The sounds of battle diminished gradually around the General as he scaled the rocky outcropping to survey the wreckage. Cries and yells continued to resound, and the clash of steel and heavy weaponry echoed, but overall they were slowing, less chaotic. This would end soon.
Sending the red-tailed hawk upon his shoulder up with a toss, he waited a moment before following after it at its cry. His warbird had spotted his opponent.
The rest faded to history. Another battle won, another territory gained and soon he and his soldiers marched on to the next piece of the map he would chart and gain.
Dominance, singular leadership, an empire: he would have them all, and with their unity the need for ceaseless plunder and conflict would end. Together the fractured pieces of his countries could stride forward towards peace as a singular power. The whole land would be his home.
Soon, General Uchiha Madara thought as he wiped his blade clean. The falcon returned to his armoured shoulder and he offered it a treat of dried meat jerky in reward.
The north was his; the west was his. Now, to move south and east.
The battle of the south cost him dearly, but General Madara pushed forward, breaking through the enemy lines with his loyal family of troops. Casualties were higher than he'd wanted, but the final goal would be worth it.
"Protect the horses, and protect yourselves," he'd commanded as he swung his gunbai forward to lead them on.
They did so; it saved them all.
Tamping down on the pride swelling in his chest, Madara turned, the fading sun at his back as he looked from the mountain over his shadow stretching further and further ahead each moment the sun dipped lower and lower behind him. His advisors and captains, the majority from his clan, theorized behind him as to how he would celebrate his final victory. They also shared their suggestions loudly enough for him to overhear deliberately, which was how he knew to mind his liaisons more carefully, lest someone plant a seed in one of his rare bedmates in an effort to trap him in an unwanted union once he was the leader of all the sun rose upon. No, he had no interest in political matchmaking; not yet. There would be time for that, later; once they had peace, and a safe place to set down roots.
The sun cast its final rays as he took a breath and turned back to his army.
Finally, his last goal: eastwards.
They were neither pleasant nor encouraging.
"They said it can't be done," said the soldier, Kubo, who knelt before Madara, head bowed. His helmet tucked under his right arm, he kept his eyes averted from the great General.
Arms crossed in front of him, Madara's eyes sharpened. His stance was wide as he controlled his reaction.
"Who said this?"
"The people of the steppes, General. They said the only force who's ever been able to repel the war lord Shimura's bandits are…" Kubo's voice drifted off.
"Speak up," ordered Madara softly.
Kubo's armoured shoulders twitched.
"It… sounded almost like a fairytale, sir. They said only the soldiers from the Village Hidden in the Valley of the Leaves knew this area and its defences well enough to crack through Shimura's defenses. Apparently Shimura tried to invade them before and they, to quote the individual directly, 'tore his forces a new one and sent them crying back to their mamas'," Kubo said. The soldier kept his red face downcast. "The Leaf villagers we met were travelling and quite peaceful, though they were armed. They said they do not associate with the Shimura, and from what we've heard from other nearby villages where we've been gathering our supplies, the people of Leaf rarely leave their territory unless it is to offer aid to others. Many travel there to study medicine, if they can find it."
"A warrior clan of medics?" mused Madara aloud.
From his seated position on a plush rug sprawled across the floor of Madara's tent, Izuna listened to the soldier's story and nodded once.
"A clan that values life," said Izuna, speaking for the first time. He lifted his chin to address his elder brother, speaking in his direction. "This story has been verified by several independent villages?"
Kubo nodded to Izuna. "Yes. From different squadrons, sirs."
"Were the Leaf travellers cautious?"
"Yes, were wary, but they held no ill will towards our scouting party. In fact, they asked if we required any healers to assist us temporarily."
"You don't think they were Shimura's spies trying to infiltrate us?"
Kubo shook his dark-haired head. "That was not my impression, sir."
"What did you reply?"
"I said I would confer with you and advise them."
"They are still with you?" asked Izuna, straightening.
"They agreed to join us on the outskirts of our camp, but did not want to enter the camp itself without a promise they would be able to leave again without reprisal."
"Hn," said Izuna, settling once more.
"Assemble several of the wounded with varying levels of injury. No one gravely," advised Madara after a moment of reflection. "Prepare a makeshift medical bay for these healers to use and send guards to protect the wounded. They are to heal several of our casualties. We will discuss this further once this has occurred."
Izuna turned back towards Kubo and nodded at him. Understanding the dismissal Kubo bowed and exited the tent, leaving the brothers alone.
"You don't have to—"
"Enough," interrupted Madara, turning away from his younger brother. "Remain here."
Madara made a tight noise in his throat and the conflict between them spiked.
After a tense moment, Izuna's shoulders slumped.
"As always," he said, quiet and obedient.
"Hn," was all Madara said, lifting his helm from the stand. "I will return."
"Yes, brother," murmured Izuna.
The tent flap swished shut behind Madara as he left, and Izuna was left alone.
Outside in the fresh air, less stifled by his guilt, Madara surveyed the camp and struck out for the medical tent.
His guards assembled behind him, and a few at the side of the patient, Yaguchi, Madara observed the assembled group of 'warrior medics' from this Hidden Leaf Village. One, a young, delicate man with his long hair bound behind him in a topknot beneath a hunter green scarf covering most of his face, stepped forward and bowed at the waist to Madara.
"Do we have your permission to evaluate and treat the patient?" asked another member of the Leaf group, a tall man with a bushel of silver hair. He came to stand at the side of the young medic.
Madara nodded, his arms folded in front of him. Let him watch these travellers in action, then, to see what the fuss was about. Special herbs? Reiki? Acupuncture? He'd seen it all. What made these physicians so special?
The smaller man raised his arms over the patient.
Then Madara sensed it before he heard or saw it and his eyes flashed from black to red, his arm lashing out to grab the medic's wrist to yank him closer while his other hand already had a dagger at his throat.
His eyes held the medic's hard emerald ones.
"Chakra," he whispered, ignoring the guards at his sides seizing and drawing their weapons, holding the remaining Leaf travellers hostage. "You manipulate chakra to heal?"
"Yes, General," said the silver-haired man from behind the medic. "We seek to understand the patient's state before applying any form of treatment."
The medic in Madara's grasp remained still.
Madara refused to look away from his captive's eyes; he could admit to himself that he admired the medic's level calm. He'd met seasoned warriors who had failed to match this level of composure under similar circumstances. Yet this man's pulse did not even stir under his grip. Whoever had trained this tribe had done an admirable job. Perhaps there was more to them than met the eye, he mused as he felt the shift in his eyes from crimson back to black.
He assessed the medic for any other sign of discomfort, holding on longer to see how long the young man would hold out against this small show of intimidation. Then something caught Madara's eye as he stared. His eyes narrowed.
Did the man have… rose eyelashes?
No wonder he kept himself covered.
The medic's speaker cleared his throat. "If it pleases you, we can continue the examination. If you would release our medic's wrist, we will be as careful as possible."
Reminding them he was in charge, Madara spoke to Yaguchi. "Inform me immediately of any pain or disturbance in your chakra pathway."
With that Madara released the medic's steady, delicate wrist and the man gave him an unimpressed glare when Madara spent an extra half second retracting his dagger back into his hip pouch. He stifled his urge to grin at the medic's impertinence. A confident man, it seemed, this medic.
Madara lifted a brow at the medic before leaning back and folding his arms in front of him once more.
The medic turned his focus back down to Yaguchi.
"This may feel cool, or tingly," said the silver-haired man behind the medic to Yaguchi. "Please let us know immediately if you feel any pain or if you cannot control your own chakra; it may try to resist the healing if you fight it."
The medic took a breath, spread his hands wide, and closed his eyes. A glow as green as a fresh forest leaf emanated from his palms and seeped into Yaguchi who let out a soft sigh.
"Hn?" Madara watched Yaguchi's face.
Yaguchi's tight brow relaxed. "It is fine, General. It's a relief, actually; it is numbing the pain."
"This is to help comfort you," said the silver-haired man cheerfully.
Or gain their trust, mused Madara.
"Your name?" asked Madara as the examination proceeded.
"I am Kakashi, General."
"His name?" Madara's focus returned to the medic.
Kakashi followed his gaze. "Haruno, General."
"Who is the superior in your group?" asked Madara; his eyes bled red as he watched the chakra flowing through Yaguchi's body and pooling in whorls around his injuries.
"We take turns," said Kakashi, voice pleasant, friendly, relaxed.
Madara smirked as he watched Haruno work. It was rare to find a man who could lie so comfortably. These Leaf villagers were more and more intriguing.
Less than half an hour later, Haruno tapped Yaguchi's shoulder twice.
"Please sit up and let us know how you feel," said Kakashi.
After a few questions—from Kakashi—and answers—from Yaguchi—, Yaguchi was cleared to return to duty; several weeks earlier than any of Madara's military medics would have achieved.
Yaguchi bowed respectfully to Haruno and to Madara before taking his leave; Madara signalled the next soldier to lie down. Haruno immediately went to work again with his initial triage and care.
Hours later the sun had fallen beneath the horizon and Haruno tirelessly completed the last pass over the final patient.
"Kakashi," said Madara as Haruno tapped the last patient on the shoulder twice, dismissing him.
Madara turned his crimson eyes on him.
"The next time I ask you who the leader is, it is in your best interest to be honest." Madara lifted a hand lazily and his guards, ever vigilant, seized their weapons. "Haruno will be our guest. Escort the rest of the travellers to their destination."
Kakashi's eyes widened. "General, I must insist—"
Four different blades caged in Kakashi's throat as he took a step in Madara's direction.
"I must insist that you reconsider," finished Kakashi. His jovial personality had settled into that of a trained assassin, all loose limbs, quick hands and ready stance.
This was more like it, thought Madara. He knew there was more to this little group. However, there was only one member of the group who interested him.
"Hn." Madara turned his back on Kakashi, dismissing and disrespecting him in a single move.
"See that they're gone within the quarter hour. I will see Haruno reaches my private quarters," Madara advised the nearest guard.
"General Uchiha," spoke up another voice from the group as the guards hustled them towards the exit of the makeshift medical tent.
Madara turned to look over his shoulder at the man who hailed him.
"We understand you are having trouble with Shimura."
Madara's eyes focused on the speaker.
The blond man smiled at him. "Good luck."
Nothing further was said. The group departed, leaving Madara and several guards in the tent with Haruno.
"Come. We will feed you," said Madara.
Haruno's slow, forced exhale regaled him as they left the tent.
"You need to speak sometime," remarked Madara as they crossed the army's camp. Every so often Haruno turned to look behind them at his departing colleagues. "What would you prefer to eat, beef, chicken? Duck?"
Haruno said nothing, but looked over his shoulder again. His colleagues cleared the perimeter of the fires, disappearing into the darkness of night.
Only when they were completely gone from sight did he follow Madara into the main corps of the camp.
Izuna turned towards the tent flap as he heard it swishing to the side and heard two pairs of booted feet padding across the piles of rugs that littered the floor.
"I brought company to join us for supper," said Madara. "Sit and behave," he said to the guest.
"Supper was hours ago," said Izuna. His ears followed the sound of the guest; the individual was nearly completely silent. He was impressed.
