It was a good thing there was a clan arriving in the morning, Madara thought- he’d forgotten which one- or else Hashirama might have more time to bug him. The man was perceptive enough that he might get an inkling as to what he was doing.
Some people were fooled by his smiling face and the way he wore his emotions on his sleeve, but Madara knew better; he saw things no one else did, and in some respects, was even more perceptive than Tobirama.
Tobirama excelled at spotting deceptions and lies; Madara had no trouble admitting the man was intelligent. Hashirama, however, was better at knowing what others were feeling, knowing when they were upset due to something personal, at seeing the emotions they tried to hide.
Not to say Tobirama was bad at those tasks, but Hashirama was just in tune with human nature in a way that sometimes made Madara wary. He didn’t want the man to start guessing at what was wrong with him. (Not that he really wanted to think about the endless list of things that was wrong with him.)
He looked at the gathered clan members before him and felt the exhaustion that had dogged him since he’d woken up get heavier.
They were whispering, wondering why he’d been acting strangely, probably wondering what he was going to address them with and why he’d been late, while the two elders of the Uchiha sat on cushions on a slightly elevated stage in the building. It wasn’t anything too pompous, just a structure that allowed a clear definition of where the leadership in the room laid.
His eyes flicked over to where Hikaku stood at the front, occasionally glancing up at him with a frown. He had the same look as all the others.
Expectations. Hopes. Demands.
Things he was too wearied to deal with.
Madara remembered leaving his clan, before he even left Konoha, when none of them would listen to his concerns about the village leadership.
He wondered if it was going to go down the same route this time.
At least he wouldn’t be close enough to watch.
“I believe the first order of business is our acquisition of materials,” said the old crone to his right, the elder who had lived the longest. Mikitoro had weathered every foul mood his father had with an unimpressed look and a judging frown.
To her left, Rikku- Hikaku’s grandfather- opened his mouth. Madara spoke before either of them could.
“Hikaku will deal with all requisitions that need to be relayed to the village from this point,” he said, making the room shoot him confused looks.
Mikitoro squinted at him. “And what of making sure our shinobi are fairly rewarded for their work? You will petition the village leadership on their behalf, once a leader is chosen, I presume?”
“I will not,” Madara returned, wearing an eerie calm that set more than one person at unease. “That will also be handled by Hikaku.”
Now the man was looking concerned, looking up at him with a visibly startled expression.
Rikku squinted at him. “That is a duty that should be handled by the clan head,” he argued, sounding more perturbed than angered.
“And it will be,” Madara replied, “given that Hikaku is who I elect as clan head in my stead.”
The room erupted into a chorus of shocked yelling. “Madara-sama!” Hikaku stuttered, in disbelief.
“You can’t mean that you plan on resigning,” Mikitoro said, looking somewhere between disturbed and concerned.
“I do not ‘plan’ on doing anything.” Madara’s voice was flat and even- devoid of anything at all. It made Hikaku’s brow crease with worry. “I am no longer fit to lead this clan, and I will no longer do so. I will not change my decision no matter what argument you make. Hikaku is among the strongest of the clan, and if any of you wish to challenge him and my decision, I’m sure he’ll meet your expectations with the strength becoming of a leader of the Uchiha. From this moment on, address him with the respect you would give me.”
He turned and started for one of the doors at the end of the stage.
Various people called out to him, sounding troubled and anxious and even distraught, but it was only Mikitoro’s that made him pause.
“Madara!” she barked, dropping the respectful form of address. She’d watched the man grow up, even been there when he’d been born, and she’d never seen him act like this. “Don’t tell me you plan on just abandoning the clan like this!”
It was obvious to her that if he walked out the door, he didn’t intend on coming back. He knew damn well that he was the only one who possessed a Mangekyo Sharingan, and the loss of it would spell weakness to any of their enemies.
He turned and gave her a derisive look over his shoulder. “Is the clan full of needy children, tugging at my mantle and needing direction? We are not in the same era anymore. The Uchiha are part of Konoha; you don’t depend on the leadership of one anymore, nor will you fall apart by the loss of one member. I’ve left a capable shinobi in my stead. You need nothing more from me.”
Leaving the elders staring after him in stunned silence, he swiftly exited through the door and disappeared into the night.
The Uchiha in the room started yelling again, causing a general ruckus as they voiced their worries and wondered at the man’s sudden departure.
