"There's more of a pushback than we planned."
"I don't understand you. Lead your clan, you incompetent fool!"
"I'm not a fool!"
Hashirama had the gall to sulk and Madara tugged at his own hair in frustration. A bunch of senile old men had every intention of denying the clans peace, and Madara couldn't understand why Hashirama bent to their wills at such a crucial stage. Beside Hashirama, Tobirama massaged his temples, staving off the beginnings of a terrible headache. Madara had thought that his own clan would stall the plans, but the elders had yet to present complaints to him. He admitted their silence might have something to do with the fact that he'd successfully avoided them for the last several days. If he happened to ignore their summons and disappear for long walks in the forest, he was allowed the peace and quiet. Madara took three papers from Hashirama, looking over notes in the margin. The man had slacked off during calligraphy lessons, as evidenced by the clumsy, crooked writing. Madara glanced up at Hashirama, at the shaky smile on the man's face, then he returned to reading. The harsh words held on the tip of his tongue dissolved. Butsuma didn't seem like the type to give a damn about such things. The man had seemed almost barbaric. And Hashirama had still loved him. The man was undeserving.
"They want reparations? Unbelievable. What about the people we've lost, the missions we've lost, the lands you've destroyed? Reparations," Madara scowled, shoving the unrolled scroll at Hashirama. The man sighed and looked over the writing again, as if he didn't know the words by heart. "Get rid of them. Overrule them," Madara suggested. Hashirama opened his mouth to disagree, to explain it wasn't possible, but Tobirama took the initiative.
"It's not that simple. Our people trust the elders. They're elected representatives and have been for three years now. It was one of the things we changed after our father fell," Tobirama answered, taking the scroll to roll it up again. Madara considered burning the scroll, returning the ashes with the two brothers, but he settled on an unhappy grunt. "I'm going to continue selling an exchange of goods and land for medical assistance. We aren't yet allies, but we don't want children dying of something we can treat or cure."
"And when your elders write me another letter demanding reparations for peace? The sheer number of items on their list of demands is ridiculous and they know damn well we don't have it," Madara frowned, looking up from the scroll to meet Tobirama's gaze. He was surprised Tobirama looked him in the eyes.
"They're mostly talk, Mada," Hashirama interrupted, trying to lighten the mood.
"I told you to stop calling me that when we were kids!" Madara hissed the words at Hashirama and the man laughed, brushing off the hostility. "The next time this happens, I'm writing my own list of demands, and it will be extensive and insulting. Don't test me."
"I can only imagine," Tobirama muttered, shaking his head. Hashirama nudged his brother's shoulder. "They could drag this out for months."
"Do you really think they would?" Hashirama frowned, an expression that looked wrong on his face. He rubbed his chin, lost in thought, then he sighed. "Well, Madara had success with the Uchiha elders. I'm sure if I stressed the advantages and painted a picture of a brighter future, they'd have to give in. It might take time, but certainly not months."
"You underestimate them," Tobirama replied. Madara pinched the bridge of his nose and took a deep breath. "I don't think this will be resolved before spring, which means another food shortage."
"Give me ten days. If we can't come to an agreement as a clan, then I'll have to overrule them. I know this is the best thing for my clan, for our clans, and I won't allow the elders to drive us back to war," Hashirama said, a firm nod following.
"Ten days," Madara agreed, trusting that Hashirama could reign in the Senju elders. He looked to the tea that had long ago gone cold, then to the monaka treats that Hashirama had brought as some kind of secondary peace offering. Madara didn't mind the sweets, as they paired nicely with green tea. "Did you bake these yourself?" Madara grabbed a wafer and took a bite, savoring the flavor of the jam.
"Nope! I can't cook at all," Hashirama laughed, as if it weren't an insult to himself. Madara looked down at the plate of monaka, then at the half-eaten treat in his left hand.
"I made them," Tobirama admitted, looking off to the side as if he were embarrassed. The mochi tasted good, and the azuki bean jam was a nice treat. All of the monaka were shaped like cherry blossoms. "You don't know how to cook?"
"Of course I can cook! I should have expected this. You have to exceed expectations in everything, don't you?"
"Are you irritated by the fact that I can cook?"
"I wasn't aware that demons survived on anything other than the souls of small children."
"So that must be your diet then," Tobirama replied, visibly irritated. Madara took another bite of the snack, eyes narrowed on the man. Hashirama laughed at the two of them, his boisterous laugh breaking down the hostility in the room. "Are we finished here?"
