Chapter 1: fire friend, you're chasing hollow shells
“I always thought blue suited you,” Hashirama says, putting his chin in his hand as he watches Madara pull on his nagajuban. “Long day, dear?”
Madara makes a noncommittal noise in his throat in response. Long day doesn’t even begin to cover it. Another year has come and gone, and the village is still hurtling towards disaster as fast as it ever was. Maybe even faster than before. He hates this time of year: hates thinking about everything he’s failed to do so far, hates thinking about the things he’ll never be able to do for as long as he lives.
Hashirama yawns mightily, sliding out of his nemaki. His necklace bounces on his bare chest. He smiles rather coyly up at Madara. “Well?” he says. “What do you feel like tonight? Slow and sweet? I could get the incense from the kitchen, if you’d like. Or we could try something different—we could use those new beads—”
Madara shakes his head. “Not tonight,” he mutters. “Tired.” He is not tired.
Hashirama pouts, looking a little disappointed. “Okay,” he says. “Come here, darling.”
Madara climbs into bed next to him, shoving several pillows aside to make room for his hair. He blows out one of the candles on the nightstand, watching the little lines of smoke weave around in the air before disappearing.
“Did you and Tobirama make any progress on that jutsu this afternoon?” Hashirama says sleepily, after a while.
Madara snorts. “Hardly,” he says.
“I’m so glad you’re cooperating with Tobirama,” Hashirama says with a smile. “I know how hard you two are working to get along. It really means a lot to me.”
Madara decides not to dignify that with a response. The only thing keeping he and Tobirama from tackling each other over the autopsy table these days is their shared desire to see their younger brothers again.
“Even if I do have to take over your portion of the paperwork while you two are down in the lab,” Hashirama continues, massaging his temples gently. “These grant proposals for the Academy are killing me, I swear.”
Madara sighs. Not for the first time today, he feels that restless, tugging feeling in his chest: the frantic need to do anything else, be anywhere else. For a split second, he feels as if he is being watched. He glances out at the balcony. There’s nothing there.
“Madara?” Hashirama says softly, blinking up at him. “What is it?”
Madara shakes his head. “Nothing,” he grinds out. “I’m fine. I’m going to sleep.”
Hashirama does not look convinced. Madara glowers at the window, and then abruptly smells smoke. He looks down. His chakra has left a smattering of angry burn marks all over his side of the sheets. Heat rises in his cheeks. Hashirama must be able to tell he’s in a particularly foul mood, from the way he’s losing control of his chakra like this. He might as well be a petulant child throwing a tantrum, in Hashirama’s eyes. This thought only makes him feel worse.
Hashirama sighs. “It’s as if you’ve been in a different world lately, Madara,” he says, and oh, how Madara hates that sad, disappointed voice—he just wants Hashirama to shout for once—at least he knows how to deal with angry people—
“You know,” Hashirama tries again, timidly.
Madara rolls over so that he’s staring at the wall. “What?” he snaps.
“I love you,” Hashirama says, running his fingers through Madara’s hair. “I’m very grateful to have you here by my side. I couldn’t have done any of this without you. I want you to know that.”
“So glad I could be of use to you and your precious village,” Madara mumbles, watching a very lost ladybug crawl around on the ceiling. At least the bed isn’t on fire anymore.
“My village?” Hashirama says. He laughs. “Madara, you and I both know this is as much your village as it is mine—”
“Don’t be a fool, Hashirama,” Madara snaps at the wall. It’s easier to do this if he doesn’t have to see Hashirama’s face. “And don’t take me for one, either. It doesn’t matter what either of us think anymore. The village is out of our hands now.”
He can tell Hashirama is frowning without having to turn around. He’s not combing through Madara’s hair anymore, either. Knowing he’s genuinely upset him now just makes Madara feel worse. And he knows that the longer he spends here, not making up his mind about what to do or where to go, the worse he will feel.
Hashirama takes a deep breath. He sighs.
“I know winter is hard for you,” Hashirama says. “It’s hard for me too. You know that. But that’s why we all have to try a bit harder. I’m sure that—”
“Don’t pretend that I’ll be able to just fix this whole mess by trying a little harder, Hashirama,” Madara says. “Not all of us are as lucky as you are.”
“Madara,” Hashirama begins, his tone still infuriatingly even. “What do you mean by—”
“Oh, just stop it, all right?” Madara shouts. “Stop acting like you’re not upset! Why can’t you just be angry at me like everybody else for once?”
Hashirama doesn’t respond. He goes completely still. Madara can’t bear to look at him. Instead he stares at the wall, clenching his fists under the blankets, and forces his brain elsewhere.
Katon Gōkakyū—that’s good for short-range attacks and diversions; leaves user open to attacks from behind while facing multiple opponents. Supplement with Haijingakure for surprise attacks. Then there’s Gōka Messhitsu: quite flashy but not as effective as Gōka Mekkyaku: extremely powerful, but requires a lot of chakra. That’s ram, bird, dragon, ox, snake, boar, tiger—
“Is that what you want?” Hashirama says, finally. “For me to be angry?”
Madara doesn’t really know how to answer that. He fiddles with the corner of the singed bedspread, holding his breath.
“The truth is, I don’t really want to be angry at you,” Hashirama says mildly. Madara chances a look. Hashirama’s eyes are wide and curious and kind. “I meant what I said, Madara. I have faith in you. I know that you know I’m not some naive fool trying to soothe you with empty words.”
Madara huffs and looks away again. Damn Hashirama. He’s doing it again, that thing where he acts maddeningly superior and unflappable and makes Madara look like a complete idiot at the same time. I’m tired of chasing after you, Madara lets himself think at last, tired of being left in your wake like this—I want out, I want out, I want out—
“Sometimes I wonder,” is what he says.
“Get some rest, Madara,” Hashirama murmurs. “You’ll feel better in the morning. I’ll make you breakfast in bed. And then, as soon as we finish our meeting with the Daimyo, I’ll take you out to dinner for your birthday!”
Madara feels sick. No, you won’t, he does not say to Hashirama, because I am leaving the village tonight.
“Hmm,” he says instead. He pulls the covers up to his chin. Hashirama is asleep within minutes, his arms folded securely around Madara’s chest. Madara does not return his embrace.
Madara can’t sleep. He feels as if something is tugging on the edges of his subconscious, like a nagging itch, a paper-thin knife dragging along his skin. Hashirama rolls over in his sleep, his mouth open slightly, his long hair spilling over three pillows. Madara watches his chest rise and fall for a while, feeling somehow more awake and alert than he had felt all afternoon in Tobirama’s lab.
He almost reaches out to cup Hashirama’s face with one hand, wanting to press his lips to his forehead one last time, but something stops him. Silently, he slides out of bed. The floor is cold beneath his bare feet. He crosses the room, shivering, and steps out onto the balcony.
The village is silent. Even the hardiest of the night owls have all gone home; all the bars are closed, and only a few sparse lights are still glittering here and there on the horizon. Madara looks up at the stars, winking coldly in the sky, and at the dark hole that he knows is the new moon. On the cliff, Hashirama’s stone face stares coldly out over the rooftops. It looks so unlike him, bathed from below in the harsh yellow lights from atop the Academy.
There’s that tugging feeling again. The back of Madara’s neck prickles and he turns around in a hurry. This time he thinks he catches a glimpse of something dark and wraithlike darting out of sight around a corner, something human-shaped that moves with a sort of fluid grace that no ordinary human could possibly manage.
Madara’s heart pounds. He really could just leave—quietly, without fanfare, in the middle of the night, like he deserves. He has failed. No, he corrects himself quickly. The village has failed him. Maybe not yet; maybe not today. But he knows exactly what is coming. Before long, the Senju clan will control Konoha, and war will unfold on a larger scale than ever before, and deep in the underbelly of the village, a new darkness will form and spread.
Madara makes up his mind in an instant. He steals back inside, pulls on his mantle, and sits down next to Hashirama on the bed in order to wrap his shins. The familiar motion grounds him, and he’s surprised by how calm he feels about the whole thing. Then he slips on his sandals, wraps his cloak around his shoulders, and casts one last look back at Hashirama’s sleeping form before taking off into the night.
He stops at Nakano Shrine first. In the silent meeting hall, he lights a candle for Izuna, and kneels in its bobbing light to trace his fingers over the familiar words engraved on the stone tablet before him.
Seeking stability, one god split into yin and yang…it is these opposing forces, light and dark, operating together, that give rise to all things in creation…
When did he first start feeling eclipsed by Hashirama?
When did he stop basking in Hashirama’s light and start feeling blinded by Hashirama’s uncannily magnetic power? When did the once-paper-thin difference between them widen into this unnavigable chasm? Was it when Hashirama was named Hokage? Or when the war had claimed Izuna, while Hashirama’s last remaining brother had survived? Or has he been unconsciously battling this nagging feeling of inferiority for as long as he and Hashirama have been friends? Hashirama, so admired, so adored and beloved, with his easy smile and his comfortable warmth…and he, Madara, who has attracted nothing but disgust and scorn from the Uchiha clan; who can only come to Nakano shrine to mourn for his brother in the dead of night, when he’s certain no one else will be there—
Someone is standing behind him.
He whips around, disturbing the flame from the candle on the floor. Shadows bounce wildly along the walls. There is a humanoid shape crouched at the back of the room, blending in almost perfectly with the fluttering shadows. He’s sure it’s the same thing he saw from the balcony. But as soon as he locks eyes on it, it oozes down into the floorboards and out of sight. He frowns.
Madara, he hears, in the back of his mind. The candle flickers madly. The chakra he’s sensing from the dark figure isn’t familiar, but—maybe—He knows who he wants it to be, but that would be impossible…but still…
“Izuna?” he says, feeling foolish as soon as he says it out loud. Of course it isn’t Izuna, because Izuna is dead and gone and never coming back, all because of Madara’s own foolishness. But if this tablet is correct—if there is even the slightest chance that he can reverse fate, make everything right again, he’ll take it.
The candle settles. The thing is gone. Light and shadow…yin and yang…He and Hashirama…and Izuna—
He blows out his candle. Smoke curls up from the floor. Yes, he thinks. He knows exactly what he has to do.
Up on the cliff, an owl is calling somewhere out of sight. He casts one look back at the village, at the familiar array of towers and spires that Hashirama had built, so long ago now, before resolutely turning around.
You are making the right choice, says that voice again, sounding like teeth grinding against bone. This, of all things, gives him pause. He sits down in the grass. Something jabs him in the hip as he crosses his legs underneath him, and he scowls and reaches into his pocket and pulls out his leaf headband.
No, urges the voice. Go on. Do not falter.
Madara grits his teeth. He can’t move. Maybe he’s made the wrong choice, after all. He ties the damn thing around his forehead and curls up on the ground, at the base of the nearest sycamore tree.
I’ll leave on my own terms, he thinks, and hopes the voice can hear him. The moss beneath his body feels like thousands of tiny, soft stars; the bark is surprisingly smooth against his left cheek. It feels as if Hashirama is watching over him in his funny way, from somewhere far away, and it irks him to know he’ll never rid himself of Hashirama’s influence for as long as he lives. They have touched each other’s lives in a profound way, and now that Madara has known him, there is no going back…
Hashirama is the last thing on his mind before sleep claims him.
Chapter 2: black box messiah
Madara sleeps fitfully. He’s had worse nights, all things considered, but when he wakes up his clothes are damp and the clifftop is drenched in a thick scrim of white fog. He shifts uncomfortably in his wet cloak. A cold, sparse rain is falling, and the sky is a delicate pale gray. By his estimations, it’s just after sunrise. There is a distinct lack of wind and birdsong, which makes his heartbeat seem much louder than usual.
He’s a little embarrassed at the course of last night’s events. Was he overreacting? Maybe he should go back. He could probably still make it all the way home, and Hashirama would never even know he was gone…Madara doesn’t know, even now, if he’s done the right thing.
He winces as he sits up. Something feels distinctly off, somehow. He can’t put his finger on what it is. It is as if the entire universe has shifted about three inches to the left. His head is buzzing, and as he looks around, squinting into the mist, he feels a horrible pang of dread. The sycamore tree, the loose clumps of dirt up on top of the cliff, the starlike moss that he had fallen asleep on last night, even the air itself—it is all steeped in the darkest, most foul chakra that Madara has ever felt. It makes his heart race and his head pound, and as he stands up from the patch of moss and tries to regain his bearings, a hot trickle of blood drips out of his nose. He mops it up with his sleeve, clenching his jaw in what he thinks might be terror. This chakra is so vile that it’s giving him a nosebleed.
Edo Tensei, he thinks. Tobirama, what have you done?
