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A Promise of Change

Chapter Text

Tobirama woke when Hashirama threw the blankets back and hurried out of the room. She stood more silently and made sure not to disturb Kawarama and Itama who had curled against each other on their half of the mattress.

Hashirama was in the bathroom, so Tobirama knocked and heard him groan, but no sign of protest came out of him as she opened the door softly. Hashirama was leaning against the wall at the back of the room, a single candle lit on the windowsill at his side and he looked miserable. She closed the door behind herself. The bucket he had just thrown up in rested between his legs, so Tobirama exchanged it with a fresh one. “You really shouldn’t have tried these mushrooms.”

“I know.” He sniffled, while Tobirama felt his sweaty forehead. “They looked delicious though.”

“And now you’re fevering.” She stood and wetted a towel, handing it to him so he could rest it on his face. “Is there still enough mixture for another tea?”
He only moaned exhausted and nodded, keeping his head low and sweat pearling on his forehead. She caressed his head reassuringly and went to the kitchen to fan the flames and set up the kettle atop.

When she came back, Hashirama had lain down and huffed silently. “Hashirama?”
“It hurts.” The towel moved from atop his eyes and he looked at her. “This must be what female bleeding feels like.”
Tobirama curled her lips in a laugh and rested her hand atop his brow to brush away his sweaty strands. “We should move to the kitchen. I don’t want father to wake.” He would rage for disturbing his sleep.

“Yeah, I don’t need that right now.” Hashirama was able to stand and move on his own.

The kitchen was lightened dimly by the lesser moons. Summer nights were never fully dark.
Hashirama settled on the floor next to the backdoor and their muddy shoes, then felt for the door’s handle and opened it far enough to let in cooling night air.
The water in the kettle was simmering, so Tobirama took it from the flame and measured Hashirama’s prepared herbal mixture to cure some of the symptoms of mushroom poisoning.

By the time she turned to eye him, he was shivering. She went and crouched to feel his forehead once more, but it was still hot. “Where is the towel?”
He shrugged his shoulders. Tobirama found it in the small hall and wetted it once more, before she gave it back to him.
“You should take out the herbs.” He mentioned, covering his eyes and leaning back.
“Right.” She poured it through a sieve into a mug. “What else is there to do?”
“It works better if you stir in a spoon of Ichotsu-syrup.”

That she did and placed the mug on the floor in front of Hashirama alongside a glass of water which he downed in one go.
She sat next to him and leaned against the door frame, but there was no chance for her to feel cold from the soft wind drawing in, because Hashirama’s warm body leaned against her side and his especially warm head rested on her shoulder. She indulged him with gently stroking his hair. “Promise me to never do something so reckless again.”

“Promise.”

“Good.”

They sat there for a while until Hashirama sat up and took the mug to drink its beverage. The smell was off-putting, but the taste must have been worse, because he pulled a face but drank every last sip anyway. Then he settled against her once more.
“If you can sleep, you should.” He hummed a vague agreement, but his breathing evened a short while after. Tobirama stayed awake and watched the tree tops sway with the wind and the stars in the sky shift with time’s passing.

 

The lesser moons were still four and a half fingers above the furthest mountain range when Hashirama stirred again and Tobirama looked at him concerned. “How are you feeling?”
“Better, but still achy.” He felt along the back of his neck and something cracked. “Your shoulders are so bony, my neck is stiff now.”
“Let’s get you to bed then.” Tobirama stood and took away the mug and glass.
Hashirama sighed. “I have to make my delivery to the pharmacy tomorrow.”

Right, Hashirama was the apprentice of a pharmacist in the city down in the valley and he delivered medical plants twice a week and was taught in exchange. At this point in his education there was not a lot he needed to be taught and in autumn he would take a fulltime position when one of the other pharmacists retired.

“Its fine, I’ll collect them.” Tobirama handed him a glass of water which he drank obediently. “Come on now.”

Hashirama sighed, but they made it back into their room silently. Kawarama and Itama were still soundly asleep and Hashirama settled under the blanket next to them.
Ever since Hashirama had had his latest growth spurt he had to duck under their doorways and the mattress the four of them shared was getting too small.
“Thanks Tobi. Wouldn’t know what to do without you.”

“Sleep Hashirama, I’ll be back with your plants.” She huffed amused, undressing and pulling out some of her clothing. Most of her shirts and pants were baggy and used to belong to Hashirama, all in dark or earthy colours and slightly discoloured from age.
Even when summers ran hot, Tobirama was adamant to cover as much of her skin as possible to protect from the sun.

 

Tobirama found Hashirama’s things neatly prepared in the yard. His bamboo basket was a bit too big for her back, but that would not bother her. His knifes were sharp and she bound the pouch around her hip. She quickly picked food she could find in their cooling shed and set out into the forest that surrounded the Senju’s village.

It was made up by 42 houses nestled onto a mountain plateau, marbled with fields of rice, wheat and potatoes, vegetable gardens and yards, barns and storage buildings. A market space and a small shrine make up the centre.
The three lesser moons did not light up the forest enough for Tobirama to be able to make out any details, but the plants she came for lit up like burning incense sticks until she grabbed their stems and pulled them out.
She had to fill the entire basket and a long way to the clearing that the most important of herbs grew on.

 

The first ray of their major sun rose above the mountain’s peak right as her knife cut through thick branches to clear a path onto the mountain’s highest plateau. Mist still settled over the lush pasture and filtered the first raise of golden morning sun that fell on the only house and several trees on this clearing.
Right at the edge grew a greenish white flower that Hashirama hailed so she made sure to not damage any and started to collect a decent amount of blossoms. She left enough so that the population could sustain and turned towards the edge of the steep cliff.

Tobirama could oversee most of the valley from here in which the city beneath their mountain lay.

During summer, the Senju’s farmers wrangled their sheep and cattle to this lot. There was less than a moon cycle to go until the grass would be recovered form the last grazing and lush again, so she and her cousins were on rotation to habitat the shed and look after the animals.

Tobirama washed her soil covered hands in the small stream that parted the plateau and cut along several boulders. The water was as chilling on her cut and brittle fingers but Tobirama paid it no mind. She also refilled her leather pouch and drank before refilling it once more. She went on with cleaning her knifes that were partly covered in sticky sap and covered in mud.

As she put away the last blade into her pouch, the creaking of breaking branches alerted her to several deer bolting threw the underwood and she jumped to her feet looking around.

No one aside her should be up here and she had seen nobody when she entered the clearing. If somebody from the village had followed she would have noticed.

So who was the stranger standing in front of the shed’s open door and staring at her.

It was a man, nearly as tall as Hashirama and probably the same age too. His hair was as black as raven feathers, bound with cloth and his eyes matched with a stern and calculating gaze. If his facial expression wasn’t aristocratic enough, his fine and thoroughly dark-blue-dyed clothing was that of a city dweller.

His voice, as he cuts through the silence, was deep and demanding. “Who are you?”

Something in Tobirama stiffened. “A member of the village whose shed you stepped out of.” It was so rare for a stranger to roam these woods and especially make it up this high. And it could be highly dangerous. So high up and far from the village, no one would hear her if he decided to attack. If she made it to the forest before he caught up with her, she could use her knowledge of the terrain to her advantage.

“Then you know how to leave this plateau.” It was not a question, but his glance still lingered on her, so she answered with a crisp nod. A noble man’s son in her village’s humble shed.

“Good, I’d like you to lead me to a road to the city then.”

Tobirama inclined her head slightly. “My I know your name first?”

He didn’t answer immediately, eventually turned his head to stare into the forest. “Madara. That is all you need to know.”

He was named after the King’s heir, crown prince Madara Uchiha and Tobirama could not resist a comment. “You must be from the main city.”

His gaze returned to her and grew more cautious. “Why do you think that?”

“This city’s noblewomen and noblemen do not scale these mountains. They know that there is nothing to be gained here aside from mosquito bites and injury if one does not know the terrain. You’re lucky you did not fall in a crevasse or down a cliff.” After a smirk she added. “Your dialect is the most telling however.”

“You are quit impertinent. Do you not know how to respect?”

She did not want to offend him and made sure to keep her voice devoid of judgement. “You’re atop a mountain I know better than you, slept in a shed I helped to build and gave me nothing but a first name.” She purposefully left it at that.

He stood there, mouth tucked into something like a scowl and huffed eventually. “You’re right, I come from the main city. You must have a good ear, I make an effort to keep as close to standard pronunciation as possible.” And he did that quit successfully. His language was nearly devoid of all lulls or hints of any region.

“I know standard well enough to know what is and isn’t part of it. That you must be from the main city was an educated guess.”

“Well, now give me your name in return.” His stance had slightly relaxed, but Tobirama also no longer felt the stiffness in her spine. He certainly did not seem inclined to steal or rape her. She did not count herself as desirable anyway, with her boyish short hair and muddy clothing, skinny frame and sickly white skin that lobsterised at the first touch of the sun.

“Tobirama.” Her stomach churned, which brought her thoughts back to his original question. “Are you in a hurry?”

“Why do you ask?”

“I haven’t had breakfast yet and I hate to eat while walking.”

He waved his hand, but turned. “Go ahead then, I’ll pack my things in the meantime.”

Madara vanished in the shed, leaving the door open and Tobirama wondered what sort of belongings he had to pack. His stay up in the mountains did not sound like a planned trip and he certainly was not a gatherer like Hashirama.

She sat down on a large, smooth stone underneath an old, crooked cherry tree and pulled her tightly wrapped rice cakes and bread slathered with Kooki-root mousse out.
Madara returned without a bag while she was still unwrapping the leaf from her rice cake and his gaze lingered on the food for a long second that was telling. Right, Tobirama thought, if he had been up here all night and had not come prepared for a stay, he must be hungry as well. She doubted he was knowledgeable enough to find eatable plants.

She motioned at the space on the rock next to her, it was risky but she was interested in him enough to take it. “I would be inclined to share…”

He wavered. “I don’t usually eat food offered by a stranger.”

“I have no interest in poisoning you.” And had hardly had the chance or foresight to do so anyway.

Madara sat down slowly and stiff, but did not grab any of her leaf-wrapped packages. “What is this?”

“This,” She pointed at the bigger square. “Is a rice cake filled with vegetables mash. The rest are buns made with wheat-flour and marinated pork as a filling. This is bread with spread. My brother prepared them yesterday, so I cannot name you any specifics, but take which ever you like.”

Madara nodded and hesitantly grabbed the vegetable cake first.

They ate in silence, watching the stream shift its pebbles and butterflies hurtling around. It was almost peaceful, basking in the shadows in silent company and taking in the swaying leaves above her.
Tobirama was the first to rise and wash her hands in the stream once more, but Madara followed shortly after and straightened as well. “Before we leave, I need to saddle my horse.”

That certainly peaked her interest and Tobirama raised a brow. “You have a horse?” It was nowhere to be seen so the only plausible place it could be was the shelter behind the shed covered from her view by a big boulder.
Horses were expensive, especially those only used for transport. The Senju only kept cattle, as it brought more meat and milk, and less likely to bold over a fence.

Madara was already on his way up the muddy meadow, his unguarded back towards Tobirama. He threw Tobirama a glance. “Yes, how else should I have gotten up here?”

“By foot, I assumed.”

“That would have taken me days.” Madara entered the shed and even though Tobirama was technically a co-owner of the building, she waited outside to not impose the other’s privacy.

When Madara came back out, he had taken off his top robe and revealed a more lenient pullover. He and was carrying a heavy looking leather saddle and several leather bags.
He looked apologetic and opened on of his bags to show her something that looked like a mattress lining. “I will repay you for the used bedsheets. I’m afraid these got a bit sandy.”

“That is not necessary, we wash and reuse them.”

“Then let me at least pay an appropriate fine for the breach of your property.”
Tobirama had read in several books that other villages and especially the aristocratic city dwellers had a firmer stance on individual property. Or more correctly, most did not practice the communal usage of readily available and necessary items like the Senju did. Their practice of sharing included outsiders to a certain extend. “The shed was empty and I trust that you did not damage anything. There really is no need to pay a fine.”

The way he rolled his eyes and clenched his jaw looked so utterly mundane, it was weird to see it on a fine structured face like his. Then again, the instances in which Tobirama had seen or even talked to an aristocrat were countable on two hands. “Then at least except a payment to show my gratitude.” He sounded irritated too.

No point in antagonising him, when he had obviously had made up his mind. “Whatever you wish for.”

“Just tell me what you like before we part and I’ll arrange for someone to deliver it to you.” He turned without waiting for a reply and Tobirama huffed, but she followed him nonetheless.

They went to the side of the shed sheltered by a gigantic moss-covered and weathered rock.

There, in the partially open shelter for the Senju’s cattle and sheep stood a horse so tall, Madara himself could not look above its back. It flinched nervously and its bulk of muscles twitched, pulling on the rein by which it was bound to the shelter’s wall.
Tobirama froze at the entrance and merely watched as Madara walked towards the horse’s snout and loosened the leather rein by which it was bound. Against Tobirama’s expectations, the animal did not pull or attempt to flee but calmed visibly under Madara’s firm touch.

It looked nothing like the horses Tobirama had had a glimpse on. Aside from the height, it was muscly but lean and obviously from an extremely expensive breed.
Madara petted its neck, scratched a spot underneath the twitching ears and only then put down some soft looking underpadding on its back on which he heaved the saddle and bound it firmly with a strap underneath the belly.

Tobirama felt safe enough to raise her voice. “I have never seen a horse this colouring.”

He spoke, a bit distracted by fastening the leather pouches to the front of the saddle. “Some call it webbed, but the more corrected term would be dappled. She is still young and especially pretty.”
To Tobirama, it looked like a star covered, brightening night-sky. The mare’s fur was a variation of darkening grey tones and white splattered in dots. But her mane and tail were as dark as Madara’s hair. “Dappled greys like her start out dark, but her fur will turn lighter with age.”

He led her towards Tobirama, who hurried to step aside so they could pass. “Does she need feeding before we leave?”

“She was bred at the edge of the Dundee desert and is more robust than most working horses you may know. Her reins were bound long enough so she could graze anyway.” He stopped at the stream to let her drink. Tobirama heaved the basket onto her back and watched them.

“Does she have a name?”

“Amaterasu.”

“A big name to fill in.” To name a horse after the Goddess of the sun was something Tobirama felt unsure about, but Madara seemed to have no such reservations.

“I thought it quit fitting for a hot-headed mare of the dessert.” The look they exchanged was weird, but Madara broke the silence, letting his gaze wander. “So, where do we have to go?”

Tobirama pointed towards the hedge she cut her way through earlier. “This direction, but we may have to make detours. Our paths were not made for animals her size.”

They made their way across the grass. Madara walking alongside Tobirama and Amaterasu tracking along energetically. The opening was narrow, but Tobirama and her basket fit. As Madara had implied, his mare didn’t even flinch as she forced her way through the thick branches, some of which caught in her mane.

They passed the thick layer of hedges and worked their way to the more open underwood. This high up on the mountain, plenty of light shone to the ground. Tobirama left the small trail for Madara and Amaterasu and choose to walk alongside them through the scarce growth. Now and again she saw plants she would have collected for Hashirama, but her basket was almost full and already heavy.

Madara must have noticed her concentrated glance and the reflexive grab to her knife pouch. “Did you come up here to collect herbs?” She took a quick side glance to muster him, but Madara’s gaze was roaming the rocks and hedges in the distant or maybe the steep edge were the mountain side turned steep.

“Herbs, roots, wild vegetables. During this period of the warm season the ones I am looking for are particularly easy to find.” She stepped over a thorny bush. “Some are best found before sunrise.”

“They must be worth plenty if you take such great lengths to gather them.”

“They are. The pharmacy in the city gives us a good deal.” Most of them were necessary for medical salves or tinctures. He did not make the impression of someone low enough to steal them from her or in need for Alnas.

“I never knew pharmacies employ outsiders to do their gathering.”

“They don’t. My elder brother is their apprentice. I’m only here in his stead, because he is sick.”

“And you?” When she looked at him now, he was already looking at her and didn’t even flinch when she caught him staring.

“You want to know what I do during the day?” Madara nodded once,

“It depends. I help with whatever needs to be done and there is usually enough to busy a whole village.” Harvest season was approaching fast and the days would be especially full then. Madara only hummed and seemed to encourage further elaboration so Tobirama sighed and continued. “Repairing, cleaning, cooking, tending to the fields and vegetable garden, storing. The only tasks that fall to me specifically are overseeing the village’s expenses and earnings, and the planning and implementation of new ideas and innovations.”

He looked honestly puzzled by her wording. “What is that supposed to mean?”

She had to be careful now. Some men didn’t take well to the idea of a woman coming up and implementing new technologies. The only reason her village tolerated such a behaviour was because there was no one else endeavoured with the brains to come up with the anything as good as hers. These were probably also the most moments even the elders were grateful that no one had drowned her at birth for her unusual appearance. “There is plenty in a farmer’s life that could be optimised.”

“Like what?”

There were so many things that had been changed or that were yet to be, but had potential. “This year I came up with better isolation for the roofs and walls of our houses and cooling sheds. A mixture of fluffed up wool, hay and reed in a wooden construction. As of right now, I am pressing for a new water system. There could finally be running water in every home and a better irrigation systems for the fields. The wells and channels we are currently using are old and impractical for the distribution of our fields.”
Tobirama threw him a glance and was surprised to find that Madara was already looking at her holding her gaze. She knew this path by heart, would find it blind and drunk on apple wine, but under Madara’s interested eyes she found herself looking forward and mustering the ground. “But the elders are too set on how things have always been done to promote a reasonable change.”

“It seems, some things are universal no matter the setting.” Madara sighed and Tobirama was unsure what to think of the thoughtful glances he kept throwing her. Maybe she should have found it uncomfortable, especially since his expression was as closed off as it had been since they met, but his voice lacked a distinct waver of hostility and something in her gaze must have betrayed her cautiousness. He groaned and explained. “I face a similar problem. With an outdated generation holding back advances that is. You make it sound like you have the knowledge to see those plans of yours through successfully, though.”

Tobirama could not stop the laughter that erupted. “If only my neighbours thought the same way. Most find me peculiar without these seemingly outlandish propositions.”
Half of her village’s adults could not read or write and had never left the village further than the valley city’s market space. To explain the advantages of a system she had planned after those used in the main city by reading about it had proven fruitless over and over again. “I try to read up on it as much as I can, but my resources are limited and I don’t get to the city often enough to use the public library regularly. I do not want to bore you with details.”

“Oh, please do.” Bewildered she looked at Madara, but his gaze had opened more and he was looking at her with earnest interest.

“I’m being honest. As I said, there is a problem I’m facing similar to yours and maybe hearing the way you plan to solve your problem will lend me some insight and a different perspective.” It was a surprisingly nice and considering way to think about a problem.

Tobirama huffed bitterly amused anyway. “Well, you might have to bear with some unpractised explanations. I rarely get to discuss any of this with anyone but myself and few like to listen when I ramble.” She would have lost her brothers already. They rarely indulged her in listening to her rants.

Madara only waved his hand in a motion to suggest she should continue her explanation

“The main problem up till now is a limited number of literature, so I came up with plenty of answers on the ‘how’ by testing and thinking in hypotheticals and careful calculations...”

 

Tobirama started into a detailed explanation of the careful planning she had conducted, the testing of sternness of different clay pipes. There were few different recounts and papers she had found on water systems and even fewer went into detail about the calculation of pressure and distribution problems and how to preserve it as clean and fresh as possible.

The problem of her elders and more so the reservation of the rest of her neighbours was a difficult topic of its own. Tobirama tried to deal with it with clean transparency and patiently explaining things over and over again, but never in detail, always only the interesting aspects.

 

She only realised that she had held her monologue for the entire way from the first mossy boulder where the way parted to the old twin Urke-trees as they passed them.
Tobirama felt her face turning hotter and glanced to Madara who had inclined his head towards her. Even while his eyes scanned the ground for good footing, he seemed to listen intently.

“I didn’t realise life in a village could be quite so… scientific.”

“Well it only seemed logical to try to make things we are doing as optimal as possible. Anything else would be a waste of time, resources and health.”

“So, what else to you optimise?” He sounded almost amused, teasing like Kawarama sometimes talked when father wasn’t around.

“Our plants.”

“Selective crossbreeding I assume?”

She hummed in affirmation. “I started doing so three years ago and so far it has been successful.”
And it had baffled their elders who did not follow her explanations on genetic material, but then again, she only knew about it because she dedicated the cold winter months to excessive reading of all sorts, mostly scientific findings. She had of course tried to replicate some of them with pea plants who sprouted fast and could have distinctive characteristics. It had taken her months and plenty of patience and peas.

“Better yield?”

She nodded. “Yes, but the coming years will tell whether that was coincidence or unrelated influences.”

“How do you use it?”

He really wanted her to go into detail. “For example, our orchards habitat individual trees that consistently carry more fruit and of those, some get fewer mites. It’s a somewhat lengthy process, it works better with rice and vegetables, but same as with animals, we are crossbreeding only those that carry the traits we desire. There is this collection of papers by Mirosh Tetsuo - I believe he researches in the main city - that explains the biological background of cultivated plants. He is referring to some other papers that I have no access to, so it is hard to understand certain passages, but easy enough to see and explain the benefits of this cultivation.”

“That certainly must be your biggest accomplishment so far.” He honestly sounded impressed.

Tobirama shook her head. “No, that I would consider that I successfully pushed for a basic schooling of our village’s children, boys and girls.”

“That needed to be pushed for?”

“It was a process that took the better half of the last year to see through.” And it had made her angry for the longest time. “My elder brother and I were privileged enough to be taught by our mother during breakfast and after dinner for years, otherwise, I too, would not be able to read or write.” And what a sad life that would have been. “I taught my younger brothers after our mother’s death.”

Madara grew silent.

Tobirama was not sure whether she had said to much, maybe breached a topic indecent to talk about. “I am sorry, it must be boring to listen to.”
His head wiped up so fast, Tobirama could feel whiplash in her own neck out of sympathy and for the first time his expression had softened. “No, not at all. These are things to think about. As for the papers… you should talk to the librarian at the university’s library. She could get a hold of a copy for you.”

She tried to hide her cringing by turning towards the bushes they past to grasp a couple of berries, ripe and eatable. “Ah… I don’t have access to the university’s library.”
The sound of him stumbling had her turn back, but he had already caught himself again and was out right staring at her. “You don’t have access to the university’s library? How the hell do you harbour so much knowledge then?”

As she shrugged, her bewilderment had him laugh. “Well, then it should be granted to you. Aside from that… you’re determination is admirable.”
Tobirama felt her face heating up. “We… cannot afford a library pass. One of my village’s newer inhabitants used to live in the main city though, he has a lot of books.”
Madara’s eyes nearly pop out. “Five Alnas a month is too expensive?”

Tobirama threw him a look that was utterly unimpressed. “For a farmer’s child with three brothers and neighbours to look after and livestock to feed and a winter to prepare for… well, a library pass would be wasted on someone like me. We could feet another belly with the same amount if invested in rice.”

“You´re using so many sophisticated words and to me, it seems like you are more invested in your studies then most of my fellow students so surely it would be a greater loss for all of us if your dedication remained without proper nurturing.” Madara’s cheeks turned red and Tobirama was not sure if it was from walking or embarrassment. “Just imagine how many things greater than a village’s irrigation system you could develop with proper education?”

If possible, Tobirama’s face felt even hotter. She really didn’t want to argue with someone that held her in such high regard and had known her for less than a day, but she felt the urgency to express herself better. “I mean, it is unlikely I will ever have the means to leave this village. And even if I could… to trade a life as a farmer for the life as a… I don’t even know what else I could possibly amount to. And I would not want to leave my brothers in such a way.”

Aside, she was a woman and that made it significantly more difficult to achieve anything in their current society. She could move to Kusa, equality there was more important and sought after. She was lucky her father had left her alone with propositions of marriage so far. Surely her undesirable exterior made it hard to find a man willing to take her anyway, but that was something she was extremely grateful for. Madara simply stared at her until Tobirama grew uneasy and started to twitch under his watchful eye.

They walked in companionable silence, crossing the first of several streams and watching Amaterasu drink. Tobirama loosened her own drinking pouch and offered it to Madara first. The path grew broader and soon enough they could walk alongside each other comfortably on the trail.

When Madara stopped to admire the view of the city through the trees, Tobirama had grown confident enough to ask the other questions in return. “What is it like to live in the city?”

“More crowded. Louder too.” Madara signed and glanced at Tobirama who remained silent even though this did not really answered anything beyond what she had already assumed.

“I don’t really know any other life, but I guess I do less physical work and more… thinking. Or reading and talking.” His hands were covered in gloves, but as he took them off to wash they revealed skin just as clean and smooth as his face. If his fingers hadn’t been so long and his hands big and masculine, one could have taken them for a trophy-wife’s. Tobirama was sure, he had never held a broom in his life.

“My family… I guess you can call it a family business and there is plenty to learn to take over after my father. In a way, I study at the University in the main city, but I rarely have the time to attend lectures. I cannot tell you more without sparking my father’s rage.” Madara threw her a glance. “But whenever I have free time I fly my hawks and take Amaterasu out for a sprint.”

“I thought you were closer to my age.” The trees had gotten bigger and the undergrowth of the forest thicker, she should definitely check for mushrooms next time she passed.

Madara frowned. “What is that supposed to mean?”

“I will be sixteen in less than six moon circles, but you are already at university.” Not that their system was advanced enough to set certain ages or a universal education level to regulate the entrance, but that was nothing she should dwell on longer than necessary. University may be partial financed by the King’s funds for every student, but it was nothing ever possible for her.

“The entrance for university in the main city is not yet standardised, most start attending after they finished their schooling, but technically someone with enough thrive could enter earlier, like I did. But you’re right, I’ll turn nineteen before the end of this year.”

Tobirama nodded. They crossed another stream whose banks were covered in berry bushes. The Taletus-shrub was already bearing fruits. She washed some and shared them with Madara who was surprised by their sweet and earthy flavour. At her insistence he pulled of his gloves to not have the delicate leather covered in staying, sticky juice. Soon enough, they both were bend down to collected them until their hands were stained purple and four wheat-boxes were filled.

“My elder brother likes to make sweet bread with these as a mousse filling. It’s really good. Sometimes he uses the juice to dye rice buns.” The boxes fit into her carrier basket, but only just.

“This colour is so close to royal purple.” Madara sounded really interested.

“The berry’s juice can be used to dye fabric too, but we would obviously never dare to use it for that.”
They washed their hands, but some of the staining remained, which Tobirama was used to. Her hands rarely were their natural skin colour, but were either brown with dirt or tea stains, green with grass, yellow or orange with vegetable juices. Madara however, seemed utterly baffled and held them against the filtered sun beams to take in their new colour.

“How long till it washes out?”

“Two or three days at most. Only one if you have soap and wash them often.”

“My companion is going to think I got into a fist fight if he sees this.” Oh, and he smirked with utmost mischief that it froze Tobirama in her motion to watch his eyes glisten and his lips curl.

Had she been with any less restrain, she would have probably stared longer. Like this, she backed her basket and made her way out of the mud of the riverbed. “Good soap might be able to get rid of it faster.”

“Mhm.”

From there on the forest’s vegetation got more divers and denser too. Amaterasu’s expressive ears alerted them to another animal’s presence before they themselves saw it. In the distance, deer and wild geese bolted shortly after.

 

It was midday when they reached the forest’s edge. Tobirama had lead them not towards the village but further down the main road to the city. The cobbled road was empty and would remain so until Madara reached the bigger village at the mountain’s foot. They stopped right behind the last trees, still hidden from the road by thick greenery.

“With Amaterasu, it should take you less than two hours from now on. If you follow the road and not wander off into the wilderness, of course.”
Madara threw her a very unimpressed expression, but nodded anyway. “Thank you. As I said, I will repay you for your kindness.” He handed her the bag of laundry.

“And as I already said, it is not needed.” But a small smile tucked at her lips in amusement.

“But appreciated, I hope. Aside from that…” Madara retracted his gaze. “I enjoyed your company and would not mind to endure it once more, were I to bring my gift to you personally.”

“Oh.” Tobirama’s face felt warmer now. That, she had not expected and she was poorly prepared for the twitch of joy settling in her chest. “If the weather holds, I could meet you here at dawn in two days’ time.” The road was not dangerous for men, not even in the dark. Aside from Senju’s and other relatives, no one came along this path past the village in the valley and on a horse as high and impressive as Amaterasu he would not be endangered anyway.

Madara nodded. “Very well.” Then he pulled the leather saddle’s girth tighter. He did not yet pull himself up onto Amaterasu’s back however, but turned to Tobirama and caught her gaze. “So, what do you wish for? It can be anything I can get in the city or the neighbouring towns.”

“Something useful.” It was not really her place to make demands, but if he was going to bring her something she wanted to make sure it would be something she could appreciate. “Preferably no clothing or décor.”

Madara huffed a short laughter. “I got to understand you well enough to know that much myself.” His gaze drifted towards the road. “Don’t worry. I have something in mind that should appeal to you.”

Tobirama nodded and allowed a small smile to soften her usual sturdy expression. Madara returned a smile and as he turned to mount his horse, Tobirama stepped back to give him more room.

He made it seem easy. One hand firm in the horse’s mane one in the back of the leather saddle and as natural as breathing he all but ascended onto her back. Amaterasu didn’t even need to shift to accommodate his weight.
It sure was an impressive sight. Madara, pitch black hair bound by a leather band wavering with the soft wind behind his back like a war flag and even the dirt stains on his fine clothing did not deter from the way they fell around his already broad shoulders, looked almost regal in his proud posture high up on Amaterasu. And as high up as he was now, he would certainly have to duck under branches.

Tobirama had never looked twice at anyone. Most of her peers were related to her, even though it was common enough for distant cousins to marry, they simply did not interest her beyond an everyday conversation. So, the heat in her cheeks and lower abdomen was new and uncomfortable, because it beckoned her to shuffle closer which she would definitely not even attempt to do.

So she turned her gaze to check on her footing and went ahead towards the road. The sound of hooves softened on mossy grass told her that Madara stirred Amaterasu to follow. “I guess this is farewell for now.”

Tobirama turned. “I shell see you in two days’ time. And don’t be late.” She would have to find a way to cover for her disappearance without telling her father that she was meeting a man in private.

“I won’t.” He sounded so sure of himself that Tobirama was inclined to believe that he meant it.

“If it rains…”

Madara interrupted her. “I shall come anyway and you can lead us to some kind of shelter.”

“I will think of something then.” Tobirama smirked. “Goodbye.”

“Goodbye.” Their eyes caught once more and then Amaterasu turned and threw her head, twitched expectantly and Madara laughed at her eagerness, but tightened her reins and she immediately fell into a soft canter. Tobirama watched till they vanished around the next bend and the forest swallowed them.

Then she turned and made her way up to the village and home.

 

Tobirama saw Kawarama high atop the neighbour’s roof as she passed through the village. He greeted her with a waving wooden hammer.
“Have you had lunch already?” She asked.

He shook his head. “Let me come down and we can go home together.” His light brown hair was messy and dusty, there was some kind of oil on his cheek and the grin he wore spelt playfulness all over. Tobirama waited for him to slide down the shingles and jump down the ledge even though there was a ladder not two meters to his right.

“Do you want help with that?” He gesticulates to the full basket on her back, but she only shook her head. Tobirama was tall for a girl her age, but Kawarama had caught up to her already despite being two years younger. He had followed Hashirama onto the path of tallness and so far all signs showed Itama doing so too.

“Kanae and some of the elders asked for you. They did not tell me why though.” He swung his hammer as they fell into fast pace to meander along the trail leading to their front door.

“They will have to wait till after lunch.”

“Hashi promised to make Udon.”

“So he was feeling better?” That would be good news.

“As far as I know he kept down the oats and his tea.”
Kawarama wanted to add something but father’s and Hashirama’s raised voices from their kitchen silenced him. Tobirama dropped the basket at the entrance and signalled for Kawarama to stay outside, which he looked like he preferred anyway.

It happened often enough. Father’s rage was something easily stirred and hard to settle. And Hashirama’s carelessness often enough provoked an explosion.
Tobirama went in silently, keeping close to the wall and glancing around the corner. Hashirama was close to the opened back door, Itama already behind his back. From where she stood, close to the opened front door, she could see a set of small muddy foot prints on the kitchen floor and could guess what had happened.

Hashirama was taller than father, but still Tobirama felt a pang of fear as the man stormed towards her brothers, but Itama had already disappeared and Hashirama closed the door and fled too. Right as her father screamed after them, Tobirama snatched a sack of filled buns from the shelf and disappeared out the front door again, snatching Kawarama and pulling him to follow Hashirama and Itama.

They met at the river’s bank, Itama sulking on a boulder above the water and Hashirama flipping stones. Father seldom went after them and so far had never found them here at their hideout even when he did.

“Here.” Tobirama dropped the sack of buns on a dry stone plate and caught Itama who slid down the boulder’s side.

“Why were you screaming?” Kawarama settled and grabbed a bun.
There was always something for father to scream at and it was never predictable. Some days something like breathing could set him off, but other days he would ignore them all together. Every time he emerged, Tobirama only hoped he was not already in foul mood. If he was, she had Hashirama hide the knives and send Itama and Kawarama outside to stay out of his way.

Itama sat close to Hashirama and stared at the pebbles beneath his toes. “I forgot to clean my feet after picking the vegetables and made the kitchen floor dirty.”

“Father is as pleasant as a box of rotten eggs.” Hashirama groaned and pouted. “I wish I could take you with me to the city.” That had Itama freeze and Kawarama lower his bun. It was something their younger brothers often suppressed the thought off. When Hashirama had taken the position in the city’s pharmacy he had already set up his mind to leave eventually. That he met a girl and fell in love had only accelerated what had already been set into motion.

“I really want to go with you.” Itama sniffled and buried his face more in Hashirama’s clothing.

“I don’t understand why you have to leave at all.” Kawarama sounded sour.

“Kawarama.” Tobirama looked at him warningly. They had had conversations like this several times already. Hashirama would wed Mito at the end of harvest and leave for the city. It was something they were all conflicted about, Hashirama himself the most, but that was for the better in the long run. They would manage without him.

Mito was a scholar’s daughter of Hashirama’s age. When Tobirama had first met her, she was impressed and envious, because Mito not only had been allowed to go to school, but to university too. She was the closest to freedom Tobirama had ever seen a woman. So close to an equal to men, because her father had only allowed the marriage between Hashirama and her after Hashirama had guaranteed she would be able to continue her work as a translator and not caged at the stove.

Hashirama was not that kind of a man anyway. Too soft hearted and fierce in his love to even try stifle her growth and Mito most certainly was more witted nad cunning than him.

Together, Mito and Hashirama would make good money, enough to buy a small house and send two or three of their future children to school. Not enough to support two brothers and a sister additionally. Definitely not enough to buy their freedom from their father, who was still pater domum and everyone but Hashirama part of his household.
So Tobirama, Kawarama and Itama would remain and she knew Hashirama felt guilty for it. Tobirama had seen it in his expression, when he first told them that he could not stop thinking about this girl and it had remerged whenever the topic came up.

Tobirama took the sack, gave Itama and Hashirama a bun each and took one herself, before slipping free from her sandales. “Let’s go swimming.”

The look she gave her brothers was as good as a spoke incentive in changing the topic. Hashirama was the first to stand and strip, followed by Itama and only as the three of them were entering the water did Kawarama undress too.

Chapter Text

Tobirama was almost asleep, when Hashirama nudged her elbow and inched closer. Itama and Kawarama’s breaths were even and deep, soundly sleeping behind Tobirama’s back.

“I heard you talking with father. You met a noble man?” Hashirama whispered.

Tobirama opened her eyes but could only make out the contours of his face and his glistering eyes in the darkness. “It is rude to listen to other people’s conversations, you know.”

He entirely ignored her remark. “What was he like?” Sometimes she worried that his hearing was actually bad, but then again, he understood perfectly fine whenever he wanted to understand.

“Maybe I missed the note where they informed me that this was any of your business, because I think not.”

“Tobi, this is the only interesting thing that happened ever since Toka bit Keisuke.” Toka was a savage through and through. The only reason she was in her mid-twenties and remained happily unmarried was the fear she infused in all potential suitors. She skinned rabbits faster than anyone else and Tobirama was certain that if necessary, she would not hesitate to use her skill with knives on a man too.

Hashirama inched closer. “Is he nice? He’s from the city, isn’t he?”

