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a crown of shadows and scorched leaves

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Hashirama was seven, and the baby in her arms might not survive tomorrow.

Her heart was restless, she glared at Kawarama who keep reaching for the branches above them. His legs were dangling from the branch; making her worried he would slip and fall. Fortunately, Kawarama finally stayed still. Her sharp ears caught sounds of muffled breath and restrained weeping. Even the forest birds didn’t sing.

It was silent in the woods, almost.

She had no courage to look below. A chaos unfolded in the distance; men harshly yelling and women screaming were heard from their village. The only ones hiding in the branches with her was her two youngest brothers. The other children were scattered on different trees, hiding behind the shadows of lush foliage.

Mere minutes ago, one of their cousins ran home barefooted, ushering all the children to hide in the trees. Once they were safe among the branches, some male strangers rushed into the village. The sounds of beating and broken earthen jars followed after.

“Sis,” Kawarama whispered, cutting off her wandering thoughts. “I want to pee.”

She mouthed her reply, “no, not now…”

His face went pale. He then sat sideways, moving back and forth uncomfortably. Hashirama grabbed his arm, with her two legs clamping the branch. Her baby brother Itama was peacefully asleep in her other arm, but she started feeling sore from carrying him all the time.

“I want to peeeee,” Kawarama repeated, impatient.

On the ground, all sounds ceased to be.

The similar discomfort spread to other trees. The younger children started to whine, wanting to leave. The older ones forbade them. The absence of human noises didn’t mean the danger has gone. Every shinobi could move without bending a single blade of grass.

Itama wiggled in her arm. His mouth widely opened, suddenly bawling. Kawarama hurriedly covered his ears, grimacing.

“Ssh, Itama, don’t cry!” Hashirama’s attempt was in vain. Obviously, her brother was hungry. The last time their mother breastfed him was before she went with the other women to get water from the hills because their wells were dried.

But, where was their mother?

Their tree trunk was shaken gently, which she would miss had her body wasn’t in a fight or flight stance. Hashirama exchanged stares with her brother, his eyes were teary. The foliage hid them from unwanted visions, but they were also trapped there. The other branches were too far away to be reached by their small arms and legs.

The footsteps approached, climbing the trees. It was loud enough, without any intention to hide their arrival. Itama’s cry must had invited those possible attackers.

Hashirama shielded the baby with her body. She was the closest to the trunk. She could hand him to Kawarama, then while they were jumping down to the lower branches, she could keep those attackers busy. Risky, she knew, but staying still wouldn’t do anything. But wait, if someone was waiting for them below, they would not survive—

“Hashirama?”

She was stunned. She recognized that voice! Her hands trembled trying to push the foliage away from their field of vision. All of her discomfort and tensions were gone once she saw his face.

“Otou-sama!”

Under the trees, male adults and teenagers had gathered, still wearing armor from the battle. While the other children were taken from the trees, Hashirama hurriedly looking for her mother, no longer trying to calm Itama’s cries. But a middle aged lady stopped her and took the baby from her arms.

“Auntie, he’s hungry!”

She said nothing, instead giving Itama to another woman, whom Hashirama knew just given birth a few days ago. Those women’s bodies were full of bruises. The woman started breastfeeding Itama silently.

“Auntie, where is my mother…?”

They ignored her question. The older woman started taking care of the younger one’s wounds and bruises. Hashirama’s attention was stolen by her brother’s blushing cheeks, until someone called her.

“Aneja.”

Tobirama arrived holding Kawarama’s hand, accompanying him away from their baby brother and grouping with another relatives. Her oldest younger brother was still armored, without any visible injury. All around them were men in red and green armors, walking around, smelled like soil and blood. Hashirama didn’t understand what was going on until they arrived at Senju clan cemetery.

Their father stood still, stoic, his back was facing his three children while other Senju men were busy burying more than a dozen of wooden coffins. His attention was fixed on one specific burial hole on the ground.

“Otou-sama, where is mother—”

Her father’s finger pointed at the hole in front of them, interrupting her question. The little girl was stunned as she looked around the burial site.

Her kinsmen worked in silence, but one or two people who exchanged words told her that all those caskets were filled with the dead bodies of the women who went to the hills to get water. Including their mother. They were attacked by a group of bandits who camped near the water springs. Only a small number of women survived; the rest of them were already died or disappeared.

“Hadn’t the northeastern hills been cleaned from bandits, the last time we patrolled there?”

“The Uchiha clan repelled some other bandits in Daimyo Taneyuki’s area a week ago, they’re all scattered…”

“They must have sent those bandits there! Right when we went to deal with another clan’s attack…”

Hashirama stopped paying attention, drowning in her own emotions. Senju clan has a lot of enemies, her father said. Like those bandits who raid villages and kidnap unwary villagers. However, the ninja clans scattered beyond the woods and mountains were more dangerous. They loved killing more than kidnapping, even slaughtering children. And the most dangerous is the Uchiha clan, the arch-enemy of their family. It is said that their appearance is unlike any other human being, but with eyes as red as blood and breath as hot as hell-fire that marked their devilish nature...

The blood scent faded among the whiff of crimson dusts and the diggers’ body scent. Roasted by blazing sun, sweat seeped into her palm that was tightly holding Kawarama’s smaller hand. She cried when all the graves were covered, like all the other children. Except for Tobirama who was only staring into the mounds. Her mind was distraught, but Hashirama didn’t know what to do with it. Even if she expressed that, no one would listen willingly.

The Senju clan is a ninja clan, isn’t it? A clan of warriors, of fighters? Then why did all these women lost and died in the hands of several bandits? Hashirama still couldn’t understand why did they die so easily, or why weren’t they armed with bigger weapons than just average knives? Or why did these women aren’t allowed to fight in a battle? They should be able to handle a sword if they’re taught. Bandits or even Uchiha clan wouldn’t be a big problem.

“You’re still young, Hashirama,” her father said that night, after Itama was returned to his wet nurse. “You don’t understand.”

“But I want to know, Otou-sama,” she insisted. Her tears had dried up.

Senju Butsuma stared coldly at his only daughter.

“If our women fought and died, then who would give birth to children?”

Hashirama fell silent, confused.

Are women really can’t do both at the same time?





Hashirama was twenty five, and she didn’t understand why the ruler of this country wanted to visit a nameless remote village.

The uphill path she took ended at a small open field surrounded by oak and pine trees on top of the hill. The buzzing of forest insects were interspersed by croaking birds flying by in the blue sky. Irises grew beneath the trees, protected under the shades. Clusters of blooming purple asagao grew scattered across the field.

Senju Tobirama, two years younger than his sister, stood with an unsheathed sword. His swing, faster than lightning, blocked perfectly by his opponent, a tall and slim woman. Her ponytail whipped every time she defended and attacked. There was no sound but steel swords clanging, grass crinkling, and outcries full of spirit. They were equal; they took turns to attack each other without falling out of tempo. Hashirama was impressed watching them, how their contrasting clothes danced with their swift movements until the colors seemed blending with each other...

The two fighters moved closer to the path. A thick chakra wall suddenly hit her, causing her to blink repeatedly in shock. The woman in the field shouted, “Stop!” then turned to her.

“Morning, Tobirama, Izuna,” Hashirama greeted both of them.

“Oh, Aneja.”

“Hashi-san,” Uchiha Izuna nodded quickly. Her chakra wall shrank. Her chest was visibly moving up and down, with sweat flowed past her black collar. She sheathed her sword, then fixed the white cloth that covered her eyes. “Ah, it's slipping down again…”

“Don't you two usually practice somewhere else? Why did you move here?” Hashirama asked, staring at her younger brother and hoping for an answer.

“That usual place is already used to keep building materials. It's quieter here.” Tobirama leaned his back on to a tree trunk. His leg was stretched forward while he drank the content of a bamboo tube. A cat showed up from behind the tree, and Tobirama pet its back. An intense, satisfied purr was heard soon after.

Four other cats showed up from behind the trees, approaching Izuna who had sat down in the field. All of them meowed asking for a pet. She giggled and squealed loudly when a cat rubbed itself on to her exposed forearm. When she was satisfied playing, she quickly got up. “Let's practice again, Tobirama,” she invited, then searched the grass until she found her sword.

Didn't want to disturb them, Hashirama got up and went to another path that brought her to the side of hilltop. The sound of swords clanging against each other echoed from the place she left. The scenery that welcomed her by the end of the path was a pine forest circling around a settlement. There were still many empty housing plots, and half the area had fully established houses with unpainted roofs, showing the natural wooden color gleaming under morning sunlight. Its people—which looked smaller than her pinky finger—were walking around doing their daily errands. On the northern side was a towering cliff; a familiar place for Hashirama.

More than twelve years ago she was sitting on top of the cliff with her best friend, talking about something that was deemed impossible back then; stopping the war and building a settlement together with her family's arch enemy. If her father or their ancestors came to see what was happening currently… she didn't know what would they say about it.

A swift shade momentarily blocked the sunlight from her face. Hashirama looked up, and discovered a flash of green pheasant snatched by an eagle. She recognized that eagle. They flew toward south, so Hashirama ran hurriedly through the trees downhill. Her attention was kept upward, to a dark shadow among green canopies. Unwilling to be left behind, she jumped over giant tree branches and hit smaller twigs on her way. Her lower clothes billowed as she landed on the edge of a level settlement.

The green pheasant was already on the ground, lying with blood flowed out of its dead body. The eagle who hunted it, sniffed the air before it jumped to a tall man's covered arm. Its beak caught a lump of red meat from the man's fingers, then flew to another man who had decapitated its prey. Both men wore dark clothing.

Hashirama exclaimed at them, gasping, “Madara! You’re home!”

The two men turned to her simultaneously. A young man she didn't know bowed in respect, then quickly busied himself with the eagle on his arm. The other man, who was older, took off his thick gloves and parted his long bangs away from his face.

“Hashi,” Uchiha Madara greeted her softly with a serious tone. “I need to talk to you.”

“Eh?” She blinked, she slowed down her steps. “What is it?”

Before he answered, Madara gestured the other man to leave with a nod. “I came across a courier from the capital. He had been lost for three days looking for our village.” He took a gold-covered scroll with an official knot from his pocket.

“What is this?” She asked, receiving the scroll.

The paper looked expensive. Even a daimyo rarely used this kind of paper. Shinobis like her only use paper sufficiently, messages usually were written in short codes or sentences with thin pencils. She released the knot carefully, and she could smell the fragrance coming from the calligraphy ink. That was unusual.

Madara reached between the strands of her hair, taking the leaves caught in her hair while she read the letter aloud.

“‘To The Chiefs of Senju and Uchiha shinobi clan’... oh, this is for us.”

“Continue,” he commanded.

“'We wished upon your health’... the greeting is so long, oh gosh.” She frowned as she skipped unimportant long sentences. The language was excessively fancy and confusingly superfluous. “There is a congratulation for the end of inter-daimyo conflict…”

Madara scoffed loudly.

Her eyes widened when she almost reached the end of the letter. “....Emperor Nobutada wants to come in person here.” Hashirama looked up from the scroll, stuttering, “the Emperor… the Emperor will come visit us next month….”

His hand stopped for awhile, then slipped strands of hair behind her ears. “Here?” Madara sneered. “To this remote place?”

The woman touched the top of her head, which was already cleared from forest rubbish. Inside her heart she was grateful, but also embarrassed because she was so hurried running down the hill that she didn't pay attention to her path. “That's what the letter says. The Emperor wants to talk to the village chief.” She tied the scroll back together. “I don't understand… even a daimyo never comes in person to greet people outside their cities. So, why the Emperor…”

Madara shrugged, then turned to walk around the village. Hashirama followed him, reading the letter once more. For the shinobi, the Emperor was an entity outside of their comprehension. His territory stretched from east to the west, and from north to the south. But how far it reached, Hashirama had no idea. The only thing she knew was the existence of other empires beyond the horizon, which means Hinokuni had a border somewhere. There was also Tsuchinokuni, Kazenokuni….

“What do you think?”

Madara had stopped walking, not far from the main road that led to the settlement. Bustling sounds of the villagers vaguely heard from the spot where they stood.

Hashirama stared at him, then quickly scrolled the letter back. “The Emperor has been letting the daimyo fighting against each other for so long,” she answered. “Now he was willing to see us. Even then, he rarely leaves the capital.”

“Everybody knows the Emperor only cares about the retributions each daimyo offers to feed his ridiculously expensive army.” Madara did not bother to cover his resentment.

“I'm glad he wants to come visit us, but… there is too much to consider.” Hashirama tucked the scroll beneath her clothes, then they continued walking. At times, she glanced at her best friend who seemed to be drowning in his own thoughts. He had been gone for a week, to hunt boars and other wild animals, all while he mapped the vast wilderness. Hashirama understood their village needed more food supplies and Madara was one of the best hunters they had outside of the Inuzuka clan. She only wished Madara did not leave for too long—there were many things regarding their village that she wanted to talk about.

Soon the peaks of wooden construction frames were seen from behind the trees. Men, all dressed in dark clothings, were working while chatting. Weeks had passed, and only the Uchiha clan who was still occupied with construction works.

“Do tell the other clan heads that we need to form a village council as soon as possible. But keep the Emperor's letter secret, at least for now.”

As she watched Madara's back turned to leave toward his clan's residence, she felt something unusually heavy in her heart.


 

 

“Mokuton.”

The ground cracked, opened. Wooden trunks grew from an empty soil plot in front of her, square-shaped and smooth like they were polished by an expert. Square-shaped branches grew from the sides of the trunks, connected to one another until it formed a construction frame of a two-story building. She almost didn't blink as she watched them grow, making sure the sizes were as precise as the design plan in Tobirama's hands. After she was done with the framework, Hashirama continued working on the floors and walls, complete with openings meant for doors and windows. Last, she grew the roof; wooden boards lined up neatly in rows.

Gently Hashirama released her snake seal, feeling muscle soreness spreading to her back. For more than an hour she stood still without any movement to keep her focus steady. Releasing that much energy was easy in a battlefield. But it consumed a lot of stamina because she had to keep her energy flowing constantly while at the same time keeping the wooden frame’s growth controlled. Leaning on her knees, she turned her head to her brother. “How was it?” she asked, out of breath.

“Much better than the last time,” Tobirama commented. “There is an improvement.”

“I have been… practicing…” Hashirama took a deep breath, then walked through the doorway.

The two-story building would be a temporary office for village council until a more permanent brick building construction had been completed. She recollected her remaining energy and made wooden tables, chairs, and shelves. The ground floor would be a meeting room, and the upper floor private offices. Outside, Tobirama instructed a carpenter to finish making windows and doors.

“How many can you make in one day?” He asked as they left the location. “Almost all of our clan allies are ready to resettle here. There will be not enough time to build all the houses…”

“I told you not to worry.” Hashirama walked lightly next to him as they passed newly opened empty fields. “Everyone will get a house. I can work non-stop,” she added with eyes gleaming in joy.

Her brother observed her skeptically. “Aneja, you haven't forgotten that time when our clan just moved here, haven't you? That time we had to evacuate ourselves because the roof of our house you made was too heavy that it collapsed in the middle of the night?”

Hashirama grimaced in guilt. Her mokuton was used more frequently in battles, so when she had to build a house quickly, she only imagined the shape of the house in her mokuton. Its construction was obviously weak. The weight wasn't distributed evenly, so it collapsed rather easily. In the next day, Tobirama hired their clan's construction expert to design houses and asked her to practice mokuton in her spare time.

Really, using mokuton to build houses was far more tiring than using it to fight against Madara. And speaking of Madara…

“Whose house we're going to build first?” Hashirama asked, “Uchiha?” she added, a glimmer of hope could be heard from her voice.

Tobirama rolled his house sketch, then shook his head. “They chose to build their own houses. We have to quickly divide housing zones before someone even think about fighting over lands.”

She looked up to the blue, cloudless sky. A flock of birds flew by. She retrieved a letter scroll from her pocket. “I… have to tell you something. Emperor Nobutada sent a letter to us.”

Her brother's deep red eyes rolled rapidly after he opened the scroll. “This is… strange.”

“I know, right?”

“Our information network has been stagnant since we moved out. No one knows any significant news from the capital.” Tobirama returned the scroll neatly. “What if I tell all the clan officials to gather and discuss about this matter?”

“I think it's alright. Please tell the other clans as well.” Hashirama added. “But don't mention anything about this letter.” She stretched her arms. “I will build some more houses before lunch.”

“Just one.”

“Three.”

“Sis,” Tobirama squinted his eyes; a gesture she always remembered, “please take care of yourself. You're already tired.”

The woman was sullen for a while. “I'm aware of my capabilities, Tobirama. Trust me.”




By dusk, Hashirama was back on the cliff, counting the empty house plots she hadn’t built. Her vision got blurry once she finished the third house, that's why she hurriedly left the gathering crowd. If her brother knew about this, he would scold her again. Her fingers pointed the air as she counted. She could build five houses in a day… so she only needed…

“What are you doing?”

Hashirama quickly put her fingers down. “Ah—Madara! You looked so happy.”

The man turned his face away, insisted, “It's nothing.” Yet a slight smile could be seen forming on the corners of his lips. “Izuna… her kenjutsu ability has returned like before.”

“Still as deadly as ever.” Then Hashirama smiled. “I watched them this morning.”

Madara parted his wild hair, showing a long red scar under his ear. “I sparred with her just now, and here's what I got.”

“Aw.” Her hand moved closer, gently touching the scar.

“It doesn't bleed anymore,” he said, even though he let his best friend healed the scar until it disappeared. “She was angry I didn't take her hunting.”

Hashirama didn't say anything on that matter. She already understood why. “By the way, I've informed all the clan officials to gather tonight.”

“I’ve got your brother's message,” Madara said, looking around the settlement. “We need a name.”

“Eh? Whose name?”

“Name for this village, Hashi,” he sighed, “and the title for its leader.”

“Oh, of course.” Her hand clapped on her fist. “Is 'village chief’ not enough?”

“The people of this village aren't just ordinary people…” he said aloud, beating the sound of wind blowing towards them.

Hashirama tightened her clothes to hold back the cold wind. If almost all shinobi clans of Hinokuni allied under one name, then its leader must be more than just a village chief. The leader must be able to protect many people, not just the villagers. Then the entire Hinokuni would be protected as well…

“...'Hokage’,” Hashirama murmured. “How about the title 'Hokage’? The protector of Hinokuni from the shadows? Isn't it good?” She turned her head, her grin was wide, hoping for a praise for her brilliant idea.

Instead, Madara turned sullen. “Not creative at all,” he commented flatly.

“Huuuhh.” She sulked. “Do you think you have better ideas? Like, the name for our village?”

“Heh. Of course.” There was a leaf slipped between his thumb and index finger. It had a big hole on the center; a caterpillar's work. He lifted the leaf in line with his eyes while he muttered, “Konoha… gakure…”

Hashirama tilted her head. “What? I can't hear you.”

“Konohagakure,” Madara repeated it confidently. “A village hidden in the leaves. What do you think?”

Hashirama's jaw opened slowly. “From all the names you could think of…” she complained with a disbelieving stare, “you chose the one inspired by the most basic hiding tactics. Ugh, not creative.”

Madara grumbled in annoyance. “Hey, look at yourself! You're not creative as well!”

She laughed out loud. “Alright then, we should ask for creative inputs from the others! But,” she turned around to face him, “I want you to be the Hokage.”

“...Are you serious?” He frowned in disbelief.

“Mhm!” Hashirama reassured. “I can't think of anyone else but you.”

“Why?”

She didn't answer, but showing her wide smile. Madara was dedicated in protecting his family, and he was an incredibly strong shinobi. Their family was no longer just their own clans, but everyone who lived in this village.

In Konohagakure.

“Don’t just grin like that, tell me the reason,” Madara coaxed.

“It's—”

“There you are.”

They turned, seeing Tobirama climbed the cliff. His face was sullen. “Come down, everyone is already gathered.”

Once they arrived at the office, Madara entered the meeting room. But Tobirama stopped Hashirama from following him, and gestured her to the office upstairs.

“I heard your conversation back there,” he said while closing the door. He didn't even bother with small talks. “You can't appoint him as the leader just like that.”

Hashirama's eyes widened. “What's wrong with it…?”

“Someone who hold such position must be chosen democratically,” he added, “we can't just appoint anyone that easily. Other clans’ opinions should be considered as well. They must have other candidates.”

She dropped herself onto a chair. “Madara is suitable as a Hokage, Tobirama.”

“I understand why you think so. I'm not questioning his ability nor his leadership… but, I think you are also qualified as a Hokage. You both are equally strong clan leaders.”

Hashirama felt like there was something else he didn't tell. “You still dislike him.”

“Not really,” he quickly denied. “This isn't a personal matter.”

Her attention suddenly was drawn towards the glass window. She approached and opened it widely. “Did you feel like there's someone out there?” Her sight caught a shadow just leaving that place, but no one seemed to be there.

“My sensing chakra is currently inactive.”

Only a messy pile of fallen leaves from a nearby tree scattered under the ledge.


 

 

Hashirama was nine, and she had embarrassed the whole Senju clan.

At the summer afternoon, their village was more crowded than the usual. They received a group of guests from the southeast sea, distant relatives who had been staying for a half season. It was the last day of their visit. The Uzumaki clan routinely sent them the best weapons and shared ninjutsu knowledge they researched. When the Senju clan was at war, they kept gathering data to form new techniques and tactics for Senju's victory.

The group was led by Uzumaki Ashina, an old man with average height and a red beard intertwined with silver strands. He was gathering with the other adult men, including Hashirama's father. Aunts and the other female cousins were walking back and forth to serve snacks and sake. Children were playing outside the circle, trying to catch ladybugs or showing off their chakra abilities.

Hashirama was busy accompanying the grandchildren of Uzumaki clan leader. They were fun; going in and out of forest was their daily activity when they were staying at the village. It turned out there was no forest with giant trees back in Uzushiogakure.

“Uzushio island is too small,” Uzumaki Mito explained while she was braiding Hashirama's long hair. “You can go around the island in just three days. From the hilltop, the entire island can be seen clearly. There's only one small forest filled with pine and oak trees, but none of them as big as the trees here.”

“No boars?” Hashirama asked. She sat on the ground, hugging her knees while watching the boys showing off forest bugs they caught. The differences between Uzumaki and Senju kids were quite contrasting. First, it was the Uzumaki's unique red hair that stood out, and secondly because all the guests were nicely dressed. Even everyday clothings were made from silks and vibrantly colored. Meanwhile Senju kids wore clothes made from hemps that were easily obtained, and wasn't always dyed.

“No boars. Maybe just pheasants and doves.” Mito let her hair down with ornamented comb. “Your hair must be tidied up, Hashi.”

“Hmm, your fields must be safe from pest attack.” Hashirama ignored the comment about her hair. All her Uzumaki female cousins were so pretty, with shiny accessories decorating their hairdo. Whatever Mito did to her hair wouldn't enhance her beauty, anyway.

“Later when you come visit us, we can play in the sea. We can ride the fishing boats.”

She did not respond. She didn't know where exactly Uzushiogakure was exactly, but through the conversations during their stay in the village it seemed to be so far away. As far as she knew, no Senju clan member ever traveled that far in groups. Missions were always done alone. Her father had gone to the city, but in a disguise at night to receive mission from daimyo.

Noises from the forest caught her attention. She found a group of Uzumaki cousins laughed out loud until their voices turned hoarse. The group was led by Nobuo, a boy her age that was tall and big with bald head. They surrounded another kid—a Senju kid, and seeing from the flash of his clothes—

Hashirama's heart was filled with dread. She recognized Kawarama's voice from the group. Nobuo lifted a pail and spilled its content into the center of the crowd. Kawarama cried.

“What a crybaby!” Nobuo laughed at him, while his friends imitated. “How can you be a ninja if you cry so easily! Are all Senju kids just a bunch of crybabies?” The crowds parted, showing a squatting Kawarama. There was something sticky covering his head, like frog eggs.

Her brother was terrified of frog eggs.

“Hashi—!”

In a blink of an eye, the girl swiftly left Mito. In the next second, Hashirama's fist bumped into Nobuo's nose. The boy fell on the ground, but the girl didn't stop punching him. Nobuo's fat arms flailed, trying to push her away, but Hashirama trapped his body between her legs. His grey eyes watered. Her hearing was ringing, deafening her from any noise but punching sounds.

The hands that tried to pull her away reminded her that Nobuo's friends were still there. Hashirama struggled, but she was outnumbered. Only when she was pulled back and got up, she realized what she had done.

That big and tall boy was still lying on the ground with face full of blood. Just like Hashirama's fists. Mito had knelt beside him, trying to stop the bleeding. Her white clothes was splattered with red blood.

“Aneja…?”

Sticky frog eggs were still covering his head, but Kawarama had stopped crying. He was frightened. He was not the only one; everyone around her was staring at her in fear. Slowly Kawarama glanced at his sister's back, and her nape hair bristled.

Before her father called her, she disappeared among the bushes. Her heart beat boosted her adrenaline rush, pushing her to run deeper into the forest. It was her reflex; triggered by Kawarama's cry. Fistfight wasn't anything strange for her, but that was the first time she punched a guest. He is Uzumaki Ashina's—the Uzumaki clan leader—oldest grandchild, too. His temple and lips were torn.

She stopped running when her ribs felt sore. Hashirama wiped off blood on her hands using nearby foliage. Her overflowing emotion had calmed down. Her stomach growled, so she stepped on a giant pine trunk to reach a ripe persimmon that grew next to it. From the above she could see limitless green ocean that comprised the protection labyrinth for Senju clan. Tree branches moved gently, blown by the wind.

Her favorite scenery relieved her anger.

Flash of colors underneath caught her attention. A convoy recently left her clan's settlement. Red spirals decorated their luxurious palanquins, flanked by red haired guards. They disappeared at the end of the valley. All of Uzumaki clan had went home.

Night would descend soon.

Hashirama moved closer to another tree trunk, hiding behind lush foliage. Her father must be wrathfully looking for her in every corner, swearing to punish her. She didn't want to kneel down and polish wooden floors all night long until her knees bruised. That Uzumaki boy deserved to be punched; she didn't care if he was a clan leader's grandchild. He had made Kawarama cried, even he was at the same age as her. During his stay, Nobuo enjoyed to annoy and make fun of smaller, younger Senju kids when the adults weren't looking. Even he pretended to act sweet when the adults rebuked him…

“Psst.”

Hashirama's body froze, her ears tried to catch another sound beside rustling leaves and whispering wind. There was someone down there, but she couldn't peek below without losing her balance.

“Aneja, you are up there, aren't you?”

She blinked, then parted nearby twigs to peek. “Tobirama? Is that you?” She whispered. Twilight dimness hindered her from seeing clearly.

“It's me. Come down before anyone sees.”

Hashirama almost got up from the branch when she realized something. “....Are you going to tell father?”

Tobirama said nothing.

“If so then I don't want to come down.”

“Sis…” The tree trunk was shaking a little bit. Tobirama climbed up. He was breathless when he reached her position, his head popping up from behind the leaves. “You will go home eventually. Father will also punish you, anyway. Come on.”

Hashirama looked away. “Ugh, nevermind! Just leave me to sleep outside!”

“Father said if I can't bring you home, he will make me a bait for Uchiha clan.”

The girl froze in her place. The expression ‘a bait for Uchiha clan’ wasn't anything new for her; she often heard Senju clan members used that expression to scare naughty children. But she never heard their father said something like that to his four children. Was her action beating up an Uzumaki kid had gone too far?

“Sis.” Tobirama nudged her foot.

She stared at her brother's face. If Father really threw her brother away to the Uchiha clan… she would never forgive him. They're all demons; even cannibals, maybe.

She sighed, then activated chakra on her feet to walk down the tree trunk. Tobirama followed, gripping from branches to branches, climbed the tree down like most people. Hashirama didn't look away from her younger brother, ready to catch him just in case he lost balance. Once they were on the ground, the sky was almost dark. Tobirama held her hand along the way home, telling her if there was any obstacles on the way, and every ups and downs.

In the doorstep, she stiffened her sluggish shoulders, ready to face her father's wrath. Tobirama patted her shoulder, exchanging stares with her before she opened the door.

Senju Butsuma glared at them intensely at the moment they walked in and sat in front of him. He still wore his best clothes, a gift from Ashina in his arrival day.

Tobirama looked down. Hashirama boldly stared back at him. Her fists clenched on her lap.

“So, Hashirama?”

“I don't regret for beating up Nobuo, Otou-sama.”

Her father deeply sighed. “You just acted insolently towards Uzumaki Ashina's grandchild and you say you don't regret it?”

“He made Kawarama cri—”

“You are not supposed to do that to someone you might marry one day!”

Disgusted expression appeared on her face.

“Uzumaki clan is still our distant relative,” Butsuma said. “If Nobuo is going to be their leader, your life will be ensured in Uzushiogakure. Children's fighting should not tarnish the relation between Senju and Uzumaki clans!”

Hashirama's fists trembled from holding back her anger. “I'd rather marry an Uchiha man than marrying a bully like Nobuo!” She shouted.

“Aneja—”

“Hashirama!” Butsuma snapped, his chakra burning in fury. “Tonight you sleep in the shed! Forget about dinner!”

She got up, gritting her teeth. Her feet stomped the wooden floor as she walked out. Her eyes watered, but she didn't let her tears fall until she was in the shed. The place was dark, moist, and cold. She stumbled upon old cupboards or chairs with broken legs. Her hunger worsened. Hashirama had to reach her hands in the dark to find a place to lay on among old, dusty furniture.

Her hands touched something that seem to be a musty old futon next to wooden boards. She tried to reach for it when the door was sliding open. A wave of cold chakra greeted her.

“Go back, Tobirama,” she said without looking back, wiping her face with dusty arms. “You are not punished, right?”

“I brought an apple.” Tobirama put a candle on top of a broken chair, then helped her to get the futon and rolled it out next to the door. “You weren't serious, were you?”

“About what?”

“When you said you wanted to marry an Uchiha.”

Hashirama laid her back onto the wall, holding a napkin-covered apple her brother brought. “....No.” Really, she shouted those words just because she was angry. She couldn't stand it because Nobuo continuously bullied Kawarama during Uzumaki's stay in Senju's village. But…

“Tobirama, if I marry Uchiha clan leader, will we stop attacking each other?” Silence. Hashirama added, “Wasn't that what the other clans did in the past? Making peace through pacts and marriages? Why don't we do that?”

She heard her brother sighed. “You should eat, Sis,” he asked.

“But what do you think?”

“Do you really want to marry a demon?”

Hashirama didn't respond. She really didn't know what the real Uchiha clan actually looked like…




The closed room was filled by at least thirty people; clan leaders and some other representatives. They sat in three layered circles around a table. Every clan was represented by four people, including the leaders who sat in the front row.

From Senju clan was Hashirama's uncles; Azami and Joji. The first one was a one-legged war veteran who's currently working as a bee farmer, and the other one was a physically frail but strong-willed man. Uchiha clan was represented by a young man named Hikaku and one of Madara's uncles whom Hashirama didn't know. The other faces weren't familiar, except all the clan leaders she often met. Beside her, there were only two other women in the room.

All conversations ceased once she entered. After small talks and expressing gratitude for the attendees, she presented Madara to speak.

“Our village isn't stable yet,” Madara explained to them. “Sooner or later the daimyo will try to contact us to fight against other clans outside our village. The only thing we can do right now is forming an official leadership structure.”

No one disapproved the ideas for village name and leader title. Hashirama could see Madara trying not to smirk towards her. Her heart was beating uncomfortably once she realized the next section of the meeting.

“To start deciding on who will fill the position as Hokage,” Tobirama started, “we’ll determine through votes. Not direct appointment. I think it will be fair for everyone.” His words was met by approving nods from all the representatives.

“But not all clans are present today,” Nara clan leader spoke. “Is that alright?”

Hashirama exchanged look with her brother. “I think it's not a problem. Besides, Konoha needs an official leader immediately. Please nominate yourselves, or someone else you consider worthy.” She glanced at her best friend. “I nominate Uchiha Madara.”

Without a break, Tobirama added, “I nominate Senju Hashirama.” His declaration was met by meaningful smiles from both of their uncles.

No one else nominated other names.

Hashirama didn't dare to glance at them both. Someone distributed small wooden boards with a brush to write. She spent some time staring at the wood fibers in her hands before writing Madara's name, then compiled it inside a box on the table after the ink dried.

Silence covered the room as a Hyuuga man was busy counting the wooden boards. He sorted and stacked them according to the names written on every board. One stack was piling higher than the other one.

“It’s almost an unanimous decision,” said the counting man as he smiled. “Congratulations, Senju-sama.”

Hashirama was still staring at the wooden boards in front of her. Almost all of them had her name. She had many questions in her head.

How could this happen?

“Congratulations, Lady Senju!” Inuzuka Tsubaki laughed and patted her thighs, showing off her fangs with pride. “You are officially our new village leader!”

But the one who received congratulations only smiled awkwardly towards the Inuzuka clan leader, ignoring the two men next to her who flinched at her laughter. Slowly, sounds of applause started to fill the air, followed by more congratulations.

The chosen Hokage's attention wasn't focused on the voting result, but towards a small stack of wooden boards with Uchiha Madara's name written on it. The man was sitting next to her, with arms crossed on his chest.

“Congratulations, Hokage-sama.”

Her gratitude was expressed softly as she tried to process the current situation. His diplomatic smile disappeared as fast as it appeared. His sight turned away from her.

While shaking hands with the representatives and dodging Tsubaki's tight hugs, Hashirama saw the edge of Madara's clothes disappeared through the exit door.

It shouldn't be like this.

Hashirama stood up, intending to follow him, but Tobirama reached her arm first.

“Let him go, Sis.”

Her brother didn't understand. Hashirama had to follow him.

“Later.”

But when?

Chapter Text

“Thank you for your suggestion, Hokage-sama. Please, excuse us.”

The three farmers left her office escorted by a shinobi who accompanied their arrival earlier. The farmers came from a village within a half-day journey from Konoha, they arrived at her office before sunrise and appealed to see the Hokage in person. Lately, their village was often raided by groups of bandits. Because Konoha was nearby, they asked her for help. Hashirama tasked a team of shinobi to guard the village, teach the farmers make simple traps, and organize patrols.

Shortly after the doors were closed, she laid her head onto the table. Yesterday, she went home late after spending time building another five houses. Her stamina had not recovered yet, even her sleep was interrupted by the arrival of the farmers. Not only that, the prospect of Hinokuni Emperor’s visit with his entourage still plagued her mind, because their stay might require costly accommodations…

“...Sis, don’t sleep in your office.”

Hashirama jolted up, stuttering. There was dried saliva on the corner of her lips. She wiped her face using the end of her sleeve. Tobirama’s sullen face stared back at her, silently saying told you so.

“...I’m not sleeping.” Hashirama opened her eyes wide. Since when did he enter?

“Don’t lie.”

“If I’m asleep, how do I talk to you now?”

“Oh, come on, Sis.” Tobirama glanced at her back. Someone just snickered.

Hashirama leaned her body to her side to see the source of that laugh. A tall woman in dark clothes stood there with her back facing them. “Izuna!” she called. “Good morning!”

“Hokage-sama.” She nodded at her. Hashirama felt Izuna’s warm chakra swept towards her.

“Don’t forget that you still have a meeting with the clan leaders this evening,” Tobirama interrupted them. “Izuna-san will be there in the meeting.”

Hashirama’s attention was drawn back towards the woman. “Where is Madara?”

“Hunting.” Izuna shrugged. “He went this morning.”

She could not fight the disappointment that popped her spirit. Madara had not stayed for more than two days, and her best friend was gone again. She got up to walk into the meeting room wearily.

The meeting that day was about the zoning of clan residence. Hashirama did not understand why they couldn’t just live mixed with one another like Senju clan did. They've signed pacts and agreements; there shouldn't be any reason to distrust each other anymore, right?

“I apologize, Hokage-sama,” Nara Shikana interrupted her. “Our clan brought a herd of deers we've been raising for generations. Besides,” he gestured towards the leaders who sat on his sides. “The Akimichi and Yamanaka clans are always living next to us. We need an access to a special training field and a suitable habitat for Nara’s herd of deers.”

Hashirama observed the representative of Shimura clan frowned hearing about that. She remembered about two days ago Tobirama refused their request to acquire the vast plot in the village center. Their number wasn’t big, and there was no specific reason for them to gain a large spot in the commercial zone. Hashirama wanted to grant their request, but Tobirama disagreed.  

“If you agreed to all of their requests,” he said at that time, “they would keep leeching on our resources. You’ve sponsored their relocation here using our clan’s money, remember?”

Yamanaka Inoha leaned his body above the village map that was stretched on top of the meeting table. His index finger touched an area in green. “This area is still forested. We can open half of it.” Nobody protested nor argued.

Next one talking was Mori, representative of Hyuuga clan. Like the Senju, they weren’t only focused on mission contracts to support their clan members. Their huge number allowed them to gain income from other professions and jobs such as trading. Their network drew Hashirama’s interest to invite them.

The representative was quite old, and he spoke slowly with monotonous tone. Hashirama’s gaze turned empty, her head keep slipping from her palm. She would fall asleep had Tobirama did not nudge her silently.

Without him, she would not be able to survive until this point—

“...With such consideration, we request the land in the village center. What do you think, Hokage-sama?”

Hashirama startled, blinking her eyes multiple times to shake away drowsiness. The Hyuuga clan’s representative stared at her intensely, while the others were waiting for her response.

Right. She was leading a meeting. But she started to think about something in the past that had nothing to do with this. Her focus was terrible.

She took a deep breath before she marked the huge map on the table. “...Alright. I approve.”

Almost all areas had been allocated to each clan as a part of Konoha. Each clan's colored pawns had marked each zone on the map, including the Aburame and Sarutobi clans which weren’t present at the moment.

All except the Uchiha clan's.

Izuna hadn’t said a word since the start of the meeting, merely exchanging words with a young Uchiha man who was acting as her scribe. Her arms were crossed on her chest, just like Madara when he was mad about something.

“Izuna-san?” she called.

“Some of our clan members had established housings downstream, next to the large lake.” Izuna’s voice was softer than the other representatives. “Our clan elders think that place is suitable. There is an open space we can use for training, and a forest to utilize.”

“Hold on,” Shimura clan representative interrupted again. His voice was hoarse, and his blackened teeth was visible when he started talking. “Konoha forests won't be a shared property?”

“Of course there will be forests under village management,” Hashirama replied. “If there is any other clan who wants to manage their own forest privately like the Nara clan does, you are welcomed to do so.”

“But please inform me or Hokage-sama beforehand,” Tobirama quickly added.

“Wait, we weren’t informed about forest zoning before!” Shimura interrupted once again, he marked an area next to the lake by himself. The mark was too close to Uchiha clan’s zone.

“Hisao-san,” Akimichi Chokichi who was sitting next to the man warned him. His thin eyebrows dipped sharply.

Izuna’s finger tensed, interlocking on the table. “We’ve claimed that part of the forest, Shimura-san.” Her chakra spread across the table, uneasy.

On Hashirama’s side, Tobirama straightened up his posture. His shoulders tensed. He had calm expression on his face, but Hashirama knew what it hid.

Tsubaki who sat next to Izuna placed her hand on her shoulder. The Inuzuka clan leader had not spoken much, but her body posture signified her fighting stance. Her gaze was locked on a man across her seat.

Shimura Hisao leaned his body closer to the table again, marking the wooden pawns with his clan’s color. He claimed another spot again around the lake. “We need compensation for our mining business. The transport cost raised after we moved.”  

Tobirama noted for her last night that their mining business almost ran out because the number of iron ore they mined were declining. That was only one of many factors why they agreed to relocate to Konoha and became neighbors with their old enemy, Sarutobi clan. The area around the great lake itself was filled with kozo trees, which was useful for making paper, threads, and medicines. All she knew was this type of tree was a rarity in Hinokuni although it grew rather quickly. The price for kozo tree products was also expensive in the cities.   

“Hisao-san,” Izuna spoke, stiff and cold. “You’re moving too close to our zone.”

“Don’t tell me what I can do or can’t do,” he hissed sharply in response, “know your place, woman.”

Inuzuka Tsubaki almost jumped on the table if only Nara Shikana didn’t hold her arm. The woman hissed, baring her sharp fangs. All the other clan representatives stared at Shimura Hisao, their expressions were a mix of shock and anger. Silently Hashirama asked Tsubaki to sit down, which she quickly obeyed.

The man scoffed, and parted his grey hair aside. “You’re only here as your brother’s replacement,” he said bitterly, ignoring everyone else. “Know your place for once.”

“Shimura-san!” the two Senju scolded him in unison. Hashirama’s drowsiness disappeared in an instant, replaced with anger. She really did not expect someone who was a representative of a clan dared to speak ill, even in front of her who was the Hokage.

At times like this, her father would have kicked any council member who dared to insult others out of the meeting room. But their meeting was unfinished, and he was one of the important members. Not to mention the possibility that all Shimura clan would be offended.

Izuna was unmoved. Her head was facing straight forward, ignoring the siblings on the other side of the table. “Please move your pawns aside, Shimura-san,” she said, as calm as a stone. “I don’t wish for our two clans to bicker there.”

The atmosphere turned intense. The other clan representatives did not react, remained in their chairs. Hashirama wanted to intervene, but seeing zuna’s expression stopped her. Her eyes might be covered by a piece of cloth, but her body gesture didn’t show that she was disturbed. Meanwhile, the young man behind her stared at the Hokage asking for a help. Tobirama tried to catch her attention too; the leg of his chair was creaking under the table. Hashirama ignored both of them.

“There is still another forest in the other side of the lake,” Shimura replied sharply, his bony hand impatiently tapping the table.

“We have made plans to manage the lake and the forest around it,” said Izuna quickly. “If you want to enforce your claim, let’s settle this outside after the meeting.” She turned to the Hokage. “Is it alright with you?”  

Hisao cut in again, “what do you know about this? I wonder why—”

She couldn’t take it anymore. Her smile vanished. “Shimura-san,” Hashirama called him, “enough. I will request for Shimura clan to send another representative for the next meeting.”

“You haven’t been a Hokage for a week, yet you dare to intervene our clan’s internal affair?” Hisao’s voice rose, and the corner of his lips raised, belittling her.

Yamanaka Inoha let out a deep sigh at the left side of the Hokage, rubbing his temple. Hyuuga Mori coughed into his hands.

She nearly explode her chakra had she didn’t feel a stream of Tobirama’s cold chakra. She glanced at her brother once, silently thankful. “We’re not meeting here to question the credibility of our fellow Konoha shinobi,” Hashirama said to Hisao, “but you may leave if you wish.”

Hisao laughed, staring at each of the representatives. Only the Senju siblings and Izuna who did not turn their eyes away from him. His fists clenched on the table. The silence that followed finally broken by the sound of his chair roughly creaking and his quick steps towards the exit door.

“...Fuh,” Nara Shikana sighed, wiping his wide forehead.

Tsubaki turned her chair and commented, “they should have sent Keita. He’s a good boy.”

“He’s afraid of you.” Shikana nudged her softly with his elbow. Tsubaki giggled aloud.

Hashirama fixed her haori. Her gaze aimed at everyone present in the meeting room. “There’s something else I’d like to inform,” she said, “Hinokuni Emperor intends to visit this village.”

Inoha gaped in confusion. “Huh?”

“Why does he want to come here?” Chokichi asked, tapping his round chin. “He never seem to care about ninja before.”

“He didn't tell the reason specifically in his letter. Only a statement that he wants to see the Hokage and village council.” Hashirama leaned her back on her chair, rubbing her temple.

Across the room, Hyuuga Mori stared hard at her.


 

 

“Our clan might had become a part of Konoha, but personally I don’t like it.”

The Hyuuga representative sought her after the meeting, asking Hashirama to talk privately. He seemed uneasy, which raised her curiosity.

The glass she filled for him was almost overfilled because she was surprised. “Why, Hyuuga-san?” Hashirama asked while she handed the glass to him, keeping her voice as calm as possible.

The old man squeezed his bony hands. “Please consider this, Hokage-sama.” He took a sip from his drink. “It was the daimyo who hired us—the clans who live in this village, to fight their battles. Yes, we were paid handsomely… but in the end we are the ones who have to bear the loss of lives and other materials. The Emperor has never for once cared about us. We are just peasants to him.”

Hyuuga Mori wasn’t completely wrong. As a merchant, his clan was underestimated even by fellow shinobi. Although she thought the Emperor’s visit was a good news, many disagreed with her. Tobirama included. His main reason was house constructions didn’t go as quickly as it planned, even if Hashirama managed to build twenty houses in one night. Providing accommodations for the Emperor would require extra effort, which would consume most of resources from this currently unstable village.

“I was hoping that Konoha would someday become an independent village like the Uzushiogakure.” He stared at the window. “Hidden and safe from political intrigue of the noblemen.”

“Hyuuga-san, Konoha still stands in Hinokuni territory. Even Uzumaki clan paid high tax for the Emperor as an exchange for their independence.”

Mori’s eyebrows were raised. “Oh?”

Hashirama drank her own water. “You know about Uzushiogakure…?”

The old man nodded. “So it’s true that Senju clan is still their relatives. Why aren’t we allying with Uzushio village?”

The Hokage smiled bitterly. She chose her words carefully. “Uzumaki clan… ah, they are not very open to other clans.”

“That’s a pity.” Mori took a deep breath, staring far outside the window. The sky had turned darker. “If Senju-sama would be pleased, I have a suggestion for—”

“HOKAGE-SAMA!”

Hashirama jumped from her chair when the door slammed open. The dark-haired teenage boy who sat behind Izuna during the meeting returned. His bang was messy like it was just blown by a fuuton jutsu.

“What happened...?”

“Hokage-sama…” He was gasping for air. He squeezed his chest as he spoke, “please come with me at once!”  


 

 

Hashirama could see furious veins on Tobirama’s temple when he saw her. “You should stop them,” he urged.

They were on the side of an empty field, one of the empty housing locations which hadn’t been built by the Hokage. At the center Shimura Hisao and Uchiha Izuna stood facing each other, with swords in their hands. A young teenager stood near the tree lines, whom she recognized as Hisao’s relative. A glance was enough to tell what they were going to do.   

The Hokage still couldn’t believe Hisao would choose this way. How insolent. Her resentment turned into anger, but she still managed to hold herself. She gave that man a polite nod before she turned her head to his opponent.

“I can take care of this myself,” she said as Hashirama approached her.

“Can you—”

“Duh,” Izuna mocked in annoyance. “Do you think I forget how to fight?”

Reckless. She had seen her fighting on a battlefield, she did; but without sharingan Izuna had lost much of her abilities. She had trained her sensing ability, but her opponent wasn’t an amateur. Not once or twice Madara complained about his sister’s recklessness.

And speaking of Madara…

The young Uchiha who escorted her suggested, “shouldn’t we just wait for Madara-sama?”

“Shut up, Makoto,” she cut him off without turning her head. The young man, Makoto, backed off in fear behind Tobirama.

“Izuna, he’s right,” he sighed, clearly upset, running his fingers through his hair. “Shimura Hisao is still skilled in kenjutsu although he’s already retired.”

She sheathed back her sword quickly. “Do you think I don’t know that, Senju?” Izuna turned to face Tobirama, her arms crossed on her chest. “Hisao insulted me. I am the one who has to represent my clan in defending our land.”

“Yes, but—” Tobirama stopped himself, gritting his teeth. He exchanged stares with Hashirama, then turned his face away. He tightened up his haori as the wind blew.

“But what?” Izuna challenged him.

Hashirama touched the shorter woman’s shoulder gently. “Izuna-san, you don’t have to die for a plot of land. Let me talk some sense to him.”

Talk,” the Uchiha scoffed as she repeated her word. Lights coming from recently lit torches fell onto Izuna’s thin face. Her hands were marred by old scars made from practicing kenjutsu. “He considers me as a mere blind woman. You heard him at the meeting, Hashi-san.”    

Hashirama was unwavered, her heart argued against her words. She really believed that peaceful discussion could solve this problem. But, she also knew that Izuna was right.  

“Izuna…”

Someone cleared their throat loudly, distracting the four of them. Hashirama saw Hyuuga Mori sat on top of piles of wood; he had been following her from her office, and the Hokage couldn’t refuse him. Hisao approached from his place across the small field. He bowed in respect towards Hashirama.

“What if Hokage-sama observe our battle?” he suggested so with pretended niceness—all the bitterness she heard before had gone. “So the result will be official.”

Tobirama took a step forward, covering Izuna’s body from the man’s view. “This is not how we solve problems in Konoha, Shimura-san.”

“I asked for this.” Izuna moved to Hashirama’s left side. Her sword was unsheathed again. “The sooner we start, the better.”

Everyone’s attention was drawn towards Hashirama. She took turns looking at both Hisao and Izuna. They were reluctant to back off from their plan.

“Tobirama is right—killing each other won’t solve anything. But,” she stopped for a while, “I allow you to fight.”

“Good,” Izuna scoffed. Her opponent smiled.

“Do you know the rules?”

Hisao stretched his arms. “No ninjutsu. No genjutsu. No taijutsu. No kekkei genkai. Just kenjutsu.”

Izuna prepared her sword. “No problem.”

Both fighters took stances. The Hokage stepped away from them. She couldn’t be a referee although her position allowed her for that. She could never be fair.


 

 

“Sis,” her brother whispered in distraught. “Why?”

The darkness gave Izuna advantage. Hashirama almost couldn’t hear her steps on the field, only the swishing of her clothes and slashing of her sword that split the air. Her movement was still as flexible as usual, although she couldn't switch her grip in the middle of battle. She mostly went for her opponent’s arms. Hisao stepped forward consistently with tough slash of his sword. Quick and deadly in an instant. But, it caused him trouble to follow all of Hashirama’s rules.     

Tobirama’s question wasn’t louder than a whisper for her; all her concentration centered at the battle in front of her. “I believe in Izuna,” she answered quietly. “Just calm down.”

“You know she is a reckless person,” he said again, his eyes still fixed at the two fighters. So far Izuna managed to block all of Hisao’s attacks, dodge, then land her attacks although they missed.

“They are not trying to kill each other. I am here.” Hashirama hid her hands inside her sleeves. “You know her capabilities; you are the one who spent a lot of time practicing with her.”

Tobirama fell silent, the corner of his lips were down. He must be concerned about something.

Hashirama commented, “You’re not like the usual.”

He turned his head suddenly, frowning. “What do you mean…?”

“What’s going on?”

Hyuuga Mori, who acted as a referee, suddenly shouted and lifted his right hand. “One point for Uchiha!” The veins on his temple pulsed.

Hisao’s left arm was drenched in blood. Izuna didn’t have a chance to step back before the man hit her left leg. Even without doujutsu Hashirama could see blood splattered in the air.

“One point for Shimura,” Mori announced, softer. Izuna hissed aloud, but quickly got back to fight.

Hisao’s relative across the field watched them while biting his own thumb nail and gripping Hisao’s sword sheath firmly. Makoto whimpered in fear from behind Hashirama’s back. She put a hand on Tobirama’s shoulder.

She believed in Izuna, truly. But, seeing her starting to struggle in blocking Hisao’s attacks, she started to doubt her own decision. Izuna was the one who chose this way to settle the problem, but…

What would Madara say about this? She couldn’t stop the battle now—Izuna wouldn’t like it.

“One point for Shimura.”

Tobirama inhaled his breath sharply. Hashirama gripped his shoulder. Izuna’s left hand was wounded on the wrist. It didn’t seem to be deep, but enough to make her had a hard time holding her sword. She mostly dodged attacks rather than blocking them, even she was distraught by the wound on her leg. Three times Hisao tried to slash her, visibly impatient to land his final strike. But his attacks kept missing the target.

Izuna crouched to avoid an attack towards her right arm. She turned around on one foot, throwing her sword to her wounded hand, then scratched Hisao’s left elbow from behind. Her movement was so fast even her opponent didn’t realize he was wounded again until Izuna distanced herself away from him.

“That’s—”

“One point for Uchiha.”

They almost ran out of breath. Hisao’s face was red and twisted in anger. Izuna was the opposite, she smiled widely. Blood dripped onto her sword handle.

“Don’t celebrate anything yet,” Hisao hissed.

She tilted her head, indifferent.

Izuna’s second scratch wasn’t deep. Hashirama recognized that move; a move that didn’t made to land deadly slash. But rather just to land a mark on an opponent’s body.

Izuna was tired; her attacks mostly to make gaps and destroying Hisao’s focus. The man returned to his first tactic—slashing as strong and as quick as possible. His sword was no longer aimed at Izuna’s legs or arms. Slash by slash were evaded by her. Anger blinded him. When their swords collided once again, Hisao pushed it with all his strength, then stepped backward. Just like when he injured her left leg, Hisao immediately attacked her as fast as he could—but that time his sword struck her waist.

Izuna’s mouth opened voicelessly as she fell. Her sword fell clanging on the ground.  

Hyuuga Mori jumped forward, he pressed certain spots on Hisao’s dominant hand until he dropped his sword. “Violation,” he said coldly, his byakugan aimed at a young man on the side of the field.

Hashirama followed, her heart beat fast and unabated. Years of endless war stopped her from panicking from time to time, but her worry was rising. She managed to catch Izuna, intended to sit her on the ground. But she only reclined on her shoulder while Hashirama tried to heal her wounded waist.

“Dammit.” She gritted her teeth loudly. “Get away.” She ditched Hashirama’s wrist.

“Your injuries—”

“I’m fine,” she gasped, searching the ground for her sword. Her chakra was less solid, still trying to find its original form after she recovered from shock. Sweats drenched her blindfold.

“You have won, Izuna.” Hashirama bowed above her, focusing on closing her injuries.

“Shimura isn’t dead yet.”

“This isn’t a dead or alive duel. Let him be.”

Izuna groaned in ire. “What’s the difference…” She fell on her back, trying to rearrange her breath. “I killed his son some time ago. He has a death wish.”

Hashirama widened her eyes in shock. “Why didn’t you tell—”

“IZUNA!”

Dusts gathered around them when they saw Madara landed, bringing the smell of damp forest and blood along him. He observed his sister’s condition in a glance, then his eyes turned to the Hokage. His face flustered in anger.

“What is this?”

Her heart startled. The green glow on her palms dimmed as anxiety took a hold on her. Hashirama quickly added more chakra on her palms to speed up healing process. She didn’t know where her usual composure had gone—maybe it left because she knew Madara would react this way.

“It’s nothing, Brother,” Izuna answered for her. “Only trying to stop someone else from taking our lands.”

Madara didn’t turn his attention away from Hashirama. “You allowed this…?”

Hashirama lifted her face, firmly confirming, “yes.”

His attention was drawn to another side of the field. She gathered courage to glance. Only Tobirama and Mori talked in low voice to one another. The two Shimura men were nowhere to be found.

Izuna suddenly moved, standing up. Hashirama stopped her. The wound on her waist was almost closed entirely, but the one on her leg hadn’t been treated yet. “I’m not done.”

“Just minor injury.” Madara helped her stand. His sister shrugged, gesturing her not to stop them. The Hokage got up, patting dusts away from her knees.

“Madara,” she called, “her injuries…”

“Sis.” Tobirama walked closer, visibly ignoring Madara. He whispered in her ear, “Hyuuga Mori asked to talk.”

Their talk wasn’t done yet, since it was interrupted by the sudden entrance of Uchiha Makoto. The old man was waiting a bit far from them. Hashirama’s attention returned to the two Uchiha.

It felt like a long time since she last saw her best friend.

“You also have a meeting schedule with our clan council.”

Hashirama blinked. She didn’t remember she had that appointment. But lately she always relied on her brother to remember all the appointments and meetings in her schedules. She had a hard time managing all of it by herself. Had she had time to spare, she would have escorted them back home.

Her tongue felt heavy as she said gently, “I apologize for this, Uchiha-san. I wish we can talk another time. Good night.”

The siblings went in silence. Only Makoto responded to her.


 

 

Hyuuga Mori asked her to walk with him to the Hyuuga’s residence. Tobirama went to Senju residence to start opening the meeting without their leader. Hashirama let the old man to recline on her arm along the way, his words from their conversation returned into her mind.

The Emperor wouldn’t let a completely independent village in his territory. Hashirama knew this from her clan’s cousin that annually Uzushiogakure sent two chests full of valuable items, not including gifts, to the capital. Konoha had no enough money to pay that much tax, so they only had one choice.

She scratched her head. Her heart was full of worry because she had no time to discuss anything with Madara. She needed his insight and suggestion. Ah, she should apologize once more regarding Izuna…

“You are a capable shinobi, Senju-sama,”

The comment was said unexpectedly. Hashirama almost forgot to turn towards their destination. “Thank you, Hyuuga-san,” she replied politely. She kept away the thoughts about Madara, promising herself to find him tomorrow.

Konoha at night was very quiet. Not every house they passed had candles lit inside of them. Only a few torches and lanterns lit up as many as they needed, illuminating the roads around wooden houses. From the field, they only met one other pedestrian.

“Just take this as a casual question,” the old man said, the wrinkles on his face became visible as he gently laughed under the light of a lantern, “do you have a candidate?”

Hashirama was confused. “Eh? For what?”

“For a future husband, of course.”

Why did Mori suddenly ask about that? Many guesses appeared in her mind, but she spared no time to analyze them. “Oh…” she laughed softly, she covered her mouth with one free hand. “No, not yet,” she answered.

“Is that so? Then if you are interested…” He let his words hanging in the air.

It wasn’t the first time someone wanted her to form kinship with another clan.

It wasn’t the first time Hashirama wished she wasn’t born as the daughter of Senju clan leader.


 

 

She was eleven, and she was following Touka. Her cousin carried a kind of basket which was often used by their female relatives to gather forest herbs. Hashirama was curious why she went alone and wore male clothes. Even her hair was tied up on the back like a boy.

Touka was five years older than her, tall for a sixteen year-old teenager. Like most female Senju clan members, she attended a secret gathering to become formidable kunoichi—a gathering forbidden for Hashirama to attend. Touka was trusted to keep the village safe while the men went to war, even allowed to bring a naginata. But now Hashirama didn’t see any weapon with her, except a knife to harvest herbs. The girl suppressed her chakra as thin as possible, just like Tobirama taught her.

Her brothers were busy with the other Senju youths, practicing kenjutsu and taijutsu. They had been given a sparring kunai since they could sit upright. Meanwhile Hashirama had to peek at them secretly to satisfy her curiosity. Three days ago she was caught in the act, and in return she was given additional courses for punishment. Mostly they were calligraphy, ikebana, and embroidery. That didn’t mean she disliked it; she liked those lessons, but when her father made it as a punishment, she wanted to resist.   

So there she was, watching Touka’s back went deeper into the dim forest from behind a tree. All of Senju children were familiar with the forest and wilderness outside their village, but Hashirama was the only one who always had to tell her father before she went to the forest.

Ah, who cares if she got caught again. She’s already used to sleep in the shed.

She was snapped from her reverie by the sound of twigs cracking under her sandals. Such an amateur mistake!

“No need to sneak like that, right, Hashi?”

Hashirama froze in the footpath with one foot raised in the air above the broken twigs. Touka had faced her with hands on her waist. “Naughty girl,” she muttered.       

“I wanna come.”

“Yeah, yeah. I know.” Touka gestured her to approach. “You can follow me as long as you’re not noisy.”

Hashirama’s grin widened. “What are you looking for in the forest?” she asked, then ran to match her steps with Touka’s. “Medical herbs? Cat’s whiskers? Aloe?”

“Nonsense. We have all of them in the village,” her cousin answered without turning her head.

“Then what?”

“Raven weed.”

Hashirama shook her head. “I never heard about it.”

Touka stopped for a while to stare at her, her eyebrows frowned. “How old are you?” Once Hashirama answered, she then added, “have you bleed?”

“I have,” she answered quickly, sprightly following Touka walking through shrubs. She lifted the bottom part of her clothes, then jumped over short bushes. “When I was slicing cucumbers, and when Itama accidentally stabbed me with his sparring kunai.”

“Oh,” Touka responded flatly. “You haven’t then. No use for me to explain.”

The little girl turned sullen while the older one squatted to sort lush bushes in front of her. Touka took out her knife, then cut some small plants with long heart-shaped leaves.

“Come on, tell me,” she begged, nudging Touka’s exposed forearm.

She glanced at her for a while, dark green bangs fell covering her eye. “Soon you will bleed, a sign that your body has matured. Which means, you can carry a baby in your belly.”

Hashirama spontaneously reached her own belly, looking down at her body. She often saw Senju women with large bellies in the village, but she was never told even once how could they got pregnant in the first place. The only thing she knew, that a man was always involved in the process.

“How to make babies, Touka?”

“You talk too much, Hashi,” she grunted. “You are a clan leader’s daughter, when you’re married, your husband will tell you how.”

She was suddenly reminded of Nobuo, and his annoyingly loud laughter when he bullied Kawarama two years ago. Nobuo would use that opportunity to bully her too. In her heart she renewed her vow not to marry that annoying Uzumaki brat. Besides, Uzumaki Ashina had other grandsons, not just him.

“Ugh, no. I want to know now.”

“Just go home,” Touka gestured her away with her hand.

Hashirama stood up with hands on her waist. “I don’t want to!”

“You ask too much.”

“If isn’t you, then who can I ask?”

“Auntie or grandma in the village, of course!”

“I did. Nobody wanted to tell me anything.” Hashirama’s lips pouted. “The other younger girls were already told. Why not me?”

“You are the clan leader’s daughter, Hashi.”

“What’s so special for being a clan leader’s daughter if I know nothing?”

Touka’s knife stopped cutting. Suddenly she stood up, going back towards the footpath. “Alright. So listen to me carefully. I will only explain once.”

Hashirama’s attention was divided among running, the rustlings of leaves that she stepped on, and the croaking birds in the forest. A bird flew above their heads, its wings were as wide as her shoulders, and decorated with blue-green feathers. Her eyes followed the bird until it landed on a branch.

“...If it happened, then a baby will grow inside a woman’s body.” Touka stopped once more, parting some bushes to find the weed. “Boiling water with this will stop it.”

Hashirama hurriedly squatting next to her. “Boiling the raven weed?” She touched the crude grass. “So this kills baby?”

“You can say so—” Touka’s shoulders stiffened. She put her index finger on her lips. The grip on her knife changed.

“What is it?” Hashirama whispered. Is there another clan member approaching? But, they didn’t go far into the forest, she still could see the roofs of Senju houses from here…

“Who’s… there?”

The voice was still a bit far. Just one man. His accent was different compared to other Senju men in the village. Those two girls were next to the foot of a climb, meanwhile the stranger was from above them. Hashirama didn’t dare to turn her head even for a second, meanwhile her cousin peeked at the stranger from behind the bushes.

The tip of her fingers turned cold while she tried to suppress her chakra even thinner. She didn’t know what would happen if they were found. Being killed was the best possibility. Kidnapped then sold was a common thing to happen.

Especially when she is a clan leader’s daughter.

Memory of dozens of coffins returned to her mind, each of them filled with women, including her mother. No, no, they wouldn’t end up that way—

“Just one man,” Touka whispered almost voicelessly. “If you don’t hear my voice for five seconds, run home as fast as you can, Hashi.”

“Tou—”

The green haired teenager disappeared from her side. She heard her greet the man, “Hello, Sir! Are you looking for an inn to stay for the night?” Touka’s voice pitch was lowered on purpose.

The man replied with low grunts, “any nearby village?”

Hashirama took a stance, she sharpened her hearing. Touka was still chit-chatting with the stranger, sometimes laughed with him. She couldn’t divide her focus between readying herself to run or keeping on eavesdropping. She heard a swish of clothes, then things went quiet.

She remembered her cousin’s request, Hashirama counted to five in her mind. Silence was still ongoing. She continued counting until ten. Still silent. What was going on?

Seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty. What was she doing?

She jumped out of the bush. “Touka!”

The stranger was sitting on a tree stump, meanwhile she saw her cousin kneeled and bowed in front of him. What was she doing? She was too busy looking at Touka that she almost didn’t hear the man shouted at her.

“Hey! Where did you—”

Hashirama froze in her place. Touka got up in a second, then hit the man’s neck with one precise fist punch. He toppled, groaned and cussed. His clothes had been lifted up to his waist, with pants down to his thighs. Before he got up or took his weapon, Touka made a seal, then cupped the man’s face onto the ground. He no longer moved although he was breathing. All of these happened without turning her body at all.

“Why don’t you run, Hashi?” She wiped her face, then spat a few times on the ground.

“I…” Her heart beat uncontrollably. “W-what did you do to him?” She grabbed her clothes firmly, staring at the unconscious man. He should be in his thirties, a symbol embroidered on his sleeve indicated him as a part of Hagoromo clan. Touka could be injured fighting against him.

Touka turned her back, but she roared, “Hashirama!”

Something heavy crashed down behind her back. Before she could turn her head, a muscular arm grabbed her neck and hindered her to breathe. Hashirama kicked the air and clawed on the hairy arm, but her attempt was in vain. In her attempt to escape, she couldn’t hear what the man said to Touka. Suddenly she was carried on his shoulder and taken away through the forest.

“Touka!” Hashirama screamed. “Toukaaaa!”

The Hagoromo clan symbol was also embroidered on the man’s back. Her stomach kept slamming against his shoulder while he jumped from branches to branches, causing her dizziness and nausea. Her left hand tried to reach for twigs, wounding her arm until it bled. Her eyes turned wet. She no longer recognized the trees they passed; how far had they went from her village? How could she run away from this situation?

Taijutsu? She could fight, but her opponent so far was just children in the village. She’d never been taught by adults—Hashirama only learned from the boys. Ninjutsu—tch, she didn’t even remember the twelve fingers seal. Her chakra control might be good, but without proper knowledge of seals, she couldn’t make anything.

Hashirama stared at both of her palms, holding her nausea. Her fingers entwined on top of the back of her hands. That was the only seal she remembered. She closed her eyes, feeling the damp wind brushing her face. The chakra in her stomach twitched. Her teeth gritted.

She had to do it. She could do it. She could.

Her chakra felt warm. Seething. Boiling. Free.

Hashirama heard a loud beating sound, then her body slipped from the Hagoromo shinobi’s grasp, who was groaning in pain and cussing. She opened her eyes towards a view of forest that moved away—she fell through leaves and twigs. Her back was the first to touch the ground covered in blankets of fallen dried leaves. She screamed in pain, echoing among the tree trunks. The pain spread all over her back.

Her kidnapper stood only a few meters ahead. His appearance looked like a huge ape. There was a bruise on his half bald head. Blood streamed down his temple.

“Senju bitch!”

Hashirama forced her body to stand, although her back was in pain. There should be something cracked. She staggered right away, her skirt stuck causing her to fall headfirst. Her nausea returned, and made worse by her uncontrollable heart beat. She had to run! Had to run!

The absence of rustling leaves stirred her curiosity. Hashirama encouraged herself to turn her head; exactly when her kidnapper snatched her neck. He pinned her to the ground, fingers pressing her airway. Her vision blurred.

She felt another presence, then her breathing returned to normal. Hashirama coughed, noticed a figure attacked the Hagoromo shinobi through her blurry sight. Their fight ended shortly, with blood gushed out from the foreign ninja’s neck.

Hashirama slowly stood straight, resting on a tree trunk. She didn’t want to look helpless. Her savior kneeled in front of her, observing her from top to bottom.

“Otou-sama…”

Senju Butsuma carried his daughter’s body. Hashirama bit her own lips, holding sobs from escaping her throat. She grabbed her father’s back tightly. Tears rolled down her cheeks. Her fear and panic disappeared, brushed away by relief.

“You’re lucky you’re not wounded,” Butsuma said while they went back to the village. “The Uzumaki and our clan will suffer great loss if you’re dead.”

Hashirama’s grip on her father’s back loosened. Her mind was divided into wishing to go home or running away from her clan. Her left arm stretched out, like she was trying to reach her dreams.

Her arm was unmarred once more.

Chapter Text

Hashirama’s body was awake before her brain. She left her modest bedroom, purely moved by her schedule; which was imprinted in her memory last night like how her habit had been lately. Alone she walked through the empty streets, being led only by her muscle memory that had walked around the village countless times. Hashirama didn’t stop until she reached several empty house plots. Immediately she centered all of her chakra, and started to work. Once a house was halfway built she was completely awake, then she took a deep breath of the morning air that was warmed by her mokuton chakra.

Once the crisscrossing blocks and rafter were covered by flat roof, Hashirama released her snake seal. Sweat flooded her forehead. The house’s surface felt warm on her palms, still brimming with new life. The grass on the yard had withered. It would need some time before new grass could grow normally. Her arms were still tingling with traces of her chakra.

Hashirama seated herself atop of wood planks—materials for doors and windows. A row of empty houses stared back at her through the holes on their walls. She was reminded of Touka, and her reaction if she saw her spending time to build houses one by one. She would scold her because of how lowly and inefficient it was. Hashirama could hear her comment as if she was standing next to her. With hands on her waist, and raised sharp chin. Let them build their own houses!

But she couldn’t break her promise to build houses for clans allied with Konoha. The wood from her mokuton jutsu was too hard to cut with a saw, because it was made to withstand attack from destructive jutsu. At least these houses would last until their children grew older and had families of their own.

A man showed up on the doorstep. “Hokage-sama.”

“Shimura-san. Good morning.” Hashirama nodded to greet him, then went outside. The man was Shimura Keita. He was a few years younger than her; she guessed that he wasn’t even twenty years old. He was the new leader of Shimura clan, appointed to replace his recently deceased father. His hair was light brown, his face was clean shaved. There was an obvious panic in his body language. He kept interlocking his fingers, nervous.

“Morning,” he replied shortly. He glanced at the new house. “I was told you would be here, so….”

“Yes?”

“Could you—er, would you … I mean, if you would escort me to … residence….” His words were softly spoken, almost sounded like a whisper so Hashirama had to get closer and asked him to repeat. “To… the residence of Uchiha clan…”

“Of course,” she agreed without thinking twice. “Come on, let’s go now.”

