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“What…is that?”

They’d been walking for only ten minutes, Madara trying to conceal his exhaustion and Hashirama watching him out of the corner of his eye, when they rounded the corner of part of a cliff and came to a stop when they saw the…contraption waiting for them. There were metal rods inlaid into the ground that appeared to be what it ran on, and they were built out over the ocean in such a way it looked too rickety to hold the giant…machine it was supposed to.

There were people there, people boarding the thing, a carriage made of steel with smoke rising from a pipe that stretched from its roof. Madara didn’t answer Hashirama, too busy staring.

“Oho! Someone from the human world, eh?” a voice exclaimed, making them look around for the source. Part of a wooden pole set in the path ahead of them shifted and changed colors and somehow, a bird as large as his arm was sat upon it, having been camouflaging itself.

Hashirama stared at it in surprise. “Human world?” he questioned, confused. “This is a different world?”

“An entirely different dimension, for your information,” it squawked at him, making something flip in Madara’s gut. The only other dimensions he’d ever heard of were the ones Kaguya used.

Hashirama frowned. It was clearly bending his mind just as much as Madara’s. “Would you be so kind as to tell us how to get back?” he asked politely, and Madara just let him do the talking. Diplomacy would probably get them farther than his methods and he was too tired to try.

“Oh, it’s not hard at all,” the bird said, making them perk up a bit. “Though it is rather difficult to get here. I wonder how you did.”

They glanced at each other. “There, uh…” Madara muttered. “There was a…witch…”

“Ah, witches are tricky,” the bird continued, as if that explained everything. “Anyway, take the train into the city. The boat that’ll take you to the exit is there. Don’t forget the toll, though.”

“Toll?”

“Your human money won’t work.” Both he and Hashirama frowned simultaneously. “You’ll have to exchange it. There’s also a toll to get on the train, but I’ll do you a favor and let it slide just this once if you got thrown over on accident.”

“Thank you so much!” Hashirama folded his hands together and bowed, feeling a bit relieved.

The bird squawked and waved one foot at him. “Just hurry up and get on already! It won’t wait forever. And remember,” it said, voice going grave, making them both pause. “Don’t try to take a ride without paying the toll. Unless you want something horrible to happen to you.”

They glanced at each other out of the corner of their eyes at the foreboding warning. Somehow, Madara got the feeling that “something horrible” absolutely would happen to them in this strange place if they broke the rule, and that it wasn’t just for show to scare people off from filching away with their money.


 

This thing was…unsettling. It was unsettling and odd and even Madara found it so, even if he wouldn’t admit it. The entire thing was made of metal, not wood like carriages, and it rocketed along the tracks built across the water at a frankly unnerving speed even for shinobi for the simple fact he wasn’t controlling it and didn’t know when it was going to stop.

Even worse was the inside. He shoved Hashirama into the only open seat he could see as soon as they stepped on, ignoring the frown and protest the man gave, and stood there as rigid as a statue as he listened with his senses. Hashirama was the one who’d been unconscious for almost a whole day, he reasoned, and he didn’t think he could relax in that seat in between the other passengers. All around him there was a strange not-chakra, an energy that felt like tasting something salty after only having sweets for years, and he could feel it bubbling in all the…beings, around him.

There were those who looked like animals yet walked on two feet and were as tall as him. Some didn’t look like anything humanoid at all; one figure sat draped beneath a cape, and he couldn’t see its face but he got the feeling there was nothing underneath. There were those who looked like humans yet he could tell they weren’t. There was a heavy sense of other pervading everything that made it clear as day.

He didn’t like any of this. It all made him just more anxious as the train, as he’d heard it called, flew through the air on those thin metal rods he’d seen holding it up and he tried not to feel nauseas again but the rocking was making him feel unstable. No, he did not like any of this at all.

The train rammed into something uneven on the tracks and the entire cabin jerked. Madara stumbled, feeling even worse, and would have fallen over if it weren’t for Hashirama’s arms winding around his waist and hips and pulling him down.

“No,” he said, voice firm as he frowned. “Come here.”

Madara sunk into his lap and shivered, not even willing to complain. Hashirama was the only thing familiar here, the only thing he could trust, the only source of actual chakra and warmth he could focus on without wanting to panic. He slumped into the man’s shoulder and reached blindly for the hand the man had settled on his knee after pulling him down, tangling their fingers together and breathing out with something like relief. At least Hashirama was there.

Hashirama’s arm tightened around him when he caught a few other passengers glancing at them. He had no idea how friendly most of them were, and it was disquieting to see so many oddities that couldn’t be explained around him. It made every alarm bell he’d ever learned to have ring in his head. Maybe it was cowardly, he thought, but at least he hadn’t been sent here alone. There was no one he’d rather be stuck in such a strange place with than Madara.

Madara, however, seemed exhausted, and Hashirama’s mind urged him to get them somewhere they could rest.

Hashirama was the only person here keeping him grounded, and Madara absolutely could not allow anything more to happen to him. He wasn’t letting him out of his sight.

Madara was the only one here giving him a line of sanity and calm, and Hashirama absolutely could not lose him or allow anything to happen when the Uchiha was so clearly almost dead on his feet. He wasn’t letting him out of his sight.


 

Somehow, the exact same bird was waiting for them on the other side.

“You’ll want to visit the exchange office to switch out that money,” it chirped, chipper and cheerful enough it made even Hashirama stare sheepishly at it. “It’s right down that way where the blue coins are!”

It pointed its claw to one of the cobblestone roads that branched off from the main one leading from the train dock. Wooden buildings that would have looked familiar and homely on their own were stacked on each other almost seven stories high, making the streets seem narrower than they were; lights and lines of lanterns ran between them, illuminating the evening, as pedestrians milled about. The buildings looked as if they were near toppling over yet somehow didn’t.

“Thank you,” Hashirama said with a tired smile, and stepped into the crowd with one hand threaded through Madara’s. Neither wanted to lose each other in the traffic for fear of losing each other permanently.

Madara understood what the bird meant by ‘blue coins’ when they had reached the end of that road, where it split off into a T-intersection, and he saw a building at the center of it with three large blue coin statues over the doorway. They were each larger than him and he couldn’t help but stare at them a bit.

Hashirama, a little bit more present than him, tugged him inside and took out his wallet preemptively. Madara withdrew his hand to look around for his own before realizing it had gotten lost at some point. He groaned. “I hate this place.”

