding a mix of concern and exhaustion on his sister’s face. A statement left his mouth, “you did it on purpose.”

Hashirama’s eyebrows furrowed. “What’s wrong with you?”

“You did this on purpose.” Tobirama stood up, his breath rasped. “You knew.” The conclusion struck him like a collapsing doton hill, causing him to stagger and forcing him to press the table strongly so he could keep his balance.

“What are you talking about?” Hashirama took his wrist gently, until he pulled it away harshly. His sister’s hand froze in the air.

“Tell me, Sis.” Tobirama’s fingers pierced the back of his chair. “Does Madara know too? Were you two doing this on purpose—” he hissed, flowing out clumps of emotions out of his chest like the storm clouds, blocking his breath. The next question was too difficult to express.

How long had she known? And how did it happen, because their father had told everybody to shut their mouths? The only ones who knew her betrothed were Tobirama and their uncles in the clan council…

The prospect of breaking up their relationship with Uzumaki clan was pushed aside from his mind for a moment. Without saying anything at last, Tobirama walked through the doorstep and closing the door behind him. He ignored the vague sound of Hashirama calling him to go back.

Tobirama stopped inside the office, trying to calm himself down by shifting his focus into their work again. The mission report he read had a new company lying next to it. There was a pile of documents placed on the table, the complete identity information of the Academy students.

Someone entered the Hokage office, and probably had overheard their conversation. His mind quickly jumped into the worst possibility, although he brushed it off in an instant. The Academy had more than just one staff; not just her.

But still, Tobirama couldn’t deny there was a bad feeling clinging onto his heart.


 

 

He was sixteen, and he stood next to his sister on the frontline.

The battlefield was the border between Daimyo Matsudaira and Taneyuki’s territory; a vast grass field. The landscape was flat, and the weather was sunny, almost cloudless. After a few years of polishing her abilities, their father finally permitted Hashirama to be on the frontline. Before then she was only allowed to fight as a support, or as a healer for her unrivaled healing ninjutsu abilities. The man stood by his daughter’s right side, squinting his eyes as he watched a line of opponent in front of him.

“Uchiha Madara leads these troops.”

His sister’s gaze was unwavered even by the slightest. Tobirama unsheathed his sword. Without seeing through them, he already knew his opponent must be standing side by side with the Uchiha commander. His focus would be shared between fighting against Izuna and watching over his sister.

The question is, would Hashirama be able to fight against Madara with a drawn sword and an intention to kill? Last night they had talked about it, and Hashirama convinced him she wouldn't hesitate.

I will be fine, Tobirama.

“Look forward, Tobirama!”

Butsuma’s roar echoed as the sound of gong blared on the grass field. The ground beneath his feet shook, and Tobirama hurriedly jumping down as a hill appeared—formed by their relatives with doton jutsu. His sister stayed on the hilltop, collecting chakra and focusing her mind. They had trained the same jutsu continuously, now was the time to see how it would erupt in the battlefield—  

Blood splattered from his cheek. The sword drawn forward once more, seeking his heart, which soon Tobirama parried with his sword. The troops began to run and fight around them, narrowing their visibility with the sight of sweating bodies and clouds of dust. The smell of sweat, blood, and guts had filled the air.

“Worried about your pretty sister, Senju? You should be watching your neck.”

Uchiha Izuna smirked at him. Her sword danced and switched grips in the middle of her attack, making her tactics difficult to read. Tobirama kept defending, moving as little as he could to save his energy and dug more informations about the girl.

Her sharingan had matured.

The first rule of fighting an Uchiha is in any condition one must never stare into their eyes. No matter how complicated the tactics are, or the jutsu are… everything will be exposed like spilled guts in front of the sharingan. The only option in the fight is to quickly taking advantage of the gaps to strike and kill them instantly, or keep holding them off until a gap is available.

But Izuna was the best kenjutsu expert in Uchiha clan, apparently even far better than teenagers older than her. All his vital spots had been sought; he barely got away thanks to his lightning reflexes. Izuna realized that, but she took her time pretending to hit his vital spots. She laughed seeing him distressed.

“Why holding back?” she challenged him loudly. “Come hit me!”

