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bite my tongue, bide my time

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The world before him shifted, transforming before his very eyes, showing him the true meaning of hell, a world where everything had gone wrong. His life's dream, the focus of his later years, had been nothing but the result of manipulation, a hand well-played by a creature much older than himself. He knew deceit, and yet he'd missed all of the warning signs, becoming willfully ignorant, blind to anything but the desire to build the perfect world, when the perfect world didn't exist, could never exist, not in his lifetime, not in the future. Tobirama had once told him that his chakra was foul, something unnatural, and he'd never once believed the man. Suddenly everything made sense. His chakra was foul—he was foul—and his own hatred made it so. A higher power, or some technique granted to him by the sharingan, allowed him a glimpse into the future, yet he wanted to deny the truth, deny every decision he would have made, every wrong he would have committed, whether by his own hand or by proxy. He'd destroyed lives—he would destroy lives—if everything continued on course, if every option presented itself. He would damn himself, allowing his foul chakra to infect the peaceful village he'd help found, the roots spreading to share the darkness with the rest of the world. Madara hated himself. He hated the future. He cursed his clan, his eyes, himself, until he felt small, reduced to just another mortal man, no longer a warrior, no longer a prodigy, but the dirt and muck beneath his sandals. And with the passing of the vision, half of his world went black, the vast, inky darkness a foreign thing. His clan members warned of blindness, but they'd never talked of the dark depths lurking over their shoulders, slowly rising, growing in time with their skills, advancing with the usage of their eyes. Something had happened—something had gone wrong—and he had nothing but the rain to comfort him, the cold droplets consoling him as they soaked him.

He looked down at his sword, his hand clenching the hilt so that his knuckles paled, so that his fingers ached, and he knew that was wrong, that panic had set in; panic had no place on the battlefield. Panic led to mistakes, and mistakes led to death. He wasn't ready to die—God, he wasn't ready to die—so he clung to that sword, to that moment, and dragged his wandering mind back to that godforsaken field, back to mud and trampled grass and the overwhelming stench of blood and sweat. Madara had half a world, but he had enough. That had to be enough. Metal met metal, his sword grinding against another blade, until he was locked in a battle of strength. Madara locked eyes with Hashirama, seeing the hesitation there, the hope that they would finally cease the war their families had started generations ago, long before they were born, the war that threatened the family they had left. Their battles ate away at their clans. Hashirama had lost so much, too much, while Madara selfishly clung to his only sibling, hoping, wishing, that war would spare him.

"Old friend," Hashirama tried, the words meant to awaken something in Madara, to lure the man from the edge. Madara knew he was the lesser man, knew that Hashirama spared him, time and time again, yet he insisted on fighting, seeking something he no longer understood. He remembered those days spent by the river, where they bathed in innocence, where they sought refuge in one another. "It's not too late. I won't give up on you. I still believe in our dream. Have you fallen so low? Is bloodshed all you truly seek? We can end this," Hashirama insisted, forcing Madara back.

Madara faltered, his right foot sinking deep into the mud. He still wanted that. He wanted to trigger the chain of events that would lead to Konohagakure, to a village hidden in the leaves. If he acted, he could save Izuna. He could spare lives lost in their current push, and in the final push. Was he truly so far gone that he could look his future in the proverbial face and follow that same damned path, where he succumbed to darkness brought about by years of war and a curse of hatred? He'd lost Izuna, his only brother, his closest family. He'd let parting words taint him. His brother had descended as well, both of them lost. Even in his last moments, Izuna had told Madara not to trust the Senju. He'd been wrong; they'd both been wrong. So many years lost. And all because of blindness. All because of Black Zetsu. That thought sobered him. The creature lurked in the shadows, waiting for the perfect target to present itself, waiting for a fool like him to fall so far.

Slowly, Madara lowered his blade, until it hung at his side, his grip loose. Hashirama stared at him with wide eyes, the shock written all over the man's tan face. Madara turned to his right, searching for Izuna, and he found his brother locked in a battle with the younger Senju, Tobirama. Madara saw everything in slow motion. His world shifted once more, twisting, twirling, folding in on itself. Tobirama flew at Izuna and there was no way to dodge. The man was fast, had always been fast, as if he were created solely to challenge the sharingan. Madara barely had time to call out his brother's name, and then blood blossomed from the gash across his brother's chest and gut. Izuna opened as if his body could no longer contain him. Madara dropped his blade and ran to his brother's side, his eyes burning with unshed tears. For some reason, he heard his father chastising him, reminding him that shinobi never cried, that men never cried, even under the worst conditions. He caught Izuna before the man could fall to the ground. On his knees, Madara cradled his brother in his arms, half hunched over the man, as if to shield him from all of the ugliness in the world. When Tobirama approached, blade raised to end them both, Madara looked up at him, his brokenness on display. Hashirama stood in the middle, voice harsh, though the words were lost. Around them, the battle continued, as if nothing had happened at all.

"Stay with me," Madara demanded, clutching Izuna to himself, one hand trying to apply pressure to the gaping wound. He wasn't a medic, so he had little to offer, just empty words. Izuna pressed shaky hands to his gut, trying to keep his insides from spilling out, to retain some form of dignity before he died. "It's not as bad as it looks," Madara lied, even though they both knew the words weren't true.

"Kill that Senju bastard. Don't you trust their lies. They try to deceive you," Izuna insisted, eyes alight with the fire of a man with only words left to give. Madara nodded, for he couldn't summon the words the man needed to hear. He'd seen that path. He'd seen a world plunged into more war. He knew there could be peace, but he felt the sting, the rising burn of hatred and the call for vengeance. He knew how easy it was to succumb to whispered words. "Your eye," Izuna whispered, reaching up with one bloody hand to touch Madara's left cheek. He could only imagine what his worthless left eye looked like without the sharingan.

"It doesn't matter. We need help. Hang on. I'll carry you all the way home, if I have to" Madara promised, prepared to stand. Hashirama stooped down in front of him, begging him to wait.

"I can find a medic. We have medics. Our home is closer. Let me right this wrong. There's still time," Hashirama said, speaking over Izuna's muttered curses and threats, promises to repay them back in kind. It struck Madara then that somewhere along the way, he'd lost his little brother to the curse of hatred. Izuna knew too much of their father and the propaganda spewed by the man and their fellow clan members. "Madara!"

"Let me die!" Izuna groaned in pain, hot tears flowing down pale cheeks. Madara rose, lifting Izuna along with him. Tobirama stood back, as if he hadn't tried to kill them both with one fatal strike.

"Take me to them."

The battles dissolved around them, their people still as the group crossed the battlefield. Seeing their clan heads together, weapons sheathed or lost, confused a great deal of the shinobi. At one point, both sides looked at one another for some explanation, one none of them really had. Madara heard the whispers first, the words breaking through the fog surrounding his mind, the fog creeping along the ground at their ankles. It would be a miserable day, given more time and rain. Madara had enough sense to shout at his people, to tell them to withdraw, even as Izuna spat hateful words. Hikaku took command, barking orders in the way that Madara should have, in the way that he could have, if his younger brother weren't bleeding out in his arms.

The journey took too long. Every battle they fought took place well away from their homes, meant to spare themselves the loss of civilians and their current way of life. Madara took note of the river they passed, looking unchanged from his childhood. The river acted as a landmark, something to divide their lands. And then he stepped onto Senju lands, and he felt as if any breeze would knock him over, sending him to the muddy ground. He shouldn't have been there, just as he shouldn't have seen the world prosper and burn, just as he shouldn't have lost the sight in his left eye.

"What if this is a trick? You'll be surrounded! Take me from here. Let me die within our walls," Izuna spoke, words heavy, though his tone showed the promise of death hovering over him. Madara scowled at him. "He struck me down!"

"If this is a trick, then I'll know I did all I could for you, and I'll die as I would have died, in a war we didn't need, one I never even wanted," Madara informed him, eyes locked on the path ahead, unable to meet Izuna's gaze. Izuna raised a hand to clutch at Madara's kimono, but the bloody hand slid away. "This war will go on when we are gone, an endless cycle of hatred, born of wrongs that we've forgotten."

"Father," Izuna began, cut off by the look Madara gave him. "You want peace with them," Izuna said, the thought infuriating. Madara nodded once.

"Do you mean that?" Tobirama was there, moving up from behind Madara to follow along beside him. Everything in Madara told him to strike the man down. Madara wasn't as strong as Hashirama, but he thought he could take Tobirama. Some part of him urged him to try, to spill more blood. Instead, Madara looked up from Izuna and looked to his right, finding Tobirama. "Do you truly want peace, even after this?"

"Did you think I would stoop so low as to seek an eye for an eye, blood for blood, body for body?"

"I did. That's always been the case between our clans. It's how we've lived for generations. Even now, Izuna calls for blood."

"I love him. He is all that I have left. If I lose him, I don't know if I'll ever recover, but I know that I'm tired. I have had enough. Becoming an avenger, I see nothing but the promise of a dark future."

The rest of the journey passed in silence, the only sound their sandals meeting mud puddles and wet grass. The Senju compound consisted of many homes surrounded by trees, trees meant to provide some coverage, a natural border for the bustling area. The place was quiet, though one lone child spotted their approach and shouted that the clan head had returned to them. The child was no older than five, and Madara wondered if he would be thrust onto the battlefield, fodder in the way that Kawarama and Itama had been. Izuna's groans grew softer, and Madara knew that numbness had set in, a terrible sign for the man. Was he even a man? He was young still, barely twenty years old, far too young to die. Madara had imagined his younger brother marrying, building a family, retiring from war, even though he knew, at the time, that very few ever lived to see such a thing as retirement. Men died on the battlefield.

"Get me a medic," Hashirama called, words shared with a group of women. The women scattered, all of them in search of a medic. The people they passed eyed Madara and Izuna, wary of the foreign shinobi, knowing well that the men didn't belong there. "This way," Hashirama encouraged them, bringing them all to a large home located in the middle of the compound. The place could have been a small village, with all of the homes and the tall trees shielding them.

"This is your home?" Madara ascended the two steps and followed Hashirama into the dark home. Seals activated around them, and candles came to light with their footfalls. Madara glanced at Tobirama, knowing that the man had been the one to activate the seals. So they lived together still. "I need a room with some space," Madara said, bypassing the living room Hashirama offered them.

"My room is this way," Tobirama said, no longer following but leading. Hashirama made a noise, one caught between disbelief and offense. The living room had been perfect for them, littered with furniture and bookcases and scrolls. It was clear men lived there, one of them clearly lacking the ability to clean up after himself. Madara suspected the clutter was due to Hashirama. "Is he still awake?"

"He certainly isn't dead," Madara frowned. Tobirama gathered a few blankets and laid them out on the floor to protect the tatami and offer some more cushioning. Madara kneeled and gently placed his brother atop the blankets. Izuna stared up at him, eyes unfocused. "It won't be long now," Madara promised, despite being unsure of the words.

"I'll be back," Hashirama said, disappearing into the house. Madara heard a door slam, followed by hurried footsteps. When Hashirama returned, he had a short woman with him. She took one look at the blood still oozing between Izuna's hands, a vain attempt at stopping the bleeding, then she shook her head. "Surely there's something you can do, Hanako!"

"Heal him," Madara demanded, going to rise in an attempt to intimidate her. Tobirama placed a hand on Madara's shoulder and squeezed, dragging Madara back from the edge. For a moment, Madara had wanted to wring the life from her. "Do something!"

"I can ease his pain."

"Then come closer, woman, and do it!"

As she worked, Madara placed a hand over one of Izuna's, their fingers slotted, and tried to keep the warmth in his brother's cold hands. Izuna had always had cold hands, but never as cold as they were then, never like ice. Hanako did what she could to help, first trying to administer herbs she'd mixed well with sake, then trying to heal what she could of the injury. She was able to remedy the worst of the inner damage, but the blood flowed so freely that there was little they could do to help. She spoke of eastern medicine and blood transfusions, but she gave him more herbs to try and help replenish the blood lost. Medics did what they could do, but medicine had yet to advance enough to save the lives they needed saved. Too many men died of preventable illnesses, then from battle wounds and infection. Madara wanted to save Izuna, but there was little he could do, even after the vision showing him a world in which he rebuilt a broken boy.

"It won't be long now," Hanako said, her voice soft. She looked to Hashirama, as if he would scold her, but he nodded and mumbled his thanks. Izuna had a chance, but the rate of survival made it as if he had no chance at all. Wait the night, Hanako had suggested. If he only survived the night, she followed. After she'd left the room, Madara took Izuna's left hand in his own.

"I'm so sorry," Hashirama began, cut off by Madara's bitter laugh. An apology, after so much, meant little to him. The apology wouldn't fix Izuna; an apology wouldn't stop the negativity slowly encompassing him. "You're welcome to stay as long as you need, right?" Hashirama looked to Tobirama, who had been relatively quiet since Hanako's departure. "Right?" Hashirama repeated himself, nervous laughter following.

"Yes. Of course. As long as you need," Tobirama ensured, though he sounded less than sincere. Madara shot him a withering look, which had him narrowing his eyes. Hashirama clapped his hands and grinned. "Why are you suddenly so happy? There is a man dying right in front of you."

"He's strong. There's no possible way this is the end for him. We've come together on this. This is the first step toward peace. When morning comes, you'll see," Hashirama said, seemingly the optimist. The sunlight wouldn't save Izuna. Nothing about a day change made any difference. Tobirama was right, though Madara loathed to admit it. "I'm going to gather the shinobi. Stay here with him." Hashirama patted Tobirama's shoulder, then he left the room.

"Call her back," Izuna managed to say, though his words were slightly slurred from the medicine. He grabbed Madara's hand with such strength that Madara wondered if Izuna meant to make that moment his last. "Take my eyes."

"Absolutely not. You're going to make it," Madara said, his voice firm, words leaving no room for argument. No one in their clan had ever performed an eye transplant and lived. First, the chakra network collapsed on itself, leading to blindness, and then the eyes rotted away. It wasn't the way to go. Neither of them needed the complications. "I'll be ostracized. We will be ostracized. You don't know what you're saying," Madara muttered, easing Izuna's grip on his hand.

"You have no use of your left eye," Izuna sighed, eyes moving to Madara's left eye. Tobirama seemed very aware of the conversation. Madara looked over at Tobirama, seeing the questions in the man's eyes, if not in the passive expression on that pale face. "Take mine. If not for me, then for the clan."

Madara hadn't thought of the clan, of what would happen when he finally let go, when Izuna finally passed. He had an empty home waiting for him, just as he had people depending on him. He suddenly realized the weight of loss, how he already felt crippled at the mere thought of going back to his clan with his brother's corpse. He looked down at Izuna, eyes lowering to their clasped hands. He saw a fresh droplet of blood fall onto the back of Izuna's hand, then another. Shinobi didn't cry; shinobi showed no emotion at all. Yet he crumbled, falling to pieces in front of both men, when all he wanted was to remain strong. Tobirama rose in one fluid motion and left the brothers, and Madara felt as if he were choking on his tears. His shoulders shook, body shuddering with every inhale, as if the act of breathing overwhelmed him. Izuna, even in his weakened state, comforted Madara.

"This should have been me," Madara whispered, voice heavy with despair. Izuna mumbled a few incoherent words, though Madara assumed they were reassurances, attempts at dragging him away from those thoughts. "What will I do without you?" Madara didn't expect an answer, so he only paused for a moment. "Do you remember the promise I made you when you first entered the war? I told you I would protect you. I've failed you," Madara continued, seeking something in his brother's sharingan.

"We were children. This is different," Izuna said, voice soft. Izuna coughed and blood dribbled from the corners of his mouth. "Don't make me beg you. Don't do that to me," Izuna sighed. The door to the room slid open and Tobirama stepped aside to allow Hanako entry. Tobirama closed the door behind himself, though he took no steps toward Izuna.

"I can perform the surgery," Hanako said, attracting their attention. Izuna's expression hardened, then he managed a nod. Madara looked between the two, an outburst ready, before Hanako held up her hands. "There's a risk. There's always a risk with this sort of thing," she tried to explain.

"You mean that we might waste away, that we'll lose our sight, then the infection will spread and claim our lives. I've heard this before. Spare me the details," Madara all but growled. Tobirama cleared his throat and Madara quietly simmered, knowing the gesture had been meant for him. "None of this leaves the room. Am I correct, Senju?"

"Hashirama would never let me hear the end of it, though he will scold us both for our recklessness. How certain are you that you can successfully perform this surgery? You've never encountered the sharingan," Tobirama stated, eyes narrowing on the woman.

"I may not be combat ready, but I am one of the best medics in this clan, if you remember," Hanako huffed, already going to Izuna's side. She kneeled down and placed her hands over Izuna's eyes, the green glow of her hands signaling the healing chakra.

"Do it now," Izuna scowled, shoving her assessing hands from his face. She opened her mouth to scold him, but Madara muttered at her and she reconsidered.

"This will be painful," she began to explain. Madara cut her off with a scoff. "Very well. You seem committed. If you will, lie down, Uchiha-san."

The whole operation took a little over an hour, an hour that seemed to stretch into days. Madara had known a world half-encased in darkness, but he knew colors again. He tried to sit up, but he fell back to the floor. His eyes ached, his head ached, so he closed his eyes and felt blindly for Izuna's hand. He held tightly to his brother's hand, listening to the man's quiet breaths. The surgery should have waited, but Izuna had always been one to get his way. Madara had spoiled him; their father had spoiled them both. When faced with his brother's death, Madara longed for their days spent bickering and scrapping, both of them acting more like heathens than proper children. Madara heard Tobirama and Hanako conversing, but he focused on the throbbing of his head, the pain radiating around his eyes. He cared little for the fact that he'd bared himself for an enemy, two enemies. Izuna always made him forget himself. When Hashirama finally returned, Madara sat by Izuna's side. His brother's eyes were closed, breathing slow and labored.

"How is he?" Hanako was long gone, so Hashirama spoke to Tobirama. Madara bristled, head jerking in their direction. Hashirama closed his mouth and moved further into the room, choosing a place at Madara's side. "Your clan was gone. Hikaku left this with my men," Hashirama said, handing a scroll to Madara. Madara recognized the scroll as belonging to his clan, the exterior a deep red, as red as the sharingan.

"He probably thinks me mad, and he would be right. Why else would I flee the battlefield with our sworn enemies, with the man who had, only moments before, struck my brother down?"

"In my defense, he was also attempting to strike me down. You can't possibly expect me to stand there and let him," Tobirama frowned. Hashirama laughed, a nervous broken thing that reeked of anxiety and the need to stop an argument before it had the chance to begin. "I do regret that it came to that."

"You don't regret a damn thing. If you had the opportunity again, you would do the very same. I remember that you intended to kill us both, before this fool stepped in," Madara muttered, one quick jerk of his head toward Hashirama. Hashirama stuttered, clearly offended at being called a fool. Tobirama frowned, also ignoring Hashirama. "If you intend to apologize, do it properly or don't bother at all. Why waste your breath?"

"I see," Tobirama said, eyes growing distant. For a minute, Madara believed he'd won, but Tobirama continued. "I apologize."

"Your sincerity amazes me, Senju."

"I have been told that my sincerity is renowned."

"Let's not start this now," Hashirama cut in, stopping a heated argument. Madara bit his tongue until he tasted blood, but he bit back the harsh retort he'd had planned. Tobirama looked just as happy about the interruption. "He will make it," Hashirama said, patting Madara's shoulder.

"And if he doesn't? Will you lay down your life in exchange for my forgiveness? Will you lose your brother as I've lost my brother? Will you murder him as he's murdered mine?" Madara turned to look at his old friend. That's what they were then, old friends.

"Anija," Tobirama interrupted them, the word accompanying Hashirama's shock. "You can't be entertaining the thought!" Hashirama smiled, his eyes closing, as if that would provide him the peace and strength he needed.

"If he doesn't, then I will lay down my life. If you will forgive my brother and aid him in seeking peace, I would gladly lay down my life for you. I can still imagine a world where no child sees the horror of war, where no child loses brothers or sisters, mother or father. Have you forgotten that world we built along the Naka River?" Hashirama's smile was small, very sad, expressing everything the man felt. Madara envied the way Hashirama bared his soul to every man, woman, and child, leading not with strength but with heart. Hashirama had such a big heart. And was it too late for Madara to have the same?

Madara stared down at his brother's pale face, at the bandages still wrapped around the young man's head, concealing the eyes from view. Countless times, Madara had tried to sell that world to Izuna, but Izuna was too much like their father, Tajima. He'd once thought that they shared one heart, one mind, and then Madara had met Hashirama, and together they built a fictional world where they had family names that no longer mattered, where they could lose themselves in the way that children lose themselves, in play, in battle, in rivalry. Madara had seen a world where he'd made mistake after mistake, and he knew he couldn't walk that same path, but oh how he wanted to succumb to the promise of retribution. How easy it would have been to take Izuna's words to heart, to push his people into battle after battle in some attempt to recover what was lost. He only had Izuna, but Hashirama had only had Kawarama, had only had Itama. Perhaps some higher power thought it fit to distribute loss and despair, to finally balance the scale. Hashirama still smiled at him, as if he hadn't asked Hashirama to commit seppuku. Madara thought of how he would watch the light extinguished in Hashirama's eyes, how the emptiness in his heart would be all encompassing. He didn't want that, not for himself, not for Hashirama, not even for Tobirama. In the end, he wasn't Izuna, never would be Izuna.

"Shut up, you fool," Madara mumbled, throwing a dark look at the man. Tobirama visibly relaxed, all of the anger, all of the fear, contained in those red eyes no longer present.

"I would have thought you'd be pleased with such an outcome," Tobirama spoke, voice terse. Madara bristled, eagerly rising to the bait. "Your brother seemed adamant about revenge."

"And you think I would be the same. Aren't you supposed to be some sort of prodigy, a genius? Perhaps you aren't as intelligent as people seem to think you are. Clearly he and I are two different people, just as you and your brother are two different people. You are simply joined by the curse of foolishness," Madara responded. Tobirama frowned, though he chose to remain silent. Hashirama looked back and forth between them, clearly unsure of what was happening between the two.

The sunset slowly fell away, replaced by night, and Izuna remained asleep, unmoving. Madara remained at his side, even after Hashirama had fallen asleep. Only Tobirama remained. Though the man's eyes were closed, Tobirama was awake and aware of his surroundings. Tobirama sat with his back to the wall, one leg stretched out before him, the other bent toward his chest. One forearm rested on his knee, he had his head tilted back to rest against the wall. He looked comfortable enough, much more comfortable than Madara, whose legs had fallen asleep, pins and needles turned to numbness. When Hashirama began to snore, Madara sighed and considered suffocating the man. Tobirama seemed to have the same idea, as Madara noticed the man twitch.

"Are you afraid I'll single handedly slaughter your clan?"

"You can't blame me for being cautious. Paranoia serves a purpose, after all."

"Ridiculous. If I wanted your life, you wouldn't be talking to me right now. Your corpse would be cooling next to your snoring brother."

"I don't think you could take me. You may be ruthless, but so am I. You remember he saved your life," Tobirama said, eyes briefly moving to Hashirama. Madara hummed, as if in agreement. He recalled the moment when Hashirama chose to shield him. "I'm awake for the very same reason you're still awake, and that isn't to keep watch over your brother," Tobirama noted.

"You can't blame me for being cautious. Doesn't paranoia serve a purpose?" Madara smirked at him, noticing the amusement in the subtle twitch of Tobirama's lips. They didn't trust one another, and maybe they never would. Life would continue.

Chapter Text

Madara found himself seated across from Hashirama. Across the low table, Hashirama sorted through a mess of papers, the scrolls half open in front of him and in his lap. Behind him, in the kitchen, Tobirama attempted to prepare fresh fish, vegetables, and rice, as if they were all suddenly domesticated. In a room near the back of the house, Izuna slept on, clinging to life. Already, Madara felt terrible leaving his brother's side, even if he needed food and drink. He'd refused for hours, but by the afternoon, his stomach threatened to consume itself, so he allowed Hashirama to drag him to the kitchen. He never would have guessed that someone like Tobirama knew how to prepare a decent meal. Throughout his years, he'd assumed the demon sustained himself on the souls of small children, but that theory had been proven false. Hashirama rattled on about the approaching winter season, how the weather seemed colder than normal, the wind from a direction other than due west, where it might have drawn in the dry heat of the desert. The winter promised a natural end to the fighting, as survival and preparations for spring were more important. Madara wondered what they would do without the constant threat of war. Were they something beyond shinobi? His life had lacked balance for so long that the thought of peace left him unsettled. What would he do with his time? Would he settle down, as many men and women had wanted? He'd never thought beyond the basic idea of peace. Perhaps Hashirama shared in his short-sightedness.