With a grimace, Hikaku realized that Madara coming late was no mistake- it was past midnight, probably nearing one in the morning, and as the new clan leader, Hikaku would have to be at the meeting point with the Senju to welcome the Shimura at six sharp. By the time he quieted everyone down and restored order…he didn’t have time to run to the Senju and tell Hashirama of this.
“Enough!” he yelled, stepping up onto the stage.
His exclamation startled most of the room’s inhabitants into silence, and they stared expectantly up at him. He swore inwardly at Madara for dumping this on him so abruptly, but he couldn’t let the clan fall into disarray; he had to take charge now before any chaos unfolded.
“As Madara-sama said, if any of you wish to challenge me for leadership, it is within your rights to do so, and I will meet that challenge head-on. However, I implore you to think of more than your own gain. This is a fragile time. We must appear united, especially with the Shimura arriving in the morning. Even if it is temporary, please allow me to lead the Uchiha for the time being.”
“I second Hikaku’s words,” Mikitoro interrupted before any in the muttering crowd could argue. “The elders stand fully behind him.”
At her side, Rikku nodded. “There are none among you I would choose over him.”
Hesitantly, one of the Uchiha spoke up. “All right, Hikaku…sama,” she said, sounding as if she were trying out the new honorific and found it weird. People around her began nodding in agreement.
Hikaku breathed a small sigh of relief. “Everyone in the clan must be made aware of this,” he called. “Please spread the news as calmly as you’re able.”
Slowly, the Uchiha began to trickle out of the building, still muttering to each other. Hikaku dragged a hand over his face and breathed in raggedly. He still didn’t know what was wrong with Madara- but he knew now it must have been grave if he doubted his own ability to lead so much he resigned.
He hoped Hashirama could help fix this. Otherwise, the Uchiha were going to lose their strongest shinobi in generations- possibly for forever.
Madara retreated to the clearing he’d left his kage bunshin at work in with his gunbai, the rest of his clothes, and the small potted plant he’d knocked from his windowsill that he’d remembered some time the day before was a gift from Hashirama.
He only wanted to leave nothing personal of the sort in that compound, he told himself, then almost snorted at the pathetic lie he told himself.
He dispelled his bunshin, which had finished constructing a small dwelling made from dark woods that blended in well. They’d used up most of his personal money to buy supplies, but now that he was out of the village itself, he could do fine living off the land.
He breathed out a sigh when the front door was locked behind him. It wasn’t as if it could stop a shinobi, but the state of being away was a relief.
He leaned his gunbai against the wall in the front room and stepped through the doorway in the back to the kitchen.
There weren’t many windows, but he’d left one by the table to place the plant. Grimacing, he fetched a cup to water the damned thing so it wouldn’t die, leaving it halfway full in the sill, and went back to the front room and up the stairs. There was only one room there, lit only by a small window in the ceiling that cast a rectangle of light in the center of the floor and a window that faced the densely populated forest that did little more than give him an escape route.
His body complained at him as he set his clothes down on the dresser. There was an ache in his back that had been developing ever since he arrived in the time period, and the rest of him simply felt hungover. He dropped thankfully onto the bed in the corner and bit back a groan.
Welcoming the Shimura would take several hours at minimum. They would probably expect a celebration with the entirety of their clan that would last into the night.
It would look rude for any leaders to leave, so at least Hikaku or Hashirama wouldn’t be badgering him for some time yet.
Madara let his eyes fall shut and surrendered to sleep.
Hikaku straightened out the formal mantle he wore with a slight grimace. There were black tassels on the collar that matched the one on his obi, and they were grating on his nerves every time he moved.
“Are you all right, Hikaku-sama?” one of the Uchiha to his right whispered. It was still a bit odd calling him their leader, but they were adjusting.
“I’m fine.” Truthfully, Hikaku had no idea what he was feeling. The surrealism from the night before still hadn’t worn off.
It didn’t feel overly strange to lead his clansmen in a task- but in the back of his mind, he was thinking of waking up the next day with the responsibility for the whole clan’s safety riding on his back. That was more responsibility than he’d ever taken on.
If there was one thing he was good at, however, it was compartmentalizing. He had to be composed for any official business and couldn’t let his doubts show.
What if Madara never came back? What if this was the rest of Hikaku’s life?
