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Parallelism

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The office was dark and he was alone in the building. A single candle burned by his elbow as Hashirama stared at the elongated shadows on the far wall. There was more paperwork for him to do. It was never-ending.

In this silent secrecy, Hashirama allowed himself to unwind. Be honest.

He was just so tired… tired of building, of supporting, of holding together this beautiful, infinite dream by his fingertips. It felt lonely. He missed dinners with Tobirama. He missed drinking with his cousins. He missed a thousand things he’d taken for granted. Hell, he even missed arguing with his brother. All he wanted right now was to look up and see Tobirama in the doorway saying anija, stop slacking off, in his nagging, loving way.

His sudden bout of loneliness was unreasonable, of course.  His clan was waiting for him. His brother would be back in two days and he’d pick up right where he left off, pecking Hashirama until he couldn’t remember why he missed him.

This loneliness wasn’t because of them. The source wasn’t the loss of family or the lack of company, it was just… it was just…

The wind outside howled and wood creaked. Hashirama looked at his window even though his senses said there was nothing there. The sharp spike of hope inside his chest became painful.

The floors always creaked when Madara paced in the office. Up and down he’d go, thundering and stomping until the ceiling flaked on the shinobi downstairs, and Hashirama had to ask him to stop. That’d earn a snap from Madara. Hashirama would pretend to be hurt until he found the perfect thing to say and Madara would puff up in response until they both collapsed back into humor.

His absence felt like a hole in the world. It was in the exact outline of him and it was present in the way the air missed his voice and the trees always felt cold. He wanted to go back to when they laughed and argued in the same breath.

Nowadays, Madara was only angry. Always, always angry. His clever humor was gone. All the gentleness in him was gone or hidden. When they argued, it was for keeps and Madara no longer had compunctions about hitting below the belt. He knew how to turn words into knives and Hashirama couldn’t – wouldn’t – take it anymore from a man he called as close as kin.

Now there was just this silence – this awful, empty silence, devoid of warm fires and warmer smiles.

The darkness felt a little colder now. Hashirama closed his eyes.

“I love him like a brother,” he whispered to himself. He didn’t know when his attention wandered from his work. Suddenly weary, he buried his face in his hands. “I just don’t understand why he never felt the same way.”

Or maybe he did. Madara made no secret of his heart, not for one second of his life. When he was angry, he screamed his voice hoarse. When he grieved, his entire soul wept black and blue. Madara was so honest that it was uncomfortable. There was no hiding a man who wore his rawness like a wound.

It wasn’t difficult to see what was in front of him. Madara could be hard to read if you didn’t understand him but Hashirama knew better.

In another lifetime, where their lives lined up better and the timing was right, maybe he could have reciprocated the truth of Madara’s secret – to love him as he deserved to be loved. But they’d still been at war when he married Mito. That was how it always went: like their friendship had a leak that couldn’t be fixed and any goodness they had just spilled out. Their relationship was just a series of closing doors.

If he thought that telling Madara this would help then he would have done so long ago. But he wasn’t that naïve. Madara could move the world if he wanted to, he was so stubborn, and once he was set on a course of action, gods fell apart for him. Madara didn’t want to say anything and he was unwilling to listen. His anger would probably boil the oceans if Hashirama dared to tell him something that he didn’t want to hear and with the peace so fragile, could he really be selfish enough to force Madara to tell him what was wrong?

Maybe he had to. Madara would explode. He would rage. But Hashirama couldn’t watch his dearest friend destroy himself like this. He couldn’t stomach it anymore. He just wanted to help him – that was all he ever wanted.

 


 

It all started with Kagami’s arrival the next morning.

Nowadays, Madara sent Kagami when he wanted to communicate with the Hokage’s office. Hashirama got used to him and more importantly, he got better at suppressing his disappointment when the warm-fire-crackle chakra he sensed wasn't to be the one he wanted it to be. To his credit, Kagami was a sweet boy, respectful and diligent. He did his duties without complaint and he wasn’t afraid to meet Hashirama’s eyes.

Yet it still clawed at his soul to talk to Madara like this, exchanging cold letters like they were strangers.  Where had their conversations gone? They used to be able to talk for hours without growing tired of one another. He remembered the two of them hiking up their mountain, being so engrossed in their conversation that dusk surprised them.

Where was that easy spirit, that effortless communication? Most pressingly, when had he lost it? Sometimes he wished he could go back in time and advise his younger self to savor these conversations while they lasted. It’d never occurred to him that there would be one cold day in which they ceased.

“Here you go, Hokage-sama.” Kagami handed over a letter. Hashirama took it from him and barely repressed his disappointment over how thin it was. Kagami left after he nodded at him and Hashirama carefully unfolded the paper.

This wasn’t even a letter. It was just a scrap that Madara scratched out some words onto. Hashirama couldn’t even tell if he was angry or sad. This was a snub. This was an insult. Madara dismissed him, dismissed their village, and a small part of him wondered when things would finally fully fall apart.

Everything in order. Don’t interfere.

In order? Don’t interfere? When had their settlement become this… this begrudging collaboration between reluctant allies? They’d vowed to each other to work hand-in-hand as brothers and equals. When they clasped hands on the day of truce, that’d been more than just the end of a blood feud. It had been a promise.

This wasn’t even close.

Hashirama crumpled up the letter, his mind made up. Enough was enough. He had hoped that over time, given space to settle, that Madara would temper his wild heart and come back in from the cold. But that’d never been the case with him, right? Sometimes he had to be chased down until he got tired.

 


 

Hashirama cornered Madara in his house. He knew the instant that Madara’s eyes flashed that he was going to walk into a firestorm. For a moment, Hashirama was beset by doubt. Did he want to do this? Fighting with Madara was hard. Each time they clashed, Hashirama walked away from it feeling drained, exhausted, sucked empty. It hurt to raise his hand against his friend and it hurt even worse when Madara got that unbalanced gleam in his eyes that said he planned to give it as good as he got.

“Get out,” Madara hissed.

He steeled himself. Sometimes the things that hurt the most were also the most necessary. “No. This doesn’t continue any longer.”

“Excuse me?” There it was again – that dangerous glint. Upon closer examination, Madara didn’t look all that good. The bags under his eyes looked puffier while his cheeks were thinner. It wasn’t as bad as when he’d been eighteen and carved out by hunger, but it came frighteningly close. “This is my home, Senju. You’re unwelcome.”

Since when, he wanted to ask. Since when did I become unwelcome?

“You’re avoiding me,” Hashirama said instead. “You won’t even look me in the face anymore.”

Madara glared at him defiantly. “I wasn’t aware that I had to present myself every day,” he snarled. Hashirama immediately wanted to shake him and demand that he stop doing the thing he did where he interpreted everything he said in the worst possible light. It was the most infuriating part of talking to him. Madara never wanted to back down or deescalate. He only hit back harder.

“That’s not what I meant and you know it,” Hashirama replied. It came out harder than he intended it to. “Why are you doing this – punishing me for something I didn’t even do?”

That did it. Madara rounded on him with his shoulders squared and his lips pinched thin. “That’s how you see this? Punishment? Don’t act so childish, Hashirama! This isn’t about you –“

“Yes, it is.” Hashirama stepped up to him. Madara took a step back. He wasn’t dumb enough to think that it was because of fear. “This is exactly about me. If it wasn’t, you wouldn’t be running away.”

“Running away -!” Madara’s chakra flared angrily. “You think I would ever run away from you? You?”

The contempt stung. Hashirama forged on. “I know. What you’re not telling me. I know.”

The air left the room. Madara went bloodless. For a split-second, Hashirama genuinely thought he would attack him. The tension stretched until it could no longer. The floorboards cracked as Madara’s anger erupted.

“Get out!” he screamed, throwing the nearest thing on hand. Hashirama ducked the vase. It exploded against the frame of the screen door, a hundred pieces skittering all over the floor.

“Madara, please –"

“You fucking come into my house,” he seethed, his teeth bared into a snarl, “you come in here and you mock me –"

“That wasn’t why!” Hashirama ducked the table that he threw. “Madara, just listen!”

“I have listened enough! Leave!”

His temper hit its limit. Hashirama clasped his hands and the wood of Madara’s home shortly followed. Roots wrapped around his arms to stop him from throwing any more things and when Madara thrashed, Hashirama squeezed tighter. He wouldn’t hurt him but he had enough of talking and being shouted over.

“Let me go –"

His finger twitched. Madara made an angry noise around the root that grew over his mouth. But he didn’t create the Susano’o or even burn anything, so Hashirama had to count himself lucky. He pushed him deeper into the house to finally get this out of the hallway.

“I didn’t come here to fight,” he began once they were seated. Madara was still restrained but he’d stopped struggling as soon as Hashirama put his foot down. He'd resorted to glaring at him through his thicket of hair. “I want you to just hear me out for once.”

Madara snorted.

His hard-won reprieve stretched out like taffy. Hashirama felt gummy-mouthed for a moment, a little surprised and yet not at all that Madara relented. They danced like this a lot, the two of them. Madara ran away and Hashirama followed. Madara fought and Hashirama won. Then Madara gave in.

He despaired at this cycle. Every time it started anew, he despaired a little more.

Madara’s home was the same. He comforted himself with that. This could still be fixed.

 “The village needs both of us – and I need you, Madara. I can’t do it all alone.” He thought about this coming here. What he’d say – what he needed to say. For most people, he found the right words to turn aloof detachment into budding camaraderie. With Madara, it was always a guessing game. What comforted him today could incite him tomorrow.

“You can’t hide away like this anymore – barely talking to anyone, not even talking to me… our dream can’t survive if it’s only me. This needs to end.”

Madara was silent. The bright burn of his chakra died down to dim embers, still hot but no longer so dangerous. Hashirama let the Mokuton go. For a long time, Madara said nothing.

“Please, I –“

“…what did you mean when you said you knew?”

“What?”

“You said you knew.” Madara met his eyes. Hashirama didn’t flinch from the sight of his Sharingan. “What do you mean?”

His mind raced. He’d come here for a purpose – to finally do something about the growing chasm between them before it grew too wide to bridge. But to make up one’s mind was one thing. To do was another.

He looked at Madara. Something in his face said that he already knew what he meant. He was only asking for confirmation.

Hashirama grew a little gentler. Despite everything, he cared about Madara. There was no argument bad enough or silence long enough to make him stop caring. “I know about how you feel,” he said, trying to soften the blow as much as possible. “About me.”

Emotion flickered across Madara’s face. It disappeared quickly but Hashirama was used to catching his quicksilver thoughts.

“How long?” he rasped.

“…not that long,” he said. But he had to look away to say it. The child he knew had been bright and playful. For each other, they’d kept their claws sheathed. Only time and growing up taught Hashirama how to peer deeper into his soul and find the vast jagged peaks and valleys of his heart. Madara felt intensely about him, that’d been clear since he got his Sharingan. But the meaning of that intensity only became apparent to him when it was too late to do anything about it.

“Don’t lie to me,” Madara hissed. “How long?”

“Since we were boys,” Hashirama reluctantly admitted.

The bluster left Madara. He leaned back, somehow smaller, and Hashirama wanted to reach out and tell him it’s okay, this is fine, please don’t look like that.

He didn’t. He knew how Madara reacted to sympathy. It was too close to pity for his pride to take.

“That long?”

“Yes.”

Then a silence fell, an awkward do-nothing silence where Madara didn’t look at him and Hashirama wished he would. He wanted to take action. Reassure him, maybe. He liked reassuring Madara, liked the blazing hot surety in his eyes when he looked at him – when Madara looked at him that way, nothing felt impossible. He wanted that back.

“Madara –“

“I don’t want to talk about it,” Madara said jerkily. He curled inward, his black hair slipping over his face, hiding him, hiding his angry, angry eyes, and Hashirama could practically hear iron barricades slamming up. Get out. No entry.

“Then what?” he demanded. He was loud enough to fill the room with his voice. “You’ll continue to ignore me? That’s your solution?”

A brief stab of insight told him that was exactly what Madara was hoping for. It was the same as Hashirama’s ploy: create time and distance and hope that’d make the problem go away. But they both knew better than that.

“I want to help,” he insisted, splaying his hands across his knees. He didn’t know how, couldn’t think of a single solution that wouldn’t make Madara snarl at him, but he wanted Madara to stop ripping this rift open between them. Hashirama wasn’t the only one suffering. He knew Madara was too.

“Help?” The air grew hot with sour bitterness. “You can’t help.”

“Can’t or you won’t let me?”

Madara straightened up at that, his temper stoked like fresh coals. “Don’t ask stupid questions,” he snapped, his voice so sharp that the tension nearly cracked. “You can’t do anything.”

“Why not?” That again. Hashirama felt like an echo playing back the same words. Why? Why?

Madara’s face screwed up. “What do you mean why not?” he hissed. Hashirama felt like a little kid again, poking his friend until he flushed and yelled. Except that this time he had no joke to pull the cord on Madara’s temper.

“Why can’t I help?” he said. “I want to. For both of us. The village needs us both –“

“Fuck the village!”

Madara lunged at him. It was a cat’s pounce, the powerful curl of leg muscles that propelled a lightning strike leap. Hashirama didn’t try to meaningfully stop him so Madara caught him by the chest in a hard tackle that sent them to the floor. He was aware of his neck, of his belly, but Madara didn’t go for any soft place.

He kissed him. It was mean, toothy and hot-breathed, and so violent that it felt like he was about to bite him instead.

Hashirama, too stunned to react, let him pin his wrists to the floor. He felt Madara settle down on top of him, too hot and heavy for this warm night, smelling like tobacco smoke and trembling like he was barely holding back from worse. Madara licked into his mouth, mauled his lips, kissed him until his lungs burned before he remembered to have mercy and when he did, he sat back on his haunches. His face was flushed, his eyes fever-bright, and his lips curled when he spoke.

“You think you know something?” Madara grabbed the front of his shirt. “You don’t. Not even by half.”

With a whoosh of air, Madara was suddenly up. He turned away dismissively, tossing his head. “Just go, Hashirama.”

Hashirama stood up slowly, his skull buzzing, lips bleeding from where Madara bit him. He stared at Madara’s retreating back, willing him to turn around and show him what he was thinking, but Madara refused to give in. So for once, Hashirama obeyed and left.

Chapter Text

Hashirama didn’t see Madara again after that. He didn’t even get a letter from him again. He didn’t know if he was disappointed or relieved.

His lips had healed within the night but not before a few drops of blood got on the sleeve of his haori. Instead of washing it or changing, Hashirama continued to wear it. It was in a discreet spot, only visible if the sleeve was straightened out, so no one but he noticed it. And he did. The two little spots of blood always winked at him throughout the day, reminding him of what happened.

Madara wanted him. The abstract had finally become physical. The truth that’d lingered on the outskirts of his awareness had blazed to the forefront and like Madara himself, it refused to be ignored. He thought about it when he walked down the village streets, when he sat at his desk, when he ate, when he breathed. He couldn’t stop himself. Every time he did, he looked down at those two blood spots and wondered.

Had the violence been for him or was that just Madara’s way? He suspected both. Wasn’t that just so typical?

It wasn’t the first time that someone wanted him. But the intensity of this was new.

The knocking on his door interrupted his reverie. “Come in.”

Toka entered and Hashirama immediately perked up. She’d gone out with Tobirama in a mission to court the Hyuuga in the north. If she was here then his brother wasn’t far behind. She knelt. “Hokage-sama.”

“Toka. My brother?”

“Tobirama-sama is on his way back to Konoha. He asked me to go ahead with his message so you can begin preparations immediately. The diplomatic envoy was successful but the Hyuuga have new demands."

“Go on.”

“They want to meet the founders of Konohagakure in person. And they want to be on neutral ground.”

He frowned. That wasn't how he'd imagined it. Konoha was willing to host everyone interested in joining, to let them have a taste of what was possible. Even the skittish Shimura had finally relented once they experienced it. “Their safety is guaranteed."

“We told them that. But bloodline clans have always been jumpy."

Hashirama sighed. Of course. The infamous jealousy of the two doujutsu clans in Fire was the one joke everyone else could agree on. Not that it wasn’t unwarranted. If one knew the right buyer, a single Sharingan eye could easily go for five hundred thousand ryo. God only knew how much a Byakugan went for.