As if he was provoked, Tobirama’s sword drawn wildly. Izuna switched to defense, as she was pushed back until she got past her clan’s frontline. Tobirama was sure the gap he wished for would be found, when an intention to kill flooded his senses.

Uchiha Madara dashed closer. Not towards him.

His heart jumped. He got carried by the flow of battle until he shifted far from the man-made hill. He sensed Madara jumped over dying bodies to get there. For a moment he glanced towards the hilltop, his sister still staying to collect her massive chakra.

Idiot. Of course a chakra that much would be detected quickly! Madara was an exceptional sensor, he would notice Hashirama’s position easily!

Tobirama turned away, ready to dash to stop him, but his collar was pulled roughly that it hurt his throat. His sword made a reckless wide slash; freeing his collar without  hurting the puller.

Izuna scoffed loudly, disappointment clearly drawn on her face. “Distracted mid-battle!”

Pain bloomed on his upper arm, but he ignored it. The Senju shinobi who weren’t fighting against Uchiha shinobi tried to approach Madara. But the young man dodged all the kunai and shuriken attacks aimed towards him. He had begun to climb the foothills, all the Senju relatives who tried to stop him were thrown away to the ground easily.

His sister—Madara must not reach his sister!

Pain bloomed on his left calf. Tobirama threw a kunai behind him, hearing a cry of pain as he fell on the bloody grass. Hashirama knew she would be a target, and the hill was easy to find even without a sharingan. But he didn’t expect that Madara would be the one crushing through their defense line.

His senses focused on a clump of massive chakra, one motionless and the other approaching in haste—

—Then the motionless chakra erupted.     

The earth shook and cracked open, hundreds of wooden pillars grew in an instant from the ground. Tobirama remembered their tactics. Immediately he jumped onto a large wooden pillar, biting his sword hilt with his teeth as his hands worked to form a suiton seal. On top of the other pillars, several of his relatives did the same. He flowed out an extra chakra; today was a bit dry because of the sun.

But they managed to call a massive flood. Suiton dragons slithered in the forest created by his sister, the result of mokuton practice they had worked on for months. The thick wooden pillars that looked similar to trees now had filled the grass field, with the Senju shinobi perched on their branches. The majority of sharingan’s visibility had been reduced.

While the huge wave washed the battlefield, Tobirama sharpened his senses once more. Madara had washed adrift by the flood, his massive chakra was no longer found nearby. Many of the Uchiha shinobi died in the water. He spent the rest of the battle kneeling on top, directing his relatives to chase the surviving opponents.  

Hours later, after they finished taking care of the corpses of their allies and enemies, Tobirama climbed the hill with his wobbling legs. On the flat hilltop he found the commanders had gathered, watching the cleaning up process.

“Tobirama!” his sister hissed. The girl just exited a meeting tent, no longer armored. Her headband was damp from sweat. “Is it… your blood?”

Hashirama brushed the wound on his cheek, yet he didn’t flinch in pain. His sister only looked exhausted, without any sign of grave injury. A satisfaction bloomed in Tobirama’s mind.

“You are wounded here and there…” she commented as she checked his arm. “You usually aren’t this careless.”

“I fought Izuna,” Tobirama said as he sat on a rock. “Her skills are far better than mine since the last time we fought.”

“It’s almost two years ago, isn’t it?” Hashirama ripped his sleeve, her palm glowed green covering the slash wound.

Tobirama nodded, receiving a leather canteen full of water from another medic shinobi. He drank as much as he could as his sister tended his wounds. Hashirama explained the situation of the battle they just had.

“Our tactic was good, it reduced the amount of wounded troops,” she said as she smiled in satisfaction. “Some of the surviving Uchiha tried to burn my forest but they failed, of course.”

“Their formation was destroyed. Nobody expected you to be able to grow a wooden forest.” He observed the battlefield. The leafless woods still filled the area.

Hashirama’s expression turned serious as she straightened her back. “You fought against Izuna, right?”

Tobirama rubbed his healed calf. “Yes. Why?”

“Is she…” Her question hung in the air, unfinished. Her eyebrows frowned, signifying her concern.

Her brother shrugged. “Madara himself…?”

Hashirama shook her head. “I didn’t have the chance to fight against him.” Strange to hear grief in her voice. “I have a bad feeling.”

