A/N: Hello again, everyone! It's been some time since my last chapter and, since I received so much support and even concern over my health, I wanted to give you a little update on my life. Long story short: I wasn't doing okay. I'm a nurse and I worked at a skilled nursing facility before moving to a hospital. As such, I've seen a lot of suffering and death during this pandemic, something that was highly traumatic for me. Then, with me dealing with unresolved trauma and my depression (among other things)... Well, I kind of went off the deep end there for a bit.
I'm still recovering - truly recovering - but I'm happier than I've been in years. Throughout it all, I would read all of your messages; all of your kind words and patience mean the world to me. I deeply appreciate all of your love and support, thank you from the bottom of my heart! I hope this chapter brightens up your day like all of your comments brightened mine! :)
With every leap Madara took through the trees as he ran from the decimated remains of his home and towards the caravan of refugees his family had become, his heart pounded faster and faster. With every step, a crushing weight grew in his chest, making it harder and harder to draw air into his lungs. It felt like ice water flowed in his veins, every frantic heartbeat sending a rush through his body that made him feel like he was dying.
For the first time since he was a child, he lost his footing in the trees. Crashing to the forest floor on unsteady feet, he could hardly even catch himself with how his body trembled. He was unable to even deactivate his Sharingan, the force of his howling emotions tearing him apart at the seams and stealing any semblance of control he desperately clung to. His legs were weak beneath him as he fruitlessly tried to catch his breath and calm himself, every fiber in his being begging him to turn around.
'Go back! Go back, go back, go back, go back!'
Madara struggled to regain control of his emotions, to convince himself that he was doing the right thing. He was making the safest decision for his family in this dangerous situation they had found themselves in. Any mistake here could lead to the death of his entire clan. It wasn't just his life on the line, it was the life of his brother and the lives of his family.
He could not afford to let his emotions control him here. He frantically scrambled to justify his actions to his mind but his heart would not listen. It howled and clawed in his chest like an animal escaping the trap his body had become. No matter how he tried to convince himself, there was no changing the fact he was turning his back on Sakura.
He was abandoning the woman he loved.
Just the thought felt like a kick to the chest, the sorrow in his chest stealing the breath from his lungs. He fought back against the feeling, trying once again to convince himself he had to do the right thing. He was the Uchiha clan leader, he had to do whatever it took to protect his family. He was in love with Sakura but he wasn't so selfish as to put his family in danger to satisfy his own heart.
Could you truly love someone who you didn't even know? Could you truly love someone who you could no longer trust? Could you truly love someone who lied to you?
Madara had known that Sakura had been lying to him for so long - since the very beginning when she first gave her reasoning for joining them. As a sensor, he had been able to sense the minute changes in her chakra when she had lied about her reasons for allying with his family.
He had known but he had been so entranced by her that he had allowed her to keep her secrets. He had convinced himself that he was being cordial by giving her privacy and by never prying when she flashed that broken expression whenever she spoke about her past. He had persuaded himself into believing that every shinobi was entitled to their secrets and that there was no harm in allowing Sakura to keep hers as long as she continued to help.
Only for her to reveal that she had the Senju's jutsu.
Madara couldn't believe how stupid he had been. He should have known better than to allow himself to trust her so deeply after knowing so little about her. Sakura was a shinobi who sat at the caliber of a clan leader and he had allowed her into his home and into his heart without a second thought.
He could have gotten his entire clan killed… But even with that fear sitting in his chest like his lungs were made of stone, he was frightened he had made yet another wrong decision.
While Sakura had slept and while Izuna mobilized the caravan, Madara had stayed behind in a desperate attempt to get a real answer out of her. He had warred with himself for hours, trying to decide what the right course of action would be. What the safest course of action was.
His family was the most vulnerable it had ever been, their home ripped out from under their feet and leaving them injured and stranded. Sakura's healing skills would be invaluable now, more so than ever, but his clan was completely exposed and unable to fight without even more casualties. Not just the shinobi were in danger now; the elderly, the children, the wounded, the sick, the noncombatants, everyone was at risk.
Initially, Madara wanted to bring Sakura along and interrogate her along the way but he had no way of ensuring she would not be able to heal herself and attack them. If she truly was an undercover Senju, then she undoubtedly had some kind of trick up her sleeve. She could even send a signal to her clan so they could come and finish what the Hagoromo couldn't. The Uchiha couldn't afford a battle against Sakura, let alone a strikeforce from the Senju clan.
He knew better than to underestimate a shinobi of her caliber and knew he could not risk the lives of his family more than he already had.
He briefly considered holding her captive, binding her chakra so they could interrogate her as they fled. There was the possibility that they could even keep her as their healer while simultaneously making her their prisoner if he used his sharingan. Just the thought, however, made him sick to his stomach, bile rising into his throat as he immediately rejected the idea.
Rationally, holding a kunoichi of her power hostage during their escape would be akin to containing a burning paper bomb in one's bare hand. More than that, however, even with everything that had happened... he could never make the woman he loved his victim.
Madara thought of taking Sakura to a remote location, of allowing her to recover before interrogating her there. But what of his family? As the clan leader, he needed to accompany the fleeing caravan no matter what to help defend his family against further attacks. Even if he sent another shinobi in his stead to aid Sakura, she could readily overpower them and take their life should she be an enemy.
