Sitting alone in the woods for over eight hours allowed for a lot of reflective thinking. He’d made an effort to hide his chakra this time from prying senses, and had spent the whole afternoon and part of the evening sitting beneath a tree thinking.
In the end he’d acknowledged that Hashirama’s way had been more effective than his- it was those who carried on Hashirama’s dream who had made sure that Madara’s didn’t come to fruition. Even then, it hadn’t been Madara’s dream- not completely. Black Zetsu had somehow made him believe that it was a manifestation of his will rather than Kaguya’s. He wondered how far it had gone to suggest things to him and guide him towards her revival.
But Hashirama’s methods had ensured the village survived, long enough to reach an era where all the shinobi nations joined together. It was ironic that in the end, conflict had led to shinobi being united. Yet Madara knew that the cycle would undoubtedly continue after that.
But it didn’t really matter, did it? That was beyond his time. He would never see that era. What did matter was where he was now. He could see no place in Hashirama’s life- in the building of Hashirama’s village- where an old warmaker with cynical ideas about the world would help. Hashirama would most likely do better without him. He was to be Shodaime Hokage.
But it was more than that. He was simply too tired to try and change things from the path they’d taken. He saw no point in it. No matter what he did or didn’t do, they would all die eventually, and Hashirama would guide the village towards the path it was meant to take. Madara simply had no purpose.
It would be better, really, if he weren’t there at all.
He looked up at the night sky where the stars blinked down at him. This world was starting to feel more real, even if he still doubted his sanity; his eyes found a constellation that had been a favorite of Hashirama’s as a child- if one looked at it right, it looked like a dove, a symbol of hope and peace in times of war.
He gazed up at it and wondered where the hope it had so often given Hashirama was.
Hashirama was a bit disappointed to find the Uchiha had made a fence around their compound, as well as a gate, where the Senju had left theirs open and friendlier-feeling. He didn’t voice that notion out loud, however, as he knew they probably wanted to feel secure in this strange time. Everyone was adjusting in their own ways.
A few Uchiha glanced up at them as they walked through the open gate; a few others cast them respectful waves. There weren’t that many around, considering he’d seen the bulk of the clan assisting with matters in the village, which did make him happy.
He glanced around for Hikaku, searching less for someone who looked like the image in his head and more for someone giving orders and directing the other Uchiha.
“Hikaku-san!” he called out, finally finding the man checking something off a clipboard as he stood in front of a well being built. He glanced up and surprise flashed across his face before he schooled his expression to be blank.
“Hashirama-sama,” he said with a nod of his head as he approached them. “Tobirama-san. What brings you two here today? Is there business Madara-sama needs to attend to?”
The man was efficient, if nothing else. “Ah, no,” Hashirama explained with an apologetic smile. “Actually, we were wondering if we could talk to you.”
Hikaku’s eyebrows shot up. “Me?”
“About Madara,” Tobirama cut in. Hikaku turned his eyes to him. “He’s been acting strangely. Would you know anything about it?”
The man pursed his lips. “Actually, I was hoping you would, Hashirama-sama.”
Hashirama frowned. “Me?”
“Yes. You see, yesterday he began acting out of character, for no apparent reason.”
Hashirama shared a glance with his brother, who’d mimicked his expression by now. “Would you mind explaining everything you can remember?”
“Of course. Yesterday morning, I noticed that Madara-sama was late rising from his quarters. I was in his dwelling to deliver some correspondence, and knocked on his door in the case something was awry. He told me to leave him be, and I did, since he sounded tense and upset.” Hashirama’s eyebrows scrunched up in concern as he went on. “Usually, he spends time among the clan in the mornings, but I didn’t see him until a few hours later. When he did return, well…he seemed no less upset than he had in the morning, though he was much more composed. He told me to handle paperwork needing his signature on my own and just sign for him.” Hikaku frowned down at his clipboard. “Afterwards he told me not to bother him for the rest of the day. I saw him enter his home, and as far as I know, he spent the rest of the day there.”
“Did he seem off at all the day before yesterday?”
“No,” Hikaku replied, sounding befuddled. “He was completely as normal. He retired for the evening around when the sun went down, and I didn’t see him after that, but there was no change in his behavior that I knew of.”
“What about today? Did you see him leave?”
“Yes. He didn’t say much- he seemed rather…distant. I advised him to take the day off, and he left. That was the last I saw him.”
“He didn’t return?” Hashirama asked, suddenly feeling alarmed for reasons he couldn’t explain.
“No. To be frank-” Hikaku grew sheepish-looking and rubbed the back of his neck. “To be frank, I assumed something had happened between he and you, Hashirama-sama. You’re really the only…close friend that he has, and I didn’t know of anything else that would upset him this much.”
“Does his behavior seem particularly alarming to you?” Tobirama butted in. Hashirama cast him an exasperated look, which he ignored; they had to cover every base.
Hikaku raised an eyebrow at him. “If you mean, ‘Do I think he’s a danger to the village,’ Tobirama-san, then no.”
Somehow getting a taste of the judgmental eyebrow himself made the future Nidaime feel the tiniest bit sheepish.