"What will you do when the war finally ends?" Madara introduced the subject after the food was before them, after Tobirama joined them at the table. Hashirama, face alight with joy, opened his mouth to respond, but silence was the answer. Hashirama reached up to scratch his head. "You have no idea. How prepared are you for this world of peace?"

"Peace has always been the goal," Hashirama defended himself. Tobirama slapped a palm to his face to muffle his own harsh words, but Madara continued staring at Hashirama, watching the flustered man attempt to save the conversation. "We will unite and build a village, and you will lead us," Hashirama informed Madara, as if they were young boys all over again.

"I'm going to take over and lead both of our clans? Surely your brother has some opinion on this. Would you permit me to rule over you, Senju?" Madara seemed thoroughly amused, especially when Tobirama shot a dark look at Hashirama. "I thought so. Perhaps your many years afford you a better understanding of how this would work. Enlighten us."

"We will need to build the village, then we will need to provide a steady income to ensure we prosper. We have been relying on outside jobs, farming, and fishing to sustain us, but with so many people, we'll need more resources," Tobirama thought aloud, earning a nod and a vague motion to continue. Hashirama interrupted the words though.

"We can make better connections with our allies and forge new connections with smaller clans. We would be all inclusive. We need a better outlook on those we deem outsiders. Imagine what we can achieve when we're all on the same page!" Hashirama grinned, even as Madara chuckled.

"So you wish to conquer other lands and claim other clans? That's diplomacy. That's clan politics. You lack the finesse. You," Madara said, shifting focus from Hashirama to Tobirama, "would be better suited to that job. Let the man prattle on about peace and love, while you approach the situation with cold hard facts."

"We won't need to 'conquer' or 'claim' anymore. That sounds barbaric. The point of this venture is to end that cycle," Tobirama replied, ending his sentence with a bite of food. That signaled the official start of the meal, so Hashirama and Madara followed the man's lead. "You would lead us right back to war."

"Don't tell me you believe this will bring an end to all of our problems. While this would end the war between our clans, it doesn't guarantee peace with other clans or with other nations. There will always be war somewhere, with someone," Madara replied, rolling his eyes at the insult and the implication that absolute peace existed. Tobirama frowned, even as Hashirama began to protest.

"It's a matter of making the right choice when it counts. I am not a blind optimist, and I am no fool. The village will need a leader that can balance strength with diplomacy. The goal will always be a peaceful resolution with every interaction, but that's the ideal ending," Tobirama answered. Madara thought himself a wise man, a man understanding of that balance, but he knew his own desire for power and the rush and joy brought on by battle. Sometimes he craved that feeling.

"I believe in Madara. I believe he can be that person," Hashirama insisted, voice filled with such passion that Madara felt his cheeks warm with embarrassment. Hashirama was too much, always too much. Such blind faith left Madara feeling bad, as if he should have had such faith in Hashirama. "Would you lead the village?"

"We will see," Madara replied, shrugging to convey disinterest. Tobirama watched him closely, so he met the man's eyes. "Relax, Senju. In a time of peace, you should trust in your fellow shinobi. Perhaps you aren't ready for that." It was teasing with an underlying insult. Hashirama looked offended on Tobirama's behalf.

"There are few that I do trust," Tobirama admitted, content to go back to his meal. Madara remembered a time when Tobirama reported Hashirama's meetings with him, how easily the boy had betrayed his own brother, thinking it the right thing to do, to drive a wedge between friends. Madara had never really forgiven the man. "You can understand that, can't you?"

Madara went through his clan members, running through names and faces. Truly, Madara trusted few. He trusted Izuna; he trusted Hikaku. One look at Hashirama's face had Madara adding the man's name to that very short list. Somehow, throughout the years, Hashirama had earned that right. There were so many times when Hashirama could have killed him. Madara had once been furious about those wasted opportunities, taking it to mean that Hashirama looked down on him, pitied him. He'd wondered if Hashirama saw him as a threat at all. He'd let the flames of hatred, fanned by his brother, introduced by his father, consume him. But he understood. He understood that training and experience gave birth to that caution and paranoia. Too many people meant too many chances for betrayal. Madara preferred a smaller social circle, despite being the head of his clan, which often led to fierce rumors, some true, others fiction.

"Unfortunately," Madara admitted. For some reason he thought of the three brothers he'd never known, all struck down in a time before Madara's memory. He wondered if he could have trusted them. In the end, trust had led Tajima to the grave, more ashes for the burial ground. With nothing more to say, he returned to his meal.

By dusk, Madara had decided that he'd overstayed his welcome. Hikaku had relayed that the clan awaited his return, all of its members questioning his decision to follow the Senju, to trust in the Senju. Madara would have been one of them, had the situation been reversed. He would have demanded answers. They wanted to do just that. He owed them nothing, yet he owed them an explanation. How the two conflicted meant little to him. He knew pride and arrogance led him to believe they were blind followers. He was wrong. He didn't trust them, despite the fact that he should. Izuna would have been among them, looking hurt, angry, betrayed. His clan needed him, and there was nothing else Hanako could do for Izuna, nothing else Hashirama or Tobirama could offer him. Hashirama insisted he stay, but Madara chose to be stubborn. He left the man with no other option than to stay or go, and Hashirama chose to go; naturally, Tobirama followed. Under the beginnings of night, the three set out on foot for the Uchiha lands.

Madara insisted on carrying Izuna the entire way, even as his arms grew tired. He wanted to carry his brother over the narrows of the Naka River and back to the cluster of homes comprising their land. He needed his people to see that he still had Izuna, that his reason for abandoning them was for the chance to save his brother's life. He was sure that each one would have done the same. The journey home was long, the worn paths covered in shallow puddles, the remnants of yesterday's rain. Everything smelled of pine, the large trees rising up on either side, protecting them in the way Hashirama's trees had protected Senju lands. When they finally saw the lights within homes, Madara breathed a sigh of relief. Izuna had remained asleep throughout the journey, and Madara had been careful not to aggravate the bloody bandages wrapped around his brother's midsection. Hanako insisted he carry Izuna in his arms, as if he were a child. And to Madara, Izuna was a child, always would be, since Madara was the older of the two.

The guards at the entrance to the walled area took steps away from their posts, meeting Madara some distance away from their small village. They took one look at Hashirama and Tobirama and called back to the village for help, which raised far too much attention. Madara would have pinched the bridge of his nose, if he'd had a free hand.

"Step aside," Madara demanded, having none of their nonsense. Both guards hesitated, then looked to one another for an answer. Madara opened his mouth to yell at the two, but two more Uchiha approached, a third following along behind them. "Hikaku," Madara greeted, eyes locked on the last to arrive. "As you can see, I'd like to go home," Madara spoke, maintaining eye contact. Hikaku nodded, though none of the other men moved. "If you must do something, be useful and gather the elders. We're brokering peace."

"With them?"

"Have you lost your mind?"

Two of the men spoke up, so Madara chuckled, which quickly ended their protests. Madara had never been a man to take insubordination. Hikaku finally bowed to Madara, so the others followed his example. Madara had heard the whispers of weariness, the desire to make peace, and he'd once ignored them, used them to fuel his own desire for blood.

"Ginta, you heard Madara-sama. Gather the elders," Hikaku snapped, forcing the man into action. He grabbed another man and took off toward their homes, leaving the remaining two guards to return to their posts. "They think you've lost your mind, and I'm tempted to believe them. Just yesterday, you gave an impassioned speech on destroying the Senju and burning their homes to the ground, and now you show up with the clan head and his brother in tow," Hikaku said, one brow arched.

"A lot can happen in a day," Madara stated, waiting for Hikaku to step out of his way. When the man continued eyeing them, Madara groaned. "Will you step aside! This will happen with or without your approval. Be sure I don't answer to the likes of you. My word is law, regardless of what you, the elders, the dissenters, have to say. I am still the clan head. Unless you'd like to challenge me."

"I believe that would be unwise, and who is to say I disagree with your change of heart?" Hikaku smiled and took two steps to the left, allowing Madara to breeze past him. Hashirama smiled in return, while Tobirama regarded the man with suspicion.

Madara carried Izuna back to their shared home, the home they'd inhabited since their first breaths. They'd lost their father while still teenagers, so they'd never seen a reason to relocate. They'd grown attached, but maybe that had always been the case. Before Hashirama and Tobirama, they'd developed a rivalry between themselves. They'd driven one another to be stronger, faster, smarter, both of them considered prodigies. Yet they'd fallen so far. Those days were long gone. Madara had his brother in his arms and a hope in his heart that Izuna would recover, that those eyes would open once more. Madara had Hashirama light the candles throughout the home, while he and Tobirama entered the second floor and walked to one of the back bedrooms, Izuna's bedroom. Madara placed Izuna onto the messy futon, then arranged the blankets so that they stopped at the waist, leaving the man's bandaged torso exposed.

Madara created a single clone and sent it to find a medic, then he stood back with Tobirama and took in the sweat gathered on Izuna's forehead. Izuna had been hot, and both the bandages over his eyes and the ones around his torso had fresh blood and pus. The wounds wept, as Madara wanted to weep. When the medic arrived, Madara chose to leave Izuna in her care, then he led Hashirama and Tobirama to the meeting point, an old shrine that had been in the clan since its founding. Anyone still awake and outside gathered to watch the two Senju walking freely among them. Madara walked with confidence, standing tall, posture bordering on rigid; he knew he needed to wear a brave face, even among his own people. There were few among them who hadn't experienced loss, but he didn't want them seeing him fall apart, not when he was meant to be their fearless leader.

"I assume your elders are for guidance and representation," Tobirama said, choosing to walk along Hashirama's right side. Madara could appreciate Tobirama's instincts, as he also saw a few members reaching for poorly concealed weapons. Madara shot the people a harsh look, but his reaction did nothing to stop the hands resting upon hilts.

"They are here to annoy me. They think they run this clan. Every meeting, I put them in their place and they insist on crawling from the depths of hell in an attempt to undermine my authority," Madara complained, a scowl on his face.

"Surely they aren't that bad! You're a wonderful clan head!" Hashirama's words only embarrassed him, so he snorted and turned away from the man at his right. "This is what we've been waiting for! Thirteen years since the first time we met at the river. Here we are, men," Hashirama continued, his words drowned out by Madara's aggravated sigh. Why Hashirama insisted on being so damn dramatic was beyond him. At the sigh, Hashirama had the nerve to sulk.

"We are twenty-two. You make us sound ancient. Don't speak like that in front of the elders. For kami's sake, let that fool beside you speak first," Madara replied, quite grumpy. He saw the people filing into the shrine, both doors thrown open to the night. When was the last time they'd had such a formal meeting? Perhaps when Tajima lived.

"They must be inside," Hashirama noted, recovered from his sulking. Tobirama made a sound of agreement.

"Are you sure they won't revolt?" Madara barely resisted the urge to roll his eyes. Of course Tobirama would think such thoughts, voicing the worries Madara kept to himself.

"I'm sure you would love that."

"I would rather we didn't have to fight our way through throngs of angry shinobi, but the sight would be entertaining."

"I'm so glad you two are getting along!" Hashirama exclaimed the words, then threw his arms around their shoulders, pulling them in until both men were flush against his sides. Madara snarled at the action and threw Hashirama's arm off of himself, while Tobirama sighed and quickly ducked beneath the arm, leaving Hashirama with no one.

Madara led the way across the stone pathway to the open doors of the shrine. He knew he looked disheveled, but he felt the same, distracted by thoughts of Izuna and the impending peace talks. And it was such a lovely night for a candlelight gathering. Madara closed his eyes and took a deep breath, then he passed over the threshold and let his eyes adjust to the light of flickering flames. In the large open space of their meeting room, men and women sat on either side of a long aisle. All of them sat in seiza on red zabuton. When they noticed Madara, a hush fell over the room and people lowered their heads, some offering bows. Madara waved off their gestures and made his way down the aisle to the one long table at the head of the room. Three men sat at the low table, each one old, with hair more grey than any other color. Someone had possessed enough sense to gather zabuton for the additional guests. Madara sat in the center, with Hashirama to one side and Tobirama to the other. Why the elders sat in front of them, slightly elevated, was beyond Madara. He found the arrangement unsavory, to say the least. Tajima had relied on the men for too much; they thought themselves leaders rather than representatives or advisors.

"Madara-sama," the one in the middle greeted him, eyes darting to the two Senju. "This is a surprise. It was my understanding that you despised the Senju. Didn't one of them actually murder your brother, Izuna?" Masaji was the more vocal of the three, and Madara hated him most of all. With a huff, Madara activated his sharingan, a clear sign that Masaji walked on thin ice.

"I can assure you, Izuna lives and breathes. Thank you for your concern. I am moved," Madara replied, words flippant. Masaji puffed up, stuttering on a few words before the man to his right cleared his throat. "I have never been one to draw things out. I intend to make peace with the Senju clan. There will be no more war come spring."

"You can't be serious!" Nankichi slammed a first down onto the table, the clearing of his throat only the beginning of an onslaught. Madara narrowed his eyes, but the man continued. "There was never peace in my youth, never peace before my time, and there will be no peace now. To even entertain the thought is showing disrespect to those that have died at the hands of the Senju. Your father," Nankichi tried, interrupted by Madara's sigh.

"My father is nothing but ash now. Would you revive him and ask his opinion on the matter? Well? Go now. Find all of the ashes scattered by the wind and ask him," Madara said, waving a hand. Tobirama snorted, but Nankichi and Masaji appeared angry. Both men had been on the council for far too long. Madara should have dismissed them, publicly. "I am clan head. My word is law."

"I am for this," the third man finally spoke. Both Nankichi and Masaji appeared shocked, each one attempting to speak over the other. Okimoto sounded weary; the man spent so much time with the children in the clan, teaching them life lessons that many missed in training for war. "Imagine the children we will save. Imagine what we can become as a clan. Our numbers shrink. There's a sickness among the children and elderly, as it is."

"A sickness?" Hashirama frowned, easily inserting himself into the conversation. Okimoto nodded, face grim. Madara closed his eyes, managing a nod of his own.

"It has not been ideal," Madara began, finding the words to be too much. They concealed the harsh truth. He didn't want to build walls when the Madara he'd glimpsed in his vision had built walls so high, too high, practically impenetrable. He amended the words. "They die everyday from a sickness our medics have yet to understand."

"We may be able to help," Tobirama said, the words causing whispers amongst those at their backs. Madara didn't want to accept the help. Every part of him said to turn away and lick the proverbial wounds. Exposing a weakness bared far too much, but hadn't they already bared far too much? "We have good medics."

"We will never accept outside help with such a private matter, let alone help from you, Senju scum," Nankichi scowled, turning his nose up at Tobirama.

"Tch. This 'Senju scum' offered to save the lives of our children and elderly. Even I admit that is a good thing, and I'm loathe to admit we need the help," Madara replied, unknowingly defending Tobirama. Tobirama seemed content to allow the defense, while Hashirama only seemed thoughtful. "Oh for kami's sake, spit it out already," Madara demanded, causing Hashirama to laugh.

"Alright. Let it be part of our agreement. We don't want children dying. That is the point of all of this. We want to live together, to coexist, and that means helping one another," Hashirama said, getting more whispers and confused looks. Madara understood their suspicions. Hashirama wore his heart on his sleeve though, as crazy and irrational as that seemed.

"We'll share our medics, but we want something in return," Tobirama interjected.

"Yes, of course. What is it you want, Senju?" Madara had known there would be a price, a catch.

"Land and food. We want to expand and build a large village, we'll need more land than either of us possess alone. And food, since the battles destroyed some fertile land."

"Done. We'll have a more private meeting to go over specifics. I've had enough of this for tonight. We would waste time and breath going around and around about the same things. There will be peace, whether you want it or not."

As he rose to leave the room, Madara let the council members bicker amongst themselves. Several clan members stood, all attempting to approach Madara, but he walked right past them, reminding them that he had places to be, that they could approach the council with their worries. Hashirama waited until they were outside of the shrine to sigh in relief, though he seemed happy with the outcome. The fact that the elders and other clan members didn't seem as happy with the news was lost on him. In his mind, he'd succeeded, they'd succeeded, and that mattered more than years of wrongs and wounds. Madara still had the acrid smoke in his lungs from his father's cremation, the funeral a sad, silent affair. Madara had thought that would be the hardest day of his life, harder than the way the tanto twisted into his father's gut. He wondered if his clan would follow him, as its members had once followed his father. Perhaps the promise of peace wasn't enough, not when war ran in their veins, the hatred in their hearts a curse or brought about by behavioral conditioning. Madara didn't know which, and in the end it didn't matter. Izuna mattered. The time they had left together mattered. And he'd wasted enough of it.

"We can see ourselves home." Though he insisted, Tobirama continued following Hashirama and Madara through the streets. It was late, too late to be wandering the dark woods at night, and they all knew that. As powerful as they were, one brave man with a stroke of luck could end them. Madara's father would have laughed at such nonsense, but Madara had watched it happen. Butsuma had fallen. "You can't suggest we stay here," Tobirama eventually spoke again.

"Touka knows exactly where we are. There's no harm in staying. Everyone here now knows we only want peace," Hashirama said, waving his hand as if dismissing any retort. By then, others had trickled out of the shrine, returning to their homes. "At least until dawn. I'd like to know how Izuna is doing," Hashirama admitted, still bothered by the man's condition.

Madara had room in his home, yet he still wrinkled his nose. Tobirama hadn't killed Izuna, but the man had been close; Izuna still fought for his life, all thanks to Tobirama. Things could have gone differently, so differently. The possibilities left Madara's thoughts scrambled, mind foggy, and he had so many other things vying for his attention. At his home, Madara shared a few words with the medic, all of which revolved around Izuna's demise. The eyes hadn't taken, that was what she emphasized, and Madara could imagine the infection, the promise of a slow, agonizing death. Madara dismissed her, even as she broached the topic of the eye surgery that had restored Madara's diminished sight. He saw beneath her words to the hidden truth, the accusation, the implication. She thought he'd stolen the eyes, and maybe he had. He'd given in too easily, bending to Izuna's words in the way he always bent to Izuna's words. He cared too much for his younger brother. Because of his failures, he watched his brother waste away. It was a waiting game, and Madara was far too impatient for it.

Hashirama insisted on staying with Madara, so Tobirama did the same. Just as before, Hashirama passed out, exhausted by the day's events or the stress, something Madara understood. Madara constantly changed the cool cloth on his brother's forehead, wiping the sweat away whenever it accumulated on his brother's face and neck. He thought he'd known loss when he'd lost Tajima, but he was wrong.

"It was war, Senju. He would have killed you, given the opportunity, and he would have been unapologetic. I will admit that I enjoy watching you squirm though," Madara said, his voice breaking the heavy silence in the room. They'd burned the candles down by that point, so they had little light to expose their features. Still, Madara saw the man roll his eyes.

"This is a terrible way to die."

"Very true. It would be easier if I ended his life."

"You'd murder your own brother?"

"They say patricide is only the beginning," Madara replied, lifting his eyes to meet Tobirama's.

Chapter Text

The infection spread, overtaking Izuna's body, forcing Madara to make the difficult decision between life and death. Izuna's body had rejected the eyes. There was nothing the medics could do to save them, so they removed them. They cut away rotting flesh, taking more and more of the man's chest and gut, repairing what they could by stimulating the cells, but their work left ugly scars. Perfect flesh became a battleground of scar tissue. No peace talks drew Madara from his brother's side. He missed the first touch of winter, white flakes decorating the grass and trees. On the fourth day, Izuna stirred, and Madara could breathe again. The first sign came when Izuna groaned, fingers twitching, flexing. He reached for the thick bandages covering his eyes, but Madara took his hands, holding tightly.

"I can't see," Izuna whispered, voice hoarse from disuse. Madara didn't know what to say to a man who'd prized the sharingan. The eyes meant everything to their clan. Every man and woman hoped for the awakening of the sharingan. And Izuna had achieved that. The surgery had gone wrong, and maybe it was Madara's fault for taking Izuna to the Senju clan, maybe it was his fault for giving in to what could have been Izuna's last request. "What happened? What did you do? Answer me!"

"Your body rejected my eyes. The infection from your injuries coupled with your body's rejection left you crippled. You've been unconscious for days," Madara explained, the words causing Izuna to panic, to reach for the bandages as if touch could restore the eyes. "Your sight is gone. You're blind."

"I'm useless, damned to live this way. How could you let them take my eyes? The Senju poisoned you against me!"

"Stop your shouting! You aren't useless. You aren't damned. There's nothing the medics could do to save your eyes, but they've saved your life. Are you so ungrateful? If it weren't for the quick aid of the Senju clan, you wouldn't be talking to me right now. You would be with father in the afterlife!"

"Then maybe I should be! You relied on them when they were the same to strike me down. Let go of me!" Izuna pried his hands from Madara's grasp and began clawing at the bandages around his eyes. Madara grabbed Izuna's hands again and squeezed until Izuna's hands were pale. "What good am I now? I was a shinobi. My life had purpose. What do I have now?"

"You have me. There are other Uchiha who have lost their sight. They make the best of their lives. They are thankful they live and breathe. Give this a chance," Madara said, finally releasing Izuna's hands. The man remained still. "This clan will change. I've seen a world where it didn't, and in that world we were nonexistent. I will never let that happen."

"You spit on the graves of every man, woman, and child lost to war. You're no leader. You're no savior. At the end of the day, you're a shinobi. You kill. Peace is for the weak. You've seen a world where this clan didn't exist? So have I. You'll lead us there," Izuna spat, hateful words driven straight through to Madara's heart. Perhaps he'd expected too much from Izuna. Few clan members knew how to forgive. Izuna simply wasn't among them. And for a time, Madara had understood. Nearly losing Izuna, having the vision he still couldn't explain, had taken him off course. "Leave me alone," Izuna demanded, turning into his side, leaving Madara at his back.

Madara gritted his teeth, torn between verbally attacking his brother or listening to the man's demand. Izuna was stubborn, had always been stubborn; there was little more Madara could say right then, except to drive home how childish Izuna was being, how ridiculous and cruel he sounded. Tajima had poisoned Izuna, feeding the man's horrible outlook on the world, while Madara had spoiled Izuna, allowing the man to continue that way, allowing the man to embrace negativity. He wondered if it was too late for change. He wondered if death would have been kinder. Izuna would challenge him, he knew that, and Madara asked himself how far he would go for peace. Slowly, Madara got to his feet and left his brother to sulk. He alerted the main medic that Izuna had woken up, then he left the home to wander the streets. He needed to ground himself, to remind himself why he'd chosen peace. He found his answer in the children running through the streets, flitting from home to home; he found his answer in the easy way his people greeted one another.

"It's good to see you out again," Hikaku said, standing next to him to observe the children. Madara hummed, as if that were enough of a reply. "How is Izuna? The medics were tight-lipped when it came to his condition. And here I thought all women were gossipy," Hikaku joked, a small laugh following the words. Madara found nothing humorous about the joke, so Hikaku sighed.

"He's awake. That's the only good thing."

"Isn't that the one thing that matters?"

"Apparently not. He's blind, so he'd rather be dead."

"So the exchange didn't work. Are your eyes," Hikaku began, cut off by Madara shaking his head. Hikaku nodded. "He's a shinobi. I can't imagine having that part of my life ripped away from me. He'll adjust. It took him a while to process your father's death, but he did."

"That's because Izuna doesn't know I murdered him. This is different. He thinks I'm running this clan into the ground. He's so sure that peace is the wrong answer. He's so much like our father that it's almost disgusting. I can't help but feel as if I've failed him," Madara admitted, choosing to be open and honest with his cousin. Hikaku was young, barely nineteen years old, but it was easy to forget that when most men considered adulthood at age ten. "Tell me. Do you believe peace is possible?"