Madara tugged off several pieces of his armour and set them on the stand. "Ah, I was busy."
"Who is joining us? How did the session go with the medics?"
A low exhale from the guest. Izuna turned his head in their direction again.
"Hn. The medic was proficient. He joins us now."
Izuna tilted his head. "Madara—"
"He will look over you once we finish supper."
Izuna's shoulders rounded. "What have you done?" he asked quietly.
From the corner their guest, the medic realized Izuna, shuffled on his knees.
Panic flooded Izuna. "What have you done," he demanded again, shuffling to his feet and staggering towards the corner. "Are you there?" called Izuna. "Are you alright? Hello? Are you wounded?"
Strong hands grabbed Izuna's shoulders, halting his movements.
"Easy," said Madara, his voice gentler. "He's fine. He doesn't speak."
"General?" called a voice from outside the tent. "Your meals."
"Sit at the table. We'll join you," directed Madara as he turned his brother around. He opened the flap again once Izuna was seated and let in the guards who carried their meals.
"Please join us," said Izuna to the medic once the guards retreated outside again.
Madara opened the platters, releasing tantalizing scents and steam in the cooling air. "Haruno, his name is Haruno."
"Haruno," coaxed Izuna. "Please."
"Eat at the table," ordered Madara, ignoring Izuna's convivial approach. "Unless you're a dog."
Izuna sighed. "It's a wonder anyone puts up with you."
There came a small snort from the corner.
"See, even Haruno thinks so."
Madara huffed out through his nose. "Eat before it gets cold."
"Haruno. Don't make me suffer through another meal without company," said Izuna. "I'll let you have seconds of dessert."
"Hn," sighed Madara. He dug into his meal and ignored them.
Eventually Haruno joined them at the table; Izuna carried the conversation and included him from time to time.
"You know why you're here, by now," said Madara addressing Haruno. Dessert was placed in front of them by the guards.
Izuna shook his head. "Let him rest. How many did he heal this evening?"
Izuna's mouth twisted in disgust as he faced his brother's direction. "Rest. Immediately." He stood, and turned to face Haruno, nodding. "Thank you for joining us. We will speak again in the morning."
"He's staying with you tonight."
Izuna sensed Haruno stiffen.
"He can examine you before you sleep. I will monitor him."
"Where is he supposed to sleep?"
"He will remain here." Madara summoned a guard from the tent flap, and Izuna heard the men arranging blankets, bedding and… shackles?
"Precautionary," Madara said; he rested his elbow on the table and propped up his head. Izuna could tell by the angle in his voice.
From his other side, he heard Haruno shuffling in his seat.
"No shackles," said Izuna.
"Izuna," warned Madara, voice hardening.
"No. Is this how you treat your allies, brother?"
The soldiers immediately stiffened and withdrew swiftly. Izuna wondered if his brother had dismissed them with a look.
To his surprise he felt a gentle hand take his sleeve, and lift his arm out; and the warmth of another's arm alongside his.
"See, he doesn't mind," drawled Madara.
The irons clamped around Izuna's arm, and around Haruno's, binding them.
"Now, rest. Both of you. I have matters to attend to," said Madara, standing and taking his leave. "Haruno, examine him when your chakra reserves are replenished."
"You aren't staying? I thought you said you were going to monitor things."
There was a pause; and Izuna could feel his brother's gaze resting on their 'guest'.
"Haruno knows he doesn't leave this tent alive if anything happens to you."
The tent flap fluttered shut and Izuna's face lowered.
Sleep was awkward for Haruno and Izuna with their arms outstretched and chained together.
"I apologize for my brother," said Izuna.
Haruno let out a low breath.
"You already know what's wrong with me."
The chains jangled lightly, and Izuna understood that Haruno had shrugged.
He sighed. "If your chakra reserves are healthy, I will sit quietly or sleep while you work. If it goes well, I will convince my brother to release you first thing in the morning." He paused. "I am sorry you were caught up in this. He's a good man, but he goes about things the wrong way sometimes."
Haruno sighed softly, shuffling closer.
Izuna lay quietly as Haruno's chakra trickled and tickled into his system.
Like meadow spring and cool breezes bearing the fresh scent of spring; that was how Haruno's chakra felt against his own, gliding through his system with confident sweeps and swirls.
Relaxed and trusting, Izuna let his walls down. He was asleep within seconds.
There was a storm raging through the tent the next morning when Izuna woke.
"Where? Where is he!" demanded Madara, throwing aside the pile of blankets beside Izuna.
"Who?" croaked Izuna, chains jangling as he rubbed at his eyes. He looked around, squinting at the details; the overturned table, the papers and scrolls strewn about, the clothing ransacked. Madara's temper left nothing untouched. Strangely there was a dusting of sakura petals throughout the room. Izuna couldn't make heads or tails of them.
The noise of the shackles still chained to his wrist sobered him immediately.
"Haruno?" he called out; yet the lack of resistance from the restraints told him everything he needed to know. "Haruno, are you here?" he searched high and low with his eyes.
He looked around and found his brother's eyes staring at him; staring in awe.
"He did it," breathed Madara.
Izuna blinked. Then his eyes widened.
He could see his brother.
Shivering now, Izuna lifted a shaking hand in front of his face. He could see it clearly. Down to the whorling pattern of his fingerprints, he could see everything.
He could see.
He shook his head until Madara leapt in front of him and grabbed his head and shoulders, holding him still.
"Don't. Don't… shake anything loose, little brother," said Madara.
"I can see," breathed Izuna. "I can see again."
"Yes," said Madara, eyes wide and lacking their usual stress lines. "Yes!"
So close were they that Izuna saw the wetness rising in his brother's eyes. The guilt lifting from them.
"We owe the Leaf," said Izuna seriously, desperate to weasel any protection he could out of his brother while he was so vulnerable.
As he'd expected, he saw the shade shutter his brother's shining orbs.
"Promise me," said Izuna, grabbing his brother's arms. "Promise me we will honour them as they see fit."
Madara's face filled with conflicted emotion.
"We will honour them," he said after a moment, obviously noting the seriousness of Izuna's furrowed brow.
"As they see fit," pressed Izuna.
Madara held Izuna's stare for the first time in years, the moment stretching before his broad shoulders relented and his expression softened.
"As they see fit," agreed Madara.
Izuna grinned. "I will fight beside you once more, brother."
A spark flashed in Madara's eyes as his lips curled into a smile.
"We fight together again," promised Madara. "And I will need you beside me. The steppes are Shimura Danzou's territory through and through."
"If you hadn't damaged relations with the Leaf, we may have asked for their assistance."
Madara remembered the parting words from the Leaf the previous night.
Madara surveyed his troops as they marched and rode behind him; it was a small contingent, but a powerful one. Out of the corner of his eye he monitored his brother's progress atop his inky warhorse. Izuna had traded his usual pace horse for a mightier warhorse and rode astride its broad back with confidence, his armour looser than it had been when it was first hemmed and hammered, but protecting him from booted toe to the tip of his head from any possible weapon thrust or shot at him.
Madara had insisted that Izuna include some of Madara's own padding beneath its metal plates to further insulate him, even while Izuna had sighed, unstrapping his breastplate (over his brigandine) to tie the padding on around his shoulders and torso. Izuna's metal bracers over his tough leather gauntlets were far less scuffed than those of other soldiers, but Madara trusted that they wouldn't look so untested much longer.
They crested a small hill in the mountain pass they travelled through, the light slanting down from above them and casting half the rocky corridor in shadow.
Madara tilted his head to the side and around him his men and women armed themselves in readiness as quickly and quietly as they'd been trained. At his side, Izuna reached behind him to scratch his back; and flicked the catch on the bow he kept strung across his back. Even when blind, Izuna's aim had been formidable and he'd rarely missed his shot.
Thus they were unsurprised when a tall, familiar man appeared before them in a puff of smoke and a friendly wave.
"Yo," he said, a hand on his hip. "Did you reconsider your manners, General Uchiha?"
From atop his warhorse Madara looked down at the man. "Kakashi."
Kakashi smiled at them from behind his mask.
"I have come to pay homage to your village and its healers," said Madara. "We bring gifts."
Kakashi chuckled. "Thank you, but we've no need of your war-hounds."
"My men are not the gifts."
"I'm sure they're treasures, actually, but I must insist. My leader has no issue with your clan, and no interest in your conflict."
Madara's affable manner remained unruffled, while Izuna straightened in his saddle.
"Did Haruno make it home safely?" Izuna called to Kakashi.
A silver brow rose in surprise before Kakashi nodded. "Haruno is well."
Izuna's horse was steady as he rose higher in his saddle. "Would you pass on a message for me?"
Madara turned to look at his brother now, curious and wary. He did not like their party staying still so long in one place, particularly in such a vulnerable theatre for conflict as the mountain pass. They were too visible, high upon the hill and surrounded by lengthening shadows.
Before them Kakashi settled his hands in his pockets and nodded.
"Please tell him that the Uchiha owe him a life debt; and we seek to repay it in a way that is favourable to him and the village of Leaf. We travel with some of our most trusted, loyal kin in order to show proper respect. I would like to apologize for the way his trust in our clan was betrayed, and offer any kindness desired in return before we take our leave to engage Shimura." Izuna looked to the ground in front of his horse a moment before focusing on Kakashi again. "Please pass on that it was partly my fault that he was treated as he was, and that my brother was only trying to do what was in my best interests. Haruno is the first doctor who has managed to successfully heal me following an old injury, and my brother, while a great man, is overprotective and merciless when it comes to the care of his clan."
Izuna bowed lower in his saddle, his right fist over his heart. "I offer my services to the Leaf, should you ever find me worthy of your great village. Your people have shown the Uchiha great examples of your selflessness and competence and we have great respect for you."
"That's a little much for me to remember," said Kakashi. He tilted his head to the side before he shrugged. "Might as well follow me. We'll see what the boss has to say. We won't bother your whole gang of friends, though. You and one other."
"My brother," said Izuna immediately.
"Will he be polite?"
Madara looked between Izuna and Kakashi and nodded. "Haruno did us a great service. We are honoured to show respect to your leader for raising such a fine soldier and doctor," said Madara.
Izuna turned to his brother in surprise. Rarely was his brother a statesman, let alone humble. Were his politics changing?
"Follow me. The rest of your friends can return to the mouth of the pass and wait for you there. You'll be escorted out again," advised Kakashi, already facing the direction he'd appeared from. "You may want to climb down from your horses, though. The footing is rocky."
Shoulders set, Madara looked at Izuna and it prompted Izuna to glare at him for assessing his condition.
The moment they exited through the end of the pass, it became obvious why the village was so well protected. The mists were deceptively thick.
A man would easily become lost and fall to his death if he was unsure of his path.
An hour after sundown the pair of Uchiha and Kakashi crossed beneath the red gates of the village hidden in the forest… a forest lush and spreading around a spring that flourished in the steppes.
It hadn't passed any of the men's attention that they were surrounded, and followed, during the entirety of their journey through the pass and to the village.
The next day, mid-morning, Kakashi greeted them once more in his overly familiar way.