“N-now!?” Keita repeated in shock. “I apologize, I mean … of course it would be better to go now….” He clutched at his chest, following Hashirama silently.

A guard descended from a tree when they walked by the lake side. Once Hashirama stated their visit intention, he immediately ran home. Keita’s breath was so quick that the Hokage feared he was going to faint.

“Calm down.” She patted his shoulder. “Take a deep breath. There is nothing to fear.”

Keita reclined on his knees. “That’s why, Hokage-sama … honestly I-I’m a bit afraid….”

“Afraid of Madara?”

Keita made a pained expression. Hashirama chuckled. “It’s alright, I’m here.” He laughed weakly in response.

Lush trees that towered above simple wooden fences separated the residence and the forest. Chickens clucking, bugs buzzing, and birds chirping echoed all around them. Hashirama hadn’t been here before, except once when the Uchiha clan just opened the forest for their houses. Its distance from the village center made her rarely visited it. Next time she should come more often.

The same guard greeted them at the entrance. “Come. Uchiha-sama is waiting for both of you.” He invited them in. Keita took a sharp breath behind her.

The guard sprightly escorted them through foggy field, parting the fog to form a way with his steaming hot chakra. They arrived in front of a large wooden building that seemed to be the main house. Keita’s hands trembled. His anxiety worsened once they took off their shoes and went up to the veranda. And it was spreading; Hashirama tried to fix her hair in discreet, suddenly aware that she hadn’t tidied herself after working on the constructions.

They were escorted into a room. Madara and Izuna sat awaiting them, looking relaxed like they had been awake for a long time. Their similar dark blue kimono were decorated with a small Uchiha clan symbol on their collars. The two guests entered, but Hashirama stopped in her place, confused. There was only one pillow seat provided in front of the two siblings. Her confusion broke once Madara called her.

“Hokage-sama,” he nodded towards his right side, where another pillow seat was placed, “you may sit here.”

Hashirama took the place provided for her, although still feeling strange. She felt like she would be involved in interrogating Keita. From Madara’s side, the man looked twice paler than before. His stare was aimed towards the calligraphy decorating the wall behind the three of them.

“Firstly—” Keita stopped to clear his throat and glanced at Hashirama, like he was looking for a help, “firstly, I’d like to apologize for causing troubles to both of you—the three of you, this early….”

“Go straight to the point,” Madara sharply cut him off.

Hashirama glanced at him. His expression was as stiff as rocks. His neck muscle was a bit tense, his jaws stiff.

Keita hurriedly bowed until his forehead hit the tatami. “On behalf of our Shimura clan, I deeply apologize for the last night’s incident that happened with our clan,” he said quickly, “We hope the incident is kept between us. I’m ready to accept all of your demands as the compensation.”

Madara didn’t say anything, only turning his head to his sister. Izuna didn’t need a long time to accept such request. “I considered the problem solved last night, Shimura-sama. You don’t need to give any compensation for it.” She sounded a bit tired.

“Why doesn’t Hisao come here in person?” Madara scowled.

“He’s still resting due to his injuries, Uchiha-sama.” Keita hadn’t raised his head. “I just don’t wish to postpone the apology and prolong this problem.”

Like it or not, Hashirama felt a bit of pity towards this young clan leader. But she admired his courage to apologize alone. Especially when he had to face Madara himself.

“Please raise your head, Shimura-sama,” Izuna asked.

Keita obeyed, and Hashirama had to bite her lip so she wouldn’t laugh. The tatami texture had left a red mark on the man’s forehead. He expressed his solemn gratitude, then asked permission to leave. The same guard returned to escort him.

“Oh, I’m not … not now,” she said when asked whether she wanted to go now. Hashirama waited until they were gone, then she turned to Izuna. “How are your injuries?”

Izuna relaxed her arms. “They’re alright. The wounds aren’t deep. See?” She stood up immediately and patted the side of her waist that was struck by Hisao, confirming her words. “See you later, Hashi-san.” She disappeared towards the veranda while yawning widely. She closed the door behind her. Her cold chakra wall quickly faded from her senses; she must be so far from that room.   

Hashirama was still staring at the door, feeling like Izuna left in a hurry. “Are her injuries really alright…?”

“Two healers worked all night to sew them.” Madara shifted to face her. “If you weren’t there last night, the story would be different.”

Hashirama bowed her head, tired. “I’m sorry.”

“Why did you let it happen?” His tone wasn’t as sharp as before.

“I believe in Izuna’s ability and I respected her decision.” Stopping would only embarrass her, along with the clan she was representing. Especially when Hisao insulted her in front of the other clan representatives, including Hashirama herself.

“You still put her life in danger.”

She quickly raised her head. Shock caused her to take a sharp breath. “Of course not—I changed the rules. So—”

“Look at the result,” Madara hissed, his crossed arms stiffened. “Hisao intended to hurt her. Next time, it could be worse. Are you ready to take the risk?”

“Madara, he will not hurt Izuna anymore. The clan leader will stop him.”

“He doesn’t dare to because I’m here,” Madara said. “The clan leader doesn’t have the guts to stop Hisao.” He stopped for a while. “You should banish him.”

“I can't—”

“Banish him away from Konoha,” Madara repeated, leaning closer towards her.

Hashirama stared back at his black eyes. She understood—acknowledged why Madara was persistent with his demand. But, the situation had changed. They no longer lived separately with the other clans, but sharing one space, one home together. Before then, disputes could easily be solved through the sword or avoiding one another, but now it was different. Shimura Keita might had apologized in person, but Hisao was still one of the most influential elder in their clan. She was lucky in this case their dispute happened right in front of her eyes. But with ten clans living together, with differences in traditions, it was impossible for her to look after everyone all the time. Even taking care of construction exhausted her so much, meanwhile she was the only one who could grow houses…

She took a deep breath. The scent of wood varnish and hinoki pines filled her lungs.

Gently she dropped her Hokage persona, trying to persuade Madara as his best friend. “Was the apology from their clan leader not enough?” She softened her voice, almost as soft as a whisper. “What kind of compensation do you need?”

Her question was ignored. “You're busy with Hokage duties. How could you ensure Izuna's safety all the time? Shimura Hisao dared to injure her in front of you, hiding behind the battle to solve a dispute from the meeting room.” His chest moved up and down quickly. Before she could respond, he continued, “What's the use of a village if everyone recklessly take matters into their own hands?”

Hashirama was silent, realizing the implied statement voiced by the Uchiha clan leader.

What's the use of a village if their own younger siblings weren't safe in it?


 

 

She was twelve, and she was busy watching a battle of life and death from behind a lush foliage far above the heads of all adults. The two fighters faced one another with her clan members circled around them. Aside of three people, the rest were men.

The fighters were a Senju versus a Hagoromo clan member who met her and Touka in the forest a few weeks ago. Apparently he had been imprisoned and interrogated. According to Tobirama, interrogation meant he was questioned forcefully to spill important information. Hagoromo clan never had any affiliation with the Senju, so information about them were rare.

The prisoner's opponent spun on his heel and stroke his sword deep into his thigh. The fight was over. Hashirama shifted herself on the tree branch, carefully descending to see her brother while the Hagoromo shinobi was lying on his own pool of blood. She left the hustling crowd behind, their voices fading the further she went through the clan's fields. A letter was held in her grip.

Since she was kidnapped a few weeks ago, her father finally allowed her in Tobirama's general knowledge class, which involved sitting in front of incomprehensible text for hours. It seemed that he thought his daughter would refrain herself from wandering around if she was allowed to join her brother in the class. However, reading was more exhausting than taijutsu. Her brain felt like it refused to interpret concepts from the books and scrolls into solid ideas. Asking Tobirama to explain the materials made it easier to understand. At least she could read and write.

Butsuma ordered her to write a letter for their Uzumaki cousin. He didn't specify which cousin, so Hashirama automatically picked Mito. The girl was fun; she could sing and braid hair. During her stay some time ago, they spent a night experimenting with their own hair. Hashirama wouldn't mind if she came to visit. As long as Nobuo wasn't with her.

Unfortunately, Mito often talked about her cousins in her letters. Including Nobuo. Hashirama always skipped that part, so she never responded to it in the replies. But Mito could always bring the topic back into her letters.

“Ashina-sama brings some of his grandchildren to the capital,” Hashirama retold it while repeating a taijutsu move she just learned from Tobirama. “Don't know what for.”

While she was attacking imaginary enemies, her brother sat atop a tree stump, his forehead frowning as he read Mito's letter that she received this morning.

“They are sent to learn from the samurai,” he explained, “or studying in the palace.”

“Ugh, for what?” Hashirama parried an imaginary attack and kicked the air.

“Building network.”

“...Network?”

“Social network,” Tobirama got down from the stump, “to spread influence.”

Hashirama understood what it meant, it's just she always thought that connections were built through marriage. Treaties too, but generally ninja didn’t do peace treaties. Something like that could only be done among the noblemen.

“In a few years Uzumaki clan will be known among the palace social circle. You know, right… their red hair really stood out. They’re also ninja.”

“Don’t the samurai hate us? Especially the noblemen…” Hashirama landed the last spinning kick into the air, then pulled her elbows back. She released a deep breath, to cool down her body after practice. The girl grinned at her brother, wishing for a suggestion or—if she was lucky—a praise.

“I know what you've been up to,” Tobirama started, not saying anything about her taijutsu like she guessed. “Touka often let you into kunoichi training.”

Her heart jumped. Her tongue was ready to launch denying statement, but she held it. She didn't like lying to her brothers. Hashirama relaxed her shoulders. “If yes then why?”

For a while he looked worried. He pushed his snow white bangs away from his forehead. “I don't like lying to father. Teaching you taijutsu secretly is already too risky.”

“If so then you better not saying anything,” Hashirama replied. “Auntie teachers and the other girls don't know anything, after all. I'm always hiding.”

Actually, Butsuma had been suspicious since she wanted to cut her hair short and wear boyish clothes. Her excuse was long hair hindered her playing, and long skirt wasn't practical to climb trees. Fortunately she wasn't questioned anymore. As Touka suggested, staying away from the forest for a whole month gave her huge advantage. Butsuma thought she was traumatized by the kidnapping incident so he didn't watch her as strictly as before.

“So, what have you learned?” Tobirama asked.

“I've learned about forest herbs, boiling medical concoctions. Simple jutsu like henge and light genjutsu…” She stopped, confused. Why didn't he know about it? Wasn't he prepared to be a clan leader? He should have known that kunoichi's main task was collecting information through their disguise as peasants in the villages. That's why they didn't learn much of taijutsu or nature elemental ninjutsu. Some were taught how to treat injuries, but medical ninjutsu was still too difficult to learn at this point. Amongst the adult women, she only knew five who could do it.

“...Don't tell me you want to be a kunoichi.”

“What's wrong with that?”

“You could be kidnapped again.”

“I won’t be kidnapped again,” Hashirama put her hands on her waist. “My taijutsu is much better now. After all,” she pinched short hair strands from the top of her head, “I look like a boy now, no?”

Tobirama just sighed and returned Mito's letter. In silence they returned to the village. The girl walked a little bit behind her brother, watching a glimmer of sunlight shining through forest canopies and creating strange shadows on her brother's head.

Hashirama was very grateful that he wanted to teach her taijutsu, but if he seemed reluctant she wouldn't force him. Butsuma was far tougher towards him than his first child because Tobirama was meant to be the clan leader someday.

Once they arrived, the entire village was preparing for war. All men, young and old, hustling to carry weapons and armors, sometimes they shouted orders to bring something or to stand by the gates. Some women helped putting armor on their sons, their faces were stiff to hide their worry.

“Tobirama! Where were you?” Butsuma showed up near the gate, already dressed in full armor. His sode noisily bouncing on his shoulders as he ran towards them. “Go grab your equipments and get ready! And you—” he turned at her while Tobirama left.

She gulped, nervous.

“—Stay here.”

Once Butsuma went to check on other shinobi, Hashirama carefully approached the gate among the chaotic preparation of war. She tried to eavesdrop on some people. A scout informed that a group of Hyuuga shinobi had entered Daimyo Matsudaira's territory, with whom they had a contract. Another clan was seen approaching from the opposite direction, suspected to be the Hagoromo clan. Some people associated this with the death of the prisoner who tried to buy his freedom through that battle, but the word of his death hadn't reached anywhere yet.

Her heart raced beneath her ribs. Hashirama felt torn; she wanted to fight. But she also wanted to prevent those kids from going. They were still too young for this, a war was supposed to be the adults’ matter. Her eyes observed the shinobi lining up; ready to go. Some of them were children as young as Itama…

“Itama!?”

“...Aneja?” Her youngest brother turned at her, confused. His chest plate was too wide, as it was made for an older boy. Both of his cheeks felt damp in her palms. His dark eyes, just like hers, blinked as she rubbed his face.

“Father told you to go too?” She asked, which he replied by a nod. “Kawarama…? Where is Kawarama…”

Itama pointed at another line, where Kawarama was standing at its front. Hashirama gave him a quick hug, then ran through the lines of men to get to her other brother. “Oi! Careful!” A big and tall man whom she ran into yelled, but she ignored him.

Kawarama saw her before she got close. Unlike Itama, he still managed to form a wide smile. Couldn't wait to fight in the battlefield. Why does he look so happy? Does he know what he will face there? Isn't this his first battle? Hashirama only had a chance to hug him, because their father's voice boomed above all noises in the village, commanding them to go.

Dusts and dried leaves swirled around her once hundreds of Senju shinobi men jumped to the tree branches. Kawarama wriggled to free himself from her embrace, laughing as he followed one of his fellow Senju friend into the forest canopy. Her arms hung stiffly in the air, forming a circle that Kawarama once occupied.

Hashirama stood still watching the whole procession like she was hypnotized by genjutsu until she felt a hand tapped her shoulder.

“We will return, Sis.”

Once Tobirama's blue armor disappeared in the sea of brown and green, she turned away and ran. She stopped by her house for a while, taking a scarf to protect her neck from the wind. Before Touka or any other guards saw her, she disappeared into the forest in the opposite direction, fueled by adrenaline and her overflowing emotions.

The first rule of shinobi and kunoichi was to set aside emotions for the sake of accomplishing missions. But Senju wasn’t a clan of cruel war maniacs. Even her father emphasized it repeatedly, that their principle was based on love and compassion. Grandmas and aunts who taught kunoichi classes even said so, and their female students were taught how to express love and affection properly. Even to foreign men. Some of the girls cringed listening to it, so they were scolded and reminded to set aside emotions for the sake of mission.

But how does one express love and affection once emotions are set aside? Wouldn't that make the affection fake? So what for—?

Hashirama stepped her feet as hard as she could on a pine branch, climbed until she almost reached the peak, then jumped atop a large branch of a giant pine tree. She parted the twigs to look away into the distance. A river flowed in the valley, not far from the wilderness. The battle would occur by the upstream. The war rules of Senju clan stated that soldiers had to avoid rivers and fields so their blood, bodies, and chakra wouldn't spoil water and food resources, but the clans fighting against them would target those places. Traces of battle would flow with the water downstream, a place where she could watch freely.

She centered her chakra on her feet, then ran down the branches and cliffs, entering a forest by the valley. She blinked her hazy eyes, drying off the dampness that resided there. She controlled her breath as slow as possible. The approaching splash from the river helped her calming herself. The place was rarely visited by anyone, so she often came here to be alone or to learn how to control her chakra.

However, this time someone was already there. A boy with spiky, messy hair in dark grey kimono. Hashirama was quiet in the bushes, suppressing her chakra thin while she observed. The boy seemed to be her age, about twelve or thirteen. His face was sullen as he repeatedly throwing stones into the river…

No, he wasn't just throwing randomly. All the stones he picked were flat stones that she often used to play skipping stones. The stones jumped on the water once, then twice, then drowned. The boy tsked loudly after he failed over and over. Watching this really entertained her, but she also felt an urge to help him.

Quietly Hashirama left her hiding place, stepping closer as careful as possible. She picked a flat stone, holding it in her hand, then flexibly threw it at the water surface. The stone jumped five times before it drowned.

She stuck out her tongue once the boy turned at her and glared his eyes. She smiled widely. “That's how you throw the stone,” she said proudly, her chest puffed. “Aim a bit higher.”

The boy grumpily replied, “who are you?! Why are you standing behind me?”

Hashirama turned sullen, her head wistfully bowed. “I just want to help you play skipping stones,” she responded softly. “So you can make the stones jump across the river.”

“No need!” he refused, pointing at her. “I don't need a help from a weird kid like you!”

“Alright.” She turned away, ready to leave. “You're a grumpy kid anyway—”

“Hey! Who told you to leave?” The boy grabbed her shoulder, almost made her fall backwards.

“So do you want to be helped or not?”

The boy did not answer, only sulked and glanced at another direction. This made her laughed loudly. The girl exclaimed, “just tell me if you want!”

“Shut up!” he snapped. “What is your name?”

“Hashirama.” She picked a stone and tossed it in the air repeatedly. “Yours?”

“Madara.”

For a moment they stared at each other, like they were waiting for the other to say something. But it didn't last long. Hashirama grinned, which was responded with Madara's thin smile. The boy threw another stone on the river, which drowned after it jumped three times on the water surface. From his arm movement, she knew immediately that it was the unique shurikenjutsu.

Not an amateur move—Madara must had trained for long. Months, or probably years…

Before Hashirama could correct his throw, something floated on the river bend from the upstream. An armored adult man. The girl dropped the stone in her grip, then checked on the body's pulse. Nothing. She recognized the symbol on his arm, imprinted on her memory the day she went to the wilderness with Touka.

Hashirama stood up, maintaining her expression. “We better leave this place,” she ran towards the other side of the river. Her three brothers were in the battlefield; still too young, too little, putting their lives at stake for something they didn't understand...

Itama with his cheeks damped by tears; Kawarama with his gleeful grin—

“Hashirama?”

She jolted and hurriedly turned her back. Madara's expression was unpredictable, although slowly gave in to show his fulfilled curiosity.

“So you're a shinobi as well.”

She didn't confirm nor deny his question. Her thought was filled with a different question: why was Madara here?

Somehow the answer made its way into her heart.

He must be here with a reason similar to hers.


 

 

“Sis, eat.”

“Mm,” Hashirama mumbled flatly as she patted the soft boiled egg yolk on her porridge with a spoon. Even the steaming, mouth-watering smell of leeks failed to tempt her appetite. Across her, Tobirama’s porridge was halfway finished. His fingers tapped on an opened scroll placed between their bowls.

Reminded of a clan meeting schedule with her uncles that morning, Hashirama ran as fast as she could from the Uchiha clan residence. However, she still arrived late. The meeting was almost done, led by Tobirama. A few minutes left was spent by the elders to lecture the Hokage. After meeting, her brother took her to eat in the only eatery open in the market area while he explained what they had discussed during the meeting. She tried to pay attention, but her focus refused to cooperate.    

“Sis,” he urged.

“Yeah, yeah….” Hashirama squished her egg yolk, then ate a spoonful of salty porridge. She swallowed without chewing. “So where were we…?” she asked while sipping her already cooled tea.

“Clan funds,” Tobirama opened the scroll. “Almost all clans borrowed our money to move to Konoha. You didn’t give them payback deadline, meanwhile our income hasn’t stabilized yet since we no longer receive missions from the daimyo. There’s a suggestion to start taxing the villagers but I doubt you will agree.”

Hashirama snorted. “Of course not!” she exclaimed, “and it wasn’t a loan—it was a gift.”

“You don’t wish for our clan to pay for everything, right?” Tobirama glared from behind the scroll. He lowered his voice. “If this continues, they will use it for their advantage. Our money is limited.”

The egg yolk stuck on her palate. While she was busy with it, Tobirama continued, “I know you made a deal to fund their resettlement, but we can’t afford to fund everything. Uncle Joji already sent another loan application letter without our knowledge.”

Once again Hashirama mumbled flatly, her focus was scrambled. She was busy stirring her porridge until it became runny. Tobirama sighed in annoyance; she knew her brother hated stirred porridge. When they were young, she liked to do it when he was being annoying.

“Where were you this morning? I went to look for you before the meeting, but you weren’t in the house rows.”

“Uchiha clan residence,” she answered, then all the incidents happened this morning spilled non-stop from her mouth. “What do you think? I really don’t want to banish him. People will think of me too authoritarian.”

Tobirama set aside his empty bowl, slowly opening his notes further. “Izuna is never alone. She’s with me almost all day long. There’s Makoto who escorts her to and from their residence.”

“So you think I shouldn’t banish Shimura Hisao?”

He shook his head. “I think we need written rules with actual consequences. A combination of internal rules from each clan. I will ask a copy of their internal rules from each clan representatives, and send a memo for all clan leaders about it.” Tobirama stopped to sip his tea. “How is that?”   

Hashirama’s jaw dropped. “...very efficient.”

“It’s nothing…” Tobirama glanced at another table. The tips of his ears turned red. “I will inform you about the progress tonight.”

Their conversation changed into discussing village agenda. The Hokage’s office construction hadn’t finished yet, except for the private residence and village library. Hashirama purposely asked the builders and craftsmen to prioritize public facilities and shops. Building the hospital consumed most of their budget. There were many children and elders who fell ill when they were moving to Konoha. To prevent diseases from spreading, the severely ills were asked to relocate to available wards. Healers from many clans worked day and night to treat them.

“Most of our medicine stock is given to the hospital. Hyuuga clan has acquaintances in the nearest city who usually supply medicines. The thing is, the route to Konoha recently becomes bandits’ nest. Medicine vendors can’t go without paying for escort and security, and the prices rise as its consequence.”

Hashirama was reminded to a group of farmers from different villages who complained about bandits to her a few days ago. “Is it just me, or it’s true that recently a lot of bandits roam around here?” She was silent for a moment, staring at the bottom of her porridge bowl. “We need to organize patrols further than our village, secure the route used by food suppliers … Tsubaki-san suggested to form four-man team with various specializations as a standard operational team. Ask her if she also wants to help organize patrol unit…”

As she was speaking, Tobirama already scribed on his meeting notes with a pencil. “Most of our contracts with the daimyo is to maintain security. We haven’t started receiving mission contracts from them again, so….” He suddenly stopped. “I just remembered—the Emperor informed that he will arrive in two days.”

Hashirama gaped. “Two days!?” she shouted, then with lower voice added, “I thought his entourage will arrive in two weeks! How … how many people will it be? How long will they stay?”

“Dozens of them. About forty to fifty—”

“Oh my.”

“He only plan to stay overnight, fortunately.”

The Hokage massaged her temples, groaning in resentment. They couldn’t just prepare modest accommodations for the Emperor. And with an entourage that big! Where would they sleep? There was no building big enough to accommodate all of them. The houses she built were too small. It’s impossible to ask him to stay in a regular clan residence like Hyuuga and Uchiha. Although they were big enough, their own houses weren’t finished as well.

But, why would the Emperor arrive earlier than intended?


 

 

News of the Emperor’s arrival had spread as fast as wildfire.

Suddenly everyone; young and old, stopped their activities to help preparing the village. All day long she ran from one place to another, growing flowering trees on the roadsides. She got the seeds from a relative who was a botany expert. She dug the soil with her own fingers, then forcing the seeds to grow instantly using her senjutsu chakra.

She met with Tsubaki on the street, who cheerfully informed her that the patrol unit had been formed. The first teams would leave soon. “We will patrol the area within five kilometer radius outside Konoha,” the Inuzuka clan leader explained as she strode beside Hashirama while the Hokage turned an empty field into a lush park. The red tattoo on her cheeks were distorted as she smirked. “Including barns, rice fields, and farms. Any other task for the patrol unit?” she asked, her voice was raised higher than the clanging sounds of hammers coming from all directions.

Hashirama took a long, panting breath. Red lines disappeared from her face. “If possible … hunt some animals. One or two deers will suffice.”

After Tsubaki left, Hashirama leaned herself on a huge oak tree she grew. Her stomach growled loudly, only filled with a glass of water after she had a late breakfast with Tobirama today. She got up to return to Hokage residence, intended to change and eat something before going back to work.

In front of her residence, she stopped and turned. Twilight road stretched towards the horizon. Torches were lit before the last rays of sunlight disappeared and darkness came to enfold the entire Konoha. The wooden structures, be it her creations or results of builders’ work, all of them bathed in orange glow similar to odd shadows of fire on the wooden surfaces. Dark silhouette of wysteria and kousa trees swung gently by the evening wind. Hashirama couldn’t wait to see them the next morning.

She turned to gaze at the unfinished Hokage building. Hokage’s residence was a humble apartment on its second floor. Half of it was floorless construction frames. Hashirama had to walk on those blocks to reach her apartment. She lit an oil lamp placed next the entrance door. Orange light filled a humble room with a table, two chairs, and a calligraphy she brought from her old house. Another door led to a similarly humble bedroom; only filled with a wardrobe and a bed with straw mattress. She also brought the mattress from her old house, already drooping from years supporting her weight.  

After cleaning up and changing her clothes, Hashirama found a stack of books on her desk. The binding was done sloppily, like it was bound in haste with ropes made of twisted fibers. She recognized Tobirama’s handwriting on its cover; village regulations plan. She set the lamp on the table, then started reading. There was a suggestion for a legal court system, with authority granted by the Hokage to a judge for cases that aren’t threatening the safety of their entire village. Theft was included. There was a variety of punishments suggested for every criminal act, starting from imprisonment, social work, revocation of active shinobi status, even banishment from village. Intended murder results in death penalty, or banishment for at least twenty years. She flipped the pages until she almost reached the end. There were attachments with many different handwritings. All of them were internal rules of every clan, except Aburame and Sarutobi clans which hadn’t arrived in their village.

She skimmed it. The content wasn’t too different on the general law part, except in the law and tradition of marriage. Nara, Akimichi, and Yamanaka clans forbid clan heirs to marry one another. Hyuuga clan also forbid their main family member to marry people without byakugan. Women from Inuzuka clan may marry more than one husband, especially if they are remarkable kunoichi. The husband’s background isn’t important as long as he is a capable shinobi.

Hashirama chuckled reading it, although she felt a bit strange. Tsubaki was widowed even though she was still young, and she had no intention to marry again. Who knows why.

She skipped most of Senju clan’s part because she already memorized them. Clan leader may take more than one wife. Her father used to have three wives, although only two bore children for him. The babies born from kunoichi without husbands will automatically become Senju shinobi, like Touka her cousin. Kunoichi who got married must stop working.

The last attachment was Uchiha clan rules. She took a long time staring at its title page, and like she was driven by instinct, she quickly found the section about marriage traditions. They adhere to endogamy marriage, except in certain conditions. Uchiha kunoichi from the family of clan leader may commit a political marriage outside her clan. Uchiha shinobi may marry more than one woman, and allowed to have unofficial wives—concubines—from anywhere.

Hashirama slammed the book closed, suddenly feeling upset. She took her lamp, about to leave, when she found another stack of paper under the village regulation plan. She slowly reached for it, her forehead frowned the further she read.

The stack consisted of six marriage proposals intended for her. From Sarutobi, Inuzuka, Aburame, Hyuuga, Yamanaka, and Akimichi clans. Tobirama’s pencil strokes on the memo told her that all of them had been rejected.

A disappointment fleeted in her heart.


 

 

After speaking with Hyuuga Mori a few days ago, Hashirama already guessed this would happen. But she also understood that this was a normal thing. Her clan was the strongest among others. Of course all clans would want her to form marriage bond with them. However, marriage was seen as a bond stronger than regular treaties. Many other Senju clan members were already married to these clans.

Of course no one is as strong as her.

Hashirama landed gently on the side of the building, then quickly suppressed her chakra. She heard two people debating. She was stuck between ignoring it to go back to work, or stay to eavesdrop. Her choice fell on the latter once she recognized Tobirama’s voice.

“...You know you can’t be alone at all.”

“This is just darkness, Tobirama, we are ninja,” Izuna’s voice swooped. “I remember my way home.”

“Makoto had went home.”

“Of course! My aunt wants him to come home before it’s dark to take care of his grandfather. What’s wrong with you?”

Tobirama fell silent. Hashirama tiptoed to the end of the wall to peek. Her brother and Izuna stood in front of the library entrance with their backs facing her.

“This must be because of that incident with Hisao that time,” Izuna said coldly. “So because of that you asked for a copy of our clan rules, and suggested for internal patrol unit.”

“Izuna—”

She cut him off, “He isn’t the only one who holds a grudge towards another clan. Think about that.” She crossed her arms, annoyed. “We were killing each other a few years back. Your clan killed my siblings, my clan killed your siblings. Do you think old grudges will just disappear once they unite with Konoha?”

“This is just a preventive measure,” Tobirama responded with lower voice, “no one should take matters into their own hands.”

“There should be no problem with me going home alone, right?”

“The regulations aren’t official yet.”

“You are as annoying as my brother. Why won’t you two believe in my own abilities?”

Hashirama decided she had heard enough. She took a turning route, and stopped by Senju clan residence. She came from the back door, walking straight towards the kitchen to take a handful of rice and a piece of grilled fish in an oval mempa box. She filled it to the brim, knowing her energy needs because she intended to work until late. A servant who met her crammed three apples in a cloth bundle for her.

“You look a little pale, Hashirama-sama,” she said before the Hokage thanked her and said goodbye. Hashirama doubted the old servant’s words. She never fell ill.

There was a vast lot near the row of empty market. An inn was planned to be built there. The place would be a suitable accommodation for the Emperor and his entourage.

Hashirama stared at the empty lot, which was illuminated by torches on its four corners. She made a snake seal, then started working.


 

 

“...Tobirama, it’s still too early.”

“How dare you mistook me as your brother, Hashirama.”

Hashirama opened her eyes, gasping Something rolled down from her lap—a center of an apple full of bite marks. The one who woke her up kicked it until it rolled past an empty door frame. The woman looked up, seeing starry sky above her. The crescent moon was high in the sky. The building she made using her mokuton was almost done, only its roof left. She massaged her shoulders. Sleeping on the ground with odd position made her shoulder blade sore.

A face framed by long black hair came into her sight. Madara kneeled next to her, his gunbai laid on the ground. His stare locked on her face, and slowly she felt like she had to look away. But she didn’t. Moonlight shone on the tips of his hair through the empty roof slot, it seemed like it needed to be tidied up … from a distance this close, she could see fatigue lines on his face … his eye bags were thicker than usual.

“Don’t stare.”

Hashirama startled. “No, nope,” she answered hurriedly, then put her professional smile back. She brushed her upper arms, covering her nervousness that suddenly appeared because she was thinking about the tips of her best friend’s hair. The absence of mokuton chakra that flowed in her veins since hours ago caused her to feel cold in late night air of Konoha. Her breath condensed in the air.

“It’s past midnight, but you’re still working,” Madara said softly. “Take care of your health too, Hashi.”

Hashirama was stunned. “But it’s only me who…” Before she could finish her words, her stomach growled loudly. Her cheeks warmed. Quickly she reached in the darkness, looking for her mempa box.

“I know.” Madara crammed the thing into her hands, amused. The smell of grilled fish spread once the box was opened.

His body felt warm, and Hashirama inched closer. In her heart she scolded herself for not bringing a haori when she left the apartment. She ate in silence, offering her best friend an apple which he received in silence as well. For a moment there was only munching sound that killed silence between them until Hashirama started talking.

“And you … what are you doing here this late?”

“I was on patrol.” Madara threw out scraps of his apple. “The first team just came back. I saw the building here didn’t exist a few hours ago, so I decided to stop by. Looks like you napped here.”

Hashirama sunk her head between her knees. “What can I do … even my own house construction hasn’t finished. Being a Hokage is really tiring…”

“Hashi,” Madara sounded like he tried to hold a laughter, “just try to delegate a half of your tasks.”

“I did.” Hashirama peeked from behind her arms. “But the other village council members are busy with internal problems or programs I already instructed. As for sudden matters, I only trust Tobirama and you.” Her voice went soft on the last part. She patted dust away from her clothes, then stood up. “You want to go home?”

For a while Madara glanced at the open roof, then shook his head. Hashirama smiled widely, giving him a short block of wood she made with mokuton. He took it and blew his breath on its tip, creating a flaming torch. The light shone the room while slowly the sky was blocked by Hashirama’s growing wooden roof. The energy she acquired from her food fully drained once she’s done.

She wrapped her empty mempa box in a cloth while Madara turned off his torch. In the darkness they walked next to each other towards the exit.

Their hands brushed several times. She suddenly stopped a step away from the door.

She was speechless, but she felt like there were things she had to tell him. It blocked her breath like a lump of genjutsu in her throat. Yet she didn’t know where to start; should it be from the village regulations plan? Emperor’s visit in a few days? Her trouble handling Senju’s internal problems while at the same time doing her duty as a Hokage? Or the talk between their siblings she eavesdropped earlier?

But he was also another clan’s leader; things like that weren’t always appropriate for her to share no matter how urgent her need was. Everything wasn’t as free as it used to be, when they were just two children playing skipping stones by the riverside.

Yet even at that time they already learned how to dance around deadly secrets, which sadly uncovered by both of them.

Fatigue blurred her focus, and she missed her old thin mattress in her half-finished apartment. She wanted to throw herself on the bed and sleep until noon. She felt like an orange almost stomped on by Chokichi. Only a few milliseconds away from destruction—

“Hashirama.”

She interlaced their fingers together, purely driven by instinct. Once Madara returned her grip, she embraced him. She put her head on his shoulder; his gloves-covered hands placed around her waist. She took a deep breath.

The hinoki scent followed her into her dream.

Chapter Text

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.

Opportunistic scums.

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.

Opportunistic scums.

Those papers were crumpled unreadable once Madara left the apartment.

The Great Ancestor would be disappointed seeing you now.

Shut up.


 

“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…”

“Your Majesty.”

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—

“No.”

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.”

Hashirama remained.

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.

“...Otou-sama?”

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.

“Hm?”

“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…”

“Later.”

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.

“What duty?”

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.

“Of course.”

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?

Chapter Text

Madara sat next to her, wiping sweat off his forehead. “Creating a village here?” he repeated her words. “Are you kidding me?”

Hashirama put her arms down, pouting. “Yeah, I know, it’s a bad idea…”

The boy scoffed. “This valley is covered by thick forest. We can’t deforest it in one night, you know? We can’t live on trees like squirrels—”

Hashirama’s pout became even more visible, she hugged her knees tightly.

“Hhh…”

The girl gazed far into the horizon. “Wouldn’t it be nice if we can live together, with our families, in one village without being suspicious to one another?”

“You mean… making an alliance?”

“Yes. Something like that.”

“What kind of ninja ever made an alliance?”

“But it doesn’t hurt to try, right?”

Madara squinted his eyes at her. “Alliance built upon suspicion will not last.”

“I trust  you,” she said. “Do you trust me, Madara?”

He nodded. Hashirama grinned.

“Perfect!” She stood up spontaneously and started walking around atop the cliff. The side of her palms were on her forehead as she observed the wilderness. “There are open fields next to the riverside, we can use them to build farms and fields. We will never experience shortage of woods to build houses. There is a low road access over there—oh, we have to build them first to connect our village to another villages. New settlers can go through the road for a safe trip. Then, then ...oh! We can also build some training area for shinobi kids! So they can practice better, and—”

Realizing the absence of her best friend’s response, Hashirama stopped talking. Madara’s jaw dropped.

“You have been thinking about this for so long, huh?”

“No. I just came up with it.”

“Creating a village isn’t that simple, you know. Even when we are strong enough and stand as our clan leader, the daimyo will still demand us to fight against other shinobi clans and other daimyo.”

Hashirama sat down again slowly, not knowing why she even forgot about the daimyo. The one who paid her clan to conduct missions starting from stealing informations to assassinations and fighting in an open war. She visited the city where Daimyo Matsudaira resided once, but she did not get to see the daimyo himself. Her father often took Tobirama along to visit, but all of their meetings were held in the darkness of the night. It was said that shinobi were prohibited to witness the life of the city in the daylight.

“What if we stop?”

“Stop what?”

“Stop taking missions from them.” Hashirama shrugged. “If there are rice fields, farms, and houses, we can live independently without daimyo’s money. We can also trade—”

“‘Shinobi are born to kill’,” Madara cut in. “You do know that, right? Everyone lives believing in such an absurd principle.” He stared at his own rugged palms. Filled with marks caused by intense practice.

“...I don’t want my brother to die at war, Madara. He is the only one left.” It was her turn to look at her palms. Rough marks had started to appear, although her skin was still comparably smoother than her best friend’s.

“I have one younger sister left, too.” Madara looked up. “I want to be strong to protect her.”

Hashirama silently agreed. For a while, moment passed in silence before she talked again, “Killing each other is a stupid thing, Madara… what if we weren’t born as shinobi?”   

“I don’t know. Honestly, I don’t know.” Madara laid down on the ground. “Maybe we would’ve born into families of farmers, merchants, or as bastards of one of those daimyo. Maybe we would never meet each other.”

Hashirama closed her eyes, enjoying the wind blowing gently above the cliff. Madara was right. If there was one thing she could be grateful for being born in a shinobi family, it was to meet Madara. She looked at the boy a meter away from her. A boy who wasn’t her own relative, a stranger with an identity she never truly knew. Yet it was so easy to open up to him; to share, to spill, and to express all her feelings and emotions, and in return listening to his complains and troubles. Sharing concerns with one another until their spirits unburdened.

Maybe it would be better for her to not knowing further about his background and identity.

“Your idea isn’t bad,” he said, suddenly. “Alliance in a form of village… a home for many clans…”

A home where there would be no children born just to die in the battlefield. A home where their brother and sister could live safely until their old age.

A home where they no longer needed to conceal their true identities. A home where they could see each other without hiding in secret.

“We will make it real,” Hashirama said, more to herself. “We can do it.”

Their meeting that day ended with skipping stone ritual like they usually did. On the way home, Hashirama couldn’t stop staring at the stone Madara threw the last time. After a long time discussing many things and practicing together, she felt she had found a way out of their problems. There were still a lot of things they needed to work on; Hashirama still had no war experience, and her father still refused—

“Aneja.”

Hashirama quickly slipped the stone back into her pocket. Tobirama had stopped her in her way.

She had a bad feeling about this.


 

 

“Nobuo?” Tobirama repeated as he chewed on his food. “He is the cousin you punched a long time ago, remember? Because he spilled a pail of frog eggs on Kawarama. Ashina-sama sent him to the capital to learn from the samurai. That’s why we never get to see him anymore.”

Despite the day was still early, fog had disappeared from a hidden field. Hashirama brought a few rice balls for Tobirama and Izuna who trained there almost every day. She waited until they were done practicing kenjutsu before giving them their breakfast. Izuna continued her meditation practice with her back facing them. Hashirama and her brother sat on a long bench she made.

“The big and bald kid?” Hashirama tried to search within her memories, but the only thing she remembered was his annoying laugh mocking at Kawarama, and his ugly face trying to hold back tears after she punched him. “Mito talked about him several times in her letters, but I don’t really remember. Nobuo sent me a gift, by the way.”

Tobirama looked at a piece of umeboshi on his fingers. “A gift?”

“I haven’t opened it yet. Some unnecessary knick-knacks, probably.” The small chest was kept in the corner of her apartment. Meanwhile, she already opened the chest given by the Emperor. It was filled with several precious stones, silk, many kinds of jewelries, a set of male kimono exclusively colored and decorated with golden threads. She had distributed the kumo coffee powder to administration staffs who often worked overtime, leaving a little for herself. The bitter taste was tolerable, and the effect was amazing. She managed to work overtime these last two days without sleeping for the sake of handling Sarutobi and Aburame clans.

Hashirama was curious, but she was too reluctant to open Nobuo’s gift.

Tobirama didn’t say anything about it, continuing to eat in silence until Hashirama said, “there is an invitation from Emperor Nobutada last night.”

Her brother groaned in annoyance. “Don’t tell me he’s going to visit us again.”

“Of course not. It is an invitation.” Hashirama cleaned her hands and folding the leaves she used to wrap the rice balls inside. She kept two rice balls for Izuna. “There is a harvest festival coming in a few weeks. He invited us to his castle near the border of the capital, atop the mountain.”

“Who are this ‘we’?”

“Me and Madara.” Hashirama shrugged, watching thin golden smoke hanging around Izuna’s body. “Only the two of us. Servants and staffs are allowed to come along. All daimyo and their families are invited. A private annual event, it seems.”

Tobirama hardly swallowed his umeboshi. “You should bring a bodyguard.”

“What for...?”

“A daimyo can bring dozens of people to go to the capital. Your status is equal to them now.”

“So, do you mean you want us to show off?” Hashirama asked, half teasing. “Parading Konoha’s wealth while we don’t have that much money?”

“If the two of you are coming alone, the others will underestimate you, Sis.” Tobirama squeezed his breakfast wrapper. “Remember, you will be the only person without any noble status in the Emperor’s castle.”

“Madara will be there. Only two of us are enough…” Her forehead furrowed as she chose her words.  “What do you call it—intimidating? No one is going to attack us on the way there. Taking a lot of people along with us will cause too much hassle.”     

Tobirama finally crossed servants from his delegation list. “Just bodyguards then, for ceremonial purpose. Two people will suffice. Do you have anyone to suggest?”

The Hokage pointed her finger at her brother’s chest.

“I have a lot of work to do. I can’t…”

“That’s why, no need to.”

“Please suggest someone else, I’m sorry.”

“Who, then? Izuna?” Hashirama glanced at the woman, still remained in her position.

“Are you sure?” Tobirama replied skeptically. He lowered his voice. “She still needs a company wherever she goes.”

“Izuna managed to take care of Hisao back then.” Hashirama realized they hadn’t talked about the topic at all since the breakfast they had a couple days ago. “You are the one teaching her sensing ability. When the Uchiha clan moved here, she still had to walk with a cane. Now she frequently practices kenjutsu with you.”

“At first I didn’t intend to train her…”

“Yet you keep training her, anyway.”

Before her brother could respond, a third voice joined them.

“Hokage-sama, Senju-sama.”

The siblings turned their heads towards a footpath leading to the village. Uchiha Makoto just arrived, bowing to greet them. They briefly responded to his greeting politely.

“Has Izuna-san made it…?” he asked, putting a bundle of documents in the form of scrolls and books on a flat rock.

“No, still in the form of smoke bubbles,” Tobirama answered. Already returned to his usual manner. “No solid form yet.”

Hashirama glanced at the bundle. All the titles were related to chakra and jutsu research. They had documented most jutsu inherited by every clan, although not all of them willing to voluntarily giving away how they learned it. Their conversation suddenly turned to topic about research advancement.

“Akimichi signature jutsu, for example, requires Akimichi blood to master. Ordinary people won’t be able to use their jutsu as good they do,” Makoto explained. The young man looked enthusiastic while talking about the result of his work. “Jutsu of that kind isn’t taught in any academy. Izuna-san suggested we have to teach all students from the most basic techniques. Taijutsu, spying method, basic ninjutsu…”

“Academy?”

“Correct, Hokage-sama! All children from all clans will be studying together. They will be taught by teachers from various clans as well!”    

“It’s good to encourage inter-clan integration and strengthen our village unity.” Tobirama changed his sitting position. The sun peeked from behind the trees, the ray shining directly towards his face. He squinted his eyes. “The academy building is ready, and many people have been asking when will the school year begin. After winter—”

“The faster we start, the better!” Makoto exclaimed vigorously, accidentally cutting Tobirama off. “I apologize, Senju-sama. I mean, with the coming war… against another ninja village we never knew… wow!”

“Do you mean the war with Iwa…?” Hashirama stared at her brother in confusion. “We are not going to war against them. The academy is built to teach everyone how to defend themselves.”

Makoto’s face suddenly filled with disappointment. “But everyone is impatient to finally do some missions. Building houses and farming are starting to get tedious. We are all bored,” he said again. “I also want to fight in the battlefield. People my age are yearning to taste war, Hokage-sama. We want to show our strength!”

“If we continue to ignore this, Iwa ninja might reach Konoha, Sis,” Tobirama said flatly. “We have so little information about them.”

Whatever she wanted to say, vanished before it reached her tongue. Hashirama understood why Makoto wanted to go to war so badly; it was normal for young people his age to be so enthusiastic, often becoming reckless. Countless shinobi his age died at war because they didn’t think carefully and rationally.

However, even her own brother… a brother who had grown up with her since they were little, listening to all of her laments…

A giant hand made of golden bones reached towards the space between the Senju siblings. Its thin fingers grabbed a whole onigiri. The hand returned to Izuna, dropping the onigiri on her lap, then disappearing into golden puff of chakra smoke. She opened her breakfast with relaxed movements, as if she just hadn’t stopped the conversation among the three other people, who were still stunned on the wooden bench.


 

 

The main residence of Senju clan became home for her uncles who sat in the clan council, along with some other Senju elderly. Their children and grandchildren lived separately with their respective families, scattered in every corner of Konoha, yet they routinely paid them a visit every day.  There were servants and maids taking care of all elderly and provided them their needs. The main residence was one of many primary structures that Hashirama built, then painted and decorated with Senju attributes. There were carvings on the roof edges, covered with a layer of smooth varnish that didn’t conceal the natural wooden textures, and carvings of vajra symbols here and there. The great hall on the ground floor became a place for the routine clan meeting which often missed by the Hokage.   

The Senju meeting that day was attended by all its members, about three hundred people. Starting from the oldest until a two-days old newborn baby were present. Having missed many meetings for so long, Hashirama realized there were many familiar faces of women were not present in the crowds, replaced by the new faces of young women whom she noticed coming from another clans. One to two of these women each carrying a baby in their embrace. All of them sat in the furthest corner from the spot she sat, half of their faces covered by shadows.

Tobirama looked more crumpled once he took a spot beside her. “All those women,” he said once his sister asked, “asked me to carry their children or grandchildren one by one.”

“Isn’t that good? They will be gifted with your intelligence.”   

Tobirama scoffed. He was still silent about the reason why he changed his mind, but until the meeting started he never bring it up anymore. Hashirama also didn’t find it necessary to ask him about it. She chose to ask about the new faces in the current meeting.

“Who are they? Isn’t this an internal meeting…?”

“Some Senju men marry women from other clans. Same goes with our women. That’s why they are no longer here.”

After she opened the meeting, Hashirama began to explain the reason why she decided to resign her position as clan leader. Disappointed responds filled the room for a little while, which replaced by understanding mumbles once she added her intention to hand over the position to her brother.

Uncle Joji looked incredibly relieved after Hashirama finished signing the letter to resign her position as Senju clan leader. Her brain had been filled with meeting prospects with the two newest members of Konoha village councils. This time, there would be no scolding session following her when she asked permission to leave the meeting early.

Sarutobi Sasuke couldn’t hold his scowl once Hashirama came back to the Hokage office. “We came here wishing there would be mission requests flowing in,” he said. “But there is nothing at all! I don’t know what to say to my clan members when they asked for another job beside woodworking and ploughing rice fields.” He was still young, not even twenty yet. But his fighting abilities was already renowned amongst Hinokuni shinobi. As agile as a monkey, people said.

Aburame Mamoru agreed. “Please accept the demands of Emperor Nobutada. All this time, only daimyo paid for our services. Emperor is going to pay more.”

Hashirama threw herself on her chair, taking a deep breath as she combed her hair to the back. A single night of Emperor’s visit and it made such great impact. The servants bought many food and sake to be consumed by his entourage, profiting the farmers. Little children were playing with knick-knacks they obtained from the entourage, some wanted similar toys because they didn’t get the free ones. Of course nobody had them; all of those toys could only be bought in the capital. It was said to be imported from who knows where.

“Aburame-san, Sarutobi-san, Konoha isn’t built to gather Hinokuni military strength,” she said, feeling like she had repeated those same words in the last few days. “If money is the problem…”

The two of them shook their heads spontaneously. “What kind of shinobi would it make us if we keep working in the farms and fields?” Sasuke asked. “Hinokuni needs us. This will be an honor.”

“Please don’t wait until Iwa ninja infiltrate this place,” Mamoru added. “They have changed the dynamics of war. If the samurai can’t hold them off, we will be struck by them too, Hokage-sama.”

“Winter is coming. It is a vulnerable time to send troops out of our village. Go see… see Yamanaka Inoha. Or Inuzuka Tsubaki. They are the ones organizing patrols around the village and making geographic maps. We still need all the informations regarding this empire’s landscape.”

Hashirama banged her forehead to the table surface once they were gone. The two clan leaders were clearly unsatisfied with her instructions. Mapping assignment tend to be boring.

She really couldn’t understand. Why does everyone really want to go to war? Killing until they are killed; endlessly watching countless of their own families and relatives die?

What good was to be a shinobi if all they did was fighting since they were infants until death arrived to strangle them?

Even her, a shinobi gifted with incredible amount of chakra capacity and the rare kekkei genkai, was tired of fighting. Even her who was granted the title of shinobi goddess was sick of war.  

A life as an ordinary person might be better. But maybe I would never find Madara, she argued herself.

Madara…

Hashirama decided to avoid her workloads by visiting the library in Hokage building. The library used half of the rooms on the ground floor, far bigger than the library in the old Senju village. The scent of ink and papers greeted her once she came in. There were two people currently working near the entrance. One person was busy binding a scroll to turn it into a book. The other one was copying the contents of a broken old scroll that was eaten by termites. The Hokage nodded towards the two of them, gesturing them not to mind her.

“I just want to read for a while,” she whispered to them.

Tobirama had archived everything neatly. The librarians had sorted all the books and scrolls according to the categories her brother made. Old documents placed tidily in one shelf, many of them had been encroached by fleas, termites, and the kind of insects that fed on glues. The document was copied to reserve its contents. Other books were about the history of clans, maps, until children bedtime stories. The symbols drawn on the covers signifying of which clans they were from. Books from Senju clan dominating most of the shelves.

Her observation stopped once she saw someone sitting in the rows of reader seats with their back facing her. Their long ponytail dangled, reaching the floor.

“Izuna?”

Izuna jumped hearing it, making Hashirama regretted calling her. She recognized an open scroll sitting on the woman’s lap once she approached closer. Before she could ask about what she was doing, Izuna hurriedly scrolling it back.

“Good afternoon, Hashi-san.” Her greeting sounded formal.

“You don’t have to stop just because I am here,” Hashirama pulled another chair next to her. “Sorry I startled you.”

“It’s fine.” Izuna’s fingers touched the front cover of the scroll which decorated with flower and tendril motives. Her chakra that was spread on the table slowly faded.

“Do you want me to read that for you…?”

Izuna stared—turned her face at Hashirama. Her chakra reached her cheeks and arms. “If your voice is bad, I want you to stop.”

Hashirama smiled, then started to read from the last part Izuna read. The scroll was telling a fairytale she heard once when she was young. About a turtle who wanted to explore the world with the help of various animals. She never really finished it back then. Hashirama found it difficult to read because the writings were messy and had faded in all its corners. Even so, she managed to read it to Izuna until the end. The overall story was interesting, so she didn’t need to stop often except to breathe.

Izuna supported her chin with both her palms. “Not bad,” she commented. If only she didn’t speak, Hashirama would think she had fallen asleep. She didn’t make any sound at all. “But Tobirama’s voice is far better.”

Her memory of them debating flashed in Hashirama’s mind. She chose not to bring it up. “Tobirama often reads books for you?” She scrolled the paper back and tied it neatly.

“If we aren’t busy. Makoto sucks, you know, he reads way too fast.” Her hands opened and closed. “Reading using chakra is too slow. Makes me tired.”

“Sensing technique?” Hashirama leaned her body. “That’s great! How do you do that?”

“Oh, I just differ the texture between the paper and the ink.” As if she was giving an example, her long index finger trailed the first letter of the scroll title. Precisely on all the strokes. “Still takes a lot of time,” she complained.

“So sensing can also be used for this…”

“Not everyone can.” Izuna pushed her chair back. “Please excuse me, Hokage-sama. I’m going hom—”

Hashirama sprang up. “I’ll go with you!”

Izuna turned at her, her chakra filled with confusion. Yet she didn’t refuse to be accompanied. They walked side by side as darkness started to fall in the village, enjoying a chill evening. Wisteria and kousa trees had began to wither. Hashirama had calculated that they wouldn’t survive more than a week. All the plants she forced to grow using her chakra never lasted long.

A chuckle came out suddenly from Izuna’s mouth. Her forehead furrowed, the Senju lady asked, “what’s wrong?”

Izuna’s wide smile looked so rare and strange. “Nothing.” Then she added softly, “Hashi-san ...you and my brother looked very close lately.”

Hashirama stopped walking. “...And what of it?” And why she suddenly mentioned about this? She and Madara had been best friends for long. Everyone knew about it. However, her heart was still pounding repeatedly hearing such remark.

“I’m a sensor as great as Tobirama.” Izuna found the Hokage’s sleeve and pulled it to walk faster. “Your chakra feels different when both of you are together. Like, keep pulling each other.” Her smile turned into a grin. “It’s true, isn’t it?”

“I—isn’t it something normal?” Hashirama laughed awkwardly. But she had to admit her knowledge regarding chakra wasn’t as good as her brother’s. She only knew how to use chakra for ninjutsu and medical purpose.

“Of course it’s normal!” Izuna dragged her to a turn in a small footpath. Houses were rarely seen over here. The forest became thicker, signifying that they began to enter Uchiha clan’s territory. “It’s normal to happen to strong shinobi with deep emotional bond, you know. But ...even your chakra bond with Tobirama isn’t that intense…”

Hashirama had to admit that she didn’t know much about Madara’s sister. They rarely met after the agreement pact was made official, mostly because of her work of supervising village construction. Tobirama was the one who met her often, because they routinely practicing every day.

Izuna released her grip at the front of complex gate. But before she went to follow the guards inside, she waved her hand and said, “See you later—” her grin bloomed once more, “—Aneja!”

Aneja…?

She didn’t misheard it, right?

She didn’t misheard Izuna calling her aneja, right?

Hashirama walked away from the gate, walking without knowing where to go. Their trip just now kept repeating inside her memory. Izuna’s playful grin. Her strange behavior. Should she be suspicious?

See you later, Aneja!

Once Hashirama arrived by the lakeside, she fell on her knees. She hid her face in her palms.

What did Izuna know? Why did she act like that? Why did she bother to take Izuna home? Why only being called aneja made her feel this way? Why does her face felt as hot as the breath after Madara’s katon—

“What are you doing, Hashi?”

“N-nothing at all!” she screamed, between shock and embarrassment. However, seeing Madara’s face directly made her wanted to scream again. She hurriedly stood up, pretending to clean up the bottom part of her kimono from dirt and weed to hide her blushing face.

“You were with Izuna.” Madara approached. “What did my sister say to you?”

“Nothing!”

“Then why is your face so red?”

“Aaaah!” Hashirama covered her face again. These damned siblings!

“Heh.” She heard Madara chuckled to belittle her. “What would it be if the entire village knows the Hokage acts like a little girl? How undignified.”

Hashirama peeked from the gaps of her fingers. “...Izuna called me aneja, ” she revealed.

Madara’s expression changed instantly. He looked away. “...That makes you blush?”

“You… you understand, right…? What’s implied…?”

Instead of answering, Madara hugged her. Hashirama freed her arms to circle her hands around his waist. All complexities and thoughts regarding Izuna’s attitude stopped bothering her mind, and Hashirama could relax herself.

“My sister is always playful,” he said. His hands brushed the woman’s back gently. “Don’t think too much about it.”

“...Alright.”

Darkness quickly swallowed the lake. Madara held her hand to return to the complex. Their steps were slow, clearly not wanting to quickly arrive although the night had thickened in the sky.

“How was your day?”

“I met with the leaders of Sarutobi and Aburame,” Hashirama told him. “They demanded missions from me. I gave them patrol and mapping missions, but it wasn’t enough.”

“The other clans who aren’t allying with us still fulfilling the daimyo’s requests,” Madara added. “They are the ones busy guarding the roads from bandits. It’s clear they aren’t reliable. Even those bandits now have the guts to roam around Konoha.”

“Since the Emperor’s arrival, everyone becomes interested in conflicts once again. I don’t understand…” Hashirama looked up, watching the forest canopies bathing in the crescent moon’s light. “Why are they so eager to go to war? Aren’t they tired? Aren’t they…” she sighed.

“Hashirama.” His tone implied for her to leave the topic. “You need to learn how not to think about work.”

“How can I do that? I have tons of responsibilities. I am no longer a clan leader, but my work is still piling.”

“Everytime you come to me, we mostly talk about work.” Madara grabbed her arm gently. “When will you rest?”

“This ...this is what we dreamed of. What’s wrong with it…? What…” Hashirama stopped her words. When was the last time she had some rest? Even she ate between works. Although she had the chance to eat with her brother, their conversations were never far from discussing village matters. But that’s not wrong, is it?

“There will be a time you have to stop thinking about our village. Just for a little while—”

“Madara, everyone wants to go to war!” Hashirama’s voice turned louder from frustration. “Our village isn’t even threatened yet. Tsuchinokuni is located far in the north, there are still samurai in the borders, but only with such information everyone is already… everyone… even little children want to be armed and—” Her hand wriggled, separating itself from the Uchiha’s grip. “You should have known about this.”

“I know, Hashi! Back then, we didn’t think about the Emperor, it’s true. You are the Hokage; you are the one who determines the future of Konoha. You can refuse the demands! What Nobutada can do to us once we refuse?”

“But they—Konoha people are the ones who wish to go to war! I can’t refuse the offer instantly without listening to what they want—”

Madara growled in anger, “Even if it means to let children die at war again?”

“No! Only the adult ninja—”

“Eventually they will die and leave their children behind! Konoha will be filled with orphans. Who will take care of them, then? It will be you, Hashirama! Your mindset might drag many generations into an endless war!”

“If that so then we can contact the other ninja! You and me managed to start this village system, stopping the inter-clan war and bloodshed.” Hashirama stopped, panting. Sweat flowed from her temples to her neck. “We can ...make peaceful agreements with them too…”

“Both of us and Nobutada have different ideas. The other villages don’t.” The grass rustled once Madara changed his position, closer to the Hokage. “They don’t have the power to refuse the authority’s demands.”

“And if we refuse Nobutada?” Hashirama guessed where his eyes were. Her eyesight hadn’t adapted to the darkness. It’s difficult to tell what could be in her best friend’s mind when she couldn’t see him clearly. “Our village is still within his territory. He always let the daimyo fight with one another using the strength of shinobi, as long as they don’t revolt against him. Now we refuse his demands directly—”

“There is no shinobi as strong as us, Hashi,” Madara cut in, and thunder struck three times. The lightning illuminated the forest spontaneously, causing her to finally be able to find his red eyes.

“What do you mean?”

“If he means to use violence, both of us are enough to destroy Nobutada’s army.”

“So you choose to wage war against the Emperor rather than fighting against Tsuchinokuni invasion? Then what is the difference, civilian children will become victims—” Hashirama touched her own throat. She felt choked. Her breath turned fast and short. She bowed on her knees, her mouth opened to inhale as much oxygen as she could.

Madara’s voice turned cold once he expressed his opinion. “The difference is, we are going to determine which battle we are fighting. Not obeying the pampered pompous noblemen who slack themselves off while the shinobi fight until death!” The grass rustled once more.

“Madara, I’m so—”

He was gone.


 

 

Once she arrived in her office, Hashirama lit a few candles to light up her office. The wind that infiltrated through the gaps between wooden frames kept blowing out the fire, so she had to plug them using her mokuton. She found a stack of reports from reconnaissance and mapping team piling on her table. A plate of dinner was served there as well, covered by a napkin. Her breathing was still heavy, so the second thing she did was writing a reply to Uzumaki Mito’s letter which she had delayed for months. Her cousin told her many things about fuinjutsu research, but the topic passed through her mind without being processed in her brain even for a second.

Many apologies for taking a long time to reply your last letter. Konoha is still under construction, and Emperor Nobutada personally came to visit! Can you believe it? I did not expect him to be that kind of person, but what do you think about him? You have met him many times during your visit to the capital, right?

Her brush stopped. No matter how hard she tried to focus on the letter, her mind kept wandering back towards Madara. Why did they fight and complicate their problems? What did he mean by revolting against the Emperor? Hashirama didn’t wish for Konoha to fight in a war, but if the village council insisted…

I apologize for how short this letter is. Being a Hokage is really tiring and time consuming. If you come to the Emperor’s castle by the end of autumn maybe we can see each other. I am invited to the Emperor’s event.

Hashirama rolled the letter, placing it on the pile of documents that was going to be taken by her assistant the next morning. She took a thick book from atop the other stack of documents, containing list of village inhabitants and their addresses. Her breathing began to feel lighter.

The candle in front of her had melted short when rain suddenly fell. Hashirama ignored the weather until she felt something strange. Her nape hair raised, signalling danger. Slowly she got up and walked to the nearest window, sliding the glass open, and reaching out her arm.

The rain was dense with chakra. She could feel her energy slowly sapped as her hand washed by the rain. The chakra was corrosive.

It wasn’t a human’s chakra.

But unlike the one back then, this one caused rain.

Hashirama might not be a sensor shinobi, but she didn’t need the ability as sharp as her brother’s to recognize that the rain wasn’t natural. She jumped atop her office roof, crouching to keep balance. The chakra rain caused the roof to be slippery and washed herself through all the layers of her clothes. The visibility was terrible. All sounds and smell were swallowed by the rain.

The ground trembled. Hashirama noticed the vibration. As if an entity as heavy as a thousand shinobi landed at the same time within hundreds of meter radius. The ground shook once more, causing all buildings to tremble in unison. When she counted to three and no other vibration appeared, the Hokage began to take action.

She made a few mokubunshin, distributing them to all corners of the village. Nobody was outside. All windows and doors closed tightly. Good. Even the animals avoided the rain, probably also protected by their owners because not a single animal ran around in panic like wild animals supposedly did. However there were several shelters struck by the storm and broke. Only in those places she found villagers outside.

She marked all the areas in need of help, then erased all those bunshin. Maintaining them under corrosive chakra shower drained her energy.

Once her sight adapted to the darkness, Hashirama jumped down. Too dangerous to jump on the roofs during such weather. All the houses she made weren’t affected by the rain, but its intensity and strong wind had destroyed the roofs and walls of several other houses. The water was everywhere; pouring from the roofs, flowing on the ground. She went to the hospital first. Like she had guessed, the roof was damaged.

“Hokage-sama!” A pale-faced Hyuuga greeted her, bringing an oil lamp in his hand. “The roof—!”

Hashirama calmed down the other healers who began to frantically ran towards her. “How about those in the ward?”

“They are safe! There are enough blankets and firewoods for tonight, but—”

“The roof!”

She let the healers guide her to the place where the roof was destroyed by the storm rain. Her body kept gushing out water, and her skin became cold. Her hair clung onto her face and clothes, soaking wet. Hashirama ignored her inconvenience to repair the hospital roof.

“Hokage-sama…” a patient asked fearfully, “what is happening…?”

The Hokage almost blurted her answer that sat on the tip of her tongue, when she remembered not to cause more fear in others. “I don’t know yet,” she answered, shaking her head. “I will investigate about this first. Please stay calm here.”

She didn’t waste more time; immediately she moved to other places that her mokubunshin had found. The academy. Senju clan council house. A half of Hyuuga clan houses. The shops. Her mokuton grew in a blink of an eye, covering all wooden structures with extra protection. She didn’t waste time to chit chat, their thankful words swallowed by the crashing rain.

Everyone must be frantic at the moment, wishing their roofs and walls wouldn’t collapse from being struck by the storm or by the vibration. Earthy scent caused by the rain was all over the village. A trained shinobi’s smelling sense, like an Inuzuka, would know there was something strange about the scent. She came up with a thought to ask for the clan’s help, but her work had not done yet.

Even when she moved this fast, her body began to weaken. Her energy was drained so quickly. Numerous times she swallowed the raindrops, tasted bitter on her tongue. Hashirama couldn’t stop, and she wouldn’t; she was the only one who could move outside at the moment. She should keep moving before the creature moved again.

She was on the way to Uchiha clan complex when she felt something even stranger in the far south. Trying to focus herself, the Hokage kept trying to hear through the rain. Something massive was moving in the south, likely the source of this disaster. It was gigantic.      

Snarls and growls that suddenly blared confirmed her guess. Bijuu. It must be a bijuu. But which type is it? Darkness hindered her from guessing the shape of its silhouette.  

That wasn’t important—first, she had to come closer. Further south was only open fields and forest. The creature was still far from the village center. But once it came closer, the damage it might cause would be even more terrible.

This time, she wouldn’t act recklessly.

Hashirama gathered her chakra, exploding it in the form of a giant wooden foothold. She couldn’t take the risk of using her strongest mokuton because of how close she was to the settlement.

The bijuu detected her presence—it roared.

The next second, her foothold was struck and destroyed. No problem; she quickly made another foothold, jumping closer as she created protective walls around the village. She couldn’t fight using her maximum strength if she wouldn’t risk Konoha to suffer its impact.

The bijuu attack was uncontrollable, raging blindly and destroying everything it could reach. Trees and clods of earth swung and thrown at all directions. Sometimes they almost hit her. Hashirama maneuvered it away from the village. Her wooden dragons grew from the ground, implanting their jaws and teeth to the bijuu’s legs and tails. The creature struggled. Hashirama’s arms began to pulse painfully, trembling from holding her strength.

“Shit—!”

Her newest foothold destroyed after it was struck by a tail as huge as a giant oak trunk. She had failed to calculate the amount of its tails—very fatal. Hashirama gritted her teeth, stepping on the shatters. The surface was slippery because of the rain. She slipped. Not giving up, she clawed on the shatter to get ahold—forgetting that she wasn’t stable in the air.     

The bijuu whimpered. Something glowing began to enter her view, kicking the creature far to the south. The thud when it fell echoed in the air. Its snarl and growl softened. Disappeared. The Hokage landed on the uneven ground, but quickly got up to chase the creature. Something grabbed her body, confining her in a glowing blue cage. The uneven base was solid to step on, although it was transparent. The raindrops diminished inside the cage.

Hashirama’s fingers had formed a seal to explode the cage when a voice stopped her.

“Don’t chase it!”

“The bijuu—” Her words were cut as she turned her head. Her best friend came to her, indicating that the jutsu was his. He wore a kimono he usually wore at home, not the clothes with the tall collar like the usual.

“How long have you been outside?” Madara grabbed her arm so tight that she flinched in pain. He dragged her further into his susano’o until they arrived on its forehead.

“I’m doing fine, really!” she argued, wiping off water from her face. “There is something even worse here—”

Madara’s thick chakra hit her. “Hashi, please listen to me.” He released his grip, his expression colored by regret. “Take care of yourself.”

“A—” Hashirama fell silent. Madara’s figure became blurry. Her stomach churned. The susano’o glow dimmed and the world spun—


 

 

“Father asked me to follow you. He knows you frequently disappear from the village.”

During the trip back to the village, Hashirama was rendered speechless. Her arm kept brushing with the stone she kept. As if it calmed the storm raging in her heart. Hashirama might not be a sensor like him, but she knew Tobirama was angry. His chakra left trails like water drops coming from a leaked basin. Small trails, yet rippled. His usual calmness had gone elsewhere.

“Your taijutsu style has changed, don’t you know that? We rarely train together but I notice that.”

Her footsteps stopped. Her question was out, sounded like a chirp. “Notice what, Tobirama?

Her brother turned away. “The taijutsu style you use is similar with Uchiha’s style.”

In the distance, the village gate was seen. The afternoon activities occurred normally. There were children practicing kenjutsu. Some men were fixing fences and chicken coops. Hashirama kept bowing her head, ignoring greetings from fellow villagers. Her guilt clung heavily on her heart. She tried her best not to let tears flowing out of her tear ducts, forming a glimmering clutch of water in her eyes.

A shinobi shouldn’t cry or show emotions.

But she wasn’t a shinobi. Even if it was true, should she discard her own emotions?

“You have violated my trust, Hashirama!” Butsuma was as wrathful as he could be. His face turned red from the fiery emotion.

Tobirama was silent by his side, avoiding his sister’s gaze. She didn’t dare to see their father’s face; even chose to stare into the warm tatami while her feet slowly felt numb from supporting her weight.

“I’ve been watching  your persistence in training, but you went to see a stranger; a ninja from another clan! What are you thinking? Do you have any intention to betray your own clan? Answer me!”

“...No, Otou-sama.”

“How many of our clan secrets have you exposed to them?”

“Nothing, Otou-sama! I swear—”

“Show us what you have found, Tobirama.”

With his monotone voice, Tobirama began his explanation, “I have matched his physical description with the other clans’ shinobi data we have. The boy is named Madara, and he is a part of Uchiha clan.”

Her fingers turned cold, trembling. Out of all clans inhabiting Hinokuni, Madara turned out to be part of the clan with a long conflict history with Senju clan for generations. Their arch enemy.

“You’re not surprised.”

Hashirama ignored her father’s statement. She had always known Madara was a shinobi. However, she never thought of him as part of the Uchiha.

Because Madara didn’t look even close to a demon often described by Senju elders.

“Look at me, Hashirama,” he ordered. Butsuma no longer spoke with harsh voice, preventing anyone outside to eavesdrop on their conversation. “Your sudden disappearances have been found by clan elders. According to our law, you have to be executed right now.”

Hashirama swallowed her spit. She felt like she had to say something, but she didn’t know what to say. Her lips dried. Madara’s face kept swimming in her memory. If she had to die right here, right now, she would never meet him again forever. Their dreams would be buried deep before they were born. Madara would never know what had happened to her…

“But it’s impossible for me to execute my own daughter.”

She blinked in confusion. Huh?  

Butsuma immediately continued, “There is only one way you can redeem this disloyalty.” Her father pointed his index finger at her. “You have to capture Uchiha Madara, alive or dead!”

Hashirama’s back felt weak.


 

 

Once she was conscious, Hashirama found herself lying on a wooden floor. A lantern was placed not far from her body, lighting up the place which turned out to be a hallway. There was a shoji door on her left, and wooden planks to hold off storm on her right. The rainstorm was still raging outside.