“Is that it then? They want me and Madara to meet them on neutral territory before they’re willing to discuss this further?”

“Essentially.”

Well… it would be a welcome break from the drudgery of the office – an opportunity to go out, stretch his legs, and do what he was actually good at.

With Madara.

God. With Madara.

There it was again - the appearance of dread where there should've been none. Just a few months earlier, Hashirama would've been giddy at the prospect of traveling with Madara to negotiate the involvement of another clan. Now, he couldn't help but feel a brief flare of nervous anticipation. After weeks of complete non-communication and whatever that day was, they’d need to act as one team. He could already hear Tobirama in his ear: get your act together, you’re both leaders and you need to act like it.

Easy for him to say.

“- kage-sama? Are you listening?”

He blinked. “Ah, what?”

“I was saying that this should happen pretty soon,” Toka said. She stood up, grunting. “They’re jittery. They’ve been moving south lately. I think it’s because of that new village that’s supposed to be forming in Cloud. They want the Hyuuga. A lot.”

He gestured for her to elaborate.

“It’s unconfirmed but some of them might have been picked up. For their eyes. We don’t know a lot but when we offered to help, they said they already had it handled and the eyes were safe again.”

It wasn’t a lot of information to go on. The Hyuuga were as tight-lipped as the Uchiha were. At least Madara could offer some additional insight since he and his clan were in the same boat. Maybe they’d even get along - that was a nice thought.

“Then we should begin immediately,” Hashirama said, his mind made up. His inner Tobirama was right. Their duties as leaders came before the heart. He and Madara would just have to adapt.

 


 

Madara didn’t answer his summons until it was late. He appeared just as Hashirama was on his last candle and considering going home. The only sign of his arrival was the whoosh of hot air and the heaviness that he always carried around with him. Hashirama cupped his candle to protect the flickering flame and looked up.

“You came.” He sounded surprised to his own ears. A part of him had been nervously expecting silence. It would be bad. But it would be Madara.

From the window, Madara unfolded like a bird of prey. His eyes swept over the entire office before settling on Hashirama. It was the strangest thing – a part of him acknowledged him but the rest of him was firmly locked away. It was like being on the other side of a battlefield with him again. Being seen, but not accepted.

Greasy queasiness coiled inside Hashirama. It wasn’t his fault he didn’t know. But it felt like he should’ve known. Or that he should’ve handled it better. Or anything other than this.

“The Hyuuga are coming.” Madara slowly stepped closer. Hashirama made no moves. Madara stopped next to the corner of his desk. He looked ready to leave if anything happened. Hashirama could imagine what was going through his head. Probably the same thing he was thinking. Do we talk about that?

“They are,” he confirmed. The Hyuuga were somewhat safe to talk about. And hey, when they were still fresh from the truce, Hashirama built his friendship with Madara back up using the village as their common goal. Maybe the Hyuuga could be that common goal this time.

“They want us to meet them.”

“They do.”

“I think it’s a bad idea,” Madara said. He slowly settled on the edge of the desk. It was subtle but it was his version of an olive branch. If he was still angry, he would’ve refused to come closer. “They’re not one of ours. We don’t know how they think. They could be planning something, maybe coordinating an attack with another clan.”

“Or maybe they are nervous about meeting us and want to feel more comfortable.”

“They should be nervous.”

“That’s not a good way to set up negotiations.”

“Do we even need the Hyuuga?” Madara questioned. He crossed his arms. “Their doujutsu is the weakest there is. Their clan is fractured. For the trouble we have to go to get them, it’s not worth it.”

“It’s not about worth,” Hashirama reminded him.

Madara’s face turned sour. Then smoothed out. “It’s not,” he begrudgingly agreed. “Alright, say we go to them. Say we agree to their ridiculous demands. What then?”

“We listen to what they have to say. Toka told me that they’re nervous about the clans in Lightning. If we offer them protection from them then they might be more pliant.”

“And who goes?”

The question caught Hashirama off-guard. It’d always been the two of them before. Why ask now? “...us?”

“Not Tobirama?”

He disliked the challenging glint in Madara’s eye. That always spelled trouble for someone. “Tobirama will be handling the village in our absence. Do you want to do that instead?”

“...no.” Madara slid off the desk with a thump. “I’ll come with you.” He headed for the door.

Hashirama had half a mind to call out to him. Ask him to stay. It felt like the right thing to do. They needed to resolve whatever thing they had before they met the Hyuuga, so it wouldn’t get in the way, so they could be a team again –

The look that Madara shot him as he stopped at the door made him freeze. It was a cutting look. A hungry look. It was a look that made Hashirama feel like prey.

With a flash of long black hair, Madara was gone. Hashirama stared after him as the door slammed shut, his thoughts scattered.

That wasn’t a fighting look, he was sure. But that hadn’t been a return to the days of easy friendship either. That… had been a challenge. A gauntlet thrown.

 


 

Traveling to the neutral location went in silence. With only the two of them, they made good time. That didn’t mean it was any easier to endure the pressing silence from Madara’s end. He was impossible to ignore too – leaves curled up from the heat of his passage and his footsteps left scorch marks on the wood. Hashirama registered every flash of heat with a shudder, like he was next to a fire that could easily catch him.

It was Madara who stopped first. Hashirama caught himself on a tree branch as soon as he did, turning his head in askance, and Madara jerked his head east. “People coming.”

Hashirama immediately got down. He kept his hands visible, his posture relaxed, and his chakra carefully pinched small, and after a moment’s hesitation, Madara followed suit. He was still a hot presence at his shoulder but he wasn’t nearly as searing now.

They didn’t have to wait long. Five white-clothed Hyuuga materialized from the forest, staring uncannily at the two of them, their faces blank and cautious. They were like the Uchiha in the sense that they all resembled each other, all of them dark-haired and white-eyed. Two Hyuuga stepped forward from the five-man squad, visibly older than the rest.

“Senju-sama, Uchiha-sama” one said, taking the lead. When he bowed, his scout followed suit. He was a tall man, maybe even taller than Hashirama, and his brown hair was swept back into a severe ponytail. As he watched, the bulging veins around his eyes relaxed and disappeared back under his skin. “I am Hyuuga Hotaru. Our scouts noticed you were coming and we were sent to escort you to our encampment.”

“Good to meet you, Hotaru-san.” Hashirama smiled. “Is Hitomi-san doing well?”

“Hyuuga-sama is well as can be expected. Will you follow us?”

“Lead the way.”

At Hotaru’s nod, the rest of his squad went forth. Hashirama and Madara followed them at a more sedate pace, not speaking up when they were led in a few circles before they actually approached the encampment. Considering Madara’s sensory abilities – and the fact that they were in a forest – made this a fairly moot point, but Hashirama didn’t fault them for doing what they could. The Hyuuga were skittish. This was expected.

When they came upon the encampment, however, Hashirama frowned. It was… not what he expected. The Hyuuga were a big clan. An old clan. The Senju had even clashed with them in the long past. Their doujutsu bred strong and they usually had the numbers to keep their territory. What he saw here, however, wasn’t that clan. The encampment was still sizable, sure, but it was smaller than what the Uchiha and Senju encampments had been like in the early days of the village. There were more guards posted than was efficient and there were no children in sight.

This wasn’t a clan that’d traveled out of curiosity. These were people on the run.

Tobirama and Toka’s initial estimates looked to be depressingly accurate. Hotaru led them through the encampment quickly, towards a larger tent that’d been set up on the eastern edge. As they went, Madara suddenly pressed up close to him.

“Something’s off with the chakra in there,” he muttered into his ear, his voice so low that his words were barely there, and then he was gone, walking ahead in a dark flurry of hair and mantle, leaving Hashirama behind with warm, prickling ears. He shook himself a little, reminded himself to focus. This… thing… with Madara, that could be handled later. Right now, this took priority.

Hotaru came to a stop outside the tent. He glanced back at them briefly, bowing his head a little. “Please wait,” then he disappeared inside. Hashirama caught the low murmur of voices before Hotaru reappeared. “Please, come in. Hyuuga-sama is ready to see you.”

His curiosity about why Hitomi didn’t come out to greet them was quickly explained as soon as he entered. The smell of infection hit him like a wave, thick enough that his stomach turned briefly. He resisted the urge to press his sleeve against his nose.

Hyuuga Hitomi sat inside the tent, clothed in the white yukata of the sick and dying. She looked older than he remembered her, with thick lines of gray shot through her brown hair, and her eyes were obscured by a thick band of bandages. She briefly dipped her head when they entered. From her side, a young Hyuuga clansman who must have been attending to her carefully edged out of sight. Next to her was another Hyuuga, another woman but much younger than Hitomi. She wasn’t anyone Hashirama recognized but she must’ve been important to be here.

“Senju. Uchiha. It’s been a while since our clans had a chance to meet outside of a battlefield.”

“Hitomi-san. You’re ill.”

“Thieves will be thieves,” she simply said. Hashirama grimaced.

It’s unconfirmed but some of them might have been picked up. For their eyes. We don’t know a lot but when we offered to help, they said they already had it handled and the eyes were safe again.

So this was the secret that the Hyuuga had been so nervous about. Their clan head lost her eyes to bloodline thieves. Who else had also lost their eyes? How many? When? To who? There were so many questions, so little time. Hashirama raised his hands a little. “I can heal you.”

“No need,” Hitomi said. She sat up laboriously. “Even when I had my eyes, I had a sickness of the bones. This is just speeding up the process. No, right now, let’s simply talk. Drink with me.”

The Hyuuga boy who’d been tending to her rose up and went to the corner. He pulled out a low table and sake cups, carefully and quietly arranging them. Once he was done, he retreated back to Hitomi’s side.

They shared a solemn drink first. Only when the last drop in their cups was drained did Madara finally speak.

“The Hyuuga are in danger.” Madara’s face was carefully blank. The lack of emotion made his stern face all the more severe. “I don’t think you would’ve come to us at all if you weren’t. It can’t just be thieves anymore. You know how to deal with those.”

For Hashirama, this was the first time that he saw this side of him. Oh, sure, they shared a few turns on the same side of the negotiating table – impossible not to when Konoha was their shared project. But even then, Madara had never been like this. He was completely expressionless, his chakra reigned in so tightly that the air around him was cold, as still as a hunting cat waiting for the right time to pounce. Seeing him like this, Hashirama could understand why even the allies of the Uchiha tread lightly. It was like looking into a cold fire.

“Blunt as ever, you Uchiha.” Hitomi chuckled. It was a sickly sound. “I assume you know that this isn’t the only village being made.”

“Clearly.”

“The clans in the north are building up. They have someone up there calling himself the Raikage or Kumokage or something similar. He wants to consolidate all the clans in Lightning, build a fighting force like there is in Fire. He also thinks that, since the Uchiha are already taken, his new village should also have a pet bloodline.”

Madara’s eyes narrowed dangerously. Hashirama put his hand on him before he said anything rash. Immediately, Madara went very still.

“We’re not recruiting with force. Every clan who comes to Konohagakure, comes willingly. If the Hyuuga need a place to go, they’re welcome with us.”

“Your first messengers were abundantly clear.” Hitomi gestured and the boy immediately refilled the cups again. “I won’t lie – we need allies. But that’s the word, isn’t it? Allies.”

Distrust was everywhere. Hashirama knew this intimately well. But sometimes, all that was necessary to dispel it was one gesture of good faith. “Not just allies,” he said. “A village. Somewhere where we’re not divided by clan lines anymore, but by common goals, shared beliefs. A place where shinobi don’t have to fight each anymore.”

“A lovely idea,” Hitomi replied. “Good words. Pretty thoughts. But ideas and words and thoughts aren’t good barter. Can’t eat them, can’t use them, and easy to forget. What I want to know is – what is Konoha willing to do for us?”

“There’s food, land, and safety,” Madara said. “What more can you need?”

“A guarantee.” Hitomi tilted her head a little. “Something that tells us you are earnest and this isn’t a trap.”

“What do the Hyuuga want?” Hashirama said baldly.

Hitomi was silent for a few moments. Even though she had no eyes, Hashirama had the peculiar feeling of being seen, something that reminded him of Madara or Tobirama whenever they read his chakra like a book. Was she a sensor too?

“...our clan has always been more traditional than most,” she said. “We believe stability. In solidity. When we want something, it has to be tangible. I understand that you, Senju-san, are married to the Uzumaki. A good clan. Powerful. Old. Good match. But you, Uchiha-san, you’re not.”

Hashirama blinked.

“You want me to marry into your clan?” Disbelief edged into Madara’s tone.

“Not marry in, no. That’d be unreasonable when you’re the clan head. But perhaps a marriage for an alliance, where the children can be divided up between our clans – that is something that makes us feel safe.”

There was a long, perilous silence. Hashirama glanced at Madara and suppressed a wince. That stare could’ve squeezed blood from stone.

“...this is new,” Madara finally said. His previous disbelief was wiped clean again, leaving his face as unreadable as the mountainside. “I’ll need time to consider this before I decide.”

“Understandable.”

“Do you already a match in mind?”

“My daughter.” For the first time since they came here, Hitomi acknowledged the other woman in the room. “Hisae. She’s not set to inherit, her older brother, Hiroshige, will. But she’s a good match.”

Madara looked at Hisae. In return, she lifted her bowed head and made eye contact with him. To her credit, she didn’t flinch.

She bore a resemblance to her mother – they shared the same steady eyes, small mouth, and pointed nose – a pretty woman. Or maybe girl. Nothing about her could be divined from her face and Hashirama couldn’t stop himself from examining her in closer detail. What was she thinking, sitting there, looking at the face of the man her mother proposed to become her husband? Was she afraid? Nervous? Or was she eager? Did she maybe like what she saw in Madara? He was a good-looking man, a powerful man. A good man. The kind of man that any kunoichi would be pleased to call her husband.

“As I said, I’ll need time.” Madara looked entirely too long at Hisae, his dark eyes unreadable, before he looked back at Hitomi. “And a conversation with Hisae-san. That is all I will say now.”

That wasn’t the answer that Hashirama expected. He pressed his tongue against the roof of his mouth to avoid saying anything untoward.

He’d hoped for a cordial denial but had been prepared for a blunt no. Definitely not… not a careful evasion. It wasn’t that he had no faith in Madara’s negotiating skills, or else he wouldn’t have brought him along, but this was just so... unlike Madara that his entire skull was left buzzing in the aftermath of that cool exchange, suddenly more awake and upright than he had been this entire time.

In all the years that Hashirama had known him, Madara had never expressed any kind of interest towards a woman. Not even as boys, back when that was something they talked about, had Madara breathed a word about a girl he liked. Or even what kind of girl he liked. Then during wartime, there’d been no time to discuss it. After the peace, Hashirama had just privately assumed that marriage wasn’t something Madara would ever do. There were some men like that, men who didn’t get married for any reason. They didn’t like marriage. Or they didn’t like women.

Sometimes, when he was alone and a little into his cups, Hashirama wondered if it was the latter; whether Madara specifically had no taste for women – or for people as a whole, in that way. Before, when they were talking, he could’ve asked. Now, after everything, it felt too fraught to risk.

Now, he would’ve gambled everything he owned just for a glimpse inside Madara’s head. When he looked at her, what was he thinking? Did he see just another shinobi with whom he might have to tie his life to? Or did he see someone he could like, someone he could even want? Someone to invite into his home, his bed, his life… someone who’d be allowed to learn his language.

Someone who would have claim to him.

I’ll need time to consider this before I decide. That wasn’t a no. An answer like that – it left enough space for a yes.

Chapter Text

“And they offered her in marriage? Just like that?”

It was a sunny day in Konoha, only tempered by the first biting wind of autumn. Tobirama’s attention was away from the paperwork in front of them, the current topic too interesting for anything else to divert him.

“That’s what I said.” Hashirama felt an uncharacteristic twinge of annoyance at his brother’s open curiosity. Was it all really that interesting? Especially for Tobirama? He flicked through the papers on his desk, wanting to do something but unwilling to actually start on the things in front of him.

“And he didn’t say no. Madara.”

“He said he’d think about it.”