“From the main city.”

He gasped. “Really? If I promise not to tell father, will you let me meet him?”

Now she frowned and hoped the darkness hid the way her face was heating up. “You already assume I will meet with him again.”

“Won’t you? The first potentially intriguing person to talk to and you didn’t manage to talk him into meeting again?”

Hashirama pulled at the blanket and cold air hit her toes. “You make it sound like I seduced him.”

“Well, I would’ve.” And he looked completely honest as Tobirama could only level him with a long incredulous look and a raised eyebrow.

“You truly are unique.” Hadn’t she said it with so much fondness, he might have taken offence. “Stop interrogating me, yes, I’m going to meet him again.”

“I knew it.” He sounded so excited, in fact, he almost shouted and Kawarama stirred. So Tobirama and Hashirama froze and listened until his breathing calmed.

Hashirama sighed. “I really want to know what he’s like. You are so selective with the people you talk to, if you go out of your way to meet him, he must be especially cool.”

“It may be easier if you agree to help me.”

“How?”

“We could switch work. I’ll gather your herbs and you help with the cattle’s fence.”

He didn’t even take time to think about it. “Fine. Can I meet him then?”

“I told him about my irrigation system for the village and he asked for more detail. I’m not sure if he is someone you would enjoy conversation with.” Hashirama almost pouted and as usual, Tobirama gave in. “Fine. I will ask him, if he cares to meet you.”

“Sweet. So, when do I need to cover for you?”

“In two days’ time at dawn. And please don’t try to lie. Just say the truth, I’ll be out collecting herbs, just longer than I usually would.” For all his good qualities, Hashirama was a horrible liar and even worse at keeping a secret.

He turned serious very fast. “I would never let father know something like this.” Something that had the potential to cause serious harm.

“I know.” They would never betray each other like that.

 

Tobirama rose earlier than she had done last time, dressed and slid out of their room as silent as possible. The kitchen sink was hit by the shine of the lesser moons and made it easy to drink and find the things she needed without wasting a candle.

She all but rushed through the forest to fill the basket with as many useful plants as possible. The night had been cloudy, but as the lesser moons were closing in on the horizon, the sky cleared. Tobirama managed to emerge from the trees right as the first sun beams licked over the mountain’s slopes and illuminated the spot underneath the rustling leaves were she waited. Mist was licking on the swaying pasture.

The distinct noise of waking nature reflected from the mountain’s bare slopes.

 

It did not take long until clattering hooves alerted her to Madara’s fast approach.

Amaterasu’s flanks were covered in a fine shine of sweat, but she seemed as energetic as the last time and stopped when Madara reclined his weight but kept on twitching in alertness. Tobirama made sure to keep her distance.

“I hope you have not been waiting too long, because I am right on time.” Madara dismounted swiftly and eased the saddle’s girth. He showed her the twitch of his lips that could almost be a smile. “Good morning.”

It truly was a sight. Madara’s hair bound by leather bands and swaying behind his back. The amount of dye necessary to turn his robes of thick and delicate fabric into such an even and dark blue had Tobirama’s head swimming in calculations with impossible sums. His robes alone cost more than her entire family home. His leather shoes, well… she averted her eyes to catch his gaze instead.

“Morning. I got here a little early.” The weight of the basket already hurt her shoulders. “I had to gather enough so that my family would not grow suspicious.”

“Would they not have approved?” Madara looked honestly surprised.

“I had to tell my father that I met a stranger in our shed and he was displeased to hear I talked to you alone. And my brothers are notorious for being nosy brats. My elder brother found out by listening in and drawing assumptions. Anyway, the younger ones would have followed me to meet you. We would not have had peace for a single second.” She loved her brothers, she truly did. She would throw herself from a cliff for them, but they could be a little difficult at times.

Madara only nodded and then turned his gaze to her additional bag. “You are carrying more than last time.”

“Ever observant…” It sounded more sarcastic than she had intended to be. “I packed food and a blanket. I haven’t had breakfast yet.”

“Did you think of a place for us to rest then?”

They had not talked about what kind of meeting this would be, but talking had been pleasant and Madara seemed comfortable to continue that. In fact, he seemed more relaxed then last time she saw him and it was probably, because he did not have to spend the night on a wooden pallet in the mountains.

Tobirama led the way, this time towards the side of the forest they had not been in yet and along another small stream up a gentle slope. Berry bushes lined the way and the first streaks of mushroom grew alongside the banks too. The sound of Amaterasu’s hoofs pulling on the wet dirt and rustling greenery almost covered the sound of Madara’s robes shifting against one another.

Madara, of course, broke the silence and sounded more curios than worried. “Isn’t all that bagging heavy?”

Tobirama shrugged and looked over her shoulder to see him manoeuvre around a thick fallen tree trunk. “It is what I usually carry.” Just not for such an extended amount of time.

“I could take your extra bag at the very least.”

She stopped and eyed him. “You are serious?”

“Why would I propose something I do not intent to follow through?” Madara looked almost offended.

Their gazes met and after a short moment she extended her arm and handed him the extra bag. He took it and Tobirama turned around and kept on going. They broke through the forest’s edge onto a small clearing with several fruit trees and short grass.

“This is our smallest orchard. Just last week we had the cows graze here, so there might be some manure we have to look out for.”

The reason she had led them here stood at the other side of the field. At the edge of the forest, stood a tall oak tree and in it a platform made with wood planks and rope that her brothers and Tobirama had built several seasons ago.

During summer, when the crown of leaves was dense, they sometimes cut a small opening in their leafy roof to see the stars and moons move above.

During winter, when the snow-blankets were thick and the temperatures dropped so low, all the ponds were covered in ice and the stream’s banks lined with icicles, they would huddle under a blanket with leather pouches filled with warm tea. They would give their best effort at knitting hats and socks or gloves, but cold hands and runny noses made that difficult.

It was neither a secret nor far from home, but whenever they hid beneath the leaves, it might as well have been the end of the world.

Tobirama led Madara across the opening and stopped underneath the shady shelter.

Together they looked up and towards the platform. Madara then turned to Amaterasu and proceeded to pull off her snaffle under which she was still wearing a leathered halter.

He went to tie her to one of the apple trees were she immediately started to graze at what little grass there still was and Tobirama climbed up to test the platforms sturdiness. She then came down once more to grab the bag that contained the blanket and food.

Madara’s gaze caught hers and Tobirama found herself smirking. “I hope you know how to climb.”

He certainly looked uneasy yet determined. There were steps nailed to the trunk, so the climb was easy enough even for a child to do. Certainly, Madara would have no problems.

“I’m sure I will manage.” He pulled off his outer robe and was still wearing a short-sleeved undershirt which would make it easier to move. “Lead the way.”

That, Tobirama did. Her own oversized clothing gave her all the leeway to stretch, but the back bound around her shoulders was a bit hindering. Still they got up and set up camp on top of the planks that was big enough for them to stretch out and even then could have fitted three more people. There was a bit of a view towards the orchard, but aside from that they were surrounded by leaves and branches.

The blanket Tobirama spread out was softer than it looked and she set out leaf-wrapped packages.

Madara sat opposite of her. “What are those?”

She unwrapped dish after dish. “These are rice buns filled with Kutschu-paste and stained purple with berries. Here is some marinated duck’s breast, you should try it with this stir-fried Miri-bean salad.” Tobirama got out a wooden box. “My elder brother made most of these, but these dumplings were prepared by me. It’s about the only dish I am capable of doing better than him.”

“Well, they look really good. What’s the filling?”

“Pig’s meat and potato mash, but I seasoned it with herbs I gathered during our walk so you could try them. I steamed and marinated them with sweet sauce. I also brought dry fruits.”

Tobirama handed him a set of wooden chopsticks and took the second set. Watching Madara take a piece of duck and muster the crust suspiciously was more amusing than it should have been. He eventually tried it and hummed in appreciation. “Your brother is a good cook.”

Madara took some more meat. And only then did she tuck in herself.

“That he is. Our aunties taught all of us, but he took to it the most.”

“What about your other brothers? Last time, you mentioned you had three.” Madara took one of her dumplings and then eating it several more.

Tobirama was surprised that he remembered at all. “My youngest brother Itama is fond of our animals. He does a lot of the work around them. Feeding, herding, milking.”

Tobirama felt a small smile tuck on her lips. “Only the slaughtering is left to our aunts.”

She took a rice cake and let her eyes scan the swaying trees in the distance. “Kawarama is also younger than I. He helps our uncles with the repairing, like fences and roofs or tools. But he also enjoys embroidery and knitting, so he patches up holes in our clothing too.” She looked back to Madara. “He is thinking about leaving the village to further his schooling under a craftsman in the city. Whenever our uncles go to sell at the market he is so eager to go with them.”

Madara hummed in appreciation around the softness of a bun. He finished chewing before remarking. “There are plenty of highly skilled manufacturers in the city. If he is half as determined as you and has a quarter of your brains, he should manage fine and make a good living.”

It truly was a curse. The lightness of her skin had even the slightest redness showing and no one aside from her brothers complimented her as freely as Madara did.

“I have told you of Hashirama already, my older brother.” Madara nodded. “He is going to marry and take work at the pharmacy in the city. He will be gone sooner rather than later.”

“Oh…”

They sat in companionable silence for a while, eating slowly, listening to birds chirping in the background and watching Amaterasu wander around her apple tree.

Father did not want Kawarama to leave the village so soon, so he had ordered him to wait until he turned at least fifteen. At first, it had caused a fallout between Hashirama who was about to leave for real and Kawarama who wanted to, but was not yet allowed.

She may have talked openly, but at the core of her remarks stood a worry to lose all of her brothers and be left alone in the village without them. It was truly unfair of her and utterly self-absorbed, so she consciously choose to ignore thoughts like these to focus on a more productive mentality instead. Sometimes, however, she could not stop the emotions from forming.

She loved her brothers. And at the centre of that stood the hope to see them as fulfilled and happy as possible. That that might include a life somewhere where she could not follow them was bittersweet, but a very likely outcome.

As Madara suddenly spoke, she was ripped out of her thoughts. “My elder sister got married away and my brother left to study in Suna two years ago.”

Tobirama looked at him, Madara was watching his fingers. “And my younger sister married last year. It is only myself and my youngest brother now. Home feels different without them.”

Tobirama was not sure about the serious and personal twist their conversation was taking, but she was no proficient conversationalist and certainly had not gathered enough knowledge to know how any sort of talk between almost-strangers was supposed to go.
It did not make her feel uneasy however, because Madara obviously did not seem to care for such banalities too. She herself had learned to take things as they came and to free herself from expectations after her own mother died. It was obviously a very emotional topic to Madara. He had not met her gaze once, but rather stared at a twig with swaying leafs right next to his head.

So she asked, truly interested. “Your father gave them away?”

“Theirs were… strategic marriages. My elder sister left for Mizu’s main city and we haven’t seen her since the wedding. She sometimes sends letters and we know she has a son already. My younger sister went to Suna’s main city. She was barely older than you.”

He gripped the twig and the wood snapped several times under his white knuckles. “At least she writes often. I hope your brothers stay in touch, should they decide to leave.”

“So... you will have an arranged marriage too?”

His laughter was a mixture of bitterness and glee. “Father would like too, but there aren’t any possible matches. All his preferred… business partners only have sons or daughters who are too young or married already, so nothing has been decided yet.”

He took his fist and opened to release the crushed sticks. The leafs, he ripped and tore to shreds with a single twist. “And if you ask me, I would rather stay wifeless for the rest of my life than wed any of my cousins or a dull spinster. Let’s talk about something else. Have I told you of the compensation I brought?”

“No, you have not.”

“Wait here.” Madara got up and went to the ladder.

“If you fall from this height you will likely break a leg. Or your neck if you land unlucky.” She should not have accompanied that with a smirk, but the satisfaction at his unimpressed stare was well worth it.

“Well thank you for the reassurance.” He climbed down and Tobirama could not resist to scuttle over to the side and watch him until he reached the ground and searched through a bag he had left next to hers. He bound a smaller one around his shoulders and made his way up again.

Tobirama had cleared away most of the food so they had more space when he sat down breathing heavier. “I hope you like my selection.”

“Selection… is there more than one gift?”

“Of course, I couldn’t decide.” He picked something out of it that looked like a box wrapped in bleached paper printed with blue swirls. Tobirama could not believe her eyes, because paper like this was so very expensive, she had only ever seen it twice. Once on a courting gift to one of her cousins and as a wedding gift to the same cousin.

She looked at him tentatively. He had said, he meant it as a compensation for her help and was obviously extremely well off, so these sort of things probably did not have the same importance to him. She had to take him by his word.

“I would be insulted if you refused it without even unwrapping it first.” Madara said dryly and Tobirama apologised and took it with both hands. The package was heavier than it looked, but she made the effort to turn it around and look for the edges of the paper to carefully open it up.

Books.

Madara had gotten her three extremely well-bound books on city building and infrastructure, microbiology of plants used in agriculture and an encyclopaedia. The outer edges of the pages were even gilded to prevent yellowing and their covers were painted and stamped with their titles.

She handed them back to him with shacking hands. “I cannot accept this. They must have cost you a fortune.”

“I am not accepting them back, so unless you are planning on throwing them away, you have to keep them.” He looks a little sheepish. “I know you have good use for these and believe me, their price to me was not a problem.”

Tobirama pulled them back, her arms were already hurting with their weight, and looked at them all separately while Madara waited uncomplaining, but fidgeting. She would have to hide them from her family, otherwise they would ask a lot of uneasy questions and make assumptions totally unwelcomed. When would she even find the privacy to read them?

“Are you ready for the second package?”

“I must say, I am a little intimidated of what else you have chosen.” But she lay her books down on top of the paper and made sure nothing could stain or scratch them. Madara was already handing her another paper-wrapped package, small, thin and light to her relief.

His eyes already rested on her and the glistening betrayed his otherwise good attempt at keeping a neutral expression. Madara was excited about gifting her these and it haloed a pang of guilt for having been so ungrateful through her rips.

The paper folded back more easily and revealed a smoothed wooden plate with inscriptions. It was a pass for the university’s library.

“It won’t expire.” Madara pitched in. “I made sure to get one you may use indefinite.”

“Thank you.” She stared at the inscriptions and then looked up. Her head was spinning in numbers of how much this very likely cost him. “I really don’t know how to repay you for this.”

Madara scrunched his brows. “These are compensatory presents, you have already done enough to warrant them. Aside from that, you are about the most interesting and engaging conversational partner I had in a long time. It made me eager to bring you something nice.”

He handed her a big envelope. “This is not really a present. More something my cousin suggested when I told him about your brilliance.”

Again, his lips twitched. “It’s for you to think about… a sort of incitement.”

Tobirama took it and opened it straight away. She pulled out a stack of several papers and read the title on the first.

“Oh.” She read it again. “These are… application papers for a scholarship at the city’s university?”

She flipped through the other pages, barely able to believe that she was holding something like this. It happened not often that she had to open her mouth and close it again several times, before she could wrench out a single sentence.

There was no reality in which her father would sign his allowance under anything as daring as this. “I don’t know whether this would be a good idea.”

“Why not?”

“We don’t have the means to send anyone to university, least of all me.” A farmer’s daughter, certainly the least suitable candidate for something as prestigious as this.

“It’s a scholarship. They’ll fund all the costs for you. It is something the university offers every year. People without the means can apply and within a selection procedure they choose three or more. So if you apply there is no guarantee that they’ll choose you, but I say it could be worth a try. With what you have told me, it’s easy to see that you could fit right into a research team.”

There was really no way she ever would manage to sell this to her father as a good idea and it was his signature required under anything Tobirama choose to do with her life. Aside… “The village cannot afford to lose so many young people.”

Madara certainly did not seem to understand her hesitation. “In the long run, your village would profit from the gain of knowledge and the payment in a job that requires a degree would be way above average. Just think about it. You’ve got about a week before the deadline.”

They sat in silence once more. Tobirama alternating between looking at the sheets and into the distance. Madara ate some more, staring into the distance himself.

While Tobirama eventually put away her gifts she said. “We talked a lot about me and my ideas, but what about you?”

“I really can’t tell you much aside from what I already have, my father would hang me.” Which he looked very unpleased with, understandably.

“You said last time that you fly hawks. For hunting?”

“Ah, not really. I took over after my mother passed away.”

That his face could turn as soft as it did made him look younger. “In her family, hawks are a sacred bird, something to be kept and taken care of. My brothers were afraid of them and my sisters not allowed near them, so I felt obliged at first and came to like it with time.”

It may not have been the most sensible thing to say, but Tobirama felt like Madara would not take it as uncaring. “When did she die?”

“About ten summers ago. She should not have fallen pregnant again so fast and died during childbirth. The baby was stillborn and never bore a name.”

“I am sorry.” And she meant it.

“A lot of time has passed since then.” Their eyes caught and stayed. “Aside from falconry I do enjoy reading, but I rarely find the time. The last book I actually finished was a collection of short stories by Minoto Fukokashi.”

She had read two books by that author. “The one called ’Unsteady Seasons’?”

“Yes, did you read it too?”

“It’s a classic. Do you take me for an uncultivated feral?” He honestly had the guts to laugh at her for feeling insulted.

“Well, it is a more… disturbing read. No normal citizen could enjoy writing like that. But I should not be surprised. You don’t seem that traditional.”

“You’re one to talk, somehow I feel like, I am the one that has more practical experience with gutting a pig.” It was meant teasing and Madara scowled and leaned back on his hands in a defensive manner.

“And did that make it any more enjoyable to read about it in graphic detail?”

“From a more objective point of view, to see how someone, who has clearly never slaughtered an animal, trying to describe it was highly amusing.” Tobirama said and Madara groaned, waving his hand as if to stop picturing any of images clearly popping up.

“Enough of that story. Which one was your favourite?”

“A sparrow’s hackle.” His laugh rang in Tobirama’s ears. “What do you find amusing about that? It is a good read.”

He looked at her and truly mustered her, eyes roaming her facial features. When he turned, she imagined a hint of rosiness on his cheeks, but it might have been the light playing patterns on his skin with the shadows of the leafs. “Uff, enlighten me then, because I thought it thoughtless and unnecessarily convoluted.”

That certainly was offensive, Tobirama decided. “The beauty in it came when I realised what you call unnecessary convolution was to be understood more as a story in the story. One has to read the scenes separately and the second one mirrored.”

He seem outright pleased with himself. “As I said, unnecessarily convoluted. If I have to separate scenes and read some of them from back to front, in what way is that not utter presumptuousness.”

His fingers tapped a rhythm on the wooden boards. “I do not understand why someone would complicate something that could be said simple too.”

“Where would be the fun in that?”

“Then I would have had actual fun reading that story. The one I enjoyed the most was the one with the lamp and the moth.”

“Well, we cannot all have exquisite taste.” And as he gritted his teeth, she laughed.

“You. Cut it out.” Had it not been rude and he a well raised man, she was sure he would have pointed a finger at her or even flipped her off. Now he only averted his eyes and took two deep breaths.

The silence drew out and Tobirama lay back, watching soft clouds drift over blue as green leafs rustled over brown branches. After a while she asked. “What else have you read?”

“With the intention to enjoy it?” She nodded and he sighed. “Everything you would consider a classic.”

“To read something without the intention of enjoying it sounds weird.”

“My father willed me and my brothers to read plenty. Even if I find most of the things interesting enough, it is very much not enjoyable to have a private teacher breathing down your neck while you do it.”

That did sound rather annoying. “Tell me your favourite story.”

“It is not very inspiring.”

“There must be something to it, why would you like it otherwise?”

“Fine…” And as he talked and Tobirama waved him on to continue his telling every time he stopped, she found herself closing her eyes and imagining the scenes alongside.
It ended with the picture of a lake and they basked a little in companionable silence until Madara broke it. “I’ve read that there is a mountain lake close by with water as turquoise and clear as the sea water at the south coast. I’d like to see that.”

“It’s a bit far by foot, but I could give you directions so you could go there by horse.” It would only take him a morning to get there and a late afternoon to get back.

He levelled her with a pondering gaze. “You don’t know how to ride, do you?”

“I’ve only ever sat on cows and they don’t make the best mount.”

Finding a cow willing enough to be sat own and then finding a way to stir it in some way had never proven futile. They also had a habit of randomly jumping to the side and falling, even on grass, was not something to do often for the sake of one’s hip.

When Madara smiled all of a sudden and leaned in closer with a new hint of excitement, Tobirama got weary almost immediately. “Would you like to try?”

“I never thought about whether I’d like to try riding because it never seemed like a plausible possibility.”

“I can bring a second horse next time and we can ride there together. Amaterasu could carry us both, but it is really uncomfortable.” He reminded her a bit of Hashirama in that moment. The way he had made up his mind and set himself on seeing it through.

The thought, to get on a fiery, twitchy and tall horse like Amaterasu was a bit unnerving, but the smile Madara erupted in was well worth a try. Surely, he would not endanger her beyond reasonable bounds. “Fine. I’ll try. There is a small lake with crystalline water not far from here. We could go there for now.”

Madara nodded and they gathered their belongings. He helped her by carrying the bag with his presents all the way down the steps and while he collected Amaterasu, Tobirama wondered how long she could stay away until her father would grow suspicious.

 

Tobirama lead the way, through soft forest ground and silky hip-high grass, across a small stream and at Madara’s insistence, recounted all the work she had done during the last day. She had come up with a new machine to strip peas from their shells and she helped Kawarama patch up the neighbour’s roof. The curriculum for the children’s education had had to be evaluated too.

When they finally stepped on a small trail, they could already see the glistering water behind the trees in the distance.

At the distant side of the lake lay a broad beach of colourful pebbles, but where they approached the water, the pebbles were even smaller and the water even shallower.

Amaterasu snorted and stepped forward and Madara let her approach the water and whisk her snout through the surface.

They discarded their shoes, Tobirama her sandals, Madara his heavier boots. He looked so much more relaxed already. “We should go for a swim.”

Tobirama hoped that Madara did not notice how red her face must have turned. No one in her family was a prude, she would usually strip down and plunge with her brothers without as much as a glance.

But just yesterday she had started her bleeding. She never bled strong or more than three days, but to mortify herself in front of any man - brother or friend – and take of her clothing and bloodied wool-pads was something she would not do. And making them wet was even more uncomfortable.

“Ah, I’m feeling a little under the weather. But go ahead, I’ll rest in the shade.” She sat down her basket underneath a birch tree. “The lake is quite shallow, Hashirama is able to stand at all points we tested, so you should be able to do so too.”

“Fine.” He looked at her and she was happy that he knew her well enough already not to probe and simply take her by her word. “I’ll leave my things by your side.”

She waved him to continue as he intended and turned towards the water to watch for interesting wildlife.

“You can sit on my coat, it’s more comfortable.” His coat was more expensive than all her clothes combined, but she nodded and let him lay it out on an already thick blanket of moss. The fabric felt soft and dry while the grass had been damp. With a short side glance she could see Madara starting to undress and that had her lie down and watching the swaying trees to give him privacy.

Unlike her brothers, he left on his underpants. As he unbound Amaterasu’s saddle and bridle, Tobirama looked over. “Are you taking her in too?”

“She may be a horse bred in the desert, but she enjoys swimming just as much as running.”

Without as much as hesitation, he pulled himself up onto her bare back and they were off with plenty of enthusiasm. When Amaterasu hit the water, Madara laughed and the splashes and ripples had droplets flying all the way to Tobirama too.

She watched the swaying Koduku-tree leafs in the distance to the sound of crashing water.

They stayed like this for a while until the idea to skim through one of her new books got the better of her. She pulled over the bag and looked for the one on city building and read through the table of contents first. There was a whole chapter dedicated to water systems.

 

The major sun wandered the sky and shifted the shade and Tobirama shifted with it to keep her skin from the sun. She burned so very easily and to an extent that could immobilise her for several days with giant blisters and pain.

When Madara and Amaterasu eventually approached Tobirama was greeted by droplets flying, because Amaterasu jolted right next to her. It was by pure luck that her book’s pages remained dry.

“Thank you for the refreshment.” She wiped water from her forehead and frowned towards them.
Madara’s face appeared in her field of vision right in front of the blue sky and moving clouds and jittering leaves. His hair was wet and without its band, swaying freely behind his back, falling into his face.

Only now Tobirama realised how tall and broad he really was, almost up to Hashirama’s height, who was one of the tallest men her village had ever had, and muscular in a way that spoke of some sort of regular physical training; maybe fencing or swordplay, that was something the richer people in the city indulged in.

“Are you done staring?” Tobirama snapped her gaze up from his upper body to meet his highly amused eyes.

She had to clear her throat. “You should have someone inspect that mole on your arm. They can be dangerous if their growth is unrestricted.”

He actually looked at the spot on his arm and scowled. “My doctor has it monitored, rest assured.”

Madara sat down next to her and laid down too. The sun would dry him if they stayed long enough. “I wish we had lakes like this where I live.”

“I thought there were several man-made swimming ponds in the main city.”

Madara’s lips curled in distaste. “One cannot even call those muddy puddles lakes. There is always someone around, even at my family’s private swimming pond. I only ever use it to cool down our horses.”

“And your father allows that?”

Madara smirked. “He hates it with a passion he otherwise only has for politics. There is not a lot I can antagonise him in without facing consequences, this is one of them. So far he only grits his teeth and ignores it.”

“What became of that problem you mentioned last time?”

Madara laughed. “That is confidential still, I can only talk to my brother, my father and… our elders about it.”

“You’re doing a terrible job at keeping it secret then, I feel even more motivated to ask you about it now.” And she shuffled to lay on her side and look at him. “Hypothetically, what would something as confidential as this be about.”

At first, he did not even acknowledge her, but eventually he looked at her. “Hypothetically, it could be drafting new laws.”

“Your family is involved in the law-making?” He nodded. “What sorts?”

“Hypothetically?”

“Hypothetically.”

Madara smiled and closed his eyes, but the sun and fluttering shadows of the leaves painted his light skin in patterns. “Well, it could be rather complex. Father’s favourite topic is taxes, so there might be an addition to that. My brother and I may be pressing for better implemented child protection laws. There is still room for other ideas.”

“Could you explain it to me? I’m not that knowledgeable in politics.” They never got the newspapers, the elders kept them updated over important change. She knew the basics of course, but in comparison to the detail she had on plenty other topics it felt like nothing at all.

“Do you mean the process of implementing a new law?” Tobirama nodded.

Madara, she realised as soon as he started talking, was extremely aware of the laws and politics of the provinces and the country in general. He explained and argued with an easy confidents that she had only ever seen on her father and few other village’s council members.

He explained to her the system and Tobirama was even more pleased, because he did not bother going easy on her with technical terms or too many information. He simply assumed she would be able to follow and she felt like she did.

To say, Tobirama was intrigued, would have put it too mild. She knew only what she had read about. Madara spoke as if he was part of it.

Since she had met him, she had often wondered what position his family held within the main city. He was certainly not even a normal aristocrat. To be involved in the making of law, one had to be especially well educated or important enough. His father was probably part of the consultation team around the King’s council.

It would be extremely impolite to ask, as Madara had made it clear more than once that he was not allowed to disclose private information, so Tobirama was pleased enough to leave it at that. So far he had proven more willing to reveal snippets of information now and again anyway.

 

They talked until the sun had shifted way past midday and into early afternoon.

One thing, she wanted to know. And when they dwelled in a silent break after Madara had gone to fetch Amaterasu, who had wandered off, she asked. “Are you studying politics?”

“That is the emphasis of my study although there is a bit more too it.” He lay back and stretched. “I’m too tired to explain all of that now.”

“Next time then.”

“Next time. In two days?”

Tobirama hummed approving.

“And then you will lead me to this other lake.”

She hummed once more.

“Good, I’m looking forward to it now. Tonight and tomorrow are going to be long and stressful.”

And she could not hold back from asking again. “Are you in the city for business?”

“Father send me and I have friends here too.”

“When will you be going back to the main city?” This was also something she had wondered about.

“Two more moon cycles, maybe three.” If Tobirama feels a bit of relief and joy at the prospect of potentially talking to Madara more often, no one needs to know.

“Even by train, the journey takes about two days and I am not looking forward to it. Usually, my youngest brother accompanies me, but father wanted him to start his study early and set up tutors for the whole summer to get him ready for the next semester.”

She wants to ask what he is like and what it is like to be allowed to spend weeks on nothing but reading and learning, but Madara already continues. “He is not studious, but clever and quick witted. His teachers adore him, more than they did me. I guess I am more direct and less sweet talking.”

He does not even sound hurt, only amused and as their gazes meet the space between them feels somehow less than before. Has she unconsciously inched closer?

“Both are important characteristics. Someone bold enough to bring on ideas and risks and someone to take away the steam with diplomacy.”

“True, although he can be a calamity when he wants to be.” Madara huffs.

“Sneaking Barbak-seeds in our brother’s pyjama to make his skin itch, switching salt and pepper in the kitchen, smuggling cats into the library. Of course he only ever does pranks when father is gone, otherwise he would be slapped and locked in the broom closed for seven days.” Does she also look this annoyed yet pleased when she talks about her siblings’ poor habits? “I love them all, but I have always been closest to him.”

A single sparrow soared in the sky, twisting and turning against the bright blue and Madara and Tobirama watched it in silence, till it disappeared behind the treetops of the forest.

“We should head back.” And although a bit disappointed, Tobirama agreed. Her late return would already raise eyebrows and there was still so much work waiting to be down.

She sat up and went to wash her feet before putting on her sandals.

Madara got dressed, fully dry aside from his hair which he bound back again. He saddled Amaterasu and they walked in silence. The murmurs of the stream and the chirping of the birds and the rustling of leafs in the soft afternoon winds accompanied them till they reached the road once more.

“In two days’ time and I’ll bring a second horse.” Tobirama nodded. “Ok, wear comfortable trousers and firmer shoes, if you have.”

They parted ways and Tobirama spent the rest of the day thinking about how she would justify that day-long absence to her father.

 

Tobirama managed to hide her gifts from her brothers. They each had a wooden box about the length of an arm long to store their individual belongings in, which in Tobirama’s case - aside from her gifts and clothes - were twelve more books, her woollen pads, a couple of wood figures Hashirama had carved for her, her mother’s old jewellery and few other less important things.

At night after they had settled to sleep and Itama and Kawarama were curled against her back, Hashirama nudged her shoulder as she was about to fall into slumber. “Tobi, are you awake?”

“Hn.” He kept on shaking her shoulder, the vibrations of her motion surely would have disturbed Kawarama, had he not been used to worse. She opened her eyes and fixed him with a glare. This was apparently turning into a habit and she was not sure how to stop him. “Now I am.”

“Sorry, did you meet him again?” He did not sound sorry at all. She nodded and Hashirama must have made it out in the dark. “Did you ask if I could meet him?”

Oh boy, she did not think of that.

“No.” He deflated visibly. “But I will. I honestly forgot.”

“You never forget things.”

His whines did only annoy her further. “I never forget important things. Well, I promise I will remember next time.”

Hashirama stayed silent after that and Tobirama was almost ready to assume the conversation was over when he whispered. “Do you like him?”

“I enjoy talking to him.” And she very much would leave it at that.

He inhaled so loud, she was sure, even father could have been disturbed, but their siblings only shifted and turned. “So you do like him.”

“Not like that.”

“Sure.” It sounded overly sarcastic, something that Hashirama was not very good in. “You shun all the boys in the village whenever they approach you for anything none-work-related, but seek him out yourself.”

“Sleep now, you’re hallucinating already.” And with that she turned around and ignored all his whispers.

 

The next morning, Tobirama tried to concentrate on her work and not the impending meet up with Madara. There was budget and storage plans to rework for the upcoming harvest season and her irrigation system needed intensive replaning. Madara’s present had made recalculations way easier and already revealed a couple of dire mistakes in her work.

In her box, she had found a piece of delicate cloth that she had started a stitching on and abandoned. The basic layout of hills and bushes were there and it brought up an idea. As Hashirama was stirring away in a pot of soup and rambling on about the customers at the pharmacy she did her best to continue the pattern and add a twist.

“Is this a present for your secret stranger?”

“Hashirama, I swear, if you mention him one more time I’ll stop telling you anything.”

“You wouldn’t.”

“Don’t try my patience.” She laid down yarn and needle to give him a stern look his was pointedly avoiding. “I’ll say this now and we’ll change topic immediately after, because anybody could be listening in. I met him twice and we talked for a combined length of two mornings and one midday. That is barely enough time to warrant your obnoxious assumptions.”

“But you’re meeting him again tomorrow.”

“Hashirama!”

“Fine.” He took the pot and dropped it on the kitchen table, harder than necessary and droplets of soup would have ruined the fabric she was working on as well as papers she had been theorising on, had her reflexes not been as good as they were. “Eat and then I’ll leave for the city.”

“Sometimes I feel like the elder sibling.” The look he send her was evil, especially for Hashirama’s standards.

Chapter Text

Tobriama thought it to be a calm afternoon.

Kawarama had vanished after lunch to web fabric with a couple of elderly ladies and Itama had been with the sheep since breakfast, only interrupted by Tobirama’s delivery of lunch.

Hashirama had left for the village to meet with Mito and father helped prepare the barns.

Tobirama used the absence of distraction to review the results of the current education curriculum. Plenty had been achieved already, starting with basic literacy among the underage children.

The less mulish adults did sometimes accompany the lessons to learn a thing or two for themselves too. Itama had told her that one of his friend’s parents actually started to learn from his young son.

She was deep in thoughts about the extent of historical and basic scientific principles (no one aside her saw the necessity in teaching that field), when the backdoor was slammed open and Itama stormed in, a bit teary eyed and shaken.

“Tobi, something is wrong with a new lamb.”

She was not the first person she would have come to for any matter relating to the care of their animals. There were adults specifically assigned who cared for them and Itama was taught by them. But Itama had always liked to turn to her more than any of the others and Tobirama refused to tell him to bother someone more suitable.

She stood up, signalled for him to lead the way. “Have you talked with Kotanoharo?”

“He went to the city with father. Mako says we have to put it down, but I thought maybe Hashi could heal it.” There was a special kind of dread reserved for this feeling, because when Mako thought the lamb was beyond saving, there was likely nothing any of them could do.

Itama led her along the path at the back of the gardens and into the big orchard were they saw the sheep grazing. Under a plum tree, accompanied by the stern older woman Mako and several of the sheep-protection dogs laid a small, shaking lamb.

The problem was evident immediately, fleshy deep red and purple organs were spilling out of its open stomach.

“It was born like this.” Itama mumbled. “Do you think Hashi can help it?” He looked to her. She reached out a hand to rest on his nape, which Itama leaned into.

“Itama, I don’t think Hashirama can save it. Aside, it would be unfair to keep it in pain for the extended amount of time it takes for Hashirama to come back.” Probably, Itama had been lucky enough never to encounter a malformation like this, but Tobirama had read that they could happen.

“To kill it is for the best, boy.” Mako pitched in. “I’m gonna go and get one of the butchers.”

Itama went down on his knees and started petting the small, wet head and Tobirama crouched next to him and caressed his back in slow circles.

“Do you want to give it a name? We could edge a wooden plate and set it with the others.” To carry a name was something significant and to be given a name plate after death was something equally important. Itama had claimed a portion of Hashirama’s vegetable garden to set up a memory place for his dearest dead animals along the fence.

Itama nodded. “Ume. It was born under a plum tree after all.” In the distance voices grew louder, so Mako must be returning.

“A good choice. Do you want to stay or shall we leave?”

Itama hesitated. He never liked the slaughtering of any animal. From the first moment he realised that meat was made by killing the animals, he had refused to ever eat it again.

Father raged, as expected. He did not tolerate them being fussy, when food often got scarce and with memories of his own childhood that had been plagued by famines, one really could not be selective about the source of the nutrition.

But Hashirama was the one preparing the dishes and he always made sure to prepare things in such a way that Itama could eat them too.

Tobirama did not enjoy killing, but she had never hesitated when it needed to be done, like slicing a rabid dog’s throat.

She had also beheaded chicken, rabbits and calves under her father’s instruction. He praised her for her precision, her steady hand and firm pressure, said she would have made a fine soldier had she been born as a man.

“I think I want to go.”

“Good.” She stood, but let her hand rest on his head till he stood with a final pet and a quiet, “Fare well into the other realm, Ume.”, then he took Tobirama’s hand and they left quickly to not hear the sharp slaughtering axe hit the wooden board.

“I think I will put its plate next to the tomatoes.”