Her village!

Hashirama got up quickly, but reluctantly lying back once headache struck her. Her wet clothes clung on her skin. The cold seeped into her bones. Shivering. She whimpered.

“Careful.” She heard Madara’s word sounded nearby. His hand slipped between her back and the floor, slowly pushing her into sitting position. “Can you stand?”    

She nodded, trying to stand up straight while reclining on her best friend’s shoulder. Madara gave her a bundle of clean, dry clothes and led her into a room. He closed the door from the outside. The light from a pair of candles inside helped her to see that it was a bedroom. Immediately she took off all her clothes and wore the black kimono lent to her. The size was bigger, yet quite thick and warm to break the cold air. Her wet hair dripped water on the tatami, so she quickly took her wet clothes and walked back to the hallway.

Wooden planks and panels had been arranged tightly to hold off the storm and protect the floor from raindrops, save for one breezeway. She could see the blue glow of a susano’o seen in the sky, the figure bowed with its wings covered its body. A servant suddenly showed up in the corner, switched her wet clothes with a thick towel as she bowed shortly. Hashirama immediately wrapped her hair with the towel.

“So reckless.”

She turned her head to find Madara standing in one corner with his arms crossed. His face was sour. Her body began to shiver so he pulled her away from the gaps. A thick haori was draped on her shoulders. Hashirama had no enough energy to refuse. He carefully sat her down leaning against the shoji door. His palms felt hot against her cold cheeks.

“There’s a bijuu—”

“I saw it too, Hashirama,” Madara cut her off. “But you can’t chase it in a rainstorm full of corrosive chakra!”

“C-can I… borrow your susano’o?”

“Then how about the houses in our village?” he asked back. “I use it to protect the entire village.”

“But…”

“Have some rest inside. We talk about this again later.” Madara opened the door, gesturing her to get inside with a nod.

Hashirama slept on a wooden block, her wet hair was let loose on the floor. She watched the silhouette of Madara’s back leaning against the shoji door. She couldn’t sleep. Lightning kept striking and thunder kept blaring in the sky. Would all the houses be safe? Had the bijuu went away? How about their fields and water supplies? How long this storm would rage on? Would the medicine supplies in the hospital be enough?  

Those questions kept fluttering in her mind, hindering drowsiness from coming.

Madara suddenly got up and walked away. Hashirama forced herself to inch closer towards the door. Her breath raced once she slid it a little, only to find some of the storm barriers had removed. Rain still fell, but it was dark outside. The susano’o had gone.

“Don’t go out.”

One of her feet had touched the breezeway floor. Madara didn’t even turn at her.

“It’s still raining. Where is your susano’o?”

“It’s a normal storm. But you can’t go out yet, Hashirama.” He turned to look at her, returning to his sitting position. “The bijuu had gone. Even further to the south.”

“...Are you sure?” Hashirama sat next to him. She just recognized her hair had dried.

“I am.” He closed his eyes. The blue barrier around them rippled. “Your attack had weakened it.”

She released a relieved breath out of her chest. Her weak back leaned against the wooden wall. They didn’t realize this area was frequently passed by a bijuu, because there was no sign of chakra contaminations or broken vegetations in one lane. If the bijuu should return, a physical barrier like her mokuton walls wouldn’t be able to contain its attacks. All barriers created by every clan could only hold off human. Not a creature with a massive chakra...      

“Go to bed.”

Hashirama was startled from her musings. “I keep thinking of that bijuu. We need more defenses…”

“Keep it for tomorrow, Hashi. Get back inside.” Madara slid the door for her.

“But why do you sleep outside?” She returned the haori. “This is your room, isn’t it?”

“It is.” Madara tilted his head to another direction. “Wear this for tonight.”

Hashirama’s forehead furrowed. “...Are you angry at me?”

“No.”

“Please, don’t be angry...”

“I said I’m not angry.”

“Madaraaaa…” She placed her chin on her arm.

“Hashirama, I told y—” Madara turned his head quickly, and his words were cut off. Their noses almost touched. Both of them stayed still.

“If you choose to sleep outside because you are angry at me, I apologize.” Hashirama bowed her head. “I… also apologize for our argument this evening. You are correct. I am too tired. I…”

Madara spread the haori to cover their bodies. He pulled her closer. “How reckless,” he protested in her ear, “chasing a bijuu alone in a storm. Your body is still a human’s body, you know. You had fainted many times from overworking. Think about yourself more.”

“Yes…” Her head leaned to the niche of his shoulder, smelling the familiar scent of hinoki pine.

She was still worried about the village. But with the storm this bad, even without being contaminated by bijuu chakra she couldn’t do much. The visibility was horrible, and her stamina would drain pointlessly. No one could stay long in the raging storm and blinding darkness. No one could help her out there.

The night felt so long.

“Don’t sleep here.” Madara nudged her. He kissed her temple before she got up.

“You’re not coming in?” she asked Madara who was still sitting down. “It’s cold out here.”  

“You can sleep inside. I don’t need to.”

“Why only me? The place is enough for the two of us.”

Madara stared at her straightly. “Are you asking me…?”

“I want… to sleep in your embrace,” Hashirama expressed shyly as she slid the door. “Because… you’re so warm.”

Madara held her hand. “Really just an embrace?” His serious expression repelled her drowsiness away.

“If you, um…” She carefully chose her words. “If you want then, I want it too.” Anticipation for what would happen the next minutes made her tense.

“Want to what? Making a scandal?” he teased.

Hashirama’s laugh released at the same time as thunder strike. “Making a scandal!” she repeated, panting because the laugh. She parted strands of hair from her face. “Alright. Let’s make a scandal.”

This time Madara followed her inside. He lit a candle, and the light fell exactly on the futon where Hashirama kneeled.

“Black suits you.”

“Eh? This…?” Hashirama bowed. Only then she recognized a soft embroidery of Uchiha clan symbol on the collar. Slowly a wide smile bloomed on her face. She brushed the symbol gently, then her chin was lifted.

“Yes.” Madara kneeled in front of her, touching their noses and foreheads together. “It suits you very well.” He slipped a part of her hair behind her ear, then cupped his hands on her cheeks. “I don’t know if I have to take it off or not…”

Hashirama’s lips trembled once it was brushed with his. She grabbed the kimono on his thighs. The kiss started gently. He bit her lower lip softly before he backed off. There were tears on his fingers.

“Hashi…” Madara wiped a wet trail on her cheek. “What’s wrong?”

“It-it is nothing at all,” she calmed herself as she dried her face. “I… I…” A mix of feelings scrambled in her heart, and she didn’t know how to express it to him. The man looked so relaxed, the candle light fell on the side of his face, lighting up his body profile, and the part of his exposed chest…

“What are you looking at?”

Her gaze immediately returned to his face which was adorned by a devilish smirk. Hashirama turned to look away, cursing her inability to express her own feelings. Usually it wouldn’t turn out like this, usually she could express every content of her heart easily, yet…

Everytime she looked at him, her mind just stopped. All her words stumbled from her tongue. Her fist was on the collar, feeling her heart pounding madly behind the ribs—oh for Rikudou Sennin’s sake, what’s wrong with her?

“Hashi, do you want to continue?”

“I do,” she expressed, loud enough to beat the sound of storm striking the walls of his house. Her gaze traced down his neck, and Hashirama groaned in frustration for the second time. The warmth inside her body that she felt when they kissed under the pine tree returned. This time, with higher intensity following each of their touches.

“Come here…”

Hashirama fell in his embrace. Madara kissed her forehead and lips, opening the gap with his tongue. Meanwhile Hashirama focused on their kiss, he pushed her to the futon. She blinked, for a little while confused with the sudden change of position.

“Much better,” he whispered. Madara sat on top of her. He reached for her hand, placing it on his belt. “Pull it,” he ordered boldly.

Hashirama obeyed. Her breath was restrained as his kimono opened to show his toned chest and stomach. His clothes fell in slow motion as she placed her palms on his warm body.

This wasn’t the first time she saw a shirtless man. But this time was Madara. Uchiha Madara, the one she had known better than her own relatives; Madara who understood her more than anyone else...

“Madara…” Hashirama heard her own self whispering his name. Her eyes wet once more. Her fingers found rough scars she made a long time ago.

It was difficult to believe. Yet there she was, in a village born from their visions, with all their families living in it. And this time, Hashirama lay in his room, right under his body—

“Hashi,” he cut off her musings. “Don’t think about work for a while. Just for tonight.”

She shook her head, her hand reaching for his shoulder. “It’s not about work. I’m just…” Just what, it felt impossible to express. Many different things scrambled and mixed inside her mind, but only one stood out from the others. The only thing that dominated herself in this second.

“If you still have doubts—”

“Madara,” she called, cupping her hands on his cheeks. She could see his chest rose and fell as he breathe. “I trust you.”

“I trust you as well.” His smile bloomed. “You are already here.”

The next second, Hashirama’s kimono was opened wide, and Madara bowed to explore all the soft curves beneath. Her moan and squeal were swallowed by the raging storm outside. Her fingers grabbed the man’s hair as their bodies danced in the same rhythm.

That night, he helped her to forget about the village, the Emperor, and the Konoha politics for a while.

That night, Hashirama was there for Madara alone.

Chapter Text

Tobirama was ten, and he hated talking to the door.

“Aneja?” he called. Yet there was no answer except for her restrained sobbing.

His sister was locked in the shed again, even though he tried to convince their father to stop punishing her like this over and over again. Ever since he caught her by the riverside a few days ago, Hashirama kept ignoring him. Treating him as if he didn’t exist even when he was by her side—both because of their father’s order and by his own initiative. She spent the last three days going around the village, never strayed far from their relatives’ watchful eyes, before she went to sleep in the shed.

Besides, Hashirama was not a shinobi. She didn’t understand that the clan’s interest must be placed above her personal whims. Collecting information from their enemies was the main duty of a ninja. That Uchiha boy must had the same thing in his mind, and he’s using Hashirama’s friendliness for his advantage.   

Damn that demon.

He only wanted to protect his sister, yet she treated him like he just committed a mistake. Hashirama was the one who sneaked out from their village to see the Uchiha boy, not him. He only followed her to prove his suspicion and ensure the safety of their clan. Although not a shinobi, his sister had an exceptional chakra and a talent better than average ninja. Better than him. His father said it would be dangerous if such talent like hers should fall into another clan’s hands.

Tomorrow, everything would be over. Everything should return to normal, and they would get valuable informations about the Uchiha clan.

Tobirama looked at a wrapped orange in his palm, then at the locked shed door. He heard something creaking and falling inside the room, telling him that Hashirama was rummaging through piles of old stuffs. He twisted the key, hearing the hinge creaked, followed by his sister’s cold response.

“Don’t enter.”

Tobirama remained, leaving the door opened a little so he could peek. Hashirama’s back was facing him, her hands were busy tidying up the place so she could sleep comfortably. He extended his hand inside.

“I brought you an orange.” No response. “You haven’t eaten anything since noon.”

“No need,” she answered bitterly. “Just go to sleep.”

He slowly dropped his arm. Tobirama didn’t expect her response would feel this painful. Hashirama never said anything that harsh to him before. Even when she was mad, her anger would disappear quickly. Yet her laughter had been absent for long. Why did Hashirama have to be so sad?

He kneeled by the doorstep. “I’ll just leave this orange here—”

A broken broom was thrown flippantly to the side. “Take it with you. I’m not hungry.”

Of course she was lying. Tobirama heard her stomach growling several times today. “You will fall sick tomorrow,” he insisted.

She still had her back facing him. “I never fall sick, remember?”

“Sis—”

“I said get out of here!” Hashirama finally turned her head at him, her face illuminated by the light of torch flaming outside the shed. There were gleaming trails on her cheeks. Anger disappeared from her face once she realized what she did. She quickly turned away, “I’m sorry, Tobirama… please leave me alone.”

He slipped the orange inside, then slowly closing the door before locking it again. He was about to stand until he heard her sobbing. So close.

“Kawarama and Itama are gone…” Her voice was muffled behind the wooden door. “I don’t want to lose you too.”

Tobirama bit his lip, speechless. He stared at the door, stunned. Briefly he was envious knowing how easy for Hashirama to cry and express her feelings…


 

 

Her pillow was shifting. Pulsing. Breathing.

Hashirama opened her eyes to the dimness of a room that wasn’t hers. She blinked numerous times before pushing herself awake. The pillow moved under her hand’s pressure, and she quickly recognized the muscled texture on the slope of the chest. Apparently she spent the night sleeping atop him.

Her right hand lingered above his skin, finding a place where her fingertips could feel the beating heart. Hashirama slipped her hair behind her ear, slowly descending, landing a chaste kiss on his beating heart.

“...Hashi.”

The call didn’t stop her. From the heart she moved towards his sternum, skipping the scars, her knees pushing her forward. Her borrowed kimono, untied, fell like a drape around them. The body below her shifted, his breathing rustled softly as he reached for her side. Hashirama grabbed his wrist, holding it next to his head above his scattered hair, and she smiled.

“Morning, beloved.”

Madara smirked. Hashirama kissed him deeply, leaving their exposed skin brushed against each other and their tongues met. The familiar warmth bloomed quickly between her legs, and she could tell he felt the same.

“Another?”

“Another.”

Madara turned her around like he did last night. He didn’t bother being gentle; his nails and teeth left red trails on her breasts. Their moans echoed once more in his room as he was inside her body.

The climax was reached and ended abruptly; too quick, too soon—but she realized the night couldn’t last forever. She didn’t close her eyes, focusing herself to her lover’s figure that was sheltered by the shadows, calling him voicelessly as her energy rushed into their dance—

If only, if only the sun would never rise…

“The rain hasn’t stopped,” Hashirama whispered a while later, almost running out of breath. She inched closer to Madara’s warmer body, whom immediately embraced and caressed her. “What time is it...?”

“The sun will rise soon.” He kissed the crown of her head, and yawned. “I couldn’t sleep.”

“Huh, why?”

“You snored, by the way.” Madara stared at her deeply. “Oi, I’m just kidding…” he added, holding back his laughter once Hashirama rolled away from him, sulking.

Lightning struck, thunder rumbled, and the Hokage awoke.

How could she relax here, not knowing a single thing about her village’s condition? What kind of leader is she; forgetting the current state of her own people?     

Hashirama jolted awake, quickly tidying up her kimono. Her heart pounded fast, and her fingers were too shaky to tie her obi. Madara stood before her, touching her trembling hands.

“You can’t go out in this,” he whispered. His gaze calmed her down. “Wait a moment.” Then he left.

Hashirama couldn’t stay only to wait and do nothing. She couldn’t calm herself by walking around inside the bedroom, she slid the door a little, peeking into the dim hall. It’s a downpour outside. The air was dense, full of strange odor. Pure chakra. Did the bijuu return after she chased it away? No, no way. If that was happening, she would’ve known. Madara would have sensed it as well. How about the hospital after she left it last night? Is it safe? Are the sick ones safe staying there? Is—

Footsteps coming from the hall announced Madara’s return. She quickly grabbed the kimono he brought—not the kimono she was wearing last night; still a similar black kimono, only without any clan symbol. Once she was done changing, she walked into the nearest opening with heart full of worries.

The Hokage passed the yard with the Uchiha clan leader by her side. He shielded her from the rain using his paper umbrella and susano’o. They didn’t talk. Hashirama’s fists clenched so tightly until her nails pierced her palms. For a moment she saw curious faces peeked from behind the windows of mokuton houses, their inhabitants still hesitated to go out. So far not a single house damaged. Her steps splashed mud onto her clothes and stained her feet.

From afar, many people were seen gathering together in front of the Hokage office. Tobirama’s silver hair stood out in the crowd. Hashirama hastened her steps.

“Tobirama!”

“Aneja!” he called, his stern face immediately turned relieved. “Where were you—” His words stopped once he found Madara next to her, a susano’o covering their bodies. His eyes were locked at the borrowed kimono she was wearing.

Hashirama looked around the crowd. Everyone had weary expression on their faces, yet relieved. “How about the village…?”

Half of the crowd bowed their heads. “Our barns and fields are severely damaged, Hokage-sama. Half of our rice fields are almost ready to harvest, but they are also destroyed. Our only source of water is polluted.”

Hashirama could feel her heart sank to her stomach.

“We’ll starve.”


 

 

The rain stopped before midday.

Hashirama busied herself going around the village like she did last night. Collapsed tree trunks that struck by the wind last night were scattered all over the place. There were some heavy branches fell atop several roofs, although luckily beside the damaged roof tiles there were no heavily destroyed buildings. The protection shields she created last night only covered the southern part of their village. Meanwhile, her destroyed footholds were scattered here and there like giant boulders. Some of them fell on vegetable fields.

The people finally encouraged themselves to go out, cleaning their village from the mess and taking their wounded relatives to the hospital. The establishment was crowded by villagers. The healers were overwhelmed by the number of patients that kept coming.

“Hokage-sama.” A healer girl from Hyuuga clan held her arm once Hashirama came to check on their medicine supplies. There were dark circles under her active byakugan. She had to speak aloud above the cries of babies and children who suffered from the heat. “Would you help us for a moment? There are patients with broken bones who need help—oh, they are over here…”

Hashirama nodded before she finished her words. Most of the injured ones were outside their houses when a strong wind struck, sending broken branches and wooden planks to fly until they hit them. She wore her smile to help calming down the patients as she worked to repair their damaged tissues, bones, and muscles.

The Hyuuga girl found her again after the Hokage had healed the tenth patient's wounds, a little girl who kept a brave facade in front of her although her arm was strangely bent. She asked a permission to talk to her alone, so they left the ward. Her face was nervous.

“What’s wrong?” Hashirama sat down on a chair so their eyes were on the same level.

“Our medical supplies has depleted, Hokage-sama,” she answered quietly. She tidied the hair strands that escaped her hair tie. “I ran to Hyuuga residence, but even our personal stock is scarce. All of our medicinal herbs died last night.”

“Doesn’t your clan have a trading network?” Hashirama asked softly as she touched the girl’s thin shoulder. “You can buy the medicine elsewhere, right?”

“It’s… it’s been on stagnant for so long. Common merchants are afraid to travel because the roads are infested by bandits. They have swords and capable of using them too.”

“Your name…” Hashirama tried to remember. “Kyoko, isn’t it? I will try to do something, okay? Rest assured.”

The girl nodded, she smiled weakly. “Thank you, Hokage-sama.”

Tobirama showed up in front of her office at the same time she arrived. The bottom part of his kimono was stained with mud and his hair was dripping wet.    

Hashirama closed the meeting room door behind her. “Where were you…?”

“The upstream. Many kinds of fish dead and the water is no longer drinkable.” He took a deep breath, holding his chest. “I’ve asked people to take all the dead fishes from the river before they reach the lake. For a while we have to find another source of water. There is… a small river, in the east…”

“Did you dive?”

Tobirama shook his head, leaning his head onto the wall. His breath was heavy and short. “Just… got into the water.”

“Those are the same thing.” Hashirama pulled the nearest chair for him. “Have a rest here.” She sat down as well and sank her face into her palms. Without being asked, she relayed the situation in the hospital to her brother. Tobirama listened until she was done talking.

“The other clans have donated all of their medicines, but we need more.”

“Other villages around Konoha have suffered the impact of this bijuu before we do,” he explained. “We can’t ask for their help. The nearest big city is Daimyo Matsudaira’s seat.”

“We need food from the outside.” Hashirama was reminded of the report regarding damaged barns and fields. “Can we send him a letter...?”

“I doubt that, Sis. He’s known to be stingy. Even farmers are taxed too high.” Suddenly Tobirama sat upright. “Sis, go upstairs to the office. Madara is back.”


 

 

Madara had changed into his battle clothes, minus his armor. His scent smelled like rain.

“The bijuu runs further south,” he informed before Hashirama sat behind her desk. “I assume it won’t dare to return, but it’s better for us not to take more risks.”

Hashirama blinked. “You intend to hunt it…?”

“There is another village it destroyed. I have to stop it before it causes more destruction. It will be dangerous if it returns to find you.”

“Why me?”  

“You were the one who chased it away last night.” Madara inched towards the window, briefly glancing at the situation below. “Only your mokuton and my susano’o can hold it off. I will leave to find it soon.”

Hashirama brushed her palms together on her lap, wiping off sweat that had gathered. It would be easy to order him to hunt the bijuu, only one word she needed. Yet her heart was weighed by reluctance. The village was in crisis, and she needed Madara by her side. She knew she wouldn’t be fair acting that way; the choice was only the two of them, and she couldn’t leave the village.

“One week,” she said weakly. “Bring a small team with you; take some people from Inuzuka and Yamanaka clans.”

Madara frowned. “They will only slow me down. Myself is enough.”

“This is an order, Uchiha-san.” Hashirama lifted her chin, voicelessly implying for him to recognize her authority.

“If that is your wish, Hokage-sama,” Madara bowed for a moment, with an unreadable expression. “I am leaving in an hour.”

“Be careful,” she added, visibly concerned.

Once his figure disappeared through the doorstep, only then Hashirama realized her brother was standing at the office’s corner. His arms crossed on his chest. His wet hair clung on his temples.

“I thought you were sleeping in your office last night, but you weren’t here.” Tobirama left the wall, his gaze aimed to the floor. “You and Madara…”

Hashirama’s heart pounded faster. “...Yes?”

Silence followed. She waited until Tobirama voiced his mind, but it never happened.

Tobirama pulled the door open. He lingered on the doorstep, speaking in a heavy voice, “Now it’s clear to me where were you last night.”

Hashirama stood up. “It’s—”

The door was slammed shut.

She threw her back on her seat. Why does her brother act strangely around her lately?


 

 

In the following week, Konoha received two unexpected guests.

The first guest was a group consisted of a hundred people from a small village destroyed by the bijuu shortly after Hashirama chased it away.

“Please, we beg you,” pleaded the old man who led the villagers to Konoha, his forehead touching the ground in front of the Hokage. “Half of our people are dead, there is no house or shelter left, we don’t have food. You helped us fighting the bandits, so…” His voice trailed off.

Hashirama handed over a huge box full of medicinal concoctions to the nearest man, then kneeled. “Please, stand up. Our houses still stand strong. You, your relatives, and all your villagers may stay here temporarily.” She observed the other refugees who stood behind the man. Dozens of exhausted faces immediately gazed upon the ground. There were men carrying hoes and rakes with them. “The healthy ones can help us in our fields.”

“You…” The man raised his face, his eyes gleaming with hope. “You know how to restore the fields contaminated by the beast?”

“Oh, no… all shinobi clans here know how to do it—”

“Thank you!” He grasped her hands tightly. “Thank you so much!”    

However, at the end of the day Hashirama had to face Tobirama’s sour expression.

“I know you have good intention by taking them in, but where will they stay?” he desperately complained in the Hokage office after he delivered Konoha’s damaged farms and fields report. “Please don’t tell me you’re going to build more mokuton houses. You almost fainted when you built the emergency barrack for them.”

Hashirama turned the pages of the report, trying to understand the data served to her. Sadly her brain couldn’t process anything. ‘Almost fainted’ didn’t even describe how exhausted she was. When she returned to the office, her body shivered until she couldn't stand upright. She forced herself to chew dried fruits to regain half of her energy before Tobirama arrived.

“How about our food supplies?” Hashirama changed the topic, pulling the shortened candle closer to light her desk. “The bijuu didn’t kill wild animals, right?”

“They strayed from their habitats, and our hunters have to go further just to find a wild boar.” Tobirama sat down. Under the dim light, he was as exhausted as her. “If our rice fields are restored and harvested immediately, we can plant vegetables before winter comes…” Their conversation turned to the topic about food supplies.

Busying themselves by taking care the village and the refugees from neighboring village made the topic about her whereabouts during the storm as if being pushed away. In one side, Hashirama was relieved that they didn’t need to talk about it. But on the other side, she felt guilty for not being honest about her relationship with Madara.

She knew it well Tobirama was still disliking him.

The next morning, Hyuuga Kyoko, the girl she had helped a few days ago, shook her awake. The girl informed her about the arrival of the second guest.

“Forgive me for entering, Hokage-sama! Senju-san sent me… he said there is an important guest waiting for you at the gate—”

Without waiting for Kyoko to complete her sentence, Hashirama jolted awake, taking her haori and wearing it as she jumped through the window. Tobirama and Akimichi Chokichi were already at the eastern gate, with a small entourage that brought along a palanquin with a golden gilded roof.

It's impossible for Emperor Nobutada to return without notice, right?

Her guess was busted once Chokichi stepped aside, revealing a familiar, moustached thin man.

“Ukyo-san,” Hashirama greeted. “This is a very sudden visit.”

Ukyo ignored her. Instead he sniffed the air, his forehead furrowed seeing worn-out villagers running around carrying various equipments. They slowed down in front of the guest, secretly glancing at him to watch.

“Huh,” he scoffed as he put his hands on his waists. “Is it just me, or Konoha turns into a slum after the Emperor left…?”

“Ukyo-san, a bijuu passed our—”

“Bring them all to the inn,” Ukyo cut off Chokichi’s explanation, gesturing at the servants who carried his palanquin. Half of them were carrying heavy chests, which they pushed carefully.

Chokichi’s nostrils flared. Ukyo turned himself around, his gaze was upon Hashirama whom still retaining her smile. “Oh my, this is our Hokage!” he exclaimed mockingly, his arms lifted as if he was surprised. “Come on, escort me to the inn!”

“This is so sudden,” Hashirama said as they entered the market district. “If you had informed us beforehand, we might be able to welcome you better than this. I apologize for the mess.”

“Oh, isn’t this much better?” Ukyo said, impatient. “Now I can see what Konoha actually looked like. Good for my observation.” He twisted the tip of his moustache smugly.

“So what is the intention of your visit?”

Ukyo ignored her for the second time. Once they arrived at the inn, he asked for food and accomodation of the same quality as the ones they provided for Emperor Nobutada. Tobirama who followed them repeated his request flatly—Hashirama noticed her brother was holding his anger. Chokichi and him didn’t even stay for a chit chat. Only a pair of kunoichi served them. The situation was also different than the first time he came. This time no servant was standing out there distributing candies or kids crowding the streets. Everyone who lingered in front of the inn were driven away by the guest’s subordinates.

After one sudden meal course and plenty cups of sake, Ukyo finally spoke about his intention. “So,” he spoke, his body staggered forward and backward. “This beautiful lady will be a daimyo… eh, I mean, Hokage will share the same level as a daimyo. Matsudaira’s region will be split into two. He hates it of course, but who cares…” Ukyo’s pupils began to wander down from his companion’s face, and stopped on Hashirama’s breasts.

“Konoha has such great assets.”

Hashirama closed her eyes and counted to ten in her mind. The two kunoichi in the corner exchanged worried stares. The air quivered. One, two hair strands began to stick out from her neatly combed hair. Once Hashirama opened her eyes, Ukyo took a scroll out of his kimono, which he threw recklessly.

“Here. From the Emperor.” Ukyo turned to the corner. “You two, oi. You should follow me upstairs, yes? Yeah?” He leered at them. One girl quickly went up, while the other one cleaned up their finished meals.

“You don’t need to do this,” Hashirama whispered at the second girl, very softly that her lips were almost unmoved. “He’s drunk, he should be falling asleep soon.”

The girl stared at her in confusion. “We’re used to this,” she said as she piled up the bowls from the small table. “Every kunoichi is trained for this, Hokage-sama.”

Hashirama’s nails dug into the scroll as she watched the girl followed her friend upstairs. The scroll was similar to the one Madara brought several weeks ago when he was back from hunting. The official empire seal was stamped on its cover. Her eyes trailed down the beautiful, meandering handwriting on it, immortalizing Emperor Nobutada’s command for Ukyo to observe Konoha village’s assets and how much taxes they could manage to pay annually.

The further she read, the heavier her heart became. The tax Nobutada requested covered more than a half Matsudaira managed to pay after every rice harvest. With the condition of their village currently damaged by a bijuu, it would be impossible for them to pay that much in time...     

Her back weakened once she arrived at the end of the letter. Nobutada would only cut the amount if Hashirama agreed to fight the war against Tsuchinokuni and become a part of Hinokuni military. If the Hokage should refuse all the terms, the Emperor would use the way of…

“No need to answer that now,” Ukyo said suddenly, still downing another cup of sake. Hashirama forgot that he was still there. “Take it easy. I want to stay here too.” His body swayed as he tried to stand up. “Time to enjoy my first assets.”

After a mocking bow and another inappropriate glance towards her body, Ukyo staggered upstairs.


 

 

Her head was terribly dizzy. Not because she was drunk; Hashirama did not touch the sake during the dinner with Ukyo. Even the smell made her nauseated. His scroll was spread open on the table, away from the crumbs of grilled meat.

“It isn’t stated here how long he will stay.” Tobirama put his chopsticks down neatly on the plate. “It’s only written ‘until his duty is finished’. I suspect Nobutada appointed him as the Emperor’s ambassador for Konoha.”

“Disgusting,” the Hokage grunted. “He’s making me sick.”

Tobirama stared at her, hardly understanding what she meant.

“He treated the kunoichi as our  assets !” Hashirama pushed her plate away. The meat was left untouched. “If you had seen his face…”

She still had not forgotten the lessons she eavesdropped during her childhood. Touka laughed at her when she expressed her disgust. She said there were many little girls who complained about the same thing, but once a war is at stake a shinobi should do anything in their power to ensure their clan’s victory.

“Sis, the main asset of Konoha is its inhabitants,” Tobirama said slowly. “We have expertise in things common people don’t.”

“I don’t regard all of you as a resource that can be sucked dry and thrown away easily.” Hashirama combed her hair using her fingers. Her head throbbed. “Inform the village council to gather this morning, we will discuss this matter.” Once the scroll was taken away and their plates were carried to the kitchen, Hashirama placed her forehead on the cold surface of her desk, whispering to herself, “If only Madara was here…”

Ten clan leaders sat circling around the meeting table three hours later. Their faces didn’t show any sign of drowsiness although the sun hadn’t risen. After Hashirama finished explaining the current situation, everyone stood up to talk at the same time.

“What are we waiting for?”

“Finally!”

“My relatives are bored and keep asking when will we go to war again—”

“When can we start sending out recon? Oh, I can’t wait!”

“...Sis?”

The Hokage was stunned in her seat, clutching her armrests tightly. Even her brother and Izuna, who came to represent her brother, were not against the dominant opinion on the table. She finally tried to find support from Hyuuga Mori, but even the older man didn’t look at her. His voice hadn’t been heard since he entered the meeting room.

She waited until everyone had done expressing their reactions, and asked, “do you really wish for Konoha to fight in the war? This village isn’t built to gather military strength.” Her tone sounded like almost begging in the end. “It’s already enough for us to kill each other for dozens of generations; why should we continue to do it again?

Nara Shikana raised his eyebrows. “You don’t wish for us to spend the rest of our lives in the farms and rice fields, don’t you? Shinobi are born to kill.”

Hashirama was shocked.

Yamanaka Inoha skimmed the content of Emperor’s scroll. “Emperor Nobutada is willing to ask other regions to supply our needs as long as we fight against Tsuchinokuni.”

“The Emperor has samurai—”

“Samurai aren’t enough.”

Ukyo leaned against the doorframe, bowing briefly towards all the clan leaders. He looked well, unlike someone who was drunk all night long. His stare stopped at Izuna for a while before returning to the Hokage. “Good morning. I heard you are holding a meeting. I apologize for this sudden presence.” He took a chair from the corner of the room, and dragged it to the end of the table. Sitting without being offered.

“So, just like what I have mentioned before, the samurai aren’t enough to hold off Tsuchi. Their emperor built a ninja village, and they invade the borders swiftly. It takes a ninja to defeat a ninja.” Ukyo smirked. “Easy to understand, no?”

“Aburame clan agrees to go to war,” said Aburame Mamoru suddenly. He didn’t respond to Ukyo’s smile.

“Sarutobi clan agrees,” Sasuke followed.

Hashirama avoided the stare of those two clan leaders. “I will only agree if all clan leaders are willing to contribute their strength.” Her gaze observed all the council members who sat around the table, silently wishing there would be no one else speaking. However, her hope was crushed within seconds.

“We agree,” Chokichi spoke representing his trio.

“Inuzuka clan also agrees.”

“Shimura clan will contribute.” Shimura Keita looked fiery, full of confidence.

Hyuuga Mori nodded briefly, and spoke heavily, “Hyuuga agrees.”

Hashirama knew Mori was on her side regarding this. His approval felt like a hit on her ribs. Ukyo’s smile widened.

Only two people left to speak.

“Ukyo-san,” Izuna called. “What kind of rewards promised by the Emperor if we agree to go to war for him?”

“Everything Konoha needs,” Ukyo answered lightly. “Workers, money, food, clothes, medicines. I can write to His Majesty right now and request to him all of those things.”

Izuna tilted her head. “If that so, Uchiha clan also agrees.”

Madara would not agree. Madara would never agree. He would be wrathful and raging, leaving the meeting room immediately. But why is his sister against him? Why did Hashirama know nothing about this? Maybe if she had spared some time with her, Hashirama would be able to convince her…

Everything was too late now.

Tobirama stopped writing, staring at his sister with an unspoken question. Hashirama was silent, her eyes closed as she heard Tobirama’s voice.

“Senju clan agrees.”

“The vote is absolute, Lady Hokage.”

The Hokage nodded in silence. “Konoha will go to war.” Her tongue felt bitter, yet she ignored it. “But, as you can see, our village is currently damaged by a disaster. We will be really helped if His Majesty the Emperor is willing to send food and medicines immediately.”

“Not a problem,” Ukyo assured, standing so quickly that his chair almost toppled. “I will write in this very moment. Also requesting for the information gathered by the samurai.”

“By the way,” Shikana spoke after Ukyo had left the room, “we need a symbol. Konoha, I mean.”

Hashirama permitted the clan leaders to discuss their village symbol. Her breathing became heavy once again. After the meeting, she intended to rest in her office. However, she was awaited.

Three young shinobi stood nervously in front of her desk. From their appearances, Hashirama knew they were from Yamanaka, Inuzuka, and Uchiha clan respectively. The second young man had a bandaged little dog in his arms. They looked exhausted and sleep deprived.

“What do you need?”

The three of them exchanged glances, before the Uchiha spoke, “We chased the bijuu in the last week. With Madara-sama, I mean.”

Hashirama’s hands fell limp from the door knob. She almost forgotten about Madara. Her mind was filled by the refugee problem and village restoration.

“Where is Madara?” She crossed the office in long strides and sat on her chair. She couldn’t lose her composure in front of the three young shinobi. “Why is he not with you?”

“The bijuu attacked us once it noticed we were following it, Hokage-sama. We were separated from Madara-sama who used himself as bait. The last time we saw him, he lured the bijuu to the north.” The Inuzuka shinobi stopped for a while, glancing at the whimpering dog. “The bijuu is a fox.”

From a closer distance, their faces looked terribly pale. It was normal; not many people had faced a bijuu and lived to tell the tale. Hashirama sighed heavily.

“Thank you for the report. Please have some rest.”

For the rest of the day, she couldn’t stop thinking about Madara.


 

 

The river splashed,  calmly flowing between them.

Hashirama smiled towards her best friend across the water. The only best friend she had outside her family circle, and a best friend she held close in her heart.

A friend whom unfortunately was a part of her clan’s arch enemy. The demons.

None of these made sense. Madara was similar to every human she ever met. He had a pair of eyes and ears, a nose and a mouth. He also wished for peace like she did. What could possibly define him as a demon with all those traits he had?

Should she kill him for his origin? Just because of his family? Just because he was born in a system that obliged every children to bear arms and kill children of their enemy clans? Just because they could not choose to which family they wished to be born into?

Hashirama loved her father and brother, and she loved Madara. She didn’t want to choose, she didn’t want to be splitted between them. Why wouldn’t they stop killing each other? She and Madara had lost their siblings at war. Her father too. So did everyone in Senju and Uchiha clans. Why does everyone keep wanting to kill each other until one of them dies? Why?

Why?

The last memory she had about Kawarama was his odd grin. Kawarama was always proud every time he made any improvements in taijutsu and kenjutsu. He was the most enthusiastic in gaining their father’s recognition. He was the one who agreed the most with shinobi ideology about the honor of dying at war. Her father considered arming his children and sending them to war was an act of love.

What kind of parents told their children to kill each other, as if a human’s life worth nothing? Forcing children to fight adults, brainwashing them so they would willingly sacrifice their lives for someone else’s ambitions...

This rotten system has to stop!

“As usual,” Madara said, aloud so his voice would be heard above the sounds of water, “we skip stones as a greeting.”

Hashirama nodded. They put their hands in their pockets at the same time.

To cut this rotten chain of endless killing, Madara must survive. And she was determined to protect him in any way she could.

The two stones jumped on the water eight times before they fell on each other’s palm. The stone in her hand was carved with a message.

Run!

“Ah, I’m sorry, Hashirama!” he shouted from the other side. “I just remembered I have something else to do!”

The girl jolted. Gulping, she replied, “oh, yes! I also have an appointment so, see you later!”

However, before Hashirama managed to run into the forest, two shadows passed her. She stopped, turning her head to find her father and Tobirama standing on the water. Facing them were two people wearing similar dark clothes. One adult man, and one child. Both of them were armored.

“Uchiha Tajima,” her father greeted as he unsheathed his sword.

“Senju Butsuma,” the other man replied, “seems like we have the same idea.”

Hashirama’s arms and legs felt limp in an instant. The two children on the river exchanged greetings; it was clear that they had known each other. Met at war.  Sworn to spill blood.

“Stop!” she shouted, but they advanced to fight. Father against father, child against child. Each side possessed equal strength.

The two men backed off, reaching for their small knives and throwing them to their opponent’s child. The two children were still focused on fighting each other. They didn’t realize the sharp tips of the knives approaching them from above—

No, no, it wouldn’t happen. Tobirama would not follow her brothers!

“No!”

The stone in her hand flung towards Tajima’s knife. Another stone managed to fend off Butsuma’s kunai. Unfortunately, hers missed the target and the knife moved closer to her brother’s head—

Hashirama jumped forward, and her fingers moved on their own. They intertwined to form a snake seal. The chakra core in her belly pulsed, flooding her vessels with a warm, strong stream.

Her chakra was seething, restless, free— erupting.

The earth shook, and the riverbed fractured open. Square wooden pillars grew in a flash, standing tall and blocking the knife from reaching Tobirama. More pillars grew from the water, crossed with one another to separate both clans. Water and fishes splashed out to the river bank.

Hashirama landed in front of her family, and so did Madara. The boy glared.

“You…” He shook his head quickly and hissed, “I will not forgive you if anything happens to my sibling.”

“Neither will I,” she responded, only because it was the only thing she could say at this moment. Her heart pounded so fast. That was her first battle, and she had to face against her own friend.

She never wanted to be in this situation. She couldn’t choose to side with her blood family or her best friend.

“So, this is the reason,” Tajima said, a small scar on the corner of his lips made his tilted smirk looked strange, “why we haven’t seen your oldest son fought at war, Butsuma. You’re keeping him like a secret weapon.”

“Heh.” She heard the sound of a sword sliding back into its sheath, followed by Butsuma’s grip on her shoulder. “All this time I haven’t permitted  my daughter  to war.”

“Hashirama…” Madara whispered in shock, “you are a girl…?”

She didn’t answer him, yet she couldn’t look away. The tingling sensation from her erupted chakra hadn’t diminished. Her fingertips began to feel numb. Her vision trailed the surface of those strong, wooden pillars in front of her. It felt like a dream.

Mokuton, the wood element, was a legendary ninjutsu which supposedly appeared only once every a hundred years in Senju clan. A ninjutsu so impossible to learn, an immense strength able to subdue the bijuu. The elders stated that the ninjutsu can only be possessed by those who are worthy.

But why did it has to be her? She wasn’t a shinobi. She couldn’t even throw a shuriken properly, often missing her targets. There were dozens of maturer, more experienced shinobi…

“Understandable.” Tajima raised his chin. “How is it, Madara? Three against three should not be a problem.”

Madara’s gaze was locked on her. “No… Hashirama is way stronger than me.”

“Eeeehh? This girl is stronger than you?” The little kid behind him tilted her head.

Only then Hashirama recognized that the kid was a girl. A child that young, no older than Tobirama, sent to war by her own father…

“It’s true, Izuna. Even without her mokuton, she is already much stronger than me.” Madara closed his eyes. “Hashirama, seems like what we talked some time ago will never come true.”

“Madara, what are you talking about—”   

Once his eyes opened, for the first time the Senju girl stared right into a pair of sharingan. Flaming red, like the demon’s eyes the elders told to naughty children in her clan.

Now Hashirama realized where the epithet came from.

“We are only little children with empty dreams,” he continued, his fists clenched on his sides. “It was a joy talking about all those things with you, but it will never come true.”

“This is nothing like that…” Hashirama approached, holding herself close to the mokuton pillars. “Do you intend to forget about everything? All we have planned?”

Why did he talk this way? What’s in his mind?  Why do you walk away from me?

“The next time we see each other,” Madara stepped back without avoiding his gaze from her, “will be at war, Hashirama.”

Izuna cheered, “wow, Otou-sama! Look at his eyes!”

“Today isn’t a waste of time, after all…” Tajima sheathed his sword. “I’m waiting for your daughter in the battlefield, Butsuma…”

The three Uchiha retreated until they were swallowed by the forest's shadows. Their figures had disappeared from her senses when Hashirama realized her hand had slipped between the gap of her wooden pillars, trying to reach her friend. She tasted salt in her mouth, telling her that tears had flowed down her eyes towards her parted lips and teeth.

“Sis,” Tobirama pulled her sleeve, “let’s go home.”

It was unfair. Impossible. They just met and shared dreams. Then everything was gone in a blink of an eye. Maybe this was only a bad dream. Maybe if she went to the riverside tomorrow, Madara would be there waiting for her…

“The situation has changed.”

Hashirama raised her face. Her tears had dried without a trace. The village was visible at the end of the road, yet they stopped.

“Since you were born, I already knew you have an exceptional chakra. Strong and intense.” Butsuma crossed his arms. “Our clan’s rule is to forbid kunoichi from fighting on the frontline. But I can make an exception for you.”

Hashirama was silent, her heart pounding waiting for her father to reveal his intention.

“Starting from tomorrow, I will train you personally. Ninjutsu, taijutsu, kenjutsu; everything you need to learn, to fight. The blessing of mokuton cannot be wasted for nothing. Do you understand, Hashirama?”

Her eyes widened. It was everything she had wished for so long, so she could protect her brothers at war. But it came too late. When she had lost two brothers and a best friend. Even so, she nodded.

“I understand, Otou-sama.”

“Good. Now go home, both of you. I have to inform the elders about your mokuton.”

Hashirama’s shoulders slumped once her father went away. She dragged her feet towards the village, still too weak to talk. She had been waiting a long time to finally had the chance. Maybe she would still be able to make her father proud as a shinobi…

“...Sis. Aneja!”

She heard Tobirama calling for her, which she ignored until he informed, “you are bleeding.”

Hashirama looked at her exposed forearms. Flawless. Not a single scratch. Even her wet feet covered in sandals were doing fine. However, there was a trail of blood on her inner right thigh. Dripping onto the ground. She quickly realized that it wasn’t caused by physical injury.

“Tobirama,” she called him with a restrained voice, “please find Touka.”


 

 

A month passed.

A month had passed in a blink of an eye.

In one blink of an eye, Konoha had changed.

Pressure from Nobutada had forced Matsudaira to send extra food, medicine, and workers. The wilderness on the west side was deforested, gaining more land to be made into new settlement for non-ninja settlers. In one week, the new houses were built. The shinobi gathered remains of mokuton from the bijuu battle and turned them into the village’s outer walls. Hashirama’s new office was ready to be inhabited.  It was a three-story building circling around the front area of a cliff. The apartment included in the office had been expanded and filled with furnitures granted by Nobutada himself. There was a dining room, a small library, a balcony, and two extra bedrooms. The worker who designed the apartment stated that he intended to build it that way, imagining it would be inhabited by a family. Not just one person.

However, there was no word from Madara.

Even there were no news, findings, or any sighting about the bijuu fox found by the three young shinobi after two weeks. The reports sent by Konoha shinobi scattered across the empire found nothing so far.

In the end, Hashirama couldn’t hold it herself anymore. At the end of the day, she waited under the shadowy foliage near the road towards the Academy. Once Izuna’s figure left the building, she hurriedly approached her.

“My brother hasn’t returned yet,” she answered even before Hashirama opened her mouth. Izuna expressed it lightly, as if she was commenting on the current weather. “No need to worry. He must be wandering around right now.”  

“I can’t stop worrying,” Hashirama admitted softly, “and as a Hokage, I need to know his exact whereabout.”

“He likes to wander everywhere since a long time ago—” Izuna ouched; her thin sandal just stepped on a huge pebble. “He will come home soon. Back when Konoha was being constructed, he often wandered  by himself. Maybe burning forest somewhere.”

“So…” Hashirama led her to the turn towards village center. “You aren’t worried about him at all?”

“On the contrary, I am the one who's confused,” she replied, a playful smirk blooming on her face. “Hashi-san never bothered looking for him back then. But now, it’s been only two weeks and you’ve been worrying about him a lot.” Izuna’s hair framed her face once she turned at her. “You’re missing him, right?”

“E, eh?” Hashirama blinked, suddenly nervous. She panicked, quickly turning her back against the people on the street. “No—! I… I am the Hokage, I worry about everyone now, that’s why… that’s why…”

“I know what happened, though. Hashi-san slept in our house the night we had the storm, even you slept in—”

“Aaah!” She dragged Izuna away from the crowds, towards a footpath that led them to the Uchiha residence far from the village center. If anyone else should know, she wouldn’t be able to contain the embarrassment!

“I never heard much of my relatives talking lowly about Hashi-san or Senju clan anymore,” Izuna continued lightly, as if there was no interruption happened. “Konoha has been…” Her arms stretched, but her words stopped. She tidied her long bangs,  distancing herself from the Hokage.

“...Izuna?”

She turned, and her smile turned flat. “I was skeptical. I thought you would be just like what my family used to speak about Senju. That you only used my brother to win the war, to destroy and rip us out root and stem.”

Hashirama fell silent. She clutched her arm.

“I remember your face that day. On the river, more than a decade ago when we went to confront you. Your voice too.” For a moment she stopped. “The same voice when Hashi-san secretly tended my wounds. No kunoichi could fake their sorrow that way; crying and hurting with a voice so deeply in pain like you did. Even Tobirama said Hashi-san was never trained to be a kunoichi.” Izuna turned at her, hiding her hands behind her back. “I mean… if Hashi-san is willing and ready, I can help you to convince my family...”

“Ah…”

“Hashi-san is the only suitable person to be my brother’s wife. Not anyone else, not even fellow Uchiha.”

The wind came in to blow and play with their hairs, striking their clothes with dried leaves it carried. Shock froze all her movements. Hashirama blinked multiple times; her eyes teary.

“Izuna—”

“Ah, I’ve talked too much,” she cut her off as she turned her face away. “I’m not supposed to hold Hashi-san here for too long. Hokage must be really busy. Good afternoon.”

“Wai—”

Too late. Izuna had disappeared by the turn of the road. Her words kept haunting her for the rest of the day, causing her unable to focus.

She returned to work right away, putting official Hokage stamps to all the mission reports on her table. However, she only read the title without checking the rest of the reports. Since mission classification system had been implemented, Academy was opened, and Konoha officially became a part of the empire, mission requests were quickly piling up. The bandits who had been infesting the roads were never heard or seen anymore, the merchants and travelers could finally travel through the routes safely. Tobirama also formed an ANBU force to ensure Konoha’s internal security. She didn’t know what else their goals might be, but Hashirama trusted them. They reported directly to her, after all.

Her candle had shortened much, and her stamps missed further from their designated area . Nocturnal insects were buzzing, filling the air with their sounds, inviting her to sleep. But a mountain of documents piling on her desk didn’t seem to lessen in number…

“Hokage-sama.”

Hashirama jolted awake, wiping her lips. A figure of white masked ANBU was standing in front of her.

“Uchiha Madara is heading to Konoha.”

Her chair almost trampled from how fast she stood up. “Tell… tell all the ANBU to leave my office.”

“Is it alright?” The ANBU asked. “He seems furious.”

“It’s fine,” Hashirama convinced him. “Go now.”

“Understood, Hokage-sama.”

She listened to the roof creaking softly once the five ANBU sped away in unison. Hashirama took a new candle from the shelf, next to a box full of headbands with Konoha symbols carved on their newly forged plates. She merged the new candle with the old one, and placed them by the window. The candle fire that stood up straight suddenly swayed when another presence entered her office.

“Good evening, Madara.”

“What the hell is happening here?” he snapped, his voice was shaking from holding back anger. “I have gone for only a month and you have kneeled to the Emperor so easily?”

Hashirama glanced towards the reflection of Madara’s figure approaching on the window glass. His armor was nowhere to be seen. “And you have gone longer than the time limit I gave you. The other shinobi you took with you had went home accordingly. You better have a good reason for this, Uchiha-sama.”

“They were holding me back.” Madara swept his bangs away from the side of his face. “The fox could kill them. It’s better for them to retreat.”

“And the bijuu?”

“I’ve taken care of it.” Madara stared back at her from the reflection. “Look at me, Hashirama.”

They finally faced each other. One month in the wilderness had left a mark on Madara; the scent of pine forest and fresh soil on his body. He was less than a meter away from her, still within an arm’s reach.

“How about you?” Madara put his hands on his waists. “We built Konoha not to gather military strength. But you formed a relation with Nobutada when I wasn’t present, fighting a war against another country which also sends their children to war. Explain this.”   

Hashirama backed off until her waist bumped the edge of her desk. The intelligence report never mentioned anything about children. “...How did you know Iwa sends children to war?”

“I saw it myself.” He scoffed disparagingly. “What kind of Hokage who doesn’t know the kind of opponent her village will face?”

“You know I have many things to take care—”

“You’re not weak, Hashirama,” he insisted. “You don’t need the Emperor’s help.”

“You weren’t here. You didn’t see how much our people needed medicines and food immediately. Matsudaira wouldn’t help us—”

“You don’t need him!”

“We both don’t! But everyone else wants to run the missions and every other things we wished to stop, Madara! Everyone needs immediate help.” Hashirama lowered her voice. “I was the only one who didn’t want a war. Even our siblings agreed. I have to consider others’ opinion too in my decisions.” She was panting. Her entire exhaustion and mental burdens engulfed her once more. “Even the Emperor’s representative is still here… Nobutada hasn’t completely trusted us yet.”

“Leave him.” Somehow Madara ignored the fact about Izuna she just stated. “We have received enough supplies, what are you waiting for?”

Hashirama’s jaw dropped. She approached. “You’re not seriously telling me to betray the agreement with the Emperor, are you?”

“How many times I have to tell you—we don’t need him! Konoha can stand by itself, without being corrupted by the daimyo who keep forcing us to send children to war!”

“Madara, lower your voice,” she asked, “it’s late. Go home. I still have work to do…”

“What are these papers for?” Madara gestured with his chin.

“These? Mission reports. The daimyo are the clients—”

One sweep of a hand sent the papers flying. Scattered in the air, falling slowly on the clean and gleaming wooden floor. Shocked, Hashirama scolded him.

“Madara! Why—”

“Screw all those noblemen.” Madara hugged her tightly. “The two of us are enough to destroy all the samurai, all the Iwa shinobi… even the bijuu.”

Hashirama was stunned, her heart was pounding nervously. The fear that haunted her for the last few weeks turned into a yearning that fell upon her like a swift landslide. She quickly laid her head on his shoulder, for a moment she tightened their embrace, then backed away to peck him briefly on his lips.

For a while she stared at him from up and down, capturing every detail with her eyes. The  new scars on his skin. The makeshift repairs and tattered edges on his clothes. Hashirama’s palms squeezed his shoulders.

“I’m glad you are alright.”

In the blink of an eye, Madara kissed her again. As if he was thirsty, and hungry for her touch. The tenderness he possessed in their first night was gone. His grip on her arms left bruised blue marks. She reached for the belt on his waist as they had their lips locked on each other, letting his gunbai fall with a loud thud. Madara pushed and laid her on the desk; scattering her hair on its surface.

“Don’t leave me again,” Hashirama begged, as he busied himself to push her kimono past half her thighs. “Please stay. You can be my right hand.”

Madara’s fingers stopped working. “You don’t need two right hands. Your brother has filled the position for you. You don’t even listen to me.” His voice softened, although still filled with anger.

“I still have to listen to the opinions of our people.” Hashirama caressed his jaw. “You are not the only villager here.”

Madara stayed still, coldly. “Then what am I to you?” he challenged.

Hashirama’s mind was too cluttered to even think about the answer. Madara leaned himself closer to her until she could feel his breath warming her lips. If she took a deep breath, their bodies would touch.

She only knew that she wished for being in the Uchiha’s embrace.

Hashirama’s arms relaxed, falling from his face. “You are my best friend, Madara.”

“Only a friend?” He scoffed cynically, biting his right glove off. “Then I need to know how far our  friendship  really is, Senju Hashirama.”

His bare hand disappeared behind the folds of her kimono, and a second later Hashirama had to bite her lips to hold off her squeal from breaking the silence of night. She closed her eyes tightly, focusing herself to Madara’s fingers inside her. The next kiss was gentler, leaving a chance to let out her soft moans once in a while. She grabbed his clothes so tightly until it wrinkled.

She didn’t want to be torn between Hokage duties and her desire to be with Madara. She also didn’t Madara to leave again.

She wanted him to always be here—

“ANEJA!”

The voice shattered the spell that covered them. Madara immediately backed away, but still blocking the view of Hashirama’s body from the door as she fixed her kimono. Her thighs were still trembling.

Tobirama stood on the doorstep, hugging a few thick scrolls. Hashirama had never seen him so angry before. The door handle was fractured in his grip. His breath was so fast that she could see his chest rising up and down clearly. His chakra was spread around the room in a huge wave, making the other two shinobi protecting themselves with their own chakra.

Madara cursed under his breath. Hashirama’s arms were lifted to cover her view until the wave was dissipated. She stepped forward immediately, trying to calm her brother.

“Tobirama, this is—”

“You are engaged.”

The silence that followed after rang in her ears. The insects outside didn’t buzz anymore. The world slowed down in Hashirama’s eyes.

“You didn’t misheard me.” Tobirama read the silence. “You have been engaged since you were a child to Uzumaki clan.”

The image of a bald little boy surfaced on her memory.

“To Uzumaki Nobuo.”

A gust of wind caused her to turn away. The window behind her desk was opened wide.

Madara was gone.

“Please don’t go after him, Sis.” Tobirama crossed the room calmly, avoiding all the scattered papers. He put his scrolls on the shelves. “You should stop meeting him in secret.”

Hashirama’s lower lip trembled. “Why didn’t you tell me…?”

“Father forbade me.” Tobirama’s back was facing her. “I’ve broken my promise to our father—”

Hashirama couldn’t believe him. “How could you learn about this and father didn’t let me know? Why did father...” Her voice was restrained. “Since when have you known this?”

“It’s been a long time.”

“Why no one informed me about it? It should be… I…”

Tobirama stared at her coldly. “This is the tradition. You are the strongest in our clan.” For a moment he was silent. “Father wanted your children to strengthen our clan—”

“Clan again, clan again!” Hashirama roared in return. Her chakra was seething, ready to break free. “No one ever told me I have engaged! I will ask Ashina-san to terminate it!”

“You can’t.”

“Why can’t I?” Hashirama’s cheeks were wet. Her index finger was a centimeter away from picking up a fallen brush.

“Uzumaki clan had given us a lot of money,” Tobirama explained flatly, picking up all the mission report papers on the floor. “All the money you gave to the other clans, all of our money taken by the Emperor because you lost a gamble… our debt is piling. Uncle Joji has helped to arrange so we can pay them back regularly as long as your engagement continues.”

Hashirama fell on her knees. “So you intend to barter me as a debt payment, is that it?”

“It’s nothing like that, my position is difficult too—”

“Get out.”

Tobirama stayed still. “Listen to me—”

The only remaining family she had. The one she trusted with her life, the place she came to ask for help…

Betrayed her like this.

The one who was blessed by the strength of mokuton lifted her face, all her emotions brimming and forming into pure energy. “ Get out, Tobirama ,” she ordered with a voice layered by chakra. Papers scattered in the air. The floor and the walls fractured and cracked like they were clawed by an unseen bijuu.

The candle in the window died at once.


 

 

Tobirama closed the Hokage office door behind him, trembling from head to toe.

He shouldn't have done that. He shouldn’t let himself loose. His shock of finding his sister with Madara caused him to lose his cool, forgetting all the training he went through to be a shinobi. Now he had broken his own promise to his father.

He hated being stuck in this situation. No matter how hard he tried to solve all the complicated problems, Tobirama could not realize why he had caused everything to be much more complicated instead of solved.

Hashirama just didn’t understand. Their father engaged her to Nobuo for the good of their clan. The mokuton could not be wasted for nothing. The better the bloodline of her betrothed is, the better the chance her children would inherit the prowess.  A good thing for Senju clan and obviously would be a good thing for Konoha.

But Hashirama did not understand. And Madara kept blinding her. He didn’t know what she saw in that man…

Tobirama lingered. He stood far from the door, waiting. After a few minutes had passed, he encouraged himself to approach. He grabbed the door handle he fractured earlier.

“Aneja?” he called. However, there was no answer from the inside but her restrained sob.

He was twenty three, and Tobirama hated talking to the door.

Chapter Text

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?



Chapter Text

Madara was eighteen, and he drowned himself in the river.

Once he heard Senju Hashirama would be on the frontline, adrenaline took over his senses, ignoring a million other things happening in the battlefield. The entire Uchiha troops became more vigilant. When she was still positioned behind the lines, Madara had difficulties breaking through the enemy’s defense. The mokuton he saw a few years ago never appeared on the battlefield.

The day was sunny. Cloudless. His grip tightened around his sword hilt.

“There will be no change of strategy. Attack them with maximum power,” Uchiha Tajima declared. “That Senju girl will be Madara’s target.”

Madara accepted the mandate with a firm nod. They had discussed this possibility many times before. He was the only one who had exchanged punches with her. He could predict her battle strength.

He lowered the tip of his collar. Across the field, the Senju’s best shinobi stood side by side. Each one of them was dressed in complete armor, gleaming under the sunlight. Still new. Tajima squinted his eyes, cursing under his breath. No matter how many clans the Senju had fought, their armor supplies never seemed to run out. Meanwhile the Uchiha had to be frugal with their own supplies. Even now Madara didn’t wear a single piece of armor so his sister could have some protection.

Without using his sharingan, he found Hashirama standing on the frontline. Her armor was dull green. She wore her long hair loose, reaching her waist. The tall figure next to her must be her annoying brother.

Izuna had ended her short meditation. Her chakra gathered on her fists. Impatient.

For a moment, the air was still. Both leaders raised their hands at the same time.

The war gongs echoed from both sides.

A thousand pair of feet dashed all at once. Then, the ground trembled.

Senju’s defense line struck him, meeting his sword blade. The first Senju shinobi fell—too careless to avoid Madara’s sharingan. The second and the third were the same. The young man was reluctant to waste his time and energy striking useless weaklings like them.

His target was one, and his focus was glued only to her.

Hashirama’s initial position on the frontline was a trick. She didn’t march forward with the troops. The hill enabled the long-range ninjutsu users to support the troops on the lower grounds, but it had one weakness. Too easy to reach!

Concentrating his chakra on his toes, Madara dashed over the heads and shoulders of Senju shinobi. Fireballs blazed on his sides, tearing the enemy’s formation apart like fire striking against swarming hornets.

A smile bloomed on his lips once his sister took a sharp turn towards him. Madara jumped from the ground, dodging a sweep of attack from another Senju shinobi, then danced upside down in the air.

Izuna had found her opponent. Tobirama wouldn’t be a problem anymore.

Madara had rushed far from his relatives. He sensed the battlefield. His target was still on the hilltop, with a chakra concentration bigger than anyone else. His adrenaline began to flow, burning his muscles. The higher he climbed the doton hill, the higher his spirits. Blood and sweat no longer bothered him. His eardrums banged impatiently in unison with the sound of his racing heart.

If the Senju lost the battle, his clan would own more land. There would be more money to forge armor and pay healers. More food stored for the winter—

Madara jumped to her front, drawing his sword. Hashirama stayed still, her eyes closed and her fingers cupped.

After six years passed, they finally met. Face to face.

They exchanged stares. Her chakra erupted.

Everything happened in a blink of an eye. The grass field turned into a dead forest flooded by a heavy stream. All Uchiha troops were forced to retreat. Madara was furious. He never heard about this tactic from his father, let alone seeing it. Reminded of the war commander’s words, he stood up and marched forward for the second time once the Senju clan lowered their guard, climbing the back of his enemy’s dragon. This was his golden chance. The young man didn’t want to disappoint.

Hashirama effortlessly dodged the fireballs he sent to strike her. The girl greeted him, showing up from behind the flames with burnt face and hands. Madara almost stopped, but his shock disappeared as new skin began to grow on Hashirama’s body.

Her abilities had improved greatly since the last time they met. Excellent. His fighting spirit rose. His smirk blossomed, anticipating a fight.

Great Ancestor, witness me.

His mouth kept spitting fire as they fought each other. Agitation rose within him, because Hashirama didn’t attack him even once. All of his attacks were either parried or dodged. He dominated the fight too easily—too odd—

“You aren’t serious, Hashirama!” he roared as he sent a kick towards the side of her head.

The girl caught his ankle, talking to him softly, “let’s stop this.”

The young man’s jaw dropped. He didn’t misheard it, did he?     

The steam had surrounded them like a thick fog, the result of mixing both katon and suiton. Hashirama lowered his feet, her body was at ease—no longer anticipating an attack. “I don’t want to keep warring like this. Especially against you.”

“You are out of your mind!” Madara hissed, swinging his sword towards her neck. The blade was instantly caught by her empty hand. Fresh blood flowed down towards the hilt. His weapon trembled, holding pressure from both ends. “It’s only some children’s bullshit. A nonsensical dream!”

“You’re wrong!” Hashirama insisted, wincing. “We’re not children anymore!”

“It doesn’t matter!” Madara roughly pulled his sword, ignoring his opponent’s cry and her splattering blood. One of his horizontal swings slashed a wound from shoulder to shoulder. For some reason, she didn’t have her armor on.

“Please listen to me, Madara!” she asked while holding back her pain. “If it’s us—we can do it!”

Something in Hashirama’s expression stopped him. Her chakra was no longer battle-ready.

As if the girl was ready to surrender.

Madara growled in frustration, “you know it’s impossible! We have been killing each other since the days of our ancestors! It’s easier to kill each other than trying to stop all of these.”

“We can make a peace treaty—”

“Enough of your nonsense!” Madara’s left hand grabbed Hashirama’s collar, pulling her closer. “A peace treaty won’t feed my clan!”

“You mean…” Her words hung unfinished. Hashirama’s eyes widened. Her eyelids blinked repeatedly.

Madara was stunned. The fury that burned along with the adrenaline inside his body had taken form into something different. His flaming sharingan was gradually darkened. Hashirama’s sunburned face glowed as the sunshine fell onto her droplets of sweat…

The world seemingly ceased to spin. Voices and sounds around them faded away without a trace.

He felt her warm breath on the surface of his lips, which opened and closed with soft sighs wrapped in shock. He could feel the rising and falling of his own breath in his chest. His gaze lowered, witnessing the slash wound he created under her collarbone completely closed. And below that, her curves were visible under the shirt…

“Madara,” Hashirama called, inviting his attention back towards her eyes. She yielded herself, not even trying to get away from his grip. “I don’t want you to die.”

The heated seeds of katon in his blood leaped to reach below his waist. Only then he realized where his left elbow reclined—on her breast. His sensing chakra lost its balance, splashing all over Hashirama’s body—Madara was tempted to scream at that moment—

“...Madara?”

The sound of horns broke the spell. He released Hashirama’s collar as he hissed in anger. They were at war! How could he think about—Madara roughly shook his head, throwing away his imagination. Damn that Senju!

Like she was hypnotized, Hashirama quickly turned and disappeared in the steam. His senses told him that both troops had retreated. The wooden dragon where he stood disappeared in a puff of smoke. The uncomfortable feeling from the encounter still clung onto his heart as he left the frontline.

Madara found an old woman with grey hair tied in a tight bun shouting orders to the support division. A division comprised of young men his age without enough capability to fight on the frontline. Their job was to extract dead bodies and weapons—whether they belonged to them or their enemies. He pushed everyone out of his way to get to the old woman. Nobody protested; most of them stepped aside once they heard him approaching.

“Aunt!” he called hoarsely. Before she managed to ask, Madara shouted, “why are we retreating? We’ve shocked them!”

The war horn on her waist bounced as she turned at him. The scar on the middle of her face furrowed when she blared, “we have lost too many shinobi! Better for us to retreat now.”

“So it’s much better to lose to the Senju?” Izuna showed up from behind, carrying a sword that wasn’t hers. “Is that so, Aunt Nanami?”

Uchiha Nanami’s lips thinned. “The flood washed away a third of our shinobi troops! We have no idea where they are now!” She glared at the two siblings. “I don’t even know where your father is.”

Madara and Izuna exchanged stares. Uchiha Tajima was not a regular shinobi; he was a veteran of dozens of wars. It’s impossible for him to die so soon. But it’s the reality that happened the next day.

They left the battlefield with dead and wounded relatives on their shoulders and carriages. Looted weapons were collected and carried. A team that was sent to find remaining dead bodies found the rest of the troops washed by the flood into a shallow pit, hundreds of meters away. Most of them dead. The bodies began to reek decaying smell when they were lined side by side on a dry field. A wooden pyre was immediately assembled, with flat planks laid between wooden logs.

The Uchiha village was located in a valley flanked by mountains. The rocky terrain, colder temperature, and the difficult access to neighboring villages had caused commoners to unfavor the place. His clan had lived in the area for dozens of generations, the rough terrain made it easier to defend their settlement. Whenever there was a war to fight, almost everyone left the village, save for those who were too old and too young.

The only healer they had, a one-armed elderly man, worked really hard to treat Tajima’s wounds. But his effort was in vain. According to Aunt Nanami, he fought one by one against Senju Butsuma. His father managed to burn him before the second flood happened.

“Butsuma must… have died too—” Tajima gasped for air. “I can… return to face the Great Ancestor.” His cold sweat continued to flow while his fever worsened. The poison that filled his wounds worked slow and torturing. 

“Otou-sama, please stop talking,” Izuna whispered next to him, changing the compress on Tajima’s forehead. The wet cloth didn’t help to heal anything. His sister did it mainly to keep herself busy; averting her attention from the rotting wounds.

Madara kneeled across her, shaking his head when she gave him a questioning stare. No medicine was left, or even healers beside the elderly man whom had gone to treat the others. According to him, the poison was a unique concoction uncommonly found anywhere. He couldn’t tell what the ingredients were. The only way to find the antidote would be from the Senju clan themselves.

Uchiha Tajima was too proud to take such option. The only thing they could do for him was to stay by his side until his time came to an end.

Madara had known this moment would come, sooner or later. However, he never thought it would happen this way. He always imagined his father would die a quick death in the battlefield. Only needed to be cremated once they brought him home. He didn’t dare to leave his side for the rest of the day.

All the relatives who sought his wisdom and suggestion took turns to visit, speaking in soft whispers. Even on his deathbed, his father still had the time to discuss about the next battle tactics. The guests stopped arriving when the night was late.

The smell of blood and decay had seeped through the wooden walls of their house. The night was filled with the mating calls of the summer insects, and the painful groans of dying shinobi. The entire village was swallowed in darkness. Not even a single light was lit to save the oil and candles. The wind shook the wooden doors, blowing inside through the holes on shoji papers. The damp air tightly clung on every inch of his exposed skin.

Nanami was right, they had lost too many shinobi. From those who marched to battle, only a third returned without heavy injuries. The rest of them were dead or gravely injured.

None of these would happen if they won the battle; had they continued fighting until not a single Senju was spared. He could rain them with his fireballs nonstop, himself was enough to destroy their defenses—

“Madara.”

The young man was jolted awake from his musings. His drowsiness gone in an instant. Izuna was asleep, leaning against the wooden wall with her head tilted on her shoulder. Madara inched closer to his father, whose breath was short and rapid. His whisper was too weak that Madara had to read the movements of his lips.

“...Bring me death.”   

He reached for his kunai, the thin blade scratched the tatami. Izuna woke up, seeing its glint in the dark, and she approached closer. Madara’s hand was in the air, the pointy end of his kunai aimed at Tajima’s heart.

“Destroy… the Senju.”

His veins froze. The shinobi protocols that had always been his way of life were erased momentarily from his memory. It was his duty to end the life of a relative who wished for a quick death, especially when the battle wounds didn’t instantly kill them. Except he didn’t realize it would be this hard.

What was weighing him? Madara had set aside all of his emotions by the riverside six years ago. He promised to himself to keep obeying the commands of his father for the sake of protecting Izuna and his entire clan.

Then why did he hesitate? A shinobi has to carry out orders without exception, he managed to until a second ago—

A pair of smoother hands grabbed his, and pushed the kunai until it pierced through his father’s heart. After one last long breath, Uchiha Tajima died.

Izuna released her grip, checking their father’s pulse before standing up. “Let’s go.”    

Madara wiped a stain of blood on his hand, before following his sister outside to prepare for the cremation. Their dead relatives were arranged in line, dressed in white kimono with pieces of white cloth covering their faces. Not all of them had their bodies intact, some of them lost an arm or a leg.

Uchiha Tajima’s body was placed in the middle, becoming the first one burned by the funeral fire. Madara was relieved as he watched the flame grew quickly. His right hand still felt the sensation of when he and Izuna pierced the kunai through their father’s heart.