Was he ready for this?
He kept his gaze straight ahead instead of on the ground where he would rather be looking as thoughts whirled about in his head. The village gates were coming into view- the outer wall wasn’t yet constructed, but an entry and welcoming point was required regardless.
A small group of Senju was already there, dressed in the same white and mint-colored garb as they’d been during the Uchiha and Senju’s peace talk, creating an almost amusing contrast to the Uchiha’s dark blacks, greys and blues.
Hikaku had felt the same amusement at that meeting as he watched Madara and Hashirama shake hands. No one else had seemed to notice, but he’d seen a small smile on his leader’s face, partially hidden by his bangs, and he’d been relieved that they could all finally find some happiness and hopefully safety.
He wondered, again, if Madara’s change was truly so sudden or if it had been a long time coming.
Hashirama stood in the center of the road smoothing out and fretting over his clothes while his brother stood beside him rolling his eyes. Hikaku thought, sometimes, it was a little funny, the picture they made when they stood together. Izuna had looked a bit like a slightly shorter copy of Madara with a different hairstyle, so their enemies had usually kept their gaze on the elder brother, whereas Tobirama had a more piercing gaze than his brother but couldn’t seem to crack a smile in the same way. People were often confused who to look at before learning who was the eldest.
Hearing the Uchiha’s approach, the Senju began to look away from the gate and the road through the forest that led out, turning their eyes towards the other clan.
Hashirama turned to face them, a hopeful and anticipating look on his face, and Hikaku felt a pang when he realized the disappointment he was about to cause. It wasn’t as if he thought Hashirama a child who couldn’t handle it, but, simply put, no one really liked disappointing Hashirama. The man was like an overeager dog; he tried to make sure everyone was comfortable and pleased, willing to work together, even those who disliked him.
The man’s brow creased in clear confusion when he saw Hikaku leading at the front.
Beside him, Tobirama looked at them with a frown. Hikaku recognized the calculating element to his expression in contrast to the worried one in his brother’s.
“Hashirama-san,” Hikaku greeted as he reached a spot a few feet away, on the second half of the road, and left his clanmates there as he moved to the middle himself. Now that he was a clan head himself, equal in standing to the man, he no longer needed the former level of respect he’d used, but it still felt odd. “Good morning.”
As he’d expected, Tobirama’s eyes narrowed a fraction; he missed nothing.
“Hikaku?” Hashirama said, sounding a bit flabbergasted. He glanced quickly behind Hikaku with his eyes as if Madara were going to pop out at random in a moment. “Erm…where’s Madara?”
“Madara-sama is…” Hikaku trailed off, unsure of how to explain.
Tobirama’s eyes narrowed further. Hashirama’s frown deepened with concern.
“Did something happen to him?” he prompted.
“No,” Hikaku replied quickly, not wanting to send him into a miniature panic right before a clan arrived. “No, he’s fi…well, he’s physically safe,” he corrected himself with a mental wince. “However, he’s no longer leading the clan. I’m standing in for him.”
“What?” Hashirama gaped at him without even trying to hide his incredulity and bewilderment. “Why?”
Hikaku glanced at the road, where he could see a large amount of people walking towards the gates. “I can explain in more detail later. We need to stow any problems right now.”
“Brother,” Tobirama muttered quietly at his side, making the Senju leader stop and frown again. He glanced at the approaching Shimura.
Hashirama sighed. He straightened up and put on a smile again, but it was noticeably dimmer. “All right,” he relented, straightening his kimono once more. “After the welcoming dinner.”
Hikaku nodded silently and said nothing else, putting on a pleasant expression and waiting for the clan to reach the gates.
The Shimura didn’t look too overly weary, or as if many had sustained injuries getting there- the region around Konoha had been devoid of conflict for a fortunate amount of time since the Senju and Uchiha had united and started to gather clans to themselves. A man strode at the front, obviously the clan head, wearing a plain yukata for travel.
Hikaku glanced at the man’s dark hair, shoulder-length and kept together with a leather tie, and the scar across his nose. Shimura Daishin, he surmised, who didn’t quite have the level of infamy Hashirama or Madara did but was well-known for his own strength on the battlefield.
“Shimura-san,” Hashirama greeted with a smile, stepping forward to offer his hand to shake. He still seemed unnerved at Madara’s absence.