Hashirama smiled and patted him on the shoulder. He stepped up to the counter and rang the bell that sat there. Behind it, they could see rows and rows of shelves in a room that looked larger than the building had appeared from outside, each of them piled high with boxes and scrolls and various types of paper.

A bird popped up from under the counter with a squawk, making them both jump. “Here to exchange money?” it warbled, tilting its head.

“Uh, yes…we are,” Hashirama replied, aborting saying sir or ma’am because he didn’t even know if the bird was a sir or ma’am.

“Well, put it there,” it squawked at him, tapping the counter with its beak. He dumped his wallet out and it stared at its contents, bug-eyed, deliberating and twitching a few times. “Human money, eh?”

“Yes. I hope that’s not a problem.”

“Well, let me count it.” It tapped its claw against the table, slow and quiet, and stared for a good long minute.

Madara was starting to feel his headache coming back. “Excuse me,” he murmured, leaning forward over the counter a bit to be heard, “do you have a restroom?”

“Right through there, hm,” the bird replied, pointing with its tail to a door to his left. The only other entryway in the place was the hall to the shelf room behind it and Madara hoped the rest of its place was just as simple.

He mumbled out something like a thanks and slipped through the door, keeping a heavy eye on Hashirama’s chakra. It was just a few feet apart, he thought, he could still hear that bird pecking at the desk, could still hear Hashirama shifting his weight around, and he just needed a minute to compose himself. He only needed a minute.

He was still half ignoring his ailments trying to convince himself nothing was awry when a wave of dizziness hit him that he couldn’t seem to power through. It began in the back of his head and spread to the rest of his body, making his legs feel weak, and in half a breath he was on the floor without knowing what happened. He slumped against the wall and bit down on a groan, panting as he tried to regain his strength, but the dizziness and lightheadedness it brought on made everything feel too bright and too unstable.

Footsteps thumped rapidly across the floor. Hashirama’s hands pressed into his shoulders as he lifted him to lean upright against the wall, frowning. “All right, where are you hurt?” he demanded, making Madara blink wearily at him. “I thought perhaps you were simply tired like you said, but I know something is wrong. Tell me now.”

Cringing, Madara hesitantly raised his injured hand. He could hardly say no in the face of Hashirama’s insistence. Hashirama yanked his sleeve up and untied his bandage.

The skin around his cut was an inflamed red, while the surface of the wound itself was a mottled purple with specks of grey. “For god’s sake, Madara,” Hashirama snapped, sounding so genuinely annoyed it made Madara cringe again.

“I…sorry,” he mumbled, not looking the Senju in the face as he laid a healing hand over his wrist.

Hashirama glanced at his face and softened. “Madara- come now, look at me. I’m sorry. It’s-” It’s all right, darling, was on his lips and he had to bite it back. “Look.” He reached over and pulled Madara’s face up, though he still refused to look him in the eye. “You should have told me. I could have healed this earlier. It wouldn’t have gotten better on its own- the poison just sits there and worsens.”

“Oh,” Madara muttered, feeling profoundly stupid. “I thought I was just-” He winced as Hashirama’s chakra pulled a tiny bullet of black liquid out of his skin. He was still a bit numb, but it stung where it touched him. “Just…tired. I haven’t…slept.”

“Slept? You mean…” Hashirama’s frown deepened. “When did we get here?”

It taxed Madara’s mind to even try to remember the time of day they’d entered the cave. “Sometime around yesterday afternoon,” he replied, ignorant of Hashirama’s hand tightening on his shoulder. “I think.”

“You think?” Hashirama watched in concern as his head started to droop again, relaxed by the chakra rolling over his arm. “You haven’t eaten, have you?”

“I felt too nauseous. I was…still hungover.” Madara winced when he felt a pulse of the weird not-chakra from someone in another part of the building. His mind felt raw, somehow, and Hashirama was the only thing that didn’t make him feel pained to focus on.

“Have you had any water or food in the last forty hours?”

“I forget,” Madara mumbled, making Hashirama let out a weary sigh.

“Which means you haven’t,” he said, letting his hand wrap around his wrist when the cut was fully closed as he continued to radiate medical chakra. He eyed the tired droop of Madara’s eyelids and the distant look in his eyes with another frown. “What’s the matter?”

A larger not-chakra signature out near the shore lashed out. It made his head feel like someone had poked it with an iron-hot needle. “I don’t like the chakra here,” he admitted, too tired to put up any pretense. “It’s been giving me a headache all day.”

Hashirama’s eyes narrowed. “All day? Why would you be sensing it all day?”

Madara closed his eyes for a brief moment. “I had to watch for anything approaching,” he said with a grimace, making Hashirama pause as his mind put things together.

“Are you telling me you’ve been trying to sense chakra non-stop since yesterday afternoon?”

Hashirama stared at him in disbelief. How long had he had it active? Twenty hours? More than twenty-five?

“I took a break,” Madara retorted, a bit defensive. “On…the train.” Truthfully, it hadn’t been by his choice; he’d almost fallen asleep as Hashirama held onto him and they huddled together in that unfamiliar space.

“Madara! Stop kneading chakra this instant. You need to rest,” Hashirama insisted, pressing a palm against his forehead. “I’m more than well enough to watch for myself.”

Madara stared at him for a moment before doing as he said. He let his mind relax and almost wanted to cry at the wave of relief it gave him, as if he’d undone something keeping that part of him taut and stressed. He wilted, and Hashirama pulled him closer to lean against his chest.

“You’re ridiculous,” he said, exasperated but fond as he stroked Madara’s hair.

“It was my fault you got hurt,” Madara muttered, closing his eyes as he listened to Hashirama’s heartbeat, strong and vivid and alive. “Don’t you know how- frightening that was?” He gritted his teeth and tried not to focus entirely too much on the sappy words he was vomiting out. “I’ve seen you take three swords through the gut and shrug it off like it was nothing. You- you weren’t- you weren’t waking up, and I didn’t know-” He paused to bury his face in Hashirama’s yukata, thinking of the cave when it had gone dark and how much he hated it, how much he hadn’t known that he hated it. “I didn’t know if you would.”