No one cried at the funeral pyre tonight. Although the cremation field was located far from the settlement, the strong scent of burned meat reached even the most hidden corners. A dozen times he had marched to battle, and only this time they burned dozens of bodies at once.

No speeches. No prayers uttered. Only revenge flaming like fires reflected in the darkness of their eyes. Along with it, were the vengeful whispers he always heard in every funeral ceremony.

“All Senju must die.”

“We will avenge the death of our family. I swear in the name of our Ancestors.”

For the first time, Madara didn’t join to echo those words. The fury swimming  in his mind was blown away by a strange feeling. Hesitation.

“How do we fight against mokuton…?” someone asked, his voice rising above the crackling sound of burned logs.

“There is no need to worry!” Nanami’s voice caused everyone to raise their heads. In her hand was a torch that was used to burn the dead bodies. “This is what the Senju wants. Our brothers and sisters who died today will never rest in peace until we avenge their deaths!” Her gaze swept through the crowds, and stopped at Madara.

In silence, she questioned why he wasn’t the one who spoke.

“The heat of our flames will be enough to burn the mokuton and boil the suiton into steam!” His aunt ended her monologue by throwing the torch onto the pyre. Sounds of approval filled the rest of the night.

Madara kept his mouth shut.

Once they finished spreading the ashes of their fallen shinobi by the river downstream, he called all of his father’s subordinates to review their last battle. The hall that once filled by wrinkled faces now mixed with newer, younger faces. The children replaced their fallen parents. Uchiha Nanami’s piercing gaze never left him during the entire meeting.

“Daimyo Taneyuki has given us a mandate to expand territory through annexing Senju’s land. All the resources we need will be provided by him until spring comes.” Madara didn’t waste time chit-chatting. “They haven’t entirely won; we have to attack them immediately. No one will expect that.”

“Our spies haven’t returned, Madara-san,” Hikaku spoke. “The earlier report informs that Senju Butsuma is gravely injured. His survival is doubted.”

“His daughter has medical ninjutsu,” Izuna added.

For a moment, Madara’s heart skipped a beat. He quickly brushed off the feeling. “The next spies should return tonight. How about our weapons?”

The support division managed to take more weapons than the Uchiha had. Some even looted Senju shinobi’s armor pieces. The quality had improved far better than their old ones. Considering the number of loot they collected, Uchiha clan didn’t have to worry about armor and weapon supplies for the time being.

If Madara should admit one of Senju’s qualities, then it should be financial support they had from the Uzumaki clan. The Uzumaki was different compared to the other ninja clans, considering how hermetic they were. Nobody knows where their settlement located in Hinokuni. According to Taneyuki’s sources, the Uzumaki had direct access to the Emperor. Meanwhile the Uchiha clan was dependent only to the ruler who controlled the area they lived.

Madara called off the meeting once he had assigned a clerk to correspond with Daimyo Taneyuki. He returned to his house alone—not knowing why Izuna prefered to wait for the spies to return although she hadn’t enough time to rest.

The reason for her behavior was clear once he arrived home. He usually slept on a tatami with a wood block as his pillow. But there was a new fur futon in the middle of his room.

There was a young girl he didn’t recognize, kneeling on the new futon. She quickly concealed her shock through gesturing a respectful nod.

“U, Uchiha-sama… g, good evening.” She greeted with a trembling voice. Fear seeped out of her body gestures. When she realized she hadn’t heard any response, she dared to glance but quickly hid her face again. There was a neatly folded Uchiha black kimono behind her.

Madara frowned, glancing at a dark corner inside. “Don’t you know this is unnecessary?” It was difficult for him to keep his voice steady. A slight discontentment grew in his chest. “I told you I don’t want it.”

“You are the clan leader now, Madara.” Nanami leaned against a wooden pillar. Her toned arms crossed on her chest. Her face was hidden in the dark. “You have bigger responsibilities. Tajima could have let you do as you please. But those days have ended.” His aunt left the shadows, allowing the light of the half moon lit her scarred face. “Think about your clan. Think about the strong children she will bear,” she hissed as she pointed at the kneeling girl on the futon. “You are the strongest shinobi the Uchiha ever had. Don’t waste your blood.”

The young man’s face furrowed as he tried to restrain his anger. “You have no right—!”

“Are you a man or not?!” Nanami raised her voice so loud that she shocked the other two people in the room. She quickly kneeled, grabbing the girl’s hair, forcing her to show her face to him. “This girl is physically healthy. No flaws. Not ugly, even. What more can you ask?” She pushed the girl back onto the mattress.

Her soft sobbing voice filled the silence that followed.

“You only need to dress her in our kimono.”

His fury erupted. This girl without clear background nor origin had to be his wife? Even if it’s clear that she was afraid? The Uchiha kimono from the clan leader's line were only to be worn by women who sincerely wanted it, not the ones who were here under his family’s force.

“They are all weak, not shinobi or even kunoichi! She isn’t worthy, Aunt.”

“You don’t want a peasant girl? Pick any of your cousin as you like!” His aunt shouted again, not giving a chance for her nephew to argue. “Or is there a girl from another clan you like? Tell me her name. I will drag her here!”

“I don’t have anyone—!” However, his heart skipped a beat once more. Explicitly betraying him. His brain conspired to send an image of a sun-kissed girl, with her half opened mouth and a pair of eyes filled with concern; her body surrendered without an intention to fight back…

Madara, I don’t want you to die.

The similar heat he felt yesterday erupted all over his body. His cheeks were uncomfortably warm.

Nanami scoffed in satisfaction, “seems I was right. Make this girl a mistress until you marry the girl you want.”

The tatami fibers under his feet crackled, sticking out from their tight weaving. “If you continue this, I will have to banish you,” Madara stated calmly. “For years I’ve told you I don’t want this. Don’t you understand that already? Doesn’t matter what kind of girl you bring, I will not accept it!”   

“You’re not a child anymore, Madara! Stop acting so egoistic! And your sister too—”

“Tell that to someone else!” Madara pushed the sliding door forcefully, breaking the thin frame of the shoji papers. He sensed a crowd had gathered somewhere nearby, eavesdropping their fight.

“Your father was too lenient about you. That Senju bitch must have influenced you—”

Madara didn’t understand why he lost control of his chakra all of a sudden, striking and breaking the tatami where his feet took hold. He approached the girl who kept watching them in shock. Her tears flowed down her damp cheeks. She raised her arm, covering her face and begging for mercy.

“P, please… don’t…”

He set aside her arm, grabbing her to see eye to eye. She looked like a hare knowing how close she was to death between the jaws of a wolf. Freezing in place without the ability to fight back or run. Not long after, her eyelids fluttered, and her body fell onto the futon. The genjutsu he casted had made her to fall asleep at once. She wouldn’t be awake until sunrise the next day.

Madara didn’t even look at his aunt when he left the house. His anger soared, which he inflicted upon fences and rocks along the way. Who cares if he would wake people up. He went to the upstream, avoiding the houses. He could never sleep like this.

Hashirama’s face stubbornly haunting his memory. Flooding his mind like the river stream, splashing and clashing all distractions that had been filling his head in the last two days; their defeat, his father’s death, the death of a third of his clan, and his ascent as the clan leader—

The heat pool below his waist pushing him to jump into the cold river. Madara plunged his head into the stream, splashing the water all over his body. His skin was shocked from the striking change of temperature, and his muscles shivered intensely.

Destroying the Senju clan is the easiest alternative to do. Destroying Hashirama would stop her from infecting his mind this way.

Madara.

Damn it!”

The water bubbled and flashed in orange flame as katon blazed out of his mouth. Madara laid himself on the riverbed, his breath created bubbles underwater. He closed his eyes, as the stream around him warmed, densed, whispered his name with a feminine voice—

For years his clan had persuaded him to take a wife, presenting him the most beautiful women from neighboring villages. Some of them were reluctant, agreed to be wed because they couldn’t possibly refuse his clan’s coercion. Just like the girl his aunt brought home tonight.

All to pass down strong sharingan like his. 

Unfortunately, Madara thought the idea was hilarious. Their ability to mold chakra were nowhere near his level. Nonexistent, even. The fact that they forced them to sleep with him, or forcing him to wed such weaklings, disgusted him. Starting a family in the midst of war like this was idiotic, to say the least. His children would meet the same fate as his siblings. He tried to prevent that from happening, instead of causing more deaths—

I don’t want you to die.  

—Of course they were afraid; they had no choice but to obey. They were different compared to Hashirama. She could fight seriously, wound him severely. She could defeat him. Yet, she chose to surrender. Those women had nothing compared to her—not even one could haunt his mind like Hashirama did. Tactics and trainings were usually the ones filling his mind. Not Hashirama.

Madara.

Not her relentlessly begging face. Not her warm body that touched his chest, her rapid breath full of chakra as strong as his. Not her waist that he wanted to embrace not her lips that he wanted to kiss not Hashirama whom he wished to bed tonight—

“Argh!”

Madara pushed himself up so quickly, panting from holding breath for too long underwater. He pushed his long bangs behind, dripping water on his back.  He gritted his teeth in frustration.

Stupid imagination. It would be impossible for Hashirama to replace the women sent to sleep with him. The Senju clan saw them as demons. The Uchiha clan knew that all Senju women were trained to deceive men. Hashirama too must be trained that way. It would be the highest disgrace for him, the leader of the Uchiha clan, to desire a Senju woman. Her mokuton was remarkably valuable; it’s impossible for her family to let her unmarried for too long. Sooner or later she would be married too. Maybe she already had children, that’s why she wasn’t on the front line until recently…

Why was she in his head right now? Meeting her was rare since their fathers caught them by the riverside several years ago. The only news he had about her was from the spies.

If Hashirama died, these delusions would disappear.

Madara left the river, carefully treading its steep bank. He sat on the grass, holding his forehead in his palms.

Did he really wish for her to die? All the Senju defeats brought more money and food for the Uchiha. His clan weren’t skillful farmers. Simply hunting and growing vegetables in their yard would not be enough to feed everyone.

If Hashirama and him died in a situation like this, children would keep dying for nothing.

His father’s pale face fleeted in his mind. The poison inside him turned his veins into purple. The children survived into adulthood would meet their deaths in the hands of their enemies. It goes on and on, like an endless cycle. But the Uchiha clan wasn’t a clan of cowards. Dying at war is an honor...   

Unless he managed to destroy all the Senju and capture the surviving ones. The ransom given by their financiers would be abundant to feed all the Uchiha for the whole year. Now, how to capture someone who could split the earth in a single draw of breath—

Madara’s head hit his knees when he sneezed loudly. His forehead throbbed. How stupid, he could get sick from staying outside for too long. Even worse with his damp clothes…

“...Oh dear, Nii-chan.”

The grass rustled apart as Izuna approached him. The tips of her lips lowered in displease as she saw his condition.

“Aunt Nanami is still in our house?” Madara stood up, wiping his nose.

“Nope. I’ve moved the girl next to our fireplace as usual.” She scoffed loudly. “It hasn’t been a day since our father’s death and Aunt has become noisy as usual.”

The young man gave his sister a grateful look. “She’s pestering you too?”

“Have I ever been free from her scoldings…?” Izuna turned her back, putting her hands on her waist while her lips sulked. She altered her voice as heavy as possible, “You are the strongest girl Izuna, time to start breeding, persuade your brother to do that too. If you keep going to war, you’ll become infertile…”

Madara chuckled, messing his sister’s hair. Izuna grinned widely as she evaded her brother’s hand. Without saying anything else, she led them back to their village. The young man continuously squeezed the water out of his hair. His soles left wet traces on the ground; his sandals were carried in one hand.

“I miss Father. He was harsh, but at least he never told me to have kids so quickly,” his sister said all of a sudden, her left hand swept through clusters of lavender grass. “My sharingan is still developing…”

Out of all clan elders, their father was the only one who allowed Izuna to keep practicing her combat skills once she awakened her sharingan. The other girls her age already had at least two children before they were allowed to return to the battlefield.

“I will not force you too.” A pebble rolled downhill when they passed, scratching his foot. He wore his sandals again.

“Oh, by the way… why don’t you want to do it?”

“Don’t want to do what?” Madara slowed down his pace.

Izuna blinked. “Sex.”

The young man walked past her. “I just don’t want it.”

“You know how to do sex, right?”

He responded with an annoyed growl. Along with some other boys a few years ago, Hikaku invited him to peek into the house of a cousin who was about to get married. There was a female stranger holding his cousin’s hand, professing her willingness to be married. His cousin gave her the Uchiha black kimono, dressing the woman in it. Soon after, whatever he eavesdropped from the outside made his stomach churn.

He really couldn’t imagine himself making Hashirama scream in bed like their cousin’s bride at that time.

But, isn’t killing her also hurting her? What’s the difference?

“You’re being weird.”

Madara blinked, finding Izuna squinting her eyes at him. “No.”

“What did you do to make yourself drenched like this?”

“...I slipped,” he answered randomly.

“Be honest with me, Nii-san. What are you doing outside this late?” Izuna kept pushing her question. “Is it because of Aunt…?”

“No.” Madara shook his head as he walked faster.

“...Father?”

Madara ignored her. Their father’s death still weighed his mind, but they had anticipated such occurrence. Every shinobi starts their day with accepting the inevitability of their death. He only didn’t expect their father’s death would happen that way.

He never expected he was the one who had to end his father’s life.

“Or is it about the battle yesterday?”

“Enough of that, let’s go home,” he diverted their conversation. “I was thinking about the strategy to defeat mokuton.” The image he worked to erase climbed its way back to the surface of his thoughts. A few steps later, he suddenly heard a disgusted cry that made him turned his head in shock.

“Ewww!” Izuna pointed at his face. “So all this time you… with Hashirama!?”

“What—” Madara ran closer to her. They were already approaching the outskirts of their settlement. “Lower your voice!”

“So all this time Auntie was right! You really like someone else!” Izuna dodged her brother’s hand. “But why it has to be Hashir—!”

Madara smothered his sister’s mouth and pulling her further from the torches on the side of the street. Izuna clawed at his arms, hissing like an angry cat.

“Ow!” Madara hurriedly released her,  then rubbing his wounds.

“What are you doing? She is our enemy!” she grumbled in anger, “their leader, even!”

“What do you mean—?”

Izuna’s sharingan gleamed in the dark. “Hashirama has become the new Senju clan leader.”

Not Tobirama? His nape hair bristled. All Senju leaders since a long time ago had always been a man. The position was always bestowed upon the best male relative. Did her mokuton sent her to that position? It must be. There was no other logical reason than that.

He stepped back slowly. “I have to go to the temple,” he said to Izuna. The young man went away before his sister had the chance to respond.

Madara found another strong reason to kill Hashirama.

But, should he? Is it true if Hashirama died, all these mess would unravel themselves? No—Tobirama would continue the war against Uchiha. If he dies, another one will replace him, and on and on it goes; even until he and Izuna die at last—

“Argh!” Madara pressed his palms onto his eyes.

It hurt.


 

 

When Hashirama observed the village by herself early this morning, a group of peasants approached her. They dropped to their knees and begged for the Hokage to build them houses like the ones she built for Konoha shinobi clans. Hashirama had no heart to refuse them. She was in the middle of building the fifth house when Tobirama found her, his face flushed from holding his anger.

Her headache hadn’t fully recovered when she returned to her office and drank the concoction provided by Hyuuga Kyoko to ease her nausea. Nara Shikana arrived without notice, protesting her policy of accepting peasant children in the Academy. He walked out in displeasure when Hashirama said she wouldn’t change the regulation.

She left over a half of her lunch, letting it sit cold on the furthest corner of her desk. The Hokage office staff served her rice, tofu, and miso soup. Although they were quite bland, for her they didn’t taste as good as usual. Her apartment window was wide open, letting all the sounds and voices from the streets heard from the inside. She smelled the scent of distilled sake in Hyuuga residence from afar.   

“Actually, I also want to know,” Tobirama said once he swallowed the last spoon of rice, “whether those peasant children are capable to mold chakra as good as the shinobi children.”

“We will find out when they graduate,” Hashirama answered, pushing her clay cup towards the middle of her desk. “Everyone can use their chakra if they are taught properly. Ninjutsu isn’t the only ninja ability. Our ancestors were peasants, too. So why not…?”

Tobirama stopped sorting a pile of letters. “There are some people wanting them to keep farming without meddling with shinobi’s business. Many of them reluctant to share their clan knowledge.”   

Hashirama threw her back against her chair. “I still don’t understand. Not all jutsu can be mastered by anyone. Do they feel rivaled?”

“I think so.”

The Hokage took a heavy breath as she massaged her temples. She took a long time staring at the Hinokuni border mission report. Border might not be the correct term—chunks of territory between Tsuchinokuni and Kazenokuni had no clear authority. The three states fought to claim over the land, and for years small scaled conflicts happened in the area.

There was silence filled only by the gentle taps of official seal Tobirama stamped on the reviewed reports. Suddenly, an idea crossed her mind.

“That time you suggested a field mentor system for a four-person team,” Hashirama said. “One jounin and three genin. We can combine genin from various different families in one team. Oh, we can also become their jounin mentors, right?”

Her brother’s dark red gaze lifted towards her face. “Good idea. As long as you are capable for it…”

“I can do it.”

“Hokage has a lot of work, not to mention you will be busy taking care of—” Tobirama stopped. He had accidentally touched a topic they had been avoiding for days.

Since Tobirama left her apartment that day, they hadn’t talked with each other about anything beside their work. Something that had been weighing her heart was the last words he said before he stormed away.

You did this on purpose. You knew.

She intended to explain everything, truly, but the nonstop work day and night had consumed much of her time and energy. At last when Hashirama finally had some spare time, Tobirama would still be busy doing his work. In the last few days, her brother had been reviewing all Uzumaki clan literatures about fuuinjutsu and its derivatives for its usage to secure the village.

If she called off the engagement, she had no idea how to pay back all the Senju debts. Most ninja clans accepted payments in food and goods, including her clan. This kind of payment strongly relied on crop harvest and the capability of villages under the rule of daimyo to produce rice. Hashirama couldn’t possibly use Konoha funds…

“Sis?”

She blinked, suddenly remembered what she was thinking. After a moment of consideration, Hashirama nodded. “Alright.”

Tobirama frowned, seemingly ready to say something. But he quickly returned to his work. “Get some rest.”

“Right after these…” Hashirama gestured towards the pile of mission reports.

“You're not allowed to be stressed.”

A slight smile appeared on her lips. “Soon.”

Tobirama put down his brush, concerned. “Has Madara known that you…?” He gestured towards his sister’s belly.

Her knees moved uncomfortably under the desk. “...I haven’t told him.”

“Not yet?”

“Try to be friendlier towards him.” Hashirama diverted their conversation. She looked out the window. The sky had turned orange. “We live in the same home with them now.”

“Honestly speaking, he seems to be happier outside Konoha.”

She didn’t know what Madara was pursuing out there. She believed Madara had a good reason, according to the plans they made during the night they signed the peace agreement between their clans.

“Regarding the complains about the peasant children… have you discussed it with Izuna?”

Once he heard her name, Tobirama’s hand tensed on the desk. He immediately pulled it down. Hashirama frowned, about to ask a question, but then the answer showed up clearly inside her head.

Izuna must be angry at him.

Guilt struck her like a lightning. “You two are fighting,” she said flatly. 

Tobirama nodded briefly, then continued reading the reports.

She didn’t put Izuna into thoughts, just like she didn’t expect for Tobirama to act outside her knowledge. Her teasings weeks ago fleeted back into Hashirama's mind. The Izuna she knew currently was a complete opposite of the Izuna she met for the second time in the battlefield. The current Izuna was the one who found her place in Konoha.

The current Izuna no longer sought death.

Her throat dried all of a sudden. She drank her soup slowly.

Hashirama had to apologize to her. Correction—the two of them had to apologize to their younger siblings. She put down her soup before walking towards the exit.

“Where are you going?”

“Looking for fresh air.”

Hashirama lied, of course. She walked towards the Academy in confidence. Once she stepped out of the office building, her wide smile returned to her lips. She greeted everyone; from a group of Inuzuka children who walked their dogs until the students walking home from the Academy. She found the back of their clothes were sewn with the symbols of their respective clans. Some of them had no symbol on their backs, with clothes visibly lousier than their friends.

They must be the peasant children mentioned by Nara Shikana.

“Hokage-sama!”  

“Good evening, Hokage-sama!”

“Ah—!”

She stopped once the little children hurriedly approached her, hugging her slender legs. Their small mouths began to shout noisily.

“I can throw shuriken!” said a little girl.

“I won the hide and seek game!” her friend responded loudly.

“My dog still pee everywhere!”

“OI!”

The last child invited simultaneous yell from the Inuzuka youths. One of them hurriedly pulled the child back while apologizing repeatedly.  

“Forgive me, Hokage-sama, my little brother has unfiltered mouth!”

Hashirama only laughed as she watched them walk away with their relatives. The children around her kept seeking her attention, so she knelt on the ground to listen to each of their stories. One of them had learned how to throw steel shuriken, one of them just learned how to read, one of them already learned how to sense. Her knees felt weary until finally the last child was picked up by his family. Once the crowd dispersed, only then Hashirama noticed a slim figure standing under the tree near the front door of the Academy.

“...Izuna.”

Izuna nodded as a response.

The Hokage stood up, clearing the dust from her knees. “Are you… going home?” Awkwardness struck her. If Izuna had fought with her brother, what about Hashirama herself? Wouldn’t Izuna be more furious at her?

Fortunately, beyond her expectation, Izuna nodded once more. She left the tree to walk towards the route that led her to the Uchiha residence. Hashirama immediately walked by her side, relieved that her presence wasn’t rejected. Today, Izuna covered her eyes with a black blindfold, and her chakra wall was thicker than usual. The air around them felt stiff on Hashirama’s shoulders.  

“How… are your students?”

“Good,” she answered without turning her head. “I heard some people are protesting the regulation that accepts peasant children in the Academy. I disagree. At least everyone in this village has to know basic security protocols and the basics of shinobi secrets.”

Relief swept her mind. “...Thank you.”

Izuna shrugged. “Even if they can’t activate their chakra, possessing taijutsu and shuriken throwing skills are already good.”

“They who disagree with this regulation are reluctant to share the jutsu knowledge of their clans.”

She scoffed as they turned towards a quiet street, going around the village through the path near giant wooden fences. “Even though they knew not everyone can learn and master all their special jutsu.”

They had entered less inhabited area when Hashirama realized something unusual. “Aren’t you… usually with that kid, Makoto?”

“He’s going to Iwa. He really wanted to go to war, so...”

“Oh.”

Makoto wasn’t a child. He was sixteen—seventeen, perhaps. Definitely not a child anymore.

Izuna stopped walking, stepping into a path between thick bushes. Her feet carefully treading the gap between the clusters of cedars as her chakra sensed her surroundings. She gestured at Hashirama to follow her. She wondered why Izuna left the streets; did she intend to discuss about her secret engagement? Or perhaps about Tobirama?

Once they had reached far from the footpath, she finally stopped. “Please answer honestly,” she asked, splashing Hashirama with her chakra wall. “Hashi-san really loves Nii-san, right?”

“Yes—” Her answer uttered like she was choked. A strong cough climbed up her chest. Hashirama hurriedly wiped the corners of her eyes.

Madara was still hundreds of miles away in the battlefield. She didn't doubt his strength, but anything could happen to him. He had spent a month chasing a bijuu, he also had spent a lot of time on the frontline of war. But everything she knew about it was from reports written and sent by the clerks. The actual reality on the battlefield must be way more horrible than she could imagine...

When she built Konoha, Hashirama wished she and Madara would have more time to spend together. But the reality was the exact opposite.

Izuna’s hands brushed the ferns next to her. “When Hashi-san spent a night in our house, did Hashi-san wear our kimono?”

“Yes.” Hashirama collected her breath.

“My brother dressed you in it?”

“Yes—”

Izuna’s chakra slapped her.

Hashirama didn’t flinch, purposely letting the hot, painful chakra hurt her cheek. Her passive regeneration worked in an instant, healing the wound before redness appeared on her skin.

“You know you are engaged, but why did you accept my brother’s proposal?” Izuna’s voice trembled, as if holding herself from raising her voice even louder. “How dare you tricking my brother!”

“Izuna—I didn’t trick him…” Hashirama said softly. “Madara… Madara has known about the engagement before.”

Izuna frowned. “Don’t lie. I hate it if you lied to me like Tobirama did.”

“Forgive me…” Her voice mixed with her sobs. All the burden she endured for the last few weeks burst out like an untamable wave. “Izuna, forgive me…”

Izuna’s breath was heavy with emotion, yet the tense dissolved gradually a moment after. “When did Nii-san know about it?”

For a moment Hashirama considered, regretting why Madara wasn’t next to her by now. “For a long time,” she answered briefly. “But he never canceled his proposal.”

“...That’s why Hashi-san accepted our kimono?”

“Yes.”

Izuna’s nostrils expanded. “I can’t believe Nii-san didn’t tell me.” She suddenly felt uneasy. “I… I didn’t mean to…”

“It’s alright, Izuna,” Hashirama calmed her down. “When Madara returns I will ask him to explain.”

However, Izuna’s expression turned serious once more. “Since we moved to Konoha, Nii-san becomes avoidant.” She bit her lip.

“Avoiding how?”

“He often leave us for a long time.” She picked some leaves, twisting them between her fingers until they were rolled thinly. “He gathered information about various places, the lives in non-shinobi villages, and news from outside Hinokuni. Everytime he is home, he visits the Naka Temple. Never left until morning came.”

So it was true. There was something in Madara’s mind. She remembered the night Madara came back from his bijuu hunt. There must be some other things about the world system unaccounted by both of them; too many and too critical that they concerned him this badly.

“...What’s inside the temple?” Hashirama only knew the temple was the place to worship the protector of Uchiha clan. It was very important that its original structure was dismantled to remove every component from their old settlement, before being rebuilt in Konoha.

“Just an inscription.” Izuna looked up, listening to the sounds of birds flying across the cedar branches. “The words can only be read by sharingan users. It only has one sentence in it. About two clashing powers, I don’t know what that means.”

But Madara regarded it as important. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be spending a lot of time in the temple.

“I asked him about it repeatedly, but he ignored me.” Izuna huffed, slowly returning to the footpath. “Maybe Hashi-san can ask him a thing or two about it.”

“Of course. I will ask him.” Hashirama held Izuna’s hand as they walked through exposed, intersecting roots on the ground. Before they went separately, she remembered something.

“Izuna, um… did yesterday… you and Tobirama…”

“Hashi-san’s brother is terribly annoying,” she said as she walked away, leaving Hashirama in confusion.

She was relieved Izuna wasn’t angry at her, but she still needed some time to calm down. She took a route through the outskirts of the settlement to return to her office, drowning in her own thoughts.

“...What do you call it, a whore?”

Curiosity stopped her in her way. Hashirama stayed in her place, eavesdropping. There were more than two voices, all of them were women. She was tempted to peek from behind the trees.

“For real?”

“Duh, you saw it yourself, didn’t you? She’s always around that clan leader. Who knew she’s already engaged?”

“Ew, disgusting!”

“She’s very beautiful, but sadly she turns out shallow.”

“Really unexpected that she’s actually a whore!”

“Be careful. Maybe our relatives will be her next target!”

She heard a mocking giggle. “Who knows, our husbands could be next!”

The course of their conversation turned into complains about their respective husbands, followed by the sound of footsteps walking away. The afternoon had turned into the night.

Hashirama was still glued in her place.


 

 

Hashirama was eighteen, and she swore this would be the last war funeral she attended.

Tobirama took over all the funeral ceremony preparations, giving instructions and orders like he had been doing the job for years. It was to be expected, however—funeral ceremony was something they attended regularly. Hashirama was relieved to know she wasn’t expected to help; at least she could mourn her father’s death in peace. But she realized if Butsuma saw her weeping like this, he would scold her. 

The number of war casualties that day wasn’t many. Most of them perished in the battlefield, like her father who died after an intense duel against Uchiha Tajima. All the severely wounded had been healed by Hashirama until their condition became stable enough to be treated by their clan healers. Her medical ninjutsu repeatedly saved lives, minimizing the number of Senju shinobi deaths.

Unfortunately, the Uchiha clan wasn’t as lucky. According to the spies, their flood strategy swept most of their troops in an instant. Although the report was positively received by the elders, Hashirama was uncomfortable upon hearing it. The strategy was different compared to their old battle tactic where they still had to fight against their opponent face to face. A large scale ninjutsu like her mokuton allowed her to be positioned anywhere to destroy the enemy. 

She didn’t have to watch them die. 

Tobirama regarded it as an excellent solution to prevent her from freezing in the midst of battle. But in her heart, Hashirama disagreed. When she slashed through her opponent’s body, she felt their soul gone as their bones and muscles were ripped apart by the force of her sword. Their expressions and screams carved into her memory. After every battle she fought, she always spared some time to be alone, thinking about the poor souls she forcefully took, and the lives they could have had. The lives she destroyed with ease.

Even she was too late to realize that there were children amongst the Uchiha troops. The flood they created must have killed them as well. When Hashirama used the large scale ninjutsu, she had no power to choose who to kill and who to spare.

But, there was a more urgent problem.

“Many of our shinobi want you to be nominated in the clan leader election,” Tobirama said before the funeral ceremony. “Now after we arrive home, everyone in the village will want the same thing.”

“Is it because of my mokuton?” she asked, although she already knew the answer.

Tobirama nodded. “Only the strongest shinobi has the right to hold the title of Senju clan leader. That’s what they said.”

“And you…” Hashirama sensed the area around her, making sure everyone else were too busy to eavesdrop. “What do you think? I thought women are never nominated in the election.”

“I have no problem with it.” He opened the rice ball wrap which was distributed to him a moment ago.

“Father trained you to be the clan leader, didn’t he?”

“If you become the leader, I have no problem at all,” he said as he took a bite on his rice ball. “You are the strongest candidate now. We’ll see later in the official conference.”

After their father’s death, the clan council was led by Senju Azami. He was a veteran with battle experience as much as Butsuma himself. On the opposite corner of the hall, their other uncle sat; Senju Joji. Although he had been suffering from chronic coughs and never fought in any battle, he was a master of strategy.  

The hall was full of people. In the normal days, there were only male elders with a few number of women present to discuss leadership issues. But this time, all the young shinobi crammed themselves into the hall. Their knees brushed against one another as their numbers were too much. When Hashirama and Tobirama arrived, an intense debate ensued. 

“Senju clan cannot be led by a woman!” Uncle Joji shouted hoarsely, beating the sound of unsatisfied crowd, followed by his coughs.

“Hashirama-san is the only one with mokuton!”

“Yes, that’s right!”

“We wouldn’t win without Hashirama-san!”   

Uncle Joji grumbled under his breath before finding the siblings walked through the doorstep, looking for gaps among the crowd. The other young shinobi followed the elderly’s gaze. Spontaneously, they cheered in glee. Their smiles gleamed under the dim lights. Some of them whistled boisterously.

“Hashi-san!”

“Hashiramaaaa!”

While the other adults tried to calm the crowd, Hashirama found Touka’s thin face amongst them. She smiled, keeping a watch over her as Tobirama walked her to the front of the hall to join the clan elders.

After her mokuton was awaken, Hashirama was only allowed to join the clan council meeting a few times. Whenever she had the chance, she always got a seat behind the grandmothers and aunts who taught the kunoichi. This time, she found a pair of empty pillows beside the pillow where her father usually seated. Tobirama took a seat on the left one, and Hashirama sat on the other pillow.

She watched as hundreds pair of eyes stared back at her, the further behind the younger. Uncle Joji began a short speech to honor Butsuma, but Hashirama listened to only a small part of it.

“...According to our tradition, the first son of the late clan leader has the right to nominate himself as the next clan leader,” he stopped for a while to glance at Tobirama. “The other candidate who has nominated himself is only Azami-san. Whoever wants to nominate another name or himself—”

“HASHIRAMA!” a young man shouted from somewhere. In an instant, the other young shinobi repeatedly saying her name; shouting it so loud until Joji’s glare immediately muffling their cheer before shutting them up completely.   

Hashirama tried to stop herself from smiling. The other elders didn’t find it funny.

“I told you, a woman cannot be our clan leader!” the old man said in annoyance, he slammed his cane onto the tatami.

“The Inuzuka has a lady clan leader, Uncle!”

“Yes but they roll around with dogs, unlike any respectable clan such as ours. Their traditions and ideas are considered peculiar, Toshiro!”

Toshiro pouted, his cheeks bulged.

“No one else?” Joji eyed the entire crowd. “Fine, Tobirama, the candidates are only you and Azami—”

“I nominate my sister as the clan leader.”

For the second time, a clamoring cheer erupted inside the hall. Joji shouted to hush them until he severely coughed. On the left corner, the aunts exchanged stares and whispered to one another.

Slowly, Hashirama glanced at her brother. Tobirama’s face was as serious as usual. Her feeling was mixed all of a sudden. She was never prepared to be the clan leader, she was only taught to be one of her clan’s battle assets. But, if she became the clan leader…

She would be able to play a huge part in stopping the war.  

Her heart raced to pump the adrenaline. A hope blossomed inside her heart. Madara was right, if she became strong, people would listen to her. All the shinobi who fought the war with her had seen how powerful her mokuton ninjutsu was.

“Hashirama?”

“I accept the nomination.”

Some of the elders had a disagreeing look on their faces.

“If so,” Tobirama said all of a sudden, turning his head at his sister, “I withdraw myself from the nomination.”

“Wha—” Hashirama’s jaw dropped.

“Are you sure, Tobirama?” Azami asked. “Your father had prepared you to be his successor!”

He shrugged. “I still can help my sister. No problem at all. Let’s go straight to the voting session.”

Joji’s face crumpled in distaste, but he proceeded according to Tobirama’s request. “As we all know, everyone who presents in this hall has the right to vote. Raise your hand if you choose Azami-san to be the next clan leader!” Some of the hands quickly raised in the crowd. More than half of council members raised their hands as well. Joji ordered them to lower their hands. “Now, raise your hand if you—” 

Joji hadn’t finished his words, and the entire hall was drowned in the sea of raised arms. She was stunned, almost missing her uncle’s reluctant declaration. Only when Tobirama patted her back, she woke up from her daze.

Her fingertips were cold.

“Step forward, Sis,” he gently pushed her.

“What for—”

“Speech.”

“I don’t know what to say!” she whispered to Tobirama, miserably.

“Just small talk, it’s easy.” 

The clamor slowly dimmed once Hashirama stepped forward to face the crowd. She gulped. For a moment she glanced to the back, feeling the eight faces that stared at her in disbelief. She wasn’t surprised; they all knew her reputation as the clan’s rebel. They still treated her like a disobedient child who had to be disciplined.

Hashirama turned to observe the crowd. There were more women. Almost a half of the shinobi present were twenty years old or younger; only a small part of them were above thirty, and nobody was forty or older beside the clan council members. Children under the age of twelve peeked from the windows, watching the conference under the watch of their respective caretakers. Some of them fought in the battle. Gloom reflected in their eyes, even when they tried to hide it behind their smiles and laughs.

If they all die, then it will be her responsibility.

She blossomed a wide smile, hiding her nervousness through fixing her hair. Hashirama was still thinking to greet the crowd, when the roof above the hall cracked and fell open.

“DIE YOU DAMNED SENJU!”

From the hole above, a figure landed between the crowd and the front side of the hall where the council members sat. Dust and pieces of wood were thrown in all directions. The intruder found Hashirama frozen in shock,  immediately aiming to strike her vital spots.

A snake seal was formed, but her chakra refused to take form.

Three young men held the intruder from behind. One of them had a kunai in his hand, ready to pierce it through the intruder’s chest. The other one closed his eyes. The intruder fought to free himself but their grips were too strong.

“Wait! Don’t kill him!”

The men stared at their new clan leader in disbelief; their jaws dropped. “He was about to attack you…!”

“I know, Toshiro-kun. Don’t hurt him.” Hashirama nodded. “Please tie him up and cover his eyes.”

Once her order was obeyed, Hashirama observed the intruder. A boy, couldn’t be older than her when her mokuton awoke. That’s why she was stunned, unable to erupt her chakra. Without asking further she already knew the boy was an Uchiha.

Hashirama turned her head at her uncle. “Uncle said we didn’t take prisoner.”

“Because you didn’t need to know,” Joji scoffed. “Until now.”

She ignored his unsavory tone. Once the prisoner was moved towards the exit, Hashirama stopped them.

“Let him stay here for a while. I want him to listen.”

“But he is an Uchiha, Hashirama-sama.”

“That is why.” Hashirama sprung herself to stand firmly, observing the crowd. “My brothers and sisters,” she started, “I bid my gratitude towards your trust for me to lead our clan. There will be a massive change I want to make for our future.” She made sure all eyes were at her before she continued, “we will stop going to war.”

She stood her ground, ignoring the shocked clamors which did not only come from the council members. But also the conference attendants.

“How can we feed ourselves, then?”

“I haven’t killed an Uchiha even once!”

Hashirama glanced uncomfortably towards the growling prisoner. “I suggest us to stop the war, but we will keep and defend the land of the daimyo who pays for our service. We will not send a challenge letter anymore, or accepting request from our patron to attack other daimyo.”

“But, the war—”

“Look around you!” Hashirama’s voice blared, her two arms stretched. “How many of our clan members managed to reach the age of thirty? Forty?” For a moment she paused, while everyone’s stares aimed at each other in the entire hall. “Don’t you feel tired of the endless war that we don’t even enjoy any of its results?”

“Hashirama—!”

“Uncles and Aunts, please listen to me,” she begged with a sorrowful face. “All of my Uncles and Aunts… you all have lost your family because of war. You lost your children. How long must our clan suffer from this?”

“The war mandate has existed since the age of our ancestors!” One of the elderly women spoke. Hashirama recognized her as an ex-kunoichi whom currently trained the girls. “The daimyo, including Matsudaira-sama, has trusted us to fight the war! So does our relative the Uzumaki clan. Without us, they will be targeted!”

“Aunt Mayuko, don’t you know that the daimyo only bicker with one another? Taking over each other’s villages? The daimyo rent our service. We are the ones who die and suffer for them. Chests of money won’t ever be able to buy our dead family!” Hashirama stared at their prisoner, whom no longer fighting his bounds. “The Uzumaki clan is safely protected in their remote village. They are way too far from the center of this conflict. They are safe.”

Azami crossed his arms, annoyed. “You want us to be farmers again, is that so?”  

“There’s nothing wrong with farming!” Frustration began to take form in her mind. “We can live independently. Live until we are old, watching our children and grandchildren grow up and reach adulthood. What is wrong with that?” She returned to stare at the council members. “Don’t you want to see your children and grandchildren grow up in peace?”

“You want us to live in shame!”

“No! I just don’t want more children die too young! Why do we have to sacrifice our lives for someone else’s ambitions? Why do Senju children have to die for someone else? Have we ever asked the Senju children; do they really want to fight in a war? Even the existing war rules didn’t stop the grand numbers from climbing up the death toll.”

“Otou-sama.” Toshiro spoke. “Hashirama-sama is right.”

Azami glared at his son. “Becoming a shinobi since you are young is an honor.”

“The dead cannot feel pride, Otou-sama.”

The elder’s face was flushed from holding his anger. But he did not say anything in return. In her heart Hashirama thanked her cousin.

“As the clan leader, your safety will be my responsibility,” Hashirama continued with a calmer tone. “However, I think us working alone to achieve peace isn’t enough. And for that, I hereby suggest to propose peace treaty to our rival, Uchiha clan.”

There was no shocked clamor. The boy prisoner lifted his chin, with his mouth slightly agape.

“I don’t wish death for the Uchiha children as well. We’ve had enough of killing each other. Uncles and Aunts must have known that they are paid by other daimyo to attack our lands. We are shinobi, and they are too. We are supposed to understand each other, right?”

“Have you forgotten that they are demons?”

“Uncle Joji, we only have met them in the battlefield.” She turned towards the three young men who captured the intruder. “You, do you think this boy is a demon?”

The three of them exchanged stares as their prisoner stayed still.   

“You have fought against the Uchiha,” Hashirama spoke to everyone this time, “when you saw them, did you think of them as shinobi, or demons?” Without waiting for an answer, Hashirama kneeled next to the prisoner, helping him stand as she held his arm. She released the blindfold on his eyes.

The boy blinked his eyes, there was no killing intent on his face. He looked similar with any other children.

His confusion changed form into fear as he realized hundreds of Senju eyes were watching him. His body trembled, and he bowed his face down. For a moment, Hashirama glanced at the curious faces on the windows.

This boy and those children should be able to meet and play together, instead of killing each other.

“Just wait until the boy’s sharingan is awakened,” an intense comment was heard from Joji, who stood behind her. “Only demons have those red eyes.”

Hashirama tied the blindfold back on the boy’s eyes, letting him sit among the young men who captured him. But before she could answer, Tobirama spoke up.

“If it’s only the red eyes, then I have it as well, Uncle.”

The elderly scoffed, but no protest was expressed in the end.

Realizing it had been late, Hashirama closed the conference. “Please, all of you, consider what I have said.”

Each of the attendees walked home as they whispered to one another, talking about Hashirama’s inauguration speech—if it could be called a speech. Their prisoner was guarded by two adult men towards the outskirts of their village, with his hands tied and eyes covered.

Tobirama volunteered himself to send the Uchiha boy to the battlefield so he would be able to walk home. Hashirama’s order was met by confusion of the two shinobi who accompanied her brother.

“Why don’t we kill him, Hashirama-sama?”

“Yes, he has seen too much of our village.”

Hashirama shook her head. “He’s just a boy. Let him go home.”

Once the small team went, Hashirama walked to find Touka. They need to find information regarding someone who paid them to fight; Daimyo Taneyuki. The information would be useful to persuade the Uchiha to create peace between the two warring clans. However, the only information they had was only from Daimyo Matsudaira. According to him, Taneyuki was a greedy maniac with the thirst for power. The Uchiha clan with their high level of battle capabilities had been used by him to annex lands from the neighboring daimyo, including Matsudaira.

Her tall cousin had dressed herself in full black clothes and a face mask, ready to leave. She lowered her mask, a smirk formed as she realized Hashirama’s arrival.

“Hashirama-sama.”

“So weird.”

Touka’s rows of teeth gleamed under the light of the fire. “Congratulations.”

She didn’t know how to respond, except with a half smile that looked ridiculous according to her cousins. Touka herself spent most of her time conducting spying missions which stretched for months. After her mokuton was awakened, Hashirama rarely met her. Only once or twice in a year.

“Are you leaving tonight?” she asked, walking by her side as they approached the outskirts of their village.

“The sooner the better,” Touka answered, “normally I’ll be going to villages. But this time, I will enter the city.”

“Hm…” Hashirama looked up, seeing the constellations of stars that shone the road. “The city… how does it look like?”

“Lots of houses and shops. So many people. Very noisy.”

“You’ve been to the city…?”

“Once, for a theft mission. You can hardly focus in the city. Especially in the afternoon, so many beautiful things to see and try.”

Hashirama went to the city once, but she didn’t go through far inside. Her father was the only one who entered, along with Tobirama. They always went in the darkness of night, and returned before the dawn arose. Even with her current status as the clan leader, she doubted she would lead the important discussions herself with the daimyo clients in their own mansion. Tobirama had offered himself to lead the negotiation regarding their new policy, and Hashirama had no reason to refuse.

Touka commented, “you aren’t as noisy as you used to be.”

“No…” Hashirama shook her head, laughing softly. “I’m just a little tired…”

They stopped by the crossroads; to the northeast was the center of daimyo region, and to the north was the clan cemetery. Touka looked around her.

“It’s quiet enough around here,” she said, as she slightly lifted her mask. “There is an important thing I need to tell you.”

Hashirama waited as she hid her hands inside her sleeves. There was a slight distaste in her cousin’s gaze.

“You are already betrothed to the Uzumaki clan.”

The new clan leader only blinked her eyes. “And?”

Slowly, Touka’s body bent as laugh erupted from her mouth. “Ahahaha… hahh…” She swept her bangs away. “How did you know?”

“Gossips during the kunoichi training.” She shrugged, concealing a smile that struggled to appear.

“Are you still peeking on them…?”

“No, since… two years ago.”

“Two years.” Touka grunted. “Did you tell anyone else? Like, Tobirama?”

“No. I think he doesn’t know.”

The taller woman squinted her eyes. “Are you sure?”

“I trust my brother.”

Touka was still sceptical about the matter, but she didn't want to push her further. “I think I should go now. The city gates will be opened before dawn.”

“Be careful, Touka.” 

Once her cousin disappeared from her hearing, Hashirama took a deep sigh. Her feet immediately moved to take her away.

She stopped her routine of peeking into kunoichi classes once her father often brought her to the battlefield. Fatigue caused her unable to focus on the learning materials. The gossip among teenagers her age was much more interesting than her learning materials. Once in a while, her name was mentioned in the talks. Gossip about her betrothal was one of them. Touka’s information was only confirming the truth. She still remembered how shocked she was that she spent a long time lying on her stomach behind the classroom ceiling until the class had long finished.

Her breath was tight in her chest. Maybe she would have stayed in the Uzumaki residence by now, becoming a mother of several children had her mokuton was never awaken. Her art classes were changed into war classes immediately after that, supervised by her own father. She attended the art lessons together with the other kunoichi, but after the news of her engagement floated around, Hashirama realized that those lessons were only meant to impress her future husband’s family. She knew a thing or two about the Uzumaki clan, but not in a personal sense.

The unknown name of her betrothed left a hole in her heart. She didn't want to burden Tobirama with this problem. Her brother already had too many responsibilities and workloads waiting to be done.

Instead of walking home, Hashirama found herself in the clan cemetery. The stars lit up the place, which surrounded by giant oak and cedar trees of the virgin forest. The area was opened three years ago when the old cemetery was already full. There were dozens of bodies buried in the newer one. All the graves looked similar. The short pegs that marked the graves had no name on them, but it didn’t hinder her to find her father’s grave.

Butsuma would be furious if he heard her inauguration speech. He would point at her, showering her with lectures about the shinobi pride; how it was an honorable way of life, and her decision was a treason against the creed they had lived by for hundreds of years. She had asked her teachers and Tobirama, yet nobody could explain how the Senju dan Uchiha clan were trapped in an endless war in the first place.

One thing for sure, the daimyo had the role of igniting the conflict. The only rule of war they gave was allowing the battles to be fought strictly in an area far from the villages, especially those which were vital to produce food. Rice fields and farms contaminated by the chakra wouldn't produce good harvest, and the vegetables would taste strange on human tongues…

Whatever Butsuma believed in his whole life would never change her decision today.

Hashirama turned the other way, walking through the virgin forest she recognized well, towards the old cemetery. Weeds had grown on the mounds. The grave pegs had withered from fungus and weather. Even she couldn't remember all the names of people who were buried here.

The only thing left was the shadow of the lives that once were; haunting her memory as marks of lives that wasted away.

They never really left the world.

"Sis."

Hashirama nearly jumped. "Tobirama! Don't sneak on me…!"

Her brother approached closer. "You didn't hear me when I called you." He was still wearing his armor. "We have sent the Uchiha kid away."

"The boy isn't wounded, right?"

"He immediately runs to the opposite direction." Tobirama gestured her to follow him. "Uncle Azami said we are supposed to interrogate and execute him. But he isn't the clan leader."

Hashirama kept silent as they walked through a field of grass that reached their ankles. Each of the strands entered the gaps of their toes as they moved.

"You were reckless."

"...Are you disagreeing with my plan?"

"No, I just didn't expect you would say that directly." They took a turn on the road. "The council is still mad about it."

"The boy… I was afraid they would kill him." Hashirama shivered as she remembered how nervous she was. Until the appearance of the Uchiha boy reminded her the reason why she fought. "The daimyo will surely disagree with this… how do you propose to persuade him…?"

"I can arrange a negotiation under your mandate," Tobirama calmed her. "The daimyo knows me."

Hashirama could only stare at her brother's back thankfully. She didn't know how to do everything by herself.

They finally stopped by the end of the cemetery, and Tobirama kneeled to part the weeds.

"Whose grave is this?"

Tobirama turned at her and answered flatly, "Mother."

"You come here often…?" Guilt struck her. Hashirama had stopped visiting the cemetery since years ago.

Her brother nodded. "Sometimes."

She kneeled by his side, ripping out the weeds that grew on the mound. After this, she wanted to do the same thing to her younger brothers' graves. No one would die that young any longer…

You are out of your mind! It’s only some children’s bullshit. A nonsensical dream!

Now, everything depended on the Uchiha boy—the boy whose name she never knew. Hashirama realized her dream didn't make any sense, but would it hurt to try? They had enough of killing each other. Even today…

Madara must be burying his relatives too.

Once their mother's grave was clean, Hashirama wondered how the young man looked outside the battlefield. Is his mother still alive? What are his daily activities in the Uchiha village? How does he treat Izuna and his family? The answers could be similar to her own life in the Senju clan.

They were shinobi.

They were humans.

Chapter Text

“You are not raised to be a whore, Hashirama.”

Hashirama took a breath as deep as she could without raising her chest, holding in for ten seconds, then releasing it through her nose.  

“Ignorance is not an excuse,” a fat, old lady whose height was barely reaching Hashirama’s shoulder continued. “You are still a woman with the most valuable blood in Konoha, if not in the entire Hinokuni. Even surpassing the Emperor’s children and relatives.”

Breathe deep. Hold in. Release—

“Oww!” she shrieked when the old lady tightened the obi around her waist forcefully. Her ribs ached in an instant. Her reflexes caused her back to curl, but she was unable to bow even the slightest.

“Don’t act so spoiled,” she scoffed in annoyance. “Peace has been achieved. Konoha is independent. Stable. You only have one responsibility left to your ancestors. Don’t seduce other men!” 

She could only count to five this time. Hashirama placed her fingers between the silk around her waist, but the obi was held tightly; there was not even a slightest space left for her fingers to slip in. The old woman’s wrinkled, ringed hand slapped her once she noticed what Hashirama was doing.

“You are going to crease it! We’ve worked hard to save this from the fire, don’t act rashly!” Her long nails pierced Hashirama’s exposed shoulders when she turned her body around.

“Aunt Mayuko,” she called weakly, “there’s no way I’ll be wearing this in front of the Emperor, right?” 

In the face of a carved mirror as tall as her, Hashirama observed the intricately patterned kimono she wore. The golden collar almost didn’t reach the curves of her shoulders, exposing her collar bones. Its two sides met far below the usual collar of her daily kimono, showing off her cleavage. Hashirama was worried the kimono would fall down to her elbows if she did not place her arms at the front. The belt was dark green, tightly holding her waist that it was difficult for her to breathe. The kimono itself was as white as an egg shell, decorated with a pattern similar to dark green branches with golden splinters acting as their leaves. The bottom part fell on the ground, meant to be dragged on the floor as she walked. However, if she took a long step, her slender leg would be exposed up to above her knees. The length of the kimono was fitting, but it was too tight for her.

Hashirama tried to hold her groan, turning around a little to see her figure from the sides. Almost as flat as usual. Her belly felt uncomfortable, so did her bosom. Fortunately her aunt didn’t watch her undress to try on this kimono.

“This is for your betrothed, you see.” Senju Mayuko had her hands on her hips, standing behind her. Glaring to observe her appearance from the top of her head to her toes. “He’s been in the palace for too long, very used to being around beautiful women. Noblewomen, geisha, oiran… you can’t afford to look mediocre.”

Hashirama frowned. The long kimono sleeves were still covering her breasts. “Nobuo knows he has a betrothed, doesn’t he? It shouldn’t be a problem if I look mediocre.”

Mayuko scoffed as she circled around the tall woman, observing her from every angle with a disappointed look in her eyes. “You have grown fatter. You eat too much!” she pushed in a three-legged seat. Once Hashirama sat down, Mayuko pulled her hair harshly, brushing it quickly. “Your betrothed could run to another woman’s arms. You two should have been married as soon as possible, had your late father didn’t insist to use your mokuton for war.”

Once more, Hashirama could only grimace in pain. She struggled to stay still, keeping her head from being pulled behind. The torturous hair brushing session was finally done. Her hair was rolled and decorated with various glowing jewellery that tinkled each time she moved her head. Her nape was no longer covered, causing her to shiver. This dress up wasn’t practical at all. Her vital spots were exposed and unprotected. Even so, she had to admit that her hairpiece was magnificent. Gilded by gold and encrusted in emerald. Such intricate piece of art couldn’t be found in the villages.

Her aunt seemed to think of the same thing. A mocking smile appeared on her lips. “Magnificent, isn’t it?” She squeezed Hashirama’s shoulders, bowing until their heads were side by side. “A gift from your betrothed. Would be a shame to not wearing it.” Then she left the room.

Hashirama’s body stiffened. She left the chest gifted by Nobuo under her bed in the Hokage apartment. She hadn’t touched it after the Emperor’s visit weeks ago. It never crossed her mind that her aunt would dare to enter her residence, rummaging through her private space.

Breathe in, hold it. One, two, three—

But didn’t they admit that this village wasn’t the right place to find a perfect privacy?

Hashirama sighed in the count of seven, and her arms descended from her bosom. Once more she stared at her reflection, sighing in exhaustion. It would be impossible for her to wear this in public…

Unless… a small voice in her mind whispered. Unless if it was for Madara…

She quickly brushed off the imagination before it reigned inside her mind. Hashirama immediately changed into her daily kimono, grateful for how freely she could breathe and move inside the wraps of the cotton fabrics. She undid her hair, letting it loose around her body as she walked home.

A group of children were playing in the yard of Senju elders’ residence. The younger children greeted her, but the older ones stared at her like she didn’t belong there. Accusing stares. Almost all the adults she passed were either averting their gaze, or greeting her without seeing her face.

Between the carved wooden gate, Hashirama turned around for a while to stare at the house she left.

A house for all Senju, accepting everyone with the blood of Senju. Except those who had long rebelled against the clan council’s decree.

Relief blossomed in her chest once she left the residence. Finally free from those judging stares. Even when she didn’t hear it herself, Hashirama knew that the rumors about her engagement had spread throughout Konoha. Followed by the fact that she spent a night in the Uchiha residence during the disastrous storming night. The ones who witnessed her presence that night beside Madara and Izuna was only a servant. Everyone else couldn’t find anything to confirm the truth. Because Madara wasn’t in the village at the moment, she assumed the other two people had been keeping their mouths shut.

Beside the rumors, business had been running smoothly. War was raging, but it happened far away that the only thing arrived in Konoha was only reports about Hinokuni troops’ victories. Nobody spent a long time grieving over the fallen shinobi. Mission requests kept flowing in, keeping everyone busy in the village. Farms and fields that survived the storm gave bountiful harvests, and the farmers had begun to grow winter vegetables. The Academy was never empty, new classes had been opened for students from farmer families.

Her trip to the Emperor Nobutada’s castle was scheduled in three days. To ease her journey, all the clothes she ought to wear during the event had been sent firsthand. Hashirama had insisted to bring only one formal kimono. All her aunts disagreed in an instant, they packed all the formal kimono she had. In fact, Hashirama was amazed at how they were still keeping the kimono she never worn before. Almost all their valuable belongings were destroyed or lost in the great fire.

“Good afternoon, Hokage-sama!”

Three different voices greeted her once she arrived at her office. They were her new assistants, specifically recruited by Tobirama.

“Good afternoon,” Hashirama nodded politely. “Any document for me to see?”

One person shook his head. A young woman with a pencil slipped behind her ear handed her a bundle of papers. It was filled with updated data of villagers.

“Inhabitants from non-ninja villages have gotten their own houses,” she explained with a heavy voice, a sign of bad health. “We struggled to collect their data… they thought we were meddling in their lives.”

“But you did it, right?” Hashirama turned the pages. The clans with their own housing complex had their data placed in a special page. Individual face sketches were placed beside their respective personal data. There were pages filled by a list of married couples from the same clan and different clans. From now on, each married couple were obliged to report to administration staff for data records. Family trees of each clan were copied to be merged.

“We did. But sometimes we are getting scolded. ‘What’s your business asking for personal matters?’ they say. ‘Why the need to ask if you’re going to keep and hide it anyway’. We have to explain the function of data collecting. It takes a lot of time,” she added, suddenly bashful.

With the shinobi and non-shinobi mixed together, listing families became more important than before. In addition, after all clans and regular commoners had arrived in Konoha, everyone wouldn’t hesitate to live next door with the other clan members. On the other side, letters were piling up in the post office. They were meant to be sent to people resided in Konoha without clear address. Gathering the data of each individual would be enough to sort out these problems, including decreasing the possibility of intruders from blending in.

Hashirama took a pen, filling out several pages with the addition of names, date, along with her signs of approval here and there. She blew the ink dry before observing the content and returning the bundle to the female staff. “Thank you for your hard work,” she said as she smiled widely. “We can keep this archived until next year’s update.”

The woman’s face turned radiant.

Her oldest staff, a thin man in his forties, gave her two pages of class B mission report. The first one was a mapping mission towards the western side of Hinokuni. The maps given by the Emperor wasn’t complete, so Konoha had to keep sending its own team. The team was led by Sarutobi Sasuke, he had returned this morning from a lordless vast grass field which bordered Hinokuni and Kazenokuni. The Daimyo who once ruled the land rebelled against the Emperor, and defeated by the samurai one generation ago. Large mammals were rarely seen in the area.

The other page was a pick up report of a chest full of new fuuinjutsu scrolls from Uzushiogakure. All the scrolls had been kept in the library.

Hashirama returned the reports. “Arrange a meeting with Sarutobi-san.” There was something odd in the mapping report, and she needed direct explanation from the Sarutobi clan leader.

“Understood,” the old man answered briefly before returning to his work. 

While she waited, the Hokage walked downstairs towards the library. There was only one person inside, bowing to read a long scroll opened on the table. Her hair was rolled into a bun atop her head. Her mouth kept mumbling, unaware of Hashirama’s presence until the Hokage gently cleared her throat.

“Oh!” Her slanted eyes widened, her irises turned into a darker color. “Hokage-sama, forgive me… um—” Her head turned from Hashirama towards the scroll. Her hands kept clenching and opening, unsure of what she was doing. It looked like she didn’t expect anyone to be in the library at the moment.

“Is that the newest scroll from Uzumaki clan?” Hashirama asked as she approached. Its handwriting wasn’t as neat as the clerks’. The ink scattered and seeped through the paper, as if the notes were written in a hurry. In a select few neater parts, the writing looked familiar to the Hokage.

“Oh—yes. Yes! This one is about the chakra shield to protect our village for the long term. From afar, Konoha will seem to be hidden inside the forest. Voices and sounds from Konoha will not be heard from the outside. But Konoha shinobi may freely come and go as long as their chakra are recognized by the shield. Konoha will be totally hidden behind the leaves!”

Hashirama glanced at her. The girl’s cheeks blossomed red from enthusiasm. The Hokage grinned widely. “You are a quick learner.”

“Fuuinjutsu is really exciting, Hokage-sama. I… I want to study it further.” Her eyes gleamed. As if she was about to express something but her words never made it out.

“Yes?”

“...The Academy only teaches kids. Fuuinjutsu is a complicated knowledge. I… don’t know where I can find someone to teach me about it. There isn’t a single Uzumaki around here.”

“There are some Senju clan members who can…” Her sentence hung in the air, remembering her relatives’ reaction this afternoon. “Or you can try to keep coming here, there should be someone you can ask.”

“I mean… I am an Uchiha…”

Of course. Not all clans were willing to share their knowledge. However, Konoha’s interest should be placed above any clan’s interest. Especially the reluctance to work together was based on past conflicts. Things like that shouldn’t be relevant anymore today. The two clan leaders had sworn to work together despite their differences.

Or did prejudice have not ceased to exist among them, in their new home?

“Research field doesn’t consider someone’s origin,” she said surely as she placed her hands on the girl’s shoulders. “They will study this scroll as soon as possible. You can offer your help to them.”

“Really?” she asked in disbelief. “I will not be rejected?”

“They still need extra hands. Anyone will be welcomed.”

Her face turned gleeful. “Thank you so much, Hokage-sama!”

When she rolled the fuuinjutsu scroll, Hashirama noticed she had been reading the familiar handwriting often, including the sign in one corner.

It was Uzumaki Mito’s penmanship.

She couldn’t wait for her departure.


 

She was twenty.

Daimyo Matsudaira accepted Hashirama’s decision reluctantly. He chose to hire another clan to attack Taneyuki’s territory. Of course, the attack was held off by Uchiha clan, which could only be rivaled by the Senju. They launched multiple attacks in small groups, sabotaging the trading route, and damaging villages near the border. Violating all the rules set throughout the inter-daimyo war.

“If this continues, the Emperor will send his samurai,” Senju Toshiro explained as he escorted Hashirama to check the rice barn. “We don’t want to seek trouble with the samurai.”

“Place our men in the villages that might be targeted. This is already enough reason to take action.” Hashirama tried to hold her soaring disappointment in her chest. Since their last meeting in the battlefield, she hadn’t heard anything but the news that Madara had ascended as Uchiha clan leader. Since then they rarely met directly in the open war. Only silent, secret attacks they launched. 

Touka’s report from Taneyuki territory confirmed that the daimyo was stingy and greedy. For a clan as strong as the Uchiha, they were paid even lower than how much the Senju were paid by Matsudaira. Taneyuki prefered to pay in the form of money or valuable metals, rendering it difficult for the small folks on the outskirts of his territory to exchange them with food.

Besides, they still had no idea about the exact location of Uchiha clan’s residence. Ninja clans usually chose to live somewhere hidden, but normally they would be able to tell the exact locations. Half of Taneyuki’s territory was filled with rocky mountains, the terrain was tedious to explore, especially for those with less experience.   

“Can we send a message?” she asked all of a sudden.

Toshiro’s jaw dropped in confusion. “...I’m sorry?”

“To the Uchiha clan.” Hashirama climbed down the narrow bamboo ladder from the rice barn. The boy followed after her. “I intend to request a truce.”

“They haven’t been in the open war for a long time, Hashi-sama.” Toshiro jumped down from the last three steps on the ladder. “The other clans only found some small groups of ninja sabotaging villages like the ones in our area—”

“HASHI-SAMA!”

A fully armored shinobi landed and fell in front of her. He hurriedly stood up without brushing the hay off his body. “Hago—I mean, Hagoromo clan, they are approaching. Their troops, around fifty men or more—”

She furrowed her eyebrows. “Aren’t they the ones usually hired by Daimyo Matsudaira, Ango?” Some time ago, they were the ones who fought against the Hagoromo. But since Senju clan was no longer actively attacking other territories, they were the ones hired by the daimyo in their stead. But what would be their purpose of attacking a peaceful clan?

Ango only shrugged. “The letter is given to us, not the daimyo.”

Not to the daimyo as usual, as it was regulated by the rules.

“Gather our shinobi. Send messages to our spies in the cities to find out if Matsudaira knows anything about this attack!”

Once they marched from their village, the number of shinobi she led wasn’t as many as her father’s back in the past. Only shinobi with the age of sixteen and above followed her, men and women fully armored. Out of eight council members, Azami was the only one volunteering to march. The adults and children left behind were tasked with guarding the village.

A team of sensor shinobi led by Tobirama dashed first into the forest, combing for intruders. Hashirama found them stood side by side on the forest’s edge. She signalled them to stop.

“Are they close?”

“Two hundred meters. They’re stopping as well.”

Hashirama stepped forward, and Tobirama followed behind her. The war rules obliged the two highest commanders to meet before the attack was launched, explaining the means of war. She had the challenge letter from Hagoromo in her hand, reaching it out front.

The Hagoromo commander, a tall gigantic man in his thirties, carried a huge mace on his back. He laughed mockingly as he watched the Senju siblings.

“I can’t believe this!” he roared loudly. “When the daimyo said the Senju doesn’t go to war anymore because the leader is a girl, I thought he was joking! But turns out it’s true!” He twirled his thin, long mustache, glancing at Tobirama. “Why is this girl the clan leader? Is there not a single Senju man fit to rule? Bunch of weaklings! Hahahaha!”

“You—!”

Hashirama, still had her smile on her face, placing her hand gently on Tobirama’s shoulder. “Hagoromo-san, we are not here to discuss why I was chosen to lead. I want to know the reason of this attack.” She showed the letter. “You didn’t state which daimyo hired you to launch this attack.”

“How naive of you, Senju! Do you think only daimyo can send us to fight each other? This is our own initiative. A weak clan has to be eradicated, so we can gain more payments!”

Everything became clear. All this time, Senju was Matsudaira’s favorite. Of course the other clans could regard her reluctance to fight the war as a sign of weakness.

“Do I need to remind you that you have violated the rules of war?”

“And?” He softened his voice, mockingly. “‘Aww, you violated the rules, I will tell the samurai’!” He fluttered his eyelids, as if he was trying to catch the attention of an unseen figure. “Let’s do it this way; we don’t have to fight, but you will be coming with me. A pretty face like you must be selling well, after all—”

Along with a deafening crack, the tall gigantic body was thrown several meters behind. Hashirama released her snake seal. The challenge letter was crumpled, falling freely in the air. She gritted her teeth.

“Let’s fight.”

Watching their leader fell, furious clamor echoed from the opposite side. The entire Hagoromo troops charged forward without command. Tobirama signalled his relatives to get out of the forest. Soon after, one on one combats ensued. Her brother chose to face the clan leader, sharply dodging the wild, brutal strikes of their maces.

The war had happened for several minutes when her nape hair bristled. Hashirama looked towards the north, witnessing a blue smoke blended itself with the sky until it changed form into the body of a giant. “LOOK OUT!” she roared, echoing her warnings throughout the battlefield. She erupted her mokuton, forming a giant dome—

The transparent blue sword struck down. The shocking wave sent everything unprotected by the dome hurling in the air. The giant stood taller than the tallest bamboo, the blades of its four swords were meandered. Its yellow eyes glowed. The head turned, scanning the entire battlefield…

Once Hashirama saw a dark figure of a man at the center of the giant’s chest, it swung the swords once more. This time, hurling Hagoromo shinobi like ants in a kicked nest.

Adults and children, all of them were scattering in the air—

She hadn’t seen Tobirama—it would be fine, her brother could take control from here. Her mokuton took the form of a mokujin, a wooden giant with a wrathful face. It jumped to strike the blue giant out of the battlefield. The chakra under her feet gripped the wooden surface tightly, preventing her from falling once they tumbled on the grass.

“Madara!” Hashirama gasped for air, spitting dust and dirt. Her head turned dizzy, staggering and nauseating her. The mokujin held the blue giant from the top. She jumped down from its head, striking the transparent giant chest. Unfortunately, her strikes didn’t do anything, not even a scratch.

Madara floated inside the giant body like he was swimming in the water. He smirked in amusement watching her struggle. “It’s a waste of time, Hashirama,” he mocked with a muffled voice. “A protection as perfect as this susano’o is impenetrable. Even by you.”

“Why are you here?!” Hashirama tried to strike it with her sword once more. Madara laughed seeing her, until the mokujin fist covered in senjutsu began to swing against him. He dodged the attack swiftly.

Amusement disappeared from his face. “Isn’t it a normal thing for me to be here? You know Uchiha is always paid to attack Matsudaira’s territory. Why do you ask?”

“Nobody knew you would be here!”

“But you know now. Here.” Madara took a small scroll out of his armor, throwing it out of the susano’o body. 

Hashirama caught it swiftly. The knot around the scroll signed that it wasn’t a friendly letter.

“An official challenge letter. From a clan leader to a clan leader.”

“Wait, I want us to—”

His susano’o disappeared in a puff of blue smoke. Her mokujin disappeared along with her focus. Once the smoke and dust dissolved from the view, Madara was nowhere to be seen.

Hashirama hurriedly returned to the battlefield, but the war had stopped. The only ones standing were her relatives, all bathed in their own sweat and blood. Shock was apparent on their faces.

All of Hagoromo shinobi were lying dead on the ground. It was unknown if they had any survivor, but no Hagoromo alive was seen anywhere nearby. The Senju shinobi gathered their enemies’ bodies, burying them in a mass grave created by their doton. Armors and weapons were collected separately. Those belongings were left behind for any survivor who might show up. The Senju troops suffered no heavy casualties. Although many of them wounded, they were strong enough to walk home without assistance.

Once they arrived home, Hashirama gave the scroll to her brother. “Matsudaira doesn’t seem to have any idea about this.”

“We are still the strongest clan in this area. I think with your choice to act passively, the other clans will grow their interest to seize the empty position Senju left.” Tobirama rolled back the scroll neatly. “It’s impossible for Hagoromo to restore their strength after the current incident.”

For a long time, Hagoromo clan was known for its low female population. They didn’t settle permanently, but lived nomadically. Food and women were often provided by villages they visited or raided. Sometimes, they kidnapped women who got separated too far from her people, like what they did to her nine years ago.

She had no idea what the rest of Hagoromo would do after this…

“War mandate has no use anymore. Even villages aren’t safe from attacks…” Hashirama hushed, tightening the blanket around her body. The fire shrunk inside the pit.

The house was too big for the two of them.

The main bedroom was never used again after Butsuma’s death. They still slept in the same room since they were kids. The unused furniture had been moved to the shed or given to other relatives, including their old clothes.

In all honesty, Hashirama was anxious. For years she would wake up in the middle of the night, hearing voices that shouldn’t be heard in the house any longer. Sometimes they called her name, sometimes they echoed with each other in the hall, sometimes they chased one another—

“Are you listening to me?”

“...Yes?” Hashirama jolted awake, regaining her focus.

Her brother squinted his eyes, realizing she was lying. “So how is our food stock?”

She brushed her wet eyes. “It’s enough… at least until the middle of winter next year. There isn’t much food from daimyo. The villages attacked by the Uchiha are our source of rice. We need to open new fields, the ones who don’t go to war can work there.”

Tobirama laid himself on the wooden floor, his body was covered in a blanket. “But where can we do that? The soil around us isn’t fertile enough.”