“Senju Hashirama,” Daishin returned with a quiet wariness about him, eyeing Hashirama as he shook his hand. After, he turned to Hikaku with a raised eyebrow, exuding a quiet expectation. “And where is the legendary Uchiha Madara himself?”
Hikaku grimaced inwardly before putting on a small, polite smile. “Madara no longer leads the clan,” he said, dropping the honorific to avoid looking weak. “I’m Uchiha Hikaku, clan head.”
Daishin’s eyebrow climbed higher. Hikaku may have been a bit insulted that the man was doubting him, but he didn’t let it get to him.
“I see. Well then, shall we get this underway?”
“Of course!” Hashirama exclaimed, eager to move away from the topic of Madara and get all this over with. He gestured towards the village with one hand and started to lead the way. “I’m sure the journey was tiring. We’ve a meal prepared for your clan members…”
Hikaku reminded himself to walk on Daishin’s other side, not behind them as he would have before.
As he’d thought it would, settling the Shimura in took longer than Hashirama would have liked.
He had to reassure Daishin (without looking like he was trying to reassure him) that the Shimura would be treated just as fairly as the Nara and the other clans that were currently migrating to Konoha would be, and he had to politely navigate the man’s demands and figure out where to compromise.
Having both Hikaku and Tobirama there, however, lent him so much help on the finer points of negotiation. Hashirama could acknowledge he was too giving sometimes. He just wanted so badly for his and Madara’s dream to flourish and last long after they’d died.
Speaking of Madara, he was even more concerned than he had been the last few days now. It felt like his head was going to fall off at any moment due to the sheer amount of anxiety that was giving him a mild headache.
What could have possibly happened that would have caused Madara to resign? The Uchiha clan meant everything to his friend. He’d transitioned into the role of clan head from his youth so seamlessly that the first attack the Uchiha suffered from a clan who thought they’d be weak during the change of leadership was utterly crushed. Madara knew resigning would lead some to think he was showing weakness, and he would never do that.
And now he couldn’t find him. Again.
Hashirama had been walking around the village for twenty minutes searching for the man’s chakra signature. He was starting to become a bit incensed. If Madara would only talk to him- but talking about his feelings had never been one of Madara’s strong points.
Frustrated, he activated his sennin mode. His senses broadened, and he found Madara’s chakra in the forest outside the village, quiet and lowered as if he were asleep.
He took off into the trees like a bolt from a crossbow.
It didn’t take him long to reach a small house in the woods he almost would have missed if he wasn’t tracking his friend’s life force. He dropped down into the clearing in front of it and frowned, glancing at the river by the dwelling, the darkness of the trees on its other side, and the lack of windows on the second floor. What on earth?
Perplexed, he walked up to the door- figuring he should at least exercise basic courtesy and not barge in, save he upset Madara even further- and knocked.
No answer. He frowned and knocked again.
He stood there for at least a full minute. When nothing happened, he wondered if Madara was purposefully ignoring him, or if he hadn’t heard.
Determined, he started knocking again. He was going to talk to Madara and figure out what was the matter, or at least figure out why he’d moved himself out away from the village like a hermit.
Why can’t you see how worried I am about you?
Madara groaned as he awoke to the sound of banging downstairs. His head felt foggy and his earlier tiredness didn’t seem to have gotten any better; maybe even worse. He sat up, rubbing the sleep from his eyes, and grimaced at the entry to the staircase.
A quick check of his senses told him that Hashirama had found him. Of course he had, Madara had been expecting it, he just didn’t want to deal with it.
Damn it, Hashirama, he thought bitterly, pushing himself out of bed and straightening out his clothes as he went downstairs. Trying to fix his hair proved futile when it just seemed to grow more tangled.
He finally reached the door- the bastard was still knocking- and threw it open with a scowl. Hashirama jerked to a stop, surprise flashing across his face, and smiled sheepishly. “What the hell do you want?” Madara growled, and pushed away the guilt he felt when Hashirama’s expression fell.
“Um-” Hashirama tried for a smile again, looking apologetic. “I came to see you. I thought that was obvious.”
“Why- what do you mean why?” Flabbergasted, Hashirama alternated between staring at him and glancing behind him into the darkness of his house. The front room at least had an acceptable level of light, but it was still dim. “Madara, you resigned from being clan head and moved out into the forest! I’m worried!”