He remembered- how many years had it been after he’d left Konoha? Twenty?- walking the battlefields like a ghost, standing and staring at a great mess of broken wood and trees, staring at where he could see bloodied brown hair strewn across the ground, feeling as though what he was truly feeling in that moment was stuck beneath the surface clawing to get up as Zetsu whispered in his ear and told him it didn’t matter- only the plan mattered- only peace mattered- and he’d walked away, wondering how anyone had defeated that leviathan of a man even he couldn’t, wondering why Zetsu was telling him it was raining even though the skies were clear-

“You can’t die,” he insisted, voice breaking, desperate to make sure he knew just how important it was. “You can’t. I can’t handle it again.”

“Again?” Hashirama brow furrowed as he held him, confused. “But I thought you…”

“I used Izanagi-” Madara faltered, opening his eyes as he remembered- seeing Hashirama dead, seeing his body, seeing his lifeless eyes. “And- and I left, and-”

Hashirama’s dead, emotionless face.

His blood soaking the ground.

The swords through his heart.

“And I saw you.” Crying, now, but he couldn’t hear it. “After battle, and you were- you were gone-”

The way his neck had been cut open, had stopped bleeding,

The way he’d shoved the memory into the furthest reaches of his subconscious because it had all felt so wrong.

Was this how he’d made Hashirama feel?

“I cared, I cared,” Madara went on, weeping into the cloth beneath his face, “but Zetsu told me it didn’t matter- he said it was raining, but I was crying, and-”

“Zetsu?” Hashirama’s voice was feeble and shaky.

“The manifestation-”

“It had you?”

The question made Madara freeze. He knew that he’d left on his own- that he’d made that decision himself- and he’d spent so long thinking Zetsu was his will, and had such a short amount of time to dwell on it when it betrayed him, and he couldn’t help but think that even though he’d chosen to do the things he’d done, Zetsu had never been there to help him. He’d only wanted to manipulate Madara into what he needed and the entire time he’d been caught in the spider’s web without even realizing there was a spider.

“…yes,” he murmured dully. “Until I died.”

The color left Hashirama’s face as he sat there on his heels, holding him, staring at the wall as something very cold moved through him. He’d thought that Madara’s suffering had stopped when he had killed him in the first timeline, not continued on for years and years until the man died. How long had he spent with only that thing Hashirama had caught glimpses of as company?

He didn’t know what to do other than to pull Madara closer and hold him tighter. “I swear I won’t let it happen again,” he promised, ignoring the wavering of his own voice. “I swear. I told you it’s forever this time and I meant it. We’re going to stay together- I will not leave you alone, and I certainly won’t let that thing get ahold of you. I promise.”

Madara closed his eyes and tried to quell the trembling in his hands. There was nothing wrong, he told himself. Hashirama was here, breathing, alive, and he would never meet that battlefield the same way because Madara would be there. That horror he’d seen would never happen. “I won’t leave,” he said under his breath. “I won’t leave.” I’ll stay.

Forever.

Hashirama let his hand rest against the back of his head and smoothed a tangle out of his curls.

“I promise,” he whispered, and let them lapse into silence as he leaned against Hashirama’s collarbone. He did regret overtaxing himself, then, because he wanted nothing more than to tune into the man’s charka and let it lull him to sleep, even if the hand stroking through his hair now was more than enough to do it.


 

Madara was too tired and rundown to even stand. Hashirama felt a bit angry at himself that he hadn’t seen how bad it had gotten, and a bit of mild disbelief at how far Madara was willing to go to conceal his own discomfort and pain.

He needed to tell Hashirama when he needed help. Hashirama needed to know that Madara felt he could rely on him and ask for anything. There was nothing he wouldn’t do for him.

The bird informed him that the toll for the ferry was twice what he had after converting it, and again warned him not to try and hop on without paying. Hashirama emerged from that shop with Madara still asleep in his arms to search for a place to rent a room for the night and sent a clone to find them new clothes.

The clone spent upwards of twenty minutes wandering the streets, looking for a vendor that spoke his language, before happening upon a wheeled cart near a pond with an elderly woman behind it. “Looking for something to wear?” she tittered, seeing his torn yukata.

“Yes ma’am,” he replied with a smile. “And something for my companion, too.”

The strange little woman with unsettling sparkling blue eyes behind the cart let out a titter. “Oh, is this for that man I saw you carrying earlier?”

“Uh, yes, ma’am, yes it is,” Hashirama replied with a sheepish smile. He shifted uncomfortably when the glint in her eyes seemed to get a bit…wilder. He felt as if there was something a little powerful, a little dangerous, and a little secretive about her, even though she looked and felt like a normal average old woman.

“Ohohoho. I wonder what could have possibly tired him out? I remember the first days me and my Anna spent here,” the old woman went on, with such a random trajectory he couldn’t even follow her. “I’ll get you something that matches.”

“Uh…” She didn’t seem to be listening to him anymore, shuffling through the cabinets on her side of the cart and humming to herself. She rustled something that let loose a sudden puff of purple dust from the side of the cart and didn’t seem particularly bothered by it. He edged back half a step, just in case.

She popped back up with a smug smile and held out a pile of folded clothes. “It’s my shop special, half price for your first pair,” she said, still with that strange inkling she knew something he didn’t.

“Uh. Thank you,” he said, trying to smile again as he placed a pile of coins on her counter. He felt an odd warning in his head against touching her. “I appreciate it.”

He noted that the clothes she’d handed him did, indeed, match, though he didn’t know why she’d insisted on it; the hakama were both white, as well as each yukata, and the kimono in each set were decorated with a winding tree pattern in alternating colors of cherry red and forest green. Madara would look good in the red, he thought. 

“Have fun,” she said, grinning as if she knew he was going to do something illicit. Hashirama gulped and smiled at her as he walked away.


 

There was a strange quietness when he awoke that instantly put him on guard. He sat up and regretted it, as it made him feel so dizzy he felt like slumping back into bed again.

“Take it easy,” Hashirama said, placing his hands on Madara’s elbows. He sat on the edge of the bed beside him and his expression was full of quiet, gentle concern that made Madara feel a little bit better. “You aren’t going to feel at a hundred percent for a day or two.”

Grimacing, Madara beckoned his body to relax and winced as he rubbed his wrist. It still felt as if it stung, even though there was no wound. “Where are we?” he asked, glancing around the room. It was full of gaudy silver decorations over glaring yellow fabrics that made him stare in distaste. Absolutely no sense of style whatsoever.

“A hotel,” Hashirama replied, easing further onto the bed so he could sit beside him and wrap an arm around him. “Everyone I asked said it was the cheapest place here. Only one coin for an entire week.”