Tobirama gave him a bland look. “That’s practically a yes from him.” As Hashirama watched, Tobirama set everything he’d been holding down and rested his elbows on his desk, his fingers folded together. “Hyuuga Hisae… I can’t say I met her. Or even know her. What was she like?”

“Is it really that important? We have other things to -”

“Figuring out who Madara’s potential wife could be is very important.”

“He hasn’t even said yes!”

Tobirama’s eyes narrowed. There was another faint, sweeping sensation over him again and Hashirama realized with faint dismay that his chakra had begun to leak. The desk was looking a little greenish. He pulled back and the wood became inert once more.

“I thought you of all people would be the most interested person in this.” His brother’s tone was faintly accusatory, though Hashirama wasn’t even sure of what he was being accused of.

“I told you – it was just a suggestion. You always said that we should negotiate down instead of giving into someone’s first offer, I don’t think it’d be even going through anyway -”

“Hyuuga Hisae,” Tobirama said again, cutting him off. “Hm. She’s Hitomi’s daughter? Must be Hiroshige’s sister then. Can’t be all that good at much if we haven’t heard of her, everyone with talent gets recognized sooner or later… not better than her brother either, or she’d be inheriting instead. She’s expendable, probably. Close enough to power to be important but not someone who’s irreplaceable.”

Hashirama gave Tobirama an appalled look.

“What? You know I’m right. If anyone’s marrying their daughter to Madara, that poor woman has to be made of iron or someone who doesn’t matter -”

“Tobirama.”

His voice came out sharper than Hashirama intended. It immediately made Tobirama stop, surprise flickering across his face before he regained his composure and sighed. A silent concession.

“The Hyuuga are still important.”

Concession apparently didn’t mean complete surrender. Hashirama looked down at the papers on his desk and willed them to immolate.

“The Uzumaki came in very useful when we were still at war with the Uchiha. Even if the Hyuuga now are on the back foot, I doubt it’d take them long to build back up once they have the stability to. Putting them in Uchiha’s corner would be a risky move.”

“We’re not enemies with them anymore.”

“I know. But allowing power blocs to form is a bad idea.”

“I’m not worried about any power blocs between the Uchiha and the Hyuuga. Madara isn’t going to marry that girl.”

“How are you so sure?” Tobirama challenged. “You said he seemed like he was considering it. Maybe he actually is. Maybe he’s even thinking about it right now. The two doujutsu clans of Fire coming together – that doesn’t seem too far-fetched.”

It was far-fetched in Hashirama’s opinion, and not because anything about politics or power blocs or bloodlines. It was far-fetched because this was Madara they were talking about. Madara didn’t do things like organize politically advantageous marriages. He didn’t build power blocs. Madara hated politics, hated deception, and hated inconsistency, and he wasn’t going to change everything Hashirama knew about him just because Hyuuga Hitomi offered her daughter’s hand to him in marriage.

Hashirama might’ve been uncertain about many things about his friend, but this? This, he wasn’t wrong about. Madara would never get married for power.

But he could marry for love, whispered a little voice inside him. And that was, ultimately, what made him hesitate, because that voice wasn’t wrong. If there was ever any reason that’d make the proud, solitary patriarch of the Uchiha let someone in, it’d be love.

But he couldn’t possibly love the Hyuuga girl, right? Maybe Hashirama was just listening to Tobirama too much, and letting his brother’s analyses overcome what he already knew about him. Madara had–what, seen her for the first time ever in that meeting? And sure, she’d been a pretty girl from a frank, objective viewpoint but Madara wasn’t the type of man who was swayed by appearances. He cared about action. About deeds. A no-name kunoichi could never catch his eye.

As soon as he thought that, a wave of shame washed over him. God. He was getting too deep into this.

“You know what?” Hashirama said abruptly. “I need a drink.”

Tobirama frowned. Hashirama spoke before he could say anything. “We’re ahead of the paperwork. The Hyuuga matter is up to Madara. I already spoke to Sarutobi-san and Shimura-san and I’m waiting on them to speak to their retainers. Come on, Tobirama – we don’t really need to sit here for the rest of today. Join me for a drink. It’s been too long.”

“This is irresponsible,” Tobirama said but he didn’t argue when Hashirama dragged him down to one of the izakaya that’d opened recently. They’d both dressed down to be more discreet but they weren’t exactly the plainest faces around. The owner bowed abortively until Hashirama waved him off with a laugh.

By the time they found a booth, the chatter in the room returned to its normal level. The owner brought them sake and cups and Hashirama stopped him before he poured for them. “It’s alright. We’re just here to drink!”

As the man left, Hashirama poured a cup for himself and Tobirama and immediately drained his in one go. At his egging, Tobirama also drank his in one gulp.

The inside of the izakaya was indistinguishable from the places that Hashirama used to visit whenever the Senju stopped by a town in between missions. The wood wasn’t as old and some of the furniture was mismatched but that just added to its character. Give this place a couple more Saturday nights and it’d be just as weathered and greasy as the rest of its kin.

“I want to do this more,” Hashirama said, his eyes glittering from the bar’s lights. “Administering the village is good and all – but there’s nothing like really going in and seeing what we’re building. All of this didn’t even exist last year. Now? We have shinobi who would’ve called each other enemies drinking side-by-side.”

“It’s good,” Tobirama said. He looked around them and despite his initial reluctance, Hashirama could feel him beginning to relax a little. Some of the tension in his shoulders left. “It’s… different. But good. All thanks to you, anija.”

“Not just me,” Hashirama immediately said. “It’s thanks to Madara too.”

“If you say so,” Tobirama shrugged, not arguing for once. He sipped from his cup again, watching the crowd. Hashirama watched him, unable to stop his smile. Here was his little brother, sitting in a bar with him, the two of them just enjoying a drink together as family. They weren’t in armor, they weren’t planning their next ambush, they could just… sit. And be.

Hashirama didn’t think about his other brothers that often nowadays. Their deaths had hurt but it’d been a long time. But sometimes, during moments like these, he couldn’t help but wish that maybe they could’ve had a chance to sit here and drink with them. Kawarama would’ve sat on his side, Itama on Tobirama’s side. Maybe they would’ve grown up to be as tall and broad as the two of them. Maybe they wouldn’t even be here at all but at the bar, crammed in with dozens of shinobi from other clans, drinking and laughing.

Maybe Izuna would’ve been right there with them, shoulder-to-shoulder with Itama, his face pink from sake, exactly like Madara.

Thinking about Izuna brought a chill to his heart. Hashirama could sit here, drinking with his brother, thinking about how grateful he was to have Tobirama left after everything, but Madara was alone. He had no brothers, no father, no mother – no one could claim to have been right there with him when he was growing up.

The space next to Hashirama suddenly felt empty. It wasn’t natural emptiness where there simply was a space waiting to be filled; instead, it was a graceless void, carved out by violence. The loss hooked itself into him and refused to be ignored. Whenever Hashirama tried to drink a little more or talk to Tobirama, he couldn’t shake the feeling that he was missing a third presence. He felt like there should be someone there, someone like a warm fire and the promise of greatness.

More than anything, Hashirama was struck by the inexplicable wish that he could lean back and find Madara smiling above him.

 


 

Hashirama went home drunk, supported by Tobirama. It wasn’t a merry kind of drunkenness either. It was reckless and out of shape, a sort of inebriation that men picked because all the other options were too hard to risk.

It was a shameful state to go home in but Tobirama stepped up to handle Mito, leaving Hashirama to crawl somewhere dark in relative safety.

In his bleary state, he watched the world go by without registering it much. Shadows played on the screen walls; Tobirama walking around, his mouth moving as he talked; Mito, holding onto a little lantern, one hand holding her yukata shut. His wife and brother only spoke a little before Tobirama bowed and left, leaving Mito’s imperial shadow behind.

She didn’t immediately go back to bed. Hashirama watched her linger, might’ve heard a kettle being heated up. These details escaped his mind. The only thing he could actually pay attention to was her shadow.

When she walked a certain way and the lantern went at an angle, she looked bigger than she was. Mito was no small woman, not by any means, but she looked even bigger when her shadow was stretched out. It made it seem almost like there was a man padding around Hashirama’s house, making tea and stepping lightly to not disturb him.

Mito had long hair when she didn’t put it up in buns , Hashirama thought as his blinks got longer and longer. It would look nicer if it were even longer . She looked her best when she let them down and her red hair curled and waved, almost as thick as a mane. Also if, perhaps, she were a little taller and a little thicker around the shoulders. If her hair was darker and her face was sharper. If maybe she looked more like Madara.

Hashirama closed his eyes and slept.

 


 

Hashirama woke up the next morning to heavy steps inside his house. He didn’t tense. In a shinobi village, heavy steps were signs of peace, saying: I am here. Know me.

He got up slowly, lacking a hangover but somehow still woozy. He could hear voices in the other rooms. Instead of going closer to check, Hashirama crawled towards his bedroom to find something else to wear.

Once he was fit for human company, he emerged.

When he saw Madara in his kitchen, he stopped short.

It wasn’t his imagination. That was Madara in his kitchen, smoky chakra and all, sitting down sharing tea with Mito. They both glanced at him briefly before sharing a glance and stopping whatever they’d been saying before he came in.

“There’s breakfast for you,” Mito said.

“Madara – I didn’t know you were here. If I had, I’d -”

“It’s alright. I’m leaving anyway.” Madara got up. His chakra was now so tightly reigned in that Hashirama couldn’t feel him anymore. The urge to walk over to him and tell him to stay raised its head, but Madara left before he could say anything.

Numbly, Hashirama sat down where he had been. A part of him wanted to press his hand on the wooden floor and find the leftover body heat of him.

“Tobirama said you could take your time,” Mito said. Hashirama looked up at her. “He went in early. You can take over in the afternoon.”

“Ah… good. That’s good.”

Mito looked at him. “Is something wrong?”

“No. I’m just. Tired. That’s all.”

Mito didn’t look convinced but she didn’t pry further. Hashirama wanted to ask her what she and Madara had been talking about. In all the time that Mito had been in this village, she and Madara never had a civil conversation. From the instant that Madara saw her, he’d radiated resentment so forceful that even Hashirama had felt it. Mito certainly had. She’d never stayed in a room alone with him after that first sour meeting. And now they were talking?

“What’s there to eat?” he asked before his urge to know overtook him.

“I’ll bring it over.”

Hashirama stared at the table once she rose up to bring breakfast. Madara’s teacup was where it was abandoned, still half full. He could see a faint imprint around the edge, molded in the shape of his lips. Without thinking, Hashirama grabbed the cup and drained the cooling tea, pressing his mouth to the same place that Madara’s had been.

“Here.” Mito came back bearing a wooden tray. She set it down in front of him. She didn’t seem to notice the empty cup that Hashirama was holding or, if she did, she didn’t comment.

“Thank you.”

Hashirama ate smoked fish with miso soup without tasting any of it. Mito sat across from him, drinking tea, and they didn’t speak. It wasn’t a negative silence but it wasn’t a comfortable one either, the two of them surely thinking something but not saying it out loud.

No matter how much he tried, Hashirama couldn’t stop himself from looking at that teacup again. It was just an ordinary ceramic cup, identical to the dozens in the cupboards, but now it had another imprint on the edge. His, overlaid onto Madara’s.

Thinking about Madara’s mouth inevitably lead him back to that night, to that bright burst of violence and pain, and being kissed like it was a fight. He resisted the urge to touch his lip in front of Mito. He already knew it’d healed without any complications. The spot where Madara’s teeth ripped into him was smooth and unblemished, the evidence of his hard grip and hot breath gone erased by his healing.

“You must be wondering why Madara was here.”

Hashirama’s daze was broken by Mito’s voice. He blinked. “If you don’t want to tell me, it’s fine.”

“No, it’s alright. He was just asking me about our marriage.”

“He was?” Hashirama didn’t have a hangover but his guts still squirmed uneasily at that.

“He wanted to know how it was arranged. What the Senju gave, what the Uzumaki gave, how we managed it. Simple things.” Mito refilled her teacup. Even though Mito didn’t exercise the same kind of tight control that Madara did, her face was unreadable, the glassy ocean to Madara’s cold fire. “Toka told me that there were negotiations with the Hyuuga clan, but I didn’t actually expect him to go that far. He doesn’t seem the type, right?”

Hashirama tried not to gape. That was what Madara came here for? Marriage advice? He could’ve asked me, whispered a wounded voice in him, bracketed by another that said Why would Madara ask for advice when he’s not going to get married?

“What did you tell him?” he asked.

“I told him that my father discussed it with you. That there were no formal exchanges of goods but certain… expectations, as it usually is, between our clans. And that if he was really thinking about arranging this marriage between himself and that Hyuuga, that he shouldn’t really do it the same way we did, unless the Hyuuga have the same history of inter-marriage with the Uchiha that the Senju and Uzumaki do. I don’t think he’ll actually go ahead with it.”

“You don’t?”

“No. Do you?”

Hashirama pursed his lips a little before confessing. “… I’m not sure.”

Mito tilted her head a little. “I don’t think he’s going to get married. The Hyuuga will retract their offer before it ever goes that far.”

That made Hashirama sit up. “What do you mean?”

“This is their first offer, right? Obviously, you want to set a high negotiating rate so even if you go down, they still get what they want. So – marriage. The Uchiha clan head for a daughter isn’t a bad starter, especially with Madara’s reputation.” Mito smiled a little. “But it’s Madara.”

Hashirama immediately felt a little defensive. “Madara would be a good choice for anyone.”

“The Hyuuga have a certain… practice… in their family. Long, old tradition. The minute Madara hears of it, he won’t ever abide it.”

“You mean the…?”

“The Branch family,” Mito confirmed. She took another sip. “You can’t tell me that Madara wouldn’t hate it.”

“He would.” Madara believed in justice ferociously. Something like the Branch family practice… God, he’d probably gnaw on his own liver before he’d accept it. Or marry into it. A wave of relief surged over Hashirama the more he thought about it. Of course the Hyuuga would make a big demand so when Konoha negotiated, they could go smaller without losing out. And of course, Madara would never take a Hyuuga wife if he disagreed with her principles. He just wasn’t the kind of man who ever compromised what he believed in, not even if it meant he lost out.

“So Madara just has to negotiate down,” Hashirama said brightly, perking up. The melancholy that’d seized him the whole morning drained in seconds. “The marriage was never going to happen.”

“Oh, definitely.” Mito shrugged. “Plus Madara would never marry a woman.”

That made Hashirama pause. “Ah?”

“Oh please. I know you know this.” Mito went to refill her cup and frowned when the teapot came out empty. “I’ve never met a man so obviously only interested in other men.”

Chapter Text

Hashirama had been a few weeks shy of turning fifteen when he first noticed Madara staring at him. It hadn’t been his usual scheming stare, the one that meant he was planning something mischievous. It wasn’t his alert-to-the-world look or his wary face either. It was a look that he never saw before.

“Is there something on my face?”

Madara jerked as if struck. “No.” He shook himself a little. “No, why?”

“You were looking.”

“No, I wasn’t.”

“You were!”

“I wasn’t!”

That quickly devolved into a wrestling match that became a proper spar and Hashirama, sweaty and breathless, painlessly forgot about the whole affair.

Why he was remembering it now as a grown man wasn’t a question he could even begin to answer. Hashirama leaned back in his chair, examining the whorls in the wooden ceiling, as he tried to summon those old, old memories back to him. Just for this, he could’ve happily traded his Mokuton for a Sharingan; everything he tried to recall came back hazy, uncertain in the undefined recesses of his thoughts. Had Madara really been looking that long? Had that glitter in his eyes just been the sun or something else?

“Damn,” Hashirama muttered to himself. He covered his eyes with his arm. “Damn. Damn.”

Why was he trying so hard anyway? Why did that memory feel so important?

He pressed his arm down against his eyes. What had Mito said? ‘ I’ve never met a man so obviously only interested in other men’ ?

Was it that obvious? Hashirama had never really suspected it until certain facts about Madara came together. But Mito hadn’t even known Madara that long and she’d figured him out. What crucial thing had she seen in Madara that told her about something so intimate, so personal? And why hadn’t Hashirama seen it too?

He wished he’d thought to ask her. Then, he’d just gone quiet, as had Mito, the two of them taken by their thoughts again.