"I'm flattered that my opinion seems to mean so much to you," Hikaku admitted, earning a look from Madara. Hikaku rubbed his chin, then he shrugged his shoulders. "I believe peace is possible. We all need to be in agreement; we all need to realize that peace takes as much effort as war, sometimes more." Madara studied him, struck by how grown the teen sounded. Hikaku wasn't as childish as Izuna. Hikaku grew up as the man of the household, then he'd been orphaned at eight. Tajima had looked after him.

"If only Izuna and the majority of the clan could be this open to new possibilities. Do people honestly expect us to beat a dead horse? We're going nowhere," Madara admitted, lifting his head to stare up at the clear sky. Hikaku patted his shoulder. "I should send a message," Madara thought aloud.

"To our new friends?"

"Allies."

"Ah, yes. That seems more appropriate for your childhood best friend. To our 'allies,' then. I think I'll leave you to it. I'd like to visit Izuna."

Madara watched his cousin walk away, then he followed the main road along to the training grounds. Despite the promise of peace, men, women, and children trained for war. He picked a training ground closest to the forest and watched as two children worked on their taijutsu. They moved through each kata with fluid motions, one easily leading into another. He saw himself there, trying to make a warrior out of a body too young for battle. Madara saw them move from taijutsu to ninjutsu, but they struggled. Someone had begun to teach them, evidenced by their knowledge of hand seals, but they hadn't grasped elemental chakra. He activated his sharingan and watched their quick movements. One produced a small fireball that had the other boy screeching and falling onto his backside. Madara felt his lips twitch for a smile, then he began a slow walk onto the training field. He heard the boy celebrating the accomplishment, as if they'd never seen fire before that moment. Both boys showed promise. He watched their expressions shift to suspicion, then to joy.

"Madara-sama! Did you see what I did? Wasn't it great?" The boy grinned and jabbed a thumb toward his chest, motioning to himself. He had an innocence about him that older Uchiha lacked, a lightness that had Madara chuckling. He smiled so freely, while others chose to frown. The other boy finally stood and kicked his friend in the right shin, hissing that they show respect to the clan head. "Like you wouldn't celebrate! You're just mad I managed the jutsu before you, Ichiro!"

"What's your name?" Madara completely ignored the exchange, choosing to lean down to be closer to the boy's height. He was short and scrawny, but he puffed up as if he were a proud bird. Madara found that comparison amusing, though he didn't laugh.

"I'm Kagami!" The boy grinned, still so proud of himself. Madara had seen better work from children around Kagami's age, but the boy was an oddity, something refreshing. Madara hadn't bothered with children before, preferring to leave the upbringing to parents, trusting them to make warriors of children.

"He was dropped on his head a lot as a child," Ichiro chimed in, trying and failing to elbow Kagami in the side. Kagami quickly had Ichiro in a headlock that had the boy screeching again. "I give! I give!"

"Ha! That's ten times then!" Kagami released his friend and reached up to run a hand over tousled hair, as if finally trying to make himself more presentable.

"How old are you, Kagami?" Madara stood up again, content to pull back. Ichiro looked back and forth between Kagami and Madara, realization dawning, slow as it was. Ichiro made up an excuse to leave, abandoning his friend. Kagami stared after him for a moment before focusing on Madara.

"Six. I'm going to be a great shinobi, like my parents!"

"Who are your parents?"

"I'm not sure exactly, but I'm sure they were shinobi."

"So you're an orphan then," Madara noted, humming to himself. Kagami squirmed under his gaze, caught between responding and nodding. Finally, the boy nodded. Many orphans ended up with other relatives, but some, some slipped through the cracks. Madara had the feeling that Kagami was one of those children. "I can teach you, if you'd like."

Kagami stared at him with wide eyes and Madara wondered if he should regret offering. Some children thought him more like a king than a clan head, untouchable, unbeatable. Madara's lips twisted for a harsh frown, a command on the tip of his tongue, but Kagami smiled that brilliant smile again and he saw Hashirama there, loving, but insufferable, an open book with such depths that Madara was always left in wonder.

"Yes! I want to be the greatest shinobi in the history of our clan!"

"How about the greatest in the nation?"

"Greatest in the world!"

"I can work with that," Madara chuckled, reaching out to ruffle the boy's unruly hair. He'd used to do the same to Izuna, still did, sometimes. Instead of grumbling or swatting the hand away, Kagami laughed. "From today forward, you'll learn from me. I expect you to listen and to work hard. If you slack off or vex me in any manner, the deal is off, do you understand? I won't go easy on you just because you're six years old. I don't extend this offer to just anyone," he said, last words almost a grumble. His mind finally caught up to his mouth. He'd never considered himself a teacher, never dreamed of such a future for himself. He always thought he would die in a blaze of glory, and always taking Hashirama along with him. How the tides had changed.

"I understand! I can handle anything you throw at me! I'll work hard and exceed expectations or my name isn't Uchiha Kagami," the boy replied, eyes alight with a fire Madara recalled from his own childhood. Kagami fell into silence, seeming hesitant. "Is it true you made peace with the Senju?" Madara grunted, undignified as it was, so Kagami continued. "What will we do?"

"Are you sure you're six years old?"

"Huh? Of course!"

"When I figure that out, I'll let you know. In fact," Madara paused, inspecting the boy. Kagami blushed and straightened up, trying to appear more like the older children in the clan. "How would you like to meet them?" Kagami stared at him as if he'd lost his mind. Kagami opened and closed his mouth, struggling to come up with some sort of response. Impatient, Madara frowned. "Spit it out, boy!"

"You mean you'd take me to," Kagami trailed off. Madara nodded once and Kagami squared his shoulders. "I'd like to meet them. If there's peace, then, well, we're comrades, right?"

"You're a simple boy, aren't you? Don't frown at me. I mean you're very straightforward. You adapt. Change is easy for you. Perhaps because you're so young. You're lucky. There have been younger than you that have died in battle." Madara didn't wait for Kagami to respond. The boy sputtered and seemed to contemplate following after the departing Madara. Realizing Kagami wasn't following him, Madara sighed. "Follow me, and keep up, for kami's sake."

"Yes, sensei!"

In that moment, he didn't think of Izuna; he didn't think of the fact that his only brother despised him. He saw promise. He saw the beginnings of Konohagakure.

Chapter Text

"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.

Chapter Text

Reparations. Madara looked up from the scroll to meet Tobirama's eyes. They sat in Madara's home again, tucked away in the back office, because the Senju refused to see him, as if his presence would incite violence and mayhem. Madara dropped the open scroll onto his low table and gathered one he'd prepared. He practically threw it at Tobirama, and he didn't care that the man sighed and made a show of retrieving the scroll from the floor. Madara had let the elders of the clan gather their own demands, all of them trying to stir trouble with the other clan. He knew they walked a fine line, but he thought it fair that the Senju discuss trivial matters, such as the return of a work horse that had been stolen during a raid. The family didn't care about the horse. They complained to complain, to waste time better spent on planning Konohagakure.

"You can't be serious," Tobirama said, eyes scanning over the list of demands. "'The return of seventeen apples, in whole, or an even amount in a citrus fruit'?" Tobirama judged him, and he smirked, daring the man to test him. Tobirama continued reading, then he finally closed the scroll and dumped it atop the other scroll. Reparations had become a joke between the two.

Hashirama would have appreciated the demands, but the man had a clan meeting to attend, just another attempt at swaying the elders. Tobirama took a rice ball from the plate in the center of the table. The man stared at the rice ball for a few moments, so Madara sighed and took a bite of his own food, proving that the food hadn't been poisoned. Why Tobirama thought Madara would go through the trouble was beyond him. Madara had better things to do with his time. The two paused the conversation to finish their rice balls, then they sipped their tea. For a change, the tea was still warm and tasted like the honey Madara had added to the cups. Tobirama took more sugar in his tea than Madara did, but both preferred the taste of the tea itself over the sweetener.

The doors that led to the engawa were open, letting in a cool breeze. It was midday and the sun was shining, so the home had been warm and stuffy. Izuna had gone out with Hikaku, preferring that rather than sharing space with Tobirama. Madara couldn't blame the man. Madara would have preferred Hashirama, but he could do nothing about the man sitting before him. At least Tobirama had shown up on time, actually prepared for the meeting. After they finished their tea, Madara produced a list from amongst his papers. The clans came with their own allies and both men meant to offer the same peace to the allied clans. They both intended to draw other clans into the planned village. Madara didn't like the Hyuga, but he knew the clan came along with the Senju. Madara looked over the list, eyes scanning over the clans, some small, some large.

"We're allied with the Yamanaka, the Nara, and the Akimichi. They're closer to one another, and they've excluded themselves from taking a hard stance against your clan. We also had a contract with the Shimura clan, at one time. It's a small clan."

"We've allied with the Inuzuka, the Hatake, and the Hyuga. We are on good terms with the Sarutobi clan. Is the Hyuga clan going to be a problem?"

"Not if they keep their mouths shut. We've fought before. There's hostility there. We disagree with the house system, mainly that they seal branch members. We find it barbaric and insulting."

"Your clan divides sharingan from non-sharingan," Tobirama reminded him, seeming judgmental. Madara rolled his eyes. He couldn't hide his own exasperation. Of course Tobirama wouldn't understand. "Have you tried getting along, for the sake of peace?"

"I'm not saying my clan is better, although it is clearly better. I'll be overhauling the divisive system to have equality in the clan. I'd prefer it if the Hyuga did the same, but they're stubborn and infected with a superiority complex that's been a problem likely since its founding," Madara shrugged, offering another rice ball to Tobirama. The man declined, so Madara ate another.

"I can't imagine why your clans don't get along," Tobirama said, words reeking of sarcasm. Madara chuckled. "We don't get along with the Shimura clan. They've assassinated a few of our members, but we have nothing against the Yamanaka, Nara, and Akimichi. They're relatively well respected. What about the Hatake and the Inuzuka?"

"The Hatake clan is small, but powerful. Very talented," Madara noted, nodding in approval. He thought about the Inuzuka and resisted the urge to wrinkle his nose. The clan was loud, brash, and animalistic at the best of times. "We don't dislike the Inuzuka clan, but we have the neko contract and the summons hate ninken. They're very," Madara paused, trying to find the word he wanted, "wild, if you understand. Aren't they matriarchal?"

"Yes, and the clan head is also young. She's a prodigy, apparently." Madara chose not to respond, so Tobirama smirked. The expression had Madara momentarily flustered. "Tsubaki is nineteen," Tobirama said, watching the doubt cross Madara's features. "I think she could take you."

"I'm not interested in finding out. We should have a meeting with the clan heads soon. Did you have a time or place in mind?"

"We could meet in a few days. They would have time to plan, and we could ask the Nara to host the meeting. They are known for being rational, and I doubt our clans would want others wandering around our lands."

Madara could picture the reaction to the Hyuga clan head stepping onto Uchiha land and he found himself chuckling. Tobirama seemed to understand why, though the man didn't join in. With their tea and rice balls gone, Madara watched Tobirama make some notes on the reparation scroll, just clan names and snippets of thoughts. Looking at Tobirama, Madara envied his organization, even his penmanship. Tobirama raised his eyes and caught Madara staring, but Madara simply arched a brow at the man.

"May I help you with something?" Tobirama paused his writing and waited for a response.

"You really don't mind that Hashirama is leading this cause? You know how he is. You should have stayed to make sure he wouldn't make a fool of himself," Madara said, shrugging his shoulders. Tobirama frowned, hesitant to admit that the thought of Hashirama taking a stand by himself left him feeling uneasy. "He practically pushed you out of the door, didn't he?"

"He encouraged me to come on his behalf. I didn't want to leave him to the elders, but there are important matters to discuss and this meeting needed to happen."

"Hm. Let's go then," Madara announced, already getting to his feet. He left the cups and plates on the low table and stretched his arms above his head. "Come on. Our meeting has finished and you haven't received word from Hashirama. Let's make sure this meeting goes in our favor."

"You won't behave yourself. Hashirama might know you better, but I'm no fool. You'll only make things worse. Sit down," Tobirama said, pointing to Madara's zabuton. Madara smiled, a devious expression so out of place. He opened his mouth to speak, but Tobirama held up a hand. "I get it. You're a tyrant. This requires a delicacy that you lack."

"Tyrant? As if you would be any better. Are you coming with me or should I just storm your village and demand to see the elders? I think my way would include casualties, since I lack delicacy."

"Are you going to threaten my clan?"

"Of course not. That's insane. I am just suggesting some might be injured, gravely injured."

"Fine. You will listen to me when we enter my lands and you will refrain from interrupting. Do we have an agreement?"

"We're wasting time," Madara sighed, motioning for Tobirama to stand.

The journey took a little over an hour, since Tobirama delayed them both. In the light of day, the small village looked half deserted. Madara saw few people mingling, going from home to home or shop to shop. The Senju had a great deal of shinobi, but even more civilians. Hashirama had said that there were fewer births, thanks to women seeking men from other clans. They moved freely between the Senju clan and the allied clans. Most Uchiha remained in the clan. If someone married into another clan, no active sharingan could be outside of the clan. Madara knew of a couple that had to give their oldest son to relatives still within the clan. The sharingan was closely guarded, had been long before Madara's time, and would continue to be long after he passed away. Dojutsu theft was serious, mostly among people from Lightning and Water.

Madara toyed with the idea for a moment before he spoke. "Have you considered arranged marriages to keep the line going?" Tobirama didn't say anything, so Madara frowned. "Hashirama mentioned the number of available shinobi has dropped. Arranged marriages would keep the bloodline going and the name strong. My father implemented it before I was born and it helped boost our numbers."

"Some families still arrange marriages, but I don't think we need to be so strict. The elders want an arranged marriage for anija. Wood release has never been recorded before, so they want him to start a family and pass his teachings onto his children." Tobirama didn't seem to like the idea, for his eyes narrowed at the mention of wood release. Madara had the strongest sharingan in his clan. He'd surpassed his father at a young age. Madara understood the clan pushing for arranged marriages again because they wanted the power.

"And you?"

"What about me?"

"You know exactly what I mean."

They passed into the village before Tobirama had the chance to speak, but Madara knew the expression on Tobirama's face meant that the question wasn't lost. Some clan members on the roads gawked at them, eyes darting back and forth between Tobirama and Madara. The staring eventually had Madara grumbling to himself about the lack of manners, even though he knew his own clan members still gawked at the Senju when they visited. Tobirama led Madara to a modest home near the edge of the village. From the road, Madara heard the loud voices from inside of the home. Madara took a step to enter the home, but Tobirama put a hand on his chest to stop him. Madara stared down at the hand until Tobirama pulled back.

"The elders aren't interested in my personal life, and I prefer it. Anija doesn't have that luxury. He's soft-hearted, always has been, and these discussions get heated. They try to intimidate him. He might be soft-hearted, but he's very determined and he believes in doing the right thing. In here, we can't help him. It would make him seem weak. Keep quiet," Tobirama said, nodding toward the house, where the raised voices continued, the argument still heated. Madara stared at the home, then he scowled. "Delicacy," Tobirama reminded him.

"Fine. We don't need him looking weak. Someone might challenge him for his position as clan head," Madara answered, clearly displeased. Tobirama nodded, then led the way into the home. The whole place went silent, then the arguing started anew. Voices overlapped. All of the words jumbled. "Is this your typical council meeting? This must be new-age leadership at its finest" Madara said, trying to hurry Tobirama along.

"Enough!"

Tobirama stopped outside of a pair of sliding doors, so Madara stood beside him. Madara had never heard Hashirama sound so angry. The man had bellowed and the elders went silent, a single cough the only sign that there was life in the room. Madara reached out to open the shoji doors, but Tobirama shook his head and held up a hand. Murmurs started, but the disagreements quickly faded to the background.

"I am ashamed of your behavior. We finally have a chance at peace and you're all so quick to dismiss it. None of you are fit enough to be on the battlefield or you would understand how wonderful this opportunity is. I am tired of the killing. I want better for this clan. There will be no reparations. There will be no strings attached to this peace offering. I am still head of this clan. Have faith in me," Hashirama said, his last words a plea.

"Butsuma would frown on this. The Uchiha extend an olive branch only to beat us down with it," one elder responded. Tobirama flared his chakra, announcing his presence. One by one, the council members responded by flaring their own chakra. Tobirama opened the doors and stepped into the formal dining room, while Madara lingered in the doorway. "You led him into your home? You must have lost your mind!"

"How did the meeting go?" Hashirama completely ignored the elder, as did Tobirama, so Madara simply entered into the room and slid the doors closed behind him. There were spare zabuton at the table, so Tobirama and Madara sat down next to each other. Murmuring followed.

"We'll be contacting our allies. We need to reach out to the Nara clan to see if they will host a gathering," Tobirama said, voice slightly raised to overtake the whispered conversations between council members. "How is your meeting going?"

"Splendid!" Hashirama grinned and Madara couldn't help but snort, as rude and uncharacteristic as it was. Hashirama blinked at him a few times, then the grin softened. "How are you, old friend?"

"Friend?"

"He spent years trying to kill you!"

"I didn't succeed," Madara said, as if that were enough for the old men at the table. Hashirama chuckled and ruffled his own hair, a nervous habit from his childhood. "Continue your meeting. Pretend I'm not even here."

"Tobirama, please speak sense to this boy. Surely you don't agree with this. Surely you can't forgive the Uchiha for cutting down your brothers."

Madara turned to gauge Tobirama's expression, but the man seemed especially icy. He couldn't find anything telling on the man's face, though he had a feeling Tobirama was caught between agreeing or disagreeing. Madara couldn't alter the past. He wasn't a time traveler. He wasn't a god. He did regret many things, such as turning his back on Hashirama and following along blindly. He was a born leader. He should have chosen independence sooner. More lives might have been saved. Though he couldn't restore the fallen Senju, he decided he needed to say something on the matter. Tobirama wasn't as sold on peace. Madara saw that. They were still at a stalemate, waiting for the inevitable betrayal. Madara told himself he would be better, do better, and implement changes, but old wounds collected and soured negotiations.

"We could exchange formal apologies, but the peace should speak for itself; after all, none of you are truly sorry for the lives you've taken. We can all decide to move forward, or we can assemble in spring to continue cutting one another down," Madara interrupted. Tobirama looked in his direction and he tried his best not to smile. Moments into the meeting and he'd already gone back on their agreement for silence.

"That is a little harsh, Madara, but I agree that those are the two options," Hashirama said, taking a moment to look around at the disgruntled faces. "You've had grandchildren, some of you great grandchildren. What kind of world do you want for them? Do you want to bury them?"

"There comes a time when enough is enough. This is that time," Tobirama finally said, his words causing some shoulders to fall. Of course they respected Tobirama more. Madara found that insulting, but Hashirama seemed content to let things go.

"I will agree to this on the condition that we accept the marriage proposal from the Uzumaki clan." One man spoke and the other three nodded along, finding some satisfaction in the exchange.

"Marriage proposal?" Madara couldn't help himself. Hashirama sighed, his shoulders slumped. Madara quickly shifted his attention to Tobirama. "I thought your clan didn't rely on arranged marriages," Madara frowned.

"If that's what this will take, then it's done. In spring, I will marry Mito," Hashirama said, effectively ending the meeting. One by one, the elders bowed and retreated, all of them looking quite satisfied. Madara narrowed his eyes at them, leaking a little killing intent to get them moving along. "It's alright, you two. It's a small price for peace," Hashirama smiled.

"It's your happiness, and it matters a great deal," Tobirama spoke, also unhappy with the arrangement. "We don't have arranged marriages. We aren't the type for it. You promised you wouldn't let them bully you into this and you've failed, anija."

Tobirama leveled Hashirama with such a sharp look that Madara almost felt sorry for the man. But he agreed with Tobirama. He didn't know if he could suffer through an arranged marriage for the rest of his life just for the good of his clan. He was selfish in that way. Hashirama stared down at the table, eyes narrowed in thought. He'd taken Tobirama's words to heart. Madara saw the hurt buried in the man's eyes. He was likely disappointed, crushed, that he'd given away his romantic freedom for the greater good. Hashirama truly was a wonderful man. He deserved happiness. Madara toyed with the idea of remaining silent, but he'd always been opinionated and forward. Hashirama always had a part of him, and he liked to think he had a part of Hashirama too.

"You don't have to do this, Hashirama. I'm sure there are other options. You bend to them when you should be firm. You're a good man. Don't sacrifice that part of yourself for the future," Madara finally said, earning a small smile from the man. Beside him, Tobirama nodded once, enough for an agreement. Hashirama chose silence; he chose to hide behind that smile. Madara couldn't push him anymore, not then. Though they won, Madara felt as if they'd lost.

They stayed together for the remainder of the warm afternoon. Hashirama alternated between fanning himself with papers and drafting formal letters to allied clan heads, while Tobirama read over the completed letters and edited accordingly. Madara borrowed paper to write his own letters. He had little he wanted to say to the clan heads, but he borrowed some of the colorful ideas from Hashirama. He couldn't speak of brighter futures in the way that Hashirama did, but he tried. As the afternoon heat gave way to cooler winds, Madara finished his last letter and gathered his papers. He thought that Tobirama would volunteer to walk him back, if only to scold him and bicker with him about his behaviour, but Hashirama offered to walk with Madara.

"I'll send the letters. Don't take too long," Tobirama said, dismissing the both of them. Madara opened his mouth to argue with the man, but Hashirama took his arm and dragged him from the dining room. Madara glared over his shoulder, but Tobirama missed the expression.

"Stop manhandling me. I can walk on my own," Madara huffed, tearing his arm from Hashirama's grasp. The man simply linked arms, the smooth move so quick that Madara had no time to dodge. They walked through the small village that way, and they both pretended they couldn't hear the whispered conversations. "They think we're together. Let go of me. Let go!"

"No they don't. You're overreacting. Look! They're smiling at us! That's good, Madara!"

"They're laughing at us!"

"Or are they laughing with us?"

"You're impossible," Madara muttered, eyes anywhere but on Hashirama's smiling face. As soon as they left the village, Hashirama released the hold on his arm, and he made a show of stuffing his gloved hands into his pockets. It was a lazy way to hold himself, but he had no one to impress. They slowed their pace so that they walked side-by-side. Madara took a deep breath and broached the subject from the council meeting. "Who is Mito?"

"Ah," Hashirama responded, knowing that he hadn't responded at all. "The Senju and Uzumaki are distant relatives. The clans separated many years ago, long before me. This is supposed to strengthen ties between our clans. Mito is," Hashirama paused, "she is extraordinary. She's the second daughter of the clan head."

Madara pictured a woman with brown hair and brown eyes, her expression severe. The second child mattered less than the first child, often used in arranged marriages for political gains. Hashirama spoke at length about Uzushiogakure, the large shinobi village in Whirlpool. The largest clan, the Uzumaki clan, was renowned for fuinjutsu and large chakra reserves, making them fine shinobi. There were constant conflicts with shinobi from the Land of Water though, and with the beginnings of a large shinobi village on one of the large islands in Water, Uzushio sought help from the mainland. They wanted help from the Senju clan.

The journey to the Land of Whirlpools was a nightmare. Only experienced captains took their ships near the place. Madara had heard that the whirlpools could be manipulated, large and small, all tied to the security of the hidden village. He had heard tales of a city of gold, where the inhabitants bathed in the blood of their enemies. Madara had never met anyone from Uzushio, but that story had stayed with him. People from distant lands always seemed uncultured or barbaric in stories, more beast than human being, but he knew there were truths somewhere in the stories. Hashirama meant to marry one of them.

"You've met her?"

"No. Tobirama has. I sent a team to the coast to meet her. He wanted to learn more about fuinjutsu, so she taught him. He said she was strict and merciless, but she was brilliant. Her chakra felt like the sea."

"I thought you would marry out of love, not necessity."

"I might have," Hashirama said, appearing wistful. The expression was quickly masked, replaced by a smile. "I used to think I'd end up with you," Hashirama laughed. Madara tripped over an exposed tree root, making himself look like a fool. Embarrassed, Madara shook off Hashirama's help. "I spent years of my childhood with you. It wouldn't have been so hard to see it."