“But his behavior was alarming because it made several in the clan concerned for him. I simply don’t know what could have upset him.”
Hashirama let out a sigh. “Well, thank you anyway, Hikaku-san,” he said, feeling dejected. He’d hoped the Uchiha would at least have some hints to help unravel Madara’s odd behavior, but it seemed they were just as in the dark as he was. “And thank you for sending your clansmen out to help with construction. They’ve been a good help today.”
“You can thank Madara-sama for that,” Hikaku retorted pleasantly. “It was his order, after all. Even if he did seem…very distracted and eager to leave when he made it.”
Some of his clansmen might have been angry at him for sharing information about their leader with the Senju, but Hikaku wasn’t still stuck in the days they’d been enemies. They were comrades now, comrades from the same village, and he knew how much Madara and Hashirama cared for one another. If anyone could figure out what was wrong, it was the Senju leader.
“I’ll inform you when he returns,” he said.
Hashirama smiled at him. “Thank you, Hikaku-san. I appreciate it.”
Both he and his brother gave the man a bow of their head and turned to leave. Hashirama glanced about the area one more time, just to make sure Madara hadn’t come back while they were talking, and his shoulders sagged when he found the man nowhere.
He’d grown up being unable to save people he loved; unable to help when he wanted to. It was no wonder he was such an overbearing mother hen sometimes- no matter what was the matter, Hashirama was sure he could help if Madara would only let him.
Madara didn’t return to the compound that night. He wasn’t particularly too keen on going back to the suffocating atmosphere it held.
Instead, he wandered around the forests outside the village limit until he was on the opposite side as the Uchiha were- which put him closer to the Senju compound, but it wasn’t as if he ever had visitors from the Senju- and he’d found a clearing by a river. After that he left his kage bunshin to deal with his task and wandered back in the direction of the village.
By the time he got there, the sun was up and plenty of people were out and about. He realized he hadn’t eaten since the previous afternoon and reluctantly headed towards the center of the village where most of the food vendors were. After checking to make sure he’d remembered to pick up some type of money, anyway.
Two familiar voices bickering made him aware of the Senju brothers standing in the middle of the street, backs facing the direction he came from. In his first life he would have rolled his eyes and made some sarcastic quip about how they didn’t look dignified arguing in public. In this iteration, he simply walked up behind them without saying a word.
“Not dangerous, you were saying?”
“Tobirama, I’m telling you, something’s wrong!”
“If this turns out to be-”
“Are you so sure?”
“All I need to do is find him-”
“Find who?” Madara asked, voice a bit raspy from spending hours in the woods without any water.
Hashirama jumped like Madara had electrocuted him and whirled around, nearly tripping over himself in his surprise, while Tobirama went tense as a board and turned to face him with eyes narrowed to slits.
Hashirama stared at him with shock ironed into his expression before leaping at him in a way that made him tense up. “Madara! Where on earth have you been?” His hands landed on Madara’s shoulders, and he opened his mouth to respond, but the man gave him no time. “I’ve been pulling my hair out!”
Now this, this was truly confusing. At least he’d had a reason for Hashirama’s actions before. Madara stared back at the man with palpable confusion. “What are you on about?”
“You didn’t return to your clan’s compound,” Tobirama spoke up, still staring at him with narrow eyes. “They’re wondering where you’ve been too.”
Madara picked Hashirama’s hands off him by the sleeves like he was disconnecting an annoying child from himself. “Am I not a grown shinobi with time to spend as I please? I was attending to business,” he stated dryly, continuing when Tobirama opened his mouth. “Personal business.”
“But still,” Hashirama fretted, looking like he wanted to grab him again to make sure he wouldn’t disappear again. He gazed at Madara’s paler-than-usual skin, the bags under his eyes, and the tired air about him. There was even a leaf sticking out of his hair that he had to restrain himself from reaching out and removing. “You look horrible.”
Madara arched one eyebrow. “Thank you, Hashirama.”
“He’s right,” Tobirama, the irritating little brat-version of himself, said as he looked Madara up and down. “What were you even doing?”
“As I said,” Madara growled back. “Personal. Business. Now if you’ll excuse me.” He aborted his previous route and turned to find somewhere else to go.
Hashirama’s hand wrapped around his elbow, just like the previous day. He resisted the urge to yank his arm out of his grasp. “Madara, why don’t we grab a bite to eat? There aren’t any pressing tasks today.”
His smile was disarming and friendly- there wasn’t much difference between that offer and the various offers of a similar variety he’d made to Madara in the past that he still remembered so well even after decades.
Yet, there was a slight tone shift that set this one apart from the others, and he couldn’t pinpoint why.
For a brief moment, he considered it. At this point in his previous life spending time with Hashirama had been one of the few things that had made him happy.
Part of him that he’d stuffed into a box in the back of his mind wanted nothing more than to feel that same happiness again.
“…I’m busy,” he said after a minute of silence, not looking back to see Hashirama’s expression fall. He gently pulled his arm from the man’s now loose grasp.
Hashirama’s voice was hopeful and expecting disappointment at the same time. “Another time, then?”
“Perhaps,” he mumbled, where he previously would have agreed without an issue. He walked away from them without really knowing where he was heading.