“Hey.”

Hashirama lifted his arm to see his cousin, Toka, perched on the window of his office. She unfolded herself, her armor softly clinking. “You’re back quick.”

“The Hyuuga weren’t that far.”

Hashirama straightened. “They’re moving towards Konoha?”

“Turns out that they spoke to Madara yesterday and he convinced them to come to the village. You didn’t know?” Toka’s wry look dropped, her eyes narrowing. “If he’s negotiating with them without telling you -”

“No! No, that’s not what I meant. I just thought that they wouldn’t be moving so soon.” The lie was thoughtless. Hashirama was just so used to defending Madara from his clan that he didn’t even think about covering for him again, no matter how pointless it was now that they had peace.

“Well, they are. They’re not far out from Konoha now and they’ll probably be at the gates by sundown. I assume they’re gonna be coming in?”

“Absolutely.”

Toka sighed and leaned against the wall. She was, like most Senju were, a tall woman. Her top knot added to her height. She’d been one of the few kids who’d been exactly of age with Hashirama and they’d been close for a little while, back when age was something that mattered, right up until Toka caught wind of her parents discussing potential marriage matches with Butsuma. They’d drifted apart afterward, both of them not particularly interested in encouraging thoughts in that direction, and now they were comfortable in their relationship as clan head and subordinate first, cousins second. 

Toka crossed her arms. “So I heard that Uchiha Madara is going to marry a Hyuuga.”

Hashirama opened one of his desk drawers and pulled out one of his bonsai projects in lieu of answering. He began to trim its tiny branches.

“And I heard that she is supposed to be a real looker.”

Hashirama snipped a little branch off, then winced. He shouldn’t have done that one. Now the whole thing was going to be lopsided. Toka came closer.

“I saw her for a little bit. She’s pretty.” Toka’s elbows came to a rest on the corner of his desk. “I wouldn’t say no if the Hyuuga offered her to me for a wife.”

Hashirama nearly snipped off another wrong branch before he finally admitted defeat. He set his trimming shears down. “Is there a point to this?” he asked, glancing at Toka’s inquisitive face.

“Well, I’d thought that you of all people would be the one who knows the best. I asked Mito and she wouldn’t tell me anything concrete.”

“You could ask Madara.”

“And what, get burned? No thanks. Just tell me.”

“Madara isn’t getting married,” Hashirama said firmly. He touched the base of the bonsai tree and regrew the branch he’d lopped off mistakenly. It was cheating, doing it this way, but he thought he was warranted one do-over since he’d been distracted. “It was just a first-time offer from them. We’re going to negotiate down, it won’t be a big deal. Everyone gets marriage offers. Remember how many I got?”

“Oh, yeah.” Toka’s face twisted. “I can’t believe anyone is that eager to marry you.”

“Maybe I should’ve made Tobirama become clan head so he got to deal with all those contracts instead.”

Toka smirked. “You could just give them to me.”

“And risk growing your harem? Dangerous thoughts.”

Toka laughed and rose up to her full height. “I guess I’ll have to do it my way then. Did you know I met this one Uchiha girl last night? I couldn’t tell if she hated me or wanted to sleep with me, it was confusing as hell. Especially since I couldn’t tell the same thing. These Uchiha…” She shook her head a little. “Confusing little bunch, aren’t they?”

With that, she sauntered out of his office with a wave and a promise to see Mito. Hashirama let her go, picking the side of his thumb thoughtfully. He didn’t know what Madara was doing. Normally, this didn’t bother him. A lot of people didn’t know what Madara was doing. But this time, this whole marriage affair – he just couldn’t get it out of his head.

 


 

Hashirama spent the rest of his week trying to convince himself that Mito was right. He tried to push it out of his head, dredging up all kinds of work that might distract him, but he eventually circled back to right where he started; scribbling ideas for the new proposal he could bring to the Hyuuga. It wasn’t strictly about Madara, sure, but it was definitely tangential enough that he felt vaguely guilty.

“Land,” he muttered. The Hyuuga would need land to settle into and there was a surplus of it. Hell, they could have the whole west side of the forest if they wanted, it was no concern. And since winter was coming, they’d need food. The Senju had ample food provisions ready for the winter, even accounting for the additional demand of multiple clans. As for security – they were worried about the village in Cloud, right? Maybe Hashirama could meet their leader, establish communications, and tell them the Hyuuga were off-limits now. All of it came easily when Madara might marry wasn’t making his stomach knot up.

As Hashirama pondered what else could go on the list (did the Hyuuga want anything particular grown for them?), he heard heavy steps from the floor below. Normally, noise from downstairs didn’t come up to his office but this one was different. Madara had a particular way of walking, a deliberate and thumping way, that announced his presence a full minute before he actually arrived. He could do the same thing with his chakra, make it bloom so fiercely that everyone on the battlefield feels the hot, dry wind, but this was different. They were different.

Hashirama tracked it with one ear, listened to Madara skip over the one bad step on the stairs, march up to his door – thump, thump, thump bam . He opened the door. Hashirama automatically grabbed a paper before it fluttered away.

“One of the chuunin told me you were available.”

“I am.” Hashirama perked up eagerly. “What is it?”

“I talked to the Hyuuga.” The door swung wider, revealing more of Madara. He wasn’t wearing his mantle. Instead, he was dressed in a fine kimono that stretched across his shoulders, his hair tied up and curling around his neck. It all suited him unnervingly well.

Hashirama’s mouth went a little dry. Madara was still talking.

“-they agreed to my terms but the finer details haven’t been set down yet.” Madara put his hands on his hips. “Are you listening?”

Hashirama nodded.

“I even spoke to her.”

“Her?” He swallowed and clasped his hands so his fingers would stop buzzing. He wanted to walk over to Madara, grab his shoulder, and hold him still so the silk wouldn’t move over his hips like… like that. What color was it? It wasn’t quite red, nor was it violet. It was something in the middle, like the color of good wine.

“The girl,” Madara said, sounding annoyed. “It was as I expected.”

“Was it?”

He dug his nails into his hands and put a valiant effort into looking away. On his visual journey to safer waters, something worse ambushed him. The white triangle of Madara’s chest, scarred, muscled, netted him like a fish.

Oh god. The voice in his head sounded as dazed as Hashirama felt. Oh fuck.

“Mito’s advice was very helpful.”

“Right.”

“You’re not listening,” Madara accused.

“I’m sorry,” Hashirama said, because he really was. He was happy that Madara was finally visiting him again. He definitely wasn’t losing his mind over the fit of Madara’s kimono. “I was just. Your kimono.”

Good job.

“This?” Madara looked down at it scathingly. “Hikaku thinks the Hyuuga will be more receptive if I wore something different. At least it’s not mine.”

So that nixed his vague ideas about Madara’s closet and its contents. “Were the Hyuuga more receptive?”

“They served better tea than last time.” Madara shrugged. Hashirama followed the rise and fall of his collarbones. “What did you do?”

“I...” Hashirama squeezed life back into his fingers. “I thought about setting some incentives for the Hyuuga actually, since we should probably negotiate down from their initial offer-”

“That isn’t necessary anymore.” Madara crossed his arms. His biceps bulged. “The Hyuuga have promised half their fighting forces to the village and they have some interesting ideas about how they can help with the water aquifer. The wedding will be in a month. I said it should be sooner but they insisted they need the extra time. You’re invited, obviously.”

Hashirama had the distinct impression that Madara just had a whole conversation without him. “...Wedding?”

“Traditional.” Madara waved his hand, as if this whole thing was just a fly he wanted to shake away. “I think it would be a good time to get all the clan heads together, put their attention to something that isn’t politics. The Hyuuga intend to foot the majority of the expenses, but I think you could-”

“What,” Hashirama loudly cut him off, “are you talking about?”

For the first time since Madara got here, he looked at him – as in, actually looked at him, not just at the space over his left shoulder. He looked nonchalant but there was something else lurking in there, something behind the set of his dark eyes.

“My wedding,” Madara said.

“To who?” Hashirama said.

“The girl. The Hyuuga. You were there with me.”

“You didn’t say you would marry her.”

“I said I’d think about it.”

“That isn’t a yes!”

“What else were you expecting?” Madara snapped. “It was a good idea, even your brother could see that.”

“But why would you agree?”

“Why wouldn’t I?” Madara peered at him, his eyes narrowed, and this was all going bad, going in directions Hashirama hadn’t wanted it to go in. He wanted to say something to defuse the situation but he couldn’t seem to find the right words for it. Maybe he didn’t want to defuse this at all. He was… he was just… gods, was he angry ?

Angry at Madara ?

“We were going to negotiate down, it was a rash move for you to just -”

“It was my offer to negotiate.” Madara’s mouth was just a thin line now, a bloodless slash of restrained fury. “Don’t you understand that? It was my own damn marriage. I brought you along, that should be enough for you.”

“I didn’t expect you to actually agree!” Hashirama stood up. His chair screeched back. His entire body was buzzing again, the wood under his hands growing warm, and for once, Hashirama didn’t pay it mind. “Tobirama didn’t, I didn’t, Mito even didn’t -”

“Oh, Mito didn’t, did she.” Madara sneered. It was an ugly expression for his handsome face. It made him cold and unwelcoming, a visit backward in time. “Well, maybe, you should ask me instead of asking her .”

“Do you think you have to?” Hashirama said. He was grasping at straws. “You don’t! There’s plenty to discuss with the Hyuuga, you don’t need to do this to yourself. I’m sure we could reach some kind of accord with them.”

Madara stared at him. His face twisted, a hot spitfire of anger simmering in his eyes, before cooling down to banked coals. “You don’t get it, do you?”

The disappointment hurt worse than Madara’s anger. Hashirama was capable of enduring all his fires, all his heat, but he’d never learned to cope with Madara’s disappointment before.

“What’s there to get?” he asked him. Pleaded. I don’t understand. Please, Madara. Please.

“You’re a married man, Hashirama.” Madara walked closer to him. He pressed the tips of his fingers on his desk and leaned in, his hair whispering over his silk shoulders. “That’s that. I thought that maybe… well, it’s over, isn’t it? You and I. You’ve gone ahead without me."

Madara’s fingers slid over the desk. Hashirama felt the scrape of his nails over every groove in the wood. When he touched his hand, he felt both hot and cold. The hairs on the back of his neck rose.

“Senju Mito is your wife. And I can’t stay waiting."

Madara curled their fingers together. Hashirama looked down at their interlinked fingers, then at Madara’s face. He didn’t look so angry anymore. Just resigned and rueful, the creases in the corners of his eyes too deep for his age. Hashirama gently pulled his hand a little closer. When he cupped his cheek, Madara didn’t move.

“It was necessary,” Hashirama said. His voice was hoarse.

“I suppose.” Madara leaned into his touch. Hashirama’s gut twisted harshly. “But that doesn’t change reality.”

“Madara, I -”

“Hashirama.”

The seriousness in his voice made him stop talking. Hashirama watched, something too vast for words tossing and turning within him, as Madara turned his head a fraction and kissed the inside of his palm. His lips were soft, just the tiniest bit wet, as if Madara had licked them before coming in, and Hashirama couldn’t stop even if he wanted to as he tilted Madara’s chin and kissed him.

There was no pain. There was no blood. It was just Madara opening his mouth to let him in and Hashirama grabbing his shoulder, holding him tightly, terrified of the idea that he might just leave. Madara was his friend, his best friend, he’d swear it until his tongue went bloody, but he was something more that he was still too afraid to look in the eye.

Madara curled his hand over the back of his neck. He always ran hot but now he felt scorching, his palms leaving brands wherever they went. Hashirama wanted to ask him, burn me, make it forever, but he held his tongue until Madara pulled back, his mouth warm and red, the Sharingan spinning like pinwheels.

“I-” he began, but Madara cut him off. Again. He was doing that more and more, wasn’t he?

“Don’t talk,” he murmured. “Not yet.”

I want to, Hashirama wanted to say. I want to tell you so much. Hashirama wanted nothing more than to hold Madara by his hips until he could find the right words for it but Madara was right, because the world didn’t stop turning for them. It all just kept going and going, forward and forward, and Hashirama was feeling increasingly left behind, snatching at things that didn’t want to be held.

“Won’t you wait?” he pleaded.

“Can I?” Madara asked in return.

Yes, you can, whispered a weak voice inside of him, but even Hashirama knew that wasn’t fair.

Madara let go first. When Hashirama didn’t release him, Madara pulled his hands off. Both of them didn’t make eye contact with each other as Madara took a step back, his hands now tightly clasped behind his back, and quietly said, “A month. That’s how long you have.”

Hashirama didn’t reply, even as Madara left and closed the door behind him.

 


 

He didn’t know what possessed him when he went down to the Hyuuga camp that was slowly filtering inside of Konoha’s walls. He still couldn’t say by the time he was sitting in front of Hyuuga Hisae, the woman who would be Madara’s wife.

And I heard that she is supposed to be a real looker, Toka chuckled. I don’t think he’s going to get married , Mito shrugged.

“I’m honored by your visit, Hokage-sama,” Hisae said, dipping her head. She had long brown hair that’d been combed smooth and bound back by a long white ribbon. Her hands were thin and her fingers long, white as lily petals. Hashirama could imagine the kind of children she’d give Madara: beautiful and strong and perfect.

Did Madara want children? Come to think of it, Hashirama never asked. Such thoughts hadn’t been on their minds when they were boys. Now, he could only add it to the growing pile of things he wished he’d asked.

“We don’t need to be so formal, Hisae-san,” Hashirama smiled back. “You’re going to marry Madara and I think of him as a brother. You’ll practically be my sister.”

“That’s very kind of you,” she said. Her mouth moved but her eyes did not.

“I was thinking of visiting before. And with the recent news, I finally have an excuse to swing by. I hope your clan’s finding the move comfortable?”

“Oh, very. Konohagakure has been very welcoming to us, and everyone has been very kind. My mother was very pleased.”

“And you? Were you pleased?”

“Perfectly,” she said. Her mouth tilted up into a dollish smile. “Marrying Uchiha-sama will be a deep honor.”

Hashirama’s palms itched. He’d always hated this kind of formality. Tobirama was so much better at it, sitting with a straight back in a stuffy room, drinking tea and making subtle commentary, while Hashirama had always wanted to cut to the heart of the matter, formality be damned.

“You know, I wasn’t there when Madara confirmed. I wish I was – it really would’ve been something to see!” he laughed as Hisae stared at him. “I guess he just talked to Hitomi-san?”

“Ah, no, actually. We discussed it ourselves and I agreed. I only told my mother later.”

Oh. That was new. Hashirama couldn’t explain the spike of nervous energy that shot through him at that. A private conversation sounded a lot more intimate than a negotiated marriage alliance.

“I hope he didn’t offend you,” Hashirama said. Immediately, he regretted it. He prayed Madara would never hear wind of this.

“Not at all. Uchiha-sama was very courteous throughout our conversation.” Hisae tilted her head. “Did you think he would offend me?”

“No, of course not. I just understand that his reputation can precede him a little.”

“Ah, but you have a reputation too, Hokage-sama. The God of Shinobi , was it? It’s quite a fearsome moniker. But I think that both of you prove to be much more than mere reputations. Uchiha-sama, in particular, I thought, seemed to represented rather unfairly. But I guess that it the lot of our clans, being doujutsu clans.”

Hashirama blinked. He rather had the feeling that he’d pulled on a tripwire he hadn’t known existed. “We don’t discriminate against bloodlines here,” he said, cautious.

“It’s not discrimination,” Hisae said. “But it’s… ah, how should I put it… a certain attitude, perhaps, towards bloodlines. It’s not so rare, Hokage-sama, for shinobi to have a reaction to them. Where I come from, the Byakugan is known for being a blind man’s eyes – because they get taken so often, you see.”

Hashirama remembered Hitomi and the bandages wrapped around her head. Blind man’s eyes . What a cruel nickname.

“... I remember Hitomi-san asking for insurance,” he said. “Is that the point of this? Insurance?”

“It wasn’t too long ago that the Uchiha and the Senju were enemies,” she said. “I will not tempt the gods by speaking of darker possibilities, but I think we both understand the precautions we’re taking by acknowledging that.”