His mind races as he sprints down from the cliff, barely able to see his hand in front of his face in the fog. He’s sure there’s residual blood crusted under his nose, but it hardly matters; he doubts the village’s opinion of him will significantly lessen over a bit of dried blood—not that the village’s opinion of him can get much lower, his brain helpfully supplies. He jumps from the roof of the aviary and lands hard in the street, panting.
The key to Tobirama’s apartment doesn’t work. Madara furiously jiggles it around in the lock, trying to coax it into cooperating, but it won’t budge. “Come on!” he shouts at the door. Did Tobirama change his locks overnight? Truthfully, Madara wouldn’t put it past him.
There is a certain freedom in being the proverbial black sheep of Konoha, Madara thinks, as he kicks Tobirama’s door clean off its hinges and dashes into his apartment. He can’t imagine what people would say if they saw Hashirama breaking and entering like this.
Not only did Tobirama change his locks, but he also seems to have redecorated, if the magenta shag carpet and floor-to-ceiling poster bearing the words Tsuki no Kuni Wet’n’Wild World Tour are any indication. The apartment also seems to have gotten mysteriously messier since Madara saw it last. He kicks aside a silk slipper in mild disgust, and winces from the copious crumbs scattered across the carpet, looking like ginger dandruff on a bright magenta cat.
“If this is your idiot brother’s idea of a birthday prank, I’m going to be very pissed off,” Madara shouts. “The faster you explain yourself, the better.” He can sense Tobirama’s chakra, below him, somewhere in the lab. He thunders down the stairs and throws the door open. Tobirama is bent over something at the desk. He looks up and sees Madara. His mouth pops open.
“What did you do?” Madara half-yells, trying to catch his breath. “What did you do, Tobirama?”
“Well, this is certainly interesting,” Tobirama says, crossing his arms over his chest and tipping back in his chair in a very un-Tobirama-like way. “You sure have some nerve coming back here after all this time.”
Madara blinks. “Excuse me?”
“I said,” Tobirama says, cupping his hands over his mouth and beginning to shout, “You sure have some nerve coming back h—”
“I work here, you utter imbecile!” Madara hisses, stabbing a kunai into the table. Tobirama jumps at the impact. “Let me in and let me see what you did. You promised not to work on Edo Tensei without me, so just—”
Tobirama bristles. He whips out a kunai of his own. “What the hell are you talking about?” he says. “I may not have a personal vendetta against you like some people I could mention, but I really won’t hesitate to kill you, you know—”
“Don’t play dumb!” Madara shouts, seizing Tobirama’s collar and giving him a hearty shake. “You must have seriously pissed on some spirit or deity or something, you idiot, now hurry up and undo whatever you just did before some shinigami steps through the veil and smites us both!”
“What the fuck?” Tobirama says, clearly affronted. “This is top grade rabbit fur, get your hands off of it—”
Madara does a double take. He quickly takes his hands off of Tobirama’s collar, sending him overbalancing out of his chair and onto the floor.
“What the hell are you wearing?” Madara says, because really.
Tobirama groans, dragging himself onto his hands and knees. He’s dressed in a ripped fishnet top and buckled sandals, along with the shiniest, tightest leather pants Madara has ever seen—including a pair that Izuna had worn (and then peeled off, after one too many drinks) at a particularly rowdy bonfire party, a very long time ago. And that’s not all—the scattered scars on his arms look distinctly different from the ones Madara remembers, and he’s wearing what looks like an entire tube of eyeliner, which is caked around his eyes so severely that he resembles an overtired raccoon.
“Oh, fuck,” Madara mutters. “Oh, no. Oh, holy hell.”
He’s not sure how he didn’t notice it at first, but Tobirama’s lab has undergone an even more severe transformation than his apartment upstairs. Gone is the neat autopsy table, carefully labeled vials and beakers, and pristine shelves full of scrolls. Now most of the space is taken up by wildly messy bookshelves stuffed with brightly-colored paperback novels, which are spilling over in places onto stacks on the floor. Countless crumpled papers litter the area under the desk; Madara can spot at least five cold cups of tea abandoned in various places throughout the room, and most of the desk is taken up by a large scroll, upon which Senju Tobirama is written about fifty times—is he practicing writing his signature? Madara thinks. He reaches over the desk and seizes the other, smaller piece of paper that Tobirama had been poring over when he first arrived.
“NO! IT’S NOT FINISHED YET!” Tobirama bellows, unbridled panic in his voice, diving over the table at him. Madara dodges him easily and begins to read it. His eyebrows furrow together, before shooting up towards his hairline.
Tobio’s scarlet eyes gazed deep into Fuyuki’s smouldering blue ones, the color of sapphire pools of tears. Fuyuki gasped, his muscular abs glistening with sweat as he caressed Tobio’s pale cheek. His own breath caught in his throat at the bitten-off noise. He pulled back, unbuttoning Fuyuki’s trousers and pushing them down out of the way, then cupped him with one hand. Then he curled inwards again, bending over Fuyuki’s hips, and left a trail of deliciously wet kisses at the hem of his boxers…
“What the fucking hell is going on here,” Madara says weakly, dropping the paper. The key. The shag carpet. Tobirama’s lab transformed into this den of bizarre promiscuity. “This isn’t right. None of this is right—where am I—”
The back of Madara’s neck prickles. He gives an involuntary shudder. Then, without warning, a jolt of incredible, burning pain flashes through his head. He staggers, catching himself on the edge of the table, and squeezes his eyes shut. Its source is quite far away, but he can tell it’s the same horrible chakra he’s been sensing since he woke up. Madara clenches his teeth, feeling sick. This chakra feels like bones charred to ash, like skin and muscle melting like wax, like rotted eye sockets weeping old blood, like steely talons tearing into burning flesh—and if he didn’t know better, he’d think—
That’s my father’s chakra, Madara thinks, pressing his sleeve under his nose once again to stem the flow of blood. As soon as the thought crosses his mind, he realizes his mistake. A shiver runs down his back. It’s not Tajima’s chakra; it’s his own.
Tobirama staggers up from the floor, his eyeliner smudged, his face the color of one of Hashirama’s heirloom tomatoes.
“You really don’t know where you are?” he says, panting. “It’s as if you’re from a different world, or something.”
Tobirama might as well have dropped an anvil directly in front of his face. Every pore of Madara’s body freezes. He is seized with an insane urge to drop to his knees, screaming.
Madara mentally shakes himself. He attempts to gathers his wits. This sort of thing must happen more often than it seems, he thinks. Hell, just yesterday, he and Tobirama were talking about the practical applications of space-time ninjutsu over the autopsy table. But if the Tobirama in this world is an author and not a scientist, does space-time ninjutsu even exist in this world? Or has someone else invented it? How is he here?
Tobirama is looking at him very strangely.
“Humor me,” Madara says slowly, surprised at how calm his voice sounds. “Say I am from a different world. Say I was dicked around—I mean, cast into this universe by forces unknown, for example. What happened to the Madara who was already here?”
Tobirama considers him for a moment, frowning.
“You left,” he says at last. “Six months ago. Almost killed my brother. Emotionally, I mean. Well—not that he wasn’t already emotionally constipated before, but—”
“What?” Madara snaps. He feels like he’s been kicked in the chest. “I—I did?”
Tobirama starts to laugh. “Oh, shit,” he says. “Wait till my brother sees you. He’s gonna be pissed.”
“Take me to him,” Madara demands.
“Um, I don’t think that’s a good idea,” he says. Madara groans. Even in this world, Tobirama still treats him like an obnoxious child. But at the same time, he feels a vague trepidation rising in his throat. This does not tally at all with Madara’s previous dealings with Tobirama, whose incessant need to constantly check on his brother had resulted in some very memorable encounters over the years, including one occasion when he had walked in on Madara and Hashirama engaged in a very private activity on the Hokage’s desk.
“Fine,” Madara says, turning around and marching out the door, “I’ll go myself. I’m sure your brother would be ever so disappointed to learn that you failed to apprehend me when I showed up at your house, and then proceeded to allow me to break into the Academy and wreak havoc on the offices—”
“Fine, fine,” he says. “Listen, I need to borrow 500 ryō from my brother anyway. Come on, let’s just get this over with.”
He stoops, his leather pants squeaking, and very carefully reaches under his desk to pick up the page of his novel that Madara had dropped. He folds it up and gently slides it into his pocket.
Madara watches him, bemused. “I can’t decide if I like you better or worse here,” he mutters.
Tobirama perks up. “What am I like in your world?” he says, rubbing his hands together eagerly.
“Oh,” Madara says, caught off guard by the question. “Well, you look pretty much the same. But in my world, you’re a necromancer.”
“Oh, man,” Tobirama says. “Whatever that is, it sounds pretty fucking sick.”
“We’re lucky there aren’t that many people around,” Tobirama says as they approach the center of the village. “But keep your hood up. It would be a real pain in the ass if someone recognized you here.”
Even though the sun is coming up, the village is still shrouded in fog; barely any of the shops are open yet. Tobirama gazes fondly at the bar as they pass by. Gradually the Academy appears, looming through the fog like a scarlet beacon.
“It’s a little early for Hashirama to be at work, isn’t it?” Madara says as they walk. “You’re sure he’ll be in there?”
“Oh, definitely,” Tobirama says. “He never leaves that damn office. He’s probably been in there all night.”
Madara frowns. This behavior seems most unlike the Hashirama he knows. “What is your brother like in this world, exactly?” he asks, a little wary of the answer.
Tobirama has to think about that for a while.
“Tall,” he says at last. He taps his chin with his index finger. “Tone-deaf.”
He pauses at the door to the front office, holding up one hand. “Actually, as much as I’d love to see my brother’s reaction to you showing up out of the blue like this,” he says in a would-be casual voice, “I really don’t feel like dealing with him right now. You go in. Just make sure you stay out of sight, and all that.”
He shoves Madara through the door. “Can you get that money from him for me, though?” Tobirama calls, and slams the door with a resounding bang.
“Thanks,” Madara mutters. Now that he thinks about it, it’s actually a little comforting that Tobirama is still as insufferable in this world as he is in Madara’s own. He makes a mental note to pour salt in Tobirama’s coffee some morning if he ever makes it back.
The offices are eerily quiet. The front hallway is darker and narrower than he remembers it, but (Madara thanks every deity he can think of) the layout of the place remains relatively unchanged. He slips off his hood, not sensing anyone in the immediate vicinity, and starts to walk. Embarrassingly, he doesn’t even make it to the end of the hallway before he’s intercepted.
“Come with me,” says an unfamiliar voice, rough and deep and angry, “now.”
Madara curses. So the Black Ops still exists in this reality. A strong hand claps over his mouth; an elbow crooks around his neck, cutting off his windpipe; then he finds himself being pulled forcefully backwards down the hall towards the underground vault that houses the village’s archives. Through the haze of foul chakra that’s been pervading his senses all morning, he can detect a hint of Hashirama’s warm, earthy chakra, somewhere close. He just has to get to him.
The steel door to the archive room slams shut behind them and they are plunged into total darkness. A kunai is pressed to his throat.
“Did anyone outside this room see you?” the voice asks, in a low, severe rumble. “Are you here alone?” The man gives him a shake. “Answer me.”
Madara grits his teeth. There must be some sort of powerful genjutsu keeping the room dark like this; the air in here feels strangely more solid than it should. He doesn’t have time for this. He can’t see his attacker, but he can still sense his chakra with the Sharingan. If he steps here—and then feints to the left—
The man reacts exactly as if he’s read Madara’s mind. Madara slips out of his grasp, goes to stomp on the man’s left foot as hard as he can, but he pulls it out of the way just in time and Madara’s heel collides sharply with the cement floor. They both whirl around each other in the dark; Madara draws a kunai from his pouch and aims it for the man’s face, but he blocks it. Both blades lock—Madara can feel the heat from the sparks—then with his free hand Madara twists the man’s shoulder around until he cries out and his kunai clatters to the floor. Madara kicks it out of the way. He knows how the man is going to react, somehow—right hook, then switch feet, careful of his knee—it’s not the swooping clarity of Sharingan in action, exactly; it’s more of a nagging feeling that he’s encountered this man before— fought him before. They circle each other again; the man is raising his hands in what Madara thinks is defeat, and he rushes forward to deal the final blow. But it’s a bluff; the man kicks him squarely in the chest as soon as he’s in range, sending him sprawling into what feels like a pile of boxes, all sharp edges and splintered wood. He lies there for a moment, winded, his Sharingan throbbing.
The man releases the bringer-of-darkness jutsu, then strikes a match and lights a tiny lantern on the table. Madara gets to his feet with difficulty, leaning on the wall for support.