Where? The forest around their village was too valuable to open. The grass fields were usually easier to plough, but they were too exposed in the open. Their enemies wouldn’t find any difficulty of detecting and destroying their source of food. They needed a place with certain protection, close enough to the Senju village and the source of water. Wild animals must exist around it for hunting needs…

An idea rose in her mind. Her smile blossomed. “Tobirama, I know the place. There is a forest behind the cliffs along the river stream, I found it when I was playing around sometime ago…” 


 

“Come in.”

The one who knocked on her door was Sarutobi Sasuke. There was a wooden pipe between his lips. Smoke soared from its end, floating around him.

The Hokage frowned. “Smoking isn’t allowed here, Sarutobi-san.”

“Pardon me, Hokage-sama.” The pipe no longer produced smoke. “Did you call for me because of that mission…?”

Her three assistants had gone home. The documents had been ordered neatly, except the ones needing attention in the next day. Only a sheet of mission report left on her desk.

“You stated in the report that there was no large mammals like herds of horses we usually find in the great grass field. Why is this?”

Sasuke approached, reading his report as fast as he could. “Ah, I forgot about it. There was no living animal we found.” The smell of tobacco reeked from his clothes.

“What do you mean?”

“Charred dead horses.” He nodded by himself, brushing his thin beard. “They were burned alive. Still fresh. Not more than three days old. There was a trace of chakra left behind, must be a ninjutsu.”

Hashirama leaned against her chair, exhaling. “You didn’t find a single shinobi there, did you?” 

“Not at all. Smaller clans from Hinokuni never traveled that far. After all, the chakra didn’t feel human...”

“Thank you,” she cut him off. “About tomorrow, Sarutobi-san, I want you to go without armor or forehead protector.”

“Huh? Isn’t this an escort mission, Hokage-sama? What if we are attacked by bandits?”

“I want to go as a commoner,” she answered. “Attacking them with taijutsu will be more than enough. If not, I shall take care of it myself.” 

“Understood.”

“You may leave now.”

A memory of great fire surfaced in her mind, keeping her awake almost all night. Nobody knew where the creature went after she chased it off more than two years ago. Following traces of bijuu was a suicide mission.

Impossible. The land was vast and wide. The creature must have traveled far away, out of humans’ reach. There was only a slim chance of it returning to Konoha. The vast grass field separated Hinokuni from the drier Kazenokuni. Who knew it might be more interested to explore faraway lands.

The sun had risen, but Hashirama was still locking herself in her apartment. Lying down on the long sofa. Her body wasn’t fatigued, but her brain was more exhausted. This early, her assistants had begun working, archiving documents and sending men for lower level missions. The sounds of brush strokes, crinkle of papers, and the sealing stamps heard simultaneously from behind the wall.

She caressed her belly. The difference wasn’t clearly visible, but she knew her body had changed so quickly. It wouldn’t take a long time before it swelled bigger than her capability to hide it. She hadn’t forgotten the conversation she overheard a few days ago. Would that kind of talk still persist even after her child was born?

It’s about time for them to stop hiding.

An hour later, Hashirama had arrived in the eastern gate of Konoha with a small pack on her back. She chose to travel without her armor. The steel plates pressured on her bosom, hindering her to breathe freely. She hooked her Hokage hat on the pack. Even when her status was on the same level as a daimyo, she prefered this humble way of traveling. Simple and practical without too many people in her entourage. A huge number of entourage would attract way too many unwanted attention.  

The outer gate was carved from the wood she grew to fight against the bijuu in the storm. Standing strong and tall, yet still hidden among the tree branches. Hashirama realized the journey would be the furthest she would ever be from home. If only the situation was different, she knew she would enjoy it much better.

Her brother wasn’t seen anywhere. He wasn’t in the Hokage office, not even in the street he usually went through. His house was located across the gate, it would be very time consuming to find him there. She spent a long time observing the crowd, wishing for his figure to appear. Her hope was in vain.

Inuzuka Tsubaki and Sarutobi Sasuke were already waiting for her. They were dressed in normal clothes, like wanderers. Armors and headbands were absent from view, per her request. The Inuzuka clan leader was on her knees, petting a large white dog.

“Take care of our house, Pochi,” she spoke gently. “Keep Izuna company around the village, will you? Poor girl, she is still single—”

“Tsubaki, stop it…”

Izuna’s protest was met with a chuckle. The woman immediately stood up once she saw Hashirama approaching. She waved her hand towards Sasuke.

“Are you ready?”

“Yes!” Sasuke answered, seemingly high spirited this morning. He didn’t reek of tobacco.

“We’re going first, Hokage-sama,” Tsubaki informed her. “We will regroup halfway towards our first stop, according to plan.”

Hashirama watched them going. Pochi didn’t come with its friend, sitting nicely next to Izuna. The slim woman stood under the shades, overlooked by the crowd. Her chakra wall wasn’t as thick as usual. Her hair looked dull.

Was it just her, or did Izuna really look exhausted? Before she could say anything, Izuna greeted her first.

“Have a safe trip,” she stopped for a while, “Sis.”

She didn’t know how to respond. Hashirama pulled her into her arms, hugging her tightly. A small, shocked voice was heard from Izuna’s mouth, but she didn’t push her away.    

Even until Hashirama had left the village, Tobirama was still nowhere to be seen. Concern crept inside her mind. Was he avoiding her?

Soon, after her return from the castle, she and Madara would sort everything out. He did not return to Konoha, but rather waiting for them in one of their stops later tonight.

Her heart raced once she took the first steps.

The landscape of the virgin forest surrounding Konoha quickly turned into a view of slim, younger trees. The soil was no longer charred black like several months ago. The open area she saw was once filled with thick, fertile plants and trees. The ground felt soft and mushy, that it began to form holes around her feet from holding her weight. Newer sprouts were seen among the dead trees. It’s been awhile since her last visit, Hashirama felt like she had lost her way although she was growing up there. It was quite difficult for her to find a road towards her first destination; an area without the burned trees.

Small pots with fragrant incense were scattered everywhere. The soil was charred black as well, but man-made mounds were easy to spot. She didn’t expect to see someone there, standing stiffly in front of a grave with an incense in his hands. Relief suddenly washed over her.

“Tobirama!” She walked up the climb quicker. “I’ve been looking for you all morning…”

Her brother didn’t turn his head, instead nodding towards the grave. “Father is here.”

Hashirama stopped a little further from the grave. The incense smell struck her senses. “I wish him a rest in peace…” she whispered, more of a formality than a sympathy. Since they had moved to the new village, she only visited the place once. Even then, it was only to find survivors and belongings left that could be saved.

“It will not happen if he knows you have Madara’s child.” He bowed to place the last incense on the ground. “Father would regret that he died too soon.”

“You’re still mad about it…”

“You never listened to me.”

Her heart skipped a beat. Sometime ago, he said the same thing, and the result still could be seen around them. “How could I not listen to you when you are my most trusted person? Aren’t you someone who keeps advising me how to manage our village?”

“How about your relationship with Madara?”

“We have been together since the first time we built Konoha.” It began to feel like repeating the same old song. “You do know this is our plan too—”

“He proposed to you, didn’t he?”

Hashirama didn’t answer. Instead, guessing where did he know about it. Could it be Izuna…? But she couldn’t tell how much he knew, or how much information Madara shared to his sister.

“So it’s true.” Disappointment was clearly carved on his lips.

“Even if I told you… would you tell me that I am engaged?”

Tobirama took a long, heavy sigh. “Ashina-san planned to visit Konoha with Nobuo after Emperor’s party to arrange the marriage. Until then, you weren’t meant to be told about it.”

Hashirama glanced at the grave. It was undeniably true; that was her father’s plan. Once the Uzumaki arrives to announce their marriage in the face of all Senju clan and Konoha residents, she wouldn’t be able to refuse. The embarrassment would be too overwhelming to bear.

So he was right…

Until his death, Butsuma never saw her as someone more than a mokuton user. She was only a medium to produce more talented, stronger shinobi.

“And because of that you slept with Madara. So Ashina-san will refuse to keep the engagement because you aren’t virgin anymore. Also because you—”

Hashirama massaged her temples, dizziness struck her out of nowhere. “I didn’t want to involve you…”

“—are carrying Madara’s child.”

“This is unexpected, Tobirama! We didn’t plan for this at all!”

“You always choose him—placing him above our clan’s interest.”

“It’s not—”

Tobirama stretched his arms. “Then what’s this?” He looked around the burned forest. His neck tensed. 

“Tobirama, stop. You… you are acting strange lately…”

“What are we fighting for all this time? Have you forgotten?”

“Izuna would’ve died if I didn’t go!” she shouted, letting her tears fall onto her cheeks. Really, Tobirama never brought this up before. So, why now…?

When Hashirama lifted her face once more, all traces of anger had disappeared from her brother’s face.

Tobirama cussed under his breath. “Forget it,” he said, reaching for a small bundle of fabric from his pocket. “Take this for your trip.” He gave her the bundle as he left.

“Tobira—”

“Talk to you later, Sis.”

Hashirama froze in her place until she could no longer hear his steps. She opened the bundle to find dried herbs inside. Ingredients of concoction she usually drank to ease her morning sickness. She was stunned in realization, completely forgetting to bring some with her. A fold of paper slipped inside was a list of food and drink prohibited for her to consume. She took a long time staring at the content of the bundle before she remembered about her agenda.  

She convinced herself that Tobirama was only tired. She often felt like crying at the end of the day every time she was finished dealing with village affairs. Her brother must have felt the same exhaustion she felt. They were trained to survive as long as they could in the battlefield, defeating their enemies. Not sitting in an office, studying and approving reams of administration documents all day. They were trained to hunt, run, and chase in the wild, not sitting stiffly behind the desk.

Her mind was battled by various thoughts, that Hashirama didn’t realize Sasuke and Tsubaki had joined her. The two clan leaders walked a bit further to her sides, watching the condition around them cautiously. Hashirama didn’t listen when they talked.

The Uzumaki clan was already in the Emperor’s castle. Ashina, Mito, and the other cousins as well. Including Nobuo. Once Hashirama is done with the negotiations, she could go home in peace, settling all the problems in the village. Preventing rotten rumors from spreading its smell throughout Konoha.

“Hokage-sama, do you need to take a short rest?”

Hashirama landed on the side of a footpath flanked by rows of old cedars. Her two guards had lowered their supplies and belongings. She only nodded to approve Sasuke’s offer, before taking a rest under the shade of cedar trees.

“Hashirama-san, would you like some ebigara berries?”

The two women shared tiny red fruits handpicked by Tsubaki from nearby shrubs. It tasted sweet and sour on her tongue. Hashirama ate in silence until she realized the clan leader had been staring at her.

“What’s wrong?”

“I should be the one to ask.” Tsubaki wiped her fingers onto the surface of a mossless stone. “Let me guess; you are in love.”

Hashirama choked on her food. She repeatedly hit her chest while Tsubaki tapped on her back.

“You’re like a young teenage girl!” She laughed out loud once Hashirama managed to breathe normally. She threw two berries into her mouth, continuing the conversation while chewing. “Don’t be shy. Many people have known for long.”

“Huh…?”

For long—?

“You two are inseparable. Always seen together every time he’s in the village—see? Your face is even redder than the berries!”

Hashirama bowed her head down, chirping “oh” very softly, holding the heat that spread on her cheeks. Was it that obvious?

“I also know what you were doing in the forest near the hospital.” She smirked as wide as possible, showing off a pair of fangs on her upper set of teeth. “When the Emperor was in Konoha—”

AAAH! AAAH! AAAHHH!

"Ha… hahahaha… what are you talking about…?” Hashirama tried to conceal her nervousness through laughing bashfully. But the heat felt like it was burning through her ears.

She smiled playfully, tapping on her nose. “Have you forgotten that we can smell as good as dogs?”

Hashirama only blinked as she stared at her flat nose.

IDIOOOOOT!

How stupid of her to forget! Of course they could literally smell the gossip before it spreads…!

Tsubaki laughed out loud once more, slapping her own thighs repeatedly. “Your smells are so similar, mixed with the unique smell of those pine trees growing near the hospital. Smells like a couple of shy lovebirds…” Her words were hung in the air, but her gaze already expressed her actual intention.

Hashirama didn’t dare to stare at her directly. Her index fingers were busy playing with the berries on her lap. She felt like wrapping herself inside the cedar trunk!

“It’s fine. I also fell in love once.”

There was no bitter taste in her expression nor voice. Unlike the others who talked about her familiarity with Madara upon the rumors of her engagement surfaced in public.

“Tsubaki-san… are you still single…?” She asked timidly, worried if the question would be considered too intrusive. Hashirama never had the chance to talk intimately with her Senju cousins, because they always treated her differently.

“I still love my late first husband,” she said as she threw another berry into her mouth. “He wasn’t a shinobi, you know. He was just a turnip farmer in a village under our protection. But he was a sweetheart. Everything he cared for would flourish. Pochi liked him in an instant the first time we met. My parents were furious when I brought him home to be introduced.” Tsubaki shook her head, amused.

“But you were married…?”

“We eloped.” Tsubaki cleared her throat. She placed her arms behind her head, leaning against them. “Because I didn’t want to take a side husband. It hadn’t been a year, and his village was plagued with smallpox. My husband died a week after he was contacted by the sickness. I went home immediately as a prevention.”

Hashirama was stunned. Realizing her expression, Tsubaki grinned.

“It’s been twenty years. No need to feel sad about it, Hashirama-san.” She stretched her calves. “Since then I don’t want to get married again. I’d rather focus on my duty.”

Eloping could be a good option, but it was impossible for both of them. They couldn’t leave Konoha and their siblings behind that easily…

“And he? He’s been widowed since thirteen!” Tsubaki shouted, looking at the direction where they came. Sasuke was approaching them as he walked for some air, his pipe was between his lips. He frowned, glaring at Tsubaki. She responded through stretching her arms in the air before standing up carefully. Her nostrils expanded.

Hashirama’s body turned alert. But her gestures were relaxed, slowly finishing the ebigara berries she had on her lap. “I didn’t know you were married,” she said.

Sasuke extinguished his pipe, shrugging. “It was an arranged marriage.”

“Does Hashirama-san still need some rest?”

“No.” She reached for her bag, standing up. “Let’s go—”

Five men appeared from the front, snarling at the three shinobi. Two of them had rusty sickles in their hands. Tsubaki and Sasuke dashed to face them. Hashirama stayed still in her place, watching their fights. The two clan leaders used their taijutsu abilities, according to their protocols for the sake of concealing their shinobi identity. Their techniques were beyond the attackers’, and the two of them restrained themselves because of it.

The bandits didn’t possess any difference with farmers in any village. They were defeated easily, but their allies showed up from behind the cedar trees and shrubs, pointing their short swords towards her two guards. From the way they swung their weapons, it was clear they weren’t amateurs.

Seven, eight. Thirteen bandits.

She sensed another presence behind her, followed by a chilling sensation on her neck. “Hand us all of your money,” a low voice grunted. The owner was behind her, his body touched against her back. “You are way too calm as a hostage. Do something like crying, screaming, or whatever, can you?"

The sword blade under her chin wasn’t recklessly made. It was forged well and taken care of. Some commoners couldn’t possibly hold swords of such quality.

They weren’t some regular bandits.

Hashirama was still in her place, her arms were relaxed on her sides. “Do you have money or not?” she asked, calmly.

Sasuke shook his head. Tsubaki shrugged.

“Search through their stuff!” the bandit shouted. He seemed to be the leader. One of the unarmed bandits approached Hashirama’s bag.

Do not touch my bag!”

He froze in his place. Visibly trembled. He took steps backwards, scared.

“I’ve told you we have nothing valuable,” Hashirama said once more, this time without the chakra strength in her words. “I ask you to leave us in peace. We will be merciful enough not to chase you."

His sword sunk into her skin, wounding until it bled. “Don't you realize you are outnumbered—?!”

“You heard what she said.”

Hashirama heard a gentle tap, telling her someone had landed nearby; not far behind her. She didn’t need to turn around to see who was coming.

The two clan leaders smirked widely. The seven armed bandits who surrounded them stared in shock.

“T, that’s—” One of the bandits pointed his finger. “That’s The Demon of Konoha!”

“Isn’t he supposed to be on the frontline—in Tsuchi?!”

The newcomer walked to her front. His red armor was stained by war, but his headband gleamed like silver. She waved her hand a little, couldn’t stop herself from whispering a greeting to him although the bandit’s sword was still on her jugular.

“Hello, Dearest.”

Uchiha Madara clicked his tongue.


 

“Those bandits,” Tsubaki took a spoonful of stir fried burdock root into her mouth in the midst of conversation, “they had more ronin than any other group I’ve seen.”

“The unarmed ones aren’t mountain bandits. They wore fabrics, not hemps. Their teeth looked clean and healthy,” Sasuke added, sipping his soup. “Without ronin, they are always avoiding patrols. Only targeting merchants and travelers.”

“I’m curious about their swords,” Hashirama spoke, putting her emptied rice bowl down. “They’re skillfully forged. Better than our swords.”

Madara stared at his companions one by one. “Do you know how the situation was in Tsuchi before Konoha entered the war?”

They shook their heads.

“It’s a suicide.” He put his chopsticks down, intertwining his fingers. “Hinokuni commanders forced their troops to march forward. The Tsuchi troops dominated them because they understand the area. Sometimes stone rained on the border; sometimes pebbles, sometimes large volcanic rocks. Food suppliers were often become victims. Not much could be eaten at the front except crows and rats. The tired horses were slaughtered for dinner.” Madara stopped to sip his sake. “Not everyone could stand to live that way.”

Hashirama slowed down her chewing. The information given by the samurai was solely about tactics. There were some notes about food supplies, but troops’ morale was never mentioned anywhere. She missed such detail because she was too focused to the war…

“Internal bickering amongst the daimyo distracted us all,” Tsubaki scoffed. “They caused the other empires to sound like a hearsay.”

“Well, the samurai only obey the Emperor’s command. We don’t—at least, until lately.”

“That is the ideal,” Madara continued. “Low rank samurai deserted the war after months of fighting. The ones caught will have to face death sentence. The only option left is to become a ronin, blending in with the peasants or become bandits.”

The tofu in her miso soup swirled within the stream. Her dark eyes stared back at her, reflected on the soup’s surface.

“But we… it’s safe to say we have replaced them in the war, Uchiha-san. They don’t have to run away anymore, do they?”

Sasuke straightened his back, reaching for a bottle of sake. “What are the samurai doing now after shinobi, the more efficient troops, have been sent to war?”

“Some of the commanders are still on the frontlines, helping with the tactics. The rest of them has gone home. Many of them permanently disabled.”

“Many of them turned ronin too.” Tsubaki received a filled cup of sake. “Become the hunters and the hunted.”

Hashirama shook her head when Sasuke offered to fill her cup. She continued eating as she tried to digest their conversation. Her nausea returned to disrupt her. She had to distract her mind.

How many were Nobutada’s samurai? She still remembered the samurai who escorted the Emperor to Konoha. He didn’t seem to like being there, had it not for an escorting mission.

“You should be wearing armor,” Madara rebuked them in ire, mostly aiming at their leader.

“I want us to travel as a commoners.” And because of that reason she discouraged them to use ninjutsu against the bandits. “They’re just common bandits.” Hashirama shrugged.

Madara splitted his tofu violently. “Look who was held hostage.”

“I turned out fine, right?”

“What do you mean by ‘fine’? There was a sword ready to decapitate your neck…!”

Hashirama dropped her chopsticks and put aside her long hair. “The wound has healed.”

“Still…!”

Tsubaki coughed. “I need fresh air,” she complained. She stood up, stretching her waist and walking out of their rented chamber. Sasuke followed after her, mumbling about needing to smoke after the meal.

“You knew those bandits were surrounding you, why didn’t you leave before they showed up?”

Hashirama pouted as she placed a hot water pot on the table, taking out a wrap of dried herbs from her bag. Her stomach was full from dinner. The nausea kept disturbing her.

“I was curious.” She shrugged. “I wanted to see them directly.”

“A Hokage, became the hostage of some weak bandits? What a joke!”

“...Why am I being scolded?”

Madara mumbled under his breath, but his gaze didn’t seem to be furious. He sighed deeply, pouring sake from a small bottle. “Traveling without armor so laid back…” He almost filled Hashirama’s cup when his eyes caught the dried herb wrap. A crumpled piece of paper was seen peeking from the inside.

“Even if you weren’t there, I could take care of them. They looked different than any other mountain bandits.” Refreshing smell began to fill the entire room as Hashirama poured hot water onto a pinch of herbs in the glass.

The air vibrated softly, undetected by the senses of an ordinary human. A thin layer of genjutsu enveloped the entire room, protecting the voices inside from being heard by someone else. Hashirama wished in her heart that their two companions wouldn’t return too soon.

The second cup of sake wasn’t going to be filled anymore.

Madara moved to sit next to her, pulling a piece of paper from the herb pocket. Once he turned his head at her, his face was colored in curiosity.

Hashirama caressed his cheek gently, observing his body to find battle scars. Her palm traced his shoulder and back, trying to find unusual textures or hidden bandages. But she found nothing.

“You aren’t wounded…” She inched closer, laying her head on his chest.

Madara kissed her temple, embracing her closer.

All the burden and thoughts fell off her shoulder. Throughout the dinner, they mostly discussed about the war frontlines. Hashirama managed to conceal her discontent, but it was still difficult for her to be at ease when they began to talk about Tsuchinokuni troops’ compositions.  

Such topic was meant to be addressed again later on. There was something she needed to say.

Hashirama pulled away slightly, straightening her back until their gaze locked to each other. “Madara,” she called softly, “I am carrying your child.”

Madara blinked. For a moment he seemed wanting to say something. But in the end, all he did was take a deep, restrained breath. He mimicked what Hashirama did; tracing her body until his hands stopped on the sides of her abdomen. His fingers touched the surface carefully, gently. Like he was looking for an unusual shape or texture.

“It hasn’t taken a shape, Madara—ah—”

Her words were met by a glowing sensor chakra on his hands. A ticklish sensation was sent all over her belly for a few seconds, causing her to bite her lip. Madara’s concentrated, furrowed face slowly relaxed, and the chakra shrunk.

“...Hashi.”

“...Mm?”

“You have my child,” Madara repeated her words, as if confirming the truth for himself. Shock hadn’t disappeared from his eyes. “You… really…”

Hashirama swept his long bangs, nodding once more. For a moment she saw a smile bloomed on his face, before finding herself returned to his tight embrace. Her breath was stuck for a split second inside her chest. Her fingers were ready to pat his back, asking to be released, but she revoked her intention. She was wrapped in happiness, and her eyes turned wet.

Once Madara released her, she couldn’t stop laughing voicelessly. His eyes were glistening with tears. Hashirama raised her arm to brush his cheek.

“I—” His voice was restrained. “I wasn’t expecting…”

“Neither was I,” she reassured him. “I became suspicious not long after you were gone, because my bleeding was late…” Hashirama doubted he would listen to her. He embraced her once more, this time placing his chin closer to her neck. His breath was warm on her skin, causing her blood to rush passionately.

“We will have a child, Hashi.”

If only Madara didn’t embrace her so tightly, she would have squealed in joy. Happiness spread throughout her body. Her tears flowed out, and the words kept repeating inside her mind. Echoing into the deepest pit of her heart.

In the midst of uncertainty and dilemma, they would soon have a child…

Madara brushed Hashirama’s wet cheeks. His face was radiant with joy. “So,” he whispered once they pulled away, “what are we going to do next?”

“I wish to negotiate the annulment as soon as possible. Uzumaki Ashina is invited to the castle.” Hashirama’s back leaned against his chest. Madara’s hands were placed on her abdomen.

“Uzumaki Nobuo…” The tip of his nose slipped among her hair strands. His affectionate act contrasted his tone, which sounded as if he was saying a cold blooded word. “What kind of person is he?”

“I only met him once when I was a kid.” Hashirama told him the story of Uzumaki’s visit to the Senju village years ago. “My father scolded me, then I said—oh dear, you won’t believe this.” She chuckled.

“Won’t believe what?”

“I said to my father, I’d rather marry an Uchiha demon than marrying a bully like Nobuo.” Hashirama looked up to see his reaction.

Madara slightly lifted the tip of his lips. “Did you seriously say that?”

“Yeah… I was really mad at that time. I don’t want to be the wife of someone who could laugh while hurting my brother,” Hashirama intertwined their fingers together. “Yet at that time… I hadn’t known the Uchiha clan at all…”

“But now you have,” Madara bowed down further. “Who knows your words can come true?”

Hashirama hummed her agreement, touching their lips together. The touch awakened her desire, which responded by Madara. He slipped his hand beneath her kimono. Heat blazed wherever their skin touched. She felt something bumped her waist, while a soft moan left her mouth.

“The others—”

“I want you,” Madara whispered as he pulled his hand out. “Right now.”

She stared back at him. “Would it be safe for the baby…?”

“We can do it again like that time,” he answered in confidence. “When we were in the forest.” His gaze reflected a single demand. His body tensed under her touch.

“When the Emperor…?”

Madara shook his head. “The very first time. After the treaty.”

Her eyes widened. She hadn’t forgotten, of course. “Then… the genjutsu…?”

“No problem at all. I can maintain it.”

For a second she glanced at the door. Tsubaki must knew what they were doing, but Hashirama was unsure if Sasuke knew anything about their relationship. Should she—

Ah, to hell with it.

A soft crackle echoed once her mokuton wrapped around the handles of shoji and futsuma doors to lock them. She felt uneasy about Tsubaki and Sasuke, but they would understand. She would pay for an extra room they were renting the next morning.

Madara took a sheet of thick futon and pulled Hashirama onto his lap. She undressed her shirt, granting freedom for a pair of large, rough hands to explore every curves on her soft body. Her liontin bounced following the movements that occurred. Seductively, she pulled off his belt, parting away the fabric of his clothes to land a warm, gentle kiss on his bare skin. Madara placed his hands on her head, holding it tightly as her lips and tongue danced to please him.

The only thing left inside the room was her name; called upon through soft whispers he chanted repeatedly, and Hashirama’s moan from trying to hold the intense contraction on the walls inside her. She finally pulled away, taking off her own skirt before brushing her fingers against Madara’s lips. Madara, almost out of breath, staring at her curiously before glancing towards between her legs.

“We just got started… and the goddess can’t hold herself any longer?” he teased as he pulled his back away. His face was almost as red as ebigara berries, his eyes were half closed with a satisfied stare. His hand gestured a challenge. Inviting her to come forward.

Oh Rikudou Sennin, Hashirama wanted it so bad.

“Damn you, demon.” She slipped her hair behind her ear, licking her upper lip. ”I’m not done yet, Anata,” she moaned, bowing her head once more between his legs until he finally reached the climax. He took turns to break the tense inside her body, killing her thirst until her yearning was fulfilled.

There were other things stuck inside her chest; things that happened between their siblings were meant to be addressed, but she pushed it all down again. All those matters could wait.

Everything else should wait.


 

Their journey had to go through an assigned route. There were guard posts in some of the villages. Every time they came and left, an official travel document issued by the Emperor had to be stamped by the guard on every post. The document itself consisted of the guests’ names along with their entourage; they were obliged to be checked one by one before being stamped.

“Very exhausting,” Madara complained as they left their first stop. The guards reminded them not to forget the next post to visit. “It makes our trip longer than it’s supposed to be.”

“But it’s much more fun this way, Uchiha-san. The scenery is incredible!”

Hashirama admitted in her heart that she agreed with Sasuke. Since she was young, she had never been used to travel far from the village, except for war. The landscape they found were mostly hills. The tip of every tree they encountered had turned blazing red, covering the hills with the colors of fire.

She didn’t know Hinokuni had such a magnificent view.

There was a new pattern formed every time they took an afternoon break. Sasuke was always either leaving further to smoke once they stopped, or helping Tsubaki with her hunt. She never stayed longer in the area, that explained why she volunteered to gather some food. They brought enough kikatsugan from the village. But the solid mix of vegetables and grain wouldn’t be enough to fill Hashirama’s hunger. She needed more solid, filling food. However, Hashirama began to spend more time with Madara alone throughout the breaks. She used the opportunity to discuss their work in Konoha, the newest information, and some other that wasn’t a part of their personal matter.

The guard posts were always located in the inn. Because their travel documents were issued by the empire, they instantly received the best rooms to sleep in. Hashirama always rested after she finished eating and cleaning herself. Once her body touched the futon, drowsiness immediately hit her. Only conversations with Madara kept her eyes open.

“Our siblings are fighting,” Hashirama expressed when they were staying in the third post, a village with clear canals. “I feel guilty about it. Maybe I shouldn’t involve them at all in the first place.”

“You are the one who didn’t want Tobirama to get involved. So did I with Izuna.” Madara took off the hooks on his armor. He insisted on wearing it, and Hashirama had given up convincing him to dress as a commoner. At least there weren't any bandit foolish enough to cross them again even when their presence was known.

“I fought, too.”

“With Izuna?”

“No. Tobirama.” Hashirama hid her face behind her palms. “Tobirama has known about my engagement for so long…”

Madara’s expression darkened.

“Maybe because his position is stuck, just like me. Father forbade him to speak about it,” Hashirama quickly added. “He also guessed if we had sex on purpose so I would get pregnant. Uzumaki Ashina doesn’t seem like he wants to accept a granddaughter in law who isn’t a virgin anymore.”

He took out a large bamboo stalk where he kept his water. He took off his gloves, flowing a katon chakra into the stalk. “Isn’t it a good thing? He will annul your engagement.”

Hashirama shook her head wistfully. “Senju clan is indebted to him. He also wants my mokuton.” She caressed her abdomen. “But I prefer our child to have sharingan than mokuton.”

Madara kissed her temple. “I don’t mind whichever.”

“What if our child will suffer the same fate as I do—?”

“I don’t want to force my family into something like that. Our child will be half Uchiha, Hashi. I am their father.” Madara’s ears reddened on the last sentence. “Izuna is almost our age. She’s still single, isn’t she?”

“...You’re right.” Hashirama’s feet popped out from beneath the blanket. The Senju clan council cannot force her child to be a part of certain agenda. Not if they don’t wish to mess with the Uchiha clan leader. “Our siblings still need our proper explanation. As soon as we get home.”

Once they got home, they wouldn’t have to hide anymore.

The hot water from Madara was used to brew the herb concoction. He kept watching over her during the entire trip, and mostly became the first one to ask for a break even when Hashirama insisted she was alright. The further they went, the bigger her wish for a neverending trip. She could spend more time alone with Madara, far from piles of work documents…

But, on the other side, she found Madara had been keeping a serious stare towards her. He quickly averted his gaze once Hashirama asked him why.

“You’re doing it again,” she said once she finished the warm concoction. “What’s wrong, Madara?”

“Nothing at all. You should get some sleep.”

But even until they laid beside each other in the dark, Hashirama was still looking for the answer on his face.

“...You don’t want to give up, huh?”

“Are you thinking about the war?” she asked softly, almost whispering. Her heart raced. She really didn’t wish to think about it, at least for this time. 

“Partly.” Madara closed his eyes, kissing the top of her head. “You must have realized the scale of change we have made so far.” The moonlight that shone through the shoji door his body outline gleamed in soft silver. The scent of pine returned to fill her lungs.

A swift reel of memory played inside her mind. The deforestation of Konoha forests. The destruction of the old Senju village. The mass exodus of shinobi clans to Konoha. Her appointment as a Hokage. The Emperor’s arrival with his offer of war. The reception upon the offer by the other clan leaders. The bijuu attack…

The emergence of a shinobi village in another empire. The war against Tsuchinokuni. The war she officiated without carrying a weapon herself.

All of these started from a small talk between two dreaming children by the riverside. Two innocent children who didn’t realize how vast the world they lived in, and how powerful the strength they would hold in their hands one day.

“Hashi, get some rest.”

Hashirama circled her arms around his waist, trying to sleep. Her dream was decorated with abstract patterns and colors. Every shape slowly took form of a real, familiar thing. She found a vast pampas grass field that stretched towards the horizon, shaded by a layer of dark purple sky with millions of stars scattered across.

Two full moons stared back at her.


 

The castle they were going to wasn’t Nobutada’s official residence, but rather his vacation home. It was placed in the heart of a mountain. Its black roofs could be seen from afar. The road they walked through ended in a forest full of purple-stalked bamboo. The guard they found wore body armor made of tanned leather. The empire symbol was carved on the chest.

“Stop!” one guard commanded. His tone was stern. Once he approached them, the hilt of his katana was seen on the side of his waist. “State your business.”

“We are here for the Emperor’s invitation.” Hashirama stepped forward, showing the travel documents. The guard read its content with furrowed forehead, his eyes moved from the scroll and to their faces to match with their names.

“He looks like he’s getting constipated,” Sasuke whispered really softly, causing Tsubaki to almost burst out laughing. Hashirama had to clench her jaws, holding her laugh. Luckily the joke wasn’t heard by the guard.

“Alright,” the guard scoffed loudly, rolling the travel document. “From here, only the Hokage Senju Hashirama and Uchiha Madara-sama are allowed entry,” said the last post’s guard once they received fully stamped travel document. “The escorts may follow this way. We already prepared accomodations for both of you.” There was a small footpath leading towards the bamboo forest on the left. Another guard was ready to escort them.

Tsubaki held Hashirama’s hands tightly. “Have fun!” she whispered as she winked. She already disappeared on the turn before Hashirama had the time to respond.

Madara mumbled once they were following the first guard inside, “your face is red.”

“...It’s nothing,” Hashirama responded, almost without moving a lip.

“Before we proceed, Uchiha-sama. Please show your weapons here.”

Madara took the gunbai off his back. The guard took it, measuring it with both hands. He returned it once he was done inspecting it. 

“Please keep your weapon in your room during your stay.” Then he turned towards Hashirama. “Do you have weapons with you too, Hokage-sama?”

She shook her head before they were allowed to continue their journey. They exchanged gaze meaningfully.

They were far more dangerous while empty handed than armed.

The bamboo forest ended near a wide bridge made of stones and wooden fences. It was stretched above a deep chasm with many scattered rocks on its base. Across the bridge was a humble gate, the start of a wide road towards spiralling stairs. The peak was hidden behind the pines.

“Lord and Lady, you will arrive at your destination by the end of the stairs. Now, please excuse me.” The guard didn’t follow them to the bridge. He bowed in respect before returning to his post.

“Darn it,” Madara cussed once they reached the stairs. “I bet we aren’t allowed to use our chakra to get to the top.” They couldn’t see the end of the stone stairs.

“Why? A stair like this isn’t a difficult terrain.” Hashirama took the first step. Everything was narrow. There was a large chain stretched along the stairs for their hands to hold. Cold air bit into her skin.

“For shinobi of our level, yes. But you aren’t in your maximum condition, Hashi.”

“I’m only pregnant, not severely ill…”

Madara was still sceptical, but he refrained from continuing the topic.

The weather wasn’t hot, but her sweats kept dripping. Once in a while Hashirama turned her head at Madara’s side, who was one to two steps behind her. His armor didn’t seem to burden him. Madara offered her a rest several times, which she immediately refused.

The further they went, the trees became rarer and the terrain was steeper. The wind blew harder, messing their untied hair. After a few dozens of steps, alcoves were present to be used as places to take a break. Even though the stones were carved roughly, Hashirama kept thinking what would happen if it rained or snowed. The wooden fences looked frail. Anyone clumsy enough could slip and fall into the chasm—

The world spun. She lost her balance. Even the fences and the chains were too far from her reach—  

Something held the back of her waist, preventing her from falling. Hashirama’s heart raced. Her hands already formed a snake seal.

“Madara—”

“There’s an alcove upfront. Let’s go.”

Once she had arrived, Hashirama quickly sat down, leaning against the stone wall. The herb concoction she drank only helped ease her nausea, but not much with maintaining her stamina. If the early stage of pregnancy had easily exhausted her, how about later…?

As usual, Madara boiled water and Hashirama created a mokuton bowl to drink from. While she waited for the concoction to take effect, she scolded herself. Her reflexes should’ve worked as good as in her normal condition. Why did she become so weak? She thought none of the pregnant women she encountered had a similar condition…

“We won’t be here for long,” Madara said suddenly. “You will return to Konoha in a week, Hashi.”

“I… wasn’t thinking about my work,” she argued. “This is purely because…”

“There’s a healer who observes you, right?”

Hashirama nodded. “I shouldn’t be very nauseated in a few weeks…”

But her mind continued to focus on the work she left, Tobirama who still gave her the cold shoulder, and Izuna. Hashirama only wished to go home soon. She wanted to trade all the soft futon that awaited her in the castle with her hay bed in the Hokage apartment. Although it wasn’t comfortable, at least she was closer to her brother.

Madara’s hand kept holding her waist until they went through all the steps. At last, they reached a vast platform with its ground covered in neat, smooth stone pavement. Circles fenced the pines that stood tall around the area. The pavillion was surrounded by several huts and a line of tended bushes neatly circled around the establishment.

A fully armored samurai approached them. He seemed to be the guard assigned to the area. Once Hashirama mentioned her name, a slim figure appeared to see her immediately. Half of her face was hidden behind the white sleeves of her kimono.

“Long time no see, Hashirama.” She glanced at her shyly.

Hashirama was stunned for a while until she observed her red hair which rolled into twin hair buns. “...Mito?”

Uzumaki Mito lowered her arms, smiling until her teeth were seen. “Finally you are here! Oh my, I miss you so much…!”

“Me too. I deeply apologize for taking too much time replying your letters—”

“You look even more beautiful up close. The Emperor is right!” She took Hashirama’s hands. “Follow me!”

“Okay—” Hashirama only managed an apologetic glance towards Madara who was still talking to the samurai.

Mito dragged her near the edge of the platform, walking through red and gold gardens. “I’ve been waiting for so long to see you!” she exclaimed as she hugged her tightly. “Since the last two years, your letters has been taking so long to arrive. Then I heard you have become the village chief—oh, what do you call it? Hokage? Wow! When you became the clan leader, my grandpa and the others were so shocked! ‘It’s unexpected for the Senju to choose a woman as their clan leader’, they said. But you have the mokuton, don’t you—”

“Mito, breathe…!” she asked. Mito’s elegant facade quickly fell when they were far from anybody’s sight. Hashirama didn’t remember if she was this talkative back then. The guilt of delaying her letters seeped into her mind, clinging like a burden.

Her cousin took a deep breath, brushing the sweat on her eyebrow. “I really, really miss you, you know! Your letters took a long time and I was busy researching fuuinjutsu! I heard Konoha was attacked by a bijuu again, so I was working on creating protective barrier strong enough to withstand them too. I brought all of my notes to my room, I’m so excited to do some experiments in Konoha—!”

Hashirama stopped mid way, holding Mito between the rows of large bonsai trees. “Experiments in Konoha? You mean—”

“I will go to Konoha with you!” Mito’s eyes gleamed. “Uzushio is too remote; I want to see your village again, and the other clans, maybe there will be someone with excellent fuuinjutsu skill!”

“Alright, alright!” Hashirama giggled. “I’m sure I can arrange that with Ashina-sama later.”

“Yay!”

They finally reached another platform before the main building. It had a wider view than the other one, they could easily watch dozens of men practicing swordsmanship and archery. Everywhere they found Uzumaki red hair. Mito returned to her elegant demeanor, holding her hand through the crowds until they arrived behind a row of archers. Their eyes were covered with blindfolds. They took off the left sleeves of their kimono, freeing their left arms to pull the bow.

Hashirama observed them. They released the arrow from the bow. All hit the target. However, there was only one man managed to strike the arrow right in the middle of the dot. The other observers clapped politely once the archers took off their blindfolds.

“Amazing, isn’t it?” Mito clapped her hands as well. Her face turned radiant. She pulled Hashirama forward before releasing her near the archers to speak with a red haired archer by the end of the row.

An archer turned his back too fast. His bow nearly bumped against Hashirama’s shoulder. Fortunately she dodged in time.

“Ah—pardon me—!”

“It’s alright.” She observed the archer’s face. His waist long red hair told her he was an Uzumaki. They seemed to be of the same age. His smile was sweet and radiant.

He observed her with his eyebrows furrowed a little. “Have we met before…?”

“Perhaps?” Hashirama reached her arm for a handshake. “If you ever visited the Senju residence, we must have met. I am Ha—”

“Senju Hashirama,” he cut in. “Of course. Forgive my forgetful self…”

He took her hand, but instead of shaking it, he turned it upside down to kiss the back of her hand. Hashirama’s arm tensed in an instant. She refrained herself from pulling her hand—the observers and archers were still around them.

“Uzumaki Nobuo,” he introduced himself, smiling widely. Strands of his red hair fell to frame his firm jaw. “Do you remember?”

Hashirama’s mouth opened in silence. The only thing she remembered was a bald kid with a mocking laugh. Along with the punches she used to bruise his chubby face. This man in front of her had nothing similar to the kid she punched a long time ago!

Nobuo was still holding her hand tightly, awaiting her response.

Behind her, Hashirama felt a familiar murderous aura spread around them. She turned her head.

Madara had caught up with her. 


 

Izuna was five, and she was stuck among the leaves.

When she left home this morning, Izuna intended to play in the mud before watching her father hunt with an eagle. A cousin invited her to find rabbit holes, which she accepted without a doubt. But rather than a rabbit, she found an orange cat. The rabbit hunt was quickly forgotten. Izuna no longer stood firmly. She had her palms on the ground, and her fingers bent. The thin cat realized it was spied upon.

The cat hissed. Izuna hissed.

The cat bent its back. Izuna bent her back.

The cat dashed into the forest. Izuna dashed to chase it.

It was easy to chase a cat; Izuna had trained herself while playing with her cousins. They chased each other and pretending they were shinobi.  The morning when the sunlight hadn’t reached through the forest canopies was the best time to train their eyes in the dark.

Finding a strike of orange color in the green forest wasn’t difficult. Izuna saw it climbed the pine tree. She swiftly chased after it, pushing the chakra onto her hands and feet like she was taught by her father. The cat dashed to the end of a branch, and stopped. It turned its head around. 

“Aha!” Izuna panted, pointing at it with pride. “You are cornered—!”

Before the girl finished her victory speech, the orange cat jumped to another branch across it. Disappeared among the leaves followed by a quick rustling sound. It was impossible for her to follow after; the branch was too small for a child like her.

Slowly she glanced at the ground. It was too high to get down. Now that her adrenaline had shrunken, she found it difficult to focus her chakra back onto her hands and feet. 

She was stuck.

No! She wasn’t stuck! There should be a way to get down!

She recklessly reached her legs and left arm to hug the large trunk. The tips of her nails pierced through the bark, and pain began to sting the sides of her legs. Izuna gritted her teeth, calling for her chakra to return. Little by little, she finally got down. She did it!

But once she was halfway of sliding down, a voice killed her focus.

“Izuna!”

The girl froze, trying not to turn her head. Her focus was shattered. Her grip was suddenly released. Her back hit the thick bushes, granting her with more wounds. The pain burned on the tips of her nerves, and her vision was blurred by the tears.

“Izuna—can you stand?”

A pair of slender arms lifted her from the bushes while she cried out loud. Immediately she circled her arms around the person's shoulders, trying to deny the pain that continued to pulse all over her body. She didn't remember anything until she reached the village. Her throat was sore from the cry.

Less than an hour later, Izuna had leaned against the wall. Her swollen face flinched in pain as her mother treated her legs with herbal medicine to ease her pain. She sprained her ankle when she fell. Wounds on the rest of her skin had been treated with a mix of cold leaves, but they still throbbed painfully.

"It will be better soon," her mother calmed her down. "Don't cry, Izuna." Her clothes were full of mends, sewn carelessly once she was done breastfeeding Izuna's brother. The tight hair bun she wore on the back of her head began to loose.

Izuna was still biting her lip, snorting loudly. Realizing how hard her daughter tried not to cry, she hummed a song as she worked on her house chores.

"Let's sing with me."

Slowly Izuna followed the soft melody from her mouth, harmonising rhythm and tone of the lyricless song. Once their voices harmonised perfectly, Izuna no longer felt pain. She could observe the sunny blue sky, and the relatives who released their eagles once they were done hunting.

Her smile faded. If only she did not chase the orange cat, she would have been able to watch them hunt. Izuna bit her lip. Her gaze aimed at the sky, towards an eagle who flew around their yard before soaring into the horizon.

If only she could fly, she would have caught the cat.

The thought kept filling her mind even until she sat down to eat with her family. Her mind was so busy that she did not recognize an empty pillow in the room. Her father and mother continued to eat as usual, while her little brother slept.

"Where is Nii-san?"

Like an answer to her question, the shoji door slid open. Her oldest brother kneeled in respect by the doorstep. "I have finished cutting the woods, Otou-sama."

Her father continued eating without bothering to turn his head. "Did you stack them neatly?"

"I did."

"Come inside and eat."

Their mother placed a bowl of rice with steamed lotus roots on an empty space on their dining table. A slice of pheasant meat and a quail egg soon followed after. Madara sat to reach for the chopstick, then mumbling for a prayer.

"Next time don't bring Izuna to climb the trees," Tajima scolded him. "She's still too young."

Izuna stared at her father in disbelief. She climbed the tree herself. An argument began to form on her tongue, ready to be expressed once her brother put his palm on her head. He stroked her hair.

"Yes, Otou-sama." Madara grinned at Izuna, whom only glared in confusion. "Hey, if you keep daydreaming like that, I'll take your egg—"

"No, you can't!" Izuna stole the egg from Madara's bowl, sticking her tongue out. Her brother laughed.

"Don't mess on the dining table, you two." Their mother took the egg from Izuna's bowl, placing it in her son's bowl.

Once Izuna laid in the darkness of night, she kept imagining the eagle. Must be fun if she could fly and soar freely. She could see the world with her sharingan from the sky…

She would never fall and cry anymore.

 

Chapter Text

She was ten, and the stars ran overhead.

Izuna was woken up to her chin bouncing on a protruding bone. She whimpered, hurt and confused. Her father and brother had left to war without her due to her ongoing fever. Hours ago she lay down on her hay mattress. So why was she outside this late, wrapped in a thick mantle?

She sniffed the air, finding a familiar body scent whose owner carried her. “Okaa-sama… where we going?”

“To… my home,” she answered, her breathing quick and short. A bundle of cloth was tied on her back.

The girl looked up. “Our home is over there.” She pointed at the opposite direction, to the horizon flanked by silhouettes with crowns as sharp as bear’s teeth. “Why we going?”

Her mother didn’t answer anymore. Only running and running. Izuna was too sleepy and too tired to think. Her half-closed eyes watched the earth spun under her mother’s yellow kimono…

Yellow?

No Uchiha wore such a bright color…

The woman’s hair bun was loosened when a shadow dashed from the south, cutting her path. Her mother halted, her breathing short and rapid. Izuna lifted her face, blinking to see who chased them.

“What’s this, Ageha?”

Uchiha Tajima stood before them, fully armored with an unsheathed blade. Izuna wanted to smile at him, but she canceled her intention. There was something off about the situation. Like her father’s angry voice, and his battle-ready stance.

“I can’t hold it anymore!” Ageha’s voice cracked. Her hand shielded Izuna’s head on her shoulder. “I can’t watch my children dying one by one—”

“Then go,” Tajima cut in harshly. “Leave my daughter.”

“You’ve been bringing her to war since she’s little! She could get hurt anytime, die anytime—”

“She’s an Uchiha shinobi.” Sound of the blade being sheathed was heard. “That’s her destiny since her birth. That’s how we live our life!”

“She’s still a child, Tajima…!”

“She’s a shinobi who have killed another person!”

Her fingers found her mother’s hand, slowly releasing it. She climbed down from her mother’s arms who did nothing to stop her. Frozen in shock.

“Izuna, my daughter…”

Izuna ran to Tajima’s side. She turned her face away right before her mother cried.

“Your younger brothers are no more!” she screamed. “Come with me, we’ll live in peace just the two of us…”

Tajima took a step forward. “Back then you freely chose to follow me. So now I’ll freely choose to let you go.”

“Tajima, Anata—”

“You have relinquished our kimono. I am no longer your husband, Ageha.”

Izuna gripped his sleeve. Her body trembled due to the temperature and unrest in her heart. Her father’s words, the clan leader, are absolute. But she couldn't ignore a question rising deep within.

Why does her mother left without telling her father and brother? What are they talking about now?

She sought answer on her father’s face. His sharingan glared.

“Izuna,” Tajima called without looking. “You’re my only daughter. Recognize the difference between the two of you.”

The girl finally looked at her mother’s face. Glimmering tears streaked her thin cheeks. There was hope in her eyes. Her hand reached forward, her palm skyward. Offering her daughter to approach.

Izuna’s back was cold. Irritation filled her heart. Her eyes were wet, but she held it back. Her father was right, she’s a shinobi. A shinobi doesn’t cry.

A shinobi doesn’t run from battle. Especially an Uchiha shinobi.

“I just wanna be with Nii-san,” Izuna whispered, staring at the grass among her bare toes.

“You heard her,” Tajima stated coldly.

Ageha sniffled. “Izuna…”

“You have to forget everything you’ve seen in the Uchiha clan home,” Tajima continued immediately. “You will return to your childhood home. You will forget me—”

“Tajima, don’t—” Ageha fell to her knees, clenching on the grass. Her shoulders shook as she cried.

“—and my children, for the rest of your life or until your flesh and blood release this genjutsu.”

Long, bony fingers reached swiftly towards Izuna’s collar. Reflex pushed her to dodge. Her heartbeat rose in fear as she saw desperation carved inhuman expression on her mother’s face.

Tajima grabbed her wrist, forcing her to stand. The air trembled as the genjutsu was placed. Ageha was dropped to sitting position. The sadness on her face was slowly fading, replaced with a blank stare towards the horizon.

Her father carried her as they returned home. The thin body wrapped in yellow clothes in the distance slowly morphed into a dark dot. Gone.

“Mother won’t be home again?” she asked timidly as they approached their dwelling.

“Your mother’s home isn’t here anymore.” His steps were slowed down before he mingled with his shinobi family. “Never mention her again. Go home.”

Madara was still sitting on their house’s hallway, his sword still on his waist. He scrambled to his feet seeing her arrival, momentarily gazing far into the distance before approaching. His body reeked of war.

“Where…?”

His sister shook her head, stumbling due a sudden sneeze. Madara picked her up, lingering on their yard.

“Mother won’t be home, Nii-san.” Izuna tried her best to tell her experience with a hoarse voice. “O… Otou-sama… used gen-genjutsu…” Her words came out unclear.

When Madara arrived at her room, his shoulder was wet already. He put her down and helped her lie down under the blanket. Then he left without saying anything.

Izuna tried to sleep, but she still sniffled. Darn it. Shinobi shouldn’t cry. But her emotions were undeniable. The imagery of a thin woman in yellow kimono was still in her mind, bothering her drowsiness. Annoyed, the girl finally opened her swollen eyes. Staring wide at the wooden ceiling.

Suddenly the darkness in her room didn’t feel as dense as before.


 

 

“Ah, Madara.”

Uchiha Madara crossed the crowded courtyard like he walked through a war zone. His hair loose in the wind, his armor gleaming red. His gunbai was nowhere in sight, but its presence wasn’t needed. Madara was still as dangerous.

Hashirama tried to reach him using her chakra even before he got closer. She could feel tension spreading to several people at the courtyard, although most were busy with their own activities. Some glanced, observing them. The killing intent finally ebbed as he entered her chakra’s reach.

“Uchiha Madara?” Nobuo asked. A servant had taken away his bow. “The Demon? That clan’s leader?”

“Yes, he has a large role in establishing Konoha,” Hashirama answered half whispering. Her sight was fixated to Madara. “Nobuo—this is Uchiha’s clan head, Madara,” she introduced them both. “Madara, this is Uzumaki Nobuo, he’s—”

“This Lady Senju’s fiance,” Nobuo finished her sentence. “I’m pleased to meet you, Uchiha-san.”

A diplomatic smile was drawn on Madara’s lips. “Likewise. I’ve heard about you from Hokage-sama’s brother.”

Nobuo’s grey eyes widened. “Ooh, yes. I heard his tongue slipped about our engagement. Too bad!” He scratched his head, suddenly shy. Chuckling, he added, “Grandfather and Uncle Butsuma wanted it to be a surprise.”

Hashirama stepped back, once more trying to free her hand. “So Nobuo-san has known about it since long ago?” she asked, maintaining her warm tone.

She didn’t want to call Nobuo as her fiance.

“Since I was… twelve, I guess? I knew when I was sent to study in the palace.”

His fingers tried to intertwine with Hashirama’s. With a flick of her wrist, she finally freed herself. She stepped back further until another hand held her waist. Her body leaned to that touch, and she rubbed the arm Nobuo had held, feeling relieved.

“That’s so long ago,” she continued the conversation almost without a pause. “Mito never said anything in her letters.”

“Grandfather forbids me.” Mito has returned, her face silently apologized. She was accompanied by an old man whose height was a head shorter than Hashirama.

“Hashirama!” he exclaimed with open arms. “You’re so tall now!”

“Ashina-jiisama.” Hashirama leaned a bit to hug him. “You have been well.”

“Very well!” Uzumaki Ashina laughed while patting her back. His beard that reached his waist moved as he laughed. “Everyone has been waiting for you. Is Konoha so far that you took a long time to arrive here?”

“Not really, I wanted to admire the scenery along the way. Madara was the one impatient to get here.”

“Oh.” Ashina’s attention finally moved to that man. He observed him from head to toe, as if measuring his power. “It’s unexpected that I could meet in person with the infamous Uchiha clan head in peaceful time.”

Madara retracted his hand from Hashirama’s back to shake his hand. “I’m glad I finally meet your clan.”

“I saw Daimyo Watanabe has arrived,” Mito piped up. “Grandfather should return upstairs to change. There will be a party tonight,” she added for Hashirama. “You’ll be asked to attend too.”

“Of course.” Then she turned to Madara. “Have you found our room…?”

“Mine is among the pavilion row outside, but—”

“Her room is next to mine,” Nobuo cut in. “In the main castle. The view is magnificent. I hope you like it.”

Hashirama’s smile nearly disappeared.

“Shall we?” Nobuo offered his hand. “Let’s go, my goddess, I’ll show you the place…”


 

 

She was twenty three.

Almost three years had passed since the permanent challenge letter was sent from Madara. Within that time, the Senju had opened new fields across the cliff to fulfill their food consumption. The daimyo refused to mediate this war, his reasoning being the conflict was purely interclan, not inter-daimyo. Matsudaira chose to hire another clan who recently relocated to the edge of his land for security needs. He chose to avoid being targeted by the Uchiha.

“Our basic needs are fulfilled. We don’t need him much, Sis.”

“He’s the one who needs us to protect his people,” said Hashirama as they descended the cliff. “No matter how good are the Inuzuka to detect intruders, their power is way below the Uchiha’s katon ninjutsu."

Tobirama landed on a wide branch. “A good strategy can beat them.”

“Regardless of its quality, without a good ninjutsu it’s futile.”

In every ninjutsu battle, the Senju was overwhelming. The Uchiha’s ninjutsu was composed only from katon, easing their strategy-making. No matter how big the fire they made, the Senju doton and suiton masters could deflect them easily. And Hashirama’s mokuton could transform the landscape in a blink of an eye, hindering one on one combat. No matter how powerful a pair of sharingan is, they’re useless if they couldn't see the enemy’s eyes.

Besides, Hashirama knew they were exhausted of war.

The forest behind the cliff wasn’t as old as the one surrounding their settlement. The trees weren’t as tall either. Wild games were plenty, seemingly unused to encountering humans. Often they saw a kamoshika grazing in the morning. Instead of bolting away, it observed them with its dark eyes.

The forest farther upstream was already opened by the Senju for grain fields. Some young men moved here to tend the fields, working together with their relatives from the main settlement.

“Ango-kun!”

A teenage boy with scarred temple turned around and rushed over. “Hashi-sama, Tobirama-san!”

Briefly Hashirama glanced at the figures in dark who were busy carrying eggplants and lotus roots. “How are they…?”

“They’re quick to adapt.” Ango threw a glance behind him. “Also way healthier. Akio over there was as thin as a stick, remember? Not even two months later he could run around harvesting watermelon.”

The siblings spotted the person he mentioned, a tall man whose sleeves were rolled to show his hard muscles. He was carrying a basket full of big green fruits.

“It’s hard to believe they were quick to switch to farming like in their ancestors’ time,” Tobirama commented. “So there are those who prefer not dying in the battlefield.”

“Starvation makes people less idealistic, perhaps.” Ango shrugged. Someone shouted for him from the fields, and he replied with a wave. “The newest scroll is being prepared.”

Many vegetables, fruits, and tubers were laid upon a big, opened scroll. Fuuinjutsu marks were drawn on its center. A Senju young man activated the seal, and within a second the entire harvest disappeared from their view. After it was rolled up, he gave it to Hashirama.

“You do have enough food here, right?” She asked while hooking the scroll’s end to her belt.

“Enough. If we’re bored of barley, we can fish from the lake.”

Their departure was accompanied by tens of basket-carrying Uchiha shinobi. The siblings dashed back to their main settlement using a different route from before.

“It’s almost a year.”

Half of their journey had passed when Tobirama spoke up. Hashirama turned at him, visibly confused.

“The council and several others still can’t believe our enemies have accepted living as farmers for us, Sis.”

“Oh, really...” Hashirama landed from a branch, avoiding the gaps between the trees since they were too narrow for the scroll. “Do you believe the surrendered Uchiha could betray us anytime?”

“The possibility isn’t zero percent.” Tobirama landed beside her. “It’s good that they don’t poison our food.”

“Tobirama…”

“I’m just stating the possibility, Aneja.” He shrugged. His fur coat bounced under the wind. “From all the elders, only Uncle Azami who had seen the realities in the battlefield."

Hashirama was silent. Madara was still ignoring all her peace offerings. As time passed, more Uchiha surrendered themselves. They said the life in their village was getting harder. There was not enough food. There was no medicine supply either. They only had one healer. But the battles must go on, otherwise Taneyuki wouldn’t give them money.

Their battle strategy had changed as well.

“Break their formation, then offer them peace?” Azami whispered in his niece’s ear. “Are you sure this time, Hashirama? The entire Uchiha clan—even the youngest too, are here.”

“I’m sure, Oji-sama. Influencing them is easier when they’re far from the leader.”

Even without being whispered, she understood. She hadn’t seen any Uchiha children in the battlefield until two days after she brought the harvest home. Some children wore makeshift armor made from woven roots and animal hide. The adult shinobi were armorless. Contrasting them, the entire Senju shinobi wore complete, glittering armor. No children in sight, and visibly healthier.

Their opponents were pale and hollow-eyed.

As usual, before the battle was started Hashirama walked forward without her weapons. Madara met her halfway, bringing his sword. The action spoke volumes: he wouldn’t back down until he lost his last drop of blood. He was armorless.

“Forget all your peace talk nonsense,” he said. His eyes squinted under the blinding sun. “Everything will end here.” His face was thinner and his eyebags were thicker compared to their last meeting. His dark irises were brimming with madness.

Hashirama furrowed her eyebrows, concerned. “You can’t eat pride, Madara. Think about your clansmen.”

“Think about their sacrifices too!” he hissed sharply. “Our fathers didn’t die here so we could stop warring with each other! Our brothers are still waiting to be avenged in the next world! It’s our responsibilities to finish this.”

“Killing each other won’t solve the problem, Madara! Some of your family too have surrendered—”

“They're all traitors!” Madara plunged his sword into the soil. “With his last breath Father asked me to destroy the Senju. It’s impossible I’d betray him so easily.”

“Madara…” Her shoulders slumped. “Would you continue doing what he wished even if it ruined you? Ruined Izuna?”

His face darkened. Madara took off his sword and raised it high, signaling for an attack without command. Hashirama leaped back to her relatives, catching the sword hilt pushed to her palm right when Madara’s roar echoed on the plains.

Hashirama’s mokujin pulled his susano’o far from the battlefield. They were free to fight each other without harming their own relatives. Tobirama disagreed with this tactic, so as a precaution he placed a hiraishin seal between hashirama’s shoulder blades. If needed, he could send help or a kagebunshin to her.

The four meandering blades slashed through the rocky terrain, trying to hack her mokujin’s leg and destroy flat spots to stand.

Something’s… wrong.

His attack pattern changed. Slowed down, often missed his mark greatly. The blue giant’s edges blurred, wobbling. Usually Madara used katon attacks between his sword thrusts…

The mokujin’s hand swept dust aside. Hashirama blinked. Her eyes didn’t deceive her. Many times her opponent rubbed his head—no, rubbed his face. So she focused on Madara’s face.

It was marred with dried blood.

Strange, all her attacks were unable to breach the susano’o…

The mokujin held its wrists in the air. Hashirama jumped down to the blue giant’s chest. Upon closer inspection, she could see his eyes were bleeding. His irises’ color too weren’t as dense as usual. His teeth gritted in pain.

She knocked the susano’o’s wall, then punching it, impatient. “Hey! Madara, hey! What happened to you…?”

As an answer, his sharingan turned darker. The chakra armor disappeared, but Madara dashed back to his fighting relatives. Hashirama released her mokujin before she landed, then went after him.

Where’s the usually fiery Madara, who always boasted to defeat her…?

A suiton dragon towered above the crowds, then rushed down to embrace a giant fireball. Steam rose and hindered everyone’s sight. Hashirama could sense Tobirama’s chakra flaring not far ahead. He was in the mist—

In the span of a single breath, his footing moved meters forward. As the steam dissipated, a person clad in black fell. Blood splattered from the body. The stomach had been deeply slashed.

“IZUNA!”

Hashirama arrived by her brother’s side right when Madara caught Izuna’s body. His eyes glared in hatred towards Tobirama.

“Surrender,” he commanded, pointing his sword. “You’ve been cornered.” The battles around them had stopped. No Uchiha stood tall. They were kneeling or laying face down with Senju swords pointed at their necks.

“Madara!” Hashirama dropped her sword, offering her hand towards their opponent’s leader. “It’s enough, let’s end everything…”

Madara briefly hesitated. He shouldered Izuna’s arm, who couldn't stand and keep hissing in pain. His cheeks were smeared with dried blood. His half opened eyes moved from her face to her extended hand.

“I can heal her—”

“Don’t listen to  her!” Izuna coughed, blood splattered out from between her teeth rows. “Let’s go home!”

Without saying anything else, Madara threw a smoke bomb and left with his sister.

Hashirama’s arm fell, its strength ebbed. She lowered her gaze, finding Tobirama’s sword too had been lowered.

Izuna’s blood was still dripping from its blade.


 

 

“Beautiful, isn’t it?”

Nobuo opened two shoji doors, showing a narrow balcony and visual access to the castle’s garden. Young pines were planted here and there, flanking a narrow walkway they passed to the castle. Bushes were neatly trimmed, accompanied by autumnal flowers in many colors, all blooming. Farther south was a stone garden. Deep grooves were carved among the pebbles scattered around larger rocks. The pattern resembled water ripples. Birds chirped from every direction.

“The stone garden was Grandfather’s idea,” Nobuo explained proudly. He had changed into a light kimono in moss green that complemented his hair color. A white cloth emblazoned with the empire’s insignia was tied around his waist. “The Emperor likes it a lot.”

Hashirama was speechless. She admitted the beauty of castle gardens, but she was also uncomfortable with Nobuo. She distanced herself from him, mumbling politely, “everything is beautiful. You’re right.”

She quickly turned around. Her room was vast. There was a futon for one, folded in a corner beside a large, carved box. She guessed it’s the formal kimono sent ahead from home. On the table was an oil lamp, beside a teapot filled with hot water she had asked from a servant earlier. Two tea cups and a box of green tea were placed nearby.

“The party will start tonight,” said Nobuo. His voice was too close to her back, and it turned her vigilant at once.

“I heard so. What’s going to be in the party?” She started a small talk as a distraction. She pretended busying herself with making tea.

The shoji door was closed. “The daimyo usually give symbolic offerings—ah, here let me do it…” Nobuo knelt by the table, taking the teapot from her hand. His long red hair framed around his face as he worked.

Hashirama shifted backwards to give him some space. “What kind of symbolic offerings?”

“Symbol of their taxes. Harvest, or other natural resources.” Nobuo poured water to both cups. The tea scent filled the room. “The Hokage is equal to daimyo, right?”

“...Yes.”

“Do you bring something to show…?”

She shook her head, tired. “I brought nothing but the clothes on my back.”

Barley? Rice? Fish? She could mention more than ten produce made in Konoha, but not one, not even a single grains she brought here. It would be ridiculous to offer mere handful of grains while the other daimyo brought chests full of things. Besides, Konoha didn’t pay taxes in such shape…

“So serious, Hashi. Get some rest first.”

A cup of tea was pushed into her view. Hashirama mumbled her thanks. “I still don’t know what to offer tonight. Wrong move… I'd embarrass Konoha.”

“Let’s hope the Emperor is lenient.” Nobuo took her hand. “New region, right?”

“Yeah, but still…” Hashirama pulled her hand before their skin touched. She sipped her tea. “I should discuss it with Madara, he must have an idea.”

“Madara, huh…”

At that time it crossed her mind that maybe mentioning his name wasn’t the wisest move in this situation.

“The Emperor said he founded Konoha with you.” Nobuo tilted his head.

“Indeed,” she answered curtly before swallowing her tea. The heat harmed her throat but her regeneration worked before the pain spread.

“Ah. I'm jealous.”

Hashirama glanced at him from the rim of her cup. His smile was intact, but no longer sincere. Nobuo rested his chin on his hand.

“Why?”

“He could be with you often while I’m…” he sighed. “Trapped alone in the palace.”

“Alone how, you were with the samurai. The Emperor is impossibly alone over there.” Hashirama chuckled.

“It’s true that it never too quiet. The entertainers come and go. The daimyo families accompany me often. But…” His stare moved from the tea to her face. “You weren’t there, Hashi.”

The steam from Nobuo’s cup formed a veil between them. Her eyebrows furrowed.

“Grandfather Ashina was against the Konoha plan, did you know that?” After he nodded, Hashirama added, “we got logistical help. But that wasn’t enough.”

“You can stay with me. Come with me to the palace.” Nobuo set his cup aside. “Grandfather offered you that, remember?”

She was shocked, mouth agape. Until she forgot to pull her hand. Nobuo’s skin was smoother than the skin she used to touch.

“Live with me, Hashi. No going to war, not seeing conflicts. No need to worry about anything.”

Her conscience felt something was amiss. This wasn’t the first time she heard this thing.

“Leaving the home and family who needs me?” she repeated. “Impossible.”

“But that’s what you wrote to Grandfather, Hashi.” Nobuo leaned forward, his face sympathetic. “You wanted to build a village with your enemy to stop conflict. Grandfather offered you a more permanent solution, and you refused it.”

“We still have home. Uzushio was remote.” She lowered her tone. “Too far.”

Slowly Nobuo lifted her hand towards his lips. “You can leave it anytime now, right?”

The room temperature dropped despite their tea was still steaming. The smile on her face turned blank. “I want to know where this conversation is heading,” she said while jerking her hand away from his grasp.

Nobuo stared deeply at her. “Marry me. Stay with me.”

“What if I refused?”

“Do you have any reason to—”

“Oh. Of course.”

“...Ah.” Nobuo pushed his long bangs aside. “I’ll be saddened. Grandfather will be disappointed. The help we’ve been giving to Senju might have to be stopped. Mito won’t be allowed to go to Konoha. Nobody is going to be happy.” He sighed.  “Why do you ask…?”

Hashirama grinned. “I’ll be happy if we won’t get married.” She stood away from the table. “I need to rest. We’ll talk again later, Nobuo.”

He stood gracefully, walking backwards until he reached the fusuma doors separating their rooms. Nobuo quickly disappeared behind them.

Her mokuton keys clacked aloud soon after.


 

 

“Eighty percent troops surrendered.”

The green glow on Hashirama’s palm dimmed. She gaped in disbelief. “Come again…?”

“Eighty percent. Estimated.” Touka glanced at the tent’s slightly opened entrance. “We don’t have enough prison cell for everyone. You don’t want to confine them in cages either.”

“They’re all hungry,” Toshiro chimed in, still laying on his back. “I overheard, that in their home they even boiled tree bark for winter food.”

Hashirama continued healing his wounded knee until it’s closed. Not a day had passed since their last battle, and they had brought home more starving prisoners. The Uchiha shinobi were placed in a large tent on the edge of Senju settlement. Tonight, everyone was having dinner. Nobody protested despite the menu only consisted of vegetable soup and last year’s dried boar meat.

“Has Ango been told…?”

“This afternoon once we arrived home.” Touka rolled up a note. “Tomorrow by dawn, everyone will depart to the other side of the cliff.”

Toshiro jumped up, shouting his thanks before dashing out the tent. Hashirama sank her head between her knees, trying to digest the situation.

“Touka,” she whispered, ”are their life… truly that harsh?”

She circled her. Touka’s armor was only scratched here and there. The naginata she brought to the battle was only dirtied by dust because her opponents chose to surrender at once. “The other choice they have was rebelling against the daimyo. Going against the samurai.” The taller woman closed the entrance until only a small gap was left on the bottom. The torch light that entered formed a column on the ground. “The shinobi wasn’t supposed to war so openly, especially not until attracting attention from those who don’t live in the shadows.”

Still fresh in her mind their last battle against the Hagoromo clan, and the intervention by Uchiha clan’s permanent challenge letter. “The age has changed.” Hashirama lifted her face. The edges of her cousin’s armor blurred under the candle light. “I didn’t think they would be this recklessly adamant just because… because of pride as the Uchiha clan.”

Touka held her shoulder sympathetically.

“Why does the Emperor do nothing…? He should’ve known the daimyo are conflicting with each other, right?”

“Our problems are nothing for him.”

Disbelief pumped her emotion. “Killing each other, sacrificing children, everything… all of these… nothing?” People killing each other for decades, how come the ruler of the land never knew?

What kind of ruler is that?

Touka’s hand slipped from her shoulder. “...Perhaps. Or His Majesty really have no idea.”