“You think this village won’t last.”

“I did not say that.”

“You think it’s possible.”

“You said it, Hokage-sama, and not me.” Hisae folded her sleeves so they laid on her lap symmetrically. “I don’t want to spoil the happiness that will come in a month, so I think a conversation like this is out of place, but-”

“Hisae-san,” Hashirama cut in insistently, “that’s not what I came to talk to you about.”

It was politics all over again. Always politics, here and there, insinuations about what could happen, about potential enemies, but that wasn’t the point of this conversation.

“What I wanted to ask you,” he said, “was if you’re going to marry Madara just for politics.”

Her brows knitted. For the first time during their entire conversation, Hisae’s facade slipped an inch. Her eyes darted to the corners of the room before she leaned in, frowning a little. “I’m… sorry?”

“Can you really just marry him for something that might happen? Doesn’t that seem unfair to you? Don’t you want to marry someone you actually know?”

“We have a month to know each other.”

“It’s only a month. Why not wait a little? Make sure that you two are actually compatible, just so you’re not making a mistake.”

“But Hokage-sama,” Hisae said, “I do like Uchiha-sama.”

“What?”

“Don’t misunderstand. Part of this is politics, most assuredly so. But Uchiha-sama himself is…” Hisae pulled out her fan from her sleeve began to fan herself. Her mask was freezing back into place but behind her waving fan, Hashirama could see a tiny smile that looked almost genuine. Like this, he could actually see what Toka was talking about – Hyuuga Hisae, behind the ice, was truly lovely.

“I’ve never met a man like him before,” she said. “And at first, I was afraid, but I’m not anymore. Because above all else... Uchiha-sama is a very kind man.”

Chapter Text

“Uchiha-sama.”

Hisae no longer bowed, but she was still carefully formal. Madara didn’t turn. After a beat, she walked up to him.

“Hokage-sama spoke to me earlier.”

“Did he.” Madara blew out a winding column of blue smoke. It curled around the morning breeze, then faded. “Did you tell him anything?”

“I did not.”

“Good.”

He’d been given a small space behind his house to “build a garden”, in Hashirama’s words, but he’d never had the time for it. It was useless anyway, since Madara’s fingers were more red than green. Now, however, there was something growing. It must’ve been a seed from somewhere carried in on the wind. A bush, if he had to guess. He stared at it as he smoked, trying to picture it fully-grown.

“So… a month.” He heard Hisae sit down. “It’s happening very soon. I… I don’t feel like I have thanked you enough.”

“You don’t need to.”

Maybe it was a camellia bush. Madara had seen Hashirama growing a few around the Hokage tower. It was a shame, really, that it was growing now – this autumn was unusually warm, extending the false summer by a few more weeks, but it would inevitably die when winter came. False hopes, growing right here in his garden.

“Uchiha Hisae – it has a nice sound to it.” He heard her move. She came closer, until he could feel her breath on the back of his neck. “I know that you are doing this because you pity me, but I meant what I said. I can be a good wife to you.”

She touched him. Her hands slid over his back, then down his sides. Madara’s grip on his pipe tightened. “I won’t lie – I was a little afraid when I first met you. You seemed so stern. But since we have this month before we are married, maybe we could know each other, make it easier for both of us -”

Madara grabbed her hands, stopping them. “Let go,” he said.

She did. “... I’m sorry.”

“I never intended to get married,” Madara told her. He tapped out the ash from his pipe. “The reasons why have not changed.”

“You don’t like women, do you?”

Madara paused. Hisae took the opportunity to scoot up next to him. Her face was peaceable despite his rejection, and her hands were primly folded in her lap. “You’re a man who likes other men,” she said.

He examined her expression for any disgust. “So I am.”

To his surprise, she just smiled. It was tinged with a trace of sadness. “Ah. That does explain it. I’d hoped otherwise, that maybe I could…” she trailed, shrugging mildly. “We won’t consummate, will we?”

“I don’t think so, no.”

Hisae was silent, her eyes roving over Madara’s face, then she laughed a little. “I really am placing a burden on you, aren’t I? Begging you to marry me, a man who has no interest in women. I am sorry for that. If I could change that, I would.”

“Why haven’t you?” Madara rubbed his thumb over his pipe, tracing the fan carved into the wood. “The Caged Bird seal – it’s disgusting. How long have you known?”

“Hiroshige and I were born two years apart. Mother wanted to see which one of us would be stronger. Normally, siblings from the Main family aren’t sealed, but when mother was young, there was a fight over who would inherit. She doesn’t want that to repeat again.”

“So she’s going to seal you.”

“Sacrifices are always made.” Hisae’s laugh turned bitter. “Though it seems it’s usually other people making the sacrifices.”

“So why hasn’t your clan stopped doing it? The Branch family has even more people than the Main, right? There’s enough of you to fight.”

Hisae looked down at her hands. She had fine hands, he noticed. Finer hands than a kunoichi really ought to have. Weak , hissed a cruel part of him.

“The Caged Bird,” she said, “isn’t just a seal. It’s so much more – it’s a prison. If you live inside it long enough, then it becomes all you ever know. The Branch family doesn’t fight. They never do, even when they should. It’s like – it’s like they forgot how to.”

Hisae clenched her fists and looked at him. Madara wanted to look away from her brittle expression. “This world is divided in half,” she said. “There are the strong, and then there are the weak. I… I was not born strong. I tried to change this. I wanted to be strong. I wanted to win.” Her fists tightened further, her knuckles growing white. “But I’m not strong. No matter how hard I try, there’s a difference between me and Hiro, one I just can’t cross. I hate it. I hate it. I knew what was going to happen years ago and I just… I just…”

She exhaled harshly. “I wanted to die. I thought about dying. But now, I know – I want to live . Even if I have to beg, even if I have to crawl, I want to live.”

 


 

“I will not marry you.”

Today, Hisae was in a demure lavender kimono, her hair pulled back by a painted comb. When he spoke, she clenched her hands into fists on her lap and her shoulders pulled tight, like piano wire. Though her face was angled down, he saw her mouth pinch.

“Tell your mother that Konoha will negotiate over land and supplies, not marriages.”

Hisae said nothing. Madara waited.

“... am I… not pleasing?” she asked, her voice so soft that he struggled to catch it.

“This isn’t personal.”

“Uchiha-sama, I -” she looked up. Her eyes were shiny with unshed tears. “- I don’t know where I failed, but please, give me another chance. I will be a good wife to you.”

Madara was unmoved. “Land,” he said again, “and supplies. Your clan is not in a position where you can turn that down.”

Her lips wobbled. When it looked like she might cry, Madara sighed and stood up. “Never mind, I’ll talk to Hitomi-san myself. You can stay here.”

“Please!” she cried, throwing herself down. Madara lurched back, shocked. Hisae flung herself into a peasant’s bow, her arms thrown out and her forehead on the tatami, “Please, Uchiha-sama, please marry me!”

“Stop.” Madara forced himself to relax but a muscle in his jaw jumped.

“I will be a good wife, I promise! I will give you everything you could ever want, anything at all! You will be my lord, my master, please just…!” She grabbed his ankle, sobbing, but Madara pulled away. He’d expected bargaining, not waterworks.

“I’m not -”

“You don’t understand!” Hisae said. “If you don’t marry me, they’ll give me the seal. I need this marriage, I need it!”

“What are you saying?”

Hisae looked up at him. She was no longer the fine, controlled kunoichi. Her hair was in disarray, flyaways stuck to her wet cheeks, and she was shaking all over, desperation and fury thrumming in her limbs. “The Caged Bird seal,” she said. “It was between me or Hiro, and Hiro’s stronger.”

Hiro… Hiroshige. The Hyuuga who would inherit, her brother. “You’re marrying me to get out of it.”

“I need this marriage,” Hisae said. She grabbed the hem of Madara’s kimono tightly. “Please. If I have to be a slave, then let me be one man’s slave. I can be a good wife, I promise.”

Madara closed his eyes, shutting out her face. Her hand felt like it was heavier than the world. I don’t want to, he thought. I don’t want to marry you. He turned his face up, waiting for something, anything, to intervene just this once. If the gods were there, why were they silent?

Hisae let him go. Madara grabbed her wrist. He pulled her up roughly, ignoring her yelp of pain, and he forced her to stand.

“Forgive me-!”

“No more crying.” He wiped her cheeks and pushed her hair back. “No more bowing. My wife is not a woman who bows, not even to me.”

Hisae stared at him uncomprehendingly. Then she cried again, and threw her arms around his neck, and Madara caught her as she collapsed, sobbing once more.

 


 

Madara crouched down. He touched the soft green shoots in the corner of his garden. They were soft. Delicate. If he added a little more pressure, he’d crush its new leaves and it would die by nightfall. It was probably more practical. If he crushed this growth now, the roots could be dormant through the winter and try again during the spring, when it was actually supposed to grow.

Trying so hard to live now, wasn’t it pointless? Hisae was just exchanging one master for another. Someone weak like her, she would always be living under the yoke of the strong. Why not just die?

Madara brushed his thumb over its thin stem. Easy to break. Easy to die.

He remembered a cold sunset and a burnt battlefield. He remembered begging the red heavens for salvation with blood in his mouth. Living was pain. That was how you knew were alive, because death never hurt.

Living, even on your knees – wasn’t that worth something?

Chapter Text

The first time it happened, Mito passed it off as a fluke. He’d needed advice and she was the only married person he knew who was close to his position. The conversation had been stilted but civil, and once it was done, Mito sighed in relief and let herself forget it happened. That was what she told herself.

Then he came back a second time, this time to drop off a bag of oranges. Mito had been alone in the house practicing her calligraphy and Madara was there, knocking on her door, holding up oranges when she answered. Bought too many, was his excuse. Doubtful and bewildered, she accepted his oranges. She ate them alone. They’d been perfectly ripe.

The third time, he came at night and his offering was sake. They sat on the porch and talked about politics in the capital while not looking each other in the face. He left once they exhausted the topic, leaving only ash from his pipe.

Mito, despite her misgivings, was curious. It was her natural way to be curious. Uzumaki genes, her father always said. They were all born with a double dose of nosiness.

It wasn’t like she forgot how their first meeting went; from the second they clapped eyes on each other, Madara had glared at her with so much hatred that she’d went to bed that night with a warding seal drawn on her wrist. After that meeting, they avoided each other until they found an equilibrium where they never saw each other except from a respectable distance. Now, he was suddenly trampling all over that armistice.

From what Mito could tell, there was a pattern to his visits. He always came unarmed, for starters. He always brought something. And he never came by when Hashirama or Tobirama were nearby. It didn’t make them friends, but Mito could see an olive branch when it was this obvious.

It was nearly midnight when she heard that telltale knock. Mito didn’t get up immediately, spending her time finishing her brush stroke, and he didn’t knock again. Only when she was satisfied with her seal did she rise and open the screen door for him.

Madara held up a bottle. “Plum wine.”

“I have cups.” Mito brought them out and Madara uncorked the wine and poured for both of them. They sat down on her porch an arm’s length apart.

The wine was good, at least. Mito didn’t hide her blatant examination of him while Madara steadfastly stared straight ahead, his mouth thinned and – shit, she was tired of whatever this was. Mito liked to think that she was patient but she wasn’t ever-lasting.

“What I don’t understand is why the hell you’re doing this.”

Madara stared at the pond. Hashirama had dug it out himself, saying now you won’t ever be far from the water, haha, and she’d laughed along with him. The pond was small, stocked with itty-bitty fish, and nothing like the raging whirlpools of her home. His expression was furrowed as if to prove that he really was concentrating on the moon’s reflection.

“You’re going to have to answer me at some point. Or else this can end now.”

Madara looked up at her, clearly annoyed that she wasn’t a member of Hashirama’s school of practice where men got to brood in silence and say one-word replies. “I’m trying to be better,” he grunted reluctantly. “To you.”

Mito arched a brow.

“You’re Hashirama’s wife,” he said. “And I… I am Hashirama’s friend.”

She wasn’t very impressed by the tacit confession that he would’ve continued to be an ass if she wasn’t married to Hashirama, but she wasn’t really looking for more either. She shrugged. “Alright.”

Madara cleared his throat. Oh. He was going to keep going. “And I am sorry for being rude. When we met.”

He really made simple conversation feel like pulling teeth. Mito considered taking the bottle and just draining it. “I don’t accept.”

Madara’s head whipped up. “What?” he said incredulously.

“I don’t accept your apology,” she repeated, tilting her tone the way she did when she wanted to mock her siblings without being obvious.

He opened his mouth, clearly about to say something sharp, but caught himself at the last moment. Mito enjoyed his visible struggle. “Why not?” he finally demanded.

Mito snagged the bottle and drank, since she was already dropping her manners anyway. “Because I don’t think you’re being sincere. Because you’re obviously trying to accomplish something. Because I just don’t like you. I don’t know what this is and I don’t really care, but apologies are supposed to be sincere.” Mito drank again. “So if you want me to accept, you’re going to have to try harder.”

Through the corner of her eye, she watched Madara’s jaw set. He was going to storm off now, she predicted, Madara was a proud, impatient man who rarely slowed down long enough to realize that he’d done something wrong, much less apologize. Her flippant disregard for his attempt was going to piss him off enough to make him leave -

Madara twisted towards her. He sat down in actual seiza, back straight, hands flat, and his expression as hard as stone. “I am sorry,” he said forcefully, “for treating you the way I did. It was disgraceful. I was disgraceful. You don’t have to accept this, but I want to at least say it.”

Mito stared. Glanced into the bottle. Madara, apologizing! She’d have to check the sun tomorrow to make sure it still rose in the east. Maybe one of her seals had finally gone haywire as her sister always predicted and Mito was in some parallel dimension. When Madara looked like he might continue, she held up her hand. “That was a little better. But – why?”

“I just told you -”

“I don’t buy it. You and Tobirama fight all the time and he’s Hashirama’s brother.”

Madara’s frown became a scowl. It pulled down his face, made him look older. “Do you think I should apologize to him?”

“You’re ignoring my point.”

“Is it so hard to believe that I might just feel sorry?” Oh, there was some bitterness there. Mito peered at him. Hashirama wasn’t slumping around like a sad flower, so they couldn’t have gotten into a fight recently. But wait – he was moping a lot more. It wasn’t post-argument moping, it was more…

“Your marriage,” she said, nodding firmly. Yes, Hashirama’s moping was more… existential . He only got that way when he met a problem that couldn’t be solved by smiling – or by strength. Of all the powers in the world to drive him into that state of mind, she could name only one. And he was getting married very soon. “Let me guess – this you turning over a new leaf? Become a new man for your bride?”

Madara’s expression flickered. He hid it impressively fast but Mito grew up on the ocean. She knew something about mercurial forces.

“The village… has to unify, if it wants to survive past this stage. And personal grievances must be set aside. It wasn’t the marriage itself, but it has. Made me think.”

Her father used to say that marriage always changed men. Some of them really shaped up, became actual adults that could be trusted alone with a seal matrix. Or they just regressed and became boys with a mother they were allowed to have sex with. Out of them, there was that small handful who looked like they’d rather be anywhere but there, hiding winces when they looked at their wives.

Mito dropped from her porch. “Spar with me.”

She could feel Madara’s stare burning a hole in her back. “What?”

“You said you wanted to apologize, right? Well, this is your chance. I was always curious, with your reputation and all, about what’d be like to fight you. So. Let’s go.”

“Here?” She heard Madara getting up. “Now? It’s not -”

Mito looked over her shoulder. No matter how reluctant his words were, she could read his body like a book. He was tense as a bowstring. “Please. I’ve always wanted to hit you.”

She’d spent all this time wondering why he kept looking anywhere else but her. No matter how much Madara tried to look submissive, no matter how much he apologized, he always looked in a different direction when he did it. Now, though, he was finally meeting her eyes and they told her all the truths his mouth wouldn’t. 

He was angry. Raze the land, salt the earth angry. That sort of rage couldn’t be put out by apologies and gifts. No matter what he said, he came here looking for only one thing and Mito was done and tired of beating around the bush. 

Madara snorted. The moon hit his face when he hopped off the porch, bringing out the blue of his hair. “Funny. I could say the same.”