“Do you want help with the carving?” The backdoor to their yard was still open.

“No, but I think Kawa hid his carving knife again.” Itama went into their shed and Tobirama to the small, roofed storage were they kept their firewood. There were always smaller, thin pieces and she took one that was even.

“He should be back before dinner.”

“You think something else works too?”

“Yes.” They stepped into the kitchen, putting away their shoes and slipping into slippers. Tobirama went to the board they stored all their kitchen knives on. “I would try this.” She lifts one which is small enough that Itama can handle it and pointed but slightly blunt.

“Thanks.” They sat down on a couple of tree trunk pieces, Tobirama pulling out the piece of cloth and yarn and needle and Itama carving on a small wooden piece.

 

She fully expected the trip to take the whole day and had spoken to Hashirama who promised to tell their father that she was working on a new project further away.

When she got to the small orchard, Madara was already there, dressed in a lighter shirt than normal. Amaterasu was grazing, but carried more bags attached to her saddle than any of the other days, probably food.

Another horse stood aside her also grazing just as Madara had promised. Dark reddish-brown, four white legs, a big white strip on the head and white mane and tail. And it was smaller than Amaterasu but still tall.

“You’re late.” Madara did not seem annoyed or impatient, just relaxed and somewhat eager to leave.

“I know, I’m sorry. Hashirama kept reminding me to introduce the two of you.” Tobirama was sure, it was only partly for her safety and also out of curiosity. After all it was true, she seldom showed interest in anyone. Aside from work, she only ever spend her free time with her brothers and sometimes Toka.

Madara stilled in his search through the bags and looked at her surprised. “Your brother wants to meet me?”

“He is very sociable. I could bring him along next time, but if it makes you uncomfortable I won’t.”

“No… What did you tell him about me?”

“That I met you at the shed and only he knows that I’ve been seeing you. Nothing else, not even your name.”

“Bring him along, if he is as inquisitive as you describe him to be, he will tag along eventually whether we like it or not.” Tobirama nodded and threw a hesitant look at the animal she was supposed to trust her wellbeing in.

Madara noticed her shift in attention and actually huffed a laugh. “Now, this is Omoikane. I lend him from my cousin who bought him to teach his children, so he should be calm and cooperative. Easy to sit too.”

He tucked the horse’s nose up with a long leash he had on its bit. “I believe they call him Omoi.”

Tobirama stepped forward to touch his snout and drew it back immediately at the feeling of the stallions inquisitive nose nudging against her fingers. Madara gave her a piece of carrot and she gave it to the horse who took it softly from the palm of her hand.

Omoi was so tall, she could not look over his back. “How do I get on?”

“First, we should put your bags in the saddle’s pouches.” That they did and Madara then led them to an old tree trunk from which Tobirama was able to get on without instructions.

This was close enough to riding a cow. She was higher up, which in itself did not concern her. What was weird was feeling the movement of something that was more than ten times her weight and could probably pull a tree trunk or crush her or take her down a cliff in a wild escape.

Madara did not seem faced by that at all. Tobirama was grateful her normal expression was one of indifference anyway, so that the mild level of unease was easy enough to hide by keeping her facial muscles relaxed.

“Until you know how to use them properly, you should only take the reins in an emergency. If he runs off, pull.”

The reins were secured at the saddle and hung lose. She did not even touch them, simply grabbed the leather string bound around its neck and a bit of mane too, to hold on.

“Otherwise, he is schooled to stop when you lean back and loosen your legs. He’ll start moving once you gently press his sides with your legs, so don’t do that too often or you’ll be speeding away.”

He lifted a long rope that was connected with Omoi’s bit. “I’ll lead him on this extra leash of course and horses are gregarious animals, they won’t part from each other unless necessary. He should stay right by Amaterasu’s side.”

A shaky breath and a bit of shuffling to sit more comfortable later and Tobirama caught Madara’s eye. He was watching her every reaction, a bit concerned so maybe her discomfort was showing more than she thought.

There really was no other way but to do what she normally did when faced with a new situation. “Let me test a bit.”

Madara smirked but held the rope loosely and Tobirama pressed her legs to the horse’s sides softly and he started moving at a slow pace, Madara moved with them. It was like sitting on a barrel, swaying from side to side, Madara remarked, she should try to go with the motion and keep her spine straight, which she did.

As Tobirama shifted her weight a little, Omoi changed directions immediately.

Another press and the horse trotted which was uncomfortable and hard to keep in the saddle, but Omoi got slower all by himself again. “I hope we won’t be doing that a lot.”

Madara was definitely laughing at her. “No, let me get on Amaterasu and you can try canter. It’s easier to sit.”

Madara whistled and Amaterasu trotted over. Once he was in the saddle, Madara was taller than Tobirama again and he immediately aligned the horses next to each other.

“It’s good they had time to accustom to each other on the way up here.”

Then they were stepping along the orchard’s edges, Omoi to Amaterasu’s right side and enough space between the two flanks. At Madara’s notice to hold on, they went from trot into something faster and swifter in the blink of an eye. Tobirama got the hang of it fast, moving with the motion once they had completed a full circle.

“Can we try trot once more?” They did and after being thrown around in the saddle for a bit it got easier to sit still.

“I should have expected you to be a fast learner.” Madara sounded impressed. “Moving with the motion is the hardest obstacle at the start. I guess we’re ready to go?”

“We need to head north, there is a trail about a hundred meters behind the tree line.”

And off they went, slow paced at first because the forest was thick and some branches hung low. Omoi sometimes stepped behind Amaterasu to pass through narrow spaces, over moss and through bushes, until they reached the broader trail, which was sloped uphill and Madara got the horses to a slow canter.

They had to pass through a birch forest on a narrow path and the rustling in the distance and birds singing were interrupted by Madara.

“Have you thought about university yet?” At a side glance, Tobirama saw that he was looking at her again.

She had thought about it during the calm moments in between work and it had always turned back to how she could possibly manage to tell her father and not get locked in a shed out of fear she could run off. “I haven’t made a decision… And I want to know my own stand on the matter, before I speak to my father.”

“You have about another week.”

“Mh.” Then Tobirama changed the topic and they talked about all sorts of things. Books and her village, the process of cheese making and the main city.

They passed steep hillsides and nice lookouts, streams and small sheds. Only when the trail was wide and smooth did they pass into canter.

 

They left the shadowy forest and stood in front of a large, open plain with grass grown up to the horses’ flanks and wildflowers. A soft breeze shifted the greenery in soft waves.
An eagle was soaring the sky above.

Even Omoi, who had been relaxed and aloof so far, was fidgeting all of a sudden, but Madara held the rope tight and Amaterasu’s reins tighter. His mare was basically vibrating on the spot.

“They want to run. Fields like this are what we usually race them over.”

And wasn’t it strange that she kind of wanted to know what it was like. Riding a sleigh down their mountain slopes and evading trees was exciting and maybe this would be close.
Instinctually Tobirama gripped the saddles front tighter. “Let’s do it then.”

He mustered her with something like worry. “You sure?”

“I trust you. Now let them go.”

Secretly, she wished his gaze could stay on her like this, caring and thoughtful, before he eventually gave into her stare off and averted his eyes, but not without rolling them.

“…fine, grip his mane and lean forward, away from the saddle. Believe me, it will be easier that way.”

He beckoned the horses into an energetic trot first and kept them obedient enough to pass into soft canter.

As Madara eased Omoi’s rope first, nothing happened, but the second he loosened Amaterasu’s, the horses went off.

This gallop was nothing like canter she had gotten used to. It was rough and fast, Omoi’s mane was in her face and as Madara had said, to lean forward out of the saddle was easier.

Nonetheless, it was the best thing Tobirama had done in a long while, full of adrenaline and excitement, wind gushing her hair and grass brushing her legs. They were not even half way and Tobirama found herself actually enjoying the small jumps and bucks Omoi made now and again. How she stayed in the saddle, she was not sure.

She got the notion that Madara was holding Amaterasu back. They probably would have gone way faster than Omoi was able to and with a split second decision, Tobirama held on even tighter and pressing her legs, encouraging Omoi and he obediently sped up.

Madara’s surprised expression as Tobirama suddenly past him was enough to split into a wide grin and the only thing she heard over the rushing wind was his laughter as he easily caught up.

 

Once they reached the other side, the gallop got slower, the horses’ breathing heavier and there was a shine of sweat covering their necks and flanks.

“I cannot believe you. On a horse for the first time and already challenging me to a race.” Tobirama could only reciprocate the smile Madara gave her, breathing heavier themselves too.

“It was hardly a race. Amaterasu is faster and that was plain obvious.”

“I’m pleased you liked it.” Madara’s smile was so soft, Tobirama did not know what to do with her face. It went warm and she had the urge to smile again and that was more smiling than she had been doing in a long time.

Was her heart still beating so fast from the race?

They went back on forest trails, passing different vegetation with greater highs and Tobirama told him of some of the more useful plants they encountered.

The major sun was up to a third of her journey as they passed a bigger stream and started to hear sounds of a waterfall. The clearing they stepped onto was big, leading into a lake that was so big, the trees at the far side were as small as a grain of rice.

The water was a fresh greenish blue colour none of the other lakes in the region could compare to and cascading waterfalls rippled its clear surface. The water was so clear, even at its deepest point could they still see the pebbles and old tree trunks on the ground where fish mingled.

They were alone, the broad banks covered in fine pebbles and grass or enormous stone plates over which could slide into the water with ease.

They decided to set up base under a swaying willow-tree and Madara took off the horses’ saddles and bits first.

Tobirama wearing short greyish trousers and a baggy crème short-sleeved shirt, so she only took off her sandals and tested the water with her toes. Under the searing sun, it was blissfully cool.

“Are you going to swim wearing your normal cloths?” Madara asked and Tobirama turned to watch him already discarding his shirt on their bags. She tried not to look too intently, but the stretch of his spine and the shifting of his mustles while he took a sip from his water pouch was interesting enough to have her distracted for a second to long.

He raised a brow and Tobirama cleared her throat. “There is no shade over the water. I would burn very fast. Keeping on a shirt is my best option and this material does not soak up enough water to become heavy.” She waved towards their bags. “I got clothing to change into for later, too.”

Madara shrugged and got rid of his trousers, but kept his underpants same as last time.

Tobirama, in the meantime, eyed a branch of the willow tree that extended for over the water’s surface.

“Watch.”

She smirked, caught Madara’s eye and pulled herself up onto it and climb up the trunk even higher and balanced atop the branch.

With practiced ease she jumped, somersaulted once and dove into the water, eyes wide open and swam deep. Tobirama went along the ground slowly to look at the pretty stones and soft underwater moss.

Once she emerged, she had made it a decent way into the lake already and saw Madara atop of Amaterasu once more.

The horses went into the water, but Tobirama had already turned and started swimming so only the sounds of crashing waves and soft ripples reached her eventually.

She reached the other bank and waited till Madara caught up. She held onto Omoi’s mane and they swam in a circle along the bank, rousing ducks and deer.

Back at their bags, Madara bound the horses to a tree to graze and they went in again.

They tested who could dive for the longest, they searched for the most beautiful stones and got atop a group of boulders near the coast to try some more advanced jumps, flipping and turning.

Eventually they climbed the cliff with its cascading waterfalls too and deemed them save enough to slide down, which turned out more chaotic but fun.

Once the major sun hit midday, they went back and settled under the willow in its shifting shade.

Tobirama had packed several packages, but Madara came prepared too, with bamboo-boxes full of food. He showed her lamb and vegetable curry and rice, soft Ripdip-bread with Kodo-nuts and Chudiori-berries, pheasant in a hot chilli marinade, rice cakes filled with a sweet nutty mousse called chocolate, sweets and treats she had never seen.

 

Right as she had taken a new bit, Madara asked her, “Do you go swimming here often?”, and she had to finish chewing before she could open her mouth.

“I have been here only twice. Once the weather turned and my brothers and I got soaked to the bones, the travels here and back again took us four days and all of us got sick.” Madara huffed and she could honestly only agree with the sentiment.

“During summer, we go either in the lake closer to the village or in one of the bigger rivers. Out of my brothers, I enjoy swimming the most.”

She tried the rice dish he had brought and there were spices she had never tasted in her life before. “We had competitions too. Who could swim to the other side the fastest, who would dare jump from that big boulder on the other side, who could dive the longest.”

Madara smirked and his eyes gleamed. “I bet you won all of them.”

“Naturally.” She smirked in response. “Only close second is my cousin Toka…”

 

They eventually lay back on top of a soft woollen blanket and Tobirama got covered by Madara’s spread-out overcoat to protect her bare arms from more sun exposure. It smelled like Madara, leather and horse, expensive soap and that exotic beverage he called coffee.

They each were hanging after their own thoughts.

Tobirama did only realise that she had fallen asleep once she woke up again and found Madara eyes closed and breathing evenly next to her.

He looked softer and relaxed, vulnerable in a way she knew he was not. The sun had shifted, not yet shining upon them but closer.
Tobirama could not remember a night ever since her mother passed in which she hadn’t fallen asleep last. She could only ever fully rest once her brothers were sleeping and safe. And yet, she had fallen asleep in Madara’s presence with ease.

His face was the first she would call attractive. At first, she had thought, it was because his features were so different to those around her. Aside from Itama and her, Senjus were all earth toned, brown skin, brown eyes, brown hair, and Madara was none of these.

“You are staring again.” He said, eye lids apparently closed, but as she looked closer, she could see his watchful gaze underneath his lashes.

“You look very different to everyone in my family.”

“Do they all look like you?” He opened his eyes fully now, looking at her.

“No, they say I was born old. White hair, bad eyesight, ill-looking skin. It’s very impractical.” She raised her arm and showed him the first sliver of sunburnt skin on her wrist where she had not been covered by the coat.

Madara rolled to the side to face her and frowned. “Your eyesight is bad?”

“Things in the distance are blurry, but more annoying is how extremely sensitive my eyes are to light.”

“You idiot, you should be wearing glasses.” He actually looked concerned. “Or a hat at the very least.”

“I adapted well enough, glasses would be a waste of Alnas.”

“You’re insufferable.” But there was no bit to his words.

“Strange, yet you come back to meet me anyway.”

Maybe it was the sun that now shone into his face, but his cheeks turned red and he kept looking at her. When he eventually turned his head Tobirama’s cheeks felt hot too.

Then Amaterasu shrieked and kicked after Omoi with her ears flat to her head and Madara whistled sharply. Tobirama sat up and they watched the horses calm.

“Amaterasu is difficult to handle.” Tobirama remarked and stared at the way her ears twitched aggressively.

“I would be disappointed if she wasn’t.” He sounded fond, like someone talking about their annoying younger sibling. “Yet, she is more behaved then my brother’s hellhound in disguise. That stallion is a walking death-trap.”

“Is he able to control him?”

“Izuna is one of the best riders in all of the lands. He manages fine. He chose Raijin because father said he shouldn’t.” And Madara actually looked very pleased. “Spite is a strong motivator.”

Tobirama was caught on another thing he had said. “Your parents must have a serious fixation with the royal family.”

Izuna was the name of the King’s youngest son and Madara was the name of the King’s heir. She knew some people were following their every move, some had a somewhat obsessive worship for them. She herself had no illusions of ever having any knowledge about them be relevant.

Madara stopped abruptly and stared at her, clearly thinking about something. Maybe it was a split second decision, maybe he had sort of waited for the ideal moment.

“Tobirama.” He had never spoken her name that way. “You don’t know.”

It was not a question and his tone had her frozen. She knew dread when she saw it and Madara tried very hard to keep a stern expression.

“What do I not know?”

“My name is Madara Uchiha.”

Madara mustered her with a tentative look, but Tobirama was unsure how to react anyway. So she only stared wide eyed and hoped he would signal her in any way how he wished for her to react.

Uchiha.

The royal name, the one name every child knew how to write even if they did never learn to write their own. The name of those descendant from Indra Uchiha and whose family had had the executive and legislative power over the people for more than five centuries.
She had never seen the royal family, not even pictures or sketches. Books and newspapers containing them were expensive and often rented out in the library. She never expected to come even close to the main city. She also did not think she would ever see any of them.

This was, essentially, like meeting a God.

And just as unlikely, she had thought.

At least it explained a lot of things about him.

Madara sat up and made sure to keep the eye contact and he actually reached out for her hand. Tobirama almost flinched when he took it and he hesitated, but she did not pull back or tell him off so he pressed her fingers softly.

“I like what we had. So please, no formals, no cushions, no obedience. If I had wanted any of those, well... we pay servants for that.” He obviously did not want to be discovered, he would be wearing Uchiha red or royal purple otherwise.

As she still didn’t say anything, a touch of hesitation had him sound like an entirely different person. “Does it make a difference to you?”

Slowly Tobirama shook her head. “I will do my best not to think of it.” But something else bothered her. “Why didn’t you tell me earlier? You surely must have noticed that I did not recognise you.”

He actually looked away from her face and onto their hands. “During our first meeting, I wanted to remain anonymous. From then on, it simply never mattered. I like you the way you are. You apparently liked me for myself too.”

And his cheeks turned rosy again. “I would have told you soon anyway. I did not want to deceive you after all.”

They stared at each other for another small while, until Madara asked. “Well, what do we do now?”

“Go for a final swim and head back before the sun sets.”

“Good.” And his smile was soft and grateful. “I’ll race you to the other side.”

And he hit the water before Tobirama had collected herself enough to jump up and follow.
Luckily, she was fast, both on land and in the water and she passed him in the middle of the lake and pulled ahead easily, arriving at the other bank a full-body length ahead of Madara. If she laughed at his scowl, no one else would know.

If she laughed even harder as he slipped on the mossy surface of one of the large stones and slid back into the water, she still wouldn’t tell anyone else.

 

“We should head back if you want to reach the city before the sun has set.” Tobirama searched through her bag, pulling out a fresh shirt and a pair of trousers.

Madara had not hesitated to get undressed or plunge only in underpants so Tobirama figured he did not care if she did the same. Her soaking trousers were of and a new pair on in no time.

She pulled of the shirt, wet and cold, and got out a small towel to wipe her hair and her chest to get some of the water out of her chest bindings.

“How did you get injured?” Madara sounded a bit shocked, so Tobirama turned towards him. He was looking at her bindings which looked very similar to medical bandages.

“No, it’s for my breasts.”

His eyes widened so much, she was afraid his eyeballs would fall out, he looked horrified. “Your what?”

Tobirama looked down at herself. “My breast. Woman have to bind them to-”

Had he really not- “You’re a girl…” Apparently not.

He inhaled loudly, eyes big and cheeks deep red, immediately averting his gaze from her and staring at the grass. “Oh lord, and your father doesn’t know that I’m meeting you?”

She snorted. “Do you think he would have allowed it?”

He shook his head. The closed his eyes and groaned, lifted his hands to rub his eyes. For a man of his statute to hide behind his still damp hair looked as weird as it should.

She should be embarrassed. And probably rethinking every single interaction they had because she clearly had missed something important. “Why did you think I was a boy?”

He waved vaguely in the air between them, still not looking at her. “You are always wearing men’s cloths and your hair is so short. And Tobirama… it just sounded like a boy’s name.”

He was gentleman enough not to mention her scraggy figure. Tobirama stared at her bindings and pulled out her fresh shirt to pull it over her head. She was thin in general and had hardly any curves and her breast were so small, they barely showed through any shirt, especially when bound. It never bothered her, in fact, it meant very few unwanted advances by lusty men.

“I’m wearing hand-downs from my brothers, new clothing would be a waste of material.” She finger-combed her hair, especially out of her face. “My hair was long until Kawarama stuck burdock in it and I had no patience to brush it out for hours so I cut them. You will have to ask my father why he choose my name.”

But Madara’s eyes were somewhere entirely else, probably watching the grass grow. This is going really awful, Tobirama thought and dreaded that this seemed to be a significant overlook for him.

More than anything, she wanted to read his thoughts right now. The very real possibility that he did not want to meet her again after this was only topped by the thought that he could see her with different eyes, dismiss her as the girl without a choice that she was. Tobirama realised that she had gotten too used to this unlikely friendship of theirs that eventually had to fail.

He did not even say anything in acknowledgement to her explanation.

Instead, he had another small crisis. “Lord, and we are alone. Does your village even allow mixed-gender swimming?”

Even a stern look did not reach him in his antics. “Stop, its fine.”

“I mean, I would never…” And then he freezes and stares at her. It is the very sudden shift in his demeanour that has goosebumps erupting on her back and not because she enjoys the look he is throwing her.

His voice is deeper, more controlled, probably to hide… anger? Worry? She truly is not sure. “Tobirama, will your father allow you to go to university?” Ah, that he had realised now too.

“Most likely not, he’d rather marry me off to one of my uncles then lose a valuable worker.”

And she had never thought to see that amount of rage on his face break the mask he had so carefully crafted before. “I’ll skin him if he tries.” His eyes were cold enough for her to believe it. “You think I can talk him into allowing you in?”

Fabulous. Exactly what she wanted.
“How nice of you. Honestly, I’d rather choose for myself than have someone fend for me.” That was something very distinctly not possible and she knew it. It did not change her feeling of bitterness towards the unfairness.

Madara laughed, but it did not sound amused. “I’m being honest, I refuse to let you rot anywhere beneath your worth.”

“Do you think there is much of a choice? It’ll always be what men decide for me. Now my father, someday some husband. It is positively crippling and utterly humiliating, but realistically, there is very little I can do but endure. Legally, I cannot even buy a loaf of bread on the market.”

Even if it was him. Even if it was someone she trusted to speak for her, she would never not hate the way it made her feel like property.

She took a deep breath. “At my age, my mother was taken out of school, married and expected her first child with a man almost twice her age, do you think that was her choice? Certainly would not have been mine. If there is one thing I despise it is being spoken for and how unlucky for me to have been born a woman.” Tobirama was self-aware enough to step back and realise she was mentally spiralling herself into an angry rant and she needed to control herself.

His expression turned dark and it chilled her to her core. Then he strode to his bag and started throwing out things.

It was doing a piss poor job at calming her. “What are you doing?”

“We’re sketching a decree.”

What.

“What?”

At that he threw her a quick serious look and finally pulled out a piece of paper. “I have no problem to admit that I will see this through for you.” He found a pen and almost ripped its cap off in his rage. “If it takes a change of the law for you to go to university… to buy a goddamn fucking piece of bread, by the moons, I’ll better start right now.”

Tobirama stared.

For the second time since she met him she was lost for words and it took a moment for them to come back. “You would change the law for me?”

“I pretty sure I will never again walk along the street and watch small eager girls taking in the world and not see you in each of them.” He huffed and shook his head to move his hair out of his eyes. “We’re setting things right that should not have been wrong. I never thought our country could be missing out by keeping woman at home, but look at you…”

He waved at her and his expression turned pained. “You are brilliant and that will mean nothing if I fail in setting you free. I could not live with myself knowing I like you just the way you turned out to be and not... the thought of you as nothing more than a subdued housewife is repulsive.”

Tobirama still stared stunned into silence and Madara, hair impossibly wild and tangled, still slightly damp and an expression of fierce determination fully turned towards her. “I simply have never been confronted with the extent of my own privileged upbringing and it is humbling, but right now I am fucking grateful, because it means I have the very real possibility to give you a free choice.”

Then he sighed, pressed the heel of his hand to his eyes. “I’m thinking… rethinking everything honestly. Just… this is something so…”

It fell silent for a moment, a duck quacked somewhere in the distance and it gave Tobirama the time to sort her thoughts.

Not that her brain was doing a very good job at it. Aside from all the reasons something like what he had planned had a very slim chance of success, she had to calm the flustering feeling. He was obviously very serious about this. For her. And there she had to stop the train of thought and mentally recalibrate to stick to the more relevant topic, because otherwise it would take her down the line of why Madara could possibly consider her important enough to start a row with the King’s council.

“It is a delicate topic. Change, especially anything similar to gender equality, is not brought along easily. And if you are… earnest in your interest you should expect this process to take more than a year and meet sever hostility.” That was still very optimistic, Tobirama thought. This would take a while to plan, to negotiate, to pass and to be established, longer than she had for this year’s university admissions.

Which was utterly, completely fine… if it worked at all.

“Help me then.” He looked positively desperate, gritting his teeth, but a fire in his eyes that showed how serious he was taking this.

She walked towards him and took the pencil and paper, the rested them against the mostly smooth bark of the willow tree. “Kusa has had five years of gender equality and its model is running exceptionally well.”

Madara nodded. “They are way ahead of us with their economic gain too.”

She simply could not keep in her remark. “Yeah, well, maybe the economy benefits when a country does not chain half of its mental capacity to a stove.”

His pencil was weird and nothing like she had ever written with. It ran with ink instead of coal and her writing was a scribble so bad, it had not looked like this ever since she had learned to write. “I advise we review the laws they implemented and if they are decent, yours can be heavily based on them.”

“I’ll need empirical backup to support my preposition in front of the council.”

“The numbers of paper coming to the conclusion that there is no significant difference in the female and male brain and still support subcategorization is honestly offending. Not so surprising as all of those authors a men.” She wrote down two papers that come to her mind right away. “Nonetheless you can use most of their findings.”

“We should meet at the university’s library to-” Then he flustered and flailed a little. “I was not… It would not have… If want to meet me in private that is…”

She cut him off. “I could ask Hashirama when his next trip to the city is planned. Father may let me accompany him and we could look into this together.” She looked at him pointedly. “Alone.”

Madara visibly gulped. “I swear, I will not…”

“Stop it, I trust you and should anyone try anything, I’ll hit them square across the face.” He huffed out a laugh, but his shoulders relaxed.

“Good. If they don’t raise their sons to keep their hands to themselves, we should teach our daughters to throw a good punch.” And the flutter in her heart was not just imagination, so she duck her head closer to the paper and wrote more to keep the bubbling joy and weird swirls right in her stomach from showing on her face.

“It’s weird.”

He did not elaborate, even after several moments he did not say anything else, so Tobirama threw him a side glance. “What is?”

“I’ve never really talked to a woman. Before you obviously. I don’t even know that many women. Aside from my sisters and some of the servants only a handful of wives of some of the council’s men.” He shook his head. “None of them are really interest in anything aside from their looks and children.”

She had actually forgot about the weird feeling of worthlessness she often felt when the village’s men talked. Not even necessarily about her, but any objectionable comment, every degrading remark, the looks and whistling, it hurt. “The one who desiccates the land cannot expect it to bare him fruits.”

Madara stared at her and blinked. “To put it more blunt, if interest is shunned at a young age, there won’t be any at an older age. Most girls you are referring to probably are discouraged from learning aside from what others deem acceptable for a lady. And you now judge their older selves for lack of interest as if it is something they chose for themselves.”

“Oh…” He actually sounded surprised.

“It baffles me that something as obvious as this hasn’t come to your mind till now. What about your sisters?”

“They were mostly kept apart from my brothers and I...”

“What will you do if you sire daughters? Will you raise them to be bed warmers and trophy wives too?” It was provoking and she knew, but did not feel like holding back.

He shook his head, already losing colour. “No, my sisters upbringing was really different, I just never realised that something about that might be wrong.”

“It is very much like a taught helplessness. You know, if your sisters did not know their husbands and were not willed to marry them, the difference between a marriage consummation and rape lies in your father’s consent.” Madara was not at fault for her bitterness and she should have definitely not been as cold as she was. These were no thoughts anyone wanted to have about their siblings. “A truly misogynistic ideal.”

His face lost all its colour and gritted his teeth. “I swear that we will end this.”

“Don’t make promises you most likely can’t keep.” She waved her hand, it had started to hurt with the awkward writing position and the pen she was not used to.

“Centuries of tradition have taught you what to believe and not to question its validity. My father loved my mother and he still never listened to her needs if they contradicted his own wishes. This is what we were told was the truth and that we should not stray from it. You may be heir to the throne, but the King’s council is male and will not approve a change without a strong case and convincing submittal.”

His fingers at her shoulder were so sudden, she actually flinched and Madara pulled back and apologised profusely. But then she held his gaze and he looked so steady and sure. “I promise.”

When he lifted his hand this time, his eyes were asking and Tobirama found herself nodding. He took her hand and gently pulled her back onto the coat. “Now sit down and let’s make a list of requirements. As far as I remember, Kusa implemented the laws in steps, set apart a couple of weeks…”

And they talked and wrote and argued and the sun sunk lower.

They eventually dragged each other away from the piece of paper and agreed to continue after Madara had a chance to raid the royal archives the same night, a building he described as Tobirama’s dream within four walls.

They packed their bags in silence, but then Madara broke it. “Do you want to learn how to saddle a horse?”

She did and Madara showed her, the soft padding underneath and how to position, what to pull and where to secure and bind. It wasn’t that hard, but it broke the tense atmosphere and they were back to something less serious without even realising.

She sat atop Omoi soon enough while Madara still bound a bag and mounted too, then they were on their way. Madara spurted the horses on faster than before, probably because the sun would be setting soon and they wanted to be close to the village before it got dark.

Tobirama got into a really detailed retelling of how she tested her newly developed glue and insulation pastes for the water pipes and all the possible uses of shellack, her village formerly only used to prepare wood to take to a paint finish better.

Madara talked more freely about the agreements on shared railway-lines and product exchange with the main city of Kesseki, which he was sitting through hours of discussions and rewritings for.

They reached the plains and let the horses race over them once more. The pause in their conversation had Tobirama thinking in circles.

Right as they breached the edge of the birch tree forest, she made a decision that had very really potential to blow up in her face. “Can you help me fill in the application forms?”

Even in the half shadows of the forest’s leafs did she see the surprise and joy in his expression. He did not even hesitate, and Tobirama would have noticed, because she was watching him. “Do you have them with you?”

“No, they are at home.” They were getting close to the orchard now. “I could sneak in and retrieve them.”

“Good. I can take them to the city and have them sent in right away.” He spurted the horses on more.

“Do you think they will refuse them outright if it carries my signature instead of my fathers?” Her signature was invalid. It would be extremely risky, but she was feeling reckless and rambunctious. There was no way she would be successful, but right now it was about the satisfaction of having tried.

“They will assume you’re a boy and leave it at that. Should you be chosen for the interviews…” His expression wavered. “We’ll come up with something then.”

 

Madara and the horses waited at the orchard while Tobirama hurried home.

One of the windows in the back was open and by stepping on top of a set of pots filled with herbs, she was able to climb through and sneak her way into the kitchen.

Father and Kawarama were out, helping with the preparation of the hay storage and Itama was supposed to be feeding the pigs, but as she had worried, Hashirama sat atop their shared mattress and was reading one of mother’s old books.

He almost threw it away in his excitement. “Tobi, how was it?”

“Hashirama, I’m sorry.” Tobirama hurried right past him. “I’ll tell you later, but I need to head out again.” She opened her box and moved some of her books to reveal the letter.

She could feel his face falling even without seeing it. “It’s getting dark, where are you going?” He gasped when he realised. “Oh, you’re meeting him again.”

“Yes.” She was at the door, but Hashirama at her heel, so she turned and stared at him. When Tobirama was still too young to withstand father’s hostility whenever baby Itama cried or toddler Kawarama threw his food, Hashirama took the full force of his punishment alone.

And till this day, he was still so fiercely protective off them. The way he looked at her… she was sure she looked at their younger brothers with the same expression, which was why she lifted her hand to the nape of his neck. “I need to hurry, if I tell you to come along, will you keep your mouth closed and accept answers later?”

His eager nod did not make her feel any better.

Together, they left through the back door and silently made their way along the gardens without being seen into the forest.

Tobirama led the way. Orange and red mingled atop the tree crowns and drew long shadows already.

Madara stood by the horses, arms crossed and looking at them as they approached. His gaze shifted from her to her brother and back, he raised a single inquiring eyebrow.

“Hashirama was home and promised to be quite if I took him along.”

Madara nodded, meeting her brother’s gaze head on. There was a single second Tobirama was sure they would steep as low as having a stare off, but then Madara inclined his head in a nod. “Good evening, I’ve heard plenty about you.”

Hashirama sounded way too cheerful. “And I nothing about you.”

Madara didn’t even bat an eye. “Tobirama brought some of your dishes, they were good.”

That startled Hashirama. “Really? Which one did you like best? … the buns, right? You look like a bun guy.”

“They were good.” Then Madara settled his gaze on Tobirama and almost smiled. “We should get started, I really don’t want to get back too late.”

“We need to find a flat surface.”

Madara turned and grabbed something out of Amaterasu’s saddle-bag which was one of the bigger bamboo boxes.

Tobirama nodded. “That’ll do.”

She motioned him to follow and went to the fallen tree trunk to sit down. Madara handed her the box and set down next to her.

Hashirama tagged along like a third wheel and was more focused on staring at the horses than following what they were doing.

Tobirama pulled out the first paper and Madara took the letter envelope so she could write more easily.

He handed her a pen, but she shook her head. “Can you write for me? I’m not used to this pen.”

He took the things without hesitation and Tobirama provided the information and Madara filled them in. Tobirama handed him the next paper and held the first to let the ink dry.

They worked flawless like this.

Tobirama dictating her answers and Madara with his pretty and neat handwriting bringing it to paper while the sun was setting. They definitely had to finish before it became too dark.

During the last form, Hashirama came closer and disrupted. “I hope these aren’t marriage certificates. Father would hang you if you eloped.”

Tobirama froze and to her relief Madara snorted, but finished his sentence before he looked up. “Believe me, my father would bring a fate worse than death if I eloped with anyone.”

Knowing who he was, Tobirama believed that in an instant. Hashirama, who did not know, seemed impressed anyway. “Well, you must have quite a bit of Alnas if you have two horses.”

“Hashirama.” Tobirama said. “You promised to be quite.”

“I’m holding back. There is a lot I would like to ask, but-”

“Hold back some more then. Today is not the time and we need to concentrate.”

Hashirama pouted and Madara pitched in. “You can go and touch the brown horse if you want. The other is a difficult so stay away from her.”

That Hashirama did. She felt bad for treating him unkindly in her impatience.

Madara interrupted her thoughts. “You sign at the bottom, we will deal with the consequences later.”

She took the paper, box and pen and wrote her name were it was supposed to go.

She watched the ink dry and stared at the letters. “Do you really believe I have a chance?”

“I would not have wasted my time writing all this otherwise.” He took the pen and sealed it, took the paper and put it in the letter case with the others. “I’ll sent them by courier first thing tomorrow morning.”

He stood up and looked towards Hashirama who lingered by Omoi.

“Thank you.” Tobirama stood too, but looked at Madara.

The sun had nearly disappeared behind the mountain tops and coloured half of the clearing in orange light and some of it caught in her hair, of that she was sure.

Madara’s face was emblazed, drenching his hair in soft colours and highlighting his glistering eyes with warm reflections that underlined the warmth of his gaze as it finally shifted back to meet hers. Something in Tobirama wanted to move towards him, make sure his eyes stayed on her.

It warmed her chest, made her stomach churn and tumble and had her gaze locked with his.

For all the excitement and her heart beating double its usual rate, she could not interpret the look in Madara’s eyes. It was soft, softer than she had ever seen it and unwavering.

Just as Madara made a step towards her, the moment was broken by a shriek and Hashirama’s panicked call for help.

Tobirama turned away first, staring at her brother, who had jumped back from the horses and Amaterasu’s flattened ears and aggressive stumping with her hind legs.

Madara murmured. “We should safe your oaf of a brother before she eats him alive.”

 

Hashirama recovered from his shock as quick as he did with most setbacks in life.

Still sitting and weaving his fingers through short strands of grass did Hashirama look up to them and ask. “So, what’s your name?”

“Madara.”

“You look old.”

At that Madara scolded. “If 18 is old then we have a problem.”

“Ooooh, you’re as old as me. Do I also have eye bags?”

“Hashirama!” Tobirama levelled him with such a stern look, he deflated. “Please, you’re being rude.”

“I should leave. The way to the city is still long.” Madara said and Tobirama nodded in agreement. Madara got to work with fastening the saddles and sorting out her things Tobirama turned to Hashirama, reached out a hand which he took and she helped him up. There were leafs stuck in his clothing and together they brushed them off.

“Thanks.” Hashirama’s smile was so contagious, she replied with a small one of her own.

His sudden frown made her worried however. “Are you hurt? Did you get kicked?”

“Ah, no.” He leaned closer. “Who exactly is he?”

Tobirama hated lying to her brothers, especially Hashirama. “Hashi, I’m sorry, I’m not sure whether I can tell you.”

“Why?” His eyes narrowed. “I swear, I’ve seen his face somewhere.”