Madara cocked an eyebrow. “That sounds cheap.”

Hashirama’s smile became sheepish. Madara narrowed his eyes. “Well…that’s…probably because it’s a casino.”

“Oh, that’s much better. Swindling all their guests out of all their money under the guise of cheap rates. You haven’t gambled, have you?” Madara asked, eyes narrowing further.

“No! I wouldn’t leave you!”

“Well make sure you don’t. How much do we need for the toll, anyway?”

“About twice what we have now. Surely it won’t be too hard to build up. There seems to be a lot of…people who need errands around here,” Hashirama said as he reached for something on the edge of the mattress, frowning in something like befuddlement. “I sent a clone to get new clothes and someone asked me to dump a bucket of water. For some reason they didn’t want to touch it.”

Madara squinted at him. “So you did?”

“Well, it looked normal enough,” Hashirama replied as a light blush dusted his cheeks. He pulled a tray towards him that held a small covered bowl. “I had some soup brought up. They said it wouldn’t get cold as long as the cover stayed on.”

Everything here was strange, Madara thought, but the bowl was pleasantly warm when Hashirama handed it to him, so he wasn’t complaining. He slipped the cover off and reached for the spoon on the tray to take a sip of the broth. He paused as soon as it hit his tongue.

It…tasted sweet. Very familiarly sweet. Almost like…

“Is something the matter?” Hashirama asked, voice curious, as he stared at him from his spot barely an inch away. Madara was suddenly very aware of his presence and the arm wrapped around his back and the fact he was eating soup that tasted like the tree sap less than a foot away from the man who spawned it.

Turning a light pink, he tried to compose himself and act as if nothing was amiss. “No,” he shrugged. “It’s fine. It just…tastes like something I like to eat.”

Oblivious, Hashirama glanced at the bowl and then at the ceiling. “Hm. Maybe it’s part of this weird land’s abilities. Soup that tastes like your favorite food?”

“Probably,” Madara muttered, unwilling to address just what his “favorite food” was.

Hashirama let out a quiet hum as he sat there, watching Madara take another spoonful of soup, and he sounded more solemn than before when he spoke again. “Now that you’re awake, though, we need to talk.”

Madara froze with his spoon halfway to his mouth. He glanced at Hashirama out of the corner of his eye and wanted to cringe at his too-calm expression. “About what?” he asked suspiciously, setting his spoon into the bowl.

“About this,” Hashirama retorted, as if he couldn’t believe he didn’t know, gesturing at Madara’s body. He frowned, and Madara instantly felt guilty at causing the upset look in his eyes. “You taking so little care of yourself you end up collapsing. If there had been more poison, if I hadn’t have woken up so soon, you could have died. Do you think I want that?”

Madara looked away, wanting to sink into the mattress and down into the floor, and hid a wince. He didn’t want to think about Hashirama waking up in that cave, alone, with only his cold body for company. The cave would probably end up broken. “No,” he mumbled.

Hashirama placed his other hand on his shoulder, trying to coax him into looking at him, as his voice took on a softer tone. “You took care of me. I know you were only trying to do that, and that’s not what I’m upset about. I would do the same for you. What I need you to understand is you have to tell me when you need my help in return. You have to let me help you too. I’m the one who knows my limits best. Even if I hadn’t been strong enough to heal you, I could have known exactly when I was and kept an eye on it. You have to let me do things for you, Madara. There’s nothing you can’t ask of me.”

There was a bit of embarrassment creeping up towards his ears and he felt a bit chagrined at his own behavior. Madara nodded, unable to think of anything to say, mind stuck on the other man’s last words. There’s nothing you can’t ask of me.

There were some things. Things Madara wanted very much to ask.

“Promise me you’ll try,” Hashirama insisted.

Madara grimaced a bit at having to actually say it and let out a sigh. “I promise,” he muttered.

“Thank you,” Hashirama replied, voice still soft, before it took on a more cheerful tone. “But I don’t totally believe you, so we’re doing an exercise today!”

Caught off guard, Madara glanced up at him and found him beaming. “W-what?”

“You have to tell me about anything and everything that happens that hurts even a little bit. And I do mean everything.” Hashirama gave him a warning glance. “For example! If this happens-”

He reached out at the speed of light and pinched Madara’s cheek between his thumb and index finger. He yelped and jerked back, swatting at the Senju’s hand and using the other to steady his soup. “Hashirama!”

“You have to tell me about it,” Hashirama finished, smiling serenely. “Go ahead.”

Madara stared at him uncomprehendingly for almost five seconds before it clicked. He couldn’t believe Hashirama was making him do something so inane. Yet the longer the man smiled at him without saying a word the more it became apparent this was going to end up being something he got stubborn about.

Absolutely not pouting, he looked away at the wall. “Hashirama,” he said, voice barely above a mumble. “Some blithering fool pinched my cheek.”

“That’s horrible,” Hashirama said, voice full of fake sympathy, and smoothed a glowing thumb over the spot. “Feel better?”

This was stupid, absolutely stupid, and Madara glared at him to make sure he knew it. “Yes.”

Grinning, Hashirama turned and leaned against his shoulder to let him return to his food. “Good. Make sure you tell me everything,” he said in a sing-song voice. “Whether it’s stubbing your toe or getting a papercut. Don’t forget.”

Madara wondered if stabbing someone with a spoon was possible.


 

“Goddammit,” Madara hissed as he turned a page in the stack of papers written in an unfamiliar language he’d been given by a hotel worker to sort and felt a papercut slice open his thumb. He didn’t know what was going on- he was rarely clumsy, but for some reason, today of all days, every little mishap he could have possibly run into was happening.

Hashirama, from his end of the room, let out a quiet hum. It was pointed and expecting and a little bit amused.

Madara glared at his paper. “Hashirama,” he muttered. “I got another papercut.”

Hashirama got up and walked over to him, grinning the whole time. Gently, always so gently, he took Madara’s hand into his palm and covered the cut with glowing green chakra. It was ridiculous, overblown, so unnecessary, and… Madara…liked it.

It embarrassed him to admit even to himself. The entire ordeal was ridiculous, but Hashirama paying such attention to him, touching him so softly every time something happened, caring enough to heal even a tiny bruise from ramming his toe into a desk- taking care of him- he liked it. Something deep down felt giddy at the attention.

“There,” Hashirama told him with a smile, retracting his hands and retreating back towards the desk he’d been using, taking his warmth and light with him. Madara watched him go.