He didn't have the luxury of time to plan, a safe place to hide, or a level head to think. He needed to make a choice and he needed to make it now. With every second that passed, his family marched farther away and enemies marched closer.
It was when the rising sun began to paint the horizon shades of purple that Madara finally made his decision.
Taking Sakura's summoning scroll, the storage device given to him by the scout who had initially relocated Sakura's unconscious form, Madara had unfurled it alongside his own. Transferring over the supplies he could spare - rations, water, medicine, a blanket - he gave her everything he had that he could survive without but that she could use. After all, if this didn't go as planned, she would need it more than him.
Even if this didn't go as planned… he loved her. Even if he truly couldn't trust her, he still wanted to help her. He knew better than to believe she was helpless, even in this injured state, but his heart still ached seeing her hurt.
It was after he had finished storing supplies within her scroll and as he tied it shut that Katsurou approached him. Him and Katsumi had remained behind while the rest of the clan fled, his sister lingering nearby and keeping a sharp eye on the treeline in the distance. When he strode up to him, fire in his eyes although his sharingan remained deactivated out of respect, his chakra had been erratic and messy as he struggled to control his emotions.
Katsurou yelled at him about how Sakura had saved his life, his sister's life, and all of their lives - not just during the battle with the Hagoromo but during the years she was their doctor. He cried about how she was their healer and their friend, how she had done nothing but help them the entire time they knew her. He begged for her to come with them, saying that they needed her.
As if Madara didn't already know all of this.
When Katsurou screamed that it shouldn't matter that Sakura was a Senju, Madara finally snapped and sent him away. He was right. It shouldn't matter if Sakura was a Senju. What did matter was whether or not he could trust her. And he could only find that out by seeing if she continued to lie to him.
He only had so much more time he could waste. Expanding his senses outwards, he scanned the forest for miles around to search for any potential dangers in the area but found nothing but animals stirring awake in the dawn hours. It was safe, for now, but he couldn't afford to wait any longer. Him and his family needed to evacuate and he needed to find out if he could trust Sakura enough to bring her along.
All Madara wanted was the truth. No matter what it was, he just wanted to hear the reality of why she had made a deal with him and his clan. Even if she was a Senju… they would figure it out. He would make his brother and the elders and anyone else understand. She had done so much for them, she had fought against the Senju themselves multiple times, and his family needed her now more than ever.
But after everything that had happened, he needed to hear the truth. If she wanted him to trust her, she needed to trust him. So he decided to give her a chance…
One that Sakura refused to take.
No matter how he tried to convince himself, Madara could no longer allow her around his family. He gave her the opportunity to tell him the truth - to tell him anything at all - but she chose to stay silent instead.
After a reveal as world-shaking as Sakura sharing Hashirama's jutsu, she was a potential threat. With her refusal to say anything, his mind darkened with potential realities. The world was at war and Sakura was a shinobi just as he was. Even more, she was a member of the clan his family had warred with for generations.
Was she a Senju spy, sent here by Hashirama or Tobirama? Had the Hagoromo's attack simply lured her out of hiding? Had Junshi's speed and mastery of sealing jutsu forced her to lay all her cards on the table to win the fight? Had she been forced to reveal herself before springing whatever trap she had laid? Worse yet, was she an assassin working to win his love so he would let his guard down and allow her an easy kill?
The Senju had gotten alarmingly close to his family's lands during the last battle, had that been Sakura's doing? Had her help securing the alliance between Sora-ku and his family all been part of her plan? With her cat summons being the linchpin of the deal, she could have planned to turn all the clans in the country on them before withdrawing her part of the arrangement and leaving them vulnerable. With how the deal with Queen Usugumo stood, she could still easily steal it from the Uchiha and give that alliance to the Senju.
Years ago, Madara would have killed Sakura to prevent her skills from falling into the hands of the enemy, but now he couldn't even stomach the thought of hurting her. So he allowed her to flee as well, despite how dangerous she remained even outside of his sight.
Was he making the right decision? He had to be. He had to be...
Sakura was one of the most lethal people on the face of the planet and he didn't even know her. Their entire relationship was built on a secret; a lie. She was capable of feats he had never before imagined, what else could she be hiding?
Madara had no idea what to think, his mind continuing to race. He had no idea who she really was or what she really wanted. He thought he knew her but her reveal had shaken him to his core. He doubted her and he doubted himself and his doubts began to morph into fear.
Had he put his family in danger because he had fallen in love with Sakura? Would he have ever allowed another shinobi as close as he allowed her? Had he let his feelings get in the way of keeping his family safe?
He couldn't allow someone as devastatingly powerful as her remain around his family if he couldn't even trust her any longer. Although she hadn't seemed that powerful a moment ago…
She seemed hurt. Seriously hurt.
It had just looked like chakra burns, something Sakura could easily heal on her own. But he could feel how jagged her chakra flowed, bleeding out of her with no control. Had she just not gotten the opportunity to heal herself yet? Or had she been faking her injuries to make him pity her?
From what Izuna had said, and from what he had sensed in the distance, Junshi had destroyed Sakura's seal. He had so little experience with seals such as Sakura's. What did that mean for her? Was she truly hurt? Was it even possible to truly hurt someone who could heal like she could?
Madara had no idea what to think but his heart ripped itself in two at the thought of abandoning her when she had been in so much pain. She had looked so helpless...