 

Hashirama and Tobirama took Madara back to the road and as he mounted Amaterasu, her brother kept throwing her glances.

“So, do you want to meet at the university’s library?” Madara asked and Tobirama nodded.

She looked to Hashirama who was watching her still. “When do you go to the market next?”

“Tomorrow.”

“Could I come along?” The look he send her was so hesitant, but he gave in eventually.

“I’ll ask father. We’ll tell him Mito wanted help with the plans for wedding.”

At least the smile she send him had his mood lightening visibly. “Thank you.”

“How early can you make it?” Madara asked.

“We set up the stand at the market before dawn.”

“At the town hall at dawn then.”

And with swift goodbyes they parted.

Chapter Text

That night, Tobirama laid awake.

Nervous excitement on top of her restless mind had her eyes roaming the ceiling and mapping over the shifting shadows of leafs.

There was an array of thoughts in her mind running a havoc and most prominent among them the reoccurring images of Madara.

At first, it had had her stomach tighten in irritation with how much time she spend thinking about him. There were certainly more productive things to use her concentration on.

No matter how many scenes replayed themselves in front of her inner eye, it always came back to the moment he promised her something she deemed close to impossible and a distinct fluttering joy accompanied by it. Every time her memory recalled the sensation of his fingers on her hand Tobirama noticed with interest how her heart sped up and her skin tingled under the phantom touch.

Sometimes her thoughts were as nonsensical as wondering about the texture of his hair or the feeling of the bumps of his spine underneath her fingers.

Sometimes they were more private too and that had been a weird experience to have.

Tobirama had certainly known what adulthood entailed and that puberty in general brought along a curiosity in sexual intimacy. What she had not known was that she herself was capable of such mindlessness too.

Never before had Tobirama found herself sitting somewhere and suddenly imagining another’s roaming hands on her skin, over her nape and down her back, onto her sides and splayed fingers on her stomach and venturing downwards.

There had never been the time or the desire to inquire into anything related to it aside from reading books on the matter for the scientific value they held. So when she remembered Madara’s heated gaze (from an entirely different context) and the stretch of his back, the movement of his shoulders and the tightening of his abdominal muscles, she had to stop her overly imaginative mind.

Hashirama was more aligned with emotional matters and definitely more versed in social habits so she had earnestly considered asking him for advice, but deep down she already knew what it meant.

She was not delusional.

But certainly worried about the implications.

Every scenario she considered turned sour eventually. From a social standpoint, the difference between herself and a noble man was stark, something that was not easily crossed, but a farmer’s daughter to the heir of the throne was even worse.

Those were two standings completely incomparable.

 

She eventually sat up and untangled herself out of Kawarama’s embrace and Hashirama’s hair. A wool jacket laid close by and Tobirama wrapped it around herself and opened her box to take a book and was about to leave.

“Tobi?” Hashirama had turned towards her. He blinked his sleepiness away and sat up. His whisper was more a mumble. “Where’re you going?”

“The kitchen. I can’t sleep.” She hesitated, but then stepped closer to crouch and sort strands of his hair out of his face. “You should rest, it’s still early.”

“No.” He looked around, still slow in his movement. “I’ll keep you company.” He found his discarded socks and pulled them on.

Tobirama rose as Hashirama scrambled with the blanket. “Do you want tea?”

He groaned and pulled trousers from somewhere. “Something strong.”

Tobirama smirked and teased. “My special blend then.”

“Ugh, but leave out the fennel.” Fennel had Hashirama gag no matter the beverage and they found that out in a rather unfortunate way. Since that event, Tobirama had to drink her personal tea mixture without it.

She had already fanned the fire, set up the kettle and gotten the herbs as Hashirama slouched into the kitchen and dropped at the kitchen table like a very long pouch of water. It had Tobirama worried.

She fully turned to Hashirama to palm his forehead. “How are you feeling?”

“Tired.”

“You look a little pale. Are you eating enough?” Hashirama had lost weight throughout the duration of the mushroom poisoning, he had barely kept any food down for two days. She had seen him need normal amounts, but maybe he needed to make up for the loss with a small abundance. Now, he only shrugged and closed his eyes.

“Tobi?”

“Mhm?”

“Why can’t you tell me who he is?”

His persistence was admirable, but she often wished it would not be used against her and the few secrets she kept. “He wants to remain anonymous.”

Hashirama frowned. “He really doesn’t look like a thief, but… if I’ve see him on one of these `wanted´ signs in the city-”

Tobirama’s amused snort disrupted him. “Believe me, he is as far from a thief as one can get.” She turned to the simmering water. “But I’ll ask him today and if he agrees, I’ll tell you.” Tobirama took the kettle from the flame and stirred in the leafs.

She looked for Hashirama’s favourite mug, one which he had crafted himself with clay and a modelled tiny clay worm circling around into a handle. It was a bit topsy-turvy and an uneven beige colour, but as Tobirama placed it in front of him, he lit up with a smile. “Thank you.”

“I’ll get you something to eat.”

He merely nodded and stirred an abnormal amount of syrup into his tea. Tobirama got him leftovers from the night before out of their cooling chamber, pork with rice and vegetable stir-fry. She finally sat down and Hashirama started picking apart the meat.

“Thank you.” Tobirama said and Hashirama looked up, a bit surprised and curious.

“What for?”

She listened into the silence, but there was no noise coming from her father’s room or theirs.

“For keeping my secret and making yourself an accomplice. It is unfair of me to put you in danger like this.”

“Didn’t I encourage you to see him again at first?”

“You did, but I took the risk, so I shall be the one to face the fall.” She would bear the consequences and would lie through her gritted teeth to keep him out of the mess.

His hand moved over the table and encircled hers. “If this comes out, I will not let him shun you from the village.”

“Let’s hope he is too caught up with his drinking, then.”

Then he smiled sheepishly. “I just wish I knew more.”

“Nosy.” She huffed amused and he deflated. “But fine, what do you want to know?”

“Who is he?”

“Hashi.”

“Fine, what do you… do together?”

“A lot of talking. About a lot of different things.” She focused on her fingers wrapped around the heated mug. “I can talk to him about my innovations. It is nice to speak to someone knowledgeable enough to follow along.”

At that Hashirama snickered. “Either he likes you a lot or you found someone as quirky as you.”

Tobirama’s mouth pulled itself into a scowl. “I’m not quirky. Do you even know what that means?”

But he stuffed his mouth full of rice and waved at her to continue talking.

“We went swimming.” At that Hashirama nearly choked, opened his mouth despite the amount of food filling in his cheeks, probably to protest, but she pointedly kept him silent. “We kept on our cloths.”

He didn’t really look convinced, but swallowed down his food at least. Tobirama sighed and added. “You know, until yesterday he thought I was a boy.”

Hashirama looked dumb smacked and then he erupted into laughter so loud that Tobirama had to slam her hand over his mouth to keep him from waking the entire village.

 

Hashirama had shifted again and strands of his hair tickled Tobirama’s neck. The city was crowded and it had her on edge, so they leaned against a metal fence right by the town hall’s garden.

“Is it always this busy?”

The sun was about to rise and the last two of the lesser moons still hung onto the sky, but people and horses, cattle and carriages were walking along the cobbled main road underneath tall birch trees and warm lanterns. Where normally, she had wide trousers and baggy shirts in out washed, earthy colours, she had put on one of her few skirts, long and lightblue, and a white, long-sleeved blouse.

Hashirama hummed in affirmation. “It’s main market day. Plenty of farmers come to sell their goods.”

Tobirama nodded slowly, but was more concentrated on scanning the people that passed them. The level of noise was nothing she was used to and while her tolerance for all sorts of discomfort was high, it was not in her interest to be in it for long.

Madara came out of the shadows as she had expected, his dark blue cloak with a cape kept his face hidden and even the light of the lanterns did not reveal it.

Despite, Tobirama recognised him instantly.

There was a fluidity in his steps she had never seen in anyone else, a rigidness in his spine that had the crowd swerve out of his path. He moved towards them too and only lifted his cape as he stepped close and into the shadow.

Then he looked at them, indifference masked over his expression, but the darkness of his eyes sparkled in excited impatience. “Good morning.”

She wanted to say something, but Hashirama pitched in first.

“One thing and then I’ll leave.” Tobirama fixed him with such a stern glare, it surely burned into his cheek. “You seem like a man with a reputation to protect and I trust in Tobirama’s judgement, but if you do anything to her, I know a very effective, unnoticeable poison to cause a lot of pain. I’ll find you eventually.”

She had expected it, of course, but nonetheless Tobirama had to hold back a groan. Hashirama did not know what he was doing, but that did not deter from the severity, to threaten the royal family was considered a felony.

Madara stood and waited with an air of impatience surrounding him, a glint of amusement laid in the twitch of his jar, but it might have been imagination too. “I have no intention of doing anything I wouldn’t want anyone to do to my siblings too.”

His eyes kept roaming the crowd, but the way he smirked and caught her gaze for a split second now and again, assured her, he was somehow enjoying this.

Miraculously, Hashirama seemed satisfied enough to relax his shoulders and grin. “Good. So, you’ll be taking her to the university’s library,” Tobirama would bet all her belongings on the fact that he was wondering how anyone could not loath a place like that, “so have fun with that.”

Tobirama caught Madara’s eye and hoped it conveyed the silent apology. “I’m sure we will. There are a couple of papers we wanted to look at.”

Hashirama merely mustered him and then sighed. “Ah, next time you come we should skip some stones or twist sticks. If you truly enjoyed them, I can make more buns too.”

Now, for a split second, Madara looked confused, but Hashirama already averted his eyes to look at Tobirama. “See you before dark at our stand, don’t be late.” And then he turned and melted into the crowd.

They stayed and watched till his head was no longer visible and only then did Tobirama muster Madara’s face. It was a hard-to-read concoction of interest and something else.

They noticeably softened as they fell on her and it had a nice warmth spread up Tobirama’s neck.

“Hello.” He looked as tired as she felt. Nonetheless, his eyes were glistening and expressive in their watch.

“Hello.” She felt a smirk tuck at the side of her mouth. “Rough night?”

The groan he made and the way he pinched the bridge of his nose spelled it out for her.

“Did you have a chance to look into the royal archives?” He nodded, rolling his right shoulder as if it was stiff.

“I did and it proved futile.” He left his eyes shift as if looking for someone, but didn’t halt. “Took me the better half of the night until I felt accomplished, the organisation here is abominable. I was close to sending a messenger pigeon requesting Izuna to look into our main archive, but father would’ve found out. Did you have a decent rest at least?”

She could definitely not tell him about the topic or extent of her mental pondering, but shook her head anyway. “Plenty to think about and then Hashirama kept asking me about you.”

Madara huffed. “Understandable. It would have concerned me more if he hadn’t had reservations.”

“He would be more docile if I told him who you are.” It sounded almost dry and Madara raised a single eyebrow at her, before he put on his hood again.

“Tell him then. Let’s see if he still wants to twist sticks with me afterwards.” Only now did he avert his gaze and waved for her to follow, which she did. “There are guards following us, so don’t be alarmed. They stay at a distance whenever I want to move undetected.”

Tobirama had an unnoticeable look around, but could not make out anyone suspicious. “You did not have guards in the mountains.”

“No, only within the city’s boundaries. It would drive me crazy to drag them along in the outskirts too.”

Now she definitely felt watched. “Aren’t they going to report to your father?”

“I only choose those that are loyal to me. They get a good deal for their silence too.”

“Scandalous.” Tobirama deadpanned and it had Madara bark out a laugh.

“Oh, if my father found out… I’m not actually sure what he would do first. Either call me back or force me to take you as a concubine.” Then it shifted into disgust. “Or take you for his own.”

If nothing else that had her feel unease immediately. To marry was to take a somewhat honourable position, to be chosen as a concubine was to fill in were a wife could not suffice and was a life lived even more caged. “I thought concubinage was a tradition unpractised by the Uchiha.”

“It is. My great grandfather was the last to take a concubine, but I have no doubt that my father would choose to revive it out of spite alone. His methods of punishment have always been creative.”

“I’d rather hang myself.” She said and as he watched her, he knew she meant it.

“I took a lot of care to assure none of my servants would spill. We should be fine.” Madara gave her a reassuring smile that should not have been so effective at calming her qualms as it was.

Her thoughts went back to her nightly contemplations, because surely, this expression of his would be a new addition to her collection of images to keep. Looking away to hide the rising heat in her face was probably not working well with how intently he was watching her for a reaction. She cleared her throat and motioned for him to lead the way. “Get going then. There is plenty to do.”

They moved at the edge of the street, never venturing into the crowd.

Along the main road, the houses were smaller, almost side to side with shops and bakeries, no fences but still more green than Tobirama remembered them having last time she went to the city. Plants were growing along the walls and flowers sat in small boxes on windowsills. Trees lining the streets and bushes and flowers poking through stone and iron fences from private gardens.

People were throwing them looks, now and again, gazes of mild curiosity that came either from her unusual looks or the overall image the two of them created.

They stuck out because of their height alone (Tobirama was only a head shorter than Madara and a last awaited growth had potential to stretch her another hand’s width), but because of their stark difference in clothing too.

“Do you walk through the city like this often?”

“Hardly. There is mostly no point in walking when I could ride too, but it draws more attention.”

Then Madara swerved to the left suddenly into a side road and Tobirama had to lengthen her steps to catch up again which he found weirdly amusing. Maybe it was the look she gave him for his abruptness.

Then he waved towards a big building at their right. “Now, this is one of several school buildings…”, and he told her about this school and that building and those statutes and several smaller market halls they passed and administrative buildings and the like.

Tobirama had been to the city a few times, usually bound to the market or on short trips to the public library. She had read about the city, but seeing for herself in good company was enjoyable.

From the small park they entered Tobirama could already make out the large building on the other side which Madara introduced to her as the university’s main building.

It was a building so big, she could have fitted nearly a third of her village in it and build out of white marble and plastered and painted in white, so many intricately carved details, Tobirama could have spent an hour staring at it and still wouldn’t have taken in all of them. Next to it was a narrow garden fenced by big, black metal and it parted the main building from the library.

He led her through the gate along a path sheltered by bushes and benches to enter through a side door.

This was also the first time his guards stepped close and moved alongside them through empty corridors up a gigantic staircase through a set of wooden doors into a barn-sized room with high shelves and to many books to estimate. It smelled of leather and slightly dusty, certainly a fragrance of comfort.

Vacated nooks in front of tall windows were filled with tables and wooden chairs, but the eerie silence baffled her. “Is it usually this calm in here?”

“I requested for the library to be closed so we could work in peace.”

Tobirama was unsure what to say to that, but Madara kept moving and she let her gaze linger on the first row of leather bound backs before following him to a big table at the back of the room. A window with a view to a garden set a strip of light across what was supposedly their working space and caught on speckles of dust floating in the air.

A ton of books and two stacks of papers were arranged and Madara dropped his coat on one of the chairs to bend over the pile.

“The librarian searched out everything that related to Kusa’s gender law.”

He skimmed through the first stack and took a few of the papers out and laid them to the side. At a closer look, they were in a language Tobirama could not read. “Is this the original version?”

“It is. We have translations of the texts, of course, but I’ll see through the original wording.” He slid over the rest of the stack he had just looked through and Tobirama found it to be in her language.

Tobirama had already taken the second stack and saw immediately that it was not directly related to Kusa’s law, but more general scientific research. And, what was most interesting, the schedule that marked the different phases of the implementation of the laws. It was stretched over the span of a year.

She put the paper down which she had been skimming and looked at Madara. “Your father will not support this, right?”

“There is a slim chance I can argue him into it.” He gritted his teeth. “I need to speak with Izuna, he can be more convincing.” The main difference to Kusa and certainly their biggest hurdle, would be that not the King himself would seek this change, but merely Madara as his heir.

“Fine, let us focus on getting through this first.” Tobirama rolled up her sleeves and dropped onto a chair.

She pulled over the translated transcript and began reading. It was a collection of fifty very detailed regulations separated into segments. Something Tobirama had assumed, but now discovered was that the vast abundance of the laws was more in support to protect the most important one.

Article one was straight forward and merely stated that women and men were to be seen as equal in all regards.

Article two to seven were definitions and clarifications on terms used throughout, but from then on it got weird.

It was, essentially, a mixture of criminal law and civil law that Tobirama found rather unusual. She was not knowledgeable enough to criticise the technicalities, but she asked Madara about it anyway. He explained that it was a common occurrence in Kusa’s system and that it would have to be implemented differently for their version, but was only of minor worry.

Important, and he stressed this more than once, was that their wording was waterproof and that the reasoning in his delivery was sound. Since their meeting, he had obviously spent a lot of his time thinking about the matter.

 

They spent so much time reading and pointing out relevant passages and scribbling down notes and setting up a plan that she did not even notice her stomach’s rumbling.

What she did notice were the goosebumps on the back of her arm forming as she felt Madara eyes on her. It had her look up and meet his gaze that immediately averted as he cleared his throat. “We should eat something. Do you have a preference?”

“Whatever we can get nearby is fine.”

“That was not my question.” A fine dust of redness was forming along his cheeks, even the dust particles reflecting in the sun could not hide it from her, but it took her a second longer than normal to think about his wording anyway.

“Fish, although I don’t get to eat it often.”

He nodded and rose. “I’ll have one of my guards talk to the kitchen.” He had already turned and started walking towards the main entrance.

“Madara.” At her call he turned and cocked his head in question. Tobirama stood to and stretched her back. “I’ll have a look around. You promised some interesting papers after all.”

He merely smirked. “The sciences are upstairs.”

“You shall find me there then.”

“I won’t be long. Don’t hide to well.” And with a smile he vanished behind a shelf.

Tobirama wandered off. Rows of shelves with plates that named the general field stood in this area and eventually she stumbled upon a spiral metal staircase which she climbed.

More shelves, more books and Tobirama found herself in the first aisles, running her fingers along the spines and picking interesting titles now and again to skim through.

 

Madara’s voice behind her back had shivers running up her spine. “You can lend as much as you want for a moon cycle or two.”

He stood close enough that she could smell his soap over the dusty smell of the library, but not too close to make her uncomfortable. She turned and looked up into his face. His eyes were on the selection of papers in her hand. “I could have them delivered to your doorstep if the load gets too heavy.”

“Father would notice. I can only take as many as I can hide.”

“Better choose well then.”

“I think I could pick only the most interesting reads and it would still take me a fortnight to finish all of them.”

She noticed a summary on Miko Sasakush’s theories on evolution and stretched but couldn’t quiet reach it with her arms full.

“May I help?” Only as she nodded, did Madara step into her personal space and the heat of his body radiated into her side and send shivers up her arm. “Which one?”

“The one with dark green leather binding.”

He was just that tad taller than her to get it into his grasp. “Thank you.”

“Aren’t all of these heavy?”

“Nothing I’m not used to.”

“Well, let me take some, it’d be easier to look for more that way.” It was a small throwback to their second meeting, the way she mustered him, but eventually handed over a couple of books.

That’s when Tobirama remembered. “I brought you something.” And it had her almost laugh as he frowned in surprise. “It is in my bag, remind me to give it to you.”

“…Sure.”

She went along the other rows too, but didn’t take more books. Her arms were hurting under the weight already and even though Madara followed her uncomplaining, he surely felt it in his arms too.

 

Back at their table, she sorted her picks and opened her bag. The piece of cloth, meant as a handkerchief, was folded and bound by hay-strings. Madara stilled as she handed it to him.

“I wove the fabric myself and stitched the embroidery.”

He took it with great care, pulled the strings and unfolded the cloth to look at its design.

The fabric itself was the darkest blue she had ever dyed any cloth and the stitching was that of a lesser kestrel, a hawk common in the dry and open hill-region of the main city, soaring over stylised fields and hills and plenty of deep accents of red like Merutsho-trees.

Tobirama did not know if Madara even owned a hawk of this breed or if the outskirts of the main city looked like this, but it was an educated guess she wanted to make.

He remained silent for a long while, but he touched the stitches carefully and felt along their edges and then met her gaze.

“You made this?”

Madara was impressed that much she could tell, so she only inclined her head as confirmation.

“You made this for me… in less than a week.”

It was not really a question, but Tobirama felt the need to answer. “Not entirely. The cloth I had weaved and dyed for a while and the outlines of the landscape I had already done, so after our meeting, I thought I could finish it and gift it to you as a thank-you. It’s not an appropriate repayment, but… there is very little I could offer aside from my time and these few delicate threats.” She felt her cheeks heating up. “I felt weird stitching before, but since I now know you probably have personal tailors I feel even-”

Madara didn’t let her finish her sentence. “I like it a lot.”

And the small spike of joy in her chest did entice a smile as he lifted his eyes and the darkness of them revealed a certain depth to his words.

“You said, your brother is the one interested in embroidery, not you? If he produces things better than this, someone should hire him for the King’s tailors.” He folded the cloth carefully and put it in one of his overcoat’s pockets.

He meant it more as a compliment for her skill and not as an offer, but she remarked anyway. “He’d have to leave for the main city then. That is far from home.”

“It is.” And there they stood looking at one another, again, even as Madara spoke again. “When all of this is through, what are your plans?”

“That heavily depends on the time it takes.” She let her gaze roam over to the window and along the line of bushes, but she felt Madara’s eyes on her still. “And the outcome.”

“What is your ideal outcome then?”

“Take a guess. Shouldn’t be too hard to find out.” Birds flew past, but she had already decided to muster him again and cock her head with a teasing smirk. “Although it is very unwise to dwell in dreams.”

Madara clicked his tongue irritated, but in the far back the heavy wooden doors opened with a alerting creak and they stilled. Two of Madara’s guards, men with maroon-brown hair and lowered gaze stepped around the corner.

“Place it here.” Madara said with a colder tone than Tobirama was used to and the men complied hastily, before they vanished again. Madara took a second, but then lifted the metal lid to reveal several dishes and plates, still steaming and filled with food.

Tobirama’s eyes nearly fell to the floor, because that surely was enough to feed a whole family. “How much did you order? Who is supposed to eat all of this?”

“I was not sure which fish you preferred so I asked them to prepare whichever ones they had received from the market.” He was already clearing space on the table. “We can use the extra nutrition, I’m sure the work will only get more exhausting after.”

“Thank you.” Tobirama said, but really was unsure how to feel about this abundance of food.

“It was not I who prepared it.” He ushered her to take a seat.

“It was you, who was considering enough to ask me what I like.”

“Of course.” At that he cleared his throat, some unusual expression of pleased embaressment on his face. “Eat already.”

She took form each dish and tried. Only then did Madara take some too and they chewed in silence.

It was her, who broke the silence in between bites. “This is nice.”

“The cook is good.”

At that she huffed. “I meant our meeting, but the food too.”

“Oh.”

“To be frank, I hate that it raises my hope that all of this works out. To sit and work like this,” She waves over their documents and scribbled-on papers, “Is more enjoyable than harvesting cucumbers.”

“Pff, you say that now. Have another five of these days in a row and you’ll itch to swing an axe into a fine piece of wood. There is a lot of pent-up energy.”

For whatever reason that had her laugh out loud. “You certainly do sport. There may be no callouses on your hands, but your demeanour is telling enough.”

“I wear gloves when my brother and I fence. And ride, obviously. Izuna is good.” And the way he grinned had shivers running up her arms that rested on the chair’s armrest in full display for Madara to witness her goosebumps. “But I am superior.”

“If you say so, it must be true.” Her dry delivery had him click his tongue in displeasure. Because he turned his head he did not see her smirk. “We should continue, time flies fast.”

 

During the late afternoon, Madara suddenly stood to open one of the windows and a gust of wind whisk several papers into the air and deeper into the room, which had Tobirama jumping into action.

They hurried to catch and Tobirama looked at the mess to sort the pages as something fell and only a firm hand on her lower back dragged her out of its trajectory.

“Who the fuck fastened these ladders? That would have knocked you unconscious.”

She was sure it would’ve, because the metallic crash of something heavy clattering to the ground and taking books with it was telling enough, but that was currently hidden behind her back and her head has too close to Madara’s chest to see anything but dark fabric and the gentle heaves of his breathing.

Madara distanced himself from her very fast and withdrew his hand with a low sorry, before he mustered the mess on the floor, but Tobirama needed another second.

Just because she was aware why this was getting to her more than any touch given by her brothers, didn’t mean she sympathised with the reasons. Mild annoyance at her burning cheeks and the lingering heat where Madara’s hand had touched her shirt were congesting her thought processes and slowing her reactions and that had to stop one way or another.

She seriously needed to sort out a satisfactory solutions, because as sudden as this headache inducing inner turmoil had started as swiftly it was turning into a problem and she did not want to offend Madara with her weird behaviour. At least it was a topic to ponder over when sleep abandoned her once more.

A small sigh and she turned to look at the jumble on the ground. “Did we catch all of the papers?”

Madara’s face twisted in distaste. “We’re surely not touching this clutter. I’m certain there was nothing underneath anyway.” Then he turned and for a second she saw him mustering the hand with which he had pulled her out of harm’s way, but then he disappeared around a corner and Tobirama only took another moment to check for any forgotten pages, but found none, before she also returned to their table.

Madara had closed the window and had started the sorting of their project anew, which went surprisingly fast and they were at work once more.

It had naturally fallen like this, Tobirama working her way through reviews and remarks and studies, while Madara was writing rather detailed strategies for single council members and schemes and things in a language she did not even recognise.

 

As the major sun vanished behind buildings and Madara called the guards to carry the books and papers he wanted to take home, Tobirama wondered where she was supposed to lend out her books, when nobody aside them was here.

“Where do I lend this?”

“Oh, just note down which ones you took and sign. No one will mind.”

Surely, her unimpressed stare conveyed how uninterested she was at actually doing that. “No one minds when you do it. I am only a farmer.”

“Fine, then let me note them down.” Madara grabbed a piece of paper and through her a pointed look, but noted the titles of her choose books down. Then set his name behind it and gave it to the one of the guards to lay it on the librarians desk. “Satisfied?”

“A bare minimum of decency can surely be expected of everyone.”

“How proper. Come on, I wouldn’t want to face your brother’s wrath for keeping you late.”

 

The way back to the town hall was less tedious than it had been that morning, fewer people were walking along the streets and less attention was paid.

The spot beneath the trees were they had met was no longer cast in shadows, but the stood there anyway and turned to one another.

“Will I see you in two days?” There was no harm in allowing a little hopefulness to slip into her voice.

The more disappointing was it to see Madara frown and then shake his head. He cursed under his breath. “I forgot to tell you this morning. Father requested I leave for Kesseki tomorrow.”

Kesseki’s main city’s infrastructure was a true masterpiece on its own. She had only read about the city carved into stone, but imagined it to be an incomparable sight. The structural integrity was supposed to be impeccable, even though large parts of it were apparently build vertical along the bare mountain slopes with gigantic water aqueducts and steam powered carriages on lines.

In fact, a pang of jealousy soared right in her stomach area. “So sudden?”

“He neglects to inform me till the last second often enough.” He seemed thoroughly displeased. “It is his worst habit to assume that everyone else can foretell his demands.”

“How long?”

If possible, his lips turned down even more and his eyes narrowed in distinct annoyance. “Seven days, the journey there is short, only half a day by train, but there is a horrendous amount of negotiations to be had.”

It was no matter to be so disappointed about and Tobirama made sure to smother the smallest hint of it before it could sprout. “Make sure to bring back yourself in one piece.”

Madara huffed, so she may not have hidden her sour look effectively. “Good to know that you’d care if I never showed up again.”

Her cheeks were running warm again. “I’d hate to see our extensive planning go to waste.”

The warmth of the sun was elevated by the soft ring of his laughter. “On the morning of the eighth, would you like to meet up? I’ll try to work out a sketch and I’ll need your opinion.”

“You need my help with proofreading more than my dictum.” And as he puffed up under her sarcastic remark, she laughed.

“My orthography is more than fine.”

“Well, fine is not good enough for our endeavour.”

“You-” He scowled and turned his head, a bit of red on his cheeks and two or three breaths later he shook his head. “Tobira, you truly deserve that name. You open the door to all of my worst and best habits.” He levelled her with a stare, Tobirama was not sure how to interpret. It certainly was not bad, it felt intimate somehow, despite their very public conversation.

“The last one to call me by that nickname was my mother.” Before her death, which was heavily implied.

“Oh… I’m sorry.” And she fully believed him.

“Don’t be. As you said yourself, a lot of time has passed.” A glance to the sky showed a slight hind of orange tinging the horizon, so she had to hurry. “It does not hurt like it used to. So call me by it if you like.”

“We shall see. Get going for now.”

“I’ll see you in a week.”

“At the orchard.”

And the entire way back to her village, Tobirama was so caught up in her mind, she did not notice Toka’s or Hashirama’s attempts at conversation.

 

“I see something that is blue.” Itama said and Kawarama looked around.

 

They were lying in the grass, leafs stuck in their hair and a bit further away from the celebrating adults. It was someone’s birthday, it was always someone’s birthday, but this was one of the elders and so there was a small fest with a big bonfire and plenty of food and wine.

Kawarama huffed. “The sky.”

“Nope.”

The singing and laughing always hurt Tobirama’s ears and Itama and Kawarama were trying to avoid father. So Tobirama sat on one of the fences and managed some mental recalibration despite the level of distraction. Most of them circled back to Madara.

“The flowers.” Their blue petals had started to wilt already.

“No.”

It certainly could not be normal. If everyone thought of another people for such extensive spans of time, nothing would get done if everyone did it.

“The berries?”

“Nooo.”

Seven days and nights without Madara, but this was only the first and she felt her fingers twitching on the wood as she thought of the journey he was undertaking. The sun would not be setting for another three fingers width and he surely must have arrived in Kesseki by now.

“What then?” Kawarama already sounded annoyed.

“Uncle Toshi.”

Tobirama snapped her head around and hissed. “Itama!”

“But look! He’s crying like a baby… sad and-” Tobirama pressed her palm over his mouth and silenced whatever else he was about to say. They may be a small distance away from the crowd, but that was not to say someone could not listen in.

“He’s drunk. It may be true, but it is still rude and very unwise. I don’t want you to be locked in the shed with the chickens for the night.” She lowered her hand and revealed his massive pout underneath. “Don’t say things like this, especially not loud and in public.”

 

The second day, the first water pipes were brought into the ground and there was plenty to supervise and explain without Tobirama’s normal workload, which seemed to have doubled. There was so much clothing to wash and meat to conserve and roofs to repair and plants to water and wood to carve.

Even a pinch at the bridge of her nose did not lessen the headaches that had formed right by her eyes.

Tobirama was seated in the kitchen dwelling over the village’s bookkeeping and financials when Itama came running through the backdoor, flip-flops covered in mud and feet just as dirty. He kicked them off, already ready to step into his slippers, but Tobirama stopped him with a sharp inhale.

“Wash your feet first.” Itama looked down, completely baffled.

“Oh, right.”

And off through the door he was again, noises of splashing water, brushing and more splashing had Tobirama closed her eyes. Hashirama was in the back of the yard too, tenting to his plants, humming along to some song he had heard at the market.

Itama came in again, wet feet patting on the ground. “Tobi, guess how many lambs where born today.”

The numbers on the paper in front of her twisted. “On average we had three to four lambs per day during late summer last year.”

“Nooo, take a guess.” Itama whined and fished his slippers.

“Three.”

His face appeared next to her and he beamed. “Five!” Then his brows furrowed. “We lost one of the mothers though. But Amai is the cutest lamb you can imagine and she drinks from the pouch really well.”

Tobirama put away the papers. Itama had already taken a seat at her side and shuffled it even closer, so she stroked his hair. “You must have been busy then.”

His strands felt soft, but tangled and his arms were too skinny as they wrapped around her waist. “Mhm, you know what Soki and Chichi did?”

Was there a way to keep his happiness?

“Did they maybe free the chickens?”

“Nooo.” He giggled and leaned in even closer. “Guess again.”

“Maybe they flew away with the sparrows?” She mumbled into his hair.

“Nooo, silly. I’ll tell you, but only if you’ll help me make some sweetened milk.”

“Fine.” It was so easy to give him an honest smile and receive one in return.

“Yay, I’ll get the milk.” Itama got up and went out to their cooling shed, where they stored most of their food.

She stood and cleared the table, already got out a pot and fanned the fire. Itama’s return was announced with heavy padding of his feet, so Tobirama turned to help him with the heavy jug he had carried by himself. “Hashi wants some too.”

“Of course he does. Did he perhaps mention what he intents for dinner?”

“No, but I can ask him.”

“Thank you. And bring the syrup from the shed too.” And off he was again.

Tobirama filled the pot and setting it atop of the flame with a wooden spoon to stir which Kawarama had carved.

“Hashi says bread, auntie’s fresh cheese and tomatoes.” He set down the jar with sugar syrup and stood next to Tobirama to watch the already steaming milk.

“So, what did Sokaro and Chiduchiro do?”

“Right, they were feeding the geese and thought it would be funny to climb the shed and scream to scare them, so they did. But afterwards the geese didn’t let them down any more. Snap snap.” He laughed and imitated a beak with his hand, pinching her arm. “They bit their feet and I found them. Uncle Niro got them down.”

Tobirama smirked. There was a reason geese were used to ward off strangers. “Good thing you kept yourself out of their dramatics.”

The milk started to boil, so Tobirama took it off the heat and closed the flame. “How sweet do you want it?”

“Very. And I’ll brush my teeth extra careful tonight.”

“Good.” She opened the jar, dipped the spoon and heaved in a generous amount, before stirring it in. Sweet milk was a treat Itama and Hashirama indulged in once in a while. Kawarama and Tobirama didn’t like sweetness, preferring milked tea.

As the syrup dissolved and Itama went to fetch two clay mugs, she could not help but let her thoughts run wild. There was a near infinite number of possible combinations of things Madara could be doing right now.

But they all ended on one thought. Was he thinking of her too?

“Is it finished?” Itama pressed against Tobirama’s side, ready to stick a finger into the hot pot, which she prevented by giving him a stern look.

“Patience, the syrup is dissolved, but the milk is still hot.”

Itama was still so small, barely reaching her chest and hugging her waist.

She eventual deemed it good enough and distributed the milk into both mugs. “Let’s give Hashirama some company, shall we?”

Itama grabbed the fuller mug eagerly and Tobirama took the second one and they left the kitchen for the yard.

“Hashi.” He looked up, bucket in hand and a basket of freshly harvested overripe tomatoes at his side. He took the mug from Tobirama’s hands and thanked her with a smile. They settled on a couple of cut up tree trunks from varying sizes in a walnut tree’s shadow.

The neighbours were doing their laundry. The sound of splashing water and rhythmic scrubbing, laughter and the wet fabric sounds were a tell-tale.

Hashirama nudged closer to her, a bit of mild sipping over the edge of his mug. “We want to go swimming after dinner, do you want to come?”

“Does `we´ include anyone I actually socialise with?”

“Toka’s coming. So?”

Tobirama sighed. “Sure.”

Itama grinned and took a large sip. “Can I sleep with Amai tonight?”

Hashirama frowned. “Who is Amai?”

“My lamb. Mako said, she needs someone to feed her at night too.”

Tobirama and Hashirama exchanged a look and nodded affirming. Hashirama gave him an apologetic smile. “But make sure to mention it during dinner. Father would be furious if you simply vanished.”

“He’s always angry anyway.”

“Which is very seldom actually your fault, just remember that.” Tobirama said and he nodded, staring into his mug.

Kawarama turned the corner, hair a mess with sticks and leafs, dust covered his cloths and there were scrapes on his arms and legs. “Are you having fun without me?”

“I thought you were supposed to fix a fence. You look like you fought a cow instead.” Tobirama said and Hashirama and Itama laughed.

“Pff, no one informed me the moulding board was all the way at the back by the thorn bushes.” He dropped a hammer and a pouch of clattering nails. “I’m gonna brew tea, you want some?”

He looked at Tobirama and she stood. “I’ll do it, you just go and wash off.”

“Thanks.” Then he made a beeline for the water barrel they caught rain water in and that they kept covered to keep away mosquito larvae.

The fire was fanned and the kettle filled. Itama came in and ran out again carrying soap, a towel and fresh clothes.

 

That same evening, Hashirama and Tobirama met the others at the edge of the villages, right were rice fields and potatoes melted. It was a group mostly made up of Hashirama’s friends and a couple of cousins of varying distances.

The major sun had yet another two finger’s breadth to reach the horizon, so the lake was covered in enough long drawn shadows that Tobirama could undress and not get burnt instantly.