Her voice pitched rose, impatient. “Then what’s he doing? Is he just sitting in his palace—”

“Hashirama-sama,” Touka mumbled, kneeling before her. “In Hinokuni’s hierarchy, we’re at the lowest position. On the same level with mountain bandits and waste gatherer in the bathhouses. The farmers above us are prohibited from touching the town streets.”

Of course she knew about it, her father taught it directly to his children. The Emperor had a great mandate to govern the world. His work was helped by the samurai who enforced order. The daimyo are the nobles representing the Emperor. The farmers and artisans enriched life by working the land. The traders, waste gatherer, bandits, and shinobi were outside the system. So everything they did must never disturb everyone living outside their little world.

She bit her lip. “ Do you think… all those people are afraid of us?”

Touka’s only visible eye showed pity. “It’s common for humans to fear things unknown to them…” Her answer seemingly pushed for another question:

Is she afraid? Not of swords and ninjutsu, but of the world dwelled by people who never knew war? A peaceful world, yet its peace alien to her.

Hashirama dampened her lips. “Do I… really know nothing?”

“I don’t think so. Just do what you think is right.” Her cousin rose, taking her naginata. “I need to return patrolling. The morning group found some strange trace important enough to follow. Good evening.”

She blew the candle, uneasy with having too many lights in the tent.

Doing what she thought as right…

Long after Touka’s wide steps disappeared from her hearing, Hashirama opened the tent flap. Soundlessly she trekked back to the center of the settlement. There was a small hut storing medicinal herbs and their concoctions. There wasn’t much left in the dark, cool storage. More than half had been taken for the wounded prisoners.

At least she knew Tobirama didn’t use poison. Otherwise it’d be more complicated. She had no experience with poison. Her healing ninjutsu wouldn’t work if the poison remained or not neutralized first. She had to repair the damage until the poison stopped working or left the body on its own.

Hashirama wrapped dried powders, medicinal concoction for grave wounds, and a bit kikatsugan for the journey. She left the hut on her toes, ensuring nobody spotted her until she arrived at the Uchiha prisoner camps again.

Here she left her careful movements, acting natural as she passed the guards. In the vast tent, tens of people sat chewing food or lying down to sleep. All armor and weapons had been confiscated. Nobody was blindfolded; starvation dropped their stamina so low that they couldn't maintain active sharingan. Not everyone could use the doujutsu, but the Senju’s sensor team guarded outside just in case.

Hashirama scanned them, looking for a face she could talk to. Finally she found a familiar face, slightly older than the last time they met.

“Come here.”

A teenage boy walked over his relatives towards the tent entrance. His clothes were frayed, torn, and its threads stuck out from the cloth. Hashirama led him outside, far from the lights and crowds.

“What’s your name?”

He wiped the dried soup on the corner of his lips before he answered, “Hikaru, Senju-sama.”

“Do you remember me?”

Hikaru nodded. Hashirama beamed, trying not to make him nervous. This wasn’t the first tim Hikaru became a Senju prisoner. To be honest she was curious of his experience after her clan let him go at the night she was chosen to be the Senju leader, but tonight’s not the appropriate time to question him.

“I need to know the fastest route to your home.”

His eyes widened. “...Are you serious?”

Hashirama nodded quickly. “Please,” she begged. “I have to be there as fast as possible. It’s about someone’s life.”

“Senju-sama… won’t be accepted there.” Hikaru was anxious. “There’s still people disliking you.”

“It’s not a problem, I’ll take care of it. Just the direction, please—”

“From our battlefield,” Hikaru stretched a trembling, thin arm in the open air, “to the west. Past a shallow ravine. Straight ahead.”

“How long—?”

“Half a day on foot.”

“Thank you. Please return inside.”

Hikaru remained on his spot. “Is Senju-sama going to see Madara-sama?” He gulped. “I doubt he will listen to you. We couldn't persuade him.”

“I’ll find a way.” Then she added, “please don’t tell anyone.”

Besides, the stake was high.

After he promised to keep quiet and returned into the tent, Hashirama continued walking towards the outer patrol ring. She knew every guarded spot, so she could avoid them easily as long as she thinned her chakra presence. She was armorless, not going to risk the plates making noise and be overheard. She didn’t even wear tenugui or haori, merely pumping her warm chakra around her body without leaving her clothes. The cold air was stinging, especially on her nose and cheeks. Her sole guide was the stars overhead.

But Hashirama was too focused on her secret journey that she failed to sense someone who had been following her since she left the prisoners’ tent.


 

 

The night was clear. The sky was dark and clear on the large windows.

In the main castle’s front hall, two rows of steel braziers flanked a path from the entrance to the end of the hall. Only few were lit, keeping the atmosphere dim. The braziers on the row’s end were placed further apart, flanking a silhouette of something like a large chair. There were no other lighting in the corner of the hall. In the darkness, people gathered behind the brazier rows. Nobody talked aloud, although once in awhile she overheard an excited giggle from a noblewoman. Scents of incense and numerous fragrance assaulted her nostrils.

Hashirama intentionally chose to stand behind the crowd, avoiding the braziers’ heat that stiffened her silk kimono. She was taller than most people, so she could still see the uninhabited spots. She was alright. She had drunk her herbal concoction before leaving her room. Now she could focus on the people in the hall. Too bad it’s futile. Only few she could recognize in the dimly lit room. The gleam of crimson hair was spotted here and there. It’s still hard to distinguish its owner though. She only wanted to find Mito, not any other Uzumaki cousin. Especially not Nobuo.

“Ooh, it’s soon, it’s gonna be soon, right?” A young boy stood on his toes, unable to contain his excitement. The woman beside him—probably his mother, quickly shushed him.

She felt the crowd around her parted, followed by apologies. Her nerves flared in vigilance when Nobuo arrived by her side.

“I was looking for you,” he whispered in her ear. “So unfair of you to come downstairs first alone.”

“Just couldn't wait to watch this.” Hashirama replied diplomatically. Several people around her nodded to greet Nobuo. That’s right—he had lived in the palace for long. The noblemen who frequented the capital must be familiar with him.

In the darkness, drums were heard. Strings plucked. Music flooded as the double doors were pushed open, then several male dancers hopped inside, bringing chained pendulums on fire with them. The chains spun so fast, creating golden fiery rings. Sometimes a dancer jumped forward to burst fire from his mouth. The act invited applauses to rang, followed with amazed shouts from the guests.

Hashirama only smiled a little. She’s used to watch something more impressive than this. Far bigger, more beautiful.

And deadlier.

Her attention was cut short by a lingering touch on her waist. She struggled to suppress her chakra, unwilling to let her emotion spill.

“Nobuo,” she whispered a warning.

He ignored her. His eyes were still on the performers, with a smile plastered on his face as if there was nothing wrong with the world he dwelled. But his arm was clearly hidden behind her back.

“Stop it,” Hashirama repeated as much as she could without moving her lips.

Yet Nobuo’s long, slender fingers dragged down, caressing her buttcheek. Her reflex exploded. She grabbed his wrist, holding it in a crushing grip until Nobuo hissed in pain. The show wrapped up at the right time, and the hall was drowned in the last round of applause. Everyone only paid attention to the dancers and musicians.

Hashirama released her grip, holding back her rage. Satisfaction bloomed as she saw Nobuo growled in anger while rubbing his wrist. Her grip had left a mark on his skin. The braziers were lit, and the music ceased in an ascending final note.

“Welcome!”

All the heads turned towards the hall’s end. Emperor Nobutada stood before a gigantic chair, flanked by torch bearers, maskless samurai, and musicians. His wide sleeves, made of purple silk, dragged on the floor.

“Welcome everyone—the daimyo, samurai, entertainers, and everyone I invited!” He rubbed his palms. “I can’t wait to see what you bring this year! Gold! Rice! Masterpieces for my castle!”

“So unrefined,” Nobuo said, almost whispering. “I was just touching you, I didn’t intend to hurt…”

Hashirama pretended not hearing him. She smoothed her cream colored kimono to erase the traces of his touch.

Disgusting.

Large chests were brought before the Emperor, then a man knelt to open it. She assumed he was a guest, because his sophisticated kimono was decorated with intricate painting of water ripple.

“What do you bring this year, Akiyama?”

“Daimyo Akiyama brings his best rice,” he announced formally. “Our most fragrant rice grain is yours to savor for tonight’s feats.”

Nobutada thanked him, then four guards brought away the chests back to the guest rows.

Other chests then were brought forth, bigger than Akiyama’s. A large round man left the guests across the pathway, bringing four young maidens in beautiful attire. Their gaze were lowered as they walked. The chests were full of silver and gold jewelry.

“Daimyo Taneyuki kneels before Your Majesty,” the man did as he said, followed by his maidens. “I bring rice, gold, silver, and the most beautiful faces to decorate your castle.”

Rice was the only thing present in every daimyo’s gift, since it’s the mandatory tax. Some brought vegetables and fruits in many strange shapes unknown for Hashirama. The elderly Daimyo Matsudaira, who came forward in a palanquin, brought many fragrant plants, each had a good effect on body health. Other daimyo brought wooden carvings, chopsticks made from animal tusks which Hashirama never heard before, horses with gleaming mane for the samurai, iron ores, suminagashi kimono cloth, and even dancers and musicians who were allowed to perform for a bit.

After the last daimyo returned to the guests’ row, two red haired young men came forward bringing two scrolls as tall as their shoulders. They opened them before the Emperor. From afar, Hashirama spotted fuuinjutsu symbols were painted on them.

Nobutada’s arms opened wide to greet them. “The Uzumaki family, my friends!”

Uzumaki Ashina had emerged from the guests. His kimono was eggshell-white, like the young men’s. His grey-red beard moved as he spoke. “The Uzumaki clan of Uzushiogakure,” he announced himself, “brought bountiful harvest from our garden.” His wrinkled hand opened the seal in one of the scrolls. A bunch of produce appeared with faint smoke.

The guests stretched their neck to see more clearly. From the spreading hum, many people thought Ashina used magic to bring the harvest from empty air. Hashirama couldn't hold back her mirth.

His left hand hovered above the other scroll. He beamed. “Also a gift, our prized bounty this year. Still fresh from the depths of the southern ocean…”

White smoke steamed high, then dispersed to reveal the biggest fish Hashirama had never seen before. The scales were bluish on its back, gradually descending into silver towards its belly. Its weight was at least as much as seven adult shinobi. Despite its huge size, she didn’t smell fishy scent. As if it’s just pulled from the water.

Nobutada gripped his armrests tightly. “What fish is this, Ashina-san?”

“A bluefin tuna,” he answered curtly. “The best we’ve caught. Our cooks will serve this tonight.”

“Looks delicious! I can’t wait!”

A round of formal applause accompanied Ashina’s return to the guests. Both fish and crops were returned into their respective scrolls, which were then taken away. Nobutada stood, signaling for his guests to cease talking. Even the musicians were silent.

“Thank you for all your gifts!” he said, beaming. “Our harvest this year is way better than before. Usually we would continue to the feast, but!” The Emperor paused, ensuring everyone’s eyes were directed at him. “You probably have heard—I  took a bit of Matsudaira’s land for the ninja. Inter-daimyo conflict has been effectively prohibited.”

The atmosphere changed. Whispers spread among the guests in an unsavory tone.

“I’d been letting you do as you please for too long, using the ninja to further your own whims. Those things are gone, because they work right under my command!” He stepped down slowly, enhancing his words with dramatic effect. “We advance further against Tsuchinokuni because of them! Soon new lands are available to be explored… all because of these ninja. Because of that reason, I will grant their leader a status equal to the daimyo. Please approach, Lady Hokage.”

Hashirama easily went through the crowd, then walked until she was face to face with the Emperor. As she bowed to greet him, louder whispers spread among the guests. Vigilant and wary.

“Thank you for coming.” Nobutada came forward to clasp her hands. His tone was sincere.

“The honor is mine to be invited,” Hashirama replied diplomatically. “But I must apologize as well, I brought nothing to be gifted.”

“Oh, it's not a problem, it’s your first time…”

Quickly she added, “But if Your Majesty could forgive the hall’s floor being destroyed, I’m willing to show something.”

Nobutada’s eyes twinkled in curiosity. “Of course!”

“Thank you. Please return to your seat first.”

While the Emperor returned to his large chair, Hashirama stepped backwards several times. She sensed her surroundings, determining the space she had and the scale of her raw power. She waited until the whispers faded, then joined her hands.

Mokuton.  

The floor behind her cracked, split, shattered. A wooden dragon as long as five adult men emerged from the earth. Its eagle-like beak opened threateningly. Its entire body was made from wooden mane, all stood straight like the furs of an angry cat. It circled the Hokage’s body, its head turned at the two crowds as if scanning for opponents.

“Hold!” Nobutada shouted. “Don’t leave the hall!” But it’s not for Hashirama. The samurai had been ready to pull their sword. Yet they withdrew their intention because of his command. His second command was clearly for the panicking guests.

If a tiny mokuryuu alone made them nearly pissed themselves, clearly they hadn’t seen a shinobi of her calibre unleashing her full power.

The wooden dragon slithered to the left crowd. The guests screamed in fear, pushing each other to avoid being in its path. Soon the dragon returned, its beak pushed someone forward to the center.

Madara, clad in a kimono as dark as the night, glancing at her questioningly. Hashirama leaned her head to whisper, “please lend me your fire,” then added, more softly, “Anata.”

Madara’s stare warmed. Hashirama held back from grinning as she backtracked towards the throne. He turned around to face her mokuryuu. Now it stood on its hind legs, encircling overhead as if ready to swallow Madara whole.

Seals were formed, then a gigantic fireball was blown in a deafening rumble. So brightly it blazed, as if someone stole the sun and kept it inside the hall. The sun that swallowed the wooden dragon inside the roaring fire.

She couldn't look away from the red-white fan embroidery on Madara’s back. It appeared and disappeared as his hair fluttered around.

Despite its sheer size, the fire didn’t burn outside the space between the braziers. The fire only burned for a few seconds. When it died, it left a gigantic charcoal in the shape of a dragon. Thin smoke rose from between its manes. Its earthy color had been turned into shiny black.

Madara went to her side, swiftly caressing her hand between their long kimono sleeves. She had seen his power so many times, and the recent katon was nowhere near his full power. Still, her heartbeat was erratic enough to tingle her nerves.

He whispered, “your chakra is restless, Hashi.”

Hashirama merely nodded.

“...Wow.” Nobutada slowly rose. His applause shattered the silence that followed. “My heavens! Incredible! Unbelievable! I’m so willing to repair this hall every year just to witness such performance…!”

“Thank you,” Hashirama replied, amused at his reaction. “Please wait until it cooled down before Your Majesty wish to move it.”

“They aren’t wrong to call you the goddess…” Nobutada returned to his seat, amazement hadn’t disappeared from his face. “And you, Matsudaira said you’re a demon. Wah! The world has changed so greatly if a goddess and a demon work together like this!”

“Daimyo Matsudaira isn’t wrong. Our reputations are quite fearsome,” Madara responded.

Someone gave a loud applause, quickly followed by the others. Hashirama followed him back to his former spot among the guests, reluctant to return to hers. They went to the back row. The Emperor’s voice was barely heard here.

“What happened?” Madara linked their fingers again between their kimono sleeves.

She offered him a smile. “Nothing—”

“It’s Nobuo, isn’t it?”

Hashirama didn’t shake her head. “I… want to change first,” she mumbled as the crowd dispersed. “You go ahead.” Several servants guided the guests towards two small doors opening to a large hallway.

“Hashi—”

Their hands unlinked. Hashirama almost paid no attention to her path, too focused on her destination upstairs. When she closed her bedroom door, she realized her heart had been pounding loud and quick.

Ridiculous. In a battle she could be so calm despite facing the risk of being injured anytime. Her relatives betting their lives around her. There were a million things demanding her attention at the same time. Still she could remain calm.

Now her hands itched to destroy.

Not even a day and a night since her arrival, but she couldn't wait to return home. The Nobuo she remembered in the past was indeed a bully. How naive of her thinking he would change as an adult.

That’s definitely not just touching.

Still upset, Hashirama undressed herself, then opened the box with several drawers. Each drawer contained a kimono. She folded the one she wore earlier and stored it in the top drawer. Before she came downstairs, she just randomly picked one. Other drawers had brightly dyed kimono, including the one Mayuko forced on her before her departure. This time she’s quite reluctant to wear something so pale and bright…

In the last drawer was a dark green kimono.

After tidying herself, Hashirama reached the feast hall with the help of a servant. This hall was three times larger than the front hall, with ceiling so high a naked eye couldn't see. The inn and Hokage office in Konoha could be placed inside. Large braziers were lined up near the walls, while lanterns hung on a thin pole were placed in the middle of the floor for lighting. The sound of string instruments flowed beautifully accompanying conversations on the floor. The smell of food mixed with incense and perfume. There were more people gathering here than in the front hall earlier.

Many geisha and oiran mingled with the guests. The former attended to groups seated by the walls. The latter joined conversations. Their arms were draped over the male guests’. Thes women wore kimono in bright and striking colors. The oiran’s exposed shoulders shimmered like pearls under the lanterns’ light. Their hair accessories were inlaid with gems, they glittered whenever the women moved their heads.

Hashirama had only stepped forward several times looking for familiar figures when she heard someone call.

“Senju-san!”

A young, red haired man approached her with an oiran clad in purple clutching his arm. “Do you remember me? Enishi. I went to your village once.”

“Enishi-kun!” Hashirama clasped his hand. “Of course I remember? How have you been?” she asked while grinning widely. She had no idea who’s this man.

His grasp was strong. His skin was tanned, apparently spending a long time under the sun. “So well! I sail often for long. It’s nice I could accompany Grandfather here. So many preeeeeetty oiran!” he said, earning him a shy giggle from said oiran. “But! I saw you at the front hall, that dragon and fire. So cool! I’ve never seen mokuton in person!”

“Oh, thank you—”

“I saw it too,” another oiran in red piped in. “I peeked, though,” she added.

The first oiran glanced at her like she’s a misbehaving child. “Otsuyu!” chided her.

“The first ninja invited by the Emperor!” One of the young daimyo joined them. “I’m curious what abilities you possess!”

While Hashirama explained her mokuton, more guests and entertainers joined her small crowd. Enishi and the young daimyo moved away, leaving only women with her.

“...So if I’m wounded even just a bit, the wound would close on its own,” she ended her explanation. Thirst crept up in her throat.

The six women before her were stunned.

Otsuyu, the oiran in red, commented, “just like magic…”

“Wow! The women in your family are allowed to war?” another asked excitedly.

“Only the adult ones who aren’t pregnant or nursing a baby, yes.” Hashirama answered swiftly before another question was thrown to her. “It’s a taboo for a pregnant woman to hold a weapon.

“Ooh…”

“Psst, psst,” Otsuyu stole their attention, head turning to the crowd’s left. “How about the other ninja? The man who made fire…” Her eyes were twinkling with lust.

Hashirama followed her line of sight to find Madara stood not far from them, conversing with three Uzumaki she recognize well.

“Isn’t it your fiance, Senju-san?” a noble girl asked. Her fan kept moving near her face. “Nobuo-kun from the Uzumaki clan?”

“...So he said.”

Their conversation was civil enough, judging from Mito’s expression who laughed politely quite often. It’s hard to guess Ashina’s expression because it was partially hidden behind his thick moustache and beard.  And Nobuo acted like there’s nothing wrong in his life.

“How about your ninja partner? Has he wed yet?”

“Eh?” Hashirama’s attention returned to her own crowd. Another oiran asked her that question. Her mouth was hidden behind her kimono sleeve, giggling in delight.

“I heard the ninja arranged marriage based on their battle prowess,” the noble girl continued. “If Senju-san is betrothed to the Uzumaki clan, then perhaps Uchiha-san too had been…?”

“Ah, yes, he has a wife,” Hashirama answered quickly.

Disappointment crossed the oiran’s face.

“His wife is extraordinarily strong like a monster. Big, tall, and temperamental,” she told them. “Everyone fears her.”

“Scary,” Otsuyu muttered. “But she must be a great ninja.”

“Indeed.” Hashirama nodded to affirm it. A similar fascinated expression decorated all her listener’s faces, except a girl who glared at her openly

“The feast this year is more enjoyable, isn’t it?” Another girl commented to her friend. “Because that Ukyo guy isn’t here…”

The conversation changed topic to the party’s atmosphere. She excused herself from the women, satisfied with herself. Slowly she approached Madara and the three Uzumaki, keeping her distance so they couldn't see her.

“...Their wedding can be held soon!” Ashina laughed. “Nobuo will have to move to Konoha.”

“I’m truly impatient,” he quipped.

Moving to Konoha? That Nobuo? The heck!

“I wonder,” Madara said, “is it true they have been betrothed since childhood?”

“Of course. It’s a tradition between our clans to keep our families close.” Ashina sipped his sake from a cup. “Why do you ask?”

“Hashirama never mentioned this. I never heard of it either until Tobirama slipped his tongue last month.”

“Well, not everything is widely announced.” Nobuo shrugged.

“Too bad, really,” Madara continued, “because our clan has asked for her hand some time ago.”

Both men’s expression changed, albeit almost unnoticeable. Mito gaped at him.

“The Uchiha clan?” she asked.

“For whom you proposed her—” Ashina’s laugh rang aloud. “Which man among your clansmen worthy to be the goddess’ partner—?”

“Who else?” Madara smirked. “Myself, of course.”

“The demon!” Nobuo exclaimed. “What a contrast. The Senju must have objected to it.”

“But the goddess doesn’t object.”

Hashirama entered their circle, quickly linking her arm to Madara’s elbow. She nodded to greet Mito, who collected herself after being shocked by her arrival. Ashina squinted his eyes. Nobuo’s mouth corners tightened.

Madara grinned.

“I think we need to say hi to His Majesty.” Hashirama pressed herself against his arm.

“Alright. Please excuse us,” Madara made way out for them, then led Hashirama away from the center of the room.

There was a small door opening to the dim garden. She pulled Madara’s hand towards the door.

“Out. In a bit.”

He didn’t question her request. The temperature outside was colder, so they didn’t walk too far. They could hear the merry chattering in the party behind a tall bush. Someone inside was reading poetry aloud.

Beautiful moonlight

Shining upon the night sky

Here I am with you

Hashirama released her grip. “I had no idea…”

“Yeah.” Madara hugged her from behind. “Ashina was guessing whether the Uchiha is tame enough to be his in-laws. So I had to speak about it.”

“Why did he want to know…?”

“To marry his grandchild or great-grandchild to the Uchiha, perhaps.” Madara snorted in annoyance.

Her restless heart slowly calmed down as her focus shifted to Madara’s stable breathing. His pine smell mixed with the fragrant bushes around them.

“Do you mind I have spoken about…?”

“No. Not at all.” Hashirama sighed deeply. “I don’t want to be discreet anymore. We need to be honest to our siblings.”

“Izuna knows already,” he replied. “The problem is Tobirama.”

Their last meeting in the old Senju cemetery before her departure resurfaced. “Maybe… it’ll be better if I approach this engagement problem as a personal one, instead of a clan problem.”

“That’s how it should be.” His touch lingered on her abdomen. “Do you want to return inside?”

But as they reached the door, a servant welcomed them back. “His Majesty is awaiting you both in his private room to dine with the daimyo.”

A melodious singing accompanied them crossing the hall. Madara looked around, looking for its source, but the crowd hindered him from finding it.

“All musicians in this party come from the entertainment district in the capital,” the servant explained without being asked. “Just a select few.”

“...I see.”

“If my Lord and Lady Hokage wish to listen for more, they stay here as long the Emperor stays.”

They passed a small stage where the musicians play. The singer was a middle aged woman. Her voice lilted as she recited a ballad. The koto and shakuhachi players were young women. Their expressions matched the song’s atmosphere.

Madara couldn't pry his eyes away from the stage until they entered the private room.


 

 

The small low table before her was filled to the brim with at least ten plates and bowls. A small stove in the corner supported a ceramic bowl filled with soup of tuber, tofu, and lotus roots. Its mouthwatering smoke wafted as a servant opened its lid. A bowl of seafood was placed near her right hand. Its contents are white, orange, and red sliced raw fish meat—the tuna Ashina showed off before included, plus a large red shrimp with its head intact. Two smaller bowl were filled with pickled cucumber and ginger, also slices of seaweed. Another bowl was filled with chawanmushi. The plate in the middle was for vegetable tempura. Another small stove in the corner supported a bowl of nabe. Hashirama found slim enoki mushroom swimming in its bubbling broth, so she dipped her chopsticks first to that bowl.

Just then she realized how hungry she was. Rice and a chunk of grilled fish were gone within minutes, followed by sweet rolled egg and grated radish. She ate non-stop until a servant approached from behind to pour sake. Her mouth was too full to decline.

“Just water for both of us,” said Madara, who sat on her right. He smiled as he sipped his water.

Hashirama struggled to swallow. “What?”

He shook his head. “You just looked so happy.”

So much food for her, when she’s no longer eating for herself. Who wouldn’t be happy? Even a shinobi like her never dined as extravagant as this. Field snake was a standard meal for a shinobi doing a mission in the wilderness. Even in Konoha or in her old home village, dried meat and barley were more common choice to fill their bellies.

She continued eating at a slower pace, her ears picked up conversations between the daimyo. What relieved her was that the fact Uzumaki Ashina wasn’t included in the room. Small tables were arranged into a rectangular shape. The Emperor sat on a raised platform, flanked by Shigenobu the samurai and a noblewoman with intricate hairdo—the only female in the room beside herself. Hashirama was seated on her right side. Akiko was her name, Empress consort of Nobutada.

Hashirama had just bitten into a chewy, fatty raw tuna when she realized the Empress stared at her. The red powdered corner of her eyes were pulled aside as she beamed.

“Senju-sama seems to take a liking of our cuisine,” she commented.

“Everything is delicious!” Hashirama replied after swallowing another food, taking a fried okra from the plate.

The Empress chuckled. Her own bowls were barely untouched. She ate her chawanmushi in slow, elegant motions.

“...Infantry?”

Nobutada’s voice stole her attention. Hashirama focused herself on the conversation between the two men seated at the end of the room.

“The troops that… ah, less trained but placed on the frontline. Good to break the opponents’ formation without sacrificing more skilled troops.” Shigenobu glanced at her. “It’s the standard ninja war strategy. Surviving infantry, or children, will earn valuable experience from the frontline.”

Half of her okra fell from her chopsticks.

The stuff with Nobuo had diverted her attention. She wasn’t here just to meet with the Uzumaki, but also to do her work as the Hokage.

“Hoo, is that so?” Nobutada turned to her.

“Your Majesty,” Hashirama laid her chopsticks on her empty rice bowl. “About the war with Tsuchinokuni... would you like to suggest peace instead?”

The conversations around the room ceased as if to make space for her words.

Nobutada shifted on his pillow. “Peace for what? Isn’t our troops—your troops, is having the upper hand? Battles upon battles easily won. It shouldn’t take this long to reach the capital.”

“The Tsuchi troops still uses the infantry strategy,” Shigenobu added. “It shouldn’t be that hard to fight them.” His smile was condescending. “Those children are just baits, right?”

Hashirama’s chest felt constricted. She gulped her drink to calm herself.

Not being in the frontline might be far worse. In her mind, the ones dying en masse were faceless children, all bearing the insignia of enemy village.

She still killed them. Not with the slash of her swords or her mokuton, but with a pen scratching her approval on plain white paper.

“Unleashing full power against a bunch of children is a waste,” she heard Madara spoke. “If those children die, sooner or later everyone would be gone. That is why we no longer sending children to war.”

Hashirama glanced at him, feeling her gratitude swell.

“Yes, but this, it’s Tsuchi children,” Nobutada insisted.”Less Tsuchi ninja around is better for us. Better for you.”

“Konoha is built because we don’t want to see children being killed anymore.” Madara didn’t hide his anger. “It’s hypocritical if we let the same thing happened to our enemies.”

Shigenobu raised his voice, “Better to kill the opponents first before they became deadlier!”

“It’s far more enjoyable fighting against a trained warrior than an inexperienced child, no?”

“From our perspective, the former is more efficient, Uchiha-san.” A big daimyo seated across Madara piped up. “In a few years, they’ll run out of troops. Well win easily.” He lifted his sake cup towards the Emperor.

“Thank you, Taneyuki,” Nobutada replied. “If Hinokuni could expand farther northwest, more resources for all of us. More people whose lives we can support, so there’s really no reason not to support my plan.”

A hoarse chuckle came from Madara’s right side, several tables away. “Perhaps Konoha isn’t as strong as we thought. They’re actually have gone soft.”

“Matsudaira-san’s tongue is as sharp as always!” shouted a younger daimyo while cackling.

Madara was ready to interject, but as his eyes met Hashirama’s, apparently he abandoned his intention. Or so she thought.

“Perhaps all the daimyo here never went to the frontline in person.” Madara’s voice was dangerously low. “You have zero understanding about the situation there. All you can do is reclining in your estates, savoring the fruits of labor from hundreds of lives… those who were fooled to die so we could enjoy the feast tonight.”

“Insolent! You’re here because of our generous invitation and this is how you thanked us?!”

The Emperor himself ignored the ruckus. His eyes glinted in delight. He watched the unfolding chaos with an obvious excitement.

“Senju-sama,” the Empress’s clear voice interrupted, “would you like to take a walk with me?”

Hashirama had no other choice except agreeing. Empress Akiko took her through another path in the castle, not passing the party hall. They passed hallways full of artworks, only paused to admire a carving or a painting. Here she just realized her hands were drenched in a cold sweat, and her heartbeat erratic. Shifting her attention over to artworks helped her calming down.

“How about we join the daimyo’s wives for afternoon tea and apples tomorrow?” the Empress offered as they arrived at the stairs leading to her room. “I’d like to know more about you.”

“Of course. I’ll be there.”

“Until tomorrow, Senju-sama.”

Hashirama found a teapot full of new hot water standing on her bedroom’s table. She gulped a cup of her herbal concoction, locking the doors with her mokuton, then went to bed without changing.

She dreamed the same grass plain again, complete with a pair of full moon that stared at her until morning came.


 

 

“Aneja.”

Something broke in her heart hearing the cry rang above nocturnal noises. The cry she had heard a thousand times since her oldest brother learned to talk.

Her legs stopped climbing, going against gravity to turn halfway around.

An accusation manifested within Tobirama’s crimson irises. His arms folded. Hashirama chose to face short grasses.

“Isn’t… your guard post so far from here?”

“An Inuzuka messenger said there’s a gigantic mass of chakra detected up north. Its power worth… more than a hundred regular shinobi.” His words were as cold as a blade. “I sensed you to deliver this information.”

“Its direction?”

“It's not moving. If it headed south, he could reach us within less than an hour.”

But a bijuu tend to avoid settlement. Bijuu attacks were so rare, and it’s usually followed by natural anomalies. There was nothing unusual in this cloudy night. The air would be colder later, bad for the weak to be out in the open air.

“Add more guard in the outer perimeter,” she commanded. “Start evacuation if it moved even a bit towards us.”

“To where?”

“To behind the cliff.” Hashirama’s chest rose and fell rapidly. She couldn't dawdle here. “I… will leave a mokubunshin to monitor our home.” If something happened, a mokubunshin should be enough.

“So you’re going to leave.”

Having no other choice, she nodded. “I’ll return quick—”

“There’s a bijuu threatening our home, and you choose to go?”

“Just for a while, Tobirama—”

“For what?”

“Izuna.”

“For Sennin’s sake,” Tobirama growled. He threw his face plate to wipe sweat on his forehead. “Why do you think about our enemy in such a dire moment? You always prioritize Madara more than your own family! You’re the leader of the Senju clan, not the Uchiha!”

Hashirama tightened her grip on the bundle of stolen medicines. “It’s not that—”

“You know going there means suicide!” he continued. His face plate clattered as it bounced off the rocks. “Did Madara put you under genjutsu?”

Hashirama yelled in return, “I need to save Izuna—” She reached forward, trying to touch his shoulder. But Tobirama roughly shoved her hand away.

“They still have a healer, Sis.”

“But her wound is so bad—”

“Izuna is nobody to us! Come back home!”

“Tobirama, stop!”

The air trembled with raw chakra. Tobirama jumped backward, gritting his teeth. A marked kunai was ready in his grasp. They faced each other like enemies at war.

She relaxed her stance, still trembling from the drawback of her recent outburst. The scale was small compared to her usual, but what shocked her was that that’s a reflex to Tobirama’s response.

Her own blood family, the person she trusted the most…

“Don’t…” Hashirama started heavily, “please don’t stop me again. Don’t follow me.”

The hiraishin mark on her back tingled. It’s better to prevent him from appearing before Madara.

Her brother remained in his spot, clicking his tongue. His stance was no longer ready to launch an attack.

“I will return.”

Tobirama still glared at her.

“Later, Tobirama. I promise.” Hashirama slowly stepped backwards, peeling a mokubunshin from her body, then turned around and ran.


 

 

“But how to seal a creature as big as a bijuu?”

Hashirama took rice grains in her bowl one by one with her chopsticks. She woke up with a dizziness before dawn. A servant had heated bath water for her. After bathing, she met Mito who asked her to have breakfast together. The menu was simpler compared to last night’s feast, yet her appetite was nowhere to be found. At least Mito diverted her attention by explaining about fuuinjutsu.

“I tried combining commands to seal a living creature, but they are also pure chakra.” Mito neatly placed her chopsticks. “It’s impossible we seal them just in a regular paper scroll. They won’t fit.”

“A gigantic cage?” Hashirama suggested. “Back then I handled Yonbi just with a mokujin. But it’s not permanent. A cage too… could be broken anytime.”

“You’re the only person able to single-handedly hold back a bijuu. If you’re not around—”

“Yes. I understand.” Hashirama took a deep breath, unwilling to talk about the incident two years ago. “How about a large-scale chakra shield? Shinobi without chakra reserve as much as mine… if there are ten, twenty of them, could they make it?”

“Mm. Technically yes.” Mito stacked her empty bowls, giving space for a small notebook. She scribbled enthusiastically. “I just need to write a raw formula on several scrolls. Anyone can use it simply by giving chakra to the paper. The problem is… the bijuu can try as long as it want to breach the shield. Despite the amount of the shield makers, they could get tired too.”

Hence sealing was a better solution. But where? They had crossed the option to make a mokuton container. Hashirama didn’t want to make Konoha even more dependent on her. The bijuu could be sealed underground, within the protection of a shield that would limit its space to move, but if it slammed itself to the surface then the village above would get an earthquake. Something made of pure raw chakra was nearly impossible to kill. It would manifested itself some day later. Impossible to permanently destroy them.

Mito’s notebook was slammed to a close loud enough to attract her attention. “By the way, Hashirama. About last night… what Uchiha-san said…”

“About the proposal?”

Mito nodded. Her expression was a mixture of worry and tiredness.

“Madara told the truth. He personally asked my hand. I didn’t even tell anyone.” Hashirama tapped the table.

“Why did you accept it?” The red haired woman slapped her forehead.

“Nobody told me I’ve been engaged. I had no reason to refuse him.”

“Yes, but he’s an… Uchiha.”

“So what about him being an Uchiha?”

Her cousin groaned, bowing her head. “The demonic clan, remember?”

“You, Nobuo and Ashina-jiisama talked to him yesterday.” Hashirama leaned forward. “What’s his impression? Was he really looked like a demon?”

Mito’s shoulders slumped. “...Not really. But the thing in the hall, that was a different story.”

“Hm?”

“We never saw such a mighty katon before.”

Hashirama slowly sipped her cold soup broth. “He’s the strongest shinobi in Konoha beside Tobirama. Isn’t choosing a spouse based off his or her powers a tradition among shinobi?”

“Uncle Butsuma didn’t want you to know…”

“You could just write it to me.”

“I was prohibited too.” Mito emptied her teapot. “Please just ask Grandfather why, Hashirama.” She left soon after, saying she had an ikebana activity scheduled with her other cousins.

Her stomach was fully filled, but her body still felt weak. She still had some time before her appointment with the Empress, so Hashirama took a walk alone in the garden to explore the areas she saw last night from her balcony. When she reached the stone garden, a man was there as well. His hair was red, cascading to his waist where a white cloth was tied around it.

“Hashirama-san.”

“Nobuo. Morning.”

“I want to ask something,” he said. His tone was more careful compared to yesterday. Yet the incident last night was fresh on Hashirama’s memory.

“If you want to ask about Madara’s proposal—yes, he indeed asked for my hand,” she said quickly. “I accepted it.”

His eyes narrowed. “Do I really have zero chance?”

“None at all.”

“...The clan’s wish is still above yours. Remember that.”

Before her anger soared, Hashirama excused herself. She found a walkway between neatly arranged bonsai shelves, delighted to examine each pot. Everything was arranged in two rows, top and bottom. She was kneeling to examine an unfamiliar tree housed in a long pot when she heard someone mentioned her name.

“I think Hashirama is gone.” It’s Nobuo’s voice.

She focused to eavesdrop.

“You heard her,” a woman spoke, irritated. “You have no chance. I saw it myself how that lady stared at that ninja last night. That’s not how a woman looked at her friend.”

“They aren’t married yet. Grandfather has written to the Senju elder—”

“You heard her then!” she repeated in anger. “Your secret fiancée loves another man! I know she’s so beautiful, her body is great too, but she never so much as looked at you!”

“Mayuri—!”

“After you said for years that she’s a hideously ugly kunoichi who’ve slept with a thousand men!”

A slap. A scream.

“Why choosing that kunoichi?” Mayuri roared in rage. “They’re as bad as bandits, lower than farmers—”

“Her Hokage status is equal to the daimyo, you know,” Nobuo cut in, seemingly having difficulties to keep his voice low.

“Oh,” Mayuri reacted bitterly. “Last night she said herself to my face that that ninja has a wife! They must be having an affair! Swear to god, she’s definitely not a virgin!”

His reply was cold. “Neither are you, and you’re nobody. Just a crippled samurai’s daughter.”

Silence. Then a crying voice shattered it, followed by rushed footsteps towards the opposite direction.

“Crazy girl…” Nobuo’s swearing was thrown before he went away.

Hashirama was still kneeling before a bonsai tree with silver trunk. She really wanted to go home soon.


 

 

They finally met in the garden with a pond housing the Emperor’s koi collection. Hashirama told him about what happened during the dinner, and Madara filled her about what happened after she and the Empress left the men.

“They underestimated Konoha,” he said, almost whispering. His exposed lower arm clenched in anger. His hair was tied up to suit the weather. “None of them knows the taste of real war. Shigenobu only made it worse…”

“Mm,” Hashirama mumbled, watching the silver and red koi swam near the pond’s edge. Their tails splashed the water boisterously. There were more koi swimming under the shade of the bridge connecting both sides of the pond.

“...Hashi?”

“I…” She bowed her head deeply so her hair fell covering half of her face. “I want to go home.”

“We can’t.”

Hashirama sharply turned her head, seeing his serious expression.

“Do you like it here?”

“No… there’s something I need to find out.”

“Find out about what…?”

Their attention was diverted. Across the pond, a group of people walked through the footpath in the middle of the garden. Hashirama recognized the three women from the party last night; the musicians who played in the stage hall. Behind them, several servants were carrying boxes which seemed to contain their musical instruments. They passed through the path as they talked and laughed.

“Hokage-sama.”

Hashirama found another servant had showed up behind her. She bowed in respect and said, “Her Majesty Empress Akiko is expecting you in the arbor. I will be your escort.”

“Yes—one moment…” She turned, about to say her farewell to Madara. But he was no longer by her side.

He was already across her, talking to the three musicians. Hashirama had a thought to join their conversation, but he wore a rare, warm smile on his face.

A strange sensation erupted inside her abdomen.

“You are awaited, Hokage-sama.”

Hashirama didn’t understand why it bothered her so much. Madara used to avoid interacting with strangers. Shouldn’t this good improvement made her happy?

Her brain was continuously occupied by it that she didn’t realize they had arrived in a spacious arbor where many women sat in a circle. Tall flowers were arranged in the vases by the corner of the room. An ikebana session seemed to have ended recently.

“Senju-sama, welcome!” The Empress greeted her. Her dress was as yellow as a roses that grew along the arbor fences. “Come, sit near me.” She patted an empty pillow next to her.

A cup of green tea and a small plate of sliced fruit were immediately served in front of her. Before Hashirama had a chance to taste, her attention was caught by a childish laugh. There were children running around them. Two of them looked so similar.

“Are they… twins?” She asked.

“The ones who run around?” the Empress asked in return. “No, but they are brothers. Matsudaira-san’s grandsons.”

One of the women in the arbor greeted them. Up close, she could find clear differences in their faces and heights. Anyone wouldn’t think they are twins. The children dropped pebbles on their mother’s lap, who received them with an enthusiastic gratitude.

“They always bring me gifts like this,” she said as the boys ran away. She immediately realized there was a new guest among them. “You must be Senju-san. My father always talk about you. My name is Yumi.”  

One by one, the other women began to introduce themselves. All of them were wives, mothers, or daughters of the daimyo. Their ages varied; there were some teenagers and some had grey hair on their heads. Hashirama could recognize one or two faces from the party last night. They smiled, but doubts and concealed thoughts were clearly drawn on their expressions.

“My husband has told me a lot about you and the life in Konoha after his visit,” Empress Akiko said, gathering all attention towards her. “Would you like to tell us about it? My friends want to hear it themselves. I think my husband also has missed some interesting details.”

The atmosphere turned heavy. Hashirama realized they must had witnessed her small performance with Madara in the castle’s front hall. In a normal situation, these noblewomen would have chosen to stay away from her than bowing themselves under an unknown, mightier power.

“The female ninja we know—the kunoichi,” a woman with grey hair, the mother of Daimyo Watanabe, spoke, “disguise themselves as entertainers. Oiran, geisha, you name it. Sometimes I was upset whenever my late husband went to visit Hanamaru entertainment district.” Nervous laugh spread among the adult women. “I was afraid something bad would happen to him,” she added.

“Oh, yes. That’s true. Kunoichi generally disguise themselves among peasants and commoners to gather information,” Hashirama explained. “But I wasn’t raised to be a kunoichi. My late father knew I had a strong chakra, so he arranged my betrothal so our clan…”

“Oooh,” they said in unison.

“I experienced the same thing,” said Akiko.

“For real?” Hashirama blinked.

“It commonly happens to the nobles, Senju-san,” another woman affirmed. “Being matchmade, and continue living our lives like this. Giving birth, breastfeeding, weaning… all of them just to keep our husbands from sleeping with entertainers.”

“We don’t even know about our husbands’ business. It makes us frustrated.”

If her mokuton was never awoken and she was sent to Uzushio to marry Nobuo, would her life end up this way as well?

Her surprise was interrupted by the sound of music from the next arbor. Two female musicians whom she saw across the koi pond were strumming their shakuhachi and koto.

But where was the other one?

“Hashirama-sama, let’s continue the story,” asked one girl. “How does your house look like?”

She started her tale with the old Senju village. About its giant trees she regularly climbed upon. About the grandmothers and aunts who patiently taught her how to collect forest herbs. About her mother—

“...My mother was killed by a bandit when I was seven.”

“Oh gods…”

The Empress tapped her shoulder sympathetically. Hashirama treated it as a sign to continue her story.

“And when I was twelve... I lost two of my brothers.”

Kawarama, the boy who so proud being trusted to wield a weapon. Itama, the boy who questioned revenge.

Kawarama who was hacked into pieces. Itama who fell fighting four adult shinobi alone.

“...Were they killed by the bandits too, Senju-sama?”

Matsudaira Yumi’s question pulled herself back from her daydream to the arbor. Hashirama shook her head. “No, they died at war.”

“Wait, they were your youngest brothers, weren’t they?” Yumi asked. “As far as I know, ninja doesn’t fight in settlements…? Only in areas faraway from rice fields and villages?”

“Shinobi children have been fighting in wars since they were four. My brothers…”

One of Yumi’s children returned to the arbor. The mother took her child to sit on her lap, and the child embraced her tightly. Their eyes met.

“...were as old as him when they died.”

“So all this time—!”

The mother of Daimyo Watanabe glared towards the teenage girl who just shouted. The girl quickly withdrew herself in the middle of the two women next to her.

Hashirama tightened her grip on the warm tea cup to push all the uncomfortable feelings from growing in her mind. “The fights among daimyo that hired the shinobi clans had taken the lives of many children.”

“But didn't the adult ninja send their children to war by themselves…?”

“True, Watanabe-san. Because of that, I’m determined to stop this practice. After I became the clan leader, my family no longer send children to war. So does Konoha today.”

“So cruel…”

Everyone exchanged concerned glances on the table. Hashirama still couldn’t forget what happened during the dinner last night. She glanced to her left. The Empress’ emotion was unreadable.

“Hinokuni has stopped sending child soldiers, but Tsuchi still does.”

“We are the ones who kill them,” Empress Akiko added.

Someone gasped. Hashirama chewed the orange she already peeled.

If the daimyo wouldn’t convince Nobutada to change the course of war, maybe the women on this table could.

Still, she didn’t know how long would it take for them to make a difference, and she didn’t even know if they would succeed at all...

The melody of shakuhachi and koto in the next arbor hit their final note. The music ceased.


 

 

Her cheeks throbbed in pain as the night wind struck them. The mokuryuu glided across the grass field, her body was covered in thin genjutsu; concealing her in the dark. Once the landscape had turned barren and dry, she released her wooden dragon.

The sky was clouded. No star could be seen as her guide. Hashirama sharpened all of her senses, even trying to sense using her chakra. Her capabilities were still under Tobirama’s, but she knew the basics. 

There was a clue; a thin trace leading to the west. The farther she walked, it was clear that the trace had Uchiha chakra signature. She held in her chakra, reluctant to give away her position to anyone who could be around.

The lightning struck, briefly illuminating the ridges like a row of bear teeth on the horizon. Hashirama cussed. She never did a mission alone before. She should have asked about the natural landscape around the Uchiha village. Would it take a half day by walking or running? How much time she could save by using her mokuryuu? How close was she—?

Thunder shattered, so did the clouds. Her mokuton appeared to form a structure similar to an umbrella, enough to protect her torso from the rain. The medicines she brought would be useless if wet. However, the drizzle still hindered her senses from working perfectly. She kept forcing herself to move forward so she wouldn’t lose the direction. It was easy to get lost in the dark rain, even with a slight movement. And it was easy to lose the only vague clue she had.

Hashirama slowed her steps, observing the landscape as far as she could reach. She couldn’t find any visual signs or traps. Her village was surrounded by virgin forests and fields hidden behind the genjutsu trap. The Uchiha village must be protected in the same way. It should be further away from here.

Still, not even ten steps later she discovered a man-made structure. The gate’s silhouette looked like a temple. She tiptoed until she reached the steps, feeling the wooden structure of the stairs creaked under her weight. At the top, there was a small table with a jar full of sand and burnt incense. Thin smoke wafted from their tips.

“Hello…?” Hashirama released her mokuton, trying to peek inside. There was no sound, voice, or any sign of life. Her right hand that touched the pillar had gathered dust. It seemed useless for her to stay longer there. She turned her back with the intention to walk away, but it receded as a cold touch landed on her nape.

“Which bastard told you about this place?”

Madara’s growl didn’t kill her will. Hashirama slowly raised her palms, showing him that she wasn’t forming any seal. Neither whole or half.

“I found it myself—”

“Save your lies, damned Senju.” Its sharp tip pushed further into her skin. “What the hell are these things you bring…”

A hand reached for the fabric knot below her neck, untying the bundle on her back. The content fell, spilled atop the temple floor. Her kikatsugan rolled somewhere.

“Medicines, a little bit of food…”

Madara’s chakra washed over her like an overflowing river, engulfing every inch of her skin, searching for a lie in her words. Hashirama closed her eyes tightly, waiting until the flood receded. He also sensed everything around him.

“Then what is this…” The tip of his kunai scratched down towards between her shoulder blades, splitting her clothes until he stopped by the seal. Although it was visible, a precise sensor would be able to find it. His palm struck the hiraishin seal, disconnecting the chakra flow. But Hashirama still could tell the seal remained.

She hastily said, “He… he won’t come here.”

“I didn’t ask you to speak, Senju,” he hissed. “You came here alone. Armorless, offering me your naked neck. We’ll see if you’re still worthy shouldering the goddess title when I behead you.”

Several thunder struck at once. The rain became heavier. The temperature fell much lower.

“Madara,” she called softly. “I’m here for Izuna.”

“Izuna doesn’t need your help.” The tip of his kunai returned to the artery on her neck.

“At least… at least take the medicines—”

Madara’s breath was warm in her ear. “Your hands are stained with the blood of countless Uchiha shinobi. Adding one more drop to it won’t make a difference, Hashirama.” The way he mentioned her name was like saying the worst word in human history. A word that carried a thousand meanings of evil.

Her chest moved up and down rapidly. “...But Izuna is your sister.”

“What makes her different than my other family members?”

“You are my close friend.”

The wind blew the rain to her unprotected face. She closed her eyes, feeling her skin being pierced by the cold drops of water.

Blood dripped from her neck as Madara laughed. “Insane!” Happiness was absent from his laugh. “She’s wounded badly. Sooner or later my sister will—”

“I am serious!” she shouted, defeating the sound of heavy rain. “That’s why I quickly—”

“Kneel.”

Hashirama obeyed, slowly lowering her knees until they touched the damp wooden floor. Madara took a few steps back, going around her until they faced each other. His kunai was still aimed at her neck. The lightning that sometimes struck illuminated his facial features. His sharingan pattern was unusual.

“I didn’t get these eyes for free. There’s a responsibility that comes with them, which you snatched and stomped on little by little.”

She stared at his wrist. It was shaky.

The blade of his kunai lifted her chin, forcing her to look up. “Just jukai koutan from afar, and you can wipe all Uchiha without a trace. No need for permission.”

“I told you that isn’t my intention.”

“For me you aren’t serious!”

If their argument continued, she would run out of time. Hashirama dodged the tip of his kunai, slamming her forehead onto the floor until the wooden planks creaked heavily. 

“I beg you, Madara!” she pleaded in near desperation. “Please let me heal Izuna!”

Silence. Her friend only stood still. 

“She’s the only sibling you have left, the person you care the most! You will do anything to save her! I know—even I will do the same for my brother…” Her words hung in the air. The thoughts of Tobirama suffering like Izuna did hurt her heart.

“Death is the highest honor for an Uchiha,” he spoke coldly. “Why do I have to prevent her from getting there, especially with the help of a Senju like you?”

“Do you really wish for her to die…?”

He stabbed the kunai through the floor, very close to her temple. 

“And you,” Madara whispered, his voice was close and slow, “do you really wish to help her? After many years you have killed us, after so many of the Uchiha clan betrayed me—”

“I truly do,” she answered firmly, “because I still believe our dream is possible to realize.”

She had worked this far. If Izuna dies, everything will be in vain.

If Izuna dies, she will lose Madara.

The Uchiha who switched to her side would still be settled next to the Senju. There would be enough food and shelter for everybody. But without Madara, none of it felt the same.

You always prioritize Madara more than your own family!

Her family would be fine to leave for a while. Madara needed her more this time. One day, her surviving brother would understand. 

“Take all your medicines.” He pulled the kunai from the floor. “I swear to you—if my sister died in your care, I will kill you right away.”

Hashirama’s hands trembled, although not from the cold, when she tied her bundle once more. “I promise you, Madara. I will do my best.”

“Who else knows you are here?”

“Tobirama. And the Uchiha kid I asked for directions—but he already swore he would shut up.”

“Don’t tell this to anyone else ever again.” Madara turned his body around, gesturing her to go first.

The drizzle diminished, giving them a way to leave the temple. The sharp end of his kunai never left Hashirama’s nape. The Uchiha village was dead quiet, save for the water dripping from the thatches of their huts and houses. There was no light. Everything was engulfed in darkness. Some of the houses they passed had been swarmed by weeds, as if they had been left for long although not even a day had passed since their last battle.

They stopped by a house that looked similar to the other houses. The shoji doors were intact, and there were sandals placed near the steps. She hid hers under the house pedestal. Once they entered a dark, damp room, Madara gestured her to hide in a cupboard near the door. Hashirama squatted inside the narrow space, drying herself with suiton as she waited.

“How is it?”

A female voice greeted him. Madara’s response was loud enough to be heard.

“Our God and Ancestor has answered me, Aunt.”

“What are you waiting for—”

“The Ancestor forbade me to end Izuna’s life.”

For a moment she remembered the burned incense in the temple.

“This can’t be real!” the first woman snapped in disbelief. “There’s nothing such as—”

“There is.” Approaching steps. A door was slid harshly. “Izuna will fight this alone, dead or alive. You need to get out. Grandfather Tatsu, too.”

Another voice piped up, hoarse and masculine, “I’m the only healer here…”

“Get out.”

His tone was final. The woman grumbled, her steps were hard. Grandfather Tatsu dragged his feet along the room until he arrived at the steps outside. Not long after, she heard a sliding sound of the door slot being closed. And then, the cupboard door was opened.

The only light in the house was a small candle in the main bedroom. Two layers of thin futon were stacked together. An old blanket with holes covered the thin body who lied on them. The candle light only fell at the center part of her body. On her wound.

Izuna was asleep, breathing normally.

“Get to work.”

Hashirama kneeled and began working. She flipped the blanket open, and the rancid smell of blood started to spread. The wound was still open. Tobirama’s hiraishin-giri slash usually caused a deep wound, but this wasn’t that deep. The skin around her wound didn’t feel hot. The male healer who was here must have treated her firsthand. Her bleeding wasn’t as bad as before.

Her palms emitted green glow. Her torn veins and tissues began to merge in front of her. The healing speed was slow. Izuna didn’t get enough nutrition…

Hashirama couldn’t stop thinking about the conversation she overheard. If she chose to postpone or cancel her departure, everything would be too late.

The rain still fell on the roof, growing heavier once again.

Shinobi are born to kill. Everyone was born with such principle in their right hand and weapon in their left hand. The reality was they fought war because of the whims of people who never tasted war. See how quick the Uchiha clan members leaving their old life once the Senju offered them choice to live outside daimyo’s power.

The creed they believed in was only a mere justification for all these bloodbaths.

Her eyes burned, and her vision blurred. She let her tears fall from her cheeks because she couldn’t move her hands away from Izuna’s wound. Her chakra flowed heavily to help the healing process. Forcing Izuna’s body to stitch the large open wound. She sobbed although she had tried to hold it off.

Something rough touched her cheek, wiping the wet traces clean. Hashirama glanced towards her right side, finding Madara’s sulking face. He blinked, and stepped away slowly.

“Wh...o…?”

Madara moved to his sister’s left side as she squirmed awake. He held her back, offering her a drink. The smell of honey quickly spread from the small clay cup on her lips. A piece of cloth fell onto her lap.

“Nii-san, who’s there…?” Izuna asked once more. Panic shrouded her words.

Madara covered her with a blanket. “Just Grandfather Tatsu. Go back to sleep.”

She panted. “Grandfather… only has one hand…”

Cold sweat streamed down Hashirama’s temple. She needed both of her hands to stitch the wound. Should she use genjutsu to hide herself?

“See it… see it for me…”

“Ssh.”

Hashirama lost her courage to take a glance.

“What is she doing here…”

“Press the cloth.” Madara lowered her back onto the futon. Izuna’s protests turned into mumbles. She fell asleep.

Hashirama squinted her eyes. It was almost done. Just a little bit more to connect her muscle and skin tissues. Her back felt itchy, but she did not stop to scratch it.

“Arg—!”

Her concentration was shattered. Madara stood away from his sister, covering his eyes as he whimpered.

“Madara…?” She called softly.

He turned his back on her, staggering towards the door. Hashirama quickly covered Izuna’s wound with the bandage and blanket although she wasn’t done healing. She crossed the room before Madara got out. His wrist stiffened when she touched it.

“Don’t—”

“Let me…”

He denied her once more, “no need for—argh!” His eyes watered, couldn’t fully open.

“It’s alright…” Hashirama placed her hands on the sides of his face, even when he continued to refuse. Her thumbs brushed his eyelids, their surfaces emitted a green glow. He stopped fighting.

His lips formed syllables of her name. His fingers grabbed her wrists. Under her touch, his eyelids opened.

A pair of dark irises met.

His eyes were clear.

“...Feeling better?”

Madara only nodded slightly.

They returned to Izuna’s right side. She parted the blanket, showing her work. Her hands were ready to continue the healing process, but Madara stopped her.

“That’s enough,” he said as he pulled her wrists away. “She can recover by herself.”

Hashirama stared at Izuna’s face, finding its half was covered by a piece of cloth. “...Why are her eyes covered?”

Madara’s fist clenched. Hashirama remembered their battle that day, and how it ended. Izuna’s eyes looked fine at that time.

“She… you—” Her voice was restrained. “Y, you…”

“No power comes for free, Hashi,” he said bitterly.

Her feeling was mixed. The hand in Madara’s grip faced upwards, intertwining their fingers together until they formed a snake seal.

“We have stopped the war.” Hashirama placed her right hand atop the seal. “We… we used to have that dream, right? No killing each other, no sacrificing the lives of our siblings…”

He scoffed. “Do you think so?” he whispered. “Who wins this battle?”

“No one.”

Madara’s lips were agape. His eyes widened.

“We all lost.”

His eyes moved rapidly, studying Hashirama’s face.

“Try to think about it,” she continued. “The time and energy we’ve spent to kill each other can be used for something more beneficial. Finding a way… to stop relying on the daimyo, for example.”

An empty laugh, completely distinctive than his laugh in the temple, released voicelessly. “Insane.”

“I know,” Hashirama agreed, couldn’t help herself but smiling. “Remember the place beyond the cliff? It’s been deforested…” She told him about the new settlement with a soft voice, almost whispering. “All the Uchiha helped us building it. You should come and see it.”

Madara glanced at his sister. “No one would accept us.”

“I would.”

“Only you—”

“I would guarantee your safety.”

“Hashi, your family hates us.” A crease appeared on his forehead, as if holding an invisible pain. “My relatives betrayed me. I am the last person they want to see living there.”

“They will accept you slowly.” She bowed down, staring at her lap. “I can’t do this alone. I need you too. I beg you…”

Madara pulled his hand away, and Hashirama did not stop him.

“I’ll talk about it with Izuna later,” he said without looking at her. “My family will still be my top priority. If your whims endanger us, I will not hold back.”

A relieved smile appeared on her face. “Thank you—”

The universe turned silent all of a sudden. As if every movement under the sky had abated. Adrenaline flooded her senses, trembling like she was in the middle of a battle.

No—she really was in the middle of a battle. At least, until a second ago. The echoes of yellings, cries, and shriekings still convulsed her ears. The sound of running footsteps she heard from her family, the prisoners, and all kinds of animals living in the Senju forests felt like they were lingering around her.

In front of her, a red figure stood tall in the sea of fire, roaring and marching forward to swallow her—

“Hashi?!”

Hashirama jolted awake, and she returned to the dim room inside Madara’s home. Her arms were in his grip. She panted, her sweat streamed down heavily.

“M—my mokubushin… died in a fire…”

She had to go home.


 

 

“This is Empress’ idea. She loves listening to music. Every year, musicians from Hanamaru are invited to play around the castle.”

Uzumaki Ashina’s answer to her small talk did not cease the conflict within her heart. Hashirama met him once she returned to the main castle. Everywhere the servants around them were preparing decorations for the final festivity tonight; watching the autumnal full moon. The noble guests returned gradually to get dressed; some of them went alone, and some came in small groups.

“But Hashirama-chan didn’t come to me to ask about them, no?”

Hashirama only grimaced under Ashina’s warm stare, suddenly feeling guilty. “No, Grandfather.”

“How about Nobuo?” he suddenly asked.

“...Good.” Hashirama had no other answer. “I just didn’t expect that he looks so different now.”

“Being Shigenobu’s apprentice changed him.” Ashina walked with her in the castle’s backyard. “I placed him in the palace on purpose so he would learn much about the world outside of our small island. Did you know that Nobuo is one of the Emperor’s most elite guards?”

“Aren’t His Majesty’s guards only consist of samurai?”

“Indeed, until Nobuo passed the test.”

They stopped. Four servants passed carrying a pot of large bonsai tree with wooden planks on their shoulders. Another servant walked separately to direct them and ask other pedestrians to move out of the way.

“Had you accepted our offer back then,” Ashina continued with a wide smile, “I would have a great-grandchild already. You would live in the palace as well, and traveling to Uzushio every winter for vacation.”

Her footsteps halted.

“Grandfather Ashina, how about we talk about it the next morning?”

His gaze suddenly filled with sparks. “Marriage? Oh, by Rikudou Sennin! Of course!”

Hashirama quickly shook her head. Ashina’s thick eyebrows dipped intensely.

“I wish to annul my engagement to Nobuo.” The words slid out heavily from her tongue. She could never stand the disappointed look in anyone’s face.

“Annul it? Why?” Ashina asked her in return. “Has the relation of our clans become so soured? Or does it mean you don’t need Uzumaki clan anymore?”

“I have accepted someone else’s proposal, Ashina-san.” Hashirama softened her voice. Whoever crossed the yard could overhear their conversation.

“That Uchiha man, isn’t it?” He sighed deeply, clutching his left chest. “Until two years ago you were still fighting against each other. It’s going to take a century until a Senju and Uchiha can be united in a marriage. Has your family agreed about it?”

You did it on purpose.

Hashirama pushed away Tobirama’s betrayed face from her mind. “Let’s talk about it tomorrow morning.”

“Don’t disappoint your father,” he said before he turned his back around.

For a long time she stared at Ashina’s back that moved further and further. She would also go to the same direction, that’s why she stood there still to avoid awkwardness.

The next morning, and she would finally be able to breathe freely.

She finally walked to her chamber, but the steps were too heavy. Clutched by reluctance. She bid her farewell with The Empress Akiko and the other noblewomen because they wanted to have some rest before the party tonight. She crossed paths with Uzumaki Ashina when she was going to the castle, and suddenly the intention to speak about the annulment surged in her mind.

But, how could she do it? What kind of compensation should they pay? All of the financial aid given by the Uzumaki, which Uncle Azami said was more than five mountains of gold? Was it the price for her mokuton?

So complicated. Her stomach began to growl. But she couldn’t eat while she felt restless. She had to find Madara first.

The outer yard where they arrived yesterday was surrounded by identical small individual pavilions. They were one-story wooden building with roof tiles made of black clay. The festivities atmosphere could be felt here. Paper lanterns were lit, gently shone under the dark red sky. The pavilion by the end of the row seemed to function as kitchen. Servants walked back and forth to serve food with tempting smell. However, the atmosphere didn’t feel as formal as the main castle. Half of the pavilions had their doors open so that Hashirama could see their occupants. Some of them had started the party, complete with oiran. Sake bottles were distributed along their laughs.

Checking all the pavilions would consume too much time, and some of them had their doors closed tightly. Hashirama asked for a location towards the pavilion she was looking for to one of the guards, then rushed to go there. It was located by the end of the row, hidden from plain sight because of the pine tree and purple-leaf plants at its front.

She found a pair of female sandals decorated with beautiful ribbons near the stairs. A conversation was heard from the inside. The lantern inside was lit, projecting the silhouette of a figure on the shoji door, who clearly wasn’t Madara. A soft, polite feminine laugh flowed out from the gaps.

Which was followed by Madara’s voice. He was laughing.

Hashirama tiptoed closer, kneeling near the stairs. Gently she slid the door to peek inside. The two of them sat across each other, separated by a short table. No doubt that it was the musician who crossed the path near the fish pond this afternoon. Her kimono was colored dark blue with white patterns. Her thin, wrinkled face profile felt slightly familiar—

The two doors were opened wide. A pair of feet showed up in her view.

“You’re here in time.” Madara smiled widely as he helped her stand. “We just talked about you.”

Hashirama studied his and the woman’s faces in turn. The smile on his face looked almost permanent. She never saw him so happy; even when she told him about her pregnancy.

The woman stood up, her expression illustrated an erupting happiness. Her eyes looked a bit swollen from crying. Her hair bun was decorated by strands of grey hair. She observed Hashirama’s face, reaching for her cheek with her trembling thin hand.

“You’re right,” she said. “She’s very beautiful…”

Madara embraced Hashirama tightly, kissing the side of her head. “Speaking of which, you will be a grandmother soon, Okaa-sama.”

“Eh?” The two women were shocked at the same time.

Mother? Grandmother?

So this musician—

A sharp sob was heard from the older woman’s lips. She covered her mouth, her eyes watered. Hashirama clutched her arms, feeling her own eyes started to heat up from the tears.

They hugged, crying together.


 

 

Madara’s mother refused their invitation to stay and talk in the pavilion because she had to entertain the party guests; singing with her coworkers. They had promised to see each other again the next day.

Once the doors were closed, Madara couldn’t let Hashirama go. He hugged her tightly from behind. She was still overflowed by shock from the revelation. She never expected her close friend’s mother worked so far away from the old Uchiha village. Madara never told her about it, and she never asked him either.

“The party must have started,” Hashirama whispered. She leaned her head on his collarbone.

“Let them be. If it’s just the moon, we can see it from here…”

“Really?” Hashirama stood up. “I want to see.”

Madara draped her kimono back before he went to open a pair of futsuma door. There was a bedroom in front of them. His gunbai reclined on the wall, next to his red armor. The shoji door across was open; showing them the most beautiful view her eyes ever feast upon.

Far below them was a chasm full of sharp stones that stood upwards like a row of gigantic teeth. Their edges were silver and rough. Growing between them were dark trees with leaves as red as blood. Everything gleamed under the moonlight. The landscape looked different than the first time they climbed the stairs two days ago.

“This is incredible,” she sighed in amazement, reclining her body against the balcony fences. “Much more beautiful than the castle’s gardens.”

“Mm.” Madara embraced her from behind once more as he tightened the belt around her clothes. “The wind is quite strong out here. Let’s sit near the wall.” He had brought several baby oranges outside.

Hashirama took one fruit, peeling it. “You and your mother… what did you talk about?”

“My mother has become your mother too, remember?”

Her fingers stopped working. She blinked.

“It’s safe here.” Madara threw a piece of orange into his mouth. He was silent for a while until he said, “my parents separated.”

For a moment she studied him. Madara’s expression didn’t change, but she found something strange. The tip of his eyebrows were lowered, and his eyelids were half closed. His lips weren’t relaxed, but rather, pulled to the side to show concealed bitterness in his mind. His intention to eat the orange had visibly gone, and he did it mainly to keep himself busy.

Hashirama stretched her legs, making sure the tips of her hakama covered her toes, patting her thighs. Madara laid his head there.

“My mother was killed by bandits,” she mumbled. “My youngest brother was still a baby at that time.”

“Whom soon would be killed in a conflict?”

“Yes.”

“Two of my brothers suffered similar fate.” Madara threw the orange peel through the gap in the balcony. “But the youngest died because of a high fever. My mother didn’t stop crying about it until Father couldn’t stand it anymore… listening to her crying…”

Hashirama brushed his hair with her hand, parting the bangs that always covered half of his face.

“Until my father and I went for a mission. We left Izuna, she was sickly. My mother carried her away through the night. Father stopped her midway and took Izuna back. It took me a long time to think of why did my mother never return… until I was told about the farewell protocol.”

“...What is that?”

“My mother wasn’t from our clan. That’s why when she left us, Father placed her in a genjutsu so she wouldn’t spill any information about out clan. To put it simply, after that, my mother forgot she ever had a family and children.”

“How could it—”

“You know how shinobi clans work, Hashi.”

She knew it, for real, but she still couldn’t accept something so terrible. How horrible was it to even forget about your own flesh and blood…

“But the genjutsu has been lifted…?”

He nodded. “I did. I told her that Izuna is still alive, and we live in Konoha by now. That’s when you came in.”

Hashirama brushed his cheek. “Mother has to live in Konoha.”

“I have offered her.” Madara placed a tiny orange between Hashirama’s lips, which she quickly ate. “She must be happy to accept. There will be someone who helps you care for the baby.”

“Mmhm!” she exclaimed in joy between chewings. But a flash of bearded face appeared in her mind. “I met Ashina-san,” she said once she swallowed half of the orange. “We will annul the engagement tomorrow.”

“Good.” Madara smirked. “Can’t wait to go home.”

“Me too.” Hashirama smiled mischievously. “I don’t regret turning around when I heard you in the forest that one time.”

“When—oh. Damn it—!”

She laughed out loud watching his face reddened. “But it’s true, isn’t it? Otherwise, I wouldn’t know that—”

“Hashi, enough, no need to retell it—!”

She dodged Madara’s hand that tried to cover her mouth. Her laugh slowly faded along with her losing breath. As she wiped the tears on the corner of her eyes, she lifted her face to see the cloudless night. Happiness continued to surge in her heart, filling herself with the fluttering of a thousand butterflies and the scent of blooming blossoms.

“The moon is so magnificent tonight,” she commented as she lowered her face.

“Yes, I told you, didn’t I?” Madara then realized she wasn’t staring at the sky anymore. “Why are you keep looking at me…?”

She didn’t answer. Her eyes only blinked once.

“The moon is over there… ah.” His confusion turned into an understanding.

Madara inched closer, leaning his body closer to her. His eyes were closed as he whispered, “I’d die for both of you.” Then he kissed Hashirama’s abdomen.

“Stay alive together with me, Madara, for as long as we can,” she responded as she intertwined their fingers together to form a snake seal.

Tomorrow, and they only needed to go home to solve all the misunderstandings.


 

 

Hashirama yawned wide. The temperature had lowered drastically, but she and Madara had fallen asleep tightly on the balcony facing a chasm full of sharp rocks. Shivering, she quickly woke Madara up and asking him to come inside.

“You fell asleep as well…?” he asked.

“Ugh… yes.” Hashirama reclined against the wall to stand. Her back felt itchy. She came inside first, hurriedly stepping on the warm futon before her toes went numb.

“Hashi.” Madara closed the balcony door as he followed her inside. “You dropped something.” There was a crumpled paper in his hand.