“Isn’t it a good thing if he’s dead?”

The furrow between her eyebrows deepened at his rhetoric. She answered as she observed his expression, “I just feel like there will be a bigger chance to pursue peace while they are alive.”

“There will be no peace as long as the daimyo keep bickering with each other and paying shinobi to fight their war,” Tobirama argued. “There will be no peace as long as the shinobi clans still accepting war as their way of life—” His nape hair bristled. “Aneja! To the frontline—NOW!”

Hashirama dashed to the hill’s front side in time to create a thick wooden wall, shielding them from a gigantic fireball from striking the small hill. The attack hit them repeatedly without mercy. The air beyond her wall seethed from the heat. The flame visibly danced from atop the wall. All wounded shinobi were quickly taken to safer position.

The girl’s arms trembled from holding the chakra, her snake seal had changed, her fingers were now cupped straight. The dark green mark of senjutsu had formed on her face.

The Uchiha clan had never fought back so shortly after they retreated before. It was clear they took advantage of Senju’s carelessness during war council break to strike back. Tobirama cursed in his mind. He didn’t expect it to happen at all, and now Senju clan had to pay with the death of their relatives who stayed on the grass field to collect corpses when the fireballs descended upon them.

“Suiton division!” Tobirama roared. His fist slammed the ground, finding at least ten of Uchiha fire spitters standing atop the trees his sister created. After he passed the information to his relatives, five suiton dragons slithered down from the walltop. Unfortunately, the other Uchiha shinobi had replaced the fire spitter positions.     

“Tobirama!” His sister yelled, and the young man immediately dashed to her side. Her hands formed a set of seals in a flash. “Help me—suiryuudan—”

He nodded before Hashirama finished her words. A second later, two ninjutsu in the form of giant dragons crashed down the grass field; one suiton and one mokuton. The wooden forest under were rattled and destroyed after being struck by the weight of the two dragons. The siblings climbed atop the wall, right in time when Tobirama sensed a clump of massive chakra thundered towards the hill, climbing the body of his sister’s mokuton dragon with a drawn sword.

She exchanged stares with her brother in less than a second, before she descended down to her dragon’s body. Her sword was gleaming under the sun. Madara was far away, but he made a seal with one hand and rained Hashirama with fireballs from his mouth. She didn’t even try to shield herself; she let Madara’s attack burned her body as she kept running without hesitation. Her wounds were almost healed when their swords met.

Tobirama didn’t follow his relatives down to greet the waves of Uchiha’s attacks. He watched from above, raining the shinobi with his suiton, with his sister never leaving his sight. Their swords clanging against one another followed by Madara’s katon blast. Tobirama’s toes bent, ready to jump.

Should he approach closer, ready to help Hashirama when he’s needed? Her sister still needed two hands to create a seal. When it comes to kenjutsu, they were equal, but—

He screamed, half from shock and half from pain. A kunai just sought his jaw. Tobirama dodged in time so it only scratched the center of his chin. Not a second later, another figure appeared in front of him, slashing the air where his neck was a moment ago.

“Tch!” Izuna threw a hook to the wall, before throwing herself forward.

The girl was right. Tobirama got distracted too much. He should watch for himself. His sister would be fine; she was strong, she could protect herself!    

Fire and water danced atop the hill, covering the area with thick steam. Tobirama closed his eyes as he fought—to avoid Izuna’s sharingan attack and because the steam had rendered his vision useless but not his other senses. His focus wasn’t shared anymore; Izuna really had the intention to finish him with her relentless attacks. Her sword struck his armor repeatedly.

But they were equal.

Tobirama intended to use his suiton once the trumpets were heard. One belonged to Senju, while the others must be Uchiha’s. Without thinking twice he immediately left the hill, retreating far behind according to the signal. His heart raced tirelessly. The signal was only used when they lost a commander. His concern did not dull his alertness; he took the chance to sense the battlefield, and surprised to find none of the Uchiha chased them.

His relatives gathered to circle around someone. Amongst the whispers and shoutings, Tobirama recognized her sister’s voice that was filled with panic. He pushed the men from the outer circle of the crowd out of his way, shoving himself into the crowd until he arrived at the center.