Getting naked physically was easier than letting down her guards mentally. She had known most of these people since birth, not that that made it any easier to actually talk with any of them.

So Tobirama found herself drifting on her back in the shadowy half of the lake and watching the sky shift from blue to pink to orange and eventually dark blue.

The lesser moons straying enough light to make out shapes and colours of the trees and the mountain slopes still lit up and coloured by rays of sunlight. Its peak was always the last place to turn dark.

In the distance, the others were roaring with laughter. Someone had brought out a bottle of rice or apple wine. The splashes of water had long since stopped, so the others must have settled on the stone beach.

With a flicker of resignation she thought of Madara again.

The only way to get her mind to a rest was to either to lose interest or to talk to him and receive his rejection. Her control only extended over one of these solutions and it happened to be the one she loathed for several reasons.

She did not want to offend Madara or make him feel uncomfortable, neither did she want to drive him away, but to be weird and conceal her misplaced interest from him was something she felt was unfair towards him too.

At least she had another week to settle her mind on a decent way of confession and prepare herself for the consequences.

“Tobi,” Toka’s voice disrupted her silent crisis.

“Tobi, are you alive? Because if you’re not, I’m sure Hashi will drown himself right alongside your body.”

Toka was one of the only cousins she had an actual relation with beyond shared blood and she was swimming towards her. “I am fine. Why are you calling?”

“Oh, I don’t know… maybe to annoy you. Maybe to dunk you for always disappearing.”

Good thing Toka could not see her smile, because she would have wrestled her underwater for that alone. “I didn’t think you pathetic enough to swim all the way here just for that.”

“No, I’m actually here to ask you to join us. We’re getting to the fun stuff and you’re old enough to drink.” A splash of water hit Tobirama’s face and she turned to face Toka with a scowl.

“I know for a fact our definitions of fun differ significantly.” She did not lower herself onto childish antics and splash water at her back, she merely glared.

“Come on. Give it a try at least.”

There really never was a point in arguing with her. “I’ll leave as soon as it gets dull.”

“Nice. Now race me to the bank.”

“You’ll lose.”

“I know. You could give me a head start though.”

“Go ahead then.”

Toka actually went first, but Tobirama passed her easily still and arrived at the bank. She dried herself off and put on her trousers and a tank top.

She waited for Toka and as she had redressed too, they went to the others who had created a fire on the stones and settled around it. They were passing around several jugs and Toka pushed Tobirama down between Hashirama and herself.

“Tobi, are you playing?” Hashirama sounded more excited than he should have, because Tobirama was feeling uneasy already. Some of the others were staring, most of them always did, because she very rarely indulged Hashirama with attending a meeting like this.

“Which game?”

“Challenge.” The game was one of the dumbest she had ever heard of. Someone posed a challenge, they flicked a stick and whomever it landed towards had to fulfil or drink. Most drank despite fulfilling and drunk people were probably the least pleasurable to be around.

Especially since she herself seldom indulged. Her tolerance was high, but the feeling of dulled sensations and a somewhat relaxed state was nothing she enjoyed.

But she was the outsider already and her isolation hurt Hashirama more than herself. “Sure.”

Someone had just been dared to pee someone else’s name onto the ground as something dawned on Tobirama, so she leaned towards Toka to whisper. “Were you challenged to get me.”

Her eyes twinkled with mischief and she actually winked at her. “Perhaps. But I wanted you here either way.”

The she challenged to run around the whole lake and Hashirama was selected. He didn’t even look annoyed as he rose under a wave of applause and howling and ran off into the darkness of the tree’s shadows.

“Hey, Tobirama, make a challenge in Hashi’s stead. It’ll be ages before he returns.” It was one of Hashirama’s closer friends, the only one Tobirama could actually stand to talk to for an extended amount of time, who smiled at her and flicked her the stick. Hayato probably did not know that she already loathed the idea of being in the centre of attention like this.

She said the first thing that came to her mind. “Flip a stone 7 times.”

Someone sneered. “Ah, that’s too lame. Choose something more interesting.”

He should just choose something himself then. “Like?”

“I don’t know, someone to kiss.” Then they laughed, for whatever reason. There really was nothing funny in Tobirama’s opinion.

“No.” She flicked the stick and caught it again. “Whomever it lands on has to go and collect firewood. The flame is running low.”

Someone groaned. “That is your idea of interesting?”

Toka pitched in. “Tetsuo, stop it.”

“She’s just bad at the game.”

“No, you’re being an asshole. Pick something yourself.” Toka grabbed the stick and threw it at him so that he barely caught it. Despite his sneer, he let them be and choose something himself.

Toka leaned closer. “Ignore him, he’s had too much to drink.”

Well, it was easy ignoring people that ignored her anyway and that was what most of them did. Once Hashirama came back, he was greeted with big cheer and a new jug of cherry wine.

“Next week’s hay week, you in?” Toka asked her at some point before wandering off with two other girls and Tobirama nodded. “Good. I can’t believe it’s only four more weeks till Hashi leaves.”

“Yes.” Right, she had tried not to think about that, at least not let it influence her mood.

The wedding would be in the city, Mito’s father had insisted that Mito could decide and that he would pay. She was his only daughter and youngest child, a particularly soft spot for her showed.

Hashirama invited only his most imminent relatives, not everyone could travel to the city and not everyone would. Tobirama was not sure if their father even planned to show up, no one would be sad if he didn’t, but it may reflect negative on Hashirama.

“Do you think he’s nervous?”

At that Tobirama looked at Toka and then at Hashirama, who was laughing along with Hayato.

“You’ll have to ask him yourself. I feel uncomfortable telling you something he would not like others to know.” She nodded to the circle of people, some of which might listen in.

“Fine. What’ll you wear to the wedding?”

Tobirama shrugged. “Mother had a sky-blue dress, it might fit me well enough. Kawarama calls it a potato sack.”

Toka actually barked out a laugh. “Charming little bugger.”

 

She didn’t stay long after that. It was awkward sitting there and not really fitting in and the possibility to read at home while all her brothers were out was tempting too.

She leaned into Hashirama who drew her into a tight hug, so she used the chance to whisper. “I’m tired, but you enjoy yourself.”

He drew back, pouted a little, but as Tobirama smiled and pressed his arm he wished her a good sleep. Tobirama got up and waved her goodbye to Toka who had separated and talked to some others by the water.

Tobirama went back to the village.

The darkness was thicker in the forest, but the stable with the sheep was silent and dark too. In the back a section had been laid out with fresh hay were Tobirama could make out three small figures. Itama had apparently dragged his friends into this endeavour with him and they had settled underneath an old wool blanket and were sleeping soundly already.

At home, father was in his room and hopefully sleeping.

Kawarama was sleeping for sure. Even though he had the mattress to himself, he had stuck to a small section at the edge, allowing Tobirama to lay done and roll into her usual space.

With the light of a candle she read in her rented books till her eyelids shut and her back hurt, but only when Hashirama returned in the early hours of the morning, did she fall asleep too.

 

On the morning of the third day, Hashirama and Tobirama only rose as the sun was already rising. She brewed them some strong tea and Kawarama brought breakfast to Itama.

There was more digging to be done and an awful amount of pipes to carry and align. The whole day passed in a blur and Tobirama came home covered in dirt and sweat.

She let her shoes at the back door and pulled of the dirty outer over-shirt and pants, before stepping into the house.

 

Later, she would think it was only because of her fatigued mind and physical exhaustion that she did not notice the eerie silence.

“Hashirama?” She heard shuffling in their room and knocked. “Hashi, could you draw me a bath? I’m-”

The door opened and Kawarama stood there, stern faced and motioning her to be silent. As he turned away she saw Itama, cowered on the mattress and Tobirama froze immediately.

He was blue and green all over, puffy eyes and swollen cheeks, green cooling salve at places on his chest where she only could assume even worse bruising.

Tobirama was in front of him in an instant and she hated how he flinched from the smallest touch on his cheek. His chest was heaving so irregularly, but his sobs had her own chest tighten and actually hurt. “Itama, what happened?”

His small fingers found her shirt and clung to her, but moving was obviously very painful and a special kind of rage rose in her spine, crawled up along her shoulders and netted itself throughout her until all she could feel was burning white anger and the guilt that lapped strong at her sides.

How did this happen and she was not near to protect him? How could they have failed him like this?

“Itama, who did this to you?” It was sheer control that had her voice sound so calm.

“Papa…”

That, they hadn’t called their father since they had to lock themselves in the bathroom years ago, because he had taken his hunting knife in a fit of rage. And another sob had his small shoulder shaking until he cower against her chest.

“Father-”

Then Kawarama inhaled and shielded Itama whose swollen eyes widened before Tobirama felt herself being yanked backwards by her hair. Her neck hurt, her scalp burned and she only had a second after her father’s fist released her strands to stand and move between him and her brothers.

Chapter Text

This was anger Tobirama hadn’t felt since her mother’s funeral.

“Why did you punish him?”

She did not take her eyes from him even for a second, but she could hear rustling behind her and imagined Kawarama curled around Itama, inching closer to the wall.

Father had scratch marks all over his arms and a handful of fresh bruises along his shins and the realisation that these had to be signs of Itama’s struggle against his attack was enough to make her grit her teeth and challenge her long harboured control.

Butsuma tried to grab her but Tobirama struggled free and made sure to flee out the door and lure him with her into the kitchen where she grabbed a butter knife lying by the sink. Her father stilled and Tobirama stood her ground.

“This is your doing!” His voice was so scratchy, he must have smoked pipe with his brothers again.

“It was not me who hit him.”

“I thought you were the clever child. Apparently even you are just as much a bitch when a stud is in heat. Marosuke asked me about the `fine young man courting my daughter´. The city is small, you know. You had no right to give yourself to anyone.”

Butsuma actually stepped closer into the room, but Tobirama only widened her stand and flipped the knife to have a better stabbing position. “What were you thinking, meeting a stranger in private? Am I raising a whore?”

He took another step. Tobirama stayed, but raised her hand further.

“The rumours alone will stench my reputation. You already look like an outsider, if word goes round, you could be bedded by a stranger… No one will want a stained farmer’s daughter carrying a bastard child.”

He actually spit on the ground in front of her and it shocked Tobirama more than his words. “Do you have nothing to say for yourself?”

“The rumours will be false, what else is there for me to say?” At that he broke into loud laughter, but there was no amusement in it.

He clenched and unclenched his jaw. “I vowed to your mother on her death bed to let you children be free, but see where it led us.” His eyes were cold as he mustered her up like a piece of pork at the market, Tobirama felt cold shivers. “Stay in your room until I come up with something. You’re relieved of all work outside the house.”

She wanted to ask what he intended to do, but she feared it would worsen his mood.

As soon as her father turned away and walked into his room, she saw Kawarama’s head poke out of their door and hurried towards him, waving him back and closed the door behind them.

Tobirama turned to be pulled into an embrace by Kawarama so tight her chest actually hurt, but she hugged him back just as fiercely. Then she released him and pulled him towards their mattress and Itama who had stifled his crying, but looked as shaken as an autumn leaf in the early winter wind.

His naked chest heaved with small sobbing and the guilt seated itself deep in Tobirama’s heart and pulled and twisted until she felt sick. Father was right, this was partially her doing.

However churning thoughts in panic and guilt was not going to benefit them, so she calmed her breathing and relaxed her spine to look at her brothers with certainty. 

“If he comes back later, hide in the closet! Do you understand?” The closet was not only meant as a hiding spot, but more as a physical barrier and to get them out of father’s sight.

Only after they nodded, did she hug them and started inspecting Itama’s bruises, most of them fresh deep red, some already violet and blue.

Kawarama had already taken care of some and a wet towel with cold water rested next to his pillow. She took the clay pot with their cooling salve and she proceeded to cover the worst looking patches on his arms with it.

“Itama, what happened exactly?”

He sniffled against her shoulder. “He asked me about a man you were seen with and I said that I don’t know anything, but he didn’t believe me. He kept asking, but I didn’t know what else to tell him. He just didn’t stop…” and new small sob escaped him. “And then he asked where you were and I got so scared he would find you so I told him to leave you alone.”

Oh, “Itama.”, she hugged him, gentle and lose. “Thank you, but please don’t put yourself in danger for me.” There was no way she could ever forgive herself. “It wounds me more to know father hurt you because of me. Okay?”

He nodded softly.

Then Kawarama spoke against her neck, but his voice was muffled so she almost didn’t understand. “What will he do to you?”

She pulled away slightly and wiped away their tears with her thumb. “I’m not sure, but certain that he’ll come up with something. Don’t get yourselves involved. I know how hard it is to wait aside and not be allowed to actively help in anyway, but for me it is the most favourable situation to know you won’t be hurt.”

“But what about you?”

“It was my recklessness that got me into this situation. Whatever father decides to do, it is my burden to carry, not yours.”

Suddenly the shuffling of feet in front of their door grew louder and Tobirama hauled Itama and Kawarama up and pushed them into the closet. “Stay, please. Don’t come out!”

She closed the closet and the door flew open, Tobirama stiffened, standing and waiting.

Father’s face was twisted in stern rage still, but he had dressed into a different shirt of better quality and hid his injuries which was a bad sign. It could mean two things, he would be meeting with the elders or his brothers and either had him drinking copious amounts of alcohol and harbouring dangerous ideas.

Tobirama waited for him to say something and he merely mustered her for a long moment. Then clicked his tongue.

“Be grateful I don’t shun you from my house. Yamo asked me for your hand in marriage. I wanted to refuse…” His eyes roamed through the room. “I think I’ll accept, you’ll be his problem then.”

And that had her actually frozen in horror and she hoped that none of it showed on her face, because that would be satisfaction she did not want to gift her father.

Marriage was a prospect scary on its own, but to Yamo…

How…

How could she get out of this?

“Try running and I’ll sell you to the curiosity dealer. Aside, Itama has had enough beating, wouldn’t want to add to that.”

Then he closed the door and left.

Loud voices in the kitchen alerted her further, the door flew open once more, but it was only Hashirama, who hugged her so hard, she could hardly breathe and they nearly toppled over. “Thank the moons, you’re fine. Father passed me in the kitchen and he looked furious.”

Tobirama pressed him away softly. “Did he leave?”

“To drink his anger away.”

“Close the door.” That Hashirama did while Tobirama called for Itama and Kawarama to come out again.

Hashirama froze as he saw Itama, then reached out with a gentle touch to pull him into a loose hug and his expression shifted into severe anger. Had father not left seconds ago, Tobirama was sure, he would have sought him out. “What did he do to you?”

“Beat me.”

“Why?”

“Because of me.” Tobirama pitched in and she shared a look with Hashirama that conveyed the complex emotional twisting.

They knew there was plenty that aggravated Butsuma and that the aggressiveness of his reactions wasn’t their fault and that there was little they could do but avoid him as often as possible. Still Tobirama couldn’t withstand the thought that this was her doing. No one but Itama had been at home when father found out her secret and she would have preferred to be beaten in his stead, but that was something she did not get to change.

The four of them sat down on top of the mattress, Itama and Kawarama snug between Tobirama and Hashirama. Itama had started sucking his thumb, one eye still swollen shut and Hashirama placed the cool towel on top of it.

“What will he do, Tobi?” Kawarama asked.

She actually had to concentrate to lessen the shaking in her hands as she caressed his hair. “He’ll give me to Yamo.”

“But he’s as old as father.”

“Older.” And Hashirama voice sounded so dark. “He has grandchildren my age.”

Why exactly Yamo wanted her, Tobirama was not sure. As far as she knew, he was a man of tradition, certainly not one to accept a woman to have a voice of her own and Tobirama with her rambunctious and daring ideas had often raised hackles among the elders.

Why did he ask for her then?

“No, he cannot marry you off. You can’t go, what will we do when Hashi leaves?” Itama’s voice broke, he pulled himself closer with her shirt and it took an awful amount of energy to keep her voice even.

“I took a chance and have to carry my burden now.”

He hiccupped, voice soft but firmly whispered. “But you won’t be happy.”

“No. But I will do my best to be content with what I get. You know, he could still shun me, if he wanted to and at least, I’ll still be close to you this way.”

“He will not marry you to that man. Not if I can help it.” Hashirama sounded bitter, his hands were mauling the bedsheets and his shoulders were set rigid.

“He is pater domum. Unless he dies, there is nothing you can do.”

Seldom had she seen an expression so dark on her brother, Tobirama almost couldn’t recognise her kind-hearted brother. “Oh, I have some sado-fatakashi-seeds.”

“Murder is a crime. I don’t want to lose a brother to prison. Mito would kill you if you blew off the wedding she is working hard to organise in such a way.”

“Ugh, I just wish I could take you with me.”

“Hashirama.”

Even if they had the financial means and a place to stay, there was no way they could flee and succeed, because their father had every right to get them back. “All we can do is wait and hope that he will show mercy.”

“You didn’t do anything!”

“Itama, I met a man in private. Nothing happened, but the chance of father actually believing that is small.”

“Can’t that man vouch for you or something?”

“Or marry you himself, he definitely has enough Alnas to afford more than one wife anyway, just ask him.” Hashirama said.

The list of reasons that would be a spectacularly bad idea was long, but… She hadn’t actually told Hashirama about him yet. “He is in Kesseki and won’t be back for another five days. I believe we don’t have that much time.”

Then suddenly Hashirama lit up and moved into her face. “I could ask Hayato. He’s not engaged, really nice and at least close to you in age.”

She really should be offended at being negotiated about, but that was a position she should have grown comfortable with years ago. Nonetheless the ball of emotions welling up at the thought of deciding her future where she despised either option was hard to keep a lid on.

The thought of Yamo touching her was enough to raise gastric acid rising in her oesophagus and make her break out into very uncomfortable goosebumps.

When it came down to a decision, Hayato was better than Yamo.

“Will he agree?”

“I saved his sister’s life. It is only fair that he saves you as a repayment.” She nodded, somewhat numb. And Hashirama was already on the move.

“I’ll ask to push the wedding as far back as possible.”

“Father won’t allow more than a moon cycle, he thinks I’m pregnant.”

“We’ll get at least a week or two out of him.”

But at the door he stilled and stumbled towards them once more to wrap Tobirama in a caging embrace, his head resting in the nape of her shoulder. “I will hurry, but Tobi, if he tries anything while I’m gone…” He held her head and caught her eye. “Run.”

“Hashi-”

“I don’t want to return to find you betrothed through rape, so swear.”

“…okay.” If father tried to foist anyone on her, her chances of escaping were low. She would certainly not leave her brothers to defend themselves. She still had the butter knife lying close to the mattress which could prove helpful.

“Good. I won’t take long.” He kissed her forehead, petted Kawarama’s and Itama’s heads and lingered for a second and then snug out of the room.

 

They sat still and silent for a while. Tobirama caressing Kawarama’s and Itama’s soft hair and holding them close. Wind was howling outside their window and the sun was setting but the sky was tinged in tones of grey and promising a thunderstorm with plenty of rain. Rain clouds like these could linger the whole night, because the mountains were too high to have them pass beyond the range.

A look on Itama’s injuries brought back a little of the resentment. Abuse like this, physical and emotional, was something she desperately wanted to get them away from. An obligation of sorts, she had bonded herself to that should a moment arise to get them out of this house and away from their father with a reasonable chance at success, she would take it.

“Is that man interesting?” She immediately knew whom Itama was asking about.

“He is from the main city and lives a life very different to ours.”

“Really?! Did he tell you about it?”

“A little.”

“Tell.”

Madara had told her about the city, his way of telling had painted a vivid picture in Tobirama’s mind. She had mostly read up on it too, but there probably would be no fun for them to listen to her stiff recount. “When you arrive by train, you drive through big curved gates of sealed sandstone into a building as big as our fields with tall windows to let in the light. Most buildings are like this, tall, made of stone or plastered with tall windows, nicely decorated and plants growing up or down, mostly wine.”

“Why do they have so much space?” Itama’s towel slid from his face and Tobirama caught it and turned it to put it back into place.

“The main city is partially build along extremely tall rocks and cliffs, but on flat grassland too. It is connected by stone staircases and bridges.”

“Sounds weird.” Kawarama’s scowl had her huff a laugh.

“He says, is actually well organised and the streets are clean and broad. There are supposed to be rivers and streams, but most of them are deemed too dangerous to swim in, because of a strong current towards the waterfalls.”

“But our waterfalls aren’t dangerous.” Itama seemed a little confused, which had Tobirama smile.

“We only bath near the mild ones, but theirs can be more than 100 feet of freefall. They have parks and a lot of gardens and a market square, just like our city, and the King’s palace is atop the highest cliff, overlooking the whole city and one can see for miles beyond the city’s boundaries on a good day.”

That Madara knew that because his balcony was overlooking the city, she did not say. “The city has a university and schools, a building only for music and exotic plants. There are areas for children to play and learn and a harbour. Within a day, from there one could reach the sea by boat.”

“Can we go there?” Itama smiled sweetly and Tobirama wished her answer could be `yes´, but seeding false hope or lying was something she seldom did.

“That is very unlikely.”

Tobirama told them other things to and it made their wait for Hashirama’s return more bearable.

As they eventually heard the back door open and Hashirama muffled call that it was only him, they had all calmed down. When he eventually came in Itama almost shouted. “Did you know that the main city has a barn full of trees?”

“It is a greenhouse.” Which was something very different to a barn, but she would have to draw them a sketch to explain that.

A small smile on Hashirama’s face turned into a major pout, but his shoulders were more relaxed. “You told them about the main city and didn’t wait for me?”

“You make it sound like I personally went there and forgot to bring you along. I can only tell what I was told.”

The swing of his long hair as he pulled of his overcoat nearly hit her in the face. “I bet Madara showed you how to ride his horses too.”

Kawarama sat up so suddenly and gaped at her, Tobirama seldom saw the similarity to Hashirama seldom as clear as right now. “He has a horse? I want to ride one too.”

“Two, Kawa, he has two.” Hashirama pitched in and Kawarama looked personally offended. “But listen, Hayato agreed. He’ll talk to father tomorrow morning.”

She felt relief, but dampened. “Thank you.”

Hashirama settled in his former spot, but only for a second and then his stomach and Kawarama’s growled loudly, which made Itama giggle and poke his own belly too. “Can we eat something?”

“You get ready for bed, I’ll fetch something from the kitchen.” Hashirama said and rose with a groan before he left the room.

Tobirama helped Itama up and opened the door to usher them to the bathroom. She wetted two towels and handed one to Kawa, who washed his face, chest, arms and legs himself. Tobirama did it for Itama, and only wherever the salve was not.

They brushed their teeth and went to the loo, before Tobirama opened the door once more to look, but father wasn’t there so they hurried back to their room. Hashirama was already sitting on the mattress, rice buns towered on a plate and a big bowl of stew with four spoons.

They ate, a little hurried. There was no saying when father would come back they all wanted to be settled and silent by then.

Hashirama went to wash their dishes and go to the bathroom, so Tobirama helped Itama put on his sleep shirt. They eventually huddled under the blanket and with a single candle flickering at the side and the sound of rain droplets on the roof.

“Tobi, can you tell us something else?” Itama asked.

“Of what?”

“Did you really ride a horse?” Kawa pitched in eagerly. She nodded, it was light enough for Kawa to see. “What was it like?”

“That depends, when they go slow it is quite comfortable, trot is not enjoyable and canter is like sitting on a windy rocking chair. A proper gallop is what I imagine flying could be like, very fast, windy and hard to breathe, but really exciting.”

“Now I really want to try.”

“Maybe someday.” Tobirama let her arm reach above their heads and gripped a slender, visibly well-read book from the ground. It was a collection of fantasy stories, most based in folk lore and they were on the last chapter. “We should finish this tonight.”

“We have to wait for Hashi.” Itama proclaimed.

“Tell me what you recall from the last chapter then.”

 

 

Hayato had spoken to her father and her father had agreed to their betrothal and to wait with the marriage for another two weeks, which meant that she had more time to mentally come to terms with the prospect of surrendering herself to everything she really had hoped to avoid. Since Hayato had laid a claim on her, her father had been more lenient and had let her out to help with the village’s affairs.

Marriage, as a whole, was a thing she held little sympathy for. It was almost synonymous to confinement. As one of Hashirama’s closest friends she reasoned Hayato would at least treat her with respect, but that could not deter from the fact that she would have to endure his touches and commands the same as every other wife.

Maybe accepting her fate was harder, because she hadn’t actually noticed the sliver of hope that had sprouted with Madara’s idea of a more fitting future.

Like this, she could at least keep an eye on her brothers. If Hayato allowed, they could stay over at their house eventually too.

 

What Tobirama had not anticipated was that Hayato actually would seek her out while she was turning the drying Shichi-seeds in the yard.

“Tobirama, I’d like to speak with you.” She stopped with her rake and caught his eye.

He looked like most Senjus, at least the way she had summarised them for Madara. Hayato’s hair was dark brown and long enough to wear it in a knot at the back of his head, his eyes were dark and his skin brown with hours spend in the sun and his face already with the hints of laughter lines. He was just a finger’s breath taller than her.

He stepped over the fence and into the yard, careful not to strike the bushes and pots with Hashirama’s tomatoes. Only as he stopped at the edge of the sea of seeds she had laid out, did she remember her manners. “Would you like to drink something?”

“Hashirama swears on your tea, so a cup would be appreciated.” She only nodded and led him through the back door and into their kitchen where a pot with stew was simmering silently and dumplings were steaming.

She felt his gaze on her back as she got out their kettle pot and sought out her usual ingredients.

He spoke sooner than she thought he would, apparently eager to get his words out. “I assume you know that Hashirama talked to me last night.”

Tobirama nodded once. She had still turned her back to him, unable to read his expression. “And what he asked of me too.” She nodded again, this time turning around instead of staring at the kettle.

“Good, you know that he saved Chiharu,” Chiharu, his sister, had had a fever last winter which turned so severe that she nearly lost her child and her life too. Hashirama and his herbs fought four days and nights and kept her in the world of the living. “So when he asked me to betrothal myself to you, I only ask whether your father would accept. What he did not tell me was the reason and I imagine there must be one.”

Tobirama sighed and her hand moved over her face instinctually, right as the kettle whistled and she turned to take it from the flame and stir in the spices.

It bought her time enough to lay out her words.

“It was my mistake. I went to the city to meet a man at the library and father fears rumours of any indecent relations will intervene with my chances of finding a marriage within the village. I am telling you this because you deserve to know the truth. Should anything else be told, I swear, it is most likely fictitious.”

“So the only reason your father wants us to marry within this moon cycle is because you met a stranger in a public space once?”

She made sure to meet his eye for the next words to come. “I met him more often, in private too, but we only talked. I believe father does not trust my words and fears I’m with his child. I assure you that is untrue.”

He looked away, over the pots and pans and into the yard through the window. “Well… I thank you for being so honest with me.”

“It would not fare well to lie. Especially since you were nice enough to help me out too.”

He only acknowledged her words with a faint nod, so she added. “If any of what I said is making you uncomfortable, I would fully understand.”

At that he looked at her again. “Oh, no. I’ll keep my word to your brother and see this through. I like you well enough and you’re certainly not ugly. I take it, the man you met is in no position to marry you himself.”

“Yes.”

“Would he have liked to though?”

For the first time she huffed out a smile at him. “I’m not sure that that’d be something he’d like. Even if, he has to think of greater liabilities.”

“Would you have liked him to marry you?”

“It would be delusional of me to even consider it an option.”

At that, she turned and sifted out the spices. It must have been answer enough, because Hayato only thanked her and took a seat at their kitchen table.

They sat there, somewhat companionable silence encasing them and as Hashirama came home, accompanied by Itama, did they speak again. They ate and laughed, Hayato and Hashirama, while Tobirama watched and held Itama against her chest.

Later, before he left, Hayato asked her for another word in private, so she followed him outside and waited for him to turn and speak.

“Let’s make a deal. If you change your mind before the wedding, I will happily redraw my claim on you. But if we keep up the betrothal and I take you as my wife, I want your faithfulness and devotion the same as any husband demands from his wife.”

He held out his hand and Tobirama took it.

 

 

The next day started early, before the sun rose Tobirama, Kawarama and several others had gathered near the wheat fields. The hay harvest was starting early this year, the fields had dried enough after the rain and another storm was not in sight. The next weeks would be spent on the field and in the gardens to preserve what would otherwise turn bad.

It was around lunch time when Itama came.

“Tobi, there is a man at home who wants to speak to you.”

It made Tobirama instantly suspicious. She laid down her scythe and parted from the others with the promise of being back after an early lunch. It could not be Madara, he was supposed to be in Kesseki and for another two days.

As soon as she was alone with Itama she eyed him and ask. “Who is he? I hope you did not let him into our house.”

He basically vibrated on the spot. “He says he was send to deliver you something!”

A courier of sorts?

The village was brimming with people. The weeks of harvest were always spent outside so there was no way no one would have noticed an outsider come to her home. If father found out…

Tobirama strode along the path behind the gardens faster than usual and rounded the corner into their yard.

“Itama, wait outside.” He pouted but obeyed and stumped off towards the vegetables.

Through the backdoor she could already see a tall man waiting.

He was older than Madara but looked eerily like him. When he saw her, he bowed slightly, arms still held behind his back.

“Miss Tobirama Senju, I am sorry for intruding your home, but I didn’t want the neighbours to stare.”

Tobirama stopped in the doorframe and eyed him, inclining her head slightly. “Whom do I have the pleasure of speaking to? My brother only told me you were send to deliver something.”

Her tone didn’t sound particularly inviting or friendly, but then again it was her brother she was the most worried about. The idea of a stranger simply approaching Itama and sweet-talking him until he allowed them inside was something she would have to talk to him about.

“My name is Hikaku Uchiha, I am a cousin of Lord Madara.” That explained their noticeably similar facial shape and good clothing. “Before he left for Kesseki, he instructed me to bring this to you, should it arrive during his absence.” He handed her a letter, the university’s stamp at the top corner and Tobirama took it.

Right, Madara had send the application from his address.

Was there really a point in even opening the letter? Either rejection or acceptance would matter little, because their outcome for her would be the same.

She turned it between her fingers and raised her eyes to his once more. “Thank you. I’d like to offer you something to drink, but-”

Hikaku smiled in a way that brought out all the differences to Madara and it made it easier to look at him and not feel dread. “No need, Lord Madara made me aware of the situation, I’ll take my leave.”

It also gave her a helpful yet undesired idea. “I apologise for my impertinence, but could I have a note delivered to him?”

He gave her a firm nod. “He would receive it on his return from me personally.”

“Thank you, I’ll fetch paper and pen then.” She went into her room, roamed through her box and picked the first empty piece she found. Her pen of coal laid close by, once in the kitchen again, Hikaku had not moved, but merely looked out of the window and watched some of her neighbours cutting down wheat.

She lit a candle with a matchstick and thought hard about how to write and convey what she wanted to. There was not a lot of time, father could come back any moment and she did not want Hikaku mixed up in the turmoil that could create.

`Madara,

There is plenty I’d like to write and thank you for, but my father may be back any second. I was found out and forced me into a betrothal which will be finalised in two weeks’ time. I tell you this to say, for the safety of my brothers, please don’t approach the village or me.

It is what it is and I trust you fare well.´

She folded the paper and closed it with a drop of wax that dried quickly.

 

Later, after Hikaku Uchiha had left, she opened the letter by the window in their room and held her breath as she read the first lines.

And, oh, had it been a bad idea to read the letter instead of feeding it to the stove, because her frustration was hard to smother, harder even than the anger.

Tobirama was one of ten considered worthy enough to be tested in an interview before a final decision was made and yet her future had been set in entirely different paths already. All she could do was take in a deeper breath and stare out the window.

To pity herself was unlike her and she would not start with that now.

If her brothers noticed how caught up in her own thoughts she was during the following days, they never commented on it.

 

 

- - - Madara - - -

As soon as Madara strode through the door into his house, Hikaku appeared at the top of the stairs.

“Hikaku.”

“Yes, my Lord?”

“Bring my work downstairs.”

“Wouldn’t you like to rest first?”

“My work, on the table on the terrace.” Madara entered the seating area and dropped his jacket on the nearest sofa. The doors to the terrace and garden were wide open. It already smelled like coffee and the sound of plenty of shoes on the staircase told him that the servants were taking care of his luggage.

He didn’t have to wait for long till a can of coffee and sandwiches were served and Hikaku approached with a stack of papers, which he sorted into the table and pulled out something from his pocket.

“I went to see Miss Tobirama Senju and she handed me this.”

A piece of paper, folded thrice and sealed with a bit of candle wax. Madara took it instantly and broke the seal. “Was she alright?”

“Apparently so.”

Madara unfolded the paper carefully, it was unbleached bamboo paper, a couple of lines scribbled on it in Tobirama’s narrow, clean handwritting. “And she received the university’s letter, do you know its content?”

“She did not open it in my presence.”

“Thank you.” And as Madara turned towards the garden and started to read, Hikaku took the hint and left.

 

 

“Taru!”

The boy came rushing as Madara was already climbing the stairs, taking two steps at a time. “Yes, my Lord.”

“I’ll be leaving for home within the hour. Send a courier to the station and demand the train to wait for my arrival.”

The train was set to leave in ten minutes, but Madara needed to pack and redress, which he did quickly, because only as he made his way back to the courtyard for Amaterasu did his father’s henchman Wotahoru reach him.

“My Lord, are you really leaving so abruptly?”

“I will be back within the week. Send a pigeon to my father and inform him of my arrival.”

He rose onto his mare and all his boiling anger must have made her nervous, because she reared to her full height at Wotahoru’s sudden movements. He allowed a small smirk as Wotahoru hastily stepped back, and Madara spurred her forward and through the gates before anyone could react.

The way to the station alone would have taken ten minutes, as they normally made the effort to stay unnoticed and move slowly to not startle the pedestrians.

Today, Madara had no such patience, the streets cleared themselves as he rushed Amaterasu through them, having her metal horseshoes slide as he pulled her to a stop in front of the station and steered her through the crowd more slowly. At the train, which was waiting, he saw the courier he often used in this city, waiting with the train conductor and several guards.

Amaterasu was clearly displeased as he dismounted with wavering robes and handed her to his most trusted guard to load and oversee her well-being.

“Start the train as soon as we are on board.”

He passed them and entered the part of the train they had stood in front of, clearly meant for him. A common area for his guards and compartment for his privacy where he opened the doors to and checked for intruders. All of this was badly prepared but it had to do.

He had more important matters to think of anyway.

Chapter Text

- - - Madara - - -

The train pulled into the main city station and its passengers were held back within the cabins while Madara exited with flowing red robes and a stern expression.
Amaterasu was more on edge than before the journey, which was to be expected. Two boys were trying to tame her, pulling her reins and Madara intervened, snatching her firmly and demanding her obedience.

She settled easily enough at his presence and as soon as her head lowered, he swung atop and made his way through the city.

His father had clearly been informed of his arrival.

The courier pigeons they sent were fast and restless, so notice travelled within a day to the main city from anywhere within the country. The streets leading up to the palace were devoid of stands and the usual busy passengers. Only now and again were people resting at the side of the road and bowed as he rushed past.

Amaterasu knew the way well.

He could have let her run free and she would have guided him home safely.

 

The bridge was guarded, but the gates were already open as Amaterasu soared the last steps of the broad staircase leading up towards the entrance. Once inside the front yard, Madara jumped from her back.

He pointed at a passing messenger, who froze and bowed as their eyes met for the shortest second. “Boy, see to her needs and do so well.”

The front doors swung open, nothing had changed in his absence. Marble and hardened sandstone with candles and lush wall-carpets in violent red and violet illuminated by tall windows and lanterns.

Even the assistant bowing next to the staircase was still the same.

“Saburo, where is my father?”

“My Lord, his Highness is in his study and awaiting your arrival.”

“Go and tell him I have urgent matters to attend to first and will meet him in two hours’ time.”

“Very well, my Lord.”

 

As Madara opened the door to his own quarters, Izuna was already lounging on his bed. Hair freed from its band and splayed out over pillows and blankets, but moving as Izuna turned his head to smile at him. “I trust your journey fared well?”

Not answering his question, Madara got rid of his outer robes. “Did you escape from your study again?”

“They never seek me in your room. You seem to have installed some authority amongst the teachers. Aside, here is a nice place to hide.” Izuna sat up and watched him intently, the smile was still there, but the light coming through the windows illuminated his careful expression. “You seem to be lost in thoughts.” Oh, his little brother was so clever. “Madara, why did you return so soon? And sudden too.”