He’d gotten something in his eye earlier and Hashirama had held his face with both hands as he rinsed his eye with medical chakra. He’d begun to feel dizzy again and Hashirama had let him sit with his head on his shoulder, radiating a sense of calm that set him at ease; he’d started to get a headache and mumbled something out and Hashirama had been at his side instantly to give him relief.

Always close, so close, and Madara wished he would stay there. Everything felt a bit calmer now that he was getting accustomed to this odd place, but Hashirama was still the only thing that felt right.

He gave himself another tiny papercut, on purpose, just to get Hashirama to walk over to him again and smile at him again and hold his hand so softly again. He was a little embarrassed, but a papercut was a small price to pay for having Hashirama near.

In the back of his mind, his ornery side thought up other ways he could get Hashirama to come back over. It was entirely not the point of the “exercise,” he knew, but Hashirama would never know. Besides, he wouldn’t do something actually harmful.

His eyes alighted on the tea he’d left out to cool.

It was probably a very bad idea, but Madara couldn’t resist.

He couldn’t help it. Having Hashirama pay him this attention was so small, so inconsequential, about such little things, but it felt- it made him feel- good. Not to mention his mischievous side just very much wanted to needle the man a bit.

He wandered over to the mug of tea he’d left on the table by the window under the guise of taking a sip. He mentally grimaced at how hot it would feel, but grabbed the handle and took some into his mouth with no hesitation regardless. It burnt his tongue immediately and he coughed, swallowing half of it in his hurry to spit it back into his mug. God, that really was scalding.

“Madara,” Hashirama’s amused voice floated from the desk behind him, “I heard a strange noise. What happened?”

Madara turned around, already knowing the exact way to make it believable, and plastered on a scowl. “…I burnt my tongue,” he said, as if it pained him to admit it, glaring at Hashirama as he looked up from the papers he’d been sorting and smiled. The Senju got up from his seat and started walking over to him.

“Well, let me see,” he said, holding out a hand.

Madara almost froze and reconsidered. He opened his mouth before he could chicken out and stuck his tongue out.

There was an amused sparkle in Hashirama’s eyes as he pressed two glowing fingers to it. Madara repressed a shiver, wanting to retract it on instinct, but he did want some relief from the burning besides.

“This is why we test our tea before drinking it,” Hashirama teased him. Madara summoned a lackluster glare. He couldn’t retort with Hashirama healing his tongue, and-

And his fingers were rubbing it now, slow and firm, and he almost choked. Heat was rising to his face and Hashirama was watching him with an expression less amused and more focused and he wondered what on earth for. He glanced down at his tongue, thinking surely it was done by now, wondering why Hashirama was taking so long and feeling the urge to veer backwards.

“Now, now, let me finish,” Hashirama told him, stepping closer. Madara backed up half a step into the desk and almost yelped when Hashirama seized the tip of his tongue between his other hand’s index finger and thumb to hold it steady. He looked at Madara with darker eyes than before, making him feel nailed to his spot, looking so weirdly intense he had to wonder if he’d somehow burnt himself more badly than he thought. “Looks like you got your throat too.”

He released his tongue and hooked a thumb in his mouth, pulling it open without preamble. Madara did yelp that time, but the Senju seemed to either not notice or ignore it as he inserted his fingers into Madara’s mouth. A full-body shudder ran through him as they swept over his tongue again, leaking chakra into the roof of his mouth, pressing against his gums and the inside of his cheeks.

“Did you not know you had a sore here?” Hashirama asked him, cocking an eyebrow as his index finger hovered over a place on his gum that felt completely normal. “One of your teeth has a minor crack in it, too. Be sure to clean them every day.”

Madara let out a strangled mewl in response. Hashirama still had one thumb hooked over his teeth, two fingers massaging his gum, while the others rubbed a small circle into his cheek. He was starting to lose feeling in his knees.

He grasped at the edge of the table behind him for support, beet red, unable to say anything as Hashirama- it felt like he was groping his mouth, yet the only thing he was doing was healing pitifully small injuries he apparently hadn’t known about. Get it together, he told himself, a little desperately.

Hashirama pinched his bottom lip in his thumb and index finger and stared at it. He wasn’t saying anything, wasn’t even looking at him, and Madara was starting to forget how to breathe.

Hashirama dragged his eyes back up, changing the target of his stare, feeling something excited rouse in him when he saw the wide-eyed expression on Madara’s still reddening face. A pretty blush was spreading out from his nose and cheeks and even his neck was turning pink. His eyes were helplessly confused and embarrassed as Hashirama stared into them and he quickly averted them to the side, not even chastising him or swatting his hands away, so utterly flustered.

His mouth was right there for the taking. Hashirama could simply lean down, and-

“Uh…excuse me, messere?” a confused voice asked from the doorway, the same worker from before who’d given them their work, staring at them in palpable befuddlement and embarrassment as he held a pile of scrolls in his arms.

Not moving an inch, Hashirama looked over at him with a tranquil smile. There was no use letting the moment be interrupted. “Yes?”

“M…more papers…for you to fill out,” the man stammered, eyes flicking between them.

Hashirama moved one fingertip to rub a slow pattern into Madara’s tongue. He could have sworn he heard the Uchiha let out a whimper.

“I…have to show you how to stamp them,” the worker concluded, quite awkwardly as he averted his eyes.

Hashirama let out a tiny sigh of disappointment. Maybe his attraction would have been blatant enough if he spent fifteen minutes with his fingers in Madara’s mouth.

He glanced down at Madara again- his face was still the color of a tomato- and reluctantly pulled his fingers out. The Uchiha’s jaw trembled and closed partway, still hanging open as he stood there radiating bashfulness, and he stared at the floor as if it held the secrets to life.

“Be right back,” Hashirama told him, cheerful, and walked towards the door. Madara slowly raised a hand to cover his mouth and stared at him as he left, in a state of mild disbelief, watching the ends of Hashirama’s hair disappear around the corner and letting himself sag against the table.

Well…he’d gotten what he wanted, he supposed, as his knees gave out and he collapsed to the floor. He stared at the empty doorway and tried to calm his racing heart and ignore how flushed and warm his lips felt. He pressed his hand over his mouth harder as if to forget the embarrassment he’d just singlehandedly brought onto himself and closed his eyes. It…probably had been a stupid idea to ask someone as tactile as Hashirama to heal his tongue.