Hashirama stared after him, watching the way he stared at the ground instead of ahead of him as he usually did, and scowled. “You see now?” he demanded of his brother, turning and gesturing in the direction Madara had gone.
Tobirama frowned at Madara’s back as he turned a corner and walked out of sight. After a moment of perturbed contemplation, he met his brother’s now almost desperate gaze. “You’re right,” he said, and the agreement brought Hashirama some small comfort in at least having his concerns validated. “There’s definitely something wrong with him.”
He’d seen Hashirama and Madara interact a thousand times. However, that conversation had been nothing but strange and out of place. Something had happened two nights ago- something drastic enough to cause Madara to lose any sort of lightheartedness left in him. Even Tobirama had caught glances at a few of the man’s smiles.
Usually, they were directed at Hashirama. His brother seemed to have that effect on people.
He didn’t like Madara and he did think the man could be dangerous, but it wasn’t as if Tobirama thought he was some sort of heartless monster. It was out of the ordinary for him to react in such a way to Hashirama.
“I’m worried,” Hashirama murmured, folding his arms and walking slowly back towards their office. If nothing else, Tobirama knew this was going to distract him from getting any sort of paperwork done until it was resolved. “He won’t tell me what’s wrong.”
“You may need to consider this is something he doesn’t want to share with you,” Tobirama told him, not unkindly.
Hashirama chewed on his lip and gazed up at the mountain where he’d once envisioned Madara’s likeness watching over the village. He’d thought to himself that he would be the one who watched over Madara, then. In his heart, he wondered if Madara truly didn’t want to share whatever was bothering him with Hashirama, or if he felt as if he couldn’t.
His gut told him he knew the answer.
“Madara-sama? Everyone’s been wondering where you’ve been.”
“Ah. Yes. I…apologize for being…distant,” Madara managed to get out, staring at Hikaku as the man stared at him. “I’ve been busy with a…personal matter.”
Hikaku frowned at him. Madara knew the man wanted to chastise him, to tell him he couldn’t let a personal matter disrupt his leading of the clan, but was too respectful to say it. “Of course. Can I assume you’re going to be at the clan meeting tomorrow night?”
Madara hesitated. That told Hikaku as clear as day that something was truly awry if he was second-guessing his ability to meet the basic duties of clan head.
He didn’t know whether he wanted to try and gently prod the man for answers, shake him back and forth, or yell at him. Maybe all three.
“…yes,” Madara finally said, frowning now.
There was a sudden surety in his eyes. Hikaku knew he wouldn’t flake out, at least, but he wondered at what the sureness meant. He doubted Madara was going to attend in the way Hikaku expected. Was he going to bring whatever had changed to the elders and gathered clan members? Tell them of a concern or danger?
He was glad Madara was coming, at least, but something in him was extremely wary of the man’s intent.
“You have done a fine job of leading us and protecting the clan,” Hikaku said, though he didn’t know how much, if at all, it would help. He pressed his clipboard against the tabletop to keep himself from engaging in one of his idle tics. “I am sure that any concern you bring before them, they will listen to.”
If they could just assure Madara, he thought. Perhaps he was having a case of self-doubt. He needed to know he had his clansmen’s support.
Madara looked away from him, eyes distant. He sat at the dining table in his home, hands folded together on the tabletop, still in the same mantle from the day before. Hikaku saw his throat move with a swallow before he spoke again.
“I’m aware,” he said, and Hikaku cursed the double-speak and hidden meanings he felt as if he were deciphering. Or, rather, failing to decipher.
He stared at the clan head for a few moments more. It was hard to get a read on him normally, he thought, and ever since he’d started acting strange, it was even more difficult.
Maybe he’d been killed off and replaced with a being from the moon, the sillier part of his mind suggested. Anything to combat the depressive atmosphere around the man.
That was what worried Hikaku the most. He’d seen this happen to other shinobi- they came back from the battlefield, sometimes suddenly; sometimes it happened over a period of time, but they were always different than they’d been before. Or maybe they were just worse, and Hikaku had gotten better at noticing it.
It was different with each person, but there was just a tired look in their eyes, and a lackluster way they moved and lived. Sometimes they could live with it.
Sometimes they simply gave up.
It was normal in life to grieve and mourn, but when he saw this happen, he felt as if it didn’t go away or change as emotions should.
But they were shinobi. Shinobi endured, and didn’t talk about their emotional grievances to others.
In the back of his mind, he hoped that Madara was simply in a slump- a slump that he would get out of once enough time passed. They simply couldn’t function with their clan head like this.
“I’ll leave you to your evening,” he said, polite as ever, and nodded at Madara before leaving. He looked uncomfortable and out of place in the house, as if someone had stuck him where he didn’t belong.
He hoped this- whatever it was- was resolved soon. He felt something anxious stewing in the days to come. Something was amiss, something that he couldn’t let hurt the clan, but at the same time he doubted his ability to stop that- because part of him knew that whatever it was, it was coming from within.
He hoped, both as a protector of his clansmen and someone who cared for his leader’s wellbeing, that Madara did not become one of the shinobi who gave up.