“Let me get fresh and change, then I want to discuss with you.”

He stepped closer to the bed, sliding one hand over Izuna’s cheek who pressed into his touch instantly and covered his hand with his own. “It’s good to see you again. I missed our banter.”

Izuna laughed, but stood and embraced him properly, resting his head on Madara’s shoulder. “I missed you terribly, but when father said you were coming back early, I feared something grave must have happened.”

“Nothing that can’t be fixed. And I might need your support for what I am about to do.” He stroked his brother’s hair, soft as always. “But let me refresh first.”

“Get to it then. You smell like dusty train and travel soap.” Izuna shoved him, earning himself a half-hearted, fond slap on the back of his head for the grin alone.

As expected, a bath was already drawn and fresh soap lining the side. Some preferred to bath with assistance, but Madara had done most things himself ever since he had the choice to do so.

He undressed, washed with a showering set up first and scrubbed most dirt from his skin and hair with the bar of soap. Then he soaked, only long enough for his hair to be fully wetted and cleaned once more.

Then he towelled himself as best as possible and went back into his main room, right across, ignoring Izuna’s snarling remarks about decency.

Instead of Uchiha red, he choose royal purple.

To put their royal robes was a statement in itself, so when he turned, Izuna was not joking anymore. “Brother, what have you done?”

Madara rested his heavy robes atop his sofa. “My bag, the papers in red wrapping.”

Izuna stood and shuffled through his things, but Madara was sorting through layers upon layers of robes and clothing.

He didn’t turn as Izuna audibly sucked in air, he must have skimmed the title, then papers rustled, Madara felt probing eyes mustering his back.

Then Izuna fell silent for a long while, probably skimming through drafts and argumentation.

“Are you serious about this?”

He could only huff. “I’ll submit my draft during the next council’s meeting.”

“How the hell do you intend to finish this in two days?” The sound of someone falling on his bed had Madara smile. “You haven’t even touched on all of the problems in your current version. The entire issue of inheritance is missing and that’s not the only thing I would rework.”

“I’ve worked on this for little more than a week. It was not intended to be finalised so quickly, but the situation has changed.”

“What situation?”

“I’ll explain after this all of this is finished, it is a rather long story.”

The groan of exasperation was one he was used to hearing. “So what you’re saying is… You made a detailed plan spanning a couple of months that would ease father and the council into accepting your draft and your now throwing all of that into the wind to try and get an unfinished version passed and effective by the end of this week.”

Madara closed the last button and turned. “Yes.”

“Madara, you’re in dire need of my assistance.” Izuna was staring at him over the top of the papers.

“I’m aware. Now help me set up a strategy, because I need to ask for father’s acceptance tonight and I’d rather have your blessing on how I intend to breach the topic with him.”

Izuna groaned even more exaggerated and gave him his best look of disbelief. “The chances of this being successful are so slim. And I’m talking slim slim. Like really improbable.”

Madara could only snort. “Should they not accept my draft, I will issue a Challenge for the Throne.”

Izuna’s head whips up so fast, it surely must hurt and he sat up instantly. “Have you gone mad? That is insane, the last crown prince who tried was disowned and hung.”

“That was around 150 years ago, plenty has changed since then. The process was thoroughly regulated and acknowledged before even our grandfather’s reign.”

“But why?”

“Later.”

Izuna slapped a page. “No, explain, whose handwriting is this even?”

“She is the reason this needs to be seen through within this week.”

“She?” Izuna’s eyebrows rose so high, they vanished under his hair. “I don’t remember you ever showing interest in any woman. And change like this takes years to establish.”

“Socially yes, legally… we’ll set the first stepping stone and evolve from there. To have the bare bones of this plan seen through will be enough for my cause for now.”

Madara went to his desk and wiped down whatever project had rested at the side and pulled out a stack of papers and ink. He motioned for Izuna to bring over the file, which he did with a sigh and an overdramatic eye roll. He placed the papers in front of Madara, then pulled over a second chair and dropped himself next to him, waving for Madara to make some space to fit better.

“I want a really good reason to lose sleep for.” He grabbed a pen and started writing. “And you better start by telling me about this woman.”

“Later, for now... how aggressive should I be with this in front of father?”

And then they discussed.

 

When Madara turned the corner the guards in front of his father’s study straightened and bowed as they pulled open the door for him. That, they usually did, but staying low and barely issuing a stare was something they only did when he was wearing his formal robes.

The sound of their closing was the only thing louder than his father’s rhythmic scratches of pen on paper and the noise of his footsteps as he approached the desk.

Everything about this room was designed to impress, from the broad table to the overly tall bookshelves, clean marble and enormous window doors that led to a balcony to oversee the city stretched over cliffs and into the valleys, the waterfalls and rivers cutting through.

The real reason he hated this room was the oppressive silence that enraptured him every time he was forced to wait in respectable distance to his father’s desk. It was not his place to disrupt, but for Tajima to acknowledge him at his own pace and when he finally closed his pen and levelled him with a glance, it was immediately followed by a frown and a stare. “Explain yourself.”

“You expected me to see to business in the South and return with a made up mind. Both I did.” Izuna and he had discussed this part more than once. “I trust you haven’t yet finished the reworking of the law. I have an addition of my own to submit, but-”

Tajima, impatient as ever, had already reached out his hand with open palm, but Madara continued stern faced. “I would like you to know, should you not accept my submittal or should the council choose to reject my draft, I will have to issue a Challenge.”

Now his father truly mustered him, roaming him with unabashed interest and a mixture of scolding annoyance. “Come on then, hand me that paper you’re risking yourself for.”

Madara stepped forward and placed his wrapped package on Tajima’s palm.

Izuna had made his additions, he himself had added notes on where he planned to elaborate further, but Tajima would merely scan over the front page and the summary anyway.

The wait was more taxing and the darkening expression of incomprehension uneasy to watch until Tajima threw the whole file on his table. “What is this absurdity?”

This reaction was predictable enough, he had talked about this with Izuna too.

“You know the numbers as well as I do. Since Kusa brought on this change they’ve faired exceptionally well, in every regard. I want the same for our people, our men will benefit from this as much as our women.”

Under Tajima’s mustering gaze, Madara straightened even further and years of experience with situations like this made it easy enough to keep still for the long minutes of smothering silence, apart from his father’s slow-tapping finger.

Izuna was notorious for surprises so Madara didn’t even flinch as Tajima slammed his palm down and fetched the file back up to throw it towards him to catch. “Fine, humour the council with this marginal blasphemy.”

“Thank you father.”

“Don’t thank me for bringing forward your ruin. If this does not blow up in your face, I’d be surprised.”

“I’ll take my leave then, if you allow.”

“One more question, what brought this on?”

“I spent a lot of time in the mountains, they cleared my thoughts.”

“The mountains…” A single eyebrow raised slowly and in moments like this, he looked so much like Izuna that it brought shivers down Madara’s spine. “Don’t insult me with blatant lies like these.”

“And yet it is the only truth I can tell you.”

“Well, I will see how serious you are in two days’ time.”

He was waved off and took his leave.

 

When Madara returned to his quarters, Izuna had redressed into more comfortable clothing and had dinner delivered alongside a can of coffee and another table.

“How did he take it?”

“As good as we could have hoped for.”

“That bad, huh.”

“I expected a reaction worse than what I got.” Madara pulled of his outer robes. He got into more casual clothing too, and flipped through the pages he knew by heart. “The council however…”

“Did you tell father that you plan to Challenge his reign?”

“I did.”

Three out of four.

Madara had to win three out of four parts and he was certain about the first, a medical check and he knew Tajima had had bad eyes and lungs for years, something he was very secretive about.

The second, an anonymous questioning of the council’s members which essentially would reveal who they put their trust in.

The third would be a physical part of either Tajima’s or his choice.

The fourth, was of the council’s choice and could be anything from a test of knowledge to another physical showing of strength.

Should they end with a draw, the council would decide on a last challenge.

“Good, I made a list of improvements I’d like to make,” Izuna picked up a paper and handed it to him, “and I made a time plan, because we need to finish this at least six hours before the meeting so father can send his outlook and copies around.”

“I know. And I’m very tempted to push that boundary…”

“Which will not go well with the council, so…” Izuna shoved another page on top of what Madara was already holding. “We’ll stick with this. Any objections?”

Madara shook his head, but was already skimming the things Izuna had written, which was why he almost missed his brother’s tentative look and softly spoken words. “Are you worried?”

He clasped his back and pulled him closer into his chest and had Izuna’s head nestled on his shoulder. “No, they will follow me in this too. I will make them if I have to.”

“You don’t know that. They like you and have opposed father in the past before, but this is nothing like any of those cases.”

“Have faith. No matter the outcome, I’ll travel back to the South after the meeting.”

“With me.” He said it with such certainty, but Madara could hear the question that spelled out the worry of being left behind again. It had him pet his brother’s hair in gentle strokes.

“Of course. You know I prefer bringing you along“

"I’m your brain-to-mouth-filter after all.”

“You’re an annoyance.” But the softness of his voice and the firm embrace betrayed the meaning behind his words. “Let’s get to work already.”

Izuna wrangled out of the embrace and dropped into his chair, Madara sat in his own and they sorted through the papers and got to it. Izuna filled their cups with coffee and distributed food onto plates and then they worked.

The sun set, pink turned to black and Izuna refilled their cups once more, they talked about their progress.

Eventually, black turned to blue to soft orange.

“Ugh, is that the major sun?”

Madara looked up from this paper and saw Izuna hunched over, head rested in his hands and an already cold cup of coffee at his side. The first tinges of the sun on the horizon, familiar reds and oranges. “What else should it be?”

Izuna groaned louder, but leaned backwards and popped his spine. “Let’s take a break, the lines blur in front of my eyes already. And I think you still owe me a good story. Out with the word, who is the woman knowledgeable enough to give you five pages of well-structured and researched argumentation.”

“You’re as prying as ever.”

“We talk about everything, why not this?”

Madara could only pinch the bridge of his nose and rise from his chair to pull open a window to evade Izuna’s watchful eyes. “Her name is Tobirama Senju, I met her in the mountains.”

“I did not know you to take in strays.”

At that, he could only huff and breath in the cool air. The city lay below them and even as he did not step onto the balcony, he could still see its sparkling lanterns and lights, sounds of merchants and an early market echoed and reached him. “She lives in a village as a farmer.”

“Oh boy, disgraceful.” The grin on Izuna’s face was evident in his voice alone.

It had Madara turn and stare him down with a judging expression. “Cut it, it is not what you think it is.”

“What I think is, you lost your heart.” Izuna leaned in closer and refilled Madara’s still half-full cup. “And your mind too.”

The look he threw him for that over the brim of his mug had Izuna frowning. “Come on, with this law, at best your risking to lose respect of the council, at worst you’ll lose your position as heir. Something is at stake for me too.”

Their other brother, Togakushi, had revoked his right to the throne as second in line as soon as he was old enough to do so. Aside from his unwillingness to be involved in anything in relation to the government of a country, he had told them his true reason for leaving home to study in Kusa and neither Madara nor Izuna could hold their brother’s decision to leave against him. That reason was brown haired, brown eyed and very much male.

Relationships of two men were accepted well enough in lower ranked position, but certainly not for the heir of a throne. Sasuke Sarutobi was set to follow his father as one of the most important merchants and as affluent as any noble would not be enough to appease their father, should he ever find out.

“I know.”

“Good, no one wants to see me replace you as heir to the throne, least of all me. You’re risking a lot. For what?”

“I made her a promise.”

Izuna snorted and Madara knew, he did not mean to offend or change his mind, but sought to understand his decision. “To spit on tradition, revolutionise our entire system and overthrow your father? I’d say, take her as a wife and give her what she wants, but father would annul that the second he found out.”

At that Madara laughed out, but it sounded bitter and he turned to stare Izuna into submission. “What I promised was giving her the ability to decide for her own, to do as she pleases. Storm her father’s house and become no better than any other man deciding her life? That would be the peak of hypocrisy, utter disrespect really.”

Madara shook his head, took a seat and after a sip of coffee looked for the passage he had been working on, but Izuna’s eyes burned holes into his face and he eventually heard him sigh. “Study, work, move house, all of those that are a given for you and me, for every man really. What she wants is not a husband who is gracious enough to allow her the same, but to not be in a position where she is at the mercy of someone she shares a bed with. And I can give her that for fucks sake.”

It took a long time for Izuna to say anything and Madara let him ponder on whatever his mind was having him reconsider. As he eventually opened his mouth, Madara could only smirk. “You’ve changed.”

“For the better I hope.”

“You’re certainly more…” A chair creaked, Izuna probably stood.

Madara guessed. “Sympathetic?”

“I’d go as far as saying compassionate, but…” A hand suddenly rested on his shoulder. “I hope she is deserving of your affections.”

That had Madara throwing him a frowning glance. “What the hell are you talking about?”

“When father fell for mother, he halted a war and convinced her father to propose a political marriage to strengthen a peace contract.” Izuna’s hand waved in the air between them. “When we love we love strong, so tell me, is she at least deserving of your devotion.”

“With the little she has, she has done more than either of us. I hardly have the words to make her justice.” Madara accompanied his words with a look at which Izuna distant himself and let himself fall backwards onto the bed.

“So this is you acknowledging that this”, Izuna waved in the direction of Madara and the table, papers scattered over the wooden surface and several books on the floor, “seems to be more than respect for a girl you only met two weeks ago?”

“It is nothing more than the words I’ve spoken.”

“Tse, you never tell me anything, but as soon as I look at anyone you tease me for days.”

“This is hardly comparable.”

“I know. You’re definitely past salvation.” Madara’s groan evoked a laugh out of Izuna who rolled so that they could look at each other. “And I thought you’d never find interest in anyone, least of all a woman. Is she exceptionally pretty?”

“Your disregard is especially annoying today.”

“Oh wow, that hurt.” His expression said the opposite. “Tell me more.”

“Stop. I’d like to continue working.”

“And I want to know why you are risking your entire identity and don’t even dare admit how enamoured you already are. Is it really that hard to see from the inside? Because, let me tell you, from my perspective it seems crystal clear.”

“Can we wait with this until the more important topics are settled?”

“Fine, I’ll have breakfast delivered.” And with that Izuna rolled of the bed and strode out the room.

 

The morning of the council's meeting was hectic. They finished and had their work delivered to Tajima.

 

On their way to the meeting hall, Izuna gripped Madara's sleeve and willed him to follow him into a more silent room along the hallway. Then Madara found himself in a tight embrace. “Don’t make them too angry.”

“You’ll tell me if I do.”

They had a silent agreement ever since Izuna was allowed in council meetings too that had them convey unspoken signs when either of them was being to offensive or irrational and it helped tremendously.

“And please don’t lose, I’m not cut out to become King.”

“You really aren’t.” At the incredulous look he received for that Madara huffed and gifted his brother a small smile. “Wait and see. That is all you can do.”

“And keep the council in check, you know they hate how much I look like father.”

That actually evoked a real laugh out of Madara.

They left their spot and turned the corner.

The noise of deep chattering grew louder the closer they got and Izuna stepped from Madara’s side to a distance, three feet behind him, as was expected of them. The room fell silent as they entered, the council’s members of various ages robed in black and seated already.

The council’s hall was a rounded room with cushioned chairs lined and raised in half a circle backed by impressive stained glass windows. The King’s seat was atop the highest point opposite the council members and Madara’s seat at his right and Tajima’s brother Tsutomu as closest advisor to his father’s left.

Izuna’s seat was among the council members, at the far left, which was from where Madara could feel his calculating glare level each and every one of them. But the eyes of the council rested on Madara as he strode through the room, flying purple robes catching colourful light that fell through the windows.

Their father send out an outlook for each meeting to all the members of the council which meant they knew.

They knew what he planned to do.

They did not have to wait for long until the doors were opened once more and as Tajima and his brother came in, the council stood and bowed, not as low as the servants, but noticeable enough to follow traditions.

The glances Madara received from his father and uncle were unreadable.

Tajima took a seat and with a dissipating wave beckoned everyone to take a seat and the guards to close the doors.

“I greet thee. Any urgent additions or problems to resolve?” The council remained silent. “Good, then I shall formally commence today’s discussions…”

 

The whole rest of the day passed in a blur.

 

That night, Madara packed and redressed.

Izuna met him at the gate, his own bag ready, high atop Raijin and Amaterasu at his side.

Together, they rode towards the station to board the late train.

Chapter Text

Tobirama woke and sat up.

Her brothers were still sleeping and it was early enough that she could have settled back herself. Instead she got dressed to go to the place where more water pipes were let into the ground.

Another thing had appeared on her list had been the preparation for her wedding and that was something she felt very uncertain about.

She had tried on her mother’s traditional garment and found it fitting enough, if only a bit on the short side which she would ignore pointedly. That her hair was too short to carry traditional jewellery was something that had caused tension with Hayato's mother and could only be disolved because his father did care little for such trivias.

That two weeks were nearly over and the ceremony at the house of Hayato’s parents would be happening in three days’ time had her lose her appetite. She was already on the thin side so loss of any additional weight was critical, but she could not bring herself to care.

Hayato had made an effort to speak to her more often and she had agreed to move into his family’s home after the wedding until one of several houses in construction was finished, but shovelling a channel still felt more like shovelling her own grave, which was a thought more dramatic than she usually allowed her mind to cross.

But nobody saw her throwing away stones and silently slamming dirt on dirt in the dark this early morning.

She only stopped as the first workers approached and excused herself for a late breakfast with her brothers. The backdoor was wide open and energetic babbling greeted Tobirama before she had even set a foot into the kitchen

She kept her muddy shoes outside and slipped into her slippers.

“Tobi, look!” Itama stood in front of the stove, long wooden spoon in hand a steaming pot of oats on the flame. Kawarama leaned at his side and was cutting fruit into fine pieces. “We made this!”

“With my directions.” Hashirama sat at the table, a pen twisting between his fingers and some forms under his nose, which Tobirama inferred had to be for the pharmacy.

It was sweet to see their enthusiasm, but bitter to know that the reason Tobirama and Hashirama had been teaching them a broad variety of necessary skills the past few days was because both of them would be gone from the house soon enough.

Still, there were plenty of tears every night when Itama was reminded of the dooming end of their close-knitted life and Kawarama had had more than one fit of anger.

“Is father out?” Tobirama asked and through a look into the pot, but nothing smelt burnt.

“Gone to the city.” Kawarama said, nudging her to the side to dump his fruit pieces into the boiling slurry. “And won’t be back till dinner.”

“We can have some syrup with this then.” Tobirama said and Itama lit up with excitement before he abandoned his stirring and ran to the storage. Kawarama took over his duty without complaining.

To appease father, Tobirama gathered his dirty laundry alongside her brothers’ and set them to soak in the big washing barrel in the yard. Then Kawarama called for breakfast and she was met with a proud Itama and a bowl of steaming sweet mush.

 

To say dinner was a quiet and tense affair would have been an understatement. Father had come back from the city in a dark mood. Whatever had spiked his anger, it had him hit Itama for spilling some water and rage at Kawarama for swiping the floor wrong.

When he instructed them to clean up and go to bed early, Tobirama only nodded and felt a wave of relief as he left for the front door.

Itama started snivelling almost as soon as the door closed behind him and Hashirama was kneeling before him just as fast. There was only a bruise forming above Itamas cheek in form of a hand, but it was the repeated betrayal that had him shedding tears at Hashirama’s shoulder.

 

They were just done brushing their teeth and had Kawarama and Itama in their sleeping garments already. The sun had not set, there were still four more finger’s width to go, but Hashirama was in the bathroom as a soft knock on their window alerted Tobirama. She push her brothers behind her back instinctually and eyed the figure behind their dusty glass pane.

She almost gasped aloud and rush to pull open the window wings at the familiar dark eyes staring back at her. A gust of wind ruffled her shirt and a single spider fled from its ripped webs.

“Madara, what are you doing here? Did you not get my note?”

“I did, but I have something to tell you. Can you let me in?” Despite the dirt, he leaned against her windowsill.

“My father could be back any moment.”

“I’ve got something important that I’d like to give you.”

She glanced over her shoulder towards her brothers.

Only shock kept Kawarama and Itama from giddy exclamations and questions, so she looked at Madara and made a decision. “Give us a minute, I’ll come to the door in the yard.”

He nodded, but Tobirama had already closed the window and turned. “Itama, Kawarama, you will stay here. If father finds us I won’t want to worry about your safety.”

Itama’s mouth fell open to say something, but it was Kawarama who gritted his teeth in anger. “But-”

“No. You will stay here and wait with Hashir-”

“Wait for what?” Hashirama interrupted, walking in with a wet towel and a glass of water.

Badly concealed excitement had Itama’s finger twitching. “A man is here for Tobi.”

Hashirama broke out into a complicated mixture of a scowl and a grin. “Really? Is it Madara?”

And then he was already on his way to the kitchen, Kawarama and Itama at his tail and Tobirama could only follow with whispered bids for them to stop.

At least they waited for her in front of the still closed door. “Fine, but it would be more helpful if one of you could keep an eye out of the front window from the bathroom to watch for father.”

The three eyed each other and Kawarama and Itama screamed simultaneously. “Not me.”

At that, Hashirama pouted. “Why me?”

“Please, just go.” And Hashirama threw his wet towel onto a stool and stalked of.

Tobirama clasped Itama’s and Kawarama’s shoulders and made sure to meet their gaze to rub in the importance. “Behave.”

As they nodded and stopped their shuffling, Tobirama unlocked the door and opened it fully.

And there, right before her door stood Madara with impressive purple robes and glistening eyes almost hidden by hair strands. “You left me waiting quite a while.”

She gave him an incredulous look and a heavy sigh. “I had to rein in my brothers.” Madara’s eyes wandered along her face and to something behind her, probably Itama and Kawarama wrapped in the darkness of their badly lit kitchen.

He shifted and now she saw the second figure past him, a man so alike Madara in looks, but more delicate and intensively eyeing her. At her interrogative glance, he greeted her with a crisp nod that Tobirama returned. “I see you brought your own.”

“Izuna could hardly be stopped, even if I tried.”

Tobirama wanted to say something, but it was Kawarama who beat her to it, with a small voice and more polite than Tobirama had ever heard it in her life. “Excuse me Sir, did you bring your horses?”

“Kawarama.” She gave him such a stern glance, he cowered in on himself, but kept his eyes on Madara, so all she could do was throw him an apologetic look. “He has been taking about little else since I disclosed that you had me ride one.”

For some reason that evoked a snort out of Izuna, but as all of them stared at him he pointedly ignored it and let his gaze wander over Hashirama’s tomato plants.

Madara leaned his head. “Kawarama, would you like to try riding?”

And Tobirama was sure her eyebrows were raised impossibly high already, but then Kawarama blushed and nodded with his fingers twisted in his shirt and eyes lowered to their shoes.

“I’m sure my brother would enjoy showing them to you, won’t you?” At that, Madara raised his voice and locked eyes with Izuna whose head whipped around to share a look with his brother.

Kawarama actually looked up with a hopeful smile. “Really?”

Something in Izuna must have softened, because he sighed and motioned for Kawarama to come over, who nearly stumbled with excitement to follow Izuna out of the gate.
Madara called. “Izuna, have one of the guards bring a friendly horse, not that calamity of yours.”

And while he was watching his brothers back, Tobirama truly looked at him and the time that had passed since she had last seen him felt longer now that she could muster him in person once more.

Her mind, she found, was decidedly unreliable when it came to remembering the exact angle at which Madara’s mouth tucked into a one sided smile or how his eyes skimmed attentive along something in the distance.

But the one thing she remembered in perfect clarity was the way his face relaxed as his gaze shifted back onto her.

And time and distance had done little to stifle the giddy warmth that erupted behind her cheeks and spread through her face and down her neck into her stomach.

This time, it was Itama who disrupted her as he pulled at her shirt. “Can I also see the horses, please?”

She looked at Madara and he nodded his approval. “Go with Kawarama and be careful, okay?”

He ran off before Tobirama had a chance to add anything else. They watched him vanish behind bushes too and could hear his excited call as he caught up with the others.

“They will be fine. Izuna may not have a lot of practice with children, but he is patient and likes them well enough.”

Even as she did not know Izuna, she trusted Madara in his judgement and as she heard her neighbours’ backdoor open, she hastily stepped back to allow Madara into her kitchen where he made an attempt to crouch and loosen his shoelaces, but Tobirama halted him. “We did not mop today, keep your shoes on.”

She leaned against the table and needed a second to reaffirm herself that it was really him who stood amongst the wooden stools and dirty towels. He looked utterly misplaced, standing in the narrow, badly lit place and still looking at nothing but her.

Tobirama did not know herself to be someone caught up in inconsistency, but here she found herself between pangs of concern for a variety of reasons and a feeling of relief elated by Madara’s smug smile. “Why are you here? I’ll get a good beating if father finds out.”

“He’ll know not to hurt you. I brought a gift.” He pulled out a wooden, red-painted box the size of her forearm. “For you.”

For a second, she could only stare, but then stepped close and took it with a questioning glance. “What is it?”

“Open it.” He sounded impatient, but if he came all the way up here for this, it had to be significant.

So she loosened the mechanics by which the lid was closed and flipped it open.

A scroll of heavy paper rested on top of a soft shining fabric and she rested the box on top of her kitchen table to take the paper.

She unrolled the top and read.

Then read again, her heart beat had sped up, cold tingles erupted at the back of her head.

Then she unrolled the entire thing and skimmed through it with restless eyes.

How.

How did Madara manage to make her frozen and speechless with such a disturbing frequency, because as she looked up she could do nothing but tame her racing pulse and crashing thoughts.

“I hope you approve.” And then his mouth curled into something wicked and utter glee. “Throw that at your father’s head and do whatever you want.”

This was official and yet she could only stare at the sections and read them again and again, recognising her own wording in few of them.

She was definitely breathless when she finally found her voice. “How?”

“I challenged the King’s council and overturned my father’s reign when he stood against me.”

At that, Tobirama jerked up her head and opened her mouth to say something, but Madara interrupted her.

“It was a choice I was in the right to make. When my father accepted, he bound himself to the rules and knew of the ramifications, so when I came out as the winner, he acknowledged his loss and made peace with it.”

There he stood, wrapped in royal colours reserved for the King and the Heir yet surrounded by clay pots, wooden spoons, and old scraps of fabric. “So, you are King.”

“It will be announced at dawn, alongside these twenty-five pages of Change.” He mustered one of the spoons balancing on the brim of the sink.

“But how?” As he had explained it, even when a King sought the affirmation of a new law, a two-thirds majority among the council members was still needed to pass.

The implications were clear and still she felt the need to hear him say it out loud to fully come to terms with it. There was no possible outcome in which he was telling the truth, but the stamp and signatures on heavy paper did not lie.

He had the audacity to roll his eyes and huff at her. “After the challenge the council was more pliable, but it still took a hefty session of negotiations and screaming. So don’t criticise my poor wording again, this took enough work as it is.”

“If you already know there is bad diction, why not have it reworked?” It had to be perplexity that kept her calm despite the roaring swirl of thoughts and considerations.

At that he laughed.

“From the moment I left your mountain till the moment I stepped into the train two nights ago, I worked through day and night to finish this. The King’s council reviewed and approved. More importantly, my legal consultants were sufficiently satisfied with the outcome. It cannot be that bad.”

Tobirama was doing an awful lot of silent staring, so with a shake of her head she rolled up the paper again and caught his eye. “I can’t believe you actually did this…”

And despite all the trust she put in him and his words, she still eyed the heavy paper in her hand and could not stop the sliver of uncertainty. “It is truly official?”

“You have my word. I hope you’ll take appropriate advantage of it.” And then he turned red, cleared his throat and had his hair fall into his face. “I did it for you after all.”

Tobirama exhaled slowly and made the effort to meet Madara’s eyes despite the heavy feeling in her chest. “Why all of this for me?”

Madara’s cheeks went red, almost sheepish as he avoided her gaze and let it roam the wall instead. “The idea…”

He reconsidered, went silent for a minute and then started anew. “To me it felt wrong to…”

He stilled again and groaned as he covered his face with a hand, but it worked little to hide his rosy cheeks or the shy glance he threw her through splayed fingers. “Why must this be so complicated to express?”

Even if she had come up with something meaningful to say, the tight feeling in her throat prevented all attempts at speech.

Now it felt almost unbearable to still and not evade the deep black of his eyes to hide her heating ears. The rushing of blood in them was so loud, Tobirama could not even concentrate on her own thoughts.

“Tobira, I enjoy the company of few and out of those, I enjoy yours the most.” If his look had been painful before, his mouth pulled into a heavy frown and his brows furrowed, but he finally caught her eye and despite the deepening red of his cheeks he held the gaze.

“I don’t mind,” he waved in the air between them, “this, but…” and exhaled shakily.

“We haven’t known each other that long, but the synopsis, for me at least is that I have never felt about anyone like I do about you and my guess is that there won’t be anyone else so... I did not come here to deliver you freedom and then ask you to…”

And again, he sought her gaze through strands of hair seemingly to convey seriousness of his intentions. “There is no hurry to finalise anything, but if this is something you don’t want… just tell me.”

It took an embarrassing long moment to register his words and clear her throat.

Still, they made little sense and Tobirama was quick to blame her incapacitated mind for failing her.

Was this what she thought it was?

Was he saying what she thought he was saying?

Could she be misinterpreting his words so badly?

“Could you… maybe explicate that?”

Madara exhaled with a deep groan and the glance of sheer exasperation would have been amusing normally, but Tobirama felt no urge to laugh.

“My position was difficult for flirtatiousness before, but it was exponentially worsened now. I cannot go courting frivolously… but maybe we could… try.”

And still he held her gaze. “There is little I want more then to have you flourish at my side. And even if it is not me you choose in the end, I will moan my loss and still applaud the freedom of your choice. But…”

He took another long breath, as if to brace himself. “I know it is less than proper to ask for something so open and without engagement too, but… but in the future… if that is something you’d be interested in too that is… eventually I’d like to marry you… and I know your standing on marriage so…”

Her hands were shaking and the stiffness in her spine did little to help.

Tobirama wanted to take her time to lay out her words in a more accurate and elaborate manner, but then she found herself already spilling out. “Are you certain? I mean… social propriety did not seem like something you were concerned with until now…”

“If this is about our different social standings, I don’t fucking care. My father’s word is not binding to me any longer, he will rage and so will my council, but by the moons, we’ll just keep setting traditions ablaze and we’ll watch and fan the flames of Change until they’ll have burnt the last of the Old that is hindering progress.”

And the glint in his eyes and the firmness of his mouth told all Tobirama wanted to know about the sincerity of his words. Then nervous dread had her lower her gaze once more.

“Good, as for your… proposal… idea… It is not that I’m oppose… marriage was always something I thought of as a duty for me to endure, but… whenever I thought of it, I never considered that my partner could be someone I actually like.”

At that she gifted him a small smile and a quick glance. “There is simply no experience for me to compare my feelings for you to aside from a prolonged stomach bug, but pleasant and I hardly want to compare something as… energising as this to any malaise. I got invited for the interviews and if I get accepted I want to study before considering marriage or… anything related to that…”

Oh boy, she was rambling and purposefully took a deep breath.

If there was a way to halt the moment to allow her to step back and gauge all that had happened within such a short span on this otherwise unremarkable afternoon, she would be elated to take that.

More realistically, she caught Madara’s gaze and despite his confession and her declaration a sense of calm and safety wrapped itself around her back and chest, made it somehow easier to breathe again. He looked excited, ecstatic on her behalf and it turned something Tobirama’s chest warm and tender. “I would be disappointed if you were to decline the university’s offer after everything we talked about.”

It made the words she had hastily churned over in her mind easier to say. “The point I am trying to make is… I very much would not mind… courting- is that what it is? But marriage has to wait…”

She exhaled slowly. “I’m not ready for that… not at all. And I don’t mind how unconventional relationships without a proper betrothal are… there is plenty to consider for either of us and the delicacy of the situation certainly needs elaborate consideration before anything can be set in stone…” And that was still harder to verbalise than she thought it would be, but Tobirama gave him a small smile. “There is plenty to process as it is. And I need to break my engagement to Hayato.”

“You better do that as soon as is proper.” Madara actually frowned in distaste and it had Tobirama huffing out a laugh.

Her smile did not falter and it evoked a small smile in return from him, but a look of confusion at her next words. “Oh, father will be furious with shame.”

“Instead of a farmer’s wife, you could become Queen. What is there to be disappointed about?”

“Well, there is plenty I have to disclose to him.” Tobirama added with a dry sigh. “And more than one thing to realise for myself. I can already feel the headache of a late-night-pondering session.”

His laughter was so soft. "You won't be the only one."

They stood there, basking in each other’s presence.

Tobirama looked at Madara, truly looked at him and felt her stomach churn in its soft swirls and her heart fastening as he mustered her in return.

His shoulders had lost their tension and his arms crossed loosely in front of his chest, his shoulders were almost double her width. The softest curls of black hair swayed on the purpur of his robes.

Tobirama could only shake her head slowly and eventually blurted out the first thing that came to mind. “So, we have established… us?”

“I hope so. I would be utterly disappointed otherwise.” And this time he did not try to hide the dusted red of his cheeks from her, only made them harder to concentrate on with the intensity of his gently eyes.

“Good, me too.” Tobriama’s voice already sounded breathless and she might have felt shameful about it, but something about Madara made this feel right. “Because then I’d like to try something. If you agree to it that is.”

It started as a split second decision really, but once the though had emerged it grew with frightening pace.

Tobirama stepped forward, making sure to catch Madara’s eyes that were watching her intently, but soft with trust. He was yet unsure of what she was doing, following her as she closed the gap between them with darkening cheeks and her skin huddled with warm tingles.

Only as she stepped so close, his body heat warmed her too and she could smell his scent of soap and leather, did he catch up on her intention and his eyes widened, his arms uncrossed instantly.

“Is this ok?” She asked, more a whisper in the agitating silence between them, but her eyes flickered to his lips and predictably underlined her objective.

And she had definitely not considered the effect of his deepening voice. “Is it for you?”

She licker her lips instinctually, because her mouth was running dry, but Madara’s eyes followed her tongue immediately. “I have never… My comprehension of what to expect are limited to theoretical knowledge.”

“Do you want to try though?”

She nodded, so he leaned down and held her gaze. His breath was warm and smelled of coffee, the closeness of his nose and eyes strangely tantalising as they watched her with careful alertness.

Nonetheless he left the last gap between them, filled with their mingled breaths, for her to cross.

The kiss started with nothing more than simple motions of her lips against his, chaste and firm, a sensation so simple yet somehow with strange intensity.

And Madara left her to decide pace and intensity, but Tobirama immediately stepped back to bring modest distance between them again to cool her heating cheeks. That small moment of physical contact should not make her feel so flustered.

To her surprise, Madara moved with her. He sought her eyes for consent, not moving closer till she nodded and he lowered his head again to kiss her just as soft, but better.

The warmth of his breath against hers and a low hum of reassurance as Tobirama leaned in closer towards him, bringing her chest flush against his and it had any hint of awkwardness she might have felt sweep away.

He was definitely more experienced than her, gently asking her to deepen the kiss into something close to intoxicating. Where he had gained that skill was something to inquire on another occasion.

Right now, Tobirama did not even notice when her eyes closed, a crescendo of intimate feelings erupting in her belly.

Even his hands that settled on her arms loosely were not caging and as his right hand found her nape, she griped his ropes and pulled herself into his lose embrace.

Madara’s warmth wrapped her up and led the kiss into something more, there was definitely tongue and her evoked curiosity had her moving her hand down his back, pulling him even closer-

“Hey, it’s your turn Kawa- what are you doing?” Hashirama interrupted them so abruptly, Tobirama turned towards him and almost snapped her neck with the motion. Madara instinctually moved in front of her.

“You’re betrothed to Hayato, you know.” Hashirama seemed annoyed and a bit disgusted, but he levelled Madara with a firm glare of protectiveness, even as he addressed Tobirama.

She could only glare and step out from behind Madara, but stood close enough to his side for their arms to touch. “I’m breaking that off first thing in the morning.”

“What did I miss?” Hashirama only narrowed his eyes and turned his entire focus to Madara. “You come into my house, kiss my sister and I don’t even know your full name.”

Madara actually looked at Tobirama and raised a brow, but his lips were deep red and his cheeks flushed, all the amusement was lost by the new deepness in his voice. “I thought you told him.”

“I forgot and then I assumed it didn’t matter any longer.”