That was…the explanation for what had just happened.

Probably.


 

“Hashirama,” Madara mumbled when he saw the man again, which was barely twenty minutes later when they met in the hall. The Senju had a small bag in his hand that was most likely their payment. It was an odd job, and it was odd the hotel didn’t make their own workers do it, but he’d decided to stop trying to make anything here make sense.

“Madara,” Hashirama greeted him, grinning, as if nothing had transpired minutes before. “Feeling all right?”

Madara sniffed and refused to look at him as he walked past. “I’m fine. Let’s go find something else to do.”

He could feel Hashirama still grinning as he trotted after him. For some reason, the clothes he’d bought were matching. Madara couldn’t say he was upset by it, quite the opposite, but he did wonder if Hashirama had done it on purpose or not.

He stepped out of the hallway and into the main part of the casino. There were all sorts of strange games being played about the room, which was covered in the same vomit-inducing yellow and silver decorations. He wrinkled his nose as he started picking his way through the crowd.

Hashirama’s hand found his wrist in the crowd, and he didn’t quite stop him, but he was clearly trying to get his attention. “What do you think that is?” he asked, his tone curious.

Madara paused and followed his gaze. It was a bit difficult to focus on exactly what Hashirama meant, seeing as there were countless things he could have been referring to, but he finally noted the mid-sized table that what looked like a game of cards was being played at a few paces away. Hashirama did have a penchant for cards. “Probably their version of poker, or something like that,” he shrugged.

Hashirama turned and gave him a wheedling look. “One round?” he asked, hopeful, as his eyes went a bit rounder.

Madara narrowed his eyes. Hashirama stared dolefully at him, bottom lip starting to jut out in a pout, and he sighed. “Only one,” he warned, even as Hashirama’s pout disappeared in place of a grin.

“Yes!” He grabbed Madara’s arm and started darting through the crowd, being sure not to let anyone jostle him.

Madara rolled his eyes as they went and decided to entertain Hashirama’s habit for a few minutes at least. A few coin lost wouldn’t hurt them too badly, he supposed, and even if Hashirama was terrible at casino games he did have fun in them.

He stood behind the chair Hashirama slid into and watched as he asked to be dealt in for a round. As far as he could tell, the game was based completely on what cards the player had in their hand when they rolled the dice, in addition to what they rolled. The even numbers seemed to make them either draw cards or fold and the odd ones looked to make them place cards aside.

Hashirama made a small bet, exercising some wisdom, at least, of only two coins. Predictably, he lost horribly; his hand was full of a suit with a serpent head on it and he rolled two zeroes, which made everyone around the table hum in sympathy.

“Guess I’m not lucky today,” he said with a good-natured smile, starting to stand. Madara rolled his eyes again, wondering when, if ever, he was lucky.

“Hold it, messere,” the dealer purred. She was a turquoise-skinned woman with long purple nails and a glint in her eyes that Madara didn’t like. “Rolling two zeroes means you’ve got to roll again.”

A small crease developed in Hashirama’s brow. He glanced back at Madara, who thought for a moment before nodding. He sat back down and waited his turn.

His next roll was a mixture of serpents and rabbits with a two and four dice combo, which had the added effect of making him draw two more cards in addition to rolling again. Madara’s eyes slowly began to narrow as the game went on and Hashirama was drawn further in, not allowed to leave, as the one time he asked the dealer smiled and told him something as strangely ominous as what the bird had. “Oh, you really don’t want to leave without finishing the game.”

He could feel that strange energy on the air again, and his still-raw mind wanted to shiver and warned him away from breaking any type of contracts they made- he was sure that was what this was now, a contract, wrapped up in the façade of a simple game.

Several people around the table were sighing in disappointment when they reached the end of their money. Hashirama had lost his good mood, and didn’t look particularly embarrassed, only focused as he frowned at the dealer’s hands. Madara knew that, no matter how bad he was at games, he was still an intelligent man and had started to put his brain to work around the third bet; he was still a shinobi used to working out the mind games of his opponents. He was watching the game just as closely as Madara, following the moves just as closely as him, trying to learn the rules as completely as he could, and he still didn’t win once. He should have.

“Well, I suppose you’ll all have to bet something else,” the dealer said with a smile that oozed with fake politeness. The patrons glanced at each other in mutual suffering and grimaced.

“I s’ppose I’ll bet next Tuesday and Wednesday, if you’ll allow it,” one of them murmured, and that made no sense, but Madara didn’t try and decipher it.

A man to their left cringed. “I’ll bet Mari. I hate to lose her, but…”

What the patrons offered up was equally confusing and unsettling. They all seemed to be betting things of various importance to them, as they had no money, and the fact they were so willing told Madara they really didn’t want to end up losing the game.

“And what about you, messere?” the dealer asked, gazing at Hashirama.

Hashirama was quiet. Madara could sense him thinking, wondering what he could possibly put up, as they had nothing but the clothes on their backs, and he really doubted that clothes would cut it.

“Oh,” a louder voice said from a few yards away, drawing nearly every eye there to the side. “Newcomers! Carella, you should have informed me.”

A strange-looking man came into view. His skin was a muted orange, more dull than bright, and his face looked human but still a bit like the animal creatures that walked on two feet; he wore a gaudy garment of gold and silver and a large diamond ring on his right hand. Everyone around him made way for him as he walked over to the dealer and took the seat she offered him.

“I think this game should be special,” he said, with an unsettling smile, waving dismissively at the other patrons. “For the newcomers. Shoo, now.”

It wasn’t said in any kind of intimidating tone, but they still got up and left as quickly as they could without looking rude. Madara raised an eyebrow.

“I suppose you run this institution?” Hashirama asked, expression calm, his tone steady with politeness Madara knew was fake. He always sounded a little detached when he was hiding his thoughts and evaluating instead.

“I own it,” the man replied, smile taking on a smug tone. “I’m sensing you’re a figure of some importance where you’re from. A prime minister, perhaps?”

“He’s the Hokage,” Madara cut in, feeling vaguely annoyed at the subtle sense of dismissiveness he was feeling. “Of Konohagakure no Sato.” The owner’s eyes glanced over at him and looked him up and down. It was unnerving, though he didn’t know why.

“The Fire Shadow of the Village Hidden in the Leaves,” the dealer whispered to the owner, smile never wavering.

He raised an eyebrow. “Fire Shadow? Do you burn for the populace?”