No, he couldn't think like that. This was Sakura, she wasn't some defenseless little girl. She was a kunoichi who could stand toe to toe with him and his brother. Even if she was injured, he had loaded her summoning scroll with what supplies he could spare from what little remained following the fires.
He had expanded his senses outwards to scout the environment before he even spoke to her and found nothing for miles. He had given her all the time she needed to gather her things and escape the village should the worst happen following their conversation.
He had tried to do what he could to help her even after being forced to sever their contract.
He had done everything he could… right?
Madara knew he was lying to himself. But no matter how much he wanted it, he couldn't return to Sakura's side. He couldn't return to the only place he wanted to be at that moment. More than he wanted to be with his family, he wanted to be with her, and the thought made him sick with himself.
He needed to be the leader that his family needed. He had to be the strong clan head. He had to do what was best for his family, no matter how he felt. He had to guide them, he had to protect them, he had to put them first no matter what. He would do anything to keep them safe.
Even if that meant sacrificing himself, he would do anything it took to be the man his clan needed him to be.
His unsteady legs finally gave out on him as Madara slumped back against the tree, sliding to the ground under the weight of his own decision. Curling up, his face fell into his hands, his hair falling forward and hiding him from the uncaring forest surrounding him.
He would be the man his family needed in a minute. Just a minute…
For the first time since his mother died, Madara cried.
It had been two days and Madara had yet to sleep. As if he could find rest even if he wanted it.
The Uchiha had abandoned their home not even half a day following Junshi's attack. After they had finished gathering what supplies they could and preparing the wounded, the elderly, and the children to march, they fled.
The convoy of refugees that his family had become had been on the move non stop, retreating from the ruins of their village as they desperately searched for a safe place to find shelter. What was left of their home still burned in the distance behind them, smoke rising into the sky and painting the sunlight in unsettling shades of orange and yellow.
It wasn't a sight unknown to Madara. After all, the Uchiha were a clan of fire users and he was one of the strongest. The wars they waged often left wildfires in their wake. Usually, however, the fires at their backs were ones of victory and not ones of utter defeat.
A sight that once filled him with pride now only filled him with dread.
Dozens of overloaded carts traveled down an alarmingly exposed road. Squadrons of shinobi were stationed as guards around their clan, vigilantly watching over their family and their surroundings. Their attention was especially focused on protecting the genjutsu specialists who worked tirelessly to conceal the caravan from threats along the road.
Scouts formed a protective formation around the convoy, dozens of shinobi working in tandem to create a sprawling network to intercept any dangers before they reached the inner ring of guards. They worked to conceal any traces left behind by their fleeing family while simultaneously searching for not only a suitable location to settle but for a safe place to camp every night.
The scouts didn't always come back.
No matter how skillfully Madara and Izuna deployed the shinobi of their family, aided both by Madara's sensory prowess and Izuna's tactical mind, they had yet to find hope. The brothers had helped their family relocate several times before, settling in new areas to avoid being located and to maintain the security of concealment, but never like this. Never when their family was so terrifyingly weakened and vulnerable. Never when they no longer had the luxury of safety.
So many of their clan were still on missions across the country. From the strikeforce stationed in Sora-ku to the gravediggers putting their allies to rest in the ruins of the Nakano village, their family was spread too thin.
None of them even had a home to return to. Nearly every surviving messenger hawk had been deployed to deliver the news of the attack but not everyone could even be reached. As they continued their journey to find a new home, they left behind near imperceptible signs for those who knew their code; trails leading to way points where they would one day station scouts once they found a new home. They couldn't afford to lead them back to the caravan lest an enemy discover their code and ambush the fleeing clan.
More concerning than their dwindled number of shinobi was the staggering number of clanmates they needed to defend. With the entire family on the run, there were numerous Uchiha who could not fight. Not just the infirm, but the workers who aided the clan with skills outside of combat - the cooks, the farmers, the butchers, and more.
While the number of injured grew lesser every day, it was not through the grace of recovery.
Madara did everything in his power that he could to heal the wounded. He worked together with the handful of clan members who were talented with combat first aid and those who had been considered the family medics before Sakura's arrival. They had become spoiled with Sakura around, her healing abilities making anything more than emergency first aid for missions away from the village pointless information.
Despite their best efforts, lives were lost again and again. Over and over, Madara was forced to face the death of his family members.
People who wouldn't have died if he had been strong enough. People who wouldn't have died if Junshi hadn't so readily tricked him and his brother. People who wouldn't have died if Sakura had been there.
So many people Madara loved took their last breaths under his hands, his mediocre talents with healing jutsu nothing in the face of their wounds. He lost so many of his family members that he wished he had been able to lose count. Instead, their names, faces, and their dying words were burned into his mind forever.
Even after all of his critically wounded clanmates had either pulled through or passed away, more still were suffering, subjected to slow deaths from infection that Sakura could have cured with ease. Problems that were so simple for her to solve were insurmountable to him and, without her at their side, he was forced to watch the people he loved lose their lives.
As Madara watched the light leaving their eyes, the weak green glow of his useless healing jutsu shining in their gaze, he was overcome with self loathing. His mind screamed at him in contempt as his heart clawed at the inside of his chest like a caged animal. He had tried to do what was right to protect his family but his decision had done nothing but hurt everyone he loved most. His brother, his family, Sakura…
Had he made the wrong choice?