Madara actually huffed, but his gaze was so fond.

Only as he turned to Hashirama did it stiffen. “My name is Madara Uchiha.”

“Aha, well that sounds like a scam if I’ve ever heard one.”

To Tobirama’s surprise Madara barked a laugh, because she could only roll her eyes, which had Hashirama narrow his eyes even firmer. He stood as stiff as a tree trunk, very much unsure of what he was witnessing. “Isn’t it treason, to claim relation to the Uchiha?”

“If these robes aren’t proof enough, you’ll find your brothers playing with my guards’ horses in the field behind your house. No need for uncertainty or a change in behaviour. I may be King, but I am here as a man who loves your sister. Privacy, at that, would be appreciated.”

At that Hashirama looked even less sure.

He coughed, looked to the side and after a long moment of consideration he spoke. “Very well, ehm… right… I’ll go and check on Itama and Kawarama.”

He passed them, hesitated at the door and turned after a moment. “Don’t defile my sister.”

“Hashi, stop it.” Tobirama shushed him, head heating up again and gritting her teeth. “Leave and don’t come back unless someone is dying.”

“Why must you be so rude sometimes?” Hashirama whined.

“Because you deserve it, now go.”

Hashirama closed the door behind himself and silence settled once more, but not for long.

“I’m sorry about his antics.” She then cleared her throat. “And about the disruption.”

Madara merely shook his head and turned towards her, but stopped at arm’s length. “Can I kiss you once more?”

“Please do.” And at her small smirk he actually laughed as he closed the distance, fitting against her softly. His lips were still warm, but this time, he kept the kiss modest, retreating and smiling softly and kept a hand around her hand as their only point of contact. “And can I read the university’s letter?”

It took a moment for her to stifle her smile and nod. “Sure.”

He released her fingers and she motioned for him to follow along through the small entrance area and into their room. The bed was still made, everything else relatively clean and only one of Kawarama’s discarded shirts from when they had redressed early on the floor by their boxes.

Madara stopped right in the door frame. “This is your room?”

“The one I share with my brothers.”

“It’s so small.”

She had opened her box, the letter was right at the top and Tobirama handed it to him. “Let me light a candle first.”

“I can just read it by the window, it should be light enough.”

Tobirama made the effort not to watch him and look for all the minor expressions, but there was little else to focus on in her room and the way his eyes darted up to seek hers once in a while suggested that he did not care about being watched.

“The interview, do you want me to bring you to the city for that?”

“If it’s not too much effort, I would like that.”

“It’s not.”

He then stared at the paper a moment longer before he looked up. “Should you be accepted… are you considering daily commutes from the village to the city?”

“I honestly don’t know. The whole… issue of living arrangements after my father finds out about… everything basically is something I haven’t had enough time to think about.”

He frowned, then folded the letter carefully. “Should your father be difficult… I have a building in the city. It is hardly used, only housekeeping and security venture the grounds. I’d be happy if someone finally used the space, because I feel guilty for keeping it empty.”

She must have already seemed uncertain, because he was quick to add. “It has enough space for your brothers too, they could go to school…”

“I’ll only leave if my father allows my brothers to come along and for that I have little hope.”

Madara nodded with understanding, but Tobirama could only sigh. “Aside, I don’t want to get to dependent on your niceties. I come from this and I would hate to sway to far from my roots that I become a stranger...”

Madara nodded again and stepped closer into the growing darkness of the room and handed her her letter. “Just keep it in mind.”

Tobirama leaned to put it back as she heard the tell-tale rattle of the front door keys and her father stomping as he entered.

Chapter Text

There was plenty she would regret.

There was probably even more she would wish she would have thought about sooner and certainly an equal number of things she should have talked about with Madara before going straight in for a kiss.

High on that list was her father’s potential response to finding a man in her bedroom. That Madara was wearing his royal robes could either be their saving grace or provoke unprecedented violence.

Her father’s angry voice vibrated through the door and Madara’s brows had enough time to furrow and his mouth twisted in displeasure, before the door was ripped open. “I thought I fucking told you to clean the-”

There was a moment of utter silence and the shift of his expression from anger to shock to fear to incomprehension of the situation would have been amusing to watch, had Tobirama not been frozen in fear.

It was not a constructive response to any given situation, but the entirety of this evening had been a selection of moments so far out her comfort zone, it felt like a very detailed fever dream lined back to back with a bad mushroom-poisoning. The uniqueness of her situation was certainly a big participant in the inhibition of what could only be described as mental fog clogging all her physical responses.

And as her father made a sudden stumble forward, Madara pulled her behind his back and slipped a long dagger from underneath his robes.

And the next thing Tobirama knew was her father swinging a fist, but Madara had already ducked. Butsuma followed, kicking and grabbing, but Madara was fast in his evasions, blocking and eventually slipped to the side where Butsuma followed.

Right as her father turned, Tobirama got a grip of his shirt, yanked him back and gave a kick to his right knee bend and as he stumbled Madara gave his shoulder a hard thud with the dagger’s blunt end and secured his momentarily disoriented arms in a tight grip to force Butsuma to his knees.

For a stunned second of silence Tobirama thought he had collapsed, either because of a stroke or a heart attack, but the tension in his back stayed and under his breath Butsuma started to murmur things she could not understand.

Madara held kept him bend with brutal force and with a serious glance at Tobirama pushed out between gritted teeth. “Get Hikaku, he is in the yard.”

Tobirama was out the door and at the backdoor within a split second, but she could not see the other man until she called his name and he appeared between the hedges. One look and her tense expression had him follow her without a question.

And as she rushed back into the room Madara showed that his expression was masked in sternness. He must have felt her gaze, because his eyes drifted to her in a swift motion and that split second was enough to convey the extent of his anger, not at her but her father.

Hikaku took in his position, holding her father who previously had calmed, but now thrashed anew and spit out a series of ineligible words. He reeked of alcohol, had a fine sheen of sweat on his forehead and as he met Tobirama’s eyes for a second he cursed her through nine layers of hell and back for which Madara ordered Hikaku to yank his hair and secure his gaze on Madara.

“Tobirama, is it alright if I speak to your father in private?”

And the gaze they shared lasted several seconds, Madara’s open eyes honestly waiting for her approval, almost blanking out her father’s mumbling and Hikaku’s discreet side glances.

A nod was easier to give than she expected. Normally, giving away control in a situation she viewed as at least partially her responsibility was harder to do. “Okay, come find me in the yard afterwards.”

And a small smile only noticeable for her thanked her before Tobirama turned and left, pulling the door close behind herself.

She would have taken a moment to reassemble her thoughts and calm her pulse, but to listen in to a conversation she had just permitted to be held without her presence was not something she did.

In the kitchen, she took a sip of water and stared at the lonesome spoon still resting at the side of the sink.

She pushed herself off and went into the yard and to the back where the hedge was low enough to observe the field beyond.

Several guards waited at the far end of the field, their dark robes and their tall horses almost hidden by the trees shifting shadows.

Amaterasu stood out to Tobirama because of her unique colouring alone, but a horse of lighter build, seemingly longer limbs and even grey colouring twitched at her side that Madara’s normally nervous mare appeared almost calm. That surely was what Madara had mentioned as `Izuna's calamity´.

Itama sat atop a tall chestnut horse and beamed from ear to ear as his horse strode through short bitten grass in between several fruit trees. Izuna was right at his side as he held the reins loosely and explained something that had his hand waving slowly.

Kawarama stood underneath a tree, back turned towards her and dozen guards and horses in the far back hidden by the shifting shade of the forest’s edge.

But Hashirama made a fast approach with a dark expression directed at her and so Tobirama retreated to the centre of the yard as she heard the gate creak and turned right in time to meet her brother’s looming statute as he backed her against a tree trunk.

In that moment, he looked so much alike father, she actually felt a pang of fear. “What the fuck do you think you’re doing? Do you know who that man is?”

She had to clear her throat, press her head further into the tree’s bark to look up into his glooming eyes. “You were the one who seemed to not realise earlier.”

“Well now I know. I had to ask Lord fucking Izuna Uchiha.” The grip on her forearm was tight, maybe not enough to bruise but certainly hurt. “You can’t kiss him. Like honestly… How long have you known who he is?”

“What is this supposed to be?”

It surely had been the wrong thing to say, because Hashirama’s brows only tightened with the tension in his jaw. “You kissed his Highness Madara Uchiha in our kitchen. Either that or someone spiked my food, that’s how impossible everything is feeling right now. Did he at least…” His arms waved in the air and his shoulders sank, but his grip tightened with the flailing of his arms. “honour you in some way?”

She hesitated, evaded his eyes, but could see little aside Hashirama’s hair and shirt, could not even move her head very well with the tightness of his grip. “An engagement would mean we’d have to make this official and I honestly don’t feel like I should be allowed to make any more significant decisions right now…”

He groaned, but the clench on his voice sounded deeply controlled. “But you felt enough at your senses to commit yourself to a King.”

“My emotional responses are very much unhindered by a mental freeze. I knew that I liked him, I didn’t envision he could return the sentiment.”

“I can’t believe I’m the rational one in this conversation… did you even pause to think whether this was a good idea?”

“Well, I’m happy you’re freaking out because I was worried when you simply left earlier without as much as a reaction.”

He shook her shoulders and pieces of bark scratched her bare arms that she felt the tell-tale sting of splinters breaching her skin. “I thought I was hallucinating again, do you know how trippy it is to actually see someone wearing purple? My little sister smooching a royal in our kitchen is something I was not prepared for.”

“Again, what is this supposed to be?”

“I don’t know. You tell me.” And if their neighbours had not heard his raised voice before, they definitely heard him now.

“Hashirama, honestly… I haven’t had time to think. My brain feels… weird and once my mental capacity has returned I’d like to talk to Madara first.”

“My brain would feel weird too if I had just been molested by our King.”

“Oh by the moons, can you just stop? It was me who initiated and he asked me about marriage, quite nicely if you must know, but I declined.” Hashirama’s face fell into something like panic and the splinters in her flesh drew blood. “Not indefinitely, but until… I’m ready, we’re certain this lasts, I finished university, probably all of these. Right now I truly would prefer… anything but talking.”

Hashirama shook her hard. “No, you realise nothing about this is acceptable, do you?”

Until his eyes blew open wide and he released her with a frightened yelp. “Oh Tobi, I’m sorry, you’re bleeding.”

It was at relax that she slapped his hand away as it reached for her. “Don’t.”

A look at the pieces of wood and she pulled several out. “I realise that there is plenty to discuss, so much so that I don’t even know where to start, but now is not the time and you are certainly not the person I need to clarify things with.”

A wish with her shirt and the blood was smeared, but Hashirama had already pressed the heel of his hands to his eyes and distanced himself so he did not see her scowl.

But his imitation of her voice was actually offending. “No Hashirama I do not like him like that. No Hashirama I’ve known him for less than two weeks, don’t make silly assumptions…”

“Stop it, I do not sound like that.”

One hand fell from his face and pointed at her as he laughed, but it did not sound amused at all. “Not too long ago you did. And I thought, oh how nice, a noble man who cherishes her and all her daring qualities… I always hoped whomever would get your hand in marriage to be able to give you a good life, but the first fucking man you fall for is the new fucking King.”

The breath he took was loud, slow and shaky. “I’d say I’m surprised but you have always been one for the extreme. I threatened a King for you and did not even know it.”

“Father attacked him at sight. I’d say that shadows everything you’ve said so far.” And as dry as she delivered her words as much did her chest tighten at the thought.
Hashirama actually stared at her for a minute.

Then he sacked in on himself and looked suddenly very tired. “Pray that he is as good a man as you think him to be, because it’ll be our doom otherwise.”

“Are you done with your antics?”

“How did you expect me to react? Find out and not see all the ways in which he can take advantage of you and that there is nothing I can fucking do against him if he does.” And what got Tobirama’s heart aching in guilt was that the look he threw her and the words he said conveyed the pain he was in over this.

“You don’t know him. Or the entirety of the situation."

“Because you don’t explain a thing!”

“Because I didn’t have the time to realise all of it myself! I wish I could say me kissing Madara was the biggest development of today, but Madara went and overthrew his father to pass a law and all of that at least partially for me.”

“He’s known you for less than two weeks.”

“And you knew you wanted to marry Mito after a single afternoon.”

His finger poked her sternum. “Talk of marriage does not equal declaration of eternal love.”

Tobirama was very tempted to simply throw him a suffering look, but took pity on him despite her pounding headaches. “I know that a relationship needs more than a fleeting feeling of excitement to make them work. And I would not call my attraction to him love just yet, but you should know that compatibility is something hard to find in another person. And you know that there are few people I can so much as stand talking to for more than a minute.”

He nearly hit her nose as he threw his arms up in exasperation. “Oh, changing the entire system is nothing one does for someone they have mild interest in. That was a declaration of love from his side at least. After less two weeks.”

Tobirama opened her mouth to say something, but was disrupted.

“Uchiha love rapidly, but commit steadily.” It was Madara who stepped through their backdoor into the yard. Whether it was unconcious or intentional, the strictness of his spine and the glare of his eyes like heatened choals was enough to have Hashirama and Tobirama still.

But the gaze that drifted to her and roamed her carefully was more concerned than angry.

Hikaku stepped out behind Madara like a shadow with swaying dark blue robes and vanished behind her fence once again, but probably not gone far.

The silence that lingered, only broken by rusteling leaves in a mild evening breeze and the chirping of birds, was somewhat intense in its awkwardness.

“By your reaction alone, I assume you now know.” Madara eventually adressed Hashirama. “I'm afraid, I have never... twisted a stick, but I'd probably beat you at skipping stones. I'd like to take you up on that offer soon.”

Hashirama actually seemed speechless as he scratched his head and deflated. “Ah, maybe...”

Tobirama disrupted. “Hashirama, can I speak to Madara alone?” And after a long suffering glance, he gave in and slowly sauntered out the yard.

And the it was Tobirama who moved closer until she smelt Madara's soap. “Where is my father?”

“Left for his own room.”

“Hurt?”

He snorted, but averted his eyes. “My hold might have left bruises, but aside he is unharmed.”

“What did you talk to him about?"

He exhaled and clearly hesitated to lay out his words. “I made it very clear that should any harm come to you or your brothers through his hand, I would hold him responsible for it. I tried to make very clear that you are in the right to speak for yourself from now on.”

“So he does know now?”

“That I am not an imposter?” Madara nodded. "The law, yes. About us?” At that he hesitated and tentatively reached out to hold her hand. “I felt it was more your right to tell, but the point I wanted to make demanded me to reveal that too. I hope you don’t mind.”

“I hate to take advantage of it, but the knowledge of my association with you could be reason enough for him to finally let us go.”

It might have been the shifting light, but Madara's jaw line got harder and his eyes darker. “That bruise on Itama’s cheek fits your father’s palm. Even his ring is distinguishable.”

As Tobirama nodded, he stepped closer, several strands of hair tickled her bare arms and provoked goosebumps. “Why did you not tell him of me earlier then?”

“I was afraid it would worsen his outrage. He hardly would've believed my words. I’m still unsure how he’ll react once you’ve left.” And saying it out loud brought flashes of violent memories that left her hands shaking, even Madara's hold could not prevent her fingers from twitching.

“As I said earlier, my house in the city is empty and in need for inhabitants.”

“Understand… there is very little I want more than get my brothers out of my father’s toxic wrath, but if I to whisk them away without my father’s consent it would equal cutting ties with our entire family and that is something I do not want to be responsible for taking from them.”

He was now so close to embracing her. “I could help.”

But Tobirama stepped back, but gently squeezed his hand that still held onto hers. “No offence, but for all that we dislike our father’s fury, there is still family here that we care about. This is a delicate situation that requires me to smoothen the waves without intervention from someone most of my neighbours would consider a foreigner.”

His cheeks darkened as he cleared his throat and nodded, more to himself before scanning their feet. “Sorry, I overstepped.”

“You did. But I’ll talk with my father tomorrow.” And it was easy to feel no fear at the forwardness that, with most other men would have provoked anger.

Madara simply looked up and let himself be stirred along towards the gate of the backyard so Tobirama could check on her brothers, where she let go of his hand.

“Tobira,” Tobirama averted her eyes to look at him again close to her shoulder were she could feel the brush of his clothing against her bare arm, “you look exhausted.”

“This entire afternoon has been draining.” She huffed and gifted him a small smile. “An hour since you came and it feels like half a century has past.”

A sliver of guilt had him avoid her gaze. “My apologies, I did not want to create a disturbance of this magnitude.”

“The advantages far outweigh any damage control necessary.” Tobirama waited till his eyes circled back to her to give him a soft glance and a smile. “As long as my brothers can be kept out of the mess I don’t mind.”

“You seem sure of that…” And the way he tilted his head to stare at the ground had Tobirama sigh and actually reach out, tentatively at first, but more certain after a quick decision and she rested her palm on his arm.

They were still far enough from the guards and their brothers to remain unnoticed and certainly hidden well enough by hedges and trees to not be seen by any neighbour or relative. She would not have dared otherwise.

“I despise dishonesty. It seldom does more good than delay consequences.”

“And yet, you did not tell your father you were seeing a man.”

The slightest hint of sass in his words had her mouth twitch and her brows raised. “And was I not faced with consequences in the end?”

Madara actually leaned closer to her, into her touch and turned more towards her as a whole. “True, so you do truly not mind?”

“Don’t take me wrong, I would like to keep this as quiet as possible, not only for the sake of my brothers, but for my own too.”

Tobirama let her hand on Madara’s arm fall to his back and nodded to the field. “A dozen guards in the field behind my house are certainly not a great way to avoid exposure and rumours travel fast within my village, but as for the rest of the country, I’d like to avoid that publicity. At least until we are sure that whatever we have lasts.”

While her own hand came up to ease the furrowing of her brows, the warmth of Madara’s palm suddenly appeared in between her shoulder blades.

The unfamiliarity of touches between them and yet the strange wish to inch even closer had her heart speed up and the heat on her back spread along her spine made goosebumps erupt. Tobirama had kissed this man and the thought did nothing but increase the tingles where she felt his warmth.

She was not necessarily touch deprived, but physical contact until now had been reserved for her brothers alone, so context seemed to be a bigger participant than she had anticipated.

Whatever they sought, Madara’s eyes shifted along her face. He was just that much taller than her that forced her to raise her head and him to lower his gaze. “You know, I only mentioned marriage, because traditionally that would’ve been the appropriate advance to make.”

At that, she actually snorted and through him an amused look. “Nothing about our relationship is traditional, which essentially doubles the catalogue of things we should have talked about before.”

And she was glad to catch the frown as he groaned and leaned his head back in exasperation. “Don’t remind me… My advisor will likely have an entire file of agreements to speak about. But you surely came up with a list of your own already.”

“There will probably be more additions the longer I get to overthink it so we will have to revisit this either way. Just one thing, what… do you expect of me?” Madara might have been unconventional, but Tobirama was not naïve enough to not ask.

“What do you mean?”

Tobirama kept her expression in something she hoped conveyed neutral interest, but had her hand fall from his back to rest between their sides. “What do you want out of this? You agreed to postpone marriage, but the prospect of a wife is generally the one positive outcome for a man when he enters a betrothal.”

And he now made sure to catch her eyes with his own that were set in hard lines. “It is exactly what I told you earlier and what I told you before. I like our conversations, you’re an inspiring person and the one thing I wish to get out of this is to enjoy your company more. I mean… I hope you did not agree to this because of misplaced feelings of obligation or guilt.”

“No. I agreed, because I like you. I just did not expect you to return my interest.”

His mouth cerainly made an impressive frown. “I should be the one saying that.”

And now Tobirama was laughing while pressing closer against his side. “Out of the two of us, you are the one who has more going for them.”

“And none of the things you are thinking about actually matter.”

That had one her eyebrows raised and her mouth twitching into a smirk. “Oh, tell me… what was I thinking about?”

That certainly seemed to make him fluster. “You mentioned social standing before, I figured finances is one such thing too.”

“I know that these are imbalances I can never level.” It did not bother her, she merely stated it as a fact and as he was watching her intently, he surely noticed that too.

There was still a rosy shine on his cheekbones and a glimmer in his eyes as they roamed everything, but lingered on her often enough. “And as I said, they don’t matter. I don’t expect anything from you you’re not willing to give. Aside from the bare minimum obviously.”

“And that would be?”

“Faithfulness, honesty, a bit of your time now and then…”

“And these are things I can expect from you too?" And she held the eye contact he initiated as he noodded, closer and certainly more attentive than before, which had her realising something... “Your eyes, I thought they were black, but they are actually a very dark grey.”

And that had him laughing. “All the staring you’ve done and you only ever saw that now?”

To look away to hide her heated face probably was fruitless. “I’ve seen them before, but I never fully noticed their colour variation…”

She gritted her teeth, but Madara smiled sweetly. “I’m flattered that you spare mental capacity for my eye colour alone.”

She pointedly avoided his amused look and looked at her brothers again. Kawarama was atop the horse now. Hashirama and Itama stood aside underneath a cherry tree, but it was Izuna who strangely caught her focus. From the distance it was hard to tell, but he something like a smile pulled on his lips and the swing of his raven black hair stood out against his waving purple robes.

“To be honest, I didn’t expect your brother to be so lenient with my brothers when I first saw him glaring holes into my forehead.”

Wind caught her hair and whisked strands into her eyes as Madara huffed. “Two days of travelling and he kept interrogating me about you.”

She raised a brow at that. “So what does he know of me?”

“Only your best qualities. I quite adamently told him to get to know you himself. After all, he has around three weeks before we have to leave.”

Tobirama would have liked to scorn herself for the dissapointment she felt at that. "Right, is that when you have to leave for the main city again?"

“I already created tension by postponing the official inauguration and leaving suddenly. Our ongoing negotiations with Kesseki were the only reason the council supported my return and prolonged stay here at all.”

“When will you return?”

“I’ll talk to the council, but my plan would be to spend two weeks every second moon cycle here.”

“Good." That was more than she had hoped for. "I’m getting used to this surprisingly quickly.”

“This?” Madara drew a lazy circle up to her nape and the palm’s warmth eased the tension in her shoulders.

She nodded and felt his gaze on herself. “I’m certainly not someone with an abundance of experience. Until now, I never wanted to garner any as well.”

“Neither am I.”

And he laughed at the incredulous look Tobirama gave him. “Even I could tell that I was not your first kiss.”

His hand stilled, his face tightened as he cringed. “No, it was not…” How after all they've talked about he still managed to turn red was beyond her understanding. “It is a weird story, nothing about it is remotely romantic or momentous.”

“You’re really good at peaking my interest, you know?”

“I’ll indulge you once no one is potentially listening in. Especially Izuna, he knows of course, but he does not need a fresh reminder to continue his teasing.”

“On a more serious note… I’m not immature enough to assume nor expect any man in your position to be untouched.” And the way she worded it had him choke on his own salvia and look at her wide-eyed.

"No! It was not like that."

"Either way, I don't mind." But she smirked and leaned so close that her breath moved tiny hairs along the side of his neck that his skin erupted in goosebumps. "I'll be the one profiting from your experience after all."

He inhaled audibly and turned impossibly red, before clearing his throat and very pointedly change the topic. “I should have brought something of my sparkling wine to celebrate properly. All the new developments, I mean.”

Tobirama distanced herself a little as their hands found each other in a gentle squeeze. “We have apple wine, but I assume even you shouldn’t drink and ride.”

Madara’s laugh had a couple of guards glancing their way, but the only one thing he looked at was her. “True, but now I only have this and I did not even intent it as a celebratory present. I brought it from Kesseki.” He pulled out a collection of several packages wrapped in dyed papers from a small bag she hadn't even noticed and handed her the first.

Tobirama stared at it before releasing his hand and taking it from his grip as she deadpanned. “You can be a real pain.”

“A true burden, I know. Join the queue of complainers.”

She opened the paper and starred at a new book about the history of science which she opened and scanned the introdution to. “Thank you, truly.”

“No need”

“No, very much needed. Showing gratitude is not my strongest suit, but I want you to know that I am very grateful for you in general.”

“Noted.” Madara cleared his throat and as he quickly turned his head the sprinkle of blush was not lost on Tobirama. But before she could comment he pulled out another present and took her book to hold while she opened the new present too.

It was a thick, silk-bound and embroidered book with empty pages.

“You sometimes mention your stack of notes and I thought it would be more practical to write them into a book.”

“Does this hold meaning?” Tobirama’s finger felt along the swirls of string that looked to methodical to be a random design.

“Of course you would notice before I had a chance to explain. It is a traditional pattern to Kesseki, it represents fortune or peace. In their understanding, the two are so closely related, they only have one word to describe both.”

“I’ll have to write small to not fill it too fast.”

“Write as much as you like, I’ll get you a new one once it’s full. The last presents are for your brothers.” He handed her the entire bag and a look inside revealed packages with hher brother’s names were written neatly onto the paper. “Give them to them later, I don’t want to cause more of a scene.”

She could do nothing but sigh. “I will. How was your trip anyway?”

“Shorter than anticipated, but just as awful.”

“I’d ask you about the trains, but then we would drift off topic.”

“I hardly had time for anything aside conferences and meetings, there’s not a lot to talk about.” Then he huffed unprovoked and Tobirama lifted a brow in question. “I tried to pay attention to the irrigation and heating systems they use, so I could describe them to you…”

“They don’t use over ground systems one can see, do they?”

“No, which was the problem. I asked during dinner and apparently no guest had asked to see the underground water system before.”

He looked at her and her incredulous scowl had him laugh hard. “I hope they did not take that as offence.”

“Oh, don’t worry. They were proud to show me. I’m sure you could have been more appreciative, but most of their explanation on aqueducts and sediment was lost on me.”

“Shame.”, she sounded as dry as it was supposed to come out.

“You just need to come along and see for yourself next time. They have great interactive museums too.”

“I could not go somewhere for an extended amount of time without knowing my brothers are well looked after.”

Then, somehow, Kawarama saw them and waved as he called with a big grin and specks of dirt atop his cheeks. “Tobi, look. I’m taller than Hashi now.”

Several heads turned towards them. Most of the guards were now watching them, some villagers in the distance too, but Izuna’s gaze was the most piercing as he turned his full body in something that could only be understood as an invitation.

With a last glance to Madara, Tobirama stepped out of the gate and onto the field, rustling grass behind her where she felt Madara moving as well.

Itama let go of Hashirama’s hand and started running towards them, before Izuna’s voice bellowed. “No running around horses, I said. These may be well trained, but most aren’t.”

Head tucked against his shoulders and apologetic grin on his lips Itama halted. “I’m sorry, Sir.”

“Good. As you should be, I told you so twice and you keep breaking the rules. Now come over, I have something to show you.” At that Itama lightened and walked over as fast as he could.

 

And the rest of the evening as the sun tinged them all in vibrant red was spent with sibling banters and surprisingly joyful conversation.

 

Tobirama sent her brothers inside, but accompanied Madara too the edge of the village. Hikaku led the way among the edge of the forest to circle to the main road without attracting more attention as Madara, Tobirama and Amaterasu followed behind Izuna.

They only stopped once they reached the cobbled road and Madara turned to her. "Can I see you tomorrow?"

"Do you not have a horrendous amount of work to do?"

"He does." Izuna pitched in from high atop Raijin and as Madara through him a scolding look, he merely grinned and swiftly joined the guards before Madara could say anything more.

"I'll be here by early afternoon if that is alright with you."

Tobirama nodded and felt several eyes on her, but as she threw a quick side glance to the guards, none of them were actually looking in their direction, only Izuna. "You should go, your brother is staring holes."

Madara threw him a stern look. “Izuna can practice himself in patience. He was the one who asked me to come along and meet you.”

“Well, I'll have to thank him for indulging my brothers.”

They stood close, but under the watchful eyes of Madara's henchmen she did not dare touch him. Madara, apparently, had no such reservations.

He leaned in, but waited for her allowance and she sighed a nod just before he pressed a kiss to her forehead. “Sleep well.”

She nodded and stept back as he mounted Amaterasu, but her cheeks felt warm and her head was spinning still. "I'll see you tomorrow."

He left with a wave and as they vanished behind a corner, Tobirama went back the same way around the village they came along.

 

As she steps into the house through the backdoor, her brothers were still seated in the kitchen, washing their feet and drinking calming herbal tea, but Kawarama and Itama talked wildly. Father was nowhere to be seen.

Tobirama hushed them into their room. Itama and Kawarama settled under the blanket, but Hashirama and she had to dress in sleeping garments first.

Only then did Hashirama eye the mattress weirdly, before looking at Tobirama. “Promise me you did not dirty our mattress.”

The look she through him was as dry as her words. “I bathed this afternoon, don’t you remember running the bath for us?”

“I meant- Madara and you-“, he waved wildly in the direction of the bedsheets and turned red, “He didn’t deflower you on our mattress, did he? Because I’m not sure I could overlook that and sleep there ever again.”

Tobirama’s cheeks felt so hot, she at first could do nothing but stare at her flailing brother and clear her throat to calm herself. “Hashirama, no. How can you even think that of me?”

“He is the King, decency will hardly matter to him.”

“Well, to me it does. Now get under the blanket, nothing happened anywhere.” She pressed out between gritted teeth, shaking her head in disbelieve.

“What does deflower mean?” Itama asked from his position under the blanket.

“First sexual intercourse.”

Kawarama frowned his brows and disgustedly pointed his lips. “Ew. Isn’t that like marriage consummation? Did you get married in our bed?”

“Shush, nobody got married. Or had sex. Not in this bed nor anywhere else." Tobirama gave Hashirama a pointed look and he returned it with a silent pout while edging under the blanket. "Hashirama will explain intimacy in detail to you tomorrow. It seems we were negligent in your education, after all.”

Hashirama sat up horrified. “Why me?”

“I may know about male puberty theoretically, but where do you expect me to get experience on having a penis…” If Hashirama wanted to add something, a single look by Tobirama silenced his protest and with a head as red as beetroot-juice he avoided all sort of eye contact. Kawarama had demonstrative turned around and covered his ears. Itama just seemed mildly confused.

“Change in topic, Madara actually brought all of you a small present, but-”, all of them had peaked in interest and Tobirama pointed at Hashirama, “I’m tempted to withhold yours for your incredulous accusations.” Hashirama gaped at her stern gaze and for a man of his statute to pull off the expression of a beaten puppy was certainly a sight.

Itama sat up, the right side of his face crinkled by the fabric of his pillow. She got them and kneeled down next to Hashirama before handing Itama and Kawarama their presents. Then she handed Hashirama his too.

Kawarama turned his package to look at all sides with wide eyes. “Who wrote our names on top?”

“Madara did.”

“He knows how to write my name?” Itama was star struck. “And in ink too. He must have a lot of Alnas if he can afford paper as beautiful as this.”

Despite their giddiness, they opened the paper carefully and swore to store it eternally. Inside Itama’s were two metal replicas of sheep, with movable legs and intricate painting. He started petting their small heads immediately. Kawarama got a set of good needles and several layers of high-quality fabric, the vibrant colours of the several bundles of yarn. Hashirama got a selection of exotic spices.

"Do you like them?" Tobirama asked and they frantically nodded. "Then make sure to thank him tomorrow."

Against her predictions, shortly after closing her eyes, Tobirama fell asleep.

 

When Tobirama woke the next morning, she took several moments staring up at the dark ceiling to sort her thoughts. There was little time to ponder, but she thought about her father.

There was only one way she could even imagine working and there was something else to be done before. So when she rose and dressed she did so quickly.

Hayato would be helping with the fruit harvest, so as dawn broke, she set out to their new orchard.

Normally, sheep and geese circled the field, the sheep to graze and the geese to eat snails and slugs. During harvest, the trees stood tall but young and covered in colourful speckles of fruit. Mist was still covering the fields and lazy sun beams broken by the mountain’s top promised a nice day.

It was the one Tobirama had optimised in spacing of the trees, the trees itself, as well as water and manure management. She had proposed her idea and backed up by their village’s scholar did the elders agree to grow a new orchard on top of one of the grazing fields. This was only the second year they could harvest these trees, but the effort was paying off already.

Tobirama saw a group of villagers setting up in the second row and spotted Hayato in their middle. Someone must have seen her because they all turned and stared. Tobirama had hoped word hadn’t gotten out, but she was seemingly not that lucky.

She greeted the group politely and then turned to Hayato. “Could we speak in private?”

He merely shrugged of the empty basket hanging on his shoulders and signalled for Tobirama to lead the way. They didn’t go far, just out of reach towards a barn filled with straw. She turned towards him and was surprised to find a serious, but open expression on his face. Two more days and she would have been his bride.

She was the one to seek him out and it was at her to breach the topic. “I first thank you for your cooperation in the betrothal, but I request we retract from it.”

Tobirama watched for his reaction carefully, but he merely nodded and gave her a smile. “This may have been an empty shell, but I would be grateful if you could give me a reason at least.”

“I don’t know whether the official courier has brought the news already, but the law has changed since we last met.”

Hayato nodded. His shoulders were as relaxed as they had been at the start of the conversation. “Just before dawn and few know. Those that do are in uproar and unsure how to disclose this to the village.” He smiled a little. “But the law is the law and shall be respected. Same as our new King.”

“Good. So to answer your request, I simply do not wish to marry you and now have the freedom to decide for my own.”

“So, this is not about the mysterious men on the field?” As he smilled cheekily and dimples appeared on his cheeks, Tobirama had to withhold a scowl.

“That depends on what people tell when they talk about them.”

“It sounds like a fever dream, if I’m being honest.” He was joking that much she had realised. “A group of riders on tall-as-a-tree horses and a royal himself. His highness King Madara Uchiha if you believe the bold ones. And apparently they came for you.”

“Sounds quite delirious to me.” Tobirama said dryly and held his gaze evenly.

He was the one to look away first, but laughed under his breath. “Yeah, I wouldn’t want to make a fool out of myself spreading these rumour. The more realistic ones say, he was merely a Lord from the city and the indirect light of the setting sun caused the robes to appear purple… how do you call it?”

“An optical illusion? Distorted colours?”

“Right.”

“Well, it seems, this village is as good in making up answers to made up questions as it has always been. Whatever I tell, I’ll be branded a liar by someone.”

“Hashirama made it sound like you were immune to gossip.”

“Which might be partially true, but I worry for my brothers.” They stared at one another for a minute, until Tobirama nodded stifly. “I should go now. Thank you again for your cooperation. If there is anything else you would like to know or say…”

“Only that I am just as glad as you to be out of this arrangement. There may be no one I love right now, but I still have hope. My parents will hold no grudges, by the way.”

Tobirama smiled. “Good to know.”

“Maybe I should also say that the younger ones among ourselves have hoped for a change of the law for years. For my sister, for her daughters, for my daughters, for my friends and cousins. Most of Hashirama’s friends will celebrate this thoroughly.”

“Good, because it needs protectors to keep it.” She turned but gave him a last nod. “Fare well.”

 

When Tobirama came home, her brothers were seated in the kitchen, laughing about some joke and eating breakfast. A fourth bowl and spoon had been placed for her, oats and fruit already inside and it had Tobirama smile at the broadly.

She brushed Kawarama’s shoulder and sat down next to him, opposite Hashirama. “Morning, did you sleep well?”

Itama leaned forward so energetically, the entire table moved with a screech. “I had the best dream. We rode through forest after forest and only stopped to eat sweet eggrolls.”

“Did you dream, Kawa?” Tobirama asked him.

“Not that I remember.” Kawarama lifted his spoon and stared at the mush. “Where were you Tobi?”

They all looked up at her expectantly.

“I broke off my engagement to Hayato, but...” Hashirama and Itama broke out into cheers and grins, Kawarama smiled and said. “Good.”

“But this is not important right now. Important is that I will speak with father.”

They went silent and stilled immediately. “Oh.”

“We talked about this, but only in hypotheticals and not meant serious. If I were to leave to study and live in the city, would you like to come with me or stay in the village.”

Almost immediately Itama jumped up. “Live with you.”

Kawarama grabbed her arm. “Please don’t leave us alone with father.”

She looked at them intensely. “There is a good chance father will not allow you to come with me.” They opened there mouth to protest, but Tobirama silenced them with a lifted finger. “But I have planned this thoroughly. I just wanted to be reassured that this is also what you want.”

Itama nodded frantically and Kawarama’s grip on her tightened. “Please, get him to agree.”

Hashirama sat down his spoon. “Kawarama, Itama, you should finish and go. Tobi and I will come once everything is resolved.”