Hashirama’s voice had gone cool. “I run the village administratively and protect it from threats.”

“Important, then!” The owner sounded praiseful, but it felt backhanded. “Now then, on the topic of your bet. Why don’t we make it more interesting? I’ll play a hand, you’ll play a hand, and whoever has the winning hand wins the game’s betting pool. I’ll even throw in the deed to the building.”

Hashirama had no interest in owning the casino; his attention lay on the fact that the owner was making it sound as if he was doing him a favor when they both knew he couldn’t back out and the other man controlled the rules anyway. “What would you ask of me?”

The owner’s eyes drifted to Madara again. “You have nothing to give me. Your friend here does, however. You serve this Hokage, do you not?”

“Yes,” Madara replied, suspicious, eyeing him.

“Then the bet will be your fealty. Lose, and you stay here and work for me.”

No,” Hashirama snapped, hand tightening on the armrest of his chair. He had begun to scowl, though his chakra wasn’t yet misbehaving, and Madara sent him a quick glance regardless.

“If you refuse to finish the game, I can’t be responsible for what happens to you. Those who back out of promises…don’t end up well here.” The man’s smile became razor-edged. “Most times they never leave.”

The ominous sense on the air was back again. Madara set a hand on Hashirama’s shoulder, making him glance up at him, and gave him a pointed glance. “Hashirama.”

Hashirama frowned up at him. Looking reluctant, he turned back to the table and took in a short breath. “All right.”

The owner clapped his hands together. “By all means, then! Your turn.”

Hashirama was still frowning as he reached for the stack of cards the previous dealer gave him. He drew five, the starting amount, and placed them face-up, having no need to hide them for a long game. He gave the dice a shake and tossed them to the table.

Madara winced. All even numbers on the cards, and two fours on the dice. From what he’d gathered during the game, Hashirama couldn’t have spun a worse hand if he’d tried.

From across the table, the owner reached for his own stack and put his cards down. Three odd numbers and a four.

He tossed the dice. They were both watching as they settled. Inevitably, they landed on an odd combination.

Hashirama narrowed his eyes. The owner smiled, smug and satisfied, and Madara knew he had to be cheating somehow. There was a burning sense of anger in his gut when he realized what losing meant- what he now had to do- and what doing that meant: leaving Hashirama’s side for any amount of time.

And now the ominous energy was focused on him, and he knew he was trapped between a boulder and a hard place.

Madara was livid, more livid than he could remember being in quite a long time, and he knew it showed on his face as he walked around the table with clenched fists and a glare. The attendants there all looked some measure of pitying. The owner smiled as he finally came to a stop in front of his chair.

“Do you swear fealty to me?” he asked, dripping with patronizing politeness. “Instead of this…” He waved his hands, as if speaking of something silly. “‘Hokage’ of yours?”

Madara gritted his teeth. He debated lighting the fool on fire for a brief moment. That strange sense of energy was still in the air, however, and he knew something would happen to Hashirama- and probably him, but mainly Hashirama- if he broke the rules of this game.

“Yes,” he managed to grit out, sounding as if he was having a tooth pulled. That was what it felt like, anyway.

The owner’s smile widened. He raised his hand and waved it, and there was a sudden weight around his neck that startled him.

His eyes widened. He had not just-

He lifted a hand and wrapped it around the thin black strap now around his neck. It matched the ones the attendants wore and had no buckle to take it off and it made him grit his teeth again. He could not stand anything being around his neck, let alone something so disgusting as anything that belonged to this being. It made his skin crawl and a shudder run up his back.

“Kneel,” the owner instructed, and waved his hand again when Madara stood there glaring at him. A force he could neither see nor feel- which was more disconcerting than anything else- yanked him off his feet and to his knees on the ground, and it made him even more livid. He reached out with one hand and lifted Madara’s chin, and he wanted so badly to cut the offending hand off but his body couldn’t move; he couldn’t make a move against him and his mind frantically ran over just what he’d agreed to.

The owner ran his index finger down his neck. Madara shivered in revulsion, not knowing whether he wanted to vomit or burn the entire place down. No one was allowed to touch his neck unless he said so. No one. He’d already given it away.

He would deny it, but he was shivering as the finger came to a stop on the collar. “Being my servant is not unpleasant,” he said, smugly, as if he was doing him a favor. “I think you’ll find you’ll enjoy it. Don’t you?”

“Bastard,” Madara spat.

The creature’s eyes flashed. “Is that any way to speak to your employer?” He closed his hand and Madara suddenly found his ability to breathe gone, his airway empty, and he choked for air as he grasped at the collar around his neck.

The sound of him struggling to breathe floated across the room, and the owner was ignorant of the rising energy from Hashirama’s end of the table as the attendants stared worriedly and began to back away.

Madara closed his eyes to try and concentrate but the collar would not budge and his lungs refused to cooperate. There was a mental block keeping him from striking out and his mind was quickly devolving into panic as he gasped for breath. It turned to the only other one there who could help and get him out of this when he couldn’t. “H-Hashirama,” he managed to gasp out, pleading, and the owner ignored it but he should not have.

The explosion of chakra from Hashirama’s side of the room knocked everyone off their feet. Madara fell back against the carpet of the stairs, not taking any damage due to already being on the floor, and gasped as air filled his lungs due to the owner and his concentration having been flung out of his chair.

“What’s the meaning of this?” he demanded as he rolled to his feet, expression curled with rage. The attendants looked at it and winced, but they were far more afraid of the monstrous, strange energy they could feel rolling off the stranger in their midst.

Madara glanced up at Hashirama’s face and paled. It had gone cold and stony, his eyes hard and unfeeling, and there was such a rage on his chakra it made Madara quiver. It was terrifying. It was so very comforting.

“The meaning of this,” he said, slow, calm, utterly frightening, as his eyes glued the casino owner to his spot, “is that you railroad me, use veiled words and double meanings to lure patrons into games they can’t back out of, freely engage in trickery, and if that wasn’t bad enough, you have the arrogance to take more than just my money and whatever other worthless trinkets you want and try to take my friend from me as if he’s some bauble, and then, you have the gall to mistreat him right in front of me. I’ve lost my patience.”

He leaned forward, having stood from his seat, and tapped a nail against the table. The casino owner shrieked as it exploded into what must have been a thousand little pieces.

His chakra was radiating out, pushing furniture towards the edges of the room, making lighter pieces float as the support beams started to rattle. Madara looked up with wide eyes as he noticed the ceiling trembling, starting to crack, about to come down on them. The attendants were running from the room with screams on their lips.