Mito had just enough time to bring her arm up to block his overhead axe kick. It rattled her down to the bone. She slammed her knee up, but he caught it and twisted. Mito followed the motion, her heel flying and missing when he bent backward.

She begrudgingly had to admit that he earned every bit of his reputation. Madara fought beautifully. Like he’s dancing, was what Hashirama used to say, back when they were still at war. Did you see? Not a single motion wasted.

He drove his elbow into her shoulder. Mito punched him in the ribs. Neither of them used chakra as they fought. They said nothing. He kicked out her knee. She clawed his face on the way down. The moon witnessed them fight uncaringly.

Mito grabbed his fist but it was just a feint. He swept low and kicked out her feet. She didn’t collapse, catching herself, but went still when she felt his hand on the back of her neck. One squeeze and he’d crush her spinal cord.

That was fine. Mito hadn’t expected to win anyway. Her hair had come loose from its braid. His yukata was half-open from where she’d grabbed it. They were both breathing hard. She’d hit him several times and she was satisfied with that. He’d be bruised come morning.

“I know you look at him,” she said, still bent. “You’re very obvious.” Madara squeezed warningly. She ignored it. Madara was angry? That was fine. She was just as angry too. “You want to hate me? Go ahead. I would’ve married him anyway.”

She’d been nineteen, the same age as Hashirama. It was a match that made itself, one of Ashina’s daughters for one of Butsuma’s sons. It revitalized their old alliance, preserved their trade agreement, and any new Mokuton users would surely be half-Uzumaki. Mito read the marriage contract herself. It fucking made sense.

She didn’t stop there. “Honestly speaking, I have no idea why you’d get married. It has to be making you miserable. But then again, talking to me has to be making you miserable too. You’re trying to become a better man? Hah.” Mito laughed. Madara let her go. When she looked up, his eyes were bleeding into the Sharingan.

“You don’t even love him,” he accused. He took a step back from her, his hands clenched into fists. She imagined her blood on his white hands. He was probably imagining the same. “Ten years you’ve been married, and you don’t.”

“Cry me a river. I did what I had to do.” Mito stood up and fixed her yukata. She didn’t fix her hair. “You know, I think I get it now, what you’re getting at. You can’t have Hashirama and you can’t blame me like you want to. You can’t blame him either, because he always wanted peace with you. So you’re angry and you have no one to blame but yourself. So what do you do?”

Madara bared his teeth at her. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“That’s right. You man up and punish yourself. How do you do that? By doing the one thing you never, ever wanted to do. You find some poor girl and you find a reason to marry her.”

“Shut up.”

Mito looked into his face. He was a hair away from breaking and they both knew it. She could back down now and he could pretend he wasn’t picturing her dead. They could go back to circling each other.

Mito curled her lip. Fuck no. Enough of the bullshit.

“You probably tell yourself that you’re doing it for a good reason. It’s for the village, or it for making things right. But you’re so shit at it! Even when you’re trying, you just keep breaking things. And you know what? I don’t care! I’m not the one who did this to you. You want to be unhappy? You want to be miserable? Fucking fine, go ahead, and do it the hell alone.”

“Shut up!” He lunged for her. His hands closed around her neck and that was it. Mito activated the seal that she’d prepared years ago after the first time she saw his eyes and the hatred in them. Chains exploded from her back and wrapped around his arms as her hands lit up, the seal matrix growing.

The sharp swell of chakra burned through her pathways and her eyes were being filled with red eyes with spinning wheels but fuck it all; Mito grabbed his stupid hair and kneed him one last time.

 


 

Tobirama reacted first. He reached the windows in time to see a swell of chakra from Hashirama’s home. A half-second later, Hashirama smashed through the same window.

The house was untouched but the back garden was ablaze. Hashirama smothered the flames, his chakra pushing away the smoke, and he found them both, Mito and Madara, collapsed in a ring of blackened grass.

 


 

“It wasn’t an ambush.” Tobirama sat down across from his brother, his arms crossed. Neither of them had slept a wink in the past forty-eight hours. “There was a bottle. Cups. They must’ve been already sitting together before they fought.”

Hashirama didn’t say anything. He’d spent the most of the last twelve hours assuring every clan in the village that it hadn’t been an attack, or the start of a civil war. The Uchiha were livid. The Uzumaki even worse.

“As far as I can tell, Mito used a seal on him. It seems to be a chakra suppressant. It explains why he’s still sleeping.”

Hashirama blinked hard. He never liked staying up but he had before, staying awake for days and days to fight or run or heal, and he’d never felt this way back then. Before, it’d been sleeplessness out of necessity, born from too much adrenaline. Now, he was so tired that he couldn’t sleep.

“Mito’s case is easier. Her chakra pathways show clear signs of disturbance. Probably he used the Sharingan on her just before she knocked him out. It’s all just recovery now.”

Tobirama was waiting for him to speak. Hashirama flexed his fingers and looked for the right words, but for the first time in his life, he was coming up empty. When he didn’t say anything for a long time, Tobirama sighed and put his hand on his shoulder.

“You don’t have to do anything right now,” his little brother said. “Just. Go sleep, anija. I’ll take care of this.”

Hashirama let Tobirama guide him to the little cot in the corner. He laid him down, brushed his hair back, and tucked him in, and Hashirama closed his eyes and tried to sleep. The hours squeezed on by. He didn’t sleep. Below the earth, he felt deep roots groan.

 


 

Morning came in a shiver of gold, dawn’s silence split by birdsong, and he sat by Mito’s bedside, fresh flowers in the vase on her nightstand. Morning glories. They were her favorites. He’d once asked her why and she’d smiled her slow and knowing smile.

Because they’re blue like the ocean. And because they don’t last very long.

Mito’s face was peaceful in her sleep. She never had dreams. They’d been one of the first things she got rid of after learning how to tattoo seals on herself. She’d offered the same to Hashirama and he’d refused. It made his nights a lot less peaceful but that was a small price to pay to never forget.

Madara used genjutsu on her. From what the medics who’d already treated her could tell, it was a strong one to knock her out this long. Her brain activity had spiked abnormally, and then went low. Resting. They’d let her sleep, just to make sure the genjutsu’s aftershocks wore off, and now she was due to wake up.

Hashirama brushed his thumb over her smooth brow. Green chakra seeped from his hand into her head, soothing the aftermath of looking into the Sharingan. A minute passed. Her eyes fluttered open.

Mito stared at him for a few seconds, her pupils focusing, then she frowned a little. Blinked hard. “Hashirama.” She didn’t sound surprised.

“Good morning.”

“Ugh.” 

She sat up with a grunt, ignored his attempt to make her lay back down, and grabbed the glass of water that he’d prepared. She drained it quickly, then wiped her mouth. Hashirama watched to see if there was an unsteadiness, but she seemed to be holding out. Uzumaki were built tough. When he offered her the hair tie he was holding, she bent her head to let him tie her hair. She’d always hated having hair in her face.

Hashirama swept her hair up into a bun, careful to not pull out any knots. “How’re you feeling?”

“Damn awful.”

“Thought so. You’re cursing a lot more.”

 “Where is he?”

Hashirama hesitated. “In bed, same as you. He hasn’t woke up yet.”

“Huh.”

She didn’t look sorry. Hashirama couldn’t bring himself to be surprised. The years taught him a few things about his wife; Mito didn’t intend to regret a single thing she did, ever. Push her into a corner and she’d go down hitting everything she could reach. It was maybe why she and Madara got along so poorly. They were very similar people when it came down to it.

“Will you tell me what happened?” he asked gently. Technically, you weren’t supposed to push a genjutsu victim right after they woke up. It could trigger a resurgence. Hashirama, however, wasn’t feeling patient.

He wasn’t dumb. Or blind. Madara had always disliked Mito and she’d returned the favor. He’d always thought about trying to do something about it – make them spend time together, make them see how similar they were – but he’d just never had the time. The opportunity. Hashirama often felt like a little string holding together a team of raging horses that wanted nothing more than to run away from each other. It was always like this: he pulled the village together and Madara and Tobirama would start fighting. He’d paid them attention and Mito would be angry. He spent time with his wife and the village was on fire all over again. It was never-ending, a vicious cycle where all the important things in his life clashed. And he was just – he was just so damn tired of it. Was it too much to ask, for all the people in his life to just get along?

“Mito, can you actually tell me what happened?”

“Madara and I had a disagreement. So I finished it. We’re finally even now.”

“That doesn’t tell me anything.”

Mito gave him a shrewd look. It was one of the things that Hashirama hated most, because all three of them, Mito, Tobirama, Madara, all of them , had the aggravating habit of thinking too hard and saying too little, right up until they reached critical.

“You wanna know why?” Mito handed him the glass. Hashirama went to the sink to refill it. “Isn’t it obvious by now? It’s always the same thing with him.”

“What is that?”

“You, obviously.”

Hashirama paused. The glass overfilled. Spilled over. He stared at the water running over his hand, thinking, me, me, Madara was talking about me, until he blinked and realized he should probably stop wasting water. He handed the wet glass back to her. He tried to keep his face neutral but from the looks of it, he probably was failing.

“Aren’t you going to say anything?” she demanded.

“I don’t know what to say.”

Look. It wasn’t – it wasn’t like he was ignoring it, or her. What he had with Madara, what they were doing with each other – it was complicated. Difficult. He himself didn’t know what he was doing half the time. All he knew was that he just. Cared. He cared a lot. He wanted to keep Madara close and Madara sometimes didn’t stay close and that made it even more complicated. Right now, though, what he did know was that he couldn’t sit down and spill his guts to Mito, because you couldn’t just tell your wife that your best friend getting married made you unspeakably jealous.

“God, Hashirama. Enough.” Mito put the glass down firmly. “You know what? I’m going to go say this now. Neither of us are stupid. The man’s obsessed with you. He’s always been.”

“It’s not obsession,” he protested, but Mito wasn’t having it. She leveled her finger at him. “You’re not helping either,” she said, low and accusing. Hashirama blinked, not expecting her to turn on him too.

MIto forged on. “I’ve been thinking about this – all of this. Where the hell did it start?” She began to tick off her fingers. “One, it starts with you two having another damn fight. Then, two, the Hyuuga come and Madara gets engaged to one of them.”

Hashirama bit the inside of his cheek, familiar jealousy raising its head inside his chest again.

“Three, you two stop fighting, but not really, because Madara just starts ignoring you instead. And you? You mope .” She made it sound like a heinous crime. 

He wanted to defend himself, but he couldn’t really find the words to. She was right. Mito usually tended to be. Fighting with Madara always made him queasy inside. Everything just felt worse when Madara was angry at him.

“He’s an idiot, but you know what? So are you. Both of you are just – just so damn stupid. You started this whole thing because you couldn’t leave him damn well alone and now he’s sulking about what that means, and it makes sense now, why you two fought for years after your fathers died.”

Hashirama’s head whipped up at the same time the floorboards under his foot cracked. He reigned himself in just in time before he did more damage, but the snap of wood seemed to echo. Don’t get angry, he told himself. She’s frustrated too. And she’s recovering from genjutsu. Aggression is common.

Mito didn’t even flinch. She’d never flinched when Hashirama’s chakra flared. It’d been part of the reason why Hashirama began to really like her back then. But this was still a low blow. She wasn’t involved. She couldn’t bring up certain things.

“You’re going to stress yourself,” he said. “Your mind was put under a lot of pressure during the genjutsu, you need to rest -”

He jumped when Mito slammed the glass again. It cracked. “Don’t you dare start with the medical spiel,” she snapped. “I watched Uzushio burn for seventy-two hours. I had time to think and you’re going to let me finish. Back then, I thought Madara was being unreasonable! I thought that he was the one who needed to back off! But no - you're the same. You know what this is? Both of you, pissing and moaning because you can’t stand being replaced.”

Hashirama rocked back, as if slapped. Replaced? He wasn’t doing anything like that.

He was just – worried. He was concerned. He wanted the best for Madara, that was all, he wanted him to find someone he could actually be happy with. He wanted him to be actually understood. Madara, more than anything, needed that. Someone who saw past his harsh face, who wasn’t afraid of his temper; someone who knew how kind he was, how good he could be, someone who’d feel every bit of admiration and reverence Hashirama felt looking at him.

“I live with you, Hashirama.” Mito swung her feet out and stood up. She had to grab the wall, but she raised her hand when Hashirama rose to help. “You should see your face whenever his marriage comes up. You’re always talking about Madara finding someone who’ll understand him, but really, you just want him to always come to you.”

He felt like he was balancing on the edge of an epiphany. One a long time coming.

“Mito, I -”

I – what? What was he trying to say? Somehow, I’m married to you was the only thing that came to mind. It was inane, it was off-topic, but it felt like he should be telling her that, telling himself that. They were married. He was her husband. He couldn’t afford to let himself think about what she was saying. But Mito was sharp. Had always been sharp. She could always see right through him, just like Madara, and damn it, she was right. 

Hashirama remembered being nineteen and scared shitless. He remembered the girl sitting in front of him, equally scared. He didn’t know her and he didn’t want to marry her, but doing it had been a little easier if he kept thinking about all the ways she was just like Madara.

Mito stopped in front of him. He blinked. When had she gotten there?

She put her hand on his shoulder and held on tightly. “Hashirama,” she said, her voice firm, “for all our sakes, I think you’re going to have to decide what the hell you want.”

“... you,” he said lamely. It came out rehearsed.

“We’re a little too old for that now,” she said, not unkindly. “Madara was right about one thing. We’ve been married ten years, and we don’t even have a kid to show for it.”

She was still in the papery little hospital gown and her face was pale, but she held herself proudly, chin jutted out. He remembered what he’d thought earlier: Uzumaki were built tough. Calling her uninvolved was wrong, because she was. She probably had been since the second she came into his family. And instead of drowning in that storm, she’d waded right through, her head held high. Of course. She was from Uzushio. She grew up swimming inside whirlpools.

Mito left him there, like he was the patient and she was his doctor.

Chapter Text

For Madara, Hashirama brought oranges. 

He went to visit him in the evening, after going home to recuperate from Mito tearing him a new one. There, while listlessly rummaging for something to eat, he found the oranges shoved to the back, a little old but not inedible. Some encouragement with the Mokuton coaxed color back into them and of the four he found, he ate two and let the other two sit, thinking about what to do with their fates.

He already knew, of course. It was just the doing that was hardest. By then, the sun was beginning to set but he still cut them up into little wedges, cutting carefully to make each one perfectly even and he stacked them on a plate and wrapped it all up in a dishcloth. Madara might not eat but he wanted to do it anyway.

The wing he was in was dark and empty when he got there, but he could hear voices inside his room. Or, rather, a voice.

Hashirama paused, one hand on the doorknob and, despite his misgivings, he pressed his ear to the door to listen. The sound was muffled, but he could just make out the words: forgive me. Please. Forgive me. A lump grew in Hashirama’s throat and he opened the door before he overheard any more.

It was dark inside – the light from the hall showed him Madara sat up on the bed, his knees pulled up to his chest. He was cradling his head. Quiet, now. Physically, he seemed fine, but that was the word, wasn’t it? Physically.

Something in the air compelled Hashirama to drop his voice to a whisper. “...hey.”

Madara didn’t move. He just shook his head. He entered anyway. “You slept for three days. You need to eat.”

“Leave.”

Hashirama sat down by his bed. He didn’t try to touch Madara and he didn’t offer him the oranges, not yet, but he wouldn’t leave either. “You need to eat.”

Madara made a noise. It could’ve been a laugh if it were stronger.

They sat in silence like that, Madara’s face hidden, Hashirama staring at his hands, at the blanket, at the window, at anything but him, and he noticed a dark shape on the other side of Madara’s bedside. It was a plate, an empty one. Someone came before him. Someone gave Madara something before him. And Madara had accepted.

The rest of his thoughts were distracted by Madara suddenly moving, unfolding with a long shuddering breath that seemed to hurt. His arms came into the narrow slice of light cast across his bed, revealing the thick bars of a heavy-duty seal on his arms that disappeared under the sleeves of his gown.

“You came,” Madara croaked. His face was wan, his hair greasy, but even so, Madara’s eyes were piercing. As strong as ever.