"Wakey wakey," he called. "The boss wants to talk to you."
"When?" asked Madara, eyes closed as he sat in meditation beside Izuna.
"An hour and a half ago."
Madara's brows dipped.
"This way," smiled Kakashi.
The bead-and-reed curtain separating the Uchiha from the village leader clicked and chimed in the breeze as Kakashi introduced Izuna and Madara to 'Tsunade' and her assistant. The assistant was dressed in layered robes with hair and face covered in scarves. It seemed a trademark of the fighters of this region.
"I understand you are looking for assistance in your plight against Shimura," said the young-looking woman. Her voice betrayed her experience, however.
"Hardly. We came to apologize to you and pay our respects to the doctor who healed my brother," said Madara. "Also, we would like to study your medical and military techniques. I request your patient tutelage."
The woman, the Hokage, laughed. "Do you know how many have requested the same?"
"Many, I'm sure. However, our goal is similar to yours. We seek peace."
"Through dominance and power." Tsunade crossed her arms in front of her as she lounged on the floor cushions beside her short table. She turned to the assistant beside her. "Are these the ones who imprisoned you against your will?"
Izuna flushed while Madara remained stoic.
The assistant, Haruno it seemed, nodded and leaned close to Tsunade to whisper in her ear pointing first at Izuna, then at Madara, jiggling her wrist.
Madara, for his part, watched their interactions closely, his mind spinning.
Tsunade nodded, whispered something back to Haruno, and turned her attention back to the Uchiha.
"Kakashi informed us last night of your request, General Uchiha Madara. And of your kind, thoughtful words, Uchiha Izuna," said Tsunade. "What is in it for us? If we train you. If we assist you. How does that benefit us?"
Madara opened his mouth to speak—he had suspicions he wanted to confirm before promising anything to this woman; there was something crafty about her he didn't trust—but Izuna beat him to it.
Madara stared at his brother, chest rising and falling in sudden anger and frustration. Izuna had no right to offer anything.
But this caught Haruno's attention; he lifted a hand beside his mentor and tapped two fingers on the hardwood floor, then one. Tsunade nodded once with the barest tilt of her chin in understanding before Haruno pulled his hands back into his lap. His back remained straight the entire time.
"We offer freedom, for as long as the Leaf promise not to rise against the Uchiha. Allies," said Izuna, ignoring his brother's burning gaze.
"We have freedom," said Tsunade.
"And this way you can keep it without offering anything else in return," said Izuna. "And… when my brother succeeds in his campaign and has no further need of me, I would appreciate your permission to return here to aid you, in thanks." He bowed low to Tsunade.
Madara felt a vein in his temple tick and throb.
"I get the impression you did not discuss this with said brother prior to this meeting," chuckled Tsunade, waving a cup at them.
Like a river changing course mid-stream, the mood in the room lightened when the back of Izuna's neck coloured and he sank forward so deeply his shoulders rose up around his ears. "Ah…"
Tsunade laughed aloud. "Let me discuss it with my council. You may return to your rooms or explore the village in the meantime. We will find you to advise you of our decision before nightfall."
That evening Izuna and Madara returned to the Uchiha main camp. They were not alone; Kakashi, Haruno and several others, deceptively lightly armed, joined them.
Within weeks they conquered Shimura; but it was not that battle that stayed with Madara through the long nights during which he travelled to his new capitol, separated from his brother for the first time in his life. A capitol he rebuilt and strengthened, which soon thrived with trade; a capitol he'd envisioned leading with his brother by his side.
It was another conflict entirely that waged within him and taunted him as the days went by.
Before the Battle
When Haruno, Kakashi and the others joined them on their caravan to Shimura's territory, Madara initially ordered that they be stationed around the medics.
"With all due respect," said Kakashi as he pulled his horse up alongside though a half-canter behind Madara. "We are better utilized as fighters. We are not all healers, though we are all… trained in the military arts."
Madara looked to Izuna, then to Kakashi. "Your healers are to remain with the wounded; if your non-medical members wish to mingle with the guards, they are welcome to. They are to accept and follow any orders as if they were part of my own troops. I will not accept stragglers or distractions."
Kakashi smiled behind his mask. "Of course. I'll relay your directions, General."
"Where is Haruno?"
Kakashi pretended to ponder Madara's request, a finger rubbing at his cupped chin. Madara waited as they plodded, hardly noticing the sway of their horses under the bright, dry sun.
"I believe Haruno chose to assess the remaining patients, General."
"While we travel?" asked Izuna, leaning to the side to meet Kakashi's eye.
Kakashi nodded. "Yes. Haruno is adamant about patient comfort while healing."
At that moment Madara's red hawk landed on his pauldron, squawking twice before tapping his beak lightly on the steel plating, stretching his neck to the side, and settling with a sweep of wings onto the pommel of Madara's saddle.
"We'll be stopping when we reach water to refill our supplies and plan our strategy," said Madara. "Let your members know that they need to decide where they are to be stationed, whether on the field or with the field hospital."
"Right away," said Kakashi, nickering at his horse and sauntering off down the column of soldiers.
"Is it wise to leave such an important message to him to deliver?" asked Izuna when Kakashi was out of hearing. His brow furrowed. "He is not concerned with punctuality."
"He has two days," said Madara. "And once we speak to Haruno, they'll all know. At that time, also, we'll know their plans."
Izuna cocked his head to the side. "Haruno doesn't speak."
A small smile curled at the corners of Madara's lips. "Haruno doesn't speak to us. However, Haruno is their leader. We are being tested, brother."
Izuna shifted in his saddle and sighed. "To see if we are trustworthy?"
"To see how we treat our own people; and those we will conquer."
Izuna nodded once and leaned forward once more; his furrowed brow gave away his concerns.
For his part, Madara sat tall in his saddle, considering his suspicions and strategy. Before he could plan his campaign successfully he needed to know his allies' strengths and weaknesses.
It seemed a test of his own was in order.
That evening as most soldiers sat around cooking fires recounting stories and jokes, Madara and Izuna made their way to the medical canopy to find Kakashi and Haruno with their heads bent together over an unconscious patient. Haruno's hands glowed as they stretched out above the patient, gliding gently as he treated whatever ailed the woman on her back.
Kakashi turned while Haruno looked over his shoulder before going back to work.
Madara found himself amused at the blatant disrespect rather than offended. Ah, so Haruno felt he was imposing? So territorial…
"We strategize shortly. Join us. Your counsel is expected."
As Madara expected, Kakashi nodded and offered a laconic shrug while Haruno ignored him entirely.
"That means you, too, Haruno." Madara smirked as Haruno's slight shoulders tightened. "You remember what my tent looks like, I trust."
The tension between them rose and coiled, and at Madara's side, Izuna shuffled sideways in an unconscious reaction to a threat.
While Izuna shifted, Madara didn't miss the way Kakashi reached a casual arm out to tap Haruno's sleeve.
"You missed a spot," he said cheerfully.
The tension dissipated into mist and evaporated on the evening breeze.
Interesting, thought Madara, observing their dynamic.
"Izuna will show you the way," said Madara, changing tack. "I will meet you there in a quarter hour."
He nodded to his brother and left. He had another stop to make, first.
Madara pinned his map to the canvas wall of his tent and stepped back to evaluate his assembled commanders, advisors… and esteemed guests.
"Kakashi," he said. "Are you familiar with the Shimura territories?"
He handed a small cup of colourful pins to him, explaining what each colour represented. Then, while Kakashi stood in front of the map, describing the terrain, Shimura's forces, possible advantages and disadvantages, Madara roved through the participants until he stood directly in front of Haruno, blocking the medic's view.
Someone sighed to his left; and Madara's amused expression met his brother's pout when he looked over his shoulder.
Izuna shook his head at him before lifting his brows and gesturing across the room with his chin.
Haruno had disappeared from behind him and reappeared closer to Kakashi without a sound.
Madara tucked the knowledge away and returned his full attention to Kakashi's meandering lecture.
"... treed area here, coincidentally, where the publisher printed an excellent copy of a great romantic story you may be familiar with…"
By the end of the meeting Kakashi's wealth of knowledge on Shimura's territory and forces was well-founded, and his strategy dubious yet sound; for during the entire evening no one, not even Madara himself, had realized that the image he was outlining in coloured pins was, in fact, a pair of shapely breasts.
He may not have noticed it even then if it hadn't been for Haruno smacking Kakashi sharply upside his head as they left and gesturing to the pinned map, and Kakashi's resulting, naughty chuckle. Izuna, who had been watching the pair, glanced at the map with new insight; and promptly blushed crimson, clearing his throat.
Madara sighed internally, and reminded himself to find a bed partner for his brother once they gained victory over Shimura.
Others soon realized what Kakashi had done, however, and soon Madara's tent was full of laughter.
It seemed Tsunade had unloaded one of her more eccentric soldiers on him.
The camp had a clear, flat space for sparring and simulation practice. It bordered on a pristine lake, surrounded by rushes and grasses and an abundance of animal footprints in the mud. The surrounding hills were gentle enough that no enemy could surprise them, and Madara was grateful Kakashi had advised him of it during their travels. It was an excellent gathering place for their needs.
Early the next morning Madara rose before the sun, and even before the birds. He dressed lightly for his run and to survey the camp. Izuna slept so soundly that Madara left him undisturbed.
Closing the flap of their shared tent behind him, Madara stretched his back and shoulders and took off for the lake.
To his surprise, he was not the first one there, and had not been for some time. Around the shores of the lake the Leaf soldiers had taken up a perimeter, nearly elbow to elbow with half facing in and half facing out; meanwhile approximately half their numbers bathed.
A sentry unit in and of itself, even for bathing.
Madara's eyes narrowed. Why would they need such a thing? Did they fear for their safety among his soldiers?
Had something happened?
Were they naturally suspicious of him and his men and women?
It could be harmless; or it could be a defensive reaction.
Or, thought Madara, it could be a great show of disrespect.
Yet why now, when the majority of his troops slept? His night watch would have come across them…
His thoughts tumbled over themselves as he approached, and he was unsurprised when their ranks tightened at an unspoken signal.
"Stand down," said Madara. "What is your business? You should be resting."
"We came to bathe," said a voice that was not Kakashi's for once. Madara turned to look at the man with the dark hair and senbon dangling from his mouth. The man nodded at Madara. "I am Genma. We take turns and watch over each other. We did not want to intrude on your troops during a moment of vulnerability, and so we chose to wake up early and bathe before the camp woke up."
Behind Genma the water dripped quietly and Madara noted that the soldiers in the water were leaving for the shore to dry off and dress in a nearby tent. He lifted his nose at the scent of smoke; yet he could discern none. There was a stove inside the tent to warm them, he realized, and water inside it, too. He hid his surprise; they had crafted a steam room. That was why there was no smoke; it was steam. It evaporated immediately.
Madara found himself more and more impressed, if somewhat appalled at the waste of resources for such a luxury on a military campaign.
"You bathe every day?" he asked.
Genma nodded. "Whenever possible. It reduces the risk of disease transmission and contamination."
Madara's expression must not have convinced Genma he believed him, because Genma lifted his hands in the air.