They ate in silence, but once their bowls were empty, Kawarama took Itamas hand to beckon him into putting on his shoes. “We’ll be with the lambs. They are on the small pasture behind the barn.”

Tobirama looked at them. “There are already rumours circulating, simply say you don’t know anything when someone asks. I’m largely at fault for all the turmoil and I truly feel sorry for having you affected by it.”

“Tobi, we’d stick by your side through worse than chitchat.” Kawarama pulled open a door and several towels swayed with the soft morning breeze. “Go talk us free from this house. I think we’re all ready for a new start.”

And he was so right about that.

He took Itama’s hand firmly and gently tucked him along, closing the back door behind them and leaving Hashirama and Tobirama in the kitchen in silence to ponder for a moment.

“Where is father?”

“Still in his room for all I know.”

Tobirama nodded, but it was Hashirama who continued with a careful eye. “What exactly is your plan?”

“Should father allow, I’ll ask Madara for help.” Hashirama’s brows furrowed. “He offered his house in the city. I wouldn’t even consider asking for that much if there was another option to get them out of here and into a safe environment as soon as this.”

“You must truly trust him.”

Tobirama found herself scanning the yard outside their window, not necessarily avoiding Hashirama’s enquiring stare, but certainly ignoring it. “Would you stop antagonising him every second… Had the two of you had a different start, you would probably like him.”

“I don’t dislike him… until now he seems like a friendly and goodhearted person, but you two are already very close and I really hope he is as nice as you think.” He sighed in his usual overdramatic fashion. “Before I allow you to move in with him, I want to see that house.”

“I’ll have to talk to father first.” And as Hashirama nodded, Tobirama stood.

She walked towards the hallway slowly and Hashirama followed along.

In front of their father’s door, she stopped and took her brother’s wrist to press it softly. “I’ll speak with him alone.”

“If he does anything, call. I’ll be right here the entire time.”

They exchanged a glance and then Tobirama released him and turned to knock on the door.

Her father’s call was firm and clear, so she entered without looking back and closed the door behind herself.

She hadn’t been in this room since the night her mother passed.

Ten years and her memory was blurry but from what she could tell, nothing had changed. The bed and dresser were still the same, there was still a desk in the corner by the window and a small shelve with books and boxes.

Instead of the place her mother’s corpse had lain, Tobirama focused on her father sitting at his desk. He was staring at her, unwavering eyes and stern expression. She recognised the look, because sometimes she saw it in the water reflecting back on herself.

The bags under his eyes hadn’t been there the night before.

“Father, there are a few things I have to speak with you about.” He nodded, once and stiff.

“The day after tomorrow, I will be leaving for the city to be interviewed for a scholarship at university. That will also be the day I’ll move out and into a house in the city.”

She stopped to see her father’s reaction but he merely nodded and without change in his look.

She had hoped for some kind of indication to how he would take her next words, but he gave none. “Also, I will take Kawarama and Itama with me and send them to school properly.”

Her father’s eyes narrowed and when he finally spoke it was with a hint of anger. “You say it like you know I don’t really have a choice in the matter.”

“Before the law, you do.” Tobirama knew that her father knew that she was not in the right to take her brothers with her without his consent. They were under the age of fifteen, still minors in all regards and not yet allowed to choose schooling or housing for themselves.

Still she knew what he was hinting at and he confirmed with his scold. “I now know whose wrath I would be attracting. Should I choose to oppose you, I would be up against his Highness, our new King too. You mock me by giving me the illusion of choice. Go and take what you want.” He turned and Tobirama could tell that as far as he was concerned, the conversation was finished.

Tobirama pulled out a document she had prepared, an allowance slip. “Sign this then.”

Butsuma looked up and frowned at the piece of paper handed to him. He ripped it out of her hand and without a second glance scribbled his signature beneath before swiping from the table, so Tobirama had to catch it mid-air.

The relief rolled over her in waves of cold shivers and release in tension in her shoulders.

Tobirama lingered at the door for a second to see whether her father would look at her once more, but he remained rigid, facing his papers. “Father, it is not my intention to bereave you of family or dignity, but I value my brothers higher than something as fragile as ego.” He did nothing, not even still for a second. “Thank you for not standing in our path.”

As she opened the door and was about to leave, she heard him under his breath. “You cannot even leave me the gratification of the last word.”

And with that she left, closing the door softly and having Hashirama push into her personal space almost immediately.

And surely he had listened in, because he grabbed her and lifted her from the ground easily, wrapping her up and turning her despite the narrowness of the hallway.

Once he broke into laughter and his small sob, Tobirama had her eyes itching too. For the first time in a long while she felt like crying at his chest.

They stood there for a second, Hashirama holding her and smiling on her shoulder while wetness on her skin betrayed his effort to smother his snivels. Tobirama petted his hair, basking in the happy moment, but thoughts returned to Itama and Kawarama who did not yet know of the good news.

So she eventually nudged Hashirama’s nape and murmured. “We should go and find Kawa and Itama.”

"They’ll be ecstatic.”

“Wait till we tell them that I’ll be accepting Madara’s house.”

Hashirama’s laugh had always been one of the happiest sounds in her life and now she felt inclined to chime in. Instead she rubbed his arm and his hold on her loosened. “Let’s not let them wait for longer then.”

Chapter Text

Tobirama felt eyes linger on them the whole way to the barn.

Neighbours threw glances over their hedges and workers stilled in their harvest to either openly gaze or watch more subtly. Being watched for her looks was something she was used to, but this was a different kind of stare. It burnt and lingered and judged in an entirely new way.

Because Hashirama made now sign of noticing or caring, she choose to ignore them too.

It was something she would have to grow used to, supposedly.

Madara had chosen her. Or more precisely, they had somewhat chosen one another. Either way, she had bound herself to the King. For now, as a companion of sorts, which already were hefty shoes to step into.

These gazes, she would have to endure. A small evil, if it allowed her to stay by his side.

As they rounded the corner and opened the wooden gate to the sheep’s lot, Itama noticed them and came running right away. A two screaming lambs followed his example, but Kawarama tailed along more slowly.

Hashirama’s broad grin must have been a tell-tale of the happy news because Itama jumped into his arms to wrap himself around him like a coat.

Kawarama was more discrete, but the firmness with which his arms wrapped themselves around Tobirama’s shoulder was telling in itself. “Did he take it well?”

“As well as we could’ve hoped for.”

Itama looked so excited and as much like Hashirama as she had ever seen him. “So we will be coming with you? For real?”

“Yes, you will.”

That Itama cheered right next to Hashirama’s ear had Tobirama flinch in sympathy. Meanwhile, the lambs had circled around Hashirama and as Itama scrambled free from his arms, they jumped back and bleated. “We need to pack. Can I bring Amai?”

But it was Kawarama that gave her the incentive to explain. “So, where will we be living?”

 

It was midmorning when Madara found her in the yard between washing lines of wet clothes and bedding, elbow-deep in dirty water and hands pruned and itching from soap and their scrubbing board.

He stepped through the gate and closed it behind himself, careful to let the bolt shut all the way. Clasped in his usual blue robes, Tobirama noted, she liked him best. It felt almost intimate, Madara in his almost casual clothing and the crack in his neutral expression as he smiled at her. “Hello Tobira.”

She only realised how she had stilled in her washing, when the tingles in her belly grew stronger as Madara stepped closer, but halted at her side in respectable distance. “Hello. Without your guards today?”

“They were eager to follow, but I insisted to ride alone.” Eventually, his head tilted to watch her wrangle out the last shirt, shake it to free it from creases and hang it upon the swaying and already filled washing line. “Do you always do the washing?”

“No. My brothers and I take turns.” Tobirama straightened, hastily turned to wash her hands with clear water and dried them at a towel by the backdoor. Over the splashing water she did not hear Madara approach so when she turned and found him closer than expected, Tobirama’s heart quickened.

To have him close enough to smell his soap and see the glint in his eyes was not close enough, her mind dully noted. Even as she noticed her pruned fingers reaching out, she did not stop them and they settled against his clothed arm. “Do you mind?”

Madara’s eyes had gone out of focus for a second, somehow even darker and softer than before, so he had to visibly shake out of his haze. “Sorry, what?”

“Do you mind that my fingers are those of a worker?”

She was not sure what she had expected, but to have his own hands lift and clasp her wrist and detangle her fingers to feel each of them on their own gently, was not it. “Do you think of me as superficial?”

Her headshake seemed to be answer enough, so he lowered their interwoven fingers. “Good. Do you mind if I kiss you?”

Tobirama was sure that her heart stuttered for a second again and when she shook her head this time, it was with a hint of blushed shyness. “You don’t need to ask for permission every time. Just,” a quick glance around, but none of her neighbours were watching through gapes in the hedges or over the fence, even if, the swaying clothes on their washing line hid them from preying eyes, “I don’t feel comfortable doing it when someone is watching.”

“Okay.” And then Tobirama felt his bare hands at her nape, at her shoulder, roaming her back and his lips and her own palms on thick fabric.

They kissed.

Hidden by white linen and greenery.

And when they finally parted, Tobirama was unsure when she had moved so much closer and why her heart was racing.

His face was close still, his nose almost touching her own and the effort minimal to simply draw in again. And again to keep the high coming.

People did it all the time. Was this how they always felt? Was it supposed to leave her breathless like this? Was it harmful to feel this light from something so simple?

And surely, it could not be safe to feel addicted already.

She wanted to ask, because maybe Madara would know, but it might be a silly thing to think about. Either, her distraction had been obvious, or Madara was able to read her, but he drew back and smiled. “What are you worrying about?”

“Doesn’t matter. There are more important things to tell you anyway.”

“Now?”

“Let me put on something fresh and I’ll show you the river.”

“Fine.” His eyes roamed the tables by the backdoor. He pointed towards the selection of different jars filled with hardening red liquid lined on the table top. “What are those?”

“Our neighbours made marmalade, you can try if you want, but it has not gelatinised yet.”

He seemed suspicious, but stepped closer and took an enquiring sniff only to pull back in surprise. “Is it cherry?”

And that had Tobirama smirk, but wave him over towards a small tree in their neighbours’ garden that had branches reaching over the hedge to allow her to grasp it.

“Gentu-Cherry, they are smaller and sourer in taste.” Tobirama lifted a twig on a nearby tree to show him the fruit.

“They look poisonous.” What an odd statement to make.

Tobirama stared at him and demonstrative took one of the fruits to pop it into her mouth as his eyes widened in irritation.

It made her snort and almost choke on the cherry’s pit, but manage to cover her cough with a laugh. “These have been used since before our time, do you really think generation after generation was hungry enough to eat something poisonous? Just don’t touch their leaves, they have a mild burning acid like stinging-nettles.”

“How do people even find eatable plants like this?”

“Trial and error. Were I to die because I ate one, you surely would never eat one yourself.”

“That’s a horrible way to test if something is edible.”

Well, what was there to say to that, so Tobirama only sighed and realised the branch which whisked up with rustling leafs.

She waved him to follow her towards the backdoor. “Do you want something to drink?” And only to rail him up further she through a glance over her shoulder and added with a cockily raised eyebrow. “We have Cherry wine from this tree too.”

The look he gave her for that was tinged in pure ire. “No, just do whatever you wanted to do and leave.”

“Oh my…” He groaned into the palm of his hand, because of her dry tone alone, so she took pity. “I’ll show you the river, let me just drink some water first.”

She watched him turn towards their still growing pumpkins and slipped out of her slippers. To wash her hands and drink some water worked fast, but as Tobirama searched through her clothes to put on a clean shirt, she found none.

Itama must have stolen her things again.

He sometimes mentioned that he liked to have something of hers because it relaxed him more.

So it was with frustration that she opted for one of Kawarama’s shirts in return. They were not as big as Hashirama’s but still fell from her shoulders awkwardly. Not that it mattered, Madara had seen her in all sorts of weird clothing items already.

Nonetheless, when she returned to the yard, he gave her a quick onceover, but said nothing, only followed her as she led them out the gate.

People already knew about Madara, but when she led him along the small path behind the houses she choose one that had them avoid the more popular places still.

There really was no telling how her neighbours would react to see him in person and there was no need to add more wood to a searing flame of rumours already running hot enough.

She had them pass through the last remaining acres of waist high wheat and once they breached the forest line, Tobirama’s shoulders visibly relaxed.

Of course, Madara noticed. He seemed eerily attuned to her subtle shifts in mood. “Did your neighbours make you problems after we left?”

“No, but they surely mastered the handling of rumour mills. When I spoke with Hayato this morning, he hinted towards some distinct variation. It hasn’t even been a full day and already people are talking.”

And a quick glance towards him showed how his expression darkened in worry already, so Tobirama stopped his churning thoughts before they surely could spiral him into some weird assumption. “Stop, when I said it would not bother me I was speaking the truth. I am just amazed at the some people’s ability to gossip relentlessly, because I would grow tired really fast.”

Madara seemed unsure what to say to that, staring at his feet as they stepped over branches and through browning leafs, so Tobirama changed the topic. “These houses we just passed by have been already connected with fresh water by my water pipes.”

“Really? This fast?”

“We want to be set before the winter and harvest is demanding enough so we tried to get as much as we could finished before. As a source I selected a fresh water spring with a big underground reserve close by, but high enough to use gravitational forces.”

They reached the river at a section that was wide and pebbled with big stones and few smaller ones. Big boulders in the middle and long branches or trunks build bridges that they could have crossed over, but Tobirama stilled and stared at the few fish meandering in the deeper pools.

“I talked to father as I said I would. I have his allowance to take my brothers to the city.”

And before Tobirama could say anything else, she embraced her and lifted her from the ground as if she weighted nothing. He was strong, or otherwise they would have stumbled and fallen into the water by the sudden shift of gravitation. More the surprise and less the close contact had her frozen and stiff despite Madara’s obvious joy as he pressed kisses along her temple. “When can you leave?”

“I told father it would be the day after tomorrow…”

He planted a big kiss at her forehead, but his grin was telling enough. “So you’ll come?”

And as he finally noticed her twitchiness, he apologised and put her on solid ground again.

To her own surprise, Tobirama griped his sleeve and kept him from distancing himself too far. “Your offer… It is a lot to ask for and please know that I would not take it if I had a choice with which I would not have to leach off of you and your influence…”

“You’re not leaching off of anything. You may feel like you are, but that is your mind lying to yourself.” He certainly seemed determined. “I can be here by dawn. How many things do you want to take?”

“You saw our room, there is not a lot there anyway. We’ll leave everything aside from clothing, books and personal items. Itama wants to bring his lamb, which I have to talk him out of still.”

“I mean… there is an empty stable, but it was meant for horses. Still, he could use it if he wants to bring a sheep or two.”

“We’ll see. I feel bad for asking this much of you already, I’m not sure I could add animals to that mixture.”

“Oh, I think my servants would love to do something else but cut the grass and swipe the floors.” And for that, Tobirama gave him a shove hard enough that he barely caught himself at the edge of the riverbank.

And Tobirama was clever enough to run before he was able to get a grip on her shirt. She was on top of the closest fallen trunk and half way across the river already when he called after her. That his fingers would catch her and the sudden yank had both of them fall and roll through the river bed, submerged, but laughing. Madara was stronger, but Tobirama was faster.

They eventually calmed, then kissed, then let themselves drift despite their soaking clothing and eventually sauntered along the river, throwing stones and sticks now and again. Tobirama showed him how to fish with nothing more than a solid stick, a knife and patience.

To talk for hours was easy.

To realise that most of this would come to an end once she moved to the city was bittersweet.

 

The last day in the village was busier than Tobirama would have believed.

Essentially, their personal belongings fitted in a bag each, but Itama and Kawarama were so excited that they packed and repacked several times, not that it made a big difference. Their favourite spoon, the mug which they had used since birth, small pebbles they had collected or seeds of the most delicious plants, they had packed all sorts of reminders like these too.

Tobirama was not sure if Itama knew how big a change between village and city could be, but there was no good way to prepare him. For Kawarama, she was less worried. He had wanted to move to the city eventually anyway.

The other contributor to the mess that was creating itself was that half the village had gotten wind from their departure and had decided to drop by to ask questions under the disguise of saying goodbyes. So many people showed up at their doorstep, some with presents or sweet words, some with accusations.

Eventually, with every knock they threw a look out the window first and only opened if it was a person they liked.

 

Through the night, Itama and Kawarama barely slept and by extension, Tobirama too. They whispered to each other through the first half of the night and restlessly tossed the blanket for the second half, while Tobirama had settled in her own thoughts. Hashirama was able to sleep through almost everything, but even he shifted and tossed that night.

They rose early and dressed in their laid out clothing. Hashirama prepared a breakfast of oat cakes with syrup and fruit, sweet milk and tea. Itama was gone the second they finished to fetch his lambs.

Tobirama had discouraged him from actually doing so, because it would be cruel to rip any of their animals from their group and surrounding and keep them somewhere they themselves were not familiar with.

But as Itama had argued, the handfed lambs had imprinted on him as their primary caregiver and as prior cases had shown, handfed sheep generally would never fully integrate into a herd. With that in mind, the village had allowed Itama to take Amai and the other handfed lamb which he had named Yoru.

Before the crack of dawn, Toka and a couple of their other cousins turned up as Kawarama and Tobirama were washing the dishes.

They said their well-wishes and Tobirama made it very clear that they planned on visiting as often as possible and that they would meet on the market. This was not supposed to be a farewell forever.

So as they stood in their kitchen with Hashirama talking to everyone and Tobirama watching intently from her position in the back by the window, someone knocked on the front door and everyone went silent.

They all turned to her and so Tobirama shifted towards the door and opened it.

Madara stood in his usual dark blue attire, backlit by the sun and only watched her despite the small crowd in the kitchen. “Good morning.”

“Good morning. We were just saying our goodbyes.” Tobirama shifted and Madara ducked through the entrance into their kitchen too.

Everyone else but her had gone silent and visibly unsure how to react, but Tobirama tried to ignore it as best she could and so she picked up her bag and Itama’s. Kawarama took his own and they followed Madara outside again.

Everyone else left the kitchen too and Tobirama locked the door behind them. Father had not shown up, not even now when they were ready to leave. Itama was in the backyard with Amai and Yoru.

When they left their yard, they waved towards Toka and the others a last time and with Hashirama in tow they made their way towards the treeline by the fields where several guards and horses waited.

A last look back and the house they had been born and raised in had shrunk and was half-hidden behind hedges and trees.

One of the guards took their bags and bound them to his horse. They had brought enough horses to have them sit on one each and they were on their merry way, certainly slower than Madara would usually make his way to the city, but safer.

 

To Tobirama’s surprise, it had been Hashirama who had attempted conversation with Madara. Admittedly, it had been a bit awkward and weird in topic, but they had discovered a common interest in various card and board games. But conversation had ceased once the streets had grown busier.

They had taken several backstreets to avoid the buzzing inner city, but the property they now waited in front of was just around the corner from the city centre.

The fence itself was high and made of stone and metal. The length of the fence alone already hinted to a something less like a house and more like a small palace. An even higher well-kept hedge stood behind it so they could not see the house or garden until the gates opened.

A white building with black shingles stood out at the end of a long cobbled avenue of the tallest cherry trees Tobirama had seen so far. She could not say that she was surprised, but she had not imagined something so pompous too.

Floor-length windows with carved frames and solid balconies on the second floor should have made the house stand out from the garden that was a mixture of big empty meadow and islands of designed ponds with bushes, yet all the lanterns at the building’s front and spread throughout the greenery made them match.

Only two people waited at the entrance and bowed so deep, Tobirama could imagine their back aches.

Madara stopped and dismounted Amaterasu. The guards followed and Tobirama slid from Omoi’s back and a guard was at her side to take his reigns from her the second she looked around.

Hashirama helped Itama and Kawarama and the guards then took the horses from them and they eventually were left to stand and muster the grounds.

Itama had been uncharacteristically silent throughout the entire ride, but mostly because he had looked around and taken in all sorts of interesting things they passed, especially once they entered the city’s wall. Now, he was twitching, maybe to run across the abnormally green pasture, maybe to climb one of these trees, maybe to get a hold of his lambs which were still bound to one of the guard’s saddles and only now released.

Hashirama simply stood and watched, barely able to hold back on his comments and Kawarama seemed uncomfortable.

What really surprised her was that a small sliver of nervousness betrayed Madara’s carefully crafted mask too. Maybe he expected them to run from the unfamiliarity of basically everything.

This was her doing, in all sort of ways. To bring her brothers here in this unfamiliar surrounding and uncomfortable situation. And simultaneously to put Madara in an uneasy spot.

Either way, it was her responsibility to move forward and in a split second decision she leaned in to him to whisper. “Can we introduce ourselves?”

Madara seemed surprised, but nodded and so Tobirama straightened and bowed politely towards the two people she could only assume were servants. “I am Tobirama Senju. Thank you for your service. I hope we cohabitate well.”

She looked at Kawarama, so he bowed and mumbled. “I’m Kawarama Senju.” And Itama chirped in. “I’m Itama.”

Hashirama just cringed. “Ah, I’m Hashirama, but I’m not gonna live here.”

The two servants bowed once more, but the look of surprise was not lost on Tobirama.

Madara was the one to clear his throat to finally speak up. “Ishida and Nakajima will be here to assist in whatever you need. Nakajima will cook and care for your laundry and Ishida is mostly for the up keeping of the property, but anything else you wish within reason as well.”

At the mentioning of their name they stood straight.

“All other servants were send to work in other locations, but if you feel like there is more to attend to then you we can arrange the transfer. Hikaku, make sure that the luggage is received. I’ll show you the house.”

Itama pressed close to her side and Kawarama was tense in his movements, but Tobirama nudged them forward and a gentle smile from Madara had her ease a little. Hashirama simply tagged along.

The doors opened into an entrance area with an open staircase.

A storage room for shoes and outdoor robes as well as hallways leading to an eating area. There was simply so much space used for small side-tables, white sofas so many dark-blue and Uchiha-red pillows, an enormous fireplace and plenty of lamps that Tobirama was unsure how to feel about this luxury.

They certainly did not fit in, even the servants and guards had more elegant, dark uniforms.

A sitting area with a gigantic wooden table and soft carpet had another closed door, behind which was a small hallway to the kitchen and a washing room for clothes.

Some of the large windows were open and a gentle breeze swayed the curtains and led to a big terrace sheltered by an upstairs balcony and with a metal table and chairs covered in the most pompous cushions and table-cloth Tobirama had ever seen.

Even the downstairs bathrooms were advanced, clean sparkling white tiles and running water, even heated.

As Madara showed them his library Tobirama could only give him a long stare with which she hopefully conveyed how unbelievably outlandish the entire unfamiliarity made her feel.

The last room on the ground level Madara called his office and that would be the only room locked for security reasons.

 

Once they had ventured the ground floor they ascended the stairs and Tobirama could already tell that her brothers felt more secure than before.
Madara opened the door to a bedroom at the end of the well-lit upstairs’ hallway.

“Kawarama, I thought you may like this room.” There was a bed for two with white linen and a table by the window, empty shelfs and an armchair next to doors that led onto a balcony. Warm lights and pillows, a soft carpet and warm coloured sheets and curtains swaying with the breeze made this room look nicer than any bedroom Tobirama had ever stepped foot in.

“The adjoined bathroom is behind this door and there should be fresh clothing in the closet for you to use.”

Tobirama held Itama back from storming in, but Kawarama stood frozen in the door before he made slow steps towards the bed to feel the fabric.

They gave him a moment in silence to look around and settle his thoughts. When he turned he bowed deeply. “Thank you, I really like it.”

Madara nodded, but stepped back. “Hikaku will make sure your things will be brought up. Take your time to get used to it. If you have a question, don’t hesitate to ask.”

“Where do I sleep?” Itama interrupted and Madara gave him an amused eye.

Then he turned to the other side of the hallway and opened the other door opposite to Kawarama’s. “This is your room if you like it. The layout is the same.”

It looked similar to Kawarama, but the doors and windows were secured with something Madara would later explain to her as child locks, so they could only open a hand’s width.

Itama was on top of the mattress in less than a second, spread across the blanket and giggling as he rolled himself around. “Thank you, I’ve never had a room of my own.”

As Hashirama poked his head in, Itama waved him over and soon enough they were spread out over the blankets giggling and it mad Tobirama feel more at ease.

She felt definitely guilty for separating her brothers from their family and surrounding. That this was ultimately for their benefit was only a small relief.

The situation they had left was bad, surely, and Tobirama was more than glad that they had made it out her father’s house alive and barely hurt, but only time would tell whether this new environment might prove too much for her or her brothers.

Before she could go down that rabbit hole of worry, Madara nudged her and whispered close to her ear. “Let me show you your room.”

At the other end of the hallway, Madara motioned to a door on the left. “That is my room, but I mostly stay in the city’s palace and this,” he pulled open the door opposite to it, “is yours.”

The room was bigger than Itama’s and Kawarama’s, a proper sofa and small fireplace, curtains swaying in the breeze that came through the opened window doors and a bed even bigger. A big table and soft fur carpets. One door led to a big bathroom with a big tub and another to a walk in closet. “Well, this is more space than I could ever fill out.”

“You could get shelves and books.”

“Even then… this is just so much floor. Three more people could live in here.”

“I hope you don’t invite strangers to sleep on the carpet. I would find that a bit concerning.”

Tobirama did not answer to that but stepped through the open window doors onto a balcony that oversaw the garden, which was more like a park. The view brought back something she had wanted to ask earlier, so she turned to Madara and took his hand. “You need to set some rules by the way.”

“What do you mean?”

“Your fishpond, I bet my brothers will see it and assume they can go for a swim, naked of course, or even catch some fish for dinner.”

He gave her a kiss on her cheek and then leaned against the balcony’s balustrade to watch the white, red and grey silhouettes swim beneath. “That will be an expensive dinner and horrible in taste too. Koi of this size are old and cost as much as a small horse.”

A kiss to each of her finger’s knuckles. “They can try swimming though, they just have to warn the servants. In my family, we don’t swim in the nude, so they will not be used to it.”

“And what about tree climbing?” She waved towards the neatly grown and pruned cherry and magnolia trees.

“Sure. Just don’t cut them down or break too many branches.”

“And are we allowed to make food in the kitchen too or to we have to rely on the cook?”

“No…” Madara seemed baffled, “If you want to cook yourself, just tell her, but you could simply ask her whatever thing you’d like and she’ll make it for you.”

“Well, I want my brothers to have a better life, but I don’t want them to be depended on servants. I expect them to clean their own space and learn how to cook and work, otherwise life outside of this,” she waved around, “will be very hard for them.”

Their hands fell, but Madara stepped closer and even though his eyes asked a silent question, his hand found Tobirama’s waist before she could nod.

No one was there to watch them embrace.

To murmur words against his cheek was easier after her heart had calmed. “I feel already quite vicious to live in a property like this and even get someone to clean it for me, when I know my cousins have to work to sleep on old mattresses. Socially, I’m closer to the workers you call servants than even to your cousin Hikaku who serves you too.”

Tobirama could feel his deeper breathe as he took it and the sigh as he released it against her neck which had shivers erupt all over. “That is simply how it is. Should you stay by my side…”

“I know. I’ll adapt, it might take time however.”

Tobirama was very aware of the lips that moved against the tender skin just behind her ear, not quite a kiss, but not far from it either. “I think the general theme to all of this is, do as you please, and if you are nice you’ll make sure to tell the servants of your decision.” His arms around her shoulder were firm, but with every move Tobirama made, Madara made sure to give her space. Would she have decided to step back from him completely, he would have released her without a second thought, of that Tobirama was sure. “Feel free to talk to them about your concerns for their welfare as well. I assure you, we pay all of them generously and if they say something different, I will recalculate all their wages myself.”

“I trust you to handle your staff fair, what I say may not reflect it well, but you should know.”

“You’ve brought your brothers away from your family and into a foreign house with strangers. What more do you think you need to do to show me your trust.”

“Touché.”

As if they knew they were being spoken about, Itama appeared in the door and Kawarama behind him, so Tobirama drew back from Madara. They glanced at them with the same unabashed interest they had for all things in their life and maybe Tobirama would have blushed, but Madara’s hand at her lower back was firm and reassuring. “We wanted to ask, if we could see the garden.”

Madara merely nodded, but Tobirama gave them a small lecture. “We’ll come down in a second. Make sure to knock at other people’s doors next time.”

They turned with flushed grins and synchronised apologies, but as soon as they had vanished, Tobirama could hear their excited voices deeper in the house, but distant, she turned to the garden again and saw them venture onto the lawn, followed by Izuna.

It reminded Tobirama of something else. “I want to get them started in school as soon as possible. Kawarama will try to talk me into letting him start an apprenticeship early, but he’ll have to stick out two more years.”

“An aunt of mine has a son of Itama’s age who is in school close by. I can ask her to come over and tell you about it.”

“Thank you.”

“Her husband is a doctor and most schools require a full medical review before they allow entrance. Should I ask him to come over too?”

“Fine. Just… All of this seems surreal. In my mind, none of it has happened and I’ll wake up tomorrow from a long and weird dream. Give us at least a day or two to acclimate before we bring in strangers.”

“If you want… Hikaku could show you around. He was the one who offered when I mentioned that I could not do it myself unless you wanted to draw attention.”

“You can show me this garden of yours.”

And apparently, there was plenty to be seen. By the time Madara and Tobirama had made it downstairs, their brothers had disappeared together behind bushes and trees already. Hashirama stood by the entrance and bid them farewell for now. He had business to do at the pharmacy and was satisfied with their living conditions to leave them be for now.

So they made their way onto the neatly cut grass first. Tobirama could not stop herself from calculating the amount of grain or rice or corn that could be grown there instead.

“What do you need this much space for?”

“Nothing.”

“And why do you have it then?”

Madara simply shrugged. “It looks nice.”

The pond with fishes, which they had seen from the balcony already, was framed by other plants and bushes and pebbles, which even stretched alongside the artificial stream that connected this pond with something that could only be another pond. There was a bridge over the small waterway as well and they made their way through flower beds and complicated arrangements.

At the furthest edge of the garden, a stable in the style of the main house stood and patches of land had already been sectioned with a wooden fence made for horses, but someone had made the effort to add more boards to make it usable for smaller animals.

Itama was already in the pen, checking the water bucket and was followed by Amai and Yoru, who were already screaming their lungs out. What surprised Tobirama was that the section next to them held an adult sheep and a significantly older lamb.

A single questioning look at Madara and he answered. “I asked Hikaku and he said that young lambs like yours may need another sheep to get milk from. He went to the market and got one with a nearly weaned lamb of her own.”

“Thank you.” One look at Itama and his happy smile while he brushed their fur and evaded their small hooves with a big laugh and Tobirama thought, maybe this could work out.

 

Madara and Tobirama ended up talking for hours on the terrace, her brothers fast asleep on the couches in the sitting room. They had left for bed, but eventually turned up again. Apparently, they hadn’t been able to sleep without her company.

 

The next day, Hikaku showed them around the city while Madara met with Izuna to work. The school Madara had talked about was merely five minutes away and in a nice, redbrick building with a playground and a yard.

The university was within walking distance too and Hashirama’s future house too, even though it took them forty minutes to reach it.

 

The day after, Madara’s aunt Kagae and her husband Toroko came accompanied by their oldest son. They were so clearly related to Madara with just as black, but curly, her skin darker, her eyes lighter but the similarities were striking nonetheless. Tobirama was taller than her already.

Her son Kagami was cute as a button, well-behaved and charming around adults, but just as lively as Itama. He had brought a ball. Not the filthy, hand sown things they had tried to create in their village with leftover leather and fabric, but one of high quality.

The two of them fit like pot and lid and were off playing in the backyard as soon as Tobirama and Kagae dismissed them. Kagami showed Itama how to properly kick it.

That Itama would show him how to climb trees and in turn, have a bunch of nervous guards underneath the branches, ready to catch should either of them fall was funny to watch.

Kagae was nice enough to explain to her all sorts of details about the school and her husband gave them a medical check-up.

Aside from obviously being underweight, they appeared to be fine. Blood tests were send in, but the results wouldn’t be back for a day or two.

 

Days passed.

They settled in in this new routine of less work, but more time for other things.

Kawarama really took the time to sew. Itama, after hours of politely asking, got the cook to allow them to help her in the kitchen. In her words, it was sweet of them to offer their help, but it was not proper of her to allow them to do something she was getting generously paid for. Aside, although they were not noble, with their position as guests of the house, they might as well have been.

 

Then Itama and Kawarama started school.

And suddenly, Tobirama had plenty of free-time to fill.

 

Tobirama had taken to excessive reading in the library alongside careful regulation in her brothers studies. There were plenty of books she hadn’t read.

Often Madara would ask her for help too. Mostly just her opinion on own wording or another. Sometimes her view on a critic (most of them for his new law), but with her interview drawing close, he left her to her reading.

Tobirama was deep in thought on some extensive reading in preparation for her interview that she only noticed Izuna as he turned the corner and stopped. He had books and paper of his own in hand and a surprised expression.

“Oh. That is usually were I sit.”

There were several working spaces in the small library, but this table had the best lighting, a perfect view at the fish pond and was hidden by a shelf so that one was not disturbed. It only made sense that someone else valued the spot for all its benefits too.

“My apologies.” Tobirama started packing her stuff, but Izuna interrupted her.

“No! No, stay.” He put his stuff at the opposite end were Tobirama’s things had not spread yet. “We can share.”

Tobirama hesitated, but Izuna nonchalantly opened one of his books, hunched over it and went on with scribbling notes on a sheet of paper covered in doddles. So she went back to work herself, a bit distracted by the constant scratching and she felt more than one side glance on her as she wrote out her practice calculations and drew her sketches.

Unsurprisingly, it was Izuna who broke the silence. “My brother praised you to the major moon and back.”

Tobirama looked up from her notes and caught Izuna’s mustering gaze. “I am not sure what I should say to that.”

He only huffed a laugh. “You needn’t say anything. I’m just curious to see what he finds in you. Your looks are certainly unusual.” His eyes shifted to the arrangement of papers she had gather around herself, varying side calculations and quick remarks. “And that you are good with numbers I can see.”

“For all you know I could be writing done nonsense.”

Madara might have laughed at her teasing, but Izuna scolded. “It certainly cannot be your charming character that he likes.”

Tobirama allowed a small smile. “Probably not, I am a horrible socialiser.”

“Oh, Madara is godawful too.”

“I know.”

“He should praise the ground I walk on, otherwise he wouldn’t have gotten anywhere with the council. Or father, for that matter.”

“He told me about your skills at mediation and his lack thereof. I told him that to be successful it needs both, someone to be bold enough to speak up and someone good enough to settle the dust.”

Now Izuna looked at her ponderingly, before averting his gaze. “You know he has received anonymous death threats, right?”

It had her frown and frozen for a second, but the Tobirama closed her pen to keep the ink from drying and mustered Izuna with a sigh. “No, but I imagined as much. With what he did and how he went about it with such… aggression, I figured that there are people unhappy with him.”

“Most admire him for his bravery. Our father may be stubborn and proud, but even he spoke out for him in front of the council and later the city. During the upcoming inauguration, I expect him to assure his assistance and support.” It eased some of Tobirama's worry to hear him say that.

“I know very little of the inner workings of the court.”

“Oh, you’ll have to find out eventually. The way I see it is that Madara will not want anyone else but you as his wife, so you should start getting used to the attention and the work such a position includes.”

“No offence, but this is nothing of your concern.”

“You’re certainly just as annoying and proper as him.” He waited for her to say something, but Tobirama only stared and eventually lifted a brow, which somehow teased him further and had his jaw tense. “You should learn how to fence.”

That was a sudden shift in topic Tobirama had not anticipated. “Why?”

“So that I can beat you.” Now Izuna grinned and it made him look more like Madara. “At fencing, but also physically.”

And then Tobirama truly laughed. “Tonight before dinner you can show me.”

“I’m a terrible teacher.”

“Good. And I’m a terrible student.”

“Great.”

“Can we work concentrated now? Maybe you can afford to slack of in your studies, but I’ll have to convince ten old men that I am worth to be invested in.” Her interview, which without a doubt, would be draining and demanding.

“Tse.”

 

Fencing, as it turned out, was somehow similar to stick fights, but at the same time nothing like it. That Izuna won all of their small training fights was no surprise to her.

 

What surprised her was Hashirama, who one evening turned up at the front gate with a pack of cards, cherry wine and plenty of coins to gamble away against Madara in the most intense one versus one Tobirama had seen in a long time. Maybe these two could grow to become friends.