Shame made its home in the pit of his sunken stomach, the nausea from his actions pooling with the nausea from the constant stench of unwashed bodies, infection, and death. A sickness that was only made worse by the acrid smell of every rushed cremation they were forced to host on the side of the road.
It was following one of these cremations that Madara finally took a break to sit down. Joining Izuna on the covered back of one of the many carts, he wished he had the appetite to eat anything to at least recover some of his chakra. No matter how he tried to force the thought of stomaching food, he felt nothing but sick.
His bleary gaze briefly settled on his brother, the younger Uchiha's expression grim as he stared off into nothing. Madara didn't have the energy to say anything, as if he could think of anything to say anyways. Silently allowing his own attention to drift inwards, he returned to the tangled mess of his own thoughts.
Junshi had destroyed their village and forced them to flee. They were homeless, frantically searching for anywhere that could offer them some semblance of safety. They were still losing people they loved every day, not just to the dangers they were struggling to keep at bay but to the wounds they could do nothing to fix.
And the one person who could help was gone.
Every cremation, every unmarked grave, every agonized cry reminded Madara of how much their family needed Sakura; of how much he needed her. As selfish and ashamed as the thought made him feel, he wanted the woman he loved back. He needed her as their medic but, more than that, he needed her as his friend. She had been a source of understanding and comfort for so long and he knew that, if she was here with him now, she would know exactly what to say.
His thoughts were interrupted by Izuna's hand on his shoulder.
Madara's eyes flicked over but his brother continued to stare forward silently, not meeting his gaze. His face was still and emotionless, set in his usual careful neutrality, but tears were falling down his face. His hand was gentle at first, hardly even a weight on his shoulder, before his fingers slowly fisted in the fabric of his shirt. As his hand began to shake, Madara wrapped his arm around his little brother's shoulders. Hiding his face behind his hand as he leaned into his side, Izuna's facade finally fell.
Madara wished he could say something, anything, to encourage his brother - to tell him that everything was going to be okay or that they would figure it out. But when he looked inside himself to find those words of comfort, he found nothing.
It was on the dawn of the seventeenth day of searching that they finally found a suitable location. After rejecting dozens of potential sites for a settlement due to safety, resource, or terrain concerns, by a stroke of luck, one of the venturing scouts found the perfect location hidden away along a mountain pass.
Not only was the pass treacherous enough for non-shinobi to avoid but the secluded pathway dead ended into the deserts of the west. It was far easier for shinobi traveling to or from the badlands to traverse around the mountain rather than going over it and anyone desperate enough to attempt the mountain pass could easily be dispatched or gently guided around their village with carefully placed genjutsu.
The area would be arduous for non-shinobi to settle in, the steep trails and difficult terrain too difficult to navigate without the aid of chakra. While this location would be ideal for a shinobi clan to settle in, it appeared as if they had been the first to venture up to this hidden refuge. While setting up their village here would make for much longer journeys to the various cities and settlements for missions, the safety of the pass far outweighed any inconvenience.
The convoy briefly camped in their prospective home as Madara and Izuna looked over the location to make the final decision on whether or not to begin building here. The hunters had already informed them of the abundant wildlife in the area and the farmers had been quick to comment on the site's fertile grounds. The hidden sanctuary was even home to several sparkling lakes, the ample sources of fish and clean water fed by snow and rainfall that trailed down the mountain in wide rivers and roaring waterfalls.
Madara dispatched scouts along the mountain to maintain the outer defensive perimeter as well as to search for any traces of people or natural dangers like flood plains, rockslides, and tailed beasts. As they fanned out across the pass, the brothers decided to look over the location as well.
It was during this surveying that Madara located a hidden grove of cherry blossom trees, tucked away near one of the sprawling rivers leading down the mountainside. He thought of how Sakura would love this colorful hideaway before grief pooled in his chest. Turning away from the heart wrenchingly familiar shade of pink, he returned to the temporary settlement to reconvene with his brother and their dispatched shinobi.
After being informed of the safety of the area from both the scouts and his brother, Madara and Izuna decided that they would settle in this location. While the Uchiha clan took a collective sigh of relief at finally having found a safe location, the calm didn't last long as preparations to build a village began.
While the non-shinobi began by setting up tents and temporary lodgings, the shinobi began by laying out a foundation of security. They set up inner and outer rings of guard posts around the would-be borders of the village before setting up complex webs of traps and genjutsu. Deploying scouts to waypoints along the path they had journeyed to arrive here, they ensured they left no trail while awaiting the arrival of shinobi who had been deployed during the attack.
With systems of surveillance, protection, and recovery of lost Uchiha set up, the work to truly rebuild their village began. They leveled plots of land, using felled trees and upturned stone as building materials for new homes. They began with long houses to protect large groups of their people from the elements before starting work on individual homes. They built storage buildings to store all the goods they had taken from their old village and even more to stock foods like salted meats, grains, fruits, and vegetables.
They built fences and barns for their beasts of burden and the few farm animals that had been able to survive the journey. They tilled the land and planted seeds that would yield a much-needed harvest for the next season. With the farmlands they had abandoned having gone unreaped, they would only survive so long utilizing the bounty of the land and what little they had been able to transport. Trading would be out of the question until their family had regained the security of a developed village.