Madara didn't know what to say. He avoided looking in Hashirama's direction because the man had a nasty habit of reading him. He found it poetic that they would walk into the sunset with one another, which only left him feeling half-sick, caught between disgust and an emotion he would rather not identify. Hashirama had been his first true friend outside of the clan. They'd wasted afternoons at the river, sometimes swimming, sometimes lazing about. Madara closed his eyes and saw the last time they'd spoken to one another, the time he'd chosen his family over his friendship. To his left, Hashirama remained uncharacteristically quiet. Madara wondered if Hashirama had feelings for him, if they meant to discuss it right then, so he opened and closed his mouth several times, questions dying on his tongue. He hadn't asked himself if he'd had feelings for Hashirama. They'd managed to get along. Hashirama accepted Madara, faults and all. With peace, there could have been more, there should have been more. Something had died before it ever had the chance to live.

"Is this some confession then?"

Madara knew he sounded angry, but he was angry, angry that his choices, his decisions, had been stolen from him. Hashirama rested a hand on his shoulder and the two stopped. They were several feet from the river. Madara could see the flowing water through the trees and shrubbery. Years ago, they might have been there. As it was, Madara glared at the river in the way he couldn't glare at Hashirama. He waited for words, because Hashirama always knew what to say, even at the worst of times. Instead, Hashirama stood in front of him, leaned in, and pressed their foreheads together. Their breath mingled in what little space remained between them. Hashirama slipped a hand beneath Madara's hair to grasp the back of his neck, rooting them both to that spot. Where had the fighting gone? He wanted bloodshed again, if only because he understood it. He craved familiarity. He thought that Hashirama would kiss him, but the man simply smiled and held onto him.

Maybe he could have loved him.

Chapter Text

The Nara, Yamanaka, and Akimichi lived several hours south of the Uchiha and Senju. Madara didn't know their origins. There had been a rumor that they all originated in the Land of Demons, but he thought the rumor was simply a play on their fighting skills. Together, the clans were powerful, which explained why they decided to build a small village where they could live together. For the journey to Hanacho, Madara selected three representatives from the clan: He chose elder Okimoto, his cousin Hikaku, and Kagami, though Kagami was selected for a different purpose. Madara wanted him to see something beyond the walls of their clan. He thought that Kagami would appreciate the journey. Hashirama had offered to travel in one group, but Madara had declined. They needed to show up alone to represent their individual clans. And if he meant to avoid Hashirama, well, that worked out just fine.

"How much do you know about the geography of the Land of Fire?"

"I know we're headed south, toward Wave Country?"

"We're heading toward the village of Hanacho. It was founded by three clans, the Nara clan, the Yamanaka clan, and the Akimichi clan. It's located in a mountainous section of the nation, nestled in a valley. It's peaceful. They aren't aggressive clans. When they fight, they fight for good reasons," Madara explained, teaching Kagami the same things his father once taught him. "They're primarily shinobi clans, though they don't force members to become shinobi. Their clan techniques are tricky. You always respect them."

"You know I'm not disrespectful," Kagami said, rolling his eyes. Madara chuckled, though he didn't point out the boy's behavior. He'd wanted to take Izuna, but his brother had refused, right up until they'd departed. "Who are the clan heads?"

"Nara Shikao, Yamanaka Inoue, and Akimichi Choko. Two of three clan heads are women. It's not common among older clans. Women usually come into power when there's no other choice, except in the Inuzuka clan. They're matriarchal," Madara informed the boy, pleased with the boy's attention and mumbled words showing his understanding. "When we arrive, mind your manners. You're young, but you'll be representing our clan."

"I got it. No need to worry. I'll appear just like Hikaku, stiff and emotionally repressed!"

"Excuse me?" Hikaku sent the boy a scathing look, while Madara focused on not laughing. "Where did you hear this?"

"I'm not a rat, sir," Kagami happily replied, hiding on the other side of Madara. The blunt way Kagami spoke was refreshing and amusing, even though the words came at Hikaku's expense. From behind them, Okimoto chuckled.

The journey was uneventful. Most of the time, Kagami would ramble about his dreams for the future, which entertained everyone, since they all wanted the same thing: They wanted peace. Madara loved the thrill of battle more than anything, and though he wanted peace, he worried about a decline in his skills. The Uchiha primarily fought the Senju. What would they do without that conflict? Would another bitter rivalry rise from the wings and propel them back to war? The questions stayed with him until they reached the gates to Hanacho. Shikao stood at the gate, awaiting their arrival, and he greeted Madara with a handshake rather than a bow. Madara wouldn't have returned a bow. Shikao introduced himself to Hikaku, Okimoto, and Kagami, then he turned and motioned for them to follow him. Madara walked along beside him, while the others trailed behind. The village was relatively large and seemed prosperous. They'd passed farmlands outside of the village and had seen some men and women tending to the fields.

"This place seems peaceful," Madara noted, his only attempt at small talk. Shikao hummed in response, and Madara assumed the man wouldn't vocalize a response; instead, the man pointed to a large flat rock that stood in the middle of the village.

"Our clans have been here for years. That rock signifies our comradery. We work well together and we enjoy a peaceful life here," Shikao said, shrugging one shoulder. "I can't imagine going to war with the other clans here. I don't see how you fought the Senju for so long. It seems troublesome." He said the last word in such a lazy tone that Madara chuckled. Shikao smirked.

"Have the other clans already arrived?" Madara barely had the words out before he heard Hashirama shouting his name. He looked toward a large shrine in the distance and saw the people gathered in front of the building. Both large doors were thrown open to reveal the dim interior. "I see he's here," Madara muttered.

"He's not what I expected," Shikao sighed, watching Hashirama wave his arms in the air to be seen over the crowd. Madara's right eye twitched, but he refrained from commenting. "We're still waiting on the Hatake and Sarutobi clans. One had some trouble with rogue shinobi and the other had a birth to attend. The Sarutobi clan head welcomed a third son. I have two myself. I wished him luck, because they're nothing but trouble," Shikao said, stepping up to greet the assembled clan members.

"What a cutie," Choko greeted them, eyes on Kagami. "Aren't you a little young for a son, Madara? You didn't tell us he was so adorable." Choko reached out and pinched Kagami's cheeks, causing the boy to blush and flail.

"He's my apprentice. His name is Kagami. I also brought my cousin, Hikaku, and an elder, Okimoto," Madara said, introducing everyone. Choko shook hands with everyone, her firm grip surprising them. "We're missing the Yamanaka clan head, Inoue."

"She's already inside. We're taking clan heads and one other clan member into the shrine for the meeting. Will this strapping young man be attending?" Choko grinned at Kagami and produced a few hard candies from a pouch at her hip. Kagami perked up and took the offered candy.

"Take Hikaku. I wouldn't mind watching Kagami. I haven't been here in years, and I'd like to check on an old friend," Okimoto said, excusing himself from the group. Kagami looked to Madara for approval; when the boy received a nod, he took off after Okimoto.

The interior of the shrine had one big entry hall where zabuton had been laid out around a long, low table. The table had clearly been relocated. The shrine was the largest building in the village, so it was necessary to house the clan meeting. When Choko spotted Inoue, she called the woman's name and received a tiny wave in response. Hashirama fought his way through the people, weaving through the crowd to reach Madara's side. Tobirama remained with a Hyuga clan member. Inoue was soft-spoken, but incredibly bright. She talked about the importance of farming and trade between villages and nations, while Choko disappeared to check on the meals provided to the travelers. Madara didn't agree on trade with other nations, something he blamed on pride and paranoia, but he nodded at appropriate times. He had a feeling Inoue knew he wasn't really interested. Hashirama seemed delighted at the idea of expanding trade beyond the Land of Fire.

The Hatake clan was the last clan to arrive. The meeting was delayed while the clan head, Hisataka, changed out of his bloody armor and clothing. The last into the shrine, Hisataka greeted everyone and bowed to offer his apologies. The people accompanying the clan heads were told to observe and request permission to speak, then the meals arrived to allow everyone time to unwind. Unsurprisingly, those accompanying the clan heads tasted the food first, taking a bite from the food on the clan heads' plates, then their own. The late lunch was quiet, and only the Inuzuka chose to drink the offered sake. Tsubaki was young, just as Tobirama had said, but she had good posture and the clan markings on her cheeks. She had a pure-white ninken called Shirayuki to her left and an all black ninken called Kuromatsu to her right. Kuromatsu insisted on staring down Madara, so he narrowed his eyes at the canine.

"Something wrong with my partner, Uchiha?" The meal hadn't finished, but Tsubaki had noticed the blatant staring, as had Hashirama and Tobirama. Tsubaki was gruff, though he swore he saw some amusement in her eyes. Madara bristled, prepared to accuse the canine, but she grinned. "I'm fucking with you, Uchiha. Kuro, stop being such a creep. He's not going to eat us. I told you the cannibalism was a rumor."

"Excuse me?"

"Rumor has it you eat the hearts of your enemies."

"Do I seem like a cannibal?"

Tsubaki chuckled and tore a piece of chicken off the bone. She offered the meat to Kuro and the ninken finally looked away from Madara. Hikaku had stifled his laughter well, but his shoulders still shook with the effort of containing the sound. Scowling, Madara finished his meal and looked anywhere but in her direction. Soon after, Shikao announced the beginning of the meeting. When no one offered to speak first, Shikao sighed and called on Hashirama to speak. Eizo, head of the Shimura clan, frowned at Hashirama. There was still hostility, just as there was some hostility between the Hyuga and Uchiha.

"We want to build a large village, a hidden village like we've heard of in the west, and we want our allies to join us in this endeavor. The Uchiha and Senju have found peace, so we know it's possible with all of our clans," Hashirama began, seeming so sure of himself. As Hashirama spoke, Madara searched the faces for any sort of disagreement. Tsubaki looked deep in thought, the only one at the table bold enough to wear her emotions on her sleeve. "Imagine what we could accomplish together. We'd have more security and support, if something were to go wrong. Getting rid of child soldiers is also a goal. We've had children on the battlefield that haven't seen puberty. We need to address this. I'm sure everyone here has lost someone young to the fighting."

"This is how things go," Eizo said, sounding confused. "Most children have proven to be just as proficient as older shinobi, with the right training. The Sarutobi have brought a child here today, as have the Uchiha."

"My son is named Hiruzen, and he's the clan heir. He needs to learn," the Sarutobi clan head, Hiromasa, said, a deep frown in place. Eizo opened his mouth to argue, so Madara cleared his throat. Eizo quickly reconsidered. "Security and support are good selling points, but I'm sure you would want us to relocate to this village. That's leaving our lands, our farms, our businesses," Hiromasa listed, getting a few whispers from the Hyuga.

"I suppose you would want us to pledge loyalty to the village above the clan. We have barely had any contact with half of the people at this table. We don't need security or support. We can handle ourselves," the Hyuga clan head said, completely done with the conversation.

"Asahi, you just lost two of your sons to a war with easterners. That leaves you with a three-year-old as your clan heir. Get over yourself," Tsubaki snorted, content to sip her sake. Asahi scowled at her, the most telling expression he'd had since the meeting officially started. "Tell us why we can't handle ourselves. My clan has been self-sufficient since the beginning. What's in it for me and my people?"

"We think there's a war coming," Tobirama voiced, speaking out of turn. Someone should have pointed out the rules of the meeting, but everyone had dissolved into whispered conversations with their companions.

"That is something you lead with. Where is this information coming from?" Madara asked the question, then he leaned over to ask Hikaku if they'd received any intel. Of course they hadn't.

"We sent scouts to investigate the Land of Earth. There's a large shinobi village there with multiple clans. They've been moving into the Land of Fire. The daimyo reached out with a complaint. I'm sure he's reached out to several clans, or he will within the next few days," Tobirama finished, allowing Hashirama to try and smooth things over.

"Just what we need, the purse controlling the sword. I've heard that there's another village forming in Lightning. My clan originated in the country," Hisataka said, appearing thoughtful. "It seems like we would unite just to fight a war for an aging daimyo with a superiority complex."

"War is coming, whether we want it to or not. We received a mission to assassinate the daimyo. We turned it down," Eizo admitted. "We won't bite the hand that feeds us."

"It'll be a pain to relocate," Shikao sighed, finally downing his sake. "I think we'd come to an agreement before this meeting," Shikao said, motioning for Inoue to speak.

"If this is a place that will celebrate the same comradery that we have here in Hanacho, I don't see why we shouldn't give this a chance. We'll want land for clan housing and businesses and a share of the missions. That would go for our three clans," Inoue smiled, receiving a hearty laugh for Choko.

"Why the change of heart? It's nice here, much better than the farmlands along the border of Rice Country," Hisataka added. Choko pursed her lips.

"We've had issues with the Land of Rivers recently. They like to steal and burn our crops. We can't afford to keep fighting them while we're losing food and income," Choko admitted, running a hand over her short hair.

"Smart," Hisataka agreed. He turned to his companion. She looked a lot like him with her silver hair and deep brown eyes. Madara had to assume they were siblings. "Land and a share of the missions. I'm tired of northern winters. It's for our wolves, but not us. If we have an understanding and my clan receives what's due, we'll fight for you. It's as simple as that."

"I agree. I speak for my clan when I say why the hell not. I will say clan secrets remain clan secrets, the same with clan teachings. Give us a safe place and we would fight for any of you, blood or not," Tsubaki said, her two dogs barking once in agreement.

"It seems that it's just us now," Hiromasa noted, looking at Eizo and Asahi. The Sarutobi, Shimura, and Hyuga clans remained undecided. "There comes a time when a man needs to decide what kind of man he truly wants to be, and I want to be wise and compassionate when it comes to those dearest to me. We'll slowly arrive in the village over the period of six months. If things are to our liking, we'll move in entirely."

"That seems fair. All bad blood aside, we'll do the same," Eizo agreed.

"Looks like it's just you, sweetheart," Tsubaki smirked, causing Asahi to blush a furious shade of red. Asahi cleared his throat and turned a harsh look on Madara.

"If you want to bring your superiority complex to the village, be my guest. I may not like you, I may not agree with you, but I won't stab you in the back. If war comes, who knows. We might have to rely on one another, as distasteful as that sounds," Madara smiled, though it was dark and all too brief. Asahi huffed at him.

"Very well. Six months," Asahi nodded.

"This went well. Good food, good company," Hisataka said, a content sigh following.

As the meeting ended, Madara grabbed Hashirama's arm and dragged him aside. At first, Hashirama was surprised, but it quickly turned to excitement. The man opened his mouth to ramble about their good fortune, but Madara silenced him with a harsh look.

"What the hell did he mean 'we think there's a war coming'? Why wouldn't you tell me? That is something you tell me!" Madara didn't care that his outburst attracted the attention of a few clan heads. Hashirama held up both hands in an attempt to placate him, but he shook Hashirama.

"You'll give him brain damage," Tobirama sighed, freeing his brother from Madara's grasp. Hashirama made a show of straightening out his clothes, as though he'd been in a terrible fight. "The letter arrived yesterday. The scouts haven't made it back yet. I thought it would be best if we told everyone at once."

"It wasn't best. I'd expect this from him," Madara said, pointing at Hashirama, "not you. You're supposed to be intelligent. This is just as much of a threat to me as it is to you. We just finished a war. I don't want another one thrown in our laps."

"I'm sure it won't be serious," Hashirama tried to calm him down.

Hikaku had arrived by that point and he took one look at Madara and led the man away, calling out that they needed fresh air. Madara went outside and took a few deep breaths, but he still felt the irritation in his bones. He knew exactly what war awaited them. It would be a war meant to end all wars, though it was only the beginning of a string of global wars. The First Shinobi War loomed over them, and Konoha hadn't been founded yet. Had that been the order of things? Madara didn't know. The vision hadn't been specific; there were no dates, as if some child had decided to tell a story with a timeline that was complete shit and an ending that made no sense. Scowling at the tree line, Madara doubted the vision just as he doubted the news. Something was wrong, very wrong, and they weren't ready. Hikaku knew not to disturb him, so he spent several minutes breathing in the warm autumn air. It was an unusual day, feeling more like a gentle introduction to summer than the promise of winter.

"We're running short on time."

"You think they'll make a move on us before we've established the village." Hikaku didn't ask, and Madara appreciated the man's knowledge of his thought process. Madara made a small sound in agreement and Hikaku glanced back at the clan heads assembled near the shrine, still engrossed in conversation. "The Hyuga, Shimura, and Sarutobi will reconsider their six-month plan if we give them a little shove."

"Manipulative, but I don't think we'll need to lower ourselves. The village is called Iwagakure, and they'll be here before you know it. It will become a lasting thorn in our side," Madara replied, a soft sigh following. He looked over at Hikaku to see the puzzled expression on the man's face. "It's a long story, one I'm not ready to share. Let's collect Okimoto and Kagami. I've had enough of this place."

Hikaku was drawn into a conversation with the Hatake clan head, Hisataka, so Madara went in search of the rest of their party. He found Okimoto first, and the man pointed him in the direction of a path leading away from the village. Slightly frustrated at the vague directions, Madara had every intention of scolding Kagami for wandering off, but he found Kagami in a training field, surrounded by three other children. Madara slowed his pace and watched the children interact with one another. One child was an Akimichi, judging by his larger size and chubby cheeks, but the other two children were a mystery. He couldn't blame Kagami for making acquaintances with the children of other clans, so he approached them with a neutral expression. Kagami jumped to his feet and bowed, while the other children slowly followed his lead. The Akimichi had an interesting hat on his head that reminded Madara of cat ears.

"Madara-sama, this is Akimichi Torifu, Shimura Danzo, Sarutobi Hiruzen, and Hatake Kaisei. We were talking about how it used to be between the Uchiha and the Senju," Kagami said, looking to the others for support. "Danzo doesn't think the village is going to work out."

"I was saying that it's going to take a lot of work," Danzo protested. Kaisei rolled his eyes and returned to his spot on the ground. "You didn't think it would either!"

"I don't know what you're talking about," Kaisei said, flashing him a toothy grin. Danzo narrowed his eyes and opened his mouth to protest, but Madara's harsh look silenced him. "This isn't the first time it's been brought up. What's to say it's going to work this time?"

"It'll work," Torifu insisted, shrugging his shoulders. "No way would my clan agree to move just for this to fall through. Do you know how many generations we've had living in this village? It'll work," he repeated.

"I think it's a wise decision. If we want a chance at peace, we need to make sure that we all work together toward that common goal. If there is a war, then I would rather fight together, as comrades, than against you, as enemies," Hiruzen spoke, his way of thinking silencing Danzo. Madara nodded in approval, then he motioned Kagami forward.

"We're leaving. Say goodbye to your friends," Madara instructed him.

"Don't be such a downer, Danzo. I'll see you next time!" Kagami poked Danzo's side, then he waved to the other children. He caught up to Madara's side several steps later. "Are we leaving so soon? The other clan heads will be leaving tomorrow."

"Your friend, Danzo, I want you to keep a close eye on him, Kagami. The Shimura clan isn't like most clans," Madara spoke, his voice quiet enough not to carry back to the children. Kagami went to turn his head, but Madara placed a hand atop his head and kept him facing forward.

"What kind of clan is the Shimura clan then?"

"Opportunistic. Have you heard the wise saying to keep friends close and enemies closer? There is a reason why we consider them allies, and it's not because we're friends."

Chapter Text

He sat on the engawa and looked up toward the sky. His imagination painted a wonderful picture of clear blue dotted with white, fluffy clouds. It could have been overcast and grey, but not for him. He saw what he wanted to see, even with the blindness. He was alone then, having chosen not to follow Madara to Hanacho; he didn't regret his decision to stay, not when he doubted the peace his brother and those damn Senju chased. It was only a matter of time until they were after blood again. Izuna would take great joy in saying the words I told you so as his brother fought to survive all over again. The thought was cruel but fleeting, and he couldn't bring himself to care. He had nothing left, a sea of darkness his only friend, so he succumbed to the terrible thoughts. He welcomed a future of fighting and bloodshed. Izuna wasn't a bad person, not really, but it would have been easy to fall so far. After all, a man already on his knees only needed to go a little lower.

He extended his senses, chakra bleeding into the wood of his home, extending down into the earth. He wasn't a sensor, but he heard the gate to the side yard creak open, followed by the sound of footsteps in the grass. His brother wasn't due for several hours, so he knew it wasn't Madara in the yard. He turned his ear toward the footsteps and waited for the people to reach him. There were three, one with a terrible limp. One of them smelled like freshly picked flowers. Maybe the florist.

"I know you're there. I'm blind, not deaf," Izuna sighed, motioning for the three to step forward. Someone sat down beside him, a small, delicate hand settling atop one of his own. She smelled like flowers. "If you're looking for Madara, he's not here, and he won't be back for several hours. If you want to leave a message, my aide is inside preparing lunch."

"Actually, we came to see you, Izuna-sama."

"Ah, Nankichi. Masaji must be with you. And the third person?" Izuna removed the woman's hand from atop his and dropped it. Nankichi muttered something about his attitude, so he smiled.

"It's Hisayo, from the flower shop. I take notes at the clan meetings." Izuna recalled Hisayo. She looked foreign, her hair the color of straw. Unsurprisingly, she never obtained the sharingan. Clan members still considered her an outsider. If it weren't for her position, she might have been removed from the clan. Izuna assumed her unknown connections kept the flower shop going. "You look well."

"You must want something. What is it?" Izuna crossed his arms over his chest and waited. Masaji was better with communicating, since he had more patience and a silver tongue, but it was Nankichi that struggled to find the words. "Enough. Let Masaji speak. Why are you bothering me this afternoon when none of you have bothered to check on me at any point?"

"We know you don't approve of the way Madara is running this clan. We're interested in where you stand on the current political climate. Perhaps we can see eye to eye," Masaji said, his voice low. Izuna turned his head toward the open doors and listened for his aide, but he heard faint humming coming from deep within the home. Izuna wondered if his aide was a spy for the council.

"You want me to turn against my nii-san and help you gain control of the clan. That's what this is about, isn't it? And you brought this outsider along because?"

"I'm interested in replacing the aide Madara has selected for you. I could be an ally," Hisayo said, once again touching his hands. Sighing, Izuna allowed the show. "I'm deeply concerned about the treatment you're receiving and would be happy to help in any way."

Izuna freed his hands and reached up to adjust the slim bandages over his closed eyes. Madara had never let him down; Madara had always had his best interests in mind. At that moment, Madara sought peace, a world where their lives weren't thrown away over a grudge that had begun far too many years ago. Izuna tried to imagine that peace, but something burned inside of him, something that whispered that peace wasn't possible. Sometimes, late at night, he heard the words whispered to him. He believed that part of himself, that disembodied voice. He'd already disagreed with Madara's handling of the clan; he'd already said everything on his mind. And yet he'd never considered the possibility that he could lead a cause to overthrow his older brother, the man who had once been his whole world. Izuna lowered his hands, allowing them to rest on his lap. He realized that the three waited on him. They'd risked everything by being so open with him. He should have cut them down for their traitorous ways, but he didn't move.

"Izuna-sama?" The humming had ceased and he knew that they had little time before his aide came to escort him to lunch. Nankichi knew they were running out of time. Izuna felt as if he'd tasted something bitter, but he waited for his aide to arrive. The two elders and Hisayo waited in silence.

"Oh! You have guests. Elders, ah, and you," Yuka, his aide, greeted them. Izuna imagined her wiping her hands on her apron. At one time, he'd asked her what color she wore. The color didn't matter anymore. "I'm sure I have enough food, if you'd like to join us."

"Yuka, I'd like Hisayo to take over from today forward. I thank you for your concern and your assistance," Izuna said, completely ignoring her gasp. Nankichi grunted.

"Madara-sama told me not to leave you alone, and I'm not going to do that. She's an outsider and she has no business in the affairs of the clan head. Now I am going to calmly ask you to leave, and then I am going to make you leave," Yuka said, clapping her hands once. When no one made a move to go, Yuka huffed. "I may be a woman, but I was a fine kunoichi, and I'm not hard of hearing either. You can forget this conversation and cease this nonsense, or I can kill you and explain your plans to Madara-sama over the cold remains of our afternoon lunch. What will it be, gentlemen?"

Izuna chuckled, the response so sudden that the elders whispered about his sanity. He held out a hand for Yuka and he tangled their fingers, allowing her to help him to his feet. Yuka narrowed her eyes at the three and they slowly withdrew from the engawa. Izuna heard their footsteps on the grass, and he lost the smell of flowers. Yuka helped him into the formal dining room and left him to his seat at the head of the table. He asked himself if he were really so close to betraying his brother, if he were strong enough to fight that battle. And as he thought, Yuka hummed and set the table with their food.