“Of course,” he said, slowly unwrapped the dishcloth with painstaking care, as if everything rested on the way he peeled back its thin layers. A brief thought spasmed inside him – I should’ve used the one that wasn’t so stained – and it stuck to the inside of his chest like a burr. Should’ve. Should’ve. Should’ve.

Hashirama picked up an orange wedge and held it up, an olive branch offering. Madara didn’t immediately accept it.

“Why...?” he muttered.

Hashirama’s fingers tightened on the wedge. He felt its juices trickling over his finger. “Because… because I care,” he finally said.  It was the only answer that he could give. “I care about you.”

Madara closed his eyes, the bags under his eyes impossibly heavy. “It can’t be easy,” he murmured. And then he held his breath, waiting.

Hashirama took his hand in lieu of answering and placed the orange wedge there. “I’m choosing to,” he said, brushing his thumb over his rough knuckles. They had the same hands – warring hands, heavy and thick with knuckles like steel. “It’s alright if it isn’t easy.”

Madara dropped the wedge back in his hand and pulled away. It wasn’t the worst rejection Hashirama could get but it stung like it was. He didn’t cry, he didn’t droop, but his tongue stuck in his mouth and the lump got heavier as he sat there. Madara wasn’t meeting his eyes.

“Won’t – won’t you just eat?” Hashirama said, trying not to sound pleading.

“I’m tired,” Madara said. “I’m going to sleep.”

Mito’s words came back to mind. She’d seemed to convicted in her belief that Madara felt just as strongly about him, but she didn’t know this side of Madara, a man who could be as elusive as water in cupped hands. Another time, another place, Hashirama would’ve insisted on staying. He would’ve insisted Madara eat and he would’ve kept going until he pried Madara open the way he wanted, but that was back then, when the only person reflected in Madara’s eyes was him.

Hashirama wasn’t used to feeling timid. It wasn’t arrogance to say that he never knew defeat. But this wasn’t a battlefield, or at least not the kind he’d grown up in – in this, he was lost and weary, unsure of the storm within and without. If he fought now, he feared that all he’d do was break something that would not let itself be fixed.

His early determination to catch Madara and make him talk seemed like a lifetime away. Hashirama picked at the dishcloth with nerveless fingers, searching for a reason to stay, but the greasy chill inside his gut told him what he suspected: he had nothing. He had… he had lost.

The scrape of the stool on the hospital tiles felt unimaginably loud to his ears. Hashirama moved to the door, feeling deeply foolish as he clutched his dish, and the cold sunk deeper as he paused. “You said a month,” he murmured and immediately felt even worse, as if he truly was stupid. Madara didn’t respond.

 


 

Hashirama never really outgrew his habit of sitting by the riverside when nothing else could soothe him. In a way, he wanted to be like the river stones at its very bottom, having all his edges and roughness worn away by ever-flowing water. He sat down on the bank, dropping the dish, not caring when he heard a crack.

He never felt more acutely aware of himself than now. You’re going to have to decide what the hell you want, was Mito’s ultimatum. Sitting on the riverbank, Hashirama had to admit that she was right. More, that she probably already knew his answer; Mito was, if nothing else, another dear friend. He cherished her for that. But make him swear on Ashura’s bones and this would be his truth: if love were light, Mito was a candle and Madara was the sun. Maybe in a world where Madara never existed, he could’ve learned to love her – but then again, in a world where Madara never existed, would Hashirama even exist? Certainly not as he was now. That felt like both a blessing and a burden because only Madara could make him ache in such a personal way.

Hashirama stared into the dark water. Moonlight reflected across its surface in pieces, highlighting the dark bodies of everything under the surface. As he watched something that might’ve been a fish, he thought about that empty plate in Madara’s room.

Who? His clansmen, maybe? It would behoove them to visit their downed clan head, after all, but it was a cold comfort because he couldn’t stop imagining another visitor instead, one who held a claim on Madara with her lily-petal hands. Had Hisae visited Madara? Had she sat at his bedside, offering him her comfort, giving him nourishment, caring for him while he was weak? Worse, had he accepted it?

It was despicable of him to be jealous of a woman he barely knew. It was disgusting. His wife was shaking off a genjutsu and Madara was still in the hospital but Hashirama couldn’t stop it, couldn’t make himself not imagine Hisae and Madara married and happy and so, so fucking beautiful together. Mito had been right after all – Hashirama couldn’t stand the idea of being replaced. He wanted – he wanted Madara, he wanted to have his faith and fear, his anger and calm. He wanted to be the only one Madara ever looked at.

This is pretty pathetic, Madara would probably say if Hashirama actually told him any of this. You’re too late. You missed your chance and I have someone else now.

Was this how Madara felt when he married Mito? Hashirama felt even sicker.

He heard the rocks shifting behind him. Tobirama flared his chakra to introduce himself as he padded closer, sighing when Hashirama didn’t look away from his mournful contemplation of the river. His brother dropped into a crouch next to him.

“Anija.”

Hashirama tilted his head to show that he was listening.

“Are you alright?”

Saying anything felt impossible. Hashirama mutely shook his head. Tobirama sighed again.

“I don’t like seeing you like this.”

He felt something being draped on his shoulders. It was his haori – he’d left it at home when he went to see Madara. With the evening chill settling in, it was welcome. The nightjars were beginning to call to each other across the river, clicking loud enough to be heard over the rising cricket song. A few frogs piped in too, echoed by more frogs.

“I think I made a very bad mistake,” Hashirama said.

Tobirama grunted, not agreeing or disagreeing, just to show that he was listening. Bolstered, Hashirama continued.

“I… want to fix it? But I’m not sure how – it seems like everything I do just makes more messes. And it’s not the biggest problem I need to deal with, so I feel bad for focusing on it so much.”

Tobirama peered at him through the corner of his eye. “This is about Madara, isn’t it?” he said, sounding resigned.

“Mm.”

“Is it… bad?”

“A little, yeah.”

Tobirama huffed through his nose. “Do you really want to talk about it?”

“I – yes. I do.”

“Well. Then talk.”

So Hashirama spilled his guts. He didn’t do it a lot nowadays – the older they got, the heavier their duties got. He wasn’t just Tobirama’s brother, he was also his leader – in a way, he had to carry himself that way too. No matter how silly and ridiculous Hashirama could be and how much they squabbled, being actually… vulnerable… was a different story. Hashirama had to be someone Tobirama could lean on. But now, he told him about the first fight with Madara, about the tension, the strange atmosphere around his marriage, then the fight with Mito and the failed visit. He even told him about the more intimate details. Kissing Madara twice. Tobirama grimaced but he still listened.

“... Hisae seems like a perfectly decent girl,” Hashirama said miserably. “But just – thinking about her with him, them getting married, it makes me sick. And I shouldn’t be. I should be happy for Madara because she does care about him, she told me that herself. She thinks he’s kind – and he is, and I should be happy someone else sees that. But I…” he shook his head.

“- you’re jealous,” Tobirama finished for him.

Hashirama nodded.

“Hm. Then are you going to do something, or are you just going to sit here and be sad?”

Stung, Hashirama whipped his head up to give him a betrayed look. Tobirama was unmoved. He crossed his arms and stared back at him expectantly. “The way I see it,” he said, “you’ve always felt this way but you just never did anything because no one else in their right mind actually wants Madara. So you never had to do anything, really. But then the Hyuuga come in with their girl.”

It was a lot similar to what Mito had to say to him and equally merciless, if a shade less fiery. Hashirama picked at his sleeve morosely, wincing.

Tobirama noticed his discomfort and softened a little. “I’m not trying to be cruel. It’s just – how do I say this… well. Do you remember when we were kids and father told us that we’d have to get married soon?”

Hashirama blinked at the seeming non-sequitur. “Yes?”

“Itama cried, I think, said he didn’t want to get married. Father got mad at him and it was getting bad except then you started yelling about not getting married, so father got angry at you instead.”

Hashirama vaguely remembered that. He’d been, what, ten? Kawarama and Itama had still been alive. They’d all gathered at his feet and he’d said, Listen, fighting for the clan is just one of your duties. One day, you all need to get married and have children to make the next generation.

It’d only went downhill from there once he started on the details of how that next generation got made. Itama’s crying had only been one of the things to push Hashirama into action, because he could tell that all his brothers were nervous. Their father being angry at him wasn’t new, so he hadn’t been all that worried. Despite himself, his mouth quirked up a little. “You got all quiet and red during that, didn’t you? And you asked him if babies came from the moon.”

“I was seven,” Tobirama grunted, rolling his eyes. “And that was because you told me they did.”

“I can’t believe you actually believed me.”

Seven ,” Tobirama emphasized. Then he sobered up. “But that’s not the point. I just wanted to bring that up because you’re always doing things like that.”

“Like?”

“Where you take on more responsibility like you always do. You always think you have to step in for someone else’s sake. And right now, for the village, you’re hurting yourself with that kind of thinking.”

Hashirama gave his brother a tight smile. That struck a little too close to home. But how could he stop? The village needed his attention. He couldn’t just – just take a step back and go on a vacation. “Tobirama, I’m the Hokage. I need to do everything I can, just like everyone else is.”

“It’s not about that. You being the Hokage, I understand that. But it’s just -” Tobirama kneaded the bridge of his nose, “- I know you got married back then because everyone was pressuring you to. And I know that you didn’t want to, but you did it to keep the peace. Back then I… I stayed quiet, because if you didn’t marry, then it’d probably be me in your place. And I’m sorry. I’m sorry that I didn’t say anything, because you wouldn’t be so unhappy now if I’d just -”

“Oh. No. Tobirama, no.” Hashirama grabbed his shoulder. “No, I wouldn’t have let you anyway. It doesn’t matter to me that you didn’t say anything. It was my choice and it was the right one back then.”

“Is it the right one now?”

He didn’t have a ready answer for that. Tobirama scanned his face and seemed to know what he was thinking. His mouth dipped into a frown. “This Madara problem has to be dealt with. It’s you – but it’s also the village too. And Mito-san… well, I think you should be fair to her.”

His reproach wasn’t open, but Hashirama caught it all the same. He bit the inside of his cheek. “What if it goes wrong?” he finally whispered. “After coming so far, what if this destroys everything?”

The Madara problem. Tobirama had a way with words, managing to wrap up everything complicated in a single box. The Madara problem, the great question that Hashirama’s heart rode on and what could make or break their dream. No pressure.

Tobirama sighed again. This wasn’t one of his exasperated ones, or the sighs he made when he was at a loss for words. It was just profoundly weary. He reached out to squeeze Hashirama’s shoulder and when he spoke, his voice was warm. “Whatever you choose,” he said, “I’m with you.”

Tell me what to choose, he wanted to say, but Hashirama knew better than to voice it. He let himself be comforted by the notion that, disregarding all else, at least Tobirama would back him up no matter what. If only he could just shake the idea that he wanted Madara to be the one here because he would’ve given him the answer he really wanted.

 


 

Hashirama went home. Tobirama dropped him off and refused his weak offer of tea, so Hashirama just crept towards his bedroom instead. He couldn’t feel Mito’s presence in the house but maybe that was for the better. By the light of the moon, he stripped off all his clothes and crawled into his futon naked, too tired to even look for his yukata.

Sleep did not come easy. A dark and silent house wasn’t what he was used to. Hashirama had grown up falling asleep to the lullaby of life, constantly surrounded from all sides by moving bodies, never a break in the activity. Alone, he was lost and had nowhere else to go but into his head, where his thoughts collected after going unheard for so long. If Hashirama turned around and examined the thread of his life, the defining moment felt like it was when he met Madara. It was like a knot in the thread, something that marked the before and after, and there, it was there it all began. Hashirama remembered his early days being studded by a profound sense of hopelessness, thinking that was it, that it was only a matter of time before he grew into his father’s war. 

Then Kawarama died. A child sans a sibling, he’d sat on the edge of his brother’s too small grave and prayed to the heavens. There has to be something out there , he’d pleaded. Something that will make all of this have meaning. Show me that. Make me believe we’re not just gonna die.

Three days later, he met Madara. They’d both been the same, lost and scared and looking for meaning, and between jokes and quarrels, they confessed to the same dream. I don’t want to die. I want to be happy. I want to be your friend. Madara came to him like a gift from heaven, the answer to all his prayers.

It happened once before. So tonight, Hashirama squeezed his eyes shut and prayed again.

Don’t let it be too late.

Chapter Text

By morning, Hashirama was dressed for battle. Armed with a report, courtesy of Tobirama – and he really needed to do something to make up for everything – he walked into what would be one of the most grueling fights of his life.

“Are we going to get a full explanation for what happened?” Sarutobi Sosuke asked. His tone was respectful but the three heads of the Sarutobi retainer clans were sitting behind him so that dampened it. All of their faces were carefully neutral.

“It was a private spar,” Hashirama said. That was the explanation that he and Tobirama agreed would be best. A spar that got a little too heated, nothing to see here, let’s all calm down now, yes?

“Perhaps, but it was rather… explosive, wasn’t it? And with such important people involved too.”

Hashirama examined Sarutobi’s face and tried to imagine what he was thinking. From Tobirama’s report, the most common concern flying through the clans was that this signaled a resurgence of the age-old conflict between Senju and Uchiha. He personally thought everyone was being a little too jumpy but then again, Mito always liked to grumble that his greatest crime was optimism. 

“What can I say?” Hashirama said, throwing up his hands. He shrugged a little. “Some people run a little hotter. Maybe it’s the red hair. Uzumaki have always been feisty.”

Privately, he felt a twinge of guilt for giving Mito some of the blame when she was faultless, but that was the name of the game – Fire Country mainlanders didn’t trust the Uzumaki too much. They’d be willing to believe that Mito was just another example of her countrymen, hot-tempered and twitchy-fingered. An Uzumaki hitting someone with a seal in a minor spar? Just typical.

“Uchiha-san was in the hospital for three days,” Akimichi Chouko said from behind Sarutobi, crossing her arms. The tattoos on her cheeks stretched as she frowned. “Don’t like that too much, if you’ll excuse me, Hokage-sama. Seals aren’t toys.”

“None of what we can do are toys, Akimichi-san. But it was just a spar, one between my wife and my friend on my grounds and none of us are unfamiliar with spars that get a little hairy.” Hashirama chuckled. “Didn’t you once clip poor Homura Yoki halfway across the forest?”

Yamanaka Inoma snickered from Sarutobi’s other side. “Oh. I remember that.”

“Yeah. And you, Nara-san – I think my cousin Toka’s still a little sore about the time you made her stand on her head for an hour straight.”

Nara Shikana shrugged, smirking a little. “She said she was willing to take it.”

“And so did Madara! After all, you don’t get to spar a seal user every day, he just got too curious for his own good. And besides -” Hashirama leaned in conspiratorially, “- considering how busy we all are, I think Madara was just taking an excuse to nap a little.”

Akimichi didn’t totally relax but some of her stern demeanor melted a fraction. Only Sarutobi remained stony.

“I hope an incident like this won’t happen again.”

“I’ll tell them to keep it to the training grounds next time,” Hashirama assured him. “And next time, maybe Tobirama can join in, get the kids involved.”

The mention of his son made Sarutobi soften a smidgen, which was all Hashirama could hope for. Bless Ashura for that idea about mixed squads, it was really proving to be a boon. He leaned back a little. “From what my brother tells me, everyone on his squad’s doing their families proud. Hiruzen-kun’s a chip off the old block.”

Carefully, he guided the conversation to safer waters, discussing the kids instead of Madara and Mito. This wasn’t going to be all – there were more clan heads clamoring to talk to him – but Hashirama saw the light at the end of the tunnel. With enough time, he could smooth this incident over as soon as possible.

 


 

Over the course of six hours, he saw a succession of clan heads. Some of them wanted to talk about what happened, others took the opportunity to bring up their own issues. The Aburame, in particular, were antsy about the land they’d been allotted – apparently, there was something in the soil that wasn’t friendly to their insect cultivation techniques, so they had to be rehoused elsewhere. Hashirama promised to look into it, internally dreading the inevitable shuffling that would ensue. He even received a Hyuuga, Hitomi’s son and heir, Hiroshige.

He was younger looking than Hashirama expected, but that was typical of the Hyuuga with their smooth, round faces.