The stranger is wearing a set of long red-and-white robes with scarlet flames adorning the sleeves. His dark hair reaches his chin in a blunt bob, and he’s wearing thin, wire-rimmed glasses that draw out the coldness in his black eyes. Madara is sure he’s seen him somewhere before. For a moment, he could be thirteen years old again, staring up into the grim, lined face of Butsuma Senju. But then he looks again, and reads the word Hokage embroidered on the man’s left shoulder, and understands, with a pang of horror, why the man feels so hauntingly, persistently familiar. Madara’s mouth falls open. “Hashirama?” he whispers.
The man frowns. Now Madara is sure it’s him. There’s Hashirama’s familiar squint, and his neat, oval-shaped fingernails, and even a glimmer of his teal necklace peeking through his high collar. That’s his chakra, too, or at least a very faint strain of it. Just like everything else in this world, though, it feels irrevocably wrong.
“Hashirama, it’s me,” says Madara.
Hashirama’s frown deepens. He doesn’t move. “Prove it,” he says coldly. His glasses glint in the firelight. Madara shivers. He can’t remember the last time that Hashirama sounded this angry.
“It’s difficult to explain,” Madara says, meeting Hashirama’s eyes and fighting the thrill of terror that twists through his stomach. “I am Madara. But I’m not the Madara you know.”
He takes a step closer. Hashirama’s jaw is clenched. He seems to be holding his breath.
“And you, you’re…”
Madara runs his hands down those strong shoulders, feeling the familiar muscle beneath his robes, and he looks up at that harsh, lined face, at the stern mouth and furrowed brow and those steely black eyes, so different from his Hashirama’s warm dark ones.
“You’re not the Hashirama I know, either.”
When Madara finishes explaining, his voice is hoarse, and Hashirama is sitting quite still at the records table with his fingers steepled in front of his face.
“I was afraid of something like this,” he says at last, adjusting his glasses. “We had heard rumors that he was experimenting with these sorts of reality-bending jutsus recently. I can’t imagine why he’d try to summon you here, though.”
“Me either,” Madara says truthfully.
It feels unbelievably strange to be talking to this Hashirama as if he’s a stranger, when just last night he and Hashirama were lying in bed, limbs tangled together, partners in every sense of the word. Staring up at Hashirama’s tired, bespectacled face, lit up from below by the tiny lantern on the table, makes Madara feel unbearably sad. Burning shame prickles in his throat. He remembers countless lazy days down on the riverbank, of skipping stones and laughing and talking and basking in each other’s company; he remembers all those looks of subtle sympathy shared on the battlefield, in between parries; he remembers those quiet nights they had all to themselves, in those first, early days of the village, and how beautiful and brilliant it all felt. And then he thinks of his Hashirama, wonders if he’s even awake yet, wherever he is, imagines him rolling over with his eyes still closed, searching for Madara’s warmth next to him in the bed and finding nothing at all.
“Madara,” Hashirama says.
Madara takes a deep breath, and lets it out. “What?”
Hashirama doesn’t answer for a while. He surveys Madara’s lips with an oddly hungry expression on his face.
“I think,” he says at last, “that you had better go see Izuna. He might be able to help you get back.”
Madara’s heart leaps into his throat. His mouth goes completely dry. “Izuna’s alive?”
Hashirama nods. “Why?” he says sharply. “What happened to Izuna in your world?
“He—he died,” Madara says. “Your brother killed him in battle.”
Hashirama inhales sharply. “Something like that happened in this world,” he says, “just before the village was founded. Tobirama was wounded very badly in a battle with the Uchiha. I healed him, naturally, and then you and I came together and hashed out the truce.”
Madara swallows hard. He refuses to cry in front of this strange, not-quite-right version of Hashirama. “Where is Izuna now?” he says, once he’s sure his voice won’t quiver.
Hashirama rubs his temples. “After the Uchiha clan disbanded—”
“What?” Madara cries out.
“—he ended up moving to Sora-ku. He should still be there now.”
Madara feels like he’s been hit in the face. “The clan disbanded?”
“Well, yes,” Hashirama says. “After you left the village. Madara, the Uchiha clan loved you. You held them all together. A few of them still live here and there on the outskirts of the village, but most of them went off on their own.”
Madara mouths wordlessly at him for several seconds. He feels as if all the air has vanished from his lungs. “They…they did?” he croaks, once his voice is working again, and then it’s a frantic roll call. “Hikaku?” he says. Hashirama shakes his head. “Naori left? Hakubo? Kagami and his aunts? Naka? Sora? Yumi and her sister?”
Hashirama is still shaking his head. Madara puts his face in his hands.
“I can’t believe I let this happen,” he whispers. His eyes are burning. “How—how can I possibly face Izuna while he knows I’m responsible for all of this?”
“It’s not that simple,” Hashirama says sharply. “Many people think you were the best thing that happened to this village. Not just the Uchiha clan, either.”
“How could anyone think that?” Madara cries out. “I’ve failed you, I’ve failed the clan, I’ve failed my brother—”
Hashirama stands up from his chair. “Madara,” he says, his voice low and serious, “Look.” He turns around, holding out his arms. The back of his robes read Second Hokage in neat red lettering.
Madara’s mouth falls open.
“Oh, no,” Madara breathes. “You can’t mean…I couldn’t possibly be the—”
“Like I said before,” Hashirama says grimly. “The Uchiha clan loved you. It was a close vote, but at my recommendation you were elected officially. I truly thought you would be best leader for our village. I much prefer to work behind the scenes anyway. Cut-and-dry work like this suits me fine.” He gestures to the dark file cabinets behind them.
Madara wants to curl up into a ball. Guilt unfurls in his stomach. Of course Hashirama would have thought he would be the best person to lead the village. And the clan—how could he do this? How could he leave all of that behind? What could possibly have been more important to him than protecting the Uchiha?
“What is it?” Hashirama says abruptly. Madara realizes his mouth is hanging open. He closes it, frowning.
“Why did I leave?” he asks, finally.
Hashirama’s face is blank. “I don’t know,” he says. “You didn’t tell me.”
Madara’s heart sinks. On the table, the lantern gives a tiny flicker. There is that restless feeling again.
“I’m going to Sora-ku,” Madara announces, standing up from the table. “I have to see him. I—I have to talk to him. Tell him I’m sorry.”
Hashirama nods gravely.
Madara pauses at the door. He needs to talk to Izuna, yes—but he also needs to ask the thing that’s been floating to the forefront of his mind ever since he first laid eyes on this Hashirama—ever since he first entertained the notion of leaving Konoha, back in his own world.
“Hashirama?” Madara says, then curses himself for opening his mouth.
Hashirama’s response is swift and measured. “Yes?”
Madara grits his teeth. “What was I to you,” he says quietly, “before I left?”
Hashirama frowns. He looks like he’s thinking quite hard.
“You were the most charismatic man I’ve ever known,” he says, finally, staring down at the wood grain on the table as if he’s trying to learn every feathery line and ringed knot by heart.
The fog has finally lifted by the time Madara steps out of the Konoha archives, shielding his face from the mid-morning sun with one gloved hand. He squints up at the cliff, at the pair of stone faces carved into it. He feels sick. His own face, proud and haughty and regal, stares back at him. He can’t stand to look at it for a moment longer than he has to. Quickly, he sets off. He has a long journey ahead.
Chapter 3: vision of the purblind
He makes good time to Sora-ku, and the city is within his view on the horizon as dusk approaches. At least this place is exactly the same as he remembers it: spindly, rundown towers, standing in crowded rows like crooked teeth; glowing lanterns in shades of red and orange; tattered multicolored banners flapping over every doorway. A black-and-white cat slinks around a corner and out of sight as he steals down the alley, away from the lights at the center of the city, following the faint pulse of Izuna’s chakra. He scales one of the little spires and jumps from roof to roof, searching. Izuna is really here, somewhere on the east side of the city, close to the river.
Madara breaks into a run. He’s close. He leaps down from the rooftop and lands in the street, his cloak flapping around him. Not much longer now. He scans the plaques and signs on the doorways for the familiar Uchiha crest, heart racing, blood pounding in his ears. Izuna’s chakra is burning like a beacon now, and he feels as if the talons of the Susanoo are squeezing his chest, puncturing his lungs and his heart—
Madara chokes on a sob as he runs. There it is. The Uchiha crest is carved underneath the dirty glass panes of the window at the far end of the alley, barely visible in the dimness. But he’d recognize that simmering smoky chakra anywhere, no matter how far he has to travel, no matter how much time passes.
He rearranges his cloak and straightens out his bangs and knocks frantically—bang-bang-bang-bang-bang—on the window pane. “Izuna?” he calls. His voice is shaking. “Izuna, are you there?”
Madara peers into the window. Inside the house, an old gray cat limps over to the door, its tail curling back and forth. It nuzzles against the door, meowing loudly. Soon, another cat joins it, this time an orange tabby with one eye missing. A bell jingles somewhere in some distant room, and out comes a third, black cat, with a red ribbon around its neck.
Out of sight, Izuna’s chakra flickers, then gives a faint surge. Slowly, slowly, he comes into view.
He’s not dressed in shinobi clothing, Madara notices immediately. He’s barefoot, wearing a long kimono with little cat heads on it, and his hair is down to his ankles, tied back in a loose ponytail. He slowly opens the door. His eyes are closed, for reasons that Madara can’t discern, and his hand gives a little twitch before he reaches up to cup Madara’s chin with gentle, trembling fingers. All of the apologies, the supplications, the pleas for forgiveness that he had frantically thought of on his way to Sora-ku have utterly vanished from his brain, and as he stands in Izuna’s parlor, seeing his brother for the first time in over a year, Madara finds himself quite unable to speak.
“Madara?” Izuna whispers. His voice is hoarse, indicating months of disuse. The dam breaks. Madara throws his arms around his brother and cries.
“I’m so sorry,” he chokes out at last, holding him as tightly as he can. “Izuna, I’m so sorry.”
Very tentatively, Izuna rests one hand in Madara’s hair, his cold fingers combing through the unruly tangle.
“Your hair has gotten longer,” he says, sounding mildly surprised. He pats Madara on the shoulder as they come apart, Madara furiously wiping his eyes. And then: “What’s this?”
He pulls a piece of sycamore bark from Madara’s hair, turning it over and over in his fingers.
“Oh,” Madara sniffs. “It’s nothing. Izuna, it’s—it’s good to see you.”
Izuna doesn’t respond right away. Something doesn’t feel right here, though he can’t put his finger on what. Madara examines Izuna’s pale face, a frown tugging at his lips. Oh, he thinks. Izuna looks almost identical to the way he had looked back then, cold and bone-pale and still, lying in his coffin with his hands folded neatly over his chest in gentle surrender. If not for the gentle rise and fall of his chest, he could almost be a corpse. Madara shudders, remembering. And then he realizes—Izuna’s eye sockets are hollow and empty, his eyelids draped over nothing like a pair of wrinkled curtains over two dark windows. And then he sees the scars, a scattering of scratches and cuts and shallow little gouges, and even a few that look like the uneven indents left by long fingernails, all around Izuna’s forehead and cheeks. Bile rises in Madara’s throat. He tears his gloves off with his teeth and shoves them into his pocket, moving on instinct to seize Izuna’s shoulders, but draws back, in case Izuna doesn’t want to be touched.
“What happened to you?” he cries instead, finding that his hands are shaking. “What happened to your eyes?”
Izuna doesn’t answer. He bites his lip.
“Oh, no,” Madara whispers. “Tell me I didn’t.”
“Come out of the doorway,” Izuna says finally, his voice flat. “You’ll let the cats out.”
Madara moves into Izuna’s warm kitchen, the awful hot lump in his throat swelling. Every cell in his body is overcome with a white-hot, burning rage. The aroma of simmering rice porridge and the vague smell of cats barely feels real at all. For the first time since Izuna’s death in his own world, he feels the overwhelming urge to fight, to inflict unfathomable pain upon this monster who has hurt his brother so badly, to make him hurt , not caring how badly he gets hurt in return.
“I’ll kill him,” he whispers, his breath coming shallow and fast. “I’ll kill him.”
Izuna’s jaw clenches. He swallows. “Madara,” he says, quietly.
His brother’s voice brings him back to his senses. Enormous blue blossoms of chakra are flaring up around his feet, sending indigo sparks scattering around the room. Madara’s hair is floating around his face in black clouds, and as Izuna reaches out for his shoulder, a great flicker of electricity jumps between them. He takes a long breath in, then lets it out. The blue flames recede back into the floor. Gradually, his hair settles.