"I don't think you should be scheming with the elders," Yuka finally said, her words signaling a pause in their lunch. Izuna turned toward her and nodded, a signal for her to continue. "They would only use you and toss you aside. They don't care about you. They care about power. They've always been greedy."

"Then what would you do, Yuka? Would you turn them in to my brother? Will you?"

"Silence isn't free."

"Ah, so you, too, want something." Izuna laughed again. He set his chopsticks down on the edge of his plate and looked off in the direction of the engawa. "What if I told you I intended to use them and toss them aside? Would you betray me then, scold me for having such thoughts about a man who helped raise me?"

"I would say the weather is perfect for plotting a change in power," Yuka laughed. When she settled, she hummed again. "I suppose you would toss me aside too. You might even try to kill me."

"Try?"

"I meant what I said." Izuna waited for her to say more, but he felt her hand on his cheek. Against his better judgment, he leaned into her hand, his lips finding a spot upon her knuckles. "The food is getting cold." It was an end to their conversation, so Izuna resumed eating.

Izuna had never imagined himself as clan head, not when his older brother was destined for the position. Their competition, their rivalry, had never gone that far, and then Madara had met Hashirama, and Izuna really hated that man. He saw flaws, cracks in the veneer, and maybe that was when the darkness inside of him blossomed, like his own little garden just nestled beneath his ribs. What would happen if he betrayed Madara? It would be the true end to their relationship, a relationship Madara had already trampled on for the sake of peace with the Senju. Again, Madara had chosen Hashirama. How many times would the man choose Hashirama? Izuna's hatred had been focused on Tobirama, and that was the mistake. He should have known Madara was weak against Hashirama. Something about the man made Madara lose himself. Hashirama would be the first to go. Izuna would put an end to the friendship, and then Madara would see the truth. The Senju lied. Without Hashirama, the Senju would quickly turn against the Uchiha. And Madara would crawl back to the clan and beg for forgiveness. Izuna wanted that. He wanted Madara to crawl back; he wanted Madara to see the light. Yes, Hashirama had to go.

Izuna sat around the table long after the empty dishes had been swept away. He heard Yuka humming again and he wondered if she were truly as domesticated as she seemed. She knew her death would make things easier, yet she'd stayed, as if to tempt him, perhaps to remind him that he was weak without his sharingan. When Yuka rejoined him, she brought tea with honey and lemon, saying something about the chill in the air. The cold didn't bother Izuna anymore, not when he felt the chill from the ice in his chest.

"Will you be loyal to me?"

"You don't have a reason to doubt me."

"Prove it."

"And how should I prove it, Izuna?"

Izuna licked his lips, tasting the remnants of honey. She refilled his cup, the heat from the cup warming his hands and fingers. He needed to see, to see the color of the tea, the color of Yuka's lips, the color of the sunset. What was one loss, in the scheme of things? Bowing his head, he inhaled the scent of the tea and exhaled all of his doubts. He thought that his plans would trigger something, some karmic justice meant to counteract every evil thing he intended to accomplish. Nothing happened. He didn't want to hurt Madara, but he knew that his actions would hurt his older brother. At some point, the two would have to face one another. Madara would figure it all out. He would know Izuna betrayed him, and that would be the true end of their relationship. And maybe Madara deserved the pain. Maybe he deserved to lose and lose and lose until he was as broken as Izuna. But first, Izuna had to see.

"Bring me Hikaku."

"What could you possibly want with Hikaku?"

"I want his eyes."

"Consider it done."

Suddenly, he was the bad guy, and that was alright.

Chapter Text

The clan homes were beacons in the night. Kagami had been dead on his feet; Hikaku had offered to carry him, but he'd refused, wanting to appear strong to Madara. When Kagami had begun falling behind, Hikaku threatened to carry the boy bridal style if he didn't stop being so stubborn. Madara announced that he'd hold a clan meeting the following day, then he took Kagami from Hikaku's back and led the half-asleep boy back to his house. He had the room, and he didn't enjoy the idea of sending Kagami back to the boy's temporary home. Together, they walked the streets of their home. Kagami was surprisingly quiet, so quiet that Madara checked if the boy were simply sleepwalking. He recalled the warning he'd given about the Shimura clan and he wondered if he'd hurt Kagami in some way. Kagami was a good kid, and he had no problem making friends. Was it already too late to alter the relationship between Danzo and Kagami? Madara stopped walking and looked down at Kagami. The boy looked up at him and he rested a hand atop Kagami's left shoulder.

"You've been quiet. Is this about what I said? Are you really such good friends with that Shimura boy?"

"Not exactly. I just don't see how we can invite them into the village when we really don't trust them. How will that help anything? We shouldn't have extended the invitation in the first place."

"We're trying to set a better example. There's a chance this idea of unity will give the clan the push they need to reexamine themselves. I haven't been around this long by subscribing to optimism though, and I would rather have you safe than take that chance."

"You know some people fear you, but I can't see why," Kagami smiled. Madara rolled his eyes and shoved Kagami's shoulder, causing the boy to stumble.

The house was dark, and Madara couldn't sense his brother in the home—the place was empty. Madara motioned for Kagami to wait by the door, then he ventured into the dark home, slowly checking room after room. Nothing was out of place. Izuna's futon was out and prepared for bed, but the man was gone. Frowning, Madara made another pass through the home, but the result was the same. Several screams started somewhere within their village, the shrieking a sharp contrast to the quiet of the night. Kagami pounded on the front door, signaling for Madara to come outside, so Madara joined Kagami outside of the home. Madara followed the fading screams, Kagami ignoring his demands to remain at the house. They stopped outside of Hikaku's home. The door was wide open, revealing the dark entryway. Several clan members stood outside, all of them remaining close together, seeking comfort from one another.

"Stay here!" Madara barked the command over his shoulder, stopping Kagami from following him. Madara thought he caught a glimpse of Okimoto in the crowd, but he didn't have time to stop and order the man to look after Kagami. He ran into the house and activated his sharingan, quickly sweeping through the rooms of the home. "Hikaku!"

He found blood along the wall leading into the kitchen, then he followed the smudged bloody handprints along the wall into the kitchen, where he found a trail of blood leading into the dining room. The air had a metallic tang to it, and he took care to step over the blood, to avoid disturbing the scene of the crime. Hikaku was slumped over the dining room table, his body limp but still warm. Madara took Hikaku's shoulders and slowly lifted him from the table. He was gone, of course, likely dead before the screams of discovery. Madara thought to close Hikaku's eyes, but he found himself staring into bloody eye sockets. Someone had removed the eyes with precise movements, though there were marks indicating failed attempts before that. Madara sank to his knees and cradled Hikaku to himself in a way that he hadn't done since their childhood years, back when Hikaku had lost his mother. He heard footsteps on the creaky entryway floorboards, so he turned toward the noise. Kagami called his name, his voice soft in the dark home. From outside, Okimoto called for Kagami to come back outside.

"I didn't expect you to come inside, but maybe it's better this way," Madara heard Yuka say.

Madara placed Hikaku on the floor, quickly arranging the man's limbs, then he rose and crept toward her. He peered around the corner and caught Yuka grabbing a fistful of Kagami's hair. Kagami stomped on her foot and slammed an elbow into her stomach. When Yuka tightened her hold, he turned into the hold and spat fire at her. She released him to try to put the flames out, but in the light, Madara saw the blood on her hands and clothes. Furious, Madara grabbed the gunbai from his back and swung. Yuka dodged the attack, but Kagami sent a fireball at her. Madara swung his fan, sending a blast of wind that expanded the fireball. Cornered, Yuka substituted herself with a chair. The fire caught the walls and burned the floor, the small flames clinging to the wood. Smoke quickly began to fill the entryway and spill out into the night. Yuka turned toward Kagami, so Madara lashed out with the chain of his gunbai and wrapped it around her dominant hand. Kagami darted out of the home and stumbled out into the streets, where he saw Izuna standing between the home and the assembled Uchiha. When the fight moved outside, Madara paused to take in the sight of his brother.

"I don't want to make peace with the Senju. I don't want to live in a village with the same men who killed our clansmen. I want vengeance. I want blood and flesh for the lives they've taken. I am not Madara. I’m better. I will be the new clan head, and those of you willing to fight beside me, follow me."

"Sensei, what is he talking about?" Madara grabbed Kagami before Yuka could take him again and planted the boy at his side. Slowly, the Uchiha in the streets began to call out their support for Izuna and stepped forward to join the man. Madara shushed Kagami, stopping the boy from asking more questions.

"You mean to challenge me for my position as clan head, after all I've done for you? I got you the help you needed to save your life. I'm making peace for you, for this clan!" Madara still had a hold on his gunbai, and when Izuna turned to look at him, he saw the sharingan, Hikaku's sharingan, looking back at him. Madara sent a wave of killing intent that encompassed everyone standing in the area. Their show of support ceased. "Then fight me. Come at me with the intent to kill."

"Kagami!" Okimoto called the boy over and Madara nodded for Kagami to go, to cross the invisible line between the clan and Madara.

Izuna drew a katana and Madara tightened his grip on his gunbai. Doors opened along the road, allowing more Uchiha to spill out into the streets. The clan members, young and old, gathered around the two, creating a ring around them. At once, Izuna and Madara disappeared. The katana met Madara's gunbai and sparks flew. Madara whipped the chain around and caught Izuna in the face, barely missing the man's eyes. Clearly angry, Izuna pushed off and they started with ninjutsu. He flashed through hand seals, Madara easily copying them and completing them ahead of time. Their flame dragons met in the middle of the clearing, twirling and colliding, exploding outward in heat and flames and smoke. The people around them scattered, taking refuge in doorways and side streets. Madara marched forward, deflecting attack after attack with his gunbai, until he stood over Izuna. Izuna had always been crafty and fast, quick to pick up on movements, while Madara relied on pure power to overwhelm his enemies. He swung his gunbai once more and completely shattered Izuna's blade. The people once seeking refuge returned to crowd around them again, their words suddenly becoming a chant in favor of Izuna.

They gathered rocks and began throwing them at Madara. The few unwilling to act were quiet, clearly choosing their own safety over the need to defend Izuna. The clan didn't support him; the clan supported Izuna. Slowly, Madara lowered his gunbai. Clan members had turned from rocks to drawing weapons. They meant to fight him, in some attempt to spare Izuna, in some attempt to fight back against the future. Madara looked at all of the faces, sharingan blazing, memorizing all of their faces, all of their hatred. Madara drew back and lashed out one last time with the chain of his gunbai, making a diagonal slash across Izuna's face. He meant to mark the man. The crowd closed in around him and Madara was forced to fight or retreat. He'd never been one to withdraw, never, but he knew the choice he faced. He didn't want to hurt them. They were scared of the unknown, angry over past wrongs, and that could have been him, that would have been him. He understood them. Madara made one quick sweep with his gunbai, forcing the people back, then he located Okimoto and Kagami in the crowd. In one swift motion, he disappeared and reappeared at their backs. He grabbed Kagami around the waist and lifted the boy from the ground. Okimoto threw down a smoke bomb and the three disappeared from the streets, blending in with the night.

They packed what they could, and in the end, they left a great deal. They outran clansmen determined to fight them, perhaps to kill them. At the edge of their village, Madara met Okimoto and Kagami. Kagami had a single bag on his back, while Okimoto carried another.

"I won't be going with you," Okimoto said, handing the bag off to Kagami. Okimoto forced a smile for the boy, but it didn't reach his eyes. He tried the same expression for Madara. "It won't take them long to realize the mistake they've made. You chose to spare those lives tonight, and I don't think you would have done it before the peace talks."

"I couldn't bring myself to kill, and instead, here I am, running off into the night like a coward," Madara spat, scowling at the ground. "Let this be the only mercy I show them. Once dawn breaks, I'll be back."

"You'll bring the Senju?" Kagami looked up at Madara and Madara shook his head. He ruffled Kagami's unkempt locks.

"Izuna would appreciate that, wouldn't he? I am a one-man army, and I will strike down anyone foolish enough to resist."

"And if the clan strikes before dawn? What if they reignite the war?" Kagami sounded too old, asking questions better left to Okimoto, but children his age had fought and died for the cause. Madara hadn't comforted a child in years, and Kagami expected that of him. Okimoto looked torn between interfering or remaining silent, so Madara dropped to a knee in front of Kagami. "Am I going to have to fight? I'll fight."

"You did well tonight. You fought against someone stronger than you and you lived to tell the tale. I'm not going to ask you to fight, Kagami. You need more training, and I still think you're too young to be on a battlefield. I trust Hashirama with my life," Madara said, resting a hand over his heart, "so I trust him to look after you."

"Hurry. It's going to be difficult enough in the dark. Everyone is awake now," Okimoto interrupted them. Madara stood and collected his own bag, then he narrowed his eyes at the dark forest ahead of them. "If something happens tonight, I'll send word."

"I don't want to kill them," Madara frowned, turning his back on the village, "but I have so little patience and none for treachery. Find those still loyal, if you can. I know it's asking too much of you."

"I'll do everything I can. Take care."

"Be well."

The journey was more difficult by night, but Madara had spent time on the trails. Kagami struggled to keep up, until Madara had the boy climb onto his back. Kagami didn't weight too much, but the extra weight of their bags made his steps heavier. He wanted to ask the boy what was in the two bags, but he didn't want the noise. Kagami seemed to understand that. At the Naka River, Madara trudged right through the shallows, walking across the water itself, and out onto the other side, the ghosts of memories trailing along behind him. He had a feeling that either choice would have damned the clan, fighting them or leaving them. Someone had poisoned Izuna, or maybe the darkness had finally reached his core. Something was wrong, Madara knew that much. Several hours wasn't enough to fully turn a man. Izuna might have been entertaining thoughts of betrayal for days, months, years. Everything had been a competition between them. Perhaps Izuna had tired of losing. Madara didn't know, and not knowing frustrated him. They should have used words instead of actions, but Madara preferred actions, they both preferred actions.

By the time Madara reached Senju lands, he was even angrier, the kind of anger that ruined a man. He'd expected a lot from his clan; he'd known they were capable of a coup, but he'd never thought it would happen, not with the changes he'd made, not with the changes he intended to make. Kagami remained unusually quiet, though his soft breaths let Madara know the boy hadn't fallen asleep. When the village was in view, Madara let Kagami down and they approached the village with sure steps. Madara had never imagined a time when he would rely so much on men he'd thought enemies. But he trusted Hashirama. He trusted an absolute moron with a heart much bigger than his own. The two shinobi on guard duty didn't bother with them, instead going to rouse the clan head. It wasn't too late, but it wasn't the time to call on a man. Instead of Hashirama, they returned with Tobirama. His expression had the man sighing.

"Anija is asleep. You'll have to deal with me instead," Tobirama greeted them, taking in their dirty, disheveled exteriors. Kagami reached up to rub the back of his neck, looking anywhere but at the man, while Madara made direct eye contact to such a degree that no words needed said. Tobirama motioned them forward, so they followed along after him, feeling very much like ducklings. "This isn't a social call, I take it," Tobirama commented, casting another judgmental look at them.

"At least take me inside and offer me some tea before you interrogate me, Senju," Madara grumpily replied. Beside him, Kagami laughed, the sound dissolving some of the tension in the air. "I wouldn't make a social call at this time in the evening; in fact, I don't make social calls. That is Hashirama's sort of thing."

With no further words, Tobirama led them to his home. He left them both at the dining table, then went to prepare tea, as if giving in to Madara's childish demand. By that point, Madara hardly cared, though Kagami was so quick to drink the tea that Madara was sure the boy scalded his tongue. Tobirama had the nerve to serve cookies, and Madara ate three of them before he thought he could actually speak. Tobirama acted as if he weren't intent on interrogating them, something Madara appreciated. Kagami looked between the two, his hand constantly darting out to steal cookies from the main plate.

"At this rate, we're going to run out of tea and cookies before you choke out the reason why you're here," Tobirama said, the lazy tone he used annoying Madara. Madara snuck a glance at Kagami, then he relaxed his posture.

"There's been a coup," Madara managed to say, forcing the words from his throat. Tobirama frowned, lowering the cup he'd had poised for a drink. "My brother has betrayed me, and he has most of the clan on his side. Before you ask, because you will ask, I don't expect you to rally around me and fight them. I needed a place to cool off and a safe place for Kagami. I'll handle this."

"They might be coming here."

"Yes, and I have no idea when. Tonight, tomorrow; dawn, dusk. I thought it best that you know so you can plan accordingly. I'll be gone at dawn. Will you look after Kagami?"

"Do you trust him like you trust Hashirama?" Kagami looked at Tobirama as if measuring the man's worth simply by his state of dress. Madara wondered if Kagami would have made a better student for Tobirama, since they had that in common. "Should I trust him?"

"You need to make up your own mind on that, Kagami. I trust Hashirama; by extension, I should trust Tobirama," Madara said, intentionally dodging the question. "He probably won't kill you in your sleep," Madara added. Tobirama didn't appreciate the words.

"With that kind of thinking, I can't imagine why we didn't get along. What else do you need? I can look after Kagami. He'll be safe here. Do you plan on fighting against your own clan? It could be a suicide mission." Tobirama used the word could and that had Madara nodding. Yes, it could prove a fatal move. "I think it's too soon to ask my clan to fight for you."

"I'll handle it." Madara had interrupted Tobirama, but he didn't care.

"Let me finish. I'll go with you, if you'd like. I've fought Izuna before. We only need to cut off the head of the snake," Tobirama began, making a chopping motion to complete the words.

"And what would I owe you then? Is this simply an excuse to kill more of my men?"

"You won't owe me a thing. It's an offer extended as an ally. I'll ask you though, will you be able to kill your own brother?"

"I've made peace with the idea. He certainly tried to kill me." But he hadn't made peace with the idea. He had some hope in his shriveled heart, the hope that he could save Izuna. How many times would he try to convince the man? He would have tried endlessly. He would have appealed until he could no longer appeal. They'd met the end though, the point of no return. The hope was so deep within himself that he couldn't purge the feeling. He was left with that and the hurt. He knew hurt too well. He welcomed it like an old friend. "I'll kill him."

"Give them a chance first. They all deserve that much. He's wrong. They'll have to see that," Kagami interjected. Madara saw something in him, something that sang of Hashirama, the goodness that he himself lacked.

"You must be tired," Tobirama said, easily changing the subject. As if on cue, Kagami yawned. While Tobirama led Kagami to a bathroom to clean up, Madara finished off the tea and cookies. Minutes later, Tobirama returned to the room to collect him. "He's in bed. The bathroom is this way. You might be able to fit into Hashirama's clothes. You look like hell."

He felt like hell.

Chapter Text

Madara lay on his side and stared at the window on the far wall. On the other side of the room, Kagami slept peacefully. Madara wondered if he were the only one awake. He heard Hashirama's snores through the thin wall, the sound putting his mind at ease. Madara wasn't a sensor, but he felt for chakra signatures through the home. Tobirama was noticeably absent, signaling that the man hadn't returned from informing the guards and dispatching the scouts. Madara sat up, the blankets falling from his chest. Throwing the covers from his legs, he straightened his yukata and got to his feet. He took careful steps to the closed door and slid it open, then he moved out into the hall and closed the door behind himself. Hashirama's snores continued, something that had Madara rolling his eyes. The man slept like the dead. He and Tobirama had decided not to disturb the man, not until dawn. If the scouts reported activity, they would change the plans and wake Hashirama, but the man had apparently had a very long day. Madara thought that they might have stayed at Hanacho, but they'd left too. And maybe it was fate that they left.

Madara went into the kitchen to retrieve a glass of water, but he stopped and went through the cabinets looking for tea leaves. He discovered black tea in the cabinet nearest to the wall, so he prepared black tea. He would have preferred green tea, but the tin for green tea was empty, the last of the tea likely consumed earlier in the evening. Tobirama arrived shortly after the tea was ready, so he found Madara leaning against the counter, cup in one hand, the other resting against the edge of the counter.

"Did you tell them why I'm here?"

"Would you like me to tell them your clan betrayed you?"

"Not particularly, no."

"The two guards that led you into the village were told to keep quiet. I trust they will. They've likely come to the conclusion that you've betrayed your own clan, but I assumed that would be preferable to the truth," Tobirama said, helping himself to a cup of tea. Madara moved so the man could get a cup from the cabinet, then he returned to his spot. "Do you want to talk about it?"

"Hn. You want me to open up to you? You look like that Senju I know, but you aren't acting like him," Madara answered, squinting at the man. Tobirama smiled, though it was only the subtle curve of his lips. Madara considered the offer, lips pursed, eyes wandering over Tobirama's face. "Izuna has always been jealous of my friendship with Hashirama; he's always been envious of my skills. I can count the number of times he's actually beaten me on one hand. I didn't know he'd been so poisoned."

"I used to be jealous of Hashirama's friendship with you. I was young. I wanted that part of him. As I grew older, I realized how childish my thoughts and feelings were," Tobirama admitted, shrugging one shoulder. Madara blinked at him a few times. "Don't look so surprised. Hashirama chose his secret friendship with you over his family. You mattered a great deal. You still do. I've accepted that."

"There's something called the curse of hatred." Madara moved to take a seat at the low table, so Tobirama followed. They sat down across from one another. In the quiet, the moments between the soft sound of Hashirama's snoring, Madara contemplated his words. "It dates back to the beginning of the Uchiha clan. Some believe in it, while others consider it fiction."

"You believe in it."

"I do."

"What is the curse of hatred?"

"That depends on the person you ask. Some say it begins with activating the sharingan, some say it's the mangekyou, some say it's loss or jealousy or bitterness. In Izuna's case, I think it's a mixture of these things. I thought that I could talk sense to him, but he's too far gone. I know that, and yet," Madara trailed off, eyes straying to the tea in his cup, "I still wonder if I could save him. How utterly ridiculous."

"I don't think it's ridiculous. He's your brother. I would feel the same way, if it were anija." Madara frowned, though he nodded, finding some comfort in the words. "I've heard of curses. They're old, long before our time, but Butsuma believed in them. Did you know fuinjutsu was originally known as curse work? There are seals that can follow lineages. There are seals that have been rumored to be unbreakable."

"You think it might be a seal," Madara inferred, getting a nod in response. Madara considered the possibility that someone could find the source of the seal and override it, perhaps destroy it. The Uzumaki were known for their fuinjutsu prowess, and Hashirama would have a greater connection with the clan, once Mito arrived. "What do you know about fuinjutsu? Would that Uzumaki woman be a better choice?"

"I know enough. I've been working on my seal work for some time. The problem is that we would need to find the beginning point, the start of the curse. It could be on a person, on the remains of a person, or even an inanimate object," Tobirama explained, seeming thoughtful. "This hinges on the fact that the curse is real and is seal related. This all could be false."

Madara reached up to rub his right temple, massaging the area to try and stop the incoming ache. The only thing he could think of that was old, beyond the bodies in the Uchiha cemetery, was the stone tablet hidden in the secret network under the shrine. He'd glimpsed it once, when his father showed him and told him the importance of the stone. At the time, he couldn't read anything. The tablet looked blank. He hadn't activated his sharingan, the secret to seeing the words. He'd never gone back; he'd never had a reason to go back. If a curse was upon the clan, the tablet was a good starting point. That meant going back to the village. That meant going into the hidden room overlooking the waterfall of the Naka River. Izuna had no idea it was there. It was safe, for the time being.

"In my clan, there's a relic, a stone tablet passed down throughout the generations. To you, it's blank. To someone with the sharingan, it's important. Tajima wouldn't tell me what the tablet said. He told me that I needed to protect it. I haven't seen the stone since before my sharingan was active. I don't know what it says."

"It's worth a try."

In his vision, Madara had seen the tablet, but not its contents. He knew that it existed, that it was important, but he didn't know why, and that mattered. When he grew tired, he finished off his tea and excused himself from the table. That night, he dreamt of fire, nothing but fire. He saw their budding village go up in flames.