A man was lying on the grass. His body was severely burned from head to toe, until it was difficult to recognize his face. Had Hashirama not kneeling by his side—with trembling palms using her medical ninjutsu as she cried—the young man would never know the burned man was his father.     

Tobirama kneeled on the other side, without daring to touch anything. His sister still wailed. Slowly there was only her voice left in the circle. Her green ninjutsu glow vanished gradually.

“Hashirama, get up,” said a tall thin man as he pulled the girl’s arm, “you too, Tobirama. We are going home.”

“Uncle Azami—” Tobirama started, but there was a clog in his throat.

His uncle shook his head, and all he could do was stepping aside for the two men from the corpse division to seal their father’s body into a large scroll.

The wound on his chin throbbed painfully. Tobirama was not ready.


 

 

Tobirama couldn’t sleep that night. Following his initial plan, he buried himself among the work documents and ninjutsu scrolls arranged by the research department. The tactic division he led worked hard to gather the jutsu data used by the Iwagakure ninja to help them formulate their own military tactics. The battlefield that still stood by the edge of Tsuchi territory gave them advantage. The practical way to strike their earthen defense was by destroying it using a massive physical strength. The Akimichi clan volunteered many soldiers on the frontline, and also had the most number on the death toll.

He crossed away the possibility to send the Hokage to the frontline. Meanwhile, he himself was too busy to go. Madara alone should suffice.

His brush strokes stopped.

What if Madara dies at war? The prospect of Senju and Uzumaki relation being destroyed would disappear, but Konoha would lose its best shinobi— one of its best shinobi. According to reports from the frontlines, Madara’s role was very vital to reduce the amount of Konoha fatalities. The estimation of Iwa’s death toll had reached three times higher than Konoha’s.

He went according to his own whim. He sought death. However, it was impossible; he and Hashirama built Konoha so they wouldn’t go to war anymore. It’s possible Madara had known about Hashirama’s betrothal. Even worse, he probably was the one who suggested to—

Why was it so difficult to accept the fact that they were attracted to each other? They were the strongest shinobi Konoha had. Both of them, until recently, were the leaders of their respective clans. Wouldn’t their attraction be normal? Shouldn’t he be glad to find his sister happy? Or would he be more able to accept if the person wasn’t Madara?

But… since they moved to live together, not even once Hashirama had talked about her relationship with Madara. Only the activities they did together, all of them were meant to build the village. Madara himself barely interacted with him; save for one time he carried his sister home and asked Tobirama to take over half of her responsibilities.

Or probably Madara was the one asking her not to…

No, it’s impossible. He was thorough enough with observing interclan rumors to prevent clashes that could threaten the village’s internal safety. There was no rumor about them, except some villagers’ talks about seeing them together. Even those had no romantic indication.

Weary, Tobirama surrendered. He ripped a piece of paper and wrote a list which he copied from a scroll about medicinal plants and forest herbs. After blowing off the candle, he went to see the ANBU team who guarded the Hokage that day to send them a special instruction.

“Check every food and drink that will be served to the Hokage. Make sure there is none of these ingredients in them.” He handed the list to the dog-masked team leader.

“Raven weed, unripe pineapple…” the ANBU read it in confusion. “Senju-sama, aren’t these harmless?”

“Harmful for her,” Tobirama explained impatiently. “The thing is, my sister must not consume any of these plants. Inform the other teams about this order.”

He walked down to the office in time. The Hokage’s apartment door was slammed open. Hashirama ran to the trash bin beside her work desk to throw up. Tobirama immediately held her long hair so it wouldn’t fall into the trash bin. She managed to glance at him in between vomiting. Her eyes were wet, but not as swollen as yesterday.

“It’s okay, I’m fine…” Hashirama wiped her lips and waved her hand. “Go home.”

“Sis…” His throat was clogged by the memory of yesterday. Even with a bunch of knowledge possessed in his brain, Tobirama still had no idea how to start a conversation about it. Besides, this wasn’t the right moment; Hashirama’s condition was still unstable.

“...Yes?”

They stared at each other, and all the exhaustion on Hashirama’s face sank his anger and annoyance. He finally shook his head. “You should take a time to rest tomorrow.” Then he quickly left.

The explanation he needed could wait for another day.