“Let me take your cloak,” Izuna says, unclasping it from Madara’s shoulders. He slowly brings it over to the hook by the door and hangs it up.
“I’m sorry,” Madara says carefully, glancing once more at the scars around Izuna’s eye sockets. “I didn’t mean to—I must have brought back some bad memories for you, didn’t I.”
Once more, Izuna doesn’t answer. He hovers by the entrance to the kitchen, twisting his fingers together. “You’re not from this world, are you?” he says instead.
Madara’s mouth falls open. “No,” he says at last. “I’m not.”
He supposes he shouldn’t be surprised. Izuna always was uncannily perceptive towards matters like these. But the resemblance to the Izuna he had once known ends there. Where the old Izuna had been loud, boisterous, larger-than-life, this one is timid, docile, small. It makes Madara’s chest hurt. He wonders just how many of this Izuna’s misfortunes are his own fault, and prays that the Izuna he had known in his world had not felt like this, privately, and not told anyone about it for as long as he lived.
Madara shakes himself. “I need your help,” he says. “Hashirama told me to come. I’m trying to get back to my own world.”
“All right,” Izuna says, his face brightening somewhat. “Come and sit down. Let me show you what I have; I might be of some use to you.”
“You’re taking this rather well,” Madara says, impressed.
Izuna shrugs. “I’ve dealt with worse things,” he says, going over to the little closet behind the kitchen. He emerges with a careful armful of yellowing scrolls. As he comes closer, Madara notices the pattern of mottled, craterlike burn scars running up his forearms. He bites the inside of his cheek, hard enough that blood bursts in his mouth. Was he responsible for those scars too?
“So,” Izuna says, gently setting the scrolls down on the counter, “What do you want to know?”
“Anything on space-time ninjutsu,” Madara says quickly, “or really, anything I was working on before I left. I don’t know. I just need to start somewhere.”
“Well, then, start here,” Izuna suggests, passing him a scroll off the top of the pile. Madara unties the red twine and unfurls it. He recognizes its contents as part of the message inscribed on the Uchiha tablet—the part that he hadn’t been able to translate. This particular translation reads:
When someone who possesses the power of Saṃsāra approaches the moon, the eye will open that is reflected on the moon, in order to grant the eternal dream…
“This is my handwriting,” Madara says, fingertips brushing over the brittle parchment. “You kept my old notes?”
Izuna nods. “I saved everything that I thought you might need,” he says. “I don’t know how much of it will be of use to you, but…”
“Indra’s holy bones, Izuna, you’re a godsend,” says Madara, lifting the scroll up to take a closer look. The other Madara’s handwriting is a little neater than his own, and a little flashier; the sharp upward strokes give each character a slightly slanted appearance. He frowns. It’s jarring to look at his own handwriting and see words that he has no recollection of writing. Eternal dream in particular sounds vaguely foreboding.
Izuna’s face lights up again. “I have more,” he says. “Check the wardrobe.”
Madara rolls up the scroll and goes to look. It’s as if he’s peering into his old closet; he moves aside several old pairs of sandals, a very worn and patched-up cloak, and two faded old mantles, astounded at the effort Izuna has put into keeping it all organized. There’s a scarlet wooden mask with carved tengu-like features, and underneath that, a dusty object that he recognizes as his old falconry glove and stirrups. On the small shelf above the row of coat hooks, he discovers more treasures—a pair of gleaming kunai, rolls of bandages, shuriken, a basket full of smoke bombs, a box of incense sticks and candles—he’s even kept a half-empty jar of leather polish. Madara pockets it, rather touched. He comes back to the kitchen.
“I remember reading this one, a long time ago, although I didn’t know what it meant then,” Izuna is saying, running his thumb over the binding of a thick scroll with fraying silk edges. “ Seeking stability,” he recites, “one god split into yin and yang; it is these opposing forces, light and dark, operating together—”
“—that give rise to all things in creation,” Madara finishes. “I remember. I get the feeling that whatever is going on in this world, the other me is at the center of it.”
“I’m afraid you’re right,” Izuna says. Madara takes a deep breath. He feels faint. He sways on his feet, quickly gripping the edge of the table for support. Black spots are dancing in front of his eyes. He sits down with a clatter, rubbing his temples. He hopes Izuna won’t notice.
Izuna is onto him in an instant. “Madara?” he says sharply. “What is it?”
“Nothing,” Madara says. His voice comes out weaker than he had intended.
Izuna frowns. “When did you last eat?”
The question throws him off guard. He honestly can’t remember. “Yesterday?” he says. He squints. “Two days ago, maybe? Is it past midnight yet?”
Izuna stands up from the table. “Stay where you are,” he says. He crouches next to the stove and very carefully blows a little stream of flame at the front burner. “Tea?” he says, getting a pot of water ready.
“I—I can make it,” Madara says, going to stand up. “Don’t bother—”
Izuna reaches over and places a surprisingly firm hand on his shoulder. “Just sit.” He feels around on the counter for the teabags, then lifts the lid of the simmering pot of rice that’s already on the stove. Two of the cats emerge around the corner, meowing curiously at all the activity. One of them, the one-eyed tabby, climbs up into Madara’s lap and curls up into a nearly perfect circle. He scratches behind its ears and fails to bite back a smile as it begins to purr softly.
Izuna brings over a platter with two steaming bowls and two hot mugs of tea. “Here,” he says, passing him one chipped bowl. “Okayu.”
Madara accepts it with a muttered “thanks.” He raises the bowl to his lips, then pauses.
Izuna seems to notice. “You’re not eating,” he says.
Madara stares into the bowl of okayu, feeling tears prickling in the corners of his eyes yet again. “Why do you still care so much for me?” he says. “I’ve caused you nothing but misfortune, and yet you still—”
“You haven’t caused me any misfortune,” Izuna says. “We just met, remember.”
“Even so,” Madara says, staring down at the pile of scrolls on the floor. I let you die in the other world, he thinks. Something else occurs to him then. He puts his bowl aside, frowning.
“Izuna?” he says.
“Yes?” Izuna replies, in barely more than a whisper.
Madara takes a long sip of tea before continuing. “How did you know I wasn’t from this world?”
“Well, I did master sage jutsu,” Izuna says softly. “I can tell these things.”
“You’re a sage?” Madara exclaims, setting his teacup down with a loud clack . “Izuna, that’s amazing!”
“There really wasn’t much to it,” Izuna says, squirming uncomfortably in the chair. “Some of the ninneko helped me.” He bows his head for a moment, and when he surfaces, there are red and white markings around his eyes and his nose, looking like a set of matching whiskers and stripes.
Madara beams into his okayu. Of course his brother would be a cat sage. Izuna ducks his head again, and his sage markings fade away.
“What was I like in this world?” Madara says. “Why did I change? Why did I abandon the village?”
Izuna sets down his mug, thinking hard.
“I don’t think you did change,” he says, and Madara’s heart sinks horribly. “You were always like this—always reaching for the top. It was inevitable, I think, that the village could no longer contain you. The clan trusted you, and I trusted you to do what was best for the clan.”
The gray cat leaps up and sits in Izuna’s lap. He strokes it absentmindedly.
“And you always did do what was best for the clan. Even when it hurt.” He pauses, shivering slightly.
Madara glances down at a small red scroll bearing the instructions for unlocking the eternal Mangekyou sharingan.
“I know there’s no point in trying to apologize,” he says slowly, mentally tracing the harsh brushstrokes until each one is ingrained in his memory. He looks up across the table at his brother, pale and demure, holding his mug of tea with trembling fingers. “Izuna, believe me, I would go blind a thousand times over if I could somehow get you your eyes back.”
“You did what needed to be done,” Izuna says dully, setting down his tea. “It’s all right.”
“No!” Madara cries. “It is not all right, Izuna! I can’t let you just—”
“It is an honor to serve the Uchiha clan and my elder brother,” Izuna cuts in. “These eyes were a small price to pay.”
“Is that what I told you when I took them?” Madara cries. “And you listened to me?”
Izuna shakes his head. “Madara, enough. I’ve already forgiven you.”
“You don’t have to forgive me!” Madara cries. “You deserve to be upset! I did something terrible, and you took the fall for it!”
Izuna doesn’t answer. He keeps stroking the gray cat.
“Big brothers,” Madara says, “are supposed to protect their siblings. I have failed you in every possible way.” He bows his head. “Izuna, I am so sorry. If only—”
A flurry of movement out the window catches his eye. Madara gapes. It’s the same pitch-black, oozing, humanoid being he had spotted off Hashirama’s balcony, and at the shrine. The instant it appears, he feels a wave of that now-familiar dark, rotting chakra wash over him. The other Madara’s chakra feels infinitely worse now that he knows what he did to Izuna in this world. He clutches his head, groaning.
“What is it?” says Izuna.
“Nothing,” Madara says. He lets out a long, slow breath, and wipes the blood from his nose. “I think I’m being followed.”
Izuna’s mouth forms a solemn line. “By whom?” he says, barely moving his lips.
Madara glances out the window once more. One of the red lanterns across the street has gone out. “I’m not sure,” he admits, staring at his pale reflection in the dirty glass. “This whole world has thrown me off. I’m not sensing things correctly. I don’t think it’s human.” He gulps down the last of his tea. “Whatever it is, it followed me from my own world. And I’m certain that it’s connected to—the other Madara. That thing might be my best shot at him.”
Izuna looks paler than usual.
“It could be a trap,” he says.
Madara scoffs. “And?”
“That Madara, he’s…I don’t even know what he’s capable of,” Izuna says, gripping his forearm with one pale hand. ”He’s unbelievably powerful.”
Madara raises one eyebrow. “So am I,” he says. “There are things more important than power, you know.”
Izuna bites his lip. “Still,” he says. “I don’t know if—”
“Listen to me,” Madara says, putting his hands on Izuna’s shoulders. “I will go to the ends of heaven and earth for you, Izuna. I will defy death and reason, I will protect you with all my might. I love you, more than I can say. I swear I will defeat him.”
Izuna sits there in shocked silence, lips parted slightly, grip loosening on his sleeve.
“Come on,” Madara says. “Enough research. Let me just be your brother for a moment. It’s the least I can do.”
He takes Izuna’s hand and leads him outside. At the end of the alley, the wind whistles through the paper-thin cracks in the buildings; grit and sand fly in their faces. Sora-ku stands before them, dim and dark and dilapidated, and for the first time in a long time, Madara looks up at the stars and feels at peace with himself and his resolve. Finally, finally, he feels as if he is working towards something worthwhile.
Izuna is shivering. “Here,” Madara says, and removes his cloak, wrapping it tightly around Izuna’s shoulders. “Better?”
Izuna nods, the tiniest of smiles gracing his pale face. They sit in silence for a while.
“We used to do this a lot,” Madara says presently, “sneak outside the compound to get away from everything. We’d talk for hours.”
“That sounds nice,” Izuna says, “just talking.”
“When you were little,” Madara gazes at the horizon, remembering, “I would tell you stories, you know, to get you to fall asleep.” He laughs. “Of course, I was young then too, so none of them were very good, but…”
Izuna lifts his head very slightly. “What kinds of stories?” he says.
“Oh, just whatever was on my mind, really,” Madara says. “Talking birds, and forest spirits, and moon magic, and one about a travelling band of dancing cats—you were especially fond of the dancing cats,” he says. Izuna laughs. “We both grew out of them at some point, I suppose.”
Madara looks up at the sky, no longer so concerned with the cold. The more he watches, the more stars he seems to notice. It seems almost impossible that the night sky can hold so many of them all at once. Madara feels very small. Izuna leans up against Madara’s shoulder, his breath quiet in Madara’s ear.
“And then, when you got hurt,” Madara says, “very badly, years ago now, I told you one more story. I had never felt so helpless. I needed to do something to ease your pain, no matter how insignificant it was. But then you—you—”
Izuna’s folded hands spasm in his lap. “I died,” he says quietly, “didn’t I.”
A shooting star makes its glittering arc across the sky. Madara nods.
“There are so many things I wish I could have told you,” he says, cursing his voice for breaking. “So many little moments I wish we could have shared. After we founded the village, I thought I would feel better, but most days I just miss you more and more.”
“Tell me about the village in your world,” Izuna says, resting his chin in his hands in a manner painfully reminiscent of the old Izuna.