By dawn, everyone was awake, so Madara explained the turn of events to Hashirama. Of course the man wanted to go, but Tobirama insisted he and Madara could handle the clan, as they still wanted a peaceful resolution. The scouts from the night before arrived to announce that the Uchiha clan had begun to assemble, all of the shinobi in battle armor. While Hashirama roused the capable shinobi, Tobirama and Madara left for the village, intent on stopping the clan before they crossed over the Naka River. Kagami had wanted to go, but Madara told him to be brave and listen to Hashirama. Madara was secretly glad Tobirama convinced Hashirama to stay behind and rally the shinobi, because he knew that Izuna would have stopped at nothing to kill the man.

The journey to the Uchiha village took less time than normal, as both men hurried through the trees, jumping from branch to branch. From the Naka River, they both smelled smoke in the air, then they saw black plumes stretch up toward the peach-colored sky. The village was burning. Everything he knew was threatened. The thought of the ashes drove Madara to quicken his pace. By the time they reached the village, half of the homes were in flames. Windows were broken, bodies littered the ground, and the air stunk of smoke, blood, and burnt flesh. Madara stood at the entrance to the village and watched his clansmen fighting amongst themselves. Some doors had obviously been barricaded, some windows covered with boards, and he watched as men struggled to break in.

"We need to find Izuna," Madara said, voice tight. He wanted so badly to correct the wrongs he saw, but he worried for the worst of them. Tobirama followed him through the streets, occasionally picking off shinobi preying on civilians. They didn't have time to stop. They needed to cut off the head of the snake.

The shrine rose tall amongst the burning homes and businesses. The building had tall flames rising from the roof and thick smoke billowing from thrown open doors. Izuna emerged from the shrine, along with Nankichi, Masaji, and Yuka. Nankichi was thrown to the ground, and Masaji followed. The people crowded around to watch as Izuna raised his katana and cut off Nankichi's head. Madara should have intervened, but he felt nothing for the elders. Unlike Nankichi, Masaji begged for his life, spinning tales of how he would help Izuna. As the blade severed Masaji's head, Madara followed the descent of the man's head. The head rolled to a stop near the edge of the crowd and a man had the nerve to stomp on it several times, until they heard the loud crack of the skull.

A shadow crept along the ground, having emerged from the burning building like a snake slowly slithering along. Madara recognized the shadow and his blood ran cold. He'd seen that shadow in the flashes he'd seen, in the moment before he lost sight in one eye, the payment for the warning he received. The creature meant to take Izuna, cursing him in the way that it should have cursed Madara. Scowling, Madara shoved his own clansmen aside, Tobirama doing the same. As the shadow curled around Izuna's waist, slowly sliding up to rest across half of the man's face, Madara loosed his gunbai. Izuna dodged the attack, jumping to the side at the last moment.

"That thing, do you know what it is?"

"So you can see it too. It's dangerous. It's called Zetsu, Black Zetsu."

"Do I want to know how you know this?"

"When we've finished, perhaps I'll tell you. Don't die."

"I didn't plan on it."

Tobirama and Madara both attacked Izuna, and the shadow spread out across his right torso, extending up over the right side of his head, receded, falling down to the ground. The clan members still loyal to Izuna launched attacks against Tobirama and Madara, so they were forced apart. Tobirama handled the shinobi, allowing Madara time to face off against Izuna. The brothers stared one another down, reminding Madara too much of a standoff. Izuna sent a fireball at him, completely unconcerned with the people fighting or the homes surrounding them. Madara wasn't as adept in the art of water jutsu, but he didn't need to be, not when Tobirama found a moment to counter the attack with a large water dragon. The steam that filled the area blinded everyone, causing a temporary lull in battle, but both Izuna and Madara recovered quickly. They fought in taijutsu, until Madara noticed Black Zetsu slowly creeping his way closer. Backed into a corner, Madara watched his brother manifest a deep purple susanoo. He had no idea the man could manifest the susanoo. Madara swung his gunbai at Zetsu to keep the creature at bay, then he manifested his own susanoo. Izuna didn't seem to care about the people caught in the crossfire, as he fought in an almost reckless manner.

Their susanoo fought, blades clashing over and over again. Madara's susanoo had more substance, easily a complete embodiment, while Izuna's wasn't to that level yet. When Madara's susanoo cracked the ribs of Izuna's susanoo, Izuna shifted his attention to the people scattering away from their fight. Izuna lashed out at them, completely destroying houses, sending fire after the people, while Madara fought to save them.

"What the hell are you doing, Izuna?"

"Save them, Madara! Aren't you the savior? Isn't your dream peace? Then die for them!"

"I don't know what Zetsu has been whispering to you, but it's no good! That thing is going to betray you!"

"Betray me like you've betrayed me, like you've betrayed this clan? And they still run to you. They've never been loyal to me. They're no better than you. I will massacre them."

Madara got one good hit in and two ribs of the susanoo shattered, but he was forced back. The pain of the use of susanoo had Madara gritting his teeth. When the people had cleared away, seeking refuge outside of their burning village, Izuna launched a counterattack that had Madara stumbling backwards. When Izuna's focus shifted, Madara followed his brother's line of sight to Tobirama. Madara swore he saw the fire in Izuna's eyes. One sharp blow actually cracked the armor of his susanoo and his vision blurred with blood. Izuna swept buildings aside, stomping on the remains like a giant chasing its prey. Madara called Tobirama's name, then he slammed his blade against the torso of Izuna's susanoo, sending it off balance. Madara grabbed Tobirama from atop a building and barely dodged a blow meant to decapitate the susanoo.

"I told you not to die," Madara grunted, sparing a glance at Tobirama. He took the blank stare to mean that his words weren't appreciated. "This could go on for a while, unless you have a better idea. His susanoo isn't fully formed, but it's almost there. I've been aiming at the same spots to break through. It's a chakra construct."

"It could be a waiting game. He has less chakra than you do. That Zetsu is on him again. I've never felt anything quite like it. It's like a void, or maybe a mixture of chakra and something foreign. We'll probably have to seal it to get rid of it, and I wouldn't know where to begin with it," Tobirama admitted. He pointed toward Izuna, where Black Zetsu had slowly overtaken half of Izuna's body, and Madara felt a phantom pain in his chest. "He's turning around. What is he doing?"

"He's going for the tablet," Madara frowned. The susanoo around Izuna vanished and the man marched toward the shrine. A few people slowly emerged from buildings that had yet to be destroyed and dared to approach him. Madara cancelled his susanoo and he and Tobirama took off on foot to stop Izuna. "There's something about that tablet that's important. We can't let him get away with it."

As they ran toward the shrine, Tobirama hurriedly made hand seals, waiting a moment before he fired a fast, high-pressure water jutsu at Izuna's back. The water cut clean through Izuna's armor, practically drilling a hole into the man's back. Izuna fell forward, down onto his hands and knees, but he continued crawling, until Black Zetsu dragged his body back up. Tobirama fired a water bullet and Madara followed it quickly with a lightning release technique. In front of them, Izuna laughed, a sharp, broken sound that had both men tense. Izuna stopped and turned towards them, then he simply sank into the ground, vanishing from sight. By the time Madara and Tobirama reached the hidden room to retrieve the tablet, the stone was gone, only the burning oil lamps any sign that something of greater importance had once been there. Madara stared at the spot where the tablet had been as if he were staring at the last piece of Izuna. For some reason, he recalled a few words from the world that he'd seen all those days ago: "The concept of hope is nothing more than giving up. A word that holds no true meaning.” Perhaps that was true, in the end. At that moment, he gave up.

Chapter Text

Emerging from the shrine, Madara saw the remaining members of his clan, all of them beaten and bloody but armed. He saw civilians armed with broken pipes and large rocks, while the shinobi carried kunai and swords. Once they realized that Izuna wasn't coming back, they dropped their weapons; one by one, objects hit the dirt. From where he stood, Tobirama at his side, he heard people softly crying and saw young children clinging to legs. They were rough, all of them, but beaten, not broken. Madara had a moment where something curled in his stomach. He knew he was at another defining moment, one hinging on his following decision. Would he forgive them? Could he forgive them? He felt drained, practically lifeless before them, and as he looked at their faces, he lost a little bit more of himself. He'd wanted peace, and that desire had ruined them. Meant to right wrongs that had yet to happen, he'd simply created chaos where none should have existed. For some reason, he found himself turning, his body moving without thought. He searched Tobirama's face for an answer to his dilemma, as if Tobirama would have the solution. He didn't, of course, but Madara wasted awkward seconds staring into the man's eyes, taking in the red lines on pale flesh. Tobirama couldn't help him, not anymore. He was on his own again.

Madara took in the burning homes, flames still licking at wood and foundation, then he saw the bodies strewn across the ground, sticking out of open doors, hanging out of broken windows. They were his, all of them. He'd trusted Izuna, and he regretted the decision. Faced with the same choices again, he would have let Izuna die. As it was, he'd made an error, just as his clan members had made errors. He had to forgive them—there was no other choice, except to abandon them, and he knew that would be a mistake. Okimoto made his way to the front of the congregation and bowed to Madara, the first of many to sink so low. They bent not at the waist, sinking instead to their knees before him. They apologized in a way the clan understood, in a way Madara understood. Tobirama rested a hand atop Madara's left shoulder, as if finally passing the answer along to him. Forgive. And he did.

"Get up and stop groveling. Have some damn pride."

The people remained on the ground for a few minutes, and then they rose, one by one, as if they hadn't been begging for forgiveness. The coup had succeeded, but the power had poisoned them; in the end, they lost. Slowly, the group separated, all of them on a mission to look for survivors and extinguish the fires. Tobirama volunteered to help with the largest of the fires, so Madara chose to look for survivors amongst the smoking remains. In total, they found twenty-seven survivors, some trapped beneath rubble, others still barricaded in homes. Many of the survivors were children, though relatives swept in to claim them. One little girl remained. She had the bottom of her purple yukata clasped in her hands, and she turned around in little circles, her eyes searching for someone who would never return. Eventually she started to cry, and she wiped snot and tears over the left arm of her once beautiful yukata. Tobirama stood next to Madara, both of them observing the little girl, neither one knowing what to do. No one came to claim the child; in fact, clan members seemed to overlook her entirely.

"We don't really have an orphanage. Clan members usually step forward to care for the orphans," Madara said, watching as the child bent down to curl around her knees. "Someone must know her." He sounded desperate and he hated it, but she was so young, younger than Kagami. What was he supposed to do with her? Madara sighed, then he took the first step toward her; surprisingly, Tobirama followed.

"Do you recall your lack of delicacy? Now would be a good time to give it another chance," Tobirama mumbled, keeping his voice low to avoid alerting the child of their approach. The little girl looked up at them, tears still pouring from her sharingan eyes. "I see," Tobirama frowned, nodding toward her, as if Madara could have missed the red eyes. As they grew closer, they both saw the smudges of blood still on her cheeks. "It's a traumatic event, like loss, that activates the sharingan, isn't it?"

"Yes, she likely saw her family die. What the hell am I supposed to do with her? I'm no parental figure," Madara gruffly replied.

"Well don't expect me to do anything. This is your clan," Tobirama huffed. Madara glared at him, then they were standing before the girl, both men completely lost.

Madara thought of the way he'd handled Kagami, so he sank to a knee before the girl and used his thumb to wipe the trails of tears from her face. When he touched her, she quieted, her big eyes focused entirely on him. She had two tomoe in each eye. She wiped her nose on the sleeve of her yukata again, then she threw herself forward, crashing into Madara's chest. She had her little arms around him, and he felt her shaking. He didn't know what to say to her, not then. He'd just lost Izuna, and he didn't have it in him to spin lies for her. The pain she felt would always be with her in some form, cold, bitter memories that would follow her for the rest of her life. The sharingan never let them forget. Instead, Tobirama placed a hand on her back.

"What's your name?" The girl pulled back and stared up at him, likely thinking of him as an outsider. Tobirama considered repeating the question, but the little girl mumbled something he couldn't catch. When Tobirama looked at Madara, the man shrugged. Neither of them had heard the name.

"Speak up," Madara commanded her, his voice soft but still authoritative. The girl whipped her head around to look at him, then she burst into tears all over again. Madara tried patting her back, but she wouldn't stop crying. Frustrated, Madara activated his sharingan, fully intending to knock her out, but Tobirama had the nerve to strike the back of his head. He growled at the man. "What was that for?"

"You can't use that on her. Try holding her. Anija likes that," Tobirama said, the last words so quiet that Madara strained to hear them. Slowly, Madara wound his arms around the girl. It took time, but her sobs turned to quiet hiccups. "Now what's your name?"

"Naori," the girl said, the response delayed. As an afterthought, she held up three fingers. "I'm this many," she continued, as if the information was incredibly important for them. Madara grimaced and Tobirama narrowed his eyes. Neither of them wanted to ask the girl about her family, but she hadn't stopped talking. "Where's dad?"

"Well, Senju, where is her father?" Madara easily threw the man into the conversation, passing the responsibility off onto him. When Tobirama gave him an unimpressed look, Madara tried to think of something, something he would have wanted to hear. "We'll find him together," Madara suggested, already scooping Naori up into his arms. The girl smiled at him and he quickly looked away.

"It seems you can handle children after all," Tobirama remarked, the beginnings of a smile on his own face. Madara copied the man's unimpressed stare, and the rest of their journey passed in silence.

"Naori! Naori!" A man ran out of a home, frantically looking in every possible direction. He tugged at his dark brown hair, his desperation written in the way he turned to go back into the house. Madara called out for him to stop and the man froze, horror on his face. His gaze quickly shifted to the girl in Madara's arms. "Naori!"

"Dad!" Naori squirmed around until Madara let her down, then the little girl raced to her father's open arms. He saw her sharingan and the man hugged her even tighter. None of them needed to ask.

"How can I ever repay you?" The man made to bow, then he remembered the child in his arms.

"She's lucky she didn't pass out from the drain associated with activating the sharingan. She's a peculiar child. She'll grow into a fine kunoichi," Madara said, giving the man a pointed look. The man frowned, clearly confused. "If you want to repay me, repay me by training that girl. If you can't, ask elder Okimoto for assistance."

"Uh, yes! Of course. Yes. Training," the man quickly agreed. Tobirama seemed amused by the man's nervous behavior, so Madara rolled his eyes and motioned for the man to leave. "Thank you," the man quickly added, trying for a clumsy, partial bow. Once the man was out of sight, Tobirama chuckled.

"You haven't grown attached?"

"You're trying my patience."

"Ah, forgive me," Tobirama said, not meaning the apology. They walked together in silence until they reached the broken remains of Madara's home. Madara stood outside and looked at the broken windows, the way the side wall had been blown down. Someone had put a fire out there, likely Tobirama. "You should talk to someone," Tobirama spoke, his voice low again.

"And what should I say, that I'm devastated, that I've lost twoof the people most precious to me, one not to death but an evil creature born of an evil woman? What should I say, Tobirama?" Madara turned his head to look at the man. He usually avoided using the man's name, an attempt at keeping distance between them, taking the humanity out of the man. "We're shinobi. We endure."

"At times, the burden a man carries becomes impossible to handle alone. We are shinobi, yes, and we do endure, but we are men first."

"I can handle my own burden very well."

"I'm not asking you to talk to me. Kami knows I can't help you with all of your glaring faults and issues."

"Hn. It's as if you want me to kill you."

Madara took the first steps toward the home; without hesitation, Tobirama followed. The floorboards groaned under their weight, threatening to collapse. Tobirama caught Madara's right elbow, stopping him from stepping into a hole. Sunlight filtered into the home through a large hole in the roof, but shadows still clung to the interior, to corners and doorways from walls that still stood. Madara remembered running through the home, chasing after his younger brother. Tajima had hated when they acted like actual children, but he allowed them to act as they wanted to act indoors, away from the eyes of the clan. Madara and Izuna still had a wall in the back hall where their father used to measure their height. Madara went there first, searching for the lines and numbers carved into the wood. He didn't care that Tobirama followed him, that he, too, saw the height chart. They hadn't used it in years. There was no point. They weren't children anymore. Madara reached out to brush gloved fingers over the etched numbers. He closed his eyes and exhaled through his nose.

"We need privacy. Can you manage that?"

"We need a room that's whole and I can place the seals."

"This way. The roof is better in the back. There's a bathroom."

The door was partially open, so Madara pushed it the rest of the way open. The ceiling looked fine and the floorboards didn't groan, so he entered the room and waited for Tobirama to do the same, then he closed the door. While Tobirama placed seals, Madara took a seat on the edge of the large bathtub. He waited for the flares of chakra to end, signifying the end of the process. Tobirama stood there for a moment, clearly checking over his seal work, then he turned to Madara, quietly waiting for the man to speak. Meanwhile, Madara waited for Tobirama to sit down. Finally, Madara pointed to a spot on the edge of the tub and Tobirama accepted the silent demand. They sat there, both of them uncomfortable, until Madara cleared his throat. He didn't know where to begin, whether the words made any difference or not. He'd imagined telling Hashirama, not Tobirama, but the man had proven trustworthy by fighting with him. At one time, he'd wanted to trust everything to Izuna, and he was glad that he hadn't.

"The day you injured Izuna, the day he almost died, I saw something," Madara began, brows pinched. He leaned forward until he could rest his forearms atop his legs. Staring at the far wall didn't make the confession any easier, but he couldn't bring himself to look at Tobirama. "Izuna gave me his eyes because I lost sight in one of mine. I'm still not sure what exactly happened, what I triggered, but I saw," Madara stopped, pausing to run his hands over his face, "something."

"You're being incredibly vague. What did you see?"

"It sounds impossible."

"Something changed," Tobirama said, taking the lead. Suddenly, he focused on the far wall. He avoided the gaze directed at him. He never thought he'd be locked in a bathroom with Madara, attempting to have some heart-to-heart conversation. They were failing, and he wasn't surprised. Neither of them shared emotions very well, despite the fact that they felt deeply. "You were trying to kill anija, and then you chose to trust him. What followed could have been written off as desperation—you wanted to save Izuna's life—but you made a life-altering decision in the blink of an eye, and you stood up in front of your clan and demanded they follow you. You changed. Hashirama may not be suspicious, or even curious, but I am, so what did you see?"

"I saw my life, more than my life, and I didn't like what I saw. The same creature, Black Zetsu, would have poisoned me, like he poisoned Izuna. I would have made a long series of bad decisions, and the results would have been felt in all of the nations for generations. I have a responsibility to change that future, and I thought I could. By chasing peace, by forcefully leading my clan down the same road, I thought I could save everyone and everything." Madara looked down at his gloved hands, then he clenched his fists. He chanced a look at Tobirama, but the man seemed deep in thought. "I may have made things worse."

"You had a vision," Tobirama concluded, earning an exasperated sigh from Madara and a harsh yes. Tobirama brushed off the response and continued. "What can Zetsu do?"

"If we let them go, they'll bring war to our doorstep. We aren't ready for it. We won't be ready for it," Madara replied. "He needs the rinnegan. It's not a myth. He's going to try and force Izuna to manifest the rinnegan. To do that, he's going to come for Hashirama."

"What's the purpose?"

"Izuna is going to need his cells. Izuna may not be the ideal candidate, but we share the same blood. With Hashirama's cells, I'm sure he'll trigger the rinnegan."

"Something of importance is on that tablet. Do you know what it says?"

"I don't, but it can't be good."

"We'll need to multitask. We need to start construction of the village. It's become a defensive maneuver now. Meanwhile, we'll have to track and scout. We can't lose them," Tobirama said aloud, constructing plans with every word. "You mentioned an evil woman. You couldn't be talking about the origins of chakra. Those are children's tales."

"And if I am?" Madara looked at him with such a serious expression that he began to wonder if the man had some sort of head injury somewhere along the way. Tobirama reached out and began checking Madara's head until Madara shoved him away. "I'm not injured, you fool!"

"You sound mad," Tobirama stated, leaving no room for argument. "For the sake of this discussion, let's say that I believe you. What would a goddess have to do with that Zetsu creature?"

"Everything."

By the end of the discussion, Tobirama was more than ready to go home. He couldn't deny the inhuman creature, Black Zetsu, but he hadn't seen a moon goddess, he hadn't seen the sage. Madara looked at him, waiting for some acknowledgement of the words, but he had no idea what to say to the man. He reached out again, except he placed his palm against Madara's forehead. Madara's skin was warm, not hot, though his face reddened from the rise in blood pressure, obviously related to the constant twitch of his right eye.

"I don't have a fever! I'm not delirious! Honestly," he growled, the last word a harsh whisper to himself. Tobirama reluctantly removed his palm from Madara's head to avoid an incoming slap. "I trusted you enough to tell you this crucial information, and you think checking for a fever is what you should do? I should have confessed to Hashirama. You're useless."

As Madara ranted, Tobirama tuned him out, focused instead on the chakra signatures approaching the home. He counted five, though four of them quickly dispersed, a sign of a shunshin. Madara seemed oblivious, so Tobirama nodded along to the words, all the while focused on the lone person approaching the home. He recognized the chakra signature, the strong, steady warmth he associated with Hashirama. When Madara finally noticed, he quickly turned to look at the door, his sharingan active, eyes alight with the beginnings of frustration, until he recognized too. He turned to Tobirama, knowing that Tobirama had been aware for much longer than him, knowing the man had purposely left him in the dark. Without prompting, Tobirama removed the seals and opened the door to the room. Hashirama stood there, one fist in the air, poised for a knock. Hashirama looked around Tobirama, eyes searching the bathroom until he spotted Madara.

"Why are you both in the bathroom?" Hashirama looked between them, head tipped slightly to the side, as if he were a curious pet rather than a human being. When Madara and Tobirama looked at one another for a response, Hashirama came to a conclusion on his own. "So you finally confessed," Hashirama smiled, his pleased expression somehow destroying Madara.

"That is not what this is!"

"I would never confess to him." Madara looked at Tobirama, clearly offended, while Hashirama stepped forward and clapped Tobirama on the back in congratulations. "Stop. Anija," Tobirama tried, his voice lost underneath Hashirama's boisterous laughter.

"What the hell is wrong with me, Senju?" Madara frowned at Tobirama, daring the man to say something negative about him. Instead, Hashirama stepped around Tobirama and almost crushed Madara in a hug. They fell back into the tub in a tangle of limbs. "Get off of me!"

"I don't think now is the time for this," Tobirama cut in, the words like a slap to Hashirama. The man suddenly stopped squeezing Madara and moved away, leaving him in the tub. Madara tried to move, but he was caught at an awkward angle. Tobirama grabbed the front of his armor and hauled Madara out of the tub in one fluid motion. Hashirama made a show of dusting him off.

"It isn't the time. You're right. When you didn't send a message, I thought the worst, so I came to help. I left Touka in charge of the shinobi," Hashirama informed them both, suddenly too serious for Madara's liking. "I'm sorry, Madara. I'm so sorry," Hashirama tried to comfort him, one hand resting atop Madara's right shoulder.

Sorry came with sincerity, and the sentiment soothed Madara more than he wanted to admit. Tobirama allowed the two to have a moment; he left the room to them and went to wait near the front door, as if the ruined home and open doors allowed for true privacy. Madara waited for Hashirama to remove the hand on his shoulder, but the man pulled him into another crushing hug. Madara lightly patted Hashirama's back, giving into the man in the way he'd been doing lately. When Hashirama took a step back, he turned and motioned for Madara to follow him out to meet Tobirama. Together, they exited the home. As soon as they were out, the home groaned and another section of the roof collapsed. Sighing, Madara turned his back to the home, in a way that he'd turned his back on Izuna. They needed a miracle, and he'd lost faith in them.

Chapter Text

The journey took hours, hours in the chilly air, shuffling through fields, stomping through the shallows. Madara led the remainder of the Uchiha clan to safety, even though none of them wanted to accept the help Hashirama had offered them. Pride, it seemed, had survived the hell. No one broke the heavy silence, as if uttering a single word would cause them all to crumble. And maybe that was the truth. When they reached the village, everyone stopped, allowing Hashirama to go ahead and explain the situation to the elders. The Senju on gate duty regarded them with narrowed eyes, as if their broken spirits would rise anew and ignite a war right on their doorstep. Tobirama stood next to Madara, observing the group of men, women, and children. Some still wore sleeping attire, while others were bloody, barely held together. They carried little with them, just what they could manage, leaving the rest to the able-bodied few at the remains of their village. They had never had to start over, all of them too young to remember the struggle of founding the village. Madara had never thought Izuna would betray him, yet he had. And there they were, all of them feeling the same way, all of them struggling to process the loss.