The sun had risen, his steps automatically directed towards a small hill he always visited the first time he woke up in the morning. On the way he was reminded about Izuna’s absence for the past week, and he doubted she would come today.

Their private training must had ended.

There was something stuck in his heart, which he quickly brushed off. The training was a duty. Once it ends, it ends.

His agenda today was inspecting the quality of their water source, so he had to walk to the large river’s upstream. Even with its narrow body, its upstream was deep enough to dive into. He took off his shirt and jumped into the freshwater, sensing the bijuu’s corrosive chakra which crossed Konoha weeks ago. Once every two weeks he came to visit, checking whether the remains of the chakra were still contaminating the water. Fishes by the estuary, a lake, all died because of the storm. The villagers around the lake scattered fish seedlings two weeks ago, after Tobirama announced that the water was quite safe to consume.

Even diving was considered dangerous. He couldn’t stay underwater longer than twenty minutes. Unfortunately, sensing the bijuu’s chakra couldn’t be done faster…

A pair of giant yellow eyes stared back at him from the gaps of forest canopy.

Tobirama jumped out of the water, his fingers were ready to form a seal when he realized the yellow pair were eyeless sockets of a golden skull that stood taller than the oak trees. He collected his chakra and turned it into a suiton, absorbing all the dampness of his clothes until it dried.

“Izuna.”

“Tobirama.”

Why did she come here? Tobirama sensed the area around him, and found Izuna by herself. The path towards the upstream was quite tough to trek; or did she move here with the help of her susano’o?

The grass rustled as Izuna moved forward into the sun-basked area. A haori wrapped her slim body to hold off the wind. She didn’t tie her hair like usual; the tips of her hair were sticking out to reach below her waist. Her eyes were covered in white blindfold.

“I just want to know,” she said, her voice was as melodious as it was yesterday, only covered in a layer of restrained discontent, “if the gossip about Hashi-san’s engagement is true.”

“That’s true.”

The golden skull suddenly lowered, stopped only about a meter from Tobirama’s head. “So after all this time—both of you played my brother!?”

Tobirama tried not to step back from her. “It’s not—”

“You don’t know how bad it affects my brother!” Izuna’s yell caused the birds to fly away in panic. “You don’t understand how heartbroken he is!”

“You don’t know the whole situation—”

Her arms crossed on her chest, a body gesture similar to Madara’s when he’s upset. “All this time I thought our assumptions about you were wrong—I thought Hashi-san’s feelings to my brother was genuine. The truth is you’re only manipulating us!”

“Izuna, you misunderstood this,” Tobirama argued, wearing his shirt loosely before approaching her. “That’s not the truth.”

“So what?” she asked, her voice shrill. They were separated by less than a meter in distance. “You two… you are cruel! My brother really, really cares about Hashi-san, you should know that! My brother has proposed to her! My brother—”

“Izuna!” he roared. “My sister has been secretly betrothed since she was young without her consent.”

“To whom?” Izuna’s arms were crossed on her chest, gesturing a challenge.

“A man from our relative—” Suddenly he realized another oddity. “Izuna,” he called. His expression changed. “You said Madara has proposed to my sister…?”

She ignored his question. “Is he stronger than my brother?”

His correspondence with Uzumaki Ashina only revealed to him that Uzumaki Nobuo had been trained in sword arts by the royal samurai. During one moment when he was patrolling the village, Tobirama passed by a group of ronin who ran away from the battlefield by the border. They had no ability to control chakra; completely relying on their swords. Meanwhile Madara only needed a few minutes to finish a hundred people in one strike of his susano’o sword.

Tobirama shook his head. “No.”

Izuna scoffed in satisfaction, taking two steps back. “Ha! So it’s true when I thought you still see us as your enemies. Hypocrites! All the sweet words Hashirama said to my brother were lies! How idiotic—” her words were restrained. She took another step back. “How idiotic for us to trust you. Our father always told us you will use the Senju’s love and compassion as weapons to manipulate people for your own advantage.”

“My sister is innocent,” Tobirama insisted. “The betrothal wasn’t within her knowledge. She has—”

A doubt slipped into his heart. Is it true? He still didn’t know when did Hashirama discover about Nobuo. Also whether Madara knew about it or not.