“Oh, it’s—it’s wonderful,” Madara says, realizing, with an almost divine moment of clarity, just how wonderful it is. “I wish I could bring you back and show you. Oh, Izuna, you would have loved it. One of the first things Hashirama did was designate a huge swath of the forest for a nature preserve. He’s got all sorts of rare plants in there—he’s been growing these carnivorous flowers recently, as big around as umbrellas, and the leaves are so sharp that you can cut yourself on them—and the animals! Enormous wild cats with claws like meat hooks, and great big eagles the size of warships, and all sorts of snails and worms and frogs and salamanders and other little creatures like that—Hashirama has taken a liking to those little snails recently,” Madara says, smiling as he remembers.
“And there’s an enormous botanic garden just outside the Academy,” he continues. “We just had the Winter Solstice festival there, so all the lanterns are still strung up. I feel like I’m walking through a field of stars every time I leave the Academy after dark. Oh—and the aviary is really something; all kinds of hawks and owls and crows and ravens, just the smartest birds you could imagine—there’s this one fish hawk, Kishiko I think her name is—she’d kill me if she knew I had forgotten her name,” Madara laughs. “She just came to us from Kirigakure, and she has the most exquisite golden eyes.
“There’s a cat shelter, right at the entrance to the Uchiha district,” he continues, watching Izuna’s smile widen ever-so-slightly. “Hikaku’s in charge of it right now, but most everyone from the clan stops by to volunteer; they take such good care of those cats.
“And we have a cat that lives in the office—she was a stray originally, and she took a liking to me as we were building the Academy, but when I brought her home to my house she ran away. Well, naturally we all thought she was gone forever, but one day we came into the office and there she was, curled up in that very sunny spot on the windowsill just behind the Hokage’s desk—you know the spot, right? You would love her, Izuna, she’s such a sweet lady.” He grins. “I feed her Tobirama’s fish sometimes, but I don’t think he’s figured that out yet.”
Madara looks down at Izuna, whose chest is rising and falling so peacefully, he thinks he might have fallen asleep. He continues, in a softer voice:
“And Kagami’s aunts just opened a senbei shop—it’s a tiny little place, but the sweets are divine, and last I heard, they’re working on building an addition. And the dumpling shop is always worth a visit—it’s near the offices, so I end up dragging Hashirama there for lunch at least twice a week—and the sushi shop is quite good too; once the alliance with Kiri made a bit more headway, the tuna got a lot fresher.
“Oh!” he says, remembering more details. “And the clan has its own tavern—I haven’t been in a while, but Naori started a band a few months after the truce, and we have live music every other Friday—you like sweet drinks still, don’t you?”
“I don’t really drink,” Izuna admits, stirring slightly, “but I do like sweet things.”
Madara puts his arm around him, pulling him a bit closer. How he wishes he could pluck Izuna out of this world and place him gently in his own. He thinks of the village again, warm and bright and beautiful; and he thinks of the smell of frying food, and the carefree, easy music of street performers, and families laughing, and children playing; and then he remembers being so lonely it felt like dying, despite all of it right there in front of him, and then feeling worse and worse at his own self-imposed isolation. He wants to belong so badly.
“You’re allowed to be a part of the village, you know,” Izuna says softly, as if he’s read Madara’s mind.
“I know,” Madara says, surprised to find that he’s crying.
“Thank you, Madara,” Izuna says softly, resting his head on Madara’s shoulder.
Madara wipes his eyes with his sleeve. “For what?”
“I had hoped you would come back someday,” Izuna says, “so I could be useful to you one last time.”
Rabbit. Boar. Ram.
Madara examines his hands. Sand glitters beneath his feet. He doesn’t feel any different after making the handsigns, although he can’t see why the jutsu wouldn’t have worked. But he isn’t done just yet, he thinks as he steps into the desert and begins his long journey back to the village. He can’t leave this world—leave Izuna— like this. He needs to make one final stop before he sets off for good. He just hopes he’s given himself enough time.
Chapter 4: exit strategy of a wrecking ball
SORRY I'M LATE.....i was sick for a few days....please enjoy!!
It’s past midnight by the time Madara makes it back to Konoha. He goes to Hashirama’s house first out of habit; finding it deserted, he remembers what Tobirama had said about Hashirama never leaving the office, and heads there next, resolutely refusing to look up at his own stone face on the cliff. The moon is a tiny ghostly sliver now, fading in and out behind long lines of thin clouds, and Madara can think of nothing else but getting to Hashirama as fast as he can. He remembers the previous night—was that really just one night ago?—when all he had wanted was to get away from the village. He feels as if years have passed since then. But he can’t reminisce for long—he doesn’t have much time now. He bursts through the front door to the office and sprints down the hall, the candles sparking in their wall brackets as he runs by. He can hear muffled voices down the hallway, coming from the Hokage’s office. Madara pauses, then draws back against the wall, listening hard. There is a paper screen folded across the doorway to the office, and he can see Tobirama and Hashirama silhouetted by candlelight behind it, sitting at the desk.
“…don’t see what my choice of career has to do with any of this,” Tobirama is saying as Madara peers carefully at the brothers’ flickering silhouettes.
“You’re a great shinobi, Tobirama,” Hashirama says. “You have so much potential. I hate to see you waste it.”
Tobirama laughs rather unkindly, crossing his arms. “That must be agony for you,” he says, “pretending to care for me like that.”
Hashirama bristles. “Of course I care about you,” he begins.
“Oh?” Tobirama says loudly. “When was the last time you talked to me? Listened to me?”
“All right, then,” Hashirama says. Madara hears his finger tapping impatiently against the desk. “Do you want to tell me about the 1500 ryō missing from my work account, to start off?”
Tobirama doesn’t answer. Madara watches him lean back slightly in his chair. From his silhouette, he appears to be biting his lip.
“You thought I wouldn’t notice?” Hashirama shouts at last, gesturing at his chest with one hand. “Me?”
“Of course I knew you would notice,” Tobirama snaps. “That’s all you care about, isn’t it? Money!”
“I’m saying this because I care about you!” Hashirama explodes. His palm hits the desk with a resounding smack.
Tobirama’s head whips around so that he’s directly facing the doorway. Madara quickly dives out of sight. “You care about me because I make you look bad,” he says. He snorts. “Serves you right.”
“Look at me, Tobirama!” Hashirama says. The sharp chin-length ends of his hair ripple slightly, as if the wind has caught them. “How long are you going to live like this? Hiding out in your basement all day, drinking all night, sneaking off to gamble with my money, leaving for months at a time to go to those stupid conventions of yours—you can’t keep doing this, Tobirama!”
“See!” Tobirama shouts. “You’re doing it again! Stop trying to control everything you get your hands on! It’s not possible, so just stop trying!”
All the urgency Madara had felt as he had sprinted towards the Hokage’s office has utterly dissolved. He feels like he’s just been smacked in the face with one of the Susanoo’s wings. He’s used to Hashirama and Tobirama having the occasional squabble, but those usually devolve into halfhearted teasing. This is the first time he’s witnessed the brothers actually fight.
“Well, excuse me for trying to hold this family together,” Hashirama rumbles, his fists clenched against the wooden desk.
“Pretty pathetic excuse for a family!” Tobirama shouts. “It’s no wonder everyone close to you ends up leaving, or dead—”
Hashirama’s fist slams into the desk. “TOBIRAMA!” he bellows. The windows rattle. An enormous surge of angry chakra rips through the paper screen over the door and blows Madara’s hair back from his face. It’s almost enough to topple him backwards into the hall; he lands on all fours instead, stunned.
Madara gets slowly to his feet. He watches Tobirama’s shadow flinch slightly, and then hears the chair legs scraping against the floor as Tobirama stands up from the desk. “What is it,” he snaps, “ father?”
Hashirama stops dead. Madara holds his breath. He can hear his heartbeat roaring in his ears.
“Don’t you dare compare me to that man,” Hashirama says at last, his voice low and dangerous.
“Oh?” Tobirama shouts, kicking his chair aside. “Why not? It’s just so easy to these days!”
Madara flattens himself to the wall again, one hand clapped to his mouth, not wanting to be seen. He can hear Tobirama’s furious footsteps approaching the doorway.
“I’m fucking leaving,” Tobirama spits. “I’ve had enough.”
“Tobirama, get back here,” Hashirama shouts, but Tobirama shoves the paper screen aside and storms through the door, frigid chakra rolling off him in dark waves. He stops as he catches sight of Madara.
“The hell do you want?” Tobirama scoffs, giving Madara a very ugly look before pushing past him on his way down the hall. He throws the front door open and slams it behind him as he leaves.
Madara hears the desk drawer slide open, followed by the gentle clink of glass. There is a long pause. Then the drawer shuts.
“Come in, Madara,” Hashirama says tiredly. Madara moves the paper screen to the side and peers into the office.
Hashirama is sitting slumped at the desk, his head in his hands, surrounded by scattered papers and scrolls. As Madara moves into the room, he gives an almighty sigh.
“Should you go after him?” Madara says, glancing behind him at the dark doorway through which Tobirama had disappeared.
“He’ll come back,” Hashirama says, his voice lower and rougher than Madara has ever heard it. “He always does. Besides,” he heaves another long sigh, “I know by now not to chase after people who run away from me. I’ve had my trust broken too many times.”
Madara shuts the office door behind him.
“Well, sit down, now that you’re here,” Hashirama says, putting his scrolls away.
Madara pulls up the chair that Tobirama had vacated and sits down across from Hashirama at the desk, thinking it might be improper to climb onto the desk like he ordinarily would.
“I didn’t expect to see you again,” Hashirama says, his eyes fixed resolutely on the desk. “Why are you here?”
“I need you to do something for me,” says Madara.
Hashirama’s eyes flicker upward at once. “What is it?”
“Izuna,” Madara says. “Take care of him, once I’m gone. He has nobody else. He needs…someone. To remind him that he’s still worth something on his own.”
Hashirama’s jaw clenches. He stares down at the desk again. “You’ve seen how good of a brother I am,” he says.
“Please,” Madara says. “I have no one else. I don’t even know if I’ll be able to get back. Hell, I don’t even know if I can win.”
Hashirama doesn’t answer. His chest rises and falls, rises and falls. Madara watches the twin moons reflected in his glasses shiver slightly as he breathes.
“You’re going after him,” Hashirama says slowly.
Madara nods. “Is there anything I should know?”
Hashirama stares at the desk again.
“He’s at the place called Mountain’s Graveyard,” he says finally, “past Takigakure, to the north.”
“Right,” Madara says. “Well, that’s a night’s journey. if I’m doing this, I had better be off.”
Hashirama looks sober and tired. He clears his throat, and gives a quick, curt nod. His hair bobs slightly. “Be careful,” he says.
Madara doesn’t move from his seat at the desk. Either way, regardless of how this battle goes, this is probably the last time that this Hashirama will ever see him in the flesh. He feels that Hashirama deserves a proper goodbye, even if he’s never been very good at this sort of thing.
It’s as if Hashirama has read his mind. “I wish you didn’t have to go,” he says quietly, sounding more like his other-world counterpart than ever. “When you showed up here yesterday, I didn’t want to believe it. And now you’re leaving again, and it’s not fair for me to want you to stay.”
“I took my brother’s eyes, destroyed the Uchiha clan, left you in charge of the village administration without a moment’s notice, and threw an enormous wrench in your relationship with your brother, and you still want me to come back?” Madara says. “Hopeless, both of you.”
“Well, I enjoy the administrative bits of the village,” Hashirama says. “Paperwork makes me feel like I’m making progress. It’s the only thing I’m really good at, anyway. Other than killing people, and counting cards, and politics.”
Madara laughs harshly. “We’re pretty fucked up, aren’t we, Hashirama?”
Hashirama heaves his own laugh that’s mostly a sigh. “I guess we are.”
Hashirama pulls a small amber bottle out of his desk drawer and uncorks it with a little pop . He offers it to Madara, who hesitates slightly before taking it. He might as well do this properly, he thinks, and share a drink with Hashirama before he sets off. The honey-colored liquid burns his throat as it goes down. It reminds him of summer. How he wishes he could vanish from this world right now, and reappear in a kinder, warmer one…somewhere quiet, and peaceful, where he could sink into Hashirama’s arms and fall asleep there, without having to worry about anything at all…
“He keeps bees,” Madara says suddenly, unsure where this memory has sprung from. “He named every single one of them. I don’t know how he tells them apart.”
He passes the bottle back to Hashirama, who tips it back and swallows the rest. He shudders slightly as he puts it back in his desk drawer with a small clink.
“Hashirama,” Madara says.
Hashirama looks up from his desk. “Yes?”
Madara grits his teeth. “I’m really sorry,” he says, staring at the floor, “that your Madara left.”
Hashirama up blinks at him, frowning.