“Hokage-sama,” Hiroshige murmured, dipping his head respectfully, “thank you for having me.”

“Everyone in the village is always welcome,” Hashirama said, smiling. “Would you like tea?”

“That would be welcome, yes.” Hiroshige accepted the cup, though it seemed to be more out of politeness than an actual desire to wet his tongue. “I won’t take up too much of your time today. I just came here to tell you that my mother passed and I will be representing my clan from now on.”

Hashirama paused, blinking. “Hitomi-san’s passed? When?”

“Only last night. It’s custom in our clan to have a period of private mourning before we tell anyone. I wanted to inform you first.”

“Thank you. And I’m sorry for your loss. Hitomi-san was a great woman and I respected her deeply.” Her death was unexpected. Last he’d seen her, she’d been unwell, sure, but not on the edge of death. To pass suddenly like this – it was just… odd.

“We’ll be holding her funeral soon and all the clan heads will be invited to it, and to the ceremony to honor her. I hope you will come.”

“Of course. If you need anything…”

“You’ve been more than generous to us,” Hiroshige said. Now that Hashirama was getting a good look at him, he really didn’t look a lot like his mother or his sister. The Hyuuga shared a lot of features, courtesy of being a bloodline clan, but where Hitomi and Hisae were both slender and fine-boned, he was stocky, with solid shoulders and hair so light that it could’ve passed for blond.

“Will this affect the wedding, do you think?” Hashirama asked, trying not to sound too interested.

To his curiosity, Hiroshige almost scowled. “The wedding will be as planned,” he said shortly. “I would not want this sad occasion to darken such a… happy… event for my sister.”

Now that was intriguing. Hashirama didn’t want to get too involved in inter-clan affairs but he’d admit to being more invested than usual in this particular matter. “I’m sure Madara will understand if you and Hisae-san need time.”

“No. The wedding will be going forward. My sister would not have it any other way, but -” Hiroshige stopped himself. “I mean. I apologize, I just meant to say that things will be… as ordered. My mother’s passing has just been difficult.”

Hashirama wanted to pry but he doubted it’d work. So he tamped down on his curiosity and nodded. “No, it’s alright. I’ll be sure to bring anything I have to you from now on, Hiroshige-san.”

The meeting didn’t last long after that, Hiroshige clearing out as soon as he could. Hashirama watched him go, itching with questions. Why did Hitomi die so soon? Why hadn’t the Hyuuga tried to reach out to him if she was so unwell? And, most importantly, why would they, a clan so taken with propriety, let a wedding take place so soon after her funeral? Hashirama wasn’t deeply versed in tradition but even he could tell that something like that was cutting it a little close to the edge.

Still, Hiroshige was new and he couldn’t afford to grill him now. He’d just have to stay curious for a little longer. He didn’t even have that long to linger on the matter anyway because the next person after Hiroshige made him straighten up quickly. It was Uchiha Hikaku.

“Hokage-sama.” Hikaku bowed deeply. “I came to tell you that Madara-sama has left the hospital and will be continuing the rest of his recovery in his home.”

What? “Did he get the seal removed?”

“That’s not for me to say,” Hikaku said, shifting a little. “He requested that I pass this along to you.”

“Nothing else?”

“No.”

“Alright. Then you’re free to leave, unless you have more.”

Hikaku departed. Hashirama clutched his cup, his thoughts whirling. He’d thought that Madara would want his seal off before he went back to his clan. He’d even been planning on finding Mito to talk about that, except it seemed that Madara had something else in mind. But why? It didn’t feel right at all. Madara, of all people, being content to have such a harsh seal on him without a clear method of removal – and, once again, slipping around while Hashirama was distracted. He didn’t want to say it but it was just like him.

He was still pondering that when someone tapped on his window. Looking up, he saw Toka peering at him upside down. At his nod, she opened the window and elegantly dropped down into his office. “Hey, cuz.”

“Please tell me our clan isn’t rioting,” he said wearily, massaging his temple. His brain felt mulchy after spending all day in so many consecutive meetings. If Toka was here to bring him bad news, he had half a mind to tell her to wait a half-hour before breaking it to him.

“Oh, no, that’s next week. Though Mina-chan did accidentally almost set Nodoka-sama on fire.”

Nodoka was one of the most crotchety elders in the clan, infamous for a notoriously bad temper and a hard slap for anyone who met her ire. Poor Mina-chan. At least it was ‘almost’ and not ‘definitely’.

“So what’re you here for, or is this social?”

“Can’t I come to check up on my favorite Hokage?”

“I’m your only Hokage.”

“That’s why you’re the favorite,” Toka said, winking. She sat on the edge of his desk, tilting her head. Her dark eyes examined Hashirama from top to bottom and seemed to find him wanting. “You look pretty wilted.”

“I have to rearrange land because of soil incompatibility.”

“Ouch. Well, I won’t bother you too long – I just came here to pass on a message. Did you know Mito’s been staying with me?”

He’d suspected it. If Mito wasn’t at home or with Tobirama, then it made sense that she’d find her closest friend for a break from the action. “Yeah.”

“Mm, well, she wanted me to ask and I quote – ‘has my damn husband finally done something to deal with his problems’ – and also that she tried to talk to Madara but he was and I quote again – ‘squatting in that house of his, the bastard, he won’t talk to me’. She’s really angry, actually.”

Ah. Hashirama gave up hope on a better evening than his morning. “You two are talking?”

“Sort of? As in, she tells me things but not enough for me to actually really understand.” Toka shrugged offhandedly. “The only thing I did understand is that your marriage seems to be a little. Uh. Not good.”

“She’s not wrong.”

She gave him a pitying look. “She brought over her calligraphy set.”

That was new. Mito hardly ever let anyone touch her calligraphy set and she never, ever moved it unless it was strictly necessary. For her to do something like that was pretty – drastic, to say the least. Possibly even permanent. An Uzumaki changing where they put their brushes was basically a declaration of intent for them.

“Not trying to imply anything here. Just that. You two should sort this out, maybe. That’s all. And my lips are sealed.” Toka mimed a zipper. “Mito hasn’t told me anything actually concrete either, just so you know. And I don’t wanna get involved, just speaking cousin to cousin.”

First Madara, now Mito. They truly were the principal movers and shakers of his life, weren’t they? If only they had villages of their own, then maybe they wouldn’t be moving around so fast. Hashirama felt a little bit like he was playing perpetual catch-up and he tried not to resent that too much.

“Thanks. And forget this ever happened.”

“I have no idea why I’m even here,” Toka replied, patting him commiseratingly on the shoulder before walking towards the door. “Presumably I came by to just stare at you for five minutes.”

“And what a lovely staring session it was,” Hashirama muttered, glaring at the wood grain of his desk.

 


 

Hitomi dead, a restless village, and his friend and wife both speeding off in their own directions–it was a lot for one man.

Hashirama sat down on the highest point of the Hokage mountain. The autumn sky was the purest blue that he’d seen in a while, sprawling above like a gate to the divine, laced with silver wisps. He set down his bonsai tree with a determined huff and pulled out small trimming shears from his pocket. Holding it up, he stared at the little tree with enough intensity to make its tiny leaves quiver.

Hashirama first picked up bonsai when he was learning the art of Sage techniques. When he had to sit down and weigh all the elements of something so small, he could shut out the external world and think unhindered. Tobirama meditated. Hashirama pruned.

After a full minute of consideration, he snipped a twig off its canopy.

So. The truth that’d taken him so long to understand was now staring him right in the face. The Madara problem, as Tobirama put it, wasn’t going to resolve itself. The longer he let it sit, the worse it was going to get. To be honest with himself, Hashirama didn’t want to let it sit anymore either. He’d been married to Mito for ten years and while that decade was filled with good memories, they were not the kind that made a good marriage. He loved her and she loved him but not as husband and wife.

Hashirama snipped two branches off consecutively, measured the bonsai with a finger, then snipped away a leaf. The bonsai, considerably lightened, straightened up to impress him.

“I need to talk to him,” he said. “We stopped talking when we shouldn’t have, I let myself  get distracted by other things, and this is all happening because of that.”

Tobirama had called it his self-sacrificing streak. Hashirama didn’t quite agree with him completely–but he wasn’t dumb enough to deny that there was a kernel of truth to his words. In focusing so closely on the village, he’d ended up neglecting his personal life and now here were all the bugbears of that mistake come to bite him in the ass. Mito deserved more than a husband with a wandering eye and Madara–well, Madara deserved the real truth.

Something tickled his finger. Hashirama startled and looked down to see a flower blossoming in the boughs of his bonsai. Long yellow filaments curled out from its flushed golden center, nestled among white-ivory petals, dusting filmy thick pollen on his hands. He chuckled.

“I’m going to do something. Don’t you start doing something on your own too.” Patting the blossom with one finger, Hashirama got up and leapt off the Hokage mountain into the embrace of that blue sky. Let his tree soak up the sunlight for a little bit. He had someone to visit.

 


 

It wasn’t the first time that Hashirama came here. Now, though, he looked at Madara’s home with fresh eyes and tried to see more than just the building.

It was on the outskirts of the village and closely nestled to where the Uchiha clan chose as the center of their now semi-permanent camp. It was perched on a low, grassy mound that had a little path on its right side. Stones had been pounded into the path to provide a foothold, though a few enterprising weeds were already trying to wriggle out. Hashirama nudged a pebble out of the way of a daisy and  took a deep breath to fortify himself.

“Madara? Are you home?” he called. There was no answer. Hashirama got to the porch and knocked but no reply came. His hopes sinking, he concentrated and looked for his signature. It wasn’t in the house but behind it, in the garden.

He circled around. “Madara?”

Over the garden wall, he could spy Madara slouched on the porch, pipe in mouth. He made no indication that he noticed him but Hashirama felt a dip in his chakra, like a nod. So he jumped the wall.

“Hey.”

Instead of replying, Madara stared into space. Hashirama followed his gaze to the corner of the garden. A small bush was growing there–too small to be seasonal, probably roses or camellia.

“What’re you doing?” he asked, probing for a response. He didn’t want to push if Madara was in a poor mood, but it was hard to judge when he wouldn’t even look at him.

“That shouldn’t be there.”

Hashirama blinked. “What?”

“That bush. It shouldn’t be there.”

“Why not?” he asked, sitting on the porch. 

“It’s too late for it to be growing now. Winter’s coming, its roots are too shallow to survive the frost.”

Madara never showed this much interest in botany before. Hashirama nudged the plant with his Mokuton just in case–it was nothing special. Just a camellia bush that must’ve sprouted during the last warm spell of fall. It was a weedy little thing. Madara was right. It’d die as soon as the frost hit.

He molded his chakra. It wouldn’t take much to poke it in the right direction. Its topmost parts would still snap off in the cold but its roots would survive and that was what mattered. Just as he was about to do it, however, Madara’s head snapped to him.

“Stop.”

Hashirama did, puzzled. “You said it wouldn’t survive.”

“If it dies, it dies,” Madara said. He looked at the camellias again, brows creased. “There’s no point in changing that.”

Hashirama thought of all the plants he’d guided in the past; most of it on a whim, done because he wanted to preserve a particularly pretty tree, or because he was in a good mood, or because he just felt like it. He’d never put deeper thought into why, nor had he cared about inevitability. “It’s not that big a deal.”

“I said leave it, didn’t I?”

“But I can do something about it.”

Hashirama’s hands itched. He didn’t understand Madara’s temper, but he knew enough to tell that there was something deeper. But why the camellias?

He tried to change the subject. “Hikaku told me you left the hospital. I wanted to check up on you.”

“Not necessary.” Madara leaned against a porch post. “I’m fine.”

He looked ragged and still smelled a little medicinal. He didn’t look like he bathed at all. It wasn’t like him–he was usually so meticulous. “I just wanted to see you.”

“You have. You can go.”

Hashirama bit the inside of his cheek to restrain his retort. He wasn’t usually this hostile. Surly, yes, but not callous. Not like before. He’d thought they overcame that. He was wrong. “You’re still angry.”

“I’m not.”

“Is this because I married Mito?”

A bird screeched as it fled the trees. Its scream lingered. The air was suddenly hot, so hot that the grass yellowed, and Madara abruptly stood up, snarling. “No.”

Hashirama tensed to jump away if Madara lunged, but it wasn’t at him. He stalked across the garden towards the camellias, grabbed one long stem, and tore it out roots and all. It was so unexpected that Hashirama could only stare at him as he dropped to his knees and began to rip apart the rest. Dirt sprayed as he threw away the flowers.

“Madara, what..?”

“I can’t stand it,” he hissed. He dug deeper, yanked out more roots. “This thing. There’s no point. I can’t stand it.”

Unease pulsed inside him. The shredded pieces of the camellias were limp, the petals broken. More of it followed. The leaves and stems of it were nothing against Madara’s strength. 

Without knowing why, Hashirama grabbed Madara’s shoulders and shoved him away from it. “Leave it be.”

“It’s going to die anyway,” he snapped.

“That doesn’t matter. Maybe it won’t.”

“‘Maybe’? ‘Maybe’ isn’t good enough. What’s the point? It’s too weak–”

“It’s a camellia!” Hashirama said. “It’s just–it’s just a plant, Madara! It might live, it might die, why does it matter?”

“It does!” he yelled. “It’s going to die anyway, so why not just end it? It’s too weak! It’s pointless!”

A light glittered inside his eyes. It was imbalanced, unstable. It was a dangerous light. It made him look cruel.

Hashirama looked away. The camellias were destroyed. The roots were exposed and broken, the leaves mulched up, and the flowers were all gone. Madara had been thorough.

“It doesn’t have to be this way anymore,” he said, quiet.

Madara stilled. A brief, tense silence ruled the air for a split-second. The air was still thick with heat. “What she said about me. She was right.” 

Abrupt. Coarse. Streams of smoke snaked from underneath his sandals. His hair waved restlessly even though there was no wind. Madara’s Sharingan spun from his bloodless face. He was both unreadable and unknowable. “I wanted to leave.”

Ice dripped down Hashirama’s back. “What?”

“She was right,” he repeated. “I break everything. You don’t need me anyway.”

Hashirama stared at him. Nothing he said made sense. 

Madara didn’t look away. “What’s the point? I can’t blame you. I can’t blame her. It was me. I did this.” The black bars of Mito’s seal crawled on his arms as his chakra dimmed. The heat stayed–a reminder. Hashirama grabbed his wrist but Madara twisted free. “I can’t be here.”

“But–your marriage. Hisae–”

Anger flashed across his face. “I can’t stand her,” he hissed.

“Then why would you…?” 

“She begged me. It was the only way she could escape. And I hated her. How pathetic do you have to be? How weak?”

“But you still did it. You said it yourself. You’ll marry her.” He didn’t understand. All of it, he didn’t understand. Why? When had he stopped making sense to him?

Madara’s Sharingan slowly ebbed into black. He lunged and this time Hashirama was unprepared for it. His nails dug into his wrist as he dragged him until they were too close, until only words separated their mouths.

“We’re the same,” Madara said. “She and I. Who am I, looking down on her? Thinking we’re different? She’s better than me. She’s honest.”

Hashirama’s hand ached–Madara’s grip was too tight.. He didn’t dare pull away. It was the first time ever that Madara was so painfully honest with him. His face was frozen between a snarl and something else, something much sadder, and it had never been a choice, not for him. He grabbed his shoulders.

“I don’t understand you,” Hashirama said. Saying it made him realize it was true. And that made him want to weep. They used to understand each other. “I’m sorry, I don’t. But I want to. Please, Madara. Please help me.”

Everything was going right, except it wasn’t. His brother was alive and well, his clan was safe. The village was growing every day. And yet, Hashirama felt like he was losing it all bit by bit, starting with Madara. No matter what he did, he just couldn’t anchor him.

Madara stared at him. The longer Hashirama looked, the more he saw. The black of his eyes was not a true black. It was the last aftermath of red. It forced him to think: where have you been? Where have I been?

How could he have forgotten so much that he forgot this?

“Why am I here? What for?” Madara’s grip relaxed. Blood rushed back into his hand. He leaned into him. Collapsed. Hashirama caught him, just barely. Always, just barely.

“I don’t know.” It was the worst answer. It was the only answer.