"They're strong," Tobirama commented, eyes still scanning over the dirty faces. Madara knew that they were strong, but he'd never wanted to test their strength, not anymore. And there they were, all refugees. Madara thought that Tobirama would let the silence speak for itself, always thinking the man stoic and unapproachable, yet Tobirama placed a hand on Madara's shoulder.

"They shouldn't have to be so strong. This shouldn't have happened. If I had stayed, if I had killed him when I had the chance," Madara began, fists clenched at his sides. Tobirama squeezed his shoulder, grounding him, comforting him in a way he didn't deserve.

"You didn't know. You had no idea that Izuna would turn on them as well. You couldn't have known. Be rational about this," Tobirama said, as if the gentle reminder would be enough to put Madara at ease. Tobirama had always seemed so grounded. Madara felt as if he were drifting on the evening breeze, one harsh gust away from losing himself. "We can find food, water, and warm beds for your clan. We can rush the plans along for the village. This arrangement won't be permanent."

"Why are you comforting me? What's in it for you?" Madara turned to stare at the man, honestly expecting some sort of exchange.

"There is no angle. I'm not a monster, Madara, despite what you think of me. I've heard your people call me a demon."

At the word, Madara winced. He'd called the man a demon plenty of times, and always with the same level of hatred. At one time, Madara had thought that Izuna would succeed in killing Tobirama, and it would have been an occasion to celebrate. Tobirama removed the hand from Madara's shoulder, though the warmth from his hand remained. Madara didn't know what to say to him. Madara was torn between apologizing or thanking the man. There was the possibility of more between them, more than insults and sarcasm. Hashirama would love it if they got along, Madara knew that. He couldn't face Tobirama, not with the man staring directly into his eyes. He felt a little flustered.

"I, thank you," Madara managed, focused on something in the distance. Tobirama hummed in response, the sound all the answer he received. "I apologize," Madara added, the words an afterthought, "and I don't apologize without a good reason. I perpetuated the rumors. You aren't a demon. It's easier to kill a man when he becomes something other than a man."

"I once told a squad that your hair was like the feathers of a harpy."

"They're bird women."

"I know."

Tobirama waited for him to rage, but he laughed instead, the sound surprisingly nice. Tobirama thought that laughter suited him. Hashirama returned several minutes after Madara had ceased his laughter. The man called them all forward, all of the Uchiha hesitant, until Madara urged them on, encouraging them to seek shelter in the village. Not all of them could fit into Hashirama's home, but he took as many as he could. The large group was split into three smaller groups: one group went with Hashirama, one group went with a woman named Touka, and the final group went with Tobirama. Tobirama had apparently had his own home, which surprised Madara. Madara had assumed the brothers would stay together, just as he and Izuna had stayed together. Madara saw that each group had food and a warm bed, then he chose to go with Tobirama. The group with Hashirama and the group with Touka seemed to tolerate the arrangements, while the group with Tobirama regarded the man with suspicion, and in one case, hostility. Hashirama insisted on hugging Madara, so they parted that way. There was a promise of a clan meeting in the early afternoon, something neither man seemed particularly excited with, but it was necessary.

Tobirama had a traditional home which actually had more space than Hashirama's home, the man's childhood home. Madara followed along behind his clan members as Tobirama divided the people amongst two bedrooms, one of which likely belonged to Tobirama. In the end, Madara was content. His clan members had futons to sleep on and warm okayu in their bellies. One by one, they'd all taken turns to clean up and change into fresh clothes they'd brought along, so they no longer looked as haggard. Madara didn't ask where he would sleep, as he didn't particularly care. Despite the trouble his traitorous clan members had caused him, he still cared for them. Their comfort mattered more, and he decided that was what it meant to truly be a clan head.

"You cook well," Madara spoke. He and Tobirama sat at the table, still working on the cooling okayu. The porridge came with pickled plums and nori. Meat would have been preferred, but he wasn't about to ask the man for more.

"Are you saying that because you can't cook or you won't cook?" Tobirama smirked and Madara huffed at the man. Tobirama chose that moment to eat one of his pickled plums, then he regarded Madara for a moment. "You don't really like the porridge, do you?"

"It's fine. It's better than anything I can prepare," Madara said, the last words mumbled to himself. Tobirama got to his feet and went to the kitchen, leaving Madara seated at the dining room table alone. "Yes, please walk off and leave me," Madara said to no one, stuffing a piece of seaweed into his mouth.

Tobirama returned with two portions of salmon, the fish cooked perfectly. Tobirama took one of the pieces for himself, then he offered the plate to Madara. Frowning, Madara took the plate for himself. They ate then, more concerned with food than conversation. It wasn't an uncomfortable silence, but it stretched on for longer than either man preferred. Finally, Madara cleared his throat and Tobirama arched a brow at him.

"I should thank you for this too, shouldn't I?"

"You would do the same for me."

"I would."

"You can have your pick of my office or the front room. The front room is drafty, and in the office, I'll have to move my desk to provide more room," Tobirama informed him, thinking the conversation fine for the dinner table. Madara weighed his options, looking at Tobirama as if he could find the answer on the man's face. "The office then," Tobirama decided for him, a devilish smirk in place.

"What if I had wanted the front room?"

"Do you want the front room?"

"No."

Tobirama laughed, so Madara laughed too. As if remembering the people sleeping in the home, they quieted down. So much had happened in such a small time frame. Madara wondered if his clansmen felt as exhausted as he felt. Known to battle until he had nothing left to give, Madara felt some way about the emotional toll the day took on him. Somewhere, Izuna was injured and relatively alone; somewhere, Zetsu was whispering treacherous words. Madara still blamed himself. The comfort Tobirama had provided lasted until the heat from the man's hand had faded. When Tobirama rose to clear the table, Madara helped. It was a routine he knew, one he understood. Previously, he and Izuna would switch off on cooking and cleaning, much like his family had done throughout his life. So when Tobirama began washing the numerous dishes, Madara stood there beside him, feeling very out of place.

"If you're going to stand there, dry the dishes," Tobirama instructed him, pausing just long enough to retrieve a clean towel and toss it at Madara. Madara knew how to dry dishes, so he dried the dishes. "We'll need more concrete plans for the village. I'm sure we could have a rough layout together in a couple of days, one day if we exclude the councils."

"Council. I'm sure two of the three are dead. Okimoto is hardly a council on his own. I would have chosen Hikaku," Madara said, the words like a slow realization of the cousin he'd lost.

Tobirama handed him a bowl, so he shifted focus to drying again. Drying dishes was easier than thinking of the things and people he'd lost. A shinobi expected loss and lived with grief. For everyone, death was inevitable. There would always be someone more prepared, someone more talented, someone better, and it was the way things were for a warrior. They would fall. It was only a matter of time. Madara had never expected to lose his cousin, but death found the man. Shinobi died on the battlefield, not tucked away in their homes, not by the hands of family, not by the hands of someone they trusted. Madara had burnt the bodies of the fallen, the single ceremony rushed and empty. Ashes were returned to living relatives; the rest were scattered to the breeze. Madara had nothing but ash. His mother's ashes. His father's ashes. His cousin's ashes. His siblings' ashes. He had a family of ashes. Tobirama seemed to understand him, as the clean dishes were still passed to him, one right after another. He was strong. He was proud. And he was broken. The world wasn't kind to broken people.

"I thought I would make a difference," Madara spoke, voice hushed, so unlike himself. He was vulnerable, likely not the best thing—something told him to be cautious, but he barreled on. "You realize this is far from over. There could be a long and winding road ahead. Izuna has always been one to exceed expectations."

"We'll focus on one day at a time," Tobirama replied, choosing the simplest route, the easiest response. When he saw that Madara had paused in drying a pot, he stopped washing. "Is this what your mind is like, riddled with doubts and insecurities? This isn't the ferocity you display on the battlefield. This is truly who you are?"

"Please tell me how ridiculous I sound. Tell me shinobi are emotionless tools. Tell me to 'man up' and spend my days pretending. I'm tired, Tobirama. I know fighting. I know bloodshed. I don't know this. I'm trying to do better; I'm trying to be better. So yes, this is me. This is what happens when I'm not on the battlefield. The weight of the world is on my shoulders and it's slowly crushing me."

"I'm not going to tell you that you sound ridiculous. We live by the shinobi rules because we understand rules, but sometimes the rules are flawed, sometimes they are meant to be broken. No one will ask you to pretend. No one will ask you for more than you can give. This type of," Tobirama paused, searching for the right word, "emotional response isn't bad. It makes you human. You aren't a two-dimensional character in someone's story. I actually think you're rather extraordinary." Tobirama shrugged his shoulders, then he went back to the dishes, leaving Madara struggling for words. No one had ever called him extraordinary. Maybe he was.

"I didn't think you would understand," Madara admitted, searching Tobirama's profile for hints of a response. Tobirama snorted and Madara chuckled. "You're always open with Hashirama. I should have known you had a heart buried somewhere in there."

"Sometimes it's difficult to unlearn behaviors. I'm sure you didn't have the best upbringing either. Butsuma," Tobirama trailed off, brows pinched together, "he believed emotions were weak, that we should always strive for power. He would strike us when we shared opinions different than his own, and the same would happen if we succumbed to weakness. He's rolling in his grave now. Hashirama had the worst of it though. He's emotional; he wasn't meant to hide his heart."

Madara never expected Tobirama to share something so private. When Tobirama looked in his direction, Madara settled for clicking his tongue. That sort of lifestyle reminded him of Tajima, though his father rarely hit him. Tajima was more understanding than he'd thought, and that made him doubt his reasons for killing the man. When the dishes were done, they lingered in the kitchen for several minutes. Finally, Tobirama showed him to the back office. The room was especially tidy, and all of the books and scrolls on the shelf had some organization to them. Where Madara left papers on his desk, Tobirama didn't. Though Tobirama didn't ask for help moving the low table serving as the man's desk, Madara helped. A knock at the door interrupted them, so Tobirama disappeared for a moment, returning with an armful of two futons. They were rather large and clumsy to hold, so Madara took one. Madara chose not to ask why they were setting up two futons in the office, then he reconsidered. As he and Tobirama added sheets and pillows, Madara finally decided to speak.

"I see you're sleeping in the office too."

"Well, it is my office."

"Do you trust me enough to sleep around me?"

"I'm tired enough that even if you killed me in my sleep, I think it would be worth the little bit of sleep I would manage."

As Madara retreated to the bathroom to clean up, he found himself at the sink, staring at his reflection as if the image of himself would supply him with answers to his problems. He washed up and changed into clean clothes, then he found his way back to the office. He couldn't help the juvenile thought that they were grown men having a sleepover. Tobirama was already in bed, his back to the other futon. There was space between the two futons, enough that another futon might have been able to squeeze in the spot. Madara lay on his back and stared at the ceiling, then he turned onto his right side. He tossed and turned a few times until he heard Tobirama sigh.

"Would you stay still and go to sleep?"

"I hadn't thought of that."

"Your sarcasm isn't wanted." Madara thought that was the end of the conversation, so he tugged the covers up to his chin and glared at Tobirama's back. "I can make you some chamomile tea." He sounded like he didn't want to and Madara huffed at him. "Do you want to fall asleep in the meeting?"

"And miss all of the excitement?" Madara thought that was certainly the end, but one more movement had Tobirama up and leaving. "I don't want the damn tea," Madara muttered to himself, tossing and turning once more. He only wanted to sleep like the dead, at least for a few hours.

Tobirama entered back into the room with a single cup in one hand and a teapot in the other. Madara sat up, so Tobirama handed him the cup and set the teapot down on the desk they'd moved. Madara raised the cup to his mouth and blew on the warm drink, dispersing the steam. He expected Tobirama to lie down and sleep, but Tobirama simply pulled a blanket up over his back to drape over his shoulders. Tobirama looked different without the guards and armor. There was something odd about seeing him in a yukata, all dressed for sleep instead of war. For some reason, he imagined that Tobirama never rested, only waited for another battle. Tobirama regarded him with a cool expression, so Madara matched him, both of them openly staring until Tobirama rolled his eyes, having given up on their undeclared staring contest. The tea was chamomile, just as Tobirama suggested, and had a little sweetness to it, not overpowering.

"Out with it," Madara finally said, annoyed with the return of Tobirama's calculating gaze. Madara almost felt trapped under a microscope.

"It's odd seeing you like this."

"So I'm not the only one a little lost."

"Do you normally sleep with your hair down?"

Madara reached up and ran a hand over his hair. Already, he imagined the knots; he didn't want someone like Tobirama seeing him in the morning, when his hair was a complete mess. That thought embarrassed him. What difference did it make? Hair knotted; hair detangled. Madara lowered his hand and went back to holding his cup with both hands. Still, Tobirama stared at him.

"No. Not normally," Madara finally answered, satisfying the man. "Finding something to hold my hair back seemed idiotic when there was so much to do. Clothes mattered more. It will be hell in the morning though. I only kept it because I said I would cut it when the war ended."

"I think you should keep it."

"It does look nice."

"It does."

Madara almost dropped his cup, and Tobirama chuckled at him. The man got underneath the covers again, straightening his bed out, then he lay there, eyes closed. Madara still didn't understand what had happened, lost somewhere between the detour to his hair and Tobirama's obvious compliment. They were getting along. Madara finished his tea and placed the empty cup aside, deciding against leaving his warm bed. He didn't remember falling asleep, but he woke to someone calling his name. His mind registered that it was Tobirama, and he relived the past few days, his heart aching at the loss. There was a place in his heart that had belonged to Izuna. He thought of the empty space left behind.

Chapter Text

Three weeks passed with little progress. The mysterious childhood illness quickly spread from one clan to the other, and winter threatened all of their plans. The first Senju child to show symptoms was quickly quarantined, but the spread had begun, and there was nothing any of the medics could do to combat a disease they didn't understand. Medics spoke of carriers that might have transmitted the disease days before the arrival of the Uchiha clan, so both clan heads wondered if they'd carried the disease to the Senju. Quarantine was supposed to help contain the spread, but those showing symptoms had likely been infected and spread the illness in the days before noticing symptoms. Madara didn't understand all of the technicalities involved, but he understood the fact that widespread panic hit and everyone began to isolate, the fear much worse than the illness itself. From children, the elderly began to present symptoms, and it wasn't long before a thirty-year-old male presented the same symptoms. Madara and Hashirama worked tirelessly, distributing any supplies they had to share, checking on the isolated family members. The stressful situation had both clans irritable, so it wasn't a surprise that fights broke out. From the streets, Madara heard the arguments taking place inside of houses; sometimes, he intervened, but most of the time, he left the parties to eventually tire themselves out. They called the respiratory illness SU-12, for the initial count of the infected in the Uchiha clan. The name meant absolutely nothing to Madara.

Clans withheld arrival, since the village preparations had stalled and Hashirama thought to inform them of the widespread illness. When Tobirama first presented with a fever, he isolated himself in his office, and Madara volunteered to care for him, possibly against his better judgment. The other clan members were relocated for isolation, just in case they presented with symptoms. The whole situation revealed the fact that things had dissolved into a madhouse. Madara had enough supplies delivered to the home, thanks to Hashirama, and he began day one of fourteen. If he presented symptoms, he knew the quarantine would be extended, and he truly hoped it wouldn't come to that. Being inside for days promised restlessness and absolute boredom. When the first person in the Senju clan died from the illness, Hashirama shared the news from outside the front door. While he'd been willing to come inside, Madara had refused him entry.

"How old?" Madara sat with his back to the door, head tipped back to press against the wood. On the other side of the door, Hashirama sat the same way. He heard Hashirama sigh, and his mind flew to possibilities. What had once been his sole problem had quickly become Hashirama's problem too.

"She was seven," Hashirama shared, sounding just as lost as Madara felt. Madara had heard enough of the cases from his own clan, so he knew exactly how Hashirama felt about the loss. She was a child, like other children who had succumbed to the illness. Medics still scrambled to understand a connection between the chakra system and the rapid spread. "The medics have started giving the sick herbal teas to treat some of the symptoms while they're researching. They really don't know anything, Madara."

Madara felt for him. "Tobirama seems to think he might be able to help with the research. He thinks he's some kind of savior. He's definitely your brother," Madara replied, tone dry. Hashirama laughed at the words and Madara acknowledged how good it felt to hear the somber man laugh. "I believe him. He's incredibly intelligent. Maybe he'll see something everyone else is missing. Is there a way to get materials into the house?"

"He has a lab. I'm sure I could bring over some equipment and get samples and charts. But how is he doing? He's not one to stay idle."

"If I had to guess, I'd say he's already finished the blueprints of the village and now he's down to designing individual homes and businesses. He's bored, Hashirama. How am I to know what that fool is doing?"

"You're all he has right now. Please take care of him." Hashirama spoke softly, in a tone that touched Madara, speaking of the man's insecurities and vulnerabilities. Madara frowned, and he nodded, even if Hashirama couldn't see him through the door. "I'll be back tomorrow. I'll pack up what samples and medical equipment I can. Tell him, tell him to get well."

"You'll talk to him yourself in a week and a half, so there's no point to the words, but I'll tell him. Look after Kagami."

"You know I will."

Madara waited for Hashirama to leave, then he stood and went to the kitchen. Medics fed the sick okayu, so he prepared the rice porridge that had once welcomed him to the Senju living quarters. He knew Tobirama liked fresh fish, but the man had little appetite left, so he chose to add radish and green onion, then prepared four umeboshi onigiri with pickled plums he'd found. He placed Tobirama's food on a small tray, keeping his own onigiri separate, then he went to Tobirama's room and knocked on the door. He left the tray by the door, then went to retrieve his own onigiri. By the time he got back, he found the tray gone and the door closed. He sat down against the door, just as he'd done with Hashirama, then he began eating.

"I told Hashirama that you wanted to conduct your own research and he said he'll return tomorrow with samples and equipment. That should keep you busy." Madara didn't wait to receive a response. "It's hard to grasp that you're considered a genius when your father was a complete moron."

"He was, wasn't he?" Tobirama's response was quiet, whether due to the subject or the respiratory illness, Madara didn't know. Madara finished one rice ball and took his time eating the second. "How is my brother?"

"Not sick, if that's what you're asking. He's leading everyone now. He's a decent leader," Madara said, downplaying. Tobirama chuckled, but the laughter brought on a lengthy coughing fit that had Madara frowning at his rice ball. When the coughing ended, he finished his food and got to his feet. "Leave your teacup outside of your door. I'll bring you a new one."

Tobirama had insisted that he didn't need so much tea, but the Uchiha clan swore by the benefits of tea for an ailing body. Madara had to search with several merchants before he found licorice and ginger tea, the combination sweet but with a kick. The caffeine also helped to perk people up. Madara didn't really like licorice root, so he made himself a cup of peppermint tea. When he returned to the hallway, he saw an empty tray with an empty bowl and cup. The plate of onigiri remained with Tobirama. After delivering the tea and cleaning the dirty dishes, Madara returned to his spot by the bedroom door. Neither man seemed to know what to say, so they sat there in silence, content knowing that they had company. Their silence was punctuated by coughing fits, and Madara heard the man wheeze with every inhale. His peppermint tea no longer soothed him. His mind wandered to thoughts of Izuna, quickly souring his thoughts. They hadn’t discussed what they would do about the man, neither of them one to broach a topic riddled with too many emotions. That was Hashirama’s sort of thing, and Madara had managed to skirt around the topic for three weeks. The sickness took priority, the safety of their clans took priority, and he couldn’t say he wasn’t relieved to have something else to focus on. The conversation was long overdue though. Madara knew they needed to do something about Izuna, and he selfishly hoped that the conversation would revolve around saving his little brother. How ridiculous.

“Tobirama,” Madara began.

Tobirama cut him off before he could continue, “I really have earned my name.”

“Will you shut up and let me continue?”

“I’m listening.”

“Our priorities have shifted, and I think that’s exactly what they want,” Madara continued, referring to Zetsu and Izuna. And how had Izuna fallen so far? It was his fault. His mind kept repeating the statement over and over again until the words became a fact. Madara bowed his head, eyes on the steam slowly rising from his peppermint tea. “When the quarantine is over, I’m going after them.” He’d decided that over a week ago, but he hadn’t said the words aloud. He’d thought that he would tell Hashirama, but the man would have put up such a fight. He hoped that Tobirama would react well. The silence following the answer had Madara fidgeting. “Well?”

“I think that’s a terrible idea,” Tobirama shared. Madara could imagine the expression on the man’s face. Lips in a thin line. Brows drawn together. A subtle crease between the man’s eyes. At the image, Madara found his lips twitching for a smile. But the smile quickly faded away, replaced by memories of Izuna’s pouting face when they’d used to spar. He’d been such a sore loser, but so had Madara. “We only know a general direction and they clearly aren’t going to the graveyard. Not to mention that going alone is asking for death. You can’t possibly face them on your own.”

Madara smirked to himself, because he’d taken on an entire army in his vision, and the whole experience still left him giddy. Battles did that for him. Going alone wasn’t his best idea, but he knew that he could defeat his brother—how many times had he thoroughly destroyed Izuna in combat? Tobirama sounded as if he had some suggestion, so Madara eventually caved and decided to take the bait. “What did you have in mind then, since you’re an expert on this matter?”

“I’ll go with you.”

“You can’t be serious.”

“I’m very serious.”

Madara let out a frustrated groan and polished off his tea, the peppermint soothing his growing frustration. The matter was between Izuna and himself; the battle between the three of them that had happened on Uchiha lands was a one-time thing. Madara didn’t work well with others; he knew he wasn’t the best with people. The thought of separating Tobirama and Hashirama, right after Tobirama recovered, after two weeks apart, also bothered him, though he would never voice the truth to anyone. But Tobirama knew exactly what Izuna was like in battle, and he’d been the one to cut Izuna down without hesitation. Madara sighed to himself and lightly bumped his head against the wall at his back. They had a week and a half. Every day away from Izuna meant one more day with Zetsu. One more day of poisoning Izuna against him. In the vision Madara had seen, he’d been lost to the light for decades. He needed to reach Izuna. They had a week and a half. Madara didn’t want to admit that help would be nice, so he let silence reign a little longer. Worst case scenario, he couldn’t save Izuna, and he’d be forced to kill his brother, flesh and blood. He wondered if he’d kill himself too.

“I can hear you thinking all the way in here,” Tobirama commented, always one to be blunt. Madara could appreciate that approach. He didn’t sugarcoat things.

“If this is what you’ll be like on our mission, I don’t want to deal with you,” Madara huffed. Both of them understood the words, the underlying response of yes, come with me. Madara had told himself he didn’t need anyone; he chose to have Tobirama accompany him. If everything went well, if Madara didn’t fall victim to the same illness, they had a week and a half to deal with the mystery surrounding the illness, a week and a half to prepare for a journey that could take them across the world. “You’re going to be the one telling Hashirama.”

“He’s going to cry, regardless.”

“Fantastic.”

Madara lingered outside of the room for another hour, where they discussed mundane topics, like the change in seasons. Neither broached the topic of the foot shortage or the cramped living arrangements still plaguing both clans. Everything that could have been salvaged from the Uchiha lands had been recovered, the lands abandoned in a way that Madara never would have dreamed of in his wildest fantasies. And it was his fault—of course it was his fault. Sighing, Madara focused on Tobirama’s chakra signature and the way it seemed to flow like water. How were they supposed to break the news to Hashirama? And to Kagami? Their clans needed them, but so did Konoha. Konoha would never see destruction that had happened in his vision. First, they had to survive the mysterious plague on their doorstep. First, they had to survive the winter.

Chapter Text

Tobirama called it herd immunity, but Madara didn’t particularly care what the man called his ridiculous idea. Tobirama wasn’t a medic, not by any means, but the man had listened to medics, and even farmers experienced with cattle. Herd immunity. Even thinking about the conclusion of Tobirama’s experiments had him rolling his eyes. Their childhood illness problem had quickly turned into more of a free-for-all when it came to infection. Surprisingly, or maybe unsurprisingly, Hashirama was the last remaining healthy member of their clans, seemingly immune for reasons beyond anyone’s understanding—well, that was a lie; Madara knew about what simple cells from the man could do. And maybe that was why Madara sat, hunched over on his futon, and tried to brainstorm a better outline of how things needed to progress. Tobirama had recovered well, with no lasting damage, but others weren’t so lucky, and then he’d come down with a mild case of the illness. The best guess for the origin was chakra related, perhaps something born of an imbalance in spiritual and physical that mutated. The science wasn’t quite there, and wouldn’t be for some years. Could they truly wait for a revolutionary like Tsunade? Time would tell.