“Hm?” She took it, confused. “I didn’t bring a paper here…”

After she straightened the paper, she found five codes were written on it. The first and second codes were their names.

“Madara, this is—!”

His sharingan spun awake, examining the entire paper. “...It’s not fake,” he whispered.

So that’s why her back was itchy. Her hiraishin seal just worked to accept an urgent message from Konoha.

The three other codes were representing one word each:

Sibling

Dying

4

They had to go home.

Chapter Text

He was eleven, and Tobirama was tired questioning fate.

Butsuma approached with an unsheathed sword, its blade quickly met Hashirama’s sword. The girl parried and dodged as fast as lightning, but her father’s attack followed immediately. While none reached its target, it was obvious Hashirama was being overwhelmed. They hadn’t stopped training for the last three days, only resting when the night was late. In two days they would face a group of mountain bandits at the opposite end of Matsudaira’s land. The difference was this time Hashirama would participate in observing the battle. But not on the frontline. Still, Butsuma didn’t want to postpone her kenjutsu lesson.

Dodge, dodge, parry. Hashirama no longer froze in the battlefield. She kept her eyes open, switching from Butsuma’s blade to his footsteps.

While they trained on their front yard, Tobirama scanned the hallway where he worked with paper and brush on a long paper. There were fold marks in various angles that divided it into equal segments. Each segment was filled with his handwriting. Complete with diagrams and sketches about mokuton. All of his notes were neatly written. After the ink on the last segment dried, he could fold it until small.

“Halt!”

Hashirama fell to her knees, panting. She pulled her headband free before her body fell. Butsuma sheathed his sword, irritated.

“Too slow!” he snapped. “Still too slow! Where’s your mokuton?”

His sister pushed the ground, putting herself to sitting position. “I can’t use seals, Otou-sama, while holding a sword,” she answered with her head bowing down. Sweat drenched her entire face.

“Excuse, excuse!” he yelled, slapping Hashirama’s right hand. Her sword fell, clattering. “Next time just throw it! Put it away!” Butsuma turned around. “Take some rest—we’ll resume tomorrow morning!” He glanced at the papers beside Tobirama. “Don’t forget to read your notes!”

“Yes, Otou-sama!”

Tobirama scrambled up to follow his father after ensuring the candle was far enough from the papers. Hashirama often fell asleep before she finished reading, leaving the candle burning until it’s gone. Inside the dark and cold house, he helped Butsuma unclasping his armor.

“How long has it been since the river incident?”

“Two seasons ago,” answered Tobirama quickly, knowing exactly what incident he referred.

“Don’t let Hashirama freeze and puke in battle. Especially when we’re battling the Uchiha later.” Butsuma dropped both of his sode. “I’ll lose my face if Tajima know she’s helpless in front of Madara. We’ll lose our lives too.”

“If father or I were in danger, she could fight better.” Tobirama stacked all of Butsuma’s armor plates in the corner. “Her priority is still keeping us from harm.”

Butsuma sighed, tired. He gestured so Tobirama would follow him to the warm central room. Embers in the hearth were still glowing red and orange, dimly lighting the room. They stopped by a gigantic wooden pillar whose height reached the roof frames. Its thickness was at least as wide as an adult human’s embrace. He had seen this pillar stood since his birth, complete with its wooden foundation to keep it from falling. Its lower part was planted through the floor, directly into the ground. On its base were marks of rot and gnawing. The cavities made by termites created strange shadows on the floor. Up above, the pillar was cut roughly like a toothpick broken into two by a giant. The destruction mark was left as it is so there was no other structure connected to its top part.

“Did you know what is this?”

“The main pillar from our old main house that was brought here when our family moved… right?” Doubt slipped in at the end of his answer.

Butsuma touched the pillar’s smooth, varnished surface as he looked up. “In our previous home, this pillar is the sole support for the roof. All past Senju houses were built that way. Symbolizing the mokuton that protect our family.”

“We haven’t used this structure for years, Otou-sama. Why did we change it?”

“We abandoned it, yes.” He lowered his gaze. “The damage on the main pillar could destroy the entire house at once. Our current roof is supported by smaller pillars and wall. More stable.”

“So we don’t need the main pillar anymore?” At the top, it’s clear nothing was connected to the pillar as its supported.

“Hush!” Butsuma scolded aloud. “A Senju house is incomplete without our old pillar. Our house needs it like we need mokuton. You and the rest of our family are the wall and smaller pillars, so Hashirama won’t fall.”

Tobirama glanced at him.

Is that why Father named her Hashirama…?

As if reading his mind, Butsuma said, “since her birth, your sister’s chakra was already strong. Unusual. She’s the perfect symbol for the Senju, no? Our future will be brighter once she’s matured.”

“...You knew she has mokuton since birth?”

Butsuma shook his head. “Until that incident, we thought it’d be her child who’d manifest mokuton, not her.” He walked away from the pillar after throwing a last glance. “When you become the clan leader later, you should keep supporting her so her mokuton can protect the Senju forever—even if you have to lie to her.”

“Understood, Otou-sama.”

His father put a satisfied smile, then disappeared into his room. Tobirama remained, staring the wooden surface who had spent eons in silence.

In the darkness, an idea was born. Hashirama’s mokuton had traits of suiton and doton chakra. He flowed enough chakra to his palms, and formed it to the respective elements he needed. His fingers formed the snake seal. His eyes closed shut as chakra flowed within his veins towards the fingertips, heeding his command. When he peeked, he found the small flow had manifested into a rock swimming in a puddle.

Tobirama released the seal, staring at his palms. The chakra leftover on their surfaces was bubbling and waiting for another command.

He didn’t understand why.


 

 

“How much, exactly, our debt to the Uzumaki?”

Senju Joji studied an opened scroll longer than the low table. Soot still dirtied its unwritten backside. “Five mountains of gold wouldn’t be enough to repay them.” He cleared his throat aloud. “That’s harsh to count their help as debt, Tobirama.”

“Ashina-san gave it as money, no?” Tobirama’s eyes scanned the upside-down scroll from his angle. “The amount rose significantly within the last seventeen years.”

“All so your sister could live safely—”

“Just her?”

Joji squinted his eyes at his clan head. “Because your father asked to Ashina-sama. Since the bandit attack that killed many of our female relatives, we were really overwhelmed. Going to war was difficult because of the orphans. Nobody supervised them while we’re gone.”

The numbers didn’t lie. Mission requests from the daimyo were dwindled since that attack. Winter came faster, killing harvest in the Matsudaira region. Food was scarce. The Uzumaki delegation who visited fifteen years ago brought a lot of food and supplies. But the amount of non-food aid didn’t diminish even after the Senju got back to their feet. A significant change was started only about two years ago, when they moved to live with the Uchiha.

The amount was so meager, in the form of money.

Tobirama recalled Hashirama wrote the Uzumaki several times, and oftentimes their reply was sour in tone. Criticizing her about Konoha, or asking her to move to Uzushio. Although a small number of Senju indeed moved there, Hashirama insisted to stay.

“Too bad even after all the precautions we did, your sister still slipped from our grasp.”

“What do you mean, Uncle?” Tobirama glanced up from the scroll.

Joji leaned on a wall, lessening the impact of his coughs. “Her obsession to the Uchiha clan; to their leader.”

His movement stiffened. Thankfully Tobirama was freed from responding with the opening of the Senju main house’s door. His other uncle, Azami, just entered with earthenware pot smelling so sweetly. He just harvested some honey. His gaze fell to the scroll on Joji’s hand.

“Counting our debt, huh?” he commented nonchalantly, crossing the room to place his honey on a corner. “Two days ago Hashirama asked too. Nearly cried after I told her the amount.”

“I’ll ask the other clans to return the money they borrowed from us to move to Konoha.” Tobirama stood, suddenly needing some fresh air.

Joji called him. “How about your engagement? Ashina-sama still has some unmarried granddaughters.”

His mind felt heavy. “Some other day, Uncle.” He left before his uncles could say anything.

Afternoon hung. His sister should’ve arrived at their first stop tonight and met Madara. Which means by now that man should’ve known she’s carrying his child.

Obsession felt too harsh and vulgar to illustrate her character, but Tobirama admitted Joji’s words had some truth in them. When Madara was involved, Hashirama could become the most egoistic person who forgot her responsibilities. Forgot about the lives of her own family, forgot about the safety of her clan.

Forgot about their father’s wish.

No matter how great someone’s suiton and doton skills, they wouldn’t be able to call forth mokuton. The Senju still needed mokuton. Konoha still needed mokuton.

It’s said that the Uchiha’s sharingan blood was too dominant. They wouldn’t be lacking its users. Mokuton was rarer, more urgent to preserve. Their child would only have sharingan…

Perhaps not; there hadn’t been any marriage recorded between a mokuton user and an Uchiha. No one could really tell what powers would manifest within Hashirama and Madara’s child—

“Senju-sama! Look out—!”

Tobirama was too deep in his thoughts that he nearly bumped into a Hyuuga man carrying large sake jugs. He was stunned, forgetting to apologize while the other man went towards the inn’s direction.

Hashirama’s problem could wait. Konoha had another problem on its own.

The Hyuuga residence laid out before him. The smell of sake emanated from the backyard. Tobirama entered the front yard that was full of gravel, this time managed to avoid everyone who brought sake out. Large buckets filled with fermented liquids were arranged in rows under a structure. A worker he asked pointed the way to the main building.

“Please wait for awhile. Mori-sama is having a guest,” he informed before disappearing inside.

Tobirama observed the building structure Hashirama raised with mokuton while waiting under the veranda’s roof. The wooden surfaces were smooth, free from imperfection. Back then she worked it for a week with minimum rest just to finish it in time.

A soft hum cut his thoughts short. A little girl squatted by a nearby pond, singing in her childlike voice to the fish. Her long hair was tied into a ponytail, showing a red-white clan crest embroidered on her back. The girl turned her head around, feeling his stare at her.

“Afternoon, Senju-sama,” she greeted him politely. She couldn't be older than the youngest Academy students.

Tobirama gave some consideration, then chose to ask, “what are you doing here?”

Instead of answering, she glanced at the shoji door that opened right away.

The same worker returned, asking him to enter. He was escorted to a small room decorated with the Hyuuga crest on its tokonoma. The clan head sat facing a small paper note and a plate of snacks.

Uchiha Izuna sat across him, sipping a cup of fresh green tea. The shoji door across the room was opened wide, letting sunlight to flood its inhabitants.

“We just finished counting supplies for next week’s party,” the lord of the house announced, sliding his paper so Tobirama could read it. “Ukyo-san insisted all villagers should feast like in the Emperor’s castle. People get high hopes now.”

Tobirama didn’t immediately read the written numbers. A familiar chakra wall brushed off his seat, then receded. Izuna gracefully placed her tea cup, not dropping any hints that she knew there’s a new guest there.

“It’s multiple times higher than the cost of his stay each day. Who would pay for this?” he asked, finally reading Hyuuga Mori’s scrawled notes. Ukyo was a maniac of feasts, and he had it almost every night at the inn. Since he arrived after the bijuu fox attack, only once Ukyo was seen doing his duty going around the village and taking notes for whatever purpose. Twice a party invitation was sent to Tobirama, and twice he refused due to his packed work at the jutsu research and development.

“Village treasury.”

“What a waste,” he grumbled. “Winter’s coming.” And despite the flooding mission request, it wasn’t accompanied with the ease of logistics access to Konoha. The snow could block the roads to Konoha, cutting it off from the outside world.

“By the way,” Izuna piped up, and Tobirama’s breath was caught in his throat. She tilted her head. “Until when that person is going to stay in Konoha? He’s unprofessional. We should ask for a replacement to the Emperor.”

“I’ll talk after Hokage returns. I’m here for another business,” he added, looking at Mori.

“Then I’ll excuse myself—”

“You may stay.”

Izuna paused, her palm clutching the table’s edge. Then she sat down again.

“Alright, what’s this about?”

He took a deep breath. “Mori-san, our clan gave you financial aid to help you move here, correct?”

His grey eyebrows were slightly raised. “That’s correct.”

“My sister said she gifted it to the Hyuuga,” Tobirama chose his words carefully, “but considering that the life of your clan has stabilized and with due respect, as a clan head of the Senju I’m asking for the gift to be returned.”

Silence reigned the room. The veins on Mori’s temple didn’t throb, but still Tobirama felt his byakugan was digging into him. The Hyuuga had been supporting Hashirama’s policies since the beginning, so the chance of him refusing his request was small. Still, financial matters often raised disputes.

Izuna’s lip corner raised. Tobirama caught it from her reflection on the table.

“That’s not a small amount.” Mori straightened his arms. “Is the Senju having difficulties…?”

Tobirama shook his head. “The money given by my sister wasn’t wholly ours.”

“The Uzumaki’s?” Izuna chimed in.

Mori looked at them alternately, understanding the situation. “No wonder.” His nostrils flared. “Wouldn’t this tarnish the Hokage’s image?”

“I’m just being pragmatic,” Tobirama replied curtly. “What isn’t ours should be returned.”

Mori straightened his back, spreading a satisfied smile. “The Uzumaki didn’t support Hashirama-san’s plan to establish Konoha. But they still gave you an extraordinary amount for a shinobi clan. What would you give in return?”

“That’s our internal matter.”

“Hm.” Mori glanced at his first guest again. “Why do you only ask my clan, though? How about others? Uchiha, for example?”

Izuna shifted on her pillow.

“I intend to ask her after this,” Tobirama answered swiftly without a pause. “Or later after Madara-san returns.”

“Are you sure this is the right time to talk about it?”

If he thought his rhetorics would push Tobirama off balance, then Mori was mistaken.

“I’m sure.” He stared at the only woman in the room. “You’d agree with me.”

Izuna did nothing but holding on her empty cup.

“It is unwise to ask for a gift that has been used up, Senju-san. Your sister would have disagreed.”

“Mori-san—”

“I refuse.”

A rebuttal was ready to launch, but he held himself back. He couldn't do anything else for now. Pushing him further would just strengthen his refusal. Tobirama didn’t lose today; he’d try again someday.

“Senju-san,” Mori called as he escorted his guests out. His voice was lowered so Izuna wouldn’t overhear him. “It’s better for you to fix your sister’s personal problem first.”

Tobirama descended the steps to wear his sandals. “What do you mean?”

“The Uzumaki doesn’t rule in Konoha.” Mori’s arms were hidden in his sleeves. “Many people think Konoha’s unity will be more solid if Hokage-san marries someone who lives here too.”

Tobirama ignored his suggestion. “Thank you for your time, Mori-san. Good afternoon.” He had turned towards the exit when he felt a tug on his pinky finger.

The Uchiha girl from before had gripped his finger tightly, her round dark eyes was fixated on his face. Her expression was akin to seeing a shiny, colorful spinning top promised to her. Sparkling.

“Ah…” Tobirama couldn't move. Awkward.

“Yuzuha?” Izuna’s voice called from behind. “Where are you…?”

Tobirama tried to pull himself free, but Yuzuha’s grip was so strong. He turned his head, finding Hyuuga Mori still standing on the walkway with an amused smile.

“Yuzuha…?” she called again.

Tobirama surrendered. “She’s with me, Izuna. I’m on your northeast.”

Her thick chakra wall found him soon, looking for Yuzuha’s free hand. Izuna held it, but the grip in her other hand was stubbornly tight.

“Let’s go, Yuzuha,” Izuna asked, still didn’t understand why the girl wasn’t moving.

Tobirama cleared his throat. “She’s… still holding my hand.”

“Please let go of Senju-san’s hand,” Izuna repeated, which she responded with an angry whine.

“The Uchiha residence isn’t that far, no?” suddenly Hyuuga Mori joined. His voice was obviously amused. “Go with them for a bit,” he suggested, looking at Yuzuha as if she’s his own granddaughter.

Izuna’s lips thinned. Her hand freed itself from the girl’s, but Yuzuha caught it again.

Tobirama massaged his forehead, surrendering again. “I’m not in a rush.”

“Yay!”

They left the Hyuuga residence with Yuzuha’s tiny hands secured in their grasps. Tobirama could sense Izuna’s thick chakra wall widening around him yet avoiding to touch him directly. Yuzuha kept jumping and waving their hands as she looked at her surroundings.

“There’s a bird with yellow tummy!”

“Oh?” Izuna asked back. “Where is it?”

“Above the tree! Sooo many!” Yuzuha’s head turned so far from the road. “Senju-sama too, look! Look!”

Tobirama turned his head a bit, finding said birds chirping on a pine branch. Before he could confirm his findings, Yuzuha had found another animal to obsess over. This time was a dog carrying a basket of chicken eggs in his mouth.

“That dog laid eggs!” Her shout didn’t stop the dog. Tobirama thought it belonged to an Inuzuka who forgot to buy eggs.

“Dogs don’t lay eggs!” Izuna laughed aloud, still responding to her babble.

They hadn’t walked far from the Hyuuga residence, but it felt like Tobirama had circled the entire village. Yuzuha kept stopping to see passing animals. Her voice attracted people’s attention, which was something Tobirama didn’t want. He waited for a chance to escape, but her grip was as strong as a fuuinjutsu.

Izuna herself didn’t bother to stop her rambling. Maybe he ought to tell her that he’s impatient to go—

“Senju-sama doesn’t like cats?”

“They’re cute but—”

Yuzuha turned to her relative. “Izu-nee, Senju-sama is still sad…!”

The chakra wall thickened, prickling Tobirama’s skin. He winced in discomfort. Izuna’s body tensed, as if detecting an attack. She roughly pulled her hand free.

“Yuzuha, shut up!”

For a moment the girl froze hearing her snapped. Then, her cry started. Not a wail, but a silent cry. Only marked with tears and muffled sob behind her bitten lip.

Tobirama swallowed his complain and picked her up. “Where are her parents?”

“To Iwa.” Izuna looked away. “Make her stop…”

Yuzuha’s tiny fingers crumpled Tobirama’s haori. Her tears seeped into his clothes. Her sniffles turned louder. Feeling awkward again, he patted her back trying to calm her. He’s so unused to this.

Besides, there’s something strange with what just happened. Izuna‘s walk was visibly angry, and her chakra restless. Oftentimes she stepped on a pebble, but that didn’t stop her. When the footpath towards the clan residence was seen, Izuna took Yuzuha. The girl quickly wriggled free and ran home on her own.

“Hahh…” Izuna leaned on her knees. “Now she’s sulking....”

Tobirama dragged his feet, ready to turn around. “I’ll see you later, Izuna-san.”

“Oi,” she called before he could go. “I thought you’re going to talk about that…?”

“The Uchiha didn’t receive any financial aid from my sister. Good afternoon.”

He nearly dashed leaving Izuna, and he didn’t want to know why.


 

 

He was twenty one.

For long he harbored questions—why he wasn’t the firstborn, why he wasn’t blessed with mokuton. For long he decided those questions were wasting time and energy to mull over, because Rikudou Sennin never answered his confusion. Although his father had mapped a clear life path for hom, and it’s a high price to pay if he changed direction, going off the path.

Too bad because it’s Hashirama who tend to go off on her own. She possessed all the powers every Senju children could dream of, yet she didn’t act like a clan pillar supposed to be. Fortunately, most of her decisions were taken after discussing them with Tobirsma and earned his approval. Unfortunately the rest of her decisions risked her life.

Tobirama was still guarding his post, ignoring the Inuzuka young man who kept sniffing the air. His anger was still boiling, yet also locking his joints so he was powerless to stop her from going.

What kind of shinobi who froze at such a dire moment?

Hashirama is the strongest shinobi he knew. Her sister didn’t need enormous effort to flatten the Uchiha settlement. Most of their clansmen were here anyway, leaving many elderlies and babies behind.

Yet he also knew Hashirama wouldn’t sacrifice them to defeat the Uchiha.

“Senju-san, your sister isn’t on patrol?”

“On the north of the perimeter.” Tobirama thinned his sensing chakra. The guard in the north was a mokubunshin, but his partner didn’t need to know. Its spot was the closest to the bijuu, so if it attacked tonight, their strongest fighter was ready to block it.

“It’s so far from here,” the Inuzuka continued. “I can smell her, a bit to the west…”

“She went around the perimeter a bit,” he lied.

“I see.”

His hands were itchy. With only a bit of seal and chakra, he could jump past the distance to reach Hashirama, wherever she was. There was a hiraishin seal planted on her back so he could appear nearby anytime. Her clear instruction forbade him to appear, and sadly she’s still the head of Senju. Her words were absolute.

“By the way, why is your clan never going to war lately?”

Tobirama had an urge to throw this young man to the nearest river. With his dog too, preferably.

“Daimyo-sama said it’s because your clan head is a woman. But I can say that’s not true,” he added in a rush. The Inuzuka clan head was also a woman, and they were still actively answering battle challenge. “People are wondering—”

“We want to stop the wars,” Tobirama cut his words.

“...Huh? How do you—”

An explosion drowned the rest of his sentence. Gigantic fireballs, larger than the ones spat by the Uchiha, swallowed Senju forests in a flash. Tobirama’s suiton dragons cut their paths, putting off the fire before reaching their spot.

“How’s the frontline—? They should’ve given us a warning!” the Inuzuka teen yelled.

“They must have been defeated!” Tobirama prepared another suiton dragon. “I’ll go to the front! Go back and prepare evacuation!”

His dog howled, signaling the danger, and it echoed far behind their backs. Similar howlings followed in the distance. Forest creatures dashed out from their home; boars, rabbits, bears, deer—all growling and screaming in fear. The earth shook under their claws and hooves. The cold air had turned hot, making the inside of his facial plate sticky with sweat. The sky turned violet behind a thick smoke screen.

The fire north was still burning. His dragons broke themselves into waves, giving a safe evacuation path for the animals. In the distance, above the trees, mokuton structures were made to cage the fire. Yet those were futile before the gigantic ape with fiery hair who raged and destroyed the plain.

The smell of burned flesh punched his nose. The heat forced his pores to flood out the sweat.

Nothing left from the entire squad who was stationed in the northern side of the perimeter, except for his sister’s mokubunshin. She stood on a large platform, her hands entwined to grow gigantic wooden posts as fast as she could. Around her, dead trees fell all over, their bodies ablaze.

“Aneja—!”

“Nobody survived!” she roared. The roaring wind forced her to shout. “An Inuzuka squad… went ahead to confront it, then—”

“I understand. The signal has been released. Evacuation should’ve started!” A bijuu was no different from an animal, it would attack if it’s bothered. The Inuzuka dogs must had irritated him.

Hashirama’s mokubunshin nodded, gulping. “Can you… suiton…?”

Tobirama was unsure. With the dry surroundings nearly without moisture, it’s harder to gather water from the air. His chakra would be depleted in an instant. He pulled a kunai with a special danger sign tied on its end. He stabbed the hiraishin seal carved on the platform’ surface.

The kunai remained at that spot.

He pulled and stabbed it again. Nothing happened.

Again. The result was similar.

A chilling sensation ran down his spine. The hiraishin seal on Hashirama’s back wasn’t functioning. Something must have happened on her wherever she was—did Madara refuse her offer and kill her—?

The mokuton shields were still growing around them. “Tobirama! What’s wrong—?” The mokubunshin had no nerve to turn around, her eyes still facing the north.

That’s right—if his sister had died, the mokubunshin would’ve disappeared. He sensed the surroundings. The fire enclosed around them, and his chakra found no living creatures beside himself.

Tobirama was alone.

“I can’t do senjutsu!” yelled the mokubunshin. “Can you—Hashirama—?”

“I can’t!” He stood. “How long can you hold—?”

“Not too long—Tobirama!”

The hair in his nape stood. A fireball was flung towards them. Her mokubunshin roared, covering him underneath a thick dome. Tree trunks cracked as they fell. He could only grit his teeth as the world was destroyed around them. Hashirama’s mokuton could handle Uchiha fire, but they were facing a bijuu.

There was no shinobi ever survived the rage of a bijuu.

The wooden dome opened, showing ruin and fire. The heat suffocated him further. Tobirama took off his collar and face plate, having difficulties breathing.

Hashirama’s mokubunshin was nowhere to be found.

He fell back using his hiraishin until he found a small group of suiton division still fighting to control the fire. “You guys—!”

A short haired man cut him, “Tobirama-san! The fire has reached the settlement!”

“Don’t joke, Reiji—!”

“I wish I’m joking!” Reiji threw his hands in the air, frustrated. “Inuzuka-sama lent help helping everyone evacuate south. Only few stay behind! Our houses are gone!”

“Where’s Hashirama-sama!?” someone shouted. “If she’s here, then—!”

“She is far at the front!” Tobirama formed suiryuudan seals. “Right before the bijuu. I just went there. So don’t worry!”

His lie managed to lift their spirits. The water dragons burst forth once more. The six people moved around, preventing the fire spreading to other parts of the forest. The last time he checked, the bijuu was still in the same spot. Hopefully it'll stay that way…

“What kind of bijuu attacking us now…?”

“An ape with fiery fur,” Tobirama answered shortly. He led his group moving on gigantic branches, avoiding falling trees and running beasts on the forest floor. “I didn’t see how many tails it has.”

“Maybe five—”

“Or six—”

Tobirama didn’t care either way.

Their stamina was quickly depleted, and it was clear that forcing themselves would be futile. He thought to fall back when the earth was shaken.

The bijuu came forward.

On his branch Reiji looked up, his eyes widened in fear. His mouth mumbled, “Rikudou Sennin…”

Towering above the cedars and pines, was the face of the ape bijuu. His large tusks protruding out, his lips pulled back to display its rage. It hadn’t found them among the trees, so Tobirama told his group to fall back. Its booming, slow steps shook the earth, echoing as they escaped.

His grip tightened on a kunai with hiraishin seal. Hashirama must had known her mokubunshin perished, but who knows how far she is from their home—or whether she’s free to move. Madara must had done something to the hiraishin seal on her back.

They arrived at the village, whose nearly unrecognizable because everything was scorched into ashes. Every surfaces no longer burning was still emanating heat. Almost everyone had left, except for a few shinobi. They’re betting their lives before a savage entity. Their faces began to show despair. The Inuzuka dogs had their tails tucked behind their legs. They were whimpering, but remained because their partners were there too.

Tobirama gulped. They must not die here.

He’s the strongest suiton user left. He couldn't leave them even just for a while!

Then the bijuu’s fist hit the earth, sending trees into the air, and Tobirama’s kunai was released—

He jumped over the space taking all the shinobi far more south, the space shrunk and expanded like a massive pressure on his ears, faintly he heard his name being screamed amongst the whimpers of dogs—

Then the giant ape roared shattering the balance of natural laws he breached—

When Tobirama landed on burned grasses, pain washed over half of his body, his armor plates felt like liquid steel, his ears ringing, his stomach churned because he leaped too fast and he kept forcing his chakra out. He was trembling as he took off his armor. His chest felt constricted.

He fell on his chest, coughing badly. Who knows how long time has passed. How many survived? Nobody survived among the group who accompanied the mokubunshin earlier—

Another scream tore the air, the voice of a woman.

Hashirama was home.

A silhouette as huge as the ape bijuu came forward, followed by wooden tendrils as thick as a tree trunks that wrapped themselves on the bijuu’s body and tails to push it northwards. Their booming steps slowly faded until it’s gone. The ground no longer shook.

The people he saved had returned, encircling him to give first aid. Someone gave him a bamboo tube filled with water, which Tobirama accepted with gratitude. After an Inuzuka shared some kikatsugan, the suiton division returned working to put out the fire until the only fire left was too far from the village.

Dawn was nearly rising when Hashirama returned, her body covered with soot. Her face paled finding wounded Tobirama. People moved aside to give them privacy.

Her palms glowed green. Anger rose in his chest.

“...Happy now?”

The glow dimmed. Hashirama lowered her hands.

They had no home to return to.


 

 

“Senju-san.”

The wave of chakra Tobirama had known too well froze him on the spot. His intention to buy dango for afternoon snack was pushed away.

People chatted and joked, most just finished harvesting. The small, low-roofed establishment was full, noisy. A queue stretched before him, at least ten people, all waiting for a dango to take home.

Tobirama didn’t mind queueing, didn’t mind waiting longer. But his appetite rose as he smelled the scent of salty and sweet dango filling the cool store. He scanned the seats, thinking to occupy a chair so his order would be finished quicker, when a voice as melodious as uguisu birds voiced his name, flowing above the guests’ laughters.

Izuna sat alone under the shades, on the table so far in the back. She threw him a smile, as if her act was as simple and as natural as breathing.

“Uchiha-san.”

Tobirama didn’t need to utter his reply as loudly; the warm chakra brushed over his lips, carrying his syllables to its owner’s senses.

He dragged his heel, obeying a reflex embedded in his muscles. But Izuna’s lips formed another sentence, as soft as the first drops of rain.

“Don’t run.”

Between conversations, the eyes threw glances. The guests’ body language left their relaxed state, shifting their waist a bit to see Hinokuni’s two strongest clans’ leaders. The volume of chatterings were lowered, their hearings sharpened.

His eyes squinted. That’s right. Gossip.

Tobirama pushed the noren curtain above the entrance, stepping past the doorway into the coolness of the shop. The sweet scent of red bean paste accompanied him as he walked to the table on the back.

They last met two days ago, with Uchiha Yuzuha. A meeting that was ended with his departure. With his loss.

“It’s unusual for you to be outside this early,” she remarked casually, fiddling with her two empty dango sticks. “What about your jutsu research?”

“Thank you,” said him to a server who brought him a plate of dango. “I’m still looking for someone whom I can teach the hiraishin. So far only Ango succeeded moving, but only a hundred meters.”

“How about the side effect?”

“It’s lessened.”

“You’re not interested testing younger kids?”

Chatterings filled the shop again, hiding their conversation from the outside. “They won’t be able to handle the dizziness and nausea effects. Better not.”

“Back then you said the hiraishin can be used to send something.” Izuna placed her chin on her hand. “How?”

“All my hiraishin marks have a responding pair in the other dimension…” Tobirama stopped abruptly, his forehead wrinkled. “Didn’t I explain it to you before?”

“I’d like to listen again.”

“Long—”

“Long’s good. Don’t you have time to spare?”

Tobirama stared at the second dango plate before Izuna. “...Yes,” he lied. “The concept is derived from fuuinjutsu…”

“I remember.” Izuna pushed her plate away. “You marked the spots where you can come and go freely. Aren’t you the only one who can use the technique?”

“Other people connected to my chakra can use it—but it depends on how far they can utilize it…”

Talking about the research he thoroughly mastered relaxed him, giving him a reason to stay until Izuna’s curiosity was satisfied. The questions she gave always demanded long answers.

“The heavier the object and the farther the distance, the amount of chakra needed too is bigger.”

Izuna dropped her last dango stick. Her plate was squeaky clean. “So how well is Ango’s hiraishin…?”

“He can send a small object as far as possible. A human-sized object—”

“Sensei!”

A woman approached their table, her face showing nervousness. She realized Tobirama was on the table, so she quickly bowed. “Ah, pardon for bothering the both of you,” she said more to him than to Izuna.

Tobirama shifted a bit. The woman put a basket full of large oranges on the table. He found nothing slipped between the fruits.

“I thank you so much, Uchiha-sensei!” Gratitude and happiness were apparent on her tanned face. “My son, Uri, actually can use chakra. He… he showed it to me and husband. We’re so shocked! Because his body is fragile. Thank you for trusting him!”

Izuna reached for the basket, sniffing its contents’ fresh scent. Slowly she spread a smile wide enough to show her teeth rows. “Uri is very diligent in training. Even though he often got hurt because he hold shuriken in a wrong way.”

The woman turned to Tobirama. “Please send my gratitude to Hokage-sama too. Without her, farmers like us won’t be allowed to enter Academy.” She bowed deeply, excused herself, then left the shop.

He watched her back blended with the crowd on the street. “...Are the farmer children doing as well as the clan children in  Academy?”

“Oh, yes!” Izuna answered enthusiastically. “Their numbers are smaller but they’re full of energy. Always asking me stuff until I got dizzy answering.” She chuckled while peeling an orange. “I had to add an assistant in my class, so reckless of them playing with paper bombs!”

“Who put paper bombs in a room full of children…?” Unknowingly, he smiled as well.

“Not me, duh!” Izuna squeezed her orange peel. “How could I tell there’s a box of paper bomb? Did you think I can see it?” She laughed at her own joke. Half of her orange was pushed to him. “I was in the class alone since the morning until the students arrived. My assistant took it away before the class started.”

An idea surfaced in his mind. “So…  how did you explain chakra to non-shinobi children?” Tobirama took the orange, looking relaxed.

“Curious, aren’t you?” teased her.

“Could be a good idea for my research,” he replied casually.

“Buy me another plate of dango.”

He glanced at the two empty plates, with six bamboo sticks stacked neatly on them. “Alright.”

Izuna beamed. “I played hide and seek with them.”

“You meant you made them taste the life and death situation like in an actual battle?”

“Exactly.” She chuckled. “At first they worked by themselves. Soon the more skilled ones helped the less. They’re more successful that way…”

A server came taking the empty cups and plates, then placed new snacks. Tobirama’s salty dango was steaming, but it’s not even hot on his tongue.

“Children from different clans can cooperate?”

“Surprisingly, yes.” Izuna ate dango and orange in turns. “They’ve known each other before they enrolled. Playing together, pranking together… even Yuzuha caught some bad influences from them.”

He was reminded to Nara Shikana’s protest back then. “No parents came asking you to separate them…?”

“Not at all.” Izuna took off the dango from its stick with her finger, then cut it in half to reveal its bean paste spilling onto the plate. “There are… some outstanding children. Next years I predict they can make a bunshin. Be a full time shinobi.” She ate her half dango.

“That fast?” Tobirama leaned forward. “I thought we’d need at least three years until someone graduated. How old are they?”

She tapped her chin. “Six years… after the new year.”

“I need to start looking for their mentor candidate…”

“How about yourself?”

The customers came and went, and the other tables were occupied with new guests.

Yet Tobirama didn’t want to return to his books.


 

 

He was twenty one, and Tobirama was submerged in mud.

He had emptied his schedule today to clear his mind. In the last two weeks he accompanied Hashirama meeting the clan heads of Nara, Yamanaka, and Akimichi. A daimyo had requested them to attack the Senju-Uchiha alliance. Hashirama prevented their attack merely with a dialogue request with their leaders. The result made the clans wishing to join their village.

If Madara was the one who negotiated it, the result might be starkly different.

The first families had arrived, so people started opening more forest again. The sound of axes chopping was heard from morning to evening, even to his house that was far from the center of the settlement. The chirping of birds and flowing of river were louder here.

His other reason for building his house that far was so he could focus on his jutsu research.

The room in the back of his house was empty, save for a scroll anda set of writing tools. Tobirama had written down everything he could remember from his past experiments because his old notes had been burned away. Now for the umpteenth time he tried to mix the doton and suiton chakra

And for the umpteenth time, he could only create mud.

He had meticulously measured the amount of both chakra type, mixing them with varying ratio, yet the result was still mud. The only difference was its viscosity.

In Tobirama’s hands, the soil never manifested into wood. Did Hashirama mix it with other elements?

He gritted his teeth. Tobirama threw his writing brush backwards without looking—not expecting a loud yelp from that direction.

“Aneja—?”

Hashirama rubbed her forehead, wincing in pain on the doorway. Her haori had been decorated with splatters of black ink. “...Yo,” she greeted, holding back a chuckle. “Trying out new jutsu?”

He gulped before answering, “...yes. Just to kill some time. Why did you go home sooner?” Tobirama took a scooping mop in the corner, then started to push the mud out through the back door. The work helped him hide a nervousness rising in his mind.

Hashirama hadn’t known he tried to artificially recreate mokuton, and thankfully she never suspected it.

“Are you free tomorrow morning?”

“Depends how early,” he said without looking.

“Before sunrise?”

“After waking up? I should be free.”

“Nice!” Hashirama clapped once. “Someone wants to learn sensing. You can help.”

“Depends on the person’s skill.”

“That means you can do it, right?”

The mop stopped pushing mud. Tobirama turned around, his eyebrows furrowed seeing his sister’s hopeful grin.

“I can.”

In the next morning, when the sky was still dark purple and mist clinging heavily, the Senju siblings left their home. They passed all the settlements and untouched forests using a torch to light their way. The sound of splashing water that’s getting louder told him that they’re going to the lake. He stopped abruptly. The scar on his chin was itchy.

Behind the mist, a slim silhouette appeared and approached slowly. A bamboo staff parted the mist, followed by a figure in dark haori. A sword was tied on the waist, its handle protruding under the haori.

It’s Uchiha Izuna.

She tilted her head. “Hashirama-san?” she asked in a low volume. Her mouth spilled fog as she spoke. The tip of her nose was red from the weather.

“Morning, Izuna.” His sister waved at her. “Madara hasn’t returned?”

Izuna shook her head, tightening her haori. “Did you bring the person…?”

“Mhm!”

Tobirama turned his head sharply. “Aneja, you didn’t say—”

“Huh, Tobirama?” Surprise was apparent in her voice. “Why are you…?”

Hashirama cleared her throat aloud. “Yah! You asked for the best sensing shinobi in the village, no? There’s nobody better than my brother, I guarantee it!” she explained while patting Tobirama’s shoulders.

Izuna’s lips pursed. For a moment, he thought she would refuse and leave, but those didn’t happen.

“Alright.” She sighed aloud. Her hand was offered. “I’ll learn from you.”

His sister was the clan head, and her request was absolute. To refuse was a taboo.

Tobirama shook her hand.


 

 

“Why did you want to go?”

Izuna’s question was thrown out so abruptly, as soft as the whispers of afternoon wind. They left the dango shop near the end of the afternoon, when most guests had left. Their stomachs were full with tea and sweet snacks. Their jaws were tired of conversing. The torches along the street towards the Uchiha residence were lit, engulfing the houses in orange light. Tobirama just finished explaining about kagebunshin when Izuna asked.

“Is it because I was there?”

They had stopped walking. Izuna awaited his answer with her chakra holding his hands. His haori, that was too big on Izuna’s body, flapping in the wind. It seems she had been holding her question for a while.

“I thought you still don’t want to talk to me.” Tobirama stood under a cedar’s shade, before a footpath meandering through the forest. Izuna’s chakra released his hands. He closed and opened his knuckles, easing his joints.

The bright mood that had been accompanying him the whole day was wiped off at once.

“I’m still angry indeed.” Izuna crossed her arms, not even trying to soften her words.

...See? “...I know.”

“But you didn’t know why.”

“You already told me.” Usually his ire would rise, but not this time. Talking it out after a meal and nice conversation made his emotions more stable. “Retelling me your reason won’t change anything.”

Her lips parted, but quickly closed again. Her nostrils flared. “It’s not just that.” She shook her head and rubbed her hands together many times. “Many of my family members… can’t accept separation so well. Especially when it’s someone dear to them.” Her voice trembled, as if she’s holding something.

“I can’t unilaterally terminate an agreement my father made—” He stopped himself. Why did they talk about it again? What else was still unclear?

“...You still don’t understand?”

“What is it?”

The chakra wall ebbed. Izuna massaged her temple, and leaned on a giant pine. “I thought I could make you understand today.”

“Don’t make assumptions.”

“Until when you want to keep running?”

“I’m not run—”

“Until when you want to keep avoiding?” Her voice rose by a pitch. Izuna pushed his haori onto his chest, then dashed into the forest.

A strange sensation in his heart pushed him to move. He caught her wrist. Izuna stopped, going stiff in an awkward position. Her shoulders rose and fell rapidly.

The sensation turned similar to the time they bantered by the river. The feeling gripped his heart like it’s trying to crush it.

It hurt.

Blocking him in the chest and chakra center, expanding the vines choking his organs, dragging him into the abyss—

“Make me understand, Izuna.” The thin wrist was cold in his grasp.

“If Hashi-neesan doesn’t have a fiance…”

“I’d still refuse him—”

Izuna jerked away her hand, turning around with balled fists. “Why!?”

Tobirama pushed back hair on his forehead. Why was she always bringing up the matter of their siblings? Why couldn't they just talk about things beside Madara and Hashirama, like when they trained kenjutsu together away from other people’s presence? Why did she insist to meddle?

Why didn’t she understand?

“We didn’t want to risk erasing the blood of mokuton, Izuna.”

She took a step back. “Whatever you said, Hashi-neesan has accepted our kimono. She won’t leave my brother.”

Tobirama furrowed his eyebrows. “What do you mean?”

“Is that really what you want?” The veins on her neck stiffened. “Or you’re merely echoing the wishes of your family?”

He was stunned. The abyss expanded, pulling even more and more and more—

Boisterous laughters diverted his attention. Five men appeared from the residence’s direction, chatting loudly. As he moved aside to give them way, Izuna disappeared.

The usually thick chakra wall was nowhere to be found where he stood earlier. The space Izuna just left resonated with the emptiness within him.

Abysmal.

She wasn’t too far yet. She must be—

But why bother chasing her?

Tobirama wore his haori, then turned around. The five men walked beside him towards the village center. Their loud talk was easily overheard.

“So, so  cunning aren’t you Akio!” said Uchiha Hikaku. “Sneaking out like that, bringing home a wife by dawn!”

Tall and lanky Uchiha Akio dodged a mock jab from another man. “Keiko doesn’t want to stay in her old village anymore. So I just married her. Later if her family comes here we’ll tell them—hey!” Another man tried to punch his face, earning a laugh from the rest of the group.

“This Akio,” Hikaku said to Tobirama, his eyes watered due laughing, “sneakily married a neighboring village beauty without telling us—”

“Indeed I didn’t have to!” yelled the newlywed.

“At least tell your cousins, hey!”

“There’s no need to!”

“You cunning!” another man piped in.

“Our marriage has been registered in the village archive, shut up!”

Tobirama observed them, mildly amused. “Are Uchiha marriages always like this?”

Hikaku had released Akio’s head, now walking beside Tobirama. “We’re not used with parties, Senju-san. Only need the bride and groom to officiate it.” They arrived at the intersection heading to the shop row. Hikaku excused himself and joined his boisterous cousins, perhaps going to a sake house. He noticed the other four didn’t bother looking at him, or even greet him.

His research room was on the first floor of the Hokage office building. The night was early, but the place was deserted. In total darkness Tobirama brought a candle for lighting. Unknowingly he stopped walking before reaching his destination, right in front of a door leading to a different room.

Its label said it’s a civilian archive room.

His activity that day was replayed in his mind. All his conversations. The talk with Hikaku just now. The abyss Izuna left within…

She won’t leave my brother.

Tobirama unlocked the archive room. Tonight, he wouldn’t continue his research.


 

 

“Ango-kun? Did you leave anything behind?”

Ango nervously scratched the scar on his temple. He stood on the research room doorstep, hesitating to step inside although he had visited it many times. “Eh… am I not on guard duty tonight?”

Tobirama frowned, then remembered that tonight he was invited to Ukyo’s party. The scrolls fell from his lap and scattered on the floor once he sprung to stand up. He was studying blueprints of Konoha topography and arranging plans for stronger protection seals since early morning. Without being asked, Ango immediately tidied up the mess he made. Tobirama snatched his haori, skipping a stack of books on the floor before running outside.

The entire village looked like it was lit inside a lantern with lively crowds, comparable to the time when Emperor Nobutada came to visit. His smelling sense was welcomed by the scent of grilled meat that came from several houses. The Shimura residence was located in the east; signified by the sound of sake flowing into clay cups and echoing laughter.

The young Shimura clan leader looked relieved when he greeted him. “I thought you wouldn’t come, Tobirama-san.” His face reddened, and his shoulder-length hair was messy. How many cups of sake had he devoured?

Tobirama smiled a little. “I forgot the time—”    

Shimura Keita placed his arm around the taller man’s shoulders. “Why are you so formal? Come on, let’s enjoy! We still have plenty of free-flow Hyuuga sake. Have you tried it? The barrel is made of mokuton—”

Tobirama received a bottle of sake from his hand. It only had less than half.

“Driiinkkk!”

“You’re drunk, Keita-san.” Tobirama waved his hand to the two young men who were carrying empty plates. They apologized before they escorted the young clan leader away with his sake bottle. Tobirama relaxed his shoulders as he walked further. The sound of music, laughter, giggles, and clatters of dices that collide against each other. Only a moment and his head pulsed from the noises.

The smell of grilled fish and meat emanated from here and there. The main courtyard had been occupied by a large crowd, lanterns, and entertainers… he hadn’t walked too far and his hands were already filled by grilled eel and a small bottle of sweet-scented sake. He stared at the two treats like he never saw them before.

How much had their village spent to afford the party tonight?

The hunger he had been ignoring since the early evening finally pushed him to eat. He sat by the hallway, far from the crowds, as he observed the guests. Akimichi Chokichi and Hyuuga Mori were present, their relatives were supervising the flow of food and drink supplies. The closed meeting hall by the end of the courtyard was also filled by guests, as seen from the shadows on the shoji door. He didn’t know where but someone was playing dice around the area.

”Eh, Senju-san?”

Tobirama turned his head too quickly that his neck hurt. Uchiha Hikaku stood in the hall, carrying a small table with food on it.

“Would you like to join us? Ukyo-san has been waiting for you.”

He left his empty eel bowl and untouched sake behind, following Hikaku to the meeting hall. The swish of colorful long sleeves greeted his view once Hikaku slid the door. Five young women danced in swift movement at one corner of the hall, accompanied by the sound of stringed instruments. Red, orange, yellow, and blue sky—every color mixed into one dazing whirlpool of colors. 

Ukyo who was busy enjoying the uncommon entertainment had two women by his side. Their clothes exposed their shoulders, showing their necks and smooth collarbones. Although they acted flirty, Tobirama knew they were trained kunoichi. Dozens of men in the room were staring at them, one to two men were visibly gaping. Some of the men were accompanied by a kunoichi who dressed flashy, talking in a low whisper.

He only sipped a little of his sake.

Hikaku took a space next to the only female guest—Izuna. The small table he carried had a bowl of scented rice with fish and peanuts on top. Rather than chopsticks, he offered a small wooden spoon to Izuna. Before her food managed to touch her lips, she suddenly turned her head at him.

Tobirama averted his gaze. His chest hurt.

“You really are difficult to meet, Tobirama-san,” said Ukyo suddenly. His mustache had grown thicker, and seemed to have been oiled specially for tonight that it gleamed under the lights. “Not once you came for my invitations. Don’t be a workaholic, you’ll get old faster.” He ended his words with amused chuckle.

“I’m taking over all Hokage tasks while my sister isn’t here. That, and my own duties.”

“Leave them for one day and they won’t go anywhere anyway!”

A small table with bowls on it was placed in front of him. The closest bowl had rice with fish and peanuts like the one eaten by Izuna. He ignored the other side dishes; eating only from the bowl. The fish taste was absorbed perfectly into the rice.

“Ukyo-san,” Tobirama spoke, “how about your duty? Once Konoha becomes a part of The Emperor’s territory, you wouldn’t need to survey our assets anymore, would you?”

“Senju-san, what’s wrong with you?” Instead of Ukyo, Shimura Hisao was the one who answered. His row of black teeth were visible as he talked. “How come you’re asking about the duty of The Emperor’s envoy?”

Almost without a pause, Tobirama responded, “So do you know better about it? Care to explain?”

Laughter echoed, beating the sound of music. The dancers and musicians had ended their performance. Polite applause filled the room until they left. A pair of waitresses—clearly Shimura girls, pouring sake into the guests’ cups. Usually, the ones inside a party’s private room were only the daimyo and clans’ higher officials.  

However, no clan leader sat there—if he had to exempt himself and Izuna. He was the only Senju man. Izuna and Hikaku were the only Uchiha. The others were from other clans, with age less than thirty. Remembering how rare it was for shinobi to reach the age of fifty, gathering dozens of men old enough to sit on their own clan council seats felt strange to him.

Tobirama remembered some of the clans’ higher officials he met once they joined Konoha. All the guests here felt vaguely unfamiliar in his memory.

Hisao’s face reddened. Tobirama continued eating as if nothing bothered him. The corner of Izuna’s lips pulled upwards a little bit.

“Careful, young Senju!” Ukyo chided him. “Hisao-san is a very dedicated teacher, and a great host as well. All the food and entertainment tonight are presented by Shimura clan!”

Tobirama frowned. “This is Hyuuga sake.”

“Oh, then you have to try this one, an original from Akiyama! The rice makes a perfect sake. My favorite when I was in the capital, luckily Hisao could find it…”

He tasted a cup for show, before returning to his dinner. Ukyo’s attention was diverted to other responsive guests—the ones who drank too much that they fell asleep. Kunoichi dressed in entertainer clothes returned to accompany the other guests, but no one was as noisy as The Emperor’s envoy.

“This sweet girl—from which clan are you, Senju?”

“Oh, my Lord! I’m from Yamanaka clan…”

“I thought you were Senju because you’re as beautiful as the lady Hokageee!”

The shoji door behind Izuna was slid open, gathering everyone’s attention. One waitress bowed as she carried three small bottles of sake with different designs. “A gift from our clan leader. Please enjoy.”

“What is this?” Ukyo asked as he received a black-lined sake bottle.

“Our homemade sake we never sell,” said the waitress. “We only serve this to clan leaders and the chosen people. Here, Senju-sama, Uchiha-sama.” She gave away the other two bottles.

Ukyo immediately finished the entire bottle. “Oh! It tastes different! Very refreshing!”

Izuna waited until the waitress walked away before pushing her sake to the front. "I've drank enough tonight," she said. Her cheeks began to turn red.

"You shouldn't waste it!" Ukyo snatched the bottle, pouring a bit of its content to Tobirama's empty cup without being asked.

His stomach started to weigh. Tobirama put his chopsticks down neatly before sipping his sake cup. "Ukyo-san, thank you for your invitation."

Ukyo leaned his body, looking at him from one of the kunoichi's shoulders. "Eh, where are you going?"

"I still have work to do."

"I also need to go back to patrol duty." Hikaku raised from his pillow, nodding to ask permission to his relative before leaving the room. Ukyo didn’t stop him, and so with the other guests who left to find fresh air or more private rooms to have fun with the entertainers. Only six people left inside, and the other one snored loudly behind them.

Izuna stayed, talking to a drunken man. She avoided every touch he tried to land elegantly, almost didn’t seem like avoiding them at all. At last, he reached for Tobirama’s untouched bottle of sake before scurrying to the corner and snored not long after. 

“Very pretty isn’t she?” Ukyo suddenly had moved to his side, carrying a bottle of sake. “This Uchiha girl. It was told that Uchiha girls are very beautiful. Sadly none can entertain better than youuu!” His attention was aimed at the Yamanaka girl, who giggled noisily once Ukyo tickled her. But Izuna’s mood changed drastically. She waved her hand, gesturing the kunoichi to leave.

“As I said, I am The Emperor’s envoy,” Ukyo began. His hand with the sake bottle weighed on his knee. “I have to stay here for the entire year. I’m also looking for a wife.” He stopped on purpose to observe the expressions on the two shinobi’s face.

“I’m curious,” Izuna added, “is your job only to send and receive letters? As a clan leader, I rarely meet you.”

“Ahaha, but you’re just a proxy.” Ukyo turned his head at Tobirama once more. “Like what I said, I’m looking for a wif—”

“Answer her question.”

The ire spread to engulf him. The music was still loud outside, accompanying the party racket. His feet couldn’t wait to step on fresh ground again, bringing him far away from here as soon as possible. The room temperature increased. His head pulsed. He needed to rest.

As a sensor with constantly active chakra, Izuna must be affected easily by the situation. Her expression was as flat as usual, but all shinobi was trained not to show their emotions. The round fan on her hand waved next to her neck.

Ukyo’s forehead gleamed. “Are you threatening me, Senju-san?”

“Are you afraid to answer the question?” Tobirama replied. “You waste Konoha’s resources to party every night. Don’t you dare thinking I don’t know about it just because I never attended.”

“Is this your way to treat The Emperor’s envoy?” Ukyo stared at them in turn. “Just because you’ve been raised in status—!”

A smacking sound stopped his mouth. Izuna hit the table with the end of her fan.

“Tobirama,” Izuna called, “you should have been here earlier.”

The Senju clan leader glanced at her.

“Ukyo-san said some interesting things about the Hokage.”

Instead of pulling back, Ukyo blabbered uncontrollably. “True, isn’t it? Your leader is attractive. Of course everyone wants to join!” He paused to gulp his sake. “A ninja woman as sexy as she is must know how to please hundreds of men in one night—”

Before he realized what he did, Tobirama’s hand already lunged to choke his neck. Using his weight, he pushed Ukyo until his head hit the tatami. The envoy gibbered and spurted, his fingers clawed Tobirama’s hand.

A thick wall of chakra hit his side. Across the room, Izuna raised her hand shoulder high. Tobirama’s sensing chakra was automatically activated.

The air trembled abnormally. His nape hair bristled. The voice from the hall shifted further, as if they were placed beyond an invisible partition.

“Damn… you—!”

Tobirama pulled his hand, spreading his chakra to sense around him. His eyeballs rolled in their sockets, trying to find visual proof of the strange situation.

Ukyo pushed himself awake, coughing. “Know your place! The Emperor will take back your status anytime! The samurai will finish all of you—!”

Tobirama ignored him. His focus was averted, tied locked, and pulled to what his chakra sensed.

“The bitch you call the Hokage must be busy being gangbanged—!”

His emotion was boiled, lunging his hand for the second time—

Until a heat wave washed over Konoha.

A strange chill sensation sent down his spine once he realized something. He had experienced an abnormal heat wave like this before.

“...Tobirama!”

Tobirama ran to the door, giving a danger signal to his ANBU troops before dashing to the south.


 

 

“Direct everyone who can’t fight to go to the northern cliff! Bring everyone who can use doton to make a barrier!”

“Got it!”

“Ready the Inuzuka clan! Signal the danger! Send all the suiton users to the south!”

His neck hurt. His breath was short. The heat wave choked him.

Who would guess that the four-tailed bijuu return after it destroyed their old village two years ago?

A great cedar tree was left alone in the middle of the village fields. Tobirama climbed it to the highest branch that could hold his weight as he observed the horizon in the darkness. The temperature kept rising. The moisture engulfed his skin and entered his clothes. His chest muscles worked hard to breathe. He spread his chakra, sensing the area.

In the south, a giant figure with multiple tails stood.

Two years ago, Hashirama managed to chase it away to the north. There was no news regarding its appearance, not even from any village in the entire Hinokuni, until tonight. Exactly at the time when the only two people who could handle a bijuu by themselves were absent from Konoha.

Damn it.

Dogs were howling far behind. The only ones had the experience of facing a Yonbi were some of the Senju and Inuzuka.

“Senju-sama!”

Two men dashed to the branches below. They were still wearing their party kimono. He recognized Yamanaka Inoha, but not the other Hyuuga man. Tobirama gestured him to use his byakugan.

“In the name of Sennin…” he whispered in awe. “Is this… a bijuu?”

“Yonbi,” Tobirama replied. “Is it sitting still across the forest?”

“Y, yes—the distance is about seven hundred meters. The height—”

“Yamanaka-san.” Tobirama didn’t need the description of its height. “Can you shintenshin the Yonbi?” 

“You’re kidding…!” The leaves rustled once Inoha climbed the branches. “It’s a monster!”

“Which is controlled by its own conscience,” he insisted. His red eyes gleamed in the dark as he eyed Inoha’s silhouette. “Just like any other animals.”

“Senju-sama, why does it stay still?”

Tobirama ignored his question. “So can you do it or not?”

Inoha squinted his eyes, then scoffed. “...Let us try. But I need to get closer.” He jumped down first, followed by Tobirama. “Come on, Takasugi-kun!”

There was a heterogeneous forest across the field of yams and potatoes. The ANBU he sent before had followed him there, informing him that his order had been completed.

“Only five Inuzuka are ready to fight. But they are bringing all their dogs,” said the ANBU as he handed him a small bag of kunai. “Suiton users—are much less.”

His head was flooded by information and tactics. The southern area of Konoha was flatter, filled by thick forest once it crossed the borders of village fields. Lush vegetation could ignite forest fire regardless of the spark’s size. A lake was located several hundred meters behind. The night air got drier, caused by the ape’s heat. Their village now was much larger than Senju old village.

No. He won’t lose this home.

But Hashirama isn’t here…

“The distance is five hundred meters,” Hyuuga Takasugi whispered the information. He sat on a different branch than the two clan leaders. “It’s sniffing the air… as if looking for something.”

It must be howls of Inuzuka dogs. They were trained to hunt in groups. The lushness and darkness of the forest gave them an advantage. But if this bijuu was smarter than a regular monkey…

“I got the target.” Inoha’s statement stopped him from thinking. He laid on his chest, his arms reached the front, forming a special seal. “Give me your command, Senju-san.” His voice trembled.

Tobirama crouched under the foliage next to the blond man. His fingers were wrapping around a rough branch tightly.

“How long—?”

“Five seconds, max.”

He created a kagebunshin. “My bunshin will command from below,” he said towards the ANBU, who dashed away with the bunshin. “Takasugi-san, let me know every movement, even the smallest. Inoha-san, I’m counting down. Ten—”

It should take five seconds to reach the suiton team.

“Nine.”

It should take two seconds to inform the tactics.

“Eight.”

It should take two seconds to create a seal and to deploy all Inuzuka dog units.

“Seven.”

Takasugi blew harsh, short breaths. Sweat streamed down Tobirama’s neck—

“Six.”

He signalled Inoha. His chakra detected a shift once his soul moved to the monster in front of them. For a while nothing had happened—

Five.

—Then, the Yonbi started raging. It reached for its head, roaring as if fire ants were biting its skull. Its two feet stomped the ground in turn, trembling the grass field and toppling the rocks—

Four.

—Tobirama grabbed Inoha’s body next to him tightly so he wouldn’t fall. The leaves fell from the twigs—

Three.

—The suiton dragons jumped through the forest where he hid, flooding the soil between them. Their swash was heard repeatedly, filling the open field, accompanied by the barking dogs in the darkness—

Two.

—The shattered grass field turned into a sea of mud. The monster had its knees under the ground. It bowed. Its roar echoed to eight directions, devastated—

One.

—Inoha suddenly awoken like he was out of the water. His body severely trembled—

Zero.

—The water dragons stood high up in the sky, this time, aiming directly at the Yonbi. But the bijuu raised its head, and in split seconds it blew a giant fireball out of its mouth. The water dragons fought, turned into fog. The rest of them turned into rain that washed the entire forest—

"No!"

The fireball didn't disappear once it finished the suiryuudan—instead, it dashed towards his hiding place. Tobirama threw a sealed kunai behind him, snatching Inoha's collar, then jumped right before the forest burned to ashes; swallowed by the fire.

A painful yelp was the first thing he heard once he threw himself on the ground. A whirl of fur surrounded him. Once he realized something wet brushed against his wounded cheek, he found a pack of dogs were around him and Inoha. The Yamanaka clan leader didn't move. One dog butted its head against Inoha's so he wouldn't face the ground. He was still breathing.

But his relief was only temporary. He forgot to bring Takasugi. The forest behind him had turned into a wall of fire.

His nails clawed the ground. Gritting his teeth.

He won't lose his home again today!

Tobirama sprung awake, staring at the shinobi in front of him. One had bowed on the ground to throw up. The other ones had the smell of sake in their mouths. Sometimes, someone stuttered to call The Sennin as they stared at the forest fire in horror.

"Follow my bunshin and put out the fire!" He roared, beating the sound of blazing flame. He called for the ANBU. "You—bring Yamanaka-san to the hospital—!"

The ANBU hadn't ran too far with Inoha when the ground heavily shook once more, throwing the humans and dogs in the air. His kagebunshin disappeared. Tobirama put the seal on all of his kunai, spreading it around him. He jumped as fast as he could, managed to get the first person and dog—

A palm as big as a roof approached his face, and Tobirama had no chance to jump—

The hand disappeared as fast as it appeared, he didn't have the chance to get the others, but there were more people in dark clothing appeared around him and—

A half-transparent golden giant kicked the Yonbi to the south.

"Senju-san!" Someone shook his shoulders—Uchiha Hikaku. His sharingan blazed in the dark of night. "Suiryuudan seal—please show—"

Tobirama sensed his surrounding. Hikaku's eyes weren't the only pair of sharingan he found. Dozen pairs of eyes stared back at him, waiting for the seal.

His hearing caught the sound of rustling leaves and more steps around them. Dozens of shinobi from various clans stood in line behind the row of Uchiha clan, awaiting his command. Half of them were still wearing their party kimono, the rest were dressed in armor. All of them stood firmly.

An ANBU landed on Tobirama’s side. “Nara clan has antidote for drunkenness, but it works only for a while—”

His fingers immediately formed forty-four seals of suiryuudan. “Evacuate the wounded! I want Akimichi and Nara clan on the frontline to hold the bijuu’s movement. Uchiha—”

“We will take care of the fire,” Hikaku finished his sentence. “Leave it to us.”

Tobirama nodded, his throat choked for a moment.

“And in return—please take care of Izuna-san.”

“What—”

Reckless!

His guts felt like sliding down to his feet once he turned around and found the golden giant fistfought against the Yonbi in the distance.

A perfect susano’o.

It wasn’t as massive as Madara’s, but enough to face the Yonbi with taijutsu. During their practice together, the best she could do was forming a skull as tall as the trees. But now it looked similar to a devil in hermit’s robe.

Tobirama received a new set of kunai before he dashed through the fire. The closer he went, the better he could see the outer lines of the susano’o body dimmed. Its attack began to lose strength, missing every hit.

Two Yonbi tails hit the susano’o’s chest, causing it to fall back. Disappearing. The ape’s jaws were open, ready to attack. Tobirama took action—he blocked its mouth using a large boulder of water, before leaping to Izuna’s side. 

She laid atop the dirt with remains of her chakra armor scattered around her as thin golden smoke. She sprung up quickly, and the walls of her chakra formed a body. Her empty eye sockets blinked multiple times. Her hair was messed up.

“Izuna—!” Tobirama grabbed her wrist once the susano’o took form. The heavy flow of chakra almost sending him to fly. “Fall back with the others!”

All the ape’s fur turned ablaze. The Akimichi shinobi couldn’t approach it without hurting themselves. Their roars were heard, but they sounded so far as if separated by a curtain.

“Falling back when I’m the only one attacking the Yonbi?” Izuna shouted back. “No way!”

Excitement colored her words. Her missing eyes caused her expression to look creepy. Her lips pulled to the sides, forming a wide smirk, laughing every time she made a blow of attack. But still, many of them missed.

He grabbed Izuna tightly. The foothold was shaky, making it difficult for him to center his chakra and create a seal. They started to struggle—pushed back by multiple attacks. If this keeps going, the people behind them would—

The susano’o rocked to the right side, and his grip was released. Dizziness consumed him although he had a chance to stand back. Izuna didn’t seem to be affected.

Yonbi raised its right fist.

“Left—no! Your left hand!” Tobirama shouted. His voice turned hoarse after the fight in the entire night. His chest hurt, but he ignored it.

Susano’o’s right hand was raised, but in the wrong direction. Behind Izuna, Tobirama intertwined their left hand fingers together. The susano’o’s arm hit forward in unison with their left arms—striking the bijuu. He didn’t waste his time; their right hands were held tightly, and he could feel Izuna’s sensor chakra was slowly fading away.

She had become entirely dependent to his direction.

He understood the reason; her focus was needed to maintain the chakra armor. Tobirama paced his steps with touching Izuna’s bare feet, avoiding the destroyed area smoothly. Izuna roared in excitement, her joy erupted as they landed multiple lethal attacks in a row.

For a moment, Tobirama managed to forget his pain.

The Yonbi rolled back, yet stopped a few hundred meters away from them. It stood immediately, but stayed where it was. Its fists were on the ground. Scoffing. The eyebrows frowned in determination.

Most of the forest fires were managed to be controlled and put out. Two Akimichi giants approached from both sides, and the tendrils of Nara clan’s shadows dashed, ready to tie it down—

The bijuu hit the ground, before beating on its chest as it roared. The wave sent the two Akimichi shinobi flying in the air like a tornado. Tobirama caught Izuna once her susano’o disappeared and they fell—

All the muscles on his body shrieked in agony. The center of his chakra pulsed painfully. His jaw and tongue moved, he could feel it, but no voice came out.

All the sounds disappeared.

Red flowed out of Izuna’s ear. She looked around her in panic. Her thin chest pumped up and down quickly. Dust and soil smeared her face. Tobirama cupped his hands on her cheeks, calling her name although he still couldn’t hear anything—

The earth shattered. The Yonbi marched forward. The moon was glowing in the sky.

“—Na! Izuna!”

His new kagebunshin dashed to face the Yonbi. Izuna’s chakra recklessly tried to take form, although the only ones came out were flickers of fire.

The chakra remains of his bunshin had gone once it released suiryuudan.

Izuna took a sharp, long breath. Her empty eye sockets were directed at Tobirama’s face. Her lips were open, softly begging,

“Guide me.”

Tobirama nodded.

Susano’o was formed again, more solid and more perfect than before. The two of them were raised until they stood as tall as the Yonbi’s eyes. Their hands reached closer to intertwine once more and—

Cold sweat streamed down his skin. Every heartbeat had turned painful. Tobirama clutched his left chest, holding the pain that spread through his body and hindering his chakra from working. His body stiffened. His arms and legs refused to move. The more he forced it, the worse the pain became. 

A little bit more. A little bit—

But, Izuna’s panic expression was the last thing he saw before the world turned dark and he fell from the height—

“Tobirama—? TOBIRAMA!”

Chapter Text

Izuna was eleven, and her world changed.

Weeks after her mother’s departure, she had no courage glancing at the only mirror at home. She knew she wasn’t the same since that night. For example, she no longer needed a light to see through the darkness of the night. And at some moments, she could learn difficult taijutsu moves from her older relatives merely by watching them train.

Not learning—mimicking.

Without glancing at a mirror, she knew her sharingan had awakened.

The Ancestor had chosen her to shoulder this power.

It should’ve been a joyous moment, a proud one, instead of something she guarded so closely from her family—her remaining family’s knowledge. Their house felt too empty by the end of the day without echoes of a cry, running footsteps along the walkways, and soft serenade that used to lull her to sleep.

She still could see the vast grassy plain under innumerable stars in her mind. She still could clearly see a figure clad in yellow that became smaller and smaller as her father took her closer to home. But she couldn't see her mother’s whereabouts now… or whether she survived reaching her destination—

“Izuna-chan?”

The call abruptly cut her musings. A concerned Ayano, her friend who was on cooking duty for her family, was staring at her. Her hair framed her round, reddish cheeks. Ashamed, Izuna bowed her head. The bowls before her were filled with pickles and dried freshwater fish. They tasted plain, but she ate without complaining. Her father and brother ate in silence, their chopsticks made almost no sound when touching their earthenware bowl. Morning sunlight warmed her back as she ate. The weather was good for hunting.

“Otou-sama and Nii-san gonna hunt today?” she blurted out, full of hope.

“We have no choice,” said Tajima. “Our meat supply is dwindling. Facing the Senju has spent all of our resources, even our cured meats. We also need to check our traps too.”

She stole a glance at the other bowls. The fish cuts were so tiny. Pickles, just a pinch. They’d eaten all the cured meats days ago. It was hard to chew, but she never complained.

Madara protested, “why don’t we bring Izuna along?”

“Nanami will train the children in kenjutsu. She better attend it.”

Her shoulders slumped. Izuna clearly hid her disappointment, but her expression was readable by her brother.

“After dinner later,” Madara whispered to her before leaving, “we’ll train your kenjutsu outside. So you’ll master it quicker.”

Her mood was instantly uplifted. “Okay!”

Once Ayano finished cleaning the table, izuna went with her to the training field. Today was mostly girls because the boys accompanied the men hunting. Children stood in rows, the shortest at the front. Everyone held a wooden sword. Izuna took her spot in the middle of a row, and tidied her bangs nervously. She still trained with the kids who hadn’t awakened their sharingan.

Conversation and laughter died out when Uchiha Nanami appeared. Her hair was tied in a bun, with her bangs pulled back. A scar on her toned arm was visible every time she took a step. It’s hard to believe she’s Ayano’s mother, who had a kind face.

Nanami looked at the children with hands on her waist. “What are you waiting for?” she roared. “Begin!”

At once they swung the swords. Front, below, upwards, turning around and thrusting, deflecting and rolling… then back to the starting stance.

The wooden sword danced on her palms, its end cleaved the air as agile as an eagle grabbed a rabbit from the sky. Every time she rolled, her sword changed hand, following the same attack pattern without any doubts or pause. Her grin formed realizing jealous stares from the other children. They’re still struggling, while she did everything so easily.

Yet the training today was boring for her because they merely repeating the same movement already burned to her muscle memory. She only lacked strength. She held back her boredom, only putting more effort when Aunt Nanami approached to signal for another round.

“Mind your feet!” she barked—fortunately to another girl. Her voice was louder than everyone’s yell. “You put too much weight on your left foot!”

“She’s making me nervous,” Ayano complained when she turned around. “Uhhh—” she turned to the wrong direction to deflect, which she quickly corrected before she got scolded. Aunt Nanami’s sharp ears  could hear the smallest wrong movement.

Izuna tilted her head a bit to continue listening while training. Sweat flooded her eyebrows. “At home too?”

“What do you think? My brother now gets too happy to take patrol duties…”

Eagles were visible in the sky. Izuna’s attention departed from the conversation. Her face blanked in awe. Their dark wings swished in turns blocking the sunlight from the ground. One, two, three dark brown and grey eagles. Flying in circles over the field.

She waited until Nanami turned around, then ran from her row.

“Izuna!”

She ignored Ayano’s whispered warning. With wooden sword in hand, Izuna dashed off downward a small hill. She dashed past her neighbors’ vegetable patches, kicking ripe cabbages and carrots into the air.

The Uchiha settlement was located on a rocky area, with few grasses growing between them. Her bare feet stepped on sharp and jagged rocks. The inevitable scratches were ignored for the sake of seeing the hunting party returned.