“If I make it back,” he says, “and I can’t get back to my own world for some reason, I could—”
Hashirama’s face softens. His eyes brighten. For the first time, with his face glowing like this and the tiniest of moon-sliver sparks dancing in his dark eyes, Hashirama truly resembles the man that Madara had left behind in his old world.
“Hold still,” Madara says, leaning forward until their noses are nearly touching.
“What are you doing?” Hashirama murmurs, his breath warm on Madara’s cheek.
It shouldn’t be the alcohol making him act like this, since he’s barely had two sips. But his throat and chest are still burning in that warm, pleasant way as he reaches up with trembling fingers and gently, almost reverently slides Hashirama’s glasses off of his face. He sets them aside on the desk, careful not to smudge the lenses with his fingertips. Hashirama blinks at him with those liquid-black eyes, and his eyelashes are as long and dark as Madara remembers, and it isn’t fair that just this tiny gesture can make everything inside him turn to stars.
He finds his lips parting. His mouth feels liquor-hot. “Hashirama, I…” he begins, not even sure what he’s trying to say.
“Earlier you asked me,” Hashirama says softly, “what you were to me in this world.”
Madara takes a deep breath. The stars are exploding in his stomach.
“Do you remember, all those years ago, when you told me that it’s impossible for two people to show each other their guts? To bare your heart and soul to another person, to understand them inside and out, and have them learn you back?”
“That was all I wanted from you,” Hashirama says, “to be able to look deep inside you and know what you were thinking, to know that we still shared the same dream…to know that after all this time, you still felt the same way I did…but…”
“But I didn’t,” Madara says, “did I.”
“There was always a barrier between us,” Hashirama says, “always something keeping us apart. And then, when we were together, even back then, it was like I had to shout through the glass to reach you. I could see you, but I never truly—saw you for what you were…and there you were, on the other side of the glass…beautiful, and untouchable…so close to me, but so painfully far away…
“But I was still happy to chase after you,” Hashirama whispers, tears rolling down his cheeks and dripping from his chin onto the wooden desk. “I was truly happy to be your right hand man…to be the darkness to your light, the assistant, always second best—I was happy to stay in your shadow and watch you shape the world in your image…and as long as you returned to me every so often to give me a taste of your power I was content.
“But meeting you—seeing you—” Hashirama lets out a long, shaky breath. “I can see just how blind I was this whole time.” He moves forward, tilting his head ever so slightly. His lips are barely a paper-width away from Madara’s face. Madara hovers there, suspended in space and time, feeling like he could disintegrate into dust at any moment.
“Madara,” Hashirama says, “I have finally seen your guts.”
He presses his lips to Madara’s forehead.
Madara’s heart shudders to a stop. Every fiber of him, every cell in his body, is blossoming. Hashirama’s lips are still as soft and warm as he remembers, and his silky hair brushes Madara’s cheekbones and his necklace glimmers green and gold, blue and black, in the candlelight, like some sort of jewel-encrusted insect. Madara’s fingertips are tingling. But Hashirama is drawing back, moving away, and without knowing quite what he’s doing Madara follows him, climbing up onto the desk the way he used to in his own world—
“Come here,” Hashirama mutters, his voice rough.
He reaches out and very tentatively wraps his arms around Madara’s back, as if he’s afraid Madara will disappear like a wisp of smoke if he gets too close. Madara breathes in, and holds him back, as tightly as he can. He smells like ink and paper and bitter alcohol, with just the faintest hint of something green and earthy underneath. It’s a sad smell, Madara thinks, but it’s the closest thing he’s got to his Hashirama in this strange and unforgiving world. He doesn’t want to let go.
“I’ll take care of your brother,” Hashirama says, his voice muffled by Madara’s cloak. “It’s the least I can do, now.”
“Thank you,” Madara says quietly.
“Now go,” he says, after a pause. The sparks disappear. “Go defeat him. Go get back to your own world.”
He’s right, of course, Madara thinks, and gives him a solemn nod. “Well, goodbye, Hashirama,” he says, swiveling to leap off the desk and land back onto the floor. “Thank you for everything.”
“Goodbye, Madara,” Hashirama says. He turns back to the desk as Madara pulls on his hood and gets ready to leave.
Again, with unpleasant clarity, he remembers that he might die during this next encounter, and that this might be the last glimpse of any Hashirama he ever gets, in this world or his own. He shakes himself, and grips the doorknob.
“Oh, and Madara,” Hashirama calls, in that clear, curt tone that Madara still isn’t used to, as if he’s just giving him instructions for some sort of tedious recon mission. “One final thing, before you go.”
Madara turns around at the door. “Huh?”
“Make sure you do get back to your own world,” Hashirama says, with the faintest hint of a wry smile. “I’m sure your Hashirama misses you dearly.”
The journey to Mountain’s Graveyard takes all night. By the time he catches a glimpse of the towering pale skeletons on the horizon, the faintest hint of violet-blue is seeping into the sky to the east. He’s so close to the other Madara now that he feels like his head is about to split in half. Through the ungodly pounding in his head, he can sense a lot of muddled chakra, somewhere just up ahead. He’s almost there.
Something crunches under his sandals and he winces and looks down at his feet. The ground is littered with loose bone fragments, spines and ribs and pieces of skulls. He walks over a little hill, past the impossibly-large skull of something with long, yellowed fangs. Its eye sockets are as wide as he is tall. A layer of thin, gray mist is clinging to the ground, and it only gets thicker as he walks. The sun will be up soon. A large bird circles overhead, and Madara squints through the dimness and recognizes the unmistakable sharp wings and rounded head of a peregrine falcon. It’s not one he knows personally—he hasn’t had a peregrine in a while—although he’s sure it belongs to the other Madara. He watches it dive out of sight into the treetops.
He’ll know I’m here soon enough, Madara thinks grimly. But he’ll be damned if he lets the other Madara come to him first. He’ll start this battle on his own terms.
Madara forces himself to focus. He sets off towards the area where the peregrine had disappeared, still trying to discern exactly what he’s sensing underneath his feet. Whatever it is, it’s unbelievably powerful—less of a standard human signature and more of a large pool of strange, earthy chakra.
It’s Hashirama’s chakra, he realizes. Not the Hashirama from this world, but the one from his own— No, he thinks, feeling it coursing up from the ground in feeble waves. That’s not quite right. This is a purer, more primal form of Hashirama’s chakra. It’s the part of Hashirama’s chakra that doesn’t resemble human chakra at all, the part that had always made him wonder whether Hashirama was human or—or something else. Madara stomps on the ground; it gives way beneath his sandal. He kneels in the dirt and presses his ear to the earth.
There’s some sort of twisting cavern just beneath him. Madara summons the left arm of the Susanoo and punctures the ground with one fiery blue talon. He drops through the hole and into the dark.
Madara lands in a crouch in a small dirt tunnel. The ground is damp and spongy underfoot. Carefully, he stands up, nearly choking on the cloying smell of rot.
Master, says a soft voice at his feet. Madara looks down and nearly shouts. A pair of waxy white hands are reaching for his ankle. He leaps back out of the way. The hands blossom from the ground like a bizarre white fungus, bubbling and elongating into a human-like shape. So this is the source of that strange chakra, Madara thinks—or one of the sources. He can sense a huge number of these not-quite-clones somewhere close by—a thousand, maybe more. More than he has time to fight, even with each one’s chakra diluted like this.
Come here, says the creature. Master, come here. Its voice even has Hashirama’s lilting, deceptive softness to it. Madara grits his teeth. He needs to find the other Madara quickly. This is definitely the Mokuton, he decides, but he’s never seen it used this way before.
The creature bares its teeth, which elongate into sharp points before Madara’s eyes. Master, it says, frowning. Its eyes go completely black. Green liquid drips from its mouth. You are not master.
Madara whips around and kicks it in the face. It collapses like putty, and its doughy head splats off its body and lands on the dirt floor about thirty feet away. He runs past its stumbling body and crouches by the disembodied head.
“I know he’s close by,” he hisses. “Where is he?”
You won’t find him here, the creature’s head says, still smiling its disarming white smile. Madara curses and takes off down the passage. More white Mokuton creatures are sprouting up through the walls and floor as he runs. The air is thick with their strange, primal, earthy chakra; the deeper he runs, the more come oozing up at him; he’s hurdling over the creatures now; he loses a sandal around a sharp turn and a hundred white hands are grabbing at the ends of his cloak; he feels their fingers catching on the fabric and he snatches it out of the way, his head pounding—one of the creatures drips like wax from the cave ceiling right in front of him. Master. Come with us.
Madara ducks under it and breaks into a flat-out sprint. He comes to a crude throne room with a tall wooden throne on a dirt platform at its center. The ceiling is taller here, and he wonders just how deep underground he must be by now.
Master, master, master , the creatures all chant in an eerie chorus, shoving him towards the throne. Two of them seize his forearms and force him down onto it, knocking the wind out of him. The other Madara’s chakra is very near now. Madara coughs. Blood pours from his mouth this time. The cavern is spinning, and black spots are dancing in front of his eyes. “Stop,” he chokes. “Stop...”
Master, the creatures continue to gasp, a tangled writhing mess of bodies and limbs. Master, master, master, master—
“Enough!” Madara thunders. He summons as much chakra as he can muster and unfurls the Susanoo again; the fiery blue wings sprout from his back, and he brings the powerful arm swinging down onto the makeshift throne, which shatters into a thousand wooden splinters—the first several rows of creatures melt in the flickering heat—and then he curls the great clawed hand into a fist and shatters the ceiling too.
Sunlight pours into the throne room as the ceiling crumbles; the cavernous walls of the throne room turn from dim gray to blazing orange, and dust rises in a great plume from the impact of the Susanoo’s enormous fist. There’s someone silhouetted in the billowing dust, standing sure-footed and godlike on the curve of an enormous ivory rib, the first rays of morning sunlight framing his back. His arms are crossed over his chest, and his spotless armor gleams scarlet and gold, and his black hair hangs down his back in a long matted tangle. At his feet, the black wraithlike creature that had followed Madara from his world, the thing that he had thought was Izuna at Nakano Shrine, bubbles up from the ground, grinning.
"Very good," says the black wraith, its grin widening. "I knew you would come."
The other Madara’s head twitches very slightly at the noise. Slowly, slowly, he turns around.
Chapter 5: these hands are not for tying
OH MY GOD, I AM SO SORRY THIS CHAPTER IS SO LATE. i honestly have no idea what happened....two months mysteriously went by......there was a time when i genuinely thought i would have this fic done by madara's birthday. simpler times.
edited for continuity 3/26/19
“Zetsu told me you would come,” says the other Madara, nodding towards the ink-blot creature. His lips are curved in a disarming smile. Dust settles around him in swirling clouds. “He said a powerful phantom bearing my image would appear, and that I would have to battle him in order to obtain the power necessary to complete the Infinite Tsukuyomi.”
Madara’s breath snags somewhere in his throat. All the people he’s met in this world so far—Hashirama, Tobirama, and Izuna—have only somewhat resembled their real-world counterparts. But this Madara—this Madara is his exact replica, even down to the shape of his fingernails, the web of burn scars on his powerful forearms, the tangled strands of coarse hair falling into his eyes. Madara’s head is buzzing. He can feel hot blood dripping from his nose. He looks away.
“Zetsu, was it?” Madara says, finding the black creature much easier to look at than this other Madara. It grins blobbily up at him. A pair of dripping hands manifest from the inky body and it uses them to hoist itself out of the soil and into a semi-kneeling position.
“I’m glad you decided to come,” it says, in a voice as thick and guttural as sludge. “I had hoped—”
“Look at me,” the other Madara calls down to him. “And stand up straight. I want to see your face.”
Madara clenches his jaw. It’s a terrible feeling, to stare up into his own face like that and know it’s not a clone, or a mirror—but now that he looks closer he can see the subtle differences between himself and this other Madara: this one is more—well—more handsome than he is; his face is marked with less frown lines, and he smiles with an easy charm that Madara himself could never manage. He’s paler, and more elegant, and—Madara fears—more powerful than he is.
“You and Zetsu certainly have been doing a lot of talking,” Madara says. The ink-blot creature grins again. A drop of blood falls out of Madara’s left nostril and lands on the ground, spattering against the spongy dark earth.
The other Madara jumps gracefully down from his perch on the giant ribcage. He stands up, tossing his hair.
“I think I’ll take my time killing you,” he says pleasantly, advancing towards the gaping hole in the ground left from Madara’s Susanoo. He tilts his head. Madara swallows, watching him closely. He absently wipes the blood from his chin. It’s a near-constant trickle by now, with the other Madara so close.
He hears the distant cry of the same falcon from before. The bird slowly comes into view, twice circling the enormous hole in the earth before folding in its wings and diving towards the pair of Madaras.