"Not yet! You were going to tell us about your apprentice. Is that the boy listening in at the door?" Hashirama spoke in a loud voice, and all three turned to the closed office door. There was a series of clumsy steps, then someone knocked on the door frame. "He seems eager," Hashirama said, excited to meet the boy.
"If you knew he was there the whole time, why didn't you say something sooner?" Madara looked right at Tobirama and the man shrugged, clearly unconcerned with responding. Madara turned toward the door. "Get in here. Stop acting like a spy!"
Kagami slid the door open and quickly entered the room. He hesitated at the door, before finally deciding to slide it closed. Madara jerked his head toward the remaining zabuton, so Kagami took a seat on the cushion, sitting crisscross where the others sat in seiza. He openly stared at Hashirama, but his dark eyes occasionally strayed to Tobirama. Madara shook his head, torn between chastising the boy and overlooking the kid's lack of manners. Kagami cleared his throat, then he straightened his horrid posture. It was hard to imagine a world where Kagami didn't exist, where all of the clan no longer existed. All of the lives lost in a bid for a perfect world, where no such thing as perfection existed. Kagami lowered his eyes to the mochi treats, then he looked to Madara, hand already creeping toward the plate.
"Yes, have one! Tobi made them!" Hashirama sounded far too proud of the fact, and Tobirama narrowed his eyes at his brother.
Madara recalled the number of times Tobirama had complained about the shortening of his name. Tobi was a ridiculous name. And for some reason, Madara thought of the future again, about the boy he'd saved from a cave collapse. Though he couldn't understand why he thought of the boy, he promised that he would do better, be better, with Kagami. As Kagami ate his way through the tray of sweets, Madara noticed the boy's thin frame. He was too skinny, something that would have to change. Tobirama exchanged a look with Madara and Madara nodded, a silent exchange about the boy's voracious appetite.
"They were delicious!" Kagami smiled and Hashirama instantly lit up, as if finding something of himself in the boy. "I'm Uchiha Kagami. It is an honor to meet you, Senju-sama!" Kagami barely finished his last sentence before Hashirama had dragged him over the table for a hug.
"Where did you find him?" Tobirama spoke, as Hashirama was too busy squeezing the life out of Kagami. Madara barely contained the urge to roll his eyes. He reached out and grabbed the back of Kagami's shirt, easily dragging the boy away from Hashirama.
"He's an orphan," Madara said, as if that explained it all. Tobirama nodded, as they understood what that meant. Kagami had no one, so Madara had stepped in. "He shows promise. Most orphans in the clan never become shinobi, since they have no parents to teach them. With no formal training and a basic understanding of chakra, Kagami successfully transformed his chakra to elemental chakra and completed our clan's rite of passage."
"That's quite an accomplishment," Tobirama noted. Kagami smiled once more and Hashirama quietly congratulated him. "Fire, I'm assuming?"
"You would love it if his nature were water, wouldn't you?" Madara had a very dry tone and he saw the subtle twitch of Tobirama's lips, the only indication that the man meant to smile. "Katon jutsu are important to this clan, and a boy is said to be a man when he can complete the fireball jutsu."
"He's a child," Tobirama said, tone dry. Madara bristled, ready to insult the man for being so dismissive of an important event, but Kagami cleared his throat.
"The rite of passage is very important to my clan, and it's very important to me, Senju-sama." Kagami held eye contact with Tobirama until the man frowned.
"We were little men once, Tobi. I think if it's important to Kagami and Madara, we should respect their ways," Hashirama added, seeming quite proud of Kagami. "What is it you want to do with your life, Kagami?"
"I want to be the greatest shinobi in the world," Kagami smirked, looking to Madara for an affirmative nod. Hashirama nodded, as if he understood such a statement, but Tobirama thought it ludicrous. "I want to be strong enough to protect those most precious to me and I want to make my parents, and Madara-sama, proud."
"You have a long way to go," Hashirama said, earning a nod from the boy. "What if we could do the same thing for other orphans? We could even teach civilians, if they are interested and show promise. Why not share our teachings?"
"We can make an academy," Madara and Tobirama said at once, looking at one another in surprise. Tobirama motioned for Madara to go on, so Madara huffed. "We can develop a curriculum and build diverse teams led by a sensei."
"The sensei would have to be qualified. Three man cells would provide a nice balance," Tobirama thought aloud, fingers drumming on the low table. Hashirama tapped his chin in thought, then he smiled.