"I didn't believe it either, but after the Hokage and Sa—Haruno—implemented it in our village and travelling caravans, we all noticed the difference."
"Where is Haruno?" asked Madara as he examined the masked faces of the sentries.
There was a pause as the Leaf soldiers around him tensed.
"I wish to discuss this strategy with him to see how it, and others, may be implemented among my own forces," said Madara. Not that he had to explain himself, but he noticed the Leaf were irritatingly protective of one another.
"I will advise him when I see him that you wish to speak to him. If you'd like, I can send for Kakashi. He's often fairly knowledgeable about the camp runnings and—"
Madara lifted a brow, cutting off Genma's distraction.
"That was not what I asked."
Genma wet his lips before nodding, slowly. "Haruno is changing and seeing to the wellbeing of the soldiers in the tent. Some may require attention and Haruno prefers to address things sooner rather than later."
It was all Madara needed to hear; he took a step in the direction of the tent only for the sentries to flow, like water, and reposition themselves. Now, instead of guarding the empty water they protected their comrades in the tent.
Madara narrowed his eyes. "You prevent me from inspecting my own camp?"
"I expect you to hold to your word and respect our privacy," said Kakashi, appearing in a whiff of smoke at Genma's side. "Good morning. Is your brother still having a nap?"
"Where is Haruno?"
"Ah, you see during the night a snake crawled into Haruno's tent and scared him to death and he wet his bedroll so he had to come out early and wash it in the lake and—"
From the direction of the tent there came a rumbling, then a fissure appeared to crack the earth. It stopped at Kakashi's feet.
Kakashi cleared his throat. "If you give me a moment, I'll go see if he's ready to come out."
Tsunade afforded her soldiers far too long a tether—if there were any leash at all, Madara decided. He crossed his arms and waited.
A moment later Haruno exited the tent with a snap of the flap and pulled up in front of Madara, arms crossed, hip cocked, and eyes narrowed on him.
"This morning we spar," said Madara.
Haruno's eyes were flinty behind his full-face scarf-wrap.
Madara didn't bother to hide his smirk.
"You need to get closer if we're to fight," called Madara.
To his right the sun had begun to rise and around them the camp woke, soldiers darting here and there in teams to collect food to cook, water for washing and captains were convening with the commanders from the night before for their orders.
Across the training ground, Haruno stood still, giving no sign he had even heard Madara.
"Can you hear me from so far away, Haruno?"
If he didn't miss his guess, he was sure Haruno had just sighed.
Swallowing his impatience Madara folded his arms in front of him and stepped closer to Haruno.
"You aren't afraid of me," he said.
"You genuinely care for the wellbeing of those around you," he added. He'd cut the distance in half by now.
"I think you do hold a modicum of respect for me," he said, watching Haruno carefully for any reaction. "But only in relation to my motivations for holding you captive. My brother."
He stood within arm's reach of Haruno. The young medic looked up at him, arms dangling at his sides, his feet planted.
Madara let him look his fill. He was patient. He took his own time to study the pink-lashed, emerald eyes that had fascinated him upon their first meeting.
"You will never control me through him," said Madara, lowering his voice. "Re-think your strategy."
He leaned forward and smirked at Haruno, who glared at him.
"Also, I know your little secret," he smirked.
Madara felt the vibrations through his boots and his eyes gleamed.
"Ready to play?" he taunted, stepping into Haruno's personal space.
He chuckled as the medic tucked and dove away from him after taking a swipe at him before giving chase.
By the end of their spar—he refused to lower it to a chase as technically Haruno had occasionally fought back—Madara had a much better understanding of how the Leaf had remained undisturbed by Shimura's forces for so long.
They were untouchable.
That very morning Madara called his captains again and laid out his plans; and on the training grounds he called Haruno, Kakashi and the rest of the Leaf to come and lead.
Leading by example, Madara joined in.
Somehow his plans were hijacked, however, when his turn arrived to spar and instead of facing Haruno he was met with the quickly-becoming-infuriating smile of Kakashi.
"Yo," greeted Kakashi.
"Hn," said Madara.
Haruno had moved two groups over.
That was fine. He would learn from Kakashi for now and slide into Haruno's group again later.
Yet Haruno evaded him all afternoon.
"Why are you sulking?" asked Izuna at dinner that night.
"Hn," grumped Madara at his bowl of stew. Izuna's senses had flourished while he'd been without his sight; and it appeared they'd sharpened further now that he had it back.
Izuna shook his head and returned to his meal.
There was still tomorrow, mused Madara. They had one more day to train and practice before they would engage Shimura.
But first he had to engage Haruno.
All the next day the troops trained while the captains reviewed the strategy until Madara was satisfied.
Then he released everyone for the evening meal before setting out on his own mission.
Tonight. It would be tonight.
He'd barely seen hide or hair of Haruno all day; but he would have to eat sometime.
And Madara had been explicit in his orders that no one was to offer food or let Haruno eat that night.
If the medic wanted sustenance, he would have to depend on, and trust, Madara.
(And beg for it.)
Collecting two meals and wrapping them snugly before setting them in his bag, Madara caught himself humming before he swallowed the sound.
In their shared tent, Izuna's brows hid under his hairline, his eyes and mouth gaping wide.
Madara cleared his throat, nodded at him, and left.
"Just missed him, sir."
"Healed the last patient to completion; you'll have another twenty men and women out there on the battleground, sir! Great news about Haruno, isn't it? He's quite the healer"
"Haven't seen him. Did he finish up with the med transport?"
Blowing out hard through his nose, Madara quickened his pace after the seventh 'no'.
Where was he?
The camp wasn't that big. He'd crossed it twice now.
"Something the matter, General?" asked Kakashi as Madara turned to the Leaf quadrant of his war camp. In his tent Kakashi sat cross-legged atop his bedroll, a now-familiar scroll across his lap. Madara refused to acknowledge the lewd illustrations and instead slapped the tent flap shut behind him, cornering Kakashi.
"Where is Haruno?" he demanded in a low voice.
"Did you lose him again? Well, he is short. That is unfortunate—"
Fed up, Madara seized Kakashi by the throat, his eyes burning. His fingers squeezed as he dragged the too-calm man closer, the scroll tumbling to the ground. "Where is Harun—"
The blades of twin daggers swept across the exposed skin of Madara's pale throat and he felt wetness dampen his collarbone.
He huffed lightly and turned toward the new voice.
Hard green eyes met his, unwavering, unflinching, unyielding. These were the eyes of a warrior, a leader who had given life and taken it away. These were the eyes that had captivated him that first night and refused to let him go.
Pleased that his ploy had drawn her out, Madara rolled his shoulders back and stood tall, releasing Kakashi and shoving him away.
The blades remained at his throat and Madara smirked.
"You want us to get rid of Shimura for you; you won't jeopardize that now," he said, smug.
"I don't need you," said Haruno. She tilted the blade of the first dagger, drawing more blood to make her point. "But you need me."
"Why do you hide yourself?"
"That is none of your business. If I catch you mistreating one of my men again, it will be for the last time."
Drawing back her blades, she wiped them on the inside trim of her black robe before re-sheathing them.
"Leave," she commanded. "You have what you wanted."
"But I don't," he said smoothly.
At their side, Kakashi had risen to his feet and stayed within half a foot of Haruno. No longer was the silver-haired man relaxed and casually aloof, but instead his rangy body protected his superior from possible attack from the rear while leaving her room to attack from the front; and she hadn't moved at all. This pair was used to fighting together.
Something in Madara's chest twisted at the obvious trust between them, and left a bitterness on his tongue.
"What is your name?" asked Madara.
"Haruno," said Kakashi.
He shook his head, long dark hair tumbling between his shoulder blades as he held Haruno's gaze. "Your proper name. And your face." Madara smirked. "I like to be able to recognize my allies—and enemies—on and off the battlefield."
"We are neither," she said, her arms loose at her sides again.
Then, to everyone's surprise, her hands began to glow. With a last look at Madara she held his eyes and turned, taking a lover's embrace around Kakashi. She arched her back, pressing against him as she wrapped her hands around his neck and began healing his throat where Madara had grabbed him.
"We're done here," she said sweetly to Madara, still holding his furious gaze.
His lips pressed so tightly together they turned white, Madara breathed deeply a moment before calming his rapid heartbeat.
His hands clenched around his bag. "You don't eat unless you join me."
"I have plenty to satisfy me here," she replied, turning away from him to nibble at the underside of Kakashi's clothed jaw. Kakashi's right hand slipped around her waist and swept up her back, holding her closer while Kakashi glared at Madara.
When she turned back again to gauge Madara's reaction, he'd disappeared. The tent flap blew lightly in the breeze.
In her arms, Kakashi sighed.
"One of these days that isn't going to work," he said, shaking his head. He released her.
"Lift the scarf so I can check the skin," said Haruno Sakura, ignoring him. "And he's the least of my problems."
Sakura narrowed her eyes at Kakashi as he unwrapped the bottom of his scarf. "Don't be like that."
"Like what?" he asked innocently.
It was Sakura's turn to sigh.
"Like I have many choices."
"He isn't the only one to worry about."
Sakura quirked a brow at her former teacher.
"Izuna," he said.
"He has no idea I'm a woman."
"No, but if he learns, then he will become more protective of you especially with regards to his brother."
Sakura examined Kakashi's throat and gestured for him to re-wrap himself. "We have no need of any of them once we reach Shimura Danzou."
"And what of Izuna's offer?"
"Rejected," said Sakura after a moment.
"He would be a nice political hostage," said Kakashi.
"Definitely better than the last one," chuckled Sakura, her shoulders finally relaxing.
She stepped back from Kakashi and stretched her arms over her head as she looked around his tent. "Got anything to eat?"
Her back was to him as she asked, though, so she missed the look of concern he gave her.
Beneath her scarf Sakura swallowed the last bite of her wax apple before skidding to a stop outside her tent.
Or rather, where her tent had been.
Her jaw clicked to the side at Madara's childish, possessive antics.
Sakura forced down her irritation as Izuna came forward.
"Your tent was in need of repairs. My brother arranged for you to stay with us this evening. He also had some questions for you… but… if you aren't in the mood to answer… perhaps… can you write?"
How had Madara ended up with such a pure sweetheart of a brother as Izuna?
He didn't deserve him.
Perhaps she would take Izuna from him, then. As payback. And to protect his innocence forever.
With a curt nod she followed Izuna back to his tent. Izuna kept up a gentle stream of conversation along the way. It left plenty of time for Sakura to consider her options.
Perhaps she could lay a stream of sugar leading from the ground into Madara's sleeping bag? For who wouldn't enjoy ants in their pants the night before battle…
The battle was as ugly as Madara anticipated.
He was, on more than one occasion, unspeakably grateful to Tsunade for loaning him her troops, and especially her medics.
As another volley of archers released their fletched arrows upon his troops, Madara filled his lungs; fire exploded from his lips as he exhaled, reducing the arrows to ash and providing cover to his advancing forces.
After the shenanigans he'd pulled the night before, he certainly hadn't expected the support from Sakura he'd received.