“Come,” the other Madara says, holding up his armor-plated arm. The bird hesitates, hovering between the pair of them, before swiveling in midair and lighting down on Madara’s shoulder.
Madara blinks, shocked. “I’m not your master,” he says quietly, thinking of the multitudes of doughy white mokuton creatures in the cavern below them.
“Come here,” the other Madara orders. The bird’s head snaps in his direction. Its eyes look foggy and unfocused. A jutsu of some kind, Madara thinks, disgust boiling in him. How dare he.
“No,” Madara says sharply, and, focusing his chakra into two fingers, carefully releases the binding seal around the peregrine’s head. The bird blinks, and its glassy eyes turn black and intelligent.
“Falconry,” Madara says, “is an agreement based on mutual trust.” He gently runs his index finger down the falcon’s glossy dark head. The bird blinks at him, squeezing his arm ever so slightly with its bright yellow talons.
“You have no right to control this creature by force,” Madara says. “Shame on you.”
The other Madara’s mouth falls open in shock.
“Go,” Madara says to the bird, which stares at him with its black eyes for a long moment before inclining its head and taking off once more. Both Madaras watch it disappear over the horizon.
The other Madara’s shock is rapidly fading. He bares his teeth. “You disgust me,” he says, eyes still fixed on the spot where the peregrine had vanished.
Madara snorts. “The feeling is mutual, fortunately,” he says. “But at any rate, that makes my job a bit easier.”
They meet each other’s eyes again. Zetsu surreptitiously oozes out of the way. Then they leap at each other.
Immediately, he feels like he’s sparring with Izuna. This Madara has Izuna’s same vicious energy, his uncanny agility. He slips under Madara’s swinging fist, teeth bared, and flips backwards onto his hands in order to deliver a swift kick to Madara’s diaphragm. Madara barely dodges in time, and lands off-balance to boot, and then has to quickly crouch to avoid a blow from the other Madara’s kama. He feels it whistle past his head, slicing a few threads of hair from his bangs.
“You’re too slow,” he taunts.
Madara smiles. “Am I?” He flicks a kunai at the ground, setting off a trip wire. The other Madara’s eyes widen and he jumps backwards just in time to avoid the explosion of smoke and sparks, only to be beheaded by a second kunai from behind. Madara gives a small hmph of satisfaction. Then the clone dispels.
Madara curses. He whirls around and is met with five, ten, twenty clones, each clad in red armor. In unison, they make a series of handsigns. Gray smoke erupts from the ground at their feet, weaving into a twisted mass of ashy ropes. Madara leaps back, his bare foot singed, and watches the skulls and moss on the ground curl and blacken from the heat.
“Just try dodging this,” they all say, in nearly perfect unison. Madara bends over backwards to avoid a curling tendril of smoke, and curses again as he notices two more tendrils attempting to wrap around his ankles, and a third around his neck. Most unfortunately, this technique reminds him of some of the kinkier things he and Hashirama had gotten up to using the mokuton. He dodges again, smirking this time.
“Just what do you think you’re smiling at?” shouts one of the clones, tossing two paper bombs into the fray.
Madara skids to a halt just behind the real body, panting raggedly. He makes a mental note to not use clones in the bedroom for a while, if he even manages to make it out of this alive.
“I intend to make this hurt,” the other Madara shouts. “We’ll see if you’re smiling then. Now, dance for me!”
“No,” Madara says, as he curls left his hand into a fist, “you dance for me.”
The other Madara turns. Madara catches the quickest glimpse of his opponent’s shocked face before his fist connects with the other Madara’s jaw with an intensely satisfying smack. He staggers, knocked off balance, and Madara spins around and kicks him hard in the same spot, knocking a tooth out of his pristine mouth.
All twenty clones dispel as the other Madara goes flying. With grim satisfaction, Madara watches him fumble a landing and stagger on all fours onto the uneven ground, kunai and shuriken clattering out of the many pockets in his mantle.
Madara flexes his fingers, smirking.
The other Madara gets slowly to his feet. He’s laughing. Slowly, he wipes the blood from his lip.
“Seems it’s pointless to use clones,” Madara says.
The other Madara chuckles. “I quite agree.”
They regard each other once more. Then it’s ram, bird, dragon, ox, snake, boar, tiger, horse, his fingers flying frantically as he weaves the signs, desperate to keep up with his opponent. The twin fireballs unfurl like deadly flowers, tumbling through the air towards each other, shredding the ground and the forest. The other Madara, infuriatingly, is still standing his ground. And then Madara notices another difference between them: the chakra radiating from the other Madara is a violent shade of magenta, while his own is tinged with a sort of deep indigo, much closer to blue than red. He doesn’t know how to describe it, exactly—in Madara’s experience, chakras don’t have colors as much as they recall specific sensations, textures, emotions. Tobirama’s chakra is a cold blue-gray, rough like sandpaper, but undulating like the rippling surface of a stream. Hashirama’s is a warm golden-green that makes Madara’s chest feel like it’s about to burst. And this Madara’s chakra is just similar enough to his own that it makes him want to vomit. It’s as if his own chakra has been left in the sun to rot for weeks.
The other Madara closes his eyes. His chakra flares significantly. Madara stands his ground, expecting perhaps Amaterasu, or some other visual jutsu of equal caliber. Then the other Madara’s eyes pop open. His ringed irises are glowing violet. Madara’s fireball quivers slightly before vanishing in a tiny wisp of smoke.
Madara sputters, winded. “That’s—”
“The rinnegan, yes,” the other Madara says, slowly lowering his arm. Smoke rises in little curls from his spread fingers. Madara thinks again of the Uchiha stone tablet, of opposing forces, light and dark, operating together …of someone possessing power of both both the Uchiha and the Senju. Impossible.
“But that takes—you don’t have—”
“Oh, I certainly do,” the other Madara says, smiling again.
Madara frowns. Unbidden, a shudder runs through him. Again, he remembers the multitudes of white mokuton clones under his feet. “How—how did you get Hashirama’s cells?” he says, feeling like he already knows the answer, even if he really doesn’t want to know the answer.
The other Madara continues to smile that disconcerting smile. “I am quite persuasive.”
Madara shivers again. He feels as if the rinnegan is boring straight through him. “What exactly are you planning to do?” Madara says. “Attack the village?
The other Madara laughs. “I have no interest in Konoha,” he says lightly. His eyebrow arches, and he pulls up his left sleeve. “I already have everything I need.”
He bites down on his wrist, and draws his thumb through the blood.
“Kyuubi!” he shouts, slamming one palm into the ground. A mountain of smoke billows up from the spot. Madara leaps backwards. Of course this Madara has the Kyuubi contract, he thinks. Oh, this is bad.
With an earth-shattering roar, the demon fox appears, its eyes blazing scarlet, tails lashing back and forth through the air with a noise like a hurricane. It dwarfs the half-sunken ribcage before him, standing taller than a mountain, and twice as wild. Madara can see the sphere of chakra building between the Kyuubi’s jaws. Blue light fliashes on its its gleaming yellow teeth. Its sharingan eyes begin to spin. Then the earth shudders as the fox bounds forward, long ropes of spit flying from its gums, its many tails writhing like scarlet snakes. It lets out a scream as the chakra sphere bursts from its mouth, and crushes the massive ribcage to dust with one scarlet paw.
Madara instinctively shields his face. The Susanoo’s wing erupts into life and curls around his body, creating a barrier between him and the spinning mass of ash and dust and bone. He should be all right for now. He’s out of its range. And even if the other Madara did manage to land a blow on him using the fox, the Susanoo’s fiery armor should be able to withstand it.
But a flicker of doubt runs through him anyway. He doesn’t fancy spending the rest of the battle—and, by extension, his life—on the defensive. Not to mention his time limit. It must be nearly up by now, considering the position of the sun. He needs to make a move, and quickly. He reaches into his pocket, hoping for some sort of miraculous solution to materialize right in front of his reaching fingers, but all he finds is a single kunai and the container of leather polish that he had picked up at Izuna’s house in Sora-ku. He swallows a curse. It’s just not satisfying fighting himself at a distance like this. He wants to look directly into the other Madara’s eyes as he destroys him.
“You had everything!” Madara cries. “The clan! Hashirama! The entire village! How dare you abandon all of that?”
The other Madara’s grin slowly widens. “Oh,” he says, “now this is quaint.”
Madara stands his ground. The Susanoo’s talons twitch. Its flaming wings shiver.
“You actually loved him back, didn’t you!” the other Madara shouts from atop the Kyuubi’s head. “You fool! You complete—utter—fool!” Each word is punctuated by a blow from the Kyuubi’s claws.
“You were the Hokage!” Madara shouts. A blast of bright blue chakra bursts from the Susanoo’s wings. The Kyuubi snarls and dives to the ground to avoid it.
Something feels strange, he notes, as if he’s floating somewhere above the scene, observing his body’s reactions from afar. He’s not even controlling the Susanoo—it’s sheer rage pouring from him, crackling uncontrollably up and down the Susanoo’s body. His eyes feel like they are burning in his skull. He hasn’t felt so devastatingly angry since the day he fought Hashirama before the truce—since Izuna died because of his own poor judgment—
“You had Izuna!” Madara screams, deflecting a flaming piece of rubble with his bare hand. “And you used him and tossed him aside like he meant nothing to you!”
“Whatever happens to Izuna in this world is not my concern,” the other Madara says loudly, “nor should it be yours. The savior of the world must make personal sacrifices.”
“Some savior!” Madara shouts. “Izuna is still alive! He’s still alive in this world, and you didn’t—”
“You aren’t honestly trying to claim moral superiority, are you?” the other Madara laughs.
“You stole Izuna’s eyes!” Madara shouts, discovering, with some mild shock, that his face is wet.
“Zetsu told me,” the other Madara says. “You let your brother die. It’s been tearing you apart ever since.”
He spreads his arms wide, holding his head up high. “I am stronger than you because I’ve thrown aside my humanity,” he calls out, his voice ringing across the valley. “I am unique. I am the second Sage of the Six Paths—I am the savior of the world. There will never be another like me.”
Zetsu comes out of the charred earth, skin bubbling like tar. “Not quite,” he says slowly.
The other Madara stabs his sword into the dirt. His jaw clenches as he turns around to face Zetsu. “Excuse me?” he says.
“I didn’t think it would come to this,” Zetsu says. “But the truth is, you are merely a copy, Madara.” He swivels his head all the way around to meet Madara’s eyes. “This one is the real one.”
The other Madara bristles. Madara winces as a pulse of deep red chakra rolls off of him. “What?” he says, his voice quivering slightly.
“I created this world specifically to guide you towards the correct path,” Zetsu says, still gesturing at him, “to show you what your own future holds. Of course, some distortions occurred when I placed you in it, but the intended effect remains nonetheless—”
“The only one who’ll be deciding what my future holds is me!” Madara shouts, swinging the Susanoo’s sword into the ground with all his might. It slices through the ruins of the massive petrified ribcage, sending bone dust scattering across the forest. Zetsu ducks, shielding his face with one glistening black hand. “I won’t ever go down your path, do you hear me?”
The other Madara is not moving.
“What did you say?” he says to Zetsu, in a low voice. “What exactly are you trying to tell me, Zetsu?”
“You are not the savior, Madara,” Zetsu says, slowly oozing back up out of the ground. “You never were.” He slowly lifts one arm and points his index finger at Madara’s chest. “He is.”
“You’re lying,” the other Madara grinds out, his teeth bared. He looks wild, inhuman.
Madara meets his eyes. The world spins in that familiar way. Genjutsu, he thinks, but it’s
He is eleven years old, tugging at the hem of his mourning clothes, and Tajima’s strong hand clenches hard and cold on his left shoulder—then he’s thirteen, sprinting across the glittering frost-covered battlefield, chest stinging from the cold—next he’s kneeling on wooden floorboards, and Izuna’s empty eye sockets gape at him like bloody tunnels—then it’s the morning after Hashirama’s inauguration, and Hashirama’s warm brown hands are reaching for him and he rolls over in the bed and kisses the new Hokage soundly on the mouth—he’s sitting on the clifftop, watching the sun come up over their brand new village—
The genjutsu breaks. Madara staggers as the illusion dissolves around him in uneven patches. He can hear ragged breaths somewhere to his left. He turns. The other Madara is on his hands and knees, drawing in long shuddering gasps like a dying man.
“You’re not...” he’s whispering. His hands clench in the ashy dirt. “You can’t be serious…”
Behind him, Zetsu smiles.