They erected a building that they had hoped could become like a new clinic but, more than anything, it became a place to die. It wasn't long after that that they were forced to find a suitable location for cremations and a place to bury the remains of the dead. It was a little more than a month later that the deaths finally seemed to stop, everyone who had been injured during Junshi's invasion having either recovered or died. When the makeshift clinic finally went silent, it was a grim comfort. From then on, injuries were treated in the comfort of one's home rather than the oppressive building that only reminded everyone of what they had lost.
It was during this time as they built their new village from the ground up that Madara had nothing but time to think. During the monotonous rhythm of construction, he found the silence to reflect on his choices and the consequences of his actions. It was during this pensive quiet that remorse rose up within him like bile in the back of his throat.
Where a feeling of necessity - a sense of certainty that his actions had been the right path for his family - once stood now loomed self-hatred. The sense of surety that once towered so resolutely that he had turned his back on the woman he loved had cracked and crumbled away until nothing but regret remained.
Madara had sent Sakura away anyway and now he suffered the consequences of his fear-fueled actions. So many of his loved ones had died because she wasn't there: not only people who were injured in the battle but people who didn't survive the journey itself. He lost too many of his family members because he let his fear and his distrust get the best of him.
What he had done thinking he was protecting his clan had done nothing but hurt them.
Madara often went to the hideaway of cherry blossom trees to think and to escape from the prying eyes of his traumatized family as they continued to look up to him for guidance. When he became too tired to hide the maelstrom of emotions in his head and in his heart, he disappeared to the grove to hide his weakness from his family.
No one would benefit from seeing him break down. He needed to be strong for them even now. Especially now.
It was during one of those moments of weakness that Izuna came to speak to him. Madara sensed his approach before he broke through the treeline, giving him the time he needed to compose himself for any kind of interaction. Leaning back against the trunk of the cherry blossom tree above him, he took a deep breath to steal himself before his brother appeared.
"You look terrible," his little brother greeted from the edge of the grove, Madara's tired gaze drifting over to meet Izuna's equally exhausted eyes.
"I feel terrible," Madara admitted dully as his gaze returned to the blue sky through the blossoms, "Any news?"
"The squadron we sent out to lightning country before the attack finally returned. They had some difficulty finding their way home considering their journey from the northeast did not intersect with any of our waymarkers," Izuna informed as he strode forward, leaning against one of the trees near his brother.
"That's the last of those who were deployed then, outside of the force stationed at Sora-ku. We can finally withdraw all the scouts set up at the waypoints now that everyone is home," Madara answered, unable to hide how tired he was even when speaking of good news.
It was a few quiet moments before Izuna spoke again. "Not everyone…"
"Oh?" Madara answered dully, his weariness stealing away his ability to express his confusion on his face.
Instead of answering his question, Izuna's face contorted in anger as he took a breath to fuel his answer. His furious expression was short lived, however, the anger in his face dying away as he sighed. Sliding down the trunk of the cherry blossom tree, he sat on the grass at his feet.
"The Senju took everything from me. From us. They took our family; our mother, our father, our brothers. They killed our grandparents, our aunts and uncles, our cousins, " Izuna began to explain, his voice not full of anger but darkened by something else entirely, "I live every day of my life sick with rage over what I lost."
Madara stayed silent but turned to face his brother, telling him without words that he was listening.
"When I saw Sakura using wood style jutsu, I had never felt more betrayed in my life. I was furious at the possibility that Sakura was a Senju since the only instance we have ever seen of that jutsu is from Hashirama. My rage blinded me and all I saw when I looked at her was a traitor placed there by Tobirama."
At the mention of just Sakura's name, Madara's heart clenched in his chest so hard it hurt.
"But, now that I've calmed down, I've had time to think. Time to realize everything she did for us, how good she was to us, how much we needed her. Brother, I-" he tried before choking on his words.
There was a lengthy silence between them before Izuna gave a voice to what Madara had spent the last two months thinking.
"We made a mistake."
Even unable to meet Madara's gaze, the elder Uchiha could finally make out the emotion darkening Izuna's words: regret. He felt he should have been surprised by his brother's confession. Izuna hated the Senju with such fire after all that had been taken from them during the war but even he could see how his brother had fallen apart right alongside him.
"Mistake… does not begin to cover what we have done," Madara answered almost too quietly, finally admitting what he had long since known out loud, "What we have done was not a mistake but a betrayal."
"We lost so many of our clan during the trek here. Not just our shinobi but the people we are supposed to be protecting. We've paid so dearly for our treachery and I fear our price will only continue to grow."
"With our alliance with Sora-ku painting a target on our backs, it is a certainty. We've done what we can to secret ourselves away and withdraw to recover but we cannot stay out of the fray for long. It will find us whether we seek it or not."
"That's if Sakura even allows us to maintain our deal with Queen Usugumo. It is only because of her cat summons that we keep this alliance. She could easily withdraw her half of the bargain as recompense for what we have done. It would only be fair."
"It would." Madara dropped his head back against the trunk of the tree, his eyes closing but his eyebrows furrowed. "I allowed my fear and my hatred of the Senju to cloud my vision and it has done nothing but lead us back into the maw… My betrayal and their deaths are heavy on my shoulders."