“Don’t be,” Madara said, wanting to get this conversation over with and go back to his solitary. He waved one hand dismissively. “I’m fine. You should go back to the village.”
He went to close the door, but Hashirama placed a palm to the wood quickly enough to make him jump. His face took on a sterner look. “Madara, you can’t honestly expect me to just ignore it when you’re acting like this.”
“Acting like what?” Madara asked, annoyed, being ignorant on purpose. Judging by the expression on Hashirama’s face, he was more indignant by his glare than cowed.
“Acting like what! Just a few days ago you were smiling and laughing,” Hashirama insisted. Madara couldn’t stop a small cringe from escaping, and he knew Hashirama noticed. It was as if he couldn’t hide a single little detail around him. “Now you’re closed off, angry, unhappy- you gave up being clan head. Now you isolate yourself out here after we tried as we did to build all of this? Now you want me to just, leave you here and not bother you?”
“That would be preferable, yes,” Madara replied testily, ignoring the way his stomach churned. The longer he stood there dancing around this subject with Hashirama, the more he wanted to spill his guts.
“Madara, please talk to me.” The disgruntlement left the Senju’s face as he stared at him, imploring, with worried brown eyes that pleaded with him to let him help. “You’re my friend. I care about you.”
The churning got worse. Madara stared into the man’s eyes and felt all his guilt and despair crush him, thinking of when those eyes had gone cold for him, of the absolution they’d held in what should have been his final moments. In that moment he wanted nothing more than to fall at the man’s feet and blurt out the whole story and beg for his forgiveness, beg to be his friend again and nothing more- not a villain or a man looking to take over the world or a monster.
And for a moment, he felt indecision; he was almost convinced by Hashirama’s eyes and the way he was almost reaching out to touch his shoulder and the distress on his face for Madara.
But he ripped himself out of it and jerked back with a scoff, mocking that pitiful part of himself. “Just leave, Senju,” he snapped, Sharingan flaring to life in his eyes. “Don’t bother me again.”
He slammed the door on Hashirama’s heartbroken face and turned around, leaning his back against it. He took a shuddering breath and fumbled to lock it.
“Madara?” Hashirama’s shaking voice called through the door, making his chest tighten. “Madara, please open the door.”
Don’t open the door.
Slowly, he let himself sink to the floor, legs feeling too weak to keep him upright. Don’t you dare open that door, he told himself, trying to ignore the warm feeling starting to gather in his eyes.
Hashirama called through the wood again. He’d descended to begging now, and his voice cracked like it had the time he almost thought Madara drowned in the river when they were kids. “Madara. Please.”
He closed his eyes and covered his mouth with one hand, not trusting himself not to say anything.
He remembered the time they’d stood on the mountain and Hashirama had smiled at him, telling him he knew that Madara would make a great Hokage. That he believed in him.
Against his will, tears began to slip down his cheeks. Madara cursed them, cursed his weakness, cursed Hashirama for doing this to him. It would have been so much easier if he’d been sent back to when he was in a dark hole all by himself.
Dead silence. He sat there, breath coming uneven, waiting until he finally felt Hashirama’s chakra begin to slowly leave.
He waited until the man was too far away to sense without straining and uncovered his mouth, dragging in labored breaths around a sob he couldn’t stop. He cried for the first time since he’d been stuck in a cave, clinging to a tree for life. Maybe since the first time he’d left Konoha. Maybe since Izuna had died.
He fisted his hands in his tangled hair and wept into his knees, desperate to hide it and his weakness. This had all only happened because he was weak; because he was too cowardly to just disappear like the ghost he was, or to just finish it like he knew he deserved. He thought of Hashirama’s devastated face, filled with hurt but no anger, with no trace of the smile he should have been wearing.
“Hashirama,” he choked out, stuttering over the syllables. It was the first time he’d said the man’s name and meant it like he was talking honestly, like he was speaking in a way other than just to look normal for appearance’s sake. Like he was actually talking to Hashirama. “I’m sorry.”
Hashirama made his way back to the village at a slow pace. He wanted to wait to go home until Tobirama was asleep, so he wouldn’t look at him and frown at the dejected air about him that was different from his moods and ask him what had happened.
What did I do? he thought morosely, kicking a stick out of his path. Why did his friend suddenly treat him as if he was a burden and an irritation?