“Deep down, you know it’s true,” he says. “This insatiable thirst to prove yourself…your desire for power…for control... it’s because you know. Even if you don’t fully realize it, you are nothing but my pawn.”
“It’s not true!” the other Madara screams, his voice cracking. “This can’t be true!”
“Take a good look at your world, Madara,” Zetsu says to him. “It’s all mine. You are mine.”
“Don’t fuck with me, Zetsu!” the other Madara screams. “I’ve been working on the Infinite Tsukuyomi for years, long before you ever appeared! I will not be your pawn!”
Something is happening. The other Madara is summoning a larger amount of chakra than Madara has ever felt in one place before—more than the Kyuubi, more than Hashirama himself has ever had.
“Get back, fox!” Madara screams, his voice sounding practically inhuman, before he binds the Kyuubi to the mountain behind them with one powerful thrust of his arm. Golden chains pour from his fingertips, snaking around the Kyuubi’s snarling jaw and pinning the monstrous fox to the ground. The earth trembles. Behind him, Madara hears a great section of the tunnel system caving in.
Madara seizes his last kunai from his mantle pocket, but it’s too late to even think about parrying. The other Madara pounces on him like a wild cat, pulling a long tantō from one of the belts beneath his armor. He kneels on Madara’s chest, tilting his head down towards Madara’s own. “You recognize this tantō, don’t you?”
Madara coughs. “That’s—”
“Yes,” the other Madara says, his smile broadening. “It was our father’s.”
He unsheaths the blade and tosses the sheath aside carelessly.
“I’m going to kill you now,” the other Madara purrs, running the blade along Madara’s throat, “the same way I killed our father, so many years ago.”
Madara squirms uselessly beneath him. He can’t move.
“I know you did the same,” the other Madara murmurs, his tangled hair slithering along Madara’s forehead. “I can see it.” He presses the blade deeper against Madara’s skin. Madara chokes. “You did the same, and you liked it, didn’t you?”
His gloved fingers dance at Madara’s throat, just under his jaw. Madara twists away from his reaching hand, teeth clenched, bloody fingers clawing at nothing.
“I certainly did,” the other Madara says. “I remember it clearly. I remember the stench of dread, and the sound of twigs snapping in the thicket, and the way the moon was shining through the trees as we sprinted through the forest after him…it was as if the moon was hungry too. You remember, don’t you? How we caught him—our knee on his chest—one fist in his hair—and we brought him to his knees and looked into his eyes and saw real, desperate fear reflected back—like a hunted animal who knows the chase is over—and then—”
Something frightening and feral comes over his face. He bares his teeth and stabs Tajima’s tantō into the ground, millimeters away from Madara’s neck. It grazes the side of his ear, and severs a lock of hair from his head. Madara winces at the impact. He can hear the other Madara’s breath hitch from excitement as he lowers his head once more.
“I am the hawk,” the other Madara whispers, his lips brushing Madara’s earlobe, “and you are the starling, and now that I have you, I will pluck each unworthy feather from your abhorrent body…I will make you writhe with pain as I strip you of everything that makes you your own…and then, after I have made you mine—after I have disposed of you here—I think I’ll take your place… impostor,” he spits. “I will crush your precious village. I will annihilate your beloved clan in the cruelest way I know. And when I’m done, I’ll pay your darling Hashirama a little visit.”
“You...won’t,” Madara grinds out, blood bubbling in his throat. “He’s…stronger than both of us.”
As he talks, he slips one hand into his pocket and feels a crumpled object that he recognizes as an old paper bomb. He pulls it out in desperation and curses when he realizes it’s a sweets wrapper from Kagami’s aunts’ senbei shop. All he has left to fight with is this wrapper and…and a half-empty jar of leather polish that Izuna had kept for him.
A very stupid idea materializes in Madara’s head. He pulls the jar out of his pocket. Sealing jutsus were never his forte, all things considered, but he knows the theory. Perhaps Izuna really will get his wish and be useful to his brother one last time. Quickly, he scribbles out the most powerful sealing formula he knows on the lid of the jar.
As he works, an odd sense of calm comes over him. His surroundings are fading in a red fuzzy haze. If this doesn’t work, he’ll only lose his life, he supposes. He lifts his hand with the last of his strength and slides his bloody thumb down the center of the other Madara’s forehead.
For a horrible split second, nothing happens. Then his opponent’s body crumples like paper. Madara feels a great tug, and fear lurches through him—am I going to seal myself away, too?—but then Zetsu’s lithe black body trickles formlessly over the pair of them, bubbling like boiling tar, until the other Madara’s lower half is completely encased in the creature’s formless bulk, and oozing black tendrils are snaking up his chest towards his face. His hand jerks away from Madara’s throat; Tajima’s tantō clatters to the ground, and at once, the other Madara is grasping at his own neck, trying to pry the thick snakelike coil of black matter from his throat. His breath hitches in his throat before his mouth is wrenched open in an awful scream.
Madara scrambles away from the pair of him, his mouth hanging open, blood still dripping from his nose. He catches a final glimpse of Madara and Zetsu, twisting together like a pair of eels—red over black over red over black—spinning faster and faster with every second. Then there is a flash of blue light, a final puff of smoke, and they’re gone. The lid to the container of leather polish slams closed. It rattles innocently against the blood-soaked ground. He hears one final echo of Madara’s horrible scream, and then nothing at all.
Madara straightens up, panting. Then one of the Kyuubi’s talons pierces through his chest from behind.
Madara chokes on a mouthful of blood and doubles over, his chest heaving. Fuck, he thinks. With both Zetsu and the other Madara sealed away, the celestial chains binding the Kyuubi must have weakened significantly. The front of his mantle is soaked with blood. Something crunches horribly in his chest. Oh, he thinks. My ribs. He can feel countless bone fragments pricking at his insides, and a faint whistling airy noise tells him that at least one of his lungs has collapsed. Madara’s eyes roll back in his head, and his last thought before his vision turns white is how shameful it is that all of Izuna’s hard work and sacrifice really had ended up being in vain after all.
Madara’s eyes snap open. He’s lying in a warm, sunlit bed, with waves of painfully familiar chakra rolling over him. He convinces his eyes to focus. Hashirama is bending over him, his long hair draped all over Madara’s face like a dark shining curtain.
“Oh, thank god,” Hashirama sobs, throwing his arms around Madara’s neck. “I thought—I thought—”
“What happened?” Madara rasps. His voice sounds like he’s swallowed a lot of gravel. His nagajuban is open, exposing his entire chest. Something stings horribly as he takes his next breath. He winces, goes to press one hand to the painful spot, but finds that his arms won’t move. Unfortunate. “Are my ribs broken?” he says, feeling somewhat like he’s half in a dream.
“Oh!” Hashirama cries out. “Oh—oh, dear, I must have cracked one or two while I was trying to resuscitate you—I’m so sorry, I’ll heal them now—”
Hashirama places his warm broad hand on Madara’s ribcage. There is a tiny snap as he fixes the offending rib.
Madara’s brain is a whirlwind of confusion. His body won’t move, except for parts of his face, although he’s beginning to feel a strange tingling sensation in the tips of his fingers. His vision seems more lopsided than usual, for some bizarre reason. It is as if information is taking a much longer time than usual to pass from his brain to his extremities. And then…he’s still wearing the same nagajuban, from the night before this whole universe fiasco happened. And then he remembers—Hokage—Kyuubi—impaled through the chest—Hashirama, but different—
“What…happened?” Madara says again, more slowly this time. The tingling is spreading up his arms now. “To me?”
—foul chakra seeping through everything—hundreds of white hands reaching for him—
“Your heart had stopped,” Hashirama says, his voice trembling. “Oh, Madara. I—I thought you were dead—I’m so glad you’re all right—”
—Zetsu—fighting himself —and seeing Izuna, quiet and pale, with his hollow, empty eye sockets—
I’m back, he thinks dazedly. Somehow, I’ve made it back.
Madara finds himself fighting back tears. “It’s really you,” he says, and he forces his arms to move and hugs Hashirama’s broad back and kisses his soft forehead and tangles his fingers in Hashirama’s long, shining hair. Hashirama returns the embrace, looking a little bemused.
“What happened to your eye?” he murmurs, as they come apart.
“What?” Madara blinks.
Hashirama rummages around on the bedside table and pulls a hand mirror out of the drawer. “Here,” he says.
Madara pushes his bangs out of the way and immediately realizes what Hashirama is talking about. His right eye is white and glassy and—dead.
“Oh,” Madara breathes, gently probing the skin under his right eyelid with gentle fingers. So the Izanagi had worked. He slowly swivels his head, trying to get used to having half of his vision missing. It isn’t ideal, but considering everything, he's more than happy to give up half of his eyesight.
“How did this happen?” Hashirama murmurs, peering at Madara’s pale eye curiously. He frowns. “Why is there sycamore bark in your hair? Madara, what’s going on?”
“It’s a long story,” Madara says, sitting up in bed. “I’ll have to tell you over dinner.”
Hashirama’s face brightens visibly. He beams. “You still want to go out?”
Madara scoffs. “Of course I do,” he says. “You’re still paying, aren’t you?”
“Ah—we might have to split it,” Hashirama admits, grinning a bit sheepishly. “Where shall we go? I was thinking the new place with that nice garden terrace—what was its name? Or—Shushu-ya is having an end-of-the-year sale; sake is half off, so that could be good—”
Madara opens his mouth to explain to Hashirama that he would be more than happy to eat cold cup noodles by candlelight in the Hokage’s office, so long as they get to spend the evening in each other’s company, but the words aren’t coming out. “Hashirama?” he says instead, cursing his trembling voice.
Hashirama stops waxing poetic on discounted sake and turns to him very seriously. “Yes?”
“I will protect this village for as long as I live,” Madara whispers. “I swear on my life I will never leave.”
“I know, darling,” Hashirama murmurs, leaning in close. “Happy birthday.”
Madara is only too happy to return his kiss.
Five Months Later
“All right. Give it a go.”
“You’re sure you’ve worked all the kinks out?”
"Because last time you told me to give it a go, I seem to recall that the kinks were, in fact, not all worked out—”
“It took ages to scrub all that brain matter out of the ceiling.”
“I know, ” Tobirama snaps. “Just run it.”
Madara smirks as he approaches the autopsy table. Tobirama backs away from the splatter zone—as they’ve taken to calling it lately—clutching a large mug of coffee in one hand and a clipboard in the other.
“I will admit,” Tobirama says, peering at the white blob in the petri dish at the center of the autopsy table, “I had not thought of using undiluted Mokuton cells as a substrate. Unconventional, but much more efficient than all of the previous attempts combined.”
“Not to mention less messy,” Madara says, carefully dipping an eyedropper into a vial of blood.
“Don’t give me that smirk,” Tobirama mutters from behind his clipboard. “You enjoyed seeing me covered in spinal fluid, didn’t you.”
“Oh, perhaps,” Madara says airily, dispensing a drop of blood into the petri dish. He steps back, watching the red rivulets spread across the smooth surface of the mokuton sample. It looks like a rather bad foreign dessert. Immediately, a puff of steam rises from the mixture. The petri dish begins to hiss like a tempermental kettle. Madara shields his face, wincing. But then the concoction stabilizes somewhat, and Madara steps forward again, inspecting it. He nods curtly. “Still working so far. It’s all yours.”
Tobirama sets down his coffee and his clipboard, then performs the necessary handsigns.
This time an ashy gray smoke pours from the petri dish. The room turns very cold— Madara can see his breath for a split second—before becoming almost unbearably hot. The dish is glowing bright white, and the white shape in it is revolving, growing, expanding before their eyes. Madara and Tobirama share a look as the thing on the table takes shape into a human form. The inky web of the jutsu formula beneath the dish contorts, and rivulets of ink and blood run up the thing’s body, turning to vessels and veins and arteries—they watch as a cluster of ink and blood and mokuton material condense into the unmistakable shape of a human heart. And then a cloud of dust shrouds the figure, completely hiding it—him, now, Madara supposes—from view. Tobirama throws out one arm to prevent Madara from dashing over to examine the results.
“Wait,” Tobirama murmurs.
The dust is settling. The figure raises his dark head. Madara’s heart leaps into his throat. His skin is still a little translucent, his eyes still a little clouded—but there’s no mistaking that face.
“Finally,” says Izuna Uchiha, with an impatient toss of his long dark hair. He glances from Tobirama and Madara, pursing his lips. “I daresay we have some catching up to do. Have either of you got a hair tie I could borrow?”
it's.........DONE........... of course I'm sure I'll be popping back in to tweak it every now and then, but here we are. Thank you for all your kudos and comments?? And thanks just in general for sticking with this fic. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. ♥️