The strange energy on the air cowered, withered, and snapped in two before dissipating. Hashirama’s body was glowing, pulsing with energy, and making wind start to whip around in the room as the windows shattered. Madara lifted an arm to cover his eyes instead of trying to squint into the storm.

There was a loud crash as the building collapsed. The very earth beneath them shook, and Madara cringed, bracing for the impact on instinct even though he knew Hashirama would let nothing touch him.

Four stories of hotel came crashing to the ground. Wood emerged from the floor and encased him, leaving him in darkness, and Madara flattened himself to the floor just because of the sheer amount of noise; it was deafening as stone and wood came down.

He heard it when the building was finally done for, and the noise continued onward as the remains settled and jostled about. The wood around him retracted and left him there, still leaning on the steps, the only part of the building still intact.

Hashirama leaned down and grasped the collar with both hands to snap it off his neck as if it was made of glass. “I’m sorry,” he whispered, leaning close to Madara’s ear. He pulled back and looked into his eyes with an unsettlingly cold look in his. “I’ll be right back.”

Madara simply sat there, a little dazed, staring at his back as he walked in the direction the casino owner had been. There was chakra rolling off him still and it had destroyed everything in its path like it was mere paper. Hashirama was less a man and more raw power shaped like one, he thought, and Madara couldn’t help but love him more than ever right then.

Hashirama reached down into a pile of rubble and yanked the casino owner out, holding him by the gaudy collar of his jacket. Quivering, he stared up at him with wide eyes, covered in dust, blood running down the side of his face from a wound on his head.

It was pathetic, Hashirama thought. This man had just been treating Madara as if he were a toy, an amusement to be played with, and as soon as someone more powerful than he opposed him he turned into a mess. He was arrogant and liked to put his foot down on others’ throats but couldn’t stand the same being done to him.

“I’m not going to kill you,” he said, voice low, a slight scowl on his face as the owner shivered in his grasp. “But consider this a lesson. If you abuse someone like that again, I will kill you. And that man…” His scowl deepened as he leaned closer, making the owner swallow thickly and shrink. His anger was still pulsing hot in his veins and Hashirama usually hated for it to happen, to know he was getting so furious he would have trouble controlling his temper, but right now he didn’t give it too much care. People like this needed to be taught a lesson. “That man is the love of my life. He is my dream. If you ever threaten him again, I’ll do worse than kill you.”

The owner blanched and nodded as rapidly as his bruised neck would allow. Hashirama dropped him, gave him one last disgusted look, and started to traipse back towards where Madara was still sitting immobile.

Madara hadn’t been able to hear a word Hashirama had said but he could see the owner shivering from yards away. His eyes became slightly glazed over as he watched, stared at Hashirama’s scowl, the hard lines of his body, the unyielding look in his eyes, the way he terrified that man so easily, and felt his body go warm.

Hashirama was…power. Madara, in that moment, felt a bit outmatched, because he didn’t think he would ever not feel helpless when it came to Hashirama. There was never a time when he couldn’t send Madara into a daze or make him shiver with excitement. He was closer to a god than Madara had become. In the back of his mind, hidden beneath his denial and agonizing, there was a wish that Madara was his. Madara would give anything to be able to say he was Hashirama’s.

“Let’s go,” Hashirama said, kneeling and reaching for him. Madara came back to himself and stared at him, still dazed, and hardly noticed when he was lifted from the ground. They left the rubble in a pitiful heap and headed for a different part of the city.


 

As it turned out, no one really liked the casino or its owner because several people who’d probably been talking to the attendants who’d fled were looking at Hashirama in awe and varying shades of amusement and gratefulness as he walked down the street. Madara caught sight of an old woman laughing her head off and decided not to mention it.

“No bed, but this feels much better, wouldn’t you say?” Hashirama asked him, smiling as if he hadn’t just demolished an entire place of business and left its owner crying. He sat down in the grass by a pond in a clearing surrounded by trees, just off the road, setting Madara in front of him so he could lean on his chest.

Madara chuckled under his breath and leaned back against Hashirama’s shoulder. “Until it rains, but I suppose.”

“We can find an awning to hide under,” Hashirama joked. He reached up and stroked a hand through Madara’s hair, wiping away a bit of dust that had fallen into it. His voice took on a quieter tone. “I’m sorry.”

“It wasn’t your fault.” Madara shifted, uncomfortable at addressing the ordeal. He tried not to think about how weak he’d felt.

“But still. The Hokage gambling away his best jounin? Tobirama would strangle me,” Hashirama chuckled, voice coming out weaker than intended. “I guess I’ll stay away from cards for a while.”

Madara relaxed some and smirked. “We can play. I swear I’ll only take private embarrassing things from you.” And oh, were there ever some private things he wanted to take from Hashirama.

He felt Hashirama’s chest rumble as he laughed. “I don’t know if I want to do something as dangerous as that. Next thing you know I’ll be running across the Hokage Mountain in the nude.”

You’d be doing something in the nude, Madara thought, restraining himself. He sunk into Hashirama’s warmth and placed a hand on the wrist wrapped around him. “We’ll trade information then. See if you can get me to tell you my deepest darkest secrets,” he teased with another smirk.

“Oh? You have deep dark secrets you haven’t told me? Do tell.”

“Only if you win.” There was one secret, not dark, but still hidden in the deepest recesses of his mind that he wished he could say so easily as to give away in a poker game. He wished he could say it, period. “You’ll have to practice.”

“The problem with that is my clones are always just as bad as me and we end up all losing somehow,” Hashirama mumbled, as if he didn’t want to admit it. Madara burst into laughter and turned his head to the side so Hashirama wouldn’t see his mirth. “It’s not funny! I almost lost you in a card game!” Madara just laughed harder, closing his eyes to combat the way they watered.

Hashirama sat there, arm trembling as Madara’s abdomen did, and smiled as he listened to the Uchiha laugh. Everything was fine, even if they were still stuck in an odd alternate dimension full of weird sights and creatures, so long as Madara kept smiling like this.

He imagined raising a hand to cup Madara’s cheek and turning his face back, leaning down to capture his smile with his lips, and hoped, for his heart’s sake, he would get to experience it someday soon. Even if it came slowly, however, or perhaps never at all, everything would be fine- as long as Madara kept smiling at him like this.