"I'm not without blame… Gods, right before the battle with the Hagoromo, I told her that I didn't care about her past. I told her how she belonged with us," Izuna spat, his anger finally resurfacing although it was directed at himself, "When I left, I asked her to protect the village and she almost died saving everyone."
"I was going to tell her I loved her when I got back… I almost had, before you warned me of the Nakano," he paused, taking a deep breath before muttering, almost to himself, "What kind of person tosses aside the person they love so readily?"
There was a heavy silence before Izuna finally spoke again.
"I have been thinking… Sakura is certainly a Senju relative. But, if she has any connections to her clan, they appear to be severed. There is no denying she killed that squadron at the Nakano holdings. Furthermore, the Senju brigade was shocked by Sakura's display of power during the melee near our previous village."
"I sensed no deceit during that battle. Whatever hesitation Sakura felt in the charge was abandoned when she joined your battle against Tobirama. That battle would have been the ideal time to betray us, had she been a Senju spy, but she chose to stay by our side."
The only way that battle could have been more weighted in the Senju's favor if Sakura had been a spy would have been if Mito had been a part of their army as well. The Uzumaki seal master rarely sought out combat, even more so in the years following her marriage to Hashirama. It only made sense for one of the world's strongest kunoichi to remain behind to defend their village.
"A Senju stray then? Those dogs never had a bloodline trait before Hashirama. She could be some distant relative with how irresponsible they are with their baser impulses."
"They have never been able to track their lineage far, as goes for any clan without a bloodline trait. Even Hashirama and Tobirama appear to belong to two separate families with how different they appear. Their clan could span the continent."
"Or even further, like a distant village to the west?" Izuna suggested, Sakura having stated that her home village was far to the west.
"She never told us the identity of the man who destroyed her village, outside of him being a man who thought of himself as a god," Madara returned, his heart beginning to race in his chest as his dread grew, "The Hagoromo's leader is nothing if not that description."
"Could Junshi have been the one who destroyed her old home?" Izuna asked, his brow furrowed as he stared up at the pink boughs of the cherry blossom trees.
"If he followed her only to destroy her second home as well, that-" Madara started before a thought occurred to him that made his heart drop into his stomach.
"If wood style jutsu is a bloodline trait… Do you suppose that awakening wood style is like awakening our sharingan?" he asked darkly, his chest aching.
"As in?" Izuna answered, the severity of his quiet tone already betraying he knew exactly what Madara was speaking of.
"If wood style is anything like our sharingan… It may require the anguish of watching someone you love die."
"If that's true…" Izuna muttered, his wide eyes dropping to the forest floor, "Then we abandoned Sakura after the most traumatizing moment of her life."
"I fear we've done more than that still. I worry she may have been more injured than she seemed when we left," Madara added, his teeth gritted against the weight of his dread.
"What are you talking about? This is Sakura we're talking about. She can heal anything, I'm certain she healed whatever damage she took in that fight."
"I pray…" he muttered.
Her chakra hadn't seemed right when he had left. He had tried to look passed it, he had tried to convince himself of what Izuna had said, but his confidence in her skills did nothing to stop the fear from rising in the back of his throat
Had they left her to die?
"Nonetheless, she's in even more danger than ever. Junshi will want his revenge so the Hagoromo will be pursuing her. Then, with the Senju, the Uzumaki, and their allies? As powerful as she is, she can't fight a war on two fronts by herself. We need to find her."
"And do what? What do you suggest that we do to make amends for what we've done?" Madara scoffed, dropping his head.
"Something!" Izuna charged forward, a mess of words unfiltered by his usual meticulous speech spilling free from his heart. "She's saved the lives of our family, she's healed us, she's been our companion, our confidant, a defender of our family! Even if she is a Senju stray, she was never a traitor."
"Pretty words won't be enough to sway her. Why would she ever forgive us for what we did to her?"
"Because she's part of our family now. Whatever it takes, wherever she is, we need to bring her home. We made a mistake, thinking we were protecting our family when we were actually leaving part of our family behind. I'm ashamed of what we've done to my sister."
"Your sister, huh?" Madara repeated, his shoulders sinking in self-loathing.
"I told her she belonged with us, with the Uchiha. I need to make good on my word! I need-!" Izuna deflated, trying to return to his normally calm and collected demeanor, "I need to show her I'm sorry."
"You're right," he answered quietly as his gaze finally rose from the forest floor, "We abandoned her when she needed us most… We need to make amends. I need to make amends."
"Besides, didn't you have something you needed to tell her as well?" Izuna reminded, the edge of his lip quirking up for the first time in two months.
For the first time since Junshi's attack, Madara felt a spark of hope flare in his chest. Whatever it took, he would find Sakura and he would make amends. However small the chances were, he had to try. Even if she never forgave him, even if she hated him for the rest of their lives, he had to try. After everything she had done for his family, he owed her at least that much. After everything they had been through together, she was a part of their family.
"Let's bring her home then."
When Tobirama had first heard of the fire raging out in the western reaches of country, he had been sure it was simply a battleground left behind by a fight with a squadron of Uchiha. After all, wildfires always sprung up in their wake, especially when Madara or Izuna were involved.
Not bothering to bore his brother and sister in law with such trivial news, Tobirama had decided to simply send out a squad to investigate and see if they could garner any useful information from the wreckage. He had been surprised by the information that they had brought back.