When one of Shimura's spies had snuck in between his men to attempt to stab him in the back, Sakura had been there to snap the intrepid man's neck, never faltering in her race to the front lines to collect more wounded.
When Shimura had planted bombs in the earth set to explode as they neared, who should bash the rocky steppes and drop them down into Hell's seven realms but Sakura with an earth-shattering punch.
When Izuna was pulled from his horse, separated from Madara during a skirmish, who should rise above the churning mass of uniformed soldiers but Sakura, yanking Izuna to his feet and throwing him free of the fray while she doubled-back to hold off the rest, Kakashi quickly appearing at her side.
This single woman was making the difference in battle he'd been searching for. Whenever he saw her his interest renewed and deepened into something far stronger than respect.
With a final push Madara caught sight of Shimura Danzou, barely a dozen yards away.
His dark eyes bled red as he raised his sword, intent on finally killing the man who'd thwarted him for nearly a year—
—only to see Shimura's old, bandaged head tumble from his shoulders before his body followed off his horse, soon trampled beneath the onslaught of soldiers.
Madara squinted to get a better look; there, behind Shimura; there was a flash of pink and silver before the pair disappeared into the rocky steppes once more.
His insides curdled.
He swung around on his warhorse and looked around.
Suddenly there was no sign of the Leaf around them.
He gave his war-cry and sent his hawk to circle above him to signal his victory.
Elation, relief, excitement and anticipation warred with disbelief, confusion, and dissatisfaction.
His time had come.
Finally, they would return to the capitol.
He would rule.
… and he would give up his brother to the Leaf.
"Hurry," gasped Sakura, pushing harder as her elite forces gathered around her. Atop their horses they raced across the plaines towards the steppes again.
"There was no sign of treason in his notes or papers," advised her blond friend, Ino.
Sakura shook her head, eyes narrow. "He left at least twenty of his 'most trusted' people outside the mountain pass. He expected us to double-cross him and he was going to double-cross us and torch Leaf." She tightened her grip on her horse's reins. "And who knows what surprises Danzou sent our way while we were forced to play nice for the Uchiha," she spat.
"It will take time for him to move as quickly as we can," said Kakashi, as always at Sakura's side. "And he has many war machines and wagons to tote. We're far more agile." His voice softened. "Tsunade can handle things."
Sakura leaned forward, squeezing her steed faster. The twisting in her gut refused to loosen. The mists would only protect the Leaf for so long if one was truly determined to reach it.
They continued on, stopping only to rest their horses and relieve themselves.
They were clearing the mountain pass—noting no sign of the Uchiha outside their hoofprints in the softer earth—when Kakashi shot forward, his sword raised.
Automatically responding, Sakura gallopped hell for leather after him before she, too, smelled it on the air.
Releasing a war-cry of her own, Sakura channelled her chakra through her horse, oxygenating the muscles and thunder roaring as its hooves pounded the ground, shattering the earth beneath them in her desperation.
Her eyes scanned the skies; which birds were flying that day? It was still too far to tell.
Coming up behind her Genma called, "Vultures!"
"Ravens?" she called back, to be sure.
He shook his head. "Definitely vultures!"
Gritting her teeth, Sakura snarled in her throat.
Ravens for Uchiha.
Vultures for Danzou.
Vultures had been released.
But where were the Uchiha?
She glanced at her faithful soldiers, exhausted from their battle and then their escape.
"We fight with you," snapped Ino, glaring at Sakura. "Don't even think about it."
What had she done to deserve such loyalty?
Sakura swallowed and turned back to the task at hand. Her face and shoulders set, she lifted her sword and filled her lungs.
"Onward!" roared Sakura, steadying her composure as they crested the hill that led to the village.
And in devastating formation they charged.
"Not a single one, sir," said Kubo. He kept his eyes averted as he stood at attention in Madara's war tent.
"How did they all disappear in the middle of battle?" asked Izuna.
"Not the middle; the end," said Madara softly as he paced the room. "They did not break formation until Shimura's head fell from his shoulders."
"They were formidable fighters, sir. Towards the end even their medics were on the offensive, and they were remarkably skilled. Not a single one had a mark on him that I could tell. Shimura's forces couldn't get close enough to touch them."
Madara nodded, and dismissed Kubo before taking a deep breath and releasing it.
He almost startled when he felt Izuna at his back.
"You're mooning over something."
"It feels anti-climactic. I had expected stronger opposition from Shimura Danzou after all this time."
Izuna patted him on the back and turned away to remove his now very-battered gauntlets and bracers when a messenger called in a rush from outside their tent.
"Enter!" cried Madara.
"Sir! Word from the contingent left to protect the Leaf; they're surrounded by a split faction of Shimura Danzou's forces. They said the Leaf is burning."
Izuna spun on his heel and stared at his brother, but Madara was already strapping his boots on again.
"How many?" he asked, ignoring the pain in his forearm where one of Shimura's many nameless soldiers had taken advantage of an opening when Madara had carried a wounded soldier back to the field hospital.
"At least fifty, though there could be more lying in wait."
"Do you remember the way back?" Madara asked Izuna. Izuna nodded. "Send word to all squadrons immediately. The wounded are to be tended first, properly cared for and protected. Reserves are to be left as well; once secure, the caravan is to head to the capitol as quickly as possible."
Madara threw open a nearby chest and grabbed for his spare weapons; many of his current ones were heavily damaged from the battle.
"The remaining soldiers, if willing, are to join us with a bare minimum of supplies for a support mission." Madara straightened, and Izuna came up beside him with his own pack ready. "We leave in one hour from the stables to aid Leaf."
The messenger nodded. "Yes, sir."
"Is an hour enough time?" asked Izuna as they made their way to the make-shift stables to see which of their horses would be ready to ride.
"It will have to be," said Madara, already feeling like it was too long to wait.
On instinct Madara paused a moment at the aviary wagon before they reached the stables. To Madara's surprise, far more men and women than expected turned up.
"Sir, if Haruno or his village are in trouble, we volunteer."
A groupwide cheer of support resounded. Madara noted the many, formerly injured or wounded, men and women standing before him and understood where this dedication was born.
"Take fresh horses only," he ordered. "No one rides their mount into the ground. Check their shoes before you saddle up. The terrain will be rocky."
Sakura's heart pounded as she finally cut through Shimura's men and reached her mentor in the temple chambers.
It was too late, however.
"Stop that," wheezed Tsunade as Sakura fell to her knees at her side, hands glowing. Tsunade lifted a bruised arm and Sakura clutched it to her, swallowing and refusing to choke on the emotion swelling in her chest.
"Turn off the chakra, Sakura. You'll need it for the others. You've been in charge for a long time now. The good news is that that was the worst of them. Now that you and Kakashi are back, the rest will fall quickly."
"They did," agreed Sakura, swallowing and swallowing and unable to clear her throat. The glowing of her hands faded, changing from fresh grass green to soothing cerulean blue.
"Good. Good girl, I knew you'd get 'em," chuckled Tsunade, closing her eyes. "That's better. You remembered what we spoke about?"
Sakura pressed her lips together and blinked her eyes to clear them.
Tsunade clasped her fingers around Sakura's and squeezed tepidly, then with more force.
"No suffering, Sakura," reminded Tsunade, voice strong, before she, too, was forced to clear her throat. "The oath. Heal when you can."
"Let no one suffer to death," said Sakura, voice thick.
A smile graced Tsunade's features, her life fading. "Exactly. I do not wish to leave that way.."
"You won't," said Sakura, as her chakra shifted one last time now that Tsunade had granted her permission.
"Chakra isn't inherently good or bad; always remember that medical chakra was fashioned to offer a peaceful end to someone's life on a battlefield or in their home. We figured out how to manipulate it to heal; and we're so fortunate for that," sighed Tsunade. "And I'm so proud of you, Sakura. You will lead Leaf for a good, long time."
Sakura brought Tsunade's weak hand to her forehead as she closed her eyes and mentally spoke the words she'd been forced to learn for exactly this purpose.
"I am so fortunate to have had a student like you," rattle-breathed Tsunade as Sakura's violet chakra enveloped her.
"I could never have had a better teacher," said Sakura, warmth flowing down her cheeks. "Thank you, master."
"Don't cry, my daughter. Now is the time you need to be strong. I go in peace, and in love."
Sakura swallowed and felt the shift in Tsunade's chakra as Tsunade accepted the exchange. "Go in peace, I send you with l-love," repeated Sakura, blowing out gently as if to extinguish a birthday candle.
And a heartbeat later, only one chakra signature remained in the temple.
The moment Madara and his reinforcements pierced the mist around Leaf, they sensed the wrongness.
"We're too late," murmured Izuna, horrified.
"Steady on," said Madara, slowing his pace and dismounting. He'd noticed immediately that no scouts had stopped or followed them from the pass. The birdsong and rustling leaves were silent.
No one had shown up, anywhere. The Leaf was open to attack.
The sky itself was overcast and shadowed their group.
Madara whistled, two short bursts, and his hawk alighted upon his shoulder from where she'd been surveying the silent site.
"Where are the rest of our clansmen?" he asked it, and sent it up with a toss of his wrist.
"There's been no communication for hours," said Izuna, his voice ghostly.
Madara's eyes strained and focused on the warbird; a moment later it gave a shrill cry and swooped lower.
"We continue on foot," said Madara.
"Should we send a scout ahead?" asked Kubo from behind him.
Madara shook his head. "We come in peace. We shall not ride in as if we are here to conquer."
Izuna looked at Madara with widening eyes. Then he smiled at his brother.
"Move out," commanded Madara, taking his horse's reins and leading him with a confident, if cautious, pace.
Behind them the rest of the reinforcements dismounted and followed.
The red gates, now charred black, lay discarded and crushed off to the side of the original entrance to the Leaf. The thriving, charming village he remembered from mere weeks ago was a mess of collapsed buildings and re-routed roads around rubble.
The heavens above the Uchiha opened, gently at first, then with more force, as Madara climbed the steps towards the only sound he could hear.
Sobbing. Wailing. Cloth brushing against cloth.
With the rain muffling their steps, Madara and the rest of his Uchiha clansmen came to a stop beneath the temple's awning. Inside the villagers clung to one another, eschewing the traditional rows of private mourning to share and support one another instead.
"...let us never forget the wise counsel which she taught us; let us continue to strive after lofty goals. Let us pass on our knowledge and lead by example. Let us join together as we say goodbye to a great leader, and welcome her successor with the Will that binds us all," Kakashi's voice carried through the temple's halls to all assembled, inside and out.
Madara stepped closer but dared not cross into the temple itself for such an occasion.
And it was there, for the first time, that he truly saw Sakura. His greedy eyes drank in her femininely cut robes and slight frame, her long cerise hair neatly pulled back in a queue, her pert nose and her sunken, dull eyes.
His heart squeezed in his chest at the lifelessness in her eyes.
Taking care not to touch any part of her with his bare hands, beside her Kakashi lifted the flowing white mantle and settled it around Sakura's shoulders before bestowing upon her sunset pink hair the ceremonial chapeau.
"Haruno Sakura, we the proud people of Leaf, honour you as you honour us," said Kakashi, his right hand fisted over his heart. The assembled repeated the words back.