“You’ve had that pen and scroll for an hour and you haven’t written anything down. Should I be concerned?”

“It’s been two weeks since the scouts reported. We both know the team is dead.”

“Why are you so impatient?”

“Don’t deflect. What are we going to do?”

Tobirama lowered the scroll he’d been reading and took another glance at Madara’s blank scroll, so Madara dropped the scroll onto his makeshift desk and frowned. They’d gone in circles about how to proceed. They’d gone from simply going as partners to the Mountain’s Graveyard to taking a whole team, and then their attention shifted to food reserves and the village—there was so much to do and so little time. When would Izuna strike? When would Iwagakure strike? They didn’t know. And in the scheme of things, they couldn’t afford to let the threat of war become a sure thing when they had little preparation. Madara rubbed his right temple, trying to ignore the sharp throb that had developed over twenty minutes ago. They’d chosen to have Hashirama take their combined maps and notations on the beginnings of the village and get as many healthy individuals as possible to begin the groundwork for Konoha. A few other clans had offered help, but they’d withheld, out of concern for their people catching the respiratory illness. Madara couldn’t blame them, but he wanted to. Tobirama finally handed his scroll over to Madara to scan its contents.

“Notes on trade agreements?” Madara squinted at the small notations to the side of the collection of information. Tobirama had single-handedly solved their food shortage problems. How predictable. Madara narrowed his eyes at Tobirama and threw the scroll at the man, allowing himself that one childish moment. “That will get us through the winter. This ‘herd immunity’ nonsense,” Madara began, quickly interrupted.

“Not nonsense,” Tobirama quickly countered.

“This ‘herd immunity’ nonsense,” Madara began again, maintaining eye contact with Tobirama. The man sighed and rolled his eyes, then went back to making notations on his scroll. “How soon can we expect the other clans?” Tobirama paused and seemed to consider the idea, then he shrugged. Madara blinked a few times, then snorted “Of course you have no idea. The last report from Hashirama didn’t include any new cases. We should be able to give a ten-day period where we see about new cases or continued cases, then reach out again. You’ve been in contact with medics. Why don’t you get their opinions?”

“You seem to enjoy delegating,” Tobirama replied, tone bone dry. Madara smirked and looked away, content with the man’s blank expression. “How are you feeling?” Tobirama looked uncomfortable asking, and Madara tensed, a reflex built around hiding his own weaknesses. When Madara didn’t immediately respond, Tobirama shifted his entire focus to Madara. “You can’t be serious. You’ve seen me at my lowest point,” Tobirama began.

“Multiple times,” Madara interrupted, intentionally reaching for an argument to distract the man. Tobirama didn’t take the bait.

“If you don’t tell me how you’re feeling, I can always mention to anija that you haven’t eaten properly in days,” Tobirama said, appearing thoughtful. Madara glared at Tobirama, a fire in his dark eyes. “I imagine he wouldn’t take the news well,” Tobirama continued.

“I’m fine. Go back to your trade agreements, you insufferable,” Madara began, abruptly stopping when he heard Tobirama chuckle. Tobirama didn’t laugh as freely around Madara, didn’t share many positive emotions at all with him, and Madara knew it was his fault. They bickered. That was them. Whenever they had a decent conversation, Madara felt out of sorts. At one time, he’d felt nothing but hatred for the man, and Madara never forgot the reason for Izuna’s near death, but the hatred had quickly become tolerance. Their relationship would likely improve, if things continued the way they were, and that thought left Madara reeling. What if he actually grew to like Tobirama and enjoy Tobirama’s company? “Hn. Simpleton.”



Once Madara’s lungs were clear, he and Tobirama toured the bare bones of Konoha. Construction of the village was much easier than Madara had expected, though he knew the most aggravating part of the building phase would be the wall surrounding the hidden village. Originally, he’d thought of suggesting forgoing the wall, but after Izuna’s defection and the threat from Iwagakure, he’d chosen to remain silent. Hashirama had done a wonderful job of collecting the healthiest members of their clans, and the aid from other clans had arrived the previous day to pitch in. Instead of complimenting Hashirama, Madara chose to tell him that it wasn’t exactly a terrible job, which earned him a dirty look from Tobirama and teary eyes from Hashirama. On the coldest of days, people gathered in homes for hot tea and hot meals, careful not to spend too much time outdoors, despite their warm clothing. Madara and Tobirama oversaw much of the building, while Hashirama worked on construction of homes. His gift for wood release was pushing their plans along. Even knowing the scouts were dead, Madara had renewed hope that they would be prepared for Iwagakure, should the shinobi decide to invade. The only clans not showing support were the Hyuga clan and the Shimura clan, not that it was surprising to anyone involved in the building process. One month into the construction, tent cities began to dissolve in favor of staying in freshly built homes. Everyone involved saw a chance at a new beginning, not only on paper, but right before their eyes.

The first measurable snowfall came in mid-November. For most of the morning, people worked on the business district, but by early afternoon, the snowfall chased them back to their homes for warmth. The remaining members of the Uchiha clan received their own district in Konoha, like all of the other clans, and Hashirama had insisted that Madara’s clan came before his own. The days fell away, one right after another, until November became December and December slowly gave way to January. The mysterious illness hadn’t resurfaced, so the clans trickled in, the Ino-Shika-Cho clans among the first to fully settle. The village was well on the way to completion, so Madara’s attention focused solely on his younger brother. On New Year’s, the clans assembled to discuss the change in Iwagakure’s movements and Izuna’s defection. Though Madara didn’t want to expose his clan to more scrutiny, he decided full disclosure was more important than pride. So Madara sat at the head of the meeting table, all of the clan heads assembled in the Uchiha shrine.

“So you’ve called us together again. Is this to discuss the close proximity of my clan to the Aburame clan?”

“Why? I ask because you seem to have a poor opinion of my clan.”

Aburame Shinpei, black glasses blocking his eyes from sight, turned in his seat to look down the table at Hyuga Asahi. Asahi closed his mouth with an audible click and found something especially interesting in another direction. Madara sighed at them, while Hashirama quietly consoled the Aburame clan head. The addition of the clan had been a surprise, but a welcome one. Surprisingly, the Inuzuka clan head, Tsubaki, had suggested reaching out to the isolationist clan. Shinpei had been much easier to convince than the Hyuga and Sarutobi. Shinpei expressed the desire to build better bonds and have a safe location for the young children in the clan. Madara waited for Hashirama to smooth things over, then he cleared his throat. Hatake Hisataka was the first to look at Madara, the last being Hyuga Asahi. Madara knew he needed to address the issue with his brother, but the words left a bitter taste on his tongue. He didn’t have Tobirama attempting to bully him into speaking, and he wondered why he thought it was a good idea to limit the meeting to clan heads.

“Surprisingly, this has nothing to do with your prejudice,” Madara said, smirking at the sputtering Hyuga clan head. Before Asahi could gather words, Madara continued. “This has to do with Iwagakure. They’ve ceased advancements, most likely due to a bad northern winter, so we have time on our side. Scouts have also reported no outward signs of the shinobi turning toward Konoha. That just leaves Fire’s capital, Hiyasawa, exposed. The daimyo has raised the amount of ryo he’s willing to spend for a mission to defend the capital. Those interested, say yea.” The clan heads around the table remained entirely silent.

“You mean an assassination.” Madara frowned, but he nodded. “That would be walking right into a war,” Hatake Hisataka sighed, seeming torn on the issue. “I take it you’re interested in this mission, Uchiha-sama,” Hisataka said, a thoughtful frown on his face. Madara made a so-so motion with his right hand. He knew the First Shinobi War would come, regardless of their decision to take the mission or not. The income would benefit the entire village, and a completed mission would show the world that Konoha was a strong and capable village. “What the hell. Yea.”

“How can you just make a split-second decision like that?” Asahi looked down his nose at the grinning clan head. Hisataka shrugged his shoulders, content to smile under the judgmental look thrown his way. Tsubaki let out a barking laugh and Madara saw Choko suppressing a laugh of her own. “No. I will pass on the mission, and I don’t see my clan supporting this endeavor.”

“But we’re a village now, Asahi-sama. We’re in this together, honey,” Tsubaki said, content to tap her chin in thought. “I’m interested. We’re solid trackers. If no one in my clan shows interest in this mission, I’ll go. I have a capable sister who can look over clan proceedings.” Tsubaki nodded her head to agree with the Hatake clan head. “Anyone else?”

“Sigh,” Shikao said, deciding to say the word rather than actually express a sigh. Inoue jabbed a finger into his bicep to get the man to stop pouting at the thought of work. “How troublesome. The Nara are strategists. If you’re interested in this mission, I guess I’m interested.” Out of the clan heads present, only Hyuga Asahi outright refused the idea of the mission. Even Hashirama had agreed to the mission, which surprised Madara.

“So you’re the Hokage now then, Madara-sama?” Tsubaki asked it in a casual way, but there was a glimmer of amusement in her dark eyes. At first, Madara chose to ignore her, but one by one, the other clan heads turned to look at him, waiting for his reply. Hashirama seemed ready to burst, so Madara took a page out of Shikao’s book and sighed.

“I nominate Hashirama.” Madara turned and locked eyes with Hashirama but the man quickly countered the suggestion.

“I nominate Madara.”

“You can’t nominate me when I’ve nominated you. Take it back.”

“No! You’ll make a wonderful Hokage, Madara!” Hashirama exclaimed it with such excitement that Madara felt like hiding his face in his hands.

“Oh for fuck’s sake, just make out already,” Tsubaki said, rolling her eyes. She picked at her nails, suddenly done with the conversation. Were all Inuzuka so frustrating? “I nominate Madara-sama.”

The other clan heads began mumbling amongst themselves, the words so quiet that they were lost on Madara. He didn’t want to be Hokage. He wanted to be out in the field; he was a shinobi. Thankfully, after the clan heads had quieted, they began to nominate Hashirama, leaving only two votes for Madara, the one from Hashirama and one from Tsubaki. With Hashirama chosen as the Hokage, the representation of their growing village, they had little need for the voting system Madara had begun, but Hashirama surprised them all by listening to Asahi’s reasoning. The man didn’t want a war, so Hashirama promised that the Hyuga clan wouldn’t be expected to send their young to battle, that the goal of the mission was to have a short, decisive battle, a quick attempt at cutting the head off of the proverbial snake, and continue with the progress on Konoha. Asahi looked as if he’d sucked on a lemon, but he relented. Hashirama had a way with words. Madara had a moment to reconsider his desire to share Izuna’s betrayal, and Hashirama caught the look in his eyes. When Sarutobi Hiramasa asked if there were other pressing matters, Hashirama frowned at Madara, silently encouraging him. Madara easily folded.

“Uchiha Izuna has abandoned the Uchiha clan and I’m severing ties with him. He will be labeled as a missing nin and I plan on placing a bounty on his head. He’s wanted dead or alive.” Madara didn’t need to state that Izuna was his brother. He saw recognition in their faces, then something akin to pity. Missing nin were disowned, their clans or villages no longer responsible for their actions, despite how it would still look on Konoha. Shimura Eizo seemed entirely too interested in the story behind the decision, but Madara shook his head at the man. “There was an unsuccessful coup and that is why my clan’s numbers have dropped. Izuna is considered dangerous, and he’s not acting alone. He doesn’t believe in peace or in this village, so it’s likely he’ll return at some point to wreak more havoc. Sen—Tobirama—and I plan on pursuing him as soon as the snow melts.”

“I’ll turn his information in to the bounty stations. He’ll be included in the next bingo book,” Shimura Eizo said, content to appear helpful. Madara gave a firm nod, then he turned the meeting back over to Hashirama, who quickly ended the meeting. “If you have the time, I’m interested in exactly what transpired.”

“I’ll make time,” Madara lied.

Chapter Text

The home was too large for one man. The traditional home had three bedrooms, a formal dining room, and a nice yard. He didn’t argue against the home, since he was the clan head and should set an example. Eventually, the homes would be updated, but for the moment, he accepted the extra space provided by the shrinking numbers of his clan. They had quality plumbing and electricity, something that had been shoved aside for old traditions, traditions they decided to cast aside in favor of advancements. Without much prompting, Kagami moved into Madara’s home, taking one of the two extra rooms, and Madara could pretend that the home wasn’t too big, too empty, too cold. It was mid-February when the finishing touches were being put on the village, such as construction of the administration building, which was connected to the school, and the Hokage’s office. Under Madara’s suggestion, Tobirama planned a special house for the Hokage, even though Hashirama initially refused the house. It would be passed down to each Hokage, and Tobirama insisted refusing the home would be an insult to the villagers. Madara knew the man was sly, but manipulating Hashirama was amusing.

“How long will you be gone, sensei?” It was going on March when the snow finally melted, promising a warm spring and an even warmer summer. Kagami stood in the doorway to Madara’s room, watching Madara check and double-check weapons and scrolls. Madara didn’t need to worry about Kagami, as he’d asked Okimoto to check on the boy and see to his training, but his apprentice would have the large house to himself, and Madara knew too well about the overwhelming emptiness. When Kagami prepared to ask again, Madara looked up from his storage scroll.

“Not long,” Madara said, hoping the answer wasn’t a lie. Kagami pouted at him and he chuckled. “Do you think I want to travel all over this godforsaken world? I’d much rather stay here and cook and clean for you, since you’re such a slob.” Kagami gasped at the insult and Madara laughed again, too used to teasing the boy. They both knew that the end of the mission would mean Izuna was dead, but Kagami, smart as he was, chose not to mention the fact. Madara sealed the last of his items into the storage scroll, then he grabbed his gunbai from beside his bed. He would miss his bed, the way the mattress cradled him after a particularly difficult day.

“Not a slob,” Kagami mumbled, pouting again. “You’ll be back before my birthday? It’s in June.”

“If I say I’ll be back before your birthday, will you stop with the questions?”

“Yes.”

“Then yes.”

Madara would try his best to return in time for the boy’s birthday, but there was no guarantee. The hunt for Izuna was secondary to the journey to the capital of Hiyasawa, as much as Madara loathed to admit. It was a simple mission, a tracking mission with a high possibility for combat. Tobirama, Tsubaki, Shinpei, and he were going to check out the front and make plans for a defensive maneuver before the Iwa shinobi had a chance to overcome defenses in the capital. There was also the initial meeting with the Fire daimyo. Madara had wanted nothing to do with the meeting, but Tobirama insisted that it would be best if they appeared as a cohesive unit. So Madara was stuck playing politician in place of Hashirama, since Madara and Tobirama insisted the newly appointed Hokage should remain in the village. Madara didn’t like the idea of leaving Hashirama—he really hated thinking about Izuna taking advantage of their absence to attack Konoha. But Hashirama had insisted he would be fine, that he could handle fighting Izuna, since he handled fighting Madara, which Madara found a little insulting.

Kagami had gotten taller, but Madara still placed a hand on Kagami’s head, the boy looking up at him with expectant eyes. “It shouldn’t take long. Stop pouting. I expect you to behave and set a good example. I won’t have my student making me look bad. I’ll toss you out on your ass. Do we have an understanding?”

“Yes, sensei!” Kagami gifted him with a blinding smile and he couldn’t help the subtle twitch of his lips, a sign that he wanted to return the smile. Madara removed his hand from Kagami’s head and brushed past the boy. Kagami closed the door to the master bedroom and the two made their way downstairs to Tobirama. The man had waited in the living room for Madara, and Kagami must have prepared tea for the man, since there were two cups on the table. “Hashirama said I can learn about what it takes to be Hokage,” Kagami spoke up, purposely stalling. Both men knew his little game.

“It looks like we have competition for the status as Nidaime,” Tobirama smirked, easily finishing his tea. Kagami looked too proud of himself, so Madara flicked one of Kagami’s ears in an attempt to humble the boy. “Do you have everything you need? You were up there long enough to pack for a year.” Madara narrowed his eyes at Tobirama and proceeded to turn, purposely hitting Tobirama with his hair. The man huffed at his back. “Anija wants you to meet him at the office, Kagami. You don’t have to see us off.” Kagami took off in a jog toward the administration building, while Madara and Tobirama lingered in the front yard, both of them watching the boy’s back until he was out of sight.

“He didn’t want Kagami, did he?”

“No, but I thought it would be easier than watching us walk away.”

“Hn. Let’s get this over with.”



Hiyasawa was west of what would be the Valley of the End. Madara didn’t see himself fighting Hashirama, so he didn’t think the valley would come to fruition, but some other circumstance could create the valley. He hoped that the kyubi wouldn’t be involved—he hoped they would never have to deal with the bijuu at all—but he couldn’t prevent everything. He could masquerade as a savior, but at the end of the day, he was still one man. The journey north left him time to think about the future and Izuna’s role in the future of Konoha. There was a good possibility that the man would hunt down the kyubi and release it on Konoha, especially with Black Zetsu involved. Just thinking about the possibility had him frustrated, and Tobirama must have felt something, because the man kept sneaking glances in Madara’s direction when he thought Madara wasn’t looking. As the sensor, Tobirama took point until nightfall, when the group was forced to stop and rest. They’d set out early in the morning, the pink sky greeting them, and by the time they stopped, the stars were out in the clear night sky. Tsubaki and her two ninken, Shirayuki and Kuromatsu, took the first watch, while Shinpei settled down with one of the bento he’d thought to pack. Madara didn’t need to keep watch, so he sat closest to their small fire and ate rations, the dry food full of nutrients he needed to keep going, despite the lack of taste. Without a word, Tobirama laid a sleeping bag out on the other side of the fire, his red eyes warm in the firelight. Without the happuri, Tobirama looked entirely ordinary. Madara took a particularly vicious bite of his granola bar.

“I’m sure it’s dead,” Tobirama said, expression flat. Madara followed up with another vicious bite and Tobirama turned his attention to Shinpei, who’d finished his bento and seemed ready to retire for the night. “At this rate, we should reach Hiyasawa by tomorrow afternoon.”

He stated the obvious, but Shinpei nodded, content to take the invitation for conversation, despite his quiet nature. The Aburame clan often seemed lost in the background. Madara tuned out their conversation on tomorrow’s plan, since they’d already cemented their plans hours ago. He and Tobirama would report to the daimyo, as the middle-aged man was waiting for their arrival, while Tsubaki and Shinpei scoured the capital and surrounding area for threats. There had been suspicions about an influx of refugees from the Land of Grass, the place seemingly devolved into a civil war. When Madara finished eating, he climbed into a tree adjacent to Tsubaki’s and watched her ninken do one last sweep of the area. The night was quiet and calm, unusually so, and the farther north they went, the colder it became. As it was, they’d all resorted to using their cloaks, and Madara had every intention of going to bed with his cloak on. There was a common misconception that those with a fire affinity ran a warmer temperature than those without—it was complete bullshit. Madara wished he had that talent, but the most they could do was circulate chakra and hide underneath warmer clothing.

“This is going to be a mess, isn’t it?” Tsubaki finally spoke, so Madara looked up from the fire to see her face. The light filtered through the leaves on the tree and made a design across her face, spots of her face hidden in shadows. Her expression was hard, unlike her expressions during the clan meetings. “Tobirama-sama,” Tsubaki began.

“Don’t call him that. He’s no one special,” Madara interrupted her, rolling his eyes skyward. She laughed, the sound gaining the attention of the two other members of their party. Madara sneered at Tobirama. “It’s nothing we can’t handle. Is that what worries you?” Tsubaki paused for a moment and looked off toward the west, obviously hearing something that Madara couldn’t. Instead of speaking, Madara waited for her to shake her head and dismiss the noise.

“That’s not it. Tobirama mentioned a collection of chakra signatures, and Shinpei and I haven’t picked up any trails. It’s odd. Beyond the smell of the grass, trees, and flowers, there’s nothing. We haven’t had any rain or snow in weeks. We have to be missing something.”

“Hn. Instincts?”

“My clan relies on instinct.”

Madara didn’t know whether he should agree with her, but something did feel off. They were still safely within the Land of Fire though, far enough away that they shouldn’t encounter enemies from Iwagakure, the hidden village in the Land of Earth. Madara felt something like silken threads spread out across him and everyone froze, momentarily caught in a genjutsu. Madara immediately broke free and he jumped to the ground to join the others. Shadows flitted about the area, passing between trees surrounding their small camp. Madara activated his sharingan and Tobirama extinguished the fire, casting them all into darkness. Shinpei released bikochu and engaged one of the enemies, while Tsubaki and her two ninken took on two opponents. The enemy shinobi were covered in mud, the scent easily mixing in with the scent of the forest. Tobirama had seemed surprisingly calm, so Madara knew that the man had known, and he had some suspicion that Shinpei had known about the attack too. He wanted to throttle them both, but he remained focused on the battle. One man of nine got away from them, and when Madara went to give chase, Shinpei stopped him.

“One of my insects is on him. Why? So I can track him. Tsubaki, do you have their scent?”

“Fuck yeah. This just got interesting.”

“They used primarily earth ninjutsu. It makes me wonder how far they’ve advanced into the Land of Fire. They could easily be from the desert. Earth release isn’t unheard of in the Land of Wind,” Tobirama thought aloud, following after the two trackers. Madara brought up the rear and he shot Tobirama a withering glare. “Did you honestly expect me to tell you that we were being watched while we were being watched? Are you hurt over it?”

“Put your happuri back on your hideous face,” Madara huffed, turning his head away from Tobirama.

They followed the lone shinobi until mid-afternoon, when they reached the border to the unmarked territory to the east of the Land of Earth, the small land nestled between it and the Land of Rice Fields, the name being everything anyone needed to know about the rich farming land. Madara had heard of a hidden village developed in the country, but he didn’t know the name or location, which was likely a wise choice, since small nations were easy targets. Faced with the decision to continue or stop, Madara chose to be the voice of reason. They had a mission in Hiyasawa and they would have to double back to get to the capital, but the pressing issue was the threat of another hostile land rising up against the Land of Fire and, by extension, Konoha.

“Let’s shift our priority from engagement to reconnaissance,” Madara eventually sighed. Shinpei was adamant that they come to a decision relatively quickly, so they wouldn’t lose the trail. Already, his insects were becoming restless. “I think we should split into two groups.”

“We can handle ourselves, right, babe?” Tsubaki said, looking to Shinpei for confirmation. The man squirmed under the nickname and she smirked at him. Tobirama remained quiet, where he should have shared his opinion, so all three remaining members of their team waited for his input. Splitting up was a risky maneuver, but they needed to be in two places at once, and continuing as one group wasn’t going to allow them to be in two places. “Don’t underestimate us.”

“Fine. We’ll meet here in three days. If we aren’t here at noon on the last day, we return to Konoha. Is that understood?” Tobirama leveled them with a calculating gaze and Tsubaki and Shinpei quietly agreed to the mission parameters. Shinpei took off first, and Tsubaki followed, her two ninken bringing up the rear. “If this turns out to be a mistake, I’m never going to let you hear the end of it,” Tobirama said, eyes on Madara.

“Is it too late to go with Aburame?”

“Yes.”

Madara turned and the two began the journey back to Hiyasawa. He’d heard about unrest in the northern lands, three different sides locked in a battle over the pocket of fertile land between the Land of Rice Fields and an area that may or may not have a hidden village. Everyone wanted land and resources, and power made that happen. There were bound to be losses. They didn’t need to get involved in a war—they really didn’t—but war was inevitable. The battles taking place around them set up clear boundaries between different lands. They had to start somewhere.

“You know it’s only a matter of time,” Madara spoke, following alongside Tobirama. The man didn’t pause, didn’t even seem to acknowledge Madara’s words. “Say something.”

“I think the shinobi we encountered and Iwagakure might be working together, and that’s the worst case scenario. If there’s another hidden village involved, how many shinobi are we talking about? The daimyo might know more about the state of things here, and we might have to persuade him to talk,” Tobirama finally responded. Madara frowned at the thought, but he didn’t argue against threatening the daimyo, or even using force, if necessary. “Don’t make that face. We don’t know anything yet.”

“That’s the problem.”