The first part of their report, that the fire had spawned from the ruins of what appeared to be the Uchiha village, had been shocking enough. The part of their story that truly captured Tobirama's attention, however, had been their unusual discovery at the heart of the burned out town: a massive tree unlike anything they had ever seen before.
He had his suspicions but, before he leapt to any conclusions, he had to see the battlefield for himself.
It was that next morning that he set out on a mission to discover the truth of the destroyed village, leading a small squadron of Senju shinobi and accompanied by Toka. Curious by his sudden interest in some Uchiha battle site and bored with neither Hashirama nor Mito accepting her invitations to spar or to smoke, his boisterous cousin had decided to join him.
Even with Toka and the other fastest members of his clan at Tobirama's back, it took two whole days to reach the ruins - a site that was shockingly close to where the melee with the Uchiha army had taken place not that long ago. They had been so close to discovering their location but it appeared that someone had found them before they had.
The charred remains of what was once a village stood before them, nothing but ruins and distant bird song greeting them. A plane of ash reached across the clearing in the forest, dotted with blackened rubble shooting out from the wreckage. The smell of burning wood still lingered in the air although the last of the embers had since doused themselves.
At the heart of it all towered a single monolith; a massive tree unlike any Tobirama had ever seen, twisted and sharp and bare of any leaves.
"Weird looking tree," Toka commented crudely, striding out into the field of ash as she folded her hands behind her head in boredom.
"Astutely put," Tobirama sighed as he followed her, his calculating gaze sweeping across the ruins.
"You four! Stand guard around the perimeter," she ordered before reaching down into the ash, pulling out a kunai which she idly twirled around her finger, "And watch out for lingering traps, this was undoubtedly a shinobi village and they were sure to leave behind presents for pursuers."
With nods of assent, the four remaining shinobi scattered to carry out her orders, leaving the two Senju leaders to begin their investigation.
"It appears this was the Uchiha stronghold," Tobirama commented as they passed some half collapsed buildings, his gaze sweeping along the traps hidden among the wreckage.
"It seems so. I recognize that particular genjutsu trap anywhere," Toka hummed in agreement, "It's sloppy though. It looks like they were in quite a hurry to get out of here."
Continuing farther into the ruins, she threw her found kunai into the ground ahead, severing a trip wire that detonated a hidden paper bomb. Chuckling at the spray of ash and debris, she was unbothered when her cousin leveled her with a dry look.
"We could have just stepped over it," he scolded, irritated.
"Where's the fun in that?" she answered with a shrug and a grin.
"Try not to destroy any more evidence while we're here. We're here to figure out what happened, not play around."
"You and I both know the only valuable information here is that tree in the middle of all this," Toka returned with an unimpressed quirk of her brow, "Hurry up and go work your sensor jutsu on it so we can get out of here. We didn't run into a single shinobi to fight on the way here and I'm bored."
"Do you think of anything but fighting?" Tobirama grumbled as they continued towards the tree.
"I think of sex and smoking too," she laughed as she perched on the remains of a collapsed building, reaching into the pouch at her hip, "Speaking of…"
Sighing in irritation at his less than helpful companion as she packed her pipe, Tobirama continued in his trek towards the tree in the center of town. Even from a distance, he could sense that something was different. It was unlike any species of tree he had ever laid his eyes on. It looked jagged but precise, twisted but meaningful. It was sharp but like how a weapon was sharp rather than how a thorn was sharp.
It looked purposeful and that left his nerves on edge.
When he finally reached it, the tree looked more unnatural than ever. It had no bark to speak of, its surface instead rough like a stone. The dirt at its base was torn open like it had erupted from the ground rather than having sprouted like any other tree. Even the roots which spanned it's breadth emerged from the earth as if grown in a heartbeat rather than over a hundred years, massive stones jutting from the ground as if displaced by its strength.
Circling around it once as his eyes raked along it's ominous surface, Tobirama could sense how the creation buzzed with energy even now. He had his theory but it wasn't until he finally pressed his hand to the surface of the tree that his suspicions were proved to be true. This was certainly no ordinary tree.
This tree had been created with wood style jutsu.
The chakra that still flowed through this construct was much different than Hashirama's but he sensed the bloodline jutsu within it nonetheless. This tree was a weapon constructed by a wood style user and, based off of the bloodlust etched into every cell of this twisted monolith, they had been quite upset at the time.
Curiously enough, however, something about the chakra felt somehow… familiar.
Closing his eyes, Tobirama focused all of his senses onto the feeling of the malicious chakra in the tree. It was tainted by anger in a way that made it difficult to identify, the rage so powerful that it made his hackles stand up even days after its release. Even more than that, the flow of energy was so broken and unstructured, undoubtedly leading to the jagged and barren state of the tree - nothing at all like the fully-formed trees his brother made.
Deep beneath the fury and the chaos, however, he recognized the source of the energy. The chakra of that strange woman who had single handedly instilled herself into shinobi legend in the course of two short years. The Angel of Kiso, the War Goddess, the Uchiha clan's healer: Sakura Haruno.
So his theory from when they had first met on the battlefield had been true then.
Opening his eyes, Tobirama latched onto the sensation of her chakra and searched for where it may have led. Following the trail to a half collapsed building at the edge of the settlement, he found a small concentration lingering on a futon within. Following it further still, he traced it passed the treeline and into the forest.