Beside him Madara heard Izuna's quick intake of breath.
"I, Haruno Sakura, am proud to lead you in Leaf, and will honour you as you honour me," she replied, her voice strong and clear.
"We have a challenge ahead of us; one that we will overcome, and I believe, will solidify our ties to each other. While we lost a great deal," her voice thinned a moment before she continued. "We strive on."
Madara's mouth was dry. Beside him he heard his brother's rapid inhaling-exhaling as he realized what dragging Leaf into their own war had wrought.
"Let us show our respect to our new Hokage," called Kakashi, lifting his arms.
The villagers straightened, some still holding hands or each other, and as one they bowed to Sakura.
Without prompting, the Uchiha bowed from the waist outside the temple, beneath its awning, Izuna and Madara included.
Before the Leaf straightened the Uchiha disappeared from the temple's bounds, in search of their clansmen.
Finally the Uchiha located their missing countrymen surrounding an outbuilding. They bowed to Madara in the rain as he reached them.
"Are you outcast?" he asked, examining the structure.
The first clansmen he met shook his head. "No. We offered to remain here to monitor the prisoners so the Leaf could mourn in peace. It was the least we could do. Several teams are reinforcing or rebuilding homes, others are assisting with infrastructure and planning."
Madara nodded once.
"Do you have lodgings for yourselves?" he asked.
"We have our tents and what remains of our provisions. We rotate shifts so some rest while others work."
Madara approved of the strategy. "Where do you need reinforcements?"
"The civilians need the most assistance. They have the knowledge but need more hands."
"Good. Thank you."
This explained why he hadn't seen his clansmen upon arriving.
With that knowledge Madara divided his team into three units; one to rest, one to assist with civilian rebuilding, the other with civilian infrastructure.
Izuna he sent with the first group in spite of his protests.
"You need to rest; when it is my turn I need someone I trust available to guide the clan and speak for me."
Izuna's mouth opened with another retort before he saw something behind Madara and looked away, settling immediately.
Madara had already sensed her approach.
"Go rest," he directed Izuna, though his voice was gentler. With a final glance between his brother and Sakura, Izuna nodded and left.
With a subtle breath, Madara turned and bowed to Sakura.
"Hokage," he said.
At first he thought she returned to her previous habit of mute disgust, but then she took a breath of her own and shook her head at him.
"Why. Why did you come here? Why haven't you left? Why didn't you just send an envoy like Izuna so you could continue on to the capitol?" She lifted a hand to gesture but lost her conviction, too tired to fight him. "Why?"
Taking in their rather public surroundings, he raised a brow. "I will answer; is there a more private location?"
Sakura nodded and walked past him, her shoulders heavy beneath her mantle. "This way."
In her own home which had survived mostly unscathed, Sakura hung her mantle and hat on a hook on the wall meant for her coat. She sat on the futon on the floor, Madara loosening his armour and kneeling across from her.
"You may take it off, if you feel this will take some time," she said, looking at his heavy iron-plated shirt with understanding. "Our people are working side-by-side; we will be safe enough." She pointed at a dresser. "I keep a spare stand behind it. It folds. It is old, but reliable."
"If my armour can withstand this many battles, it will survive a potential drop on the floor, even if the stand tips," said Madara, and Sakura's expression softened.
He collected the stand and hung his armour on it, then joined her again.
"What did you want to say that was so private? I assure you, no one in Leaf is interested in stealing a march on you. We are focused on rebuilding ourselves," said Sakura tiredly.
"You took the time to find me personally when your village is in ruins and your people need you most. What do you want to speak to me about?"
Sakura sighed and closed her sunken eyes.
"Does Izuna's promise still stand?"
Her sagging shoulders as she leaned against the wall, her stress-lined face, her weary voice. Everything conveyed how much their 'alliance' had cost her.
"Yes," he said. "Izuna may have offered out of repentance, but I offer it in good faith. While I am in power, the Leaf is a free territory so long as it does not move against the Uchiha or the realm." He offered a faint smirk. "I won't even tax you."
Sakura's brow tightened before it relaxed, and she chuckled. "What a relief..."
Her eyes had yet to re-open, and her breathing deepened.
"You're too trusting," he remarked.
"Kakashi will have your head on a pike if you step out of line," Sakura drawled.
Madara tasted bitterness on his tongue again.
"You trust him."
"Of course I do."
"Who else do you trust?"
Sakura listed a bit to the side as she shifted, trying to find a more comfortable spot.
"As a whole?" he asked in dry tones.
"Yes," she murmured, slipping down the wall little by little.
"You're falling asleep with a strange man in your room," he said, amused.
"According to Izuna you're too careful to risk an illicit bastard child. You're harmless to me," she said, her chuckle morphing into a yawn.
"You and Izuna discussed me?"
"He did. He looks up to you, you know... You should set a better example." By now she had slid to her side, huddled on her shoulder awkwardly and not even bothering to pull up her blankets.
"How long have you been awake?" he asked, concern leaking into his tone.
"When did you last sleep?"
"Hm… The night before you took away my tent... and made me sleep in yours."
"...That's over a week..."
"Yes, you rotten, possessive... jealous… stupid... donkey. A week... Now make yourself useful and go… something…"
Sakura's words trailed off and her breathing evened out even as she argued with Madara.
Too bemused for words, Madara found himself watching her sleep even an hour later. He'd originally just wanted to see if she was conning him into leaving; but the longer he stayed, the longer he realized she was genuinely exhausted. Her chakra pathways were erratic during that first hour as they tried to figure out what to do with themselves now that their owner had finally put her body down to sleep for the first time in days. After a moment of deliberation he rose to his feet, unsurprised to feel a presence immediately behind him.
"I'm covering her up with a blanket," said Madara calmly.
"Ah. Let me help you; there is the door," said Kakashi, switching their positions so he stood between Sakura and Madara. "Have a good evening."
Kakashi's back faced Madara while he tucked Sakura in with efficient, yet tender movements, effectively blocking Madara from reaching Sakura.
The bitterness spread from Madara's mouth through his throat and down into his gut.
"You dote on each other," remarked Madara.
Kakashi made a middling noise in his throat, neither yes nor no. His eyes remained on Sakura.
"What is she to you?" Madara asked bluntly, his hands crossing over his chest.
Kakashi didn't turn away from Sakura.
"She is a lifetime," said Kakashi after a moment. He looked over his shoulder. "She needs to rest."
Madara let out the breath he'd been unconsciously holding, turning to the door. "Shouldn't you go, too?"
"I will. In time," said Kakashi, pulling up a worn wooden stool to Sakura's bedside. "I can sleep with my eyes open," he said cheerfully.
Watching over her, realized Madara. The man was so dedicated he wouldn't even leave her side when she slept.
Madara closed the door softly behind him, while Kakashi, elbows tucked into his sides, arms crossed, body hunched over as he leaned against the wall, looked fondly down at Sakura.
Outside in the rain once more, Madara swallowed the bitterness down and set to work.
"No," said Izuna as Madara woke inside their shared tent a day or so later. "She hasn't asked for you. Kakashi said she is very busy with the rebuilding. He is easier to reach than she is."
"I hadn't asked," replied Madara, pushing back the covers and swinging his feet around to pull on his trousers, then his second undershirt and robes. He waited, though, his ears open for the slightest change in Izuna's breathing to indicate he would continue.
A soft inhale. Madara hid his smile as he leaned forward and tightened his boots.
"She declined me saying here," said Izuna quietly, voice low.
Surprised, but not very, Madara nodded.
"Then you return to the capitol with me. I will need your help," said Madara, firm and confident. "You can do more help there than here."
Izuna pressed his lips together and nodded, looking at the ground.
Watching his younger brother, Madara's eyes softened though he pretended he didn't know why his brother was downcast.
"I see you've bathed. Taking after the Leaf, now?"
Izuna forced a smile. "Well, we're all smelling better at any rate. You should try it," he joked.
Madara's brows dipped. "I don't smell."
Subtly he sniffed. Well, there were always areas to be improved, but it wasn't that noticeable… was it?
Izuna gave him a cheeky grin. "Perhaps there's a reason you haven't had anyone warming your bed outside your usual pickiness." He snickered as Madara glared at him. "There's a public bathhouse. We fixed the pipes and the boilers. It is free to all in the spirit of public sanitation."
Izuna's shoulders relaxed. "They have soap and towels, too."
Madara tightened the belt around himself and studied his armour in silence.
"The other Uchiha are making use of the bathhouse?" he asked.
"Extensively. They're all trying to decide who gets to approach you first to request their construction in the capitol when we return."
Madara narrowed his eyes as he looked at Izuna over his shoulder.
"So you'll think about it?" continued Izuna hopefully.
"Since you know all about this fantastic bathhouse, you'll have to show me where it is," ordered Madara.
Izuna's grin widened.
After seeing the mess his pre-soaking scrub-down left on the tiled floor of the pre-wash room, Madara almost apologized to the bathhouse staff who cleaned up after him. They laughed, though, and told him to go relax before thanking him for his clan's assistance during the rebuilding.
With his ears warm and his towel—shorter than he would have normally liked—snug around his trim hips, he nodded and walked across the cedar planking to the steaming mineral baths. There were several large pools of varying depths; the fathers with young children soaked in the shallower pool while the adult men relaxed up to their chins in the deeper pools. Through the steamy room Madara heard the echo of female laughter and remembered the ladies' section was built along the opposite wall.
"It's a hot spring," said Izuna when Madara joined him in the deepest pool, away from many other bathers. The citizens nodded respectfully to the pair as Madara entered the water. Madara nodded in return.
"This area is built on hot springs?"
Izuna hnnn'd. "Very useful. The steam is used to power certain facilities, too."
Madara nodded as he sat on the submerged bench, leaning his head back and closing his eyes as the perfectly heated water surrounded him. His muscles, tense from long use and exhaustion, loosened their knots the longer he sat.
Hn. Yes. He would definitely build bathhouses when they returned to his capitol.
Madara let his mind drift as the steam filled his lungs and the echoes around him bounced off one another in a kind of ambient background noise. The waterfall nearby, natural as far as he could tell, gurgled gently as it poured into the pool.
The women's section sounded less busy than the men's he distantly noted. Or perhaps they were just further apart than he'd originally understood.
Until he heard a certain voice.
"You don't need to move out of the way," she said.
"Please relax at your leisure, Hokage," said another female voice. Older, more mature. "Our patrons are happy to make room for you. You've been working so hard. Please take a moment for yourself."
In his shared pool Madara forced his expression to remain unchanged. Her voice had been so close.
Irritation crept across Madara's shoulders.
He opened one eye to find Kakashi smiling at him… from behind his damned mask.
"Hn." He closed his eye again.
"Fancy meeting you here," said Kakashi.
Madara heard the shuffling, rustling of paper and recognized the sound of Kakashi's reading material of choice.
"Good afternoon, Kakashi," said Izuna.
"Good afternoon, Izuna," said Kakashi. "Your fingers are going to prune if you stay in the water too long."
Izuna laughed beside Madara. "I'm introducing my brother to the benefits of the bathhouse."