Several people, most were men, passed the gate. Almost everyone wore a thick glove on their left hand. Some carried a bow and arrows. She gaped seeing so many games they brought back. A deer, several pheasants, and many hares.

Fresh meat!

Several people untied pheasants and hares—all wriggling to free themselves to no avail. The deer seemed to surrender to its fate, until Izuna spotted an arrow had left a deep mark on its body. Red marred its soft, golden brown fur.

She knelt and touched the deer’s neck. Still warm. Its life still lingered around. Its dark eyes stared blankly at her, reflecting the sunlight.

The deer blinked.

Its hind legs kicked the earth, sending dirt and grass at her. Izuna gasped, surprised. Her instincts kicked in—she jumped up after it.

The deer avoided a bunch of surprised hunters, now leaping far beyond the gate. The hunters screamed a warning to the others, but Izuna was far ahead. Her eyes were locked at the deer’s short white tail. Its thin legs were strong, carrying it meandering past the bushes and rocks. Izuna followed closely, unhindered by the terrain.

If the deer got free, then it’s her fault!

The world faded, blurred around her except for the prey she’s chasing. Its arrow wound didn’t seem to block its speed. The energy flows around its body were glowing. Her cheeks burned under the sun. Her ribs hurt. The only weapon she had was a wooden sword. The deer’s legs slowed down in her vision; every step was easily read…

Their distance shortened, as short as the throwing distance of a rock. Izuna gathered chakra on her foot, then she jumped off a flat rock. Her sword was raised overhead—

Then struck the prey’s neck. A loud chilling crack; both prey and hunter tumbled down. Izuna spat out dirt and blood, throwing herself over the deer. She gripped its neck tightly, hissing as the animal tried to kick itself free.

Black met red.

The chakra running through it faded, gone.

The deer’s eyes were blank.

Adrenaline was yet to ebb from her veins as the heavy footsteps soon surrounded her. Izuna recognized her father’s voice above everyone else’s.

“Why so reckless—” Tajima pulled his daughter’s arm, his words halted as they faced each other. His worry turned into a look of surprise. “Your sharingan has…?”

Izuna blinked in shock. She quickly lowered her face, losing courage to look at her father. Her sharingan must had appeared on its own as she chased the deer. After all her careful secret-keeping…

“Here, let me take a look…” A dark brown haired woman knelt and held Izuna’s cheek. She still had a quiver on her shoulder. “Yes… one tomoe sharingan! Tajima-san is so lucky,” she added to him with a beaming face.

“What, sharingan?”

“Izuna-chan already got sharingan?”

“What, let me look!”

Her other relatives overheard. Soon Izuna was surrounded closely by her uncles and cousins. Happy commotion enveloped her.

“Your sharingan is awakened because of chasing a deer?” a cousin asked. “How?”

“I’ve been chasing deer for seven years, my sharingan hasn’t manifested yet!”

How? All her relatives got their sharingan on the battlefield, instead of chasing an escaped prey. Her sharingan had been awakened for awhile, but it’s impossible to say so. Izuna didn’t know what answer she had to give, but another cousin answered for her.

“That depends on our Ancestor!”

“Yes but it’s so rare for a boy as strong as Madara not yet—”

Tajima called her to walk home together. She ran free from her cousins. Along the way home, Izuna had no chance to deactivate her sharingan. Everyone wanted to see, and showered her with praises.

“I got mine when I was fourteen. Your father at sixteen,” said the woman who checked her eyes. “Earning it so young… the Ancestor must have seen your potential. Would you like to train with me start tomorrow—?”

“Oi, Setsuna. Get in a queue,” Tajima scolded her, holding back a chuckle. “I’ll train her first.”

Izuna’s spirits soared. Sharingan training with her father! It’s been a long time since they last trained her goukakyu…

“I wanna train with Otou-sama!”

“Ah!” Setsuna pretended to sulk while Tajima cackled. Her attention shifted towards a figure standing by the gate.

“Wasn’t that your arrow on the deer?” The person she’s talking to was blocked by other people returning to the settlement. “You need to fix your aim.”

“Understood, Aunt Setsuna.”

Her aunt went away, and Izuna found her brother leaning at the gate. His eyebrows furrowed. His right hand was still holding a bow. Their eyes met, and his grin formed.

“I heard your eyes have awakened!” he shouted, approaching. “Congratulations, Izuna!”

“Nii—” Her response was cut short as Madara’s hand landed on her head, messing her hair.

“Don’t forget our training tonight!”

Before she could reply, Madara left. His back disappeared between people skinning their games.

Izuna tidied her bangs, her heart felt like being gripped by an unseen hand. Her adrenaline ebbed, replaced by an abnormal exhaustion.

Her chase wasn’t long, but she’s already this tired…

That night Tajima brought her to the temple, holding a ceremony to thank their Great Ancestor. Izuna followed the procession without fully paying attention. Madara was by her side, sitting a little behind with a stiff face. Tajima sat on the front, the closest to the altar, without sparing any space for the other parent. His voice was low and flat chanting the prayers.

She always imagined she’d attend her brother’s ceremony first, then hers followed later. A ceremony of mirth and laughter, instead of one where half of her family wasn’t present.

Her earlier happiness had evaporated.

“Izuna-chan is sooo lucky.” Ayano accompanied her returning home. Her eyes sparkled in admiration. “You could be placed on the front line against the Senju! Like my mother!”

Tajima and Madara were still at the temple, chanting more prayers without her. She chose to go home, her hunger lingered so she couldn’t sit too long at the temple.

“Yeah, you too Ayano…”

“In two or three years, my sharingan should be awakened too like my brother and mother.” Her hands linked at her back. “Not awakened is okay too, who knows maybe my child will get a stronger sharingan, right?”

She nodded, activating her sharingan to avoid jagged rocks in the dark. The chakra flow in her and her cousin’s body were visible so clearly. They were calmly flowing, like a small creek.

“Izuna-chan can do a lot more for the clan now!” Ayano hadn’t stopped blabbering. “Our Great Ancestor will be very very proud of you!”

Mentioning their Ancestor made her smile appear. “If Ayano keep training hard, the Ancestor will awaken your sharingan!”

Her mood was better when a more extravagant dinner was served. She earned an extra portion of deer meat, and during dinner she kept talking of new trainings with her father. Madara didn’t talk much, only answered when asked.

Tajima had gone to his room, and Ayano left after dinner. Izuna dragged her sword with heavy steps towards the edge of the village. Night insects sung accompanying the siblings in the dark. The stars above were more beautiful seen with her active sharingan, making her pause so often to observe the sky.

“Are we going to train or not?” Madara stood a few meters ahead, hands on his waist.

Izuna pouted. “We are.”

“You sure?” he replied, sceptical. “You already have sharingan, mastering kenjutsu techniques should be easy for you.”

Izuna’s nostrils flared, preparing a response, but Madara cut in.

“How long has it been since your sharingan awakened?”

The question hit her like a thrown rock. She gulped, tossing her wooden sword from one hand to another. “Since… Mother…”

“Why didn’t you say anything?” It sounded more like an accusation rather than a question. “It’s almost a season past…!”

“...Because Nii-san…” Her voice hitched. “Nii-san… is yet.”

The boy’s expression no longer stiff from holding back his anger. His sword fell onto the grass. In two long strides he cut the distance between them, then his hand patted Izuna’s head. Stroking her hair despite his obvious doubt.

“It’s okay.”

The same doubt made her too afraid to look, so she just glanced at him.

“Why your sharingan didn’t awaken too…?”

Madara shrugged. “It depends on the Ancestor, no?” A laugh shadowed his rhetorics. “Not all of us managed to awaken it.”

“But Nii-san is far stronger than me! You’ve killed an adult shinobi while I never have!” she shouted, pouring out her emotions. “Why do I get it first—!”

“The Ancestor said… it’s not yet my time to awaken my eyes,” Madara responded softly, his hair was scattered by the wind. “There’s still something I need to find.”

Izuna blinked. “What is it?”

Madara only laughed weakly. “I’ll know it when I found it.” He stepped back and took his wooden sword. “Let’s start before it’s too late.”

But their training changed as well. Izuna spent more time correcting his taijutsu, telling him openings she predicted with her sharingan. If they weren’t warring another clan, Izuna trained with her father, exploring the sharingan abilities and improved her stamina so she wouldn’t get tired so quickly. Sharingan used a lot of stamina, so she couldn’t use it too often without spending so much energy. Mornings were for physical training, afternoons for reading lessons, and nights for meditation. Reading was especially difficult for her, but she liked it. There were lots of knowledge outside of fighting arts she could learn. About strategies and tactics, about the geography around their village, about wild game and wild plants….

Within the following weeks, the girl realized her brother had changed. When they weren’t going to war or train, Madara spent a lot of time playing so far from home.

Alone.

Izuna didn’t think much of it until Madara showed a change in his taijutsu style whenever they trained together. When Izuna commented it, Madara responded nonchalantly.

“I thought of ways so you can’t beat me so easily!” he admitted at the night Izuna cracked the weaknesses of his signature taijutsu sets. Although Madara grew taller so quickly, Izuna always managed to throw him down.

Strange.

Strange because when they were told to do an ambush, Madara was nowhere to be found. For the first time he was absent from a battle. Tajima’s rage wasn’t exploded, he held it back until they reached the battlefield and ambushed the troops who were busy killing each other.

Izuna didn’t have time to think about her brother’s whereabouts. She was focused on the battle. To conserve energy, she only activated her sharingan for a few seconds. She hid it as best as she could from their opponents’ knowledge so they wouldn’t anticipate it.

Their opponents today were the Hagoromo clan troops and their archenemy, the Senju. From the hill, the Uchiha send down gigantic fireballs to run over the Hagoromo. Then they moved to break the Senju troops’ formation.

Her sharingan helped Izuna dodging swords and fists, mapping a path between towering bodies and leg gaps. A sword would just hinder her maneuver, so she only brought a handful of kunai. One she held on the left hand, slashing every veins and muscles within her reach.

Izuna rolled past a shinobi, passing through the frontline which hadn’t recovered after being ambushed by katon. It’s important in a battle to look for an equal opponent at least physically. Against the adults, she could only leave small, non-lethal attacks.

Her sharingan was too valuable to be perished here.

A kunai flew so close to her face, and managed to cut several strands of her hair. Izuna dodged in time. The little girl faced her attacker, with weapons ready on both hands.

A thin boy crashed forward, swinging a sword to her unprotected neck. Izuna parried it with kunai, and kicked his chest until he was pushed back.

“Tch!” he spat to the ground. His green armor seemed brand new, so was his face plate that was carved with the Senju crest. Their ages must be close.

“Aren’t you Butsuma’s firstborn?” Izuna readied another kunai. “I remember your face.”

His dark red eyes squinted as he nodded. “Izuna,” he greeted with a flat tone. “I’m Tobirama.”

Why does he introduce himself...?

“You’re weird and annoying,” she said without a doubt. Who cares about names when only one of them is going to survive here?

She ducked when Tobirama dashed at her, this time her left foot kicked his shin. Instead of falling, Tobirama managed to keep his balance using both of his hands—and did a sweeping kick to Izuna’s ribs. She was pushed back, her opponent had stood again. His face was emotionless.

Izuna huffed. Alright. Time to get serious.

Yet before her eyes turned red, a signal screamed tearing the air. Must be the other clan’s signal—the Senju’s because Tobirama quickly dashed away. Smoke and steam ebbed from the battleground, leaving the rancid smell of blood and dying whimpers from the Hagoromo shinobi.

She observed there was no Senju shinobi left behind. Izuna took several shuriken, kunai, and a discarded sword while she walked back. Tajim lashed out at everyone for the rest of the day. Concern grew in her heart.

Where did Madara go? Did an enemy spy capture him while he goes out alone?

No way… it’s impossible for Madara to be caught!

Izuna didn’t dare to voice her worry, afraid she would pour oil to her father’s burning rage. The dinner that night was tense. Izuna had to tell Ayano to go home immediately once she finished cooking. The emotional atmosphere scared her.

“Izuna.”

The girl nearly jumped hearing she was called. Tajima’s voice was low and hoarse, like a bear’s growl.

“Do you know where Madara been going to lately?”

She gulped, strengthening her resolve. “No, Otou-sama.”

Across the table, Tajima’s sharingan dug for truth. Izuna stared at him directly, showing that she didn’t hide anything.

“The patrolling group is looking for him. Go to bed.”

Izuna remained in her place. The candle had shortened, its flame grew longer, flickered by the wind that came from the shoji gaps. She controlled her breathing, listening to the whispers of the universe.

As if answering her hope, she heard approaching footsteps between the turnip patches. One. Two people.

In a blink of an eye, Tajima opened the door widely. Izuna followed him, finding Setsuna in the yard. Her aunt’s hand gripped a boy’s collar whose head was downcast.

“Nii-san—”

“Where have you been all this time!?”

Instead of answering Tajima, Madara slammed his forehead to the ground. “I apologize for being absent at war, Otou-sama.”

Izuna gaped. Her grip on the doorframe loosened. Did he want to runaway…? Deliberately avoiding the battle? Her eyes sought for wounds on Madara’s body. But she found nothing but dirt and wet marks on his legs.

“He said he found traces of a Hagoromo shinobi,” said Setsuna in a tired voice. “Downstream, we found said shinobi’s body.”

“Must be from the battle earlier. What were you thinking? Other shinobi could’ve been there!”

“I… I didn't think that.” Madara hadn’t raised his head.

“Clearly you didn’t!” Tajima stepped down from the walkway. His attention shifted to Setsuna. “How far did he go…?”

“Our patrol group found him towards the river.”

No Uchiha children ever played so far to the east. Other clans dwelled across the river, as far as Izuna knew. It’s dangerous if they encountered an enemy.

“Tonight I’ll go to the temple,” said Madara softly.

Izuna never heard anyone volunteered to stay there. She wasn’t afraid of the darkness in the temple, but that place always made her uncomfortable. Like there was an invisible figure watching them without falling asleep. The Ancestor, perhaps.

“Take him there, Setsuna,” Tajima commanded before returning to his bedroom.

The girl stayed behind long after everyone left and the light inside had been put out. Slowly she wore her sandals and tiptoed to the temple across the village. Darkness didn;t hinder her walk, swiftly avoiding large pillars until she reached its inner room. Here, the dust smelled sweet and stronger. Her feet barely felt the floor’s texture. She didn't bother to tiptoe anymore; the temple was always empty at night. Unless there was a naughty child being punished to sleep here.

The adults said in auspicious nights the Ancestor would descend to the temple to torture naughty children. Izuna had never been punished like this, but if it’s true she didn’t want Madara facing this alone. She had sharingan, she could help him face their Great Ancestor.

The stillness around her prompted her sharingan to appear. She pushed forward until she found a bundle of chakra leaning at the corner of the prayer space where she gave her gratitude of her awakened eyes a few days ago.

“...Nii-san?”

“Why are you here?” Madara’s voice came from her left.

“I want to ask.” Izuna’s fingertips touched the floor as she lowered herself.

A sigh. “Here.”

She approached until her foot stepped on a roughly woven mat. Madara opened his hemp blanket so his sister could sit.

“What were you doing so far from home?”

“Training.”

“Alone?”

Madara shrugged. He didn’t even look at her. His fingers fiddled with a loose thread on the blanket.

“How did you train if you’re alone?”

His hand landed on her head, messing her bangs. “I have my ways.”

“Don’t lie.” Izuna jabbed her finger to his ribs.

Madara dodged, hissing to hide his laughter.

“Were you jutsu-training?” she pressed further. “If yes then bring me along!”

“Alright someday, someday…”

Her sharingan turned dark. Izuna leaned at the wall, starting to doze off. She would be, had Madara didn’t break the silence.

“Do you think… you’d like to live like this?”

“Hng?”

“Living as a ninja. Going to war every couple weeks.” His foot touched Izuna’s heel under the blanket. It’s cold.

“What’s wrong with it? Isn’t it the way things are?”

“Have you ever thought what kind of life you’d have, had you born not as an Uchiha? Not as a ninja?”

“You mean, as a farmer?” Izuna furrowed her eyebrows. “What are you talking about, Nii-san? You’re so weird.” Being born an Uchiha was an honor. Getting the sharingan was a privilege.

Who would trade this amazing doujutsu to live a monotonous life, taking care of rice fields like regular peasants?


 

She was twenty two, and Izuna left her old life.

Hikaku’s back was damp and stinky. Sweat rolled down from his scalp. Izuna bit her lower lip, holding back her breath. She tried to breathe with her mouth despite drying its roof. The air smelled like fresh soil. It seems rain just passed this area some time ago. The sky must be clear now, because the back of her head was hot. Her arms ached due continuously bouncing off her cousin’s shoulders. The torn cloth tying her wrists dug into her skin.

“Izuna-san, would you like to rest for a while?”

She was too tired to answer. Her unintelligible mumble was taken as a confirmation by Hikaku, because he shouted for the others to stop. As soon as he stopped moving, Izuna untied the cloth and dropped herself to the solid ground. Its scent was thick. Not far around her, the rest of her family also stopped. A baby cried. Some children started asking for water.

“Here, drink—”

She declined his offer, and turned away from him. Grass tickled the sides of her feet. The sun was closer to the western horizon. Strong breeze and the absence of leaves rustling told her they were somewhere without many trees. They must be on an open plain—

Then her knees hit the ground, and Izuna couldn’t tell which way is up or down—

Her throat burned. Bitter. Her fingers dug into the damp soil, destroying several cold grass blades. Her jaw tightened to hold her stomach’s churning. Soft tremble on the ground told her that several people were approaching. Their bodies shielded her from the sun’s heat.

“I’m alright—” she panted aloud, beating their concerned voices. “Go… away...” She took off the cloth that covered the upper half of her face. It was drenched in sweat.

Madara’s command echoed. “We’ll take a rest here!”

Soon the heat poured over her again from the west—from the direction of the home she knew for two decades. She seated herself, controlling her breath. For the whole day she was tied on Hikaku’s back, only once their group stopped so the children could get a potty break. Her entire body was aching, and she could only think about a warm bath.

But she didn’t know how close they were to their destination. Not that she cared about it.

I'm supposed to be ashes.

Madara was supposed to built a wooden platform to burn her, then spread her ashes in the river. Madara was supposed to bring her death.

Because an Uchiha without sharingan was a miserable existence. Burdening, slowing the whole clan.

Her brother wasn’t supposed to let an enemy into their home.

Izuna remembered clearly all the details that night. She was asleep after drinking magnolia flower tea, but her hearing caught every conversation happened in that room. She knew her healer wasn’t the one-armed Grandpa Tatsu.

But it’s Senju Hashirama.

She heard tarps flapping as tents were erected here and there, complete with the sound of tent post being hammered into the ground. One two children cried.

“Izuna-san let’s get inside the tent,” Makoto asked her. He helped her moving inside. Izuna had slept in a tent several times when doing a mission far from home. This tent was larger and more comfortable than the ones she ever used. She could spread her arms to reach both walls from the inside.

But it felt so numb. Even food felt like boiled tree bark. The conversations around her turned meaningless. Izuna let Makoto took care of her needs, in turns with his grandmother, until she was ready for bed. A small divan and thin blanket had been prepared for her. Yet sleep never reigned since her mind was buzzing with thoughts.

If only the clan head’s command wasn’t absolute, Izuna would choose to stay behind with the stubborn Aunt Nanami. If only the clan head’s command wasn’t absolute, Izuna would finish her own death with or without anyone’s help.

If only the clan head’s command wasn’t absolute, Izuna would’ve cut her own wrist.

The tent door flapped open. Izuna recognized the soft steps upon the tent mats, and the noise of a wooden weapon being placed down. The smell of home spread as he approached, mixed with the body heat after a long and heavy activity.

“We’ll be there tomorrow,” Madara whispered. Her divan creaked, and her knee was brushed by something like rough hair ends. “Akio and the others have built temporary houses—”

“Shut up,” Izuna groaned while shifting to lie down facing the tent wall.

Madara quickly stood up, moving to a spot across her. Only his slow, relaxed breathing was heard next.

But she knew her brother couldn’t sleep soundly. Sometimes his breathing turned rapid, or a sharp hiss left his mouth throughout the night. It’s always like this since they departed three days ago.

Must be a mere dream. Who cares.

The next day she refused Hikaku’s offer to carry her on his back. Their journey wouldn’t be too far, so Madara let their group to walk. Makoto and his still nimble grandmother accompanied Izuna without being asked. The landscape was still flat without too many trees. She only needed to avoid rabbit holes and large rocks. Morning dew dampened her feet.

“The grass ahead is taller, Izuna-san,” Makoto informed her. “Pampas grass. Waist high.”

He’s right, it’s getting harder to find a rigid footing. The soil was softer, with more holes around. Moving her staff was harder due to the thicker grass. Her hand kept getting grazed by grass blades. Eventually Makoto walked ahead of her, parting the tall grass while informing terrain change. Sometimes they went uphill, sometimes downhill. Soft, warm breeze messed her hair, lulling her in late sleepiness.

Izuna no longer cared about her position in this plain.

Her staff fell soundlessly, followed by her back and head on the thick grass. The sounds of her companions’ footsteps faded, muted, gone. Leaving only the morning sun with her.

So strange.

The universe was so calm. Sleep came so easily. How relieved she’d be if she didn’t have to open her eyes again. The grass could hide her until it’s safe enough to slip away....

It wasn’t pampas grass that she held when she woke up, but the edge of a sun-scented futon. Her hand explored the nearest surfaces, from the futon to a tatami surface. Its weaving was broken at a certain spot.

The air was static, not hot or cold. Smell of wood reigned her surroundings. She kicked her blanket away. Izuna stood up carefully, searching for the nearest wall. The room was small, apparently without any furniture except the futon. Her foot stepped on earthenware—a bowl and a plate. She crouched down, seeing with her fingers. They were filled with something. It’s cold already. But her hunger wasn’t a priority. She left the dining utensils. A shoji door was nearby. She sharpened her hearing. Except for the night insects, there were no other sounds outside. Even the air was still.

Where were the others? Where’s Madara?

Wait. This deserted surrounding gave her a good chance to go. She didn’t care if Madara and the other Uchiha submitted themselves to the Senju. Izuna was too proud for that, let alone living alongside them! The Ancestor would be so embarrassed seeing this. What a waste of sharingan.

You’re right, absolutely right.

A wooden plank creaked behind the door. Footsteps. Heavy footsteps. Must be her brother!

Izuna slammed the door open. Her wrist was caught before she could walk past the doorway.

“Let me go!” She pushed the person using her full weight. Go—she needed to go!

“Izu—”

She hissed in response, “don’t stop me, Nii-san!” Izuna spun to free herself, but the grip tightened instead. She never failed to free herself using this movement before. “Nii—!”

“It’s me—Tobirama—silence!”

Tobirama—?

Her heart froze for a second. She found his shoulder. Her brother’s signature long coarse hair was absent.

She slammed her elbow into Tobirama’s inner arm. His painful groan was cut short, turning into a sharp hiss. She swung her fist backwards, towards the Senju’s cheekbone, but she only found empty air—

The world turned upside down and her cheek was slammed into the tatami. Her left arm was twisted on her back, the other was pressed under her body. Izuna inhaled deeply, ready to scream, but a rough large hand covered her mouth. Even struggling was difficult—the heavy weight on her back prevented her from moving even just a little.

“Please be silent,” Tobirama asked in a whisper. His voice was so close to her ear. “You’ll wake up the children.”

True to his words, a loud cry was heard. Soon it faded, leaving the world in silence once more. Her shoulder and elbow throbbed in pain. Izuna let go of her tension. Tobirama let her stand. Her hands were roaming the tatami.

“...What do you seek?”

What was she looking for? Her fingers stopped moving. Doubtful. Confused. Frantic.

Something wet rolled to her chin.

She just wanted to go. But it’s impossible to find her old home by herself. She’d die in the wilderness, eaten by a bear or wolf.

Isn’t it okay? It’s far better than submitting to be the enemy’s slave, no…?

“Madara is still at the feast,” said Tobirama suddenly, cutting her train of thought.

She was startled. Is that why her surrounding so silent?

“What feast…?”

“The signing of our clans’ peace treaty.”

Izuna expressed her disgust. It’s impossible for him to leave her alone while he mingled with the Senju! She stood up, crossing the room until the door. “What kind of trick you’re playing so my brother is willing—this must be Hashirama’s deceit—”

“My sister isn’t duping him, Izuna,” Tobirama’s answer came from her back. His voice approached quickly, and left the room ahead of her. “You owe her your life, did you forget that?”

“I didn’t ask for it!” she hissed as fiercely. “Rather than owing her my life and see the Uchiha enslaved by the Senju, I’d prefer being dead.”

“How about your brother?”

The question didn’t stop her. Izuna dashed out, correctly guessing the walkway’s width so she didn’t fall. Tobirama followed closely; his sandals hit pebbles noisily. Izuna’s bare feet got cuts here and there despite not yet walking far from the house where she woke up earlier. Even the cold air didn’t hinder her pushing forward.

“Careful,” Tobirama directed her steps. “It’s in our main house.”

He never strayed too far from Izuna, ready to pull her before she hit a large rock or slamming her face onto a pine tree—which happened often during their short journey. Soon the path they took became grassless. Occasionally she felt warm air brushed her sides. The torches must be lit. Sounds of conversation were carried even to her spot.

Imagining her entire clan eating and drinking sake, partying in a crowd, made her stomach churn. She let Tobirama entered the feast, but he returned too quickly. Alone.

“Madara wasn’t here,” he said. “Someone last saw him going towards the western forest—”

“Which way—?”

“Here.”

This time Izuna followed him. The pain on her feet was spreading.


 

“The best sharingan could see past all lies. Straight into the heart of truth.”

Izuna couldn’t forget her father’s words that day. She would’ve activated her sharingan had she wasn’t prohibited. Tajima’s eyes had been red since they spied hidden in the trees. She knew he was enraged.

Because after all this time, Madara had been sneaking out to meet the enemy.

A daughter of the enemy.

A girl who could use the mokuton.

Izuna never heard of the ninjutsu as rare as a kekkei genkai until the riverbank incident just now. Grandpa Tatsu said a long time ago a Senju blessed with mokuton managed to tame many-tailed chakra beasts.

The girl was Tobirama’s elder sister, and she never went to war. Her world view was so naive, thinking every problem could be solved if they stopped killing each other.

“What a fool!” Tajima snapped that night. “How could you forget our shinobi protocol? Don’t you know the Senju kunoichi use their charm to win the war?”

Half of the clan adults gathered in the temple’s basement to put Madara on trial. Usually children weren’t allowed there, with or without doujutsu, but Izuna was considered as a witness. Also usually, everyone with known connection to the enemy was killed at once. But Madara managed to awaken his eyes, so the adults agreed not to punish him. Every pair of eyes was priceless.

“She’s the daughter of Senju Butsuma,” Tatsu continued, the oldest among the adults and the only senior healer. “Nobody has ever seen her anywhere. Throughout this time she never left her home.”

Tajima hissed aloud, showing his canines and pulling the scar on the corner of his lips. “If you’re serious about ending the war, then the only solution is to eradicate whoever stands against us! A true Uchiha will never give up so easily!”

People voiced their agreement. Izuna nodded.

“War is inevitable,” Tajima continued. “Cowardly views like that will only make you die in vain! Would you like to die in vain!?”

Madara’s fists on his knees tightened. “No, Otou-sama.”

“Would you prefer to shame the gift from Our Ancestor!? Have you forgotten where we got our lives?”

“No!”

“Then act according to your words!”

“I promise!” Madara stared at the people seated across him. His determination was showing.

Izuna took a relieved breath. Lucky that Senju girl hadn’t poisoned his mind even further.

Aunt Nanami shifted forward. She caught Madara’s chin and observed his eyes. “You have a good sharingan. After your second tomoe appear, we need to find you a woman.”

Huh?

Madara glared at her. “We’re at war.”

“That’s exactly why,” Nanami pressed on. “More children means more shinobi. You and your sister got good eyes. Awakened so young to boot…”

Izuna exchanged a confused look with her brother. Her aunt’s words made no sense to her. Others spoke and responded, but the conversation was muted for her until her father spoke up.

“They’re too young, Nanami. It’s not their time yet. I want their partners to be as strong as them. Still, it’s too early.” Then he gestured to his children. “You two, go home.”

Halfway towards their home, Izuna found her courage to ask, “what was that…?”

“Duty,” Madara answered shortly, “aside of going to war, I mean.”

“...To preserve the sharingan bloodline?”

“Yeah.”

Their father said they were too young. Maybe if Izuna was older and stronger enough, she’d be allowed to contribute more to the clan.

The footpath they took meandered through tree groves. Moonlight and leaves’ shadows created strange silhouettes. Izuna avoided looking at them.

“That Senju girl… what did she say to you?”

Madara scoffed, demeaning. “Naive stuffs Father said. You saw her father and brother, no? They were ready to kill you. They don’t think war is stoppable.”

Tobirama was there too. That boy was hers to handle. On the next war, Izuna would be facing him again. What worried her now was Hashirama’s ability. “Have you think about ways to fight the mokuton…?”

“Just burn them.” The only lantern outside their home had shone at Madara’s teeth as he grinned. “Nobody can withstand Uchiha fire. No wood would survive against fire.”

He messed Izuna’s hair. He’s right—nobody could survive their fire.

Izuna was impatient to develop her sharingan together with him. On the following days, her brother trained harder and more frequently. Sometimes it made him nearly passing out at the end of the day. Tajima took this change as a positive sign.

Of course she was happy as well, even though she no longer earned attention as much as before from their father.


 

“So why did you agree for our clan to be the Senju’s slaves!?”

Tobirama found their siblings took a walk on the forest’s edge. Izuna quickly asked Madara to return with her. Anger and adrenaline numbing the wounds on her feet until they arrived. Her rage exploded even when Madara was busy cleaning her wounds.

“You understand the situation, Izuna. Our clan would’ve perished even without war—don’t move…” He sounded tired.

Cold cloth rubbed her feet, drenched in herbal concoction. Its familiar smell had been recorded in her memory. Her mother used to make this to treat her wounds after playing and training. She pushed the memory away.

“Losing like this means we don’t deserve to live,” she continued. “Traitors who moved here must be turned into servants—”

“They’re cultivating lands—”

“See!?”

“But they live in peace,” said Madara firmly. “We all need it.”

“How can we live in peace with the Senju!?” Izuna’s voice rose. “They’re enemies, Nii-san.”

“Not anymore. We no longer trying to kill each other.” Madara finished bandaging her feet.

Her fists opened and closed. “...Then what? Become farmers?”

“Stopping the war. Just self defense. That if someone was stupid enough to attack us.”

Her blood stirred, missing the atmosphere of a battle. In her mind she could see the familiar sight, the familiar roars, the echoes of gongs and trumpets…

“...The news of our peace treaty with the Senju will spread soon—”

Izuna cut him, “a treaty can be betrayed anytime!”

A muffled laugh was heard from his throat. The water bowl was pushed away.

“What’s so funny?”

“I know Hashirama won’t betray us,” he explained. His voice turned low, edging closer to dangerous. “I can hold her words.”

Izuna clicked her tongue in disapproval. “What if she tricked you?”

“Oh, no, she wouldn’t dare.” Madara shifted away from the futon, he sounded amused. “I can guarantee it.” The wooden floor creaked as he approached the door.

A kunoichi of Hashirama’s calibre… was subdued so easily? Just like that?

“Ugh…” Izuna sunk her face into her palms. Everything turned more complicated. “Are you drunk?”

Madara laughed at her. “I didn’t drink that much!”

The thought of him and their entire clan partying, eating and drinking without her returned. Her brother and Hashirama—

Her chest felt constricted. Izuna couldn’t hold it anymore. She threw her pillow towards Madara’s voice source, then she hid her head under the blanket.

“Izu—”

“I’d rather live with Aunt Nanami than staying here,” she hissed. “This is embarrassing our Ancestor.”

“Our God and Ancestor—”

“I don’t believe you really heard The Ancestor. Go away!”

The following silence felt like a stab in her heart.


 

“Izuna, about your eyes…” Madara spoke on the following morning, “would you like to use someone’s eyes…?” His voice was hoarse, and the sentence was ended with a big yawn. He stayed awake that night at the temple.

Izuna lifted her face from a warm water basin where she just washed her face. “Whose eyes?” she asked sharply.

“Whoever willing—”

“I don’t want it unless it has three tomoe,” she cut in. How could she look at the Senju without sharingan?

It silenced him. Madara never brought up that topic anymore.

Izuna’s days were filled with loneliness. Madara had his hands full with clan business. He was available only in the morning and late night, but Izuna never paid attention to him.

Her brother was… different. Must be because that Senju woman.

Grandpa Tatsu came occasionally to change her feet bandage. Makoto or his grandmother brought her food thrice a day. There was no salted fish or dried meat—everything is fresh. The meat was juicy. Even the rice was softer and sweeter. The vegetables were tastier. It’s hard to refuse eating when her stomach kept urging to it.

She could only give everyone a silent treatment and refuse to step outside the house. That despite the two elderlies often suggested her to sit outside and enjoy the weather. That regardless of how often they talked about their new village and the Senju clan, trying to make her talk.

The three people accompanied her often, usually during dinner. Their conversation gave her all the information circling in their new village. Not war information—but facts that their new neighbor was a beekeeper, or the finding of a swamp full of wild lotus whose roots they could harvest. How they didn’t need to hunt so often, how Grandpa Tatsu could replenish his medicine stock with fresh herbs, how Makoto heard about the gigantic trees in the Senju’s old village…

“...Senju-sama herself is said to train her mokuton there,” said Makoto after struggling to swallow slices of baked pheasant meat. “Too bad they lost their forest to fire.”

Burned?

Curiosity rose within Izuna, but she kept it hidden. Her focus was still on the bowl and spoon, while her hearing was ready to catch Makoto’s story. But she only heard unintelligible mumble from his grandmother, and the story was left hanging. Grandpa Tatsu spoke about dog howls that had been more frequent, and Izuna stopped listening.

On the next day, right when the first rooster crowed, Izuna left her bedroom. She arranged her hair to cover the upper half of her eyes. Her feet was healthy again. This time she had prepared a pair of sandals hidden under the walkway. She was only three steps away from the door when doubt attacked her.

Is it worth exploring with the risk of facing the Senju not as enemies? The same clan who had ended the lives of her younger siblings?

Wouldn’t that make her looked stupid out there, walking aimlessly, stumbling over the smallest pebbles?

But doing anything was just pathetic. The Ancestor had blessed her with an enormous power, the power that was Madara’s now.

A true Uchiha wouldn’t fall so easily before the enemy! Never! She always gave her best in every battle until—

Her left hand clenched over her right side.

An Uchiha without sharingan was just pathetic. Useless.

Weak.

You deserve to die.

Death was better than trapped living with their archenemies. Rather than shouldering wounds and burdening family, it’s better to die. Catching up to her father, brothers and relatives beside The Ancestor. There was no honor higher than this.

Madara had neglected his responsibility to bring her soul home. Just like when their father was dying. There was no other choice—Izuna had to do it herself.

She turned around, tracing her steps back. Madara wasn’t home—he hadn’t been in the last few days. All weapons were within his reach, even when he’s asleep.  There should be one or two left behind—

“Arf!”

Izuna stopped, her body was stiff as she sharpened her hearing.

“Arf! Arf!”

What animal was that? Her question was answered as something wet and cold brushed her fingertips. Sending warm air in each of its breath. Her hand moved, finding a surface covered in soft fur.

A dog.

Izuna had seen this animal only once from afar against the Inuzuka back then. Their barks and howls can be heard over the hills. Their bodies were huge, bigger than forest wolves. But this dog wasn’t that big.

But there’s no Uchiha who kept a dog. She never heard them being so close here. Is it a Senju’s…?

“Arf!”

Its bark wasn’t so loud, but anyone could’ve heard it. She let it walked to the direction she just left. Yet it kept nudging her palm. It wanted her to follow it.

At first it was hard to walk with such a large animal constantly switching sides from her left to right, but soon it matched its steps with hers. It‘d bark softly at an intersection, and nudge her leg to avoid obstacles. Its warm body was a contrast with the cold morning air. Its four paws stepped on the grass and soil so softly, almost soundlessly.

When the dog stopped, Izuna felt they arrived at a vast open area. Several people were hoeing. Her body froze. Did they see her? Would they talk to her? She regretted not ignoring the dog and return to Madara’s room—

“Izuna-san?”

She was startled. A man called her from behind. His voice was familiar, albeit deeper than the last they spoke to each other. She dug into her memories.

“...Akio?”

“It’s me.” A metal thing fell into loose soil. “Are you taking Pochi for a walk…?”

“Arf!”

Izuna could tell the dog bounced beside her. Its head rubbed her knees. Her lips pursed. “...So you see.”

Uchiha Akio she knew back home was a scrawny cousin who couldn’t throw a shuriken straight. His katon jutsu was weak. Her father and aunt always assigned him on the support division whose duty was to loot weapons and armor pieces from the battlefield. His sharingan was never awakened.

The Akio who talked to her right now sounded taller and could swing a hoe so easily. Healthier to boot.

“The patches here are for turnips,” he explained without being asked. “Eggplants and spinach on the east, then carrots and potatoes on the west. Rice fields are further south, we just planted the saplings.”

Izuna only hummed flatly. This information was useless.

“Barley is over there—ah, beside the carrots. It’s empty now because we just harvested it—”

She cut in, “how do you endure?”

“Hm?” Akio paused in silence. “Endure… what?”

Her eyebrows dipped as she continued, “endure living like this. Instead of warring like our Ancestor mandated!” Her voice rose at the end of the sentence.

Pochi whimpered. It lay down not far from her foot. Sounds of people digging faded.

“Would you like to sit first, Izuna-san?”

The offer confused her, but she let him led her to a wooden bench. The air was cooler, there must be a shade above their heads. Pochi followed them, sitting near her feet again.

Her cousin sat beside her. “Did you remember the night Hikaru-kun returned from the Senju village?” He didn’t wait for her confirmation before continuing, “he said, Hashirama-sama wanted to stop the war between us.”

“You believed—”

“What other choice did we have?” Akio sounded bitter. “Our numbers dwindled rapidly. We cremate people more often. Daimyo Taneyuki was getting stingy. Our farm was unattended due war. Even if we have money, we often couldn’t buy rice because the farmers only have enough for themselves.”

Izuna was silent.

“You and Madara-sama only think about the war. Tactics, weapon logistics… we’re the ones who think about food. But…” His words hung in the air.

“But what?” she pressed.

“We’d be perished for real if we didn’t stop going to war. Extinct.”

Her fingers dug into the bench. Her blood boiled. “So living as Senju servants is better, is that so?” she snapped. “No wonder our Ancestor didn’t give you sharingan!”

Akio’s next response was softer. “Does our Ancestor really want us to perish?”

“Aren’t the weak ones better dead!?” Izuna stood, upset. Her thin chest rose and fell rapidly. “Only the strongest shinobi survive…!”

“I don’t want to die, Izuna-san. So are the others.” The bench creaked. “Is there something wrong with that?”

“But—!”

“Having sharingan or not… we all just want to continue living. Instead of giving up to our situation.” He sighed. “A true Uchiha doesn’t surrender to circumstances.”

Izuna’s fist balled. Not surrendering means fighting until our last drop of blood! Not living like this!

Pochi whined again, but it was cut short as a long whistle echoed from the fields. The dog barked happily.

“Hi sweetieee! There you are… who are you playing with today?” A deep and hoarse voice of a woman approached the two Uchiha. Her footsteps grazed the ground noisily. “There’s Akio-kun, and…”

Akio introduced them both. The woman was the Inuzuka clan head, Tsubaki. Apparently her clan had been living here for a week.

“Permanently moving…?”

“Your brother’s and Hashi-san’s idea was so good! They accept us with open hands too,” Tsubaki explained. The women left Akio who continued digging. “One third of our troops perished in the fire, we couldn’t go through the famine alone.”

Izuna had to keep herself from gaping. “...What fire?” Pochi’s nose nuzzled her hand.

“The old Senju village was burned down, did you know? Totally to crisp. Not even a single blade of grass survived.”

“I heard that… but what happened?” As far as she knew, the Senju had a whole division of skilled suiton users, so why…?

“A monster burned it.” Tsubaki let out a long sigh. “Gigantic ape with four tails. We helped the Senju to shoo it away while the evacuation was ongoing, but still we were no match for it. Luckily Hashi-san managed to kick it away.”

“When…?”

“Barely a moon phase ago… oh, on the night after the last battle between Senju and Uchiha.”

Fire and water surfaced to her memory, followed with smoke and a sword swiftly slashing in the blink of an eye—

Izuna’s right side suddenly itchy.


 

The door was slammed behind Izuna. Thuds and clanks that followed was responded by a confused voice.

“Huh, Izuna—”

Her heart was still beating rapidly. When she heard Madara returned, she dashed looking for him despite the fact that it was so late already. Questions had been piling on her tongue, waiting to be poured out.

Just, where should she start?

“...So,” Izuna dampen her lips, “the Inuzuka move to live here?”

“Yes—”

“I met their clan head.” And everything Tsubaki told her was spilled without restriction. About what happened at night after the last battle between Uchiha and Senju. “That attack… did it happen before or after she came to our home?”

Madara took off his armor. Ropes and metal plates hit the wooden floor. “I think it’s after.”

“‘I think’?”

“The news of said attack came when Hashi was in our house.” The smell of burning wood was spreading. The fireplace was lit. “That time, everything was already burned to nothing.”

“How bad…?”

“It’s said several shinobi was dead there. Tsubaki-san’s canine partner too.”

A strange sensation hit her heart. Normally, Izuna would laugh at this revelation, saying that this is karma. But this time, she couldn’t. There was a snare binding her mind and tongue.

A snare that said she owed her life to her.

Her lips parted, ready to speak, but Madara did it first. “I need to patrol again tomorrow. Too many bandits roaming after three clans no longer active…”

“...Oh.” She swallowed her intent.

Akio’s words kept ringing for the next weeks. Izuna spent the morning with Pochi, exploring the edges of the settlement. There’s an advantage in being unable to see. Occasionally someone greeted her, or offered to walk with her. A brief response and refusal were enough to end the conversation. Rather than with humans, Izuna preferred spending her time with the animals she encountered. Especially cats. There are two who often accompanied her whenever she took a rest under a tree. They liked to curl close to her, and didn’t leave when she pet them.

Their old temple was disassembled and assembled here. Although Makoto had shown her its direction, she was reluctant to go. Facing The Ancestor at her current state was an embarrassment. There was nothing she could do.

Everyone quickly adapted to a warless life. Including her brother.

Pathetic.

Pathetic! But it’s forbidden for her to return to The Ancestor without paying her debt to the archenemy. She needed to sharpen her skills.

For what? You have no sharingan. Who in the right mind would send you to war—heh, that if we still have wars to fight…

Morning was yet to bloom, but Izuna was outside holding a blade. She had been following the sound of a creek, treading a path towards the lake alone because Pochi wasn’t with her. That place was always empty, so there’s enough privacy to train.

War is inevitable, she said to herself. I just need to prepare myself.

Would Madara send you to war? He never trains with you anymore.

Izuna sped up while going downhill.

You’re nothing for him, especially since he has that Senju woman who’s stronger than you.

Her feet stopped walking.

Am I right?

It’s true that her equal is only my brother. Everyone knows that.

The water rushed louder pass large rocks. She had arrived at its mouth. Izuna trode the path towards her usual resting spot, then she unsheathed her sword. She repeated a set of movements she had learned so often in her childhood.

Madara is away so often, the whisper returned. You’re his only sister, survived after nearly died. He should’ve been with you more often.

But he prefers spending his days with that Senju woman.

Her sword hit a tree. She pulled it free from the dent. Apparently she had moved too far into the tree grove. She followed the sounds of water back to the lake.

Why do you bother training again? It’s futile without sharingan.

Her arms were down. That’s right, why would she keep training?

Would you rather have your abilities used for the Senju?

Izuna was stunned as she gave those words some thought. She took slow steps forward.

Do you want to betray your Ancestor?

A step.

Do you want to further degrade your clan?

Another step.

Your brother has forsaken you. Death is more honorable.

Izuna took one last step and raised her sword—

So close behind her, a cat screamed. Hissing like it was ready to attack something. Izuna turned around too quickly. Her sword fell, her foot stepped on a slippery rock, and her body was thrown off balance—

“Oh no—Izuna!”

Then her back hit a hard surface. Something fell into the water. She touched the structure that prevented her from falling. It’s wood.

 A woman ran approaching, sounded panicking. “Are you alright!?”

Izuna could only shook her head, still recovering from her shock. Her heart was still pounding when she slowly stood.

A splash of water stole her attention. More noisy splashes followed for a while, then wet steps on the grass. “Here’s your sword. You were… walking too close to the lake. Lucky I managed…”

Izuna’s cheeks warmed. Embarrassment overwhelmed her. Her sheath was ice cold. Wet.

“Are you alone…?”

Her eyebrows furrowed as she nodded.

“Strange,” Hashirama mumbled. “I feel there was someone else here…”

“Just a cat.” Izuna tied her sword to her belt, ignoring its wet state. Her hips was hurt when she fell and hit the wood earlier.

“I’m sure it wasn’t a cat…”

The bushes rustled. Izuna recognized the running pattern of the cat who often accompanied her. Her trained hearing didn’t pick any presence of another entity.

Hashirama’s presence, on the other hand, was pulsing brimming full of living chakra—it’s hard to ignore her even though she wasn’t a skilled sensor—

Sensing. Tracking.

That’s it.

Izuna slapped her forehead hard. How come she’d been so stupid? That’s what she needed to learn first, instead of relearning kenjutsu—

“...Izuna?”

“When Nii-san will return?” she quickly cut in.

“...I don’t know, he patrols on his own—”

Izuna cursed aloud. Madara was the only good sensor shinobi she knew. How’s she going to learn sensing without him?

“Oh, I know someone!” said Hashirama enthusiastically. “I can ask that person to teach you sensing—if you want to.”

She grumbled at herself. Her thoughts must had manifested aloud unknowingly.

Damn. No use crying over spilled rice.

“I only want to if they can start tomorrow,” Izuna hissed. “Here in this spot, before sunrise.”

Hashirama clapped her hands. “No problem!”

Deep in her heart, Izuna hoped it’d be a problem for her.


 

“Did you know, Izuna?”

Izuna lifted her face from her bowl. “Huh?”

“Lots of men from other clans start to move here. Do you want me to introduce you? Just in case—”

“What are you talking about, Ayano?” She squeaked.

“I’m serious!” Ayano chuckled. “They’re quite handsome, you know.”

That night, Izuna ate dinner alone with her cousin, Ayano. She seemed to be more cheerful as she laughed more than before when they were still living in their old village. She had her daughter with her, who luckily had fallen asleep; unbothered by their talk.

“Ew. No need, thanks. Do you think I’d know if they’re handsome or not?”

“Izuna. You’re very much alike with your brother.” Ayano’s tone turned serious. Her voice approached closer; she should be leaning her body above the dining table. “You never looked at Uchiha men. Now there are plenty other men from other clans who will live next to us. No need to worry, Uchiha blood is always strong. Uchiha kids will always have black hair.”

“...What are you trying to tell me?”

“Convincing you to get married. What else?”

Izuna’s jaw felt like it’s almost detached from her skull.

“We’re not at war anymore,” Ayano calmly continued. “This is a great time to raise children, don’t you think? Reducing the risk of dying young, said Hikaru.”

Giving birth to many children with sharingan was a good plan to serve the clan. But, something was stuck in her heart.

Izuna still missed the war.

She quickly set the topic aside. “There’s no use. Everyone else would be weaker than my brother. I’m not interested.” Her spoon chopped the soft boiled egg, and the smell of runny egg yolk began to spread.

Ayano took a long sigh. “You never changed at all, huh. Still the same excuse…”

The next morning, Izuna intended not to repeat the same mistake as before. She carried a bamboo stick to help her walk until she reached the lake. The cold air that pierced her nose didn’t stop her from going alone. For quite a long time she stood in silence, listening to the sounds of nature until she heard approaching footsteps. There were two people.

Honestly, Izuna didn’t expect that Hashirama would pick her younger brother. She should have been too focused on her training prospect that she didn’t even think of that. He clearly wasn’t the first person she would come to, but if she decided to withdraw; she would lose.

And she hated to lose to Senju Tobirama.

That’s why she extended her hand first. Showing to them that she wouldn’t avoid him. Tobirama’s grip was as cold as the fog that surrounded them. Izuna strongly squeezed his hand on purpose.

“I’m going first, Nara clan has been waiting for me in their new residence.” Hashirama announced. Her steps quickly disappeared from the lakeside.

“So…” Tobirama cleared his throat. “How far can you sense?”

“Just the basics,” Izuna responded indifferently. “It’s automatically active in the war zone. You know… when someone comes to kill you. No need to use my chakra to sense that.”

Meanwhile to sense her surroundings and inanimate objects, she had to be more active in sensing using her chakra. Some of the shinobi were blessed by the gift since they were born, so the ones who weren’t born with it should rely on them or desperately try to learn the complex art. It might take them years of training, and most people tend to leave it and learn something else instead.

“Imagine your chakra spreads within a certain radius from your body. Like a web,” Tobirama explained. “You can arrange the shape, so are the width and thickness…”

Izuna’s forehead furrowed as she imagined it. “A web is too abstract.”

He moved to her right side. “Imagine other shape—”

“Susano’o?”

Tobirama did not answer.

Izuna’s lips formed a wide smirk. She remembered that she read once about susano’o from her father’s old scroll. Like an armor, made of pure chakra. Extension of an Uchiha’s body. Although it appeared from mangekyou sharingan, susano’o responded more to its master’s physical movements.

Even though her mangekyou sharingan had awaken in the past, Izuna never had the chance to form susano’o. She had lost her eyes, but perhaps…

The grass rustled once he approached closer. “Better not to start from the hardest.”

“Heh.” Izuna crossed her arms on her chest. She tilted her head to the side, facing towards the source of his voice. “Are you underestimating me?”

“...Go ahead, then.”

The fog had disappeared once Izuna couldn’t continue any longer. Her sweat streamed down to her ribs.

“Take a rest,” Tobirama said.

“I still can do it…” But her stomach growled. Izuna cussed in her mind.

“Don’t you bring lunch? Want to get some from the public kitchen?”

“Public… kitchen?”

“A kitchen we share with the other clans. Not far from here—”

“No need.” Izuna hurriedly stood up, looking for a way back to Uchiha residence. Public kitchen… if she guessed it right there would be too many people there. Not just Uchiha and Senju, but the other clans too…

“Izuna—your cane—!”

She snatched her cane from Tobirama’s hand. She almost never used it to help her walk home, she preferred to hit all the bushes and pebbles on the road.

In the late afternoon she reviewed the training with Tobirama. Her sensor web she created managed to spread inside her room. Little by little she thickened the layer until she could tell where were the positions of her furniture.

She had learned the basics. Great. She could practice by herself now.

But in the next day she still found Tobirama by the lakeside. Sitting on a tree stump, looking at the water.

“What are you doing—”    

“Monitoring your progress.”

Izuna didn’t know why but she imagined him smiling in satisfaction as he spoke.

“You know it’s me, don’t you?”

“I remember your chakra aura, of course I do.”

Without further talk, Izuna tried to walk around a narrow area without the help of her cane. Tobirama didn’t make any noise at all, unless when he shifted position. It didn’t take a long time before Izuna could locate all the stones and bushes around them.

“Madara didn’t teach you?”

Izuna turned her body really quick that her ponytail moved like a whip. “He has no time for that,” she answered grumpily. “He keeps going away.”

“My sister said he’s going on a patrol. Is that true?”

“I don’t know.” Ire caused her self control to lose. “By the way, how come there are other clans who live here too? I thought your sister only wants us to move to the Senju place.”

“Alliance—”

“This is crazy.” Izuna placed her hands on her waist. “You just lost your home, right?”

Her sensor web thickened automatically, forming a barrier to protect her from an invisible attack. Tobirama’s chakra spread a battle-ready aura, and Izuna’s hand reflexively reached for her sword—

But then it disappeared in a blink of an eye.

“We lost our home because of you.”

Izuna’s chest felt pierced. “What do you—”

“My sister left our home when she was supposed to protect us all,” Tobirama hissed, ready to erupt his chakra. “But she went to your place.”

“I didn’t ask her to come!” Izuna yelled back at him. “I was ready to die—it was your fault you didn’t kill me correctly!” Once she realized what she just said, she quickly covered her mouth.

Tobirama’s chakra appeased.

Izuna stepped back slowly before turning away. She didn’t practice later that night. Her focus was difficult to direct without a guide. Her mind kept wandering to the fact that Senju Hashirama left her clan and home in danger for her.

Her, who was a nobody.

She couldn’t eat her dinner. Her stomach felt uneasy.

In the next morning, she was alone by the lakeside. Once she found a root comfortable enough to sit on, Izuna began to train her web. Thickening, thinning, moving it around according to her own body movements and directions. But she still couldn’t focus. This skill was impossible for her to learn alone, especially when she wasn’t born with the gift.

She swallowed, accepting the bitter truth that she still needed a teacher. He must be reluctant to teach her again. Maybe it’s better for her to go home and wait for Madara…

Her web detected someone.

“Izuna.”

“Tobirama.”

Silence. Something jumped out and into the water. Maybe a frog. Then, they spoke in unison.

“I still want to teach you.”

“I still want to train with you.”

Silence once more. Izuna gushed her laugh. “I have a condition,” she said. “Don’t tell anyone about this training.”   

“Not a problem,” Tobirama accepted. “My condition is only one. Don’t talk about our siblings when we’re training.”

Her smile blossomed. “Deal.” Then, she added, “Next time, bring your sword.”

“Are you sure?”

Izuna stood up, patting the dust away from her lap. “I’ll make you regret it soon, Senju,” she threatened.

“Then try, Uchiha.”


 

She was twenty three.

Their training ran smoothly. Without any distraction, Izuna made quick improvements. Her chakra web had thickened and turned into a wall with the ability to detect more accurately. She began to have the courage of walking around the lakeside without her cane, although Tobirama or Makoto still assisted her from afar. The changing season didn’t stop them.

The only ones who knew about their training were Hashirama and Makoto—because he was tasked by his grandmother to accompany Izuna. That was why once she didn’t show up for breakfast, he would look for her everywhere. Izuna immediately told him to swear not to speak about the training to anyone, if not, he wouldn’t be allowed to be with her during the training. He didn’t come everyday, fortunately.

After three seasons had passed, Tobirama finally agreed to practice kenjutsu with her. Once their first session had finished, Izuna laughed out loud that she doubled over. Felt like it’s been centuries for her not to touch her sword, not to feel the sensation of battle she missed so badly.

“I feel like…” Izuna clutched the side of her belly that felt sore because of her laugh. “I want to try forming susano’o again.”

“Without sharingan? Is it possible?”

“Theoretically, yes.” She brushed the chin of a cat next to her. “I read it somewhere in an old scroll.. I don’t know where it is now.” As far as she remembered, all the clan literatures were brought with them once they moved. “I have to read it again.”

“In the library then. Do you want to go there?”

Izuna was silenced. Library… in the middle of the village?

“Take Makoto with you. I have to go there this afternoon as well.”

The cat in her lap snored loudly.

“Alright.”

It turned out that navigating the area around a crowded village was more difficult. But Izuna had no intention to back off. Her web thickened into a wall every time they had to go through groups of people. She made use of Makoto and Tobirama’s chakra aura as guides, taking steps on the routes they went through. The problem was there were dozens of other people who filled the space, and some of them greeted Tobirama. A short conversation they had always gave her new, weird information about the other clans.  

It felt like hours before they managed to arrive. The sun felt like burning her nape, causing a few of her hair strands stuck on her damp cheeks and neck. 

“Turn right,” Tobirama said once they entered a cooler room. “The second door. There are clerks working inside. Ask them where they are keeping the Uchiha literatures.” He didn’t come with them.

Makoto lead her into the library. Izuna found three people working with pens, ink, and papers inside the room. Once they had found the location of the shelf they were looking for, Izuna waited on a long bench while Makoto went to look for the scroll. He returned with three scrolls in his arms.

“That one,” Izuna said once Makoto read the titles. “Notes of Sharingan Legends: Beyond The Third Tomoe.” 

The familiar sound of rigid paper was heard once the scroll was opened. “Ow. So much dust.” He took a deep breath before he started reading. “‘According to my previous note, sharingan will manage to completely develop once the three tomoe already take form, but the more’— Izuna-san, the preface is too long!”

“Skip the unimportant ones,” she grumbled. “Skip to the next chapter.”

“There’s no chapter partition here,” Makoto complained.

“Ancestor’s name, just look for it.”

Makoto found the next chapter, then read the first part until Izuna told him to skip again. He read almost without drawing breath. Even by the end of the sentence, he didn’t stop.

“How can I learn if you read like that?” Izuna massaged her forehead. “Slow down a bit.”

“I’ve slowed it down…”

“Here, let me have the scroll.”

Izuna thinned her sensor chakra until they were focused on her fingertips. She touched the surface of the scroll, looking for familiar shapes formed by the ink. It had been a long time not to read and write. The letters she used to remember felt strange.

“Then what am I supposed to do?”

“Just read the other scrolls, duh.”

The bench creaked once Makoto sprung up to look around the other book shelves. Izuna almost didn’t make any improvement. She needed way too much time to recognize one letter.

“Where’s Makoto?”

Izuna lifted her head automatically. She recognized Tobirama’s voice really well. “Around the shelves,” she answered shortly, then returned to her scroll.

Three things were placed on the table. Izuna smelled something sweet.

“Drink.” Tobirama placed something near her right hand.

She reached for the clay cup and smelled the scent. “This is… orange?”

“Mm.”

One gulp. Two gulps. The cold orange drink slid inside her throat. “...Tasty.” Izuna reclined on the bench. Her shoulders felt stiff all along, and she finally could relax now.

The papers crumpled. Tobirama asked, “Do you want me to help?”

Izuna nodded and asked him to start from the first chapter. Once he read it aloud, she didn’t expect his voice to be flowing smoothly like wind. Tobirama didn’t crush all words in one tone like Makoto did, but giving it a flow that made the contents easier for her to understand.

“‘Awakening the chakra armor is the highest art an Uchiha can achieve. Some say the armor will be in the form of bones, or a demon according to the names they call for us. Personally, I suggest that the form will be the reflection of ourselves’...”

Her hand supported her chin, while her body leaned closer to the source of his voice…

“...Izuna?”

Her chin shifted from her palm, and Izuna was jolted awake. Her chakra automatically spread out to form a sensor wall. The clay cups and scrolls were still on the table. The transparent glass panel behind her wasn’t as hot as before.

But there was someone there, with quite familiar chakra.

Tobirama quickly assisted her to the exit, before returning to his own work. Makoto wasn’t there anymore, he went home this afternoon to help his mother. The air outside wasn’t as humid as before, although the heat was still there.

“...Since when have you walked without help?”

“It’s been so long, you know.” Izuna slipped her tongue out. “That’s why you shouldn’t leave so often, Nii-san.”

“Heh.” Madara held his laugh. The plates of his armor clanked against each other, causing a clear sound. They seemed new.

The crowd wasn’t as dense as before. The wind blew softly and freely. Izuna spread her arms more often, so the air might come through her sleeves. “I want to try to use susano’o,” she said suddenly.

“Are you—” Madara stopped his own words, clearing his throat. “Susano’o costs a lot of chakra. You have to be careful.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know.”

“If you need help—”

Izuna cut him mid way, “No need!” then she laughed by herself. In her heart she had a plan to take a stroll around the village the next day. There were new figures detected by her senses, and she wanted to know what kind of shinobi they were.

They had almost reached the turn towards Uchiha residence once Madara suddenly stopped her.

“I need to talk to you.”

“Hm?”

“Me and Hashirama… are going to get married.”

Her lips were agape, but no sound came out. “Wait… this is really you, right?”

“I’m serious. You didn’t misheard anything.”

Izuna reached her hand, taking a clump of long, coarse hair. She grabbed the strands like she was trying to deny her doubts. “Are you sick…?”

“Ancestor’s name—no,” Madara said in amusement. “I have proposed to her. Hashirama accepted it.”

If only her eyes were still there, Izuna must have glared widely. “She has accepted our kimono—?!”

“No, not yet. Once this village has finished constructing and all the clans have moved here.” His voice was so calm, but there was something raging behind. “It’s still a secret, so—”

“Don’t tell anyone?”

“Don’t tell anyone.”

“Oh,” she whispered. “Okay.”

His gloved hand stroke his sister’s hair, then they returned without much talk. Parted to take care of their own things.

In the silence of their house late at night, Izuna couldn’t fall asleep.

Why didn’t she feel anything unusual when she heard about Madara’s engagement? Why wasn’t she angry about it? Why didn’t she feel mad?

Embarrassing.


 

She was twenty four.

Sometimes Izuna accompanied Ayano when she had to barter the vegetables from her garden with rice or other goods. The barter was happened in an area they called a market. At first, Izuna was nervous because of how crowded the place was. The noises sounded like a swarm of bees in her ears. She wanted to refuse and go home, but Yuzuha always stopped her. Izuna didn’t want to look weak in front of her cousin’s daughter. After all, the market was a good place for her to practice her sensing. At first she hesitated to go, but her cousin kept including her in the conversations. The people they were talking to often delivered new information about various things, such as newest clans in the village, who recently got a new mokuton house, or the population of hunting prey counted by Inuzuka clan. Ayano did all the transactions by herself as she joked around. Very laid back. She was never on alert. Like she wasn’t an Uchiha shinobi.

The situation made her speechless. The life she had before didn’t have much difference with the life she used to have in the old Uchiha village. The only difference was they lived alongside many other clans. The role of each individual slowly formed a new routine that didn’t have much difference than in the past.   

How did her brother and Hashirama work to make this all happen?

However, Izuna didn’t deny that the village’s atmosphere was very comfortable. Accepting her like a mother’s embrace. A place where all shinobi who used to live in alert and danger could live safely and at ease. The quaver of life was intertwined in crowds, yet without the disruptive intention.

Almost united, although every clan was clearly different.

Ayano herself seemed to have fully adapted to their new life. “There are some mochi, a half of fresh pheasant, a little bit of barley and senbei,” her cousin said once they left the market. All the turnips in the basket had been replaced by other types of food. “Yuzu, do you want senbei?”

“I WANT!”

A cracking sound was heard, signifying that Yuzuha was currently enjoying her senbei. Izuna clutched Ayano’s shopping basket.

“Have you heard about the Ninja Academy?”

“Aca...demy?”

“A place to train all children from all shinobi clans,” Ayano explained. “They say none of our relatives has applied to be one of the teachers. Do you want to try?”

“How can I teach if—”

“You have a good sensor skill, you know!” she cut her off. “You can always find Yuzuha every time she hides underneath the houses. The children can learn how to sneak from you.”

In front of the two women, Yuzuha shrieked in joy as she found tweeting birds above their heads. 

“Yeah, you’re right,” Izuna said slowly.

“I have told Nara-sama that you would want to—”

“Aya!” Izuna reflexively pushed her gently.

“So you can practice if you’re going to have kids someday!” Her cousin only laughed, but not for long. Her laugh suddenly disappeared like it was being cut, and her steps weren’t heard anymore. “Ma, Madara-sama,” she chirped, “You have returned.”

The food basket had disappeared from Izuna’s arms, and Yuzuha’s babble had gradually disappeared. Meanwhile, his steps were heavy and slow. Izuna increased her alertness.

Madara’s mood had never been good since Hashirama was chosen as the Hokage. Sometimes she felt something was wrong with him, although she could never find out why.

“I want to leave again tomorrow,” Madara said without unnecessary chit-chat. “If there would be any inter clan meeting, you should go in my stead.”

Izuna nodded briefly. The order of the clan leader must not be denied. But still, something was stuck in her mind.

“Why not somebody else? Like Hikaku?”

“You are my vice in the clan. No one is more suitable than you.”

For daily responsibilities, Hikaku would be on duty. Permanently mapping the complex, dividing the houses, and food allocation. Small things that usually didn’t interest her.

“I will ask Hikaku about our clan’s internal affair,” she said as she walked home.

“One more thing.” Madara caught his sister’s arm. “Quit playing with Tobirama.”

Izuna turned her head, confused. Madara never talked about her training before, so why would he suddenly say that?

“I’m not playing. I’m practicing.”

“And what happens after that? Do you want to do missions? Endangering yourself?”

“I haven’t thought anything about it,” Izuna responded, pulling her arm away. “I still can fight.”

“Without sharingan?” Madara followed her steps. “It will never be possible, Izuna.”

Izuna gritted her teeth. “I can!” she shouted. “You’ll see!”    

Silence, and Madara’s laugh erupted. “You haven’t lost your spirit, good—ow!” He faked a groan once a punch was struck on his belly. 


 

Honestly speaking, Izuna didn’t know who was Shimura Hisao.

Felt like decades since the last time they were hired to prevent Shimura clan from invading Daimyo Taneyuki’s territory. Izuna remembered she killed a young Shimura man who was deemed quite talented. She never knew his name. Only lately when she had been going around the village, Hikaru kept mentioning Hisao’s name.

“Are you sure it’s alright?” he asked once he wrote Izuna’s personal data. His neat handwriting had caused him to be accepted as the Academy’s clerk.

“Why not?” she returned the question. “Hashi-san never allow conflict to happen in our village, right?”

“No, um,” Hikaru scratched his hair, “I heard he doesn’t like Izuna-san. You killed his son back in the past.”

“He only dislikes me, no big deal. Back then we were at war against each other. Everyone killed everyone’s family. If Senju can make peace with us, the others should too.” Izuna waved her hand. “Are you done? Shikana-san must be waiting for you.”

She had already forgotten about the small conversation until the post-council meeting incident. Her fight with Madara during that time caused her to practice kenjutsu more intensively with and without Tobirama.

“Don’t endanger yourself,” his brother scolded her as Grandpa Tatsu worked to stitch Izuna’s waist with his chakra after the fight against Hisao. “You could have died!”

“You don’t believe I can win against him, huh?” Izuna responded fiercely, although she was still lying down. Pain didn’t stop her from arguing.

“Still—”

“You keep leaving, that’s why!”

The healer cleared his throat loudly before Madara could respond. “Madara-sama, please get out for a while,” he asked. “I need to concentrate.”

“Don’t be reckless. Your opponent wasn’t born yesterday,” he said before he followed Grandpa Tatsu’s instruction.

But Tobirama was also almost on Madara’s side. A few days afterwards, he brought all information about Shimura Hisao once they were in the library.

“You killed his son, Masao,” he said suddenly. He lowered his voice because Makoto was nearby, busy with his own scrolls. “Hisao is not only an expert in kenjutsu, but also an expert in poison. He’s quite vengeful, Keita-san said—” 

“...Wait a minute, why are you telling me this?” Izuna just finished listening to his reading about a short story. “I’ve known everything.”

“You didn’t tell me.”

“If he does anything reckless I can face him again.”

“You’re lucky because Hashirama was there.”

Izuna almost sprung up from her seat. “Okay then next time I don’t need to get injured!”

Tobirama chose not to continue their argument. Or, at least that’s what she thought. Once they were outside, the argument returned, provoked by his demand to accompany her home.

“There won’t be a problem to let me go home by myself, right?” Izuna was tired and annoyed, she didn’t even care if anyone overheard her.

“The rule hasn’t been officiated yet,” Tobirama responded slowly and calmly, like he was trying to soothe her.

“You are as annoying as my brother. Why don’t you both believe in my capability?”

“The safety of all Konoha is my responsibility, Izuna. This is only a preventive measure.”

Izuna expanded her nostrils. “I thought you believe in me. You know how strong I am.”

An owl fled past them.

“Not only you. My sister too. There’s a small team with a task to monitor her all the time in the village.” 

Izuna tilted her head. A shinobi in Hashirama’s calibre must have known if she was being followed. It was clear she didn’t need a team of guards. She understood Tobirama as a pragmatic person, and the reason wasn’t only about safety.

“Do whatever you want,” she said, “as long as they don’t disturb me, I guess that’s fine.” She didn’t step aside or stop once Tobirama followed her. The path they took passed the mokuton houses. She sensed life pulsating out of all the buildings. Almost all of Konoha felt the same.

“...I heard you applied as a teacher at the Academy.”

Her chakra wall approached him. Was he going to talk about Hisao again? Izuna heard he was accepted to work in the Academy. Crazy if he dared to hurt her there. “Ayano my cousin suggested it to me,” she finally spoke.

“What if you get non-ninja students?”

“As long as they want to learn, I will teach them.” Then she remembered something. “Will you be in charge for arranging teacher position…?”

“Not me, but Shikana-san accepts other suggestions. For example, children from the other clans would find it hard to learn if the teacher is emotional.”

“Easy, I’m not grumpy,” she joked. They had almost reached the footpath that led them to the Uchiha residence. Izuna turned her body a little bit. “Um. I’m going first…”

“By the way, Izuna,” Tobirama called. “My sister is going to hand over the clan leader position to me.”

“...Congratulations.” Her chakra wall pat both of his shoulders. “You will be a lot busier.” Izuna thought for a while. Her sword skills had improved markedly. Practicing with someone else wouldn’t be a problem. “What if we end our training?”

“Don’t.”

“Why?” The answer didn’t show up as fast as she expected. Izuna leaned closer, thinking that the words were blown by the wind. “Why, Tobirama?” she repeated.

“I… need practice too.” Tobirama stepped back. His tone sounded strange.

“Just practicing?” Izuna couldn’t stop herself from teasing him.

He cleared his throat loudly. “It’s been late,” he said as he stroked Izuna’s shoulders. “You should go home.”

Once they walked separate ways, Izuna couldn’t hold her laughter along the way home.


 

Her ears were ringing. The warmth in her body disappeared.

“You’re joking.”

“I wish I am!” Madara growled like a wounded bear