Based off of the trail Sakura had left behind in the ash and dirt, it appeared that she had been injured. Any shinobi worth their salt would have taken to the trees in this dense undergrowth and, judging by the dragging of her feet and the broken branches, she would have if she could have.
Tracking the pathway she had taken escaping the ruins of the village, Tobirama came across a single sandal caught in a jutting root. Reaching down, he tugged the shoe free from the root, inspecting the size before looking down at the spot in the dirt where her chakra trail abruptly ended.
"So, find anything interesting?" Toka's voice called out from behind him, the Senju leaning back against one of the trees with her pipe in hand.
He tossed her the shoe, Toka easily catching it in one hand. Turning it over as she looked at the unique scuff marks on the sandal, she commented, "This belonged to a shinobi. Unusual for a ninja to take to the ground with the trees right above. Even more so for them to leave behind a shoe."
"It appears they were wounded, although the trail ends here," he returned, his gaze sweeping the area for any sign of a struggle.
"Perhaps a reverse summoning like how Hashirama can do with his summon then? There doesn't appear to be a struggle," she answered, confirming Tobirama's observations as she took a long drag off of her pipe, "Do you think it was an Uchiha or whoever attacked them?"
"It was Sakura Haruno," he explained simply.
Toka choked on smoke. "Why would Lady Sakura be injured? And fleeing the village at that? Wouldn't she be with the rest of the Uchiha? What else did you find out?"
"It doesn't appear she is with the Uchiha any longer."
"What would cause them to separate?" she questioned, staring back down at the sandal in her hand with new eyes, "She appeared to be quite attached to them, if that battle where she fought us both is anything to go by."
"The Uchiha are masters of deception, especially with their sharingan. It's possible this battle allowed for her to escape from them," Tobirama spat, the potential that Sakura had been hypnotized making his blood boil.
Toka bristled, her anger matching his as she growled, "You think she was their captive, held under some Uchiha genjutsu?"
"I believe so. Especially with what I discovered about the tree," he answered with a scowl, her eyes already widening in shock.
"Are you serious?" she started, her gaze snapping back to the massive, jagged tree in the middle of the ruins behind them, "Then that tree really is-"
"Correct. She created that tree," Tobirama confirmed solemnly, "Sakura Haruno possesses wood style ninjutsu."
"But that means…" Toka started, her eyes finally returning to meet his gaze, "Sakura is a Senju."
"And one no longer affiliated with the Uchiha, genjutsu or not."
"What are we supposed to do about this? She's one of us but she already killed a dozen of our clanmates during that mission to the Nakano holdings."
"A place where she had apparently been taking refuge, if our spy was anything to go off of. A kunoichi of her status, a wood style user, and a lost Senju? Earlier miscommunications can be rectified," Tobirama decided, his tone monotone.
"What could she possibly do to rectify killing members of our family?" Toka growled, tossing the sandal to the forest floor.
"If she's as skilled a healer as we've been led to believe, she could save dozens, if not hundreds, more. She's too valuable of an asset to pass up just because of a misunderstanding. Having her return to us could be the difference between us winning and losing this war," he informed curtly before sharply asking, "Would you rather she join another clan? Or, worse yet, return to the Uchiha?"
Toka scoffed as she forcefully leaned back against the tree trunk, taking a drag on her pipe. Finding the ember within had gone out, she grumbled to herself before reaching into her pouch. Pulling out a match that she struck on the bark of the tree at her back, she lit her pipe once again, taking a long drag. Sighing into the smoke, she blew a cloud into the trees above, calming as she considered the situation before her.
"Well… Better us than the Uchiha, I suppose," she groused before a thought occurred to her, making her smirk, "She was an awful lot of fun to fight. I wonder if she'd spar with me like none of you do at home?"
"There's only one way to find out," Tobirama answered, shaking his head in wry amusement at his single-minded cousin, "Whether she's the child of a shinobi father, the descendent of a runaway, or even a random stray, she needs to be found. Sakura can use wood style and, as such a valuable member of our family, there is no place for her but with us."
"Well, when you put it that way," she chuckled as she pushed herself off of the tree, already heading back towards the burned out village, "Sounds like she needs to come back to where she belongs."
Following behind, Tobirama leaned down to recover Sakura's shoe for future disposal as he already worked on ideas on how to find the missing kunoichi.
If she had disappeared into the world of the summons, they would be unable to find her until she returned to the human world. Based on how injured she must have been, he suspected it would be some time before she finally made her reappearance. With her skills as a healer, he had no doubt in his mind that she would recover from any injuries sustained during the fight. It was only a question of how long she would be gone for and how they would get into contact with her when she reappeared.
No matter what, they would get ahold of her before the Uchiha or any other clan did. After all, not only was she a valuable kunoichi and a wood style user, she was a descendent of the Senju clan. There was only one place in the world where a shinobi such as herself belonged.
Sakura needed to come home.
A/N: I've noticed people think of Tobirama in a very positive or an extremely negative light. I'm curious to hear what kind of vibe he gave off here? Are you excited or worried with the Senju clan on the search for their "lost clanmate"? Also, I love writing Toka so I just had to include her in this excursion! How do you guys feel about the personality I gave her?