He’d never been one to shy away from his emotions. He thought that was the one greatest crime of the shinobi world- the insistence that shinobi not feel. Hashirama had always let himself feel his emotions in full intensity, even if he had to hide it; he never wanted to become an unfeeling soldier who didn’t care for others. He let himself shed a few tears as he wandered through the woods in the direction of the Senju compound.
He thought of the way Madara had looked at him just before something seemed to snap and he shoved that door shut. He’d looked stricken- with grief, with guilt, with anguish. Like he’d wanted to just spill whatever was wrong at Hashirama’s feet and let him in but was too ashamed.
The Uchiha had always covered his emotions with a mask of indifference. If he couldn’t do that, he just reacted with anger. Usually, it was to hide embarrassment or react to Hashirama’s dejected moods.
It was then he realized that, although Madara’s rejection hurt, doing what the man requested- leaving him be- was possibly the worst thing to do. His friend was trying to push him away. The shame Hashirama had seen was eating at him, keeping him from coming to Hashirama for help.
Even if he was in pain now, the pain Madara was in must have been infinitely worse for him to act like this. Hashirama couldn’t abandon him now.
He paused and straightened up. He wasn’t going to let years of friendship dissolve because of one snapped order made when Madara was upset. And his friend definitely was upset- and Hashirama was going to find out why, one way or another.
He looked up at the sky and looked for a familiar constellation. His gaze fell on the dove he searched for, and he smiled, even through his heavy-heartedness.
I’m going to help you, Madara, he promised himself, his friend and the sky. You aren’t getting rid of me that easily.
Madara was unable to stop himself from sitting on his floor for half an hour and bawling like a child. He felt pathetic- not to mention stupid- but his body gave out on him. He ended up slipping in and out of wakefulness, growing disoriented and irritated at himself, and eventually dragged himself back upstairs and into bed. He had no idea for how many hours he’d been asleep at that point, but he did know he was exhausted.
And then he was woken by knocking on his door.
Leaping out of bed and making himself dizzy, he took a moment to stand there and blink at the light that dimly lit the room before stumbling over to the stairs and going down to the first level. Rubbing his forehead, he traipsed over to the door and grabbed the handle, expecting a messenger or Uchiha clan member or something else inane sent by Hikaku.
He pulled the door open and squinted against the bright light outside. And then froze.
“Madara,” Hashirama greeted him with a blinding smile, wearing a casual short-sleeved yukata over beige pants. His usual training attire. He had a covered dish in hand and Madara couldn’t fathom what was happening right now. “Good morning!”
Madara’s brain struggled to catch up. “Wh…w- I told y-”
“Don’t worry about yesterday,” Hashirama told him, with the same damn infuriatingly forgiving smile. “Here, I brought this for you.”
He pushed the tray into Madara’s grasp without giving him the option to reject it. He stared at it in bewilderment. “What’s-?”
“Inarizushi,” Hashirama interrupted him once again. “You need to eat, you know.” He glanced at Madara’s ruffled appearance and the dark circles under his eyes with a disapproving frown. “Have you been drinking enough water?”
Madara couldn’t remember drinking anything in the last twenty-four hours. Considering the breakdown he’d had in this very spot the night before, he was feeling very dehydrated. Then his brain caught up with the conversation and he remembered that he’d told Hashirama to leave, and he had brought himself out here to avoid this very thing. “Hashirama-” he began with a glare.
“Make sure you eat,” Hashirama told him, eyes on the dish, and the quiet tone of his voice made Madara stop. “I’m going to train this morning. You’re welcome to come with me.”
“All right.” Still not looking at him, Hashirama smiled, with sadness instead of his usual joy. He glanced up at him, and Madara froze at the look in his eyes, feeling guilt worm its way into his gut. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Then he was walking away, leaving Madara standing there with a tray of inarizushi in his hand and feeling more confused and conflicted than he had in maybe years.
Madara stared at the man’s back until he disappeared into the trees. Swallowing, he slammed the door shut and retreated into the kitchen, placing the tray on the counter and staring at it.
You can’t be friends with him. You can’t interact with him. You can’t be with him.
“Just let me be, Hashirama,” he whispered to no one, pushing the tray into his trash bin and sitting down at his kitchen table. He set his head in his hands and wondered, again, if disappearing was what he should have done.