"Why don't we make a system then? You're always organizing things, Tobi. I'm sure there's a way for us to group qualified candidates!"
"Must you call me 'Tobi'?"
"Listen to your brother, Tobi," Madara teased, earning a dark look from the man. "The Uchiha clan is currently separated into those with an active sharingan and those without. That will be changing. I think we should categorize based on overall skill level."
"We can rank them, just like the Senju clan ranks missions," Tobirama continued, earning a nod from Madara. Hashirama looked between the two, then he chuckled, interrupting the exchange. "What's so funny, anija?"
"You're getting along, and I'm glad."
The meeting dissolved, as all meetings dissolved. Hashirama invited Madara to the Senju clan for the next meeting, and it was scheduled for three days later, allowing Hashirama more time to convince the elders. Madara couldn't hide away in his office all day, so he made the decision to face his brother again. They hadn't spoken in days, even though they shared their family home, and knowing Izuna was alive, knowing Izuna hated him, slowly ate away at him. Madara hesitated outside of Izuna's door. One hand resting atop the door, he closed his eyes and focused on his brother's chakra signature. Izuna was gone, and that fact was like a punch to his gut. He opened his eyes and searched for his brother's chakra; eventually, he found the man outside, sitting on the engawa. Legs dangling over the ground, head tilted back, as if he were taking in the afternoon sky, Izuna acknowledged Madara with a long sigh. They used to fight, verbally and physically, but they'd learned they both prefer the silent treatment. For being such a stuffy clan, they still expressed emotions, usually deeply, sometimes without words. The depth was in the pause between words.
Madara sat down next to Izuna and crossed his arms over his chest. He wanted to say so much, but he knew that silence decreased the likelihood of dismissal. Izuna slowly lowered his head, as if he simply wanted to look across the backyard. Pure white bandages hid the man's empty eye sockets. As if feeling Madara's eyes, Izuna turned his head toward Madara. It was an old gesture, a mistake on his part, and he quickly turned his head away.
"You still won't speak to me?" Izuna remained quiet, though Madara saw the man's hands curl into tight fists. Madara rested a hand atop Izuna's left fist, feeling the tension there. "If you expect an apology, it will be a cold day in hell," Madara grumbled. "At least have the decency to shout at me again."
"So you're having peace talks here."
"Not many others would be willing to host the Senju. I thought it might draw you out, if only to attempt to murder them in your yukata."
"I'm not above it."
Madara smiled at the man, then pulled his hand away. They sat side-by-side and felt the cool breeze on their faces. Winters were usually mild in the Land of Fire. Snow was wonderful, beautiful, but it rarely stayed. Breezes from the west brought heat from the deserts. But the chill of the wind warned of a harsher winter, snow and ice that lingered on the hard ground. In that moment, Izuna looked so young. Madara reached out and ruffled Izuna's hair, getting a warning growl in return. He imagined that Izuna could still fight him. Izuna was always a fighter. Izuna's previous resignation had scared Madara. He worried about his brother's mental health, something no one was capable of curing, despite medical advances. As the days grew shorter, the darkness brought so many problems, problems beyond those associated with frigid nights.
"Give this a chance," Madara finally spoke, forcing thoughts of winter aside. At first, Izuna acted as if he hadn't heard Madara. "I know you heard me, Zuzu," Madara said, baiting the younger man.
"You haven't called me that since we were little. I hated it then, and I hate it now. If you want to lead this clan into the ground, I'm not in a position to do much. I'll be dragged along," Izuna frowned, head lowering as if he meant to see his hands in his lap. "Father would be disappointed in you. He would probably disown you."
"Let him hate me from the depths of hell. What can a dead man do to me?" Madara shrugged his shoulders, though he knew Izuna couldn't see the gesture. Izuna still cared too much about what their father thought of them. Dead or alive, Tajima meant too much to Izuna. If their mother had lived, things would have been different. "Do you trust me?"
"Don't make me answer that."
"I see." Madara rested his hands on his thighs and prepared to stand, but he hesitated at the last moment. "The price of peace is our relationship then, isn't it?"
Madara didn't wait for Izuna to respond. He patted Izuna's left hand, then he stood and went out into the yard. Izuna had peace and quiet again, though they both felt the absence of something between them. Peace cost him his brother. Though Izuna had lived, Madara had still lost him. He only had an empty space within himself where his family had once rested. He chased visions of a better future, and if he ran from walking ghosts and regrets and fears, then so be it.