"Ah. A wise endeavour. Do you have bathhouses in your capitol?"
"Not yet. I'm hoping to convince him to construct one when we go back."
Izuna nodded. "Hn. Haruno—that is, the Hokage—declined my request to stay."
Madara heard the change in tone and could have cursed Kakashi. He'd been trying to distract his brother from Sakura's dismissal.
"When do you return? You can't spend much longer here, I suppose. Your new realm needs you after all. It's everything you worked for."
"Yes," said Izuna, sighing.
Kakashi's tone shifted. "Ah… Perhaps you could show me on this map how big your kingdom is?"
Madara, eyes still closed, listened as Kakashi unfurled more of the scroll. Did the man keep a bag of them on him even in the bathhouse?
"Here," said Kakashi, stretching the scroll across the cedar planking walkway after wiping a towel across it to dry up any moisture. "Show me."
And so they went on. Gradually Madara tuned them out as he focused his hearing in another direction.
"—I order you to sit with me."
Feminine laughter. "I'm coming. Lonely at the top?"
Sakura sighed. "I hadn't realized it would be this bad. I suppose she always had me…"
"C'mere," sighed the other woman, the water lapping softly. "Shuffle over."
"—through this flange on the left, stretching the top to the bottom; then continuing down the other flange, from the top to the bottom," explained Kakashi to Izuna.
"Ah, like a vertical mouth?" asked Izuna.
"Er, exactly," said Kakashi with a moment of hesitation. "Ah, and this uh, bud at the top was our central command, where we always try our best to stand up… You… you've never seen a formation like this?"
"Hn? No. Is it common for Leaf to attack in this formation? What do you call it? I don't recognize this character written above it…" Izuna hnn'd in his throat again, leaning over the edge of the pool to stare harder at the map with Kakashi's drawing. "Does this say, 'clitor—'"
Madara's attention snapped to Kakashi as his eyes flew open and he glared at the silver-haired man corrupting his innocent little brother.
"Ah-haha, it's… it's best forgotten," said Kakashi, rolling up the scroll again and rubbing at the back of his head while Madara glared at him and nodded once in warning.
Kakashi swallowed. "So Izuna, have you met any of our lovely civilians yet? A few were asking about you…"
"No, I haven't. I've been working alternating shifts from my brother so I haven't had any free time. I had hoped…" Izuna sighed forlornly.
Madara wanted to punch Kakashi.
"I'm sure we'll have a big party before you leave so you can make some friends," assured Kakashi.
Madara took a deep breath and let it out slowly, settling back and closing his eyes again. His back and shoulders were tense again.
"And I'm sure our Hokage has a special thank you for you and your brother planned. You've done a great deal to help her, and she likes to publically recognize hard work."
"Suggestions? I'm so tired I can barely think straight."
"You're doing a great job, and Kakashi is doing his best to help you, too. He's putting the Uchiha to good use. Which reminds me, if you wouldn't mind steering one of those brothers my way, I'd love to thank them personally."
"Hands off Izuna. He's too pure," grumbled Sakura.
Madara's heart thumped harder.
"And as for the older.." Sakura's voice lowered, softening and turning cautious.
Madara strained his hearing.
"When are you leaving, Madara?" asked Kakashi.
"... just think it's a bad idea… bad time to be making decisions like that… have to think of the political repercussions…"
"Your capitol is waiting, after all," said Kakashi.
"... you know I support your decisions, Sakura… no matter what… perhaps not an alliance, then, but don't rule out the short term possibilities…"
Water splashed against Madara's face and he startled, glaring at Kakashi.
"Oops, I thought you fell asleep! Just making sure," he smiled back at Madara's molten glare.
"... suppose it is time to go," sighed Sakura. "Back to work!"
"I'll join you. Kakashi's around here somewhere too, I take it?"
Ino laughed while Sakura groaned good naturedly.
"Looks like my time's up," said Kakashi, standing and letting his bath water sluice and fall onto Madara as he climbed out uncomfortably close to him. "Have a good day!"
"Nice talking to you!" called Izuna.
"Anytime!" said Kakashi with a wave.
"Kakashi's a good guy, huh?" said Izuna, watching Kakashi walk away.
"Hn," growled Madara, before dunking his head under the water. There was no way he could sit still after Kakashi's thigh-drippings doused him. Who knew where he'd…
Madara's jaw clenched.
Once more, there was the bitterness, his old friend...
For several more days the Uchiha remained within Leaf, however Madara knew he could not prolong their stay beyond that. His hawk had relayed messages to him from his troops; they were well on their way back to the capitol and were receiving missives from his advisors there requiring his direction. They couldn't put them off much longer.
The good news was that the worst of the village's damage had been cleared and repaired. With the Uchiha's help, Leaf had the extra manpower it needed to rebuild while still functioning. Artistic touches would be completed by artisans in time, yet the majority of the village was functional again in as much, if not better, capacity as before.
Through the process Madara had taken notes and listened to the meetings taking place between Sakura and her advisors, learning as much as he could and offering suggestions from the institutions and towns he'd visited through his travels. Leaf now blossomed in a very modern direction while maintaining its charm and peace.
In a way, if he were being honest with himself he didn't want to leave. He wanted to see what would happen; how it would develop next. How its people would live and thrive. How Sakura would lead.
He cleared his throat as he stepped away from the view of the village from high upon the cliffs surrounding it.
His own people needed him. This was not his place. This was hers.
She was the authority here, not him.
And that was why he had one last request for her.
Kakashi answered the door to Sakura's official workspace. With the worst of the damage repaired she had resettled in Tsunade's old quarters and office, which were far more private than hers.
"I request an audience with the Hokage," said Madara.
The door edged closed until Madara jammed his foot in it and glared at Kakashi.
"Who is it?" called Sakura from behind Kakashi.
Madara cleared his throat.
"Mr Lice," said Kakashi, smiling.
"Kakashi," sighed Sakura. "Cut that out and show him in."
Snapping his jaw shut—they didn't really call him that, surely?—Madara strode through the doorway, brushing past Kakashi.
"What is it this time? I told you to go see the medical staff about… Madara?" Sakura's brow furrowed as she looked past him to Kakashi. "Not funny," she said to Kakashi, who tittered behind his mask.
"But your frustrated face is so cute!"
"You've been reading garbage again," she said, shaking her head. "Go home."
Kakashi's amused mien sobered, his eyes flicking to Madara. "I don't think you should be working on your own so late with things as they are."
"That was an order," said Sakura, standing behind her desk and holding Kakashi's overprotective gaze. Her palms were planted down on the desktop so like her former mentor's that Kakashi was taken aback for a moment.
The tension between Sakura and Kakashi shot through the room, some of Sakura's chakra leaking through to electrify the air. Madara felt it prickle along the ends of the hair on his arms and head and enjoyed the shiver that ran down in spine in reaction. Her strength was magnificent; her confidence enticing. He pressed his fingers into his outer thighs a moment to ground himself and clear his head. This wasn't what he came here for.
Behind him he heard Kakashi's low exhale.
"As you wish," said Kakashi after a long moment. He bowed to Sakura and left, closing the door behind him.
Sakura and Madara were left alone in the room.
Sakura looked at him before gesturing to a seat. "Please," she said, composing herself as she sat down. "What can I do for you?"
"You have already done more than I shall ever be able to repay," said Madara.
Sakura let out a low huff. "We rid ourselves of a mutual problem. There is no debt." Her shoulders sagged. "Go in peace, General. Please," she added, softer.
He watched her, the tension that still lined her face in spite of her relaxed shoulders.
"I owe you a life debt. The person you treasured most," he said, and saw the dull flatness in her eyes shift to something hard, then shining as she shook her head once. "I would like to ask a favour of you, to return a life to you for safekeeping."
She swallowed, her lips pressed together.
"When I leave here with my clansmen, we head straight to the capitol. My capitol," he said, voice steady as he held her gaze. "I am taking over not a village, but a kingdom. An empire. Already the odds are stacked against me; but they are stacked worse against Izuna. Advisors, sycophants, cheats and criminals will be focusing on me and what they perceive to be my weakest link. My greatest strength. My most precious weakness," he said, swallowing.
Sakura's chest rose and fell as he listened.
"I… beg of you, Hokage. Please let him stay here. Let him remain innocent. Let him continue to live a life without treachery." Madara stood, slowly, and backed away to the space between the chairs before Sakura's great desk.
"You know why I said no," she said, shaking her head.
"He is young, and sheltered. He will outgrow it," said Madara as Sakura pressed her hands together. "Give him time. He will be a great asset to the Leaf."
Uncertainty furrowed Sakura's brow. Madara knew what he had to do.
With that, the leader of the empire sank to his knees, posture as straight as the tallest tree, before pressing his forehead to the polished wooden floor,
"Please consider this a request from your neighbouring king, my queen."
Her short gasp shot through him, but he did not move.
"Get up," she commanded.
He remained where he was, unmoving.
He breathed in and out as he kowtowed to her.
He hoped he was doing it properly, as he'd never kowtowed to anyone.
Her desk thumped and screeched on the wooden floor as she shoved it out of her way.
"You can't ask this of me. He is Uchiha, not Leaf."
Sakura grabbed his shoulders and shook him.
"He is your brother," she said, sinking down beside him. "He is your kin."
Madara let his body fall into a meditative state.
Sakura slapped shoved at his back as she slumped down fully.
"He is your only kin," she said softly. "I can't take that away from you. He's all you've ever worked for. You united a kingdom so he could live in peace. You kidnapped a medic with no regard for your personal safety in order to give him a chance to see. You don't even dare share your bed for fear you'll have an unwanted heir from someone who would try to manipulate you into forcing him out of your life."
She sighed. "He can't be my responsibility, General. I would never be able to do as good a job with him as you have," she said, her fingers unconsciously tangling in his hair. "He's too pure. The gods only know how you managed it," she said with an indignant huff. "Since you're hardly the best example. But you did. You should continue that."
Her fingers played with the ends of his hair, soon sweeping higher as she finger-combed through it, calming herself through her ministrations.
She sighed again as they engaged in their peaceful stand-off.
"... What do I get out of it if I do?" she eventually asked, biting her lip.
Madara's heart picked up.
The bathhouse was deserted when they entered; as it should be, since it was well after midnight and closed.
They bypassed the scrubbing rooms. Sakura led Madara by the hand to the women's pools which were surrounded by lush plants and greenery.
"Our side is sparser," he remarked, tugging her gently to a stop and turning her in his arms. He trailed a hand down her neck to her shoulder while she looked up at him with soft eyes.
"It's meant to be. There was a problem with peeping; Tsunade originally dealt with it by force, but it became too costly to keep repairing. So we removed the decorations on the men's side to make it easier to catch them, and added the plants here to provide more privacy," she said. She looked up at his lips, her cheeks flushing. "What do you think?"
His heart pounding a steady, heady drum, Madara closed the distance between them so they stood chest to chest. "I approve of all I see," he said. His hand swept up and curled in her hair before tilting her head up. He gazed at her lips in return. "May I?"
"Yes," she said, her fingers digging into his robes to pull him even closer.