He quickly averted his gaze. Izuna couldn’t see him, but the chakra wall she had between them was dense. He didn’t wish to back off even only for one step.

The wall seethed like a cluster full of emotions, threatening to overflow and drown him in it. The glowing susano’o above them released a similar tension.  

“What of her?” Izuna challenged.

“My sister is broken.” Tobirama’s shoulders weakened. “I’ve never seen her that sad before.”

“You lied.”

“My chakra doesn’t lie, Izuna.”

Izuna stayed still, but the wall changed form. Reaching for him slowly until their chakra touched. Her anger dissolved a little, yet there were questions filling her mind.

“And you,” she said suddenly, sending a bad feeling down to his heart. “Did you know?”

“I knew—”

The chakra wall struck his chest, throwing him to the riverbank. His shirt fell from his shoulder, and his elbow was scratched by some sharp rocks. Tobirama fell atop leaves and twigs, staring at the susano’o skull above him. The pain in his ribs would be bruised later on.

“She is your sister,” Izuna said in pain.

I know.

“How long have you been holding the secret?”

For years, for our father who died at war. I have failed this duty.

“Or do you think my brother is unfit to be with Hashi-san?”

Tobirama didn’t need to answer and Izuna didn’t need to approach closer, her wall had stretched to reach for him again. The golden bone hand fell upon him in an instant—

Or so he thought. The hand only stopped a centimeter from the tip of his nose. Tobirama sensed a confusion within her, and his answer was given away unknowingly, shaped by his invisible chakra.

I never liked him do you think I can stand him freely approaching my sister do you think I’m not upset seeing him haunting my sister’s thoughts for years until she willingly ran away under the influence of genjutsu with him back then do you think I don’t know that my sister also loves him—    

The susano’o above him dimmed. “Aargh!” Izuna roared in frustration, her fists formed claws in front of him. “Why did you never say that, you damned Senju! I’d rather have you cut my neck back then so my brother and I would never be treated like this!”

Tobirama pushed himself up. “It’s nothing personal, Izuna! It’s about the internal issue between Senju and Uzumaki clan, our relatives. My sister’s mokuton is very rare and valuable. It has to be passed down to her offspring! This has nothing to do with the Uchiha!”

“You Senju folks are crazy. I have misjudged you.” Her susano’o shrunk. “Hashi-san is your sister, and you promised her to a… weak nobody!”

“Uzumaki Nobuo is not a nobody. He is our relative, with a connection with the palace—”

“So that’s what you seek. Don’t you think about Hashi-san’s feelings at all?”

“A shinobi must set aside their feelings for the sake of missions!”

Izuna’s jaw dropped. Only then Tobirama realized he had repeatedly raised his voice. For some unknown reason he had the ghost of his sister’s words repeated in his ears.

Just for this matter… can’t you stop being a shinobi?

The world felt like being split into two. Everything he said wasn’t an absolute truth. Izuna’s chakra wall thickened in front of him.

“You’re still hiding something, Senju.” Being addressed by his clan name made him uncomfortable. Izuna continued with a calmer tone, “think about it. What good will it bring to Konoha for marrying the Hokage to an outsider? My brother is a better candidate than this Uzumaki man.”

“Without Uzumaki’s support Konoha would never be built,” Tobirama explained about the cost of resettlement and fuuinjutsu knowledge given to the Senju, but Izuna did not accept the explanation.

“Then why don’t you marry an Uzumaki woman? You are the clan leader.”

He repeated the answer he gave to his sister yesterday, “I don’t have mokuton.”

Her lips thinned. She now stood inside the ribs of her susano’o. Her shield gradually dissolved, leaving thin traces of sunlight. “What do you think is more important, Hashi-san’s happiness or the relation between Senju with a clan that never came to visit Konoha even once?”

He stopped while reaching for his clothes, his hand hovered above the grass.

“Can you marry someone you don’t know at all, just to produce children with exceptional strength?”

“Yes.” Tobirama took his clothes, standing upright. “Of course I can. For the greater good, rather than submitting to my own personal whims.”

“You lied,” she hissed, gripping the left side of her belly. “Damn it. I thought you were different. I thought we were friends…”

Tobirama froze. Why did his chest feel so tight? Why did his heart race restlessly?

Why did it hurt him so much to hear Izuna said that?