His lips slanted over hers gently, then more adamantly as her arms reached behind his neck and yanked him down to her level. With a soft moan he closed his eyes and settled his hands on the swell of her hips, squeezing her firm body with his broad hands.
"Not sharing you with Kakashi," he growled possessively as he kissed down her cheeks to her throat.
To his surprise she giggled. "He's my old teacher," she said, kissing his earlobe; before setting his blood afire with a sweet nibble. He swallowed his moan as shivers tickled between his shoulder blades.
"He's a naughty man. You called me a bad influence," said Madara, loosening the belt around Sakura's robes.
"Mmm, and you've never enjoyed one of those stories, during all your lonely travels?" she teased, slipping her hand into his loosened trousers to cup him.
The delicate, yet confident touch had Madara sucking in his breath as he bent forward in reaction. His forehead rested against hers as he instinctively rocked into her welcoming palm, seeking pressure and friction and—
He groaned aloud lustily; then his eyes and jaw clenched tighter at his hissed inhale.
—yes, just like that.
"No," he grit out between his teeth, as her warm breath fanned over his now-exposed collarbone. Her little fingers were quick and adept in their mission to undress him, and he quickly grew hard under her attentions.
"Hmm. I did," she said, smirking at him. Sakura topped it off with a wink as she pushed Madara's robe down his shoulders. He released her long enough for it to fall to the floor behind them with a whisper before backing her up against one of the benches.
"What was your favourite part?" he asked, making short work of the ties of her robe before peeling it from her body to hang open before him, tantalising him with its promising gap and hint of rounded breast. She wore nothing beneath her robes.
"The anticipation," she breathed as Madara's Adam's apple bobbed in his throat.
She planned this. With him? With someone else?
The bitterness seeped onto the tip of his tongue as he imagined her preparing herself for another man, for he was as she'd said, overprotective and possessive.
"Tonight you think only of me," he said against her lips, passion and violence burning in the wake of his words.
"I've thought only of you since the moment I figured out why you kidnapped me," she said, and squeezed him. Then he saw the blush form on her cheeks. "You aren't an easy man to disregard," she added ruefully.
Her words brought a smirk to his lips as he drew back her robes to drop them to the floor, baring her to him. She reciprocated by loosening his trousers and slipping them down his hips and thighs to follow.
"Why did you wait?" he asked softly, stroking her back.
"Izuna said you were discreet and didn't often take a mate," she said.
He shook his head. "I don't."
Sakura looked up and met his eyes as Madara maneuvered her down onto the bench before he knelt between her knees and spread them wide.
Sakura's breathing hitched.
"You know what it does to me when you're on your knees before me," she whispered breathily, her flushed chest rising and falling faster.
He didn't bother muting his smirk as he leaned forward, his callused fingers sweeping over the sensitive skin of her inner thighs and he blew warmth over her glistening core. Sakura's squirming hips licked his preening ego and he felt his hardness bounce against his toned abdomen in excitement. Beside them Sakura dug her fingers into the cedar bench restlessly.
With a low chuckle, Madara held her gaze as he dipped his head low and replied, "I do."
Then he relished the feel of her fingers tight in his hair as he kissed her passionately until she screamed his name.
Madara's hair dripped down his face as he clenched his eyes shut and bit the inside of his cheek to stifle his grunt. Shuddering, he pulled out of Sakura's velvet grip just in time to explode across her fluttering tummy, his thumb still engaged in bringing her to vocal climax.
Well, just in time he hoped; it happened so quickly… with her everything had been surprising in its intensity and liberation and…
He shuddered again as he continued in spurts, letting the vulnerability finally take him over. Even his jaw quivered.
He distantly recognized the welts in his back as painful, but in the throes of their worship of one another he'd vehemently encouraged Sakura's passion. A part of him hoped they scarred.
Never had he been so demanding, or giving.
Never had he cared so much for his partner's pleasure and satisfaction.
Never had he wished for another night, another week or month or year, with anyone.
Never before had he wanted so much for himself.
Sakura's arms wrapped around his neck and drew him down for another long, languorous kiss of appreciation.
"When do you need to leave?" she asked sleepily.
Resting his forehead in the crook of Sakura's neck, Madara let out his deep breath.
Too soon, he thought.
A handful of heartbeats later he lifted Sakura in his arms and carried her back to the waters of the bathhouse. There they dozed in each other's arms in the languid, soothing spring until the first rays of morning brushed the village with its golden reach.
Far too soon, he thought with a pang in his chest as he kissed Sakura awake. A final round of sweetly shuddering surrender later and they exited the water, dressed, and parted ways in the street.
And Madara found he couldn't help injecting the kiss with every ounce of his affection, love and longing as they said goodbye. It left them both breathless.
It was time to go home.
Madara opened the flap of his tent to find Izuna packing their things into their travel trunk. Their escort had arrived at the mountain pass the day before and sent them provisions to make their packing easier.
Izuna's dark eyes were somber and shadowed that morning, and Madara's heart, already raw and worn, sighed.
"Stop," he said, stepping through and dropping the tent flap behind him.
"Hn? You're back!" Izuna's eyes widened, his mouth dropping open. "You… you were… with someone…" he said in dawning realization. "How? You haven't had time to meet anyone!"
Madara's eyes narrowed. "That is irrelevant." And private. And would only hurt Izuna. "I spoke to the Hokage. In exchange for continuing as a free territory, you are welcome to remain here. Transfer your things into a separate trunk," said Madara, moving to his section of the tent where he opened all the bags and trunks and set about unpacking Izuna's things. With efficient care he set them aside, separating them from his own.
Izuna stared at him, his mouth falling open again as he struggled to form words.
"Quickly," ordered Madara. "You will need to speak to Kakashi to make arrangements for living quarters and a role in the village."
His brother's silence concerned Madara, but he forged on, ruthless in his manner.
"You will be a representative of the Uchiha here in Leaf. My liaison with the Hokage," he said. "You will serve her and remain independent of her rule, though I expect you to show her the utmost respect at all times as due her station."
He cleared his throat, inspecting the possessions he'd separated before collecting his own and condensing them down into a single chest. The rest he left to Izuna to start his new life. He'd already sent a messenger to their escort to carry the rest of Izuna's things left at the Uchiha war-camp to the tent; they were due to arrive shortly.
"Do you have my spare brace of throwing knives?" he asked, not looking at Izuna.
"Izuna, do you…" Madara looked up to find his brother's eyes red-rimmed, wetness staining his cheeks.
Madara's heart slowed as he felt the creeping streams of guilt flood him.
And then, to Madara's surprise, he saw the first hints of true anger in Izuna's flushing neck, his white lips pressed to the thinnest line imaginable. His Adam's apple bobbed furiously as he struggled to control the surge of emotion rising inside him.
Madara's mouth was dry. He waited for Izuna for speak.
"Always for me, isn't it?" said Izuna quietly after a few moments of mounting tension. "Funny how it always benefits you when it is for me."
His words shot through Madara's veins, as if he'd just been dunked in a wintry river.
Without another word Izuna stood and stormed from the tent.
Five years later
Madara sat on the cushioned dais and listened to the advisors around him bickering; not for the first time he found himself longing for the open horizons of the steppes, the sway of his warhorse between his legs, the thrill of battle.
He took pride in the peaceful kingdom he'd forged; he served with dedication and drive. His meticulous nature ensured that problems were anticipated and infrastructure ran smoothly and corruption was dealt with accordingly.
He exchanged letters with his brother several times a year. Or, rather, he sent letters to his brother.
Madara never received a response.
"... which is why now is the perfect time to secure your position with an heir, your Highness," said the advisor to his left.
It was a difficult thing, resisting the urge to behead his well-intentioned advisors sometimes.
"We've filled your inner court with the most beautiful women from across the kingdom. Talented in music, artistry, calligraphy, literature, even politics and finance. Surely your highness has enjoyed himself enough to choose one as a consort."
Distractions. After a long day of meetings and minutae, he'd distracted himself upon occasion, but never the same woman twice.
He never stayed longer than the deed required.
And he sent home any woman with green eyes before even learning of her virtuous talents.
Thankfully his advisor responsible for Family Planning had noticed right away and stopped recruiting them. Madara rewarded him with a bonus in unspoken gratitude.
The meeting came to a halt as they waited for Madara's response.
The mid-morning sun filtering through the blinds in the opulent, gilded chamber was interrupted by the fluttering of wings.
Looking up from his meeting, Madara recognized the Leaf bird immediately.
He lifted his arm and the bird alighted with sleek midnight grace before holding out its breast. Madara noted the message attached to it and ignored the squawking of his fellows. Really, they could take a lesson from the handsome, proud bird.
"Your Highness, you shouldn't release it! It could be poisoned!"
"If it were poisoned the bird would have died long ago," said Madara. He rubbed the raven's calm, shiny head in praise before unwrapping the note.
"General, I regret to inform you of unfortunate news regarding the wellbeing of your brother…"
The air whooshed audibly from Madara's lungs and he could read no further. His vision swam.
"Saddle my horse," he said, voice hard and thin. "Now. I leave immediately."
He leapt to his feet, holding the raven close to his chest to calm it.
He swallowed twice. Then a third time.
No. No, nothing would happen to Izuna. He'd made arrangements to ensure his brother would remain forever safe.
Madara ignored everything around himself as he hurried to the door.
Then the unthinkable happened.
Kubo, one of his most trusted colleagues who'd been at his side since their time together during the war, blocked his path.
"No," said Kubo, arms wide.
Chest heaving, Madara glared down at his… friend?
"I won't let you abandon your kingdom. At the very least you need to make sure one of those women is carrying your heir before you leave. We have dedicated our lives to the dream of peace; it is your responsibility to ensure its continuation," said Kubo, voice trembling. And sure enough, the man's arms were shaking, too, his lips and face pale as he looked up at Madara and shook his head. "Please, General. For the kingdom."
Madara's lips curled back before he realized the truth of Kubo's words.
"Line them up from most competent and fertile to least, and do not think of tricking me," commanded Madara in a low growl. "You have until I finish packing to ready them."
Kubo bowed immediately and tore from the room, with a, "Yes, sir!"
Less than an hour later Madara had packed, ejaculated into five different women while he focused on another one entirely, and set off on his horse with the lightest escort he could manage.
No other clan treasured love more than the Uchiha; and he would see to it his brother remembered that.
Before he left he'd sent the raven to the skies with a return note.
"I'm on my way."
[END PART ONE]
AN: Happy MadaSaku Week! Check out madasakuweek on tumblr for more Madara x Sakura fics and fanart, lovely readers! We have some amazing talent coming out to join us! (May 8 - 14, 2016)
AN 2: (Loosely inspired by a plotline in "Liu Luoguo" [sp?], a Chinese drama I watched on OMNI a few years back to help me improve my Taiwanese/Mandarin). Also a certain name used in this story is from a trailer for a film coming out this summer that I am very excited about. You'll likely know it when you see it. Cheers! ^_~
Thank you for reading, I hope you enjoyed!
(I apologize for the errors. And the fact this turned out rougher than a desperate ride on Furiosa's War Rig. I was writing as fast as I could. XD)